Watch Me Disappear
by Janelle Brown
” Leave, and they’ll hate you.
Die, and they’ll love you forever. “
At a cursory glance, the Flanagan family is a typical Californian unit: a techie Dad with cool hair, a beautiful and athletic mother, and a mature teenaged daughter who cares about the environment. The trio share their existence in a cozy Craftsman set on a suburban street in Berkeley, passing their days grabbing lunch in vegan cafes full of lounging hipsters and on beaches with the crashing waves and sandy-haired surfers as their companions.
On the surface, Billie is a great mom. She creates Pinterest-worthy delights for the bake sales hosted at daughter Olive’s expensive private school. She stays perfectly fit by spending her weekends hiking the extensive trails in their area or finding the hottest new yoga class. Her interior is as impressive as her exterior, and Billie never fails to have something interesting to bring to the table when discussing human rights or animal activism. She left behind a checkered past wrought with rumors of a salacious father and a jailed boyfriend, all to fashion a comfortable little life in a sweet little town with a picture-perfect little family.
But, is it enough?
When Billie leaves for yet another of her weekend trips, expressing the need to – yet again – gather clarity and revel in some much-needed alone time, Jonathan doesn’t worry. The Pacific Crest Trail in Desolation Wilderness is nothing she can’t handle, and although he would prefer she not trek out on her own, he doesn’t dare say it out loud. Bille gave up her independence a long time ago in a gesture of devotion and love to their daughter, and he feels that he owes it to her to not question her need to regain a bit of what she’s lost now that Olive is getting older and doesn’t need her as much. He can’t lie and say that he doesn’t miss Billie when she’s gone, but he also doesn’t entirely mind the break from her constant barrage of perfection and soft spoken elitism. Part of him has always felt “less than” in her effervescent presence; he’s never quite managed to break into the coolness that she embodies, no matter how long they’ve been together.
But this trip proved to be a different kind of getaway. Billie never returned and was never found, not even after countless searches among the crags and caverns along the trail. The only thing left behind was a well-worn hiking boot, the object mocking the painful hole left behind in Jonathan and Olive’s life. Now, nearly a year later, they are both still struggling in vain to put their lives back together. . . to somehow glue the fragments of their shattered world into some semblance of normal. The measure of difficulty is beyond any degree they could have ever comprehended, especially as there was never a body to bury.
” Missing, presumed dead. This phrase drives him insane, the way it insists on inserting doubt where there is none The facts are simple: Billie went backpacking by herself along the Pacific Crest Trail in Desolation Wilderness. She never came back down the mountain. No one was sure exactly what had happened, but the official verdict was that Billie had probably gone off-trail (this would have been so very Billie of her) and fallen into a ravine, hurt herself, and couldn’t hike out. Or maybe she was attacked by a wild animal, or just got lost and died of hunger and thirst.
Even now, a year later, Jonathan is plagued by the question of how long it had taken his wife to die. What if she had lain there for days, somewhere under the ponderosa pines, hurt and helpless, hearing the search helicopters overhead but incapable of summoning them? He lies awake at night, imagining the horror of it all; her waning hope that someone might find her, wherever she was, before it was too late. The dawning awareness that death was approaching as she measured out drops of water and the last crumbs of her granola bars. Then nothing but her fading breath and the scuttling of pikas and yellow-bellied marmots across the granite slopes. It’s unbearable to think about. Instead, he prays that death was instantaneous: that she fell, broke her neck, and didn’t have to suffer such a lonely ending. “
Nothing is working, and in fact, things are only getting worse as the one-year anniversary of her mother’s death looms in the near future. For Olive, the hardest part of losing Billie has been her attempts at figuring out who she is outside of her mom. Billie led her, encouraged her, and kept her on a path of righteousness while lending a free spirit to Olive’s otherwise naturally structured mindset. Without that guiding light in her life, Olive is lost. She knows her dad is doing his best but . . .
And then one day the unimaginable happens — Olive sees her mother. Actually sees her! Standing in the middle of the school hallway, Olive has a clear and concise vision of her mother standing before her, long hair billowing in the wind and toes sunken into the white sands of the beach. Billie looks right at her and asks Olive why she isn’t looking for her, her face a mixture of amusement and the slightest tinge of regret. But as Olive reaches for her mom she connects with the hard part of a wall, jolting her back into the here and now and leaving a huge knot on her forehead for good measure.
The visions and images don’t go away and although Olive desperately struggles to find a connection between her realistic daydreams and the tangible world around her, she can’t seem to gain purchase. She spends days and nights in an attempt to decipher the visions or consciously bring them on, and her weekends out searching for her mother in the places her mind has shown her. Clues run into dead ends and mysteries remain mysteries. . . and to make matters worse, her father doesn’t take her seriously and instead, drags her to a doctor who prescribes medication with the sole intent to kill the emerging clairvoyant side of her.
” ‘I believe it.’ Olive plants a palm in the center of her chest. ‘Dad. She told me to look for her.’
Jonathan is suddenly furious. ‘Stop it, Olive. This isn’t healthy. Your mother is gone. Dead,’ he snaps before he can stop himself. Immediately, he is stricken with remorse. He puts his hand to the hair at his temples and tugs on it, hard enough that it makes his eyes water. ‘Look, I’m sorry –‘ he begins.
But it’s too late, Olive has already shut down. ‘I shouldn’t have said anything,’ she mutters to the floor.
‘No, I’m glad you did,’ Jonathan says, not feeling glad at all. ‘I’m just trying to figure out what to say.’
‘GOD, Dad, don’t you get it?’ Olive throws up her hands. ‘It’s not about saying anything. It’s about doing something. I want to do something real for once. Can’t you open your mind just this one time? Mom would have tried to look for you.’
‘Hey –‘ he begins, taken aback. But Olive is already marching out of the room, her stride stiff and off-balance. “
What Olive doesn’t know is that her dad takes her more seriously than she thought. Jonathan has been doing some digging of his own, and is finding himself more and more baffled and unhappy by what he’s finding. Looking through the couple’s finances over the last year shows that Billie successfully siphoned off nearly $20,000 between their savings and checking accounts. And after a search through Billie’s laptop uncovers a hidden and locked file as well as some strange photos of a house he’s never seen and a bookmark to a private investigator’s office, Jonathan is left in a state of utter dismay. Did Billie really die that weekend, a year ago? Or did she disappear in another way entirely?
Both Olive and Jonathan begin to spiral out of control, their tandem paths peppered with insecurities, meddling friends, enigmatic strangers, and the question that haunts them both — is Billie still alive?
Watch Me Disappear is the third book by noted journalist and novelist Janelle Brown. A novel that has no qualms with delving into the complexities and flaws of each character allows readers to appreciate Brown’s raw and honest portrayal of the burdens Billie, Jonathan, and Olive all carry — each unique and solely theirs to shoulder. The people that we love are not always who or what we imagined and expected them to be, and Brown’s weaving of lives and story lines reminds readers that the human way of doing things is more often than not to see what we want to see. Billie, at her core, was not a good person. . . and it was fascinating to see how she infected lives with her selfishness while at the same time ingratiating herself.
Giving this novel a solid 4.5 out of 5 star rating, I am eager to pick up the other two novels Brown has penned. Her distinct descriptions of each character was a pleasure to read; at each turn of perspective I felt that Brown slipped into the character’s skin with ease and exceptional depth. While I did feel that a couple of the side story lines were a little contrived, I appreciated Brown’s attempts at creating even more ways for readers to connect with the realness of the characters. Several times I was sure that I had this novel and its mystery figured out, only to be given a twisting turn onto another avenue.
Watch Me Disappear is a clean and easy read for lovers of a good mystery, and is recommended for readers aged 15 and up. This book is available on all platforms on July 11, 2017.