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The Only Child

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The Only Child

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Author: Andrew Pyper
Publisher: Orion Books, 2018
Simon & Schuster, 2017

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Horror
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As a forensic psychiatrist at New York's leading institution of its kind, Dr. Lily Dominick has evaluated the mental states of some of the country's most dangerous psychotics. But the strangely compelling client she interviewed today – a man with no name, accused of the most twisted crime – struck her as somehow different from the others, despite the two impossible claims he made.

First, that he is more than two hundred years old, and he personally inspired Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Bram Stoker to create the three novels of the nineteenth century that define the monstrous in the modern imagination. Second, that he's Lily's father. To discover the truth – behind her client, her mother's death, herself – Dr. Dominick must embark on a journey that will threaten her career, her sanity, and ultimately her life.


The Only Child


She was awakened by the monster knocking at the door.

Lily knows better than most how unlikely it is that this is real. Through her years of training and now her days in the courtroom providing expert testimony on psychological states of mind, she has learned how shaky the recollections of children can be. And she was only six when it happened. The age when certain things get stuck in the net of real memory, and other things you try to sell yourself on having happened but are in fact made up, turned into convincing bits of dream.

What is verifiably known is that Lily was small for her age, green-eyed, her straight black hair snarled into a nest. The sole survivor. And there was the body, of course. Her mother's.

She rereads the documents the authorities submitted the same way others return to old love letters or family photo albums, tracing the outlines of faces. It's an act of remembrance, but something more too. She's looking for the missing link. Because though the coroner and police reports seem decisive enough, plausible enough, she can see all the ways the facts were stretched to connect to other facts with long strings of theory in between. It was a story assembled to close a file. A terrible, but not unprecedented, northern tale of an animal attack: a creature of considerable size--a bear, almost certainly, drawn by scents of cooked meat and human sweat--had forced its way into their cabin a couple hundred miles short of the Arctic Circle in Alaska and torn her mother apart, leaving Lily undiscovered in her bedroom, where she'd hidden from the screams.

Acceptable on the face of it, as such stories are designed to be. Yet there was so much that wasn't known it made for a narrative that collapsed upon itself at the merest prodding. Why, for instance, had the bear not eaten her mother? Where could it have gone that the hunters who went after it only a day later failed to find its tracks?

The most puzzling part was how she made it out of the woods.

Three miles to the only road that led, after a two-hour drive, to Fairbanks. The trail to the cabin a set of muddy ruts in summer, but in the subzero depths of February impossible to reach except by snowmobile, and her mother's Kawasaki remained untouched at the site. When and why did she eventually leave the cabin? How did she get through the woods all on her own?

The year she turned thirty Lily spent her summer vacation conducting an investigation of her own. She traveled north to see the cabin for herself and walked from the site through an aspen forest to the rusting trailer her mother had called their "secret place." She spoke with all the people she could find who were mentioned in the reports.

That was how she came to meet one of the hunters who'd assisted on the case. An old man by the time she took a seat next to the bed where he lay in an old-age home for Native Americans in Anchorage. A man old enough to have nothing to lose and grateful for the visit of a young woman.

"My name is Lily," she told him. "Lily Dominick? When I was a girl--"

"I remember you."

"You do?"

"The one the bear didn't touch." He shook his head with a kind of sad amusement, as if at the recollection of a practical joke gone wrong. "Except it wasn't a bear."

"How do you know?"

"Marks in the snow," he answered, running his fingers through the air to indicate legs. "From the cabin to some birch about a quarter mile in. And not bear tracks either."

"That wasn't in the report."

"It wouldn't be. I told the dumb suit about it--the federal investigator--but he didn't even bother looking because he said the snow had blown it clear. But I saw them fine. Not a machine, not snowshoes. Not boots."

"Then what?"

He smiled and showed her the half dozen stumps of his teeth. "The closest thing? What I told the dumb suit? A horse."

"A horse," Lily repeated. It wasn't a question. It was to hear from her own mouth something at once impossible and deeply known.

"The suits never put that in any of the write-ups. 'To avoid embarrassment.' Mine, I guess," the old man said. "Because there's no wild horses in Alaska. And no kept horse could have made it through snow that deep even if one had been hauled up that far. It couldn't have gotten in, which means it couldn't have gotten out."

It left the question of what happened to be answered by a hypothesis supported by a patchwork of forensics and animal behavior testimony. Lily had been of little help. Deemed unreliable given her age, and traumatized by the shock of losing her only parent. What made her version of events all the more dismissible was the obvious fantasy she'd created. She'd spoken of the dark outline of a ghoul bent over her mother's form, followed by the appearance of a magical creature that carried her out of the bush on its back. Being a psychiatrist now, Lily knew it to be true: children made things up all the time, not only for pleasure, but sometimes to survive.

Even today she "remembers" things from that night. A handful of details recalled with the clarity of a lived event.

She was awakened by the monster knocking at the door.

She thinks of it as this, as a monster, because she knows it wasn't a bear. Because bears don't knock before entering. Because the one difference between animals and people is that animals don't murder, they hunt.

Because she saw it.

Copyright © 2017 by Andrew Pyper


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