Ever since Riley Strout lost her mother two years ago, her survival has depended on her other family: the quirky kids she met in a grief support group at school. Jay, Kate, and Noah are the only people who understand her pain; each lost a loved one.
When Riley sees her dead mother shopping in a grocery store, she fears post-traumatic stress—until Jay and Kate report similar visions. Noah, having seen nothing, withdraws. Soon he disappears, and Riley fears the worst. But the frantic search for him unexpectedly draws Riley and the other two into a mystery surrounding a centuries-old relic and the clues it might offer about the afterlife. By reaching for the ones who are gone, Riley uncovers hidden truths about those she hasn’t yet lost.
|Publisher:||Soho Press, Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||8.40(w) x 5.60(h) x 1.10(d)|
|Age Range:||14 Years|
About the Author
Emily France is the critically acclaimed young adult author of Signs of You and Zen and Gone, a July 2018 Washington Post Best Book for Young Readers. She graduated from Brown University and also holds an MFA in Creative Writing and a JD. She lives in sunny Colorado with her husband and son. Her Zen practice is the taproot of her inspiration. Connect with her online at emilyfrancebooks.com.
Read an Excerpt
She’s been dead two years when I see her in the grocery store. She’s looking at bottles of bubble bath. She picks up a pink one, unscrews the cap, and sniffs. Her nose wrinkles and she puts the bottle back on the shelf. As she looks for a different scent, I blink.
I must be losing my mind. I look again. It’s her.
Everything about her is how I remember it—her chestnut bobbed hair, her smooth golden skin and high cheekbones, her familiar blue sweater zipped up halfway. She’s wearing the dress we buried her in, baby blue linen with a tiny floral print. I blink and blink again. It’s her. I am looking at my mother. The mother I last saw in a coffin; the mother we buried at Richfield Cemetery two years ago last week. The mother who’s dead because of me.
She picks up another bottle of bubble bath and reads the label. I take a step closer, and she looks up and smiles. When our eyes meet, I feel like I might collapse under the weight of everything I need to say. That I’m sorry for that night. That the last words I ever said to her were angry and mean and horrible. “I hate you,” I’d said. Hate, hate, hate. And I’m sorry I didn’t try to stop her as she ran out the door, upset and hurt, and got behind the wheel of a car we all knew she shouldn’t have been driving. Not with her injury.
My mom wasn’t supposed to drive because of me. When she gave birth to me, she got hurt. During labor, her blood pressure spiked and she had a stroke. It was a small one, but big enough to affect her sight and sometimes her memory. She always told me that she’d missed so much. She couldn’t see well enough to teach me how to put on makeup, to ride a bike, to parallel park.
But when she said these things I knew she wasn’t talking to me, or even about me. She’d been forced to give up driving, forced to quit the nursing job she’d loved. She’d missed out on a lot of the good stuff, on the dreamed-about, supposed-to-be stuff. All because I was born. And the last words I’d said to her, the mother whose life I’d ruined, were I hate you.
And as if screaming it wasn’t enough, I ran to my room and tweeted it, too: Hate my mom. Hate. #meanit.
I tweeted it because I didn’t have that many followers. And I still don’t. I’ve never been that popular online or anywhere else, really. But people found out about my tweet. It got retweeted. Then posted on Facebook. Quickly I became the girl who told her mom off the night she died. I vowed never to tweet another thing as long as I live, but that doesn’t help. I’ll never know how many people saw it; I can’t pull it back and make it my own private shame. It’s just . . . out there. But now she’s standing ten feet from me in the grocery store, and I have another chance. All I can think is I’m sorry. Sorry you had me, sorry I screwed up your life, sorry I said what I did. I want to hear her voice, to smell her perfume, to wrap my arms around the woman whose blood is my own. I want to say Mom. So I run. Well, I try to run. My feet won’t work right. I put one foot in front of the other as fast as I can, but I’m dizzy and disoriented.
When I’m close, her beautiful smile changes to a look of horror. She shoves the bottle of bubble bath back on the shelf and walks away.
I speed up. So does she. She rounds the corner and I lose sight of her behind a huge display of crackers. I break into a sprint, clear the pyramid of boxes, and nearly bump into her.
She turns. Except now the woman who faces me looks nothing like my mother. She’s a blonde, in hot pink lipstick. Her dress has lost its familiar floral print. Now, she’s just wearing jeans.
“Can I help you?” the woman asks. My cheeks flush hot under the glare of the grocery store fluorescents.
“No, ma’am. I’m . . . I’m sorry. I thought you were someone else,” I say.
The woman looks annoyed that I stopped her. Annoyed and maybe a little frightened. She shakes her head and hurries away. I watch her go and know that I should be thinking that I’ve lost my mind. But I’m not. At first, I’m thinking one thing, and one thing only:
Mom, come back.
But then another thought comes:
I think I know why I saw you.
I’m a mess as I pull out of Heinen’s parking lot. My palms are sweaty; I can’t get a good grip on the steering wheel. I feel frayed, my insides totally shattered, but instead of speeding, I drive way too slowly. Like I’m afraid I’ll hit something or someone at any moment because I can’t focus on the road. A car comes up behind me and the driver lays on the horn. I look in my rearview mirror to see if I know the man behind the wheel, but all I catch is the blur of his SUV as he swerves around me and gives me the finger.
I start again, a little quicker this time, and catch sight of my hazel eyes in the rearview mirror. Maybe the guilt finally got to me. I wanted to stop Mom the night she ran out after our fight. As she brushed by me, car keys in hand, I wanted to shout. Please, don’t go; the words were on the tip of my tongue. Chills ran down my arms like millions of tiny marbles under my skin. As I watched her slip out the door, some part of me knew she’d never come back through it. Or maybe that’s just how I remember it. Maybe it’s easier to convince myself that I knew I was going to lose her before I actually did. Like that makes it less scary somehow. I don’t know. All I know for sure is that I didn’t say anything. I just let her go.
A few hours later the cop showed up. He said she crossed the centerline on I-77 and ran straight into an oncoming semi-truck. He asked if she’d been drinking.
“No, no,” my father had said. His voice was tight, controlled. He was keeping it together for my benefit. But he began to shiver. “She never drank. Maybe half a glass at Christmas.” His voice broke, and he turned away, a deep sob wracking his shoulders.
I remember thinking that the sound of my father crying was the most horrible sound on earth. It terrified me. Crushed me in an instant. I put my arms around him and held tight.
“She didn’t crash because she was drinking,” I said to the cop. “She crashed because of me.”
I shake off the memory and focus on the drive. I head straight to the place I’ve gone to a million times before: Jay’s house. I skip the front door because I haven’t used it since the ninth grade. Jay always lets me in through his window. I mean, there’s no reason I can’t use the front door. Even late at night. His mom is usually out on a date with some weirdo she met on the Internet. But his bedroom is on the first floor, so his window is like my personal VIP entrance.
I peer through the window and there he is, lying on his bed in his favorite T-shirt, blue with gold lettering: Go W.H. Bees. That’s our high school baseball team—the Woodhull High Bees. And I guess small, stinging insects are an appropriate mascot for a sprawling Ohio high school that combines two suburbs of Cleveland. I mean, our sheer numbers make us a little menacing, but still, you could kill us with a flyswatter. Or a can of Raid.
His baseball shirt is the same one he wore the day we sat on my front porch steps when I first opened up about my mom, about how guilty I felt. He seemed to get it right away. Jay told me his mom had never been that good at being a mom; I told him mine had never been that good at being happy.
I reach up to knock on the window but stop. I’m so afraid to tell him why I’m here. I stand there, sort of paralyzed, and watch. He’s propped up on some pillows, staring at his glowing iPhone screen. His guitar leans against the bedframe, and on the wall behind him are several posters: Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Doors. When we first met, I asked him why he listened to old music.
“Simple,” he’d said. “I like it because it kicks more ass.”
I remember smiling and thinking, I’m so into him. How could I not be totally into him?
I take a deep breath and tap on the glass.
He jumps off the bed and sweeps his hand through his thick brown hair. “Hey,” he whispers, cranking the window open. “What’s up?” He holds my hand as I climb up to the windowsill and jump down onto his soft blue carpet.
“Hey.” It’s all I can manage, like I’m drowning in the awkward silence and can’t choke out any more words.
“Talk to me,” he says. “You don’t look so good.” His pale brown eyes glimmer as he studies me the way he always does when he’s worried—with that if-I-can-f ix-it-I-will look. And I want to tell him everything, that I saw Mom, that I think I know why, but I freeze, suddenly all too aware of what a nut bag I’m about to sound like.
I think I saw my mother today. I want to find her. And I think you can help. And I always tell you everything . . . Well, everything but the whole I’m-into-you thing. But, this. THIS. I can’t think of a way to tell you THIS.
“I’m fine,” I say, stalling for time. “Just a little stressed.”
I wildly search my mind for potential stressors in my life that do not involve seeing someone who died two years ago. My room’s a mess. I think I overheard my dad flirting with some woman on the phone, and it made me want to hurl. I’m worried because I haven’t gone up a bra cup size in, like, forever.
“You’re not worried about the history test are you?” he asks.
History test. Perfect. I used to be a straight-A student and ace everything from history to biology to physics. After Mom died, I just couldn’t focus. Or care. Or even remember why I used to care.
“Yep, I’m a mess over it. Who is Polk, anyway? Keeps me up at night.”
“Nice use of the Henry Clay campaign slogan,” he says with a grin. “Well done. Very hard to do in casual conversation.” He reaches up to give me our traditional greeting: a fist bump followed by the opening of our hands in a little fade-away motion. It’s sort of lame, but we saw it in a movie once and decided it was the perfect greeting—especially when you’re me. After Mom’s funeral, it didn’t take long to get sick of the pity on people’s faces when they saw me, followed by one of those it-sucks-to-be-you hugs. So Jay and I decided we’d do the fist-bump handshake at all times—good and bad—to protest the world’s proclivity for pity-you greetings.
“I’ll help you study tonight,” he says. “No worries, we’ll—”
The sound of a gong and crashing waves interrupt him.
“What the hell?” I ask.
He flops onto his bed and grabs his cell phone. “Got a text,” he says. “It’s my new notification noise: Zen bells.”
Whoever it is makes him smile. He even laughs a little as he types back. I crawl onto the end of the bed and lean against his footboard. In my head, I’m running through different ways to tell him about seeing Mom. So, I was at the store today. No. So, you know that cross that’s in your living room? No. How do you feel about life after death? NO.
Jay texts away, his eyes shining in the bright screen light.
“Anyone ever tell you that your eyes are the color of diet maple syrup?” I ask. He shakes his head no, but doesn’t look up. His fingers keep pecking at the screen. “Just wondered. And I’ll be right back. Going to the bathroom,” I lie.
“K,” he says, still not looking up.
I slink off the bed and head down the hallway. But instead of going straight for the bathroom, I take a detour into the living room. In the dark, I can see the sofa and walnut end tables with matching brass lamps. I imagine Jay’s mom bringing her myriad dates in here for a middle-aged romp on the pristine white cushions. The thought makes me feel vaguely ill, but mostly it pisses me off. Jay’s mom is so messed up. There should be some rule that before you’re allowed to have a kid, you have to prove yourself. You have to know how to handle certain major life stuff that gets thrown your way: death, life detours, disappointments. I don’t know what the test would be exactly, but you should have to pass it with at least a 70 percent.
I walk around the sofa and click on one of the brass lamps. On a long skinny table next to the window is a glass case I’ve seen a million times before. I peer inside. A tarnished silver cross necklace sits on a little velvet cushion. It’s all scratched up and engraved with what I think is a Latin word. Magis. But I have no idea what it means. A brass placard sits next to it. Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Lost Cross, circa 1556.
Jay’s dad was Howard Bell, a well-known theology prof up at Case Western. To hear Jay tell it, he spent his entire life (including parts that might have been better spent with Jay) studying the works of an old Catholic saint named Ignatius. His dad had been obsessed with finding The Lost Cross of St. Ignatius—last seen in the 1500s—ever since Jay was a baby.
That he actually found it made Jay’s dad sort of famous. But the discovery fueled his drinking. Jay says people think all alcoholics wear dirty raincoats and drink booze out of paper bags under bridges. It’s not true. There are all kinds of alcoholics—even super successful smart professors who think if they just drink at home at night after all the kids go to bed they aren’t hurting anybody. Late one night when Jay was about ten years old, his dad polished off nearly a whole bottle of scotch—the drink he called “the intellectual’s comrade”—and fell down the basement stairs. His head struck the concrete floor. Jay found his body in the morning in a dried puddle of blood.
I shake off the image of little-boy Jay finding his dad. It’s just so awful. I look back down at the cross in the glass case and read the print etched into the glass.
Do not touch.
Yesterday, that’s exactly what my best friend, Kate, and I did.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
So few YA novels stray into any area of religiosity, so I was pleased to see a book that explored this area. In the aftermath of her mother's death, Riley has forged close friendships with Jay, Kate, and Noah, all part of her school's Back on Track program (basically for teens whose high school success was derailed by a tragedy at home). But when Riley puts on a relic necklace, which Jay's father discovered before his untimely death that supposedly belonged to Ignatius of Loyola, something unexpected happens. She sees her mother, in the flesh, while out grocery shopping. What is going on? Is she losing her mind? Is anyone seeing their dearly beloveds, too? France does such a great job with setting up the mystery of this story (which in less skilled hands could come off as too cuckoo), and making me completely believe these characters. Jake and Noah and Kate are just as well-developed as Riley, and they're all wrestling with some pretty heady issues. There are so many novels about grief that it can be tough to find a a fresh angle into the subject matter, but this feels more than unique -- it's deeply meaningful. Sometimes teens don't get enough credit for their intelligence and range of interests, and I love how this book just goes there. Why not go off on a research trip and decipher an ancient text in foreign languages? The literal journey of discovery felt entirely appropriate for the metaphorical journey these four teenagers are on. A uniquely compelling debut.
have never read anything like this in YA and am glad this novel is available for readers of all ages because it beautifully explores the connection between grief and love and hope--and the triumph of human will. In a world that is often loud and chaotic, this book reminds us that signs are everywhere... if you are quiet enough to listen to the world whisper its secrets to you, and that feels like the ultimate gift of this debut novel.