Sometimes I look at parents who have missing children and I wonder how they can continue. How can you sit at your desk, answering the phone or dealing with a client or paying the bills when you have no idea where your child is? How can you take seriously the complaint of your co-worker that someone is stinking up the kitchen when you don’t know if your child is hungry somewhere? How can you plan, work, drive, eat, sleep – do anything – when that part of you is missing?
And yet, these parents go on. They have jobs, they have other children, families that need tending, grass that needs cutting, groceries that need to be bought, and laundry that needs to be folded. The Campbell family is one such family. Justin disappeared without a trace four years ago when he was twelve. He just didn’t come home. At first, they thought he was playing around, hiding, playing a joke. His younger brother Griff was convinced that it was because they’d had a fight, that Justin was staying away to teach him a lesson. But as one day turned in to two, two turned in to seven, and seven turned in to a thousand, Justin’s family had to figure out the New Normal and come to some sort of acceptance. And so father Eric goes back to teaching, mother Laura goes back to her job at the dry cleaners, his grandfather goes back to his pawn shop, and Griff returns to school and skateboarding and discovers girls.
But every night, Eric and his father go out and look for Justin, driving aimlessly, hanging flyers, passing the billboard with his face shining down on them, digitally changed to show age progression. Looking for Justin, looking for his body, a clue, a trace of him, anything at all.
And then one day Eric gets a call. “Come to the police station,” the man on the other end of the phone says. “That’s all I can tell you.” Eric and Laura have been through this before. They’ve had to look at dead boys in the coroner’s office and say, “That’s not my son,” relief mixed with the disappointment of still not knowing. Imagine the horror of realizing the feeling of disappointment over not finding your son dead. It’s unfathomable. So Eric and Laura have very little hope – or at least try to have very little hope – that this call will end in anything other than relief and disappointment and horror.
But when they walk in to the police department, Justin is there, in the interview room. And it’s not just his body on a slab at the morgue, he’s actually standing in front of them, alive. Bigger, taller, grown in to a man – boys change an awful lot between the ages of twelve and sixteen – but it’s still Justin. And so this is the point where they should all live happily ever after.
Except Johnston turns the missing kid theme on its head, and continues on past the reunion. He looks at the way that families rebuild after such a devastating incident, how a mother can relate to a son she hasn’t seen in four years, how parents can forgive themselves for picking up the threads of their lives while their son was gone, how siblings can still communicate wordlessly, how Justin can miss his captor, and how raw the human experience really is. What impressed me the most about this book wasn’t the story – although it was certainly well done – but that I’ve rarely read such perfectly drawn characters. Johnston captures everything about his cast with superb accuracy; it’s hard to believe that this is his first novel. His prose is spare and beautiful and delicate, and I’m interested to see what else he’ll do.
The past was a bridge that looked solid and sturdy, but once you were on it, you saw that it extended only far enough to strand you, to suspend you between loss and longing with nowhere to go at all.