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Suzanne Young is the New York Times bestselling author of The Program series. Originally from Utica, New York, Suzanne moved to Arizona to pursue her dream of not freezing to death. She is a novelist and an English teacher, but not always in that order. Suzanne is also the author of Girls with Sharp Sticks, All in Pieces, Hotel for the Lost, and several others novels for teens. Visit her online at AuthorSuzanneYoung.com or follow her on Instagram at @AuthorSuzanneYoung.
IT’S TIME TO SAY GOOD-BYE. I sit in the armchair closest to the door and fold my hands politely in my lap. The room is too warm. Too quiet. My mother enters from the kitchen, her left eye swollen and bruised, small scratches carved into her cheeks. She limps to the plaid sofa, waving off help when I offer, and eases onto the patterned cushion next to my father. I shoot him an uncomfortable glance, but he doesn’t lift his head; tears drip onto his gray slacks, and I turn away.
I begin to gnaw on the inside of my lower lip, waiting in silence as they consider their words. This intervention-style farewell is hardly the format I imagined, but the moment belongs to them, so I don’t interfere. I cast a longing look to where my worn backpack waits near the door. Aaron had better not be late picking me up this time.
“Are you sure you can’t stay another night?” my father asks, gripping his wife’s hand hard enough to turn his knuckles white. They both stare at me pleadingly, but I don’t give them false hope. I won’t be that cruel.
“Sorry, but no,” I say kindly. “This is where we say good-bye.”
My mother pulls her hand from my father’s, curling it into a fist at her mouth. She chokes back a sob, and I watch as the stitched wound on her cheek crinkles her skin.
I reach for my own tears, trying to appear sympathetic. You’ll never see your parents again, I think. Isn’t that sad? But all I can muster is a bit of blurry vision. It seems a little heartless, even to me, that I can’t mourn their loss. But I’ve only known these people for two days. Besides, the clips on my hair extensions are driving my scalp mad. I reach a fingernail in between my red strands and scratch.
My mother takes a deep breath and then begins her rehearsed good-bye. “Emily,” she says in a shaky voice. “When you died, my life ended too.” A tear rolls slowly down her cheek, slipping into her dimple before falling away. “I couldn’t see beyond my grief,” she continues. “The counselors told me I had to, but I could only replay those last minutes in the car. This horrible loop of pain—” She chokes up, and my father reaches to rub her back soothingly. I don’t interrupt. “And then you were gone,” my mother whispers, looking at me. “I loved you more than anything, but you were torn away. I tried . . . I tried so hard, but I couldn’t save you. I’m sorry, Emily.”
I’m a barely passable version of Emily—different eyes, smaller chin. But my mother is grieving, and through her tears I’m sure she thinks I look identical to her dead daughter. And maybe that resemblance pains her even more when we’re this close.
“I love you too, Mom,” I say automatically, and flick my gaze to my father. “And thank you, Dad, for all you’ve done for me. I was very happy. No matter what, I’ll always be with you”—I put my hand on my chest—“in your hearts.”
The words are dry in my mouth, but I stick to the script when I can’t personalize my speech in some other way. Ultimately, this is what they wanted to hear—or rather, what they needed to hear to have closure. They wanted me to know I was loved.
My phone buzzes in my pocket, but I don’t ruin the moment to check it. We’re past deadline and it has grown dark outside, but I won’t leave until I’m sure my parents will get through this. I wait a beat, and my mother sniffles and wipes her face with her palms.
“I miss you, Emily,” she says, and her voice cracks over my name. “I miss you every day.” The first tears prick my eyes, the honesty in her emotions penetrating the wall I’ve carefully built. I smile at her, hoping it lessens her ache.
“I know you loved me,” I say, going off script. “But, Mom . . . this wasn’t your fault. It was an accident—a terrible, tragic accident. Please don’t blame yourself anymore. I forgive you.”
My mother claps both hands over her mouth, relief hemorrhaging as her shoulders shake with her sobs. This is it—her closure. She needed relief from her guilt. My father climbs to his feet and motions toward the door. I stand to follow him, but pause and look back at my mother.
“I’m safe now,” I continue. “Nothing can ever hurt me again. Not one thing.” I turn to leave the room, my voice barely audible over her cries. “Good-bye, Mom.”
My assignment is complete.
I follow my father to the front door, and when we reach the entryway, I rummage through the shredded middle pocket of my backpack and pull out a sweatshirt. I yank the Rolling Stones T-shirt off over my tank top and hand it to my dad . . . or, rather, Alan Pinnacle.
For the past two days, I’ve been wearing his daughter’s favorite clothes, eating her favorite foods, sleeping in her bed. I’m the Goldilocks the bears took in to replace the one they lost, even if it was only to say good-bye.
Alan looks down at Emily’s black shirt and pushes it in my direction. “Keep it,” he says, staring at the fabric like it’s precious. I widen my eyes and take a step back.
“But it’s not mine,” I say quietly. “It belonged to your daughter.” Sometimes parents become confused, and part of my job is to keep them grounded in reality. Martha sits on the couch, staring toward the window with a calmed expression, but I worry that Alan is having an emotional breakdown.
“You’re right,” he says sadly. “But Emily isn’t coming home.” He holds up the shirt. “If this is still being worn, in a way, her spirit will be out there. She’ll still be part of the world.”
“I really shouldn’t,” I say, although if I’m honest, that T-shirt was my favorite part of this assignment. But we’re not supposed to keep artifacts of the dead. It opens up the possibility of lawsuits against the entire grief department, claims of unprofessionalism.
“Please,” he murmurs. “I think she would have really liked you.”
It’s just a shirt, I think. No one’s ever been fired over a shirt. I reluctantly take the fabric from his hand, and Alan’s face twists in a flash of pain. Impulsively, I lean in and kiss his cheek.
“Emily was a lucky girl,” I whisper close to his ear. And then, without waiting to see his expression, I turn and walk out of Emily Pinnacle’s house.
* * *
The night air is heavy with moisture as I step onto the wooden slats of the front porch; cool rainy wind blows against my face. The headlights of a car parked down the road flick on, and my muscles relax. I’m glad I won’t be hanging around for a ride; Aaron usually sucks at being on time. I reach into my hair and begin to remove the extensions, unclipping them and then shoving them into the bag on my shoulder, where I stuffed the Rolling Stones T-shirt.
The car pulls up, and I hold my backpack over my head to protect myself from the rain. I throw one more glance toward the house, glad neither parent is looking out the window. I hate to break the illusion for them; it’s like seeing a teacher at the grocery store or a theme-park character without its oversize head.
I open the car door and drop onto the passenger seat of a shiny black Cadillac. It reeks of leather and coconut air freshener. I turn sideways, lifting my eyebrows the minute I take in Aaron’s appearance. I pretend to check my nonexistent watch. “And who are you supposed to be?” I ask.
Aaron smiles. “I’m me again,” he says. “It was a long drive. I didn’t have time to change clothes.”
This was one of those rare moments where Aaron and I were on assignment at the same time—a mostly avoided conflict. It was probably a good thing that I was running late tonight. I scan my friend’s outfit, holding back the laugh waiting in my gut. He’s wearing a dark brown corduroy jacket with a striped button-down shirt underneath. Although Aaron’s barely nineteen, he’s dressed like an eighty-year-old professor. Sensing my impending reaction, he steps on the gas pedal and speeds us down the street.
“Twenty-three-year-old law student,” he explains, turning up the volume on the stereo. “But his real love was math.” He shoots me a pointed look as if it sums up his assignment completely. “The counselors are really pushing my age, right?” he asks. “Must be this sweet beard.” He strokes his facial hair and I scrunch up my nose.
“Gross,” I say. “You’re lucky Oregon celebrates its facial hair; otherwise you’d be out of work.” Aaron’s smooth, dark skin disappears every No Shave November, but that ended five months ago. I’m partners with a Sasquatch. “When are you getting rid of that thing?” I ask.
“Um, never,” he says, like it’s the obvious answer. “I’m looking fine, girl.”
I laugh and flip down the passenger-side mirror. The light clicks on, harsh on my heavy makeup. I comb my fingers through my still-red shoulder-length strands. Emily’s hair was ridiculously long, so I had to wear itchy extensions.
“Too bad,” Aaron says, motioning to my reflection. “I liked your hair long.”
“And I like that special blazer. You sure you can’t keep it?”
“Point made,” he concedes. We’re quiet for a moment until Aaron clears his throat. “So how was it?” he asks in a therapist’s voice, even though he knows I hate talking about my assignments. “You were super vague on the phone,” he adds. “I was getting worried.”
“It was the same,” I answer. “Just like always.”
“Was it the mom?”
“Yeah,” I tell him, and look out the passenger window. “Survivor’s guilt. There was a car accident; the mother was driving. After arriving at the hospital, the mom ran from room to room, searching for her daughter. But she was DOA.” I swallow hard, burying the emotions that threaten to shake my voice. “All the mother wanted was to apologize for losing control of the car,” I continue. “Beg her daughter for forgiveness. Tell her how much she loved her. But she never got the chance. She didn’t even get to say good-bye. Martha had a hard time accepting that.”
“Martha?” Aaron repeats, and I feel him look at me. “You two on a first-name basis?”
“No,” I say. “But I’m not calling her Mom anymore, and it seems cold to call her Mrs. Pinnacle.” When I turn to Aaron, he looks doubtful. “What?” I ask. “The woman washed my underwear. It’s not like we’re strangers.”
“See, that’s the thing,” he says, holding up his finger. “You are strangers. You were temporarily playing the role of her deceased daughter, but by no means are you friends. Don’t blur the lines, Quinn.”
“I know how to do my job,” I answer dismissively. My heart beats faster.
Although all closers take on the personality of the dead person, I’m the only one who internalizes it, thinks like them. It makes me more authentic, and honestly, it’s why I’m the best. “Don’t be judgy,” I tell Aaron. “You have your process; I have mine. I’m completely detached when it’s over.”
Aaron chuckles. “You’re detached?” he asks. “Then why do you keep souvenirs?”
“I do not,” I respond, heat crawling onto my cheeks.
“I bet you have more than hair extensions in that bag.”
I look down to see the edge of the T-shirt peeking out. “Not fair,” I say. “The dad gave that to me. It doesn’t count.”
“And the earrings from Susan Bell? The flashy yet clashy belt from Audrey Whatshername? Admit it. You’re a life klepto. You keep pieces of them like some whacked-out serial killer.”
I laugh. “It’s nothing like that.”
Aaron hums out his disagreement and takes a turn onto the freeway. It’ll be at least forty-five minutes until we’re back in Corvallis. I hate the away assignments, but our town is fairly small, and we don’t have nearly as many deaths as Eugene or Portland. But being away can mess with your head. Nothing’s familiar—not the places or the people. A person could forget who they really are in a situation like that. It’s high risk, and the return is always more difficult after being cut off completely. But it’s our job.
Aaron Rios and I are closers—a remedy for grief-stricken families. We help clients who are experiencing symptoms of complicated grief through an extreme method of role-playing therapy. When a family or person experiences loss—the kind of loss they just can’t get over, the kind that eats away at their sanity—grief counselors make a recommendation. For an undisclosed sum of money, clients are given a closer to play the part of a dead person and provide them the much-needed closure they desire.
At this point I can become anyone so long as they’re a white female between the ages of fifteen and twenty. I’m not an exact copy, of course, but I wear their clothes and change my hair and eye color. I study them through pictures and videos, and soon I can act like them, smell like them, be them for all intents and purposes. And when a family is hazy with grief, they tend to accept me readily.
I stay with them for a few days, but never more than a week. In that time, my loved ones get to say everything they needed to but never got the chance to, get to hear whatever they’ve told the counselors they needed to hear. I can be the perfect daughter. I can give them closure so they can heal.
I’m saving lives—even if sometimes it’s hard to remember which one is mine.
“So what have I missed?” I ask Aaron. When he called me earlier to set up my extraction, he tried to talk, to reconnect me to the outside world. But I was with the family when my phone buzzed, so I fed Aaron some bullshit excuse to get off the line. Now I’m desperate for a reminder of my real life. I rest my temple on the headrest and watch him.
“Not much.” He shrugs. “Deacon’s been texting me nonstop. Says you’re not answering your phone.”
“Well, he’s not supposed to contact me, is he?” I point out. Our guidelines state that we only consort with our partners or our advisors while on assignment—it keeps us from breaking character. But the fact is, I could have responded to Deacon’s texts. I just didn’t want to.
My eyes start to sting and I check around the front seat and find a bag of open trail mix stuffed into the cutout below the stereo; salty-looking peanuts have spilled into the cup holder. My father will kill Aaron for bringing those in here. And for dirtying up his Cadillac. We always use the same car for extractions. It serves as a reminder of our real life, something familiar to bring us home.
I hike my backpack onto my lap and start rummaging through until I find the case for my colored contacts. Although I’m not deathly allergic to nuts, they irritate my eyes and make my throat burn. Aaron’s usually pretty good about not eating them around me. I guess he forgot this time—which is understandable. Assignments tend to leave us confused. At least for a while.
“I think Deacon’s worried you’ll run away without telling him,” Aaron continues. “It makes him crazy.”
“Deacon never worries about anything,” I correct, resting my index finger on my pupil until I feel the contact cling to it. “And I don’t know why he’s asking you. If I planned to run away, you wouldn’t know either.” I remove the film and place it back inside the case before working on the other eye.
“Yeah, well, he worries about you,” Aaron mutters, clicking the windshield wipers off now that the rain has eased up. “And whether you admit it or not,” he adds, “you worry about his ass all the time too.”
“We’re friends,” I remind him, reliving the conversation we’ve had a dozen times. “Just very good friends.”
“Whatever, Quinn,” he says. “You’re hard-core and he’s badass. I get it. You’re both too tough for love.”
“Shut up.” I laugh. “You’re just mad we get along better than you and your girlfriend.”
“Damn right,” Aaron says with a defiant smirk. “It ain’t cool. You two—”
“Stooooop,” I whine, cutting him off. “Change the subject. Deacon and I are broken up. End of story.” I stuff my contacts case back into my bag and drop it down by my feet. The traffic has faded from the freeway, leaving the dark road empty around us.
“I’m not saying you should hate each other,” Aaron continues. “But you shouldn’t want to bone every time you see him either.”
“You have serious problems, you know that, right?”
“Mm-hmm,” he says, nodding dismissively. “Yeah, I’m the one with problems.” He whistles out a low sound of sympathy, looking sideways at me. “You’ve both got it bad,” he adds.
“No,” I tell him. “We’re both better off. Remind Deacon of that next time he’s checking up on me.” Aaron scoffs and swears he’s staying out of it. He won’t, of course. He thinks we’re still pining for each other. And . . . he may not be entirely wrong. But Deacon and I have a very platonic understanding.
Deacon Hatcher is my ex-boyfriend turned best friend, but more important, he used to be a closer. He gets it. Gets me. Deacon was my partner before Aaron, almost three years side by side until he quit working for my dad eight months ago. He quit me the same day. The breakup may have wrecked me a little. Or a lot. Deacon and I had shared everything, had a policy of total honesty, which isn’t exactly easy for people in our line of work.
I hadn’t even known he’d ended his contract with the grief department when he told me we were over, said he’d moved on. I assumed he meant with another girl, so we didn’t speak for over a month. I’d been blindsided, betrayed. Only thing left for me was closure, and I was damn good at it. I absorbed more of my assignments’ lives, their families’ love. I rebuilt my self-esteem with their help, their memories. Then my father assigned Aaron as my new partner.
The next day, Deacon showed up at my front door, saying how sorry he was. Saying how desperately he missed me. I believed him. I always believe him. But every time we get close—the very minute I fall for him again—Deacon cuts me off, backs away, and leaves me brokenhearted by the absence of his affection. Whether it’s his training or his natural disposition, Deacon is charming. The kind of charming that makes you feel like you’re the only person in the world who matters. Until you don’t anymore.
I’m tired of the push and pull that continues to crack and heal over the same scar. I told Deacon that I was done letting myself be vulnerable to him, that he was ruining me. The thought seemed to devastate him. So Deacon and I agreed not to get back together, but acknowledged that we couldn’t stay away from each other either. Best friends is the compromise. It lets us go to the very edge of our want without actually going over. And that works for us. We’re totally screwed up that way.
From the center console Aaron’s phone vibrates in the cup holder. He quickly grabs it before I do, and rests it against the wheel while he reads the text. After a moment he clicks off the screen and drops his phone back into the cup holder. “Myra says hello,” he says, glancing over. “She’s super excited for you to be back.”
“I’m sure,” I say, flashing him an amused smile. Aaron’s girlfriend is barely five feet tall, with wide doelike eyes and a red-hot temper. She used to hate me—which, under normal circumstances, could be understandable. I spend a lot of time with her boyfriend. We’re over it now, and the entire situation became a running joke between me and Aaron. And although Myra might still hate me a little, she’s one of my closest friends. But everything will change soon. This is Aaron’s last month as a closer—his contract ends in four weeks. After that, he and Myra are going to run off and live some deranged life in one of the Dakotas.
“Any chance I can talk you into dropping me off at home first?” I ask Aaron in a sickly sweet voice. “I’ve been dreaming about my bed for the entire weekend. Emily had a futon.”
Aaron whistles in sympathy. “Sounds tough, Quinn. But I already called Marie to let her know we’re on our way.” He smiles. “And you know how much she loves late-night debriefings.”
False. Marie absolutely hates when we come by after dark.
I exhale, dreading our next stop. I just want to go home, tell my dad good night, and then crash in my bed. Unfortunately, none of that can happen until we register our closure and confess our sins. Our advisor, Marie, has to interview us before we’re allowed to return to our regular lives. There are procedures in place to make sure we don’t take any grief home with us, take home the sadness. It’s the old saying: misery loves company. Yeah, well, grief can be contagious.
To calculate the overall star rating and percentage breakdown by star, we don’t use a simple average. Instead, our system considers things like how recent a review is and if the reviewer bought the item on Amazon. It also analyses reviews to verify trustworthiness.
I absolutely loved this book, if I'm being honest, even more than the Program and the Treatment. I'm really looking forward to the next installment in this series, only coming out in April (but I already pre-ordered my copy-yay!). It's really interesting to get a different perspective on how this disease of depression came about.
Also, I had to have this one as soon as possible. I had to wait a bit for it (without tracking details). It's a hardcover, and my other 2 copies of the Programm and the Treatment are paperbacks, so it doesn't really match in my library, but what the hell. :-) Beautiful cover, beautiful book. Me happy.
Ich liebe die Bücher von Suzanne Young und konnte es nicht abwarten, bis die deutsche Version des Buches rauskam. Also laß ich das ganze auf Englisch. Ich kann ihre Bücher nur jedem weiter empfehlen. Sie ist eine super Autorin mit Bezug zur Realität.