Tristan Harris had learned the value of a lie early on. She discovered its power in the way her mother hid vodka next to the Crisco in the pantry her father hadn’t looked in once during her childhood.
Her father was a decent man, an avid outdoorsman, honest but with little patience for the domestic life. Tristan saw the regret in her mother’s face every evening she sat alone watching television in the room by the front door or on long Saturday afternoons in the Florida heat while Tom Harris was off in Gainesville or leading a deep sea fishing contest in Daytona.
Millicent Harris did her level best to dive into her volunteer work, but after Tristan entered high school something had changed.
Dink Fretwell, one of Tom’s fraternity brothers from Sarasota, was vice president of the local mortgage bank and had come around often when Tristan was a child, and even more so after his wife died in her early 40s from a rare form of cancer. But that life changed suddenly one Thursday after school.
Tristan had the all-important role of Lady Macbeth in a Shakespeare production by her freshman class. Her mother would pick her up at six o’clock, coming from her volunteer work at the county art gallery downtown. When the theatre teacher called practice off early to deal with a migraine, Tristan had caught a ride with a friend whose parent dropped her off at the Harris home just outside of town. The sight of Dink Fretwell’s car was nothing strange and Tristan assumed her dad was come home early from a fishing trip in the Gulf of Mexico. Perhaps Dink had picked him up at the airport.
Her dad had come home early all right, but he took a cab from the airport and just as Tristan stepped up on to the porch she heard the shotgun blast from behind the home. Dink Fretwell—shoeless and dragging his suit coat—came running around the side of the house where her mother grew tomatoes and peppers. He left a cloud of dust as he slung his car in reverse and shot out into Stonewall Jackson Road just as her father set to release the second barrel.
“Daddy, what’s going on?” she screamed over the top of Dink Fretwell’s squealing white walls. Tom Harris lowered the Mossberg to the ground and looked past Tristan to her mother who stood smoking a Winston in the doorway.
Tristan never saw Dink Fretwell again after that day. She would rarely see her father over the next decade. He left and moved in with a girlfriend he kept put up in Daytona Beach. Tristan’s mother went off to rehab and Tristan found herself briefly living with her aunt in Ocala before the family rallied and enrolled her at an elite prep school outside of Asheville, North Carolina.
It was there that Tristan first heard of Gate City when her classmate’s older brother played in a basketball tournament in that city’s sprawling coliseum. Tristan found it strange that a city known for nothing would have a coliseum and later when she finished college at Montreat Anderson and applied for an internship in Gate City she hoped there was more to it than basketball and concerts. She’d repeatedly been turned down for more prestigious opportunities in Atlanta and Nashville, even losing out on a chance to promote economic development for the Chamber of Commerce in Huntsville, Alabama to the daughter of a state senator.
Without family connections she quickly realized she’d need to fight her way to the top if she was to avoid her mother’s domestic fate. If Gate City was known for anything, it was known that a person could go there, put on a show and find success. For Tristan Harris, this seemed like a ripe opportunity.