The Other Sister


By Sarah Zettel

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Two sisters who couldn’t be more different come together to plan a shocking revenge in this “addicting” (Hello Giggles) domestic thriller.

Two sisters. One murder plan.
Everyone thought reckless, troubled Geraldine Monroe was the bad sister — especially when she fled town after her mother’s death twenty-five years ago.
But people don’t know the truth.
Marie Monroe knows. She was there for their father’s cruel punishments, the constant manipulation, the lies. Everyone thinks she’s the perfect daughter — patient and kind, and above all obedient. No one would suspect her of anything. Especially not murder.
Now Geraldine’s home again, and she and Marie have united in a plan for the ultimate revenge. But when old secrets and new fears clash, everyone is pushed to the breaking point . . . and the sisters will learn that they can’t trust anyone-not even each other.
“The story of Geraldine’s return to her roots is vividly told… [for] readers looking for something to follow Jeanette Walls’ nonfiction The Glass Castle.” — Booklist
“An excellent psychological thriller that’s filled with dark family secrets and plenty of intrigue.” — New York Journal of Books


"Snowy White, and Rosy Red. Will you beat your lover dead?"

—"Snow-White and Rose-Red" from Kinder und Hausmärchen Vol. 2, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, 1812




Twenty-five years ago, I killed my mother.

I tried to kill myself immediately afterward. Probably that was from remorse, but I have to admit, I've never been sure. My suicide attempt, though, didn't actually work out. You can tell.

I've been back before for a couple of weddings, a few births, and the big anniversaries. This time, it's my nephew Robbie's high school graduation. I promised my sister, Marie, that I would not miss it.

Marie has never been above playing the Robbie card to get what she needs from me. She knows I love her son without reservation, and that's not a feeling I have about many people. So, if she wants something, she'll say, "Robbie was asking about you." Or "Robbie's hoping you'll be here." Or she'll bring out the big guns, like she did this time, when she called to tell me to keep an eye out for the invitation card and the ticket. "You have to promise, Geraldine. Robbie's counting on you."

A tight smile forms and pulls at my old scar. Robbie. Prince Charming of the Monroe family's fairy tale.

I'm one of the world's experts on the stories of the Brothers Grimm and their influence on pop culture. Therefore, I'm qualified to lecture you about the structure of the basic fairy tale arc. Including the fact that in most stories, somebody comes back during the big transitions: weddings, or christenings, or executions. Sometimes it's that should-be-dead princess returning to claim her castle. Sometimes, it's the witch or the bad fairy appearing to drop the curse.

I wonder which one I am? My smile broadens. It's an old, sharp, nasty smile, and the pull deepens. Guess we'll find out when I get there.

Assuming I don't lose my nerve.

It's a tiring drive. Whitestone Harbor, Michigan, is three days away from Alowana, New York, and Lillywell College, where I lecture. You go down through the Allegheny Mountains and across to Buffalo. Over the Peace Bridge. All the way across the flat expanse of Ontario, where you struggle to stay awake and thank God for satellite radio. Over the Ambassador Bridge and through grim, battered Detroit. Then it's point the wheels north, until the world turns green and the hills roll out in front and bunch up behind.

No matter how many times I do this drive, I need all three days to decide if I'm going through with it. Sometimes the shakes come, and memory blots out the road in front of me. Sometimes, I can't stop myself from seeing Mom standing in the ruined driveway—her arms thrown wide, so she's crucified in the headlights. Then, I have to turn around. I have to call Marie and make some lame excuse about a department emergency, or the flu, or the car breaking down.

When this happens, Marie always acts like she believes me. "Are you okay, Geraldine?" she asks. "Do you need help? Do you have enough money?"

"I'm fine," I tell her, every time.

"Okay then, call if you need anything, all right? Don't just text. I need to hear you're okay."

"I promise, Marie," I say, and we hang up and I do call, but it's always to tell her that I went back home and I'm fine, whether it's the truth or not.

Obviously, I haven't been caught, or tried, or punished, for my murder. If I was ever even seriously suspected, those suspicions were quickly tidied away. In Whitestone, the Monroe family name is good for that sort of thing. I got asked a few questions in the hospital, and that was that. It was decided that my mother, Stacey Jean Burnovich Monroe, killed herself. Everybody in Whitestone breathed a great sigh of relief. Especially my father's family.

Perhaps I should say, especially my father.

The two-lane ribbon of blacktop unspools up and down the achingly familiar hills. Every so often there's a gravel drive with a little white shack or flatbed trailer and a hand-painted sign:


Last chance. The words hover in front of my eyes like a heat mirage. I don't have to do this. I could turn around. I could break down. Let my phone run out of juice.

I could run away for good this time. All the bridges to the world I thought I'd created for myself outside Whitestone Harbor and Rose House are well and truly burnt. I've got my whole life packed up with me. My rusting yellow Subaru is crammed with suitcases of clothes and dishes, and boxes upon boxes of files and academic journals. The parts of my ancient desktop computer ride shotgun on the passenger seat. My sleeping bag and backpack are crammed behind the driver's seat.

I can go anywhere. Marie and I can just keep pretending we don't know what we know, just like we've been doing all our lives.

But then there's Robbie. And there's Dad. If I turn around this time, what will I do about Dad?

"I have gained great wealth through you. I shall take care of you in splendor as long as you live."

—"The Girl without Hands" from Kinder und Hausmärchen Vol. 1, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, 1812




"Geraldine? Are you sure you're okay?"

"…Marie! It's the battery," Geraldine is saying in my ear. I press my free ear closed with two fingers and lean in to the receiver, like that's going to help me hear over all the family we have in the great room. "Swear to God, Marie, I had the thing checked before I left, but the garage says it'll only be maybe another twenty, thirty minutes. So, I'll be there in an hour, tops. I promise."

"You're already in Whitestone?"

"Petoskey. Almost made it this time."

This is a test, I think. We are being tested. I knew it would come.

I take a deep, cleansing breath, so I can answer as cheerfully as I should. "Do you want someone to come get you?"

"No, no. Don't bother. It'll be finished by the time you got here."

"Okay. We'll see you soon then. Robbie's really looking forward to having you here." I glance over my shoulder, reflexively looking for my son. I see my father instead.

He's poised on the threshold between the great room and the terrace, framed by the exquisite stained-glass wall that gives the Rose House its name. Behind him, Monroes cluster around the grills and the buffet table. Dad raises his martini glass and I smile in answer. My father is a handsome man, tall and tan with thick gray hair. His yellow Oxford shirt is crisp despite the unseasonable June heat. He looks like an aging Robert Redford, only with brown eyes. He has an easy smile, an infinite store of patience, and a limitless attention for detail. He might appear relaxed, but I know he is alert to the dynamic of our crowd. Including me. Including this unexpected phone call. It's only natural. This is a family gathering, and family is the focus of my father's whole life.

"Do you have enough money, Geraldine?" I say into the phone.

"Hey, Marie!" someone calls. Carla comes out of the pass-through to the dining room, a knife in one hand and celery stalk in the other. I hold up one finger at her. "Oh, sorry!"

"Yes, Marie, I have enough money. I'm fine!" Geraldine shouts in my other ear, while Carla shouts over the voices. "Didn't see you were on the phone!"

Dad sips his drink. His gaze drifts casually from Carla to the rest of the gathering, before returning to me.

Does he see something's wrong? I squint between my relatives' heads, all tinted gold, green, and red from the stained glass. Grandma Millicent seems all right. She's seated by the hearth, talking with Amber. Amber's mother, my aunt June, is perched on the sofa, ready in case Millicent needs anything. So that's all right.

Out on the terrace, the plates of hors d'oeuvres have been completely disarranged and the buffet table cloths are covered in crumbs. I'll need to fix that, but it's not so urgent. What's important is that people are talking and laughing, circulating smoothly.

Down on the lawn at the bottom of the concrete stairs, boys slap and shove and dance around each other in the teenage male ritual of bluster and negotiation. I pick Robbie out from the crowd. He's shouting and punching shoulders and tearing around with the ball under one arm. They've switched from playing football to playing keep-away.

Just like Geraldine. My sister has been playing keep-away for twenty-five years.

But that's over now. This time, Geraldine is coming home for good. No one knows this yet, of course. I'm not even sure Geraldine knows it. But I do. This time she is staying, and we're going to be real sisters again.

I smile into the phone. "Okay! I'll let everyone know. Drive safe, Geraldine."

"I will. Tell Robbie I'm on my way, all right?"

"I will!" We both hang up before either one has to try to think up more reassurances.

Not that there's anything really wrong, of course. Everything is happening the way it must. It is important to understand that no matter how chaotic things might seem, there is order underneath. This is one of the many important things that life with my father has taught me.

Dad takes another drink of his martini. He slips smoothly through the ripples of the gathering, pausing only to smile in a gentle conspiracy with Grandma Millicent.

"Was that Geraldine?" He comes up beside me, close enough so I can smell how his Ralph Lauren aftershave mixes with the brine and vermouth. Of course he knew I was talking to Geraldine, even from the terrace. No one can read faces like my father. "What's gone wrong this time?"

"Just car trouble." I'm already heading for the kitchen, like I'm not worried, and we can all believe what Geraldine tells us. "Something with the battery. She's at a garage in Petoskey. She says she'll be here in about an hour, maybe an hour and a half."

"She's in Petoskey? I thought she wasn't coming up until next week?"

"No. I told you. The timing worked out better for her to come early."

Dad does not trust this. I can't really blame him. This is Geraldine, after all. Geraldine does not fit. Everyone wonders how someone like her could be Martin Monroe's daughter. A scarred, rumpled woman who spends her life writing for obscure journals that don't even pay money and teaching easy-A courses to slacker kids at a little college nobody ever heard of.

Not that Dad—or anyone else at our family barbecue—would ever say anything like that to Geraldine's face. If they mention her at all, it's to say that really, considering everything Geraldine put us all through, it's amazing how well she's done.

But still, they add and leave the words to dangle and twist. But still…

I stride toward the kitchen. I smile at Grandma, and Aunt June, and Amber and Walt, and all the rest as I pass.

A selfish part of me thinks, Please don't follow me. Just give me a minute. But I dismiss that. I will not be selfish today.

Carla's standing at the butcher-block island. She's turned her attention from celery to watermelon, neatly sectioning the ring-shaped slices into quarters.

"Is your father on the prowl?" My cousin-in-law is a tall, substantial woman with a big bosom and no intention of engaging in diets or surgeries. All the rest of us Monroe women wear the approved barbecue-night uniform of khakis, open-toed sandals, and striped tank tops or twinsets. Carla wears jeans and a plain T-shirt. Her dark curls are bundled up in a ponytail. She looks more like one of Robbie's friends than one of the family.

I've always liked Walt better because of Carla. She's his first and only wife. All the rest of us have been divorced at least once.

"Dad's just a little antsy," I tell her. "You know how he stresses about these family parties."

Carla glances at me sharply from under her sparse eyelashes. She really should have put on more makeup today. The jeans and the ponytail are bad enough. People will say she looks tired. Sloppy. I resist the urge to touch my own face. Instead, I stack watermelon pieces on the platter. Pink juice films my fingertips.

"I heard him talking to Millicent," Carla says. "He knows you're planning something."

A melon wedge drops—splat!—onto my exposed toes.

"Oh, damn." I grab a towel and wipe frantically at my white sandals. "That's going to stain." I scoop up the spattered melon bits and toss them quickly into the sink.

Carla leans her ample behind against the counter and picks up her coffee mug. She's the only person over eighteen drinking coffee before dinner. "So, I'm guessing you haven't told him that you and Geraldine want to take over the other house?"

I shake my head, a little impatiently. The "other house" is a small, battered, white building at the bottom of the hill. You can't even see it from here.

What is that quote? Two houses, both alike in dignity…?

But our two houses were never anything alike. Down underneath the trees is where Geraldine and I grew up, and where Mom ran Stacey B's Sandwiches and Stuff while we waited for Dad's assorted businesses to take off. It's also where we waited for the chance to move where we really belonged, the Rose House. This house. But first, Mom's older sister had to die. And so did Mom.

No. Don't think it, Marie.

But it's too late. The skin on the back of my neck prickles and I catch the stale scent of tobacco and beer.


My mother has been dead since I was nineteen, but dead does not mean gone. Nothing is ever truly created or destroyed. It only changes form. This house is a perfect example. It's changed forms so many times over the years. Sometimes, I can feel the dank old layers shifting beneath the sheetrock.

"Marie?" says Carla. "Everything okay?"

"Sorry. Woolgathering." I straighten Carla's wedges into a tidier stack. "But you know, Carla, I'm not trying to get Geraldine to take over anything," I say out loud. I wipe my fingers on the dishrag, hard, like I'm trying to get rid of something much more tenacious than watermelon juice. "Mom and Aunt Trish left the houses to me and Geraldine. We are equally responsible for them. Anything that happens, we have to decide on together."

"But your father thinks—"

"What do I think?" asks Dad from the threshold.

Carla and I both freeze. We both see my father's cheerful smile, the one that says, Gotcha.


"Oh, great, more watermelon. Thanks, Carla." Dad gestures toward the terrace buffet with his half-empty martini glass. "They're running low out there."

Carla hesitates just long enough to let me reach for the platter if I want to get away. But of course I don't. Dad wants Carla to be the one who leaves.

"Would you mind, Carla?" I ask her. "It's like a swarm of locusts landed out there."

"Sure thing."

I pretend I don't see her sympathetic look as she heads out the door toward the terrace.

Now that Dad's here, I am suddenly aware of how messy I've let the kitchen become. There are Whole Foods bags, empty bakery boxes, an empty plastic container that used to have grape tomatoes in it. Crumbs are scattered all over the counters, along with some lemon halves and a few crisscrossed celery ribs. It's as if the room itself is an indictment of my management skills. I shouldn't feel that way, of course. It's a complete overreaction. I'm always doing that. It's one of the things I need to work on.

"Marie?" Dad asks.

I rip a length of plastic wrap off the roll bolted to the underside of the cabinets and bundle up the leftover celery like I'm afraid it's going to escape.

"What were you and Carla talking about? What do I think?"

"I have no idea. You'll need to ask her."

"Carla's got enough on her plate right now."

I can't turn away fast enough to hide my surprise. "What's the matter?"

Dad arches his eyebrows. "She didn't tell you?" He sips his martini, inviting me to fill the pause. When I don't, he sighs. "Typical Carla. Talks about everybody else when she's the one…"

I will not be led down this road. I can already tell it's nowhere I want to go.

"I don't think Geraldine will be delayed too badly," I say firmly.

This is a clumsy and transparent change of subject. It's also exactly what Dad was hoping for. I can tell by the timbre of his fresh sigh and the tilt of his head.

I have learned so much over the years from my father, but the most important thing is how to really pay attention. You have to remain aware of all the details, no matter how tired you are. That's how I've become such a good hostess and a good manager, and, of course, a good daughter. I really owe him everything. If it wasn't for Dad, I might not even have my son. After all, it was Dad who stepped right in as male parent and role model for Robbie when my husband, David, walked away.

"Marie, I hate to bring this up now, but even if Geraldine doesn't make it, you're still going to have to talk with her about the old house."

There it is. Carla was right. Dad does suspect something.

"She's never going to stay, Marie. You can't keep hanging on to that decrepit old place hoping she'll change her mind."

"There'll be plenty of time to talk houses after Robbie's graduation." I wet a dishrag and start wiping counters. "And Geraldine will be here soon."

"I know you love your sister," Dad says behind me. "It breaks my heart to see how many times she's disappointed you, and Robbie. You have to—what is it they say these days?—you have to try to distance yourself."

"Dad, please," I say softly, and with the pleading little smile that he enjoys seeing so much. "Let's just put it aside, all right? This is Robbie's week. When it's over, we'll talk about the old house and Geraldine and everything else."

Sadness and patience gather behind my father's eyes. He is always so understanding. You can see it in the way he nods, and in the warm, paternal kiss he presses against my forehead.

"All right. We'll do it your way, baby girl," he says, because I will always be his baby girl. I am forty-three. My son is graduating high school. I was married, am divorced, have been troubled, but even when I've been on the edge of disaster, I've remained my father's baby girl. That's how much he loves me.

My hands are shaking.

Slowly, so I can concentrate on each separate motion, I undo the flaps on the bakery boxes and flatten them out. I am fully present. I feel the brush of thin cardboard under my hands. I feel the warmth from the stove at my back. I feel the tackiness of watermelon juice on my fingers and my feet. I will not be distracted by thoughts of the past, or my own absurd ideas about how the universe works, or even my mother's shadow beneath our clean white walls. These things only confuse me and worry Dad.

I do not want my father worried.

Fortunately for us all, he's focused on one of his favorite themes.

"You have to buy Geraldine out, Marie. These constant delays aren't fair to her, or to the property. As long as you let her dither, the place will just sit there empty, and Geraldine won't be able to move on."

"It's a house, Dad, not an ex-boyfriend," I say, lightly, of course. Just teasing.

Dad smiles a little and tips his now-empty glass from side to side. "You can have a bad relationship with a house, too. Look at Patricia Burnovich and this place."

Patricia Burnovich. That's how Dad likes to refer Mom's sister. It helps emphasize the distance that must be kept between us. He never calls her "your aunt," let alone "my sister-in-law." Acknowledgment of those sorts of relationships is reserved for the poised and practiced people he brings into this house. People who know just how much they owe, and to whom.

My aunt June and her daughter Amber are a perfect example. Both wear twinsets (June blue, Amber green) and strappy sandals. Amber's finally given up on her third husband, which puts her just one shy of her mother's total. Each holds a cocktail in one hand, and uses the other to wave and point. Diamonds flash on wrists and skinny fingers.

Aunt June remembers appearances and the importance of keeping up the family reputation. June would never go crazy. She would never starve to death alone in an empty ruin of a house because she was too stubborn to sign it over to people who could manage it properly.

June would never, ever kidnap her vulnerable adolescent nieces in the middle of winter.

But I am not thinking about that. I am in the present. The present is a cutting board to be wiped down, a discarded knife that should be in the dishwasher. A houseful of Monroes to keep fed and lubricated.

"You know that's what your sister is really coming to do," Dad says.

"Please be quiet."

"What did you say?"

I don't even know. Why don't I know? But I am saved from having to answer.

"Hey, Mom! Look what I found!"

Robbie. My tall, beautiful, golden, cheerful son, the star of the day. He strolls into the kitchen and then abruptly steps back.


It's my sister. Geraldine's here.



Robbie dodges so my sister and I can hug—Geraldine with one arm and me with both and all my might. My sister is short and soft and scarred, but she's strong. I can hug Geraldine as hard as I want and she will not complain or wince away. She smells like sweat and outdoors. Her hair is snarled, her black skirt is too tight, her top and jacket are too loose. She's wearing a pair of ridiculously high-heeled boots and carries a battered bucket-sized purse slung across her shoulders. But she's here. She made it. Relief rushes up from the bottom of my heart. Everything's going to be all right. This time it all comes true.

"She was sitting in the car." Robbie smirks. "It was like she was trying to sneak a smoke or something."

"Or something," Geraldine agrees sheepishly. Then, she smacks his shoulder. "And you, you can just stop being taller than me."

"Too late!" Robbie rests his chin on the top of Geraldine's head. "Oh, snap! Aunt G, you're getting shorter!"

She shoves him off. "Go away, whippersnapper, or I'll bite your kneecaps."

"I'll get a ladder."

I am so happy to see them together, something is going to burst.

"I'm sorry I'm so late, Marie. Really. I…" She holds up a squashy green cardboard basket. "I brought strawberries."

"Thank you." I take them and I notice her blunt finger ends are all stained red. There is probably a second, and now mostly empty, carton in her car someplace. Geraldine has always adored fresh berries. I look down my nose at her and she puts up one finger, right across the puckered scar that runs from her nose to her chin. Shhh.

"Hello, Geraldine." Dad straightens up.

And just like that, the switch is flipped. The cheerful little moment is over, and we all remember we are on display. Aunts and cousins and plus-ones are peering into the kitchen, waiting to see what Geraldine will do now that she's face-to-face with my father.

I mean our father, of course.

"Hi, Dad." Geraldine's mouth twists uncomfortably around the scar. She fell hard against the stairs one winter when she was fifteen and it left a permanent mark. I've always suspected she could have done something about it if she wanted to, but that's just not Geraldine's way.

"So glad you finally made it," Dad says. "We were starting to worry."

"I had some car trouble."

"That's what Marie said."

This could become awkward. Fortunately, Robbie is too focused on Geraldine to let that happen.

"So, what'd you bring me?" He bumps his shoulder against hers.

"He's asking for a present?" Geraldine bumps Robbie back. Neither of them notice the tiny wrinkles that appear at the corner of Dad's eyes as he watches this display. "What kind of manners have you taught this kid, Marie?"

Bump. "Not her fault." Bump. "I take after my aunt."

"Explains where you got the good looks."

"So, what'd you bring me?"

"Your graduation's not even 'til next Sunday!"

"Awww…Come on, Aunt G! Please!"


  • "Sarah Zettel's The Other Sister is as dark and twisted as they come; a compelling and sinister psychological thriller in which every character is deeply flawed, their desire for revenge understandable and relatable. With its intricate web of secrets long buried, readers won't be able to stop turning the pages!"—Karen Dionne, internationally bestselling author of The Marsh King's Daughter
  • "An exhilarating ride full of twists and turns, this page-turner will leave you guessing until the very end!"—Steena Homes, New York Times bestselling author of The Forgotten Ones
  • "The story of Geraldine's return to her roots is vividly told... [for] readers looking for something to follow Jeanette Walls' nonfiction The Glass Castle."

  • "An excellent psychological thriller that's filled with dark family secrets and plenty of intrigue."— New York Journal of Books
  • "An unexpected and entertaining read."—The Michigan Daily
  • On Sale
    Mar 26, 2019
    Page Count
    384 pages

    Sarah Zettel

    About the Author

    Sarah Zettel is an award-winning author. She has written more than thirty novels and multiple short stories over the past twenty-five years, in addition to hiking, cooking, stitching all the things, marrying a rocket scientist, and raising a rapidly growing son.

    Learn more about this author