White House State Dining Room
Sam Tree, the president of the United States, was about to die.
Sucking on his first oyster, a Peconic from Long Island’s Great South Bay, Tree’s lips smacked from the mollusk’s ocean kiss. His face flushed, fleshy pink cheeks speckled with red. In his veins, free fatty droplets looked to relocate.
Next was a Raspberry Point from Prince Edward Island, plump and creamy, it tanged his palate like the melony musk between the legs of his favored brothel duo, the “Uzbekistan Express.” Fatty droplets now sped through arterial shunts to their destination of choice, the president’s brain stem.
The third oyster was a Glidden Point flat from Maine. Tree’s sucking came to a halt as his throat went into reflexive alert. Like a locomotive thrown unceremoniously into reverse, spit flew from his mouth. The Glidden Point Flat tasted of a high-tided mussel, its brain too primitive to have fled dehydrating ground. The president’s countenance of pleasure disappeared, and a foul odor commandeered his mouth; he spat noisily into his linen. His brain’s pathways began to inflame.
Incensed, he vacuumed in the fourth with a loud slurp, a Moonstone from Point Judith Pond. It was pedigreed by the terminal moraine, a species of oyster birthed at the end of the Ice Age, flavored by mineral rich water, a taste seasoned with a relish of stone and iron. Tree’s eyes bulged momentarily as the Moonstone pirouetted through his esophagus, rotating south to his stomach.
The guest of honor, the Chinese premier, Sun Jian, sat on the dais next to President Tree. Jian shook his head briefly before his neck drew inward like a panicky turtle in retreat. Inside Tree’s brain, C-reactive proteins slammed out of control.
Tree abruptly pushed his plate away; his left eye twitched, and his head shook as he stood. With his gait out of balance, he approached the podium. His eyes turned the two teleprompters into four. He felt a shallowness of breath.
Tree had just begun his remarks when the First Lady, Ashley Tree, seemed to detect an ominous slurring of speech. She watched in disbelief as her husband’s knees buckled, his speech broke apart. For a brief moment, an unearthly wail emanated from deep in his throat.
The president dropped the folio holding a hard copy of his prepared speech. The palm of his right hand shot up and smashed into his left eye. Taking a lurching step away from the podium, he fell forward like a dead weight, his head slamming into his main course, a plate of steaming Double Pleasure Live Whole Sea Bass.
A team of Secret Service medics, supervised by the president’s physician, frantically tried to revive the leader of what had once been the most powerful and respected nation on earth. Twenty minutes later, a doctor paused and looked at his watch. He recorded the president’s time of death for posterity: 9:28 p.m.
Airspace Over the Arabian Desert
The moon, with a waxing crescent, dipped below the horizon line of the desert sands. The stars illuminating the cloudless night blossomed with fresh intensity.
Forty thousand feet above the surface of the earth, a custom-built hydrogen powered Learjet, carrying a solitary passenger, streaked through the sky.
Beijing to Boston.
Rebecca Tree, President Sam Tree’s only living sibling, sat transfixed in the plane’s executive cabin, searching the night sky as a spectacular meteor shower concluded.
Below stretched Rub al Khali, the Empty Quarter, the world’s largest sand desert, one of the least hospitable places on earth—scorching hot, aridly dry, and unyielding.
Each year she arranged her global business trips to coincide with the celestial event. The April Lyrids, named after the constellation Lyra emerged from a point near Vega, the fifth brightest star in the night sky.
The beauty and the force of nature humbled her, moved her.
The meteors, in her mind, became proxies for lost loved ones; sadness chilled her bones as fragile memory traces raced through her mind.
She remembered a famed story from Japanese mythology of celestial exiled lovers, each year on the seventh night of the seventh moon crossing the Milky Way on a sky bridge of magpies for a wondrous reunion.
The lovers’ tears fell as raindrops that night all across Japan.
Dressed in jeans and black Keds, Rebecca wore a Giant Monkey Frog T-shirt. Under the image of a grotesque-looking Peruvian amphibian perched precariously on a tree branch, the shirt’s slogan read “Licking This Frog May Make You Crazy.” She had purchased the shirt twenty years ago when the Phyllomedusa bicolor species was endangered. Now it was extinct.
She sat in the pitch-black cabin for an hour after the meteor shower ended before reluctantly switching back on a bank of computer screens and state-of-the-art satellite communications systems. Some of the screens displayed 360-degree panoramas of the cockpit; two offered comfort during turbulence by showing her the pilots’ faces. The manufacturer created this modification to help Rebecca fight off panic attacks, which sometimes came with flying. If left unattended, her brain would work itself into a frenzy imagining how it must have been for her parents, how rapid their descent, and how instant their demise upon impact. Or worse: the possibility it went slow.
She became lost in thought as her mind reviewed the complexities of her life.
She was the granddaughter of America’s most powerful politician; her older brother was the president of the United States. A successful inventor and businesswoman, she was also the sole voice of rebellion within the Tree family.
As the older of the Tree twins—by six minutes—she felt a responsibility to protect her sister Allison, in life as well as in her death. Rebecca had unfinished business with the Tree dynasty; unanswered questions remained which needed to be addressed.
The public knew little about Rebecca Tree, and she did her best to keep it that way. As CEO and chairwoman of the Argyle Group, a private equity company with a small minority stake owned by the Tree family, she managed a substantial concentration of global wealth, successfully turning around an old-line fossil fuel conglomerate into a global leader powered by sustainable technologies.
In addition to their investment interests, her family’s male bloodline had built a formidable and controversial political dynasty. Her grandfather, Merewether Tree, served seven terms in the United States Senate until he retired at the age of eighty. Her great-uncle William, the younger half-brother of Merewether, and a congressman, rose to the powerful chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee, and then served as Secretary of the Treasury, until retiring after two heart attacks.
Merewether and William were often called Big Tree and Little Tree—fondly by their supporters and bitterly by their enemies. Last and least came Rebecca’s brother Sam, disdainfully nicknamed Baby Tree, whose rise to the presidency paralleled the nation’s increasing dysfunction.
The male Trees had created a political brand—the Millennium Populist Party. With moral certitude, they proclaimed their belief system, an ingenious blend of economic populism and religious fundamentalism, to the wreckage of a badly divided electorate.
Rebecca reached back under her left shoulder blade, and started massaging a thick, jagged line of scar tissue, acquired, she had been told, from a childhood fall. It had been there for as long as she could remember, seated like a button with direct connects to memory fragments as rare to her as the Dead Sea Scrolls and just as fragile.
An incoming cellphone call disrupted her, and she began talking to a private investigator named Oswaldo Lemus.
“Your grandfather has built an impenetrable wall of secrecy around his estate and the nearby town,” Lemus said.
“So, no information of value?”
“None, nada, rien. I’ve had four of my most charming, good-looking agents trying to make friends with the locals.”
“None of the locals have been inside your grandfather’s mansion. Apparently the town suppliers—the butcher, the green grocer, all of them, signed confidentiality agreements with your grandfather’s steward. We can’t even determine how many pounds of meat, or fruit, or any item for that matter are delivered each week.”
“Their delivery vans stop at the main gate, a mile from the house. Everything is unloaded there and put inside an electric van bearing the insignia Hillock-Hill Ranch, Home of Senator Merewether Tree, Retired.”
“Is the type in gold leaf?”
“Ha. No, it gets worse. There’s a reproduction painted beside the text of a portrait of Senator Tree, which must be his official portrait. Arms folded, American flag behind him, bookcase on right and globe of the world on left.”
“Stop, this is making me sick.”
“Look, he either has a great deal to hide. Or he’s extremely paranoid. Or both.”
“I’ll put my money on the ‘both’ theory. I don’t know what to do about this anymore,” Rebecca said, her voice filled with undisguised frustration.
“Rebecca. We go way back, you and I. Can I tell you what I think?”
“Yes. I wouldn’t be able to stop you in any event.”
“Ok. Stop looking, at least for the moment. We have failed to uncover any useful information about your twin.”
“Let me think about it.”
“Becky, I love you like a sister but don’t hire me again unless you are willing to dig into the weeds and break some legs.”
Rebecca slumped in her seat. Closing her eyes, she tried to fight off a wave of despair. Trying to fill in the huge blanks of this meager story was all she had of her sister, and it was too hard to let that go.
Agitated by the conversation with Lemus and unable to sleep, Rebecca opened her laptop and typed an email to her Chief Operating Officer, Fatima Massiri:
Fatima, I’ll be back in the office late tomorrow morning. The attached notes are the proposed claim amendments discussed yesterday with our Chinese attorneys on the micro wind turbine patent. More when we speak in person. She paused for a few seconds. Beijing can be lovely this time of year. Not even thirty million cars can destroy the Summer Palace Garden and the Temple of Heaven. Best, R.T.
A flurry of incoming calls on her cellphone interrupted Rebecca’s thoughts. She had assigned distinct ring tones to the names in her address book. One was the opening riff of Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train” and promised a friendly caller.
But it was another set of tones—the ominous chords of Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde—that began to abrade her ear. The ill-omened chord was reserved exclusively for the few living members of her immediate family and their associates.
With the second jarring Wagnerian call, without looking at the caller ID she opened the back panel of her cellphone and removed the battery, throwing it into one of the many pockets of her orange messenger bag, which she always carried for both its sentimental value as well as the practical.
She was determined to have some peace. The plane’s engines hummed like a low-frequency kitchen blender, helping her to slide towards sleep. The night sky, led by the Milky Way, began to dim, and Rebecca was soon in a forest, now a young child seeking a tree to climb.
Her mind churned into the nightmare that recurred often to plague her:
A familiar oak tree. A pine needle carpeted forest. She searches for secret messages from her dead father. The big house fills the background. The wind carries a sound of distant crying, and a plaintive voice sounding like her sister.
She runs towards the house; a heavy pine door opens into a cavernous kitchen. Logs burn in a cooking fireplace—pig roasting on a spit. Flames grow. Sparks fly. Smoke. Muffled whimpering. Her sister is tied to a chair, arms and legs bound, mouth stuffed.
She runs to her twin and unties her. Allison, fully free, still moaning and crying, picks up a kitchen knife and turns toward Rebecca …
Suddenly she is awoken as the plane hits a patch of turbulence. The lead pilot’s voice came over the intercom. “Sorry Becky, the jet stream just slammed us. No warning. It should be okay now. We just received a request from Homeland Security that a government number is trying to call you, but they think you are blocking it.”
“Thanks,” Rebecca groggily replied, trying to shake herself out of sleep and to distance herself from the fears the dream triggered. “My phone is off. I’ll turn it back on.”
Rebecca becomes fully awake although still disorientated. Trying to normalize, she returned the battery to her cellphone, which began chirping with a backlog of voice mails. Before she could look at the messages, the phone blared its harsh Wagnerian tone. WHITE HOUSE displayed on her phone. She answered the call.
“Rebecca Tree here,” she said, her voice armored.
“This is Sherman Knight,” a nervous voice declared. “I’m assistant to Henry Hess, President Tree’s Senior Advisor. I’m afraid I have bad news for you. It’s about your brother Sam.”
Rebecca froze. Her history with her brother had been Cain-and-Abel poisonous. As she recovered from the unexpected jolt, she put Knight on hold as she flicked her finger at the Firefox icon on her laptop. A CNN homepage flashed with a banner announcing: PRESIDENT SAMUEL TREE DEAD AFTER COLLAPSE AT STATE DINNER. As Rebecca continued to read, a second screen popped up. V.P. GEORGE JENKINS BAYOU TO BE SWORN IN AS PRESIDENT. Nearly motionless, she nudged her phone’s hold button.
“Do they suspect foul play?”
“No, cerebral hemorrhage.”
God’s will, Rebecca thought. She had long ago given up hope that her brother might change or show the slightest small sign of caring for her – it was not meant to be. Rebecca worshiped a loving, forgiving God, but Sam being called to account at such a young age came as no surprise and stirred in her no remorse. Sam had attempted an unspeakable act of sibling abuse towards her nearly thirty years ago; fortunately for Rebecca his attempt failed and he had never asked her forgiveness.
Within moments, the Tristan chord jolted her again. She pressed the green receive button. “Rebecca Tree here.”
“Rebecca!” It was her great-uncle William Tree, as she knew by the ringtone. “Your damnable brother has managed to die.”
“Yes, Uncle William. The White House called me a few minutes ago.” She stumbled for a second, trying to achieve a full state of clarity. “Please give my condolences to Sam’s widow and the children.” She paused. “I’m en-route back to the United States from Beijing and expect to land in Boston about five a.m.” For a brief instant she debated what to say next. “I’m due in Stockholm the day after tomorrow.”
“Well change your plans, my dear grandniece, and now! You have to be at this cursed funeral the day after tomorrow.”
“I don’t know whether my schedule will allow me to come to Sam’s funeral,” Rebecca said as her voice stiffened.
“What do you mean?” Tree yelled. She moved the phone away from her ear. “He was your brother … your only living sibling. And this is not a simple funeral but an affair of state and an important gathering of power—political and financial.”
Tree, met with silence, shifted into a stutter. “You … you … don’t forget your obligations as chairwoman of Argyle. Sam was a limited partner. There are family issues to be discussed.” His voice rose to a threat. “I have a message for you from your grandfather.”
Rebecca felt a chill rush through her body. “Which is?”
Rebecca felt as if a surgeon’s knife had just made a capricious cut. Without waiting for a response, Great Uncle William hung up.
Northeast Corridor Airspace
Dawn Two Days Later
Rebecca’s plane lifted off into the pre-dawn light from Wayfarer Ketch, a private aviation terminal north of Boston. Her heart raced, and her ankles numbed, as a painful cramping grabbed her calf muscles while her mind filled with thoughts about the tragic Tree family history.
The only fact she had ever surely known about her parents was their loss – that they died in a plane crash before she and her sister reached two years of age, too young for her to remember them. The few hazy memories she had been confusingly entwined with faded snapshots from dreams, of a life with her twin sister that ended when Allison died at age four. Now her brother Sam had passed; the numbers of her family continued to dwindle. But it wasn’t Sam’s passing that caused this psychomotor reaction and reflexive sense of longing. It was Allison, always Allison.
Rebecca clutched a comfort locket around her neck. As the view of distant Boston receded under her plane’s wing, she tried to distract herself by surfing the news channels. She began with the three major American networks but bypassed each one as their lead stories highlighted her destination that day, the funeral of her brother, where she had a front row seat reserved in a history for which she wanted no part.
She focused on a BBC special titled “Update: Global Climate Report.” The first segment examined the degradation of world food supplies, as many developed nations employed immigrant guest workers to hand-pollinate crops; despite the herculean effort, most experts predicted irreversible global famines in the near future.
A narrator opined, “Half a million low-paid Mexican workers are all that stand to protect America’s food supply. Agronomists now believe California’s fruit could become as rare as caviar in post-Tsarist Russia.
“Adding to America’s woes is a rampant lawlessness that is sweeping through the border states of New Mexico and Arizona. Hate crimes are on the rise, often directed at the same field workers who are preserving America’s food supplies. Vigilante groups flying the banner of ‘America First’ are making daylight attacks in armed SUVs against immigrants. When night falls, whole towns are reportedly coming under the control of a shadowy group known as ‘Native Force.’”
The narrator’s voice continued, shifting to concerns about sea levels. “Two feet of rising waters are tipping the course of America’s history. Parts of Florida’s Palm Beach County have surrendered to the sea, while still prosperous cities, like Boston and New York, have privately financed seawalls and pumping stations, creating mammoth construction projects employing ant-like armies of workers. The Army Corps of Engineers have tried to fortify the Potomac Basin, protecting the nation’s capital. It is still leaking—badly.”
A bolded text message from Fatima flashed across her television’s monitor:
BECKY, TURN ON CNN NOW.
Rebecca switched channels and the screen filled with a photograph of herself, a commissioned portrait retouched to minimize her facial freckles.
Slamming down her fist in anger at her image being broadcast, she grabbed the remote to turn the monitor off but hesitated. Instead, she reached into her bag for a hand mirror and a canvas cosmetic bag and began awkwardly working foundation makeup into her freckles as she continued watching the news show.
Although Rebecca’s image of herself had been stamped in puberty, tall and gangly, skin hyper-pigmented with spots, and soda-bottle bottom bifocals to correct eyes that had crossed at age five—God’s will, according to her domineering grandfather—she understood that the world perceived her grown-up persona in a different light. Now thirty-seven years old, she stood a full six feet, with erect posture and a determined stride. Her fiery red hair dramatically set off against a canvas of what now registered as sparkling freckles, as the result of a recessive gene on chromosome sixteen. With high cheekbones, a narrow nose, flush lips, she presented a striking image. Her brown, almond-shaped eyes, surgically uncrossed at age twelve, shimmered when she smiled.
“A family saga is unfolding at President Tree’s funeral, with the imminent arrival by private jet of his only living sibling, Rebecca Tree, a businesswoman. Ms. Tree has managed to keep herself out of the public eye during President Tree’s term in office. We go now to our Boston Bureau Chief, Sonya Coughlin. Can you give us some more background?”
“Thank you, Arnold. Yes and no on the background. Ms. Tree has a reputation as a fiercely private person, and her friends and associates are very protective of her. What we know is that she runs a privately held equity company, Argyle, which invests, manages and builds out global alternative energy businesses with cutting- edge technologies. She doesn’t give interviews and photographs of her are scarce; beside her official portrait we have on screen now, our bureau has only a few, mainly pictures of her playing soccer, which seems to be a passion of hers.”
“In addition to her business career,” the anchor Arnold Olden interjected, “she spent three years in the Army, part of which was spent in combat zones in Saudi Arabia, but these details of her service seem sketchy.”
“Hmm,” Coughlin said, “sketchy often means army intelligence or special operations. In addition, she is a graduate of Balliol College Oxford graduating with honors in mathematics.”
“Interesting,” Olden said, “we will provide our viewers with more details about Ms. Tree as they become available.”
Rebecca muted the volume and angrily bold-texted Fatima. HOW DID THEY GET THIS STORY? DID MY UNCLE PUT THIS OUT? I’LL WRING HIS NECK.
No, your pilots had to give Andrews traffic control the manifest, Fatima texted. The press monitors all private aviation coming into the funeral.
DANG. I should have figured that out.
Rebecca turned the volume back up.
“There is a lot of speculation centering on Rebecca Tree’s relationship with Sam Tree, as well as her grandfather Merewether Tree and his political party, the Millennium Populist Party. Our White House correspondent, Nick Byers, is standing by with an update.”
“Thank you. We have just run Rebecca Tree’s name through all the White House databases, particularly the visitor’s log. She has been to the White House only once, as a three-year-old; her grandfather had taken her and her twin sister Allison, now deceased, to meet the president and the vice president. There is no record of her attending the inauguration of Sam Tree three years ago.”
“I guess she isn’t interested in the family business.”
“You got that right. Muttonheads,” Rebecca said, yelling at the screen as she removed the batteries from her remote before tossing them into a recycle bin.
As her plane descended into Andrews Air Force Base, Rebecca’s phone began playing the dark chords from Tristan und Isolde. She stared at the caller I.D., WHITE HOUSE at 7:45 a.m.; WH at 7:50 a.m.; then again at eight. Next came HENRY HESS at 8:02 a.m.; 8:05 a.m.; and at 8:10 a.m.; followed by WILLIAM TREE. Ten minutes later, at 8:20 a.m. the tones began again. She juggled the phone in her hand, and hit the red decline icon, refusing all calls.
Better they tyrannize my voicemail, she thought. She focused her attention on a screen showing her pilots expertly manning the controls and reminded herself to breathe.
Her plane landed and rolled to a halt. Rebecca fortified herself for her reluctant participation in a ritualistic event, the burial of another member of the Tree family.
Rebecca descended her plane’s steps at Maryland’s Andrews Air Force Base, grateful to plant her feet on solid ground again while longing to be anywhere else in the world but here. A Secret Service agent escorted her into a long black Cadillac limousine that drove her past a Marine band’s drums and bugles that played Ruffles and Flourishes.
Ushered directly to the First Family’s limousine, Rebecca saw her great-uncle William standing a short distance away. He flinched when he saw her and turned his gaze away. Perhaps he had spent all his ire screaming at her over the phone yesterday, Rebecca thought.
Tree’s face had lengthened over the years; his skin had leathered and random patches of tufted hair crowned his beady, unsmiling eyes. As he aged, he had taken on the vulture-like appearance of his older half-brother.
“Different litter, different wife,” went one of the well-known nasty comments about the pedigree of his sibling, made by Rebecca’s grandfather, the family patriarch.
George Jenkins Bayou, Sam Tree’s former vice president and now the newly installed president of the United States, stood next to William. Nearly eighty years old, Bayou’s hands shook from the Parkinson’s disease that wracked his body. Despite what the public had been led to believe, the inner circles of power all knew that Bayou’s health was rapidly failing.
Old conspirators never die—they busy themselves at state funerals.
The rear window of the First Family’s limousine lowered, and she heard the weak and plaintive voice of the newly widowed Ashley Tree call out, “Rebecca, I’m so glad you’re here.” With swollen, reddened eyes looking out of the opened window, she brushed her funeral veil away. “Please sit with me.”
Rebecca got into the back seat and slid over so she would be close to Ashley. She hadn’t seen her in person for more than ten years but remembered her having a generous smile and a ready laugh. Now she was surprised by how much her late brother’s wife had aged. Once a top-ranked tennis player, it looked like she had gained fifty pounds in marriage. The few television clips that Rebecca had seen of Ashley didn’t show the wrinkles prematurely creasing her face. A tell-all biography described her as a churchgoing cheerleader who got straight A’s and had made a pledge to remain a virgin until marriage.
“Ashley, I’m so sorry for your loss. I wish I had been able to spend time with you and the children.”
“It’s not your fault. I know Sam kept you away from us.” Ashley’s voice bristled. “Sarah and Patrick were so excited by the holiday presents you sent them … a small moment of happiness in the house and your gifts were always so thoughtful but Sam always found a way to spoil it.” Ashley let the funeral veil slip back over her face.
Rebecca was taken aback by Ashley’s intensity. Through the veil the widow’s right eye twitched, and one hand palsied.
“Are you okay?” she asked, clasping Ashley’s shaking hand.
“No, not really,” she paused, shaking her head.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Rebecca asked.
“No,” Ashley responded before looking away and going silent. The inside of the limousine felt like a small cave, cold and claustrophobic.
Rebecca gazed across the tarmac where she spotted William Tree now heading for the First Family’s limousine. She braced herself. Ashley’s eyes followed and at the sight of him, she grabbed hold of Rebecca’s wrist.
“Your great-uncle went ballistic when I sent the children to stay with my parents instead of bringing them to the funeral,” she whispered.
“I don’t understand … why did you send them away?”
Before Ashley could answer, the rear door opened, and William Tree’s aging but still trim and tall frame swung nimbly into the back seat.
“Well, Rebecca,” he said. “I’m so pleased that you took time from your busy schedule to attend your brother’s funeral. I see you even got some news coverage.”
Tree spoke mostly using only his lower lip; his upper appeared clamped in place. His mouth made a twisted pucker as he uttered each sentence, forcing a whoosh of air out with each word.
With a seemingly sympathetic gesture, he turned to Ashley. “Ah, my dear, how are you faring?” It was a question not seeking an answer, and he continued blithely. “I know what a difficult time this must be, to be widowed so young, to face such an emotional day without the love and support of your children.”
Ashley shot him a look as cold as an iceberg.
Rebecca licked her lips; they tasted bitter like dandelion greens.
Tree, a veteran of pontificating to an empty chamber, ignored the women.
“It surely is a trying time for us, as well as for the nation,” Tree said. “Perhaps we might arrange a quiet family reunion after the funeral.”
The car now filled with a suffocating silence as neither of the women responded. Rebecca looked out through the one-way privacy glass window of the limousine at the accouterments of the state funeral. Mimicking the tragic final chapter in America’s Age of Camelot, a lone black stallion, wearing the traditional backward boots, led the entourage. A procession of limousines, packed with sour-faced politicians, financiers, and mostly lesser heads of state, formed slowly across the tarmac. A twenty-one gun salute and the Air Force band playing “My Country ’Tis of Thee” wrapped up the pre-funeral niceties. Slowly, the cortege moved off the airfield and crossed from Maryland into Virginia, toward its destination, the United States Capitol.
Half-talking to himself, Tree remarked, “Look at the crowds. So many people coming out to pay their respects. With the help of the good Lord, the Tree family will always be America’s first family.”
Rebecca didn’t respond, knowing that the crowd counts came up sparse, mostly government workers pressured to attend.
Ashley composed a reply. “Yes, Uncle William, I’m sure Sam’s memory will always be cherished by a grateful nation.” The edges of her words flicked out like a switchblade.
When the procession left Virginia and wound its way through the streets of Washington, Tree, a petulant sneer locking his lips, lowered the outer one-way glass and proffered half-waves to the crowd. Halfway up Constitution Avenue, protesters appeared in numbers that overwhelmed the mourners. With large black X’s painted on their foreheads and wearing black shrouds over faces and shoulders, the dissident citizens multiplied faster than the security forces could contain them.
Finally comprehending that the faces on the street no longer appeared friendly, Tree stopped waving. As the outer window went back up, he muttered, “Godlessness is becoming rampant.” Disgusted, he glared at the protesters swelling around the motorcade.
Rebecca read the dissident signs, stamping them into her memory. BRING ALL OUR TROOPS HOME seemed to be the most common. She especially liked a well-dressed passel of gray-haired ladies who wore “Grannies for Peace” buttons pinned to their lapels.
My mother would be near their age. She might have stood this day with the Grannies.
Rebecca wished she could be outside the car.
An elderly black man with a full head of white hair, his chest and sleeves wallpapered with a collection of protest buttons that spanned decades, strutted close to the phalanx of Secret Service agents surrounding the First Family’s limousine. Rebecca had to stifle a laugh as she spotted a prized antique button in his singular trove, TOMATA, POTATA, U.S. OUT OF GRENADA.
The car carrying the First Family quickly became the focus of the protesters’ attention. Signs painted in bold black letters proclaiming WILLIAM TREE; WAR CRIMINAL formed part of a vivid tapestry of accusations along with SAM TREE IS IN HELL NOW and AMERICA IS DEAD-GOD HATES YOUR PRESIDENT. Blood-red hues highlighted the most derogatory placards.
William Tree stared at a placard that proclaimed GOD IS AMERICA’S TERROR.
“Americans died to protect our liberties, and these animals take to the streets and march like brown shirts,” he said. “If I had been president, I would have known how to deal with these idiots and traitors.”
Ashley Tree’s eyes darted from one window to the next. Rebecca reassured her, “Don’t worry. We’re not in danger. Just a few more blocks to go, and we’ll be on the Capitol grounds.”
“So many unhappy people in the country,” Ashley said.
Suddenly Rebecca heard a loud bang near the car, and a few seconds later, another even stronger. Thick black smoke filled the air; panic rippled along the edges of the crowd. An odor of gaseous fumes seeped into the limousine. Ashley screamed.
Rebecca pushed her down on the seat and covered her with her body, trying to quiet her own racing heart. For a moment she flashed back to a desert battleground, seeing the blast hitting the armored Humvee, watching bits of flesh and machinery fly.
“Stay calm,” she said. “This limousine is better fortified than a tank.”
Fortified. It didn’t save his life or the others.
“What’s happening?” Ashley started to cry. “I can’t take this.”
“I don’t know. It’s going to be okay,” Rebecca said, trying to portray calmness. Her stomach churned as she too vividly recalled the last body she had covered, two decades ago in a war zone. He had died in her arms taking with him their dreams of a loving future.
William Tree cursed loudly, “Deviant dogs, Bolshies, maggots.”
The limousine slammed to a stop, and the rear door flew open. Two more Secret Service agents, their faces covered with thick black soot, leaped into the passenger compartment. Four others clambered onto the specially designed running boards, one of them rapidly tapping three times on the driver’s window. The driver responded to the taps and the limousine of the First Family broke out of the motorcade, swerved wildly, and accelerated to high speed. Rebecca got a glimpse of the horse-drawn casket carrying Sam Tree, its lead horse reared up, its handlers struggling to restrain the animal as they raced ahead.
Protesters began throwing things. They sounded like soft, squishy objects, probably rotten fruit, often accompanied by louder sounds as empty soda cans pinged off the car’s roof. The limousine sped the last few hundred yards to a staging area just off the Capitol steps, to secured grounds away from the masses.
The moment the First Family’s limousine stopped, a furious William Tree shot like a torpedo out of the car. He appeared to be looking for someone in authority to exact an unspecified revenge on the anarchists, atheists, and evildoers who had dared to inflict such indignities on him.
Rebecca remained in the limousine with Ashley, trying to calm her.
“It’s over now,” she said.
“I was terrified. Look at my hands, they’re shaking.”
Rebecca held on to Ashley’s hands trying to warm them.
Ashley looked liked she just got off a runaway roller coaster, seemingly struggling to force a weak smile.
“That ride down Constitution Avenue was … just … awful,” she said, managing to put some strength back into her voice, “but it did my heart good to see your pompous great-uncle … deflated.”
“Welcome to a Tree Family funeral,” Rebecca said.
A few seconds later a tap came on the car’s window, and Rebecca rolled down the window with the push of a button.
“Mrs. Tree, Ms. Tree,” a Secret Service agent said.
“What happened back there?” Ashley plaintively asked the agent.
The agent wore dark sunglasses and her shortly cropped gray hair dated her. “Our apologies. It appears that an overloaded truck in the photo-pool blew its engine and clouds of diesel fumes and smoke blasted out. Thanks to that and the protesters, we are now half an hour ahead of schedule. The State Department’s chief of protocol would like to sit privately with you to go over some last-minute details, and the Secret Service deputy director would like to speak with you, Ms. Tree.”
Rebecca looked at Ashley, who nodded and said, “I’ll be okay … and please, you will come to the service?”
“Of course,” Rebecca said, as she left the limousine.
The agent led her to a command station in a double-wide mobile trailer parked next to the Capitol steps. On the office door near the back, a nameplate, next to a Secret Service seal, read “Caleb Toussaint, Deputy Director.”
Toussaint came from behind his desk upon seeing Rebecca enter. A smile broke through his deep-set, sad eyes. He carried two hundred and forty pounds of muscle on his six-foot-four-inch frame. A tightly napped salt and pepper head of hair crowned a high forehead. Toussaint had a broad nose and a military-style mustache set against coal black skin; he walked with a pronounced limp, a legacy from a desert battleground. Toussaint and his wife Camille were the only friends Rebecca had in Washington though they still were more inclined to shake hands than hug.
“I’m sorry about your brother, although I know there was no love lost there,” Toussaint said.
“I don’t want to talk about Sam. I haven’t seen you or Camille since we dedicated the new memorial stone for Jackson.”
Toussaint’s son Jackson, a fellow officer in a specialized Army intelligence unit stationed in Kuwait City, had been in a Humvee directly behind Rebecca’s jeep convoying from Riyadh through Free Saudi when insurrection fractured the kingdom. On a road outside Al Duwadimi, a buried explosive device hit his vehicle, instantly killing two soldiers and seriously wounding him. Despite cries from her team to stay down, Rebecca had pulled Jackson from the Humvee and dragged his nearly lifeless body just out of an enemy’s sniper’s range, but not before taking one bullet in her upper thigh. Two hundred yards away a pinned down team of medics could not reach him in time. He died minutes later in her arms leaving her with a dying wish she still honored.
“Yes,” Toussaint said sadly, “it’s been two years since Jackson’s dedication ceremony.”
“I know,” Rebecca said, struggling to pull herself back to the present, “… it has been too long. How are you and Camille doing?” Rebecca asked, her heart fumbling awkwardly inside her. Rebecca felt unnerved at Toussaint’s greeting smile when she had entered the room; the smile traveled through her like a substitute embrace from the lost son.
“It’s still hard, but we’re starting a memorial project named for Jackson.”
“That’s great,” Rebecca said, her eyes momentarily taking in photographs hanging on the wall behind his desk.
Toussaint’s husky voice had a rich, baritone quality. His tones came out deep, measured, soothing with a compelling authority, not an “eat your spinach” kind of voice. But talking about his son was too difficult, Rebecca thought, as it was for her.
“It’ll be a health clinic as well as a recreational center for inner-city kids,” he said.
“A health clinic?”
“I’ll be coaching them in basketball, and giving them an occasional inspirational lecture.”
“My basketball is lousy,” Rebecca said, “but any other kind of help, just call me.” Rebecca thought wistfully of Toussaint on the basketball court with adoring young faces looking up to him, as he mentored their game. No doubt he would be reaching into his pocket for money to buy some of the kids new sneakers.
“Thanks, I might take you up on it.”
She knew him long enough not to dwell any longer on Jackson. “What’s happening on the streets? It didn’t look all that critical, until that truck caused such panic.”
“Money for wars and more bailouts of Wall Street, but nothing to replace a truck for the Parks Department. I’ve had enough. I am going to take early retirement next year. I want to spend more time with my wife,” he said, leaning forward and rubbing the knee on his bad leg. “I’m sixty-two years old. I’ve done my share. Do you promise to come to dinner soon? Camille’s been asking about you.”
“I think I’ll have a break in about two weeks. I’ll call her to confirm.”
She looked again at the photos on the wall behind Toussaint’s desk. The first, from the old Life Magazine, pictured a skinny little kid, Toussaint’s grandfather, marching with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma; the second showed a young man, Caleb Toussaint, lying wounded in a ditch outside of Al Bayda in Yemen. The third picture was one she knew well; it was Jackson at his college graduation. His proud eyes warmed the room. Wearing a graduating robe and mortarboard, he held his diploma in one hand, a mischievous glint emitting from soft, sparkling brown eyes. He wore a bright red bowtie, no doubt asserting his non-conformity. He directed a full smile and a thumb up at the camera’s lens.
She tapped at her locket with her fingertip as if it were the outer shell of her aching heart and looked at her watch; it had already been such a long day, and she had only begun. “Can you drive me to Mount Vernon? The burial service starts in awhile, and Ashley Tree asked me to be there.”
Rebecca and Toussaint entered the cemetery through a side entrance and walked up a narrow footpath ascending to a hill commanding a view of the gravesite, Sam Tree’s final resting place. Under umbrellas, a few hundred mourners huddled. A cold, hard rain had swept away the day’s earlier blue skies and grayness now covered the graveyard.
Rebecca stopped in a grove of birch trees and watched the assembled crowd of dignitaries.
“Are you ready to join them?” Toussaint asked.
Rebecca looked away, pulling up the collar of her coat tight around her as a chill came into her bones.
“Tell me Caleb. I forget. How many in your family?”
“An older brother and two younger sisters.”
“How often do you speak to them?”
“My sisters every week. My brother maybe once a month.”
“Sounds like a real family. It has been nearly thirty years since I last saw Sam. And I only have spoken to him once since then. Let’s stay here. I’ll mourn, if I can, from a distance.”
They watched the funeral in silence.
For Sam, she had no loving memories. A shameless exploiter, he and his operatives defeated the incumbent President Maria Sanchez-Smith’s re-election bid by capitalizing on the political disarray into which the country had fallen and, for good measure, planting a sordid and fabricated story impugning Sanchez-Smith’s sexual orientation. By the time the facts had emerged, Sam had ascended to the highest office of the land.
Not long after her sister’s death, Sam’s cruelty toward her began.
“Allison isn’t dead,” he would say with the smirk inherited from their grandfather. Rebecca’s refusal to answer his taunts seemingly spurred him on. “You spotted face monster, she’s living in an underground jail half a mile from Granddad’s mansion. Sometimes when I stay at his house, Granddad and I will go and feed her scraps from the table. And if there are no scraps, we give her cat food.”
Rebecca’s body would tighten, and she broke into a cold sweat whenever he came near her.
As time went by, she began to spend more time locked in her bedroom, finding solace in the books she read and the imaginary worlds that reading helped her travel through. She indulged herself in fantasy adventures with her lost twin: Rebecca and Allison as pirates on sailing ships, as scientists on expeditions down the Amazon looking for endangered species, as child soldiers in Union Blue fighting beside their father in great Civil War battles.
She became sickly and couldn’t hold down food though no one noticed. Her grandfather was never there, and her grandmother lived mostly in her sick bed. She had no one to turn to and her tears, books, and imagination failed to protect her against Sam’s bullying. Shortly after her fifth birthday, her eyes crossed, leaving her unable to have both eyes aim at the same point in space. Without thick corrective glasses, she would see two of everything; her world doubled but not in a good way. She felt more and more miserable as other kindergarteners began to taunt her with names like “four eyes.” She took their insults passively, as her body weakened. Then one day she found a book in the library, the story of a polio-stricken child with a partially paralyzed left leg. Everyone said the child might never walk again. The little girl, less than twenty years later, became celebrated as the world’s fastest woman by winning three gold medals at the Olympics. Her name was Wilma Rudolph.
Rebecca read and re-read her book. Rudolph had loving parents, tireless in finding therapy for their daughter in the segregated South. Next to her bed she kept two biographies of Rudolph.
One day exploring the woods around her grandfather’s estate, she saw a small red fox at the top of an open field, sitting and seemingly staring at her. She began to walk toward the fox until it turned and ran toward the shelter of the woods. Rebecca went after the fox, going as fast as she could, until, gasping for breath, she fell down, rolled on her back and stared up at the sky. She was exhausted, but the emotional heaviness she carried lifted slightly. Now feeling encouraged she went and ran in the woods every day, slowing getting stronger and faster. She told herself she could be like Wilma Rudolph.
Within a year she felt strong enough to begin to teach herself how to fight back.
In her seventh year she had grown two and a half inches and towered over the boys at school who had previously taken delight in tormenting her. One day she saw two boys, out of sight of the teachers, bullying a new student, Stephen Spurgeon, the son of a well-known preacher who had recently moved to Colorado. Rebecca ran over, stepping between them, and as an instinct prevailed, she pushed the first boy hard and made a threatening fist gesture toward the second. To her surprise, both bullies ran away.
Her brother Sam became her second challenge. Out of respect for their dead mother, both Sam and Rebecca, escorted by nannies, attended Catholic Mass every Sunday. While her brother fidgeted in the pew, Rebecca listened, transfixed by the word of God spoken each week by Monsignor Hargrove. She began to memorize the scriptures.
After a few more of Sam’s ugly gibes, she would use the newly acquired weapon in her small but growing arsenal, a Biblical quote.
“Someday the Lord is going to have a day of reckoning with you,” Rebecca said, her finger wagging angrily in Sam’s direction.
Arise, O Lord; save me, O my God: for thou hast smitten all mine enemies upon the cheekbone; thou has broken the teeth of the ungodly.
The quote silenced Sam, at least for a moment.
Then, when she was eight years old, Sam made a clumsy but menacing attempt to rape her. He pinned her to her bed, holding her wrists down, and pushed his right knee between her legs. Rebecca managed to arch her back and free her left hand. She grabbed a small glass vase from the nightstand and took a wild swing. The first blow only glanced off the side of Sam’s head, but it caused Sam to lose his grip, allowing Rebecca to wiggle herself free.
“You four-eyed, speckled-faced bitch,” Sam screamed in fury, spit spraying from his mouth.
Because of the venom in his tone, an instinct intervened to ensure that Sam never attacked her again. She aimed the second blow perfectly, with good force; the resulting gash in Sam’s neck required stitches.
Within a week, her grandfather had packed Rebecca off to a Swiss boarding school specializing in troubled children of the global rich.