Both a taut whodunit and a haunting snapshot of the effects of a violent crime, Little Threats tells the story of a woman who served fifteen years in prison for murder...and now it's time to find out if she's guilty.
In the summer of 1993, twin sisters Kennedy and Carter Wynn are embracing the grunge era and testing every limit in their privileged Richmond suburb. But Kennedy's teenage rebellion goes too far when, after a night of partying in the woods, her best friend, Haley, is murdered, and suspicion quickly falls upon Kennedy. She can't remember anything about the night in question, and this, along with the damning testimony from a college boy who both Kennedy and Haley loved, is enough to force Kennedy to enter a guilty plea.
In 2008, Kennedy is released into a world that has moved on without her. Carter has grown distant as she questions Kennedy's innocence, and begins a relationship with someone who could drive the sisters apart forever. The twins' father, Gerry, is eager to protect the family's secrets and fragile bonds. But Kennedy's return brings the tragedy back to the surface, along with a whole new wave of media. When a crime show host comes to town asking questions, believing the murder wasn't as simple as it seemed, murky memories of Haley's death come to light. As new suspects emerge and the suburban woods finally give up their secrets, two families may be destroyed again.
About the author
Emily Schultz is the author of the novel Joyland and the short story collection Black Coffee Night. She is the former editor of This Magazine. Her poetry has been published in 18 different publications across Canada, including The Walrus. The Globe and Mail recently called her fiction “mesmerizing.” Schultz lives in Toronto.
Excerpt: Little Threats (by (author) Emily Schultz)
Gerry Wynn had chosen his daughters' names after presidents, so they would know anything was possible. If they'd been boys they would have been Jack and Jimmy, or more formally John and James. But thirty-one years ago they had been handed to him screaming, pink, and female.
The afternoon before his daughter's release from prison, Gerry finished preparing things for Kennedy's arrival. He walked out to his SUV and placed her old army jacket in the front seat so she would have something to wear when she came out of the Heron Valley Correctional Facility. He had commissioned Carter to arrange for a new wardrobe for her, but she had forgotten to buy her sister a coat. Already blouses, pants, belts, and boots were stashed in an upstairs bedroom. And it was Carter's job to bring the cake to the party, although she hadn't said yet whether she would come with him to the prison to fetch her twin.
Gerry thought that strange-Carter had dutifully visited her sister every week throughout her sentence but had stopped as the release date came closer. He had never understood daughters, much less twins. After he finished making up the room, he would call Carter, he thought, try again to convince her what a momentous occasion this was. With the exception of their mother, Laine, the family was going to be together again.
He was excited to show Kennedy the renovated house. Hers was the only room he hadn't redone. He stood in the doorway often but didn't cross into the space, as if it were still hers. Now it would be. As he went in, he discovered the bedroom had gathered dust. He remembered changing the sheets before her first parole hearing five years ago. She should have been let out then, given that the evidence in the case had been purely circumstantial. No weapon. No blood anywhere in the Wynn home. Only that goddamn lock of hair forced her into a plea. The Kimbersons had protested the release at a press conference that time, trotting out their living child, a boy. Everett was hardly old enough to shave then, let alone read a victim impact statement about what it had been like to lose his big sister when he was just nine. Distasteful, Gerry thought, to use a child that way. Kennedy had been denied that time. This time, they hadn't shown and Kennedy had been given the release date of November 7, 2008.
Gerry gripped the new set of sheets against his leg. He stared at the contents of the shelves: books, perfume bottles, and banners, ribbons she'd won, tennis trophies. Kennedy and Carter had played doubles until they were fourteen; on the tennis court, they'd moved like music. His favorite memories of Kennedy involved driving long-distance to sporting events-she and Carter were twelve, then thirteen, that little window of time before he would lose them. Even then, he'd known they would go: it was just that he'd thought it would be to school dances and sleepover parties.
Gerry walked over and opened the window, hoping to get some air into the room. The floor around the end of the bed was still strewn with old tapes, titled, personalized, and annotated with a story known only between the gifter and the giftee:
Extremities, Dirt & Various
Repressed Emotions for Kennedy
Screaming Trees: Nearly Lost You
Dead Kennedys: Goons of Hazzard (I had to!)
Dinosaur Jr.: The Wagon
Sebadoh: Wonderful, Wonderful
Killing Joke: Love Like Blood
Soundgarden: Big Dumb Sex
(Don't play when your parents are around!)
Bauhaus: She's in Parties
Lush: Nothing Natural
Jesus and Mary Chain: Reverence
Echo & the Bunnymen: Killing Moon
Jane's Addiction: Summertime Rolls
Nick Cave: Straight to You
Kim Gordon's Silver Hot Pants for Berk, xo
Nirvana: Come As You Are
Suede: Animal Nitrate
Concrete Blonde: Tomorrow, Wendy (Kennedy reference back at you)
Sisters of Mercy: This Corrosion
Sugarcubes: Leash Called Love
NIN: Something I Can Never Have
Skinny Puppy: Chainsaw
Thrill Kill Kult: Sex on Wheelz
Smashing Pumpkins: Rhionceros
L7: Pretend We're Dead
Pixies: Here Comes Your Man
Iggy Pop: Candy
Siouxsie and the Banshees: Kiss Them for Me
Pavement: Summer Babe
He kneeled down and looked at them. He detested Berk Butler. Until Haley's death he hadn't even known his daughters and their friend had been involved with him. Gerry had to admit to himself how distracted he had been that summer, with he and Laine working through things.
The hand lettering on the tape case from Kennedy to Berkeley was loopy and doughy, the o's and a's almost square instead of round. The one from the young man to her had thin, tight lettering, as if he had forced himself to print neatly, pressing hard with the black pen. It didn't occur to Gerry that the fact that there were two tapes was an upset to the usual order-that Berk Butler should still have been in possession of the one she'd gifted him. That either she'd changed her mind about giving it, or he'd given it back. The song names held nothing for Gerry-they brought no winding ribbon of melody to his mind. For him, it was all teenage code. He gently placed the tapes back on the floor beside a milk crate that housed other homemade Maxells.
A woman from the cleaning service was the only other person who had been in Kennedy's room, but years ago, after Gerry had found some jewelry boxes and notebooks moved, the curling iron and the lava lamp all shifted around, he had switched services. Everything has its spot, he'd told her repeatedly. He'd told the new one not to bother with that room at all.
Now Gerry tentatively unmade the corners of the old bedding, working around the half-spilled crates of tapes and crammed racks of CDs. A button stabbed into Kennedy's corkboard read Hope Not Fear Clinton Gore '92. Earlier that day he'd been sure to take down the Obama/Biden sign, one of only two in their neighborhood, before he got a letter from the homeowners' association about the election's being over.
The duvet was dark violet with a spray of a lilac pattern across it. Everything had been purple that year.
He recalled the name of the little tub of trouble she'd used on her hair: Manic Panic violet. Kennedy had stained all the towels with each dye job. Gerry remembered Laine had cried over the steeple-gray Williams Sonoma ones blemished with streaks of violet; she shouted that Kennedy didn't respect her. Kennedy shouted there was more to life than money. He thought he'd have to draft a lawyer's letter to force the two women to communicate again. The tops of Kennedy's ears were violet for weeks, like she had a bad sunburn.
Laine and Gerry had hated their girls' style choices at the time, each new one cutting more, the short, bell-shaped dresses; the clunky, mannish boots; the distressed clothes from charity stores. What were they rebelling so hard against? He couldn't believe it when he started seeing the Salvation Army on the credit card bill. He took it as a slight against all that he'd worked for. The girls were honors students at the best public school in the county. Even if it had some lower-income residents from Longwood, Liberty High School had a great arts program and athletics, the kind of place that he'd dreamed of attending when he was a kid.
Gerry lifted the duvet up and smelled it. It didn't smell like Kennedy. The scent was musty, like old cigarettes, though he'd quit and no one had smoked in the house in at least a decade. He still had time to clean it. Gerry stripped the bedding quickly-years since he'd made a bed himself. How was this to be done? He stepped on a cassette case on the floor and felt it crack. Public Enemy, Fear of a Black Planet, the cassette read when he picked it up. He set it on the bookshelf. He tugged the new mauve sheet over the mattress. After years on a prison cot, a person deserved a well-made bed.
When Gerry was satisfied, he gathered up the old duvet and went across the hallway to his home office. He dropped the duvet in a leather chair and went to the phone on his large carved desk. He had Carter's cell number programmed into his speed dial, and although she almost always picked up, this time it went to voicemail.
"Carter, it's Dad," he said, cringing at his own adherence to tradition; she'd insisted on calling him Gerry since her days in rehab at twenty-two, when she said they needed to deal with each other on adult terms. "I really think you should plan to be here for more than the dinner. Come on the drive out with me. Just come by and we'll ride together. Leaving at ten." He hoped the deadline might work.
Gerry set the phone down and scooped up the duvet. Downstairs in the mudroom, he crammed the whole thing into the washing machine, but as he measured the liquid soap, he looked down and noticed a zipper ran along one edge of the purple cover. The cover should probably be separated from the duvet, Gerry realized. He yanked the bedding back out and unzipped the duvet cover, shaking and pulling. The white, fluffy comforter inside tumbled out. With it came a perfectly folded one-by-one-inch square of notebook paper, the end of it tucked inside so it formed a little envelope made out of itself.
Gerry stared at the shape of it against the porcelain tile of the laundry room. He left the bedding where it lay and picked up the tiny note. As he stooped to pick it up, he felt a burning sensation in his fingertips. His cardiologist had warned him about leaning over-avoid raking leaves, or taking the golf bag out of the trunk, the man had said, as if Gerry had had the nerve to show his face at the club in the last fifteen years. His fingers fumbled for the thin paper before grasping it. He breathed deeply and straightened. Holding it between his thumb and index finger, he peered at it like it was a fossil discovered on a beach. If the police hadn't found it all those years ago, Kennedy must have shoved it so far inside they'd overlooked it-or perhaps it had felt like a tag and they didn't pull it out.
He carried it across the hall to his office and set it gently on the desk, staring at the tiny white square shape it made there in the middle of the leather blotter between the stapler and the letter opener. He reached out and slowly unfolded it.
Kennedy rode with her father for an hour with the flowers he'd brought clutched against her chest, breathing in, smelling them. She had been surprised when she saw that Gerry had laid an old jacket of hers from the closet across the front seat. It had a cluster of round pins still clinging to the lapel-one for the band the Smiths, an AIDS awareness button, and one that she knew had made Laine and Gerry glare with worry: No means no. She pulled the jacket around her more than put it on. She'd wondered if there would be some sad polyester shirt or crushed velvet top to be returned to her upon release, but they had only her wages for her. Between the flowers and a McDonald's milkshake Gerry insisted was once her favorite, he was like an eager boy who had come to take her on a date.
The drink was a punch of sweet that delighted and then quickly nauseated her. Kennedy was overwhelmed. The smell of the daisies, the world flying past her beyond the window-it was all starting to seem like a trip: the point where the cresting acid would make the banal world beautiful. She gripped the inside of the car door with one hand. It was dizzying.
Gerry drove fast and talked fast. "I'm sorry Carter didn't come. I'm sure she'll be at the house."
But Kennedy said nothing. She didn't felt like speaking. She just wanted to breathe in the delicate air.
Gerry tapped some buttons on the BMW console and connected a call. Kennedy listened to the ringing, an ordinary thing that seemed alien to her, coming as it did from within a car. After the ringing, her sister's recorded voice came out of the speakers. "You've reached Carter Randall, I can't pick up." Then silence.
"Carter? It's me. I'm out," Kennedy said to the windshield of the car when Gerry nodded at her.
"Give us a damn call, how about it!" Gerry exclaimed.
Carter Randall. Kennedy had almost forgotten she still went by it. Carter had discarded their surname, Wynn, years ago, like a baby-doll dress. At the height of the media coverage it made sense to all of them for Carter to hide under their mother's name. No one in her family had thought any of this would be permanent. It would right itself like any other record-skip in suburban life, no more serious than a possum in the garage, a quiet separation, or a DUI. Her dad was a lawyer after all. He had told Kennedy all the charges would be dropped. He had told her the defense attorneys were looking into the possibility that the crime was connected to the Colonial Parkway Murders-a string of lovers'-lane murders a few years before that had never been solved. I-64 ran practically past the woods, he'd argued, and these victims were all young people too.
A year after Kennedy went to jail, Carter had brought in a page from SPIN magazine showing Trent Reznor wearing a homemade "Free Kennedy Wynn" shirt during his Richmond concert. It was a rush, and for a minute Kennedy felt free from the not knowing-all the thoughts of Did I do this? But ultimately it only put murder groupies onto her family. People who clipped things from newspapers or, a few years later, found case details online. Those fans dubbed her "Dead Kennedy," just like the kids in high school had done. Carter tried not to tell her about the emails and phone calls that still sometimes made their way through filters. Men wanting to get in touch with Kennedy, others telling Carter, "You'll do," because of their resemblance.
Carter had once been a mathlete and won scholarships to Drama Summer Intensives, but Kennedy had attended more college inside of a prison than Carter had managed to outside of one. She often wondered what Carter might have been without her as a twin.
There was a faint scent of perfume on the collar of the shapeless black dress Carter had chosen for her, which Gerry had brought to the prison. Kennedy wondered if she'd tried it on.
One of Bustle's Most Anticipated Books of November 2020
One of CrimeReads' Most Anticipated Crime Books of Fall 2020
"A taut thriller."--PopSugar
"A perceptive thriller....Schultz delivers an energetic plot fueled by incisive character studies."--Shelf Awareness
“Fans of Tana French, Kimberly Belle, and Orange is the New Black will fall under this book's spell....Terse and tense, Little Threats investigates righteous anger, teenage angst, and the enormity of setting the record straight.”--Booklist
"A masterful slow-boil, with a palpable sense of menace suffusing nearly every scene, it is also a stark and realistic depiction of the traumatic legacy of violent crime and tragedy."--The Toronto Star
"[A] taut psychological thriller...Schultz knows how to keep the reader engrossed."--Publishers Weekly
"[A] gripping character study of an accused girl making sense of her reality."--Kirkus Reviews
“Schultz brings her level gaze and compassionate prose to all these fallible people as they finally unravel the truth, evoking the eras she writes of with intimate knowledge and a cultural depth that will resound with anyone else who lived through them too.”--Criminal Element
"Brilliantly structured and gorgeously written, Little Threats is a captivating mystery about a young woman accused of a brutal murder--one she isn't sure she's committed. It's a story of love and loss, the power of guilt and the savagely delicate fabric of family." --Kimberly McCreight, bestselling author of Reconstructing Amelia and A Good Marriage
"Schultz unfolds her story with masterful precision and restraint, delivering a novel that is pure emotional dynamite.” --Wendy Walker, bestselling author of The Night Before
“Emily Schultz’s Little Threats is a complex, powerful, emotionally wrenching thriller with a deceptively simple premise: what if you agreed to serve 15 years in prison for a murder you have no memory of committing? Intense, twisty, and compelling—once you begin reading, you won’t be able to stop!” – Karen Dionne, author of the #1 internationally bestselling The Marsh King's Daughter
"Emily Schultz's Little Threats is an exquisitely written and thrilling novel about growing up and breaking apart, about the past refusing to loosen its grip on us, and about the impossibility of going back and righting the wrongs that send us spiraling out of control. And, of course, it's a whale of a whodunnit. This is a riveting and powerful novel about friendship and fate, youth and time, and the toll these things take on all of us. Don't miss it!"--David Bell, bestselling author of The Request
"Little Threats hooked me from the first line. A gripping, haunting story about family, memory, and most of all, grief—this book is difficult to put down, and more difficult to stop thinking about." —Rob Hart, author of The Warehouse
"At its heart, Little Threats is a devastating and elegiac novel about teenage friendships, sexuality, drug use, and ultimately betrayal. Emily Schultz is unflinching in revealing the way prison isn't merely a place, but a feeling that can haunt a girl who grew into a woman behind bars. Freedom isn't absolution, and the answers are as painful as the questions in this heart-stopping, powerful story."--Bryn Greenwood, author of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things and The Reckless Oath We Made
"Emily Schultz gives us fierce, if damaged, Kennedy Wynn, a young woman returning home from prison, haunted by a crime for which she maintains her innocence and plagued by a legacy of pain and loss. Schultz has the reader eagerly flipping pages as secrets are revealed, while also pausing to consider Kennedy’s poignant observations about trust and love. It’s a pulsating mystery and a deftly rendered portrait of a family in crisis, where small details, like little threats, enlighten and illuminate."--Lori Lansens