Authors: Brittany Goodwin
If You’re Gone
Copyright 2016 Brittany Goodwin
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
For the families of the missing. May your loved ones be found and your hearts be healed.
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.
2 Corinthians 4:16
I had that dream again. The one where I’m back at graduation, wearing an oversized hourglass on a chain around my neck. Colorful grains of sand rush through it, representing the remaining time we have together. As the final grains fall, I am kneeling at my bedroom window, watching you disappear. Your body fades away as though you are evaporating into thin air. It’s the type of dream I should probably relay to a shrink, if only I weren’t too proud to admit how losing you has affected every aspect of my life. Whoever started the rumor that teenagers haven’t lived long enough to understand what true love is didn’t know us.
Anyway, what I wanted to say is that I miss you and I think about you everyday. I wonder where you are, and what you are doing, and hope you sometimes think of me, too. I try not to regret the decision I made, but often question how different my life might be if I hadn’t left you there that day. I ask myself, if I could, would I go back and stop everything from changing? Probably. I would go back for you. You were my world.
“He didn’t come home last night”
My heart pounded as I replayed the message a second time. After waking up to my buzzing phone signaling four missed calls and a voicemail marked urgent, I expected to hear juicy gossip from Jason Hamilton’s graduation party. Instead, I learned that my boyfriend was nowhere to be found.
“Brad said the two of you had plans after the ceremony, was he headed somewhere after he dropped you off at home? I know it’s early, but call me back as soon as you get this.”
“He isn’t with me,” I assured Brad’s mom when I returned her calls. “But please let me know when you hear from him.”
“I will,” Mrs. Lee promised before hanging up. “And you do the same.”
She wasn’t as frantic as her message had let on, but there was an unsettling tone in her voice. We both knew it wasn’t typical of Brad to stay out all night without telling anyone.
Not anymore, anyway.
My mind wandered back to the Lions Port High graduation ceremony the night before-squished next to my best friend, Anna Redmond, in the packed football stadium watching Brad accept his diploma. It had been a perfect North Carolina evening; complete with a romantic, lakeside picnic that Brad and I shared once he was able to shed his cap and gown.
I snatched my cell phone off my lap and dialed the number that had lived at the top of my ‘favorite contacts’ list for the past six months.
I prayed silently,
let him answer.
“Hi.” I heard the deep voice on the other end and opened my mouth to speak. “You’ve reached Brad Lee. Leave a message.”
His outbound greeting sounded cold and unfriendly, which made me realize I had never gotten his voicemail; he always answered the phone when I called.
“Hey babe, it’s Lillian,” I said after the tone, clutching his silver class ring that hung on a chain around my neck. “Your mom has been calling me trying to find you. Is everything all right? Let me know where you are, okay?”
Suddenly, I remembered a detail from the night before and felt a rush of panic. I pictured Brad tapping on my bedroom window and saying those three little words for the first time.
I had been dying to hear.
Does he regret his decision to profess his love to me? Could that explain the radio silence?
I unlocked the screen of my phone again, this time dialing Anna. My thumb drummed anxiously against the back of the plastic case as it rang.
“Hello?” Anna’s usually chipper voice sounded muffled over the line, assumedly lying in her bed with the phone sandwiched between her head and her leopard-print pillow.
“Sorry, were you asleep?”
“It’s the first day of summer and it’s only nine am,” she groaned. “Do I need to remind you how to send a text?”
“I’m sorry,” I lied. “But you’re the one who sleeps with your cell.”
“Yeah, yeah,” she spoke clearer this time, although her tone dripped with sarcasm. “I didn't need my beauty sleep anyway.”
I scoffed, but I knew she had expected me to laugh. Anna, arguably the most beautiful girl in our junior class, could look runway ready after cramming all night for a test and skipping a shower.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
Anna was a true best friend-she could read my emotions even through a subtle grunt.
“Maybe…” I sighed. “Can you come over?”
“Will there be coffee?”
“I’m sure I can scrounge something up.”
“You owe me,” she laughed.
“I know. Bye.” I pressed end and clutched the warm phone in my hand as I attempted to sort through my thoughts, reliving every detail from the previous night. The ceremony. The picnic. The lake.
From my spot on the bleachers I could see the entire senior class, seated in straight rows of plastic folding chairs and dressed in traditional sets of black caps and gowns. Strands of my long, auburn hair danced in the warm May breeze as I sat with my elbows rested on my knees. My attention was split between the football field and my friends beside me.
“That will be us next year, guys!” Anna shouted over the sounds of the stadium. She motioned towards the robed graduates, keeping her fingers interlaced between those of her eight-month serious boyfriend-the tall, dark, and handsome captain of the basketball team, Thomas Grant.
“Only if you don’t fail out of AP Chemistry,” Thomas said with a laugh.
“Says the jock who signed up for drama and wood shop!” Anna nuzzled her face into his neck before nudging me with her elbow. “Lillian, he’s next!”
“I see him!” I exclaimed, staring straight ahead. It was impossible to tear my eyes away from him.
“Bradley Jeremiah Lee.” Principal Carver’s voice echoed over the loudspeaker.
Brad emerged from the sea of graduates, strutting towards the podium in his cap and gown like a slow motion scene from those nineties teen movies I loved to watch. His tousled blond hair fell into his blue eyes as cheers from the crowd provided a soundtrack for his moment in the spotlight. When he flipped his head to toss the strands back into place his gaze met mine. Even in a packed stadium he could find me.
My face lit up with a giant, ear-to-ear grin as he continued to travel down the aisle, the corners of my mouth practically bursting through the apples of my cheeks. I gave him a small nod and watched him take the first step onto the stage. The crowd around me roared as he accepted his diploma, but I was still. Before Brad, I had never known what it was like to be so captivated by someone that just seeing them glance in your direction could take your breath away. But then, before Brad I had never felt as though I needed someone else just to breathe. There were days I couldn’t believe that he was mine-not because of his chiseled jaw and heart-stopping smile, but because he was the most incredible guy I had ever met.
He hadn’t always been that way, though. For years, I had avoided him and the group of delinquents he ran around our small town with like the plague. But after a chance encounter six months earlier, I realized that behind his tough exterior was a kind, sincere soul desperate to break away from the friends who were holding him back. And he chose me to help him do that.
“Okay, Lil, you can wipe your drool now. You are literally going to make me throw up. All over you, all over the crowd, everywhere.” Anna shook her head and smiled.
“Then lean in!” She held her cell phone in front of her face and motioned Thomas and me together with one hand. “It’s officially summer, kids!” We all squeezed in next to each other, pursing our lips and turning our best angles towards the camera. It was a moment worth capturing.
Once the ceremony ended I rushed onto the field with Anna and Thomas in tow, eager to find Brad amongst the sea of robed seniors.
“Lillian! Anna!” a high-pitched voice called out.
I turned to see Mandy Parton, who insisted she was a distant relative of the big-busted country singer with the same last name, teetering towards us in platform heels. She waved hysterically as her blonde curls bounced against her bare shoulders. Her friend and sidekick Tess Samuels followed, her dark skin looked flawless against her off-white dress.
“Hey guys, there you are!” Tess exclaimed, flipping her raven colored hair behind her shoulder. “Where were you sitting?”
“Front row. Someone wanted a good view,” Anna joked, reaching out to hug them.
“They should have had you sing at this shindig, Lil,” Mandy said. “Two hours with no music was brutal.”
“Maybe next year,” I said with a smile. “I got accepted into Honors Choir!”
“Shut up!” Mandy poked my shoulder. “At least someone from this wretched little town might end up famous!”
I laughed as two warm hands reached around my face and covered my eyes. I would have recognized the fresh, light scent of his cologne anywhere.
“I missed you,” Brad whispered into my ear.
“Hey!” I spun around and fell into his arms. My cheek pressed up against his collarbone as he wrapped me in his signature bear hug. “I missed you too.” It sounded cliché, but I missed him when we were apart, no matter how short the time.
“You are a vision,” he said as he reached for my hands, looking me up and down. “I'm so glad that's over.”
“It was great!” I exclaimed. “The best walking I've seen in awhile.” My toothy grin was growing again.
“Yeah, the dress suits you, too,” Thomas snickered, pointing at Brad’s shin-length black gown.
“I’ll let you try it on later,” Brad told him with a smirk as they bumped fists. Just as Brad turned back towards me, a tattooed hand clutched his shoulder.
“Jason’s grad party. See you there.”
High school drop out Michael Lizardo, appropriately known to his friends and enemies as
, appeared behind us, staring at Brad with bloodshot eyes. He was hardly dressed for the occasion in a pair of ripped jeans and a faded black band t-shirt.
“Lizard, don’t you actually have to
to go to a grad party?” Thomas grunted.
“Hey, screw you, pretty boy.” Lizard bowed his chest and pulled his elbows back, like a rooster trying to pick a fight. Thomas threw up his hands, laughing as Brad re-positioned himself between them.
“What?” Lizard cocked his head. “You think that’s funny?”
“It was a joke, man,” Thomas said from behind Brad’s shoulder.
Anna and I exchanged a knowing glance. Brad’s decision to be with me put him in a constant state of in-between, somewhere between a past life and a future one.
“I’m not coming tonight, all right? We have plans.” Brad motioned towards me and I hung on the words ‘I’m not coming’ instead of ‘I can’t’ since it made it sound like it was all his decision.
“Well, I’ve got some information you’re gonna want,” Lizard told him.
“Can it wait?”
Lizard shrugged his shoulders and shot me a hateful glance I hoped he would quickly break, but his eyes lingered. He cocked his head to the side as he stared at me, sending shivers up my spine. “Hope she’s worth it.”
Brad took another step towards him. “Hey, watch it…”
“Whatever, man. Don’t come crying to me when you get sick of your new Sunday school friends.” Lizard turned and offered one last shrewd look at us before he disappeared into the crowd. I realized my heart was racing.
“Always a pleasure, that one,” Anna grumbled.
“I’m sorry,” Brad said as he wrapped his arms around my waist. “Don’t worry about him.” He let out a soft sigh but I couldn’t read the intention behind it.
“It’s okay. Did you want to find your parents?” I changed the subject, willing my pulse to slow, and looked up at him as I gave him a nudge. “I’m sure they want to get photos.”
He responded only with a nod.
“We’ll be hanging out at Thomas’s later if you decide to come by,” Anna reminded me.
“Bye, guys. Thanks for coming, I mean it.”
Brad grabbed my hand and led me behind him through the crowd that had descended upon the football field, my fingers melting in-between his. We weaved in and out of groups of people, every few seconds he would turn to make sure I was still behind him, as though his grip on my hand wasn’t enough.
Don’t worry. I won't let go. Ever,
I wanted to say. But instead I smiled at him with soft eyes, hoping he already knew.
After photo sessions and endless smiles, Brad and I retreated to one of our favorite spots-a secluded, grassy nook in Grissom Park beside a small lake. A crotched blanket I brought from home lay beneath us as we feasted on the bucket of fried chicken we picked up on the way. The moon lit up the water like a giant spotlight illuminating our picnic.
Brad swallowed a mouthful of chicken and shook a greasy drumstick at me. “Now that school’s out and I’m picking up more hours at the hardware store, I’m thinking it’s about time I took you out on a nice, fancy date.”
I laughed, covering my mouth with my hand in case any meat had found its way in between my teeth. “Oh yeah? Fancy date, huh?”