The day Grant died I got in my car and drove until my eyelids heavily demanded me to stop. It was raining hard, the universe’s admittance of how horrible everything was. I remember it being foggy, but maybe my clumped tears were just clouding my vision. Either way, I couldn’t see well; driving conditions were bad. Any sane person would have pulled over, but, for the first time, I no longer qualified as sane. So I kept pushing my foot down farther, accelerating towards nowhere.
I could rewind the whole day, watch myself as I grip the steering wheel with all my might. I could let the events unfold all over again, recall every second, believe me, I could. But I hated to; I only wanted to forget.
I sat on cold granite floor, clenching my fingernails into my palms, leaving little red indents that soon made old scars deeper. I used to get defensive when Grant would tell me to stop. He said it was going to become a habit and I said he was full of it, but somewhere in the middle of all the havoc he became right. I should have known. He was always right. My head hurt from the built up tears begging to be unleashed, but I didn’t complain. Pain was better than nothing at all.
My gaze fixed itself on the grand mirror that was the master bedroom ceiling above me for what felt like days. I watched a girl wrapped in a tasseled, torn blanket stare back at me. I didn’t recognize her. On the outside, she looked like a content child before bed, always the littlest one in the room. But if the cover was stripped from below her eyes, a whole other world would be revealed. Such a messy world. Her mascara streaked rosy cheeks and chapped lips told a story of their own, but that sweater, it spoke to another world entirely. Such a better world.
Grant bought me that sweater when we were only seven. We used to joke that it was the first purchase he ever made, but we didn’t really know. It was too long ago to tell, and there was nobody to ask anyway. His parents wouldn’t know the answer to something so trivial; they didn’t even have answers for the big things. He bought that sweater for me because it was the color of my favorite popsicle, the exact same shade of magenta. Putting it on made me taste the sweet cran-rasberry flavor. I hadn’t taken it off since he died, and I settled into the empty mansion. It wasn’t because I didn’t bring other clothes; I packed to stay a while. I just preferred to stay wrapped in my fuzzy cranberry popsicle, the closest thing I could get to the warm, soft embrace that used to be the nooks of Grant’s broad shoulders. Hours passed, and though it seemed like my eyes never parted from the mirror, I somehow drifted into sleep.
Light murmurs on the beach dragged me out of a slumber too deep to be happening on a granite floor. I crawled to the glass balcony doors that faced the familiar voices, but I didn’t open them more than an inch. I stared through their excessively large frames with my ear close to the crack between them, and acted like I was a part of the couple’s sunrise conversations. Separated by only two glass panes, but our worlds couldn’t have been farther apart. They were Orange County residents, and I was the homeless runaway living in a "For Sale" mansion, that happened to have an unlocked basement window. They were so happy, living in bliss. I was every emotion except happy, running from bliss, for reasons even I did not understand.
Every day I would let my thoughts wander out the crack of those balcony doors and into the couple’s universe. Their actions were remarkably similar each sunrise, a comfortable routine. I had never seen them act like a couple, yet I assumed they were dating. They were the kind of friends so close they had no choice but to fall in love. Or at least that was my guess. I liked making up scenarios about them. I had even come up with names for them: Grey and Megan. Grey was the perfect boyfriend, and Megan didn’t appreciate him as much as she should, or maybe it was the other way around. Who cares really; it was all just made up anyway. A stupid thing that kept me going.
Overtime, I felt like they were my good friends, ones I could depend on to just show up. I knew nothing real about them other than the small bits of conversation I eavesdropped on each morning. It was never anything more than light flirts or sarcastically deep conversations about “what the universe even is.” It did not matter though. Their existence was so important to me, and they had no idea.
As the days passed, nothing changed other than the length of my split ends. I sat and picked at them until the couple approached. Today, something was different. The air felt heavy and tense, and their conversation was the same. They were walking a little faster than usual, until they came to a stop, sitting on a shriveled log that washed onto the shore a few days prior.
“It is all going to be okay,” I heard Grey promise to Megan.
I couldn’t help but wonder what was going on.
“I won’t sit around and have you watch it all unfold,” her breath caught on her words, and though I could not see her face, I knew she was crying.
I read the man’s lips as a wave crashed while he said, “You are not going anywhere.”
But later that day, when the couple was expected to return, only the man did. I was restless. I felt like I could relate to him especially well on this day. The one he loved most, gone, against his will. I began playing out several different scenarios that could have explained Megan’s disappearance. Maybe her brother got cancer, maybe Grey cheated on her, maybe she was moving to New York to pursue an acting career, maybe she just wasn’t happy.
When my eyes glazed open the next morning they felt lazy. Soon I was hit with the sound of the front door opening and a cheery voice discussing the “statement a sea glass front door can make.” I felt nothing but adrenaline. I slung my worn Burberry backpack over my right shoulder and scooped up my makeshift bed that was really just a sheet, pillow and weathered blanket draped across the floor. My escape route was planned and familiar. I ran over to the balcony doors, throwing them open suddenly but quietly, and flung my legs over the marble railing. I lowered myself off the story high balcony, making sure to avoid dropping past any windows on the first floor. It was a rehearsed and graceful landing, but when my toes hit sand I was everything but relieved.
I saw Grey alone, staring at me, mouth wide open, a combination of intrigue, empathy and admiration in his eyes. I remained still for a moment and wondered what his stare really meant. I wanted to walk over to him, try to defend myself to someone who felt like a good friend, but my body had other plans. He didn’t have time to conjure up the words. Neither did I. I turned and sprinted in the opposite direction. Several stumbles later, I reached the main road and a low level of composure. I stashed my excess belongings deep in some nearby shrubs, and I kept going. My feet were taking me places that my mind was unaware of. I knew I should never return to that house, it was too risky having a local resident know I was sleeping there, but the admiration in his stare felt too real to leave behind. I craved going back, meeting him for real.
I knew I couldn’t return to the house for a couple hours at least, so I decided to shop around for some additional clothes and maybe some shampoo. It was long overdue. I started in the direction of the lot downtown where I parked my car overnight.
Muscle memory worked its magic and before I knew it I found myself in the anchor store of the Crystal Mall. The heat of judgmental stares weighed in on me as I browsed in a store I only used to be able to afford. I was swallowed by a feeling of distance. That was one of the reasons I never missed home. Anyone slightly different from the rest was shamed for being so. Too many assumptions about things unimaginable, never mind understandable. As quick as I could, I slung several outfits over my forearm and made my way into the dressing room. Bringing in so many clothes was necessary so that when I walked out with a few items stuffed into my backpack, nobody noticed.
On my drive downtown, I started to cry. I knew where I was going but I felt lost getting there. I wanted Grant to tell me it would be okay, that I should go home, that I should stay, anything. I wanted going home to my parents to fix the empty feeling inside me, but I knew it would only make it worse. I don’t know how it was possible for my parents estate to be more empty than a furnish-less mansion. I wondered if I should turn on my phone, look to see what they had been saying to me, but I decided against it. I knew too many people would have left messages, expressing their fake condolences. I did not want any of their stupid pity. It was all of their faults it happened anyway. They were the ones who got drunk and did stupid things; it was never us. We were the good ones, the smart ones, but we were the ones suffering. I was the one suffering. Grant wasn’t even lucky enough to suffer.
On my walk back to the shrubs I stashed my stuff in, fireflies appeared. I stopped walking and sat down on the curb to enjoy the show. I thought of the nights Grant and I used to spend on our porch waiting for hours in hopes that a few fireflies would appear. On more nights than not, reality fell short of our expectations, and there were none to be seen. I always wondered if they just weren’t there, or if they decided to dim their light for a night. I liked to think it was the latter, that they got exhausted from always being in the spotlight.
Once the last firefly disappeared into the dark sky, I got up and continued my trek. Soon I could see the mansion in the distance. I stared at its eerie glow. I had never seen it from the outside at night time. Without breaking my stare, I reached into the shrubbery to drag out my belongings. My fingers felt something stiff laying on top of my bedding, and before pulling it out, they tried to identify it. I couldn’t help but smell the fall Halloween night at my parent’s house last year, when we all had to stick our hands in dark boxes, feel around and try to identify the creepy contents. I rustled around in the shrub and guessed it was a note, from the way it bent and crinkled. I knew it was more than blank paper. It was worn. Like someone had wrote with pen, but then got it a little wet, perhaps with coffee, before dropping it off.
My heart raced when I pulled it out and read,
I saw you earlier, and I want to know more. See you tonight if you return.—Liam
Liam, it must have been Grey’s real name, I thought. I hoped that I wouldn’t forget, calling him Grey by mistake would open a whole new set of problems.
Before I could remind myself of all the reasons pursuing the unknown was a bad idea, I was headed to the front door step. As I got closer, I could see a familiar shape through the tinted glass front door. It was him. With each step closer Liam got, flutters rose higher and higher in my stomach. He opened the door, and I was taken aback at how perfect he was up close. I immediately felt guilty for thinking such a thing. My boyfriend was only killed a few weeks ago.
He said nothing, just motioned for me to come in, and I did.
“Explain to me why a pretty girl in a Burberry backpack is attempting to slum it in my parents empty house,” he said with big air quotes around the ‘slum.’
I had no response, other than the reddening of my face at the thought of him calling me pretty, and it was not because I was embarrassed, but rather that I was angry at myself for caring.
After what felt like a long silence, he spoke again.
“I’m not going to rat you out... I actually admire your deviance. You clearly are choosing to be here.”
Again with these people and their assumptions. A few hours ago I was craving meeting Grey, but now I realized there was no Grey at all, there was Liam. Someone I knew nothing about.
“You seem to have me all figured out, so why the interrogation?”
“Keep up that attitude, and maybe I will rat you out,” he teased before continuing.
“You think you have it all figured out; staying here, but what happens when the deal closes next week and there is a different owner? I doubt they will be as kind to let you crash on their floor.”
Obviously, I had no idea the house had been sold; I was taken off guard and, once again, angry.
“Well I guess I’ll have to find another bedroom floor to sleep on then, won’t I?” Anywhere is better than home, I thought.
He read me like a good book and said, “What could possibly be so terrible about your home that you would rather crash in an empty mansion all alone?”
“You wouldn’t understand,” I followed.
He sat down and made himself comfortable. Slouched against the sheetrock wall that smelled like fresh paint, he took off his sweatshirt, revealing a ripped up, worn out tee. I had never seen him in such a raw state. On the beach he was always dressed sharply. Never a flaw in sight. But tonight, after he sat down, I noticed the puffiness in the corners of his eyes, and the bags underneath, and for a split second I regretted my last comment. I knew he was an early riser, which could have explained the bags, but the swelling: there was only one possibility that came to mind. Maybe he did understand after all.
“You have been crying,” I said.
“Yea. My girlfriend, or I suppose my ex, now,” he scoffed, “found out she’s sick, and to top it off, she left, gone. No word of where she was going.”
I felt a tightness in my chest. I nodded, acting like I was unfamiliar with the situation, though it was something I knew a lot about.
“Well I guess me and her are alike then. We both would rather run than sit in the huge mess that is our lives.”
He stared at me and shuffled around, as to get comfortable and continued.
“I wish you would tell me more.”
For a while, we went going back and forth, avoiding the worries that were pushing down on us like fifteen feet of snow. Somewhere in the meantime, I opened up to him, telling him things about myself that I had never bothered to say aloud before. I opened up about the unbearable sadness from losing Grant that I doubted would ever go away. I opened up about the unbearable anger for the drunk teenager who killed him. I opened up about the unbearable irony that all my boyfriend and I had hated about our town was the very thing that killed him.
It felt refreshing. He talked about the reasons I should go home, and for a moment I started to believe him. He was heartbroken over a girl who disappeared without warning. He didn’t want my family to have to feel the same way. I immediately thought of Grant, and I could finally see that he would have said the same thing to me. When I was so lost, he would have told me to go home.
The moon appeared, and shortly after, so did the sun. My eyes opened out of focus, foggy. I didn’t remember at what point our conversation turned into snores, but it didn’t matter, there was nothing I would have changed. When I rolled over there was no indication of Liam’s arrangements he made on the floor beside me. Just a note, so incredibly similar to the first he had left me, except this one had his phone number on the back.
Go home and hug your family. They need it. You need it. Then call me and let me know how it goes. If you want, of course.—Liam
I felt so much different from every other day since I left. I still was not okay, but I might have been a half a step closer. I gathered my belongings to sneak out those familiar glass doors.
I walked downtown, and before I realized, I was driving home through the pouring rain. Driving conditions were bad, so I pulled over for a little while.
A few hours later, I stretched out of the driver’s seat and looked up to see a front door step that looked different but familiar. The door opened, and I was greeted with the biggest hug I had ever received.
“I love you,” I said for the first time since I was a kid.
And then I cried a really big cry, and so did my mom.