Dad eyed me suspiciously. "Well, somebody's been busy!" he chided me.
I could do nothing as he thumbed through the sheaf.
"Nature Wonder—hmph!—GreenBlog, Wings 'n' Things (what kind of name is that?); oh! Is this a letter from Genevieve Macon, too?" he snorted. "What do YOU know about fashion?"
"Dad," I endeavored to make him see, "These are acceptance letters for some articles and reviews I wrote; they are going to be posted on their sites and blogs."
"Why should you write for websites?" Dad grumbled, spitting the word as if it had some distasteful connotation. "Using email to sell yourself to tabloids and muckrakers—no, worse!" He pulled a page out of the stack and shoved it in my face, "According to what it says here, you want to be a blogger? What good is that? And who is Taylor26Man? He seems to know a lot about you! 'I can't stop thinking about what you told me last time; your words inspired me'! Are you seeing somebody, Meredith?"
I'll admit, those words did seem suspicious when foisted from their context in this way; but the communication between me and Taylor had always maintained a mutually minimal level, with the proper constraints of Internet anonymity. How could I make my dad understand?
"I promise you," I tried to tell him, "I've never met this guy; we only talk business. He doesn't even know which state I live in, nor my real name. I'm not seeing him. We have never once seen each other."
My dad still scoffed, "You've never seen him? Why are you writing to him, then? In my day, people wrote letters to people they knew; now my daughter is writing to a perfect stranger?"
"Dad! That's not true and you know it!"
"Okay, then WHAT ARE YOU DOING?"
"Dad! That's not true and you know it!"
"Okay, then WHAT ARE YOU DOING?"
Monica interrupted us with a soft knock on the doorway from Dad's office to the foyer.
"Dinner is ready," she announced, smiling at us.
Dad turned away without glancing my direction.
"Dad," I groaned, following him toward the dining room. "If you'd let me get a computer for my apartment in Houston—"
He cut me off. "Out of the question! Heck, I'm not gonna throw my money after you if you're going to sneak around behind my back like this! Ellie," His voice was almost a whine as he handed the sheaf of papers—my e-mails— "look at what your sister has been doing!"
Ellie snapped them up and scanned them vengefully. "Fashion!" she gasped at the letter from Genevieve. My sister sneered at me. "Since when?" She didn't wait for a reply, but rattled on as we sat down to mango-glazed steak and asparagus tips made by Monica. "Oh, speaking of, Daddy dearest, I was thinking of getting a small makeover done tomorrow while I was out shopping, just a little nose thing, a bit in my forehead, you know—and what do you think, should I go ruddy or raven?" She pulled at strands of her hair and inspected them closely.
Dad gazed at his oldest daughter. There was a glint in his eye that expressed his agreement with everyone who saw our family: Elaine Elliot was the most beautiful person anyone had ever met. Her sparkling aquamarine eyes that looked like the impossibly clear water around a tropical island. Her hair that always looked amazing even in the first thirty seconds after she sits up in bed. (We shared a room till she was ten; I would know). Ellie never seemed to get pimples, she never had chicken pox, her skin was flawless, her lips full and soft—I didn't wonder why my sister didn't look at me if she could help it. She was so perfect, I might as well be invisible. Phoebe—my "second mother" who stepped in after Mom died—always said I looked like my mother, but if that was true, Dad probably married her for her social status, not her beauty. I had tiny pockmarks from a violent case of the chicken pox when I was seven, I had dull-blonde hair that was so dull that highlights looked like a bad dye job, I had eyes the color of mud, my lips were always dry, my hair was always frizzy and looked like a rabid ferret in the mornings—I would guess that either Ellie couldn't pick me out of a crowd, even with her amazing eyes, or perhaps she was afraid that my plainness was contagious. I know I would believe it.
Dad picked his fork up and speared another bite."I think—"
Ellie tossed a manicured hand, "Oh, you don't have to give an answer right away, I can hear about it tomorrow. Say, are we doing anything this weekend?"
Dad shook his head. "I don't think so."
Ellie smiled, "Let's all go to the movies! There's this new Confessions movie coming out and I practically promised Penelope that we'd be there."
Penelope Sharpe was Ellie's most devoted sycophant. She was the aged, spinster daughter of Dad's legal advisor.
Dad mulled over Ellie's decision as he chewed a bite of steak. "Well, I guess it won't be too bad," he acquiesced.
"Of course not!" Ellie gave one of her musical titters. "We can go to Suga's for dinner and catch a cab out to Hollywood Theaters."
Suga's was a Deep-South cuisine in the opposite direction from the theaters. "Why not eat dinner somewhere closer to the theater?" I suggested.
Ellie frowned without turning in my direction. "We'll be close!" she insisted. "Besides, there are only cheap, dirty places near the theater. You want to eat at Fuddruckers, Meredith?" She finally turned to me, grimacing with pure derision.
I couldn't hold her gaze, I picked at my plate, "I was just thinking someplace like that Japanese grill."
Ellie snorted, "Whatever; Monica already confirmed reservations at Suga's for five o'clock on Friday."
"Have you booked the theater yet?" Dad asked.
Ellie turned to him with a smile. "Private showing in Theater 9 at 8:30."
Dad patted her hand. "That's my girl!"
I knew if Ellie was getting Penelope along, I could probably use reinforcements, someone in my favor. "If Ellie's bringing Penelope along, can I tell Phoebe and invite her?" I asked.
Dad wouldn't take his eyes off my sister. "Whatever you want, Meredith."
Yeah, right! How about another life? I left the table and went into the office. I called Phoebe and told her about the movie Friday night.
"Oh, that sounds like so much fun!" Trust Phoebe to put a positive spin on things.
"It will be if you're there with me," I commented, "There doesn't seem to be anybody else on my side anymore."
"Now honey," Phoebe reprimanded me gently, "it's a family, not a debate! Your father just has a different way of expressing himself."
"I just wonder if things would be different if Mom were still around."
"Now honey, you always say that." Phoebe sighed. "Though, I'll have to agree with you. Anna was the best thing to ever happen to your father." She clicked her tongue, but continued in a brighter tone, "All that aside, how are you, Mer? It's been days since we have been able to chat."
I sighed, mentally laying the topic of my mother aside; another day, perhaps.
"I'm doing all right, Phoebe."
"Houston treating you well?"
I twisted the phone cord around my fingers, enmeshing them in the slick spiral. "Oh, always; the Grahams are really sweet, and my coworkers arenice people."
"What's the nightlife like?" If ever there were a signature query for a person, this would be Phoebe Russell's. Widowed at a relatively young age by a man who held a fortune in diamond mines, Phoebe had a very celebrity-esque capacity all to herself. But she would never be the sort to spend it all on herself; Phoebe was so selfless that the only thing she wanted to do with her inherited fortune was to find someone to share it with. What better way to find such an opportunity than spending most nights on the town looking for it?
But I was not that kind of person in the least. "I wouldn't know," I answered, "I don't go out much."
"Oh, Meredith!" Phoebe had always been convinced that a burgeoning social life was the key to unlocking lifelong commitment. "You should, you know; how will you ever expect to find your soulmate if he can't even tell that you exist?"
I heard the dinner conversation dwindle, and I knew Dad and Ellie were already whispering and making "offhand" comments about how long I was spending on the phone. I seized the chance to avoid having to talk about relationships with Phoebe; it was still a sore spot between us since the day she had asked me to consider breaking it off with my first-ever boyfriend.
"I have to go," I told her, leaving her question unanswered. "See you Friday!"
"All right; thanks, Meredith."
I returned to the table. Ellie's eyes were glued to her plate, and Dad would only give me a split-second glance.
"So…" I tried to break the awkward silence, "what were you guys—"
Dad pulled out one of the e-mails, his face livid as he read the sender.
"Meredith Georgianna Elliot," he spluttered, "What in Sam Hill is this?"
I winced; it was a letter from CLEAN Houston, an environmental group that had hosted an essay contest a while back; this letter communicated their acceptance of my essay for consideration, not necessarily that I was in cahoots or anything.
"Dad, it's not what you think—"
"Not what I think? Meredith, do you know what these people have done to us, what they've cost us? The least you could do is keep out of their way out of loyalty to this family! If I had known you would immediately go crawling to the one organization that is responsible for the sale of family lands in Houston, I would have never let you move there!"
"I didn't go crawling—"
"Yeah?" Ellie cut in, "I'll bet you flounced in with your head held high, is that it?"
"I would never—"
"No, you're right, you wouldn't!" Dad rejoined. "My own daughter, completely disregarding everything this family has worked for!"
"Dad, that's not true!"
"Let's face it, dad," Ellie sighed melodramatically, "Meredith has always been a rebel, even since her Academy days; remember how she managed to hook up with the one student in environmental studies at Upton?"
Her word cut me to the quick; studies aside, I had admired Fred Winston for his genuine concern for others, his earnestness and commitment to educating and equipping himself for a greater purpose than himself. Such a perspective was refreshing among the "legacy elite" students of Upton Academy who thought the world revolved around them. Now I was a rebel for liking him?
"Ah, yes, the scholarship kid," Dad's voice was laden with scorn. "The one who tried to undermine me by giving you all sorts of gadgets—"
"It was a PDA he'd built himself," I didn't have the strength to protest very loudly anymore. "Not that there would be anything wrong with a cell phone."
"You know good and well why I don't allow cell phones, Missy!" Dad snapped. "You've got no use for those things. Computers are meant for working at a desk, not frittering your time away. A generation that spends its time staring at a screen instead of interacting with each other and actually learning will be a generation of idiots!"
"Be it never said that the Elliots are idiots!" Ellie chimed in, with a pointed stare at me. I shook my head; only last week I had an earful from this same sister when Dad had refused to get her the same smartphone her friends had; now she was playing the good daughter.
That was the way of the skeptical Elliot household: Cell phones and personal computers were a waste of time; smartphones made you stupid; handheld electronics were a new form of cultural indoctrination; these were the arguments my dad regularly brought up, and nothing we ever said could dissuade him. When Cassie had married into the incredibly-connected Mangrove family, they had gotten her a cell phone, and it was her defiance that prompted the purchase of wireless handsets for the house on Mangrove Row. But since she was the first and only married daughter, and his only hope for grandchildren, Dad held his tongue. Under his own roof—and the others he owned—however, it was a different matter.
I stood, "I need to get on home," I said, clearing my plate from the table.
"Take your contraband with you," Dad nodded to the pile of emails on the table.
By the time I left, Dad and Ellie were back to talking about celebrities and fashion and gossip. I waved to Monica as I pulled away.
I pulled into the lot in front of my apartment, fully drained of any spark. I crept through the bookstore and up the stairs at the back to my tiny living space. It wasn't much, but it felt more like home than the sprawling mansion ever did.
I settled on my bed, but the memories of Fred were too much. I knew it would be a long time before I finally fell asleep.