The oddest thing about looking down on Earth from heaven, Susie says, is the ability to see souls leaving bodies in real time and flying up to heaven. Susie explains that when a soul departs earth it often passes by another living being, occasionally touching them lightly on the arm or cheek before continuing up to heaven. Though the dead are never seen by the living, some are sensitive to their presence.
In developing one of the book’s major conceits, Susie reveals that the world of the dead and the world of the living often brush up against one another more closely than one might believe. Just how close the dead can come to the living, and how directly they can influence them, is something that Susie will question and reckon with again and again as her story unfolds.
On Susie’s way up to heaven, she touched a girl named Ruth—a classmate of hers, though the two had never been close. Ruth was standing in Susie’s way on the night her soul “shrieked” away from Earth, and Susie could not help but graze her—she was so distraught, and as her soul departed and whooshed past the last living person Susie would ever see, she couldn’t stop herself from reaching out to touch Ruth’s face. The morning after Susie’s death, Ruth complains to her mother of an odd dream in which a pale ghost ran toward her, but Ruth’s mother chastises her for letting her imagination run away with her. Ten days later, when news of Susie’s death reaches the junior high, Ruth begins putting two and two together.
Susie’s departure from Earth was a frightening, discombobulating, and isolating experience. As her soul departed, she consciously chose to attempt to connect with a living person one final time—that person was Ruth, and the implications this encounter will have for both women is vaster than Susie ever could have realized.
Ruth begins writing poetry to express her feelings about the experience of being “passed by.” She also becomes obsessed with Susie, going through old yearbooks and cutting out anything that has to do with Susie. The last week before Christmas, Ruth comes upon Susie’s friend Clarissa and her boyfriend, Brian Nelson, giggling in the hallway. Brian has a hand inside of Clarissa’s shirt. If it had been anyone else, Ruth would have looked away, but because she knows that Clarissa was Susie’s best friend, she stays and watches. Brian asks Clarissa to come with him to the cornfield, but Clarissa coyly refuses. After the two of them leave, Ruth burgles Clarissa’s locker, looking for anything to do with Susie. All she finds is a large stash of marijuana, which she smokes all in one sitting that evening in her parents’ garage.
Susie didn’t realize how deeply she’d affect Ruth when she touched her on her way up to heaven. Now, as news of Susie’s murder spreads through the school, Ruth is by far the classmate most affected by Susie’s death. As she observes Clarissa and Brian, it seems as if she’s wondering how they can act like everything is normal. Realizing how close Clarissa was to Susie in life, Ruth is both upset by Clarissa’s seemingly detached attitude and desirous of whatever secrets Clarissa might have about Susie, and so she attempts to get closer to Susie by infiltrating one of Clarissa’s private spaces.
Susie watches her school friends day and night from her gazebo. The freedom to observe the whole school is “intoxicating,” and Susie watches the dramas and passions of both students and adults play out all over campus. An art teacher makes love to his girlfriend in the kiln room; the assistant football coach leaves anonymous chocolates for the married science teacher; the principal “moon[s]” over the assistant football coach.
For Susie, watching her own family is sad and demoralizing; watching her friends, classmates, and teachers, however, is intoxicating and intriguing. Susie begins to realize the wide range of her new perspective, and the secret actions and desires it allows her to bear witness to. It seems as if her desire to absorb the “secrets” of life from afar is coming true after all.
One night, after watching Ruth, Susie runs into Franny in the middle of the central square of her heaven. Susie is cold and shivering, and when Franny asks her why, Susie confesses that she cannot stop thinking about her mother. Susie wants Franny to hold her, but Franny only squeezes her hand. Susie knows that Franny is not her mother, and she cannot pretend that she is. Susie returns to the gazebo.
Though Susie is tapping into the powers of her relative omniscience, she finds herself still feeling a sense of isolation—she misses her mother, and it turns out that her relationship with Abigail is as fraught in death as it was in life.
Susie remembers the morning of her eleventh birthday. She woke up early and did not think anyone else in the house was awake. She stalked through the house looking for her presents, and eventually found a not-yet-wrapped camera—just what she had asked for. Susie took the camera, loaded it with film, and immediately began photographing a neighbor through the blinds. Susie ran to the back of the house, hoping to get a better view from the yard. On the back porch, she saw her mother.
Susie, even on Earth, was obsessed with watching other people. Her passion for photography belies a desire to not just see everything and witness all walks of life, but to capture and possess the things she sees—to immortalize them and make them material so that she can study them, learn from them, and keep them for herself.
Abigail was not yet wearing lipstick, and Susie realized in that moment that her mother only put makeup on for other people. As her mother looked out at the yard, Susie noticed that her stare stretched “to infinity,” and finally understood her father’s nickname for her mother—"Ocean Eyes”—as a descriptor not of the color of her mother’s eyes but of their depths. Susie took a photograph of her mother, wanting to preserve the sensation of seeing her in this new light. When Susie got the roll of film back weeks later, she found that there was only one picture in which her mother was truly herself—the first photo Susie took of her, before the camera shutter’s noise startled her back into reality.
In this passage, the eleven-year-old Susie sees for the first time that her mother is not exactly who Susie always thought she was. Susie’s gift of perception, and her desire to see everything, had pitfalls on Earth just as it does now in heaven. Susie wanted to see everything, and wound up seeing something she didn’t expect—she saw her mother in a strange new light, and because the moment was immortalized in a photograph, Susie was unable to go back to knowing her mother as she knew her before.
Back in the gazebo, Susie watches as Lindsey gets up in the middle of the night and creeps across the hall into Susie’s empty bedroom. She touches Susie’s things, examining her clothes and her pin collection, before finding the photo of Abigail tucked beneath a tray on Susie’s dresser. Susie, from heaven, is slightly sad—she had wanted to remain the only one who knew that their mother was “someone mysterious and unknown.”
Susie is possessive of what she sees and captures, and as she watches her younger sister Lindsey become a secondhand observer of the secrets once only known to Susie, Susie becomes slightly jealous.
The first time Susie “breaks through,” it is by accident—two days before Christmas, just weeks after her death. As she watches Jack clean his den, she reflects on the craft they had worked on together in that room: building ships in bottles. Jack called Susie his “first mate,” and let her hold the bottles as he finished the ship inside., Susie watches as her father begins to smash his precious creations, “christen[ing] the walls with the news of [Susie’s] death.” As she looks down on the wreckage of all the glass bottles, Susie appears, just for a second, casting her face in the shards of broken glass. Her father laughs loudly and deeply upon sensing Susie’s presence, and she feels his laughter up in her heaven. Jack and Susie both realize, from their separate worlds, that the line between the worlds of the living and the dead is a blurry one.
As Susie hones her powers of observation, she realizes that there is an unintended—and unpredictable—consequence or side effect to her behavior. She watches her father wrestle with his grief, and as she does, she wishes there was something she could do to ameliorate it. Her desire becomes so intense that she “breaks through” the boundary between their worlds and appears to him. Susie is a perpetual observer, but in this moment, it is she who is being seen in a moment of desperation. As Jack and Susie wrestle with the implications of what has just happened to both of them, the novel delves deeper into one of its central questions about the nature of the afterlife and the separation between the earthly world and the spirit realm.