They’d used his school photograph in the newspapers. His blond hair neatly combed, smiling for the camera. I thought, you will disappear, Johnny. This will be the last photo taken of you.
Forty years ago: Cece’s son went out on his bike on a hot summer’s day and never came home. Every evening she lingers on her front porch, hoping to see him coming up the driveway. But the street remains empty and, with her heart aching, Cece goes back inside and closes the door behind her…
Forty years later: On a rare visit to her father, Carla stumbles across a box tucked away in one of the cupboards. Full of her father’s diaries and old newspaper clippings, it tells the story of the disappearance of three boys when her father was just a child.
Her father refuses to discuss the missing children and his silence only makes Carla more curious. When she meets the mother of the last boy who went missing, and sees her pain first-hand, Carla becomes determined to help Cece finally lay her child to rest.
But as Carla begins to read the diaries and discovers more about the dark days all those years before, she realises the truth might be more complicated than she thought. There are people in this town who will do anything to stop her digging up the past, and uncovering the truth could change her world in ways she never imagined possible…
A totally gripping, emotionally charged suspense novel about small-town secrets and the price of facing up to the truth. Fans of Liane Moriarty, Diane Chamberlain and The Silent Daughter will be gripped from the very first page until the final, heart-stopping twist.
Readers love Jennifer Harvey:
“Wow, sooooo many emotions with this outstanding book… Awesome, Gripping… Heartbreaking!!!” NetGalley reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“Thrilling. Suspenseful. Taut. Breathtakingly tense. Addictive. WOW, this was a book I couldn’t put down.” NetGalley reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“A real heart-wrenching read… An emotional mystery… Not a book to miss!” NetGalley reviewer
“Fast paced, very emotional, totally heartbreaking… I was just blown away!… An unforgettable story!” Heidi Lynn Book Reviews, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“You will love this book!… Believe me when I say you’ll never see the ending coming.” Goodreads reviewer
“Wonderful from start to finish… Amazing. Stunning. Brilliant.” Renita D’Silva, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“Engaging, twisty and page turning… I could not put this book down…
Release date: August 26, 2021
Print pages: 350
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The Vanishing Child
Oh, and I wish so hard he would go away. I close my eyes and pray with all my heart to get out of here. To be back home with you. To be safe. I just want to go back in time. Just one day, that’s all. Let me go back one day. Back to the moment I was walking up the hill.
Because then I’ll just keep on walking, Mom. I’ll just keep on pushing my bike up the hill. And when he comes up to me, I’ll be polite, just as you always told me to be. I’ll say “thank you” when he offers to help me. I’ll say, “That’s okay, I can make it home from here.”
Yes, that’s what I’ll do. That’s what I’ll say.
I won’t feel tired. I won’t feel hot. I won’t feel annoyed that the tire is punctured. Instead, I’ll think about Dad and how he told me he would show me how to repair it. I’ll keep my promise to him and wait so we can fix it together.
Honestly, Mom. I’ll keep on walking up the hill until I get to the top, and then I’ll freewheel down. And at the bottom, I’ll walk the last few yards until I am home. I’ll just walk in the door, like any other day. It will be like any other day. I won’t stop to talk to him. I won’t follow him inside. I’ll just keep on walking. I’ll come home.
And you’ll ask me what happened, and I’ll show you the tire, and you’ll smile and make me a glass of lemonade and tell me to rest up, and then we’ll wait for Dad to come home.
And after dinner, he’ll ruffle my hair and we’ll go out into the yard and he’ll show me what to do. “A boy should know how to fix a punctured tire,” he’ll say. And I’ll nod and hunker down and watch what he does and learn.
Make it happen this way, Mom. Please make it happen. Take me back in time. I’m praying so hard for it. Just one day. That’s all. Please, please…
Because it’s so dark down here. It’s so, so dark. And I know he’s going to hurt me. I saw it in his eyes. He wants to hurt me. Just like those other boys. He wants to do to me what he did to them.
Please, Mom, please… Take me back. Just one day. Let me come home.
The call came out of the blue. The voice on the other end of the line was professional, but gentle too, and sympathetic.
“Hi, I’m Suzie McColl,” the caller said. “I’m a palliative care nurse at the Cascadia Hospice. I’m calling on behalf of your father, Robert Allen.”
I had no idea how she got a hold of my number and didn’t know how to react. I just muttered something like, “Oh, okay,” too shocked to say much more because hearing Rob’s name alongside the words “palliative care” hit me far harder than I expected.
Suzie told me she was calling to ask if I wanted to come and say goodbye to him.
“He’s spoken about his family so often,” she explained, “and I think he would like to have someone with him when the time comes.”
When the time comes. I couldn’t quite absorb that. I could tell from the tone of her voice that the thought of Rob dying with no family beside him upset her. It was clear she wanted to help him and that she cared about what happened to him.
I listened to her and couldn’t help thinking she’d made a mistake. She had to be talking about someone else. Because my father wasn’t the sort of man people cared about. At least, not enough to go to the effort of calling around and trying to gather his family together one last time. That wasn’t the man I knew in any case. That wasn’t my father.
If she knew our history, I thought, she’d understand there was no chance of any of us going up there.
But Suzie seemed determined. She had the key to his house, she explained. I could stay there while I visited him in the hospice. She could get the place ready for me, make up the guest bedroom, it wouldn’t be a problem.
“My grandma is his neighbor,” she told me. “And I’ve known Rob my whole life. It would really mean so much to him. To all of us really.”
She spoke about him as if he were family, and I didn’t want to tell her it had been fifteen years since I’d last spoken to him. But something about her voice, the kindness in it and the fact she didn’t ask too many questions, convinced me that maybe someone should be there for him. Maybe the past was not worth dwelling on.
When I told her I would come up, I heard her sigh with relief and realized she must have called me last. Gina and Mom had already turned her down. This call had been her last shot.
And I found myself wondering, How’d you get to know someone as nice as this then, Dad?
“Listen, I just need a couple of days, to sort some stuff out, before I can make it up there,” I explained. And Suzie thanked me and told me she was looking forward to meeting me. Everything so polite, and nice. As if he was a good man, an ordinary man, and not a father and husband who had long been estranged from his family.
It was only when I put the phone down that it hit me. The crazy coincidence of it. Rob, of all people, coming through for me when I needed it most. How ironic.
Will didn’t react when I told him I’d found a new place to live and I wondered if he’d practiced containing his relief beforehand, making sure to stay expressionless, not realizing it was this very reticence that gave him away. A silent hallelujah. But a rejoicing for all that.
“I’ll be out of here in a day or two, if that’s okay?”
It was. “You need any help?” he asked. “I can help you move with your stuff , if you want.”
So casual, as if I was just a friend who had stayed over for the weekend and not someone who’d shared a home with him for more than five years. This was how far we had deteriorated.
“Thanks, it’s okay,” I told him. “I’m heading pretty far, so what I can’t fit in the car I’ll need to leave behind. Is that okay?”
“Yeah, sure. Where you headed then?”
And I counted the distance in my mind, all the miles from San Francisco to Newcastle and wondered if it was far enough.
“North,” I told him. And left it at that.
Newcastle. I had needed to look for it online after I’d spoken to Suzie; I’d forgotten the precise location. Rob rarely spoke about where he came from. It was as if his hometown, his childhood, had never existed; the past, something he preferred to forget.
I’d taken a virtual wander around the town and the surrounding wilderness, overawed by the beauty of the mountains and the sheer vastness of the forest, and the way it all gave way at its edges to the dark expansiveness of the ocean. It seemed strangely tranquil yet intimidating at the same time. Newcastle, some sort of in-between place, where nothing of any note ever happened. Anyone looking for excitement or adventure would need to head to Seattle or the wilderness.
Though my little internet excursion had thrown up a surprise. It seemed that Newcastle’s biggest claim to fame was a series of child murders that had occurred in the ’60s and early ’70s, and for which the perpetrator had never been caught. Unsolved crimes that still had the power to intrigue the internet in 2018. It made me think that my dad did belong there after all. He contained those same dichotomies. That superficial tranquility harboring terrible secrets. In the same way the ocean, the mountains, the forest could be a source of horror as well as wonder, Rob was a man who could dish out affection as easily as blows.
It seemed strange to think that I was about to leave the easy, golden sunshine of California for this seemingly unknowable place.
North. Why couldn’t I just tell Will where I was headed? But it felt like a defeat, for some reason, to admit I was headed to my dad’s house. As if I was a child who still needed paternal protection. And besides, how could I suddenly explain Rob to him, when I had barely mentioned him in all the years we were together?
“Hey, that man I never mention? My dad? He’s dying, and I’m going to see him one last time. Then I’m going to pick up the key to his house and take it from there.”
No, it was easier to say nothing. Easier to walk away. Get in the car and drive. Just wave a goodbye. No explanations. Just how I liked it.
The hours on the road gave me time to start making some sort of plan for what I was going to do when I got to Newcastle. I had enough money to last a couple of months or so, but after that? All I could do was get the key from Suzie and then try and figure things out, maybe I could even make the place my own. Mom and Gina wouldn’t mind. They’d be happy, I hoped. I could almost hear Gina say it, even. “You know, Carla, you could settle down here. Make a go of things.” As if I hadn’t spent the last five years trying. And failing. But this was a chance at something new and I had to take it.
And as I headed north, I felt strangely uplifted and uncharacteristically optimistic. I had a “new beginning” sort of feeling, and I had to keep reminding myself that I was headed there because my father was dying.
There was an end to deal with before any beginning.
Suzie turned out to be one of those people who are as friendly and sympathetic in reality as their voice on the telephone suggests. I liked her immediately. She’d given me her address and told me to come by and pick up the key to Rob’s place. When she opened the door, her smile was exactly as I had imagined it would be—genuine, and warm. I could see she was the kind of person people went to when they needed help, because they knew she could be relied upon. When I’d spoken to her on the phone, I had imagined her to be in her late forties and it was a surprise to discover that she was around my age, but wiser and more responsible.
She drove over with me to Rob’s house and helped me with my bags, then left it at that.
“I’ll let you settle in first after your long journey,” she said. “We can talk later.”
And she smiled as she handed me the key and said, “You know, you look just like him,” as if she wasn’t expecting there to be any resemblance. It had been years since anyone had told me that and I was surprised to discover it no longer made me cringe. If anything, I was glad there were people here who looked at me and saw someone familiar. Perhaps it would make it easier for me to get to know everyone. I’d be “Rob’s daughter,” and not some stranger who’d rolled up from San Francisco.
I thanked Suzie for her help and told her I hoped she’d come over for coffee soon.
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Suzie smiled. “This is the sort of town where neighbors look out for one another. I’ll come by tomorrow when you’ve had a chance to get settled in and we can go to the hospice together if you like?”
I’d nodded and smiled and hoped that Suzie hadn’t caught the look of uncertainty that must have crept across my face. Because now that I was here, I wasn’t sure if I could go through with it. A piece of me was already thinking that it might be simpler to let him die alone or at least wait until he had slipped so deep into a drug-induced coma that I could avoid talking to him.
“Don’t worry, he’s still pretty lucid,” she said. “The pain medication he’s on at the moment hasn’t affected him too badly yet.”
“So he can still talk?” I asked her. And she touched my arm and nodded, not understanding that my question stemmed from panic. She just assumed the news he was awake and aware came as a relief.
“That was why he wanted someone to be here now, while he could still talk,” she told me. And it was my turn to smile and nod. And again, I had to wonder. How did my dad end up with friends and neighbors like these? People who cared so much?
The more I thought about it, the less sense it made.
Settling in. Suzie made it sound easy, just a question of putting the key in the lock and turning the handle, but as soon as I walked inside, I began to fear that maybe I’d made a mistake and that it wasn’t the place for me after all. Because my dad was more present than I’d imagined he would be.
It was stupid that I hadn’t anticipated it, it was his house after all, and a few weeks ago, he’d still been rattling around in these rooms and living his quiet and isolated life. No family around him, but with friends who seemed to care and who took an interest.
Somehow, I’d convinced myself that living in his house would not affect me. That I’d just walk inside, and it would be like entering a stranger’s house, a place I had no connection to. Instead, I encountered something else entirely.
It was a shock, when I opened the door and was confronted with a hallway lined with photographs. Me and Gina as kids, school portraits, family get-togethers. A studio portrait of my mom when she was young that I had never seen before. Every photo was framed and they were carefully arranged over both walls. It was like walking through an arcade of memories. And there was something strangely feminine about it too. A hallway lined with photographs, that was the sort of thing a woman would do to make a house a home, not a man who…
And a disconcerting idea crept up on me. That a change had come over him while we were all living our separate lives. He’d become better, in some way. Nostalgic, a little sentimental even. No, I thought. That was impossible.
I wondered if he would even recognize me if he walked through the door and saw me standing there. Would he know it was me? Would he call out my name—“Carla!”—surprised to see me, or would he stare at me as if I were a stranger?
The last time I’d seen him was fifteen years ago. I’d been headed to a new life, a new job, a new city, hoping for something better and unsure if I would make it. Within a year I’d be back in San Francisco. Fresh starts, it turned out, require more than just a change in location.
He’d been strong still. Healthy and vigorous and looking much younger than fifty-three, by at least ten years. He had looked like a man who would never decline and I think he believed this was true. He had always been aware of his physical presence and had never hesitated to use his powerful physique to intimidate.
We hadn’t said very much that day. When it came to the time to leave, he’d leaned towards me expecting an embrace and when I flinched—a reflexive response not intended to be cruel—he nodded and pursed his lips. There was no need to tell me that it hurt, I could see it did. His attempt at affection had surprised me. But we’d left it at that, both of us knowing we would never get past this moment. We would never lean towards one another, never embrace. Too much had happened.
“You take care of yourself, Carla,” he’d said.
“Yeah, you too.”
“And call me when you get there, so I know you arrived safe.”
Again, his concern so unexpected, so fatherly. I had turned away from him, because I didn’t know how to react to this uncharacteristic affection, and I questioned it immediately.
“I will,” I had promised him. But I had never intended to keep my word. I had forgotten the promise almost as soon as it was made. My father, just a vague presence in my mind as soon as I’d walked away. I wanted to forget him.
But those photos on the wall hinted at something. Maybe I had misunderstood him all along. And now, here I was, about to face him again. Or what was left of him. And I stared at the portrait of me as a kid that hung on the wall, and wondered what that child would have thought of her future self. That kid would never have gone to him. That kid would have run as far and as fast as possible in the opposite direction.
Suzie came by in the morning while I was rummaging around in the kitchen trying to see if there was anything in the house for breakfast, coffee maybe, or some cookies. But there was nothing in the fridge or the cupboards.
When I opened the front door, she was standing on the porch carrying a bag filled with some essentials, bread, milk and coffee, and she laughed when she saw the relief on my face.
“I only realized this morning that there’d be no food in the place,” she said. “Sorry for not thinking of it yesterday. I got you a few things just to get you started. We can go to the store later, on the way back from the hospice, and get some supplies.”
I motioned for her to come inside and thanked her as we walked to the kitchen. For the first time since I arrived, I felt relaxed, because Suzie was making the decisions and I wondered how she had managed to become such an efficient and organized person. We were around the same age, but she seemed far more in control of her life than I had ever managed to be. But it was a relief to let someone else take charge. We were going to the hospice and that was that.
In the kitchen, she set about making coffee and unpacking the groceries she had brought.
“Here, let me sort out some breakfast while you get yourself washed and dressed,” she said.
It was only then that I realized I was still wearing my pajamas and that my hair was tousled, and I smelled a little funky. I smiled at her a little sheepishly and headed upstairs to get ready.
All night I’d been trying to think of some way to put off going to see my dad, even if it were only for a few days, but I’d been unable to come up with a reasonable excuse. After all, I’d come all this way, I’d responded to her phone call, so she had no reason to think I’d refuse to see him.
In the end, I found myself hoping we’d get to the hospice and find him too sedated to talk. I could sit by his bedside and play the dutiful daughter and feel good about myself without having to talk to him or confront him. I could even tell him things, safe in the knowledge that he couldn’t hear me. It could be cathartic.
Though even that unsettled me. Because maybe it would be better to take this last opportunity to sort things out between us and really talk to him.
When I got back to the kitchen, Suzie was sitting at the table drinking her coffee. She immediately stood up and went over to the percolator, poured me a mug, then set it down.
“Here you go,” she said. “I hope you like muffins with your coffee? It was all I could get at the store for now.”
I had never been treated so kindly by a stranger before and I wasn’t sure how to react. “Thank you,” I said. “It’s so kind of you. You really didn’t need to do this.”
And she looked at me as if what I had said made no sense, then said, “My pleasure. And anyway, it looks like you need it.”
“I mean, it looks like you had a rough night. Did you have trouble sleeping?”
I shook my head and sipped my coffee and once again Suzie surprised me with her perceptiveness.
“Listen,” she said. “If you’re worried about how he’ll be when we get there, then don’t be. Like I said, he’s still doing okay, all things considered. I mean, he can talk still and he can eat and drink unassisted and walk about a bit. Just as long as we don’t stay too long and tire him out, he’ll be fine. The worst that can happen is that he’s asleep.”
I didn’t know how to tell her that this was what had kept me awake all night. Knowing he could still talk, that he was still conscious, was the very thing I dreaded. I had thought her unexpected call had come because he was close to death. The fact that he was apparently still very much alive frightened me, and I wondered if I would have come up here at all if I had known the true extent of his state of health. A part of me was still unsure why Suzie had called me. If he wasn’t close to death, then why the rush? Or had he told her to sound so urgent because he knew we wouldn’t come if we thought he still had weeks to live and not days?
“I just don’t know what to say to him,” I told her. “It’s been so long since we saw one another and I’m not sure if I’ll be able to find the right words.”
She stretched her arm across the table and took hold of my hand. I let her do it, surprised by the gesture of comfort and how easy it was to accept this sympathy from her.
“If it helps, he spoke about you a lot, especially over the last few weeks. I think he’s been thinking things over, you know? And he wants to see his family again while there is still time. Even if you sit there and don’t say a word, that will be enough for him, I reckon.”
I smiled at her and shook my head. “Maybe, who knows. Like I say, it’s been a long time and there’s a lot of baggage we never really dealt with, so…”
“Trust me,” she said. “It’ll be fine. You’ll find the words. At times like this, most people do, and I know he really wants to see you. When I told him you were coming, he cried so hard.”
I almost told her right then that I couldn’t do it. The idea of my father crying and looking forward to seeing me… There was something about it all that pushed me back into the past. I was frightened that he was manipulating me. Feigning interest just so he could get what he wanted. And I worried that the photos in the hallway indicated nothing. He was still the same man, and men like him never change, they always get what they want.
But I was here now, and Suzie was not going to take no for an answer.
“Right,” I said, as I swallowed down the last of my coffee and took the last bite of my muffin. “Shall we get going?”
On the drive over, Suzie chatted to me, but I couldn’t focus on anything she said because the question that had kept me awake all night was taunting me over and over again: What the hell am I supposed to say to him?
I wasn’t ready to face him and I should have been honest and explained to Suzie that I needed time, even if there was so little of it left. Because it was more than simply being scared of seeing him again after all these years. I was also aware that the question I had for him was too immense for a frail dying man to answer.
“Why did we mean so little to you?”
That wasn’t a question for a deathbed. It was a question that should have been asked years ago while we were still capable of grappling with it. Because it contained a thousand other questions, and also my greatest fear: that he would answer it. Just look me in the eye and say: “Carla, that’s just who I am.”
The room was surprisingly beautiful. A large window overlooked a garden and light filled the room with a warm golden glow. It looked pretty much like an ordinary room. Framed watercolors hung on the walls, a small yellow sofa with matching cushions sat in a corner of the room, a burnt orange rug decorated the floor, and a coffee table lay strewn with books and magazines. Nice little touches that made the space feel warm and welcoming. It was a place for people to come together.
It was only as I approached the bed that I saw the equipment. A line leading into the vein on his left hand, connected to a machine which presumably controlled the dosage of whatever medication he was receiving. It was strange to see the thick veins protruding from the thin skin on his hands. Old-man hands. Hands that had once caused so much pain.
I walked over to the bed and looked at him as he lay there, a pale imitation of the man I remembered; his skin, paper thin and almost translucent and dotted with liver-colored age spots. His eyes were closed, and his lips cracked and dry because he had to breathe through his mouth. And thin. He was so, so thin. The shock of seeing him this way made me draw breath and Suzie took hold of my hand and squeezed it, then pulled a chair over to his bedside and gently settled me down in it. This was her domain, and her nursing instincts took over and began to calm me. And once again, as I gave myself over to her control, it was enough to help me compose myself.
He wasn’t aware of me, and I wasn’t sure if it was due to sleep or a result of the drugs, but it was a relief to know I could spend the first few moments with him simply watching and not having to talk to him.
“Can he hear me?” I asked Suzie.
“Maybe,” she replied. “We haven’t sedated him. But he sleeps a lot more now, so there was always a chance that he wouldn’t be awake when we arrived. I’m so sorry.”
“No, it’s okay. I prefer it, to be honest. It gives me a chance to get used to seeing him like this. I mean, the last time I saw him, he was so…” and my voice faltered, on the verge of tears.
Suzie touched my shoulder and smiled, “Shall I leave you alone with him? I can go fetch you a coffee or something if you like?”
I nodded and waited for her to leave the room and close the door behind her before I took hold of his hand, relieved when my touch did not rouse him.
For a while I just sat there and listened to the slow and easy rhythm of his breath. It was calming and the quiet of the room lulled me into a sort of trance and made me wonder what Mom and Gina would make of this tranquil scene. I could see Gina shaking her head and turning away in frustration. She would think he didn’t deserve to die this way, quietly and with a hand holding his. She thought he wasn’t worth it, that our love and our care were better given to those who deserved it.
A few days ago I would have agreed with her. The thought of sitting with my father and comforting him on his death bed would have seemed absurd, impossible even. After what he had done to us, he deserved nothing. The way he had tried so hard to break us for no apparent reason. Why forgive any . . .
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