The presidents daughter, p.22
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       The President's Daughter, p.22
 

           Ellen Emerson White
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  “Look,” her father said. “It’s not too late for me to come with you—you can just go in a little later, after I take Neal and Steven.”

  It was a tempting offer, but Meg shook her head. “Thanks, but I can do it myself.”

  “I know you can,” he said, “but—”

  But, it would make her look like a kid—which would suck. “I’d really rather go by myself,” she said. “I’ll be fine.”

  “Well, just don’t forget that the offer’s there.” He turned over her book, reading the title. “Don’t you ever read anything for fun anymore?”

  “Well—” Meg grinned sheepishly. “It’s sort of interesting. I mean, like, we’re supposed to know stuff.”

  He grinned back. “You don’t enjoy it or anything, right?”

  Hell, no.

  Her mother was coming back, and she stood up, figuring that her parents might want to be alone for a while. “Well, back later maybe.” She passed her mother on her way to her still-pink room. “Hi.”

  Her mother nodded. “Hi. Was it something I said?”

  “What?” Meg tilted her head, not getting it. “Oh. No, it wasn’t.”

  “Going to bed?” her mother asked.

  “Not yet,” Meg said. “I’m just—you know.”

  Her mother nodded, and Meg continued to her room. Once inside, she opened the closet, trying to figure out what she was going to wear. She’d asked Beth on the phone earlier, who had suggested that she go with her tweeds—which was lots of help. She should probably pick out a skirt, though. But, if she looked too dressy, they would all think she was some rich jerk. And if she dressed down, she would look like a rich jerk who didn’t give a damn.

  Instead of being considered just an ordinary jerk, which was probably closer to the truth.

  Although she definitely had to allow for the press. Pictures of her first day of school could show up anywhere—television, newspapers, magazines, the Internet. So, she had to be smart and avoid controversy.

  Maybe she could arrange to be tutored at home.

  “Having trouble deciding what to wear?” her mother asked.

  “Hunh?” She turned and flushed, putting the clothes on her bed aside as if she were just doing inventory. “No. No, I’m all set.”

  “Oh.” Her mother leaned against the doorjamb. “What are you wearing?”

  Meg shrugged, and began putting things back in the closet.

  “A skirt might be a good idea,” her mother said.

  Yeah, yeah, yeah. Meg hung up an armload of shirts more violently than necessary. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to embarrass you or anything.”

  Her mother sighed. “I didn’t say that.”

  Maybe not directly. Meg shut the closet door, hard. “You were going to.”

  Her mother’s gaze sharpened, but she came all the way into the room. “Are you nervous about tomorrow?”

  Meg shook her head.

  “Not at all?” her mother asked.

  “Nope,” Meg said.

  “Oh.” Her mother leaned against the Early American desk, which was still empty, other than Meg’s computer. “Well, I would be.”

  Meg was going to say, “Yeah, well, I’m not you,” but that seemed unnecessarily provocative. “I don’t know, maybe I am. It’s not important.”

  “I think it is,” her mother said.

  Yeah. Sure. Meg shrugged and patted Vanessa, who was lying on her pillow.

  It was quiet for a minute. Painfully so.

  “You know,” her mother said, “I feel as if we haven’t talked to each other for months.”

  Well, that was probably because, for the most part, they hadn’t.

  “Are you still angry at me because of that night before we came down here?” her mother asked.

  It certainly didn’t rank as her favorite conversation of all time. “I’m not angry at you.” Or, anyway, not much. Meg looked at her. “I’m just—I don’t know.”

  Her mother came over to the bed, sitting somewhat hesitantly at the bottom. “I gather you and Beth had a pretty long talk today.”

  Information which must have come from her father. Meg shrugged again. “Yeah, kind of.” A rather mopey conversation, in fact.

  “She and Sarah can come down here during their vacation,” her mother said.

  Meg nodded, and then, it was quiet again.

  “Are you sure you aren’t angry at me?” her mother asked.

  Meg shook her head. “I said I wasn’t.”

  Her mother moved her jaw. “Okay. Maybe it’s my imagination. But, you seem a little—brusque.”

  “Good word,” Meg said.

  “Thank you.” Her mother reached out, tentatively, to pat Vanessa—who hissed at her, and leapt off the bed.

  A pretty clear statement on Vanessa’s part, at least.

  “You know, you make me hate myself,” her mother said.

  Were they doomed to have nothing but nightmare conversations from now on? “Why?” Meg asked, stiffly. “For bringing me into the world?”

  Her mother shook her head. “Because you’re such a nice kid, and you have this defensive chip on your shoulder all the time.”

  “I do not!” Meg said.

  “What would you call that reaction?” her mother asked.

  Hmmm. Meg frowned.

  “Exactly.” Her mother leaned over to squeeze her shoulder. “I keep trying to take it off, and you put it back on, and I take it off, and you put it back on—” She paused. “Having a laugh at my expense, are you?”

  Meg just grinned.

  “I rather thought so.” Her mother smiled, too. “Could you do me a favor?”

  “What?” Meg asked, not committing herself, just in case.

  “Tell me how you feel about something,” her mother said.

  Meg looked at her blankly. “About what?”

  “About anything,” her mother said. “Just tell me how you really feel about something.”

  “I’m in favor of the separation between church and state,” Meg said.

  Her mother smiled, but in a faintly exasperated way. “How about something a little more personal?”

  “I don’t like olives,” Meg said.

  Her mother shook her head. “Even more personal than that.”

  “Yeah?” Meg glanced at her. “Can I say what I really think?”

  Her mother nodded. “I’d like that very much.”

  “Okay.” Meg folded her arms across her chest. “I don’t like reporters, paparazzi, Secret Service agents, or starting school tomorrow.”

  “No argument there,” her mother agreed.

  “I wish we lived in Massachusetts,” Meg said. “I wish our lives were completely private, I wish you were an English teacher, I wish—”

  “My God”—her mother fumbled around on the floor—“where’s the chip?”

  Okay, that was funny. Meg grinned. “I was only going to wish for world peace.”

  Her mother laughed, hugging her even though Meg’s arms were still folded. “Do you really think it would be better if I’d been an English teacher?” she asked, her face pressed against Meg’s hair.

  God, yes. “I don’t know,” Meg said.

  Her mother nodded. “Just anything but President.”

  Well, that was certainly up near the top of the list. “It could be worse,” Meg said, and paused. “You could be Pope.”

  Her mother laughed again, kissing her on the top of the head before releasing her. “Do you really hate my being President?” she asked.

  Were they going to go over and over this, non-stop, for the next four—or eight—years? Jesus. “I don’t know,” Meg said.

  Her mother looked worried. “Well, do you—”

  “Mom, don’t push me, okay?” Meg asked. “We haven’t even been here a week.”

  Her mother nodded. “I know. I’m sorry.”

  Oh, for God’s sakes. Meg sighed. “You don’t have to say you’re sorry. I’m just not sure how I feel. I mean, you wanted the truth
, right?”

  Her mother nodded.

  All right, it was way past time to change the subject. “You know what I wish?” Meg asked.

  Her mother shook her head.

  “I wish Cary Grant would ride up and carry me off,” she said.

  Her mother grinned. “That sounds exciting.”

  Hell, yeah. She had never been one for the latest pretty boys—give her the real thing, any day. Meg nodded. “Carry me off to the frozen tundra, and—”

  “I get the picture,” her mother said quickly.

  “And we’d go skiing together,” Meg said.

  “Oh, well, that sounds like a nice time,” her mother agreed.

  “I thought so,” Meg said.

  Her mother smiled, and kissed her on the forehead. “It’s late. You ought to get some sleep.”

  Had her mother still never noticed that she absolutely hated being told what to do? “I always stay up this late,” Meg said.

  “I’m sorry, I forgot.” Her mother stood up. “You know, Meg, I think all of this is going to be okay. We’re all going to be together a lot more, spend some time with each other, find out a great deal about our family. I think you’re going to end up feeling better about it, I really do.”

  One could only hope.

  “I honestly think you are. That all of us are.” Her mother paused at the door. “Come out and say good-night before you go to bed, okay?”

  “Maybe,” Meg said, in her if-you’re-lucky voice.

  Her mother drew her breath in between her teeth. “Did I ever tell you that you can be an extremely irksome child?”

  Many times. Meg nodded cheerfully. “SAT word.”

  Her mother tried, but wasn’t able to keep her smile back. “Perpetually impudent. Unabashedly churlish.”

  “Some applause for the woman who swallowed a thesaurus,” Meg said.

  Her mother narrowed her eyes. “Incessantly obstreperous.”

  “Oh, very good,” Meg said, impressed.

  “Thank you.” Her mother opened the door. “Come out and say good night before you go to bed.”

  Meg nodded.

  20

  AFTER AGONIZING AGAIN the next morning, Meg decided to wear a pleated wool skirt and a white Oxford shirt with a sweater over it. She felt a little evangelical, but surely, that would be casual enough, yet dignified enough, to please everyone. Or, anyway, not offend anyone. She solved the shoe problem by selecting—God help her—knee socks and Top-Siders. How very girlish of her. She would reflect well upon the Administration.

  She rode in the backseat of the car, with Barry and Jeff in the front, two other agents following them in another car.

  “Nervous?” Jeff—who was a stocky, African-American former Army Ranger—asked, slowing for a red light, not very casual in his blue suit and tie.

  “Nope,” she lied. Then, she leaned forward. “You think someone who walks into school with two pens and a brand-new notebook looks like an idiot?”

  “The person looks prepared,” Barry—who was Caucasian, slightly balding, and had once been a third-round pick for the Miami Dolphins—said, even less casual in his grey suit.

  “The person looks quiet and bookish.” And, inevitably, unpopular. Meg sat back. “I don’t want to go.”

  “I think you’re stuck,” Jeff said, turning off Wisconsin Avenue and driving toward the main administration building, where she could see a press pool and what seemed to be a bunch of school officials waiting. Maureen, who was one of Preston’s assistants, was hanging around, too—even though Meg really hadn’t wanted anyone to accompany her. She liked Maureen well enough, so far, but the fact that her parents apparently didn’t think she was capable of going to school by herself, despite her express insistence otherwise, was very god-damn annoying.

  There were also several other Secret Service agents there, either for crowd control—or possibly to make sure there were no crazed gunmen or whatever around.

  The latter, being a less than comforting thought.

  “Do I have to get out of the car?” she asked, her throat feeling very tight.

  “I think it might be a good idea,” Barry said, both agents scanning the waiting group.

  “Should I swagger, or slink?” she asked.

  “Stroll,” Jeff said.

  Marcy, from the follow car, opened her door for her, and as she stepped out, she saw cameras go off and flinched—even though she had been planning not to do so.

  A man in a tie and jacket moved forward, his right hand out. “Good morning, Miss Powers. I’m Thomas Lyons, the headmaster.”

  Meg shook his hand. “Hello, Dr. Lyons.”

  Then, she was introduced to the Assistant Head of School, the Upper School principal, the Dean of Students, the Director of Community Service—the school was big on community service, she’d been told—and the Head of Security.

  Her mother had gotten some grief for not sending them to public schools, but she had used the excuse that there were security concerns, instead of harping on the more-obvious reality that the D.C. school system was not the world’s best. Her parents had seriously considered sending Neal to public school, since the elementary schools were better than the high schools, but in the end, he had been enrolled in the same school where Steven was going.

  “Miss Powers, how do you feel about starting school?” a reporter asked.

  “Nervous,” Meg said without thinking, and everyone laughed.

  She had to answer a few more harmless questions, but finally, someone asked the predictable “why are you attending this exclusive private school, when the President is such a strong proponent of public education?” one.

  Maureen quickly stepped forward. She was in her late-twenties and very tall, with black hair and skin so pale that it looked as though she had never let a single ultra-violet ray ever touch her face. As far as Meg knew, Preston had poached her from the DLC—Democratic Leadership Council—staff. “I’m afraid that’s a matter of policy, and not something Meg needs to address.”

  Which didn’t change the fact that it was a proverbial gun on the wall—and really should be addressed. “It isn’t fair,” Meg said—and Maureen looked aghast. “I’m very lucky to be in a position where my parents can send me to the best school they can find, and I wish the same held true for everyone.”

  “So, you’re advocating school vouchers?” someone asked.

  Aw, hell, she’d sauntered right into that one, hadn’t she. Damn.

  Maureen shook her head firmly. “I’m sorry, but classes have already begun for the day, and Meg—”

  “No, I don’t support them,” Meg said—and it was possible that Maureen gasped. Although, luckily, she didn’t actually topple over. “Public education hasn’t gotten enough funding for years, and it makes a lot more sense to me to do everything possible to improve the entire system, and bring everyone back into it, instead of the other way around. Vouchers are only going to perpetuate the problem that already exists.”

  Which was actually quite close to her mother’s position.

  The reporters were all grinning, and taking notes like crazy, and she realized that she was being filmed, too.

  “So,” a print person said, “you’re saying that your mother will definitely—”

  Meg shook her head. “I can’t speak for the Administration. I’m just giving you my personal opinion.”

  “How about social issues, in general?” a television reporter asked, with a very sly look in her eyes. “Would you care to weigh in on any of those?”

  She could tell that Maureen was about to drag her away forcibly—but that she was also sort of mesmerized by all of this, and wondering exactly how far the President’s obnoxious child might be going to go.

  “I don’t think this is the right time for that,” Meg said, “but thank you for asking.”

  Now, Maureen pulled herself together and actually stepped in front of her. “I think we really need to let Meg go to class now,” she said. “If you have any further que
stions, though, I will be happy to respond later, or you can go directly through Mr. Fielding’s office.”

  Mr. Fielding was Preston, although she had never once called him that, or thought of him that way.

  She was ushered into the main administration building, away from the media, and Maureen promptly pulled her aside. Dragged her, in fact.

  “That was actually pretty good, Meg, but—gosh,” she said. “Please don’t ever do it again.”

  Meg grinned sheepishly. “Yeah, I know.” Christ, Linda was probably going to kill her. “But, it’s not like my parents can pretend that my being here is anything other than what it is.” Which was, namely, a function of them being rich and powerful—and their children receiving extra advantages, as a direct result.

  Maureen moved her jaw. “You handled the situation at brunch the other day very well, too.”

  Her prospective, smarmy suitor.

  “But—gosh,” Maureen said. “Okay?”

  That was a whole lot better than the “everything you say must be vetted through our people” lecture she was likely to get from Linda later today. But, it maybe wasn’t a good sign that as soon as they separated, Maureen was immediately on her cell phone.

  Once she was inside the Upper School itself, Barry went off with the Head of Security to whatever area had been set aside for the Secret Service command center. She was pretty sure that there were going to be at least three agents on the campus with her every day, and one of their duties would be taking turns sitting outside each of her classrooms, or the cafeteria, or wherever she happened to be. Fun job. The White House had to keep track of where everyone was twenty-four hours a day, and they even all had code names—she was Sandpiper. She couldn’t help wondering what they called her behind her back. Steven was Snapper and Neal was Snowflake. Her mother was Shamrock, her father Sunflower. What a team. The Secret Service liked to keep things innocuous and neat, and it was a tradition to have everything begin with the same letter. Barry was probably already contacting the PPD—Presidential Protective Division—communications center: “Sandpiper safe and sound. Mission successful.” They talked like a bunch of astronauts.

  As she walked down the hall with Jeff, Dr. Lyons, and Mr. Haigwood, the Upper School principal, various teachers came up and introduced themselves, while passing students just stared—upon which, Meg remembered to start being nervous again.

 
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