Standing center stage at the spotlighted podium, a newly won Emmy in hand and a glitteringly bejeweled audience applauding her, Lily knew she was being ridiculous. But she examined each face, quickly as she could, from the big shots in the front row to the smaller-market wannabes in the back of the Boston Convention Center auditorium to the randoms scurrying the periphery—the latecomers, the technicians, the bustling event staff and black-uniformed security. Was that one Cassie? Was that one?
It was absurd. Foolish. Delusional. There was no way Cassie would be in this audience, but that would not stop Lily from looking, scanning, wondering. Not just tonight, but everywhere she went. Her brain had developed its own facial recognition software, grown adept at comparing and analyzing. And always rejecting. So far.
But tonight it wasn’t only Cassie she was looking for. And that made Lily’s scrutiny all the more intense.
The applause quieted, most upturned faces now expectant. Lily saw a few glance at their watches. Ten fifteen on a Saturday night. Losers yearned to go home.
“I’m so thrilled to accept this on behalf of all the Lily Atwood team…” She knew that sounded glib, but rules allowed only one recipient at the podium, necessary to prevent rambling wine-fueled acceptance speeches. “We all work so hard, and let me especially thank my darling producer, Greer Whitfield, without whom—stand up, Greer!”
She pointed to a front table, and saw her gesture magnified, becoming gigantic in the huge TV monitors flanking her, the white sequins of her body-hugging gown shimmering. Greer stood for a fraction of a second, and Lily could see her colleague’s discomfort at being the center of attention even for that long. Lily blew her a sincere kiss, then went on.
“And thank you to all who have contributed to our success—including my confidential sources.” She winked and got a murmur of laughter in return. “This is a shared honor.” She heard the wrap-it-up music, spoke more quickly. “It’s an inspiration, and a promise to continue to protect the public from…”
She finished her speech, did one last crowd check as her colleagues applauded again, then accepted the arm of the tuxedoed host who escorted her backstage to the professional makeup person they’d hired to make sure the winners looked even more perfect in their triumphant photos.
The makeup artist in her white apron—Too young, not Cassie—and hairstylist in a black smock—Too old, not Cassie—and the officious pompadoured photographer with his too-tight black shirt and too-tight black jeans. Not Cassie.
“Congratulations,” the photographer said. He eyed her up and down. “I’m Trent. I’ll make you look more gorgeous than you already do. Big, big fan.”
Lily smiled, accustomed—and inured—to the scrutiny. Leering men, brash and brazenly familiar, were part of her life. She’d dealt with it too long to be unnerved by it, most of it at least, and the ones who pushed too hard got pushed right back.
As long as none of the ugliness touched Rowen.
Rowen was safe, Lily knew, safe with nanny Petra, probably deep into one of Rowe’s beloved spy-kid novels. Since Rowe had started on chapter books, she’d insisted she wanted to be a spy, “Just like you, Mumma.” No matter how often Lily explained investigative journalism, Rowe, with the stubborn wisdom of a seven-year-old, would have none of it. Lily’s cell phone was set to vibrate at a call from Petra, and Petra had learned to be just as vigilant as Lily. Not on the lookout for Cassie, of course, but for the unknown.
Fame, Lily knew, had two conflicting sides. The glory. And the danger. The power. And the spotlight. The raging relentless spotlight.
“Smile, Lily.” The photographer—Trent—had used her first name as if they were the best of pals. Familiarity was permanently attached to fame. The smiles of recognition. Selfies-on-demand with people in grocery stores and on the T, people at airports and the dry cleaners. Lily’s face was in their living rooms and bedrooms and on their cell phones via streaming video. They saw her, close up and constantly. No wonder they felt like they knew her. But Lily, on the opposite side of the TV camera, could never see whose eyes were on her. What strangers heard her every word.
“Lily? Hon? Turn your body this way now.” Trent demonstrated, angling his own shoulders, tilting his chin, eyes looking up from under his lashes as if Lily didn’t know exactly how to arrange her face for its best angle. A black-shirted assistant adjusted a battery of lights on metal stands, fumbling with clanking flaps that softened the high-wattage bulbs.
“Give us that famous Lily smile,” Trent ordered. “Love the camera.”
As his flashbulbs popped and bloomed, Lily heard more applause from inside the auditorium, other winners and more losers. Was her source here? Somewhere? Tonight, Cassie wasn’t the only person she was looking for. Lily was also searching for him. Her new and unerringly knowledgeable source. The one who had, in just the past few weeks, given her a couple of amazing stories. Lily couldn’t help but wonder if he—or she?—would be here tonight. To share Lily’s success? Or maybe, although disturbing to consider, with some other agenda. A motive.
Lily had to laugh at herself. That worry—her chronic assessing worry—helped make her a good reporter. If whatever she feared didn’t happen, all the better. If it did, she’d be prepared.
Trent fussed with his lights, instructed his assistant, demonstrated yet another pose. One particular security guard wearing a black cap and starched black shirt seemed to eye her with more than ordinary curiosity. Was he the source? A vested waiter, carrying a tray of empty wineglasses. Why had he stopped to adjust the linen-covered high-top table directly across from her? Everything isn’t about me, she reminded herself. But it was difficult to ignore the spotlight when it followed you everywhere.
“Two more, Lily,” Trent announced. He’d tilted his head the other direction now, motioning her to copy him. She remembered the first time she’d heard her source’s voice. To this day, she and Greer debated whether the caller was really a man.
But he’d told them to call him Mr. Smith. And the caller’s tips had turned out to be true.
The stories were nothing Lily and Greer couldn’t have found on their own if they’d thought to look. But they were dead-on accurate. Lily and Greer had begun to trust him. To look forward to his calls.
Last week, he’d blown the whistle on the local health inspector’s school cafeteria reports. Dozens of them, he’d revealed, were signed and dated the same day.
“It’s impossible,” Mr. Smith had whispered. “How can they properly do all those inspections in one day? I fear they are faking them. And it is putting kids at risk.”
Lily, imagining her own first-grader Rowen with food poisoning or salmonella or some hideous virus, had tracked down the documents. Mr. Smith was correct. The health inspector—facing Lily and her photographer’s video camera and barricaded behind his institutional wooden desk—had denied, made excuses, stalled, misdirected, and then outright lied.
“We have no evidence of foodborne illness,” the man said.
That’s when Lily knew she had the goods. “Have you ever looked for evidence?” she asked.
“That’s absurd. Of course we’ve looked.”
“I see. Let me put it another way.” Lily had pulled the stack of questionable reports from the manila files she held on her lap. “How do you explain this, then? You did all these inspections the same day?”
She’d placed the incriminating paperwork on the desk in front of the inspector, at which point he stood, yanked off his lapel microphone, and ordered her out of the room. They’d caught it all on camera.
The inspector’s wife—enraged—had called Lily after the damning story aired. And her husband fired. “How could you do this to him?” the woman demanded.
“I didn’t do it to him,” Lily had gently reminded her. “He did it to himself.”
Now she looked again at her newest Emmy. People had gone to prison as a result of the story the shiny statue honored. Lily’s victories, in the strange calculus of television news, were someone else’s disasters.
“Got it, Lily,” Trent said as a final flash came from his camera. “You’re—”
A burst of applause came from the auditorium as the double doors clanked open. Three tuxedoed men, arms draped across each other’s shoulders, barreled out, hooting self-congratulations and brandishing their trophies.
“Take our photo!” one demanded. “Move it, Lil! Our turn!”
“Thanks, Ms. Atwood,” Trent’s pink-haired assistant whispered as Lily stepped away from the backdrop. Too young, not Cassie, Lily’s brain registered as the young woman went on. “You’re so awesome. I wish I could be just like you.”
Lily’s cell phone, tucked into the black satin evening bag hanging on a thin chain over her shoulder, vibrated against her thigh.
She grabbed it, clicked it. “Thank you so much,” she said to the assistant, but her mind was racing. Petra was only supposed to text if something—
It wasn’t Petra. Sender unknown.
Congratulations, the text read. The white sequins are perfect.
Lily gasped. Her eyes darted to the left, to the right, to closing doors, and winding corridors, to the marble-floored lobby filled with celebrants milling about clinking glasses and laughing and posing for selfies. He—or she?—was here. Had to be. No other way for him to know about her dress.
Who is this? she typed back. Where are you?
You know who it is. The words appeared, dramatic in their time delay. She could almost hear his—her?—voice saying them.
Lily began to type, but the next words came up before she could send.
I’ll call you Monday. The words seemed to glow, and the hubbub around Lily faded into the background as another message appeared. And I’ll give you the best story ever.
Did I want to be Lily Atwood? Well, sure, I suppose. But a whole lot would have to change for that to happen. Like everything. Right now I was too mismatched, too awkward-faced, too curly-haired, too exactly not what a TV star looked like. So I learned to be the smart one. Greer Whitfield, the smart one.
I’d watched Lily, same as everyone else, as she accepted her Emmy—ours, really—in front of the worshipping crowd in the convention center. She’d thanked me, extravagantly and elegantly, with a toss of her Lily hair and a sincere smile on her Armani lips and those white sequins glittering her personal starlight. I’d stood, briefly, as she’d ordered me to, the audience murmuring their approval. They weren’t approving me, though, but Lily’s effortless generosity, her understanding of team spirit, their longing to be just like her. Approval is such a sister to envy.
Lily’s now-empty chair was next to me at the banquet table Channel 6 purchased, the white damask tablecloth littered with shards of baguette crusts and the purple blotch of someone’s spilled cabernet, but Lily’s napkin was folded artfully by her dessert plate, not even a lipstick smudge on her white china coffee cup. I worry that I sound envious when I describe this, but I’m not. It’s not me who creates the food chain, it’s the rest of the world. I am smart enough to know how that works. And where my place is.
But being the smart one can take you a long way in television. The smart one is not your rival, the smart one is not your adversary or challenger. The smart one, if they’re smart enough, is the team player who’ll make you more famous, be the brains and the messenger and the organizer. And have the confidence—or pragmatism—to let you take the compliments and applause. Or, on the days things don’t go your way, the blame. It was fine for me to take the blame; blame rolled off me like whatever cliché you choose. And I honestly didn’t care, that’s another critical element. I was the one you’re not supposed to like. The tough one, the rule-enforcer, the keeper of deadlines. The protector of Lily’s flame. Her fame.
Other women in the Emmy audience—the ones not captivated by Lily—sneaked a moment to check their own reflections in fancy compacts, comparing the lift of their eyebrows to Lily’s carefully natural ones, the color of Lily’s lipstick to their own, wishing their hair were better or different or more like Lily’s; wondering how long their faces would last and how Lily, at only thirty-three, an age she’ll reveal instantly if asked, can look so young and so chic and so wise at the same time. So Lily, as I have actually heard people say. Now they’ve clicked their compacts shut, given themselves a personal score that only counts in the mathematics of fame.
I was seriously not jealous of her, that’s what people didn’t understand. I honestly admired her. I wanted her to succeed. If she succeeds, I succeed, and the station succeeds, and everyone is happy. Especially me, since as long as she has a job, I have a job. Television only works if the hierarchy is respected, each person does their designated job to the best of their ability and understands no matter what, it’s the “talent” who gets the credit.
Copyright © 2021 by Hank Phillippi Ryan