About the Author
Morgan Matson formerly worked as a teen book editor. Morgan is a lover of roadtrips, having crossed the USA three times ... so far, and a huge music fan, both passions that fed into her first YA novel Amy & Roger's Epic Detour. When not writing, she drinks far too much coffee, watches old movies, and plans out her next journey. She lives in California.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Since You’ve Been Gone 1
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.
Three guys got out of the truck and headed for the back of it, two of them starting to lift down the equipment. They looked older, like maybe they were in college, and I stayed frozen on the steps, watching them. I knew that this was an opportunity to try and get some information, but that would involve talking to these guys. I’d been shy from birth, but the last two years had been different. With Sloane by my side, it was like I suddenly had a safety net. She was always able to take the lead if I wanted her to, and if I didn’t, I knew she would be there, jumping in if I lost my nerve or got flustered. And when I was on my own, awkward or failed interactions just didn’t seem to matter as much, since I knew I’d be able to spin it into a story, and we could laugh about it afterward. Without her here, though, it was becoming clear to me how terrible I now was at navigating things like this on my own.
“Hey.” I jumped, realizing I was being addressed by one of the landscapers. He was looking up at me, shielding his eyes against the sun as the other two hefted down a riding mower. “You live here?”
The other two guys set the mower down, and I realized I knew one of them; he’d been in my English class last year, making this suddenly even worse. “No,” I said, and heard how scratchy my voice sounded. I had been saying only the most perfunctory things to my parents and younger brother over the last two weeks, and the only talking I’d really been doing had been into Sloane’s voice mail. I cleared my throat and tried again. “I don’t.”
The guy who’d spoken to me raised his eyebrows, and I knew this was my cue to go. I was, at least in their minds, trespassing, and would probably get in the way of their work. All three guys were now staring at me, clearly just waiting for me to leave. But if I left Sloane’s house—if I ceded it to these strangers in yellow T-shirts—where was I going to get more information? Did that mean I was just accepting the fact that she was gone?
The guy who’d spoken to me folded his arms across his chest, looking impatient, and I knew I couldn’t keep sitting there. If Sloane had been with me, I would have been able to ask them. If she were here, she probably would have gotten two of their numbers already and would be angling for a turn on the riding mower, asking if she could mow her name into the grass. But if Sloane were here, none of this would be happening in the first place. My cheeks burned as I pushed myself to my feet and walked quickly down the stone steps, my flip-flops sliding once on the leaves, but I steadied myself before I wiped out and made this more humiliating than it already was. I nodded at the guys, then looked down at the driveway as I walked over to my car.
Now that I was leaving, they all moved into action, distributing equipment and arguing about who was doing what. I gripped my door handle, but didn’t open it yet. Was I really just going to go? Without even trying?
“So,” I said, but not loudly enough, as the guys continued to talk to each other, none of them looking over at me, two of them having an argument about whose turn it was to fertilize, while the guy from last year’s English class held his baseball cap in his hands, bending the bill into a curve. “So,” I said, but much too loudly this time, and the guys stopped talking and looked over at me again. I could feel my palms sweating, but I knew I had to keep going, that I wouldn’t be able forgive myself if I just turned around and left. “I was just . . . um . . .” I let out a shaky breath. “My friend lives here, and I was trying to find her. Do you—” I suddenly saw, like I was observing the scene on TV, how ridiculous this probably was, asking the landscaping guys for information on my best friend’s whereabouts. “I mean, did they hire you for this job? Her parents, I mean? Milly or Anderson Williams?” Even though I was trying not to, I could feel myself grabbing on to this possibility, turning it into something I could understand. If the Williamses had hired Stanwich Landscaping, maybe they were just on a trip somewhere, getting the yard stuff taken care of while they were gone so they wouldn’t be bothered. It was just a long trip, and they had gone somewhere with no cell reception or e-mail service. That was all.
The guys looked at each other, and it didn’t seem like any of these names had rung a bell. “Sorry,” said the guy who’d first spoken to me. “We just get the address. We don’t know about that stuff.”
I nodded, feeling like I’d just depleted my last reserve of hope. Thinking about it, the fact that landscapers were here was actually a bit ominous, as I had never once seen Anderson show the slightest interest in the lawn, despite the fact that the Stanwich Historical Society was apparently always bothering him to hire someone to keep up the property.
Two of the guys had headed off around the side of the house, and the guy from my English class looked at me as he put on his baseball cap. “Hey, you’re friends with Sloane Williams, right?”
“Yes,” I said immediately. This was my identity at school, but I’d never minded it—and now, I’d never been so happy to be recognized that way. Maybe he knew something, or had heard something. “Sloane’s actually who I’m looking for. This is her house, so . . .”
The guy nodded, then gave me an apologetic shrug. “Sorry I don’t know anything,” he said. “Hope you find her.” He didn’t ask me what my name was, and I didn’t volunteer it. What would be the point?
“Thanks,” I managed to say, but a moment too late, as he’d already joined the other two. I looked at the house once more, the house that somehow no longer even felt like Sloane’s, and realized that there was nothing left to do except leave.
I didn’t head right home; instead I stopped in to Stanwich Coffee, on the very off chance that there would be a girl in the corner chair, her hair in a messy bun held up with a pencil, reading a British novel that used dashes instead of quotation marks. But Sloane wasn’t there. And as I headed back to my car I realized that if she had been in town, it would have been unthinkable that she wouldn’t have called me back. It had been two weeks; something was wrong.
Strangely, this thought buoyed me as I headed for home. When I left the house every morning, I just let my parents assume that I was meeting up with Sloane, and if they asked what my plans were, I said vague things about applying for jobs. But I knew now was the moment to tell them that I was worried; that I needed to know what had happened. After all, maybe they knew something, even though my parents weren’t close with hers. The first time they’d met, Milly and Anderson had come to collect Sloane from a sleepover at my house, two hours later than they’d been supposed to show up. And after pleasantries had been exchanged and Sloane and I had said good-bye, my dad had shut the door, turned to my mother, and groaned, “That was like being stuck in a Gurney play.” I hadn’t known what he’d meant by this, but I could tell by his tone of voice that it hadn’t been a compliment. But even though they hadn’t been friends, they still might know something. Or they might be able to find something out.
I held on to this thought tighter and tighter as I got closer to my house. We lived close to one of the four commercial districts scattered throughout Stanwich. My neighborhood was pedestrian-friendly and walkable, and there was always lots of traffic, both cars and people, usually heading in the direction of the beach, a ten-minute drive from our house. Stanwich, Connecticut, was on Long Island Sound, and though there were no waves, there was still sand and beautiful views and stunning houses that had the water as their backyards.
Our house, in contrast, was an old Victorian that my parents had been fixing up ever since we’d moved in six years earlier...
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