The following text was excerpted from different parts of Liar
I was born with a light covering of fur.
After three days it had all fallen off, but the damage was done. My mother stopped trusting my father because it was a family condition he had not told her about. One of many omissions and lies.
My father is a liar and so am I.
But I’m going to stop. I have to stop.
I will tell you my story and I will tell it straight. No lies, no omissions.
That’s my promise.
This time I truly mean it.
The second day Zach isn’t at school, I wear a mask. I keep it on for three days. I forge a note from my dad to say I have a gruesome rash and the doctor told me to keep it covered. I carry the note with me from class to class. They all buy it.
My dad brought the mask back from Venice. It’s black leather painted with silver and unfurls at each corner like a fern. The silver is real.
Under it, my skin itches.
They tell us Zach is dead during third period on Thursday.
Principal Paul Jones comes into our classroom. He isn’t smiling. The others look at each other. There are murmurs. I hear Zach’s name. I look away.
“I have bad news,” the principal says unnecessarily. I can smell the bad news all over him.
Now, we all look at him. Everyone is quiet. His eyes are slightly red. I wonder if he is going to all the classes or just us seniors. Surely we would be first. Zach is a senior.
I can hear the minute hand of the clock over the whiteboard. It doesn’t tick, it clicks. Click, click, click, click. No ticks. No tocks.
There is a fly in the room. The fan slices through the air. A murky sliver of sunlight cuts across the front of the classroom right where the principal is standing. It makes the dust in the air visible and the lines around his eyes, across his forehead, at the corners of his mouth.
Sarah Washington shifts in her chair and its legs squeak painfully loud across the wooden floor. I turn, stare at her. Everyone else does too. She looks away.
“Zachary Rubin is no longer missing. His body has been found.” Principal Paul’s lips move into something between a grimace and a rictus.
A sound moves around the classroom. It takes me a moment to realize that half the girls are crying. A few of the boys, too. Sarah Washington is rocking back and forth, her eyes enormous.
Mine are dry. I take off the mask.
The first two days of my freshman year I was a boy.
It started in the first class of my first day of high school. English. The teacher, Indira Gupta, reprimanded me for not paying attention. She called me Mr. Wilkins. No one calls anyone Mr. or Ms. or anything like that at our school. Gupta was pissed. I stopped staring out the window, turned to look at her, wondering if there was another Wilkins in the room.
“Yes, you, Mr. Micah Wilkins. When I am talking I expect your full and undivided attention. To me, not to the traffic outside.”
No one giggled or said, “She’s a girl.”
I’d been mistaken for a boy before. Not often, but enough that I wasn’t completely surprised. I have nappy hair. I wear it natural and short, cut close to my scalp. My chest is flat and my hips narrow. I don’t wear makeup or jewelry. None of them—neither students nor teachers—had ever seen me before.
“Is that clear?” Gupta said, still glaring at me.
I nodded and mumbled in as low a voice as I could, “Yes, ma’am.” They were the first words I spoke at my new school. This time I wanted to keep a low profile, be invisible, not be the one everyone pointed at when I walked along the corridor: “See that one? That’s Micah. She’s a liar. No, seriously, she lies about everything.” I’d never lied about everything. Just about my parents (Somali pirates, professional gamblers, drug dealers, spies), where I was from (Liechtenstein, Aruba, Australia, Zimbabwe) what I’d done (grifted, won bravery medals, been kidnapped). Stuff like that.
I’d never lied about what I was before.
Why not be a boy? A quiet sullen boy is hardly weird at all. A boy who runs, who doesn’t shop, isn’t interested in clothes or shows on TV. A boy like that is normal. What could be more invisible than a normal boy?
I would be a better boy than I’d ever been a girl.
At lunch I sat at the same table as three boys I’d seen in class: Tayshawn Williams, Will Daniels, and Zachary Rubin. I’d love to say that one look at Zach and I knew but that would be a lie and I’m not doing that anymore. Remember? He was just another guy, an olive-skinned white boy, looking pale and weedy compared to Tayshawn, whose skin is darker than my dad’s.
They nodded. I nodded. They already knew each other. Their conversation was littered with names they all knew, places, teams.
I ate my meat balls and tomato sauce and decided that after school I’d run all the way to Central Park. I’d keep my sweat shirt on. It was baggy.
“You play ball?” Tayshawn asked me.
I nodded because it was safer than asking which kind. Boys always knew stuff like that.
“We got a pickup going after,” he said.
I grunted as boyishly as I could. It came out lower than I’d expected, like a wolf had moved into my throat.
“You in?” Zach asked, punching me lightly on the shoulder.
“Sure,” I said. “Where?”
“There.” He jerked his thumb in the direction of the park next to the school. The one with a gravel basketball court, bleachers, a stunted baseball diamond, and a merry-go-round too close to either one to be much use when a game was in progress. I’d run past it dozens of times. There was pretty much always a game going on.
The bell sounded. Tayshawn stood up and slapped my back. “See you later.”
I grinned at how easy it was.
Being a boy was fast becoming my favorite lie.
The day I find out Zach is dead is the longest day of my life. School has always sucked. Now it’s hell.
Everyone is staring at me. Not just Sarah, not just everyone from the counselling session, but every student in the entire school, even the freshmen, the teachers, the administrative staff, the janitors.
It’s much worse than when they found out I wasn’t really a boy.
Zach is dead.
I cannot make sense of that. How can he be dead? I saw him Friday night. We climbed a tree in Central Park. We kissed. We ran. Principal Paul must have it wrong.
I wish everyone would stop looking at me. They think they know something about me and Zach, that we were—whatever it is that we were—that somehow they have something on me.
I keep my head down. Try to block my ears to the “slut” coughs. Try to focus on my remaining classes. Distract myself studying in the library. Try not to think about Zach. Try not to think about anything other than my studies.
Brandon mouths a word at me as the final bell rings.
At least I think that’s what it is.
I push my way out of class, down the corridor, down the front steps, quick as I can with backpack slung over my shoulder, hands gripping the straps tight, away from school, from people I know. I turn the corner onto West Broadway and that’s when I take off.
I run all the way to Central Park and once I get there I run harder and faster, lifting my knees high, pumping arms hard. I run distance at a sprint. I pass even the fastest joggers. No one is as fast and fevered as me. I’m going to run all the poison and whispers and grief out of my veins.
I don’t go home until I’m run into the ground and taking another step would kill me.
You probably think I’m weird with the mask, and the sort-of-but-not-really boyfriend who’s dead, and all the lies.
Past lies, I mean. I haven’t lied to you and I won’t. Saying that Zach was my boyfriend when he was mostly Sarah’s is not a lie. He was mine. Like Brandon said—after hours.
You want to know why I used to lie?
Let me tell you about my family:
My parents are still together. Living in the same house. When they aren’t arguing, they’re doting. I can never decide which is worse.
My Dad’s name is Isiah Wilkins. He’s black like me. My Mom is Maude Bourgault, or was, she’s Maude Wilkins now. She’s white. Though Dad doesn’t believe it. Dan can see the black in anyone even when it isn’t there. He tells the world the way he wishes, not the way it is. Dad says Mom’s hair is near as nappy as his own and doubts that her full lips came from anywhere white. My Mom laughs. How would she know? She’s adopted and hated her family. She ran away.
I’ve never met my mother’s family. Just Dad’s.
Dad’s dad was black, but his mom is white. Grandmother’s our whole family. She and Great Aunt Dorothy, and when he was alive, Great Uncle Hilliard. The oldest ones left are Grandmother and Great Aunt. I call them the Greats.
To say the Wilkins are reclusive would be to understate it. They take keeping to your own a long way past crazy. They stay on their farm. All 200 acres of it. They are self sufficient. They don’t understand why everyone doesn’t do the same thing. Grandmother has never been down to the city.
The Wilkins came to New York State more than a century ago; all the way from Poland or Russia or the Ukraine. One of those. They’re from the Carpathian mountains. Where they lived for generations, going into town as seldom as possible, living far from other families. Mountain people: long-lived, rail-thin, cranky, and taciturn.
They brought that mountain chill all the way to America, to upstate New York, where they live and breed, getting older and crankier and skinnier.
That’s my family. All of them much weirder than me.
The first and second week of my freshman year were bad. Really bad. After Sarah Washington and the banana peel everyone knew who I was: the girl who pretended to be a boy.
So much for being invisible.
I was called into Principal Paul’s office and forced to explain.
“My English teacher thought I was a boy,” I said. “I thought it would be funny to go along with it.”
He said it most decidedly wasn’t. Then lectured me about the danger of lies and erosion of trust and blah blah blah. I tuned him out, promised to be good and wrote an essay on “Why Lying Is Bad.”
“So why’s your name Micah then?” Tayshawn asked me. He was the only one who agreed that me pretending to be a boy was funny. He even asked me to play ball with him again. Will was less happy. Zach ignored me. I didn’t go. Though I played H-O-R-S-E with Tayshawn a couple of times.
“It’s a girl’s name too,” I told him. “Just not as often.”
“It’s as if your parents knew you was going to look like a boy.”
“Well,” I paused, feeling the rush I always get when I begin to spin out a lie. “You can’t tell anyone, okay?”
Tayshawn nodded, bracing himself.
“When I was born they didn’t know if I was a girl or a boy.”
Tayshawn looked confused. “How’d you mean?”
“They couldn’t tell what I was. I was born a hermaphrodite.”
“Half boy and half girl. You can look it up.”
“No way.” His eyes glided down my body, looking for evidence.
I nodded solemnly, figuring out how to play it. “I was a weird-looking baby.” (Which is true. I like to thread my lies with truth.) “My parents totally freaked.” (Also true.) “You won’t tell anyone, right? You promised.” In my experience those words are guaranteed to spread what you’ve said far and wide. I liked the idea of being a hermaphrodite.
“Not anyone. You’re safe.”
Tayshawn never told a soul. I know because days later there still wasn’t a whisper about it. Turned out that he’s good that way. Trustworthy.
I figure the rumor finally spread all over school because I told Lucy when she was hassling me in the change room. I went for the sympathy card: “You keep calling me a freak. Well guess what? I am!”
She looked more grossed out than sympathetic.
Or it could have been Brandon Duncan, who overheard me telling Chantal, who wanted to know how I managed to fool everyone on account of she wants to be an actress and thought it would be useful to know. She had me show her how to walk like a boy. I taught her how to spit too.
Or maybe it was all three of them. Most likely. Hardly anyone’s as tight-lipped as Tayshawn.
However it spread, it reached Principal Paul’s ears, who contacted my parents, who told him it wasn’t true, and there I was in his office again explaining how I had no idea how the rumor got started and was hurt and upset that anyone would say anything so mean about me. “I’m a girl. Why would I want anyone to think I was some kind of a freak?”
Because I wanted them to pay attention to me.
Something like that.
Mostly it’s the joy of convincing people that something that ain’t so, is. It’s hard to explain. But like I said at the beginning: I’ve quit the lying game now.
But that was then:
“Why did you want everyone to think you were a boy, Micah Wilkins?” Principal Paul looked at me without blinking. I returned the favor.
“You don’t know?” He sounded unsurprised. “Perhaps you will find out when you visit the school counselor.”
I didn’t let him see how much I hated that idea. There have been way too many counselors and shrinks and psychologists in my life. I mean, I know lying is bad, that’s why I’m giving it up, but I’ve never understood why I had to see shrinks about it.
“You’ve been at this school less than two weeks, Micah Wilkins, and already you have a reputation for telling falsehoods and making mischief. My eye is on you.”
I didn’t ask him how that affected him seeing anything else.
My second essay for the principal was on the virtues of honesty. I ran out of things to say on the first page.
Being a liar is not an easy business. For starters, you have to keep track of your lies. Remember exactly what you’ve said and who you said it to. Because that first lie always leads to a second.
There’s never ever just one lie.
That’s why it’s best to keep it simple—gives you a better chance of keeping track of all the threads, keeping them spinning, and hopefully not propagating too many more.
It’s hard work keeping all those lies in the air. Imagine juggling a thousand torches that are all tied together with fine thread. Or running the world’s most complicated machine with cogs on wheels on cogs on wheels on cogs.
Even the best liar, even the ones with the longest memories, the best eye for detail and the big picture, even they get caught eventually. Maybe not in all their lies, but in one or two or more. That’s the way it is.
I hate when that happens. When they figure out that what you were saying wasn’t true and your elaborate construction crumbles:
The lies stop spinning, there’s no lubrication, gears grinds on gears. That’s the moment when Sarah stared at me after I laughed and said, “You’re a girl.”
That moment could have lasted a week. A month. A year.
I was ashamed and angry and hating being caught and already spinning more lies to explain it all away.
But it was also a relief. It’s always a relief.
Because the air is clear; now—at last—I can tell the truth. From this moment on everything will be true. A life lived true with no rotten foundations. Trust. Understanding. Everything shiny and new.
Except I can’t, not ever. Because my truth is so unbelievable—
—lies will always be easier.
Spin, spin, spin.
I have been through the moment of being found out a hundred times, a thousand times, maybe even a million. I’m only seventeen, but I’ve already seen that look of shock—she lied to me—so many times I have lost count.
It never gets any better.
Yet that’s not the worst danger of being a liar. Oh no. Much worse than discovery, than their sense of betrayal, is when you start to believe your own lies.
When it all blurs together.
You lose track of what’s real and what’s not. You start to feel as if you make the world with your words. Your lies get stranger and weirder and denser, get bigger than words, turn into worlds, become real.
You feel powerful, invincible.
“Oh sure,” you say, completely believing it, “My family’s an old family. Going way way way back. We work curse magic. Me, I can make your hand whither on your arm. I could turn you into a cat.”
Once you start to believe you stop being compulsive and morph into pathological.
It happens a lot after something terrible has happened. The brain cracks, can’t accept the truth, and makes its own. Invents a bigger and better world that explains the bad thing, makes it possible to keep living. When the world you’re seeing doesn’t line up with the world that is—you can wind up doing things—terrible things—without knowing it.
Because that’s when they lock you up and there’s no coming back because you’re already locked up: Inside your own head. Where you’re tall and strong and fast and magic and the ruler of all you survey.
I have never gone that far.
But there are moments. Tiny ones when I’m not entirely clear whether it happened or I made it up. Those moments scare me much more than getting caught. I’ve been caught. I know what that’s like. I’ve never gone mad. I don’t want to know what that’s like.
Weaving lies is one thing; having them weave you is another.
That’s why I’m writing this. To keep me from going over the edge. I don’t want to be a liar anymore. I want to tell my stories true.
But I haven’t so far. Not entirely. I’ve tried. I’ve really really tried. I’ve tried harder than I ever have. But, well, there’s so much and it’s so hard.
I slipped a little. Just a little.
I’ll make it up to you, though.
From now on it’s nothing but the truth.