IT WAS ALMOST dark, but Meg kept her sunglasses on because they reminded her of skiing. Despite the fact that it was May, and she was holding a tennis racquet. Her theory had always been--when in doubt, delude oneself.
She lowered her racquet, having served the last in another series of ten balls. A gardener near the fence lifted seven fingers, and she nodded her thanks. One nice thing about living in the White House was that there was always someone around to call lines. She picked up the jug of water she kept on the baseline and drank some, studying the other side of the court. Seven out of ten. Not bad. Then again, eight would be even better. She put the jug down and reached into her ball basket.
Leaning back to serve, she noticed that everyone around the court--her Secret Service agents, National Park Service people, a couple of reporters--was standing much straighter, indicating that the President was somewhere nearby.
Meg grinned. "Is it my imagination, or is there like, a head of state behind me?" she asked without turning around.
Her mother laughed. "The serve looks good."
"I don't know, I'm trying to get more on it." Meg walked back to where her mother was standing, the number of agents--and general onlookers--having swelled considerably. "Do you feel like hitting a few?" she asked, already pretty sure of the answer.
Her mother looked down at her dress and high heels. "It would lack elegance, Meg."
Meg nodded. It had been quite a while since her mother had had enough energy to play. People were actually only supposed towear white soled shoes on the court--but, she had a sneaking suspicion that no one would have the nerve to call the President out on that one. Then, she checked the bottom of her sneakers, suddenly noticing that the soles were white, grey and black--and no one had bugged her about it, either.
"Besides," her mother said, "I expect your father and brothers are waiting for us."
Meg looked up at the sky to try and guess what time it was--not that she was exactly Nature Girl--then remembered that she had on a watch. She hated watches, but apparently hers was some kind of security thing, because the Secret Service had requested that she keep it on at all times. She had never wanted to pursue the issue further, and even though she'd been wearing it for well over a year now, she still wasn't used to it.
"High time for dinner," her mother said.
Past seven. "Yeah," Meg said, and leaned down to pick up some of her tennis balls.
Her mother bent gracefully for one as Meg scooped up six or seven, using her sweatshirt front as a sort of pouch. "Is this quality time we have going here?" she asked, dropping her balls into the yellow metal basket.
Her mother picked up another one, holding it with her index finger and thumb. "That appears to be the case, yes."
"Madam President?" one of her aides said, standing near the entrance to the courts.
Her mother sighed, handing Meg the ball. "Excuse me."
Meg watched her stride over and confer with the aide--as well as Winnie, the deputy chief of staff, who had just shown up, recognizing the Presidential expression of interested concern even from behind. Her mother sure knew how to walk. It was too dignified to be a sweep, but too fast to be stately. The influence of too damned many Katharine Hepburn movies, Meg's father had always said."Statuesque" was the word the mainstream media was inclined to use. Meg just liked to sing "Twentieth Century Fox" at her.
Her brother Steven--who was almost fourteen--either swaggered or slouched; her brother Neal--who was nine--bounced, mostly. Her father--well, he just walked. Occasionally, he hurried. Meg, personally, would either slink or slog. Sometimes, to drive her parents crazy, she and Steven would shuffle. They were big on scuffing, too.
"Pretty cool," her mother said, unexpectedly next to her again.
Meg stopped in the middle of her tennis racquet guitar solo. Morrison and the guys would have to wait. "Um, just singing."
"So I heard," her mother said.
Meg flushed and took off her sunglasses, going over to pick up the rest of her tennis balls.
When she was finished, they walked towards the White House--with the Secret Service in tow, of course--along the cement oval leading to the South Portico, passing commemorative trees like the Jimmy Carter Cedar of Lebanon and the Lyndon B. Johnson Willow Oak. Their dog, Kirby, invariably used the George W. Bush Cutleaf Silver Maple. Steven had encouraged this.
In June, there was supposed to be a ceremony during which her mother was going to plant a Japanese Tree Lilac, and Meg was hoping that it would be scheduled after school was out--mostly, so that she could have the fun of watching the President incompetently wield a shovel during the ground-breaking.
It felt as though they were walking unusually slowly, and Meg glanced over at her mother. "You look tired."
Her mother shrugged. "Busy day, that's all."
Maybe. Meg kept looking at her, noticing the slight hunch to her left side. Since--well, Meg tried to think of it as "the accident," because the phrase "assassination attempt" made her sick--anyway, even though it had been over seven months, her mother was oftenin obvious pain, and almost always exhausted. "Um, how do you feel?" Meg asked.
Her mother's posture changed, the hunch disappearing. "Fine."
Meg nodded--although she didn't buy it for a second.
"So," her mother said, gesturing back towards the tennis court. "You're certainly practicing non-stop these days."
"I don't know." Meg grinned. "Did you read Save Me the Waltz?"
Her mother smiled, too. "It's my assumption that you're hoping to play at school this fall?"
She was hoping, actually, to start signing up for a few USTA/ Mid-Atlantic junior tournaments and see if she could build a decent ranking. Yeah, she'd have to go to lower-level open tournaments first, but there seemed to be several L5 tournaments within easy driving distance every weekend, and if she won a couple of them, she could move up to--"Um, yeah," she said. "Sort of." Although her parents had been very strongly pushing her to go to Harvard, with Yale and Princeton as fallback choices--getting in to college wasn't exactly an issue for the President's daughter, even if she were a verifiable cretin--she had decided on Williams, instead. Small, very academic, surrounded by Berkshire ski resorts. Her kind of place.
The skiing, anyway.
"Did you know," her mother said conversationally, "that professional tennis players change their clothes right in the middle of the locker room?" She paused. "In front of everyone?"
As arguments went, that one wasn't bad. "Oh, you're just trying to scare me," Meg said.
Her mother shrugged. "I have it on excellent authority."
"I wouldn't worry," Meg said. "It's not like I'm good enough." She carefully didn't add a "yet," but her mother's look at her was so penetrating that she must have heard it, anyway.
"Well," her mother said, and nodded hello to the Marine guards on duty, as they went through the South Entrance.
For that matter, Meg nodded, too--but they were so busy being alert that they probably didn't notice.
She followed her mother through the Diplomatic Reception Room to the Ground Floor Corridor, which was red-carpeted, with an impressive series of arches forming the ceiling, and portraits of First Ladies on the walls. It was going to be pretty funny to have her father--who always looked uncomfortable in pictures under the best of circumstances--hanging there someday.
Her father's press secretary, Preston, was coming down the hall with a couple aides, heading towards the East Wing, and he stopped short, giving her mother a crisp salute.
Her mother smiled, and returned it. "At ease, Mr. Fielding."
"Thank you, Madam Prez." He winked at Meg. "Get that serve percentage over eighty?"
Here and there. "Almost," Meg said.
"Good going." He touched his own throat, where a green silk tie was knotted, indicating the white towel around her neck. "Sort of a fashion risk."
"Everyone in Milan is wearing these," Meg said. And most of the haute couture houses were thinking of coming on board with the style, too.
Preston laughed, continuing on his way with his assistants.
Meg watched him go. Official job aside, what he really was, was her whole family's best friend--and about as cool as it was possible to be. He and her father made an incongruous pair--Preston, the sleek, suave young black guy; her father, very traditional and WASPy. "Is he like, your favorite person in the world who isn't related to you?" she asked.
"Yes," her mother said, and stepped into the private elevator. "Going up?"
"Oh." If she were alone, Meg would definitely have taken the stairs--in lieu of more interesting enemies, she had always made apractice of fighting calories--but, with her mother being tired and all--"I mean, yeah," she said.
They rode up to the third floor--her family spent a lot of time hanging out in the solarium, which had its own small kitchenette, the biggest television in the Residence, an extensive library of music and movies out in the main corridor, and some extremely spectacular views.
Steven and Neal were on one of the couches, watching an old Simpsons episode, since they were both entirely addicted to the show--and, as it happened, Meg was pretty fond of it herself. In fact, she and her brothers wasted so much time slouching in front of reruns--and Red Sox games--that her parents found it rather unnerving, and often tried to limit their viewing time, with absolutely no success. And her father was not terribly convincing on the subject, since he was such a big Boston fan, that he had been known to do things like leave Kennedy Center events early, in order to catch the last few innings.
As a rule, Meg was more inclined to watch particular networks than specific shows--Comedy Central, The E! Network, ESPN--but, she was also secretly quite fond of the internal White House feed, which showed live speeches, press briefings, Rose Garden ceremonies, and the like, and often watched it for hours on the sly.
Her father was sitting at the big glass table where, once in a very great while, they would do unexpectedly ordinary things like play Monopoly, or have low-key meals, although her parents disapproved of eating in a room that had a television in it. But, they did make exceptions for the Academy Awards, and playoff games, and such.
"Good day at school?" her father asked.
Meg glanced up. "I'm sorry, what?"
He smiled, putting down his Sam Adams. When he wasn't being the First Gentleman, he always drank straight from the bottle. "Did you have a nice day at school?"
"Oh. Yeah. Did you?" Meg shook her head. She really had to make more of an effort to pay attention. "Have a nice day, I mean."
"Very nice," he said, smiling more.
Having said hello to Steven and Neal, her mother was standing behind her father now, her hands on his shoulders.
"Long day?" her father asked.
"Very long," her mother said. "And not over yet."
He nodded, reaching up to cover her right hand with his, and sensing that there was a hug or a kiss or something coming from that, Meg went over to sit on the couch.
"Don't you guys ever get tired of this?" she asked, indicating the television.
"Nope." Steven yawned. "Josh called and said for us to give you a big"--he made a smacking sound with his lips--"from him."
Neal laughed, making his own kissing sound.
Since she and Josh had officially been "just friends" for over a month now--and were still pretty self-conscious about the whole thing, that exact message was unlikely. "What did he really say?" Meg asked.
Steven shrugged. "Hi."
Neal made another smacking noise.
Meg looked at them, then at herself. What a motley little set of children. Three pairs of sweatpants, three pairs of irregularly tied sneakers--theirs high-top Nikes, hers Adidas Barricades, and three sweatshirts--one that said Williams, a New England Patriots one, and Neal wearing an outgrown green hoodie of Steven's. And it wouldn't kill any of them to go do a little hair-brushing.
Her mother might have been worn out, but she looked predictably elegant in her tan dress, and her hair and make-up were perfect. Her father was distinguished--but dull--in a grey suit, white Oxford shirt, and striped tie. She and Steven took after her mother: dark hair, blue eyes, very high cheekbones. Neal, like her father, had lighter brown hair, and always looked as though he wasabout to smile. She and her mother and Steven were grinners--she and Steven, somewhat more raffishly.
"Thank you," her mother was saying into the telephone. "We'll be down directly." She hung up. "Do the three of you want to go get washed up for dinner?"
"No," Neal said, and giggled.
"Hell, no," Steven said.
Their father frowned at them. "Go get washed up."
"So, wait." Meg looked from her parents to her brothers. "Am I like, the swing vote here?"
Her parents shook their heads.
When it was just the five of them, they almost always ate in the private Presidential Dining Room on the second floor. The furnishings were, so Meg was told, American Federal--which seemed to mean mahogany--and the room had the usual dramatic White House chandelier. The antique wallpaper was blue, with scenes from the American Revolution painted on it, and none of them liked it much.
"So. How was practice, Steven?" their mother asked, coming back into the room after her third low-voiced conference with aides out in the West Sitting Hall.
"Okay," he said, through a mouthful of roast beef. "I was mostly shagging, because Coach wants me to pitch on Friday."
Their father narrowed his eyes. "You went six innings yesterday."
Steven shrugged. "So, he had me taking it easy today. Can you pass me the carrots, Meg?"
Meg helped herself, then handed the dish across the table to him. The White House butlers preferred to do all of the serving themselves, but had figured out, early on, that her family was much more relaxed whenever they got the chance to be at least a little bit normal. The butlers had become extremely skilled at replenishing their food and drinks so discreetly that, most of the time, Meg almost forgot they were there.
Although no one really talked about it, her parents weren't very happy about Steven playing--the Secret Service had advised against it. After her mother had been shot, all of their security had gotten much tighter, and because tennis courts were so exposed, Meg had had to drop off the team at school. For the same reason, the Secret Service hadn't wanted Steven to play baseball--either at school, or in his league, but he had gotten so upset that her parents had finally had to allow it. Much to Meg's relief, their security in general had relaxed a little in the last few months, going back to its pre-shooting level. Which, God knows, was intense enough. She had no intention of permanently giving up competitive tennis, but she wasn't looking forward to the discussion about it with her parents. They were beginning to drop not-so-subtle hints, but so far, she had mostly managed to avoid the subject--and predictable confrontation.
"Your mother asked you a question," her father said, sounding amused.
"She did?" Meg looked at her mother. "You did?"
Her mother grinned. "I did."
"Oh." Meg shook her head. "I'm sorry, I'm just--I mean, lately--I don't know."
"It's called senioritis," her father said.
Or post-AP-exams exhaustion. No doubt, the DSM would soon recognize PAEE as a legitimate phenomenon--and high-strung students everywhere would be overmedicated accordingly.
"No way," Steven said. "She's always been like this."
Neal laughed. "Always."
"Yeah, well," Meg served herself quite a large baked potato, "wait until I go away to school. You guys'll be like, crying all the time, because you miss me so much."
"No way," Steven said. "We'll have parties every day."
"Wakes, more likely." Her cat, Vanessa, had come in to sit behind her chair, and Meg slipped her a piece of roast beef, her fatherlifting his eyebrows at her. "I mean," she straightened up, "you won't have anyone to tell you swell jokes, or help keep the country running smoothly, or explain words you don't understand--"
Her parents laughed.
"Yeah," Steven said. "And all the flies and bugs that follow you around'll leave."
Meg nodded. "Well, of course they're coming with me. I wouldn't go anywhere without--"
"One bad thing," Steven said, grabbing the salt shaker out from underneath Neal's hand. "We won't be able to get any good drugs anymore."
"Told you you'd miss me," Meg said.
"Well, goodness knows I'll miss the dinner repartee." Their mother nodded her thanks as Felix, one of the butlers, poured fresh coffee into her cup. "Meg, have you gotten any further in your thoughts about what to wear to the Prom?"
To which, yeah, she and Josh were still going. As--pals. Chums. Compatriots. "I'm going to make something out of my curtains," Meg said, managing--just barely--not to laugh at her own humor. The clothes-making scenes in Gone with the Wind and The Sound of Music were probably her two favorite movie jokes ever. And the time Carol Burnett wore the curtain dress with the rod still in it.
"Is that a no?" her mother asked.
Oh, the President was quick. Very quick. "Yeah," Meg said. "It's a no."
LONG LIVE THE QUEEN. Copyright © 2008 by Ellen Emerson White. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address Feiwel and Friends, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.