For three decades, Zoe has harboured a secret about her brother. By now, she's almost forgotten, assuming that life has moved on. But when the investigation into the death of her family's erstwhile neighbour, then just six years old, is re-opened, Zoe's past comes calling, and it threatens to tear her family apart.
This chilling premise is the tantalizing hook for The Good Son (Cormorant Books), a great addition to the world of literary noir. It's an interesting pivot for award-nominated picture book author Carolyn Huizinga Mills, but in her debut novel, she proves she's just as adept a storyteller for adults as for young readers. Indeed, as the tension ramps up to the boiling point, readers will be be racing to find out the truth behind Zoe's fractured memories and her family's complicated past.
We're excited to present an exclusive excerpt from The Good Son here today to give you a glimpse into Zoe's story, courtesy of Cormorant Books.
Excerpt from The Good Son by Carolyn Huizinga Mills:
After our dad died, Ricky starting getting into all kinds of trouble. Mom refers to this period as his “acting out” phase, and when she talks about it now, she makes it sound like it was all a bit of a joke, but I remember loud confrontations between the two of them that were anything but funny.
On one afternoon I was sitting at our kitchen table with my Rainbow Brite colouring book when the phone rang. Mom hurried over and partway through the conversation, something in her voice made me pause in my colouring and watch her. She had closed her eyes, like she was so tired she was going to fall asleep right there, leaning against the counter. After she hung up, I sat there, waiting for her to look at me and smile and go back to normal. But she didn’t.
She picked up an empty glass from the counter and slammed it into the sink. The sound of breaking glass sent a spasm of fear down my spine and I started to cry. She looked at me then.
“It was an accident, Zoe,” she said. “You don’t need to cry.”
I wanted to believe her, but watching her pick the shards of glass out of the sink made my stomach hurt.
When Ricky got home from school, he tossed his backpack on the floor and started down the hall toward his bedroom without saying a word to either of us. Mom called him back using all four of his names.
“Richard Joshua Martin Emmerson, you come back here this minute!”
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He turned around slowly and made his way toward Mom. I scuttled past him into my bedroom, but even from behind the closed door I could hear the angry accusations ricocheting off the walls of our living room. I couldn’t make out very much of what they were saying, but I remember squeezing my eyes shut at the sheer meanness in their voices.
“You think I’m acting crazy?” I heard Mom shriek. “Who do you think is going to pay for the damage?”
I couldn’t hear Ricky’s reply.
Mom said something in a low, menacing tone and whatever it was it set Ricky off.
“Why are you such a — a witch?” he shouted. “Why do you always have to make such a big deal out of everything? Just leave me alone!”
“You don’t even care, do you?” Mom yelled, right before I heard the bedroom door next to mine slam.
I peeked out of my room and saw Mom leaning forward, one hand on her chest. Her eyes were closed again and she was biting her lip. She stood, shoulders hunched, for a few seconds before straightening up and taking a deep breath.
I found out later from Ricky what he’d done. He’d written the word SHIT with a thick black marker on the wall in the boys’ bathroom. And he’d smashed one of the mirrors above the sinks with his foot.
“Why did you do that?” I whispered.
“I was mad.”
At the time, I couldn’t comprehend that kind of violent anger. That urge to strike out, to cause damage, to hurt someone or something.
I became a pleaser. At home, at school, anytime I was around other people, I went out of my way to be helpful and polite. It’s possible I was just a nice kid, but I seem to remember making a concerted effort to be good, to not cause any trouble.
Once, at recess, I picked up an empty juice box and a Kit Kat wrapper that was blowing around on the tarmac. When I carried them over to a garbage can by the door, Mrs. Smith, my grade two teacher, gave me a beaming smile. “Why thank you, Zoe!” she said. “We could use more helpers like you!”
The next day, on my way outside for recess, I reached into one of the garbage cans in the hall and pulled out some crumpled wrappers and a damp Kleenex. I quickly stuffed them in my pocket, planning to repeat my little garbage hero performance when it was time to come inside.
As I was straightening up, I heard snickering behind me. “Garbage-picker! Garbage-picker! Zoe is a garbage-picker!”
Ashley Ridowski and Jennifer Palmer were both pointing at me, their faces scrunched up with exaggerated disgust. I stared at them, my mouth hanging open in an ‘O’ of surprise, then turned and fled. Later, at home, I pulled the wrappers and the soggy Kleenex from my pocket and dumped them in our kitchen garbage under the sink, where no one could see.
Ricky’s shenanigans, as Mom naively refers to them now, only got worse when he went to high school and started hanging around with Darius. The two of them were trouble. I never liked Darius, not from the first time I met him. He had greasy hair that hung in his eyes and this hunched way of walking that I’m sure he thought was cool, but that really made him look like he was too lazy to stand up straight. Mostly Darius ignored me when he was at our house, which was fine by me because I didn’t like talking to my brother’s friends.
I woke up one morning to the sound of Mom crying as she asked Ricky over and over, “What were you thinking? Oh Ricky, what on earth were you thinking?” I couldn’t hear his reply, so I imagined him shrugging at her the way he so often did when she wanted an explanation. His reaction to pretty much everything at that time was casual indifference. Shrugging us off.
I was used to Mom being angry with Ricky, but I wasn’t used to hearing her cry. Whatever Ricky had done this time, I knew it was a different kind of bad. I sat cross-legged on my bed, listening to the barely-controlled fury in Mom’s voice, absorbing the fog of anger and disappointment that permeated the air.
Ricky slammed out of the house and I snuck into the kitchen. Mom pasted on a smile, but her eyes were still red-rimmed and puffy. I made myself an Eggo waffle in the toaster, being careful not to use too much syrup. While I was eating, Mom sat at the table with her hands wrapped around her coffee mug, staring past me at a spot on the wall. When I was done, I carried my dishes to the sink and went back to my room. I sat on the floor and began sorting through my bins of hand-me-down Lego. Most of it used to be Ricky’s. The day he gave me all his Lego stands out in my mind as one of a few golden moments.
“Hey, Zoe,” he’d said, stopping at my bedroom door. “You want my Lego? You like building stuff, don’t you?” He set a large grey bin on my floor saying, “I have more. You can have all of it.”
His generosity that day made me feel like floating. I ran over and hugged him and he patted my back awkwardly.
The morning that he slammed out of the house, as I raked my hand through one of my bins, the sound of the Lego pieces jostling together distracted me from the hollow silence in the rest of the house. I organized the pieces by size, creating neat piles in a circle around me.
While I sat on my green bedroom carpet, focusing on finding all the square two-by-twos, Mom called her friend, Linda. Through my open door, I overheard enough of their conversation to understand why she was so upset.
“It was his friend’s dad’s car. They were racing it down the Old Canal Road and a rabbit jumped out of the bushes. I guess the dog was right behind it.” Pause. “No! Neither of them has their licence yet. I know. I know.” A long, shaky inhalation. “Linda, he could have been charged! That poor man. He comes around the corner and there’s his dog, lying on the road.” Another pause. “Yes, it was dead.”
My heart was hammering. Ricky had killed a dog? He’d driven a car down Old Canal Road? It was more of a dirt track than an actual road, but still. I’d ridden my bike down it many times and could easily enough picture a rabbit and a dog appearing out of nowhere. One of the things I didn’t like about the road was that it was lined with overgrown shrubs that in the summer held swarms of mosquitoes. Whenever I was biking down it, I felt closed in, hidden from everything that was safe.
As Mom continued talking to Linda, I climbed onto my bed and buried my face in my pillow. What was happening to my brother? I pictured the owner of the dog sinking to his knees on the dirt road while Ricky and whatever friend he’d been with — although I suspected it must have been Darius — stood by helplessly. I couldn’t stop the sobs that shuddered from my small body, and I ended up biting my pillow just to muffle the sound of my anguish.
Later, I tiptoed around the house, putting away my toys, trying to avoid doing or saying anything that might upset Mom. I became invisible, drifting in and out of rooms on noiseless feet. I put on my pyjamas without being asked and brushed my teeth. When I went to Mom in her reading chair beside the living room window in order to say goodnight, she held me for a long time, not saying anything. Her breath smelled like lemons, from her after-dinner tea, and as I hugged her, that lemon-scent seemed to me to be infused with a desperate sort of sadness.
Mom maintains that during those years Ricky was simply going through a difficult period when he didn’t know how to handle the emotions of losing his father. She still makes excuses for him, but then, I guess I do too.
Just more reluctantly.
Ever since reading L.M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon as a child, Carolyn Huizinga Mills has dreamed of being a writer. She began writing short stories and in 2017, her story “Finders” placed second in the Alice Munro Short Story Competition. Carolyn’s first picture book, The Little Boy Who Lived Down the Drain, was chosen as a 2018 Blue Spruce Honour Book. Her second picture book, Grandpa’s Stars, is forthcoming. The Good Son is her first novel.
A grade seven teacher, Carolyn loves to share her passion for reading and writing with her students. She grew up in Calgary, Alberta, and now lives in southwestern Ontario with her husband and two children. In addition to reading and writing, Carolyn loves playing soccer, camping, travelling, and eating dark chocolate.