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Since the death of her parents, sixteen-year-old Sloan has lived a privileged, protected life with her grandmother, the matriarch of a prominent political family, until the drunken advances of an elected official lead to a public scandal.
My grandmother's house had a music room, and in it was a mirror.
The house was a paragon of symmetry, with the music room to the right of the great staircase on the second floor and the library to the left. Downstairs the pattern was repeated, front parlor to the left, ballroom to the right. The ballroom had long ago been converted into more ordinary living space; both my great-grandfather and my grandfather had used it as an office. But the music room remained a music room. My grandmother played on the grand piano daily, and I took my piano lessons there after moving in with my grandparents when I was nine. I always loved the music room. My family, my father, mother, younger brother Tyler, and myself, lived in a traditional suburban home, complete with a family room and a den and a tree house my father had built for us, but nothing as glamorous as a music room. I loved the piano, although I wasn't especially musical. I loved the way the windows looked out over the grounds toward the river. And until my parents' death, I loved the mirror.
The mirror had been brought over by one of my grandmother's ancestors from Holland in the late seventeenth century. Unlike most mirrors, this one had a trick. If the lighting was just right, the sun shining through the music-room windows at just the right angle and with the right shade of brilliance, you could look at the mirror and not see a reflection. All that shone back was a silvery white glare. It wasn't the kind of trick you could count on, but I remember how well it had worked the day of the accident. I had teased Tyler mercilessly in front of the reflectionless mirror that afternoon and made him cry. Tyler always did cry easily, but that didn't make it any less fun. That afternoon was the last time I made him cry. When we drove home after dinner that night, following our Christmas visit to my grandparents, a drunk driver veered into our car, forcing us to skid off the road, killing everyone except the drunk and me.
It was a freak of circumstances that I wasn't killed along with them, just some peculiarity about the way the car crashed and my position in it. I don't remember anything about the accident, and very little of what took place afterward, the weeks I spent in the hospital, recuperating. You'd think I'd remember how I was told about everyone's deaths, but I don't. I don't remember much of what took place the day of the accident either, except that we were visiting my grandparents, and I'd made Tyler cry. I also remember my grandmother telling my father to drive carefully that night. I'm sure he did, but it didn't help any. The drunk driver was imprisoned, by the way, and his insurance company was sued for millions of dollars, which I wasn't supposed to know about but did.
After I'd recovered sufficiently from the accident, I came to live with my grandparents, in the house with the music room and the mirror. My name is Elizabeth Sloan Fredericks, but I have always been called Sloan. Sloan was my grandfather's last name. He had been governor of the state, as had been my great-grandfather, my grandfather's father-in-law. Even my father had been a state senator before he died. We were a family political dynasty, like the Kennedys and the Rockefellers. I had politics and mirrors in my blood.
When I'd first gone downstairs, the night of the party, I'd passed the music room and looked in to admire it. Although the party was mostly concentrated downstairs, my grandmother had ordered flowers for the upstairs public rooms as well, and the arrangement in the music room was particularly spectacular. I loved the way the house looked that night, before the guests arrived, but when the people started flowing in, I began to feel kind of choky and uncomfortable, and unsure that I'd be able to make it through the rest of the evening, playing my part of the hostess's gracious granddaughter.
To help me out, I decided to run back upstairs and put on my father's ring. My father's school ring was one of the many effects I'd inherited, but for some reason it held greater importance for me than any of the pieces of my mother's jewelry. Dad, it turned out, had left it behind at my grandparents' house the night he died, and when I learned that, I insisted on being allowed to keep it. My grandmother bought me a heavy chain for me to wear with it, and that first year, that year of loss and adjustment, I'd worn it daily, taking it off at night only at my grandmother's insistence. Later on, I wore it less and less, and by the time of the party, when I was sixteen, I wore it infrequently, and usually at times of great stress. I hadn't put it on originally because there was no point to it with the outfit I had on, but now, looking at all the politicians and businesspeople who I knew and was expected to be polite yet comfortable with, I was sure I needed it to get through the evening. I was talking to the state attorney general when I began feeling light-headed, and I excused myself (politely but comfortably) and ran upstairs to my bedroom to put the ring, on its chain, around my neck. Its weight comforted me, as it had so many times before, and once it was on, I grew confident that I could manage the hordes of guests and the responsibility of being Margaret Sloan's granddaughter.
The party was an annual event, a tradition begun by my great-grandmother as a way of bringing the two sides of her life, the old Dutch families and the politicos who ran both the state and the capital city, together. As the city grew, the guest list expanded, and by the night of the party, it included anybody who was important to the state or the city. The party was so much a part of the capital-city life that it was held even the year my parents died. I didn't dread it, that year or any other, but I was never really comfortable at it either, and I knew that if I, not Jack, my mother's younger brother, inherited the house (which I suspected might happen; Uncle Jack lived out of state and was generally thought to be a great disappointment if not worse), the tradition of the September party would stop with me.
Not that Jack was likely to keep the party going himself. Granddad died three days after the party when I was eleven, and at the funeral Jack said the damned party had been what killed him. I'd asked Gran if that was true, and she said of course not, Granddad had died of a heart attack, he had never really been himself since my parents had died (he loved my father like the son he wished Jack to be), and the party had nothing to do with it.
I'd wanted to ask Gran if she was going to die soon too, but I didn't, and the question would have proved to be unnecessary. She was every inch the lady the night of the party, downstairs making sure all the guests were comfortable, introducing the few people there who might not know each other, looking very beautiful and self-assured.
Once I had the ring on, I knew I had to rejoin the party, already in full swing, judging by the sounds of the guests downstairs, and the ones I could see through my bedroom window, strolling through the gardens to admire the river view. I left my bedroom, but something about the music room drew me to it, and I allowed myself to linger there, for a moment, I told myself, just for a moment, before I resumed my obligations downstairs. I looked at the mirror as I walked into the room, but it was dusk, and the lights were on, and the mirror performed its mirrorly task, revealing first me, then the room, and finally the reflection of Tony Russo as he joined me.
"You won't believe this," Tony said. "I've been looking for you everywhere just to tell you. I was just talking with the governor about baseball."
I smiled. One thing Governor Morris and Tony definitely had in common was a love of sports.
"I told him I wanted to be a sportswriter," Tony said. "And he said he'd reported on sports for his college paper and where was I thinking about going to college, and I said wherever I could afford, and he said he'd made it through on scholarships and loans himself, but he carried a bit of weight with the alumni foundation at Colgate, that's where he went, and if I was interested, he'd make a call or two on my behalf. He said he couldn't guarantee anything, but it never hurts to have a governor on your side."
"That doesn't exactly sound like you were talking about sports," I said. I had turned my back to the mirror, and I was looking straight at Tony. He was tall, nearly six-three, with a mop of almost- black hair, and when he walked, he moved with a grace and assurance that reminded me of my grandfather. I loved Tony, but he didn't love me back, at least not in the way that I wanted. It didn't matter. I really didn't expect him to, although it would have been nice.
"Well, we started on sports," Tony replied. "He asked if I played basketball on any of the local teams, because I'm tall, I guess, so I said on the St. Augustine church team, and he asked if I went to school there, and I said no, that I went to Arsdale, with you, and that's why I'd been invited to the party, that we were friends. I couldn't believe he was asking me all those questions. I kept thinking, I have to tell Mom all this when I get home tonight, she won't believe the governor of the state was asking me where I go to school, but I was listening to him too, and then he asked who I thought was going to win the pennant, and after we talked about baseball for a while he asked me what I was thinking about doing with my life and that was when I told him about sportswriting."
"I knew you wanted to be a writer," I said. "When did you decide on sportswriting?"
"This summer," Tony replied. "At Burger Bliss. Half the people who came in talked about sports while they were waiting."
"That's because politicians don't eat at Burger Bliss," I said.
"Everyone eats at Burger Bliss sooner or later," Tony said. "Even the governor. I told him I'd spent the summer working there, and he said he was a sucker for their Blissburger Supreme, but his doctor wouldn't let him eat more than one or two a month. Actually he said he wasn't supposed to eat any, but he ate one or two a month anyway, because when all you want is a Blissburger Supreme there's no point listening to your doctor. I really liked him. Mom does his wife's fingernails. Of course, she does the nails of half the women at this party."
"Do people make the connection?" I asked. "When you're introduced?"
Tony looked down at me. "How could they?" he asked. "They don't know Mom's last name."
"Oh, right," I said. "Well, everybody at the party has great-looking fingernails, so your mother obviously knows her stuff."
"I can't believe I talked to the governor," Tony said. "God, a scholarship to Colgate."
"You can get a scholarship to any school you'd like," I said. I believed it too. The hardest scholarship for him to come by had been the one to Arsdale. There were eighty-eight members of our junior class and two of them were on full scholarship. I'd started at Arsdale in March of fourth grade, after I'd recovered enough from the accident (physically at least) to go back to school. My mother and grandmother and great-grandmother had all gone to Arsdale (and various other female ancestors; Arsdale had only gone coed twenty years ago), but I'd lived in a completely different part of the state, and had been going to public school there until I moved in with my grandparents.
I think things might have been easier if I'd started school in September, but by starting in March, while I was still on crutches, I got labeled as a freak, an outsider. It was ironic really; in terms of ancestry I was the insider's insider, but nine-year-olds don't really care where your great- great-grandmother went to school, and once the label was attached to me, it stuck. In fifth grade I had no friends, no real friends anyway, and I didn't make any until sixth grade when Tony started at Arsdale and so did Justine Powell.
Three other new kids started that year as well; parents sometimes sent their children to public school until middle school and then fought to get them into Arsdale. Tony got the scholarship that year because one of the two scholarship kids had left the school when his mother got a job out of state. Justine started then because her mother married Byron Sinclair that summer, and Justine needed a school to go to.
I knew Byron by then, knew him actually before Justine did. The people who didn't work for the state government frequently worked for Byron. He owned the electronics company that employed two thousand people, as well as the local radio station and various other businesses that were harder to trace to him. The old families didn't care for Byron Sinclair at all, and they liked his choice in wives even less. Justine's mother was a big-city divorcee who dressed and behaved as though she relished having money.
Tony told me once that he'd fallen in love with Justine the second day of school, and by then I was half in love with her as well, but the other kids could barely stand her, and wanted to have nothing to do with Tony, whose mother was a manicurist and whose father was long gone. Then again, they didn't want to do much with me either, regardless of pedigree, so it was natural that Tony, Justine, and I would band together. I loved Tony. Tony loved Justine. And Justine, who told me everything, never mentioned loving anyone.
Justine wasn't at the party that night because she was in Connecticut with her father and his current wife. Byron and DeAnn (Justine's mother) were there of course. DeAnn was sporting a diamond and emerald bracelet so gaudy that I'd heard one guest say it could reduce the state deficit by fifty percent, if DeAnn could only be persuaded to part with it. The old families only wore old jewelry, and I wore my father's ring on a chain around my neck.
"Go mingle some more," I told Tony. "See what other scholarships you can get for yourself."
"You okay here?" he asked. "This room always gives me the spooks."
"I'm fine," I said. "I'll be downstairs in a moment."
"All right," he said. It was funny that Tony felt more at ease with these people than I did, but it was true. It was certainly true he knew more about them than I did. His mother heard all the best gossip over her emery boards.
I was alone in the music room, telling myself I really had to go downstairs and join the party, when Mark Heiler walked in. He was the lieutenant governor of the state, a position like vice president or first runner-up in the Miss America contest. Sure, he did stuff, but not enough to satisfy him. Like all lieutenant governors and most first runners-up, he was ambitious but not quite first rate.
"Sloan," he said. "I was wondering where you were."
I smiled at him. "I was just thinking about going downstairs," I said.
"Was that your boyfriend I just saw coming out of here?" Mark asked. "What's that? You're wearing his ring?"
My father's ring felt heavy against me. "He's not my boyfriend," I said. "Just someone I go to school with. And the ring was my father's."
"Oh, sorry," Mark said. "Your father was quite a man. I knew him well. Everyone predicted great things for him."
"I sometimes wonder how far I could go if I had his kinds of advantages," Mark said. "Plenty of money, connections up the wazoo. Great looks. The perfect political wife. Don't get me wrong. I love my wife. But no one would mistake her for the governor's daughter."
I realized then that Mark was just a little bit drunk. "Excuse me," I said. "But I really should be getting downstairs."
"Don't hurry," he said. "I never have a chance to talk with you. A pretty young girl like you. And you'll be voting soon enough."
"Not for a couple of years," I said, smiling politely. "We'll have plenty of time to talk before then. If you'll just excuse me ..."
But he bent over me instead, one hand against the mirror and the other pulling at my father's ring. "Harvard," he said. "I should have known. You going to go to Harvard? They take girls there now."
"I don't know," I said. I didn't like the way his breath felt against me, warm and heavy with the smell of scotch. "Please. I really have to go downstairs."
"You're a pretty girl," he said, and he seemed drunker now, his fingers touching my flesh. "Your mother was a pretty woman. You look like her, you know, blond, the same blue eyes. I always thought your mother had the prettiest eyes I'd ever seen. How old are you now, Sloan? Seventeen? Eighteen?"
"Sixteen," I said. "Just sixteen."
"Sixteen's the perfect age," Mark said. "All girls should be in love when they're sixteen." He continued to play with the ring, brushing it gently against me.
Excerpted from The Ring of Truth by Susan Beth Pfeffer. Copyright © 1993 Susan Beth Pfeffer. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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