Months earlier, the June heat on Mustang Island was gauzy and glomming. The sky hung close, pale as caliche, and the small played-out waves were dragging in the briny, pungent scent of seaweed. On the beach, people tried holding out for a breeze from the Gulf, but when the gusts blew ashore, they were humid and harsh, kicking up sand that stung like wasps. By midday, everyone surrendered. Fishermen cut bait, surfers packed in their boards. Even the notoriously dogged sunbathers shook out their long towels and draped them over the seats in their cars, the leather and vinyl scalding. Lines for the ferry stretched for half an hour, though it could seem days before the dashboard vents were pushing in cool air. Porpoises wheeled in the boats’ wakes, their bellies pink and glistening.
After the short pass across the Laguna Madre, the ferry docked on the north jetty and drivers moved onto the mainland through the small, flat town of Southport, Texas. They passed an anchor-shaped monument embossed with the words welcome aboard, then the tackle shops and bait stands and the old rust-pocked pickups where men sold shrimp from ice chests. To the west, behind the leaning palm trees with their husks as dry and brown as parchment, the soapy bay fanned into the horizon. There was the public boat ramp and marina and the half-razed Teepee Motel, now nothing more than a cluster of concrete teepees hemming a drained kidney-shaped pool. A faded vinyl banner for the upcoming Shrimporee sagged over the diagonal parking places on Main Street, then popped and opened up in the wind; the Shrimporee was in September. On the asphalt, puddles of heat appeared, shimmered, evaporated. The seafood restaurants and a spate of garishly painted souvenir shops lined Station Street, then just before the town yielded to the blacktop highway came the Whataburger and H-E-B grocery and Loan Star Pawnshop, whose rusted arrow marquee sign announced, we buy window units! The pawnshop’s crushed-shell parking lot was crowded this time of year—shrimpers hocking tools between good hauls, surfers hunting for wet suits, men from the Coast Guard quibbling over fishing rods. Today, the last Wednesday of the month, a man was trying to sell one of the pawnbrokers an old Cadillac, a cream-colored Fleetwood Brougham. The hood was raised and the ragtop was lowered, and the men stood in the pale sun—squinting, haggling, appearing stranded to everyone who passed.
Across town, in the Villa Del Sol condominium complex, Eric Campbell stood under a cool shower, listening. He thought he’d heard his phone buzzing, but either it had stopped or he’d been mistaken. He’d left the phone next to his watch and wedding band on the nightstand. He opened the shower curtain, leaned out, waited. The only sounds were the water pulsing through the showerhead and the air-conditioning unit whirring outside, so he drew the curtain and rinsed off. The afternoon sun slanted in through the bathroom’s skylight. He wondered if they’d break a hundred degrees today, if they hadn’t already. He was glad to have parked his truck in the garage.
The condo belonged to Kent Robichaud. He was a surgeon, and although he and his wife, Tracy, lived on Ocean Drive in Corpus, they’d bought the condo in Southport to be closer to the marina on weekends. They were in their late thirties, originally from the Midwest; they owned a twenty-footer named Thistle Dew. Eric liked Kent. He tried not to think about him when he spent afternoons with Tracy. With summer school in session, they’d gotten into the routine of him coming over after his Wednesday class. Tracy would drive in from Corpus and read the weekly Southport Sun in her breakfast nook until Eric’s truck appeared on the street. Then she’d click open the garage door and make her way to the bedroom, undressing.
Eric always checked messages before stepping out of his truck. Usually there weren’t any. At home, Griffin would still be sleeping, or he’d be playing videogames and waiting for the afternoon to cool off enough to go skateboarding. If Griff wanted to leave the house, he had to call his mother or father for permission; when Eric had thought he heard his phone in the shower, he assumed it was his son. His younger son. Griff had just turned fourteen. Of course, Eric worried it was his wife calling, but he also knew better. Laura rarely dialed his number anymore. Wednesdays were her early shift at the dry cleaner’s, but she had, for the last few months, been driving to Marine Lab in Corpus after work. She volunteered a few times a week, stayed out there until dinner. Later, sometimes. When she came home, she was dog-tired and smelled of frozen herring. She wore an expression, so transparent to Eric (and, he feared, to Griff), of practiced contentment. She would update them on Marine Lab—currently, they were rehabbing a bottlenose dolphin that had beached on the National Seashore—then listen to Griff and Eric talk about their days; Griff usually told them about his skateboarding, and Eric spoke of his seventh graders or other faculty members. If there was nothing to report, he’d invent a sweet or comic story to buoy their spirits. On Wednesdays, he always steeled himself for the question of what he’d done after class, but Laura never asked. It was just another thing they didn’t discuss. Eventually she would excuse herself from the table, kiss Griff on his head, then retire to the bedroom. More often than not, the sun was still in the sky, syrupy and molten, coppering the early-evening surfaces.
When Eric shut off the shower, there was only the steady hum of the air conditioner. Tracy might still be lying across the bed, her eyes closed and her dark hair wild on the pillows, or she might have already stripped the sheets and taken them to the washer. He dried himself with a thick towel, stepped too carefully from the tub. For years, he’d had an unfounded fear of falling in the bathroom, of cracking his skull on porcelain. He’d known no one who’d suffered such a fall, and yet the risk felt familiar and menacing, as if he’d suddenly grown ancient and infirm in the shower. In Tracy’s bathroom, the vanity was marble-topped, sharp-edged and expensive. The whole condo brimmed with upgrades—Saltillo tile, a Viking range, one air-conditioning system for the first floor and another for the second. Every week, the lavishness sullied him; he wouldn’t let his gaze settle on anything. Now, pulling on his boots, he wished he’d already left.
Villa Del Sol had been built after Southport lost its bid for the naval station. Most of the sandstone condos were owned by people from Corpus or by snowbirds, silver-haired retirees who wintered on the coast and caned their way through the souvenir shops on Station Street. “It’s snowing,” Laura used to say when they’d get stuck behind an elderly driver. They lived in a three-bedroom ranch, a few blocks from the house where Eric had grown up where his father still lived. Their house was drafty, in need of a new roof, double-mortgaged to put up the reward money. Every couple of years he had to raise the foundation with bottle jacks.
But when Villa Del Sol first opened, Eric had driven Laura and the boys to an open house. Justin was nine, Griff was seven. Everyone wore church clothes.
“Who can afford one of these?” Laura said in the living room of the model unit. “No one we know.”
“We’re not that far off,” Eric said, trying to sound assured. “Besides, no charge for looking.”
The boys were in the courtyard, hunting rocks. Griff had recently started collecting them, because Justin did. Laura watched them through the bay window. She said, “Guess what Justin asked me last night.”
“If Rainbow could sleep inside?” he said. Rainbow was their black Lab, a dog Eric had bought from a man selling puppies out of his truck bed on Station Street. Rainbow was a good, affable dog, but she’d recently been relegated to the backyard after Eric woke to find her chewing one of his boots.
“Yes, but something else,” Laura said.
“About cusswords? The other day he asked me if there were any he could say without getting in trouble.”
“He asked me to marry him.”
“Oh,” Eric said. “Smart boy.”
“You don’t think it’s weird?”
“He’s got good taste in women, is what I think.”
Laura paced across the room with her hands clasped in front of her. She looked like a woman in a museum, taking care not to bump into exhibits. Were she a stranger, Eric would’ve been struck with longing as he watched her languid movements. His wife—it still shocked him—was beautiful. She returned to the window to watch the boys.
“What are we doing here, honey? We’re not—”
“I thought it’d be fun,” he said. He crouched in front of the fireplace, trying to figure if it worked. Just for show, he thought.
“I don’t want to live anywhere else. Neither do the boys. We love our house.”
“It was just something to do.”
“Sometimes I worry you feel like you need to give us more.”
He couldn’t remember not feeling that way. Though he hadn’t yet told Laura, he’d just agreed to teach summer school. His plan was to surprise everyone with a vacation over Christmas break. The boys had never left Texas.
“We have everything we need,” she said. Outside, Griff was trying to show Justin a piece of limestone he’d found.
“What did you tell him?” Eric asked, pushing himself up from the fireplace.
She smiled as if he’d paid her a compliment. Her eyes stayed on their sons. “I said I loved him very much, but I was already married.”
“He must’ve been heartbroken.”
“Crushed,” she said. “Utterly crushed. But then I helped him sneak Rainbow into his room and he seemed to recover.”
When Eric stepped from the bathroom, Tracy was standing with her back to him. She peered through her bedroom blinds, watching the two sisters who owned the condo across the courtyard. The women were in their eighties, stooped and wire-haired. Tracy loved spying on them. She’d wrapped herself in a sheet that puddled around her ankles and exposed her back. The knuckles of her spine looked like shells in sand. Laura’s body, he thought, might resemble Tracy’s now; she’d lost weight over the last four years. Twenty pounds, maybe more. And ever since Justin had gone missing, she’d let her hair grow out, a protest of sorts, or a show of solidarity. She’d stopped shaving her legs and under her arms, too. Eric couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen his wife naked.
“I think the sisters’ air conditioner’s busted,” Tracy said. “They’re just sitting at the kitchen table, fanning themselves.”
He was tempted to say he’d walk over and take a look, but checked himself. He didn’t want to run into the sisters later. For old girls, they got around just fine. They drove a Lincoln Continental. Eric said, “After I leave, tell them to have someone check the Freon.”
Revue de presse
“It is as a writer that I admire the architecture of Remember Me Like This, the novel’s flawless storytelling. It is as the father of three sons that I vouch for the psychological authenticity of this depiction of any parent’s worst fears. Emotionally, I am with this family as they try to move ahead—embracing ‘the half-known and desperate history’ that they share. I love this novel.”—John Irving
“An achingly beautiful and psychologically insightful portrait of a family . . . [a] fully immersive novel in which the language is luminous and the delivery almost flawless.”—The Boston Globe
“Riveting . . . [The novel] flows like it was plotted by Dennis Lehane but feels like it was written by Jonathan Franzen.”—Esquire
“Tremendously moving . . . There’s real humanity in [Bret Anthony] Johnston’s writing, and it’s heartening to spend time with these folks as they relearn how to be a family.”—Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“Deeply empathetic and masterfully constructed . . . a novel that has both the feel of a great epic and the focused intensity of standing on a highwire.”—Salon
“A gripping study of the complexities that follow a traumatic life event . . . The reader is transformed into a silent witness alongside the characters.”—Nylon
“[Johnston’s] first novel is so spellbinding, so moving, that one’s only complaint is that we had to wait ten years to read it. . . . Johnston is a master at creating honest portraits of family members that could easily be your neighbor. Make no mistake about it: Bret Anthony Johnston is a writer to watch.”—BookPage
“[A] strong debut . . . Johnston has a talent for drawing well-rounded characters. . . . This is a convincing and uplifting portrait of a family in crisis.”—Publishers Weekly
“An admirable achievement . . . The story starts where other stories might end. . . . [Readers] will find their expectations continually defied as characters refuse to follow a formulaic plot trajectory. . . . This is ultimately an uplifting reading experience owing to the believable love and warmth of the family.”—Library Journal (starred review)
“A sensitive and frequently suspenseful portrait of a family struggling to heal in the aftermath of great trauma.”—Booklist
“In this deeply nuanced portrait of an American family, Bret Anthony Johnston fearlessly explores the truth behind a mythic happy ending. In Remember Me Like This, Johnston presents an incisive dismantling of an all-too-comforting fallacy: that in being found we are no longer lost.”—Alice Sebold
“You could say that this book is ripped from the headlines, but that wouldn’t be fair. Bret Anthony Johnston’s riveting novel picks up where the tabloids leave off, and takes us places even the best journalism can’t go. Remember Me Like This is a wise, moving, and troubling novel about family and identity, and a clear-eyed inventory of loss and redemption.”—Tom Perrotta
“Both devastating and transporting, this is the rare novel a reader lives in, so persuasive is the impact, the insight, the heat of south Texas.”—Amy Hempel
“This mesmerizing story of loss and redemption on Texas’s Gulf Coast will take you in and hold you and not let go until it’s done with you, leaving you wiping at your eyes with the kind of soul-gratitude that comes only after experiencing true art.”—Andre Dubus III
“A brilliantly rendered portrait of a family in the aftermath of trauma . . . Beautifully crafted and so suspenseful you cannot look away, this is a novel as much about what is hidden as what is revealed; the balancing act is nothing short of masterly.”—Jill McCorkle