“I thought we were heading to Greensboro Elementary,” I say to Albert, my chief of staff, sitting beside me.
He glares at me with his dark blue eyes giving me a sidelong glance, and I sense a hint of guilt in his glare. That’s never a good thing coming from him. He straightens his tie and tilts his head to the side. “We have a slight detour.” His lips twist into a wry smile.
“Detour?” I cock a brow. “I promised those kids a pizza lunch. They won a contest. I don’t need to tell you that I’m a man of my word.”
Albert, also known as Albert Walsh the III, winced. “Your father thought we should make a pit stop at Henderson Place. The Bachmakers are having a ribbon-cutting ceremony. They’re tearing down Henderson Place and building a strip of condominiums there,” he explained as if it all made sense and it did, only I didn’t like the reason my presence was needed. I kept quiet, and Al continued. “Mr. Bachmaker believes in you. He wants to give his support for your campaign. Your father thought a quick show-your-face-and-handshake would go a long way in securing the contribution.”
For fuck’s sake, I mutter under my breath. “I don’t know if I’m making that announcement.” I shake my head, and a light chortle escapes my mouth as I realize what my life has become. “Al, can you see me running for President of the United States? It would be a fucking gong show.”
Al throws back his head laughing at the thought. “I guess most people don’t know you stuck your head in a toilet when you were six because you wanted to save poor old Marty,” he reminds me of the time I tried to save my goldfish. I had come home from kindergarten to an empty fish bowl. Dad fed me the story that Marty needed a swim and he accidentally got flushed down the toilet by our maid. The truth was, Marty died, and Dad didn’t know how to break the news. I went all superhero and tried to save poor old Marty. In my six-year-old mind, it was feasible to look down the toilet drain. Of course, there was no Marty.
“Exactly, I’m the guy who shoves his head down the toilet. I’m not the right fucking guy to run for office.”
Al’s lips press together, and his head tilts to the side assessing me as if he doesn’t get me. “And yet here you are Mr. Governor of the Great State of Illinois.” His tone is playful yet reminds me how I became governor. How my father’s constant meddling in my life got me to do things I didn’t want to do. If it were up to me, I’d be working in the prosecutor’s office, or maybe I’d take on some pro bono cases. Lord knows I didn’t need the money.
“Yes, and as governor, you would think I would have control to make decisions about the little things in my life like having a pizza lunch with Ms. Fitz’s second-grade class while learning about the innovative learning strategies used at Greensboro Elementary.” I tried to keep the sarcasm out of my tone, but sometimes my father’s meddling was too much.
Al looks at his watch. “This’ll only take twenty minutes tops.” He gives me a have some patience for my father’s meddling look because Al believes I should be the next President of the United States. The polls are agreeable too. I’m the one itching for something different in my life. Sort of a mid-life crisis but since I’m only thirty-five, it probably doesn’t classify. It’s more like I am having an awakening. I don’t like the direction my life is taking. Before I know it, I will be forty and the ex-president of the United States. It’s a huge accomplishment for a person whose passion is to become president. It’s just not my passion. I sound like a spoiled brat born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but that doesn’t mean my life’s been happy or straightforward for that matter. It gets to a point where material things are meaningless. Even titles for my power-hungry father become obsolete.
I nod. “Sometimes I think my father hypnotizes you in your sleep. You fucking bend to his every whim.” I chastise my chief of staff, who is also my best friend.
He chortles. “I did see a faint old figure hanging over my bed last night.”
“Not fucking funny. I love my old man, but sometimes his need to have me succeed gives me fucking nightmares. I should finish this term as governor then go back to being a lawyer,” I say, knowing my best friend wouldn’t agree. When you’re raised with old money your parents and, in my case my father, has ingrained in me a need to achieve more, move higher up in the ranks of power. Money can provide for materialistic bliss but can’t buy love. My father comes from the Mathis family. One of America’s wealthiest families. They make candy. I know it sounds cool but even getting all the free candy you want as a child becomes old. My father left the family business to become a lawyer and was a partner in the most prominent law firm in Chicago. He planned to enter politics, but there were glitches along the way. He found himself a single father to a young boy instead. Now he lives his dreams through me.
“You know that isn’t how life works,” Al retorts and I watch as his blue eyes turn dark like he’s thinking of something morbid. I’ve called him on it a few times, but he’s a hard shell to crack. His father, a tycoon in the technology industry, wanted Al to come work in the family conglomerate so he could groom him to take over the Walsh empire one day. Just as Al was getting ready to take on the reigns of Walsh Industries they had a big blow out. Al was all hush hush about it. Said some family secrets were best laid to rest. He walked away from his family who then blacklisted him for over a decade even though his mother kept in touch with him secretly behind his father’s back, and his little sister also made visits out to see him since they live in Texas. I remember that day like it was yesterday. He was angry, seething and hurt. He had heard my father’s plans for me on more than one occasion. That day he said let’s go for it. “Let’s pave our own way to the white house. You can be President, and I’ll be behind the scenes.” I huff out a puff of air. He had no clue how jealous I was of him that day. The way he walked away and didn’t look back. The way he went after what he wanted. That day I gave my father the go ahead. Told him I’d run for the position of the state attorney. I won. Only the price I was paying was too high. All my life I’ve felt like I had a noose around my neck. My father’s grave baritone voice is constantly ringing in my head, brainwashing me to be the best. I never had the chance to be a kid, have fun. I was always in one extracurricular activity after the next. Most of them were private lessons, so I didn’t even get to socialize. My existence was pathetic. Even today at age thirty-five and a long list of accomplishments, I felt inadequate.
“You mean how my life works.” I couldn’t help but snap. “Say it, Al. I’m a fucking coward. I’ve let the guilt of my father’s sacrifices rule my life but when does it end?”
He tilted his head to the side. “You didn’t always let the guilt rule. Africa was you sticking it to the old man. And working in the prosecutor’s office,” Al reminds me of all the times I defied my father. The list is short. Working in the prosecutor’s office was a big one, but I didn’t want to work in his law firm as a defense attorney. And Africa… while attending Harvard, Al and I decided to join the Peace Corps while we were on summer break. We loved it so much we went back for another two summers. My father had other plans for me. He wanted me to spend some time in Washington making political allies.
“Yeah, there’s Africa and the tattoos running up my arm,” I chortled thinking of my tats, then tilted my head to the side and considered Al’s words. I was young and rebellious. The tattoos are a constant reminder of my brief freedom which came to an end once we started law school. By then my father’s method of lathering on guilt had thickened. Boy, I could have been president or boy sometimes I wondered why I didn’t just give you up, find a new wife and conquer my dreams… I know… that last comment was particularly rough. It made me feel low, made me realize how much I owed him even though he was an asshole for saying it. He was the only parent I knew, and quite frankly I didn’t have a better frame of reference since I didn’t hang out with other kids and their parents.
“Yup, Africa, and tattoos.” Al nodded, his gaze seemed miles away like he remembered the good ol’ days.
“But where did it get me? He only became more determined after that,” my lips twist.
“Fuck Colt, you’re depressing me today. What the hell is going on with you?” Al’s humorous tone changed to a look of concern. Nothing like having a heart to heart with your best friend in the back of an SUV with your security detail possibly listening to every word. That was it. I was sick of everything.
I gave Al a long hard look. “Everything is wrong.” I let out a strangled laugh. “Look at you, man. You like what you do, and you enjoy the political games. You took life by the balls. You couldn’t understand me,” I huffed out.
“My life isn’t perfect, Colt. There are things you don’t know. Things I can’t discuss with you. Still…” he paused and swiped a hand over his mouth. I looked at my watch quickly, wondering if we would be late for my visit to the school. Al had secrets. I knew that. Everyone has a secret or two they don’t share with anyone. A secret you keep locked inside because it’s either too painful to reveal or too many people would get hurt by it. My secret was simple. My mother walked out on me when I was five and didn’t look back. That shit has messed with my head all my life, and caused me to have insecurities that made me feel inadequate. My father turned a blind eye to how I felt, and then made me feel worse by telling me there was no room for my feelings in the game of politics. Only the tough prevailed and so I put on armor that made me look tough. I was living a life I didn’t want and for some reason, just recently, it began to gnaw at me like termites chewing on a tree, slowly degrading it to nothing, and now I’m at my wit’s end.
“Still…” I repeat Al’s word because he still won’t say what his secret is. I worry my lower lip. “And here I am still…” I emphasize the word. “Eating the shit my father shovels.”
“You’re the governor, and Colt…life could be a lot worse.” Al retorts and I know he doesn’t mean to, but he’s feeding me the same line my father does. I need to appreciate what I have. Problem is I want something completely different. I just don’t know what.
“Yup, heard that one before,” my tone bleeds sarcasm. Al gives me a knowing look, and rolls his eyes at me. As I said, he likes political life; he doesn’t understand my discontent. “Snap out of it. You know how this is going to go down. The way I look at it, the presidency is your destiny. People love you, you worry about the common good. You’re the right man for the job and we both know it.”
“Give me a break. We can get my father to feature you in his campaigning. You can do everything that I would,” I quip.
“Man, you’re a saint and I’m the devil incarnate.” He wiggles his brows. “There’s no way the American people are voting me in. I have no morals.” He guffaws and that sentence is only half right.
“You’re no different than me. The only problem is you get caught and I don’t,” I scoff.
“If you’re talking about Sheila Angel, man, I didn’t know she was married or being followed by the paparazzi,” he tries to feign innocence.
I roll my eyes at him. “Everyone knows Sheila was married to Gord Mabely,” I state the apparent common knowledge giving him a you should have known better look. Gord’s wife is hot as hell and so the media is glued to their lives reporting on their power couple status.
“Man, I watch football because of football. I don’t pay attention to the little stories about football players and their wives or families,” he shrugs me off.
“Well, you should start,” I snicker. Maybe Al wouldn’t get himself into trouble then and be outed as the asshole that broke up the Mabely family even though Gord’s affairs were public knowledge. For some reason though the media didn’t find that story entertaining. It also caused heat in the governor’s office that my chief of staff was caught with his pants down. So, to speak.
“And you hitting on that princess…where was she from?” Al taps his chin…his voice stalls. He damn well knows where she’s from.
“Princess of Monaco, fuck wad. And I didn’t know she was to be betrothed to the Prince of Sweden. She didn’t mention it when I was balls deep—”
Al cuts me off. “Shut up. I don’t need to be hearing about your balls.” He lifts a hand and turns away. Hopefully, I’ve shut him up on the topic.
“Just saying I’m no saint. If I go through a presidential race, the media will be taking apart my past. It’ll be everywhere. There’ll be no escape,” I say and my chest tightens at the thought. It’s an aspect of being a political figure and public person I can’t get over. I hate the attention. Hate that reporters think they have a right to know about my personal life. Growing up a Mathis, I should be used to it. My cousins happily pose for pictures as opposed to ditching paparazzi like me, but I also guess that the paparazzi aren’t very interested in their dull lives. Married with kids and running a candy conglomerate doesn’t scream scandal the way my escapades do. My looks just help things right along.
Al lets out a mock exasperated breath. “You know I love you man, and you also know that if Pop wants you president, you’ll be president.” He reminds me how I bow to my father’s every whim. He doesn’t chide me about it, he’s just stating a fact I can’t deny. He’s right, and I’m my father’s puppet. Me bowing to his every whim is my penance. “Don’t I know it. I’m just getting frustrated. I’ve had enough of his bullying tactics and the thought of announcing my candidacy is causing me to wake up sweating in the middle of the night.”
Al cocks his head to the side. “We could take off. Head back to Africa.” He gives me a challenging look. Knowing I’d love to take him up on his offer, but he also knows I don’t have the balls to do it. Besides, I still have commitments as governor.
I scoff, “Yeah, Right.” In my fucking dreams.
The Escalade pulls to a stop, and both Al and I exit in front of Henderson Place. “Isn’t it a shame that they’re ripping this place down?” I ask Al while wondering why I’m here to support the destruction of this beautiful landmark. My forced presence serves to remind me how I don’t have control over my own life. I don’t have time to overthink it because as I leave the SUV, my security detail guides us to the podium. The funny part of us walking with my detail is that Al and I both stand around six-foot-two. We’re both built and in dark suits which means it’s hard to tell between our security team and us.
Al turns to whisper using his hand to block his mouth. “It’s a landmark so, yes,” he shrugs. “But Mr. Bachmaker is going to make good on this new investment so who the fuck cares about maintaining a historical landmark.” His tone is sarcastic. It’s one of the reasons I respect Al. He isn’t only about the bottom dollar. He cares even though he doesn’t like to admit it too often. He’d rather people think he was an asshole. I never did understand that about him.
I chuckle and shake my head. We walk toward the podium set up for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. The press is front and center ready to snap the perfect shot and come up with their next headline. I walk up to Mr. Bachmaker and shake his hand. “Congratulations, Mr. Bachmaker.” I give him my million-dollar smile.
“Governor Mathis. Glad you could make it.” Mr. Bachmaker’s grin is wide. He’s a good five inches shorter than me and at least fifteen years older. “Your father tells me you have some big news breaking next week.” He waggles his thick black grey brows.
I smile. I think. It’s more like I’m pinching my lips together. “Yes, news,” I repeat because I’m now seriously considering taking off on a plane to Africa next week. If it weren’t for my commitments as governor, it would be the game plan.
“Well, I’ll tell you. I have a niece. A pretty girl. She’s coming to town tomorrow. Maybe you two can get together. She’ll be working at Kincaid and Landry, moving here from Texas. Sweet girl… my sister’s daughter. I’d appreciate you showing her around. And hey, you need a lady by your side to run for office, you know? My niece Madeline may be the one.” He winks, and I groan internally. Another attempt at a setup. Blind dates weren’t my thing.
If my father were here, he would be all over Mr. Bachmaker’s attempt to set me up. According to dear old dad, a candidate can’t run and win without a woman on his arm. At thirty-five and looking the way I did, snagging a first lady was a walk in the park. Only it was a walk I wasn’t ready to take. My sexual needs are more than met. No complaints from me in that department.
I forced a smile, hoping I didn’t look constipated as opposed to happy. Mr. Bachmaker sure wasn’t the first person to try and set me up with a family member, and he wouldn’t be the last. Occupational fucking hazard. “Thank you Mr. Bachmaker, and your niece sounds lovely. Kincaid and Landry is an excellent firm, very reputable. My schedule is incredibly busy right now. I’m sure you can understand with my upcoming news and all, I don’t think I’ll have time to show her around.” I reply hoping I dodged that bullet. I hated lying through my fucking teeth.
“Well, now I’ll have to talk to your daddy. Maybe we can all get together,” Mr. Bachmaker replies, his Texan accent coming through. He’s apparently unwilling to drop this idea. Why he thought that talking to my father would help was beyond me. I’m a grown man, and I decided where I stuck my dick, not my old man.
“Sure, Sir, let’s set something up,” I concede knowing the old guy isn’t going to let up. The contribution he’s offering came with a price tag, it usually did. Now I had a week to tell dear old dad I wasn’t running for the presidency. The public saw me as this sharp, powerful figure fighting to get things done, laws passed, but that wasn’t who I was on the inside. I was a fucking grown man who was scared. Yes, I can use that word in my head only. I was scared to stand up to my old man. Fuck that was a difficult internal confession to swallow.
The ribbon cutting ceremony began. The press took their positions and Al took his spot beside me. “You think his niece looks like him?” he whispers in my ear.
I kick him in the shin and he lurches forward. “Shut up,” I whisper. Cameras are on us. I didn’t want to come across as a juvenile. My opponents liked to argue I was too young for my role. I didn’t want to give them bait. There was also the issue that Al was a bit of a prick when it came to women and he had many which could bring unwanted media attention. I wasn’t a prick. I was always honest, upfront. I didn’t want to leave a trail of broken hearts behind or bring scandal to my office.
Mr. Bachmaker stepped forward to cut the ribbon. In the distance, I noticed a long line of protesters making their way to the front of the podium. They were holding large signs and screaming “Save Henderson Place,” repeatedly. I had half a mind to jump off the podium and join them.
“Don’t even think about it,” Al elbows me in the ribs and speaks from beneath his hand. He knew me well that was for damn sure. I gave him a knowing glare.
He tilted his head to the side and gave me a look filled with caution. “Don’t,” he said to emphasize his point. He was right. As much as I supported free speech and the right to assemble, this was not the time to stand up for what I believed. Now was the time to shake the hand of the man that was going to rip this beautiful building down. A structure that added character and vitality to our city. Instead he was going to build high-rise condominiums that would result in more traffic jams, use of too much hydro-electricity, and generate inequality due to the expense of making such a tall building.
I smiled and took a step forward to shake Bachmaker’s hand. Yes, I was a fucking hypocrite but don’t judge. At least not until you hear my whole story.
I spoke a few words into the microphone, but I honestly don’t think anyone heard me over the shouting of the protesters. I focused on the police cars positioned on the edge of the parking lot where the ceremony was taking place. I noticed the police setting up a blockade. After my brief speech, I stepped off the podium and shook Mr. Bachmaker’s hand once more.
“I’ll be in touch about that date with my niece,” he nodded assuredly.
“Yes, looking forward,” I smiled and straightened my tie which suddenly felt a little too tight around my neck. “Good luck with this project,” I said, then turned to leave. My detail is hot on my trail as I walked back to the Escalade since the protestors had moved up closer to the podium.
“You planning on getting hot and heavy with what was her name again?” Al tapped his chin fucking with me. “It started with an M.” He pressed his lips together. As we walked past the protesters, I picked my head up to look at them. Although they were a rambunctious crowd, they weren’t putting up with shit. They were standing here voicing their opinions, standing up for what they believed in, and me? I was a fucking joke. I knew it and it was eating away at me.
“Governor Mathis?” I heard the voice of a female shout my name. I picked my eyes up to make eye contact. When I spotted the female with the shouty voice, she had a cream pie flying at me faster than I could think. It slammed me in the face. The cool feel of whipped cream practically blinding me. Al burst into laughter beside me appreciating the sight when not a moment passed and he was met with the same fate. Pie is making contact with his smug grin.
“Not so funny, now is it?” I shook my head. He could be so juvenile at times. As we both used our hands to wipe away the excess cream from our eyes, one of the men on my detail offered me a handkerchief while shielding us from any more protesters. I noticed the police charging toward the crowds while I kept my gaze locked on the woman who called my name and then had the nerve to whip a pie in my face. Her red hair flailed in the wind as I saw her taking off in the opposite direction. The red-haired vixen got away. I chuckled to myself. Can’t say I blamed her for the courageous act. I had just openly supported the destruction of a beautiful historical building.
“We have to cancel the school visit,” Al said, looking down to his suit. The whipped cream had oozed down his neck and was dripping on his suit jacket. I was in a similar state.
“We aren’t canceling. We’re heading there as promised. We can clean up in the school bathroom,” I said, and it wasn’t a suggestion. I was a man of my word, and those kids were waiting for their pizza.
He rolled his eyes at me knowing I wasn’t going to concede. On the way to the school, my cell phone rang. My father’s name lit up the screen. James Mathis was a force to be reckoned with.
“Colton, what on earth….” His list of expletives followed. “The media is all over the fact that you had a pie thrown in your face. What happened to keeping a low profile before the announcement next week?”
My father ran my campaign and he took his job too seriously.
“Don’t shout at me. You’re the one who set up that media op anyway. I played along as usual. Don’t blame me if it backfired,” I hissed, biting my tongue because what I wanted to tell him was that it turned out perfectly. I didn’t want to run for president.
“Did they at least catch the son of a bitch that did it? No one throws a pie at the Governor of Illinois and gets away with it.” My father was pissed and his long drawl came through the phone.
“They didn’t catch her. Fine by me though.”
“Her?” my father asked, perplexed.
“Yes, it was a woman that threw the pie,” I responded thinking of her pretty face. She was more than lovely; she was beautiful, the way her blue eyes danced with mischief as she ran away from the police was now ingrained in my brain maybe forever. She was a free spirit and her smile breathed sunshine.
My father huffed. That’s what he did when he was at a loss for words which didn’t happen often. Then I heard a few heavy breaths before he continued. “Just great. I need to go. I have to find a way to spin this incident,” he mumbled to himself before I heard the phone click. No goodbye. I wish I wanted the things my father wanted for me because he was so driven and together we could probably land me in the role of president, that was the irony in all this. So many people envied my position. In my head, though it felt more of an instance of the grass being greener on the other side. To me the simple people who lead ordinary lives had me intrigued. They did what they wanted and didn’t have to answer to bossy parents who were power hungry.
After cleaning ourselves up, we spent a good hour eating pizza with Ms. Fitz’s class. Well, it was more like I ate the pizza while Al flirted with Ms. Fitz. We discussed learning and the kids asked me questions about government and making the world a better place. I never wanted to have children of my own. It was something I just never craved, but I loved how real and altruistic children were.
“Mr. Mathis. Can you help end poverty in our city?” a young boy named Mathew Murphy asked.
Man, I would have loved nothing more than to make sure each person was fed and had a roof over their head, but Chicago is a dynamic city with many people. The budget wouldn’t cover that reality.
“Mathew, I’m working on all kinds of reforms. I want to end poverty. I want everyone to have a nice place to live and food on their table. I’m doing the best I can, buddy.” I forced a smile because I wanted to do more. More needed to be done. It was obvious. It was times like this that I wanted to pack a bag and head back to Africa. At least there I saw the difference I could make. Here in Chicago making a difference took a lot longer.
Mathew smiled at me and nodded. “Thank you, Mr. Governor, I’d appreciate that.”
His words pulled at my heartstrings, reminding me why I allowed my father to convince me to run for state attorney and eventually the governorship- so that I could influence change. I learned the hard way that change wasn’t so easy. I was a grassroots kind of guy to my core, that’s why I fit in the Peace Corps. In the villages, small changes helped improved agriculture and drinking water. It was a group effort. Here in the US, bureaucracy bogged things down.
We wrapped up in Ms. Fitz’s classroom and I’m pretty sure Al scored her number. Then we headed back to the office. My dad always tried to sell me on the idea that I was different than other politicians, that I was special and that I could be a driving force for change, for creating good and equality. Heck, there were times I bought his rhetoric, just not this time. Years in politics taught me change was hard to come by and that little incident this afternoon with Mr. Bachmaker reminded me that money didn’t sway me. I wasn’t the guy who would concede on his values for an endorsement; I wasn’t the right guy to run for president.
Back at my desk, I pressed the call button and my secretary Susan picked up.
“Yes, Mr. Governor?” her voice came through the speaker.
“I need you to search for a boy named Mathew Murphy.”
“Can you give me a little more information, Sir?” Susan asked.
“Yes, he’s a student at Greensboro Elementary. Find out where he lives and what his parents do,” I said through the phone, knowing this wasn’t a conventional request for a secretary in a governor’s office. Susan was used to these types of requests from me. She was very good about keeping things confidential. Even things that may be borderline illegal, like this request.
“Okay, Sir. And once I have that information what would you like me to do?” Susan asked because she was good at her job, always thinking a few steps ahead. That way she didn’t need to bother me when she found out.
“Secure the home address and let me know where they live and any family background you can gather,” I responded.
“Getting right on that, Sir,” Susan responded.
“Thank you,” I pressed the speaker button to end the call. I had to know why Mathew was so concerned with poverty. His old clothes and worn out shoes told me that maybe his family wasn’t fairing so well. I couldn’t save the world with my trust fund but I liked to make a small difference when I could.