The One I Left Behind: A Novel

The One I Left Behind: A Novel

by Jennifer McMahon


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From the New York Times bestselling author of Burntown and Promise Not to Tell comes a gut-wrenching thriller about a missing mother and the serial killer who returns twenty-five years later

The summer of 1985 changes Reggie’s life. An awkward thirteen-year-old, she finds herself mixed up with the school outcasts. That same summer, a serial killer called Neptune begins kidnapping women. He leaves their severed hands on the police department steps and, five days later, displays their bodies around town. Just when Reggie needs her mother, Vera, the most, Vera’s hand is found on the steps. But after five days, there’s no body and Neptune disappears.

Now, twenty-five years later, Reggie is a successful architect who has left her hometown and the horrific memories of that summer behind. But when she gets a call revealing that her mother has been found alive, Reggie must confront the ghosts of her past and find Neptune before he kills again.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780062122551
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/02/2013
Edition description: Original
Pages: 422
Sales rank: 253,757
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Jennifer McMahon is the author of Dismantled, the New York Times bestseller Island of Lost Girls, and the breakout debut novel Promise Not to Tell. She lives in Vermont with her partner, Drea, and their daughter, Zella.

Read an Excerpt

The One I Left Behind

By Jennifer McMahon

HarperCollins Publishers

Copyright © 2013 Jennifer McMahon
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-06-212255-1



October 16, 2010 Rockland, Vermont

Imagine that your house is on fire. You have exactly one minute to grab what you can. What do you choose? Tara turned over the little hourglass full of pink sand. Her fingernails were painted cyanosis-blue, chipped in places. Her face was pale, her lips bright red as she smiled, breathed the word, Go.

Reggie tore down the front hall, skidding as she rounded the corner to the narrow oak stairs, galloping up, one hand on the curved snakelike rail, the other on the cool wall of damp stone. "Your lungs are filling with smoke!" Tara called from down below. "Your eyes are watering."

Reggie gasped, jerked open the door to her room, her eyes moving over the crammed bookshelves, the desk covered in her sketches, the neatly made bed topped off with the quilt her grandmother had made. She skimmed over all of this and went right for the closet, moving toward it in slow motion, feeling her way through the invisible smoke, stinging eyes clamped shut now. She reached for the sliding door and eased it open, the little metal wheels rattling in their tracks. Reggie stepped forward, fingers finding clothes hung on hangers. She reached up, felt for the shelf.

"Hurry," Tara whispered, right behind her now, her breath warm and moist on Reggie's neck. "You're almost out of time." Reggie opened her eyes , took a gulp of fresh, cold, October air. She was at home in Vermont. Not back at Monique's Wish. And she was thirty-nine - not thirteen. "Damn," she said, the word a cloud of white smoke escaping her mouth. She'd left the windows open again.

Wrapping the down comforter around her like a cape, she slid out of bed and went right for the windows, pulling them closed. The trees, vivid with oranges, yellows and reds just last week, were losing their brightness. The cold and wind of the last three days had brought many of the leaves off the trees. Out across the lake, a V of Canada geese headed south.

"You don't know what you're missing," Reggie told them. Then, in her next breath, she muttered, "Chickenshits." She squinted down at the lake, imagining it three months from now, frozen solid and snow covered; a flat moonscape of white. It wasn't all that different from Ricker's Pond, where her mother had taught her to ice-skate. Reggie could see it so clearly: her mother in her green velvet coat and gold chiffon scarf soaring in graceful circles while Reggie wobbled and fell, the ice popping beneath them. "Are you sure this is safe?" she'd asked her mother, each time the ice made a sound. And her mother had laughed. "Worry girl," she'd teased, skating right into the middle where the ice was the thinnest and holding her hands out to Reggie. "Come on out here and show me what you're made of."

Reggie shrugged off the memory, along with the heavy down comforter. She quickly threw on a pair of jeans and a sweater and headed down to the kitchen, her bare feet cool on the wood floors.

She'd laid out the house so that she'd have a view of the lake from almost any vantage point. As she descended the stairs, she faced the large bank of windows on the south side that looked out over her yard and meadow and down to Arrow Lake. It was a little over half a mile from her house to the water's edge, but when she came down the stairs, she felt as if she could just step out into the air and float across her living room, through the windows, over the yard and field, and down to the lake. Sometimes she caught herself almost trying it - leaning a little too far forward, putting her foot too far ahead so that she nearly missed the next step down. These were the moments that defined her success as an architect: not the prizes, accolades, or the esteem of her colleagues, but the way coming down her stairs made her believe, just for a second, that she could turn into a bit of dandelion fluff and float down to the lake.

For a building to be successful, it had to be connected to the landscape in a seamless way. It couldn't just look like it had been dropped there randomly, but like it had grown organically, been shaped by the wind and the rain, cut from the mountains. The rooms should flow not just from one into the other, but also into the world beyond.

4 Walls Magazine had just named Reggie one of the top green architects in the Northeast, and called the Snyder/Wellenstein house she'd designed in Stowe "a breathtaking display of integrating architecture with nature; with the stream running through the living room and the 120-year-old oak growing up through all three floors, Dufrane has created a sustainable dwelling that blurs the lines between indoors and out."

Blurring the lines. That's what Reggie was good at -indoors/ outdoors; old/new; functional/ornamental - she had a gift for merging unlikely ideas and objects and creating something that was somehow both and neither; something greater than the sum of its parts.

Still foggy headed and desperately in need of caffeine, Reggie cleaned out the little stainless-steel espresso pot, then filled it with water and coffee and set it on the gas stove, turning the knob to start the flame. Her kitchen was a cook's dream (though honestly, Reggie didn't do much cooking and subsisted largely on raw vegetables, cheese and crackers, and espresso) - right down to the huge counter-hogging Italian espresso machine that Reggie only used when she was entertaining. She preferred the small stove top pot she'd owned since college. It was simple to use and quietly elegant - the epitome of good design.

The water came to a boil. The coffee bubbled, filling the kitchen with its rich, earthy scent.

Reggie checked her watch: 7:15. She'd go out to the office, do some brainstorming for the new project, go for a run around the lake, shower, and do some more sketches. She looked back at her watch, catching it change to 7:16.

Imagine that your house is on fire. You have exactly one minute to grab what you can. What do you chose?

Reggie glanced around the house, feeling that old panic rising up inside her. Then she took in a breath and answered her old friend out loud. "Nothing, Tara. I choose nothing." Her chest loosened. Muscles relaxed. Tara didn't have that kind of power over her anymore.

Reggie wasn't thirteen. She understood that objects could be replaced. And she didn't own all that much. Losing the house would be a crushing blow, but it could be rebuilt. She owned very little furniture. Her closet was only half full. Her sometime boyfriend Len teased her: "It isn't normal for a successful adult to be able to fit everything they own in the back of a pickup truck." He'd say it with his hands shoved deep in the pockets of his worn Carhartts, a boyish smirk on his face that brought out the little dimple in his right cheek. Len lived alone in an old rambling farmhouse, every room stuffed full of books and art and furniture that didn't quite match.

"It's the gypsy in me," she'd tell him, leaning in to kiss his cheek.

"Gypsy, hell," he'd scoff. "You live like a criminal on the run." Triple espresso in hand, Reggie went back upstairs, slid her feet into her clogs, and opened the door to the bridge that led to her tree house office. She took in a breath of cool, sharp air. She smelled woodsmoke, damp leaves, the apples rotting on the ground in the abandoned orchard on the east side of her property. It was a perfect mid-October day. The fifteen-foot suspension bridge swayed slightly under her, and she walked slowly at first, the yard and driveway below her, Arrow Lake off in the distance. Charlie's Bridge, she called it, though Charlie didn't even know it existed. And she'd never told anyone the bridge's secret name or the story behind it. What would she say? I named it after a boy who once told me building a bridge like this was impossible.

The phone in her office was ringing. She raced across the last couple of yards, the espresso dangerously close to spilling. She opened the door, which was never locked - the only way in was to cross the bridge from the inside of her house or to scale twenty-five feet up the oak tree the office was built around. The office was twelve feet across and circular, the tree trunk at the center and windows on all sides. Len called it "the control tower."

She had a computer desk and a wooden drafting table. There was a small bulletin board with notes for her latest project, a reminder to call a client, and the astrology chart Len had done for her pinned to it. She didn't believe in clutter or in holding on to things that didn't have significant meaning, so her bookcase held only the books that she referred to again and again, the ones that had influenced her: The Poetics of Space, A Pattern Language, The Timeless Way of Building, Design with Nature, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, as well as a small collection of nature guides. Tucked here and there among the books were Reggie's other great source of inspiration: bird nests, shells, pine cones, interestingly shaped stones, a round paper wasp nest, milkweed pods, acorns, and beechnuts.

Reggie went for the phone on her desk, stumbling and splashing hot espresso over her hand.

Shit! What was she in such a hurry for? Who did she expect to hear on the other end? Charlie? Not very likely. The last time they'd spoken was when they bumped into each other accidentally at the grocery store just before they'd both graduated from separate high schools. Tara, maybe, teasing her, telling her she had sixty seconds to gather everything she cared about? No. What she really thought was that it was Him again.

She'd been getting the calls for years, first at home, then college, then in every apartment and house she'd ever lived in. He never said a word. But she could hear him breathing, could almost feel the puffs of fetid moisture touch her good ear as he inhaled, then exhaled, each breath mocking her, saying, I know how to find you. And somehow, she knew, she just knew, that it was Neptune. And one of these days, he might actually open his mouth and speak. She let herself imagine it: his voice rushing through the phone like water, washing over her, through her. Maybe he'd tell her the one thing she'd always wanted to know: what he'd done with her mother, why she was the only victim whose body was never found. The others had been displayed so publicly, but all they ever found of Vera was her right hand.

What was it that made Vera different?

"Hello?" Reggie stammered.

Say something, damn it, she willed. Don't just breathe this time.

"Regina? It's Lorraine."

"Oh. Good morning," Reggie said through gritted teeth. She set down the small ceramic cup and shook her stinging hand, pissed that she'd burned herself hurrying for Lorraine. Why the hell was her aunt phoning at this hour? Usually she called each Sunday at five. And Reggie often managed to be out. (Or at least pretended to be - lurking in a corner, glass of pinot noir in hand, hiding like a child, as if the red eye on the answering machine could see her as she listened to her aunt's disembodied voice.) "I just got a call from a social worker down in Massachusetts." This was typical of Lorraine - getting right down to business - no useless preamble about the weather or any silly "all's well here, how are you?" There was a long pause while Reggie waited for her to continue. But she didn't.

"Let me guess," Reggie said. "She heard what a disturbed and traumatized family we were and was offering her services?" Reggie could almost see Lorraine rolling her eyes, looking over the top of her glasses and down her nose, disapproving. Lorraine standing in the kitchen with its faded wallpaper, her hair pulled back in a bun so tight it pulled the wrinkles from her forehead. And she'd be wearing Grandpa Andre's old fishing vest, of course, stained and reeking of decades of dead trout.

Reggie picked up the cup of espresso again and took a sip. "No, Regina. It seems they've found your mother. Alive." Reggie spat out the coffee, dropped the cup onto the floor, watching it fall in slow motion, dark espresso splattering the sustainably harvested floorboards.

It wasn't possible. Her mother was dead. They all knew it. They'd had a memorial service twenty-five years ago. Reggie could still remember the hordes of reporters outside; the way the preacher smelled of booze; and how Lorraine's voice shook when she read the Dickinson poem "Because I Could Not Stop for Death."

At last Reggie whispered, "What?"

"They're quite sure it's her," Lorraine said, voice calm and matter-of-fact. "Apparently she's been in and out of a homeless shelter there for the past two years."

"But how can ... How do they know?"

"She told them. She's missing her right hand. Finally the police took her fingerprints - they're a match."

Excerpted from The One I Left Behind by Jennifer McMahon. Copyright © 2013 by Jennifer McMahon. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

Megan Abbott

“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.”

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The One I Left Behind 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 51 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Excellent book. One of my favorite authors. Just when you think you know who the bad guy is....your thrown for another loop. Read this and every one of her books.
BookReflections More than 1 year ago
Oh how to describe a book like this!  Reggie is a quiet girl who is in love with her best friend and believes the world of her mother.  When a serial killer abducts her mother, she not only loses a parent, but she learns many truths about her mother that she was not yet ready to face.  In the midst of tragedy the friends set out to solve the mystery themselves to a disastrous result.  Fast forward twenty-five years and Reggie's mother is found and she must go home to face the demons that she couldn't face as a child.  But with her mother's return comes the return of the serial killer, Neptune.  Once again, Reggie finds that tragedy hits close to home. But this time, is she strong enough to face it? This is such an engrossing read that has a bit of everything.  It's a mystery, a coming of age, and story about friendship.  The chapters alternate between the present, the past, and excerpts from a book written about the serial killer, Neptune.  The latter felt like a bonus because it was unique and the voice read so different from that of Reggie.  I felt the middle dragged a little in terms of pacing but the last 150 pages or so had me sitting on the edge of my seat.  I tried to guess the serial killer and was confident in my choice but failed miserably.  I loved how there was a big mystery and a few mini-mysteries that were gradually unveiled throughout the read.  Toward the end my feelings about so many of the characters shifted dramatically.  I thought I knew them, but then a rug was pulled out of my feet and I was left a bit incredulous.  And I loved every minute of it. Overall, a great coming of age crime mystery book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have been in a slump and couldn't find anything to keep my interest. This book just reached out and grabbed me - I couldn't put it down! New author for me but definitely not the last book I will read. Very excited about her!!"
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a great book that easily moved back and forth from the character's adolescence to current time. The mystery of the Neptune serial murderer kept my interest and surprised me in the end.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is the first book I have read by this author and now i'm hooked. Definitely reading all her books now. LOVED IT!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is one of Jennifer McMahon's best boos so far. Great readM
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Couldn't put it down. I can't wait for her next book!
Mammaw69 More than 1 year ago
Had me from page one. Well written with twists I didn't see coming.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Book was okay. The idea of the book was good but it got long winded towards the end. Good book to read when there's nothing else.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was the first book I read by McMahon and I became an instant fan! The story was very interesting and I really like the main chracter Reggie. I loved how McMahon flips from past to present while she unfolds the mysteries of this novel. I highly recommend this book.
anniemichelle More than 1 year ago
Ending each chapter in a cliff hanger drove me wild, and kept me up reading into the wee hours of the morning. This is a story about 13 year old Reggie, It is the summer of 1985 and there is a serial killer called Neptune on the loose in a small town in Connecticut. He kidnaps and kills women, cuts off their right hand putting it for display out in the open and it isn't until days later that the police find the rest of the victims body. Reggie’s wild and beautiful mother Vera is taken and when the police find her right hand, all hope is lost. They never do find her body though…what does this mean? Is she really dead? Is she in Cahoots with Neptune? Has her body just not been found? When Vera goes missing it throws Reggie’s life in to turmoil and she goes to live with her Aunt Lorraine, Vera’s sister, years later after Reggie has made a new, yet troubled life for herself, her aunt calls her back home to tell her, well… I don’t want to spoil the ending for you. You will just have to read it for yourself to find out what makes Reggie rush home to hear what her aunt has to say. The story moves back and forth in time from Reggie as a child to Reggie as a troubled adult. The One I Left Behind is full of twists and turns and just when you think you have it figured out, you don’t. I had not read anything by Ms. McMahon before, so glad to make her acquaintance and looking Forward to reading more from her in the future
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
She truly keeps you guessing! I have read all her books and am anxiously awaiting her next, one of my favorite authors! Must read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Alot of times throughout the story there was too much detail like who cares what color shirt a character is wearing just get to the point but even though it wasn't a fast read it was worth it really good story
amydelrosso More than 1 year ago
I have read and absolutely adored every one of McMahon's novels. THE ONE I LEFT BEHIND did not disappoint in any way or fashion. The plot was flawless, characters that are seemingly true to life and a terrible story in a small town goes awry too fast. It's true; Jennifer McMahon has a signature style when it comes to writing. For me, it's like a breath of fresh air. There's no other story alike and I could try to figure out what is happening...what will be at the end but that would do me no good. McMahon writes a story so intriguing and so absolutely tight at the seams that you will never sum up the end until you intact reach the end. While reading this story about young Reggie you will learn how young friendships influence and have the greatest impact on said friends. Reggie is an only child growing up with a mother that has secrets, not only secrets but an entirely shady life. Everyone involved or close to Vera allows her live this delusional life, the life the way that she sees it. Young Reggie clings to some type of normalcy and seeks out friends Tara and Charlie to try and fill that emptiness. During that crazy summer when Reggie was only thirteen, the small town she lives in inherits a serial killer. This is the biggest thing that has ever happened and everyone is intrigued, then as lady after lady disappears and the reappears dead, the town begins to panic. Reggie and her friends become consumed with the murders and trying to find out who this mysterious serial killer may be until one day the missing woman turns out to be none other than Vera, Reggie's mother. Now all they can do is to wait for Vera's body to turn up just like all the others have. Only this time is different. Vera doesn't show up like the others. She doesn't show up until 25 years later and she is alive.... Now 25 years later and it's Reggie who must go back and try to solve the mysterious identity of the serial killer.. before it's too late.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
She has a way to make people gasp but I think I expected too much after reading the book summary.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Couldn't put it down. Great book.
Lennon More than 1 year ago
Great quick read. Didn't see the ending coming. Loved it.
PaperbackBookClub More than 1 year ago
What is it about the winter holiday season that makes me want to escape in a murder mystery? Could it be a little escapist fantasy caused by visiting relatives? (Spoiler: It’s 100% the visiting relatives.) In any case, I found myself looking for a good story of murder and mayhem earlier this month, and stumbled across Jennifer McMahon almost completely by accident. I’m really glad that I did! The One I Left Behind is the story of a Reggie, a woman who finds herself looking back on her childhood when her mother suddenly and unexpectedly reappears in her life after more than twenty years. When Reggie was a teenager, her mother, Vera, was the final target of a serial killer stalking women of their small town. After Vera’s hand was delivered to the police station, she was presumed dead and the serial killer finally went dormant. With her reappearance, Reggie finds herself investigating the original crime and suspecting those closest to her of terrible crimes. McMahon sets up this book fantastically, simultaneously laying out the events of the summer Vera first went missing (in 1985) and the events of the current day. She is so skilled in slowly letting information seep through in both timelines that I was taken completely by surprise by some of the twists of the story. At the same time, since both stories are filtered through Reggie’s eyes, we are given a glimpse at how a story can be shaped by its teller (and also how Reggie herself grows up clearly changed by the trauma of her youth). The storytelling in this book is consistently gripping, but it does have some faults. The biggest issue I found with this book was that there are a number of plot ideas that are introduced, but never really followed up one. A big one of these is Tara, a childhood friend of Reggie’s who reappears in her life with little explanation of what brought her there. Little explanation really at all for what happened to her in the 25 years since they’d last met, and since she ends up playing an important role in both timelines, this is a little confusing. It feels like McMahon needed a warm body in the present, so she’s hauled back in, but without an attention paid to how or why. Other loose plot points exist as well, and none are so bad as to really hurt the book substantially, but if fully realized could certainly have helped make it feel more cohesive. Despite that, I still really enjoyed this book. Funny enough, it wasn’t at all what I was initially looking for. I wanted a completely pulpy, a little bit trashy, mystery to entertain me around the bustle of the holidays. This book, while very entertaining, is not at all that; the writing is surprisingly beautiful in places and much more literary than I had expected. In addition to the surface plot of a killer and his victims and how that killer might be found and brought to justice, the book covers so many universal ideas. There are investigations of relationships, whether romantic, familial, friendly, or unrequited, and how they shape us and our decisions (and even how those relationships that are long over can cause us to make bad decisions in our daily lives). There is a hard look at what homecoming means when “home” is a place that isn’t wholly positive. There is facing down horrible things you did when you were younger from a position of the older and wiser. I recommend this book for anyone who wants a decent, meaty mystery (although perhaps not so much for those with matricidal fantasies brought on by holiday stress). The writing is fast-paced and interesting, and the overall plot is new and unexpected. She’s got a decent catalog of other works as well, so I’d love to hear any further recommendations!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
JuliePear More than 1 year ago
I Love this author! Keeps you interested from start to finish. A good suspense, scary, story!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ive read most of this author's books and this was my least favorite. Just seemed all over the place.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
We read this for our book club, Hooters of a Feather, and we all thought it was very good. You would think you had it figured out and then it would switch! Very much recommend!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Love this book my first book read by jennifer and it was so wonderful I kept reading the rest of her books.