Teo disliked people coming to his cabin. He disliked the noise, the questions, the curious looks, the dirt they dragged in, the different smells they brought with them… and that was why he let very few people visit.
Costanza was an exception to the rule, because she was tiny Stanza. He’d known her since she was little and he a bit older and he liked her. She was one person who only bugged him because she wanted to help and not because she wanted to know about his dad or snoop on the weird hermit. When she suggested he get someone to write a biography about him, she didn’t do it because she wanted to read about all the dirt the journalists could dig up—she actually cared that he was close to bankruptcy.
He wished he could feel as certain about the journalist she had found. When she arrived to start interviewing him for the first time, he looked at her and was sure Stanza had picked the wrong lady. Maybe it was insulting of him to look at her and make judgements about her personality… but how could he not? The woman was positively gorgeous, with smooth black hair, impossibly silky and soft-looking, as well as blue eyes. She was dressed in business casual, though when she wore it there was nothing casual about it—her elegant demeanour and the way she carried herself meant that she could have worn coveralls and looked like she belonged on a fashion runway.
One place she didn’t belong, however, was in his cabin. This was clear enough the moment her foot poked out of the car door and he saw another pair of impossibly high heels that immediately sank into the soft dirt. You’d have thought she learnt her lesson the first time, but no; Rosalia almost stumbled several times on the short trip from her car to the deck, where Teo waited for her. He kept any acerbic comments to himself, reminded of the talking-to Stanza had given him over the phone. Her rather sharp admonition to be nice still rang in his head—a reminder that tiny Stanza was a sweetheart, but she had bite.
“Thank you for having me, Mr. Como,” said Rosalia with a pretty smile once she completed her trek across the lawn.
At moments like this one, he always wished he had more verbal skills, but as was usually the case, his brain strung words together wrongly. He would search inside his head for a polite greeting and his two only brain cells smacked together until they found something he could spit out. In this case, he ended up saying:
“Right. Come on in.”
Which wasn’t polite. Or a greeting.
Another person may have amended that and apologised: Sorry! I’m tired, but it’s so good to see you.
Teo, instead, turned on his heel and stomped inside. Lia walked behind him and even without looking he could feel her confusion. Wasting another chance to untangle the mess he was making of the interaction, he looked back over his shoulder and asked:
“That would be lovely, thank you,” she said.
Teo nodded, grateful for the chance to distract himself from all the thoughts that nagged him. He was painfully aware that the windows needed cleaning and the floors could use scrubbing. Under normal circumstances, he only had customers in the cabin and they rarely stayed for more than ten minutes. In fact, besides Costanza he hadn’t had guests that stayed for longer in… well, he couldn’t really remember. The thing was, he didn’t want to have visitors that stayed longer, because he had never needed much social interaction. Maybe he could have used a bit more but…
No, I don’t need people around here. Tea. I need to make tea.
Tea was good. It was something he did every day, so much so that there was a rhythm to it—filling the kettle, finding cups, and picking out teabags were like a song, his movements a practised dance routine. He could breathe easily as long as it went on. He could, at least for a while, pretend that there was no journalist in his house who studied his floors and walls and cabinets and probably judged the thin layer of dust that had gathered at the back of the shelves.
So far, Lia hadn’t said a word. She took another few minutes to look around and then she sat down, taking out his binder as well as a digital recorder.
“I’m not recording yet,” she said, noticing his eyes on the device. “And I won’t without your permission, of course.”
He nodded. “Is the recording necessary?”
Teo set down a cup of tea and she smiled gratefully before lifting it to her lips and blowing gently on it.
“It’s only for my sake.” She took a small sip of the tea, then set it down. “I can see the others have taken notes by hand, but my usual routine is to record interviews and transcribe them later. That’s simply how I work, so they’re only for my ears.”
Teo sat down with his own cup. “Right.”
“If you prefer that I don’t record these interviews, I won’t. I can easily take notes instead,” she said.
“No, it’s fine. Just eh… don’t let anyone hear it, okay?”
She smiled. “Of course not.” Rosalia took another drink of tea. “I thought we would start out simple today. Only basic information about you, your family, and your childhood.”
He already started feeling tense and he hoped he had heard her wrong.
“It should all be in the binder. The others talked about it.”
“Mm, yes, there are some notes here but…” she squinted at the binder. “I looked at the notes in here and I admit I was a little confused. These notes… are they in order?”
Teo stiffened. “Uh, yeah. Why?”
“Because they seem to contradict each other. Look at this,” she said, opening to a page marked with a colourful tab and pointing. “This says that you were seven when your father’s first book came out, but elsewhere it says you were thirteen. There are little things like this that contradict each other scattered throughout.”
He clutched his teacup and drank down a big mouthful, burning his tongue in the process.
“That’s really odd,” he managed with a voice that was woolly because of his burnt mouth.
“I thought so, too,” she said. “It’s why I want to make sure that everything I have is accurate before I gather new material.”
“Right. Accurate. Yes.”
“Good,” she said, and if she noticed that he was sweating buckets, she didn’t let it bother her. “Let’s begin with the basics, then. Shall I start the recording, Mr. Como?”
He nodded and before she started, she smiled. It was brief, but it wasn’t her usual professional smile—it was a genuine one and it rattled him. For a wild second, he thought to himself that he might actually like this woman, though it was impossible to put his finger on what it was. She was too polished, too sleek and elegant to be someone he would get along with and yet… he felt like he could.
Then a click announced that she had turned on the recording, her professional smile was in place, and he realised he imagined it.
“Mr. Como,” she said. “Can you confirm for me your full name and birth date, please?”
He nodded, before remembering she was recording, and said: “Teodoro Como. 12th of April, thirty-five years ago.”
To his own ears, he sounded like an alien trying to imitate human speech, but Lia did a pert little nod.
“That matches the notes. And where were you born?”
Teo’s palms grew clammy. “Camporra.”
“And your parents are Stefano and Clementina Como, yes?”
“Yeah, they are. Uh, he was… he’s… well you know that he’s…”
“Do you have any siblings?”
“A younger brother, Nevio.”
He dropped his shoulders, aware now that he tensed up a little more with every question. However, it was… okay. It was fine. Lia moved her finger down over the page and stopped her nicely manicured nail one a page in the binder.
“Is it true you went to the school at Camporra, then? I have another set of notes that says…”
“It’s true. Camporra.”
The lie slipped out easier than any sentences he had said so far. It was a familiar lie that he had used with the other journalists.
“I see names of other schools here,” she said with a frown.
“One of the other journalists got confused,” he said with a shrug. “I must have been a little tired that day. Do you want a biscuit, by the way?”
She looked up. “Yes, please.”
Teo stood to get biscuits and thus was facing away when she asked her next question.
“In the notes it says you went to university for a short while to study…” she paused and he heard a page turn. “Architecture. You didn’t get your degree, though. Can you tell me about that?”
Before he could think of anything else, more lies rushed out of his lips and layered themselves around him like an invisible, protective cocoon. Lying was wrong, any kindergartener knew that, but as soon as it left his lips, his entire body relaxed. It was familiar and comforting.
“I was there for about a year and I got tired of it. Wasn’t to my taste, so I bought this piece of land instead.”
“And what money did you use?”
“I had some savings and I sold my car.” That was at least true. Enough.
He returned to the table with a plate of cookies and Lia took one without looking at any of them. She took a small bite. Then she stopped and took another.
“These are amazing,” she said. “Did you make them?”
“Wonderful.” She took another bite and swallowed it down before continuing. “Right… about your coming here after university. I see in these notes that you’ve mentioned a trip to France as well, which must have been after university, but before you bought the land. I mean… No.”
“What is it?” he asked. His palms grew clammy.
“This doesn’t make sense to me. In this journalist’s notes you say that you went here directly after university, but in this one you supposedly went on this architectural trip to France and… stayed at a… mansion?”
Teo sank. “Yeah?”
“The story of that trip was very amusing, but…”
“I think I confused him again at that point. I meant that I took a short trip with my class to France to study architecture. We studied the Desjardins Mansion, but it wasn’t like we stayed there—it was just a study trip. It’s an architectural marvel, as they always said at university.”
Lia bit her lip and in hindsight he would realise that her eyes had a calculating look to them.
“Yes, okay… I’ve heard so many good things about the vineyard there,” she said slowly.
“Oh yeah, it’s amazing.”
Her stare grew icy. “Truly.”
Teo shrank in his seat. “Next question?” he said in a small voice.
Lia nodded, but her voice was at a temperature below freezing. “Okay. Your time in school… how was that?”
“Great,” he lied. “I wasn’t the most studious kid, but I had plenty of friends.”
“And yet one of the notes says you didn’t have many friends but they were all ‘very close.’ Yet another has many stories of you and your only friend going on the most spectacular childhood adventures. Did you have friends or not?”
Teo grasped his teacup and drank down a mouthful. He spilled all over himself and grasped blindly for napkins so he could wipe himself down.
“Uh, sure. I think he was confused because—”
Everything sweet evaporated from her features and she glared.
“Mr. Como, may I be blunt?” He nodded, though he didn’t think he had much choice. “I don’t think any of the journalists were confused and, if they were, it’s because every single thing you say is a lie.”
Teo paled and wondered for a moment if he had heard wrong, but no. Her blue eyes bored into his with a forcefulness that made him feel both dread and an odd exhilaration. There were so many things he could have said to that, if he were smart.
What do you mean I’m lying? Or Of course not! Or How can you say that! I would never.
But Teo wasn’t smart. He stared at her, slack-jawed with a hand full of tea-drenched napkins, and said the one sentence he shouldn’t have said.
“How did you know?”
The temperature in the room dropped another few degrees.
“I happen to be good at telling when people lie and while we’ve been talking just now, you’ve barely said five true words together. I find it particularly preposterous that you lie about the Desjardins Mansion when it belongs to my maternal grandparents and I’ve been there. There’s no vineyard—in fact, it’s famous for being the only mansion in a wine region that doesn’t have an adjacent vineyard.”
Oh shit, he thought.
“Uh, I… I can explain?” he said, cringing at the question mark implicit in his tone.
“Oh, please do explain why you would blatantly lie to my face when I’m trying to do you a favour, Mr. Como?”
Silence settled over them and the only sound was a drip from the tap and the pops of firewood from the oven. After long, torturous seconds of nothing, Lia turned off her recorder and put it back into her bag. Maybe he should say something, he wanted to, but he was still so shocked that she said it. Nobody had ever called him out like this.
When she spoke again, her voice was low.
“I don’t think I’m the right fit for your biography, Mr. Como. I have integrity and I don’t want to burn my career to the ground once it comes out that you’re a liar. If you’ll excuse me…”
His two idiot braincells smacked together and came up with a reply, at last.
“Probably for the best,” he said, crossing his arms. “Wouldn’t want you to ruin another pair of shoes.”
Lia let out a huff. “Yes, it is most inconvenient to me that somebody has neglected to make a proper driveway.”
“Most people wear sane footwear when they come out here.”
“When you say most people, do you mean the only person who’s anti-social enough to want to be here?”
Teo ground his teeth and stood. “Don’t you think you should leave?”
“Believe me, there’s nothing I would like better.”
She marched herself to the door, but before she walked out, she turned and looked at him across the room.
“You know, I deeply admire your father’s writing and I can’t believe that his son is as… as boorish as this.”
“If you like his shitty writing it explains a lot,” he shot back. “The only people who ever liked it were vain, shallow teenage girls.”
Lia went entirely quiet. The sun was at her back, her face draped in shadow so he could barely see her expression, but he didn’t need to. He saw her shoulders fall and he heard the crack in her voice, the unmistakeable sound of a line that was crossed. It was impossible to say why what he said hit so hard, but it did.
“Goodbye, Mr. Como,” she said and left.
She didn’t slam the door.
Car engine sounds faded and he was left in utter silence, with only the fire and dripping tap as companions. Normally he loved the silence, it was like an old friend, but right now it was unbearable amidst the of anger and regret that swirled in his head. He started clearing the table as if in a haze and then afterwards he started dusting. He swept and scrubbed the floors and polished the windows, all the while muttering angrily about the damned journalist.
She had said that he lied. Of course he did, but that wasn’t the point. Nobody said it. They always kept it to themselves and then they left quietly but this woman… this woman had looked him straight in the eyes and told him he was a liar.
At last, there was no work left to do for the day. The forest outside was pitch black, alive with the sounds of owls and foxes on the hunt. He had a dying fire blazing in the living room and there was no work. Nothing to occupy his mind but mental footage of the disastrous interview, while he sat in front of the fire and picked at a thread in rug.
It played on repeat: Her cool assertion that he lied. The argument that followed. The insults from both sides.
When he went to bed, it kept going and going and going, though he wasn’t sure why. Sure, it hadn’t been his intention to chase another journalist away with his lies, but it was bound to happen, except… it had gone so differently. The others had called him up and made polite excuses to do with ‘other time commitments’ and ‘needing a different type of writer for the book’. It hadn’t ended in an argument before. Nobody had ever marched out defiantly.
His thoughts cycled through the events again and again and for each iteration he came to one conclusion: Rosalia had to write his biography.
At one in the night, when sleep still eluded him, he called up Costanza. She was up, as was normal for her, though she sounded decidedly tired when she picked up and he got no sing-song greeting.
“Oh Teo, what did you say to her?” she said instead.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m really, really sorry. Things happened and… I’m sorry.”
“Lia wouldn’t even say what went wrong, but she sounded so sad.”
He winced. “I know, Stanza. Will you apologise from me? Tell her I’m an old moron and I’m tired and stressed about the money situation.”
“Yeah, I’ll do it,” she said. “Just… try and be nice another time okay?”
She was about to hang up.
“Wait,” he said. “That’s not all. I-I want to say I’m sorry in person. Can you… convince her to come back?”
Teo took a deep breath. “I need to do something about the money situation, Stanza, and I think she’s the only person who can write that damned biography.”
“Teo…” The pause was loaded. “You should probably find someone else and maybe… maybe you should do it yourself this time.”
“It has to be her.”
“I can’t guarantee that she’ll come back.”
“No and I understand, but please ask. I’ll… I don’t know, I’ll make lunch for her every time she comes out here or I can shovel snow at her house all winter. I don’t care. Please just… please help me.”
“Teo, are you… okay?”
He laughed, though it sounded strained. “Yeah, I am. It’s just… nobody’s ever called me a liar before.”
Stanza hadn’t called him a liar before either, even though Teo knew that she knew. Even over the phone, he could feel that she realised how significant it was.
“I’ll call her,” she said.
“Yes! Oh God, thank you so much I’m so—”
“But,” she said sharply, “you’re going to be nice.”
“I’ll be so nice.”
“Good. I’ll call you back when I’ve talked to her.”
Teo hung up, feeling like a balloon that was running low on helium. One moment he floated, then he sank to the ground.
She might come back!
Oh no, she might come back.
She might write the biography!
Oh shit, the biography…
He didn’t get a wink of sleep until Costanza had called back to say that Lia was coming back.
Author’s notes: Hi guys! I’ve decided to post this a little early just because I can. The perks of having no schedule, I guess. However, one of the bigger reasons is that things are kind of sucky and scary right now and I want to put nice things out into the world. I hope everyone’s doing okay. Keep your heads up and try to be kind to yourself and others. Love you all. ❤