Less than a week after his wife’s funeral, Al Eddington made a point of showing up at the Thursday Advisory Board meeting. He was greeted warmly by the group. Sharon, sitting next to him, at one point, reached over and touched his arm. He yanked it away.
Some minutes later, Sharon made a comment on Chinese armaments.
“That’s nonsense,” Al suddenly snapped.
“I got it from my usual source,” Sharon said. “He’s been pretty accurate.”
“He’s an idiot!” Al snarled.
“Al, what’s going on?” Mark asked, cautiously.
“Nothing. Nothing at all.” Al shifted uncomfortably.
Mark moved the meeting forward quickly, asking Sharon for a private briefing. As the meeting broke up, he pulled Al aside.
“Al, you didn’t have to come in today,” Mark said.
“It’s better than staying at home,” Al grumbled. “Look, I’ll be fine. I’m better off keeping active.”
“That may be,” said Mark. “But I don’t want you distracted. It’s hard on the team.”
“I get it. I’ll be fine.”
“Well, do us a favor and take tomorrow off. I get not wanting to hang around the house, but you need to be someplace else for the time being.”
Al frowned. “Is that an order?”
“Yes, it is.”
The next day, a sense of relief rippled through the room when it became obvious that Al was not going to show. The meeting moved on in a timely fashion, and after it broke up, Sharon, Karen, Mackie and Gus met at a local restaurant for lunch.
“So is it true Jugs banned Al from the meeting?” Mackie asked as she frowned at the menu.
“That’s the rumor,” Karen said. She laid her menu down and leaned on the table. “You should have seen him go after Sharon yesterday.”
“He’s entitled to his opinion,” Sharon said, then buried her head back in the menu.
The waiter appeared and everyone ordered, then chit-chatted until the food arrived.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Gus asked Sharon as he dug into a good-sized salad.
Sharon glared at her pork cutlet. “I’m raw, I guess. I know Al doesn’t always agree with what I come up with, but he’s never been that harsh before. It really caught me off guard.”
Mackie frowned. “He did seem really angry at the funeral. Would it be safe to say he’s not dealing with his grief well?”
“He’s not dealing with it at all,” said Karen between bites of a smaller chicken Caesar salad. “I talked to his daughters at the gathering afterwards. He’s been pushing them away, yelling at the grandkids. His eldest suggested he go to grief counseling and he almost threw her out of the funeral.”
“It’s really hard for guys like Al,” Gus said. “He’s had to keep himself buttoned up all his life. The only acceptable emotion for him to show is anger.”
“It’s worse than that,” said Karen. “He’s feeling guilty. At least, his daughters think so.”
“That makes sense,” Sharon said. “He’s been smoking so long and Caroline was the one to get lung cancer. He probably feels like he gave it to her.”
“You could almost say that he did,” said Mackie. “I don’t have the stats on second-hand smoke to hand, but I’ve read that it’s worse than the actual smoking.”
Gus reached for his phone. “I could look it up.” He paused. “Nah. What’s the point? And besides, Caroline did choose to live with him smoking like that.”
“That’s kind of irrelevant,” said Sharon. “The bigger question is what do we do to help him? I’m not wild about playing bullseye for his target practice, but if it will help him get past the anger stage.”
Karen and Mackie shook their heads.
“There really isn’t much we can do,” Mackie said.
“Plus he shouldn’t be allowed to abuse you just because he’s upset,” Karen added.
Which put a slight pall on the lunch. However, when the group got back to the White House, Al was waiting in Sharon’s office.
“I owe you an apology,” he grumbled.
“Accepted,” said Sharon.
Al looked up and saw Gus, Mackie and Karen. “I guess I owe you guys, too.”
They murmured their acceptances and Al stalked off.
“You think Jugs..?” Karen asked.
Sharon shrugged. “Maybe he’s getting past his angry stage.”
“I doubt it,” said Gus. “He’s just getting a better grip on it, is all.”
“So now what?” Karen asked.
“Just let him be,” Gus said.
The following Tuesday, Al didn’t show up for the Advisory Board meeting until it was almost over. It was Gus’s birthday that day, so there was a small party for lunch. Afterwards, Al announced that he’d asked Mark for an office in the West Wing.
“It’ll be easier to keep on top of things,” he said. “And I don’t have to hang around an empty house all day.”
“Maybe you could get a dog,” Eli offered.
Al glared, then forced a smile. “We’ll see.”
Two days later, Sharon asked for an afternoon briefing with Mark. After clearing it with Kent, his secretary, Sharon entered the Oval Office. Mark tossed a couple treats to Ginger and Kickie in their little pen as she entered.
“They’re not growling,” Sharon said, in slight amazement.
“It’s our new training protocol,” Mark said. He spooned coffee grounds into the French press. “You up for some Kenyan today?”
“So what’s up?” Mark asked. He poured hot water over the grounds and watched it for a minute.
“I don’t know that it’s anything,” Sharon said. “And Dan Friedman may have already talked to you about it. He called me this afternoon and I just got a funny feeling.”
Mark poured out the coffee and settled on the Oval Office couch. “Okay. Should I be worried?”
“Probably not.” Sharon accepted her cup and sipped. “The CIA doesn’t think it’s anything. Last May, on Memorial Day, our Embassy in Berlin was vandalised. Just some red paint thrown on the windows, but clearly done on purpose. Then on July Fourth, it happened again, only in addition to Berlin, our embassies in Paris and Stockholm were hit the same way. Then on Labor Day, more red paint and more embassies, six of them, including Berlin and the others.”
“Sounds like something’s escalating.”
“Yeah, and it’s all over the place.” Sharon fidgeted with her cup. “Moscow, Tel Aviv and Buenos Aires. No clue as to who’s doing it or why.”
Mark shrugged. “I’ll have Johnnie check it out. It’s pretty odd, but doesn’t sound too bad. Maybe we can get some surveillance for the next big holiday.”
“Dan said he’s already on it,” Sharon said. “But I thought I’d better update you in case it escalates some more.”
“Thanks.” Mark shifted. “How are you doing with Al?”
“Except for that one blow-up, fine.” Sharon’s brow creased. “Did he say anything to you?”
“No. He’s not said much of anything, except for strictly work-related stuff.” Mark shifted. “Have you or anyone else on the Board been up to anything to help him?”
“There really isn’t much we can do,” Sharon sighed. “He has to work it out on his own. But to change the subject completely, you do know you’re taking my sister to the big gala performance for the Arts and the Disabled Festival Saturday night, don’t you?”
“Yeah. I’m looking forward to it. June said she’s choreographing a dance for the finale.”
“Yeah.” Sharon sighed. “She’s been too busy to even say hi to me this week. And she’s not staying at a hotel. Or she’s avoiding telling me where she’s staying. It’s weird. She’s not that secretive.”
Mark grinned. “Does this mean you’re hoping I’ll ferret out her secrets.”
“No.” Sharon chuckled. “Just one more thing to worry about, I guess. Or rather… How do I say this? She’s been trying to prove that she’s back to normal. No, that’s not it. Look, this is going to sound horribly crass, but she’s been hitting on anything male within reach. So you may get propositioned.”
“Okay. And you want me to..?”
“Oh, hell.” Sharon sank her head into her hands. “I can’t tell you what to do about it. It’s not like you don’t get propositioned regularly, I’m sure. You’re both adults. You make up your own mind.”
“But you’d rather I didn’t go along with it.”
Sharon put her coffee cup down on the table. “It’s not just me being jealous. At least, I don’t think it is. I’m just worried about her. If what Sarah, our other sister, says is true, Susan’s acting out and in not a very healthy way. But I don’t want you letting her down, either. That would hurt her, too.”
Mark nodded. “I get what you’re saying. But like you said, I get propositioned pretty regularly and I do know how to let a woman down gently. Even someone as vulnerable as you say your sister is. It should be interesting.”
“Frankly, I hope it isn’t,” Sharon sighed.
Mark laughed and Sharon left the Oval Office.
By Friday, the rest of the Wheatly clan descended on the Nation’s Capitol. Sharon did go so far as to arrange a special tour of the White House for her parents and the rest of the family. However, she was happy to leave the actual tour guide duties to Jodi and Tiffany, especially since a flare up of potential hostilities in Dubai took most of her focus that day.
“I’m so sorry, Maman,” she told her mother. “But it is one of the more annoying realities of my job that if something is going to happen, it will be on the day I least want it to.”
“It is how things happen, ma choux,” Madeleine said. “As it is, I am glad to see Jodi coming out of her shell. We should be proud of her.”
Saturday was an easier day, but by that afternoon, Sharon found herself caught up in getting Susan ready for the gala at which her dance would appear. Susan was less than cooperative. But June stepped in and practically dragged Susan from the rehearsal hall.
“Your dancers need time to rest,” June insisted. “And you have to look good for tonight.”
“But what if–” Susan began.
“No buts,” said June. “There is nothing you can do now that will help. If anything, you’re probably making your dancers more nervous than not. You’ve done the hard work. Now let it happen. I’ve seen the piece. It’s wonderful. Let it go and get glammed up for your date with my brother.”
Susan wasn’t entirely convinced, but finally wheeled herself meekly behind June to the waiting limo that took them back to the hotel where Susan would have been staying if she hadn’t moved out. Her whole family was there, but there was little time. Soon the presidential limo arrived and Mark came to the door of the suite to be introduced and take Susan out to the car.
“Phoof!” Madeleine Wheatly hissed as soon as Susan was gone. “She is as bad as Michel before a big show. It’s no wonder I’ve never liked performing.”
“I’m not that bad,” Michael protested.
“No, you’re worse,” said Inez. “And the stakes aren’t as high anymore for you.”
“They sure are if I don’t want to end up on the casino circuit,” Michael grumbled.
Susan, for her part, was beyond nervous. However, Mark immediately realized her nervousness was not about him, for a change, and found it refreshing.
“June tells me it’s a really good dance,” he told Susan before they got to the theater.
“Really?” Susan groaned. “It feels like my entire life is up for grabs.”
Mark nodded. “I know what that feels like. And I remember when I lost that one campaign, it sure felt like my career was over. But a very wise friend of mine pointed out something that I think you’ll get more than most folks.”
“Everything is almost never up for grabs. Granted, life happens. You know that better than most. But it doesn’t mean game over. You find a new direction. You try again. You try to correct whatever mistakes you made. But this dance is not your last chance. Whatever happens tonight, you will go away from the experience with options. Maybe not the options you wanted. Maybe, and I happen to think this is more likely, with more options than you’ll know what to do with. And you’ll come out a better, stronger person no matter what.”
Susan suddenly sniffed and blinked back tears. “You’d think I’d be strong enough by now.”
“Are any of us?” He reached and patted her shoulder. “Look, I think the reason you’re so nervous now is that you’ve put it all out there on that stage. And that’s usually a good sign that you’ve done something special. I really believe that.”
“You’re not going to get me to calm down,” Susan said with an annoyed chuckle. “I don’t care how right you are. And you are right. But, damn it. I have a right to be nervous.”
“Yep.” Mark looked out the window as the limo pulled up in front of the Kennedy Center. “But we’ve got to go make nice now. Can you manage it?”
Susan looked out the window and took a deep breath. “Yep. Let’s go make nice.”
There was a buffet reception before the performance set up in the foyer of the theatre. Art from all the other festival participants lined the walls. Susan did her fair share of schmoozing, but it was almost unendurable. The night crawled. Then there were the other performances, all of them quite wonderful. But Susan couldn’t pay any attention. Her dance was the last on the program. All she wanted was to go first and get it over with, but she had to wait.
And then it was time. She was seated in the presidential box next to Mark. Her family surrounding her. As the light came up on the stage with the two dancers, she felt her mother’s hand on one shoulder and her father’s hand on the other. Her sister Sharon was on her other side from the president, and Sharon gently took her hand. June was on the president’s other side and smiling at her. Just beyond her, Michael gave her a big grin and a thumb’s up, and Inez waved. Sarah, on the other side of Sharon, put her hands together and signalled her support, with Jodi, Tiffany, and Toby all waving. Only one person was missing, Susan realized with a start. But that would come later. She hoped.
The sad, crashing notes of Sparrow Without Wings, by Michael Wheatly, started. There was anger, with the one dancer pinned to the ground through the whole dance and the other fighting her. The was despair and frustration and slowly but surely, there was growth, and as the music swelled to its finish, the two dancers were moving together, the one still pinned to the floor, but the other moving along, going where the pinned dancer couldn’t. The dance ended. There was a brief hush, then the auditorium exploded with applause and cheering. The dancers took their bows, then waved at Susan in the box. She was surrounded by family members and the president, all, like the rest of the audience, on their feet, applauding with abandon.
It was sometime before the audience quieted enough to let everyone go. Susan made her way through the closing reception, accepting congratulations and even a few business cards. But Madeleine noticed that her daughter was wilting and nudged Mark, who agreed and collected her.
Susan told Mark to stay in the car as they came up to the hotel. He did help her out and into her chair, and she rolled into the lobby alone. Apart from the crowd outside, no one really noticed her and she wheeled herself into the bar.
Max was there, waiting for her.
“Well?” she asked.
“You nailed it,” he said with a happy grin on his face. “That was just unbelievable. Not a dry eye in the house.”
“Did you like it?”
“Yeah, I did.”
“Good. I’m beat. Let’s go home before my family gets here.”
“Sure. Want me to push?”
“Yeah, I’d like that.”