The Presidential party arrived home from the Middle East on Friday with some acclaim and kudos. At the press conference, Mark insisted on congratulating Sharon and her staff, especially Faiza. But he had another surprise for Sharon up his sleeve for Saturday.
He had told her that he would send a car for her in the morning, so Sharon was not terribly surprised to find a White House official driver knocking on her door at nine am. She was surprised when the car pulled up to Andrews Air Force Base, then slid on through the gates and around the base buildings until it pulled up onto a deserted runway. Waiting next to the Presidential limo was Mark chatting amiably with Eddie Cooper, while Rebecca Cooper and Kira Watanabe whispered amongst themselves. Sharon wasn’t sure but thought she saw Rebecca put something into Kira’s hand. Near the limo, a small burgundy sedan sat ready.
“And there she is,” said Mark as Sharon got out of the car.
“I am, and what is this?” Sharon answered.
“We thought we’d have driving lessons today,” said Mark. “Rebecca’s almost old enough to get her license. Kira’s ready for a learner’s permit. And you don’t know how to drive yet, either. So why not have a little driving school.”
“Why not?” asked Sharon as Eddie ambled forward. “Maybe because you’re assuming that I want to learn how to drive? And I don’t?”
“You don’t want to drive?” asked Rebecca. Both hers and Kira’s mouths all but hung open with the shock.
“What’s the problem, Wheaties?” Eddie asked, jovially.
“No problem,” Sharon answered, trying to sound pleasant in spite of her annoyance. “I get around quite nicely and thus see no reason to learn how to drive.”
“Everybody should know how to drive,” said Mark. “It’s a basic life skill.”
“I’m doing pretty darned well without it,” Sharon said. “Seriously, when was the last time either of you heard me bumming a ride?” She paused. “I take public transportation or I call a car service. I sometimes even take cabs. Trust me, if I can make it work in Southern California, I can make it work anywhere.”
“But how can you not want to drive?” Kira said, her voice filled with the utter horror of one who has waited her entire life to get behind the wheel.
Sharon sighed. “Well, I didn’t get the chance to learn when I was younger. I was in boarding school in Switzerland when I was sixteen. Then after that, there wasn’t time while I was getting my degree. And then I was busy working and there just really wasn’t any reason to.”
Mark flashed a mischievous grin at her. “Oh, really?”
Sharon flushed. “Okay. The few times I did try to learn… Things happened. Not every time. But let’s just say driving is not my gift.”
“I get it,” said Eddie. “We got a little phobia going on here.”
“Not a phobia, just a preference.”
“Prove it,” said Mark.
“All right. Fine.” Sharon put her hands up in defeat. “But you guys are going to regret it.”
For the first hour or so, things ran very smoothly. Rebecca even demonstrated her mastery of the three-point turnabout, while Sharon and Kira took turns driving slowly and stopping over and over again. Eddie insisted that the most important part of driving was learning how to stop the car and insisted that all three students learn how to come to a smooth, controlled stop before doing anything else.
Eventually, however, he did have Sharon speed up a little. Mark was in the back seat with Kira and Rebecca while Eddie rode shotgun. He pushed Sharon to forty miles an hour when there was a loud bang and the car careened out of control. Fortunately, there was nothing to hit on the runway, but the car didn’t stop until it rolled onto the pebbled field alongside. The airbags blew and when the dust settled, there was a brief moment of silence.
“Don’t—” began Eddie.
“I’m saying it,” snapped Sharon. “I told you so.”
Rebecca and Kira began chattering and as Eddie began to ask if everyone was all right, the back seat door slammed open.
“Sir! Are you all right?” barked Riff Butler. “Get the medics over here!”
“I’m fine, Riff,” Mark said mildly as he shifted.
“Don’t move, sir,” Riff snapped.
“Excuse me,” snarled Mark. “There are four other people in this car, any one of whom could be injured. If I say I’m fine, I’m fine. Everybody else okay?”
There were murmurs that of general okay-ness, although Sharon did have a bloody nose. Riff continued to check Mark out until he flat out commanded Riff to look Sharon over, since she plainly had the most serious hurt, and it wasn’t even that serious. Within a minute or two, the blood flow was staunched and everyone slowly stumbled out of the car and stretched.
“May I ask what happened?” Sharon said.
“Front passenger tire blew,” one of the Secret Service agents said.
“Don’t—” began Eddie again.
“I told you so,” Sharon said anyway.
The medics cleared her first, and then checked the girls and Eddie only because Mark flat out refused help until the others were checked, much to Riff’s annoyance. Other agents were already combing the runway. One bent and picked something up, then hollered. A minute later, Riff came up with a bent piece of metal about the size of his hand.
“Looks like this is what you hit,” he said. “Hate to say it, but good thing you found it and not one of our planes.”
Sharon shuddered. “Thanks, Agent Butler, but that’s not helping.”
“I think we’ve had enough driving for one day,” Mark said.
Kira giggled. “What about getting back on the horse? We could let Sharon drive the limo.”
Rebecca giggled as well.
Mark glanced over at Riff, who was not laughing.
“I think I’ll pass,” said Sharon. “I would like to go home and get into a clean top if I could.”
“Sure.” Mark waved over the car Sharon had arrived in. The girls went with her and convinced Sharon to call June so that the four of them could have lunch together. Sharon insisted on inviting Rebecca’s mother, Cordelia, and Karen, as well, then called a local restaurant that could deliver lunch to her townhouse.
Back at the White House, Mark called Riff up to his study.
“Riff, I appreciate that I am the priority, but this morning was not acceptable,” Mark said. “If there are other people around in a situation, there has got to be a way to make sure everyone gets care, not just me.”
“I understand, sir,” said Riff.
Mark looked Riff over dubiously. “You know I’m getting a really stubborn vibe from you. I know you’ve done this before, but I’m not convinced you understand what I’m worried about. Do you have any clue how bad it would look if someone else died or was hurt worse because you guys were taking care of me? Let alone how bad that would make me feel. Do you really want that on your conscience?”
“We have procedures for that, sir.”
“Then how come I haven’t seen them?”
Riff’s sigh was almost imperceptible. “I’ll take that into account, sir.”
Mark dismissed him, still feeling nettled.
At Sharon’s townhouse, the women were laughing heartily over the lesson.
“Okay,” said Karen, as she and the others piled different toppings on their hot dogs and french fries. “I have to say, it is a little weird that you don’t drive, Sharon.”
“Maybe, but it’s not like I can’t get around,” Sharon said. “Is there any more chili?”
“Here,” said Cordelia, a tall woman with dark, rich skin and straightened hair. “What I don’t get is why Eddie and Mark decided you needed to.”
“It’s gotta be a guy thing,” said Sharon. “Women I know think it’s weird, but usually leave it at that. Guys have to teach me how to drive.”
“Didn’t you ever want to drive?” Kira asked, still a little in shock that someone wouldn’t.
“You know, I don’t remember being that excited about it for some reason,” Sharon said. “I was still living in Italy when I turned 14, so you’d think it would have rubbed off on me. But then, I could get pretty much anywhere I wanted without a car, so it never really occurred to me that I needed one. And European kids aren’t usually quite as car crazy as American kids are because they can’t start driving until they’re eighteen.”
Kira and Rebecca just looked at each other and shook their heads. Later, they landed in the living room, apart from the adults, and as Sharon passed the open doorway, she couldn’t help overhearing bits and pieces of their conversation.
“Matt said he got a library card with his no problem,” Rebecca was saying.
Sharon couldn’t make out Kira’s reply.
“Well, it’ll make it harder to track you,” Rebecca said.
She looked up, saw Sharon and started. Kira bounced around, then started giggling nervously.
“As you were,” said Sharon.
But as she returned to the dining room, she wondered just what the girls had been talking about and whether Matt was June’s nephew Matt or not.
Two days later, in Pasadena, Jody and Tiffany got called into the assistant principal’s office at their school. Mrs. Landry was a plump Black woman with tight curls in a shorter cut. Her round shape, however, belied just how tough she could be. The problem was, she wasn’t sure just how tough to be on Jody and Tiffany, who were hardly regulars in her office, even though Mrs. Landry knew them fairly well.
“Ladies,” she said. “Please be seated.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the girls murmured as they sat in the chairs in front of the desk.
“I just got a call from a Mrs. Harold Jerguessen,” Mrs. Landry said. “She was trying to reach the parents of one of our students, a Jasmine Thomas. Now, we don’t have a student registered here by that name, and I told Mrs. Jerguessen that. She insisted that we did, or at least there was a Jasmine Thomas on Facebook who said she was a student here. I didn’t have much to say to that, and we hung up. But as I thought about it, I did remember a certain social studies project last year that you two were working on.”
Jody gulped and turned pale.
“We didn’t close the account,” said Tiffany. “We’re still gathering data.”
“Mm-hm,” Mrs. Landry replied.
“Most people have figured out that she’s an avatar,” Tiffany said. “They may not know who she is, but they have mostly caught on to the joke.”
“Well, Mrs. Jerguessen said that she was concerned because her son Matthew has been spending a lot of time calling and chatting with this Miss Thomas and she wanted to meet the young lady’s parents. What do you two know about that?”
“We don’t know anything,” said Tiffany.
But Mrs. Landry caught the slight emphasis on the word “know,” and pressed her lips together.
“We haven’t done anything wrong,” Tiffany said.
“No, you haven’t,” Mrs. Landry said. “But we agreed that if I got calls from parents, you’d close the account.”
“Please, Mrs. Landry,” Jody burst out. “We need to keep it open. For Matt’s sake. His mom is really mean and won’t let him call his aunt and uncle or have the friends he wants to have. And she spies on him all the time, and it’s not like he’s doing anything wrong.”
“That you know of,” said Mrs. Landry. “Well, if you want to keep Jasmine Thomas, I can’t tell you not to. But I can ask you to send her to another school. We don’t want to encourage misrepresentation. Do you understand?”
“Yes, ma’am,” the girls murmured.
As soon as they were dismissed, Tiffany hurried to the edge of the school campus.
“We’ve got to text Matt and let him know his mother is onto us,” she said frantically scanning for teachers.
“Go ahead,” said Jody. “I’ll keep watch.”
Tiffany skittered through the touch screen on her phone, cursing as she mistyped. A couple minutes later, the phone chirped as Matt’s reply arrived.
“Okay, he’s been warned. He’s going to let his uncle know and hope for the best,” Tiffany said. “We’d better get back to class before we’re spotted.”
In Minnesota, Matt put off going home as long as he could, but his mother was still waiting for him with a new phone and a new laptop. She insisted that he turn over his current models, then sent him to his room, where an even more unpleasant surprise awaited him. There was a new book on his shelf, one that had a small camera in its spine.
The loss of his laptop and phone were only the least of the losses for Matt. There was the loss of being able to get dressed in his own bedroom – he had checked out his bathroom and there weren’t any cameras there that he could find. Not that he had let his mother know that he knew about her spy cam. It was insulting enough that she’d put an extra book on his shelf as if she’d assumed he didn’t read enough to notice.
But worse than even the spy cam was the loss of his special email account, where not only did he have all his back email, he also had all his contact information for his friends and his relatives – the ones he really wanted, as opposed to the people his mother expected him to like. Somehow, someway, he hadn’t covered his tracks well enough and his mother’s computer guru had not only found the account, he’d shut it down.
At least, thanks to Jody and Tiffany, he’d been able to warn everyone that he was likely to be on radio silence. And for some reason, he’d memorized Tiffany’s mobile phone number. But he didn’t dare call it, mostly because when Tiffany was able to answer, he was at home in his room being spied upon.
He knew what he had to do and while he was pretty worried about how his aunt and uncle would react, he couldn’t see any other options. The trick was how to pull together the necessary cash and pay-as-you-go phone and make the right reservations without alerting his mother. She had already had his locker searched at school, and he knew she’d been going through his room even more thoroughly than before. She’d even searched his car – he’d smelled the remnants of her perfume and stale vodka.
Then, on the first of June, luck fell into Matt’s lap – one of his classmates with whom he’d been friendly was leaving school two weeks early, as she did every year to spend the summer on her father’s archaeological dig.
“They always make me do this,” she groaned. “I think it’s their way of punishing me for getting out early. Anyway, they won’t let me turn in my books until the last day, so I have to find someone who will do it for me since I’ll be in the Northwest Territories. I just leave them in my locker, so you don’t even have to keep them. All you have to do is get them and turn them in during assembly period, like usual. Here’s my combination.”
Matt agreed and began working the plan. In just under two weeks, he’d pulled almost two thousand dollars in cash from his bank account. He’d researched bus, train, and plane travel and decided that not only was the bus cheaper, it wasn’t that much slower than by train and it was less conspicuous than flying. Granted, he did have a very good fake ID that Tony Garza had gotten him before things had blown up, but there seemed to be no point in pushing the issue. Matt also bought a cheap smartphone with a pay-as-you-go plan but sighed when he realized he didn’t really have anybody to call.
The next part was a little trickier, but he decided that if he timed it right, it would be worth the risk. Fortunately, it wasn’t that unusual for him to dribble a basketball or toss a baseball around in his room. He had never had an accident with the ball before, but late Thursday night, before the last day of school, the ball slipped from his hand and hit the bookshelf where the camera was. Cursing loudly for his mother’s sake, he righted the shelf and put all the fallen books back up, willy-nilly, with the camera book’s spine to the wall just in case the camera was still working.
He waited for a good hour, then crept out of his bedroom and checked his mother’s room. His father was staying in St. Paul, as usual, ostensibly to be close to the State Capitol. His mother, as usual, was sound asleep and likely to remain so until fairly late in the morning, especially given the empty vodka bottle on her nightstand.
Matt packed relatively lightly. Fortunately, the last day of school was a free dress day, so he wouldn’t have to wear his uniform and jeans were allowed. It wasn’t like he was going to stay the whole day, anyway, just long enough to drop off books and get his stuff. He finished packing, left his mother a note that implied he was staying the weekend with a friend, and at the normal time, got in his car and went to school.
The morning went smoothly, and as soon as Matt thought he could get away unnoticed, he slid out and got in his car. He did stop by his bank to pull another thousand dollars out of his account. He’d practiced a story about getting a new computer, but the teller never even noticed that he was under-age and gave him the cash.
He parked his car outside the home of one of the guys his mother had always wanted him to hang with, then got his duffel bag and walked quickly away to the local bus line, and once the bus finally showed, he headed out to the Minneapolis bus station, via the local commuter train.
The freedom was both exhilarating and frightening. But he’d traveled on his own before, usually just to visit one or the other of his grandmothers, so it wasn’t that big a deal. Or at least, that’s what he told himself.
He made the bus to Chicago just in time and it wasn’t until he’d made the transfer in Chicago to the New York bus that he began to relax, and in fact, fell sound asleep. It was still a very long ride and the bus didn’t arrive in New York City until late Saturday afternoon. Stiff and a little intimidated by the rush of people and the general skankiness of the bus terminal, Matt debated calling Tiffany to see if she could get him in contact with Jody’s father, who supposedly lived in the city. But just then he saw a concert poster and remembered that Michael Wheatly was on tour someplace on the West Coast that weekend.
So Matt went ahead and headed for Times Square and after walking around a bit, found a reasonably priced hotel with free wi-fi and a computer room. From there, he looked up his aunt’s company’s address and phone number and tried to see if he could get her office. All he got was a voice recording asking him to call back later.
He sighed. There were decent odds she wasn’t even in New York at that time. He had no idea where she lived when she was in town and given the cost of hotels, he doubted he could afford to stay more than a night or two to wait for her. He did some research, then decided to wait one more day, then head to Washington, DC. At least, he had several friends there and a good idea of how to find them.