By Lin Thompson
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Aubrey and Joel are like two tomato vines that grew along the same crooked fence: weird, yet the same kind of weird. But lately, even their shared weirdness seems weird. Then Joel disappears. Vanishes. Poof. The whole town is looking for him, and Aubrey was the last person to see Joel. Aubrey can’t say much, but since lies of omission are still lies, here’s what they know for sure:
- For the last two weeks of the school year, when sixth grade became too much, Aubrey and Joel have been building a raft in the woods.
- The raft was supposed to be just another part of their running away game.
- The raft is gone now too.
SOMETIME IN THE LAST DAY OR SO, EVER SINCE JOEL GALLAGHER disappeared, I became a liar. I didn’t mean to turn that way. I didn’t even realize I was lying as I did it—not at first, anyway. Mine were mostly lies of omission. I lied by not saying things. These lies feel like a different category, if you ask me. They feel like something you just let happen instead of something you actively do.
But Father Jacob says lies of omission are still lies. They count with God just the same. Which is too bad, I guess, because the more I think about it, the more sure I am that even before Joel disappeared—even before any of this—I’ve been lying by omission all over the place.
It’s Sunday morning now. Joel disappeared from the woods behind my house sometime late Friday night, or maybe early Saturday morning. Disappeared isn’t the right word, but no one in town can come up with a better one. Disappeared sounds like a magic trick. It sounds like Joel just up and vanished, poof, from a patch of woods in the middle of Kentucky. There one minute, gone the next—like a miracle, but not the good kind.
“He can’t have just disappeared,” everyone in town keeps saying. But no one can figure out what actually happened to him, either.
Except me, I guess. I’m starting to have an idea.
Confession is a word that can mean a couple of different things. You can confess to the police about a crime you committed, for one: You can show up at the police station downtown and sign some papers admitting you’re guilty, that you did whatever the police say you did. Joel and I used to put that kind of confession in our Secret Agents game. I’d play the bad guy who tried to assassinate the president or stole top secret information on a thumb drive or something, and Joel would play the agent who interrogated me and got me to crack. I’m surprisingly good at playing the bad guy. Joel is not surprisingly good at playing the hero.
It’s against the law to lie to the police, and if the justice department in the state of Kentucky counts lies of omission the same way God counts them, I definitely lied to the police. I could make that kind of police station confession now if I wanted to. I could find the phone number on the business card Officer McCarthy gave me yesterday and call him up this morning.
But I’m not going to confess that way.
If you’re Catholic, like Joel and me and pretty much everybody I know, you can confess in church, too. That’s Confession-with-a-capital-C, one of the seven holy sacraments. You sit in a special room in the church and list off your sins to Father Jacob, and if you’re really, sincerely sorry and really, sincerely plan to change your ways, Father Jacob will tell you God forgives you.
But I’m not going to confess that way, either. I feel plenty sorry about the lies I’ve been telling, but I can’t go back and change them. I’m not about to tell everyone in Riverview the whole truth.
Maybe this is a different kind of confession. A confession that’s not apologizing and that’s not admitting guilt. Both of those confessions are the kind you make to someone: the first to a police officer, and the second to a priest. But I don’t want to confess to anyone. That’s the whole problem. None of them deserve to know the parts of the story I’m leaving out. Father Jacob, or Officer McCarthy, or Joel’s parents, or my parents, or Rudy Thomas, or the kids at school—they don’t deserve to know any of it.
The story I told about where Joel’s gone, and about Joel and me and everything that led up to him disappearing, has been like a bunch of puzzle pieces whose edges won’t quite line up. You can try to force them together, but the picture they make is jumbled and crammed. It’s missing too many pieces in the middle.
This isn’t a confession to anyone. It’s a confession in the telling. I have to tell the missing pieces.
And I’m sure I’ll have plenty more pieces to confess before this is all over and done.
ONE VERSION OF THE STORY
THE OFFICIAL STORY I TOLD TO THE POLICE AND JOEL’S PARENTS AND everyone in town about the night he disappeared goes like this:
On Friday night, Joel and I went out camping. We always go camping on the last day of school, the first night of summer. It’s been our tradition since kindergarten. Joel and I have lots of traditions like that. Things we’ve done over and over for as long as we’ve been friends, which means basically forever. In past years, sometimes my mom or dad has joined us, or Joel’s mom or dad, or my older sister, Teagan, or one year a dog the Gallaghers were dog-sitting. But no one else goes every single year. Just Joel and me.
This year, my parents were tired out from work. Teagan had decided she didn’t like camping anymore unless it was inside a cabin with air-conditioning. Mari Clark-Espinoza, our new friend from school this year, had wanted to come along but had to drive to Louisville the next morning for something with her moms that Mari wouldn’t explain any further. My dad said that Joel and I were finally old enough to stay out by ourselves, so he helped us carry our supplies to the same clearing in the woods we’ve been camping in since kindergarten, helped us pitch two tents, and then hiked home.
So it was just Joel and me.
But late that night Joel and I both got spooked. We know every inch of the woods during the daytime. We’ve crisscrossed them hundreds of times, over and over, pretending that we’re pirates or spies or warriors or elves. We know how to make trail markers for each other out of broken sticks or rocks. We know how to tell apart the different kinds of birds. We know all the names of the trees.
But the woods at nighttime are different. There are noises, ones that in daytime I could probably recognize as just the wind through the trees or someone’s dog barking. In the dark, they sound like bears or wolves or ghosts.
So we got spooked, and Joel and I decided that camping out with just the two of us wasn’t such a good idea. We put out the fire and packed up the tents. I walked back to my house. I figured he was walking back to his.
Joel never arrived home.
That’s the end of that version of the story.
A TRUER VERSION OF THE STORY
HERE ARE SOME PARTS OF THE STORY I LEFT OUT:
1. The homemade raft Joel and I built together, hooked to the bur oak tree beside Mystic Creek, during the last two weeks of sixth grade.
2. Our many, many plans to run away.
3. The unrepeatable names Rudy Thomas and the other kids in our class had called Joel at school.
4. What Joel said about those names that night when we were camping.
5. The fight Joel and I had by the campfire that night, before he disappeared.
6. The look in Joel’s eyes after the fight stopped.
Joel and I have been friends so long that I know every facial expression he can make. I keep a list of them in my head so I can name them as they happen—I like having categories for things. I like organization. There’s his wide-eyed Begging Puppy Dog look when he wants something. There’s the sideways smile of his I’m Up to Something look. There’s the too-bright Cover-Up Smile when he’s trying to act like he’s not upset but really he is.
But his wild, reckless look after we stopped fighting that night—that one was new. I didn’t have a name for that one.
NOBODY’S BEEN SURPRISED TO LEARN THAT I WAS THE LAST PERSON TO SEE JOEL. The two of us are always together. I used to figure Joel and me had the kind of friendship that happens because you’re around each other all the time—because you’re the same age, and you live in the same neighborhood, and you’re in the same class at school every year, and your families have gone to the same nine o’clock Mass at the Church of the Sacred Heart every Sunday since forever and ever, amen.
Maybe that’s how we started out. But Joel and me are more than that. My dad says we’re two peas in a pod. My grandma Sadie says we’re tight as ticks. Teagan says we’re the same kind of weird, and she’s probably right. Joel and me, we’re whole summers of playing our Secret Agents game and our Pirates game and our Woodland Elves game together in the woods. We’re jokes that nobody else laughs at because they’re only funny if you know the three different stories the joke is talking about. We’re afternoons of lying side by side on the ground and flipping through all my Kentucky nature guides and never having to worry about saying something strange or wrong. Talking without having to think.
By now, it’s impossible to tell if Joel and I have stayed friends because we’re the same kind of weird or if we’re the same kind of weird because we’ve been friends so long. I like to think of us like two of the tomato vines in my dad’s garden, the ones that climb up around the same chicken-wire fence. We’ve been around each other for so long that we’ve grown up the same.
Maybe that was our problem this year. Sixth grade brought some good things, like Mari Clark-Espinoza. But it also brought plenty of bad, like Rudy Thomas and Vice Principal McDonnell and all kinds of new middle school social rules that I didn’t know how to follow and that Joel didn’t care about following. Maybe we’ve just gotten further apart.
Or maybe Joel and me stopped fitting together the way we used to.
That’s what I’m thinking about Sunday morning, during our usual nine o’clock Mass at the Church of the Sacred Heart. Father Jacob has set apart this week’s as a vigil Mass for Joel, which means we’re supposed to be praying extra hard through the whole thing for Joel to come home safe. It’s been a little over a day since we found out Joel was gone. As if I can think about anything else.
I’ve spent every Sunday of my life here in the Church of the Sacred Heart, kneeling on the fold-down kneelers the color of eggplant and staring up at the carving of Jesus on the cross that hangs over the altar. Jesus’s hands and feet have little trickles of blood painted onto them, and his eyes are pointing up, I guess toward heaven. I’ve always thought his face looks almost bored, though.
It’s after Communion now, and on the altar, Father Jacob is leading a special prayer for Joel. He’s stretched his arms out and tilted his face up toward the ceiling, so he’s in just the same position as Jesus behind him.
“Lord Jesus, please send your guardian angels to watch over our dear child until he’s returned to us,” Father Jacob is saying.
We’re all kneeling down and are supposed to have our heads bowed, but I can’t stop fidgeting and looking around. My dad’s on one side of me; Teagan’s on the other. Every so often, my dad reaches over and gives my folded hands a little squeeze.
Most of Riverview has shown up for Mass, or at least it seems that way. In front of us are the Millers, who live down the street from Joel’s family and have seven kids. There’s Mr. and Mrs. Fitzgerald, who are both about a million years old and always bring this really smelly jam cake to the church potlucks. Rudy Thomas and his family are here; they’re sitting a couple of pews ahead of us. So is Parker Ferguson. Parker is leaning over and looking at something in his hand, probably texting out of his pocket. He mutters something to Rudy Thomas, and Rudy snorts out a laugh till Mrs. Thomas leans over and hisses them both quiet.
Riverview’s the kind of town where you know pretty much everybody. Where the same families have lived for ages and ages. Where you get stuck talking to the elderly ladies from church for half an hour anytime your mom sends you to run into Kroger for milk. Even if you meet somebody around town who you haven’t met before, you can both list off names of cousins and neighbors and church friends till you find someone the other one knows.
Vice Principal McDonnell is here, sitting between her husband and their two kids. Even Officer McCarthy, the police officer who’s in charge of Joel’s case, is here for the vigil. For a split second I think he sees me looking at him, and he gives me a nod, but I bow my head again quick and pretend not to notice.
“Please, Lord,” Father Jacob is saying. “Please grant us your heavenly guidance to find our child safe and well.”
That our child part bugs me. He probably means our child like Joel is part of our community. Part of the Church of the Sacred Heart. But it makes my whole body feels stiff.
“Please grant us your peace as we wait for Joel’s safe return.”
Now Father Jacob reaches out a hand toward Joel’s mom and dad, who are kneeling in their usual pew right at the front of the church. They look wrong without Joel there in the middle. Joel’s dad stays very still, staring straight ahead, his mouth pulled into a tight line. Beside him, Joel’s mom is thrumming with energy. The left leg of her pants is jiggling up and down in exactly the same way Joel’s leg jiggles when he’s restless.
“Please grant your peace to April and Jonathan in this difficult time,” Father Jacob says.
“That poor family,” Mrs. Miller in front of us murmurs, and Mr. Miller clucks in agreement.
Joel’s mom and dad don’t need peace. They need Joel.
Father Jacob keeps praying, and Teagan bumps her shoulder against mine. When I glance over at her, she doesn’t say anything, but she gives me a little side smile and bumps me again. On the other side of her, my mom is bowing her head, but she keeps looking over at Teagan and me every couple of seconds. Making sure we’re still here, I guess.
After Father Jacob finishes his prayer, the choir starts up a hymn about God being a shepherd who looks after his lost sheep, and the ushers hand out candles to everyone, even kids. The candles are the same skinny white kind we light every year at Easter. Maybe they’re the exact same ones, left over from last month. They have little paper cups around the middle to catch the wax as it melts.
We all pass the flame down each pew, candle to candle, person to person. Teagan uses her candle to light mine, her hand cupped up around the flame to protect it. After mine catches, I tip it over and light my dad’s. He’s singing with the hymn, his voice soft but steady. I try to kind of mouth along with the words, but any sound gets stuck in my throat.
My candle’s melting too fast. The white drips of wax slide down its side. There’s a little gap between the wax-catching cup and the candle, and a big glob of wax slides right through it and lands on the side of my hand, scalding hot. I don’t move. I just sit there and watch it. I leave the wax there till it cools, and then I peel it off my skin and roll it up into a little ball. The skin underneath has turned a little pinker than usual.
“‘God is my shepherd, so nothing shall I want,’” the choir sings.
It’s not true, though. I want so much. I want Joel to be here with us in the church. I want everything to go back to the way it’s supposed to be. I want to go back to the beginning of this year, or maybe even earlier. Back before everything got complicated. Before everything started feeling wrong. I want to be somewhere—anywhere—else, anywhere besides this pew in the Church of the Sacred Heart.
I just keep rolling my little ball of wax between my fingers. Joel and me have been friends so long, it’s always felt like we’re tied together. Like there’s a string between us. Like when we made a tin-can telephone back in first grade. It didn’t really work as a telephone—maybe we didn’t make it right or didn’t know how to use it. But I liked that telephone anyway. I liked how I could hold on to one end and Joel could hold on to the other, and the long, long piece of yarn would run from him to me, connecting us.
Ever since we realized he was gone yesterday morning, ever since I found out he didn’t come home from camping, I’ve kept trying and trying. But I can’t feel that string anymore.
It’s cut down the middle. And the other end is gone.
A CONVERSATION WITH JOEL’S MOM
AFTER MASS, EVERYBODY HEADS OVER TO THE PARISH HALL TO FORM A search party. We’ve prayed to God to bring Joel home, and now it’s time for us to try to bring him home ourselves.
My family’s heading toward the church’s back doors when I realize Joel’s mom has beaten us there. She’s waiting just inside the doorway—waiting for me.
She and Joel’s dad have already talked to me a bunch of times since Joel disappeared. They called our house, first thing yesterday morning, when they realized Joel hadn’t come home from our camping trip. Then they both came over to our house to ask all the same questions in person. His mom had made me think of a hummingbird—fluttery and skittish, full of nervous energy but with nowhere to put it. I know that feeling.
Right when I spot her in the church doorway, my heart starts thrum-thrum-thrumming. Run, my brain says, hide, maybe she won’t see you, but of course she does. She murmurs something to my mom, who nods, and Joel’s mom pulls me off to the side. She tucks us in an alcove by the table of prayer candles, with a stained glass window of the Virgin Mary staring down at us.
Joel’s mom looks as nervous as I am. She keeps clasping and unclasping her hands.
“I just wanted to ask,” she says, then stops. Clasps her hands. Unclasps them. “I have to ask if there’s anything else you can remember from the other night. Anything at all. I know how you two are.”
How you two are. It’s such a short way to sum up our whole lives together. Playing in the woods. Making up stories. Telling each other everything. Or at least, we used to.
Joel’s mom looks a lot like him. Older, obviously, with darker brown skin and her hair in long braids, but something in her eyes and the curve of her mouth matches Joel’s perfectly. She fills in the gaps that are always left when you look at Joel alongside his dad. Not just the obvious stuff, like his skin color and hair—Joel and his mom are Black while his dad is white. It’s more than that. His dad doesn’t smile very much, and his eyebrows always point down a little. Without seeing Joel’s mom, you can’t figure out where his joy and energy and heart come from.
Her dark brown eyes are so soft and serious now that looking right at them makes me feel like I swallowed a rock. I look at her shoes instead.
“I know he was having a rough time,” she says. “His dad and I…” She shakes her head and tries again. “I should’ve… I mean, we were talking about…”
“He told me,” I say, because I don’t want to hear her say it. My stomach starts sinking into a pit that feels like it might swallow me whole. I don’t want to think about what Joel told me by the campfire that night. I don’t want to think about our fight. I shove my hands into my pockets and clench them into fists, pushing my fingernails into my palms. At least that hurts less than the sinking.
“I’ve started asking around,” Joel’s mom says. “And I know the police are trying. But if there’s anything you think of that might be important—something he said, or someplace you talked about. Aubrey.”
I have to look at her then, when she says my name.
“Do you have any idea where he might’ve gone?”
I guess I haven’t really thought hard about the lies I’ve told up till now. I know they’re wrong. I know I’m wrong. But it’s so easy to leave the tough parts out. And I’ve been doing my best not to think too hard. Everything that happened on the last day of school—Don’t think about that, I’ve kept telling myself. Our fight by the campfire. Don’t think about that. Finding out Joel was gone. Don’t think about that.
Yesterday morning, when I talked to Joel’s parents, and later on, when Officer McCarthy asked me for all the details down at the police station, they had all asked, “Do you know where Joel is?”
And when the question is Do you know where he is? I can honestly answer no. I don’t.
But when the question is Do you have any idea where he might have gone?
Well. If I’m being totally honest, I have a hunch.
Joel’s mom is still studying me, staring right into my eyes. I try and try to swallow down the rock in my throat. To go back to before the lies felt like they really mattered. In my pocket, I can still feel the little ball of wax from my vigil candle.
“Sorry. I don’t know,” I hear myself say. “But I’ll tell you if I think of anything.”
As I cross over to the parish hall and meet up with my parents and Teagan, I try to convince myself I did the right thing. I don’t know anything—not for sure. I shouldn’t get Joel’s mom’s hopes up before I even find out if my hunch is right. If I tell her all the parts of the story I left out, I’ll get in huge trouble, and Joel will get in trouble, and besides, maybe I’m wrong, and then even after all that we still won’t be any closer to finding him.
But I know that’s not the whole of it. There’s another reason, too. An uglier reason. One that keeps my stomach clenched tight for a long, long time. I’m not proud of it, but this is a confession, and the truth is that maybe I don’t tell her because I’m mad at her. When I look at her, all I can think about is what Joel and I had fought about by the campfire that night. All I can think is You can’t just take him away.
I’ll wait till I know more, I figure. Then I’ll tell.
But it turns out that’s another lie. Later, after the search parties come back and show Officer McCarthy what they’ve found, I know without a doubt that my hunch is right. And even then, I keep my mouth shut.
A MEETING WITH A POLICE OFFICER
THE DAY BEFORE, ON SATURDAY MORNING, JOEL’S MOM AND DAD HAD filed a report with the police. That was the morning we realized Joel hadn’t come home from camping. His parents called the police station from our house right after I told them my partial version of the story. Joel’s mom kept pacing back and forth across our kitchen. Joel’s dad sat with his hands cupped under his chin, his cell phone on speaker on the table. He answered all the officer’s questions in a level voice with an annoyed frown on his face. I wasn’t sure if he was annoyed at the police officer he was talking to or annoyed at Joel for causing so much trouble.
Since I was the last person to see Joel before he disappeared, the police officer on the phone asked if I would come down to the station to make a statement.
“Just to get the story in your own words,” he said.
Joel’s mom stopped pacing when he said that, and she looked at me with her soft eyes that made my stomach feel flippity-floppity, till I nodded and said okay.
My dad drove me to the police station that afternoon. The place was stuffy and hot. They had the heater running even though it’s almost the end of May.
“How about you start at the beginning,” Officer McCarthy said. He sat me and my dad down in metal folding chairs across from his desk. “Tell me about what happened last night.”
Repeating the version of the story I’d told Joel’s parents to Officer McCarthy was easy. He hmm-ed in some spots and uh-huh-ed in others, tapping out notes on his computer. He had a copy of Joel’s sixth-grade school picture on the table in front of us—the same one the Gallaghers have hanging in the front hallway of their house. It showed Joel’s brown face grinning and dimpled, his curls trimmed short, the collar of his blue-checked shirt crisp and clean.
The whole time I was talking, I stared at that photo. I tried to pretend I was telling the story to Joel instead of about him. But it felt just like that—pretending.
After I’d finished telling my story about the night before, Officer McCarthy leaned back in his chair and looked at me over his computer screen.
“I’m gonna ask you some questions,” he said. “Just to get a sense of what else might be going on with your friend. Has he seemed different lately?”
Joel’s always been different—at least that’s what people say about him. It’s their more polite way of pointing out that Joel just does what he wants and doesn’t care about what people think.
- * “Thompson’s debut is a heartfelt coming-of-age journey that explores identity, friendship, and learning to accept who you are, even if you don’t quite understand it yet.”—Booklist, starred review
“The Best Liars in Riverview is a beautiful and heartwarming exploration of self-discovery. Lin Thompson writes with love and respect for their readers, and I’m excited for the young people who will have the chance to read their story. A stunning and potentially life-changing, life-saving debut.”—Kacen Callender, National Book Award-winning author of King and the Dragonflies
- "The Best Liars in Riverview is an incredible debut. I loved spending time with Aubrey and would have followed them anywhere."—Erin Entrada Kelly, Newbery Medal-winning author of Hello, Universe
"Tender and bold all at once, Thompson's breathtaking debut about found family and identity will infuse readers with hope and courage. A luminous read."—Ashley Herring Blake, Stonewall honor winner of Ivy Aberdeen's Letter to the World
- “Don’t let the title fool you. Achingly honest and deeply moving, The Best Liars in Riverview empowers readers to seek their own truth—and live it."—Lisa Jenn Bigelow, author of the Lambda Literary Award book, Hazel’s Theory of Evolution
"The Best Liars in Riverview is a lyrically told tale about friendship, found family, belonging and hope. Thompson has crafted a gorgeous debut that will fill an important place on LGBTQ+ shelves, and Aubrey is a character that will stay with me for a long time."—Nicole Melleby, author of Hurricane Season
"A beautifully written, nuanced exploration of identity, The Best Liars in Riverview is heartbreaking at times in the truths it reveals about growing up and feeling different in a rural community. It also offers so much comfort and hope. Thompson's debut is a lyrical, wonderfully queer story that will forever hold a special place in my heart."—A. J. Sass, author of Ana on the Edge and Ellen Outside the Lines
“A dazzlingly atmospheric debut about truth-telling made possible through found family and self-discovery. Lin Thompson writes with heartfelt incisiveness about the pain of alienation, the preciousness of friendship, and the empowerment that comes through being seen and believed. Aubrey left an indelible mark on my heart, and their riveting story will encourage young readers everywhere to “say something” when the time is right.”—Kathryn Ormsbee, author of The House in Poplar Wood
- "A gentle and genuine coming-out story."—Kirkus Reviews
- “A sensitively written first novel…this heartfelt story shows rather than tells how friendship can lead to understanding.”—Publishers Weekly
- “Thompson’s tale will have readers guessing up until the very end. A gratifying middle grade read for students who enjoy tales of adventure and belonging.”—School Library Journal
- On Sale
- Aug 29, 2023
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers