Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Chapter 4

December in Washington. Doris Austin stood in the cold night air with some of the staff, waiting for FLOTUS to light the national Christmas tree. FLOTUS was the acronym for First Lady of the United States; its companion acronym was POTUS, President of the United States. Many staffers simply used FLOTUS and POTUS as everyday nicknames for the president and his wife. Some people shortened the acronyms even further to Flo and Po.

Next to Doris, Connie shifted from one foot to the other with her gloved hands stuffed into her coat pockets. "I thought this was an indoor job," said Connie.

"It's not that bad," said Doris. "It's only December. Just wait until the cold weather comes."

"Where I'm from, this is cold weather," said Connie.

"I would like to point out that it does get cold in California," said Doris, remembering the trips she had made there with Frank. "In fact, we were hiking in the Sierra Nevada mountains and we got snow in July. I'm not kidding."

"That might as well be a different planet, compared to Santa Barbara," said Connie. "Let's see, I would have been playing volleyball on the sand."

They stood at the edge of a cluster of Secret Service agents and higher ranking staffers who crowded around the First Lady. Proximity was everything: the closer you were to power, the greater your influence. Doris didn't bother elbowing her way to the front. She didn't feel the same competitive spirit as her fellow workers.

Doris remembered a time when she wanted to get ahead, but in her own way. Frank was at the Pentagon, and she was on the campaign trail with Ziggy when he was running for Senate, twenty years ago. Doris was proving to be the pro on polling and the media. She knew how to phrase the polling questions, and how to process the answers, and how to present it to the media. 'You had to tell a story,' she emphasized to the campaign staff and to Ziggy. 'Connect the dots for the average voter. The media certainly won't do it for you. They will let you hang yourself,' she said. Ziggy won, and Doris went to work on his Senate staff.

Years later, when Ziggy was mapping out his first presidential campaign, he told Doris that, if he won, she would be in line for a major appoinment. That was where Doris drew the line. She didn't want to be director of this, or under secretary of that; it did not call her. She told him, 'thanks, but if you win, I want to be at the White House, working your polling strategy.' He was grateful for that: it wasn't the kind of reward most campaigners asked for. Most wanted visibility in order to further their political careers. Doris just wanted to be Ziggy's polling expert, and be better at it than anyone.

A figure pushed back through the crowd. It was the First Lady, trailed by two Secret Service agents. "Hello, Doris. Thanks for coming."

They embraced with that special Washington hug between two professional women: not really a hug, but something resembling a slight coming together of heads and cashmere coats.

"I'm a sucker for old fashioned stuff like this," said Doris.

The First Lady surprised Doris by getting right to the point of coming over. "I miss Frank," she said, "and I know you do, too."

Doris's eyes moistened, and then she shared a real hug with the First Lady. "Thanks," Doris whispered. "You've all been extremely generous."

"We loved him, too," she said. When the First Lady backed away, Doris could see that her eyes were moist as well. They laughed. "What's Christmas without a little tearing up over old times, right?"

Doris laughed. "Go light the tree, Ma'am," she said.

The First Lady winked and slid back through the crowd of important people, all of whom Doris has just upstaged by merely being present. Yes, this was a different kind of power, she knew. She had no title and she wasn't in charge of ten thousand people and a billion dollar budget, but she had more power, in her own way, than any of them could even dream of.

Doris and Connie moved around to the edge of the group so they could observe the lighting. The First Lady stood by a post in the ground on which was mounted a big switch. A brass sextet from the U.S. Army band serenaded the group with pleasant arrangements of carols. A fairly large crowd of onlookers had gathered, sipping on hot beverages in paper cups and singing along with some of the carols.

On cue, the First Lady lifted the switch. A row of light bulbs came on, one at a time, from the switch to the tree, and then continued in a spiral up the tree to the top. As the lighting sequence progressed, accompanied by oohs and ahhs, figures of stars and snowmen and bells and wreaths became visible as they were illuminated. Finally, the lighting sequence reached the top of the tree, and a great star lit up. Everyone applauded the show, and the band launched a jolly number.

As Doris and Connie walked away from the tree, Cory Metcalf, the chief of staff, caught up with them. "Hello, Cory," said Doris.

"The president's hoping for an early Christmas present," said Cory.

"I know, an essay contest winner," said Doris. A group of volunteer readers had been working day and night, reading essays and trying to determine a winner. The response to the contest had amazed everyone. Every day, a postal truck delivered carts of mail to a basement room in the Old Executive Office Building, next door to the White House. Thousands and thousands of entries had been submitted. The president was amazed at the response, but quickly became impatient for a winner.

"Look, you got him hooked on this deal. Now you need to deliver," said Cory, apparently enjoying Doris being on the spot.

"And I will deliver. Would you like to come read a few essays? You can help you know," said Doris.

"Well, uh, it's hardly my kind of thing," said Cory.

"Don't be modest, Cory. You have a natural talent for telling stories," said Doris.

"I think you mean tall tales?"

"That's a nice word for it."

"Why, that's an unfair characterization," said Cory, pretending to be offended.

"I notice you didn't say inaccurate," said Doris.

Cory seemed to take it as a challenge. It was the best way to approach him, Doris had learned. "And I suppose you are suggesting that I improve on my reputation for obfuscation by critiquing a few essays," said Cory.

Doris sighed. "You have a long way to go, but that's the general idea. Connie and I are heading over there now."

Doris steered Connie away from him as he started to open his mouth to object.

The conference room in the basement of the Old Executive Office Building had been completely taken over by Doris's project. There were some grumblings from other staff after having been forced to hold meetings while surrounded by carts of mail and piles of letters and envelopes sorted in specific ways that could not, under pain of retribution from Doris, be disturbed.

Doris had devised the sorting herself. Each letter was opened and read and placed in one of four piles. Essays that were completely illegible or which contained hateful remarks went into the Definitely Not pile. Essays which contained some thoughtful ideas but which had serious grammatical flaws went into the Bad Grammar pile. Essays which showed technical proficiency but had nothing whatever to say went into the No Substance pile. Finally, any essay that contained an interesting point or two and had only minor errors in spelling or grammar went into the Worth Considering pile.

As Doris entered the conference room, several tired faces looked up to greet her with weak smiles. Doris paused as she noticed what appeared to be new carts of mail.

"I thought we weren't accepting any essays past the deadline," said Doris.

"The post office still has to deliver them," said David, a local college student recruited by Connie. Doris noticed that his expression brightened considerably when he spotted Connie at Doris's elbow.

"I suppose if we don't find anything we like we can start looking through the late arrivals. Otherwise, I don't feel obliged to do anything with them," said Doris, removing her coat. "Do you agree, David?"

"Yes, ma'am. Absolutely," said David. The three other volunteers nodded in agreement. The team of four had been working from early in the morning until late at night everyday for about ten days. They had been making good progress, but the thousands of essays kept coming in. However, Doris knew that White House volunteers were often motivated by the possibility of free food.

"Should I order pizza?" said Doris.

A few eyes brightened. "Actually, we're getting a little tired of pizza. How about Chinese?" said David.

"Perfect, especially since Chinatown is only a few blocks away. I'll call and have an assortment of things brought over. I've learned your food preferences by now: we have vegans, we have gluten-free eaters, we have non-fish eaters, and sometimes they overlap."

"I'll eat anything," said Connie.

David smiled at her. "Same here."

Doris went to phone the order while the others resumed their task with a little more enthusiasm. She chose a restaurant that she and Frank had gone to a lot. Sometimes, they stayed in town after work to attend a symphony concert or a play, and they would leave their respective jobs and meet in Chinatown for a quick bite. The proprietor got to know them and often brought them special Chinese dishes that didn't appear on the menu. They were delicious, although she could never remember the names of any of them. Sometimes he carved a whole chicken or duck at their table and served it to them, and Doris would take home the leftovers and use them for one or even two nights.

These memories floated back to her as she dialed and struggled to place the order. Sometimes it was hard to focus on the present. Her mind wanted to wander and dream about the past, especially when a very specific memory came to her, like a meal they had shared. It was so vivid she could smell the food, and touch Frank's arm, and hear the restaurant owner's voice.

With difficulty, she placed the order and hung up the phone. She took a deep breath. That was exhausting, she thought, I should have suggested sushi: Frank couldn't stand sushi, I can order it without a sprint down memory lane.

Upon returning to the conference room, Doris took a seat with the others and drew an envelope from a large wire basket in the center of the table. One of the volunteers, Meg, was just filling the basket with a handful of envelopes from one of the mail carts. "Help yourself," said Meg.

"I hate to say it, but some of these are downright depressing," said Doris, opening envelope and pulling out a sheet of paper containing dark scrawls. "You'd think that by eighth grade, kids would have a basic grasp of how to write a correct sentence."

Meg frowned. "I know what you mean. It almost makes me regret becoming an education major."

Doris scanned the page quickly. She had a hard time finding two words in a row that didn't have something wrong, like inappropriate tense, or references to unknown objects, or spelling so bad it was hard to guess the writer's intention, all presented in a barely legible handwriting. But most of all, the essay seemed to be a discussion of a computer game that was about blowing up cars. Doris could not find the connection between the computer game and the essay topic that had been assigned. Wearily, she tossed it in the Definitely Not pile and grabbed another envelope. She looked across the room at the cardboard box that had been labeled the Definitely Not box; it was depressingly full.

Meanwhile, Connie read aloud parts of an essay that she really liked. The young writer had made a very humorous argument about how a community could convert all of its gas stations to power stations where you charged up your electric car while you went to work or ate dinner at a restaurant or went to a movie.

Doris laughed. "That's a keeper."

After Doris read about ten more essays, varying in quality from okay to terrible, the food arrived. She jumped up from the table, welcoming the break. She paid for the food with her credit card and carried it back to the room. The aroma made her stomach gurgle. The volunteers pushed aside their work to make room for food.

"Mmm," said Meg, the gluten-free eater. "I love their rice noodles. Exactly what I had in mind."

"And they don't overcook the vegetables," said the vegan.

At that moment, Cory Metcalf walked into the conference room. "Hey, I'm just in time," he said as Doris was passing around a container of steamed rice.

"Sorry, this is for workers," said Doris.

"I'm here to work," said Cory.

"I didn't think you would actually come. Here, have an egg roll," said Doris.

Cory took the egg roll and dipped it into a little container of sticky sauce. Then he devoured half of it in one bite. "Oh, man. That's awesome," he exclaimed with a mouthful. "I'm motivated now."

"Good," said Doris. "Start reading." She explained the sorting system to him, then pointed to the Definitely Not box. "It's striking to see the number of essays that end up in that pile."

Cory said, "But that's good news. The more you can weed out the better, right? It will make the selection go faster."

"But it's also a sad commentary on the state of literacy among eighth graders. These kids are going to enter high school next year. I can't imagine how they will make it."

"They will continue on the same path their on," said Cory, "because the high schools have lowered their standards to match those of the graduating eighth graders."

"So you're saying the whole system is flawed," said Doris.

"There's no accountability," said Cory. "That's why the president supports more standardized testing. He's going to love this when he hears about it."

"Oh, brother. Educators across the country are going to hate me," said Doris.

"But not the boss," said Cory, taking an envelope directly from one of the mail carts.

"Not that cart," said Doris. "Those came in past the deadline."

Cory dropped the letter and then paused by another cart. "How about this one?"

"That one's okay."

While she watched Cory reach deep into the cart, Doris said, "Cory, this isn't about political advantage for me. I don't evaluate every move in terms of who gains and who loses," said Doris.

"It's time you started," he said while fishing around keep into the cart.

Doris motioned toward the volunteers. "You're giving our young volunteers a bad impression of government."

"Or the right impression," said Cory. Several volunteers grinned. "Can I make a suggestion?"

Doris sighed. "Go ahead."

"Instead of trying to find the best essay, why not just go with the first one that meets all of your criteria. After all, if it's good, it's good. Who cares if it's the absolute best? You're never going to finish by Christmas at the rate you're going."

The president had hinted at several meetings that he wanted to announce the essay winner before Christmas. Doris was happy that the president was embracing her idea, but now the pressure was on. Christmas was only a week away and there were still thousands of essays to read.

"That doesn't seem fair," said Doris. "If a student puts in a little extra effort, and it shows, I want that student to be recognized. I don't want one that's just good enough."

Cory withdrew his arm from the cart and raised his hand triumphantly. It held a single envelope. "I'm going to show you how easy this is." He read the envelope. "Here's an essay from a girl in Kentucky. By the way, that happens to be a state that voted for the president, so I like it already."

Doris sighed. He was wasting their time. She looked at her watch. If she didn't get to bed soon she would be cranky the next day.

Cory slowly opened the envelope and removed two sheets of paper. Doris could see from that the handwriting was neat. Cory scanned the words silently at first. Doris expected the reaction that the rest of them had been experiencing: surprise and dismay at the low quality of the writing. Instead, he seemed actually interested.

"I don't get what you guys have been complaining about," he said. "The first couple of paragraphs are great. Listen to this..."

Cory cleared his throat and read aloud.

Everything In Balance
by Emily Kennedy

We live in a time in our society where everything depends upon electricity. We use electricity in our homes and at school and in workplaces to run computers and cash registers and lights and automatic door openers and dishwashers (except in our house because our dishwasher is broken and my Dad hasn't fixed it yet).

In order to produce all of this electricity we have power plants, such as the one not far from my house. You can see the smoke stacks from my back yard. It is an old coal plant that used to create a lot of pollution in the air and water, but then government regulations made it stop. However, before it stopped polluting, the plant released arsenic and boron and many other chemicals into the environment for many years. Even today, the plant may be releasing chemicals into the environment even though there are laws against that.

The other day my cat died from some kind of poisoning. We do not what caused it, but there was a coyote that also died, from arsenic poisoning. So I think Toby, my cat, died from arsenic poisoning. I can't prove that the power plant is responsible, but I have a pretty strong belief that there is a connection.

So, this leads to the theme of Everything In Balance. If everything were in balance, then power plants would not cause people and animals to die because then it would be out of balance. Right? Being in balance means that power plants and people and animals can all get along together in the same community.

The White House could get people's opinion on this by taking a survey to find out if people would rather live a long life without electricity, or a short life with electricity. I think many people would vote for a longer life without electricity, which means we could shut all the power plants down and just live like we did before there was electricity.

And maybe I would still have my cat.

Emily Kennedy, Moonville, Kentucky.

Doris discovered that she had a lump in her throat that was the size of a golf ball. She had to swallow hard to dislodge it. The others were silent. Meg's jaw hung open. Cory lowered the page slowly. Then he said, "On second thought..."

"Don't you dare," said Doris, rising from her chair. She snatched the letter from Cory just as he was about to stuff it back to the bottom of the mail cart.

"Doris, you can't be serious. Listen, the president is thinking of reading the essay during one of his weekly radio addresses. He can't read something like that. The energy companies will go through the roof."

"I'm not saying I'm going to recommend it. But I will add it to our Worth Considering pile. Right at the top."

Doris pressed out the creases on the sheets of paper and stapled the envelope to them. Then she placed the pages neatly on the top of the stack.

"It was a joke," said Cory. "You really don't have to use that one."

"Cory I can't tell you how pleased I am that you stopped by," said Doris. "Would you like to read a few more?"

"No, thank you. And I am strongly considering removing that one from consideration."

"You will not touch it. This is my project. Now shoo if you aren't going to help."

Doris loved the look of an important man who realizes that he has just bungled things. Cory's face turned red and his lips were as thin as paper clips as he picked up his coat and strode with determination out of the room.

"Imagine," Doris said after Cory had left, "the White House chief of staff fretting over an essay contest." Then in a lower voice, she added, "Actually, I feel sorry for his wife. But you didn't hear that from me."

The volunteers giggled. Then Doris said, "Connie, I think we've done all the damage we can do here. We have early schedules."

Connie, sitting next to David, said, "I'll stay just a few minutes longer, but you go on."

"Well, if you insist. My eyes are closing." Doris looked at all of them. "Thank you so much. You're doing a great job."

"Thanks for the dinner," said Meg.

At the last moment before leaving, Doris spotted the essay from Emily Kennedy on the stop of the stack. She folded it neatly and put it in her purse. "I will hang onto this one for safekeeping. Certain members of the White House staff have been known to prowl around conference rooms during odd hours."

David chuckled. "This certainly has been an education in government."

"Probably more than you bargained for. Good night."

Monday, May 07, 2007

Chapter 3

The day after Toby died, Emily placed the cat in a cardboard box and buried him in Fitch field, in a hole dug by Emily's father. They stood solemnly around the hole while Emily said goodbye to Toby. Emily's mother and gave her tissue for the tears that rolled down her cheeks.

For two weeks after her cat died, Emily was in a slump. At home, she didn't even pick on her brother when he went out to his Young Conservatives meeting dressed in a tie. At school she completely ignored Cindy Madison, and pretended ignorance when others said, 'Did you hear that Cindy Madison...?' No, she hadn't heard of Cindy's latest exploits and couldn't care less, thank you. Besides, they usually involved buying something or going on a trip that no one else could afford. And as for Dirk, he might as well have become invisible, for all the attention she paid to him. She amazed even herself at her lack of interest in what her social circle was up to. In way, it was kind of refreshing to be left alone. Because, after a while, that's exactly what everyone did.

Her neighbors were full of theories about Toby's death. The most popular theory was that the power plant was responsible. Mrs. Cutwiler, from two doors down, repeated the story, which everyone already knew, that her dog died after drinking water from the stream. Then there was Mr. Parsons, whose brother grazed cattle near the Moon Hill Pond, into which the stream emptied. He told the story, which everyone already knew, about his brother's cattle dying mysteriously after drinking from the pond. Mr. Parsons had the water tested and did not find unsafe levels of arsenic. It was always that word unsafe that got Mr. Parsons going, and sometimes Emily's father, too, if he was within earshot of Mr. Parsons giving one of his speeches.

"Unsafe for who," Mr. Parsons grumbled one day. "Might not be unsafe for a child or a cat."

"But Rory and his friends have gone swimming in the stream," Emily had told him.

"But that's in the summer. Maybe the plant only releases the arsenic in the winter," he said, his eyes gloating.

"It's not winter yet, Mr. Parsons."

"But it's fall, so we're getting close."

But Emily knew that none of these theories would bring Toby back, so what was the point of arguing about them? In the evenings she did her homework in her room, surrounded by her stuffed animals. They all reminded her of Toby; he loved playing games with Emily's animals. Emily's mother breezed through Emily's room occasionally, on a pretense of putting clean clothes away or looking for a glass or a magazine that Emily had carried into her room. Emily knew that her mother was really just checking on her, and trying to get her to talk about Toby. But Emily didn't see the point of talking about it. Toby was gone. No amount of talking would bring him back.

One day, Emily's father, sitting at the kitchen table just before dinner, startled them by saying, "You won't believe this." He rattled the paper. Emily only half-listened from the kitchen sink, where she was washing vegetables. Her period of mourning had not gotten her out of kitchen duties.

"It says here they found a dead coyote at the east end of Fitch field," said Leo. "Somebody took it to the vet and it tested positive for very high levels of arsenic."

Emily turned and looked. "Do you think that's what killed Toby?"

"I don't know, but if it's powerful enough to kill a coyote it sure could kill a cat," said Leo, reading quickly to the end of the article. "Says here the coyote ate something that had very high concentrations of arsenic."

"Did it drink the water from the stream?" asked Emily. "Mr. Parsons says the stream has arsenic in it."

"Almost all streams naturally have a little bit," said Leo, folding the paper. "Our stream probably has more arsenic than most because of the power plant. Coal-burning plants release a lot of arsenic into the air in the form of ash that settles onto water surfaces."

"I thought they had laws against that," said Emily.

"They do, but for years there were no laws and so most plants just dumped the fly ash anywhere, including streams, or they buried it in the ground, and it leached into the soil and contaminated ground water."

"Is ours contaminated?" said Emily.

"According to the government testers, our soil and water has been clean for the past twenty years," said Leo.

Frances spoke up from the oven, "But that doesn't mean there aren't accidents."

"That's true," said Leo. "Or illegal dumping."

Emily's eyes widened. "Cindy Madison's father is the manager of the power plant. Do you think he dumped arsenic into the water and killed Toby?"

Frances put her hands on her hips, "Rumors like that will get you in big trouble. I advise you not to repeat that at school."

"We need proof," said Emily. Then she paused as a thought came to her. "We should have had Toby tested for poisoning."

"It's expensive," said Leo. "But we might try looking for the mouse. Maybe if we find it we can bring it to the same vet that looked at the coyote."

"Yuk," said Frances. "It'll be two weeks old."

"I'll wear gloves," said Leo.

Emily's face brightened for the first time in two weeks. It wouldn't bring Toby back, but it might get to the bottom of the mystery. And maybe they could save other pets, and wild animals, from dying.

Emily arrived at school the next day in better spirits. On the bus, she sat with her friends and chatted about what it was going to be like when they graduated from eighth grade and started riding the bus to high school. It was farther away, and so they would have to leave earlier, and get up earlier in the morning.

"My Mom can barely get me up as it is," Katie Green exclaimed with a roll of the eyes.

As the bus lurched into the parking lot of Moonville Middle School, Emily joined the throng of students filing off buses or stepping out of cars driven by parents or walking from the bike racks. Almost no one walked to Moonville Middle because it was not near any residential neighborhoods, a point that Frances always complained about to school board officials whenever they held meetings with parents. Frances liked to describe Moonville Middle as the "latest in 1960s architecture." Emily was not sure what that meant but she did know the school was forty years old and drafty and was not energy efficient.

Emily's first class on Wednesdays was geometry. It so happened that she and Katie Green were in the same class, so they walked together from the bus.

Katie said, "Are you getting a new cat?"

Emily shrugged. "Not yet. I still miss Toby."

"That's so sad," said Katie.

"Thanks," said Emily.

In the crowded hallway, Emily noticed Cindy Madison standing in the center of a group of girls and boys, including Dirk. Emily started to pause, but Katie nudged her along, saying, "Don't even bother,"

But as they walked past the cluster of Cindy-admirers, Cindy called out to them, "Emily, how are you. Are things okay at home?"

"I still can't talk about it," Emily said solemnly. "It's too horrible." She lowered her eyes and then she and Katie moved away quickly. Emily had to clamp her mouth shut to keep from giggling; she knew she was putting on an act.

Katie knew it, too. She whispered, "You are a master at putting people down without them even knowing it."

"Well, she deserves it. She's so fake," said Emily.

"And Dirk needs to stop kissing her butt and get a life," said Katie.

Emily pretended to yawn. "I'm growing rather weary of him."

As the day's classes wore on, Emily's thoughts kept returning to Cindy's father and the power plant. What if it were true that the power plant caused Toby's death? Emily realized it would completely change things among eighth graders at Moonville Middle: no one would talk to Cindy after that. She would be the daughter of a cat murderer. She would probably stay home out of embarrassment. But, two classes later, Emily was thinking the same thoughts and realized they were kind of mean, and she felt embarrassed for thinking of them, and she was very glad she didn't tell anyone, not even Katie Green.

The last class of the day was English. It wasn't always the last class, because the English teacher, Mr. Styles, insisted that the end of the day was the worst time to try to teach English. So it rotated morning periods with math and history.

As Emily entered the classroom she noticed that Mr. Styles had a stack of green handouts. Emily assumed it was a pop quiz or an exercise. Mr. Styles loved to give out writing exercises. Most of the students groaned, but Emily had found that writing was fun for her, and it came easy. She could close her eyes and think of something, and then write it down just the way she thought it. In a fifty-minute class, Emily could fill page after page with neat cursive and well thought out sentences. Emily was Mr. Styles's favorite student, and Emily knew it but she was careful to pretend she didn't know it.

When everyone was seated, Mr. Styles walked around the front of the room with the stack of green paper. Everyone was staring at it.

"I have something very special today," he said.

There were many groans. When Mr. Styles said "special" it usually meant work. Emily was very curious.

"I have an assignment here that you're going to love."

A hand went up, Jimmy's. "There must be an error in your logic, Mr. Styles. You used love and assignment in the same sentence."

The class roared. Even the teacher could not chase the grin from his face. "Very good, Jimmy. I like clever jokes. But this is a very special assignment because it comes all the way from the President of the United States, who lives... where?"

A few hands went up. The teacher pointed to one. "The White House," said Veranda, a very quiet girl who got straight As in history and social studies.

"Excellent, Veranda. This assignment is from the White House. Of course, we printed them here at school. But we got the assignment by email all the way from the Department of Education in Washington, D.C. It is going out to all eighth-graders in the country. And can you guess what it is?"

Hands went up. He chose Alice. "A pop quiz?"

"Not exactly." There was a collective sigh of relief. "It is an essay contest. And there's a prize."

Now Emily tuned in more carefully. She raised her hand.

"Yes, Emily?"

"What's the subject of the essay contest?"

"Good question." Mr. Styles went to the chalkboard and wrote the following words: Everything In Balance. "Everything in balance," he said.

"What does that mean?" someone asked. But Emily felt that she knew it was going to be about the environment. She couldn't explain why, but she had a hunch.

"It's about balancing conflicting needs of society," the teacher explained. "We need energy for light and heat and power, but at the same time we want to protect the quality of our air and water. We also need jobs so we can have houses and clothes and cars, but if those jobs are polluting the soil then we might ask, is there a proper balance here?"

The class grew quiet suddenly. Emily knew that many of her classmates were sons and daughters of power plant workers and coal miners. This was getting personal. Even Leo, Emily's father, who often ranted about the pollution caused by the power plant, was careful not to rant too much around people who worked at the power plant. They didn't want to hear it. And now Emily felt a certain kind of hostile quietness in the room. They were starting to not like this essay contest, even if it did come from the President of the United States.

Mr. Styles continued talking, without missing a beat. "It's important for us to learn to think analytically. To consider an issue from all sides, even if there is a particular side that we like or don't like. That's what this essay contest is really about." He started to hand out the green pages. "And that's why I'm asking each of you to take this home and give it some serious thought. I want everyone to write something as a class assignment, even if you don't plan to enter the essay contest."

There was another groan: they were hoping it would be optional.

Emily's heart beat faster as the green pages came to her. She took one and passed the rest to the person behind her. She read it. Everything In Balance. Nice title, she thought. And there was a prize: a trip to Washington, D.C.! The winner would go with his or her parents to visit the White House, meet the president, visit Congress, meet representatives from their state, and visit other sites in the nation's capitol. And, to top it off, they get to stay in a hotel.

Emily could hardly contain her excitement as she left English class. When she got to the bus she found Katie Green and said, "Did you hear about the essay contest?"

"The what?" said Katie.

"The essay contest about the environment. Didn't your English teacher pass out something?"

Katie twisted her face into a I'm-trying-to-remember kind of grin and then said, "I think Miss Swisher passed out something. I'd have to check my backpack."

"The winner goes to Washington, D.C., to visit the White House and meet the president," said Emily. "Isn't that cool?"

"What are you going to write about?" Katie asked as they settled into a seat.

Emily noticed that no one else was talking about the essay contest. Why aren't they excited, she wondered. "I know exactly what I'm going to write about: my cat. Suppose Toby was poisoned by the power plant, wouldn't that be a case of everything not in balance?"

"I guess so, but how do you know the power plant poisoned your cat?"

"Well, we don't know yet. But Toby was eating a mouse, and my dad was going to take the mouse to have it tested. Did you hear that a coyote died from arsenic poisoning?"

Katie's eyes widened. "No way."

Emily nodded confidently. "Yep."

When she got home, Katie rushed into the house to find her mother. Frances was in her sewing room. "Mom, there's going to be an essay contest with a trip to Washington, D.C.," Emily said in one burst of words.

Frances read the flyer quickly. "Hmm. Very interesting."

"Do you think I can win?" said Emily.

"It says here this is going to every eighth grader in the country," said Frances. "That's a lot of kids." She looked at Emily. "I'm afraid it will be a long shot. But, don't let that stop you from writing a good essay. The real value in this will come from the writing, not the winning."

"I already know what I'm going to write about," said Emily.

"And what would that be?"



"Sure. Somebody needs to write about how power plants affect pets as well as people. Right?"

"True, but we don't know Toby's death was caused by the power plant," said Frances.

"Did Dad find the mouse in the field?"

"Yes, he did. But it might be a couple of weeks before we hear anything."

Emily felt her enthusiasm sink a notch. She was imagining a brilliant essay where she proves that the power plant killed Toby. And she imagined Cindy Madison being so embarrassed that she stayed home from school. But now, Emily wasn't sure how she could write about that without proof.

"I want to write about Toby," said Emily.

"You can, dear," said Frances, hugging her daughter.

"But how, if I don't know how he died?"

"But you know how he lived," said Frances. "And so you can write about how important pets are, and how the nation's environmental policies must consider animals as well as people if all creatures are going to get along together."

Emily slumped in the chair she had been sitting in, holding in her lap the pile of fabric that had been taking up the seat of the chair. "That's not as exciting as saying the power plant killed Toby. I wanted to see the look on Cindy Madison's face."

"So this isn't really about Toby at all, is it? It's about Cindy Madison," said Frances.

Emily grudgingly agreed. "She's so popular, and I'm not popular at all. And she's rich. Somebody needs to put her in her place."

Frances stopped her sewing and came around and pulled the room's only other chair next to Emily, after first moving the pile of fabric from that chair onto the floor. "There's a little something I want to tell you about popularity."

Emily listened with her eyes focused on the floor.

"All those people who seem to like Cindy Madison may not really like her at all. In fact, I'll bet some of them can't stand her."

"Then why do so many people hang around with her like she's a movie star or something?" asked Emily.

"Because they want something she has. They want a little bit of her charm. Or they think a little of her status will rub off on them. Or they think she'll invite them to her big house for her next pool party."

"In her indoor pool, of course."

"Of course. You wouldn't want to have your pool outside..."

"...where ashes from the power plant could fall into it?"

They both laughed. Then Frances grew serious. "My point is, don't assume the popular kids are happy, because they may not be happy. They may not have any true friends, because they can't tell who's a real friend and who just wants something they have."

"How do you know this, Mom?"

Frances straightened up and rearranged her hair. "Because I was popular once, back when I was beautiful."

"Mom, you are beautiful."

"No. Now I'm just an old hippy. I used to have youth and beauty, and I was good at telling jokes, and I was a cut up who got a lot of attention. Everyone wanted to be around me, but do you know what? I didn't have any real friends."

"What about Dad?"

"Your father was one of my first real friends. He wasn't blinded by beauty, as they say. He looked right through it and saw the real me, which, in my opinion, wasn't very pretty."

Emily swung around in her seat to face a wall of photographs and posters. Frances liked to decorate her sewing room with memorabilia going all the way back to her high school days. Emily pointed to a black-and-white photograph of Frances as a stylish, attractive young mother, holding a baby in a crowd of people. A tall, distinguished-looking man with light-colored hair was patting the baby on the head. The baby was Emily, the man was Bill Clinton, who visited Kentucky while he was president of the United States.

"You were beautiful in that picture, when you met the president, and that was only about twelve or thirteen years ago," said Emily.

"Was that only thirteen years? Seems like a lifetime ago," said Frances. Her voice trailed off a bit as she relived the moment. "Leo and I went to a political rally where Clinton gave a speech. I was determined to meet him. We loved politics, your father and I. Never missed a rally or a protest or a campaign. That was our social life."

"I hope I get to meet the president," said Emily.

"Then get started on that essay, and write from the heart, and you will win," said Frances. "Just write what you know is true."

Emily hugged her mother. "Thanks, Mom."

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