Beast Fiction: Dying to Save the World
They were waiting for him at the 8.4 mile turnaround of his long run. There the trail came out at the picnic area off of State Highway 40. It was near a marsh and, this time of year, the mosquitos were thick. No one seemed to use the few battered tables and concrete barbecue pit.
But they were there when he came out of the woods, sweating hard, looking forward to a drink from the water fountain that was surprisingly cool and strong. On the long runs, he always had a drink at the halfway spot.
Both men sat on a picnic table, a cheap Styrofoam ice chest open with a couple of bottles of Gatorade chilling. The older of the two, about 40, held up a bottle.
“Governor, you look hot,” he said with a smile.
The tall man in a Citadel Corps of Cadets tee shirt that hung on him like a dishcloth stopped, surprised, and pulled earbuds out, shaking his head so that sweat could drain out of his ears.
“Hot as hell.” He looked at the Gatorade with a teasing smile. “That really for me?” he asked with the assumption of a man accustomed to people saying yes to him because they mostly did.
As he handed over the bottle, the Governor took it in his left and held out his right. “Loudon Owens.” He was accustomed to introducing himself to people who already knew his name. It was part of his charm, as if he were assuming they didn’t know him. But he couldn’t remember the last time he had actually met someone who didn’t know who he was, at least in his own state. And this was his state, his own backyard.
The man shook hands and smiled, not offering his name. Loudon Owen took a long drink and looked around, as if coming out of his runners daze.
“You guys waiting for some friends?” He swatted at mosquitos. “I love every inch of this state but this isn’t really the best spot. About five miles down there’s a bluff overlooking the lake. Some tables there. Sweet spot for a picnic this time of year.”
“Actually, we’re here to see you, Governor. ”
Loudon Owens tilted his head and for an instant he scanned the two men wondering if they might be a problem. It had been five years since he was a governor but he had signed death warrants and they always said that if anyone were going to come after you, it would be a relative of an inmate the state had strapped to the gurney. But these two, dressed in khakis and polo shirts, looked like they had come from the Rotary Club. He’d seen more dangerous looking guys at the bar of the 19th hole at the Sewanee Country Club.
“Want to start with who you are?” Loudon said with a smile.
The one who held out the sports drink, who looked a little older, said he was Carl Johnson and the other, Lanhee Than. The names meant nothing to Loudon.
“What am I missing here?” Loudon asked starting to get annoyed. If he stopped too long, he’d start to cramp up and the run back home would be a joyless drudge.
“We want to talk to you about helping an old friend,” the one who handed Loudon the Gatorade said.
“Who’s your old friend?” Loudon asked.
He shook his head. “An old friend of yours. But someone we care about.”
He smiled. “We want to talk about that.”
Loudon was tired of this. It was hot, the mosquitos were on him now and he could feel his run energy seeping out like a bathtub with an open drain. These guys probably wanted him to endorse a project or help sell something to the legislature. He didn’t lobby. He hated lobbyists. He put down the bottle and turned back to the trail.
“Guys, call my office if you want to talk. I’ve go to get gone.”
As he was just finding his rhythm with the first steps, the man called out. “Malik.” We want to talk to you about Mahnoor Malik.”
He stopped and turned, staring at the two.
They met at a catfish house later that afternoon. It was a place accustomed to seeing an ex-governor and nobody made a fuss. At 4 p.m. on a Saturday, it was almost empty, too early for the Saturday evening crowd. In the fall, it would be full with football games on the big screens behind the bar but this was early August, when the weekend afternoons were spent at the lake.
Loudon had come because they said they wanted to talk about Mahnoor. And no one had said that to him in a very long time. But he wanted to know why.
“So guys,” Loudon said as soon as they sat down, “Let me diplomatic about this.” He paused as the waitress brought them iced tea. She did it without being asked. It was August and hot under the ceiling fans and the air conditioning that didn’t quite get it done. But she would have done the same thing on a cold, rainy January afternoon. “Just what the hell do you want?”
Both of them laughed. Loudon didn’t. He was just this side of angry. These two had appeared and brought up something, someone in his life that he thought about more than he wanted to admit. It was private and they were strangers.
“Governor,” Carl Johnson said, “We’re with the State Department.” Ordinarily Loudon would have automatically told them to call him by his first name and drop the title that went with a job he hadn’t held in five years, but now he didn’t. “And we want to ask for your help.”
Loudon took a long drink from his ice tea. There was so much sugar in it that he felt like he could visualize the little crystals coursing through his body, like a high-powered drug. Which it sort of was. “That’s close to an old joke we still like in the South.”
The two men looked at him, puzzled.
“Most terrifying words in English language? ‘I’m from Washington and I’m here to help.’” Loudon shrugged. “It’s not that funny. So you want me to help? And what does that have to do with Mahnoor Malik?”
“Governor,” Johnson leaned forward, the way they teach you to prove that you’re sincere.
Loudon held up his hand and looked past Johnson. “Do you talk?” he asked the other man, the one named Than, who sat a bit more upright. “He,” Loudon said, nodding toward Johnson, “has the look that he’s about to tell me something he’s thought about a lot and maybe even practiced. I’d rather hear it from you.”
Johnson sat back with a smile that looked strained. Than didn’t look at Johnson for any approval or acknowledgement, which made Loudon wonder if he had guessed wrong. Maybe the one who hadn’t been talking was in charge and just letting Johnson do the preliminaries. Than seemed pleased and in control.
“The U.S. government has a great deal of respect for Mahnoor Malik. She is an extraordinary leader. “
Loudon looked back at him. Of all the images flashing through his mind of Mahnoor, none had anything to do with words like “leadership.” Than paused as if expecting Loudon to say something. He didn’t.
“We believe it is very important—critical—that she lead her country.”
“Her country,” Loudon said evenly. He was back there now in his head, the heat, the smells, the different way the world sounded. They had left rainy England in his old Morris Minor. That had been her idea, to drive. She had never taken a long car trip before and didn’t know how to drive. Her family had always had drivers and though they came to feel like family members, they always carried guns. She was in her teens before she realized that everyone who drove a car didn’t carry a weapon.
Loudon had asked if her family would have been more troubled by her traveling with a single male—an American—or the fact they were in a tiny, beat-up old car. He had been joking but she pondered it like a serious question, which he thought was wonderful and made him love her more, that she would take even the silliest things seriously if they came from him. But they were at that stage when most things made him love her more.
They were lying in bed in a cheap Zimmer Fri room in Lauterbrunnen under a big down puff. Her dark skin was dazzling against the starched white of the sheets.
“My father has lovers and everybody knows but my mother. I think she has lovers too but we don’t talk.”
To Landon, it was like listening to a transmission from another universe. “You know your father has girlfriends?” he asked, “And your mother has boyfriends?”
She laughed and poked him in the shoulder. “Lovers.”
“What’s the difference?” he asked, holding her hand.
“You have the rest of your life to find out,” she said. Outside a waterfall shot through the rock. Byron had been here and called it the plumed tail of a horse ridden by death.
Than continued, “What we’d like you to do,” and Loudon wondered if they had been waiting for him to come back, to focus, if they had known what he was thinking. Mahnoor Malik. “Is talk to her.”
Loudon stared at them. “We haven’t seen each other in…” He tried to think how long it had been. “In years. And why me?”
“We think you might be able to…” Than hesitated and Loudon knew they hadn’t worked this part out. He looked over at Johnson. “Reach her. Differently.”
That night at home, he pulled down the folding stairs to the attic and climbed up into the large space. He and Julie had built the house on the lake outside of town while he was in his last year as governor. It was cedar, four bedrooms, one each for the two kids and a guest room on the ground floor with a large one upstairs for he and Julie. The kids had been in college by the time he left office and they had never spent that much time as a family in the house. He sometimes envied those friends who still lived in the house where they had brought home kids from the hospital and raised them, the carefully calibrated pencil marks on the wall that tracked how they grew. They had a house like that but it was small and after eight years in the governor’s mansion, she hadn’t wanted to go back to it and he didn’t really want to either. He had been 32 when he was elected governor and the drafty, big mansion downtown was really where they had raised their family. The children went in at 8 and 9 and came out at 16 and 17. Those were the years that counted.
In the corner of the attic there was a metal trunk. He could remember buying it at Walmart when he was 17 and went to State on a football scholarship where it sat in his room for four years and then went with him to England. It still had the Queen Mary tags on it from the voyage with the other Rhodes Scholars. He understood they didn’t do that anymore and he thought it was a shame. That had been one of the best parts of being in England for a year—getting there.
He opened it up and found an old guide to the Oxford lectures during the 1976 Michelmas term. It was thick, like a medium-sized city phone book back when they still had phone books. He wondered if the University still published the list. It would seem silly in the digital era but they probably did a lot of silly things at a place like Oxford. He hadn’t been back since he left and one of the reasons he hadn’t were in the photos he’d stuck in the lecture guide.
He stared at them like they were postcards from another universe, not parts of his own past. Was this really the two of them? She in the sunglasses in her yellow MG, parked at night in the Christ Church quad, him standing behind it, breathing hard after pushing it, engine off, through the gates past the half-drunk/sleeping porter into the quad. She was so beautiful, with her long brown hair falling about her face with a wildness that made her look almost feral. Thank god this wasn’t the digital era or it would have been all over the Internet. There was the one of him on the side of the rugby pitch, after beating Cambridge. She was hugging him like an American cheerleader. He was dirty and a little bloody and taller than most of the other players. They had sex for the first time later that night. Just like after a homecoming game in the States. He had told her, joking, that it was an American tradition and she said that as a good Muslim girl from a traditional family, she must honor traditions. She said it with a little lift to her eye and he thought it was one of the most erotic moments of his life and this was after four years of being a star running back on a Division One team, when girls were everywhere. It was just different with her, so unexpected. Glorious.
Tucked away, this in an envelope with the Christ Church crest, were a half-dozen Polaroid photos, peeling and cracked. He had forgotten about them and his first instinct was a bolt of fear, like he had stumbled on a detonator switch to a suicide vest he hadn’t remembered he was wearing. Then when he looked closer, even though he realized his hands were actually shaking, he saw that the nudes he held didn’t really reveal faces: just a hint of jawline, a side face. It came back to him: they were on an overnight train to Venice in a sleeping compartment with no one else. It was the middle of the night in the middle of the winter and somewhere out the window in the European darkness were places where people had done terrible things to each other in the long wars of not very long ago. But here they had their own world, curtains drawn so just a flash of the snow shown in the moonlight or the lights of a small town as the express flashed through, headed to the Simplon tunnel. The Polaroid camera she’d bought in London came out and then the bright flashes as they took turns snapping each other. At passport control entering Italy—and that’s when they still had controls, with Guardia Frontiera mounting the train and going car to car, they had panicked and he had stuck the photographs in an envelope and stuck them in his lecture syllabus. Until now. My god, he thought, what would they say in her country if they could see these? And then he had to smile thinking what they would have meant in his own country, in a campaign.
He went through the photos, one by one, marveling at time lost now held in his hands. They looked so young, so smooth, even in the cracked images. When they got to Venice, it was dawn with fresh snow and she had screamed when she saw a grotesque figure swoop out of the snow. It was carnival and they hadn’t even known it. They stayed in a little pension in the Guidecca until they ran out of money and she had to wire home—it was still done by telex then—to the family accountant. He sent money, lots of it, and a new hotel reservation. At the Danielle. She had told the accountant she was traveling with a girlfriend and not to tell her parents. “Do you really think he’ll do that, not tell your parents?” Loudon had asked, skeptical that a family employee would take the side of the daughter and not the employer. “Of course,” she’d said, “he’s 36, single, and in love with me.” She’d laughed, as if that was a natural state of the world. Everyone was in love with her.
He stayed at the Sheraton in downtown Brooklyn. That had been their idea, Johnson and Than. They thought being in Brooklyn decreased the odds that Loudon would see anyone who recognized him and it would be easier to meet her at the hotel, if she would come. It all seemed sort of ridiculous to Loudon, but when they asked him the last time he had spent time in Brooklyn on his trips to New York, he had to admit that he didn’t think he’d ever been there.
“You’re the wrong demographic,” Than said, “It’s either old or hipsters.”
Loudon pointed out that he was able to walk around in Manhattan without being recognized, even when he had been governor. This had disappointed him at first but he had found that it had many advantages. It was wonderful to walk into a bar, drink, and not worry about who might be watching.
Mahnoor was in town to speak to the UN and a handful of foreign policy think tank private meetings.
“She’s also doing some business for her husband,” Than told him. He had said it almost apologetically, as if expecting Loudon to react negatively to a rival. “A few CEO’s want her to come to dinner and talk to some investors. She doesn’t close deals, it’s just using her star power.”
The three men had met twice more before Loudon came to New York, each time at the catfish place. One of the advantages of joining a large law firm after leaving the governor’s office was its “research” capabilities. Loudon had asked one of the investigators he worked with to look into the two. Both had degrees from John Hopkins International School, both had been stationed at embassies and consulates in sensitive hot spots: Istanbul, Cairo, Afghanistan. It seemed obvious they were CIA posted with State Department but he didn’t see any point asking them. In the last meeting they gave him Mahnoor’s personal cellphone and that seemed all the confirmation he needed.
Loudon and Than had made it all about doing a service for his country and helping support a historic figure in an unstable part of the world, though he was aware they knew it was something more. He’d nodded and played along but he knew if it were nothing more than loyalty to country, he would have told them to go back to D.C. and do whatever State Department spooks did. He wanted to see her, they knew it, and the patriotism rah-rah talk just gave him cover and them leverage.
Years earlier, in that stage when two people talk about their past and former boyfriends and girlfriends, he’d told Julie about Mahnoor, about how they had met at Oxford and both seemed exotic to each other: him a football-playing American kid whose dad was a high school coach and her royalty, with wealth that seemed, as she did herself, from a Kublai Khan fairytale. Julie had asked about the sex, wondering if girls like that were as protected as she had read. He’d laughed and started to tell her stories but held back when he saw that describing the most experienced lover he’d ever known bothered her. He’d let it drop, just like he never got around to telling her that he had asked Mahnoor to marry him and how they had both cried at the impossibility of it.
They—Johnson and Than—had asked him if he minded not telling Julie why he was coming to New York and that just made it easier for him to let it slide. Instead he told her that he had to see some clients and that was true enough; the firm had many New York clients and they were always glad to see the former two-term governor.
In his bland Sheraton room, he lay in bed, looking out on the unfamiliar skyline of Brooklyn. He knew most of the Manhattan neighborhoods south of 96th Street but here he was in a strange country. He sort of liked that. It made it seem less routine.
She was going to be in her hotel room between 4 and 5, down time before another one of the cocktail receptions that the UN confused with diplomacy. Johnson and Than had told him this and it made him wonder if they knew so much about her, was there anything they didn’t know about him. But he didn’t really care.
He held the phone, waiting to call. He had asked if he should use a different phone but they told him she would recognize his number and be more likely to answer. How did they know she had his number, he demanded, breaking out of his affected cool? They didn’t answer how they knew but told him that she had “some of her people” get it. The idea of Mahnoor “having people” struck him as odder than her having his number. But of course she “had people.” A lot of people.
He stood up, staring out the window and dialed. She answered on the second ring. “No,” she said. “No?”
He had spent what he considered an embarrassing amount of time thinking about how she would respond when he called but this, this “no,” had never occurred to him.
“No?” He asked, playing it back and then he heard a low laugh that hadn’t changed a note and he was backing up, feeling for the bed, needing to sit down.
“Yes,” he said now and then they both laughed.
“Why haven’t you called before,” she said, an old joke between them, and then, no matter what else happened, he was glad he had listened to Johnson and Than.
She insisted they meet at the Lowell. When he said that he was worried about being seen and suggested she come to the Sheraton in Brooklyn, she laughed. “Brooklyn, darling? Are you mad? These men with guns who are with me would shoot me before they let me go to Brooklyn.” And what about her seeing a man at her hotel? “Darling, I see men here all the time.” She had always liked “darling” and in her accent, it never failed to make him smile. “Half the men in the UN think of excuses they must come talk. I have a suite five times your room at Christ Church. My boys with guns think it’s all very proper. And they are right. God, such boring men. But you, darling, yes, come. Come now.”
So he did.
The suite was as she said, vast and wood paneled, like the perfect apartment. They were in bed within minutes.
He had walked in and she had looked at him and smiled and he thought she had never looked more beautiful. For years her pictures had been severe, her long hair hidden in a hijab. But now her hair was out, long and flowing, and her public drab dresses replaced with a simple white blouse, a short black skirt and high heels.
“You look stunning,” he said and he suddenly felt more alive than he could remember. My god, he thought, where had this sort of instant joy been hiding in his life?
“I am stunning,” she said, another old riff of theirs. It had been part of her embrace of all things Western to shed, in private, the false modesty with which befitted her station.
They had kissed and she told him he should have called her sooner? When, he asked, and she just said, “Years ago. Years and years. My sweet, sweet American man,” and then she took him into the bedroom, turned on loud hip-hop on her iPod and they made love.
Later he asked her if the music was because she was worried the room was bugged. She’d shrugged and said it was a habit. He made her turn it off and then it was just the traffic outside, below and very faint. “I want to hear you breath,” he said and she laughed. “Silly boy. You want to hear more than that,” and she was right.
He left at dawn, walking past the young, olive-skinned security men who looked through him as though he didn’t exist. He walked all the way up Madison until he realized he was starving and stepped into Sarabeth’s. He ate breakfast with beautiful women, some with babies, and wasn’t ashamed he felt better than he had in years.
She was in town for four days. They spent every night together. He talked to Julie a couple of times but she was, as always, busy and never asked him awkward questions. She seemed to like it when he was around and like it just fine when he wasn’t. Loudon had known for some time that she had a lover, a former grad student of hers who ran a hip advertising agency. She had promised her husband that neither she, nor her young lover would ever embarrass Loudon. She’d asked if he wanted to talk about it more but he really didn’t. He remembered the moment. They had been in the car, driving back from a charity event, her in evening gown and him in tux. Her lover had been there, with a date, and it was then that Loudon had been sure, though he couldn’t really say why. But he and Julie had been together since his first year in law school, when he had come back from Oxford. There was no one on the planet he knew better and he knew.
He liked that she hadn’t lied or tried to act offended or apologetic. After she promised that they would never embarrass Loudon, she reached across and held his right hand, the left resting on the steering wheel of the Mustang. He loved Mustangs and always had. They hadn’t talked the rest of the way home but as they drove through the darkness past trees heavy with Spanish moss, he felt a strangely contended. This happens to people and it had happened to them and they were still in love.
In the weeks and months afterwards, he thought he detected her waiting to see if he would now feel free to do the same, acquire a lover or lovers. She knew that women were drawn to him and often didn’t try to hide it. They had joked about it over the years. Loudon loved women but now he had reached a point where he really didn’t want any complications in his life and he was old enough to know that even the most casual affair was complicating. He was content, if not terribly happy but he didn’t believe sleeping with someone else would bring him more happiness.
But now it had: wonderful, delicious, delirious happiness.
The second night he told her everything about Johnson and Than. They were lying in bed like they had in so many other rooms, he on his back, she in the crook of his arm. The only thing that seemed to bother her was the idea they might never have seen each other without U.S. government intervention.
“My country has a long and complicated history with your CIA and now so does my heart,” she’d said, in that lyrical rising and falling pattern of her speech. Then she had giggled, a sudden, spontaneous sound that made her sound like a teenager. He loved it. “My heart and my body.” Then she’d kissed him.
On the third night they talked about her going back and running for office. For almost eight years she had lived in London; a pleasant exile’s life she knew was good for her children. She had two, both now in boarding schools where they had been since 12. “There my daughter will learn everything about sex and my son will have his first homosexual experience and both will probably grow to hate their mother.” She’d laughed. “It is the English way, isn’t it?” It was reminiscent of listening to her talk about her parents having lovers, years earlier on a train in a European night. Then, as now, he wasn’t quite sure how much she was trying to distance herself from a troubling reality with a shock of overdramatic truth. “As a mother,” she said, smiling with that of sardonic self-mocking that was very much her way, “I am a good political expat leader of my country.” Then a flash of sadness came over her face and she said, “But lately I wonder if I am good at even that.”
She understood that the State Department and White House wanted her to go back and she understood why. “It is better for them because they think I like your country. And they are right.” Over the years they had offered everything from money—“but how do you bribe a rich woman,” she’d laughed—to promises of support she knew they couldn’t deliver. “And now they send this into my bed,” she said, pocking Loudon in the side. “I must say they are getting more clever.”
“I don’t know if you should do it,” Loudon said. “Do you need it? To be happy?”
She looked at him as if disappointed that “happiness” would be the terrain of discussion. “We are talking happiness now, Loudon? Not greatness, not destiny?” He’d shook his head, embarrassed that he had used such a term. That year in England and when they traveled, they had scoffed together at the illusion of the pursuit of happiness as a weak life goal. They were destined for greater moments.
“If I do this,” she’d asked on the fourth night, “would it help you if your Johnson and Than and their masters thought you had convinced me?”
He shook his head. “There is nothing I want,” he said, then laughed when she had stretched out on the bed, murmuring, “nothing?” “That they can give me,” he said.
She never asked about Julia. On their last night, he finally asked her why she hadn’t. She seemed disappointed that he brought her up. “That’s your life, Loudon. This is ours.” He wouldn’t leave it alone and told her that Julie had a lover. “Are you telling me so you don’t feel badly about us?” she asked. “Do you need her to feel good about what you and I do?” It was the closest they came to an argument. “All beautiful women have love interests, darling, some have sex with them, some don’t.”
He started to argue with her. All beautiful women surely don’t have love interests and what did being beautiful have to do with falling in love? But he thought he knew what she meant. It was simple, really. Beautiful women have many suitors, which God knows was true.
“Will you come visit me?” she asked that last night.
“Is that possible?” he asked, a question that had been troubling him. How can you find private time with a head of state?
“Here you elect people to govern,” she said. “I love that about this country. You really do that. But in my country, leaders rule.” She said it with a flourish, her hand sweeping forward from the bed, as if greeting subjects from the balcony of the Maharishi’s court. “When I was 5 years old, I had lessons on how to wave.” She did it again and Loudon had to admit it was gracious and natural. With her, it seemed normal. “We don’t have this problem with reporters expecting to know everything that you have here. So, yes, my darling Loudon, we can meet. My Secret American Lover. It would make the perfect book title, no?”
He smiled. They had done that a lot years ago, described a moment with a perfect book title. “Of Snow And Sex—Across Europe On Train,” was one of their favorites. That was when they saw their life in dramatic snapshots, as if the years were ornate frames in the world’s great museums waiting to be filled with their life’s moments.
When he left early in the morning on the day she was to return to London, after four nights together, he wasn’t sure what she would do. He’d told Johnson and Than to quit bothering him after a flood of calls, emails and text messages after the first night. To his surprise, they had stopped. He wondered if they had someone watching him and there was a time that notion might have bothered him but now he realized that he really didn’t care. He would never tell Johnson and Than but he was grateful they had come to see him.
When he changed planes in Atlanta for the final short flight home, he was recognized on the plane by several people and the pilots asked for a photo with him. Five days earlier it would have seemed all perfectly normal but now he felt like an imposter. He shook hands, smiled, tried to slip into the joking banter but he felt like someone playing the role of a former Governor.
That night, when he and Julie were in bed, she reached for him and whispered, “Are you OK?” He knew that he would tell her about Mahnoor and what had happened in New York but now was too soon. “I love you,” she said, kissing him lightly. He held her, “I love you.”
He was in the kitchen a week later, early, after a run. He liked to do that most mornings, run for an hour or so before heading into the office. Even on the hottest days there’d be a hint of freshness in the air that he tried to remember all day. He was leaning over the wooden island in the center of the kitchen, wet from the run, reading emails from the office on his iPad and drinking coffee when Julie came in and put the paper down in front of him. It was the print version of The New York Times which they still had delivered, as much for nostalgia as anything. They were the last generation to have grown up reading paper papers and still had a certain fondness for it.
The A1 story was about Mahnoor Malik going home to run for President. Julie leaned over his shoulder, her hand softly rubbing his neck as they leaned forward and read it together. The photo was her in her hijab, severe, with glasses. He stared at the photo trying to connect it to the nude woman laughing as she moved around a New York hotel suite. He marveled at how many different people one person can be.
“She’s beautiful,” Julie said, “And brave.”
He nodded, not looking up but he knew she could still see his tears.
Johnson and Than called him that afternoon to thank him. He hung up on them.
At his office, he watched CNN cover her arrival. They estimated the crowd at over 200,000, stretching from the airport to her family home. Three bombs went off in the crowd but she was safe in an armored vehicle that her own party had bought. The government would not provide support. She had laughed about this with Loudon, comparing it to the little MG she had at Oxford. “A fortune,” she laughed. “The stupid thing cost a fortune!”
He wanted to call her or at least send her a text. But she had said to wait until she was settled and had her own communications set up. She didn’t trust anyone. She would call him.
The home phone rang a little after 3 a.m. Julie bolted upward with a mother’s look of expectant horror. “There are no good calls in the middle of night,” she had told the kids when they started driving.
Loudon was sitting up, trying to focus, when she handed the phone to him. It was Than. “We can’t reach anybody,” he started, with no apology for the late hour. Did she give you a different number?”
“What?” Loudon said. “What are you talking about?”
“Good God, you don’t know,” Than said. “I just assumed. It happened a few hours ago. On her way to a rally.”
“What?” Loudon was completely awake now.
“Do you have any numbers?” Than demanded.
“No. Is she dead?”
“That’s what we’re trying to find out,” Than said. Then, like an afterthought. “I’m sorry. I’ll call you when we know something.”
He sat back, holding the phone. Julie’s hand was on his chest. “It’s her?”
“It’s her,” he said, leaning his head back.
They were quiet for a long time and their breathing fell into a rhythm together.
“I’m so sorry,” Julie said. “I’m so sorry.”
Later, when the sun was starting to come up, Than called back. Julie, still lying next to him, hugged him.
“Are you watching television,” Than asked?
“No,” Loudon said.
“She’s gone?” Loudon said flatly.
“I’m sorry, Loudon,” Than said. “It’s just a goddamn shame. But I swear to God, we will try to help figure out what happened.” He stopped, catching himself. “We can talk about that later.”
“Yes,” Loudon said.
“Look, I know,” he stopped, and then went forward in a rush. “Maybe I shouldn’t say this but I know you loved each other. It’s terrible.”
Loudon hung up. Julie reached up and felt his face, her fingers coming away wet. She kissed his side and pulled him back down.
“I’m so sorry,” she said in a way that told Loudon she knew him as well as he knew her. “I love you.”
“I love you,” he said, but could say little more.
“Let’s try to sleep,” Julie whispered. Loudon rested his head on her breast while she stroked his hair until she felt his breathing soften and his body relax.
They fell asleep together.