On the Road to the Real Thing - 19

***

Laborious sigh. "I can't even read it. Looks like chicken-scrawl."

She nods, and he imagines he can hear the movement in the air.

"Have you tried?" she asks. Her voice is quiet, as it always is.

"Tried what?" He knows he is stalling.

"Tried to read it." She does too, but she won't acknowledge it. She never does.

Pause. Time spent, gone. "No."

She watches him for a moment and nods. There is no agreement, no disagreement. Only a simple gesture. She has heard him.

He shifts in his seat and pulls a little at his collar. "I don't want to."

She nods again. "Why not?"

He shrugs, then straightens in his seat. His shoulders are straight, too straight, and this makes his chest push out. "I already know what it says. You know, thank you. Thank you, blah, blah, for saving my life, blah, blah, you're not quite the asshole I always thought you were, blah, blah."

He thinks the last part is funny, and he chuckles at his self-deprecating humor. But she does not smile. Her pen lightly traces something, traces out a word maybe, in her notebook. "Does it bother you that he did not like you?"

"No."

Pause. The air is still and regulated. It is neither too hot nor too cold.

"It wasn't his job to like me or not like me. He was just supposed to write. That was all he was there to do, it wasn't any big deal –"

"You mentioned that he rewrote your speech."

Shrugging motion. "Yeah. Yeah, he did."

"What did you think?"

"About what?" Stalling again. He resists the urge to bite the inside of his cheek.

"About his version of your speech."

Short breath out. "I don't know. I didn't see it. He didn't give it to me before the...before it happened." Another shrug. "He didn't like it anyway."

"Did that bother you? That he did not like his speech?"

"Why should it bother me? It was his speech, his writing. Not my problem if he didn't like it." The collar is stiff, and he cannot make it move to his liking.

"But he was supposed to give it to you, for you to read and for you to say. It might have been his words, but it would have been your speech to those who heard you speak."

Annoyed sigh. "Why do we have to talk about this? He was supposed to come with me to rewrite the goddamned speech, he did it, he didn't like it, we were in an accident, he almost died, he's doing better now. This," he waves his hand around, gesturing at the office, "isn't supposed to be about him, anyway. It's supposed to be about me."

"Do you want to drink?"

"Goddamnit." He blanches, then he loosens his tie. "Of course I do."

"Have you?"

So close. He almost did. Last night, he almost did. "No," strained voice, quiet, "not yet."

Another nod, still inscrutable. "Perhaps you should read his letter."

***

"Seth Gillette's office called about an hour ago. The Senator would like an appointment with you this evening."

I nod. It won't wait any longer. I can't make it wait any longer. "Fine. When am I done with everything?"

Janeane makes a show of flipping the pages in her calendar. "You're on conference call with the Fed chair at four-fifteen." She looks at me, her eyes crinkling in explanation. "We weren't sure how long that would take, so nothing firm was scheduled after that. But there was a tentative plan to go to the DeMott party to see Charlie Berman about the oil initiative."

I nod. Gillette? Or schmoozing? Gillette? Or schmoozing? Gillette? Or...

Well, neither sounds good. "The call shouldn't take too long," I tell her. "Have Gillette come in at five-thirty. Sound good?"

She makes a note of it in the calendar and nods. "Yes, sir."

There is the sound of material shifting against material. Carl. He looks at me from his chair, but he doesn't ask the question.

I shrug. "Maybe he wants to talk about the ozone layer. Or salmon. Maybe he wants to talk about proper river-routing for salmon."

He shakes his head. "You know what he wants to talk about."

The window is behind my back. The blinds are open. The sun is hot on my back and on the back of my neck.

"Yeah," I say.

He turns a little more in his seat. "I wouldn't mind talking about it myself." He looks at Janeane, and she nods. When she leaves, the door closes behind her. "You've had a while to think this over, John. What do you want to do?"

He's calling me John.

He only ever calls me John when...

"Yeah," I say again. "I'm about ready to talk about it with him. I just need a few more hours." I nod at him. I hope it is an encouraging gesture. "I'll tell you before I meet with him."

Carl stands up and faces me. "Listen," he starts, and his hand is in front of him, facing me, open-palmed. "Listen, John, you know that whatever you –"

"I'll tell you, Carl. I will."

He sighs, then gives me a short nod. "Yes, sir."

The door closes behind him, and I am alone.

The sun is hot on my back and on the back of my neck.

The inside of the top drawer of the desk has signatures in it. Vice-Presidents' signatures. The great ones, the bad ones, the ones that no one remembers. One day, my signature will be in it too.

One day, either a year from now, or five years from now.

I reach into the drawer, into the back, and pull out two white envelopes. They're both wrinkled. I've read them many times now, I know exactly what they say, I know exactly, and every word is burned onto my mind, burned and burning.

I know exactly what they say.

I open the envelope postmarked Ann Arbor.

The ink is spread across the page, uneven and rough. It is almost illegible.

...Peur Sin...

Dear Sir.

He'd be ashamed of the writing. It's shit. Words and letters are missing, accidently lost. I can see dots and marks - periods and commas, I think - but they come in the middle of sentences, and a few are in the middle of words.

...don/t knw what happned...cant think of...(thnk itsthe drugs)...don/t remmber...

They come from a pen that was held in the wrong hand. A hand that held the pen too tightly, a hand that was probably shaking too hard to hold the pen steady. And the hand of a man who was probably too hopped up on pain medication to proofread.

...keep thinking that...mayb...don/t knowhy...for savng my life...

Uncontrolled strokes from the pen, disjointed thoughts on the paper.

...thnk you...

Bartlet or Ziegler or Leo would have fired him for writing crap like this. Doesn't matter, though. Doesn't matter what they would have done. Because he would have resigned, did resign.

...sincerly...Samuel Searbrn...

The letter ends. The pen runs fainter as he signs his name, and the dark, overcompensating strokes grow distant and thin.

The sun is hot on my back and on the back of my neck.

***

"He didn't ask me to write back," he explains. It's really so simple. And why shouldn't it be? "He didn't ask me, and it wasn't like I didn't keep up with how he was doing. I mean, it wasn't like I didn't know what was going on with him."

He hates that his voice sounds so thin, so tenuous. He knows it makes him seem defensive, and that's not how he wishes to be.

"How did you keep up with how he was doing?"

"It was in the newspapers, on the TV. They had reports from the goddamned hospital every five minutes, practically."

She watches him, and there is a line, invisible, between her eyes and his. It almost hurts, but he has to look at her, has to keep looking at her. "How did you keep up?"

"I called the hospital," he says. His back is sore from sitting so stiff, so straight. "I called and asked."

She nods. It is that nod that doesn't mean anything except that she's heard him.

He takes a breath. "I knew when he woke up for the first time," he says, and his voice is still defensive, but less so now. "I knew when he started breathing on his own, I knew when they let him eat real food again, I knew when he could feel his legs, I knew when they told him it didn't matter," his voice cracks, and it's embarrassing, " and that he'd never walk right again."

"Do you feel responsible for him? For the accident?"

He knows she knows the answer to that question.

"No." Defiance is a good way to stall, he thinks.

She watches him.

"Why should I?" he asks. "I didn't ask him to come on the goddamned trip. It wasn't my fault that they sent him with me. I didn't ask for him to come along. It would have been just fine without him there. It was their stupidity, their arrogance that did that to him."

"Why do you think they sent him?"

He shrugs. "I don't know."

He knows she is waiting. She lets him do this, she lets him stall, but it never lasts very long.

"They thought that's what they had to do to send a message to...well," and he gestures weakly to finish the sentence. He doesn't like to use names here. "Sometimes you have to use...I mean, there are things that you have to do that..."

He can't finish the sentence. He is too preoccupied by his thoughts.

"Do you think they were using you?"

"Yes," he nods with assurance. "Of course they were."

Of course, of course, he thinks.

"How did that make you feel?"

"Angry," and he can say it without hesitation because he still feels it, it is still close to the surface of his body, of his mind. "I was angry."

"Did Mr. Seaborn know that?"

They don't use names here, not usually, but they use his. Seaborn's. There's no other way to identify him.

He shrugs. "Probably. I didn't make it a secret that I didn't want him there."

He sighs, feeling unhappy, unsettled, unsatisfied. He thinks that he can feel only in what he is not now. Un-happy. Un-settled. Un-satisfied. Negated conditions, a state of stifled existence, and he thinks he has felt like that for a long time.

He sighs again, and his gaze drops from her face to his knees. That thought makes him weary.

"Do you think he wanted to use you?" she asks.

"No." And there was the rub. "Not exactly. No." He looks at her. "He liked my speech."

"Your version."

"Yes."

She nods.

"When we got him out, and he was," and how could he say 'dying' when Seaborn hadn't? "When he was, uh, well, when he wasn't doing so good, you know?"

She nods.

He continues. "He was telling me that he didn't like how he'd rewritten my speech. And that I shouldn't do it. That I shouldn't do anything like it, like that."

She nods.

"But if I had been...if I had..." It is hard to explain. "If our positions had been reversed, I wouldn't have said that to me. If I was there to do the job that he was there to do, I wouldn't have said that. Do you get it?"

She nods.

"I wouldn't have said, 'Don't do it, it's wrong.' Because it's politics. It's what we do." He pauses. "I don't know why he said that to me."

She doesn't nod, doesn't say anything.

He swallows. "I wish he hadn't said that to me."

"Why not?"

"Because he made it sound like it was bad. Like it was bad for them to use me like that. But you know," his voice is tired, "I would have done it, too, if I were them. I mean, I've used people like that, too."

He can't quite bring himself to tell her that he had already been using them. The thing with Gillette...the thing that McGarry knew about, had known since before he'd come to his office on that rainy night almost six months ago, that thing that Josh and Ziegler probably had suspected, had to still suspect...he would have used the President's illness to keep them quiet. He was just as bad as they were, just as responsible.

"Do you think he was right?"

He is startled. "Who?"

"Mr. Seaborn. Do you think he was right? If they were using you, do you think it was a bad thing to do?"

He shakes his head. "No. No, it's what we have to do sometimes. But..." He lets the end of the sentence hang, drift away.

"But what?" She speaks at the same pace as before, not impatient.

"I'm not sure I'd do it anymore myself." And he thinks that's why he's avoided Seth Gillette for months, made him wait, stalled and hedged.

"Have you read his letter yet?"

"Yes," he answers. Lying is another good way to stall, he thinks.

She nods. "Perhaps you should read it again."

***

I know that the letter postmarked Arlington, Virginia is better. Certainly neater, and it's easier to read than the drivel from Ann Arbor. All the periods and commas are in the right places, even though they're few and far between.

...not sure if you received the letter I wrote to you from Michigan, but...

I look at my watch.

...don't even remember what I wrote really...to apologize, in case...hope I didn't write anything too strange...

I have to call the Fed chair in a little while.

... wanted you to know how grateful...

It's quiet in my office. I can hear Janeane typing outside.

... doctors tell me...probably...walk again...not the same as before, but...

Someone sent me an ugly orange card, an invitation. There was a party today, his first day back.

...alive, and it's thanks to you...

I hear there was cake. I don't like cake, it gets stuck in my teeth.

...don't know how to tell you...

I'll probably see him around the OEOB or the Hill. We'll smile, we'll nod at each other.

...grateful I am for what you did for me...thank you...

Maybe I'll wave, maybe he'll wave, it won't mean anything. He was only dead for ten minutes, I only breathed for him for ten minutes.

...sincerely...Samuel Seaborn...

It's getting late in the afternoon, and the Fed chair is going to call in a few minutes, but the sun is still out, still hot on my back and on the back of my neck.

The pen is gold-plated, and the paper is white and plain.

___

Dear Seaborn,

___

No. That's no good.

The paper feels smooth when I crumple it up. I watch my left hand launch it in a smooth arc over my desk.

Rim-shot.

___

Dear Mr. Seaborn,

___

Mr. Seaborn? Too formal. Hell, I had my lips on his for ten goddamned minutes, I think we're a little past formalities.

Whoosh. Nothing but net.

___

Dear Sam,

___

No. That's wrong, too.

Missed that one. Overextended.

___

Dear Samuel,

___

Better.

Now what?

___

Welcome back to work!

___

Welcome back to...

Right.

Three-point shot, that one.

___

Dear Samuel,

___

I can't write this. I'm not a writer. How the hell am I supposed to write to a writer?

Anyway, what the hell am I supposed to say? I'm glad you're alive, Seaborn. I was kind of worried that you might bite the big one, and then my ass would have really been fried, huh? Glad you managed to live, bucko. Oh, and sorry about the ribs and the broken back. Hope it wasn't too much trouble, it was just that the bus was on fire, and it seemed like a good idea to get you out and all. I mean, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Great, so far. I'm sure he'd understand. Of course he would. Of course, of course. And hey, why not continue, get to the grist of the matter:

And about that speech that you rewrote – thanks a lot for not giving it to me! Saved me the trouble of busting your chops. I mean, if you hadn't nearly died, I guess I would have done it, but since you were unconscious, and Leo McGarry was in a particularly generous mood (again, thanks to you!), I've gotta give credit where credit it due. Thanks!

Not half-bad. It's better than what he wrote me from Michigan. Of course, I'm completely sober. Crying shame, too.

Airball.

I stand up, walk a few steps, then kneel to pick it up and put it into the basket.

...don't let him make you kneel...

The phone rings. I stand up, walk back to the desk.

The sun will set soon. I have just a little over an hour now.

I pick up the phone.

"Yes...yes, hello, Bob..."

***

"Before I...before it happened," he starts, "the accident, I mean...before it happened, I was thinking about something."

She nods and waits for him to continue.

"I was thinking about making a change in my career."

She nods. "And now?"

He shrugs. "And now I'm not so sure."

"Career changes can often be tumultuous, uproarious events. Even frightening."

He snorts. "This would have been the mother of all uproars."

She doesn't ask why, and he is relieved, almost giddy.

"You know," he says, and he knows he sounds condescending, "people don't aim to be second-best."

"Ambition is hard to quantify, even harder to explain."

"Bullshit."

She raises an eyebrow at him. She'll play along.

He takes a breath. "No one aims to be Vice-anything."

"You didn't," she states.

"No," he agrees. "No, I sure as hell didn't."

"How do you feel about your job?"

He shrugs. "I didn't used to feel anything about it."

"And now?"

"It's gotten harder," he states, "and I don't know why."

"Sometimes trauma makes us rethink our goals, our priorities."

He rolls his eyes. "Well, of course it does."

She does not play along this time. She does not even smile, and for a moment he regrets his capriciousness.

"Why do you think your job has gotten harder for you?"

That line is back, the invisible one that runs between them. He'll be serious now. "I really don't know."

"Have you thought about it?" she asks.

"All the time," he admits, and the words pull out of him, "I can't stop thinking about it. Nothing is...nothing is what it was anymore. It's all changed, but..." His voice cracks a little at the end, and he stops. "But at the same," he starts again, "it hasn't changed. My job, I mean. It's just so much harder. And I can't stop thinking about it."

"Perhaps there is something that you feel you must still resolve."

He nods. "Yes. Maybe so."

"Perhaps," she says, and her voice is very steady, very calm, very calming, "perhaps you should write back to him."

He looks at her for a long moment, drawn out and stretched. "I don't know what to say to him," he tells her in a quiet voice. "I don't know what he wants me to say to him."

"Do you think it matters that you say what he wants?"

He thinks about that, and he lets his gaze wander around the office. That was the point of going to Michigan, to say what Seaborn wrote. But Seaborn didn't like what he wrote, and it didn't matter anyway. He didn't give Seaborn's speech. He gave his own, and he said what he wanted to say in the end.

It was what he had wanted to do in the beginning, before Leo McGarry had come to his office. It was what he had wanted to do during the trip, on the plane and in his hotel room. It was even what Seaborn wanted him to do, when Seaborn had been dying.

After another long moment, his gaze finally returns to her face. "I guess not. No. Not really." He pauses, his mouth still open. "But it does. It does matter. Yes. A little."

"How so?"

He shrugs. "I don't know."

She nods, and they sit in silence as he thinks, letting the time and the space stretch between them in the quiet, neutral air.

***

I hang up the phone. The call is done. It didn't take as long as I thought it would, as long as I hoped it would.

I'm thirsty now. Too much talking.

I look at my watch.

Only forty-five minutes left.

I stand up, walk to the long oak counter at the other end of the room. There's orange juice there, and I pour myself a glass.

The answer should be simple. Yes or no. And Gillette won't require a long explanation either way. Just a word.

...I'm in your debt...

I walk back. The glass is in my hand. It won't spill.

I've paid my dues to Bartlet. He beat me in '98, and he did it fair and square. He had good luck, and no one on his staff turned tail and ran.

Of course, of course.

...I'm in your debt...

I stand in front of the desk, in front of the two armchairs that face the desk. There's a table there, in between the two armchairs.

I look at the desk.

...I'm in your debt...

I set the glass on the table, the table in between the two armchairs, and I take a step forward, looking at the desk, looking hard.

The desk is big and old. The signatures in the drawer are worn, and they've made the wood splinter in some places.

...Dick was here, 1984...

No one knows where Dick is now. I don't want to be Dick.

...I'm in your debt...

I stand up. Forty minutes. He won't have left his office to come here yet.

...I'm in your debt...

The wood of the desk is hard, and it makes a low, hollow noise when I knock on it.

...I'm in your debt...

I start for the door. My shoulders are straight, and my steps are even. I'm almost there.

"Janeane," I call out. The door opens in front of me, and I'm almost there now. "Get me the number for –"

Goddamnit.

Seaborn.

What the hell is he –

He's looking at me. I look back. We stare at each other.

Not for long, not for too long.

"Hey, Seaborn," I say. He shouldn't be here now. Not now.

He doesn't answer, and I watch him take a step towards me. His left leg is slow, stiff.

"How're you?" I ask. This is the wrong time, a bad time for him to be here. "How are you doing?"

No answer. Another step.

He limps.

"You look better than the..." I don't know what to say. He shouldn't be here. "Well, better than the last time I saw you." And I feel chuckle rise out of my chest, out of my throat. Nervous reaction, I don't mean it, I don't mean to laugh, I don't mean –

Another step, and I do not look down, I do not look at his leg.

I think that was the wrong thing to say, a bad thing to say.

"I...I just wanted to..." It is hard to hear his voice.

I hear something else, though. Soft swish of carpet, a footstep.

"...I...uh..."

I look up, past him, behind him.

Well. What do you know.

Ziegler.

"...I thought that...I should..."

Serious face, serious and –

"...it's my first day back, and I thought that maybe..."

He shakes his head at me. Back and forth, a careful motion, calculated and slow, meant to be seen, meant to be understood. His eyes are dark.

I look at Seaborn. He's watching me, and his mouth is still open a little, but he's silent. His collar is loose, and he's pale, very pale, like he's cold. One hand wavers near the corner of Janeane's desk, frozen, and the other hand...

Well. Shit.

He stares at me, waiting. I watch his Adam's apple bob up and down as he swallows, as he swallows while he stares, while he's waiting.

"Come on in, Seaborn," I say, and the words are loud in my ears, like I'm giving a speech. "Take a load off." And I know I'm saying the words, and I think they're what he wants me to say.

Ziegler is shaking his head again, shaking his head not so slowly now, shaking his head at me. The words are not what Ziegler wants me to say.

Darker eyes now.

I watch my hand extend, grasp Seaborn's shoulder.

"Come on in, come on in," I say, and I pull Seaborn towards my office, "I've got time."

***

The phone is ringing, strident and high.

One ring. Then two.

...one...two...

I stay where I am.

"...should get that..."

He's saying something, but it's hard to hear him, hard to hear him because his voice is so quiet, and the phone is too loud.

The phone is still ringing.

...three...

"I can go. Sir." He takes a step, with his left leg, and I watch his body tilt with the effort. He's in front of me, almost facing me.

I look at him, shake my head.

...four...

I walk to one of the armchairs, one of the armchairs in front of my desk, the far one, the one on the left.

"No," I say.

...five...

"Janeane'll get it." I point to the other chair, the one across from mine, on the other side of the table in front of my desk.

The phone stops ringing.

He moves forward, slow and halting as he limps. It's a bad limp, his foot drags, and it's noticeable, it's very noticeable.

He sits, breathing out as he hefts the case onto his lap

"Janeane's your secretary?" he asks, and his voice is quiet.

He's not looking at me. His eyes stare at something below my face, somewhere near my shoulders.

"Yes," I answer. The gash on his head, the one that bled all over Thomson's hands, and all over my hands, the one that wouldn't stop bleeding, it's healed now, and I can't even see a scar.

He nods. It's a slow movement, gives him time to think. "She was there?" he asks. "In Michigan?"

I watch a fast flush rise up his neck, watch him realize the emptiness of the question. Of course she was there, he must be thinking. Of course, of course.

"Yes," I answer, and I say it slowly, my eyes on his face, not on the red that hovers below it. "She was."

It's in his lap, and he holds the handle with one hand, tight. The other hand is curled near the bottom of the case, keeping it from slipping off his legs.

I think I would rather have written back to him. I should have just written back to him, I should have just done that, except I thought it go differently, I thought it would be different...

...thought it would be different...

I spy my glass of juice on the table. I need some time too.

I pick it up and take a drink. It's too sweet, and it almost makes my tongue curl. I put the glass back down on the table.

"Well," I say. I shouldn't have asked him in, it was wrong, and it was stupid. Should have written back, if I had written back, he wouldn't have come here, and Ziegler wouldn't be here, and I wouldn't have to deal with all this, not now, not when it's getting...

He's staring at my tie, I think. Or my lapel. I can't tell. He's pale, except for the red on his neck, and he's staring.

I should say something. Something, anything, just something to...

(Concentrate!)

Concentrate.

"How are you?" I ask, and now I feel embarrassed too. Because here he is, right in front of me, and of course I can see how he –

"Much better," he answers, and it's a dull sound, wound up and tinny. Automated. "I'm much better."

He's a bad liar. I wonder if he knows that. He must know that.

"Good," I say, and I think that maybe I am too. Sometimes.

This was the wrong time for him to come here. I shouldn't have let him in, I shouldn't have asked him to come in, I shouldn't have done that with Ziegler.

I can feel my eyes moving down, moving down, and I don't want them to, so I stare at the glass of juice for just a moment, not too long. I feel my eyes shift to the side, to the right, to my right, just a little, and I don't want them to, I don't want to see his –

It's in his lap, and he's holding on to it hard.

I already know the answer to this question too, but it doesn't matter. There's nothing else to say, and maybe I'm supposed to ask, maybe that's why he's here. It must be why he's here, it's probably why he's here, and if I had just written back, then I wouldn't have to deal with –

(Concentrate!)

Concentrate.

I take a breath, let it out, and point. "What's that?"

"Laptop." The word comes out of his mouth, and there is no connection between it and the look on his face.

He looks pale, except for the red on his neck. He looks bad.

I nod. "Oh," I say, "new?" I need to think of some questions that I don't know the answers to, I need to think, and this was the wrong time for him to come here, the wrong time.

There's a knock on the door, light. I look up. Janeane is peeking in. "What?" I ask.

She makes that sign with her hand, the one that means 'phone,' and then she mouths something at me, but her eyes stay to the side, watching something outside, in the office.

I don't understand what she's saying, and she looks at me now. Her eyes stay on my face. She mouths the words again.

Leo. Line. Two.

I nod at her. The door shuts.

I stand up. Seaborn is sitting still. He's hunched over a bit, the weight of the laptop making his shoulders go round.

"I have to take this call," I tell him. "It won't take long. You stay here, okay?"

He nods, and the movement is jerky, uneven, like his limp.

I walk to the desk and pick up the receiver. I keep my eyes on him. "Hello."

"Is Sam there?" Leo's voice is muted over the line.

"Yeah," I say. Seaborn is sitting still, not moving at all. He faces the chair where I was sitting, and he's not moving, not at all.

"Is he okay?" Leo asks.

I shrug, even though Leo can't see me. "Sure," I answer. The flush hasn't gone away from Seaborn's neck and face, and I know I'm lying right now.

"Does he have his laptop with him?"

I nod, and the receiver moves up and down with my head. "Got it right here." The edges of the handle are strained, pulled tight from the case.

"I think he knows what's on it," Leo explains, and his voice buzzes in my ear. "I think he's seen the letter. He's confused, I think."

"Maybe so," I say. I think he's more than confused, but I don't know Seaborn that well. I don't know what Seaborn knows, and I don't know how he feels. I don't even know why he's here.

The sun is setting outside. The light comes into the room, tilted through the windows, and it makes blocks of dark shade on the walls, on the carpet, and on my desk.

"Is Toby there?" The buzz scratches in my ear, vibrating at a low pitch.

"Yes."

"Is he with you and Sam?"

"No."

"Well, let him in," Leo says. His voice is thin now, attenuated. "Let him in, and he'll take Sam off your hands, okay? Toby can bring him back here, and I'll talk to him, no big deal."

The buzz scratches in short, clipped words. He's trying to placate me, persuade me.

"I think it's a big deal." I don't need to be placated or persuaded.

"Don't worry about it," he says, and he runs over my response, runs it over as if I am not talking. "I'll talk to him and get this settled."

I can see Seaborn's hands, gripping the handle, curled around the bottom of the case. His knuckles are white.

"How do you think you're going to do that?" I ask.

"I'll talk to him," he insists. His voice is firm. "Have Toby come in, and he'll get –"

"I don't think that would be a very good idea, actually," I cut him off.

It's getting late. It's going to get dark outside soon, and then it will get dim in here, in my office.

"Well, it doesn't really matter what you think about this." His voice stays at the same volume, but he is impatient now. The buzz increases. "I'm telling you to –"

"I don't think you get to do that anymore." My voice is steady, patient, and it's been four years. Four years of waiting, four years of stalling, of hedging, and I've wanted to say that for four years.

"For fuck's sake, John. Now is when you're going to do this? Now?" His voice finally gets louder, and the buzz is fast now. "You want to go up against me, fine. You want to go up against Jed Bartlet? That's fine. But don't use Sam to do it."

Seaborn's elbow is locked, his arm extending so that he can grip the bottom of the case.

I don't respond to Leo.

"What do you want to say to him, John?" Quiet voice now, quiet in sound and tone. "Thanks for giving you what you wanted? Thanks for almost dying? Thanks for giving you something to use to make a deal?"

I don't answer, and I can hear the buzz gathering, fortifying.

"What do you think you're going to say to him?" The buzz is fast, high. "You think you should be the one to talk to him? You think you're going to score any points with anyone by telling him that he was pissed as hell at his friends? That his friends messed up? That his friends used him? You think when you tell him that he's not going to look at you and see that you do that too? You think he's gonna want you to be his new friend? You think he's going to think you're any different? You're not, John. You're not at all."

It's going to get dark outside soon, and I don't know what time it is now. It can't be that late.

"No," I agree with him. "I'm not."

Seaborn sits still.

"Then what do you want to say to him? What the hell do you think you're going to say to him? What do you think you can –"

"None of your goddamned business," I say. The buzz is in my voice now, I can hear it.

Seaborn is sitting still on the edge of the chair.

It's getting late.

"John –"

I hang up.

It's getting late.

I walk back to the chair and sit, facing Seaborn. I swallow, and I try to swallow the buzz. "What'd you come here for, Seaborn?" I ask. The buzz is gone, and my voice is quiet and smooth.

He's not looking at me. He's looking at something below my face, maybe my tie. "You can call me Sam."

It's hard to hear him, so I lean over and rest my elbows on my knees.

There's silence for a moment, just the sound of breathing in the room. "Was that Toby?" he asks, and his eyes narrow at that spot below my face. "On the phone? Was that Toby?"

I shake my head. I can see the door from here, and I can see the shadows that slide in under the crack of the door. "No."

"Josh?" he asks, and his voice is unsteady, rough.

The shadows move, shifting to the left. Wrong direction. Nathan is moving outside, moving a few steps to the left.

I shake my head. "No."

The shadow shifts the left again, in the crack under the door. The door is dark oak, thick and tall. I can't hear anything beyond it.

It's getting late.

"What'd do you come here for, Seaborn?" I repeat.

He swallows. "I, uh...I came because...I wanted..." He pauses, needing time to think. "Because I wanted to...say...thank you."

He's lying. I nod anyway. "Oh."

I let that be for a minute, and I watch him continue to stare at my tie or my lapel, or whatever he's looking at. Not my face, not my eyes, but below, under.

"What'd do you come here for, Seaborn?" The words are out of my mouth, again.

He makes a noise, almost a laugh, but too quiet, too hoarse. "I don't know," he says.

I tap my hand on my leg, waiting.

He scoots closer to the edge of the chair, makes ready to stand. "I'm sorry," he says. "I shouldn't have come here, I think, and –"

"Sit down," I tell him, and I wish I could pull words back, not have said them, take them back.

He's right. He shouldn't have come here. Not now, now was the wrong time for him to come here, and why the hell didn't I just write him a simple note?

(Concentrate!)

"You remember anything?" I ask. "About the accident, I mean."

He shakes his head. "Not much. No." The automated quality to his voice is back.

"Nothing?"

He shrugs, a quick up and then dropping down. "Some. I don't know."

He looks bad. I hold back a sigh. "You seen anyone?"

"What do you mean?" he asks, and it's clear he doesn't understand what I'm asking.

It's getting late.

I feel my hand raise, gesture. "You know," I start, and I shouldn't be the one asking this, "a psychologist or someone. Someone you can work all this out with. Someone who could maybe, you know, help you to remember." Maybe he doesn't want to, though. Maybe it's better that he doesn't. "Or to...not remember."

I watch the laptop slip down his lap a few inches. He hoists it back up. "I spoke with someone at the hospital in Michigan." He concentrates on the spot below my eyes, under my face. His brows are pushed together. "I didn't remember anything then. There wasn't much to talk about."

There's something to talk about now. "And no one since then?" I ask.

"No," he says. "I started getting better, much better, and I was fine. I'm fine," and he sounds insistent, "I'm much better now."

I look at him. His insistence is unconvincing, shallow and tenuous. "You think so?"

He doesn't respond.

"You remember something now." I don't say it like a question.

He doesn't respond.

"You want to know what happened?" I ask. I shouldn't, though. I shouldn't be doing this. This should not be the thing that I do. It shouldn't be my responsibility.

He doesn't respond.

"Thomson and I found you in the bus," I start. I watch his brows push closer together. He's confused. "One of the guys outside," I explain. "He and I found you. After the bus crashed, we found you."

He doesn't respond.

I take a breath, slow. "Nathan," I start again, "that's the fellow right outside the door, he spotted you from the outside. Helped direct us to you."

His mouth opens a little. "Oh."

"You were unconscious when we found you," I continue, "and it was too dark to see, and so I couldn't tell if you were bleeding or what. Couldn't tell what was wrong."

Still can't tell, and he's pale, very pale, staring at that spot below my face.

"When we got you outside," I say, and I remember, I remember what it was like, "then we could see. You were hurt bad, and then you woke up. You were real confused for a bit."

He nods. He's heard me.

I can feel the sun hitting my shoulder, hot and sharp. It's getting late. "You thought I was Ziegler. You kept calling me Toby."

He doesn't say anything.

I shrug, feel the need to relieve the tension. "That was a real disheartening moment for me." I almost laugh, I almost chuckle again, like I did outside, and I wait for him to respond, wait for the moment to pass, but it doesn't.

"Well," he says. He doesn't smile, doesn't respond.

"After a while, though," I continue, and now the moment is stretching, too long, too long, "you stopped calling me Toby, and you started talking sense. Some. That was better." I watch him, waiting. Nothing, no reaction, just starting at that spot below my face. "Never would have pegged you for hockey, though."

He blinks. "We talked about hockey?"

Finally. I nod. "Sure. Hockey, your affair with Leo's daughter, the weather, and –"

"What about Mallory?" he asks, and his voice is more audible in his surprise.

I snap my fingers, listen to the dull sound of my fingers rubbing together. "That's right," I lie. "That's her name."

He blinks again. I watch him "What're you here for, Seaborn?"

No answer. The laptop slips another inch, and he catches it.

I try again, even smile. "We talked about work," I say.

He takes a breath. "What about work?"

"What you liked about it." My throat feels dry. I reach for the glass. "What you didn't like about it."

I hold the glass on my knee, waiting.

He doesn't respond.

I don't what to do, and it's getting late. It's getting late.

(Concentrate!)

"So," I let out. "How's it been, being back at work?"

His mouth opens, closes, opens again. "Fine."

Lying again. I watch him. "You're a crapass liar, Seaborn."

He nods, and his head lifts up a little, stays up, just below eye-level. He looks stricken, saddened. "Yes," he agrees, "I am."

It's getting late.

Concentrate.

"What're you here for, Seaborn?" My voice is quiet, smooth.

"I was in Michigan," he says, "with you. To do a drop-in."

He states it, but his voice rises at the end, only a little, and it sounds like a question.

"Yes," I answer. I have to. "Yes, you were."

"Did I do it?" he asks. It is hard to hear him.

"Not really," I say.

He is confused again. The red is deeper for a second. Embarrassed again too. "Not really?"

I shrug. I wonder what Josh told him. I know what Josh didn't tell him. "You didn't do a drop-in. You rewrote my speech."

Short nod, and the flush fades a little, by a degree. "Oh."

"But you didn't like it much," I tell him. "You told me it was bad."

Another short nod, and his head lifts another inch. "Oh."

I shrug. I wonder what I can tell him. "Trusted your judgement," I say, and part of it is true. I think part of it is true. "Did my own speech."

Another nod, another inch. "Oh."

"What're you here for, Seaborn?" I ask.

He's not quite looking at me. "Did we talk about anything else?"

"Anything else?"

"Anything else I wrote?" he clarifies. His knuckles are white.

"Yes," I answer. I point at the case on his lap. "You don't have to worry about it, Seaborn," I say. "I didn't tell anybody."

The contrast between the gray-white on his face and the red on his neck is uncomfortable, choked.

"I was going to, uh..." His voice fades off, and he stares at that spot below my face.

There's silence, and I know that it doesn't matter what Josh told him, doesn't matter what Ziegler doesn't want me to tell him, doesn't matter what Leo thinks he should be told. He came to me, and this is the wrong time, a bad time, but he came to me.

It's getting late.

"Friends have to be honest with each other," I say. I look at my desk, at the clock on my desk. "What a crock."

"Yes," he agrees. "Yes, it is."

Concentrate. "What're you here for, Seaborn?"

He looks up at me. "Toby and Josh and Leo lied to me," he reports in a fast, low voice, almost to fast to understand, "they lied to me when I asked why I was there. Josh told me it was because I had to write an important speech, and -"

"Friends lie to each other, Seaborn," I interrupt. The desk is dark against the window. It's getting late. "It's what we do." I turn my head from the desk, from the clock, and look at him. "You think Josh wanted to tell you that you were there to do a drop-in that you thought was a bad idea? You think he wanted to remind you about that when you couldn't even go the john on your own?"

He is adamant. "He should have told me. Toby should have told me. Leo...someone should have told me."

I shrug. "You think that would have helped to walk again? You think that would have been a big motivator, Seaborn?"

I sound sarcastic, and that's probably wrong, probably the wrong thing to do, but now is the wrong time to be talking about this, it was the wrong time for him to come here, and it's getting late.

"I don't," he says, and I can see lines around his eyes. His voice is louder now, buzzing. "I don't walk. I limp. I'll never –"

"Jesus H. Christ, Seaborn," I say over his voice, "you were dead for ten fucking minutes! You know how long that is?" I stand up. He shouldn't have come to me, I'm the wrong person for him to talk to. It's getting late. "It's a goddamned long time. You're alive. You can breathe on your own, you can move around on your own, you can work, you can talk, and you're complaining?"

"I wrote a letter of resignation," he says, and he swallows the crack in his voice. "I was going to resign."

"No," I tell him, "you weren't."

"How do you know?" he asks, and his voice is louder, a little louder.

I roll my eyes, see the ceiling, the wall, the door, the crack under the door. "We talked about it," I say, and I have to concentrate, I have to concentrate so that I don't think about it, what he looked like when we talked about it, and how I was... This was the wrong time for him to come here. "Jesus, you really don't remember a damned thing, do you?"

"Why wasn't I going to resign?" he asks, and his voice is a little louder.

"Because you like what you do, Seaborn. Because you like working here. Because you're just arrogant enough to think that you should, that no one else will do as good a job as you, that you're going to make a difference."

He watches me.

(Concentrate!)

"And you're right." I need to take a breath. "Toby and Josh and Leo...you knew they lied to you, you got yourself into a huff about it, but when you were bleeding all over the ground, you asked me not to tell them about that goddamned letter. You knew it was a mistake."

He sits still, and he watches me.

Concentrate.

"They're your friends, Seaborn. Friends lie to each other. Friends lie to each other, sometimes. Friends can't always be honest with each other, Seaborn. Sometimes it's not the best way to do things. Sometimes you're a better friend if you lie. Sometimes."

"I can't trust them," he says, and his voice rises again at the end, only a little.

I shake my head. "Of course you can. You can trust them to do what they think is best for you. And they did, Seaborn. They didn't tell you about the drop in because that would have been bad for you. And you didn't tell them that you wrote a bad speech, or that you were mad at them, or that you wrote letter of resignation because that would have been bad for them."

He looks up at me. "I wasn't going to resign?"

It is easier to hear him now.

I shake my head. "No."

"How do I know you're telling the truth?" he asks. He's looking at me now, and he has to look up to see me.

I shrug. It's easy. "I'm not your friend, Seaborn."

He looks at me, and then he blinks. He's surprised. "No," he says, and he takes a breath. "No, you're not."

I watch him for a moment, watch him watch me.

It's getting late.

(Concentrate.)

"You should see someone, Seaborn," I suggest. Quiet voice again.

He nods. He's heard me, and he agrees. "Yeah."

"Trauma," I say to him, and my feet want to move, "can make us rethink our priorities." My hand is tapping against my leg.

"Yes," he answers, and he looks down again, his gaze shifting to the chair where I was sitting. "Yes, it can."

I look out the window. The sun is lower.

It's getting late.

I walk to my desk. Gold-plated pen, and plain, white paper. I scribble down a name, a number, and hold it out to him.

He takes the paper, looks at that spot below my face again.

I nod at him. "If you call her, she'll give you the name of someone you can talk to, I think."

He doesn't respond.

"You should call."

He looks up. "I will."

I believe him, and I can feel the sun, cooler now, on my back and on the back of my neck.

"It's getting late," I say to him.

"Yeah." He uncurls his right hand from the case. He grips the arm of the chair and maneuvers himself up.

I walk around my desk, follow him as he walks to the door. He moves slowly. His left shoulder is slumped from the weight of the case he holds.

"Seaborn." We're almost to the door.

He shifts a little, turns his head to look at me.

I point at the case. "If you want, you can leave that here," I offer. "If you want."

He looks down, considers it.

"It's broken," he says.

I shrug. "You should get a new one."

"Yeah," and he lifts his arm, lifts it to me.

I take it, and I walk back to my desk. I place it next to the chair, out of sight.

He takes another step towards the door. He moves slowly. It's not hard to catch up to him.

Another step, and he stops. He looks at me. "Thank you."

I nod.

One more step.

The door opens.

***

Part 20

 

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