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The Truth About Ben and June by Alex Kiester

A heartfelt debut that explores the complexity of a modern-day marriage when a new mother vanishes one morning and her husband must retrace events of their recent past to bring her home.

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Chapter 1

On the day everything fell apart, Ben awoke to the sound of the baby crying. He swung his legs out of bed, and as his heels struck the floor, pain zinged from the backs of his calves up to his temples. His stomach flipped threateningly.

From down the hall, he heard Mikey shudder in a breath and wail harder. “Coming!” he shouted, and a fresh throb of pain shot through his head.

He glimpsed the other side of the bed where the covers had been thrown back, the sheet twisted into a tight rope. He wondered where June was. The empty space in bed was normal—his wife hadn’t slept through the night since Mikey was born—but at this point in their baby’s crying, Ben usually heard her trying to talk him down. It can’t be that bad, she’d murmur. Or Mikey-boy, you’re acting like a real baby right now.

In his crib, Mikey’s hands were balled into tiny angry fists. His face was so contorted from crying he didn’t see Ben approach, and his eyes widened in shock when Ben scooped him up. Thankfully, the surprise took the cry right out of him. Bouncing in his dad’s arms, he caught his breath in jerky gasps. Ben kissed his soft temple consolingly. “Mikey-boy,” he murmured against his little head. “You’re acting like a real baby right now.”

Ben laid him on the changing table, put on a clean diaper, then tugged back on his pajama bottoms and settled him on his hip. Mikey took a trembling breath and sneezed in Ben’s face.

“Bless you,” he said, wiping his eyes with his forearm. “Now let’s go find your mom.”

But June wasn’t in the kitchen as Ben had assumed. He frowned, dumbly turning his head to one side then the other as if maybe she’d stuffed herself into a cabinet.

“June!” he called, but the house was still and quiet.

Ben squeezed his eyes shut, trying to remember if June had told him about an early appointment that day, but other than the few words they’d exchanged late last night when he’d slid into bed, he couldn’t actually remember the last time they’d spoken. He felt a surge of anger at Clark & White for robbing him from his own family, but he swallowed it down. After all, it was his job there that allowed him to pay for the very house he was standing in.

He looked into his son’s face to find it pouty and dejected. “Oh, relax,” he said, hitching Mikey up on his hip. “She’s here somewhere.”

But June wasn’t in the living room or the dining room or the downstairs bathroom or the two upstairs bathrooms or the guest room or his office. She didn’t respond when he called her name, and he didn’t see her outside when he looked from the windows. Even though she’d clearly not been in their bedroom or the nursery earlier, Ben checked again. Still empty. When he discovered their car untouched in the garage, he didn’t know if he should feel relieved or not, but found that he wasn’t. It was the first week of March in New Jersey and outside looked blisteringly cold. June would’ve had to have a very good reason to go out on foot.

He made his way to her closet. If her heavy-duty boots were gone, it would mean she’d just stepped out for something—to the store for milk. It would’ve been odd but not implausible.

At the doorway of her walk-in closet, he flicked the light switch, illuminating her clothes with harsh white light. Standing at the mouth of his wife’s wardrobe, which smelled so uniquely like June—coconut shampoo and the funk of worn clothes—Ben’s chest lurched with something like regret or nostalgia. The scent of his wife felt uncomfortably like a memory.

On the floor was a tangled mass of dark, dirty laundry. Blouses and dresses and coats hung limply in two rows around him. Above, a wraparound shelf burst with haphazardly folded leotards, pairs of tights, and all her different dance shoes—thin black ones, ballet slippers, tap shoes, and those ugly beige ones with the stumpy heels. And there, in the middle of her shoe rack, were June’s heavy-duty boots. She hadn’t walked to the store after all.

Then something at the top of her closet caught Ben’s eye: a gap in all that stuff, about three feet long, the wall behind it stark white and empty. It was where June stored her suitcase.

He stood there, staring at that empty space for a very long time before he flipped the light switch, plunging the closet back into darkness. He strode to the master bathroom, his legs moving like they’d been powered by an electricity surge, but his mind felt oddly blank, as if it were unwilling to comprehend the evidence before him. At their shared vanity, in their shared toothbrush holder, was one toothbrush—his. The counter space around June’s sink was completely bare.

No, no, no.

Back in their bedroom, he laid Mikey on the bed and grabbed his phone from the bedside table. The screen was blank—no calls, no texts. He called June, but it went straight to voice mail.

No, no, no.

Ben looked at their brand-new son. June wouldn’t leave them; he knew that with a certainty inside him like a stone. And yet, she was still very clearly not here. His brain grinded to a halt as if his gears had gotten stuck on these two conflicting truths: June would not leave; June was gone.

He took a deep breath and willed his shoulders to relax. He just had to think it through. First of all, the doors were locked and the house was untouched, so it wasn’t as if she’d been snatched from their bed. Odds were she just had some early appointment that he’d forgotten about in his overfull brain, the details of which would perfectly explain the missing suitcase and the not-missing boots or car. She’d probably walk in the door within the next few hours and they’d laugh about how worked up he’d gotten about her very benign appointment to the…dentist. And yet, while the pragmatic part of his brain told him there would be an ordinary, logical explanation, the rest of him prickled with dread. Her absence just felt…wrong. He called her again, and again it went to voice mail.

Before they had Mikey, June hadn’t been particularly good about keeping up with her phone. She’d kept it on silent during rehearsals and sometimes forgot to respond to texts or calls until hours after getting them. But since she’d become a mom, she’d practically tethered herself to her device, frantically returning to rooms where she’d left it, as if at any moment Mikey might be near death and she’d have to dial 911 to save him. Ben called again—voice mail—and again and again and again. Voice mail, voice mail, voice mail.

He stared at his screen, trying to think of someone who could help, someone who might know where she was. June’s mom was dead and her relationship with her father—without that dutiful card on her birthday each year—could probably qualify as estrangement. Maybe he should call the studio. Even though June wasn’t technically a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company anymore, before Mikey was born, that was where she’d spent most of her time. He didn’t have any of the members’ numbers in his phone, so he Googled the studio, but when he called, no one answered.

He decided to call Moli next. They hadn’t seen June’s best friend since she’d come up a few months ago to meet Mikey, but Ben assumed she and June still talked all the time. In fact, now that he thought of it, it seemed possible that June had made plans to go to her friend’s for a long weekend—hadn’t she mentioned wanting to do that recently? At just after six in the morning, it was far too early to call, but Moli did have a baby, so she was probably awake too. Feeling guilty, he dialed.

“Ben?” Moli answered.

Ben knew immediately from her confused tone that June was not with her, and his heart dropped. “Hi, Moli.” Though every part of him was filling with fear, convention took over and he added, “How’s it goin’?”

“Uh…fine,” she answered, but it sounded like a question. “I’m a little sleepy, because it’s six in the morning. Is everything okay?”

“Sorry, I’m—” He tried to keep the creeping panic out of his voice. “I just woke up and, uh, June isn’t here and she isn’t answering her phone. I’m sure it’s nothing. I’m sure she’s…” But he couldn’t finish the sentence because he wasn’t sure of anything. He had no idea where his wife was or why she wasn’t where she should be. “I’m sure everything’s fine.”

“Wait, what? I don’t understand. Is she—where’s Mikey?”

“In my other arm.”

“And June’s not there? Is she on an errand or is she, like…missing?”

“She’s not missing. She…” Ben didn’t want to finish the sentence, but how could he not? “She took a suitcase with her.”

There was a long silence, then, finally, “She left?”

“No. God. No.” It sounded so harsh.

“Well, why else would she take her suitcase?” When he didn’t immediately answer, Moli continued. “What’s been going on with you two lately?”

Ben shot a bewildered look at his phone. “What? What is that supposed to mean?” Ben had known Moli almost as long as he’d known June. They were friends. And the implication of her words—that he was somehow responsible for this—felt like she’d reached through the phone and slapped him.

There was another silence, but it was shorter this time. “I just—I mean, I haven’t talked to June in weeks. I don’t know what’s been going on with her.”

Ben frowned. He thought June and Moli talked, or at least texted, almost every day. He opened his mouth to say something, but then closed it. He had more worrying things to focus on at the moment. “Look, Moli, I gotta go. I’m gonna keep calling around for her. Call her for me, too, will you?”

After Ben assured her he’d keep her updated, they hung up and he continued to scroll through his contacts, stopping when he came across the number of June’s mom’s studio. He didn’t think June had been there in a long time, but at least it would be open. They always had some sort of early-morning workout dance class.

But Dee Dee, the woman who ran the studio, didn’t know where June was and hadn’t spoken to her in months. Ben managed to play the whole thing off as something innocuous and vague—June didn’t have her phone and he’d forgotten where she said she was going—and he thanked God Dee Dee bought it. He couldn’t stomach another line of off-based questioning like Moli’s. What’s been going on with you two lately? As if you could simplify everything in a marriage to the goings-on of the past week. His mind flashed to that moment earlier, as he’d stood at the mouth of June’s closet—her scent like a memory—but he buried it. It didn’t mean anything. He and June were good.

Ben dressed in a rush, blindly putting on whatever he grabbed first from his closet. Mikey, he left in his pajamas, shoving on his tiny socks and boots, grabbing his tiny coat and hat. Catching a glimpse of the two of them in the long mirror propped against the wall—he with his hair mussed from sleep, Mikey with his rounded tummy peeking out from between his NASA pajama set—Ben felt like they were two lost castaways, helpless without June there to anchor them. He felt a longing for his wife like a hook in his sternum.

Mikey started crying again and Ben switched him from his right hip to his left. “Okay, okay. Let’s eat.”

In the kitchen, Ben opened the refrigerator and reached to grab a full bottle of prepared formula, but his hand paused midway, a stack of Tupperware catching his eye. That was odd; usually their refrigerator was almost empty. He frowned, grabbing the bottle, then he closed the door and opened the freezer. Even odder. Normally bare except for the occasional frozen bag of berries, today it was packed to almost overflowing with row after row of single-serving lasagnas. There were flavors of every kind: lasagna Italiano, lasagna Florentine, chicken lasagna, vegetarian lasagna, spinach-ricotta lasagna. He stared, eyes wide. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten lasagna.

He scanned the rest of the kitchen and caught sight of the recycle bin brimming with empty bottles: wine bottles mostly, but one of Jameson whiskey too. Ben felt a sudden, itching need to get out of there. He couldn’t just continue to spin in circles in their empty house, hoping June would burst out of a cabinet. He needed to look for her. He grabbed the car keys and the milk bottle from the counter and strode to the door, passing the recycle bin on the way. The acrid scent of alcohol wafted up to him and turned his stomach.

The air outside was biting and Mikey burst into a fresh round of wails. “I know,” Ben said, and his voice had an unintended edge to it. “This isn’t my favorite morning either.”

As he walked out onto the landing, his phone dinged with a message and he stopped short. Heart racing, he dug a hand into his coat pocket and pulled it out. But when he glanced at the screen, he let out a sigh. It was only Moli.

Calls have all gone to voice mail. Keep me updated. I’ll keep trying.

“Dammit,” Ben muttered, shoving his phone back into his pocket, but as he did, it dinged again—again, only Moli.

I just don’t get this. Did she say anything before she left?

Ben let out an indignant huff of breath that turned white against the dark morning sky. Maybe he was being paranoid, but her question felt pointed, like, if he truly understood his wife, he’d intuit where she was now—it was just another iteration of her question before: What’s been going on with you two lately?

What had been going on with them two lately was that things were fucking hard. They had a four-month-old baby. He was swamped at work and—he wasn’t blind—he knew June was swamped at home. But like everything June did, she’d set the bar so impossibly high. Before having Mikey, she’d binged on historical documentaries so that “her ignorance didn’t rub off on the baby;” she’d stocked up on all-organic food and plastic-free toys; she’d read literary novels aloud, angling her mouth toward her belly for better acoustics.

So now she was having to adjust to the reality that parenthood, at least for the time being, was far less about tranquil teachable moments and far more about dirty diapers and cries that woke them a dozen times a night. She was having to adjust to the reality that she would not and could not be the “perfect” mom. On top of that, the sleep deprivation and Ben’s long work hours had taken a toll on their relationship. He couldn’t remember the last time they’d sat down together for a meal or had a conversation that didn’t revolve around Mikey. And yet, despite all that, he and June were good—honestly. They might not be thriving at this particular point in their marriage, but they were okay.

Just last night, he’d come home from work around two in the morning to a dark and silent house, his head already starting to throb from the drinks he’d had at the office as he reviewed his latest merger contract. He’d slid quietly into bed next to June, thinking she was asleep. But then, in the dark, he felt her body shift, turn toward him, and in a soft voice she’d whispered, I miss you. Sure, the basic sentiment of the words was wistful, but it was also a declaration of their bond, a way to say that she was looking forward to catching up with him, once they caught their breath.

Standing on the stoop now, their son perched on his hip, Ben’s throat tightened at the memory. He clicked his phone off without responding to Moli. As he began to walk down the steps toward their car, the heel of his boot scuffed against their welcome mat. It shifted slightly and a glint of something underneath caught Ben’s eye. He turned and, with his foot, flipped up the corner of the mat. There, in the place they used to hide their house key when they hadn’t yet made a second copy, was June’s shiny gold one.

Ben gazed down at it for a long time, a frown etched on his face. Ever since they’d made that second key, June had kept it on her keychain, between her library card and a kitschy charm of a ballet slipper her mom had given to her only somewhat ironically. To his knowledge, June had never taken the key off because she’d never had a reason to. The only explanation for removing it now was that she was leaving it behind, that she wasn’t planning on ever opening their front door again.

Ben shook the idea from his head—it didn’t make any sense. After all, just last night, June had turned to him and told him she missed him. And while he might’ve been preoccupied with work and dulled by a hangover and distracted by Mikey’s cries, he was clear about one thing: people who missed their husbands didn’t leave with the intention of never coming back.

Excerpt from The Truth About Ben and June, Copyright © 2022 by Alex Kiester. All rights reserved.

The Truth About Ben and June will be available in bookstores across Canada and online on June 28, 2022

Enter for your chance to win a copy of
The Truth About Ben and June by Alex Kiester

Enter for your chance to win a copy of The Truth About Ben and June by Alex Kiester