The presidents daughter, p.3
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       The President's Daughter, p.3
 

           Ellen Emerson White

  The rest of the top-level campaign people were an incongruous bunch. There were quite a few more men than women, and the vast majority of them reminded her of bespectacled, intellectual versions of some of the professional athletes to whom she’d been introduced over the years at various political events—extremely competitive, and even more cocky.

  And, although nothing much would really happen—other than a few meaningless, crowded debates—until the Iowa Caucus, her mother was getting more and more publicity, a decent percentage of it positive, although some of the coverage was so vicious and invasive that, even though her parents had warned the three of them in advance that the campaign was bound to get ugly, she couldn’t help being a little shocked by, say, a total stranger who would surface, claiming to have had a long-time, extra-marital affair with her mother and that sort of thing. New polls of the “would you vote for so-and-so, if Candidate A joined the race; and what if Candidate B joined the race, too?” variety seemed to come out almost every day, and her mother generally placed second or third among the eight or nine candidates who were currently officially in the race.

  Naturally, ultraconservative types were making all sorts of noise about a woman’s place being at home with her children, and the country’s need for a Strong Leader in such perilous times—which, Meg assumed, meant a male leader—but her mother was so well-respected as a Senator, that the negative publicity didn’t seem to be doing very much damage. So far, anyway. She had been a prominent member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees for years, and was the chairperson of the Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee, and she also served on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and the Select Committee on Intelligence. And, of course, it went without saying that she had successfully sponsored, and co-sponsored, legislation across the spectrum, going back to her first term as a House Representative. A pretty fair political package, as Linda would say.

  Meg and her brothers had decided early on that their favorite campaign person was Preston Fielding. He was this young, incredibly cool black guy who had been a top aide to the Speaker of the House, and was now a full-time media relations and legislative outreach consultant for her mother. Titles aside, Meg had noticed that Preston just sort of did whatever needed doing. When other people had lost or forgotten demographic sheets or expenditure lists or whatever, Preston invariably had copies handy. He would show up with pizza and a case of Heineken when everyone was getting uptight and grouchy; he seemed to know about six important people in every government agency—all of whom owed him favors; he was great at fund-raising. Important as all of that was, Meg liked him because he was so funny. And, okay, unbelievably handsome.

  Every day, their lives seemed to change a little more, as a direct result of the campaign. Like the telephone company showing up to install multiple extra land-lines in the house. Or the Secret Service all over the place, studying their neighborhood and interviewing people, because her mother was going to start receiving protection soon—an idea too scary to even think about yet. Since—as far as she knew—none of the other candidates were being protected yet, she assumed it meant that her mother was already getting significant threats. The post office was delivering so much mail that they came to the door with sacks, instead of trying to use the mailbox, and the mail was being carefully examined first, before any of them were allowed to touch it.

  The concept of which was also very god-damn unsettling.

  Maybe the hardest part of all was that her father was now out of town frequently, too. The house felt so empty. Steven would slouch around, pretending not to miss them, and Neal would have ten times as many bad dreams as usual. And Meg never knew what to do for either of them. Thank God for Trudy.

  One Sunday night, when her parents were in Pennsylvania or someplace, Steven and Neal wandered off after dinner, while Meg hung around in the kitchen to help Trudy with the dishes.

  “I can take care of this,” Trudy said, smiling at her over grandmotherly glasses. “You should do your homework.”

  “I don’t have any,” Meg said. Which was a flat-out lie.

  “A sophomore in high school, and you don’t have any homework?” Trudy clicked her tongue with disapproval.

  “Nope,” Meg said, drying the spaghetti sauce pan.

  Trudy looked at her through her glasses this time.

  It wasn’t all that hard to get away with things around her mother—but Trudy had a much more suspicious nature.

  Or else, she was just paying closer attention.

  “Okay, I maybe have a little bit left,” Meg said, and then looked at the clock. “Wonder what Mom and Dad are doing.” Of course, she could probably turn on CNN, or check the Internet, and find out, in due course.

  “They’re probably at a church supper,” Trudy said, washing the salad bowl. “And your mother’s getting ready to make a speech.”

  “Probably,” Meg said, and resisted the impulse to put the pan away harder than necessary.

  Which Trudy, predictably, noticed.

  “You know, Meg,” she said, “if you need someone to—”

  Meg shook her head. “I don’t. I mean, thanks, anyway, but I really don’t.” She closed the cupboard. Very quietly. “You think I ought to go see what Steven and Neal are doing?”

  Trudy nodded. “We’re almost finished here, anyway.”

  Hearing the television, Meg went into the den, where Steven was sprawled on the couch, a New England Patriots notebook next to him.

  “You do your homework?” she asked—and immediately regretted it.

  “Nope,” he said.

  Oh. “Are you going to?” she asked.

  “Nope,” he said.

  Well, okay. Not much she could do about that. So, she sat down next to him. “What is this?” she asked, as she watched two cars crash, rolling down an embankment and exploding into fire.

  “It’s boring,” he said.

  They sat there quietly for a minute, as two of the police cars responding to the violent crash also slammed into each other, although only one of them blew up.

  “Where’s Neal?” she asked.

  “Dunno,” he said. “He went upstairs.”

  Hmmm. “Is he okay?” Meg asked.

  Steven shrugged. “Guess so. Didn’t ask.”

  “Well, maybe I’ll go see what he’s doing.” She reached over to rumple his hair. “Why don’t you watch something more cheerful?”

  Steven shrugged again.

  Jesus. Did her parents realize that two of their children were spending a good chunk of their time moping around these days? “Okay. Be back in a while,” she said.

  She went upstairs and found Neal’s bedroom door closed—which, since her family was big on privacy, wasn’t shocking, but it still bothered her, in this particular case. The light was on, so she knocked.

  “What,” Neal said.

  Make that three children moping. “Can I come in?” she asked.

  He mumbled something, and she opened the door to see him sitting up on the bed, looking very small and very sad.

  “What’s wrong?” she asked. Which was stupid, since she knew quite well what was wrong. “Are you okay?”

  He shook his head.

  “Are you sick?” she asked uneasily. When Neal was upset, it tended to have a bad effect on his stomach.

  “No,” he said.

  “Okay. I mean, that’s good.” She started to put her hands in her pockets before remembering that she had on sweatpants. “Can I keep you company?”

  He shrugged, and she climbed onto the bed, sitting up next to him.

  “You’ve been pretty quiet tonight,” she said. “You sure you aren’t sick?”

  He nodded.

  “It’s hard, having them away,” she said.

  He nodded, and moved closer, which was a signal for her to put her arm around him—which she did.

  “He’ll be home tomorrow,” Meg said.

  Neal nodded.

  “And maybe
she’ll come home in a few days, too,” she said.

  “No, she won’t.” He burrowed closer. “She never does.”

  It was hard to argue with that. “Well, she can’t help it,” Meg said. “She has to campaign.”

  He shook his head, and she could tell by the trembling in his shoulders that he was crying.

  “Come on, Neal, don’t. Please, don’t.” She hated it when he cried—she never knew what to do. “Don’t, okay?”

  “How,” he was trying to stop the tears, but not succeeding very well, “how can she be away if she loves us?”

  An excellent question. “She’s away because she loves us,” Meg said. Oh, good. Very good. She couldn’t even convince herself with that argument.

  And it was clear that he wasn’t buying it, either.

  Okay, time to try and justify that—and she would grant him sixty seconds for rebuttal. “Neal, running’s important to her,” Meg said. “She feels like she has to do it. If she didn’t, she’d be unhappy, and she doesn’t want to be unhappy around us, because that would upset everyone. She’s doing it now, so things will be better later.”

  “But—” He hesitated, so she must have made an impression with that. “I miss her.”

  Good, an easy one. Meg nodded. “I miss her, too. That’s normal.”

  “I like it when she says good-night.” He snuggled next to her, suddenly smiling. “She smells so nice.”

  Kind of an alarming mood-swing, but if he was happy again, that was fine with her. Actually, her mother always did smell good—and it wasn’t just the ever-present perfume.

  “And she holds me.” He hugged himself, demonstrating. “And says that she loves me.”

  “Well, she does,” Meg said. “You know she does.”

  He beamed up at her, and she smiled back. Child psychology. She had found her career.

  “Daddy smells nice, too,” he said.

  She nodded—since, in fact, he did.

  “But different.” Neal squared his shoulders in imitation.

  “You’re right,” she said. Observant little kid. Her mother smelled expensive. Unruffled. As if nothing she did required physical effort, and she could just flit about at will. Her father, on the other hand, smelled like flannel shirts. He smelled safe. Even in a dinner jacket, he smelled like flannel shirts. Comfortable.

  “I like the way you smell, too,” he said.

  Hmmm. “How do I smell?” she asked.

  He turned his head to sniff her hand on his shoulder. “Ivory Liquid.”

  Fair enough. She shrugged. “I was helping Trudy with the dishes.”

  “Sometimes like shampoo,” he said.

  That was probably true, too.

  “And,” he took a long time deciding, “like outside.”

  “Yeah,” she agreed. “I fall down a lot.”

  “No!” He pushed her with giggling impatience. “Like raking leaves. Like doing things.” He tilted his head to peer up at her. “Steven smells like new sweatshirts.”

  “Like baseball gloves,” she said.

  He nodded, and then looked at her expectantly. “What about me?”

  “Well, I don’t know.” She traced his haircut with one hand. She loved Neal’s hair. Her mother generally cut it, wrapping him up in a big towel and using a pair of black-handled scissors. His upper lip always seemed to be smiling, and she couldn’t help hoping that he would never grow a mustache and cover it up. Except for milk mustaches. His milk mustaches cracked her up. “Like very old sneakers.”

  “I do not!” he said.

  “Hmmm.” She hugged him, pressing her face into his hair. “Marshmallows.”

  He laughed, shaking his head.

  “Ski jackets,” she said.

  “That’s no good!” He tried to get away from her, and she tightened her arm around his shoulders, tickling him. “Meggie!”

  She held on, not releasing him until a few seconds before he would start getting mad.

  “You’re mean,” he said, laughing weakly.

  Kind of, yeah. “I am not,” she said.

  He tickled her, and she managed, through the utmost self-control, not to react.

  “You’re not ticklish?” he asked doubtfully, pausing.

  “Sorry, kiddo.” She grinned at him. “Want to go watch TV with Steven?”

  “Will you make popcorn?” he asked.

  They had eaten two huge bowls of popcorn that very afternoon, while watching one of her parents’ favorite old movies, What’s Up, Doc? “Again?” she said.

  He nodded enthusiastically. “And use a real pan? And put in way too much, so we can watch the cover come off?”

  She looked at him for a second, wondering vaguely why stupid little things always made people happy.

  “Yeah,” she said. “Sure.”

  3

  A COUPLE OF weeks after Christmas, Meg went into Boston with her friend Beth. After the divorce, Beth’s father had given her a bunch of charge cards, and she loved to go into the uptight, exclusive stores on Newbury Street, look disreputable enough to irritate salespeople, then whip them out and buy a bunch of stuff she didn’t need—or even really want. Meg would often comment that this was extremely nouveau behavior, and Beth would sigh deeply, and say, in a very glum voice, not everyone can be old money. Apparently not, Meg would say, and they would laugh loudly enough for the salespeople to suggest that they think about going elsewhere. Immediately.

  Actually, the concept of money kind of embarrassed Meg, and she would never make a crack like that in front of anyone other than Beth. Oh, come on, Beth would say, flaunt it; whereupon Meg would always answer, no, thanks.

  “Where’s your mother get her clothes?” Beth asked, as they looked through a display of rather tacky sweaters in one of the department stores near Downtown Crossing. Her mother often lamented the loss of the original Filene’s Basement, but since Meg couldn’t remember it, she had always figured that the current group of stores was just fine.

  “I don’t know.” Meg held up a very ugly maroon crewneck. “Lots of places. New York, mostly.” And Paris and Milan, all too often, despite the fact that the notion of not unfailingly buying American products had the potential to annoy an alarmingly high percentage of eligible voters. “Can you see anyone ever buying this thing?”

  “And here I was, planning to get it for you.” Beth held it up and shook her head. “I don’t know. I like you better in salmon.”

  Meg nodded. “Most people do.”

  “Just the other night,” Beth said, “before he climbed out my window, Rick Hamilton said, ‘God, Beth, why doesn’t Meg wear salmon? She wouldn’t look nearly as ugly if she wore salmon.’”

  “Which night?” Meg asked.

  “Wednesday? Thursday?” Beth shrugged. “Who keeps track?”

  “Well,” Meg said, “the thing of it is, he’s been at my house every night this week.”

  “It’s all right,” Beth said gently. “You can have your fantasies.”

  Meg grinned. “Likewise.”

  “That’s for sure.” Beth dropped the sweater. “This is kind of boring. Want to go hang out in the bookstore?”

  Did she? Not really. “If you want,” Meg said.

  “What about some food?” Beth asked.

  Meg shrugged.

  “Do you feel all right?” Beth asked.

  “Yeah.” Meg glanced around restlessly. “Let’s get out of here, okay?”

  “Whatever.” Beth followed her out of the store, Meg walking very quickly. “Hey, slow down already.”

  “Sorry.” Meg stopped, putting her hands in her pockets to avoid the winter wind.

  Beth frowned at her. “What’s your problem, anyway? You’re not a whole hell of a lot of fun to be around these days.”

  “Yeah, I know,” Meg said. “I don’t know.”

  “Well, what is it?” Beth asked.

  “I’m sorry. I just—I don’t know.” Meg hunched her shoulders. “Cold out here.”

  Beth zipped her j
acket up, also hunching. “Very.”

  “Yeah.” Meg looked up and down Washington Street, seeing grey, slushy snow and hurrying commuters. “You mind going for a walk?”

  “A walk,” Beth said.

  Yeah, heading over to the bookstore was probably a better bet. “It’s not far,” Meg said.

  Beth sighed, very deeply. “Not everyone has such a kind and generous friend.”

  Meg grinned at her. “Guess I’m just lucky.”

  “Not,” Beth said, “that I won’t collect on the favor.”

  “What happened to generosity?” Meg asked.

  Beth pulled out a pair of gloves. “When it’s this cold out?”

  “We’ll walk fast.” Meg started down Washington Street towards Government Center, veering down one fairly deserted side street, and then another.

  “It’s getting dark for this sort of thing,” Beth said.

  Meg looked up at the sky. “Yeah, kind of.” She turned one more corner, stopping when she saw the building with the huge “Katharine Vaughn Powers for President” banner across the front window, along with lots of red, white, and blue bunting, and several large posters of her mother.

 
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