From the author of Girl Last Seen comes a psychological thriller that delivers Nina Laurin’s signature “heart-stopping” suspense (Heather Gudenkauf, New York Times bestselling author).
“…currently wanted by the police. If you know anything about the suspect’s whereabouts, please call…”
I look up at the TV screen, and my twin brother’s face is splashed across it, life-size.
It’s a shock that makes my breath catch. This is my brother as an adult, my brother who I last saw fifteen years ago after the fire that killed our parents, covered in soot, clutching a lighter in his hand, his knuckles stark white against the dirt and ash.
Everyone always said he’d grow up to be a heartbreaker. But his face has gone gaunt instead. The stubble on his cheeks and chin is patchy, and his eyes look dull and dark.
My first thought is that it’s not him. Not my beautiful brother, the golden boy who everyone loved. Yet, deep down, I’ve always known this would eventually happen.
What did you do this time, Eli? What the hell did you do?
APRIL 10, 3:44 A.M.
A sticky thread of saliva runs from the corner of my mouth down to my earlobe, cool across my cheek. My vertebrae feel like a bunch of disconnected Lego pieces but I manage to hold up my head.
Humid April wind howls through the car. That’s not right. Then I realize there’s no windshield and the gleaming uncut diamonds scattered all over the passenger seat are glass shards.
My temple throbs with hot, clean pain, and I realize I need to call someone: Milton, or better yet, an ambulance. Why didn’t the airbag work? The light from the car—the one surviving headlight, like a beam of a lost lighthouse in the night—shines into emptiness filled with stray raindrops, catching the side of the tree that I wrapped my car around.
When I raise my hand to my forehead, my fingers come away coated with slick, shiny blood. More of it is already running down my neck under my collar—foreheads bleed a lot. An ambulance sounds better and better, but I don’t know where to even begin looking for my phone. Was I texting when I crashed? Checking my email? They’re going to ask that, and I have to say no. I sometimes use my phone as a GPS, but not tonight. I’ve taken this route a million times. When there’s no traffic, and there’s never any traffic, it takes me forty-five minutes to get home.
The door is stuck, and for a few moments, I tug and push and pull on the handle, consumed by ever-growing panic. But then, once I give it a kick, it comes unstuck and swings open. Getting out is a feat. I unfold my aching body and have to hold on to the car door to keep from falling over. After stumbling through the usual debris on the side of the highway, I breathe a sigh of relief when there’s finally flat, solid asphalt beneath my feet, the yellow stripe in its center curving into the dark distance. I follow it. Down the road, there’s a gas station. If I were driving, it would be right there around that curve. I don’t know how far it is on foot but, hopefully, not that far.
I take one step after another until the road steadies itself beneath my feet and stops swaying. Next thing I know, when I turn around, I can no longer see my car. The one headlight went out, and now it’s just me and the sky and the road.
My heart starts to thunder, which makes my forehead bleed more—or at least it feels like it, that little throbbing pulse intensifying. Maybe I should have stayed and looked for my phone in the wilted grass of the ditch. Anything could be out here on this road. The darkness is alive.
I wrap my arms around myself and do my best to walk faster, but a rush of dizziness stops me in my tracks. When I close my eyes, an image flashes in front of them, a shadow. A figure. Except this isn’t imagination—it’s memory. It’s vivid, fresh. I’m driving, twin beams of my car’s headlights intact, my hands firmly on the steering wheel, my mind calm in that dull way it is after a long, late shift. I’m thinking about a bath and a bowl of ramen noodles in front of the TV I will only half watch because nothing good is on that late.
The shadow flickers out of nowhere, my headlights snatching it out of the darkness. It’s the silhouette of a man, standing stock-still in the middle of the road, right over that yellow line.
I open my eyes, and there’s nothing—no car, no lights, no figure. A glow in the distance suggests that I’m getting closer to the gas station and, hopefully, a phone and an ambulance. At the same time, the dizziness settles in, and I fight the temptation to sit down, just for a moment. Or better yet, lie down, right here on the side of the road. This means I have a concussion, which means I need to do precisely the opposite, as I learned in my mandatory first aid courses.
A spike of headache drives itself into my temple, and when I flinch, the image springs back up, like a movie I paused in the middle of the action. I’m careening toward the figure at eighty miles per hour. When I react, it’s already too late to slow down, to give him a wide berth. The car’s headlights bathe him in bluish light, erasing facial fea- tures, bleaching out everything except a strange harlequin pattern of splotches and spots that look black against his ghostly skin. Just as I swerve the steering wheel and hit the brakes, I have time to see that I was wrong—it’s not black. It’s red, red like ripe cherries and rust.
Then the world spins, the road is gone, and so is the figure. My eyes snap open just as everything explodes. Bang. I’m panting and need to stop to catch my breath, hands on my knees. The gas station is finally in view, deserted
but all aglow like a church on Christmas Eve.
Only a few more steps and I’ve reached salvation.
What follows is a blur but somehow I find myself on a gurney with a blanket around my shoulders, and an ambulance tech is shining a flashlight into my eyes. Whether I have a concussion or not, the cut on my temple keeps oozing blood so they tape a gauze pad over it. I expect someone to ask me what happened but no one does. Through the open doors, I watch the ambulance lights bounce off the rain-slicked road. Is that what happened? Did my car skid? Maybe I fell asleep at the wheel.
“Ms. Boudreaux?” the ambulance tech is saying. They already know my name, which means they ran my car’s plates. Then I see my open purse just sitting there in the middle of the wet road, my wallet splayed open next to it. Oh. How did it get here? I don’t remember grabbing it as I got out. “We’re taking you to Saint Joseph Hospital, all right? For observation.”
I hate that soothing tone, maybe because I’ve oftentimes used it myself, on frightened teenage runaways who show up at the shelter where I work. But whether I like it or not, it has the intended effect: He could be saying literally anything in that calm, measured voice. It’s the intonation and timbre that have the effect.
“We’ll notify your family,” the tech says. It’s that word that wakes me up, overriding whatever he just shot into the crook of my elbow. I make a clumsy move to grasp his forearm.
“Wait. There’s someone else there.” I must have hit my head harder than I thought—I can barely get the words out, slurring and misshapen.
He frowns. “Someone else?”
“I saw someone. Maybe they’re hurt.”
“You mean you hit someone?”
I give a vigorous shake of my head. I’m disoriented as hell, but this I’m sure of. Certain. Although when I think about it, I have no reason to be so certain, considering I still go to AA meetings once a week. “No. I saw someone.” I didn’t drink, I didn’t take anything, I haven’t even smoked a joint in months. That part of my memory is crystal clear. I wasn’t wasted, and I didn’t run anyone over.
But there was a man, covered in blood. And by the time I came to, a few minutes later—or maybe hours later, for all I know—he was gone.
This is what they tell Milton when he gets there: I was driving home from work, crashed my car, and hit my head. They think I have a concussion. They don’t hook me up to any machines, only an IV and a heart rate monitor. I’m in a room with four or five other people. I can’t tell exactly how many because the space is separated by white plastic curtains that smell faintly of cleanser. When all of them are closed, the space I have to myself is just big enough to accommodate the bed itself and the plastic chair next to it.
My health insurance through work only covers the most basic stuff. In retrospect, I should have swallowed my pride and let my adoptive mother put me on the family plan. The family plan includes separate rooms. And probably a monogrammed bathrobe as a souvenir. That same plan once gave me braces for my teeth and laser treatments for the burn scars on my chest, neck, and upper arms. The braces did their job; the laser treatment . . . not so much.
Far over my head, positioned at an angle above the curtains so that everyone in the room can see it, is a TV screen. It’s hard to watch without painfully craning my neck, and anyway, the channel is fuzzy with static.
The curtain crinkles, and its metal rings clink against the curtain rod, alerting me that Milt is back. I lower my head onto the flat hospital pillow and try to look appropriately injured.
He’s brought me sour candies and a can of the exact no-name orange soda I like, presumably from the vending machine downstairs. There’s nothing like favorite childhood junk foods to make you feel better but right now I can barely bring myself to look at the treats.
“Quick,” he says, tossing me the bag of sour candies. I catch it in midair. “Before the nurse comes in and sees you.” He winks, and I do my best not to cringe.
Few people wear their name quite as badly as Milt does. My gorgeous, six-foot-two, blond, blue-eyed, college soccer champion fiancé—pardon, ex-fiancé. It’s easy to forget. Even when I still had the ring he gave me, I hardly ever wore it, not because I didn’t appreciate it but because I’d never think of wearing a two-carat diamond to work at the homeless youth shelter. When the ring disappeared, my first logical thought was to tell him that someone stole it.
Milton wasn’t my type until I met him. In fact, he was the opposite of my type. I always liked the dangerous boys, dark eyes and hair in need of clippers, a tattoo peeking out from under a collar or sleeve. When we met, I was at a party where I barely knew anyone, pursuing one or another such boy—I don’t even remember which anymore. I remember getting stupid-drunk on those canned, pre- mixed, malty-tasting sex on the beach drinks because the boy failed to show.
It wasn’t a love-at-first-sight thing; Milt was there with somebody else. I never really knew who that girl was or what happened to her, because the next time Milton and I met, I pretended not to remember that party. It was more than a year later. I’d had time to grow out my ugly haircut and realize that black lipstick wasn’t for me. I hoped he wouldn’t recognize me, but I underestimated his ability to notice details. Because he recognized me, all right.
And within another two years, I somehow had not just Milt but also the diamond, the town house, all those things so normal and conventional it made them magical some- how. Everyone sort of expected me to die in a ditch, and here I was, with a mortgage and a reluctant subscription to a bridal magazine.
Of course, it couldn’t have lasted. Just as we were al- ready deciding on venues and caterers, I went and fucked it all up. Milt doesn’t have the heart to leave me, so we’re not broken up—we’re taking a break. Same word, different formulation, but he doesn’t see it’s essentially the same meaning. He let me have the town house while he lives in his parents’ summer residence.
I tear open the packet, and sour candies go flying all over the pale-blue hospital sheet. I snatch them up and pop two or three into my mouth at once. My taste buds writhe in acidic agony, and my eyes start to water, but I figure, with a mouthful of chewy high-fructose corn syrup, I can’t be expected to talk.
“So you’re going to tell me what happened?” Milt asks. He’s not angry with me. It’s not really in his nature to get angry. He’s anxious, although he tries hard to hide it—it’s not so easy to hide things from a psych major, even one who only made it to the end of senior year on a prayer.
“I’m fine. It’s just a concussion.” I have a feeling like I just said the same words less than five minutes ago. I gulp down the half-chewed sour candy that sears the back of my throat. “Where’s my phone?”
His gaze darts back and forth. “I don’t know. I checked at Reception. They gave me your coat and purse, but I don’t think your phone is in there.” He clears his throat, which is one of his tells. “Maybe, er, the police—”
“I wasn’t texting,” I say. I feel like I already said this too. “And I wasn’t drunk.”
Have they taken my blood to test for alcohol and drugs? My upper lip breaks out in beads of anxious sweat. They have no reason to do that, do they? No one else got hurt. Even I didn’t get hurt . . . too badly. Besides, even if they did the test, I have nothing to worry about.
“So what happened?”
“Milton,” I say. I catch his wrist and feel the muscles in his forearm, sinewy and ropey through the sleeve of his jacket. They tense and pop as he instinctively pulls away. This is bad. I hold on but my grip is weak. “Milton, you do believe me, right?”
“Of course I believe you.” Milton sounds sad. Milton knows more about me than almost anyone—because I told him things I’ve told very few people who weren’t shrinks. And also because his parents hired a PI to look into my background when we started dating, and he accidentally blabbed about it months after the fact. “It’s just, you’re a good driver.”
For just a moment, I consider telling him the truth. Blink, and it’s gone. “The road was slippery. Or maybe…maybe I fell asleep. I don’t know, okay? I was exhausted. I don’t remember exactly. I hit my head.”
“Yeah.” He finds it in him to grin and ruffles my hair. “You’re going to look like a football for a while. Completing your gangsta cred?”
I chuckle. I want him to keep touching me.
His look turns serious. “I believe you, Addie.” He knows I hate the nickname, but the more I protested the more he made it sort of a playful tug-of-war until it stuck, whether I liked it or not. “But I have the right to be worried. And your airbag—it didn’t deploy.”
“My bad for buying a crappy used car.” Last year, he did offer to buy me a brand-new sedan, one with the top safety rating in its category. But I always had an issue with accepting his money—by extension, his parents’ money— ever since I found out about the PI.
I can handle the fact that they hate me, but investigating me is another thing.
“Have they told you when they’re letting me go home?”
He shrugs. “I tried to ask at Reception but they barely acknowledged I was there, so . . . ” He gives me a guilty smile. “Can I at least get you something to pass the time? A mag- azine from the lobby? A book?”
Yes. As a matter of fact, you can get me a phone, hopefully one with a signal and a full battery and an internet connection. But I just return his smile in a properly pained way and shake my head.
“I’ll see if I can find a nurse. Or someone who knows what’s going on.” He makes a motion to leave but slowly, reluctantly, as if he’s hoping I’ll ask him to stay.
“Milton,” I blurt, like it’s my last chance. For all I know, it is. “Wait. There’s a . . . thing I think I remember. Or maybe I imagined it. Or dreamed it, if I really did fall asleep.”
Alarm crosses his features. He doesn’t have time to hide it, and I nearly change my mind but realize it’s too late to go back. “I saw something,” I say, swallowing. My mouth immediately goes sandpaper dry. “On the road, someone jumped out in front of my car. I didn’t have time to see. A figure.”
Milton’s brows, a few shades darker than his sandy- blond hair, knit as he frowns. “Addie,” he says, “have you told anyone? Have you told the police?”
“Police?” I stammer. “Why would I—”
But in that moment, I’m miraculously saved from the mess I got myself into. I hear rapidly approaching clacking steps that don’t sound like a nurse’s orthopedic sneakers, and a moment later, someone yanks the plastic curtain out of the way. No hello, no are you decent.
“Jesus Christ, Andrea. Not this bullshit again. What on earth where you thinking?”
With maroon lipstick at seven a.m. and fury blazing forth off her gold-rimmed bifocals, the formidable Cynthia Boudreaux has arrived.
“I wasn’t drunk,” I say through gritted teeth. “I fell asleep at the wheel.” I don’t glance at Milt, and he keeps mum, thank God. The mysterious-figure-in-the-middle-of- the-road version of events has been forgotten for now.
The woman who raised me from age twelve dismisses me with a wave of her hand. She probably already knows I wasn’t in a DUI-related accident—the nurses or the police would have told her, because no such nonsense as patient confidentiality ever got in the way of Cynthia Boudreaux. I don’t understand why she’s here. Certainly not out of concern for me. Even if she had any, once upon a time, I sure did everything in my power to make sure this was no longer the case.
“They’ll be releasing her soon,” she says over my head at Milt. “I’m going to take her home.”
The ominous way she says the last word, with a subtle but present emphasis, tells me she doesn’t mean the town house.
“No way,” I protest.
“Did you get her stuff from Reception?” Cynthia’s icy gaze doesn’t waver from Milt, like I don’t even exist.
“Here,” he says, complying, handing her the plastic bag with all my belongings. I’m stricken speechless by the betrayal unfolding right before my eyes, and Milt studiously avoids looking at me. She snatches the bag out of his hand and peers in.
“Is her phone in there?”
She fishes unceremoniously through my things, unzips my purse, and plunges her veiny hand with its gold rings into its depths, retrieving my wallet that she flips open and fleetingly inspects. “Anything else missing?”
“Why would anything be missing? Mom?”
For once, the m word fails to get her attention.
“Go check at Reception again,” she says to Milt. “Make sure we have everything. Her car keys. Where are her car keys?”
Milt looks uncertain. He opens his mouth to say something but cuts himself off, silenced by my adoptive mother’s sharp glare. The second he vanishes on the other side of the white curtain, Cynthia drops the act—it’s an instant, head-to-toe flip, a shape-shifter changing form. She takes her glasses off and rubs the bridge of her nose where the little plastic pads have left two kidney-shaped red marks in her foundation. Her shoulders drop, relaxing from the perfect politician’s wife posture; even her face itself seems to fall an inch or two, a mask with loosened strings.
“Do you think I don’t know what you’re up to?” she says in a hoarse, loud whisper. “Do you think you’re the only smart person around here? And if I can figure it out, so can the police.” She heaves a noisy sigh that smells like her herbal supplements and mouthwash. “I knew it would come back to bite you. I knew it.”
I lift myself up on my elbows. “Mom, what are you going on about?”
“Don’t mom me,” she snaps. “We’re well past that, Andrea, and you really should have thought about it when—”
“I wasn’t driving drunk, and I wasn’t texting. I swear.” I make a move to catch her hand, which she eludes. “Why did they take my phone? Was it the police?”
“And they have your thermal cup too,” she says dryly. “They’re analyzing the contents.”
A thought flits through my head: Good, let them think I spiked my coffee with some dregs of cheap whiskey I confiscated from one of my shelter kids; let them think I swallowed pills, whatever. I don’t let the thought show on my face.
“But that’s not the point,” Cynthia adds. “Anyway, we’re going home now; I already called our lawyer, and if they want to talk to you, not a word without him present, understand?”
“I’m not going to your house,” I say, struggling to contain the anger that fills my chest. “I’m going home. I’ll ask Milt to drive me.”
“Milton is coming too,” she says, not missing a single beat. “Just keep in mind, your sister is there, so at least have the decency to behave.”
At the news that my adopted sister is home, an electric tingle of alarm shoots down my spine, and I know that whatever it is might not have anything to do with the crash after all.
And it must be really, really bad.
A nurse comes in, her bulky presence overfilling the small space, all canned hospital cheer and smell of disinfectant. Cynthia puts her glasses back on and reluctantly steps aside, letting the nurse yank the catheter needle out of my arm and disconnect me from the heart rate monitor. For better or for worse, I’m being let go.
The nurse is professional and efficient, and before I know it, I’m seated in a wheelchair, a piece of folded-up gauze stuck to the crook of my elbow with clear tape. The whole time, she manages not to look me in the eye once, and whenever she speaks, I feel like she’s talking at me, not to me. Like Cynthia’s been giving her lessons.
Just as she hands me over to another nurse, a short Filipino woman, I turn and glimpse at her over my shoulder— in time to catch her looking. An expression races across her face but vanishes before I can make anything of it, facial muscles relaxing and eyebrow creases smoothing back to a waxy neutrality.
I recognize this look, or one like it, from many years ago.
From after the fire. When I forever became That Boy’s Sister.
What My Sister Knew is out in Paperback, Ebook and Audiobook editions on November 12th 2020