Read When I'm Gone: A Novel Online

Authors: Emily Bleeker

When I'm Gone: A Novel

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OTHER TITLES BY EMILY BLEEKER

WRECKAGE

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

Text copyright © 2016 Emily Bleeker

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

Published by Lake Union Publishing, Seattle

www.apub.com

Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Lake Union Publishing are trademarks of
Amazon.com
, Inc., or its affiliates.

ISBN-13: 9781503953383 (hardcover)

ISBN-10: 1503953386 (hardcover)

ISBN-13: 9781503951457 (paperback)

ISBN-10: 1503951456 (paperback)

Cover design by Shasti O’Leary-Soudant / SOS CREATIVE, LLC

First edition

To my children, who believe in me far more than I ever dare to believe in myself

JANUARY

CHAPTER 1

It was a beautiful funeral. How could it not be? Natalie planned the whole thing, and she always had a knack for entertaining. Luke and Natalie had visited the funeral home together, but Nat did all the work. From the donation basket for the National Cancer Society to the personalized video messages playing on a loop in the foyer, it was probably the funeral of the year in Farmington Hills, Michigan.

Luke pushed the button on the garage door remote and pulled in to the left of Natalie’s tan minivan. They glided over the familiar double bump that meant they were home, and the kids shifted in the backseat.

Luke checked on Will in the rearview mirror. His eyes were red-rimmed and wet, again. Fourteen is a rough enough age without dealing with losing your mom. He hadn’t reached the “I’ve run out of tears” stage yet. Teenagers must have extra tears because of all the hormones.

Luke was in the “dried-up” stage, and it was almost worse than sobbing uncontrollably. At least when you are crying, no one makes comments about how well you are taking this or how relieved you must be that she’s in “a better place.” What they don’t know is this: appearing okay is a lot easier than actually being okay.

May picked up her head slowly, as if it weighed twenty pounds. “I’m hungry, Dad. What’s for dinner?” Sometimes Luke wondered if May was a teenage boy and not a nine-year-old girl.

Will sighed. “We ate at the funeral, May. Dad doesn’t have time to—”

“It’s okay, Will.” Luke held up one hand. “Grandma Terry put some meals in the freezer. If May’s hungry, I’ll make dinner.” Natalie’s mom left right after the final chorus of “Amens” at the funeral. Not a surprise. She’d never been a big Luke fan. He was ready to walk into the house without feeling her stony eyes on him, as if she thought he’d willed Natalie to have cancer.

“You guys go in. I’ll get Clayton.”

May and Will unclicked their seat belts. “Did you bring home any of those chocolate pretzels from the luncheon? Those were good.” May shoved her little face between the two front seats. Her upturned nose was her mother’s, her eyes were Luke’s, and her smile was some amazing fusion of DNA from the two of them.

“God, don’t act like this was some birthday party you went to,” Will said as he pushed open his car door and then slammed it so hard the car tilted. This was new, the anger.

“I’m sorry, baby, he doesn’t mean it,” Luke reassured May. He should be scolding Will for the way he treated his sister instead of making excuses, but he didn’t feel like fighting. May shrugged and opened the door Will had slammed in her face. “Grandma put some snacks in the cabinet under the island. You can have whatever looks good.”

“Thanks, Daddy.” May scooted to the edge of the seat and hopped out of the car.

Will’s anger was new but it wasn’t surprising. Luke had suffered through several bouts of anger starting on the day Natalie came home from her three-month checkup. They had lived through the first three months of remission in a state of joy and nervous optimism. The day after her clear scans Natalie stuck a magnetic yellow ribbon on her car, and three months later her hair had finally grown in enough that she didn’t have to deal with looks of pity when they went out in public. During her shift at Relay for Life, she wore a purple T-shirt with
SURVIVOR
printed across the front. She was in remission, damn it. But Dr. Saunders took it all away three months later with a few scans and a blood test. Yeah, that’s when he was angry.

Luke pulled his car keys out of the ignition and slid them into his pocket, flinching as his knuckles brushed the fabric of his pants. The only way he knew how to deal with the anger and not lose control was with his punching bag in the basement. Next time he’d do a better job taping up, but for now the pain was a welcome distraction.

He opened the back car door with a quiet pop, and took a second to watch little Clayton sleep. His lips arched into a perfect cupid’s bow, his almost invisible lashes brushing the tops of his cheeks.
Why are little kids’ cheeks so temptingly kissable, especially when they are sleeping?
When he unclipped the buckle across the three-year-old’s chest, Clayton’s eyes fluttered open.

“Daddy, are we home?”

“Yes, honey, we’re home. Let’s get you in some pj’s.” Luke mashed the orange button with this thumb, unlatching the last two buckles and freeing Clayton.

“I love you, Daddy.” Clayton put out his arms and leaned forward, his lanky little body sloughing out of the chair easily and sagging into Luke’s arms, where he closed his eyes and fell back into his deep slumber. Luke breathed him in. He smelled like little boy sweat and Cheetos dust—Cheetos being the only way Terry kept him quiet during the memorial service. No, Luke wasn’t angry now, just sad—sad in his chest, in his bones, and pretty much in every single part of his body.

Luke approached the steel door leading to the house, his arms full of sleeping little boy. It was open a crack so he pushed it with his elbow, squeezed through the minimal opening, and kicked it closed. His footsteps echoed in the empty hallway, usually full of backpacks and kids’ shoes heaped precariously in baskets. He’d always hated those baskets before, spilling over with shoes, shoes that tripped him up as he headed in from work. Now he missed them and those ordinary annoyances of life.

Before she left, Natalie’s mom had cleaned the house, top to bottom. The front room stood empty. The hospital bed, piles of magazines, and stacks of half-full water bottles—all were gone. The TV they’d rigged to hang in the corner by the front window was missing. An electrician came yesterday before the viewing and set it up in the basement, along with a new game system that Terry bought, as though it could make the kids forget that their mother had died. Now, the room where his wife took her last breath looked like any other formal living room: off-white furniture on tan carpet and family pictures on the wall.

At least it smelled the same, vanilla and cinnamon. There had to be some scented something somewhere pumping the smell through their vents. He’d better figure it out soon, because one day it would go away and home wouldn’t smell like home anymore. Annie might know. As Natalie’s best friend, she’d be the most likely to be aware of all those little tricks.

Luke took in a deep breath, the spices in the air filling his lungs as if they could give him nourishment. With Will moping in his room and May rummaging around the kitchen, it almost felt normal in here. It was nice to be alone in the house without all the generous but awkwardly helpful family and friends. Now he could lounge around in his sweats without wondering if the hole in the rear revealed too much of his boxers.

Clayton was growing heavier by the second, and Luke’s knuckles and forearms burned from his late-night boxing session. He turned to the stairs, praying that the sleeping child wouldn’t wake up before he could get him in bed. As he stepped away from the empty, echoing entryway, his foot slipped on something, sending him off-balance and threatening to make him fall. With a lurch, he steadied Clayton’s body out of a desperate desire to avoid the screaming that would accompany a fall. Luke glared at the simple rectangle of colored paper that had almost tripped him.

Normally a piece of loose paper on the floor would be a runaway homework page or a carefully drawn art project set free by a fallen refrigerator magnet.
Another condolence card,
Luke thought as he crouched down. Clayton stirred on his shoulder. Luke pinched the stiff envelope between his fingertips and held it up to the slash of light shining in from the front porch.

“To Luke” was scrawled across the front in looping black letters. The
L
looped at the top and side; the
K
was petite and slanted. Luke bit his tongue—it was Natalie’s handwriting. The familiar burn of tears pricked the back of his eyes.

Where did this come from?
Luke glanced around for a clue as to how a letter from his dead wife was lying in the middle of the entryway. His eyes rested on the brass flap on the front door. The mail slot. Natalie had picked out that stupid door when they built this house ten years earlier. Then, after one freezing Michigan winter, she’d asked him to seal it off. He’d never gotten around to it. Not in nine years. And now his dead wife was communicating with him through the slot.

No. Of course she wasn’t. Luke shook his head and tucked the card into his suit-coat pocket. Whatever this was, it wasn’t a letter from
dead
Natalie. When people die, they don’t send letters through mail slots, they don’t even go live in some magical place called heaven, they just die. Someone was messing with him.

May ran out of the kitchen as Luke’s foot hit the stairs, still in the black knee-length dress she’d worn to the funeral.

“Dad, can I have this granola bar?” She held up a shiny silver package. “Mom always said no sugar before bedtime, but I thought maybe this once?” May had this way of casually bringing up her mother that punched Luke in the gut. How could she be so strong and he so weak?

“Sure, honey.” Then, feeling a little guilty, he added, “Grab a glass of milk with it too, okay?”

“Uh, Dad? I can’t pour my own milk. It’s too heavy. I always spill.” She put the end of her shoulder-length brown hair in the corner of her mouth, a habit ever since her hair was long enough to reach. Natalie had thought it was a soothing mechanism, but it still grossed her out. Luke chose to ignore it; May could use a bit of comfort right now.

“I’ll send Will down to help you.”

“He’s not still mad at me, is he?” She pulled the wet strand of hair out of her mouth and tucked it behind her ear. Luke shuddered.
Okay, maybe it is really gross.

“No, hon, he’s not. He’s sad, and sometimes sad comes out as mad.”

“Hmm. Okay.” She shrugged her shoulders and ripped the package open between her teeth before walking back into the kitchen.

“I love you,” Luke called after her.

“You too!” she shouted back over her shoulder.

After getting Clayton down and coaxing Will into helping his little sister with a snack and bedtime, Luke tossed his suit coat on the bed and yanked off his belt with a snap. He could wear the belt again, he decided, but not the suit. How can you wear a suit you wore to your wife’s funeral without remembering . . . everything? He retrieved the suit bag from the closet and quickly hung the coat inside. A flash of blue in the pocket caught his eye.

The letter. He’d forgotten, or maybe he’d made himself forget. It looked like Natalie’s handwriting, and because of that, he grabbed the letter and let the suit bag fall to the floor along with its wooden hanger. He ripped the envelope open by sliding his finger under the flap. A folded sheet of spiral notebook paper slid out. Well, that confirmed it. No one but Natalie would write letters to her widower in a fifty-cent spiral notebook and rip it out without cutting off the fringe.

Luke threw the empty envelope on his bed but paused when he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror across the room. His dusty-blond hair was still carefully combed in a part, tie knotted at his throat. He looked neat and tidy, ready for a job interview or big presentation at work. The only sign of how devastating this day had been was a coating of straw-colored stubble on his chin. It didn’t feel right that he could appear so put together on the outside when he was falling apart on the inside. Luke quickly untucked his dress shirt, loosened the knot on his tie, and ran a hand through his hair till the part disappeared.

There, much better,
he thought, reassessing his reflection.

He couldn’t put it off any longer. With shaking hands, Luke sat on the edge of his bed, his back to the mirror, and unfolded the spiral notebook paper. At the top, written in what was undoubtedly Natalie’s handwriting, it said: “The day I’m buried.” Underneath was a block of writing, the looping letters so familiar it was like she was whispering in his ear as he read.

 

Dear Luke,

Or maybe I should say “Dearest Luke” or “To my loving husband, Luke,” or I could go casual and say, “Yo, Luke!” I’m not sure how a dead lady addresses her husband. If you’re reading this, I’m probably dead. Or you’re snooping around my stuff, found my private journal, and decided to read it. Which, if that’s the case, shame on you! But I’m guessing I’m dead, because you’re not really the nosy type.

First let me say—I love you. I love you and our children more than I could ever write in words. The idea that you are living and I am not makes me want to throw up, like when we had that horrible stomach flu right after Clayton was born. It makes me angry and jealous and a bunch of other really ugly emotions. So, before I get all mushy on what has probably already been a supermushy day, I’ll leave it at this: I didn’t want to leave you.

I feel pretty melodramatic writing you a letter to open on the day of my burial. According to Dr. Saunders I have a pretty decent chance of beating this thing, but you know me: I don’t trust doctors. No harm in starting this journal, you know, just in case. I’ve always wanted to try my hand at writing; maybe this will be my first step toward finally writing the novel dancing around my brain for the past ten years. They say write what you know, right? Apparently I know cancer and we are
not
friends.

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