Author's Note: I posted this on JDFF in May 2005. Since I wrote it before Season 7 aired, I was assuming that Donna would begin working for the Santos campaign as soon as Matt won the nomination. Parts of the story take place in an unnamed city somewhere on the campaign trail, sometime after the convention, but there are some time-shifts here, which I hope are self-explanatory.
My thanks are still owed to Belinda, who read this in draft and let me bounce ideas off her.
He's back. After all these months, he's back. After the trip from hell to a hospital on another continent four thousand miles away; after the shock and the fear and the relief and the shock again and the fear again—the blinding, all-consuming fear—and then the all-but-heart-stopping relief; after her sudden, dizzying need for closeness, and then her equally sudden, equally dizzying pulling away; after the confusion and the embarrassment and the guilt—the waves and waves of guilt—and the wrong moves—the stupid, stupid wrong moves—and the covering-up and the avoidance and the delays; after her obvious and bewildering anger and dislike; after the utter misery of her leaving; after the separation and the coldness and the emptiness and the pain; after the slow thaw and the healing and the gradual return to something like the way they'd been before; after the stabbing joy of seeing her smile or simply being able to talk to her again—after all that, he's back. With his chiselled good looks and his full head of hair, his damnable physique and his equally damnable smooth technique, his flowers and his kisses and his look-at-me-I'm-a-dashing-foreign-correspondent camera swinging on his shoulder in its battered, look-at-me-look-at-where-I've-been canvas case, with his confidence and his charisma and his sheer, overpowering, undeniable sex appeal—he's back.
He's back, and she's walking out to dinner on his arm, and Josh is standing in the lobby of the hotel looking after them and wondering where his insides went and how he's supposed to take another breath when there's nothing there any more.
He catches a glimpse of himself in one of the big gilt-rimmed mirrors lining the lobby, and sees a tired-out, middle-aged political geek in a suit. He'd love to put a fist into the mirror and smash it, but he doesn't. He shoves his hands in his pockets and balls them up around the keys and loose change there and squeezes until it hurts.
He steps outside. It's raining lightly. "Cab, sir?" the doorman asks. "I'm fine," he says, and is surprised to find he still has a voice. He's not sure where it came from; he doesn't have any insides, after all, and while his chest is moving up and down it really doesn't feel like he's breathing. He starts to walk. "You'll need an umbrella," the doorman calls after him. "It's supposed to—" But Josh is out of earshot already; he's walking fast. He always walks fast. The rain on his face is cold, but that's good. Rain is good. Rain has always been good.
He's back. After all these months, he's back. He's back, and she's sitting opposite him in the little Afghan restaurant he's taken her to, their knees almost touching under the tiny table. She knows the rain outside has made her hair curl a bit, and fluff up just a little around her face. She knows the candlelight is catching it and that the effect is becoming; she can see Colin's eyes sliding away from hers every now and again to look at it. She's used to men being enchanted by her hair. Every man, she sometimes thinks, except the right one. She should be used to that too, but somehow thinking of it still makes her breath catch and her eyes sting. Not the right one, she tells herself; if he doesn't want you, he's not the right one. She opens her eyes a little wider, fixing them on Colin, and gives him one of her dazzling smiles. She knows better than to think this man could be the right one—he's entirely too smooth a pick-up; she'd never be able to trust him—but he's an attractive and interesting date, and he obviously finds her attractive and interesting. Unlike the right one.
Not that the right one doesn't care about her. He does; she knows he does. After all, she'd woken up in a hospital a thousand miles from home and found him there beside her. "How long are you here for? Doesn't Leo need you?" she'd asked him, surprised. "I'm here as long as I need to be," he'd said, and he'd stayed for days, seeing her through that second surgery and a little while after that. She shouldn't really have been surprised, though. Of course he'd been worried; he likes her, he cares about her—she never doubted that in all the years they worked together. Just not enough, and not in the right way. You're like a little sister to him, she thinks, for the thousandth time. A little sister to fetch and carry things for him, to follow him around and pick up after him; a little sister to tease and laugh at and take advantage of; to teach things to, when he's in the right mood; even, occasionally, to protect. She'd hung on, running his errands and carrying his bags and doing her very best to find the right one somewhere else, but a part of her had never stopped hoping that one day he'd wake up and notice that she wasn't his little sister at all but a grown-up woman with long, slim legs and a long, slim figure and long, shiny blonde hair that looks like a halo when candlelight makes it glow in restaurants. A woman other men quite regularly say is not just attractive but beautiful. There've been a handful of moments when he actually seemed to notice that, but so few she could count them on the fingers of one hand. She's done it, any number of times, while putting on her nail polish—her own personal version of "This little piggy went to market." She's told herself over and over again that if he doesn't notice, he's just a pig, but she's never really been able to convince herself about that.
She's never known whether he doesn't notice her that way because she's just not his type physically—because he likes women to be quite a lot shorter than he is, because he likes them with dark eyes and dark hair—or because she's not smart enough or well-educated enough or successful enough to be interesting to him. Of course, she's proven herself to be just as smart and successful as any of his old girlfriends now, even if she'll never have that degree from Harvard or Yale to go with it. She's worked her way up in a few months from finding Josh's suitbag and answering his phones to giving advice to the Vice President of the United States, and now to a position on the Democratic Vice- Presidential nominee's staff. Quite a trip, really, for a girl with no college degree and a massive, if well-hidden, inferiority complex about it. The only problem is that it hasn't gotten her anywhere with Josh. Not that she did it to get his attention, of course. She did it for herself, to prove herself to herself, not to him, or for him. And she has—she knows she should be proud of herself for what she's done, and she is. She just hasn't managed to accomplish the other things she was hoping for: to stop wanting him, or to stop caring what he thinks or doesn't think about her.
As is perfectly obvious from the fact that she's sitting in a romantic little restaurant opposite an attractive and interesting man who she knows finds her attractive and interesting, and she's thinking about Josh, who doesn't. "Donna," her best friend from home used to say on the phone, "how do you know he doesn't?" "I just know." "Are you sure?" "Yes, I'm sure." "Does he know how you feel?" "I hope not." "Well, why don't you let him know?" "I couldn't!" "He's your boss; you could sue him blind if he tried anything you didn't like; he probably needs to know." "He's not worried about that." "How do you know?" "He says too many things I could sue him blind for anyway." "Why does he say those things, if he's not attracted to you?" "That's just Josh; it's just the way he is." "Maybe he needs you to make the first move." "He's not like that." "Are you sure?" "Of course I'm sure. We're talking about a man who browbeats congressmen and senators for a living and thinks it's fun; he knows how to get what he wants. He just doesn't want me." "Wouldn't it be worth trying, now that you're not working for him?" (That, from one of their more recent conversations.) "I couldn't. It would be so humiliating. I just couldn't."
"Well," her girlfriend always says in the end, "if he really doesn't want you, he's an idiot, and he's not The One." He's not The One, Donna tells herself again now, forcing herself to smile across the table at Colin. They're sitting near the window; the rain and the dark night behind are making it shiny and reflective, and she can see herself, her hair glowing in the warm light from the candle, her smile a thousand watts bright. Josh is an idiot, she reminds herself; he's not The One. But she can't help wondering why he isn't, and why some stupid, irrational part of her still thinks he has to be.
It's raining harder, and a wind is picking up. Josh walks fast, down one street after another. They're almost empty, the shops closed or closing, the last pedestrians running for buses or shelters, fighting to keep their umbrellas open against the wind. This isn't his city, and he's not sure exactly where he's going, but some instinct seems to take him where he wants to be.
He leans on the parapet and looks out over the water. It's wide here, and dark. The wind is blowing up choppy waves that crash against the bank beneath him, driving the rain and spray into his face. He doesn't care. Rain is good. Rain has always been good.
The rain is splashing against the windows, the last bell is ringing, and everyone's talking and pushing back their chairs, the metal caps on the legs rattling and scraping noisily over the linoleum floor. Everyone's talking except the new kid, of course; he never talks. He picks up his books and his binder and follows the others, dodging locker doors and elbows, hurrying down the stairs and outside. He makes his way around the crowds lining up for the buses and over to the bike rack, throws his stuff in the saddlebags of a blue Schwinn, unlocks it, swings his leg over the bar, and pushes off. He can hear the girls in the bus lines behind him shrieking and laughing at the rain, and glances in his mirror to see them all trying to cover their hair with their binders and notebooks, the psychedelic swirls and oversized flowers on the covers making brilliant splashes of color in the grey afternoon. He puts his head down and pedals a little faster.
It's only about a ten-minute ride, not home, but to the house he lives in. When he gets there he slows to a stop, but doesn't get off the bike. He balances with one foot on the curb and looks up at the house. It's a carefully-restored 19th-century colonial, with lots of neatly shuttered windows and a couple of chimneys. It sits well back from the road on what seems like about an acre of lawn, still green and neatly manicured, even in October. Thick bushes cluster around it; tall trees, oak and maple, loom over it. The maples are just starting to turn gold and red, little touches of light against the canopy of oak leaves, a deep, dark green. There are lights in the downstairs windows, which means his mother is back from shopping with her decorator. He knows he should go in, answer her questions about school, eat the snack she'll have waiting, listen to her talk about the fabrics she's looked at, say yes or no when she asks him if he doesn't think the living room would look better with plain curtains rather than patterned or patterned instead of plain. He knows he should. Instead he pushes off the curb and starts to pedal again. It's raining harder now, a cold, stinging rain that hurts his face. But that's good. Rain is good. Rain is always good.
It's late when he cycles up the long driveway. He hasn't just missed snack, he's missed dinner. He's tired now, cold, wet and hungry; his muscles ache when he climbs off the bike and up the flagstone steps to the door.
There's a light on in the front hall, and one in the kitchen, but the rest of the house is dark. He closes the door as quietly as he can; the lock clicks behind him, sounding too loud in the stillness all around. He goes upstairs, the muscles in his legs protesting, gets a shower and dry clothes, and comes back down. He walks back past the cavernous, half-furnished living and dining rooms, past his father's lightless study to the kitchen; the clock says 8:26. There's a note on the table:
Josh dear, I'm going to bed. Your dinner's in the oven. Mom.
She's left the oven on low. This bothers him, but he knows it's his own fault for coming back so late. It's a t.v. dinner in a compartmented aluminum tray: flat, strange-tasting turkey in a thick brown gravy in one box, mashed potatoes—they don't keep kosher—in another, green peas that have shrivelled from being in the oven too long in a third. He eats it hungrily, saving the little bit of cranberry sauce that nestles in the fourth and smallest compartment for dessert, and tries not to think about the roasts of beef and chicken his mother used to make, her latkes and kugel, her mouthwatering apple pies fragrant with cinnamon and dripping with brown sugar goo.
He puts his tray in the garbage and his cutlery in the sink, beside the glasses already there. He climbs halfway up the stairs, his muscles aching, then turns around and goes back down to the kitchen to make sure the oven is off.
In bed in his still-unfamiliar room, he lies awake listening for the scrunch of the car's wheels in the driveway, the sound of his father's key in the door.
He's sitting in class, staring out the window. This is the Enriched Curriculum Gifted and Talented class, but he doesn't need to pay attention to do well in it; the work they give them is so easy he could do it blindfolded, gagged, and with both hands tied behind his back. Which is a good thing, because that's pretty much the way he feels most of the time. And which is maybe not such a good thing, because if he couldn't do the work someone might notice and start to ask what's going on. But getting noticed is the last thing he wants, so as far as he's concerned, it's a good thing this class is such a snap.
Today there's a substitute, which means things will be even easier and more boring than ever. Everyone knows substitutes never do anything except pass out worksheets or tell you to read a chapter in the book. The whole class—most of whom don't find the regular teacher as easy as he does—all heave a sigh of relief and settle back in their chairs, looking forward to an hour of passing notes and throwing spitballs, or reading "I, Robot" or "With Love From Karen" under the desk. Everyone knows that's what you get to do when there's a substitute.
Everyone except this substitute, who apparently was born on another planet and doesn't understand the rules, or is fresh out of teachers' college and brimming with enthusiasm at the idea of getting to spend an hour talking to a bunch of seventh-graders with bellbottoms, braces, and high scores on standardized tests. He does look pretty young for a teacher.
"So, I hear you guys have been studying ethics, huh?"
They have, they really have. It says so in block letters under "Unit Two" in their syllabus. So far all they've done is memorize a definition of ethics and the names of some famous people who wrote about it.
"Well, that's great. Ethics is a pretty cool subject. An important one, too; if all those fat cats down in Washington had studied ethics in school, we might not be in such a mess over in Nam, huh?"
The class stares back at him, stunned. This is a violation of the rules, and not just the ones governing substitutes, either.
"Or maybe you would say, we wouldn't be in such a mess back here at home. Right? Riots. Drugs. Kids growing their hair too long"—and he flicks back his own hair, which curls down over his collar, making some of the bolder kids laugh. There aren't many male teachers, and most of them have had to reassure the school board by wearing short-back-and-sides. The gym teacher even has a crew cut, but then he's potbellied and fifty-five.
"I'm going to be here all week, you know, and I thought maybe we could talk about that. Okay? About where the mess is, and why. But first we've got to get some other stuff cleared out of the way. Stuff like, what is good? And what is bad?" (He draws the vowel out, "baaaaad.") "You know, little, innocent, baby stuff like that." And he smiles a slow, wicked smile that seems to start from the soles of his desert boots and go right on out to his fingernails and the tips of his too-long hair. The girls giggle and sigh; the boys roll their eyes. Josh shifts in his seat, and looks out the window again.
"Bad's always more fun." (More giggles.) "Let's start with that. Let's make a list of all the bad stuff you can think of."
"Shredded wheat," some guy shouts out from the back row. "Elvis songs," his buddy adds. Everyone laughs. The substitute gives another of those slow, sexy grins.
"Maybe the new ones," he acknowledges. "But ethics isn't about breakfast cereals or songs. It's about human behavior, human choices. We're talking about things people do to each other. We're talking about the people who don't care enough about your tastebuds to make great-tasting breakfast cereal that's still healthy enough your moms will buy it. We're talking about a guy with an amazing talent who did too many drugs, ate too much, and started driving everyone nuts by doing schlocky turns in Vegas; or maybe we're talking about the producers who used him till he was ready to drop and didn't help him look after himself when he was dropping, or the fans who got him used to being adored and then turned around and started screaming for the Beatles and the Stones instead. Things people do to each other; bad things, remember. Start over."
There's a buzz of excitement, and people start calling out suggestions. The hour whizzes by. Josh stares out the window, hoping for rain. A really good, hard rain.
The last bell rings, and everyone bursts out talking, pushing back their chairs, scraping the legs over the floor. Everyone except the new kid, of course. He picks up his books and follows the others down the stairs and outside to his bike. He's out of luck: it isn't raining; it's a beautiful fall day, with just a hint of crispness under the sun-warmed air. You can tell it will be chilly by evening. Josh climbs on his bike and rides the ten minutes back to his house, where he sits on the bike outside, looking up at the neatly pruned bushes, the big trees, the carefully-maintained facade. He should go in. He really should go in. Instead he pushes off the curb and cycles down the road, heading south, towards the Sound.
They used to live in Westport, but Josh's father thought they needed a new start, so now they're in Greenwich, which is older and closer to the city and considered even tonier and more desirable by real estate agents. The new house isn't on the water, of course; Josh's dad is doing well, working such long hours in the law firm, but he's not doing as well as that. Not many people are.
There's a beach about a fifteen minutes' ride away, but that's too close for Josh, and besides, there will be people there, dog-walkers and strolling couples and mothers with babies and small children on blankets, soaking in the sun and enjoying the last of the good weather. Josh rides until he can see the water, then turns east on one of the little roads that hug the shore. It really is a beautiful day. He rides and rides.
When he's too tired to ride any further, he starts looking for one of his special places. There are a few of them; he knows this stretch of road well. He's just pulling onto the shoulder when he hears someone shouting hello. He looks back, and there's the new teacher, the substitute in the Enriched class, riding up the road behind him. He's got a nice-looking bike, with slim racing tires and those fancy new turned-down racing handlebars. He waves at Josh, and keeps riding. Josh waits till he's out of sight before walking his bike down the little cliff path to the beach below.
At the foot of the small cliff he throws his bike down and stretches out on the sand, looking at the water. After a while he takes his books and binder out of the saddlebags and does his homework. Then he stuffs them back in and lies very still, watching the water some more.
It's after nine when he gets home. He eats his t.v. dinner—macaroni and cheese, and brownish, overcooked broccoli that leaves an aluminum tang in his mouth. When he's finished he looks at the sink and hesitates, unsure, as always, what to do. Nobody would call him tidy normally, but after a while he runs the hot water and washes up, wiping each glass carefully and putting it away.
"Josh? Josh Lyman?" The substitute's voice comes from a long way away, as if through water. Josh turns towards it and blinks, swimming towards the surface. "Earth to Josh!" Everyone except Josh laughs.
"I was asking, Josh, what your definition of 'bad' would be." Definitions, huh? They've obviously progressed beyond yesterday's examples. Josh wonders briefly how this guy has learned his name; it's only his second day, which is pretty early to have put names to faces. He blinks again. More laughter.
"Come on, Josh, give it a try. I want to hear what your voice sounds like. You do have a voice, don't you?" The man is smiling, trying to take the edge off that, but the laughter from the class that follows isn't so nice. The new kid really is pretty weird.
"What was the question again, sir?" A few more titters, but not so many this time; the teacher has shot them a look that lets them know they'd better not.
"How would you define 'bad,' Josh? What does it mean to you?"
Josh blinks again, and shrugs. "Knowing what good is, and not doing it," he says, and turns back to the window.
There's a moment of silence. The teacher is looking at the boy's averted profile, his mouth a little open. It's not the answer he was expecting from an eleven-year-old, even one in the Enriched Curriculum Gifted and Talented class.
The last bell rings. Everyone scrapes their chairs back and bursts out talking, everyone except Josh, of course. He gathers up his stuff, makes his way down the stairs and outside. He checks that his sleeping bag, one of those new compressible nylon-and-down ones, is still stuffed into one of the saddlebags; it is. He unlocks the bike, swings his leg over, pushes off. Today he doesn't even pretend he's going home. He turns right out of the school parking lot instead and heads towards the water. He's in luck: it's raining.
He rides east along the shore road the way he did yesterday, the way he's done every day after school since school started, and most days before that since they moved here. He stops at the same place he did the day before; it's one of his favorites. Down on the beach he props the bike against the cliff, unzips his sleeping bag, drapes it over the bike, and crawls under. It's not much, but it offers just enough protection from the rain to let him do his homework without getting the books and paper soaked. Then he puts his school stuff back in the saddlebags, takes the sleeping bag down, stretches it out, and lies down on top of it. If he gets too cold he can get in, but right now he doesn't. He lies on his stomach on the bag and watches the waves, letting the rain beat down on him.
It's almost ten when Josh gets home that night. The dinner waiting for him is the same as last night's. When he's finished he puts his dishes in the sink, where they rattle against the glasses already there: red wine, martini, highball, shot. She always uses the right glass. They all have the same lipstick marks on them; there hasn't been anyone over visiting.
He stands there for a while, just looking at them, thinking about the question the teacher asked him in the Enriched class today, thinking about the answer he gave. He checks the oven, goes upstairs, uses the bathroom. Comes downstairs and checks the oven again. Goes back up, gets into bed, waits for his father to come home. Closes his eyes, pretends to be asleep. Thinks about his mother, alone in the house all day after her morning's shopping expedition. Thinks about the ethics class again; thinks, "You are a bad son." But he already knew that.
He wakes with a muffled cry and a start. He hadn't meant to fall asleep, but he'd been so tired he must have gone out in spite of himself. He pushes the pillow off his face—he's learned to sleep with it there, in case he does cry out, and he must have pulled it over automatically. He doesn't like waking his parents up; the distress on their faces is more than he can bear.
He lies there for a few minutes, blinking groggily, then pulls himself out of bed. The clock's hands are glowing greenly in the darkness; it's 1:05. His father will have come home a couple of hours ago.
Josh trades his pajama jacket for a thick sweatshirt and a nylon windbreaker, and pulls on his jeans. He hadn't bothered with the pajama pants when he got into bed; the top is just for show. His dad isn't likely to pull down the covers when he looks in on his way to bed himself.
He opens the window, careful not to let it squeal, and climbs over the sill. A big Norway spruce grows up beside it—if he leans out far enough, he can just reach one of the branches. Getting down is easy after that, though he always ends up a little scratched by twigs and needles, and sticky with sap. He's left his bike outside, beside the garage, the soaking-wet sleeping bag still in the pannier. He climbs stiffly onto the hard seat, bounces down the driveway, and turns east into the cold, wet night.
He's sitting in class, staring out the window. The sky is a hard blue. The weather shifted again during the night, an icy wind from Canada blowing in and sweeping the rain out to sea; there was frost on the lawn this morning when he slipped back into the house, and a lot of yellow leaves. His father had already left for work; his mother was still in bed, as usual. He'd taken a long, hot shower before putting on dry clothes and getting himself some cornflakes in the kitchen, then heading off for school. He isn't cold now, exactly, but he doesn't feel warm, either, even though the radiator is pumping out heat like a demented dragon, and the room is stuffy. His head aches a bit, and there's a funny feeling at the back of his throat that he can't quite identify, but doesn't like very much. He can hear the teacher's voice, rising and falling in the background, like waves; he shuts his eyes, and lets the sound wash over him. Waves, and rain. Waves, and rain.
"Josh? Josh? Come on, Josh, come back to us."
Josh blinks. The class laughs. This is getting to be a pattern, Josh thinks. He wishes the regular teacher would come back; she never bothered to call on anyone who didn't put a hand up.
"Yes, sir?" His voice doesn't sound quite right. The words seem to scrape the back of his throat on their way out; it hurts.
"I was asking you, Josh, how you would approach the problem."
Josh narrows his eyes a little. The man is playing with him; he must know Josh has no idea what problem they've been talking about. The teacher's expression is gentle, though, and expectant. Josh shifts in his seat a little and asks, "What problem, sir?" It comes out as a cross between a croak and a sigh. His throat is throbbing now.
"The classic ethical dilemma. You're in a museum, looking at Van Gogh's 'Starry Night.' You know the painting, don't you?" Josh nods. Everyone knows "Starry Night," if only because of the Don McLean song, which is big that year. It's cool to like "Starry Night." "There's an old woman next to you; a doddering old woman who wears trifocals and uses a cane. Suddenly the fire alarm starts to ring, and you smell smoke and hear the flames crackling nearby, and people shouting and screaming. You realize you only have time to do one thing: you can help the old woman out of the building, or you can pull that priceless masterpiece off the wall and save it. Which would you do?"
Josh swallows. He stares at the teacher, not saying anything.
"What would you do, Josh?"
He's still staring, speechless.
"Come on, Josh, try an answer. The old woman? The painting? Which one? And why?"
"I—" His throat's on fire; he can't get words out. Not that he knows what words to say. None of the smart-ass remarks he would have made last year, about false dichotomies and security guards and the probabilities of getting nailed for starting the fire as well as stealing the painting if you tried that one, come to mind. He's burning.
"What would you do, Josh?"
The fire's spreading from his throat, the flames licking up around his face, catching his hair. He looks at his hands, and presses them against the desk to try to stop them shaking. They burst into flames too.
"Josh? What's the matter?"
He can't answer, can hardly hear the words. All he can hear is the roar of the flames licking around him.
He stands up, knocking his chair over, pushing his desk aside, and runs out of the room. Through the flames he can just hear someone behind him laughing. And someone, somewhere, screaming.
If he rides his bike fast enough and far enough, it sometimes stops. He learned that months ago. It helps if it's raining, cold and wet, running down his face, soaking his clothes, his hair. Rain is good. Rain is always good.
He never rides alone. She's always there beside him, riding the new bike she'd been so proud of, ten speeds with handbrakes and a derailleur. They ride fast, faster than they've ever ridden before, the flames streaming out behind them, both of them on fire, both of them screaming, pedalling for dear life and everything else besides. When they get to the beach they jump off, letting the bikes crash to the ground. Then they grab hands and jump into the water, and it closes over their heads and they gasp with the cold and the wet of it, and go down, down, down. The flames go out then; the pain stops. They don't have to see anything any more, or hear anything, or feel anything. It's cold and dark and quiet and peaceful and still, and as long as they can stay down there, everything will be all right.
There's a flash of lightning and a rumble of thunder from outside. The rain is driving hard against the restaurant window, running down it in sheets like a waterfall. Donna catches sight of her pale face in the glass again, and thinks she looks like she's drowning. Or has drowned already. She shivers a little.
"Cold?" Colin asks, smiling at her. "Have some more coffee. We'll take a taxi back. A dog wouldn't want to be out in that tonight."
Josh hears his name from deep down under water. He hears it several times before he gives up and starts to swim, reluctantly, towards the surface. He swims as slowly as he can. He really hates that moment when he breaks through.
"Mind if I join you?"
It's the substitute. Josh blinks up at him. It's almost dark where he's sitting on the beach, though the sky is still catching light from the vanishing sun. The teacher is silhouetted against it, his face shadowed and hard to read. Josh shakes his head a little, and the teacher sits down beside him, dropping something heavy and warm over Josh's shoulders. His jacket. Josh realizes suddenly that there's an ice-cold wind off the water, and he's shivering uncontrollably. He pulls the jacket around him, grateful, in spite of himself, for its thick warmth. The surf is pounding against the sand just a few yards away.
"Have you been sitting here long?" the teacher asks, quietly. What do you think? Josh wants to say, but doesn't. They're on a rotating schedule at school, with classes slotted in at different times on different days; he'd run out of the Enriched class just before noon.
"Your clothes are wet," the man points out. "Did you go in?"
Josh still doesn't say anything.
"Did you go in, Josh?"
"Do you do that often?"
Josh wants to go on not saying anything; he knows the kind of trouble the answers to these questions could get him in. But there's something about the man's voice and manner he finds hard to resist: a firmness, but a gentleness, too, as if he's not in the business of judging, but simply wants to know.
He's lying, of course. He's gone in before, right in, quite a few times, when the ride and the rain haven't been enough. He doesn't go in far or stay in long, and he always makes sure he can get out again. He's a bad brother and a bad son, but he's not that bad; his parents have had enough grief.
The teacher doesn't comment on either the implicit admission or the probable omissions. Instead he digs in the pocket of his sports jacket and takes out a pack of cigarettes. "Want one?" he says, gesturing with the pack towards Josh, who looks at him directly for the first time.
"I'm eleven," Josh points out, his eyes widening, in spite of himself. It crosses his mind to wonder if this guy is a creep who's going to try something. He's a good reader; he read "Catcher in the Rye" last year, with a flashlight under the covers. Joanie had caught him at it one night and explained some of the bits he hadn't really understood.
"Sorry," the teacher says, sounding a little awkward. He hesitates a moment, then says, "I'm new at this, you know. Teaching. The whole role-model thing." He takes out a book of matches, strikes one, and lights up, inhaling deeply and blowing out the smoke in a long, slow breath like a sigh. They sit quietly together on the sand. Josh is thinking how strange it is that the match and the cigarette don't freak him out, but they don't. He supposes it's because so many people smoke; his dad still smokes a pipe sometimes, though he keeps it in his study, and hasn't used it in front of Josh or his mother since the fire.
A couple of minutes pass before the man shakes his head a little, and says, "It's kind of weird, you know, my being a teacher at all. If you'd told me a few years ago that I'd have short hair and a jacket and tie and be teaching a bunch of junior high kids in the—what do they call it here? Enriched Curriculum Gifted and Talented Class—I'd have nearly died laughing. If I hadn't been too fried to know what you were saying, of course." Josh turns his attention away from the waves and looks up, surprised. It's darker now, and the cigarette is a little red glow in the shadows of the man's face.
"I'd started college," the substitute goes on, quietly. "Brown. I hadn't declared a major yet, but I was hovering between poetry and philosophy. You know, the practical things." He looks down at Josh with one of those grins that have all the girls eating out of his hand in class. Josh doesn't smile back. "Then something happened, and I couldn't deal with it anymore, and I dropped out. Packed all my stuff in this ancient Chevy truck and started to drive west. The truck broke down somewhere in the middle of Ohio, so I hitchhiked the rest of the way to California. San Francisco, Haight-Ashbury. I stayed there right through the summer, doing some pretty wild stuff. Uppers, downers, angel dust, LSD—you name it, I probably tried it that summer. All I really wanted was to blow my mind, so I wouldn't have to think about things, you know?"
He takes another long drag on his cigarette, and sits staring out at the Sound. There's a moon rising, spilling its light in a long, silvery trail across the waves. It makes Josh think suddenly of the snails in the garden at their old house, and how he and Joanie used to follow the shimmering marks they'd leave on the flagstones, and then, when they'd found them, pick them up and poke at them a little to see them pull themselves back into their shells. Once he'd poured salt on one, because Johnny Grossman across the street had told him to; the soft, living part of the snail had dissolved into a squishy mass in front of his horrified eyes. He shivers, and pulls the teacher's jacket closer around him.
"What things?" he asks, surprising himself. The words come out in a croak. He'd been able to forget about his throat along with everything else that afternoon, but he remembers it now. It hurts, a lot.
The teacher draws in the smoke and blows it out, two or three times, before answering. "I had a brother. Two years younger than me. Straight A student, quarterback on the football team, good-looking kid—every girl's dream date. You know the kind of guy. He could have taken his deferment and gone to college anywhere, and he had this stupid high number anyway, but he enlisted. I remember him saying, 'How can you expect me to go to Yale and join a frat and sit behind a desk listening to some overpaid guy talk to a bunch of white kids about physics or philosophy when all those black guys born just a few blocks away from us are over there getting shot at in the jungle?' I tried to talk him out of it, told him it was a wrong war, a bad war, that we had no business being over there, but he wouldn't change his mind. He could have gone to Germany with the NATO forces and drunk a lot of good beer and travelled all over, but he didn't want to do that either. It had to be Nam, because that was where the guys went who didn't get a choice. He hadn't been over there three weeks before his unit was ambushed and he was killed. One of his buddies carried him all the way back to camp; he wrote and told us about it. Andy'd been hit by a grenade; his legs were blown off. He was still conscious when his friend picked him up, but he died on the way out."
Josh doesn't know what to say, so he doesn't say anything. His throat hurts too much, anyway, and he can feel the bile rising up in it, bitter tasting, and burning some more.
"I wanted to join up and go out there and kill everyone, you know? And then get killed, so I wouldn't have to think about it any more. But I couldn't do that to my parents, so I did the next best thing, which was Haight and as many hard drugs as I could shoot up or choke down. I still called my folks every Sunday, though, so I told myself it was all right."
Something else is rising up inside Josh, along with the bile. He swallows, painfully, and tries to force it down.
"I'd probably still be there, a doped-up wreck selling love beads on some street corner, or a body in a box six feet under, if a guy in the flophouse I was staying at hadn't o.d.'d one night and bit it. His family came out to get him—to get the body, I mean—and came to see where it had happened. They wanted to talk to all of us who were there, to know anything we could tell them about what he'd said or done in the weeks he'd been there. And the thing was, nobody could remember anything, really. We'd all been too fried. But we couldn't stand to see his mom crying so hard, and his dad holding her and trying to hold himself together for her sake when you could see he was just falling apart inside, so we made stuff up. Anything we could think of. We said he'd talked about them, about missing them, wanting to go home. Some of the guys laughed about it afterwards, but I didn't laugh. I couldn't. I just kept seeing my parents' faces, and I realized it wasn't good enough to check in once a week when I was reasonably clear-headed, and pretend things were okay. They needed more than that. They needed me to really be okay."
He lights another cigarette from what's left of the first, and grinds the butt out in the sand beside him.
"I called my folks, told them I wanted to come home. Told them what I'd been doing; told them I needed help. They didn't yell at me or anything; there was money for me in the Western Union office the next morning, and I got on a bus and went home. I smoked like a chimney the whole way, and shook like a leaf, and when I got back to Connecticut I checked into a treatment center my mom had found out about for me, and got myself clean. Well, pretty clean; I still need my nicotine every now and again, obviously. And then I cut my hair and shaved my beard and went back to Brown and begged and grovelled to the Registrar, and finally got them to let me back in, and I did my degree in philosophy after all, and a teacher's certificate at the same time. It seemed like something I could do."
He pauses again, drawing on the cigarette and blowing out as if it's an act of meditation, which maybe it is.
"You feel so guilty," he says after a while. "You feel guilty for not being there, guilty for letting him go; guilty for everything you ever said that might have egged him on, guilty for everything you didn't say that might have stopped him. Guilty for being his brother, and helping him learn how to think like that; guilty for being different, and not having thought the same way he did. Guilty for still having your legs; guilty for not bleeding; guilty for not dying; guilty for being alive. But you know what? Everyone does. Every single frigging person out there has something they feel awful about. Some people let themselves feel it more than others do, but they've all got something, something bad. And we've all got a lot of good, too; good other people need from us; good that's too good to be thrown away. And while we're hiding, pulling the covers over our heads, blowing our brains out, there's still a war going on out there; lots and lots of guys are still getting killed over there. Girls, too. And if you're hiding you're not doing anything to stop it, anything to keep other people's brothers or sisters or sons or daughters from going the same way. There are a lot of wars in this world that need to be stopped, a lot of fires that need to be put out, and you're not going to be able to do it if all you do is put your head in the sand. Or the water."
Josh looks at the teacher sideways. He's still smoking, looking out at the moonlight on the water. The waves are a lot quieter now. There's a long silence before Josh finally says, "How'd you know?"
"One of the eighth grade teachers is from Westport. When I told her at break today about this amazingly bright kid in the class I'm subbing for, this amazingly bright but just slightly fucked-up seeming kid, she recognized the name."
"Yeah. It's hard to hide in this world, isn't it?"
Josh doesn't know what to say. He feels that surge of something rising inside him, and doesn't know if it's anger or not.
"Did you make all that up?" he finally asks.
There's another pause.
"You dream about it?" the teacher asks him.
"That's why the sleeping bag?" Josh realizes that he's sitting on the thing; he doesn't remember getting it out. It's still pretty wet from the night before, or maybe from him dripping all over it after he'd come out of the water, which he doesn't remember doing either. "You come out here at night?"
"Your parents don't know?"
Josh shifts uncomfortably, and looks away. He doesn't want to talk about his parents.
"Isn't your mom expecting you home now?"
"I never go home after school."
"And she's okay with that?"
Josh shrugs, and pokes at a pebble with his foot. It's a smooth, grey pebble; at least, it looks grey in the moonlight. He studies it carefully, as if trying to commit its lines and exact shade of greyness to memory.
"Is she okay, Josh?"
Josh stops poking at the pebble and drops his head.
"Is she okay?"
"No," he answers finally, in a very small voice.
"What's she doing?"
Josh doesn't answer.
"You know, Josh, I've got a couple of other classes I'm subbing for this week, so I couldn't go after you when you ran out this morning. When I'd finished, though, and I'd talked with that eighth-grade teacher, I went to the office and looked up your address, and then I went to your house to look for you. Your mom answered the door. She wasn't totally plastered, but—she's drinking too much, isn't she?"
Josh has been sitting with his knees pulled up, his arms wrapped around them. Now he buries his face against them. "Yeah," he finally croaks out, his voice muffled by his damp jeans.
"She goes to bed early, really early. And sleeps late; she's still in bed when I leave for school."
"So she's alone in the house most of the day?"
"I guess. She goes shopping. There's the new house; she's got a decorator . . ." His voice trails off.
"And your dad?"
"He works late. He's a litigator; he's got some big cases."
"Has he always worked late?"
"Not this late."
"Does he know what's going on with your mom?"
"I don't know." It's almost a whisper.
The teacher stubs his cigarette out.
"You know," he says gently, "it's not your fault, Josh. None of this is your fault. You're eleven; you haven't done anything wrong, and it isn't up to you to fix your parents' problems for them. But you do have to do what you actually can do, for them, and for yourself. And I think there's something you could be doing here."
"I don't know what you mean," Josh whispers.
"I think you do."
The teacher just looks at him.
"You actually can."
"I CAN'T!" Josh suddenly explodes, sitting up straight. He can feel all the anger he hasn't been sure of before vomiting its way to the surface and bursting out, like puke or lava, hot and bilious. "What the hell am I supposed to do? What the FUCK am I supposed to do? They're the grownups, they're the ones who're supposed to make things right, not me. This can't be made right, anyway. Not by me; I can't make anything right. I can't make any God-damned thing right at all."
"I didn't say you had to make it right, Josh. I said you had to do right—to do what you know you should do and can do that would be better than this. It might not be the whole answer, it might not even seem to make that big a difference, but it would be better. Better for your parents. Better for you."
"And what would that be, exactly?" Josh asks, his voice shaking and barely audible. The words don't come out in the sarcastic tone he's aiming for; they sound flat and defeated instead, and he isn't able to keep the bump of a sob out of them. The burning and throbbing has spread from his throat to every inch of his body; he feels sicker than he can ever remember feeling before. He hasn't cried since the second week of kindergarten—didn't cry when they told him, didn't cry at the funeral—but he thinks he might be about to cry now. He's too shaken and too sick even to mind all that much if he does.
"Go home, Josh. Your mom needs you. You need her. And your dad needs both of you. Go home."
They drive home in the teacher's battered VW bug, Josh's bike tied with the teacher's on the rack on the rear end. The teacher walks with him up the flagstone steps to the front door and rings the bell. They wait for a while. No one comes. The house is dark. "I've got a key," Josh mumbles, his shoulders slumping a little as he fumbles in his pocket.
The teacher hesitates, not sure what to do. This isn't what he was expecting; he'd told Mrs. Lyman how Josh had run out of class, and why. She'd been upset then, anxious and concerned.
Josh opens the door. "Thanks for the ride," he says, hoarsely. Then he steps in and starts to close it.
"Wait, Josh," the teacher says. "Your mom—will you be okay?"
"I'm fine," the boy says, and shuts the door.
They finish the evening with a burst of noise, gasps and moans from her, loud groans and a muffled shout from him. The storm howls outside, the wind and the rain throwing themselves against the window as if they're trying to break in. When she catches her breath, Donna sits up, wrapping the blanket around her.
"Whassamatter?" Colin mumbles, sleepily. He reaches an arm up to pull her down beside him, but she moves away.
"Nothing," she says. "Just—the storm. I don't like it."
"Nothing to worry about," he says, pushing himself up on an elbow and turning towards her. "This is a pretty nice hotel you've got here; I don't think it's going to blow down tonight." She can feel him grinning at her in the dark.
"No," she says, not feeling any temptation to laugh. "It's not that. I just—I can't help thinking about the people who must be out there somewhere in this."
"You mean homeless people?"
"I suppose," Donna says doubtfully. She isn't really sure exactly what she means.
"Yeah," Colin says. "That's bad. The homeless have it bad. But they'll be okay, you know. They're used to it; they know where to go, what to do. It's not like it's a hurricane or anything, just a storm."
"I know," Donna says. "I know. It just seems so—miserable."
"Yeah, sweetheart, there's a lot of misery in this world. Now come over here, and let me see what I can do about the bit of it that's right here next to me. I obviously haven't looked after you well enough, if you're feeling like this."
Donna smiles a little then, and turns back to him. But in spite of the things they start to do, she can't quite shake the feeling that they shouldn't. That there's something else she ought to be doing; somewhere else, out there, she ought to be.
A couple of hours later Colin's dead to the world, but she still can't sleep. She's not sure why. The storm dies down, the wind and the rain stop, but the quiet outside doesn't help; she's still restless and uncomfortable. She tosses and turns until she finally gives up and gets out of bed, thinking a hot shower will relax her and let her get to sleep.
But it doesn't. She can't seem to quiet that unsettled feeling; it's in her restless eyes and arms and legs and feet, fluttering in her stomach and pounding somewhere deep down in her chest, like her heart. She hurries through the shower, towels herself off, and starts to dry her hair, but is suddenly overcome with impatience—this is taking too long, she thinks, I can't take this long—and drops the dryer back into its stand, gives her hair another quick rub with the towel, and shakes it out. She steps back into the bedroom and turns on the lamp on the bureau; Colin moans a little and turns over, but doesn't wake up. She pulls things hastily out of her suitcase, looking for the sweatpants and t-shirt she always packs so she'll have something comfortable to sleep in if the room is cold; when she finds them she tugs them on, leaving her other clothes in messy heaps in the bag and on the floor. Hurry, hurry, a voice in her head is saying now. Hurry, hurry, hurry.
It's been so long since she trusted her instincts at all. Not her political instincts—she's gone big places with those—but her deeper, more personal ones, the ones she listened to when she left Alan and drove across the country to volunteer for Bartlet for America, the ones she listened to almost every day when she was working for Josh. But she hasn't listened to them or trusted them for months now. Since Gaza, she'd like to think, but she knows better than that.
Being half blown up didn't help any—it left her asking so many unanswerable questions, all the what if's and why did I's and why me's and why not me's—but she hasn't really trusted herself since that night of the lockdown, when C.J. showed her how obvious she was being and how pitiful her efforts to cover herself had been. "This isn't about the White House," C.J. had said; "this is totally about Josh Lyman." "What should I do?" she remembers her own voice asking, and remembers how it had trembled when she asked. "Anything that doesn't have to do with Josh Lyman," C.J. had answered, and she'd shrunk away, wanting to hide and finding no way to do it. She'd felt as if she'd stepped out of her own skin that night, had looked down and seen herself with somebody else's eyes, small and cowering and pathetically naked. With C.J.'s eyes. With Josh's. He must have been as embarrassed by her hopeless love as she was to be caught out in it, she'd thought later. No wonder he'd sent her to Gaza; he must have just wanted to get her out from under his feet for a while, the annoying little girl with the annoying, ridiculous crush. And if he felt badly about it afterwards, well, that was Josh Lyman, the master of the guilt trip, especially when it came to sisters.
She stepped out of her skin that night, and she's never really felt like she stepped back into it. Donna who could leave Josh Lyman was someone else. Donna who could work for Bob Russell was someone else. She's impressed by that Donna, proud of what she's accomplished and how other people respect her now, but she's never really felt quite at one with her. The part of her that isn't that Donna looks at that Donna and knows she's an act. That Donna doesn't let anyone think she could care less about Josh Lyman. This Donna knows she's faking it all the way.
For months now this Donna's let herself hide inside that Donna. She's felt safer there, even if she hasn't always felt comfortable or happy or good. But something about tonight has shaken her loose. Maybe it's Colin: having sex with someone she's not in love with has never really worked for her, in spite of her best efforts not to care. Maybe it's the storm: there's an electricity in the air that's palpable to her, even now that the thunder seems to have passed and the rain has stopped. She feels ionized, charged, as if all the little hairs on her body were standing on end like cats' whiskers, catching invisible movements around her and whispering them to her through her skin. She's all instinct tonight; she can't bury it or ignore it any longer. Hurry, hurry, the little voices are whispering to her; hurry, hurry, hurry. She doesn't wait to put on her makeup or fix her hair. She doesn't stop to ask herself what she's doing or whether it's a good idea. She just slips her keycard into her pocket and lets herself out of the room.
She pads in her bare feet down the hall—right, left, then another right, down to the end near the window. She always knows where his room is; she knew even when she was on the other side, and now that she's on the same team, of course, she has every right to know. She doesn't stop, though, to think about whether that's something she should know or not. She's not thinking about what this is going to look like. She could make up some story to cover herself—come up with some question about the campaign so urgent that it explains her knocking on his door at three in the morning—but she doesn't stop to think about that either. She's not listening to those fearful, self-protective voices right now at all; she's just hearing those other worried voices whispering urgently that something's wrong somewhere, and she has to make sure it isn't him. Hurry, hurry, they say to her, and she does.
She knocks on his door, quietly at first, and then louder. There's no answer. She knocks again, and calls his name softly, but still there's nothing. She wonders suddenly why she didn't just call him on his cell; he'd be more likely to hear his phone than the door if he's sound asleep. But if he's sound asleep, why is she here knocking on his door at all? A sense of the ridiculousness of what she's doing begins to wash over her, and she turns around, thinking she should just go back to her room and get into bed beside Colin and never listen to her own instincts again. And then she sees him.
He's coming down the hall from the elevators. His shoulders are slumped and his feet are dragging. Even though it stopped raining two hours ago, he's soaked; his suit is stained dark with rainwater, his tie is hanging like a used dishrag around his neck. But it's his face that stops Donna in her tracks. She's seen him exhausted, defeated, sick, and in the hospital only half-alive after being shot and fourteen hours of surgery, but she's never seen him look quite the way he does right now.
And then he sees her. He stops dead and looks at her, and in his eyes she can see everything, and she knows suddenly and at last that she doesn't have to hide anything anymore. "Josh?" she says, her voice cracking. "Donna," he answers thickly, and suddenly his arms are around her and she doesn't know whether she threw herself on him or he threw himself on her. She doesn't know whether she's crying or laughing, or which one he's doing either, or both. She just knows he's holding her tighter than she's ever been held before and they're kissing wildly, and afterwards neither one of them is ever sure whether there really was a sudden flash of lightning and clap of thunder when their lips met, and if there was, whether it was just the storm coming back, or not.