Every Time You Go Away: A Novel

Every Time You Go Away: A Novel

by Beth Harbison


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In New York Times bestselling author Beth Harbison's most emotional novel ever, a fractured family must come together at a beach house haunted by the past.

Willa has never fully recovered from the sudden death of her husband, Ben. She became an absent mother to her young son, Jamie, unable to comfort him while reeling from her own grief.

Now, years after Ben’s death, Willa finally decides to return to the beach house where he passed. It’s time to move on and put the Ocean City, Maryland house on the market.

When Willa arrives, the house is in worse shape than she could have imagined, and the memories of her time with Ben are overwhelming. They met at this house and she sees him around every corner. Literally. Ben’s ghost keeps reappearing, trying to start conversations with Willa. And she can’t help talking back.

To protect her sanity, Willa enlists Jamie, her best friend Kristin, and Kristin’s daughter Kelsey to join her for one last summer at the beach. As they explore their old haunts, buried feelings come to the surface, Jamie and Kelsey rekindle their childhood friendship, and Willa searches for the chance to finally say goodbye to her husband and to reconnect with her son.

Every Time You Go Away is a heartfelt, emotional story about healing a tragic loss, letting go, and coming together as a family.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250043832
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/24/2018
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

BETH HARBISON is The New York Times bestselling author of One Less Problem Without You; If I Could Turn Back Time; Driving with the Top Down; Chose the Wrong Guy, Gave Him the Wrong Finger; When In Doubt, Add Butter; Always Something There To Remind Me; Thin, Rich, Pretty; Hope In A Jar; Secrets of a Shoe Addict; andShoe Addicts Anonymous. She grew up in Potomac, Maryland, outside Washington, DC, and now shares her time between that suburb, New York City, and a quiet home on the eastern shore.

Read an Excerpt



I can tell you exactly when I lost my will to live.

It was three years ago. The day I found out my husband, Ben, who I'd contentedly believed was happily working on our beach house in Ocean City, Maryland, and getting ready to come home at the end of a long weekend, had actually died quietly in his sleep there.

That was when I, Willa Bennett, effectively ceased to be. That's when the Willa who could laugh easily and speak her mind confidently went quiet. That's when the Willa who enjoyed a largely anxiety-free life could no longer drape over the end of the sofa and have a conversation, and began, instead, to be a tight bundle of nerves. That's when the Willa who could accept an unanswered phone as less than alarming became the kind of person who freaked out instantly if her son didn't answer a call or text. It had already happened a few times, when Ben didn't respond because he was driving, or he'd forgotten to charge his phone, or he was busy with power tools, and I'd jumped to the conclusion each time that he was actually lying dead, alone and unattended for perhaps a whole day. Sunrise and sunset, and sunrise again.

Three years ago. That's when the Willa who believed in happily-ever-after and joy grew lonely, afraid, and hollow. That's when she lost all hope, and even a slew of medications and meditations couldn't bring her back.

That's when I became Dead Willa.

Dead Willa, who, three years after the fact — tired of knowing that damnable house was still sitting there, untouched, since Ben had died — decided it was finally time to get rid of the place. The house had become an empty tomb, a sad monument to what had once been, what had happened, and what would never be again.

I finally decided that I had to be present for my now-seventeen-year-old son before I blinked again and he was twenty-one, and so on right through all the lyrics of "Cat's in the Cradle." I had become an incomplete person the moment he lost his father, when he needed me most. It was time — well past time, actually — for me to pull myself up by the bootstraps and join life again.

The only way to do that was to face the house. To move in for the summer — easily done, as I am an English teacher at a private high school in Potomac and had the summer off — fix it up, and get the place sold.

Did I mention that the old Willa didn't believe in ghosts? Much as she might have wanted to, she just couldn't bring herself to buy in. Ghosts and spirits and psychics and tarot cards — it was all nonsense to her.

But she believes now.


The boy was running along the beach, kite trailing behind him high in the air like one of the signs tugged along by a biplane later in the summer. It was as if he were the only person in the world. And he practically was, truth be told. There didn't seem to be anyone else here besides me, him, and my old golden retriever mix, Dolly, and she was busy sniffing the new environment and undoubtedly trying to find stinky new things to roll in and make herself repulsive.

We might have been the only living creatures in the world, even though it was late May in a beach town and the throngs were about to descend. But it was a cool, gray day with the kind of wind in which, my husband used to say, it "takes two men to hold one man's hair on." Anyone who had already come for vacation had probably decided to stay in and play board games or go to the movies, the boardwalk, or the nearby outlet center, which boasted junky beach food galore and no sales tax. That center probably attracted as many people as the ocean did.

The waves crashed on the shore over and over, a slow meter in the background, like in the song "Bridge over Troubled Water." It was soothing. It was alive. It held life, I reminded myself. I was determined to be Zen during this sabbatical. So, while the ocean looked a cold battleship gray on this overcast cool day, I took a deep yoga breath in and told myself it was full of life, from the dolphins leaping along the surface to the unknown prehistoric creatures that still lived at the very bottom.

I tried to picture Finding Dory but the full-color vision eluded me. It takes a lot of imagination to see fireworks in this particular variety of gray. The words, though, the words stayed with me.

Just keep swimming.

Ben and I had had what felt like a million nights here together, but it had always been our tradition to come straight to the shore to say hello to the ocean before we went into the house, and I held fast to our old tradition out of pure habit.

I had a feeling there would be a lot of that.

Hello, ocean.

The answer was a gray crash and a spray of phosphorescent foam.

We'd met here, in this tourist haven, twenty years ago. Senior week at the beach. We didn't go to the same school — he was already in college — but he was a friend of a friend of a friend, and as soon as we'd laid eyes on each other, it was the same old tired story of love at first sight. Only, in our case it was true. Or I think it was true. It certainly turned into love. The best love I'd ever known.

At the time I'd been the kind of beach blonde with wavy curls that they showed on the Sun-In bottle, and, while I didn't feel any conceit about my looks or believe I was any great beauty, I loved the feel of the wind in my hair and the way I knew it looked. Now it was shorter, above my shoulders, and best described as dirty blond, though a merciful stylist might have seen some hope for highlights and shaping. I just hadn't bothered for years.

But once ... once I had felt like a real beach girl here. I'd met Ben with all the confidence I could muster.

My group of friends were renting the house I now owned. It wasn't such a nice place back then — the floor saw a lot of pizza, spilled beer, and vomit. Usually, in that order. And, with a landlord who evidently didn't mind renting to a hundred raging underage alcoholics as long as they could pony up the deposit, I could only imagine it had seen a lot of that treatment over the summers before and after our time here, until Ben and I had finally seen it was up for sale and had bought it in what seemed like the coup of the century.

It was a money pit. But a beautiful one. Sandblasted white siding, old-fashioned shutters that actually closed, but probably wouldn't protect from a hurricane, and a tall, thin Victorian shape that would have made it the perfect candidate for a Titanic-era beach movie.

In fact, before we started renovating, we were literally offered two thousand dollars to let a small production company shoot a horror movie there (not quite Titanic), but we figured two thousand wouldn't be enough to scrub the fake blood off the walls and floors afterward, or to scrub the gory images of the movie from our minds when we were enjoying some peaceful time at our second home.

"Besides," Ben liked to say, "it's already haunted."

"You think so, huh?"

"Sure," he said easily. "Ghosts have more substance in the damp air." He said this with great authority, like he was Dan Aykroyd in Ghostbusters or something. "That's why England has so many hauntings. It's an island."

"I thought it was because it had hundreds more years of organized civilization. They've been telling ghost stories there since they were wearing loincloths."

He shrugged and smiled. Ran his hand through his dark, wavy hair the way he always did when he was trying to emphasize a point that he knew wasn't very strong. "Moist air."

I laughed. "Ugh, stop, you know I hate that word!"

"Moist," he said again, then came toward me like a menacing creature from one of the very stories we were talking about. "Moist, moist, moist —"

"Stop!" I put my hands to his chest, and he laughed and wrapped his arms around me. And suddenly everything from the ghosts to the dreaded word dissolved, and there was nothing in the world to worry about.

Bit by bit we'd worked on the house until finally the whole thing was done and pristine and beautiful. The floor was new, the walls were new, the fixtures were new, the appliances were new ... Honestly, I'd be hard-pressed to tell you what remained of the original place except it was still basically the same shape and in the same location.

We thought we'd have it forever, that it would be a place to bring our children and, someday, our grandchildren. Ben used to talk about all the little tchotchkes he picked up at yard sales and in our travels, and how the grandchildren would remember them all their lives. "The old ship's light at Granddad's," or "the glass Pinocchio figure at Grandma's," and so on. God knows he collected a lot of funny old weird things, but I never protested. They were dust collectors, but they gave him such a kick I didn't have the heart to point out that what he was spending on them could probably have put a pool out back.

We didn't know then that Ben had a rare heart condition that was going to take him down at just thirty-six, suddenly and without mercy.

Death can be so swift, can't it? I know a slow death is agony for the sick patient. I know the old "he never knew what happened" is a great blessing to the dead, but for those left behind, the sudden death is the worst kind of torture. You grieve over and over again because it breeds so many futile, circular thoughts.

No, I'd find myself thinking. Ben was annoyingly trim no matter what he ate. Every ounce he lost, I'd find. If I ate a Big Mac it seemed like he lost a pound and ran an extra quarter mile. He was incredibly healthy, there's no way he just dropped dead.

Or, I have a message from him right here on my phone from this morning. This isn't possible. I can listen to the message right now, I can hear his voice, he's got to be here still!

The impulse to call and the certainty that he'd answer were tremendous. And, just like that, I'd have myself convinced, for just a fraction of a moment, that it hadn't happened. It couldn't have, it didn't make sense, so it hadn't.

But of course it had. And, as dumb as it is, that realization, even after just an instant of rationalizing why it couldn't be, brought it all back like a surprise. A shock. There were times, even months later — hell, even years later — that I sincerely had to stop and ask myself if he was really gone or if it had just been a bad dream.

I'm sure there's an element of genuine madness to that, but so many of us endure it that I guess it's a socially acceptable form.

But this wasn't all about me. Agonizing as it was, the loss was arguably worse for someone else. See, when he'd gone, he'd not only left me behind, but our son, Jamie, who was only fourteen at the time. Fourteen. And even that birthday was only a few weeks old. This boy who had, to that point, grown up so loved and nurtured by two parents, who had admired his father so much, was suddenly thrust into a world of grief. He'd wanted to be like his father and we thought he had a lifetime to learn. He still could, of course, but the lessons from Ben had ended before the biggest challenges of manhood had come along.

We had been a happy family. The happy, ideal little family with the nice house, the dog, the financial security — we were the Cleavers, the Petries, the Flintstones without the rocks. We even had the beach house with a nice story behind it. Our little haven held memories I'd never forget.

So it had been hard for me to even consider coming back until now. I just couldn't face it. This had been our place, our home, in many ways even more than the one in Potomac, where we lived most of the year. They'd taken Ben out of here to Baltimore — and I'd driven the endless hour to identify him. That was the end of the beach house for years. The neighbors closed it up for me, kept half an eye on it, and I just paid the bills as they came in. I never wanted to come back.

Which was probably another reason I was standing out here on the beach watching a boy fly a kite, instead of going inside and getting down to the business of getting the house sold.

Then I'd never come back.

Ben had been getting it ready for our summer. Shaking out the dust and making sure everything was working before we descended on it with friends and relatives and plans for parties. He'd come alone for the weekend because I was just too lazy to face the hard labor after a week of exams.

I beat myself up about the place for a long time after that. What if he'd overexerted himself and that was why he'd died? The doctors said no, but what did they really know? I knew that when Ben got working, he worked like a horse, and here he'd been at our vacation home, fixing it up for me. It was a luxury. "The beach house." It sounded so ... unnecessary. Wouldn't he still be alive if he hadn't come here?

That was another one of those games my mind played with me, but still I couldn't help but wonder. I'd wonder anything if the wondering could make me feel like it was possible it hadn't happened.

My grandfather would have asked, Why can't you just stay at a motel like everyone else? And, indeed, many of the motels where he would have stayed in his youth were still there. It was hard to argue that the Starlight Venture smells like urine and looks like prison when he remembered the glory days when the little neon lights out front worked and the rooms inside were the height of luxury because they looked out over the ocean (well, half of them; the other half looked over the bay) and smelled of thick fresh salt air.

It must have been nice then.

It was still nice, in many ways. Ben and I had loved it.

And once Jamie had been born (to my then twenty-year-old self), he had loved the beach too. For a while. Weirdly, once he reached teenagehood, he was less interested in coming. And obviously, once his father had died here, any thoughts he might have had of coming here for fun had disappeared like smoke in the air. He didn't even want to come help me work on the place to be finally rid of it. Instead of joining me, he'd opted to stay home. Which meant he wanted to play video games, loaf off, and hang out with his crummy girlfriend.

So I was on my own. In so many ways.

The life insurance payment was safely invested, leaving my salary to dwindle as it always had, quickly, and leaving very little at the end of the month, particularly with a child, and with the hefty mortgage payment on a vacation house I didn't need and which we never came to visit anymore.

I returned my attention to the beach. The beautiful beach. A place of peace and sunshine even when it's overcast, at least in my mind.


In seven and out fourteen ...

The boy looked over his shoulder and his eyes met mine for a moment. It sent a jolt of shock through me, partly because he looked familiar suddenly. I realized it was because he looked a bit like Jamie had a few years ago. Like Jamie, the boy's coloring was like Ben's — wavy dark glossy hair, icy pale blue eyes. Central casting would have him filed under Cute Kid. Active, carefree.


Unexpected tears filled my eyes. I envied him at that moment, that lone kid. For my son and for myself. He looked so peaceful, so focused on his one task. No painful thoughts, apparently; all he wanted was to fly that kite until, presumably, he had some other childlike thing to do. He looked to be about seven, maybe eight. It would be years before he had the troubled thoughts of adulthood.

He turned sharply, kicking a spray of sand up behind him. That got Dolly's attention. She looked up, eyed him for a moment, then took off running toward him, kicking sand up behind her.

"Dolly!" She ignored me. "Dolly!" She reached the boy without even glancing back at me, and he looked down at her for a moment. She seemed to delight in his attention and ran by his side, looking up at him with that big loopy dog smile, trying to jump on him but unable to catch a moving target.

He didn't seem to mind, so I stopped calling her and just watched them run together, thinking how nice it would be to travel back in time to when Jamie was that age.

Had I failed him irreversibly? I wondered. Had my devastation at Ben's death put me into such a selfish tailspin that I hadn't been there for my little boy's needs upon his own father's death? I wanted to tell myself no. I wanted to believe that my efforts to be cheerful, even when they seemed superhuman, had made a difference to Jamie, but all I could think of was the old chestnut everyone said. Kids know. And they do. They know when you're lying, when you're faking, when you're not interested, when you're drunk, when you've been crying. I'd committed all of those crimes at various times in my grief, and even though I'd tried to smile through every one of them, I'd failed him. Of course I had.


Excerpted from "Every Time You Go Away"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Beth Harbison.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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