The Best Lies
MONDAY // AUGUST 28 // DAY 353 1.
You never know when it’s the last time.
You never think, This is the last time I’ll ever see his smile, shy and full of secrets meant only for me, the last time I’ll ever hold his hand or kiss his face or lose myself in the warmth of his brown eyes.
Jack’s gone now and there was no time to say goodbye. To share one last smile, a final kiss.
I’ll never see him again.
It’s been three hours since I held Jack in my arms and I’ll never hear his voice again, the way he laughed freely, the way he said my name, Remy, whispered like a prayer in the dark.
Three hours since strangers pulled me away from his body, and I’ll never run my fingers through his dark hair, never feel the heat of his touch against my skin.
Three hours since Elise pointed a gun at him, and I’ll never taste his kiss again, breathe in the scent of his peppermint
“We need to come up with a story,” my parents tell me. Something to give the police, something to explain what happened, what I was doing there.
They want me to lie but they won’t say that word, they won’t say lie. My parents, they want to protect me. I can see the fear in their eyes. They fear for me, what might happen to me. But there’s something else too, a different kind of fear.
They’re not just afraid for me, they’re afraid of me.
• • •
Here is the truth.
I was born Katherine Remy Tsai, but everyone calls me Remy. I used to know how my story would turn out, but now I have no idea what tomorrow will look like. I used to know what laughter felt like, but now I can’t imagine smiling ever again.
I live in the north suburbs of Atlanta, in a town called Lyndens Creek. There is no creek, though, none I’ve ever heard of, and I was born here. It used to be farmland, just hills and animals. Now it’s a nice town, with nice people, the kind who could never, ever fire six bullets into someone’s chest.
There are nice schools here, and we went to one of them, Riverside High, known for its terrible football team and soaring SAT scores. The kind of school funded by sprawling golf-course communities where retired lawyers and men of business putter around, and where I fell in love with Jack under a blanket of stars.
Yes. This is a nice place, and I used to be someone who belonged here.
In my bathroom now, I look into the mirror to find a stranger staring back at me. Steam from the running water consumes the bathroom until the glass fogs over and I am suffocating.
The clothes I was wearing only hours ago are stuffed in an evidence bag at the police station. The Superman tee Jack gave me on the first night we met, my favorite pair of jeans, my once-white espadrilles. All ruined.
My body is an afterimage of the damage, a map of dark red told in streaks and smears. Jack’s blood is on my face and in my hair, on my arms and under my fingernails. There was so much, the paramedics had rushed to me, checking for signs of trauma, but they couldn’t see the hole in my heart.
My name is Remy.
I am seventeen years old.
This won’t last forever.
Elise taught me that once as a way to keep myself grounded. These are things I can hold on to. A reminder that how I feel now won’t be how I feel forever.
Standing in the shower, I let the water burn the last of him off my skin, watch the blood swirl down the drain until it runs clear.
But I can’t get clean. Even with every last drop of shampoo and soap gone, I am still scrubbing, until my skin and scalp are raw and angry.
Until the only thing left is a shaking, sobbing girl on the shower floor.
A shaking, sobbing girl who has to face a loss she’s not ready to accept. Part of me knows Jack’s no longer here, but I just don’t
want him to be gone.
They’re arguing again, my parents. It’s the only constant in my life. The sun will break over the horizon in the morning, and like clockwork, my parents will fight.
“What are you doing?” Dad shouts, following Mom as she paces around the living room. The phone is pressed against her face as she shushes him. Her eyes hold nothing but contempt.
“I’m calling a lawyer,” she says, her voice a sharp hiss.
“No one’s awake right now. It’s three in the morning.” He is exasperation and she is anger. These are the roles they’ve played for years.
My brother, Christian, and I sit quietly on the couch, my hair dripping, still wet from the shower. The sound of water hitting leather punctuates their screaming, a steady drumbeat to the crescendo of their anger. We don’t look at each other, we don’t look at them. This is so familiar it’s almost comforting. I can’t handle what’s happened, but this I could manage all day long, the shouting and cutting words, my parents at each other’s throats.
“Hi, hello,” Mom says when someone answers the phone. She shoots Dad a look: See? His mouth flattens into a thin line.
They pick up right where they left off after my mother ends the call. They argue about the lawyer—when will they be here, who is it, where did you even find them. They argue about how tired they are. They argue about what happened.
“Did you know?” Mom asks him.
“Know what, Helena?” Dad says, palm pressed against his
“Where your daughter was. What’s been going on with her. God, Stephen, how useless can you be?”
I am right here but I say nothing. Christian peeks over at me. If he’s concerned, he doesn’t say anything.
I think maybe I’m the one who died, maybe this is my own special version of hell, watching my parents snipe at each other on loop for all eternity. Maybe this is what I deserve.
A knock on the door finally interrupts them half an hour later and they pause when it grows louder. It’s the lawyer.
“I’m Vera Deshpande,” she says once she’s in the living room, eyes searching our tense expressions. “Tell me what happened.”
Everyone looks to me. When it becomes clear I am too wrecked to speak, my parents start up again all at once.
“Her best friend—”
“She shot him—”
“Not Remy. Remy didn’t shoot anyone—”
“That’s what I meant—”
“It was that girl, Elise—”
“It was all her—”
“I don’t even know where she got a gun—”
They’re talking over each other, and I would feel vaguely sorry for Vera if I could feel anything at all. Finally, they catch themselves and pause.
“Where did she get a gun?” Mom asks, and all eyes turn to me again. I study the floor, wish I were invisible, wish I were anywhere but here, anyone but me. “This is serious, Remy,”
Mom continues. “You could go to prison. Do you understand?” Condescension coats her voice, but there’s an edge there too, sharpened by fear. “Someone’s dead.” They don’t say his name. They don’t care about him, and they don’t care about Elise either, even after everything.
And I can’t tell if they really even care about me and what happens to me or if what they really care about is how this will look for them, if their daughter goes to prison. How this will affect my mother’s nomination to the hospital’s board, the promotion my father’s gunning for at Coca-Cola. How it’ll ruin the perfect image they’ve worked so hard to craft. We never talk about it but this is why they’re still together, after all these battle-worn years. It’s not important that their marriage is a failure, what’s important is that no one knows they’ve failed, and so the charade continues no matter the cost.
“Remy, please,” Dad says, eyes pleading with me. “We’re trying to help you. We love you.”
Love, that old excuse. They love me the way they love the Mercedes in the garage, the way they love an expensive timepiece on their wrists. They love me only for what I could be to them. I am to be seen but not heard, to be had but not understood. Love is the weapon they wield when it suits them, the justification for everything they do.
“Remy,” Dad tries again.
“Don’t be stupid,” Mom says, cutting him off. “Tell us everything.”
I hug my knees in and hide my face. It’s a reflex to ball up, shield myself from the world when it’s all too much. Part of me knows they’re right to panic. I have no idea what’ll happen to me, and underneath the shock and grief, I’m terrified too.
“Remy,” Mom says, her voice like a slap to the face. “This is not the time to play the sullen teenager.” She always knows exactly what to say to get a rise out of me.
“I’m not playing. This isn’t a game,” I say, head still buried, hidden behind my legs. “Jack’s dead.”
Words that I haven’t allowed myself to even think now hang in the air. He’s really gone.
“Yes. And I know you’re sad,” Mom tries again. “But—”
“Sad?” I can’t believe her. She’s always been like this. Cold, uncaring. I used to think maybe she had to cut off her emotions because she’s a surgeon, but now I think maybe she never had any to begin with and that was precisely why she was such a good surgeon.
She pushes on. “But you have to think about yourself at this point. There’s nothing you can do for him now. And do you think Jack would want you to—”
“Is that what you think when someone dies on the table? That there’s nothing you can do for them now?” I am screaming, struggling to contain myself. “You would. You don’t give a shit about anyone but yourself.” I release my legs and grip the couch seats, knuckles white. I start to cry and it’s a capitulation. I’ve lost.
“Yes,” she says without flinching. “That’s exactly what I do. I have to. Because the next person I operate on deserves my best. You can’t just crawl into bed and shut out the world.” She’s right about one thing—all I want to do is crawl into bed and shut everything out. All I want to do is sink into my pain, let it drown me. “You have to think about what’s in front of you.”
“Well, of course, that’s you. You’re perfect. A machine. How can any of us ever measure up? No one was ever good enough for
you. Not Dad, not me—” This is an old argument, these are all words I’ve flung at her before. It’s a strange comfort, being back here with her. Surreal but almost normal. The boy I love is dead and it feels like the world is closing in on me, but here we are sparring like always.
“I do what I do to survive.” Her voice has turned deadly quiet and it’s more terrifying than when she’s screaming at the top of her lungs. “I have to make hard decisions every single day. Life-or-death decisions. All you have to do is go to school, get good grades, avoid getting caught up in a murder investigation. How do you fuck that up?”
Christian’s eyes are wide, but I know he won’t step in on my behalf. He can barely look at me, eyes down on his phone. Maybe he thinks I’m hopeless, stupid, a lost cause—the way Mom sees me. Maybe he thinks I’m something worse, a monster, and he can’t stand to be in the same room as me.
“Helena,” Dad says.
Before this escalates any further, Vera cuts in. “Why don’t I talk to Remy alone,” she says. We all stare at her blankly. We’d forgotten she was there. “Let’s go for a drive.”
In her car, she doesn’t say anything when I lower the window and light a cigarette, doesn’t tell me to put it out or ask me if I’m old enough to have them. My hand shakes as I smoke, my entire body unsteady. It hurts to breathe. It hurts to exist.
“They’re just worried,” Vera says about my parents as she starts her car. We can still hear them from the driveway, their words faint but heated.
“No, that’s pretty much how they always are,” I say, my voice flat. I am on the edge of falling asleep but I am also wide-awake. I
feel dizzy, spinning between the two states.
Vera doesn’t respond, pulling out of our driveway. It’s almost four in the morning and we’re the only car on the road. The world seems both dead and infinite. We have four hours, five tops, before we’re due at the police station. Elise was held for questioning, but they released me into the custody of my parents. I was covered in blood, I wasn’t the shooter, so they allowed me to return for questioning in the morning.
“So, Remy, why don’t I explain what we can expect this morning when we go in?”
Somewhere in the back of my mind I remember that today is Monday. I have a physics test I didn’t study for, on classical mechanics, the laws of gravity and motion—the laws that govern how the stars in a galaxy move and how a gun discharges.
“They’ll start by reading you your juvenile Miranda rights.” Vera briefly recites the lines that remind me of crime shows on TV, and I can’t believe this is real life. “Then someone will take your statement,” she continues. “A detective, usually, but possibly a police officer. It’s important to remain calm. First impressions do matter.”
Her voice comes in and out of focus as I smoke and stare at the streetlights that glide past us. The air is cool on my face and the tears fall freely. I am wrung dry, inside and out, incapable of feeling anything and overwhelmed all at once. My mind has shut down in self-preservation. I feel nothing but still the tears come.
“Tell me what happened. All of it. Don’t leave anything out. I’m on your side,” she says. “What you say to me stays in this car. But you have to tell me everything.”
I don’t answer.
“Remy?” Vera says, her voice a soothing balm. I turn to face her. She looks tired but her thick, dark hair is pinned into a knot and her blouse is free of wrinkles, lipstick perfect. I wonder where my mother found her, why she picked up the phone at three in the morning, why she’s here with me instead of in bed. “I know we just met but I need you to trust me. I need you to help me help you. I need you to tell me what happened.”
“Okay,” I finally say, swallowing. I wonder where Elise is now. If they took her to the police station, if she’s at the Pink Mansion, all alone, if anyone’s called a lawyer for her too. If anyone’s looking out for her. I’m scared for her, I realize. I’m scared for both of us.
“And don’t lie,” Vera says. “I need to be prepared. The truth always comes out with these things.”
At the heart of every good lie is the truth, that’s what Elise told me once. The best lies are at least half-true, she said, like it’s just a matter of mixing paint, two different colors swirling together until no one can tell where the truth ends and the lie begins, a new color emerging.
When the police pulled me away from Jack’s body, they sat me at the back of an ambulance, wrapped a blanket around my shoulders, and asked me what happened. I don’t know, I said. They didn’t believe me, but I wasn’t lying.
The answer the police are looking for does not contain multitudes, the answer they want leaves no room for interpretation. They want cold, hard facts where none exist. Everyone does, Vera included.
Yes, it’s a fact that late Sunday night Elise, Jack, and I were at her house, known to most in the area as the Pink Mansion, named
for its blush painted exterior and its massive grounds. It’s a fact that Elise, with her grandfather’s revolver, shot and killed Jack. It’s a fact that I called 9-1-1, kneeled by his side crying as I held him in my arms, as if I could keep him there if I only held on hard enough.
These facts tell a story, but not the whole story—the real story.
Trauma has a gravity of its own, powerful enough to distort everything that came before and everything that comes after. Each wound a landmark on the road of your life. Each wound a signpost marking an end, a door slammed shut, forever closed to the person you could’ve been, the life you could’ve had if only, if only—
But then there is the first one, the very first trauma, and isn’t that where everyone’s story begins?
• • •
For Elise, it began eleven years ago, at the age of six, when her mother packed her bags at Christmastime and left. Elise didn’t see her again until seven years later, at her funeral. She was gone forever, no calls, no emails or letters, and then she died on impact when her car hit a highway median at ninety miles per hour. Elise was only thirteen.
The night her mother left, never to be seen again, was the night Elise discovered that the person who was supposed to love her best in the world was capable of driving away without ever looking back, excising Elise out of her life like a tumor.
For me, it was a voicemail. I was four, maybe five, hiding with Christian in his closet. We’d been watching TV when it began—low, irate voices turned into loud, angry yelling. Christian took me by the wrist and we went upstairs, closed his bedroom door, and sat on the floor, leaning against the foot of his bed to wait out the storm. Eventually, we ended up in his closet, comforted by the small, dark
space, the softness of his clothes piled around us like blankets. Outside, the hurricane raged, but in there, we were sheltered.
Despite the cold, clammy fear that ran through me, I managed to fall asleep, waking only when the house settled into an eerie silence. I tried to leave, thinking it was all over, but Christian tugged on my sleeve and shook his head.
I had to go to the bathroom but I sat back down, hugging my knees in tight. Then I heard her voice downstairs, so far away but all too close, my mother: “It’s me. Pick up the fucking phone, dammit. It must be nice being you. It must be nice to go on business trips and sleep with other people’s wives. It must be nice to just leave whenever you want. Leave me with the children. You know, I used to watch all those pathetic mothers on TV, the ones who were in orange jumpsuits because they’d drowned the kids in the pool and I used to think, Who the fuck does that? And now I think I know. Now I understand. Their husbands were off fucking other women.”
Over the years I grew familiar with the types of voicemails Mom left for Dad, designed to get his attention, to get him to come home. But back then, I didn’t know any of that.
Back then, I only knew that I wasn’t safe, that the person who was supposed to love me best in the world spoke of destroying me like it meant nothing at all.
It was my first memory, and in some ways, my beginning, the first brick in a long road that’s led me here.
I’m as alone now as I was then.
We are driving aimlessly through the area and I’m not sure where we are or how we got here. Everything is a blur in the dark. Vera’s car has a moonroof and I stare up at the sky but all the stars are gone tonight, tucked behind a thick blanket of clouds. There’s electricity in the air, it’s going to rain soon.
“Remy?” Vera asks, bringing me back.
“I don’t know. I don’t really remember what happened,” I say, and that is the truth. It was all only hours ago but the night comes in and out of focus. Brightly lit, then shrouded in darkness.
“I wasn’t there,” I tell Vera, and that is also the truth. Snapshots of the night dance in my mind, a broken record on repeat. Little moments shuffling and reshuffling themselves, everything chaotic, tangled.
I close my eyes and I can still hear the gunshots ringing in my ears but they sound muffled, far away. I remember Jack at the front door of the Pink Mansion, saying, “Maybe it’s better if I talk to her alone.” Blink. Elise is out on the balcony and I’m sitting on the stairs and we are not speaking. Blink. Elise puts a comforting hand on my shoulder, saying, “Everything’s going to be okay, Remy.” She says something else, but it’s too quiet, just out of reach. It’s all jumbled, out of order, and I feel disoriented. I’ve been awake for over twenty-four hours, I realize, shaking my head hard. No, it’s been longer, thirty hours, forty maybe.
“Which is it?” Vera says, frowning. “You don’t remember, or you weren’t there?” The rain begins to fall softly, little sprinkles from the sky. Tossing my cigarette out before I close the window, I look up through the moonroof and watch as rain hits the glass, as it obscures everything.
“I wasn’t there when it happened.”
“When did you arrive? After he’d been shot?” Vera’s voice is detached, clinical. She could be ordering a turkey sandwich, not asking about a fatal shooting.
“No.” I have to focus. I will my mind to focus. I feel untethered, swept into a storm of uncertain memories. I need the truth. I need something to hold on to. I try to rub the sleep from my eyes, and finally, the moments stop shuffling.
• • •
Here, again, is the truth.
We were arguing, the three of us, about the pranks. It always goes back to Elise’s pranks.
At that point, Jack and Elise were no longer pretending to be friends, not even for my sake. They couldn’t even stand in the same room without setting off an explosion. She was gunpowder and he, a lit match.
I acted as an intermediary, defending one to the other, keeping them apart. If you’d asked me Sunday morning, not twenty-four hours ago, I would’ve told you it was just a rough patch. A spat, a series of misunderstandings.
“It was harmless,” I told Jack over the phone on my way to Elise’s house.
“You know it wasn’t, Remy. It never is,” he said, and I could just picture him shaking his head sadly.
“No one got hurt.”
“That’s not the point, and you know that,” he said, sighing.
“It was an accident.” It was. “Fireworks can be dangerous.”
“Exactly,” he said. “They’re dangerous. And she knew that.”
Silence stretched tight between us.
“I’ll talk to her.”
“I have to go,” I said, ending the call.
Elise was outside when I arrived at the Pink Mansion. “Did you talk to Jack?” she asked.
“I did.” We entered the foyer and I slipped my espadrilles off by the door.
“What’d he say?”
“He hasn’t changed his mind,” I said, not meeting her eyes. “But he will. I’ll explain and—” It was all just a big misunderstanding, I thought. If I could just get them to listen to each other.
“You told him it was an accident?”
“I did.” We walked out onto the balcony, the air thick with humidity and still warm from the day.
“Why did you even tell him?” she snapped at me. “If you’d only—” She saw the surprise hurt on my face and exhaled in frustration.
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
She looked out at the water below. It’d been raining a lot recently, leaving the river swollen, its violent current a symphony filling the air.
“You’ve put me in an impossible position,” she said.
• • •
At a stoplight, Vera glances over at me. My fingers play with the lighter Elise gave me for my birthday, flipping the top open and closed. Heavy in my hand, the metal feels warm to the touch, and I am itching for another cigarette.
“I was there first and it was just me and her.”
“You and Elise,” Vera confirms.
“Yes.” Elise had put her hand on my shoulder, told me everything
would be okay. “We got into an argument. Over something stupid.”
“Something stupid?” she asks, studying me.
I nod slowly. “I don’t even remember what it was,” I say, but I do. The last prank, our big finale the night before. What happened after we split from the group. What we did when it was just the two of us. But I don’t want to tell Vera about it.
She accepts my answer, at least for now. “And then?”
Then Elise went out to the balcony alone, staring down at the river below. I sat by the front door, at the foot of the staircase. We were fighting, too angry to speak.
“When Jack came, I let him in. He told me to go home, that he’d talk to her. So I left.” He’d kissed me on the forehead, his hand lingering in my hair before he let go.
“Elise was out on the balcony. Maybe the door was closed and she didn’t hear him come in, and when she came back inside—” I break off, choking on a sob, the tears coming hard and fast. My eyes ache and burn, swollen and sore from the never-ending tears.
Vera pulls over to offer me tissues and turns on her yield signal even though no one else is around or awake for miles. She doesn’t put a hand on my shoulder or squeeze my elbow. She doesn’t touch me, and I’m grateful. The drizzle outside begins to slow, so she cracks open the windows and the cool air helps.
“He must’ve startled her,” I say. “I’d just turned on my car when I heard the gunshots.” It happened so quickly. All within the span of a minute or two. I rushed out, leaving the car door open, my keys still in the ignition.
Vera stares at the road ahead. She’s not taking notes but I can see the wheels turning in her mind, taking the words I say, the threads I spin, and spooling them together tight.
“So it was an accident,” she says finally, but she doesn’t sound convinced.
“That’s what must’ve happened.” I nod immediately, lighting another cigarette with a shaky hand. I wasn’t there. I didn’t see it. But this is the only explanation I have, the only one that makes any sense. She has to believe me, she has to.
It was a horrible, tragic accident.
“So your friend had a gun on her in the house.”
“If you knew her story, you’d understand why she had that gun.” I try to steady my voice, sound confident when I feel like I might crumble.
“And you just let him in and left without saying anything to Elise. You’re not leaving anything out? You’re telling me everything?” She sounds like she doesn’t believe me, sending doubt straight to my heart.
“I am,” I insist. “That’s the whole story. That’s how it happened.” That’s how it must have happened. That much I know.
She looks like she’s about to challenge me again, but instead she returns to an earlier question. “You said you were arguing. What about?”
The last prank. Or maybe it was really about all of them. Everything always leads back to those stupid, stupid pranks.