The new year arrived too quickly, and though I participated in waving sparklers around, a heavy ball of dread took up residence in my gut. I tried my best to avoid it, but the internal countdown clicked away the seconds in the back of my mind, louder than my thoughts. The digits ticked down until the day I was supposed to leave.

In a little over seven months, I would be on a flight back to Indiana.

School started back up, leaving me to field questions from my friends about the new bracelet that circled my wrist. Even Della looked impressed at the consideration and thought went into the gift, how simple yet beautiful it was, and not the least bit jealous. That might have had more to do with the new boyfriend hanging on her arm and less to do with her maturity.

Liza smeared cherry-scented Chapstick over her lips then passed it to me. I barely listened as she chatted about boys with Della, but the way she nudged me out of nowhere made it impossible for me to stay in my own thoughts. She frowned when I capped the lip balm, handing it back, then rolled her eyes without malice at my apology.

“I asked if you were planning on asking anybody to the formal,” she repeated, and I froze for a split second.

“Oh. Uh, probably not. Might not even go, to be honest.”

“What? Why not?”

I shrugged and fidgeted with the hem of my jumper, stomach churning under their scrutiny. “Dances just… aren’t my thing, I guess.”

“You should come anyway! Who needs boys, really? We can all go together.”

“I, uh, I’ll think about it.”

Her words bounced around my head all day. More often than not through the next hours, I was mulling over what she’d said instead of paying attention to my classes. The thought of going with them as a group was a bit more appealing than having to wait for someone to ask me - or worse, asking someone myself.

Green eyes, bright in the morning sunlight, flitted across my mind, but I shook the image away. I could never ask Harry to go as my date. It would muddy the already tenuous line I’d drawn in the sand between us, one that had blurred enough when I opened his gift to me.

Besides, he probably had dozens of girls he could ask. If I suggested us going together, he would give me that sympathetic smile, tell me I was a great friend, but no. Things would get awkward, uncomfortable, and our friendship would be ruined. I didn’t want that. I didn’t want thing to get weird between us, and I damn sure didn’t need his pity.

C’mon, Seren, get it together, I scolded myself firmly as I followed the rest of my classmates toward the door. The dance isn’t even any time soon. Relax. As soon as I stepped into the corridor, my name was called from behind me, and I turned, my lips tugged down in a frown. Miss Letts weaved her way through the students until she came to a stop in front of me.

“As promised, Miss Schulz, the first print. I’ve gone ahead and marked the appropriate page.”

I thanked her as sincerely as possible, but there was no way to hide how my hand shook when I reached out for the magazine. She smiled gently, patted my arm, and disappeared back toward her classroom. I shoved the publication into my bag, drew in a steadying breath, and headed for the exit.

Unfortunately, all of my self-assuring words in the classroom dried up the second I saw Harry just outside the front doors of the school. His attention was solely on the girl talking to him, even when I stepped up beside him, and her eyes darted to me for a split second.

Was it just my imagination that they seemed to be saying ‘Ha-ha, too bad for you, he doesn’t care about you’?

I couldn’t convince myself that she didn’t actually think that, not when Harry didn’t seem to notice me. After another moment of waiting for him to realise I was there, I adjusted my bag on my back and turned toward the house.

The walk was lonely without him by my side, without him there to distract me. Without him there to argue with over books and films and music and everything under the sun. We’d had a routine, and now he was messing that all up by talking to some girl. Scowling, I kicked at a pebble, watched it bounce along the wet pavement to come to a stop in a patch of snow.

Eventually, though, I reached the house and went inside, still absorbed in my thoughts. I couldn’t figure out exactly what bothered me so much about Harry chatting with Marissa - I’d seen him hold conversations with pretty much every girl in the school since I arrived, and it hadn’t ever affected me.

Until now.

He’d chosen to talk to someone else instead of walking home with me as he always did. And whatever I’d begun feeling for him over the last four months was fast becoming a problem. The jealousy - because I was jealous, I couldn’t truthfully deny it - was starting to take over. Things between the two of us were growing strained, even if he didn’t see it.

I bypassed the family room, barely taking a second to explain to Anne that I had homework to do, and closed my bedroom door behind me. The journal she and Robin had given me for Christmas peeked out from under the corner of my pillow; if I didn’t know how haphazardly I’d shoved it under last night, I would think that someone was reading it.

The journal was a blessing. I spent every evening writing in it before I turned the lights out. It helped keep my thoughts from wrapping too tightly around themselves, made it easier to pretend I wasn’t in over my head when it came to Harry.

“I was wondering where you’d run off to.”

I glanced up from the cover of the magazine to see Harry leaning against the door-frame, arms crossed over his chest and a frown tugging at his lips. Shrugging, I turned my gaze back to the magazine.

“Came home. Didn’t wanna interrupt your conversation.”

He chuckled softly then asked after a long moment, “Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, why wouldn’t it be?”

“What’s that?”

“Miss Letts gave it to me earlier. It, uh, it has my essay in it.”

“Can, can I read it?”

Sighing, I tossed the magazine to the end of the bed and pulled my knees up to my chest. His long fingers flipped through the pages until he reached the sticky note, then after flicking a quick glance in my direction, he began to read.

Gone but Still Here
by Cassidy Landry

The tenth of September heralds in the end of another year, and my family still waits. For clues, for information, for answers that never come. We wait, day after day, for a sense of closure.

Two girls - sisters - grew up together. They built worlds full of vibrant rainbows and deepest darks, of people and creatures and everything in between. Hours were spent playing Barbies then, once they outgrew such childish things, painting each other’s nails and doing makeup. Nights passed with conversations held through the vents, little whispers carried along the ducting system of the house. When one got their heart broke by some stupid boy, the other was there with ice cream, Disney films, and copious amounts of art supplies.

From building snowmen in the winter and putting on summertime concerts in the backyard, running through spring rainstorms and crunching leaves that fell in autumn, they were closer than imaginable. They fought as siblings do, but they were best friends.

Christine was seventeen-years-old when she disappeared in the middle of the night. It would have been easier, and still would be, if she’d been abducted. Instead, she left a note saying she had to go. She left of her own volition, and our family was torn apart.

The years I had with her helped shape who I am; I can’t listen to Shania Twain without hearing Christine’s voice in my mind. I can’t watch thick, heavy clouds let loose the rain without seeing two kids dancing. Cold air and snow bring back the memories of all the times our fingers went numb, our cheeks red and freezing, and the hot chocolate we’d drink as soon as we went inside.

I can’t do a lot of things without thinking of Christine.

Looking back now, I can see all the signs that she’d changed from the girl I grew up with to the young woman who felt too big for our town. I can pinpoint every time the wedge between us grew larger, and I can understand, so clearly, that her lifestyle wasn’t one I could comprehend. Not when I was only thirteen-years-old.

But as much as Christine’s presence shaped who I am, her disappearance changed everything. Even I can admit that I don’t trust easily any more. I don’t take things as they come. I am constantly second-guessing my decisions, people in my life, and whether the happiness I feel is real - or if I even deserve it.

I have spent the last two years asking where my sister ran off to and if she is ever coming home. My family still has yet to get any answers. At this point, I fully expect I will go to my grave without ever knowing.

Harry stared at the page with wide eyes, breathing steadily though it was forced. When he looked up at me, there was something in his eyes that too closely resembled pity.

“Miss Letts was right. This was definitely worth publishing.”

“Don’t be daft, it was a stupid essay that I only wrote for a good mark.”

“But it’s honest. It’s… it explains a lot.”

“I don’t even want to know how you’d think that was a compliment.”

He rolled his eyes, swatting at my legs with the magazine. “I didn’t mean it negatively. Did you read what she wrote on the note?”

I shook my head, stretching out my legs, as Harry clambered along the bed to sit next to me. A shiver ran down my spine with the proximity, and my chest tightened while he settled in and held out the paper. There, in my teacher’s severe and tidy handwriting, were the words Thank you for letting me get to know you and a small smiley face.

“And here you thought she hated you.”

“Shut up,” I groaned and pushed at his shoulder until he toppled off the other side of the mattress.