Daniel lives in Athens, Georgia. He has a job working in customer service for a regional airline, which lets him work at home and set his own hours. He likes his routine: visits with his best friend, football tailgates, and nice mornings out on his porch before work starts for the day.
Early one morning, while out on his porch, Daniel sees something strange. He sees a young woman — he assumes she is a student — who doesn’t seem sure about where she is going. She waves to him in greeting. And then a car pulls up, the driver says something Daniel can’t hear, and she gets in and drives away. Daniel isn’t quite sure why he thinks that was out of the ordinary, but when he hears that a veterinary student from China has gone missing, he knows that was the woman he saw.
Daniel becomes obsessed with finding her, and with understanding who she is, where she came from, and why she might have gotten in that car.
And by the way.
Daniel has Spinal Muscular Atrophy (he calls it Lou Gehrig’s Disease, but for kids). He can’t walk, eat, or talk. He’s in a wheelchair, and can only move one hand well enough to steer, to type on his iPad, and to work on his computer.
In the afterword of the story, Will Leitch explains that his son has a friend with SMA, a disease he previously didn’t know much about. After getting to know his son’s friend, Leitch did a lot of research on SMA, and it shows.
The details about the disease are both fascinating and heartbreaking. We know Daniel will never get better, and will probably get a little bit worse every day. But we also know that kids who are born with SMA today have a better chance at life than kids born just a few years ago. The treatment protocol is always improving, but its too late to help Daniel.
But Daniel can still help to find the missing woman, Ai-Chen. With a little help from Reddit, his amazing caretaker, Marjani, and his best friend, Travis, Daniel won’t stop investigating until he knows that Ai-Chen is safe.
And here comes the cliche: Daniel is so much more than what people see when they look at him. While he may be physically limited in any/all of his daily activities, he does not let SMA define him. When people — like Travis’ girlfriend — get to know him, they realize he is kind, smart, charming, and funny. You can’t help but root for him.
I really enjoyed this one, and it was not at all what I had expected. All I knew about Leitch before reading this was that he used to be the Editor of Deadspin. I expected some “Tom Brady is a fancy dog” jokes, some outlandish lacrosse guy names, a breakdown of the holiday Williams Sonoma catalog, and maybe a story similar to that of Manti Te’o and his made-up girlfriend.
But this was not that. This was not only an excellent mystery, but had great characters, was sometimes hilariously funny and other times heartbreakingly sad, and taught me about SMA, which I most definitely was ignorant about. Thanks to Stephen King for his late-night tweet congratulating Leitch and recommending it, which led me to download it right then and there.