Authors: Ellen Emerson White
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THE WORST PART
âalthough it was hard to chooseâwas that she still cried. A lot. Mostly at night; always alone. Which was risky, because her parents inevitably came in to check on her, and she'd have to pretend to be asleep.
But now, it was going on to two in the morning, and she was by herself in her room, and she sort of wished that one of them
come in. See how she was. Have a conversation about nothing in particular, maybe. But, it was the middle of the night. Normal people were already asleep.
Meg pushed away from her desk. Her chair was on rollers now, which was one of the many changes in her life that they didn't really discuss. At least she wasn't using the actual wheelchair anymore. Just a brace and a cane. And her hand, gosh, she could almost move two of the fingers now, andâyes, it was time for Nightly Self-Pity.
For that matter, it was also time for some more ibuprofen. At this point, the doctors only gave her prescription painkillers as a last resort, and she couldn't quite bring herself to tell them how much she still needed the god-damned things.
She reached for her cane, then changed her mind. The thought of making her way across the room to the bathroom was too tiring. Hell, even the concept of getting up and limping the few steps over to her bed was exhausting to contemplate.
“Hey, you,” she said to her cat, Vanessa, who was asleep on the rocking chair by the fireplace. “You want to fetch me some water?”
Vanessa stretched out one paw slightly, but otherwise didn't respond. Didn't even open her eyes.
Of course, this was the White House. All she had to do was pick up the damned phone, and someone would appear within seconds, andâexcept that it was too late to bother them. Too embarrassing. Too
Christ, she was tired. Using her good hand, she dragged her chair back to the desk and looked at her books. Even though it was only two courses, the work was still too hard. She should have just taken the semester off. Maybe the whole year. But then, she would spend even more time alone in this stupid room, and what? Sleep twenty, twenty-two hours a day? Wake up for the occasional meal, or physical therapy session? Oh, yeah, that'd be productive.
Which didn't change the fact that even her truncated version of college was too much pressure. Having to leave the houseâhaving to leave the second floor, for that matterâaccompanied by three times as many Secret Service agents as she had had before, while everyone
stared, and took photographs, andâwell, nothing like getting kidnapped by terrorists to guarantee ending up being the center of attention. To become permanent public property.
All the more so, because she had ended up with a few battle scars.
To say the very least.
Yup, Self-Pity Time was kicking into high gear.
“If you do something well, do it often,” she said to Vanessa, who didn't even stretch this time.
So, she picked up
, the book they were currently reading in her Twentieth Century American Fiction survey course. The other class she was taking was Introduction to Astronomy. Mainly, because it was taught in a darkened auditorium, and she could keep a low profile. Unfortunately, the class was pretty hardâor else, she had become very denseâbecause retrograde motion and parallax seemed to be beyond her. She'd never exactly been Miss Wizard, but beforeâlast springâat least she hadn't been a
. Now, just opening the book made her hands shake.
There was a soft knock on the door, and Meg turned in her chair, feeling instant relief and annoyance. Definitely the President's knock. Her father's knock would be both higher on the door, and louder.
“Come in,” she said.
The door opened, and her mother stepped into the room, her glassesâshe always wore contacts, so she must be tired, tooâin one hand, a couple of thick leather binders under her arm.
“I didn't mean to disturb you,” her mother said. “I justâI saw the light.”
Meg knew perfectly well that the lamp was on, but glanced at it, anyway. “Yeah.”
“Lots of studying?” her mother asked, her expression more worried than she'd probably intended.
Meg nodded. “Yeah.”
“Pain okay tonight?” her mother asked.
No. But, Meg just shrugged.
Her mother shifted her weight, and then moved the briefing books to her other arm. “Do youâneed anything?”
Other than a new life, say? Meg shrugged, and looked at her mother, who seemed pretty exhausted and shaky in her own right. “Are you up because you have work, or because you can't sleep?”
“I can always find work to do,” her mother said, wryly.
There was no such thing as a direct answer from a woman who held regular press conferences. But, it was also more than slightly possible that her mother was staying up until her father went to bed first, since the two of them weren't exactly skipping through meadows together these days.
Yet another situation which loomed over all of their lives, but was never mentioned.
“You're sure you don't need anything?” her mother asked.
A serious dose of painkillers. “Could youâ” She felt stupid asking someone, particularly the damn
, toâ “I was, uh, just going to get some water.”
Her mother moved so swiftly to the bathroom that Meg felt even more stupid, and she picked up her cane, then eased her way over to the bed. She couldn't work the childproof lids on pill bottles with one hand, so everyone always left them open for her.
Cut her meat into bite-sized pieces.
Checkedâfar too oftenâto make sure that she didn't need help with what the occupational therapists tactfully called “personal care.”
Just generally made her feel like a strong, proud, and independent adult.
She shook two ibuprofen out and waited for her mother to come back. “Um, thank you,” she said, and gulped the pills down, trying to make it look as though her hand
“Would the heating pad help?” her mother asked. “Or some ice packs? Or we could hook up your TENS unit?”
Doubtful, in all three cases. “I'll try it, maybe,” Meg said, then finished the water and set the glass carefully on the bedside table. “The heating pad, I mean.”
“Would you like some more?” her mother asked, poised to move.
She was always thirsty now.
. She nodded without making eye contact.
Her mother went to refill the glass, and then reached for the phone. “Why don't I have them bring in a pitcher of ice water for you?”
God, no. Meg shook her head.
Her mother hesitated, withdrew her hand, and looked uncomfortable. No,
. Completely, utterly,
“I'm fine,” Meg said. “Just kind of tired.”
Her mother nodded, and they avoided each other's eyes.
“You're sure there's nothing else I can do for you?” her mother asked finally.
A question they all asked her about seven hundred times a day, and she never really had an answer. “No,” she said. “Thanks.”
Her mother nodded, and took a step towards the door. “Well. I'll let you get some rest.”
Except that naturally, now that she was leaving, Meg couldn't help wanting her to stay. “Iâ” She stopped. No. It was way too late to start a Conversation. And her mother, what with being the leader of the Free World and all, unquestionably had a much more pressing day ahead than she did.
“What,” her mother said, moving Vanessaâwho hissed and leaped onto the bureau, knocking over a stack of prescreened unanswered sympathy letters from strangersâso she could sit down in the rocking chair.
She looked so eager, that Meg couldn't bring herself to say, “Never mind.” “I justâI keep thinkingâ” Meg stopped again. Kept thinking
? “The semester's going to be over soon.”
Her mother nodded.
“I meanâ” Christ, she really had no idea what she meant. Even when she was trying as hard as she could to concentrate, her mind seemed to fumble things. “I don't know.”
Originally, she would have been going off to Williams for her freshman year, but then, when her plans wereâinterrupted, theyâshe?âhad decided that she would commute to George Washington University, instead. Warm up, sort of. Then, second semester, maybe she couldâonly nowâ
“Whatever you want to do, we'll arrange,” her mother said.
do would be a better description. Meg swallowed. “I don't know if I, um, you knowâwellâ”
“So, stay here through the spring,” her mother said. “Williams isn't going anywhere.”
No. Probably not. “I don't really like it,” Meg said. Actually, she hated it. “GW, I mean.”
“Well.” Her mother frowned, and used her glasses to move her hair back. “How about Georgetown? Orâ”
“I don't like
,” Meg said. Or, she didn't like going out. Then again, she didn't like staying
, either. “I meanâ” God, she didn't have the energy for this. “I'm sorry, forget it. This isn't a good time to get into it.”
Her mother sighed. “Megâ”
“I really can't talk about it right now,” Meg said, starting to feel panicky.
“Just remember that you don't have to make any decisions until you're ready,” her mother said. “You're not on a timetable.”
Oh, yeah, right. It wasn't like the whole god-damn world was watching every single move she made. Not like that at all.
“Okay,” Meg said, and hoisted herself onto her cane. “I, uh, think I'll get ready for bed.”
Her mother stood up, too. “If there's anythingâ”