Forty-eight: The Plan
After dinner I emailed Rachel, having received a thank you note from her that had not only her home address, but her email address as well -- delayed a bit by the flooding, but now seared into my brain. "Why don't you drive up here for lunch on Sunday?" I sent to her via my computer.
"OH, GOD, NO," she wrote back in a few minutes. "I'm grounded until Thanksgiving for taking Mom's car. She went nuts on me."
"Because you didn't have an adult with you in the car, the learner's permit and all?"
"I don't have a learner's permit. My cousins back east taught me to drive so that they could drink and do drugs and have a designated driver. I was thirteen. Mom doesn't know that, please don't tell her, I'd be grounded for the rest of my life until I was twenty-one, and if she told her sister about it, my cousins would hunt me down and kill me."
It was the best news I'd had in days. Rachel wasn't all that old, she was just an adventurer. She had sneaked her mother's car in order to see who I was. But she had liked me before she knew who I was. And she had liked me after she knew who I was. And I liked her and didn't give a hang about who she might have been in her storied life. I just wanted to hear her story, and watch her sparkling light blue eyes.
Sunday was our family dinner; there were no dignitaries or suck-ups invited. After church I'd had another ride with Aunt Sully and her notebook, this time with Michel and Kelsa bouncing along on their ponies. We were out only a few hours, examining the fire road we'd so laboriously cleared a scant week and some before. We were still fairly cheerful when the ride was done -- is riding actually work only if you're worn out by the end of it? Anyway, the Sunday dinner was roasted chicken, done on a rotisserie, with pasta in white pepper sauce and fresh peas sauteed with a hint of bacon. A second cup of the asparagus cream soup would have done for dessert, but I declined to ask for that, declined the thin slices of brownie and cream cheese (it did look good, all melted together) and instead wheedled for any of the bacon the staff had let by during the pea preparation.
I was savoring three slices of bacon when Grandmother cleared her throat in that certain way that meant that although she was not in charge of the estate in any way, and never had been, what she had to say would be important and would we all straighten up and shut up.
We all did, out of respect.
"I have been worrying about, and praying about these disgusting photographers who have begun to dog our steps. One took a picture of me while I was at the salon, when our Latisse had the flu and could not cut or perm our hair -- there is an increasing lack of respect.
"Andersol has also expressed a concern that someone might see a picture of her on the internet and make himself disagreeable about her little ones."
Grandmother sipped from her glass of wine, set it down decisively. "I have a plan."
All the rest of us waited silently.
"Your construction crews are going to start renovation of the third floor by mid-December. Your school break begins on December 10th. I propose that we all move to the Tuscany villa until the New Year. We celebrate Christmas there, and afterwards, Andersol and I will stay in Italy until her twins are born."
My mother's head darted back and forth to see if any of the staff had heard. "That's whacko, Claire! Why would we want to do that?"
"Because after the children were born, you would fly back to Italy, and out of the goodness of your heart, adopt some twins whose father was -- unknown."
Aunt Andersol recoiled in her chair as if a snake had appeared on her dessert plate, her eyes wide and jerking from face to face as if she had been suddenly accused and sentenced. Aunt Sully sprang from her chair and wrapped her arms around her co-aunt. "Don't panic, Andersol, let's hear her out, don't worry," she said in a low voice, the way she had calmed and comforted Gabe one time when he cut a toe on a piece of glass in the apple orchard, holding the big dog in her arms until we could tear strips of cloth from Marca's shirt and bind the bleeding foot. "Nothing's been decided, we're all here and all okay with each other."
Mother's white face became still. "Shall we go upstairs to my suite and continue this discussion? I don't feel comfortable talking about this here."
"Surely you don't think that the staff would report -- "
Marca interrupted Grandmother, "Yes, they would. How else would the press have known you were going to a hair salon? Grandmother, it's a money-first society now; we might never find out who, but someone is getting information about our whereabouts and sending it to the photo- journalists. Who knew that we were going to Target for clothes the other day? Who was it that tipped the idiot who photographed us?"
"Yes," I added, "going to private rooms to discuss this is a good idea, and if you please, this time, we youngsters should be allowed access. Can that be possible?"
Mother looked at Grandmother Claire and nodded gently, tentatively, waiting for Grandmother's nod back. "Let us adjourn to the upstairs," Grandmother said.
"I agree that we should go to Uncle Bodie and Mother's wing." I stated, remembering how easily we'd infiltrated Grandmother's rooms, and not wanting the stoolie on the staff to make the same leap of subterfuge we had.
We kids took the stairs two at a time, with Aunt Sully following. The rest took the elevator; we tried not to greet them with unbecoming gloating glee when they arrived at the second story. Glee would have been a bad idea considering the subject at hand, though we were all fairly amused that we had beaten the elevator.
As we entered Mother's outer parlor, we waited for the adults to choose their seats. Aunt Sully chose a little loveseat; Kelsa hopped up beside her and Michel and I made bookends of her legs. Oesha sat at Grandmother's feet; Marca put herself at Aunt Andersol's left, looking fiercely defensive.
Mother sat in the middle of the sofa, though she did not immediately put her feet up on the ottoman. Uncle Bodie took her place beside her, looking troubled.
It was the most perfect portrait of our little family politics I have ever seen, I wrote in my journal later that evening. There was no doubt at all about loyalties or preferences. We chose our sides, making clear whose opinions each would support. But it wasn't about fighting each other, it was more like having tallied up the weights and measures of each personality. My mother needed -- nor wanted, I knew that -- none of us kids to support her. Her word would be law; she owned the estate. And with Uncle Bodie to love her and support her, she was indomitable.
Oesha had always been the closest to Grandmother, even before Grandfather died. She was the one who listened to Grandmother's stories of her youth, admired her jewelry and furs, kept Grandmother company in the evenings.
Of course I was with Aunt Sully, no explanation was needed for that. Kelsa and Michel were attracted to her by her constancy (there was never any doubt about Aunt Sully's opinions, and they didn't change) and by her interest in their artistic endeavors. She was their encouragement, their audience, their tutor.
"All right," Mother said. "Let's start this conversation again. The rudeness of paparazzi is making us take action?"
"No," Grandmother said with a hint of anger. "These photographer parasites are simply pests in human form, which our government protects because of their human nature, of course. They have free access to us, taking our pictures at social events and in our private lives, calling it 'freedom of speech.' Unfortunately, this 'freedom of speech' is not a matter of local newspapers, as it was in my younger days, but is now an internet thing. If you use the Google to search for "Port Laughton," the online version of the local newspaper is near the top of the list, just after the university. And indeed, the 'Society' pages are available. The pictures of the children at Target are prominently displayed already.
"We have discussed in small ways, but not all together, the circumstances of Andersol's pregnancy. We all know that it was unexpected, and unintentional. We know that the father of these twins knows nothing of the impending birth. Children, you will keep all this information to yourselves, do you understand me?"
"Our lips are sealed," I answered for us. "Really." I meant it, but I was trying frantically to remember what we had been told as opposed to what we had found out. Had anyone ever actually told us about the Russian dude who was the father? All Marca or Kelsa or Michel had to blurt was Khodorov's name, and we were all grease. I began to sweat, and so pulled off the sweater I was wearing to allow my cool cotton shirt to breathe.
"They will keep their traps shut," Aunt Sully said, assuring Grandmother and warning us at the same time. "Please go on, I think I may understand what you're proposing."
"Only part of this puzzle is the parenthood. The most important part is the inheritance. As things stand, neither Andersol nor her babies stand to inherit, except by special mention in a will. The great merit of this family is that none of you is hungry for the money of this estate, and so you are able to love and keep your hearts open to one another.
"What happens in the case of deaths changing all the everyday roles? You, Jesse, and Sully -- you've faced a time of change when both your parents died, and then Charles -- all in a matter of months! It is important to know what must be done ahead of time, especially with an estate like this one!"
Mother nodded, her brows furrowed. "Go on, please, Claire."
"If you put in your will that Andersol and her children will inherit part of the estate's wealth, I have a concern that this foreigner father will find her on the internet, and try to slither into money not because of his concern for the children he never knew he had, but because of association with the estate, and the finances will make him a leech we will never be able to scrape off our skin."
"Eww," said Michel. "A permanent leech -- gross."
"Yes. He need not do more than wait until the children are nine, or eleven, and then swoop in to consolidate his share of their monies in the name of fatherhood."
"I don't think he was that kind of guy," Aunt Andersol said, her face reddening.
"Do you know that he isn't?" Aunt Sully said. "After all, we all know that I totally misread my former husband's character."
"Well, did you ask for any other opinions on him?" my mother said, irritably. "No, you did not."
"Jesse, damn it, he's long gone, and would you please not continue to throw that horrible mistake in my face. And this is not about me, it's about Andersol and her babies."
"He's still the greatest asshole of the age," Mother said, forgetting that we children were present. Responding to Uncle Bodie's elbowing of her, she clapped her hand over her mouth. "Sorry, kids."
"I am glad that I never had to make the acquaintance of this person," Grandmother Claire said, trying to redirect the conversation. "And I am perfectly content never to meet the father of Andersol's babies. However, the man was captivated by her beauty, and with such a fond memory in his head, he most likely checks on the Port Laughton newspaper's website weekly, if not daily, remembering how benevolent our climate is compared to his."
"Which would be ...?" I urged, playing the Five's part of ignorance.
"Unrelenting severe snow and ice until next May," she lectured. "The thing to focus on is that this family is on a stage, in front of the world, all the time. This is why we are so far apart from the rest of the town, why we all try to teach you children how to behave. My late husband used to say, "If you are in the bathroom with the door closed, you may fart, but outside the bathroom, there is no such thing as gas."
How many years had she been waiting until we were old enough to hear that adage? Her restraint was monumental; my admiration of her only increased.
"Sooner or later the man is going to figure out that the mysterious beauty he met is Andersol Talles of the Reich-Ambris estate, especially when the Reich-Ambris estate makes mincemeat out of that rude and misogynistic department head in the very near future. If you think the paparazzi are pests now, be prepared for a veritable infestation when the lawsuit becomes known."
I felt the blood leave my face as I heard her speak. I hadn't even thought of that. Port Laughton was a small town in the scheme of things -- a major export of news about it would be our family. A vision flashed before my eyes, of news cams and photogs dogging our steps at school, of some scoop-crazy fool leaping onto the bus and snapping my picture with Rachel beside me ...
"Stop," commanded Aunt Sully. "This is too much. I need a few minutes to think about this. Does anyone else want a cup of tea or a glass of wine or something? I can find staff to bring it to us."
"I wouldn't turn down champagne," Oesha said, receiving a gentle bop from Grandmother in response.
Aunt Sully slipped from her seat and went to the door, and opened it. There, in a peculiar bent-over position was Denise, the staff member in charge of making fires for the rooms.
"Worshipping the doorknob, were we?" my aunt asked sarcastically.