I went to the words because I wished to live deliberately. Thoreau, Walden
Half an hour later, I stepped out of the shower, still thinking about the best way to tell my parents what I had in mind. I dried off, put on my favorite baby doll camisole and tap pants, and walked out of my bath suite into my bedroom, practicing what I was going to say – and stopped short.
Mom sat on the fainting couch by the window, her eyes closed, her head tilted back, resting against the thick patterned cushion. Her hands lay loosely in her lap, her fingers interlocked. Behind her, the plantation shutters were closed. The wide white vanes broke the light from the tiffany lamp beside the bed into a thousand tiny suns, each topped by a perfect rainbow. The colors played across Mom's pale skin. She looked like a fairy-tale beauty waiting for someone to wake her from her slumber.
She looked like she needed her slumber too. Downstairs, in the kitchen, I hadn't noticed the lines around her eyes or the way the corners of her mouth drooped. A smudge of mascara stood out like a bruise above one high cheekbone. Her lipstick, specially chosen from the latest Valencia makeup collection, had faded, leaving only traces of vivid pink around the edges of her lips.
Even her clothes seemed tired. She was dressed in the bright linen suit she'd worn to the lawyer's office after the FBI had served the papers. She favored simple styles and always had her suits custom tailored from the Valencia CitrusSplash line. This one was Summer Leaf, a cheerful green that matched the color of her eyes. The fabric of the skirt bunched around her thighs and the bottom of the suit jacket was crumpled.
I had always thought of Mom as strong. But maybe she needed me to stick around as much as Dad did. Maybe convincing her to go along with the plan to stay in Summerpath instead of flying to France with Stenny would be less difficult than I believed.
"Mom?" I said softly.
She jolted upright, her hands clenching into fists.
I drew in a sharp breath. "Mom! What's wrong?"
"Oh, Vandy." Mom rubbed her eyes as if scrubbing away tears and smudged more mascara onto her cheeks. "Everything's wrong."
"I meant – "
"I know what you meant." Mom unclenched her fingers. "Your dad's okay. He'll come up in a little while. He's still in his office, on the phone. He's talking to Jacqui."
That had to be good. Jacqueline Housley worked with Dad at his investment firm. He always said she had more to do with running the business than he did, and that he was only the public face of Armstrong Investments, while Jacqui was the brains. If anyone could help Dad straighten out this mess, Jacqui could.
"I wanted to make sure you're all right, Vandy. Today has been – " Mom reached out to me. "I have no words for describing what today has been."
I hurried across the room, sank onto the fainting couch, and wrapped my arms around her. She hugged me close, the same way Stenny had when we were in the tree house, and the same sense of comfort settled over me. "I'm okay."
"I'm glad." She patted my back. "Did Stenny get home safely?"
"Yeah. He texted before I got in the shower. Gus drove him to the back of the property in the electric cart, all the way to the other side of The Pond. Stenny climbed the fence and sneaked home across the field behind his house."
I glanced at the window. My room was at the back corner of Kingsway, on the second floor, and at night a faint light from the Valencia's house twinkled like a star. Dad said that was my imagination, but I was sure I was right. I liked to think about Stenny, over there in his bedroom, thinking about me, over here in mine. Now the view was blocked, the shutters drawn as tightly as the ones in the kitchen.
That was odd. The shutters were always open. We never worried about someone peering in like sick Peeping Toms. Summerpath was gated and Kingsway was far back from the road. Ten acres of wooded land surrounded our house, and we had no nearby neighbors. No one who lived in Summerpath was nosy anyway. The residents respected each other's privacy and the haven the community offered. At one point or another they'd all been caught in what Dad called "the harsh glare of the public eye."
"Why did you close the blinds, Mom?" I reached for the wand to open them.
"Because of the news cameras."
I paused. "You think they can see into my bedroom?"
"I don't know for sure. They do have those long-distance lenses."
A heavy whump, whump, whump vibrated the glass. I raised one slat. The helicopter owned by the local television station, the one that had swooped down on me when I had emerged from the woods into the yard passed by, flying low. The crew must have finished filming the security guards taking the trespassing reporter away and come back to see what else was happening at Kingsway. They probably hoped to shoot footage of someone else running across the –
I pulled my hand from the vane, horrified by a possibility I'd overlooked.
Video of Stenny and me holding hands and running across the yard could easily be featured on the news, giving the impression we didn't care about what was happening to Dad.
"Can they keep flying around the house?" I asked.
"I don't know," Mom said again, her voice weary.
The sound of the helicopter engine faded and grew louder. The spotlight flashed across the window and then moved away. The cycle repeated twice more as the pilot guided the helicopter in a circle overhead.
"Maybe we should call the police, Mom."
She shuddered. "I've had enough of the police today. The FBI here at the house. The police, the marshals, and the FBI at the downtown office. I've had enough of law enforcement officers to last the rest of my life. In fact, I wouldn't care if I never saw another one."
"Once Dad proves he didn't do what they say, you won't have to."
"That's not going to be simple or quick. I'm not sure you realize how serious this is. That's why we want to talk to you, to explain."
That was the third time this evening someone had voiced doubts about my intelligence. "I'm not stupid. I know this is serious." I exhaled, the burst of anger fizzling away as hurt, confusion, and sorrow filled Mom's face. "I also know Dad's innocent. That's all that matters."
"I wish that was true."
I gasped. "What?"
"I mean, I wish his being innocent is all that matters." Mom shook her head, her tousled blond hair shimmering in the colored light. "I'm afraid this is going to grow way beyond guilt or innocence. Your dad's well-known. He was considering a political run for governor. When someone like him gets in trouble, the story takes on a life of its own no matter what the truth may be."
"Not even the FBI can get away with telling lies. Jacqui will know what to do. She and Dad will straighten this mess out."
Mom didn't answer. She leaned back on the fainting couch and pulled me close again. After a few minutes, her breathing slowed, as if she was practicing the mediation technique her yoga instructor had taught her. What was she thinking? Or was she trying not to think at all? Maybe she was trying to clear all thoughts of today from her mind. What happened if the thoughts refused to be banished?
Liv would know. Too bad my best friend had gone to Costa Rica right after graduation to do service work at an orphanage. I wasn't sure Liv knew what had happened, and in the shock of the day's events, I hadn't texted her. I'd have to do that later, after I told my parents my decision about my own trip. I wished Dad would finish his phone calls and come upstairs so we could talk.
I settled my head against Mom's shoulder and closed my eyes. The helicopter circled outside. Whenever the sound ebbed, the house seemed eerily silent, almost haunted. The feeling was enhanced by the light touch of cool air that brushed across my skin when the climate control kicked on.
"Are you sleepy, Vandy? We can have our talk in the morning if you want to go to bed now."
"I'm not tired."
"I sure am." Dad walked into my room.
I jumped up from the fainting couch and ran to him.
He wrapped me into a hug. "This whole farce has me exhausted."
He looked exhausted. His stylish gray-streaked hair was mussed, his soft brown eyes sad. He winked at me, our secret, special message that said I love you, Princess.
"What did Jacqui have to say?" Mom asked.
His mouth twisted. "She said we need to be prepared for a long, hard fight. I spoke to Norm too. He agrees, though he said what Jacqui did in longer, more lawyerly words, the kind he charges six hundred dollars an hour to say."
"But you're innocent!" The protest came out more loudly than I intended.
Dad grinned. "That's right, Princess. I know I'm innocent. You know I'm innocent. Now we have to convince the FBI and the SEC."
"Which is where the long, hard fight comes in," Mom said. "The Securities and Exchange Commission thinks Armstrong Investments is a big Ponzi scheme, and they aren't going to give up that belief easily."
Dad's grin vanished.
"What's a Ponzi scheme?" I asked.
"The term means they think your dad's business is a fraud."
"Damn it, Dana, do you have to be so blunt?"
"She needs to know what to expect. This is bad news we can't protect her from, and she'll hear a lot worse from others." Mom looked at me. "I'm glad you're going to France with Stenny for the summer. At least you'll be away from the madness."
"Oh. Umm. France. That's what I wanted to talk to you about."
"Don't worry." Mom tried to smile. Her lips trembled. "We'll send a bodyguard with you, but I think you can still be anonymous. We've done a good job of keeping your pictures out of the press over the years."
I stared at her. I'd need a bodyguard if I went to France?
"This will all be over by the time you get back to start college in the fall, Princess." Dad rubbed my arm. "I'm sad to think we'll spend the summer apart, and then you'll be gone, starting your own life. I'd almost rather you stay here, despite what's going on."
"Me too. That's – "
"A really bad idea." Mom got up from the fainting couch and came across the room.
"I know." Dad put his free arm around Mom, drawing her to his side and kissing her cheek. "You've always been the sensible one."
"I had to be, because you've always been a risk taker."
"Life's nothing without risk. You loved coming along for the ride, Dana. That's why you married me. And the risks I've taken have paid off, haven't they?"
"I thought so, until today."
They were headed for one of their rare arguments, the last thing I wanted. I said, "I'm not going to France."
"What?" Mom said.
"Why not, Princess?"
"I want to be here for you." I glanced at Mom. "For both of you."
"We appreciate the thought," Mom said. "But both of us will feel much better if you're not exposed to all the awful accusations people will make."
"I don't care what people say. I know they're wrong. Dad never cheated anyone." I frowned. "Why is everyone trying to get me to leave?"
"Who's everyone?" Mom asked.
"First Stenny, then Pete, now you."
"We all love you," Mom said. "We want what's best for you."
They did, and Stenny did too. I wasn't so sure about Pete. He had told me more than once what a pain in the anatomy I was – not that I'd say so to my parents. They thought of Pete as the brother I didn't have. Mom still called him Petey, like he was seven years old, the age he'd been when he came to live with Gus.
"What's best for me is to stay here," I said.
Dad tilted his head.
"What's best is for you to go to France," Mom said. "And that's what you're going to do."
I narrowed my eyes. "No, I'm not."
Mom glared at him. "This is not funny."
"Sure it is. The expression on her face reminds me of when she was ten and you wanted to send her to summer camp." He raised his shoulders. "You lost that battle, and you're going to lose this one too. She may look like you on the outside, but inside, she's me all over again, and she inherited a big streak of Spencer independence."
"Then we agree." I folded my arms. "I'm staying home."
"Okay," Dad said, at the same moment Mom said, "No."
"Come on, Dana," Dad said. "I love that she wants to stay with me."
"Don't encourage her. We'll be going crazy around here this summer. Do you really want to be worrying about Vandy while you're strategizing with Jacqui and meeting with Norm to work out your legal defense? Or worse, do you really want her seeing you do all that and worrying herself sick about you? That's what'll happen if she stays in this house. Better she goes to France with Stenny."
"I'll be just as worried when she's in France," Dad said.
"So will I. And I really want to stay." I held up my hand when Mom's mouth tightened. "I don't have to stay in Kingsway. I can move into the tree house and live like Thoreau at Walden."
"The tree house!" Mom shook her head. "Have you lost your mind?"
"That's not such a bad idea," Dad said.
"Oh, no? Maybe you've lost your mind too. I'm not letting her live in the woods by herself!"
"Why not?" Dad winked at me. "Sounds like a great plan for getting away from all this hullabaloo. I should move out to the tree house with her."
"We could both live like Thoreau." I grinned at him.
"You're not Thoreau," Mom said. "Neither of you is cut out for the simple life."
"Then I'll have a learning experience." The more Mom resisted, the more appealing the idea was. "And I'll have fun too. The tree house is completely livable, and I can come home for food and clean clothes and whatever else I need. I can walk here in five minutes, and I'll have my phone, so we can text and call."
"You've really thought this through, haven't you, Princess?" Dad said.
I didn't want to admit the whole idea had started as a joke and I was making up plans as we spoke, so I nodded.
"She's not thinking at all," Mom snapped. "And neither are you, Armstrong."
"I'm always thinking. What is your problem, Dana?"
"My problem! My problem?" Mom sputtered. "Have you forgotten the helicopter from the television station that's circling around outside, waiting to pounce? Are you overlooking the reporters at the gate, including the one who managed to get all the way to the backyard tonight?"
"They have reporters in France too. Stop being such a spoilsport." Dad waggled his fingers in a dismissive gesture. "Vandy wants to stay here. I want her to stay here. So she's staying here."
"Fine! Let her stay. Keep right on thinking only of yourself." Mom strode out of the room.
"Let her go, Princess. I'll talk to her later, calm her down. Her anger has nothing to do with you staying or going. She's overwhelmed by what happened today. We all are."
"You really will be okay, won't you, Dad?"
"Of course." He winked at me. "Trust me. Have I ever let you down?"
I shook my head.
"That's right, and I'm not going to let you down now, either. I can handle this, as long as I know I have your support."
I hugged him. "Of course you do."
He patted my back as the hall clock chimed midnight. "All right then. I have to make a few more phone calls. Why don't you get to bed? You can move out to your sky castle and start your Thoreau lifestyle in the morning."
After he left, I shut off the lamp, walked to the window, and opened the shutters. No lights shone from the Valencia mansion. Stenny was probably already asleep. The chopper was gone, the night darker than before. Heavy clouds had moved in, blotting out the stars, threatening rain.
Some of my pleasantest hours were during the long rainstorms…
The line from Walden had stuck in my mind when I'd skimmed the book for my paper. The sentence put into words the feeling I had whenever I watched summer rainstorms sweep across the woods from this very window. I had gotten what I wanted – if living like Thoreau for the summer really was what I wanted. I wasn't quite sure how an idea that had started as a joke had gone so far. Could I live like Thoreau? Or was everybody right about me?
I didn't know the answer, which was annoying. After all, I ought to know myself better than anyone else. Wasn't that a line from Walden too?
As I started to close the shutters, a pale boxy shadow glided to a halt beneath the tree at the edge of the yard. I squinted through the darkness at the broad squat outline of the electric cart Gus used to drive around our property. He sat in the driver's seat, his face shadowed by the camouflage hat he wore with the brim pulled low over his eyes. Did he plan to stay there all night, keeping watch?
My cell sounded Thank You For Being A Friend, the ringtone that always made Stenny roll his eyes. I hurried to the nightstand by my bed.
"Hey," Pete said. "Sorry to call so late. You in bed?"
"Not yet." I sank onto the edge of the mattress. "What's up?"
"Gramps isn't answering his phone, and his gun is missing. I wondered if your dad asked him to come up to the house?"
"I don't know if Dad asked him, but he's sitting in the cart under the tree by my bedroom."
"Oh. Okay, then. He'll probably stay there all night."
"You want me to have Dad tell him to go home?"
"Nah. He'll be all right. I just worry about him. He remembers stuff from the war, you know? Every now and then he has nightmares. I thought the noise from the helicopter and the spotlights might bother him. Talk to you tomorrow, Dandy-Vandy."
"Wait! Are you okay?"
"Why wouldn't I be?"
"I don't know. I lost track of you when the helicopter showed up."
"Yeah, that was a spectacle. I saw the jerk-off rescue you. He was already halfway across the yard before I got up." He laughed. "Guess you'll need to get him trained a little better before you leave for France, since the stay command you taught him didn't work so well."
I chuffed out a breath. "Stenny's not a jerk-off, and I told you I'm not going to France."
"Right. You're going to live in the tree house like Thoreau. How could I forget? See ya around, Dandy-Vandy, whenever you return to reality." He disconnected.
"Don't call me that," I said into the dead line and pressed the end button. Pete was in for a surprise tomorrow.
I glanced at my phone, checking the time. Almost one in the morning, which meant… I did the math. Eleven o'clock in Costa Rica. Odd to think today was still yesterday where Liv was.
I pressed the phone keys in quick rhythm. r u there? need 2 talk.
What would Liv think of my Thoreau plan? I could hardly wait to talk to her. When nothing came back right away, I set the phone on the nightstand next to my favorite photo of Stenny and stretched out on the bed.
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