Title: Mercy on Their Souls

Author: Tabitha K. Muir

Email: TabithaKMuir@aol.com

 

Rating: R: Romance, angst, harrowing situations

Disclaimer: The West Wing television series and its characters are the property of Aaron Sorkin and NBC. The author makes no claim of ownership and is using them sorely for entertainment purposes. No infringement or monetary gain is implied or intended.

Pairing: CJ/Josh

Spoilers: Anything up through the US 2nd season

Archive: Okay to archive, just let me know

Summary: Josh helps CJ find answers after a life-changing event and together they realize that it's okay to be a victim of survival.

Note: The airplane crash depicted in this story is based on a true event.

*****

Chapter One:

"CJ, this is for you," Josh said, handing over a sealed white envelope. "You can't open it though," he hastily added.

"Josh, you came all the way over here in the middle of the night just to give me something I can't open?"

She tilted her head to one side in curious amusement, smiling slightly. However the easy camaraderie between them didn't last long. He could almost detect the exact moment when it crossed over into genuine concern. It seemed as if everyone of late was overly concerned with the status of his well being. He couldn't really blame them; not after all the horrible stuff that had happened over the holidays. He knew CJ was no different in this regard. She just wasn't as adept at hiding it from him than say Toby or Sam, or the President himself for that matter. The thing about CJ was she had these amazingly expressive eyes, and even as he watched they shifted from one shade of blue right into another. She was simply unable to offer sentiment halfway because all that she was went into it without conscious thought on her part. Some might want to label that as 'wearing your heart on your sleeve' but Josh preferred to view it as having the gift of a child's faith.

"CJ?" he asked, gesturing between his chest and the partly opened door. "You think maybe I could come in?" This wasn't a conversation he intended to have standing out here in the public hallway of her apartment building.

"Of course Josh, I'm sorry," she apologized. "Come in," she said pushing away from the door to allow him entry into her home. As he passed the threshold he caught the scent of fresh apricots and figured she'd probably just washed her hair. Or maybe it was peach marmalade instead. Although even with his limited acquaintance of women's hair care products, he was pretty sure there wasn't much demand for marmalade flavored shampoo. Whatever it was though it smelled good and he liked it.

"Josh?"

He turned around somewhat embarrassed. While he had been standing there like an idiot stupidly ruminating about marmalade and apricots, CJ had been waiting for an explanation for his unannounced visit. The truth was though he was suddenly at a loss to give her one. It had seemed like a brilliant enough idea a couple of hours ago, but now that he was actually here he was beginning to wonder. What the hell had he been thinking anyway? She continued to wait patiently, while absently fiddling with the long sash to her robe which was tied at the waist. It was a lavender terry cloth he noticed, floor length, with lots of those fluffy bumpy things here and there, like you'd get from repeated washings and many years of faithful service.

"Do you want to sit down?" CJ finally asked with a sigh, breaking the silence. Astute enough to recognize that someone had to take charge of the conversation if they were ever going to get anywhere. Josh merely nodded his head like the big mute goof he had devolved into and followed her lead into the living room. She took a seat at one end of a large comfortable-looking beige couch, and even though there was plenty of room for him to sit next to her, he instead chose the neutrality of a nearby lazy boy chair. Unfortunately it was one of those new age hybrid kind, which went against every known logistic of nature and gravity by possessing the ability to gyrate in every direction simultaneously. And worse, this one had a hair-trigger. Josh labored hard in order to quell its unnatural tendencies and even then he was terrified to move. CJ, after making a noble attempt not to laugh, did anyway. He relaxed his death grip on the arm rests just long enough to appear mortified, feeling the rise of color to his cheeks. She had probably been waiting for just such an opportunity as payback ever since that whole 'secret plan to fight inflation' fiasco. He closed his eyes wondering where he had lost control, or if in fact he had ever really had it in the first place. This certainly wasn't playing out the way he had hoped.

"Josh?" Only his eyebrows rose in answer. "Get over here," she ordered, deciding to take pity on him as she patted the spot next to her. It took him another full minute of careful syncopation before he risked a daring dismount from the bowels of the opponent chair. CJ just watched, shaking her head quietly at his performance. When he was finally freed from his upholstered prison she reached up and tugged on his arm gently, pulling him down to sit with her on the couch. "So tell me old pal of mine," she said, still holding on to his arm comfortably. "What is this all about anyway?" Josh's mother, if she were here, would happily and in excruciating detail explain that he was a pacer by birth, and apparently this annoying habit was nothing new to CJ either. He had nearly made it upright before being jerked back unceremoniously by the tether of his captive arm. CJ was no lightweight when it came to coworker control. "Just sit here and talk to me Josh," she scolded. "I won't bite." He make a real effort to relax; while having to hold back a tidal wave of wisecrack replies that threatened to escape at the prospect of such a cavernous 'I won't bite' opening. He concentrated on slowing his heart rate by taking a deep breath, before he ended up fainting, right here, right now. Oh and wouldn't the ramifications of that just be a press nightmare to behold? "Josh." CJ had just about reached the limit of her patience.

"Okay, but you have to promise not to interrupt."

"Then I should be expecting your usual level of ineptitude?"

"Yes. No. CJ!" She grinned, but nodded her agreement to further silence. "I'll be needing this back first," he said, pulling his hand from hers.

"Since when do you require your arm as a visual aid?"

"CJ," he groaned. She had the unmitigated chutzpah to feign ignorance as she mimed locking her lips to further disruption and throwing away the key.

"Yeah. Well, keep quiet this time," he said, mustering forth what was at best an idle threat.

CJ's eyelashes--her eyelashes of all things--were currently telegraphing a directive for him to go someplace that he was guessing would not be at all pleasant. And damned if he wasn't ready to pack his bags and sell his soul wholesale in trepidation. The woman was just plain unnerving at times and this was absolutely one of them. Josh ran shaky hands through the curls of his sandy brown hair, feeling the cold flop sweat swan diving down the curve of his neck. Oh yeah, he was flustered now and unable to remember what it was he had wanted to say. It was impossible what with having to look at CJ. Just sitting there and being all CJ like she was doing. It was throwing him off his game, just like Leo and those 'beat the clock' memo summations he enjoyed inflicting on them so much. He had pretty much decided to call it quits and walk away, except he happened to glance over at CJ at the same moment. She wasn't looking at him or even his way; instead she was studying the envelope he had given her earlier, like it might hold all the secrets of the universe inside. She maintained a wistful expression as she ran slender fingertips along its edges and tapped a corner against her knee. She would never open it though. He was positive of this. She wanted to, of course she did, but she wouldn't, simply because he had asked her not to, as a friend. And it was this friendship that she felt for him and he for her which became the catalyst he so desperately needed.

"When my father died," he began without further preamble, "after the funeral and the flowers and the sympathy. When it was just family again and we had to start going through his possessions, we began finding these little index cards." His voice had taken on a serious note and CJ turned to offer him her undivided attention. No more jokes now. "They were all over the place, in his coat pockets, in his car, in his desk, everywhere. I even found one in the bathroom underneath the sink," he said chuckling at the memory. "Every card had a list on it printed out and numbered in my Dad's handwriting. There were lists of books and movies, of music, of places and things, everything you could imagine. There are some that we still haven't exactly figured out yet. At the time I thought it was actually kind of cute. Some old guy idiosyncrasy that I'm probably doomed to inherit in my golden years. I believed it was just some endearing way he had developed to keep track of stuff he had read or seen, or whatever. I forgot all about them later on." He stood up quickly, startling her as he launched into pacing mode. This time she let him go without a word of protest. "I forgot about them that is until after the shooting, when I was left with all this recuperating time and nothing else to do but think. That's when it hit me CJ. What if those lists weren't what we originally thought they were? What if they weren't lists of things he had done, but instead were lists of things he still wanted to do?" He stopped pacing and stared directly into her eyes with something akin to panic in his voice. "My God, what if my father was living his whole life under the assumption that he would be around long enough to finish all those things he had taken the trouble to write down? Only he got it wrong, terribly wrong, which means that now those lists only represent all the things he never got the chance to experience. Do you understand how incredibly sad that is, knowing he had hoped to finish all those things, but now never will? I have to tell you CJ; it nearly drove me insane. I began thinking that if I could just complete some of the items myself, in his name, then it might make a difference somehow. Don't ask me how. It just made sense at the time. I was obsessed. Reading all the books on the book list and watching all the movies on the movie list. Some of the others were tougher to carry out, not to mention difficult to decipher. If it's at all possible his handwriting was even worse than Donna's." He smiled at her warily. "CJ, I swear, it looked like physics on the card, but truthfully it could have been psychics."

"You're kidding," she said astonished, forgetting her vow of silence. "Then that whole Cal Tech thing was..."

"All because of my Dad. Yes." She said nothing more, only smiled at him after a moment. Josh relaxed visibly, taking a deep break as he finally sat back down on the couch again. They both lapsed into a companionable quiet.

"Josh?" CJ ventured after awhile.

"Yeah?"

"You don't really believe that doing all those things made up for what your father missed, do you?"

"No, not really."

"Were you hoping maybe that it might help you? By missing him a little bit less?"

"Yeah."

"It didn't help much though, did it?"

"No. It didn't."

"Josh," she said, wrapping her hand around his. "You do know that you were the best son he could possibly have had, don't you?"

"We could all stand to be better sons and daughters, CJ," he answered quietly, regret evident in every word.

"No," she said, shaking her head slowly. "I'm not sure that's true, at least not in your case."

"I appreciate that CJ."

"Josh? Do you mind if I ask you something else?"

"You're wondering why I showed up on your doorstep tonight?"

"Well yeah, now that you mention it."

"I'm sorry, but I can't answer that question."

"You can't?"

"Nope. At least not right now, and not so much in spoken words."

She glanced down pointedly at the sealed white envelope still cradled in her lap. "Then I'm guessing that this letter here might help to explain it for you?"

"Yeah. I'm hoping so. But CJ, that's not a letter."

"It's not?" Her eyebrows rose in confusion.

"No. It's a list."

"A list. I see. Then would this be a list of things that you've already done?"

"No," said Josh softly. "But it might be a list of things that I'm really hoping to do." And with this he slowly lifted their clasped hands to his lips and kissed the back of her palm lightly. She gasped in quiet surprise at his actions, but made no move to remove her hand from his.

"Josh, this list of things that you're really hoping to do," she paused, swallowing hard before continuing, "does it pertain to me in some way?"

"CJ," he nodded, "this list of things that I'm really hoping to do pertains to you in every way."

*****

Chapter Two:

You could have dropped a pin and heard the recoil as it hit the carpeted floor as it was all of a sudden that kind of noiseless in CJ's apartment. Josh still held onto her hand and she his, but they were staring at one another like it was the first time they had ever met.

"Josh?"

"Yeah?"

"I want to know why you were holding Donna's underwear that day?" It wasn't exactly the kind of reaction he had been anticipating but at least she hadn't thrown him out, so maybe it was a good sign after all.

"How do you know it was Donna's underwear that I was holding?"

"Her name was sewn into the waistband."

"You couldn't possibly have seen that from..."

"I have been blessed with the unique ability to read upside down. It's even in my resume. Now answer my question."

"And that question was?"

"Why were you holding Donna's underwear?"

"CJ, are you quite certain that's the only question you want to ask me right now?"

"Josh."

"I was holding Donna's underwear because they had just been delivered by a messenger."

"I see."

"You do?"

"No."

"CJ, you know Sam was there too, so why aren't you curious as to his relationship with Donna's underwear?"

"Sam isn't here now and he wasn't the one clutching them when I passed by and besides..."

"I wasn't clutching them."

"And besides..."

"Besides?" Josh could tell that CJ was starting to get a bit disconcerted. She was showing it by doing that cute thing she did sometimes with her mouth, where she scrunches it over to the side, and her nose gets twitched up in the process. He loved it when she did that.

"Besides," she continued as a blush began its resolute creep forward. "The nature of Sam and Donna's underwear relationship does not currently interest me."

"What underwear relationship does currently interest you?"

"Josh."

"CJ, there is not now nor has there ever been anything going on between Donna and myself."

"Are you sure she feels the same way?"

"I'd much rather know how you feel."

"Josh."

"CJ, I love Donna in the way that a brother loves his sister, and that's as far as it goes. She knows this, trust me." CJ stood up abruptly, pulling her hand from his and walking over to stand in front of the window. It was a large picture window, which boasted an impressive view of the DC night skyline filtering in through a set of gauzy curtains. She first looked at the unopened white envelope and then slipped it into her robe pocket. After a moment, Josh followed and stood behind her, allowing a discreet distance to remain between them. The moon was nearly full tonight and it shone luminously revealing the complicated tangle of their silhouettes against the far wall.

"CJ?" He spoke to her back and she didn't bother to turn around.

"Yes?"

"You and Danny?"

"That's over," she stated in no uncertain terms. "Actually it never even got started in the first place." She shrugged her shoulders tiredly.

"I heard about the editor's position. He was a fool to turn it down."

"It would have boosted his career tremendously."

"That's not what I meant."

"I know what you meant."

"Do you?" he asked, reaching out to lightly trace his fingertips along her shoulder blades. She shivered at his touch; turning around to face him but with her head still lowered. "Do you?" he asked again, lifting her chin to bring her face level with his own. He was surprised to discover that she was crying. A trail of strangely silent tears whose presence was made known only by the tracks left behind along her cheeks as they fell. "CJ," he marveled, moving close to gather her up into his arms. "Tell me why you're crying?" he whispered next to her ear, as she buried her face in his neck.

"I'm really scared here," she finally admitted, bringing her arms up and hesitantly linking them around his waist.

"Good," he said, kissing her forehead. "Because so am I."

"I wasn't expecting this, Josh."

"I know. I'm sorry it took me so long to tell you."

"When did you first suspect...something?"

"It was before we got elected."

"No," she said pulling away enough to get a good look at his eyes, obviously doubting the validity of his confession.

"Yes," he insisted as he brushed away her tears. "It's true. But so many things were happening then, what with Bartlet and the campaign, and my Dad. Then later on it always seemed as if the timing was lousy on my part. I really thought that you and Danny had a pretty serious thing going on there for awhile. I didn't want to risk spoiling your chance for happiness, not if you really loved him. I mean I had no idea and I still don't, if you felt the same way about me. It was only after confirming that Danny had turned down the position that I realized it was now or never. So I chose now over never. It's that simple." She was trembling; he could feel it, and he held on tighter trying to absorb her apprehensions.

"CJ?"

"Yeah?"

"So how do you feel about me anyway?"

"Well," she said, taking a deep breath of consideration and sniffling loudly against his chest. "I'm pleased to learn that you don't have an intimate acquaintance with Donna's underwear."

"CJ," he sighed, exasperated.

"Do I get to open the envelope now?"

"No, you don't. However," he said, reaching into his inner jacket pocket and producing a long thin jewelry box, tied with a red ribbon, "you may open this instead."

"Josh," she said in surprise, taking the box with all the vigilance of a vampire being offered a swig of holy water. "Are you trying to kill me?"

"I've heard your statistics on vending machine fatalities, but death by gift? I don't think so." She maneuvered around enough in his arms to allow room to open the box.

"Thank you Josh," she said quietly after viewing it's contents, "but I'm not sure..." He cut her off by reaching around to pick up the gold bracelet from within the box and lifting her hand so that he could place it on her wrist.

"Don't make it more complex than it has to be, CJ," he admonished after adjusting the lobster clasp to his satisfaction. "It's a bracelet."

"Yes Josh, I can see that it's a bracelet, but..."

"Actually, it's not just any bracelet."

"It's not?"

"No. It's a charm bracelet."

"A charm bracelet?" she questioned. "But it doesn't have any charms." Holding out her arm and wriggling her wrist as confirmation.

"I always knew you'd be a difficult woman to please," he said and got elbowed soundly in the ribs for his troubles. "Ouch! All right, look underneath the cotton." CJ did as instructed, pulling out two gold heart-shaped charms, each of which was engraved in script lettering. One read 'pal of mine' and the other 'mi amour.'

"I was right. You are trying to kill me," she said shaking her head.

"I just thought I'd give you the opportunity to choose which charm you'd prefer."

"Josh, despite all evidence to the contrary you really are sweet sometimes, you know that?"

"CJ, despite all evidence to the contrary you really are not sweet sometimes, you know that? For God's sake woman, would you put me out of my misery already? Which one is it going to be?"

"What?" she asked, holding up the charms and exuding the conniving interest of a loan shark appraising collateral, "I can't have them both?"

"Oh for the love of...that's it. I'm going. I'm going to see if Mrs. Landingham is still awake. She'll at least offer me a cookie," he declared, turning as if to leave.

"Get over here, Underwear Boy," CJ commanded by aggressively tugging him back to her by the lapels. "Patience has never been one of your virtues."

"And sympathy has never been one of yours," he countered, bringing his hands to her waist and pulling her forward until they were leaning against each other, body to body, with no space left in between.

"So are you going to kiss me now?" she stated, matter of fact.

"Do you want me to kiss you now?"

"When are you going to stop answering my questions with a question?"

When are you going to tell me how you feel?"

"You don't know?"

"No, I don't"

"I don't love you like a brother."

"You don't?"

"No. I don't even have a brother to compare it with, so how could..."

"CJ!"

"I love you, Josh."

"You love me. Would that be love as in 'pal of mine' love or would that be love as in 'mi amour' love?"

"That would be love as in both of them. I really want to keep those hearts."

"CJ?"

"What? You want a cookie?"

"No. I definitely don't want a cookie."

"That's good, because I don't have any cookies and I don't know how to make them either."

"Too bad."

"Then I guess we'll just have to find some other way to occupy our time."

"You think?"

"No. I'm past thinking anymore tonight."

"Me too. So I'm going to kiss you now, CJ."

"Josh, that had all the spontaneity of road kill and about as much anticipation."

"Just wanted to clear your agenda. I know you're a busy woman and all." He leaned in slowly and so did she, but just as their lips were about to meet he pulled back, staring at something behind her back. "Well, would you look at that," he said in amazement.

"What?" She tried to turn and see what he was referring to, but he kept her firmly in place with both hands anchored on her hips.

"No. Don't move. You'll spoil the effect," he said grinning. "It's our silhouettes CJ, on the wall over there. They're getting pretty darn friendly."

She laughed out loud, a rich contagious sound that he knew he would never tire of hearing. "You think maybe they're in love?" she whispered conspiratorially, watching his eyes dance in the moonlight, beneath the muted glow of night and shadow.

"I'm sure of it. Shall we show them how it's done?" And this time, he really did kiss her.

*****

Chapter Three:

"CJ?" Josh called out as she was passing by the opened door of his office.

"Yeah?" she answered, pausing mid-stride. She nodded to Sam and Toby seated on the couch along the wall, both with notebooks on their laps, scribbling furiously.

"Is underdog one word or two?" Josh asked her.

"As in: We are sworn to protect and uphold the welfare of the underdog downtrodden masses?"

"Well no, actually I was talking about the cartoon."

"The cartoon?"

"Yeah, you know Underdog. The mild-mannered shoeshine dog."

"The mild-mannered shoeshine dog?"

"There's no need to fear, Underdog is here!"

"Excuse me?" CJ said incredulously, pulling off her glasses in order to give him a proper stare of annoyance.

"That was...just part of his spiel," Josh explained, his voice withering with every word.

"The shoeshine dog."

"Yeah."

"He had a spiel?"

"Come on CJ," Sam chimed in coming to Josh's defense. "You must have heard of Underdog before."

"Oh, must I?"

"There is something inherently amiss for someone of your reputed education and background not being in touch with this country's cartoon heritage," Toby chastised with subtle aplomb.

"Toby, you're actually on board with this topic of conversation?" CJ asked, amazed.

"I am a man of many layers."

"Look, up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a frog! A frog?" Josh said, reciting the cartoon's opening theme song.

"I thought that was superman?" CJ said, confused. "Well, except for the part about the frog anyway."

"There were actually many major points of comparison between Underdog and Superman," Sam contributed. "For instance, they both used a phone booth to transform."

"Transform?"

"Yes CJ. Transform, change, metamorphose, transmute..."

"I get it, Sam."

"Superman had one weakness," Sam continued, undaunted, "which was of course Kryptonite, and Underdog's one weakness was..." he hesitated, trying to remember.

"Underdog was so powerful he had no weaknesses," Josh provided, puffing out his chest in a manly-man manner. "And if, and I'm only saying if, his power ever came into question he always had the revitalizing energy pill, which he kept in his secret compartment ring."

"A revitalizing energy pill?" CJ repeated laughing. "Well that explains it then. I'm guessing this gem was a product of the 60's? And by the way Sam, all these points of comparison between Superman and Superdog..."

"Underdog," Toby corrected blandly.

"Whatever. Isn't that what you'd call stealing?"

"No. That's what I'd call parody," Sam replied, smirking.

"Parody at its height," added Josh, proudly.

"Do you remember that episode where the evil scientist Simon Bar Sinister created the Big Dipper Machine in order to pilfer the world's water supply?" Sam asked, turning to Toby.

"Oh yeah. It's a classic. I have it on DVD," Toby said, his eyes much to CJ's dismay, twinkling.

"Wait!" Josh exclaimed. "I remember that one. After stealing all the water in the world, he imprisons the citizens and makes them perform 'Simon Says' just to get a drink."

"Right," Sam confirmed. "You know that wouldn't be a bad plan of action for Congress."

"Stealing their water?"

"No, making them perform 'Simon Says.'"

"And that would accomplish what?" asked Toby.

"Nothing. I'd just like to see them doing it."

"I used to like The Banana Splits," CJ piped up. Three heads simultaneously snapped her way with such force she was surprised there weren't spinal injuries involved.

"The Banana Splits?" Toby stammered, as Sam sadly shook his head. Josh was just looking like he was profoundly disappointed in her.

"Well yeah," she went on gamely, wondering why she was suddenly feeling a sense of cartoon envy. "The Banana Splits. They wore these goofy animal costumes and did slapstick humor." She paused in the wake of ensuing silence. "They ran into each other a lot," she explained, clearing her throat, "and introduced action shorts like Danger Island and...What?" she finally demanded, as they just continued to stare at her.

"That's live action," explained Sam pointedly.

"So?"

"That's a whole other genre."

"I'm officially through with this conversation," CJ declared.

"An excellent development on your part," Toby avowed.

"Sam," CJ said, while at the same time managing to pin Toby with a lethal frown. "It's 11:30."

"So?"

"So, my flight is scheduled for 2:45 and you promised months ago to take me to the airport."

"CJ, have you looked outside? There's at least seven inches of fresh snow. I'm sure the airport is closed."

"Yes Sam, the airport is closed, but I called and it's scheduled to be reopened at 2:30. My flight will be delayed, but it hasn't been cancelled."

"Then CJ, we have a problem."

"Sam," she groaned.

"CJ, it's actually not entirely Sam's fault this time," Toby interjected. "Leo wants a complete rewrite of the Houston speech by the end of the day. We won't be going anywhere for hours."

"What, you have time for a whole lecture on the virtues of Underdog, but you can't live up to your personal responsibilities?"

"There is always room on my agenda for a lecture on Underdog," Sam deadpanned.

"I can take you to the airport," Josh offered.

"But I thought you had that..."

"No, it was pushed back to Tuesday."

"Sam," CJ said smiling, "because of Josh's generosity you will live to see another day."

"Oh joy," Sam said, without any joy whatsoever, as he and Toby stood and filed out of the office.

CJ walked over to Josh's desk and perched on the edge. "Josh, you sure that you have time for this?"

"Of course. Once I heard about the schedule change I was planning on taking you anyway." His voice lowered and he glanced over quickly to the opened door to ensure no one was within hearing distance. "Besides, it'll give us a chance to have a proper airport goodbye."

"And that would be?"

"If you feel up to it, a bit of that running through the hallways towards each other with our arms wide open, numerous hugs, and I'm thinking at least seven kisses."

"Seven kisses?" she whispered, her eyes unconsciously dropping to his mouth. "You sure you have that many in you?"

"Would that be a slur to my manhood?"

"Consider the gauntlet thrown."

"You know how much I love a challenge."

"I'm counting on it. And Josh?"

"Hmmm?"

"I have three words for you," she said seductively.

"And those would be?" he wondered, his breath quickening in anticipation.

"Fleegle, Drooper and Snorky."

"That's so...wait a minute. What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"They're the names of three of the Banana Splits," she said, standing. "I just wanted you to get used to hearing it because I have a very close contact in high places. By this time next week, they'll be your, Toby and Sam's new Secret Service code names." She moved over to the door. "And don't think I don't know who was responsible for getting me saddled with Flamingo," was her parting shot.

Josh just gaped at her as she walked away.

*****

Sam had been right of course; exactly seven inches of fresh snow had fallen over the nation's capital that day. The temperature was somewhere in the low 20's and visibility was limited. The Reagan National Airport had closed temporarily so that its crews could plow the runways. It reopened again promptly at 2:30 for business as usual; this being a city quite used to the inconveniences of inclement weather.

CJ's lips were still warm and tingly from the passion of Josh's goodbye kisses, as she took her assigned seat aboard Air Florida's Flight 190, non-stop service to Ft. Lauderdale. Three times her cousin Anna had had to reschedule her wedding to accommodate CJ's demanding work schedule, she being the maid of honor and all. CJ had given her solemn word to the harried bride that this time nothing short of an impeachment would keep her from attending the festivities. She wouldn't be away long, only two days, so the West Wing would just have to get along without her until then. She would be flying back to DC Sunday night and Josh would be there to pick her up. She turned her head to the side sighing, as she stared out the tiny oval-shaped window, at the gray over-cast skies and the white snow piled along the tarmac. They hadn't even departed the gate and already she was missing Josh something fierce. In retrospect it seemed the equivalent of a lifetime, but it had really only been four weeks since he had appeared at her apartment, carrying a sealed envelope, a charm bracelet, and a declaration of love. She smiled now unconsciously, just as she always did whenever she thought of that night. She had told Josh that she wanted to wait a bit before breaking the news of their involvement to others, just a little personal time to simply enjoy being together. Over the last weeks she had been sporting the bracelet but not the charms. She couldn't wear those because of course the engraving would be a dead giveaway. Her left hand strayed to her right wrist, absently circling the naked skin she found there. She wasn't wearing the bracelet today and for the first time since Josh had placed it on her wrist. She fervently hoped he hadn't noticed because she wanted to surprise him. The bracelet was at the jewelers, having the charms attached. She would be picking it up first thing Monday morning and would have it on her wrist when she went into work that day. There would be no more secrets after that, and she knew Josh was going to be thrilled.

*****

At the same time in the cockpit of Air Florida's Flight 190, Captain Larry Weston and First Officer Roger Patterson had just been informed of a further delay by the tower. They were now number eleven in priority for take-off. Captain Weston was a relatively young man for this profession and he was scowling impatiently as he ordered the de-icing discontinued. The port side of the plane had just been started when the order filtered down to the ground crew.

It would later be considered the first in a series of costly mistakes made this fateful day.

*****

Chapter Four:

CJ's glasses perched precariously on the end of her nose, threatening to jump ship at any time, as she concentrated on the report she was typing on her laptop. She was choosing to make the best of the waiting game hoping to get some work done in the interim. She had to halt the rapid fire tapping of fingers upon the keyboard, just barely managing to catch the end of her frames as they toppled away. That's when she noticed the stranger blatantly staring at her from over the top of the seat in front. He was an enigma, wearing a fuzzy synthetic ensemble of fire engine red, with impossibly huge Ping-Pong size eyes, and dark pupils that followed her no matter which way she moved. Below this sat a round, orange Bozo nose and a wide gaping mouth. He waved his stuffed paw at her twice by way of a shy greeting before suddenly breaking into a spirited round of vibration and laughter. "That tickles!" he exclaimed in a childish recorded voice, as he shook and giggled and giggled and shook. It was both irresistible and annoying, but undeniably contagious, and CJ found she couldn't help but join in as well. A moment later the owner of the 'Tickle Me Elmo' doll made her own appearance by standing up on the seat and leaning over the top.

"My name's Melissa," she lisped as Elmo blessedly ran out of virtual steam. It was a little girl, maybe five years old with long blond braids and dressed in a Big Bird jumpsuit.

"Well, hello Melissa. My name is CJ."

*****

There was a thirty-minute delay following Captain Weston's request for discontinuation of de-icing during which time the craft just idled, a benign giant upon the airfield. The interior of the plane was becoming stuffy and beginning to fill with a claustrophobic sense of uneasiness and expectancy. Flight attendants dutifully making their appointed rounds down the narrow aisles became convenient scapegoats for tirades on schedule interruptions, which were realistically beyond their control. They shadow boxed questions as to estimated departure and arrival times, using vague generalities and the lure of enthusiastic smiles. Roasted peanuts and soft drinks were offered up as appeasement to soothe the ire of restless natives. Captain Weston heaved a weary sigh of relief upon being issued a tentative green light. Speaking into the mouthpiece of his radio headset he ordered the de-icing procedures to reconvene. Passengers were naturally curious as they observed a man outfitted in full weather gear, a mask covering his nose and mouth, slowly rising up to the level of the plane's windows, nestled inside the bucket of a cherry-picker type vehicle. He carried with him what appeared to be the business end of a snaking fire hose and pointed it towards one of the massive wings, firing off a cloud of white vaporous de-icing chemicals. It was shortly after 4:00 when the whole operation was completed. At this time the maintenance crew routinely reported a 'light-dusting' of snow upon the wings, which was not really surprising as snow was still gently falling even now. First Officer Patterson acknowledged the go ahead to push the airplane from the gate. However the small build-up of snow that had fallen after the last plow was enough to cause the tires of the TUG to spin uselessly. At 4:23 Captain Weston, contradicting company policy, decided to engage the reversers for a minute and a half to help assist in the push. It only resulted in loose debris and slush being wildly whipped about and then thrown back into the engines themselves. As a last resort another TUG, this one equipped with chains was called in, and a successful push was finally achieved. Air Florida's Boeing 737 moved into a standard taxi position behind a New York Air DC-9, and the cockpit crew began to go over the takeoff checklist.

"Air conditioning and pressurization?" asked First Officer Patterson.

"Set," replied the Captain.

"Engine anti-ice?"

"Off."

Amazingly neither officer seemed to notice the dire significance of this answer as they went on down the rest of the list as normal. The anti-ice device was left in the off position. They had apparently just forgotten to activate it. This would allow ice build-up to penetrate sensitive engine parts.

*****

One of the flight attendants was standing at the head of the cabin demonstrating safety procedures, as another was describing what she was doing blow for blow over the PA system. The proper way to use an oxygen mask, where to find flotation devices and the location of every emergency exit were all but ignored by the complacency of most of the passengers. This would include CJ as well, who considered herself a well-seasoned traveler. In the seat just ahead of hers, Melissa's mother was adjusting the seatbelt across her daughter's lap and checking for a snug fit.

"CJ?" Melissa suddenly blurted out. "I know the names of everyone who lives on Sesame Street. There's Big Bird, Grouch, Elmo..."

"Now Melissa," her mother scolded gently. "I'm sure the nice lady doesn't want to hear you go on about Sesame Street."

"She doesn't?" Melissa replied, as if a disinterest in all things muppet was just impossible to believe.

"That's okay, Melissa," CJ called back, winking at her mother. "You can tell me all about Sesame Street a little later." She hesitated a moment before adding with a grin, "And I'll tell you everything I know about The Banana Splits."

*****

Captain Weston maneuvered the plane so that it was lined up directly behind the New York DC-9 while awaiting takeoff. He was making an attempt to use the other aircraft's exhaust to help melt the ice off his own fuselage and wings. It was a sound enough idea in theory and it did indeed melt the ice. Unfortunately it then blew it back again, where it re-froze in areas that the anti-ice system couldn't reach.

"Captain," First Officer Patterson reported, "I'm picking up an anomaly in the engine instrument readings. One of the EPR gauges is off." He peered out the forward cockpit window at the other aircraft. "I'm wondering if it might be the hot exhaust that's causing it." Captain Weston glanced over at the gauges, but as they got closer to ascent mode the readings suddenly returned to normal. Fifteen minutes later just after the DC-9's departure, they were advised to move into position and prepare for immediate takeoff.

"Takeoff power is 2.04 EPR," Patterson read off, as he began the briefing.

There are two different types of the infamous 'Black Box' that are required on commercial airlines and which are in actuality painted a bright orange for easy retrieval and equipped with underwater beacons. One is called a Flight Data Recorder or FDR and it monitors the behavior of the plane, measuring parameters such as airspeed, altitude, pitch and roll as well as various steering mechanisms. They are designed to store a minimum of twenty-five hours of information, using state of the art electrical recording devices, and constructed to survive the most hazardous conditions imaginable. The other type is called a Cockpit Voice Recorder or CVR and it records all cockpit conversations over a looping two-hour period. These devices would later show that it was the compressor inlet pressure probe that had caused the instrument reading abnormality that the 1st Officer had reported. Ice on the probe itself caused by the fact that the anti-ice system was turned off, resulted in a higher than actual thrust reading on the EPR gauges.

"Palm 190, no delay on departure. Traffic's two and a half out for the runway," reported the Air Traffic Controller.

They would be departing from runway 36, which requires a 40-degree left turn roll after becoming airborne in order to follow the Potomac River, and avoid flying over the Washington Monument and The White House airspace. Visibility was now down to only a quarter of a mile. The 1st Officer advanced the throttles to begin the requisite roll, but less than a minute after takeoff it became abundantly apparent that something was dreadfully wrong. What Patterson didn't know was that the normal reading of a 2.04 EPR he was getting was incorrect. It had in reality only reached approximately 1.70 EPR and this would prevent them from obtaining the necessary altitude.

"It's real cold. Captain, this doesn't seem right," Patterson remarked anxiously, as the instruments were telling him one thing and the feel of the plane was telling him something else.

"Yes, it is. Look there's the mark."

It was the second time that the 1st Officer had tried to inform the Captain of a possible problem and just like before his input was all but ignored. The airplane suddenly pitched up roughly. Followed by the shrill alarm warning of an imminent stall.

*****

As soon as the airplane started to pick up speed it began to shudder violently. And it didn't stop. The passengers were frantically trying to make eye contact with those around them, only to find their own terror mirrored there. Seatbelts were tightened sharply and hands were grasped together in fear. Some of them were screaming and children were crying. The interior was filled with a loud pitching whine as if the airplane itself was starting to fall apart, bolt by bolt. They were going down.

"Take this!" CJ yelled, leaning forward and shoving a small airplane pillow over the seat. "Put it on Melissa's lap and tell her to lean forward and grab her ankles. And then you do the same."

"Oh God!" the young woman cried as she took the offered pillow with shaking hands.

"Mommy?" Melissa was crying. "I'm scared."

"Melissa?" CJ called out to her. "You hold on now. Everything is going to be all right. Just hold on."

Taking one last look out the window, CJ could see the abyss of the icy Potomac River rushing towards them, as they dived to meet it. She took a deep breath, removed her glasses and placed them in her pocket. Then she assumed the crash position.

"Our Father..." she began under her breath.

*****

Chapter Five:

People were trying to outrun what was shaping up to be one of the worst recorded snowstorms Washington DC had ever experienced. Most of the school and business districts had opted to close altogether and those that hadn't soon realized it was a futile effort. Congress adjourned their session midday and the majority of federal workers were allowed to go home early. All these precautionary measures were executed in hopes of preventing exactly the type of situation that would end up occurring anyway. Every major mode of public and private transportation in the region was strained to full capacity by early afternoon. There were unending lines of traffic snarling the roads, and buses and subways were packed like sardines. Every schedule was running far behind, if it was lucky enough to be running at all. Tempers were flaring as quickly as patience was waning. The 14th Street Bridge stretches across the Potomac River and connects Washington DC to Arlington County, Virginia. It was currently crammed from one end to the other with hundreds of stressed-out frustrated commuters on board. The Reagan National Airport is less than one mile away from this bridge, yet Josh Lyman was on it nonetheless. He was still stuck in traffic more than two full hours after having dropped off CJ for her flight. Edging his car forward a mere two inches he silently wondered if things could possibly get worse.

He was about to find out.

Without warning, a blue and white Boeing 737 burst through the cover of swirling gray mist and churning snow. The bulk of it was traveling so close to the ground that it smothered the extent of the bridge under the canopy of its huge black shadow. There was no time for the hapless motorists to comprehend what was happening. Much less try and get out of the way. The tail end of the plane lurched abruptly, merging the realms of earth and sky, as it smashed into the deck and parapet of the northbound Rochambeau span. The plane continued onward without slowing, hitting a total of seven cars before clipping a large crane-equipped truck and causing it to overturn. Then it ripped through nearly two hundred feet of guardrail like it was kite string, before plunging nose-first into the frozen river below. There was at least a two-inch thick layer of ice obscuring the Potomac; the surface cracked and then shattered like stained glass under the weight. Immediately upon impact the plane fractured into several large jagged pieces, along with untold hundreds of smaller ones. The fuselage was the biggest piece and it floated upside down for a moment with its belly up, gutted and exposed, before slowly sinking through the opening in the ice it had created. The fury of the behemoth as it was being engulfed sounded like the scraping of a million metallic fingers down a thousand chalkboards. Only the tail section remained visible, buoyed by trapped air and surrounded by ice floes and frigid water.

*****

The first of many cellular calls was logged into the Arlington County Emergency Communications Center less than two minutes after the devastating crash. These calls advised of 'trouble' at the 14th Street Bridge and initially this caused some confusion as to the nature of the accident. Rescue personnel were under the impression that they would be dealing with a small passenger plane, not a full-sized commercial jet. However the severity of it all would soon be made clear. ECC immediately dispatched a full alarm assignment consisting of three engines, two trucks, two medics and a Chief. Three minutes after that the DC Fire Department received its notification and responded with a complement of three engines, two trucks, three rescue squads, three ambulances, two medics, the citywide tour commander and a score of special units. Meanwhile due to poor visibility, the airport had lost sight of Flight 190 during its takeoff roll, but radar still showed it as airborne. They had then radioed the crew of 190 advising them to contact the departure controller. There was no acknowledgement. The news of the catastrophe was relayed to them by way of the 'crash phone' from the airport tower. The Reagan National Airport Fire Department sent a total of four rigs, headed north towards the bridge along the George Washington Memorial Parkway that runs parallel to the river. Although help was on its way it would be racing against time, and would run into a myriad of obstacles trying to get to the scene. First off they had the weather conditions to deal with, heavy snow and ice. One engine stalled and its crew was forced to abandon it and travel on foot, while others were delayed because of the clog of traffic congesting both sides of the river. Fairfax, Loudoun and Montgomery counties sent aid as well, along with a foam truck from Fort Meyer and the fireboat John Glenn. Dulles Airport offered two of its crash rigs. And what would certainly prove to the most crucial assistance of all: the U.S. Park Police helicopter, Eagle 1, was lifting off from its base, a scant five minutes after Flight 190 had gone down.

*****

CJ was jolted back to consciousness to find herself submerged in slushy ice water. Completely disoriented her first sensations were of agonizing cold, followed by a near paralyzing fear. She instinctively began clawing her way towards the surface. Her left arm refused to move at all, so she was forced to swim through the murky ice-encrusted river using only one hand. She came up underneath the solid barrier of a sheet of ice and had to inch her way around until she could locate an opening. By this time her lungs were clamoring for oxygen, and she involuntarily gulped in a mixture of air and water. It was icy-hot and tasted foul, making her gag sickeningly as it burned its way down her throat and insides. She knew her arm was broken and possibly her ankle as well, but she couldn't really feel the pain. There was debris all around her. Pieces of metal, luggage and cushions, among other things. She floundered there for a few seconds confused, with no idea whatsoever of what had happened. Slowly it all came back. She could remember the plane shuddering and bracing for impact, but after that nothing. She treaded water and dodged chunks of ice as she made her way over to a large bit of the wreckage, sticking out of the water. The tail section. She attempted to climb up on it but was unable to get a good grip, with her one hand sliding along the slippery metal. She didn't have the needed strength to pull her body up. She quit trying almost immediately and breathing hard she hung onto the side in complete exhaustion.

"Help! Help us!" a woman suddenly called out.

CJ's head snapped up frantically looking for the source, but she was having difficulty focusing. Her vision was blurry from exposure to the jet fuel that had leaked from the plane into the river. "Where are you?" CJ yelled back. She couldn't recognize her own voice, and her teeth were chattering with such force from the cold that it felt as if her jaw would break in two.

"Here! We're over here!" the woman cried, sounding much closer. CJ could make her out now not too far away, and cautiously inching over. When she was within range, CJ reached out her hand to help pull her in. Her heart lurched in recognition. It was Melissa's mother. "We...made it," the woman whispered. Her words were directed towards something she was clutching against her chest. "Melissa...baby...safe now," she crooned softly, smiling vacantly. CJ's eyes filled with the sting of tears which froze before they could fall. It wasn't Melissa she was holding in her arms; it was only the child's doll.

*****

There was total pandemonium on the 14th Street Bridge. Tragically four people had died instantly in three of the passenger vehicles that had been completely crushed by the plane. Another had had its roof severed entirely from the rest of the body, with its occupants badly injured. The remaining three cars had been split into sections, the parts strewn out half-hazard across the bridge. The driver of the overturned crane-equipped truck was now trapped in the cabin, pinned underneath its massive weight. The ones who hadn't been killed or injured were blindly filing out of the vehicles, spilling onto the bridge. They stumbled about in shock like an army of dazed zombies. Far away you could just make out the sounds of approaching emergency vehicles, reminiscent of those eerie bombs sirens of a bygone age.

Josh had felt the intense power of that first cracking collision before even knowing what had caused it. The bridge had rocked and swayed back and forth as if it was about to collapse. The vibrations had filtered up through the length of his body by way of the car. It had been like nothing he had ever before experienced, as the whole world had seemed to hold its breath in anticipation of what was to follow. He had leaned over the steering wheel, searching for what it could be and that's when he had seen it. A plane, falling out of the sky. Falling. It had been nothing but a blue and white colored streak of twisted metal before his eyes and then it was gone. Leaving behind a trail of devastation in its wake, before sliding off the edge and into the river.

Blue and white, blue and white, strangely the words kept repeating over and over in his head. Blue and white, blue and white, as his mind kept trying to tell him something he didn't want to hear. Blue and white, blue and white, was all he could think of as he suddenly jumped from his car like a maniac and rushed over to the side of the bridge. There below in the icy depths of the Potomac River was all that remained of a once noble airplane, as snow continued to fall over it. Blue and white, blue and white, his frenzied thoughts insisted he understand. He stood there immobile, face drawn, fists clenched, his coat whipping wildly about him, and his toes mere inches from where the destroyed guardrail leapt off into nothing but air. Blue and white, blue and white followed by total horror as everything instantly clicked into place with frightening clarity. He had watched her board. CJ's plane was blue and white.

"No! God no!" he screamed, running towards the nearest embankment.

*****

Only ten minutes after the crash of Flight 190, yet another cataclysm was unfolding not far away. Down in the subway tunnel that connects the Federal Triangle with the Smithsonian station, Metrorail employees had been making an attempt to reverse an eastbound train that had crossed over into the westbound track. The lead car in the process had careened into one of the concrete bulkheads, snapping the train in two before it was plunged into darkness. A transit police officer made the initial call for help. The accident would end up causing several fatalities and dozens of injuries, as well as the forced evacuation of over 1200 commuters from the tunnels. Several of the EMS units were being diverted from the 14th Street Bridge to respond to this new call. In less than a fifteen-minute period of time, DC had lost use of one of its busiest airports, along with its expressway and subway line. The most traveled bridge connecting DC to Virginia was closed as well as its rapid rail transit line. The region was being faced with its worst transportation disaster ever.

*****

The door to Leo McGarry's office opened without warning, swinging back and hitting the wall with a loud bang.

"What the hell?" Leo demanded, standing up and pulling off his glasses at the same time. Toby and Sam were seated behind him in chairs looking on. Carol stood there in the archway, not saying a word with Margaret behind her appearing flustered and shaking her head at Leo in confusion.

"Carol?" Leo asked, lowering his voice and moving over to stand in front of her. "What is it?" She stared at him in silence, her lips trembling and her eyes stricken, as she lifted up her hand. There was a white piece of paper bunched in her fist and he had to pry open her fingers in order to retrieve it. He read what appeared to be a travel itinerary, showing an airplane flight schedule. It had today's date and Claudia Jean Cregg's name neatly printed across the top. Leo looked back up as Carol pointed to the television set that was in his office, playing but without the sound turned on. It was tuned to CNN. 'Reporting live' was stenciled across the bottom of the screen. Along with 'The Crash of Air Florida's Flight 190.'

"Oh dear Lord," Leo whispered in shock, as comprehension set in.

*****

Chapter Six:

The water of the Potomac River was slowly re-freezing around the crash opening; integrating bits of metal and debris among the ice, like paint spilt over an artist's palette. The ethereally falling snow resembled the canvass of a Normal Rockwell Christmas, absent all the expected pleasantries of hearth and home. There were only five survivors left from a total manifest of ninety-three passengers and six crewmembers, and none was wearing a life vest. These two women and three men were clinging desperately to the sides of their temporary sanctuary tail section, as seconds passed by in hour increments, ironically being kept aloft by the very source of their predicament in the first place.

CJ's head was bowed low to her chest, her breathing shallow and decidedly labored. There were delicate icicle spikes hanging down from her eyebrows, and entangled within her hair, issuing a crinkle-snap noise like tissue paper every time she moved. The skin around her lips and fingers was puckered and turning blue, and her pupils were enlarging. Her uninjured arm shook with fierce spasms as she was made to let go her precious grip with what little coordination she had left, just long enough to reposition her hand-hold. It was a difficult thing to do, equivalent to hanging over a bottomless pit, as she had no feeling whatsoever in her extremities. But if she didn't keep rotating her hand around it would stick solidly to the metal's surface. Her thoughts kept drifting randomly back and forth between the landscapes of past and present. Just now she had been revisiting that time as a child coming home from school, distraught and in tears, after being made fun of by her classmates about her height. Even at the tender age of ten years old she was already towering far above the other children. Her mother listened to her tale of woe, smiling understandably as she dried her tears.

"Claudia Jean, you're very lucky to be so tall," her mother said.

"I am?" CJ asked sniffling.

"You get to be that much closer to heaven every day of your life."

CJ had realized even back then that it was the kind of thing a mother would say to comfort her child, but it had made her feel all safe and warm inside just the same. She was despairing of ever feeling safe and warm like that again. There was no safe anymore. There was no warm. There was only the cold and the pain and the fear. The survivors were huddled around each other, hoping to conserve body heat, with Robert being nearest to CJ. Robert was a young black man, wearing the tattered remains of what had once been his crisply starched military uniform. They had exchanged names; between pregnant pauses of violent shivering and chattering, back when they still had the stamina to talk. All was silent and motionless now; save for the metronome lapping of the frigid river as it ebbed and flowed. Robert appeared to have sustained the least amount of physical trauma, and CJ perhaps the worst. When Melissa's mother-Penny was her name-had slipped back underneath the water during a particularly frightening moment, Robert had dived in immediately and pulled her out. He had been completely supporting Penny's weight ever since, with her arms wrapped tightly about his neck, and still holding onto Melissa's Elmo doll. It was apparent that Penny's major injuries were of a non-physical nature, as she possessed neither the will nor the desire to fight anymore. CJ felt certain that if Robert were to let go of her, she would not try and save herself.

They had been subjected to the grisly sight of bodies drifting by, with unseeing accusing eyes, and pallid faces forever locked in a testimony of shock and horror. CJ kept trying to dislodge these disturbing images from her mind, but they refused to give her peace. Thank God, at least Melissa's body hadn't been among them. No doubt the majority of the rest of those poor souls aboard Flight 190 were still strapped into their seats, lying at the bottom of the river. And right now, CJ wasn't at all positive that they weren't the true fortunate ones. She closed her eyes; as a headache worse than any she had ever experienced stabbed at her temples relentlessly. Although it felt like an eternity, they had only been in the water for a total of ten minutes.

"Josh," she murmured, unaware she had spoken aloud.

*****

On the 14th Street Bridge, the first emergency response teams had arrived on the scene and were already at work, trying to free the trapped passengers, while at the same time treating casualties. It was like a battle zone, similar in nature to the MASH units of the Korean War, with triage sites set up to evaluate the most serious injuries from those that were minor. The unfortunate four victims who had died had been removed from their vehicles, and were lined up on the pavement side by side, covered over by blue tarps. The wind was whipping through and around the stiff plastic material, outlining the shape of the host, and creating an unsettling timbre in its wake. The ones who had been spared death or injury had nowhere to go. Nothing was moving, with the exception of the emergency squads, and even those were having difficulty getting through. Traffic continued to be backed up for miles along the bridge and far beyond. Police and Fire Department personnel had unceremoniously herded all the people over to the side of the bridge, out of the way. All they could do was linger, shivering in the cold, starting at what might have been but for the grace of God, a fate of their own. And in the opposite direction, they were faced with yet another abomination. They could actually witness the five wretched survivors of the plane itself, down in the frozen Potomac, holding on, barely alive, and waiting to be delivered. Most turned their heads away, unable to bear the sight, as if those in the water could reach out, searing straight into their souls. The guilt they felt was irrational certainly, but overpowering nonetheless; hearts weighted with the knowledge that there was nothing they could do, but stand there and watch.

*****

In the West Wing, Leo McGarry, Sam Seaborn, and Toby Ziegler each currently had a phone attached to his ear. Leo was sitting ramrod straight at his desk, while the other two impatiently paced the interior of the office. Leo was coordinating with his contact on the National Transportation and Safety Board. Sam was loudly arguing with a customer service representative from Air Florida. And Toby was attempting, for the tenth time now, to reach Josh via his cell-phone. Meanwhile, the rest of the staff was forlornly gathered out in the bullpen area, following news of the crash as it was unfolding live on CNN.

"Damn!" Sam swore angrily, slamming the lid of his cell-phone shut. "I dropped every name I know, including the President's and I still can't get anyone to give me a straight answer. They won't confirm or deny whether CJ actually boarded the plane, and refuse to give out any information on survivors."

"Josh still isn't responding. I keep getting voicemail," Toby announced, punching the 'end call' button, and swiping a hand across his forehead in frustration. "Where the hell is he?"

"That's right," Leo was saying, body language tense. "Yeah, I understand. Call me the second you hear anything new." He paused, listening intently to the man speaking on the other end. "Steve," he stressed. "She's like a daughter...to me," his voice breaking uncharacteristically. He nodded once more, and then returned the phone to its cradle. He swiveled the chair around toward the window, allowing a brief private moment to gather himself together. And then he stood and walked around to the front of the desk to address the two expectant expressions waiting there.

"It's not good news guys," Leo said, shaking his head. "There's been an unprecedented series of major accidents today. The plane crash, the bridge, and a metro derailment, and all of them with fatalities. Combined with the weather conditions out there, we're looking at the makings of a full-fledged disaster. Rescue operations are underway, but every emergency department is under fire right now. Everyone's doing the best they can under the circumstances."

"What about..." Sam began.

"I've spoken to the President," Leo jumped in, anticipating the question. "He's cutting the conference short. Air Force One will be bringing him back from California at the earliest opportunity."

"How did he...take it?" Toby asked hesitantly.

"How do you think?" Leo answered gruffly.

"We should go down there," Sam charged, his face pale and drawn.

"And do what exactly?" Toby reasoned.

"Be there. Help her. Something..." Sam faltered, running fingers through his hair. "I don't know."

"Sam," Leo said, putting his hand on the younger man's shoulder. "The only thing we'd accomplish by going down there, would be getting in the way. We may have the authority of the President of the United States behind us, but this is in God's hands now."

"So, we just wait?"

"We wait," Leo confirmed stoically.

"We wait," Toby agreed. "We wait...and we pray," he added quietly, bowing his head.

*****

Hear...that?" Robert called out to the others, his voice unsteady and raspy.

CJ weakly opened her eyes and listened carefully, straining her ears. "Hear...nothing," she reported back, badly slurring the syllables. She was used to working twenty-hour days, seven days a week, but nothing could have prepared her for this level of exhaustion. She was ready and willing to sell her soul for one minute of uninterrupted sleep. Her body had defected outright, no longer under her control. She was frozen inside and out, except for her chest, which ached steadily as if it was on fire. It was like being made to swallow acid with every intake of breath.

"There...it is...again," Robert insisted, with a note of underlying excitement that was impossible to ignore.

This time CJ heard it too. She lifted her head marginally searching for the parent source. The sky was a brooding darkish gray; an indication that night would soon be falling. Their water and ice cage had settled more or less, but it was now moving again agitatedly, as if it too sensed the change in atmosphere. All of a sudden behind them, a loud roaring cheer erupted from the people atop the bridge. The lazy muffled echoes washing over them like strands of dribbled honey. There was no mistaking it now, as the noise and vibration continued to increase steadily. It was a helicopter approaching.

*****

Chapter Seven:

An unnatural wave had formed, widening out in extended circles, like the growth rings of a toppled redwood. Moments later, the phantom source came into visual range, advancing steadily from behind a sheath of ominous storm clouds. The black helicopter made a tight surveillance loop with running lights on, and then returned to hover over what remained of Air Florida's tail section, and the five survivors struggling there. The chopper belonged to the National Park Service with the call caption of Eagle 1, and was both compact and sleek in design. It carried aboard it a three-person crew, consisting of a pilot along with two air-flight paramedics. They were uniformed in bright-orange weather-insulated coveralls, and boots. Their white helmets were equipped with a built-in radio and hands-free microphone, allowing them to communicate with one another over the deafening roar. The pilot's face was an inscrutable mask set behind a pair of opaque goggles, as he considered the limited viability afforded him, just outside the realm of dome-shaped cockpit glass. He expertly finessed the controls by millimeters and fractions, dropping the helicopter low, and lower still, drifting dangerously close to the glossy ice shard surface of the Potomac. The heady wind was bombarding from all sides, making the craft rock back and forth, like a marionette suspended from wire. The elongated, steel side door popped free from its holding clamp, sliding back like a drape to reveal the interior skeleton framework. The paramedic sitting nearest the opening immediately unbuckled his seatbelt and attached a safety harness to the roof instead, carefully testing the strength with his weight. He then crawled forward to the furthermost jump seat, bringing his legs out from under him to let them dangle freely in space. Peering down at the victims below, he began a series of shorthand signals while speaking into his microphone. A second later, the other paramedic passed over a large flotation ring, the strap threaded through the eyelet of an attached rope and pulley mechanism overhead. The incredible power of the lethal blades in constant revolution made it impossible for the survivors to accurately judge the path and purpose of the rescuers. There was a furious whirlwind of scattered debris flying about their heads, bringing the risk of further damage to already over-sensitized eyes. The ring was now being lowered, yet from CJ's perspective it was like anticipating the release of a guillotine, while simultaneously caught up within the vortex of a tornado.

The initial elation, which had arisen in all their hearts at the promise of rescue, was fast giving way to nagging apprehension and uncertainty. Arlan and Max were the names of the last two survivors of Flight 190, and they were hanging on next to Robert and Penny on the other side of CJ. Arlan was a burly man in his late-forties, stocky in build but not quite overweight, with a receding hairline. He possessed the kind of face that under normal circumstances would launch into laughter without prompting, and a trace of this quality still loitered there, despite the seriousness of the situation. He was the sort of person others wanted to be around; whose name was first priority on any party invite list, and the last anyone wanted to leave. He was known to brag to those who knew him best, and oftentimes to those who knew him not at all, that his greatest accomplishment in life was being a husband and father of five. Max was diminutive in comparison and the eldest in the group by at least twenty years. He was compassionate by nature, although he would never describe himself as such. He demonstrated it though by the way that he would lean over at times and gently pat Penny's back in silent commiseration of her loss. He was by all means a bespectacled, grandfatherly sort, proud of the fact that he was both old-fashioned and a gentleman. He felt comfortable in growing old and of growing old alone. Recently, he had retired after forty-five years on the same job, and was looking forward to the freedom that accompanies such a milestone. This flight had been but the first of many in a long list of scheduled travel tours. Robert had become their caretaker by proxy; he possessed an indomitable will to survive, and a contagious belief that this nightmare would eventually end well. Whenever one started to feel otherwise, he or she only needed to glance Robert's way to be dissuaded back to the straight and narrow. He was Penny's savior literally, and would do the same for any other person without a moment of hesitation. He was a modern-day hero of olden-day lore. CJ was viewed with equal fondness in return, as a woman of remarkable courage, enduring serious injury without comment or complaint. The water was detrimental no question, but it was also an instant equalizer, removing the periodic prejudices occasioned by height or White House position. Arlan was struck by CJ's vibrancy and Max her devotion and concern, for Robert it was her enduring spirit. It would take many months before Penny could bear thinking of what had happened at all, but later on she would recall CJ's maternal side, revealed in a golden moment of Sesame Street and shared laughter. It might seem extraordinary to anyone outside this unique experience; to understand how it is that five strangers brought together by tragedy could manage to forge a bond so formidable, in such a short period of time. However, it was the truth. It isn't always the matter of the encounter, but rather the circumstances surrounding it, which helps to establish the blueprint for lasting memories, whether happy or sad. The bets were on that CJ would not be able to recall the face or name of her ninth grade social studies teacher, even after spending months together in a classroom. Yet she would never be able to forget the events of this day, or these people. Awake or asleep, in conscious thought or wafting daydream, they would always be there with her in some form or another, and she with them.

They had been left adrift in the nearly frozen water for going on twenty minutes by the time the first lifeline came within fingertip reach. The yellow-over-sized flotation ring lightly skimmed over and then splashed down upon the river, falling flat when the rope was given slack from above. Arlan stretched out a hand devoid of feeling or color from the extreme cold, and was just able awkwardly to snare it through the middle. Grunting from the exertion, he cradled the treasure next to his chest like a newborn child, and then laboriously lifted it high, passing it hand over hand to Max, who in turn passed it on to Robert. Seeing that Robert was intending to pass it on to her, CJ quickly spoke up, forced to yell to be heard over the helicopter.

"No...now...you..." she gasped out, the words almost unrecognizable as English. Her chest was uncomfortably tight and had immediately protested the requisite deep breath taken beforehand. After making this Herculean endeavor, the words that had tumbled forth weren't even the ones she had meant to say at all. She was having difficulty translating her thoughts to the desired action, as if there was some short in syntax in between. It was like having to learn to speak all over again, similar to the debilitating affects of a stroke. She had to try again, and it had nothing to do with playing the martyr; CJ wanted out of the water just as much as the rest of them. This had to do with the deterioration of Penny's condition, and the certainty that she would never make it out of here without Robert to guide her. She closed her eyes briefly, concentrating, focusing on the idea and then matching it up to the correct words.

"Penny...needs...you," she stammered, willing him to understand what she was desperately hoping to convey. She was more successful this time, but was afraid it had taken more out of her than she had to give. Robert was clutching the tethered ring and staring back at CJ blankly, obviously deeply in turmoil. Going first went against every military code of honor and chivalrous bone in his body, but at the same time he knew in his heart why CJ was insisting that he do just that. Penny hadn't spoken a word since calling out for help immediately after the crash, except at times to babble incoherently or cry inconsolably for her daughter. She was steadfastly holding onto Robert's neck and Melissa's doll, but it seemed more a reflex than conscious choice on her part. After a moment, Robert grudgingly nodded his agreement, and CJ gave him a sad grateful smile in return.

*****

There is something extremely unsettling about watching a live telecast of a catastrophe in progress. Your eyes are drawn to the screen of their own accord. You can't look away, but you don't really want to see. You might judge yourself sound enough to remain separate emotionally from what's occurring, but it's just impossible. Some part of your inner being will instinctively reach out, if only subconsciously, to touch the wayward ones in empathy and sorrow. And you ask for mercy on their souls. It might be expressed in varying ways by varying people, such as a hand hastily risen to cover the escape of a sob, while Kleenex is wrung into confetti pieces within sweaty palms. It might be trembling fingertips swiping at the burden of sudden tears and a heart beating a rhythm at twice its normal tempo. It's the human connection. It's the acknowledgement of our fragile life and imminent mortality. It's everything that matters stripped down to connect-the-dot simplicity. It's who we are.

The West Wing was currently absent all its usual coordinated line dance of rush and activity. Which was doubly strange, because this was the time when the wall clock struck high noon in political circles, of intermission afternoon and descending twilight. Where outside, on clear days, the sky is displaying sample color-swatches made up of peach, blue and purple abstract, before opting for traditional basic black. The interval when the West Wing phones usually rang off the hook in tandem, as paper-pushing wheelers and dealers dialed up last minute lobs, in hopes of currying favor. Today the whole area was engulfed in uneasy restraint. The ringers had all been silenced, with calls being diverted through the main switchboard. This was an arena commonly ripe for outbreaks of conflict. Where heated debates were known to spring up over the water cooler and in elevators. For once, everyone was on the same page, and that's how you knew just how very bad things really were.

"Carol?" Toby demanded testily, and not for the first time.

"Shut up. Let me think," Carol snapped back instantly, refusing to look at him, keeping her eyes straight ahead. The entire staff was assembled there, her coworkers, her friends, and now they parted into two neat rows to let her pass through unheeded. She stopped only when she could go no further, with her face right up next to the screen of the television set sitting on top of the filing cabinet in the bullpen. She was so very close to it that her eyes were no longer able to discern the whole image. It was merely a swarm of multi-colored pixel spots. She stepped back a bit and her hand rose to touch the glass gingerly, eliciting a tiny snapping static charge along her fingertips. She frowned, her conscience heavy with this important responsibility. She wasn't interested in the details of the crash. She had no desire to hear about how quickly the rescue helicopter had arrived. She was terribly sorry for, but couldn't help, those who had died on the bridge. She wasn't concerned with the sidebar story on the overall safety of 737's. She had one single item on her agenda, a lone quest. It was to remember exactly what CJ had been wearing this morning so as to determine whether or not she was among those five survivors. And Carol was doing her professional best not to acquaint it with being called in to identify CJ's body at the morgue. She studied the live coverage as they did another pan-shot of the survivors in the river, and in one crystal moment of pure insight, she knew for sure.

"Yes!" she cried, turning around abruptly with tears in her eyes. "That's her! That's CJ! There," she said, pivoting back and pointing at one blurry stick figure representation in the shaky picture of five people, who were at this very moment, fighting for their lives in the middle of the Potomac. "Red blouse with long sleeves, gray slacks, and look at the length of her hair. You can tell that she's tall even in the water. Her arm there, see how long and slender it is..."

"Carol..." Leo cautioned warily, still unsure and unwilling to declare victory without absolute proof. He wasn't conscious of it, but he was silently begging her to convince him she was right.

"Leo," Carol answered, her voice suddenly rock-steady as she walked over so that he would be able to witness the conviction in her eyes. "I'm sure about this. You, Sam, Josh and Toby may think you spend a lot of time with CJ, but matched up with how many hours she and I have logged together, it doesn't begin to compare. I know her favorite perfume and her dress size. I know that she's allergic to talcum power with cornstarch. The fact that she hates pastry but eats it anyway, any time one of you brings it in for a breakfast meeting, because she doesn't want to hurt your feelings." She paused in her litany to take a deep breath. "It's her Leo. I wouldn't say so if I weren't positive. I wouldn't."

"All right then," Leo nodded, more than happy to concede this particular campaign. A huge smile spread across his craggy face, momentarily breaking apart a fresh cluster of worry lines. "CJ's alive," he whispered under his breath, as if test-driving the words to ensure they were up to delivering the promised performance. He grabbed Carol in an impulsive bear hug, as the rest of the room took his cue and broke out into loud whoops and cheers. However, this release of pent-up tension was short-lived.

"What's the matter with you people!" Sam demanded, bursting from out of his office at the commotion, where he had been watching the news in self-imposed isolation.

"Sam..." Toby started, but was cut off as Sam turned on him, a predator in attack mode.

"Do you sail Toby?" Sam questioned savagely, out of the blue.

"What?"

"I asked you if you sailed. It's a simple enough question. Do...you...sail?" he repeated slowly, as if he were talking to an imbecile.

"No," Toby said quietly, taken aback at Sam's vicious tone.

"Well I do," he declared triumphantly, as if it should explain everything.

"Sam, why don't you come to my office," Leo offered, coming near. Sam didn't reply. He just stared at him through the haze of angry eyes, before moving over to position himself in front of the bullpen television set, watching it with his back turned away from everyone else.

"Hypothermia," he stated after a moment, addressing the screen.

"What?" Leo asked.

"Hypothermia is the first lesson they cover in sailing. Did you know that? I didn't. I always thought it would be something interesting like nautical knots, but it wasn't, it was hypothermia."

"Okay Sam, let's..."

"Do you have any idea how cold the water in the Potomac gets this time of year?" Sam asked, not that anyone in the room was even considering answering him at this point. "The body can lose heat in five ways, respiration, evaporation, conduction, radiation and convection. Hypothermia occurs when the core temperature of the body falls to less than 35 degrees Celsius. There are three stages of hypothermia, mild, moderate and severe. When you've got a mild case, you get a chilly feeling and shivering begins. The skin has some numbness and there might be minor impairment to muscular performance. If the exposure continues, the shivering becomes violent, and there's a lack of coordination. You have difficulty speaking and some confusion. Moderate hypothermia comes in with a gross loss of muscular coordination. You reach a point where you lose control of your hands. There's mental sluggishness, slow thought and speech and sometimes even retrograde amnesia. Later, the shivering stops altogether, as muscle stiffness develops, along with incoherence, confusion and irrationality. Then there's the final stage, severe hypothermia. When this happens you have muscle rigidity, extreme lethargy, desire for sleep, and the pupils dilate. The skin is ice cold to the touch, and respiration and heartbeat slow down to the point of arrest." He paused. His tense figure outlined in ghostly whiteness by the starkness of the screen. "This is followed by unconsciousness and then death, due to heart and respiratory failure," he finished as his shoulders slumped in despondency.

Toby came forward then, moving up to stand beside Sam, and together they watched the continued coverage in silence. Eventually Sam turned to him hesitantly, like a lost lamb seeking shelter from the rain.

"Toby, if they don't get her out soon, she'll have survived the plane crash only to die in the water."

*****

Chapter Eight:

Night was falling fast like a heavy cloak adorning the weary shoulders of a quivering sun. The moon was somewhere in between, a large faint circle covered with green-cheese pockmarks, hanging high in the sky and keeping itself hidden from the dwindling light. Its noncommittal appearance reminiscent of the faded yellowish tint from among a pile of discarded Nickelodeon photographs. The city air was overtly frosty and too crisp, feeling like the sharp sting of an open-handed slap to the face, as the temperature dipped into the bottom glass-bubble limits of the thermometer.

Josh Lyman was running hell-bent along the tar pavement of the 14th Street Bridge, with steamy puff clouds of breath escaping on the tail of every strained exhalation. They were like an out of formation squadron of overhead comic strip bulletins, without comment, which he destroyed one by one as he broke through them. It was so bitterly cold; each intake of oxygen was expressed straight down to his lungs and then lodged there like lumps of squatter ice. There was a dizzying rush of blood pumping through his veins by detour route of his ears, and it was attuned in perfect symmetry to the rapid-fire beating of his heart. The beautiful song Ave Maria, was playing somewhere, he could hear it. Though it was different than before, vice-versa. Now the music was being interpreted within the wail of real-life sirens, switched around from what he had come to expect. It was all so hard to guess at anymore, akin to turning the knob to reveal your Mystery Date, never knowing for sure what you're going to find behind the game's cardboard door. No dress rehearsals allowed and no practice tries either, because we're playing for keeps here. You get whatever you end up with on your throw of the dice, and you're stuck with it, even in the face of wild cards, like fire and bullets and plane crashes. So learn to live with it buddy or start learning to live without her, whichever 21st century politically correct side of the fence is easiest for you to stomach. His sister had once described music to him as possessing the capacity to touch heaven and earth at the same time, achieving the best of both worlds simultaneously. It was she'd said the purest form of prayer, transcending all derivatives of faith in all lands and by every age group. Somewhere over his shoulder, the ghost of family past was offering up prayer right now by setting up court in the southbound lanes, as forever young Joanie laid everlasting claim to her favorite piece. She stepped up to an invisible podium, an angel conducting over a silent symphony, tapping a delicate bamboo-reed baton as she turned over a never-changing page of music. Ave Maria has such a haunting refrain and Joanie was expertly leading it into that high crescendo now, taking him along as an unwitting accomplice. Josh could so vividly visualize CJ standing there in his office the last time he had played that song. She was holding a glass of wine in her hand, listening carefully and waiting patiently for him to make sense, or join the party, whatever one might make its appearance first. He remembered wondering then how it was she couldn't see it plain in his eyes, just how much in love with her he was. She'd called him 'sweet' and in his mind he had changed the script, bringing in 'sweetheart' as substitute, just to try it on for size.

He ran on feet that felt like they were turned the wrong direction, keeping him in place so that he would never be able to reach the finish line. Police and Fire Department people were strategically stationed over the whole of the bridge, blowing on tone-deaf metal whistles, and directing the choreography of just beginning to budge car and pedestrian traffic. Trying to help free the scene for emergency transport and the imminent arrival of a team of air disaster investigators. More than once Josh had been detained by authority figures trying to keep him away from where he needed to be, with CJ. That's all that was material anymore, getting there, wherever exactly there might be. Each time he had been required to disclose the nature of his presence to get through. It was like presenting your travel papers at a border crossing, infuriating him with the waste of precious time. He had to follow the evolution of their stony civil servitude faces, first cracking the bat with wariness, then rounding the corner of disbelief and finally, sliding home into pity. He hated having to look at that visage most of all and had nearly been compelled to punch their lights out for thinking of her dead. She didn't need that kind of defeatist-karma spoiling the mix, like stepping on a crack and breaking your mother's back. If he stubbornly kept on believing she was alive, then she just had to be right? The outside pocket of his unbuttoned woolen winter coat had been ringing off the proverbial hook, in the muffled song notes of a jarringly bad digitized tune. His was set to the William Tell Overture, because he had programmed it that way earlier, arbitrarily hoping to annoy Toby during the meeting this morning by pretending he had forgotten to switch it to silent. Only it never did ring during the meeting and he really had forgotten about it later. It started ringing again now, with its solid weight repeatedly hitting his thigh as he ran. He reached in and grabbed hold of it, never breaking stride, pulling it out and glancing briefly at the caller I.D. display. It was the White House, Leo's personal line, and it was coded as a double priority 911. He disregarded this official summons, filing it under yet another obstacle blocking his way. Whatever was happening over there was bush league next to this and he couldn't be bothered, neither with it, nor by them. He pitched the cell-phone over the side of the bridge without hesitation and kept on running, as if the remainder of his life depended on the continuation of hers.

And oh My God, it did. It did.

He faltered, stumbling awkwardly; nearly tripping over his own feet as the power of this naked revelation hit full force. His heart palpitated, caught in the net of a sudden full arrest from the protracted promise of its next beat. He couldn't escape this time; the intruder had traveled incognito, getting past all the erected barriers and posted security checkpoints in his head. He was thinking of her dead now, and the slightest possibility of it being true nearly broke him in half, before he was able to hammer it back down into firm denial. And so, with his resolve freshly reaffirmed, he ran on; nothing else mattered to him anymore, nothing whatsoever.

*****

When CJ was in college, she had been living off the nub of a string on a shoestring budget. She had a full scholarship, but still needed to eat; so during her sophomore year, she had impulsively volunteered to be a guinea pig for an on-going campus research project. The accompanying disclaimer, which she'd only skimmed, purported it to be a comparison study to the decades-earlier experiments on the affects of sensory deprivation upon the human psyche. She had answered the ad immediately simply on the basis that it offered to pay more money than she could earn in a full week working at her part-time job. She had heard of sensory-deprivation tanks before, although not in great detail, and at face value it sounded harmless enough. She had smiled tolerantly at her pseudo professor-wannabes as they scurried about the lab, making ready, while she waited outside the opened door of a large enclosed water tank. She was in fact bored out of her mind, feeling utterly ridiculous wearing a full-body non-restrictive wetsuit. A pair of blackened-out eye goggles atop her head and holding a set of ear and nose plugs in her hand. Once she went inside the tank, with the help of these, she would be unable to hear, see, or smell, and would be required to breathe through her mouth. She had pictured herself looking like an ignoble platypus; a progeny claimed by neither land nor sea, put together in haste and with mismatched leftover parts. The absurd thought had made her laugh out loud. Though there was nothing to laugh about once the door was shut and locked behind her.

She couldn't hear the official clang it made, but the unmistakable symbolism associated with the loss of one's freedom was there just the same. She had never considered herself claustrophobic, but apparently that myth was on the table for debate. It was enough to make her waver uncertainly as to the soundness of this decision. However, nobody would ever accuse CJ Cregg of being a quitter, so with pride shackled at the helm she went on with it. She floated weightlessly in water saturated with Epsom salts, precisely maintained at skin temperature. For a long period, although she had no real measure of time, everything was fine. She just bobbed there, unable to feel her body; mute, blind, deaf, alone, and kept separate from all things that defined the physical world. No light, no sound, no smell, no pull of gravity and no temporal or spatial ability. She had tried sampling her environment or the lack thereof, by sending specific signals to her mind to move her fingers or toes, but stopped that game soon enough. Unable to accurately judge whether the aforementioned appendage was moving or not, she found the resultant ambiguity profoundly unsettling. Too much like a whole-body paralysis. She attempted to relax, but it was impossible. Weird things started creeping into her mind. Things she didn't want to consider, and never would have otherwise, but here without any competitive stimulation to waylay it, no alternative input, and just nothingness, they came unbidden. Images were randomly spiraling behind the lids of her vacant unseeing eyes. Disturbing images mixed in with the mundane, flash dissolving one into another so quickly that she didn't know whether to laugh or cry at any given moment. Suddenly there were noises everywhere, inside and out, hurting her overly sensitive eardrums. She couldn't really hear them of course, but just knew somehow that they were there, grossly overloud and wrong. It was a slow torture, like drowning in increments with water being leaked into her lungs, one eyedropper at a time. She wanted out. She wanted out now. She started screaming hysterically, getting that point across post-haste to the designated key-master in the lair of her would-be captors. They had been electronically monitoring her progress all along, and fell over themselves trying to get the door unlatched and opened immediately following the first clear signs of her distress. But there had been a moment there, nestled somewhere alongside her newfound insider definition of hell, when she was absolutely positive that that tank had now become her tomb. That dreadful experience had been but a light-beer shot, to foreshadow the swallow of the hard whiskey chaser of her current predicament.

Robert and Penny had made it in safely, already loaded into the bays of waiting ambulances. The helicopter had returned to the tail section for a second rescue, as it poised precariously overhead on a scaffold composed entirely of air and technology. The ice-cold water was the maw of an angry beast as it sloshed and churned, spurned on by the backlash of the blades, unsettled like the dissatisfaction of a no-win argument. The sky was a menacing solid black background; there were no stars out tonight. The only cast of light issued from the underside glaring beams of the chopper and a row of gargantuan Hollywood premiere spotlights set up onshore, meticulously scouring the crash area in hopes of locating last-minute survivors. The swiftly moving ovals of reflected light slithered up and over their targets, scraping across ice floes and illuminating them in repose, resembling a string of upright translucent pearls. Arlan was reaching over trying to snare the lowered lifeline, just like he had done before. It was costing him dearly too, his face grimacing out a two-page grievance list of internal aches and pains. CJ's mind was shutting down; operating only sporadically in fits and spurts. She would have brief moments of clarity, interspersed with increasing periods of confusion. It had happened again. She had been watching Arlan grab for the ring one second and then the next that same ring was being pressed over her head by way of Max.

"Go...CJ...go live..." Arlan bid her shakily in a trembling old man voice that hadn't been that old earlier on.

He had aged two full decades in a single night. They all had. Max smiled at her wearily as he nodded his blessing as well. CJ hadn't the strength to brook protest this time even if she wanted to, and she didn't. She was drained of energy and wanted to sleep. She wanted to be warm. She wanted to go home, like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, and if she could just feel her feet she would tap together the heels of her ruby red slippers and make it so. The helicopter began moving away and dragging her with it, although she couldn't feel the tug of the rope because she was so numb. CJ wanted to say something to Arlan and Max, to thank them or wish them well, something like that. But she was unable to form the right words and there wasn't time anyway. She looked at each one in turn and somehow understood that everything was okay. They knew. Her uninjured hand squeaked along the metal fašade, until the tail section was out of reach. Then completely gone from sight. She was alone now, just like she had been in that tank back in college. It felt like that too, total isolation. As she got a little closer to shore she could make out people milling about, amid the red and blue flashing beacons of ambulances and police cars. The sight calmed her a little. It reminded her of how as a child at Christmas time she would sometimes take off her glasses and gaze at all the displays of holiday lights. It was the one time of year when she didn't really mind being near-sighted. Her unfocused fuzzy vision would magically transform the lights into a kaleidoscope of multi-colored snowflakes forever suspended in air, never to fall to earth. Those lights had been beautiful in an untraditional way, and so was this because it was almost over. Max had looped the flotation ring over her head, and under her good arm. The other arm trailed behind her in the water uselessly. Her only job was to hold on, but she was having trouble doing even that. She was so very tired and cold. The grasp of her fingers was tentative at best; clumsy like the gills of a fish out of water, opening and closing trying desperately to catch onto something that just isn't there.

Suddenly, a large ice floe appeared in her path and she couldn't avoid it. It smacked her soundly in the hip, twisting her body around dizzyingly until she was facing the wrong way. The ring slipped away from her body, going on without her.

*****

Chapter Nine:

Josh clumsily stumbled forward, just clearing the crest of a large snow embankment, as he stiffly crouched and rolled over to the other side. The tactical placement of the mound provided a natural fortification, and bordered one end of the 14th Street Bridge, leading down to the frigid water of the Potomac River that ran beneath it. He was out of breath and puffing hard with unyielding lungs that felt as though they had been wrung inside out like a discarded dishrag. The terrain he had just covered had been, to his way of thinking, the urban league equivalent of scaling the face of Mount Everest. Even though his doctors had declared him fully recovered from the gunshot wound, they had cautioned him about over-stepping the boundaries of his physical limitations. Josh had never, before today, considered testing the hypothesis of this theory, but obviously they had been right, and he was starting to suffer the consequences of too much too soon. He had also miscalculated the speed of his descent, having cast off too quick from the ridge and causing a cavalcade disturbance within the ice and slush aligning the slope. An unsteady eruption of this heady mixture followed in his wake, building on itself like a snowball and picking up speed and density as it traveled. The miniature avalanche soon caught its second wind; eventually sprinting ahead and coming from underneath to trip up his feet. He lost traction and then couldn't stop the momentum, falling down on his rump and sliding ungainly for the last few remaining yards. He landed hard upon his knees at the very bottom; both of his arms, all the way up to the shoulders were completely buried inside the potbelly of a pile of tightly compacted snow. Josh was a relatively young man, being only forty-one, but he was feeling twice that and then some right about now. He struggled there, rocking on his knees, caught up like a netted fish and working feverishly to free himself from the snowy stockade. He was beyond frustrated and it was all coming to an explosive head. Somewhere deep inside his gut a pit of simmering anger broke through the dam and spewed forth in hot waves to storm the Bastille of his tolerance. His fury was of mammoth size having evolved in direct proportional response to answer the call of each and every tragic event of the long day. The fruit of this poisonous tree was internal for the most part, but it also included God, the world in general and anyone at all really, who happened to cross his mind. Josh's face was a contorted mask, unrecognizable, as cold droplets of sweat trickled from his forehead and down his back, which only served to chill him further. It wasn't like he was demanding deliverance for God's sake. He wasn't. He had already arrived at the tacit understanding that he couldn't hope for much more then that CJ had survived the initial blunt trauma of the plane crash. That would be more than enough of a miracle, and if given half a chance the two of them could take it from there. He had made it back; so could she and together they would face whatever hardships the course of her recovery might compel. No, the only divine assistance he was seeking at this moment was to stop blocking the way like this by throwing up detour after detour that kept him from getting to her. He would be the first to admit that he mightn't be as openly devout as Toby, but at the same time he wasn't so far removed from the foundations of his faith to feel hypocritical now. If CJ was already dead and that was the real truth of the matter then after the smoke finally cleared nothing and nobody was ever going to change that fact. The thing was though, he didn't believe it was so, and what he couldn't accept was the real possibility of her dying out there in the water, alone and afraid. If she should die like that because he couldn't reach her in time, he would never be able to forgive himself. It would be like losing Joanie all over again, but made ten times worse because it was CJ this time. He was no hero and held no illusions that he was even qualified to apply for the position, but he was here. He was here right now. He had been placed on the bridge at that precise moment and surely that must mean something. A higher purpose maybe, one that went beyond his ability to comprehend or put into words. But it just had to mean something.

Josh abruptly fell backwards when his arms suddenly popped free; standing up he hastily brushed away the peppered remnants of snow and ice. The normally vibrant color of his eyes was faded by shades and had glazed over as he lifted his gaze to search across the indistinct measure of the immense Potomac. This up close and personal, the river completely dwarfed its surroundings, and was currently artificially animated under a deluge of searchlights and people. There was a hotbed of activity centered where river greeted shore and boasted representatives from every imaginable emergency department, present and accounted for. At least twenty police cars were neatly lined up side by side upon the bridge directly above, marking the exact spot where the doomed plane had hit. First destroying the girders and supporting framework of the guardrail before falling into the river below. The standard issue red and blue domed lights perched on the hoods of the cars were circling strangely out of synch, as if they had been purposely started at different times, like a staggered chorus of 'Row Row Your Boat.' The resultant fluctuating glow made for an effective contrast against the dark of night, leaping from the bridge in brilliant flashes and reflecting off the diverse surfaces it met along the way. There was a service utility road off to the side of the bridge, running parallel to the hill Josh had climbed over. Normally access to this road would be closed to the public, but today it held a stand-by convoy of ambulances, fire engines, rescue squads and more police cars. At first glance and to the untrained eye, it might appear like outright pandemonium, but there actually was an underlying coordination to the whole operation. A group of rescuers stationed next to the water was diligently wrestling with a cumbersome silver canister of compressed air, using it to pump up a rubber raft, which at this stage had only been inflated halfway. One band of firemen and police officers were hoisting up a fire ladder and extending it over the water, attempting to reach the cradle of a nearby ice floe. But it kept falling short of the intended mark, and they would immediately regroup and try again. Others were testing the strength and fitness of rope-lines while mulling over the feasibility of suggested rescue scenarios being offered from the rank and file of their comrades. Hand-held walkie-talkies and headsets were loudly crackling back and forth, alive with a rapid crossfire report of status and communication updates passing between the bridge, ground and air rescue support. Up to this point, Josh's unauthorized appearance had gone largely unnoticed, but all that changed with the ringing slap of a large beefy hand coming down hard on his left shoulder. There was a hitherto untapped source of natural power coursing through those stubby fingers, and the man attached to them was now expertly applying direct pressure meant to disable, as he roughly spun Josh around. The man was an epitome of authority personified. A DC police officer. He was red-faced, bug-eyed, approaching middle age and graying around the temples. He stood at least six foot three and was nearly that broad through the middle. He wore the badge of law enforcement like a second skin; he was a decorated veteran both of the force and the hard-knock school of life.

"You press?" he demanded without preamble. His voice oozed liquid acid laced with contempt and disapproval. His no nonsense stance and demeanor suggested he had seen and heard it all before, and had no interest whatsoever in an unscheduled romp down nostalgia lane.

"No. I..." Josh tried to explain, but didn't have a chance.

"You guys. You should be ashamed of yourselves," the cop went on, ignoring Josh's protests as he kept shoving him back, throwing his full bulk behind it in order to keep him moving. "I'm thinking it should've been one of you blood hounds on that plane there. Cause then maybe you'd get a dose of your own medicine."

"Wait! Would you just wait a minute!" Josh yelled, digging his heels into the ground so he couldn't be bulldozed any further.

The two of them were suddenly distracted by the clamor of a powerful noise as it filtered onto land from somewhere within the obscurity of the murky water. The source of the sound was shyly anonymous, originating from where the spotlights couldn't quite reach. It rumbled low and deep, growing stronger. An unhurried reverberating echo, like the paced flapping of a pair of huge wings upon a prehistoric pterodactyl; it was in fact what could be considered that creature's modern day technological descendant. A helicopter the color of dark forest chocolate prophetically broke through the opaqueness offset only by a row of brightly-lit underbody lights to pave the way. It was heading towards shore, but traveling at such a depressed rate of speed that at times it appeared to just hover there in mid-air without noticeable traces of movement. The pilot skillfully skimmed the edges of both propriety and safety by continuously keeping the chopper within mere feet of the water's unsettled surface. A helmeted paramedic precariously leaned out from the open bay door, one gloved hand steadying a rope line that dangled from within and dropped down into the river beneath. He would peer below, repeatedly checking the progress of his charge, and then would speak into the microphone to the pilot, who would adjust the craft accordingly, backtracking or going forward, increasing the rate of speed or slowing it down. As the helicopter got closer, those on shore were able to see that there was a woman clinging to a flotation device tethered to the end of the rescue line. The large ring was looped over her head and under one arm, but it wasn't a secure fit by far, lying half on and half off her body, made worse by the fact that she was only using one hand to hold on. For every two feet of travel gained the ring would slip off an inch or two, first riding up from around her waist, then sliding to her chest, and now heading for her neck. It was a desperate race against the clock to see which would get there first, in more ways than one. Something vital in Josh's heart broke apart at the pitiful sight and even though she was still too far away to clearly see her face, intuitively he knew this was CJ. He was positive.

"Let me go!" Josh insisted. So crazed to be set free that he began to physically struggle against the ironclad grip of the experienced officer who held him at bay.

"Whoa there paperboy," the cop warned, bearing down on him like a vice without breaking a sweat. "I'll take you in and bust you for assault on an officer if you don't quit it."

"That's my girlfriend out there, you asshole! Let me go!" Josh screamed hysterically, his eyes wild and unfocused. He had never before in his life been this incensed. Blood ricocheted through his veins at the speed of light. His pulse rate doubled, tripled and then flew completely off the scale. His fingers clawed inanely at the cop's hands banded tightly across his chest, trying to pick them off. It made no difference; the guy was just bigger and stronger and those were the logistics, might over fight. He was going nowhere.

"Yeah. Yeah. That's rich, buddy. She's your girlfriend. You guys really have no scruples you know that? Anything to sell a paper," he scoffed, as he lifted Josh nearly off his feet, herding him towards a nearby police car. Josh was in total shock. He just couldn't believe that he'd gone through all this hell, gotten so far, only to be turned away now. He had failed her. Failed miserably. The police officer aggressively bent Josh over the trunk of the car, pinning him face down with his left cheek rubbing metal. He kept him in place with one large hand splayed across his back, and with the other he reached behind him for his handcuffs. He was just about to click them into place on Josh's wrists when the call-radio clipped to his shoulder pad suddenly sparked into action.

"This is Eagle 1 to ground base. This is Eagle 1 to ground base. We've lost her. We've lost the victim in the water. Do you have a visual on her from shore? Repeat. This is Eagle 1. We've lost sight of the victim. Do you have a visual? Please copy."

"CJ!" Josh bellowed at the top of his lungs upon hearing the dreadful news. This wasn't happening. This just wasn't happening. It was the only thought running through his mind as the pain of unfathomable grief engulfed him like wild fire. "CJ!" he cried again, inconsolable.

"What did you say?" the cop asked, his voice soft. Letting go his grip on Josh as he completely changed the venue of his personality from hostile over to sympathizer.

"What?" Josh responded slowly, weakened and confused.

"Your girlfriend. Her name's CJ?"

"Yes, CJ," he confirmed. "Why?" he asked in a shaky voice that was gaining strength with every word, fueled by a gnawing sense of reawakened hope. He stood up hesitantly.

"Oh jeez man, I didn't believe you. I'm sorry."

"What are you talking about?" Josh demanded, needing to cut to the chase.

"Before you got here, two of the survivors had already been brought in. One was a guy by the name of Robert, and he told us there were three other people still out there, two men and one woman. The woman Robert had brought in with him was named Penny, and he said the other one was named CJ. I mean how many CJ's could there have been on that plane?" he asked, looking askance. Josh stared at him incredulously for perhaps half a second, letting this new information sink in, before sprinting off in a mad dash to reach the water's edge. The police officer was close behind him, keeping pace all the way, surprisingly nimble for a man of his girth. Meanwhile, the helicopter had been circling the area, retracing its path and shining a spotlight down into the water, tirelessly searching. The stratagem finally paid off as they caught sight of their elusive quarry. They quickly began to lower the rescue float once more, but by this time CJ had nothing left in reserve. It appeared as if she was trying to swim in the rest of the way by herself. She paddled restlessly with one arm, barely staying afloat, aimlessly slapping at the water and getting nowhere. The floatation ring dropped down right in front of her, just inches away and yet she made no motion to grab for it. Her dilated unseeing eyes stared straight ahead, registering not a thing.

"Oh God. She's not going to make it," Josh declared, shedding his jacket and shoes, throwing them to the ground.

"What are you doing? Are you crazy man? You think the rest of us here have just been standing around for our health? Nobody's gone into the water because it's a suicide mission, don't you understand? It's too cold. You'll just end up a victim yourself, and what good would that do her, huh? Please. Wait for the raft. They've almost got it ready."

"Wait? There's no time. Look at her," Josh implored. "She's dying."

"Okay. Okay. But at least let me tie a line to you." Josh nodded impatiently, never taking his eyes off of CJ. A second later the cop was back. "My name's Murray by the way. And you?" he asked, while securing the rope around Josh's waist.

"Josh."

"Well listen up, Josh. When you've got a hold of CJ you tug twice on this line here, real hard, and I'll pull you both back in. Don't you forget to do it either, you hear? Once you get into that water, you'll have about five minutes before the cold zaps all your strength. You won't have the energy to make it back by yourself. I'm telling you now it's the truth, so just let me do all the work. Got that?"

"Yeah. And Murray?"

"Uh-huh?"

"Thanks."

"My thanks will be when you get that lady of yours back home safe. Now go on, before I change my mind and decide to lock you up for your own good."

*****

Chapter Ten:

Less than half a hour had gone by since the crash of Flight 190 into the frozen Potomac River, and during that period the city had transformed fully from day into night. The huge moon had risen; an impressive spectacle of silver hues jostled from its repose of mystical slumber. It showered husks of chameleon light upon the world below and summoned forth a radiance that remained aloof and jaded. The lunar beams spread out like feelers to cross the terra firma and were similar in appearance to the questing probe of a prison yard light, as it illuminated both land and glistening water. All around the strident piercing timbres of the emergency sirens shrieked in a continuous counterpoint. The forlorn sounds wrapped within the embers of the blizzard wind as it blew, like fire catching fire.

The moon shadow had been chasing Josh since nightfall, and he as well was not immune to its hypnotic pull. It watched with rapt attention as he waded out into the freezing water, like a repentant sinner seeking a last chance at redemption. The unspeakable pain of cold, the likes of which he had never before known, consumed his body inch by inch and he was forced to clamp shut his jaw to keep the agonized cries from escaping. The knowledge that CJ was experiencing this same excruciating pain and more besides was enough to bring fresh tears to his eyes, which he resolutely blinked back. Josh was no longer the same man he had been this morning, not by far. He had been forever changed and was now world-wearied in both mind and spirit; the growing cynicism shaped by the experiences of the day and those of the preceding months. These events had taught him that the familiar promises of shelter and safety so often taken for granted were but falsehoods; a network of crafted lies told to a foolhardy listener, and he would listen no more. Not far away from him a sizeable portion of ice shattered into pieces with a resounding echo, collapsing under the pressure of some unknown influence. The noise it made was over loud when matched against the deceptive calm and seclusion of the icy water that held him surrounded on all sides. His body shook in spasms of shivers and his teeth chattered as he reluctantly drew the frigid air deeply into his tortured lungs. Already he was suffering from overexertion and the raw biting edge of a fear that never lessened. It was comforting at least to feel the tension that Murray applied to the strong rope tied around his waist, allowing just enough slack to proceed, but not so much that it would hinder his progress. Josh lowered his eyes as the water reached chest level, as if he was able to discern his feet and was carefully mapping the placement of each footstep. Then the next instance there wasn't anything supporting him at all except the water, as the river bottom fell away into nothing. He stretched out limbs that ached and burned from the constant exposure and started to swim, keeping the strokes uniform in pace and length to conserve energy and so he wouldn't tire as quickly. He concentrated solely on the task at hand, lifting one arm and arching it overhead while the other sliced neatly through the water, breathing evenly from side to side and then repeating the cycle. The mindless chore fast became mechanic despite the cold, and in fact it helped to increase his circulation and warmth. But it also freed his attention and he had to purposely lure his thoughts away from her, because he was too afraid of what he was going to find, so instead he tried to think of other things.

He remembered a time when as a young boy out riding his bicycle he had stumbled upon an old deserted graveyard. It had been located in an adjacent clearing which couldn't be easily spotted from the paved road, and as young boys are apt to do, he decided to explore. The cemetery had seen better days of course, and was sorely in need of attention. The once lovingly cultivated patches of grass and field had given way to some aggressive flowering weed of bright red and rich lavender. The seemingly misplaced festive colors were incongruous amongst the dead and neglect, but were still somehow in keeping with the overall theme. Their top-heavy buds had been strangled by the embrace of leaf and stem, waning from the natural inclination to reach upward towards the sun, now lying limp and withered upon the vine. There was an abundance of stenciled names and passages upon the weathered granite headstones and wooden pallets bordering most of the mounds, which were overgrown with foliage. Young Josh had continued on reverently, maneuvering through the twists and turns of the topography with the likened familiarity of a seasoned mourner. He came to a stop, bending down balanced upon the soles of his feet to stare transfixed at a rather nondescript headstone. It was the only one in the entire graveyard that was still in good repair, having a polished well cared for finish. There was little fancy adornment on this particular stone, just a drawing of an ornate feather entwined with greenery and encircled twice with interlacing rings, and below this the sentiment 'My Beloved Wife' chiseled in script. All of a sudden he felt decidedly uneasy and wasn't exactly sure why. Perhaps it was due in some part to the setting and so apropos this keeping company with a minion of dead, but that wasn't it. That's when he noticed the flowers lying across the grave; a fresh bouquet of red roses in full bloom, at least a dozen or more, with dew still dripping off the petals. Next to the grave was a wrought-iron park bench without a single blemish of rust or corrosion, and upon it sat an opened paperback book. The discovery had sent chills up his spine, like a moment interrupted. He stood up quickly and ran, leaving the graveyard never to return. He had felt seedy like an unwelcome intruder on something that was supposed to stay private and personal, and he was deeply ashamed of his trespass. He had pedaled away that day wondering if he would ever be lucky enough to share that sort of loving bond with a woman when he grew up, one that could be expressed in so few words, and transcended even death. The adult Josh had been searching his whole life for that kind of love and he had finally found it in CJ, and he was damned if he was ready to lose her now.

He had been making good time when he pulled up short, swiping at the excess moisture that clung to his eyes and nose. He treaded water, shocked at the sight before him. It was CJ. She was draped over a small ice floe, holding on with one arm and using it like a makeshift life preserver to keep her head above water. She wasn't moving at all and for one terrifying moment he thought maybe she was dead, but then she shifted slightly and turned her head his way.

"CJ?" he called to her excitedly.

He quickly covered the remaining distance between them, coming beside her. He brought his hand up to brush against her cheek, but she flinched and pulled back from his touch. She was behaving as though she didn't know him at all. Her eyes were the color and texture of crumbled charcoal. The windows to her soul were sightless, with no sign of activity residing behind their fixed glassy fašade.

"It's me...CJ," he whispered urgently, trying to get through to her, his voice catching on the emotion. "It's Josh." But again, there was no response. He grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her to him, wrapping his arms tightly around her waist. "CJ. Please...don't...don't do this," he begged. She resisted him at first, holding herself stiff as a board, but after a few seconds she gave out a little sigh, as if she had been holding her breath the whole time, and then relaxed noticeably. Her skin felt like a solid block of ice next to his, colder even than the water and the contact made him shiver violently. Nothing had felt better in his life. They were so close to one another that he could easily detect the changing flutter in beat as her heart quickened, although maybe it had been his own, which was even now thundering madly in his chest. He could no longer tell for sure, because their lives and mutual fear had become interchangeable. CJ was panting more than breathing, obviously having some difficulty as he could hear the wheezing wet rattle of her water-soaked lungs. In truth, they were both only a stone's throw away from a complete physical breakdown, and the mental stakes at hand were even greater. He pulled away a bit so that he could study her in detail. His hands rose to cup either side of her face, taking note of her pallid color and the furrowed brows under trails of beaded frost. Her clothes no longer fit the definition of the word having been shredded into tatters, and there were numerous cuts and abrasions over her entire body. He followed the trail of her immobile left arm with his eyes, down to the point of a visible break, wincing in sympathy. He could only imagine what she had been through. He drew her back within the cocoon of his body, forming a protective barrier, as if he could undo all the damage. "It's okay," he murmured next to her ear, kissing the top of her head. "You made it. We're going...home."

"Home..." she repeated quietly a moment later, and his heart soared.

This time her eyes rose a fraction and he was gratified to finally see a spark of recognition there, enough so that she was able to meet his gaze and forge a small smile of reassurance. It was a half-smile really, and one that never reached all the way to her eyes, falling far short of the intended target, and in the end being only a haunting play at normality. She turned her head away under the intense scope of his scrutiny, burrowing her face into his neck, as if she was afraid he would be able to read beyond the mask that she was trying so desperately to keep in place. Josh lifted the rescue line from below the water's surface and tugged on it twice, as hard as he could. There came an answering tug from Murray's end a moment later. He gently turned CJ around so that her back was nestled against his front and brought one of his hands under her right arm, his fingers splayed across her stomach, securing her body alongside his own. She leaned back resting her head against his shoulder, closing her eyes tiredly as the rope line grew taut under Murray's strong ministrations. They began to move away, slowly being led back to shore. They were uneven in height which hindered a fluidity of movement, but Josh soon fell in with a natural rhythm, swimming with one arm, holding onto CJ with the other, and letting Murray supply the needed power. Silence reigned. He could place the straining pull of his back muscles, contracting and relaxing with every lap, and he could feel the curved sway of CJ's hip as it bumped against his own. There was a rise of concentrated heat born of uncertainty, which wafted outward from their bodies. He welcomed all these things because they were small reminders of her presence and life force, small reminders of his own. Everything was going fine; they were more than halfway there when Josh began to realize that something was terribly wrong. CJ seemed agitated and no longer was passively allowing him to drag her to shore. She squirmed restlessly. Her hand crept up around his anchoring arm, trying to pull it away and when that didn't work she started to struggle in earnest. Josh had no effective way of signaling Murray to stop the pull, so that he could take a moment and determine what it was that was causing her distress. He could only look into her eyes, searching for clues to her current state of mind. They stared back at him with empty resignation.

"What is it CJ? What's...wrong?"

"Listen...Elmo...laughing..." she stammered, struggling with the words. But they made no sense to him.

"I don't...understand." She pointed off into the distance and he looked, he did, but there just wasn't anything there. "I don't...see anything."

"Melis..sa...yellow. There," she insisted, but this time she was pointing in a completely opposite direction. She was hallucinating, and all the while they were still being towed in, although without the combined efforts of all three, the going was slower. CJ suddenly seemed to understand what was happening and it drove her to distraction. Josh didn't know where she was finding the strength, but she fought him tooth and nail. She was pulling away from him and with no way to halt the efforts from shore there was a real danger that CJ could slip out of Josh's reach. He couldn't take the risk. He had no choice.

"Laugh...doll..."CJ was saying, beating her fist furiously against his chest. She broke off her rambling mid-way unable to continue, as she was overcome with a nauseating wave of pain that even the numbness couldn't conceal. She slumped over weakly and Josh caught her, as she bit her lip hard to keep from screaming. Her arm felt as though it was on actual fire, alive and throbbing insistently with waves of raw agony. She opened her eyes; her face riddled with physical and mental torment, as she let her focus stray from his sorrowful eyes down to his hand. His hand, that still rested on top of her broken arm. He had aggravated the wound on purpose, intentionally causing her pain. She looked at him and burst into tears. It was more than he could bear.

"I'm sorry. I'll go back...CJ. I promise. After we get you...to shore. If...if there's someone else...out there. I'll go back."

"No..." she said plaintively through her tears.

"Yes. I promise. I'll...go back."

"No," she repeated, covering his lips with her fingers. "Sorry...so...sorry...Josh." She shook her head, frustrated with her inability to communicate. "Know...Melissa...dead," she said in a strangled whisper. "Know."

They didn't have another chance to speak as Josh's feet came into contact with the river bottom once more. Their cloistered world was suddenly alive again with lights, sirens, helicopters and people shouting and cheering. Police officers, fire department personnel and others splashed into the water to escort the two of them the last few remaining feet to shore. CJ was quickly whisked away to a waiting stretcher and loaded into an ambulance with a full team of paramedics hovering over her care. Murray came forward and slapped Josh on the back, wrapping a blanket around his shoulders as he enfolded him into a sloppy bear hug.

"You did it Josh," he beamed, as he worked to untie the rope from Josh's waist. "You brought your lady home."

"No, I think we have you to thank for that one, Murray."

"Oh go on," he scoffed. "Now if you'd like I'll give you a personal police escort on over to the hospital where they're taking CJ. I know you want to be with her."

"Thanks. Murray?" he asked, as he gazed one last time over the expanse of the Potomac.

"Yes?"

"Is there any chance that someone else might still be out there?"

"No," Murray answered without hesitation. "We've checked, double-checked, triple-checked. CJ, Robert, Penny and Max, that's the lot of them."

"Wait. That's only four. You said before that after Robert and Penny there were still three other survivors. Two men and one woman."

"Yeah, I did. But while you were out there with CJ the helicopter went back for another rescue. The last man handed the floater to Max, just like he'd been doing all along. He'd catch the float, but he'd pass it on to the others. By the time the chopper returned to get him he was gone. Drowned. His name was Arlan and it bears repeating because he was a genuine hero."

*****

Chapter Eleven:

Toby had turned his back on CJ and the news coverage just after she'd lost her grip on the lifeline. Normally he would do anything in the world for her, but he couldn't be expected to watch her die. Truthfully he was furious with her, and the growth of his anger copied the increasing distance between her fingers and the flotation ring, as the helicopter pulled away. CJ was injured and no doubt incapacitated from the debilitating affects of hypothermia; he understood these things. Hell he had watched them, because the live raw footage left nothing whatsoever to the imagination, but none of that mattered. The thing he couldn't accept was the notion of her giving up and that's exactly what she was doing to his way of thinking. Toby closed his eyes and concentrated on staying mad at her because it was his only weapon of choice in a completely powerless situation. But he just couldn't bring himself to do it. Instead he was picturing how comical she had looked after falling into the pool in California, the day he came out to invite her to join the Bartlet presidential campaign. A graceful water ballet swan she wasn't. More like a six-foot tall, badly near-sighted albatross, sputtering directives for him to avert his eyes around a mouthful of chlorinated water. Ironically she had held out some hope of emerging from the depths of that pool with a smidgen of her dignity still intact. Toby being Toby couldn't allow that of course, and had proceeded to cement the level of her embarrassment with some flippant remark. She had turned the tables on him though, marching out of the pool anyway with clingy clothes, well...clinging and carrying on their conversation as if nothing strange had occurred. That particular moment had CJ stamped all over it. Toby had been lucky enough to witness the infamous Benigni escapade as well, much to her disgrace. So that made twice in his presence that CJ had fallen into a pool or been pushed, as she resolutely insisted was the case with Roberto. That coincidence alone had to be one for the 'believe it or not' record books, and as such it had come to be a personal joke between them over the years. He had taken it upon himself to forewarn her in surreptitious ways about the hazardous risk of puddles along the White House walkways, especially on rainy days. He loved rainy days. Sometimes he even went so far as to leave a detailed schematic on top of her desk outlining alternate routes she might want to consider before venturing outside. She had never said anything about them to him or he to her, but once he had caught her studying one of his more elaborate plans, and smiling broadly in spite of herself. He shook his head, the anger momentarily forgotten. And now look at what had happened; she'd gone and fallen into the water again despite all his warnings. What was it with her and water anyway?

The past rescinded abruptly as the chaos of the present returned with the choked sound of a woman sobbing just over his shoulder. He was pretty sure the woman was Bonnie. Her muffled cries were at once solemn and intense, like the internal guilt of a child who has broken her favorite toy by loving it too much. Toby was Bonnie's immediate supervisor and so it was probably his place to go over and offer comfort, but he just couldn't bring himself to do it. The decades spent cultivating a tough, lone wolf persona made that kind of easy spontaneity all but impossible to pull off, and if the truth be known, he had come to believe his own press. The awkwardness such an act would impose on them both would outshine any real charity behind the motivation, and things were bad enough already. Fortunately, someone more suited to the task must have stepped forward because in the next minute Bonnie's cries were summarily silenced. Even though Toby wasn't watching the televised operation anymore he could still hear the reporter's overlay, confirming now that the rescue team had indeed lost sight of the woman survivor. His anger returned with vengeance at this update, double its original size and slamming into his belly like a sucker punch, taking his breath away. Toby suddenly flashed back to another dark event and not so long ago. The night of the assassination attempt and him being the one to stumble upon Josh, lying on the ground and bleeding from a gunshot wound. But as horrible as that whole night had been, he had not once entertained the possibility of Josh dying. Now it was CJ who was in danger and he wasn't at all sure this time, not at all. The chasm of uncertainty that is the deciding flipped coin of life and death left him a fragile old man, totally out of his element. That's why he loved writing so much. Words never intentionally left you hanging for the conclusion. They did only what they were told to do, and nothing more. And if someone should assign another interpretation it made no difference, because it was at best, a second-hand rose.

For whatever reason his attention was eventually drawn to the fixture hanging over Ginger's desk. One of the florescent bulbs was flickering on and off like a bug light zealously zapping its mesmerized prey and under any other circumstances, it probably would have annoyed him to no end. For Toby, life could be summed up as a series of annoyances, broken by the occasional day of jubilee. Today though he wanted to fall to his knees and kiss the feet of its flawed existence, and the mind-numbing distraction it offered. He observed it for a long time, silently measuring the space of delay between long and short flashes, as if it was a Morse code dispatch of top-secret nature. The rest of the staff gathered round had gone very quiet, and try as he might it was simply impossible to escape the pervading mood of disaster. Soon he was picking up the ominous vibes as if by osmosis and without conscious planning, he found his hand wrapped around the solid mass of a desk stapler. Since it was in his palm there, so convenient, he tested its weight and contemplated throwing it at the offending light. It had had the audacity to blasphemy her name at him, repeating it over and over again like a subliminal message hidden within the latter flashes. CJ...CJ...CJ. He was already savoring the satisfying cascade of glass and filament that would result from this act of vandalism. He hoped the White House janitorial staff would still be dust-busting fragments and slivers from the carpet a week from now. His own personalized 'Kilroy was here' moniker. The muscles in his arm had already begun to loosen as he labored towards wind-up, and then Ginger happened to glance his way. Time stood still as two sets of eyes in two separate colors grew wide simultaneously, the first one admitting his culpability and the other showing her disapproval. There most certainly would have been more to the standoff if Donna hadn't spoken up just then.

"Oh my God!" she croaked out in disbelief, as a hand flew to her mouth. "There's Josh!" Out of habit, most everyone looked towards the nearest entrance waiting for his scheduled appearance. When he didn't show, unconscious head counts were placed, like an overburdened family with too many little deductions, just realizing they are one kid short from the last rest stop. "No, not there," Donna clarified impatiently. "There," she said, pointing to the television screen and the sight of the White House Deputy Chief of Staff wading into the frozen Potomac.

*****

It was half past midnight, and the blizzard conditions responsible for so much tragedy during the day had finally bargained down to a drizzling rain. CJ associated the intermittent showers battering the windowpane with the sound of fingers tapping skillfully over a keyboard. She drifted towards it and consciousness in a desolate search for something safe and familiar, but there was only darkness when she finally opened her eyes. There was an oxygen mask covering her nose and mouth, dotted over the top with a series of holes and strange vapors were wafting through these openings. She swatted at it in a panic to brush it aside, as if she had unknowingly walked into a spider's web, and was desperately trying to separate herself from the sticky strands. She shuddered involuntarily and took a deep steadying breath in an effort to slow her rapidly beating heart. Her vision was starting to adjust itself to the gloom and she was able to discern the end of the bed she was lying on. Her toes were pressed right up against the imitation wood grain footer. Next to the bed was a metal nightstand along with a couple of utility chairs and on the wall over the door hung a clock. Strangely the whole thing was locked inside a wire basket protector, as if the theft of dime store timepieces had suddenly become a high profile crime statistic. The numbers were illuminated by the weak glow of an amber night-light, but it was too far away for her to read without the aid of contacts. The cloying silence and stuffiness of the tiny room that wasn't home was encompassing, and too much like the misleading calm before the storm. The innocent correlation was all that was necessary to trigger her remembrance of the plane crash and all that she had suffered after it in the Potomac.

The rain was a further hindrance simply because it was water; it notched her fear up another level by banging against the glass like it wanted to get in, like it wanted to get at her. She ran her tongue over cracked dried lips and reached over intending to press the call button for the nurse's station, but it wasn't there. Or rather the button was there, it was her arm that wasn't. It had been encased inside a bulky sling, folded snugly over her stomach and held in place by Velcro. Her other arm was about as useless, having become a human pincushion for any number of clear and colored concoctions that were slowly being trickled into her bloodstream, without permission. She tried to sit up and couldn't, the trappings of hospital care saw to that. Added into the equation was an overall grogginess from medication, which was wrecking havoc with her senses, and sensibility. She couldn't breathe. She was drowning in air. Which was of course, about as ridiculous as the absurdity of a land shark from the Saturday Night Live skit, but knowing the improbabilities didn't make it any less real.

"Please," she called out, making a formal address to the darkness because it was all she owned anymore. She wasn't exactly sure what she was asking for, but she needed it now. Serving a life sentence behind penitentiary bars, the minute hand heralded the passing of 12:37 a.m. into 12:38 a.m. and that was the extent of the room's interest in her tale of woe. In the meantime the rain had made nice with the wind and together they were pounding the window, hard enough to make the frame rattle and shake. The heavy sheets of water sleeted sideways at a nearly horizontal angle, and it was pointed directly at her like a dagger. The door swooshed open unexpectedly and a silhouette stood frozen in the entrance like a firing range target, framed by a play of shadow and artificial light spilling over from the hallway.

"Josh," she whispered, but only in her head. It actually came out as another "Please." As if the scope of her vocabulary had been reduced to a single word, and comprehension rested on the correct inflection. She was doubly frustrated by the word itself because if it had to be used at all, she preferred to be on the receiving end. The scarecrow man without a face was apparently fluent in gibberish and showed his understanding of her predicament by rushing forward, and she was both grateful and ashamed for his expediency. Grateful because she was just one second away from a bloodcurdling scream and ashamed because she had never before in her life been quite this needy. She dimly registered the shift of weight as he gingerly sat down on the bed, leaning over to wrap his arms around her body. She wanted to reciprocate but one arm was out of commission, and the other was entangled in a nest of rubber tubing and wires, and the whole mess was laced through the rails of the bed. As a result she was only able to raise her arm halfway, so she settled on compromise by grabbing a fistful of his warm cotton shirt from around the waistline, bunching it up and then holding on for dear life. She exhaled a breath she'd known for sure that she'd been holding, because she really wanted it out, and then went slack against his neck from the unbelievable relief.

She realized almost immediately that she had made a major mistake by letting her guard down in this fashion. Her heart was incorrectly interpreting it as a signal to go ahead and release the dam that was holding back all her emotional baggage and pain. She wasn't ready. It was too soon. She squeezed her eyes shut until spots danced dizzyingly in front of them, trying anything she could think of to stop the inevitability of what was coming. She didn't want this. She was stronger than this. Only she wasn't really, few people could claim to be and those that did were probably lying. The poor man's justification did nothing except increase her misery tenfold. CJ was the sole occupant of a roller coaster cresting the top of a mountain, with a spectacular view of the impending drop. And in case there was any doubt, the safety bar was disengaged.

*****

The interior of the darkened hospital room disappeared and CJ found herself strapped once again into her assigned seat on the doomed plane. Only this time around she was clued into everything that was going to happen in advance. All these innocent unknowing people, men, women and children, were going to die in the next few minutes. The huge blue and white 737 was lumbering to embark on an ill-fated taxi, when suddenly Melissa popped up over the seat in front of CJ, in direct violation of the lit 'Fasten Your Seatbelt' signs. She was still dressed in that Big Bird, bright yellow, kissing cousin of neon jumpsuit, but if you looked closely there were some obvious differences. The child's bouncing blond braids sparkled dazzlingly like diamonds in the rough, as if stardust had been sprinkled throughout the fine golden strands. There were also icicles sitting upon her shoulders and over the crown of her head, which melted slowly when confronted by the warmed air of the passenger cabin. The water slid off its host like reluctant tears, as if her whole body was engaged in the lost art of silent mourning.

"Hi!" she said cheerfully in greeting and mischief danced in her eyes. "You lied to me CJ," she continued, going right for the jugular, letting the abrupt words belay a carefree demeanor. "That's not nice," she added, displaying a plastered-on grin that never faltered around the tug of adorable Shirley Temple dimples. The curl of her childish lisp postponed the delivery of the final word with an exaggerated hiss. She held up one tiny finger and pressed it daintily to her lips, sealing them forever with an unknown secret, as she produced a water-soaked and red-faced Elmo. She perched his ravaged wet body atop the seat, allowing it to drip over sloppily onto the other side as she used her hands to manipulate the toy like a puppet. She raised his furry paw so that he appeared to be pointing accusingly at CJ. "You!" Melissa bellowed sharply, startling CJ by applying the practiced skill of a ventriloquist and using a voice that was deep and ominous in mocking imitation. The Elmo doll jabbed at the air authoritatively, punctuating each and every word of the child's declaration in perfect concerto.

"You." Jab. "Promised." Jab. "Me." Jab. "Everything." Jab. "Was." Jab. "Okay." Jab. Jab.

Melissa jumped up at the conclusion clapping merrily, and her face was flushed with barely contained excitement from the make-believe game. Meanwhile forgotten, Elmo slumped over and tumbled from the seat top to land on the floor at CJ's feet, with a wet sounding smack. The force of the hard cushion landing caused the excess water to spray out, like a dog shaking itself dry after a bath, and it splashed all over the front of CJ's legs. She shivered from the odd sensation, which stung like needles and was ice-cold wherever it touched.

"Whenever I lied," Melissa announced, leaning over to stare CJ straight in the eyes, "Mommy and Daddy punished me with a time-out." Whether her sudden lapse into past-tense usage was deliberate or not was anyone's guess, but the message was clear to CJ. There would be no further opportunities for Melissa to misbehave and she would never be set free from this last penalty. "What do you suppose would be a suitable punishment for you?" Melissa asked this largely rhetorical question while scrunching up her face, and drumming baby fingers against the backdrop of rosy apple-dumpling cheeks. "It has to be real bad I'm afraid, because you're a grown-up CJ, and you should've known better." Some inner part of CJ understood that this was fantasy, just from the silly notion of five-year-olds making threats, issued in full sentences and complete thoughts. However that part of her brain was being overruled by the one that judged her guilty of the unforgivable sin of having survived, while so many others had perished, including this little girl being represented here. The eyes of blind justice had come unmasked like the Lone Ranger; her scales tipped out of balance and things just escalated from there. The scenery outside the windows had changed, resembling a picture postcard of mist and falling snow, an indication that the plane was already airborne; there was no turning back now. Right on cue, the entire structure began to shudder and quake, and all the people screamed in response to the confirmed sighting of death in the building. All the while Melissa continued to watch CJ with a serene calm, her hands folded neatly beneath her chin like an innocent cherub.

"I didn't mean..." CJ began apologetically. She was trembling, and her tears mixed in with the guilt to become anguish.

"You didn't mean what, CJ?" Melissa interrupted, meaning to cut her no slack. She was speaking in her mother's voice now, in Penny's voice, and it was angry and vengeful. "You didn't mean to live? Or you didn't mean to let my daughter die?"

A flight attendant zipped by just then, dutifully returning all the tray tables to their proper and upright position before taking a place behind a podium up front. She covered her eyes with a dramatic flair and reached a manicured hand inside a dapper hat, similar to Frosty the Snowman's magical topper. She pulled out a lone bingo ball with a number boldly emblazoned on its side. She called this number out over a megaphone, endeavoring to project, being clear and concise; she was competing with the loud noise of the plane breaking apart and the unrestrained terror of its human cargo. Next to her just off to the side stood another flight attendant, wearing an inflated orange life vest and looking bored, demonstrating the procedures to follow in the highly unlikely event of a crash.

"That's your number, you know," Melissa informed CJ dryly, and it did indeed match up with her seat assignment. "You should probably go now." She had adopted a jaded resignation that couldn't possibly belong to one so young. She sat down and lowered her head to lay on top of the airline pillow in her lap. Obediently bracing for impact, just as CJ had instructed once upon a time, so very long ago. The bizarre lottery bargaining with life and death had progressed, with or without expressed consent, as more balls had been drawn and their numbers revealed. Max, Arlan, Robert and Penny had all made their way to stand at the head of the plane, and they were motioning for CJ to come join them. CJ wrestled madly with her seatbelt before finally getting it unbuckled. She came around the seat and went down on bent knees by Melissa's side. "Here, take it," CJ begged, trying to push the bingo ball that had miraculously appeared in her grasp into Melissa's hand. But she wouldn't open, and she was stronger than she looked. "Go...live," she pleaded desperately with the uncooperative child, crying hard now and unconsciously repeating the exact words that Arlan had used with her. Or would use later. She wasn't sure anymore. "CJ, it doesn't work that way. Haven't you figured that out yet?" the child reproached. "There's nothing more that you can do here." And with this she closed her eyes and brought her hands together in prayer. "Now I lay me down to sleep..." she began to speak the verse. Someone tapped CJ lightly on the shoulder and she swiveled round awkwardly on her heels in surprise, still kneeling on the floor. It was President Bartlet of all people; wearing a tuxedo, and seeming as much at home in the middle of the plane's aisle as he was in the Oval Office.

"What's doing Claudia Jean?" he teased amicably. His hands were held behind his back and he was smiling, as his eyebrows raised high in genuine interest. Right behind him was Sam and Toby jostling papers and scribbling on index cards as they argued and fretted over correct syntax and the proper placement of punctuation. All this of course, thoroughly confused CJ; it was as if she'd fallen into a rabbit's hole much like Alice in Wonderland. She stood up and was immediately overwhelmed by a wave of nausea. She had to find something to hold on to in order to maintain her balance. Something was definitely wrong.

"My chest...hurts," she explained, answering the President's question at the same time. "And..." She paused to catch her breath, bringing her hand up to protect her heart as the pain grew in intensity. "And...the plane is going to crash."

"You don't say," Toby interjected, peering up from his notes and clucking his tongue sympathetically upon hearing the sad news. CJ needed to sit down, right now; the pain was becoming too much for her to bear. The President acknowledged the state of her discomfort by obligingly offering his arm in assistance and helping to guide her into one of the nearby chairs.

"I pray the Lord my soul to keep..." Melissa continued, seemingly oblivious of the others.

"CJ, I'm so sorry to hear that you're not feeling well," he said, patting her hand. "That goes for the plane crash too," he added, while nimbly sidestepping a raging rush of icy water that was slowly filling the interior, as the plane began to sink into the frozen depths of the Potomac River. "I do believe you might have a bit of a fever here, CJ," Bartlet said in a confessional whisper, laying his hand over her forehead. "I'm not a doctor though," he promptly clarified. "Abby's the doctor."

"If I should die before I wake..." Melissa prayed, and for the first time there was a real undertone of fear present in the recitation.

"Sam!" Bartlet yelled, making CJ jump at the unexpected intrusion, and cover her ears. "Get over here and tell me if you think she has a fever." When she glanced over at Sam he was now sitting inside a rowboat and wearing his sailor's yellow stormy weather gear. "I'm not a doctor, you know," Sam stated emphatically, while steadfastly rowing a path over the tipped seats and floating carry-on luggage. "Yes," Bartlet answered calmly, turning back to CJ. "We know. Abby's the doctor."

He struck out of the blue, viciously grabbing hold of her upper arms, hard enough to leave marks. "Leave me alone!" CJ screamed, unable to handle things anymore. "Let go!" She tried to jerk free of his hold, but he wouldn't release her. She was terribly afraid of these people. People she trusted. People she knew to be her friends. But she didn't understand what was going on. Nothing was making sense.

"I pray the Lord my soul to take," Melissa finished. "Amen."

And then mercifully, everything went black.

*****

When CJ awoke the next time, another twenty-four hours had passed and it was midnight again. The symbolic witching hour when something wicked this way comes and already had, the only thing missing was a black cat and a full moon. She was pleased to note that the precautionary theft measures had deemed fruitful and the clock was still safely ensconced behind its protective barrier. On the other hand, the rain hadn't dissipated any and a fresh downpour was currently attacking the windowpanes with relish. The hospital room was exactly as she remembered, with a notable exception and that one of its chairs was now occupied. It was Josh she could tell, and he looked mighty uncomfortable. His wrist was bent back into a contortionist's pretzel underneath his chin, being used to prop up the weight of his drooling napping head. He looked disheveled and was unshaven; both his legs were cast half-hazard over the side of the chair, like sticks of driftwood washed ashore. He had seen better days. Hadn't they all?

"Josh," she called weakly. He sprung to immediate attention, as if the Andrew Sisters had personally enlisted the talents of the Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy from Company C at morning reveille.

"What?" he queried, standing there swaying, bleary-eyed and wiping at his face like a little boy, letting the blanket that had been draped over him slip to the floor. He appeared unsure exactly of what was being asked of him, as if her summons was a quiz that he hadn't studied for, but would count for fifty percent of his semester grade.

"Over here," she directed him slowly, which was a nifty coincidence because it was her only available speed. Josh turned to stare at her, blinking his eyes in rapid succession and saying nothing, like he did sometimes when he was really considering the importance of something, and taking the matter to heart and soul.

"CJ," he finally answered quietly, his face breaking into a brilliant smile that lit up the dark like fireworks. There was so much relief and happiness wrapped around the way he spoke her name, that she had to wonder what she had ever done so right in her life, to deserve this kind of devotion. He stumbled forward suddenly, like he had been kept from her too long and couldn't stand it another minute. He leaned over the bed to take her in his arms, and despite the tricky obstacle of hospital mechanisms, which seemed to take a firm stance against just this sort of intimacy, they managed to fit together quite nicely. She could sense that he was holding back though, like he was concerned she might shatter if he squeezed too hard. She was having none of that and told him so. Josh was nothing if not open to suggestion and in the next instance he had hold of her properly, like she was used to, like he would do after they'd made love.

"I've missed you," she informed him in a soft and sleepy voice, as if he had been the one to go away.

"Well, I'll call your missed, and raise you an I've been worried out of my mind," he challenged playfully. But his voice shook, letting her know that the statement was truer than he would like to have her believe.

"You win," she conceded, and then shook her head regretfully at the poor choice of words. There were no winners in this round.

*****

Chapter Thirteen:

They were no longer touching each other and although CJ had been the first to pull away, she was already feeling empty and bereft from the loss of contact. Shifting gingerly onto her side and purposely facing the wall, she silently hoped that Josh would take the subtle hint and go away. She didn't want to hurt him, but she really wanted to be alone. She should have known better; he'd just gotten her back, and he had no intention of going anywhere. His normally boyish features had aged considerably over the past few days, from a combination of bone-weary exhaustion, and reemerging worry over her behavior. A demeanor that was amplified by the addition of the rainstorm raging just outside the window and mirrored back into the small, darkened room; creating the illusion that he had inadvertently stumbled in front of a movie screen. Shadow plumes of smoky-white water beaded and bled, crawling along his face like a slowly unwinding scroll of paper music on a player piano. Whispering a melancholy tune that was in a constant state of interpretation, as he forged a determined path from one side of her hospital bed to the other. She closed her eyes tiredly, waiting, sensing the direction of his movements and knowing that she was at best, only postponing the inevitable. 'Don't ask. Please Josh, don't ask me how I'm feeling.' She silently prayed. The control she maintained over her emotions was so tenuous she was certain that if he did, she would start crying and never be able to stop. For the span of several awkward minutes he stood immobile, mere inches away and still, the equivalent of a world apart. Until finally unwillingly, compelled by something more than she understood and something less than she desired, she looked up and met his gaze. And yes, there it was; the confrontation she had been dreading, but at least for now, it was without the intrusion of words she had feared. In his eyes and from his heart, with everything that made him a good and decent man, he simply offered her the strength of his love and concern. Somehow inexplicably, it only made her feel worse. So with nowhere else to run she turned away, again.

She wanted to tell him that she didn't have any of the answers he was seeking. She wanted to tell him that she was petrified of never getting past this. She wanted to tell him that now she too could hear the music, and she was so sorry that she hadn't known the depths of his pain before. Instead and for a long time she said nothing at all. And neither did he. At some point, she started to tremble, and she was almost relieved for the distraction it provided. Reflexively, she lifted long thin arms to cross protectively over her chest, but with only one in functional form, it ended up looking more like she was attempting to pledge her allegiance to a make-believe realm. The snarl of I.V. tubes resembled a ball of yarn after the cat had got at it, and mimicked her every action like the unwanted presence of a chaperone on a first date. She sought to draw her legs up, only to discover that her left foot had packed on a few pounds of ugly white plaster during her most recent absence, by virtue of a thick cast climbing all the way to her calf. Frustrated by what she perceived as her own inadequacies, she ultimately abandoned the leg by the end of the bed and with the other in tow, was forced to settle for a less than satisfactory fetal position throw-off. She never did do compromise well, along with 'Sharing' on her Kindergarten report card, it rated an F. Every second of awareness was fraught with strange and unwelcome surprises, and in that moment she craved a return to the easy oblivion of unconsciousness. She wrestled with an irrational urge to just throw back the covers and get it all over with at once, by taking inventory of her body parts to ensure that everything was more or less where it was supposed to be.

Then every bit as strong, she was swept away by an intense wave of guilt and shame; her mind suddenly flooded with images of all those who had suffered and lost everything, including their lives, by boarding that plane. All the people who weren't as fortunate as she was to be awakening safe and sound inside a hospital room tonight. So why then wasn't she feeling lucky? So why then wasn't she feeling safe? It was unforgivable that she had the audacity to lay here ungrateful, quibbling over small unimportant things. She was savvy enough on press procedures to intuitively realize that her likeness was probably being televised into the homes of millions all over the world, and in her line of work there would certainly be no shortage of file photos to choose from. Again and again, the news telecasts would pigeonhole her as one of the fortunate and intrepid survivors of this country's latest disaster. She could also envision the resentment and contempt, which the mere sight of her face or mention of her name must be inflicting on the families of the dead. Why her anyway? Why not someone else? Why not Melissa? Oh God, why? How they must hate her for surviving in place of their father or mother, their son or daughter. How in truth, she hated...herself.

"Josh?" she called out, overloud in the encroaching quiet, hoping to silence the angry din of voices in her head. He was right there too, taking her cold hand and warming it within her own. She was thankful now that he hadn't let her push him away. It was as if he had been following the downward trajectory of her thoughts all along, and was expecting this. Her voice was yielding and not at all assured, caught somewhere between woman and child. It was the impending sacrifice of fine china, about to be destroyed from the pressure of some unnoticed imperfection. "Josh?" she repeated unnecessarily, perhaps concerned he might have disappeared while she struggled to gather herself together. "Why did I...live?" she finally managed, as she sought to quell a surging tide of panic. "Why...me?" He stared down at her with such sadness and empathy evident, opening his mouth and then closing it again as he simultaneously squeezed her hand like he was beseeching her for more prep time. She could almost see the gears turning, as he desperately searched for the appropriate response, in fervent belief that he had only the one chance to get it right. She immediately wanted to retract the question; take him off the hook. She wasn't even sure why she had asked in the first place. It wasn't fair to him. Only it was too late for that. It was too late for a lot of things. Meanwhile lost in the dark, under the falling rain, just outside the door that kept her separate from a world she no longer understood, all around there was evidence of life going on without them.

There was the tinny nasal intonation of a nameless, faceless switchboard operator forever paging people, even though it seemed they never bothered to respond. The messages were delivered in a derivative language once or twice removed from English, and made doubly undecipherable by background static. Underfoot were the cushioned steps of the nurses' rubber-soled sneakers, which apparently came equipped with the requisite pop and squeak, passing by in a show of interrupted lights underneath the door. Making appointed rounds and administering the sting of hypodermic needles or the iron-grip of blood pressure cuffs. And the much slower, less steady pace of family members and other visitors shuffling towards destinations they were in no real hurry to reach; too fearful of what they will or won't find upon arrival. Interwoven, like the expensive gold thread in a third-rate tapestry; holding it all together and possessing the ability to pull it all apart is the muted sob of unending grief, and the high-interest loan of borrowed time. Just when CJ thought she couldn't stand another minute of this unknown, of navigating limbo, she felt something being pressed urgently into her palm.

"CJ, this is for you," Josh said quietly, addressing both the open question in her sorrowful eyes, and the confusion in her soul. "You can't open it though."

She looked down at the sealed white envelope in her hand, a weak smile appearing on her face when she recognized it as the same one he had brought with him that night at her apartment. The night when he had first revealed he was in love with her. Of course, the envelope wasn't in quite the same pristine condition it had once been. The overall color was darker now, in the neighborhood of beige, and its whole shape was warped, having been folded, spindled and mutilated over time and tussle. High on the top right hand corner was a smear of maple syrup from that Sunday morning when they had awoken early and tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to make pancakes from scratch; halfway through they had realized that they didn't have all the needed ingredients. The two of them had ended up dancing barefoot to slow music on the radio right there in the middle of her kitchen, covered from head to toe in flour. She absently rubbed her thumb lightly over the darkish stain now, not at all surprised to have her pad come away sticky. There were more memories like that one here as well, in other strategic places on the envelope, and all of them in the innocent guise of stains; toothpaste, ink, coffee, crazy glue, watermelon...Watermelon. She leveled a knowing gaze at him, quirking her eyebrow seductively as she remembered that particular experience in all its glory. He was blushing so she knew for sure that he was remembering it too.

"CJ, you wanted to know why you lived," Josh stated solemnly, out of the blue. "And I think...maybe...that I have an answer for you."

"You...do?" she answered hesitantly, feeling unsettled in the face of this abrupt return to cold reality. She was already missing the momentary lightness that the unscheduled appearance of the envelope had provided.

"Yes, but not so much in spoken words."

She released a sigh of tension at this, glancing down pointedly at the sealed envelope, having picked up that he was following their conversation from that first night. "Then I'm guessing that this letter here might help to explain it for you?" she supplied on cue.

"Yeah. I'm hoping so, but CJ that's not a letter."

"It's not?"

"No. It's a list."

"A list. I see. Then would this be a list of things that you've already done?"

"No," said Josh softly, and he lifted her hand to his lips and kissed the back of her palm lightly. "But it might be a list of things that I'm really hoping to do." She gasped in quiet surprise at his actions, but made no move to remove her hand from his.

"Josh, this list of things that you're really hoping to do," she paused, swallowing hard before continuing, "does it pertain to me in some way?"

"CJ," he nodded, "this list of things that I'm really hoping to do pertains to you in every way." Then he leaned in and kissed her on the lips. After a few moments she brought her arm around his neck, pulling him closer and deepening the kiss. When it was over, they briefly touched foreheads before separating. "Thank you," she mouthed, touching his cheek. '"I love you," he mouthed back.

"You know Josh, you've been teasing me with that envelope for a long time now. Do I finally get to open it?"

"No CJ, you don't. You want to know why?" She nodded. "Because the list isn't finished, and if we're truly lucky, it never will be."

"I don't understand."

"When I found those lists that my father had made I was under the delusion that there was supposed to be a beginning, middle and an end to it all. I told you how I was obsessed by the thought that he had left so much undone. But you've shown me that I was wrong. Since we've been together I keep discovering new and wonderful things that I want to add to my own list. Don't you see CJ? There will never be an end to the list because you keep making it new again, every moment of every day. I could spend eternity learning love from you. You asked me why you lived, and I say it's because my list would have been finished without you."

"Josh..." she began, moved, with tears shining in her eyes. He brought a finger to her lips and stopped her from whatever she was planning to say.

"That's just my answer, CJ. I'm hoping that maybe it will be enough to get you through this night, this darkness. But I know better than anyone that tomorrow you're going to have to start from scratch again. I won't lie to you. It's not going to be easy. But there are a lot of people outside that door who have been waiting a long time to see you; Toby, Sam, Leo and more. The President's been calling every hour on the hour. There are a lot of people who love you. If you give them a chance and listen to what they have to say, I think they'll all have their own answers to your question as well. And hopefully, those answers will get you through another day and another and then another, until the day comes when you'll find an answer of your own. One day at a time CJ, that's the most you can hope for in this world, and it's the best you can get."

"One day at a time," she repeated after a moment.

"Good. Are you ready for me to let your visitors in now?"

"No," she answered immediately.

"Okay," he said evenly, trying to hide his disappointment. "Maybe tomorrow then, we'll..."

"No," she said again, interrupting, putting her fingers over his lips this time. "They've been waiting for me long enough. How about you round up a wheelchair, and I go to them instead."

END OF STORY (Finished 05/17/2001)

(Thanks to everyone who has written me with encouragement along the way. Most especially to Lin, who has had faith in this story from day one. Thanks for reading.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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