Authors: David Iserson
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Copyright Â© 2013 by David Iserson
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Published simultaneously in Canada
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents
either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously,
and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses,
companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
y grandfather liked to say, “The only time you are ever truly alone is when you are dead.” And I thought that was perhaps something to look forward to as I sat among my bags and trunks on the steps outside the front door of the Krieger Estate. That's what my family's house is called: “the Krieger Estate.” My grandfather called it that because he wanted to come up with a really good name, something big and meaningful, but he never did and so he ended up picking nothing.
I really don't know how long I was sitting outside. I figured someone would come out to look for me at some pointâthey should've been informed by the school that I was coming home. But it was hours before anyone emerged. It had just begun to get dark when my mother opened the front door.
My mother's name is Viviana Mary Elizabeth July Krieger but people call her “Vivi,” even me and my sister, Lisbet. I don't know what it would be like to call her “Mom,” and it would be even stranger to call her “Mommy,” like some weirdos still call their mothers. She has never come out and said that she doesn't want people to think she's a mother (because that's probably not the case), but she certainly doesn't want people to start mathematically determining her age if they ever realize that she has given birth to a now seventeen-year-old (me) and a now twenty-year-old (Lisbet). Vivi spends four weeks every year going “skiing,” and she returns at least four years younger. If she is not getting plastic surgery, she is surely a vampire.
Vivi didn't come out the door for the purpose of greeting me. She came out to smoke. She didn't smoke anything fancy or imported. She smoked off-brand menthol cigarettes. They smelled like Tic-Tacs, and her smoking was a secret. So when she saw me, she hugged herself with her arms as if to say that she had come out for a little fresh air and nothing else. She didn't really look at me. She just nodded at nothing and stared across the driveway. “You're home from school already, Astrid?”
“I'm done. I've learned everything,” I said.
Vivi frowned. She'd never really found me all that funny. “There's no point in making up a story. They called us. At least Lisbet will be happy to see you.”
“Eh,” I said. “Lisbet is happy about everything.”
This is true. This wasn't just me being a jerk. Almost everything made Lisbet happy. When I was four and Lisbet was six or seven, our nanny would spend way too many hours at the bus station because Lisbet loved looking at buses. I guess kids are fascinated by all sorts of things, but the buses weren't even moving. They were just parked. “Look at all those wheels,” she would say. It was this wide-eyed joy about every single thing that had led her to get engaged so young. I have no idea why else she would be in such a rush to get married. A lot of people get married at twenty, but usually not rich people.
The house felt cold the second I walked through the doorway. It always did. This was the consequence of houses too large for the amount of people who live there. There would have to be fifty people living in the house for it to feel perfect.
“Sam,” Vivi said into an intercom next to the front door. “There are bags on the steps that need to be taken in.” She turned to me. “We have a new Sam. He's from Sierra Leone.” She was talking about a butler. Apparently there used to be another butler named Sam, and she wanted to make sure I knew there was a difference, I guess in case I started a conversation with Sam about the old times. I didn't remember another butler named Sam, though. I never spent a lot of time living in the house, and certainly not long enough to know the name of everyone who ever worked there. I remembered Eda, who was one of my nannies. She was from Turkey and had long black hair and would feed me candy even though Vivi didn't allow candy in the house. I have no idea what happened to Eda.
“We are about to start dinner,” Vivi yelled over her shoulder. “So sit down if you want.” That was how I was welcomed back home.
The Kriegers first came to America in the seventeenth century to seek a new life. Back in Germany a couple members of the royal family had been poisoned, and the Kriegers probably did it, so it was a good idea for the family to vamoose from the old country.
America was the land of opportunity, and my ancestors seized it. As some of the earliest settlers, we were part of the very first group of influential and successful people. Back then, we were rich, but soon enough, we were
First we owned plantations.
Then gold mines.
Somewhere in there, the family lost all their money and my grandfather grew up poorer than the last ten generations. But he restarted the company to build weapons. Big, destructive, blow-every-single-thing-up weapons. And then the Kriegers became really,
rich. And blah, blah, blah, lots of things happened in between. It's called history. Go to the library and read a book about it. People lived and they died. For the purposes of this story (because it's a story about me, Astrid Krieger), all you really need to know about my family is that we have always been what people would like to call “the bad guys.” If you ever hear anyone talk about how “The Man” is responsible for all sorts of evil that happened in this country and the worldâwell, they're pretty much describing the Kriegers.
There's a portrait of my whole extended family that hangs over the main fireplace from about four years ago. It's a huddled mass of grey and blond people with red ties and tight, fake smiles. My little brother, Fritz, is even in the picture, even though he had died several years before the portrait was commissioned. It's the only proof in the entire house that he even existed. The only real evidence that anything might be wrong with the family is me. In the portrait I am lurking off to the sideâone of the few Kriegers with dark hairâand wearing my favorite expression: a half smirk with eyes rolled high. I have no idea why I ended up that way in the portrait. Yes, that's the way I looked that day, but it's a painting. The painter could've done anything he wanted with me. I actually love that portrait because even caught on canvas, I look like I don't belong with those people, and everyone who sees it can tell that I didn't want to be there.
At the center of the painting is my grandfather, Montgomery Krieger, looking serious and clutching an American flag. He is the second-oldest US senator ever. He has pretty much had his hands in everything bad that happened anywhere since World War II. As a result, he learned how to avoid getting caught doing bad things. When I was six years old, he taught me what an alibi was and to always have one handy. “Tell them you were with me,” he would say. “And if I have any problems, I'll tell them I was with you.” This has helped out plenty for both of us in years since.
Grandpa was old and had a woman working for him full time who was responsible for his feeding and hygiene. Sometimes he referred to her as his nurse. Other times, he called her his “girlfriend.” Either way, he would often elbow whoever was sitting next to him and say, “Isn't she buxom? Like a winding road.” At the dinner table the night I returned, I happened to be the person sitting next to him.
“Yeah, she really puts it all out there, doesn't she?” I said.
He looked up from his soup at me and asked no one in particular, “Has she been home all this time?”
“It didn't work out in the end with Astrid and the Bristol Academy,” my father said. He had a way of putting a simple and bright spin on a situation that wasn't simple or bright.
“They didn't share my imagination as far as what a proper education should entail,” I said.
“They caught her cheating. She stole tests and term papers,” Vivi said. “And didn't you try to burn down a classroom?”
“That's false,” I said. “Well, more or less. It was just time for me to go. It's actually a good thing because I really need some time off. You know, to spend a little time with me.”
“But that's great too,” Lisbet said. “You can help with wedding planning. You remember Randy, right?” she asked as she reached her hand over to Randy, apparently her soon-to-be husband. I didn't remember Randy. I still don't.
“Oh, if I can fit it in. Depends where I go next.” I turned to my father. “Can I go to a school in Switzerland again so I can get my needs more properly addressed?” That was the scenario that I was most excited about as I'd considered my options while being driven home from Bristol. I felt like I needed an ocean and a few thousand miles of distance from my life of the past few years.
Dad made a noise but nothing really came out, and I could feel Vivi staring at him. Unlike all the other Kriegers, my father, Dirk, was never a bad person. He's the CEO of Krieger Industries, and probably the worst thing you could say about him is that he isn't actually very smart. He wanted to be CEO of the company so he could play with toy airplanes and rocket ships all day. And that's pretty much what he does.
“You're going to live at home,” Vivi said.
“That doesn't make sense,” I said. “How will I be able to live at home and get to my classes all the way in Switzerland?”
“I don't think you understand, Astrid,” Dad said.
“I don't think
understand how far away Switzerland is, Dad.”
“What I mean is that you're going to go to school here.”
“I think she knows what you mean, Dirk,” Vivi said. “She's joking.”
Dad nodded, reminding us all that he doesn't really get jokes unless they involve farting. “We've decided that we're not going to drop money into your education if you are not going to take it seriously,” Dad said.
“Fair enough,” I said. “It's time I began living a life of leisure anyway. None of us are getting any younger.” I then stared for a little too long at Lisbet. She didn't notice.
“No, we're going to give you structure.” Dad wrapped his lips around the word like it was a new toy. “You are going to live here, and you're going to school.”
“Come on. Lisbet doesn't do anything and she lives here.”
“I have a job,” Lisbet said. “I'm an actress
a yoga instructor.”
“Those are barely jobs,” I said.
“Lisbet is also getting married,” Vivi said.
“So I need to get married or get a job?” I said.
“You are too young to get married,” Dad said.
“But you're also not a little girl. You need to be in school or work.” Vivi had this thing about working and the necessity of doing it even if you don't need the money. She would always say things about how I don't have any values because she worked herself through school and all that bootstrap-pulling crap, but she hadn't worked since before Lisbet was born. True, I'd never had a job, but she hadn't had a job for way longer.
“But how can I be in school if you're not going to pay for me to be in school? You're contradicting yourself.”
“We think you should go to the public school,” Dad said.
This was just a horrible, mean thing to say. Just hearing the words “public school” out loud made my mouth taste like urine (which, not coincidentally, is exactly how the public school smells). “Are you kidding?” I asked.
“No,” Dad said.
“I went to public school,” Vivi said. “I think it taught me values that you just can't learn by having us spend money on you.” She then adjusted the cuff of her blouse, which probably cost four thousand dollars.
“The problem is in the name. I mean, âpublic school.' It's full of the public. I'm not a fan of the public.”
“It's that or nothing. Think of it as a great adventure,” Dad said.
We had reached an impasse. My parents did have some control over where I lived and where I went to school. I'm sure I could have found a way to wrest back that control, but then I wouldn't get money from them, and I would have to get a job anyway.
“Fine,” I said. “But if I go to public school, then I don't have to live in the house. I can live in the guesthouse.”
“Randy and I live in the guesthouse,” Lisbet said. Because of course they did. How could they possibly live anywhere else on her lucrative actress/yoga instructor salary? I could've sworn Randy had a job. What was it? Something with leaves? Did he study leaves? Was that a job?
“Fine,” I said. “Then I get to live in the rocket ship.” Five years ago, Dad brought home a prototype of a Krieger Industries rocket ship; rather, a giant truck brought it home. It was full-sized and had all of the buttons and compartments a real rocket ship would have if it were going to space. I suppose it really could go into space with the proper launchpad, fuel, and wiring. Vivi hated everything about it and had the landscapers build a wall of bushes around it so you couldn't even tell it was there unless you got really close. But that actually made it betterâit wasn't just a rocket ship; it was a secret rocket ship. Dad set up a television and a refrigerator in the cockpit and he could stay in there for hours if he wanted, maybe even days.