The presidents daughter, p.2
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       The President's Daughter, p.2
 

           Ellen Emerson White

  “You look tired,” he said.

  “Well”—she kissed him lightly—“I’ve been playing tennis.”

  “Mom, Mom, look!” Neal rushed out of the room, then back in with a handful of school papers. “I got a hundred in spelling and everything!”

  “Well, let’s see.” She sat down, and Neal climbed up on her lap, grass-stained and disheveled from soccer practice. “Wow, a ninety-five in math. Oh, that’s great.”

  “Hi,” Meg said to her father.

  “How was school?” he asked.

  “Okay,” she said. “How was work? Get lots of new clients today?”

  “Hundreds.” He smiled at her. “How was tennis?”

  Yes, that was the more important question. “I got her to a tiebreaker,” Meg said.

  “Good for you,” he said, and then winked at her mother. “Need some Advil?”

  Her mother, who had actually been limping a little herself when they got out of the car, shook her head—but grinned sheepishly and took a couple when he went over to one of the cupboards and handed the bottle to her.

  “Bet Mom’ll make you get a haircut tomorrow,” Meg said to Steven, just to get him going.

  He threw some carrot peelings at her as the phone rang, and they both jumped for it, Steven getting there first.

  “Hello? Oh, just a minute, please.” He covered the receiver. “Mom, it’s what’s-his-name from Texas. Mr. Palmer.”

  Otherwise known as the Senate Minority Leader. Her mother picked up the phone. “Brian, hi,” she said, and went off into a conversation about some Select Committee hearing or something.

  “Party business,” Steven said, trying to make his voice deeper.

  “Party?” Meg said. “Who’s having a party?”

  “Boy, do we have a dumb sister,” Steven said to Neal, who laughed.

  Half an hour and six phone calls later, they were sitting down to dinner, observing her father’s very strict no-electronic-or-telephonic-devices-during-mealtimes rule as they ate the stew that Trudy, their housekeeper, had made and the salad Meg had had to finish making. On weekends, Trudy usually went home to her house over in Brighton.

  Their father frowned, which made him look like the stern, businesslike tax attorney version of himself. His smile, on the other hand, usually made him look more like a jolly lumberjack. “Steven, we’d better see about getting that hair cut tomorrow.”

  Steven groaned, and Meg laughed.

  “You’ll probably be even better at basketball if it isn’t in your eyes all the time,” their mother said, reasonably.

  “Me, too?” Neal asked.

  “You, too.” Their mother leaned over to cut his meat.

  He watched her, his elbows on the table. “Were you important today?”

  She made four quick horizontal slices. “Not really.”

  “Did you talk in front of everyone?” he asked.

  “I guess I always do, don’t I?” She handed him his plate, indicating with her eyebrows for him to move his elbows.

  “Boy.” He reached in front of Steven for the bread basket, saw his father’s expression, and sat back. “Would you please pass me the bread, please?” he asked politely.

  Steven grabbed two pieces, then shoved the basket along.

  “Boy,” Neal said, taking two pieces of his own. “I bet all those Senators listen to you.”

  Their mother smiled. “Some days more so than others.”

  “Boy,” he said. “You should be President.”

  She glanced at Meg, who had to fight off yet another shudder.

  “Meg, be a good munchkin and pass me the salt, will you?” she asked.

  2

  AFTER THE USUAL fight with Steven over the dishes—the fight they always had when Trudy wasn’t around either to officiate or do them herself—Meg escaped upstairs with the excuse of homework, although mostly she just answered email, goofed around on the Internet, and called her best friend, Beth Shulman, to bring her up to date on the latest turn of events, getting a lot of “Seriously?” and “Wow, that sucks” remarks in return.

  Which were, of course, the exact responses she wanted.

  But, homework actually would not have been all that terrible an idea, since the next night there was a dance at school, and she and Beth and Sarah Weinberger and a few other people were planning to go and collectively stare at Rick Hamilton, which would undoubtedly be fruitless, but entertaining. Then, Sunday night was out, because her parents were having a dinner party for an ambassador and his wife, along with the governor, and a bunch of other political types. Party business, as Steven would say. Anyway, that would mean that they’d have to make appearances, be properly well-mannered and articulate children, and maybe pass hors d’oeuves. At least there would be maids and butlers and caterers around to serve dinner. Even with Trudy’s extensive tutelage, she and Steven would definitely have made a mess with dinner.

  “Looks like no homework this weekend,” she said to her cat, Vanessa, who was sitting on the side of her desk, washing.

  Vanessa purred, rubbing her head against Meg’s hand, and then, gave her a healthy swat with her right paw—which was pretty much the way life was with Vanessa.

  They had five animals, and technically, that meant each member of the family should have one, but it hadn’t worked out that way. Vanessa was hers, and had been ever since the day Meg found her, a tiny grey kitten wandering around outside the Chestnut Hill Mall, and brought her home. Adlai and Sidney, the two Siamese, were her parents’ cats and rarely deigned to leave their bedroom. Humphrey, the lumbering, arrogant tiger cat, didn’t belong to anyone. He had shown up on their patio a couple of summers before and decided to move in, no matter what anyone else said about it. He took turns sleeping in everyone’s rooms—“sleeping around,” her father said.

  Then, there was Kirby, their dog. They had gotten him at the pound right after Neal was born—so Neal could have a twin, was Steven’s explanation—and no one could agree on what breed he was. He had grown up into a large shaggy brown-and-white dog with floppy ears and a shepherd head. The kind of dog whose loved ones were the only ones who thought he was beautiful. Anyway, Kirby belonged to all of them, although mostly, he would sack out on Steven’s bed at night. For that matter, he napped there almost all day, every day, too.

  “I think”—Meg looked at her cat and then opened the music library on her computer—“that it’s time for a musical interlude.”

  Vanessa stretched out her front paws, back arching, then jumped over to the bed and settled down to sleep.

  Meg’s favorite song in life was Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll,” but that was too rowdy for sitting down and being fretful—which was her plan. Something soothing would be preferable, so she went with The Sound of Music, since, secretly, she was a major fan of musicals.

  Or, okay, maybe not at all secretly.

  During the overture, she went over to her bed to lie down and be pensive. President. Good God. As far back as she could remember, her mother’s life—and, as a result, the rest of the family’s lives—had revolved around Washington; it was a given. First, the House of Representatives, then the Senate. Nothing like moving up the old ranks.

  Her mother had taken maybe six weeks off when Steven was born, and they’d lived in Washington for almost two years when Neal showed up, but basically, it had always been like this—the family here in Chestnut Hill, outside Boston, and her mother living in an apartment in Georgetown, flying in on weekends and whenever else she could. They were all used to it, and as her mother put it, “tried to make the days they were together count.” Those days always seemed to be hectic.

  It was hard even to imagine what it would be like if her mother was a lawyer in her father’s firm, or a teacher or something, and lived at home all the time. Not that Meg didn’t wish it were that way. Whenever Congress recessed and her mother didn’t have to be out among her constituents—possibly Meg’s least favorite word in the English language—it was so nice. Kind of
a luxury. Waking up and hearing those quick footsteps on the stairs made her feel complete inside, that everything was as it should be. When her mother was home, the footsteps never seemed to stop, as though she was trying to make up for every single day that she hadn’t been there.

  No one at school thought it was much of a big deal, thank God. They were used to it. In fact, a lot of her friends were always saying they wished their mothers didn’t have to be around all the time and yelling at them or whatever. Meg would have chosen the yelling any day.

  She ruffled up Vanessa’s fur, then smoothed it down again, except for the fur on and around her head, creating an ugly, out-of-proportion beast. Quite the stray cat look.

  It was funny—it had gotten so that no one even thought about it twice when her mother was on CNN or someplace. And it was an odd day if she wasn’t prominently mentioned in the paper and all over the Internet. For a while, Meg had saved all of the articles, but it just got ridiculous. There were magazine write-ups, too, like the one a couple of months earlier in the New York Times Magazine—a story about “The Leader of That Growing Minority: Women in Washington.” With that one, she’d even had her picture on the cover—which several national publications had also done, in the wake of her speech at the Democratic Convention.

  “A Minority of One,” she said to Vanessa. “Female Presidents.”

  Enough of being pensive. She went over to her computer, turned her speakers all the way up, and clicked on an ancient Ramones song, “Cretin Hop”—she was nothing if not retro; in fact, Beth occasionally accused her of being downright antediluvian—so that she could dance around the room with Vanessa for a few minutes. Dancing amused Vanessa.

  She was singing along and hopping on one foot, when the door opened, and she stopped, in mid-gyration, to blush. “Don’t you knock?”

  “Well, I—” Her mother was trying, unsuccessfully, not to grin. “I—the music was so loud.”

  Meg put Vanessa down and clicked the song off, her face very hot. “Did you want anything?” she asked stiffly.

  “Well, I—” Her mother’s eyes were bright, and she seemed to be shaking from keeping the laughter inside. “The music was so loud,” she said again.

  “Yeah, well”—Meg coughed—“what can I do for you?”

  “How about ‘Slaughter on Tenth Avenue’?” her mother suggested, and broke up completely.

  Meg scowled.

  “I’m sorry,” her mother said, controlling herself. “I didn’t—I’m really sorry.”

  Meg didn’t say anything, arms tightly folded.

  “Come on,” her mother said, “where’s your sense of humor?”

  “I don’t have one,” Meg said, trying to stay grouchy, but unable to keep back a small grin. It was probably pretty funny to come across an energetic hopping cretin. She looked at her mother, who was extremely soignée in a light grey wool dress. “How’d the speeches go?”

  “Not bad,” her mother said. “A little tiring, maybe.”

  Meg nodded, smoothing the fur on Vanessa’s head. Her mother spent most weekends being exhausted.

  “Well.” Her mother moved towards the door. “I’m sorry I disturbed you.”

  Which maybe wasn’t the best way for them to end the night. “You, uh, going to bed or something?” Meg asked.

  Her mother turned instantly. “No. I just thought—well.” She came back in. “So. How are you feeling about things?”

  “Which things?” Meg asked, to be difficult.

  Her mother just looked at her.

  “Oh, that,” Meg said.

  “Mmm, that.” Her mother picked up the copy of All the President’s Men that was on the bedside table, automatically smoothing the binding and putting in a piece of paper as a bookmark. “Were you reading this before, or did you start it tonight?”

  Because—not that she would go around admitting it—she did kind of like reading about politics. Novels were good, too, but her parents had a pretty amazing collection of political non-fiction, and she had been raiding it regularly for the past couple of years. And it was a lot easier to talk to a lot of the guests who came over if she knew a little about the subject. Besides, she had gotten tired of reading book after book about Iraq, and stuff like that, and it was sort of relaxing to go back in history a little. “Book report,” she said, then thought about that. “You going to call yours All the President’s People?”

  Her mother winced. “God forbid.”

  Yeah. “I’ll, uh, probably have to watch saying things like that,” Meg said.

  “Probably definitely.” Her mother glanced over. “You’re feeling a little better about the idea?”

  “I don’t know.” Meg stroked Vanessa’s fur down, making her face very serpentine. “I mean, it doesn’t seem real.”

  “No, it doesn’t,” her mother said, and Meg watched her pace, wondering if she would do that someday—or be more like her father, who just tightened up and didn’t move. “It really doesn’t.”

  “What’s it going to be like?” Meg asked.

  Her mother shrugged. “I don’t know. Undoubtedly full of media assaults, ugly rumors, and depressing defeats.”

  Swell. “Sounds fun,” Meg said.

  Her mother stopped pacing. “I’m sorry. I’m not answering your question, am I?” She sat down at the end of the bed. “There’s going to be a great deal of publicity, much of it probably very unfavorable and unkind. And your father will have to be away with me, or traveling on his own, a certain amount of the time.”

  “What about us?” Meg asked, uneasily.

  Her mother shrugged. “I’m not going to make you campaign, if that’s what you mean.”

  “So,” Meg said, “I could, like, back another candidate?”

  Her mother nodded, looking amused. “If you’re so inclined.”

  Well, she’d have to examine everyone else’s positions on the issues, first. “Will it mostly be leafleting, or standing around having our pictures taken, or what?” Meg asked.

  “Probably a little of both,” her mother said.

  Terrific. “Gross,” Meg said. “I hate having my picture taken.”

  Her mother laughed. “I do like you, Meg.” She reached over to touch her face, and move some of her hair away from her eyes. “I feel like—you’re growing up, and I’m missing it.”

  Well—yeah. That was more or less what was happening. “You’re not missing it,” Meg said, awkwardly.

  Her mother nodded dismissively, and then looked at her for a long minute. “You know, there must be a lot of crushes over at that school.”

  “Yeah,” Meg said. “And I have all of them.”

  Her mother smiled. “Be thankful. When I was your age, I was at an all-girls school, and I was absolutely terrified of boys.”

  Her mother? Afraid of men? Inconceivable. “Really?” Meg asked.

  Her mother nodded. “Really. And I was tall. Height was the bane of my existence.”

  “Rough life,” Meg said.

  Her mother’s expression was hard to read. “Well, I know I thought so.”

  Neither of them spoke, listening to Vanessa purr.

  “Was it hard?” Meg asked.

  Her mother looked over. “Was what hard?”

  Could she ask this, without starting trouble? “N-not having a mother around,” Meg said.

  “Yes, it was.” Her mother laughed shortly. “Not that I have to tell you.”

  She never should have brought up this particular subject at all. “Mom.”

  “Well, it’s not as if I’m around,” her mother said.

  No, but—“It’s different,” Meg said.

  Her mother nodded, obviously not agreeing.

  “It was a riding accident?” Meg both asked and said. This wasn’t something they ever discussed.

  Her mother nodded again. “My mother wasn’t a person who knew her limitations. She—” Her hand clenched tightly. “I don’t know, it’s hard to remember. I was so small.”

  Meg looked at
the thin, tense hand in her mother’s lap, and moved closer. “I always thought you were mean when you wouldn’t let me take riding lessons.”

  “I suppose I was,” her mother said, with very little expression on her face.

  “I don’t mean I think so anymore.” She touched the hand for a fraction of a second and saw it relax. “Mom?”

  Her mother glanced over.

  “Do you know your limitations?” Meg asked.

  “No,” her mother said. “No, I don’t guess I do.”

  “I kind of figured.” Meg tilted her head up to look at her, noticing the laugh lines around her mouth and eyes. Unexpected lines. Lines no one would ever see from a distance. “Are you going to win?”

  Her mother shook her head. “I very much doubt it.”

  Well, maybe, but her mother had never exactly been the type to embrace futility—or lost causes. “Then, how come you’re running?” Meg asked.

  “I don’t know.” Her mother’s laugh lines deepened suddenly. “I guess I think I can win.”

  HER MOTHER ANNOUNCED her candidacy in front of a huge crowd in front of Faneuil Hall in downtown Boston, the whole family standing behind her, the event covered by so many different media outlets that it was more than a little mind-numbing. Also, Meg thought that she, personally, looked sort of nervous and haunted on camera—which was embarrassing. Regardless, the level of media saturation was so intense, that she kept expecting to see her mother show up on the cover of Popular Mechanics or Ranger Rick next.

  Within a couple of weeks, the campaign became a routine like everything else. Her mother was home even less often, traveling around the country whenever she wasn’t in Washington, calling at some point every night to talk to them all. Lots of weekends, Meg’s father would fly out to be with her, while Trudy took care of Meg and her brothers. Sometimes—not very often—her mother would make it home for a day or two, and once, for just a few hours, so she could see Neal on his birthday.

  When her mother was home, Meg got accustomed to the house being full of campaign people, a few of whom she knew from her mother’s Senate staff, but most of them were strangers. Hired-guns. Seasoned hands. Gurus. Glen—who had been christened The Boy Wonder by the press—was the official campaign manager, and had become more high-strung and intense than ever, as a result. Very jittery guy. Linda, her mother’s press secretary, had only been working for her for about ten months, and Meg realized now that she must have been brought in specifically to help prepare for the planned Presidential campaign. So, the whole thing must have been in the works for a long time. Linda was obsessed with “images”—as opposed to Glen, who mostly cared about “sending messages”—and Meg didn’t like her much. Smooth California blond, combined with aloof Smith College poise. Meg suspected that Linda had been brought on because she was able to be tough in ways that her mother wasn’t—cutting off press conferences, dodging questions, withholding information until the appropriate moment. With the press, Meg’s mother was apt to be either very candid or very funny—both of which made Glen and Linda nervous.

 
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