Chapter 1: Deception
As I walk down the hallway with my father, I stare at the Persian rug beneath my feet, wanting more than anything to be like it. Yes, a strange desire. But, well placed, as the rug is a fake. It is good at pretending to be something it is not. Tonight, my fate depends on me pretending.
The rug is better than me. Most people would think it is a hand-made Persian rug. It is pristinely woven with a medallion at center, surrounded by intricate flowers, and red and blue swirls spaced perfectly apart in a repeating pattern — a little too perfect. That is the telltale sign the rug is a fake. Machines are flawless. Real loom maidens who labor for hours by hand make mistakes. There’s a certain irony to it: the rug shows it’s imperfect by being too perfect.
I keep my head down, face hidden, in case I have a telltale sign. I stare at the rug, feel it squish softly beneath my feet and do not speak to my father. That seems easier than facing him.
No one needs to walk a 23-year-old to her bedroom, so I know he wants to talk. But I’m afraid if he gets a good look at me, he’ll realize what I’m planning. Even if I were as good as the rug, he’s the equivalent of a Persian rug expert. He’s hard to fool. So I stare at the swirls and watch one sock-clad foot step in front of the other.
The little white tassels appear. Rug is done. It ends at my room. I lift my gaze to the polished mahogany door. Centered a little lower than eye level is a nameplate made of baked dough decorated in pink and yellow flowers. KELSEY, it reads. It has held up well, considering I made it in fourth grade.
I focus on that nameplate, but from the corner of my eye I see my father turn toward me. Though I feel his stare, I don’t return his gaze. Not yet. I can’t.
“Kelsey,” he says, just above a whisper, but authoritatively. I turn and tilt my head up to meet his eyes. My father is a half-foot taller than me at 6 feet even. His face always appears accessible — a hazard of his job, I suppose. He is trying to look accessible now, in hopes that I will confide in him. He is using his most effective trait — his penetrating, soulful blue-gray eyes — to his advantage. Those eyes can either make you open up and pour out your most cherished thoughts or cower with fear.
Tonight, he eyes me sympathetically. “Honey, I know you’re worried about tomorrow,” he says in the “I really care” tone perfected in his early career. I nod. It’s true. I am worried, but not for the reasons he thinks. “You’ll be fine,” he assures me. “This is a very safe procedure.”
I try not to move the muscles in my face — no twitching or grimaces — nothing to hint I’m being dishonest. I just nod again. Yes, the procedure is very safe. Incredibly safe, unless you’re in the five percent who suffer major complications.
His lips are pressed together tightly and his eyes stoic. Does he know I’m hiding the truth? I want a moment more to analyze him, to try to decipher all the body language he’s worked so hard to keep controlled so he presents only the information he wants out. But at that moment, he pulls me into a hug. I don’t expect it. My father is many things: strong, brave, courageous, stubborn, idealistic. Touchy-feely, not so much. Despite the shock of the embrace, I manage to lift my arms and wrap them around him. I try not to wrinkle his suit jacket too much. A wrinkled suit jacket won’t look good if a reporter snaps his picture.
“You’re doing the right thing,” he whispers in my ear.
“I know,” I whisper back. This is true. I know I am doing the right thing. Only, what I’m going to do isn’t what he wants me to do.
He releases me, takes a step back and smiles — a genuine one. As a politician, my father smiles a lot. Most smiles are for show, because no one wants to see a grim man kissing babies or shaking hands. The public smile means nothing. Pulling his lips into that friendly curl is as easy as breathing to my father. Seeing the public smile is about as endearing as seeing him scratch his forehead. The genuine smile, the one my mother showed me the hallmarks of, is the one I love. If he blesses you with it, it means you truly have his heart.
I pray my actions tonight won’t break that heart. Part of me wants to tell him I’m sorry, so sorry, for what I’m about to do. To make amends before I leave. The other part of me, the part that knows I can’t let him find out, not prematurely, not when he can still stop me, just wants him to leave. I smile back, but this time it’s my public smile.
I wonder if he can tell. If so, he doesn’t let on. He looks down at the thin black watch wrapped around his wrist. “It’s eight o’clock. That means nothing else to eat tonight, though you can have a few sips of water if you’re thirsty.”
I nod, relaxing the muscles in my face to look calm. I lean back against the hallway wall, trying to look like someone ready to do what Dad wants.
Dad wears a neutral expression, but frustration is etched in his blue-gray eyes. “I can see you’re still worried, sweetheart,” he says. “Do you want me to stay here tonight?”
Panic. I feel like my heart stops, and wonder if my face is giving me away. Quickly, I look down at the rug’s swirls, hoping to hide any fear visible in my expression. This is bad. He has to leave. Has to go to his meeting, then stay at the condo he owns in the city. I force a smile, meet his eyes again, do my best to look reassuring and shake my head. “No, you should go, Daddy,” I say encouragingly, moving off the wall and lightly patting his jacket sleeve. “You’re already dressed and ready to go, and I’d like some peace tonight. I want to think, get a good night’s sleep. I’d feel bad if I kept you from work for no reason.”
I’m rambling. I need to wrap it up. But how? I glance at the rug for inspiration. It makes faking look so easy. My eyes find my father again. “Plus, Haleema’s here,” I finish, letting him draw his own conclusions.
Haleema is technically my father’s assistant, but nowadays she mainly looks after the house, because we are rarely here. Since my mother died, Haleema has been a godsend for me. She’s provided maternal advice and a nurturing presence. I appreciate her more than I can say, because my father is gone so often. My father, I believe, recognizes his reliance on Haleema. I think he’s always felt that if there were something he didn’t see because he wasn’t a mother, she would catch it and help me.
I watch my father closely, trying to look OK, trying not to show panic. I lift my hand to pull a strand of hair and twirl it around my finger, but stop myself just in time. Instead, I smoothly maneuver to scratch my ear, then return the hand to my side. Playing with my hair will ensure he stays.
My father is unnaturally still as he watches me. He’s looking for a sign of what to do. Debating whether to take me at my word. Debating if I want some woman-to-woman bonding time with Haleema, to really be alone, or if he should delve deeper. Debating whether he needs to be fatherly in some way he isn’t right now. I’ve seen this internal debate play out across his furrowed brow too often lately. He takes in a breath, and I can tell he has decided to try again to be fatherly.
“I can stay if you want,” he says, measuring my reaction. “It’s not really work, Kelsey. It’s just a strategy meeting and cocktails with a couple of donors.”
“Big donors,” I retort, raising an eyebrow. “Go ahead, I’ll be fine. No need to worry about me, OK?” I proffer another smile, trying to make it look genuine.
He doesn’t move. Instead, he fixes his eyes on me, as if by looking hard enough he might see some secret hidden in my expression, some clue as to what he should do. I wonder if all fathers feel this level of uncertainty dealing with their children, or only widowers.
After a moment more of thought, he nods, then kisses my forehead. “You know, you will be fine. The doctors are very good. Not to mention,” he adds with a chuckle, “You’re the daughter of the lead gubernatorial candidate. Your dad also happens to be a sitting state senator. They’ll take extra good care of you.”
I smile again, step toward my room, grab the knob, turn it and push the door open. Dad still watches, refusing to leave me just yet. I turn back to him, breathe out and say affectionately and truthfully, “I love you, Dad.” I know these are the last words I’ll say to him in person.
He replies in kind, clearly assuming this is just like any other night. Then he turns around and walks back down the hallway. I step inside, close the door. Safe. For now.
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