When I'm Gone

By: Emily Bleeker

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.

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