One Tiny Lie (Ten Tiny Breaths #2)


by K.A. Tucker

CHAPTER ONE

Too Perfect

June

“Livie, I think you’re completely f**ked up.”

Chunks of cheesecake fly out of my mouth and splatter against the deck’s glass panel as I choke on my fork. My sister has a twisted sense of humor. I automatically attribute her declaration to that. “That’s not funny, Kacey.”

“You’re right. It’s not.”

The way she says it—her calm, gentle tone—sends a strange ripple through my stomach. Wiping off the gob of cheesecake from my bottom lip, I turn to search her face, looking for a tell—something to expose her game. I see none. “You’re not serious, are you?”

“As a heart attack.”

A bubble of panic rises into my throat. “Are you on drugs again?”

She answers with a flat glare.

I don’t take that as truth, though. I lean forward and peer into her face, looking for the signs—the dilated pupils, the bloodshot whites—the traits of a user that I came to recognize when I was twelve. Nothing. Nothing but crystal-clear blue eyes staring back at me. I allow myself a small sigh of relief. At least we’re not heading back down that road.

With a nervous giggle and no clue how to respond, I bide my time with another mouthful of cake. Only now the mocha flavor has turned bitter and the texture is gritty. I force it down with a hard swallow.

“You’re too perfect, Livie. Everything you do, everything you say. You can do no wrong. If someone slapped you across the face, you’d apologize to them. I can’t believe you don’t deck me for some of the stuff I say. It’s like you’re not capable of getting angry. You could be the love child of Mother Teresa and Gandhi. You’re . . .” Kacey pauses as if searching for the right word. She settles with, “Too f**king perfect!”

I cringe. Kacey tosses F-bombs around like some people toss pennies. I got used to it years ago, and yet each one of them feels like a punch to the nose right now.

“One of these days, I think you’re going to crack and go all Amelia Dyer on me.”

“Who?” I frown as my tongue works the last bits of mealy cake off the roof of my mouth.

She waves a dismissive hand at me. “Oh, that woman in London who murdered hundreds of babies—”

“Kacey!” I glare at her.

With an eye roll, she mutters, “Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is that Stayner has agreed to speak to you.”

This is getting more ridiculous by the second. “What? Bu . . . I . . . but . . . Dr. Stayner?” I sputter out. Her PTSD therapist? My hands are starting to shake. I place my plate down on a side table before I drop it. When Kacey handed it to me and suggested that we watch the Miami Beach sunset from our deck, I thought she was being sweet. Now I see she was masterminding a crazed intervention that I don’t need. “I’m not suffering from PTSD, Kacey.”

“I didn’t say you were.”

“Well, then, where is all of this coming from?”

She doesn’t give me a reason. She gives me the mother lode of guilt trips instead. “You owe me, Livie,” she says in an even tone. “When you asked me to go into inpatient therapy three years ago, I did it. For you. I didn’t want to, but—”

“You needed it! You were a mess!” That’s putting it lightly. The drunk driving accident that killed our parents seven years ago sent Kacey spiraling down into a rock-bottom haze of drugs, one-night stands, and violence. Then, three years ago, even rock bottom fell out from under her. I was sure I’d lost her.

But Dr. Stayner brought her back to me.

“I did need it,” she admits, pursing her lips. “And I’m not asking you to commit yourself to inpatient therapy. I’m asking you to pick up the phone when Stayner calls. That’s all. For me, Livie.”

This is completely irrational—downright insane—and yet I can see by the way Kacey’s fists are balled by her side and she chews her bottom lip that she’s not messing around. She’s genuinely concerned about me. I bite my tongue and turn to stare out at the setting sun’s last rays dancing over the water. And I consider it.

What on earth could Dr. Stayner have to say? I’m a straight-A student on her way to Princeton and, after that, med school. I love children and animals and old people. I’ve never had the urge to pull wings off insects or fry them with a magnifying glass. Sure, I’m not big on attention. And I tend to sweat profusely around attractive guys. And I’ll probably stroke out on my first date. If I don’t melt into a puddle of sweat before someone even has a chance to ask me out.

All that hardly means I’m two steps away from becoming the next mass-murdering psycho. Still, I do like and respect Dr. Stayner, despite his peculiarities. Talking to him wouldn’t be unpleasant. It would be a quick conversation . . .

“I suppose one phone call won’t hurt,” I mumble, adding, “and then we need to talk about this psychology degree you’re working on. If you see red flags waving around my head, then I’m beginning to doubt your long-term career success.”

Kacey’s shoulders sag with relief as she settles back against her lounge chair, a contented smile touching her lips.

And I know I’ve made the right choice.

September

Sometimes in life you make a decision and you find yourself questioning it. A lot. You don’t regret it, exactly. You know that you probably made the right choice and that you’re probably better off for it. But you do spend a lot of time wondering what the hell you were thinking.

I still wonder why I ever agreed to that one phone call. I wonder it daily. I’m definitely wondering it right now.

“I’m not suggesting you star in a Girls Gone Wild video, Livie.” He’s already switched to that smooth, authoritative tone that he uses for coercion.

“How would I know? Three months ago, you suggested I have a conversation with an orangutan.” True story.

“Has it been three months already? How is old Jimmy doing?”

I bite my tongue and take a deep breath before I say something snippy. “Now’s not a good time, Dr. Stayner.” And it’s not. Truly. The sun is shining, the air is warm, and I’m carting my pink suitcase and a cactus through a picturesque setting toward my dorm along with a thousand other confused students and flustered parents. It’s move-in day and I may still vomit from the bumpy plane ride. One of Dr. Stayner’s guerilla-tactic calls is definitely not what I want to be having right now.

And yet, here we are.

“No, Livie. Probably not. Maybe you should have rescheduled your therapy session with me, knowing you’d be on a plane to New Jersey this morning. But you didn’t,” Dr. Stayner calmly points out.

Looking from left to right to ensure no one overhears this conversation, my shoulders hunch in and my voice drops as I whisper, “There’s nothing to reschedule because I’m not in therapy.”

Okay. So that’s not entirely true.

It hasn’t been entirely true since the pleasant June evening when my sister ambushed me with cheesecake. Dr. Stayner phoned me the very next morning. In typical Stayner fashion, his first words to me weren’t “hello,” or “nice to talk to you again.” He simply said, “So I hear you’re a ticking time bomb.”

The rest of the conversation had gone smoothly. We chatted about my flawless academic career, my lack of love life, my hopes and dreams, my future plans. We spent a bit of time talking about my parents, but he didn’t dwell on it.

After I hung up, I remember smiling, sure that he would tell Kacey that I was fine and well adjusted and she could continue her witch hunt for the mentally unstable elsewhere.

When that same Chicago number appeared on my phone the following Saturday morning at ten o’clock sharp, I was more than surprised. But I picked up. And I’ve been picking up every Saturday at ten a.m. ever since. I’ve never seen a bill or a patient record or the inside of a psychiatrist’s office. Both of us have danced around the word “therapy,” but we have never used it before this conversation. Perhaps that’s why I refuse to acknowledge Dr. Stayner for what he is.

My therapist.

“Fine, Livie. I’ll let you go. We’ll resume our chat next Saturday.”

I roll my eyes but don’t say anything. There’s no point. I’d get farther dragging a mule through a hay field.

“Make sure to have a shot of tequila. Break dance. Whatever it is you youngsters do nowadays during frosh week. It’ll be good for you.”

“You’re recommending addiction and life-threatening dance moves for my well-being?” It was pretty obvious from that second phone call that Dr. Stayner had decided to take on the task of “treating” my awkward shyness with a weekly course of absurd, often embarrassing, but ultimately harmless assignments. He’s never admitted to what he was doing, never explained himself. He just expects me to comply.

And I always do.

Maybe that’s why I should be in therapy.

The surprising thing is that it has worked. Three months of harebrained tasks has actually helped calm my nerves around crowds, free my inner thoughts, and arm me with enough confidence that sweat doesn’t instantaneously erupt from my pores when an attractive man walks into the room.

“I suggested tequila, Livie. Not crystal meth . . . And no, I’m not recommending tequila because you are only eighteen and I am a doctor. That would be highly unprofessional. I’m recommending that you go and have fun!”

I heave a resigned sigh but smile as I say, “You know, I was normal. I think that you’ve turned me into a head case.”

My ear gets a blast of laughter. “‘Normal’ is boring. Tequila, Livie. It makes wallflowers into butterflies. Maybe you’ll even meet”—he gasps for dramatic effect—“a boy!”

“I really have to go,” I say, feeling my cheeks flush as I climb the concrete steps to my stunning Hogwarts-style residence hall.

“Go! Make memories. This is a happy day for you. A victory.” Dr. Stayner’s voice loses that playful lilt, suddenly turning gruff. “You should be proud.”

I smile into the phone, happy for the moment of seriousness. “I am, Dr. Stayner. But . . . thank you.” He doesn’t say the words but I hear them. Your father would be proud.

“And remember—” The lilt is back.

I roll my eyes at the phone. “I got it. ‘Girls Gone Reasonably Frisky.’ I’ll do my best.” I can hear his chuckling as I press “End” on the call.

CHAPTER TWO

Jell-O Shots

This must be what Cinderella felt like.

If, instead of gliding gracefully around the dance floor of the royal ball, she was flattened against a wall at a college house party, getting jostled by drunks from all angles.

And, instead of dazzling everyone in a glamorous ball gown, she was furtively tugging on her toga to ensure all vital body parts were covered.

And, instead of a fairy godmother granting her every wish, she had an obnoxious older sister forcing Jell-O shots down her throat.

I’m just like Cinderella.

“A deal’s a deal!” Kacey yells over the DJ as she hands me a tiny cup. I accept it without a word and tip my head back, letting the slippery orange substance slide down my throat. I’m actually enjoying these things. A lot. Of course, I won’t admit that to my sister. I’m still bitter that she blackmailed me into making my first night at college also my first night to get drunk. Ever. It was this or have her walk into my residence hall wearing a T-shirt with my face on it and a slogan that reads, “Liberate Livie’s Libido.” She was serious. She actually had the damn thing printed.

“Stop being such a sourpuss, Livie. You have to admit, this is fun,” Kacey shouts, handing me two more shots. “Even though we’re wearing bedsheets. I mean, seriously. Who throws toga parties anymore?”