There are sirens.
Even before the Presidency took over their lives, there were sirens. In hospitals, streets, backyards and hotels, they were everywhere, everywhere, following her. Now they are only white noise, static to her ears. There are sirens. In front of St. Matthew’s chapel, lights circle on cement. Blue, red, blue red. She is sick of those colors. She is sick, she is, she is sick and tired, she is sick. She is moving, vaguely aware of her family beside her. She is moving toward the church that promises sanctuary.
She is seeking. She is seeking sanctuary from the harsh reality of sirens, of the whirling blue red blue red blue, outside. Abbey is breaking inside, has broken, will always be broken. Her little girl has disappeared and even if, no, when, when she is found, Abbey will still remember. She will break again and again in her dreams. She knows. A mother’s intuition.
She pauses, briefly, at the bowl of water just inside the heavy wooden doors and crosses herself silently, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, feels the water against her forehead. She closes her eyes, catches her breath and moves forward. Always moving forward, the Bartlet way, always asking, what’s next?
No one asks the question now and no one wants to know the answer. Yet the motions are the same. They will always be Bartlets and they move forward into the church.
Filing in silently, the girls on Abbey’s left, Jed alone on the right. Seated at the right hand of the Father, she thinks, and wonders if the vengeful God of the Old Testament was residing inside those holy Gospels all along. And Jed, Jed playing God and ordering assassinations, Jed playing a game of chess even he doesn’t understand, Jed holding the power of a nation in his shaking hands. Jed gambling with all their lives.
May the grace of the Lord be with you all. She breathes. The mass has begun. And also with you. Father Hughes does not dedicate this mass. Everyone knows why they have gathered. Abbey digs her fingernails into her palms and stares at the angry red crescents left behind.
She wonders if she lost her Jed, her Josiah, along the way. He’s slipped through cracks, but they’ve always found each other. Before. Her anger on him, that’s the only sanctuary she can find. Anger is comforting, anger they have done a thousand times again. Their love has withstood, but can it withstand?
She repeats the Nicene Creed, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and her eyes are focused sharply on the crucifix before her. On the third day he rose again. Hope, she hears, and grabs tightly.
Kneeling, she is the same height as her three girls. For a moment she forgets Zoey is not there with them, and she looks beside her to find Liz and Ellie, tearful and weary. Kneeling, she is the same height as her three girls.
From the pulpit, the story of Lot and his wife. A story of faith and faith forgotten. Don’t look back, he says to her, we will be saved, but don’t look back. Her daughters behind, can she hear them? She strains. Abbey is running fast, Abbey is running away, and Abbey looks back. A pillar of salt. She turned.
She is tired. She is tired of always moving forward. She is, she is sick, she is sick and tired.
She clasps Ellie’s hand, and Jed’s across the aisle. Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name, and then, hands raised, for thine is the kingdom, the power and glory, amen. Amen. Jed was always more Catholic than she. She was confirmed, went to an all-girls Catholic school and said the Stations of the Cross every Friday during Lent. But Abbey never really reconciled herself with a God that just allowed things to happen, her first Communion rosary stuck somewhere in the back of her bedside table.
She is a good surgeon. Husband and wife, they both play God in their own way, but her faith lay in scalpel and thread, his in scripture and crosses. His faith was always stronger than hers. Perhaps that is part of what drew her to him in the end, his faith in God, in her, in Them.
The Lord be with you. Father Hughes’ hands are spread wide, his voice calm and clear. And also with you. The family responds obediently, quietly. Is He with Zoey, wherever she is?
And where is Abbey’s faith now? She learned again, with a nation, something that her husband hid from her. Again her only possible reaction was anger because disappointment would break her and this time she was already broken. Anger could hold her together, anger she can understand. She feels like a crystal vase shattered on the floor and for once she doesn’t care if she’s made a mess because the trinity she gave birth to has been ripped apart and Jed’s God games might have caused it.
I confess to you God, and all my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and what I have failed to do. Jed whispers, Abbey, and she pretends to not hear him. She knows how the words resonate. She can almost hear the echo, and she is glad, for one moment, that he understands the full weight of the words he is saying. He is heavy with guilt and sorrow. She sees it in the creases of his brow, in the knuckles of his hands, and she is almost happy he feels such pain.
She runs her fingers along the grooves in the wood. She is seeking, seeking sanctuary, sanctuary she will never be granted. Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power, God of might, heaven and earth are filled with your glory. She sings. Hosanna in the highest.
Hosanna in the highest.
Abbey rests her arms heavily on the back of the front pew, and tries to remember the last time she saw Elizabeth, the last time all three girls were together.
Father Hughes is reading from one of the Gospels; words can’t comfort her now. She feels betrayed by Jed, Judas in disguise, and that is safe, they have done that before. Thirty pieces of silver, that’s all it took for Judas. She doesn’t know how much it took for Jed.
This is the space the cartographer forgot to map.
Every other Christmas, Liz went south to Andrew’s family and so Ellie helped with the ham. Andrew makes a good husband and father. (Still, Abbey thinks no one is good enough for her girls.) So it was two Christmases ago when they were together, in the Manchester house, the only real house they’ve known. With Ellie and Zoey at school, Liz in Boston, all three in the room happened so very shortly, sporadically, and yet Abbey always took it for granted. Her three little girls, her own Holy Trinity.
Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the words, and I shall be healed. She looks involuntarily at Jed. He looks small, head bowed. She almost doesn’t recognize him. He will never be healed from this. He will never forgive himself. She doesn’t know if she can forgive him either. His God is more merciful than she.
Father, we celebrate the memory of Christ, your Son.
The memory of your son. Zoey is before her, eighteen and giddy, dancing around the room with her acceptance letter to Georgetown. Zoey is twelve, running across the playground after school. Zoey is twenty-one, cap and gown, smiling for the photo next to her father. Zoey is eight, cutting her Barbie’s hair in the bathroom. Zoey is fifteen, sprawled across her bed sobbing because of a break up. Zoey is six weeks, tiny toes and fingers, demanding to be fed every two hours. Zoey is everywhere but beside her, everywhere Abbey looks but nowhere to be found.
Father Hughes is lifting the cup and Eucharist. Take this, all of you, and eat from it. This is my body which will be given up for you.
A bell chimes. Father Hughes swings the orb of incense. The Bartlets went to midnight mass each year and when Zoey was younger, she’d fall asleep, head on Abbey’s lap, before the responsorial song. Abbey always wondered how she could sleep through her father singing his off-key heart out.
Bowing, with hands joined, he continues: Almighty God, we pray that your angel may take this sacrifice to your altar in heaven, as we receive from this altar the sacred body and blood of your Son. Father Hughes stands up straight and makes the sign of the cross, saying, let us be filled with every grace and blessing.
Abbey never asked how much Jed was willing to sacrifice.
So it was Christmas and Zoey was nineteen, playing with Annie and Jacob in front of the huge fir tree. The process of finding a tree was always an ordeal. Ellie begged every year to stay home and every year her father’s powers of persuasion won over. Her father’s powers of persuasion always win over.
Let us proclaim the mystery of our faith. It is still a mystery to Abbey. Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life. Lord Jesus, come in glory.
They all bundled up and trekked out to the tree farm, where only the biggest satisfied Jed. Abbey always looked for a full fir, no missing branches or holes, just pine needles everywhere, everywhere, thick and full and alive. Bickering abounded, Liz pleading, just pick one already, but this was a Bartlet tradition and it wouldn’t be Christmas if everything came easily. Eventually everyone would compromise (Zoey always wanted the smallest, dwarfed by the giants around it. Someone has to love it, she would say.) and Jed would proclaim this tree the best they’d ever had. They cut it down themselves with a handsaw always too small for the one they chose, Jed sweating and grunting somewhere underneath, and the girls ran out “Timber!” as Abbey and Jed gave the tree a final push, breaking the trunk in two.
The Holy Eucharist, around which this entire mass revolves, and it’s cardboard in her mouth. Father Hughes presses it against her tongue. She says, Amen, and returns to the pew. Hands clasped, kneeling. Her eyes down, closed, pressed together tightly. Ellie is weeping silently beside her. She makes no move to comfort her. There is no comfort to be found at this late hour, in this silent church, with this fragmented family. Like all good Bartlets, they try to hold it all inside, but it’s too much for any one of them and it spills into the aisles and rushes around Abbey’s feet. No one acknowledges the flood.
The house was filled with the smell of the tree. Ellie and Abbey decorating it with handmade ornaments made by the girls over the years, while Jed told tall tales to his grandchildren in the study. Zoey always put the angel on top of the tree, over Liz and Ellie’s cries of playing favorites. You all had your turn, Abbey replied, and Jed plugged in the lights and the tree illuminated in front of them. It glowed, and Abbey loved the way the colors danced across her children’s faces.
The cardboard is melting. Abbey admonishes herself, she should be praying, she should be silently uttering a Hail Mary, a prayer to St. Peter, to St. Andrew. A prayer to St. Jude, the patron saint of those in need. But she cannot find the words. She is reduced to images. She is only going through the motions, desperation clouding every sense. Someone has died, a girl, could have been her girl, could be her girl, Abbey should send a note to the family. A girl died trying to save her own girl, her Zoey. Yes, tell Amy when you get back, a letter to the family. She knows there is no solace in words.
After dinner they gathered around the piano, and Ellie could play well enough to tinker out a few carols. Each had their favorite and Jed’s, of course, was Adeste Fidelis, sung completely in Latin. She loved O, Holy Night, and Zoey, strangely, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. And so they sang together, and it created cacophony, but it was together and that was the last time.
Abbey breathes deeply. One, two, three. They are still there on hard wooden pews. She has read about these things, the effect they have on families, bringing them closer, splitting them apart. Where is Abbey’s faith now? It disappeared with Zoey, she realizes. Abbey asks herself, do you have faith that Zoey is alive? The answer is only one word, can only be one word. Hope. Amen, amen, amen again.
She is standing now, clutching the back of the front pew. She feels dizzy, swirling, blue red blue red. She feels Jed’s eyes on her, and turns to meet them. They are filled with hurt, they are filled with fear. Abbey’s eyes show no sign of forgiveness, of compassion. They stare, and Abbey thinks, there is no solace in words. Jed does not turn away from her wrath, from her hard edges. They stare and she hears somewhere, let us pray, and still she stares. He is small, he is fallible, he is only human. He is her second half and she is broken, broken. It is Jed that breaks contact, turning toward the altar. She studies his profile. Everything she knew looks unfamiliar and Ellie is still crying beside her.
Father Hughes is speaking. The mass is ending, the Eucharist the final motion in an elaborate play they find only vaguely reassuring.
Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.
Jed walks beside her. Abbey’s head is bowed and her hands are empty.
She hears sirens.