“Bella. Bella, wake up.”
I open my eyes; the bright sunlight flooding the room is painful. Closing them feels insufficient, so I cover them with my palms.
“Good morning, beautiful. I didn’t want to wake you, but I know how much you hate it when I leave without saying goodbye.”
I drop my hands, allowing my vision to focus on the man standing beside me. He’s showered and dressed in Brook’s Brothers’ finest. That he’s C-SPAN-ready isn’t a surprise—I’ve never seen him look any other way.
“Do you have to leave so soon?” I yawn, stretching my body under the stiff, hotel-grade sheets.
“Afraid so.” He sits on the edge of the bed and squeezes my hand. “My flight back to Washington leaves in a couple hours.”
“I understand. I just…” I drag my finger from his knee to upper thigh. “I wish we’d had some more time together.”
“I know, and we will. Things are crazy right now. You know I sneak away every chance I get…”
To his credit, he does. If the House is in recess, he usually finds a way to visit me in Chicago. The problem is that he spends every minute of daylight in his office while he’s here. His entire existence is scheduled in fifteen-minute intervals, color-coded by category on the BlackBerry he never lets me see. Exactly once in all the time I’ve known him, I managed to sneak a peek at his personal calendar. The time he sets aside for jerking off was highlighted in white.
Such is the life of a Congressman’s girlfriend. Most of our nights together are spent in hotel rooms far away from the public eye. It isn’t that we have anything to hide. I mean, he isn’t married and I’m beyond suitable. Still, Garrett thinks it’s best to keep our relationship quiet. Reporters and opposing political groups are always trying to dig up dirt, and the last thing he wants is to provide any ammunition which could stand in the way of his dream of being a United States Senator. “Public relationships create unnecessary drama,” he’d told me.
Yeah. I’m more than a little familiar with it.
“I’ll call you when I get in,” he says, giving me a quick kiss. “The hotel is charging the room to me. Feel free to stay and relax.”
One final kiss later, he’s gone.
I decide to take his advice. After showering, I order myself a gigantic breakfast from room service which I devour without shame—something I’d never do in front of Garrett. We had a good thing going these last several months, and I’ve been careful to remain the perfect girlfriend. It’s not as if it’s hard to do—I’m used to it.
Thanks to my parents, I learned to be flawless before I learned how to walk. Pageants, ballet classes, vocal coaches, modeling jobs, and etiquette lessons—I did it all. By the time I reached high school, I was everything my parents expected me to be. I was that girl—the one everyone knew. I was homecoming queen, captain of the cheerleading squad, and Illinois’ Junior Miss. Guys knocked over store displays hoping to get a closer look at me, then retreated in fear when they realized I was with my student-body president, varsity-quarterback boyfriend who was able and willing to kick their scrawny asses.
I didn’t have to try to be popular; I’d been groomed for it my entire life. Though presenting an image of poise and perfection had become second nature, at times it was exhausting. One day during my junior year, I locked myself in my bedroom, convinced if I were alone, I could be the real me. Two minutes later, for the first time in my life, I experienced failure. I couldn’t relax and be myself when I had no idea who that was.
Ironically, this changes when I’m cast as the lead in the school’s production ofThe Music Man. As strange as it seems, I feel most like myself when I pretend to be someone else. The first time the heat of the Fresnels washes over me, I come alive. Putting on a good show is what I’ve done for as long as I can remember; it’s acknowledgment and applause for doing so that are new to me. When I take my curtain call opening night, the real me makes her debut in front of an audience of five hundred. In that moment, I realized who I am—an actress.
I relish every moment I spend on stage, but it’s more than that. I’m good at it. Then I’m cast in a summer production at an Equity house, I start to think I may even be great. Wanting nothing more than to do this forever, I apply to colleges with respected musical theater programs. When I’m accepted into the University of Michigan, I’m elated. I arrive on campus thinking all my dreams will come true. It isn’t long before my parents crush them.
Acting is fine as an extra-curricular activity, my father tells me, but it isn’t a appropriate career for his only child. My mother reminds me I’ll never find a suitable husband if the only men I meet are—gasp—sodomites. Ever the social climbers, my parents are what is commonly referred to as new money. They want to be a part of the society scene more than anything and think I’m their best chance at making this happen.
“Oh, the decision is yours,” they tell me. “Just like the decision to pay for your education is ours.”
They don’t have to elaborate. I know exactly what they’re threatening to do. They may claim it’s my choice, but when it comes down to it, I have no choice. I’ve never even had a summer job; there’s no way I could support myself financially while going to college full-time. In the end, I do what I always do—exactly what I’m told. I major in English and pursue a teaching certification, all the while sneaking in drama classes whenever my schedule permits.
At twenty-five, I’m still doing exactly what they want—I teach English in an exclusive prep school, and I date old money. The fact Garrett is a member of the House of Representatives is icing on the cake. My parents don’t love that I run the school’s drama program, but they tolerate it. I understand; I feel the same way about them.
Once I’m finished eating, I don a fitted white blouse, black pencil skirt, and towering heels. After piling my hair on top of my head and applying a full-face of make-up, I put on my glasses and head to work. For me, teaching high school isn’t all that different from attending high school—in exchange for pretending to be someone I’m not, I have the admiration of individuals who don’t really know me. When the final bell of the day rings, my excitement to leave the classroom is on par with that of the students. I grab my things and head to the auditorium where for the next two-and-a-half hours, I get to be myself. Every day is like the one that came before.
Then he walks into my classroom and, though I don’t know how or why, I know things will never be the same.
“Mitchell’s starting to get sloppy.”
“Oh, come on, Emmett. It was bound to happen sooner or later.”
“But photos of him having drinks at The Living Room with a top-ranking executive at Force? That’s brazen, even for Mitchell. What do you think, Edward?”
There’s silence and, when I look up, I realize they expect me to say something. The problem is I have no idea what they’re talking about. Despite owning a political watch-dog blog, politics isn’t my thing. It never has been. I’m not a news junkie, nor am I on a crusade to save my country from corruption. I’m here because my brother and his wife need capital and computer skills to realize their vision, and I have plenty of both. I could say I want to help them make a difference, that I’m tired of The Man keeping me down. The truth is I like having a job where I can wear t-shirts and jeans and where there’s ample opportunity for me to play video games in my downtime.
“The Force has a light side and a dark side, and it binds the galaxy together,” I say, shrugging.
“Not the Force,” Rose says. “Force…You know, the trendy energy drink everyone chugs with vodka.”
“Eww!” Wrinkling my nose, I reach for my Mountain Dew. “That shit’s awful.”
She laughs. “Some of Congress agrees. There’s a bill that would make it illegal for minors to purchase or consume energy drinks.”
I look at the plastic pop cup on my desk, wondering if Mountain Dew would count. If so, that would suck. When I stopped at 7-Eleven before work to buy Emmett’s cigarettes, the clerk hassled me for having an allegedly fake I.D. I don’t even want to think about what it would be like to deal with that crap every morning. I’d probably have to wake up a full half-hour before I was expected at work. It may not sound like a big deal, but it would seriously cut into my WoW time.
“Garrett Mitchell was a supporter of this bill until two weeks ago,” she continues. “And last night, he was spotted having drinks with a top-ranking Force executive.”
“Obvious bribery is obvious.” Emmett turns back to his monitor and clicks through a few more pictures. “Anyone know anything about the chick he’s with? I don’t think we’ve seen this one before.”
Without getting up, Rose and I both roll our desk chairs across the office so we can see the photo on Emmett’s screen.
I expect the girl to be pretty, but I never expected it would be her. Though I haven’t seen her in six years, it doesn’t matter—I’d know her anywhere. Her shiny brown hair, her huge dark eyes, and her lips—oh god, her lips. How many times have I wondered how it would feel to have them wrapped around my…
“She must be his new arm candy.” Rose’s voice snaps me out of my fantasy. “Think there’s any way we can figure out who she is?”
“Her name is Isabella Swan.”
Rose and Emmett swivel their chairs around. They stare at me with their mouths wide open.
“You actually know a girl?” Rose asks.
“I went to high school with her. Actually, so did he.” I point to Emmett. “She was in my year,” I add, looking at my brother. “I doubt you know her.”
“Let me guess,” he says. “Total whore?”
“No.” I shake my head. “More like total bitch. Remember the time I got jumped in the parking lot of the video store? That was courtesy of Michael Newton, whom Bella was dating at the time.”
Rose’s eyes widen. “That happened because of her?”
“Yeah.” I don’t have to elaborate—they both know the story. Bella was the first—and only—girl I’ve ever approached. The rumor was she and Mike had split up, so I took a chance, knowing the odds were good she’d tell me to fuck off. I never thought I’d end up with a severe concussion and a few broken bones.
“Tell us everything you know about her,” he says. “I mean, unless you don’t want to talk–”
“It’s okay,” I tell him. “But just for the sake of argument—let’s say Bella knows Mitchell is taking bribes. Wouldn’t that make her an accessory?”
“It would. So if you have any feelings for her, I understand why you wouldn’t be okay doing anything that could potentially destroy–”
“Her life?” I ask, shaking my head.
“It isn’t a small thing, Edward,” Rose says. “Once it’s done, there’s no taking it back.”
So I think about it. I remember how I just wanted to talk to her—for her to know who I was and smile at me. And I wanted to know who she was—if she smelled like flowers or dessert and if she was as beautiful up close as she was from a distance. I could never forget the way I crushed on her. Then again, I’ll also never forget how it felt when Newton crushed my ribs with a baseball bat. To add insult to serious bodily injury, thanks to Bella I missed the midnight premiere of Attack of the Clones—yet another meaningful experience I’ll never get to have. The right choice is obvious.
“Let’s do it,” I say.
Two hours and several Google searches later, we know where Bella lives and where she works. We know her favorite shops and what she eats. We know she considers Garrett Mitchell her boyfriend, though there’s no evidence to indicate he views her similarly. We know her father is a partner in the venture-capital firm which was the primary investor in Force’s A round. We think she may have orchestrated the bribery—or at the very least—she knows about it. What we don’t have is proof.
“She’s the way to Mitchell.” Rose points at Bella’s picture, leaving a smudge on the monitor from her index finger. “Getting close to her is as good as getting close to him. The question is how.” She pauses, drumming her nails on the desk. “It sucks we don’t know any of her drama students. Who cares if she spends three hours per day with them? They’d probably sell her out for a copy of the latest Glee DVD.”
“Maybe,” Emmett says, “but they wouldn’t have a clue what to look for. It’s a shame you can’t pass for eighteen—we could fake a birth certificate and enroll you at North Shore Prep. After a week or so—three tops—you’d be able to get whatever info we needed.”
“Oh my god!” She claps her hand over her mouth. “That’s it! That’s the answer. I may not be able to pass for high-school kid, but…” She points at me.
My eyes shift from Rose to Emmett and back. “Huh?”
“Remind me; why you were late getting here this morning?”
“The dude at 7-Eleven thought my driver’s license was a fake.”
“Exactly!” Bouncing in her seat, she swivels to face Emmett. “Don’t you see? Edward could easily go undercover. I mean, he gets hassled every time you send him out for smokes.”
He leaps to his feet and plants a kiss on Rose’s mouth. “You’re fucking brilliant.”
I hate it when they grope each each other in front of me.
“Get a room,” I say, swiveling my chair around to face my keyboard. A few seconds later, I hear Rose’s voice.
“Tell me, Edward…”
If Rose is capable of intelligible speech it’s a good thing—regardless of whether or not I feel like listening to anything she has to say. It means for the moment, none of my brother’s appendages are occupying her mouth. There’s no reason for me to think it isn’t safe to turn around, but I can’t bring myself to do it—whether I pay her salary or not, my sister-in-law scares me. At the same time, I can’t sit here facing the monitor indefinitely. I mean, it would work for an hour or so, but eventually I’ll have to pee and get more Mountain Dew. Not wanting to go into battle unprepared, I reach across my desk for my storm trooper helmet and put it on my head before turning to face Rose.
I pretend not to notice her rolling her eyes. “As you were saying?”
“Haven’t you ever wished you could do high school again?” she asks.
“Not even knowing what you know now?”
This time, I think for a bit before I answer. I’m not without regrets. Mostly I wonder if things would be different for me now if I hadn’t approached Bella and her Sith of a boyfriend hadn’t landed me in the hospital. Maybe I’d be able to talk to girls without panicking. And if I were capable of doing that, there’s no reason to think I wouldn’t eventually be able to work up the courage to ask her out. I’d probably be a virgin regardless—it’s nearly impossible for guys like me to get laid—but maybe I’d know how it feels to kiss someone.
That’s right. I’m twenty-five years old, and I’ve never kissed a girl.
“Here’s what I’m thinking,” she continues. “I’ll work on your hair and clothes; you’ll be on top of your game. You sign up for the drama club—it’s no different from going to Comic-Con in costume, trust me—and you make her like you.”
As if broken ribs were bad enough. Something tells me this time, it’ll be my femurs.
“You make it sound so easy,” I say, “But you’ve never met Bella. Suddenly you consider yourself an expert on what she likes?”
“Trust me. Most women are the same when it comes to this stuff. And who knows? This time, you might even get asked to the prom.” She claps her hands excitedly. “Oh my god, that would be hysterical.”
“Maybe.” Emmett shoots her a look then turns back to me. “Just don’t get frisky with your date, or you’ll end up in jail.”
“Do you really think I can pull this off?” I ask.
Rose’s demeanor softens, and she wheels herself over to my desk. “Regardless of how much you worshipped her, she’s human.”
“I know that.”
“Then you also know she’s bound to slip up sooner or later. not that it matters to us. We come out on top no matter what—Garrett Mitchell gets what’s coming to him, American Dumbass finally gets the respect it deserves, and you get revenge. Are you game?”
This time, I don’t have to think about my answer.