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The First to Lie



Lies have a complicated half-life. Nora—for now—tried to calculate the life span of her most recent one as she waited on the corner of Tremont and Union Park, the evening’s first snowflakes beginning to accumulate on her new—to her—black cashmere coat. Boston was new to her too, with its treacherous weather and confusing streets and wary response to newcomers. They’d warned her, laughing, not to ask for directions. You can’t get there from here, people told her.

Now, after just three weeks as a sales rep, she knew it was true, all of it. But this was the right corner, and Douglas had said he’d lived here for years, so she could rely on him for directions. Geographical, at least. The other directions—those he’d take from her. That was the plan. She could, indeed, get there from here.

Douglas would arrive soon, and he’d be happy to brush the snowflakes from her shoulders, take her someplace private and scotch-infused. She closed her eyes with the rhythm of her process. With keeping her balance. Not crossing a line.

Behind her, a horn beeped. She turned, carefully casual. Nothing. She checked for surveillance cameras: none. A seemingly oblivious passerby pinged her inner alarm, but the guy with the backpack was too focused on his phone to be a threat—someone following her, or watching her. The interior lights came on in a maybe-Volvo parked half a block down the street.

Nora eased, slowly, into the lee of the streetlight, keeping to the shadows. But it was just a mom, or nanny, extricating a baby from a car seat in the back. Nothing about Nora.

“Nora? Ms. Quinn?”

She whirled as the voice came from behind her. So much for her detective skills.

“Douglas,” she said, softening her face into Nora’s face, relaxing her smile into Nora’s welcoming smile, opening her arms like Nora did. Establishing first names. But had she already failed? Douglas might notice her artifice. How she’d first flinched at his voice.

“Did I scare you?” He came toward her, leaned to her, his breath puffing in the early evening chill. “I couldn’t wait to see you. Am I early?”

Yes, you scare me, Nora wanted to tell him. You’re a monster. “Of course not, Doctor,” she said, using his title on purpose, teasing, proving her admiration. She slid her hand through the bend of his elbow to avoid his clumsy attempt to kiss her. She was Nora, she’d be Nora, she had to stay Nora.

A turning headlight grazed his face then slipped past, leaving the memory of paisley and camel hair, of gray at the temples and Ivy League posture. Chin up, shoulders back, privilege confidently in place. Nora tried to match him stride for stride in her ridiculous but necessary suede heels, but she stumbled on a jagged shard of sidewalk.

“Oh!” she cried, suddenly precarious, grabbing his sleeve. A reflex, not a tactic. Her heels, inappropriately but deliberately too high, would be ruined.

“Gotcha.” Douglas caught her, collecting her with a paternal chuckle, preventing her from landing on the cold and gritty concrete below. “Have you already started on wine?”

“No, silly.” Gotcha? Really? Nora ignored his patronizing tone, then pivoted to cash in on her unintentional damsel-in-distress moment. “Oh, no! Look at that!”

She extended her bare leg from under her coat, pointed her toe so daintily, and pretended to pout. Sometimes it was scary, honestly scary, that this came to her so easily. “These poor little shoes are probably the worse for wear.”

“Nice leg,” Douglas said.

You idiot, she thought. Gotcha.

They walked arm in arm toward the hip South End restaurant he’d chosen, Calabria. Nora had scouted it in advance, all dripping ferns and dark wood and sophisticated stained glass and subdued lighting, with high-backed mahogany booths for those who needed privacy, and spotlighted center tables for those who needed to be noticed. Dr. Hawkins has selected a booth, the obliging maître d’ had informed her. Perfect.

She’d met Hawkins earlier this morning in his clinic office, where he’d been flat-out fifty-three minutes late for their appointment. She’d hung her coat on the rack, then kept track of every passing minute, using the calculation to intensify her resolve.

Doctors. So many of them thought they were the important ones. That the women waiting, appointment-bound, fidgeting in hypoallergenic chairs and carefully choosing glossy magazines from the glass-topped coffee table, were merely supplicants. Needy. They should be grateful for the eventual attention, for whatever medications the doctors chose.

As if the doctors could have known about these medications on their own. As if they’d chosen them without the persuasion of a salesperson like Nora. She’d patted her square black briefcase, as if to reassure herself that all her ammunition was still at the ready. Notebooks, pamphlets, dosage instructions. Samples. Those she’d taken from her personal storage unit this morning. Carefully counted, making sure, then locking the unit again. Nora wasn’t the only one with a key. Her new employer, Pharminex, could have their security goons check her supplies anytime they wanted.

The other women in the doctor’s waiting room, leafing through the array of magazines or glued to their phones, some even wearing sunglasses, all needed the good doctor. They’d realized, maybe, with the gasp of mortality or a push from a spouse, that their window of time for having a child of their own, a biological child, was slipping away. Now they waited, some hopeful, yearning, optimistic. Some fearing failure.

A dark-haired prospect, wearing the expensive Uggs and pill-free leggings, wrapped a cashmere shawl closer around her shoulders and flipped at her cell phone screen with a manicured finger. Her feet betrayed her, though, one toe tapping persistently on the thin-piled beige carpeting. A weary blonde, posture sagging and dark circles not hidden even by too-big sunglasses, cocooned on an ivory tweed club chair next to Nora, studying the floor. The zipper of one salt-edged brown boot was not fully closed. Not her first time here, Nora thought. Maybe her last.

Their eyes met in a flash of sisterhood, maybe, or sympathy. She’s probably evaluating me, Nora thought. Good luck with that. It’d be impossible for anyone observing her to reach the correct conclusion.

Was she a possibility? Nora might point out her unzipped boot, maybe segue into the weather, and then see where the conversation went. Strange that infertility clinics like this felt like safe spaces, Nora thought, filled with instant sisters. A sorority no one wanted to be in.

The best way to start a conversation was to find common ground, go from there and see what she could find out. Trying to chat with women, strangers, in doctors’ offices like these, she needed to be careful, subtle, intruding gently on their personal space. Probably easier at a pediatrician’s, where squabbling children and maternal choices might engender instant camaraderie. But easy wasn’t the point. She knew to wait until it felt right. Scout for a possible victim. And then take the first step.

Announced by a gentle ping of the door chime, a new patient arrived in the waiting room, this one bundled in black wool against the lingering March winter, revealing only red lipstick and fatigued eyes. The woman scanned the room and chose a spot on a maroon leather love seat, spaced as far away from each of the others as possible. Aloof, solitary, wary. Not a possibility, Nora decided.

Each woman here, reading, or texting, or simply staring at the soothing butterscotch walls, possessed the same hopes and the same fears.

Except for Nora.

“Could you hand me that magazine?” Nora said to the woman in the boots. “I don’t want to reach over you to the table.”

The woman handed her the outdated Newsweek with a wan smile.

“Oh, dear,” Nora said, flipping the pages. “I’ve read this one.” She chuckled softly. “Guess I’ve been here too often.”

“Once is too often,” the woman said.

“Got that right.” Nora nodded, sympathetic. Commiserating. “It’s so hard, but we just want, I mean, I just…” She let her voice trail off, wistful. “Never mind, sorry to bother.”

“Oh, no, no bother.” The woman shifted in her seat, turned to her, wrapped her cardigan closer. “You okay? You look sad.”

“We all look sad, right?” Nora shrugged. “You can tell the ones who…”

“I know.” The woman pressed her lips together.

“Could I ask—I mean…” Nora looked at the ceiling, then moved closer to her, whispering. “Were you … surprised? At anything? Was it like they said? Or different? I don’t mean to intrude, and I know I’m kind of being inarticulate, but I only—”

“It’s awful,” she said. “My husband is so disappointed, and I am too, but we’re hoping they can—” She closed her eyes, opened them again. “That’s what I’m here to find out. Supposedly. I’m sure it’ll be fine. They can fix anything. I tell myself that. I’ll try anything.”

“They’re supposed to have a miracle drug here,” Nora whispered. “Well, not a miracle drug, I guess. But something that really works.” She paused, deciding how far to push. “Is that why you’re here? Did they say they could help you get pregnant?”

She nodded.

“Did they?”

The woman’s eyes welled.

“Not yet,” she whispered. “And maybe not … ever. But I can’t think about that. I won’t.”

When the white-coated receptionist called her name—“Nora?”—she was so focused on the other woman’s story that it took a moment before it registered, and she remembered Nora was her. The others had lifted their eyes as the receptionist stood, eager. Then they exchanged embarrassed glances, as if to say, Oh, not yet? She’s first? Oh, okay. I’m okay. Nora had acknowledged them all with a sympathetic half smile as she picked up the brass-latched sample bag she’d tucked under her chair. You’ll be fine, she tried to telegraph.

“I am so sorry, that’s me,” Nora said. She should have gotten the woman’s contact information, or even just her name, but there was no time now. Damn. Nora reached into her jacket pocket, pulled out one of her cards. She touched the woman’s arm, a split-second gesture, kept her voice low. Handed her the simple white rectangle, as she’d done several times before with other women like her. “Call me if you want to talk. I’ll be thinking of you.”

“You too,” the woman murmured. “Thank you.”

Douglas Hawkins, MD, had been almost an hour late. Craggy, experienced, congenial. White coat and stethoscope. Since he knew she was a pharmaceutical company salesperson pitching him, he didn’t bother with bedside manner. Nora had been instantly forgiving of his tardiness, brushing aside his perfunctory apologies. Negotiations could be delicate, and it was best to start with sympathy on your side. Points for politeness, her mother had always told her.

“Thank you so much,” Nora had said. “I’m brand new to this and to Boston, so I’m grateful for your time. And truly, I simply want to leave you with some materials about our company’s latest—”

Hawkins didn’t let her finish her sentence.

“Sure,” he said. “I have fifteen minutes. I’ll check my email while you prepare.”

He gestured her to one of the navy-blue upholstered guest chairs across from his desk. Strange, she thought as she took her seat, for a doctor’s office to look more like a lawyer’s or banker’s. Syracuse, Johns Hopkins, Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine—the framed parchment credentials were placed precisely at a visitor’s eye level. Nora set her sample case at her feet and clicked it open. She’d expected the usual exam room, white-walled and glaringly fluorescent. And was relieved she didn’t have to endure one of those again. Maybe this inner sanctum was where he and his patients conferred, where he presented his news, happy or sad. Where there was room for a spouse, if there was one.

“Ready?” Hawkins glanced again at his computer screen, then back at her. Seemed to take her in, her now-auburn chin-length hair, pale green eyes and severe dark suit. She looked like a Nora Quinn; she’d planned it that way.

“Fourteen minutes now.” His tone had changed, now almost amused or welcoming. She noticed his wedding ring, a conservative gold band. “But who’s counting?”

“Thanks.” She pretended to wince, drawing in her shoulders, looking at him with apprehension in her eyes. “Like I said, I’m new, so you probably have a lot more experience than I do in this…” She kept talking, pitching, hardly looking at her detail sheet, careful to portray nothing but business. It fascinated her, the way some men—not all, but some—believed so devoutly in their authority. Forgetting how quickly one can go from king to pawn.

Though Dr. Hawkins was already a pawn. Poor thing. After she started talking, he hadn’t looked at his computer again. Not once. Nora was good at what she did. That’s who “Nora” was.

The glow of the restaurant now beckoned down darkening Appleton Street, coppery lights warm through the dark wood entrance. Douglas reached out to open the restaurant door for her. Nora walked through, and when she turned, she saw he was smiling.

Gotcha, she thought.




Ellie Berensen stopped in the apartment hallway as the elevator doors clanked shut behind her. A woman sat cross-legged on the dark neutral carpeting in front of 3-B, two brown cardboard moving boxes stacked next to her.

Ellie was already exhausted from having battled through the day. And cold, since the snow was getting worse and her navy leather gloves were hip but worthless. Her feet were wet, too, because one of her furry boots had decided to leak. And even though the knit cap covering her hair and ears was drenched, it was warmer to keep it on. Why would anyone choose to live in a bleak and winter-locked place like Boston? Now, lugging her briefcase and shoe bag and longing for redemption in the form of red wine and hot tea and maybe even chocolate, she’d encountered one more barrier between her and apartment 3-A: this woman.

“Are you okay?” Ellie asked.

“Yeah, no,” the woman replied. “Yeah, I’m okay. Thanks.” She saluted with a red Solo cup, then got to her feet, brushing down dusty acid-washed jeans. With her dark hair in a bouncy ponytail, she almost looked fifties-era, with shaggy bangs and sweetly pink lipstick.

Trying to look younger than she was, Ellie assessed, but she figured fortyish, older than Ellie herself. Not city. Not chic. And definitely not scary. But who really knew anyone?

“Truly, thanks,” the woman went on. “Just waiting for my keys. Am I in your way?”

Ellie heard a faint Midwest-or-something accent. “Keys?” Her weary brain finally clicked the pieces into place. Duh. This is why she got the big investigative reporter bucks. “Oh. Are you a new tenant?”

“Yeah, no,” the woman said again. “I mean, yeah, I’m the new tenant—or will be, if the person with my keys ever arrives. You live here?” She held out a hand. “I’m Meg. Meg Weest.” She spelled it. “Weest, with two e’s. A family thing.”

Ellie put down her briefcase, slipped off a glove, shook hands. “Ellie Berensen. And I’m sorry, I’m zonked.” She took a deep breath, let it out. “When’s—whoever—coming to let you in?”

“Ten minutes ago.” Meg took a sip from her cup, gave a weak smile. “Wine, I fear,” she said. “Wine at the end of the tunnel is the only thing that’s gotten me through this crazy day. Most of my stuff is already inside, thank goodness, but Jimmy just went down to…” She tucked a lock of escaped ponytail behind one ear, but it instantly came loose. “Wherever. To get another key. I should have gone inside before he left, but I didn’t. It’ll all be over soon. I’m so tired I’m not thinking straight.”

“That makes two of us.’” Ellie had already unlocked her apartment door, swung it open. “Come in,” she offered, gesturing toward her almost familiar living room. As she flipped on the lights, she quickly assessed whether she’d moved the laundry from the couch or left any unwashed dishes on the coffee table—not that it would matter. Housekeeping wasn’t her biggest worry now, not as long as she had soggy clothes and dripping hair. Blinker padded to the door, her white tail on high alert, and entwined herself through Ellie’s legs and various bags. “Have a seat. You can wait for Jimmy here. Just let me, um, take off this hat. And dump my stuff. Hope you’re okay with the cat.”

By the time Ellie retuned, Blinker was on Meg’s lap, one white-tipped paw extended to touch a tired throw pillow on the humdrum tweedy couch that came with this furnished apartment. Stupid cat barely registered Ellie’s arrival. So much for feline gratitude.

“Sorry to take so long,” Ellie said. “I was soaked through and through, you know? And I needed to rip out my contacts and wash my face. But I see you’ve made a pal.” Ellie gestured at the two of them as she stood in front of the fireplace. She wished it actually worked, making her new place wood-smoky and cozy, but it was only for show. Pretending to be a fireplace. A fauxplace. “Blinker usually disdains newcomers. Except if they hate cats. My boyfriend is semi-allergic, so of course Blink won’t let him out of her sight.” She shrugged. “Cats.”

“Boyfriend?” Meg stroked the cat head to tail as the fickle Blinker stretched to extend the pleasure. Then Meg craned her head to the left as if to look behind Ellie. “Is he here? I don’t want to interrupt—”

“Out of town,” Ellie said. Then regretted it. She hadn’t meant to let that little exaggeration slip, but she was tired. In truth, he had never met Blinker, but he had told her he was allergic to cats. She glanced toward the door, though she understood it was probably rude. “You have a cell phone? Want to call to see what’s up? Or maybe Jimmy-with-the-key texted you?”

Meg stood so quickly Blinker scrambled to the floor and scampered away. “I’m intruding, and it’s so late.” She put her fingertips against her mouth, then tilted her head, apologetic. “Fine way to meet your new neighbor.”

“No, no, all good,” Ellie lied. “Can I offer you more wine? I’m getting some.”

When Ellie returned with two glasses of malbec, Meg was on the couch again but looking at her cell phone. “I’m so ridiculous. He went to return the U-Haul. I never drive, so he did that for me. And he thought I had a key. But it’s fine, it’s late, the hallway is safe—I guess, isn’t it?—and I can wait out there. You’ve already been too kind.”

The opportunistic Blinker was back at Ellie’s feet now. Almost midnight, and Ellie anticipated a big day tomorrow. She was on the verge, she knew it, of a big story. And now there was a stranger in her living room. She couldn’t kick Meg out, but she certainly couldn’t invite her to stay over. That’d be like some story her newsroom would headline: cray-cray stranger comes to town and dupe-woman welcomes her in. Why didn’t she realize? they’d wonder. How clueless could anyone be?

“It’s fine,” Ellie lied again. Tried not to look at her watch. Doomed. As Meg accepted her red wine, Ellie plopped into the armchair by the not-fireplace, its hearth now home to a ceramic bowl of certain-to-die ferns and ivy, a welcome to Boston gift from the station. She’d checked to see if the plants were cat-friendly. “So. Long day. Sounds like we’re both pretty tapped out. Sit. Tell me about yourself. Why’d you move to Boston? Are you working?”

“Broken heart, I suppose, short answer. Family stuff. Looking for a new opportunity.” Meg took a sip of wine, saluted approval with the glass. She set it on the coffee table by her Solo cup. “How about you? What brought you here?”

Ellie stared into her own wine, the fatigue of the day hitting harder now, her eyes burning and the last shred of adrenaline sapped. Every moment of every day was a juggle, remembering who knew what, and whom to tell what, and what to do after that. Being a reporter wasn’t only about digging up information. It was about balancing it. Hoarding it. Using it. About understanding what to let out and what to keep in and who’d be helped by it. And who’d be harmed. Sometimes her brain felt too full, as if there were too many puzzle pieces, some old, some brand-new, and they wouldn’t all fit together. Not in a picture that made sense, anyway.

“Yours is as good an answer as any,” Ellie admitted. “Broken heart. Family stuff. Anyway, now, I’m a reporter at Channel Eleven. The all-new Channel Eleven, I’m instructed to say. Our first day on the air is in three weeks, so until then it’s all prep and promo. I was hired a couple months ago, from a smaller market where I worked for a few years, and then, like many of my fellow worker bees, started at the station three weeks ago. They’ll give me full-time, they say, if the story I’m working on gets the go-ahead. I live on pizza, I’m embarrassed to reveal. Plus the occasional guilt salad. As you said, same old same old.”

Meg laughed, a short little maybe rueful laugh. “We’re quite the team.” She swirled her wine in the stemmed goblet. “Two thirtysomething women who—that’s right, isn’t it? You’re thirtysomething? If I’m not being pushy?”

Ellie nodded. “Thirty-one coming up in April.”

“Me too! Around that, at least. April. So funny.” Meg toasted her. “Here’s to us, the boring sisters.”

Ellie laughed along with her, then Meg looked at the screen of her phone.

“Jimmy. Finally.” Meg chugged the last of her wine. “Thanks, Ellie. You’re very kind. Don’t have to see me out, I’ll be fine. And glad to be in the neighborhood. Thanks for the welcome. My turn next time, okay? I owe you.”

Copyright © 2020 by Hank Phillippi Ryan

The First to Lie
by by Hank Phillippi Ryan