- Published: 20 October 2020
- ISBN: 9780241432525
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 368
- RRP: $32.99
One White Lie
The bestselling, gripping psychological thriller with a twist you won't see coming
People have all sorts of ideas about what they’d do if it happened to them.
They’d tell their friends. They’d make that call. They’d leave. They certainly wouldn’t continue on like normal, banging out personal essays or temping at whatever online mag needed a freelance editor for the day. They’d tell their family (assuming they still had family in their lives to tell), they’d keep themselves busy (pottery class! political campaigns! yoga!). They’d heal, and they’d move on, and they’d rebuild their lives.
That’s what I’d always thought, too.
The exit for Woodstock, New York, came into view, my eyes flitting nervously to the rearview mirror as I quickly pulled off the ramp. Suddenly, I was in the country, pastures and horses, run-down schoolhouses, abandoned barns, and bucolic churches sprinkled over the landscape: Rural Mad Libs. I found Shadow Creek Road at the end of a particularly snakelike stretch. I turned, so eager to get out of the car and get to step two of this plan that I hardly slowed at all . . .
I slammed on the brakes as the deer froze, staring me down.
My body lurched forward; Dusty yelped as he thunked against the side of his crate. My blood pumped heavy and fast, flushing me with heat. I struggled to catch my breath as the doe’s eyes flashed at mine. What are you doing? What in God’s name do you think you’re doing? She pranced away, the heft of her body disappearing into the tall grasses of the meadow, as quickly as she’d come.
My throat burned hot, acid rising, and I rammed the car into park. I jumped out and rushed to the passenger side, whipping open the back door. “You okay, buddy?” I asked. Dusty licked my hand, my erratic driving apparently not doing him too much harm. “I’m sorry,” I said, attempting to swallow the bitterness in the back of my mouth, nauseated at the realization that I was unable to prevent my own dog from getting hurt. I couldn’t bear to lose him, too.
A car pulled up behind me, an old butter-yellow Mercedes. In the air, the smell of fried food—Davis and I had once dreamed of converting a diesel Mercedes to run on biodiesel, used cooking oil, free from restaurants. A woman climbed out of the driver’s side, graceful and lithe. Her golden hair shimmered in the sunlight, falling down her back, stick straight. Her cheekbones were high, her boobs perky, and her arms annoyingly taut. She wore black spandex pants and a loose black tank over a hot-pink sports bra—the kind of woman for whom “athleisure” was invented. What did she want?
“You okay?” she asked, eyes scrunching up with concern. “Do you need help?”
Her words made tears prick my eyes. I needed more help than she could possibly know. Quickly, I shut the door as Dusty whined. “It was just a deer,” I managed. “It surprised me, but I’m fine.” Before she could say anything else, I was back in my car, shifting into drive.
In the rearview mirror, I saw her, eyes locked straight ahead—watching to make sure I was okay, or watching me? She was still following when I reached the farmhouse, the one the agent had told me to look out for. It was gorgeously decrepit, with red siding, peeling white trim, and a sloping roof whose edges sharpened to a point. I passed it, watching as the woman turned into the driveway—my new neighbor.
I inched down the road but didn’t see another house, only a meadow on one side and fat-leaved trees on the other. I pulled over, checking the rearview once again. I grabbed my phone. Its SIM card had been replaced yesterday, but the screen was shattered—it would take at least a hundred dollars to fix it. I opened my new email, keying in my password and finding the response from the agent, Jennifer Moon, whose email signature featured two colors and a swirling font.
Hi Lucy! Thanks for your quick reply. I’m so thrilled you’ll be renting the cottage, and yes, cash payment is just fine! Your little blue house is JUST AFTER the red farmhouse, with a small porch facing the driveway. This is your new HOME! The key is in the lockbox, code 3321. Welcome!
Gravel ground beneath the wheels as I jerked back onto the road. My dad would have freaked that I’d bought the Accord from a guy on Craigslist, handing over a precious three thousand in cash for a key on a “Miami, Florida” key ring. He’d panic at this whole plan of mine. Of course, if he were around, I wouldn’t need one. He and my mom would be my plan.
Finally, I saw it. It was quaint, royal blue, with a tiny wooden porch surrounded by uncut grass. Hell, it even had a porch swing, something I’d always wanted, back when I’d imagined Davis and me, far away from the city, a little girl with my eyes and his mouth playing with blocks at our feet. The possibilities seemed endless then, our future stretching out like dominoes, one day triggering the next.
I parked and quickly freed Dusty from his prison. He peed on the first bush he could find, then followed me onto the porch. I entered the code on the lockbox, and a silver key fell into my hand. The front door opened easily, almost too easily, and once inside, I checked the dead bolt three times.
The place was furnished. The last tenant had been a single woman, too, but the house was owned by an older couple who’d relocated to Phoenix a few years ago to be near their grandson—all info Jennifer Moon had offered before I had a chance to ask.
Dusty did a perimeter check, just as he’d done at the shitty Days Inn in Queens where we’d been holed up for the last two days, his tiny white body fluttering around like a giant cotton ball. I surveyed the room: two small navy sofas in front of a wood-burning stove with logs sitting next to it; bookshelves filled with Catskills hiking books, a Buddhism paperback, and a set of encyclopedias; a wooden rocking chair in one corner and double windows on either side.
The bedroom was a sardine can, with a wrought-iron bed my mom would have loved and a gaudy floral quilt she would have hated, a desk too small to be useful, and a closet in the corner. I grabbed my tote bag and emptied the contents onto the bed:
— Birth certificate
—Social Security card
— Passport and IDs
—Debit and credit cards
— Dad’s hammer
—Envelope of cash
Arranging them on the bed, I touched each item, as if it might disappear in front of me if I didn’t keep tabs. Dusty scrambled across the papers, but I shooed him away. This was my life. Plastic and paper, cash and silk. I grabbed the envelope, counting the money once again—just over ten grand—then placed the hammer on the nightstand for protection. I fingered the scarf, creamy white and bordered with a stripe of royal blue and flower buds. Lifting it closer, I inspected the marred, murky brown corner. I would never forgive Davis for that. I let it fall to the bed, then stared at the rest of my things, trying to figure out what to do with it all.
Outside, a twig snapped, sharp as a firecracker.
Dusty barked and I bolted up. I grabbed the hammer and ran to the window, pulling back the drapes, heart like a drum.
A rabbit, long-footed and gray. It hopped off.
I took a deep yoga breath. I was like a scared animal sometimes, worse than Dusty with his tail between his legs.
I set the hammer down and pushed the bed aside, metal screeching against the floorboards. I knelt, knees leaving prints in the blanket of dust, and carefully pressed each plank. After five minutes, I found one that felt loose, a few inches off the baseboard. I pried it up with the claw of the hammer, creating a space about ten inches long, four inches wide, then tucked away each item, everything but money for rent and my mother’s scarf, and pressed the board back into place. I ran my hands from side to side, scattering the dust, before repositioning the bed.
I needed a drink. I’d forced myself to abstain since I left, knowing I had to keep a clear head. It was almost three, earlier than I’d start in regular life, but it seemed okay, considering. This was my new reality: I lived in a sweet little cottage, woodland creatures romped about, and I stored my possessions under the floorboards—who’s to say I had to wait till six?
“What do you think?” I asked Dusty. “Has Mommy earned a drink?”
From my suitcase, I retrieved Davis’s last good bottle of whiskey, the one I’d stolen two days ago, and headed to the kitchen. I glanced around the room, and my eyes caught on a doggie door, something I’d have to train Dusty to use properly. I poured a couple fingers of whiskey into a small juice glass and took a sip. I peered outside—the fenced-in postage stamp of yard was surrounded by an expanse of woods. This was the perfect place for us. It had to be.
Back in the bedroom, I situated myself on the bed, opened my laptop, and logged in to the VPN I’d signed up for, the one that would scramble my IP address, keeping my connection untraceable, just in case. I loaded my old email, fearing the worst, but there were no new messages, nothing more than retail spam and nonprofit solicitations, stoking fear in a bid for more donations.
I read over the draft I’d written last night, chest constricting at the thought of what my best friend, Ellie, might already know.
Hey girl! Sorry for the last-minute notice, but I’m going to miss dinner tonight! I’ve decided to go back to Seattle for a few months. I’m going to finally go through my parents’ storage unit and try to actually make progress on my freelance career somewhere that’s slightly less expensive than Brooklyn. In addition to thinking, WTF, you’re probably wondering about what happened with Davis. I’m sad to say we’re going our separate ways. I wanted to tell you in person, but I just couldn’t bear it. I’m sorry.
Love you dearly, and I hate to bail without saying bye, but it all came together really fast. When I’m settled, let’s plan a West Coast reunion, pretty please?
Before I could doubt myself, I hit Send.
The boy gasped for breath, hair in his mouth, before the next wave slammed him back against the bottom. He tumbled, the fizz of bubbles around him.
He opened the new bag of coffee beans and inhaled, relishing the toasted aroma that his favourite brand of arabica gave off.
Discarded medical equipment litters the floor: surgical tools blistered with rust, broken bottles, jars, the scratched spine of an old invalid chair.
The two suspects sat on mismatched furniture in the white and almost featureless lounge, waiting for something to happen.
It had taken seven minutes for the first of the fire engines to screech to a halt outside the offices of Morris & Wood, but even by then anyone could have seen it was too late.
Cindy Thomas was tuned in to her police scanner as she drove through the Friday-morning rush to her job at the San Francisco Chronicle.
She sleeps. A pale girl in a white room. Machines surround her. Mechanical guardians, they tether the sleeping girl to the land of the living, stopping her from drifting away on an eternal, dark tide.