Jon is here.
Why is Jon here? Where is here? He's not quite sure. But Jon is calm, so Stephen doesn't panic. Not yet, anyway.
Jon is talking, about something or other. For a few moments Stephen tries to understand him; but it's too much effort to put the words together, so he stops following them and drifts for a while on his own thoughts. These are vague and blurry, but they are comfortable and safe.
All this white. It's got to be a hospital, right? He tries to work out where he got this idea, stumbles into memories of shooting pains like nails being driven into his wrist and face, stops. That's quite enough of that.
"What day is it?" he asks.
Jon stops in the middle of a sentence about who-knows-what. "It's Monday," he says gently. "You asked about that earlier. Do you remember?"
Stephen sifts through the jumble of recent memories. Now that Jon has mentioned it, this one comes to the surface. "Oh. Right. I knew that."
"I'm sure you did."
"I did!" protests Stephen indignantly. It is suddenly very important that Jon believe him. "I knew it just fine. I'm not stupid."
"Of course you're not," says Jon, and this with such intensity that Stephen believes he believes it.
He feels better now. "Okay. Go ahead. Keep talking."
"I'm not boring you, am I?"
Stephen closes his eyes to think about this one. Is he bored? Boredom seems like a lot of effort. "No," he says at last. "You aren't boring me. Keep talking about . . . whatever it was."
"You weren't listening," says Jon. "It's okay, Stephen. You can tell me to stop if you want. I won't be upset."
"No!" cries Stephen, hugging his knees against a sudden onslaught of panic. He can't remember why, but someone has to be talking, and it's all he can do to drag together enough words to form a sentence, so he can't keep it up. "Talk, Jon! You have to talk!"
"All right, all right!" exclaims Jon. "Let me think . . . I was telling you about the kitten . . ."
Stephen hangs on for long enough to deduce that the kitten is calico and fluffy, then begins to drift again. The words wash over him, a gentle rhythm of meaningless phonemes. The story is not important. What's important is that it is Jon telling it, Jon's voice filling his ears, mellow and rhythmic and soothing.
He rests his chin on his knees. He is wearing something soft and flannel. Pajamas? But he cannot have just woken up, because Jon has been here for a while. Of this he is fairly certain. Or maybe he is remembering one of Jon's other visits. Now he doesn't know.
If it is Monday, why isn't he doing his show?
The question brings with it a flash of lucidity, and he raises his head and looks Jon directly in the eye for the first time in however long a time it has been. "Jon, what about my show?"
Jon's eyes are startled. Has it been that long since Stephen has met them? "How much do you remember?" he asks carefully.
Roses are red; violets are purple, not blue, so whoever wrote that rhyme was stupid; George Washington was our first President; when Steve Carell yells, his mouth gets very wide and square; Report is pronounced with a silent T; cheese tastes better after it has been wrapped up and allowed to sit for five years . . .
Stephen stops. Clearly this question is too monumental to answer all at once. "Let me get back to you on that," he says flatly.
Jon's lips twitch. A beat later, Stephen realizes that he has made a joke, and he smiles, which gives Jon permission to smile too.
All at once he realizes his question is still unanswered. Quickly he clings to it, before the infuriatingly continuous flow of time can drag it away from him. "The show," he repeats. "I'm not doing it."
"But it's Monday."
Jon recites a string of numbers. They sound high, but beyond that Stephen cannot make sense of them; he tries to line them up next to more familiar numbers, but they will not fall into any recognizable order. Tears of frustration prick at the corners of his eyes . . . .
"Hey, hey, easy there," says Jon. "It's okay. Stephen, do you know where you are?"
"Hospital," snaps Stephen. "Obviously." And now he can't ask Jon which hospital, or he will lose face.
"That's right. You've been in the hospital for almost four weeks. Does that help?"
"Yes," says Stephen. "No. What? Wait."
Four weeks. He remembers them now, or at least bits and pieces of them. Jon has visited him before; he is sure of that. His wife has visited too. He can't remember if he's seen his kids. He has taken a lot of pills; he can't remember what was in them. The nurses are nice. He has tried to explain things to some of them, explain how he's fine, just fine, better than fine, fantastic . . .
. . . and he's explained other things, too, like how he is changing the world, how there are millions of people who hang onto his every word, how they'll be lost without him and the world will probably all fall apart in his absence and he has to get back . . .
"Four weeks," he repeats. "My show . . . has been away for four weeks?"
"You have been away, Stephen. You're the important thing here."
Stephen ignores him. "When is it coming back?"
"Don't worry about that. You need to worry about taking care of yourself."
Something about his tone . . . "Is it coming back?"
When Jon doesn't answer, Stephen puts his head back on his knees.
"I'm sorry, Stephen," says Jon. "Your show was canceled."
Stephen considers the merits of rolling up in a little ball and never unrolling again.
A moment later it hits him: "What about your show, Jon? You have a show to do on Monday, right?"
Has this show been canceled too? If so, then Stephen cannot possibly retreat under the covers for the rest of his life, because he will be needed. Jon is not strong, not like Stephen; he's one of those sensitive liberal types; he will need comforting in the wake of this devastating personal loss, which Stephen will be happy to provide because he is a good protector of the less fortunate, as well as a good friend.
He realizes that Jon has said something, which he completely missed. "What?"
"We're on break this week," repeats Jon, quietly, as though he is embarrassed to be happily employed.
"Oh," says Stephen.
"I'm sorry," adds Jon, again. "But, Stephen, maybe this will make things easier for you. You'll have more energy to recover if you aren't worrying about taking care of the whole Nation too."
The whimper pours forth before Stephen can stop it.
Jon half rises from his chair. "Do you want me to get the nurse?"
"Don't leave!" wails Stephen, grabbing for him. Though he is a few feet away from Stephen's reach, Jon sits back down; Stephen, unwilling to waste the motion, grabs two fistfuls of blanket instead and hangs on.
Jon cannot leave. He cannot stand up and walk out that door, because then he will be out of Stephen's sight. Just like the ball that rolls behind the couch. Maybe it's still there when you can't see it; but maybe it's not, and as long as it's out of your sight there's no way to know, no way to be sure that it hasn't disappeared forever . . .
"I'm not going anywhere," says Jon. "I'm staying right here, Stephen, all right? Right here."
Stephen moans as he kneads the fabric in his fists. The pressure, the texture, is soothing. He has a grip on this, if nothing else.
No show? He has no show? But how will people see him? How will anyone hear his opinions? And if there is nobody to hear him speak, how will he be sure that the words are there at all, that they won't just dissolve and blow away in the wind, leaving nothing behind to fill the silence . . .
"Stephen." (That is his name, his name, he is named and therefore he is here, and he clings to this with all his strength.) "Stephen, Stephen, can you hear me?"
". . . hear you," whispers Stephen. "Talk, please, keep talking."
This time he clings to each word, laying each one carefully down after the last, laboriously building walls against the yawning silence in his mind. He would have listened to anything, would not have objected to the resumption of the kitten story; but this is not what Jon does.
"I remember," he says slowly, "when I first started at my job. I knew I was taking over from somebody else, somebody who had been loved in the role, and I was afraid I wouldn't measure up. I had met a few people already, but I hadn't been introduced to the group, had only just gotten my stuff into my office, when who do you think burst in?"
It takes an age for Stephen to realize that this is a question; Jon does not force him to come up with a reply as well. "You. Stephen Colbert."
All at once Stephen finds the memory; and now he can follow along in his head as Jon tells the story, like a child with a favorite picture book. Or, rather, like a child being walked through family history: This is how we decided to have a baby. This is how you were born. This is how we brought you home . . .
"It was the middle of the day, but you were already in your show suit; and it was cheap, but it was still perfectly pressed. I was a little nervous, but I said hello. You didn't bother. You just went right into telling me that this was a big job, and that I had better take it seriously, because you would have your eye on me and if I slacked off or screwed up you wouldn't let it slide.
"When you had said everything you wanted to say, you turned around and were about to leave. So I said, 'Wait! I didn't get your name.' That got you. You turned back around, pulled off your glasses and raised your eyebrows all at once, and said . . ."
". . . 'I'm Stephen Colbert,'" murmurs Stephen, remembering. "'And don't you forget it.'"
"That's right!" exclaims Jon. "And I didn't. I never did."
Stephen smiles blissfully. He doesn't know how, but Jon has brought him back to solid ground, or at least the most solid ground that he has been on in . . . he still doesn't know how long.
A long time. Longer than four weeks. Maybe a lot longer.
"Jon?" he asks cautiously. He notices that he is still clinging to the sheets, and thinks about letting go; he decides to hold on a little longer, just in case this next question has a scary answer.
"Did I hurt anyone?"
"No," says Jon emphatically.
"Did . . . did I try to?"
This time it takes a moment for Jon to answer. "You were sick, Stephen. You can't blame yourself."
Fragments of memory lick at the corners of Stephen's mind; they are only the barest snatches of feelings and shadows of ideas, and for this vagueness he is profoundly grateful. But from the wreckage he can cobble together one realization: "She isn't sweet."
"Who?" asks Jon cautiously.
Isn't it obvious? And if it isn't, how can it ever be explained? "She talked," he says. "She helped fill the silence . . . so I called her sweetness. But she's not sweet, is she?"
"Oh!" gasps Jon. "No, Stephen, she's not sweet at all. Are you hearing her now?"
"No. I'm hearing you." Stephen gulps. "It helps when you talk, Jon."
Jon smiles, relieved. Stephen cannot bring himself to raise his head as far as Jon's eyes, but he can focus on the smile, and does.
All at once there is a new voice in the room, distant and echoing and hard to follow. Stephen shudders. "That—did you hear that?"
"It's just the loudspeaker," says Jon soothingly. "I'm sorry, Stephen. Visiting hours are ending. I need to go now."
It takes all of Stephen's strength to keep from panicking again. In spite of his best efforts, he is still shaking. "You can't leave, Jon! What if I hear her again?"
"Don't listen. You know you shouldn't listen to her."
"But what if I forget?"
"Stephen." A hand reaches out towards him, rests carefully on his arm; the touch is electric, Stephen pulls away, and Jon rescinds his hand as he rises. "Stephen, listen to me. You're safe here. There are lots of people around whose job it is to make sure you don't hurt anyone. Do you understand?"
"They . . . won't let me?"
"That's right. And you're going to stay with them until you get better."
"I don't know. As long as it takes."
This prospect stretches out before Stephen into the far distance, huge and unbounded and frighteningly impossible to grasp. "Jon," he says, very slowly and deliberately, "I do not know if I can cope with that."
"Then don't try," replies Jon. "Just take it one day at a time. Focus on getting through the rest of today. You can do it."
"Are you coming back?" implores Stephen.
"Of course! I'll be back tomorrow."
Stephen takes a deep breath. He has to do this now, before his courage scatters like a dandelion puff in the wind. "Okay, Jon. You can . . . go. I'll be okay."
And just like that, Jon is at the door. "One day at a time, Stephen," he repeats before he goes. "Just keep holding on until tomorrow."
"Until tomorrow," Stephen echoes.