Thicker Than Water: A Novel

Thicker Than Water: A Novel

by Megan Collins
Thicker Than Water: A Novel

Thicker Than Water: A Novel

by Megan Collins

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Overview

In this “twisty, propulsive thriller” (Robyn Harding, internationally bestselling author) from Megan Collins, two sisters-in-law are at painful odds when the man who connects them—the brother of one, the husband of the other—is accused of a brutal crime.

Julia and Sienna Larkin are sisters-in-law, connected by Julia’s husband and Sienna’s brother, Jason. More than that, the two are devoted best friends and business partners, believing that theirs is a uniquely unbreakable bond. To Sienna, her protective brother can do no wrong, and although Julia knows he’s not perfect, they’ve built a comfortable life and family together. Recently, Jason has been putting in long hours to secure a promotion at work, so when his boss is found brutally murdered—his lips sewn shut—the Larkins are shocked and unsettled, especially as local gossip swirls.

A few days later, Julia and Sienna’s lives are upended when Jason gets into a car accident and is placed in a medically induced coma. Worse, the police arrive with news that he’s the prime suspect in the murder investigation. With Jason unable to respond—and with Julia and Sienna working to clear his name—the two women find their friendship threatened for the first time: Sienna staunchly maintains her brother’s innocence, but as their investigation uncovers a complicated web of secrets, Julia is less sure she’s willing to defend her husband.

With her signature “moody and atmospheric” (USA TODAY) writing, Megan Collins has crafted a rich, gripping story that explores just how fragile our closest bonds can be.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781982196264
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: 07/11/2023
Sold by: SIMON & SCHUSTER
Format: eBook
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 57,749
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Megan Collins is the author of Thicker Than Water, The Family PlotBehind the Red Door, and The Winter Sister. She taught creative writing for many years at both the high school and college level and is the managing editor of 3Elements Literary Review. She lives in Connecticut, where she obsesses over dogs, miniatures, and cake.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: Julia Chapter One JULIA
We don’t talk about the wallpaper. Not its age: thirty years, hung there by Sienna and Jason’s mother when they were still in grade school. Not its condition: faded in places, peeling in others. Not even its pattern: fist-sized splotches of blood.

“It’s not blood,” Sienna said the one time I mentioned it, two weeks into my marriage to her brother. Her eyes tightened with irritation, and that was enough for me to clamp my reply between my teeth.

She was right, though; it isn’t blood. It’s roosters. Dark red roosters with bulbous chests and feathery combs, stamped onto gauze-white paper that lines the family room walls. I’ve lived here, in Jason and Sienna’s childhood home, for fifteen years—a little longer than Aiden’s been alive—and still, as I look around, I don’t see roosters; I see wounds.

“Our mom loved roosters,” Jason said, shrugging, that single time I brought it up. Unlike Sienna, he wasn’t irritated, just sad, like I’d offended the woman I never got to meet. “I can’t imagine taking it down.”

So we didn’t. Sadness, irritation—those aren’t emotions I want to inspire. But I’ve tried to cover the paper as best I can, hanging my favorite photographs on the walls: Jason, Sienna, and me on the courthouse steps the day Jason and I got married; Aiden cheering on Jason’s shoulders at a Red Sox game; Sienna and me doubled over with laughter in front of the ocean.

Still, behind and around it all—blood.

“Jules, are you listening?” Sienna asks now. “These people think a woman did it.”

It being murder. The reason I’m watching the walls instead of the news. On Friday night, someone stabbed Jason’s boss, Gavin Reed, then smothered him, before sewing up his lips like a rip in a seam.

“Only a woman has that much anger,” Gavin’s neighbor tells the reporter, averting her gaze. Just before the camera cuts away, it catches her swallowing, and in that swallow, there are words left unsaid. I recognize it immediately, her stuffed-down silence.

Another neighbor, a man this time, agrees the murderer was female. He chuckles before launching his opinion: “Everyone’s still all ‘Me Too’ these days. He probably called her ‘sweetheart’ or something.”

Sienna scowls at the TV. “Fucker.”

Gavin’s murder has been the lead story in Connecticut ever since his body was discovered two days ago. Like these neighbors, people have been quick to theorize, desperate to make sense of it—how a successful, respected businessman can turn up dead.

And not just dead. Sewn.

“We’re breaking the rules,” I say.

Movie Night is for movies, not TV, not even the made-for-TV movies we like to dub with our own script. (Sienna’s specialty is turning crime stories into sitcoms; I like making every character Swedish.) But when we turned on the TV and heard Gavin’s name, Sienna stiffened, and my eyes drifted, the roosters snagging my gaze.

“Shh!” Sienna says.

The reporter is reminding viewers of the facts of this case. Gavin Reed’s body was found in the backyard of his lake house. He was forty years old, owner of Integrity Plus Home Services, a home improvement company he took over after his father’s death six years ago. Gavin was last seen leaving a regional sales conference (Jason’s conference, I reflexively think) on Friday. But on Sunday, a kayaker on the lake spotted Gavin, prone and unresponsive on his lawn, his clothes still drenched from the sobbing, furious rainstorm that began late Friday night and continued until Sunday morning, washing away the killer’s DNA.

There was a cut, three inches long, across Gavin’s abdomen, and he’d been suffocated, but without fibers in his lungs, it seems likely that someone did it with their bare hands. Gavin had been drunk—his blood alcohol level over twice the legal limit—something that might have made him easier to take down. But those aren’t the details anyone cares about. It’s Gavin’s lips they keep coming back to.

“He was sewn up!” The news is back to the interview with the male neighbor. “Clearly the work of a woman! I don’t think I know a single man who even owns a needle and thread. Let alone knows how to work ’em.”

“Seriously, fuck that guy,” Sienna says. “Jason’s known how to sew since he was twelve. Our mom taught him so he could sew on his boy scout badges himself.” She nudges her chin at the man on TV. “This guy can go choke on his own tongue.”

Cool your fire, I’m about to say. It’s my usual mantra for Sienna, words meant to soothe her anger. But Sienna speaks first: “I bet Gavin deserved it.”

I snap my gaze toward her. “How can you say that?”

“Because most men deserve it.”

I consider the flush in her cheeks, the same shade of pink that swamps her skin whenever we speak of her ex-boyfriend. “Is this about Wyatt?”

“What? No,” Sienna scoffs. “I haven’t seen Wyatt in months. I’m over him.”

“Clive Clayton?” I ask carefully. Not an ex. But someone who ruined her all the same.

Everything’s about Clive,” she seethes. “But also, no, just in general: men are trash.”

Sienna’s assertion reminds me of my mother, who raised me with a single warning: Never trust a man. She repeated it so often that, for much of my childhood, I thought it was a regular household proverb—something to be embroidered onto pillows, woven into welcome mats.

“Oh, really,” I say. “So, Jason’s trash?”

“My brother is an impeccable human being.”

“What about Tom Hanks? Is he trash?”

Sienna waves a dismissive hand. “Tom’s fine.”

“And your nephew?”

“Hmm,” Sienna considers. “I don’t know.” She mutes the TV and shouts toward the ceiling. “Aiden!” We listen for movement upstairs before she tries again. “Aiden! Help! Your mom got bit by a rat!”

I swat at Sienna, and then we hear it: the creak of Aiden’s door, the thud of his footsteps. He hasn’t spoken to me all day, which is not so different from other days lately. When he got home at 2:45, I asked him how school was, and his response was to trudge up the stairs.

Now, appearing on the threshold between the family room and front hall, he’s dressed in Jason’s old Wilco shirt, strumming a guitar pick against his thigh, as if unable to stop practicing for even a moment. Sienna once told me that Jason used to be the same way. In high school, he’d play an invisible trumpet at dinner, working on his “marching band muscle memory”—and I find it sweet, this echo of Jason in Aiden, who would echo everything about his father if he could.

“Aiden,” Sienna says, “are you trash?”

“What? I thought you said something about a rat.”

Sienna and I share a glance. We haven’t gotten used to his deeper, decidedly teenage voice.

“Forget about that. Are you trash?” she repeats. “Do you do things that would make someone sew your lips together?” She gestures toward the TV.

“You mean, like, Dad’s boss?” Aiden asks, straightening. “Why, what’d he do?”

“Nothing. Well—something, I’m sure, but I’m just saying: You better not be trash.”

Aiden chuckles. “I’m not trash, Auntsy,” he says, the name a holdover from his childhood, when his toddler mouth couldn’t handle Aunt Sienna. “I’m writing a paper on toxic masculinity in Lord of the Flies.”

“You are?” I ask, and the way Aiden stiffens at my voice is so noticeable that I can tell it embarrasses us all. I lower my gaze to the coffee table, where there’s a stack of travel magazines I haven’t touched in months.

I feel Sienna watching me. She wants me to address it, whatever it is—teenage aloofness or a shift in hormones or some grudge Aiden’s holding against me. But my mouth won’t open, my throat won’t speak, and in a few seconds, Sienna speaks instead.

“That doesn’t impress me,” she says, inspecting her nails. “I’m sure the teacher assigned you that topic.”

Aiden shrugs.

She cocks her eyes toward him. “Do you cheat on your girlfriend?”

“I don’t have a girlfriend.”

“Your boyfriend, then?”

Aiden rolls his eyes.

“Do you leer at girls in gym class, with your greasy little eyeballs?”

“My eyeballs are greasy?”

“I don’t know,” Sienna teases, making her thumb and finger into a circle, then peering through it like a monocle. “Are they?”

Aiden shakes his head. “I have no idea what’s going on right now.”

“Sure you don’t. Just don’t come crying to either of us when you get...” She mimics sewing up her lips. Aiden’s eyes go wide.

“Sienna!” I scold, and she looks at me—almost proudly—before backtracking.

“I’m kidding. It’s terrible what happened to Gavin Reed.” She nods solemnly before adding, “Unless he deserved it.”

I lob a pillow at her. Sienna’s been rabid about injustices for as long as I’ve known her—cussing at her computer when our clients are late with payments, yelling at drivers who cut her off, starting fights with internet strangers in response to sexist tweets—so I know the news struck a chord with her tonight; as soon as someone theorized a woman might have done it, Sienna’s sympathy switched from the victim to the perpetrator. Never mind that Jason’s never said anything bad about his boss at Integrity Plus. All Sienna needed was the suggestion that a woman had an ax to grind with Gavin, and the tenor of the story changed. I can practically see the images in her eyes: Gavin forcing a secretary’s head toward his unzipped pants; Gavin, out at happy hour, slipping a pill into an unattended cup. The signs Sienna made for the first Women’s March said, “Believe Women.” Even hypothetical ones, apparently.

“I thought everyone loved Dad’s boss,” Aiden says. “Didn’t he, like, save the company by turning in some dude for fraud?”

“The merger thing?” Sienna clarifies. “Big deal.”

This is not the first time Jason’s boss has been in the news. A couple years ago, Gavin had been set to merge Integrity Plus with a rival home services company, Higher Home Improvement. But when Gavin discovered that his soon-to-be partner had been falsifying financial records, he reported him to the IRS. Our name is Integrity Plus for a reason, Gavin told a reporter, who’d caught wind of the failed merger, and in the end, when Higher Home folded—the fallout from an enormous fine and a mountain of back taxes—Integrity Plus absorbed a lot of their customers anyway.

“Anyone can do the right thing once,” Sienna continues. “It’s the bad things they do that define them.”

“Guess we can’t define you, then,” I joke, “since you’re a literal angel.”

Sienna feigns a bashful smile. Then she lifts one hand to just above her head, moves it in tight circles as if rubbing something invisible.

“I’m polishing my halo,” she explains.

“It’s very pretty.”

“Here.” Sienna mimes plucking the halo from the air and placing it above my head. “You should borrow it, since you’re an angel, too, and your halo is... at the cleaners,” she improvises.

“It’ll go with everything!” I say, and Aiden rolls his eyes again, impatient with our antics.

“Can I go now?” he asks.

Sienna dismisses him with a wave. Aiden takes a couple steps but stops before turning the corner. Without looking back, he asks, “When’s Dad getting home?”

It takes me a moment to realize he’s addressing me. “Oh! Probably not for another hour. He had a late sales call. Why, do you need help with something? I can—”

“No,” he says. Then he clomps through the front hallway and plods up the stairs.

Sienna arches an eyebrow at me. “That’s partially on you, you know.”

“What is?”

That.” She gestures to the space where Aiden stood. “You need to speak up. Tell him he’s being weird and dismissive and it’s bumming you out.”

I shake my head. “I don’t want to make it worse.”

“Jules. Did you learn nothing from Liar Liar? We just rewatched it.” She shoots her arms above her head, affects Jim Carrey’s shrill, victorious voice from the final courtroom scene: “And the truth... shall set you free!”

“He could be depressed or something,” I say, “and I’m not sure how to navigate that. I’ve been thinking I should call his doctor.”

Sienna drops her arms. “Maybe. What’s Jason say?”

“Nothing.”

“What do you mean ‘nothing’”

“I haven’t brought it up. And he hasn’t seemed to notice. He’s been distracted lately, even before what happened to Gavin. He’s up for that big promotion—although, who knows if that’ll even be a thing now that his boss is dead—and he and I—”

I stop myself from mentioning it: the night in December that unraveled something between us.

“And you and him what?” Sienna asks. She never misses when I swallow my words.

Jason and I haven’t spoken of it much, except for his assurances that he’ll make things right. Still, it’s shadowed our interactions for months: quiet dinners, Aiden’s head shooting between us as if keeping score of our silence; the flinch of my hand whenever Jason reaches for it; the travel magazines he keeps bringing home for me, even though I’ve removed all my multicolored tabs from the ones I already have; the way I feigned sleep on Friday night when he slipped into bed, finally home from his post-conference dinner.

But Sienna doesn’t know that things have changed between me and Jason—it’s the rare secret I’ve kept from her—so I distract her from the question by letting her win. “Nothing. You’re right, I’ll talk to Jason about Aiden.”

Before this shift in Aiden’s demeanor, my son was softer, easier. He’d tell me about the play he wanted to audition for, the study hall teacher who lets him practice guitar instead of doing his homework, the kid in his English class who thought Julius Cesar wrote Romeo and Juliet. But back in December, he became stiff and guarded around me, like his skin, his muscles, had been replaced with armor, and I can’t help but wonder what he might have overheard between me and Jason. Or wonder, if he did overhear, why his resentment is aimed at me instead of his father.

“In the meantime,” I say, before Sienna can push the issue harder, “can you watch how you talk to Aiden? You shouldn’t scare him with the Gavin Reed stuff.”

“Oh, come on. He knows what happened.”

That’s exactly the problem. Aiden, Jason, and I were eating pizza on Sunday evening, local news playing in the background, when the story of Gavin’s murder blared across the screen. Jason dropped his slice then, not even wincing as the hot tomato sauce splattered his lap. He sat there, wide-eyed, wide-mouthed, unchewed crust adrift on his tongue, and his shock hooked my attention so completely that it took me a moment to process its source: Jason’s boss had been killed.

Later that night, I tumbled through dreams of Gavin’s stitched-up mouth—until something woke me. A sound from down the hall led me to Aiden’s room, where his light was still on at two in the morning. Peeking inside, I found him sitting on the edge of his bed, hunched over his phone with his brows drawn, his feet digging into the carpet like he was crushing cigarettes beneath them. You okay, hon? I asked, and he startled, flipping his phone upside down.

I’m fine, he said, but he skated one finger over his lips, as if thinking of the thread that wove through Gavin’s.

“The news stories have freaked him out,” I tell Sienna now. “You don’t need to tell him the guy might’ve deserved it, too.”

“Well, what if he did?”

“Nobody deserves to be murdered. And especially not like that.”

Three assaults to his body: the postmortem sewing, the suffocation that killed him, the stab wound in his stomach. I glance toward the wall, at those bloodred roosters, and shudder.

“Maybe not,” Sienna says. “I’m just saying: carrying this horrible thing that someone’s done to you, knowing every single day they got away with it—” She smooths her blunt dark bob. “It’s enough to make a person snap.”

I take a long breath before asking: “Are you saying you’re going to snap?”

Sometimes I wonder. It’s been seventeen years since Clive Clayton downed six shots of Jaeger at a party, drove across a double yellow line, and killed Sienna and Jason’s parents on impact. Sixteen years since he was sentenced to only three in prison. Fourteen and a half since he got out on parole. But it was just last week, working on the splash page for a new A&A client, that I saw Clive’s Instagram among the open tabs in Sienna’s browser. And yesterday, Sienna scowled at a post about his new car, a growl low in her throat.

“No, I won’t snap,” Sienna says. “I have you.” She boops my nose. “But not everyone has a Julia to hold them together.”

She reaches for my hand, and it takes less than a second for our fingers to lock together, perfectly grooved to each other like gears in a machine. The first time we held hands like this, we’d known each other less than two hours. We were twenty-two, Jason twenty-four, and I was pregnant, though nobody but Jason and I knew that yet. I’d only been dating him for three months, and I was hoping that meeting his sister would solidify a connection with him. I liked him, of course—was probably going to love him—but everything had happened so fast, and his proposal had been with a twist tie he’d shaped into a ring. I wasn’t wearing it the night I met Sienna—dinner at Olive Garden—because I hadn’t answered him yet. I’d only kissed him when he asked, smiled without my teeth, and told him I’d think about it.

The dinner was awkward to start. Small talk and small laughs. When the waitress asked what I’d like to drink, I was about to second Sienna’s order of a cosmo—maybe it would relax me, turn me into someone more interesting to Jason’s cool, tall sister with the blistering blue eyes. But then I remembered the two lines on the pregnancy test, shaped like a road I’d travel forever, and I switched to cranberry juice. So we went on: small talk, small laughs, until Jason, spearing a tomato with his fork, proclaimed, “Mmm, these are good motatoes.” At Jason’s fumbled word, Sienna and I looked at each other, sharing a panicked gaze as we struggled to pinch back our laughter, our mouths filled with fresh sips. But as soon as Jason corrected himself, so earnestly—“tomatoes, I like these tomatoes”—we exploded into simultaneous spit-takes, spewing bright red juice all over our salads.

The night rushed ahead after that, with Jason edging more and more toward the periphery. Sienna and I leaned toward each other, hunting for everything we had in common: we both love foods that are sweet and savory (we later dipped our breadsticks into the raspberry sauce on our cheesecakes); we both graduated from UConn; our names both end with A, a fact that Jason contributed dully, as if it barely warranted a mention. But Sienna and I latched onto it, latched onto each other, too, our hands locking together for the very first time across the table. And four years later, when naming our two-person brand development business—Sienna as designer and coder, me as copywriter—it took us only three minutes to decide on A&A Brand.

On the ride home from Olive Garden that first night, I said to Jason, “I love your sister!” Then, my heart buoyant, veins buzzing as if I really had ordered that Cosmo, I added, “And I love you too.”

I hadn’t said that to him yet, and the sentence felt stiff on my tongue. But I kept going, trying to loosen the words, soften them up.

“I love you and we’re having a baby.” I said this second part as if it were shocking news—which it still kind of was, the ink on my diploma barely even dry. “I love you and—I think we should get married.”

I didn’t allow myself to wonder: if I hadn’t just bonded with Sienna so intensely, would I still be saying yes to Jason? Or, in time, would we decide to raise our son in separate houses, loving each other but not in love?

Jason jerked to a stop on the side of the road. Cupping my face in his hands, he told me he loved me too. But then—because he knew about my mother, the phrase she’d repeated my entire childhood, drilling it into my head like an emergency phone number—he asked if I was sure. And briefly, like so many times before, I heard my mother’s warning: Never trust a man.

I silenced it with another kiss.

Now, Sienna nods toward the TV, where the news has moved on from Gavin’s murder. “We should start the movie,” she says. “But first: motatoes!”

Since our initial Olive Garden dinner, Sienna and I have referred to food as motatoes. It doesn’t matter what kind. Soup is motatoes. Cupcakes: motatoes. Nachos: motatoes with cheese. Jason always rolls his eyes, but Sienna and I smile every time.

“What do you want,” I ask, “chocolate popcorn, or pretzel cookies?”

I need comfort food right now, something to distract from the warning that’s wormed its way back: Never trust a man, never trust a man. My mother’s been dead for eight years, but in the wake of that December night with Jason—my laptop open between us, my finger shaking as it aimed at the screen—I’ve been hearing it more and more. And every time, it’s as clear and precise as if she’s standing beside me, whispering it into my ear.

“Pretzel—” Sienna starts, but my phone cuts in. The ringing fills the room like a siren.

I squint at the screen, not recognizing the number, but pick up anyway. I have to answer unknown calls; Jason’s always letting his cell phone die, forgetting to charge it or just not caring to, so there’s always the possibility he could be calling from someone else’s phone.

But the person on the other end isn’t Jason. It’s a woman, and as she speaks, something turns off inside my head. I don’t hear the caller’s voice, or the ghost of my mother’s, or even Sienna’s as she registers my expression—What’s wrong? Who is it? I read on her lips.

I ask the woman to repeat what she said, and as I press the phone tighter to my ear, I can just make it out: Jason’s name, then hospital.

When I hang up, I say only this: “Jason’s hurt.” And as Sienna and I lurch for our keys, our shoes, I see on the muted TV a shot of a residential road. Lights from several cars strobe against the trees, back and forth, over and over, switching between the color of blood and the color of a bruise. They’re pulsing, insistent, will not be ignored: blue and red, and blue and red, and blue-red-blue-red-blue.

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