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SANTOS: YEAR 5 GUN CONTROL

Chapter Text

 

TUESDAY – 25 days left

    

 

 

 

            Josh Lyman sat at his desk, feet up, chewing his nails and staring down at an open New Yorker in his lap. He stared for a while at the page, squinting, focusing, then widening his eyes, and when this didn’t work he bent down to get a closer look. When this didn’t work he turned the magazine upside down and continued to stare before spinning it back to its original position.

            “Shouldn’t you be running the government?”

            He looked up to see Donna Moss-Lyman leaned against the side of his door, dressed in a sharp charcoal pants suit and carrying near her chest what appeared to be an orange sock puppet.

            For a moment Josh considered only the sock puppet. Then he searched his faulty memory for any instance of Donna wearing a pants suit during any one of the two-thousand-plus days she’d worked for him during the Bartlett administration. In the three seconds he devoted to the matter he couldn’t find a single example, so he let it go, and returned instead to the morning’s greatest time suck.

            “I just . . . don’t get it,” he said, dropping his eyes to the black and white image.

            “I could fill the Potomac with the things you don’t get.”

            “I’m serious.”

            “Like bra sizes,” she went on. “Any murder mystery plot. Transgender bumper stickers. And Instragram? How do you still not understand—”

            “Donna!”

            Fumbling with her phone and rolling her eyes, Donna tucked the sock puppet under her armpit.            “What is it?” she finally asked.

            Running his hand through his thinning but still wavy hair, Josh held up the magazine, and just as fast dropped the New Yorker back into his lap with his eyes once more locked on the page.

            “Article?” she guessed.

            “Cartoon.”

            “Of what?”

            “I didn’t get a kiss this morning,” he replied without his eyes moving from the cartoon, which caused Donna’s mouth to open and her eyes to roll in the opposite direction.   

            With a childish smirk to match the remnants of a boyish face, Josh met her partially irritated, partially guilty stare while his head remained tilted down towards the enigma in his lap. “It’s just that, you know, a morning kiss is important,” he announced. “What did somebody once say? Oh yeah. ‘A morning kiss symbolizes the important commitment, Josh, the importance of routine, Josh, the little things, Josh, that are most important.’ Something like that.”

            Glossy lips cantilevered out over her chin, the first lady’s chief of staff lowered her head but kept her eyes locked on her professional and personal counterpart. “You said ‘important’ four times in two sentences.”

            “But I think I got the number of ‘Joshes’ right on the money,” he countered, and followed his clarification with a booming “Margaret!”

            His shout caused Donna to jump, and then Josh jumped when Margaret materialized out of the ether.

            “You’re an institution, you know that?” he said to the woman wearing a pink and brown diagonally-striped blazer over tuxedo pants.

            Narrowing her eyes like a plotting child, Margaret directed her pursed lips and her reply to Donna. “I have extra-sensory hearing,” she whispered, “which I’ve told him at least forty-three times. Which I’ve told you,” she said, now staring at Josh, “at least forty-three times.”

            “Which means?”

            “Which means don’t shout at her,” Donna scolded.

            “Raising my voice is not shouting,” Josh argued, but then he sighed. “I forgot, Margaret. I won’t . . . I’ll try not to shout, okay? Let’s try it again.”

            With that look still in her eyes, Margaret glanced at Donna before slipping away, her blood-red helmet-like hair the last thing to go.  

            Clearing his throat, Josh said in a calm, reasonable volume, “Um, Margaret?”

            Donna was busy checking her phone when the oddly-dressed Amazonian reappeared and asked Josh in a calm, mellow tone, “What can I do for you?”

            Somewhat bothered but not entirely sure why, Josh searched for an answer before remembering why he’d called her in the first place.

            “I was supposed to get a call from Brodinger, about, you know.”

            “HR 468. No one’s called.”

            “So can you . . .?”

            “I’ll call and let him know you’re waiting,” Margaret replied, and turned back to Donna. “I once heard my baby crying from six blocks away,” she said as if she were continuing a conversation they’d already begun. “Some people said it was just a mother’s instincts, but I know it was my extra-sensitive ears. It has to do with the shape of my ear canal I’m pretty sure.” Slipping Josh one last ominous glance, Margaret returned to her desk.   

            “So,” Josh announced, crossing his arms over his chest and smiling like he knew he’d won. “What were we talking about?”

“I’m sorry!” Donna shouted, hands cupped around her mouth. Gliding across the room in her silver flats, she leaned over and pushed his feet off the desk. When he straightened, she reached out and clasped his head in her hands while she planted a solid three-second kiss on his lips.

With a close-mouthed smile, Josh gently pulled away, keeping his eyes on the orange felt of the sock-puppet-like thing poking out of her armpit.

While he considered this mystery, Donna eased herself onto the edge of his desk and breathed deep and focused her eyes on the cartoon in his hand.

            “The first lady changed her mind about the speech at Crestmont,” she lamented.

            “What is . . . that?” he asked, pointing with his chin to what up close resembled a tangerine cat with white whiskers and little white arms and legs.

            “Don’t ask,” she replied, sounding completely exhausted although it was only 7:55 in the morning.

            “I just did.”

            “Well don’t ask again!”

           “Crestmont,” he said. “The anniversary speech?”

           “Funny you mention that.”

           “What?”

          “Nothing,” she answered through another sigh while he fixated on a hair that had come loose from her pony tail. He reached up and gently tucked it behind her ear, and then looked around as if he’d just shoplifted a watch.

          “And you know,” Donna sighed, “how when she changes her mind she can’t sleep and then she starts texting me with new ideas and she says ‘of course you don’t have to respond at three in the morning, Donna’ but then when I wake up at FIVE in the morning there’s like a batch of twenty short stories waiting for me, and”—deep breath—"I know you had a long night what with Brodinger—”

            “It’s okay,” he assured her. He looked down, and then she looked down, both staring at the magazine in his lap.  

            “I can’t even tell what it is,” she admitted.

            “An elephant, I think.”

            “Are those tusks, or…?”

            “AK-47s,” he said. “And they’re pointed . . . out.”

            Donna stared a bit longer. “And what’s that eating his—"

            The phone on his desk interrupted her sentence with an obnoxious bleat; she scooted back so he could lift the receiver and stare at his wife while he muttered a few incomprehensible words and hung up.

            “C’mon.” He dropped the New Yorker in the top drawer and stood up, reaching the door at the same time Donna grabbed his sports coat off the hook and dropped it in his hands.

            “Huh,” he said.

            “What?”

            “Nothing.”

            “Tell me,” Donna politely demanded.

            “It’s just. I had this thought. I thought, I miss the days when you handed me things,” he confessed.

            “I hand you things all the time.”

            “Yeah but, you know, not like that.”

            “Like a servant?” she said with eyebrows raised. “Like a servile helper-mate, Josh, is that what you’re saying? Because I don’t see what else you could mean.”

            “Well this is shaping up to be a red-letter day,” he mumbled and slipped his arms through the sleeves. A moment later the six-foot, one-inch, redheaded assistant was standing next to him carrying a stack of manila folders.

           “His secretary said he’s out for the morning,” Margaret reported in her quick, professional delivery. “She wouldn’t tell me anything else because she’s a shrew, but then I called around and talked to a friend at A.P. We play bridge together, and apparently Brodinger’s secretary talked to her, to, like, leak something?”

            Suddenly Margaret went silent and began to stare at the wall like someone had just locked her into a hypnotic trance, so now Josh found himself standing between two women staring in opposite directions, neither really wanting anything to do with him. As he waited for Margaret’s answer, his eyes grew larger and larger and his head began to oscillate like a tuning fork.

           “Margaret!” he finally hissed.  

            ”Oh, right.” His assistant opened her eyes wide like she’d just woken from a dream. “He’s meeting with the speaker . . . over waffles . . . is what she told me.”

            Rolling his tongue around the inside of his mouth, Josh forced a smile and glanced at Donna before turning to the wall.

           “Josh,” Donna said, drawing the syllable out like she was negotiating with a lunatic. She reached to touch him, but he lifted his hand for her to stay back.

           “I’m okay,” he assured her and took a deep breath. Took a few deep breaths. “Over waffles,” he mumbled. “Waffles. They’re meeting . . . over waffles.” Banging his fist against the wall four times, he stepped back and lifted both hands. “I’m okay, really,” he said, and turned from the wall, and fixed his hair. Then he reached back and grabbed the stack of folders from Margaret’s hands. “C’mon,” he told Donna and set off down the hall. But Donna didn’t move.

            “Isn’t there a morning meeting?” she asked him.

            “Waffles.”

            “Josh? The morning meeting? And I really should be checking on—”

            “Uh, yeah, morning meeting,” he said without stopping, and so Donna reluctantly followed.

            “Like right now?” she said, constantly turning back to study where they’d just been.

            “Soon. It’s, it’s a couple minutes.”

            “You’re behaving erratically,” Donna sighed as she glanced at the hall to her left. “Why didn’t we just make that turn?”

            “Just need to stretch my legs,” he said. “Make sure everything’s back to normal around here after, you know.”

            Donna followed him left around the bend and stared with disappointment at the last door they passed but didn’t slow her pace in the least. “Josh. We passed the second—”

            “Hey Karl,” Josh said to a middle-aged man pushing a coffee machine on wheels. After they passed the man they turned left and then right and then left again.  

            “We won you know.” Donna grabbed one of the folders in his hands but was unable to pry it loose.

            “Yeah . . . I know,” he said. “It’s just . . . I like to see that everyone’s settling in.”

            “Is it that bad?” she asked him, “that he’s talking to the speaker? I mean, what if—”

            “We’re moving on,” Josh said in a sing-song voice. “We can’t dwell, have to, have to move on. After all we won, like you said, and I just want to see that the cogs are well-oiled and the new guys are okay.”

            “What new guys?” she said. “It’s basically the same staff, Josh. I mean four years ago with Santos, that was a shake-up, but this is basically the same staff.”

            He glanced at her now with a shrewd squint. “Not really. Like what about—"

            “Did you see what he said?”

            From the left Toby Zeigler quickly attached himself to the traveling show that was Josh and Donna. His beard a bit thicker, a bit grayer to contrast the greater amount of surface area on and around his skull, Toby held up a folded copy of the The Post like he’d just discovered the smoking gun.

            “Did you see it?” he repeated.  

            “Him, for instance,” Josh told Donna. “He’s, you know, so old he’s kind of new, like he looped back on himself . . . or something.”

            “See what?” Donna asked Toby.

            “Yeah I saw it,” Josh answered before Toby could speak.

            “See what?” Donna repeated but before anyone could reply, Charlie Young folded into the gliding mass from the right, his face clean-shaven and the hair grown out a few inches on top of his head. “You guys catch Monahan this morning on Fox and Friends?”

            “I don’t watch Fox,” Donna told him. “Out of respect for women, and, you know, intelligent life.”

“We were just discussing the finer points of his analysis,” Toby mumbled while glancing down at the watch on his wrist. After glancing down, he tapped the watch, and after tapping the watch he unstrapped the watch and tossed it into the nearest trash can. 

            As they maneuvered around people and large wheeled objects, Donna turned back to the trash can and then stared at Toby while trying to keep pace with the rest of the bunch. “Didn’t your father give you that watch?”

            “My wife, actually.”

            “Ex-wife you mean?”

            “The mother of his children,” Charlie added.  

            “Ex-wife, ex-watch, mother schmother,” Toby said in a pleasant melodic tone which of course set everyone on guard.

            “He’s got a lady,” Charlie revealed.

            “He’s HAD a lady for quite some time was my understanding,” Donna replied.

            “The watch didn’t work,” Toby confessed. “Simple as that.”

            “A sophisticated lady,” Charlie said.

            “It didn’t work!” Toby shouted. “Can we move on?”

            In the silence that followed, Toby fidgeted until he could no longer restrain himself.

            “And who needs a watch anymore?” he said, furtively glancing around as they walked. “We might as well be living inside a clock. I mean look.” He pointed with his chin to a row of clocks on the wall. “It’s 4:45 in Los Angeles and 12:45 in London and 9:45 in Sydney, because that I need to know?”

            “Shouldn’t we be walking towards the meeting?” Charlie suggested as they all turned right at the same time like a school of seabass.

            “We are.” Josh shifted the folders from one hand to the other. “Just wanted to, you know.”

            “He wants to see that everyone’s settling in,” Donna informed the new members of the tag-along.

            “We won two months ago,” Charlie pointed out.

            “Yeah but . . . it’s been a madhouse,” Josh replied.

            “It’s always—” Toby began but C.J. Cregg swooped in from the right and cut him short as her shadow dimmed the glare of his scalp.  

            “You see?” Josh told Donna. “She wasn’t here four years ago. She went off to build her highways in . . . like . . . the Sahara.”

            “That’s not what I meant,” Donna sighed. “C.J. was here, and Toby was here, so it’s like the old and the old old. There aren’t really many actually new people so really it’s—”

            “You guys see that jackass Monahan?” C.J. asked, her tone unreasonably hostile considering the topic and the friendly waves she extended to three or four people behind the plate glass on her right. Her golden brown hair fell over her shoulders, and in her faintly pinstriped grayish-blue pants suit she seemed even taller.

            “Like it was,” Donna added with a fatalistic sigh.

            “If Monahan,” C.J. started and then restarted. “I mean if he gains any support in the house with the—”

            “He won’t,” Charlie assured her.  

            “He’s got deep roots in the N.R.A. going way back,” Toby commented.

            “First of all, the N.R.A., like today’s N.R.A.’s only really been around since the 70s,” Josh clarified, “so way back isn’t really—”

            “That’s still more than 40 years,” Charlie said, which caused Josh to look down and count on his fingers.”

            “Jesus you’re right.”

            “Yeah well,” Lou Thornton added from seemingly out of nowhere. Everyone turned to catch the diminutive, pale-faced, black-haired woman pushing her thick glasses hard against her forehead as she flipped through pages in a blue binder while trailing Charlie. “Deep ain’t what it used to be.”

            “She’s the same,” Donna pointed out to Josh as the posse grew to one more and stretched the boundaries of comfortable as they bumped and jostled their way down the narrow halls.

            “I think we’re okay,” Charlie repeated. “Aren’t we? I mean aren’t we? I mean Monahan can’t derail it. Right?”

            “Anyone ever notice how tight these corridors are?” Lou responded.

            “Brodinger didn’t call,” Donna announced and everyone turned to stare first at her, then Josh.

            “He didn’t,” Josh confirmed. “And,” he sighed, “he’s meeting with Monahan, or has met with Monahan for breakfast.”

            “Breakfast?” C.J. said as if the word signaled a pact with the devil.  

            “Waffles,” Donna clarified.  

            “Waffles?” Lou said with a level of seething belligerence to match C.J.’s outrage.  

            “No he didn’t,” Charlie scoffed. “Waffles? Really?”

            “Waffles,” Josh said and gritted his teeth. “It’s like he’s just . . . twisting the knife.”

            “We’re going to have to—” Lou stopped what she was going to say when the posse ran into a logjam of bodies.

            In front of them, two dozen White House staff gathered around three plasma screens bolted to the wall, all screens running the same CNN broadcast.

Chapter Text

Jakarta, 8am

 

 

            Pushing and slicing his way through rush hour in Jabodetabek, Christian feels more like a fish in a river than a man on a sidewalk. Standing a foot taller than almost everyone around him, the blue-eyed, black-haired Agro-Business reporter from Worchester, Massachusetts can only see well enough to see there aren’t any gaps more than a few feet ahead. But that’s how it is here mornings and evenings and all but a few hours of the sunstroked afternoon. Most of the time he accepts this. Not just accepts but likes, anticipates, even craves the challenge of swimming upstream when the boredom of his job crusts over his brain. 

            Not now, though. Now he’d rather have nothing but pavement and air between himself and the newsstand across the street. As a body slams into him from the left, then right, and Christian jams his hand deeper into his wallet pocket, he pictures himself already there, dropping ten 1000 Rupia coins into the old man’s hands, and then back to his room on the sixth floor where the idea of quiet isn’t quite so absurd.

            Tuk-tuks beeping, buses honking, and people shouting not out of anger but necessity, Christian steps right, sees a gap and turbos forward six feet before the gap closes and he has to slide left. A few times the mob forces him backwards but with his height he’s able to see more than most and he quickly finds a hole and begins the shuffle all over again.

            He reaches the edge of the sidewalk and steps down onto a street he can only see once he’s upon it. Bumping into the small man in front of him with his knees, Christian pulls a buzzing phone from his pocket and presses it hard to his ear. 

            “No!” he shouts. “What! Yeah. No, I did. I said I did, as in it’s done! I’m picking up a copy right now. Right now. Yeah! No. Don’t worry. Don’t worry!” he assures the caller. “We already talked about this. I didn’t sign my real name at the bottom, and it won’t be tied back to you or anyone at the Times. No. Because they’re not that smart! No. They’re—"

            Before he can finish his sentence, Christian realizes something is wrong as the crowd around him separates like an ice floe suddenly cleaved in two. But they don’t separate left and right. They move forward and back, leaving Christian for a moment standing alone in the middle of the street.  

            A sliver of chilled panic cuts through the sweat on his back. For a very long half-second he doesn’t know what’s happening, until he recognizes the familiar sound of souped-up lawn-mower engines.

           The national police do not slow down. Like a game of chicken that’s been going on for three decades, the POLRI proved years ago they’re willing to sacrifice their own to make a point: get out of our way or we’ll run you down even at the cost of our own men. So the people move and Christian jumps back at the last moment and waits for the procession of outdated Honda cycles to pass.

           Just as fast as they came, the cycles are gone and the crowd fills back into the street like water flowing into a crack.

           Feeling the reverberations in his hand, he remembers the phone and lifts it to his ear as the current carries him.  

          “No” he tells the caller. “I really don’t think so.” He laughs a few times and says, “No, it’s just that I reached the other side. Forget it.” He hands the old man inside the kiosk his ten coins and gets a copy of the Times in trade. 

          “Just hold on a second,” he tells the person on the phone, and shuffles and sidles his way into a small café that’s just barely less crowded than the sidewalk. He finds a twelve-inch gap at a standing counter, and with the phone pressed between shoulder and ear, he squeezes into the space and flips through the paper. 

          “Hold on,” he says. “I’m almost there, just . . . here! Oh my god. It’s beautiful. Here I’ll take a picture and send—no you’re right. I’ll just describe it. In the—”

          Christian pauses when he feels fingers pressing into his left shoulder. He turns to see a large dark-skinned man, bald under a black Peci, with small brown eyes and a thick beard the color of charcoal. From head to toe Christian looks over the man and sees nothing unusual. A dark plaid sarong wrapped around the man’s large waist, and over it a traditional white batik.

         “You come with me,” the man says, his accent and tone straight out of a bad Kung-fu film.

         “I don’t think so,” Christian replies and turns back to the counter. He wants to act, but he isn’t sure of the best move to make.   

         “Yeah,” Christian says into the phone. “He’s still behind me.” With all the noise of the people and clatter of dishes and kitchen appliances it’s hard to hear the person speaking through the Nokia. But amid the din of the café and street outside, one sentence comes through loud and clear. “Move. Get out of there now!”

         Tucking the phone into his pocket, Christian glances back at the man still behind him. He lowers his elbows onto the counter like he’s about to settle in. Then without looking back, he sends his right elbow into the air behind him and connects with something hard. When he turns he sees the large man stumbling backwards and shouting. During his eight months on the island, Christian has differentiated more than two hundred languages, but he’s never heard anything like what’s now coming out of the man’s mouth.

         Shoving his way through the crowd, Christian reaches the sidewalk with the bearded man still shouting behind him. From the left two more men—younger than the man inside and bearded and wearing similar clothes—step toward Christian, forcing him right towards three larger men who close in, taking away his last route of escape.

         He tries to push through but they grab every part of him and a second later it’s like he’s been dipped in hardening concrete. The harder he struggles, the less his muscles and bones obey his commands.

         They carry his twitching, jerking body into an alley and heave him into the back of a small truck. Before he has a chance to make sense of his surroundings, two more men with thick rolls of duct tape begin to wrap him, starting with his mouth and moving down.

         Soon the men are gone and the truck is moving and he’s alone.

         In the depths of the solitude he now finds himself, Christian realizes he’s emptied his bowels and his bladder. After a few seconds the stench meets his nose as the truck turns the corner.

         He can’t see. His body throbs where his knees struck the ground when they dragged him across the sidewalk and where his back hit the hard metal bed of the truck.

         The noise of the crowd is a dull buzz in his ears as he tries to focus on turns, and speed, and distance. Remember, he repeats over and over when he’s not trying to memorize auditory landmarks or not counting the distance between turns. He knows, whatever’s happening, that he probably won’t escape with his life. But if he does he wants to be ready. He wants to know the path from here to there.

         There are other thoughts in his mind. Questions like why, why me, why is this happening? But he knows why. Without knowing he knows. Because of what I did, he thinks, and through the long slog of the trip—through the crowds, through silence, through bumps and stops and turns and starts—he has time to reflect on all that he’s done in the past few weeks that most likely led to this dead-end turn in his life. Because I didn’t listen, he thinks. Because I was bored. Because I did what everyone told me not to do. Because of all of those things together and pulled apart, I am going to die.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

           “What’s up?” Josh asked a dark-haired woman in front of him who turned and stared at his face and body through a pair of wire frames. She flashed him a smile that for some reason unsettled him.

            “Indonesia,” the woman reported, staring at his chest and then sliding her glare up to his face before turning back to the plasma screens on the wall. “They took a hostage, an American journalist who reprinted those Dutch cartoons with some new ones of his own.”

            “Well I’m sure this isn’t going to blow up in our faces,” C.J. whispered and peeled off from the group.

            Leading with her elbows, the six-foot-two-inch (with boots) press secretary awkwardly cut her way through the mob.  

            “I told you you’d miss this kind of stuff!” Josh shouted to the back of the tall woman who raised two middle fingers over her head before vanishing through the next door.    

             On the television screens, a dramatically serious blonde reporter held a large microphone at chest level and drilled a hole into the camera with her self-important gaze.  

            “A small, relatively unknown terrorist cell known as the Kebenaran has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping,” the reporter announced in clipped syllables. “But as of yet they’ve made no demands.”

            “Don’t I . . . know you?” Josh asked the woman in front of him, but then as he waited for a reply, the answer came to him like the pain of a stubbed toe.

            “You,” he said. “Star Trek girl.”

            “I’m hardly a girl,” the woman replied, “and it’s condescending of you to say so.”

            His attention had been focused on her face, but then he noticed something on her chest: a pin shaped like the prototypical Star Trek comm badge.

            “It’s a holiday,” she replied with an eye roll and a smirk. “Check the calendar.”

            “Josh.” Donna grabbed his arm and started to pull him away. “Josh, we’re going to be late.” Finding no success with his arm, Donna grabbed a belt loop and jerked him backwards in consecutive tugs away from the Trekker. As Donna continued to pull him away, Josh continued to stare at the woman staring at him with not quite a smile. Maybe a sneer? Or a glare, as if she might have been plotting to overthrow the government.

            No. Not the government. Just his role in it.

Chapter Text

           In the office of the president’s secretary, Ronna Beckman leaned over her desk referencing and cross-referencing the daily schedule printed out in long form in front of her. Her pitch-black hair was stacked up on her head in a serious bun to offset the baby-ness of her large green eyes, button nose, and pronounced dimples. 

            Across from Ronna sat Cody Zucker, a thin, gangly young man with a mop of wavy brown hair and a forever curious gaze. He talked while he edited a complex seating chart unfolded across his desk.

            “Hey, you know what I don’t understand?” he asked Ronna.  

            “Probably everything at this point,” she said without looking up. “Have they even given you clearance yet?”

            “This morning,” Cody announced like he’d just won the Nobel. “I can go wherever the president goes, except the situation room and the bathroom in his residence. But you know what I don’t understand?”   

            “Why you’re twenty-three and have never known the soft touch of a woman?”

            “I’m twenty-two,” Cody shot back, “and I talk to you.”

            “I said touch, not talk. Besides. I like women and on some level you know there’s no chance of rejection.”

            Cody’s brown eyes turned from curious to sad as they stared at a spot on the floor. “I just got here and this is all pretty overwhelming,” he said, “so if you don’t mind cutting me a bit of slack?”

            His words arrived like a knife in her side, and suddenly Ronna’s face was that of a mother wanting to comfort her crying child.

            “I’m really sorry,” she said “I didn’t realize—”

            “Just kidding,” Cody interrupted with a smile. “Seriously this is like the best thing that’s ever happened to me and I’m like super excited! And I don’t mind you saying stuff like I’m a nerd because I know I’m a nerd, but I also know there are plenty of female nerds out there. I mean we polarize the sexes so much but in most ways whatever you have on one side you’re going to have in the other, so if you just keep looking you’ll find it eventually. Not that I really have time to look right now, which is fine with me.”

            Ronna stared at him for a minute before dropping her eyes to the schedule.  

            “So?” she said.

           “Huh?” Cody looked down and searched for the thread of his last thought. “Oh yeah! So you know what I was wondering?”

            In response, Ronna let out a deep sigh.  

            “So we’re spending all this money,” he said.

            “We?”

            “NASA, the government,” he clarified. “We’re spending all this money to maybe colonize Mars, this hunk of rock with a subpar atmosphere, and when I say subpar I’m being pretty generous. But, like, why don’t we just apply those same techniques here?”

            “What?”

            “Why don’t we just—”

            “Because we screwed everything up here,” Ronna told him. “And soon we’ll have to leave.”

            “Yeah but even this planet on its worst day will be better than Mars on its best. My point is, if Earth is going to turn into Mars, why not just do that stuff here instead of wasting all the money and resources it would take to actually get to Mars?”

            For a while Ronna stared at him like he was mad. But as he continued to talk, her eyes began to widen, and finally she looked away to process his theory.

            “You’re reconsidering, right?” he said. “You agree with me don’t you?”

            Ronna opened her mouth, but before she could speak, Josh swept into the waiting room with a fleet of bodies in tow.

            “Is he ready?” Josh asked.

            “Go ahead,” Ronna said and greeted every man and woman as they passed.

Chapter Text

           In the Oval Office, Donna, Toby, Charlie, and Lou lowered themselves into the uncomfortable-looking green and blue striped couches that faced each other in the center of the room, while behind the Resolute Desk, the president finished scribbling out a memo. After a few more seconds, Matthew Santos lifted his head, dropped his pen, and pushed back from his desk. In the silence of the well-insulated space, everyone heard the wheels of his chair roll across the unpresidential plastic pad atop the carpet.  

            The president emerged wearing jeans, blue sneakers, and a red and white Washington Nationals jersey. His hair was shorter than when he first came to office, with patches of gray mixed into the crew-cut sides, and now he wore glasses to read, which meant he wore glasses most of the time.

            Everyone stared for a moment at the president’s odd attire before Josh, standing next to one of two plush chairs on either side of each couch, explained, “The president’s trying to get into it.”

            “Why again is he throwing out the first pitch in March?” Charlie asked.   

            “Exhibition game,” Josh said through a burp he tried but failed to disguise as a yawn. “We’re hosting the Yomiuri Giants, as everyone here should already know.”

            “And it’s forty-four degrees outside,” Lou added.  

            “And a Tuesday, and morning,” Santos told everyone, releasing a slow yawn while he stretched his arms over his head.

            “Yeah but why not—” Charlie began but Donna cut him off.

            “Tonight’s the reception with the Japanese prime minister,” she told him. “And the game was a last-minute add-on, at the president’s suggestion.”

            “And the president looked at the almanac in January,” Santos announced, “and saw a pleasant week of seventy-degree highs in March. And the president will never again consult an Almanac for any reason.”

            “Well, it’s good PR anyway,” Josh said.

            “Yeah, we’re hoping to maybe trade a couple shortstops for a promise to take out North Korea,” Santos joked, which elicited a few titters around the room.

            “If I may say,” Toby mumbled through side glances. “Red isn’t your best color, sir.”

            Santos opened his mouth while he turned from Toby to Josh. “How is it he’s allowed to work here again?”

            “Presidential pardon, sir,” Toby replied.

            “And lots of therapy,” Donna added.  

            “And lots of therapy,” Toby agreed. “I’ve murdered my mother five times in the last month . . . sir. For example.”

            “Uh.”

            “In my head, sir. My mother’s actually already dead.”

            “O…kay.” The president rolled his eyes and stepped around Josh, taking a seat in the striped chair that sat in front of the sofa closest to the waiting room.  

“Ronna!”

            The president’s assistant entered the room and stopped as something to her right caught her eye.

Everyone, noticing her reaction, followed her eyes to the orange puppet now tucked snugly inside Donna’s right armpit.

            “Yeah what is that?” Lou asked.

           “It’s a cozy for a breathalyzer,” Santos replied. “Now how about we not burn through the forty surplus seconds left in the day talking about cozies? Ronna. Get an update from the weather service, see if there are any stormfronts or incoming cyclones that might cancel the game?”

            With a curt nod, Ronna receded.

            “Not a big baseball fan?” Lou asked him.

            “You remember me ever bringing up baseball during the campaigns?”

            “No but—”

            “Or at all in the last four years?”

            “I guess—” Lou started but the president cut her off.

            “Football was my game,” he told the room. “I broke three total yardage records at my high school and—”

            “They still stand today,” everyone chanted in unison.  

            “Yeah well,” Santos said. “They do.” He let out a sigh and lowered his head. “But what with all this concussion research, I don’t know. I’m thinking about cultivating a passion for badminton.”

            Towards the end of the sentence, C.J. wafted into the room and stood behind the couch farther from the door as she sorted through the papers in her folder.  

            “That’ll certainly ingratiate you with East Asia,” Josh remarked, and the president, smiling, turned to C.J.

            “Nice of you to join us.”

            “Sorry, sir, I had to double-check some facts.”

            “And where’s Annabeth?” Donna asked.

            “Right here,” Annabeth chirped and stepped out from behind C.J.

            For a moment everyone in the room simultaneously thought of the Twilight Zone as they watched the four-foot, eleven-inch deputy press secretary step out from behind the six-foot, two-inch press secretary, both women wearing the same gray-blue pants suits with the same blue collars underneath, Annabeth shuffling papers in her blue folder just as C.J. shuffled papers in hers.

            Some time passed—everyone transfixed—until finally Josh cleared his throat.

           “Let’s . . . move on,” he suggested.

            “Christian Damont,” C.J. read from one of the pages. “Thirty-one, originally from Worchester, Massachusetts. For the last fourteen months he’s been working for the The New York Times as a stringer. For the last eight months he’s been covering Agro-business in Jakarta. Low-level stuff mostly. Trade, mining, natural resources, that kind of thing.”

            “Mostly?”

            “He does some freelance work,” Toby volunteered, “as most journalists do.”

            “And what?” Santos asked them. “He thought it’d be a good idea to light a fire under Shia fundamentalists, like the region’s not unstable enough?”

            When nobody answered, the president asked them, “Why didn’t I see the cartoons in the paper this morning?”

            “Time lag,” Lou said.

            “And they would have screened them,” C.J. added. “Frankly I don’t know how they snuck through in Jakarta.”

            “Not really hard to imagine,” Annabeth said and slipped onto the couch next to Donna. “Sympathetic anti-muslim person or group on the editor’s staff.”

            “Or the opposite,” Donna suggested “A fundamentalist wanting to stoke the flames.”

            “If that’s the case, it worked,” Santos mused. “What about logistics, where they’re holding him, what they—"

            “Um,” Josh interrupted. “They’ll probably have more information—”

            “In the sit room,” the president sighed “Fine. Okay. What else?”

            “Monahan,” Charlie grumbled. “He’s shouting about the Second Amendment to anyone who’ll listen.”

            Santos turned to Josh. “He’s trying to crash the bill?”

            “Maybe.”

           “After the recent shootings and everything that’s happened and he’s trying to crash the bill?”

           “He might just be fluffing his feathers,” Josh replied, “but he met or is meeting with the ranking republican member on the house sub-committee on firearms and explosives.”

            “Brodinger,” Santos mumbled.

            “And they’re eating waffles,” Charlie added, which caused the president’s head to snap to attention. He looked at Josh with something like bafflement.

            “Three days ago I was quoted in the Post,” Santos said, “about my recent trip to Belgium and how much . . . I loved the waffles.”

            “It might be a coincidence,” Donna suggested.

            “I went on and on about the soft and the hard,” Santos reflected, “and the crevices and the blueberry syrup they had.”

            “It could be—”

            “It’s not a coincidence,” Lou said, cutting off Donna.

            “Maybe.”

             “It doesn’t matter.” The president shook his head as he rose from his chair and began pacing.

            “36 kids were just killed in their classrooms,” he reminded the staff. “16 kids two months before that. 27 three weeks before that. 20,000 suicides and 11,000 homicides so a few Johnny hunters can get their kicks shooting at rabbits and old white guys can feel safe in their mansions.” He turned to Josh, his face set in stone. “I want this bill passed, Josh.”

            “Yes sir.”

            “And not passed by a nose hair, not passed by one or two votes. I want those senators and congressmen to stop making excuses and spouting bullshit and vote with their goddamn brains! I’m not talking about hearts here. I’m talking about brains. I want a sweeping majority on an issue any six-year-old could figure out in less than an hour!”

            After a few seconds of silence, Josh licked his lips and nodded.  

            “Okay.” Santos grabbed the back of his chair. “What else?”

            “It’s still too weak,” C.J. said as everyone bit their tongues.

            “It is,” she continued. “A ban on most automatics and some semiautomatics? That leaves, what, a million other guns you can use to decimate a crowd in a matter of seconds?”

            “C.J.” Josh said.

            “You.” C.J. pointed to Josh and then to the president and spoke calmly but with an edge of annoyance. “Both of you said if I came back I could speak my mind, I could say whatever I wanted.”

            “Behind closed doors,” Josh told her, and in response C.J. made a show of looking around. “I don’t see any press in here, Josh. Hello? Mr. Reporter? You hiding under the table?”

            “C.J.” Toby mumbled, but the president was already stepping forward, standing face to face with the woman who normally towered over everyone in the room.

            “And what’ll you have me do?” Santos asked her. “We have people who can’t see reason, people who can’t use their brains taking up half the seats in the government. We have the NRA lining the pockets of corrupt politicians who maybe otherwise would join the logic train, but as long as money’s an incentive that’s not going to happen. We have men and women standing in line over at Fox shouting about the right for hunters to hunt with rifles when less than 6% of Americans hunt anymore. And yet people are listening. What can we do in the face of all that, C.J.?”

            “We can put forward a bill with teeth,” she countered. “And if it doesn’t pass it doesn’t pass. But at least we let them know.”

            “Yeah well,” Annabeth said. “The ‘they’ is barely on our side.”

            “You’re missing the point,” Lou told C.J. “This law could turn a thirty-dead massacre into a two or three-dead incident. We have to be pragmatic. You can’t legislate with emotions for something like this. You have to be logical, and logic says we try to push through something to lower the body count.”

            “That’s . . . inspirational,” Donna whispered.

            “You want inspiration?” Lou fired back. “Go work for Jerry’s kids or Unicef or that one with the guys ringing their goddamn bells. Until we can get the zealots and airheads and whackjobs out of office . . . this is the way it’s gotta be!”

            “Lou’s right,” the president said. “Half the country can’t see through the smokescreens. Until that changes we have to work with what we got. Donna, you’re coordinating with the first lady on these anniversary speeches?”  

            “Yes sir. She’s a little under the weather, but otherwise . . .”

            To this statement Josh and the president exchanged worried glances.

            “What is it?” Donna asked them.

            “Nothing,” Josh said.

            “I saw her this morning, just some allergies,” Santos confirmed. “No problems, Donna. What else?”

            “Secretary of education’s not pushing the agenda,” Charlie announced.

            At this the president’s face began to turn red. For a while he stared straight ahead while rolling his lips around his mouth. “She told me to my face,” he said, “to my face. She said to my face that she’d give me four solid years. To my face, Josh.”

           “And,” Charlie added, “we might have a rat in the DOE, not necessarily but possibly related to her. I have a meeting with her this afternoon.”

           “More than talk,” Josh told him. “You’re the director of communications, so communicate.”

           Charlie nodded.

            “And.” Josh cleared his throat. “This Friday’s big block of cheese day.”

            A round of groans filled the room.

            “Didn’t I just say something about whackjobs?” Lou asked him.  

            “In this case,” Donna said, “the proper term is blockhead.”

            “All right that’s all!” Josh hollered and everyone peeled themselves off the cushions except C.J. who was already standing.  

            While the room cleared out, Toby stood by the door adjusting his tie. CJ seemed ready to pass when she stopped, noticing something in the waiting room.

            “Hey,” she said, speaking to Toby but watching the president’s new body man. “Didn’t I read something about him?”

            In response Toby simply widened his eyes and pulled a piece of fuzz from his beard.

            “I thought . . . ” C.J. looked down and then up. “I remember something in the papers a few years ago. About him. What was it?”

            With a polite smile and a shrug, Toby left C.J. to her mystery.   

Chapter Text

          

             Returning from the game on a cold dreary afternoon, the president and Josh stepped out of the limo and under the awning of raised umbrellas just outside the front entrance of the White House. The president, still wearing his baseball attire, turned and stared out at the lawn and the fence beyond.

            “Sir,” Josh said.

            “Just . . . give me a second,” Santos told him, and with a slight nod Josh stepped back.

            The two limousines and three secret service vehicles pulled away, exposing the president’s multicolored outfit to the dozens of onlookers standing outside the gates with their cameras and signs and unreasonable written requests, like “Come touch my head Mr. President!” and “Just give me one kiss Mr. President” and “Reinstate the draft because all lives matter, Mr. President!”  

             Josh waited a minute and then lightly tapped Santos’ left shoulder.

             Without speaking or acknowledging his chief of staff, the president turned and led the way through the doors.

             Along the way they picked up the secretary of state who eyed Santos up and down without trying to contain a smile.

            “Arnie,” Santos said with a nod.

            “Mr. President,” Vinick replied. “Josh.”

            “Mr. Secretary.”

            “How was the game?”

            Santos pulled at the fabric of his jersey and grimaced. “Do I have a minute to change out of this?”

            “Not really,” Josh told him.

            “I heard their center fielder is pretty good,” Vinick remarked. “Yamaguchi?”

            “Uh-huh,” the president grunted.

            “So how was your pitching?”

            “Not bad,” Santos said in a clipped tone.  

            “He hit the batter,” Josh confessed.

            The three men turned a corner and sidestepped a woman and two men picking up folders off the floor.

            “Why was there a batter?”

            Santos remained silent, so Josh explained, “The president thinks it’s a dumb gesture to throw out a pitch when nobody’s standing there but the catcher. He thinks it was rigged for old codgers like Nixon and Reagan. He thinks it’s weak.”

            “It’s not about being weak,” Santos argued. “But it should mean something. You throw a pitch, there should be a guy standing there ready to swing. And maybe he swings and misses, maybe he hits a home run or a grounder to third but at least it means something.”

           “What if he hits it back at the mound and takes out the president?” Josh countered.

            “Plus,” Santos said, ignoring Josh’s comment, “it was freezing out there.” He rubbed his hands and blew on them to cement his point.

            “And it’s pretty hard for the guy to swing,” Josh added, “when the ball’s coming at his head.”

            “Sounds like a great bonding exercise with our friends in Japan,” Vinick laughed. “You beaming one of their guys.”

            “Yeah, okay,” Santos mumbled.

            “And not just any guy,” Josh added.

            “Noooo,” Vinick said in disbelief. “You’re telling me—”

            Josh nodded.  

           “You beamed Yamaguchi?”

           “He wanted to compete with the best,” Josh said with a shrug. “Anyway he’ll be okay once the swelling goes down.”

           “You know the Yankees wanted to sign him,” Vinick reported, “offered him nine million a year, and he turned them down. Some people might see your little stunt as—”

            Santos stopped and turned. “What, that it was retaliation? That I'm working for the Yankees?”

            Vinick shrugged as they kept walking. “You know,” he said. “If you ever need a sub, I was a starting pitcher for varsity two years in a row. Never hit a single batter.”

           They turned a corner and descended a long set of stairs.

           “We really need the sit room for one guy?” Santos asked.

           “It’s not just one guy anymore,” Vinick told him.

           “No?”

           “Not even close. Hey you hear the latest from the speaker of the house?”

            Josh and the president exchanged tired glances.

           “He’s gone all the way back to pre-revolutionary times to make his point,” Vinick remarked. “You ask me he should have gone further. Life was a lot simpler when we just had knives and spears. A lot quieter too.”

           “Speaking of quiet,” Santos said and gave Vinick a look.

           “Sorry,” Vinick said, lifting his hands in apology. “I was supposed to spend the weekend in a cabin with friends but they had an emergency so it was just me, myself, and I. Got a little . . . I’ll close my mouth now.”

            They walked to the bottom of the stairs in silence and continued on to the end of the hall, where Santos placed his hand on a scanner and stared into an optical reader. After a few scrolling red lasers the door clicked open and all three walked in.

 

Chapter Text

         Inside the Situation Room, men and women in suits and uniforms lowered their voices from normal to whisper as the president, chief of staff, and secretary of state entered. The blinking, colored data streams and images along the walls cast transparent rainbows onto the center table until the president told someone to turn up the lights.

         He sat at the head of table while Josh sat to his right and Vinick found a place towards the middle.

        “Tell me we’re not going to war,” the president said, “over one guy and a cartoon?”

        “It’s turned into something, sir,” remarked a clean-cut man in his forties wearing the black dress uniform of a high-ranking navy man.

        “In the sixty-five minutes since we last sat here?” Santos asked them.  

        “Yes, sir.”

        Santos met the man’s gaze with a sigh. “Of course it has. Globalization means everything has to turn into something else five times before dinner. And . . . I don’t know you.”

       “Captain Jack Reese,” Dr. Nancy McNally chimed in from the far end of the table. “Jack took over for Zimmer who was the aide to the deputy to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who couldn’t be here.”

       “The aide or the deputy or the chairman?”

       “Zimmer is no longer the aide,” Reese informed Santos. “And General Elias couldn’t be here. His daughter has, um.”

       “Pink eye,” Nancy McNally confessed.

       “Pink eye?” Josh clarified.

       “Apparently a severe case,” the National Security advisor told him.

       With an eyeroll, Santos addressed his next question to the room.

       “Will somebody please tell me what’s happening?”

       “Martin?” McNally said in a calm but confident tone, and behind her a middle-aged, gray-bearded man in a marine’s full attire pressed a few blue buttons on the wall.

       The formerly blank eight-by-ten-foot flat screen behind McNally suddenly came to life with satellite images of a long winding landmass surrounded by water on all sides. She stood and pointed to an area to the north.   

       “A couple of dormant cells around Jakarta seemed to have gone active in the last twelve hours in reaction to the reactions to Christian Damont’s comic. Here, here, and here we’ve seen more activity, but we can’t be sure it’s abnormal. They have a holiday coming up and people everywhere are preparing, setting up banners and so on.”

       “It’s probably part of the Kebenarans,” Vinick announced, “which directly translates as ‘the truth.’ They’ve been looking for any excuse to get out in the streets and start shooting people.”

       “If they were that trigger happy there’d be casualties already,” McNally suggested. “Jack?” she said, and everyone waited while Reese turned over a page and then turned over another.

       “We’re looking at three hundred, maybe four hundred men,” Reese reported. “They’re pretty extreme but they have a lot of sympathizers throughout Indonesia.”

       “Including Limpele?” Santos asked.

       To the right of Reese, Mary Knull, director of the C.I.A., cleared her throat. “The president has never directly come out in support of the Kebenarans,” she announced.

       “In the fine print though,” Vinick replied, “they’re like this.” The seventy-four-year old crossed his fingers to drive home his point.

       “Bottom line,” Josh said. “Can we put this back in the bottle?”

       “Probably not,” Reese answered.

       “Probably not,” Mary Knull agreed.  

       “Maybe,” McNally argued, returning to her seat and sipping from a glass of water. “Limpele is old school. He’s loyal and listens to people he knows. If we can get someone to sit down with him, explain the situation in terms he’ll understand . . . . And no offense, Mr. President, but you and he are not exactly BFFs.”

        At this Santos nodded and widened his eyes as he turned his attention to Arnold Vinick.

        “I could talk to him,” Vinick replied to the silent challenge, “but I’m with Dr. McNally, Mr. President, although I hate to admit it. If we think Limpele is the answer, we know who he likes, and I’m not really part of the club. And unfortunately, neither are you. Neither is anyone in this room.”

       “And what happens if we organize a rescue mission?”

       “If it goes poorly,” a stocky man in camouflage fatigues replied, “a lot of American’s die and we provoke the Kebenarans. And Limpele, sir.”

       “And if it goes well?” Josh asked.

       “We save a couple Americans,” Vinick answered, “and we provoke the Kebenarans and Limpele.”

       “But Limpele doesn’t associate with the Kebenarans,” Santos reasoned.

       “In public,” McNally clarified.

       “And to me,” Santos told her. “And to every U.S. official he’s talked to in the last four years.”

       “That’s what he wants you to believe, sir,” Mary Kull told the president. “Limpele would support, not suppress, the Kebenarans, if things got out of hand. And those four or five hundred terrorists could easily turn into a few thousand military and then tens of thousands of angry citizens. The region’s been percolating for a while now and frankly it’s a miracle we haven’t seen any major eruptions.”

       “Where’s the reporter right now?” Santos asked.

       “We have some intel,” a four-star general replied, “that puts him in Soreang, 70 miles southeast of Jakarta, along with about a hundred other journalists.”

       “All Americans?”

       “Some Americans,” Vinick told him. “Some British, a few Australian. Basically any English-speaking reporters have either already been taken or will be taken if they don’t get out.”

       “Well let’s get them out,” Santos ordered. “Anyone who’s still a viable target, get them the hell out.”

       “In terms of firepower?” Josh asked.

       “Eighty-five soldiers guarding the embassy,” Reese recited from a paper in front of him. “Plus troops in South Korea, aircraft carrier and destroyer off the Japanese coast.”

       “I know we have Americans in danger,” Vinick said in a voice just above a whisper. “But this is bigger than one man or even a hundred. We’re talking about free speech here, and giving in to extremist dogma. I mean it’s a comic for god’s sake! If we keep letting these guys dictate the terms, they’ll hold all of us hostage for the foreseeable future.”

       “This is a hearts and minds thing,” Santos countered, shaking his head. “You can’t win this or even stall it with force. It’s going to be a slow bleed, unfortunately, and maybe, in places, force can at least contain it. But as a last resort. Anything else?”

       When nobody responded, the president stood and so everyone else stood.

      “I want a report every thirty minutes,” Josh told Reese as he followed the president to the door.

      Offering Josh a slight nod, Reese gathered his papers and engaged the man next to him in quiet conversation.   

Chapter Text

           As they cleared the high-stakes gravity well of the situation room, the president glanced at Josh while they walked.

           “Did I see something in there?” Santos asked him.

           “See . . . what, sir?”

           “That guy, Jack Reese. Looked like he gave you the stink eye.”

           “I didn’t see any . . . stink eye, sir. Maybe it was another kind of eye?”

           The president considered this as they reached the stairs. “Okay,” he said with a nod. “I guess I’ve lost the touch.”

           “Maybe just this one time, sir.”

            At the top of the stairs they took the first left and continued on to the second intersection, where Josh turned right and the president followed. 

            “Is this, I mean.” Josh lowered his head to more carefully choose his words. “Is this what you want to be talking about right now, sir?”

            Not slowing but stumbling in the slightest way, the president glanced at Josh but held his tongue for a minute, thinking of something else.

            “You know what I learned during my first term, Josh?”

            “What, sir?”

            “The presidency is all about compartmentalization. One thing comes up, and just like that you have to focus on something else. And sometimes it’s hard because of the emotions and the stressors and the possibility that your actions and your decisions and your commands might result in someone dying, or many someones. So sometimes, Josh, I like to distract that part of myself with things like this guy Jack Reese who I’m pretty sure just gave you the stink eye.”

            The two men walked in silence a few beats until Josh cleared his throat. “He went out with Donna a few times, but that was way back.”

            “I knew it!” Santos shouted and clapped his hands. “You see, Josh? I am a reader of minds, a foreteller of past events.”

            “If it’s . . . past, sir, you’re not really fore—”

            “He got the hots for your wife?”

            “More like she had, important word, ‘had,’ the hots for him.”

            Josh sidled around a puddle of spilled coffee and a young man on his knees cleaning the stain who looked up and then recoiled as he realized who was passing by. “And,” Josh continued, “I guess he got reassigned for helping Leo and the president with a report, about, I can’t remember right now.”

            “Reassigned where?”

            “Base in Greenland?” Josh said, straining to recall the details.

            “Greenland? Oooph. That’s gotta sting.”  

            “Maybe,” Josh replied. “Some people seem to like the cold.”

            “Right.”

            “I’m sure he’s fine, I mean, there won’t be any professional issues.”

            “You going to tell her?”

            “Tell, her, sir?”

            “Your wife, that her old boyfriend’s back.”

            As they turned the corner, Josh lost speed in reaction to the president’s question, causing Santos to pull into the lead.

            “Probably not,” Josh told him, “but then, you’ll probably tell your wife, who will inevitably tell Donna, so I guess I could just cut out the mid-level messenger.”

            “Smart man,” Santos said and slapped him on the back. “And don’t think you just slipped by that mid-level dig. I’m going up to the residence to change into a standard monkey suit. See you in a few.”

            As soon as Santos peeled off to the left, Charlie appeared from the right, sipping bottled mineral water through a pink straw. For a moment they both paused, but then the winds of the White House began to blow and push them back on course. 

            “The meeting with Patricia Fisher was rescheduled for tomorrow,” Charlie said before Josh could ask him.   

            “Here?”

            “Department of Education.”

            “You should get her to come here. Yeah she should come here. And don’t let her reschedule again.”

            Charlie considered Josh’s suggestion as he sipped his water. Then he turned his head slightly and narrowed his eyes. “Is it true the president beamed Yamaguchi?”
            “He grazed the guy’s elbow.”

            “Not what I heard.”

            “Yeah, well.”

            “I also heard the Yankees offered him a ten-million-dollar contract and he turned it down. Sounds like old school bean ball to me.”

            Josh glanced at Charlie before returning his eyes to the cluttered path in front of him: file carts and people chatting and people moving and people moving and chatting.   

           “Am I going to have to talk to C.J. about this?” Josh asked him.

           “She probably already knows. And it might be a nice distraction. Hey what’s up with Monahan?”

           “Uh, Lou’s looking into it.”

           “And Brodinger?”

           “Lou has Toby looking into it.”

           “Not to quibble.”

           “Quibble?”

           “Yeah quibble,” Charlie said. “Not to quibble but if Toby gets it, it’s supposed to go through me.”

           “Noted,’ Josh said as he kept up his pace.

           “They going to hold up the bill?”

           “Nah,” Josh told him.  

           “Because this is a big deal.”

           “Yeah.”

           “I mean it’s a big deal.”

           “Yeah I know Charlie.”

           At the next doorway Charlie stopped and Josh stopped with him.

           “You know what happened to my mom, right?”

           “Yeah,” Josh said. “I know,” making sure with his tone that Charlie knew that he knew.

           “And all the good that last bill did?” Charlie said with a bit of acid in his voice.

           “We’re going to pass this, Charlie,” Josh told him. “Whatever we have to do, okay?”

           After closing his eyes and taking a deep breath, Charlie rubbed his forehead with an index finger and thumb. He breathed in once more and then let out an audible sigh. “You probably shouldn’t say things like that,” he said, staring at Josh out of the corner of his eye.

           “What did I—”

           “After how many years here? And all the things that—” Charlie cut himself off with another sigh. “Just say we’re going to try as hard as we can.”

          “Of course . . . we’re going to try as hard as we can,” Josh replied. “Okay?” he asked, unsure of exactly what was happening. But when Charlie gave him a nod, Josh resumed his rapid pace with Charlie easily keeping up.

           “Listen,” Josh said as they walked through the doorway of his office. “You’re taking the White House Counsel, right, when you go see the Sec Ed?”

           “I heard what you and the president were talking about,” Charlie answered, “if that’s what you mean.”

           “You heard us?”

           “Uh-huh.”

           Josh looked down, his eyes struggling towards the center of his nose. “I thought we were talking in our top-secret voices.”

          “You know that doesn’t work,” Charlie chided him. “When you move like five feet away and stand close to the other person? And you’re still talking in a regular voice? You really should leave the room if you want to—”

          “Yeah okay,” Josh said, lifting his hand to show that he got it. “So when you talk to the White House Counsel, don’t . . . you know, say why?”

          “I’m not going to lie.”

           “Course not,” Josh told him. He walked to his desk while Charlie waited in the doorway. “Just, don’t volunteer any information, okay? We want to keep this professional.”

            When Charlie didn’t reply, Josh added, “Fisher’s tough is all I’m saying.”

            “And I’m not intimidating?” Charlie countered.

            After pulling the New Yorker from the trashcan and then dropping it back in, Josh turned and looked Charlie up and down, focusing his attention on the pink straw in Charlie’s bottle. Eventually Charlie’s eyes dropped to the straw before meeting Josh’s gaze.

            “A hundred years ago,” Charlie said, the defensiveness clear in his tone, “pink was associated with manliness and strength. In the original Great Gatsby, Robert Redford wore a pink suit.”

            “Robert Redford in the Great Gatsby is what you’re going with?” Josh grabbed the New Yorker and walked over the Charlie, opening the magazine to the appropriate page and holding it near Charlies’ chin.

            “You think this is funny?” Josh said, and waited while Charlie squinted and shifted his head.  

            “I can’t even tell what it is,” Charlie confessed after a few seconds of brow furrowing and lip pursing. Pushing the magazine away, he turned and stepped into the hall.

“Hey,” he said, turning back. “I heard Jack Reese is back in town.”

            “How the hell does…” Josh took a breath and stared angrily at the cartoon like the misshapen elephant in the picture was to blame. Then he crossed the room and grabbed a bottle of water from a minifridge on the floor. “How do you even remember Jack Reese? That was like, I don’t know, eight years ago.”

            “I was in the car, Josh, remember?”

            “The car?”

            “When Donna covered for him and we all piled into that taxi as some kind of dumb chivalrous gesture so we could take her back to the twenty-five balls that night?”

            “Right,” Josh said, now talking mostly to himself as he remembered the night. For a while he stared at the minifridge before something snapped him back to the present.

            “Josh?”

             He looked up to see Charlie staring.

            “You went to a happy place there for a minute,” Charlie told him.

             “Yeah, um.” Josh rubbed his eyes. “You got Fisher all straightened out?”

             “Uh . . . huh.”

             Waiting for a reply that didn’t come, Charlie gave Josh one last look of concern and confusion before turning and leaving.

 

 

*

 

 

            “Mar!” Josh began, but then he remembered and lowered his voice. “Margaret,” he said in a tone barely above a whisper, and less than two seconds later Margaret stood in his doorway as if she’d always been there—built into the frame.

            “Would it be more convenient for you if you had a desk in my office?” he asked, to which Margaret emphatically nodded the porcelain head which carried the helmet-like hair.  

            “Hey.” He held up the magazine, but then he changed his mind and stuffed it into a drawer on the left side of his desk. “I need to make a call to Nashua, New Hampshire.”
            With a nod, Margaret sidled out of the room, leaving Josh to open and close his top right drawer until Lou appeared in his doorway.

            “What are you doing?” she asked, pointing with her chin at his desk while she eased into the room.

            “Uh, nothing.” Releasing the drawer, he leaned back and stared at the ceiling to prove his previous statement.  

            “I think we have a problem with Monahan,” she told him.

            “I know.”  

            “Along with fifty-three senators and two hundred and thirty congressmen.”

            “God what happened?” he asked, his question as much for himself as it was for her. Spinning his chair and jumping up, he crossed the room, picked up a signed baseball from a shelf, and started tossing it as he sat on the edge of his desk facing his deputy chief of staff.

            “Last week we had a clear majority in the house and senate,” he said.  

            “Yeah and last week was one week closer to the Jackson High School Massacre.”

            “So what,” he said, “we have to plan out a bill and arrange the vote for the day after the next nutjob mows down thirty-five teenagers?”

            “At this rate it shouldn’t be hard,” she replied, the aggravation clear in her tone.

            “If it comes to us wishing for that,” he told her, “I think we should all resign.”

            “Yeah well in the meantime I’m kind of at a loss.”

            Josh placed the ball on the end of his folded elbow. While staring at Lou, he jerked his arm straight and caught the ball before it fell more than a millimeter from its original position.

            “If you do resign,” she told him, “you can do birthday parties for twelve-year-old boys.”

            “You know I did do a little magic as a kid,” he said, the nostalgic energy clear in his tone. “Even had a cape. It was red and black with my initials spray-painted inside a central triangle. You know, like Superman.”

            “No kidding,” Lou exclaimed in her most patronizing tone.

            Quickly hiding the sadness that snuck out through the cracks in his stoic expression, Josh turned away and made a point of reading the signatures on the baseball. “You have a meeting with Brodinger?” he asked her.

            “In about forty minutes,” she said. “Then Nielson, then Armitage.”

            With a nod, Josh pulled himself off the desk and walked around to his chair. Leaning back, he stared at the ball.  

            “Mookie Wilson,” he said. “Became a hero because some guy let a ball roll under his legs. That’s who we need.”

            “We need a guy named Mookie?”

            “We need a guy on their side to let a ball roll through his legs.”

            “At this level you have to earn their mistakes, not count on them.”

            “Yeah,” he sadly agreed, studying the ball and then placing it gently on the edge of his desk. “What’s your plan with Brodinger?”

            “Talk sense,” she said, “remind him of what he said on CNN about stopping these tragedies once and for all.”

            “And when that doesn’t work?”

            “I don’t know,” Lou sighed. “I was hoping you had a thought.”

            “Ask him about Santa Clara, if it comes to it.”

            “And why would I—”

            “In the 90’s when he was a hard-core donkey democrat, Brodinger wrote a paper lampooning the NRA on about ten different fronts, and he did such a good job it got him a seat on the state legislature, where he stayed until his big awakening. Anyway I think he’d have a hard time walking back a lot of those points. So, if it comes to it.”

            With a nod Lou headed for the door. “You wouldn’t happen to have a copy?”

            “Talk to Lesly.”

            “Who’s Lesly?”

            “Right. Sorry.” Josh searched his brain. “Try Audrey, or Scott, outside Charlie’s office. In the cabinets, I mean.”

            Josh began to open the top right drawer of his desk when Lou called out his name.  

            “They’re digging in faster and harder every time,” she said.  

            “And we’re not?”

            “I don’t know,” she told him. “I lost the ability to see myself a long time ago.”

            “Yeah. And you’re meeting with Armitage?”

            “Tomorrow over golf.”

            “You.” Josh searched for the right words. “You golf?”

            “I hate golf,” she replied. “But the son of a bitch wants to golf, so . . . .”

            “There aren’t any problems with him, right?” Josh put his feet up on his desk, then seemed embarrassed by the move and slid them back to the floor.

             “You mean besides him being a stubborn-ass blue dog? No. No problems. Just gotta ruffle his feathers from time to time.”

             “I think you mean fluff his feathers.”

             “I mean what I mean, Josh.”

             “Let me know, you know, how it goes?”

             Without replying, Lou disappeared down the hall.

             “Take Otto!” Josh shouted, and when she didn’t answer, he shouted, “Lou?”

            “Fine!” came an angry retort from somewhere far down the hall. After a fleeting smile, he leaned back and thought to himself for a few silent minutes, until finally he called for Margaret.

             “Get me Tillman,” he said when she appeared a second later. “And get me Cedwick, Taylor, Jersonson, Matz, Gomez, Duffy, Spruce, Larson, and . . . no that’s all.”

             Margaret nodded and repeated the list from memory. “On the phone?” she asked him.

             “In my office as soon as you can. I think it’s time we show up for a fight.”

             With a curt nod, Margaret backpedaled out of the room, leaving Josh to incessantly open and close the top drawer of his desk.

Chapter Text

            C.J. stood behind the podium in the press room flipping through the post-it notes stuck on her page.

            “All right,” she began, lifting one more note before turning her gaze to the four dozen reporters scattered in front of her. “Christian Damont, thirty-one years old, a reporter for Reuters, was kidnapped late last night outside Jakarta. The administration is currently gathering information on the incident, but we believe at this time that whoever did this is holding others.”

            “C.J.!”

            “As of right now!” she told them, “we don’t have any other names or more information. When we do, you’ll probably be the fifth or sixth to know.”

            “C.J.!”

            “Darryl.” She pointed to a middle-aged man with a graying beard in the second row.

            “Did the president beam a member of the Yomiuri Giants this morning during an exhibition game?”

            “Beam?”

            “Did he strike him with a ball?”

            Her mouth open and an incredulous grin forming under her nose, C.J. looked off a few seconds before turning back to Darryl.

            “You’re delightful, Darryl, you know that?” she told him. “You, you’re the reason I get out of bed in the morning.”

            “C.J.”

            “The president ‘grazed’ a member of the Giants. One, Giro Yamaguchi, who later told reporters that he was, quote, honored to be accidentally hit with a pitch by the president of the United States. And since we’re on the topic, the President and First Lady will be hosting a dinner this evening for the prime minister of Japan, and the entire roster of the Giants has been invited. I hear the minister’s bringing his own sake. Moving on. Later this week the first lady will be speaking at Westbrook Academy as she continues her tour of the sites of recent tragedies across the country. Former first lady Abigail Bartlett and mayoral candidate Zoey Bartlett will also be in attendance, as the shooting took place only sixty miles from the Bartlett’s farm. Henry?”

            In the third row, a disheveled lump of a man read from his phone. “An . . . Arthur Morton Plank, a former member of the NASA mission to the moon, has flown to Switzerland to lawfully end his life.”

           “O . . . kay?” C.J. replied.

           “But the U.S. is trying to extradite him,” Henry clarified, “for breaking U.S. law. What is the White House’s stance?

            Briefly searching through her papers and then simply looking off with a sigh, C.J. eventually came back to the reporter who’d asked the question.

           “How old?” she said. “This, Plank?”

           “Um.” Henry scrolled through his phone. “A hundred and two.”

           “And the U.S. government wants to arrest him for.” She couldn’t finish the sentence without letting out another long sigh.

           “C.J.! C.J!”


            “Um, yeah,” she said, calling on an unfamiliar face to her right, a man in his early thirties with a mop of brown hair and a craggy, clean-shaven face under a pair of thick glasses. When she looked at him, the first word that came to C.J.’s mind was bulldog.

           “There’s a rumor about what happened to Danny Concannon and that you—”

           “Excuse me,” C.J. said, snapping to attention at the mention of the name. “Who exactly are you?”

           “Robert Blithe,” the man told her. “New Jersey Sentinel. Now I’ve heard—”

           “You want to know about Danny, read the papers,” she said.

           “But there’s a rumor that what happened had something to do with—”

           “This isn’t a place for rumors!” she shouted, “or maybe you think you’re in the staff room for the National Inquirer.”

           “But C.J!”

           “Stacey,” C.J. said in a loud and tired voice,  and a woman with straight black hair cut to her shoulders who hadn’t been raising her hand pulled a pen out of her mouth. Her surprised eyes quickly ran into C.J.s deliberate stare.  

            “Um.” The woman blinked a few times before finding her feet. “A congressional aide has said that the bill to ban automatic and semiautomatic weapons is meeting severe resistance in the house. Especially from the speaker.”

            “What’s your question?” C.J. asked her.

            “My question, C.J., is whether or not you still have the votes, and if you do, whether you’ll still have them by the end of March.”

            “We have every confidence in passing the bill,” C.J. explained to the rapt audience. “It’s a common sense bill, since hunters don’t need automatic or semi-automatic weapons to make a kill and little old ladies don’t need Uzis to defend themselves from intruders. Less than six percent of Americans consider themselves hunters, and a recent Pew study found that more people hurt themselves than help themselves by carrying guns, and more than half of Americans want stricter gun laws. This is simple math, and we urge all Americans to voice their feelings to their senators and congressmen. That’s all.”

            Ignoring the waving hands and myriad voices shouting her name, C.J. grabbed her folder, stepped down from the platform, and turned left out of the room.

            With the door closed behind her, she stood for a moment with her hands on the wall, head down, breathing deep before composing herself and continuing on.

            She reached the end of the hall and turned right before Toby ambushed her from the left. He had to accelerate from zero to twenty because C.J. already had a full head of momentum in front of her.

            “That was . . .” Instead of finishing, Toby laughed into his chest.

            “What?”

            “You were getting just a little bit preachy, don’t you think?”

            C.J. breathed deep and picked up her pace but this strategy didn’t buy her any more distance.  

            “Just giving them the numbers,” she finally replied.  

            “And a call to action? I don’t remember that being a part of the press secretary’s job description.”

            “And I don’t remember treason being a part of yours.”

            They walked the next hundred steps in silence.  

            “Huh,” he said more to himself, to which C.J. didn’t reply.

            “I suppose that’ll be on the table for, oh, I don’t know, the rest of my life?”

            “I suppose,” she said with no more than a quick glance in his direction.

            They walked together into her office, and while C.J. slipped around her desk and picked up a blue binder, Toby remained in the doorway, his hands clasped in front of him.

            “I’m sorry about Danny.”

            C.J. looked up from the binder, her mouth frozen in a half-opened state.  

            “I know it happened a while ago,” he said, “but, I mean what that guy just said back there, but that’s not the point. I’m talking about myself and what--I mean I know it happened a while ago.”

            “A year and four days ago,” she said, dropping into her chair as Toby slowly entered the room and sank down in one of the two chairs in front of her desk.

            “You called me, didn’t you?” she asked him as if she were struggling to recall the memory, to which Toby nodded. “And I sent a card, but yesterday, I don’t know, I realized I’ve been here two months and I never said anything. You are . . . .” He stared at the floor a few seconds before lifting his sad eyes. “You’re a good friend, and I don’t . . . have . . . many.” Toby coughed into his shoulder and stared at the floor a few beats before resuming eye contact. “I wanted to say I’m sorry I haven’t . . . I haven’t said that in person until now. And, you know, if you ever want, you know, a hug?”

            Dumbstruck. all C.J. could do was stare at the familiar stranger in front of her.

            “Therapy, huh?” she finally replied, ending the question with a half chuckle.

            “Uh-huh.”  

            “Well . . . thanks,” she said.  

            “Uh-huh,” he mumbled, splitting his attention between C.J. and his knees.  

            “So, um, how’s it working out?” she asked him, “as a third stringer instead of the star player?”

            Toby shrugged, clearly relieved to be moving on to a different subject. “These days I’ll take what I can get, and who knows, maybe I can impress the boss, work my way back to the top. You know, I really couldn’t believe you came back.”

            “Me too,” she said. “But it’s on my terms, you know. And it’s just until something better comes along.”

            “Me too,” he said and pulled himself to his feet. He walked to the door and turned back.

            “Something’s missing in here.”

            “Different couch?” she asked him.

            “Nope.”

            “Treadmill.”
            “Nope.”

            “Fish bowl.”

            To this Toby nodded and opened his mouth, but whatever he was about to say was cut off by C.J. shouting one two-syllable word: “Omar!”

            A second later a young man with caramel-skin and a shaved head appeared in her doorway wearing a white and blue checkered dress shirt tucked into creased khakis.

            “There’s a man named Robert Blithe,” she said, “works for the New Jersey Sentinel. Get me every single shred of information you can find on him.”

            “The guy from the briefing?” Toby asked after Omar disappeared. And when C.J. didn’t answer, he added, “Got something special planned?” 

            “Not really,” she said. “Just want to make sure I have everything I need to pulverize this little maggot into a hundred thousand tinier maggots.”

            “Uh . . . huh,” Toby said, smiling just with his eyes, “Well now I feel like I’m home.”

Chapter Text

           Rubbing his eyes and wishing he had some Visine, Charlie walked into the WHC’s office and hovered over a young man with long curly blonde hair and glasses. The man went about his work flipping through papers and highlighting all parts of the page with a red marker as if Charlie weren’t standing there waiting for him to respond.

            When the man finally looked up, he suddenly transformed into a polite, affable human being.

            “How can I help you?” he said like Charlie had always been his first priority.

            “Is the White House Counsel in?”

            “Cafeteria,” the man told him. “Second home,” he added with a smirk.

            “Uh, okay, but we had an appointment.”

            “You can wait here,” the assistant proposed, “but it might be a while.”

            “Yeah that’s okay.” Charlie pulled out his phone to find no new calls. With a shallow sigh he turned and headed for the stairs.  

            In the cafeteria he spotted the White House counsel sitting alone at a table against the wall. Well. Not alone. She was joined by two cherry strudels, an egg sandwich, a bowl of soup, something in a cup mixed with mayonnaise (maybe?), a blueberry muffin, and a brownish-tan object that resembled a pancake covered in cornflakes.

            After sidling around a few tables, Charlie stood for a while not speaking, not moving, simply watching the woman ingest the sandwich and quickly follow that onslaught with the slow and constant slurping of soup.

            “Ainsley?” he said sometime later when she’d finished the muffin and wiped her mouth with a navy cloth napkin.

            The White House counsel looked up, surprised but not embarrassed.

            “Canyouhaaahmedafrofro?”

            Charlie searched the surroundings before turning back to her with a question on his lips, but he didn’t ask it.

            “Sorry,” she said and swallowed a third time. “Can you slide me that Fresca?”

            “Uh . . . yeah.” Grabbing a seat across from her, Charlie popped the top on the can and set it in front of her.   

            “Thanks,” she said, surprised now for a different reason. “You know they didn’t used to have Fresca.”

            “Uh-huh.”

            “But I made a request, and four weeks later . . . .”

            “Yeah. So Josh wants you and your legal expertise to come along with me to see—”

            “The secretary of education?”

            “That’s right.”

            “Stewart told me.” Ainsley gave Charlie a knowing smile and sipped a while on her straw before informing him, “I can’t go with you.”

            “And why’s that?” he said, eyeing her skeptically.

            “I’m not going to eat all this,” she informed him.

            “O . . . kay.”

            “I just like to have options.”

            “About the meeting.”

            “I’m busy,” she told him. “I mean I’m the White House Counsel, right?”

            “Supposedly.”

            “And I have a lot to do.”

            “Right now you’re ingesting the contents of a small bakery.”

            Ainsley scanned the room for some help, and finding none, she turned to her strudel, but the German pastry had gone quiet.

            “Listen,” Charlie clarified. “This wasn’t my idea, but Josh said this was important and he implied that the president, as in the president of the United States, thinks this is important for you to come, so, you know, you need to come.”
            “Who are you?” she asked him. “I mean what’s your position now, Charlie?”

            “Director of Communications, and I share speechwriting duties with Otto and Toby.”

            “And I’m the White House Counsel. I’m THE lawyer for the White House.”

            “Uh . . . huh, so are you ready? Shouldn’t take more than an hour.”

            After another sigh, Ainsley pushed out from the table and began walking to the door.

            “By the way,” she said, “it’s going to take more than an hour.”  

            “Her office isn’t that far,” Charlie countered as Ainsley glided past him.

            “Yes, but we’re walking!” Ainsley shouted from somewhere out of sight.

            “The hell we are.” Charlie raced to catch up, but when he reached the stairs she was already around the next turn.  

Chapter Text


            Passing the Washington Monument on his right, Charlie struggled to keep up with the  striding White House Counsel who appeared from a distance to be merely strolling along.

            “You know we actually might be late if we don’t take a cab!” He sprinted to close the gap that had somehow expanded again in the last twenty seconds.

            “You can’t get a cab in the park, Charlie,” she replied as if he’d just recommended they hop into a time machine. “Besides,” she added. “Isn’t it nice to walk places?”

            “Isn’t it nice to walk places is your question?”

            “Yeah.”

            “It’s forty-two degrees and about to rain.” Charlie clutched his arms to his chest to drive home the depth of his misery.

            “I like being able to walk wherever I need to go,” Ainsley mused. “It makes me feel like I’m living in a community, you know?”

            “So you live in Capitol Hill?”

            “Arlington.”

            “You mean you drive to work,” he said. “You drive to work to get to your community?”

            “If you work at the White House,” she argued, “you don’t really have another home, so in my opinion Arlington doesn’t count. It’s like a vacation spot I pop into every once in a while. Don’t you think?”

             “Yeah I guess,” he grumbled.

             As they passed the monument and began to descend the hill, Ainsley stared up in wonder as if she was a tourist and this was her first day on dry land.

            “You know,” she said, “we never really talked, back in the old days.”

            “Well,” Charlie replied, “I was right outside the door when you walked into that closet in front of the president, if that makes a difference.”

             Ainsley flashed him a hard glare and then turned her already rapid pace into overdrive, shuffling past a diehard family of eight posing for pictures on the brown lawn.

            “So what exactly is our purpose?” she asked when he reached her side forty-five seconds later.  

            “Talk to Fisher, get her back on track.”

            “And what track is that?”

            “You know, following the president’s agenda. Head start from pre-K all the way through to the end of high school. No talk of vouchers. And . . . you know, I already know how you feel.”

            “You do,” she said, lifting her eyebrows.

            “Free market,” Charlie replied, “fair competition, let parents choose the right school for their kids and the schools will have no choice but to thrive or die. Am I close?”

            “Something like that,” Ainsley grudgingly admitted.  

            “The problem with that—”

            “I know the problem with that, Charlie. In our current system with fair competition, thousands of public schools would fold and we wouldn’t have the resources to find a place for all those extra kids. I also know that you went to public school in D.C., the worst system in the country by the way, and I’m sure you would have preferred one of the better charter schools, whatever it meant for the system as a whole. Am I close?”

            Charlie’s silence kept her talking.

           “So it sounds like the president sent two people who don’t believe in his plan to go lie down on the tracks for his plan.”

           “Watch it,” he said, grabbing her shoulder and holding her back. “You almost stepped in it.”

           Ainsley lifted her black boot in time to avoid the dog dropping, and together they swerved around it before separating again to either end of the sidewalk.

           “If you can find someone who shares all your views,” Charlie told her, “good for you. But I feel like me working here for this guy? This is a pretty good deal.”

           “But the education plan is Santos’ baby,” Ainsley countered. “I mean, in terms of choosing where to draw the line.”

           “But I do agree with his plan,” Charlie told her. “And the data supports the idea that head start does work if you keep it going. It’s been in play for two years now, which isn’t much of anything, but students who continue to get help continue to do better. It’s like those Big Brother studies done in the 60s. The Cambridge Somerville Youth Study?”

           “I’ve heard of it,” she replied.  

           “So in 1939 they found 500 kids. Half at risk, half doing well.”

           “I said I heard of—”

           “And they randomly assigned counselors to half the kids, while they didn’t really do anything with the other group, but they tracked all the kids for six years. What they found—”

           Ainsley turned left onto Independence Avenue and pulled a few loose strands of blonde hairs into the black hair tie pulled tight to the back of her head. “What they found was a big old backfire,” she said. “The kids who received the mentoring ended up doing worse in life, right?”

           “These kids,” Charlie continued, “they were introduced to these other worlds with privilege and opportunity, they received all this help, all this support they never had before, and while it was happening they prospered. But then after a few months or a year or two or three, they got dropped. Now, not only do they not have the help they still need, but they can no longer cope with their shitty lives because they saw the promise land. They were exposed to different values that just don’t work where they come from. So yeah, I think we underestimate how much help kids need. And yeah, I still think if we got rid of corruption a free market and vouchers might work WITH this program.”

           “Well what about you, Charlie?” Ainsley asked him. “You got good grades, you would have gotten into a good school.”

           “Maybe,” he said, “but you know how much better off I was because Debby Fiderer plucked me out of a pile and I got the President of the United States as my mentor?”

           He started laughing as they crossed the street and he didn’t stop until they reached the other side.

           “And then what?” he said. “Every kid has to get a 4.0 GPA and perfect score on the SATS in order to have a shot? Are we pushing for a world where you have to be a genius to get ahead?”

           “I didn’t say that and I don’t think that,” she said in a defensive tone. “I just don’t think it has to be the government providing the help.”

           “It does,” he argued, “if nobody else steps up, and so far nobody else has. Not in the way they need to at least.”

            For a block and a half they walked in silence, until a light drizzle turned into a steady rain.

           “Great,” Ainsley said through a frustrated sigh. She lifted her hands to cover her head until Charlie, pulling a small umbrella from somewhere behind him opened up the black half-dome and held it over both their heads.  

           “Listen,” he said after Ainsley flashed him a sincerely appreciative smile. “I didn’t tell you everything.”

            Wrapping her hands around her forearms to defend against the new chill in the air, she waited with rainbowed eyebrows for Charlie to continue.

           “We ARE meeting with the S.E. because she’s been slipping,” he said. “But we’re also, kind of, investigating a leak.”

           “We?” she laughed. “By we I’m assuming you’re referring to a professionally organized and vetted crack team of political sleuths who’ve been doing this kind of work, whatever kind of work it is, for a very long time? That’s what you mean by we, isn’t it, Charlie? Charlie!”

            In response, Charlie looked down at his watch. “C’mon,” he said as they reached the steps of the Department of Education. “In thirty seconds we’re going to be late.”

            For twenty of those thirty seconds Ainsley remained at the bottom of the steps, thinking and getting soaked. After a few deep breaths of protest, she followed him up and into the monolith.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

            Reclining, or attempting to recline into a high-backed chair on the far side of the residential suite, the president grimaced and sat up straight as if he’d just pressed his back into a pine cone. Grabbing a pillow from the floor and tucking it behind him, he tried again, this time settling in and propping his black-socked feet on top of the coffee table in front of him. From somewhere next to him he pulled a thick book and began flipping through the back end.

            “You read this?” he asked Helen, who was currently folding pants and smashing them into her suitcase on the edge of her bed.

            “What is it?”

            “Biography of Josiah Bartlett.”

            “The governor of New Hampshire who signed the Declaration of Independence?”

            “No,” Santos replied through a laugh. “His great great great great grandson, you know, the one here before us?”

            “Oh that one.”

            “In chapter ten he talks about his fight with congress over gun control. You remember that toothless bill they passed?”

            “As opposed to the bill with one tooth you’re trying to get through?”

            Leaning forward and clearing his lungs, the president set the book on the table and crossed the six feet of beige carpet to the bed. Like an exacting professor, Santos wrapped his hands behind his back as he watched his wife wrestle the last blouse into the top of her suitcase.

            “You know someone can do that,” he said. “All that traveling you do? All the things on your mind?”

            Helen turned and stared up at him with a tired but genuine smile. “If I ever get to the point where someone’s dressing me—”

            “It’s not dressing,” he argued, stepping behind her and wrapping his arms around her waist. “They take the clothes you want to wear and move them from point A to point B, and then they close Point B and carry it to the car. I don’t think it’s a beheadable act.”

            “Sounds pretty posh to me.”

            He leaned down and kissed her neck. “You think the bill is toothless?”

            For a few seconds she didn’t reply, until finally she asked him, “What was it Erasmus said? ‘In the land of those who use Efferdent, the one-toothed man is king?’” 

            “I think it was actually something to do with blind men,” the president corrected her. “So you think that’s what we have? One tooth?”

            “Better one tooth—”

            “Than no tooth, yeah. So we have a one-tooth bill.”

            “Exactly one tooth,” she agreed.  

            “You sound like C.J.”

            “That’s because women are smarter than men . . . and once the world figures that out we’ll all be better off.”

            “You sound a little stuffy,” he said and gave her a final squeeze before pulling away.

            “Just allergies,” she assured him and tried to jam the top of her suitcase closed. She pushed, and then sat on it, and when the president came over to help, she backed him off with a guttural moan. Finally, leaning into the luggage with all of her weight, she managed to work the zipper around the three sides before sinking, exhausted, onto the carpet beside the bed.

            “On second thought,” she said, “someone can pack me up and wheel me down to the car. I heard about Monahan, and waffles.”

            “Yeah.” Heaving the suitcase onto the floor, the president paused to straighten his back. “Maybe you can blow him a kiss, get us a few votes.”

            “Shut up,” she said and grabbed the handle and dragged the wheeled mass to the door.

            “You saw how he looked at you last night at dinner? And he’s kissed your hand, I don’t know how many times.” The president made a show of trying to add up the number on his fingers.

            When his wife continued to ignore him, the president moved on. “You think you’re going to have a hard time in Brentwood?” He crossed the room and sat next to her on the bed.

            “It’s been a year,” she said, “for mothers and fathers who’ve lost one or more children. For them if it’s not all-out bans and buybacks it won’t be enough. And then outside you’ll have ALL the 2nd Amendment folks, and that’s just day one. Pretty soon we’re going to be celebrating National School Shooting Month. I mean that’s what we do, right? We celebrate tragedy, we publicize it and sensationalize it instead of making sure it doesn’t happen again?”

Before she registered the scolding glare from her husband, the first lady lowered her head onto his shoulder and sniffled.

            “Well,” he said, reaching out to his left and grabbing a tissue from the box on the nightstand, “I have to meet with a couple old men about a thing.” He kissed the top of her head and slipped the tissue into her hand.

            “You’re an old man,” she said through the fabric of his white dress shirt. Retracting her head, she pushed the tissue into her nose and blew.

            “Am I?” The president’s question came out both playful and laced with a thin film of terror.   

            “Actually,” she said, “you’re holding up better than I would have thought after four years here, which is what, like forty years outside the fence?”

            “Presidential dog years,” he agreed.

            “And compared to how Jimmy Carter faired,” she added, “you’re actually getting younger.” She picked her fingers through his short black hair. “Not too much gray,” she said. “And no receding . . . oop, I take that back.”

            “Get . . . out of there!” he barked and swiped her hands away from his head.

            “Seriously,” he said, moving to the mirror to fix hair that did not need fixing. “You feel like you’ve acclimated to the routine?”

            “Mrs. Santos?”

            They both turned to see Donna standing in the doorway.

            “She’s acclimated to the routine.” Helen dropped the crumbled tissue into the trash basket near the bed and then grabbed two more from the box. “Donna really does all the work and just drags me along for the ride. Anyway good luck with the geezers.”

            “You okay,” Santos said. “Really, though. You coming down with something?”

            “Seasonal . . . allergies,” she said, “nothing more,” leaning in and pecking him on the forehead. She lowered her face to meet his lips with her own. “But just to be safe.” She pulled back and gave him a knowing look. “The only thing worse than being president—”

            “Is being a sick president,” they both chanted in unison.

Chapter Text

 

        The president walked into the waiting room where Ronna edited pages inside a binder, and across the room Cody sat flipping through papers and cross-referencing those papers with a giant seating chart.  

        “Somebody timing you?” Santos asked him

        “Just checking and double checking the roster for tonight’s dinner for any irregularities, sir.”

        “Irregularities?”

        “Food allergies,” Cody clarified “And other anomalies. For example I read in the Sankei Shimbun, which is the fourth-largest newspaper in Japan, that the third baseman for the Giants is a legend in distance sneezing.”

        “Distance . . . sneezing?” The president looked to Ronna for help but all she offered him was a shrug.

        “Murikami, that’s the guy’s name,” Cody said, “they clocked him at twenty feet in terms of when he sneezes how far the—”

        “Yeah.” Santos cut him off and held up his hand to halt the conversation. “I think I get it.”

        “So if he has any food allergies I want to make sure the cook knows,” Cody continued, “and if he has a cold I’m going to have him face the wall or something. But that’s just one guy and so far—”

        “Nobody’s . . . going to be facing a wall, Cody,” the President said, stressing the first word of his pronouncement. “But I appreciate the initiative. Whatever you settle on, run it past Charlie or Lou.”

        “Yes sir,” Cody shot back with his usual overzealous tone.  

        “Is he here?” the president said, turning back to Ronna.

        “He arrived three minutes ago, sir. But Josh wanted you to—”

        Before Ronna could finish, Josh entered the room with a phone to his ear. He mumbled something, tucked the phone in his pocket, and stood tall before the president.

        “We all set, Josh?”

        “Yes sir, but.” Josh looked around, suddenly thrown off. “You come through here on purpose, sir?”

        “Yeah,” the president told him. “I like a change of pace, see how my new body man’s doing. You?”

        “Uh, same.” Josh rolled his lips around his face and then scratched his cheek while opening his mouth wide. “There’s something you should probably know.”

        “About?”

        “About the guy in that room. About what he’s said publicly regarding the gun bill.”

         Patting Josh on the back, the president walked around him into the Oval Office.

         With a quick look to Ronna, Josh reluctantly followed.  

 

*

 

         Inside the Oval office, Josh and the president found Arnie Vinick on the couch farther from the waiting room, with President Josiah Bartlett seated in the chair between Vinick’s couch and the Resolute desk. Both men sat with their legs crossed and their pants riding up to expose the black socks pulled up to their knees. Until they saw the president and rose to their feet.

         “Mr. Secretary,” Santos announced with a nod. After greeting Vinick, Santos slowly turned to Jed Bartlett. “Mr. President.”

         “With company it’s Mr. Secretary,” Vinick told Bartlett as they both returned to their seats. “Alone it’s Arnie this and Arnie that.”

         “One must put on airs in a civilized world,” Bartlett joked and turned to Santos with his hand outstretched.

         “Mr. Secretary.” Josh said, nodding to Vinick and then President Bartlett as he entered the couch area from the other side.

         “Now Josh here,” Vinick said, “he never breaks rank.”

         After shaking Bartlett’s hand, Santos lowered himself into the chair next to where the former president sat.  

         “So you and Josh . . . .” Santos began.  

         “He picked me up at the airport,” Bartlett replied. “We did all our hugging and kissing there, and caught up the rest of the way on the ride over.”  

         To this Santos nodded. “I heard your youngest is running for Mayor, in, where was it?”

        “Tucson,” Bartlett laughed. “Zoey’s a pip all right, she’s got her mind set on fixing this immigration thing, and no offense to you, but she thinks it needs to be done through the mayoral network.”

        “I completely agree,” Santos admitted. “I wish we could solve all our problems that way. I hate to say it, but I feel like when I was Mayor in Houston I got three or four times as much legislation passed, and it’s not even about legislation. It’s just talking to people across the aisle and getting work done. I don’t know. Sometimes I feel like my efforts would have been better spent building that network.”

        “We hold up the walls here more than anything,” Vinick affirmed. “And nobody thinks about the walls or the roof, they just worry about moving the right furniture in and out. It’s a thankless task.”

        “Spoken like a true grouch,” Bartlett replied with a smile. “So why am I here instead of pretending to want to ride horses on my farm?”

        “I’m sure Josh caught you up,” Santos said and shouted for Sandy. Instead of Sandy, Cody entered the room three seconds later like he was blown in by a draft.

        “Where’s Sandy?” the president asked him.

        “Bathroom maybe?” Cody replied.

        “Don’t I?” Bartlett began while he stared at Cody, trying to place him. “Don’t I know you?”

        “Can you get us some coffee?” Santos asked. “One black and—”

        “Two blacks,” Vinick interrupted.  

        “I’m good,” Josh said as Bartlett continued to stare at the young man, and soon the former president’s silent stare took over the conversation.

        “We met in a press meeting,” Cody finally revealed.

        With a slow, polite nod, Bartlett continued to search for specifics to the memory Cody had just confirmed. But eventually he grew resigned to the gap in his past and turned instead to his current grumbling stomach. “I’ll have an egg-salad sandwich,” he told Cody, “on toasted brioche with a side of Cajun-seasoned French fries and a glass of chocolate malted.”

        To all this Cody nodded without flinching or writing anything down and left the room a second later.

        “I don’t know,” Bartlett said with a shrug. “Must be this room. Makes you hungrier than you should be.

        “So,” he continued when nobody bit. “Speaking of cranks, I’m here because of that intransigent Philistine, correct? Hell he must be closing in on 90.”

        “87,” Josh confirmed.  

        “And I know someone contacted you already,” Vinick told Santos, “but I just wanted to say again that we got all our people out.”

        “The embassy?” Santos said. “I don’t remember them mentioning—”

        “Evacuated,” Vinick confirmed, to which Santos gave a slow nod.

        “You’ve talked to Limpele,” Bartlett told Vinick like he was accusing him of something. “You went to Indonesia twice during my administration. Don’t you have a pretty good relationship?”

        “Not good enough,” Vinick admitted, shaking his head.

        “Limpele’s succeeded so far,” Josh maintained, “because he mostly keeps the peace while appearing loyal to Muslim extremists. If these guys think in any way that he’s caving to western interests, Christian Damont and all the other hostages will show up an hour later on Youtube reading a script with a guy holding a machete to the backs of their heads.”

        “I wish I did,” Santos told Bartlett. “Have that relationship. But I don’t.”

        “Yes, sir,” Vinick agreed, and smiled while shaking his head, his eyes on Bartlett. “That trick you pulled with his brother-in-law and the king of Brunei? And the Chinese Battle Cruiser? Fortunately and unfortunately, Limpele saw all that as. I don’t know.”  

        “Magic,” Josh said, “and you know how superstitious he is. In Limpele’s eyes, President Santos, while the leader of the free world, is still not a, I guess you could say….”

        “God?” Bartlett replied, unable to completely wipe the smugness from his light-hearted smile.  

        “I was going to say magician,” Josh told him. “But, you know, whatever works for you, sir.”

        “So you up for a trip to Jakarta?” Santos asked the former president.

        “I suppose I could stretch my legs, if the former first lady gives me the go ahead,” Bartlett replied, unconsciously gripping the cane in his lap. “And we’re sure he’s in control of the situation?”

        “The groups responsible for the kidnappings have pledged allegiance with ISIS,” Vinick reported, “and despite his abrasive style, Limpele’s done a pretty good job of keeping them in line.”

        “Didn’t I read about two suicide bombers last week killing nine and injuring at least fifty?”

        “These days,” Santos said with a sigh, “only three suicide bombs in the last four months means he is doing a pretty good job.”

        “Yeah . . . okay,” Bartlett said, and for a while nobody spoke until a small woman in her forties wheeled a tray of food into the room and the former president dug into his egg-salad sandwich as if he hadn’t eaten in days but was trying to appear polite about his starvation.

        “So this is your first time back since leaving,” Santos opined, and because his mouth was full, Bartlett simply nodded.

        “So . . . how does it feel?” Santos asked him. “I’m just curious from my perspective.”

        Bartlett chewed, and chewed, and finally swallowed, and wiped his mouth with the cloth napkin on his tray. “Like before,” he finally replied. “Like a warm, hungry anaconda asleep around your neck.”

        Santos nodded and smiled the smile of a man who knows he’s chosen to fall into the same trap. Then he stood, walked to his desk, and grabbed a folder from the top of the pile.

       “So Josh tells me,” Santos said, addressing the former president “that you have some . . . issues, with our upcoming gun legislation.”

       “Josh said that, huh?” Bartlett laughed and took a big sip of his chocolate malted.

       “He did.”

       “Well, I’m sure you’re used to people disagreeing with you, Mr. President, and it’s very easy to disagree when you’re sitting five hundred miles north in a farmhouse outside Nashua.”

        Santos nodded at the sagacity of the comment, and with his folder he returned to the chair. “Still,” he reasoned, “I’d rather hear it now from you than later from an enemy blasting away on Fox and Friends.”

        Wiping his mouth once more, Bartlett looked from Santos to Josh to Vinick, and with a shrug he turned back to the president. “All right then,” he said, and took another sip of his drink. “I’ve broken it down in my head into a five-point plan with six subpoints to the first point and three subpoints to each additional point, followed by a list of possible alternatives to eleven of the nineteen perceived problems, although it’s not really a plan. More of a criticism. Actually. Josh, you’re familiar with the system.”

         In response to the president’s comment, Josh widened his eyes like he was just waking up and sat back into the couch as far as the stiff upholstery would allow.

        “I’ll begin,” Bartlett announced, “with what I’ve defined as reason one point one, and I’ll end with reason four point six. First, that is, point one point one, subpoint A . . . .”

Chapter Text

            In an empty waiting room outside the office of the Secretary of Education, Charlie paced while Ainsley sat in a leather chair by the exit consuming the first half of a Twix.

            “You have a tapeworm or something?” Charlie asked without slowing his walk.  

            “I asked six different doctors in five different years that same question.”

            “And?”

           “‘A woman with your penchant for eating,’ she aped in a deep masculine voice, ‘and a figure like yours, you’re one of the lucky ones.’”

           Charlie stopped his pacing and turned to give her his full attention. “A doctor said that?”

           “Several doctors said that.”

           “Are you okay?”

           “I’m fine.”

           “Because you look a bit nervous.”

           “I’m not nervous,” she answered, shoving the second Twix into her mouth. “I just really don’t want to be here.”

           After voicing this concern, Ainsley looked up at Charlie with a revelation sprouting wings between her ears. “Why AM I here?” she asked Charlie. “I’m not a member of the White House Council’s office, I AM the White House Counsel. I’ve worked hard to climb my way up. I worked for a touchy-feely district attorney in Boston and a lunatic AG who called me Andy Mays, and I worked, Charlie, in the tropical nightmare of the steam pipe trunk distribution venue, all so that I could make a difference and maybe one day have a nice office and delegate these kinds of assignments to other people presently situationally less fortunate than myself. I was in the cafeteria minding my own business and eating my strudel—”

          “You were eating a blueberry muffin.”

          “I was eating a PASTRY and minding my own business when you showed up and ruined everything! And for what? Why couldn’t you do this yourself? So far I haven’t heard anything that warrants the presence of the White House Counsel.”

          Breathing out through his nose, Charlie paced a bit longer and finally took a seat next to Ainsley and tried to maintain eye contact.

          “You might want to lower your voice?” he suggested.

          Ainsley looked around and leaned in towards Charlie’s ear. “There’s no one in the room,” she whispered. “I think we’re okay.”

         “Listen,” he said. “Josh thought Fisher might know who the leak is, or have an idea at least, and he thought you might be able to help persuade her to talk. I guess, I mean, I guess he and the president thought you might be able to help because you and her went to the same school, and you have some kind of relationship.”

          For a while Ainsley did nothing but stare open-mouthed at the man sitting next to her. Then, slowly, she let out a small laugh, which turned into a bigger laugh, which turned into something like a cat choking on a hairball.

          “I’m here because of my past relationship with Patricia Fisher?” Soon the laughter dissipated, leaving behind a droopy frown and a look of bewilderment on her face.  

          “I can see Josh now,” she said through the fingers now covering her face. Suddenly her voice grew deep but not as deep as her doctor’s impression. “‘Ainsley went to school with Fisher, Mr. President. And they were in the same sorority, sir, so naturally they must be best buddies. They probably traded recipes and made up their own lyrics to Madonna songs. And if anyone should talk to her it’s Ainsley Hayes.’ Ughhh.”

          “I take it, then,” Charlie replied, “that you and Fisher are not best buddies?”

          Through her fingers Ainsley scanned the room. “There’s still time,” she said. “I’ll slip out and then you can say I felt sick because I do feel sick. I’m not joking, Charlie. I feel like I’m going to throw up,”

          “It was probably that third Twix bar.”

          Behind them a door opened and a young woman stepped out.

          “Oh dear,” Ainsley mumbled.

          “You can go in now,” the young woman told them and slipped over to a desk in the corner.  

          “C’mon,” Charlie said through gritted teeth and coaxed Ainsley along by the elbow. “I’m sure it was a long time ago.”

          “It was.”

          “And people forget things.”

          “They do.”

          “So it’ll be fine.”

           “I’m going to vomit,” Ainsley replied. With her tongue she scraped the remaining cookie and chocolate and caramel from her teeth and swallowed this last batch of reserves.

            Together they walked into a very large wood-paneled room with floor to ceiling bookshelves lining the side walls. From behind a thick wooden desk set back towards the windows, a trim medium-sized woman in a black pants suit rose from behind a stack of files. The woman’s black hair framed her pale face as it fell loose to her shoulders, some of the strands covering the chain from which her glasses hung.  

            “Madam Secretary,” Charlie said with polite reverence. He stepped forward and extended his hand, which the woman quickly accepted with a deliberate smile.

            When she turned to Ainsley, the woman’s smile imperceptibly changed.

            “Ainsley Hayes,” the woman said like a doctor putting a good face on a death-sentence diagnosis.  

            “It’s good to see you, Patricia,” Ainsley lied.

            “Is it? Well,” Fisher added, “only two months in and I get a personal visit plus a college reunion. Can I get you something to drink?”

            “Actually,” Ainsley began but Charlie cut her off.

            “We’re fine,” he told Fisher. “And forgive me for being blunt, Madam Secretary, but you came on board in no uncertain terms accepting the job of promoting the president’s education plan.”

            “Done with the pleasantries, are we?”

            “Madam—”

            “I have been,” Fisher assured him. “From state to state and sea to shining sea.”

            “That’s true,” Charlie agreed. “Mostly. There’s just been some language popping up in the last few speeches and interviews…”

            “I really don’t know what you’re talking about.” While she continued to speak, Fisher also continued to sneak glances at Ainsley, who maintained her polite, closed-mouth smile throughout.   

            From his pocket Charlie pulled a few folded sheets of paper, the only sounds in the room the patter of rain outside the window and the light rustling as he opened the pages and found what he was looking for.

            “‘We are,’” he read, “‘working hard to level the playing field through the new Head Start program, so that parents and communities can once again take control of the education of their own children.’”

            He looked up as the Secretary of Education shrugged. “That’s from a speech you gave last month at a fundraiser in Dallas.”

            “And?”

            “It might. Um.” Ainsley pulled a deep breath and strained her lips into an extra inch of smile. “It might be construed by some that you’re dismissing the efforts of the administration. It’s not the parents stepping forward in this program. In this speech you go on in length about the changes taking place, and those changes are happening, at least right now, because of the teachers and new hires from the Heat Start Act, and not, in fact, because of the parents.”

            Halfway through Ainsley’s mild accusations, Fisher clenched her teeth.

           “Now if,” Ainsley continued, “there were some kind of subtle renegotiation of the finer points, that is to say, a reordering of the, of the . . . .” Ainsley paused to find her way, but Fisher jumped into the gap before she could go on.

           “I think it’s important,” Fisher retaliated, “to give credit to the parents, who are after all funding this through their taxes and lifting the heavy weight when the children leave school each and every day.”

           “From an interview you gave to CNN two weeks ago,” Charlie said, again reading from his pages, “‘Ideally I wouldn’t be pitching this kind of thing, but the system is broken, and sometimes you have to walk through the dark to get to the tunnel at the other side.’”

           After a pause, Charlie added, “Not a very uplifting metaphor for a woman who’s supposed to be championing the president’s agenda.”

           “The President knows how I feel,” Fisher told him, “and he knew how I felt when he hired me.”

           Charlie glanced at Ainsley, who shifted between smiling and blinking.  

           “He knows you were swallowing your pride,” Charlie agreed, “and he expects you to disagree, but if you have something to say, he expects you to talk to him.”

           “I’ve tried calling him but—”

           “Then call again,” Charlie said, the patience suddenly gone from his voice. “As a former aide to President Bartlett, I know just how much space a president has in his day, and it’s negative space, Madam Secretary. But if you need to speak with him, he will take your call. He will make the time. In the meantime, speak with me, speak with Josh Lyman or Louise Thornton or C.J. Cregg. Speak to the vice president. In order for the program to work, we need everyone to stand behind it, and even the slightest undercurrents of doubt can shake it apart in the early days.” Charlie paused a moment and then added, “that’s all we ask.”

            Eyes on her desk, Fisher replied with an almost imperceptible nod.

            “Just one more thing,” Charlie said, “and then we’ll be out of your hair. Someone’s been leaking information to reporters.”

            At the word ‘leak,’ Fisher looked up with widened eyes. They were not guilty eyes. Just very aware.

            “Mostly little things,” Charlie reported, “new data about the Head Start program, numbers from studies that aren’t complete taken out of context to paint the program in a bad light. We just thought, if not a name, you might know something that would help us track down the—”

            “I don’t know anything about a leak,” Fisher shot back through gritted teeth, “and I resent the accusation that I would know anything about—”

            “Let me be clear,” Charlie said with a confidence and authority that surpassed his opponent’s.  “We are not saying for one second that you had anything to do with this. We’re just asking anyone—”

            “We?” Fisher turned to Ainsley and swallowed a laugh. “It seems like you’re the only one here asking any questions.”

             For a moment the attention swiveled to Ainsley, whose eyes suddenly took on a ferocity that belied the smile on her face.

             Noticing a change, Charlie placed his hand on her wrist and lightly squeezed.

             “What’s the matter, Ainsley?” Fisher asked her. “Don’t have the energy today to dig in, to really sink your talons deep into the flesh?”

             “Thank you for seeing us,” Charlie said, rising and pulling Ainsley with him. “If you think of anything that might help—”

             “I’ll be sure to keep the president on auto-dial,” Fisher announced, “so that I can call and keep calling and keep calling until somebody doesn’t pick up.”

             Holding his anger in his cheeks and in his teeth, Charlie closed his mouth and bumped Ainsley out the door.

             Outside the building, they took the stairs quickly. Charlie opened his umbrella and raised the black half dome against the drizzle, but this time Ainsley walked out beyond the protection of the shield. They covered two blocks in silence before Charlie finally spoke.

             “For the most part I think Santos’ judge of character has been right on the nose, but, I don’t know how she slipped through.”

             “Because she’s a witch,” Ainsley said with no smile or sense of mischief in her tone. “I thought she would have changed but she’s the same. She’s exactly the same.”

             “And by same you mean—”

             “She’s a witch.”

             “So, okay,” Charlie replied. “What just happened back there? I mean I can tell this is a sensitive subject, but—”

              Ainsley stopped and turned to give him her full attention, and the look she gave him was both confused and distressed.

             “If you don’t mind,” she said, her voice tired and sad, “I’d rather take a cab back.”

              Before he could respond, she walked to the edge of the sidewalk and waved down a cab.

Chapter Text

        

            “So.” The communications bullpen buzzing with sound and motion, Otto stood over Toby, who sat at a desk where his secretary, Ginger, used to sit. He sat at this desk typing on a laptop while chewing on an unlit cigar and trying not to shift his eyes to the man hovering over him.

            “So,” Otto tried again. “How’s it going?”

            Without turning his head, Toby laughed through his cigar.

            “O . . . kay,” Otto said and turned to go.

            “There’s no sense to this,” Toby protested, which stopped Otto in mid stride. “If we’re going to advocate for reduced fossil fuels and more dependence on renewable energy, we need to shut down coal. Period.”
            “The president is shutting down coal,” Otto replied, not sure if he wanted to remain facing away from Toby or turn around to stare into the eyes of the frightening old gargoyle.

            “Not with prose like this.” Toby lifted the laptop in his right hand, and then, frustrated, dropped it back onto the table and grimaced. “In the old days,” he informed Otto, “you could rip the page from the typewriter and wave it in the air while you ranted and raved.” He searched the room and finally returned his eyes to the desk, and sighed. “And then you could burn it.”

            “And did you use those fires to keep yourself warm during the days before central heating?”

            For the first time, Toby turned and looked up and met Otto’s large brown eyes. He pulled the cigar from his mouth and started to laugh. But then he changed his mind and returned the soggy stogie to its previous perch.  

            “We’re trying to cut down on printer use,” Otto told him, “as an example for energy conservation. Don’t you have a pad?”

            “Yeah,” Toby said. “I have a pad, somewhere. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about a mandate for solar plants, drop them right down on top of the coal mines like the house in the Wizard of Oz. Don’t give people a chance to breathe. Send a guy down to make it clear.”

            “A guy?”

            “Yeah a guy, you just get a guy, and he can tell them all, ‘Hey, y’all mined coal for the last thirty years just like your father and your father’s father, all of whom died at the age of forty-six from lung cancer. Well guess what, now you’re making solar panels. Now you’re manufacturing wind mills. And yeah, maybe you make a bit less, but now you don’t have to spend so much on detergent and house cleaners. Now you don’t have to suck gasified rock through your nostrils ten hours a day!”

            “House cleaners?” Otto eventually replied.

            “Yeah house cleaners. Pledge. Clorox. S.O.S.”

            “Right. Because…”

            “Because everything is black?” Toby says. “Black! he shouted. “Black black black.”

            “Ah, overt racism, that takes me back,” Lou said from down the hall. Both Toby and Otto turned to watch the deputy chief of staff shuffling across the floor in her navy pants suit and silver Asics.

            “So what does it feel like?” she asked Toby, “to stare across the hall at your old office?”

            “Well, Louise,” Toby replied. “You’ve asked me that question about ninety-five times. Maybe if you dropped the tone, I might reply with something at least in the southern hemisphere of sincerity.”

            “And maybe if you stopped calling me Louise . . . ” she countered, taking one step closer and standing nearly face-to-face with the man sitting in front of her. 

            “Isn’t that your name?”

             Lou rigidly shifted her attention towards Otto.  

            “You’re coming with me to talk with Armitage.”

            “I.” Instead of continuing what he was about to say, Otto simply winced.

            “Nobody wants to,” Lou told him, “so get over yourself.”

            “Where?” Otto asked.

            “Congressional Country Club.”

             Mouth open, Otto looked at Toby, then Lou. “Golf?”

            “That’s what the man wants.”

            “It’s like forty degrees outside.”

            “Forty-two,” Toby said through a smile.

            “In ten minutes I have a meeting with Senator Reiger,” Otto whined.

            “Then meet me there at one.”

            “So . . . you golf?” Otto said.

            “I hate golf,” she replied.

            “I was feeling down,” Toby said with a fresh smile on his face. “But then I pictured you two in tweed pants out on the links with Grumpy Gary.”

            “He’s not so much grumpy,” Lou says, “as a plain old mean son of a bitch.”

            “Ahh.” Otto gave her a knowing nod. “So the price of his vote for the gun bill is our humiliation?”


            “If it were that simple,” she said, “we’d all put on chicken suits and flap around here for the next two weeks.”

            “It worked once,” Otto argued, “and we still have one of the—”

            “And pick up the president’s clubs before you go.”

            “You want to use . . . the president’s clubs?”

            “Well I don’t have any!” Lou shouted, and turned to Toby. “Do you have clubs? He doesn’t have clubs,” she said before Toby could answer. “The president couldn’t care less about golf.”

            “But he likes his clubs,” Otto told her. “They were a gift from Joe Montana and—”

            “Blab bla bla. Get the clubs and meet me there at one.”

            She was already down the hall and around the corner before Otto thought to ask, “Hey what happened with Brodinger?”

            He turned back to Toby.

            “What you wrote for the Sierra club the other day, was brilliant, by the way.”

            Toby considered the praise, smiled, and told Otto, “Thanks.”

            “I’ve read all your other stuff,” Otto told him. “And what you’re writing now . . . .”

            “I know,” Toby said. “My therapist calls it a deep onion peel.”

            “Huh,” Otto said, and turned to go but a few steps in her turned back. “Maybe you can teach me, about this peel?”

Chapter Text

          Fiercely peddling a bike to nowhere in the back corner of her office, C.J. lifted an open yogurt from the holder when Katie Witt poked her head through the open crack in the door.  

          “You have a minute, C.J.?”

          Grabbing a towel from the handlebars, C.J. wiped her forehead and gave the longtime White House reporter a nod.

          “I know I said it already,” Katie told her, “but it’s nice to have you back. Hey where’s Carol?”

          “Some people know when to move on,” C.J. laughed. “She’s over at Veteran’s Affairs doing some really good work. How can I help you?”

          “Well, I wanted to give you a heads up.”

          Swallowing another large gulp of water, C.J. wiped her mouth and stared at the woman in her doorway until the woman said, “I heard from a reliable source that Brodinger’s pulling out of the gun bill.”

          To this news C.J. paused and studied the handlebars on her bike. “Yeah, well,’ she eventually said along with a shrug. “I haven’t heard anything for sure, but—”

          “This is for sure,” Katie told her. “Brodinger’s out, along with Wellsely and Keans and the five other Republicans who were supposed to be jumping ship for your side as of yesterday. They all left, C.J., which means—”

          “Thanks, Katie, for the heads up.”

          Waiting for more but soon realizing that was all she would get, Katie smiled and dropped her head.

          “Hey how was Africa?” she said. “I never got to ask.”

          “It’s true what they say about the sand,” C.J. replied and waited while Katie lingered.

          “That thing today with Robert Blithe?” Katie said. “I just wanted you to know that he doesn’t at all represent the feelings of anyone else in the corps.”

          “I didn’t assume he did.”

          “It’s just.”

           Widening her eyes, C.J. motioned with her head, and when that didn’t work she told Katie, “Just spit it out!”

          “There’s an article on the Sentinel,” Katie said. “You should probably take a look.”

           With a mild wince, Katie backpedaled out of the room while C.J. walked around the desk and pounded a few clicks on her keyboard. When she found what she was looking for, she scrolled. And scrolled. And scrolled.

           A few minutes later she stepped back and narrowed her eyes, and rolled her tongue around the inside of her mouth.

           “Omar,” she said at half volume, swallowing hard and pushing her lips in manic circles around her face. “Omar!” she shouted when he did not respond to the first command.

           A moment later her assistant stood in her doorway.

           “You finished yet with what I asked you to do earlier?”

           “I have a bunch,” he said, “but not finished, no.”

           “Give me what you have and get Josh on the line. I’m going to tear his beating heart out through his mouth.”

           “Josh?”

           “Just make the call.”

            When he left she sat down at her desk and read through the article once more, her fingers curling into whitened knuckles as she lifted them off the desk.

            “I have Josh on line 1!”

            Closing her eyes, C.J. picked up the receiver and placed the phone next to her ear. 

            “I just had a visitor,” she said into the phone. “It’s not good. No. Brodinger. Yeah. Yeah okay. Do I . . . What? Indonesia? Did you say Indonesia?”

            C.J. rubbed her face and squeezed her eyes. “Yeah. Well. I guess. I mean . . . okay? No. I meant . . . okay.”

            Hanging up the phone, she leaned back in her chair and studied the computer screen another few seconds before turning her attention to the ceiling above her.

            The scrape of shoes against carpet clued her in to human presence.

            “Here you go,” Omar said, placing a half-inch stack of papers on her desk.

            “Did you read this?” She lifted the first page and checked the back side of it.

            “Some,” he told her. “Mostly I did key word searches, or they’re documents sent over by your list of republican friendlies.”

             She read through the first page, flipped to the second, and then turned to Omar, her eyes just a bit wider than they were a second ago.

             “Fired from his college paper,” she said.

             “For plagiarism, yeah.”

             “Not a propitious beginning.”

             “No.”

              C.J. lifted the stack, hefted it in her hands. “Get a bag ready,” she said. “I have to make a quick stopover somewhere.”

             “Where?”

             “Indonesia.”

Chapter Text

          Carrying a bag of golf clubs almost as long as his body, Otto stood just off the first tee of a green frozen golf course.

          “You should have worn cleats,” Lou said, dressed in baggy khakis and a puffy black winter coat similar to his own.

          “I was—”

          “Shhh,” she said and poked him with her elbow. From the building fifty yards off, a gray-haired man in his sixties crossed the green, the distinct crunching of grass clearly audible in the stillness of the afternoon. Behind the man walked a young woman carrying a large set of clubs.

          The frumpy man zipped his green windbreaker up to his neck and looked Otto up and down as he approached.

          “This here’s Vanessa,” Senator Armitage told them. “Vanessa’s good at carrying things. Vanessa this is Louis Thornton.”

          “You can just call me Lou.”

          “And I’m Otto.”

          Wearing the same windbreaker as the Senator, along with tight jeans and white cleats, Vanessa smiled like she couldn’t be more bored with the situation.

          “You should have cleats,” Armitage told Otto.

          “Yeah, I assumed,” Otto began, but the senator was already walking towards the tee box with his club.

          “Being prepared,” Armitage said, placing his ball on a tee, “means thinking past your assumptions.”

           Just like that the senator wound up and swung, and with a sharp ping he sent the ball sailing straight down the glassy fairway.

          “Give me a driver,” Lou said without making eye contact.

          “Okay,” Otto replied and quickly scanned the bag. “Which ones a driver?”

          To this Lou stared at Otto a good five seconds before letting out a long sigh. “How have you in your preppy past never played golf?”

           Otto shrugged. “I actually grew up in Oaxaca.”

           For a moment Lou stared at him, disbelieving. Then she moved on. “One of the big clubs with the metal heads,” she hissed, and waited while he made three failed attempts before finally succeeding.

           Lou ripped the club from his hands and walked up to the finely-manicured box of grass. From her pocket she pulled a ball and a plastic tee.

           While she planted her feet, Otto eyed the senator, who looked back at him with that same insider smile. But as Lou got set, both Otto and Armitage turned and followed the deputy chief’s backswing. They watched her body twist in one fluid motion, her arms move forward, and at the sound of the ping they watched the ball fly through the air straighter and faster than the senator’s ball, until finally it dropped twenty feet past the senator’s and rolled fifteen feet beyond that.  

           As Lou returned and slipped the club into the bag, Otto stared at her with confusion and awe.

           “You said you hated golf.”

           “Yeah, well,” she replied. “I’m good at a lot of things I hate.” She looked him straight in the eye, her face not cracking an inch. 

           Recognition dawning, Otto’s expression morphed into one of horror and then outrage.

           “Hell of an ugly swing for such a pretty shot,” the senator said and started off down the hill, Vanessa not far behind with the giant bag on her back.

           “We’re not taking the cart?” Otto whined, slumping his shoulders and reluctantly following Lou down the hill.

           “Fine day,” the senator said as they reached the bottom of the hill, Lou close behind him.  

           “C’mon, Senator,” Lou said. “Can we cut the crap. Before we get into this test of manly uberstrength and I embarrass you so badly you decide to stop talking to me? You know why we’re here.”

           With a shrug, the senator turned and cracked his knuckles. “Okay. Cutting the crap. I don’t right care for the name, for a starter.”

           “You have a problem with H.R. 468?” Lou asked him. “That like an unlucky number or something?”

           “The Recon Bill,” he said.

           “That’s not—”

           “How about the Automatic and Semiautomatic Weapons Ban.”

           “Ah,” Lou said. “So you have a problem with the name because the name says exactly what the bill’s going to do?”

            Pulling three handwarmers from his pocket, the senator offered one to Otto, who stepped around Lou and gladly accepted, while Lou declined.

            “You know how many total gun deaths there were last year?” the senator asked Lou, but Otto replied with: “38, 658.”

            “And how many of those were suicides that had nothing to do with automatic or semiautomatic weapons?”

            “Senator,” Lou sighed.  

            “How many, Otto?”

             Reluctantly, Otto answered, “23, 109.”

            “So that leaves 15, 549 people killed with guns,” Armitage told them. “Now tell me, Louise. Out of these 15, 549 deaths, how many were the result of school, what do they call them, massacres? How many?”

             Otto looked at Lou before answering,“344.”

            “Point zero two percent of gun deaths!” Armitage shouted, and his shout echoed across the frozen tundra. “That’s not including suicide, and when you chuck in suicides, what we’re talking about, what we’re making this whole big stink about is point zero zero eight percent. You want to take away people’s guns for point zero zero eight percent? Christ almighty this is all about sensationalism!”

             “Yeah well, this is the world we live in now,” Lou informed him. “Maybe things were different back in Lincoln’s day when you were born.”

             This got a stilted laugh out of the senator, who rubbed his hands and continued walking to his ball.

             “Would murder still be illegal?” Lou asked him, “if only point zero zero eight percent of people did it, Senator?”

             “Now that’s not—”

             “Would it, Senator?” Lou persisted. “How about espionage, selling out your country. That’s a pretty fat hog, but, you know, somebody only rats out America point zero zero eight percent of the time. Big deal, right?”

              In response, Armitage pulled a cigar from his pocket, chomped off the end, and paused just long enough to light the tip and insert it between his lips.

             “There are some things where any amount is unacceptable. Don’t you agree, Senator?”

             “I will concede that point,” he told her. “But this, Ms. Thornton, is not one of those things.”

              “It was last week,” she argued. “It was two days ago. Two days ago, Senator, you told the president you’d work your damndest to make sure something like Grover Cleveland High never happened again.”

             “And I will,” he said. “But this isn’t the way.”

             “So if we back up a second,” Otto interrupted. “Your point before seemed to be that it wasn’t about automatic or semiautomatic weapons, in particular.”

             “That’s what I was saying,” Armitage confirmed through a puff of billowy smoke.

             “So it’s guns overall that’s the problem?”

             “Now don’t, don’t go twisting my words,” Armitage barked, lifting his hand in defense.

             “He’s right,” Lou told Otto, to which the senator smiled

             “Now that’s the first intelligent thing you said all day, Ms. Thornton!”  

             “We have a problem,” Lou said and grabbed the bag from Otto’s hands and stalked back up the hill, Otto turning in circles before eventually following.

              “Now just wait! Wait a damn second!” the senator screamed. “We just started.”

              “I could tell after one swing that I would have beaten you by at least twelve strokes!” Lou shouted down the hill. “You can thank me later, Senator, for not making you cry today!”

               His expression changing from confusion and anger to quiet mirth, the senator shook his head and watched two very strange individuals disappear over the top of the hill. Then he glanced at his watch, puffed his stogie, and screamed, “Vanessa!”

Chapter Text

FRIDAY – 22 days left

 

 

         In front of a crowd of twenty-six thousand anti-gun protesters, Helen Santos stood tall on a stage in the middle of a baseball field, her face broadcast on the three jumbo screens scattered around the stadium.

         “It’s not entirely about guns, people say.” The first lady paused to swallow and wet her lips. “People like NRA president Wilson LeGrange, people like Speaker of the House Vernon Monahan. They say it’s about the problems with our mental health system. They say it’s about a lack of personal accountability. They say it’s about the influence of video games and violence in our movies, on our television and computer screens. And they’re not wrong. I’m telling you, right now, they ARE NOT wrong. But it is also about guns. And while we work on these other complex issues, why don’t we also work on a fairly simple part of the solution? Limit the sale of most assault rifles!”

         The crowd came to life, chanting and roaring and clapping.

         “Limit semi-automatic weapons!”

         Another roar, and backstage, Donna closed the door that connected the room to the outside and spoke on the phone with her other hand up to her hear.

         “What! Josh I can’t hear you!”

         On the other end, Josh worked his way through a mob of protestors in front of the White House as the sun set low in the sky. The protestors were holding up signs that read “Assault rifles make you dead three times over. Isn’t once enough?” and “My son would have lived if not for bullet number six.”

         “What!” he said. “I can’t hear you! Hold on.”

         Setting the phone to his side, he showed the guard at the front gate his ID and rushed through the entrance.

         “Josh?” Donna walked farther into the long room. “Are you there?”

         “Hey, you there?” he said, reaching the front steps of the building.  

         “Uh, yeah,” she said.

         “How’s it going? You’re in Boise?”

         “Atlanta,” she told him, “Via Boise. We’re filling baseball stadiums, Josh. Baseball stadiums in the south. How have we not reached the tipping point of outraged citizens?”

         “I don’t know,” he said, pushing through the first door and showing two more guards his badge and ID. “But we haven’t. How’s the new material?”

         Donna looked back at the door that connected the backroom to the stage. Then she turned away and lowered her head. “You mean such greatest hits as ‘The Federal explosive laws, as amended by the Safe Explosives Act, prohibit anyone other than a licensee or permittee from knowingly transporting, shipping, causing to be transported, or receiving explosive materials’?”

         “Yeah, well, you and Snuffin are adding a little zest, I hope.”

         “She prefers Elsie.”

         “And I prefer Snuffin, and unless she changes her name, which you can do, you know, she should probably get used to, I mean she should BE used to, people bypassing the first name for the last time just about every time. It’s just so . . . Snuffin fun!”

         “Anyway,” Donna said. “ELSIE is zesting up the language. She’s working on new material all the way up to the big show.”

         “You mean Dallas?”

         “Uh-huh.”

         “Should be a good crowd,” Josh replied, his tone somewhere between sincere and sarcastic. “Where’s she at now?”

         Donna crossed the room and wrapped her hand around the doorknob. “Here,” she said, opening the door and extending the phone through the gap:

         “but freedom is not a blank slate,” the first lady bellowed. “We have to make sacrifices in a free society, and in this country we’ve fought wars to maintain our freedom. My husband has fought and flown combat missions for our freedom, but he and I and everyone here have made choices about which freedoms are most important, because it is not a blank slate. We are not free to do anything at all. Sometimes we have to decide what is better for everyone. Am I free to fly a commercial 747 without a license? No. I need to pass tests and qualify for that very responsible job, and we’ve all agreed this is the way it should be. That’s a choice we’ve made. And what about the freedom to own an assault rifle or a machine gun or a grenade launcher? Is that freedom more important than the freedom to walk down the street or sit in a grade school classroom without the fear of getting shot and killed? We shouldn’t have to make this choice, but unfortunately today, in the United States of America, we do have to make that choice, that sacrifice. We’ve turned the corner on civil rights, on gay rights, and we will turn the corner here. The only question is, how many more people will have to die, how many more children will have to die, before we finally turn the corner here and MAKE THE RIGHT CHOICE!” 

        Through the deafening roar of the crowd Donna closed the door and returned to the other side of the room, tucking the phone between shoulder and ear as she sat at a small metal table and opened a laptop.  

        “Not bad,” Josh remarked.  

        “She’s sick.”

        “What’s that?”

        “I said she’s coming down with a cold!”

        “She sounded . . . okay.”

        “Yeah, well.”

        “Is she really?” he asked, the playfulness gone from his tone.

        “I just said—”

        “If she is . . . Donna, if she is you have to pull her.”

        “What? No. She’s getting sick, Josh, but she’s—”

        “Donna. Listen to me. You have to pull her.”

        “What are you—”

        “You weren’t there that time in Portland,” he told her. “You’ve never seen her sick.”

         Donna turned away from the computer and nodded to a secret service agent walking by. “Josh. I don’t understand what you’re talking about. She’s going to finish and then go to bed early.”

         “Listen, I got to go,” he said. “We have to rethink, I don’t know, everything over here.”

         “You mean because of our supposed allies ducking for cover.”

         “Yeah. Listen. Get the first lady off the stage.”

         “Josh. I take orders from the first lady. I mean wouldn’t she know if she’s crossing some line?”

         “Okay,” he said through a sigh. “You’re right. Just . . . make sure to pay close attention and you gotta be quick if she starts flailing.”

         “I got it.”

         “And Donna?”

         “Yeah?”

         For a moment there was nothing but silence coming through the phone. She held the device away from her, then moved it back.

         “Josh?”

         “Uh-huh?”

         “You were going . . . to tell me something?”

         “Um, nothing,” he said.

         “O . . . kay,” she said. “Well then, good—"

          “I miss you,” he blurted. “That’s what I wanted to say. Get back here as soon as you can.”

          “I will,” she said and set the phone on the table. After pressing a few keys, she closed the laptop and tucked it in a black bag on the floor.  

          “Everything’s ready,” Elsie said, suddenly appearing on her right. Elsie was dressed like Donna in a gray Norma Kamali pants suit, but unlike Donna’s black boots, Elsie sported a pair of silver Asics.

          Eying the shoes, Donna asked her, “You get your fashion tips from Lou?”  

          “Great minds.” Elsie grinned, but then her eyes turned contemplative. “Hey, do you think we’re doing any good? Like, I mean, we’re always so careful to watch what we say, but I think sometimes we should push it as far as we can because then at least the other side might come back with something reasonable, not that they can be reasonable on guns. Hey,” Elsie said and jabbed Donna in the shoulder.

          “Huh? Sorry. What?”

          “I was, like, talking,” Elsie told her, “and you were in la-la land.”

          “Sorry.” Donna walked to the door with Elsie on her heels.

          “Want to talk about it?”

          “Not really. It’s just.”

          “Josh,” Elsie said. “It’s always Josh. You just talked to him right?”

          “Uh-huh.”

          “Did he call me Snuffin again?”

          “Our anniversary’s at the end of the month,” Donna replied, suddenly changing her mind and crossing back to the other side of the room.

          “And you think he’s going to forget because he forgot last year.”

          “Last year we were campaigning. Plus there was the whole Krakow thing.”

          “We’re always campaigning,” Elsie countered, “and there’s always a Krakow thing or Bangladesh thing or a Hong Kong thing.”

          “I want to find a way to remind him without letting him know, you know?”

          Elsie sat on this a few seconds before she asked Donna, “Do you think he loves you?”

         “I know he loves me.”

         “And cares about you?”

         “Yes.”

         “And does he let you know, like does he show you?”

         Donna gave her a nod.

        “So if that’s the case, doesn’t remembering the anniversary become more of a test, like you have to prove you love me by climbing this mountain or fighting this lion or remembering this thing?”

        “I don’t know,” Donna answered, crossing back towards the stage side of the room. “All I know is it’s important to me that he remember. And I’m trying to work on it.”

        Elsie joined her next to the door. “You should really listen to me,” she told Donna. “People who don’t listen to me end up in Omaha building a grass roots campaign for a twenty-four-year-old former college football star who throws at least a dozen ‘shout-outs’ into every one of his speeches.”

        To this Donna shot her a confused smile. “You told me Will said he’s never been happier.”

        “Yeah but . . .” Elsie wrinkled her nose. “It’s Omaha. I mean. C’mon.”  

        The thirty-two-year-old speechwriter placed her ear to the door. “Hey this is the good part.”

        “Listen.” Donna breathed deep and wrapped her hand around the door handle. “We need to get her off the stage.”

        “Huh?”

        “Josh said we need to get her off stage. Something about her being sick.”

        “She’s not sick,” Elsie replied. “She’s just coming down with something.”

        “Yeah.” Donna looked down at the floor before returning her eyes to the door. “Yeah,” she agreed. “Okay. So we’ll just pay close attention.

        “She’s tough,” Elsie said with a shrug. “Here.”

        Elsie cracked open the door, which shaved the fuzz from the first lady’s muffled words.

        “We can no longer pretend we live alone in the world,” the first lady announced. “We have neighbors, and sometimes our neighbors have good ideas that would greatly benefit us if we put aside our pride. If we embraced humility.”
            “Good line, huh?” Elsie said, but Donna was too busy watching the first lady lightly sway from side to side.

         “Some people now are changing the conversation,” the first lady calmly stated into the microphone. “They’re saying it’s not about automatic or semiautomatic weapons.”

         “Hey,” Elsie said, turning away from the door. “That’s not in the speech.”

         Shaking her head, Elsie pulled a few folded pages from her pocket and started to scan the text.

         “These people,” Helen Santos told the silent crowd, “say that we’re making too much of it, because most gun deaths are not school shootings. They’re suicides. They’re inner-city affairs between people who don’t matter. People we shouldn’t worry about in the first place.”

         As the first lady continued, Elsie crumbled her pages into a ball and looked around nervously. “You want me to stop her? Should I stop her?”

         “Just . . . .” Donna searched the backstage for someone to ask, but there was no one. “Wait to see what she—”

         “You sure?”

         “No, but just wait.”

         On stage Helen Santos wiped the sweat from her forehead. She seemed woozy, shaky, and the crowd, very quiet, seemed aware that something was happening.  

         “People say we can’t compare the United States to, to Australia,” the first lady continued. “We’re two different cultures, two different ideologies. But it’s really not that complicated. It isn’t. They got rid of their guns. The entire nation of Australia got rid of almost all their guns. Automatic, semiautomatic, shotguns, rifles, handguns. Everything. And they did it in six days. Six days! And those same people who shout the Second Amendment, who shout about our rights and freedoms also shout about how America is number one. We’re the best! But guess what? We’re not the best. In academic achievement we rank tenth in the world. In quality of life we rank seventeen. Seventeen! In best countries for women we’re number sixteen. In best countries to raise children we’re number nineteen. We say we’re number one. But when it counts, when it’s about making sacrifices to prove our leadership in the world, we can’t do it. We cannot do it!”

         Holding onto the door for support, Donna listened in shock to the first lady adlibbing as Elsie Snuffen stared her down, waiting for an order.

         “Okay,” Donna said. “Tell Jeff to kill the lights and go talk to her. Get her off. Go go!”

         Elsie ran back and fought for a minute with two of the security guards before they let her by, while in the back room Donna chewed on her fingers and continued to watch the train wreck.

         “They’re right!” the first lady shouted. “It’s not about semiautomatic weapons or automatic weapons. It’s about all guns. ALL GUNS. Get rid of all guns! If you want a gun, fine. But earn the right to own one. Prove it. Otherwise, we need to start the cleanup right now. Right now! We need to make some sacrifices and be ACCOUNTABLE, because freedom means being responsible, doesn’t it? Otherwise you have anarchy. We have to earn the right to say we’re number one, because you can’t say your number one and then go scurrying back into the shadows. That’s not America! That’s not who we are! We are—"

         Before the first lady could continue, the arena went black, the darkness filled with murmuring that grew and spread into shouts and screams. Twenty seconds later the lights returned like the plucked sun had been stitched back into the sky. And when everyone recovered enough to turn back to the stage, they saw Helen Santos still standing behind the podium.

         “They’re having some technical problems,” the first lady announced, now pale as ash, “so I’m going to wrap it up. Thank you all for coming out, and I hope, together, we can do, do something.”

         On the other side of the open door, Donna waited, her nervous fingers peeling the paint off the wall. She stepped back when Elsie appeared.

         “She’s going to be sick,” Elsie told her.

         “Yeah I think that boat has sailed.

         “No,” Elsie said. “Like sick sick. She said—”

         “Move, please,” the first lady politely commanded and Donna and Elsie and three other staffers jumped to the side as Helen Santos bull-rushed the bathroom door on the other side of the room.

         “Somebody get Dr. Morgan!” Donna shouted.

         With the first lady suddenly there and then suddenly not there, Elsie and Donna didn’t know what to do. So they stood for a while, not saying a word.

         “I had innocent children in there,” Elsie remarked after a near minute of silence.

         To this Donna looked at her like maybe she’d gone off the rails.

         “I just realized,” Elsie clarified. “Earlier in the speech, she said ‘how many more children will have to die?’”

         “I don’t—”

         “She said how many more children and she should have said how many more innocent children.”

         “You think we need to differentiate between innocent children and little hooligans?”

         “It’s a cadence thing,” Elsie countered. “It’s for effect, not practicality. Even if it’s not necessary, when those people walk out of the building they’ll have that word ringing in their unconscious. Innocent. Innocent. Innocent. Or would have.”

         “Yeah I don’t think that’s going to be the problem five minutes from now and then from now until we die.”

         “I was just saying . . . you know . . . because I figured there was no point stating the obvious. But you should definitely talk to her when she’s done throwing up.”

         Donna stared at the floor and breathed deep. “I didn’t think she was sick, like sick sick.”

         “She might have been delirious.”

         “She seemed pretty cogent,” Donna argued.

         “Yeah,” Elsie agreed. “But it could be like some people who when they get drunk they don’t slur their speech or stumble, but it’s like they turn into a different person, you know?”

         “I had a roommate like that,” Donna mumbled and stared at the wall to her left.

         “O…kay,” Elsie replied. “So maybe that’s what just happened. I mean have you ever seen the first lady sick?”

         “Not really,” Donna answered. “But even if your theory is right, that doesn’t change what just happened.”

         “No,” Elsie agreed. “But at least we know for the future.”

         “Well good for us.” Donna pulled out her phone and began scrolling. “Call C.J.,” she told Elsie.

         “C.J’s still out of the country,” Elsie informed her.  

         “Then Annabeth. Make sure she’s prepped and ready to answer a hundred questions about what the first lady just said. We can’t dial anything back. She’s sick, very sick, and was delirious.”

         Donna reached down and grabbed her laptop, opened it with one hand while she continued to scroll through her phone. “Call Lou, let her know what happened if she doesn’t already, and Charlie.”

         “Josh?”

         “He’s unavailable. Peter!” Spinning around, Donna stopped when she saw a young man carrying a black laptop bag on his shoulder.

         “Peter, get Leslie Merit at the Times for a quick one-on-one.”

         “In person?”

         Donna looked up from her phone like he’d just asked her to marry him. “On . . . the phone,” she told him. “And Frank Elevantine at CNN. He won’t bite down so hard if we get to him first. Annabeth can smooth out the rest.”

         “We should get her diagnosis as fast as possible,” Elsie suggested. “Make it clear it was an accident and that she’s the victim here.”

         Donna stood on her toes and looked around amid the chaos. “We’re not making a spectacle of her.”

         “That’s not what I meant,” Elsie said as a middle-aged woman with short black hair and wire-framed glasses parted the crowd, appearing in front of them wearing a blue blazer over jeans and escorting the first lady by the elbow. Wiping her mouth with a napkin and combing her trembling hands through her very light blonde hair, the first lady resembled the ghostly version of herself.

         “She’s lost a lot of fluids,” Dr. Morgan told them.

         “You think?” The first lady released a sad chuckle and stood for a moment between Donna and Elsie who both silently studied her face.

         “What just happened?” Helen Santos asked them, looking up to catch their surprised reactions before her face went blank and her chin dropped towards her chest.

         “I’ll get her to the car,” the doctor told them.

         “Do you know what this is?” Donna asked. “Is it serious?”

         To this the doctor smiled and shook her head.

         “The flu as far as I can tell, but not too serious. We’ll hook up an IV in her room, get her what she needs, but really she’s not too bad. She just needs fluids and rest.”

         Elsie turned to Donna. “They’re going to have to go through the reporters.”

         “I’ll go,” Donna said and turned to the doctor. “Take the first lady out the west side.”

         “I’m hot,” the first lady mumbled.  

         “Can we get a cold pack!” Donna shouted and when a young man arrived with the pack, Elsie tucked the cold cloth into the first lady’s hands.

         “Go,” Donna said, and watched as Elsie and the doctor and the first lady and six secret service agents headed through a door on the left.

         Heaving a deep breath, Donna turned right, walked through a door and down an empty corridor with two agents trailing behind. She pushed through another door to a media circus: flashing lights, endless clicks and people shouting so many questions all the words blurred together into a nightmare of shapes and sounds.

         Letting the agents clear the path, Donna followed with elbows raised and eyes nearly closed.

         At some point the sounds receded and she was sitting alone in the back of a limousine.

         Quickly she pulled out her phone and pressed a button.

         “Is she out? Okay, good. I’ll meet you there.”

         As the car began to move, Donna hung up and dialed another number, and waited.

         “You were right,” she said, “but she said some things before we were able to pull her. Call me back.” She dialed another number, listened, and was about to hang up when someone answered.  

         “Donna?” came a strained feminine voice.

         “C.J.” Donna said. “You sound like you’re on the other side of the planet. Where are you?”

         “On the other side of the planet.”

         “What?”

         “I’m in Jakarta, Donna. What is it?”

         Realization dawning on her, Donna focused for a few seconds on her breathing. “I’m sorry. Elsie said you were, I mean—I’m sorry.”

         “Listen I have a few minutes before he gets out,” C.J. told her. “What is it?”

         “We have a problem, C.J.”

         “What?”

         “The First Lady, she came down with a cold. And she was on stage giving a speech.”

         “Uh-oh.”

         “Yeah.”

         “. . . . . . .Yeah.”

Chapter Text

            

           “Where am I?” C.J. repeated into the phone, her voice echoing across the cavernous space. “One of Limpele’s presidential palaces,” she told Josh. “Entrance hall, or I guess it’s called the Ruang Kredential.”

           “How many’s he got?”

           “Six.” In the corner she stared up at a colorful eight-foot-tall tapestry depicting the Mahabharata. Moving her eyes up, she studied the high wooden ceilings and gilded trim and considered for a moment sitting in one of the tall, high-backed precolonial chair placed near the walls at six-foot intervals. But one of the five secret service agents circling the room gave her a look, so C.J. kept walking.

           “So, how’s it going there?” Josh asked from halfway around the world.  

           “Oh, you know, the really old men have been marathoning it for the last two days, but that’s not why I’m calling. Did you talk to Donna?”

           “No, but I see she just—”

           “And you didn’t hear anything on the news?”

           “I was going through the tunnels, in fact I’m still three floors down and . . . why are you telling me about Donna, C.J.?”

           “Because she called me.”

           “She called you.”

           “She forgot I was—listen!” C.J. changed directions and flashed one of the stoic agents a goofy smile to see if he’d flinch.

           He didn’t.

           “The first lady has a cold, Josh . . .  Josh?”

           “Yeah I know. I told Donna to yank her off the—"

           “Yeah well she didn’t yank fast enough.”

           “. . . . oh no.”

           “Yeah.”

           “Did Donna tell you what she said?”

           “Uh-huh.”

           “Tell me.”

           “Well she was a little panicked but pretty cool considering. I’m sure you’ll get it word-for-word in a minute, and—”

           “C.J.!”

           “Basically, the first lady near the end of her speech, or what turned out to be the end of her speech to a stadium full of supporters, advocated for the total removal—”

           “Oh no.”

           “The total removal of firearms, and severe, protracted background checks.”

           “Jesus. Anything else?”

           “Just that Americans who claim to be number one but won’t get rid of guns are a bunch of phonies.”

           “She said phonies?”

           “I’m paraphrasing.”

           “Well don’t . . . paraphrase, please.”

           “I’m sure you’ll get it in a second. Are you—”

           “I’m heading up the stairs.”

           “Okay.”

           “So . . . have him call me or the president from the plane.”

           “Got it.”

           “And C.J.?”

           “Yeah?”

           “This Robert Blithe guy, the one who said that thing in the press—”

           “I know what he said.”

           “Yeah, well. You’re not planning to do anything, like . . .”

           “Like what,” she said, glaring now at the agent who’d coaxed her away from the chair.

           “I don’t—”

           “Did Toby say something?”

           “We know how you get,” Josh said after a considerable pause. “And right now wouldn’t be a good time for a scene.”

           “When would be a good time for a scene?” she asked. “Just so, you know, I can mark it down in my calendar.”

           “C.J.”

           “Don’t worry about Blithe, Josh. I’m taking care of it, and you’ll never hear another word about it. Okay?”

           “Yeah . . . just . . . yeah okay.”

           “How was Big Block of Cheese Day?”

           “Didn’t happen,” he said.

           “What?”

           “Pushed to Monday just for you.”

           “Really?” she said.

           “No not really,” he told her. “But now you will get your own blockhead.”

           “Fantastic,” C.J. mumbled and ended the call.

            In the cavernous hall, she continued to pace another fifteen minutes until finally two massive wooden doors swung out, each of them six feet wide and ten feet tall and at least superficially constructed of gold.

            A few dozen armed and uniformed Indonesian men exited in file, followed by a stooped old man in a white suit hobbling along with the help of a cane. Next to the man walked President Jed Bartlett with his own cane, although the former U.S. president seemed to be managing much better than his counterpart.

            As they walked, the two men continued to talk and lean into each other, one or both of them tapping each other on the arms or shoulders as they smiled or laughed at this or that.

            Ten feet in front of C.J., the old man in the white suit turned right without ever once glancing in her direction. He walked towards the exit, his massive security detail peeling off  behind him, leaving the three very large secret service agents who’d walked out with Bartlett. 

            “The hostages?” she asked as they walked.

            Bartlett shook his head and let out a long, slow breath. “There may be some wiggle room. Let’s get back to the plane and get Santos on the horn.”

            “Can you at least divulge if he’s going to be happy with what you’re going to tell him?”

            “Being president,” Bartlett said, “is about choosing the best of the least bad situations, and it’s rarely about actually being happy with any of them.”

            “It’s also about never directly answering a question.”

            “That too,” Bartlett admitted.

            He walked along and finally glanced up at the woman walking next to him. “He’s not going to be happy, no. But it’s a start, and that’s better than what it could have been.”

             Bartlett’s stomach groaned and he widened his eyes in response. “I’m starving,” he said and looked around. “I used to know this great Thai restaurant in the Sempaka district. It was called.” He searched his memory but couldn’t find it.

             “Namaaz?” C.J. guessed and Bartlett’s eyes opened wide.

             “That’s it! God C.J. I miss you filling in the blanks.”


             “Are there a lot of blanks these days, sir?”

             Bartlett let out a small laugh. “Not as many as there could be. Anyway, how about we get back to the plane? In my eight years flying Air Force One I never once indulged in Javier’s famous foot massages. But right now you wouldn’t believe how much my tootsies are throbbing.”

             They started walking, four men in front of them, four behind.

             “It’s actually Air Force Two,” C.J. corrected him.  

             “Huh?”

             “Air Force Two?”

             For a moment Bartlett looked stricken. “No Javier?”

             “There probably wasn’t a Javier on the other plane,” she said. “Not anymore at least. But they’ll have somebody to rub your feet, sir. And if they don’t, we’ll get one of the agents to do it. So how’d it go?”

             “What’s that?” Bartlett replied, his mind still lost in the world of feet and honey.

             “The meeting, sir.”

             “Yeah. Well. Limpele’s okay,” he said with a shrug. “Typical in a lot of ways. Arrogant, entitled, acts more like a divine-right ruler than an elected representative of his people.”

             “He has been in power for thirty-six years,” C.J. offered.

             “And what I’m saying is that all things considered, for a despot he ain’t so bad.”

             At the bottom of the wide concrete stairs, Bartlett surveyed the city before ducking into the limousine, C.J. right behind him.

             “I wish we could take the same yard stick out to measure every leader,” he told her, “but Limpele’s got a sense of humor at least over the fact that he’s not only still alive after about fourteen assassination attempts, but that there’s really no one left willing to put up a fight. Now they’re just waiting for him to die.”

             The limousine pulled out onto the road as Bartlett lifted a handkerchief from his pocket and steadily wiped his forehead.

             “You sure you’re okay, sir?”

             With a nod, Bartlett tucked the handkerchief in his pocket. “You know the story of Mithridates of Pontus?” he asked C.J. while he grabbed a bottle of water from a cooler built into the floor.

            “Can’t say I do.”

            “Sorry. Mithridates the sixth.”

            “You’re forgiven,” she said. “And where was Pontus?”

            “Little kingdom south of the Black Sea. Now part of modern-day Turkey. Anyway, this guy, Mithridates was king when Sulla and Marius ruled Rome. Would have been a couple decades before Caesar. And the legend went that when he was young, Mithridates had to hide out because his relatives were trying to kill him. So he lived in the woods, traveling from cave to cave, village to village, and while he traveled, he learned about poisons, all kinds of poisons, and in order to inoculate himself, he made this antidote containing a few drops of every poison, and he took the antidote every single day. Fast forward to when he’s back on the throne and one of his wives hands him a drink, and I’m sure you can guess what it is?”

            “Whiskey tonic?” C.J. suggested.

            “Wine laced with one of the deadliest poisons known at the time. And Mithridates, he takes a sip and recognizes it right away. But of course it’s not deadly to him.”

            “I take it this wife didn’t live very long after that.”

            “Not long at all,” Bartlett laughed. “In fact Mithridates makes her drink the poison, and she ends up thrashing around on the floor in front of all these people, dying what must have been an excruciating death. And no one ever tried to poison him again. In the face of all these enemies, within and without, C.J., even after several wars with Rome, Mithridates managed to die of natural causes. And really he was the only ruler the Romans couldn’t break with their military might.”

            “And so, Limpele?” C.J. asked.

            “Poisoned four times and he’s lived to tell the tale. Now say what you will about the man, but that’s certainly something.”

            “It certainly is, sir.”

            For a while they sat quietly and watched the luscious green of the trees and bushes and gardens pass by, along with the hundreds of locals zipping along on scooters and bicycles and packed into the backs of pick-up trucks.

            “What’d you think of him?” Bartlett eventually asked her.

            “Limpele?”

            “Yeah.”

            C.J. rolled the question around her mind. “He looked kind of like a really tanned raisin in military gear. And the way he walked all hunched over, I wouldn’t think his relatives would have long to wait. I remember him from our time, and he seems a lot older. A lot older.”

            Bartlett looked up and gave C.J. a fatherly grin. “That’s what he wants you to think.”

           “He’s eighty-seven, sir.”

           “Eight-seven or seventeen, the guy’s wily, C.J. Cagey, you know?”

 

*

 

           Aboard Air Force Two, C.J. and Bartlett sat at a small dining room table, plates filled with greens in front of them, along with two wine glasses and a bottle between them. At the far end of the table, Santos stared out from a flat screen on the wall.

           “How’s the plane?” Santos asked them.

           “It’ll do,” Bartlett replied. “You still got Javier?”  

           “Javier?”

           “The foot guy,” C.J. clarified.

           “Oh yeah! Javier. Sure he’s still here. You should have said something—he could have come along. Before Javier, I never even knew foot rubs were a thing.”

           To this Bartlett shrugged off his disappointment and forked a carrot. “Limpele says hi.”

           “Great,” Santos mumbled. “Did you pass on my regards to his five wives and forty kids?”

           “Uh-huh.” Bartlett replied through a mouthful of carrot. “Although now it’s about ten less kids due to certain uprisings and intrafamilial disputes.”

           “And the hostages?” C.J. said, her tone indicating her impatience.  

           “Yeah, well, Limpele is willing to talk to the Kebenarans,” Bartlett announced, “but it can’t look like we have any part in it.”

           On the large screen, Santos gestured with a thoughtful nod. “So how’s he going to play it?”

           “He wants mining rights in the Hubei province.”

           “China?” C.J. said, searching her brain for the right connections.

           “And this is what he’s saying the Kebenarans want,” Santos clarified.

           Bartlett nodded. “And a small stake in a mine in northern Utah.”

           Through the screen, Santos let out a long sigh and massaged the back of his neck. Someone whispered something in his ear, and for a few seconds he vanished off screen. But then he was back, facing C.J. and Bartlett with a scowl.

           “And for that?” he asked.

           “For that,” Bartlett replied, “he’ll negotiate with the Kebenarans, take claim of the hostages, and while he’ll tell the world they’re under lock and key, he’ll send them back to their designated countries with the understanding that they’ll have to remain hidden for a couple of months until the media storm fades and we can come with something better to replace what really happened.”

           “So while Christian Damont is sitting at home in Worchester,” C.J. interjected, “the world’s going to think he’s rotting away in an Indonesian Prison? Or worse, being tortured while we stand by? If that’s how we play it, we’re going to take a lot of heat from this on all sides.”

           “If you bring in a small circle,” Bartlett told Santos, “let them in on the deal, they’ll be able to quell the angry voices.”

           “The gang of eight,” Santos mused.

           “That’s right.”

           “You mean another bunch of old sexist white men?”

           Santos and Bartlett both turned their attention to C.J.

           “Well that’s what they are,” she said, and when they finally look away she asked them, “why these mines?”

           “The Hubei province is small,” Santos said mostly to himself.  

           “Relatively speaking,” Bartlett added.  

           “And they mine mostly copper, tungsten, and molybdenum. I’m guessing it’s molybdenum Limpele wants.” Santos bit his lip and looked down, thinking five steps ahead. “Which makes me guess he’s talking about the bertrandite mine in the Spor Mountains of Utah.”

           “I take it Paulo has continued with the geology lessons?” Bartlett asked him.

           “Every other Thursday.”  

           “Sorry,” C.J. said. “Me and Paulo had a falling out. What about these metals?”

           But Santos ran on like he hadn’t heard.

           “So if I take this to its logical conclusion,” he said to Bartlett, “you told him no way on rights but that we’d consider trading them unrefined bertrandite at extremely reasonable rates, and that we’d negotiate a deal between Limpele and Shang considering Shang’s meltdown the last time they met.”

           “Shang melted down,” C.J. recalled, “because Limpele called his wife . . . I think it was daughter of a bull.”

           “Daughter of a mule,” Santos corrected her.

           “Anyway,” Bartlett said, lifting a large piece of broccoli and staring at it like it might have come from the moon, “that’s about the long and short of it.” To which Santos sighed and again massaged the back of his neck.

           “How about a rescue operation?” he asked.

           “I couldn’t get Limpele to tell me where they’re holding them,” Bartlett admitted. “And I get the feeling he doesn’t quite know. He’s as close as you can get to maintaining trust with the Kebenarans, and they won’t even tell him where they have the reporters. Plus there’s the fallout even if we succeeded. Well. I’m sure Vinick and McNally already told you the same thing in five different ways.”

           “Eight, actually,” Santos said with a smirk. “Will you be able to keep a lid on this, C.J., maybe throw a sharp reporter or two down the rabbit hole?”

           “So we’re doing this?” she replied.

           “C.J. Will you be able to—”

           “Yes,” she told Santos while her eyes studied the man sitting across from her. “Of course, Mr. President,” she added with not a small amount of hostility in her tone.

           In the gap that followed, Santos stared at something off screen while Bartlett and C.J. exchanged confused glances.

           “Have, uh.” Santos paused to scratch the back of his neck. “Have either of you heard about Helen’s speech in Atlanta?”

           “No,” Bartlett told him.  

           “I talked to Donna and Josh,” C.J. confessed.

           “Yeah, okay,” the president said, and with slight nod, Santos’s image faded to black.

           “The mines, C.J.” Bartlett began, but C.J. lifted her hand for him to stop.

           “Paulo taught me enough” she said. “I just figure it out.”  

           “Twelve years later,” Bartlett mused, “and we’re given the same tray with the same terrible choices.”

           With these last words floating slowly to the floor, the two sat in silence, each of them picking at their meals.

           “Just a quick update folks,” came a deep, mellow voice from the speakers. “We’re expecting a smooth flight from here on out. ETA’s fifteen hours, thirty-six minutes.”

           C.J. rolled her eyes at the news and turned back to her salad.

           “You look good,” Bartlett told her. “I didn’t have a chance to say that earlier. How was the Western Sahara?”

           C.J. looked up with a smile, a little confused.

           “I know we’ve seen each other,” Bartlett told her, “and we’ve talked about this before, so don’t worry about me losing my mind. It’s just, up here, in this room on this plane, every conversation takes on a different gravity, so you ask the same question here you asked on the ground twenty times, and who knows what you’ll get. So . . . how was Africa?”

           “Well.” C.J. paused to pour wine into both their glasses. “You’d be surprised how fast you can spend a billion dollars.” She looked at the president’s expression and laughed “Well I guess if there’s anyone who wouldn’t be surprised….”

           “A great thing you did,” he said. “Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, the Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia. In the history of the world there’s never been a solid, stable, functional highway system across those lands. And now I hear towns are springing up along the road. I mean really, C.J., you’ll end up creating a whole new civilization, a new interconnected society along that road system that’s similar to the people around them but also slightly different. That’s more than most people have accomplished. Hell that’s more than I’ve ever done.”

            “It’s hard,” she admitted. “I mean I did the press secretary thing. I did the chief of staff thing, but this. Here in this thing I was in charge of this one project, and it was so big, so sprawling, but still it was one thing, you know, this central hub, this thesis, whereas—”

            “Whereas sitting in the Oval Office or next to it, you wake up every few days or every few weeks and you’re not quite sure what it is that you’re doing. It’s like a big live-or-die game of whack-a-mole.”

            C.J. nodded and smiled. “Still,” she told him, “when it ended, and Danny and I came back to the States, more than before I thought maybe that’s how it felt for you. To do this big thing, to put everything you have into it, and then . . . .”

            “And then.” The former president sighed. “So much empty space.”

            “So much empty space,” she agreed, “like you’re standing alone in the . . .”

            “Sahara?”

            “I was going to say Madison Square Gardens.”

            Bartlett stared across the table with something between a smirk and confused gaze. “I wouldn’t have expected a sports metaphor.”

            “That’s Danny,” she said. “He loved the Knicks, and the Mets, and of course the Fighting Irish.” C.J.’s face turned red and she started to laugh. “I just thought of this time towards the end of the project in Somalia. We were at this market in Mogadishu and Danny knew I liked this certain kind of date. So he tried to tell the vendor what a great selection he had but ended up calling the vendor’s daughters…” C.J. shook her head and tried to go on, but now she was laughing too hard. “The man,” she finally continued, “the man chased Danny down the Jidka Sodonka with a machete for three blocks, and I chased behind screaming to the man that Danny had actually slept with his daughters.”

            Bartlett, laughing along with her laughter, now leaned back and tried to figure out what had just happened. “You . . . I don’t understand,” he said. “You egged the guy on?”

            Still laughing, C.J. nodded. “Danny and I had had a pretty big fight that morning, and he was at least twenty yards ahead of the vendor, who had to be in his sixties, with a limp. Don’t get me wrong. The guy was full of piss and vinegar and as outraged as any sixty-year-old I’d ever seen. But he wasn’t going to catch up. I let him chase Danny a few blocks and then I caught up and explained to him it was all a translation issue. Plus I threw in the names of a couple crime lords in the area, which will shut just about anyone up, even an angry father. So . . .”

            While she wiped her eyes and slowly recovered enough to skip forward in her mind, the former president reached across the table and set his hand on hers.

            “C.J.”

           “You know,” she said, her eyes on the plate in front of her, “even before what happened, I mean we got all the reports, all the car accidents and injuries every year. And I always thought, I thought how much longer can I slip behind the wheel and get lucky? And with the autonomous vehicle right around the corner I used to think, please, just get me through a little while longer until we can get the humans off the road, or at least, stop the human error that causes so many deaths. I wasn’t asking God, I wasn’t praying. It was more like I was asking the timeline, eventualities to just speed up a bit.”

            Drawing in a stilted, raspy breath, she sipped her wine before continuing.

            “It’s really amazing isn’t it, that we allow this thing, this heavy, dangerous machine to be owned and operated by the stupidest, most reckless animals in the world. And we’ve accepted it. I mean at least it makes a little more sense than guns which serve no real practical function for most people. And drugs? Nope. Euthanasia? Nope. Nudity on television? Absolutely not. But thirty thousand car fatalities a year? Sure, why not? Last year there were more than five million accidents, and when I say more than I mean half a million more than, like five and a half million crashes.”

            “C.J.”

            “Please, don’t,” she said, pulling her hand out from under his. “I already got that from Toby and it’s just, I think the worst part about having a visible profile is when something bad happens. You can’t ever pull the covers far enough over your head.”

            After a minute of silence, the president stood and walked around the table, taking a seat on the couch behind her.

            Slowly, C.J. rose from her chair and lowered herself next to him. After forcing back a few waves coming up, she placed her head on his shoulder and he wrapped his arm around her. A few seconds later she cried long and hard without making a sound.  

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

MONDAY – Nineteen days left

 

 

           

            Tilting his head from left to right and right to left in front of the bathroom mirror, Toby brushed his teeth and then spit three times. After the third spit he rinsed, wiped his mouth with a towel, and pulled at his beard while opening the medicine cabinet. He fumbled a few fruitless seconds through the pill bottles and creams and ointments until he finally shouted: “Ricky!”

            “Uh-huh?” came a sleepy feminine reply from the next room.

            “My razor,” he said, pulling his boxers just over his waistline.

            “Which one? You have, I think, eighteen.”

            “The trimming razor, the one for my—”

            Toby’s words were interrupted by the appearance of a toned woman in her early fifties wearing a semitransparent blue nightgown. As Ricky sidled up next to him, she picked up a brush from the counter and began running it through her black, elbow-length hair.

            “Ahem,” Toby said, feigning annoyance but unable to hide the smile from his face.

            “Oh!” Ricky said, turning her angular face towards him. “Did you want something?”

            “Someone,” he replied, “moved my razor.”

            Opening the top drawer below the counter, Ricky reached in and without looking pulled out a small battery-operated trimmer.

            “Is this the object in question, Mr. Ziegler?” She held the razor, turned it on, and moved it close to his beard, which caused Toby to reel backward, nearly toppling over into the shower.

            “Oh! Sorry!” she half shouted/half laughed, and pulled him away from the tub. “Should we start over?”

Clearing the smile from her face, Ricky stood up straight and held the razor in front of his chest. “Is this the item in question,” Mr. Ziegler?”

In response, Toby took hold of the razor with his right hand, while he slipped his left hand around her naked back. “It is Miss Rafferty.”

            “You know,” she said, squinching her nose as she kissed him and then pulling back a few inches to run her fingers through his beard. “You’re a bit—”

            “Don’t say it.”

            “What, fussy?” she laughed. “And, I mean I like the beard and all, but—”

            Toby kissed her ear lobe and whispered “not going to happen.”

            “A girl can dream,” she lamented and reached around him to grab the purple toothbrush next to his green one.

            While Ricky brushed, Toby trimmed his beard, both of them spending the next moment in comfortable silence.

            “I’m sorry I’ve been traveling so much,” Ricky said after her second spit and rinse.  

            “It’s true,” he said, setting down the trimmer and running a comb through the hair on his chin. “I would prefer you barefoot and waiting when I get home. But I’m concerned that won’t play well considering the administration’s progressive agenda.”

             From a hook on the back of a closet door, she pulled a white terrycloth robe and wrapped it around herself before crossing the room and walking down the hall to the kitchen.

             “So how is it?” she said, lifting a coffee cup from the drying rack.

             “Yes please,” Toby said, following her towards the coffee maker, wrapping his arms around her waist while she poured out two cups.

             “How is what?” he asked her.

             “You know, starting from the bottom.”

             “You asked me that already.”


            “And I’m still waiting for an honest answer,” she said, handing him the cup and walking to the fridge while he took a seat at the table.

            “Great,” he told her.

            “Mmm. That’s very . . . articulate.”

            “Shut up.”

            “No really, I think that was Lincoln’s first draft for the Gettysburg Address. ‘It’s great folks. It’s all just great.’”

            “I was going to expand,” he said, “if you let me.”

            Motioning for him to go on, Ricky pulled a carton of pineapple slices from the fridge and sat across from him.

            “Okay,” he said. “It’s actually great, in that, I thought it would feel terrible, like a huge failure, but being out in the bullpen, just focusing on the work and not the status, there really is nothing else. Like the pressures to hold my ground and maintain this image? Gone. Now I’m doing the work because I like doing the work.”

            “So it’s all sunshine and apples?”

            “Apples?”

            “You know I like apples,” she said with a shrug, biting into a chunk of pineapple.

            “It’s not all, whatever you just said,” he replied. “There are still a few snots, a few airheads, not to mention the whole republican party and half of our own. But it’s amazing how much of the old team is there. I mean I never thought C.J. would come back, and Charlie’s, well Charlie’s me? It’s like you couldn’t write this, you know?”

            Ricky sipped her coffee. “She bottomed out, didn’t she, after Danny’s accident?”

            “I wouldn’t say bottomed out.” Toby grimaced at the thought that just crossed his mind and at the taste of his coffee.

            “I didn’t put anything in it,” Ricky said.

            “Yeah I can tell.” Toby stood and turned to the fridge. He opened the door and lowered his head. “Anyway she’d created a plan for the two of them and everything was lined up for that life, and then he died and—”

            “She had to start over,” Ricky interrupted. “Sounds like bottoming out to me. It is something, though, the both of you, returning to your roots for the love of the game, right?”

            Shoving coaster-sized pieces of pineapple in her mouth, Ricky rose from her chair and turned, and wrapped her arms around him.

            “You know I’ve always had a thing for you,” she whispered into his ear.

            “I know.”

            “Did you?”

            “Not really,” he confessed.   

            “But I don’t think I could have ever been with that man,” she said.  

            “That man?”

            Toby pulled back and turned with a carton of half and half in his hand.

            “That’s right,” she said. “But this guy? This guy who goes to therapy once a week, this guy who makes himself a part of his children’s lives, who still has an ego the size of Alaska but doesn’t take himself too seriously anymore? This guy who had the courage to return to the place that holds such painful memories? This guy, he’s . . . well he’s kind of . . . irresistible.”

            “This guy,” Toby said, sliding his hands around her lower back, “who finally recognizes what’s important in his life and can tell the people he cares about that he cares about them.”

            Ricky stared at him with an expression of hope and longing. “Maybe he can say these things more directly? And more often?”

            “O . . .kay.” He leaned in close. “I care about you like, so much,” he said and kissed her before adding, “and I couldn’t be happier with my life. And I feel so lucky that you were there and I was there, and so on and so forth.”

            Ricky wrinkled her nose. “Pretty good, but sounds like you might need a speechwriter for the ending.”

            With a dry chuckle, Toby reached back with his right hand and poured the creamer into his coffee. Then, still holding onto Ricky with his left hand, he maneuvered around her to return the carton to the refrigerator.

            “Hey,” she said, gripping the hairs of his beard between her fingers. “Maybe to mark the start of this new chapter, the new Toby Ziegler could get rid of a certain part of that old self?”

            When she’d finished talking, Toby could do no more than stare, bewildered by the sincerity in her tone.

            “Uh-uh.” He smiled and pulled away and walked into the bedroom.

            “C’mon,” she pleaded. “When was the last time?”

            “That last . . . I can’t even fathom it,” he said, pulling a pair of black pants from the closet and hopping into the legs.

            “Well I think it would be interesting, and interesting is good,” she said. “How about you just think about it? For me?”

            After a deep breath, Toby turned and stared at the naked woman a few feet away.

            “And, you know,” she said, “I don’t have to fly anywhere for three days. And for this new Toby Zeigler, there’s always a few minutes before work. Right?”

            Toby smiled, considered his options, and let his pants fall to his ankles.

Chapter Text

             

            A half dozen staff sat around the conference table in the Roosevelt Room eating breakfast from brown takeout containers. The table was littered with boxes and coffee cups and folders of varying sizes, colors, and depths.

            On one side of the table Otto and Elsie wrestled over a plate of French toast while C.J. cooed over baby pictures on Ed’s phone. On the other side Donna and Ainsley passed boxes and forked various foods onto their plates.

            “So cute,” C.J. said. “What’s his name?”

            “Larry,” Ed told her

            “Wait,” she laughed. “Which one are you again?”

            To this Ed offered a fake smile to let her know he was in on the joke, while through the door, grown-up Larry passed with three more cardboard containers of food.

            “What do you got?” Otto asked him.  

            “Fruit,” Larry announced to a round of hefty groans.  

            “Can’t we just order food from the kitchen?” Donna said as she flipped a page in the binder in front of her.

            “This is grittier,” Elsie replied, “and we need gritty this morning.”

            “We can tell Pierre to do gritty,” Donna argued as she reluctantly peeled back the lid of a greasy container.

            To Donna’s right, Ainsley focused, head down, digging her plastic knife into a pile of pancakes. Her attention on the pancakes was so complete that she didn’t notice Charlie when he sat down next to her.  

            “Morning,” he said.

            “Good morning,” she replied with forced happiness.

            “You know you’re pretty busy these days,” he said, reaching out for a box of breakfast sausages and a paper plate.   

            “Well I’m—”

            “The White House Counsel, yeah. I know. And who am I?” he asked her. “I don’t know. I worked directly for the president for eight years, and then worked for the president’s chief of staff.”

            “And you did a hell of a job!” C.J. shouted through a mouthful of cruller.

            “Weren’t you just in Indonesia?” Larry said as he squeezed in next to Ed.

            “Got back yesterday, or was it today,” C.J. mumbled. “I have to admit I feel kind of loopy.”

            “How’s the old man?”

            “Pedantic,” she laughed. “Still sharp, and still dangerous.”

            Charlie stared at C.J., waiting for more, but when she appeared to be done, he turned back to Ainsley. “On top of all those things, now I’m a speech writer and the director of communications. But who am I that you need to call back, right?”
            Ainsley set down her fork and knife and breathed deep before deliberately turning to face her accuser.  

            “Look Charlie. There are certain events, or shall we say episodes from my forlorn days as a postpubescent teen that I would rather not have the unfortunate pleasure of revisiting. Or unwinding. Or unfolding. That is to say if one were forced to walk down a path covered in crimson—or maybe ivy would be a better descriptor—she or he might find himself or herself in the unenviable position of confronting the specters of his or her most prominent unbecoming Achilles heels, as it were. As it was. That is to say.” Searching for the proper continuation, Ainsley instead released a deep sigh and returned to her food, while Charlie sat there shaking his head.

            “Just to be clear,” he said, “I didn’t understand a damn word you just said.”

            “Something just happened,” Donna clarified without looking up, “that reminded her of mistakes she made.”

            “And she’d rather move forward,” Ed added, grabbing two pieces of toast from a stack to his right, “instead of looking back and facing the parts of herself she doesn’t like.”

            Ainsley licked her lips and offered Charlie a smile and a cringe before returning to her pancakes. 

            Charlie stared at Ainsley before turning to Larry. “Hand me some pineapple, please,” he told Larry, and added, “you should see someone.”

            “Me?” Larry replied.

            “He’s talking to me,” Ainsley said.  

            “And for your information,” Charlie continued, “I wasn’t calling you to gossip about the skeletons in your closet.”

            “Oh,” Ainsley said under her breath.

            “I had a few ideas about this leak in the Department of Education I wanted to run by you.”

            “Oh,” she repeated. “Well. Well okay then. I’ll make some time for you today whenever you want to talk. How’s that?”

            “That would be acceptable. That is to say, okay.” With a tiny smile cracking his scowl, Charlie forked a strawberry into his mouth and scanned the room.

            “Where’s Josh?” he asked no one in particular.
            “Yeah he’s usually the first one here on French Toast Monday,” Ed noted.

            “French Toast Monday and Big Block of Cheese Day,” Larry added.

            “French Toast Monday, Big Block of Cheese Day, and the Recon Bill Reconception,” Otto tacked on, to which everyone responded, “Don’t call it that!”

            “Don’t forget the hostages in Indonesia,” C.J. announced, “with our old, and I do mean old, friend Limpele.”

            “AND there’s the first lady thing,” Elsie piped in.

            “One might say . . .” Donna held her fork above her head. “That’s there’s something in the air.”

            “There’s always something in the air,” Elsie replied.

            “What’s in the air?” Lou barked, marching into the room with her head down and her fingers tapping away on her phone.  

            “You’re going to walk into walls doing that,” Elsie cautioned.   

            “I’ve walked into walls,” Lou said, head still down. “That’s why I walk like this.” To demonstrate the adjustments she’d made, Lou wiggled her left arm, which she kept extended out in front of her like a battering ram.  

When she bumped into the table she continued to type away on her phone before slipping the device into her pocket and loading up on pastries and fruit.  

            “Hey where’s Josh?” she asked, grabbing a cup of coffee and finding a seat next to Charlie.

            “He said he had an errand to run,” Charlie answered.

            “Hey,” C.J. said, turning to Donna with a fork in her mouth. “Maybe it’s an anniversary present?”

            “It’s your anniversary?” Ed asked her.

            “Two weeks,” Donna replied.  “Anyway he told me he needed to make a few calls.”

            “And the plot thickens,” Lou remarked.   

            “There’s no plot,” Donna sighed. “If anything—”

            “Oh . . . my . . . god,” C.J. loudly mumbled through a mouthful of cantaloupe. Her words were so distinct and at the same time garbled that everyone in the room stopped what they were doing and looked up to follow her eyes.

            In the doorway, wearing his normal dark suit and carrying a cup of coffee, Toby stood, still slumped but not as slumped as he used to be. The only difference in his appearance was the complete lack of facial hair around his cheeks, nose, lips, and chin.

His pale face turning a soft shade of pink, Toby offered everyone a sheepish smile. He lowered his head and shuffled his way towards an empty chair next to Ainsley.  

            While he grabbed a plate and filled up on pancakes and scrambled eggs, everyone remained silent, staring as if an alien had just landed at their table.  

            “What?” he said in a voice somewhere between hostile and agonizingly embarrassed.

            “Nothing,” C.J. replied with wide eyes and a laugh caught at the top of her throat.

            “Ericka suggested I might trim it, you know, completely. So.” He forced a smile onto his face but immediately the upside rainbow began to return to a regular rainbow. “Anyway, here I am.”

            “Who’s Ericka?” Charlie asked.

            “Ricky,” Donna said. “Ricky Rafferty.”

            “Ah.” Charlie turned from Donna to Toby. “So you’re whipped is what you’re saying.”

            To this comment Toby reacted by taking a deep breath and revealing to Charlie a relaxed, comfortable smile. “You wish you were whipped,” he said in a tone so steady and wise he might have been cross-legged and floating two inches off the ground.

            “You know what,” Charlie said after a beat. “I really do.”
            “Hey my sister just got divorced,” Ed tossed out into the ether.  

            “Huh?”

            “I can give her your number is what I’m saying.”

            “Where’s Josh?” Toby asked the room.

            “Errand,” Ainsley said.

            “Or phone calls,” Larry added.

            “You know,” Lou told Toby, “you look younger. Not as seasoned and wise, maybe, but younger for sure. A little dopier, too.”

            “I can see that,” Elsie commented. “Not the dopy part.”

            “I see the dopy part,” Larry mumbled through a piece of toast.  

            Toby looked at Elsie, then Lou, then he looked at his wrist where a watch used to be. “Where’s Josh!” he screamed.

            “I’m right . . .” Josh walked into the room and stopped dead when he saw Toby. Quickly his shock morphed into amusement.

            “Holy crap,” he said. “The king is dead. Long live the king.”

            “I’d like to point out,” Toby said, “how courageous I was, knowing full well the kind of abuse I’d be opening myself up to today.”

            “Noted,” Josh said. “And I’d love to carry on with beardless Toby jokes, but we should get moving.” Josh grabbed a paper plate from the table. He began loading up on pastries until he noticed not only Donna’s glare, but also C.J.’s and Elsie’s judging eyes. Thinking long and hard, he finally ditched two of the three donuts and filled the gaps with melon and grapes.

            “Margaret,” he said, head down. “You can pass out the folders for—"  

            “She had a thing with her daughter,” Donna reminded him. “So I have the folders for the cheese assignments. What’s left of them, anyway.”

            With a nod, Josh pulled a crumbled paper from his pocket. He read through the list silently while everyone waited.

            “Oh,” he said, looking up at an expectant room. “John Martin at The Post and Merlina Hayes at the Wall Street Journal agreed to write about HR 468. And I hope you, Lou, have come up with something.”

            “Working on it,” she said while she bit into a chunk of pineapple.  

            “Meanwhile,” he told them, “this is headquarters for hashing out a plan that will take shape, that has to take shape in a few hours, considering the new republican front.”

            “Not really new,” Larry muttered.

            “And the squeamishness of democratic house leaders.”

            “And the first lady calling for a meltdown of all guns,” Charlie volunteered.

            “And that,” Josh agreed. “If you’re not in a cheese meeting, you’re in here having Isaac Newton moments.”

            “The whole apple thing was a myth,” Elsie pointed out.

            “I read it was partially true,” Ed countered.

            “Whatever!” Josh shouted. “Charlie, you’re meeting with an advocate from F-O-R-C-S.”

            “Forks?”

            “The . . . hold on.” Josh held the paper close to his face. “The Foundation for the Removal of Contact in Sports.”

            “Some people call them the NFFL,” Ed said.

            “Some people as in you,” Larry said.

            “The NFFL?”

            “National Flag Football League,” Ed clarified.

            “Sounds like a good idea to me,” Ainsley remarked.

            “Well you can sit in then,” Josh said and did a double take. “Actually, I don’t even know why the White House Counsel is here.”

            “I heard there was going to be French Toast,” she said, and reached across the table for the plastic container of scrambled eggs. “Plus I think Leo would have wanted me to be here.”

            “Speaking of which,” Josh said, “where is—”

            Before he could finish, C.J. held up the framed photo of Leo McGarry and suddenly the room went quiet, and everyone, as if tuned into the same frequency, bowed their heads.  

            “Today,” Josh said, “and every day in this building is for you, boss.”

            “Here here,” everyone replied and lifted their heads and opened their eyes.

            “Now. Let’s see.” Uncrumbling the crumbled paper in his hands, Josh tried to decipher his writing.                        

            “I already gave everyone their assignments,” Donna said, pulling the paper from his hands. “And here’s yours.”

            Quickly realizing what was going down, Josh tried to step away but the wall was right behind him.

            “Leo never got an assignment,” he complained.

            “He would have wanted this,” Donna said with a smirk, shoving the folder into his chest.

            Opening the folder and taking a peek down, Josh let out a groan. Then he lifted the folder over his head. “Anyone want to trade?”

 

*

 

            As everyone continued to eat and talk, Cody Zucker wheeled a large whiteboard into the room. From his pocket he pulled six erasable markers and lined them up neatly on the metal shelf under the board.

            Josh gave Cody a nod and grabbed a black marker from the shelf.

            “Is the president coming in?” Elsie asked, to which Josh shook his head. “I don’t want him here until we have something. Lou? Do we have anything? Lou’s shaking her head. That’s great. How about a recap. Ed?”

            Ed looked up with a piece of waffle on his fork. With a sigh he lowered the fork and wiped his mouth. “Eight years ago Vice President Hoynes took credit for a gun bill—”

            “Whoah,” Josh said, lifting his hand. “Not that far back.”

            “Last year at Westmont—”

            “Sooner.”

            “Five months ago?” Ed ventured, to which Josh finally agreed with a slight nod.  

            “So five months ago after the shooting at North Valley Middle School, we floated a bill to restrict the sale of most automatic and semi-automatic weapons.”

            “I wouldn’t call fifty-five percent most,” C.J. interrupted.  

            “A majority then,” Ed corrected himself. “We made some progress in the House, things began to falter, the House stalled, and then we get William B. Travis High School two months ago, which caused the bill to sail through. Then it goes to the Senate and things are looking good, with the vote set for March 30, a Friday, a little more than two weeks from today.”

            “And then as usual,” Toby interjected, “it all goes to hell.”

            “And then the speaker of the house,” Ed said.

            “Who’s already voted in favor of the bill,” Larry added.

            “He starts making appearances,” Ed continued, “explaining how we need more time to conduct serious scientific research on the actual causes of school shootings over the last few decades. He goes around knocking on doors and calling in favors.”

            “Mostly it’s his base that hits the pavement,” Josh said.

            “Never underestimate a determined conservative,” Toby said, which received a sharp glare from Ainsley.

             In the few seconds of silence that followed, Ed walked to the board and picked up a blue marker.

            “We were all in on the democrat side,” he said, writing the number ‘46’ on the board. “And we had”—he writes the number thirty—“twenty-eight republicans and two independents, easily meeting the fifty-one majority. But then.”

             Ed set down the marker and returned to his seat.

             “Then the wheels fell off,” Charlie reported. “People started dropping like flies, starting with Brodinger.”

             “And with waffles no less,” Elsie added.

             “Yeah and then Louis Stevens threatens a filibuster,” Josh said and walked to the board, “and the comfortable seventy-one shrinks down to fifty-eight, which is still a majority, but of course—”

             “Because of the filibuster,” C.J. said, “now we need a two-thirds majority.”

             “In two weeks,” Josh reminded them. “So. Ideas. Anything. Nothing’s stupid until it is.”

             For a while everyone sat around eating their food, not wanting to talk.

             “C’mon!” Josh shouted “We gotta start somewhere. Cody. Go. Say something stupid.”

             “Me?” Cody said, looking up from his seat at the end of the table, his face slowly turning the color of beets.

             “That was kind of stupid,” Lou reasoned.

             “Saxton,” Toby announced when Cody continued to flounder. “She should be on our side.”

             “They all should be on our side,” Otto remarked. “This shouldn’t be a side thing, it should be common sense.”

             “It’s not that simple,” Ainsley replied through a mouthful of scrambled egg. “And if you try to boil it down like that you’re going to lose.”

             “You mean we’re going to lose,” Toby corrected her, which earned him another glare.

             Larry cleared his throat. “And Saxton’s got a strong base in Idaho.”

             “Which means,” Toby added, “she could turn and not risk losing her seat.”

             “Lots of hunters in Idaho,” Ed reminded everyone.

             “Yeah easy double-digit percentages,” C.J. said. “The national totals are low but in some of these states you can’t say nobody really hunts anymore and leave it at that.”

             Otto nodded to this. “In Idaho the NRA counts on hunters. And Wyoming and Montana, Washington, Oregon, Arkansas.”

             “And Texas,” Larry added.

             “Absolutely Texas,” Ed confirmed.

             “Yeah okay.” Lou waved her hand in the air. “We got it.”

             “But no,” Toby countered, his tone exasperated. “It’s not about hunting. I mean not really. Maybe at one time it was, but the NRA has melted this idea of personal freedom with the acceptance that hey, maybe you do need a machine gun to mow down a momma deer and her fawns because that’s your goddamn right as an American citizen. Today when a hunter from Idaho or Arkansas thinks of what hunting means, he’s not thinking what his grandfather and great grandfather were thinking.”

             “Meaning what?” Lou said.

             “You have to change the narrative,” Ainsley answered. “Get them to remember why they’re proud to be hunters, because it’s about pride. In a lot of these places people work two or three jobs and they’re living conditions aren’t exactly top notch.”

             “How do you know what they’re living conditions are like?” Lou said as if Ainsley were clearly lying.  

             “I have three cousins in Cottonville, two in Waxhaw, an uncle in Oakboro, North Carolina,” Ainsley replied and took a breath as she searched her memory. “Then there’s Aunt Norma and Uncle Steve in Frog Pond.”

             “Frog Pond?” Toby laughed.

             “It’s north of Oakboro,” Ainsley told him. “And I could keep going, but the point is I’ve stayed with all of them at some point in my youth, and not to say all of them shot rabbits, but well, a lot of them shot rabbits. The men, mind you, and they’d walk in after sundown with the achievements stretched across their grins. They work in low-pay jobs at factories and garages or they don’t work at all, so bringing home meat that the family can eat? That’s as good as playing the lottery, which they all do, but this is better because they earned it. They provided.”

             “Hunting equals purpose,” C.J. said, “and people consciously or unconsciously want purpose.”

             “And using an automatic or semi-automatic weapon diminishes that purpose,” Toby added. “If we can change the narrative, connect these hunters to their heritage and maybe even feminize these powerful weapons…”

             “Did you just—“ C.J. began but Toby interrupted her.

             “Sorry. That’s not what I meant. A better term would be.”

             “Emasculate?” Otto offered.

             “Yeah,” Toby said. “Or find a way to make these tough guys feel more tough by using single-shot rifles.”

             “One,” Lou said, “this is good, but we’re talking cultural shift here, and this is not something we can get done in a week.”

             “There’s that,” Ainsley told them, “and there’s the fact that you’re all wrong. If my uncle feels good about walking through the door with those rabbits, it doesn’t matter how he got them. That’s not the point. If he can go out there with an Uzi and up his chances, that’s what he’s going to do. At this point it’s not about the challenge, it’s about what the people on the other side of the door see. I’m sure he’d drop a grenade in a pond without thinking twice if it meant he’d haul in a half ton of trout.”

             Everyone took a few seconds to think this over.

             “And of course that’s not even the real problem,” C.J. said.

             “What’s the real problem?” Ed asked.

             “It’s not about hunting,” Josh said. “It’s about—”

             “Home protection,” Toby answered.

             “Or just protection in general,” C.J. added. “And the Second Amendment.”

             “The NRA only started making that argument in the late seventies,” Elsie announced. “Maybe we can start a dissemination campaign, show people how much the NRA is lying to them.”

             “Too slow,” Lou shot back.

             “Still,” Toby said. “Maybe she has something. Maybe we can use these ideas to sway at least a few votes. Get our strategies straight so we can pitch our new plan in thirty seconds or less, get them to see what we see, come out with it fast and hard, and then give it some time to marinate.”

              To this suggestion Lou shook her head. “Most of these guys, they don’t want to see, but they’re not dumb either.”

              “So . . .” Cody stared at the floor a few seconds before lifting his head and continuing. “Why can’t you make the same argument for hunting that you do with home security? The point of a gun is to stop an intruder or scare people away. Doesn’t the sound of one gunshot do that?”

              “But I’m an American citizen!” Lou argued, dropping her voice three octaves. “I have the right to carry an Uzi if I goddamn want to!”

              “You’re making a joke,” Ainsley told her, “but to millions of Americans, however recent it might seem to be, that’s as rock-solid as any word in the bible, and try changing the mind of an evangelical Christian.”

              “Are you . . . “ Charlie stared at Ainsley, waiting for a response to the question he didn’t ask.

              “Not really,” she said, wiping the strawberry sauce from her mouth with a napkin, “although I—”

              “Can we stick to the topic of guns?” Toby shouted. “If we bring religion into this we’ll be here until April debating the finer points.”

              “Should we talk about horse trading?” Larry suggested. “I mean that’s what it usually comes down to.”

              “It’s not going to work this time,” Lou said.   

              “She’s right,” Josh agreed. “It’s a base thing. It’s an I-won’t-get-elected-if-I-do-this-thing, thing.”

              “So we make it about the voters,” Charlie said. “Issues do change and politicians have to change or die. Like gay rights.”

              “And civil rights,” Donna added.

              “In two weeks?” Toby pointed out. “Because that’s what we’re talking about here. Changing the hearts and minds of fifty million people in two weeks.”

              “Nineteen days,” Elsie clarified.

              “And this is something they haven’t budged on after several dozen school massacres,” Charlie said, “over several decades.”

              “Aren’t we using the word ‘massacre’ too . . . .” Ainsley searched for a word, found it and didn’t like what she’d found.

              “Liberally?” Ed offered.

              “She might be talking about the language,” Toby said in an even tone.

              “I AM talking about the language,” Ainsley told them, “and the term massacre is usually associated with a large number of people.”

              “From Websters,” Cody announced, reading from his phone: “the act or an instance of killing a number of usually helpless or unresisting human beings under circumstances of atrocity or cruelty.”

               “There’s a difference between strict definition and a generally-held view of a word,” Ainsley argued.

               “What’s your point?” C.J. asked her.

               “My point is that I think these shootings are obvious tragedies and we don’t need to manipulate language to point out to the world how sick and cruel and unjust they are.”

               “And apparently,” Lou countered, “fifty million people don’t give a damn about these shootings or massacres or the language around them, in fact they stick their heads in the sand every time someone shoots up a school because it means they might get their precious guns taken away.”

               “I don’t know,” Josh said, and scratched his head while he put together his next words. “I think you might be onto something, Charlie, in terms of going around the politicians and speaking directly to the people, getting everyone worked up. We just need to figure out what’ll work them up. We need to talk to their values.”

               “And,” Elsie hesitantly added, “sorry to be a buzz kill, but so far nobody’s mentioned the first lady thing,” which led to a mass groan tumbling through the room like a wave at a baseball game.

               “So,” C.J. said. “We need to get the American people on board for the Recon—”

               Again everyone grumbled but she pushed through it. “Through the Recon Bill! And we need to pedal back what the first lady said so that we don’t give the appearance—”

               “We’re not doing any pedaling,” President Santos said as he entered the room. “At least not backwards.”

                As everyone stepped away from whatever it was they were going to say, the president walked up to the table, inspected the buffet of mostly unhealthy fare, and grabbed an orange from a pile. He leaned up against the wall next to Josh as he began to peel away the rind.  

               “You all know now,” Santos announced, “that when the first lady gets sick, like really sick, she tends to call audibles.”

               “Sir?” Elsie said as her mind tried to unravel the term.  

               “Audibles?” Santos stared at Elsie hoping to drill the answer out with his eyes. “You don’t know what—”

               Not embarrassed. More simply wishing she had the knowledge, Elsie shook her head.

               “She changed the plan,” Charlie translated. “She acted like she was drunk.”

               “One might say she spoke from the heart,” Annabeth said from the corner, and suddenly everyone turned to notice the woman no one had noticed before. The deputy press secretary stood there eating a muffin and shuffling through a blue binder like she’d been there all along. “C.J. and I have been working on spin,” she told the room, “not that we have to make excuses,” she told the president. “I mean she was, is, honest-to-god sick.”

               “What is it, sir?” Toby asked.  

               “The flu,” Santos replied, hesitating a moment as he studied Toby’s face, “which . . . would be merely unfortunate and very uncomfortable most other times, but now . . . .” The president trailed off, leaving Lou to finish his sentence.

               “Now the first lady sick or not,” she said, “just told a stadium full of people and all the millions of others watching on TV that the president’s great gun bill is a toothless half-measure and she doesn’t think her own husband has the cojones to fight for what really needs to be done.”

               Santos allowed the silence to saturate the room before he added, “I was going to say ‘but now it’s forcing us to jump off the cliff we should have jumped off in the first place.’ But, you know, what Lou said works too.”

              “Sir?” Josh said.

              “I’m all for compromise,” the president told him. “But on this one, C.J. was right.”

              “Sir,” Ainsley began but Santos cut her off with a wave of his hand. “I’m not talking about breaking down doors and taking everyone’s guns. I’m asking people to make a grand sacrifice for the good of the country and our future. No automatic or semiautomatic weapons and a recall on all such weapons. If you’re going to hunt, hunt with a single-shot weapon or shotgun. If you want to shoot a heavier firearm, go to a facility and rent it under supervision, and if you must own a gun, then it’s got to be ten times harder than getting your license. Why is that too much to ask?”

              “It wasn’t too much during World War II,” Toby offered.

              Everyone turned and stared at Toby like he was insane.

              “Toby,” C.J. said.

             “What!” he shouted. “It wasn’t. People, millions and millions of people made all kinds of sacrifices, they rationed their food and gave away what they didn’t need. They volunteered all over the place. Americans learned to do without, and I guarantee you after ten years without guns this won’t even be an issue anymore. People learn to adjust. I mean take me. I wouldn’t have believed in a million years I’d be working here again after what I did.”

            “Or standing here without a beard,” Larry offered.

            “He’s got a point, “Lou said, “at least about the last thing.”

            “That’s not the world we live in anymore,” Donna told Toby. “People were patriotic and it was high stakes.”

            To this Toby laughed. “High stakes? You know how many people have died from guns?”

            “How many?” Donna asked, raising her eyebrows and crossing her arms.

            “How many,” Toby said to himself, clearly caught off guard. He let out an awkward chuckle. “Well I don’t know the exact number but—”

            “One million, five hundred and eighty-one thousand, nine hundred and forty-three Americans,” Cody announced in a voice that cracked the tiniest bit. “From the CDC’s Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System going back to 1968. Um.” Cody took a second to survey the silent, dumbstruck room. He turned to the president. “Do you want me to go on, sir?”
            Opening his eyes wide and leaking a slight smile, Santos gestured for his new body man to continue.

            “And from the Department of Veteran’s Affairs,” Cody added, “the total number of American casualties in all U.S. conflicts going back to and including the Revolutionary War is one million, four hundred and eighty-one thousand, eight hundred and sixty-two.”

            “That’s about a hundred thousand more deaths,” C.J. noted.

            “I know the stats,” Annabeth confirmed. “And keep in mind for the gun deaths he only went back to 1968.”

            “And there are probably lots of discrepancies in the numbers,” Elsie pointed out. “Like how many people killed by guns were actual citizens?”

            “You’d have a similar problem on the other side,” Toby suggested. “In the Civil War you had at least a half a million immigrants and foreign-born friends on the Union side.”

            “And the French allies in the Revolutionary War,” Larry added.

            “Just!” Josh waved his hand like he was wiping away dust from a window. “Doesn’t matter,” he said, “whether it’s more or less. If it’s anywhere close to even, that’s a pretty big deal, at least it seems like one to me. And maybe we can build a house around the frame.”

            “You’re talking about pure deaths,” Lou said, “but it’s apples and oranges when you think about the millions and millions of men and women who didn’t die but were traumatized by war, by combat. Am I right, Mr. President?”

            “That’s true,” Santos agreed, “and over the next few days people are going to pick the hell out of this . . . frame. PTSD, amputees, and then there’s the idea that soldiers chose to go to war. Well what about the draft? What about coercion? And what about PTSD for victims of shooting in peace time? What you just said, Lou, about survivors of war. Well there must be three times that number who’ve survived a gun incident, who’ve got their own trauma. It’s your job, all of you now, to make this about values, and to be right.”

            “People who care about how we acted in World War II are the same people who sleep with their guns under their pillows,” Ainsley suggested. “It might be a good way to reach the normally unreachable.”

            “Values,” Josh agreed. “It’s gotta be about values. If it’s logical. If the numbers speak the truth, we can sync it with values.”
            “All right!” Santos clapped his hands. “That’s the frame. I want the foundation laid and five more floors built by the end of the day.”

            “And.” Josh looked at his phone. “First round of big cheese meetings are walking through the front doors as we speak, so . . .”

            “Really,” Santos whispered in a voice still loud enough for everyone to hear. “Can’t we push it off to next week or the week after that? We’re kind of in the middle of something.”

            “This is what I was talking about, the quiet voice?” Charlie said, pointing his observation to Josh.

            “Yeah, Mr. President,” Josh said. “When you talk like that, people can still hear you.”

            “They can?” Santos whispered in the same voice he just used.

            “Yes!” everyone said at once.

            “Sorry, sir,” Josh said. “About the crazies.”

            “Blockheads!” Donna shouted.

            “This is the first one we’ve been able to have this year,” Josh told him, “and I’ve already pushed two-thirds of the, um, blockheads, into April. The remaining few couldn’t be rescheduled past today.”

            “Fine. Fine,” the president told him. He took a few steps towards the door but then he turned back. “Toby,” he said. “I need you to meet with a guy at eleven.”

            Toby glanced down at the paper in his folder, then looked up at the president. “At 11:15 I have a nutjob—”

            “Blockhead!” Donna yelled.

            “A blockhead, sir.”

            “Well I want you in this meeting,” Santos told him. “What do you got?”

            To this Toby looked around and laughed nervously before addressing the president. “Sir?”

            “Your blockhead,” Santos said. “What is it?”

            “Uh.” Toby lifted and smiled as he read: “A representative from the Foundation for Unorthodox Historical Perspectives.”

            “Anything subversive or antigovernment about it?” Santos asked him.

            “Uh, doesn’t . . . doesn’t look like it, Sir.”

            “Give it to me then.”

            “Sir,” Josh says. “You have a full plate. Beyond full. It’s actually more like a trough.”

            “And I’ll be here all day, Josh. C’mon.” The president waved Toby over. “To be honest,” he said, “all these years I’ve been getting a little jealous.”

            “If there’s any word to describe us on this day,” Donna mumbled, “enviable would not be one of them.”

            “Nah . . . nah,” the president argued. “I disagree. I mean I know a minute ago I suggested pushing it off, but really Leo had a good idea here, a real shining example of a well-oiled democracy at work. Giving every one a chance to have their say. So c’mon c’mon, hand it over.”

            Reluctantly, Toby stood and walked toward the president and extended his arm.

            As the president read the contents of the folder, his eyes shifted between different stages of confusion.

            “Mr. President?”

            Santos looked up to see Charlie staring at him from across the room. “Know anything about the hostages?”

            “Not yet,” Santos told the room. “We’re still trying a few things on.”

            “Anyone who’s got a meeting!” Josh interrupted, “get to it and get back here. This is the construction site for the day. We’re building a house, folks! A great big impossible house. Anyone not leaving, let’s get some more coffee and donuts.”         

            “Josh,” Donna scolded him.  

            “I meant fruits and grains,” he said. “And let’s focus.” With a nod to Lou, Josh followed the president and Cody out of the room. A second later he popped his head back in and grabbed C.J. away from the pack.

Chapter Text

               

            In the hall, the president and Cody quickly separated from Josh and C.J., who maintained a fast but moderate pace.

            “So Limpele,” Josh said. “He talked to the Kebenarans.”

            “And?” she said.

            “And now we’re going to the Oval to see what’s what.”

            “We shouldn’t do this, Josh.”

            With an unsteady smirk, Josh glanced at C.J. before turning his eyes back to the path in front of him. “You know sometimes I wonder what you’d be like as president.”

            “Me?”

            “I’m just saying, you have to compromise sometimes, and often what looks like a terrible deal turns out to be—”

            “I was chief of staff, if you recall,” she shot back. “I had to compromise up the wazoo, and if you think I’m sharing the full brunt of my theories—”

            “It’s just, we’re dealing with different cultures.”

            “I know the argument, Josh. How do you work out a deal with a people who’ve got completely different values, different ideologies and ways of living? I get it. I think the problem might be that for years we’ve been unwilling to take one of the other roads available. We, like almost every other industry, have grown complacent, and—”

            “Yeah . . . okay,” he said as they maneuvered around a maintenance man on a ladder replacing a light bulb. “So what did you think of all that?”

            “All that?” she asked him.

            “What just happened in the Roosevelt Room. I mean that’s what you wanted, right?”

            “It’s a step in the right direction,” she admitted, “even if it came at the end of the first lady’s runny nose.”

            “And the whole comparison to veterans and war?”

            They reached the waiting room, where Ronna sat typing away on her laptop with a cherubic smile on her face, and Cody was already back at his desk stacking and restacking a series of folders.

            “Just a minute,” Ronna said and Josh came to an abrupt halt, which led to C.J. nearly running into the back of him.   

            “That was,” C.J. said.

            ‘Embarrassing?”

            “Stupid I was going to say, on your part.”

            “So?” Josh asked C.J., taking another step away from her.

            “So what?”

            “You didn’t answer my question.”

            “I don’t know,” she sighed. “I could see a lot of people pushing back, screaming about how getting shot in a 7-11 isn’t quite the same as getting your leg blown off in the freezing cold forests in the Ardennes or watching hundreds of men get mowed down around you on the beaches of Peleliu or Iwo Jima.”

            After a few seconds of silence, C.J. told him, “your anniversary’s coming up.”

            “I know,” Josh said a bit defensively.

            “Should we place wagers,” C.J. asked him, “on whether Donna yells at you for forgetting this year?”

            “She doesn’t . . . yell,” he said.

            “Then why did you just flinch?”

            “I don’t know,” he said. “She really doesn’t yell. She really mellowed after the first campaign. It’s just, I guess I’m waiting for the day. Anyway, you weren’t even here last year.”

            C.J. shrugged. “I have email.”

            “You can go in now,” Ronna said, and with one last leering glance over his shoulder, Josh entered the Oval Office, C.J. right behind him like she was tied to him with a rope.  

Chapter Text

               

           The couches in the Oval were filled with men in suits and military uniforms of different colors and styles. Dr. Nancy McNally lounged, legs crossed, between a general and an admiral while she conversed with Arnold Vinick seated on the couch opposite hers. 

            Since there was no room on the couches, Josh and C.J. stood on either side of the president, who sat in a striped chair in line with the right couch, while Jed Bartlett sat in the chair to his left.  

            “C.J.” Santos said in a voice loud enough to silence the other four conversations in the room. “Let’s get you caught up.”

            With a nod, the press secretary waited, scanning the eyes for some clue of what was about to come. Before the president could fill the void, Bartlett said in a voice just above a whisper, “they killed a hostage, C.J.”  

            Again scanning the room, C.J. searched for the nationality of the dead man in the eyes of the high-ranking officials. “American?” she eventually asked when she saw nothing but frustration in their eyes.

            “British,” Santos told her.  

            “They’re saying he tried to escape,” McNally added.

            “Of course they’d say that,” Vinick volunteered, using his hands to uncross his right leg.  

            “Why would they lie when killing a hostage gains them leverage,” McNally argued. “Mr. President,” she continued, “they might be telling the truth.”

            “And so what if they are?” C.J. said, directing her question to the president. “What happened when Limpele reached out to them?”

            “They’re willing to deal, but, oh. I’m sorry,” Bartlett told Santos.

            “No, that’s . . . okay,” Santos assured him and then turned to C.J. “It’s basically what we discussed while you were flying over the Pacific. Except—”

            “Except the Kebenarans want something else now,” Josh announced from behind Santos’ left shoulder.

            “What?”

            “Nothing much,” Bartlett replied facetiously. “Just—”

            “Just an island,” the CIA director interrupted. “A fairly large, fairly inhabited island.”

            C.J. looked from the CIA director to Vinick, to McNally.

            “A . . .” She tried to picture it, and when she did she began to laugh. “I’m sorry,” she said, holding up her hand and turning away to stifle the giggles. “It’s just, he said . . . I’m really sorry, I just need . . . .”

           “C.J.” Josh said but again she raised her hand.

           “I’m fine,” she said, recomposing herself like she was putting on a mask, and after another moment her face revealed nothing but professionalism. “And I’m assuming they want autonomy too, right?”

            “Apparently they’ve got a charter and a system of government all picked out,” Vinick told her.  

            “Let me guess,” C.J. said. “A representative democracy.”

            “Actually it’s your standard caliphate,” said one of the two admirals in the room, a small man with thick black hair who didn’t seem to understand humor.

            “By the book,” Jack Reese added from the end of the couch on C.J.’s right. “Our sources tell us they’ve already got the caliph picked out. They’re shipping him in from Saudi Arabia.”

            “In bubble wrap?” C.J. asked, to which nobody bit.

            “And he’s a descendant of Muhammad, of course,” Reese added.

            “Of course,” Josh replied, which got him a quick glance from Reese.

            C.J., who noticed the glance, looked from Josh to Reese, and then something clicked in her brain and she opened her mouth, but decided to swallow whatever it was she’d been planning to say. Instead she asked the room, “So they want autonomy by being recognized?”

            “They want a seat on the U.N.” Santos announced.

            “But they must know—”

            “They must,” Bartlett said, “which means they’re marking a line in the sand a hundred yards off so we’ll settle for mid field.”

            “The mines,” C.J. said, pronouncing these two words slowly and under her breath. “They’re asking for the moon and hope we settle for the mines, which eventually gets them—"

            “Lots and lots of guns,” Josh replied. “Molybdenum and tungsten from the Hubei province. Great for making barrels for rapid-fire weapons. Plus they love firing pins made from copper-beryllium alloy, hence—”

            “Hence the mine in Utah,” Santos added.

            “If you ask me,” Vinick complained, “we’re the ones being held hostage.”

            “We can’t do this, sir,” C.J. said after a lengthy gap in the conversation. “And I’m speaking from a PR perspective. This isn’t 1940. We can’t hide things anymore.”

            “You only say that because you don’t know about the things we’re still hiding,” Vinick told her.

            “Sir,” C.J. said, ignoring Vinick and looking at the president. “Down the hall we’re working on the boldest gun bill in the history of the country. We’re going to ask the American people—”

            “C.J.” Josh said in a voice that cut her short. “Not right now.”  Her eyes telegraphed her anger, but as she looked out into the sea of military uniforms, into the sea of stern faces just waiting for her to finish her sentence, she dialed it back.

            “It’s been our policy for years to not deal,” Vinick said, shaking his head. “But nobody believes that anymore. This is, what, the fourth such situation in the last four years, and yes.” He lifted his hand to assure everyone he knew what was coming. “We do it behind closed doors so it doesn’t leak and we don’t look weak, but does that really work? I’m with C.J. here. Has it ever really done anything but open the door to the next set of hostages?”

            “So, what then?” Santos asked him. “I should just let them die, all these innocent men, because one young idiot wanted to stir things up?”

            “The presidency is about larger numbers outweighing smaller numbers, or at least it should be,” Vinick said and looked to Bartlett for support. “Or am I wrong?”

            “You’re not wrong,” Bartlett assured him. “But it’s not always that simple.”

            “Of course not,” Vinick shot back. “But what about in this case? Is it that simple in this case? If we don’t negotiate this time, Mr. President, and we don’t negotiate the next, and the next, maybe a hundred people die, maybe two hundred. But how many lives will we save because everyone knows, like really knows that WE WILL NOT negotiate. If they really know we won’t budge, they won’t even bother.”

            To this point Nancy McNally replied, “They might just decide to kill Americans because they want to kill Americans.”

            “In which case,” Vinick argued, “it would also do no good to negotiate and we’re back to where we started.”

            “Anyway,” Bartlett said, leaning back and looking over his shoulder to address C.J. “They gave us, I mean, him, this guy here, until Monday to make up his mind.”

            “And we need to tread very carefully with the press,” the president told her.

            “Until Monday?” she replied. “Why so long? Somebody have a Bat Mitzvah this weekend?”

            After a small chitter spread through the room, Dr. McNally told her, “We think with or without anyone’s permission they’re going to secure the island of Karimunjawa off the eastern coast. They want to have everything in order for when the caliph arrives and then they can stay put and negotiate from a new home base.”

            “This island,” C.J. mused. “You said it was inhabited. How many—”

            “Sixty thousand locals,” Reese reported. “And at least three quarters have nothing to do with the Kebenarans. And sir.”

            Everyone turned to Jack Reese, who cleared his throat before replying.

            “We have the bios of most of the hostages now. One of the hostages is a Sean Andrew Miller.”

            A few people exchanged glances while the president looked down, and stayed that way.

            “Sir?” Josh said.

            “I served with a Sean Miller,” Santos told him. “Afterwards I went into politics, and Sean, he went into journalism, but . . . it doesn’t matter.”

            Santos turned to Reese with real anger in his eyes. “Why did you tell me that?”

            “Because more information is better,” Reese said as if his statement was common knowledge. “And better knowing now than blindsided later.”

            For a while nobody spoke. Finally the president clapped his hands and stood. “That’s it!”

            Everyone pulled themselves to their feet. A few people stood around to chat while C.J. walked straight out of the room, Josh close behind.  

            “C.J.!”

            In the waiting room, C.J. slowed and waited for Josh to catch up, and together they walked out into the hall.

            “I’m not mad,” she assured him. “I’m really not.”

            “I heard, um.” Josh covered his mouth and coughed to the side. “I heard a bit more about this Robert Blithe?”

            In response, C.J. simply widened her eyes.

            “So that’s—”

            “Taken care of,” she said in a no-nonsense tone.

            “I’m not going to hear about the guy’s murder on the evening news, am I?”

            “Josh.

            “You know you said you’re not mad, but you kind of look—”

            “What are we talking about?” she asked, suddenly confused.

            “The meeting,” he said, “that just happened.”

            “I’m not mad,” she repeated. “I get it. The president doesn’t want to tell a room full of four-star generals that he’s about to ambush the American citizen and demand—”

            “Demand?”

            “Strongly urge then. He will strongly urge that they all give up their guns.”

            “You say they,” he replied. “You know we’re Americans too.”

            “Well I know I don’t sleep with a Beretta under my pillow and a shotgun jammed under the passenger seat in my Tesla.”

            For a second Josh leaned away as they continued to walk side-by-side.

            “You drive a Tesla?”

            “Not much,” she said. “But yeah. And you know, not for nothing, but those guys in there? They might, or a lot of them might welcome this kind of move. I mean why would the military support an armed citizenry? It just makes it harder to control.”

            “I think it’s more about these guys being strong adherents to the constitution.”

            “But the constitution—”

            “Lets . . . not get into that right now.”

            “Okay,” she said in a challenging tone. “How about the fact that we’re going to be calling for the complete removal of automatic and semiautomatic weapons from this country while behind closed doors we make a deal to hand over the keys to two mines so that our enemy can manufacture all the automatic weapons they want? What do you call that?”

            “I don’t know. Politics?”

            “Josh.”

            “What do you want, C.J.!” he shouted. “This isn’t a perfect world and sometimes, most of the time, we have to make deals we don’t want to make with people we’d rather not be making deals with in the first place. You know this. I know you know this.”

            “It’s just . . . .” They walked a while as the response on the end of her tongue slid back down her throat.

            “You know you started to say something,” Josh reminded her.

            “It’s like,” she tried again and again rethought what she was going to say. “Okay. It’s like. Okay. It’s like going out on a date.”

            “Huh?” Josh said as they both turned right.

            “Like you meet someone great,” she said, “you realize this could be big. I mean you’ve been around the block and you’ve seen what there is to see, and right away you’re pretty sure this is the real deal. And then, at the end of that first date with your possible dream husband, or wife, you tell them you had a great time and you’ve never felt this way and at this age there’s no point in pretending anymore, so you tell them right away how you feel.”

            They reached C.J.’s office and Josh held back as she crossed the room to her desk.

            “I think I know where you’re going,” Josh said as C.J. noticed a paper on top of a pile. She lifted the paper and started to read.

            “Uh, C.J.? C.J!”

            She looked up, blinked twice and snapped back to the moment. “Right. Sorry. Date night. So all that revealing takes place, you pour your heart out, and then you go and sleep with three other people including this spouse’s best friend and he or she finds out and then Bam! It’s over. That’s what it’s like.”

            For a while Josh turned his confused glare from C.J. to the floor and then back to C.J.

            “Hypocrisy, Josh! That’s what I’m talking about. If there’s one thing, one single thing I really don’t want to be a part of anymore, that’s it. Anyway, my blockhead should be here any minute, so . . . .”

            “Right. And then, you know,” he said, turning away. “Get back to the Roosevelt Room after.”

            “Okay,” she said with a sigh and turned back to her desk, leaving Josh to stare, bewildered, a few extra seconds before spinning around and walking out the door.

Chapter Text

              

            “You know what I don’t get?” Elsie followed Otto out of the Roosevelt Room with an untoasted bagel in her hand.

            “You know there’s no cream cheese on that.”

            “I know,” she said. “Hey, were you and Lou, you know . . . .”

            “Were we what,” he said, his tone implying confusion while his face turned the color of raw meat.

            “You know,” Elsie said through a grin. “Low-fiving each other?”

            “What?”

            “Swapping spit?”

            “From one speechwriter to another,” he said “you’ve got the creativity part down. You just have to work on accessibility for the common man, which right now is me.”

            “Your face is turning red. That transparent enough?”

            Biting his lower lip, Otto turned left, then changed his mind and decided to go straight. And when he noticed Elsie still trailing, he let out a low sigh.

            “At the end of the first campaign,” he told her “and then a little while after.”

            “What’s a little while?”

            “I don’t know,” he grumbled. “Three months? Why do I feel like I’m being interrogated?”

            Elsie shrugged. “Because I’m asking you lots of questions about a relationship that, for whatever reason, you really don’t want to talk about? And I think it’s cute when you turn the color of strawberry jam.”

            “Great.”

            “I’m only asking,” she said, “because back there with some of the things she said, it seemed like . . . .”

            “Well we’re not,” he said over his shoulder. “And anyway why do you care””

            “I don’t know,” she said with a shrug. “I just wanted to know if you were available, I guess.”

            Realization dawning on him, Otto slowed his pace and casually took another look behind him, except at this very moment he was turning into his office which sat right next to Charlie’s. And the door that normally remained open at all times was now closed.

            The sound of his left shoulder striking the oak was like a duffel bag smacking the wall.   

            Instead of bouncing, he mostly stuck to the door, reaching out and turning the knob while still in a mostly-compressed position.

            “Oh my god are you okay!”

            Elsie grabbed him even though he hadn’t fallen. But Otto didn’t complain, merely allowed her to guide him into the room and over to the couch on his right.

            “Just . . . give me a second,” he said, rotating his shoulder and for some reason opening and closing his mouth in exaggerated motions.

            “Does it hurt?”

            “It’s fine,” he said, jumping up from the couch and walking around to his desk while rotating his shoulder.

            “You know what I don’t get?” she said, getting comfortable on his couch.

            “I have a meeting in a few minutes.”

            “I don’t mind,” she said. “So the president was just talking like the whole bill has changed.”

            “It has,” Otto replied, eying Elsie with some serious hostility before turning to the folders on his desk.  

            “Yeah but even if we come up with a good idea, we can’t just swap in a new bill for the old one. We’d need to put in new language, send it back to committee and that would take weeks if not months. Right?”

            “Yeah, I don’t know. I guess.”

            “You guess?”

            The tone in her voice alerted Otto to what she was actually saying, which caused him to rewind and pay attention to the words in retrospect. “No, no you’re right,” he said. “Plus it already went through the House as is, so . . . .”

            “So why didn’t anyone say anything back there?”

            “Yeah, why didn’t they?” he asked, more to himself now.

            “You have any soda, like 7-Up?”

            “7-Up? When are you from?”

            “Well do you?”

            “No,” he said. “I don’t have any 7-Up.”

            “How about popcorn?”

            Otto waited a few seconds, attempting to drill something into her mind with his stare before he finally gave her a deep resounding, “no.”

            “Well,” Elsie said, prying herself off the couch and heading for the door. “You think about an answer and I’ll get some snacks.”

            Confused and just a little bit angry, Otto craned his neck to follow the last of Elsie Snuffin’s fleeting figure. “This is a workday you know!” he shouted. Then he sighed and opened the top folder on his desk.

            He took turns reading through the folder and glancing up at the door, but over time he mostly stared into the hall, watching the hurried people walk by and listening for familiar sounds. After a few minutes when Elsie appeared, he was only half paying attention and only half aware of the smile that crept onto his face. Quickly he reversed the smile and dropped his eyes.

            “Read anything good?” Elsie asked in a tone that implied she knew exactly what he was thinking. She returned to her seat on the couch, setting a two-liter bottle of Sprite, four plastic cups, and a big wooden bowl filled with popcorn on the coffee table in front of her.

            “You figure anything out?” she said.

            “About what?”

            “That thing? The new bill?”

            “Oh . . . um.”

            “You know what,” she said, rising from the couch. “I’ll just ask Toby.”

            “No!” Otto shouted. “I mean, just hold on.”

            While Elsie sat back down, he squeezed his hands into fists, closed his eyes, and tilted his head towards the desk. Three times he breathed deep and exhaled.

            “Okay,” he said and opened his eyes. “So the House can consider an amendment or a substitution, which is basically a whole new version of the bill. I’m thinking in this case we’d be able to save a lot of the previous language, but based on what the president said, we don’t know, at least not yet. And normally you’d have a committee drafting and agreeing on and then proposing the amendment, but it also could be just a House member proposing the amendment, and you need to get the House to agree to hear the proposal, and then they listen, and you have some debate, and they agree or disagree on the amendment, and if they agree, then they vote on the bill with the new amendment.”

            As Otto reeled off his information, Elsie watched, wide-eyed and mouth agape. At some point she carefully reached out to grab a single piece of popcorn which she then dropped into her mouth.

            “What?” he said when he finished.

            “Nothing,” she told him, slowly chewing the popped kernel. She looked down at the floor, then up at Otto as if she wasn’t entirely sure what she was looking at.

            “So. So okay,” she said, working something out before lifting her head. “How long would it take for all that to happen?”

            “Well.” Otto shrugged and then winced and rubbed his left shoulder. “Theoretically it could be a matter of a hours. But then it could also be as long as somebody wants to drag it out.”

            “And that’s only the House,” she said. “What about the Senate, where they haven’t even voted on the original bill?”

            “Yeah I don’t know about that.”

            To this, Elsie eyed him suspiciously. “You don’t know like you really don’t know, or you don’t know like a minute ago when you didn’t know and then Bam! Some superhero jujitsu and all of a sudden you’re a walking encyclopedia.”

            While Otto considered his response, Elsie filled a cup halfway with soda, and then filled the rest of the cup with popcorn.

            “I like when the popcorn gets all soggy,” she said when she noticed him staring. “It kind of fizzles like a wet rag in your mouth, which is cool, you know?”

Before Otto could respond to this or the other thing, someone knocked on his door. Both Otto and Elsie turned to see a man in his thirties wearing a gray suit with thick black glasses and a trimmed gray beard to match the color of the suit. The man was bald with bushy black eyebrows partially hidden by the glasses. Next to him stood a woman in a green skirt and green blazer who closely resembled the man, except she had blonde hair put up in a bun. And no beard, although she did wear the same glasses.

            “We have a meeting,” the woman said in a high-pitched, raspy voice. “With Otto Atarata?”

            “That’s him,” Elsie said, retrieving the first piece of soggy popcorn with her tongue.  

            “I’m Otto,” Otto said, momentarily glaring at Elsie before returning his attention to the two strangers. He motioned them into the two chairs in front of his desk while he grabbed the top manila folder in front of him. “And you must be . . .”

            “IRRATIONAL, that’s right,” said the man. “I’m Bob Eidentrench, and this is Caroline Eidentrench.”

            “Irrational?” Elsie laughed.  

            “It says here . . .” Otto read from the sheet inside the folder. “You two are from the Institute of Research for Reasonable Answers to Irrefutable Obstacles to Safety at the National Level.” Otto paused to breath. “Which stands for—”

            “Irrational!” Elsie blurted out. Then she creased her brow. “So you two are—"

            “Siblings,” Caroline answered.

            “And you’re here to talk about . . .” Otto stared at the middle of the page, his eyes narrowing more and more as he continued to look.

            “It’s okay,” Caroline told him. “You can say it.”

            “Yes,” Bob confirmed. “We’re here to talk about sock puppets.”

Chapter Text

             

            In the Roosevelt room, Charlie and Donna sat at the cluttered table still eating what was left on their plates, while Ainsley cut an egg into very small pieces, and Lou and Toby walked around the long table sidestepping each other as they continued on in opposite directions. 

            “When somebody’s got something,” Lou said, “we’ll write it up on the board.”

            But nobody responded for several minutes as Ainsley continued to cut her egg into ever smaller pieces and Toby and Lou continued to pace.

            “I’ve got something,” Charlie finally announced, swallowing his last bit of orange. “Are we still on the same timetable? I mean, how the hell are we supposed to change the whole bill and then ram it down Congress’ throat?”

            “I don’t think a question counts as having something,” Donna said. “Just to be clear.”

            “There are things we can do,” Toby said.  

            “Like what?” Charlie replied.

            “Like. I don’t know. Things! Stuff!”

            “Easter break is coming up,” Lou volunteered, “and after that the memory of the last shooting will be just a little farther away and getting anything passed on guns will be that much harder.”

            “Further,” Toby mumbled.

            “Excuse me?”
            “You said farther,” Toby pointed out, “but we’re not talking about literal distance so it’s further, not farther.”

            “Isn’t time literal distance?” Lou said, her tone growing hostile.

            “Time is more of a human construct,” Ainsley said as she folded a napkin on top of her plate. “It’s how we cope with the dimensions around us, whereas distance is, how would you say, well, indisputable.”

            “We’re supposed to be coming up with solutions,” Lou said, ignoring Toby’s smug expression, “not more obstacles.”

            “You have to see everything before you can fight everything. Yes!” Ainsley’s face stretched into a satisfied smile as she lifted a box to her left to uncover one remaining croissant.  

            “It’s technically possible to introduce new legislation and get it passed by the end of the month, close of business,” Toby announced. “But the faster we come up with something, the more time we’ll have to work the miracle.”

            Annabeth walked through the door sipping Fresca from a green glass bottle.

“Ooh can I get a sip?” Ainsley said, and Annabeth walked around the table handing her the bottle. “You guys make any progress?”

            “Uh-huh,” Donna told her. “We just determined that it’s just barely within the realm of possibilities to achieve our hail mary goal once we come up with a solid plan, which at this point we have no idea how to do. Also, the term ‘farther’ does not apply to time.”

            “My dad had lots of guns,” Annabeth said, taking a seat next to Ainsley. “Shotguns, rifles, handguns,” she said wistfully. “He had this German Luger he’d take out on V.E. day. He’d talk and talk about overcoming the tyranny of evil men. Then he’d go back to drinking, and if it was a good day he’d pass out before anyone enforced their tyranny upon him, if you know what I mean.”

            They all sat for a while silently interpreting Annabeth’s story before Donna asked her, “and what would have changed his mind, like gotten him on board with more gun restriction and a take-back program?”

            “Seriously?” Annabeth said, “I have no idea. I don’t know what could have worked. He was so . . . entrenched, as in he was a real stubborn son of a bitch.”

            “But that’s our target,” Lou said. “If we can get that guy to come around, we can get the rest. So your father,” she asked Annabeth. “He was patriotic?”

            “I’ll say,” Annabeth laughed. “He loved the army and hated the government, but anytime he’d run into a soldier at the store, he’d chew the guy’s ears off.”

            “And if the military were to come out in favor of gun restriction or . . . ?” Toby asked her, but he before he could finish she was already shaking her head.

            “Big military was the same as big government.”

            “It’s the same with a lot of the boys I grew up with,” Ainsley said as she took one long sip from the bottle and handed it back to Annabeth. “They’re all about the army and kicking ass overseas and all that, and they’re all for the soldiers because either they were soldiers or they know a dozen guys who went off to Iraq or Afghanistan. At the same time they loathe the idea of any giant organization telling them what to do.”

            “In other words,” Annabeth said. “How do we deal with a paradox?”

            The room went quiet until Lou and Toby said at the same time, “What if.”

            “Go ahead,” he deferred.

            “Nah you go first,” Lou said.  

            “Somebody?” Donna told them.

            “Okay,” Toby said. “What if we can get soldiers and ex-soldiers in civilian clothes making the case to the hard-sells.”

            “While at the same time,” Lou added, “we try to get the chiefs on board. I mean that’s how it is in most countries. The military has the guns, police have guns, and that’s it, and it works.”

            “Not in Switzerland,” Ainsley pointed out.

            “Not again with Switzerland,” Toby whined.

            “Hey. . .” Annabeth said as if she’d quietly just experienced a spiritual awakening. “We already have two of them.”

            “Two of what?” Ainsley asked. But Annabeth didn’t respond. Instead she slid out of her chair and looked around like she’d just woken up in a strange place.

            “Lou,” Annabeth said. “I need a meeting with Arnold Vinick as soon as possible.”

            “O . . . kay,” Lou replied, shaking her head as if to solidify Annabeth’s insanity. “And why is that?”

            “Because we already have two of them.”

            “Two what!”

            “You’ll see.” Annabeth grinned and shuffled out of the room.

            “She just walked away,” Lou said in disbelief. “Without explaining.”

            “Great,” Charlie said, pulling his buzzing phone from his pocket, “because mystery is exactly what we need right now. Looks like my blockhead’s here,” he told the room and headed for the door.

            “Ooh, I want to see this.” Ainsley grabbed her plate and dropped it into the trash on her way out the door. “I dominated flag football in college,” she said as Charlie narrowed his eyes at her.

            “You played flag football?” he said, looking her up and down like he’d never seen her before. But then he shook it off and continued down the hall.

“Maybe we should form a team,” Ainsley said, trailing behind. “Like a softball team. Hey! How do we not have a White House softball team?”

            “And then there were three,” Lou said, looking from Toby to Donna.

            “Actually,” Donna said, rising from the table. “I’m going to check on the sock puppet people.”

            To this both Lou and Toby exchanged bewildered glances, and when they were finished with their expressions, Donna was gone and they were alone with no answers and no hope of a plan.

Chapter Text

              

            From his minifridge Josh pulled a bottle of orange juice. He stared at the bottle, turned it in his hands and noticed the light from the window reflecting against the curved glass.  

            “I can see you, you know, which means you didn’t sneak up on me.” He turned to face Margaret, who stood in the doorway with her usual neutral expression.   

            “The congressman’s here,” she said, not reacting in the slightest to his comment.   

            “Who?” Josh said, unable to hide his disappointment.

            Without speaking, Margaret glanced to the left, then back to Josh as she mouthed the word ‘Republican.’

            “Yeah, okay,” Josh told her. “Send him in. And, you know, his actual name would have sufficed.”

            A few seconds later a medium-sized man walked into the room. With his sandy hair and run-of-the-mill suit, he might have been a Fuller Brushman going door to door in the 1950s. A lopsided smile on his face, the man sat in one of the two chairs in front of the desk.  

            “Congressman Marsh.” Josh reached over the desk to shake the man’s hand.

            “You usually call me Paul. This must be serious.”  

            “You want an orange juice?” Josh asked as the man settled into the chair. “I’ve also got pineapple juice, cranberry, tomato.”

            “Clamato?” the congressman asked him.

            “Uh, no,” Josh said, walking around his desk to the minifridge. “Liquified seafood in a can is where I choose to draw the line. How about cranberry?”

            “You should try it,” the congressman said with a nod to the cranberry. “It’s surprisingly refreshing.”

            “Like taking a bite of a tomato and then diving into the Chesapeake.”

            “Something like that, yeah,” Marsh laughed as Josh handed him the can and returned to his seat.

            “You know it’s dead, right?” Marsh told him. “The Decon Bill?”

            “I know your guys are doing their best to chop off the head.”

            “My guys?”

            “Josh took a sip of his juice, then recapped the bottle and set it on the edge of his desk. He stared at the bottle for a while before asking the man in front of him, “you are still a republican, aren’t you Paul?”

            “Social liberal, fiscal conservative.” The congressman shook his head. “More like a dinosaur, actually. In a couple years I’m going to be a fossil in the Smithsonian.”

            “Paul—”

            “Buses of school kids are going to tap the protective glass and ask their teachers, what’s that? And their teachers will tell them they’re not sure, but at one time these strange awkward creatures roamed the Capital hillsides. But then they got trapped in the middle. And trampled to death from the flanks.”

            “You’d be surprised how many democrats are fiscal conservatives,” Josh admitted. “They just don’t believe in tax cuts, is all.”

            “Is all,” the man said with a smile.

            “So tell me what happened, Paul.”

            “What happened?” the congressman laughed at this. “What happened was Vernon Monahan who woke up from his afternoon nap and started swinging. He’s like Godzilla.”

            Josh laughed at the reference, but the congressman’s smile quickly vanished.  

            “I’m serious,” Paul told him. “It’s like this whole school shooting idea revved him up to a whole new level of outrage. And now it’s like the outrage itself is enough to sway the guys who were on the fence. In the other direction! He shouts words like ‘Second Amendment’ and ‘freedom’ and ‘American heritage’ and ‘culture’ and he thinks if he shouts them loud enough other republicans will be too afraid to disagree, damn all logic to hell.”

            “And he’s right,” Josh said, rolling his tongue around the inside of his mouth.

            “And he’s right,” Paul agreed.

            “I know you were on board,” Josh said. “A socially liberal conservative from Indiana is not someone we want to lose. Plus, you know, you’re not a bad guy.”

            The congressman scanned the room covertly before turning back to Josh and whispering, “Are you hitting on me, Josh. Should I have brought my mom to chaperone?”

            Josh squinted in response. He let out a deep breath and sat back in his chair. “You know what the first lady said, Paul?”

            “You mean when she emasculated the president?”

            “I wouldn’t put it that way.”

            “And that’s your personal choice.”

            “We’re going to float an amendment to the bill,” Josh said, head down. “In line with what the first lady said.”

            It took the congressman a minute to wrap his shifting eyes around what Josh had just told him. “Wasn’t she sick?” Paul finally replied. “Like delirious, not even aware of what she was saying?”

            “It doesn’t make what she said wrong,” Josh explained. “We’ve decided to go all out. And I wanted you to be the first to know.”

            “First of all,” Paul said, smiling and shaking his head in disbelief. “First of all.” Instead of talking, the congressman stood and paced the room. “The White House can’t float anything in Congress,” he said, still pacing. “Not a frisbee, not a bottle cap and not a bill.”

            “But you can.”

            “And second of all, your HALF measure bill is DOA. How in the hell do you think you can push something through that’s even more severe? I mean.” The congressman sighed and dropped back into his chair. “It’s like, hey, I asked my dad for ten bucks and he shouted and screamed at me about responsibility and work ethics, and so what do I do?”

            “You ask for a thousand.”

            “I ask for a thousand.”

            “I’m getting a lot of mom and dad references, Paul. You in therapy or something?”

            Paul stared at Josh, all joking aside. “This is a bad idea,” he said, shaking his head.

            “Won’t be the first.”       

            “The ill will you’ll get back will be, it’ll be unprecedented.”

            “Paul.”

            “And speaking of precedent, Josh. This is, what, the first inning of the new term, and you’re going to flush any hope of other successes down the toilet with this. I mean, a lot of people are going to hate you. They’re going to actually hate you, Josh, for trying to pull this . . . stunt . . . is what it is.”

            “Yeah,” Josh said, opening his drawer and pulling out The New Yorker.

            “Well,” the congressman asked after a long bout of silence. “Do you have a plan?”

            “Yeah, we’re working on that.”

            “And you want me at the front of the ship that’s already hit the iceberg. That right?”

            “Have any allies left over there?”

            “A few,” Paul admitted.  

            “It’s going to be about values,” Josh said, staring down at the magazine cover before meeting the congressman’s gaze. “That’s all I can tell you right now, Paul. And also we’ll be calling for the banning of 99% of automatic and semiautomatic weapons for civilians, with stricter licensing and much longer wait periods.”

            “And on top of all that you’ll ALSO be tossing in a buyback program,” Paul laughed, but when he looked at Josh’s impish grin he stopped smiling. “Oh Jesus,” he said. 

            “Yeah,” Josh agreed. “And if you could swing it we could use his help too.”

            Without looking, Josh flipped through the magazine and lifted it onto the desk, spinning the page so the congressman could see it face up.  

            “One more thing,” Josh said, pointing down at the cartoon. “Can you please tell me what the hell’s going on here?”

            Marsh studied the black and white cartoon a few seconds, then pushed it towards Josh.

            “Mutual annihilation,” he said and pointed to the caricature of the elephant while Josh squinted and squirmed to see what the congressman was seeing.

            “There’s a bacteria eating away at him,” Marsh explained, “and all the guns he’s holding are pointing out, but look. They’re pointing back.”

            “No they’re not,” Josh argued. “Look at that and—”

            “Look at the angles,” Marsh told him. “It’s like an Escher drawing, or . . . actually, you remember those 3-D optical illusion paintings. Let your eyes relax. And look. They all eventually turn back on him. See?”

            With his finger the congressman pointed to a spot on the page, and after a few seconds, Josh let out a soft, revelatory “huh.”

            “So to kill the bacteria, or virus,” Marsh continued, “or whatever it is, he has to shoot himself. Which would—”

            “Which would . . . .” Josh let his mouth drop open. Instead of finishing the sentence, he allowed it to evaporate in the breadth of his sigh. 

Chapter Text

            

            Sitting on her sofa, her shoulder-length hair sweeping down in front of her face like a curtain, C.J. shifted between chugging diet Coke from a can and lifting a new page from the stack in front of her. After reading the page, she placed the said paper into one of two piles.

            “Don’t you, like, have a meeting to go,” Omar asked, entering the room and holding out a can of Diet coke, which C.J. promptly grabbed without looking.

            “Sit down,” she demanded, and with a sigh the twenty-nine-year-old assistant shifted some loose papers to the side and took a seat next to her on the cramped couch.

            “You have a notepad?” she asked him.

            “I have my phone.”

            “And you can—”

            “Use it to take notes? Uh-huh. I can do other things with it too. How about I come over tonight, make you some soup, make sure you go to bed nice and early?”

            To this suggestion C.J. shot her assistant a curious glance.

            “Are you . . . hitting on me, Omar?”

            “Please,” he said, sorting through lists on his phone. “I’m currently in a relationship. With a man.”

            “Well I don’t know,” she said, quickly backpedaling. “I’ve been known to lure human beings from all walks of life.”

            “I’m sure.”

            “Just, get to note taking. Ready?”

            “Shoot.”

            C.J. winced at his response. “Let’s dispense with the gun references, shall we?”

            “Sorry. So we’ve established that Robert Blithe was kicked off the Duke Chronicle.”

            “For plagiarism. Check.”

            “And then after graduation he was caught for the same thing at the Dallas Star, at which point he landed at several tabloids.”

            “Where we can imagine he had more of a free hand.”

            “Except he didn’t,” C.J. told Omar. “Five lawsuits in three years, four dismissed, one settled.”

            “For how much?”

            “Couldn’t find it,” she replied. “Then it looks like he cleaned up his act, worked for a couple small, and I mean tiny, papers, then moved to the Camden Beat, where he got some press for covering some child disappearances.”

            “Child disappearances?”

            “Yeah, uh.” C.J. flipped through her notes. “Nothing ever came of them, like they never found any kidnappers or even bodies, but the articles seemed to help Blithe’s career. So after the Beat he landed at the New Jersey Sentinel, which has a fairly substantial circulation at sixty thousand, and in that fairly substantial paper, Mr. Blithe scored a well-placed weekly column in addition to whatever else they had him work on.” C.J. shook her head and stared at the page in front of her. “How are you doing so well, Mr. Blithe?”

            “Okay,” Omar said. “So what’s his connection to Danny and the accident, and—”

            “Just hold on,” she said, lifting her hand for him to wait while she took a long slug of her soda. She held up a stack of stapled receipts.

            “Rented tuxedos,” she said. “Four in the last month.”

            “How’d you get those?”

            “I have about two million favors I never called in,” she said, searching for something under the second of two piles. “Anyway, Mr. Blithe has been stepping out recently to the most decadent government functions around. Something, as far as I can tell, he never did before. And . . . Hah!”

            From the middle of the second stack she pulled a web article printout with two black and white photos at the top and bottom of the page. She pointed to the top picture of a group of formally-dressed men and women.

            “The Cato Institute’s sixth annual Kissinger memorial fundraiser,” Omar read from the top of the page. Then he squinted his eyes and looked up at C.J.”

            “Memorial?” he said. “But Henry Kissinger’s—”

            “Still alive? Yeah. It’s a different Kissinger. Anyway, that’s Blithe in the back right. And he went to four other high-end Republican gatherings in the last two months as far as I can tell.”

            “Maybe someone put him up to his questions in the briefing, and that article he published.”

            “Two articles,” C.J. said, holding up a printout. “Posted an hour ago.”

            Omar took the sheet. “Anything new?” he asked, scanning the text.

            “Not really. Just that apparently I was actually driving the car on the night of, you know, and oh, a witness said I was intoxicated to the point that I was slurring my words.”

            “Who’s the witness?”

            “Blithe conveniently leaves that part out.”

            “Jesus, C.J.” Omar looked from the printout to her, to the printout. “You’re going to sue him, right? I mean this is unbelievable. I mean not only to bring it back up, but to blame you?”

            For a while C.J. didn’t respond. She simply stared down at the pile on the table.

            “C.J?”

            “Call Merill Simmons at the FBI, tell him you need some phone records, all phone records, landlines, cells, going back three months.”

            “For Blithe, right?”

            C.J. stood up and squeezed the life out of the Diet Coke in her hand while she walked around to her desk. “And get me Sheila Stanton at the DOJ, and get a hold of the roosters—”

            “Roosters?”

            “Rosters. I meant rosters, for all major Republican galas, fundraisers, you name it, going back—"
            “Three months,” Omar said. “Got it.” He walked to the door. “Any passwords I can use with the republican gatekeepers?”

            C.J. looked down and sucked in her cheek. “Brian O’Leary,” she said. “And when that stops working, Vanessa Shay, and then Chris Long, Doug Kemp, Cory Mitchell, and Leslie Stratavich. For a start. Come back if you run out.”

            She dropped her head and picked up the phone.

            “C.J.” Omar asked. “You okay?”

            Leaning over her table and looking up just with her eyes, she told Omar, “I’m great,” and turned away.

Chapter Text

            

            “Sock puppets.” Otto mouthed the words more than he actually spoke them, and he was still staring at the strange purple creature when Donna entered the room out of breath and took a seat on the couch next to Elsie.

            “You didn’t start, did you?” she asked the woman, who smiled and shook her head. Then Otto looked at Elsie and then to Donna with recognition in his eyes.  

            “That thing,” he said. “That thing you were carrying around this morning.”

            From her pocket Donna pulled the orange knit cat. “I’m sorry,” she told the two guests. “I didn’t really know until about an hour ago when I skimmed your website.”

            “What’s she? What are you talking about?” Otto breathed deep and looked up. “We have a miracle to perform with only a few days left, so if we could—”

            “Irrational,” the man told him. “My sister and I formed the organization nine years ago. We focus on problems that don’t make sense in the mere fact of their existence. We spent the first five years on gay rights, and the last four on alcohol-related car accidents.”

            “So what’s with the sock puppet?” Elsie asked.

            “Last year 10, 265 people died from alcohol-related car accidents,” Bob Eidentrench explained.

            “That’s a third of all car deaths,” Caroline Eidentrench added. “Not to mention all of the non-fatal injuries and billions in damages, both physical and psychological.”

            “So . . . what’s with the sock puppet?” Elsie repeated

            “It’s actually not a sock puppet,” Donna said. “It’s a—”

            ‘Breathilizer cozy,” Otto answered. “The president told us in the morning meeting.”

            “Well how does he know? Wait. Hold on.” Elsie squeezed her face in concentration and eventually blurted “the first lady!”  

             “Helen’s cousin went to school with my brother’s neighbor,” Caroline informed them.

            “Well then,” Elsie replied.

            “The first lady was interested and I was skeptical,” Donna admitted. “But then I read the website and the statistics they had there, and it’s actually, well . . . pretty—”

            “Rational?” Otto guessed.

            “Necessary, I was going to say.”

            “We’re still working on the slogan,” Bob told them. “We were thinking ‘Getting cozy with the breathalyzer.’”

            “Or ‘Don’t be a puppet to Big Auto,’” Caroline suggested.

            Otto scratched his chin and looked to Elsie for help but she was too busy sucking on soda-drenched popcorn and playing with the purple cozy.

            “Okay,” he said. “So what exactly are you trying to do?”

            “We want a breathalyzer in every car in the United States,” Caroline explained. “We can wipe out deaths from drunk driving and injuries from drunk driving. And we can wipe out the costs, which is, unfortunately, what most people really care about.”

            “The Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation,” Bob cut in, “estimated the total costs of drunk driving last year at one hundred and thirty-two billion dollars.”

            “Billion?” Donna said.

            “Billion,” Bob confirmed. “You have injuries, lawsuits, repairs, clean-up, lost work hours.”

            “And funerals,” Caroline added.

            “And funerals,” Bob agreed.

            “Okay,” Otto said, lifting his hand for them to pause. “But how much would it cost to install these in every car?”

            The siblings glanced at each other before Caroline answered, “so you have around two hundred and sixty million cars on the road.”

            “But sixty million at least are service vehicles,” Bob clarified.

            “Right. So two hundred million personal vehicles, at an average of a hundred dollars for installation.”

            “Twenty billion,” Elsie said. “With a hundred and twelve billion to spare.”

            “Except,” Bob added with a slight wince. “That’s not the only cost.”

            “It’s not?”

            “Maintenance,” Caroline explained. “You have to keep them calibrated, which costs anywhere from seventy to a hundred dollars per month.”

            “Per month?” Otto asked her.  

            “And that would raise the costs . . . considerably,” Bob announced.  

            “Two hundred billion dollars considerably,” Elsie said through a mouth of soda-soaked corn.

            “Mmm, this isn’t sounding so great anymore,” Donna mumbled.

            “But a lot of the monthly maintenance has to do with DUI cases,” Caroline told them. “People under court order to serve a sentence, and so somebody has to come out each month to make sure the device is working.”

            “Yeah there wouldn’t have to be the same oversight for the general public,” Bob confirmed.

            “And they’re so expensive because there just aren’t a lot of them,” Caroline explained. “With mass production the price would drop significantly.”

            “Significantly,” Bob agreed, and for a few seconds the room went quiet.

            “I don’t know,” Elsie said. “Monthly maintenance, having to blow into a tube every time you want to turn on the car. And couldn’t you just get your sober friend to blow into it?”

            “Yeah I don’t think people would like having to blow into a tube all the time,” Otto agreed. “And what if people share a car? Yuck.”

            “There would be disposable pieces,” Bob said, clearly irritated with their objections. “And in terms of convenience and hassle, how convenient were seatbelts when they first came out? How resistant were most people to this logical device that helped saved lives?”

            “He’s got a point there,” Donna said.

            “It’s also not likely that a sober friend would blow into a tube for a drunk driver,” Caroline pointed out. “There are flaws in everything,” she added. “The question is which price would we rather pay?”

            “You can also think of it like insurance,” Bob told them. “Maybe you don’t drink and your wife doesn’t drink, but that doesn’t mean one day you won’t get hit by someone who does. Paying your share so the three bitter alcoholics down the street can’t step into their cars and go off careening down the road may just save your life, or your wife’s life.”

            “We bailed out the car companies two years ago,” Elsie chimed in. “They should have to pay for this just like they had to pay for seatbelts.”

            “And if they have to pay for it,” Donna said, “they’ll find a way to bring the costs down. I don’t know. It’s starting to sound good again.”

            “All we’re asking,” Caroline said, reaching into her briefcase and pulling out a thick yellow binder, “is that the White House take a look at our numbers, and if they believe there’s merit, then start turning the wheels for more advocacy, more funding.”

            “Some funding,” Bob corrected her.

            Without saying another word, Otto took the yellow folder and nodded to the pair, and before he could figure out what was happening, Caroline Eidentrench had already walked around his desk and embraced him in a full-body hug.

            “Here,” she said, gently pulling away from him. “To remember us.”

            She reached back like a surgeon in the operating room, and like a surgeon’s assistant her brother handed her the right tool for the job. Bringing her hand forward, she delivered a green Oscar the Grouch cozy into Otto’s hand. Then she gently folded her fingers on top of his, sandwiching Oscar in between.

            “Well then,” Donna said, putting a cap on the semi-awkward moment. She smiled at the guests and exited the room, quickly followed by Elsie, who carried her soda and popcorn out the door.

Chapter Text

               

            “Why aren’t we walking to your office?”

            Ainsley wiped her hands on her navy pants and slowed to check her teeth in the reflection of a glass partition. In front of her, Charlie tapped a text on his phone as he strode forward without answering.

            “Charlie?”

            “Hold on. Okay.” He pocketed his phone and turned left and soon they were descending the back stairs. “What?”

            “Why are we going down stairs?”

            “We’re meeting the guy about the thing.”

            “The flag football thing.”

            “Right.”

            “But why not in your office?”

            They reached the bottom of the stairs and turned left and soon entered the cafeteria.

            “I thought if this guy’s truly nuts, I might need some beer.”

            “Charlie.”

            “Seriously?” He glanced back as he continued toward a table against the wall. “I thought you might get hungry, and I’ve only got a half a Pay Day in my office.”

            To this hypothesis Ainsley rolled her eyes. “I just spent the last thirty minutes eating.”

            “And?” Charlie eyed her skeptically as he lowered himself into a chair against the wall, and Ainsley sat down opposite him. And after opening her mouth, reconsidering, and opening her mouth again, Ainsley finally released a focused sigh through her nose.

            “So,” she said, regrouping. “Any news on the education spy?”

            “Yeah. We got him.”

            “You . . .” Ainsley processed several thoughts as her eyes expanded and her head began to slowly swivel from side to side.  

            “Her, actually,” Charlie explained. “Remember the secretary’s secretary?”

            “Excuse me?”

            “Fisher, the secretary of education? Her secretary, the one that told us to go in?”

            “Barely.”

            “Well it’s her. She left an ISP signature on one of the messages she leaked to the Post.”

            Ainsley stared at the table and considered this silently for a bit before lifting her head. “So is she—”

            “Oh yeah,” Charlie replied.

            “Was she working for Fisher? I mean, I know she was working for Fisher, but in this context, was she—”

            “We don’t know yet.”

            “And why don’t I know about this. I mean why wasn’t I informed?”

            “Don’t worry,” Charlie told her. “It’ll hit the Counsel’s office once the FBI does what they need to do. But they’re probably going to interview Fisher, like hard interview, and then we’ll get another crack at her, if you want.”

            They sat for a bit as the cafeteria buzzed with a medium amount of activity: a dozen bodies flitting around, people contentedly immersed in half conversations and partial thoughts as they passed by the small plastic table tucked into a partial alcove towards the back of the room.

            Charlie smiled and gave a nod to a half dozen coworkers while he intermittently checked his phone and Ainsley continued to stare at the wall across the room.  

            “She stole from me, that’s why I did it.”

            Looking up from his phone, Charlie flashed her a hard squint.

            “Fisher,” she said.

            “The Secretary of Education stole from you, is what you just said,” Charlie clarified.

            “At Smith,” Ainsley replied with a nod. “It was sophomore year, before we became sorority sisters. We lived in the same dorm and she was friends with my roommate Becky Sailes—we called her Checky Becky because she always were polka dots, long story—anyway Patty Fisher, she’d come by all the time and flop down on Becky’s bed while I was trying to study, and I always felt like she was watching me while I worked, you know, like I’d be sitting at my desk facing the wall and I’d feel this, this energy on the back of my head and I’d turn and she’d be reading a magazine, but kind of nervously. I thought.”

            “Why didn’t you study at the library?”

            “Oh I did,” Ainsley assured him. “This was supplemental studying. You know. For fun?”

            “Of course it was. So what, she stole your notes for a class?”          

            “No.”

            “Your boyfriend?”

            Ainsley took a deep breath. “My bra.”

            “Come again?” Charlie’s eyes inadvertently slipped down towards Ainsley’s chest before he came to and quickly lifted them back to her face.

            “My bra, Charlie. She stole my bra.”

            Shaking his head to knock loose any confusion, Charlie leaned in over the table and folded his hands on top of each other. 

            “So I had two bras that I really loved,” Ainsley clarified.

            “And I had a couple jock straps I was fond of in high school, but . . .”

            Ainsley stared at Charlie disappointedly. “You can’t really understand this unless you’re a woman,” she told him. “I don’t think guys have an equivalent.”

            “Probably not.”

            “But it’s hard to find a good bra, one that fits, one that’s flattering, I mean we have to wear these all day every day and there’s usually something that doesn’t work, but this one? This one bra . . .” Before finishing her thought, Ainsley faded off into a memory.

            “Did it, like, look nice too,” he asked her, “or was it just a comfort thing?”

            “It was everything,” she said as if she couldn’t say it any more clearly. “Silver padded cups with a delicate white lace across the top. Smooth-sliding straps. Anyway, one day I reached into my drawer and it wasn’t there.”

            “That must have stung.”

            “My first thought was the wash, and then that it was stuck to a shirt, which happens. I checked everywhere, reached into every sweater and pant leg, and nothing. Two days later I gave up. I sat on the edge of my bed and mourned for the rest of the day.”

            “But as it turned out,” Charlie continued, “the current secretary of education stole your bra. Now there’s a sentence nobody has ever uttered and will never utter again.”

            When Ainsley didn’t speak, Charlie asked her, “So how’d you find out?”

            “I was coming back from the shower one day and her door was open. Not like open open. Just cracked. And I wasn’t directly looking in, because I don’t do that, you see.”

            “Of course not.”

            “But she had a mirror in the back of her dorm room, and that morning the way the light from the window was reflecting, it kind of flickered and caught my attention. So I stopped and leaned in. And in the reflection, in the corner of the mirror, I saw her. I saw Patty Fisher modeling my bra, MY BRA, in the mirror.”

            “And it couldn’t have been a similar bra?”

            In response, Ainsley stared at Charlie like he had no idea what he was talking about. “We had the same bra size, and my aunt brought back that bra from Paris. From the workshop of Chantelle, Charlie.”

            “Okay, so she stole your bra. Wait, let me just say this again. The Secretary of Education stole your bra. What’d you do?”

            “Mr. Young?”

            Charlie looked up, the irritation clearly present in his glare. But his annoyance quickly vanished when he noticed a man the size of a refrigerator staring down at him from his right. Next to this man stood a man who was unusually large but still not as large as the other man. Both men wore perfectly fitting black suits, their hair closely buzzed.

            When Charlie stood he was still a few inches shorter than the Hispanic man and a good foot shorter than the black man.

            “I’m Charlie Young,” he said, and both men extend their hands.

            “Julio Peña,” said the smaller large man, shaking Charlie’s hand.

            “Ignatius Allen,” the larger man said, and as he reached out for Charlie’s hand, Charlie leaned back against the wall and studied Allen in a new light.

            “Iggy Allen?” Charlie asked him. “Iggy the Icebox?”

            “Who’s Iggy the Icebox?” Ainsley said, sliding out of her chair and shaking the hands of the men standing on either side of her.  

            “This guy here,” Charlie said through a toothy smile.  “He played for the Eagles in the early nineties. Biggest fullback who’d ever stepped onto the field. Used to lay people out cold before they even saw the running back behind him.”

            “Hence, Icebox?” Ainsley guessed.

            “Yes ma’am,” Allen confirmed. “But I’m just Ignatius now.”

            “And you?” she said, turning to the other man.

            “I’m still Julio,” he told her.

            “You’re the representative for the NFFL?” Charlie said and motioned to the two remaining seats.

            “We don’t like to call it that,” Julio said and eased into his chair. “We call it the Freedom League.”

            “Freedom,” Charlie said, studying the word from different angles before he looked up at Allen. “But wouldn’t the league be MORE restrictive? More rules, less contact, less hitting, meaning less—”

            “The freedom part is for the fans,” Ignatius clarified. “All of us at some level are carrying around the guilt of watching men hurt each other, and whether we realize it or not, that kind of psychological assault takes its toll at the individual level and in our society as a whole.”

            In response to the man’s articulation, Charlie and Ainsley wore not-so-furtive looks of surprise.

            “Especially now,” Julio added, “that the science is showing us what’s happening to our brains.”

            “You needed science to tell you that carting someone off the field on a stretcher every ten minutes was a bad thing?”

            “Ainsley,” Charlie said but Ignatius lifted his hand.

            “She’s right,” he told Charlie. “And it’s amazing how obvious the brutality is when you see it, and how inconspicuous it is when you’re blind to it. It’s been so normalized over the last hundred years, most people just see it as part of our everyday existence, just like boxing was a hundred years ago.”

            “Now hold on,” Ainsley interjected. “I’m going to guess that you made millions of dollars in your career?”

            Ignatius gave her a polite nod.  

            “And you as well, Mr. Peña?”

            “Just Julio, and yeah, I played three seasons with the Raiders, long enough to put away quite a bit.”

            “And would you go back and give that up?”

            “We can’t change the past,” Ignatius replied, “but I feel lucky I can still use my brain. I went back to school after I blew out my knee, and no matter what anyone says about working hard and paying your dues, it was just luck that kept me from getting injured, like really injured, in high school, in college, in the pros. I mean at least not right away.”

            “So,” Charlie said. “Flag football. You really think football’s going to die, and flag football will take over?”

            “Who knows,” Julio answered. “But we got rid of gladiatorial fighting, and boxing used to be the second most popular sport in the country in the 1920s and 30s.”

            “And MMA is only getting more popular,” Charlie countered.  

            “What we do know,” Ignatius told him, “is that as more people learn about concussions, that it’s not just the big hits but the incremental build-up of little, seemingly inconsequential blows to the head, more parents are going to pull their boys out of Pop Warner, out of high school ball.”

            “Affluent parents,” Julio added. “Parents whose kids have more than one option.”

            “Let me ask you,” Ignatius said. “When was the last time you heard of a boxer who came from a wealthy or middle-class family? Or MMA? And that’s what’s going to happen with football.”

            “We just want to give kids with athletic abilities another option,” Julio explained. “And we think flag football can be just as exciting, just as tense and uplifting as full-contact football.”

            “And you want the government to sponsor you?” Ainsley asked them.

            “Actually.” Ignatius shot Julio a quick glance before he turned back to Charlie and Ainsley with a toothy grin. “We wanted to invite the president and staff to an exhibition game we’re holding in September of this year, right here in D.C.”

            “We’ve pulled some of the best minds to work on a set of rules that will lead to the most spectator satisfaction,” Julio added. “And basketball proves that you can have a fast-paced team sport that’s not excessively violent. We think we can adopt some aspects of the NBA and ditch some of the harsher aspects of the NFL.”

            “Here’s some literature.” Ignatius reached down under the table and resurfaced with a green binder. “Plus some front-row passes for up to thirty people.”

            “That should cover the president and half his secret service attachment,” Charlie laughed.

            “Well.” Ignatius and Julio exchange serious looks. “We can get more passes. And here,” Julio said. He reached down and from somewhere pulled out two jerseys. One of the jerseys was blue and gold, the other purple and green.

            “The first two teams in our league,” Julio explained. “The Philadelphia Franklins and the New York Sojourners.”

            Ainsley held up the Blue and Gold jersey with the letters NYS in gold across the front.

            “Sojourner?” she said.

            “Sojourner Truth,” Ignatius told her. “The first great abolitionist female and African American. We want to choose admirable people for the team names and build each team around the legend of the person. And we’re drawing from men, women, black, white, Hispanic, you name it.”

            “Nice,” Ainsley said, holding up the colorful shirt to her chest.

            “Thanks for these,” Charlie said, rising from his chair. “We’ll definitely get this info to the president, and I personally appreciate what you’re doing.”

            They shook hands again and the two very large men departed.

            “Well that was . . . interesting,” Ainsley mused.  

            “Yeah, we should probably head back to the Roosevelt Room.”

            “You should head back. I have a pile of cases to work through.”

            “Uh-uh,” he said. “I’m not leaving your side until you finish your story.”

            “Oh, right.” Ainsley sighed at the realization and quickly scanned her surroundings. “Just let me get a water.”

            She took a few steps towards the counter when she stopped and turned back.

            “Hey Charlie?”

            “Uh-uh,” he replied, looking down at his phone.

            “When you changed the venue to down here, was it really because you thought I might get hungry?”

            “Yeah,” he said in a tone that implied it was no big deal but was absolutely the reason he changed locations. And because he was looking at his phone, he didn’t catch the warm smile on Ainsley’s face.

Chapter Text

               

            Up the front steps of the White House, Arnold Vinick walked with Annabeth Schott by his side taking fast little steps to keep up with his ample strides.

            “I just, I’m not sure I feel comfortable with this,” he admitted, lifting his hollowed cheeks towards his eyes as he flashed the guard a close-mouthed smile.  

            “You mean because you never served.”

            Vinick glared down at the woman a foot and a half below him. “Something like that.”

            “And why didn’t you? Serve.”

            “I was in college. But I would have. If my name had come up in the draft I would have gone.”

            “Well that’s not quite the same as enlisting.”

            “No, it’s not,” he agreed and left it at that as he opened the door and let her slip past him towards the first guard station. They showed their IDs and passed through the lobby.

            “When I was in college I twirled batons,” Annabeth told him. “And you don’t see me holding that over my head. People change. We grow and we try to make the best decisions with what we have.”

            “Thanks,” Vinick said. “It feels like fifty years of guilt and remorse have just melted away like butter.”

            “So you have your meeting in the Situation Room,” Annabeth explained, “and then afterwards you’re going to talk to them.”

            “I’m going to try to talk to them.” They continued to walk and suddenly Vinick slowed and began shaking his head. “I don’t know, I don’t know about this. I mean I’m not sure I’m even on board. This whole thing, it’s a bit cuckoo.”

            “It’s not cuckoo,” she countered. “It’s reasonable. We’re not saying people can’t have guns. If something is worth having, you should be ready to work for it, fight for it. Isn’t that the American way? And yes, Arnold Vinick is all about the market straightening everything out. Well some things the market can’t fix. Like health care.”

            “It could fix health care if—”

            “Like health care,” she repeated. “Like the military where you know subcontractors care about the bottom line and how many dollars they can save instead of how many lives they can save.”

            “That’s not—”

            “And did the U.S. car industry make seatbelts mandatory? Hell no they did not, and would not have if the federal government hadn’t pushed them. Do you know they funded a smear campaign against Ralph Nader in 1965. They had private eyes trying to dig up dirt on poor old Ralph so they wouldn’t have to install seat belts. Until the whole darn thing blew up in their faces.”

            “Yes, I read about that.” Vinick pulled a tissue from his pocket and blew his nose, holding the crumpled garbage out in front of him like a rat, searching the hallways left and right.

            Before he realized what had happened, Annabeth plucked the tissue from his fingers, stepped through a door on the right and quickly reappeared with a small bottle of hand sanitizer. She squirted some into Vinick’s open palm and took some for herself.

            “There are certain things,” she told him as they resumed their pace, “that the market can’t straighten out, and guns is another one of those things, and you know this, and General Bates knows this, and General Mcgrady knows this, and I’ve argued with you over the last sixty minutes about every side of this thing, and now it’s time for you to follow your president.”

            At the next turn Vinick stopped, and patted down his suit, and straightened his tie. “Switzerland,” he said. “Tom has family in Switzerland.”

            “General McGrady?”

            “His grandfather, his uncle.”

            “I don’t understand.”

            “He’ll probably bring up Switzerland, as in a country that has two million guns for a population of just over eight million people.”

            “And the NRA brings up Switzerland whenever they can,” Annabeth said, “as an example of a country that has lots of guns but not a lot of violence, right?”

            “Yes,” Vinick agreed. “That is right.”

            “And as usual the NRA spins the facts.”

            “But it is a fact that they haven’t had a mass shooting in seven years, and their rate of death by guns is almost four times lower than in the U.S.”

            “And it’s also the highest rate in all of Europe,” she countered. “And what the NRA dances around just like big tobacco dances around just like the alcohol industry and pharmaceutical industry and banking industry dance around is the key facts that paint a completely different picture!”

            “Are you okay,” he asked her, glancing down as he continued his long practiced strides. “Should I get you a glass of water or maybe a Xanax?”

           “Switzerland,” she told him, “has mandatory military service for all men. And in the service, men learn how to properly handle guns, and 25% of the people in Switzerland say they keep a firearm for military or police duty, while that number is only 5% in the U.S. Also.”

            “Just.” Vinick waved his hand but Annabeth kept talking as they descended the stairs.

            “Also, local authorities in Switzerland decide on who should have a gun, and they take their jobs very seriously. They ask around. They consult with psychiatrists and do deep background checks, and IF they decide to grant a permit, they keep a log of every single person in the community who has a gun. That’s what I call taking responsibility, and that’s what the NRA leaves out of their argument. If they had their way they’d hand out guns like popsicles.”

            As they reached the bottom of the stairs, Vinick wearily shook his head. “I haven’t said more than ten words and I’m still exhausted from talking to you. And by the way, no one hands out popsicles.”

            Annabeth looked up at him with an infectious smile. “I do,” she said and straightened his tie. “Just wait til the fourth of July. Now you’re all set on what you’re going to say?”

            Vinick rolled his eyes and patted his suit. “I was doing this thirty years before you were born,” he said, lifting his hand to the scanner on the wall.

            With a shrug, Annabeth headed back up the stairs. “That only means you’re more set in your ways!”

Chapter Text

           

              With a sigh that landed somewhere between angry and satisfied, Arnold Vinick placed his hand over the pad and hunched down, pressing his long face against the wall so the system could perform a retinal scan. He was still patting himself down as he walked into the first room and acknowledged a few uniformed men standing guard. He passed into the Situation Room currently buzzing with activity. Men and women in suits and uniforms sped by him, several bumping him but continuing on without a second look. On the far side of the room, Nancy McNally stood with her back to him, leaned over a counter and talking on a landline, while to her right, the president and Josh Lyman spoke with the CIA director and Jack Reese.

              Pushing and slipping through the scrambling bodies, Vinick worked his way across the room and finally stopped his forward momentum to the left of the president.  

              “What’d I miss?”

              “British and Belgium special forces mounted a rescue mission,” Josh explained.

              “When?”

              “About a half hour ago,” Santos said. “Word’s just getting back to us, but still lots of holes.”

              “I didn’t know Belgium had special forces.”

              “Apparently a Belgian press junket had just arrived in Jakarta during the kidnappings,” Mary Knull reported. “Around fourteen of their own were taken.”

              “I didn’t hear anything about this,” Vinick replied to the CIA director. “Did you,” he asked Josh, who answered with a quick shake of his head. “Because the Prime Minister didn’t tell us.”

              “Well them telling us now,” Vinick, surmised, “means either they’re gloating, or . . . .”

              “Mr. President?” Nancy hung up the phone and turned to face him. “We’ve gotten all we’re going to get for now.”

              Santos nodded and walked unimpeded to the far side of the room, where he took a seat at the head of the table. One by one the seats filled in around him until no one was standing.

              “As far as we can tell,” Jack Reese announced from the middle of the table, “the special forces were ambushed outside Jepara. It’s a small port where they were going to cross over.”

              “That’s not hard to believe,” Vinick said, again shaking his head. “They have moles everywhere. There are kids working for them who literally hide up in the trees. They get paid whenever they report something of interest. So how bad was it?”

              “Twelve confirmed dead,” McNally announced. “All friendlies.” To this the room let out a mix of groans and shouts.

              “Did they get anyone out?” Josh asked.

              “From what we can tell,” Jack Reese replied, “they were still eight miles from where we believe they’re holding the hostages, and by now the Kebenaran probably moved them two or three times.”

              “Maybe to the island,” Mary Knull suggested.

              “Jesus,” Santos mumbled. “This is a fucking disaster.” He looked up at Nancy McNally. “Get on the phone and tell Limpele we had nothing to do with this. Then get the prime minister on the line,” he said through gritted teeth. “I’m betting that stubborn son of a bitch knows what’s coming.”

              “Yes sir,” McNallly said and walked back to the phone behind her.

              “Force isn’t going to work here,” Josh explained.

              Santos mumbled something in response.  

              “Unless it’s overwhelming force,” General Bates suggested.

              “Yeah,” Josh countered, “because overwhelming force in a jungle environment usually works out for us.”

              “And you know about Vietnam, do you?” the general asked in a calm, polite tone that belied the hostility underneath.  

              “I know from reading hundreds of first-hand accounts,” Josh said, not shaken in the least, “that I could never truly know how much of a hell scape that was, sir, and I wouldn’t wish a repeat of that on my worst enemy.”

              For a moment the silence in the room allowed everyone to hear Nancy McNally mumbling on the phone behind them. The seconds passed and nobody spoke as the three-dimensional rotating globe cast different colors across the table.

              Finally Santos slammed his hand onto the table.

              “I want those men out!”

              “Sir.”

              “No,” Santos said, clenching his jaw and staring down at the table.

              “Sir.”

              “I’m not making that deal, Josh. I’m not. We don’t . . . deal with terrorists.”

              “If it’s not us,” Mary Knull explained, “it will be the British, or Belgians, or French. And their deals might just be for their people.”

              “They can’t,” Vinick argued. “They don’t have the power to negotiate with Limpele or the Kebenaran. Plus the bertrandite is on our land. I mean I guess we could lease rights to Belgium and broker a deal with them to negotiate with Limpele, and then they could go to Limpele.”

              “But Limpele doesn’t want to negotiate with anyone but Bartlett,” Santos replied in a strained, condescending tone. “Besides what you just said, Arnie, that’s the same thing as us making the deal, that’s the same backdoor bullshit we’re trying to avoid.”

              “Technically we’d be—”

              “It’s the same thing,” Santos repeated, and breathed deep through his nose before standing up.

              “I want those men out,” he told the room. “And I don’t want to hand them the recipe and ingredients for a million guns. I know it’s a tough one, but I was told everyone in here is the best at what he or she does, so . . . . prove it.”

              The room vibrated with a dozen “Yes, Mr. Presidents,” and “Yes sirs,” as Santos walked out the door.

               For a while after the president left, nobody moved. Finally Josh rose from the table, turning back to address Vinick, who was still seated and staring at his hands.

               “You coming?” Josh asks him.

               Vinick lightly shook his head. “I got that thing, you know? The one Annabeth drummed up.”

              “Ahh,” Josh said, nodding his understanding. “Well, we’re briefing President Bartlett. So whenever you’re done . . . .”

              Vinick gave Josh a slow nod and appeared as if he’d rather be anywhere else. As Josh walked off, Vinick eased out from his seat and approached two middle-aged men in heavily-decorated army uniforms, his hands behind his back and the fingers nervously fluttering.

Chapter Text

                

             “So the tall grass grows taller.” In the Oval Office, President Bartlett sat next to President Santos, with Josh on the couch to Santos’ right.

             “We’re going to set up a call between you and Limpele,” Josh explained to his ex-boss.

             With a gentle smile, Bartlett nodded. “And I’m to let him know,” Bartlett confirmed, “that we had nothing to do with this, and in a roundabout way I’m supposed to spit fire at the Brits for going behind our backs.”

             “Or not so roundabout,” Santos suggested. “Be as candid as you like. About your anger towards the Brits and Belgians, that is.”

             Bartlett reached over and placed his hand on Santos’ shoulder. “I heard you know one of the hostages. You served together?”

             Santos nodded.

             “It doesn’t get any harder,” Bartlett said and turned to Josh. “And the deal?”

             “We’re . . . still looking at our options,” Josh explained. “Limpele’s in a meeting now so we’ll set you up in about twenty minutes. If you want to stretch your legs or, you know, visit the chef with more of your esoteric culinary preferences.”

             “Maybe I’ll do just that.” Bartlett rose from his chair, and with his cane he slowly walked to the door and into the waiting room, where he paused at the desk of Cody Zucker and snapped his fingers, causing the president’s body man to look up with a start.

             “So how did it go?” the former president asked him.

             “Sir?”

             “The fight for voting rights.”

             “Oh. Well.” Cody looked down to regain his composure. “Not very well,” he said after a few beats.  

             To this Bartlett nodded and glanced left at Ronna across the room, who was sneaking peeks while typing on her keyboard.

             “You know,” Bartlett whispered, leaning in over Cody’s desk. “This office is pretty strict when it comes to background checks on potential hires.”

             In response to the implication, Cody glanced up at the president with a new layer of fear in his eyes.

             “I thought you seemed familiar,” Bartlett mused, “and not just for that thing in the press room. So I looked at your file. I guess I’m just a nosy old man, but if you don’t want to tell me . . .”

             “No,” Cody said. “It’s okay, sir. My, uh, my best friend was killed, and I wasn’t coping very well. My other friend, she gave me Klonopin because I was bouncing off the walls.”

             “And the next thing you know,” Bartlett continued, “you’re breaking into a drug store.”

             “The door was unlocked,” Cody told him. “But when I went to the back of the store, to the pharmacy, and saw the metal caging pulled down, I gave up and, I guess I fell asleep on the floor until the cops showed up.”

             “So no B&E,” Bartlett said to himself. “Still, that’s plenty to get your resume tossed around here.”

             “Josh Lyman vouched for me,” Cody said as his frown turned into a nervous smile. “I’m about as excited as anyone could be to be here, sitting at this desk, every day, sir. I know I got a second chance and I’m not going to waste it.”

              To this Bartlett stared at the floor and smiled, as if remembering something unrelated to the young man in front of him. “To be given a second chance is one thing,” Bartlett said. “To understand what that second chance means, that’s another level.” He lifted his eyes now to Cody and offered the young man a genuine smile.

              “It sounds like you’re all set.”

             “Yes, sir.”

             “Be a vacuum, Cody.”

             “Sir?”

             “Absorb in these moments, take them in and write them down, because wherever you go after this, you’ll always look back on these times, and you’ll want to remember. You’ll hit on a particular moment, and you’ll want to see it, and hear it, and smell it. You’ll want to pick it apart from every angle and every sense. And if you can’t. Well, it hurts, it really hurts when you can’t, so do your best to keep a log on those moments that truly stand out. Record them from different perspectives, and I assure you, your future self will be happy you did.”

             “Yes sir,” Cody said, clearly considering the former president’s words.

              For a while Bartlett stood there, trying to work something out.

             “It was Josh, you say, who pulled you out of the trash?”

             “As far as I know, sir.”

             “Okay.” Bartlett nodded and turned away from the desk. “Thanks for talking with me, Cody. I’m going to say hi to Margaret.”

             Returning to the papers in front of him, Cody continued to watch the ex-president until he slowly shuffled out of the room.

Chapter Text

               

               Walking up the many steps of the capitol, Toby checked his wrist for the time. But his watch was currently sitting at the bottom of a trash can, so he reluctantly pulled out his phone, checked the screen, and quickly tucked the device back in his pants pocket as he hopped the steps two at a time like a boy pretending to be an adult.

               Out of breath and trying to cover it five minutes later, he walked into an office equipped with two desks and six chairs and two young people seated at each of the desks. The walls were covered with Terrapins banners and Orioles banners and a purple and black Ravens jersey. For a while he did nothing but stare at a cartoon depiction of the Johns Hopkins Blue Jay.

               “Mr. Ziegler?”

               “Huh,” he said in mild bemusement to a serious-looking young woman with glasses and black hair pulled back in a tight ponytail. “I didn’t even know Johns Hopkins had a mascot.”

              “The senator will see you now, Mr. Ziegler.”

              With a nod and a glance back to the poster, Toby followed the woman into a smaller but more elegant space. The carpets in this room were beige and plush, the walls painted a soft milky green with one sizeable bookshelf to the right. Otherwise only a desk near the back windows and a few small chairs filled the space.

              “Could you take off your shoes?” said the woman behind the desk.

              Toby looked down at his shoes with an incredulous smile.

              “I’m serious,” she said, and so he bobbed his head patronizingly from side to side as he slipped out of his black loafers.

              “You ask everyone,” he said. “Everyone who walks in here to take off their shoes?”

              The tall, elegant woman swept around her desk while adjusting her glasses and tying her black, reddish hair up in a bun.

              “It’s a nice carpet,” she said. “Don’t you think?”

              “I . . . guess,” he replied, looking more uncomfortable by the second.

              “Well you have to take your socks off to really, you know, get in there, to—”

              “I’m not taking my socks off.”

              The woman shrugged. “Suit yourself,” she said as the phone on her desk began to buzz and blink red. Lifting the receiver and setting it back down, she crossed the space and stood before him, speechless.

              “Your beard,” she finally managed. “Toby, your beard.”

             “Senator Wyatt,” he said as the woman continued to stare.

             “Toby,” she said, studying his face from multiple angles. “This is not an insignificant thing.”

             “It’s hair.”

             “‘It’s hair,’ the man said with a shrug.”  

              As her eyebrows lifted towards the roof of her skull, Andrea Wyatt continued to stare, while the beardless man in front of her rocked nervously from side to side.  

              “What!” he finally shouted.

              “Toby!” Andy replied, trying to drill into his brain with her stare how unreasonable he was being. “I have never, not once, in all the many years that I’ve known you, seen you without a beard. Do you realize that? Do you understand the magnitude of this moment for me?”

             “Really?” he said, stepping around her and slipping into a basic wooden chair in front of her desk.

             “Honestly I thought you were born with it,” she told him, “like maybe you suffered from some rare disorder and that’s why you turned into a curmudgeon at the ripe old age of twenty-three.”

             “I was a curmudgeon before that,” he said, and followed with, “anyway, you look good.”

             “So do you. Seriously.” She walked around her desk and returning to her chair “You look rested.”

             “Therapy,” he admitted. “And Ricky.”

             “She’s good for you, Toby.”

             “Don’t I know it.”

             “Was she partly behind . . . this?” Andy rubbed her chin.

             “Possibly,” he said. “I mean at first it was all her. But then I thought about it, and I thought about it some more. And it really feels like when I shaved away that hair. I don’t know. I was kind of shaving away my stubbornness. Not that it’s that simple.”

             As he explained, Andy began to tear up. “God,” she said. “I mean my God, Toby. You know how long I’ve been waiting for . . . .” Shaking her head, Andy couldn’t find the words

             Awkwardly smiling, Toby looked away, then breathed deep and stared back at his ex-wife. “Thank you,” he finally said, wrestling the words out of his mouth. “But I’m not completely there yet, and all this—”

             “Of course, I get it,” she said, lifting her hand. “So, you wanted to talk to me about the gun bill.”

             “That’s right.”

             “Can’t do it.”

             With a closed-mouthed chuckle, Toby looked at the ground before lifting his eyes to the woman across from him. “I didn’t even tell you—”

             “It doesn’t matter,” she interrupted. “The people of Maryland, my people, Toby, are not going to support a toothless bill.”

             “Andy.”

             “I mean, fifty-five percent of automatic weapons? Seriously? I told you guys I wasn’t going to vote for it, even if I was standing there by myself. And twelve more hours for the waiting period? Is that a joke. Do you—”

             “Andy!”

             The volume and compression of his voice subdued whatever else she was about to say.

             “We’re all in,” he explained, to which Andy stared blankly.

            “You heard what the First Lady said?”

            “Yeah, but.” She searched for the words. “She was sick. Delirious.”

            “Regardless, the president’s fed up with half measures.”

            “Seriously?”

            “Seriously.”

            “So all automatic weapons?”

            “Ninety-nine-percent.”

            “What’s the one percent?”

            “Andy.”

            “I’m serious.”

            “It’s circumstances, exceptions, not really the gun itself.”

            “And semi-automatics?”

            “Uh-huh.”

            “Waiting periods?”

            “One month.”

            “A month?”

            “And a mandatory registry, and a buyback program, and people will have to prove that their guns are safely stored.”

            For a while Andy sat there squinting her eyes ever more severely at the floor as if she were searching for a grain of sand she’d dropped earlier.

            “I bet C.J. had something to do with this.”

            “Possibly,” Toby said after a beat.

            “God bless the women,” Andy said as a statement of fact. And when he didn’t respond she kept going. “Seriously, Toby. It’s the women marching forward while the men take two steps back.”

            “I don’t . . . disagree with that assessment,” he concluded.

            “So what else does ‘all in’ mean?”

            “A ban and recall of all automatic and semiautomatic weapons for personal use. If people want to shoot an Uzi, they can get a permit and go to a designated range and fire the rented weapon.”

            Andy thought this over. “That sounds pretty good. Of course what sounds good to me won’t hold a lot of water in Little Rock.”

            To this Toby could only shrug.

            “The latest estimate puts the gun total over three hundred million,” Andy informed him. “That’s nearly one gun for every man, woman, and pissed-off toddler in the country.”

            “I didn’t say it was going to be easy or fast,” he countered. “But we have to start somewhere.”

            “I agree,” she said, her eyes still bulging at the enormity and improbability of what she’d just heard. “There’s only one problem.”

            Toby let out a small chuckle. “You mean the fact that the vote in the senate is a week from today, and we’re basically writing a whole new bill which is going to enrage half the senate and half the house and half of the population of this country?”

            “When I said one I really meant thirty.”

            “I figured.”

            “And I’m supposed to . . . what, charm the pants off my fellow senators?”

            “If only pants worked that way.”

            “For patriarchal old white men?” Andy said, staring at him with incomprehension. “They do . . . Toby . . . work that way.”

            “Yeah, well. No,” he told her. “You’ve got an eighty-six-percent approval rating. It’s time to rally the troops.”

            “In one week?”

            “Hopefully less than one week. We need your people jamming the phone lines and sending emails and picketing for something to be done, for common sense to finally take hold. It’s about sacrifice, Andy.”

            “And the amendment?”

            “We got a guy working on it.”

            “O . . . kay,” she said, and breathed deep. “I don’t believe there’s a chance in hell this is actually going to happen. But, you know, you only live once, right?”

            “That is my understanding, yes.”

            “So let’s get this party started!”

            With a reserved nod, Toby pulled himself out of his chair.

            “How are the kids?” he asked her.

            “Fine. Huck punched a kid.”

            “He . . . what?”

            “The kid was picking on a girl apparently nobody likes.”

            “Oh. Well . . . good then. And if Huck also didn’t like her that’s even more impressive.”

            “He got three days detention.”

            “In fourth grade?” Toby said, his voice rising with each word. “For standing up to a bully? You want me to—”

            “I already talked to the teacher,” she said. “It’s okay.”

            “Well, okay then,” he grumbled, head down.

            “You know,” she told him, “they’re not going to recognize you.”

             To this Toby shrugged. “I’ll wear a fake beard.”

             “Huh. A fake beard to look like yourself. That’s a first.”

             With a close-mouthed smile, Toby turned and headed to the door and struggled to slip into his shoes.  

             “Wait!”

             He turned back as Andy shuffled barefoot across the carpet and leaned in and wrapped her arms tight around his back.

             “I’m really, really happy for you,” she said into his neck.

             “Keep me updated,” he whispered, gently pulling away.

             “I’ll do my best Toby, but the people of Maryland aren’t going to carry this.”

             “Yeah,” he said. “I know.”

             “We need support.”

             “We’re working on it.”

             “Hey Toby,” she said as he reached the door, and turned.

             “What happened to the watch I gave you?”

Chapter Text

              

 

            The President sat at his desk signing executive orders. With each signature he paused, looked off for a few seconds, and then returned to the task at hand.

            After a few more minutes of this, he pushed the papers aside and leaned back in his chair. 

            “Sir?”

            Santos turned his eyes but not his head as Josh walked into the room from his office on the left. He didn’t speak and Josh didn’t speak. Each man remained in his world for a while until Josh eventually broke the static.  

            “Sir remember you have until Monday,” Josh finally reminded him. “And President Bartlett might be able to buy us some more time.”

            “I’m aware of that, Josh.”

            “Your ten forty-five’s on his way.”

            “It’s eleven thirty,” Santos said, glancing at the clock on the opposite wall. “And what else is new? Who is it?”

            “It’s . . . Toby’s former appointment.”

            “The crackpot?”

            “We’ve been going with blockhead, sir.”

            Leaning further back in his chair, Santos released another sigh as he stretched his arms over his head and yawned.

            “Getting enough sleep?” Josh asked him.  

            “Helen has a hundred and one fever,” the president said through another yawn. “She’s all doped up, but every time she wakes up she throws up.”

            “That’s terrible.”

            “And her being sick is an actual security risk, which goes into the category of things I never would have imagined before moving into this house. I have to sleep down the hall and talk to her on the phone like she’s Typhoid Mary. At least until her temperature drops below a hundred.”

            “It’s a different world for sure, sir. But she’s also got the best care in the world.”

            “Speaking of wives,” Santos said, rubbing his eyes. “Your anniversary’s coming up.”

            “Why is everyone telling me like I’m the last person to hear?”

            “Because you forgot last year.”

            “I didn’t forget. I was in the middle of a treaty renegotiation in Krakow.”

            “I was the one negotiating that treaty, Josh.”

            “You know what I mean, sir. And then Yakovich with his antics and the Germans and the Russians and yeah in the middle of all that I guess I misplaced that one very important set of numbers. But, you know, Donna understood.”

            The president offered Josh a condescending nod. “So, what’s the problem?”

            “There is no problem.”
            “Josh.”

            “There is no problem!”

            “Take a seat,” the president insisted in the voice of a friendly football coach.

            Dropping into one of the deep leather chairs in front of the Resolute desk, Josh let out a long sigh. He winced a few times and looked off before he managed to get the words out.  

            “I’m not very good at, you know, expressing my feelings, like certain kinds of feelings.”

            Saying nothing, the president patiently waited.

            “Like you and the first lady, sir, you two seem great, and how she works closely with you? Barring, of course . . . recent events. I just, it’s just that, you know, I care about her. Like, a lot.”

            “Helen?”

            “Donna! Like sometimes I have these feelings coming up when I look at her during briefings or the morning meetings and they’re like . . . they’re like . . . sometimes they’re like these condors with their giant wingspans flapping up from my feet into my throat. And then sometimes they’re like these bowling balls in my gut. And I’m just afraid I’m going to let something out that’ll compromise my position, our position, and then I’ll ruin everything on both sides. I don’t know. I’m probably not making a lot of sense.”

            “There’s a way, Josh,” the president explained, “to be affectionate without giving away the store. However much you suspect Donna would appreciate hearing you say what’s inside you, multiply that by a hundred and that’s really how much she wants to hear it. Take it from me, I’ve learned the hard way on this one.”

            “Yes, sir.”

            “Maybe you should take a page from Toby. See a therapist.”

            “I do see a therapist.”

            “How often.”

            “Not . . . very often,” Josh admitted.

            “So,” the president said. “You going to say something?”

            “To Donna? I’m strongly thinking about it, sir.”

            “Okay. So who do we have coming in? Who’s this . . . blockhead?”

            Lifting a red folder on the edge of the desk, Josh flipped open the cover. “Um, backwards history, sir.”

When the president responded with a confused stare, Josh handed over the folder.

            “And go easy on them, Mr. President,” Josh advised. “They thought they were meeting with an assistant speech writer. The woman I spoke with, she sounded a little . . .”

            “What?”

            “Shaky, sir.”

            “Well that’s one thing I can usually count on.”

            “They’re here, sir,” Cody announced with his head through the door.

            “Send them in.”

            Heads down, two women, one middle-aged, one in her twenties, scuttled across the carpet.  

            Santos and Josh exchanged curious looks as the women each grabbed an end of a large plastic rectangle, finally setting the rectangle in the middle of the floor and flipping open the ends. After a few seconds the rectangle turned into a whiteboard with a tripod base.

            “Sir?” Cody said, drifting over to the president’s right. “Do you mind if I stay and watch?”

            Pouting his lips and shaking his head, Santos patiently observed the happenings.  

            The older woman with wavy bleach-blond hair to her shoulders tried to unlock one of the legs of the boards, but then she lost control and the young woman rushed in to grab the contraption as it fell.

            With short curly brown hair, the younger woman mumbled to the older woman, and they continued in this way for another twenty seconds until the white board was standing and they were both standing in front of the president with markers in their hands.

            “We apologize Mr. President,” said the older woman.

            “Not at all,” Santos said in a friendly tone. “But I am on a pretty tight schedule, so how about we get to it, whatever it is we’re getting to.”

            “Of course, sir.” The older woman stepped forward. “I’m Dr. Marian Markel, sorry, Wells, Marian Wells, and this is Beatrice Barkel, sorry, Markel! Sorry. God this is . . .”

            “Overwhelming?” the president replied. “The most seasoned, poised professionals have the same reaction walking into this room. A grown man, and I won’t name names, wet himself standing right where you’re standing. Hell I had the same reaction the first ten times I came in here. And honestly you probably won’t get past it today, so don’t even try, but I’m okay, so we’re okay. Okay?”

            The two women nodded appreciatively.

            “So,” Josh said.

            “Right!” the younger woman shouted and elbowed Dr. Wells.

            “Okay. Okay.” Dr. Wells cleared her throat. “Okay. To put it plainly.”

            “Please,” Santos replied.  

            “We think history, in all schools K through twelve across the country, should be taught backwards.”

            “That’s . . . pretty plain,” Josh remarked.

            “And what does that mean?” the president asked them.

            “Well think about it.” Beatrice Markel lightly coughed into her shoulder before continuing. “You’re in fifth or fourth grade. You’re ten years old. You know nothing about the world, you’re still trying to come to grips with the present, and where do we start you off? With the Sumerians, with the Egyptians, with people and places so far from this, your current reality, that you couldn’t possibly understand.”

            “And sure some kids latch on depending on the teachers and how the information is delivered,” Dr. Wells went on, “but overall we just don’t think it makes a lot of sense.”

            Josh scratched his head and looked up from the floor. “So you’re proposing—”

            “We start with what kids know,” Dr. Wells explained. “Maybe you like video games, so what game do you really like? When was the game first released? Were there earlier versions? Before this game, was there another game that dealt with the same content? What were the first personal video games like? What did people do for entertainment before video games.”

            “Students really dig into each level,” Markel continued, “and once they have a firm grasp on that particular area of history, they dive a bit further down, and maybe spread the net a bit wider.”

            “And all the while,” Dr. Wells added, “there’s this connective thread tying all of these components to what the child is truly passionate about.”

            When Dr. Wells stopped talking, Santos, a bit stunned, looked at Josh, then Cody, before turning back to the women.

            “I guess . . . that makes sense,” he admitted. “But wouldn’t it be a free-for-all, a classroom of twenty-five kids with twenty-five different topics? I mean how do you teach that? Isn’t the point of having a curriculum and having a text book that everyone’s on the same page, otherwise it would be overwhelming for the instructor.”

            “Not to mention completely unwieldy down the line,” Josh chimed in. “You’re not just talking about one grade, you’re talking year after year. So how do you design that? I mean in this framework, what does a fifth-grade history class look like compared to a tenth grade, or twelve-grade class?”

            “Let me ask you,” Markle said, meeting Josh’s eyes. “What is the point of history?”

            “History?” Josh said like he suddenly wasn’t sure of the meaning of the word.

            “Yes. Learning history. What’s the point?”

            “Um.” Josh looked down, suddenly put on the spot. “I guess,” he said, lifting his head, “it’s simply, to learn from the past so we can better understand the present.”

            “Well-said,” Markle replied like a teacher congratulating a clever student. “And that right there would be the basis for the program. In terms of learning, we’re already headed toward individualized curricula. Right now there are a dozen charter schools experimenting with models that cater to the individual child instead of to a generalized curriculum. Students work online and receive guidance from teachers. They work alone, and then in the classrooms they come together and talk about what they’ve discovered as the instructors facilitate conversation.”

            “To answer your question, Mr. Lyman,” Dr. Wells continued, “each year the methods would grow more complex. Students would learn to dig deeper, to make more connections, to learn to understand the nuances and complexities of history, whether it be ten years or ten thousand years in the past. They’d learn methods and skills they could then apply to a hundred different areas of their lives. Skills like critical thinking and hypothesizing and pattern recognition.”

            “Ideally,” Markle added, “as students gain a true appreciation for the value of history, they will grow more curious about all different types of history, and they won’t be bogged down with the geo-political manipulation that’s been occurring since the advent of the outdated agrarian model we’ve been using for the past two hundred years.”

            “Geopolitical,” Josh scoffed. “C’mon. Aren’t we getting a bit too . . . I don’t know.” He looked to the president for support, but Santos only shrugged in response.  

            “Did you attend a public school, Mr. Lyman?” Dr. Wells asked him.

            “I did.”

            “Then you would have learned about the United States, parts of Europe, and that’s pretty much it. A history of Western Civilization and not even much of it.”

            “That . . . sounds about right,” the president agreed.  

            “Yeah but.” Josh searched his mind. “The textbooks have expanded over the years. I mean they cover more areas.”

            “That’s true,” Beatrice Markle confirmed. “As a history teacher myself I used a dozen different books, and for this project I read through more than a hundred texts currently in circulation. And what we’ve learned is that the focus is still overwhelming on the western hemisphere.”

            “She’s right,” Cody said. His voice was so out of context, everyone turned and stared at the young man who to this point hadn’t said a word, forcing Cody to stare at his shoes while he retrieved his thoughts.

            “Even in the advanced classes,” he said after a few seconds of mental scrambling, now making eye contact with Josh, “we barely touched Africa and never got to South America.”

            After a few seconds of silent thought, the President turned to his body man. “So what do you think about all this? You’re not too far from homeroom and gym class.”

            “I don’t think I’m the target,” Cody explained. “I loved Sumer and Ancient Egypt. But I do think if I started with a history of what I most loved, I would have been even more excited.”

            “So this seems like a pretty intensive . . . pilot program you’re looking for?” Santos said, addressing the two women in front of him.

            “That’s right, Mr. President,” they said in near unison.  

            “And in order to see the true effectiveness,” Josh guessed, “we’re talking start to finish, seven, eight years, right?”

            “That’s not actually true,” Markle explained. “To see whether children are more engaged with history, and if they’re more receptive to learning and practicing fundamental skills, we could run a two or three-year program.”

            The president leaned forward. “Costing?”

            “For teacher training and assessments, twenty thousand per class, per year,” Dr. Wells told him like she’d memorized the information on flash cards.  

            “Which I’m sure you can raise on your own,” Josh added.

            “Which we did raise on our own,” Markle announced, reaching into her bag while the three men exchanged bewildered glances. After a few seconds of shuffling through pages, she came out with three pieces of paper covered in colored charts.

            “These are the results of a two-year program at a charter school in Connecticut.” She handed the pages to Josh, the President, and Cody, who reluctantly stepped forward to accept the document.

            “After one year,” Dr. Wells told them, “ninety-seven percent of the sixty-five participating fifth-grade students responded favorably to the class and to history as a whole.”

            “This,” Santos said with disbelief in his voice, pointing to a blue line, “this is the control group?”

            “A different sixty-five students,” Wells replied “taking a traditional world history class, found only twenty-three percent of the students responding favorably to the course or history. And only two percent of the females compared to ninety percent in the other class.”

            “And many won’t come back from this kind of disappointment,” Beatrice added.

            “It’s like piano lessons,” Josh mumbled.  

            “Piano?” the president said.

            “I hated it,” Josh told him. “And I still hate it. I held that grudge for the rest of my life.”

            “And after two years,” Beatrice explained, “most of the children still responded favorably, and additionally they were able to speak coherently and at length about the connections between past and present events, and how the past affects the present and future. They were able to apply critical thinking skills to a variety of different contexts.”

            “And just like your continuation of the head start program,” Wells pointed out to the president, “we don’t want to drop the ball now. We want to continue teaching history this way for these students and we want to grow the program.”

            “Grow how much?” Josh asked them.

            “Significantly,” Beatrice answered. “If we can push the sample size up to a thousand, or greater, people will have to listen.”

            “Okay.” Santos raised his hand for her to stop. “We’ve heard enough.”

            A few seconds passed as the women looked on nervously.

            “This was . .  eye-opening to say the least,” Santos told them, “and I think it’s worth further exploration. Leave all the literature you have with Josh here. I don’t know what we can do, but we’ll get you something to keep this going.”

            “Thank you, Mr. President!”

            “Thank you, Mr. President!”

            “Just one question,” the president said. “What’s the whiteboard for?”

            “Oh!” Dr. Wells shouted. “We had a whole thing drawn up, but then we, we.”

            “Forgot,” Beatrice Markel told them. “We’ll, we’ll get it out of your way.”

            “Thanks,” Santos said and gave them one last nod

            “Fisher’s going to love this,” Josh mumbled.

            “She is when she hears the alternative,” the president remarked, and smiled as the two women stumbled from the room.

Chapter Text

               

            Walking along Pennsylvania Avenue, pulling up her collar to brace against the twenty-mile-per-hour gusts, C.J. almost missed the man in Pershing Park seated on the steps leading down to the drained pool basin.

            Thinking once, then twice, then finally diverting her course slightly, she approached the nearly bald man hunched low in his black peacoat eating an ice cream cone on the top step.  

            “Toby?”

            With white cream lightly smeared around his hairless face, Toby turned and looked up, and when he recognized C.J., his face broke into a child-like smile.

            “C.J!” he shouted. “You look cold.”

            “You know why?” she replied, wrapping her arms more tightly around her chest..

            “It’s not so much the cold as the wind,” he informed her.

            “Yeah, that and the cold. Can we go back to the White House now?”

            For a while Toby continued to stare at a seagull washing itself in the leftover puddles of the pool. After a long, slow lick of the nub of white left at the top of his cone, he pulled himself to his feet and walked past C.J.

            Together they reached the curb, and when the light changed to green they crossed 15th.

            In the middle of the street, Toby extended his cone towards C.J.’s face, which she politely pushed away after staring at her colleague as if he truly could be insane.  

            “Right before Pesach,” he told her as they reached the sidewalk and turned right.

“Did you just cough?”

            “Passover,” he translated. “Right before it, our father would always take us to Coney Island for an ice cream. This time of year. By the water. It was always freezing, but we weren’t allowed to have ice cream any other time. That was, of course, before he went to jail.”

            Toby disappeared into his memories and C.J. left him to it, walking alongside him in silence until he opened his mouth a block and a half later. 

            “I always thought he was a son of a bitch,” he told her.

            “For giving you ice cream?”

            “For giving us what we wanted in a way that made the experience mostly miserable. You like ice cream, kids? Well how about you enjoy this really cold thing in the middle of an ice storm.”

            “Did he? Did your father give you a reason?”

            Toby glanced at C.J. and laughed, shaking his head.

            “What’s so funny?”

            “Jules Ziegler had a whole goddamn bit,” Toby said before clearing his throat. “‘Boys, you do not know what it was like for the Jews wandering the desert. You cannot feel what the immigrants felt coming to America with two cents to their name, for most of the sad, desperate people in the world. So eat. Eat for them. Eat for their sons and daughters who fell in the desert and were buried in the sand. Eat. Eat!’”

            They walked a few steps, C.J. glancing from Toby on her right to the mammoth columns of the Treasury Department on her left.

            “I didn’t really get it,” Toby admitted. “I don’t think I wanted to get it. I just wanted another reason to hate him. But today I was walking back from the capitol, and it was windy, and cold.”

            “IS windy and IS cold,” C.J. corrected him.

            “He wanted us to appreciate this small gift in a world filled with pain, because otherwise you get myopic and expectant. You take the little things for granted.”

            C.J. let out a small laugh.

            “What?”

           “I was just thinking,” she said, “if only your father had had an expert in communications, someone to clearly explain what he was trying to do.”

           Toby smiled at this, but then the smile faded as they turned left onto Pennsylvania Avenue. “It wouldn’t have mattered,” he said and took a deep breath. “Not then.”

           “But it matters for you, Toby, and how you can take the best things from him, and give them to your kids in a way they’ll understand.”

           “Yeah,” Toby said, putting a cap on the conversation for another few minutes, until he asked her, “how goes the war against guns?”

           In response C.J. let out a long sigh. “First I had to deal with the botched British invasion of Indonesia. Then . . . I think together I and my staff have made over a thousand calls to major and minor outlets across the country teasing them with the new plan.”

           “I haven’t heard this part of it.”

           “Lou’s idea. Plant the seeds. Get articles published and people talking, for or against, it doesn’t matter, get everyone revved up one way or the other.”

           “And it’s working?”

           “We ARE the White House,” she said. “At least two hundred papers are putting something together for the Saturday print, more online posts will go up tonight.”

           “Ready for what, exactly?”

           “An announcement? A gesture? I don’t know. The president hasn’t made that part clear.”

           “Probably because he doesn’t know.”

           C.J. replied with a shrug. “Hey how’d it go with Andy?”

           This got the biggest laugh out of Toby all day. “She’s got permission from the president to go Melbourne-style gun control on every man, woman, and child she sees. I think this is going to be a good week for Andy.”

           They reached the front gatehouse and showed the guard their ID’s. A large thirty-something white man who filled most of the booth waved C.J. through but held up his hand for Toby to stop.  

           “I just shaved, Karl,” Toby politely explained while in the background C.J. smiled at the guard through a shiver.

           “I never seen you without a beard,” the guard said, shifting his glance back and forth between the ID and the man in front of him.

           “Yeah . . . well.” Toby started to fidget. He pulled his coat zipper up to his chin. “C’mon, Karl, it’s freezing out here.”

           Karl considered Toby’s words and leaned back. Crossed his arms. “Let me tell you what I see. I see a normally bearded man with no beard. I see a man who claims it’s freezing and yet he’s carrying an ice cream cone.” The guard held his glare another beat. Then he broke down in a toothy smile. “Nah I’m just messing with you Mr. Ziegler. Go on with your new face.”

           Unsure how to react, Toby opened his mouth, closed it, and followed C.J. to the front entrance, glancing back at the security booth every ten feet.

           Inside they dealt with a similar but less tense situation involving the subsequent checkpoints.

           “Changing your face as a White House employee,” C.J. orated in the tone of a professional narrator, “the trials and tribulations by Toby Ziegler.”

           “Ha ha,” he replied as they walked through the lobby and turned right down a crowded hall.

           “Men shave,” he said, “women change their hair all the time. How many times have you changed your hair?”

           “It’s not the same,” she argued “Your beard was an institution. In fact I think it had its own sub-committee.”

           Toby decided not to take the bait, and they allowed the chaos and din of the lively halls to augment their mutual silence. They turned left, left again, and then walked straight through three intersections.

           “You talk to the old man?” Toby asked her.

           “Uh, we flew to and from Indonesia together.”

           “How is he?”

           “Well he’s not batty if that’s what you mean?”

           C.J. read the silence and added, “and no, Toby, he didn’t ask about you. But he’s going to be hanging around here until the hostage thing comes to an end. This is a good test for your new self.”

           “How do you think it’s going to end?” he asked her.

           “Hopefully with you and Ricky exchanging vows on a Caribbean beach.”

           “I meant Indonesia, but thanks for the thought.”  

           “Indonesia? I don’t know,” she said. “The old guns-for-guys deal seems to have tip-toed its way into SOP over the last forty years. Now you just kick up a little fuss over it, pretend your outraged and then make the deal behind the scenes. Except this time there’ll be two or three steps to muddy it even more.”

           “You think that’s the way Santos is leaning?”

           “He’s got an old army buddy over there,” she said. “Which shouldn’t matter.”

           “But it probably does,” Toby said.

           C.J. rolled her shoulders and rolled her eyes. “I have to get changed, and you should too.”

           “Changed. What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?”

           “For basketball? Everything. Didn’t you get the message?

           Shaking his head and opening his palms to the ceiling, Toby stood in the middle of the corridor waiting for a response.

           “The meeting in the Roosevelt room moved to Base Court.”

           Toby stared at her, waiting, and when she didn’t reply, he nearly shouted, “What the hell is Base Court?”

           To this C.J. stared at him with wide eyes until something hit home.

           “Wait. What?” Toby furrowed his brow and searched his brain for an adequate answer. “That’s real?” he said. “I thought people were joking.”

           “They weren’t joking, Toby.”

           “So, so hold on,” he said. “So Santos really installed an indoor basketball court where the bowling alley used to be?”

           “And the records room above that,” C.J. added. “Because, you know, a basketball court needs higher ceilings.”

           “Huh.” Toby laughed to himself. “Well that’s . . . luxurious.”

           “Actually,” C.J. replied, “he paid for it by selling off Nixon memorabilia from the bowling alley, and from donors of Big Brothers Big Sisters, who get to use the court three days during the week and every Sunday. So,” she said and backpedaled in order to slap him on the shoulder. “Get suited up!”

Chapter Text

               

 

 

           Wearing blue canvas All-Stars, green running shorts, and a New York Knicks jersey, Toby walked through the door and onto the basketball court, which was built level to the floor around it. His eyes narrowed in disbelief and his mouth hung agape as he stepped into the space more than a hundred feet long and eighty feet wide to allow for aisles and bleachers. He entered the room on the left and walked down the aisle, shifting his gaze from the three-tiered bleachers on his right to the thirty-foot ceilings to the echoing sounds of squeaking sneakers and bouncing balls on the far end of the court, where a handful of White House staff currently talked and dribbled and passed and shot.

           Of the nine people in the room, Josh was the only one not on the court. Wearing black running shorts and a loose gray tank top, he sat on the second row of the bleachers sipping a Gatorade and stretching his pale arms over his head, which revealed a bit of a loose flesh around his midsection. After a second he realized the reveal and quickly dropped his arms, attempting to appear casual while he did so.

           Toby found a seat next to him and laced his shoes while he snuck glances at the action: the President, Donna, Lou, C.J., Charlie, Otto, Ed, and Larry passing a handful of balls, shooting, or just standing around talking while Annabeth seemed content to dribble circles around all of them.

           Toby poked Josh in the shoulder. “Why didn’t you tell me about this?”

           “Wanted it to be a surprise,” Josh said. “And judging by the look on your face when you walked in . . .”

           “What are the dimensions?”

           “Full size in all ways,” Josh said “except the middle. They cut the normal thirty-eight feet between three-point lines down to ten. So it’s—”

           “Sixty-six feet long, fifty wide.”

           Shaking his head at the absurdity of it all, Toby laughed and scooted down to the floor to stretch. “This is shaping up to be a pretty good day.”

           “You know I don’t think I’ve ever heard you utter those words,” Josh replied.  

           Toby grabbed his right elbow with his left hand and pulled it across his body. “I’m getting a little tired of hearing people say things like that.”

           “Yeah, well,” Josh told him. “You keep saying things like that, you might just start normalizing people to another type of Toby.”

           “C’mon!” Santos shouted to the guys on the side. “Get in here!”

           Josh and Toby moved their stretching onto the middle of the court, but as Otto dribbled by, Josh moved from stretcher to ball thief. With Otto’s ball in his hands, he pulled up, shot a long three and missed the hoop by a foot.

           A loud, drawn-out “Ooh,” echoed from three different places on the court.  

           “I’m not warmed up!” Josh moaned.

           “No crying and no excuses out here,” Santos warned him.  

           “What about just stating a fact?”

           Santos narrowed his eyes at Josh while he accepted a pass from Donna. The president dribbled around Josh and passed to Lou, who waited for C.J. to cross under the hoop before she delivered a no-look chest pass which C.J. caught on her way to the hoop. The six-foot-tall press secretary left the ground with the ball in her right hand. Then she pulled the ball back, spun around, switched the ball to her left hand and laid the ball delicately against the backboard and into the basket.

           “Hoh!” Charlie shouted, and a second later put up his own shot, which banged off the backboard and nearly decapitated Ed, who covered his head just in time.

           “Berkeley huh?” Larry said, grabbing the rebound six inches from Ed’s face. He tossed the ball to Annabeth, who passed it to Ed, who quickly got rid of the ball by lateralling it to Otto.  

           “Starting forward until I blew out my knee,” C.J. told them.  

           “Really?” Donna said.   

           “Hold on,” Annabeth said and raised her cupped hand to her ear. “C.J. the WNBA’s calling.”

           This drew a laugh from half the group as the balls got passed around, shots were made and missed, and everyone was smiling.

           “So,” the president shouted. “Not to ruin the mood, but do we have a prayer? Toby do we have a prayer?

           “No sir,” Toby replied, lifting his hands in a weak effort to block Larry’s shot. “But we have something better.”

           Larry jumped and shot an arcing floater over Toby’s outstretched arms. The ball banged straight up off the hoop and dropped in for a long two.  

           “What’s better than faith?” Annabeth asked him.

           “Chutzpah!” Toby screamed and jogged to get the rebound. He dribbled around Josh and Otto before pulling up and draining a fifteen-footer.

           “Isn’t that just another word for hubris?” Donna said and passed the ball to Josh, who dribbled around the president before passing to Otto.

           “It’s more of a humble hubris,” Josh explained.

           “Toby’s saying you have guts, sir,” Lou informed the president, who took a pass from Ed, faked a shot, and rolled the ball over to the sidelines.

           “Annabeth!” he said and opened his hands. Annabeth passed him the ball.

           “Otto, Larry, Donna, roll your balls to the side,” Santos commanded and moved to the middle of the court with the only ball left. “Everyone,” he said. “In a circle.”

           After a few seconds the ten players formed a circle stretching the bounds of the court perimeter.

           “We’re dealing with fire here,” Santos told them, squeezing the ball between his two hands. “We need to get the American people on board for something they haven’t agreed with for the past fifty years, and we need to do it in one week. I know we’ve got all hands on deck rallying the masses, and I’ve called in all my favors, as I’m sure you have too. But it’s not enough. We need something big, something impactful, something that will result in millions of people across the country calling into their senators and congressmen. So . . . .”

            Annabeth raised her hand and Santos chest-passed her the ball.

           “Barnstorming,” she suggested. “Starting tomorrow you travel around to key locations making speeches and shaking hands.”

           “People need more time to congregate,” Toby argued.

           “Not if it’s a big deal,” Ed countered.

           “Nah,” Josh said. “Toby’s right. It’s not quick enough. With one, two days notice, the crowds could be lackluster.”

           “More,” Santos said, and Donna raised her hand, and Annabeth passed the ball with such force that Donna had to take a step back.

           “One commercial, honest, straightforward, like you did at the start of your first campaign.”

           “Hmm,” C.J. replied with a nod. “Something that hits on all cylinders could get a lot of airplay.”

           “Especially something so controversial,” Charlie chimed in.  

           “Maybe,” Santos said. “But I’m not campaigning. The president doesn’t advertise like that. What else?”

           Otto raised his hand and got the ball from Donna.

           “We can get some experts to do a series of debates in high-profile locations, on TV. Educate the people.”

           “Like Meet the Press?” Larry said with a wince. “How many people actually watch that?”

           “But we get really popular faces,” Otto explained. “Something the people won’t be able to resist.”

            Everyone spent time filling in the blanks, and after a few seconds Santos turned to Josh with wide eyes.  

            “What? No,” Josh said, interpreting the president’s expectant expression.

            “Hey, yeah,” Annabeth said, catching the exchange between the two and putting together the pieces.

            “No. Sir, no,” Toby told Santos. “Standing presidents don’t debate.”

            “Why not?” Annabeth asked him.

            “Yeah, why not?” Santos said.  

            “Because!” Toby shouted, and took a second to quietly scoff. “Because it’s beneath the office.”

            “It’s not beneath the office during campaign season,” Lou argued.  

            “I’m with Toby,” Ed said. “It’ an unnecessary risk that could damage his credibility if he does poorly.”

           “To that point,” Charlie said, “presidents have many months left in office after their first public debates, so that’s happening anyway. Plus all the twenty-four-hour media coverage, when isn’t the president’s credibility on the chopping block?”

            “And this president won’t do poorly,” Otto added. “At least not poor enough to make the American people hate him.”

            “That’s . . . reassuring,” Santos said.

            “People would certainly watch something that’s never been done before,” C.J. mused.

            “I’m always up for a good gimmick,” Lou added and turned to the president. “You could do it Sunday night, give people time to react and respond afterwards.”

            “Just.” Josh raised his hand and wasn’t looking when Otto chest-passed the ball into his side. The ball made a soft “thud” sound as it struck his midsection and bounced away towards the bleachers.

            “Good thing you got that spare tire,” Lou joked as Josh mildly doubled over.

            “I don’t have,” he began, turning to address her, but then redirected his response to everyone. “I don’t have a spare tire.”

             Josh swallowed his next reply and focused. “This is crazy,” he said. “The second term just began and something like this could sandbag the next three years. Do we really want to do that? Mr. President. Guns are just one of many issues. This thing we’re doing now could torpedo it all. And your—”

            “Hey,” the president said, lifting his hand. “Don’t say the ‘L’ word, Josh. I can’t make decisions based on that.”

            “‘L’ word?” Otto mumbled

            “Legacy,” Larry silently mouthed.

            “Mr. President,” Toby said. “This could set a dangerous precedent. Suddenly the president is prepping for six, seven, ten debates every year, which will take serious time away from running the country. I mean it’s already bad enough we get so distracted by campaigning. This could blow us completely off track. Outside of the risk, I think our predecessors had some very reasonable points for not doing this.”

            “I agree,” Ed said. “This could be a can of worms that changes the entire face of the presidency, for the worse.”

            “And in that case,” Lou responded, “the debate will hold less power and less power until it drifts into the abyss of Sunday morning politics and we’re back where we started. This is a big deal issue that needs a big deal response. Where’s your chutzpah now, Toby?”

            For a few seconds nobody spoke, until Charlie asked the room, “So who would it be?”

            “Good question,” Santos replied.

            “And would it be like the Santos-Vinick format?” Annabeth asked, “or more like the more recent Santos-Montgomery deal?”

            “First the who,” the president clarified “And I’m not saying this is a done deal, Toby, Ed, Josh. The question, hypothetically, is when Americans turn on their TV or computer and start watching, what combination will have the most impact?”

            “A combination where you’re wiping the floor with your opponent,” Larry replied.  

            “I disagree,” C.J. said. “It can’t be a windbag and it can’t be a blowout. This is a complicated issue with valid points on all sides of the table, so we can’t act like that’s not true. This has to be a credible, reasonable man or woman who can throw down with the best of them. Someone who won’t fly off the handle and resort to ad hominem or strawman attacks.”

            “Yeah someone who doesn’t see facts and studies as the enemy,” Annabeth agreed.

            “In other words not Monahan,” Otto said.

            “And not Brodinger,” Donna added.  

            “No,” C.J. agreed. “The president will have to work for every inch, and that’s the only way people will be moved.”

            “She’s right,” Santos said.

            “Okay, so speaking hypothetically,” Charlie said, “who do we find on short notice, who’s willing to face a known skilled debater in front of a national audience with so much at stake and almost no time to prepare?”

            “Someone who believes he’s right,” Toby replied, and to this everyone nodded or mumbled their agreement.

            “Great,” C.J. said. “Now that you’ve implied it’s going to be a man, let’s play some ball, stimulate our brains a little. Sex against sex with sub-ins.”

            “Let’s play,” the president said with a shrug.

            “C’mon, C.J.,” Charlie mildly complained.  

            “What?”

            “It’s not, you know . . . that,” Charlie told her. “There are only four of you and well, more of us.”

            “Not anymore,” Donna said, nodding to the door where Ainsley, Elsie, and Margaret walked in talking and laughing.

            “Margaret?” Josh said.

            “Oh, she’s gotta be a ringer,” Ed mumbled.  

            “Okay,” Toby whispered through a smile, getting up in C.J.’s face. “Bring it on, Big Bird.”

            C.J. laughed in Toby’s face, shaking her head and looking deadly serious. “You are . . . so dead.”

Chapter Text

 

 

                 

THURSDAY – 16 days left

 

            Three minutes past ten in the morning, wearing gray sweat pants and a loose yellow t-shirt, Lou stomped out of her office pounding an energy drink. After one or two blinks she noticed Elsie walking alongside her wearing a green pants suit and the same gray wrestling shoes.

            “So who’s it going to be?” Elsie asked as they reached the end of the bullpen.

            “Why are you always down here?”

            “What do you mean?”

            “You work for the first lady,” Lou said, her eyes straight in front of her. “Hence . . . .”

            “I finish my work,” Elsie said with a shrug, “and then I come down here to see what else I can do. And the first lady’s sick right now, so . . . who’s it going to be?”

            Lou performed a double take before picking up her pace. But Elsie was not deterred.

            “I heard Barrington.”
            “Who told you Barrington?”

            “People,” Elsie shrugged. “People talking.”

            “It’s not Barrington.”

            “And Folgers. That was another one. They also—”

            “They?” Lou said, faking left then turning right and not shaking Elsie in the least.

            “Yes they. They know things and they talk and they said Barrington but they also said Cheevers and Arbol, but mostly they seemed stuck on Folgers, and with his interest in—”

            “You know Arbol means tree,” Lou replied. “His name is Henry Tree.”

“And there are lots of people named Park and Bush,” Elsie countered.

“Rennselaer,” Lou said through a sigh, closing her eyes and breathing out.

            For a few seconds Elsie didn’t respond, but then it came, low and drawn out as if the name were the longshot answer to a murder mystery. “Jodi Rennselaer?”

            “Yes.”

            “The fourth-year congresswoman from Illinois?”

            “Is there another Rennselaer in Congress?”

            “Josh isn’t going to like it,” Elsie told her.  

            “Yeah, well, this is what the president wanted.”

            “But Josh isn’t going to like it.”

            “I don’t work for Josh.”

            Elsie pondered this. “You kind of do.”

            At the next door, Lou stopped and turned.

            “Not when the big guy has the last say. And if you keep following me, I’m going to punch a hole through your face.”

Satisfied with Elsie’s distraught expression, Lou continued on down the hall.  

            “You should probably get more sleep and drink less energy drinks!” Elsie shouted as the separation between them expanded.  

            Turning two more corners, Lou reached the waiting area outside Josh’s office, where Margaret sat at her desk staring at a page in the New Yorker through a magnifying glass.

            “The trick is to actually unfocus your eyes,” Margaret said, to which Lou rolled hers.

            “Then why are you using a magnifying glass?”

            Margaret looked up and considered Lou’s words.

            “Is he in?” Lou said before Margaret could think of a reply. But before waiting for a reply, Lou opened the door to Josh’s office and stood in the doorway as Josh leaned forward at his desk with the landline phone pressed up to his ear.

            “I’m sorry,” he said, “but it’s just . . . no he’s made up his mind. Yeah. Well I’m sorry you feel that way, senator. Uh-huh. I just hope you can see the long-term benefits and . . . no, I’m not implying that at all. I actually think your constituents will respect unity here.”

            Dropping his head, Josh nodded a few times to the man on the phone. “Okay,” he said. “Nice talking to you, too, senator.”  

            Hanging up the phone, he leaned back and stared wide-eyed at the ceiling.

            Lou walked over and plopped down in the chair in front of him.

            “A few years ago I would have told that guy where to shove his—”

            “The leadership have some words?” Lou interrupted.

            “Just a few,” he replied. “Ninety-percent are ‘dissatisfied’ about the new bill. Eighty-percent think the debate’s a terrible idea.”

            “They think it makes him vulnerable?”

            “That and . . . I don’t know.” Josh leaned forward and blinked his eyes like he’d just woken up. “Something about the White House going rogue.”

            “Yeah well,” Lou said “my morning’s been all sunshine and rainbows trying to narrow this down.”

             Josh leaned back. “And?”

            “Rennselaer.”

            “No.”

            “Josh.”

            “No!” he shouted and jumped up from his chair.

            “You were just talking about keeping it cool.”

            Josh looked at her and swallowed whatever it was he’d been playing on saying. His face turned beet red as he started to pace, while Lou opened her right hand and started counting off fingers.

            “Jodi Rennselaer is an expert on the subject of gun control, one.”

            “I don’t—”

            “Two,” Lou continued, “she’s logical. She doesn’t fly off the handle and she’s good at avoiding fallacies in her reasoning.”

            “Except for the one giant, gaping fallacy of her premise.”

            “She’s respected in most circles and she’s fair.”

            “She’s too good,” Josh said, shaking his head and turning towards the window. From his pocket he pulled a floss pick and proceeded to dig into his teeth. 

            “Yeah well that’s the president wants,” Lou said. “She meets all the criteria.”

            “She’s like a . . . a calm, easy-going badger,” Josh said, cringing as he spoke.

            “Josh—”

            “What happened to Arbol?”

            “Too windbaggy.”

            “Gareth?”

            “Too blowhardy.”

            “What about Barrington?”

            “He’s on an island south of Java.”

            “He’s . . . what?”

            “Not Java,” Lou said. “It’s some unpopulated island near Java. He’s apparently trying to survive. It’s what he does for kicks, I guess.”

             Josh considered this and finally sucked in a deep breath. He returned to his chair and exhaled.

            “C.J. talk with the networks?”

            “All set for Sunday night, 8pm.” Lou replied. “They pretty much run garbage Sunday nights so they don’t mind the short notice.”

            “And debate prep? I didn’t get to see the last round”

            “Going smoothly.”

            With a deep breath, Josh looked out into the hall then returned to the chair behind his desk. “What did she say?”

           “Rennselaer?”

           “Yeah.”

           “I didn’t talk to her.”

           “Uh, say that again?”

           “I said I didn’t talk to her. I came here to tell you she was the right choice.”

           “Well she might not be the right choice if she can’t do it!”

            Lou stared down at the floor and shook her head and blinked a few times more than necessary. “First you’re pissed that I came here with Rennselaer and then you’re pissed because she might not be able to do it?”

         “I’m going to be pissed about any of the choices,” he told her, “but we have to go with who the president wants, and this is it. So . . . .” Josh turned and rolled his shoulders and made a strange movement like he was having a minor seizure. “Just get it done.”

         “I did have Toby run it past her,” Lou clarified. “Apparently they ran a campaign together way back. She said, hypothetically that she’d look forward to something like that.”

         Walking around his desk, Josh collapsed into his chair and let out a long sigh.

         “You see,” he said. “That’s a problem. I mean what if she mops the floor with him? Two months into the new term and the president gets humiliated by a well-spoken republican.”

         “Then he gets humiliated,” she said, “and we lose the fight on gun control, and we move onto the next thing. I mean I think this is great.”

         "You do.”

         “Yes,” she said, her eyes bulging to cement her stance. “I told you a long time ago that I didn’t want any part of politics from the inside, and you know why? Because everyone’s too damn scared all the time. Everyone’s playing it safe and backpedaling and waiting to see what the next ten guys do before they act. Maybe we’ll get our asses handed to us, Josh, but at least we’re breaking the mold. I mean, to me it’s not amazing that the president is debating as a standing president. What’s amazing is that no one ever has. Whatever happens, this is going to be a night to remember.”

         “Yeah, okay.”

          After a few seconds of eying Josh’s disappointing reaction, Lou stood up from her chair and turned to go.

         “Hey what’s the Secretary of Education doing here?” Lou asked near the door.

         “She’s . . . here?”

         “Waiting in the mural room.”

         “I guess, Charlie’s going to talk to her,” Josh said. “About the leak and moving forward, and, you know.”

         “He going to slap her down?” Lou asked.

         “In a manner of speaking.”

         “He need help?”

         “I think he’s got it.”

         “Because I got some brass knuckles back in my desk—”

         “He’s got it,” Josh reaffirmed.

          With a nod, Lou walked out the door and disappeared, but a few seconds later Josh heard in the distance loud and clear, “And you owe me a hundred and five dollars, Josh!”

          “It’s ten dollars each!” he said incredulously.

          “I’m collecting for everyone!” Lou shouted, “and after three days I break kneecaps!”

Chapter Text

 

                 

              Waiting for the machine to spit out a fourth copy, Toby noticed Charlie walking by at the far end of the hall. He left the last page and walked off to catch up.

              “Hey,” he said, taking quick steps to match Charlie’s relaxed but lengthy stride.

              “Hey yourself,” Charlie said in as blunt a tone as Toby had ever heard.

              “What’s your problem?”

              To this Charlie showed him a frown that brought into question Toby’s entire existence. “I just handed over a hundred and five dollars,” Charlie ruefully announced.

              “To Lou?”

              Giving Toby a side glance, Charlie nodded and pushed open the door in front of him, leading himself and Toby through another tight corridor.

              “Hey you made the bet just like the rest of us,” Toby said.

              “And you tripled it.”

              “C.J. egged me on!”

              “Whatever.”

              “How was I supposed to know Lou was a starting point guard for Amherst, and Margaret, my god Margaret played college ball? And Ainsley played two years at Smith? I didn’t even know Smith had basketball courts!”

              “Everyone but Donna had at least played high school ball,” Charlie said, shaking his head like he still couldn’t believe it. 

              “It was a set-up,” Toby whined “A put-on.”

              To this Charlie huffed and the two didn’t talk for the length of a hall.

              “You coming to prep?” Toby asked at the next turn.

              “I got a thing,” Charlie replied. “Be there after.”

              “It was a set-up!” Toby shouted, fading off to the right as Charlie continued on.

              At the next T intersection, Charlie turned left and met up with Ainsley, who leaned against the wall in jeans and a light blue Smith t-shirt.

              “How’s it feel?” she said, pulling herself to her feet as he passed.

              “How’s what feel?” he said, glancing her way but mostly focusing on the path in front of him.

              “You know.” She did a double step to catch up to his pace.

              “I have no problem losing to a woman,” he told her. “I just like to know what I’m getting into. I was just coming to see you, by the way. Guess who’s here?”

              “Oh no.” Ainsley’s smile dropped into a frown as her eyes broadcast defeat.

              “It might be better if you face her,” he said. “You know, put it behind you?”

              “How do you know?” she asked him. “I didn’t even tell you what happened.”

              “So tell me now.”

              “What are you going to say to her?”

              Charlie gave her a shrug. “I’m supposed to politely let on that we’re aware that she was aware of her secretary’s machinations.”

              “Are we?”

              “Eighty-five percent sure.”

              “And then what?”

              “Then I strongly urge her to knock it off with the shenanigans and get back on message, one hundred percent transparently in support of the agenda. Plus the president wants her to look into this backwards history thing.”

              “Huh?”

              “From big block of cheese day? It’s this whole program of . . .” Charlie shook his head. “Can you just tell me what you did? I took two wrong turns to draw this out a bit longer. C’mon, I know she deserved whatever you did and now you just feel bad because you’re a morally-sound person.”

              What had been a haunted, desperate expression on Ainsley’s face now transitioned toward surprise and caring. “You really think I’m morally-sound?”

              “Unless you’re actually murdering people in the middle of the night,” he said. “Plus you’ve got a pretty honest jump shot, which I think says a lot about someone.”

              After a fresh smile, Ainsley reached deep down for her next breath.

              “Okay. Okay,” she said, and then she said it again. “You have to understand, considering the times and, and the changing cultural norms notwithstanding, you have to understand about a Smith girl. You have to—”

               “You’re starting to ramble,” Charlie interrupted. “I don’t want to cut you off, but you said you wanted to know when you started to ramble, so.”

               Ainsley gave him a few rapid-fire nods.

               “Remember you’re the White House Counsel, the top lawyer in the land.”

               “Yes. I am,” she said. “Besides the Supreme Court Justices.”

               “Ainsley! Just take a breath and spit the damn thing out.”

               “Okay. Okay. Yeah. Okay”

               “Ainsley!”

               “I-told-several-people-that-Patty-hadn’t-gone-to-the-DR-for-a-service-trip!” She breathed in, long and deep, and breathed out. “There. Whoo. You’re right. It did feel good to just put it out there.”

               As they continued to walk and the seconds passed, Ainsley seemed more relaxed in her breathing while Charlie stared at the ground trying to get to the bottom of what she’d just said.

               “You know,” he explained after a half minute had gone by, “what you just said makes no sense whatsoever.”

               “Huh? Oh. Right,” she acknowledged. “I guess I can see that . . . from your perspective.”

               “Yeah.”

               “So, okay. So the DR is the Dominican Republic,” Ainsley told him, “and Patricia said she’d volunteered after the hurricane. But the fact of the matter was that she’d just gone down because her family had a house there in a gated community, and she was basically there to tell the locals how to fix her house, and I’m not talking basic fixing. More like how to finish installing the heated pool and tennis court.”

               “Um,” okay,” Charlie replied after a few silent beats.

               “Like I said,” Ainsley explained. “You have to understand. At Smith, volunteering and helping the community is a big deal, and for an entire semester Patricia went around bragging about all the people she helped in the DR, all the people she saved. She actually told people she’d saved lives and had five specific examples to go with her claims. So.” Ainsley shrugged. “I told them the truth, and it nearly got her kicked out of the sorority. She had to make a public apology to all the sisters, and basically to everyone she lied to, which was . . . everyone.”

                They turned the corner and reached the Mural Room, where through the door they could see the Secretary of Education seated on a sofa scrolling through her phone.

                At the sight, Ainsley jumped back out of view, pinning herself to the wall like she was standing on a ledge sixty floors up, while Charlie watched it all with an amused grin on his face.

               “So how’d you know she was lying?”

               “What?” Ainsley shifted between staring at her feet and turning to sneak glances at Fisher around the corner.  

               “About why she was really in the DR? How’d you know that?” he asked her.

               “Oh. I heard her talking to her sister on speakerphone. It was a weekend when everyone was supposed to be gone so she had her door open.”

               “Okay,” he said. “So how did she know it was you?”

               “I mean I’m sure she couldn’t prove it,’ Ainsley told him. “But she probably put it together because she knew I was the only other person in the dorm that weekend and she’d talked with her sister, so, one plus one.”

               “Well, I’m going in,” Charlie said. “Thanks for telling me.” He took a few steps and turned back. “And by the way, you didn’t do anything wrong. She’s the one who lied, so she’s the one who needs to get over it, not you.”

                Charlie walked into the room as the Secretary of Education continued to scroll through her phone.

                “I hope this isn’t going to take long,” Fisher said, head down. “I assume he’ll be in in a few minutes?”

                “He,” Charlie said, crossing the space and standing in front of her.

                “The president,” she clarified, still staring at her phone.

                “I don’t know what you thought was going to happen,” Charlie said, taking a seat across from her on a long, ancient-looking couch, “but I don’t think you really want to speak with him right now.”

                 Fisher looked up, the tip of her beak-like nose now level with Charlie’s forehead. “You said if I call enough I could speak with the president, who promised me his time and attention, and so far I haven’t received either. So if there’s nothing else.”

                 She began to rise but then stopped, her expression changing from one of shrewd delight to one of mild panic.

                 Charlie turned to follow her eyes, and saw Ainsley striding into the room like someone who belonged in the chair of the White House Counsel.

                 “You made a promise too, Madam Secretary,” Ainsley said, now standing between Charlie and Fisher. “You took an oath that you’d uphold the president’s agenda, but more than that, you promised to serve the American people honestly and without deception. Now those may seem like the same thing, but they’re not, and I say that because you were both deceitful and not honest. And I am the White House Counsel, if you were at all confused about my position.”

                  The Secretary of Education began to rise from her chair.

                  “I’m not finished,” Ainsley said in an even, controlled tone.

                  With only a second’s hesitation, Patricia Fisher returned to her seat and Charlie stared on in with a satisfied smirk.  

                  “Whether or not you knew about your secretary leaking information is irrelevant,” Ainsley told her. “You have to take responsibility for her actions now just like the White House has to take responsibility for yours. You’ll follow the president’s directives, you’ll agree to whatever Charlie’s about to tell you about this new initiative, and you’ll cooperate with the investigation, and if that doesn’t suit you, you’ll resign in disgrace. And if past experience is any indication, it won’t be too difficult connecting the dots. I made the mistake once of blaming myself, Patricia, for the mess you made for yourself. I won’t make that mistake again.”

                   With a quick glance at Charlie, Ainsley capped her speech with a warm smile to the Secretary of Education and left the room.

 

 

 

 

 

          

 

Chapter Text

 

SUNDAY – 7:30 EST – 30 Minutes before debate

 

                

             Josh and Toby wandered like zombies backstage at the Georgetown auditorium as dozens of men and women walked from one end of the room to the other. Some shouted commands. Some nodded their heads while others shouted commands. Half of the hundred bodies walked around talking to phones held up to their ears, their conversations focused around this momentous event while they presently mostly ignored the momentous event occurring right in front of them.

            As they paced, both Josh and Toby glanced down at packets of paper in their hands, mumbling to themselves and occasionally looking up before returning to their mumbling    with their eyes to the floor.

            “C.J. said you and Rennselaer campaigned together,” Josh commented as they reached the far wall.

            Toby briefly looked up to acknowledge the remark “A long time ago. I was barely in my twenties.”

            “And that at some point you swapped spit.”

            “Swapped . . . spit,” Toby said, stepping back to allow a man carrying a large metal box to pass in front of him before he continued his pacing.

            “Just reading between the lines,” Josh said.

            “People like you,” Toby replied, “is where the rumors come from.”

            “And?”

            “And we went out for coffee. Once.”

            “Your idea?”

            “Hers. And I was so intimidated by her looks and her confidence. She was like a young Demi Moore.”

            “Wasn’t Demi Moore young at the same time?”

            “But I couldn’t get out a word,” Toby continued unperturbed, “and the fact that I was two years her senior made everything worse. But, I mean, you know. You’ve talked to her.”

            “Actually, not really,” Josh told him. “Not one-on-one, but I do know what you mean. And for the record I was against this.”

            “The debate?”
            “Her.” Josh pulled his phone from his pocket. “But the president, you know.”

            He looked at the phone and then tucked it away as Elsie emerged from a crowd of bodies streaming to the right like they were all connected at the hip.

            “Where is he?” Elsie asked Josh.

            “He?” Josh replied. “You mean the caterer? Or the mail guy?”

            “I think she means the barber,” Toby joked.

            Elsie sighed and regrouped. “Where is the . . . president?” she slowly enunciated.

            “In there,” Josh said, pointing with his chin to a door to his right. “But he doesn’t want to be disturbed. He likes quiet time before a debate, as you already know.”

            “There’s a problem,” she said, to which Toby scoffed.

            “A new problem,” she clarified. “Somebody leaked the deal with Limpele.”

            For a moment Josh stared at the young woman with wireframed glasses and black hair pulled back in a ponytail. Eventually he raked his hands down his face and mumbled something inaudible amid the din of the controlled chaos around them.  

            “He hasn’t made up his mind yet,” Josh said.

            “That doesn’t matter,” Elsie said as if the problem should have been obvious to all but the dullest blade in the drawer. “Just the fact that he’s considering it—”

            “Yeah. Okay,” Josh said.

            “If she implies—”

            “I’ll let him, know,” Josh told her. “There’s nothing else we can do about it.”

            “We can leak it right now,” she said. “Before the debate.”

            “We’ve worked for five days to build this up,” Toby told her. “If we leak this, all that energy will fizzle, the networks will spend the next hour talking about secrecy and hypocrisy.”

            “They already know!” she said.

            “No, they don’t!” Toby shouted back. “Somebody knows, but the outlets don’t know. Otherwise I would know, and Josh would know. There’s a chance whoever knows is going to sit on it.”

            “O . . . kay,” Elsie said and vanished into the crowd.  

            Raking his hand down his face once more, Josh turned to Toby and blinked repeatedly.

            “Do I look like a sixty-year-old man?”

            “What?” 

            “I just feel like, I don’t know. For the president, for us, this can’t be healthy.”

            “This?”

            “This,” Josh said. “This constant struggle, this, I mean, Leo was only fifty-four when he was where I am now. He didn’t look fifty-four, Toby.”

            “Yeah,” Toby said, now scanning the room for someone. “How old did he look?”

            “I don’t know. Older than fifty-four.”

            As Toby glared at Josh and held onto whatever acerbic comment dangled from the end of his tongue, C.J. surfaced from somewhere on the left and stopped two feet in front of them.

            “Elsie, she told you?” C.J. asked them.

            “Yeah,” Toby said. “Spin room all ready?”

            “Yup” she said with a nod. “And we set up hotlines in every state, and a website people can log onto during and after the debate.”

            “That sounds . . . good,” Toby said, and they stood for a while simply digesting the scene while Josh, staring down at his phone, walked off towards the stage.

            “You know we’ve already endowed the president with an unfair amount of tasks,” C.J. mused. “I mean he’s got hundreds more duties than Kennedy or Ike or Roosevelt had, plus the twenty-four hours news cycle and social media.”

            “What’s your point?”

            “Is it fair, is my point,” she said. “We asked before why presidents don’t debate. Maybe this is why. They’ve got enough on their plate and then they’ve got all the things that now distract them from what’s on the plate so they’re basically dealing with everything on the tablecloth, or worse yet, all the scraps that fell on the floor. My point is do we really have time for these kinds of stunts?”  

            “I don’t know,” Toby said after some consideration. “It seems like the only way to get something done anymore is with a stunt. We keep . . . upping the ante until there’s nowhere left to go. Maybe we just need to, I don’t know, start over.”

            To this C.J. smiled and lifted her finger to her lips. “You never know where a mic’s hiding. We don’t want you overheard promoting anarchy.”  

            “Hey, C.J.”

            C.J. turned to find Omar standing behind her. She grabbed his elbow and led him a few steps away from the pack.

            “I got it,” he said through a triumphant smile.

            “The records?”

            “Uh-huh. And an eye-witness account of a certain conversation between Robert Blithe and—”

            “Okay,” C.J. said, holding up her hand. She bit her lip and looked off in thought. “Okay,” she said. “I want Blithe in my office tomorrow morning. No, tomorrow afternoon. No. Make it Tuesday afternoon.”

            “You sure?”

            “Tuesday afternoon, Omar.”

            “What if he sniffs it out, if he’s reluctant,” Omar asked her.

            “Just, tell him I’m ready to talk to him off the record. I don’t know, Omar. You’re smart. Feel it out and say whatever you need to say to get him in my office.”

            Omar sucked in a deep breath. “So this is happening,” he said.

            “Yes,” she said. “But right now this other thing is happening, so let’s get ourselves organized, shall we?”

            With a swift contained series of nods, Omar slipped back into the crowd and C.J. pushed her way back towards Toby.

            “Ten minutes!” somebody shouted and the buzz in the room momentarily settled before it lifted off to new heights of insanity.  

            “How many people you think will watch?” Toby asked.

            “It’s not football season,” Lou replied, drifting into the group and the conversation. She checked her watch and then checked her phone. “And let’s be honest. Nobody really cares about hockey. So . . .”

            “At least they’ll turn it on,” C.J. said, “to see what the hell it is. We promoted this so much in the last two days it’s hard to believe there’s someone out there who doesn’t know it’s happening.”

            “He’s out there,” Toby said. “He’s the one in the bunker with ammo belts and a rack of AK-47s on the wall and a half-finished manifesto in the typewriter.”

            Across the room, a door opened and the president stepped out, slipping into his black suit jacket and cutting the babbling crowd in half like Moses.

            “All set?” Josh asked as he and Toby and C.J. and Lou surrounded the president on his walk to the stage.

           “Soldier’s mentality,” Santos told them. “I’ve already bombed and sabotaged the presidency for the next four years. In my mind I’ve got nothing to lose.”

           “Maybe the kamikaze method’s a bit too extreme?” Toby nervously laughed.

           “They know about the Indonesian deal,” Josh told him.

           “I know,” Santos said. “And there is no deal, so really they don’t know anything.”

           Nodding, Josh handed him a small red and blue circular patch with a word written across the front.

           First the president looked at Josh, then he looked at the patch with the word “liberal” written in black letters.

           “Your badge of honor, Sir.”

           “Thanks,” Santos said, meeting Josh’s eyes for an extra beat for continuing on through the door.

Chapter Text

                    

 

              In a cavernous wood-paneled auditorium, two men and one woman inhabited the stage. Behind a small table in the front center sat a middle-aged light-skinned man with graying hair, his back to more than seven hundred people in the chairs below, his profile facing the two hundred bodies filling the balconies on either side of him. In the middle of the stage stood two occupied podiums. On the left side of the stage Matthew Santos sipped from a bottle of water and scanned the crowd as if searching for someone he knew. On the right stood Jodi Rennselaer, forty-six-year-old with straight black hair to her shoulders. While the president looked around, Rennselaer kept her head tilted down so far that her hair swept across her lips and nose and thin angular face. Barely visible were the wire-rimmed glasses she periodically pushed back up the bridge of her nose as she studied her notes. She wore a gray-violet suit jacket, with soft violet pants that poked out from the side of the podium from time to time.   

              The man at the table tapped the microphone in front of him and looked to the side of the stage.  “Testing. Testing. Okay. Are we ready?” He glanced at someone off stage. Then with a nod, he cleared his throat, grabbed the microphone from the base, and stood, and turned to the crowd.

              "Good evening,” he began. “I’m Brennan Wilke, and tonight here at Gaston Hall at Georgetown University I’ll be facilitating an unprecedented event, a presidential debate unrelated to a presidential campaign. Tonight we have president Matthew Santos debating Congresswoman Jodi Rennselaer from Illinois on the matter of gun control. We’ll have opening remarks, and then I will begin with a series of questions, and since we are not adhering to any specific set of debate rules this evening, our two speakers can feel free to go wherever their thoughts take them. I will interrupt if I feel they’re growing too . . . longwinded.”

               After a few laughs from the crowd, Wilke turned to the president with a nod.

               “Thank you, Brennan.” Pulling the microphone from the stand, Santos stepped around his podium towards the center of the stage.

               “Good evening,” the president said and made eye contact with various sections of the crowd. “We are all, right now, very concerned with the state of our country, with the many problems facing us. But why a debate? Why not let Congress hash it out, let your representatives do what they’ve been elected to do? Because I think the American people should be doing more. I do. I think a public representative only works when he or she is serving the will of the people, and the people, in turn, make sure that their representatives are doing what they want done. Now part of this has to do with knowledge. Education. And often we make mistakes here in Washington because you, the people, don’t have all the information, and it’s inside this knowledge gap that the greatest errors occur.”

                Lowering the mic to his side, the president scanned the room, including the balconies on either side of him, before lifting the mic and continuing.

               “Tonight I want viewers to take away several key points. One, I am not trying to change the Constitution. I want to make changes in accordance with the laws already written down. Two, this is an issue about safety. Safety from guns, and safety for people who own guns. Mostly, though, I want to talk about personal responsibility, which my republican colleagues hold near and dear to their hearts. If you want the government to step up, then you need to step up.

               “Whatever set of statistics you’re looking at, you can’t escape the fact that gun-related deaths are on the rise, and if we don’t do something soon, we’re going to lose hold of any chance to stop the downward slide. Thank you.”

               “Congresswoman?” Wilke said as the president returned to his podium and several seconds passed while Rennselaer continued to stare down at her notes as if she hadn’t heard.”

               “Congresswoman,” Wilke repeated, and finally Rennselaer looked up with a calm, reasoned smile.

               “The president,” she said meeting the eyes of those in the front rows, “is going to speak tonight about tragedy of which I do not disagree. He is going to talk about responsibility, I’m sure, and accountability, and again, I will probably agree with many of his points. But the president is also going to talk about the evil of guns, how we need to get rid of guns to get rid of the problem, and here I just CANNOT agree.

               “I believe that by removing guns from our society we will NOT be removing the inherent problems that lead to gun violence. Tonight I will explain my reasoning with evidence, and I will address the roots of this problem instead of slapping on a band-aid, as the president will soon propose. If I believed removing guns would stop the school shootings, would stop the thousands and thousands of deaths each year in this country, I’d be the first in line screaming ‘Hand them over!’ But that’s not the problem. Thank you.”

               “Okay,” Wilke said, and turned to Rennselaer. “Congresswoman. The heated debate and outcries over gun control have much to do with the school shootings that have plagued our country. Do you believe gun control is the answer in the face of these tragedies?”

               “Let me reiterate,” Rennselaer said, “that these are tragedies. Children dying. Helpless victims with no chance to defend themselves. But statistically, mass shootings, for all the attention they get, accounted for 344 deaths out of 38,000 last year. In a country of more than three hundred million people, we can’t make decisions based on point zero zero zero zero etcetera percent of the population. Let me state the numbers again. 344 and 38,000. And these are not the only tragedies occurring in our country every day, but this is all we hear about. Last month a school bus in Montana went off a bridge, killing twenty-six students and severely injuring fourteen more. And yes there was outcry from parents and community to find out what happened, and many fingers were pointing in many directions, but very few were pointing at the bus, the mechanism for this disaster.”

                “Congresswoman,” Santos interrupted but Renneselaer kept going.

                “People are not screaming for us to remove buses from the road,” she argued. “People look at the driver and his state of mind, and what we might do to make sure others don’t follow his path.”

                “Because buses serve a valuable purpose in our society,” the president cut in. “Buses, cars, trucks, taxis, due to the infrastructure of the United States, we need these vehicles to live our day-to-day lives. In this modern world, Congresswoman, tell me, who needs a gun?”

                 Rennselaer looked at Santos like he’d just confessed to murder.

                 “That, right there, is the problem,” she told him. “And millions of Americans just felt the pain of your question and you’re disconnect from everyone out there. Who needs a gun, Mr. President? Millions and millions of people who feel unsafe, who feel unrepresented, who feel the absolute need to defend themselves and their house, and their children. Anyone who doesn’t think police are going to show up in time. Of the 3.7 million burglaries two years ago, seven percent resulted in bodily harm and in 100 cases a household member was killed.”

                 “With a gun?”

                 “That data isn’t clear,” she said after a short pause.  

                 “Well, let’s say it is with a gun,” Santos replied. “That’s only point zero zero zero zero three percent off all burglaries.”

                 “And it’s still not an insignificant number,” Rennselaer countered, “when the stakes are that high. When it just takes one time for you to lose a husband or wife or son or daughter. To them 100 deaths is not insignificant.”

                 “You mean,” Santos said, “like 344 murdered school children is not an insignificant number for family members who lost a loved one?”

                 Santos’ rebuttal was drowned out by cheering applause until Wilke banged his microphone against the table three times and shouted for quiet.

                 “Let’s get back to the point of school shootings,” Wilke said, and both debaters nodded, each waiting now for the other to proceed.

                 “The congresswoman is correct,” Santos said. “In terms of statistics, school shootings represent only a small fraction of all gun deaths. But let’s look at it another way. In the 1970s there were 31 separate school shootings. In the 1980s, 39, in the 1990s, 66, and in the last three years, we’ve had 75 separate school shootings. In the last three years! We’ve had guns drawn in public places 129 times in the last three years.”

                 “And how many of those times, Mr. President,” Rennselaer asked, “did the police arrive in time to stop anyone from getting hurt?”

                 The president considered the question. “Probably not many,” he said after a pause.

                 “There are lots of guns in this country,” Rennselaer said. “That’s a fact. And we can’t depend on the police, however well-trained and prepared they are, because things happen fast. So WE need to be prepared. We need to be able to defend ourselves.”

                 “Are you saying,” Wilke asked her, “that you believe teachers should carry guns?”

                 “After they receive proper training, yes,” she told him. “These shooters, whomever they are, who come into schools, they’re looking for the vulnerable, the undefended. If they know that teachers are armed, they’ll stop coming. These are bullies. They are victims as well, but they are bullies searching for the weak. If they can’t find the weak, they have nowhere to go.”

                 “So,” Santos said, “guns in parks, guns in theaters, guns in grocery stores, this is your answer?”

                 “Or metal detectors everywhere,” she replied. “Pick your poison, Mr. President. We’re faced with one uncomfortable option over another until we deal with the root causes. I prefer the one that does not infringe upon my rights as stated in the Constitution.”

                 “Speaking of the Constitution,” Wilke replied, “let’s move on to interpretation, Mr. President, as this is a constantly debated issue on both sides. Does the Second Amendment give every U.S. citizen the right to own and discharge a firearm?”

                 The president took a few seconds and then stated, “‘A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.’ That’s it, Brennan, that’s what everyone has been fighting about. Now I don’t think this is the place to get into a technical discussion of the phrasing of the Second Amendment. Let’s just assume that the Second Amendment says people have the right to keep and bear arms. I have two points on this.”

                 The president paused for effect and stepped out from his podium.

                 “The Constitution was written by men,” he said. “Great men, yes, but still human, still flawed, and still products of their own times. When they wrote the Constitution, we had full-blown slavery in this country, and most people—minorities and all women—were seen as second class citizens. Bloodletting was a tried and true medical treatment, and the most powerful weapon of the day was a single-shot musket that took ten seconds to reload and misfired half the time. Now if we were talking about the right of a citizen to keep and bear muskets, I’d have no problem with that. We’d probably have a lot more backfires, a lot more accidents and injuries, but we’d also have zero mass shootings. But could the founders have envisioned an AK-47 assault rifle used for the purposes of hunting? When they wrote this amendment, did they foresee bump stocks that allow shooters to fire off twelve shots a second? We need to adapt and update, we need to be flexible in order to change with the times.”

                 When the president stopped, Wilke looked to the congresswoman, who flipped through her notes before looking up.

                 “Caetano vs Massachusetts,” she said, directing her words to the president. “This is a very recent case in which the Supreme Course ruled, quote, ‘the Second Amendment extends, prima facie, to all instruments that constitute bearable arms, even those that were not in existence at the time of the founding.’ She turned now to the crowd. “And I agree with President Santos. The founders were probably not envisioning rapid-fire weapons, but we have due process in this country, and it seems, Mr. President, that the Supreme Court disagrees with you. And I believe we have branches of government so that one single branch, or person, can’t make an end around move.”

                 “Mr. President,” Wilke began but Santos held up his hand.

                 “Let me respond to that,” Santos said, to which Wilke politely nodded.

                 “First, let me repeat, the government is not trying to take people’s guns. And despite the recent Supreme Court ruling, you still can’t own any kind of weapon. You can’t own a tank. You can’t own a missile or a grenade launcher. Those are banned in the 1934 National Firearms Act, which, by the way, the NRA supported. In fact, the president of the NRA, I repeat the president of the National Rifle Association in 1934 said, regarding guns, quote, ‘I never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.’

                 “With my bill we’re going to create a buy-back program like the one that succeeded in Australia, and we’re going to work on incentives for people to sell their assault rifles. You’re right, Congresswoman, the Supreme Court ruled that citizens have the right to own a gun to protect their homes. You said ‘a gun.’ Isn’t ‘a gun’ enough to deter an intruder?”

                  “That’s not for you to decide,” Rennselear replied.

                  “Okay,” Santos said, “but then are you saying someone should be allowed to have fifty, sixty guns in their home?”

                  “That’s exactly what I’m saying.”

                  “Do you own a gun?”

                  This question caught the congresswoman off guard. For a moment she simply stared at Santos. Then she looked at Wilke before turning back to the president and nodding.

                  “How many?”

                  “Just one,” she calmly replied, “a Glock nine-millimeter handgun.”

                  “And this is for protection?”

                  “Defense, yes.”

                  “In case someone breaks in.”

                  “That’s right.”

                  “So, in this scenario, you hear someone kicking in the front door or breaking through a window, or the alarms system goes off, and you react. You grab your gun. Something like that?”

                  “Something like that.”

                  “Okay, so why don’t you have two guns just in case? Or three guns?”

                  “If I wanted two or three,” she replied, “I’d want the freedom to have those extra guns.”

                  “Okay,” he said, “but let’s be real here. There are an estimated three hundred million guns in this country, which is almost enough for every man woman and child. But only one third of all citizens own guns, which means that if you own a gun, discounting the congresswoman here, you probably own more than one gun. And if you’re going to buy a gun, you probably already have a gun. But if it’s about defending yourself from an intruder, why do you need more than one gun and why do you need a gun that fires twelve rounds in twenty seconds?”

                   The president turned to the audience. “My job is to not infringe upon your rights while trying to make this country as safe as possible, and what I’m saying is that people can own A GUN, and not an automatic or semiautomatic weapon, and this way they can still protect themselves, while at the same time we don’t have so many incidents. If I had my way, people would own tasers and pellet guns and beanbag guns, but I know that’s going too far.”

                   After a few claps Wilke hushed the crowd. “Mr. President,” he said. “You mentioned two points?”

                   Regrouping, the president nodded and coughed into his fist.

                   “Many of you out in the audience and watching on television are under the impression that we’ve been talking about gun rights and the second amendment since the days of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. I mean, this is a fundamental, constitutional issue, right? It dates back hundreds of years, right? Wrong. In reality, in real reality, gun control turned into a Second Amendment issue in 1977. Just, let me repeat that. Not 1776 or 1805 or even 1920. 1977. Before the 1970s, the NRA focused on target shooting, hunting, and sportsmanship, and they actually supported the 1968 Gun Control Act which created a national gun registry and certain restrictions on firearms.”

                   The president paced back and forth, glancing at Rennselaer before turning back to the crowd.

                   “So what changed?” he asked the audience. “Racism and fear is what changed. In the 1960s many people were still reeling from the Civil Rights Act and the supposed end to segregation. You have peaceful groups but you also have militant groups like the Black Panthers, and in 1967 as part of a protest against oppression, 30 members of the black panthers protested on the steps of the California State House, armed with shotguns and pistols. Now they were demonstrating, not fighting, but this act so alarmed the governor of California that he and his fellow politicians quickly enacted a series of gun control laws. They passed right-to-carry restrictions, they made it illegal for anyone to have a loaded gun within state lines. Because they were, quite simply, afraid of the black man.”

                   “They were afraid of militants with shotguns on the government steps,” Rennselaer interjected.

                   “What happened in 1967,” Santos continued, “carried forward as a wave of gun control laws across the country, which woke up gun owners and led to a regime change in the NRA. Suddenly the NRA’s passive narrative more than a hundred years old changed overnight. Now it was about preserving their right to buy and use guns. Now, for the first time on a large scale in American history, it was about citing the second amendment as an argument against gun control.”

                   The president paced in silence for ten seconds before turning back to the crowd. “Just an aside here. Does anybody out there know who was Governor of California in 1967? Anyone.”

                   “Ronald Reagan!” someone screamed.

                   “That’s right,” Santos said. “The later posterchild for Second Amendment rights and best friend of the NRA wanted nothing, absolutely nothing to do with guns in 1967. So Congresswoman, when we’re talking about Americans rallying behind the Second Amendment, we’re really only talking about a concoction of the NRA that came about pretty recently.”

                   “Can I respond?” Rennselaer asked, to which the president gestured for her to continue as he returned to the podium.

                   “Ronald Reagan changed his mind,” she said, staring at either Wilke or the crowd behind him. “Some people call that flip-flopping. I call it updating your beliefs and opinions based on new evidence, which I think every person and politician should practice. And however recent this argument seems to be, things change. So what if the NRA changed? People and institutions evolve. The fact of the matter is that in the 1970s many Americans were very afraid that the government was going to take their guns away, and today many millions of Americans are afraid that the government, your government, Mr. President, is going to take their guns away. Even though the Supreme Court recently ruled in The District of Columbia vs. Heller that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s rights to keep a gun at home for self defense. I’ll say this again. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s rights to own a gun for self defense. That’s two of three recent cases favoring gun owners. But because of your policies Mr. President, because of the bills you’re promoting, people are still afraid that the government is going to try to take their guns. Or is that not what you are proposing?”

                   “That is not, NOT what I’m proposing, Congresswoman.”

                   “Okay,” Wilke said, holding up his hand as the president focused a cold stare at Rennselaer. “Let’s move on to a new point. Many people have raised the issue of the black market as an obstacle to any gun restrictions or buy-back programs for the general public. Congresswoman, what do you say to this?”

                    “232,400,” she read from her notes and then looked up at the facilitator. “That’s the number of guns that were stolen from houses and automobiles in the last 5 years according to the Violence Policy Center. And we don’t even know how many guns are in the hands of criminals already, how many guns flow into our country under the radar. The president already stated that we have at least a few hundred million guns inside our borders. If we ban assault rifles and create these buyback programs, programs someone is going to have to pay for, by the way, this will only lead to citizens having less guns and criminals having more guns. And yes, the authorities will have plenty of guns, but as I’ve already stated, what good is a police officer when you need help immediately?”

                    “Mr. President?” Wilke intervened. “How would you scale back the number of guns in this country while assuring everyone that the criminals won’t have the upper hand?”

                    “I wouldn’t,” Santos admitted. “At least not at first, because this is going to be a slow process. This is not a quick solution, but in truth few things are. Politicians love to promise quick fixes, magic bullets, but we have no quick solutions. For a country as large as the United States, every action takes time. Through buyback programs we’ll get back as many lethal weapons as we can, and then we’ll destroy those weapons. Through arrests, we’ll confiscate weapons from criminals. Look, I know everyone’s always looking for the quick fix, for the million-dollar idea, but anyone out there who’s ever made it knows that the secret equation to success is hard work multiplied by time. We’re not going to get this done overnight. But if we keep looking for the magic solution instead of building the foundation, we’re never going to get anywhere, and we’re just going to have more gun deaths, more mass shootings.”

                    “And in this transitional period of yours,” Rennselaer asked him, “how many innocent people are going to die because the criminals have more guns than law-abiding citizens?”

                    To this the president didn’t respond. He merely shook his head and turned to the moderator. But when Wilke finally opened his mouth, the president cut him off.

                    “I just want to say one more thing about the black market, Brennan.”

                    Wilke nodded and Santos turned to Rennselaer and leaned forward on his podium.

                    “Do you have a family?” he asked her.

                    Reluctantly the congresswoman nodded.

                    “Okay, and how do you ensure that your kids won’t get a hold of your gun?”

                    Rennselaer thought about the question, and then explored it from different angles before grudgingly answering, “I keep it locked in a safe.”

                    “With a key?”

                    “A combination.”

                    “And do your kids have the combination?”

                    “Of course not.”

                    “Back in Texas,” the president told the crowd, “I kept my service weapon in the house, also in a safe, and honestly if we were back there right now I’m not sure what I’d do with it, except I know that if I kept it, I would keep it in that safe and I would NEVER let slip that combination. What I’m saying, Brennan, and Congresswoman, is that one of the major gun problems in this country is the lack of responsibility we take for our guns. We want our rights, okay. We want our freedoms, okay. But with freedom . . . comes . . . responsibility. Otherwise, you don’t get it.

                    “Something worth having is something you earned, whether it’s trust, love, or the privilege, the privilege of carrying and wielding a very dangerous weapon. And when 232,000 guns are stolen from houses and glove boxes and then slip into the black market, that to me SCREAMS of irresponsibility! We want the right to buy these dangerous, powerful weapons, but we aren’t responsible enough to move them out of our glove compartments and nightstands?”

                    The president looked around, looked down, and finally looked up and refocused on the crowd and cameras in front of him.

                    “I don’t want to take away your guns, but we need to be safe. I want you to have your gun but I want you to make sure you keep that gun safe. In a safe. And if you keep your gun in your car, or in your unlocked desk drawer, that’s going to be against the law because you are being irresponsible. We have a major problem in this country, and you aren’t helping your fellow citizen if you negligently hand your guns over to criminals. You don’t want government interference, fine. All I’m asking is that you do your part. If people had kept their guns locked in a safe, that’s two hundred thousand fewer guns on the street in the last five years, and probably several million fewer guns over the last forty. Safety, Congresswoman, combined with buybacks, would significantly shrink the number.”

                    “This doesn’t change the fact,” Rennselaer replied, “that the vast majority of gun owners are perfectly calm, perfectly loyal, law-abiding citizens, and it’s not fair that they should suffer from what a few people are doing. You talk about responsibility as if most gunowners are criminals or criminally negligent, when the vast majority of gun owners abide by the law and deeply respect the law and are very responsible.”

                    “You mean disregarding the fact that they allowed two hundred and thirty thousand guns to be stolen out from under them?”

                    “Okay,” Wilkes said and lifted his hand. One more question for both of you, and I’ll start with the congresswoman. “Tell us, right now, about the biggest misconception in this whole gun debate.”

                    “When we think of gun violence,” Rennselaer responded almost immediately, “we think of school shootings and hold-ups and children stealing their parents guns to play. And we think of people shot in waves with assault rifles. But out of the 38,658 gun deaths last year, more than 23,000 of those deaths were from suicide. Now 15,549 deaths is still significant, but it’s not the same as 38,658. My point is that yes, we have a gun problem, but mostly—and here that vague word ‘mostly’ means more than 60%--mostly we have a public health crisis we need to solve. By far the number one gun-related death in America is self-inflicted. We need to figure out what it is about our society that’s making so many people want to end their lives, because if you put a gun in front of a mentally sound person, they’re not going to pick it up. They’re not going to press the barrel into their heads and pull the trigger. Just think of how far a person needs to stray in order to take those steps.” As she paused, the congresswomen seemed to be imagining the act she was explaining, and it took her a moment to return to the present. “This,” she said. “This is the problem we need to be working on. More public health programs, more intervention campaigns, more counselors in schools.”

                    In the pause that followed, Wilke turned to Santos. “Mr. President?” he said, and after consulting his notes Santos nodded.

                    “There was a study done by a doctor named David Rosen” Santos said. “He interviewed people who’d jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and survived. And of the ten people he talked with, all but one said that the moment their hands came free of that railing, the exact MOMENT they became airborne, they knew they wanted to live. Think about that.”

                     Stepping out from behind the podium, the president walked into the center of the stage.

                     “I want to die,” he said. “I want to die I want to die I want to die and then . . . just like that a switch flips, and I want to live! But it’s too late.

                     “Over the years Rosen’s findings were corroborated by many other studies. In fact a researcher named Owens in 2002 examined 90 separate studies and found that nine out of ten people who attempt suicide and survive will not die by suicide at a later date.”

                     “A more recent study,” Rennselaer argued, “had the number at 25% for people likely to kill themselves after a first attempt.”

                     “You’re referring to the Robert Carroll meta-analysis?” Santos asked her, to which the congresswoman nodded.  

                     “Now there are a number of factors that apply to only this group, but I don’t want to get into that now. But let’s just say you’re right and we look at this one study. Still we see that 75% percent of people go on to survive after a failed attempt. But.”

                      Santos took a breath before continuing.

                      “But people who try to kill themselves with guns are 140 times more likely to succeed than if they used any other method. ANY OTHER METHOD. People who attempt suicide,” he said, “are often in the middle of a crisis. And if they rode it out, that moment would pass, and the feeling of absolute hopelessness would pass, and they’d keep on living. But when you have access to guns, there’s very little chance of making a mistake. You feel low, you feel helpless, and you have a gun? That’s it. Game over. So you’re right, Congresswoman. Many, many, many of the gun deaths in our country are from suicides, but that doesn’t absolve us from trying to tackle the problem from many directions. Yes more mental health programs! Yes more intervention, and yes, remove the objects that are stopping these people from getting a second chance.”

                     “I agree with the president,” Rennselaer said, “that we need to lock up the guns we have, that this would decrease the number of unstable individuals gaining access to guns. But buyback programs and restrictions on automatic weapons are not going to put a dent in the majority of gun deaths in this country. These are the facts.”

                     “But those aren’t the facts,” Santos replied. “In FACT, restrictions and buyback programs in Australia greatly reduced the number of gun-related homicides and suicides. We haven’t tried this in the United States, so why don’t we give a chance and see what happens?”

                     Rennselaer looked down at the podium. She breathed deep and turned toward Santos.

                     “You seem genuine, Mr. President, in your conviction to decrease the number of guns in this country, in what you’ve said tonight. You seem like an honest man, and your record over the last four years seems to support this point. But isn’t it true that right now, at this very moment, you are considering a deal with the president of Indonesia that promises to hand over millions of weapons to the Kebenaran forces holding the American hostages?”

                     As she continued to speak, the president’s eyes narrowed and his mouth tightened to the point where his jaw muscles began to pop through the skin. When she finished, he continued to glare at her, his face turning a deeper shade of red.

                    “As an acting member of the foreign ops committee,” Santos said through clenched teeth, “you should be aware that I cannot discuss any ongoing negotiations. Doing so could risk the lives of the hundred or more hostages, and I find it extremely unprofessional and reckless.”

                    “Mr. President, are you saying,” the commentator began, but Santos cut him off.

                    “I’m saying this is a delicate situation and in a few days I’ll be happy to talk to anyone, anyone, about what’s happening right now, and I’ve proved this time and again in the past with similar delicate situations. But right now saying anything might put those hostages in danger.”

                    “Fair enough,” Wilke said after a pause. “And we’re just about out of time here, so let’s finish with closing remarks. Congresswoman?”

                    With a nod, the congresswoman snuck a glance at the president before consulting her notes. After a few long seconds she looked up to face the cameras and crowd.

                    “I wish I could trust my government,” she began. “I wish I could count on them to make decisions in my best interest. I wish I could rely on the police to get to me in time if there’s an emergency, but I can’t count on these things, and anyone who’s faced a dangerous situation where every second mattered knows that you JUST . . . CAN’T . . . COUNT on the police when it really matters. So I know I need to count on myself. If I have to go through training, fine. If it’s a little more difficult to own a gun, fine, but when I hear someone trying to break into my house, I’d much rather have a gun in my hand then a phone dialing the police ten minutes away.”

                     Unclipping her mic from the stand, Rennselaer moved out from behind the podium, stepping to the center of the stage.

                     “Now the tradeoff to this safeguard is that a few people will go too far, just as a few people have always gone too far. Throughout history we’ve never had a perfect system, and as tragic as all those deaths are, all those senseless murders, they are also the inevitable reality of imperfection. How do you have a society without crime, without murder but also without tyranny, without danger but also without oppression? We still haven’t figured it out, so we’re doing the best we can. And I do agree with some of the president’s ideas. Have a registry, fine. Require owners to lock up their guns in a child-proof safe. But at this point banning guns will have little effect. Buying back guns will have little effect. There are simply too many guns out there, too many guns on the black market. Even with a registry, as the president has proposed in his bill, we’ll have millions and millions of guns unaccounted for, and in the end it will be the people who need their guns that will face the most danger. We need to focus on why people today feel the need to lash out. We need to help those who are troubled and hurting. That’s where I’ve been focusing my energies, and that’s where I will continue to work as long as I’m in congress.”

                     Rennselaer looked down and took a breath before returning her eyes to the crowd.

                     “The president speaks of rules and responsibility, but in the last few years, the Supreme Court has ruled three times in favor of gun ownership. They even made a point to acknowledge that guns today are far different from the guns of our founding fathers. That didn’t stop them from stating that every American citizen has the right to protect himself or herself with a gun. We have a process in this country, and if the president wants to work on passing an amendment to change the constitution, well okay. But until that happens, we have the right to our guns!”

                      Amidst an outbreak of cheers from the crowds, Rennselaer smiled, lowered her head, and returned to her podium.

                      “Mr. President?” Wilke said.

                     “Let’s just give up,” Santos began, grabbing the mic from the stand and walking out from behind the podium to where Rennselaer had just been standing. “It’s too late the congresswoman tells us, so why try at all? Let’s just give in to the NRA and gun lobbyists whose answer to gun violence is more guns! Kids are shooting kids in school, so let’s arm the teachers! Let’s turn grade schools into the wild west! Guns in schools. Guns in church. Guns in hospitals. Guns in the streets. And maybe soon we’ll all have to buy bullet-proof glass for our houses. We’ll all be wearing bullet-proof vests and helmets, and if that happens you better believe somebody will be making a lot of money to see that the situation continues to escalate. Just, just stop for a second. Close your eyes. And try to picture the future I just explained.

                     “Now. Does that sound appealing to anyone? I mean to me this doesn’t sound like freedom. It sounds like a lawless state. It’s the Wild West, which was an actual period in our history where men walked around armed, and they settled disputes with their pistols. This, to me, ladies and gentlemen, is a more frightening image than anything else I can think of. And this is not hyperbole. Two weeks ago we had a shootout in a church outside Dallas where four—one, two, three, four—men pulled out guns and fired, killing one bystander in the process. Five months before that, a handful of armed men got into a fight at a bar in Tennessee, and two weeks before that, a rear-end collision in Mobile led to three people firing their weapons. We have a chance to try and reverse what’s happening, and whether or not we can succeed, Congresswoman, I believe we still have to try.

                     “Now, for those of you who believe with all your heart in the right to own guns, I’m not asking you to give up all your guns. I’m asking you to take a step towards the middle. And for those Americans who do not share these beliefs, who think that one gun is one gun too many, I’m asking you to take a step towards the middle. If you own a rifle, you hold onto your rifle. If you own a handgun, you hold onto your handgun, and you give up your automatic weapons. You register your weapons. You prove that you can be responsible with your weapon. We make people do this to obtain their driver’s licenses. We ask people flying planes to undergo psychological evaluations. Why should we ask any less of someone carrying a weapon that can kill twelve people in a matter of seconds?

                     “During World War II we made tremendous sacrifices individually and as a nation. We went off to fight, and back home we rationed our food and supplies and gave what we could to stop the tyranny overseas. Now people might say this isn’t the same as war. They might be offended by the comparison. To this outrage, I just ask you to look at the numbers. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, more Americans have died from gun violence at home than from all the wars combined dating back to the revolution in 1776! 1.2 million killed in all wars, and 1.5 million deaths from guns, and that’s only gun deaths dating back to 1968! So yes, this is a problem.

                     “I’m not trying to change the constitution. I’m not asking for an amendment. I’m asking my fellow Americans to take a step towards the middle, so that we can protect each other, so that we can be safe together, so that we can make this country stronger. If you agree, please call your senators, and your congressmen. Let them know that it’s not too late. Thank you.”

Chapter Text

                 

 

            In the back of a crammed limousine, C.J., Toby, Lou, Charlie, and Otto talked and smiled while they passed around a bottle of champagne.

            “In terms of facts he blew her away,” Otto shouted.

            “When was the last time voters made a decision in terms of facts?” Lou replied. “And she was pretty crushing with the Supreme Court jibes.”

            “Hey,” C.J. said, taking a deep swing. “How much of that was you guys? The three speech-keteers.”

            “Most of it was him on the fly,” Toby admitted. “Santos is quick. I’ll give him that.”

            “The crowd seemed to be with him for the whole ride,” Charlie said, “and we specifically brought in people on both sides of the fence.”

            “Not the whole ride,” Otto said.

            “And people get revved up in front of celebrities,” Lou countered. “It’s a celebrity effect.”

            “Well I think he did very well,” Toby replied, holding the bottle up until it tapped the ceiling.

            After giving both Lou and Toby a perplexed look, C.J. grabbed each of their hands and brought them together.

            “Lou,” she said, “meet Toby, the new Sam. Well the new old Sam. And Toby, meet Lou, the new Toby.”

            To this, both Toby and Lou half smiled, half sneered, and retracted their arms as calmly and as quickly as possible.

            “When he was talking about—” Otto began but C.J. cut him off.

            “Let’s not.” She paused to sip from the bottle. “Let’s not pick apart tonight and let’s not worry about tomorrow. Let’s appreciate the fact that tonight, this unprecedented event even happened and we’re here together in this stuffy limo that smells like—”

            “Cheddar,” Otto suggested.

            “Undercooked eggs,” Toby offered.

            “Here here!” C.J. shouted, raising an invisible glass like everyone else, and they clinked their fists and continued to pass the bottle like a hot potato that contained alcohol.

            “I heard they already have aides manning the phones over at the capitol,” Otto said. “Senator Hallison was curious and checked her phones to find a hundred and seventy messages.”

            “How many messages can a machine hold?” Toby asked.

            “They don’t have machines, first of all, grandpa,” Lou replied. “And those kinds of services can hold thousands.”

            “When I was little they didn’t even have machines for the family business,” Toby confessed through another swig. “We just had my uncle Gershom who sat by the phone twelve hours a day fielding calls and drinking Shlitz and my uncle Levon screaming ‘Don’t you dare get up to use the toilet!’” Toby laughed so hard at this memory nobody knew what to do. So they stayed quiet and let him continue.

“Gershom was so drunk at the end of each day,” Toby said, wiping the tears from his eyes, “that he thought he was taking orders from Jewish kings. One night he had. He had.” Through the laughs Toby could barely get out the words. “He had sixty-five orders from Solomon, and three rush deliveries from the, from the Queen of Sheba!” This last line sent Toby into a convulsion of mirth, and now it was infectious. Even Lou found herself laughing uncontrollably in the heat and stink of the car.

            As the noise finally began to die down and the cramped bodies stopped shaking, the driver called out to C.J., who turned and looked out the window.

            “Ohp, this is my stop,” she said and gathered her things.

            “Ready for a circus tomorrow?” Charlie asked as she stepped into the frigid March night.

            “Well,” she said, and looked down as if she were seriously considering his question. “The first concern is aspirin and water. Lots and lots of water.”

            They all screamed good night as the door closed and the limousine pulled away, leaving C.J. alone in Capitol Hill a few minutes past midnight.

            She walked in looping strides, grabbing onto small trees and spinning around, sucking in deep breaths and then watching the steam from her lips waft up into the night. She was humming “Summer Nights” from Grease as she climbed the ten steps to her townhouse. Fumbling for the right key, she eventually found one that fit.  

            Inside, she flicked on the lights in the hall and locked the door behind her. To her left, stacked up against the wall were a dozen cardboard boxes, all marked with the letter “D.” She walked over to one set of boxes stacked five-feet high and dropped her head onto the top of the box.

            Screeching tires somewhere in the distance caused her eyes to snap open. She pulled back and stared at the box in front of her. Then she reached her fingers over the bent side and started to tug. The flap began to give but just then she changed her mind and let go. And stepped back.

            She continued to step backwards until she stepped into the wall ten feet behind her. There she slid down to the ground, wrapped her arms around her knees, and stared across the space.

Chapter Text

              

            Toby opened his front door singing Sinatra’s The Summer Wind. “Ricky!” he shouted and dropped his coat over a chair. He shrugged out of his suit jacket and set that on top of the coat.

            When he turned, Ricky was standing in the doorway between the hall and the kitchen wearing a plum-colored translucent nightgown.

            “Ooh-la-la,” he said, and glided across the remaining five feet to sweep her into his arms. “It was a good night, you know, and it’s been so long,” he said. “I feel like I can see something like this for what—”

            He stopped talking when he lifted his eyes and saw the sadness and hint of fear in her eyes.

            He pulled back.

            “What’s happened?” he asked her.

            She gave him a slight smile, and at the same time her eyes settled more deeply into sadness.

            Gently placing his hands on her shoulders, Toby asked her again, “What’s happened?”

Chapter Text

 

MONDAY – 12 days left

                 

 

 

            Her eyes already closed, Helen Santos squeezed her lids even tighter as morning light pierced the room from the left. Breathing deep, she yawned and placed one hand, then both hands over her face. Eventually she peeked through the slits in her fingers at the figure standing before her.  

            “Morning, sleepy,” Matt Santos whispered and stepped away from the curtains. He walked around the bed and sat on the edge.

            “You’re here,” she said in a hoarse voice.

            “Well this is my bedroom.”

            “But they wouldn’t let you in.

            He petted her hair and lifted a pillow an inch higher behind her head. “I told the secret service if they didn’t let me in I was resigning.”

            “Really?”

            “Yeah really but it didn’t make a difference. I mean have you seen the size of those guys?”

            Rolling her eyes around her head in a confused state, Helen blinked and then blinked again. “So what—”

            “Your fever broke last night,” he told her. “The doctor said you’re no longer contagious. Want some juice?”

            “The kids—”

            “Are fine,” he said. “But the doctors want to keep them back until tomorrow. Something about measles. But we’ll set up a video call later. So. Anything to—"

            “Coffee.”

            “Juice or tea or water,” he replied.

            “Coffee-flavored water.”

            Santos considered this. “I’ll see what I can do.”

            “But don’t go,” she said, grabbing his forearm. “Something. Happened. You had your debate last night. How did it go?”

            “Well people are calling their congressmen,” he said. “We’re just not sure what they’re calling about. A lot of people are going to have to sort through them. But . . . “

            “And the hostages?”

            Santos replied to this question with a deep sigh. “Limpele asked for another few days.”

            Helen scooched herself into a sitting position. “Maybe I’m still out of it,” she said. “But.”

            “No,” he told her. “It really doesn’t make sense why they would want more time at this point. So.”

            “Something happened to the hostages.”

            “That’s what we’re thinking.” He leaned over and kissed her forehead. “Anyway.”

            “Have you made up your mind?”

            “About what?”

            “About what,” she said in a mocking tone. “About what you’re going to do with Indonesia, about the hostages, about the mines, about the greater of two evils. And Sean Gerstenberg.”

            “Sean doesn’t have anything to do with this,” Santos told her.

            “He’s a human,” she said. “They’re all humans and that—”

            “But I don’t want to think about them as humans right now!” Santos shouted. “How does that help? I have to make decisions on a macro scale, Helen. I can’t think about one man, or three men.”

            “You can,” she said, her voice as calm as it had been. “Have you heard from the Belgians?” she asked when he continued to say nothing. “I mean what were they thinking—”

            “Helen.”

            “Right. You can’t talk about it.”

            “I just did, didn’t I?”

            “Don’t jerk me around when I’m recuperating.”

            “Yeah, sorry,” he said. “You . . . uh . . . want me to get you anything before I go?”

            “You mean do you want me to tell you to tell somebody to get me something?”

            “That’s what I said, isn’t it?”

            “Buckwheat pancakes,” she quickly replied. “Warm blueberry sauce, a side of eggs and toast with orange marmalade. I feel like I haven’t eaten in days.”

            “You’ve pretty much been doing the reverse. I’ll let them know,” he said and leaned down once more, kissing her lips this time.

            “Ooh,” she mumbled, pushing him back and pulling the cover over her face. “I’m probably hideous, like a gorgon or something.”

            “The most beautiful gorgon in the world.” He squeezed her hand before heading for the door.

            In the hall he relayed his wife’s breakfast order to the man in a white jacket standing next to a silver cart. At the end of the hall, Santos turned right into the kitchen, where his children sat at the table eating cereal and playing on their phones. At least until they noticed their father and quickly stashed their devices under the table.

            “Last year you both went to camp, where there were no phones, and no computers, and you had a great time.”

            “This isn’t camp,” his eleven-year-old son reminded him.  

            “How’s mom,” Miranda, two years younger, asked.

            “On the mend,” he said. “We’ll set up a call after you get home today.

            Santos ruffled his son’s hair and bent down to plant a kiss on the top of his daughter’s head. “In three months you’ll be back at camp.”

            This elicited groans from both children.

            While pouring himself a cup of coffee, Santos stared at his kids in disbelief.

            “You don’t want to go this year?”

            “We didn’t want to go last year,” Miranda said.

            “But you loved it! You couldn’t stop talking about all the things you did and the kids, how cool they were.”

            His enthusiasm got a sterile shrug from both kids.

            “Don’t you see,” he said, pleading now, “how fickle you are, how fickle children are. Right here in this conversation is the evidence of you not knowing what’s best for you. You didn’t want to go to camp, and I said it would be good for you, and guess what? You loved it, and if you don’t remember, I’ll show you videos. And now, again, you don’t want to go. Do you see how you don’t know what’s best for you so you need your dad to tell you, at least for the next six or seven years, what’s best for you? You see that, right?”

            Another shrug.

            “Yeah, well.” Santos slugged his coffee and placed the cup on the counter. “I guess we’ll be doing it all over again this summer. You know you’re not supposed to have amnesia until you get to grandpa’s age.”

            Another round of kisses and the president was on his way out the door, except in the doorway he turned back and watched his kids continue to eat their cereal and slowly, carefully, remove their phones from under the table. Saying nothing, he simply stared for a while before leaving.

            At the end of the hall, he walked down the stairs, then turned right, where a solidly built man in a dark suit waited with his hand on the door leading out of the building.

            “Hey, Dennis.” Santos passed through the open door out onto the portico, where he passed several more agents stationed along the way. He nodded, repeated familiar names, and eventually passed through another open door into the Oval Office.   

            Breathing in one more breath of crisp morning air, he stepped into the room already filled with most of his staff—Josh, Charlie, Lou, C.J., Otto, Toby, Donna, and Elsie—all standing around near the resolute desk.

            “How’s the first lady?” Donna asked him.

            “Conscious and combatant,” Santos told her.  

            “So back to normal,” Elsie replied while twisting a rubber band around her thumb.

            “Getting there. How’s the news?”

            “Good,” Otto said in a clipped tone.

            “Not so good,” Lou countered. “Rennselaer’s comment at the end about your hypocrisy.”

            “Potential hypocrisy,” the president corrected her.

            “Yeah, well,” Lou continued. “She cracked the ice and now some people are swinging away with sledge hammers.”

            The president lowered himself into the chair behind his desk and briefly, mindlessly flipped through the mountain of folders before giving up and reclining.

            “All the usual suspects?” he asked.

            “So far,” Josh told him. “But not a lot of people are grumbling. They need to see which way the wind’s blowing.”

            “And?”

            “Can’t tell.”

            “The outline of the new bill?”

            “Um.” Otto consulted his phone. “Uploaded if anyone wants to see.”

            “And there’s a transcript of the speech,” Elsie added, “with links in each section to the relevant parts of the bill.”

            “Along with links to all relevant studies and statistics,” Otto followed up.  

            “Hmm,” the president said, widening his eyes and nodding at this news.

            Lou cleared her throat. “Yeah, I hate to spoil the good times.”

            “Replace the word ‘hate’ with ‘relish,’ Toby chimed in from the back of the pack.

            “With mustard,” Otto contributed.  

            “And onions,” Elsie laughed.  

            “As I was saying,” Lou continued, “even if a hundred million people call in to their congressmen and senators supporting your speech and the bill, that’s not going to sway most of the stubborn asses in office. It was a nice gesture, Mr. President, something I’d be doing backflips over in the campaign. But this is governing, and new elections aren’t anywhere close to soon enough to make a difference.”

            “I disagree,” C.J. said. “Mass call-ins have made a difference before.”

            “Two years ago,” Donna said. “When they tried to pass that bill limiting abortion.”

            “Federal funding of clinics for female reproductive health,” Charlie clarified.

            “Exactly,” Donna said. “They were inundated with calls and emails and letters and because of that Senator Garvey and, and—”

            “Jensen.”

            “Right, Jensen, didn’t even bother to keep pushing.”

            “Right,” Lou said, “and how long did that take?”

            An audible sigh filled the room.

            “Four weeks,” Josh said.

            “32 days, to be exact,” Toby added.

            “Look, I’m not blind,” the president told them “I’m not whacked out on good vibrations here. But Congress recesses in 12 days and with them goes all the momentum we’ve gained. It’s now or never, and maybe it’ll be never, but we gotta try.

            “C.J.,” Josh said. “You and. Where’s Annabeth?”

            Everyone stepped aside and turned around, parting from each other to reveal all possible hiding places.

            “She’s talking with a reporter from the Post,” C.J. informed the staff members still craning their necks to locate the deputy press secretary.  

            “Well the two of you keep on the phones,” Josh told her. “Gather your staff and anyone walking around aimlessly and put them to work, have them put their interns to work, have the interns round up friends and family and put them to work. I want a deluge unlike anything Congress has ever seen. Lou, Donna, Annabeth, I want you on CNN, on CNBC, hell even Fox if they’ll have you. Talking points talking points talking points. And Toby,” he added, “You and Otto have that, thing.”

            “National Wildlife Foundation speech tomorrow,” Toby answered.

            “And the Boy Scouts of America tonight,” Charlie added.

            “That’s tonight?” Josh said, rubbing the top of his nose with his finger and thumb.  

            “By the way,” the president said, his head pointed down and his eyes up towards Toby. “Nice job on the Peace Institute Speech. Really solid.”

            To this Toby gave the president a nod.

            “Yeah Toby,” C.J. said, “you’re on one hell of a hot streak.”

            “It takes a village,” he told her and turned his eyes to the floor.

            “We could cancel the president’s appearance,” Charlie suggested. “For the Boy Scouts. What with everything—"

            “No,” Santos said. “This is a great opportunity, I mean we’re talking about the next generation and responsibility. No. Toby, I want you to knock out a solid ten-minute speech for tonight. Toby?”

            Staring down at the floor, Toby suddenly looked up with wide eyes. “Of course,” he told the president, who let his gaze linger a few extra seconds on Toby before he turned to Charlie. “Help him out, Otto. And Charlie, stick to the National Wildlife Foundation, and.” Santos stopped and turned to Josh. “Sorry. This is your terrain.”

            “No,” Josh said, shaking his head. “By all means, sir, keep slinging.”

            “Okay. Well, um.” The president shrugged. “I’m all out.”

            “Okay. Well then,” Josh replied. “Charlie, knock out the Sierra club speech on Thursday while you’re at it, but, you know, prioritize. And Mr. President.”

            Seeing Josh’s expression, Santos sighed and looked down. “Sit room?”

            “In eight.” Josh glanced at his phone. “Sorry, make that three minutes.”

            “I don’t want to go down there.”

            “Sir?”

            “Tell whoever I need to speak with to come up here. Half the time we don’t even use the charts and maps and billion-dollar gadgets down there anyway. I mean how many of those bells and whistles do we actually need? I mean who are we trying to impress? Are we trying to impress ourselves? Because if that’s where the tax-payer’s money’s going. . ..”

            “Sir,” Josh reasoned, “they’ve probably already got everything set up down there. But if you want to arrange for the next—”

            “Yeah okay,” Santos said, waving him off.

            After this exchange, the room fell silent. Everyone looked at everyone else, all of them waiting for someone to break the tension.

            “I’ll call Dr. McNally and Arnold Vinick,” Josh finally replied, “and I’ll tell them about the next meeting in here, and to bring two dixie cups and a string.”

            This at least got a half smile from the president.

            “And President Bartlett?” Santos asked. “Is he around?”

            “He can be,” Josh said.

            “Yeah, ask him to pop over. Tell him . . . I don’t know. Just tell him to come.”

            As the crowd filtered out, Charlie asked Toby, “You okay?”

            “Yeah,” Toby replied, widening his eyes like someone had just placed smelling salts under his nose.  

            “Because you seemed kind of out of it back there.”

            “I’m okay, Charlie,” Toby said and patted him on the shoulder. “But I appreciate you asking.”

            “Uh, sure,” Charlie said, and stopped to watch the familiar stranger heading out through the waiting room.

            After a few seconds Charlie regained his senses and followed Toby into the hall, where he found Ainsley Hayes standing in a blue business suit, sliding the heel of her left boot across the floor in a circular pattern.

            Charlie nodded a curt greeting and continued walking, which caused Ainsley to snap out of her boot-shifting compulsion and follow behind.

            “What are you doing right now?” she asked him.

            “Right now I have to crank out a Sierra Club speech, and oversee another speech for a bunch of boy scouts.”

            She pondered this for a few seconds. “Like, literal boy scouts?”

            “Uh-huh.”

            “Okay. Well what about after?”

            Charlie glanced at Ainsley with narrowed eyes but didn’t slow his pace.  

            “It’s just,” she said, “you were very understanding of my condition.”

            “That was a condition?”

            “Probably not, but it’s what I call it. What I call my web spinning, that is, when I tend to enhance the importance of a minor element in my life without the context to really see the overall picture.”

            “Yeah, well, everybody does that,” he said. “It’s called egocentrism, and blowing things out of proportion.”

            They turned right and he glanced back, seemingly surprised that she was still next to him.

            “Anyway,” she continued, “because of your understanding and I don’t know, something, something else less calcified, let’s say, well, I was wondering if, what I wanted to know is if you’d like to join me for dinner.”

            In response to the question, Charlie stopped dead, causing Ainsley to run into his side. He waited for her to bounce back and recover before he responded, “Because . . . of my understanding . . . of your condition.”
            “Uh-huh,” she said, smiling and staring up at him expectantly.

            “It’s going to be a madhouse around here until next Friday,” he admitted and watched Ainsley’s slow, comprehending nod. “But after that I have nothing to do,” he quickly followed up. “If . . . you know . . . that works for you.”

            With a slight nod and a smile, Ainsley walked off just like that, and Charlie, forgetting momentarily where he was or what he’d been doing, stood in the hall another ten seconds watching her go.  

Chapter Text

 

 

                 

TUESDAY – Four days left

 

            Cody sat at his desk flipping through pages of the daily schedule while across from him Ronna picked at a fruit cup.

            “Where do you think—”

            “No talking to me non-business before 8am,” she said without looking up.

            “I was going to ask where they keep the staplers.”

            Ronna rolled her eyes. “That’s not what you were going to say. You don’t start a question like that with “Where do you think.”

            “Um, where do you think they keep the staplers?”

            “No.”

            “That’s not—”

            “I need my morning quiet,” she interrupted. “One minute past seven fifty-nine you can ramble on with your five million questions, which I honestly don’t mind. Usually. But just not right now.”

            After her clarification, they sat for a few seconds, Ronna glancing up at Cody, who was actively trying not to look at her. He pulled out his stapler, tried to staple a packet of papers but nothing happened. He repeated the act, this time louder, making a show of it as Ronna simply rolled her eyes.

            She was about to speak but then Nancy McNally casually marched into the waiting room with a laptop under her arm.

            “Can I—”

            “He’s waiting for you,” Ronna said as the National Security Advisor continued on through the open doors of the Oval Office. In a matter of seconds a stream of bodies followed McNally into the room. The Secretary of State. Secretary of Defense. CIA director.

            As they all filtered in, Josh popped his head out from the inside of the room.

            “If you see Donna,” he told Ronna, “I mean if she asks where I am, tell her I went up to the hill.” He turned to go when Ronna’s response—a quick, sharp “No,” stopped him cold.  

            “Excuse me?”

            “I don’t lie,” Ronna said, “which you should know by now.”

            “Yeah,” he replied. “I guess. I mean I—”

             “I can say you’re unavailable,” she told him “or the last time I saw you you walked into the Oval? But I’m not going to—"

            “Yeah . . . okay,” Josh cut in, trying to find a stare halfway between conciliatory and caustic as he closed the Oval Office door behind him.  

            He entered the room the same time the president entered from the portico still slipping into his suit jacket. Everyone previously sitting on the couch stood at the president’s arrival, but a downward motion of his hand pushed all of them back into their seats as he settled into what was becoming his usual chair next to Jed Bartlett.

            “The hostage they released last night,” McNally said.  

            “Let me guess. He didn’t make it,” the president replied, “and now they’re stalling again and they want three more weeks.”

            “Mr. President—” McNally began but he cut her off.

            “Before, they wanted until last Monday, and here we are a week later and they’re still jerking us around!” Santos lifted his hands squeezed them into fists, but after a moment he relaxed and slumped back into his chair.

            “The infection was too far advanced,” Vinick explained. “And we’re thinking they let him rot in whatever cell they were keeping him for at least a day after he stepped on the nail.”

            “They were trying to make a point,” the CIA director stated from the end of her couch.

            “What point?” Santos said, tossing his hands into the air in resignation. “That the twenty-first century we’re still at the mercy of rusty nails?”

            “That we’re at the mercy of them, sir,” Mary Knull replied. “They told us Monday one of our own was sick, and then they waited, and then they released him when they wanted to. They didn’t care whether or not he lived.”

            The president stood and paced around the couches.  

            “Tell me again why we can’t send in a few F-15s or Falcons or Raptors?”

            “The hostages, for one,” Josh said. “They’re mixed in.”

            “And civilians,” Dr. McNally added.

            “But what about this island? Weren’t they going to this island with this, this Shia Caliph?”

            “They’re on the island, sir,” the secretary of defense replied. “And many locals have fled, but there are still at least twenty thousand locals, many of them who aren’t affiliated in any way with the Kebanarans.”

            “Anything else?”

            “Limpele,” Bartlett told him. “He wants something else now.”

            Rounding the corner and turning, and leaning on the edge of his desk, Santos breathed in deep and slow and rolled his tongue around the inside of his open mouth.

            “Limpele or the Kebenarans?” Santos asked.

            “Does it matter,” Josh replied.

            When nobody responded, Santos threw up his hands. “Well what is it!

            “Asylum,” Bartlett said with no trace of humor in his voice.  

            Staring for a while at Bartlett as if waiting for the punchline, Santos finally returned to his seat and waved his hand for Bartlett to explain.

            “He’s paranoid,” Bartlett told him, “but considering his environment, he might be right. He thinks that after he makes this deal they’ll come after him. It’s not any one thing, or so he tells me. It’s just a gut feeling, and when you get to be as old as Limpele in that climate, you learn to trust your gut.”

            “The man certainly has that,” Nancy McNally said with a sigh.

            At this Santos frowned and shook his head. “I’m assuming he’ll want some kind of tax break for the money he’ll bring in?”

            “Naturally,” Bartlett replied.

            “Josh?”

            “I don’t really see another way, sir, if you want to save the hostages.”

            Santos centered his stare on Arnold Vinick.

            “You know my opinion, sir,” Vinick told him.  

            “Let the hostages die, is your opinion.”

            “If we make this deal,” Vinick replied, “tomorrow thirty Americans will disappear in Turkey. Then twenty more will go AWOL in Russia, and Venezuela, and Egypt. It hasn’t been great of late, but if this happens, it’s going to get a whole lot worse. Mr. President, if you stand your ground, you’ll be saving future lives, and that could number in the thousands.”

            Santos took another deep breath and turned to Nancy McNally.

            “I’d get our boys,” she said, “but it’s easier for me to say that over here.”

            “We make deals, Mr. President,” Bartlett advised. “We try to be strong when we can be strong, but when it comes down to it we make deals, and we minimize the publicity of those deals. But we make them. I’ve grappled with this and fought with it for every one of those eight years.”

            Santos didn’t respond to Bartlett’s speech, nor did anyone else in the room. After a half minute passed like this, the president stood.  

            “Okay,” he told the room. “That’s it for now.”

            “They want an answer by Friday, 6am,” Nancy told him.  

            “Which is actually . . . ”

            “7pm Thursday,” Josh translated.  

            With a nod, the president dismissed everyone in the room except Josh, who hung back as Santos returned to his desk but didn’t sit.

            “What do you think?” the president asked him. “I mean I know I just asked you that, but. . . .”

            “I think . . . this is your decision, sir. The people voted for you, which means they chose to accept any future decisions you’d make.”

            “I hate when you say that.” Santos lifted a stack of folders and dropped them back down onto the desktop. The loud sudden clap caused Cody to poke his head into the room.

            “We’re fine,” the president assured him. “Everything’s fine, Cody.”

            With a nod Cody disappeared.

            “I hate when you say that,” the president repeated, and sat defeated in his chair. “I hate when anyone says that anymore. Why am I here, Josh? I ran for president, I won, and I did some things right, didn’t I?”

            “I’ve known a lot of good men,” Josh said, “but only a few great men, and you are one of the great, sir.”

            To this the president eyed Josh warily.

            “And not for your speaking voice or your insights,” Josh went on. “It’s for your sincere wish to help people, to make the world into a place where people can live their lives without fear. And I know right now that’s what you’re thinking about, so whatever you decide, it’s coming from that place. It’s honest, and that’s all you can do, sir.”

            The president stared at Josh a beat longer before swiveling his black leather chair so that he faced the window. When he’d finished staring, he turned back to his desk. He stood. He sat. He walked around the room, Josh all the while standing by as the president ruminated over a course of action.  

            “I don’t know,” Santos said from the other side of the room. “Can’t we just give everyone in the world a living wage? Take all the money the billionaires of the world are hoarding and spread it around. Wipe out starvation? Give people jobs, startup for businesses. All this cruelty, this insanity, Josh. I mean we say it’s about ideology, about religion, but is it?”

            “In many places it is, sir.”

            “No,” Santos told him, shaking his head and smiling at the truth that had just popped into his mind. “No you see that’s just what they want you to think. They, the ringleaders, the Hitlers of the world. They’re just taking advantage of desperate people. Take away the desperation in 1932, take away the inflation in Germany, the people paying for bread with a wheelbarrow full of bills, take away their hopelessness and misery and no way, no way they’re voting for Hitler. No way Mussolini gets elected. Or Joseph McCarthy or Jugo Chavez.”

            “Getting the billionaires to give up their billions,” Josh said. “That would probably take some finagling.”

            “Yeah.” The president walked around the couches and stood in front of his desk next to Josh. “Yeah,” he repeated, little hope left in his voice.

            “And in the meantime,” he told Josh, “we have this, to make the deal or not make the deal, or pull a rabbit out of our—”

            “Yeah.”

            After a light knock, Cody poked his head in.  

            “Sir you have a meeting with the deputy treasury secretary?”

            “Just . . . give me a minute.”

            Cody retreated and Josh, giving one last glance to Santos, followed the young man out of the Oval Office, leaving the president standing in front of his desk, staring out the window.

Chapter Text

              

 

            In the waiting room outside his office, Josh found Margaret . . . waiting.  

            “I have an urgent message from Lou, she said to give it to you before you walked into your office.”

            “So . . . clearly, you took that literally.”

            Margaret seemed confused by his comment, so instead of explaining, he jabbed his head forward and widened his eyes.

            “Oh, right!” Margaret exclaimed. “Dominoes, baby.”

            Josh squinted and tilted his head slightly to the left. “The message is—”

            “Dominoes . . . baby. But faster. She said it really fast like Dominoesbaby!”

            “Dominoes,” Josh said under his breath, and then in a split second of recognition his eyes expanded and his mouth dropped open. “Dominoes, baby,” he told Margaret with a smile, and turned, and took off down the hall. “Dominoes, baby!” he shouted before disappearing around the corner.

            In the Roosevelt Room he found Lou, Toby, Elsie, Annabeth, and Ed. Reaching his hands across the doorway, Josh leaned into the room and said in his calmest tone, “Dominoes, baby.”

            “Damn straight,” Lou replied and moved from her chair to the white board across the room.

            “Donna’s looking for you,” Elsie told him.

            “Who fell?” Josh asked, ignoring Elsie’s comment and taking a seat where Lou had been sitting.

            “Stark,” Lou said as she scribbled out three other names next to a list of around thirty.

            “Stark?” Josh repeated. “Jesus. That’ll get us at least five—”

            “Eight,” Ed corrected him.

            “Eight? Eight?”

            “Morgan, Fenwick, and LeSalle,” Elsie said. “Plus Gonzales, Szwick, Builtmore, Conley, and Swift.”

            “Fenwick I get,” Josh said. “But Morgan and LeSalle? Did you call Harrington?”

            “And Ogalthorpe,” Lou told him. “Everyone you told me to call I called twice, and when they didn’t answer Otto and I beat down their doors.”

            He jumped up and joined Lou at the white board, squinting at the names in red crossed out on the left and added in blue to the righthand column. He turned to Lou in disbelief.

            “We think the metrics online and the links to the numbers are really helping,” Annabeth explained. “We’ve been spinning this all as a personal responsibility thing and looking out for your own. It’s really taking off in places we didn’t expect.”

            “Especially the connection the president made between gun violence and people stealing guns out of homes and gloveboxes,” Elsie told him. “Communities where people have lost loved ones to guns are starting to gang up on family members who were careless with how they stored their weapons. Basically it’s, ‘you’re an idiot, Uncle Bob, and you can’t behave like that anymore.’”

            “So people in the gun community who consider themselves responsible and upstanding,” Josh concluded, “are embarrassed by the people in the community making them look bad.”

            “Yeah,” Toby said. “And they want to prove to the world that they can actually handle this great responsibility. Because otherwise.”

            “Otherwise the big bad government wins,” Lou said in a deep hostile tone, “and we can’t have that.”

            “Still,” Josh said, shaking his head in residual astonishment. “Mississippi and Arkansas?”

            “They brought in a thousand volunteers and temps to field the calls coming in,” Elsie told him.  

            “They’re must be people on the other side complaining.”

            Elsie nodded at this. “But overall even those still opposed are conceding to some of the president’s points.”

            “Because Rennselaer conceded to some of the president’s points,” Josh said under his breath. He looked down and sighed. “We should have been spinning it this way from the start.”

            “This isn’t something you can plan,” Lou told him. “It’s one of those things you have to see played out in reality.”

            “Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?” he argued. “Predict how people are going to react? Anticipate five moves ahead?”

            “There was a song from the 80s.” Toby scratched his head trying to remember. “It pretty much sums it up. What was it?”

            “Material Girl?” Annabeth guessed.

            “Livin on a Prayer?” Lou tried.  

            “Ah!” Toby shouted and clapped his hands. “I’m only human, is the song.”

            “It’s actually just called ‘Human,’ Ed told him.

            “Whatever!” Toby flailed his hands in the air. “No matter how good you are, Josh, you can’t predict every twist and turn of human behavior. There are too many variables. That’s why the idiots at the weather center with all their billion-dollar equipment still can’t tell me if it’s going to rain five hours from now. Considering the odds a week ago, I think we’re looking pretty damn good right now.”

            Josh sighed and continued to shake his head.

            “Hey did you hear that?” Lou said, looking Josh in the eye. “Mr. Doom and Gloom just said we’re looking pretty good right now.”

            “He’s not Mr. Doom and Gloom anymore,” Josh countered. “You are. So you tell me straight, how we stand right now.”

            Everyone waited while Lou sat on her answer, framing and reframing it in her head. Finally she told him, “I think we’re not there yet, and maybe we won’t ever get there, but I have to agree with the newly transformed Mr. bald-faced sunshine over there. If you’d asked me a week ago, I’d have said we’d be 200 votes down in the House and 60 in the Senate. We’re less than half that right now, which seems like something of a miracle. But here we are knee deep in goddamn reality.”

            “Okay,” Josh said after a long pause. “Okay. So now we go all in with this strategy. Responsibility. Highlight the Uncle Bobs who left a Colt 45 under their driver’s seat, highlight how it’s necessary to be oversafe and oversecure in order to keep the federal government from confiscating your weapons. Maybe come up with a slogan?”

            “Uncle Sam’ll look the other way if you lock up your weapons?” Elsie suggested.

            “Mmm, too general,” Lou replied.

            “What about,” Annabeth offered, “‘Safes, the only bed for guns.’”

            “That’s just weird,” Ed told her.  

            “But the idea is solid,” Toby argued. “When you’re not using a gun, it should be locked in a safe, right?”

            “And are we ignoring the whole automatic weapon argument?” Elsie asked them.

            “The media’s doing enough to saturate the country on that,” Josh said. “We just need a pack mule.”

            “Pack mule?” Elsie wrinkled her nose towards her eyes while she waited for someone to explain.  

            “A specific message that’ll carry the rest,” Ed clarified for her. “Like Visa, It’s Everywhere You Want to Be.”  

            “How about ‘Locking up is hard to do’?” Annabeth tossed out.

            “With a picture of a gun and a safe,” Elsie added.

            “Remember we want this to look like it’s coming from inside,” Toby clarified, “Like a wise old aunt waxing sage on the rest of the irresponsible family.”

            “Guns, lets prove we can handle them,” Ed said.

            To this Josh gave Ed a “not-bad” shrug.  

            “Guns, lets prove we can protect ourselves from them,” Elsie tried.

            “Still too abstract,” Toby countered.  

            “‘Less guns, more safes, more guns in safes,’” Ed suggested.  

            “Maybe too confusing?” Lou replied. “But it’s clever,” she added as C.J. walked into the room.

            “Where have you been?” Lou asked her.

            “Briefing,” Annabeth answered for her.

            “More like keeping the screaming hyenas off my back,” C.J. explained. “What’s going on in here?”

            Toby’s eyes shot wide open as he exclaimed, “‘A gun in a safe is worth Uncle Sam off my back.’”

            Everyone went quite while C.J. stood by the table staring confusedly from one thinking mind to the next.

            Finally Josh said what everyone was thinking. “That’s it.”

            “But flip it,” Ed said. “Uncle Sam off my back is worth my gun in a safe.”

            “Perfect,” Lou agreed.

            “It works,” Elsie added and everyone exchanged various forms of agreements and amendments to Toby’s suggestion.

            “What’s it?” C.J. asked. “What the hell are you guys talking about!”

            But by this time Josh was already standing. “Fill her in,” he told them. “Lou, figure out how to spread it far and wide. Somebody come up with a logo or cartoon or something. Work with C.J. and Annabeth on replacing any other messages with this one. And let’s wait on bothering the fence-sitters until a few more thousand constituents have pushed them over the edge. Hey, uh.” Josh scratched his nose while he tried to remember what he was going to say.

            “Annabeth,” he finally spit out. “That thing with—”

            “The generals and Vinick?” she guessed. “They’re on board and making waves across all fronts.”

            To this news, Josh pounded the wall with his fist. “Dominoes! Lady and gentlemen! Dominoes!”

            “Dominoes!” everyone shouted as he walked out the door and down the hall, followed shortly after by Toby.

            “So,” C.J. said, “you all came up with a neat little slogan, is that it?” She began to lower herself into a chair when Omar knocked on the door.

            “Uh-huh?” she said.

            “He’s here,” Omar said, and disappeared.

            “Who’s here,” Elsie asked her.

            “Nobody.” For a while. C.J. stared at the wall, her voice getting sharper, angrier with each syllable. “Just a meeting with some scum of the earth.”

            After this vague reply, she straightened into a standing position and walked out of the room.

Chapter Text

               

 

            Around the corner, Toby caught up to Josh and transitioned from an awkward sprint into a casual brisk walk.

            “Hey,” Josh said, barely glancing at Toby as he maintained his rhythm and pace.

            “Hey,” Toby said.

            “Pretty good team work in there.”

            “Yeah. Listen, I wanted to tell you. It’s just . . .”

            As Toby struggled to find the words and Josh recognized the strain in his voice, he slowed, then came to a complete stop.

            “Toby what is it?”

            “It’s . . . Ricky,” Toby replied. “Well actually it’s her father. He’s got brain cancer, and maybe, like . . . a month to live?”

            “Jesus.”  

            “Yeah, well, he’s in Sacramento, and she wants to be with him, so . . .”

            For a few seconds Josh didn’t get it. But then the lights came on and his eyes flashed his recognition. “Of course,” he told Toby. “If you need to fly out there for a few days, a week, no problem. You take as much time as you need, okay?”

            “Yeah.”

            “You okay right now?”

            Toby gave him a subtle nod.

            “Okay,” Josh said and resumed his furious stride while Toby remained immobile in the corridor behind him.  

            “Hey!” Josh called out at the end of the hall and spun around to meet Toby’s eyes. “Great speech!”  

            “What!” Toby shouted.

            “With the Boy Scouts last night. Great speech!”  

            Toby considered this, and then said to himself, “It was a great speech,” before turning back to the Roosevelt Room.

Chapter Text

                 

 

             Trailing Omar by five steps, C.J. tried not to look anywhere but straight ahead of her.

            “He’s finally back traveling?”

            “Yeah.”

            “Where did he go?”

            “Nevada.”

            “Sounds about right. So where is he?” she asked him.

            “What?”

            “Blithe. Where is he now?”

            Omar turned and glanced back at C.J. like he believed she’d finally lost it. “In your office. Where do you think—”

            “You . . . let him in my office!” The sound of her voice clearly reached the outer edges of the building because when she looked left or right every man and woman as far back as she could see seemed to be staring in her direction.

            “He’s in there,” she said through gritted teeth, now walking next to Omar. “He’s in there with my things, probably going through my drawers.”

            “Don’t you lock your drawers?”

            “That’s not the point! He probably brought a bug.”

            “A bug?”

            “A bug, a bug, a, whadayacallit, a listening device,” she somehow clarified with her fingers.

            “Where was I supposed to put him?”

            “I don’t know!” C.J. barked. “In the closet. On the floor outside. We should have one of those metal pet crates for people like him.”

            “You sure you’re okay?”

            “Me?” C.J. looked at her assistant for less than a second before turning back to the path in front of her, the doorway to her office now less than fifty feet away.

            “Why do you keep asking me that, Omar?”

            “Do I?”

            “Well it sure seems like you do.”

            “It just seems like.”

            “What?”

            “Nothing.”

            “Nothing?”

            “It’s just, you seem fixated.”

            To this comment C.J. made a face like she’d just swallowed a jalapeno and it was the moment right before the heat struck home.  

            “I’m all about redemption and second chances,” she told him. “But this guy? This guy does not belong in the press core or anywhere near journalism. And do you know why he’s still hanging around?”

            Omar paused to consider his answer, and when he finally delivered it, he seemed not to want to. “Because no one has taught him—”

            “Because no one has taught him a lesson, that’s right,” C.J. echoed. “So you ready?” she said twenty feet from her door.

            “Ready?” he said. “What am I going to do?”

            C.J. paused and looked down, then she turned towards Omar. “Right,” she said. “I guess . . . nothing. Just, you know, watch and learn.”

            They didn’t speak again until they passed through her doorway and found a tall, gangly man with bushy, unkempt brown hair, thick black glasses, and old man’s jowls sitting on her couch. The man wore tight jeans and white and green striped, button-down, long-sleeved shirt untucked. He rose when C.J. and Omar entered the room, but C.J. walked past without acknowledging him before turning and leaning against the front of her desk.

            “Robert Blithe?” Omar said, waving his hand vaguely towards the man near the couch. “C.J. Cregg,” he told Blithe and then deftly extricated himself from the room.

            “Mr. Blithe,” C.J. said, a little confused over Omar’s departure but quickly regaining her composure. She took a step forward, leaned down, and extended her hand. Blithe returned her smile with the expression of someone who’d smelled something off in the refrigerator but couldn’t quite pinpoint the source.  

            “So nice to meet you,” she said.

            He reached out and limply took her hand for only a second before withdrawing. His hand was pale and covered in sweat.

            “Is it?” he said.

            “Have a seat.” She motioned to the couch where he’d been sitting, but Blithe didn’t move, just kind of swayed lightly in place.

            “It’s just that you’ve written so much about me,” she said, “and I don’t even know you.”

            “Yeah, that’s often how it works in journalism,” he said. “Why am I here?”

            “I don’t know,” she said. “Why are you here?”

            “The man outside told me I’d get an exclusive with the president if I stopped writing articles about you and your . . . deceased husband.”

            To this, C.J.’s eyes opened wide, and as she craned her neck to find the man sitting somewhere outside her door. A new smile appeared on her face. but she soon let this go and turned back to Blithe.

            “Of course,” she said. “That’s right. Just let me get you what you need.”

            She walked around to her desk, unlocked her side drawer and pulled out a thick binder. “Here we go,” she said. “I think you’ll find everything here.”

            Staring at her with a mix of confusion and mild terror, Robert Blithe accepted the folder and opened to the first document. Folding her arms across her chest, C.J. maintained a poker face as she leaned against her desk.   

            “You know I couldn’t figure out at first why you’d be working so hard to smear me,” she said. “Okay, maybe the republicans are paying you to create a distraction. That could work, but something didn’t quite fit.”

            While she talked, Blithe’s mouth inched open. He took turns between reading the information in front of him and glancing up at the woman a few feet away.  

            “A few months ago you suddenly became all chummy with some of the leading republicans,” she told him. “We’ve got photos of you at all the galas, your name on all the guest lists.”

            “So?”

            C.J. smiled. “You’re a lifelong Democrat, Mr. Blithe.”

           “Maybe I was just learning about my enemy.”

           “Maybe,” C.J. conceded as Blithe paged through the papers she’d handed him and finally dropped the folder on the coffee table. “There’s no exclusive.”

            “You’re pretty sharp,” she said. “Sharp enough to accept a deal from Vernon Monahan, one of the four people who sued you for defamation. And he had a case, didn’t he, and you were so happy when he dropped it. But of course there was a catch, a favor to be delivered sometime later.”

            “Okay.” Blithe rose from the couch and turned to go.

            “I don’t think so,” C.J. called out in a casual but confident tone. “You see I think you’re going to want to hear what I have to say.”

            Blithe stopped in the doorway but didn’t turn back, while C.J. walked around and picked up the file she’d handed him.

            “If you’d kept digging you would have found the good stuff.”

            He turned and watched her grab a handful of documents towards the bottom of the pile, dropping the rest of the papers on the coffee table. She walked back to her desk while flipping through the remaining stack.  

            “So I wondered how someone like you, who’d been kicked off your college paper and knocked down the ladder so many times could land a decent gig with a fairly large paper like the Sentinel. And I also wondered how that said paper would let you run these articles about me and Danny. I mean, you didn’t have a shred of evidence, but there they are on the website. And then?”

            She waved the papers in her hands like she was fanning herself. “The ‘Cat-in-the-hat’ murders. Why don’t you take a seat, Mr. Blithe?”

            Blithe breathed deep while trying to maintain the image of a calm man. Slowly he moved to his right and sank down into the cushions of C.J.’s brown sofa, leaning back and crossing his legs.

            After moving to close the door, C.J. returned to her desk and sat on the edge of it, facing Blithe and waving the pages he couldn’t see from where he sat. “At your old paper the Camden Beat, you were contacted by an anonymous source who’d stumbled across a strange object in Cooper River Park, a little pink backpack with a Barney patch sewn onto it, which the parents of, hold on.” C.J. paused to find a certain document in her pile. “Maria Ellsworth, ten-years-old Maria Ellsworth. Her parents claimed the backpack belonged to their daughter who disappeared a year earlier.”

            C.J. picked up a can of Diet Coke, took a slug and lifted it out to Blithe. “You want one?” she asked, to which Blithe didn’t respond. He stared at her with a blank expression, his lips tight and rolling around his mouth.

            “With the Barney backpack,” C.J. said through another sip of her coke, “buried a bit deeper, was a page from Dr. Seuss’ ‘The Cat in the Hat.’ Two weeks later your source finds another object, and another page, and all of a sudden there’s a buzz. All these disappearances came back into the spotlight with your name at the top or every new article. You were hot shit for a while, weren’t you Mr. Blithe? Suddenly everyone wanted to talk to you.

            “Now you’re getting offers from other papers, and you take the ‘Cat-in-the-Hat’ murders with you to the Sentinel. At least for a while. Say, two, three more objects, and then it quietly disappears. But you have your new job. Your new credibility. And so many people are reading your columns now that your bosses let you print a few random articles about the White House press secretary. And her husband. And a car accident. They let you make spurious claims that hurt a lot of people. But what do you care? You think to yourself, there’s no way anyone will link this to me.”

            When C.J. stopped talking, Robert Blithe stared at her with confusion, and then mild relief. And as she continued to stare, giving nothing away with her eyes, Robert Blithe waited.

            Finally he asked her, “That’s it?”

            “That’s it,” she said with a shrug. “That and the fact that I have you at a Kids R Us in Minneapolis purchasing a certain Barbie sippy cup they didn’t carry anywhere else. A sippy cup very much like the one Franny Donovan’s parents swore she had with her when she disappeared outside Trenton. And I have an Ebay seller who sold a Mickey Mouse wrist watch like the one Lionel Morales had with him when he vanished outside Newark.”

            “The sippy cup was for my niece,” Blithe told her, rolling his eyes at the absurdity of her accusation. “And the watch, I don’t know what the hell that has to do with me. I didn’t buy any watch. You’re making some pretty wild accusations without any real proof.”

            “Am I?” she laughed. “You see,” she said, waving the papers at him, “there’s the difference between my connections and your connections. With the connections I made, and the deductions I made, I can call up Martin Garrison, the chief editor at the Sentinel, and I can send him in a neat little box all the specious reasoning I’ve gathered. All of the pages upon pages of no proof. Plus, there’s the fact that I’m the White House press secretary and I’ve spent the last eight years taking the long road, never taking shortcuts so that I could build a solid reputation of being an honest and highly credible person.”

            C.J. lowered her head and looked up with just her eyes. “And then there’s you, Mr. Blithe.”

            As she stared at him across the short distance, Robert Blithe’s eyes began to set. He looked at her like a petulant child who did not believe he deserved the punishment for an infraction he knew he’d committed. He started to shiver and squeeze his eyes and lips inward towards his nose.

            “Now I don’t believe you had anything to do with the actual disappearances of those children,” C.J. continued. “But somewhere along the way you came up with this idea, and you did some actual solid research into these missing children, somehow gaining possession of the reports with a list of what they had with them. You must have worked to date each object, to set the scene just right, and of course you didn’t think about the parents, how these discoveries would make them feel.”

            “What are you going to do,” he asked in a low, cold, disconnected tone.

            C.J. pulled back a bit and widened her eyes like she didn’t quite understand the question.

            “I’m going to share the truth, Mr. Blithe. I mean that’s my job, right?”

            She popped up off the desk and walked four steps so she was now standing over him. “You’re going to get blacklisted from every single credible newspaper in the country. When I’m done, you won’t even get hired by the National Inquirer, and then, hopefully, you’ll crawl into a miserable little ball and disappear from the world so that you can’t ever hurt anyone again with your reckless journalism.”

            She slipped to the right and placed her hand on the door handle. Then she tilted her head to the side as if she’d just had an epiphany.

            “Or,” she said, “I don’t do any of those things. I keep your secret, and from now on you do exactly what I tell you to do.”

            She let him think on this until he finally told her, “I don’t understand.” As he talked, he closed and opened his eyes like he’d just woken from a terrible sleep.

            “It’s pretty simple,” C.J. said, returning to her desk and logging onto her laptop, her face partially hidden behind the screen. “I tell you what to do and when to do it. Or you go merrily on your way and I drop a biblical plague on your head. Your choice. I’ll give you until tomorrow morning to decide. For now, get out.”

            While C.J. resumed her work, not looking up again, Robert Blithe pulled his trembling body from the couch and quickly exited the room.

            A few seconds later Omar entered.

            “So you told him?”

            “Mm-hmm,” she said in a casual tone.

            “You’re going to call the Sentinel editor?”

            “In time,” she said. “After he squirms for a while.”

            “How long is a while?”

            C.J. shrugged. “Three years?”

            “C.J.!”

            “I don’t know, Omar!” she fired back, typing away while she talked. “But the little weasel isn’t slipping off the hook yet. Hell, considering his pathology he might even want to get caught. So no, not yet.”

            “Considering his pathology?” Omar said and walked out of the room shaking his head.

            “What the hell’s that supposed to mean!” C.J. shouted. And when he didn’t answer, she logged into her laptop and reread the last article Blithe had written about her and Danny.

             For a few seconds, she quietly read. Then she sat back, closed the laptop. She took a deep breath, and stared at the couch.  

Chapter Text

              

 

 

            After talking with Josh, Toby walked past the Roosevelt Room in the direction of the communications bullpen and his basic desk. But twenty feet from his desk he stopped because there was someone sitting where he wanted to be sitting. Tilting his head from left to right, Toby observed the figure hunched over the desk wearing a navy blue hooded sweatshirt with the hood pulled over his or her head.

            Toby looked around but the area was empty. To his right, Otto’s office sat dark and vacant. So was Charlie’s. After a few seconds of contemplation, Toby slowly approached the figure and cleared his throat before asking in a voice just above a whisper, “Can I help you with something?”

            Instead of speaking, the figure, without turning, lifted his/her right hand in a “wait” gesture, and now that Toby was closer, he could clearly hear the scratching of pen on paper.

            “That’s my desk,” Toby said, “so maybe you think—”

            “I know it’s your desk, Toby,” President Bartlett said as he turned and handed Toby the note he’d been writing.

            His eyes showing confusion and unease, Toby looked from Jed Bartlett to the piece of paper in the man’s hand. After a while he fixed his eyes back on the president.  

            “Oh, sorry” Bartlett said, pulling down the hood. “I wasn’t trying for any cloak and dagger operation here, pardon the pun. It’s just a bit cold. Every year it’s just a little bit colder, and I guess my body’s not used to globetrotting to the far reaches. Anyway. Here.”

            Toby didn’t accept the paper. He stared at the floor, his eyes glancing up at Bartlett every now and again. “What is—”

            “I wanted to get the words right,” Bartlett told him, “so that we could start from solid ground. Since I’ve known you, Toby, you’ve been an obstinate, relentless, self-righteous son-of-a-bitch. And you know, I mean, you know about family. You love them unconditionally. Anyway.” Bartlett coughed into his hand. “Read the damn note.”

            Toby grabbed the paper with his thumb and index finger and began to read while the former president reached into his pocket, pulled out a tissue, and blew his nose.

While Toby silently read, his eyes began to pool. He swallowed hard and inhaled a deep, shuddering breath before looking up with pursed lips and a partial smile.  

            Jed Bartlett smiled at Toby’s response. “That’s what I wanted to tell you the last four years, Toby. But two of those four years I was too damn proud. Pride, though, it’s like an old soldier who just gets tired standing there all day at the gates. And when they hired you back, I asked myself, ‘Jed what the hell is your problem? And then of course Abby vocalized what was inside my head as she often does.”

            “Sir,” Toby said, sniffling now.

            “I know,” Bartlett told him, and placed his hand on Toby’s shoulder. “And it’s okay.”

            “I’ve been in therapy almost since the day it happened,” Toby admitted. “Something I should have done a long time ago. And I’m in a relationship with a wonderful woman.”

            “I heard,” Bartlett replied with a smile. “A former Senator if I’m not mistaken.”

            “That’s right,” Toby said, grabbing a tissue from a box on someone else’s desk, so now both he and Bartlett were blowing and wiping their noses.  

            “And I’ve heard other things, Toby, good things.” The president blew his nose once more and rubbed his eyes before looking up. “You know I loved you all those years, right? You know I did. But I missed a lot, I know that. I’m dying to get to know this new guy. This guy, who, for one thing, doesn’t cover his face with a beard anymore!” Bartlett laughed at this last comment.

            “Me too,” Toby confessed. “I mean, you know what I mean. Except, well, this thing, this thing’s just happened.”

            “If that isn’t the magic phrase in this place,” Bartlett said, followed by another laugh. “C’mon,” he said. “Let’s go down to the kitchen. Chef Pierre knows I’m around so he’ll be on guard. You ever try his red carrot soufflé?”

Chapter Text

                

 

            Donna knocked on C.J.’s open door as she peeked into the room to see the press secretary holding the fish bowl above her head and staring up through the bottom.

            “C.J.?” Donna said when C.J. still hadn’t turned to acknowledge her.

            “Yeah?”

            “I guess what most shocks me in this moment is your ability to hold that thing over your head.”

            “I’m thinking of getting a shelf.”

            “A shelf?” Donna said, stepping into the room slowly so as not to disturb the delicate dance going in front of her.  

            “A glass shelf, and putting it over my desk, and then putting this on it so I can look up and see him. I don’t know what it is. I like the perspective.”

            “A glass ceiling?”

            C.J. lowered the bowl to in front of her face and stared at Donna through the rounded glass.

            As Donna stepped forward, her eyes narrowed and her mouth cranked open like a drawbridge.

            “There’s no water in the bowl,” Donna whispered.

            “No.”

            “And no fish.”

            “You’re two for two,” C.J. told her. “Want to go for the trifecta?”

            “Have you seen Josh?”

            “Yes,” C.J. replied, easing into her chair. “And he knows you’re looking for him.”

            “I’m not looking for him.”

            “You’re not?”

            “Well I am, but he thinks I’m looking for him to yell at him for probably forgetting our anniversary on Thursday, not that I ever yell at him, but for some reason he thinks I’m going to.”

            “Don’t you see each other at home?”

            “Sometimes we don’t.”

            C.J. narrowed her eyes and stared at her desk. “And that’s . . . not why you’re looking for him.”

            Donna shook her head. “I had an idea about hunters.”

            “Hunters.”

            “Hunters. Like you know how Cody was talking about his uncle and how so many guys just need to walk through the door with some kind of physical manifestation of accomplishment?”

            “The rabbits.”

            “That’s right. Well I thought we could maybe work with Hollywood to produce some films that have hunters ditching the rifles and shotguns and turning to spears and knives because that’s tougher, you know. And then it will be this challenge, to prove that you can get a rabbit the hard way, to really have something to show for yourself. You know, like the ice bucket challenge.”

            C.J. considered this for a while before replying, “You think that’s the way to go? That we should ramp up the testosterone, aim for more machismo?”

            “It was just a thought,” Donna said defensively. “I mean if they’re going to be hunting and pretending to be Rambo anyway, why not go all in? It’s not like there are that many hunters to begin with.”

            “And that’s the real issue,” C.J. said. “Talk about catering to a dying breed. I read this study where they loaded these hunters up with all these wires and sensors, and they recorded their pulses and blood pressure and all these other measurements before, during, and after a deer hunt. And whenever they spotted a deer and were getting ready for a kill, they’re heartbeats jumped through the roof, and their dopamine levels shot up like they’d just taken a hit of heroine.”

            “They’re addicted.”

            “Yeah. So, I mean, there’s that.”

            “Yeah.”

            “And then there’s you and Josh.”

            “There’s me and Josh,” Donna sighed.

            “Why is it that the only relationship that seems to last in the White House is between the president and the first lady?” C.J. asked and quickly followed up with, “not that you and Josh—”

            “No, I know,” Donna said, waving her off.

            “I’m just saying, all these people, these high-ranking people when we were in the first time, and nobody was married, or still married. People had boyfriends and girlfriends but they never lasted.”

            “Maybe because the first lady’s not on the outside,” Donna replied. “She’s in it with him. Maybe this is the one place where you need the inner-office romance, where you can’t have the separation. Otherwise the person on the outside gets resentful, then the one on the inside gets resentful.”

            “Maybe,” C.J. said and thought of something else. “So you’re not worried he’s going to forget?”

            “No, I am,” Donna assured her. “But I’m trying to move past it. I’m taking the high ground. I’m going to surprise him.”

            “With what?”

            Donna gave C.J. a soft smile. “Something I know he’ll love. It’s a—”

            The buzz of the landline cut short Donna’s idea. She went quiet as C.J. reached for the phone and lifted the receiver to her ear.  

            “Uh-huh,” C.J. mumbled into the mouth piece, and while she listened to whomever was speaking on the other end, her eyes went from confused to shocked to severely defeated.

            “Yeah,” C.J. sighed and lowered her head. “Okay. Bring me the notes. No, whatever you have. Yeah. Okay.”

            C.J. hung up the phone, and after reclining in her chair and drawing a deep breath, she looked at Donna with tired resignation.

            “C.J. what is it?”  

            “Well,” C.J. said, “I think your whole hunter idea just got bumped, along with every damn other thing we were planning.”

            “What—”

            “A guy in a minivan just ran over twenty-six people on the sidewalks in downtown Seattle. Fifteen confirmed dead, the rest were taken to the hospital.”

            Donna opened her mouth but no words emerged, and for a while the two of them simply stood in the quiet office, the cacophonous din in the halls around them slowly seeping in to fill the void.  

            Eventually C.J. stood as her assistant walked into the room carrying a stapled pack of papers covered in sticky notes.

            “There’s more coming in as we speak,” Omar said as he reached around Donna to hand C.J. the stack.

            “That’s . . . fine,” C.J. told him, giving the pages a quick once over. “Get Delcy at the Times and see if you can contact the mayor.”

            “I’m going to tell Lou,” Donna said and walked out the door.

            “Which mayor,” Omar asked.

            “Which do you think!” Just like that C.J. was speed-walking out the door, her assistant trailing with pages flapping in his hands.

Chapter Text

 

 

              

THURSDAY – 1 day left

 

            Charlie sat behind his desk in Toby’s old office typing away on his laptop, with Otto on the couch across from him typing away on his.   

            “How does this sound?” Charlie asked. “We can’t step off the path now because that surely means starting over.”

            “Surely?” Otto said.

            “Certainly?”

            “You need a better metaphor.”

            “Eye off the prize?” Charlie suggested.

            “Dogs chasing squirrels?” Otto tried.

            “Yeah,” Charlie laughed. “People love being compared to dogs.”

            “People love dogs.”  

            “People love dogs, people want dogs. People don’t want to be dogs.”

            “He’s already been on TV, twice since the incident,” Otto pointed out “Now it just feels like . . . .”

            “What?”

            “I don’t know.”

            “What?”

            “Like he’s pleading,” Otto said.

            “He is pleading.”

            “Yeah but it can’t look like he’s pleading, and whatever he’s got to say, after speaking twice into the camera in two days, it’s going to sound like pleading.”

            “He’s got the hostage decision today, tonight,” Charlie said. “He’s going to talk about that no matter what, so if we figure out a good way to slip this in . . .”

            As they dropped their heads and continued typing, Toby walked through the door still wearing his coat.

            “You oversleep?” Charlie asked him.  

            “Yeah cuz that’s something I do.” Toby removed his coat and squeezed in next to a quietly outraged Otto. “What are we doing?” Toby asked as he pulled a laptop from his brown satchel.

            “Working on the speech,” Otto mumbled.  

            “The begging speech?”

            “Uh-huh.”

            “What about,” Charlie suggested, “if you’re a running back and you have a clear lane and out of the corner of your eye you see a whole open up to the left. But don’t be fooled. Don’t be tempted. You’re already running straight forward through this hole. Better to keep going until the lane closes.”

            “What’s he talking about?” Toby asked Otto.

            “A metaphor.”

            “The hole on the left is the minivan?” Toby asked him, to which Charlie gave a sad nod.  

            “It’s not bad,” Otto said. “Takes a long time to get to it, though.”

            “It’s horrible,” Toby said.

            “In the crowd we’re talking to?” Charlie asked him.

            “I’ll try to clean it up,” Otto finally replied.

            “No metaphor,” Toby told them.

            “But what if it was—” Otto began.

            “No metaphor!” Toby said, shaking his head. “We don’t want viewers having to interpret each line to find the hidden meaning. The minivan has nothing to do with the gun bill. It’s a distraction, period.”

            Charlie looked at Otto, who shrugged, and all three dropped their heads and typed away until Lou entered the room and stood in the doorway, undisturbed for ten seconds while the three men continued their task.

            “What is it they say?” she asked. “If you stick a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters in the White House, eventually they’ll come up with a speech that’ll get the president his gun bill?”

            The three men ignored the deputy chief of staff, typing unperturbed until she shouted “Hey!” and they knew the jig was up.  

            “He wants to see us, now,” she said. “And nice of you, Toby, to finally join us.”

            Toby gave Lou a fake smile. Then he dropped his eyes and stared at the floor, his face set in a cast of mild anguish.

            In the waiting room outside the Oval Office, Toby, Charlie, Otto, C.J., Lou, and Annabeth waited to go in.

            While C.J. chatted with Ronna, Charlie, Otto, Lou, and Annabeth debated the future of automobile attacks and Toby stood in front of Cody’s desk wringing his hands near his waist, his eyes focused on a section of the blue carpet.  

            “Mr. Ziegler?”

            After a second, Toby turned and stared at the young man rising from his seat.

            “I just wanted to say.” Cody cleared his throat. “I wanted to say thank you.”

            Toby looked around as if the young man might be talking to someone else. Finally he turned back and asked Cody, “For what?”

            “I know it was you,” Cody said. “It wasn’t Josh who set up the appointment for me to come in, although he did help. I know I never would have gotten through the screening if it wasn’t for you, and I know it sounds cheesy, but I feel like the luckiest guy in the world sitting here every day, being part of this.”

            “It’s not cheesy,” Toby said through a partial smile, “nor does it sound cheesy. Don’t ever resist the urge to revel in your time here.”

            Cody considered Toby’s response and waited a few more seconds before replying. “When I was in counseling,” Cody said, “after what happened to my friend, the woman said that we don’t express our appreciation enough. And if the appreciation is genuine, why not say it? Why not let somebody know? So . . . .”

            At this Toby gave the president’s body man a warm smile and nodded. He opened his mouth to speak but was interrupted by Jack Reese, who walked into the room dressed in full uniform, his black fabric covered in various medals. He barely glanced at Donna before turning to the president’s secretary.

            “It’s urgent,” he told Ronna, who nodded and picked up the phone. She spoke a few quiet words, hung up, and turned back to the lieutenant, motioning him towards the Oval.

Chapter Text

            

 

 

            President Santos paced around the couches while Nancy McNally crossed and uncrossed her legs. On the couch opposite her, Arnold Vinick scraped at the pencil in his right hand with the nails on his left hand.

            “There’s gotta be another option,” Santos said.

            “You’d think,” Bartlett replied from his usual chair. “We’re the United States of America. We have the best and the brightest in the highest positions. I’ve asked these same questions, Mr. President. But every viable option has an equally viable negative reaction. If only politics occurred in a vacuum.”

            Santos paused his pacing to address the former president. “This isn’t politics,” he told Bartlett. “This isn’t diplomacy. This is a stateless action, as in we might as well not be a state and they’re certainly not a state.”

            The president continued to pace and the room remained quiet.

            “I’ve got a gun bill that had a good head of steam and then another unstable, irrational American citizen thought it’d be a good idea to drive his minivan up onto the goddamn sidewalk! And in my darkest daydreams I wonder, was this guy paid by the gun lobby? I mean what does it mean for me to think this?”

            “It means you’re doing your job,” Vinick assured him. “It means you have to think about what nobody else wants to imagine. That’s all it means, Mr. President.”

            Making his way back to his seat, Santos started to lower himself into the chair, but quickly he changed his mind, and for a while he just stood there, hovering over his seat. He was still hovering when Jack Reese entered the room.

            “Well I hope this is,” Santos began, but Reese cut him off.

            “One second, Mr. President,” Reese said and bent down to whisper into Nancy McNally’s ear.

            Santos looked at Bartlett like he couldn’t understand what was happening.

            “Um, last time I checked, I was privy to just about all information?”

Looking up from his perch, Jack Reese took an apologetic smile and stepped back. “I’m sorry, Mr. President. Habit.”

            “Through back channels,” Nancy McNally told the room, “we’ve gotten word from someone on the island, someone working near the hostages who claims she knows a way into the building where they’re being held. It’s going to take a few hours to make sure her story checks out, but we’re supposed to hear from her in thirty minutes.”

            For a while nobody reacted. Finally the president broke the silence. “How do we know this is legitimate, and not a trap? I mean I know what you just said, but right now what do we think.”

            “That’s why we need the hours,” Reese explained. “We don’t have enough to think one way or the other. We need to confirm what she’s saying, and that she’d not compromised.”

            “And who is she,” Bartlett asked “Or who is she supposed to be. Do we know?”

            “A local on the island,” McNally replied. “Apparently she runs a restaurant and she’s been preparing the meals for the Kebenaran and also bringing food to the hostages.”

            “So,” Santos said and leaned forward, placing his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. “If she’s on the up and up.”

            “Then we send in a team,” Nancy said, finishing his thought.  

            “A wet team.”

            “Correct, sir.”

            “But we’re talking about around a hundred hostages, and how many enemy. Hundreds? Thousands? I don’t want to lose fifty seals to save a hundred hostages.”

            “We’ll tap out the bubbles,” a general on the far end of the couch assured him. “Get this thing air tight before bringing it back to you, sir.”

            “Or you poke her story full of holes,” Bartlett added, “and we’re back to where we were.”

            “And by the time this checks out, if it checks out,” Josh said, “that won’t leave us much time to move in.”

            “We’ve got a carrier ten miles off Jakarta,” an admiral explained. “We can have fifty to a hundred men on site in less than twenty minutes.”

            “Either way,” Santos said, rising from his seat, “let me know as soon as you’re sure.”

            Everyone stood in response to the president standing, and the room cleared out while Santos walked around his desk.  

            “If their intent was to screw with our heads,” Santos told Josh,” they’re succeeding.”

            “You mind,” Bartlett said, hanging back, “if I stick around a minute?”

            “Be my guest,” Santos replied, glancing at Josh on his right before turning to the papers on his desk.

            As the military-related individuals filtered out, the White House staff filtered in, each member performing a double “Mr. President” greeting before finding a seat: Charlie, C.J., and Donna on the couch next to Bartlett. Annabeth, Lou, and Otto on the opposite couch, with Toby behind Lou and Josh remained standing behind President Bartlett.  

            “So,” Santos said, moving around the desk to the chair he’d just vacated. “How goes the sinking ship?”

            “Wednesday we lost for sure the republicans who were starting to lean,” Toby said. “And this morning—”

            “This morning the moderates are starting to climb over the rail,” C.J. sighed.  

            “What about our guys?” Josh asked.

            “Fine,” Charlie said.  

            “More than fine,” Lou countered. “They’re typically outraged at the other guys’ opportunism.”

            “And we aren’t?” Josh said.  

            “We are,” Annabeth replied, “but not as a political tactic. More as . . . .”

            “Basic human repulsion?” Donna volunteered.

            “The problem,” C.J. announced, “is that their base feels the same. The guys we’re trying to sway feel the same. Suddenly what’s the point of controlling for guns when any yahoo in an Astrovan can take out an entire restaurant.”

             “This could have happened any time in the last forty, fifty years,” Bartlett admitted. “The means were there, the opportunity, and frankly I’m relieved that it never happened during my time here. But it makes you wonder, what happened, what made this person decide, this time . . . ”

            “To be more accurate you’d have to go to the guy in Frankfurt,” Toby replied. “He was the first.”

            “Hmm,” the ex-president said with a smile. “Suddenly I feel like I’m home.”

“We’ve already got the Uncle Sam slogan circulating,” Donna said. “Do we need to talk about this too?”

            “At least guns you can do something about,” Charlie said. “This thing, though. There’s no way to defend it. No way.”

            “At least not until autonomous vehicles,” Lou added. “In fact if this kind of thing keeps happening, people’ll stop griping about the possible flaws in driverless vehicles. We’ll be seeing Google cars in no time.”

            “That’s it,” Josh said with finality, smiling and shaking his head. “C.J. what you said. We can’t control for any yahoo in a Honda Civic.”

            “I said Astrovan.”

            “Whatever! But that’s it. We can’t control for that, but we can control for this. For guns. That’s a basic rule of psychology.”

            “Philosophy,” Donna corrected him.

            “Reinhold Niebuhr,” Bartlett corrected them both. “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

            “So if we go with this,” Charlie asked, “won’t we be opening the door to the yahoos, letting them know we can’t defend against them?”

            “We’ll find a way,” Santos said. “In the meantime, this will be our response when anyone asks, and keep pitching what you’ve been pitching. You have until tonight to push the fence sitters back to our side.”

            “Get to it,” Josh said and the room suddenly turned into a maelstrom of activity, people standing and turning and talking, the mob slowly eking its way to the door.

Chapter Text

               

 

            “His name.”

            C.J. sifted through the notes on her podium while in the press room below her the mouths flapped and the hands waved and the journalist exchanged looks as if something were not quite right.

            “Just hold on!” she shouted. “His name is Jonathan Beacon Meyer. He holds a Masters in Computer Science from the University of Wisconsin and his occupation. His occupation was a vending machine stocker.”

            “C.J.!”

            “Andrew,” C.J. said, calling on a thirty-something man towards the back of the room.

            “Any information on the driver’s psychological state?”

            “Not at this moment,” she said, “but if he’s driving his van up onto a sidewalk filled with people, Andrew, I’m—” C.J. swallowed whatever she was going to say and called on a young woman towards the front left.

            “C.J. any indications this was an accident?”

            “It’s hard to say right now, although several witnesses claimed the vehicle was moving at a normal pace until it suddenly swerved and picked up speed in front of the outdoor cafe. Again, the authorities are collecting data as we speak.”

            “Any word on the hostages!” an older man with bushy white hair shouted from the front left row.

            “No more than this morning, Lawrence,” C.J. said in a scolding tone.  

            “But the deadline’s tonight,” Lawrence replied.

            “As it turns out,” C.J. explained, “the president is also aware that the deadline is tonight, Lawrence, and I’m certain he’s considering the matter as we speak. And maybe, just maybe, Lawrence—”

            C.J. paused as Omar sidled up next to her and delivered a folded piece of paper, which C.J. promptly opened and read.

            “Two of the victims in critical condition have just died,” she announced in a slow, defeated tone as she folded the note into little squares. “Which brings the total to seventeen. That’s all for now. I’ll see you back here at 8:45 after the president makes an announcement from the Oval Office.”

            In the hall outside the pressroom, she nearly collided with Toby, who was sipping from a take-out coffee cup while simultaneously rubbing his fingers against his hairless face.

            “God,” she said, opening her eyes wide and shaking her head. “Every time now, every time Toby it’s like looking at your brother or cousin or something.”

            When Toby didn’t respond, C.J. picked up the pace and rounded the corner full throttle.  

            “So this is a thing now?” she said. “You outside the briefings?”

            “I like it,” he said, almost running to catch up. “Feels like old times, you know?”

            “What, you criticizing me about something I said or didn’t say?”

            “Exactly.”

            “So out with it.”

            “Out with what?”

            “What I did wrong.”

            “I don’t . . . actually . . . have anything to say.”

            C.J. slowed a bit to fully scrutinize the man walking next to her.

            “Except—”

            “Here we go,” she sighed.

            “You were about to let Larry have it.”

            “It’s Lawrence.”

            “I went to school with the guy,” Toby countered. “I watched him pull a half-eaten burrito from a dumpster and swallow it whole. Trust me, it’s Larry.”

            As they approached her office, C.J. continued on while Toby leaned against the doorway. “What’s your point?” she asked him, and turned and lit up with a smile, but not at Toby.

            Carrying a clear plastic bag filled with water and one zigzagging goldfish, Omar passed Toby on his way to the desk.

            “Here,” she said, holding up the fish bowl while Omar opened the bag.

            "Careful now. Easy.”

            With great care, Omar deposited the water and fish into the bowl, and C.J. leaned down and kissed her assistant on the cheek.

            With a smile to C.J., Omar turned to Toby and leaned down. “Ask her about Robert Blithe. She needs help.”

            Omar left the room and Toby continued to watch as C.J. opened a drawer and pulled out a small box of various objects: castles and rocks and fish food.

            “Anyway,” she said, clearing off the corner of her desk to make room for the bowl. “Larry or Lawrence or whatever you want to call him, he deserved a drubbing, and I would have let him have it if Omar hadn’t come along with the note.”

            Toby didn’t respond, which led C.J. to eventually turn and ask him, “What?”

            “It’s just, you seem angry lately.”

            Straightening to her full height, C.J. turned and faced Toby with hands on hips. “Have you ever known me not to have a temper?”

            “Around here, yeah. In the press room, never, or very rarely.”

            “I told the president if I came back it was gloves off.”

            Toby considered this and took a deep breath. “What’s happening with Robert Blithe?”

            In response to the question, C.J. started to visibly fume.

            “Damn it, Omar!” she screamed. “You just did something nice and now I have to take back all my love for you.”

            Omar popped his head in the doorway. “I did this out of love too—”

            “Oh shut up,” she said and sucked in her lips, and stared down Toby as she considered what to say next.

            “He’s getting what’s coming to him,” she finally told him.  

            “Justice is one thing,” Toby said, maintaining eye contact. “But making someone twist in the wind? C.J. that’s not you. Besides the longer you keep quiet, the more you’re in this alone, the more dangerous it is. And yes,” he said as she opened her mouth. “Word gets around here, and no, it wasn’t Omar who talked. And it doesn’t matter who. Turn Blithe in and be done with it. I mean, you know what my father did. Talk about dark energy and torture for torture’s sake. But.” He threw up his hands. “I’m done, okay. No more preaching. And anyway, that’s not why I came here.”

            “It’s not?” she grumbled, turning her back to him as she opened a packet of food.

            Toby moved to the couch and took a breath.

            “I heard the president paid you a visit,” she said, still facing away. “The other president. How did it go?”  

            “C.J.,” he said. “Ricky’s father has cancer.”

            Setting the fish food on the edge of the desk, C.J. turned and stared for a moment at the man on the couch.

            “Oh, my god.” She crossed the few feet between them and sat next to him on the couch.

            “Cancer of the brain,” he said. “The best kind. She’s going to California tonight.”

            After a sufficient pause, C.J. asked him, “how long. I mean, her father.”

            “A month, maybe two. I just, I don’t know, right now.”

            “Toby. Do you love her?”

            “I know that,” he laughed. “Yes. I love her.”

            “Then go,” C.J. told him with a look that said there was no question.

            “C.J., it’s not that simple,” he said. “Do you know what it’s like to come in here for eight years, every day, with a thousand pounds on each shoulder, and then suddenly you’re doing the same job, fulfilling the same purpose, but suddenly the weight’s gone?

            “Okay yes you know,” he said, but to this C.J. turned her eyes to the floor to consider his words.  

            “Now,” he went on. “It’s like, I just never knew I could feel this way. And Josh has given me this chance, and the president, and everyone has given me this chance, and I’m supposed to just . . . .”

            “Yeah,” she told him, the strength returned to her voice. “You are.”

            Toby scoffed at this. “You told me just a few days ago that there was nothing you’d rather be doing right now.”

            “And that’s true,” she said. “But that doesn’t necessarily make it fun. And if Danny were still alive, you wouldn’t find me within fifty square miles of this place. However great or important the work seems to be, it’ll never give you what a person gives you through that connection. A person who loves you and you love. So, my advice, Toby, is don’t be stupid!” To drive home her point, she slapped him on the head with a rolled-up paper.  

            Toby stared at her in disbelief. Then he laughed as his eyes began to water.  “This, uh, this has been happening a lot lately,” he told her.

            “That’s because you have a lifetime of tears stored up in that little pinhead of yours.”

            “Yeah,” he agreed, and pulled himself off the couch, and breathed deep.

            He walked to the door and turned back.

            “And Robert Blithe?” he said.

            Pursing her lips, C.J. reclined and let out a long breath. “I’ll call the editor of the Sentinel tomorrow morning,” she said, “and Blithe right after.”

            “And, you know, I have the number of a really great therapist,” he said. “I don’t know if you’ve talked to someone, like really talked to someone.”

            Head down, C.J. nodded to this, and they remained for a while in this state.

            “I guess with the van guy,” Toby said, “the bill is pretty much . . . .”

            “Apparently Lou has something up her sleeve,” C.J. replied.

            “But it was fun,” he said, “like for a couple days we were living in neverland, you know?”

            “I do.”

            “What are you going to name it?” Toby asked, pointing with his chin to the fish swimming in circles in the bowl.

            “Don’t know,” she said.

            “See you in the Oval?”

            C.J. nodded, and Toby turned, and left the room.

Chapter Text

               

 

 

            “Senator.” Lou crossed her arms over her chest, then realized what she was doing and let her arms drop by her side. But that didn’t feel right either and so she grabbed a folder from her desk, walked around it, and sat on the edge while a middle-aged white man and middle-aged Hispanic woman posed upright on the couch opposite her. Behind the pair, through the window, the bullpen was a hive of activity.

            “Lou,” the man said like he was speaking to a child. “This changes everything.”

            “It really doesn’t,” she sighed.  

            “Lou.”

            “Senator Biehls. Senator Nulano. Your people want this.”

            “Right now,” the woman replied, “it’s our job to predict the fickle nature of our constituents.”

            “No it’s not.”

            “Lou.”

            “No it’s not!” Lou shouted the words at the same time someone outside screamed for a copy of the 2nd Amendment. Reaching out with her foot to slam the door shut, Lou turned back to the politicians on her couch, both dressed in gray business suits, both sitting ramrod straight with their hands on their knees.

            “They elect you,” Lou said, “so you do what they want you to do.”

            “And if they don’t like what we’ve done,” Biehls argued, “they won’t vote for us the next time around.”

            “They’re not children, Senator.”

            “Yes,” he said, “they are, Lou. Our constituents are children. They’re petulant and lazy and they don’t understand most of what goes on here. That’s why they elect us.”

            “The whole point!” Lou raked her hand down her face and lowered her voice. “The whole point of the president’s debate was to inform the public on the specifics.”

            “Please,” Nulano said, nearly spitting the word. “You can’t get to the complexities of this issue in an hour.”

            “For the sake of his argument and what he wants to get done, yes, yes you can get people to understand the main points in an hour.”

            Nulano looked up at Lou and smiled. “You know the one about swimming pools, right?”

            Nodding slowly and closing her eyes, Lou mumbled, “I know the one about—”

            “Children in the United States are much more likely to drown in swimming pools than die by firearms. Where’s the outrage over swimming pools?”

            “Is this an example of the complexities thing?” Lou asked, to which the senator gave her a confused glare.

            “Really?” Lou said and looked to the middle-aged man for support, but he was busy staring at a spot on the wall behind her.

            “How many kids under fourteen play in pools?” Lou asked the woman. “The answer, guess what, is a lot! Now how many kids under fourteen play with or interact with firearms on a regular basis? The number of children who play in pools is INFINITELY higher than those around firearms, so of course the number is going to be higher. But guess what. It’s still not that much higher. As of last year 625 deaths to 428 deaths. Now, Senator, let’s look at the next age group, 15-24, where you don’t have so many kids playing in pools.”

            “Lou,” the man said, but Lou kept going.

            “Last year 501 in this age group drowned in pools. And wait for it. Wait for it.”

            “Lou.”

            “6,085 deaths by firearm. Hmmm. Too complex for you, Senator?”

            At this, the woman rose from the couch and patted down her suit as she smacked her mouth and walked to the door. She offered Lou one last frigid glance before exiting.

            With a sigh, the man stood and straightened his jacket “A minivan, Lou.”

            “What does that have to do with anything, Senator?”

            “It has to do with what’s the point,” he said. “It has to do with deeper inherent flaws in the people living in this country unrelated to the mechanisms they use to vent their frustrations. A car, a gun, a knife, a lawn chair. Why aren’t we focusing more on trying to help these people?”

            “Ohhhh,” she replied. “You mean instead of just locking them up and hoping prison takes care of the rest? Your state, Senator, has the third highest incarceration rates and the second most privatized prisons, and in that state, forty-six percent of inmates have been found to be psychologically imbalanced. So please, tell me more about trying to help these people?”

            The senator, his face a deep shade of red, sucked it down and forced a smile. “A little tact, Louise, would be a welcome addition to your repertoire.”

            “How about I get some tact,” Lou replied, “and you and swimming pool over there get some common sense. If we could replace half the tact in this world with common sense, Senator, we’d be living in paradise!” She bit her lip and watched the two senior republicans quietly storm down the hall.  

Chapter Text

              

 

            Lou walked back into her office, lifted a stack of folders from her desk and slammed them back down. Then she walked over to a bookshelf and pulled a small recorder out of an empty tissue box. She held the recorder up to her ear, pressed a button, waited a few seconds and then pressed another button. While she continued to fiddle with the device, Elsie walked in and dropped down on her sofa like a sack of rice.  

            Audibly sniffing, Elsie scrunched her nose. “Who was sitting here?”

            To this Lou held her finger over her lips and continued with the recorder.

            “Smells like . . . .” Elsie thought it over. “Like burnt eggplant, like the eggplant was in a fireplace all night and now it’s the next day and you’ve just come down stairs and—”

            “Shhhsh!” Lou snapped and clicked a button on her device, which brought the voice of Senator Biehls back into the room.  
            “Yes. They are, Lou. Our constituents are children. They’re petulant and lazy and they don’t understand most of what goes on here. That’s why they elect us.”

            Lou pressed a button and the sound stopped. She looked up to see Elsie staring at her in a state of shock.

            “Who are you? Richard Nixon?”

            “It’s a hobby,” Lou said with a shrug. “When I’m feeling down I go home and flip through my audio files.”

            “You have . . . files?” Elsie said, her eyes the size of half dollars. “Remind me to never get on your bad side.”

            “You’re usually on my bad side,” Lou said, walking around her desk and placing the recorder inside a drawer.  

            “Why’d you just tell me that?”

            “I don’t know,” Lou replied. “Because it felt good to share after those seed bags spilled their loads in here, and because as far as anyone else knows, I don’t record conversations and it’s your word against mine, but of course you’d never say a word after you found out what I had on you.”

            Lou delivered this last line with a sweet smile on her face, but Elise returned the smile with a knowing grin of her own.  

            “You don’t have anything on me because there’s nothing to have.”

            Pouting her lips, Lou shrugged her response. “You’re probably right.”

            They both sat on this for a while, Elsie’s smile significantly diminished by the time Otto entered the room.

            “How’d it go?”

            “About what you’d imagine,” Lou told him.

            “And they were the moderates,” Otto complained.

            “Yeah.”

            “It shouldn’t be like this.”

            “Like what,” Elsie asked him.

            “Like one guy determining the fate of a nation. One guy in a minivan out of three hundred million.”

            “Three hundred and twenty five point five million,” Elsie corrected him.

            “I mean what the hell,” he said and plopped down next to Elsie. “You know what,” he added, “humans suck.”

            “Yeah no kidding,” Lou told him.  

            “I’m serious,” he said. “We’re always focused on compassion, on empathy, but a government based on logic and reason where politicians and voters couldn’t be swayed by one sensational case, that would be infinitely better.”

            “Be careful what you say,” Elsie advised him.

            “Huh?”

            Elsie eyed Lou before turning back to Otto. “Nothing,” she said, and added, “Sounds like you want robots running the government.”

            “Yes!” Otto shouted. “That’s exactly what I want. Program them with some basic parameters. Work for the smooth functioning of the country, for the alleviation of suffering in humans, for the—“

            “What if the alleviation of suffering to robots means killing the person suffering?” Elsie asks him.

            “That’s why,” he explained in a patronizing tone, “you calibrate their settings. I mean right here with this case, with this guy in Seattle. If you have autonomous vehicles maybe you have a few malfunctions from time to time, but what you don’t have is a freaking maniac plowing into people on a sidewalk. That’s the future I want to see,” he said. “Benevolent robots unaffected by every individual human act.”

            “Back to reality, Nostradamus,” Lou told him. “It’s three o’clock and the president has to make a decision on the hostages in four hours. Do we still have a shot with this thing?”

            Otto looked at Elsie, who looked at Lou.

“Maybe?” Elsie said.  

            “Yeah maybe,” Otto agreed. “If.”

            “Yeah if,” Elsie repeated.

            “The speaker?” Lou said.  

            “Maybe.”

            “Nah.” Lou shook her head at the thought.

            “Yeah but,” Otto said. “You know how he feels about—”

            “Still.”

            “The president’s not going to want to deal with this,” Elsie told them, “and the only way Monahan comes here is if—”

            “The president will rip our heads off if he finds out,” Otto said. “Resignation party anyone?”

            “Plus it’s sexist,” Elsie argued.

            “Hey,” Lou told them, “we can’t help the speaker’s outdated views, plus it’s not just sexism. It’s also nostalgia, and if he gets certain ideas into his head, well, that’s not our fault.”

            With a sigh, Elsie pulled herself off the couch as Donna walked past the window.

            “Donna!” Lou shouted.

In response, Donna stopped and turned, unsure of what to do until Lou frantically waved her into the room.

            “We just had a bad meeting with Biehls and Nulano,” Otto informed her.  

            “We? I, I just had a bad meeting,” Lou clarified. “Which brings us to the next hot topic.”

            “And the speaker,” Elsie said, transmitting a signal to Donna as she spoke.

            Almost immediately Donna began shaking her head. “Not possible.”

            “It’s falling apart,” Lou told her. “The walls are falling down around us and the floor’s the next thing to go.”

            “No.”

            “We lost all the conservative conservatives that were wavering on Tuesday,” Otto told her. “Now almost all the moderates are gone, and even a few blue dogs are stepping back.”

            “All that progress,’ Lou said. “The president’s debate, the winning strategy we finally settled on, all for nothing if Monahan doesn’t come around.”

            “Then it’s nothing.”   

            “Donna.”

            “You know how the president feels about this,” Donna said in a no-nonsense tone.

            “Yeah but—”

            “He’s told us directly and not so directly on more than a handful of occasions.”

            “It’s a blip,” Lou argued. “That’s what it’ll be. And what’s a blip compared to sweeping gun control legislation that’ll last for years?”

            Otto began to pace in the tiny space while Donna looked from face to face.  

            “She might not even go for it,” Donna said after a considerable pause.

            “She . . . kind of, you know, started the whole thing.” Otto eked the words out of his mouth.  

            “But the speaker won’t come by specifically to—”

            “We’ll . . . take care of that,” Lou said. “Just, you and Elsie, get her ready. She’s better, right?”

            “Mostly,” Elsie confirmed.  

            “Then go,” Lou said, waving them out.. “I’ll make the call.” But Donna just stood there staring at the floor.  

            “A blip,” Lou said, widening her eyes to full capacity. “You know Rear Admiral Grace Hopper?”

            To this question Donna shrugged and shook her head.

            “Anyone?”

            Sighing as if the burden always fell on her shoulders, Elsie replied, “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.”

           “Very good,” Lou said and waved her hands to the door. “I’ll take the head, okay? Now go. Go!”

            As everyone filed out of the room, Lou sat on the edge of her desk and lifted the receiver from the landline. She reached out, then pulled back, then finally grabbed the phone, dialed a number, and placed the black plastic to her ear.

            “Chris, yeah, get me the speaker. Yes right now!”

Chapter Text

              

 

            Through the halls of the West Wing, House Speaker Vernon Bryce Monahan walked with a limp, while two young congressmen and a second-year senator trailed behind. At every window and reflective piece of glass, the Speaker paused to sweep a hand through his slick-backed gray hair or check on the status of his yellowed teeth.

            “He looks like a pug,” Otto announced, standing in the doorway of Lou’s office as Monahan and his retinue passed by.

            “Donna and the first lady are in the mural room?” Lou said.

            “Uh-huh,” Otto replied as Margaret appeared out of nowhere.  

            “Josh wants to see you,” she told Lou.  

            “Tell him—”

            “He said it’s urgent.”

            “He knows,” Otto whispered.

            “Yeah, well.” Lou followed Margaret. “Go check in on them, and, you know, have a coffin measured.”

Chapter Text

                

 

            In the mural room, Donna and Elsie stood like statues next to Helen Santos.

            “You sure you want to do this?” Donna asked her.

            “I’m fine,” the first lady whispered.

            “You look a little pale,” Elsie observed.

            The first lady eyed her for a moment before replying, “This is how I always look.”

            The three women turned and watched as the Speaker of the House limped into the room. He entered alone as his entourage waited in the hall. The sixty-three-year-old senior senator from Georgia didn’t flinch at the sight of Donna or Elsie. But when he set eyes on the first lady, he began to beam.

            “Mrs. Santos,” he said. “I was sorry to hear of you recent maladies, but am happy to see you’re recovered and are looking as lovely as ever.”

            The first lady smiled and stepped forward and shook the speaker’s hand. But soon Monahan was bending down and kissing her wrist.

            “A courtesy that a gentleman bestows upon a belle,” he whispered, and casually but quickly straightened back to his former hunched position.

            With a practiced smile, Helen Santos motioned to a long uncomfortable-looking sofa, and then turned to the women in the room.

            “Donna, Elsie, you can wait outside.”

            Donna looked stricken and paused, but after a moment she reluctantly nodded and left the room.  

            Elsie, lingering a bit longer, soon followed.

            Outside, Donna and Elsie stepped past a short young man built like a brick, with trim blonde hair and an upturned nose.

            “Congressman Munce,” Donna said with a nod.

            “Donna,” Munce replied with his own tilt of the head. “And Elsie. What’s the plan here? Woo the speaker with dreams of an illicit affair, maybe a quick trip to Cabo?”

            “As the representative for the families victimized by gun violence,” Elsie coldly replied, “the first lady is appealing to the speaker’s sense of responsibility. Why should a disturbed man in a minivan upset the reasonable decisions politicians on both sides have been making this week?”

            To this Daniel Munce rolled his lips into a frown and motioned to the other end of the hall, where soon he and his fellow republicans regrouped.

            Donna and Elise did not follow the congressman’s movements. They directed their eyes instead to the opaque walls of the mural room.

            “I don’t like not seeing what’s happening in there,” Donna mumbled.  

            “Is this gross?” Elsie asked her.  

            “I mean, he did lose his wife in a car accident,” Donna replied. “Which is tragic. And just because the first lady reminds him, I mean kind of looks like.”

            “Kind of really looks like her,” Elsie said.  

            “So it’s sad, and a little pathetic I guess,” Donna admitted. “But it’s not, you know, like typically machismo man gross.”

            “At the same time we’re not really helping the movement our we?” Elsie sighed.

            “No, we’re not.”

            “And what is she supposed to do anyway? I mean is she supposed to promise him something, or, like strongly hint at something?”

            “I don’t know,” Donna said, clearly uncomfortable in her tone and her tiny confined microtremors. “Lou really thought just presenting certain ideas to him could soften him towards . . .” She stopped talking and took a deep breath. “I don’t know. In her office it made more sense.”

            “But this is it, right?” Elsie told her. “Without this we’re sunk.”

            “Probably.”

            “Probably?”

            “Okay. Without a doubt we’re sunk without this. But still.”

            “I feel.” Elsie shivered. “I feel like I need a shower.”

            “This isn’t right,” Donna said and started for the door.  

            “Wait!”

            Elsie grabbed her arm.

            “What are you going to say?”

            Donna considered this, and finally answered, “I don’t know.”

           “She’s not going to want to leave. Not now.”

           “I don’t care.” Donna pulled her arm free. “This isn’t governing.”

           Opening the door of the Mural Room, she crossed the carpeted space and stood in front of the first lady and speaker of the House, who sat a few inches apart on the uncomfortable-looking couch.

            “Ma’am,” Donna said, and searched her mind for what she wanted to say. “I need you for a minute outside.”

           “It can wait,” Helen Santos told her. “Now please—”

           “It can’t,” Donna told her. “It will just take a minute.”

           Splitting the difference between a sigh and a smile, the first lady turned and placed her hand on the speaker’s arm. “Will you excuse me for a moment, Mr. Speaker.”

           “Of course,” Monahan said and rose as she rose. “And call me Vernon, please.”

           Without looking back, Helen Santos followed Donna out of the room and past Elsie, who stood perplexed and rooted to her spot.

           Donna opened the door to a small empty office and motioned for the first lady to follow her. She closed the door behind her.

           “What can’t wait,” the first lady asked her.

           “You can’t do this,” Donna told her. “This isn’t right.”

           “Yeah, well.” Helen Santos let out a sarcastic laugh and shook her head. “That boat’s sailed, hasn’t it?”

           “Not if you leave that meeting, Ma’am. Lou talked me into it and I talked you—”

           “You didn’t talk me into anything,” Helen told her. “I know exactly what Lou had in mind, I know exactly what Vernon Monahan wants, and I know exactly what I’m doing.”

           “It’s not right.”

           To this the first lady widened her eyes and flashed Donna another sarcastic smile. “Hundreds of years of men using their positions for sex, and I can’t use—”

           “No,” Donna said, her tone gentle but strong. “You’re a leader in the feminist movement, which means equality, not special privileges for one group or another.”

           Quietly smoldering, the first lady maintained eye contact while she considered her response. She looked at the door, then back to Donna.

           “If I don’t do this . . . .”

           “Then that’s the way it is,” Donna replied.

           “All those guns,” Helen said to herself, and Donna, having no response, simply remained silent.

           They stood in the small office another few seconds before the first lady drew a deep breath and opened the door.

Chapter Text

             

 

            The president stood at the three-point line in a pair of green shorts and a white tank top, a wooden rack of eight basketballs on his right. He pulled up, shot, watched the basketball pass through the hoop, and then grabbed another ball from the rack and shot again. Every move he made echoed through the cavernous space.

            He shot, grabbed, shot, grabbed.

            As he left the ground for his last shot, the door at the far end of the room opened and Josh walked in. On his way across the court, Josh rounded up three balls in his path and herded them with his feet towards the rack while the president moved around the court gathering the other balls.

            “It’s over,” Josh said, placing the last ball in the rack and turning to catch a pass from the president. Josh deposited this ball in the rack and turned to receive another pass, and another, delivering each ball to the rack like the act was automatic.

            “You might hear something,” Josh said, “about the first lady meeting with Monahan.”

            The president’s eyebrows lifted toward his hairline and his mouth opened wide, but Josh cut him off with a wave of his hand.  

            “Donna got her out of there before anything happened.”

            “And who’s idea was the meeting?”

            “Doesn’t matter.”

            “I want to know who put her in that room, Josh.”

            “It’s done, sir,” Josh replied, and for a few seconds the president stewed with the ball gripped tightly in both hands.

            “Lou,” the president mumbled.

            “It doesn’t matter,” Josh assured him.

            Santos picked up a ball from the floor, but instead of passing the ball to Josh he just stood there, staring down.

            “Because of a guy in a minivan.”

            “Yes sir.”

            “Because of one guy. One guy, Josh!”

            “Yes sir.”

            Santos took another deep breath and looked up at the clock on the opposite wall, which now read five minutes to seven.

            “And it’s been, what, ten hours since this supposed local called in with information?”

            “A little under seven, sir. But—”

            “Let me guess. Over.” The president smiled and shook his head. “That’s why you’re here.”

            “Yes sir.”

            “What happened?”

            “As best as we can tell, someone got to her, either killed her or removed her from the scene.”

            “Which means?”

            “It could mean a lot of things,” Josh told him. “But all that matters is she’s no longer on the board.”

            “All that matters?” The president shook his head. “You just said she might have been killed.”

            “That’s . . . . . Josh lowered his head and regrouped. “You know what I meant, sir.”

            Taking three steps back, Santos pulled up and shot. He watched the ball hit the edge of the rim and bounce out towards center court. “Which takes us back to the original two choices. Save the hostages and arm the enemy.”

            “Indirectly arm the enemy,” Josh corrected him. “And after the hostages are free, we can figure something out. We can raid the island. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is working on a plan right now.”

            Santos returned to the rack on the left side of the basket while Josh walked over carrying three balls in his arms.

            “We’ll keep pushing, sir,” Josh told him “Keep trying. This ‘guns as the only thing we can control’ idea? It might gain some traction. And the other strategies? We’ve got a lot of coals in the fire.”

            Unresponsive, the president grabbed a ball and shot, grabbed another and shot, grabbed another and shot.

            “The Oval’s set up?” he asked Josh.

            “It’s all ready, sir. Of course you need to speak with Limpele first.”

            Grabbing a ball from the rack, then handing it to Josh, Santos nodded and walked to the door. “I’d take a shower,” he said, “but I think I’m supposed to feel dirty for this.”

 

Chapter Text

              

 

            In the Oval Office, now filled with cameras and lights and lighting technicians and a few dozen camera people and crew, the president lowered himself into the chair behind the Resolute as a woman leaned over and dusted his cheeks.

            Near the door, Josh waited with arms folded across his chest, C.J. and Toby by his side.

            “Two minutes!” someone shouted as Lou joined the trio.

            “He called Limpele?” she asked.

            Josh kept his eyes focused on the boss as he nodded his reply.  

            “Well?”

            “You’ll find out in a second.”

            “Really?” Lou said, to which Josh simply shrugged.

            “This is punishment, right, for Monahan?”

            “I don’t play those petty games,” Josh told her.

            “Well then tell me what he—”

            “Thirty seconds!”

            Lou turned to Toby in frustration. “What’d you write for him?”

            “Nothing,” Toby replied. “He didn’t want anything.”

            “Here we go,” C.J. said through a sigh as a woman shouted “Five! Four!” And counted the rest of the way with her fingers. 

            President Matthew Santos took one last breath, and looked up at the camera with a sad, tired smile.  

 

            “My fellow Americans. I think you’d agree it’s been one hell of a ride these last few weeks. With Congress going on leave, we took a gamble here. And we lost. We wanted to find a compromise between those who hate guns and everything they represent and those who love guns and cherish everything they represent. And we thought we had found that balance, until a single man derailed the delicate balance with his actions. I would like to live in a country where one single act by an American citizen does not define the times, where we are strong enough to withstand the slight breeze of a singular event, no matter the seeming force behind that event, but we don’t. Still, I give you my word that I will not stop fighting in the name of reason and civic responsibility.”

            Lowering his eyes and drawing another deep breath, the president rolled his teeth over his top tip and looked up once more.  

            “Many of you know of the situation in Indonesia. Last week after the publication of a certain cartoon, more than a hundred journalists, many of them American, were captured by the Kebenaran. Their demands were simple. Guns. They wanted guns. But not just guns. They wanted the rights to two large mines, so that they could secure the means to produce as many guns as they wanted, which considering the amount of raw materials in those mines, could mean millions of guns.

            “Now, it’s been the policy of the United States government to never negotiate with terrorists. But . . . over the years, the United States government has found a way to walk the line. To remain tough, but also compromise. To give the enemy at least something of what they want.

            “I make the call here. And I think, I think this is something hard for most people to understand. But all past presidents understand, whatever their ideologies, their beliefs and temperaments and core values. When something good happens, when an American succeeds, when an American overcomes a difficult situation, you feel great. And when you’re able to help one or more Americans, you feel over the moon! But of course there’s a flip side. When something happens and an American citizen dies, that’s my responsibility. That was the responsibility of every president who came before me. And they, and I feel . . . every . . . single . . . one of those lives.”

            For a moment the president dropped his head. He swallowed and wiped the moisture forming in the corners of his eyes.

            “Sometimes,” he continued, “we have to make the hard choice. The impossible choice. And some people will think me a monster. They’ll think I’m being cold and calculating with the choice I’m about to make. But making a deal with those terrorists, giving them what they want and saving the hostages—THAT would be the easier choice. But that deal would open the door to more kidnappings, more hostages, more deals, more money changing hands and more guns in the world. I feel, in my stomach, in my arms and my legs, and in my heart, I feel every . . . single . . . one of those lives. But I can . . . not . . . make this deal.

            “To all the mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, sisters and brothers. I am truly sorry. With all my heart I am sorry. I am sorry I could not save them.”

            The president stared into the camera a few long seconds until he finally shook his head.  

            “Good night and God bless,” he said to the men and women around him, and to the millions watching.

            Before the cameras completely pulled back, the president stood, and remained standing, silent, for twenty long seconds as everyone waited for something. Then he turned and exited out onto the portico, leaving Josh and C.J. and Lou to field questions from a barrage of competing shouts.  

Chapter Text

                

 

            Closing the door behind him, Josh did a slow blink and yawned as he crossed the room to his desk. He sat in his chair and nearly jumped out of it when he noticed Toby seated, unmoving, on the small gray couch next to the minifridge to his right.

            “Jesus, Toby!”

            “Margaret let me in.”  

            “Yeah,” Josh said, his surprise and anger already sliding back into resignation. “She does that. SHE THINKS SHE’S THE ONE IN CHARGE!”

            “She’s not out there,” Toby informed him.

            “Yeah well,” Josh replied. “She can probably hear me from the other side of the Potomac. Quite a night, huh?”

            With a nod, Toby stood and moved to one of the chairs in front of Josh’s desk.  

            “You hear about the driver?” Toby asked him. “C.J. told me five minutes ago.”

            With a shrug and light shake of his head, Josh waited.  

            “The guy has epilepsy.”

            “No,” Josh said, his mouth unable to close.

            “Yeah.”

            “No,” Josh repeated. “That can’t be the case. We couldn’t have lost because of a misunderstanding, a freaking fluke accident.”

            “He hadn’t taken his medicine,” Toby explained. “And he shouldn’t have been driving, but—”

            Opening his eyes wide and his mouth to match, Josh stared at the ground for a while.

            “All those people,” he mumbled.

            “Yeah.”

            “All those deaths and injuries, and headlines and news alerts, because he had an attack and lost control?”

            With a nod, Toby leaned forward, and for the next minute he and Josh simply sat with the turn of events. At some point Toby cleared his throat.

            “And that’s not bad enough,” Josh said, “but a hundred bucks says somebody in the next week is going to copycat what they thought was a psycho rampage. Without knowing it this guy opened the door.”

            “Yeah.”

            “God,” Josh said, rubbing his face with his palms.

            “Listen,” Toby said in a near whisper. “I have to go.”

            Initially focused on the right drawer of his desk, Josh looked up and noticed something in Toby’s expression.

            “You’re not talking . . . tonight.”

            Toby shook his head.

            “Or a few days or a week.”

            Instead of responding, Toby dropped his eyes and bit his lip.

            “Coming back,” he told Josh, now making full eye contact, “I had no idea how much I’d love it. I mean.” He paused to laugh at the absurdity. “Kicked down to the minor leagues? Third string? But I loved it, Josh. I loved every second of it.”

            “So then.” Josh looked for the answer inside his head, but he came up empty. “What are you talking about?”

            “Without the ego,” Toby said, “I could have stepped out from inside myself, I could have been vulnerable. You know, accepted it, and if I’d have learned that ten years ago I wouldn’t have lost Andy, or, you know, done that . . . thing.”

            “Ricky,” Josh said, nodding his understanding.

            “I can’t leave and come back next week,” Toby told him. “And Ricky’s been talking about buying an orchard, and there are other things, and it’s just . . . .”

            Josh laughed under his breath and looked up with just his eyes. “So, what, you’re going to pick apples?”

            “I don’t know if—Listen. If I leave, I leave. But I just wanted to tell you that . . . that you fighting for me? Me being able to come back? It meant everything.”

            Toby sucked in a breath, and with a cough he turned away as Josh simultaneously looked down, and they both breathed awkwardly through the moment.

            “What are friends for,” Josh finally replied. “Hey,” he added. “What’s with you and these women with names like . . .”

            “Ricky?”

            “Uh-huh.”

            “You know I dated a girl in college named Marc.”

            “Short for Marcella?”

            “Nope.” Toby sniffed and pulled himself out of the chair. “Just Marc,” he said as Josh followed him to his feet.  For a few seconds the two men fidgeted and shifted on their heels, until Toby stepped forward and embraced his best friend. And Josh did the same.

            “Hey,” Toby said, pulling back. “Isn’t tonight—”

            “Oh, shit.” Pulling his phone from his pocket, Josh mumbled something under his breath and grabbed his coat from the rack across the room.

            “Did you forget?”

            “Not . . . necessarily,” Josh replied. “You’ll be here tomorrow?”

            “In the morning,” Toby said. “And the president?”

            “We’ll see him together,” Josh told him. “You can . . . .”

            “Let myself out?”

            “Yeah. And Toby?”

            “Uh-huh.”

            “I think it’s a very smart decision.”

            As Josh sprinted from the room, Toby crossed over to the minifridge and pulled out a can of Fresca. He sipped his soda and grabbed the baseball from the shelf. And tossed it into the air.

Chapter Text

             

 

            Opening the door to his Capitol Hill townhouse, Josh scanned the already-lit room before fully entering.

            “Donna?”

            He hung up his coat and set his black backpack on the floor. Before he’d completely turned back to the hall, his eyes caught Donna standing in a silky pink robe, hands on hips. For a moment she looked as if she wanted to grab him by the ears and bang his head against the wall. But then her expression softened. Dropping her hands to her side, she walked the short span and draped her arms over his shoulders. She kissed his ear, then his cheek, then his lips.

            “Sorry I’m late,” he mumbled into her mouth.

            “I only got home a half hour ago,” she confessed. “Happy Anniversary,” she said with such warmth in her eyes, all Josh can do was stammer.  

            “Happy, happy anniversary,” he replied and widened his eyes and she broke free and pulled him along towards the living room, where a fire roared and two glasses of bubbling champagne waited on the coffee table next to the white plush loveseat.

            “Sit.”

            “But—”

            “Sit,” she ordered, and he obeyed, sinking down into the seat by the fire as Donna glided from the room, returning a few seconds later carrying a blue shoebox close to her chest.

            She sat next to him and placed the box on his lap.

            “Donna—”

            “Open it,” she said, and with one more desperate glance, he sighed and lifted the lid. Inside he found a single envelope concealing a pair of silver tickets.

            “These are . . . “

            “Spring training passes for the Mets,” she said. “I talked to some guys. These give us access to the first row, a few dinners with the players. Terry said you could even take batting practice a couple times.”

            “Terry? As in Terry Collins, the manager?”

            “Uh-huh.”

            Stunned, Josh looked down, and for a long time he simply stared at the box. “You said us.”

            “Yeah I’m going with you,” she said through a smile, “and you’re going teach me everything you know about baseball, like for instance, what the hell is a balk?”

            His stunned face morphing into one of great joy, Josh took Donna’s head in his hands and kissed her long and hard.

            “Hold on,” he said, and disengaged himself from her limbs and soon disappeared from the room.

            “Josh. Josh?” After twenty seconds Donna began to rise, but then he returned with a box twice the size of the shoe box she’d just given him. He pushed down her knees and set the box on her lap.

            “Open it,” he said, unable to contain the full-sized grin on his face. He eased in next to her on the loveseat while Donna, confused and reticent, eyed him skeptically before slowly removing the lid.

            Inside she found an eight-by-eight photo album four inches thick.

            As she hefted the tome, Josh moved the box to the floor.

            “What is this?” she asked and sat immobile as Josh flipped open to the first page. To a photograph of Donna and Sam Seaborne and C.J. lifting their hands in celebration.

            “This was the night after President Bartlett won reelection,” she said.  

            “This is when I knew that I was in love with you,” Josh confessed, his voice a bit shaky. “I mean, I knew I loved you way before that. But this is when I knew, you know, and when it became like, a nightmare to go into work every day and pretend I didn’t feel that way.”

            As he talked, Donna just stared at him, her face a strange mix of expressions somewhere between shock and compassion and sadness and joy.

            Instead of flipping to the next page, Donna reached for the middle where a blue paper protruded. She opened to photos of white sandy beaches, and Josh in yellow swim trunks, his skin the color of lobsters. “Oh my god,” she said, laughing and covering her mouth. “That’s right. You were so stupid.”

            “I put on sunblock,” Josh said defensively.

            “It was SPF fifteen, Josh. And you spent six hours in the sun building that sand castle.”

            “It was one hell of a sand castle though.”

            She turned the page and laughed at another image, and she kept going, page by page, tears beginning to slip down her face.

            “I can’t believe this,” she said, and swallowed. “I really, I really can’t believe this.”

            “I talked to a guy tonight,” Josh said “who reminded me about priorities. I mean, considering what I do, what we do, I guess it’s kind of selfish, but you are my priority. All those years and something could have happened to you. Something did happen and if I hadn’t—”

            “We were lucky,” she said, taking his hands in hers. “We’re also lucky because we realize we’re lucky.”

            She pulled him up off the couch.

            “Where are we going?”

            “To the rug by the fire.”

            “You know that’s overrated, right?” he said. “Like in the shower, or a swimming pool. It’s not actually that—”

            Donna took his head in her hands and looked into his eyes, and gently pulled him down towards the floor.