Chapter Fifteen

White House Rhapsody started out as a novel that wouldn’t end. The romantic fiction serial was a popular blog site on its own and it’s being featured here on my main blog.

Pull quote from romantic fiction serial White House Rhapsody: And she obviously sees good stuff in you, June.

The next morning, very early, a stretch limo pulled up outside the Wheatly homestead. Sharon pushed Susan outside and all but dragged her half-asleep sister into the limo.

“It’s too early,” Susan groaned.

“Yeah, well, we have to get to Pasadena to get the others, then get across town in rush hour traffic,” Sharon answered as the limo driver put Susan’s chair in the trunk.

“Who’s bright idea was this, anyway?”

“You know who. And it’ll be fun.”

“As long as I can sleep on the way.” Susan grabbed her legs and pulled them up onto the seat, then flopped over on purpose.

Sharon chuckled and made a call on her mobile as the limo pulled away from the curb.

Once in Pasadena, the limo stopped to pick up Inez, then moved on to the next stop, where Toby, Jodi, and Tiffany were waiting. Toby complained about the early hour at least as loudly as Susan and the two propped each other up in one seat and closed their eyes.

“So where are we going?” Jodi asked Sharon softly.

“We’re having a special girls’ day out,” Sharon said.

“Just us?”

“No,” Sharon said hesitantly. “We’re meeting some friends for breakfast first.”

“For this, I had to miss school,” Jodi sighed.

Tiffany rolled her eyes. “It’ll be fun, Jodi. Better than economics class. And given that we’re ditching tomorrow, too, it’s no big deal.”

“Tomorrow, too?” Sharon asked.

“We’re not Catholic,” Jodi said. “It’s a half day and they’re only praying tomorrow ’cause it’s Good Friday. No point in going.”

“Ah,” said Sharon. Her mobile phone buzzed and she checked her email. “It never stops.”

The limo wound its way through the morning traffic to Malibu and the Pacific Coast Highway, finally drawing up to a restaurant perched over the waves of the Pacific Ocean. It was a weathered wood frame place with huge windows. Toby helped Susan into her wheelchair as the others looked around. Sharon suddenly grinned.

“Come on,” she said, leading Jodi and the others inside the restaurant.

Jodi nudged Tiffany with a nervous gulp. “See those guys over there?”

“Yeah.” Tiffany glanced at the three men in dark suits who were watching the room and the door expectantly. “Whaddya think? Hired muscle or Secret Service?”

“He can’t be here,” Jodi gasped. “He called my grandparents’ place twice this week. Freaked Aunt Sarah out and then Toby.”

“I’m surprised Toby even knew who he was.”

Jodi giggled. “She didn’t, at first.”

Tiffany laughed, too.

“There we are,” said Sharon, threading her way among the tables.

“Oh, no,” Jodi gasped when she saw who they were meeting.

Susan got a solid grip on Jodi’s arm. “Jodi, it’s okay. She’s probably just some rich broad your aunt knows.”

“Aunt Sharon probably does know her and I’ve heard she’s pretty rich,” Jodi groaned, not sure what alarmed her more—the casual way Sharon greeted and hugged the President’s sister or the fact that there were two young teens sitting next to June Jerguessen. “Who are the kids?”

“I guess we’ll find out,” said Susan as Sharon waved them over.

The girls were Karen Tanaka’s daughters, Kira and Allie Watanabe. Both had Karen’s round face and dark eyes. Kira, who was 14, wore her black hair short, almost in a fade, while Allie, age 12 still wore her hair long and straight. Both were tall and slender and wore simple light green dresses.

Sharon made the introductions all around, presenting June simply by her first name. And got everyone settled around the table.

“Have you guys been waiting long?” she asked June, as she glanced at the menu.

“No, we just got here. Was it a bad drive for you guys?”

“No. Thank you for the limo.” Sharon looked around, then lowered her voice. “Is Karen coming?”

“No. She’s stuck back in DC. Don’t you have another sister?”

“Sarah promised to help my mom install her latest sculpture,” Sharon replied.

The waiter, a tall slender blond woman in white shirt and black pants, took everyone’s orders and scurried off, one eye on the men in suits strategically placed around the dining room.

As they waited, Sharon and June tried to jump start the conversation. Susan, Inez, and Toby were still too sleepy, although they slowly perked up after the waiter brought mugs of coffee all around. Jodi was clearly too shy to say much, and while Tiffany and Allie managed to say a few words to each other, Kira held hard and fast onto her sullen scowl, daring anyone to speak to her. June glanced nervously at Sharon.

“They’ll be all right,” Sharon whispered. “It’s just going to take a few minutes.” She smiled at Kira. “Have you been having a good time with your dad this week?”

“No,” said Kira.

“He hasn’t been around much,” Allie said, then fell silent as Kira glared at her.

“That sucks,” Tiffany said. “I vote we banish the topic of fathers for the day.”

“My dad’s cool,” said Toby, who then jumped. She glared at Susan, who stared her down. “Oh. Yeah. We don’t have to talk about dads.”

Fortunately, at that point, the waiter brought everyone’s breakfasts. As soon as she had left, June cleared her throat.

“The reason we’re here is to enjoy a special girls-only day,” June announced. “After we finish breakfast, we’ll be headed for this wonderful spa not far from here. We’re talking massages, mud baths, facials, make-overs. You name it.”

“Oh, beyond super,” crowed Toby. “You think I could get a seaweed wrap?”

“I’m sure you can,” said June.

“Thank you, Ms. Jerguessen,” Jodi whispered. She looked at Sharon for help.

Sharon patted her hand. “It’ll be fun.”

“Thanks, June,” Allie said, grinning.

“Thanks,” muttered Kira. Her scowl softened a bit and she began to eat.

As did everyone else except June. With some of the strangeness eased and something easy to talk about, the girls slowly began chatting about what they wanted to do at the spa. Sharon smiled as the ice thawed, although part of her wondered why June only picked at her fruit plate. Her eyes caught Jodi and Tiffany’s and Sharon realized that the two girls had noticed June picking, as well.

It didn’t take long to finish eating and everyone sorted themselves into the two limos. A short drive later and they were at the spa, high in the hills overlooking the ocean. June, Susan, Inez, Toby and Allie all opted for seaweed wraps, while Sharon, Jodi, Tiffany and Kira chose the mud bath to start with. Jodi and Tiffany ended up in one bath and Sharon and Kira sat side by side in another.

The oozing black mud was warm and soothing and deeply relaxing. But after a few minutes, Sharon noticed a tear running down Kira’s face.

“You okay?” Sharon asked.

“Yeah.” Kira sniffed. “I’m fine.”

“I get the feeling things haven’t gone so well at your dad’s,” Sharon said quietly.

“You won’t tell Mom, will you?” Kira looked at Sharon anxiously.

“If it won’t hurt you, I won’t,” Sharon said. “What’s going on?”

Kira blinked, unable to wipe her tears. “I don’t wanna get Dad pissed. He’ll make Mom come back to California.”

“How can he do that?” Sharon felt something uncomfortable tugging at her. Karen rarely said anything about her ex-husband, although at some point she’d mentioned that George Watanabe was head of emergency medicine at County/USC hospital, which was just east of downtown. While the hospital was best known as the last resort for the many uninsured people in the city, it also boasted one of the top trauma centers in the country.

“I don’t know.” Kira shook her head. “He just can. He doesn’t even like seeing us, but that won’t stop him.”

“How do you know he doesn’t like seeing you?”

“He’s been at work all week. And when he is home, all he does is tell us what we’re doing wrong. We got in on Saturday and he told Grandmother Watanabe to turn us into proper Japanese girls, and then he left for work and didn’t come home ’til Tuesday. And then yelled at Allie about her grades. I mean, I can take it, but Allie can’t. You’d think Grandmother would stand up for us, but she doesn’t do anything except watch soaps on TV and make us do all the housework.” Kira sniffed again. “It just sucks, you know?”

“Sounds like it.” Sharon leaned back in the mud, considering. “I can imagine your mom might get mad.”

“There’s nothing she can do,” sighed Kira. “It’s just the way things are, you know?”

“Do you talk to your mom about it?”

“I can’t. She gets upset and I don’t want her getting into trouble with him. I mean, he’s mean. Really, really mean. He’ll go to court to make mom quit her job just for spite. He’s taken her to court every time she’s gotten a boyfriend, and it’s not like she makes that much money.” Kira coughed, then shook her head. “Look. It’s no big deal. I’ll figure it out.”

“I’m sure you will, Kira.” Sharon sighed inwardly. While she couldn’t help wondering just how bad things were – after all, it wouldn’t be the first time a teenager had overstated an issue – Sharon couldn’t help but see that Kira was pretty miserable.

The day was intended as a relaxing retreat, but shortly after lunch, Sharon spotted someone else not having a very good time. It was June. The spa, with its sweeping overlook of the Pacific Ocean, boasted an excellent kitchen, as well. Sharon watched June order her favorite salad only to see her nibble, at best. So Sharon made a point of catching June alone as they waited for their facials.

“You doing okay?” Sharon asked.

June tightened the pink plush terry robe around herself. “Oh, I’m fine. The girls look like they’re having a good time.”

Sharon looked toward the salon, where Kira and Tiffany were chatting and texting. Kira was looking more relaxed, at least.

“They seem to be,” said Sharon. “And we really appreciate the gesture. But you seem a little off.”

“I’m—” June wilted under Sharon’s soft, but firm look. “It’s Matt again. I tried to talk to him yesterday, but Shawna’s got my phone number blocked and when I called Shawna to find out what was going on, she hung up on me.”

“That’s cold.”

June shrugged. “That’s normal. They may hate Mark on that side of the family, but they don’t even notice me. Anyway, I’m more worried about Matt. He sounded pretty miserable when I did talk to him earlier this week.”

“Who’s Matt?” Jodi asked, coming up silently in her slippers and robe.

“My nephew,” said June. She smiled. “His mother doesn’t like me and his Uncle Mark, so she’s blocked our phone numbers and has some sort of blocking software on his laptop. You know, stuff like that.”

“Huh,” said Jodi. “I wonder which software.”

“I just wish I could find a way to get over the digital moat,” June sighed.

“I could come up with something,” Jodi said.

“Jodi,” Sharon warned.

June finally smiled. “That’d be nice, Jodi, but it’d have to be pretty sophisticated. Shawna seems to have most of her bases covered.”

Jodi shrugged. “Tiffany and I can work on it tomorrow. Right now, we’re trying to work out how to play some music with Kira and Allie.”

“That’s right,” said Sharon, musing. “They play strings.”

“Violins,” said Jodi, nodding. “Tiffany wants me to play viola so we can do a string quartet. They’re talking Beethoven, right now, though I’d rather do Haydn. Anyway, what time are we going to be done here?”

“I guess anytime you like,” said June.

Jodi looked at Sharon. “Toby wants to get her nails done and I was kinda hoping for a massage.”

Sharon nodded. “And I want my facial. Let’s do it, then. Is that okay, June?”

“Yeah. We can be done by three.”

“Okay. Now we just have to figure out where.” Jodi frowned as she wandered back to where Kira and Tiffany were. “Maybe Inez will let us go to Dad’s, but we’ll have to stop at the store, first.”

“For dinner?” June asked. “I could have it brought in.”

Jodi didn’t hear her.

Sharon chuckled. “I think she means her mother’s store. Cameron owns a music shop.”

“Oh.”

The younger girls saw to the coordination and after everyone had gotten their fill of beauty treatments, everyone loaded themselves back into the limos, with the younger girls and Inez in one, except for Toby, who rode with Sharon, June, and Susan. In fact, shortly after they had left the spa, Sharon got a text on her mobile.

“It’s Jodi,” she told the others. “The girls want to get their stuff from the Watanabe’s place. Apparently, Kira and Allie are going to spend the rest of their stay with Jodi and Tiffany at Michael and Inez’s. They want us to go ahead and get dinner on our own. They’ll pick up Mickey D’s because they want to practice.” Sharon texted back and paused. “It appears that Grandma Watanabe, Cameron, and Michael are all on board.” She looked up. “You guys mind?”

“Heck no,” said Toby. “Maybe we can go shopping.”

“Cool with me,” Susan said, grinning.

“I think Sharon had better,” said June, as she picked up her phone and made a call to change the reservation at the hotel downtown where she was staying. “You need some new cocktail dresses, kiddo.”

Sharon groaned. “I don’t want to hear about dresses. I’m at those shindigs to work. It’s not about what I’m wearing.”

June laughed. “Tell that to FashionCapitol.com. Honestly, Share, just give them what they want and maybe they’ll back off.”

Sharon rolled her eyes.

The ambiance of the hotel dining room was just what Sharon needed. She and the others had spent a couple hours at the nearby mall. June found herself quizzing Susan on her special needs, then taking rapid notes. Sharon took three phone calls, then answered several emails while the others browsed and chatted.

“So much for relaxing,” she grumbled as the four women settled in at the somewhat secluded table in the restaurant.

It was an open room, but complete with white tablecloths, red napkins, and faux candles on the tables.

“But you’re on vacation, Aunt Sharon,” Toby said, picking up her menu.

Sharon glanced over at June and the two smiled.

“There’s no such thing at the White House,” Sharon said. “Not with the boss’s first foreign trip next week.”

“That’s right,” said June. “You’re going to Mexico.”

Toby shrugged. “I thought you said foreign trip.”

Susan groaned. “Tobes, Mexico is a foreign country.”

“I know that,” said Toby. “I just thought you meant foreign, like really out there, like Africa or something.”

“Africa is supposed to happen this summer,” Sharon said.

Toby grimaced as Sharon’s phone rang yet again. Sharon looked at the read-out and groaned as she got up.

“Gotta take this one,” she sighed, clicking on the answer button. “Moshi, moshi.”

She walked out of the restaurant and into the lobby, conversing quietly in Japanese.

On the other side of the lobby, Max Epstein deleted the incoming text with a disgusted frown. Looking around, he saw Sharon and grinned. Even if his buddy Grayson had bagged on their meeting, at least Grayson had been right about one thing. Max slid his cell phone into the breast pocket of his dark tan corduroy jacket and sauntered over to where Sharon was talking on her phone.

She was obviously surprised to see him but waved even as she continued her discussion. A minute later, she hung up but held up a finger to Max while she either texted someone or added a note on the phone’s keyboard.

“Done,” she sighed. “And what are you doing here, Max?”

“I’m doing a magazine piece on Congresswoman Wilkins and I needed to catch her at home.” Max came over and gave Sharon a friendly peck on the cheek. “She came back to unveil some big new statue or something at that big Arts Center she got all that money for.”

“Huh.” Sharon looked Max over, wondering how many art unveilings at arts centers there would be the next day. “So are you staying here?”

Max snorted. “You gotta be kidding. Not on my pub’s budget. I was going to meet a friend from the local AP office. It was his idea to come here.” Max grinned expectantly. “He said he’d seen a few Secret Service types wandering around last night and this morning.”

“Yes, Ms. Jerguessen is here,” Sharon said. “We’re having dinner.”

“Mind if I join you?” Max asked. “Off the record. Or at least background.”

Sharon thought for a moment. “Tell you what. Have you done a column on June yet?”

“No. But I want to.”

“We’ll still have to clear it with the East Wing press office, but why don’t you join us and make your case? June deserves the attention.”

Max grinned. “Thanks.”

He scrambled after her.

Sharon walked up to the table and pointed back at Max. “Look at what I found in the lobby. Apparently, he got stood up. You ladies mind if he joins us?” Sharon looked at June. “He promises it’s off the record.”

“He’s kinda old, but he’s cute,” Toby said, then jumped. “Aunt Susan, do you have to keep pinching me?”

June smiled. “I guess I can put up with him if you can.”

Sharon grinned back. “Susan, Toby, this Max Epstein, a reporter that June and I know back in Washington. Max, my sister Susan, and our niece Toby.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet all of you,” said Max.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, finally,” said June as Max shook her hand.

Sharon waved the waiter over and got an extra place setting and chair for Max.

“I thought you two had met,” she said to June.

“Nope. Not officially, anyway,” June said. “He’s been at a couple press conferences I had to do.”

Sharon focused on her menu, as June asked Max why he was in Los Angeles. Max explained about the statue unveiling

“Really?” June asked. She looked over at Sharon and Susan, who shrugged.

“It’s gotta be Maman’s big unveiling,” Susan said.

Max suddenly nodded. “That’s right. Your mother is a sculptor.”

Susan grinned. “You really do your homework.”

“Not entirely.” Max frowned but found himself grinning back at Susan. “If I remember correctly the artist’s name is Fa-something or other.”

“Fauvrillet,” said Sharon. “That’s my mother’s family name. She usually signs her work that way.”

Max suddenly realized that Susan was giving him the come-hither eye. He was about to respond when Sharon’s hand landed on his forearm.

“Does this mean you’re going to be there, too, Max?” she asked.

“Uh, yeah. I was planning on it.” Max smiled weakly.

“We’re going to sneak June in,” Toby said. “And there is going to be a totally awesome party at my folks’ place. And my dad is going play something at the unveiling.”

“I don’t want to intrude,” Max said.

Susan snorted. “And you call yourself a reporter?”

“Okay, caught me.” Max smiled at her again, trying to figure out what it was that made him grin when he looked at her. “But how do you know so much about reporters?”

“I used to be as big a celebrity as my swell-headed brother, you know,” sniffed Susan, straightening in her chair.

“Since when?” said Sharon.

“I still am in the dance world,” Susan said. “Well, sort of.”

“Suse – two years as prima ballerina with a small company does not make you an international dance star.”

“It doesn’t?”

Sharon rolled her eyes. “Not when you’re dancing for the Ballet of the Pacific. The best you ever got with the London Ballet was featured dancer.”

“That’s still pretty hot,” said June.

Sharon and Susan looked at each other and started laughing.

“Duh,” said Sharon. “It’s just not rock star big.”

Susan rolled her eyes. “You gotta understand, the bar’s set pretty high in our family. Before sweet cheeks here got her gig at the White House, she was our resident underachiever.”

“Now Toby is,” said Sharon with a wicked grin.

“Aunt Sharon!”

Max knew he was supposed to be focusing on June, but kept finding himself pulled between Sharon and Susan. Finding himself completely overwhelmed, he finally excused himself and left. Sharon took advantage of his departure to claim an early start the next day, and while she, Susan, and Toby went with June up to her suite, they left shortly afterward.

The next day was one of those perfect Southern California days, with bright blue sky, a couple white puffy clouds floating through and temperatures in the high 70s. At the new arts center in South Los Angeles, a light breeze wafted through, tickling at the orange canvas cover over Madeleine’s latest work. Then, as the huge piece of fabric floated down, Sharon and Susan gasped loudly.

“I knew it!” Susan crowed. “It’s Angels. I knew it!”

Sharon started crying. “Oh my god, it looks just like her drawing.”

June looked puzzled. The bluish metal sculpture featured a host of waving, elongated triangles all balanced on a single point. The breeze set the triangles waving gently and yet the point remained steady.

Madeleine took the podium next to the sculpture and looked right at her children and grandchildren, who were standing to one side, with June and Inez in the middle and Michael up front where he could be easily seen. Jodi, Tiffany and Kira and Allie Watanabe were standing at the edge of the group, holding their instruments.

“Now you know why I wanted you all here today,” Madeleine said as she smiled at them. Short and a little on the round side, Madeleine was actually more muscular than fat. Her hair was a light brown with gray streaks at her temples, and as usual, piled on top of her head with stray strands catching in the breeze. She wore a black knit top over black pants and over that a perfectly proportioned kimono decorated with bright pink, green, blue and yellow flowers.

Her husband, Robert Wheatly, stood behind her, wearing a blue chambray shirt and a tie that was at least as colorful as his wife’s kimono. His jacket was tan and Italian cut and he wore dark slacks with pleated fronts and dark dress shoes. His light hair was not only very thin on top, but shot through with white and the tall lean frame that his children had all inherited was slightly hunched and his dark-framed narrow glasses continually slid down his nose.

Madeleine turned back to the crowd.

“There is a story behind this sculpture,” she said, her accent sounding somewhat French, somewhat English, with American overtones. “Many, many years ago, when I was a young woman, my uncle Michel, a Jesuit priest told me about the theological question, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? I did not care about the theology then and still don’t. Ah, but what an image, and when I was studying art in London a year later, I decided I wanted to make a sculpture of it. The problem was how do I keep all these pieces moving and balanced and not have it fall down? So I drew my idea and talked to my professor who sent me to a civil engineering company in the city. There, I might find an engineer who would like the challenge of making this work. Most of the engineers wanted money or simply did not care. But one young American found my idea very interesting.” Her eyes full, Madeleine looked happily back at her husband. “And I found him very interesting. However, we could not at that time make my idea work. We made a marriage, we made wonderful children, we made an incredible life. But we could not make the sculpture happen. Until two years ago, when Congresswoman Wilkins made her very generous offer to provide a work of art for the center and put out a call for proposals. I told my husband I would like to submit a work and he smiled at me and said, ‘Madeleine, I know how to make it work now.’  And he did. This sculpture could not have happened without Robert, which is why his name is at the base along with mine.” She glanced back at her husband. “And don’t be mad at me. You deserve your due.”

Robert flushed and seemed to shrink even further into himself.

Sharon laughed even as she wiped the tears from her eyes. Robert glanced her way, then came forward in answer to his wife’s beckoning. He mumbled something into the microphone, which resulted in polite applause.

Madeleine laughed, gave her husband a solid kiss on the mouth, then clapped also. She bowed for the audience, then pointed to Michael.

He caught his cue and waved Kira, Allie, Jodi and Tiffany into place, then nodded at his mother. Madeleine grinned.

“My son was supposed to play something,” she announced to the crowd, “but instead, his music will be played by my granddaughter and her wonderful friends. Let us listen.”

The four girls set themselves up almost shyly, but when the music began, Sharon found herself crying yet again. She glanced over at June, who was sniffing, as well. Sharon knew the music was Michael’s, but it was also like the sculpture – floating and waving in the breeze.

“They rock, don’t they?” Michael whispered in her ear, his voice filled with pride.

Sharon could only nod in agreement.

The applause was generous, and then there was a short reception at the arts center, while the members of the press tried to interview June and Michael, both of whom skipped out pretty quickly. Nonetheless, there was plenty of milling about by the rest of the crowd, and in a quiet moment, Sharon found Max chatting briefly with Susan and pulled him away to introduce him to her parents.

Robert nodded, then slipped off with Sharon to talk to Jodi, while Madeleine caught Max’s elbow.

“You like my daughter?” she asked, her brown eyes, so like Sharon’s, boring into him.

Max stammered. “Sharon’s great.”

“My other daughter, Susan.” Madeleine patted his arm. “I’m not angry. But I must warn you, she has been hurt. Deeply. Now is not the best time for you two. Do the two of you a favor and wait a while, hien? Just a while. After that, I think you two will be very good for each other.”

“But…” Max didn’t get to say more.

Madeleine winked at him, then turned to the next person offering congratulations.

Max took a deep breath. He’d been dating Sharon and had no clue how he felt about Susan. How could the woman have known what he, himself, didn’t? Sharon slid up next to him.

“You look flustered,” Sharon said.

“No. I’m fine.” he stammered.

Sharon laughed. “What did Maman say to you?”

“Something about your sister. Uh, Susan.”

“No kidding.” Sharon laughed. “Maman loves doing that. Susan and Sarah swear she’s psychic.”

Max glanced at Susan in the crowd, then looked at Sharon. “Is she?”

Sharon shrugged. “Me and Dad, we don’t believe in that. We just figure she’s super-observant and willing to act on her instincts. Then again, she’s pretty damned good at figuring things out.”

Max shook his head. “Huh. Um. Say. You wanna go out when we get back to DC?”

Sharon looked at him, then over at Susan. “Sure. You got my number.”

She moved off, leaving Max puzzling out the entire exchange.

Sharon, Susan and Sarah left the reception soon after, and soon everyone met back at the Wheatly house in Orange County.

There, Sharon, Sarah, and June found themselves chatting upstairs in a computer room while Jodi and Tiffany played with the desktop there.

“Woh!” Jodi proclaimed suddenly. “They got Grandmere’s unveiling up already!”

Sharon and June turned to the computer.

“Already?” asked Sharon. “So what are they saying?”

“The usual junk,” sighed Tiffany. “There’s the interview with Wilkins. Wait. Here’s Grandmere.”

It took June a second to register that Tiffany was referring to Madeleine as if Madeleine were her grandmother and not just Jodi’s.

“This day is the fulfillment of a life’s dream,” Madeleine was saying on the newscast on the computer screen. “There are no words to express it.”

“Mrs. Wheatly,” asked the reporter. “What do you think about the president’s sister coming to see your unveiling?”

“It was very nice of her to come,” Madeleine replied, somewhat coolly. Then she brightened. “Ah. There are my daughter and her friend. I must say hello.”

She pushed past the reporter.

June gasped while Sarah and Sharon chuckled.

“Well, I guess I know how I rate,” June said, trying not to sound as hurt as she felt.

“Yeah, you do,” Sarah said, laughing harder.

“Oh, June,” Sharon said, putting her hand on June’s arm. “That means you’re rating pretty high with Maman.”

“What?”

Sarah gasped and put her arm around June’s shoulder. “June, what Maman was saying is that it’s not important that you’re the president’s sister. What’s important is that you’re Sharon’s friend.”

Tiffany giggled. “Looks like you just got adopted.”

Sharon smiled. “June, Maman has never cared about how famous or important someone is. She’s a total artist that way. What she cares about is how nice you are to us, and even then she gives most folks a lot of leeway.”

“As far as she’s concerned, you’re a part of our family now,” said Sarah. “You gotta understand, we never lived near our relatives. So Maman adopted our friends. Seriously, ask her some time how many kids she has. She’ll tell you she has six. And there’s only four of us, but she counts Inez and Cameron.”

“And the only reason she doesn’t count more of our friends,” Sharon continued, “is that they have parents and Maman doesn’t want to disrespect them. She can get away with it with Inez and Cameron because of Michael – they’re daughters-in-law.”

“But I thought Inez and Michael aren’t married,” said June.

Jodi rolled her eyes. “As good as. And like that’s going to make a difference with Grandmere.”

“It doesn’t for me,” Tiffany said. “I’ve got an extra grandma.”

“But she doesn’t even know me,” said June.

“Are you kidding?” screeched Sarah. “She’s psychic. She doesn’t have to know you know you. She already does!”

“Puh-leeze!” Sharon groaned. “She is not psychic. She’s just really observant. And she trusts us to know good people when we meet them.”

“Yeah, like your last boyfriend.” Sarah snorted.

Sharon rolled her eyes. “That was not a typical situation.”

“Hah! She was so onto him.”

“That’s neither here nor there and has nothing to do with June.” Sharon turned to her friend. “What we’re trying to say is that Maman doesn’t care who you’re related to or what your name is or any of the extraneous stuff. What she cares about and is pretty good at seeing is what’s in your heart. And she obviously sees good stuff in you, June.”

“And we do, too,” said Sarah, giving June an extra squeeze around the shoulders.

Tiffany grinned at June. “You’ll get used to it. It’s pretty cool.”

“Yeah. I guess,” June said, smiling in spite of the awkward feeling in her gut. “I guess it is.”

The next day, Jodi and Tiffany hid out in Tiffany’s bedroom. The Watanabe girls had left that morning for Washington. June was on her way to Minnesota but did take a call from Jodi and Tiffany before she left to give them some key information.

“You want to do the talking?” Jodi asked Tiffany.

“Sure,” Tiffany said. “June should’ve called him by now. You got the number?”

“Dialing,” Jodi said, pressing the numbers into the cell phone. She handed it to Tiffany as the phone on the other end rang.

In Minnesota, Matt Jerguessen saw the odd number flashing on his cell phone, along with the name Jasmine Thomas and a picture of an attractive blond girl. His aunt said she was safe. Matt shrugged and decided to answer it.

“Is this Matt?” a young female voice asked on the other end. “My name is Tiffany. Your Aunt June asked us to call.”

“Yeah. She said something about a Jodi Wheatly who works with my uncle.” Matt glared sullenly at his computer.

“Jodi’s aunt works with your uncle,” Tiffany explained. “She’s right here with me. Is it okay if I put you on speakerphone?”

“Yeah. I s’pose.”

“Say hi,” Tiffany told someone as her voice dimmed.

“Hi, Matt,” Jodi said softly.

“Anyway, your aunt said you were having trouble talking to her and your uncle because your mom has all this monitoring software on you?” Tiffany continued.

“Yeah. And she has most of their numbers blocked on my cell phone,” Matt grumbled. “Aunt June had to call from her hotel room this morning so she could get through.”

“We know. That’s so bogus,” said Tiffany.

“But what can you do about it?” Matt asked.

Tiffany giggled. “We’re Jasmine Thomas. We’re an avatar. So when this phone calls you, your mom will think it’s from this kid from California that got stuck here during spring break and we met at a party last night. It’s already on Jasmine’s Facebook page.”

“You started a Facebook page just to fake out my mom?”

“No.” Tiffany laughed again. “Jodi and I started it last spring for a social studies experiment. We wanted to test how many kids from our school we could get to friend this total stranger who claimed to go to school with us but didn’t really exist. A lot of them did.”

“Really dumb,” chimed in Jodi. “Weird thing is, it kinda grew on its own.”

“I think some of the girls get the joke finally,” said Tiffany. “But I don’t think anyone knows it’s us. Anyway, Jodi’s a computer wiz, and she can hack around your mom’s monitoring software on your laptop so you can email your aunt and uncle.”

Matt frowned. “I don’t know about that. Mom’s got some computer guy who puts all that stuff on. Won’t he catch on?”

“It depends on the software,” Jodi said. “But I have a very elegant algorithm that he’d have to look at the code to see. It operates manually, though, so you’ll have to be careful. But that’s why it stays hidden so well. So what program has she put on your computer?”

“Um, TeenGuard,” said Matt.

The girls giggled.

“Oh, that is just too easy,” said Jodi. “Mac or PC?”

“PC.”

“All right. Tiffany, can you text the addy to him?”

“Texted.”

Matt saw the beep and saw two web addresses.

“You need to go to that first site and type in the second address in the box,” Jodi said. “It’s a site that will let me work on your computer.”

“Won’t my mom find out?” Matt tried not to squawk.

“Not likely,” said Tiffany. “Matt, the way that TeenGuard works is that it takes a snapshot of your screen every time you open a new window or it sees a file with certain keywords in it. All those snapshots create these little text entries that are saved in a file and then the software contacts the server and uploads the file to your mom or her tech person. The easy part is that it only uploads the file when you click the turn-off button on your computer.”

“It’s part of the stealth feature,” said Jodi. “But it’s kind of a dumb one because it’s really easy to defeat.”

Matt went to the website and then entered the second address in the window. It took a few seconds, but then Jodi muttered her approval and soon it was as if his cursor was moving all over the page by itself.

“This is going to be a snap,” Jodi announced as windows flashed open and closed. “I’m pasting the patch directly into the program’s code. What it does is toggle off the software with an alt-shift keystroke, then turns it back on again, only it looks like you’re doing something else. That’s the elegant part. Most hacks just disable the software, but then your mom will know you hacked it. But you have to remember not to leave it on too long or it will look strange.”

“The second thing we’re going to do is set you up on a proxy server so you can email out,” Tiffany said. “That way you don’t have to clear your browser history, just in case your mom decides to check that, too. I have it set up at my place and my mom couldn’t tell if there was something funny going on if she wanted to because she doesn’t get computers.”

“Basically, it just looks like you’re going to my website, but it’ll let you surf anonymously,” said Jodi.

Matt could hear computer keys rattling on the other end and marveled at the windows opening and closing on their own on his computer.

“There. I got the last few entries out,” Jodi said. “By the way, you won’t want to turn on your computer and turn the guard off right away, because it erases the last couple entries when you toggle it on, so they can’t be seen. But it could erase the startup entry and that would look funny.”

“Okay,” said Matt hesitantly.

“Oh, and you really should hide your phone number on your Facebook page,” Tiffany said. “It’s out there in the open for anyone to call.”

“I don’t have a Facebook page,” said Matt.

“Yeah, you do,” Tiffany said. “June was a little surprised. She said she didn’t think you liked party girls that much.”

“I don’t.” Matt did some clicking on his computer. “Oh, man. My mom must have put this up and friended all those girls. She loves those idiots.”

“More of a LinkedIn kind of guy?” Tiffany teased. “Or are you on Reddit?”

“I’m not on any of them,” grumbled Matt. He paused. “I don’t have a lot of friends. I mean, I have friends at school, but Mom doesn’t let me talk to them because they’re… Well, poor and smart and she thinks I should hang with the popular kids.”

“Eeeuw!” Tiffany and Jodi groaned together.

“Totally my problem,” said Jodi. “My mom wants me to be normal and all the normal kids are so boring. Or into drugs and other stupid stuff.”

“Same here,” said Matt.

“Well, now you’ll be able to email your real friends,” said Tiffany. “Here’s the address for the proxy server. You can get to the free email sites from there and sign up for your secret address.” She giggled.

“Okay. Uh, thanks. Oh, and do you have an email address?”

“Sure.” Tiffany spelled it twice to be sure Matt had it. “And can you email us your new address so we can give it to Jodi’s aunt so she can give it to June?”

“Sure.”

They clicked off and Matt went directly to the proxy server site and signed up for a new address.

Anne Louise Bannon

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