As The Face on the Milk Carton begins, Janie Johnson is finishing an essay in English class. She does not pay much attention to her work. Instead, she thinks about learning to drive. Her father thinks that she is too young. In fact, he would prefer that she never grew up at all. However, Janie’s mother thinks she is ready to start driving. Last night, Mrs. Johnson convinced her husband to let Janie get a learner’s permit.
Janie fiddles with her essay, changing the spelling of her name to make it look more interesting. She muses that a girl named Jayne Johnston or Jayyne Jonstone would probably attract more notice than Jane Johnson. Her friends all have beautiful names, and she resolves that her children will have good names someday, too. She wonders why her parents chose such a boring name for her.
When the bell rings for lunch, Janie joins several friends in her school’s cramped lunchroom. She has recently been diagnosed with a lactose intolerance, and she watches enviously as her friends slurp milk with their lunches. They look at the picture on the milk carton and debate whether anyone could recognize a girl twelve years after she had been kidnapped.
Janie’s next-door neighbor, a good-looking senior named Reeve, waves at her across the cafeteria. As she waves back, she thinks about the problems he is having with his family. All three of Reeve’s older siblings got into excellent colleges, but he earns mostly Ds and Fs. He and his parents fight about this a great deal, and Reeve often takes refuge at Janie’s house. She gets along well with him, and her friends think he wants to be her boyfriend. However, Janie knows that her overprotective parents are unlikely to let her go out on a date with a boy. They do not even let Janie go shopping alone.
As her friends banter, Janie eats her peanut butter sandwich and wishes she could drink some milk with it. In a sudden fit of rebellion, she decides that she does not care about her lactose problem. She snatches a half-full milk carton from her friend Sarah-Charlotte and gulps it down. Sarah-Charlotte protests, but Janie does not answer. She sits staring at the picture on the carton. It’s a picture of her, Janie, when she was three years old. She remembers wearing the dress in the picture, a polka-dot dress. She even remembers the scratchiness of the collar and the way it caught the wind when she wore it.
Janie tells her friends that the picture on the carton is of her. They all laugh, thinking that she is making up stories to get out of class, but Janie knows it is true. As the bell rings to signal the end of lunch, she thinks, “I was kidnapped.”
For the rest of the school day, Janie's mind stays stuck on the picture on the milk carton. How could she have been kidnapped? It does not seem possible. She has two loving parents and a normal life, but she is sure that she is the girl in the picture. It makes no sense.
Janie goes through the motions of the school day, taking notes and answering questions—but all the time, she wonders if she is going insane. Perhaps it is a side effect of her lactose intolerance. Maybe drinking the milk drove her mad. The school day ends, and her body moves slowly as she packs up her things. By the time she gets outside into the rain, her bus is gone.
Feeling dizzy and confused, Janie stands on the sidewalk in the downpour. She watches a jeep approach. It is aimed straight for her, but she is feeling so shell-shocked that it does not even occur to her to step out of the way. The jeep stops in time, and the driver opens the passenger door. It is Reeve, her neighbor. He tells her to get in out of the rain.
Reeve loves storms and floods, so he suggests driving down to the water to see if it is rising. Janie agrees. As he drives, she flattens out the milk carton, which she has kept from lunch, and clips it inside her notebook. Reeve comments that this looks like an interesting hobby. Janie does not explain.
Stopping at a spot called the Scenic Overlook, Reeve confides that he feels upset about being the only unintelligent kid in his family. His mother recently confided to Janie’s parents that she is proud of her three older children and that “three out of four isn’t bad.” Janie comforts him and tells him that his mother was out of line.
As Reeve talks about his problems, Janie’s mind frequently returns to the picture on the milk carton. She sneaks a peek at it and reads the name underneath: Jennie Spring. The description says that Jennie was taken from a shopping mall in New Jersey. It also lists a birth...
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Reeve drops Janie off at home. Her dad is out coaching soccer, and her mom is volunteering at the local hospital. Janie walks around the house looking at her family’s possessions. She finds a note from her mother, calling Janie “darling.” She finds a stack of her jeans, recently washed and neatly folded. The house looks exactly like what it is: the home of a normal, loving family. It does not look like the home of two kidnappers and their victim.
Janie examines all the photos of herself on the walls. They show a happy, well-loved child skiing, dancing, and traveling. She thinks she must be crazy to consider that she may have been kidnapped. Her parents are too kind. They may be overprotective, but by no stretch of the imagination are they evil.
Yet there are no baby pictures of Janie, not anywhere in the house. Janie has asked about this before, and her parents have said that they did not own a camera until she was five. She has always accepted this explanation, but suddenly it seems feeble. Why did they never have their only daughter professionally photographed?
She goes to her bedroom and looks at her possessions as if they belong to a stranger. Janie is a girl who constantly starts new hobbies and gives them up; she can see evidence of this fact all over the room. She sees pictures and possessions left over from a horseback-riding phase, a flute-playing phase, and a gymnastics phase, among others.
Janie Johnson gives up many things, but surely one cannot give up being a whole person. If Jennie Spring was kidnapped at age three, and if Janie is Jennie, then she should remember. She lies down on her bed and tries to dredge up memories of this little girl. Nothing comes to her, but she does get the odd sensation that another person is indeed buried inside her. This is a creepy idea, so she gets up and runs over to Reeve’s house.
Reeve’s mother, Mrs. Shields, is watching...
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Janie sleeps well, and in the morning she marvels that she did not have nightmares. However, she is still shaken by the daymares she experienced yesterday. She does not call them memories in her mind.
When she goes to school, Janie watches and listens while her friends talk and joke. One of them, Adair, is taking her driver’s test this afternoon. She comments that she is terrified that she will do something ridiculous, like forget her birth certificate. Hearing this, Janie panics. She didn't know that a person needs a birth certificate to get a driver’s license. Suddenly she wonders if her parents have her birth certificate at all. She cannot help suspecting that they do not.
Jason, another of Janie’s friends, tells a story about the first time he saw his birth certificate. The date on it was wrong; he panicked, thinking that he was adopted. Eventually he found out that two dates are recorded on the birth certificate: the date of birth and the date the baby is registered officially. The dates on his certificate are a few days apart, and he had noticed the latter one.
When Janie gets home from school, she asks to see her birth certificate. Her mother says that it is at the bank, in the safety deposit box. When she says that she is too busy to get it now, Janie asks if they can go tomorrow. Her mother replies that the bank will be closed tomorrow, and Janie demands to go Monday. Annoyed, Janie's mother loses her temper. “Why don’t you want me to see my birth certificate?” Janie asks.
Janie’s mother disregards the question and offers a snack. Janie goes to the kitchen to find something to eat. Her mother, who normally eats a snack with her every day, does not follow. Janie wonders if her mother is indeed hiding something. The thought brings on a confused, dizzy feeling, and she has another daymare.
In this daymare, Janie is in a messy kitchen full of people and toys. Babies are...
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Janie and Reeve kiss for a long time. When they separate, Janie takes a moment to feel amazed; she then kisses him again, putting her hands on the back of his neck, feeling his pulse. They are interrupted when Mrs. Shields calls out to Reeve to tell him he has a phone call. Reeve runs inside. When he is gone, Janie fixes the leaf pile to erase the impressions of their bodies. Reeve does not come back out, so Janie goes into her house.
Inside, Janie’s mother excitedly takes a pan out of the refrigerator. She has been practicing her cake-decorating skills all day, with impressive results. She has created a frosting football scene on a sheet cake. Tomorrow Janie's family is having a tailgate party with Reeve’s and...
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In the morning, Janie begs her parents to let her drive them to the tailgate party. After some discussion, they agree. Janie happily backs out of the driveway, doing a perfect job of it and feeling proud of herself—especially when Reeve comes outside and sees her. Her parents are terrified throughout the journey, and they force her to drive well under the speed limit all the way. Janie is too pleased with herself to care.
Reeve’s sister Lizzie is visiting for the football game, a situation which Janie finds annoying. Of Reeve’s three high-achieving siblings, Lizzie is perhaps the most driven. She excelled as an undergraduate at Princeton, and now she is in law school. She is highly disapproving of Reeve, and Janie...
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When Janie gets home, both of her parents are out, her dad coaching and her mother volunteering. Janie is desperate to get a look at her birth certificate. Once she sees it, she will know that the whole kidnapping idea is wrong, and she can go on with her life. She does not know when the bank closes, but she thinks it will be closed before her parents get home. She goes into her mother’s office with the vague idea of finding the key and going to the bank by herself.
Janie opens her mother’s top desk drawer and sees dozens of folders full of neatly organized information from all of Mrs. Johnson’s many volunteering activities. Janie rifles idly through the papers, reflecting that she has had no more daymares about...
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At dinner, Janie cannot eat. Her mother has cooked a nice meal, pot roast and mashed potatoes, but Janie does not touch it. Her mother offers soup, but Janie—intending to wound—snaps that she would rather eat at McDonald’s. Mr. Johnson makes a joke of this, but Janie can tell that her rudeness has upset her parents.
Although her parents make a deliberate effort to be nice and cheerful during dinner, Janie ignores them. She obsesses about the kidnapping. She considers taking out an ad in a New Jersey newspaper, asking for information about Jennie Spring. As soon as she has this idea, she dismisses it, reasoning that it would be terrible of her to get Jennie’s parents’ hopes up when she does not plan to call...
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Janie’s parents go silent, shocked by her questions. Janie stands in agony, desperate to know the truth. Her parents look at each other, and some silent communication passes between them. They both nod, agreeing to tell Janie their story.
Haltingly, the Johnsons admit that they are not her parents. They are her grandparents. They had a daughter, Hannah, who is Janie’s real mother. Hearing this, Janie feels frantic with relief. “Is that all?” she says. She can live with being the illegitimate child of a mother she has never met. That is far better than being the victim of a kidnapping, the lost child of faraway strangers.
Mr. Johnson tells Janie that he loves her and that he is her real father in an...
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Janie’s relief lasts until sometime in the night. She wakes up from a nightmare and realizes, all at once, that her parents’ story makes no sense. It explains the box marked H upstairs in the attic, but it does not explain the picture on the milk carton, the name Jennie Spring, or the daymares. The daymares are filled with ice cream, shopping malls, and people who seem like family. There is nothing in them that meshes with her parents' description of Hannah's cult.
Above all, Janie is bothered by the dress in the trunk upstairs. It is a concrete object, undeniably real—and definitely the dress from the milk carton. She lies awake, slowly forming a sickening suspicion. Could her parents have gone crazy...
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It takes two hours to drive from Connecticut to New Jersey. Reeve concentrates on the road while Janie studies the map to find the shopping mall where Jennie Spring was kidnapped. On the road, Janie tells him everything, but he has trouble believing it. He has known Janie’s parents most of his life, and he cannot imagine that they are criminals.
During the drive, Reeve wonders aloud what their parents will think about the two of them skipping school together. He suspects that the adults will accuse Reeve and Janie of going to a hotel or a beach somewhere to have sex. Janie has no room in her mind to worry about this. She is developing a bad headache, and it is all she can do to navigate. She stays silent, speaking...
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Reeve turns off the highway and parks in front of a cheap hotel. Janie protests but goes inside with him anyway. He uses his father’s credit card to pay for a room. When it is Janie’s turn to sign the registry, she hesitates, wondering whether to call herself Johnson or Javensen or Spring. Eventually she signs Jane Johnson. The hotel clerk sarcastically tells her that she has a bad imagination. Reeve seems on the point of punching the man, but he holds himself back.
Before they go to the room, Janie says again that she cannot do what Reeve wants. This time, Reeve accepts her refusal. He stops and stares at the dingy surroundings, and Janie thinks that she would have said yes if not for the awful...
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Janie feels oddly thrilled when her parents scream at her. She tells herself that their anger proves they are real parents who really love her. She apologizes. Reeve explains that the two of them were just talking, not running away as their parents suspected. Reeve’s father threatens extreme punishment, and Janie suddenly realizes that she and Reeve are at risk of being kept apart. “But Reeve helped me,” she says. “I needed him and he was there.” This diffuses the situation a little. Both sets of parents are forced to admit that she has a point, but they maintain that it was horrible of Janie and Reeve to run off without calling home.
During another sleepless night, Janie considers what she has learned. By now...
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Janie’s dad is thrilled when she appears at his soccer game. He thanks her for coming and introduces her to all of his players. Afterward, Janie’s mother suggests going out for pizza, which surprises everyone because she usually refuses to feed her family anything but healthful, home-cooked meals. Janie goes to the pizza parlor but finds she cannot eat. Now that she knows the truth about her kidnapping, she is living a lie, pretending that she is still ignorant about her real identity. The thought makes her sick to her stomach.
During dinner, Janie’s mom suggests going to the Adolescent Trauma Center for family counseling. Janie refuses, saying that she wants to work her feelings out on her own. Inwardly, she...
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As autumn comes to a close, Janie finds a new balance. She takes the polka dot dress out of Hannah’s trunk and hangs it in her closet. Every morning and every evening, she touches it to remind herself. She also keeps writing in the diary, telling her story—but never sending it to the Springs.
One weekend morning, Reeve comes over to Janie’s house for breakfast and then takes her out for a drive. Just before they leave, Janie’s notebook falls open to reveal the milk carton she keeps hidden inside. She snaps it shut and apologizes, but her parents look suspicious. She takes the notebook up to her room before leaving the house.
Although Janie’s life has returned to normal, more or less, she still...
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The next weekend, Sarah-Charlotte, Jason, and Reeve hang out at Janie’s house. They rent movies, lay out a game of Trivial Pursuit, and then spend time arguing about whether to watch the movies or play the game. Sarah-Charlotte complains that Jason is not romantic. Janie shows off a pumpkin pin that Reeve gave her; he is the only truly romantic boyfriend among their group of friends.
Janie starts the Trivial Pursuit game and asks for a history question. Instead of reading the question on the card, Sarah-Charlotte makes up her own: “Did Reeve give you the milk carton as well as the pumpkin pin?” Apparently she has noticed Janie’s habit of looking at her milk carton several times every day. Janie’s mother...
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For the next week, Janie feels terrible all the time. Reeve refuses to look at her or speak to her. However, Sarah-Charlotte is not angry anymore. Janie thinks this is mostly because it is so much fun to play the comforting friend after a break-up. Sarah-Charlotte quickly develops the theory that Reeve broke up with Janie because she would not have sex.
Janie does not tell anyone the real reason for the break-up. Reeve had wanted to be the most important part of her life, and she had kept putting her problems first. Now she knows how awful it is to lose someone. This leaves her doubly sure that she cannot lose her parents’ love. She has to rid herself entirely of the idea of the kidnapping. She forms a plan to...
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Janie marvels at how easily Lizzie explains the kidnapping situation to the Johnsons. Janie has spent months worrying and wondering, and now Lizzie’s quick, efficient description has freed Janie of the whole burden in a few moments. It is an enormous relief. Janie feels like dancing. Her parents, on the other hand, are crushed. Although they did not commit the kidnapping themselves, they feel guilty. They also worry about what the Springs will do when they find out what happened.
Janie suddenly feels hungry, and she asks her parents to order a pizza. This makes them laugh. They comment that she must be their real daughter if she gets hungry during a crisis. Mrs. Johnson timidly says that experiences like...
(The entire section is 432 words.)