Until We Are Gone

By: Gia Riley

prologue





MEADOW


“Open your eyes.”

The faint whisper is a little louder than the last time I heard it. That peaceful voice never leaves, and each time I hear it, I try to open my eyes.

I haven’t had any luck yet because I’m trapped, a slave to the medication keeping me asleep.

“I know you hear me,” he says. “Try harder.”

As I focus every ounce of strength on separating my lashes, he squeezes my hand again, encouraging me. I need to find out who’s been talking to me while I lie here, a prisoner to my own body.

“Just relax. Take it slow, Meadow.”

Meadow. I like that name. It reminds me of all the summers I spent in the country at Grandma’s.

My parents are devoted city people, working long hours at the office and spending very little time at home. When I was eight, they paid a fortune for a house they now barely live in. Despite the lack of activity, the cleaning lady comes every three days and runs the vacuum over clean floors. She dusts a mantel where the pictures never change and fluffs pillows on a couch that’s never been sat on.

Growing up, I didn’t have one of those moms who stayed home and baked cookies while I played outside. She didn’t serve a homemade dinner at five o’clock on the dot.

My mom inherited a real estate business, and from the day she graduated, it’s consumed every waking hour of her time. She works until she climbs into bed at night, and as soon as she’s awake, the phone starts ringing. Sleep is nothing more than an inconvenience, a blip in the day that keeps her from crunching numbers and closing deals.

Deals and brokers were all I heard about as we ate the same takeout night after night. On the rare occasions Mom had time to cook, she usually burned the food. Her mind was always preoccupied, and though she swore she loved me, it was no secret that she hadn’t planned on having kids. I knew that because I’d overheard a conversation—well, more like an argument—when tuition was due, and she had been too busy to remember to pay it.

“Tell my secretary to add it to my calendar,” she’d yelled. “I can’t keep track of everything.”

Not even her own daughter.

My parents forgot my tenth birthday. I turned another year older to the sound of a sobbing babysitter who had just broken up with her boyfriend. There was no cake, just a freezer-burned TV dinner. I bet my parents knew the birthdates of their clients’ children though, probably all their favorite things, too.

“We’ll celebrate double next year,” they told me. No makeup celebration or any attempt at gift-giving to make me feel better.

My parents are blunt. They don’t sugarcoat anything, not even for a child. That’s just how city life is—busy, reckless, and unpredictable. At times, I love the hustle and bustle, and other times, I long to be by the river, nestled in Grandma’s house without a care in the world.

Grandma’s farm was huge, and she had this claw-foot bathtub on the second floor, next to a bay window, that overlooked the cornfields. There was no air-conditioning in her old farmhouse, and in the thick of summer, that tub quickly became my favorite place to relax.

The porcelain was always cool to the touch, and once inside, my worries would fade away. All the anxiety I brought with me from the city would vanish, and I would be calm and at peace. There were no worries about school or parents, and all I had to do was wake up the next day, explore, and repeat. I liked that. Not thinking. Not worrying.

In the city, I worry about everything. It’s just how I am wired.

Not much has changed from my childhood. I’m still petrified of most things in life, always worrying about the outcome before the events even happen. But what scares me more than anything is finding out why I’m in this bed.

I know I’m not that little girl at Grandma’s anymore, but I can’t figure out who’s been talking to me or why he’s keeping vigil next to my bed.

Where are Mom and Dad?

I’m about to find out.

My eyes finally listen to my command and peel open, and the blurriness fades away.

I can see.

“She’s awake! Nurse, she’s awake!” he shouts.

I wish he wouldn’t yell so loud. It hurts my head.

By the time I turn toward his voice, all I can see is the back of his head as he claws at his messy hair. Even his shirt’s a wrinkled mess.

He glances over his shoulder once, too quickly for me to take in any of his features, and then he disappears into the hallway.

For a second, I panic that he’s not coming back, but less than a minute later, the same crumpled shirt returns, this time with a nurse.

She stands on one side of the bed, and he takes his place on the other, grabbing my hand again. I didn’t realize how used to his touch I’d become. But seeing his hand in mine for the first time is a little strange.

“How do you feel?” the nurse asks. Her voice is soft and cautious.

I take a second to glance at her badge. I don’t recognize the hospital or her name.

Each time I woke up, I would try to listen to the voices before I passed out again, but I don’t remember hers.

“Not so good,” I tell her.

My throat aches, and my lips are so dry, my tongue wants to stick to the roof of my mouth. I’m sure I’ve done a lot of sleeping already, but I still feel like I could sleep for a month. Maybe I have because one of the bruises on my arm is already turning yellow. I must have slept right through the black and purple.

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