Emily and Michael had waited until nightfall to visit Mr. Budd—it made sense on some level they couldn’t articulate—and were surprised by how different the twins’ Garden District mansion was without actually being changed. All of the exterior lights were off, aside from a spotlight above the garage, and the landscaping was starting to go a little wild. The house appeared totally dark inside, though there was the hint of a dark amber glow behind the family room’s heavy red curtains.
They had forgotten about the guards. There were two of them, both clearly off-duty cops, standing illuminated and starkly shadowed in the overhead glare of the garage spotlight. One was blonde, tall and thick, and who laughed loudly at something just as they pulled up. Just one laugh, like: Ha! The other policeman had darker hair and a vaguely military stiffness about him. They were leaning over the hood of a Crown Victoria, flipping through a magazine together, and neither of them looked up as Emily and Michael pulled up softly in front of the house.
“Keep driving,” Michael whispered, and Emily moved on, turning the corner and stopping under a large oak tree. Across the street, a middle-aged man sat on a large porch smoking a cigarette and talking on a cell phone.
“I’d forgotten about the guards.”
“Yeah, me too.” Michael looked past her, through the rear window of the Mini, even though they couldn’t see the house from where they were parked.
“What should we do?”
Michael breathed in, held it, and exhaled. “I guess we go back? I mean, it’s not like we’re strangers…if there’s any hassle, Mr. Budd can tell them he knows us, right?”
“I guess so. Okay, yeah.” She pulled away from the curb again and circled the block. They passed by Andre’s house, and though both of them looked at the bright windows as they drove by, neither of them said anything. At the stop sign just before the last turn, Emily paused without pulling out. She looked over at Michael.
“It’ll be fine,” he said softly, in the dark. “I’ll be right beside you. Just follow my lead.”
“Okay,” she said, then turned the corner.
When they drove into the driveway, the two guards looked up sharply and straightened up. Emily stopped far enough back that they were both out on the driveway before the dark-haired cop could say “Stay in the car,” forcefully. He glared at them with the sort of thousand-yard squint Emily associated with men who weren’t raised near a city.
Emily held on to her purse and joined Michael, who was still walking towards the house. “We’re just here to see-“
“No visitors,” the cop said.
The blonde guard had joined him by this point. “Family only.”
“Oh, well…” Emily began, but Michael looked back over his shoulder at her, then turned back to the cops. In the harsh yellow light, she saw a subtle instantaneous change come over his body just in the space of him turning back to the guards. His posture relaxed, growing more casual. His mouth opened slightly and his eyelids lowered. He looked over at the policemen with hooded eyes and a sly, almost flirtatious, smile.
“Yeah, no shit. We’re the kids.”
Michael looked back at Emily again and chuckled silently at her, as though saying Can you believe these guys? He wasn’t impersonating Alexander, he was impersonating what a policeman would assume a rich Uptown kid would be like. He looked cocky, he looked decadent, he looked slightly dangerous. (He looked incredibly hot.)
Emily attempted to imagine how his female counterpart would appear. She raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips, as though disgusted by the men. She was trying to look snobby and reserved, the sort of girl who would have never dated them in high school, but she suspected she just looked like she had to go to the bathroom.
“You’re the twins?” the blonde asked. “You don’t look like twins.”
“Yeah, well, luckily for both of us we’re not identical.”
The blonde guard laughed at this, and the squinter asked them their names after an annoyed look at his partner.
Michael hadn’t stopped walking, and Emily forced herself to stay with him. He turned back to talk, walking backwards now, and she kept going.
“Alexander L. Budd. I don’t exactly broadcast the middle name these days.”
“What’s your middle name?” The blonde asked, and the brunette looked annoyed.
“Lucas…keep up with me, fellas.” Said with a devilish smile, as though they were in on it all along, and the blonde cop chuckled a little. “You want my birthdate, my soshe? Rank and serial number?”
“How about some ID?” Squinty asked.
Michael turned back to Emily, who had found the door on the side of the garage locked. She pulled her keyring out of her purse, and tried to calm herself down enough to find the right key. She unlocked the door and stepped into the garage.
“That ID enough for you?” Michael asked, following her through the door. “Peace.”
In the stale dark of the garage they stopped, listening to the two guards talking outside. The doors, both the garage doors and the “human door,” were too thick to make much of what they were saying out.
“Well, that was alarming,” Michael whispered, breathing heavily.
“You didn’t seem that upset. Why didn’t you tell me that was the plan before we got out of the car?”
“What plan? He said family only, and we’re both seventeen. It seemed natural.”
Emily exhaled slowly, the breath coming out jagged and short. “That was pretty amazing,” she whispered.
“I was scared to death.”
They didn’t say anything for a moment, both of them trying to calm down. Eventually, they heard the muffled sounds of the two guards going back to their magazine, their voices close but indistinct.
Their eyes had adjusted to the dark enough that they both seemed to identify the single car in the garage at the same time. It was the twins’ car, the red MG convertible, covered sloppily with a tarp. The back tire was flat, and Emily suddenly remembered Michael in the parking lot of the first Prom after-party, bending down and pushing his thumb into the rubber, telling Lillian it seemed low.
“Why do you have a key?” Michael asked in a whisper.
“Why do I…? Uh, so I can sneak into the house in the middle of the night?”
“Oh. Let’s find Mr. Budd.”
“Don’t you have a key?” she teased.
They walked into the dark house, turning on a light in the side entryway. The rest of the house seemed dark and silent.
“Mr. Budd?” Michael called. “It’s Michael and Emily. Are you here?”
“Hey, Mr. Budd? It’s Emily. I’m here with Michael. We’re coming upstairs.”
“Don’t shoot us,” Michael added.
“Yeah and, uh, please have some clothes on.”
They went up the dark stairwell, which had a few stray pieces of laundry abandoned on the steps, and turned on the light at the top. Now that they were upstairs, there was clearly a light on down the hallway, in the family room. There was also the sound of movement, and a dull hum, coming from the room.
“Mr. Budd?” Michael called, but got no answer.
Emily bit her lip, looking back over her shoulder at the light, then back to Michael. He shrugged and stepped in front of her. As he walked down the long hallway, he reached back a hand that Emily, following him, shyly took. He squeezed her hand once and then they both let go.
Just before they were in the doorway, a thin breeze of cold air hit them, followed by a dull thick warmth. The explanation was soon clear: the air-conditioner, a small wall unit meant to enhance the central air, was on full blast. Across the room, there was a huge fire built up in the fireplace.
There were boxes of paper everywhere, some stacked in the corner, some piled on the sofas and chairs. Some metal file cabinets, one clearly empty, and been dragged into the room from somewhere else in the house…there were tracks cut into the hardwood floor where it had been pushed. The light they’d seen was a large floor lamp that was peering over the shoulder of a leather chair. And in the chair, with a blanket on his legs, was City Councilman Lucas Budd. He was turning through the pages of a folder opened on his lap, and he didn’t look up when they entered.
Emily and Michael glanced at each other. “Mr. Budd?” Emily said in a soft voice. “I’m here.”
Mr. Budd looked up slowly and smiled at both of them, then returned to his folder. Finally, in a rich voice far different from the mumbled hellos they were used to, he spoke:
“When my daughter was a little girl, she asked me why we named her Lillian. I told her that as we were leaving the hospital, a nurse walked by with a bouquet of flowers and a beautiful lily fell into her bassinet. And so we named her Lillian.”
He looked up at them, waiting for a response.
“That’s interesting,” Emily said. “I never knew-”
“And then my other daughter asked me why we named her Daisy,” he said tenderly. Michael and Emily gave each other sidelong glances as he talked. Lucas Budd didn’t have another daughter, of course. “Hey, stay with me. So I told Daisy that as we were leaving the hospital with her, a nurse came by and a daisy fell from a bouquet into her bassinet. So we named her Daisy.”
Neither Michael nor Emily said a word. Mr. Budd rubbed the back of his neck and stared at them for a long time, at least forty-five seconds. When they didn’t say anything that he could interrupt, he cleared his throat.
“So then my third daughter looked up at me, and she said...” Mr. Budd’s face, which so far had been gentle and considerate, suddenly contorted into a grimace. His eyes crossed wildly, and his fingers curled into claws. Emily took a step closer to Michael. “‘Bluuurgggh! Grrik yert rhy thand raktr?’ she asked me. And I looked down at her and I said, ‘Ah, shut the fuck up, Cinderblock.’”
The only sound in the house was the crackling of the wood fire and, in the background, the air-conditioner running on ‘high.’
Mr. Budd ran a hand up the side of his face. The teenagers could hear his long beard stubble scratch against his palm. “That was a joke. You’re allowed to laugh.”
Emily glanced over at Michael and nervously chuckled.
Mr. Budd finished flipping through the papers in his lap. He took one page out of the stack and set it in a nearly empty box beside his chair. The rest of the papers he flung into the fire. “When you’re in a nervous social situation, Michael, it never hurts to start off with a joke.”
“See? No reason to be scared of Mr. Budd. I could become your wise old mentor. Like some sort of Obi-wan Kenobi and Willy Wonka and, I don’t know, E.T., I guess, all rolled into one. Stick with me and maybe, just maybe, at the end of all this you’ll learn a few valuable life lessons about becoming an adult.” He bent over to pick up another file folder. “Don’t get your hopes up, though.”
“At the end of all what, Mr. Budd?”
“I’m sorry, Emily?”
“You said, ‘at the end of all this’ and I was-”
He snapped his fingers and pointed at her. “Excellent observation, Ms. Hammarskjöld-Bellecastle. And the end of all what, indeed! A very astute question, and one that will take me a while to answer. By all means, have a seat. Move some of those boxes if you need to, but be careful…they’re heavy. Hey, are you guys hungry? I could order a pizza. Me, I like mushrooms on a pizza. That doesn’t gross you out, does it?”
“We just ate,” Michael said.
“Well, I’m starving. Let’s go into the kitchen and see what’s left.”
Mr. Budd stood up and pulled the blanket up over his shoulders. As he started to stride towards the kitchen, Emily nudged Michael and pointed at something trailing behind Mr. Budd: it was a long white electrical cord. Mr Budd was wearing an unplugged electric blanket.
Just before leaving the study, the man mumbled something that sounded like “Gandalf.”
“What, Mr. Budd?”
“Gandalf, is that his name? The wizard in those hobbit movies? I should have said ‘Gandalf’ instead of ‘E.T.’ earlier.” He turned around and spread his arms—and his blanket-cape—wide. “I mean, do kids even know who E.T. is anymore?”