Long may she reign, p.1
Long May She Reign,
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THE WORST PART—although it was hard to choose—was that she still cried. A lot. Mostly at night; always alone. Which was risky, because her parents inevitably came in to check on her, and she’d have to pretend to be asleep.
But now, it was going on to two in the morning, and she was by herself in her room, and she sort of wished that one of them would come in. See how she was. Have a conversation about nothing in particular, maybe. But, it was the middle of the night. Normal people were already asleep.
Meg pushed away from her desk. Her chair was on rollers now, which was one of the many changes in her life that they didn’t really discuss. At least she wasn’t using the actual wheelchair anymore. Just a brace and a cane. And her hand, gosh, she could almost move two of the fingers now, and—yes, it was time for Nightly Self-Pity.
For that matter, it was also time for some more ibuprofen. At this point, the doctors only gave her prescription painkillers as a last resort, and she couldn’t quite bring herself to tell them how much she still needed the god-damned things.
She reached for her cane, then changed her mind. The thought of making her way across the room to the bathroom was too tiring. Hell, even the concept of getting up and limping the few steps over to her bed was exhausting to contemplate.
“Hey, you,” she said to her cat, Vanessa, who was asleep on the rocking chair by the fireplace. “You want to fetch me some water?”
Vanessa stretched out one paw slightly, but otherwise didn’t respond. Didn’t even open her eyes.
Of course, this was the White House. All she had to do was pick up the damned phone, and someone would appear within seconds, and—except that it was too late to bother them. Too embarrassing. Too pathetic.
Christ, she was tired. Using her good hand, she dragged her chair back to the desk and looked at her books. Even though it was only two courses, the work was still too hard. She should have just taken the semester off. Maybe the whole year. But then, she would spend even more time alone in this stupid room, and what? Sleep twenty, twenty-two hours a day? Wake up for the occasional meal, or physical therapy session? Oh, yeah, that’d be productive.
Which didn’t change the fact that even her truncated version of college was too much pressure. Having to leave the house—having to leave the second floor, for that matter—accompanied by three times as many Secret Service agents as she had had before, while everyone everywhere stared, and took photographs, and—well, nothing like getting kidnapped by terrorists to guarantee ending up being the center of attention. To become permanent public property.
All the more so, because she had ended up with a few battle scars.
To say the very least.
Yup, Self-Pity Time was kicking into high gear.
“If you do something well, do it often,” she said to Vanessa, who didn’t even stretch this time.
So, she picked up Winesburg, Ohio, the book they were currently reading in her Twentieth Century American Fiction survey course. The other class she was taking was Introduction to Astronomy. Mainly, because it was taught in a darkened auditorium, and she could keep a low profile. Unfortunately, the class was pretty hard—or else, she had become very dense—because retrograde motion and parallax seemed to be beyond her. She’d never exactly been Miss Wizard, but before—last spring—at least she hadn’t been a cretin. Now, just opening the book made her hands shake.
There was a soft knock on the door, and Meg turned in her chair, feeling instant relief and annoyance. Definitely the President’s knock. Her father’s knock would be both higher on the door, and louder.
“Come in,” she said.
The door opened, and her mother stepped into the room, her glasses—she always wore contacts, so she must be tired, too—in one hand, a couple of thick leather binders under her arm.
“I didn’t mean to disturb you,” her mother said. “I just—I saw the light.”
Meg knew perfectly well that the lamp was on, but glanced at it, anyway. “Yeah.”
“Lots of studying?” her mother asked, her expression more worried than she’d probably intended.
Meg nodded. “Yeah.”
“Pain okay tonight?” her mother asked.
No. But, Meg just shrugged.
Her mother shifted her weight, and then moved the briefing books to her other arm. “Do you—need anything?”
Other than a new life, say? Meg shrugged, and looked at her mother, who seemed pretty exhausted and shaky in her own right. “Are you up because you have work, or because you can’t sleep?”
“I can always find work to do,” her mother said, wryly.
There was no such thing as a direct answer from a woman who held regular press conferences. But, it was also more than slightly possible that her mother was staying up until her father went to bed first, since the two of them weren’t exactly skipping through meadows together these days.
Yet another situation which loomed over all of their lives, but was never mentioned.
“You’re sure you don’t need anything?” her mother asked.
A serious dose of painkillers. “Could you—” She felt stupid asking someone, particularly the damn President, to— “I was, uh, just going to get some water.”
Her mother moved so swiftly to the bathroom that Meg felt even more stupid, and she picked up her cane, then eased her way over to the bed. She couldn’t work the childproof lids on pill bottles with one hand, so everyone always left them open for her.
Cut her meat into bite-sized pieces.
Checked—far too often—to make sure that she didn’t need help with what the occupational therapists tactfully called “personal care.”
Just generally made her feel l
She shook two ibuprofen out and waited for her mother to come back. “Um, thank you,” she said, and gulped the pills down, trying to make it look as though her hand wasn’t trembling.
“Would the heating pad help?” her mother asked. “Or some ice packs? Or we could hook up your TENS unit?”
Doubtful, in all three cases. “I’ll try it, maybe,” Meg said, then finished the water and set the glass carefully on the bedside table. “The heating pad, I mean.”
“Would you like some more?” her mother asked, poised to move.
She was always thirsty now. Always. She nodded without making eye contact.
Her mother went to refill the glass, and then reached for the phone. “Why don’t I have them bring in a pitcher of ice water for you?”
God, no. Meg shook her head.
Her mother hesitated, withdrew her hand, and looked uncomfortable. No, unhappy. Completely, utterly, miserably unhappy.
“I’m fine,” Meg said. “Just kind of tired.”
Her mother nodded, and they avoided each other’s eyes.
“You’re sure there’s nothing else I can do for you?” her mother asked finally.
A question they all asked her about seven hundred times a day, and she never really had an answer. “No,” she said. “Thanks.”
Her mother nodded, and took a step towards the door. “Well. I’ll let you get some rest.”
Except that naturally, now that she was leaving, Meg couldn’t help wanting her to stay. “I—” She stopped. No. It was way too late to start a Conversation. And her mother, what with being the leader of the Free World and all, unquestionably had a much more pressing day ahead than she did.
“What,” her mother said, moving Vanessa—who hissed and leaped onto the bureau, knocking over a stack of prescreened unanswered sympathy letters from strangers—so she could sit down in the rocking chair.
She looked so eager, that Meg couldn’t bring herself to say, “Never mind.” “I just—I keep thinking—” Meg stopped again. Kept thinking what? “The semester’s going to be over soon.”
Her mother nodded.
“I mean—” Christ, she really had no idea what she meant. Even when she was trying as hard as she could to concentrate, her mind seemed to fumble things. “I don’t know.”
Originally, she would have been going off to Williams for her freshman year, but then, when her plans were—interrupted, they—she?—had decided that she would commute to George Washington University, instead. Warm up, sort of. Then, second semester, maybe she could—only now—
“Whatever you want to do, we’ll arrange,” her mother said.
Whatever she could do would be a better description. Meg swallowed. “I don’t know if I, um, you know—well—”
“So, stay here through the spring,” her mother said. “Williams isn’t going anywhere.”
No. Probably not. “I don’t really like it,” Meg said. Actually, she hated it. “GW, I mean.”
“Well.” Her mother frowned, and used her glasses to move her hair back. “How about Georgetown? Or—”
“I don’t like school,” Meg said. Or, she didn’t like going out. Then again, she didn’t like staying in, either. “I mean—” God, she didn’t have the energy for this. “I’m sorry, forget it. This isn’t a good time to get into it.”
Her mother sighed. “Meg—”
“I really can’t talk about it right now,” Meg said, starting to feel panicky.
“Just remember that you don’t have to make any decisions until you’re ready,” her mother said. “You’re not on a timetable.”
Oh, yeah, right. It wasn’t like the whole god-damn world was watching every single move she made. Not like that at all.
“Okay,” Meg said, and hoisted herself onto her cane. “I, uh, think I’ll get ready for bed.”
Her mother stood up, too. “If there’s anything—”
Right. Meg nodded.
“Sleep well,” her mother said.
Highly unlikely. For both of them.
“Yeah,” Meg said. “You, too.”
* * *
IT TOOK A couple of hours for her to fall asleep, during which she made a significant dent in Winesburg, Ohio, but she woke up after what felt like only about ten minutes, terrified and confused, and out of breath.
A nightmare. Just another nightmare. Okay. She reached for the glass of water on her bedside table, her hand shaking so badly that she spilled most of it across the front of her t-shirt. Then, she waited. If she’d screamed—which she did more often than not, apparently—one of her brothers or her parents would show up to see if she was all right, and she would have to go through the whole polite “No, no, I’m fine, don’t worry” routine.
After five minutes, she figured she was safe. The dream had either been silent this time, or quiet enough so that Steven, whose room was right next to hers, hadn’t heard her.
Instead of trying to go back to sleep, she just lay there, watching the grey light through her draperies gradually get brighter. It would be nice to stay in bed and skip her classes, but if she did it once, she would be tempted to do it again—and again, and again, so she forced herself to sit up.
She was tired, and her head hurt, and—well, most people had problems, right? She should just grow up, and get on with it already.
How cheering. She swung her bad leg over the edge of the bed, the normal jolt of pain jarring through her entire body in response. Just to make things seem worse, she took off her nighttime splint, and tried flexing her right hand, which was full of pins and wires and metal plates and so forth, where the bones wouldn’t heal properly. Her middle and ring fingers could only flex about an inch—sometimes—and the pinky occasionally twitched. For all intents and purposes, her index finger and thumb had turned into a rigid little claw.
All of which hurt like hell.
Yes, that was probably her cue to sing “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” Being as she had such a jovial outlook on life and all.
Showers required standing in the tub with a cane and leaning against the wall, wearing a special waterproof knee brace—a process which wore her out so much that she usually took baths, or sat underneath the spray on a small plastic bench, instead. It also always took forever to get dressed, using various assistive gadgets the therapists had given her, along with the cloth loops, hooks, and Velcro tabs someone or other had sewn into most of her clothes—including her bras, which was mortifying. Her parents’ former rule that sweatpants were to be solely reserved for sports and hanging around at home, not for going to school, was now tacitly ignored by one and all, since they were easier for her to put on than anything else. Her brother Neal, who was ten, rarely took advantage of this unspoken change in policy, but Steven—big, tough ninth grader—did constantly.
When she was finally finished, she packed her knapsack with the books and notebooks she would need for her two classes. Like wow, big day ahead. But even though she would be home by lunchtime, she was already so tired that she—
“How you doing this morning?” her father asked from the doorway.
Terrible. Rotten. Lousy. “Fine,” she said. Swell. Nifty.
He came over to carry the knapsack for her, and they walked very slowly down the Center Hall towards the Presidential Dining Room. Meg wasn’t hungry in the morning—or really ever, anymore—but in her Quest for Normalcy, she usually made an effort to sit at the table and fake it.
Her brothers were already eating, and her mother was sipping coffee and glancing at her watch.
Great. Now she and her brothers could watch her parents pretend to be civil to each other, until her mother took advantage of the first possible opportunity to escape to the West Wing.
“Good morning,” her mother said, looking so chic and perky—and overly thin—in her burgundy houndstooth designer suit that most people weren’t even going to notice that she clearly hadn’t slept much.
“Hi, Meggie,” Neal
“Hi,” Meg said, and sat down, dropping her cane on the floor.
Steven grunted—sort of—and kept eating.
Their father frowned at him. “You can’t manage ‘good morning’?”
“What?” Steven put his spoon down, his eyes widening. Much wider than necessary. “I mean, yo, I am like, totally sorry. I was just, you know, sitting here, and thinking all the stuff I think, and just like, all caught up in it, and—I am totally sorry.”
Meg grinned. “I’m still not hearing a ‘good morning’ in there.”
“Oh. Well, I meant to,” he said. “I was just—you look so fat and ugly, I was like—I was dumbstruck.”
Neal mouthed the word “dumbstruck,” and laughed.
“I am just so sorry,” Steven said, then looked at their father, who was still frowning. “What?”
Their father motioned towards his head, and Steven whipped off his Red Sox cap.
“Oh my God,” he said, putting the hat on Neal. “Every day, you tell me, and every day, I forget.”
The kid had to be mainlining testosterone—there was no other explanation. By the time he was sixteen, one, or both, of her parents was going to be in a Home for the Extremely Tense. But, Christ, at least he was funny.
“Miss Powers?” one of the butlers, Jason, asked, standing by her chair.
“Oh.” Her mind was a blank. “Just some—toast, please. Whatever you have.”
“Are you sure you don’t—” Her father started, then apparently thought better of the idea and busied himself with his coffee.
“I think she ought to have some eggs,” Steven said. “In fact, I think everyone at the table ought to—”
“Steven,” their mother said, very sharply, and he returned to his cereal. Since their father was generally the strict one, when their mother said something, they were more apt to listen.
Jason served her, and Meg nodded her thanks, then picked up one of the toast quarters, self-conscious about the crunch it was probably going to make when she bit into it. Somehow, breakfasts on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays were even more uptight than the other days. Like they all assumed she wasn’t going to make it home again.
“Sleep all right?” her mother asked.