Sarah Beth Durst

The Book: The Lies Among Us (Lake Union Publishing) tells the story of Hannah and her sister Leah who are left to deal with the painful passing of their mother. Or so we think. As Hannah attempts to navigate the world around her without her mother’s presence, she finds herself completely isolated and alone. No one, not even her older sister, seems to acknowledge her existence, and so Hannah embarks on a journey of her own to make sense of everything. Hannah notices Leah slowly falling into the same webwork of lies that consumed their mother and is desperate to help. But how can she help if her sister doesn’t seem to even notice her? 

The Author: Sarah Beth Durst ’96 graduated from Princeton with a degree in English. She is an award-winning author and has written more than 25 books for kids, teens, and adults. She won the American Library Association Alex Award for her 2016 novel The Queen of Blood. She currently lives in Stony Brook, New York with her family. 



It’s quiet inside my mother’s casket. Also, dark. And it smells of wood and the thick, cloying gardenia perfume she always used to like. I think they doused her body in it to disguise the odor of the chemicals they used to embalm her. Or maybe they knew she would have liked to wear her favorite scent, even now. 

It’s not wide enough for me to lie fully beside Mother, but I am doing the best I can, pressed against the crepe-covered wall of the casket. Her right arm is beneath me, and it almost feels as if she has her arm around me. Almost, but not quite. There’s no warmth from her body. Or softness. She feels no different from the fabric or the wood that surrounds me. As close as I am to her, I have never felt farther away. 

“You weren’t supposed to leave me,” I tell her. “I never left you.” Even when Dad left us, even when Leah went off to college, I didn’t leave Mother’s side, and now that she’s dead . . . I don’t know how to be anywhere else. 

I don’t want to be anywhere else. Even though I know she isn’t truly beside me, that her body is just a body without her to fill it with breath and life, and even though I know I won’t hear her voice again, reverberating through the house as she sings off key to the radio, that I won’t see her eyes crinkle in the corners as she squints to read, that I won’t hear her footfalls, her coughs, her sighs—the thousand little signs that say she’s near and alive and with me—I don’t want to leave her side. 

That’s why I climbed into her casket after the funeral home employees completed their work with the formaldehyde, the wax, and the cosmetics. And that’s why I stayed through the service, through the ride in the hearse, through the unloading and the positioning of the casket on the winch at her grave site. 

I don’t know what else to do. Except to stay. It occurs to me that I don’t have to leave Mother if I don’t want to. It’s the kind of thought that’s backed by so much truth that it shoots through me like a jolt of electricity. It’s not as if there’s anyone who will try to stop me. All I need to do is remain here when they lower the casket into the ground, and eventually . . . this will all be over. 

It will be soon, I think. My sister and her boyfriend, as well as all our mother’s friends and acquaintances, will wend their way from the funeral home to the graveside service any minute now. I listen for the rumble of a car—and there it is, followed by a door slam, then a beep, which repeats as others arrive. Somber and muffled voices approach the grave. 

“I’m so sorry for your loss.” A woman. I don’t recognize her voice. “Thank you.” I do recognize hers. My sister, Leah. She’s loud, which means she must be close to the casket. I hear her greet the mourners and, in a stilted tone that barely sounds like her, thank them for coming. I recognize her boyfriend’s voice too. Jamie. He’s quieter. “Are you okay?” 

She met him in a coffee shop a year ago, she told Mother, and they just clicked. Actual story: she met him in a bar, slept with him, intending a one-night stand, and he stuck around. Mother thinks—thought, I correct myself—he has too many piercings but nice manners. I have no opinion of him whatsoever. 

“If one more person says that Mom was a wonderful woman, I will shiv them.” Leah’s voice is low, but I hear it. She raises it to say, “Thank you so much for coming.” “Your mother . . . was complicated,” Jamie says. “She wasn’t complicated; she was a liar.” I suck in air so hard it sounds like a hiss. Touching Mother’s hand, I am grateful that at least she can’t hear Leah. Mother’s hand feels like it’s made of pliant plastic, but my fingers leave no dent. “What I meant,” Jamie says, “is that it’s okay if you have complicated feelings today.” 

“There’s nothing complex about my feelings,” Leah says. “I’m relieved, I’m angry, and I’m tired. I just want this over and done with.” Louder: “Mrs. Harrington, very kind of you to come.” “Oh, my dear, I’m so sorry for your loss.” There’s the sound of shuffling feet, and Leah’s muffled reply. “I was hoping to meet your sister, Hannah, today,” Mrs. Harrington says. “Your mother always spoke so fondly of both her daughters. She was so proud of you girls. Please share my condolences with her.”

It’s an unexpected touch of kindness, especially since I never particularly liked her. One of our newer neighbors, she often received Mother’s mail, due to a similarity in house numbers, and would bring it over, always opened—by mistake, she’d say—then she’d comment on the size of the credit card bill, with copious amounts of unwanted advice. But now I warm toward her, and for an instant, the pain that I’ve been feeling since Mother died recedes like a wave pulling back from the shore. 

“I don’t have a sister, but thank you,” Leah says. And the grief floods back. I know she feels that way, but it still hurts to hear. “That’s not . . . You know what? Never mind.” “Your mother was a wonderful woman. She will be sorely missed.” There’s a pause, and I wish the lid were open so I could see Leah’s expression. I don’t think she’d attack Mrs. Harrington, but with Leah, one never knows. “She certainly made an impression on everyone she knew,” Leah says. “She won’t be forgotten.” 

For Leah, that’s diplomatic. Leah has always been difficult—Mother’s word. As a toddler, her favorite phrase was I do myself! Later, as a teenager, she used to slam her bedroom door when she didn’t get her way. One morning while Leah was at school, Mother unscrewed the hinges and removed it. She installed a shower curtain instead. Leah moved out for two weeks after that, living with her friends’ families. She even tried to reach out to Dad and only moved back in when that failed. As soon as it was time for college, she was gone. Now, nine years later, she only visits for the obligatory holidays, and she always comes with complaints. 

The more she pulled away, the more I wanted to stay. I only half listen as whoever Leah hired to lead the service mumbles through platitudes and reads passages that have nothing to do with who Mother was or what she would have wanted. Mother would have preferred that everyone meet at an ice cream store, order half-gallon tubs of every flavor, and share them while swapping increasingly outrageous stories about her life. 

Like the time she backpacked through Europe on her own. Or the time she drank the US Olympic swim team under the table. Or the time she climbed halfway up the fake Eiffel Tower in Las Vegas before security chased her off. Or the time she hiked with friends into the Grand Canyon, got separated, and was lost for three days but survived because she was carrying all the trail mix. She never ate trail mix again. 

All her best adventures were from before Leah and I were born. She gave up her “wild ways” for us, she said, and had no regrets. “You never want to live with regrets,” she liked to say, but still, she talked about those days often. Only Leah complained about the inconsistencies in her stories. And Dad, of course. But I loved all her tall tales without reservation. I wish I could hear them one more time. 

“You were 11 years old, and you missed the bus,” I tell her body. “So you ‘borrowed’ your neighbor’s motorbike. You knew how to ride a bike, and you’d watched your father ride the lawn mower, so you thought, How difficult could it be?” She rode it right past the school and didn’t stop until it was out of gas. Outside, the service is concluding, and the casket jerks like an elevator descending. I hear the purr of a motor as Mother’s casket is lowered into the grave. Above, I hear the stream of condolences beginning again. So sorry. Much sympathy. Condolences. And the worst: “She’s gone to a better place.” 

This is not that “better place.” I don’t know if a better place exists, but I know she’s not here, in this box with its fakesilk fabric and mahogany walls. I can’t follow where she has gone. Above me, I hear the plunk of dirt on wood. Someone has thrown the first shovelful of soil on the casket. Another plunk, then another. I think of Leah and wonder whether hers was the first or whether hers will be the last. 

One last splatter of dirt, then voices, then silence. The service is over, and the cemetery workers will wait until all the mourners have left before they use the backhoe to fill in the rest of her grave. And I can’t help but feel like this is futile, being here where Mother isn’t. She won’t know if I stay until I fade into nothingness; she’s already gone. Everyone else has said goodbye, and that means it’s my turn. “I would have stayed by your side for always,” I say to Mother. She does not—cannot—answer. 

Carefully but deliberately, I push myself up through the lid of the casket, melting through the wood as if it weren’t there. It feels less substantial than mist on my skin. Listening to the cars drive off through the cemetery, I climb out of my mother’s grave and beach myself on the trimmed grass beside her family’s gravestone.

I expect to be alone, but when I sit up, I see that Leah and Jamie remain. Their backs are to the open grave, and Jamie has his arm around my sister’s shoulders. He’s speaking softly, murmuring in her ear, and I wish that someone would reassure me or at least tell me what to do now, where to go, who to be. Crossing behind them, I hear Leah say, “Worst part: She can’t ever change now. Can’t get better. Be better. I’m not mourning her, you know? I am mourning the mother I didn’t have, the one she should have been and now can’t ever be.” 

“Makes perfect sense.” He kisses her head through her hair. “Go easy on yourself. It’ll be rough for a while, and that’s okay. That’s how it works.” “Strange to think I’m alone now,” Leah says. “I don’t even have one crappy, slightly problematic uncle or an annoying cousin with lousy hygiene. I’ve got no one.” He wraps his arms fully around her. “Hey, don’t talk like that. You’re not alone.” Behind her, I say, “You have me.” 

A thought, or perhaps a hope, whispers through me: maybe this is it, the answer to where I go and what I do and how I keep from dwindling away. Mother may be gone, but Leah isn’t. I have family, and so does she. “Leah, you have me,” I repeat. Coming closer, I try to squeeze her arm, as if I could force her to look at me and hear what I’m saying to her. As always, my fingers do not dent her skin, no matter how hard I try to hold on. As always, she does not feel me or see me or hear me. As always, to her—to everyone—I do not exist.

Excerpted from The Lies Among Us. Copyright © 2024 by Sarah Beth Durst. Used with permission of the author. All rights reserved. 


"The Lies Among Us is a wonderfully inventive novel, beautifully written, with a cast of characters that is fantastic in every sense of the word. The premise is intriguing, and the story is compelling. It all adds up to a marvelous read!" — Louisa Morgan, author of A Secret History of Witches

"This book is full of lies (and that's exactly why you should read it). The Lies Among Us is an engrossing and wildly inventive story that takes a magic wand to the lies we tell ourselves and each other, and imagines a world in which the line between truth and fiction is a curtain that could be pulled back at any moment." — Ruth Emmie Lang, author of Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstances