The police didn’t believe me.
A jury wouldn’t have, either, if I’d gone on trial, and most definitely not the judge. My attorney had more than a few reservations about my story. Ms. Allerton hadn’t said as much. She didn’t need to. I saw it in her eyes, could tell by the way she shuffled and reshuffled her papers, as if doing so might shake my lies clean off the pages, leaving only the truth behind in her inky, royal blue swirls.
After our first meeting I’d concluded she must’ve known early on–before she shook my hand with her icy fingers–that I was a liar. Before she’d walked into the room in shiny, four-inch heels, she’d no doubt decided she’d heard my excuses, or a variation thereof, from countless clients already. I was yet another person claiming to be innocent. Another criminal who’d remained adamant they’d done nothing wrong, it wasn’t their fault, honest, despite the overwhelming amount of evidence to the contrary, a wall of impending doom surrounding me.
And still, at the time I’d believed the only reason Ms. Allerton had taken on my case pro bono was because of the amount of publicity it gave her firm. Reducing my sentence–for there would be one–would amplify her legacy as a hotshot lawyer. I’d accepted her help. There was no other option. I needed her knowledge, her expertise, saw her as my final hope. I now know her motivations were something else I’d miscalculated. All hope extinguished. Game over.
If I’m being fair, the judgments Ms. Allerton and other people had made about me weren’t completely wrong. I had told lies, some, anyway. While that stripped away part of my claim to innocence, it didn’t mean I was entirely guilty. Not of the things everybody said I’d done. Things I’d had no choice but to confess to, despite that being my biggest lie of all.
But I’ll tell you the truth. The whole truth and nothing but. I’ll start at the beginning and share everything that happened. Every last detail leading up to one fateful night. The night someone died because of me. The night I lost you, too.
I won’t expect your forgiveness. Our relationship–or lack thereof–will have gone way beyond that point. No. All I can hope for, is that my side of the story will one day help you understand why I did the things I did.
And why I have to do the things I’ve not yet done.
Fifteen months earlier
My heels dragged as my legs took shorter steps than usual, an unmistakable sign my feet weren’t heading in a direction I wanted to go. The hems of my old frayed jeans dragged on the sidewalk, soaking up the gray slush–the final vestige of the snow dusting most of Maine had received earlier that Friday afternoon, dumping the majority of it right on top of Portland.
The freezing, soggy fabric of my pants had turned into frozen fingers snatching at my ankles, and I cursed myself twice. Once for not believing the weatherman when he said snow would hit mid-October, and again because I’d donned comfy sneakers as a pathetic sign of protest. At almost thirty and an East Coast native, I really should’ve known better.
While my heart protested, my brain made me quicken my pace toward Monroe Hospice. I tried hard not to imagine what Dad might look like today. If I did, I feared I’d turn around, scuttle home to my little apartment, which had become more of a refuge since his diagnosis. Never mind my pathetic and humble abode’s dire need for odorless carpets, proper windows to keep out the draft, and paint that didn’t come off the walls in banana-peel strips. Despite its state, I longed to be at home, close the curtains, pull on two sweaters and hide for the weekend, trying to pretend Dad wasn’t sick. Wasn’t dying. That this wouldn’t be his last Thanksgiving, and he would make it to Christmas.
Forty-eight hours had passed since I’d visited. Even in such a short amount of time I wasn’t sure what condition I’d find him in—the pallor of his face, how much more sallow his skin had become as it stretched over his jutting cheekbones, translucent as raw phyllo pastry.
Pancreatic cancer–the inoperable, terminal kind, the doctor had said eight weeks ago, although it felt as if multiple lifetimes had passed since our world had been turned upside down. I’d refused to believe it when Dad told me. Insisted they’d made a mistake, handed him somebody else’s test results by accident. The thought of losing my father, the one person I cared for the most in the entire world, filled me with horror. At the rate of his decline, we’d be lucky if he made it another month.
I’d barely slept since the diagnosis, the only advantage being I’d stayed ahead of schedule with the website designs for my clients, even though I caught myself staring into space far too often. Working so much couldn’t prevent my mind from traveling the path marked Life After Dad. It was bleak down there. Empty and cold. Lonely. A place filled with despair, anger and hate. Somewhere nobody should be forced to go, yet a destination almost everyone ended up at some point, and in my case, before I’d done something—anything–to make him proud.
I hoisted my bag over my shoulder, wishing for the umpteenth time I’d emptied it before setting off, and had left my notepad-come-sketchbook and camera at home. The latter was an older, large digital Nikon. It had belonged to my neighbor’s deceased husband and had therefore been free–a big part of the appeal–but it now made the straps of my bag dig into my skin.
“You’re an idiot,” I said and shifted the weight. Even if Dad let me take his picture, I’d be incapable of focusing the lens on him without bursting into tears.
I took another few steps, caught sight of my reflection in the store window and quickly looked away, stuffed my hands deeper into the pockets of my jacket, which already bunched more snuggly around my middle than it had when I’d bought it at the thrift store a few weeks ago. We’d never been on good terms, mirrors and I–it was why I preferred holding the pencil or being on the other side of the camera–and I had more reasons to avoid them now. Unhappiness did peculiar things to people. For me, it translated into lank, greasy hair, a total lack of makeup, and a pattern of shoveling as much comfort food–translation: any food–down my throat as fast as I possibly could.
I’d never lost anyone before, nobody close anyway, no one I’d sobbed into my pillow for, or bargained over with a higher power. It petrified me. Seeing my dad–a strong and burly truck driver with a marshmallow heart–be reduced to no more than a shell within a matter of weeks was already frightening enough, but I suspected the worst was yet to come.
I shuddered, pulled the hood of my jacket over my head to stop the bitter winds from assaulting my ears, and remembered our conversation about the “technical arrangements” for his funeral, more specifically, what he didn’t want.
“Get them to play ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ by Queen,” he’d said.
“Dad, there’s no way I–”
“Kidding. ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ will do fine. But not Bob Dylan’s version, it’s too soft. I want Guns N’ Roses, and make sure it’s the one with Slash’s awesome guitar riff.”
“Are you serious?”
“You’re not funny.”
“`Course I am. Anyway, we’ll make the whole thing cheap and cheerful–”
“Cheerful? You expect your funeral to be cheerful?”
“Yes, Eleanor,” he said, his smile disappearing. “It’s to be a celebration. I don’t want you to be sad. Promise me you won’t be sad.”
Keeping my word was about as probable as healing his cancer with my bare hands, but I’d given it to him anyway, understood it was something he needed to feel better, to at least try to rid himself of the guilt of leaving the people who loved him behind.
I shook my head and looked up at the swirling skies, so lost in thought I’d already arrived at Monroe Hospice, a stone-clad, two-story building tucked away on a dead-end road. Despite my stalling tactics, the walk from my apartment on Sherman Street hadn’t taken much more than an hour, and not for the first time I wondered why they’d built Monroe in an area called Pleasantdale. When I’d shared this with Dad during my last visit, he’d laughed.
“At least it’s close to the cemetery. Transport will be cheap,” he’d said and I’d burst into tears, which had led to him apologizing for his crass attempt at gallows humor, blaming his dark, English sense of wit he’d inherited from his mother.
Taking a deep breath to prepare myself, I pushed open the doors. Although they’d tried hard to make the place homey and comfortable–cheery, abstract, multicolored artwork adorning the walls, a sitting area filled with high-backed sofas so soft you could lose yourself within–the distinct odor of a hospital environment had mixed with the invisible but constant death and sorrow, all of which now clung to the place, tearing my heart in two.
I gave Brenda, the petite receptionist, a small wave, pretending I didn’t hear when she asked how I was doing because I wouldn’t have known how to respond. The elevator took me to my dad’s floor where I gave Nurse Jelani a nod as she greeted me with a well-honed, compassionate expression. How she, or anyone else, worked in this place day in, day out–surrounded by illness and grief, knowing patients would rather go home so they could die in the relative comfort of their own surroundings–was an awesome mystery to me, filled with superheroes in scrubs. In comparison, my website job was a walk in a beautifully serene park. The annoyance I felt when I gave even my most demanding customer the sun and the moon, only to have them ask for the entire solar system, seemed petty and meaningless in contrast.
When I got closer to Dad’s room and heard voices, specifically my mother’s, I paused. Her unmistakable tone–considerably more nasal and irritating than usual–still had the power to send jolts down my spine, never mind my moving out as soon as I’d finished high school, determined never to depend on her again.
I hadn’t expected her to be at the hospice. The fact she’d visited Dad a few days earlier had already been a surprise, considering she’d ordered him to pack his stuff and leave almost twenty years ago, and had hardly spoken to him since. He’d only mentioned she’d visited because I’d told him I’d spotted her coming out of Monroe, and had ducked behind a fir tree to avoid her. It had been at least six months since I’d had any contact with her, almost a year since we’d been in the same room for my sister Amy’s lavish twenty-seventh birthday party. Even that amount of time and distance hadn’t been enough to treat the festering wounds, or get rid of her voice, which constantly berated me in my head.
I’d always questioned, but never understood, why she despised me. I’d asked Dad, too, but he hadn’t given me a proper answer, only said she was a complicated woman. As much as I pretended I didn’t care, part of me still wanted to know. She was caring and loving toward Amy, but had only constant resentment for Dad and me–yet here she was, at his bedside. Maybe there was still hope she’d give treating him like an actual human being another go. After all, she must’ve loved him once.
I leaned against the door, tried to hear their conversation and hoped she was on the verge of leaving, in which case I’d slip into the bathroom or find a supply cupboard to sneak into.
“I still don’t understand, Bruce,” she said to Dad without a hint of warmth. Her glacial tone would freeze hell over when she left this world. No way would she go anywhere but south when she did.
“I’ve already told you, it’s done,” my father said. “I’m not changing my mind.” Although determined, his voice sounded throaty, no doubt in equal parts from his illness and the effort of standing up to my mother. I wondered how long she’d been there, if she’d helped him drink some water, bent the straw at the proper angle so he could make the least amount of effort.
“Why are you doing this?” she said, her voice veering into banshee territory. “Why?”
If she wasn’t careful, Nurse Jelani would ask her to leave. I crossed my fingers, but my mother regained some of her composure and brought the volume down a notch. “What, exactly, are you trying to accomplish?”
“I’m not trying to accomplish anything, Sylvia,” Dad replied. “I’m doing what’s fair. Everything’s split fifty-fifty between the girls. Why are you so upset? It won’t be much, so–”
“Exactly my point,” my mother said. “You never were much of a provider, were you? You barely have anything now, and Nellie–”
“Eleanor,” Dad said. “She hates being called Nellie.”
“Well, there’s Nellie for you.” My mother sniffed, and I imagined her steely eyes drilling into Dad as he dared defy her. “She always was overly sensitive.”
“Because Amy sang ‘Nellie the Elephant’ on a loop for three years, remember?” Dad said, and I wanted to rush in and hug him. “The pair of you have poked fun at her for years. You know it’s why she’s convinced she’s ugly. She thinks her legs look like highway bridge supports.”
“If she’s that bothered about her looks, why doesn’t she do something about them? I did, and well before her age. I’ve kept my weight in check ever since, and–”
“There’s nothing wrong with her, Sylvia,” Dad said, sounding exhausted.
My mother sighed deeply. I wondered how much self-control she’d burned through trying not to argue with a dying man. Not all of it, apparently, because she clicked her tongue before quietly saying, “Eleanor doesn’t need money–”
“How would you know? You never speak to her.”
“The phone works both ways. Besides, you said she’s perfectly content with her freelance job, her little apartment—”
“With the old windows–”
“–and don’t forget she’s never had the same ambitions my Amy has.”
My Amy. How often had I heard those words? My sister, the golden child, the girl wonder, the rising star actor living in LA who’d been blessed multiple times over by the Good Gene Fairy and had fallen into the Unlimited Pool of Talent. Me, the dispensable forethought, the unnecessary prologue to my mother’s childbearing life. I’d always known I was the tubby one. The dowdy one. The disappointment. Now, as the toxic green-eyed monster inside me snarled, I pulled its leash tight. Bitterness, jealousy and resentment had to be some of the most unattractive traits bestowed on mankind, and–in my case at least–the hardest ones to change.
“I don’t know why you’re insisting on giving Eleanor anything at all.” My mother’s voice had filled with her special blend of acrid determination that brought the fiercest of opponents to their knees, accepting their fate with bowed heads as she readied her proverbial sword.
Not this time, I decided, not with a sick man, my dad, as her victim, but before I could take a step forward, she spoke again, her next words changing my life forever.
“You’re forgetting one thing, Bruce,” she said. “Eleanor isn’t your daughter.”
(C) 2020, Hannah Kay McKinnon, MIRA. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Beauty. Wealth. Success.
She’s got it all.
And it all should’ve been mine.
When Eleanor Hardwicke’s beloved father dies, her world is further shattered by the discovery of a gut-wrenching secret: the man she’s grieving isn’t her biological dad.
With her personal life spiraling, a desperate Eleanor seeks out the family she never knew she had, finding an infuriatingly enviable half-sister.
Perfectly perfect Victoria has everything Eleanor could ever dream of. Loving childhood, luxury home, devoted husband. And this gets Eleanor thinking – aren’t good sisters supposed to share?
Thriller [MIRA, On Sale: May 26, 2020, Trade Size / e-Book, ISBN: 9780778309550 / eISBN: 9781488055522]
About Hannah Mary McKinnon
Hannah Mary McKinnon was born in the UK, grew up in Switzerland, and moved to Canada in 2010. After a successful career in recruitment, she quit the corporate world in favor of writing. She now lives in Oakville, Ontario, with her husband and three sons, and is delighted by her twenty-second commute.