The Wicked Sister

The Wicked Sister

by Karen Dionne


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"Chilling and captivating, The Wicked Sister explores the complex layers of family bonds, guilt, and redemption. A beautifully written, haunting psychological thriller." —Megan Miranda, author of All the Missing Girls

From the bestselling and award-winning author of The Marsh King's Daughter comes a startling novel of psychological suspense as two generations of sisters try to unravel their tangled relationships between nature and nurture, guilt and betrayal, love and evil.

For a decade and a half, Rachel Cunningham has chosen to lock herself away in a psychiatric facility, tortured by gaps in her memory and the certainty that she is responsible for her parents' deaths. But when she learns new details about their murders, Rachel returns, in a quest for answers, to the place where she once felt safest: her family's sprawling log cabin in the remote forests of Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

As Rachel begins to uncover what really happened on the day her parents were murdered, she learns—as her mother did years earlier—that home can be a place of unspeakable evil, and that the bond she shares with her sister might be the most poisonous of all.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780735213043
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/29/2021
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 182,015
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Karen Dionne is the USA Today and #1 internationally bestselling author of the award-winning psychological suspense novel The Marsh King's Daughter, published by G.P. Putnam's Sons in the U.S. and in twenty-five other countries. She enjoys nature photography and lives with her husband in Detroit's northern suburbs.

Read an Excerpt




ometimes when I close my eyes, there is a rifle in my hands. My hands are small; my fingers are pudgy. I'm eleven years old. There's nothing special about this particular rifle, nothing to distinguish it from any other Remington, except that this is the rifle that killed my mother.

In my vision, I am standing over my mother. The rifle is pointing at her chest. Her mouth is open, and her eyes are closed. Her chest is red.

My father runs into the front hallway. "Rachel!" he screams when he sees me. He drops to his knees, gathers my mother in his arms, looks up at me, his expression an unfamiliar jumble of shock and horror.

He rocks my mother for a long time, as if she is a baby. As if she is alive.

At last he lays her gently on the worn parquet floor and gets slowly to his feet. He takes the rifle from my trembling hands and looks at me with a sorrow greater than I can comprehend and turns the rifle on himself.

Not so, says the golden orb spider from the middle of her web in a corner of my room where the cleaners never sweep. Your father killed your mother and then he killed himself.

I don't understand why the spider is lying. Spiders normally tell the truth.

"How do you know?" I can't resist asking. She wasn't there when my parents died. I was.

The spider regards me solemnly from eight shiny eyes. I know, she says. We all know.

Her spiderlings skitter about the edges of the web as insubstantial as dust motes, and nod.

I want to tell the spider that she is wrong, that I know better than anyone what happened the day my parents died, and I understand the consequences of my childhood crime better than she ever will because I've been living with them for fifteen years. Once you've taken someone's life, it breaks you, shatters you into so many infinitesimal pieces that no one and nothing can put you together again. Ask any drunk driver who killed a pedestrian, any hunter who thought the friend or brother-in-law he shot was a deer.

Anyone who held a loaded rifle when she was too young to anticipate what was about to happen.

My therapists say I'm suffering from complicated grief disorder and promise I'll get better in time. My therapists are wrong. I'm getting worse.

I can't sleep, and when I do, I have nightmares. I get frequent headaches and my stomach hurts all the time. I used to think constantly about killing myself until I realized that living in a mental hospital for the rest of my life is the greater punishment. I eat, I sleep, I read, I watch TV, I go outside. I breathe the warm summer air, feel the sun on my skin, listen to the birds chirp and the insects hum. Watch the flowers bloom and the leaves turn and the snow fall, and through it all, always, always in the front of my mind and deep in my heart burns this terrible truth: I am the reason my parents will never see, smell, taste, laugh, or love again. My parents are dead because of me.

The police ruled my parents' deaths a murder-suicide perpetrated by my father. All the news reports I've been able to find agree: Peter James Cunningham (age 45) murdered his wife, Jennifer Marie Cunningham (age 43), for undetermined reasons, and then turned the rifle on himself. Some speculate that I saw my father shoot my mother and that's why I ran away; others that I found my parents' bodies and this is what sent me over the edge. I would have told them that I was responsible if I had been able to speak. When I came out of my catatonia three weeks later, I made sure that everyone who would listen knew what I had done.

But to this day, no one believes me. Not even the spider.


leave the spider to her offspring and check my watch, a cheap plastic model my aunt Charlotte bought at the dollar store after the last one she gave me was stolen, and head down two flights to the community room. One of the cable channels is showing the original Star Trek movie this afternoon and I promised my friend Scotty I'd make sure that nobody changes the channel. My footsteps echo in the empty stairwell. I'm wearing tennis shoes. Velcro fasteners-the only kind we're allowed. The ceramic floor tiles are cracked or missing, the plaster on the walls and ceiling flaked and peeling. My room is in one of the oldest buildings, which dates from the hospital's opening in 1895, back when it was called the Upper Peninsula Asylum for the Insane. "Newberry Regional Mental Health Center," as it's known today, is definitely better, but it still is what it is: one of two major adult psychiatric hospitals in the state of Michigan, this one in the Upper Peninsula, and the other in the Lower, where the mentally ill go to get better and the terminally insane live out their days. I fall somewhere in between.

I exit the stairwell into a wall of sound. The corridor is crowded. Patients, nurses, patients with nurses in lockstep beside them-because after a meal, bulimics can't be left alone. Orderlies, housekeepers, a doctor in a white coat. I hug the wall, keep my head down. I don't speak to anyone. No one speaks to me. My therapists are always saying that I should get to know my roommates and the others in my therapy group, but it's hard to see the point of making friends with someone who's only going to leave. I navigate the glass-enclosed passageway between the dormitory and the administration building that gets as hot as Hades on a sunny day-unbreakable plexiglass, the staff makes sure new arrivals know-and open the door to the community room.

The community room is as dreary as you'd expect of a hundred-year-old mental institution: dirt-stained cream-colored walls, worn green asbestos floor tile, heavy metal-framed, multi-paned windows so no one can jump out, vinyl chairs and couches patched with duct tape and bolted to the floor. It's also noisy, the television turned up far too loud so it can be heard over the conversations of visitors and patients who are talking much too loudly so they can be heard over the noise of the television. And it smells, a combination of stale cooking odors and disinfectant that my aunt Charlotte says reminds her of a nursing home overlain with the stink of cigarettes. Practically everyone at the hospital smokes. Cigarettes are free; a clever ploy by the tobacco companies to get us addicted and make us customers for life, or merely another calming drug in the hospital's abundant arsenal, I couldn't say. It's lighters and matches we're not allowed, along with shoelaces, drawstrings, plastic grocery store bags, trash can liners, and dozens of other ordinary yet potentially lethal items that people who don't live in mental institutions get to use every day.

Even at that, there have been two successful suicides since I've been here. One girl unraveled a sweater and braided the yarn back together to make a rope, then tied the rope around her neck and threw the other end over a pipe near the bathroom ceiling and climbed up on the toilet and stepped off. Another drank a bottle of drain cleaner she stole from a cleaning cart when no one was looking. The cleaning woman lost her job over that. Still, when you consider that at least half the patients and probably more are here because they've either attempted suicide or have threatened to, you have to give the staff credit.

"Ur-sa!" Scotty calls from across the room when he sees me. He jumps up and flaps his hands. I smile and wave back. Scotty is a child in a man's body, big and broad-shouldered with arms that look like they could crush you with a hug, but who's soft as a marshmallow inside, with watery blue eyes and dishwater blond hair and a mental age of somewhere around nine. "Scotty" is not his real name, by the way; I only call him that because of his obsession with Star Trek, the same way he calls me "Ursula" because of my love for bears.

Scotty's brother, Trevor, is also waiting on the sofa. My stomach does its usual flip-flop when I see him. I knew he would be here, of course-he and I have an appointment to talk privately after the movie-but I can't help the effect he has on me. Trevor Lehto is twenty-eight, ten years younger than Scotty and two years older than me. Today he's wearing a lumberjack shirt with the sleeves turned up to his elbows, Converse sneakers, and jeans, which work well with his brown hair and eyes and a scruffy beard that manages to look both natural and groomed. I also have brown hair and eyes and am wearing jeans and plaid because this is practically the uniform for men and women in the U.P., but Trevor pulls off the look in a way that people tend to notice. I'm reasonably certain I'm not the only person at the hospital who has a crush on him.

"Long time," I say as I sit down on the other end of the sofa with Scotty between us. "You look good."

I'm not just being polite. Trevor is deeply tanned, and judging by the corded muscles in his forearms, more fit than I've ever seen him. I guess six months' backpacking in Northern Patagonia will do that for you.

"Thanks. I just got back. Of course, the first thing I had to do was come see this guy."

He punches his brother on the arm. Scotty grins and punches back. I can't help smiling as well. Scotty's smile is as pure and as genuine as his heart. It doesn't take much to make him happy, which is one of the reasons I like hanging with him. Some people think the reason I made friends with Scotty was so I could get close to Trevor, but this isn't true. I understand that our friendship might seem strange given that my I.Q. is 120 and Scotty's is maybe half that, but that's a big part of the reason our friendship works. Scotty accepts me for who I am and doesn't ask for anything in return. Most important, he doesn't ask questions.

"How'd he get the black eye?" Trevor asks me. "He won't tell me."

"I don't know. He won't tell me either, and no one else is talking."

While it's possible that Scotty fell down the stairs or walked into a door on his own, it's more likely that one of the orderlies hit or tripped him on purpose. Most of them are as big as football players, and some of them were before they blew out a knee or were otherwise injured and ended up here. Putting embittered, physically powerful people in charge of a powerless population is bound to end badly, and Scotty is an easy target. This is not the first time he's shown up with unexplained cuts and bruises, and sadly, it won't be the last. Trevor has been trying to find a decent halfway house near Marquette so he can keep an eye on his brother, but so far, nothing's turned up. There aren't many places willing to take a mentally challenged paranoid schizophrenic.

"Thhh," Scotty shushes as the movie begins. The room swells with a predictable chorus of groans and "Not this again!" and "Change the channel!" which is why I preset the correct channel earlier this morning and swiped the remote. I turn up the volume and stick the remote between the couch cushions.

The movie actually turns out to be a lot more enjoyable than I thought it would be, mainly because Scotty sits on the edge of the sofa leaning forward with his hands between his knees in rapt attention the entire two hours, while Trevor and I lean back against the cushions and trade eye rolls behind his back. Occasionally a woman across the room who is studiously pretending to read glances up from her book and looks pointedly from me to Trevor and back to me again, shooting daggers, which pleases me perhaps more than it should.

As soon as the credits are finished, Scotty gets to his feet. "May the Force be with you," he intones. To anyone else, Scotty's benediction would sound like gibberish: Muh-ah-fah-ee-ih-oo, spoken in a monotone with each word separated by a painful pause and forced out with great effort. I can't explain why I'm able to understand his mouth-full-of-marbles speech any more than I can explain my ability to understand the spider. I don't tell him that this is a line from Star Wars, and not Star Trek.

"Two weeks!" Trevor calls after him as Scotty pivots on his heel and makes a beeline for his room in the men's wing. Scotty doesn't reply.

Trevor stands up and stretches. "Phew, that was brutal. Are you ready to get started, or do you need a few minutes first?"

"Let's do this." I wouldn't mind a pit stop before we sit down, but the public facilities on this floor are locked, and I don't feel like going down to the main office to beg for the key. I leave the remote on the sofa for whoever wants it and follow Trevor to an empty table as far from the television as possible. When Trevor called saying that he'd decided to make journalism his major and asked if he could interview me for one of those Where are they now? follow-up stories, I realized that the Universe had given me a gift. For fifteen years, the idea that my father murdered my mother has stood unchallenged. I am the only one who knows that he did not. This interview is a chance to do something good with my useless waste of a life-possibly the only one I'll get, since reporters haven't exactly been knocking down my door.

Still, I'm nervous. Telling an aspiring reporter that I killed my mother and letting him publish my truth is bound to carry consequences: skepticism and ridicule if I am not believed, followed by more therapy, more nightmares, more drugs; maybe going on suicide watch again if it turns out I can't handle the pressure, which I do not want to do, since I won't be left alone for a second, not even when I pee-or, if my story is believed, a police investigation, my father's exoneration, possibly jail time for me. Never mind that once Trevor knows I killed my mother he will never look at me the same way again. I've seen too many people spill their guts in group therapy believing that this will make them feel better, only to discover that revealing their deepest, darkest secrets invariably makes things a thousand times worse. Once you know that someone's uncle molested her while her stepfather recorded it so they could sell the videos on the dark web, or that the cute guy you had a crush on when you were fourteen spent the first seven years of his life believing he was a girl because that's how his mother dressed and treated him and at sixteen he was still struggling with gender issues, or that your new roommate's parents tracked every morsel of food that passed her lips and if she gained so much as half a pound, she had to work out for hours in an exercise room that was more like a torture chamber, it's hard to forget. I remind myself I want to do this. Trevor may have initiated this interview, but I am here by choice.

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