He returned to the White House in silence. It was remarkable that he could even find his way down the halls and back to his office, so overwhelming had the experience been. He could barely feel his arms and legs, so numbed were they by the sights and sensations in which he had just taken. He made his way past the security guards, past the golden glow of the great Christmas tree in the foyer, past the bullpen and the sea of desks and computers and bright lights, not even hearing the clacking of keyboard buttons, the whirring of printers or the vibrating ring of telephones. There were faces before him, passing him, bumping into him as he walked, and there were voices talking, with startling outbursts of laughter and frivolity. The sounds intertwined as one, and he did not, could not, absorb them into his consciousness. He heard nothing and felt nothing.
He stumbled into his closed office door, and the feel of the hard wood slapped him back to reality for a moment. The now familiar face of a homeless veteran appeared, cold and pale blue, its vacant eyes lost in a search for salvation. He shook his head vigorously to clear the thought from his mind like an eraser. His heart pinched a moment from the memory before the thought wiped clear, bringing him back to sedation. It took him several seconds, standing before his door, before he realized he needed to open it. His hand felt foreign as he reached out, feeling the knob's coolness and smoothness as he tried to turn it. That's right, he'd locked it when he was preparing to leave for the service. It took another eternity before his brain informed him that keys were required to resolve this issue and that they were probably in his pocket where he always stored them. Digging deeply into the caverns of his textured wool coat... his coat... his new coat... And he was lost again, in thoughts of a worn old coat, where the sleeve edges were fraying, a button was missing, and a new body had found warmth in it for a time. Though not warm enough.
"It was a very cold night."
"Yeah. 'Cuz of the northeasterly wind off the Chesapeake."
Fat lot of good it had done. Not warm enough.
The sincerity of the brotherly voice, the childlike innocence of a man whose faculties could only comprehend so much of what Toby had spoken, both dug down into the recesses, reminding him. Again, he reached for that eraser, trying desperately to obliterate the sound of the voice from his head. It dispersed, bringing him back to the present, his hand still in his pocket, digging. It wasn't until the keys jingled their melodious tune that he realized he already had them in his hand. Fumbling to find the accurate one, it dawned on him that his hands were shaking. When did that happen? Why?
Visions of lackluster land stretched before him, with snow-topped tombstones and markers. He could still feel the cold winter air, the wind shuddering through his coat, and the resulting shortness of his breath catching in his throat. His nose tickled at the briskness, his mouth exhaled icy clouds, and the hairs on his beard tingled as he stood awkwardly, hands thrust into the pockets of his coat. Even now he could see the tall metal pole in the distance and hear the gentle thrashing of the flag as the wind took it. And there were men, dressed perfectly and carefully with brass and belts and pristine gloves. They walked deliberately, with the preciseness and dignity the occasion warranted.
What dignity was there to be found in this man? Not in his death. What respect had been shown him? An hour and twenty minutes it had taken. An hour and twenty minutes. The detective who had summoned Toby had only looked at him, unconcerned, when Toby alerted him to the military tattoo and when he questioned the officer about the lack of expediency in removing the body from the park bench. An hour and twenty minutes.
Toby felt an inflexible knot thicken in his throat, and it grew harder and stronger, threatening to break free from its incarceration as he struggled once again to grasp the appropriate key. It took everything within him to keep the lump from exploding from his esophagus, which burned him like vomit as he fought to control it.
He fumbled again, attempting several times to fit the key into the lock, until at last he felt the metal match its empty mate and he shoved it into the slot. Turning the key forcefully, he pushed the door open and burst into the room, hoping to find fresh air and expanse. For the pinching had returned and tightened its grip around his heart, leaving him breathless and vulnerable to the growing whine he wrestled to keep from emerging as a roar.
He slammed the door shut behind him, gasping as the sound reverberated off the walls and struck him. The boom brought him back again, and he lifted a trembling hand to his brow, rubbing his squeezing temple, willing the images to go away. Only this time they held firm, and he was swept up in the swirl of them. And then the sounds came... the purity of young choir boys singing, the steady rhythm of drums, the crunch of soldier feet on cold hard grass and snow, the whipping flag overhead, and the resonance of gunfire echoing through the boundless air. It was too much, too much. The sights and sounds in his head flashed and spun around and around, and he grew dizzy from the effort to contain it all. He surrendered a little, giving his legs leave to buckle and crumple underneath him. A thankless couch supported his fall, and he sunk into the dark, trembling, still grappling with the ever-present swell in his throat. He would not cry. Not here, not now. He simply couldn't.
He was uncertain how long he sat there in the obscurity of his office, his brain jockeying back and forth between two dim prospects, the effortless anesthesia or agonizing contemplation of it all.
Suddenly acutely aware of his breathing, shallow and shuddering as it was, he tried unsuccessfully to manage it. He could not focus. It took too much.
A rapping ruptured his ears. No, no, NO! No more gunfire. He couldn't bear it.
Oh. Not gunfire. Only a repeated knock on the door in what seemed like rapid succession. He wasn't sure he could open his mouth, much less speak. Not without releasing that horrible knot and, with it, a potential wail.
"Toby." The voice was still so soft, but this time it spoke with a grounded firmness.
He swallowed hard, and again harder, to clear his rumbling throat. He tried, he really did, but there were no words that would come. No answer he could give at this time.
He heard the mild scraping of the turning handle and the imperceptible click as the door gave way, a sliver of light from outside the room appearing on the carpet near his feet. He shifted, but did not look up. A lamp switched on in the office, and wordlessly he felt himself shaking his head vehemently. No lights. Please, please... no lights. The visitor complied, and the office went black again. Toby's wide eyes blinked repeatedly, adjusting. The door to the room shut with a soothing tap, returning him to his gloom.
His hands began to knead, his thumbs rubbing carefully over and over each other, pressing his flesh. He could barely feel it and pressed harder. In the shadows there was a cautious movement, and he stiffened. Long beautiful fingers reached out to him, and two soft feminine hands covered his, stopping him. He looked down at their entwined hands, unable to move or speak or acknowledge. He merely sat.
Her hands began to massage his, ever so delicately, caressing his knuckles and his wrists, following all around the large shape of his hands. The feel of her fingertips lightly brushing his skin caused an involuntary shiver to course through him, and he inhaled sharply, surprised at it. He was intensely aware again of how close he was to letting loose an uncontrollable howl that would not be smothered once it started. The subtlety of her touch encouraged him, and he felt himself desiring the relief of such a release.
No. She needed to go away.
He pushed her hands away feebly in annoyance. Unyielding, she took his hands in hers again. Frustrated and frightened, he felt himself shove her back again, away from his hands, away from him in every way if at all possible. She reached out and cupped her hand under his chin, holding his jaw resolutely as she tried to get him to look up at her, to look into her eyes. No, he had to refuse. His eyes darted about the room wildly, seeking refuge anywhere but upon her face.
A strangled guttural grunt unleashed from him as she held his face with both of her unwavering hands. Defiantly he tried to shake his head free from her but she was strong and steadfast. He felt himself giving in, too emotionally exhausted to battle her. Like a sad lost little boy, he warily lifted his weary eyes to meet hers.
Within those luminous eyes he found compassion. Compassion, concern, and great care. With one hand, she reached up and held the back of his head, tenderly stroking the soft curls of his hair, while the other traced comforting patterns on his cheek, reassuring him. He felt his eyes close and his breath catch, and this time he did not retreat. A sob emerged from him, and his body began to shake as he struggled one last time to stow the cry within. But the liberation of sound freed him and so he gratefully submitted to the pain. He collapsed against her, and she wrapped her long arms around him tightly like a safety blanket. Amazed at her ability to hold him up, he pressed his face against her collarbone, his own solid arms clinging to her waist even tighter, clutching at the fabric of her blouse, muffling his raspy breathing into her shoulder as he wept.
Time continued its inconspicuous passage as he gripped her fiercely, feeling the smarting sting of tears on his face as they blazed a wet path down his cheeks, falling into his beard and dampening her shirt. There was no telling how long he cried, or how much time passed while she cradled him in her embrace, murmuring lilting tones of consolation into his ear. He gradually felt himself slacken, his muscles sore from the tension, and allowed himself to move with her as she rocked him lovingly. He inhaled a concentrated breath and felt her relax as he exhaled slowly, so slowly, his heartbeat decelerating. He gladly took in the whispers of her voice, humming low and warm in his ear. She ran her hands up and down his back in calming circles so gracefully and thoughtfully, and his skin buzzed from her touch. It felt so incredibly good to be there, holding her and being held by her, that he didn't want to let go. He sensed her soft lips brush his beard, his cheekbone, and his temple, while her wonderful hands ran through his hair over and over again in a lulling motion. He sighed heavily, letting go of the substantial weight he had felt, and sighed again. And again, as she waited.
At last he lifted his head, grateful. As a writer he dealt in the lyricism of words, but in this moment he had none to give. He humbly pressed his forehead against hers and closed his eyes, catching a whiff of her fresh perfume, hearing the hush of her breathing, and feeling its heat on his face and neck.
He wished he could stay there forever, but with regret he finally hauled himself up and away from her, feeling the cool air come between them. His empty hands prickled, itching for the sensation of hers around them again. Feeling his loss, she stood and took his hand, pulling him to his feet.
"Time for you to go home," she said, nudging his coat back into place and smoothing the lapels.
He laughed harshly. The pessimistic thought of going home alone and creating a new darkness there seemed so excruciating and he drew back from her, not wanting to go.
"I'll take you."
He looked up carefully, expressions of hope, admiration and then appreciation washing over his worn face, as she opened the door and led him by the hand, through the maze of noise and people to the outside, shutting the great iron gate behind them.
Evening had come, and the midnight sky extended far, its navy vastness lit only by the incandescent brightness of the moon and the faint twinkle of tiny stars. Toby looked up at its enormity, and took a long deep breath of invigorating night air, taking it in, savoring the fresh clean chill traveling down inside him. As he exhaled easily, he reached over and linked her arm through his, holding her hand. "Look at that, it's snowing," he said. The first words he'd spoken since his return, his own voice sounding strange and unfamiliar to his ears. She smiled at him, tightening her grip on his hand ever so slightly as they made their way down the path.
As the gentle white snow fell from the blackening bare sky above, he felt it bathe him like baptism, and peacefulness filled him as he found his way home.