The Day He Went Away
by Jennifer Millikin
It took 20 years for perfectionist PR pro Kate Masters to fall for her best friend, Army scout Ethan Shepherd, but only seconds for their lives to shatter. When an ill-fated deployment cuts short Ethan’s life, Kate's perfectly planned future vanishes. Heart in pieces, Kate abandons who she is for a reckless and dangerous existence.
Army medic Nick Hunter made a promise to Ethan, his brother-in-arms, before tragedy ripped his friend away. Upon leaving the military, Nick moves to Ethan’s hometown, his determination to uphold his promise as strong as his need to heal his own broken heart. What he finds when he arrives isn’t at all what he thought he was getting into. Kate isn’t interested in healing, making it impossible for Nick to keep his promise.
To survive grief this profound, Kate must learn how to forge a new path, and open herself up to the possibility of an unplanned happiness.
The Day He Went Away explores the devastation of loss, the beauty in losing yourself, and the transcendent power of grief.
At work Sarah kept reminding me of the time. And asking why I’d been a space cadet in the morning meeting.
I know something’s up. Does it have to do with Ethan?
No, why would anything be up with Ethan?
Because you’re taking a lot of time off work to spend with him, and you’ve been weird for weeks. And extra weird today.
I took time off to spend with him last summer when he was home.
But you weren’t absent minded and forgetful and—
Everything is cool. Promise. I just need to get through all this work before I can leave.
Now I’m sitting in front of terminal four security at the airport with forty-five minutes to spare.
Forty-five minutes to think.
About how Ethan and I have been best friends since we were five. Two decades.
And about my dream. And what it means.
I’ve never dreamed of Ethan before. Not like that, anyway.
Ethan has always been… Well, Ethan.
But now he’s not.
Now he’s Ethan.
And that terrifies me. It shakes the foundation of my life. I’ve spent a lot of time building the solid, stable floor I stand on. Having feelings for Ethan is like taking a sledgehammer to one of the wooden planks. I need Ethan the way I need air and water to live. Ethan’s unyielding, loyal friendship is my safe haven. He’s the only person I don’t try to be perfect for. Everyone else… They expect it. Perfection. And I don’t do disappointment.
But these feelings… They’ve consumed me. Infiltrated my heart and swallowed me whole.
And they’re already affecting my behavior. Last night he called from the airport in Germany, and I turned into a thirteen-year-old with a crush, stammering and sweating. When he asked what was wrong, I assured him I was great, just preoccupied with work. He believed me. I think.
What if I told him everything?
I know what would happen.
I sigh and glance at the time on my phone. Twenty more minutes until he arrives. I look up, survey the weaving security line, watch the TSA employees with their stiff shoulders, and look again at the stream of people exiting the concourses, fresh from their flights arrival. My fingers tap my knees. I need a change of scenery. These gray walls are driving me crazy. Or maybe it’s me and all this overthinking.
I rise from the seat I’ve been planted in too long. The blood rushes into my left foot, and it tingles. I wobble, but make it to the restroom without an embarrassing scene.
Instead of walking toward a stall, I go to the mirror. Ethan has seen me thousands of times—at my absolute best and complete worst. Still, I fuss with my hair and check my makeup. Brown hair still brown, lower lip still bigger than upper lip, one ear still a millimeter higher than the other. Makeup in place. I look down at my red shirt, happy I remembered clothes to change into. I didn’t want to greet Ethan in my sensible blouse and gray slacks. It’s possible I chose this color for a reason…
After all our years together, physical appearance falls low on the yardstick by which we measure one another. We’d made mud pies together, scraped our knees on the harsh asphalt of the street we grew up on, and spent days cooped up together while we battled chicken pox. Our pain, happiness, heartbreaks, and successes are wrapped up within each
other, intertwined in a way only time can accomplish.
My fingers curl around the edge of the sink, knuckles growing whiter. If I let these feelings take control, things might not end well.
Our friendship is strong, but feelings like this make us fragile.
The strength of our relationship has been the one thing I could always count on. While I was busy achieving, accomplishing, mastering, Ethan was by my side. He’s the only person who didn’t need me to achieve, accomplish, or master in order to love me.
Something implicit exists between us, an unspoken declaration, and it states that nothing will ever divide us. I felt it the day I watched a moving truck pull up to the empty house across the street. A little boy bounded out and somersaulted his way across the front yard, and my five-year-old self knew. Twenty years together hasn’t changed it.
I look into the mirror and watch the emotions ripple over my face. Excitement, fear, apprehension. Fear dominates.
But there isn’t anything concrete to be scared of. I can’t reach out and take hold of what has my heart racing.
My fear is a shadow, pursuing me soundlessly. If you tell him you have feelings for him, you’ll lose. Would you really risk Ethan? He’s your biggest fan, your other half, your…
soulmate. I shake my head. I can’t think like that.
“Get it together, Masters.” Saying my last name out loud makes me feel better. Like I’m in control. Kate will Master it… Master of Everything. I loved those nicknames at first, but now they’re a reminder of the impossibly high expectations people had for me. Or maybe I just had them for myself. With a last name like Masters, what else could I become but an over-achieving perfectionist? Of course, the last name didn’t rub off on my little brother. I picture him tucking his wild, shoulder length hair behind his ears, and shake my head. Running an organic beet farm… The opposite of everything my dad wanted for him. I’ve given Noah the grief my dad would have, if he were alive. Honestly, it’s probably time to let my little brother own his career choice, as exasperating as it is.
Running off to Noah's modest farm in Oregon doesn’t sound too bad right now. I’d love to escape my mind for a while.
Stop being unrealistic. I need to deal with these feelings. I need to be practical, pragmatic, level-headed, and logical.
Telling Ethan about my dream would be foolish. Telling him about how I can’t stop thinking of him would be irrational. What I need to do is forget about it.
Because I know how he would respond if I came clean.
My dependable, loyal, compassionate Ethan. He’s been in love with me for ten years.
And he’s never been shy about telling me.
Once a year, on our shared birthday, he asks if I’ve changed my mind yet.
His caramel eyes radiate with hope after the question leaves his lips. And I always tell him no.
But now… My God, what am I doing?
Absolutely, unequivocally, without a doubt.
I need to do less dreaming and more forgetting.
The fear in my seizing stomach tells me I’m making the right choice. If I give in to my feelings and Ethan and I fail at a relationship, I’ll lose him forever.
I cannot tolerate a life without Ethan. So my mouth will stay shut.
His visit home will be like all the others. We’ll have order, structure, and solid plans. I like those things, I need those things. And Ethan understands that about me. He’s always been that for me. Nobody knows me like Ethan.
I just want us, the Kate and Ethan I’m used to. Ease embodies our time together, like an old, comfy sweatshirt, worn from time and use, but continuing to serve its purpose. We’re sweatshirts.
If I tell him…well, we won’t be sweatshirts anymore. We’ll be crisp and stiff, new clothes from a new store.
And I can’t have that. I need my best friend.
About the Author
Jennifer Millikin is a romance and women's fiction author who enjoys writing about strong female protagonists. Her next project, The Day He Went Away, is available on .
Jennifer graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in Communication Studies and lives with her husband and two young children in Scottsdale, Arizona. When she isn't chasing after her little ones she can be found gulping coffee in her office, typing furiously at her keyboard and reenacting scenes.
Find Jennifer on jennifermillikinwrites.com and facebook.com/