Monday, December 23, 2002

I can barely hear on my phone. This snow is wrecking havoc with the reception.

Josh? I can hardly hear, she calls back.

Look, I'm leaving Camp David now. I don't know how long it's going to take me to get back. The white flakes are collecting almost faster than I can clear them off my windshield.

Common sense says I should ride the storm out here, but my presence is required at a breakfast meeting with the Republican Congressional Leadership and this storm is going to get worse before it gets better.

Drive carefully, Josh. Please?

I promise. Look, it'll be late by the time I get back. Go ahead and go home. In fact, go to my apartment. I don't want her trying to drive that piece of crap car of hers any farther than she has too.

I'm not going to think about why I feel that way.

Promise me you'll call when you get back to the office

Shit.

No signal.

Damn it.

***

Trying to shake the nagging feeling of dread settled in the pit of my stomach, I hang up the phone. The broken cell connection is just the latest in a string of ominous happenings today. I wrap my scarf around my neck and head to CJ's office.

CJ turns from the TV when I knock on the door. They say this is the worst storm to hit D.C. since 1988.

Josh is on his way back from Camp David for the meeting tomorrow. I'm heading home.

She doesn't need to know Josh offered to let me stay at his place tonight. She'll read things into it that just aren't there.

Really, there's nothing there. I'm only taking Josh up on his offer because his apartment is so much closer.

Call when you get there, okay? CJ admonishes.

I will.

***

It's about 70 miles from Camp David to D.C., roughly an hour on a good day.

This is not a good day.

The clock on my dashboard says it's 3 p.m.

The sky outside my windshield says it's midnight.

My hour drive is going to take 2 or 3.

If I'm lucky.

***

And in the outlying areas, the State Patrol is reporting a tanker truck has overturned at Route 15/Interstate 270 just south of I-70 in Frederick. They are advising motorists to avoid the area and take an alternate route if possible. The National Weather Service has issued a blizzard warning for the entire Maryland/Virginia/DC/Delaware area, so you probably don't want to travel at all. This is Jamee Pfeiffer Whitten with your traffic update on WMAL AM 630 news talk radio.

***

An hour.

It took me an hour to drive from the White House to Josh's apartment. I saw two fender-benders and a major accident in those twenty blocks.

I switch the TV on to start watching the weather coverage.

Ohh! Topper Shutt.

I love watching this guy do the weather. Mostly because he's way too excited about it. Come on, it snows every single winter. No reason to get worked up about it. Drive carefully, use common sense and stay indoors.

Watching those stupid TV people go out in a blizzard not fit for man or beast.

It makes you just wonder why we should listen to people who tell us not to go outside while they risk life and limb to stand in a twenty foot tall drift to show us it's snowing.

I've never really seen that much purple on radar before.

Where'd Maryland go?

Where'd the power go?

***

We're getting reports the overturned tanker on Route 15/Interstate 270 in Frederick is now on fire. The State Patrol is shutting the highway down in both directions and if you're on Route 15 heading south, you're being diverted onto Interstate 70. However the smart thing to do would be to not travel. Whiteout conditions exist throughout most of Maryland, Virginia and D.C. There's some freezing rain mixing with the snow and the roads are treacherous. This is Jamee Pfeiffer Whitten with your traffic update on WMAL AM 630 news talk radio.

***

Okay, I can take 70 east to Route 29 and take that into the District. Not a big deal.

It's 5:30. An hour and a half to get to Frederick from Thurmont? It's like 20 miles at the most.

This might be a new record.

I should call Donna and let her know where I am. She'll get worried if I don't check in.

Why do I care if she gets worried?

Because she's your assistant, you idiot, and your friend. Stop thinking about it and concentrate on driving or you're going to get yourself killed.

But call Donna first.

Ah, hell. The battery is dead and the plug-thingie is in the glove box. I'm not leaning over there to find it.

***

I'm sitting on Josh's couch in the dark, contemplating my options.

I can stay here, in the cold and dark or I can try walking back to the White House. Where there is both heat and light.

Talk about your no-brainers. I grab my cell to call CJ.

I'm coming back in, I tell her when she answers.

What's wrong?

I made it to Josh's apartment just in time for the power to go out.

You aren't going to drive, are you?

No, I'll walk it.

If I don't see you in 45 minutes, I'll send out the Secret Service.

***

I-70 is in better shape than Route 15. The 40 miles or so to the Route 29 exit only took two hours.

Okay, it's 7:30. I'm about 45 miles outside of D.C.

I should be back by, say, 10 o'clock.

7 hours.

The snow is worse than it was when I left Camp David and the rain isn't helping anything.

Shit!

I slam on my brakes when the car in front of me stops suddenly.

Shit!

I'm not stopping.

Shit!

There's a semi-truck behind me.

Shit!

It isn't stopping either.

Shit!

***

CJ, Toby, Bonnie, Carol and I have gathered in CJ's office to watch the weather coverage on TV and eat popcorn.

Not only is there a pile-up on I-95 northbound, the Maryland State Patrol now tells us there is an even bigger accident on Route 29 South at the approach to T. Howard Duckett Reservoir. As many as 50 vehicles may be involved, several are on fire. Rescue efforts are obviously being hampered by the blizzard. We have a crew on the scene and will bring you a live picture when we can. Now, Topper, how long is this storm going to continue?

What kind of an idiot do you have to be to drive in this stuff? Carol asks the room at large. The Secret Service won't even let the President leave Camp David.

Speaking of idiots, you haven't heard from Josh, have you, Donna? Bonnie looks a little concerned.

It's almost 8:30. He should be walking in the door any moment.

More now on that accident on Route 29. We have live picture.

There is a small patch of reddish orange in the center of the screen, almost overshadowed by the blowing white.

We're about a half mile north of the scene. You can see the bridge over the Reservoir is completely impassable. The State Patrol reports almost all of the vehicles involved are on fire. One of our photojournalists is just back from scene. We're going to roll his tape raw.

The sinking feeling is back.

Taped close-ups of a burning, black Toyota Camry replace the live feed. Whoever was driving the car is slumped over the wheel, obviously dead. The shot widens out to show more of the car. It hit the car in front of it and then got rammed by a semi from behind.

Oh, Jesus. CJ blurts.

There's a shot of the license plate, a District plate. You can only read part of it.

W-H-_-C-_-S.

Bonnie speaks, but they all turn disbelieving eyes my way.

I answer, remembering the vanity plates we all went in on for Josh's 40th birthday this year. Remembering the way his dimples showed when we unveiled them; the way his eyes reflected the light and seemed almost hazel that day.

White House Deputy Chief of Staff.

***

Carol and I sit in stunned silence staring at the image on the television. The image of Josh's Toyota, crumpled almost beyond recognition. The video continues to roll, showing two firefighters forcing the door open and pulling the driver's burned, mangled body, Josh's body, from the burning car.

Donna bolted from the room as soon as she comprehended what she was looking at. CJ and Bonnie followed her.

Still riveted to the grisly scene, the scene of my friend's death, I grope for my cell phone.

Leo and the President need to know.

Leo, it's Toby. Turn a TV on. I keep my voice steady, but insistent.

I'm not near a TV, Toby. What's the problem? It's obvious I'm interrupting something.

Josh hasn't made it back yet and

Get to the point.

We're watching the TV coverage of the storm. There's an accident on Route 29 South, at the Duckett Reservoir

Leo growls.

Leo, Josh is dead.

It's long, silent minutes before Leo speaks.

How do you know? His voice is full of pain.

There's video of his car. The license plate I They showed the firefighters pulling the body out. It looked like Josh.

Have we confirmed it?

No, I called you first.

Confirm it with the Maryland State Patrol. If you run into trouble, I'll have the President call them personally.

***

The numb feeling I had after Josh got shot has nothing on this. When I got finished throwing up, CJ and Bonnie led me to his office.

We continue to sit in silence, even after Toby and Carol join us.

Toby finally speaks. The State Patrol says they're not sure which car we saw on TV. They promised to find it as soon as possible, but there's a good chance it'll be late tomorrow afternoon. The bodies are being taken to the Baltimore city morgue. Once it's safe to drive up there, one of us will have to identify the body.

I nod mutely.

Donna, there wasn't anything you could have done, CJ whispers.

I could have told him how much he meant to me. How much I loved him. Admitting it now does me little good, except to unleash the sobbing I've been holding back.

It's Toby who kneels at my feet and wraps his arms around me. He knew, Donna. He knew.

It's nearly eleven by the time I cry myself out.

Everyone who sought refuge in the West Wing knows what happened.

Mine aren't the only tears shed this evening.

For an unmitigated jackass, Josh inspired a great deal of personal loyalty.

CJ slips into Josh's office. I'm curled up in his chair with the lights off, wondering what might have been and praying to God for this to be some horrible mistake.

Any news? I plead.

The State Patrol says there's no chance they'll be able to find the car in the video tonight. It was in the middle of the pile-up and the fires are still burning. Carol is looking at the video again to see if there's anymore identifying features. The Navy claims the storm will blow itself out by tomorrow. We can't get up to Baltimore to look at the body until then. If the morgue finds an ID, they promise to call.

He can't be dead, CJ. He just can't. I need to tell him things. I need to tell him. The tears come again and I keep repeating over and over I needed to tell him.

Toby's calling Sam, CJ mentions. She's sitting on Josh's desk with one hand on my shoulder and the other brushing away her own tears.

We should call Sarah.

I don't know why it has taken me so long to think of his mother. It'll only be a matter of hours before Josh's death is on CNN.

I'm sure Leo will.

Carol knocks on the door.

I can hear them murmuring, but I can't tear my focus from the blanket of white covering the South Lawn.

How many times did I sit here and wait for Josh to come back from some meeting?

How many times did I tell myself I'd tell him how I felt?

How many times did I hide those feelings behind dates with other men?

How many times did I see the flash of hurt in his eyes when I'd ask to leave early to meet someone for a drink?

Out of the corner of my eye, I see CJ shake her head. I briefly wonder what she has decided not to tell me before I return to my silent vigil.

CJ kneels down next to me. The rain has stopped, it's just snowing now. The Secret Service and the Marines feel comfortable putting the President in Marine One, so he and Leo are on their way back.

***

Our top story this evening, the weather. Snow mixed with freezing rain has wrecked havoc across the region. Major accidents in Virginia, Washington and, perhaps the largest, on Route 29 in Maryland. That's where we find Jenny Atwater. Jenny, do they know what caused this pile-up?

Right now, the Maryland State Patrol is saying a semi-truck jack-knifed on the southbound bridge over the T. Howard Duckett Reservoir, causing a chain reaction accident that now stretches for three quarters of a mile and involves an estimated 45 to 60 vehicles. The biggest story coming out of here at the moment is apparently one of the victims is White House Deputy Chief of Staff, Josh Lyman. Lyman was on his way from Camp David, where the President has been meeting for the past week with economic advisors, to Washington for a meeting tomorrow morning with House Republicans. The White House will not confirm our information and the State Patrol says it may be tomorrow before the fires behind me die down enough to begin identifying vehicles.

***

We watch the video over and over again. The black Toyota, crushed and burning; the body being removed; it has captivated us, woven some sort of magical spell through the sanctuary of Josh's office.

Oh my God. President Bartlet arrives as the footage begins again. He looks as heartbroken as the rest of us.

Leo looks devastated.

The President moves through the assembled staff members to stand next to me, placing a gentle hand on my shoulder. I'm still curled in Josh's chair.

he bends down, speaking softly. I'm sorry. More sorry than I can ever tell you.

I'd like to go tomorrow. I've been thinking about this since CJ told me someone would have to perform that awful duty. I owe him that much. Tears beginning to trickle down my face again. To identify his body. I can't I won't believe he's gone until I see him.

The President looks set to object, but finally nods. You and Leo, then. Charlie is making an appointment with the coroner's office for early in the morning. We're trying to avoid a media frenzy.

Thank you, sir.

Christmas is supposed to be a joyous time. A time to celebrate life and family Leo speaks for the first time as the clock rolls over to midnight.

I'm really starting to hate Christmastime

The President nods and looking over at him, I see his cheeks are wet with grief as well. We should celebrate his life and be joyous we got as much time with Josh as we did. He was a good man, a good friend with vibrant, passionate ideas.

Leo smiles a bit, chuckling. Even when he was sticking his foot in his mouth?

Especially when he was sticking his foot in his mouth, Bartlet replies.

Tuesday, December 24, 2002

The dawn finds us still in Josh's office, telling stories and celebrating the life of Joshua Lyman: friend, brother and son.

The dawn finds me still hoping this is a horrible mistake.

You should eat, CJ says gently.

I haven't moved from my spot in Josh's chair. The thought of eating before we drive up to Baltimore to identify his body makes me want to vomit.

I shake my head mutely. I think I'm going to go take a shower and put on my spare clothes. Maybe it will help.

It doesn't and neither does the trip to the city morgue.

I doubt Leo could look more forlorn if it had been Mallory.

How's Sarah handling it? I finally break the oppressive silence.

He clenches his jaw. She's buried her daughter and her husband. She told me last night she doesn't think she can bury her son as well. All she asked of me was to recover his body as quickly as I could. If it's possible, the funeral will probably be tomorrow.

On Christmas? I blurt before I remember Josh is Jewish and their tradition is to bury the dead as quickly as possible.

Leo just nods. A tear finally escapes his control and slides down his cheek. He loved you. I used to see it in his eyes when he'd look at you. He thought nobody was watching.

I loved him too. I just I just never told him. I was scared, I guess.

The coroner meets us at the door. He's polite, but business-like. Leo and I are probably the first of many families he'll deal with today.

After shaking hands and introducing himself, he leads us through the corridors of the morgue. I'm pretty sure I know which body you want to look at. The firefighters on the scene tagged them by license plate and car description. Just to double check, it was a black Toyota Camry. Partial license plate WH_C_S?

We nod and follow him back to a viewing room. We stop at the door and Leo suddenly stops.

I can't I can't do this.

His eyes say what words cannot. Like Josh's mother, he can't bury the man he considers his son.

I gather what little composure, what little strength I have and follow the coroner into the room.

We stand beside the sheet-draped gurney. The body is pretty badly damaged. The head went through windshield and was pretty much destroyed. The extremities, the arms and legs, and parts of the chest were burned as well. Did your friend have any identifying scars or tattoos?

I swallow the lump in my throat. He was shot a couple of years ago. In the chest, I point out the general area of the wound. There are surgical scars as well.

With an understanding nod, the coroner pulls back only the sheet covering the body's torso.

There are surgical scars, indicating heart surgery, but no telltale bullet wound.

I point a shaking finger at the area where the scar is not, an area on the chest marred by burns. It would be there.

The man pulls the sheet back up, We'll have to do this the hard way. I'm sorry, ma'am.

He lowers the sheet covering the face, but there is so little left, it is impossible to tell. The hair is the right color and texture, the height is right, but I can't be 100% certain.

We'll have to do a dental match. I can give you a form to turn over to his dentist to allow release of his records.

Okay, I can do that.

I just looked at Josh's unidentifiable face; I can turn some forms into his dentist.

Leo is waiting outside in the car. He's hanging up the phone when I crawl in the backseat with him.

I couldn't ID the body. It probably is, but there's no face, I say, fighting the urge to puke at the recollection of what I saw. I don't think Leo would appreciate me throwing up in his in car.

The State Patrol found the car. The license plate is completely melted and they told me they're going to have to do an acid etching to get the car's VIN number. We're looking at 24 hours minimum, but it is their priority. Officially, Josh is missing and presumed dead.

What does that mean?

The Protocol Office is planning a memorial service for Monday, Leo says softly. At National Cathedral.

***

Twenty-four hours.

Josh has been dead for twenty-four hours.

When Leo and I returned to the West Wing, the President ordered me home to get some sleep.

I took a cab to Josh's apartment, put his over-sized blue pajamas on, crawled into his bed and cried myself to sleep.

I dreamt about water, icy cold water. The kind so cold it snatches your breath away in an instant and numbs your very soul. I was entombed in it. Unable to move. Barely able to breathe.

The sound of my own screaming woke me.

I get out of bed at 9 p.m. The need for human contact has me crawling out of my skin.

I should start going through Josh's office.

Digging through his drawers I find a pair of jeans I left here during his recovery. Those and his old Harvard sweatshirt will do for this late on Christmas Eve.

***

In the first drawer I open I find my Christmas present. At least, I assume it's my Christmas present.

I doubt Josh is hiding a first edition of The Great Gatsby in his desk to read between meetings.

Flipping the book open, a folded piece of paper falls out.

Common sense tells me Josh is dead. He isn't going to magically reappear and give this to me for Christmas and it would be acceptable for me to open the note and read it.

An eerie feeling overrides common sense and I tuck the unread note back inside the book and return it to his desk. There will be plenty of time to clean out this office, I decide.

I pick myself up off the floor and wander the strangely un-festive West Wing.

Toby's light is on, so I knock on his door.

I thought you went home. His voice is unnaturally kind.

Too quiet. I needed some company. What are you working on? I accept his unspoken invitation and take a seat.

He looks back down at his notepad, but doesn't say anything.

Josh's eulogy? I hazard a guess.

Toby nods.

I'm sure it will be beautiful. Is the President planning on giving it? I'm woefully uninformed.

The phone rings before he can answer my question. Toby gives me his rough draft as he picks up the handset.

I stand before you today to speak of a friend, a son, whose life was tragically cut short.'

Those are the only words on the paper.

I turn my attention back to Toby when he hangs up the phone.

he tells me. That was the gate. He's just arrived.

Toby, you'll get this, I give him back the note pad. It'll be beautiful.

He looks back at me; his eyes seem to bore into my soul.

For someone so cocky and full of himself, Josh was the most sensitive soul I ever knew, I reply to his unspoken request. He was smart, loyal to a fault, funny. He gave me a chance when he didn't have to and he let me prove I could do a job I wasn't qualified to do on paper. He was there for me when it really mattered, no matter what the problem was. Of course, there were times when he was egotistical, frequently petty and obnoxious, but those were usually when he made me laugh the most.

Toby picks up his cigar and leans back in chair.

We sat around all last night and told stories, Toby. You know why we can't imagine this place without him. Tell his story. God, I didn't want to cry again. I wipe furiously at my tears.

He doesn't know what to say. It's obvious to me he doesn't know how to deal with his emotions either.

You know what Josh would really appreciate? A good, old-fashioned wake. Sam's voice precedes his entrance.

One of those things where we all get together, get smashed and talk about how Josh couldn't hold his liquor? Toby takes another puff of his cigar and bends over a drawer. There are possibilities there, he decides, plopping an unopened bottle of 20-year-old scotch and three glasses on the desk.

Hold that thought, Sam holds up a hand and backs out of the office.

He returns with Leo and the President. Toby pulls two more glasses out of his desk and pours the whiskey. None of us look twice when Leo picks a glass up. If ever a man needed a reason to fall off the wagon, this would qualify.

Josh Lyman. Sam holds his glass up. The best friend a man could want.

To Josh. We echo.

The amber alcohol burns, making my perpetually teary eyes water yet again. Setting my glass back on Toby's desk, I meet Leo's eyes and gratefully acknowledge the untouched alcohol he sets down.

Wednesday, December 25, 2002

It's almost midnight when I get back to Josh's apartment. The President invited us all to dinner tomorrow. None of us want to spend the day alone.

Digging though the kitchen, I find some hot chocolate. A steaming mug in my hand, I curl up on his couch. It has started to snow again and flakes reflect the light from the streetlamps.

The only sound is the mantel clock chiming midnight.

It's Christmas.

Josh is dead.

It's Christmas.

Josh is dead.

It's Christmas.

Josh is dead.

My phone rings, disturbing my mantra.

Look, I'm not sure who I called, but this was the first number on a cell phone I found. I'm sorry to disturb you. I know it's Christmas Eve and all, but do you happen to know somebody who drives a black 1999 Toyota Camry?

Who is this?

My name is Tom Harris. I live south of Scaggsville in Maryland. I went for a walk tonight down by the lake and I found a car in the water. I'm a volunteer firefighter, so I called the guys and they came and pulled the thing out. Anyway, the plates were ripped off when it rolled down the hill and the guy's wallet was pretty much a lump of mush, so they aren't sure who he is.

Is he

Oh. I'm sorry, I'm not sure. I was going through the car while the EMTs were working on your friend. They took him up to Columbia, I can find out which hospital and call you back.

Can you please? I plead. he's been missing since Monday afternoon.

Only after we hang up do I realize I never answered the guy's question.

I simply assumed he was talking about Josh.

But who else would have my phone number programmed into their cell?

Do I call Leo or Toby or CJ or Sam?

What if this is a wild goose chase?

Just get in the car and go, I tell myself.

***

Tom calls me back and says his friends, the Scaggsville Volunteer Fire Department, took the victim to the Howard County General Hospital.

The guy was still alive when they loaded him ambulance.

I don't question how that could be, I just follow the directions Tom gives me to the hospital.

Parking in the fire lane, I rush into the Emergency Room. My name is Donna Moss. I'm looking for a guy the Scaggsville Fire Department brought in an hour or so ago?

The John Doe with hypothermia?

Panic starts to flood my chest.

He came in two hours ago and they airlifted him to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore as soon as they could get a chopper down here. I'm sorry, Miss. You'll have to try there.

Johns Hopkins, the receptionist confirms.

I whirl around, coming face-to-face with a black man a couple of years younger than myself.

You're looking for the guy they pulled out of the lake?

How do you know

He smiles and extends his hand. I'm Tom Harris.

Donna Moss. I take his hand. Thank you for calling me, but you didn't need to

You don't need to be driving to Baltimore by yourself, this time of night, in the snow. Somebody will be pulling you out of a lake. He interrupts me, then hands me something. The phone I found. The battery was dead, but I found a power cord in the glove box.

The indestructible, government-issued, cell-phone confirms this isn't a wild goose chase.

When I start crying and shaking this time, it is in relief.

Josh is still alive.

I blindly follow this kind stranger to his car and allow him to drive me to Baltimore.

Once on our way, I decide to call Sam: the person least likely to yell at me for going off on my own.

He might be alive, I say in rush the instant Sam answers his phone.

I got a call from someone who found Josh's cell phone. In Josh's car. It wasn't his car on the bridge.

Are you sure? he asks skeptically.

I have his phone in my hand, Sam. I practically scream.

Where are you? he replies calmly.

On my way to Baltimore. They took him to Johns Hopkins.

I can hear him nodding his head. I'll come up. Call me if you find out anything more.

The woman at the admitting desk in the Johns Hopkins ER is very helpful. Probably because Tom's EMT friends are hovering around looking menacing.

I am directed to the waiting room with the admonishment to stay put and someone will be out shortly. Checking my watch, I discover it's shortly after 1:30 a.m.

1:45 a.m.

1:47 a.m.

1:52 a.m.

Donna Moss?

The doctor is about Josh's age and the same look of permanent exhaustion graces her features.

I'm Dr. Goldford. Why don't you come on back and see if you can help us identify our John Doe.

Tom tags along behind and I am grateful for his support.

We're working on raising his core body temperature, but it's something that must be done slowly. She stops us outside a treatment room. When they brought him in his temperature was around 29 degrees Celsius. I don't know how much you know about hypothermia, but that is survivable. It dropped another degree after we started treatment, but we've got it up to around 32 degrees now. What we're doing is a bypass procedure along with ventilating him with warm, moist air.

Not comprehending half of what she said, I nod anyway.

If this is your friend, do you have any idea how long he was in the water?

He left Camp David around 3 o'clock Monday afternoon, I provide, looking over at Tom.

I found him at about 11 o'clock tonight, he offers.

Dr. Goldford ushers us into the room.

If it weren't for the rise and fall of the ventilator, I'd think he was dead.

This might be worse than when he was shot. All the frantic activity at least indicated they were doing something for him. Here, he's just lying on the gurney under a warming blanket, the bypass machine beeping away.

A nurse gives me a stool and I sit near his head. Flakes of dried blood fall away when I touch my hand to his matted hair.

His name is Josh. Josh Lyman.

His name is Josh Lyman and I can't imagine life without him.

***

My angel is back.

She's whispering to me in soft tones I can't decipher the meaning of, but which calm my terror.

We had long conversations yesterday, my angel and I.

I told her how cold I was and how much my leg hurt.

She told me nothing mattered as long as I kept breathing. She reminded me of the breathing exercises they taught me in respiratory therapy after the shooting and the relaxation crap Stanley made me learn.

My angel convinced me I wasn't going to die alone, trapped in my car.

She told me I was a complete idiot for letting my cell phone battery go dead.

She stayed with me the whole time, but I could never see her face clearly. It was a fuzzy image of fine porcelain; framed by long, fine blonde hair. Her voice, though, her voice was clear and melodic; like a perfectly tuned violin.

She gave me encouragement and strength when I just wanted to succumb to the warm, beckoning void.

My angel left when help arrived.

She didn't want to make them jealous, she said. She was mine and I was hers and she'd be back when we could be together.

She's back and we're together.

I missed her; I missed her strength. It's been hard to hold on to her fleeting promise.

I'd rather hold on to her and try to explain what happened.

I didn't even plan on taking Route 29,' I begin. I hate that damn bridge. One of my worst fears is driving off a bridge into the water. It was the fastest way though, after they closed 270 south of Frederick.'

She doesn't speak, but I can feel her warm hand on my forehead.

I'm still so cold.

The car in front of mine hit the car in front of it. I couldn't stop and there was a truck behind me. It wasn't stopping either, so I drove into the ditch.'

I can make out her words now. She's telling me everything is going to be okay.

Except I don't think it will.

I don't want to dwell on what I think, so I continue my explanation. There wasn't a ditch. There was a cliff. Okay, a really big hill. The car rolled and I hit my head on the steering wheel. Yes, I was wearing my seat belt.'

***

They bring me paperwork to fill out.

Tom said he and his buddies are going to hang around for a while. They're all in the waiting room right now, doing the hovering thing they seem to do so well.

There's a nurse, who introduced herself as Sue, in the room to watch the machines.

He your boyfriend? she asks.

I look up from the forms. Just a good friend.

The machine monitoring Josh's temperature beeps as it creeps up degree to 33.

As though the beep issued some sort of secret command, the nurse lifts the corner of the blanket covering Josh's right leg.

I think I'm going to be sick

***

When I woke up, the car was in the lake.'

I stop talking when my angel starts crying.

Why is she crying now?

She didn't shed a single tear before.

Anyway,' I go on, hoping she's still listening. I couldn't get the door open and I couldn't really move. My seat wasn't under water, but the passenger seat was. The car must have been on its side. The water was about an inch from my head.'

Her hand is touching me again, stroking my hair.

All the windows were broken out and it was snowing and raining. I was already numb, though. But you know that, because I told you before how cold I was. I'm not sure what happened to my leg, it must have gotten caught between the pedals or something. All I know for sure is it hurt more than anything. More than getting shot. My leg must have been stuck in something because I couldn't lift it out of the water.'

***

Josh's right foot is gone. His leg ends in a torn stump just above where the ankle would be. The nurse is adjusting a tourniquet above his knee. The flesh in between looks like half-thawed ground beef.

Dr. Goldford plans on amputating what's left as soon as he's stable, Sue comments, returning the blanket to its original position.

***

After Donna called me, I called Toby and CJ.

The three of us arrive at Johns Hopkins shortly after 4 a.m.

A group of volunteer firefighters has staked out most of the waiting room, but there is no sign of Donna.

I approach the receptionist. We're looking for a woman named Donna Moss. She was seeing if a friend of ours was brought here

Yeah, sure. She's in the back with him. Let me get Dr. Goldford, she smiles back casually.

Does she not understand my friend is dead?

It isn't long before the doctor comes out and escorts us to a treatment room. Through the window we can see Donna and

Josh?

Josh is alive?

Josh is alive!

In my shock, I miss most of Dr. Goldford's rundown of Josh's condition. I catch severe hypothermia and not much else.

Toby and CJ seem caught in the same web of disbelief.

You can go in one at time, the doc finishes and points out a private waiting room.

CJ goes first to give Donna some support while Toby and I pull out our phones.

***

I look up at the door when CJ enters.

She pulls up a stool and sits next to me, How is he?

I glance over at his temperature monitor: 36 degrees.

I whisper. His core body temperature is almost back to normal, which is better. He's off the bypass thing they were using to warm his blood, but he hasn't so much as whimpered.

I can't talk about his leg. The memory of what it looks like makes my stomach flip-flop. The doctor can cover that little tidbit.

How are you? Sympathy and relief vie for supremacy in her voice.

I admit. I can sleep while Josh is in surgery.

She looks at Josh's battered face and I see anger flash in her eyes. He almost died for a stupid meeting. A stupid meeting that could have been postponed a week. There was no reason for him to have been driving in that damn storm except for the ego-flexing of a congressman.

But he's still alive, CJ. Josh is fighting for his life and he's winning. I can't think of a better Christmas gift. I refuse to get mad right now. Later, when he's awake and whining, I'll be pissed.

***

Somewhere along the line, I started to feel warm again and with the warmth came the realization I've been hallucinating.

The voice I thought belonged to an angel actually belongs to Donna.

Same difference, I guess.

The warmth also brought with it the return of intense pain to my right leg.

CJ's voice, filled with anger, joins Donna's soft, more resigned one.

I can't make out what has her so upset; comprehending requires more energy than I have right now.

All I want to do lie here and let Donna run her fingers through my hair to take my mind off the scorching agony in my leg.

***

Sam, stop glaring at her, Toby orders.

I am not glaring, I protest weakly.

They took Josh to surgery before Leo can make it up.

I don't understand why he needs surgery for hypothermia, but his doctor didn't talk to us before hand. Dr. Goldford just talked to Donna, who holds Josh's medical power of attorney.

Speaking of Donna, she came into the waiting room a couple of hours ago, said Dr. Goldford felt she needed to operate quickly, then promptly curled up on a couch and fell asleep.

Not that I begrudge the poor girl any sleep she can get, I doubt she's had any since this whole ordeal began, but we'd all like to know what's going on.

You are, too, Sam. Don't deny it, even I saw you glaring at Donna.

Leo is here and he brought the President with him.

What's the word? Leo asks the room in general.

We share a look and CJ bites the bullet. Josh is in surgery.

What for? Sam? You said hypothermia on the phone. I may have to call Abbey, but I'm pretty sure you don't have to operate for hypothermia unless you the President trails off and pales visibly.

Donna is the only one who knows. If it was ever explained to us, I shrug, we missed it.

Dr. Goldford is amputating his right leg. Donna sits up on the couch, looking more tired now than when she went to sleep.

***

It comes at me from all angles.

Oh, God.

Sam, though, stares at me in disgust. And you just arbitrarily made the decision? Without consulting any of us? Or Josh?

I stand on shaky legs and walk up to him. His foot and ankle were ripped off in the accident, Sam. The whole lower part of his leg was shredded. I saw it. I didn't need to consult you; it was the right thing to do. The only person I need to explain anything to is Josh and I have a sneaking suspicion he's not going to mind trading part of a leg for his life at this point.

Tirade over, I stalk out of the room, slamming the door shut behind me.

I wonder if Tom and his friends are still here? Walking into the waiting room, I find them sprawled throughout the area, occupying any piece of furniture comfortable enough to sleep in.

I take the seat next to Tom.

How's your friend? he asks.

I nod and sniffle simultaneously. He's in surgery. The doctor is amputating his leg.

Yeah. Bruce, Tom points to a burly guy in a plaid, flannel work shirt sleeping on the other side of the room, he said it was pretty gory.

You guys don't have to stay, I point out. The cavalry arrived and it's Christmas. I'm sure you'd all like to be home with your families.

Tom glances at the Secret Service agents spread liberally throughout the room. I get the impression the suits would be more comfortable if we left.

They're paid to be nervous. We both stand and I give Josh's savior a tight hug. Thank you so much.

***

The players in this little drama have squared off.

Sam is slouched in his chair opposite of CJ and Toby, who have taken over the sofa Donna vacated. The President and I are occupying real estate on the wall facing the door.

Dr. Goldford, who joined us moments after Donna told Sam off and stormed out, is standing in the middle of the room reviewing her notes.

None of us know what to say; even the President seems at a loss for words.

I'll just wait for Donna to come back, Dr. Goldford speaks to the silence.

I nod towards the door, but before she can get up, Donna returns.

The young woman closes the door and leans against it, clearly not willing to ally with any of us.

The doctor gives her a reassuring smile and begins. Josh is in recovery. We'll be moving him up to ICU in an hour or so. His body temperature is hovering just below normal, but it's steady. The right leg had to be amputated about four inches above the knee to get enough undamaged, living skin to do a graft.

She pauses to take a breath and Sam pounces on the opening.

Was it really necessary to amputate at all?

Your friend suffered an accidental, traumatic amputation of the foot and ankle. The residual limb was then submerged in freezing lake water for a period of more than twenty-four hours. We'll be lucky if he doesn't develop an infection that forces further removal. Now, if you'd like to inspect the portion of the limb I removed, I'd be happy to go get it for you. Although at this point, it is unidentifiable as a human leg. It looks more like a huge lump of ground round.

Donna's tirade had nothing on Dr. Goldford's.

Sam looks appropriately chagrined, and sickened, so I decide it's time to move on.

How long until he wakes up? I ask.

The doctor shrugs. It's hard to tell. If there's any neurological impairment caused by oxygen deprivation, he could very well slip into a coma. Or he could be awake right now. I can let you all visit individually for a few moments.

I order. You go first. Then go home and get some sleep.

Donna steps away from the door and claims the empty chair.

He's just being protective of his friend, I start.

Leo, he was being an insensitive ass, Toby interrupts.

Opening my mouth to light into Toby, I'm cut off at the knees by my boss.

Neither of you speak, Jed commands, holding up his hand for quiet. Toby, you will go next; followed by you Leo. I'll go after that and CJ can go last. Donnatella, I assume you plan on staying?

Josh's assistant nods her head.

Abbey planned on heading up once the sun rose. I'd imagine she'll be here momentarily, the President smiles and pats Donna on the shoulder.

***

I'm cognizant of being moved from one room to another. The tubes and wires and clips and catheters are back.

It feels like it's taken days to claw my way out of the abyss I found myself in.

Donna's been keeping me company the whole way.

She's started singing Christmas carols.

Probably with the intent for me to wake up and tell her to stop, Donna knows I hate Christmas carols.

I'm going to get her for this. I'm going to make her dance with me at the Inaugural Ball and then step on her feet repeatedly as retribution.

The mind-numbing pain in my leg is gone, thankfully. Replaced by a dull ache.

I consider it an improvement.

The more clearly I can hear Donna sing, the more I can feel my body start to shiver. By the time a second voice joins hers in a truly horrendous version of Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer' I'm struggling to open my eyes.

***

Josh hates Christmas carols, especially the corny newer ones like Rusty Chevrolet' and Grandma Got Run Over.' I'm really tempted to launch into The Hanukah Song' but I don't remember all the words.

The First Lady is welcome company. She arrived right after they moved Josh into ICU at 9 o'clock. Dr. Goldford doesn't anticipate Josh waking any time soon, despite an EEG indicating a high level of brain activity.

I mention that because the nurses went ahead and taped Josh's eyelids shut.

Eyelids which are presently struggling against the tape.

I automatically reach out and touch his hair.

I learned during his last hospital stay it has a calming effect on him.

His lips move, but no sound comes out.

Dr. Bartlet goes for a nurse, while I struggle to keep Josh from panicking.

Howard, the poor guy who drew the short straw and had to work today, rushes in to help. He eases the tape off Josh's eyes and elevates the bed a bit.

Dr. Goldford said he could have some fluids, but only if they've been warmed to room temperature, he tells us before returning to the nurses' station to call her.

Do you want some water? I ask Josh, who's looking around bleary eyes.

He nods and tries to scoot himself up the bed a bit more.

***

Something doesn't feel quite right when I inch my body more upright. At first, I figure it's just because I feel like I've been run over by a train.

I change my opinion at the sight of Donna biting her lower lip.

My voice sounds raspy to my own ears.

Do you remember much of the accident? Donna asks.

Donna? Tell me what's wrong, I don't have the strength to tell her what I remember.

Your leg was hurt pretty badly.

She's hedging.

I try to sound menacing, but I don't think it worked.

My loyal, trustworthy Donna looks down at her fingernails. The doctor had to amputate your leg, Josh.

The right one? I ask. It was the one that hurt so bad when I was trapped.

She nods silently.

I'm not sure why, but this isn't bothering me as much as you would think.

Above the knee.

I want to see.

Call it morbid curiosity. I want to know why it doesn't feel any different, other than the tremendously decreased level of pain.

Donna looks over her shoulder. Following her line of sight, I see she's seeking permission from the First Lady. Abbey shrugs and nods.

My right leg ends at mid-thigh. There's a tight wrap on it causing a comforting, squeezing feel.

My eyes track up from the wound to meet her watery ones.

I manage to raise my hand to her face and wipe a tear from the corner her eye. Don't cry, please. It'll be okay.

The memories of my unspoken conversations with her surface and I find in impossible to clamp down on my feelings for her anymore. It breaks my heart to see her cry.

You'll see, Donnatella, I whisper, suddenly very tired. Collapsing back against the bed, I doubt she hears my promise. I'm going to dance with you at the Inaugural Ball.

Thursday, December 26, 2002

Josh slept all day yesterday and woke up this morning restless.

Dr. Goldford didn't see any reason to keep him in ICU when she came in during morning rounds and found us arguing about whether he could get out of bed to pee.

She decided if he had enough energy to argue with me; he had enough energy to start physical therapy. The orderlies moved him into a regular room and twenty minutes later a nice woman named Kimberly showed up to torture him.

Surprisingly, the only time Josh really complained was when she stretched the amputated leg. And it wasn't even the stretching he whined about; apparently she was pulling on the staples of the skin graft.

Kimberly left a list of people who would be through to talk to him today: his new orthopedic doctor, a rehab nurse, an occupational therapist, another physical therapist, a prosthetist, his caseworker and his patient advocate.

His cardiologist is coming up to check him out, as well.

When the floor nurse came into change his pressure bandage, Josh kicked me out of his room.

He claimed he was sending me on a mission to get him clothes and something to do.

Please, how bored can the man get with the parade of visitors he's going to have today?

After I swing by his apartment to collect enough sweats and t-shirts to last the week or so he'll be in the hospital, I stop by the White House.

Sam is in Toby's office. I'm still pissed at him, so I make CJ my first stop.

Shouldn't you be in Baltimore? she asks.

I'm on a mission for sweatpants, I deadpan.

He's awake? CJ's eyes light up at my news.

Awake, out of ICU and entertaining a plethora of medical professionals. I collapse into her visitor's chair.

How'd he take it?

He ended up telling me everything was going to be okay.

So you guys talked? The patented CJ Cregg raised eyebrows tell me exactly what she thinks we should have talked about.

Um, no.

Why not?

Because he told me everything was going to be okay and then he fell asleep. We didn't have time this morning.

You need to talk to him.

I know I do and I will. When the time is right.

***

I kicked Donna out because I want to talk to these people on my own.

This isn't like before, when we both knew it was just a matter of time before I was back to normal after the shooting.

This is different and I might as well accept it and figure out how things need to change.

My leg won't magically grow back.

Visitor number two is a guy named Max, whose stated purpose is to teach me how to get around on my own one foot.

He's been droning on for the past ten minutes about his approach to occupational therapy. We're going to start slow, about a half an hour a day until they release you from the hospital. Your next stop will like be a week in a rehab facility.

Hey, Max?

Max finally makes eye contact with me.

You wanna help me out of bed so I can use the bathroom?

I want to get back to my life as quickly as possible; I don't care what I have to do.

I've got things to do and a woman to dance with.

Getting back to my life means learning how to use the bathroom and shower by myself. This guy can either help me or get out of my way.

Fortunately he decides to help because when I stand up, I'm incredibly dizzy.

***

Leo isn't in, but the President catches a glimpse of me and pulls me into the Oval Office for an update.

Abbey said Josh took it pretty well, he gestures for me to take a seat.

I was surprised, I admit. He kicked me out for the day, though.

You're concerned he's putting up a front?

I don't know. My own emotions are all over the board. He seemed anxious to get up and out of bed today. I would rather have stayed and gotten some of my questions answered, but

Give him a little time, Donna. A lot of things about his life are going to change and he has to relearn some basic skills. Everything from standing up to going to the bathroom. The President scrutinizes me. The two of you need to talk.

I know, I sigh.

Tell him how you feel. Let him know you want to take an active part in his rehabilitation and more importantly, why you want to.

I will.

Have you talked to Toby and Sam, yet?

I shake my head. Toby was my next stop.

***

Brenda, the patient advocate, talks to me for almost an hour and leaves me a stack of booklets and pamphlets on coping with limb loss. Ned, the prosthetist, visits long enough to introduce himself and tells me getting a prosthesis is a longer process than I ever considered. Ned leaves me a stack of brochures, too.

I'm comparing different types of knees when Dr. Gregory shows up.

This is the guy I've been waiting for. According to Dr. Goldford, my orthopedic doctor will coordinate my treatment and rehab plan.

He's a sarcastic, slightly obnoxious guy who takes one look at me, sitting in the middle of the hospital bed, surrounded by reading material and laughs.

Let's take a look at the stump, shall we? He pulls a wheeled stool over by the bed. Sit on the edge of the bed.

I do as he says and try not to wince when he pulls the bandage off.

Have you seen it, yet?

Not the actual, you know, thing. Nor am I in a great hurry to.

he corrects absently. The goal is to keep the swelling under control while the sutures heal. What we're going to do is fit you with something called an immediate post-operative prosthesis' to do that and allow you to start gradually putting some weight on the residual limb. You look like you've got something to say.

Here's the deal, I need to be able to dance on January 20th. At the look on his face, I amend my request. A reasonable approximation of dancing.

January 20th?

I have a date.

We sit there for a while as he contemplates my request.

Will you settle for being able to hobble for an hour or so?

I want to be able to escort her in and dance one dance with her.

He prods the muscles on my good leg. You're in pretty decent shape, but you're still going to have to work your ass off.

Fair enough.

I'll work up a rehab program this afternoon. Plan on being here for until New Years, just because of the level of physical therapy we're going to put you through. Then a week in a rehab facility before we send you home. We're going to skip the wheelchair and get you up on crutches today. When you're in bed, though, we'll get a sling set up to elevate the stump. I need you to promise me you'll follow the rules I'm going to set.

Yes, sir.

***

Sam's gone when I stop at Toby's office the second time.

Sam decided to head back to California, Toby waves me in. I hear he's awake and bitching.

Awake, yes; bitching, no.

I think slamming his head against the steering wheel may have caused some brain damage.

I think he's in denial.

You think he doesn't believe the doctors cut his leg off? Toby asks in disbelief.

No, I think he doesn't understand how much things are going to change.

Have you talked to him?

I shake my head. No, I haven't had a chance.

Toby just nods in understanding.

***

Afternoon physical therapy consisted of getting myself down to the therapy room on crutches, strength building exercises for my left leg and abs, then getting myself back to my room to take a shower.

The thought of Donna in my arms keeps me motivated.

Leo's waiting for me when I get back upstairs.

Weren't you almost dead yesterday? he asks, giving me a once over.

Those reports were exaggerated. I sit on the edge of the bed, propping my stump up so it doesn't dangle.

Dangling of the residual limb, I've been repeatedly informed today, leads to fluid retention and causes swelling.

Swelling is bad.

You don't have to push this, Josh, Leo emphasizes.

Pulling my sweat-soaked t-shirt over my head, I use it to mop the sweat off my face.

There's a plan, I tell him.

***

Jack Reese catches me on my way out the door.

I heard about Josh, he says. I'm sorry.

I appreciate it, Jack, I really do. I'll tell Josh you asked about him.

Look, Donna I was wondering if you had a date for the Inaugural Ball, yet? Jack sort of looks like Josh when he's flustered.

No, I don't. I went as Josh's assistant last time, but The Ball is on the 20th; I doubt Josh will be in any condition to go.

Just as friends, Jack clarifies.

I'd love to, I decide.

***

This plan is insane! Are they trying to kill you? Donna calls from the bathroom where she's waiting for me to change clothes.

You can come out! I holler back.

It only took me fifteen minutes to get my sweatpants on.

Max and I need to work on dressing tomorrow.

The sling Dr. Gregory fixed up for me looks like one they'd use for a person in traction.

Wiggling my way up the bed, I get comfortable, yet leave enough room for Donna to join me.

If she wants to.

Do you want some help? she asks, watching me try to maneuver my stump into the fabric sling.

Hitching up my hip, I get it cradled right.

Flashing Donna a look of triumph, I pull the rope to raise the sling and tie it off on the bed rail.

Settling back, I motion for her to give me the schedule back. At least this means you don't have to sit up here and keep me occupied, I joke, noticing there really is no downtime until after dinner.

***

No, I guess I won't, is what comes out of my mouth.

You asshole' is what runs through my head. If you don't want me up here, then I won't come up here at all.

Making up an excuse is easy. Friday afternoon, I call the nurses' station and leave a message for him that my car died and I don't know when I'll get it back. If I can borrow a car or catch a ride up, I will. Otherwise, don't expect me.

Monday, December 30, 2002

Donna doesn't answer her phone Friday night, Saturday night or Sunday night.

I'm starting to think she's avoiding me. CJ calls here and there, but I haven't heard a peep from Sam or Toby.

I didn't realize I was so much of a monster now; my friends don't want to be around me.

Leo comes up every night for an hour or two and we go over the business of the day. He worries I'm pushing too hard.

I keep telling him there's a plan.

Of course, the plan doesn't mean much if Donna thinks I'm too horrible to be around.

I'm busting my ass in therapy, regardless.

It takes me no longer to put my sweatpants on than it did before the accident; I have obtained sufficient balance to be able to pee without holding onto a support; most importantly, showering is no longer an adventure sport.

Dr. Gregory and Ned showed up with the IPOP contraption this morning. It's a plastic boot looking thing with a primitive knee joint, a lower leg and foot. It feels tighter than the pressure bandage, but Dr. Gregory assures me that is normal and good.

Darryl, physical therapist and sadist extraordinaire, has me working on stairs when Brenda, kindly patient advocate, finds us. Brenda comes to visit every night after Leo leaves. She helped me line up people to modify my apartment and contacted my insurance agent for me and a million other little details I'd probably have overlooked.

Basically all the things Donna did for me last time.

Brenda leans against the railing. I've got a question for you. Call it a favor.

I tell her, contemplating how I'm going to get my crutches, the peg leg and the rest of me up a flight of ten stairs.

I've misjudged the height five out of five times so far.

Would you be willing to talk to another patient? I've got a seven-year-old girl with bone cancer. I think it would help her to talk to someone who can tell her what to expect from a patient point of view.

I don't answer right away. I'm halfway up the stairs and don't want to break my luck.

Arriving at the tenth step, I look back down at Brenda and, in a flush of self-confidence, agree. Sure. When?

***

Hey, are you going to see Josh tonight? CJ catches me at the copier.

No, I've got to get some laundry done or I'll be out of clothes. I think Leo is going, I lie. I'm going out with Jack tonight, but CJ doesn't need to know about it.

Donna, when was the last time you went to see him?

I admit before heading back to my desk.

I can't begin to rationalize the way I feel. The more I think about it, the more I realize Josh was trying to be considerate of my time when he said what he said. I spend a lot of time and energy convincing myself I don't care and my not being there is better for Josh.

He calls every night around 7:30. After dinner and before Leo gets there, I assume.

There's always a message on my machine at home and my voicemail at work. The same message every time: Hey, Donna, it's me, Josh. I didn't need anything important, just wanted to talk to you. Call me if you get this before 11.'

I don't have the guts to call him.

If I call him, I'll know he needs me and then I'll feel guilty for abandoning him.

***

Where's room 1013? I stop at the nurses' station on the 10th floor of the pediatric wing.

Mostly to rest.

I'm far more mobile than anyone expected me to be at this point, but my endurance on the crutches leaves a little to be desired.

You're Josh? the nurse, her nametag says Millie, asks.

I nod.

Nikki's a pretty shy little girl right now. Did Brenda fill you in? Millie slowly leads me down the brightly colored hallway.

She said something about bone cancer.

Millie stops in a small alcove. Nikki's seven. She was diagnosed with cancer four years ago and has been more in than out of here. Her parents are divorced. Her dad has custody. He's an attorney in Washington. Her mom is in Idaho. The cancer is localized to her left leg and we've just exhausted every other possibility.

I nod my understanding. I haven't spent a lot of time with kids lately, but I've never had a problem getting along with them. Especially the shy, self-conscious ones.

I know all about those kids.

We continue down the hall another couple of doors to a half-open one. Millie pushes it and knocks at the same time.

Nikki? Josh is here to see you.

Nikki is sitting in the middle of her bed, surrounded by stuffed animals and dolls. Millie wasn't lying about the shy part.

she mumbles.

I smile back at her. Do you mind if I mooch part of your bed?

Her natural curiosity takes over.

So I can prop my leg up.

I perch on the edge, careful not to invade her space. Nikki sits and fiddles with her stuffed toys for a while. I'm content to let her lead, not knowing what she really needs from me; not knowing if I can even help. I've only been living like this for five days.

What happened to you? she finally asks.

I was in a car accident, I answer. A bad car accident.

Oh. When?

A week ago. Wow, the accident was a week ago. It feels like an eternity. My car rolled down a hill and ended up in a lake. They didn't find me until really late on Christmas Eve.

Were you scared?

I decide to be completely honest with this little girl. For a while. Then I started to hallucinate from the cold.

I heard voices in my head.

What did they tell you?

To hold on. Someone would find me and I'd be okay.

Well they got most of it right, she scoffs a little.

I smile at her, repeating something I told Donna. They got it all right. I'm alive. That makes it okay.

But they had to cut your leg off, Nikki protests.

So? Still beats being dead, I shrug.

I can still see my friends and the people I love. Oh, yeah, I need to call my mom again tonight. I can still do the fun stuff I used to do before.

She sits and contemplates my worldview for a while.

Does it hurt?

It comes down to the pain in the end.

My foot got severed in the accident. I point to a spot just above her ankle. And then my leg was stuck in dirty, cold lake water for over a day. That felt like someone had stuck hot pokers in my eyeballs. I pause so she can giggle at my analogy. When I woke up after the surgery, it was like a dull ache and that went away after a couple of days. The only thing that hurts now is when I accidentally move wrong and pull on the stitches.

***

After my conversation with Donna, I make a beeline for Leo's office. Closing the door behind me, I wait for him to get off the phone.

Josh's mom, Sarah, he explains. Josh has a lamentable habit of only calling once a month and he used December's call on Thursday to tell her he was alive. She's worried.

Speaking of Josh, has he said anything about Donna? I ask. I've talked to him on the phone every other day and he hasn't breathed a word about her not being up there.

No. Why? Leo's eyes narrow suspiciously.

She hasn't been up there since Thursday.

I'll talk to Josh tonight, he replies.

***

Do your friends still like you?

Once we broke the ice, Nikki's gregarious personality surfaced and the questions haven't stopped. Millie brought us lunch about twenty minutes ago.

I pick at my Jell-O, fibbing just a bit. Nikki doesn't need to know my friends think I'm a freak. Her friends will probably think it's cool to know somebody with a fake leg.

They're all in Washington, so they don't come up every day, but they call to check on me, I continue.

A knock on the door interrupts our conversation. A well dressed, lawyer looking type comes in the room with an even better dressed, prissy looking woman.

Nikki squeals.

he shoots me a look. I don't think we've met.

Daddy, this is Josh. He came to have lunch with me.

Brenda asked me to talk to Nikki, I explain, picking up on the leave now' vibe. I've got to go, kiddo. I have an appointment with the gym.

She leans over and hugs me.

Will you come have lunch with me tomorrow? she whispers in my ear.

I promise. Not like anyone's going to come have lunch with me.

***

What do you think about throwing Josh a New Years' party tomorrow night? Jed asks when I return to the Oval Office after meeting with CJ.

You mean hauling everyone up to Baltimore to spend New Years' Eve with Josh? I clarify.

Right. You, me, Abbey, CJ, Toby, Donna, Ed, Larry, anyone else who wants to go.

I think that's a great idea.

It'll give me an excuse to sit Donna down and find out what the hell is going on.

***

There's a message from Sam when I get back to my room following an afternoon of fun with Darryl.

Hey, what's up? I ask when Sam answers his cell.

You sound good, he replies, over the hum of his campaign office in the background.

Is this a bad time?

I hear a door shut. Look, I wanted to apologize for leaving before you woke up. I I was an ass to Donna while you were in surgery and I didn't want to upset her any more by hanging around. Do you think it's safe for me to call and apologize to her yet?

I put up the same front for my best friend I have for everyone else. I'm sure Donna would be happy to accept your apology, Sam. What did you say to her? She hasn't said a word to me about it.

I sort of accused her of making a hasty decision that wasn't in your best interest, Sam admits.

What the hell does that mean?

I lit into her for okaying your surgery without talking to the rest of us.

She didn't have a choice, Sam. I'm glad I didn't know about this while he was still in town. I'd have walked to Washington and kicked his ass.

Yeah, I got that impression from Dr. Goldford. Look, I'm sorry. I was just worried about you and stuff. He does sound repentant. How are you anyway?

I'm in better shape than I was in college. They've got me in the gym twice a day and I can pee standing up again. Every day is better than the last one, I tell him.

Josh, I want to talk to you, but

Go. Do your thing. Come back here as Congressman Seaborn, I order with a laugh.

When's a good time to call?

I'm usually back in my room around 6:30. I'm supposed to be getting out of here soon, though.

Keep me posted.

You got it.

***

Leo wants to see me.

CJ probably ran right into his office and reported me for being a bad friend. I have trouble believing Josh hasn't said anything to either of them, yet.

I wonder if I can sneak out of the building and pretend I didn't get the message until tomorrow?

What the hell is wrong with me?

Why can't I just call Josh and say I'm sorry and tell him how I feel?

How do I feel?

I mean, now that he isn't dead?

Am I really in love with him or was it just the emotion of the time?

Dragging my feet, I wander towards Leo's office.

Margaret gives me a sympathetic look and sends me in.

Close the door, Leo says. And have a seat.

I comply, but before I can launch a preemptive attack, Leo comes around his desk and sits in the chair next to me.

Donna, I don't pretend to know what's going on. I want you to know Josh hasn't said a word to me, but I go up there every night and he's got a spark in his eye that goes away when he sees I'm alone. Whatever he said or did can't be so bad you don't love him anymore.

I can't help him. I mean, he's better off if I'm not there, doing things for him, I blurt. I love him too much, I'd be in the way.

Where did that come from?

More importantly, what does it mean?

Leo nods, accepting my answer even though he obviously doesn't understand what I'm talking about. The President wants to get a group together to go up and spend New Years Eve with him. Just think about it.

Jack is waiting at my desk when I stop by to gather my things.

His smile is friendly and unburdened.

I am, I reply.

***

I take my pain pills before I call my mom.

I was not entirely truthful when I told Nikki the pain had gone away. It hurts in a major way towards the end of my pill cycle.

Mom cries a lot on the phone, which just depresses me.

I weasel off the phone when they bring dinner, which I eat out of habit more than anything.

Picking at the unappealing vegetable medley, I continue to think about my conversations with Mom and Sam. It's awkward to talk to them or even Leo and CJ about what I'm going through. None of them understand how badly I need them to not treat me differently or expect less from me.

I'm struggling to learn what I need to do differently in my life to maintain the same level of physical ability. It's only while talking to Mom I realize how much I need everyone's support. I need them to demand I remain the same person I was before, minus 2/3rds of my right leg.

I can't do this alone, but I never thought I'd have to.

I thought Donna would be here, emotionally, for me. I don't want her physical help, but I need to talk to her, to hear her laugh, to see her smile. I need to remember why I'm hell-bent to subject myself to this insane rehab schedule.

It isn't so I can get back up on the Hill and deal with the over-inflated egos of Senators and Congressmen.

The day, hell the week, starts catching up with me by the time I finish eating and for the first time since I woke up, my emotions overwhelm me.

I'm still crying when I pick up my cell phone to try Donna. Unsurprisingly, I get her machine.

Donna, this is Josh. Look, I don't know what I did to drive you away, but I'm sorry. I just I need to hear your voice. Please, please call me. I don't even care when.

I'm not allowed to wallow in my despair for long before someone knocks on my door.

Come in, I call, not caring if I'm caught with a tear-stained face. Besides, it's probably Leo, maybe he can explain where Donna is.

Well, it took you long enough to throw yourself a pity-party, Brenda, patient-advocate extraordinaire, jokes, planting herself on the edge of my bed. You want to talk about it?

Don't I have a social worker? I don't really want to talk to anyone.

Except Donna.

He quit. Took one look at you and headed for the hills. Brenda is just a barrel of laughs. Josh, it's normal to be upset about losing a limb. There's actually a grief process you go through. Want to know what stage you're in?

Not particularly, I reply bitterly.

You, my friend, have managed to hit all five at once. Which might be a new record and it's why you're sitting here holding your cell phone and crying.

I thought you said my social worker quit.

You're stuck with me instead, she smiles, but softens her voice. Josh, I've seen the visitor records. You're a restricted access patient, they keep track of who comes and goes. It's okay to be upset because your friends and family haven't come to see you, but don't let it eat away at you. You're making great progress in physical therapy and Max hates you, which is always a good sign. Focus on the positives, you're bargaining with chips you've actually got: you're working your ass off to keep your independence and mobility; you've accepted this is the way your life is going to be. Your anger and depression are tied to being isolated from your friends.

I don't answer. I'm thinking about what she's really saying, desperately trying to see through my own suffering.

Your friends went through a hell of a time themselves, you know, Brenda points out. If I remember the news reports right, everyone was pretty certain you were dead. They were making plans for your funeral.

I'm confused by what she's referring to.

Ask your friends about it. Knowing what they went through might help you understand their reactions. Until then, sit here and cry. It's cathartic, trust me.

Advice dispensed, Brenda pats me on the shoulder and leaves me to think.

***

I'm running early tonight. The response to the President's suggestion was outstanding and I didn't have to browbeat as many people as I anticipated.

The door to Josh's room is closed, which is odd. Peering through the window, I see him lying in bed, cell phone in his hand and tears pouring down his face.

I've never seen Josh cry. Even after the shooting, he never let anyone, except Donna, know what he was really feeling.

Part of me feels voyeuristic standing here, watching my deputy suffer; another part of me just wants to turn back the clock and not let him leave Camp David.

I settle for the third option: I knock twice and let myself in.

Josh wipes furiously at his tears, brightening up a little. Hey, Leo. How's the country?

Screw the country, I sit next to him on the bed. How are you?

He bites back his rhetorical fine' and returns his head to the pillow, allowing the tears to flow again. Tired. It started to hurt this afternoon. A lot. Darryl and Dr. Gregory think we're going to fast, but

I wrap my arm around his shoulder and pull his head to my shoulder. What's this about, Josh?

It's stupid, he whispers.

If it means this much to you, it isn't stupid, I insist.

All I wanted, Leo, all I wanted was the chance to take her to the Ball and dance one dance with her. To tell her how I feel about her, he sobs.

Josh, you weren't exactly light on your feet before the accident, I point out gently.

Using the term loosely. Stand on the dance floor and sway might be a better way to put it, he qualifies sadly. I just wanted to be able to take her. That was the plan.

I'm sorry, son. All I can tell you is keep working; things might change.

I sit with him and let him cry himself to sleep. I stay for a couple of hours, watching him sleep and hoping for the phone to ring.

***

Jack has been great the past week. We can go out to dinner or a late movie and not talk about Josh or politics or work.

Did you decide about tomorrow night? he asks, walking me to my apartment door. He asked me out a couple of days ago.

Before Leo told me the President's plan.

I think I'd love to go out with you again tomorrow. I give Jack a hug and kiss his cheek. Thanks for a nice time.

The message light on the answer machine is blinking. I push play and head into the bathroom to wash my face.

Donna, this is Josh He sounds like he's been crying. Look, I don't know what I did to drive you away, but I'm sorry. I just I need to hear your voice. Please, please call me. I don't even care when.

It's one o'clock in the morning. There's no way Josh is awake.

I'll call him tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 31, 2002

Congratulations, you are the proud owner of a 101 degree fever! Howard's on the dayshift today. He gets all the good holiday hours.

I hate Howard.

I'm thrilled, I moan and then start coughing up the nastiest green colored gunk I've ever seen. I didn't produce crap this disgusting after the shooting.

Dr. Gregory wanders in on the tail end of my hacking jag.

Lean forward, he orders. He listens to me breath, thumps my back in a couple of places and then shoves me back onto the bed. IV fluids and antibiotics, oxygen mask for a day of warm, moist ventilation and nothing else. You're spending the day in bed so this doesn't turn into pneumonia.

They slip something else in the IV because I pass out as soon as Howard finds a vein and opens the flow.

***

I leave messages on Josh's room phone and his cell phone.

CJ stalks past me moments after I hang up the phone.

I called, he didn't answer, I say before she can even bring it up.

Are you going tonight?

I shrug. If he wants me there, I'll will.

It turns into a long day of waiting for Josh to call me back.

***

I wake up around noon, not feeling any better, but with a visitor.

Brenda said you were sick today and I should come cheer you up, Nikki smiles at me from her wheelchair.

I motion for her to give a pad and pen. I can't talk with the oxygen mask on.

How are you feeling today?'

Better. They scheduled my surgery for Thursday, January 23rd.

Before I can write a note back to her, Howard comes back in with a syringe full of something.

Thirty seconds after he injects it into the IV line, I'm out cold again. Which is a damn shame because I wanted to talk to Nikki.

***

Tonight's party is off, the President tells me when I get back from a meeting in the Roosevelt Room.

I ask. I was kind of looking forward to seeing Josh's expression when we hauled everyone up there.

I talked to Brenda, his patient advocate, this morning. We talked about last night and she's of the opinion we, Josh's friends, need to put forth a little more effort. Phone calls aren't cutting it right now. Josh is feeling rejected and abandoned.

He's sick; respiratory infection, Jed shrugs. His doctor called and left a message with Margaret. She gave it to me because you were in that meeting.

Is it serious?

Not at the moment. Josh will be spending the next couple of days in bed, asleep. He just doesn't know it, yet. The idea of Josh being sedated and confined to bed obviously amuses President Bartlet.

Sir, I don't mean to be out of line, but it wouldn't hurt if a few people took the time to go up there. I hold my hand up to forestall his objection. Maybe not tonight, but some visitors would do him a world of good.

What are you telling me, Leo? Jed sits behind his desk and starts going through some paperwork. Josh thinks we've forgotten about him?

No, sir. What I'm saying is Josh thinks we're purposely avoiding him. I head back to my office. Stopping at the door, I turn back. And in my mind, that's worse.

***

Diane is on duty when I wake up the second time. Diane is a female version of Howard, who normally works the overnight shift. She should not be seen in the light of day.

I hate her, too.

I want my regular nurses: Beth and Denise. Two shining examples of what nurses should be Ð sarcastic and mean.

she reads the thermometer and shakes her head at me. You've managed to catch a nasty little bug.

The only thing preventing me from hocking up a lung is the moist air coming from the oxygen mask.

I get to stay awake long enough to see Dr. Gregory a second time. He ships me to radiology for a chest x-ray and then pumps something into my IV when I get back.

***

Josh has a staph infection and an upper respiratory infection, I announce to end the evening staff meeting. I got the call from his doctor right before the meeting started.

At least it isn't pneumonia.

Spread the word to your assistants. He's confined to bed for the next couple of days and would probably appreciate anyone who can get up to spend an hour or so keeping him company.

I watch Toby and CJ exchange a look. They both remain seated until everyone else has left.

I glance between them.

Look, Leo. It isn't that we don't want to go up there, but Baltimore is almost two hours away in traffic. Toby's got the Inaugural he's working on. We were all spread thin covering for Sam before, but now we're covering for Josh, too. I'm sorry, but a phone call every other day is about all any of us have time for, CJ blurts out.

***

Jack appears at my desk promptly at seven o'clock. Not having heard a peep from Josh and knowing the party is off anyway, I decide spending New Years with Commander Reese is as good an idea as any other.

I got us tickets to the party at the Smithsonian, he says, walking me to my car.

We part ways in the lot, Jack telling me he'll pick me up at 9.

Since this isn't an administration function, I feel comfortable recycling something I wore to a campaign event back in October.

Josh's eyes about popped out of his head when he saw it, so I'm sure Jack will appreciate it. It's an ivory-colored, Vera Wang knock-off I got at a consignment shop. It shows off curves I didn't know I had.

Putting the finishing touches on my hair, I look at myself in the mirror.

What am I doing going out with Jack?

I should be in my car on my way to Baltimore to find out why Josh didn't call me back and why the President felt it necessary to cancel the group road trip.

Instead, I'm going out with a Jack to a classy party at the Smithsonian while Josh spends New Years Eve alone in a hospital room watching Dick Clark.

What in the hell am I doing?

***

Josh is out like a light when I get there.

He has company, though. A little girl in a wheelchair is parked beside his bed, holding his hand.

I say, startled to see anyone with him. Who are you?

I'm Nikki, she whispers shyly. Are you Josh's dad?

No, I'm his boss. I sit down next to her. How do you know Josh?

He came and had lunch with me yesterday and told me what it was like to have an ampu She stumbles over the word amputation. To have your leg cut off.

What did he tell you? I'm curious about what Josh would say to a little girl about the past week.

That it didn't hurt as much afterwards as it did before they did it and my friends will still like me. He said his friends were all really busy and can't come visit, but they try to call him. He still seemed kinda sad though.

Why do you think he's sad? I ask, remembering when Mallory was this age and told me things I refused to see with the amazing openness children possess.

My mom calls me every night and reads me a story, but it isn't the same. It makes me sad she can't be here. I'd be sad if my friends were too busy to visit me.

***

For all Jack's enthusiasm tonight, I'm had a perfectly miserable time and it's only 11:30.

Primarily because I keep wondering why I'm here and if the Dick Clark special is as overdone as it was last year.

Would it be all right if we left? I'm tired and confused.

What's wrong? he asks.

I shake my head. I'm not sure.

An officer and a gentleman, he gets our coats and drives me home without another inquiry. The drive takes us past Josh's building.

Stop here, I say suddenly.

He pulls into an empty spot and unlocks the doors. I'm sorry you didn't enjoy yourself tonight.

I nod, placing my hand on his arm. I'm sorry, Jack. You are a great guy. The kind of guy I'd normally jump through hoops to go out with, but I think I need some time to figure out what's going on in my head.

In your heart, too, he agrees. Where are we, by the way?

Josh's apartment. I doubt anybody has checked in on it since Christmas and we were driving by

Do you want me to wait or go up with you? Concern for my safety is the only thing I see in his eyes.

No. I'll be okay. Thank you, Jack, for everything.

Donna, just call him. If he loves you half as much as you love him, nothing else matters.

You're a good friend, Jack.

***

After Nikki goes back to her room, I spend the rest of the evening reading briefing memos and watching Josh sleep.

He becomes more restless as the night progresses. If I had to guess, I'd say he was having a nightmare. I can make out a word here and there through the oxygen mask.

Mostly the words no, please and Donna.

It's ten minutes to midnight when Josh wakes himself up, shaking and gasping for air.

And asking for Donna.

I try to calm him with little success. Josh, take it easy.

His eyes are unfocused and dilated when he turns toward my voice.

It's okay, Josh. Go back to sleep. I struggle to keep my voice as soothing as I can.

He nods his head once and closes his eyes, drifting back off.

***

With a sense of déjà vu, I curl up on Josh's couch and stare out the window, a cup of steaming hot chocolate in my hands.

A week ago I sat here, thinking Josh was dead and wondering how I was going to get up the next morning and go on with my life.

I sit here tonight, knowing Josh is alive and wondering how I can make things right.

As nice a guy as Jack Reese is, I realized tonight with breathtaking clarity, he isn't Josh Lyman and Josh Lyman is the man I'm in love with.

Warts and all.

I wonder if he's up?

Getting my phone from my purse, I dial his cell and leave another message as the clock strikes midnight.

Wednesday, January 1, 2003

I got a new doctor this morning. An infectious diseases specialist named Dr. Phelps. He and Howard get their morning kicks extracting my blood.

Lots of my blood.

Are you going to leave me any? I growl when Howard draws a fifth vial.

Dr. Phelps took the oxygen mask away so my bitching sets off a coughing spell. The crap I bring up isn't green anymore; it's yellow with little flakes in it.

That gets sent to the lab, along with a throat swab and the gallon of blood.

I get the impression if I give in to the urge to vomit, it would go to the lab as well.

Do you feel nauseous? Dr. Phelps asks while Howard sticks a thermometer in my ear.

Yeah. My throat hurts, my head hurts, everything hurts.

Howard grunts and shows the thermometer readout to Dr. Phelps, who shakes his head and flips through my chart.

102.4. You spent twenty-four hours exposed to the elements? he asks, absently.

Something like that. Does it matter?

I'm an asshole when I'm sick, I'll freely admit it.

You're just Little Mary Sunshine this morning aren't you?

The urge to tell this guy to bite me is drowned out by another coughing spell. This one causes a chain-reaction, resulting in breakfast making a reappearance.

Thank you. Dr. Phelps puts a lid on the tray and hands it to Howard.

Yep, it's going to the lab.

You were just waiting for that, weren't you? I take a sip of water to rinse out my mouth.

Pretty much, he nods. I should have some results back in a couple of hours.

***

I take a cab to my apartment before work in the morning to get a couple changes of clothing.

Despite not figuring out how to fix this mess, I feel better having decided I want to fix it.

There's a note from Leo on my desk and for the second time in three days, I knock on his door.

You wanted to see me? I ask, timidly. I may feel better deciding I want to be a part of Josh's recovery, but I still feel like guilty about my behavior the past few days.

Did you have a chance to think about our discussion on Monday? Leo cuts straight to the chase.

I have. I look him in the eye for the first time since Thursday. I'm just not sure how to fix it. He probably doesn't want to see me by now. I've tried calling him a couple of times, but he hasn't returned my messages. Not that I blame him. I mean, I essentially abandoned him up there.

The hard look in Leo's eyes vanishes. I asked the hospital to call me with updates on Josh's condition. He hasn't called you back because he's pretty out of it right now. He's got an upper respiratory infection and a minor staph infection where the bypass tube thing went in.

He's sick? My eyes widen in panic.

Donna, he's made a lot of progress, you'll be surprised. Leo's attempt to ease my mind is interrupted by the phone.

Okay Uh huh Anything else?

He hangs the handset.

Add bronchitis, the flu, a sinus infection and a raging ear infection to what I just told you.

From exposure? I guess.

Leo nods and raises his eyebrows at me. They had him sedated most of the day yesterday.

Do you need me here today? It doesn't take much to read between those lines.

I think we can manage without you, he smiles. Promise me you'll talk to him.

I will, Leo. Thank you. The fear and uncertainty melt away, taking the self-loathing and anger with them, as I hurry out to my car.

***

Howard got tired of bringing me new little trays by 9 a.m. and found a mop bucket for me to vomit in. Dr. Phelps is threatening me with anti-nausea medication if I don't stop throwing up by noon.

I don't care if I rupture my stomach lining, there's no way in hell he's sticking a suppository up my ass. Damn thing will probably give me diarrhea. Besides, I found out how they monitor your core body temperature.

My ass has been violated enough to last a long, long time.

My head, however, feels like it's going to explode, which goes nicely with the ringing in my ears and the elephant on my chest.

I hate the Rose Parade, I hate the Orange Bowl Parade, I hate Regis, I hate Rod Roddy, I hate the fact this TV doesn't get CNN or C-SPAN.

You look terrible. Brenda announces, opening the door and sticking the stop under it.

You don't want to come in here, I'm contagious.

Howard wants to put a biohazard sign on my door.

I hate Howard, too, by the way.

We won't stay long. Someone wanted to stop by and say hi.

Nikki waves from the wheelchair Brenda pushes into the room.

I met your boss last night, she says, rambling on as seven-year-old girls with limited social circles tend to. He seemed pretty nice. He didn't even laugh when I thought he was your dad.

I assume she's talking about Leo.

He was a friend of my dad's, I try to smile, but end up having to blow my nose.

You should get some of those Kleenex with lotion. Then your nose won't get all red and scaly.

Catching Brenda's eye, I shoot her a smile. This is just what I needed to pick my spirits up. Somebody with more problems than me trying to make me feel better.

Looking at Nikki sitting there, chattering away, I'm struck by inspiration.

Have you ever been to a ball? I interrupt her. If Donna doesn't want to talk to me, then the least I can do is give this little girl the chance of a lifetime.

Like Cinderella? she asks.

Like Cinderella, I nod, causing a fresh glob of snot to run out of my nose.

she shakes her head.

Would you like to go to one?

With who?

I sneeze.

I don't think my dad will let me. He didn't like you very much, she replies sadly.

Well, after he says no, send him up here to see me. He can't not like me to my face.

Brenda pushes herself off the wall when Howard makes his hourly appearance with the thermometer.

Nikki, we better let Josh get some rest.

***

Checking with the front desk at the hospital, I learn Josh hasn't been moved, but he's restricted to one visitor at a time and I'll need to sign-in at the nurses' station.

The nurse on duty is a pleasant, middle-aged guy named Howard who laughs when I ask which room Josh is in.

You really don't want to go in there, he tells me.

Why not?

I've got $20 that says Josh is torturing the staff because he doesn't feel well.

He's a bit unpleasant today.

He's being a jackass, I clarify. He's like that when he's sick.

Room 621. Three doors that way, Howard points to my right. If you don't come out in an hour, I'll send in security.

Knocking twice on the door, I ease it open.

Josh looks absolutely pathetic.

His hair is sticking every direction. There's dried snot on his upper lip complimented by drool on the corner of his mouth.

I know they've given him a sedative because he's snoring softly, something he normally doesn't do. I duck into the bathroom and wet a washcloth to clean him up with.

You are a mess. I tease him even though he's asleep, scrubbing gently at the accumulated crap on his face. I leave you on your own for a couple of days and look at you. How do you get along without me?

***

Not very well, I mumble, not bothering to open my eyes.

I'd know Donna's voice anywhere.

You're not supposed to be awake, she chides me, laying the cool cloth across my forehead.

I heard your voice. I fumble for her hand, not wanting this to be some fever-induced hallucination. Promise me I'm awake?

You're awake, I promise.

I can feel her sit on the edge of the bed and run the fingers of her other hand through my hair. I'm sorry, Josh. I just I didn't know what to think or do. I was scared and unsure and I just I ran away. I'm so, so sorry. I know that doesn't make it right, but

I don't care about any of it.

I know she must have been terrified.

The emotional highs and lows I've been through probably have nothing on what she's experienced in the past week. The not knowing, making the decision to okay my amputation, having Sam berate her for it.

None of it could have been easy.

Therefore it doesn't matter and I don't care.

I just want her to not cry.

I whisper wearily. I'm going to fall asleep again. Promise me you'll be here when I wake up. Promise me we can talk.

I promise. Her cool lips brush my cheek.

***

Josh is puking into a mop bucket when I wake from an unintended nap.

Visitor chairs haven't gained anything in comfort in the past 3 years, I decide. Getting up, I pouring Josh a glass of water and find another wash rag.

I ask, after he rinses his mouth out.

he complains, resettling himself on the bed. I still feel like shit.

What time is your doctor coming by again?

Josh closes his eyes and takes some deeper breaths. I get the impression, from the ghostly white of his skin and the sweating, he's trying not to vomit again.

My watch says it's 11:55, translate into hospital time and the doctor should be here in about twenty minutes.

Do you want anything?

The spot on my chest to stop oozing crap, Josh whines.

Pus, from what I assume is the staph infection, has seeped through the dressing into his t-shirt and dried.

Howard knocks and comes in before I can think up a witty retort. He takes Josh's temperature, 102.1; trades out the mop bucket; and checks the IV lines over.

About the time he finishes, two doctors arrive.

When's the last time you threw up? the taller one asks with something resembling glee.

Josh just glares at him in response.

Not 100% sure what's going on, I keep my mouth shut and watch. The other doctor sits down next to me and introduces himself as Mark Gregory, Josh's orthopedic doctor.

What's going on? I whisper, watching the other guy examine Josh.

I'm not completely sure, but when I talked to Brenda today, she mentioned something about anti-nausea medication, he smirks and shakes his head. Dr. Phelps has never lost a battle of wills to a patient.

I snort. He's never had a patient like Josh before.

Much to my surprise, the argument is short-lived: Josh acquiesces to Dr. Phelps' request and Dr. Gregory gets Howard. Before I can leave the room, they help Josh roll onto his left side, drop his boxers and

That's gotta suck.

***

Take a lap around the floor if you can convince this lovely young lady to push your IV pole.

Physical therapy is out of the question today, so Dr. Gregory is figuring out what I can do with the impressive array of viral and bacterial infections manifesting themselves throughout my body.

He undid the IPOP thing right after Dr. Phelps left and I took my first real look at the amputation site. I've been intentionally avoiding looking at it, but for some reason, today seems like a good day.

Donna turned green and left the room until Dr. Gregory was finished.

I don't blame her, it is rather Frankenstein-esque at the moment.

I'm not sure what I was expecting it to look like, but this isn't it. The skin graft is the disturbing part, with its black stitches. The swelling has gone down, however. Which makes Dr. Gregory happy. You can actually see how it kind of tapers down now.

Just one lap? I ask. I don't want to lose the conditioning I've gained in the past week.

He frowns and raises his eyebrows at me, then looks over at Donna.

One now, one after dinner and two before you go to bed, he concedes. If you feel up to it.

***

Howard helps sort out the IV lines, but otherwise, Josh maneuvers himself out of bed on his own.

Balancing on his left leg, he puts just enough weight on the prosthesis to steady himself.

Can you hand me my crutches? he asks.

I get them out of the corner for him and watch as he tucks them under his arms. Josh pauses for a second, contemplating the IV pole.

Why don't I start out a little behind you? I suggest.

Josh nods and sets off down the hall. We don't go very fast, but I think that has more to do with his not feeling well than anything else.

I'm awed by the time we finish our lap. He put a fair amount of weight on the amputated leg and didn't stop to rest at all.

We did stop once so he could blow his nose.

Leo was right; Josh has made incredible progress.

When I tell him so, he grins at me proudly.

We get parked back in his room with little fuss until he says he needs to use the bathroom.

I'll get Howard, comes out of my mouth before I can even think.

Josh looks at me funny for a second. Just wheel the thing in.

You don't need help?

Josh shakes his head. I mastered peeing on my own last Friday. It was the first thing Max and I worked on.

I bite my lip, feeling pretty stupid.

Don't sneak out while I'm in here, he calls after I shut the door to give him some privacy.

***

She's here.

Okay, how do I do this?

What did Brenda say Monday night? Ask her about what she went through?

I can do that.

Flushing the toilet is the signal for Donna to come help me with the IV pole.

Climbing back into bed, I situate myself leaving enough room for her to join me.

She hesitates when I pat the empty spot on my right side.

I don't want to bump it or anything, Donna stammers.

The hermetically sealed stump? I lean forward and rap my knuckles on the plastic compression case.

She giggles at me, but relents and crawls onto the bed.

Resting her face against my chest, she allows me to wrap my arm around her shoulders and hold her.

I'm sorry, she whispers into my shirt.

I ask tentatively. Talk to me. Help me understand what you went through.

***

We thought you were dead, I tell him. I went back to the White House after the power in your apartment went out and we were all sitting around CJ's office watching TV.

My memories of that horrible night are fuzzy from lack of sleep.

We saw your car, I reevaluate my sentence. What we thought was your car. The license plate was burnt, but what we could read matched yours. The whole car was on fire and the body they pulled out sort of looked like you.

***

Oh, God.

The guy in front of me in traffic.

I remember his plates: WHICKS. I laughed about it for a good five minutes driving down Route 29.

***

The Maryland State Patrol couldn't confirm it. The VIN numbers they could find weren't complete, I continue, staring at the half-closed blinds. Leo and I had to come to Baltimore on Christmas Eve to identify the body.

***

I can't even imagine what that must have been like. To not only lose someone, but to have to identify their fire and accident mangled body?

At least she knew it wasn't mine.

Is that when you started looking for me?

***

Josh, we couldn't tell if it was you or not, I glance up in time to see his eyes widen and his face pale even more. I had to order your dental records.

The arm wrapped around my shoulders tightens and Josh presses his cheek to the top of my head. You still thought I was dead

Leo was going to do you a nice funeral, I joke, trying to ease the guilt I can feel beginning to radiate from Josh's body. Leave it to Josh to feel guilty for us thinking he was dead. National Cathedral and everything. Toby wasn't doing too hot on your eulogy, though. The President was about four days from winging it.

***

I can't help but laugh at the image of President Bartlet winging' my eulogy. It would have turned into a call for lower taxes and better health care.

Donna and I giggle over the mental pictures we've drawn for one another.

Until I end the fun by vomiting again.

It's really just dry heaves and bile; I haven't eaten anything since Monday.

Essentially, I got a suppository stuck up my ass for no good reason whatsoever.

***

Pressing my hand to Josh's forehead after I wipe his face, I get the impression his fever has gone up. I discreetly push the call button for Howard, wanting an official opinion.

Howard confirms, trading glares with Josh. I'm calling Dr. Phelps.

You're a bright, shining ray of hope in my life, Howard. You know that? Josh bitches to the man as he closes the door.

I sit back down, letting Josh lay his head in my lap. You should be nicer to Howard.

Howard's an asshole.

Howard's a perfectly nice guy. You're an asshole. I soften my comments over by running my finger through Josh's hair.

I am indeed, Josh yawns and sniffles. Can they go back and amputate my head?

I shake my head and laugh at him. Go to sleep. We can finish talking when you wake up.

***

I sleep fitfully for about an hour before I wake up coughing.

Donna rubs my back, trying to help me bring up the phlegm in my lungs, before helping me get the IV pole into the bathroom.

Staring at my pale, shaky reflection in the mirror I contemplate what it would be like to have to identify Donna's body. To have to look at her face after it had gone through the windshield of her car.

I don't think I could do it.

I hear Brenda's voice through the door and finish my business before those two can commiserate for too long. I smell trouble if they decide to be friends.

Donna wasn't lying, you do look like death warmed over, my pseudo-shrink announces helping Donna get me situated back in bed.

I accept their fussing with minimal complaint. They're doing because I'm sick and they care, not because I'm an invalid.

Brenda doesn't stay long.

I was just making sure the germs hadn't killed you. It's a pleasure to meet you, Donna, she says, shooting me an indecipherable look.

I begin after the door closes behind Brenda. Toby wrote my eulogy?

He got about a line written, Donna crawls under the blanket on my left side. With a little maneuvering, I'm able to curl up with my head on her shoulder this time. The whole West Wing was in mourning. You're more popular than you have any right to be.

Hey! I'm a wonderful person to work for, I tell her in mock annoyance.

I went back to your place on Christmas Eve night and sat on your couch trying to figure out what my life was going to be like with out you in it. I got a phone call at midnight from a guy named Tom Harris. He's the one who found you, she continues.

I sort of remember. I remember people asking what my name was and stuff, but I was too cold to answer them. At the time, I thought it was a dream.

Donna takes a couple of deep breaths before going on. By the time I tracked you down, they'd raised your body temp about 4 degrees Celsius and had already scheduled the surgery for your leg. I saw it, before they cut it off. I wouldn't have argued about it if I could have. The part where your foot got torn off was all ragged and

Donna, please, I don't need a description. It'd just make me puke again. Did Sam call you, by the way? He wants to apologize.

***

Josh asks a couple of questions about what went on while he was in recovery and then falls silent. I'm beginning to think he's asleep again.

I took the ditch so I wouldn't get creamed by the semi, he says quietly. The guy you saw on TV was the guy right in front of me in traffic.

With his words, I realize a split second decision, an instinctive reaction, on his part is the only reason my Christmas nightmare wasn't a reality.

I'm not going to question why, Donna, and I'm not going to question how, Josh struggles to sit up and look at me. I'm going to take this gift, this third chance Fate's handed me and never look back.

His deep, brown eyes convey what he isn't saying. They convey understanding and forgiveness and love.

***

I hope she understands; I'm not very good at this stuff.

Her facial expression seems to say she does, so I settle myself back on her shoulder to tell my story.

I remember the car rolling down the embankment and the sound of metal ripping. Something slammed my leg against the center console. It was burning hot and there was this horrible pain in my leg. I must have slammed my head against the steering wheel or maybe it was just the pain, but I blacked out.

Donna hands me a Kleenex to blow my nose and waits for me to go on.

Memories that were crystal clear when I was in the recovery room have faded to murkiness. I find I can only pass on the barest of details.

When I woke up, I was wet and cold. You were there, though, I tighten my hold on her, letting the tears track down my face again. You told me somebody would find me if I could just hold on long enough. I believed you and it happened. I don't care about anything else.

***

Wrapped up in one another's arms, we pool our strength and our tears. I lose track of time and only when I notice Josh has stopped sniffling and coughing do I realize he's fallen back to sleep.

Listening to his raspy breathing, I wonder where Josh has been hiding the unselfish and forgiving part of himself I saw today.

Howard wanders in to take his temperature and check on him.

he whispers, trying not to wake Josh. It's coming down.

I nod my thanks and close my own eyes; grateful Josh's biggest problems seem to be the flu and the common cold.

***

I missed every single football game today.

The warm, comforting presence of Donna's arms around my shoulders eases my disappointment. She's awake and watching some sitcom on TV.

There's no way you'll let me watch Sportscenter, is there? I ask.

I don't really want to move, but the left half of my body is pins and needles. With a reluctant groan, I roll onto my back. Donna takes the opportunity to snuggle under my arm.

Just in time for the two knocks announcing Leo's nightly arrival.

I damn near had to get an Executive Order to get up here tonight, he grumps, taking in the sight before him. Please tell me you two spent the day talking?

I nod.

Then sneeze.

Leo grimaces. Donna, don't come back to work until you're over whatever diseases Stumpy here gives you.

***

Josh got up after Leo's visit and took another lap around the floor before he crashed for the night.

Diane, whose relationship with Josh is very similar to Howard's, got the privilege of knocking him out with a sedative.

She gloated the whole time.

I found was almost as amusing as the fight he put up when the night duty doctor came in with the second round of anti-nausea medication.

Which didn't work any better than the first one.

He threw up twice over night.

It isn't really vomiting since they won't give him solid food. It's dry heaves. My opinion is those suck worse because they just hurt.

Thursday, January 2nd, 2003

Morning rounds bring a class of med students through with Dr. Phelps.

Josh is an infectious diseases doctor's dream patient. He's culturing so many different bacteria and viruses in his system, you could study his snot for a month.

They poked, prodded, took his temperature (101.3), looked in his ears, up his nose and discussed ways to control his vomiting.

In the end, Dr. Phelps prescribed a stronger anti-nausea drug to be given intravenously and left a fresh box of Puffs with Aloe.

Two days of sedatives and forced inactivity has Josh crawling the walls and bitching.

Why don't you take a shower and see if you feel any better? I suggest when he flips through the TV channels for the 93rd time this morning.

I have to take the thingie off, he whines. And what about the IV?

This is an aspect of Josh's personality I am intimately acquainted with.

I'll help, I offer. Since when has an IV stopped us?

I learned to cap an IV during his hospital stay after the shooting for this very reason.

He meets my gaze and agrees. Together we undo the buckles and open the compression case.

Just sort of roll the bandage thing off, he instructs.

Once we get everything off and I cap his IV line, he grabs a crutch and hobbles into the bathroom. I follow out of curiosity, wondering how he manages this on his own.

Um, Donna? he sits on the edge of the tub and pulls his shirt off.

Like with his face, most of the bruising on his chest has healed. The small, infected puncture where the bypass tube was is still suppurating a little.

I pull myself away from examining his physique.

Some privacy? he raises his eyebrows at me, clearly not wanting to finish disrobing in front of me.

I want to know how you get in the shower, I confess.

I swing my leg over and stand up, he states like it should be obvious. There's a bar mounted to the wall I can hold on to if I need to.

Oh. Sorry. I feel a little stupid again.

It's okay, Josh looks down at the floor. I shouldn't have snarled.

His apology for barking convinces me it's okay to give his ego a boost. It's not that I don't think you can do it by yourself, it just amazes me how you do things I take for granted. Like stepping over the side of the tub.

It's okay, he repeats, this time tempering it with dimples. There's a bottle of lotion next to the sink, would you grab it on your way out?

***

Standing in the shower, I remind myself not be an asshole to Donna.

I made the decision to forgive her unconditionally. I can't be upset she hasn't been around while I've been relearning how to do the simplest of tasks. I guess I'd be curious as well.

Nurse Denise is lying in wait, waiting when I get out of the bathroom.

I love Denise. She's mean and bossy.

Maybe I don't love her so much as I'm afraid of her.

Never leave me again, I beg, actually feeling better after a little hot water and soap.

Isn't this supposed to be attached to you? She waggles the capped IV line at me.

I answer meekly.

She turns to Donna. Did you do this or did Stumpy the Grump?

Stumpy the Grump is what Denise and her cohort Beth dubbed me the minute they started having to deal with me.

I did, Donna acknowledges.

A Denise stare at her and when Donna refuses to flinch cracks an appreciative grin. Nice job. Who taught you?

The two of them begin discussing Donna's informal medical training, completely ignoring me.

Excuse me? Nurse Ratched? I call from my spot on the bed.

Denise growls.

I didn't mean you, I tell her contritely, before directing my next comment to Donna. Can I have my lotion, please?

***

You can stay, Denise laughs when I bean Josh in the chest with the lotion bottle for the Nurse Ratched' comment.

I watch, amused by Josh's docile behavior, while Denise puts a new bandage on the staph infection site and examines sutures on his leg.

Lube it up, Stumpy, she orders. I'll be back.

Josh fiddles with the lotion for a couple of minutes before he looks over at me shyly. Can you help me with this part?

I take the bottle from him and tentatively massage some into the residual limb. Does the nickname bother you?

Leo called him the same thing last night. I know Josh would never say anything to Leo, but if it bothers him, I sure as hell will.

Josh sucks in his lower lip and shrugs. Depends on who's saying it. You, Leo, the hospital staff - not really. I think if CJ or Toby said it, I'd be offended right about now.

Denise comes back with fresh dressings for his leg and walks me through putting those and the IPOP on correctly.

Dr. Phelps feels you're no longer contagious. He talked to Dr. Gregory and they decided you could do one of three things today, depending on your fever and how you feel, Denise says when we've finished re-bandaging Josh's leg.

Tell me, tell me, tell me. Josh lights up like a little boy at Christmas at the prospect of getting to do something other than lie in bed.

First of all, if your fever goes back over 102, you go back to bed. No arguments.

My face says I'll be enforcing that rule and Josh reluctantly nods.

Denise ticks off his options. You can do one lap around the floor every hour or you can do two laps every other hour or you can take one big trip upstairs, on the condition you spend at least two hours with Nikki.

I'll take door number 3, Josh decides without hesitation.

I'll call Millie and tell her you'll be down for lunch. Denise obviously approves of his choice.

***

Donna waits until I'm in bed and connected to the IV before she asks her question.

Who's Nikki?

This girl I started seeing after you dumped me, I tease, making sure the smile I flash her reaches my eyes.

Donna's face falls, despite my joking tone.

I reach for her hand.

Josh, I wasn't just sitting around my apartment when I wasn't here, her voice is so soft I can barely hear it.

I take a deep breath and exhale it slowly.

Jack Reese, she tells me. We went out three or four times, just dinner and a movie. I just wanted to forget.

Forget what? I ask, harsher than I intended to.

To forget you were here. I wanted to forget I was afraid; too afraid to even talk to you. Afraid I'd say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing or be too helpful. I was afraid of your reaction to this whole thing. Mostly I just wanted to forget how much it hurt when I thought you were dead. Donna finally stops to breathe and looks up from our linked hands.

I squeeze hers and think about what she's really trying to tell me. If somebody offered me an escape would I take it?

Brenda told me a couple of days ago I needed to try to understand what you had to go through. If I could, I might understand your reaction better, I pick my words carefully. I want Donna to know the depth of my feelings. It really hurt when you weren't here. I felt like you'd abandoned me because I wasn't a whole man anymore.

She opens her mouth to protest, but stops when I gently put my free hand to her lips.

I know now, that isn't the truth. If you can forgive me for thinking so little of you, I can forgive you for being afraid.

***

I wipe a tear from my eye and nod my head.

Of course, I forgive you, I wrap both of my hands around his.

Looking at him closely, I see how exhausted he is. You should sleep before we go see your girlfriend.

Josh nods and lets his eyes fall shut, running his thumb over the back of my hand until he drifts off.

This whole experience has changed him, I think sitting next to him and watching him sleep. Or maybe it has changed me and I'm just now noticing parts of Josh I overlooked before.

***

Doesn't that, I don't know, pinch? Donna's looking at the IPOP quizzically while I put fresh sweatpants on.

Glancing down, I realize what she's talking about. There's only about eight inches of my thigh left and the top of the plastic ends at my crotch.

Since the bathroom incident earlier, Donna's asking every question she can think up.

The top is padded and I'm really careful, I grimace. Can I have the Kleenex?

She tosses me the box. I didn't notice it when I helped you earlier.

The door to my room is partially open, so I can hear Brenda talking to Denise over my sneezing.

Hey, what's up? I'm disgustingly cheerful today.

***

Are you heading down to see Nikki? Brenda asks, her serious tone catching both Josh and I by surprise.

Yeah, why? Josh looks worried all of a sudden.

Do you know anything about osteosarcoma?

Bone cancer? Josh questions. Not really.

It has the propensity to spread rapidly. Nikki has an MRI every three months to make sure hers hasn't.

She had one today? Josh's question is really a statement.

Brenda nods morosely. First thing this morning. They found a brain tumor. It's inoperable, Josh.

Thankfully, he's sitting down, because his body just goes limp.

he doesn't even know what to ask.

Her family is in Minnesota. They're transferring her to the Mayo Clinic tomorrow so they can all be together.

I can still go see her today, right?

I've never seen Josh so devastated. Not even the President's MS announcement got this type of reaction from him.

Brenda nods. I think she'd really appreciate it.

***

It takes me almost an hour to pull myself together enough to go up to pediatrics.

Donna sits quietly next to me, rubbing my back.

It just isn't fair, I mumble.

She means a lot to you, doesn't she?

She reminds me of my sister. Brenda asked me to talk to her a couple of days ago. About having an amputation, I explain. Doing that really made me think about it and find the positives. Before I was just hell-bent on being able to dance with you at the Inaugural. Afterwards, I had a different outlook. It was like I went from comprehending I'd lost my leg to really accepting it.

Donna's expression is almost indecipherable, but I get the feeling she understands the differentiation I'm making.

***

I asked her to be my date to the ball, Josh blushes when he shares that tidbit.

We're taking the elevator to the 10th floor. I suggested the stairs, but Josh got a little panicky and said he didn't feel well enough to try stairs.

All I know about Nikki is what I've picked up from Josh and Brenda. My knowledge of osteosarcoma is nonexistent.

Getting off the elevator, the brightly painted murals clue me in. We're in pediatrics.

An older nurse greets Josh at the desk. Brenda fill you in?

Yeah, Millie, this is Donna. She's she's a friend of mine. Josh stumbles a bit trying to decide how to identify me.

Millie has no problem reading through his obtuse definition of our relationship. What isn't obtuse is she's a bit on the protective side regarding Josh.

Her dad won't be back for a couple of hours. He had to make the charter flight arrangements, Millie mentions before waving us down the hall.

The door to room 1013 is closed and Josh struggles with the knob and his crutches, but gets it eventually.

Nikki, I discover, is a seven-year-old redhead with freckles. She's sitting in the middle of her bed surrounded by toys and books.

Hey kiddo, Josh says empathetically, joining her on the bed and holding his arms out to her.

The little girl doesn't say a word, she just crawls onto his lap and wraps her arms around his neck. If her weight bothers his leg, he ignores it.

I wanted to go to the ball with you, she sobs.

I wanted to take you, but you need to be with your family, Josh coos. They care about you a lot.

After she cries for a while, Nikki takes notice of me standing against the door. Who's that?

My friend Donna. She wanted to meet you.

Nikki tucks her head into the crook of Josh's neck to hide.

***

It takes a while for Nikki to warm to Donna, but by the time we leave, she's singing Josh and Donna sitting in a tree.

You want to try the stairs going down? Donna asks, closing the door to Nikki's room.

What's the deal with the stairs?

I might have objected a little quickly there and given myself away. Stairs are going to be the bane of my existence. Even after a full day of working on them on Monday, I can barely think about them and not get the shakes.

I trip over them, I admit grudgingly.

You'll get Donna tells me confidently. You were very sweet in there.

I feel bad for her. She's just a little girl and she's got six months to live. It's not fair, I repeat what I said earlier.

And that, Joshua Lyman, is the reason I love you, Donna leans in and kisses my cheek.

The reason she what?

Did she say what I think she said?

***

Josh doesn't say anything the rest of the elevator ride or on the walk back to his room.

I finally prompt.

I hadn't meant to blurt out the I love you' part, but I didn't think silence would be his reaction.

Do you really? he asks hesitantly.

Love you? I confirm what he's questioning. Yes, I do.

He's leaning against the bed, fidgeting with his crutches, looking anywhere but at me. I take two steps and invade his personal space.

Resting one hand on his hip, I pull his chin up with the other, forcing him to look me in the eyes. It was the thing I was most afraid of. But Josh, I'm not afraid anymore.

I am, he whispers. I am deathly afraid of screwing up.

We're going to do this together, I say firmly.

he repeats softly.

***

Together.

Donna and I are going to do this together.

Friday, January 3, 2003

I wake up before the sun rises, feeling human for the first time since Monday.

Donna spent the night again.

This time she didn't sleep in the chair.

Her blonde hair is splayed across my shoulder, her hand rests possessively on my chest. I want to wake up like this for the rest of my life.

Except for the hospital bed part.

My eyes are barely open when she bestows a breathtaking smile on me.

Good morning, my voice is still scratchy with sleep.

she replies, pressing a kiss to my cheek.

I let her help me get into the shower, regretfully declining her offer to help me IN the shower. I think my shower sex days are pretty much over and why tempt yourself with something you can't have?

***

Morning rounds go well.

Dr. Phelps puts Josh on a couple of oral antibiotics, but otherwise clears him to return to physical therapy.

So? What's the plan? Josh asks Dr. Gregory the instant he walks in the door.

Everything is healing nicely. We'll take the staples out on Monday. You get one more week of this place. The spot on your chest needs to clear up before we'll let you out of here and we lost a little ground this week. We'll start talking about whether you need in-patient rehabilitation or home care next week.

I run down to the cafeteria when Ned shows up to start taking measurements of the residual limb and the whole leg. Looking at the amputation site still wigs me out a little bit.

I really need to get over that.

When I return with a bagel and coffee, they're discussing Josh's activity levels and recreation habits.

The amount of walking Josh does in a day necessitates the type of joints used by serious athletes.

This model doesn't even have an ankle joint, it has a curved spring bar, Ned's showing a picture in a catalog.

I can tell Josh thinks it's cool looking, but I wonder how practical it would be.

Josh hems and haws a little bit before asking if he can borrow the catalog for a couple of days.

It will be more difficult to learn to coordinate two joints instead of just one, Ned points out, but agrees to loan his catalog to Josh in the end.

Josh is flipping through the pages of the book when Brenda knocks.

If you want to see Nikki off, you've gotta go now.

***

I toss the catalog on the bed and pull an ancient sweatshirt on. Brenda and Donna follow me to the elevator.

Nikki's dad is in the room, but greets me with some courtesy and then leaves the two of us alone.

I don't want to go, she tells me sullenly after she climbs into my lap.

It's a good hospital, I try to reassure her. Your grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins will visit you every day. Your mom will be closer, too.

But I like it here. And I don't know them.

Would it make you feel better if you could call me whenever you wanted to? I offer. Whenever you get scared or lonely?

The little girl clings to me and nods her head against my chest.

Donna's going to give you one of my business cards. It'll have three phone numbers on it. You can call me whenever you need to. Okay? And if you want to write me a letter, my address is on there, too.

she wipes her eyes on my sweatshirt.

We say our goodbyes and the orderlies arrive with the gurney.

Donna gives her a hug and my card. She gives a second one to Nikki's dad, just in case.

Thank you, he offers me his hand. I'm sorry about the other day.

It's okay, I shake his hand. If there's anything I can do

Daddy, I'm cold, Nikki sniffles as they start to wheel her down the hall.

We'll get you another blanket in the ambulance, sweetie, he tells her.

Here, wait a second. I hand Donna my crutches and pull my Harvard sweatshirt over my head.

Nikki swims in it when her dad slips it over her head, but she seems to warm up a bit.

Be good, I tell her, giving my young friend a kiss on the head.

You too, she waves.

***

I go to therapy with Josh so he isn't alone this morning. He's pretty down after Nikki's departure and I want to keep an eye on him.

Darryl, the physical therapist, looks like an ex-football player. He looks me up and down, then gives Josh a huge grin. Stairs, Stumpy.

Josh groans and heads for the back section of the therapy room where there is a flight of ten stairs.

He spends two hours struggling with them and succeeds a grand total of once.

Josh wasn't exaggerating when he said he trips over them. His last attempt earns him eight stitches when he lands chin first on the edge of a step.

Darryl looks as frustrated as Josh does.

I'm going to start you on sort of a yoga program for gimps, Darryl decides. You can't seem to rotate that hip far enough to clear the stair and it isn't getting any better.

Josh is staring at his therapist in disbelief.

No, not really, but I got you going, the man laughs. You are going to need some help with these stretches until you build some strength and flexibility in the residual limb, though.

Josh lies on his side while Darryl shows me where to put my hands and how to stretch the hip.

Do this five or six times a day, he instructs.

***

I don't think my body can handle Donna's hands where they presently are five or six times a day. I'm concentrating less on stretching and more on controlling my reaction to her touch.

Darryl walks her through a few more stretches and then tells me to sit up.

Do you know anything about prostheses? I ask him once we're finished.

You want to know about joints? he asks.

I nod, giving him a rough description of my conversation with Ned.

It's been about ten days? Darryl confirms.

Donna and I both nod.

They aren't going to fit you with anything for another 10 weeks or so. That will be a long-term temporary device and then after about a year, they'll fit you into something permanent. Darryl looks at me intently. Honestly? Josh, you aren't coordinated enough to manage two joints. If you aren't concerned with the cosmetics of it, you'll have a wider range of options as well.

***

The days fly by. I started commuting to work from Baltimore the Monday they take Josh's staples out. He continues to work his ass off in physical therapy, building self-confidence in every thing but stairs. He's able to get around for short periods of time without his crutches, which has been a huge moral booster for him.

His social self-confidence is really in the shitter, however.

Brenda and I spend long hours trying to keep his spirits up. We've resorted to submitting ourselves to the humiliation of playing Monopoly with him.

Josh is a closet Republican.

Nikki calls every night, which is the bright spot in his day, even though she sounds weaker every time they talk.

Sam's called one more time and talked to both of us. Josh lit up like a kid in a candy store and spent almost an hour discussing campaign problems with his friend.

Leo comes up every other night though and calls every day to get Josh's opinion on things currently in the pipeline.

CJ hasn't called him since I've been back up here and Toby is completely MIA.

The President asks me for updates every couple of days. The First Lady left on a trip to Europe on December 26th. She at least has a good excuse for not visiting.

I'm bombarded with well-wishes for Josh when I'm in the office, but nobody says they'll find time to make the trip to Baltimore. I try to convince myself it is because Baltimore is such a haul, but I increasingly find myself feeling it has to do with the nature of Josh's injury.

We've put developing our relationship on the back burner.

Just until he gets home, then we'll figure out where we're going.

January 15, 2003

I am a free man today.

After 20 odd days on the orthopedic ward at Johns Hopkins, I have been certified capable of living on my own.

With Donna's help.

She's moving into my apartment to assist me in getting around until I'm off the crutches in another couple of months. After that, who knows?

Standing at the bottom of the stairs to my apartment building, I take a deep breath and do what Darryl drilled into my head: I take them one at a time.

***

Josh goes slowly up the stairs to his building.

I've never been so glad he lives on the first floor in my life.

He's shaking by the time we get to the top.

You're doing great, I encourage, keeping one hand on his back to steady him. One more.

Crutches go up, good leg goes up, hip hitches

God damn it!

He caught himself against the door to the building, but it's self-evident he's annoyed.

These stairs are a little taller, I try to soothe him. You'll get it, Josh.

He doesn't say anything. He just struggles with the door latch, finally getting it to open.

***

Once in my apartment, I unpack my bags and find myself at a loss for what to do.

Donna calls from the living room. Can we talk?

Talk. Yeah, we need to talk about things.

I join her on the sofa, feelings I've been pushing back down the past couple of weeks rising to the surface again.

Today's Wednesday, she's got my calendar out. Dr. Gregory released you for four-hour days to start.

I nod, the idea is to work back up to my old schedule Ð gradually.

Leo doesn't want you on the Hill with the crutches. He thinks you'll beat somebody over the head with them, she looks up from her notes to check my reaction.

I give her a wry smile and agree. I don't want to try navigating the Hill on crutches, either.

How does 10 til 2 sound for the next 4 days? You've got some meetings on stuff Leo says you're still in the loop on and the rest of the time you'll spend getting back in the rest of the loops. Except Sunday, Sunday is the dress rehearsal for the Inaugural.

Great, Sunday I have to spend with Toby and CJ and everyone else.

What about Monday?

Donna shuffles some papers. Monday's staff meeting is scheduled for 8 a.m. We go from the staff meeting to the Hill for the swearing in and the speech. The President walks back to the White House and has a lunch meeting with the Leadership. You are scheduled to be everything through lunch.

I take a deep breath and exhale. I'm not looking forward to being gawked at for that long. Maybe by then I'll be used to it.

What about us?

Donna pulls an envelope out of her stack of stuff. This is for you, from Leo. It covers us.

I open the envelope, extracting a single sheet of paper on which are two words: Love her.'

With a smile, I give the paper to Donna.

We kind of left us in limbo, I reach for Donna's hand, running my thumb over the back of it.

Yeah, we did, didn't we?

She leans in and presses her lips to mine. I lean back against the arm of the sofa and let her weight rest against my body. Her scent invades my personal space, covering me like a blanket. She smells so wonderful, like a fresh spring day after it rains.

We out of limbo, yet? she asks, breaking the kiss.

Oh yeah. Definitely out of limbo.

We lie on the sofa, kissing and touching for as long as I can stand it.

my voice is strained with the effort of controlling my body's reaction. I don't want our first time to be on the sofa.

She gets up and pulls me up as well. I limp behind her into the bedroom.

We undress ourselves and I finish first. Sitting on the edge of the bed, I take the thing off my stump. I don't want to make love to Donna worrying about whether I'll accidentally bean her with it.

She takes it from me, setting it on the floor within arms' reach. Kneeling at my foot, Donna takes the residual limb in her hands, running them lightly up it. I didn't know it could feel so good, so incredibly erotic.

***

I snuggle into Josh's right side once we've finished consummating us.'

He looks better for it. Happier, more content. And I don't think it's just the sex.

His fingers are tracing gentle patterns on the skin of my shoulder.

My own fingers are occupied with the small patch of hair in the center of his chest.

I'm going to be fine, he whispers.

You're everything you were before, Josh. Maybe even a bit more.

January 16, 2003

I have something for you, I tell Josh. We're standing in the kitchen getting ready for work.

I hand him a manila envelope.

What's this? he looks over an ID card with his picture on it.

It's from Ron Butterfield, I explain. It tells the guards why you're setting off the metal detectors.

Ron gave it to me on Tuesday. Every building in D.C. has a metal detector at the door and until everyone gets used to Josh setting the damn things off, he's going to need the card.

I didn't even think of that, Josh admits, fishing the larger item out of the envelope. Donna, when did you have time to do this?

***

She replaced my wallet and almost everything in it.

My credit cards and ID are all in here, except for my license. I don't have a driver's license anymore and I truthfully haven't even thought about driving again.

Last week, I made the time, Donna answers. There's one more thing in it. It's your Christmas present.

I turn the envelope over, smiling at the silver chain and pendant: the Star of David melded over a cross.

Turning it over, I smile at the inscription on the back. Josh & Donna. December 25, 2002.'

It's supposed to symbolize us.

Why the 25th? I ask, giving her the chain to put around my neck.

It was just after midnight when I found out you were still alive.

My hand comes up automatically to wipe away her tears. I love you so much, Donna.

***

As predicted, Josh sets off the metal detector and damn near initiates a full lockdown of the White House.

The guard in the lobby is new and has never seen Josh before. The White House ID and the card from Ron Butterfield does little to placate him and Leo has to come sign Josh in.

Between that incident and the stares following him through the hallways, Josh is more than ready to just hide in his office for his four allotted hours.

He takes a couple of meetings, which are incredibly awkward for him. The conference calls go a little better because he doesn't have to endure the looks of pity.

None of the staff, save Leo, stop by to welcome him back and I think that bothers him more than anything.

It's a beautiful day out: the sun is shining and the sidewalks are clear and the temperature is hovering in the mid-30's. Around noon, Josh sticks his head out of his office, Can we do my walk outside?

Did you bring gloves? I call back.

And that ear warmer thing my mother sent me.

I don't see why not then.

At two o'clock, Josh changes clothes. I gather his stuff and we leave when he comes back. The crutches go in my car and we set off down the sidewalk.

Slowly.

He's supposed to walk, unassisted, for 90 minutes.

We've gone about ten paces when Leo materializes at his other elbow.

Nobody says a word. We just walk, Josh-speed, down towards the Mall.

Josh-speed isn't what it used to be, although it is faster than it was last Monday. We took our first walk and 15 minutes got us from his room to the nurses station and back.

After about 35 minutes, I turn us around.

***

Josh starts struggling as we get closer to the White House. I'm worried about how pale he looks and how much he's sweating.

Unable to stand it any longer, I put my hand under his elbow.

Let us help, Josh, I plead when he tries to shake me off.

I can do this, Leo, he grinds out. I need to do this.

Donna shakes her head at me and I leave my hand where it is, but allow Josh to determine how much support he needs.

CJ and Toby are standing with a small group of assistants in the parking lot when we return, watching. Josh steers us to Donna's Honda, deliberately avoiding them.

Do you have everything? I ask, holding the door open for him.

He nods wearily. Can you do me a favor Leo?

I shrug.

Josh casts a glance towards the group of his co-workers. When he speaks again, his voice carries three weeks of anger and bitterness.

Ask them to stop gawking. If they want to know how I am, they can ask me. If they don't want to talk to me, fine. But that, he gestures towards them, that makes me uncomfortable.

I nod. It'll stop.

Thank you, Leo. I appreciate it. He clearly means more than my smacking down the Communications Department. As soon as he closes the car door, Donna pulls out of her spot.

Once they're out of the parking lot, I stalk towards Toby and CJ's group.

All of you suddenly take up smoking? I ask.

CJ shuffles her feet. We just wanted to see how he's doing.

Then ask him, I growl. He doesn't need an audience Ð he needs his friends. Which, allegedly all of you are. Except none of you even bothered to stop by his office and welcome him back to work. Will gets a pass on this one because Will doesn't even know Josh, except as the White House freak.

The assistants all look properly chastised, but Toby remains defiant. We don't think he's a freak, Leo.

My frustration over their recent behavior boils over. You could have fooled me! And you've done a hell of a job of fooling Josh. Look at yourselves! You've ignored him since we learned he was going to live. Now you're standing out in the cold watching him like he's a circus sideshow.

And Donna gets a free ride on this? CJ fires back.

I narrow my eyes at the Press Secretary. Donna found the strength to admit her behavior was wrong and put her relationship with Josh back where it belonged. I'm going to say it again, if you want to know how Josh is doing, ask Josh. If this, I shift my glare to each of them individually, happens again, there will be hell to pay.

***

Josh is sullen and restless when we get home. The thing earlier, with CJ and Toby, is bothering him more than he's willing to admit.

You've got a right to be upset with them, Josh. I finally break the tension building as he reads through the latest draft of the Inaugural address.

He doesn't answer me, continuing to make his notes.

I finally kneel next to the couch where he's working and put my hand over his. Stop this. You're hurt and angry. It's okay.

Unsure whether he's going to start ranting or crying, I run my hand across his cheek and then pull him into my arms.

He fights back the sobs for as long as he can, but eventually gives in to the emotional anguish.

Let it go, Josh, I whisper, rubbing his back.

January 18, 2003

As hard as I try, every day at the office becomes an increasingly difficult exercise in frustration. I'm revisiting issues I thought I'd conquered.

Meetings are the worst.

The people across the desk from me wear expressions of sympathy and pity. Like they believe my life has taken a tragic turn and will never be complete or fulfilling again. Rather than remark upon the situation, they sit across the desk from me and ignore it. Shifting unconsciously, crossing and re-crossing their legs, yet never asking about my well-being.

Returning to work after the shooting, I was overrun by people. Constant calls and checking in to see how I was doing.

Now?

Nobody Ð except Donna and Leo.

I'm supposed to be easing back into the routine. It isn't on the schedule for me to attend a staff meeting until Monday. The first time I'll be in the same room with most people is Sunday's rehearsal.

Saturday is winding to a close.

The nauseous feeling in the pit of my stomach grows exponentially at the thought of having to be in close quarters with the rest of the staff tomorrow.

Getting up, I stare at my crutches. I need something to settle my queasiness, but crutches and the Mess don't go very well together. I can do without for this, I guess. It isn't that far.

I'm going to the Mess. I stop by Donna's desk.

She looks up at me. Want any help?

I shake my head. If you hear a loud thump, that's me falling over, but I think I'll be okay.

Donna laughs slightly and shakes her head. Go easy, Stumpy.

Surprising myself slightly, I am okay. There are three small steps I navigate slowly and carefully, but without adding to my collection of scars.

Tray in hand, I turn to find a table and run smack into Lieutenant Commander Jack Reese.

Almost literally.

Want a hand? he asks, offering to take the tray I nearly dumped down his uniform. I've been meaning to come up and talk to you anyway, we can kill two birds with one stone.

Please, no talk of killing things, I joke, relinquishing my snack to his steadier hands.

A ponderous thing lies between us, different from the formality that defines my recent dealings with co-workers. This thing is his relationship, or lack thereof, with Donna.

A guy I went to Annapolis with had his leg ripped off by a catapult on an aircraft carrier during our Senior Cruise,Reese begins. His girlfriend was so caught up in what he couldn't do anymore, or what she thought he couldn't do anymore, that she dumped him and started dating some guy from her hometown.

I fiddle with my soup spoon, wondering why I'm talking to this guy.

Six months later, he gets released by the Navy and goes home. The girl's still in town, except this other guy wasn't in the picture any more and she wanted my buddy back.

You going somewhere with this?

No, but I thought I'd better say something before you tried to do me bodily harm with that spoon, he admits.

The tension evaporates in our mutual amusement.

I meet his eyes. Thank you for being a friend to Donna. She needed some distance to understand what she really wanted. I did too. I just didn't know it at the time. I think maybe she and I are better for it.

I invited her to the Ball, but if you have plans, I more than understand

I promised her I'd dance with her, I tell him. We can have it out with the spoons if you want.

Jack gives me a wry smile. I'll let her know I think it's best if I don't take her, then.

So, your buddy and the girl? I ask as we both stand up to go.

He told her off and moved to California, got married to an actress, has three kids. He's making millions as a computer engineer. Told me once the accident might have been the best thing that ever happened to him.

You are completely making this story up, I laugh, gripping the handrail to the stairs firmly.

Jack waits for me at the top. Where did I lose it?

The actress wife and the three kids.

I can't be mad at this guy. He went out of his way to make me feel comfortable.

Damn. A little overboard? he winces.

You should have just stuck with the computer engineer and the millions part.

What happened to your chin, by the way? It looks like you just got the stitches out? he asks while I rest for a minute at the top of the steps.

I gesture towards back towards them. I'm not so good with stairs, but I was really, really bad when I first started. I tripped and

We stop near the Operations bullpen. Thanks, Commander, I appreciate it.

Returning to my office I can barely make out the mingle of his and Donna's voices.

***

Hi, Jack. I saw him coming up the hallway, laughing with Josh. I cringed at the thought of what they were talking about.

Hey, Donna. He looks resigned to what he's about to do. I ran into Josh in the Mess and we talked about having a dual with spoons. The winner would get to take you to the Ball.

Oh, no. I'd completely forgotten I agreed to go with Jack.

Jack shakes his head, ruefully. Let's just pretend I never asked. I never thought he'd be up and walking around so soon. I just wanted you to be able to go and have a good time, but it seems like Josh has it covered.

Jack, I I don't know what to say. That's incredibly sweet of you.

Josh is lucky this guy didn't come along earlier. He is nearly the perfect man: uniform, good looks, pleasant personality and charm.

Glancing towards Josh's open door, I decide I like imperfection much, much better.

***

I can hear the clock on the mantel ticking over the faint sound of Donna's breathing.

I should be exhausted. I snuck in an extra hour of work at the office, did my physical therapy and my 90-minute walk. I worked from home the rest of the day and I made love to Donna.

Why am I laying here, staring at the ceiling, wide-awake?

My brain won't shut down.

It's going 100 miles an hour thinking up scenarios for tomorrow's rehearsal.

What am I going to do if?' stuff.

Am I going to get there early and stake out an inconspicuous seat in the back?

Does getting there early defeat the purpose of being inconspicuous?

This is the type of night I'd normally spend pacing around my apartment.

I miss pacing.

I suppose I could get up; just put the prosthesis on or use my crutches and pace to my heart's content.

Either option seems like too much work.

I think I'll just lie here, Staring at the spackle on the ceiling, thinking up increasingly snotty comebacks to use tomorrow.

January 19, 2003

It's early Sunday morning when we get to the West Wing. In deference to the day, the hour and the activities, it is a casual day.

Josh's jeans and casual khakis don't fit over the IPOP, so he settled on track pants and a Scaggsville Volunteer Fire Department sweatshirt Tom brought him when he visited on the day after Christmas.

Leo gives him a disapproving look, but doesn't say anything when we arrive in the Press Room for rehearsal.

We're a little early. The few people in the room nod or say hello, but nobody initiates a conversation. It's a little stilted to say the least. We select a spot towards the back, along the wall and settle in to observe, more than anything else.

This is Toby and Will's show.

We're really just here to make sure no glaring errors in policy were missed in the revising process.

It is a good speech. Clearly outlining the plans the administration has for the next four years and inducing a sense of hope for the long-term future.

***

The Press Room is warm and I'm finding it increasingly difficult to keep my eyes open.

Between not sleeping at all last night and taking a pain pill this morning, I should be in a coma.

Donna keeps nudging me to stay awake and when we break after the first read-through to fix the typos, Leo clearly wants to talk to me.

Josh, my office. He's upset and justifiably so. I almost feel asleep nine or ten times and succeeded twice.

He closes both doors and then gives me a searching look. What the is the matter with you?

I'm sorry, Leo. I don't know what else to say.

Josh, you look like hell. I know it's Sunday, but you couldn't at least put jeans on?

I stare at the floor, embarrassed beyond belief.

And if you're going to fall asleep, could you not snore? Leo continues. I know it's been a tough week, son, but Monday is supposed to be an eight-hour day. If you can't do it, I need to know now.

I'll be fine. My jaw tightens at the dressing down I'm receiving. These are the types of conversations I have with interns.

Go back to your office. Donna will come get you when we're ready to start again.

***

I track Donna down at the coffee machine.

What's going on with Josh? I demand.

She gives me a startled look, like I ought to know. What specifically, Leo?

Let's start with the track pants?

Sunday or not, this is still the White House.

His jeans and khakis don't fit over the prosthesis. He thought he'd look more out of place being the only one in a suit. I agreed with him, Donna shrugs.

Oh.

I don't think he slept last night either, she continues. He was very nervous about today, being confined with so many people. He took a pain pill this morning. I think he's hurting more than he'll admit.

Don't I feel like an ass?

Take him home. Tell him I said I'm sorry and take him home. I need him 100% tomorrow, Donna.

I just can't tell you why.

***

I'm not sure what's going on. Josh isn't going to be happy about being sent home.

Although, since he's face down on his desk asleep, maybe he just won't care.

I close the door behind me and kneel next to him, resting one hand on his back.

He doesn't stir.

Stumpy, wake up, I whisper and brush the hair back from his ear.

he cracks his eyelids open.

Leo said for me to take you home, I tell him gently. He said to say he's sorry and needs you at 100% tomorrow, so you should go home and get some sleep.

Leo is sending me home? Josh is mortified.

He needs you more tomorrow than today. Why is he apologizing? If I understood what happened in Leo's office, I'd know what to say.

Josh mumbles, clearly embarrassed by it. My stuff is still in the Press Room.

Head out to the car, I kiss his temple. I'll get your bag.

Watching him head slowly down the hall, I can't help but seethe at the way people are treating him. For every step forward he takes with people like Jack, he takes two backwards on days like today.

***

Morose is a good way to describe Josh.

He went straight to bed after we got home and has been asleep for a couple of hours.

I'm watching some stupid nature program on television and trying to figure out how to broach the problem with CJ and Toby when my cell phone rings.

Which of them do I need to disembowel?

Dr. Bartlet is home from Europe.

I ask, not sure whom she has talked to.

I have repeatedly inquired about Josh's condition over the past weeks and have been given an amazing number of variations on the word

Josh is doing very well, physically, ma'am, I give her another variation for her collection. He's up on a post-operative prosthesis for extended periods, the skin graft is healing well, he gets fitted for a temporary prosthesis next month

I notice you limited your response to physical' there, Donna, the First Lady interrupts. You want to tell me how he's recovering emotionally?

Ma'am, it really isn't my place to say anything. I pause and consider my options. But he's a little short on friends these days.

January 20, 2003

I sleep the dreamless sleep of the dead; the sleep that leaves you hung over when you wake up the next day.

Unfortunately, the incessant ringing of the phone ushers the next day in.

The pitch black of my bedroom and Donna's presence on my shoulder, assure me it is 4 o'clock in the morning, not 4 in the afternoon.

I answer.

Mr. Lyman? I don't recognize the male voice on the other end.

This is Philip Onsrud. Nikki's dad?

Oh please, no.

I thought you'd want to know, Nikki passed away this morning. About an hour ago, his voice is thick with sorrow.

I'm terribly sorry, sir. She Nikki was a very special little girl.

Thank you for being her friend. Talking to you every day gave her something to look forward to.

Nikki was very special, I repeat. would you let me know the arrangements, when they're made?

he sounds a little surprised.

I'm very sorry for your loss, sir, I tell him again and hang up the phone.

***

sorry for your loss.

Who is Josh talking to?

I hear the phone click off, but nothing else.

I reach for him and end up grabbing his bad leg.

He flinches, but covers my hand with his.

What is it? I ask.

When he continues to sit in silence, I sit up next to him, placing my other hand on his bare shoulder.

his voice quavers. Nikki died an hour ago. That was her dad.

Oh, Josh. I draw him to my breast, wondering how much worse this can get.

***

I get ready for work in a haze.

The day I worked so long and so hard for, personally and professionally, has finally arrived. But I want nothing more than to crawl back into bed and pull the covers over my head.

Donna's prodding is subdued and subtle. No teasing, no looks. Just the occasional, well placed Josh' to get me moving again.

I'm on time to staff and avoid the wrath of Debbie Fiderer. With nothing to contribute, I sit quietly on the sofa and listen.

Barely.

Leo has to touch my shoulder to when it's time to go.

In an effort to not cause a roadblock, I let everyone go ahead, planning to bring up the rear.

***

We stride through the halls of the West Wing as a group, piling into the waiting limos: Jed and I with Charlie and the senior staff in the first; the senior assistants in the second.

Is it ready? the President asks, taking the hard copy of the speech from Will.

Yes, sir. We worked it in towards the end, when you're talking about the determination of the American spirit. It's only taken two months, but Will is no longer twitching in Jed's presence.

It' is a beautifully worded tribute Toby wrote for Josh, a public mea culpa of sorts from the staff and the President. It' is the main reason I sent Josh home yesterday during the rehearsal. I thought it would be ready, but Toby wanted to make some revisions.

I'm a little surprised when Josh doesn't ask what it is, but before I can give it anymore thought, we're at the Capitol with barely ten minutes to spare. We hustle up the stairs and through the hallways to the staging area.

Toby says his final words to the President, imploring him not to wing anything. I shake his hand and pat him on the shoulder, giving Abbey a smile before following the group out onto the dais.

My seat is in the second row, behind the Bartlet family. The two seats on the end are reserved for Donna and Josh, so he doesn't have to crawl over people. Checking my watch, I start to wonder what's holding the two of them up.

Charlie is peeking through the curtains looking at me for the signal to begin.

Raising my arms questioningly, I silently ask where Josh and Donna are. He shakes his head and points to his watch. We have to start.

Jed and Abbey come out, trailed by Charlie, who slips into Josh's chair.

Where is he? I hiss.

They aren't here, the young man whispers back.

What do you mean? He was in the damn limo.

I don't know. Ginger is taking care of the speech.

Where the hell is Josh?

***

I have never, ever been so pissed off at anyone in my life.

When it became obvious the motorcade left without us, I rapidly tried to think of another way to get to the swearing in. A check of my watch and a mental calculation of the distances involved sent me dashing for my car.

I triple parked us three blocks from the Capitol, praying the tow bill wouldn't be too expensive. The crowds aren't conducive to Josh's crutches, so he's gimping along as best he can without them, but his heart just isn't in it.

Once we reach the Secret Service checkpoint, I realize why.

The Capitol steps.

Josh stands at the bottom and stares up them, to where the President is taking the oath of office.

I'm sorry, Josh, I didn't even think about them, I apologize.

Miss Moss? One of the younger agents taps me on the shoulder. Is everything alright?

Everything is fine, Josh gives the woman an insincere smile. We're going to watch from the viewing area.

Without saying another word, he turns and heads the opposite direction. Back towards my car.

***

What the hell happened? Jed stumbled a bit where we took the Josh part out of the speech and he's hot under the collar about it.

Josh isn't here, I fall into step behind him, not wanting to make any decisions until I have all the facts.

He was in the damn car, Leo! the President thunders.

Jed, calm down, Abbey speaks up. I'm sure there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for this.

***

I can hear the President storming down the hallway towards the Operations bullpen.

Josh and I have been back in the office long enough for me to take my coat off. Josh is still wearing his when President Bartlet bursts into his office.

Where in the hell were you? he demands.

I can see Josh, standing in the middle of his office, taking the tirade the President delivers without blinking.

Abbey sidles up to me, concerning coloring her features. What happened?

They left without him, I fill her in quietly. He doesn't move very fast anymore and they didn't wait for him to catch up. We drove over, but the swearing in had started and there were too many steps.

The luncheon starts in five minutes. I'm not going to be able to talk to Jed until afterwards. Is Josh going to be able to handle the next couple of hours?

I nod confidently. Just don't expect him to be very social.

The lunch is for the Congressional Leadership. I'm not real thrilled with the President using Josh as some sort of club to beat the Republicans over the head with, but Josh agreed to go.

***

Handing my coat to Donna, I follow the President and the staff through the halls to the Red Room. It takes about one congested intersection for them to lose me again.

Slipping in unnoticed is not possible.

Luckily, I'm intercepted by Representative Bob Tellman, a staunchly conservative Republican from Alabama, before the President can take another piece out of my ass.

Robert Tellman is almost 85 years old and has been in office since the mid-1950s.

I heard about the accident, he begins. Terrible thing. You lost a leg?

Yes, sir, is all I can say before I'm approached by the group of congressmen I was supposed to meet with on Christmas Eve.

Mitch Lisbon holds his hand out. I apologize for not talking to you sooner, but I wanted to wait until I could see to you in person. I'm terribly sorry for what happened. I know you were only driving back for that meeting and I can't help but feel partially responsible for your injuries. My family and I prayed for you.

I shift my weight on the crutches and shake the man's hand. I appreciate the thoughts, Congressman.

Tellman lingers while the others drift away. His eyes study my legs.

The right or the left? he inquires, without shifting his gaze.

The right, I answer carefully, unsure of his intentions.

I had part of my left leg blown off in World War II. Between the knee and ankle. Hell of a thing.

The old man wants to see the prosthesis, impressed by the advancements made since his own injury. We find a secluded corner and I hike my pant leg up for him to see part of it.

***

What's going on over there? President Bartlet nods towards the corner where Josh and Congressman Tellman have sequestered themselves in a private conversation.

I don't know, I answer, still wondering how Josh got separated from us on the short walk from Operations to the Red Room.

I think it's very kind of Bob Tellman to talk to Josh, Abbey is sipping a glass of wine. The entire Republican leadership apologized to him you know.

She lifts her eyebrows at us both and the saunters off towards the Women's Leadership Caucus.

Jed's eyes follow her and then return to me. What did she mean by that?

I'm wracking my brain to dredge up what I know about Bob Tellman and am not coming up with much.

I wonder what he wants from us? Jed continues pondering the pair.

I don't have a clue, I reply, watching my deputy comfortably interacting with someone for the first time in weeks.

Whatever, but I'm not giving in on school vouchers for religious education, the President gripes.

***

I got a copy of the accident report on Saturday, I'm explaining the particulars to Tellman and a couple of other people who joined us. It's not lost on me my listeners are elderly Republicans. The State Patrol thinks the guardrail I hit caused the injury.

The underside of the Toyota impaled on the end of the steel protective railing, which pierced the floorboard and severed my leg above the ankle. The force of the impact then sent the car rolling down the embankment.

I was damn lucky I didn't lose both legs.

Donna wants me to sue the State of Maryland for faulty guardrail installation.

***

There's only so much small talk I can handle when what I really want to do is corner my husband and rip him a new asshole. I have the art of polite, non-listening down pat, though. From my position near the side of the room, I can observe Josh, leaning on his crutches in an animated conversation with the greybeard brigade and Jed, talking with the Democratic Leadership while seething at Josh.

***

Josh is supposed to be helping the President leverage votes for an upcoming debate on funding for cancer research. Instead, he's talking to a group of Republicans who have already declared their intention to bring down the bill because it contains provisions to fund therapeutic cloning.

It's like some sick ballet. Abbey is keeping one eye on Josh and one eye on Jed. Jed making small talk with a couple of doctors and glaring in Josh's direction. I'm still trying to figure out what happened this morning.

What happened to Josh between the Oval Office and the Capitol?

***

Let me ask you something, Congressman Gibson looks at me thoughtfully. What's your personal position on cloning?

You're asking about the cancer bill? I reply, thinking about the news I received this morning.

Every one of them nods, but it's Gibson who keeps talking. I'm not sure I understand what the bill proposes, but I am definitely against what that crackpot group claims to have done.

Yeah, aliens and cloning.

When I finished laughing over the principles of the group that did it, I was horrified at the prospect of cloning a human, especially considering the notoriously unstable results of animal cloning.

The bill proposes funding for what's called therapeutic cloning.' Which is cloning cells for research purposes. The belief is it will be more efficient, cost effective and faster to test cancer drugs against actual human cells than on animals. With therapeutic cloning, scientist can do that without subjecting people to unproven ideas, I explain.

So it's only cloning cellular tissue?

Right. The idea is to allow them to grow nothing more complete than a single organ. Like a heart or kidney. If they can get the technique down, it will also provide an alternative source for organ transplants. Let me ask you something, I look at them individually. If the bill included a specific moratorium on human cloning for the purpose of creating life, would it make you more comfortable?

***

From all appearances, the luncheon wraps up none too soon for Josh.

He's fading fast and starting to wobble on his crutches.

Giving Jed a peck on the cheek, I decide to escort Josh back to his office. We haven't had a chance to talk.

Long day, Weeble? I ask, placing a steadying hand on his back.

He tenses, but rewards my lame joke with a tired smile. Yes, ma'am. It has been.

Mind if I walk you back to the office?

If you want to, his smile is strained.

Letting Josh set the pace, I easily understand what happened today when a couple of staffers whip by him at full tilt.

Why didn't you just tell him what happened, I finally ask while we wait for a human traffic jam ahead of us to resolve itself.

What was I supposed to say?

Josh's words and tone confirm what Donna told me last night. Nobody is making an effort to reach out to him and understand how to help, much less recognize that getting back to his previous physical level is going to be a long journey.

Leaving Josh at his office, I head to the Residence to give Jed an earful.

***

Mr. Onsrud called while you were out, Donna follows me into my office. Nikki's funeral is Thursday in Winona, Minnesota. Which is somewhere around Rochester, I guess. I haven't pulled out a map, yet.

Get me a flight? I ask wearily, digging through my backpack for my pain pills. I never knew how long eight hours could really be.

I'm going with you, Donna states emphatically.

I never said you couldn't, I snap.

Looking around for something to take the pills with I don't even have cold coffee.

Donna steps into the office and closes the door. I'm sorry, Josh.

Dropping my butt on to the desk, I let out a sigh. No, Donna. It isn't you.

I know, but I'm still sorry for the way they're treating you today. She steps between my legs and wraps her arms around me, resting her chin on my shoulder.

I just don't move as fast as I used to. I return her embrace, basking briefly in her strength.

Donna finally pulls away and sits on the desk next to me, her hand automatically seeking out the stump of my right leg.

***

I got us 8 votes on the cancer bill at the luncheon, Josh announces proudly, placing his hand over mine and linking our fingers.

I figure he probably reconfirmed some of the people Leo is already counting on.

Tellman, Gibson and the rest of the Republican greybeard brigade, he says smugly.

How the hell did you do that?

Bob came up to me and wanted to see my prosthesis. He lost part of his left leg in World War II and wanted to see how they treat traumatic amputations now. The other old guys just sort of wandered over. Asked how I was, about the accident and then Gibson asked my opinion on cloning.

Bob Tellman just came up to you and said I want to see your peg leg'? I'm shocked. Mostly because I've always thought Tellman to be something of an unreasonable bastard.

No, he said he was sorry to hear about the accident and then said I want to see your peg leg, I laugh. Mitch Lister apologized by the way and Gibson agrees with you that I should sue the State of Maryland.

Sounds like you had a decent time at the lunch.

When I wasn't getting dirty looks from the President and Leo.

I'm going to head over and tell Charlie we're going home for the afternoon. Your eight hours are almost up and you're hurting.

***

Just the two jackasses I was looking for, I announce, sweeping in to find Jed and Leo commiserating with their ties pulled down and their sleeves rolled up.

Abbey, what on earth did I do now? Jed gives me a long-suffering sigh.

The three of us are going to have a discussion about this morning, I sit across from Leo, forming the third point of an odd triangle.

Jed trades a glance with Leo before responding. I thought the whole thing went well, all things considered.

I give him a look of exaggerated disbelief. You left your Deputy Chief of Staff behind then yelled at him for it and you think it went well?

What are you talking about? he asks, while comprehension dawns on Leo's face.

While you were ripping Josh a new ass, did you stop to give him a chance to tell you what happened? Or did you just assume he intentionally missed the Inauguration he worked so hard to make sure was yours?

Wait, wait, wait. Hold on a minute. What are you saying?

I'm saying, Jethro, the reason Josh wasn't on the stage for the Inauguration is because you left him behind. Donna drove them over. By the time they got there, it had already started. I don't know if you realize this or not, but Josh doesn't move quite as fast as he did a month ago or handle stairs quite the way he used to. So rather than watch by himself from the bottom of the Capitol steps, he came back to the office. And you, you were so proud of Toby's idea to speak about how proud you are of Josh's determination and fortitude and strength. Real smooth there, Mr. President. You're so damn proud of him, YOU LEFT HIM BEHIND!

Leo is doing a remarkable impression of a fish by the time I stop for a breath.

And as for Bob Tellman. Bob lost half his lower leg in World War II. I'm sure all he was doing was offering Josh some moral support. Something that seems to be in damn short supply in this White House.

Standing up, I level a glare at both of them before turning on my heel and stalking outside.

***

Abbey has barely cleared the threshold of the door before I'm out it as well.

Mentally kicking myself in the head.

I should have known. I know damn good and well Josh isn't up to full speed. None of us were paying attention to his absence.

We were so busy patting ourselves on the back for finding a way to publicly apologize, we forgot what we were apologizing for.

God damn it!

Josh's office is dark by the time I barrel into the Operations bullpen.

Two o'clock.

Oh hell, Donna was supposed to take him home after the luncheon so he could get enough rest to make it through a couple of hours at the Ball tonight.

God damn it!

***

He's asleep, I tell Leo, not even bothering with hello. I barely cracked the door and am leaning against the opening.

Donna, we need to talk, he says.

I grudgingly open the door, letting him in. I wasn't lying; Josh is asleep on the couch with his leg propped up on a cushion. He said it was throbbing it hurt so badly. The pills he took haven't erased the pain lines etched in his forehead.

Dr. Bartlet told us what happened. Leo keeps his voice low in deference to Josh.

Pursing my lips, I nod tightly. I figured she would raise hell.

Leo's face radiates disappointment. I'm not sure if he's disappointed at me, Josh or with the situation.

Why didn't you call? he asks after we sit down at the kitchen table with coffee.

And say what? Whoops, Leo, you were in such a hurry you forgot Josh? Or hey, Leo, we're down here at the bottom of the steps, sorry we got left behind? I know I sound like a total bitch, but I don't care.

Point taken. Will you tell him I stopped by to check on him? I'll try and catch him tonight. If I don't Never mind. I'll find him tonight at the party.

***

You three look like somebody shot your dog.

Toby, Will and I are hiding out in Toby's office waiting for the inevitable. Word of President Bartlet's rampage got around quickly and the three of us decided to make ourselves scarce.

Then rumor of a second smack down floated out of the Oval Office and we thought scarce might not be good enough. Which is why we're in Toby's office trying figure out where to hide next.

I get up to hurry him in and shut the door.

That's Congressman Spanky to you, CJ, Sam grins happily, still flush with victory a week later. He looks around the room. Where's Josh? I thought he'd be ducking the wrath of Bartlet with you.

I look at Toby, who looks at Will, who stares at the pencil in his hand.

What? Where's Josh? Sam's grin starts to fade.

We're not sure, Will finally speaks up.

What do you mean, you're not sure? CJ? Sam turns to me for an explanation.

We're in the middle of a gigantic miscommunication, I begin.

What kind of miscommunication? Sam growls.

The kind where none of us have talked to Josh since the first of the year? I reveal meekly.

Sam screeches. None of you have talked to Josh in three weeks?

I don't know what to say! I scream back, finally sick of being yelled at.

How about you start with hi? Maybe ask how he's feeling? No wonder he sounds so down when I talk to him. His eyes rack each of us. You've completely cut him out of your lives, haven't you?

The three of us remain uncomfortably under Sam's scrutiny until he speaks again.

I suggest you figure something out, he says coldly before turning and slamming the door on his way out.

Taking a deep breath, I exhale loudly. He's right. Leo's right. Hell, I'm mad at me.

Think this is what Donna felt like? Toby strokes his beard.

Will says. Sort of slimy and Republican?

I think Josh probably likes Republicans better than us right now, Toby sighs as the door opens.

Like I wasn't going to find you here? Leo frowns at us from the doorway.

Will is folding a paper airplane. We thought we'd try hiding in the obvious places first.

He shakes his head in disgust but joins us. We left him behind this morning. We just walked out, got in the limos. None of us noticed Josh wasn't with us anymore.

***

I don't feel much better when I wake up. My leg throbs all the way to the toes I don't have anymore. Dr. Gregory warned me about phantom pain. He told me to take phantom pain pills if I ever had it. Then he told me there's no good way to treat it since it's psychosomatic.

I'm sure it's just because this day has sucked to high hell.

Donna's warm body is snuggled next to me, her breathing telling me she's awake.

Feel better? she asks, her hand massaging my chest.

I admit. How much time do we have?

Not much. You should get in the shower, she groans, prying herself away from my side.

Come with me? I'm suddenly overcome by a deep-seated fear of being alone. Especially around water.

Are you okay, Josh? Donna's forehead creases with worry.

I shake my head. I just want my life back. I don't care about things changing, but it would be nice if I were a little more than an afterthought to people I thought were my friends.

Donna simply wraps her arms around me, pressing her lips to my cheek. Take me dancing, Josh. Forget about them and take me dancing.

***

The Inaugural Ball occupies both floors of the D.C. Convention Center. There's a public gala downstairs and a more exclusive staff shin-dig upstairs. Nobody recognizes us on our way to the elevator but the minute we step off it, all conversation in the huge, open room ceases.

Let's just go back downstairs, Josh mutters, tightening his grip on my hand and taking a slow step backward. We checked his crutches with our coats downstairs since we weren't planning on staying long.

I'm tempted to agree until Leo steps forward. His eyes twinkle when he reaches us.

Josh takes his extended hand hesitantly, continuing to be unsure of himself in this situation.

***

Gripping Josh's hand, I take a close look at him for the first time in several days.

His hair is too long, the pants of his tuxedo barely fit over the fake leg and his tie is crooked. The thing that bothers me, though, is the look on his face.

Like a whipped dog waiting to be beaten again.

I impulsively pull him into a bear hug.

We'll make it right, I tell him before I let him go. Donna must have heard me because she gifts me with a grateful look from her place at Josh's side.

He wants to talk to you, I tell him, putting a guiding hand behind his arm.

CJ and Toby, along with Will and Sam, are waiting at the edge of the crowd.

The applause is thunderous when Josh takes his first step towards the throng. They part before him like the Red Sea before Moses, revealing Jed and Abbey waiting on the other side.

When CJ thought this up in Toby's office this afternoon, I wasn't so sure it was a good idea. She put it to me like this: none of the staff really knows what to say or do. Most of them just want to say welcome back and express their amazement at his progress since the accident.

What better, simpler way than to let them give him the standing ovation he deserves?

Jed signed on as fast as he could, stating the entire staff knew he'd yelled as Josh, he might as well apologize in front of them. Abbey even gave the idea her blessing.

The last one is the only reason I allowed it.

Josh straightens up before my eyes, as if the weight of the world is lifting from his shoulders.

***

There are no cat-calls, no jokes, just a standing ovation as we move at Josh-speed towards the President and First Lady.

I think I might cry by the time we get there. This celebration of Josh's strength and courage, this outpouring of support is more than I could have ever hoped for. CJ, Toby, Sam and Will fell in behind us and casting a glance over my shoulder, I give the four of them a thankful smile.

Dr. Bartlet is beaming at Josh, who still wears the length of the day in his eyes. The President takes three steps forward and meets him at the edge of the crowd, allowing him the support of his colleagues for the confrontation.

It has been pointed out to me on numerous occasions, I have the tendency to act before I find out all the facts I should know. One of those occasions was today when I made several inaccurate statement about you and in general gave you a pile of shit you didn't deserve, he pauses to let his words sink in. Although I'm sure the time will come, in the near future, when you will. So consider it a get out of jail free card for the next time.

***

You were doing great, right up until the end, Jethro. I can hear Dr. Bartlet hiss when she smacks the President on the back of the head.

I have to smile at her as I shake President Bartlet's hand, effectively accepting the group's apology. It is the easiest thing to do and while I'm still bitter and hurt, I need to let it ride for now.

For my own well-being.

Abbey steps past her husband to wrap me in a motherly hug.

Leo told me you had a plan for tonight, she whispers.

Yes, ma'am, I reply, losing my balance for a second when she releases me.

Giving my arms a steadying squeeze, she raises her voice. I know tradition says Jed and I have to dance the first dance of the evening, but we're going to abdicate that honor tonight. To two people who deserve it more than we do.

Sam decides to greet her suggestion with a woo' that builds steam across the room until everyone is clapping again and carving out a small section of dance floor.

Gathering Donna in my arms, we sway slowly, and carefully, to the strains of the DC Philharmonic.

***

It's dancing in the most charitable sense of the word, but I'll take it. I feel Josh tuck his cheek against the top of my head when I rest my face on his chest.

Neither of us speak. We just hold each other, occasionally shuffling our feet to the music. Before long, others join us on the floor.

Josh gives me a hug when the music ends.

Thank you, he whispers, leaving his arm around my waist for support as we make our way towards an area with tables and chairs.

He is leaning on me heavily by the time we get to a seat.

Did you bring your pills? I ask, knowing he didn't give them to me to carry. I cast a glance at the bar when he shakes his head. I'll be right back.

I order a scotch and mineral water with lemon when I get to the bar, figuring the booze will take some of the edge off his pain.

***

CJ circles before she approaches me. I've been watching her since Donna headed to the bar. She's chit-chatting her way over, trying to not be obvious.

For the love of God, Claudia. Just get over here! I yell when she's within humiliation range.

Enough of the pussy-footing around.

she sets her wine glass down before lowering herself carefully into a chair. The dress she's wearing isn't very conducive to sitting.

I reply, letting her dangle out there a while longer.

You look like hell, she finally blurts.

It's been a long day, I admit, letting my shoulders slump with exhaustion.

Josh, I'm sorry I I she gropes for words like a drowning man groping for a lifeline.

I frown and interrupt her struggle to say the right thing. CJ, don't. I don't have the energy to be mad at anybody. Every ounce I've got is going into therapy and work. What little I can spare goes to Donna. Just I just need my friends to accept the situation. It isn't going to change. But you can still talk to me, ask me questions, throw things at me, yell at me. I'm not going to break. I just don't move very fast and I still get tired pretty quickly. That will change, though.

She nods, looking at me thoughtfully. Can I ask you a question?

What does it feel like?

Pursing my lips together, I try to formulate an answer that will make sense. Sometimes, if I'm really tired or preoccupied, I forget. Otherwise it doesn't feel like anything. The stump hurts. It didn't for the longest time, but this past week, it's gotten gradually worse.

The stump? She waves a finger towards my leg with the question.

Yeah, residual limb' just sounds so, I don't know, medical. I look over at the sound of Donna approaching. Taking the drink she got me, I smile at her.

So, you two? CJ's eyes twinkle playfully when Donna sits next to me, our linked hands resting in my lap.

Donna blushes, but her only other response is to squeeze my hand. Leaving me to answer CJ's leading questions. Us two are good.

What the hell does that mean?

It means we're good, I reiterate my ambiguous response before changing the subject. Gesturing towards the dance floor, I look her in the eyes. That was nice. Unnecessary, but appreciated. Thank you.

You're welcome, Josh. She stands up and walks behind me. Dropping her arm across my chest she behinds down to whisper in my ear. Welcome back and congratulations.

Patting her arm, I have to bite back tears at her sincerity.

***

The stream of people is nearly endless. Some simply shake his hand and say welcome back, others sit and join us for a few minutes.

The scotch seems to take the edge off the pain and Josh wears a bittersweet smile.

Between well-wishers, we discuss our travel arrangements to Nikki's funeral. I was able to get us on a flight to Rochester on Wednesday morning.

Have you talked to Leo, yet? I ask after Carol leaves.

Josh shakes his head. No, but it won't be a problem. Leo liked Nikki. Said she reminded him of Mallory at that age.

Leo met Nikki? I ask, a bit taken aback.

New Years Eve, when they had me sedated to keep me from coughing up a lung. She came to visit and happened to run into Leo, Josh explains, wincing as he shifts uncomfortably in his chair.

Are you ready to go?

I think so. But I'm going to need some help. I've been sitting too long, he grimaces openly, trying to stand up.

Leo materializes out of nowhere before I can go look for him.

Do you have some sort of sick super power or something? Josh jokes, accepting his mentor's assistance.

***

I let Leo take most of my weight. This day has been longer than any since the accident and has shown me how far I still have to go.

The outpouring of support was the only thing that got me through tonight. The one person who didn't stop to say hi was Toby, who is waiting at the elevator, shifting from foot to foot nervously.

He hands a package to Donna and steps forward. I would greatly appreciate it if you would stop almost dying until I have a chance to finish your eulogy. I find it very difficult to write nice things about you, so I may need thirty or forty years.

He gives the appearance of being deadly serious, but I know Toby well enough to know this is his apology for not being around. I'm unable to restrain the chuckles bubbling up within me.

I'll work on it for you. I promise.

Okay, then, he nods. I expect him to step aside, but he takes Leo's place at my side and helps me into the elevator.

We wait for Donna, who is talking to Leo; asking him for time off, I'm sure.

Toby sticks with us until we are safely in a limo on our way home.

***

Josh waits until we get back to his place before he opens the package Toby gave me.

It's a scrapbook of newspaper articles and TV transcripts from the accident and several days afterwards. There is even a copy of the unfinished eulogy and his notes from that horrible night. We agree Andi probably put it together.

The last thing in it is an excerpt from the Inaugural Address, a piece of it I don't remember having read. It's sandwiched between the section on the enduring spirit of America and the end where the President spoke about the importance of improving education.

The past four years have tried the spirit and determination of many Americans. But countless Americans face hardship and strife every day in the very effort to live their lives to the fullest. They are Americans whose courage in the face of struggle is immeasurable. They are also people we would shy away from, lest we find ourselves immersed in their difficulties. But from them we can learn the most valuable things: the importance of friendship and loyalty; the pride to be found in overcoming obstacles thought impossible. We should be so lucky as to know these people and appreciate their passion, their determination to fulfill their promises. I know such an American and I stand here today to say I would be a lesser person not having known him, not having watched him endure every trial set before him. I have learned countless lessons from my friend, Josh Lyman, and I will learn many more, I'm sure.'

January 22, 2003

Our flight left National at 10:30 this morning. After an extended layover at O'Hare, we got into Rochester, Minnesota at 4:30 in the afternoon. Just in time for the sun to set behind us as we drove down I-90 toward Wisconsin.

It's lightly snowing and the road is narrow and winding. The interstate wasn't so bad, but I just turned off onto a state road that has me fearing for my life.

I take a second to sneak a quick look at Josh. He's tight-lipped and gripping the door handle. Apparently he's as thrilled as I with the driving conditions.

Fortunately it doesn't take long to get to Winona from the interstate and I stop at a gas station to get directions to the place we're staying.

I managed to get us a room at a local bed and breakfast called The Carriage House.

Which is were we are now, lounging lazily in front of the room's fireplace after having had dinner. Josh has been quiet since he emerged from a four-hour meeting in Leo's office.

What are you thinking about? I finally ask, pulling his arms tighter around myself.

I can feel him shrug his shoulders behind me. What would you think about getting married sooner than later?

Leave it to Josh to neatly skip the fact he hasn't asked me to marry him, yet.

I decide to table it for a moment as well. Is this why you were in Leo's office all day yesterday?

Yeah. I'm thinking about making a change.

What kind of change?

A career change.

You're thinking about leaving the White House?

Yes. No. Not for a while, anyway. In a couple of years, he stammers.

To do what, Josh? Politics is your life. I turn around to see his face. It's filled with hope, yet tinged with sadness. His body language radiates nervousness.

He takes my hand, absently running his thumb over it. I'm thinking about running for office.

Josh running for office? I can't see it at first. He's too brash, too prone to opening his mouth before he thinks.

***

Donna clearly doesn't think much of the idea. Leo didn't either, off the bat. I spent four hours yesterday convincing him I could do it and win. I've been thinking about it for a while, but Sam's situation and my accident convinced me there's no better time than the present.

Tomorrow might not happen.

You and Sam in the House together Ð that'd be a riot! Donna jokes.

I shake my head. Not the House. There's a Republican in the governor's office in Connecticut who is up for re-election in 2004.

She looks at me in wonderment, the possibilities dancing in her eyes. You want to run for governor of Connecticut?

On one condition. I just realized I started this conversation by making a huge assumption.

You agree to be my partner in this. Marry me, Donna? Please?

She doesn't miss a beat.

***

The funeral service is at 10 a.m. at the Cathedral of Winona. Josh and I sit unobtrusively in the back. Everyone else appears to be family or co-workers of her dad.

It is a very touching, but brief service. Josh and I go out to the cemetery afterward for the internment and to express our sympathies to the Onsrud family again before heading back to Washington and the rest of our life.

***

I have to be completely honest, I didn't give Nikki Onsrud much more thought until almost 15 years later.

Josh and I married on Valentine's Day in a judge's chambers in Hartford, Connecticut and we bought a house in Groton later that year with the extremely healthy settlement Josh received from the State of Maryland. In September of 2004, he won the Democratic nomination for governor of Connecticut and in November won his first-ever public office.

Thomas Leopold joined our family the next day. His sister Nicole Joan joined us early in 2006. Josh suggesting we name our daughter Nicole was one of the few times I got a glimpse of how big an impact Nikki Onsrud made in Josh's life and one of the few times I thought about the little girl I met only twice.

Josh won reelection in 2008 and again in 2012. He and Sam started making grand plans for the White House shortly thereafter. Sam would run while Josh started quietly fundraising until he joined the ticket at the convention.

Those plans were waylaid in March of 2014.

Tommy had been sick on and off since Thanksgiving and in January was diagnosed with mononucleosis. On March 5th we went for a second opinion to a pediatric oncologist who determined it was not mononucleosis.

It was stage one non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

I've thought about Nikki Onsrud a lot over the last 9 months.

Tommy's cancer has been in remission for 2 months and we were able to celebrate his 10th birthday at home with a few friends and family. His Uncle Sam gave him the best gift the next day, when he returned the White House to Democratic control after eight long years.

***

I walked away from the funeral that cold, raw day in January with the hope I would never be in Philip Onsrud's position. To that end I went back to Washington and bullied through a cancer research funding bill, hoping to spare other parents that kind of pain.

I had never directly benefited from anything I did in the White House until my son was diagnosed with cancer.

The research gains enabled by that bill in those ten years created new treatments, which reduced the time it took to cure Tommy's lymphoma.

It did nothing for the heartache I felt every time I held him while he was sick or tired or afraid, though.

By the time the Democratic National Convention rolled around at the end August, Tommy was on his last round of chemotherapy and the decision had already been made.

Seaborn/Lyman for President became Seaborn/Hailey.

December 23, 2014

How was I stop mid-sentence gaping at my 10-year-old son dashing up the stairs to his room in tears.

It sucked, Daddy, Nikki announces, closing the door behind herself.

Come on, I'll bribe you with things your mother won't let you eat. I lead my daughter into the kitchen.

The principal made him take his hat off and everybody was pointing and laughing at him, she fills me in over milk and chocolate-chocolate chip cookies.

Today was Tommy's first day back at school since spring break when he started an aggressive chemotherapy and radiation regimen. Although he's been cancer-free for 2 months, his hair hasn't started growing back yet and he's still rail thin.

We agreed he would go back on the day before Christmas break because it was a short day and would give him a taste of school before the next semester starts.

Melvin called him cue ball all day, Nikki explains as only a boy's little sister can.

Okay. Go read a book or something, I instruct, wanting her as far away from my conversation with Thomas as possible.

Go away! he sobs when I stick my head in the door.

I ignore his request and sit next to him on the bed. They can't call you names forever. Especially after your hair grows back.

They think I'm a freak, Dad. He's clutching his pillow to his chest, something he started doing when it hurt after he'd throw up after chemo.

Yeah, well, they'll get over it. They probably just don't know what to say to you, I reply, rubbing his back. Besides, a lot of people think I'm a freak.

Yeah, right, he snorts. Your approval rating is like 100% or something.

So? What does your mother call me when she's really annoyed with me?

Governor Stumpy, he looks at me, giggling despite his tears. Or when she's really mad at you, she calls you Governor Stumpy the Grump.

You can stop now, I tease as he starts to get into the swing of Donna's list of derogatory nicknames. Why making fun of me amuses my offspring to no end, I'll never understand. But if it works, I'm going with it.

Can I go tonight? Tommy asks all of a sudden.

To Boston for the thing? Why?

He looks down at the pillow. People there won't laugh at me.

I've got to talk to Mom about it, but I think it'll be okay. That means Nicole goes too.

Tommy makes a face. I'll stay here then.

You sure?

he nods, wiping his eyes and nose on his shirt sleeve. Can I go shoot baskets?

It's been a really mild winter and the driveway is clear enough. Sure. I'm going to check on your sister and then I'll come out.

***

I feel a little better by the time I get outside.

Dad is really good at cheering me up when I feel bad. He says he's got lots of practice from being a politician. I think he's got lots of practice from talking to kids who've had amputations. One of the first things I remember doing with him when I was little was going to the hospital once a week to talk to other kids.

I think it's really neat. We would sneak out without the people from the TV and papers knowing about it. It's like we're secret agents or something.

Then I got cancer last spring. Dad told me a story about the first girl he ever talked to at a hospital and how she died. Her dad said being able to talk to somebody made her days brighter, so he kept doing it for other little kids.

I still go with him sometimes, because a lot of kids don't believe they can still do sports and stuff afterwards. I get to tell them how he plays basketball with me and coaches my Little League team, even though we sucked last year.

My mom is cool too Ð but my dad is the bomb.

***

I hate these things, I whine while Donna loops the bowtie around my neck.

She pulls my face to hers and shuts me up with a kiss. You're going to go and you're going to be happy about it. This party is for you and Tim Hall. It'd look really bad if you didn't show up.

But it's in Boston.

You just don't want to leave Tom home alone.

I think he'd be better off if we were home tonight, is all.

Maybe being alone for a few hours is what he needs. You've done an excellent job of smothering him lately, Stumpy, she chides me.

I can't resist the desire to mock her. And you haven't given in to any of your urges to be over-protective?

When I told her about this afternoon, she called the principal at home to yell at her. Her yelling is entertaining to watch, when I'm not on the receiving end of it.

Josh, we talked about this. First of all, 10 and 8 are old enough to stay home by themselves for a few hours. And it isn't like they're alone. The staff is here and Bryce said he'd stop in to check on them.

I snort at the mention of Bryce, my wife's spokesman.

You just don't like Bryce because he's cuter than you are.

Okay. That's it, we're leaving now.

***

Mom sticks her head in my room. Your dad and I are leaving now. You've got Dad's cell phone number and Bryce is going to stop over.

I make a face at the mention of Bryce. He's sort of prissy and very un-fun.

Everything okay, Tom? Dad asks, taking Mom's place in the door.

I guess so, I started thinking about the stuff Melvin said and how everybody was looking at me and it blew my better mood right out the window.

Dad gives me a knowing smile. He always knows when something's bothering me. It's weird.

We'll talk more tomorrow, okay?

I mumble.

I pout for a while after they leave. I kinda wanted to go tonight. But if Nikki was going to go, I would have gotten stuck babysitting her and that would have sucked.

It's a party Uncle Sam is throwing for Dad and the governor of Massachusetts for their support in getting him elected President. I think it's pretty cool, but Dad's been complaining for a month. He hates big parties.

Bored out of my mind, I wander down to Nikki's room.

What are you doing? I ask, leaning against the doorframe.

Mom and Dad said you have to leave me alone, she says.

I'm gonna see if I can find our Christmas presents, I tempt her.

We do this every year Ð we never find them. Nikki says it proves Santa Claus is real; I think Mom hides everything at the house in Groton.

***

What's this? Nikki is digging through Mom's hope chest. She pulls out an old album I've never seen before.

Dunno. Open it, I order, coming out of the closet and sitting on the floor next to her.

It's just old newspaper stuff, my sister whines, uninterested in the yellowed clippings.

The headline interests me.

Assassination attempt? I take the loose article out and start to read it. Isn't that like trying to kill someone important?

***

How are the kids? Sam laughs at the look on my face. Tommy up to his old tricks, again?

That kid I shake my head at the endless trouble my son causes.

We're standing near the bar gossiping about our families. Sam and Kay have three little girls under the age of 10 just waiting to rip the White House to shreds.

How is he?

2 months in remission. His hair hasn't grown back yet and he had a crappy day at school, but the new treatments they've developed in the last ten years, Sam It's incredible. The doctors told us if there's no recurrence in the next year, he's cured. We don't have to wait five years like they used to.

Who knew one lousy conversation with a bunch of grumpy old men would pay off for you down the road?

The cancer bill we passed back in 2003 made the treatments Tommy received possible. It wouldn't have passed without the support of the greybeard brigade I secured at the Inaugural luncheon so many years ago.

I nod. Gibson and Tellman are still around, believe it or not. I called them both and said thank you.

***

Are you still reading that stuff? Nikki has scoured the rest of the mansion and come up empty. They're going to be home soon. We're supposed to be in bed.

All of this is about Dad, I try to explain why I've spent the past five hours sitting on the floor reading newspaper articles from before I was born. Well, as much of them as I can read. There are some words I don't understand.

Whatever. I'm going to go watch TV.

***

Donna and I get home around midnight to find Nikki asleep on the sofa downstairs with the TV turned to MTV.

I'll take care of her, Donna says. You find Tom?

I reply and head slowly up the stairs.

I find him curled up on the floor of our bedroom wrapped in a quilt. When I kneel down to rouse him, I notice he's sleeping on a scrapbook.

Donna keeps all that old stuff stashed away in her hope chest. They were probably snooping for their Christmas presents.

Pulling it gently out from under him, I see it's the one Andi and Toby made for me after the accident. There's also some stuff in here from the shooting.

Did you find him? Donna asks, entering the room.

He found the scrapbook, I whisper when she sits down next to me.

I'd forgotten we even had this. I don't think I've even looked at it since we got married and I stuck it in the chest.

Twelve years ago, tonight. I remember the horrible snowstorm and the freezing cold seems to permeate my bones again.

Do you ever wonder if things would have been different if you hadn't tried to drive back? Donna rests her head on my shoulder, her fingers tracing the picture of my crumpled Toyota.

I answer, truthfully. I wouldn't trade this, what we have right now, for anything in the world. What about you?

Me neither.

The two of us sit on the floor for a while longer, flipping through the pages of the scrapbook, remembering the night our lives changed forever.

I'll never forget how absolute silent it was when I first woke up, I finally say. Even though there was all that activity up on the road 200 feet up the hill, I couldn't hear anything except the beating of my own heart.

Donna nods in understanding. I spent most of the night sitting in your office watching it snow. Even surrounded by people, I couldn't hear anything but my own what-ifs.

The silence surrounding us now is a comfortable one, wrapping us in its warmth like the blanket wrapped around our son.

Watching Tommy sleep, Donna in my arms, I know I wouldn't change a thing, even the hard stuff. Because if we hadn't endured that long, silent night twelve years ago, there's no guarantee we'd have ever found the strength to come together.