The presidents daughter, p.19
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       The President's Daughter, p.19
 

           Ellen Emerson White
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  The Ground Floor Corridor was actually more cool than the Cross Hall upstairs, because the ceiling curved upwards, and it looked sort of subterranean—and futuristic. They checked out the Map Room, the odd old North Hall, and the Curator’s reference-book-cluttered office—and then met back up with her father and brothers in the Diplomatic Reception Room, which was large and oval, dominated by painted wallpaper that showed early American scenes, with a lot of what looked like Pilgrims.

  After that, they wandered through the China Room—which bored Meg almost as much as it did her brothers—the Vermeil Room, and the Library. They didn’t take the time to visit it, but apparently, there was even a bowling alley on this level, built underneath the North Portico. None of them had ever particularly bowled—but it was kind of neat to have it right in the house, in case they wanted to or something.

  “This place is really cool,” Steven said, as they walked upstairs to the second-floor family quarters—although, with those high heels, Meg had a sneaking suspicion that her mother might have preferred taking their private elevator.

  “This place is really big,” Neal said.

  The second floor was connected by three large halls—the East, the Center, and the West. A low ramp led up to the East Sitting Hall, and Neal asked sympathetically if it had been put in to help crippled people, but it turned out that the east end of the floor was raised slightly, because the ceiling in the East Room underneath it was so high.

  The East Sitting Hall itself had yellowish-gold walls, and was set up as a small reception area, with a formal couch and chairs, and an impressive half-circle window with decorated panes, which made it look almost like a spiderweb. The Lincoln Bedroom and Sitting Room opened off one side of the hall, the bedroom itself bold and masculine, with lots of mahogany furniture and gold-patterned wallpaper. On the other side of the hall was the Queen’s Bedroom, which also included a formal Sitting Room and large bathroom.

  Meg looked at the canopy bed, and the undeniably royal surroundings. “Bet you guys want me to sleep in here, right?”

  “Yeah,” Steven said. “Far away from us.”

  They went into the Treaty Room, which seemed to be an upstairs office—to the point of being sort of intimidating, although Neal immediately flopped down on a big red hassock and started bouncing.

  Meg sat down in the leather executive chair, behind a heavy walnut table—upon which she assumed many treaties had been signed. “Wow.” She touched the heavily polished surface. “Bet I could really get homework done in here.”

  “Yeah, me, too.” Steven tried to open the drawers built into the Victorian table, except that they all seemed to be locked. “Will you sign junk in here, Mom?”

  Their mother looked slowly around the room, and then grinned. “I don’t think I’ll be able to resist.”

  They went through the Center Hall, past the Yellow Oval Room where they’d had coffee that morning, to the West Sitting Hall.

  Neal pointed at the couch and two matched armchairs. “Hey, that’s our stuff!”

  “So you’ll remember that this is our house,” their father said, ruffling his hair.

  “Wow, I’m glad.” Neal sat in one of the chairs, looking very pleased.

  Their mother pointed through a fancy semi-circular window that seemed to match the one in the East Sitting Hall. “You can see the Oval Office from here.”

  Steven threw himself onto the couch, taking off his jacket. “Is this like, where we’re supposed to hang out?”

  Their father nodded. “A lot of the families do, I gather.”

  Meg explored a little more, finding a kitchen with two butlers and a cook, all of whom smiled and nodded, a fancy dining room, a huge bedroom—which had a lot of her parents’ stuff unpacked in it already—and a smaller dressing room next door. The gigantic bedroom connected to a living room—through a door that actually looked like part of the wall, with wallpaper covering it and everything. The living room had some of their furniture from Massachusetts, too, and she walked through it to a small hallway with a master bathroom and a closet on one side, and what seemed to be more closets on the other side.

  The hallway opened into the Center Hall, and she crossed over to another hallway that had an elevator, a private staircase, and what looked like a beauty parlor at the end. There were also more closets, and two bedroom suites, one of which was very, very pink.

  “This is way ugly,” Steven said, standing behind her.

  Meg nodded. Had they thought that a female President wouldn’t be happy unless there were pink bedrooms around, or something?

  As they walked back to the West Sitting Hall, a butler was just coming out of the kitchen.

  “Madam President, may we get you or your family anything?” he asked.

  “Thank you. I’m perfectly fine, Jason, but I’m not sure about everyone else,” her mother said. “Oh. These are my children. My sons, Steven and Neal, and my daughter, Meghan.”

  “Hi,” Meg said, her brothers also sounding quiet and bookish.

  “Hey, yo,” Steven said suddenly. “Where’s Kirby?”

  “Yeah, where’s Vanessa?” She hadn’t seen her cat since they’d left the apartment that morning. Staff people had been instructed to bring the animals to the White House, but they must have forgotten.

  “They have been put in kennels downstairs,” the butler said, “for the time—”

  “Kennels?” Steven said. “They don’t live in kennels!”

  Her mother nodded. “Traditionally, animals—particularly dogs—have—”

  “If Vanessa has to live in a kennel, I’m living in a kennel,” Meg said.

  “But,” her mother went on, “we just arranged to have them kept downstairs until we got here.”

  “Oh,” Meg said, and saw that Steven now looked as embarrassed as she felt.

  “I’ll have them sent upstairs right away, Madam President,” Jason said, and bowed slightly before stepping out.

  “Okay, then,” her mother said. “We have more bedrooms upstairs, a billiards room, a solarium—”

  “What’s that?” Neal asked.

  “Oh, you’re going to love it,” she said. “Lots of windows, plants, a little kitchen, the best television I may have ever seen—you three will probably take it over. At any rate, your father and I figured that you would probably want a bedroom down here, Neal, that you’d take the other one or go up to the third floor, Steven, and you’d be upstairs, Meg.”

  “I’d rather be down here,” Steven said quickly.

  Well, yeah. “I have to be upstairs by myself?” Meg asked. “I don’t want to be by myself.” In an historic house that was supposed to have ghosts.

  “Oh.” Her father looked surprised. “Your mother and I just assumed you’d want privacy.”

  Meg shook her head. Vehemently. “I don’t. I’d rather live with you guys.” Especially here. At home, she’d want privacy.

  “But, you haven’t even seen it up there yet,” he said.

  “What, you want me to be away from everyone?” Meg asked, knowing that they had probably meant well, but still hurt.

  Her father laughed, putting a calming arm around her. “No, we want you where we can always see your smiling face.”

  She moved away from his arm. “Now you’re making fun of me.”

  “A little,” he said.

  Great.

  “Meg,” her mother said, “I’d prefer that you were down here with us, anyway—I want the family to be together. We need to be together. So—” She moved out to the Center Hall and opened the door to the room that looked like a living room. “Neal, how would you like to be in here?”

  Neal looked uneasy. “I have to sleep on a couch?”

  Their father grinned. “I think we can probably find you a bed. And maybe even a dresser or something.”

  Now, Neal beamed. “So, I get to be right next to you and Mommy?”

  “Absolutely.” Their mother gave him a small hug. “Now, you two can fight over the other tw
o rooms.”

  Meg and Steven looked at each other.

  “I don’t do pink,” he said.

  “Neither do I,” she said.

  “We’ll have it redecorated,” her mother said, an answer ready for everything. No wonder she was President. “I’m sure they can do it in blue or green, or whatever you want. We can get them started on it tomorrow.” She glanced at her watch. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, I think it’s time to go to work for a while.”

  “Can we come, too?” Neal asked.

  “I think maybe I have to be by myself. Dinner at six-thirty?” She smiled at all of them, then headed towards the elevator, her walk much slower in this house than it was at home. A very dignified walk.

  “There goes the President,” Meg said.

  Her father shuddered. “The mind boggles.”

  17

  HER FAMILY DIDN’T really have many relatives—her father’s sister and her husband, and their two sons, who were in their late twenties, then two great-aunts, both of them Vaughns, very old and proper and kind of disturbed by the idea of a Vaughn being elected President—so, a lot of her parents’ friends had dinner at the White House before the Inaugural Balls. Meg felt like a little bit of a jerk because she wasn’t going, but she had this very sharp image of herself sitting alone in some corner, the wallflower of all-time, and people like the Speaker of the House—who was notoriously conservative, but still a really good friend of her mother’s—asking her to dance, because they felt sorry for her.

  Dinner was a major production, with roast beef and Yorkshire pudding—which just happened to be the President’s favorite meal. Only, people were too excited to eat and kept jumping up to make toasts and everything. Whenever someone shouted, “Toast!” Meg wanted to play Rocky Horror Picture Show and throw bread at them.

  At one point, Steven leaned over and said that the painting of Lincoln—they were in the State Dining Room—was frowning because he was disgusted by Meg’s table manners, and they laughed so hard that their father had to frown at them. Decorum. Toujours decorum.

  When her parents left for the Balls, they looked about as good as Meg had ever seen them. Her father, very formal in white tie, was wearing gloves and carrying a silk hat that he was too embarrassed to put on. Her mother’s dress—once again, designed by an American, albeit one of French descent—was a smooth, simple black with immeasurably flattering lines. She didn’t look over forty. She didn’t look over thirty.

  Which was going to charm part of the country—and terrify the rest of them.

  The neckline on the dress was a thin, sort of oval, V-neck that would probably become a wildly popular fashion. The Presidential Look, it would be called. Her father was right—the mind had to boggle.

  Her mother had put her hair up, and soft tendrils curled around her very high cheekbones. She wore elbow-length gloves, and a short, elegant jacket, which matched the dress. Her father had an evening cape—which made Steven laugh his head off. They were both flushed with excitement and, standing together, made a pretty incredible picture. They also made Meg glad that she wasn’t going—she really would have felt in the way.

  Alone in the house, Meg and her brothers wandered for a while, met more butlers and maids and stewards, and unpacked a little. They ended up in the solarium—which was a great room, all couches and windows—and incredible views of the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial, watching their parents on television at the Balls. Kirby stayed with them, the cats came in and out, and a butler named Felix brought up some food.

  Steven took a cookie and leaned back on his couch. “This is pretty excellent. I didn’t know they waited on us and everything.”

  If she were taking bets about which one of them was the most likely to let the White House go to his or her head, Steven and her mother would tie for first place. She looked over at Neal, and saw that Kirby had climbed up next to him, and now, the two of them were asleep next to each other.

  “The kid practices being cute,” Steven said.

  Quite possibly. Meg helped herself to a cookie. “Kirby’s probably not supposed to be up there.”

  “It’s a couch,” Steven said. “Not like, antique.”

  Maybe. “Well, I guess it’s okay,” Meg said uneasily.

  The television was focusing on her parents dancing together, and they looked very happy. Earlier, one of the bands had played a tango—which clearly amused her mother, and frightened her father. Dancing wasn’t his best skill. Probably, most people were watching her mother, anyway. The woman looked good. Very good.

  Meg watched as she whispered something to her father, he whispered back, and they both laughed, still dancing.

  And she was almost sure that they weren’t paying any attention to the cameras. Especially when the song ended, and he brushed his lips across her hair for a second. Usually, they were too reserved to do anything like that in public.

  After a while, Steven fell asleep, too, and Meg got them both downstairs and into bed—a bed and dresser and small desk having magically appeared in Neal’s new bedroom while they were at dinner.

  The cats’ main litter box was in the Presidential bathroom—which they probably weren’t going to advertise to the country—and she had one for Vanessa in her bathroom, too. She carried Humphrey and Vanessa down from the solarium, and put them each inside one of the boxes, to remind them. Sidney and Adlai were asleep on her parents’ bed, and she decided to assume that they were well aware of where their box was.

  When she was standing in the middle of the Center Hall, trying to figure out what to do with herself, Felix appeared. He was an older African-American man, and seemed to be very kind.

  “Miss Powers, would you like me to arrange to have your dog taken out?” he asked.

  Hmmm. She thought about that. “Do I need Secret Service, if I do it?”

  He nodded.

  She wasn’t really in the mood to be guarded right now. “Is it a pain if you guys do it? I mean, like, just this once?”

  He shook his head. “Not at all, Miss Powers.”

  Which was a relief, but she still felt kind of funny about it. Then, she remembered something else. “Um, sir?” she asked. “Is it all right if I make a phone call? I mean, are there rules?”

  He shook his head, smiling at her. “No rules. Would you like me to get a number for you?”

  She wasn’t even going to ask if it was okay to use anything other than a secure land-line. “Are you supposed to?”

  “It’s no trouble,” he said.

  Okay, he was just being helpful. “That’s okay, sir,” she said. “I mean, thank you, but I’m fine.”

  There were telephones all over the place, but she decided to use the one in her room. Her very pink room.

  Beth answered on the third ring.

  “Hi,” Meg said.

  Beth sighed. “Oh, God. Thought I’d heard the last of you.”

  No such luck. “Guess not,” Meg said.

  “I can’t believe you didn’t break down and go,” Beth said. “What a jerk.”

  That was probably a fair description. Meg sat down on the bed, which had four posters and a very high mattress. “Yeah, I know. What’s going on?”

  “Same old whirlwind of activities,” Beth said. “You know. What’s it like there?”

  “I don’t know.” Meg looked around at the stiff and unfamiliar bedroom, which had its own fireplace, bathroom, two built-in bookcases, and a view of the North Lawn and Lafayette Square. “Scary. I don’t like it much.”

  “You haven’t even been there overnight,” Beth said.

  Good point.

  “What,” Beth said, “you called me just to grouch?”

  Something like that, yeah. “I just—I don’t know.” She let out her breath. “Steven says he heard the White House has a self-destruct button somewhere.” Which had been giving her the creeps ever since he’d mentioned it. Along with the notion of the other security secrets she didn’t know.

  Beth laughed.
“Well, you’d better hope he doesn’t find it.”

  True enough. Although she liked to think that if he did, he would have the good sense to run in the other direction. “I don’t want to start school, either,” Meg said.

  “My God, Meg, they’re going to be afraid of you,” Beth said.

  Not likely. Meg shook her head. “But, I’m just normal.”

  “Well,” Beth said, “let’s not get carried away.”

  Now, it was Meg’s turn to laugh. “And you call me a jerk.”

  They talked for a while longer, mostly about stuff going on in Massachusetts, but a little about Washington. It was Beth’s opinion that Meg and her brothers had been, as Meg suspected, distinctly pale green during the Inauguration before her parents came out. Chartreuse, even.

  “Oh, I forgot,” Beth said, as they were hanging up. “Is it okay if I recorded this conversation? Bucknell wants me to keep in touch with you, so the class can like, share your experiences and everything.”

  “You know what Bucknell can do?” Meg asked.

  “I am taping this,” Beth reminded her.

  “You’ll be hearing from my lawyer,” Meg said.

  After they finished talking, Meg felt very lonely again. For a place that was full of people—guards and aides and personal staff and everything—the White House was about as quiet as any place she had ever been. She went back up to the third floor, watched some more coverage of the Inaugural Balls, and looked around at the massive entertainment collection in the main hallway. As far as she knew, film and music companies donated copies of their movies and CDs and all on a regular basis. Not a bad fringe benefit.

  She returned to the second floor and played around for a while, sitting in the Yellow Oval Room and the Treaty Room, then remembered that Lincoln’s ghost was supposed to come out at night, and ran—quietly—back down towards the west end of the floor. If worse came to worst, she could always wake Steven up—and pretend that she had done it by accident.

 
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