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Her November Guest

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When it was all over he had nowhere to go. For the longest time he'd made coworkers and family into synonyms and now he was isolating himself from them, shielding them from his shame. She could have written that poem, but if she had he wouldn't have seen the heart in it, only the breaks. Besides, she still hadn't come up with a rhyme for Ziegler.

"I betrayed everything," he said, over coffee and a late breakfast at her sunny kitchen table.

"You were very brave," she said, and he scowled. She thought his scowl was beautiful and wanted to spend hours tracing the lines of his face with the tips of her fingers. "Give me your pen," she demanded, so he took it and his pad from his jacket pocket, and slid both across the table to her.

"In that entire sack you carry," he said, gesturing toward her bag where it sat in the corner, "and in your entire house, you don't have pen or paper?"

She shushed him with her hand and kept scribbling. She wouldn't be able to read half the words later, but those were the wrong ones, the ones that left the poem of their own accord. She tore the paper from the pad and read it over, smiling. "I have plenty of pens and paper of my own. I wanted yours. They were closer and they feel like you."

He grimaced, and she knew she'd never be able to capture him in verse. So much about Toby was made up of words that were better suited to prose than poetry, words with hard consonants and archaic meanings, words that formed a fence to keep people out.

"Good fences make good neighbors," she murmured.

"Robert Frost wrote a poem for Kennedy once," he replied. "I've never read it, but I can tell you all about stopping by the woods on a snowy evening from the perspective of an eighth grader who had never seen the woods on a clear evening, never mind snowy."

"You could tell me all about birches, I think."

"I'm sorry." He frowned at her, then looked away. "I don't understand you."

"Earth's the right place for love, Toby." She smiled and looked at him, pushing her hair from her eyes. "But you tried to love through space and time."

"You're quoting Frost still, aren't you?"

"I think you were very brave," she said again.

"I was very stupid, Tabatha!" He slammed his mug down on the table and the plates she had set before them both rattled. "I- Don't you understand this? I broke the law! I betrayed my president, my friends! I screwed my country!"

She reached across the table and steadied his mug before it shook its way off the table. "To save lives," she whispered, the mug warm under her hand.

"I was wrong."

"Saving lives is never wrong. How can it be?"

"You don't understand!"

The mug rattled when he pounded his fist on the table and she drew it closer to herself. "No," she said. "I'm afraid I don't. But I don't have to. My place here isn't to understand politics, is it? I'm a poet, Toby. I understand two things: words and people."

"And rhyme schemes."

"And rhyme schemes," she echoed, laughing. "Why are you here, Toby? Why are you, Toby Ziegler, formerly of the United States government, in my kitchen on this morning?"

"I don't know." He took the mug from her hands and drank the coffee, then gestured toward the pancakes she'd made. "For breakfast?"

It had been in all the newspapers, a small footnote to the story of the downfall of a man. She understood, she thought, more than he knew. "Tell me about your brother."

"He's dead."

"He wasn't always dead. Tell me about his life."

"You're not asking about his life, are you? You're asking about theirs," he said, motioning toward the sky with his fork, one small droplet of syrup falling slowly down toward the earth. He mopped it up with the cloth napkin she'd earlier dropped onto his lap. "You're asking about mine."

"I'm asking about yours."

"I betrayed them all."

"You were very brave."

"Is that what they'll say about me, Tabatha? Or will they say, 'here lies Toby Ziegler, he betrayed his country and everything he stood for, mark well his treason'?"

"Maybe they'll say he liked pancakes very much."

He crumpled his napkin on the table and pushed the empty plate toward the center. "As pancakes go, those were… not completely awful."

She laughed and bobbed her head toward her own half-finished plate. "As pancakes go, Toby, those were not pancakes."

He nodded in agreement. "As cooks go, Tabatha, you're a very good poet. Next time, maybe, you should write a poem about pancakes."

"Next time, you can cook breakfast," she said, and held her breath as she waited for his response. This poem was clear, but whether or not he'd let her write anymore of it, she wasn't sure. He smiled, and she had the feeling that was a rare occurrence. His face didn't move easily into it, and his mouth quirked every so slightly down, but his eyes… Well, not everything had to be a poem, did it? And sometimes, someone else had already said it better. "One could do worse than be a swinger of birches, Toby."

"Tomorrow," he said, as he walked out her door. "I'll bring breakfast."