Ever since he could remember, Sam Seaborn had wished for different parents.
It wasn’t that his were a bad sort, per se. They fed him, put a roof over his head and clothes on his back, sent him to the best schools and put him in all the right sports. His mother was on the PTA, his father the school council.
In fact, Sam can never remember a time when he wasn’t told how lucky he was, to have such perfect parents.
Nobody ever told his parents how lucky they were to have the perfect son.
Trouble is, Sam’s never quite sure why. He learns to read before kindergarten, all on his own. He takes his first book to Mummy proudly, a big smile splitting his dimpled face. He stumbles back in surprise when Mummy throws something wet and cold and red at him, something sticky and slightly sweet tasting, something not quite like fruit juice.
He goes to sleep that night with an aching head, sticky hair, and a confused feeling in his little chest, because he could have sworn that Mummy should have been happy.
He learns to tie his shows the morning of his fifth birthday, running faster than he should to tell Daddy, who is home all day just to celebrate with him. Grandma said so.
He falls in the hallway, slipping awkwardly over his half-tied other shoe ‘cause the knots don’t quite stick yet. Daddy finds him crying over his throbbing toe. That’s how he learns that boys don’t cry.
When Sam is seven, he sits quietly on the living room floor after dinner, diligently filling out his homework, studiously ignoring the television blaring scant inches from his face.
His father swears abruptly at the set, hardly an unusual occurrence, particularly when he’s watching anything about politics, so Sam pays little mind. “Bloody sissy bastards, ruining this country for good honest folk!” “Now, now Gerald dear, don’t get so worked up so.”
His parents have this conversation practically every night. Grumbling about politics is his father’s favourite after dinner over drinks hobby, particularly when there are left wing supporters to throw stones at. “Good honest folk” is pretty much Gerald’s favourite catch phrase for himself and the rest of his drinking after golf on Sundays set. It will be years before Sam is able to fully appreciate the irony of that label.
His parents sent him to a private school for the prestige, but it has the advantage of a rather good library, which aids Sam’s somewhat clumsy attempts to find out what a democrat is. Dodging bullies hardly makes his research any easier, because skipping grades to please his parents does little to endear him to his peers, and Sam is nearly a decade off learning to own the beautiful baby blues his Grandma said he got from her late husband. Who Sam has never seen a picture of, oddly enough, but Grandma makes the best cookies and always has a hug for him after Sunday dinner, so he’s more than happy to take her word for it.
Learning how to use an encyclopedia turns out to be a rather fortuitous investment from his kindergarten education, because knowing what a democrat was, and what a republican was, made Sam just curious enough to risk glancing through his eyelashes at the TV the next night at dinner.
And that’s how he first sees him. Hands gesticulating wildly, hair falling in his face, barely seeming to come much past the podium’s top but somehow filling the whole space around him, speaking words even Sam’s rather precocious seven year old vocabulary can’t quite comprehend.
His father’s slightly louder than usual grumbling is the clearest indication he gets that this man is somehow something his father disapproves of. Which can only mean one thing. He’s a democrat.
Sam thinks he’s the coolest guy he’s ever seen.
“Boy, stop gapping and get on with your homework!” Sam rips his eyes obediently from the screen, ducking as low as he can to the table top and still steal a last rebellious glance at the board of education member being interviewed on the screen.
His small eyes eagerly eat up the words scrolling across the bottom, memorizing the odd letters, “Josiah Bartlet”. He steals one more second, even as his father’s “Samuel” steals the air from the room. Pale blue eyes meet his own through the TV screen, and for one instant, Sam could swear their eyes met.
Sam does a paper on newly appointed House Representative Josiah Bartlet in the fifth grade. He is eight years old, and proudly announces to his father that he’s now a democrat.
And that’s how Sam gets his first black eye.
Sam has had night terrors for as long as he can remember. And for just as long, his father has gotten mad at him for them. It’s an outrage that only increases as Sam gets older, directly in line with the severity of the dreams. It’s a long time before he sees any connection.
Sam never really remembers the dreams, although sometimes he wakes up with a word caught on the tip of his tongue, never quite there enough to recall what it was. He always remembers feeling a sense of loss when he wakes up. It never quite fades, even in the cool light of day.
Sam has his last night terror on his sixteenth birthday, the day before he leaves for Princeton. It’s the first and only time that he realizes the word he’s been trying to recall for over a decade was Dad.
He’s too confused by this to give it too much thought at the time.
Grandma sends Sam to Dungeons and Dragons Camp the summer he turns ten. It’s a special treat for finishing middle school early, and Sam has looked forward to it for months. His father was adamant Sam wasn’t going, right up until the week before camp started, the week when Grandma taught Sam how to use his baby blues to good advantage.
He suspects Grandma had a lot more to do with his father’s change of heart than Sam himself did. He’s always liked her far more than he’s ever liked Sam, blue eyes and all.
Grandma dies while Sam is at camp, and he comes home to an empty refrigerator and an equally full mini-fridge.
Sam spends three weeks in the hospital contemplating how much of a disappointment he is to his father.
He never plays Dungeons and Dragons again.
Sam tries harder, does well in school, gets straight A’s, brings home glowing report cards, skips another grade in high school. He’s on the track team, the soccer team, the chess team, and the debate team. He makes class president two years running. He graduates three years early.
He doesn’t show his parents his acceptance letter to Princeton. He’s not even sure if they notice when he leaves.
Sam votes for the first time three days after his twenty-first birthday. He proudly proclaims himself a Democrat for all the world to see.
The flimsy badge pin pierces his skin slightly, sharp and stinging. It feels refreshingly different than the pain of a bruise.
Sam keeps a rumbled newspaper clipping inside his pillowcase every day from his eighth birthday to his sixteenth. Every night, before he turns out the light, he carefully takes out the picture and smooths the crinkled edges.
He pins it to his dorm wall at Princeton, right above his bed. Every night before he goes to sleep, he runs his hand over the worn image, and whispers the words he’s been saying like a prayer every night for nearly ten years.
“I wish you were my Dad.”
And for all that the picture was once black and white, faded now to a crinkly monotone yellow with age and care, Sam could still swear the eyes that regarded him with a warm sternness were as blue as his own.