“I leave tomorrow,” he grumbled.
“You’ll come back, though, right?”
“Yeah, but . . . I don’t know when. Christmas maybe. Maybe not until next summer.”
I nodded, looking down at my lunch and putting it down, deciding I wasn’t that hungry after all. “You have to promise,” I said. “You have to promise you’ll come back.”
“I promise. It might not be until next summer, but I’ll come back.”
The emptiness and despair I felt in that moment was equal only to when I had lost my dog. It might’ve seemed like a silly connection to anyone else, but Goober lay at the end of my bed every night, and no matter how many times Mama had a down day or an outburst, Goober knew when to growl and when to wag his tail.
“What are you thinking about?” Elliott asked.
I shook my head. “It’s stupid.”
“C’mon. Tell me.”
“I had this dog. He was a mutt. Dad brought him home from the pound one day out of the blue. He was supposed to be for Mama, to help cheer her up, but he took to me. Mama would get jealous, but I wasn’t sure which of us she was jealous of, Goober or me. He died.”
“Does your mom suffer from depression?”
I shrugged. “They’ve never said. They don’t talk about it in front of me. I just know she had a tough time as a kid. Mama says she’s glad her parents died when they did, before I was born. She said they were cruel.”
“Yikes. If I’m ever a father, my kids will have a normal childhood. One they can look back on and wish they could go back to, not something they have to ride out and recover from.” He peeked up at me. “I’m going to miss you.”
“I’m going to miss you, too. But . . . not for long. Because you’ll be back.”
“I will. That’s a promise.”
I pretended to be happy and sipped from the straw in my pop can. Every subject after that was forced, every smile contrived. I wanted to enjoy my last days with Elliott, but knowing goodbye was just around the corner made that impossible.
“Want to help me pack?” he asked, cringing at his own words.
“Not really, but I want to see you as much as I can before you leave, so I will.”
We gathered our things. Sirens sounded in the distance and then drew closer. Elliott paused and then helped me to my feet. Another siren was coming from the other side of town—the fire station possibly, and it seemed to be heading in our direction.
Elliott rolled Mama’s blanket and tucked it under his arm. I picked up the lunch bags and threw them away. Elliott offered me his hand, and, without hesitation, I took it. Something about knowing he was leaving made me stop caring if things between us had changed.
As we neared Juniper Street, Elliott squeezed my hand. “Let’s drop off this blanket, and then we’ll pack my stuff.”
I nodded, smiling when he began to swing our hands a bit. The neighbor across the street was standing on her porch with her toddler on her hip. I waved at her, but she didn’t wave back.
Elliott’s pace slowed, and his expression changed, first confused and then worried. I looked toward my house, seeing a police cruiser and an ambulance, red and blue lights twirling. I let go of Elliott’s hand, running past the emergency vehicles, and tore at my gate, missing the latch while I panicked.
Elliott’s steady hands unlatched the gate, and I burst through, stopping midstep when my front door opened. A paramedic walked backward, pulling a stretcher with Dad on it. He was pale, and his eyes were closed, an oxygen mask on his face.
“What . . . what happened?” I cried.
“Excuse me,” the paramedic said, yanking open the back of the ambulance while they loaded Dad inside.
“Dad?” I called. “Daddy?”
He didn’t answer, and the ambulance doors closed in my face.
I ran to the police officer walking down the porch steps. “What happened?”
The officer looked down at me. “Are you Catherine?”
I nodded, feeling Elliott’s hands on my shoulders.
The officer’s mouth pulled to the side. “It appears your father’s had a heart attack. Your mom just happened to take a half day and found him on the floor. She’s inside. You should . . . probably try to talk to her. She hasn’t really said much since we arrived. She should consider going to the hospital. She could be in shock.”