In the remarkable, bizarre, and heart-wrenching summer before Cullen Witter’s senior year of high school, he is forced to examine everything he thinks he understands about his small and painfully dull Arkansas town. His cousin overdoses; his town becomes absurdly obsessed with the alleged reappearance of an extinct woodpecker; and most troubling of all, his sensitive, gifted fifteen-year-old brother, Gabriel, suddenly and inexplicably disappears.
Meanwhile, the crisis of faith spawned by a young missionary’s disillusion in Africa prompts a frantic search for meaning that has far-reaching consequences. As distant as the two stories initially seem, they are woven together through masterful plotting and merge in a surprising and harrowing climax.
This extraordinary tale from a rare literary voice finds wonder in the ordinary and illuminates the hope of second chances.
About the Author
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Where Things Come Back HAPTER ONE
I was seventeen years old when I saw my first dead body. It wasn’t my cousin Oslo’s. It was a woman who looked to have been around fifty or at least in her late forties. She didn’t have any visible bullet holes or scratches, cuts, or bruises, so I assumed that she had just died of some disease or something; her body barely hidden by the thin white sheet as it awaited its placement in the lockers. The second dead body I ever saw was my cousin Oslo’s. I recognized his dirty brown shoes immediately as the woman wearing the bright white coat grasped the metallic handle and yanked hard to slide the body out from the silvery wall.
“That’s him,” I said to her.
His eyes were closed. His lips purple. His arms had bruises and track marks. Nothing was hidden from view, as he had died in a sleeveless white T-shirt, one of the same he had worn nearly every day of his life. There was something white in the corners of his mouth, but I didn’t ask what it might be. I didn’t really say much after that. The woman waited there for me to cry or say “I’m done,” or something. But I didn’t do a thing. I just stared at him. And I’m not sure if I was thinking anything at that moment either. I wasn’t thinking about missing him or pitying him or even about how angry I was at him. I was just standing there like some ass-hat, mouth half-open and eyes glued to one spot. Eventually the white coat woman broke the silence.
“Do you need any more time?” she asked.
“No thanks. I’m good.”
My mother cried on the way home. My little brother, Gabriel, looked anxious, but he kept his headphones on and didn’t say much for the duration of our trip. I drove, but I didn’t want to because I thought it might rain. I hate driving in the rain. I’d wanted my dad to come along so I wouldn’t have to play man for the evening by driving the whole way and making sure everyone ate and all. I didn’t so much mind the body identifying. That part was bound to happen, one way or another. Oslo had been shooting shit into his arm since I could remember. He had also frequently been an inconvenience to me. Picking him up at truck stops or crack houses. Telling lies to his mom to cover up his dumb-ass behavior and save him an argument. Loaning him ten dollars here and there and hoping he would buy food with it, but knowing he probably wouldn’t. I did it all. We all did. Me. My dad. Even my aunt Julia gave him money so long as he showed up every other day or so, long enough to make her forget that she had failed to raise him right, long enough to make her love him again.
My dad couldn’t come because he got a call around five thirty that afternoon to haul some oil well equipment up to Harrison. That’s what he does. He hauls things that I don’t know anything about and never really care to. All I know is that somebody needs these large pieces of metal that have something to do with pumping oil as soon as possible when they call him. And so he goes at all hours of the day and night. Sometimes he sits at the house for days, reading the paper or novels about dead people (because, apparently, men in their forties are only interested in reading about the lives of presidents, explorers, or criminals). Sometimes we don’t see him for two weeks at a time, only hear the sound of him switching trailers in the backyard at three in the morning or leaving messages on the machine to remind Mom to fill a prescription or pay the mortgage.
When we got home from Little Rock, Dad was still gone and the kitchen light was the only thing we could see from the driveway. Gabriel had fallen asleep about twenty minutes before and Mom wasn’t far behind him. She leaned over and kissed the side of my head before she got out of the car and walked toward the house. Opening the back door, I kicked at the bottom of Gabriel’s shoe. He shot up quick and threw his arms up, as if someone were about to cut his throat. I looked at him the way you look at someone when you’re waiting for them to come to their senses—like you’re both frustrated with and feeling sorry for them—and then I helped him get his footing. I followed him into the house and Mom was already in his bedroom, already crying again as she talked to a half-asleep Aunt Julia. Soon there was one more crying voice, and Gabriel and I sat up on my bed and listened through the wall as Aunt Julia rambled on and on about wanting to die.
Gabriel was asleep within minutes and the voices in the room next door had nearly gone silent. If they were still talking, they had decided to whisper, perhaps taking into consideration the two teenagers in the next room who had to get up and go to school the next day. Before lying down, I grabbed my leather-bound journal off the nightstand and turned to the first blank page I could find. I jotted down Oslo After Death. This would be a great title for a book, I thought. That is what I do sometimes. I jot down titles for books that I one day intend to write. Oslo After Death was #71.
I closed the journal, turned off the lamp, and looked at my brother to make sure I hadn’t stirred him. He still slept, an impossibly sincere smile on his face. He had a habit of shutting out the world. Habits like this meant that he didn’t look up when he walked down the hallway at school. If you look up, then you can avoid being pushed or running into someone or being the convenient target for some ass-hat standing by the water fountain waiting intently for innocent-looking freshmen to walk by with their heads down. My problem was that I wasn’t big or tough enough to really protect or defend my little brother in any manner save for my sometimes creative use of sarcasm as distraction. Lucas Cader, though, was quite effective in staving off those common shitheads who liked to pick on Gabriel and his friends. I think, in a way, Lucas felt like it was part of his duty in the world to protect those kids. I’m glad, because it wasn’t mine. You see, Lucas had power. He walked down the hall and you noticed him. You noticed his six-two swimmer’s build and his messy brown hair that always looked like it was ready for a photo shoot. You noticed how he smiled at the pretty girls but always managed to say something nice or sweet to the not-so-pretty ones. Lucas was the only other guy besides Gabriel that I could stand to be around, simply for the fact that I just didn’t like guys all that much. I liked girls and women, but guys really put me off most of the time. Everything is a pissing contest with most guys. With Lucas, I could be my insecure shell of a man and not feel threatened. And Gabriel could walk down the hall and not risk having his backpack thrown into the trash can. And Elizabeth Strawn could feel good about herself for maybe the only time that day she had a huge zit on her cheek.
Being seventeen and bored in a small town, I like to pretend sometimes that I’m a pessimist. This is the way it is and nothing can sway me from that. Life sucks most of the time. Everything is bullshit. High school sucks. You go to school, work for fifty years, then you die. Only I can’t seem to keep that up for too long before my natural urge to idealize goes into effect. I can’t seem to be a pessimist long enough to overlook the possibility of things being overwhelmingly good. But as I lay there in my bed that night with my brother asleep beside me, I couldn’t seem to muster up any sort of idealism. The phone call at three that afternoon. The drive to Little Rock. And then the revelation of death. It was all too real. Nothing idealistic about seeing your only cousin ghost white and stone dead. Not much to idealize when you know your aunt is crying herself to sleep next door and nothing can be done.
Like most teenage boys, I, Cullen Witter, was in love with a beautiful girl who had a big, burly boyfriend who would just as soon kick my ass as look at me. His name was Russell Quitman, and I didn’t care too much for his brother or parents, either. But I sometimes dislike people by association. The girl’s name was Ada Taylor, and she could have probably kicked my ass too. (If you haven’t figured it out yet, just about everyone you know could probably kick my ass.) If you lived in Lily, Arkansas, which we all did, then you knew Ada, or at least knew about her. I’m pretty sure even some of the kids in Little Rock and Memphis heard stories about Lily’s own black widow.
You see, Ada Taylor had a grim history. As a sophomore in high school, when I was just a freshman, Ada was dating this ass-hat by the name of Conner Bolton. Conner was a senior and made it his personal mission to make every freshman in the school terrified to be caught walking alone or near the bathrooms, lockers, or trash cans. But alas, he died before Christmas break in a car accident. Ada was the only other passenger. She walked away without a scratch. Then, the next year, Ada was dating this okay guy who I used to play G.I. Joes with on the floor of my mom’s hair salon. His name was Aaron Lancaster. He didn’t even make it to Thanksgiving before he up and drowned in the White River during a thunderstorm. His dad found his empty fishing boat. A search party found his body four days later. I heard it looked like he had been microwaved.
After that, it almost seemed like a ridiculous thing to date Ada Taylor, or even go near her. But that didn’t matter much to the young men of Lily, even me. The unspoken philosophy of all those in love with Ada was something like this: If I have to die to get that, then death it is. But there we were with one week of school left and Russell Quitman was still breathing up all the air around him and taking up all the extra table space around him in the lunchroom with his monstrous biceps. I had bet Lucas that Russell wouldn’t last past Easter. That cost me ten bucks. You might think it sadistic to bet on an eighteen-year-old boy’s death or to talk about it like I wanted it to happen or something. This would just further prove that you’d never met Russell Quitman. Certain people are supposed to be the ones who burn up in fiery crashes or drown in the rapids of a river in the middle of the night. These are the Russell Quitmans of the world.
Dr. Webb says that most people see the world in bubbles. This keeps them comfortable with their place and the places of others. What he means is that most people, in order to feel okay about who they are and where they stand in relation to others, automatically group everyone into stereotypical little bunches. This is why boys who don’t like sports or don’t have promiscuous sex are always called gay, people who make good grades without studying are always called nerds, and people who seem to have no worries in the world and have a little bit of money are always called preps. As a straight-A student who hated football, I fit into two of these bubbles. This left me with things like Post-it notes saying “Cullen Witter’s a fag” stuck to my locker and big black glasses being drawn onto my photo in everyone’s yearbooks. Dr. Webb also says that the only way of dealing with the close-minded nature of most southern-born, conservative-leaning people is to either completely ignore their ignorance or to perpetuate it by playing into the set of standards that they subconsciously hold for each particular bubble. In short, if I would have whined about being called a fag, then I would have just been called a fag more often. And if Sara Burch would have ignored the boys in fifth grade when they called her a bookworm, then she might not have become the glorified slut she is today.
There are some, however, who seem to be immune to this epidemic of bubbles. They are people like Gabriel Witter, who is perhaps the most interesting person I’ve ever known, and I don’t say that just because he’s my brother. I say it because every morning since he turned eleven or so he would wake up before anyone else in the house, go out onto the porch, and read a chapter of a book. I say it because he listened to bands no one ever heard of. And he had amassed a collection of nearly fifty ties by the time he got into junior high, ties he wore to school every single day. I guess the most interesting thing about Gabriel was that he didn’t seem to care at all what people were thinking about him. He walked down the hallway at school with his head down not because he wanted to avoid being seen or dissuade social predators or anything, but simply because he didn’t see any reason to lift up his head. It took me a while to get to the point where I would walk both down the middle of the hallway and with my head upright. Of course, walking beside or behind Lucas always made this much easier. Given the choice between looking at Cullen Witter and looking at Lucas Cader, anyone would choose the latter.
I called Russell the Quit Man for two reasons. The first one was obvious, his last name. That’s a no-brainer. But the other reason I called him this was much more related to his character. It was because the most frequent thing heard when near Russell Quitman were the cries of whatever prey he was putting into a headlock or holding upside down or tripping in the hallway. “Quit, man. Quit!” How is it that Russell Quitman, the Quit Man, could be so cruel, such a huge douche bag, and still manage to go out with the prettiest girl in town? I call this the Pretty Paradox. Pretty girls always want guys who treat them, and most everyone else, like complete shit. It is perhaps one of the most baffling phenomena in history.
Book Title #72: Good Things Happening to Bad People.
I’m not sure why anything like the existence of the Quit Man or girls liking him surprised me in a place like Lily. Living in Lily, Arkansas, is sometimes like living in the land that time forgot. We do have things like Burger King and McDonald’s, and we even have a Walmart, but if you are looking for much more than that, you’ll just have to keep on driving through. Like most Arkansas towns, Lily does have an abundance of one thing: trees. Lily is all trees and dirt sliced into circles by curved roads. Lily is also water, though. The White River runs right along the edge of town and all the way across the state and over to the Mississippi.
If you’ve never been to Lily, and I bet you haven’t, then you need to know that it is located almost exactly halfway between Little Rock and Memphis. There are 3,947 people, according to the faded green sign on the side of the road as you drive into town, and most of those people are complete ass-hats who tried and subsequently failed to leave this place behind. One unique thing about Lily is that, for a small town in the middle of nowhere, it seems to be a very clean, well-kept sort of place. Lily is the kind of place you’d like to move to some short time before you die. If at any other time in your life you think you need the peace and quiet of Lily, Arkansas, then you should either see a therapist or stay there for a week and try to find anything half-entertaining to do.
Because I have few inner resources, I often found it very difficult to deal with the boredom brought on by living in Lily. My brother never seemed bored, and that only further angered me at the fact that I was most of the time unsettled and unfulfilled in everything I did. Gabriel was happy just reading a book or listening to music or walking around town with Libby Truett, his best friend. Well, I can only sit around listening to music or reading a book for so long before my mind starts to wander and picture images of Ada Taylor diving off Tilman’s Dock or flirting with the Quit Man outside of Burke’s Burger Box.
On this particular day, two days after my trip to the morgue, I decided to call Lucas and see what he had planned.
“I’m bored to death.”
“Wanna go for a drive?” he asked immediately.
“I’ll pick you up in five minutes.”
If you had to put Lucas Cader in a bubble, and you might be one of those people who has to do such a thing, then he would fit right smack dab in the middle of the preps. Now, keep in mind that I hate hate hate using stereotypical terms like prep and preppie, but it is unavoidable. These were the words my people, as it were, used to describe those high schoolers who dressed nice, bathed regularly, drove a nice vehicle (or, in Lily, drove a vehicle at all that wasn’t their parents’), or were on the football team. Feel free to apply whatever term you yourself would use to refer to this group if you were in my place. Lucas wasn’t much like me at all. He played football, for one thing. For another, he had a girlfriend. Her name was Mena Prescott, and she reminded me of the redhead from The Breakfast Club. She also made me uncomfortable by always hugging on me or kissing my cheek, always doing something that I assume she thought I would find flattering or sexy, but instead just found annoying and offensive. I also hated her accent. I understand that everyone who lives anywhere can be expected to have an accent, especially those of us down here in the South, but honestly, hearing her voice made me ashamed to be human, much less southern. Here’s an example: “Hey, y’all! I went o-ver th-a-y-er la-yast wayeek.” Try saying that three times fast.
Lucas pretended to love her as much as she thought he did. But it was all bull, really. As he pulled into my driveway, I let the screen door go with one finger and listened as it tap-tap-tapped on the door frame when it shut. The smell of cologne in Lucas’s car was overpowering.
“Did you bathe in that shit?” I asked, waving my hand before my face.
“How’s your aunt?”
Lucas did this all the time. You would ask him a question, serious or not, and he would manage to skillfully deflect it by bringing up something very important and distracting, out of the blue, and your previous thoughts would be left in the dust, just as my house was as we sped down Eighth Street toward town.
“She’s a little better. She’s eating now.”
“Seems the same to me.” I thought about my answer. It seemed wrong in some way.
“You know, he’s a good kid,” Lucas said.
“I like him all right,” I joked.
“I mean, you’ve got all these kids around here doing bad things. Getting into trouble and getting kicked out of school and all that mess. And then you’ve got Gabriel. He just sticks out, ya know? Like he’s better than this place or something. Know what I’m saying?”
“Yeah,” I said. I did not know what he was saying.
“I almost think of him as my little brother sometimes,” Lucas said in an oddly serious manner.
“Sell him to you for fifty bucks?”
One could always tell when Lucas was doing that thing where he was lost in his own thoughts, as would often happen when the topic of brothers came up. His eyes would get this certain strength about them, like they were really focusing on what was in front of them. And his lips would purse a little like he was getting ready to whistle. And one could only be left to sit back and witness this spectacle, waiting to see if anything brilliant or cathartic would come about. Usually it all ended within a few minutes, when Lucas would realize that he had gotten himself into an awkward position and made others around him feel uncomfortable. Lucas Cader was not in the habit of making others feel anything but comforted. As soon as we pulled up to Burke’s Burger Box, Mena Prescott ran up to his car window, leaned inside, and kissed him on the cheek. Then she walked around to my side, knocked on the window, waited for me to roll it down, and kissed me on the cheek as well. As she climbed into the backseat, I wiped her saliva and lipstick off my face.
“Did you really have to see his body, Cullen?”
She began her questions before Lucas could roll the windows back up and pull out of the parking lot.
“I really did,” I said blandly.
Mena Prescott had a past that did not involve innocent, good-natured boys like Lucas. It did, however, involve my overdosed cousin Oslo. Let me sum up their relationship like this: They met at a party when she was a freshman and he was a senior. They made out, both drunk, and then ran into each other one week later at the grocery store. They dated off and on for several weeks before Mena realized, I presume, that Oslo Fouke was nothing more than a drug addict and a bum. That moment in the car would be the last time Mena Prescott would ever mention Oslo Fouke, at least around me anyway.
When one is sitting in the passenger seat of his best friend’s car as an overly enthusiastic hillbilly is ranting in the backseat about being snubbed by a cheerleader at lunch, his mind begins to wander and think about zombies. Here’s the thing about zombies: They are supposed to be killed. You just have to do it. Humans are obligated to kill zombies, just as zombies have an obligation to seek out humans and feast on their flesh. It is for this reason that I was imagining Russell Quitman and his friend Neil as zombies, wreaking havoc on Lily and killing men, women, and children. They crept down Main Street, dragging their feet, each having one ankle completely limp and dangling behind him. A woman screamed from a store window. A car sped by and crashed into a nearby tree. The scene was a gruesome one until I arrived. Walking slowly and with much confidence, I approached the Quit Man and his minion with a shotgun in one hand and an ax in the other. After idly blowing off Neil’s slobbering head, I tossed the shotgun aside and double-gripped the ax. The Quit Man was upon me—his teeth more visible than anything else and his smell causing me to gag. I dug the ax into his leg. He fell to the ground, grasping at my pants as I tried to back away for a good, clean swing at him. I tripped, falling down beside him. Just as his teeth were about to pierce the flesh of my neck, his head was smashed in by a black boot. I looked up to see Lucas Cader, smiling and reaching a hand down. Crowds gathered around us and cheered loudly. The zombies had been defeated. “Lucas! Lucas! Lucas!” The sounds surrounded us as I re-established my footing and scanned the crowd for my brother. He sat alone on the edge of the sidewalk. He had been crying. Lucas put his hand on my shoulder and whispered into my ear, “He’ll be fine. We’ll all be fine now.”
Book Title #73: You May Feel a Slight Sting.
Reading Group Guide
A Reading Group Guide to
Where Things Come Back
by John Corey Whaley
1. The Book of Enoch, Gabriel, and the Fallen Angels are themes that tie together many of the main characters in complex ways. How do you view and interpret this element of the book as it relates to specific characters’ lives, to the meaning of religion, and to the intelligence and potential of humankind?
2. Cabot Searcy takes on a mission he believes was Benton’s idea. Why do you think Cabot becomes so obsessed with the Book of Enoch? Was he crazy? A religious zealot? Or was he simply a misguided soul looking for his own second chance?
3. Over the course of the novel, Cullen exhibits cynicism, hope, idealism, and sometimes despair. Is he acting out the stages of grief over his missing brother, or is he simply a typical, unhappy teenager trying to figure out his life? Think of the other missing brothers and sons in the novel (Oslo, Lucas's brother, Benton Sage)—what is the significance of these characters’ stories? How do they relate to the themes of desperation and second chances that are explored in the story?
4. Cullen has a very deep and loving connection with his brother, Gabriel. In what ways do Cullen and Gabriel appear to be a typical pair of teenage brothers? In what ways does their relationship strike you as unique or special?
5. Lily, Arkansas, is a town where things come back—both in a positive and negative sense. Discuss both sides of this theme and the implications for the town of Lily. Do you think that Cullen Witter will end up staying in Lily?
6. The author calls Where Things Come Back a book about second chances. What are some of the second chances that characters get in this novel? Specifically consider John Barling and Benton Sage in addition to the main characters. Are they always successful? Do things always turn out as they hope?
7. What is the significance of the Lazarus woodpecker—the bird that caused such excitement in the town of Lily, but which never actually existed there? How can the Lazarus be interpreted symbolically?
8. The author describes many different kinds of love in this story: parental love, fraternal love, romantic love, and love for God. What does the novel say about each?
9. Consider the somewhat secondary female cast of Where Things Come Back—Ada Taylor, Alma Ember, and others—and their influence on the male characters of the story.
10. Cullen and Gabriel both find comfort in music throughout the novel. What is the significance of the various lyrics quoted within Cullen’s narrative, and how do they relate to the scenes in which they are used?
11. Consider the format of the novel and the movement of time: how we alternate between Cullen, Benton, and Cabot’s stories, and between first and third person narrators, until the story lines converge at the very end. How did the author's approach to time affect your reading and comprehension of the novel? How did you anticipate that the various narrative threads would intersect or be resolved?
12. Discuss the quirks of Cullen’s voice—for example, his lists, his fantasies, his third-person phrasing. How did Cullen’s voice influence your view of his story? How does it help us understand his mindset as the narrator?
13. Cullen keeps a running list of titles for books that he could write in the future. Consider your own life, both important events and inconsequential moments, like Cullen does. What are some titles that would fit your personal story?
14. Where Things Come Back is Cullen's final title idea and becomes the title of this novel. What is the significance of this title being the final line of the book? What does it imply about what happens at the end of the novel?
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