The Good Liar
I was late. That’s why I wasn’t there when it happened.
Not in the building, not even that close.
I lost track of time that morning trying to get the kids organized and out the door. It happens sometimes. I’ll have everything under control and then—poof!—an hour will have gone by and we’ve missed whatever deadline we were supposed to hit. School drop-off, a kid’s birthday party, even an airplane once, despite the fact that we were in the terminal with plenty of time to get to our gate before pushback.
None of those misses ever made a permanent difference in my life. Not that I knew of, anyway. Just consternation and an eye roll from the kids. Mo-om being Mom.
Usually, it seemed beyond my control. I could’ve sworn I’d done everything possible to finish whatever needed to get done for me to arrive on time. That day, though . . . that day, I might’ve been late on purpose.
I can admit that now.
But then, my foot tapped at the sticky floor of the train car as if that might make it go faster. I counted down the stops from ten to one, like I was counting down to a rocket launch. And when the “L” finally pulled into the right station, I pushed past the slow, slow crowd and ran for the stairs.
Like Alice in Wonderland’s White Rabbit, I was late, late, late.
My heart throbbed as I ran up the concrete stairs. That’s probably why I didn’t notice the first tremor or the panicked looks on the faces of the people I sprinted past. I was too focused on getting to my destination. When I was finally outside, I had to stop to catch my breath.
What I saw stopped me from breathing at all.
The building I was trying so desperately to get to was two blocks away. The October sun should’ve been glinting off its glass panels. Instead, they were engulfed in flames. Before I could process what was happening, screams swallowed me. It felt like being caught in that noise at the beginning of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”—that discordant, reverse sound that has a basis in something melodic, and yet not.
I remember only bits and pieces after that.
People running past me, my nose filling with the awful stench of burned plastic, the crushing heat. A feeling like the building was sucking in its breath, pulling me toward it, before it blew apart, the heat slamming into me. The ringing in my ears that reminded me of
the bell on my son’s bike when he was a child. Paper and debris and things I can’t think about raining down around me, burning holes in the belted coat I’d picked out so carefully the night before, back when it felt like it mattered what I wore that day.
Then I lost the thread of time again. It’s probably only minutes I can’t account for, but if you told me it was hours, I’d have no basis to disprove you.
Through it all, I couldn’t move. I was the lamppost more than one person rammed up against. I stood there, stuck, as the fire licked the building clean. And then a man’s hand was in mine, tugging, tugging, and I could finally hear the instructions he was shouting and had the power to obey.
The Good Liar
1 POSTER CHILD
I’m late again.
That’s rarer today than it was a year ago, because now, when I feel the tick of time, my body starts to prickle with an anxiety I can’t shake without medication, and I feel each second pass as if I’m one of the gears in a clock. As a result, more often than not, I’m early, my foot tapping with impatience as I wait for others as they used to wait for me.
After what happened, I can’t believe anymore that being late has no consequence. I’m proof to the contrary. Yet, my changing personality isn’t rationally connected to what happened. I’m alive today because I wasn’t in the building. I wasn’t sitting on the fifteenth floor in
a conference room with a river view, trying to remain calm. Because I was late, I was safe. Close by. Marked, scarred, even, but alive.
Five hundred and thirteen other people weren’t so lucky.
So I don’t want to tempt fate again or rely on not being where I’m supposed to be to save me from my destiny. Like the man who escaped the Twin Towers, only to die in an airplane crash a few years later. Death had plans for that man; it would not be denied.
But despite my efforts, I am late today, my racing pulse reminds me. I check my watch for the twentieth time. It’s only five minutes past when I’m due, not enough to matter, I tell myself, breathing in and out slowly as I’ve been taught to do in these situations.
My pulse slows. It will be all right. Death will give me a reprieve; even it can’t punish me for my lateness today of all days, the day before the first anniversary of my husband’s death.
• • •
“Cecily Grayson?” the receptionist for the Compensation Initiative asks. I try not to notice as every head in the room snaps toward me with a collective so that’s who she is. It would be wrong to notice. Immodest. Selfish. Ungrateful.
I’m not allowed to be any of these things.
Instead, I raise my hand as if I’ve been called on in class, follow the receptionist to my meeting with Teo Jackson, and try not to think about the fact that this building also has a fifteenth floor and I’m on it.
The Initiative said they chose the floor deliberately when they rented the space and announced their intention via press release. They did it to remember—memorialize—the fifteen-floor building that had come crashing down a year ago. Remembering. That’s their purpose, they repeat loudly and often in ads you can’t skip at
the beginning of YouTube videos or those pop-ups that follow you around the Internet like a basset hound.
Remembering’s important, but the Initiative’s real purpose is compensation. Weighing up a life lost and assigning it a value, then paying it out to the victim’s family, changing their lives forever, though they’ve already been changed forever. There’s big money in this, I’ve learned, as the furnishings on this floor attest. I’m surrounded by plush gray carpet, newly painted cream walls, and expensive pieces by up-and-coming Chicago artists hanging under directed lighting. People might leave here millionaires or paupers, but they’ll all be treated to the experience.
As if love or loss has a price. As if being denied access to the funds set aside to ease their way through life after suffering this tragedy can be softened by a glass of ice water with a perfect lemon wedge floating in it.
I push these ungrateful thoughts aside. The Initiative has done a lot of good for a lot of people, myself included. I shouldn’t be so critical.
Teo Jackson’s waiting for me in a boardroom lined with corkboards. They’re covered in multicolored cue cards arranged in columns. Above each one is a white card with one word on it. Street, reads one. Unidentified, reads another.
“Cecily,” Teo says. “Great to see you again.”
Teo rubs at his close-cut beard. His skin is a dark amber, and he’s wearing his trademark gray-blue T-shirt under a well-cut corduroy jacket. Inky jeans. Converse shoes. He’s worn some variation of this outfit every time I’ve seen him. I imagine his closet divided into four neat sections, his day eased by a lack of decisions.
“Why would you even question that?” he asks, smiling with his eyes. I avoid eye contact. Teo’s far too handsome for my current level of self-esteem.
“My therapist says I need to be more . . . definite.”
I wasn’t in therapy before, but it’s the only place I can unburden myself. Now I use the fact that I have a therapist as a measure of someone’s merit—if they flinch or look embarrassed when I mention it, then I know they’re not worth bothering over.
Teo doesn’t flinch or look embarrassed. He does, however, say, “Wait.”
He picks up a pink card, writes Poster Child? on it in thick marker, then tacks it into place beneath the Street column.
“What’s all this?”
“It’s my storyboard. My map of the day.”
He smiles again. It’s the first thing I remember about him, how he smiled and told me it was going to be all right when he had no way of knowing if that was true. But there was something about him that made me want to believe him, and so I did.
“It’s what I do for every film,” he says. “It’s a way to set out the narrative.”
“But it’s a documentary.”
“It still has to tell a story. Have a beginning, middle, and end. A protagonist and an antagonist.” His hand shifts from one column to the next, tapping the cards so they pop. “A hero.”
His hand comes to land on the card he just wrote on.
“I’m not the hero, Teo.”
“Why don’t you let me be the judge of that?”
A year ago, Teo had been scouting locations with his assistant for a commercial he’d agreed to shoot to pay his bills. He was photographing some of the homeless who hang out at Quincy Station when the world turned sideways. He was another person who stood still that day, photographing Chicago as it changed irrevocably, taking a more careful catalog than the crowds who captured what they could on their cell phones. When the fire started to spread up Adams Street, he knew they had to get out of there. But first he decided to take one last shot.
He caught me in a whirlwind of debris with the river glinting in the background. When I look at it now, the image seems staged, like a scene in a movie where the heroine’s been through hell and is waiting for her final showdown with a bad man who’s almost impossible to kill. My clothes are covered in grime, but my face is unmarred, and I’m staring fixedly at the building. If you look closely enough, the fireball it’s become is reflected in my eyes.
He got his shots—click, click, click—and then he grabbed my hand and pulled me to safety.
While we waited in Washington Station like Londoners during the Blitz, Teo uploaded that picture to a website freelance photographers use to sell their photos. It became the shot of the day, the image everyone associated with October tenth, and for the next month, two, three, wherever I went, my own face stared back at me.
Somehow, I’d become the poster child for a tragedy that killed 513 people and injured more than 2,000, including Teo’s assistant, who ended up with second-degree burns on his arms and torso.
I didn’t want the recognition, the notoriety, the fame. When Teo asked for my permission to upload the picture as we waited for the
“all clear” in the station, I didn’t think of the consequences; I just said yes to the man who’d saved my life. By the time I thought to revoke my consent, it was too late. So instead, I’ve tried to pass it off, to play it down, to let it pass me by.
But I’ve learned that you don’t get to choose what becomes an enduring image, even when you’re the subject of it.
A couple of months ago, Teo was hired by the Initiative to make a documentary about what’s become known as Triple Ten, because the explosion occurred at precisely 10:00 a.m. on October tenth. His approach, he told me in the series of e-mails he used to persuade me to participate in his film, is to follow three families a year later.
My family—the Graysons—is the “lucky” family. Though my husband, Tom, was killed instantly in the blast (one hopes, and one will never tell our children otherwise), we were able to recover his body; bury him; and, ostensibly, through the generous support of the Initiative, move on. One of the “unlucky” families—the Rings, who are fighting for their compensation—is the flip side of the coin. And then there’s Franny Maycombe.
But more about her later.
“I’m not sure I want to do this,” I tell Teo as his hand rests on the index card that’s supposed to represent me. His nails are short but neat, in contrast to my own, chewed down by my worry.
“Isn’t it someone else’s turn in the spotlight? We aren’t the only family who’s been compensated. Why not use one of the others?”
I turn from him and catch my reflection in the bank of floor-to-ceiling windows. I’m wearing black slacks and a simple gray sweater. My blond hair’s two months past a cut, but I’ve been told to leave it as is till we finish filming, “For continuity,” Teo’s production assistant
told me. As if a couple of inches of hair could make me unrecognizable from the woman in that photograph. If only.
“I understand how you feel,” Teo says. “But we need you in this film.”
I inch over to the glass, getting as close as I can to see if panic sets in. Another side effect: ever since I missed that meeting, whenever I’m at any height above a few feet, I feel as if I’m standing on a cliff and there’s a hand on my shoulder waiting for an opportune moment to shove me off. And sometimes, even, as if I might jump.
“Why, exactly? And don’t say because I’m the face of this tragedy. Please.”
I touch the pane. It’s cold today, and the glass burns my fingers. I pull my hand away. My fingers have marred its clear surface, which now holds a perfect print of my index and middle finger. If I jumped, floating down like the lazy flakes that have started to fall from the dark clouds gathering above, they’d have something to identify me by.
Teo moves behind me.
“Because you’re the heart of this story, Lily. I can’t imagine telling it without you.”
Lily. It’s what Tom used to call me. Had I told Teo that, or did I just look like a Lily to him? A placid flower floating in a pond, providing a counterpoint to the bullfrogs?
“I’m not the heart of anything,” I say. My voice is wavering, unconvincing.
I need to work on that, too, my therapist says. I shouldn’t live with so much uncertainty, or project it, either.
“I wish you could see what I see,” Teo says, resting his hand on my shoulder.
I lean against it, letting him hold my weight for a moment.
His hand’s gone so suddenly I almost fall.
Maggie is Teo’s production assistant. Twenty-five, slender, and dressed in an outfit my fourteen-year-old daughter, Cassie, would beg me for if she saw it, she looks at Teo territorially, even though, at forty-two, he’s technically old enough to be her father. I wonder, not for the first time, whether something’s going on between them or if he’s just the object of her fantasies.
“Franny Maycombe’s arrived,” she says.
I guess we’re getting to Franny faster than I’d planned.
I catch Teo’s eye and shake my head.
“Can you ask her to wait?” he says. “We’re not quite done here.”
“Of course,” Maggie says. “I’ll let her know.”
“I thought you were close with Franny?” Teo says when Maggie’s out of earshot. “What’s up?”
“I’m just tired. It’s a lot right now with the memorial and everything, and Franny . . .”
“Can be needy?”
“Yes, frankly. Not that I blame her.”
I turn back to the window. Teo lets me take a minute. A beat.
“Are you still okay to do your first interview tomorrow? After the memorial?”
“I suppose you’ll be filming all that, too?”
My eyes meet his in the glass. What does he see when he looks at me? I don’t feel like the woman on the cover of all those magazines.
What’s that song? “Pretty on the Inside.” I used to feel that way. Now . . .
“And after,” I say, “you’ll come to the house?”
I guess there’s nothing left to do but face it.
I nod my agreement. “Is there a back way out of here?”