David Craft may not exactly have his life together, but when a couple of his classmates die suspiciously, his small New England hometown and poorly trained law enforcement are ready to pin the blame on him. His parents swoop in and whisk the family out of state and have David institutionalized, where he is diagnosed with schizophrenia. Three years later, he manages to pass muster to leave, but there’s only one problem. Whatever was responsible for his classmates’ deaths is now targeting David to carry out their dirty work. And the consequences if he fails to cooperate involve involuntary removal of David’s non-vital organs. He’s killed once, he can do it again…right?
Except David never thought the sexworker he found on Craigslist would turn out to be his ex-girlfriend from high school, Zhane. Instead of succumbing to the demands placed on him, David makes an attempt to befriend her. Amazingly, she accepts. Bolstered by the tantalizing idea that things could be normal, David attempts to rebuild his life in the very town in which he grew up. He find a job at a local supermarket and falls in love with fellow stock boy named Ahmed, who happens to be Muslim. Even more unbelievable, Ahmed and Zhane are able to see past his clinical diagnosis. The beings that are trying to coerce David into killing…that is a bigger leap of faith, but with true love and friendship, anything maybe possible.
I loved the layers and nuances of this story. Hell, I just really enjoyed this story. Each of the three main characters brings depth and interest and perspective to the storyline. What’s more, there’s this natural melding of representation that permeates the characters and shapes how they view the world. While a list hardly does justice to the superbly crafted mix of elements, here are some of the issues represented: mental illness, homophobia, racism, bigotry, self harm, single parenthood, sex work, religion, and disability. Ackerman does a marvelous job working these themes into the fabric of the characters and into their storylines.
For example, Zhane had become the black sheep of her family for her choice to make a living as a sex worker when she has the credentials to be an RN, especially because she has an infant. She rejects their judgmental attitude about her profession (though she does not reject her family), proud that she is able to provide for her small family. Ahmed is terrified of coming out to his family and torn between just marrying a girl and making his family happy (but himself and any potential wife miserable) and trying to have a relationship with a boy. His sisters before him have bucked some of the orthodox traditions they were raised with, but Ahmed is worried his sexuality is a bridge too far. Finally, David has to deal with the stigma of having a mental illness and the absolute dread that something is engaging him every eight weeks demanding he kill someone and, if he fails, having non-vital organs harvested from himself instead. He struggles with feeling unworthy and finds respite in self harm…but worries that only makes him even less deserving of anyone’s love—just a little more crazy.
I would say there are two hyper-distinct sections of this book. The first one deals with David coming back to his hometown and getting re-established. He makes friends with Zhane and falls in love with Ahmed. I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure if the David/Ahmed romance was going to go anywhere but young love cannot be denied and this opens up new levels of character depth for both of them. The other part of the book deals with this trio and the people who show up to help. Initially, there are just a pair of FBI agents, but another pair of…let’s call them agents…show up and this is when things get serious in terms of the things that demand David commit murder. These four work with David, Ahmed, and Zhane to put an end to the beings that are terrorizing David…and all I can say is that, in the thick of the big fight scene, there are a few lines and actions that made me super keen to read a story all about these so-called agents.
This story feels like an excellent mix of “get together” and “supernatural crime mystery.” Ackerman takes such great care of his main characters and builds a story around them that is part comfort—there’s hope for *everyone* to find happiness—and part dread—will those things ever be stopped? I would recommend this book to anyone, and twice to people who like macabre stories featuring compellingly real characters.