“I don't have a tux...“ Taylor said.
“No problem, old man. You can come over and try on one of mine. If it doesn't fit we'll get it fixed up.“ Winston said, looking Taylor up and down. Though he was a year younger than Winston, Taylor was almost the same height, but Winston was more muscular and wider in the shoulders, whereas Taylor was quite skinny. It made Taylor uncomfortable, the idea of Winston throwing money around like that. The ease with which Winston did it, how oblivious he could be to the worth of the thousands of dollars a tailored tuxedo could cost. Not that Taylor had known that was how much such things cost until he had asked Winston, who had not known either at first. He'd had to think about it and then guess.
“Um....“ Taylor said, discomforted. “I guess? Are you sure it's not a problem...?“
“Trust me, T. It's not. My dad doesn't even know how much money has day to day. What's a few thousand when his net worth shifts a few million every couple of hours? Besides, it's going on the AMEX. It's not like I have to ask him to use that. He's never around anyway.“ Winston didn't sound bitter, just accustomed.
Taylor had never met either Winston's father or his relatively young stepmother. She was the kind of very young Filipino woman a very rich, white man could all but order from a catalog. At thirty years old she wasn't young to Winston or Taylor, only in comparison to her husbands seventy-six years of age. Winston's mother had been equally as young, but she had died in complications of child-birth with Winston. That had not stopped his father from having children with Winston's stepmom. Winston had twin siblings who occupied most of his stepmom's time. Between taking care of the six-year-old twins and traveling around to be with Winston's father, his stepmom was frequently and usually out of Winston's hair.
Winston was rarely invited on those trips.
“She used to ask me, but I always said no.“ Winston had told Taylor. “Why travel with her? I have things to do here and she's...it's hard to explain, T. You haven't met her, but she's just, difficult to be around sometimes. She has this way of seeing men and boys and it... it's suffocating.“
The morning after the Willow Society ostensibly closed up shop, Winston and Taylor made their way over to Winston's house, after meeting up at Grand Central. Winston lived on the Upper East Side, in the 60's near Central Park and Fifth Avenue. Being descended from a one-time President of the United States, Millard Fillmore, the 13th President who served from 1850-1853 apparently had cachet.
“Other than having an odd name, he's pretty much a useless bit of history, “ Winston had commented to Taylor once, when the subject had come up. The topic had begun because Winston noticed that Taylor's name was the same as former President Zachary Taylor's, only reversed. Winston had been amused by the fact Zachary Taylor was also the President who dying in office, yielded the Presidency to his Vice-President, Millard Fillmore, Winston's ancestor.
"See, T! In a way we're both descended from a President.“ Winston said, thinking it clever. Taylor had shrugged.
Now as they made their way up Fifth Avenue away from Grand Central people streamed by less and less, most of them looking too rich or too stuck-up for Taylor's liking. When they finally reached the wrought-iron entrance to Winston's mansion Taylor was ready to be off the street. The building itself didn't look all that distinguished. It looked similar to everything around, like it could be a really nice townhouse or co-op building. It wasn't that tall, four stories high. Winston inserted a key into the black gate's lock and they were in.
At the front door Winston put another key in, which Taylor found odd. “Why don't you guys have an access panel or something?“ Taylor asked, knowing how tech-friendly Winston was, and assuming his father was well.
“Because I know people like you.“ Winston said, laughing. “And I know how easy the panels are to get around.“
“But you could get around that lock, couldn't you?“ Taylor asked.
“Yeah. But I know few people like me, old boy.“ Winston mumbled, “Also, it's a very expensive lock, also it would take time and it's too open to do a clean pick here. It's Fifth Avenue, people are always watching for that kind thing, rich people hate thieves, like you wouldn't believe! Besides not many sneakers really know how to pick a good lock anymore.“
Inside, the mansion opened up quickly into a large, rather stuffy foyer, old-fashioned and yet warm, not unlike the wide foyer at Chatham House in size, but little else. Where Isabel Chatham's mansion had an entrance room which stressed modernity and negative space, crisp, sharp angles and flat colors, Winston's home was low-ceilinged, and dark; full of bulging bookshelves, low, narrow tables, and two banks of very large leather sofas. The space had the feeling of a library reading room, or a museum. It was quiet and the lighting came down from a pair of dusty chandeliers spaced equally apart. Beyond the banks of sofas was a wide, glowing wooden staircase.
The boys bounded up the stairs and came into what looked like an entirely different home. Whereas the bottom floor had seemed almost Victorian, once up the stairs the room looked like it had come from a brighter, airy cousin of Chatham House. the ceiling was high and the walls were a crispy white, framed paintings spaced round them. Two long, brilliantly white suede sofas were off to one side resting on an oval rug of some animal skin. A second stairwell was on the opposite side of the room from the first, but the second was made of steel cabling and clear planks. An elevator was right next to it.
Taylor asked why the elevator didn't go to the ground floor. “It's a historic thing. Can't alter it without city approval and my dad didn't want to bother.“ Winston said.
Inside the elevator Winston pushed the button labeled 4. After a few moments the elevator doors opened up to a large room with a huge king-sized bed in one corner. Two nightstands flanked the bed, both with stuff on them. One had what looked like a door access pad being disassembled, the other a laptop, a phone charger and a lamp. Running alongside the walls were a series of half-rooms Taylor found led to walk-in closets, a mini-kitchen a huge bathroom and a media room with gaming systems Winston rarely played.
Above the room was a huge skylight and a terrace with a telescope on it. Winston had laughed when Taylor had asked him if he like astronomy.
“I use it to spy on people.“ Winston and said snickering.
“How many tuxes do you own?“ Taylor asked as they flipped through the racks in one of Winston's closets.
“Eh? Who knows. Loreann buys them and has the maid put them in here.“ He sighed as he mentioned his stepmother's name. “I don't wear most of them.“ He flipped through a couple and then pulled out one that was shiny, like satin. It was double breasted, waist length.
“Try this one. It says it's Gucci.“ Winston said, smiling.
After putting it on Taylor stood looking in the mirror, feeling something alien - strong, rich, powerful. He even flexed at the mirror and put on an attempt at looking snooty, haughty. It amazed him clothes could make you feel this way. He had always thought of clothes as just necessary fabric, nothing more. Turning to look at himself from the side, he remembered the phrase “the clothes make the man.” Wearing this he suddenly thought maybe that might be true.
“You like it?“ Winston asked, coming back from his mini-kitchen with two Mountain Dew LiveWire sodas.
“If you're sure it's OK...I mean... it looks really expensive...“ Taylor said fearful of having the feeling ripped away.
“T. Old man. Seriously, quit with that. It's yours.“ Winston said with a wave of his hand. Taylor started to argue but shut his mouth, decided instead to enjoy it. It's mine. A voice came out of nowhere, loud and scratchy. Taylor blinked in surprise before he realized it must be an intercom. The voice was vaguely inflected, chirpy and high pitched, squeaky.
“Weeston! Weeston! Are you there, baby?“ the voice, the tone a very odd, yet obvious attempt at motherliness.
Winston rolled his eyes and sighed, deeply. “It's my stepmom.“ Her name was Loreann Fillmore, though Winston told Taylor Loreann was not her real name, she had a traditional Filipino name which Taylor couldn't get Winston to tell him. Winston's father discouraged, rather strongly, any discussion of his wife's existence before she had become his wife.
“She's your mother now,“' Winston said, mimicking his father, taking on a ridiculously silly authoritarian tone, imitating a speech his father had given him when he was about 7, shortly after telling Winston of Loreann and the coming nuptials. “This is her new life, her only life! She is Loreann Fillmore and that's whom she will remain, do you understand me, son?'“ Then Winston's father had left with Loreann for a two month-long honeymoon in Macao, leaving Winston with a nanny.
“She's got an intercom in here?“ Taylor asked.
“Yeah. I've disabled it like ten times, but she keeps having people fix it. My father said he'll cut off my AMEX if it happens again, so I let it alone.“ Winston replied.
The voice sounded again, “I'm not hearing, baby? Yes? Mommy is home! Weeston? You there?“
Winston walked out of the closet and towards a wall mounted speaker/intercom where he pressed a button and said, "Yes... Mom.“ his mouth twisted when he said mom.”I'm here. I have my friend T over, we're trying on tuxes for a party.“
“Party? I love to party! You come down and say hi to Mommy. I have cookies made.“
Winston sighed again. “I hate that I have to call her Mom, but she pouts when I don't and then my father screams at me. I just don't get it, T. I just don't.“ Winston shook his head sadly. “Why can't he date normal gold-diggers?“
Taylor laughed. “Well, do we have to go say hello?“ He was somewhat eager to meet Loreann.
Winston nodded and sighed. Down in the elevator Taylor noticed the frustration on Winston's face build as each floor passed. Once the elevator stopped the boys made their way into the kitchen area, connected to the open living area by a long, shiny bar. Standing behind the bar was easily the most beautiful, voluptuous woman Taylor had ever seen. Like a combination of Lucy Liu and Hikaru; only taller, more busty and richer. She had a dazzlingly white, pink-lipsticked smile. Her smokey, brushed eyes twinkled with excited delight as they approached, her arms thrown wide open and her fingers twittered like jazz hands.
“So happy!“ Loreann squeaked as she embraced her step-son. “Who are you?“ she slurred at Taylor as she hugged him as well. She smelled like spicy candy.
“Um. Taylor. Zachary.“ Taylor managed to push out the words. He still wore the tux he had been trying on, a detail he had forgotten until then.
“Why do you have two first names?“ Loreann said as she fussed with the lapels of Taylor's jacket, smoothed out the shoulders and sides, her breasts rubbing against Taylor almost the whole time. They were harder than he thought they should be. His face went beet red, partly because he was still wearing the tux, but mostly because Loreann was so pretty and so close. He wanted, mostly, to tell her to stop fussing with him, but couldn't think of a polite way to do so. Also, that would mean she would stop touching him.
She's Winston's stepmother!
Winston looked miserable, elbows propped up on the bar and face, chin first in his hands as he stared disconsolately at the appliances behind Loreann. He watched her fondle Taylor and Winston likely knew what it was making Taylor feel. Which made Taylor suspect that at some point it had had a similar affect on Winston himself.
“OK, Mom. That's enough. His tux is fine.“ Winston finally said, exasperated.
“OK! OK! You don't scream at Mommy!“ Loreann said in a faux-grumble. She did release Taylor though, who decided he was definitely glad she had.
“Cookie?“ she waved a maid Taylor hadn't even noticed from another part of the kitchen over with a silver tray, laden with cookies. Taylor took one, and nearly dropped it when he tasted it. It was the most delicious cookie he had ever had.
“I make dinner. Sit! You stay for dinner?“ she said to Taylor. But Winston was having none of it. He raised his voice after refusing a cookie. “Mom, Seriously. We have somewhere to be for school, we don't have time for dinner, right now. And Taylor has to be home for dinner anyway.“ None of that was true, but Taylor nodded along with his best friend's pleading glance. A bit of mischief flashed through Taylor for a moment. He thought maybe actually staying and sitting through dinner with Loreann and Winston might actually be rather funny, but he didn't want to offend the other boy too much.
"Um. Yeah. I have to be home in like thirty minutes. Sorry Mrs. Fillmore, I really would like to stay, though.“ Taylor said, trying to sound sincere.
“Happy! I call your Mommy, she let you stay then, no?“ Loreann chittered.
My parents would only shit silver bricks that I burned off being grounded, if they found out.
Winston's eyes went wide with doubt. He shook his head at Taylor urgently, but Taylor could tell what he was trying to communicate.
“They're not home, they're both at work and I've got to take care of my little brother, so I really can't,“ he said. Winston slumped with relief. It was hard for Taylor to resist a giggle,he had never seen Winston so out of sorts, so uncomfortable, his charm all but gone. Normally Winston was unflappable. Yet his stepmother seemed able to reduce him to a surly, funk-laden teenager with laughable ease.
“Aww. So sad!“ Loreann said, frowning. “Come back, we eat another day!“ She clapped frantically at the maid and dragged the woman out of the kitchen, barking commands and pointing with an extended index finger at various things.
Outside, with the tux off and safely folded into Taylor's backpack, he and Winston made their way towards Grand Central.
“Really, T. I can tell it's bugging you out, stop worrying about the tux. It looks sharp on you.“ Winston said, his affability returned.
Taylor hadn't been worrying about the tux, but rather about what he was going to have to do to get Izzy to dance with him while wearing it. Eager to change the subject he said, “So, what's next? We meeting again before the weekend?“
“I think the plan is to lay low, mostly. Keep that cell close and be ready when one of us texts you. I've already told Lou and Izzy what that old bat told us about the HQ, so I think we'll be meeting there over the weekend. It will probably be some spiel from Izzy on what not to do, so we don't embarrass her.“
What Izzy probably meant to do was school Taylor and Lou on how to act, it was not necessary for Winston, who as a wealthy NYC kid had probably grown up knowing all the rules and etiquette, even if he rarely chose to follow along. Myth wouldn't have needed the instruction either, had she been allowed to go. Still Taylor was thankful Winston said, we regardless of whether or not he actually meant it.
“OK. Then I guess I'll see you at school tomorrow...“ Taylor said when they reached Grand Central. He wanted to ask Winston what the boy was going to do, but he knew Winston would just brush the question off, which likely meant he was going to break into some place. Taylor was also sure Winston would be avoiding his stepmother. The intercom had made it clear to Taylor, despite having lots of distractions available at home, Winston would not be able to avoid Loreann enough to really enjoy his time there, which meant he would find his enjoyments elsewhere.
“Well, you want to come over?“ Taylor asked suddenly, thinking that it was probably a better idea to have Winston at his place than getting busted in whatever mischief Winston was planning. “You could spend the night...“
Winston had not yet been to Taylor's Alphabet city apartment, nor met his family, though there really wasn't any space for the other boy to spend the night, it would mean either Taylor or Winston or William would sleep on the couch. Taylor didn't think his parents would mind much. Beyond that, he was really worried what Winston might get up to on his own. Their coming plan was too important to risk on Winston's capriciousness.
Winston looked unsure, something about his eyes made Taylor pretty sure he planned exactly what Taylor feared.
“C'mon Win, it'll keep you away from Loreann. We can see about finding some dirt on the Mayor or the security guy somewhere on the dark web.“ The last was really just a bogus attempt at swaying Winston, but it worked.
“Alright.“ Winston said finally, “I'll come over for a little while, but not sure if I can stay the night.“ Taylor didn't know if Winston implied he was not allowed to stay out, which Taylor seriously doubted, or that he intended to go through with whatever he had planned, only later, without pressure or interference.
“Stand clear of the closing doors.” the voice droned as they stepped on to the 6 train.
Lou walked home in a rising tide of expectation from the couture shop. Izzy had gone, on her way back to Chatham. They had received texts from Winston just before leaving the dress shop about Mrs. Jones and the HQ being available, thanks to a purposefully and poorly hidden access card. Izzy got another text minutes later from Isabel herself, reminding her that she and Sue-Ann had left for a trip to D.C., to be followed by a longer jaunt to Europe. Before Izzy and Lou parted they agreed to meet on Saturday at the HQ to begin planning for the Mayor's party. The boys and Myth would join them on Sunday.
Later, Lou had nothing to occupy her time. It was late in the day, she had already worked out, practiced fighting, and done all of her schoolwork. All she had left to do was go home and stare at the walls. She wasn't fond of television. It was rare for her to be so freed up and the feeling left her confused. Her cell rang.
It was Myth.
“Lou?“ Myth said.
“Yup,“ Lou replied
“Did you find a dress?“ Lou's eyes drifted down to the bag near her front door.
“Sweet! So um, got any plans for tonight?“ Myth asked. Lou knew that tone of voice. Myth was up to something.
“I was going to read.“ Lou lied, trying to stave off whatever shenanigans the other girl might have in mind.
“I mean, I was hoping maybe you could come by my place? I need to talk to you about something...“ Myth asked.
Lou was slightly annoyed. She hadn't formulated a plan for how to spend her night but entertaining Myth suddenly seemed what she most certainly did not want to be doing.
That's new. Myth always makes me laugh.
What could it hurt?
Myth made strained noise, Lou could tell she would let Myth down by saying no, and she disliked letting Myth down. The brilliant kid had nursed a soft spot inside Lou. It was something printed on Lou's core now, hoping not to let Myth down.
“Sure, “ Lou said, sighing “When?“
“I'm ready now!“ Myth said.
“On my way.“ Lou said, and hung up.
Lou reached Myth's brownstone half an hour later. It was a bright, window-rich building just north of 57th street, on the West Side. Lots of light streamed out into the early evening through those windows. Myth's engineer father, Deondre Smith, had sold his company to Google years before and Lou knew that he owned the whole building, with only himself and Myth occupying the top. The bottom floor had been subdivided into store fronts, a bodega, and a candy shop, with a basement apartment beneath. Nestled between the two shops was a nondescript door which led upstairs to Myth's home.
Lou pushed the buzzer and was quickly inside the stairwell. She clambered up the stairs two at a time and at the top found the door to Myth's slightly open, Myth herself peeking out. The small girl smiled nervously. It set off warning bells inside Lou's head, but her friendship with Myth had become strong enough Lou would one some occasions disregard warning bells from her instinct, push aside her honed survival technique.
Inside the home everything appeared normal. It was a typically appointed New York City brownstone: lots of moderately expensive furniture, art, Persian carpets over hardwood floors, and delicate, frothy hanging lights above it all. It was a warm place, far warmer than Chatham House, which surprised Lou every one of the five or so times she had been over, mostly because Myth was the only woman living in the house. She knew nothing about interior design, yet it felt like a woman lived there. The place had the airy, comfy feeling of a lived-in place; the kind Lou connected with a mother, not a single geeky father and his gadget obsessed daughter.
“So. What's the problem?“ Lou asked as she plopped herself onto a large, overstuffed arm chair. Her favorite thing to sit on, ever. Myth looked strange, antsy.
“Um... it's...“ Myth stuttered.
“The party.“ Lou finished.
“I really want to go!“-Myth said. For the first time ever Lou looked at Myth, saw a girl more like Myth in age and background: a silly, spoiled pushy little brat. Lou sighed, unsure how to react. It's Myth, I shouldn't judge her so easily. Lou knew she was not prepared to be the kind of friend who tolerated this kind of behavior, this whining, pity-ladened begging - it was beneath Myth. Beneath Lou.
Looking at Myth she recalled the look on the girl's face the first time she landed a solid punch, or when she had gotten her lab up and running at Chatham. It was enough for Lou to endure.
She'll get through this. She has to.
“I know it feels shitty you can't go Myth.“ Lou said after a moment. Myth chewed on her bottom lip. “But you have to understand this is bigger than what you want? I know you're capable of understanding. Do you think I really want to parade around like some jumped up Upper East Side Lohannite? I just got finished trying on dresses at some snooty-ass dress place Izzy took me to.“ Lou flushed at the memory of how she had felt in the dress. Just admit it, Lou. You liked it. It's OK to like... She managed to push the feeling down. It felt disingenuous to suggest to she was not looking forward to the party. Because I am. And it has to be done.
“We need you to understand Myth. I need you to understand.“ Lou stressed the last.
Myth blinked. She picked up her head and nodded solemnly at Lou, said, “I'm sorry. I mean. I just... I want Win...” Myth blushed a beautiful brownish red.”I made you come over here just for that.“ She sighed, “I just feel so... loser-y. I just know this is my only chance to make him notice me...“ Myth's voice trailed off.
Great. Here we go. Winston. When is she going to see how wrong he would be for her?
Myth made eye contact and caught Lou's slight change of expression, maybe imagined some what Lou thought. “It's not some silly crush, I know you're thinking it! I love him!“ she wailed.
“I know you do.“ Lou tried to sound patient. Love is for sissies. “but you have to understand, you have to willing to admit... to accept that he might not feel the same way about you.“ Only common sense. Lou never understood why other teens had such a hard time embracing that reality.
“How would you know?“ Myth said, a whisper. “You don't love anybody!“ It was a nasty thing to say and Myth realized it as soon as the words were out of her mouth. Her hands clapped over her mouth and her eyes widened in shock, or fright, or surprise. Maybe all three.
Lou's jaw tightened and her breathing slowed. Blood pumped through her body, loud enough it rang in her ears. The room around her brightened, stinging her eyes. A rage took hold of her, she struggled to hold it back. How dare Myth? How can she possibly know if I've loved or not? Lou never talked about such things, she considered it private.
A small niggled voice inside Lou's head said,”Do you love anyone?“ Lou shook her head trying to dispel it.
“Of course I...“ Lou said, out loud, without realizing it.
“You can't even say the words.“ Myth said, surprised again.
“I don't see that I need to get into this. I came here to help you, not sift through my emotional life.“ Lou said through clenched teeth.
Myth sighed and looked slightly abashed. “I'm sorry Lou. I didn't mean to be so...“
“So... Willow Preppy?“ Lou said, roughly. Myth's eyebrows shot up.
“Listen, I know I'm not Izzy, I don't have boys going crazy for me. I don't date. Don't talk about boys like some ignorant bitch.“ The words were harsh, almost snarl. “But it's because I don't think it's the right time for me. Not because I don't know how to love. I've seen what happens when you let love rule your life and I don't want that. I've been broken down. I don't ever want to be that way again.“
Myth nodded as though she understood, but Lou wasn't sure she did. Lou knew Myth would just go right back to pining for Winston, regardless of what she told Lou. There really was nothing to do about it, but let it run its course. Myth had to learn for herself.
Lou said, "Just tell him how you feel. I promise you'll feel better afterward.“ Which was really the only advice Lou had to offer for love-struck people. “Now what exactly did you need to talk to me about?”
“Um. I mean.” Myth said.
“You wanted to convince me to argue with Izzy to let you go to the party.” Lou offered.
Myth blushed and looked away.
“Anyway. Just tell Winston how you feel. It will help.”
Lou had never lied to the other girl, not really, and she knew this was a big part of why Myth looked up to her, maybe why Myth seemed to quickly accept Lou's words. “OK! I'll tell him!“ she said happily.
“Good...“ Lou mumbled. She did not feel good at all about it. It's going to hurt. But maybe if she gets it out of the way now, she'll see Winston for what he is – a hopeless crush. Telling Myth she would feel better afterwards was as close to a bold-faced lie as Lou had ever told the other girl. Likely Myth would feel better afterwards, but not immediately so. It did not make Lou feel anything less than a liar, regardless. “I'm going to go...”
“"OK... I mean, so we're still having a meeting Sunday? I got the text from Iz...“
“Yep. See ya then.“ Lou said and left, slamming the door shut behind her.
Lou pressed her body against the wall and took hard, deep breaths.