The One I Left Behind
Published by: William Morrow
Release Date: January 2, 2013
Reggie has told almost no one about the summer of 1985.
She was thirteen, awkward, her only friends the school outcasts — Charlie, the shy son of a local detective, and Tara, a goth kid who harbors a dark secret. That summer a serial killer known as Neptune began abducting women in their sleepy Connecticut suburb and leaving their severed hands on the steps of the police department. Exactly five days later, the women’s bodies are found. When Reggie’s mother, Vera — an ex-model with many “boyfriends” and a thirst for gin — disappears and her hand shows up at the police station, Reggie, Charlie and Tara plunge into a seedy world of dive bars and pay-by-the-hour motels trying to find her. But after five days, there’s no body, and the murders stop. Both Vera and Neptune seem to have vanished.
Twenty-five years later, Reggie is an award-winning architect with a seemingly perfect — if a bit lonely — life when she learns that Vera has turned up alive in a homeless shelter. Vera is confused, speaking in riddles and nursery rhymes, unable (or unwilling) to explain where she’s been all these years. It’s up to Reggie to sift through the clues in her own past, unravel her mother’s riddles, and find Neptune before he kills again.
Winner of the 2014 International Thriller Writers Thriller Award – Best Paperback Original
“McMahon expertly ratchets up the suspense, but it’s her full-blooded characters that make this thriller stand out from the serial killer pack.”
“Haunting and harrowing, The One I Left Behind offers enthralling suspense but also so much more: a richly poignant tale of the families we’re born into and the ones we build ourselves.”
—Megan Abbott, author of Dare Me
“Grippingly plotted, this intricate, character-driven story seamlessly shifts time as McMahon explores such favorite themes as dark familial secrets, flawed relationships, and the potentially destructive power of sex, all anchored in a vividly evoked suburban Connecticut landscape. You won’t soon forget Reggie, fierce yet fragile, but likely to stick with you even longer is the central conundrum of the extent to which our pasts enslave us and how much we can set ourselves free.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“McMahon scores a solid touchdown in this creepy but engrossing thriller…. Readers will find themselves unable to turn the pages fast enough in this perfectly penned thriller.”
—Kirkus (starred review)
For me, storytelling is an act of unraveling. I start with a single thread, a clue, an idea or question, with no real sense of where it might take me.
I began my very first draft of The One I Left Behind over eight years ago, when I was pregnant with my daughter. I’d just read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey and was inspired to try something using this basic framework. The book I wrote was the story of a 15-year-old boy named Clark who sets out to save his glamorous ex-model mother Vera from the hands of a serial killer. In the process, he learns that just about everything he thought he knew about his mother was a lie. Clark was skinny, geeky, awkward – no hero at all. He eventually disguises himself as a girl, transforming himself completely to enter his mother’s secret world of bars and low-rent motels. At the heart of the book was Clark’s desire to unravel the secrets of his mother; this belief that understanding them might help save her. It was a strange and somewhat far-fetched story and in the end, the book just didn’t work and I abandoned it.
Two and a half years ago, when I was working on Don’t Breathe a Word, my mother was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. She was already frail, and there simply were no treatment options she could tolerate. She was hospitalized for a bit, then in a nursing home for a few weeks, but she hated it, and her disease or the medicine or something was making her more confused and agitated all the time. My partner and I made the decision to bring her home to die.
It was an intense and surreal period of time. I’d sit by the side of my mother’s bed, bring her coffee, pudding and morphine while she told me the most amazing things. She’d tell me about the stained glass window she saw on her ceiling that an angel fell through, cut and bleeding. She got irate when the she tried to use the TV remote control to phone Johnny Cash and she couldn’t get through.
She shared her coffee each morning with an invisible man named George who always made her laugh but couldn’t seem to keep his thumb out of her cup and sometimes left her scribbled messages on the yellow legal pad next to her bed.
“Who is George?” I would ask. She’d never mentioned a George before; I’d certainly never met any friends, relatives or acquaintances named George.
“Oh you know George,” she said, a mischievous twinkle in her eye. “We all know George.”
Giggling, she’d sing, “Georgie Porgie.”
But George did not always make my mother laugh. One morning, frantic, she asked me for paper towels.
“What for?” I asked.
“I need to build a nest,” she said.
“For the severed head George left under the bed.”
Georgie, Porgie, pudding pie, kissed the girls and made them cry…
Trying to make sense of my dying mother was as useless as trying to make sense of her in life had been. She was a conundrum; a walking riddle I was never meant to solve.
See, the thing is, all my life, I tried to save my mother. Not from anything as drastic as a serial killer, but from herself. From her mental illness, her alcoholism, her tendency to hook up with sinister men (men who ate glass, beat her, gave her cocaine), and her multiple attempts at suicide.
My mother, like Vera, had been a model once, long before I was born. I have a head shot of her from that time – dark hair, tormented eyes, her face perfect and radiant. She was painfully beautiful. In the stories she told when I was growing up, I learned that she’d lived in New York, gone to cocktail parties with artists and writers, had studied dance with Martha Graham. Her life before me was a bright bauble of a thing, and only later, as I grew, did I realize that the stories she told were full of half-truths, exaggerations, and out and out lies. All my life, I tried to unravel the mystery that was my mother. To understand what drove her to leave us for weeks, sometimes months at a time, then turn up in jail, in rehab, in the Emergency Room or on our doorstep with a strange silent man whom she announced was her new husband.
When I was teenager and she disappeared, I learned to look for her in the dark world she inhabited: horrible dive bars with sticky floors, efficiency motels, the park in Hartford she sometimes slept in. Sometimes I’d find her, try to bring her home. Mostly, I’d give her money, buy her a meal.
But my mother wasn’t all darkness. When we were together, everything was an adventure and she taught me many strange and wonderful lessons: that ghosts walk in the fog; some people have the souls of animals; and if you fill a bowl with water and black dye you can use it to see your future. My mother was a magician. A shaman who walked between worlds.
Never was this more true than when she lay dying, swaddled in bedclothes, telling me secrets about George.
One of the hospice nurses told me to write it all down, that I should put some of these details into one of my stories. I smiled indulgently, and thought, No way. Too close to home. I write fiction. But then, not long after my mother died, I remembered that book about Clark and his mother. I took it out, realized how much of my own mother I’d put into Vera’s character. I realized that in some vague way, Clark’s story held pieces of my own: this idea that if I could unravel my mother’s secrets, I could somehow save her. I decided to rework the story, and tell it from the point of view of an adult woman, looking back on crimes that happened in her youth. I decided to make my protagonist an architect — successful, secure, seemingly sure of herself and her place in the world. Someone who is a master at design, at finding patterns, reading the shape and feeling of each room and building she entered
Is Reggie able to completely unravel the truth of Vera’s past? No. But she makes peace with it.
And some times (as both Reggie and I discovered) that turns out to be enough.
The first thing she does when she wakes up is check her hands. She doesn’t know how long she’s been out. Hours? Days? She’s on her back, blindfolded, arms up above her head like a diver, bound to a metal pipe. Her hands are duct taped together at the wrist — but they’re both still there.
Thank you, thank you, thank Jesus, sweet, sweet Mother Mary, both her hands are there. She wiggles her fingers and remembers a song her mother used to sing:
Where is Thumbkin? Where is Thumbkin?
Here I am, Here I am,
How are you today, Sir,
Very well, I thank you,
Run away, Run away.
Her ankles are bound together tightly – more duct tape; her feet are full of pins and needles.
She hears Neptune breathing and it sounds almost mechanical, the rasping rhythm of it: in, out, in, out. Chug, chug, puff, puff. I think I can, I think I can.
Neptune takes off the blindfold and the light hurts her eyes. All she sees is a dark silhouette above her and it’s not Neptune’s face she sees inside it, but all faces: her mother’s, her father’s, Luke the baker from the donut shop, her high school boyfriend who never touched her, but liked to jerk off while she watched. She sees the stained glass face of Jesus, the eyes of the woman with no legs who used to beg for money outside of Denny’s during the breakfast rush. All these faces are spinning like a top on Neptune’s head and she has to close her eyes because if she looks too long, she’ll get dizzy and throw up.
Neptune smiles down at her, teeth bright as a crescent moon.
She tries to turn her head, but her neck aches from their struggle earlier, and she can only move a fraction of an inch before the pain brings her to a screeching halt. They seem to be in some sort of warehouse. Cold cement floor. Curved metal walls laced with electrical conduit. Boxes everywhere. Old machinery. The place smells like a country fair — rotten fruit, grease, burned sugar, hay.
“It didn’t need to be this way,” Neptune says, head shaking, clicking tongue against teeth, scolding.
Neptune walks around her in a circle, whistling. It’s almost a dance, with a little spring in each step, a little skip. Neptune’s shoes are cheap imitation leather, scratched to shit, the tread worn smooth helping them glide across the floor. All at once, Neptune freezes, eyeing her a moment longer, then quits whistling, turns and walks away. Footsteps echo on the cement floor. The door closes with a heavy wooden thud. A bolt slides closed, a lock is snapped.
Gone. For now.
The tools are all laid out on a tray nearby: clamps, rubber tourniquet, scalpel, small saw, propane torch, metal trowel, rolls of gauze, thick surgical pads, heavy white tape. Neptune’s left these things where she can see them. It’s all part of the game.
Son of a bitch. Son of a bitch. Son a bitch.
Stop, she tells herself. Don’t panic. Think.
Tomorrow morning, another hand will show up inside a milk carton on the steps of the police station. Only this time, it will be her hand. She looks at the saw, swallows hard, and closes her eyes.
Think, damn it.
She struggles with the tape around her wrists, but it’s no good.
She opens her eyes and they go back to the tools, the bandages, the saw with its row of tiny silver teeth.
She hears a moan to her left. Slowly, like an arthritic old woman, she turns her head so that her left cheek rests on the cool, damp floor.
“You!” she says, surprised but relieved.
The woman is taped to a cast iron pipe on the opposite side of the warehouse.
“I can get us out of this,” she promises. The woman lifts her head, opens her swollen eyes.
The woman laughs, her split lip opening up, covering her chin with blood.
“We’re both dead, Dufrane,” she says, her voice small and crackling, a fire that can’t get started.