Chapter One – Walking Away
In movies, when a husband leaves a wife, or a wife leaves a husband, there always seems to be shouting and dramatic throwing of glass at someone's head, smashing it against the wall. That's what Anne Grey had been expecting the day her father walked out.
Instead, she sat on the bed in her room, her spine ramrod, her fingers curled so tightly into the purple and white quilt comforter that her knuckles were turning white, and it was so quiet downstairs, she couldn't hear anything. She could imagine it though – her father standing at the front door, a suitcase on the floor at his side. Her mother stood in front of him, tears silently streaming down her cheeks, her voice breaking as she pleaded with him not to go.
It was a beautiful day outside – one of the last warm late summer days of the year before the bite of fall set in. The windows of the house were open and the curtains were tossed up in the wind, twisting and dancing, completely free in seconds-long breezes. Next door, Mr. Carmen was mowing his grass and the Grey family dog, a five-year-old bull terrier named Roscoe, barked at the loud machine anytime it got too close to the fence in the backyard. Coming down the street, "Three Blind Mice" was pouring from the speakers of the ice cream truck. Wind chimes on the back porch tinkled and clanked together in the breeze. The world outside was enjoying the Sunday afternoon but inside the Grey house, it was quiet. It wasn't supposed to be quiet. The quiet scared Anne.
Her three younger brothers had sought solace in her bedroom and for once in their lives, they were quiet, too.
There was fourteen-year-old Mark, sitting next to her on the bed, his entire body tense as he leaned forward with his elbows jammed on his knees and his hands clutched into fists. When Anne looked at him, she could see his jaw clenched together so tightly, the small muscles in his face twitched. Three-year-old Paul was sleeping on the other side of her, the toddler far more concerned with his afternoon nap than their entire life changing downstairs. His mouth was open and a thin translucent line of drool dropped heavily down onto the white pillow beneath his head. She didn't care. And seven-year-old John sat on the floor next to the bedroom door that he had opened a crack, his back against the wall, his ears trying to pick up the slightest noise from downstairs but they were too quiet. There was nothing to hear.
"I'll never talk to him again," Mark spoke, the sudden noise startling them. He was staring down at the carpet but his eyes didn't seem to be focused on anything he saw.
"He won't leave," John frowned.
Mark nearly snorted as he looked at his younger brother with bitter amusement. "Most people don't pack a bag if they aren't leaving."
That made John snap his mouth shut and he glared at him.
"Hey," Anne said, her voice soft and her fingers lessened their death grip on the bed comforter but not by much. Her knuckles ached. "Let's just… we don't know what's going on. Maybe mom will get him to stay." She could hear the desperation in her tone.
He had to stay. He couldn't leave. Why would he leave all of them? He was their dad. They were his family. If he left, where was he going? If he left, would he come back?
She quickly flew to her memories for any sign that this would happen but she had nothing. Her father had seemed as he always did. just yesterday morning, he had come down the stairs, whistling and had given his wife a soft kiss in the kitchen before clapping his hands together and asking everyone what they wanted for breakfast. Every Saturday, the Grey family had a morning tradition of preparing a big hot breakfast – pancakes and omelets and waffles and French toast and crepes. Matt Grey loved to cook and he was always getting the kids in the kitchen to help him.
It had all been so normal. Just another Saturday. And now, twenty-four hours later, something had shifted. Or maybe it had been shifting for so long and no one had noticed.
"I don't want him here if he doesn't want to stay here," Mark snapped and there was so much anger in his voice, Anne couldn't help but turn her head and look at him. He was still staring down at the carpet but his fists were tighter now, almost shaking. Anne reached a hand out to touch him, to perhaps comfort him, but she couldn't bring herself to and right now, being comforted was the last thing Mark would want.
"Shhhh!" John hissed and Mark sat up and Anne found herself holding her breath.
They all heard it. The front door opened and a moment passed before it closed. It didn't open again. And a moment after that, they heard the familiar engine of their father's car start up. John leapt up and hurried to the bed, scrambling between Anne and Mark. Anne's bedroom window faced the front of the house and he leaned into the window to watch. Neither Anne or Mark turned to do the same. They didn't need to see to know that their dad was backing his car out of the driveway and disappearing down the street.
The silence now that descended over the house was like a black blanket, blocking out all noise and light and it pressed onto Anne's chest, making it physically hurt with each inhale and exhale of breath. She drew in one gulp and then held it in, not letting it escape. It burned her lungs and her heart seemed to seize in her chest and finally, after less than a minute, she released it in a whoosh. She stood up but her knees wobbled and she sat down again just as quickly.
"What are you doing?" Mark asked.
She shook her head. She didn't know. She had to do something. Something. Anything. Should she go downstairs? She had to check on her mother.
She tried standing up again. Her heart was beating quickly – too quickly – and it actually seemed to try and pierce her heart with each thump, hurting her. Her head spun and she had to sit down again but this time, her knees didn't seem to want to bend. They had locked and she stood there, the room tilting under her feet. She didn't seem to sway with it though. She stood there, feeling her heart pound, feeling her lungs burn, feeling her head spin, and she had no control over any of it.
In less than five minutes, she had lost grip on everything.
She was turning seventeen next week. She was starting school next week, too. She was a senior. This was supposed to be the greatest year of her life – according to her best friend, Emily Simpson, anyway – and this was the year where she was finally going to letter in cross country. She had been training all summer and she was ready to make her final year on the team her absolute best.
Her father had gone running with her. In the mornings, he would get up for work and she would forgo the luxury of spending her summer vacation sleeping in and together, with everyone still asleep, they would run around the block – just the two of them. Sometimes, Mrs. Hoover left her sprinkler on all night and Anne would laugh as she and her father would go running and jumping through it, the droplets of water feeling extra cold against their sweaty skin.
Why had he left? Where had he gone?
They all heard the fourth step on the staircase creak as it always did and they knew that their mother was coming. Even though the door was slightly open, she knocked nonetheless. She was the only one in the family to understand that Anne was a teenage girl and therefore, needed her privacy.
Anne's legs finally worked and she hurried to the door, swinging it open. As she expected, her mother's eyes were red but she didn't appear to be crying anymore.
Kim Grey was a young woman, not even forty yet, and Matt Grey had been the only man she had ever kissed. She was eighteen when she met him, both freshmen in college – she majoring in history and him studying to be a journalist, ready to take on the world and win a Pulitzer. They met at orientation and by November, the shy but pretty young woman had fallen in love with the young idealist. He was the first man she had kissed, the only man she had ever been with and when they were twenty-one and graduates, they were married. Within their first year of wedded bliss, Kim was pregnant with Anne.
Matt Grey wanted to start small, knowing that realistically, it wasn't possible for him to get a job at the Wall Street Journal or the Chicago Tribune as a reporter his first year out of school. They moved to the small town of Harper, Wisconsin, an hour north of Milwaukee, and Matt began covering the crime and courts for the town's newspaper, the Harper Daily. He quickly rose through the ranks and became editor upon the former editor's retirement and under Matt Grey's leadership, the paper won several awards for coverage and reporting.
Kim had stayed at home with the couple's growing family, taking care of the house and raising the children and always understanding when her husband had to work late at the office on a breaking story.
Anne couldn't help but wonder if her father's constant late hours had something to do with his leaving today. Was he staying in Harper? Would he still be editor of the paper? Or had he gotten tired of this small town and its small paper and moving on to something more big time? Why hadn't he said anything about any of this?
Kim reached out and touched her cheek lightly. Her fingers were cold. "Let's sit down," she said, barely above a whisper and Anne felt herself nodding her head.
Her heart had slowed, her breathing had slowed, and her body seemed to now be shutting itself down as if it was a factory that was at closing time. She numbly followed her mother and Kim sat down on the bed in Anne's previously vacated place. By now, as if sensing the shift in the air, Paul had woken up, sleep still in his eyes, and Kim managed to give him a small, somewhat shaky, smile. Without a word, the little boy climbed into his mother's lap and John sat where Paul had laid. Anne remained standing.
They said nothing. All four of them simply stared at their mother and waited.
"We'll be okay," Kim finally whispered.
It looked as if she wanted to say more but she didn't have to. Those three words said it all. Matt Grey had really just left and from the looks of things, he wasn't coming back.
Anne sat cross-legged on the cool back wooden deck, eating string cheese and swatting at the mosquitoes that buzzed in her ears. Roscoe begged at her feet – the dog loved cheese – but she didn't even seem to be aware of the his presence.
She looked out over the backyard, growing darker as the sun had nearly completely disappeared behind the trees. Mark had just mowed it yesterday and the scent of fresh grass still hung in the air, lingering. Her mother had hung strings of paper lanterns throughout the branches of the two smaller dogwood trees that were planted closest to the back of the house and they were on now, glowing in an almost ethereal way and she stared at the low lamps now. Kim had gotten the idea in one of her Martha Stewart magazines and Anne could still hear the laughter of her mother as her father had stood on the ladder, following his wife's directions as she tried to tell him how to hang the strings on the branches.
"It doesn't look like it does in the magazine," Kim had laughed, the magazine folded open to the proper page in her hands.
"Babe, it's Martha Stewart. Only she can hang lanterns like that," Matt had grinned.
Anne closed her eyes, trying to block out the laughter and their voices and she certainly didn't want to remember Matt hopping down from the ladder and wrapping his arms around his wife before giving her a sweet kiss on the mouth.
What had happened? Anne had nothing but memories like that – happy and sweet and all of her friends had commented at one time or another on how together her parents had seemed to be and how affectionate they were. Anne had seen the parents of her friends and they were right. Matt and Kim still acted like newlyweds, always kissing or being affectionate and the four Grey children had always moaned and groaned at the displays.
The screen door cried on its hinges as it was pushed open and then it slapped shut. She opened her eyes but she didn't turn around to see who it was. She knew who it was. Mark sank heavily down next to her and Kim brushed past her to sit on one of the lower steps below both of them. She turned her body so she could look at both of them.
"You two are the oldest and you might understand this more than your younger brothers," she said, still speaking softly, her words still shaking, her eyes still red. "Your father…"
"I hate him," Mark snapped.
Kim's back straightened and stiffened at that. "You do not hate your father, Mark, and I don't want to ever hear you say that again. Your father left because of me and not because of the four of you. Your father loves you." She ignored the snort of disbelief Mark made at that. Anne still stared at the lanterns, mindlessly eating her string cheese.
"Then why did he leave?" Mark all but demanded.
In the fourteen years of his life, Anne had never heard her brother speak with such anger. It almost made her look away from the lanterns to look at him – to make sure that this was, in fact, her brother sitting next to her.
Kim was fidgeting with her fingers – a nervous habit and one that all of her children had seemed to inherit from her. The porch light next to the Carmen's back door shone over onto their yard and the light caught the wedding band and engagement ring Kim still wore on her left third finger. Anne didn't look at her but she could practically hear her swallow at the lump that had lodged itself in her throat.
"He left because he doesn't love me anymore," Kim whispered and her voice trembled.
"Asshole," Mark grumbled.
"Mark!" Kim exclaimed but he ignored her and stood up. He stormed back into the house, the door slapping shut behind him viciously on its rusting hinges.
With him gone, Kim sniffled and then she broke. Tears began streaming down her cheeks and her shoulders shook. Anne stared at the lanterns. They were glowing softly and she imagined herself shrinking down to a pocket-size girl and crawling into one of the lanterns, going to sleep, surrounded by its warmth.
She tossed the last bit of cheese to Roscoe and the dog snapped it up eagerly, wagging his tail as he chewed. She felt a coolness on her knee and looking down, it took her nearly a minute to realize that her mother's hand was resting on her knee.
"Anne, I'm so sorry," she whispered.
"Why?" Anne finally spoke, her first word nearly in twelve hours – twelve hours since her father left. Twelve hours since her entire body had seemed to leave itself and go off to some parts unknown and Anne wasn't able to find it again.
"I…" Kim lifted her hand, taking it away, and she wiped her cheeks. "I don't know," she then admitted and Anne went back to staring at the lanterns.
Anne didn't sleep that night.
Instead, she sat on the floor in front of the narrow full-length mirror hanging on the inside door of her closet. She stared at her reflection until it didn't even make sense to her eyes anymore. She knew she looked just like her mom. They had the same pale skin, long curly brown hair, dark brown eyes, splatters of freckles across their faces, and since she looked so much like her mom, did that mean that because her dad didn't love her mom anymore, he didn't love her either?
She fell backwards, landing silently on the carpet, and she stared up at the ceiling. The house was still hidden underneath the blanket of silence from hours earlier.
What had made Matt Grey wake up this morning and decide that he didn't want them anymore? What was it about this life he had with his wife and children that he hated? Where had he gone? Did he have a set destination in mind when he drove away or had he just gotten into the car and had pointed the car in a random direction without thought?
She rolled onto her stomach and rested her warm cheek against the cool carpet, it scratching at her cheek in a gesture that was almost comforting. She closed her eyes. What were they going to do? Her mother had never had a job. When she and Matt got married, he had vowed to always take care of her. He had been the one to always work. There had been a brief experience as working as a waitress while in college. Would Kim do that again? How could she possibly afford this house and four kids as a waitress? Would they have to move? Where would they go? Would her dad send any money? Anne knew that she would have to get a job, too. She didn't even want to think about colleges. She wasn't the smartest girl in her class so she doubted she would be able to get enough in academic scholarships and she definitely wasn't the best runner so athletic scholarships weren't a possibility either.
But she didn't want to think about it.
She put her hands flat on the carpet and pushed herself up as if doing a push-up and she held herself there for a moment, her arms straight, her hands flat, and she was suspended above the carpet. She counted to thirty before she let herself fall back down with a thud. She turned and rested her cheek back on the carpet. The house remained silent. She wondered if her brothers or her mother were sleeping. Mark had been in his bedroom for the rest of the night with his door locked and she didn't think John and certainly not Paul understood exactly what was happening.
It was nearly two o'clock in the morning and her cell phone on the nightstand next to her bed buzzed with a text message. She knew who it was but she slowly crawled towards it anyway. She kneeled on the floor and took her phone, unlocking it with a swipe of her thumb. It was from her best friend, Emily Simpson. She hadn't spoken to Emily all day.
I'm at Keith's end of summer party! Why aren't you?
And then another message.
I tried calling you today. Are you ok?
She ignored both messages. She had no idea what she could possibly say to both of them. She shut her phone off and slipping it back onto the nightstand, her eyes couldn't help but fall to the framed photograph she had next to the small lamp. It was a picture of the Grey family taken just that summer at the town's Fourth of July celebration. Everyone was smiling and John was making his usual puckered fish face. Kim pleaded with him to make a nice face for pictures but the boy stubbornly refused – or he truly was incapable of smiling when his picture was being taken. Anne noted that her father's arm was wrapped around her mother's shoulders, holding her close.
He was coming back. This had to be just some huge misunderstanding. Maybe he was going on a business trip for a story and they had all jumped to conclusions. He would be back. He had to come back.
Still, she placed the picture frame face down on the nightstand so she didn't have to look at it and almost reluctantly, she crawled up onto her bed. She didn't slip beneath the covers though. Her window was still open and hugging her knees to her chest, she stared out over the night-cloaked neighborhood. Did any of the neighbors know? Did any of them see Matt Grey leave the house with a suitcase and drive off in his car? Had any of the neighbors suspected that this would happen, whispering about the Grey family behind their closed doors? Did everyone except Matt Grey's own family see this coming?
There were no stars that night and instead, clouds gathered in the darkness, threatening a summer shower. She watched as they slowly formed together into one monstrous mass and thunder shook somewhere off in the distance.
She wondered where her father was and if he had just heard the same rumble of thunder.
Anne didn't remember falling asleep or what time her eyes finally shut but when they snapped open again, it was dawn and everything was wet from the rain. The clouds were gone and the sun was just beginning to rise, casting the neighborhood in hues of orange and pink. She tried to figure out what had woken her suddenly and then looking out the window, she saw that there were squeaking of brakes and a semi-moving van slowly came to a stop in front of the house across the street.
The Ellis family had lived there but they had moved away and it had taken Barb Simpson, Emily's mother, a real estate, nearly six months to sell it. And when she finally had, she had taken her family and the Grey family out for a seafood dinner celebration. Barb was one of Kim's closest friends and had been since she and Matt had moved to Harper and the two met at the doctor's office, both pregnant – Kim with her first and Barb with her third. They became fast friends and were so happy when they found out that they were both going to be having daughters.
She watched the moving van release a hiss seconds before the engine was cut off and she remembered that Mrs. Simpson had said that the new family from out of state would be moving into the house during the last week of summer vacation. It was a married couple with two children – an older son and a younger daughter. The son was also going to be a senior just like Emily and Anne but the two girls hadn't really been listening when Mrs. Simpson had been talking about it.
It was the last week of summer vacation.
It was Monday. Her father had left yesterday.
Getting out of bed, she ignored the stiffness in her legs and hurried from her bedroom. The house was still quiet. It was still early and everyone was still asleep. Maybe he had come back during the night. Maybe it was like Christmas morning and she would poke her head into her parents' bedroom at the top of the stairs and he would magically be there, sleeping in bed, his arms around her mother as always.
She nearly skipped. That's what happened. He had left but he had come back already. He hadn't meant to leave and they could go for their run and he would them all a big breakfast even though it was Monday and big breakfasts were for Saturdays.
The door to her parents' bedroom was slightly ajar as it always was. Holding her breath, Anne peered inside. Her mother was curled into a small ball in the large bed, a balled up tissue in her hand. And next to her wasn't Matt Grey but rather, Paul, having crawled into the bed sometime during the night and was now flopped out quite comfortably on his back, his arms and legs spread out, his breathing steady and deep.
She stared at the scene and her stomach sank to her feet like a stone. Her father hadn't come back. Her father was still gone.
She turned to go downstairs but something on the dresser next to the door in the room stopped her. Her father's wedding band that he never took off was on the surface of the dresser. Her mother hadn't closed the curtains the night before and the beginnings of morning sun began to slowly fill the room. A ray acted as a spotlight onto the ring, making sure that Anne saw it clearly. It was definitely her dad's wedding ring. He had taken it off and set it there before he left.
He had really left.
She didn't stop to think. She didn't stop to realize that she was only wearing a pair of cotton boxer shorts and a tee-shirt with no bra and no shoes. She ran down the stairs and throwing open the front door, she ran outside. The grass was wet with rain and the concrete of the sidewalk hurt her bare feet but she didn't care and soon, she didn't even notice. She kept running.
A/N: If you took the time to read this chapter, please take the time to comment. Thank you very much. I'm really excited for this story and I love to know that others want to read it.