Brent and I had been best friends since long before I could remember. His daddy and my daddy had grown up together, so play dates had been inevitable. We shared not only a fondness of Neapolitan ice cream, but also a birthday. We’d spent our childhoods chasing down chickens and causing mayhem on that very farm, where our love blossomed.
Two years later, he captured my virginity in that same spot, and two more years passed before we said our “I dos.”
Now, ten years after our stargazing love affair had started, I was sinking into a pit of guilt and stuck in a world of what-ifs.
When I was twelve, my parents and I were struck by a drunk driver. A drunk driver who stole my parents from me. Somehow—through fate, no doubt—my life was spared. I had been asleep in the back seat when the man’s car had struck ours. The officers told me that he had veered into our lane and no amount of defensive driving could have changed the course of that accident. He made sure to tell me over and over again that it wasn’t my fault. That it wasn’t my parents’ fault, either.
Well, no duh, Sherlock. Clearly, they hadn’t been the drunk ones in the wrong lane. I got it. I was twelve at the time—still a child in the officer’s eyes—but I wasn’t stupid. I could never blame my parents for not having been able to get out of the way. That didn’t mean I didn’t harbor some guilt myself.
We had been on our way home from a softball game. My softball game. I’d played for my junior high’s team as a starting pitcher. For the first time in nearly twenty years, our school had made it to the state championship. And after a rough season and a brutal game, we had finally taken home a state trophy. The game was two hours away from home, and I had begged them to take the team out for ice cream at a local Dairy Queen before heading home. Had we gone home straight after the game, my parents might still be here today.
For the last twelve years, people have told me over and over again how silly it was for me to feel that way, including Brent.
“Let it go.”
“You couldn’t have stopped it.”
“It was fate.”
“They wouldn’t want you to feel so guilty.”
None of those phrases changed how I felt, no matter how silly my feelings were. I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if we had left when they’d wanted to. If I wouldn’t have begged them to take us for ice cream. Twelve years and I still hadn’t put a spoon to a bowl of Neapolitan. It just wasn’t the same.
Even after having lost the only family I really had, I never once felt alone. If it hadn’t been for Brent and the Hart family, I’d have died of loneliness years ago. Brent’s parents let me stay with them for a few months, until my aunt could finally be bothered to move back our small town of Danville, Georgia. Population: 222. Well, 220 after the accident.
Aunt Sharon spent those few months trying to convince me to move to Chicago with her. I, of course, refused. After her futile attempts to get me to agree to move, Aunt Sharon decided she’d come back to Danville and raise me herself.
“It’s what your parents would want,” she told me several times a day.
No, my parents would want to be here, raising me. But what do I know?
She moved right back to Chicago the day I turned eighteen, leaving me my mom and dad’s house and all of their belongings. It wasn’t long before Brent moved in—but not until after our wedding.
My parents had been gone for twelve years. Brent had been dead for twelve days. What the heck was with the number twelve in my life? And why couldn’t I seem to keep my loved ones alive and well?
Too bad answers to impossible questions didn’t simply fall from the sky. Maybe then would I have been able to stop the pain that ate away at my core. The pain that numbed me from reality and left me lost in an emotional hurricane.
A loud bang coming from the front door woke me from my delusional thoughts. I didn’t expect—or want—company, so I stayed curled up under my blanket and sank deeper into my new couch. The banging grew louder, which caused a groan to escape my throat.
Why can’t I just be left alone?
I checked the mirror that hung crooked on my pale-grey living room wall as I got up. My hair was loosely bunched up on top of my head, my eyes bloodshot and my wardrobe atrocious. I’d been wearing the same pajama pants for four days now with a plain, white T-shirt underneath Brent’s robe. The intoxicating smell of his cologne still lingered, but just barely. My breath caught as the image of him lying motionless on our couch flashed through my head.
He had worked for Volumatic, a manufacturing company about thirty minutes from our small town, since he was eighteen. He’d spent the first four years working in production, building parts for equipment, tractors, and other heavy machinery. The last couple of years had led him to a supervisor position, but Brent hadn’t taken his job lightly. His hard work had kept him on the floor with his team doing work he should have left behind when he’d accepted the promotion. All the work he’d done had left his shoulder in constant pain, but he hadn’t quit working his hardest. He’d pushed and pushed until his shoulder had snapped. The doctor had actually cursed when Brent had been rushed to the hospital last month. There had been so much damage to his shoulder, that we’d had no choice but to have him file for disability and long-term workman’s compensation. No one had known if he’d be able to work again any time soon.
That was my Brent. Hardworking, dedicated, and kindhearted. He refused to let others do work he wasn’t willing to do himself. Heaven forbid he simply sit back and “supervise” as per his job description. Twenty-five years old and he’d had to say goodbye to his passion. The struggle his eyes revealed had left me helpless.
Brent wasn’t the kind of man who could sit at home and do nothing. So, instead, he took on the household chores, even the ones he couldn’t master, like cooking. He was good at many, many things. Cooking just wasn’t one of them.
I’d rushed home from the office, nearly two hours behind schedule thanks to my awful boss, who had always been determined to make my life a pain in the behind. Mostly because I’d turned down his offer to “swing” with his wife. Gross. Mr. Canton was nearly twice my age. The thought alone was revolting. Brent, of course, had laughed it off, cracking jokes at my expense. Not a day went by that I didn’t miss his lightheartedness. No matter my mood, his jokes and gentle embraces could turn my bad day into a good day.
When I walked into our house that night, there was no sign of life. The lights were off, but the front door was open slightly. I almost didn’t notice the door was cracked in my haste to get inside and make sure the kitchen wasn’t on fire or the laundry room covered in suds.
The second my foot hit the foyer, my heart sank to the ground. I could sense trouble, and panic crept along my skin, causing every worst-case scenario to run rampant in my mind. Little had I known that the worst possible scenario really was waiting for me on our beat-up hand-me-down couch in the living room.
I took a deep breath before turning on the light in the foyer. Calming myself down took long enough, and I decided that Brent had to be taking a nap or watching a movie quietly. Wrong. So very wrong.
I made my way to the living room, and when my eyes swept over his body, I sank to the ground. Any strength I had vanished as I lost all sense of reality. The world around me stopped, my vision faded, and my heart completely froze. Numb. I was numb with pain. With shock. With fear. Nothing could have prepared me for what I had walked in on.
Brent’s body was sprawled across the couch, an arm and a leg dangling over the edge, dripping crimson onto our ugly, peach carpet. His eyes were wide open, void of any life. I glanced at his chest, praying—begging—for it to move. Stillness.
Finding strength in my legs, I rushed to him, flinging my arms around his body. I wasn’t sure if my shaking him was on purpose or caused by the panic eating me alive.
I screamed with everything I had in me. “Brent! Brent, come back to me! Help me! Someone! Anyone, please!” Over and over, I yelled between my horrid cries.
My shirt soaked up his blood, covering me in the proof he was gone. My heart and soul refused to believe the scene before me. Little had I known that that scene would leave me scared and broken for an extremely long time. The people I loved always seemed to die in such tragic ways. No epic storybook scene for Gracie Kay Hart’s failed fairytale. Nothing but death and pain and unnecessary guilt lined my pages. Not to mention an emptiness far beyond my ability to comprehend.
Now, twelve days later, I was still at a loss for reality. Nightmares followed me around not only during my poor excuse for sleep, but also during my waking moments. I couldn’t remember what food tasted like. I’d been living on popcorn and containers of microwavable macaroni and cheese. Sure, neighbors had brought me lasagna dishes. I was almost positive there were at least seven in my fridge. I just hadn’t found the strength to deal with them.
There were too many moments lately where I found myself in a daze. Heck, those moments lasted twenty-three of the twenty-four hours in a day. I couldn’t wake myself up long enough to be bothered with trivial things such as eating, bathing, or even going upstairs to bed.
The loud knocking coming from the door once again shook me back to reality—an awful one, but reality nonetheless.
“I’m coming!” I yelled, cursing the visitor as I made my way to the door.
Hearing my first name always left me in a trance. A week before her death, my mom had explained to me the reason for my name choice. It’s one of those epic stories of addiction and recovery.
Before my mom got pregnant with me, she’d struggled with drugs and alcohol. Her high never lasted long enough, so she dived into harder, more life-threatening drugs. My father wasn’t some hero who came to her rescue and brought her back to a life free of her addiction. Their story wasn’t a fairytale—nor was it anywhere near how they panned out in the movies. He was her dealer.
When she couldn’t con her way into funds or steal from people around her, she’d sleep with my dad to get her fix. Now, she didn’t flat-out say, “Hey, I did the deed with your dad for drugs. You weren’t ever supposed to be a thing.” I remember her words exactly to this day.
“Gracie, my saving Gracie. I never thought I’d see the day that your father would be my hope in life. I had an addiction, a terrible addiction that nearly took me out of this world far too soon. Your father supplied that addiction, and our payment arrangement led us to you. It led us to freedom from our demons. It gave us both a purpose in life. You. You were our saving Grace in every sense of the saying. The second we discovered you’d be joining this world, left in our care, we ran for help. We got clean and we turned our lives around. Gracie, you are special beyond words. Don’t ever forget that you brought light into a world that was suffocated by darkness.”
The voice rang out again. “Gracie?” I opened the door to Officer Cady who was wearing a look of shock as he took in the sight of me, no doubt concerned that I was in the same clothes he had seen me in the last time he’d visited. “I’m sorry to bother you again, but we really need you to go over the…the incident report.”
His stuttering amused me. Officer Cady was a twenty-year veteran in our tiny town. He had been there the night my parents died. In fact, he was the one who had insisted that the accident wasn’t my fault. Officer Cady had watched my relationship with Brent and the Hart family grow over the years. I knew him well, but his presence lately left me with nothing but heartache.
He had been the first officer on the scene after a neighbor had called about my hysterical cries for help. The last thing I remembered before the darkness had taken over was his arm grabbing mine and swinging it over his shoulder. His words had tipped me over the edge.
“Gracie, it’s going to be okay.”
No, it sure as heck was not going to be okay. Nothing would ever be okay again.