The following Monday brought the sad news that Caroline Eddington had passed away. The news made for a very long week for everyone in the White House. The funeral was held on Friday. Al Eddington was his usual stoic self, which bothered Mark a lot more than he realized.
“Something just seemed off about the whole thing,” he told Sharon as the two prepared a cole slaw in Sharon’s kitchen to go with the pulled pork that Chef Solly had made and Mark had brought over.
“That’s because his daughters were completely avoiding him,” Sharon said. “All three of them. They pretty much hung onto their husbands and barely said squat to Al.”
“You think that’s what got to Al?”
Sharon paused as she sliced some red cabbage with her second-best knife. “No. I think it was Caroline dying. But he’s not showing his grief and in the process, he’s pushing his daughters away from him when he most needs them. I hope he takes some time off, but I’ve got a bad feeling he’s going to be at the Advisory Board meeting on Tuesday.”
“I told him not to come in, but he’ll be there.” Mark frowned. He thought as he shredded a small carrot onto a cutting board. “He even pointed out that there were some rumbles of genocide in Nigeria.”
“More than a few rumbles,” Sharon said. “It’s looking pretty grim, according to Bantu. But I have to agree with Al. It’s not even close to time for us be get involved militarily. For one thing, no one is asking us to come in.”
“Al seems to think no one is going to ask,” said Mark. “What the hell is he doing, keeping an eye on that?”
Sharon shrugged. “I guess it’s a distraction. But if he’s holding his grief in like it looks like he is, I am seriously not looking forward to when it all comes crashing out.”
“That is not going to be pretty.” Mark sighed. “I think I’m going to have to make a point of getting my briefings from Wanda Dereske.”
“Wanda?” Sharon asked.
“Al’s second in command,” Mark said. “I would have hired her except that Al was willing to come on board. But her contacts are almost as good as Al’s, and she’s not dealing with his issues right now.”
“I don’t think I’ve met her.”
Mark chuckled. “You need to come up for air more often. Her office is just down the corridor from yours.”
“Huh. Maybe I’ll go introduce myself on Monday. Do you want to do sandwiches with these? We can use the barbecue sauce as a dipping sauce.”
“Let’s just eat the pork as is. If you want the barbecue sauce, we can have it on the side.”
Sharon sampled a bit of meat. “Oh, my god. This is wonderful. Hm. Sauce or no sauce. I’ll just put some in this ramekin and we can dip at will.”
“Sounds good,” said Mark.
Once again, he found himself caught up in watching Sharon as she quickly laid out place settings on the counter next to the dining area. Which is why he left to go back to the White House shortly after they finished eating and cleaning up.
Sharon, for her part, was happy to see him go. It had been an uncomfortable week. And while dinner together had made things a lot more relaxed, she was still closer to Mark than she wanted to be – and not close enough.
Sharon did not sleep well that night and woke up the next morning with her mind grasping at fuzzy images of Mark Jerguessen. As she ate breakfast, she debated going into the office that day, but decided the chance of running into Mark was not worth it.
Besides, there were fewer distractions at her townhouse. Determined to get the jump on the week ahead, Sharon fired up her laptop and began reading.
She was so absorbed that she barely noticed that her mobile phone was ringing and only just switched it on before the call went to voice mail.
“Wheatly,” she answered quickly, wondering who would be calling on a Saturday.
“Aunt Sharon, it’s Matt.” The boy’s voice sounded upset.
“Is everything okay?”
“No. I don’t know what to do. They set me up, Aunt Sharon. I didn’t do anything, and I think I got all the stuff out of my pockets. But what if they’re after me?”
“What? Who’s after you?”
“The mall police. They think I was shoplifting. Only I wasn’t.”
“Of course, you didn’t, Matt. Now, take a deep breath and let’s start at the beginning. What happened?”
“It was Paul and Rob and Duffy. They’re guys from school. They’re on the football team. I got to know them a little before Africa. They were really mad when I left the team. But they got some off-campus passes and invited me to come with them. I figured they were trying to make peace, you know?”
“Okay.” Sharon got up and began pacing. “So they weren’t?”
“No. Paul does this pickpocket thing. I mean, he’s really good and you can’t tell he’s pulling stuff from your pockets. Only this time, we were at a department store and Paul and the guys put a bunch of stuff in my pockets then ditched me. I found the stuff before I left the store. But you know how they have all these cameras all over the place. I’m sure someone saw me. I got everything out of my pockets I could and got out of there. I didn’t even stay at the mall. I took the Metro into DC, but then I thought what if this gets Uncle Mark into trouble? Aunt Sharon, what am I going to do?”
“Take another deep breath.” Sharon paused long enough for Matt to take his breath. “All right. Now where are you?”
“Okay.” Sharon thought it over. “Why don’t you stay put? I’ll come get you and we’ll work out what to tell your uncle and see how he wants to handle it. It shouldn’t take me that long to get there. So just stay put. Okay?”
“My battery is dying.”
“Where at the station are you? Can you get to the food court?”
“Okay. Hang there and I’ll be on my way in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”
“My battery is dying.”
“Turn the phone off, then turn it back on again in about 30 minutes. Okay?”
Sharon only stopped long enough to shut her laptop down and grab her purse. As she hurried to the Metro station near her house, she called Mark.
“Hi. Is this serious?” Mark asked when he picked up.
“It’s about Matt. He just called me.”
“Where is he? The school just called me and I can’t get a hold of him.”
“His battery was dying and I told him to turn the phone off for the time being. He’s at Union Station in a total panic. It seems some of the boys at school set him up at some mall by putting merchandise in his pockets without him knowing, then ditched him. He found the stuff before leaving the store, but he’s scared to death that the mall security is after him.”
“Not quite, but things are a pretty mess. I’m heading to the school now. Tell you what. I’ll have a car meet you at Union Station. You bring Matt back to school. I’m not sure what all is going on, but I’m pretty sure they’re not going to charge him.”
“Matt’s pretty worried about this hurting you.”
Mark chuckled. “He would. Tell him not to worry. We’ll get it all straightened out.”
“Okay. I’ve got to go underground. I’ll call when I catch up with Matt.”
“Good. And, uh, thanks.”
As Mark swiped his phone to hang it up, he noticed Secret Service Agent Riff Butler, a tall, broad Black man with the blank demeanor most agents wore, already ordering the car. Butler paused.
“Sir?” he asked. “We’ve got a car on the way to Union, but is it for Ms. Wheatly?”
“Yeah,” said Mark. “Do you know if Matt ditched his detail?”
“No, sir. He didn’t. But they won’t interfere if he’s not in actual danger.”
“That’s right. But Matt was set up by some boys.”
“Yes, sir. We know. But it will be better for Matt if his detail doesn’t step in.”
Mark frowned. “I don’t see how that will help keep him safe.”
“It’s not personal safety, sir,” said Riff. “It’s socialization at school. No point in reminding everybody that he has government bodyguards. Makes him more of a target for resentment and harassment.”
“I see.” Mark glared out the window. “I know why you can’t tell me what’s going on, but Tony Garces was saying that Matt’s been getting a lot of grief from Duffy and Rob.”
“Yes, sir.” Riff shifted as he checked his tablet. “Duffy McIntyre and Rob Ayres. Duffy’s father is Andrew McIntyre and Rob’s father is Stephen Ayres.”
“No.” Mark groaned softly.
Andrew McIntyre had made his extreme fortune buying and selling software companies. His hardline approach to business and everything else meant that he was a frequent and very loud critic of Mark’s. Stephen Ayres was part of a real estate dynasty, and while he wasn’t the blowhard McIntyre was, he was no fan of Mark’s, either. Mark tried to remember if either were active parents. Mark knew Paul Marley’s mother, Senator Janet Marley. She was from the opposition, but the two were friends.
But first he had to deal with Mervyn Belwish, the Dean of Students at St. Ignatius Prep, the boarding school where Matt and the others went. Belwish was balding, lisped slightly and was dressed in a dark wool suit with a red bow tie and matching pocket color. He met Mark as the presidential limo pulled up.
“We’re so glad you’re here, Mr. President,” Belwish said. “Obviously, we wish the circumstances were better. But I’m sure this is all just a misunderstanding. We hold our boys here at St. Ignatius to a very high standard of behavior.”
“I understand,” said Mark.
He walked at a fast, but easy clip, which forced the smaller Belwish to scramble to keep up. Even so, Belwish didn’t let up with his sycophantic babbling.
“The security people from the mall are here,” Belwish said. “They’ve brought the video from the store and we’ll be able to see exactly what happened.”
“That would be a good thing,” said Mark.
“They’re right in here,” Belwish said, opening a door to a conference room.
Mark walked into the room and turned to the dean. “Will you excuse us, please?”
“Uh, certainly, sir. I’m sure we can get this all cleared up quickly.” Belwish reluctantly shut the door with himself still out in the hall.
Mark turned to the two women and one man in the room. “Good afternoon. I understand you’ve got some video to show me?”
“Yes, Mr. President,” said the one woman. She was older, in her mid-forties, wearing an elegant red suit. She was obviously somewhat nervous, but her innate elegance and the righteousness of her cause held firm.
“And you are..?” Mark asked.
“The store manager. Marlane Tortoricci,” she said. “And this is Earl Mixton and Tanisha Walsh.”
She indicated the rather beefy man in the ill-fitting suit of a security guard and a young Black woman in the same suit, but cut to better fit her generous body. Then Tortoricci turned the laptop on the conference table toward Mark.
“We always bring the video with us when we come to St. Ignatius,” she said.
Mark grinned. “Because Dean Belwish would let them get away with murder?”
Tortoricci quirked a smile in spite of herself. “Something like that, sir. In this case, there were four boys involved, including, I understand, your nephew. Ms. Walsh observed three boys taking the merchandise and hiding it on the fourth. We detained the three and immediately called the school. St. Ignatius being a boarding school, it’s usually easier for Dean Belwish to contact the parents.”
“And the fourth boy?”
“He removed the merchandise from his person and ran. Ms. Walsh believes that the boy was surprised to find it on him. But it’s possible he had merely spotted the cameras and decided to drop the goods and run. Here. You can see it on the video.”
The image was in black and white, but surprisingly clear. Matt, wearing a light-colored hoodie over loose jeans, was walking through the store next to Paul Marley. Marley was almost as tall as Matt, but fuller through the shoulders and sported light-colored hair. Two larger boys walked slightly behind Matt and Paul. Every so often, one of the larger boys would slide a small item off a display – a necklace from the jewelry department, cufflinks from another – and slip it to Paul. At one point, the three surrounded Matt. Paul’s hands were lightening fast, Mark caught him dropping a small tube into Matt’s hood. At that moment, Paul looked directly at the store camera, smiled softly and nodded. Mark guessed that Paul knew they had been caught.
A minute later, the three boys left. Matt wandered around the men’s jewelry counter, then frowned and batted at the hoodie. Seconds later, he was frantically piling socks, two necklaces and other items from his hoodie pockets and even from the back pocket of his jeans. Terrified, he glanced around, then ran.
“Mr. Mixton caught up with the other three nearby,” Tortoricci said. “He said they were watching the fourth boy and laughing.”
“I’m assuming you’ve guessed that the fourth boy was my nephew,” Mark said.
“Do you have any evidence that he knew what was going on until he found the merchandise in his pockets?”
“No, sir.” Tortoricci’s face said that she wished she had.
“I can understand why you’d be suspicious,” Mark said slowly. “Obviously, boys from this school have gotten into trouble before and you’ve had to back down, thanks to high-powered parents and their demands.”
“I am afraid that is the case, sir.”
“Well, if you feel you need to prosecute Matt, I understand. I don’t want to stand in the way of you doing what you think you need to do.” Mark frowned. “But I have good reason to believe he really was set up by the other three. After the school called me, one of our mutual friends called. Matt had called her in a complete panic and told her he’d been set up and was more worried about what getting caught would do to me than he was about getting arrested for stealing. And, truth be told, if he really had been shoplifting, he’d have a lot more to worry about from me than he would from you or any law enforcement. And he knows it.”
Tortoricci smiled. “Actually, sir, I’m impressed. Most parents and guardians get very defensive if I even hint their little darling has done something wrong. I’m not looking forward to dealing with the other three parents. Or the dean.”
“I’ve got an idea.” Mark smiled. “Nothing was actually stolen, was it?”
“Not that we can tell.”
“Well if anything got past Matt when he dumped everything, I’ll see to it that he brings it back to you. As for the others, I’m told I’m something of a power player, myself. And dear little Dean Belwish is such a sycophant that I’m sure he’ll find a way to let me lay down the law with the other three. The idea, of course, is to ensure that there are no repeat events, especially from this crew, correct?”
“That would be the ideal, sir.”
“Then Ms. Tortoricci, it was a pleasure meeting you and I’ll see to it that the others catch holy hell,”
“Thank you, sir.” Tortoricci shook Mark’s hand. “That will make my life easier.”
“Good day, then. And if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some backsides to rake over the coals.”
Mark left the room, almost bumping into Dean Belwish, who’d been standing at the door. Mark patted the smaller man’s shoulder and gently pushed him down the office corridor.
“Dean, I’ve got things straightened out with the store’s manager. But we now need to see to it that the boys are effectively disciplined.”
“Oh, yes, sir,” Belwish stammered. “I can call their parents, I’ve already called Senator Marley. She’s on her way. The other parents are not available at the moment.”
“How about this? Looking at the store’s video and having heard about some other issues from one of Matt’s friends, it appears that we have a case of bullying going on here.”
“Oh no, sir. We would never tolerate that here at St. Ignatius.”
“Then let’s prove it. If you’re okay with it, I’ll talk to the three boys who are here, then you and I can work out some appropriate disciplinary measures. Would that work for you?”
“And the parents?”
“If you feel you need to call them…” Mark smiled, pretty sure that calling Duffy’s and Rob’s fathers was the last thing Belwish wanted to do.
“I- I think we can avoid that,” Belwish said with a flushed smile. Small beads of sweat clung to the few hairs on top of his head.
“So where are the boys?”
“In the hearing room. Right here. We usually use the room to work out discipline problems.”
“Excellent. If you’ll excuse me. I think this would work better if you didn’t have to know what was said.”
“Oh. Good idea. Thank you, sir.” Belwish scuttled out of the way.
As Mark entered the hearing room, only Paul stood. The other two boys lounged in the black leather conference chairs. All three were situated along the long edge of a mahogany table that all but filled the room, further hemmed in by the green paint on the walls and the dour landscapes hanging there. The window at the end of the room let in very little light, thus the room was bathed in the blue haze of industrial fluorescent lighting on the ceiling.
Mark found a chair on the opposite side of the table from the boys. Of the two larger boys, one had red hair, closely cropped. The other had very full brown hair, cut to his jawbone and brushed up in front. Both wore burgundy school hoodies and bored frowns. Paul remained standing. Mark sat down and nodded at Paul, pleased that at least Paul had some sense of correct protocol. Paul sat down and began fidgeting with a pen, his face a blank.
Mark waited in silence. The brown-haired kid broke fist.
“Are you going to arrest us?” he asked, trying to look defiant and still coming off as scared.
Mark glared at the boy, but out of the corner of his eye, he saw Paul’s eyes roll.
“Let me guess,” Mark said slowly and pointed at the brown-haired boy. “You are Rob Ayres. And you are Duffy McIntyre.”
Duffy, the redhead, lifted his chin. “Yeah. So?”
“I like to know to whom I am speaking, Mr. McIntyre. As for you, Mr. Ayres, no, I am not going to arrest you. I don’t have powers of arrest. I can, like any other citizen, press charges, however.”
“Won’t do you any good,” Duffy snarled. “My dad can see to it that you never get elected again.”
Mark glared at him, but chuckled. “Well, Mr. McIntyre, given that your father has not donated one red cent to any of my campaigns and has been quite vocal in his opposition to me, and that I still got elected, I don’t think I’m that worried about it. You, on the other hand, might want to get a little smarter about what threats you make. Not to mention, setting up a fall game works a lot better when your target is somebody who might actually be up to something. Or that folks will believe is up to something.”
“It was Paul’s idea,” Duffy muttered.
Paul’s face remained blank, but Mark was pretty sure the stunt hadn’t been Paul’s idea.
“Hm.” Mark said. “All right, Mr. McIntyre, you and Mr. Ayres go find Dean Belwish and tell him I will deal with you two later. I want to talk some more with Mr. Marley.”
Duffy and Rob left the room quickly. Paul continued silently fidgeting with his pen. Mark looked him over thoughtfully.
“I’m guessing that Duffy or Rob came up with the idea of setting Matt up using your sleight of hand skills,” Mark said finally. “My question is why did you go along with it?”
“I spotted you in the security video. You looked right at the camera. You knew you were caught and you were happy about it. I’ve also heard rumors that you weren’t too happy about playing on the football team this year and were pretty mad at Matt when he left the team.”
Paul remained silent.
“Look, if you want off the team, I can arrange that,” Mark said.
Paul’s eyes flickered up. “Why?”
“Like Matt, I know a thing or two about family pressure to play,” Mark said, leaning back in his seat. “If I’m going to help, I’d like to know who’s pressuring you and why.”
“Oh.” Paul thought it over. “It’s my dad. He’s a coach back home in Georgia. He expects me to play. I tried to tell him this summer I didn’t want to, but he just told me to man up and get out there.”
Mark smiled. “So getting caught hazing someone is a manly way to get out of playing, huh?”
“It would have been better if Matt was on the team. He really is a better player than me.”
“But your dad wouldn’t get upset if you were benched?”
“He would, but he wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it. He’s in Georgia.”
“If he’s not here, then why worry about playing? He wouldn’t have to know you weren’t.” Mark put his hands up as Paul gave him the obvious look. “Ah. I get it. It’s your dad. Point taken. I’m just curious though, were you going to let Matt get arrested?”
Paul winced. “Duffy and Rob wanted to. I figured we’d get caught before then. ‘Cause of the cameras and all.”
“They didn’t think of that?”
Paul sighed. “They’re not exactly the brightest bulbs in the lamp.”
“Yeah. I noticed that.” Mark paused. “Where’d you learn the sleight of hand?”
“I taught myself,” Paul said, finally smiling. “I started learning card tricks out of a book when I was in fourth grade. Then I saw a guy on TV doing the pickpocket thing and that was funny. I mean, I don’t believe in stealing.” He looked at Mark. “I wouldn’t have let Matt leave the store with the stuff. Even if I was still pissed at him. It’s just not right. You’re not too mad at me, are you?”
“Well, I’m not thrilled that you were picking on my nephew. But Matt, more than most, understands making a mistake out of desperation. I will expect you to apologize to him.”
“He probably hates me.”
“I don’t know about that. He liked you before. Said you were pretty smart, compared to the other garden-variety idiots.”
Paul’s lips quirked into a rueful smile.
Mark looked him over. “I’m going to have to make this look good. Mind taking the blame as ringleader? Promise to get you off the team.”
“Sure.” Paul sat up straight. “Thank you, sir.”
“You’ll be on your own with Matt. But I think you’ll be okay. I will, however, attempt to nudge him toward forgiveness. In the meantime, you stay put and I’ll talk with Dean Belwish.”
Mark left the room. But as he shut the door behind him, he saw Senator Janet Marley in the corridor. She was rather short, with blonde hair teased out into a bowl around her head – classic helmet hair, June had called it. While Marley normally wore the traditional Washington power suit, that afternoon she had on a full white shirt over jeans and ballet flats. Mark realized as he watched her pace that she reminded him a lot of Sharon. Or was it the other way around?
“Senator Marley,” he said.
“Oh. Yes, sir?” She turned and faced him.
“Would you mind stepping this way, please?” Mark said.
“Yes, sir.” Marley followed Mark down a corridor to a small alcove with a drinking fountain in it.
Both checked the hallway to make sure it was empty.
“Listen, Janet,” Mark said quickly. “I’m pretty sure I’ve got Dean Belwish on board with letting me decide how to discipline the boys. But before I accidentally undermine you, any feelings about Paul playing football?”
“Other than it’s the devil’s game and I’d be a happy woman if none of my children or grandchildren ever put pads on again?” Marley folded her arms across her chest. “That is my private opinion, however.”
Mark grinned. “I guess your constituents would have a few issues with that perspective. Which is why I think I’ve got a way to get Paul off the team more or less honorably. Problem is, I’m going to have to make it look like I’m coming down hard on him. Not to mention that he really shouldn’t be rewarded for pulling a rotten stunt like that, even if he was hoping to get in trouble and get out of playing football. So he should get a couple days of suspension and kicked off the team.”
“Suspension won’t look good on his transcripts for college.”
“But he can write about it in his entrance essay – lesson learned and all that stuff. Admissions folks eat that stuff up.”
Marley finally smiled. “Mark, I think you’ve got it. What about Rob and Duffy?”
“Two weeks of detention, but they still get to play.”
“So Paul has two days off from school and no more football. I thought you said he shouldn’t be rewarded.”
“He also has to apologize to Matt.”
Marley put her hand on Mark’s arm. “You know, Mark, I really appreciate you looking out for Paul. He needs a good man in his life.”
“Thanks.” Mark patted her hand. “He’s a good kid. Now, let me get everything buttoned down with the dean and then we can get the apology rolling.”
Neither he nor the Senator noticed that Sharon had entered the hallway. But she noticed Marley’s hand on Mark’s arm and Mark patting her hand and the warm look between the two. Sharon held her breath. It didn’t necessarily mean anything. And just because she and Mark couldn’t get together didn’t mean he should live like a hermit. Assuming that what she was seeing meant what she thought it did, even though it was just as likely that it didn’t because Mark could be warm and fuzzy with just about anybody.
Mark looked up at that moment and waved Sharon toward him.
“Ms. Wheatly,” he called. “Have you met Senator Janet Marley? Senator, this is my World Affairs Advisor Sharon Wheatly. She and Matt have gotten to be really good friends.”
Sharon walked down the hall and shook hands with Marley. “How do you do, Senator?”
“Fine, thanks,” Marley replied, sizing Sharon up, then looking back at Mark.
“Sir, Matt is here and according to the dean, it looks like he’s been exonerated,” Sharon said, keeping half an eye on Marley. “Eddie is also on the way with Rebecca and the other girls. Apparently there was a plan to meet to get pizza or something.”
“Would you do me a favor?” Mark asked. “I’ve squared things with Paul. Would you suggest to Matt that forgiveness might be in order?”
Sharon glared briefly, then smiled. “Yes, sir.”
She turned and left. Mark watched her go, only to get a nudge in the ribs from Marley.
“I like her,” Marley said, grinning. “I think she’ll be good for you.”
“Not you, too,” Mark sighed. “Come on. Let’s get things squared away with Dean Belwish.”
As it turned out, Paul’s apology was not only accepted, he was invited to join Matt, Tony, and Deshawn at the Cooper residence for an impromptu pizza and movie party with Rebecca, the Watanabe sisters and Jodi and Tiffany. Eddie made a point of inviting Senator Marley, as well, to Sharon’s dismay. Then Eddie insisted that Sharon join the party. Karen Tanaka and her boyfriend Hideo would also be there, as would June.
In the confusion of who would ride with whom, and given that there was an extra car, Mark managed to get Sharon alone in the presidential limo with him.
“I know what you’re wondering,” Mark told her as soon as the car was in motion.
“I don’t know that it makes any difference,” Sharon said, her voice filled with frost in spite of her obvious effort to appear unconcerned.
“Janet’s not my girlfriend. We’re just good friends,” Mark said.
“Like I said, it’s not supposed to make any difference,” Sharon said, although the frost seemed to be melting a touch. “And just because you’re not seeing Senator Marley doesn’t mean you’re not seeing anyone else.”
Mark sighed. “I suppose. For the record, I’m not.”
“Actually,” Mark said, “you’d probably know it if I was. June always does. She may not know who, but she knows when I’m seeing someone.”
Sharon looked him over, pondering the thought. “I just bet I could. But since I’m not supposed to care, it’s really a moot point, isn’t it?”
“Technically, yes,” Mark gazed out the window, trying not to say what he really wanted to say.
They reached the Coopers’ home soon after and while the teens got into a very animated debate over what movies to see, Sharon found a spot in the living room next to June.
“You do not look happy,” June said.
Sharon shrugged. “I saw your brother and Senator Marley having a touching moment together.”
“Oh. You’re jealous.” June grinned. “That’s a good sign.”
“June, I can’t get involved with him, no matter what I’d like to do. It’s not going to work.”
“Of course not, my darling.” June took a sip of her white wine. “But if it makes you feel any better, he’s not seeing anyone. I can always tell when he’s getting some, and he’s not.”
“That’s what he said.” Sharon glared at the red wine in her glass. “That sounds kind of creepy when you think about it.”
June shrugged. “Not really. He just gets this kind of happy look and I know he’s met someone. It doesn’t last too long, usually. At least, the look doesn’t and in one case, I know he was still going out with the woman in question for a long time after the look faded.”
“Huh. I wonder why other people don’t notice.”
“You have to be close to him.” June suddenly swallowed back a sigh. She glanced over at Sharon, who hadn’t noticed.
There was one other person who always noticed when Mark got his happy look and June didn’t want that person anywhere near Sharon.
Sharon had gotten a text on her phone and was absorbed in whatever it was. June smiled at her and wandered into the media room.
In the District, itself, Susan Wheatly sat at a table in the bar of one of the larger, more luxurious hotels in town. A double Manhattan and a plate of Maryland crab cakes had been placed in front of her, but her attention was riveted to her tablet which was running a video taken that afternoon.
The dance wasn’t working. Two weeks before the premiere at the Artists with Disabilities Festival and her grand debut piece was not coming together. Not even close. Susan knew better than to panic. This would hardly be the first time a piece she was choreographing got stuck. But it was the first time she wouldn’t be able to dance out the problem herself.
The video ended and Susan started it over again, only to pause it and glare at the screen. She wasn’t sure if she heard the man’s voice first or simply felt his presence.
“You’re Susan Wheatly, aren’t you?” he asked.
Susan was about to question the man’s right to ask, but then she looked up. His hair was brown, as were his eyes and there was a small scar on his chin. His tan jacket was just neat enough to be acceptable, but Susan’s eyes didn’t miss the tiny frays at the lapels and the cuffs. And even as she registered the plaid shirt under the jacket, she realized she’d met the man before.
“I’m sorry,” she began.
He held out his hand. “Max Epstein. We met last spring in Los Angeles.”
“Oh. You’re that reporter my sister’s dating or something like that.” Susan gave his hand a brief squeeze.
“Was something like that,” Max sighed and sat down in the chair across the table. “We never really got off the ground and I haven’t talked to her since May? June? Somewhere in there.”
“Kicked you to the curb, did she?”
“No. Just a mutual realization that it wasn’t going to work. We’re still Facebook friends.”
“I didn’t even know she was on Facebook,” said Susan.
“She’s not real active,” Max said. “So I’m guessing you’re in town for the Artists with Disabilities Festival? I’d read you’ve got a dance on the schedule.”
“Not a good time to be asking about that,” Susan grumbled, glaring at the tablet in front of her.
“Ah. The magnum opus isn’t quite coming together yet.”
Susan sighed. “It’s early yet. Today was just the first rehearsal.”
She fiddled with the stem of her cocktail glass, wondering if she should have told Sharon she’d arrived in town.
“These things always seem like they’re going to hell, at first,” Max said gently. “But they come together by the end. At least, that’s what happens when I’ve got a big writing project.”
Susan flipped the tablet face down onto the table. “Yeah. You’re right.”
“And you’ve got crab cakes getting cold.”
Susan grinned and shoved the plate toward him. “Have one. They’re pretty darned good.”
“I know,” said Max reaching over to take one of the crispy brown cakes. “This place is known for the best crab cakes outside of Baltimore.”
“Buy you a drink?” Susan asked.
Max thought about it for a moment. “Sure. Why not?”
“And what brings you to the high rent district?” Susan asked, waving at the waiter.
“An interview. North Dakota’s governor’s in town to beg favors from the president.”
“Does not sound interesting.”
Max shrugged. “It wasn’t. So what brings you to the high rent district?”
“My brother is a rock star and very generous. So I have money and I decided that in this high stress situation, I needed some luxury to de-stress.” Susan took a long sip of her drink. She smiled, suddenly aware of what she wanted. “You want to have sex with me tonight?”
The suggestion clearly startled Max. That was all right. It had startled Susan, who in spite of being decidedly loose of late, was rarely that abrupt. He grinned.
“Sure. Why not?”
Sometime later, after drinks and crab cakes and sex, Max stirred. Susan had pulled herself upright in bed and was again staring at her tablet.
“You okay?” Max asked.
“It’s just not going right,” Susan sighed. “And I don’t know how to fix it.”
Max sat up, himself. “Well, what’s it supposed to be about?”
“About struggle and overcoming and getting back on your feet after a loss,” Susan said.
“Except you can’t get back on your feet,” Max said.
The tablet fell into Susan’s lap and she began breathing heavily. Max wasn’t sure, but thought she might be ready to hit him. Instead, she slowly broke down into sobs. He pulled her into his arms and let her cry. It took a while, but the crying eventually slowed.
“Sorry to do that to you,” Max said.
“You were just trying to help,” Susan said with a sniff. “It’s probably the first time I’ve really cried about losing my legs. I mean, I was at the point where I was going to have to think about retiring from the ballet, anyway. And I knew I wanted to choreograph. I just didn’t think I’d have to do it from a wheelchair.” She blinked back a couple tears, then let them fall. “Everyone thinks I’m being so brave and making the best of a bad situation. But I’m not. I hate the way things are. I want to dance. Really dance. And I can’t. My body won’t let me.”
Susan winced. “No shit. Of course, it’s frustrating. My brother, Michael, says it’s like watching a bird with its wings clipped. That’s why he wrote the music I’m using for the dance. It’s literally called ‘Sparrow Without Wings.’ That’s me. I’m clipped. I can’t do what I was built to do. I feel like I’m a shell of myself. Everyone tells me I should be glad I’m alive. And I guess I am. But who am I? What am I? I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be the good little crip and accept it. I’m supposed to accept that my very soul was ripped out of me and be happy? Horse shit. I’m supposed to be happy with making do? I don’t see how that’s going to happen. I just don’t. I get told that if I just accept what happened, I’ll feel better. What bullshit! There is no feeling better. This is permanent. I can see where maybe the time will come where I’ll get used to this. Or maybe it’ll be tolerable. But better? No. It’s not happening. And, damn it, I’m pissed. I’m really, really pissed. And I am sick and freaking tired of people patting me on the head and telling me to accept my reality.”
“Maybe what you need is an angrier dance,” Max said, softly.
“So I can work through my anger issues?” Susan sneered.
“No. I’m with you. I don’t think this is something you work through. You live with it. You put up with it. But you don’t work through it. And if you’re angry, then maybe that’s what needs to be in your dance.”
“Huh.” Susan picked up her tablet again and re-started the video. “I don’t want it to be just about anger. That would be too depressing. Even for me.”
“Possibly. But it can’t hurt to start there, could it?”
“I think you’ve got a point.” Susan was soon engrossed in her tablet, this time making notes.
“Maybe I should be going,” Max said softly.
Susan looked up, suddenly disappointed. “Oh. Damn. Just when I was getting to like you. Any reason you can’t stay the night? A goldfish to feed or something?”
“Not really.” Max snuggled down into the pillows. “I mean besides not having a toothbrush on me. Or fresh undies.”
“I could call the hotel’s concierge,” Susan offered.
“Nah. I don’t have to work tomorrow, so I can sleep in here and get clean clothes after I get home.”
Susan turned back to her tablet. “Mind if I keep the light on?”
Max chuckled. “Not really. I’m kind of enjoying watching you work.”
Susan rolled her eyes and kept working.
PaulDaMan: Just want to say thanks and sorry again.
MattJ: It’s okay. I get why it happened.
PaulDaMan: I had a really good time. And the girls are really cool, too. I really liked Kira.
MattJ: Good luck. I mean, she’s the greatest, but given what just happened with her dad, I’m guessing she’s not interested in dating right now.
PaulDaMan: Oh, well. I probably shouldn’t, either. See you Monday.