The presidents daughter, p.21
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       The President's Daughter, p.21
 

           Ellen Emerson White
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  “Do me a favor, and wait here, okay? Don’t move.” She started for the door, hearing him get off the bed. “Hey! I said not to move.”

  Neal laughed, and got back up.

  “That’s better.” She opened the door, waiting for his second attempt, turning when she heard it. “I thought I told you not to move.”

  He laughed harder and climbed onto the mattress again.

  “I’ll be right back.” She went down to her room, changing into a Lowell Spinners sweatshirt, a button-down shirt, and jeans. Shoes. What was she going to wear for shoes? She looked out the window at the grey winter slush, and pulled on her L.L. Bean hiking boots. Then, she went back down the hall, feeling normal for the first time since they’d come to Washington.

  Neal was still sitting on his bed. “Wow,” he pointed at her jeans, “can I, too?”

  “Sure,” she said, gesturing expansively.

  “Are we allowed?” he asked.

  “Sure,” she said, in a less certain voice, but with a more expansive gesture.

  He put on jeans and sneakers, traded his cashmere V-neck for one of Steven’s outgrown crewnecks, then turned and smiled at her. “Can we go to the place with the rockets, first?”

  “Sure. Hey, Steven,” she called, as they went out to the West Sitting Hall. “Come on, let’s go.”

  He came out of the kitchen, holding a chocolate doughnut and grinning when he saw their outfits.

  “Hot damn,” he said, and pulled his tie off.

  ON THEIR WAY downstairs, they ran into Preston in the Ground Floor Corridor.

  He frowned at them. “Hmmm.”

  “Hi,” Steven said in one of his most arrogant and defiant voices.

  “The cats didn’t drag in anything very stylish today, did they?” Preston said, flashily dignified in a dark blue pinstriped suit, his shirt and handkerchief a lighter blue, the tie white—as though he might be on his way to audition for Guys and Dolls.

  Neal and Steven looked at Meg.

  “No, guess they didn’t,” she said.

  Preston nodded, with almost no expression on his face.

  “Meggie told us it was okay,” Neal said defensively.

  If she weren’t such a nice person, she might be annoyed at him for throwing her to the wolves like that.

  “Oh, did she now,” Preston said.

  “Sure did,” Meg said, in her most arrogant and defiant voice.

  He motioned towards her boots. “Tying them might help the look.”

  Meg shrugged. “I like them this way.”

  “Well, whatever. But, if you break your ankle, I’m not going to have any sympathy for you.” He grinned and gestured towards the South Grounds. “You know how many reporters are hanging around out there?”

  They looked guilty.

  “Oh, don’t worry about it—you’re kids; of course you dress this way.” He straightened Neal’s collar and adjusted Steven’s Red Sox cap more rakishly. “Have a good time, and don’t talk to too many strangers. And go to the National Gallery, if you have time. You’ll learn something.”

  “I’m not going to any stupid art museums,” Steven said. “Mom always makes us go to art museums. We’re going to the FBI.”

  Since when? Meg took her sunglasses off. “The FBI? We’re not going to the FBI.”

  “Yeah, we are,” Steven said. “I’m not going to any stupid—”

  Neal looked anxious. “I thought we were going to see the planes.”

  Preston patted him on the head. “Good idea. Take the kid to see the planes.”

  They ended up going to see the planes. That is, after the photographers outside took their pictures and reporters asked a few questions—like where they were going, and if they were dressed casually to avoid getting spoiled by the glitter and glamour of the White House. Meg repressed the urge—mostly because Preston was standing right there, monitoring the press encounter, and she didn’t want to bug him—to say that they were dressed that way because the cats hadn’t dragged in anything very stylish. Actually, Vanessa was probably fully capable of foraging through the closets of fashion-savy Washingtonians—and hauling home the spoils.

  They got into a huge black SUV—about which, Meg was really going to have to talk to her mother, given the environmental implications—with a lead security car, and two follow cars. As they drove through one of the gates and out onto 17th Street, tourists who were gathered outside watched the cars go by, and most of them took pictures.

  “We should, like, charge ’em for those,” Steven said.

  Meg hit him. “Don’t be a jerk.”

  “Don’t hit me,” he said, and punched her in the arm so hard that she would have yelped if she hadn’t been quite so cool.

  “Don’t be a jerk, then,” she said. She wasn’t even going to rub her arm, because it didn’t hurt even a tiny, miniscule bit at all.

  “The Air and Space Museum, kids?” Barry, one of the agents in the front seat, asked, and they nodded.

  The Air and Space Museum was part of the Smithsonian Institution. There were art museums—like the National Gallery, and the Natural History Museum, the American History Museum, and a bunch of others Meg couldn’t remember. The museum buildings ran along either side of a long grassy mall about a mile long, which stretched from the Capitol Building all the way to the Washington Monument, with the Reflecting Pool and Lincoln Memorial just beyond that. Over the years, the Mall had been the scene of lots of protests and marches, but more often than not, people just walked around, and snapped photos, or jogged along it.

  Their agents parked in front of the Air and Space Museum, and they went inside while everyone they passed stared and nudged companions. Meg could kind of take planes or leave them—mostly leave them—but Steven and Neal loved the exhibits, standing openmouthed in front of World War II fighter planes, one of the Wright Brothers’ original flyers, and the Spirit of St. Louis. They looked at some moon rocks, a couple of Apollo Command Modules, missiles, and Hubble telescopes—and her brothers probably would have spent the next year in the flight simulators, if other people hadn’t been waiting in line. Meg kind of thought that the space program was a waste of time, when there were starving people in Appalachia and that sort of thing, but she generally tried to keep potentially controversial political opinions to herself. It was easier that way.

  They walked across the Mall to the Natural History Museum—delighting still more tourists—and Meg kind of wished she could have a copy of one of the many pictures being taken, since the image of nervous-looking, well-dressed men walking along with three kids in ski jackets and jeans was probably an hysterically funny sight. She had been told that their agents were going to try to dress more casually, to fit in better, but so far, she hadn’t seen that in action.

  The Natural History Museum was more to Meg’s tastes, although taxidermy always made her think of the movie Psycho. Steven and Neal made a bit of a ruckus, calling each other wombats and ring-tailed lemurs and that sort of thing, Steven yelling, “Yo, it’s Meg!” in front of the Dogs of the World exhibit. None of them was too enthralled by rocks, but they went to the mineral and gem section to look at the Hope Diamond, Steven making a lot of loud remarks about how they were going to steal it, and that the agents were their gang. Meg thought he was pretty funny, but most of the people around them didn’t seem to be sure that he was kidding.

  In the Museum of American History, they looked at some old trains and automobiles, but then went to the part devoted to the history of the political process—definitely Meg’s scene. She wasn’t into the idea of running for office—probably—but, she kind of had a feeling she would probably end up going into the family business in some form. Maybe she could be a learned pundit or, at least, an opinionated and very verbal one. It might be fun to be a pundit.

  There was a special exhibit focusing on the President, mostly a pictorial history of her life and career—including a photo Meg had never seen of her mother riding a tricycle in what appeared to be Central Park.
There was lots of campaign memorabilia, dating back to her first Congressional campaign, with buttons, bumper stickers, and posters, and lots of more recent shots, including a huge blow-up of her accepting the Democratic nomination. Meg was surprised to see herself in two of them—toddling around on the floor of the House in one, and then, with the whole family at Stowe, which was the same picture the Times Magazine had used, and made them look incredibly tanned, All-American—and a tiny bit elitist. She and Steven both had snow in their hair, and she vaguely remembered their having had a fight right before the photograph was taken.

  The only thing funnier than that section of the museum was the area devoted to First Ladies. This part had reproductions of rooms in the White House during various points of history—like the Red Room, as it was in 1870—and mannequins of all of the First Ladies in their Inaugural gowns. In the room that had all of the most recent First Ladies, starting with Mrs. Reagan, there was a little empty space at the end, and a white card that said: “COMING SOON: RUSSELL JAMES POWERS.” They laughed for about ten minutes, attracting many stares, as Meg pictured a tall, broad-shouldered model of their father in white tie and tails. She only hoped that they would remember to include his silk hat. Oh, and the cape. It wouldn’t be the same without his cape.

  Since nothing could top “COMING SOON: RUSSELL JAMES POWERS,” they left the museum, fighting about where they were going to go next. The FBI Building was closed for tours, so Steven said they should go to the Pentagon, an idea Meg immediately rejected—even as Neal was saying, “Yeah! Cool!” They ended up going to get ice cream at a place in Foggy Bottom that one of their agents recommended, although they had to get back into the car with their cones, because so many people were looking at them. It was completely weird to be recognized, but the agents were a dead giveaway.

  It was starting to get dark, and they drove over to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial—which was quiet and solemn in the dusk, and then walked up to the Lincoln Memorial from there. It was large and square, supported by marble columns, and as stately and dignified as a piece of architecture could be. The kind of place where people automatically spoke in hushed voices. They walked up the long flights of stone steps, where the massive statue of a serious, but benevolent, Lincoln was framed between the two middle columns. Meg felt sort of as though she were approaching the gates of heaven, the statue lit up in the darkness, looking as if it were sitting in judgment. She could have stayed there all night, but Neal decided that he was scared, Steven was getting hungry again, and their agents pointed out that they should probably go home—home?—for dinner.

  They took the scenic route back, swinging out past the Tidal Basin and the Jefferson Memorial, and then Jeff, who was driving, slowed down near the Washington Monument so that they could stare up at the Mall, at the Capitol Dome, all of the monuments lit up and looking golden against the winter sky.

  “Wow,” Steven said.

  “Wow,” Neal said, also whispering, and Meg felt the same mingled pride and fear, thinking about how incredibly important—how utterly vital to the entire world—it was to be the President.

  They drove around the outside of the South Lawn of the White House, which was also bright with spotlights, the fountain spraying into the night. Once they had pulled up in front of the South Entrance, they got out of the car, thanked their agents, and went upstairs, none of them talking much.

  “That was really something,” Meg said, finally.

  “All of this is really something,” Steven said, and Meg and Neal nodded; the three of them stepping very carefully and quietly on the marble stairs.

  19

  BY SUNDAY NIGHT, all of the company was gone, and her mother had come upstairs from the West Wing, and they spent the evening together in the nest in the West Sitting Hall, sprawling on the couch and chairs from home. Meg had been trying to read The Making of the President: 1960, but gave up, taking a cream puff from the coffee table—First Family refreshments—and killing a little time by trying to eat it without making a mess.

  Finished with that, she looked around the room. Her mother was sitting with Neal on her lap, the two of them smiling and talking softly. Neal was lucky to be young—it seemed to make everything so much less complicated. At any rate, except for his very occasional flurries of tears, he and her mother rarely argued at all, as far as she knew. But, she couldn’t help thinking of the military aide nearby—probably on the Stair Landing outside the Center Hall, who was holding the notorious black bag—known as “the football”—which had to be close to the President twenty-four hours a day, in case she needed to make an immediate decision about nuclear war. Meg didn’t quite understand the logistics of it all, but the controls and authorizations were supposed to be inside that briefcase. Walking to breakfast that morning, she had seen one of the other aides sitting in a straight chair, silent and expressionless in his uniform. There were five aides, one from each branch of the military, who rotated shifts carrying the bag, and she had only seen one female one, so far. Even though nuclear war didn’t seem to be the biggest threat facing the country right now, the potential that it might be someday was pretty scary.

  Steven was sitting on the floor with Kirby, stuffing his face with pastries. Did he think about stuff like war? Other than in video games? Probably not. But, it was hard to tell—he was always so reserved. No, “restrained” might be a better word. Constrained. Controlled. Very, very controlled. As always, his mother’s child.

  Sometimes—sometimes, she just felt like grabbing him when he walked by, giving him a big hug, and saying, “You know what? I love you.” But, he would probably hit her. Or pretend to throw up. There wasn’t a single member of her family—except for Neal, maybe—who wouldn’t think she was really weird if she walked up and hugged them. She was maybe a little on the constrained side herself.

  She leaned forward to get another pastry, and Steven grinned up at her, showing her a mouthful of mashed cupcake. Nice. Definite charm school graduate. She sat back, eating the raspberry tart she’d chosen. But, when he glanced up a minute later, she opened her mouth for an equally disgusting demonstration of masticated raspberry tart. They both laughed, and she had to grab her Coke and gulp down half of it to keep from choking. Her father looked over his reading glasses at them, and they gave him angelic smiles. Proper Presidential children. Yeah, right.

  Her father had been sitting at the other end of the couch reading First Gentleman briefing and protocol books all night. Hard to believe there was such a thing. He was going to have to give speeches and do good works and all of that, and Meg figured he would concentrate on global warming and building affordable housing, since they were two of his top political interests. As far as she could tell, the idea that he could accomplish things, too, made him feel better about being the First Gentleman. At least, he seemed pretty secure lately.

  Neal went to bed early, her mother disappearing with him; then Steven went in around ten, and her mother left again so that she could say good-night to him—and probably to make sure he turned his computer off. It was strange to have her mother home, and able to say good-night in person. In spite of the fact that she was President, they were seeing more of her than they ever had. Kind of ironic.

  Alone with her father, Meg put her book down. “Dad?”

  He took off his glasses, blinking to focus. “What?”

  “I’m kind of”—she kept her hand in the book so she wouldn’t lose her place, then just closed it altogether—“scared about school tomorrow.”

  “Well, that’s normal,” he said.

  She brought her knees up, wrapping her arms around them. “What if they hate me? They’ll all already have friends, so no one’ll talk to me, and because of the Secret Service, they won’t talk to me even more.”

  “Of course they will.” He moved over next to her. “Just be nice and friendly.”

  Neither of which necessarily came naturally to her.

  “Say hello to people, to break the ice,” he said. “And don’t worr
y about your agents—they’ll stay out of your way. Besides, a lot of people at your school will be government kids, so it won’t seem strange to them. Just be yourself.”

  “What if they hate myself?” she asked.

  He smiled. “They won’t.”

  Yeah, right.

  “You’re going to end up being the most popular person there,” he said.

  Not bloody likely. She shook her head. “You’re only saying that because you’re my father.”

  He lifted his eyebrows. “You accuse the First Gentleman of lying?”

  Meg nodded.

  “Not only,” he said, “are you going to be the most popular, but every boy in that school is going to ask you out—I guarantee it.”

  Would it upset the country to find out that the First Gentleman was severely delusional? “What about reporters?” she asked.

  “Well, I’m hoping none of them ask you out,” he said, “but given what I heard from Maureen about the brunch yesterday, yes, I’m a little concerned about the possibility.”

  That was funny—but, she had actually been asking a serious question.

  “I’m afraid there will be some interest, because it’s your first day,” he admitted. “But, once you’re inside, they won’t be able to bother you. I have Preston and the others working very hard to try and figure out ways to help the three of you keep as much privacy as possible.”

  In a world where total strangers asked them what flavors of ice cream they had just ordered?

 
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