The last time Abbey had seen C.J., it had been in Washington after the service. A lifetime ago, it seemed. Only two years, she supposed.
They looked at each other. C.J., in her rental car, hair different than Abbey remembered; Abbey, in her working clothes, just come from grooming one of the horses.
“You’d better come on up to the house,” Abbey said. “I’ve made some lemonade.”
C.J. parked the car. Time was, the Secret Service would have whisked it away to a secure location. Now, she just left it on the drive, and caught up with Abbey, her long legs covering the ground just as quickly as Abbey remembered. “Is Zoey here?”
Abbey turned to look at the car next to C.J.’s. “No, she left her car here when they went to Boston. It’s just me.”
Just me. The words echoed in the clear autumn air. Jed always did say New Hampshire air was the clearest.
“How is Hollywood?” she asked.
C.J. startled a little, her face going slightly frozen. It had always been one of her tells. Abbey could remember winning a hundred dollars from her in a poker game once, just because of the way she drew on her armor. “I didn’t go to Hollywood, actually. I’ve been in Ohio with my father. He’s not well.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Abbey said, the rote phrase coming easily to her tongue.
“I heard you’re thinking of going back into medicine,” C.J. said. Changing the subject still came as easily to her as polite phrases came to Abbey, she could see. They were what the White House had made them, and would ever be.
“Who told you that?” Abbey asked, smiling a little. It was nice to think of the grapevine still working, even now.
“Sam,” C.J. said. “He called me last week. He and Ainsley are either getting married soon or breaking up, I’m not entirely sure – and I’m not sure they know either. But he said you were thinking about it.”
“Just thinking about it,” Abbey said, holding the door open for C.J. When C.J. hesitated, she nodded impatiently. “Go on, there’s no ceremony here. I’m wearing my oldest boots, for God’s sake.”
“Are you thinking of raising awareness, of running a campaign for a particular disease?” C.J. asked, settling herself down at the table where so many of their friends – and some enemies – had sat over the years.
Abbey shook her head, opening the cupboard for the glasses. “Just volunteering at the free clinic in town,” she said. “I’ve had enough of cameras and microphones for one lifetime.”
She said it lightly, but she saw C.J.’s face still again. “If you change your mind,” C.J. said, after a minute, “I could help you run a campaign.”
Abbey imagined it for a moment. She knew what she’d fight for, of course, if she still had the stomach for fighting. There had been many who wanted to make her the poster child for gun control, of course, but that wasn’t her fight. Hers would have been the tattered secret that never saw the light of day; funny, how they’d feared it would be found out, how they’d feared it would strike Jed down prematurely, and yet she had been left holding the secret to her breast, unspoken.
Funny, and yet not funny, really.
“No,” she said, pouring the lemonade. “Just the clinic.”
The girls had been trying to change her mind. Well, Zoey and Elizabeth. Zoey thought she should be back in surgery, just as Zoey had thrown herself into college. Elizabeth thought she should be out there on the campaign trail, just as Elizabeth had thrown herself into her husband’s political career.
Only Ellie really understood.
“Well, the clinic will have the best doctor in the state,” C.J. said, smiling, as she accepted the glass of lemonade.
“What brings you here, Claudia Jean?” Abbey said, bluntly, as she sat down at the table across from her. She had said enough words for one lifetime; these days, she found herself using fewer and fewer. “You didn’t come all this way just to see me.”
C.J. leaned back in her chair. “I did.”
Abbey had a sudden dark suspicion. “You’re not writing a book, are you? Because I said, I’m not giving any more interviews. Even for dear friends.”
C.J. went a bit white around the lips. Perhaps it had been longer than it felt, since C.J. had stood in the press room, if she could be visibly affected like this. “I’m… no. I’m not writing a book. I couldn’t.”
Sam’s book had been beautiful. A history of their time in the White House, told with perfect anecdotes and well-turned phrases and witty repartee. Abbey didn’t remember them being quite so witty. She mostly remembered stress and long days, Jed being pulled out of bed to the Situation Room, fighting with Congress and endless takeout boxes and people sleeping in their offices. She remembered the never-ending smiling and shaking hands, the feeling that you were constantly being watched, and holding Jed to her at night in the quiet of their bed.
Toby’s book had hurt. She’d only been able to read one page before putting it down.
“Then what?” she asked. The lemonade glass was cold under her fingers.
“People are worried about you,” C.J. said, and Abbey could have blessed her for her bluntness. “It’s not about the campaign – nobody cares about that. We just want to be sure you’re all right.”
Abbey sighed. “Zoey and Charlie worry too much. I’m fine.”
“Abbey,” C.J. said. “It was Ellie who called me.”
They sat in silence at the table for a little while. Abbey drank her lemonade and watched the birds at her birdfeeder outside the window. C.J. seemed willing to wait for as long as necessary, and Abbey took her time.
She had left Toby’s book on the couch for three months before she sat down one night and read the entire thing. It was a little book.
“I’m not fine,” she said, finally. “I don’t think anyone could ever be fine, after what happened.” She traced the rim of her glass. “But it’s been two years. You learn to live with the scars.”
They’d scattered, afterward. At first there had been the shock. The numbness, the denial. But even before that had worn off, the casual brutality of their situation had asserted itself. Hoynes had told her to stay in the White House as long as she needed, but a country in crisis was not the time to start having a President who commuted to work. And his staff had flooded in, pale but avid-faced, walking the corridors with eyes averted from their weeping predecessors.
She’d stayed through the service, and then she’d come to Manchester, and never left.
When Josh had recovered, he’d come to see her once. They’d all come, once. C.J. was the last.
“As long as they’re scars, and not open wounds,” C.J. said.
“I’m fine, C.J., for all values of fine that are available to me,” Abbey told her, with a touch of the old acerbity. For some reason, it made the lines around C.J.’s eyes relax.
“I should have come sooner,” she said, meeting Abbey’s eyes. “I didn’t…I should have come sooner.”
After that, words came easier for both of them. They talked about Abbey’s grandchildren, Doug’s fledging political career, and how Elizabeth would be a far better politician than he would; about Zoey and Charlie and their new apartment; about Ellie and her work. C.J. talked about her home in Ohio, and filled Abbey in on any gossip about the old brigade that she hadn’t heard already from the grapevine.
They both left gaps. Abbey didn’t say, I wish Jed had been here to laugh at the wallpaper Zoey chose for their bedroom. She suspected C.J. wasn’t saying, Most days my father doesn’t recognize me.
Abbey cooked spaghetti as the sun set. The autumn leaves were starting to change colors again. C.J. leaned on the counter, nursing a glass of wine, and they talked about their mothers’ pasta recipes. It was a simple meal, but Abbey liked simple.
Jed had loved sharing food. She could remember his chili dinners as if they were yesterday. She’d never really liked chili, but she’d loved how proud he’d been of his cooking skills.
“Do you ever wonder what the rest of Jed’s presidency would have been like?” she asked, abruptly.
“He would have done a better job than Hoynes,” C.J. said. “That’s for sure.”
Abbey snorted, and swirled the wine in her own glass. “Hoynes could be doing more if he wasn’t hampered by his affair, so that’s his fault. But he doesn’t have a Leo, either.”
She hadn’t spoken to Leo in months. It was too hard, for both of them; they’d only ever been three, and now they were missing their lodestone.
“He was a good President, Abbey,” C.J. said. “He was a good man.”
Abbey looked out the window at the dark New Hampshire sky. “I wish sometimes that he’d never run. We could have been happy, a surgeon and a professor with an empty nest. No racist teenagers with guns.”
“I think that’s understandable,” C.J. said.
“But he would always have wondered what might have been,” Abbey said, shaking herself.
C.J. joined her at the window. She was just as tall as Abbey remembered. “Instead we’re the ones left wondering what might have been.”
They stood in silence together for a minute, before Abbey cleared her throat. “Bring your things in from the car.”
C.J. looked surprised. “I’m staying at the…”
“You’re staying here,” Abbey said. “We’ll break out another wine bottle and talk of old times. I promise I won’t cry on you.”
C.J. reached out, putting a hand on her arm. She would never have done it when Abbey was First Lady. Now, though, they were just two women, and Abbey found herself stepping forward, leaning her forehead on C.J.’s strong shoulder.
They stood like that for a long minute, half hugging, half holding each other. Abbey was glad C.J. didn’t say anything. Sometimes silence said it all.
“I’ll get my things, then,” C.J. said at last. “Thank you.”
“You’ll always have a place here,” Abbey told her, and watched her go down the porch steps.
Two years ago yesterday, she’d buried her husband. Tonight, for the first time since she'd come back to Manchester, she looked at someone and began to feel the possibility of a new beginning.
“We’re going to be okay, Jed,” she whispered, looking up at the night sky.