The Good Liar, p.28Catherine McKenzie
TJ: But instead, he died?
CG: And you took my picture, and all of a sudden I was this person, this “widow,” this symbol. And there was the money.
TJ: What about the money?
CG: If the divorce were final, I never would’ve gotten any money. But it wasn’t. Tom and I were in financial trouble. We were going to have to sell the house and move into separate apartments, and even then it would’ve been a stretch, even with my going back to work. And I couldn’t use the money the kids got to clean up my problems. That went into a trust for them until they’re twenty-one. So I didn’t tell anyone. I took the money when I didn’t deserve it. I’m a complete fraud.
TJ: But you were still married.
CG: Technically, by a matter of inches. But I didn’t want to be. I didn’t want anything to do with him. But everything I have, any security I have, is because he died. And this image people have of me, it’s false, a lie. I always say how much I hate it, but I’ve gone along with all of it. The attention, the press. I told myself it was a way to make it up, to be the person people wanted me to be. But I think I enjoyed the attention, deep down. I liked the perks. I’m a terrible person.
TJ: I don’t think so.
CG: You’re not the most objective audience.
TJ: That might be true, but you did do all the things people asked you to. You helped people. You had to take care of your family, your kids, their future. You were doing what you needed to survive.
CG: Is that the story you’re going to tell now? With this footage?
TJ: I’m not sure. I’ll see how it plays out in the editing room.
CG: You should leave me on the cutting room floor. Or make me into the villain. There’s a good twist for you; the Poster Child actually belongs on a Most Wanted poster.
TJ: I don’t think you did anything illegal.
CG: Only morally bankrupt. Added to that, I wanted this to happen.
CG: For Tom to die. I wanted Tom to die.
TJ: But you’re not responsible for the explosion.
CG: I know that objectively. But . . . my therapist doesn’t like it when I say this, but sometimes it feels like I willed the explosion to happen. Sometimes I wonder if I was late that day because I was saving myself.
TJ: Maybe you were saving yourself.
TJ: You were reluctant to end your marriage. Maybe that’s why you were late. Maybe you wanted to save things with him after all.
CG: I never thought of it like that. I was late that day because I didn’t want to get divorced.
TJ: How does that sound? True?
CG: It feels like it might be true.
TJ: So you are a widow.
CG: I am a widow.
TJ: You deserved the money.
CG: Are you trying to hypnotize me? Getting me to repeat after you?
TJ: I don’t think so.
CG: I deserved the money. Maybe, maybe that’s right.
TJ: Thank you for telling me this, Cecily.
CG: What do you think’s going to happen now?
TJ: I don’t know the future. I only curate the past.
When I get home, Cassie and Henry are making dinner.
“What’s all this?”
“Cassie’s making me cook.”
“God, Henry. Am not.”
“I’m in the kitchen, aren’t I?”
“It was your idea, dummy.”
“Kids, kids. Please. It’s been a long day. What’s on the menu?”
“Spaghetti and meat sauce.”
Cassie smiles at this. “Henry’s making his garlic bread, too. And I made a Caesar salad.”
“What did I do to end up with such wonderful children?” I sit at the kitchen counter and watch them work. Cassie takes a bottle of wine out of the fridge and pours me a glass. “Is there a dead body in the garage or something?”
“Mom! Why would you say that?”
“I feel like I’m being buttered up for something.”
“Can’t we just do something nice for you sometimes?”
I take a sip of wine. It reminds me of Kaitlyn, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Or not only a bad thing. It’s confusing. “Of course you can. I’m just naturally suspicious, I guess.”
“Humph,” Cassie says. “How did it go today?”
“Not as expected.”
“What does that mean?”
I hesitate, but I can see Cassie winding up to give me her you-said-no-more-lies speech, so I tell them that we told Joshua that Franny isn’t who she says she is as the kitchen starts to fill with the wonderful smell of garlic bread. Henry seems nonplussed—all of this is very much grown-up stuff and he still sometimes wears footie pajamas—but Cassie looks upset.
“We need to talk to Uncle Joshua. Tell him he’s making a big mistake.”
“It’s his mistake to make.”
“But what about the girls?”
“He’s their father. He’ll always protect them.”
She seems unconvinced. She looks so much older, standing there in her apron, stirring the sauce. I feel like a kid, sitting on the other side of the counter, waiting for my dinner, but there’s a peace to it, too. We did this. I did this—survived the year, kept my family intact, and myself. It feels like all this has finally chased my anxiety away. I can feel its absence more than anything, and this makes me hopeful. Maybe it will leave forever, like Tom, only a memory. If not, then I can handle it. I’ve survived the worst of it. I can survive any aftershocks that come my way.
“I feel so bad for those girls,” Cassie says. “To have to live with Franny?”
“Let the dust settle. I have a feeling Joshua will come to his senses.”
“I hope so. So what now, Aunt Kaitlyn just leaves, and no one knows she’s alive?”
“Are you okay with that? Both of you? It’s not fair of me to ask you to keep this secret if you don’t want to.”
Cassie puts an entire package of spaghetti into a pot of boiling water with a pinch of salt. “I think we should keep it. Some things are better as secrets. People can be hurt by the truth.”
“I agree. But not between us.”
“There are some things I’m not going to tell you.”
“I know. But nothing important, okay?”
I know she’s appeasing me, but I decide to lean into that. I’ve faced enough harsh truths in the last little while.
“What about you, Henry? Do you want to tell about Kaitlyn?”
He opens the oven to check on his bread. “I don’t think so.”
“It’s a big secret to keep.”
He puts the loaf in front of me. It takes an act of will not to rip open the tinfoil and down the entire thing. I didn’t eat much today, and it’s catching up to me.
“It’s like what Cassie said. The truth would hurt Emily and Julia, and Uncle Josh, too. And she’s not coming back, right? She’s leaving.”
“I say we don’t tell.”
“But what if they were you? What if Dad was alive, but he’d run away from us? Would you want to know?”
He shifts back and forth on his feet, maybe trying not to cry. “That would be an awful thing for Dad to do.”
“I don’t think I’d want to know. But he didn’t do that, right, Mom? He’s dead.”
“Yes, honey. I’m sorry.”
“Okay. I just wanted to make sure.”
He opens the foil, and a head of steam billows out.
“That smells amazing. Let’s eat.”
Cassie looks at the clock. “We’re waiting for one more person.”
“That’s me,” Teo says, walking into the kitchen.
“What are you doin
“Surprise!” the kids say together. “We invited him!”
“How did you get in?”
“I left the front door unlocked,” Cassie says. She walks over to me and gives me a hug. “Be happy, Mom.”
My throat tightens. “I’m happy.”
“Be happier, then.” She pulls away. “Time for dinner. Everyone sit down.”
I can’t help but smile at my bossy daughter, doing her best impression of me. I pick up my wineglass and walk into the living room.
“If you want me to go, I will.”
“I don’t want you to go.”
He brushes my cheek with his lips, then pulls away as Cassie and Henry carry the food into the dining room. We gather around the table. Instead of sitting in Tom’s place, Teo pulls a chair around to Henry’s side, winking at me as he sits down.
“Should we give some gratitude?” Cassie asks.
“Good idea. Hands, everyone.”
I reach out and take each of my children’s hands. Henry holds Teo’s, and Cassie reaches across the table to take his other hand.
“I’m grateful I didn’t get grounded when I snuck out of the house the other night,” Cassie says.
“What?” Henry says. “Aw, Mom, that’s not fair.”
“Hush, Henry. Your turn.”
“I’m grateful Mom is buying me the new Dead Space 3.”
“Not a chance, kid.”
“I’m grateful to be here, among friends, eating good food,” Teo says.
“You haven’t tasted it yet.”
“I’m grateful for all of you. Even for the surprise dinner guest.”
“Let’s eat,” Henry says.
Cassie starts dishing out the pasta, and Henry passes the garlic bread. I look around the room at these people I love, or hope to love. They are so much more important than the things I filled this house with. They’re what I carry with me everywhere, no matter where we might end up. I have these things because I wasn’t in the building that day.
I wasn’t in the building that day because I was late.
Whether it was the universe looking out for me or just a happenstance of my personality, I’m most grateful for that of all.
When Kaitlyn left her hiding place, running away from Cecily, she knew what she had to do. It was a big risk, but she had no other choice.
She pulled out her phone, the one she’d bought in Montreal, and sent a message to an address she couldn’t forget. Then she went to wait.
She picked a seedy bar near the bus station. A bar no one she knew would dare to be seen in. It had been the scene of at least three shootings last time Kaitlyn checked. The bouncer gave her the eye when she walked in, questioning her choice of drinking establishment. She was the only woman in the place besides the waitresses and the prostitute sitting at the bar.
She ordered a beer and took a table facing the door. The table was littered with peanut shells and stale popcorn. A small part of her wondered if this was where she’d be caught. If she’d miscalculated, and the front door would bang open to reveal the police. Full of noise and threats to stay down! But she was sure she’d judged properly. As she told Cecily, she knew Franny, Eileen, whoever she was.
After she’d changed her e-mail, there’d been radio silence for years. In that time, Kaitlyn had pieced her life back together. She’d had Julia, gone through another round of postpartum, become friends with Cecily. She’d let her guard down was what she’d done. So much so that when she’d gone back to work, she hadn’t even thought about the fact that Eileen might find her. That she should ask to be left off the company website.
That had been a mistake. A month after she started working at Tom’s company, Eileen had contacted Kaitlyn on her work e-mail. She called herself Franny, but Kaitlyn knew exactly who she was. It was like being caught in that movie Groundhog Day. Everyone else, including Franny, seemed to have amnesia. No one even noticed the feedback loop. Only Kaitlyn knew what was going on. That she’d been through all this before.
At first Kaitlyn wondered if Franny was playing a prank. There was probably some slang she hadn’t learned that described what it was. “Catfishing” or “cyberstalking” or something like that. Kaitlyn told Franny she knew who she was and that they’d been through this. Stop writing me. But Franny persisted. They were two ships passing in the night. Kaitlyn would write something like: I’m not your mother. Stop writing me. And Franny would respond with: I’ve missed you so much, too. I can’t wait for us to meet in person.
It was infuriating. She tried blocking Franny’s e-mail, but she’d just opened another account and written her again. She tried not answering, but then Franny’s tone turned threatening. She couldn’t wait to meet her stepfather and sisters, she said. Then she’d name some location the family had all been to the week before as a good meeting place. In a desperate moment, Kaitlyn even called the police, but the bored dispatcher didn’t give her much hope of relief. She took Kaitlyn’s details down and said a detective would call. But when he did, weeks later, and Kaitlyn described what was going on, he said there wasn’t much they could do. If this woman hadn’t made any threats, she’d be better off just ignoring her until she went away.
So Kaitlyn did what he said. When a new e-mail from Franny came in, she deleted it without reading it. She never answered. She didn’t even block her because that might be seen as some point of connection, a conversation.
In the weeks before October tenth, Kaitlyn had a lot on her mind. Mostly to do with Cecily and Tom, and the fact that they were getting divorced. Cecily was torn up about it, but Kaitlyn thought only of the relief it might bring. Maybe she should get divorced, too. Not to marry Tom, that wasn’t what she wanted. But to make some major changes in her life. To come clean with someone, herself, at least. And the thought of having some time to herself, the weeks when Joshua would have the girls . . . That was appealing. Too appealing. She began to fantasize about it as she used to do about Tom’s messages.
She’d sat at her desk that morning waiting, waiting. Knowing the meeting between Tom and Cecily was going to begin at ten a few floors above her. Then the e-mails started. Constant, relentless. She wanted it to stop. She’d gotten up from her desk and almost run to the elevator. She barely remembered the ride down, the exit into the lobby. Then the explosion. Then she was out in the street, running again. She’d been running ever since.
Franny entered the bar, a scarf tied around her head and big glasses over her eyes. Kaitlyn cursed to herself. Always the drama queen, needing attention wherever she went. Franny was the one who was going to get them caught. She should’ve met her in the park and brained her with a rock. And good riddance.
The violence of this thought surprised her. She wondered if she could pull it off. But that would be too easy for Franny. She hit a button on her phone and turned it over so it was facedown on the table as Franny sat.
“I can’t believe this,” Franny said. “You’re alive.”
“But why, Mom? How?”
“Stop calling me that.”
Kaitlyn knew she shouldn’t let Franny get to her, but she couldn’t help it.
“You said I could call you that.”
“I never . . . Never mind. Thank you for coming.”
“I can’t believe it. You’re here. We’re going to be together.”
“This is so great. It’s what I’ve always wanted.”
“What about Joshua?”
“What about him?”
“If I’m alive, you can’t marry him.”
A smile crossed Franny’s face that Kaitlyn could only describe as creepy. “That’ll work out. Joshua’s such a sweetie.”
“That’s not a nice thing to say.”
“The explosion. I can’t work it out.”
The smile dropped from Franny’s face. She looked around her. She seemed scared.
“No one’s here,” Kaitlyn said. “It’s just you and me. How’d you do it?”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“Oh, come on. October tenth at 10:00 a.m.? October tenth is your birthday, and you used to write me at 10:00 a.m. every day. I should’ve seen it right away, but I had my own . . . I was distracted. I know you did it. I just want to know how.”
“Don’t you want to know why?”
“I’ve got the why. It’s me. Some form of punishment because you felt rejected.”
“You did reject me. Over and over again, my whole life.”
“For the last time, Franny, or Eileen, or whoever the hell you are, I’m not your mother.”
“You are. I had a DNA test done.”
“No, you didn’t. I never gave you my DNA.”
“Yes you did.”
Kaitlyn was back in the terrible merry-go-round. What was there to say to this girl?
“Okay, fine. So I took a glass you left at a restaurant, okay? So what. It’s the results that count.”
“You kept lying and lying. What choice did I have? You’re my mother.”
Kaitlyn closed her eyes. When had she lost control of this conversation? This wasn’t going to work. Threats never worked with Franny. She knew. She’d tried. There was only one choice.
She opened her eyes and did her best to smile.
“Okay, Franny. You win.”
“You admit it? You admit you’re my mother.”
“Why are you admitting this now? After all this time?”
“Because I’m tired. I’m tired of denying it. Of running.”
Franny started to cry. “I can’t believe it. It’s happening, it’s finally happening.”
Kaitlyn reached across the table. She felt sick to her stomach as she stroked the back of Franny’s hand.
“I’m sorry I lied to you.”
The Good Liar by Catherine McKenzie / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes