Danger takes many forms.
Most of us--once we’ve become rather uncomfortably aware of our own mortality--make an effort to take at least a few precautions to ward ourselves from some of the dangers we face.
At a bare minimum, we look both ways before crossing the street. We inoculate ourselves against deadly diseases. We bolt our doors and lock our windows to all the scary things (and bad people) that go bump in the night. We fasten our seat belts before setting out on the roadways in our little hunks of metal (although statistics show that a lot more of us could stand to be doing that). Taking such measures is empowering; we’re proactively doing something to safeguard ourselves.
So many other things, of course, are completely outside the realm of our control. We’re unable to prevent cancers or illnesses that we’re genetically predisposed to getting. We’re at the whims of Mother Nature when it comes to floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and such. We can’t predict if a random stranger in a crowd will suddenly “go postal”... or if we’ll be in the line of fire should he or she take aim. We’re aware these sorts of perils exist, too, but we know there’s nothing we can really do about them.
And then, there are those dangers which lurk in the shadows... the ones that have never even crossed our minds, leaving us completely unprepared to face them, should they arise. It is this, the truly unknown, that holds the most terrifying dangers of all, and author Chevy Stevens paints a shattering portrait of one woman‘s struggles with just such an unspeakable, unknown horror in her phenomenal debut, Still Missing.
Annie O’Sullivan thinks she’s a careful person. As a single 32-year-old living on her own on Vancouver Island, she practices all the normal precautions regarding her health and personal safety, plus a few others, for good measure. She tries to eat right and exercise. She’s a cautious driver. She has a little network of friends and family who know her whereabouts and schedule. Her dog is both beloved companion and bodyguard.
In all her wildest dreams, Annie never guessed that the worst danger she’d ever encounter would occur while she was working--she’s a realtor, for crying out loud!--yet that’s exactly what happens, when she’s abducted in the middle of hosting an open house on an otherwise perfectly-ordinary autumn afternoon. One minute, the charming man who arrives just as she’s about to lock up the house she’d been showing is earnestly discussing windows and square footage with her... and the next, he’s bundling her into his van at gunpoint, then shooting her full of drugs to knock her out. This seemingly-innocuous day suddenly becomes a pivotal moment, a point from which Annie’s life will be changed forevermore.
When the drugs wear off and Annie comes to, she indeed finds herself part of an incomprehensible nightmare. She and her captor seem to be in a remote cabin somewhere in the mountains. (Where it is, she doesn’t know, and he’s not telling.) He proceeds to lay out a series of ground rules for her. They will be staying there, just the two of them. There’s to be no contact with the outside world, period. (No phone, television, internet, radio, or newspaper.) Adherence to a strict set of rules governing her behavior is mandatory. (All behavior. Daily bathroom breaks are penciled in on the schedule, just like dishes and laundry and reading time, with no exceptions permitted.) Annie will be locked inside the cabin all day, every day.
All of this, he tells her, is for her own good. The outside world is evil, and she has been corrupted by its influence, but he aims to rectify that via his master plan. He intends for them to be a “family”--in every sense of the word--and he quickly sets about ensuring that will happen.
As far as Annie is concerned, it will be the absolute worst year of her life.
In a very unusual--not to mention, incredibly-powerful--twist, we learn about Annie’s ordeal solely through her four-months-after-the-fact narration of events to her psychiatrist. Rather than a linear recounting, though, the tale emerges in bits and pieces, as Annie struggles to tell what details she can handle describing--and in whatever order she can stand to impart them--during her weekly sessions.
Gradually, though, the full story is told in its horrifying entirety--everything her captor made her do, how he made her suffer, and how she learned to cope. When we finally get a clear sense of what transpired, it is awful beyond belief.
Unfortunately, the nightmare doesn’t come to a convenient stop with the end of her captivity; that was merely the beginning of it. And, as Annie dwells more and more on the present in her counseling sessions, we realize just how profound an impact that year has had on her, the toll it has taken on all aspects of her life. She has begrudgingly chosen to bare her soul only because she simply can't cope. Her story may be old news in the media, but she continues to relive the whole dreadful experience during every one of her waking--plus most of her sleeping--hours.
Annie wants more than anything to have a “normal” life again... to enjoy at least a semblance of safety and to somehow cobble the pieces of her shattered life back together, instead of this awful existence of cowering in fear and rehashing painful memories over and over again.
What scares her to death most of all, though, is the certainty that she is still in grave danger... and about that, she is absolutely right.
I found Still Missing to be a profoundly-affecting book, shocking and horrifying in its subject matter and stunningly brilliant in its execution. It's a first-rate thriller, with twists you won’t see coming, as well as some that you might guess at-- all the while desperately hoping that you’re mistaken. It’s also a psychological masterpiece, with its grim, visceral depiction of abject terror and tormented souls; you're unlikely to forget any of these characters any time soon.
Still Missing made me, by turns, breathless and furious and heartbroken--at the system, at people, at our world in general. In the end, though, what it left me with above all else was a sense of hope... that within each of us lies a grim determination and the will to live, to conquer, and to triumph--if only we can somehow manage to find that will and then hang onto it for dear life.