The semester is over and I’ve officially run out of excuses. My mother is calling every day begging me to come home for the holidays. It’s so unfair that Lily uses her dancing career as an excuse to stay in the city until Christmas Eve. And I don’t have a car, so I have to call my cousin Kyle for a ride.
“Why don’t you take the train, Alex?” he asks.
“My dad will kill me if someone snaps a picture and it winds up in those trash magazines again,” I say. He’s been less than impressed by my public persona the last few months. Like it’s my fault that these crazy girls park themselves outside my apartment. If the security guards don’t start watching who they let in the building I’ll be moving again next semester.
“If you want a ride back to Fairview, I’m leaving after work tomorrow. Ryan’s home from school and my parents are back from Florida. I can take one day off, but I have to be at work next week. I don’t have the luxury of a winter break.”
“Just tell me when and where.”
Kyle is waiting for me in his office at the Mercer Enterprises’ New York headquarters Thursday night. He recently purchased a brand new Escalade – not a particularly intelligent purchase for someone that lives alone and works in Manhattan, but he works full-time for the family business now and loves to burn through his cash. On the ride to Fairview we compare notes on our latest ridiculous female fan interactions. Kyle was mobbed last week while he was at a club with his friends. When he went into the bathroom to escape the insanity, a reporter followed him, hoping to catch him with illegal substances. Little did the alleged journalist know that we Mercers avoid that stuff at all costs. It’s been drilled into us since we were young that one drug-related event tarnishing the family name will result in immediate forfeiture of our trust funds. No second chances. Besides that, I have my own reasons for not touching drugs or alcohol. I’ve never smoked even one cigarette, never considered using any of the stronger stuff. I can’t begin to imagine the effect they would have on me.
“You would think by now the rest of the world would be tired of us,” Kyle says. “We’re boring. It must be the money.”
“It’s definitely the money.”
Maybe if I give up the club scene and live like a hermit the paparazzi will forget about me.”
“Yeah, but really, what fun is that?”
“I don’t know how you do it, Alex. You’re asking for trouble with some of the girls you’ve been with. You need to find a nice girl that wants nothing to do with fame.”
“I don’t need anyone. I’m having fun for once in my life.”
“Because living the first twenty years of your life in a huge house with more money than you could ever possibly spend and having anything you could possibly desire handed to you is your idea of a troubled childhood?”
“If you only knew the truth.”
“Alex. I’ve known you since the day you were born. I know the truth.”
But he doesn’t. Very few people know the real truth about me.
We arrive at my house around nine o’clock Thursday night. Ryan is waiting for us, home for the holidays with my Uncle Graham and Aunt Maureen. My mother is sitting with them in the great room, catching up over a late dinner. She looks the same, which is better than I expected. For a long time, whenever I came home, she would be paler, thinner, weaker. Watching her slip away month by month, day by day is one of the many reasons I don’t want to be in Fairview.
“Alex, I want to talk to you a minute – alone,” she says. What now? What could she possibly have heard about me from her friends in New York? It’s killing me to be ‘discreet’ as she likes to put it. It’s hard to say no when girls are always approaching me, thinking they are the ones that will turn me into something that I’m not. What is it that I am not, you may ask? Most importantly, I am not a person looking for a girlfriend. Definitely not someone looking for love. I’m twenty years old. I have the rest of my long boring life for that nonsense.
I wrap my arm around my mother’s shoulders, holding her against me as we walk through the kitchen into the sunroom, her favorite room in the house. And she has a lot of rooms to choose from in this place. We stand by wall of windows overlooking the dark gardens and the path to the security house, where the lights are on 24-7.
“What can I do for you, Mom?” I ask, patiently waiting to hear which of her friends has a daughter that needs a date. Despite my repeated assurances that I am happily single, my mother is convinced that my life is not complete without the perfect girl. She is also of the mindset that I don’t make the best choices when it comes to female companionship. She believes that with her help I can do better. Most of the time I humor her, but the problem is that her idea of perfect is not even close to my idea of good enough for now.
“I was at the Fairview Historical Society quarterly Board of Directors’ meeting a few weeks ago,” she says. Oh, no. Which board member has a single daughter that wants to meet me? “Do you know any of the Ranallis?”
“Who are they?” I have no idea.
“Zachary, Julian and Cara Ranalli. Their parents own the Fairview Inn.”
“Zach and Julian – they were part of the group that spent their summers at the lake when we were kids. I forgot their last name.”
“Yes, the boys are around your age. And Cara, their younger sister. Do you remember her?”
“No dates, Mom. Not with high school girls.”
“I’m not asking you to take her on a date,” my mother says. “Her mother, Caroline, was invited to the meeting to provide an update on the process of designating the Inn as an historic landmark.
“Sounds like riveting entertainment.”
“Sorry. So, how does this involve me and a girl that you don’t want me to take on a date?”
“After the meeting, one of the board members asked Caroline if her daughter was feeling better.” My mother’s voice is shaky. Something is wrong with this girl. I don’t want to know what.
“What happened to her?”
“Apparently she was sick last summer,” my mother says, taking a deep breath before she continues. “I think she had the same virus that you had.”
I laugh out loud.
“Mom. No one my age is lucky enough to have what I have. That would be unreal.”
“It’s just too odd, Alex, too much of a coincidence. She came down with a virus, and the doctors never determined the source. Dangerously high fever for four days, then suddenly gone and she was cured. But she still complains of strange headaches.” My mother looks at me, and I can tell that she isn’t going to let this go. “Do you remember how you were in the beginning, dealing with all of the side effects?”
“She’s not like me. It’s impossible.”
“It’s highly unlikely, but not impossible. It’s worth looking into.”
“Fine. I’ll have Pete track her down and I will try to talk to her. I’ve got nothing better to do for the next four weeks anyway.”
“Alex, why do you hate it here? This is your home, the place you’ll always come back to.” How can I tell her that this place is like a prison to me? In New York I can blend in, be anonymous. Most people in the city don’t know or care that my last name means something. Here, people are watching me, always watching. Waiting for me to slip up and have all my secrets revealed. And the cameras are everywhere in this house. My father went from being genuinely concerned to completely paranoid. It’s exhausting being here. But I look at her face and realize that she’s the one that’s truly exhausted. I’m never tired, not like her, and I couldn’t face what she wakes up to every day. So I should stop complaining and act happy to be home.
“I don’t hate it here. Sometimes I just feel - I don’t know - like the walls are closing in on me.”
“You’ve always loved the lake. Why don’t you go for a run tomorrow, and relax?”
“Sure. I’ll go talk to Pete now too.”
“Thank you. Also – you may not want to mention this to your father,” she says. My father is against anything distracting me from the primary reason for my existence, which is to take over his empire one day.
“You’re probably right.” I walk out of the sunroom door, barely registering the chill in the night air, past the terrace and through the gardens to the security house. The door clicks open before I knock, so I know that Pete is watching me on one of the monitors that cover every inch of every wall in the command center.
“How’s it going, Alex?” he asks, looking up from his newspaper as I enter. I walk over to the ancient coffee pot sitting behind a piece of equipment that is spying on something somewhere in our house and grab a cup of sludge. It’s bitter and cold, but right now it’s my only option. I stopped asking Pete exactly what he’s looking for a long time ago. I don’t think that he even knows anymore. He takes it well enough, though, happy to bide his time to retirement and collect his paycheck.
“I’m here. What do you think?” I say.
“You haven’t even seen your father yet. It can’t be that bad.”
“My mother wants me to talk to some poor sick girl. She’s even using the excuse that she might possibly be like me.”
Pete leans back in his chair, banging the table with his fist as he laughs.
“What’s the chance of that?” he asks.
I roll my eyes. What a complete waste of time for all of us.
“What’s her name? I’ll look her up for you. Maybe she’ll be pretty this time.”
My Mom has picked out some real winners in the past. Watching me deal with this is Pete’s own sick form of entertainment.
“Cara something. I know her brothers from hanging out at the lake when we were younger.”
“Cara Ranalli?” Pete says. The tone of his voice changes and his face twists into an odd expression.
“How did you know that?” I ask, amazed. My father must have had him memorize the Fairview phone book in his free time.
“If your mother said her name is Cara Ranalli, I think you’d better talk to her,” Pete says. What is it with this girl? Does she have two heads? Weigh four hundred pounds? Is this an elaborate welcome home joke Pete and his guys are playing on me?
“Uh – ok. Just put a tail on her tomorrow. I think she’s still in high school. I’ll try and meet her out somewhere – if she has anything resembling a social life.”