July 19, 2008

Thirty-Five

Two weeks passed, and Michael and Emily moved, with touches and kisses, out of their guiltless friendship and into the summertime compromise they had created. Now that they’d spent that first night together, it became easier every time they arrived in each other’s arms, and soon they were in the giddy early days of what neither of them called love.

Michael’s father was serious about him taking the summer off, and Emily’s days were endless, so most evenings Michael would arrive home from Emily’s cottage just before night became morning, only to be woken up only a few hours later, after his father left for work, by Emily scampering up his fire escape and into his room. She’d often wear sunglasses to protect her blissfully sleep-deprived eyes from seeing the brightness of the daytime world, and vice versa. Michael, who had awoken at the sound of her feet on the metal stairs, would pretend to be asleep until she slipped off her shoes and into bed beside him. She’d tickle and play-bite until he could feign sleep no longer and opened his eyes to her laughter, her embrace, her Emilyness there in his bed and his arms.

They prepared a picnic for the Fourth of July: Michael got a few yards of kelly green gingham out of Underhill Men’s Clothing Haberdashery fabric warehouse and, working at his sewing machine, fashioned a blanket large enough for the two of them. He also borrowed a large wicker basket from his father, who carried wine and cheese in it when he took women on picnics of his own. Nicolaus Karlinoff had given him the basket with a broad wink that Michael pointedly ignored.

Emily prepared the food. Well, she sat on a stool in one of the downstairs kitchens and paid careful attention as Cindy, the family chef, prepared the food. To be fair, Emily had started out making the meal on her own, but Cindy nervously hovered over her and made so many suggestions that eventually they swapped places. As she worked, Cindy delivered a monologue on all of the intricate details of this deceptively simple meal. Emily was to memorize this spiel for Michael so he could fully appreciate everything that had gone into the lunch, then Emily was to report back on his delighted reactions. Like all artists, Cynthia Autry’s needs were basic: unconditional, unending praise and love.

Now the picnic was half over. They had already enthusiastically eaten the pan-bagnats, a kind of pressed tuna sandwich from somewhere in France…no matter how hard she tried, Emily had of course forgotten most of the details of Cindy’s lecture. They had also picked at what Michael had called the “avant-garde” potato salad, though they ate quite a bit more of it after had Emily produced the small bottle of Tabasco she always carried in her purse.

Emily stretched out with her head in Michael’s lap, enjoying the bright warm sunshine. A sandal dangled lazily from her big toe as a gentle, unending breeze caressed both of them. They slowly ate from a little bowl of fresh raspberries, of course feeding them to other occasionally then feeling slightly embarrassed at the clich√©. The raspberries were meant to be sprinkled on the homemade mango sorbet that still waited in the basket, but it looked increasingly unlikely they would survive that long. A line of ants, straight from a cartoon, marched across the blanket and into the picnic basket.

Michael brushed the bangs from Emily’s face and kissed his fingertips, then touched her forehead. “I can see your secret face,” he whispered.

Emily sighed happily and eventually answered. “What do you mean?” Without realizing it, she had apparently been nodding off.

“When we’ve been really close, like in bed? After a while I start to see a different face, one I don’t see when we’re out in the world. I guess it’s because we’re so close together that your eyes seem bigger than usual, but whatever, I don’t want to make it too scientific. I just know that it’s one of the things I really like about all this, getting to see your secret face.”

Emily smiled up at him, and closed her eyes. She snuggled her face up against his belly. “If I said that you make me deliriously happy, would you call me a total cheeseball?”

“You know I would.”

She bit softly at him through his light cotton shirt, and he grabbed her gently by the shoulders to hold her back. “You’re always biting me.”

“It just so happens you’re incredibly biteable.” She leaned forward, loudly chomping at him, but he laughingly held her off.

Gormenghast, the family’s troubled guard dog, perked up his ears at the sight of his mistress being wrestled with. He stood up, turned two circles, then sat back down.

“Gormy, seriously.” Emily said. “Some guard dog.”

At the sound of his name the Doberman trotted over happily, his nails clicking against the hardwood floor, in search of leftovers. Emily began tossing herself back and forth, as though Michael were roughing her up.

“Gormy, help me…this dusky immigrant is having his way with me! His Mediterranean passions have been in enflamed and he’s quite beyond reason! Only you can save me!” In response, the dog leaned over and gave a cautious sniff to the plastic ants lined up across the green blanket.

“Pitiful.”

The beginning of July was much too hot to even consider having a picnic outside, so Michael and Emily had set up their picnic in one of the larger rooms on the third floor of Emily’s home. When the Mercer Mansion had been a teacher’s college, this had been the gymnasium, where old-timey exercises were performed by old-timey women in long heavy skirts. These days it mostly sat empty, though Emily’s father would run laps around the perimeter whenever it was raining too hard to ride his bicycle along the levee.

The front of the room was completely dominated by three cathedral-like windows, and Michael and Emily had placed their blanket, with her mother’s Pilate mats underneath, in the center of the afternoon sun. The room was too large and under-used to keep air-conditioned, so Franz, the gardener, had brought two very large box fans from the workshop and placed them about ten feet away. Amused by the scene Emily and Michael had created in the gym, he’d gathered potted ferns and flowers from around the grounds and surrounded the blanket with them.

Michael picked up one of the plastic ants and inspected it. “Why do you have these, anyway?”

“Oh, a few years ago, when I was still in New York, my parents held a haunted house here for all the kids of my dad’s employees. He was Dr. Frankenstein, my mom was…Mrs. Frankenstein? The one with the cool hair. So anyway, one of the rooms on the second floor is full of Halloween stuff. Like plastic bugs, for example.”

“Ah.” Michael looked around and found his leather satchel. “Hey, speaking of your dad, when I went in to my dad’s shop for this fabric-”

“Ew, was that creepy guy there?”

“What? No.” A couple weeks before, a large red-headed man had come into Underhill asking for Michael. Sam, his father’s right-hand man, was a naturally suspicious and dismissive man; he took one look at the man’s blazer and claimed he’d never heard of Michael Karlinoff, but Nicolaus Karlinoff was out of the office for the day.

Around the same time, Emily’s mother said that a man called the house phone and asked to speak to Emily “Belly-castle.” For a few days, Emily and Michael had fed each other’s paranoia about these events and their meeting with Lucas Budd, but the man—if he’d even been the same person in both cases—didn’t make another appearance, and they soon forgot about him.

Neither of them had heard from Lucas Budd since their meeting, but he’d told them to wait three weeks before attempting their first mission, and they still had another week to go.

Michael pulled a magazine from his leather bag, the newest issue of Forbes. On the cover was a line of middle-aged female CEOs in business suits, smiling at the camera and holding brushes that dripped red paint. The headline of the magazine read The Richest Men In America, but Men had been crossed out with red paint and sloppily replaced with People.

“Oh yeah…I forgot that this came out in July.” Emily flipped through the pages. “My mom always has to go buy it at Walgreen’s every year and then hide it ‘cause Dad…well, he’s Scandinavian, you know?”

“I can’t remember what page it is, but he’s tied for number 39.”

“Uh-oh. He was at 37 for a few years in a row. Time to start tightening our belts around here.” Emily looked up at Michael and smiled warmly at him, for no other reason than he was there, then returned to the magazine. “Oh, here it is. Where was this picture taken?”

“It’s his downtown office, they just flipped the negative for some reason, and it’s a weird angle.”

“Oh yeah. Don’t tell him I told you this, but back when his investment firm had a softball team a few years ago, they made him a jersey with the number 37 on the back.”

“That’s cool.”

Emily was reading the short article that accompanied the picture. “Oh man, these stories always want to make it sound like a Rags To Riches story…it drives him so crazy. I mean, his father owned a natural gas company and a bunch of coal mines, or something. It’s more of a Riches To Insane Riches story.”

Michael reached over and fiddled with one of the ferns beside their picnic. “I guess I had no idea just how much money his firm made. I, uh, did the math while I was waiting for the streetcar…I wanted to see what your dad’s hourly wage was. I was bored, I don’t know. And the number was so big it just made no sense, so I figured it out to the minute, then the second. Did you know that if your dad was walking down the street and saw a $100 bill on the ground it would actually cost him money to stop and pick it up?”

“Trust me, he’d pick it up. Have you seen his car?”

Michael shrugged. “It’s just weird, I guess…I mean, I always knew you guys had a bunch of money, of course, but then to see a magazine calling him one of the richest men in world…?”

“Country, in the country. There’s a big difference. You just pissed off a lot of dudes from Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong.” She looked over at him, her head tilted to the side. “Did this really freak you out?”

“What? No…not really. It was just sort of a shock, you know?” He smiled at her, then picked up her hand and kissed each of her knuckles, one by one. “It didn’t weird me out or anything.”

“Good.” She closed her eyes with a grin as he pecked each of her fingernails. “You still have to buy me beignets tonight. You know that, right?”

“Sounds good to me.” Later that evening, after Emily went to her grandparents’ and Michael went to the Underhill employee cookout, they were going to ride their bikes downtown to see the fireworks.

Emily picked up the magazine and finished reading the article with a sigh. “They always have to mention that lawsuit, like it has anything to do with anything.”

“Yeah, I saw that. You know, everyone always talks about it, but I don’t guess I even know what it’s all about.”

“It’s really boring, are you sure you want to hear it?”

Michael checked his watch. “I don’t know…I only have about three hours.”

“You jerk.” Emily poked him in the chest. “So…when my dad was younger, he was married to another lady and they had three kids. They’re all in their thirties now. And…well, I hate to make it sound simplistic, but even though they’ll all be super-rich for the next twenty generations, they’re afraid that my mom is gonna somehow steal their inheritance. When my parents adopted me fifteen years ago, they filed a lawsuit to guarantee that a certain retarded percentage of his estate went to them no matter how much he wants to leave to me.”

“Oh. Does it have something to do with you turning eighteen soon?”

“To them that probably has something to do with it, yeah. But their big beef is the fact that I’m adopted. Now he has another heir, and one that isn’t even a blood relation.”

“Why does that matter?”

“Well…the glib answer is that we’re not that far from the Middle Ages, and that bloodlines still count. Also, I guess they see my adoption as my mom stealing my dad away from them without fulfilling the one job requirement expected of a Much Younger Wife: actually sleeping with him. Which is really a stupid idea because my parents have sex all the time.”

“Really?” Michael cocked an eyebrow. “How do you know that?”

Emily held up her hands and closed her eyes. “I know, okay? I know. Please don’t make me relive the specific traumas of sharing a house with two parents passionately in love.”

“Sorry.”

“It’s okay.” She shook her head, then did an exaggerated shudder. “Anyway, the fact that I have my mom’s last name isn’t just some feminist thing: technically, I’m not even my dad’s adopted daughter. I’m not sure how this is gonna stand up in court one day, but on paper, anyway, my mom adopted me fifteen years ago by herself while she just happened to be married to my dad.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah. And there are like fifty other things that I won’t even get into, like how I’ve never spent a dime of my dad’s money on anything. All my school clothes, the tuition at Beaumonde, even my allowance: all of it comes from my mom’s trust fund and my grandpa. And all of this so she can be above suspicion to my step-brothers and step-sister, which of course only makes them even more suspicious of her motives.”

“Of course.”

“And the really stupid thing about all of this...hey, am I boring you?”

Michael looked up. “What? No way. The only inheritance drama in my family was who had to take my Aunt Nevena’s dogs when she died.”

“Well, let me just add quickly that the really stupid thing about all this is that my mom is a Bellecastle, you know? Okay, sure, compared to my dad’s money that basically makes her lower-middle-class, but still: she and I could pretty much live off my grandfather until the year 3000 before we’d have to start clipping coupons.”

Outside, a few early fireworks were being let off in the street. “Your dad doesn’t seem like someone who would put up with all this.”

“He doesn’t. It’s, like, the only thing my mom and dad fight about. He wants to adopt me and change my name to Hammarskj√∂ld and everything else, but my mom thinks that if she’s fanatical about staying above suspicion, then one day they’ll start to trust her. The other family is so eager to believe the most fucked-up conspiracies about my mom’s motives, but they’ll never buy the simple explanation: she just loves him.” Emily shrugged. “All I know is it sucks that, with all this talk about inheritance, I have to think about my dad dying all the time.”

Neither of them spoke for a moment. Emily tilted her head up and Michael kissed her waiting lips once, soft and lingering, before she put her arms around his neck and their mouths became eager. His legs were open and she was curled between them, pulling him down into her embrace by his neck and his shoulders, sometimes his hair. His arms supported her, and one palm rested heavily on her tummy. He could feel the flesh just beneath her thin shirt rise and fall slightly as she sighed happily in his arms.

Over the last few weeks, they had surprised each other with their ability to go from civility to passion within seconds. Every lull in conversation held the potential to be transformed instead into a clinch, a devouring.

Within a few minutes, among the ferns and flowers of their indoor picnic, their hands and clothes had begun to cross the line of plausible deniability; if anyone had come in they wouldn’t be able to separate in time, to adjust their garments into an approximation of innocence. Slowly they moved apart, fixing their hems and collars with shy giggles and expectant gazes. The rest would have to wait until after the fireworks.

“Can I tell you a secret?” Emily whispered.

“No.” Michael shook his head. “Not just one. I want all of them.”

Her eyes softened for a second, and she smiled at him before continuing. “I think I know what that lawsuit is really about.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. But…I don’t know. Okay: I was already one year old when my parents got married, right? And my dad had been divorced for ten, fifteen years by that point. I think maybe…I think I might be his kid, from some relationship he had before he met my mom.”

“You think so?”

“Yeah. It just makes a lot of sense. I don’t have any proof or anything, which means I might as well be fantasizing about my dad being Darth Vader or killed by Voldemort or whatever. But if I’m his legitimate daughter, it explains why the lawsuit is such a big deal, you know?” Emily shook her head. “I’m probably just daydreaming, though. Hey, can I keep this magazine to show my mom?”

Michael shrugged. “Sure. I brought it so you could have it. Besides, I don’t think they’re going to miss it…there are always a ton of magazines in the men’s bathroom at Underhill.”

“Ew, Michael!” She flung the magazine away from herself. “You brought me a magazine you found in the bathroom?”

“So?”

“You totally gave me cooties!” She jumped on him and they play-wrestled for a few minutes, Michael trying to keep her from biting him again, until Emily was straddling Michael’s lap, holding his wrists softly as she purred in his ear, “There’s only one cure for cooties, you know…”

Michael raised his eyebrows. “Kisses?”

“What? No, not kisses, you boy. I was thinking sorbet…get the spoons.”