First graders huddled in a closet listening to the pop, pop, pop of gunfire in the hall is the stuff of nightmares. It is also the beginning of Rhiannon Navin’s novel Only Child. Navin’s first book is a heart-wrenching tale of trauma and loss told through the mind and heart of a child.
Six-year-old Zach Taylor, his classmates and teacher, Miss Russell, have been in the closet before during a lockdown drill. They weren’t in there long before Charlie, the security guard, came to unlock the hall door and tell them to come out. This time though Charlie doesn’t come and the pops keep going and getting louder.
When the door finally opens it’s the police. The class is led through the bloody scene in the hall out into the rain to a nearby church. When Zach’s mom, Melissa, is finally let in to find him, the first thing she asks is “Zach, where’s your brother?”
Andy is not in the church nor at the hospital when they go there. Finding Andy is Melissa’s singular focus and when she learns that Andy is one of the 19 fatalities she collapses and is hospitalized.
His mom has always been Zach’s main caregiver. They did projects together, she made his meals and put him to bed. They read together each night then sang a special song together before he slept. All of that goes away with Andy’s death. As Zach sees it his mommy got changed into another person at the hospital.
His family was strained before this tragedy. Andy had oppositional defiant disorder and his behavioral problems caused dissension between his parents who also had other issues. Instead of coming together as a family Zach’s parents isolate themselves with their grief and he is mostly left to deal with his fear, confusion and grief alone.
He doesn’t understand why people bring food and have a party when Andy has just died. He worries about what happened to Andy, where is his body and is his soul safe in heaven? Zach’s nightmares start the very first night but the adults seem almost dismissive of his fears and questions.
Zach is drawn into Andy’s room and each day he checks the top bunk to see if Andy is there and maybe he just had a bad dream. He first goes into Andy’s closet to hide but finds he can quiet himself in there and make bad thoughts go into his “brain safe” so he won’t be afraid.
Andy’s closet becomes his safe haven and secret hideaway. It is there that he realizes that the red he just painted on a page is like the red his face gets when people look at him and he is embarrassed. He decides to give each of his feelings a color so they won’t be all mixed up inside him.
He brings a picture of himself with Andy to the hideaway and he starts to talk to Andy. He doesn’t let Andy off the hook because he died and lets him know he was a jerk to Zach. But as life outside the closet worsens and Zach has to deal with his own uncontrollable feelings he begins to see Andy in a new light and remembers the good.
He reads aloud to Andy from the Magic Tree House books. The books were Andy’s but became Zach’s when Andy outgrew them. The main characters are brother and sister Jack and Annie which sounds like Zach and Andy. When he reads it’s like all 4 of them go on the adventure together.
But the comfort Andy feels in his hideaway is lost outside the closet. He doesn’t understand why he has started wetting the bed or why he suddenly gets so angry and can’t make it stop. His mom has become determined to make the parents of the gunman pay and has little time or patience for Zach. His dad, Zach’s only real support, has gone back to work and his parents fighting grows worse. Zach has gone from a family of 4 to feeling like he is alone. Can Zach find a way to help his family heal or is the loss of Andy too much to overcome?
Navin has written a gripping novel and stayed true to Zach’s voice. But the raw emotion and subject matter makes this a very tough read. I almost quit after the first few chapters. But Zach drew me back and I’m glad. The library has this title in regular, large print, and ebook editions.