JoAnne Tompkins’ What Comes After is an extraordinary debut literary thriller. In the wake of the devastating and shocking loss of two teenage boys, a community is shrouded in mystery and grief until an unfamiliar teenage girl arrives, changing everything. This is a tender and propulsive story of family — both biological and found — human connection and forgiveness. A must-read for anyone searching for a mystery with heart.
Finalist for the Washington State Book Award
Edgar Prize Finalist for Best Debut Novel by an American Author
Shortlisted for the Prix Libre Nous, Best Foreign Book in French Translation
New York Times, Group Text Pick for April 2021
New York Times Editor's Choice Pick
Named a top beach read of summer by Oprah Daily, Good Housekeeping, The Wall Street Journal, and more
“Nail-biting wallop of a debut . . . a thoughtful, unexpectedly optimistic tale.” —The New York Times
“If you enjoyed The Searcher by Tana French, read What Comes After by JoAnne Tompkins. . . . a mystery—and a gritty meditation on loss and redemption, drenched in stillness and grief.” —The Washington Post
After the shocking death of two teenage boys tears apart a community in the Pacific Northwest, a mysterious pregnant girl emerges out of the woods and into the lives of those same boys’ families—a moving and hopeful novel about forgiveness and human connection.
In misty, coastal Washington State, Isaac lives alone with his dog, grieving the recent death of his teenage son, Daniel. Next door, Lorrie, a working single mother, struggles with a heinous act committed by her own teenage son. Separated by only a silvery stretch of trees, the two parents are emotionally stranded, isolated by their great losses—until an unfamiliar sixteen-year-old girl shows up, bridges the gap, and changes everything.
Evangeline’s arrival at first feels like a blessing, but she is also clearly hiding something. When Isaac, who has retreated into his Quaker faith, isn’t equipped to handle her alone, Lorrie forges her own relationship with the girl. Soon all three characters are forced to examine what really happened in their overlapping pasts, and what it all possibly means for a shared future.
With a propulsive mystery at its core, What Comes After offers an unforgettable story of loss and anger, but also of kindness and hope, courage and forgiveness. It is a deeply moving account of strangers and friends not only helping each other forward after tragedy but inspiring a new kind of family.
|Penguin Publishing Group
|5.47(w) x 8.22(h) x 1.08(d)
About the Author
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Newly sixteen and trying to get a handle on her finances, Evangeline McKensey spread the last of her money-a twenty, three ones, and six oxycodones, which she counted as fives-on the scarred wooden table. The candle she'd lit started to gutter. She coaxed the wick with a pocket knife, her breath seized till it flared brighter. If it died, there would be nothing but darkness in the abandoned single-wide.
She stopped, snatched up a wastebasket and retched, holding back her tangle of red hair as best she could. No point in racing to the toilet. The water had been cut days ago. She swiped an arm across her mouth, smearing the foul stuff on her new denim jacket, the one that fate had left for her on a park bench last week. She'd hoped to avoid the puking. Some women did. It made the place smell horrible.
In the morning, she'd empty the wastebasket, fill it from a spigot on a neighboring horse pasture. Too rough out there now. The fall wind was churning the firs into a fury, sending high-pitched vibrations across the home's aluminum sides.
Evangeline pulled a can of chili from her duct-taped backpack. She'd slipped it from a shelf earlier in the day, but the picture of the greasy red beans and bits of ground meat now caused a rising in her throat, and she shoved it away. She could have pocketed a pregnancy test while she was at it. But why? Her boobs had made it obvious weeks ago, irritated at everything, even soft cotton bras and tees. She knew what she knew and marveled at anyone who needed a plus or minus on a plastic stick to fill them in on what their body was up to. Now, if somebody came up with a device to tell her the precise day this whole thing started, that would be worthwhile. That would answer a question that had been plaguing her.
She shoved aside the latest eviction notice ripped from the door. This one mentioned the coming appearance of the sheriff. Which figured. The pattern of her life had been set: horrors followed by small reprieves, glimmers of possibility, then wham, everything back to shit.
A few months back, she couldn't have imagined any of this. She had walked home from town on a warm July evening, the air clear and sweet, the sky glowing silver, thinking how her mom might let her enroll at the high school in the fall despite the likely presence of the devil. But when she entered the clearing and their rented trailer came into view, it radiated a stillness that stopped her breath.
She pushed the door. "Mom?" The cabinets hung open, only a jar of peanut butter and a couple cans of tuna left. A scrawled note waited on the table: I'm praying Jesus forgives you. She tore open an envelope next to the note. Two hundred dollars and her grandmother's jeweled brooch fell out. Evangeline slid to the floor, whimpering. "Please, Mama. You don't mean it." But her mother did mean it. Her mother had promised this day. Many times she had promised. And now she had done it, washed her hands of her daughter and slipped clean away.
Evangeline cried for days, praying to Jesus, afraid to leave for even a second in case her mother returned. But, as usual, the prayers didn't work, produced neither parent nor food on the shelves. She guessed her mother was using again. Years of sobriety down the drain. "My stalker boyfriend," her mom had called heroin. "A real son of a bitch."
As the weeks passed, Evangeline prayed less and less, until one day she realized she was done. She'd probably burned the Jesus bridge with the drinking and stealing and messing around with her mother's ex-boyfriend. Just as well. He'd never been that reliable. And the way she saw it, you could invite someone into your heart, but if they refused to come, you had to move on. You had to save yourself however you could.
It was early October now, winter lurking at the edges of gusting winds, in the damp gray that hung over the town. She'd survived three months alone in this dismal place. The only relief had been the two boys who'd appeared in September, a brief island of company-both tender and ugly-in the middle of all that loneliness. But within days the boys had disappeared. She'd only seen them again on the front page of the newspaper.
Dead boys. It was wrong to think of Jonah and Daniel that way. Dead. Boys. Nameless, generic. As if she'd had nothing to do with it. She pressed her hand to her belly. Would she wreck the baby too? Probably, but there was only her to save the poor thing.
"Bad break for you, baby," she whispered. "But you get what you get."
She picked up the eviction notice. A week till she'd be forcibly removed. She wadded it, tossed it in a corner, and dumped everything from her backpack onto the table: dozens of newspaper clippings, empty candy wrappers, dirty socks she'd hoped to wash in a public sink, her mother's copy of St. Augustine's Confessions, which she couldn't get into, and Dorothy Marsten's hydroxyzine, which, in her haste, she'd mistaken for hydrocodone. She forgave herself the error. Lingering was ill advised when trespassing in a stranger's home.
She rifled through the clippings. Though weeks old, their headlines still detonated painfully in her chest. Missing. Murder. Suicide. She picked up an article with a photo of a gray-haired man, studied it for the thousandth time. Isaac Balch. That was his name. But a single worn image couldn't tell her who the man was, and she set it back down.
She needed a plan and was beginning to suspect that Isaac Balch would be part of it somehow. She folded the clippings and tucked them into the pack. As for Dorothy Marsten's pills, she would return them tomorrow, slip them back during the old lady's nap the way she'd slipped them out. People could live with pain, but for all she knew, these were for the old lady's heart.
Nothing from her mother. The two hundred dollars was long gone, and she'd thrown the brooch in a slime-covered pond the night it tumbled from the envelope. She had wanted to dispose of her mother as quickly and indifferently as her mother had disposed of her. Now she hadn't a single possession to prove she'd ever mattered to anyone else.
She shoved back, considering. There might be something yet. Not from her mother, from the boy. She had lost it in a night wood, but she closed her eyes for a moment, trying to visualize. With surprising clarity she saw a tangle of thorny bramble, the shattered limb of a wind-damaged fir, and knew where she might look. With the right tool, she could cut it free. She could wrap it once more against her skin.
News of my son's death traveled even faster than that of his disappearance. It was a loss felt by our entire community and made all the more painful by its violent cause, by Jonah's suicide, by Seattle news teams that swooped in to sensationalize. Many in town speculated about girls and jealousies, drug deals and psychotic breaks, but not one fact surfaced that lent the slightest credibility to any of it.
The need for public outlets of grief was intense. Within the week, a student memorial was held in the school's overflowing gym. This was followed a few days later by a Catholic Mass filled to capacity, mourners packed even in the vestibule.
Katherine had insisted upon the Mass. Though Daniel never considered himself Catholic, I didn't object. Katherine, who had divorced me the year before, grieved as deeply as I did, likely more so for having chosen to live elsewhere, for failing to be present the last ten months of her son's life. I understood this and wished her whatever comfort she could find. Still, for my part, these events left me cold. And I am not a cold man.
At least, at one time, I was not.
Daniel's third service, his last, was the Quaker memorial I requested. I don't recall how I made it to the meetinghouse that day. I must have walked as I usually did, but the first thing I remember is standing in the clerk's office with Peter Thibodeau, my closest friend and principal of the high school where I taught. Though not a Quaker, Peter had led me away from the gathering as soon as he saw me at the meetinghouse door.
"We need to get you out of that," he said, nodding toward the wool sweater I wore. I was drenched. Apparently it had rained my entire way there.
"No," I said, jerking back.
He studied me. With his cropped dark hair, the shoulders of a bull, and a pronounced jaw, Peter was an imposing man. I must have swayed under his gaze, because he grabbed my arm as if to right me. And then he did something he had never done. He pulled me to him, held me in a painful crush. Only for a moment before pressing back. "You going to make it? Because you don't have to. I can take you home."
"I asked for this memorial."
He was right. I could leave or I could stay. Nothing would return to me what I had lost.
"All right," he said. "As long as you know you stink. You know that, right?"
So like him to be blunt even here. He was the same with students and parents, presenting notice of suspensions, even expulsions, with nonjudgmental candor.
"What were you thinking, walking here without a coat?"
I stood silent, the sweater releasing the barnyard scents of wet wool and grass. And something more potent. Buried deep in its fibers was the musky adolescent-boy smell of Daniel. Three years back, when my son was fourteen, when he still wanted to emulate his father, he had often borrowed it.
"People are waiting," Peter said.
Not being Quaker, he didn't understand that communal silence was its own form of honoring a life. Friends were not waiting. They had started the memorial the second they took their seats.
When I offered no response, Peter slid off his dark suit jacket and held it up. It was too formal and somber for a Quaker meeting, especially a memorial. But I let him put it on me, let him cover the sweater I wore. I can only imagine how I must have looked: my scraggly gray hair dripping down my cheeks and neck, wearing a jacket with sleeves cropped inches above my wrists, its short, boxy body making me appear taller and gaunter than I already was.
Though ten years my junior, Peter patted my back with tender severity, as if he were my father, and in allowing him to dress me, I had made him proud or sad or both.
On entering the meeting room, I saw Katherine seated on the far side, my usual spot opposite, waiting. Though all the benches faced the empty center, Friends had saved a place for me where the angles of light might feel familiar.
But this day, nothing felt familiar. The only comfort came from my damp sweater. Pressed to my skin by Peter's jacket, it created the sensation of weighted warmth, like a newborn nuzzled against me, and I had flashes of my son as a baby, newly burst into this world, his life unbounded. As the silence was broken, as Friend after Friend rose and spoke of my son, I half expected Daniel to appear in my arms or scamper in at the end of meeting, a five-year-old fresh from First Day School. I almost laughed remembering how, as a small boy, he'd convert his urge to make noise into motion, would flop backward over my knees, open and close his mouth like a fish. More than once, I'd taken a kick to the jaw during my son's acrobatic attempts at silence.
Perhaps forty minutes into the service, I saw Daniel on one of the front benches, fourteen and proud, wearing the very sweater that clung to me now. His eyes swept the room as if searching for something. He seemed so present, so thoroughly alive, that I glanced at Katherine across the emptiness. Surely, she felt him too. We could share this, couldn't we? One final moment together. Whole.
If she was aware of my eyes on her, if she felt Daniel in the room, I saw no evidence. Her focus was half lidded and still. Her "friend" sat next to her. Thick necked and dark suited, he took one of her hands in his and stroked it with his thumb. She lifted her face to him, and then, as if remembering, she flicked a glance my way. On seeing me, she slipped her hand out of his grasp, set it alone in her lap. An act of kindness. Or maybe one of shame.
Strange how I remember nothing of what was said that day, can recall none of the tributes paid to my son. But that moment stays with me. The connection and withdrawal. Love and loss, kindness and betrayal, Daniel present yet unseen, as if all I needed to know were contained in those few small motions.
Afterward, as Friends set up the potluck, I succumbed to an urge to flee, snuck out the back door and hid among the recycle bins, waiting for the parking lot to clear so I could cross it and walk home. I heard the back door open behind me. Jonah's mother, Lorrie, was attempting a similar escape.
I'd seen Lorrie earlier, sitting at the back of the meeting room, but my mind had refused to acknowledge her. She'd attended the Mass and the student gathering as well, but we had not spoken at either. Despite being next-door neighbors, we hadn't so much as waved since learning of our sons' deaths. I had forgiven Jonah. I had forgiven Lorrie. What more did God want of me? Why did God keep putting her before me again and again?
Now, in the damp, gray drizzle, she appeared hardly more than a child, her fierce, small frame lost in a black dress. She turned and saw me.
"Isaac!" An indictment, as if I'd planned this as a trap.
"It was good of you to come," I said, aware of the chill in my tone.
Her expression flickered with fear, but she forced her features into a semblance of calm and lowered her gaze, a submissive posture I'd seen her use when her husband, Roy, was still alive. It pained me to have her use it on me.