Series Fiction | ‘When You’re Far Away’ — Chapter 4

Jennifer Gulbrandsen
Jul 23 · 10 min read

Here is the fourth installment of my series fiction, “When You’re Far Away.” For prior chapters, click here.

Ryan

Five years had passed from the time Jenna left until I saw her again. In that time, while her star rose and she celebrated three hit albums on her way to becoming the most famous woman in the world, I was stuck and floundering after the last breakup over Jenna being the third member of the relationship. I had moved back home with my parents, and I was barely making it through medical school.

I felt the need to get as far away from Minnesota as I could, and for the first time, I understood a little bit of what Jenna must have felt when she decided she couldn’t stay here, either. I didn’t want to run and never look back, but over the last five years, I felt a slow suffocation happening in my soul, as if my love for Jenna and missing her existed in the air of the familiar. I needed to move on with my life, because I had reconciled she was never coming back, and I’d probably never speak to her again. Perhaps four years in Florida would break the spell, so I applied for a transfer.

The house she grew up in sat mostly empty and dark after Jack graduated from High School a couple of years ago. Occasionally, I would see Mr. McKenzie around the property before he died, but it looked like he and Jack had hitched their wagons to the Jenna Jax star, while she soared higher and higher. It didn’t stop me from looking over at the house every time I left mine, partly out of habit, and mostly out of an unspoken desperation to catch a glimpse of her again.

Not that I didn’t see plenty of her everywhere, you couldn’t escape Jenna Jax. She was plastered on the cover of every fashion and gossip magazine, her music was always on the radio, and it amazed me how many people crawled out of the woodwork pretending to have intimate knowledge of what her life was like here in Hamptonville. One time, a weekend news magazine profiled Jenna’s childhood, and Johnny Beltmore’s mother, Dottie, was interviewed as if she were Jenna’s sole caretaker from the ages of nine through nineteen, which infuriated my mother.

“Dottie Beltmore didn’t so much as make that sweet girl a peanut butter and jelly sandwich!” she exclaimed at the TV, “What is wrong with people? Jenna was at our dinner table most nights. I have half a mind to call her and give her hell!”

She didn’t, for the child-beast known as Johnny Beltmore, became an adult beast on the Hamptonville PD, and the apple didn’t fall too far from that tree, if you know what I’m saying. My mother knew better than to go kick that hornet’s nest.

Because the press would run just about anything when it came to Jenna, I took the gossip about her in the media with a grain of salt. There were rumors of problems with Alan, who I guess was now her live in boyfriend, a rivalry with The Diva, a salacious love triangle with The Diva, Jenna, and Alan, more rumors of her being a bit of a caged bird under Alan’s strict rule… I had no idea what to believe was true and what was innuendo or outright false. She looked like a glossed up version of the Jenna I had known, only her eyes really did look a lot sadder in every picture.

I did genuinely like her music, though. It was the bright side I saw in the whole situation. I don’t think anyone knew she was that talented. Though she was only 23 now, she had a big soulful voice, and didn’t get lost in the rising genre of commercial pop filled with mostly dancing and lip syncing. Her lyrics like her eyes, were soulful and sad and stayed with you long after the song ended. She was so famous because she was the total package of talent, beauty, and mystery. It was ‘in’ to be out partying all night and getting photographed by paparazzi sans undergarments while you were out club hopping, but there was never any of that with Jenna. She had always been a hard worker and a homebody at heart, so I assumed she was home watching terrible romantic comedies instead of going out; as I remembered her. It created a mystery around her personal life the public was desperate to solve. Who was Jenna Jax?

I didn’t like that Alan guy, even after our brief conversation all those years ago. Naturally, I didn’t like the guy because he had Jenna, but it was just a gut feeling I had. I’d watch him in interviews with Jenna, and it was very clear he ran the show. He was a condescending dick to me on the phone, and I’m sure he was that way all day everyday.

Like I said earlier, I was kind of in a fog of loss and lacking a bit of direction. I mean, on paper I looked like I totally had it together. I attending one of the best medical schools in the country with plans to be an oncologist. My life was right on track, except for the way I felt inside. When I wasn’t preoccupied with something right in front of me at school, I was preoccupied with Jenna. I would think of her, ask all of the whys and what ifs, and dissect every conversation we had over the last ten years. I didn’t date very much after the last breakup, and I had no desire to, either because I was so afraid of hurting another person again. Closure had to come one way or another. I was on my way to becoming some kind of obsessed creepy fan trying to explain to people that I loved Jenna Jax, and everyone nodding and backing away slowly.

I actually talked to a school counselor about it, because I felt like I was abnormal for being so stuck, and that’s when getting away came up. She suggested completely rebooting my life would remove that self soothing familiarity of Minnesota, the college Jenna and I were supposed to attend together, the old neighborhood, and the unanswered questions that were like a festering wound that I wouldn’t stop picking.

But because life never moves in a linear fashion, and destiny likes to have her way with you every now and again, everything would change once again the week before I was set to move south.

It was a late June night, just after my 23rd birthday, and I was heading out to dinner with some friends. I walked out the front door and looked towards Jenna’s house like I always did out of wanting and habit. I saw a dark SUV parked in the driveway near the edge of the street, exactly how Jenna used to park her car when she was a teenager because she hated backing out of the winding driveway. No one parked like that, except Jenna.

Intrigued, I walked down to the McKenzie house. The SUV was a rental from the airport, and just on a whim, I checked to see if the doors were locked. Jenna never locked the doors, and this very pricey SUV wasn’t locked, either.

The car being parked in this spot, unlocked, made my heart race. Was Jenna here? I looked up the driveway at the house, and I noticed that most of the lights were on, too. Another thing Jenna did because she was afraid of the dark when she was alone. There hadn’t been this many lights on in the house since she had left, and for the last couple of years, only the outdoor lights on timers were ever on.

With my curiosity completely piqued, I walked up the front path to the front door. I inhaled deeply, said a silent prayer, and knocked on the door with our old secret knock.

Nothing.

I sighed and knocked again. Louder this time. Soon I heard footsteps coming toward the door, and the locks turning. The door swung open, and there she was looking at me.

I don’t know how long we stood there looking at each other in silence, our eyes locked. She was in black sweats with her hair up in a messy ponytail, not wearing any makeup. She was thinner, tan, but her eyes were still the same: piercing, sad, examining. I was the first to break the silence after what felt like an eternity on that front porch.

“You’re here,” I half croaked and whispered.

Jenna kept her gaze fixed on me and blinked silently standing in the doorway.

After what felt like another eternity, she spoke.

“I sold the house after my dad died. Privately. I wanted to go through it and get a few things, since I never really said goodbye.”

I broke our gaze and looked down at my feet, “No, you didn’t, I guess.”

Jenna sighed loudly then asked, “Do you want to come in?”

She stepped back from the doorway and walked down the foyer into the music room. There were boxes everywhere. She sat at her father’s piano, and picked up a glass of red wine, sipping it.

“Do you want a glass of wine?” she asked as if I were someone she hadn’t left at an airport gate five years before and hadn’t spoken to since.

“No, I’m fine,” I answered.

I looked around me, most of the furniture had been moved already, so there was nowhere to sit. Jenna pulled her legs under her on the piano bench and looked up at me.

“No one knows I’m here, not even Alan. I needed a break, he’s in Palm Springs at some charity thing, and I came here to do this. I guess not totally unnoticed, though.”

“You don’t pull up in driveways or lock cars. That gave you away.” I replied.

“Good memory,” she half smiled taking another sip of wine.

“It’s only been five years.”

“Feels like a lifetime,” she said quietly.

Another awkward silence fell around us in the near empty room, and my heart began to race again, “Why, Jenna? I called and I called, you never called back, I asked Jack and your dad about you. Jack gave me your number, and when I called, Alan shut that right down — “

“He did?” she interrupted, “When was that?”

“A couple of years ago,” I answered now feeling the heat in my face as the built up anger spilled out of my heart, “But that doesn’t matter, Jenna. We spent everyday together for almost ten years. We planned our future, and if you didn’t want that, that’s fine, but you ran away from me, jumped on a plane, and I never heard from you or saw you again. Do you know what that did to me? How it hurts to have loved someone as much as I loved you, and you just vanish leaving behind Jenna Jax to haunt me wherever I go? I’m going to medical school in Florida just to try to escape it! It was a shitty and selfish thing for you to do to me and I just want to know why. I love you, Jenna. I never hurt you, or gave you a reason to do this, so all I do is go through the motions of my life and wonder why it all happened this way.”

She broke eye contact with me and refilled her glass, thoughtfully took a sip, and returned her gaze to mine, “There’s a lot you don’t know, Ryan. Sometimes what someone sees as selfish, another sees as altruistic. You know a lot about me, but you don’t know everything about me. Sometimes you run far and fast away from someone to save them, and there are no whys and hows because you don’t know the whys and hows yourself. You just know that you are an anchor sinking to the bottom, and you don’t want to take anyone down with you because you’ve been held under water before.”

“You can tell me anything, Jenna. Nothing you could say or do would not make me love you.”

She stood up and walked toward me, we stood toe to toe our bodies almost touching.

“Ryan. I loved you and I probably always will, but there are things I can’t tell you. For one, I don’t even know how to say some of the things locked in my head out loud. The other thing is, I am so afraid of speaking certain things into existence because then they become real, and I am not equipped to handle that. I couldn’t do it then, and I can’t do it now,” she reached out for my hand and held it. The familiar warmth of her fingers and palm almost brought me to my knees. I could feel tears start to sting my eyes as hers filled as well.

“Ryan, I have changed. You do not need a lifetime of me. You need to go become a brilliant doctor, marry a wonderful woman who adores you, have beautiful children, and that will make everything worth it. I didn’t call or see you because I didn’t want to be tempted with the fantasy that we could make this work. You deserve a life. A real life full of joy,” she pulled my hand with hers to bring me down to her and we kissed deeply.

She pulled away, still holding my hand, “Everyone loves to love you when you’re far away, Ryan. We all look perfect from a distance. Let’s stay perfect for each other. I am going back to L.A. tomorrow, and you will go to medical school. Life will go on. I loved you so much I let you go. It would be cruel to take that back.”

We kissed one more time, Jenna pulling away again, this time releasing my hand. She whispered, “I love you,” to me, turned around, and walked back to the piano, set her glass down, and began to play a slow and somber melody. I stood there watching her dismayed for a few minutes, waiting for her to look up and say something else to me, but she never did.

I turned around and walked out of that house for the last time. I was sad, but I felt free. I still wanted to know specifically why, but at least I knew now that she loved me enough to live in a gilded prison in exchange for my freedom. Though there would be no happily ever after that night, I felt more bonded to Jenna than I ever had, and where there was that hollow haunted feeling, now there was a peace and a patience in my heart.

I walked down the driveway, locking the SUV as I made my way back to my house. This wasn’t a goodbye, it didn’t feel final. It was simply the end of the first chapter, and I could move on.

Though my heart also reassured me the book wasn’t finished yet.

Jennifer Gulbrandsen

Written by

Author of ‘The Secret Life of Lies’ and ‘Some Die Just To Live.’ Twitter: @jenngulbrandsen

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