The President’s party arrived back in Washington, DC, in the early evening on Monday. Most everyone on the plane was groggy and a little grumpy on Tuesday. But when Sharon noticed that she was still feeling down and unsettled by Thursday, she knew something else was going on. She just wasn’t sure what
Late that afternoon, June knocked softly at Sharon’s open office door.
“Got a few?” June asked. “I just got a text from Rebecca Cooper about Jodi and Tiffany’s arrival Saturday. It’s almost as if Rebecca’s planning troop maneuvers.”
Sharon smiled weakly. “Oh, dear. I know she’s trying to help, but all this fuss. It’s not going to make things any easier on Jodi. It may even make them worse.”
“But this is Rebecca we’re talking about.” June stopped, noticing Sharon’s listlessness. “Are you okay?’
“I think so,” Sharon said slowly as she scrolled through her email. “I am feeling a little off, but it’s probably just jet lag from the trip. Oh!” She frowned at the email on her screen. “Well, that explains a lot.”
She looked away, sniffed and pressed the back of her fingers to her lips.
“What’s going on?” June asked.
“Um.” Sharon swallowed. “Why I’m so out of it. My mother just emailed me. It’s the two-year anniversary of my sister’s accident. Maman wants me to call Susan, but not get mad at her if she gets snippy. I know it’s worse for Susan, but I guess it’s still getting to me.”
“Come on. Let’s go upstairs,” June said. “I’ll have Solly send up dinner and you can have a good cry on my shoulder.”
“I don’t-” Sharon sighed, then let out a soft, but sad chuckle. “I guess I do.”
She closed the lid to her laptop, stuffed it into her briefcase, and followed June into the hallway.
Up in June’s studio, a large bare room lined with fabric cabinets, a computer station, a drawing easel and even a painter’s easel with a blank canvas on it, June and Sharon flopped onto the couch at one end.
“I forgot about the anniversary last year, too,” Sharon said, not quite crying but not quite not crying, either. “It’s not like I’ll ever forget getting that call.”
She swallowed again and fidgeted with her cuticles.
“What happened?” asked June.
“I was in Shanghai. We were working on an infrastructure project with the local government – Imtech did traffic control and general transportation planning. Mostly urban, but… Anyway, that’s irrelevant. I’d just broken up with my boyfriend, who was also my boss. The relationship wasn’t any big deal, and I’d broken it off with him. We’d just started talking about marriage and it turned out he wanted his wife to stay home and raise kids while he gallivanted all over the place.”
“Charming,” said June.
“He thought so.” Sharon shrugged. “Anyway, I was still a little raw from all that when Maman called. Susan had been hit by a car. At that point, they didn’t know if she’d even live. Or they thought she’d pull through, but didn’t know how bad it was. It was pretty confused. And I was on the other side of the world. It’s damn near a 15-hour flight under the best of circumstances. But the only flight I could get had a four-hour lay-over in Honolulu. It was just hell. The plane had wi-fi, at least, so Maman was able to send me updates. They’d had to put Susan in a coma because there was some brain swelling or something. So I got there in time for her to wake up. And she was pretty lucid, which was actually a bad thing because she couldn’t feel her legs and that’s when they told her she wouldn’t walk again.” Sharon’s tears flowed. “She was devastated. She’d be denying it one minute, then raging, then just blank. That was the worst.”
June gently rubbed Sharon’s back. “That sounds horrible.”
Sharon began drying her tears. “It was. I could only stay for a week or so. Then I had to go back to Shanghai. But that was the beginning of the end for me. I mean, I loved travelling, never staying in any one place for any length of time. But then I realized I didn’t want to be that far away from my family.”
“And yet you live on the other side of the country from them.”
“It’s not that far compared to China or Russia or a lot of other places I worked.” Sharon sniffed. “A five-hour flight, maybe. And it’s a lot easier to book a non-stop at any hour of the day. I might survive living in Belgium, but that’s the absolute furthest away I want to get. Period. I mean, except for short trips. And, yeah, I know something could happen while I was away on a short hop, but still, it just feels better being closer.”
“I get that,” said June, even though she didn’t entirely. “I don’t think I’ve ever spent that much time that far away from Mark or my dad.”
Sharon pulled her mobile phone from her briefcase. “I’d better call Susan.”
But Susan wasn’t picking up. Sharon left a brief message, sniffed, then dried her tears.
“That’s that, then,” she said. “I’d better get going.”
“Stay for dinner,” June said. “We’ll eat up here and you won’t have to be alone and depressed.”
“I’ll get to make you depressed.”
June laughed softly. “Not really.” There was a knock on the door. “And there’s dinner.”
June got up and admitted the junior usher who rolled in a cart draped with a white cloth. Two filled plates, napkins, silverware, two glasses filled part way with a red wine and the wine bottle were laid out on the top. Within seconds, the usher, a young woman with a serious face and brown hair pulled into a bun, arranged the food and service on a small table next to the couch. June thanked her and the usher left, taking the cart with her.
“What’s this?” Sharon asked.
“Spaghetti Bolognese,” June said, handing her a plate. “Solly makes a really good one. You know, the kind that’s simmered for three days.”
Sharon looked at the plate, then picked up her fork. “You know, that does sound good.”
“It is,” said June, who had already twirled up her first bite. “It’s my comfort food.”
“You have a comfort food?” Sharon asked.
“Mm-hm.” June slurped a short strand of spaghetti. “I fell in love with it in Milan. There was a little trattoria not far from the design house where I was apprenticing. Our boss did not want us going there, and it didn’t matter that I wasn’t a model. It was basta on the pasta, per Signor. Which is exactly why I and all the other girls went there every chance we got. And I’ve loved it ever since. At least, when it’s done right. I’ll even eat it when I’m relapsing.”
Sharon chuckled. “How is that going, anyway?”
“Pretty well.” June winced. “I was going to talk to Carla about the incest angle before things went south back in Nigeria.”
“About the what?” Sharon gasped. “June, I had no idea.”
“Huh? Did I just say that?” June shook her head in awe. “Wow. I really must be coming around a corner.” She looked at Sharon. “I’ve never told anybody. Well, I recently told Dr. Williams. She’s the one helping me to talk about it. I was going to talk to Carla first, just as a sounding board.”
“Do you want to talk now?”
“I don’t know.” June set her plate down, then gasped as she thought of something. “It wasn’t Mark.”
“I kind of figured,” Sharon said. “Was it Harold?”
“Oh, yeah. It started when I was five and he was thirteen.” June shuddered. “Good lord, I can’t believe I’m talking about this. I haven’t even told Mark, let alone my dad. I generally try to pretend that it didn’t happen. But then things seemed to be going really well with Doug.”
“As in Douglas Lee, the hair stylist you keep siccing on me?” Sharon asked. “I thought you were just friends.”
“We are and we aren’t. Doug has serious OCD issues. It’s totally weird. He works all day with people’s hair, but he can’t stand to be touched.” June took a deep breath. “But now he wants to move past his disorder and have a real relationship with me. And I want the same. I don’t even know how I’m going to tell him. And Mark. Good lord, he is going to be so upset that I didn’t tell him sooner.”
“Probably.” said Sharon. “But, June, you’re doing the best you can. He’ll understand that, even if he doesn’t like it.”
“I suppose,” June said. “He’s been protecting me my whole life. The one time I let something slip, he lost the election.”
June sighed. “It was really awful. I was gang-raped in high school. I didn’t tell Mark because, well, I was trying not to face it. Only one of the guys came out and busted Mark for it when he was running for state senate. And it looked really bad. It’s the only election Mark has lost.”
“Oh, June!” Sharon gasped, then got a hold of herself. “That’s horrible. What? You haven’t been through enough?”
“That’s why it’s so hard to tell Mark. It could really hurt him if it got out.”
“But, June….” Sharon swallowed, debating which issue to deal with first. “My god, you’ve been dealing with some terrible shit. But, but…. Look, hiding it hasn’t helped your brother. It hasn’t helped you deal with it.”
“I know.” Tears began to fall down June’s cheeks.
Sharon put her hand on June’s arm. “I’m guessing you haven’t been wanting to deal with it all, yourself.”
“You can say that again.” June paused and took a very deep breath. “I don’t want people feeling sorry for me. And I’ve mostly gotten past it.”
“Except for your relapses.”
June sighed. “Except for those.” She looked down at her spaghetti. “I was supposed to be cheering you up.”
“You did.” Sharon shrugged. “I suppose we both needed each other today. It happens. You made me feel better. I hope I helped you feel better.”
“Yes.” June aimlessly twirled some spaghetti, then straightened and held up her glass. “We are strong women.”
Sharon tapped her glass against June’s. “We are, indeed. That’s why we can hold each other up.”
“Yeah. We can do that.”
The two turned back to their meal, with the conversation bouncing back and forth between Sharon’s grief, June trying to tell her brother about her past and all manner of topics in between. By the time Sharon left the White House, the only problem the two hadn’t entirely solved was what to do about Rebecca Cooper and the arrival of Jodi and Tiffany.
The two girls were scheduled to fly into Washington Friday evening with Jodi’s older sister Toby. Michael and Inez were to fly down from New York in time to meet them, then after Jodi and Tiffany were settled at their new school, Toby would go to New York with Michael and Inez.
Sharon had to concede that Rebecca had considerable justice on her side. There was no question that Jodi was shy and that being the center of attention made the teen very uncomfortable. And Sharon knew that while Jodi was excited about meeting the President, she was also more than a little freaked out.
The problem was, Rebecca hadn’t taken into account that the President had his own schedule, as did Michael, as did Karen Tanaka (which given that Kira didn’t drive yet, made it difficult for her to plan getting around). In addition, Rebecca had more or less assumed that Jodi and Tiffany would join Kira, Matt, Tony and herself in rotation as the President’s assistants when Gen Flowers was unavailable. It was an assumption that had Sharon concerned since neither the President nor Jodi and Tiffany had said anything about it.
So Sharon made a point of squeezing in a quick briefing with Mark late Friday afternoon
“I thought the world was more or less at peace,” Mark said as Sharon entered the Oval Office.
Ginger Peachy and Kickie Poo yipped excitedly and ran over to Sharon, who bent and patted the tiny orange dogs as Mark shushed them.
“The world is,” Sharon said. “This is a domestic issue.”
“Not your usual bailiwick.” Mark put down the tablet that he was reading and gestured at Sharon to sit down on one of the couches.
“It’s about the Big Arrival tonight and tomorrow,” Sharon said.
“Oh, that.” Mark chuckled as he got up and got two mugs from the credenza. “It’s getting to be quite the production.”
“It is.” Sharon sighed. “I have to give Rebecca credit. She is being very sensitive to Jodi’s issues, and she’s come up with a very appropriate plan.”
“It works for me,” Mark said. He finished pouring coffee into the mugs, added a dash of sugar to Sharon’s, then sat down across from her. “Eddie confirmed that they’re on board. Karen’s okay with it. Even Roy said he could get Tony there.”
“Yeah, well, Rebecca forgot one little detail.” Sharon took her mug and sipped. “Or maybe I just wasn’t in on that group of emails. She is expecting Jodi and Tiffany to join the rotation as your assistants.”
Mark laughed full out. “No. She forgot to talk to me about that, too. She is her father’s daughter. I was going to extend the offer, however.”
“You’re not just saying that?” Sharon said.
“I don’t just say things. You know that.” Mark paused as Sharon shrugged. “Okay. I suppose you have to be sure. But I really was going to ask Jodi and Tiffany to join that merry little band.”
“Are you going to be okay if Jodi decides she’d rather not?” Sharon asked.
Mark’s eyebrows lifted. “Do you think she doesn’t really want to?”
“I have no idea,” Sharon said. “I’m pretty sure Tiffany is all for it. But Jodi… You think I don’t want to be in the public eye. She’s way more shy than I am. On the other hand, she could be totally cool with it. There’s no real way of knowing.” Sharon paused. “I’m just afraid that if you ask her, she’ll say yes whether she wants to or not. Or that you’ll be annoyed if she turns you down.”
“Hm.” Mark sipped his coffee as he thought it over. “You know, it never occurred to me that she might turn the job down. Or might want to. Huh.” He finally shrugged. “It’ll be okay. I’d like to have her. She seems like a really smart kid. But I’m okay with it if she doesn’t want to.”
“Good. I’ll try to talk to her tonight, if I can get her away from her dad long enough.” Sharon quickly checked her phone. “In fact, I’d better be on my way. Do you know if Matt’s ready?”
“I’ll text him now,” said Mark, pulling out his phone. “And I think I saw a text or something that Kira was on her way in from the front gate. You sure you don’t want a car?”
“No point.” Sharon put down her mug and stood up. “Inez has already arranged for a stretch limo for the ride to the hotel. And they’ll get me to the Coopers’ tomorrow for the welcome party.”
Mark chuckled again. “Troop maneuvers.”
“No kidding. But if those kids want to move as a pack, it’s going to take troop maneuvers to do it. At least, Rebecca backed off meeting Jodi and Tiffany at the airport.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow, then,” Mark got up as well.
Sharon took off, completely unaware that Mark was grinning as he watched her go. Her focus was on collecting Matt and Kira and getting them to the Metro and National Airport before Jodi and Tiffany’s plane arrived from Los Angeles.
The teens were ready and eager to go, although Kira was still a little steamed that Rebecca had wanted to go to the airport instead of Kira.
“I mean, it doesn’t make sense,” Kira said again as they got onto the Metro car. “I mean, I get that Rebecca is excited about meeting them face to face. But she said she wanted Jodi to feel comfortable and not have a crowd there.”
“Which is what we’re doing,” said Matt.
“But I’m the only one here who has actually met her before. I mean, come on. Technically, you shouldn’t even be here.” Kira jabbed Matt in the chest as she rocked with the movement of the subway train.
“I think Jodi will be fine,” Sharon interjected. “And there’s Tiffany to consider, too. Rebecca had a good plan. We’ll say hi, then let the girls spend some time with their dad tonight.”
Which meant that Kira immediately started thinking up activities for the group to do over the next few weekends, since school was about to start for all of them, never mind that they were mostly going to different schools.
Sharon, Matt and Kira arrived at the airport just after the plane from Los Angeles was to have landed, but it had been delayed and wouldn’t land for another thirty minutes. On the other hand, Michael and Inez had been waiting around for over an hour. Which meant that Michael was pretty antsy by the time his daughters stepped out of the secured area into the baggage claim.
The squealing and hugging and general merriment was almost overwhelming. But Sharon noted that Jodi seemed to be handling it well. Sharon also noted the gleam of lust in Toby’s eyes as she met Matthew Jerguessen. Too bad Matt seemed to only have eyes for Tiffany and that Tiffany seemed to reciprocate. Sharon wondered about that.
Still, as the group waited for the bags to come off the plane, Sharon managed to pull Jodi aside.
“Did Rebecca talk to you about working for the President?” Sharon asked quickly.
“Oh. Yeah.” Jodi smilled. “I can’t wait.”
Sharon blew out a breath in relief. “Great. Rebecca forgot to talk to him about it, though.”
“Oh, no!” Jodi turned pale.
Sharon patted her arm. “It’s fine. I talked to him this afternoon. He’s looking forward to having you. And Tiffany, if she wants.”
“Whew!” Jodi laughed. “I want. And Tiffany does, too. Only I think it’s more about Matt for her. I think they really like each other.”
“Yeah, I was noticing that. What’s going on?”
“They just emailed a lot last spring, before Matt went to Washington. And they’re still emailing and texting and all that stuff. They don’t leave me out. They just have their own vibe is all.”
“Oh. That’s interesting.”
Jodi shrugged and hurried off to talk to Kira while Michael got cornered by a fan and had to sign an autograph and pose for a picture. Then Inez signalled and the teens closed ranks around him so that they could get to the waiting limo.
The next day, Michael and his family arrived early at the townhouse where Sharon lived. She was dressed, but just barely. The limo only had to wait a few minutes for Sharon to pull her hair into a ponytail and then grab the salad she’d promised to bring.
The party was at the Cooper home in Vienna, Virginia, a suburb at the end of the DC Metro line feeding into the city. It was a quiet area filled with split-level homes surrounded by lots of trees. The house shared by Eddie and Cordelia Cooper and their four children was a colonial with two stories and a basement that opened onto the lush green backyard.
Rebecca Cooper had arranged that everyone would meet there for a welcome/school’s starting party, the idea being that the more casual setting would make Mark less intimidating for Jodi. It was a kind thought. But Jodi found herself managing the crowd quite well. She knew most of the teens there, if not in person, then by video chat. The parents were pretty much non-entities, although Jodi was polite and thanked the Coopers for inviting her and her family.
Toby took over the social duties after that, introducing Jodi, Tiffany, Michael and Inez to Eddy and Cordelia, then Roy and Melody Hodgkiss, and Tony Garces, then Karen Tanaka and Hideo Matsumoto, and Kira and Allie, and finally to Matt and June.
Mark slipped into the party somewhat later, which turned out to be lucky for Toby. As soon as she saw him, her jaw dropped.
“He’s gorgeous,” she whispered to no one in particular.
Sharon, however, happened to overhear.
“Do you want me to introduce you?” Sharon asked Toby.
“No!” Toby yipped. “Yes! No. Let’s wait a few minutes. I mean, he just got here, right?”
Sharon laughed as Toby wandered to the other part of the backyard from where Mark was.
Mark, for his part, got a can of beer and wandered somewhat aimlessly until he saw Tony Garces talking rather animatedly with a slender blonde teen-age girl. Curious, Mark wandered closer.
“But I still use pen and paper,” Tony was saying.
“Of course,” the young girl said. “It’s totally a fixed medium. You can easily scan it. Still, you’ve got to admit that the new e-pens are working just as well as a pencil.”
“Not as well as a pencil.” Tony looked up and grinned at Mark. “Oh, hi. This is Jodi.”
Jody grinned and stuck out her hand. “How do you do, sir.”
“Quite well, thank you.” Mark smiled, feeling a little confused. “What are you guys talking about?”
“Drawing tablets,” Tony said. “Although I think we’re sliding into the whole digital versus analog debate.”
“Does it have to be one or the other?” Mark asked.
“Well, digital does have certain advantages and it can replicate some of the softer virtues of analog formats,” Jodi said.
“Not always,” said Tony.
“It also depends on what you’re talking about,” said Jodi. “Like self-driving cars. They have been proven to anticipate a problem and brake faster than a human.”
“What about making the decision regarding where you want to go?” Mark asked, enjoying the banter immensely.
Kira got into the conversation on the acoustical side of the issue and Mark finally slipped away to say hello to Eddie and Cordelia. He was also vaguely aware of a young brown-haired girl watching him from the edge of the yard. As he chatted briefly with Eddie, Sharon walked up.
“Hey,” said Sharon. “I saw you talking with Jodi.”
“Yeah.” Mark looked back over the group. Jodi and Rebecca were talking with Matt and Michael. “I thought you said she was the shy one. We had a great little debate going.”
Sharon laughed. “Well, she told me last night that Rebecca and Tiffany have been helping her fake it when she’s nervous. She figured she’d better get used to meeting people with the new school and all.”
“Rebecca’s coaching her? That’s my girl,” said Eddie with a slightly rueful chuckle. “Has to take care of everyone and everything. No idea where she got that from.”
Mark and Sharon snorted as Eddie laughed and took a pull on his bottle of beer.
“Anyway,” Sharon said. “It seems Jodi and her sister Toby have switched roles.”
Mark nodded at the young girl on the edge of the yard. “I’m guessing that’s Toby skirting the bushes back there.”
“That’s her,” said Eddie. “You should have seen her ten minutes ago. All Ms. Social Butterfly, introducing everybody to everybody else.”
Toby appeared to have gotten her nerve up and walked toward the adults.
“Hi,” she said softly to Mark. “I-I’m Toby.”
Mark shook her hand. “Nice to meet you, Toby. I hear you’re going to High School for the Performing Arts this fall.”
“Yeah. I’m taking an acting program,” said Toby. “It’s, uh, kinda what I do.”
“Yeah. Thanks. I-I’ll talk to you later.” Toby dashed away.
“I’d better go check on her,” said Sharon, working very hard not to laugh.
June had found Toby first.
“That’s your brother?” Toby was asking her. “He is so amazing. Oh, my god, he is so cute! And he’s really sweet. Oh, my god, how did you stand living with someone so gorgeous?”
“I managed,” said June, struggling to hold in her laughter. She saw Sharon approaching through the corner of her eye and didn’t dare catch her friend’s eye.
“Aunt Sharon, isn’t he the dreamiest?” Toby gasped. “You are so lucky you get to work with him. I can’t believe how gorgeous he is.”
Toby wandered off, first finding a soda from the bucket near the serving table, then sliding back to the bushes to admire Mark from afar.
June and Sharon turned their back to her and let the laughter roll.
“She is seriously crushing on your brother,” Sharon giggled.
“Ya think? I mean, I haven’t seen a girl react to Mark like that since I was in high school.”
“Hey, guys,” Mark walked up to the two woman. “What are you two laughing about?”
“My niece,” said Sharon. “Toby.”
“Someone’s got a serious baby crush on you, brother dearest,” June said with a giggle.
“Oh, come on. She’s just a kid,” Mark said. But he glanced back at Toby and saw the look on her face and sighed.
“Don’t worry about it,” Sharon said. “She’s sure to come out of it soon enough.”
“I hope so.” Mark said.
“It’s cute,” said June.
“You don’t have to deal with the fallout from the broken heart,” Mark said.
“Neither do you,” said Sharon. “The Tobester is made of sterner stuff than that. Besides, she’ll be in New York. You’ll be here.”
Mark wandered off to talk to Roy Hodgkiss.
The party wound down fairly early. The next day, Sunday, Matt and Tony had to move into their dorm room at St. Ignatius Prep, as did Jodi and Tiffany at Seaton Ladies’ Seminary.