Joe believes you can run from your past, that you can become a new person in a new place and completely shed your old skin. But, when you go back home, you slip right back into it. And you will always eventually end up back home, for one reason or another, whether you like it or not. For him, it was a combination of desperate times and a cryptic email about his sister who died when she was eight: I know what happened to your sister. It’s happening again.
“You can still feel the echoes of bad things. They imprint on the fabric of our reality, like a footprint in concrete. Whatever made the impression is long gone, but you can never erase the mark it left.”
Arnhill is a town stuck in its ways. Locals sneering at outsiders, hardly any visible progress toward modernization, kids near mirror images of their parents when they were that age. It’s easy for all the memories to come crashing back the moment Joe returns, because everything is the same as it was when he left. He secures a job as a teacher at the local school and finds that the bully is none other than the son of his old bully/reluctant friend back in the day. A boy he ran around with solely to keep himself from being another one of his victims. And his son is exactly like him. Cruel, selfish, picking on the weak his idea of a good time. And the worse thing to have not changed despite his best efforts as a kid: the pit, still calling to kids to come and find it, enter it, and come out changed. Like poor Ben, whose mother bashed his head in before putting a shotgun in her mouth and leaving a message written in her son’s blood stating Not my son. Everyone in town believes she had a mental breakdown, but Joe knows, because his sister went missing for 48 hours when she was eight and when she came back, she wasn’t the Annie he knew anymore.
“We only skim the surface of this earth. But it has many layers. And sometimes, you shouldn’t dig too deep.”
As Joe recalls everything that happened all those years ago, we learn what happened to Annie the night she “went missing,” and how the pit brought her back, but only physically. Joe knew she was gone, replaced by something ancient and terrifying. As good ol’ Jud Crandall would say, “Sometimes dead is better.” There are actually a few others in town who know the truth about that place. The kids he used to run around with back then know, because they were down there with him. Now they are adults who aren’t pleased at his return. They want the past to stay buried, but Joe isn’t the one digging it up. It is crawling to the surface all on its own. The painful memories flooding into Joe’s mind and haunting him daily.
“That’s the problem with life. It never gives you a heads-up. Never offers you even the slightest clue that this might be an important moment. You might want to take some time, drink it in. It never lets you know that something is worth holding on to until it’s gone.”
Annie’s return is like a personification of Joe’s guilt and shame come to ridicule him and remind him daily that he couldn’t save her. And it must have been the same for Ben’s mother. Her lost son returned to her only to come to the conclusion that it isn’t truly her son, just a cruel trick to extend her suffering, a reminder that she failed him and can no longer reach him. That sort of pain is immense, and made worse by the fact that there really isn’t much you can do about it. You can’t turn back time. You can’t fix what you couldn’t predict would ever happen in the first place. The only thing you can do is live with it after the fact, trying your best to hold on to the good memories instead of the painful ones.
“Broken hearts don’t mend. Time just takes the pieces and grinds them to dust.”
C.J. Tudor is one of my favorite authors. I have loved every one of her books. They are the perfect blend of fantastical elements mixed with raw emotions that help make the story feel real. She is a truly captivating writer, and I can’t wait for her next book. I recommend every book she has written and every book she will write because I just know they will all be home-runs.