That winter was the longest I had ever known.
They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and they also say time heals all wounds. I am not entirely sure which applies to me just yet; if any. I'm trying to move forward, but it feels like I am doing it with a rock attached to my back.
My dreams are so vivid, so painfully real- bringing intense joy and comfort- only to be shattered upon waking. I sometimes think I see Cal in crowds of people- I have since read though that this is a form of a coping mechanism; the brain giving us comfort in a time of extreme grief or sadness.
Because that is what this feels like; like he has died.
I walk past his house everyday, which is always empty. No sign of life, but no for sale sign either. I've knocked on, peered through windows. I've sat on the porch and sobbed like a mad woman but still, nothing. How could he just leave me? I can only imagine he had no choice, and that terrifies me.
I have found it easier these last few months, I started ice skating again, I read more, and I spend a lot of time in my room. I recently got accepted to the college I wanted- I should have been elated; my parents certainly were.
Nothing holds any excitement for me now. I know it sounds maudlin but I have never felt like I did when I was with Cal. The end of the school year loomed which inevitability brought prom, but I already had decided I wasn't going to go. The last time there was a dance was the happiest day of my life- how could I put myself through that again?
I had, however, promised to go dress shopping with Rosie and Sienna.
So this is where I find myself, in the mall waiting by the doors impatiently. I watch an elderly couple laughing together as they walk past me, a private joke only they would understand. The familiar pang in my chest arrives and I breathe through it deeply.
The one good thing about my new college was its location- it wasn't anywhere near Winterburg and I didn't know anyone who was majoring in Psychology there like I was.
I notice Rosie walking towards me, drawing approving glances from a group of guys from the year below us as they call out to her. Her slender frame was encased by jeans that look like they had been sprayed on, with a cropped long sleeved shirt- her skin glowed and her eyes shone. She laughs as she walks up to me, bringing me into a big hug.
"Hey girl! How are you? I can't wait to pick my dress! Thank you so much for being here with me, I know it must be really hard for you."
She sticks her bottom lip out in an attempt at humour, presumably to lighten the mood. I plaster a fake smile on for her benefit, taking her arm as I do.
"Do you have a colour theme?"
We link arms as we walk into the mall, the stores all showcasing the most beautiful dresses in the windows.
"Yes and no. I was thinking like, gold? Or maybe red? Like a dark red, obviously."
She wanders over to look at a dress and I spot Sienna in the distance.
"Sorry I am late," she says breathlessly. "How are you Gretchen? I'm so glad you're here today. I need a green dress. Emerald green."
I hold my hands up, laughing.
"Ok, lets go and see if we can get you both ready for the ball!"
Sienna looks at me sadly.
"I can't believe you aren't coming Gretchen. So many boys would have loved to take you!"
I shake my head.
"Si, really this isn't as big of a thing for me as it is for you, so, honestly please don't worry about me."
I try not to think about what I would be doing if Cal was here. He would've taken me to prom for sure. I would be picking my dress now, too. We walk into Camille, one of the largest dress shops.
"So whats with the green theme Sienna?"
I clear my throat, desperate to change the subject.
I notice Rosie texting on her phone, and try to sneak a peek. She clutches the phone to her chest and giggles.
"Nope, you're not seeing who I am texting."
I shrug playfully and walk around, my fingers touching the different fabrics, the embellishments shimmering under the store lights. I turn to see the girls gasping over a deep crimson dress, in a mermaid off the shoulder split front style. Rosie selects her size eagerly, and I walk with her to the changing rooms to try it on.
"Oh my god it is so tight Gretch," I heard her wailing as she wriggles around. "Almost got it!"
She pulls back the curtain a few minutes later and I gawp at her.
"How is it possible that this is the dress?! The first one I have tried on?!"
She twirls around and I clap my hands happily.
"You look absolutely amazing, I bet your secret date will feel like the luckiest man in the world!"
She laughs as she fixes a diamond choker around her slender throat. She is beaming; she clearly knew how good she looked.
"I'm sure he will. Stop fishing, it's tradition in my family that we never share our date's name until the actual prom. Even to my bestie."
She gives me a puppy dog smile that makes me laugh, and I let it go.
I feel a pang of regret that I wouldn't be doing this tonight, but I know there is no way I can; not without Cal. Rosie scurries off to get changed and as I come out Sienna passes me in a flurry of green. I sit in the plush red armchair reserved for people giving their verdicts on the dresses, pulling my phone out to see an empty screen. I slide my phone away and smile as Sienna came out in the first of what would be many dresses.
A few hours later we sat in Guilty Pleasures finishing our delicious ice cream, a comfortable silence between us. We had gossiped about who was going with who to the prom, the latest scandal being that Luke was taking Krystal. It didn't matter to me at all, being with Luke felt like a lifetime ago. The girls hugged me goodbye as they headed off for their hair and makeup appointments. I gulp down tears as they hug me tightly.
"Ah group hug!" cried Sienna.
"I feel like such a shit friend," sobbed Rosie as she pulled away. "How can you not be coming to prom…"
I wipe her eyes and squeeze her hands.
"This is my decision ok, don't you dare let this ruin your night. You will be making memories that you will remember forever! But will you do me a favour? Can you please text me the name of your date?!" I have to swallow a lump in my throat as I say it.
Sienna rolls her eyes and started reeling off names of potential dates to which Rosie ignored.
"Yes, of course. It's just a silly family tradition…" she blushes.
We say our goodbyes and I walk back to the car park, slipping my earphones into the socket of the phone to play my latest mix. I walk down the stairs, not looking where I was going in particular. I exit out onto the street, the sky already dull, the clouds dark and the air was charged with the promise of a storm. I huddle my coat around me until I reach the bus stop, music blaring in my ears. I didn't notice the car pull up beside me until it was blocking the bus stop, and I saw a familiar head lean out the window.
"Gretchen, let me give you a ride. Please."
I take my earphones out and walk over to the car. Luke's blue eyes were full of concern as he motions to the seat beside him. I just couldn't understand this boy. What makes him think that I would ever get in a car with him again? Better yet, why did he want me to?
"Luke, I would rather walk, you know this. Please leave me alone."
I go to put my earphones back in when he touches my arm.
"You know what Gretchen, we both kinda fucked up this past year. You hurt me, you did. But then I was a dick, and I upset you. I'm truly sorry."
He sounds genuine, and I finally meet his gaze with mine.
"I love him Luke. I'm sorry that I hurt you, but you and I have nothing else to say to each other."
I notice the hurt in his eyes when he nods.
"I know, but you know what G, he isn't here, and I am. I just want to be friends," he says softly, his eyes on mine.
Part of me wanted to scream at him and beg for any information on Cal, but I couldn't bring myself to.
"Thank you Luke, I really do appreciate your offer of a ride. I hope you understand why I am saying no. Have fun tonight."
I say this as firmly as I can, aware his eyes were still on me. I step back as the rain starts to fall. He gazes at me for a beat before smiling sadly, pulling away from the curb with speed.
The bus eventually makes its way towards me like a beacon in the night, and I gratefully climb on board. I sit by the window and stare out into the darkness, the music filling my ears. I still wasn't able to banish the thoughts in my mind that were ever there, reminding me that once I had felt something instead of this constant state of nothingness.
When I get off the bus, I see the rain is pouring. I consider my friends in their beautiful dresses having to contend with this weather, as my boots disappear into the small puddles that are forming on the ground.
I walk past Cal's house, my heart rate increasing as it always did, to see it shrouded in darkness. I stand for a minute, the tears that fall from my face blending with the rain, making it impossible to tell the difference. Would this pain ever end? Would the thoughts ever go away? I push away from the fence, heading towards my own home and leaving the memories behind.
The rain is even heavier now, I can barely see in front of me. Typical Winterburg rain. I didn't mind it tonight, it soothed my soul.
I see an orange glow in front of me for a split second, stopping me in my tracks. I searched for it again but it was nowhere to be seen.
More mind tricks Gretchen.
Maybe I was finally losing it, hallucinating along with everything else. I shake my head and start to move faster, my head down now against the wind. I run up the drive to my house, peeling off my coat and shouting hello to my parents.
It's warm and welcoming in the house, and I'm grateful to be away from the world. I wander into the kitchen to find a note from my parents letting me know they had gone out for dinner.
I knew they felt guilty for my unhappiness, but really it wasn't their fault. I tug the elastic from my hair and flip my head over, shaking the curls out. I flip my head back, leaving it loose. I head upstairs, thoughts of a bath and a book coming to mind.
I sling my dirty clothes into the laundry, unclipping my bra with relief. What was it about taking your bra off at the end of the day? Sheer relief. My phone pings and I reach over and pick it up to see it was Rosie.
I gasp. Finn? He was her date to prom? How did I not guess? A million questions run through my mind as I text her back.
Omg! Have fun, I love you!
I walk into the bathroom smiling to myself as I imagine Finn's eyes falling out of their sockets when he laid eyes on his date in that dress. I turn the taps on, revelling in hearing the rain battering the windows outside.
I drizzle some bath creme into the hot water and watch idly as the water turns soapy and full of bubbles. Just then the doorbell rings unexpectedly, and I frown.
Who could that be? Part of me is slightly concerned; Luke seemed to be having a hard time actually leaving me alone. But surely he would be at prom, or getting ready for prom? If it is him, I'm going to lose my shit. I will hand deliver him to Krystal in a body bag.
I grab a towel and quickly turn the taps off, making my way downstairs. I try to look through the glass at who it was, seeing someone wearing a hat through the blurry glass. Cautiously I lean close to the door.
'Who is it?' I demand.
There's no answer.
I start to feel uneasy. Why would someone ring the bell then not answer when asked who it was? It had to be Luke.
For fucks sake.
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
I grip my towel around my body tighter, wondering what the hell I was going to do.
The doorbell rang again.
"Who is it? I'm not answering the door until you tell me who it is!" I'm practically screaming now, my heart pounding with terror.