Gone Too Soon

by Melody Carlson

An icy road. A car crash.
A family changed forever.

Hannah Josephson had always been the “perfect” daughter. Kiera couldn’t live up to her before, and she certainly can’t now that her older sister has died in a car accident. But the image she carried resentfully of Hannah is challenged when she finds her dead sister’s diary and begins to read. Apparently Hannah’s final year wasn’t as perfect as everyone thought.

Caught in a pattern of blaming each other, the Josephson family is falling apart. Their father has left, their mother is mixing opiates and alcohol, little sister Maddie has been shipped off to spend the whole summer with their grandmother, and Kiera feels utterly alone with her grief and anger. A summer job helping at a park in a poor section of town provides a friend and a purpose.

But it’s Hannah’s diary that fills her thoughts. For the first time in years, she feels close to the sister she’s lost. But can the knowledge she gleans about her possibly help her patch back together the family that seems determined to implode?

Chapter 1

I know it’s wrong to steal—even worse to steal your sister’s diary. But I just can’t seem to stop myself. As I tiptoe down the hallway from my bedroom to Hannah’s, I can hear Mom thumping around downstairs in the kitchen. It sounds like she’s in a mood too, throwing pots and pans around. But no one else is home—providing the perfect opportunity to grab Hannah’s diary and make a clean getaway.

I’ve been planning this crime ever since I discovered my older sister’s secret hiding place when I snuck into her room a couple days ago. I trespassed forbidden territory to “borrow” a swimsuit for the last day of school swim party—but I was surprised to uncover Hannah’s diary in the process. So all day yesterday, I obsessed over that small blue book. Like it was calling my name. And since this is the first day of summer vacation with nothing but boredom in sight, I’m compelled to pull off this despicable act. I plan to secretly read my dead sister’s diary—from cover to cover.

A fresh wave of guilt washes over me as I enter Hannah’s silent room. As always, this space, like my sister, is picture-perfect. It’s like a spread from one of the “shabby chic” magazines Hannah used to study almost as much as her well-worn Bible. Such a contrast to the hodgepodge rat’s nest in my room. Not only does everything in here stay clean—thanks to my mom’s obsession with preserving everything “as is”—the style seems to improve with age. From the pastel patchwork quilt and pillows on her neatly made bed to the rustic bookshelf and desk that she painted herself, it’s all perfection… just like Hannah.

I jump when I hear a loud clang downstairs—a reminder that Mom would throw a horrific hissy fit if she found me in Hannah’s room. And yet my feet remain glued to the hardwood floor as I stare around the room—all which silently screams a security warning: Hannah-Hannah-Hannah! A thief has entered your room!

Get in and get out, I remind myself as I creep across the pastel rag rug that Grandma Josephson helped Hannah to crochet several years ago. Probably the beginning of my sister’s shabby chic obsession. I go directly to her bureau, sliding out the bottom drawer where her athletic wear is all neatly folded, shorts and tanks and sweats… with swimsuits on the right. Right where I spotted it before, her diary is tucked at the bottom of the drawer, wrapped in her old middle-school swim-team suit. With pounding heart, I grab up the diary and, sliding it under my loose t-shirt, I secure it in the top of my cutoffs… just in case Mom’s on the prowl. Then I carefully straighten the drawer so that it looks exactly as before—well, except for a missing bikini that’s probably still a soggy wad in my backpack.

Glancing over my shoulder to be sure Mom’s not lurking in the doorway and ready to bust me, I make my swift getaway. Feeling like a felon, I slip down the hallway and back into my room, quietly closing the door before I slide my black beanbag chair in front of it. Not that the beanbag could keep anyone out, but it makes me feel more secure as I pull out the diary, running a hand over the pebbly leatherette cover.

I still remember how jealous I felt when Grandma Josephson gave Hannah this diary for her sixteenth birthday—almost two years ago now. Never mind that I’ve always known Hannah was her favorite—everyone’s favorite—I really thought the retro diary with its brass lock, tiny key, and faux leather cover was pretty cool. Very funky old school. And since I’m the one who excels in writing, it seemed more fitting to give it to me than Hannah. Not that anyone in my family would agree.

“This was presented to me by my grandmother when I turned sixteen,” Grandma explained to Hannah. “I suppose it’s almost an antique now. But I never wrote in it. Not a single word.” She smiled wistfully. “Later on in life… when it was too late… I wished that I had.” She went on to explain how teen years were very special and pass very quickly, and how Hannah should keep a record of them. And based on the various times I caught my older sister frantically scribbling away in this book, I know that she had.

I don’t have the key, but quickly discover the flimsy brass lock is easy to pick with a large safety pin. Though as I flop down on my beanbag chair, I vaguely wonder where Hannah hid the key. Not that I need it now. Do I feel guilty as I open my dead sister’s private journal? Of course! But does that stop me? No way! I’m like an addict who needs a fix—it might be wrong, but I gotta have it!

I’m caught off guard to see that the first entry isn’t until New Year’s Day—almost six months after Hannah received it. Of course, it’s not last January. Hannah was dead by then. But it appears she never opened this diary when Grandma Josephson gave it to her that summer. That surprises me. I figured my Type A sister would’ve faithfully written in it every single day since her sixteenth birthday. It seems I was wrong.

January 1,

Dear Diary,

I assume that’s how one starts an entry in a diary, but I must admit it feels a little weird. And I doubt that I’ll continue to address this funny little book like that. But I also doubt that I’ll continue to write in here. Not because I don’t enjoy the process of writing. But only because I have so little to write about. My life is basically boring. I am basically boring. My friends are basically boring. It seems like we all just do the same thing over and over again. Nothing ever changes. And the truth is—I don’t like it. I’m well aware that everyone around me assumes I’m always upbeat and congenial. Naturally, I play along. I’m always called cheerful and positive. Along with a few other labels I don’t like. Like Polly-Hannah—AKA Pollyanna. Ugh!

A sharp jab of guilt interrupts me. Not the shame for reading my dead sister’s diary. That’s bad enough, but I remember that I’m the one who first labeled her Polly-Hannah. I always used a snarky tone when I called her that. Even in front of her friends, who later teased her with the name too. Probably, if I’m being honest, I taunted her as much out of envy as irritation. I didn’t understand how anyone could be so obnoxiously optimistic all the time. But that was Hannah. My perfect sister. Taking a deep breath, I continue to read.

I hate that I have to keep up this sweetly smiling image for everyone—acting like everything is so great in my world—when the truth is I pretty much hate my life. Wow, I can’t believe I just wrote those words. But it’s true! I HATE MY LIFE! What a relief to put it on paper. Maybe confession really is good for the soul. Would I want anyone to read these words? Never! So maybe that’s the beauty of a diary. A girl can just say it like it is without worrying that someone is going to totally freak out. A reminder that I better find a very secure place to hide this book. Not that I expect anyone to read it.

Hopefully no one in my family is a snoop! Because I know Mom and Dad would be seriously shocked to know how I really feel about certain things. Like that I hate my life. They always assume that I’m perfectly fine—and I know it makes them feel good…and proud. If Mom discovered the truth she’d probably make an appointment with her therapist for me. Besides my parents, I really wouldn’t want my baby sister Maddie to read this either—although I doubt she would since she is for the most part a very law-abiding and genuinely sweet ten-year-old. As for Kiera, well, I wouldn’t put it past her. She might only be fourteen, but she is scarily sophisticated for her age. But if Kiera does read this—as angry as I would be at her—I suspect she might understand some of my conflicted feelings. Because Kiera has a dark side. A natural pessimism that she doesn’t bother to keep hidden from anyone. Kiera might actually get me on some levels. Except that she’s so mean she’d probably use my words against me. Knowing Kiera, she might even resort to blackmail or extortion. Sure, she’s my sister, but I do not trust her.

Once again, I have to stop reading. It hurts to know that this is how Hannah really felt about me. Although most of what she wrote is absolutely true. And she was right to distrust me—I guess I’m proving it right now. What kind of person steals and reads her sister’s diary? Hannah was right. I really do have a dark side. And the truth is—it scares me too. But not enough to stop me from continuing to read. In fact, I’m even more interested now than before. I doubt I will ever be able to stop. Not until I read the entire book. And I can tell by flipping through the nearly filled book, there are hundreds of entries. I hungrily continue.

So my only defense is to keep my diary securely locked and hidden. That is if I really plan to record my deepest darkest secrets in here. Because I realize that could be risky. But since I already feel better after writing just one entry, I suspect that I will keep up with it. So here’s to a new year—the reason I wanted to write in the first place was to put down some resolutions. Although I honestly don’t expect my life to change or get better. But maybe I really am an optimist.

So… here are my New Year’s Resolutions:

  1. Stop being such a hypocrite and pretending everything is okay when it’s not.
  2. Find out who I really am and don’t be afraid to be that person.
  3. Get genuine friends who will accept the real me—not just Polly-Hannah.
  4. Find out why I feel so unhappy underneath my usual smiley face and do something about it.
  5. Keep writing honestly in my diary.
  6. Break up with Wyatt. No matter what Haley says!

Now this is a surprise since I assumed Wyatt was the one who broke up with Hannah last year. They’d been off-and-on since they were about fifteen. But Wyatt was always like Mr. Perfect. The kind of boyfriend that earned the parents’ seal of approval. He was student council president, both athletic and academic, and involved in our church’s youth group. But he and Hannah broke up in her junior year—probably not too long after she wrote that into her resolution list.

I’m about to turn the page when I hear my mom screaming at me to come downstairs to help her with something. I know better than to protest or to be too pokey. I don’t need her storming into my room. My mother, when angry, has no respect for privacy. Plus Dad already warned me, before he went to play golf, that Mom was feeling particularly edgy today. Okay, I get that. But doesn’t she realize that she’s not the only one who gets uptight? Not that I’ll point this reality out to her. I really don’t need the drama right now.

As I shove the diary under my mattress, I yell that I’m coming. I’ll need to find a more secure hiding place—soon. Then I rush downstairs to find my mother dressed for work and staring angrily at her phone.

“Empty the dishwasher,” she commands without looking at me. “I’ve got potatoes on the stove. Take them off and drain them when the timer goes off. They’re for potato salad and…” She looks at me with a frown. “I’d ask you to take over making the potato salad for me, except that I know you’re not into cooking. Not like your…” As she stops herself and turns away, I consider finishing her sentence for her. Not like your sister. Fortunately, I have the good sense to keep my mouth shut as I open the dishwasher.

“And then you can clean the kitchen. And clear out the clutter in the great room. I suspect it’s mostly your stuff anyway. Then give the powder room a swipe down and—”

“Is someone coming here or something?” I slide out a rack full of dishes.

“I already told you that Grandma Josephson is coming today. To pick up Maddie. Remember?” Her voice drips with irritation, her usual tone reserved for me.

“I thought Maddie was at Olivia’s for the weekend—”

“Seriously?” Mom glares at me as if she’d like to whack me with the wooden spoon she’s just picked up. Not that she would do that. It’s not her style to physically harm anyone. But there are no holds barred with verbal abuse. “Don’t you ever listen to me, Kiera?”

“I, uh, I try to but I—”

“You did know that Grandma Josephson was taking Maddie home with her for the entire summer, did you not?”

“Yeah, but I thought that was next week and—”

“Your grandmother changed her mind. She already had to drive halfway here to meet up with some friends this morning. So she’ll be here this afternoon. She will have dinner with us, spend the night, and then take Maddie home with her tomorrow morning.” Mom’s eyes look kind of wild now, like she’s about to totally lose it. “Is that too much for you to take in, Kiera?”

I have to swallow hard not to spew back what I’m really thinking. I want to scream, I’m sorry I’m not your favorite daughter! I’m sorry I’m not perfect like Hannah. I’m sorry you’re such a bi—

“Are you even listening to me?” she demands.

“Yeah,” I mumble, carefully setting a plate on the granite countertop.

“And you heard what I asked you to do?” she persists. “You were actually listening for a change?”

“Yeah,” I answer in a robotic tone. “The dishwasher. The potatoes. The great room. The powder room. Grandma Josephson coming. I got it, Mom.”

“I would do it all myself—like usual—but a client just called about seeing a house. Unlike your dad, I have to work on weekends. So you’ll just have to fend for yourself for a few hours.”

I want to point out that I always fend for myself, but I know better. That would only throw fuel on the fire. Mom is obviously stressing, and quite frankly, I just can’t handle a conflict. Instead, I continue to cautiously remove plates, one by one, just like she’s told me to do it a hundred times before.

“Another thing, Kiera.”

“What?” I turn to see she’s got her eyes on her phone, but her mouth looks grim.

“Clean up that pigsty you call a bedroom. I swear I could smell it when I went down the hallway yesterday. I want it cleaned up before your grandmother gets here. Understand?”

Okay, now this just really ticks me off. Really, she can smell my room? I mean seriously, how much am I supposed to take from this woman? Does she really think I have no feelings?

“I mean it, Kiera. I don’t want your grandmother to assume that I’ve raised a total slob and don’t have—”

“What if you did?” I instantly regret this, but it’s already out there.

Now she lowers her phone and comes closer, giving me a very intense examination, as if seeing me for the first time…and there is disgust in her eyes. “Okay, fine, then, Kiera. You asked for it, didn’t you? So while we’re at it, your room isn’t the only problem here. You are a complete and total slob. An embarrassment to both your father and me. Probably Maddie too. Just look at that filthy t-shirt. I’ll bet you’ve been wearing it for a week or more. And those cutoffs? Could they be any shorter? Or dirtier. And those nasty flip-flops look like they’re diseased. One would think your parents refuse to buy you any clothes. And you know that’s not true. I would gladly take you—”

“You know that I don’t really care about clothes, Mom.” I give her my best bored expression. “Materialism doesn’t appeal to me.”

“Oh, yeah, right. I forgot. You’re into idealism. Our bohemian child. Our little artist in residence with a shabby sort of chic that’s all her own.” Her words drip with sarcasm. “Well, FYI, little girl. This luxurious residence happens to be owned by your materialistic parents. So while you’re living under our roof, you’ll comply to our—”

“Give it up, Mom!” The words burst out of me, flying around like shrapnel. “You can’t remake me into Hannah! No matter how hard you try, it’s not going to happen. So you might as well get over it. Hannah is gone. Okay? She is not coming back. And I cannot replace her!” And now the tears are about to come, but I’m determined not to break down in front of this woman. “I’m sorry!” I shout angrily as I march out of the kitchen. “I’m sorry my sister is dead! I’m sorry you blame me for it!”

Chapter 2

Moira Josephson had always hated losing her temper. And for decades she’d managed her emotions with relative ease. But as she stormed out to her car, she couldn’t resist kicking the watering can that someone had carelessly left in the driveway. Better than punching someone. Like Kiera. Somehow she had to get control of this. She couldn’t meet new clients with fire in her eyes. But regaining control seemed harder and harder. Especially when it came to her button-pushing teenage daughter. Was Kiera’s singular goal to drive her stark-raving mad? How long would it take?

Moira dug through her oversized designer bag, frantically searching for car keys. She never used to have such difficulty tracking simple things like this. She used to be so organized. But her life was steadily unraveling. She shook her purse, cursing quietly over the elusive key chain. “Come on,” she told herself. “Take it easy…just breathe.” She closed her eyes, digging deeper until, to her relief, she found the evasive keys.

Still breathing deeply, Moira started her car. She had always considered herself reserved and controlled and mature. She had great respect for etiquette and protocol. So much so that a few fellow realtors had even dubbed her the Ice Queen. Behind her back, of course. And, of course, she never showed that it bothered her. Not yet anyway. Her tires squealed as she backed out of the driveway—too fast. And then, knowing it was wrong, she kept the pedal to the metal as she roared down the quiet street. Yes, she was being juvenile, stupidly irresponsible…and it was embarrassing to imagine what her neighbors might be saying to each other. The problem was that she simply didn’t care.

She slowed down as she got nearer to town. It wasn’t unusual to see a traffic cop on a side street, and it would be humiliating to get pulled over. Her plan was to swing by the office, grab some home brochures, and get to the Lawrence house before the clients arrived. It wasn’t a bad listing, but Linda Lawrence had four cats and seemed oblivious to the feline aroma. Hopefully, she’d taken Moira’s directions seriously today. The cats were supposed to be secured in the garage and the floors and furnishings “de-furred.” And Moira was armed with an aerosol can of natural orange spray that could conceal the most obnoxious odors but would unfortunately not poison the cats.

After she gathered some brochures in the right neighborhood and price range, Moira felt slightly calmer and, with time to spare, managed to drive to Warren Heights within the speed limit. She let herself into the house, doing a quick walk-through to make sure the house was at its best, turning on lights, plumping pillows, and liberally spraying orange spray in every room before she opened a couple of windows and turned on some overhead fans.

As she paced back and forth through the well-designed kitchen, waiting for her out-of-town clients to arrive, she replayed that last scene with Kiera—reexamining her own role. Why had Moira gotten so mad? Why did she always react so vehemently to Kiera’s words? Why had she felt so completely enraged? She could never admit this to anyone, but it had taken all of her self-control not to strike out at Kiera. And this was ridiculous because Moira had never physically abused anyone. The thought of her hitting Kiera was so disgusting that she felt thoroughly ashamed. What was happening to her?

Of course, it had been a bit shocking to hear Kiera’s claim that she was being blamed for Hannah’s death. But wasn’t it true? Moira grabbed a paper towel, vigorously polishing the chrome kitchen faucet. In all fairness, Hannah would still be alive if Kiera hadn’t changed her mind that night. So it was obviously Kiera’s choice and Kiera’s fault that Hannah was dead. Kiera certainly couldn’t blame anyone else for her own actions.

Moira continued moving around the kitchen, shining chrome knobs and handles in an attempt to make it all sparkle and glow. She had always believed that people should own up to their mistakes. It was simply a part of growing up. And Kiera was always claiming she was so grownup—why couldn’t she own up to the part she played in her sister’s death? Why was that so difficult for her?

It didn’t help that Kiera refused to see the counselor anymore. It was as if she enjoyed being stuck. Moira felt that Kiera liked playing the role of the dark daughter. It was the perfect excuse to going around looking like a bag lady and sporting a nasty attitude about everyone and everything. And that hair! Moira didn’t even want to go there, but every time she looked at the way Kiera had hacked off her thick brown hair, well, it made Moira want to scream.

But enough was enough. And it was high time that Kiera got over herself. This was the main reason that Moira had agreed with Alex’s mother about taking Maddie away for the summer. It would allow Moira more freedom to deal openly with her stubborn middle child. And Kiera was begging to be dealt with!

It wasn’t as if Moira didn’t love Kiera. Of course, she did. It was simply that she could barely stand the girl. If only Kiera would show some remorse…or offer an apology…. If she could just make a little effort, well, it might be easier for everyone to move on.

The sound of the doorbell startled Moira back into the present. She tossed the paper towel, smoothed her blonde bobbed hair into place and, going into pleasant-faced realtor mode, strolled to the front door and, smiling warmly, welcomed the older couple inside. She’d only been selling real estate for a few years, but she knew she was good at this. She also knew that if things didn’t start improving with Alex, she might need these commissions for more than just mad money. No one had used the D word yet, but she sometimes felt that divorce was inevitable.

Moira knew from this morning’s conversation with Mrs. Mitchell that, because their daughter lived nearby, she and her husband wanted a house in Warren Heights. But as they went from room to room, it seemed that all they could do was find fault. Where there was carpet, they wanted hardwood. Where there was hardwood, they wanted tile.

“And this backyard is too big,” Mr. Mitchell declared. “I don’t want to spend all my spare time on yard work.”

“All the lots in Warren Heights are the same size,” Moira explained. “Most people consider them small lots.”

“Maybe we need a bigger house,” Mrs. Mitchell said absently. “That would make for less yard.”

“I did bring some other listings,” Moira said brightly. Although she’d prefer them to buy her listing, she wasn’t opposed to showing them others. Half a commission was better than no commission. “There are about six others for sale in this subdivision. Several of them are bigger and—”

“But the plan was to downsize,” Mr. Mitchell reminded his wife. “I wanted to keep it under 2,000 square feet—and in this price range.”

 Moira switched over to distraction mode, pointing out upgrades that the couple might’ve overlooked, hoping to draw them back in. “So many people are downsizing these days,” she said to Mr. Mitchell. “And I think this home is the perfect size for a couple who are looking ahead to retirement. Not too big, not too small. And the yard might seem large, but it does afford you some good privacy. And lots of the homeowners here hire out their landscaping. That’s what we do at my house. I’d happily refer some names if you’d like.” But the more she talked, the more she knew she was losing them. At least on this particular house.

She pulled the brochures from her bag, holding them up. “I can make some quick phone calls and see if we can—”

“No, thank you.” Mr. Mitchell held up a hand to stop her. “Didn’t my wife tell you that we already have a realtor? He’s ready to show us—”

“You have another real estate agent?” Moira tried to keep her tone even.

“Yes.” He jerked his thumb toward his wife. “She called you directly since this was your listing and she was so eager to see it, but we have a guy ready to show us some other houses this afternoon. A friend of our daughter’s. That’s why we drove to town.”

“I’m sorry.” Mrs. Mitchell looked flustered. “I thought I mentioned that to you on the phone.”

Moira felt certain she hadn’t, but she knew better than to show her irritation. It wasn’t in her best interest to burn bridges with anyone. And so she smiled and firmly shook their hands. “Well, I hope you find exactly what you’re looking for. Warren Heights is a very desirable neighborhood and most listings here don’t last for long. Anyway, if I can be of any future service to you, please, feel free to give me a call.” She handed them both a business card, still smiling stiffly.

They thanked her and somewhat sheepishly made their exit. She wrote a quick note to Linda, explaining that the house probably wasn’t a good fit for the clients and thanked her for containing the cats and removing the fur. Moira closed the windows and turned off the lights and fans and then, unable to control herself, swore loudly as she stomped toward the front door. But as she got into her car she was determined not to speed through this neighborhood. Still, it took all of her control not to.

Moira wished she had someone to talk to…a good solid friend who really knew how to listen. But, for the life of her, she could think of no one. In the past, she had often relied on Hannah in moments like this. Hannah had been an amazing listener, very caring and wise for her age. In some ways she and Hannah had been very similar. They looked so much alike that it wasn’t unusual for a store clerk to ask if they were sisters. Oh, Moira knew it could be a sales tactic, but she’d enjoyed it just the same. How she missed those times. Hannah had enjoyed shopping as much as Moira. And she’d enjoyed going out to lunch with her mother too. In many ways, their relationship had been more like friends than mother-daughter. But as much alike as they were, they were different too. Hannah was much more outgoing. She could easily befriend anyone. Meanwhile, Moira held back. Well, unless she was with Hannah.

Moira hadn’t really planned to drive to the cemetery today. But like so many other days when she wound up standing in front of her daughter’s grave like this, it was as if she’d arrived on autopilot. Almost like the sleepwalker who wakes up standing in front of the refrigerator biting into a stick of butter.

“Why, oh, why?”she said between sobs. “Why, why, why, God? Why did you take her? What good does it do anyone? Why would a loving God do this to us?” These were exactly the same questions she always asked. Every time she came up here like this. And just like all the other times, no answers came to her today. God never parted the clouds, never spoke in a deep, wise voice, never consoled her… nothing.

For all she knew God was just sitting up there on his big fat throne, mocking her. Or worse yet, he wasn’t there at all. Never had been. It was all just a big cosmic joke on anyone foolish enough to fall for it. And that meant Pastor Jim was wrong when he’d claimed that Hannah was up there singing and dancing in heaven, and that God had wanted their beautiful daughter simply to brighten his day. But if Pastor Jim was just as deceived as Moira felt right now, it meant that her daughter’s life had been randomly snuffed out…for no good reason…and that Moira would never see her again. She broke into fresh sobs. How could she live with that?

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