Finding What’s Real
“BUT YOU MUST HAVE KNOWN your parents were looking for you—that the whole nation was looking for you.” Kitty Wolf’s brow was appropriately concerned, her posture tipped forward in interest. The colorful overhead lights made her pore-free, latte-colored cheeks glow. “Why didn’t you let them know you were all right?”
Heat seared my skin, even though I could feel the relentless whoosh coming from the air-conditioning vent behind my head. My manicured fingernails dug into the leather seat at my sides and my mother’s eyes twitched. I folded my hands in my lap and plastered on a smile. Outside the plate-glass window, some mom from Ohio shouted, “Give ’em hell, Cecilia!” If only.
“I just want to say I’m very sorry for any stress I caused my parents, or anyone else for that matter,” I recited. “My grandmother and I were very close and after her death . . . I made some bad choices. But I’m back now, and I’m as committed to my family as ever.”
There was some truth in there somewhere, at least. Sandwiched between the publicists’ lies. My mother reached over and briefly placed her cold, dry hand on top of mine, giving it a wide-fingered squeeze like one of those claw mechanisms inside an arcade machine. Comforting, it was not. Though I’m sure it looked that way to Good Day America’s ten million viewers.
“More than anything, we really just want to focus on getting Cecilia to her high school graduation tomorrow and start looking toward the future both for her and for this country,” my mother—the great Senator Rebecca Montgomery—said. She gazed directly into the camera. “We’re so grateful to the people of this great nation for supporting us through this crisis. You’ve really shown us the best side of America, and we hope that you’ll now respect our privacy as we mourn the loss of my husband’s mother and work to piece things back together.”
Gag. And as if anyone in this great nation of ours had ever respected anyone’s privacy.
“God bless America,” my father added.
Gag. Barf. Gag.
Kitty Wolf sat back in her chair with a satisfied smile. “And on that note, we’ll go to commercial.” She looked into the camera and ducked her chin in the way of professional newscasters everywhere. “For Good Day America, I’m—”
“Wait! One more thing!”
The words came out of my mouth before I could stop them. It was like a switch in my head had flipped. And now,
every single person in the studio held their breath. I saw two boom operators exchange a look like I’d just lit myself on fire in the middle of the set. But what was I supposed to do? No one had mentioned Jasper. Or Shelby. Even though news footage of the two of them being dragged out of Jasper’s house in handcuffs had been playing practically on loop for the past two days.
Kitty and her producer exchanged a shrug, and then the green light on top of the camera that was aimed at me turned on.
“Jasper Case and Shelby Tanaka did not kidnap me,” I said, looking Kitty steadily in the eye. Or as steadily as possible when the rest of my body was shaking. “They’re just friends I made in Sweetbriar. Every allegation leveled against them is false, and they should be released immediately.”
Kitty’s smile was stiff. I’d leaned forward, so I couldn’t see my mother’s face in real life, but I could sort of make it out on one of the monitors. She looked about ten years older than she had two seconds ago. Wrinkles. Lines. Ire.
“All right then,” Kitty said brightly. “Rebecca, David, Cecilia, thank you so much for joining us and for sharing your story. I’m sure I speak for the entire viewing public when I say we’re so glad you’re safe, Cecilia, and we can’t wait to see what you do next.”
Was it just me, or was there a sort of evil glint in her eyes when she said that last bit?
“For Good Day America, I’m Kitty Wolf.”
The theme music started up and Kitty launched herself
out of her chair, ripping off her microphone. “God, I need to pee.”
She quickly shook my parents’ hands, gushing about how nice it was to meet them, then wished me luck, kicked off her puce-colored heels, and ran as best she could in her tight-ass pencil skirt, a team of makeup artists chasing after her.
“Well. That wasn’t too painful now, was it?” my father asked, straightening his suit jacket. The caked makeup on his dark skin was a shade too light, making him look like he was wearing a latex mask that was slowly peeling off.
“If lying doesn’t bother you, then no.” I glanced at my mother and I could tell a tirade was building. There was this very subtle shade of purple-pink creeping up her neck. It would not make it to her face. It never did. The woman had an intense amount of control in public.
“Greenroom,” she said through her veneers. “Now.”
I turned away from my parents just as the PA who was in charge of us appeared to usher us down the hallway. My mother walked behind me, her heels click-clacking primly, and I could practically feel the rage emanating off her. But of course she wouldn’t say anything out here, where anyone could hear her. As soon as we were alone she would unleash the beast. Or alone with her assistant, Tash Miyaka, a twenty-something professional butt-kisser who wore nothing but black shift dresses and pearls and always had two phones and an iPad on her. She was waiting in the greenroom and jumped out of her chair when we arrived, sending the iPad bouncing
across the carpeted floor. She scrambled on hands and knees to pick it up.
“You guys can feel free to relax in here while I check on your car,” the PA said with a kind smile. Then she closed the door and was gone. I ripped off the itchy pink-and-white-plaid jacket my mother’s stylist had chosen for me and threw it at the nearest garbage can, then fished in my new Louis Vuitton bag (a smaller version of my mom’s, also provided by the stylist) for my phone. Until I remembered that my mother had taken my phone five seconds after we were reunited two days ago.
“What the hell was that? You just hijacked that interview!” my mother snapped. Her body trembled, but her helmet of blond hair stayed freakishly still. “We had the perfect sign-off and you had to muck it up by pushing your cause.”
“My cause?” I blurted. I felt hot all over from the effort of standing up to her. It wasn’t something I’d done much of in the past few years—hell, in my entire life. Honestly, since I was ten years old, I’d barely ever seen her. But things were different now. They were going to be different. After everything that happened, they had to be.
“You mean my boyfriend who you had arrested for no good reason?”
“Don’t turn that around on me! You’re the one who ran away, leaving me to clean up the mess. Did you really think I wasn’t going to find a way to spin the story?”
“By throwing two innocent people under the bus?” I
asked. “They’re in federal prison, Mother. And for what? For being kind to me? For being my friends? Is that such an awful offense?”
“Enough!” my father shouted. Everyone in the room flinched in surprise. “Rebecca, Cecilia is right. This charade has gone on long enough.”
I beamed. My father was taking my side. He was standing up to my mom, for me.
“You have to get those two kids released before one of them gets the idea in their head to sue for wrongful imprisonment.”
Oh. So it wasn’t about me. It was simply the lawyer in him protecting the family. As always. Sometimes I wondered if my mother had pursued my father back in college simply because she knew he was going to end up in law school. Because she knew she’d have him around to fight her battles for her for the rest of her life.
My mother took in a breath and blew it out—a short blast of indignant, but acquiescent, air. “Fine. I’ll make the call. But you . . . ,” she said, turning on me with a finger raised. “You better start toeing the line and get on message if we’re going to make this work.”
“Make what work? You really think I’m sticking around for whatever torture you devise for me next?” I demanded, on a roll. “I’m eighteen, Mom. You can’t make me do anything anymore.”
“I made you come here, didn’t I?”
I clenched my teeth and willed myself to not explode. “I
came here because it was the right thing to do. But now I’m out.”
I grabbed my bag and headed for the door, never really believing she’d let me go. When her fingers closed around my arm it was all I could do not to turn around and deck her with the heavy leather purse. Honestly, I don’t even know why I was taking it with me. There was nothing useful inside of it. No cash, no credit cards. Even the makeup wasn’t in brands or colors I would ever buy for myself.
“Maybe we should get away for a few days. To the Cape?” my father suggested. He was sweating as he eyed the door. “Just the three of us, so we can sort this all out.”
Tash, who had retrieved her iPad, froze with her fingers over the screen. She looked completely confused. Not that I could blame her. As long as I’d lived, no one had ever suggested that the three of us do anything alone together. She was probably imagining all the appearances she’d have to cancel, the meetings she’d have to push, her perfectly color-coded calendar being blown to bits.
“Now’s not the time for a vacation, David.” My mother dropped my arm and yanked down on her gray suit jacket. “I’m about to announce.”
The room went still. Ice water trickled into my veins. “Announce what?”
My mother rolled her eyes. “This little power play of yours couldn’t have come at a worse time, Cecilia,” she said. “After the funeral I intended to tell you that I am going to run for president.”
“What!?” I blurted.
I sat down and my butt hit the very hard arm of a black couch. Okay, I had always known this was a possibility. Of course it was. My mother was one of the most popular senators in Congress, and she was Rebecca Montgomery, for God’s sake. She could sew up the women’s vote, the black vote, and the I-just-want-to-vote-for-someone-famous vote without lifting a finger. But this was huge. I hadn’t even heard any rumblings or rumors about it.
“When was this decided?” I asked.
“We’ve been in the exploratory period for over a year, but the final decision was made in February.”
Oh, right. When I was locked away in the ivory tower that was the Worthington School, where no one communicated anything to me, ever, other than my schedule and their expectations of me. Which trickled down either through my bodyguard or a tutor or came via e-mail from Tash.
“You’re not taking off again,” my mother intoned. “Not now. I need you by my side on the campaign trail.”
I laughed bitterly.
“Did you just laugh, young lady?” my mother demanded.
Even though my insides felt like they were being corroded by acid, I managed to rise to my full height, which, thanks to my father’s genes, was a good two inches taller than my mother’s, and today, thanks to the heels she’d made me wear, I was even taller.
“I am not going out on the campaign trail with you,” I
said. “What do you want me to do? Get my picture taken playing with sick kids? Visit nursing homes or failing farms or crumbling factories?”
One glance at Tash’s face and I knew I’d come seriously close to the truth. She tucked her iPad behind her and I got the distinct feeling that she’d been about to show me an itinerary that looked a lot like the plan I’d just laid out. My confidence welled.
“No. Not a chance. There’s no way I’m going to go around telling everyone what a perfect family we are . . . what an incredible mother you’ve been,” I raged.
“Cecilia! For God’s sake, keep it down!” my father said through his teeth.
“Why, Dad? Why? Who the hell cares what the random person walking by thinks of us?” I shouted, my voice cracking. “Isn’t it actually a positive thing for people to realize we’re a real family? That nothing is as perfect as even her spin doctors can make it seem?”
“Stop it right now, Cecilia,” my mother hissed. “We still have your little hick boyfriend in custody. I haven’t made the call yet. And I heard he’s supposed to open for some big act this weekend. I wonder what happens to the hot new thing on the music scene if he simply doesn’t show up for an important date.”
I whipped around to glare at her. “You wouldn’t. You couldn’t! You have no evidence against him because he did nothing wrong.”
“As if that matters.” My mother leaned toward me. “You
really have no idea how powerful I am, do you?”
“Leave Jasper out of this,” I said, all that resolve I’d just built up beginning to crumble. “Be reasonable.”
“I would love to be reasonable, Cecilia,” my mother said. She sighed and reached for a bottle of water, which she handed to Tash. Tash opened it, poured it into a glass, added some ice, and handed it back before I could even blink. “But you took that option away from me when you stole one of my cars and fled your grandmother’s funeral.”
“I only did that because you wouldn’t listen to me!” I shouted. “Why couldn’t you have been reasonable then?” I shoved my hands through my short curls and barked a laugh. “Wait a minute, what am I talking about? I know why. Because you don’t give a crap about me. All you care about—all you ever cared about—is yourself. I wonder what the voting public would think if I went out there and told them that.”
“Stop it, Cecilia. Everything I’ve ever done, I’ve done to protect you.”
“Well, it’s just too bad there was no one around to protect me from you.”
My mother’s jaw dropped slightly. Suddenly, the anger was gone. The perfect mask was gone. For a second, I saw hurt in her eyes. Actual, human hurt. But then the door opened, and she plastered on her politician’s smile again.
“Your car’s here, Mrs. Montgomery,” the PA said.
“Thank you, Melissa.”
She always remembered everyone’s name. It was one of
the things people loved about her. She made it so easy for the public to adore her, and so difficult for her own daughter to sit in the same room with her.
My mother picked up her purse while Tash scrambled to shove her makeup kit and other paraphernalia into a small rolling suitcase.
“We’re going to the airport,” my mother told me. “You have graduation tomorrow.”
As she breezed by me out the door, she tugged something out of her pocket and handed it to me. A red, white, and blue button that read MONTGOMERY: FOR OUR FUTURE.
It was the slogan she’d used when she’d run for senator last term, so it didn’t technically give anything away. But the logo was brand-new. She’d probably had a million of them made up to distribute once she made the announcement.
“Put that on and I make the call to have your boyfriend released.”
It hadn’t escaped my notice that although she remembered the PA’s name, she’d yet to speak Jasper’s.
But then, she wasn’t good enough to know Jasper.
I took the pin, shoved it through the expensive white silk shell top I was sporting—thereby ruining it entirely—and put on my fake smile.
“Happy?” I asked through my teeth.
My mother slung her bag over her shoulder and tossed her head. Her hair still didn’t move. Her mouth was set in a grim line. “You have no idea.”
* * *
Every senior at the Worthington School was partying. At least, that was how it sounded from inside my locked dorm room filled with freshly packed and neatly labeled cardboard boxes. The ten-by-ten room smelled stale and dry, and it had been stripped of any and all traces of me. I wondered when my mother had sent her little elves here to pack my life away. How much of my stuff had they simply tossed in the trash? Was it before they found me? After? Actually, I didn’t want to know.
Somewhere down the hall, a girl screeched, and it was followed by a round of boisterous laughter. I was semi-itching to investigate, but I hardly knew these people, even after six years of attending classes with them. And besides, my new bodyguard, Alexis, was stationed right outside my door. Alexis. It had always sounded like a prissy little girl’s name to me, but not anymore. The moment I’d met this six-foot-two, two-hundred-fifty-pound woman, my first thought had been, Help me.
But worse than the cell and the smell and the guard was the fact that my chest felt like it was being compressed under forty-two tons of bricks. It had felt that way ever since my mother and her FBI squad had swarmed Jasper’s house back in Sweetbriar and dragged him and Shelby Tanaka off to be questioned. I hadn’t talked to Jasper in three days. Three whole days. I didn’t know where he was—not exactly—or how he was being treated, what he was thinking, what he was feeling. I didn’t know if he still loved me or missed me or
never wanted to see me again. I would have given anything in that moment just to talk to him—just to hear his voice, even if he was pissed off. But the phone he’d given me was gone, and there was no landline in the room.
There was another round of laughter and suddenly hip-hop music shook the walls around me. Apparently no one cared about the rules anymore on the night before graduation. I heard Alexis talking outside my door and wondered if she was making nice with the other bodyguards, or if she was chatting on the phone herself.
Maybe I could mug her for her phone. Yeah, right. I may have held a black belt in three martial arts, but I still had the feeling she could flatten me with one eyelash.
A very quiet ding got me sitting up in bed, my heart pounding. My laptop. Of course! What the hell was wrong with me? Maybe that was Jasper texting me right now.
With a glance at the door, I swung my legs over the side of my bed and ripped my computer off the desk. I still wasn’t sure how it had gotten here—it was one of very few things from my apartment down in Sweetbriar that had magically appeared in my dorm room. I hoped my mother’s minions hadn’t scared the crap out of my roommate, Britta Tanaka, when they’d come for my stuff. Which didn’t include any of my new clothes from Second Chances, or the violin Jasper had given me. Not surprising. It was as if the past two weeks of my life—the best two weeks of my life—had been entirely erased.
They had also been the only two weeks of my life during which I’d been my own person—made my own choices. The message my mother was sending by obliterating them from existence wasn’t lost on me. She was telling me that what I wanted didn’t matter. That who I really was didn’t matter.
I opened the laptop, but the ding hadn’t been an incoming message. It was a reminder. I was supposed to be at work at Second Chances early in the morning to clean old merchandise off the shelves. The heaviness inside my chest seemed to thicken.
Okay. Deep breath. All was not lost. That ding had at least inspired me. I didn’t know why I hadn’t thought of this before, but I could text Jasper through my laptop. I could even FaceTime him! Actually, I did know why it hadn’t occurred to me—because I’d never done either of these things, because I’d never had real friends to communicate with. But now, I did.
I hovered the cursor over the FaceTime icon, but then froze. If I could hear Alexis talking, she would be able to hear me talking. So no. No calls. But texting? That was silent.
I muted the sound on my computer, opened up the text box, and typed in a message to Jasper, hitting the keys slowly and cringing at every quiet click.
You okay? Where are you? I’m so sorry. Please write back and just let me know you’re okay.
Glancing at the closed door, I hit send. Then I held my
breath while I waited for the reply. And waited. And waited. Finally, I had to take in some air, so I did, and then bit down on my lip. I waited so long that I drew blood.
He wasn’t replying. How much did he know about why he was arrested? Was he mad at me? Or still in custody? Yes, my mother had promised me they’d let him go if I wore her stupid button and fell in line, but what did a promise from dear old Mom mean? I had kept my end of the bargain, of course. I’d picked up my ceremonial commencement gown and accompanying valedictorian tassel, both of which now hung on a hanger on the outside of my closet. I’d promised not to tell anyone she was running until she made her big, official announcement (as if I had anyone to tell). If she was true to her word, Jasper should have been a free man by now. I had to hope she wasn’t insane enough to have him detained in jail for a crime that hadn’t been committed.
So why wasn’t he replying?
Not wanting to dwell on the answer, I opened up Safari and Googled “Jasper Case.” The very first hit was a newsfeed video of him and Shelby being released from a Washington, D.C., police station earlier that day. They’d brought them all the way to D.C. from Tennessee? Why? How? Had they been flown commercial with handcuffs and guards? Bile rose up in the back of my throat.
I fumbled in my bag for my headphones and plugged them in before hitting play. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from
Jasper. He wore dark sunglasses and his favorite black cowboy hat, his head ducked as he hurried toward the limousine. His publicist, Evan Meyer, was at his side as he dove into the car and it sped off.
“Jasper Case, a freshly signed artist on the Blue Peak record label, was released from custody today and cleared of all charges in the kidnapping of America’s Sweetheart Cecilia Montgomery,” the voice-over said. “He is returning to his home in Sweetbriar, Tennessee, where a representative from Blue Peak tells us he is eager to get back to work on his debut album and put this unfortunate experience behind him.”
Put this unfortunate experience behind him. Did that include me?
They didn’t even mention Shelby, but I caught a glimpse of her in the background as Tammy and Britta put their arms around her and squired her off. They must hate me now. All of them. Britta, my roommate and friend. Tammy, my boss at Second Chances and one of the few adults who had ever really noticed me. I bet they were back home in Sweetbriar now, cursing my name.
But it didn’t matter. What mattered was Jasper and Shelby were free. They were going to be okay. I glanced at the text message box. It was still blank except for my sent message bubble, forlornly awaiting a reply.
The video ended and a vaguely familiar news anchor guy appeared on the screen.
“In a related story, new footage of Cecilia Montgomery’s time away has surfaced this evening, calling into question the official story that she went to Sweetbriar simply to visit her deceased grandmother’s best friend and to mourn in peace.”
Until that moment, I’d had no idea it was possible to choke on one’s own saliva.
Grainy, blurry footage filled the small video box. It was me, on stage at The Mixer on my first night in Sweetbriar, playing that borrowed violin. At first the picture was so bad that there was no way anyone could have ever confirmed it was me. But then it suddenly zoomed in, blurred, and then sharpened, and there I was, clear as day. My chin, my skin, my gangly figure. Only my freshly shorn and dyed hair was hidden, underneath the very same cowboy hat I’d just seen on Jasper’s head as he was released from custody.
I stared at the screen, and once the panic subsided, I realized I didn’t sound half bad. Go me.
But then the footage suddenly stopped and snapshots of me and Jasper flipped onto the screen one at a time, each slightly overlapping the last. There was one of the two of us talking backstage at the theater where Jasper had played the showcase, another of us kissing in the seats at the same theater, a third of us standing outside the dressing room at Bridgestone Arena. People had clearly been trolling their cell phones all night, checking to see if they’d managed to snap pictures of the newly famous couple. I
wondered how much the news channels were paying for this stuff. My pulse thrummed loudly in my ears—so bad I couldn’t hear what the newscaster was saying. But still, the message was clear.
Cecilia Montgomery hadn’t been in mourning. She’d been on a joyride. She’d been slutting it up with the hot new country music star. She’d made all of America worry, while she stuck her tongue down some guy’s throat.
This sucked, big time. Why did anyone care? All I’d been doing was trying to live my life. Also, I really hated the person who’d first decided to put a camera inside a phone.
Suddenly, the anchor was back, staring out at me with a very practiced look of concern.
“So, you decide, America. Is Cecilia Montgomery a girl who went into seclusion after a devastating loss, or a selfish, entitled princess who took the entire country for a ride? We’ll have more on this story as it develops.”
I pressed my tongue against the dry roof of my mouth and closed the laptop. The worst part about it was, everything the man had said was true. I had taken the country for a ride. I had been selfish. But it wasn’t like I’d intended to hurt or mislead anyone. At least not anyone outside my own family. My mother had kept me under lock and key and under the watchful eye of a bodyguard/jailer for the past eight years of my life. I’d just needed some time. Some freedom. A life. I’d seen my opportunity, and I’d seized it.
I turned out the light and lay flat on my back, but I knew there was no way I was going to be able to sleep. My mother’s retribution for small infractions tended to be swift and hardly ever matched the crime. I could only imagine what her reaction to that news story might be.