The Return

The Return

by Rachel Harrison

Hardcover

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Overview

A group of friends reunite after one of them has returned from a mysterious two-year disappearance in this edgy and haunting debut.

Julie is missing, and no one believes she will ever return—except Elise. Elise knows Julie better than anyone, and feels it in her bones that her best friend is out there and that one day Julie will come back. She’s right. Two years to the day that Julie went missing, she reappears with no memory of where she’s been or what happened to her. 

Along with Molly and Mae, their two close friends from college, the women decide to reunite at a remote inn. But the second Elise sees Julie, she knows something is wrong—she’s emaciated, with sallow skin and odd appetites. And as the weekend unfurls, it becomes impossible to deny that the Julie who vanished two years ago is not the same Julie who came back. But then who—or what—is she?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593098660
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/24/2020
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 45,901
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Rachel Harrison was born and raised in the weird state of New Jersey. She received her bachelor's in Writing for Film & Television from Emerson College. After graduating, she worked on TV game shows, in publishing, and for a big bank. She lives in Rochester, NY with her husband and their cat/overlord. This is her first novel.

Read an Excerpt

I.

            “What do you mean she’s missing?”

I watched frantic ants descend upon a nearby apple core and a face-down slice of pizza. A renegade splinter faction marched across the parking lot with tiny bits of food on their backs. The raccoons must have been in the garbage behind my office again, and I made a mental note to report it when I got back inside, but of course I forgot.

            “She’s missing,” Molly said, her exasperation creeping in through the receiver. “I don’t know how else to explain it to you.”

            “She’s not missing.”

            Above all else, I knew two truths about Julie. The first was that she was the most stubborn, most determined person I’d ever met. And the second was she loved attention. Julie would never be missing. She might go dark, intentionally disappear herself for a few days here or there just to make sure someone noticed. A pop quiz: “Do you love me?” That she was capable of. That I believed. But missing, as in milk cartons and posters and hounds in fields, no way.

            I told Molly as much.

            “What year do you think this is? Milk cartons?”

            “That’s my point. People don’t go missing anymore.”

            “What? What world are you living in?”

             I’d been asking myself that question for a long time. I didn’t have an answer for her.

            “She left her house last Friday morning to go hiking and she never came back. Tristan filed a Missing Persons report. They have a team out looking for her.”

            “Looking where?”

            “Acadia National Park.”

            “How’d you find out?”

            “He called me.”

            “He called you?”

            “I don’t know why me, Elise, so don’t start.”

            Tristan was Julie’s husband. None of us had ever met him. They had gone to the same high school and reconnected when Julie returned to her gloomy Massachusetts hometown to take care of her sick mother. They got married before her mom died, so she could be there. The ceremony and reception were held in someone’s backyard. We were sent two pictures from that day. One of them cutting a two-tiered, pale yellow cake topped with sugared daisies. The other was of Julie standing in a patch of generous sunlight, smiling with her head back, like she was mid-laugh, or the weight of her happiness was too much for her neck. She wore a birdcage veil.

            It was a shock to all of us. It might have been the shock of our lives had she not gone missing.

“What do we do?” I asked Molly.

            “I don’t think there’s anything to do. Just gotta wait. And prepare ourselves.”
            I dug into my back pocket for my lighter. It was a white one. Julie once told me white lighters were bad luck. I cleared my throat, “It’s been how many days? Four? Five?”

            “I thought you’d be freaking out.”

            “Have you told Mae?”

            “Are you smoking?” she asked me.

            “No.”

            “Yes, I called Mae first because I thought she’d be the calm, logical one. She was very upset. I know because she said she was very upset.”

            Mae was hardwired to think showing emotion was bad manners. She had a sensitive nature, but she tried her best to suppress it. She never wanted to put anyone out by acknowledging she had feelings of her own.  
  
            An airplane groaned somewhere above the clumpy gray clouds. The rush of nicotine distracted me, and I missed something Molly said.

            “Sorry?”

            She scoffed. Molly was the funny one, so it was easy to forget when she wasn’t being funny she was being mean. She was capable of empathy, but on a case-by-case basis. Childhood bone cancer had taken her left leg below the knee, and sometimes she joked that’s where all her patience had been.

            “This is serious.”

            “I know,” I said, the lie leaving a chalky residue in my mouth.

            She wasn’t missing.

            This was classic Jules. She could fool Molly and Mae, but not me. She and I were made of the same stuff. It was the special sauce of our friendship, and the curse that made it turn ugly sometimes. Molly described our passive aggressive fights as “tangos.” Mae would frown and say, “There’s only tension because you two are so similar.” When things were good between us, we would brag about our similarities, say we were soul sisters. When they weren’t, we both knew, it was like spitting at a mirror.

            There were times when I fantasized about vanishing. Chucking my phone into a sewer grate and taking the train to who-knows-where with nothing but a stack of cash. Cutting my hair with dull scissors in a shitty motel room. And if I had thought about it, Julie thought about it, too.

            During one of our late-night dorm room confessionals, we bonded over obsessively imagining our own funerals. Which exes would show? Would they cry? Who would cry? Who would give the eulogy? What would they say about us? Would our parents ever move on?

            “We’re so fucked up,” she said, giggling into her beloved pufferfish pillow.

            “If I die first, will you give the eulogy?” I asked.

            “You know I will,” she said. “And I’ll make it all about me.”

            The end of my cigarette was pure ash. I flicked it into a nearby puddle.

            I didn’t know what else to say to Molly. In a few days Julie would resurface and exonerate me and my lack of reaction.

            “What do you think happened?” I asked.

            “You really want to know?”

            “Yeah.”

            “Honestly, Lise, I think she’s gone. I feel like she’s dead. I looked up the park and it’s all woods and cliffs and ocean and she was there by herself. Alone! I don’t want to be negative, but I have to say it out loud or I’ll explode. Don’t tell anyone. Especially not Mae.”

            “I won’t,” I said. “And Julie’s not dead. Don’t worry.”

            I told her I had to get back to work, said I loved her and would call her later. After we hung up I walked around back to check the garbage bins. Raccoon-ravaged. Trash everywhere. Possessed by some dormant Girl Scout goodness, I went to turn the bins upright. I leaned over with my hands outstretched, and beyond the tips of my fingers I noticed movement. A wriggling. White spots. The spots swam in and out of the banana peels and half-eaten sandwiches, the fuzzy avocados and open containers of yogurt.

            Maggots.

            I thought I should scream, but I couldn’t muster one. Instead I backed away slowly, as if from a crime scene, until I was far enough to safely turn my back. Still, I felt like they were on me. That maybe one had burrowed in through the bottom of my shoe, crawled up my leg, my spine, and was now perched on my shoulder, waiting to climb into my ear and, eventually, eat my brain.

            What I remember most about that day is I was more disturbed by the maggots than I was by the news about Julie. I didn’t think for a second that she could be gone.

            I went back to my desk and let the day pass.
 
            When the day bled into a week, I looked up Acadia National Park. I scrolled through images of sprawling nature, a lighthouse nestled atop a rocky bluff. A mountain called Cadillac, its back etched with trails. It seemed awfully mild. Blue sea, blue sky. Pine trees. Piles of stones worn smooth by the ocean. I refined my search.

            Acadia National Park – death.

            It was possible to die there. But people die everywhere. People die at Disneyland.

            Acadia National Park – missing.

            There it was.

            Julie’s face.

            I closed my laptop and stuffed it under my bed, kingdom of dust bunnies and lone socks, among the other things I didn’t want to deal with. 

            I woke up every morning forgetting. I would remember with my toothbrush molar-deep, or while beating an egg, or on my third attempt to start the damn car. If I hadn’t already, I would remember when I passed the roadkill on my way to work, what was maybe once a deer? A large fox? An unfortunate dog? It was now a pink mound of guts on the shoulder that refused decomposition.
One day the roadkill was gone, and when I got to work I shut myself in a bathroom stall and tried to make myself cry. I told myself Julie was gone. Dead. Died alone in nature.

            “Ninety nine percent of the time it’s good,” she had told me during one of our last conversations, a few weeks before she went missing.

“Then what’s the problem?”

“The 1%.”

            After years of practice I had finally figured out how to deal with Julie’s relationship drama. Instead of voicing my concern, huffing and puffing, disapproving, giving advice that went untaken, offering ultimatums, I was now relentlessly supportive. It disoriented her. She’d spin around in circles until the truth spilled out.

            “I mean, you guys are so in love. And you’re starting this bed and breakfast. It’s really exciting! Not all couples can go into business together,” I said. “You’re super compatible.”

            “We’re not, though. He’s simple.”
            
            “That’s bad?”

            “He doesn’t understand me,” she said. “He’s my husband and he doesn’t get it.”

            “Did you end up making it legal?”

            When she sent us the pictures from the wedding – her way of telling us she had one – they were captioned “don’t worry, not legal. For mom.” I figured it was a lie, an attempt to rationalize why we weren’t invited and diminish the gossip the three of us would inevitably engage in behind her back. She knew we would be talking about it, about her. She wanted to protect herself. But we knew the truth.

            The wedding wasn’t for her mom. The wedding was because she really did love him. That’s how she loved. Hard and fast. Until whoever she loved loved her back, or until she got bored.

            “He’s my husband,” she repeated, which could have been confirmation but maybe not.
            “It’s not like with Dan. You’re not fighting all the time.”

            “He doesn’t react to anything. Sometimes I want to push him into a wall just to see what he’ll do.”

            “Healthy.”

            “Lise.”

            “Maybe you miss your mom. Maybe you need time to clear your head. To allow yourself to grieve.”

            There was no funeral. Julie’s mom, Beth, was a character. Chain-smoker, silk nightgowns with feather slippers at the supermarket, fake eyelashes and red lipstick. She’d been married three times. The first when she was seventeen, after legally emancipating herself from abusive parents. The second to Julie’s father at twenty-two. She had Julie’s sister Jade, then Julie. Then, after something happened that Julie never talked about, Beth married her third husband, a guy who did something with boats and had a lot of money. She got half of it in the divorce.

            Beth’s illness was long and drawn out. She got to say all her goodbyes. By the end she told Julie, “Burn me and scatter my ashes someplace pretty, would you?”

            “I was there every day,” Julie said. “I grieved.” 

            “Okay,” I said. “I just think it’s a lot all at once. You went from being a caretaker to being a wife, and now you’re opening a business in a new state and doing a whole renovation. When did you have time to process any of this? Have you had any time for yourself?”

            “No. I haven’t. You’re right.”

            “Take a few days. Get back to yourself.”

            “Right. I know you’re right.”

            “I go crazy without my alone time,” I said. That had been true at some point in the past, but then I was alone all the time and that was bad, too.

            “I miss you.”

            “I miss you, too.”

            “I want to get this place up and running so you guys can come. But I want you to come first, so we get some one-on-one QT. I miss you most. Don’t tell them, though.”

            “Secret’s safe with me.”

            “We’ve got the great big porch that wraps all the way around. I keep picturing us out there, drinking whiskey under blankets and star-gazing. I love Maine. The sky is so beautiful here, Lise. I don’t understand how some patches of sky are more beautiful than others. How does that work?”
            “Nature! Science!”

            She laughed, “That stuff.”

            “All right, I should get going,” I said, surrendering to sleepiness.

            “G’night, love you.”

            “Love you. Talk soon.”

            I pressed down on the memory like a bruise and felt nothing.
 
            At six months, Mae suggested we write Julie letters and bury them someplace special to us.
            “My therapist thinks it’s a good idea,” she said.

            “Since when are you in therapy?”

            “Does it matter?” 

            “No. I’m sorry.”

            “What are we doing?” she asked me.

            “What do you mean?”

            “We’re not doing anything. We have no control over the situation. It’s not constructive. It’s not good for us. Mentally, emotionally.”

            Yeah, duh. Of course our best friend going missing wasn’t good for us emotionally. But I couldn’t say that to Mae. Besides, she had a point.

            “Did you write her something?” I asked.

            “Not yet.”

            I thought about what it would be like to give Julie the letters when she came back. How she would hold them in her hands, then up to the light like diamonds, then tight to her chest, as if they might absorb through her clothes and into her skin. The precious evidence of how much we missed her.

            This vision was uniquely mine. By then, I was the only one who believed she was still alive. I was the only one who believed her disappearance was a sham. I was convinced Julie was somewhere reveling in solitude and not willing to give it up just yet. She’d come back for us, though.

            I’d committed myself to this belief. It was the only way I could function.

             “I bought paper,” Mae said. “This beautiful, expensive stationary from a shop in Soho. And a wax seal kit I’ll never use again.”

            “I’m going to get a letter from you in a few weeks with a wax seal. Written in calligraphy pen.”
            “I bought one of those, too.”

 I laughed.

            “It made perfect sense at the time.”

            “I’m sure it did.”

            “Elise,” she said. “You should probably see someone.”

            “A therapist?”

            “Yes.”

            “I don’t do therapy,” I said. “Julie doesn’t, either.”

            Mae made a clicking noise with her tongue, signaling to me her displeasure. It was a habit she picked up from her mother. I thought maybe it was a Southern thing. Mae had been raised in a suburb of Atlanta by two born-and-bred sweet tea come-to-Jesus Georgians. She had an accent she tried her best to subdue because it only provoked more of the “Where are you from?” and “What are you?” questions she was inundated with daily.

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