Since You've Been Gone
Justin! They say only the good die young, but only the best would be able to take a 400+ page manuscript, read it over a weekend, come back with the most wonderful notes—and repeat, four times. You may be right; I may be crazy, but THANK YOU for all your patience and insight and amazing notes and humor—and for never making me feel like I was in the ninth, two men out and three men on. I’m beyond grateful to you.
Thank you to Emily Van Beek, superagent extraordinaire, who always takes such good care of me.
Lucy Ruth Cummins is a genius. Thank you so much for the most gorgeous cover EVER and for letting me feel such a part of the process. Ponies Butterscotch and Snickerdoodle are on their way. And thanks to Meredith Jenks for the unbelievable photos!
Jessi Kirby, where would I (or this book) be without you? Thank you so much for your friendship, your kindness, your encouragement, and for sharing your lovely stretch of beach with authors in need. I couldn’t have done this without you.
I am lucky enough to be part of a wonderful community of writers who give me so much support and teach me so much just by their awesome examples. Thanks and hugs and cupcakes to: Lauren Strasnick, Rosa Lin, Leslie Margolis, Rachel Cohn, Jordan Roter, Anne Heltzel, and Liz Werner. Thanks also to Janet and Lee Batchler.
Thanks to Alexandra Cooper, for so many things, and especially that very first two-hour talk about this book, at a Starbucks in Texas.
Thank you to the fantastic team at S&S—Danielle Young, Anne Zafian, Mary Marotta, Paul Crichton, Bernadette Cruz, Chrissy Noh, Katy Hershberger, Katrina Groover, and Venessa Carson. I couldn’t be in better hands.
Thanks and love to my family—Mom, Jason, Amanda, and Katie.
And thank you with all my heart to Amalia Ellison—road trip companion, partner in crime, travel buddy, best friend.
You have to trust me, here. We’re friends.
I don’t think we are.
Real friends are the ones you can count on no matter what.
The ones who go into the forest to find you and bring you home.
And real friends never have to tell you that they’re your friends.
Bug Juice: A Play © Andrea Hughes & Scott Hughes.
Gotham Dramatists, All Rights Reserved.
The list arrived after Sloane had been gone two weeks.
I wasn’t at home to get it because I was at Sloane’s, where I had gone yet again, hoping against hope to find her there. I had decided, as I’d driven over to her house, my iPod off and my hands gripping the steering wheel, that if she was there, I wouldn’t even need an explanation. It wouldn’t be necessary for her to tell me why she’d suddenly stopped answering her phone, texts, and e-mails, or why she’d vanished, along with her parents and their car. I knew it was ridiculous to think this way, like I was negotiating with some cosmic dealer who could guarantee this for me, but that didn’t stop me as I got closer and closer to Randolph Farms Lane. I didn’t care what I had to promise if it meant Sloane would be there. Because if Sloane was there, everything could start making sense again.
It was not an exaggeration to say that the last two weeks had been the worst of my life. The first weekend after school had ended, I’d been dragged upstate by my parents against my wishes and despite my protests. When I’d come back to Stanwich, after far too many antique shops and art galleries, I’d called her immediately, car keys in my hand, waiting impatiently for her to answer so that she could tell me where she was, or, if she was home, that I could pick her up. But Sloane didn’t answer her phone, and she didn’t answer when I called back an hour later, or later that night, or before I went to bed.
The next day, I drove by her house, only to see her parents’ car gone and the windows dark. She wasn’t responding to texts and still wasn’t answering her phone. It was going right to voice mail, but I wasn’t worried, not then. Sloane would sometimes let her battery run down until the phone shut off, and she never seemed to know where her charger was. And her parents, Milly and Anderson, had a habit of forgetting to tell her their travel plans. They would whisk her off to places like Palm Beach or Nantucket, and Sloane would return a few days later, tan, with a present for me and stories to tell. I was sure that’s what had happened this time.
But after three days, and still no word, I worried. After five days, I panicked. When I couldn’t stand being in my house any longer, staring down at my phone, willing it to ring, I’d started driving around town, going to all of our places, always able to imagine her there until the moment I arrived to find it Sloane-free. She wasn’t stretched out in the sun on a picnic table at the Orchard, or flipping through the sale rack at Twice Upon a Time, or finishing up her pineapple slice at Captain Pizza. She was just gone.
I had no idea what to do with myself. It was rare for us not to see each other on a daily basis, and we talked or texted constantly, with nothing off-limits or too trivial, even exchanges like I think my new skirt make me look like I’m Amish, promise to tell me if it does? (me) and Have you noticed it’s been a while since anyone’s seen the Loch Ness monster? (her). In the two years we’d been best friends, I had shared almost all of my thoughts and experiences with her, and the sudden silence felt deafening. I didn’t know what to do except to continue texting and trying to find her. I kept reaching for my phone to tell Sloane that I was having trouble handling the fact she wasn’t answering her phone.
I drew in a breath and I held it as I pulled down her driveway, the way I used to when I was little and opening up my last birthday present, willing it to be the one thing I still didn’t have, the only thing I wanted.
But the driveway was empty, and all the windows were dark. I pulled up in front of the house anyway, then put my car in park and killed the engine. I slumped back against the seat, fighting to keep down the lump that was rising in my throat. I no longer knew what else to do, where else to look. But Sloane couldn’t be gone. She wouldn’t have left without telling me.
But then where was she?
When I felt myself on the verge of tears, I got out of the car and squinted at the house in the morning sun. The fact that it was empty, this early, was really all the evidence I needed, since I had never known Milly or Anderson to be awake before ten. Even though I knew there was probably no point to it, I crossed to the house and walked up the wide stone steps that were covered with bright green summer leaves. The leaves were thick enough that I had to kick them aside, and I knew, deep down, that it was more proof that nobody was there, and hadn’t been there for a while now. But I walked toward the front door, with its brass lion’s-head knocker, and knocked anyway, just like I’d done five other times that week. I waited, trying to peer in the glass on the side of the door, still with a tiny flicker of hope that in a second, any minute now, I’d hear Sloane’s steps as she ran down the hall and threw open the door, yanking me into a hug, already talking a mile a minute. But the house was silent, and all I could see through the glass was the historical-status plaque just inside the door, the one that proclaimed the house “one of Stanwich’s architectural treasures,” the one that always seemed covered with ghosts of fingerprints.
I waited another few minutes, just in case, then turned around and lowered myself to sit on the top step, trying very hard not to have a breakdown among the leaves.
There was a piece of me that was still hoping to find this had been a very realistic nightmare, and that any minute now, I’d wake up, and Sloane would be there, on the other end of her phone like she was supposed to be, already planning out the day for us.
Sloane’s house was in what was always called “backcountry,” where the houses got larger and farther apart from each other, on ever-bigger pieces of land. She was ten miles away from my place, which, back when I’d been in peak running shape, had been easy for me to cross. But even though they were close, our neighborhoods couldn’t have been more different. Here, there was only the occasional car driving past, and the silence seemed to underscore the fact that I was totally alone, that there was nobody home and, most likely, nobody coming back. I leaned forward, letting my hair fall around me like a curtain. If nobody was there, it at least meant I could stay awhile, and I wouldn’t be asked to leave. I could probably stay there all day. I honestly didn’t know what else to do with myself.
I heard the low rumble of an engine and looked up, fast, pushing my hair out of my face, feeling hope flare once more in my chest. But the car rolling slowly down the driveway wasn’t Anderson’s slightly dented BMW. It was a yellow pickup truck, the back piled with lawnmowers and rakes. When it pulled in front of the steps, I could see the writing, in stylized cursive, on the side. Stanwich Landscaping, it read. Planting . . . gardening . . . maintenance . . . and mulch, mulch more! Sloane loved when stores had cheesy names or slogans. Not that she was a huge fan of puns, but she’d always said she liked to picture the owners thinking them up, and how pleased with themselves they must have been when they landed on whatever they’d chosen. I immediately made a mental note to tell Sloane about the motto, and then, a moment later, realized how stupid this was.