They're driving again, winding through the blistering Utah desert, the world made up entirely of parched throats and dust and bumpy road and wide, wide sky. There are colors here you don’t find anywhere else, Josh thinks, squinting out the window at shades of blue he’d almost call painful, at the towering rusty stone built up in faded layers, striped with sunburnt orange. The highway is crumbling along with everything else, beaten into submission by the heat and the years. By the loneliness, too. There must be other cars somewhere up ahead, beyond that next mesa, or trailing just behind the bus. There must be other people.
Josh shakes himself away from the window and back to his call sheet. It was easier to campaign before they were also trying to govern. Easier, when he was five years, ten pounds, one shooting, one scandal, and several scars lighter. Easier when there was less pressure and more blind optimism. Now, there are campaign stops punctuated by strong-arming this congressman or that senate aide from however many miles away. There’s a President who’s never stopped hating to be handled. There’s the core group—the people Josh trusts implicitly, like they’re some cut-and-paste, choose-your-own-adventure family he lucked his way into—and then there are the others. Bruno Gianelli and his well-meaning team, who don’t understand it, the way things have been, the way things can’t be. They talk about apologies and glossy speeches like those would ever be enough. They’re in damage control mode, trying to sand out the rough patches and make this thing new again: Bartlet for President!
No. BARTLET IS THE PRESIDENT, as Toby has been insisting with every single defiant inch of his being. Even when Toby’s not waving it around on a sign or shouting it or underlining it on a hotel napkin in his weirdly beautiful scrawl, Josh can hear it (can feel it) when he looks at him. Josh glances across the bus now, pretending to rummage through his backpack as he peers through the rows of leather seats. Toby is writing, which means Toby is furious. He’s the kind of writer who needs silence and stillness and all the things a campaign bus is not, and even then, if the words are wrong, they burn. Melodramatic, perfectionist Toby will flick a Zippo and literally set bad prose on fire.
“You wouldn’t understand,” Sam had once told Josh four years ago, five and a half weeks before the inauguration. The entire suite at the OEOB had stunk of smoke, and Josh was pretending not to be nervous, pretending he just thought Toby Ziegler had achieved an especially frightening level of gloom and doom. “That sounds so pretentious, but there it is. Put simply, when you write the way we do, it’s all or nothing. And when the writing’s nothing, Josh, Toby’s nothing. It burns or he does.”
Sam has always been able to elevate emotion, to say something simple in a way that makes it both more complicated and more true. And Josh hadn’t understood, because Josh has never been a poet. He’s never known how to electrify people with words alone. Back then, he’d known about twisting arms and how one of Toby’s elegant phrases would play in Oregon versus Oklahoma; he'd known how to make people listen, but not what to say when they did. So, while Toby had set his trashcan on fire and the staff had wrenched open all the windows in the middle of December, Josh rolled his eyes, and then made a stop on his way home from work. He had left the little fire extinguisher on Toby’s desk the next morning. Josh hadn’t understood, but damn, he’d wanted to.
It’s only here, somewhere in the middle of the desert, that he thinks maybe he’s getting it.
Not even Toby would light anything up on the bus, so what Josh sees now is a man without relief. Toby is hunched over at the built-in desk, scribbling and re-scribbling, one palm splayed across his forehead. Sam’s giving him space, reading over a pile of something spread across one of the seats. C.J.’s already setting up for the town hall in Cedar City with Bruno and Leo. If she were here, Josh is sure she’d be watching, too, except she’d be her usual mix of worried and confident, caught somewhere between, “When was the last time you think he ate something in the bottom half of the food pyramid?” and, “He’ll write himself out of it. He always does.”
Toby crumples up a page and lobs it at Sam. Josh can’t read it, but he imagines what it says, or what it was trying to say, trapped somewhere beneath the weight of Toby’s adverbs and his emphatic statistics: BARTLET IS THE PRESIDENT.
Yes, Josh thinks, Bartlet is the President. And Bartlet is the candidate. And Bartlet is the economist, and the grudging idealist, and a real son-of-a-bitch, and the closest thing to a hero any of them have. Bartlet is both the myth and the man, and they’re all unsure which side of him will win, even now, even though the days keep dragging on and this election is close enough to send a familiar ripple of excitement through Josh’s chest. Toby’s angry, and C.J.’s drained, and Sam is detached, and Josh? Josh is lost, or something like it.
It’s easy to get like this on the road, when there’s too much time to sit still. Too much time with his own thoughts and a window to stare out of. Josh stops watching Toby drown and goes back to the call sheet, tries to sort through a long list of names he’s sure he knows and the deals he’s sure he cares about. This is what they’re here to do, and maybe if he remembers that, the campaign will start to come into focus again. Maybe he’ll stop wanting to burn it all down.
“My mom says I look tired,” Donna says, her voice floating in from just behind Josh. He had known she was back there, organizing all of his notes, but he starts anyway.
“What?” Josh asks, craning his neck. Donna's blinking down at him over the top of his seat.
“She saw us on CNN.” Donna shrugs one shoulder, tucks a stray piece of hair back where it belongs. “The Albuquerque rally? They must have been panning over the staff. She left me a voicemail saying I look worn to the bone, and you look old, but—and I’m quoting here, Josh, so you can keep the gloating to a minimum—still handsome in spite of yourself.”
“Old but still handsome.” Josh’s indignant huff turns into a laugh. “In spite of myself, even. Put that on my tombstone, would ya?”
“It’s only funny because she means so well,” Donna says, shaking her head. “Speaking of mothers, yours left a message, too. She says it’s been raining off and on down there for a week, the humidity’s at 82 percent, no storm warnings, and she’s thinking of you.”
Josh swallows. His mom and her mini-weather reports: she knows he worries during hurricane season. “Thanks,” he says, turning to look out the window again as Donna stands up and starts to rustle her papers around. “I’ll call her tomorrow.”
“How’s it going?” Donna asks, shifting Josh’s backpack from the seat beside him and sitting down, draping her thin blazer over her lap.
“Fine,” Josh says.
“Come on.” Donna tilts her head, then plucks Josh’s call sheet out of his hands and sets it on top of her blazer. “You’re brooding.”
“I don’t brood.”
“You do. You are! It’s mysterious and all, but it’s kind of distracting.”
“I’m just sitting here!” Josh complains, frowning at her.
“Sure,” Donna says, and then she smiles, the way she’s smiled at him at least a thousand times before, the smile he always thinks of as pandering but that’s really just patient. She’s exasperated, but in the fond way, not the real way. She’s worrying, but not enough to foist it on him. She’s beautiful, a fact of life so obvious at this point that Josh has stopped feeling guilty for noticing. Lately, when Josh looks at her like this, he wants to touch her. That’s inconvenient and inappropriate, but mostly, it’s baffling. Josh needs to understand this, too, needs to get a handle on himself, needs to get a handle on why he spends so much time thinking about Donna and how she’d taste (late at night, first thing in the morning, against a wall, under the covers, halfway through a cup of coffee, after too much wine, on a bus).
There’s just something—maybe it’s the way she’s pulled back her hair, or maybe it’s that she’s got ink smeared along the side of her hand, or maybe it’s her eyes and how they’re always full of things she’s not saying. Or maybe it’s all of her, the parts Josh understands; the parts he only wishes he did.
“Sorry,” Josh finally says, looking back out the window at the dirt and the sky, at the desert and the emptiness. “I…”
“You what?” Donna asks gently.
He studies her reflection in the glass, and they make eye contact that way. Josh knows that she won’t push him to tell her what’s wrong. If he asks her to, Donna will go back to her seat and back to the notes, and this will be another thing they never talk about. If he asks her to, she’ll leave him to the emptiness, and everything that comes with it.
“It doesn’t matter,” he says. “It’s nothing. Let’s talk about literally anything else, if that's okay.”
Donna keeps smiling, says, “Of course.” And later, maybe Josh will tell her about how he's been agonizing over the campaign, how guilty he is for the insistent hurt he's been elbowing aside ever since Leo sat him down and told him the President was sick, how sometimes Josh feels as old as he looks on TV, how he's tired and beginning to think he wants more than paperwork for company when he drags himself home each night. Maybe he'll talk about Toby lighting speeches on fire.
Maybe Josh will say, “I think I get it. I think I finally get what it's like to want something else to burn instead of me.” He thinks he could say any or all of those things to her. He thinks she'd argue with him and remind him of all the good they've done and all the good that's still waiting in the wings.
“Josh,” Donna might say, “it was always going to be harder this time.”
This is the something, Josh realizes: how he doesn't need to hear Donna say any of that (at least, not this second). Just knowing she would is enough.
“This reminds me of the first campaign,” Donna says, gesturing towards the dusty glass. The sun's looming hotly above them, and again, Josh checks the road. There's still nobody else. “Remember, when we got stranded in...was it Arizona? I thought your head might explode. It was the first time I'd ever seen you get like that.”
“Me? You were panicking! You threw your purse at me and told me I was luring you to your untimely demise.”
“Well, you were. If you'd just learn how to read a map—”
“Maps are for losers. Maps are for people with no sense of adventure, like you, and...I don't know. Toby, probably.”
“You made me turn off the road and into the desert. You swore up and down it was a shortcut.”
“It was! At least, I thought so.”
“Josh, I say this with love: you're an idiot.”
“Donna, I say this without love: I know.”
They start laughing, because it's just far enough away to start being funny instead of infuriating. Donna bumps against Josh, her arm pressing into his as she leans across him to get a better look out the window.
“I liked that day, actually,” she says. “Remember the sunset?”
“Yeah,” Josh agrees. “Everything was so purple.”
After the trucker had stopped to help them, after they knew a tow truck was on the way, after Donna had quit yelling about the fact that their shitty rental car hadn't come equipped with a spare tire, after Josh had gotten tired of pitching rocks into the weeds on the side of the main road—they'd rolled the windows of the car down, turned the ignition so they'd get the radio, and watched the sun sink down. The trucker had given them his Coke and fries from McDonald's. They'd listened to Joni Mitchell crackle through the speakers, passing the soda back and forth. Donna had eaten most of the fries.
The sunset really had been purple that night, tinged with swaths of orange and gold, faint wisps of pink. The entire desert had seemed to glow with it.
“I'd never seen a sunset like that,” Donna says.
“Me neither. I was, um. Glad. That we got to see it together.” Josh scratches the back of his neck. “I guess we'll be in Cedar City when the sun's going down tonight, huh?”
“I'd hope so, unless you're planning to tell the bus driver about one of your genius shortcuts.”
“Nah,” Josh says, but in some ways, he wouldn't mind if they got stuck out here for a few hours. Maybe Toby would get some real writing done. Maybe Sam would get some sleep. Maybe Josh would get to share a Coke with Donna and wait for dusk to settle in around them.
“Hey,” Donna whispers. “Whatever you were brooding about? It's gonna work out. You'll see. You've just got to let it run its course.”
“Thanks,” he whispers back.
Donna nods and leans into him again, just barely. Warmth flickers in the pit of Josh’s stomach.
“Did I ever tell you about how I learned to change a tire on prom night?” she asks.
“Only about twelve hundred times,” Josh says, picturing unflappable seventeen-year-old Donnatella Moss in an ‘80s ball gown, kneeling in the Wisconsin mud, yelling at her useless boyfriend to find the lug wrench.
Donna tells the story anyway, and Josh makes fun of all the right parts, and the desert and the loneliness melt away behind them, until the sky doesn’t seem quite so endless and the road is packed with other cars.
The radio's not working, the rain's coming down nothing short of torrentially, traffic's nearly at a standstill, Donna's pretending to be asleep, and Josh is sweating straight through his dress shirt.
It's possible Josh has had worse days. It's also possible he's been places he hates more than this grey, unbearably sticky stretch of Louisiana highway. Just this minute, though, he's considering hammering down on the gas pedal until they careen off the bridge and right to the bottom of the Mississippi. That sounds more appealing than his current situation (re: stuck in traffic, no hint of cell service, death by humidity or uncomfortable silence drawing ever nigh).
Josh yanks at his tie until it loosens and bites his tongue to keep from sighing. This day—this month, really—has been typical. It hadn't exactly been Otto's fault that he'd gotten food poisoning yesterday afternoon (although why the kid had insisted on eating so much five-dollar brisket from that sketchy gas station still remains a mystery). However, Josh has exactly no problem blaming him for the series of incompetencies that unfolded next. A queasy and likely delirious Otto had distributed two different versions of the day's itinerary, which meant that half the staff ended up in Alabama on schedule, and the other half missed the bus.
Otto's only saving grace had been the speed with which he'd found them rental cars and plane tickets, especially considering that he did it all from the bathroom floor. It would have been low to kick a guy who was literally already down, so Josh had restrained himself and accepted Otto's apology. It all might not have even been that bad, except that when Josh had snagged his rental car's keys, packed himself up, and gotten down to the hotel parking lot, he'd found Donna leaning against the passenger side door of the car, looking impossibly well-put-together and less impossibly pissed.
“Nobody even thought to call me,” she said, straightening up and scowling the instant she spotted Josh. “Did you add me to the scheduling list?”
“Good morning to you, too,” Josh said, stepping around her and popping the trunk so he could dump his bags.
“I'm serious, Josh. Did you add me to the list? Do these people even have my phone number?”
“You're on staff. Of course you're on the list.”
“Of course nothing,” Donna spat, and then she clambered into the car after him. “The only reason I'm not still up in my room is because Lou called, wanting to know whether to sub someone in for me with the press pool this afternoon. I ran into Otto on my way down and he told me that while everyone else's car was full, I could ride with you. Imagine my relief.”
“Look,” Josh said, running both hands over his face, “you've only been here a week. It was just a, you know...a hiccup. Otto's sick, or I'm sure he would've remembered you. I gave them your number, Donna. I'm not that petty.”
“Aren't you?” Donna asked, slamming her door, jerking on her seat belt.
Josh had just looked at her, the anger throbbing dully in his temples like the edge of a migraine, and said, “Yeah, we're not having this conversation.” Donna had snorted and twisted away from him, and Josh swore under his breath, started the car. When they'd peeled out of the parking lot, the storm had already been starting.
Typical. So fucking predictably typical.
Josh glances over at Donna, at the sleek, professional suit he doesn't recognize, at the elegant jut of her chin. Her eyes are still closed, and for a second, he thinks maybe she really is asleep—but then, he notices how blank her face is, how cool and quiet she seems, and yeah, she's definitely faking. Donna sleeps with her mouth open, wakes up groaning, her hair rumpled, her cheeks flushed. Josh has never looked at a sleeping Donna and thought any part of her was elegant. She can't fool him with this. He knows her better.
Josh goes from prickly annoyance to good old-fashioned sad, just like that. Like blinking. Because that's all he is, when he strips away his bruised ego and the resentment and the yeah-but-I-won. He's sad because she's familiar in all the ways that matter, and sad because they're barely on speaking terms, and sad because he knows he's being an asshole, and sad because she now seems to expect that of him, and sad because once, on another campaign, in another life, Josh wouldn't have cared much about being stuck somewhere if it meant he was with Donna.
And that's what makes him say it, his hands clenched around the steering wheel, his breath coming up short: “Donna? Hey. I’m sorry.”
His voice sounds rougher than it should; he clears his throat to get rid of the rasp, hopes she won’t notice. Donna opens her eyes and stares, so Josh stares back, letting himself really take her in. There’s so much about her that’s new, but her eyes are exactly the same, and her lips—Josh drags his gaze away and back to the road, hates himself for always coming back to this, for giving in to the tug in his chest. It complicates everything. If not for that goddamn tug, Josh thinks a lot of things might be different.
Donna shifts slowly in her seat, crossing one leg over the other, folding her hands, and God, Josh misses her. Every last piece of her.
“What are you sorry for?” Donna finally asks, her voice just on the verge of wary.
“All of it,” Josh says, running the back of his hand over his mouth. “For—for not believing you’d really quit. For not hiring you back when you asked. For the way I’ve been acting all week. For making you think I don’t want you. You know, on the campaign.”
Traffic lurches forward another handful of inches. At this rate, they’ll make it to New Orleans in ten years.
“Josh.” Donna practically sighs through his name. “Those things aren’t our problem.” Josh tightens his grip on the steering wheel until it strains against his knuckles.
“They’re not?” he asks.
“They’re not,” Donna says. “They’re symptoms. Our problem—our real problem—is that you still see me as that girl bluffing her way into a job. You see me as the girl who’s just your assistant. And I’m not her anymore.”
“That’s not…I don’t see you that way.”
“Yes, I think you do,” Donna says calmly, as though she’s reasoning with a small, stupid child. Josh’s anger comes roaring back, and he leans into it.
“No, dammit, would you listen to me? You’re wrong. You weren’t just my assistant. You’ve never been just anything, Donna, and the only way I see you is as yourself. You never had to convince me you could do more! You’re smart, and driven, and, like, obsessively organized. You understand politics better than operatives who’ve been in it for decades. I’ve never seen you back down from a fight, even with some of the most powerful people in the world. So, yeah, I get it. I get you. When you were trying to tell me you had to quit, I wasn’t paying attention, because sometimes, I’m not good at that. And I was afraid…after Gaza, I was just afraid of losing you. I know that sounds like an excuse, and maybe it is. But never doubt for one second that I know what you’re worth.”
Donna’s staring again, fiddling with her bracelet. She opens her mouth, maybe to backtrack, maybe to argue, but Josh isn’t finished yet.
“I’m sorry for letting my, y’know...personal feelings get in the way of things for you. For your career. I really didn’t think I could hire you when you first came to ask me to, but I was also pissed you’d done such good work for Bingo Bob. I was pissed you didn’t do that for us. I was pissed you didn’t listen when I told you the first time that you should be with me. I was pissed you’d left.”
“I left my job,” Donna says. Her voice is different. Softer.
“No. It was me.” Josh forces the words out. “You left me.”
He can’t look at her, so he keeps watching the brake lights gleaming in an unending sea before them, keeps following the furious rhythm of the wiper blades, keeps clutching at the steering wheel until it physically hurts, until Donna sighs again and says, “Yeah, okay. I guess I did.”
It’s a relief to finally hear her admit it. There’s nothing to say, nothing to do except nod and flex his stiff fingers. Nothing to do except keep driving, or trying to.
“But I didn’t want to,” Donna adds. “I had to leave you to leave that job. Don’t you get it?”
Josh finally has to turn, to look her directly in the eye for the first time in what feels like a year. No, he thinks. I don’t get it at all.
“You say you knew what I was worth, and I believe you. I think I knew what I was worth, too—but I wanted to make sure. I had to make sure. And the thing is, I’d been spending so much time trying to convince myself that I was important in some small way, that what I did mattered, that I was more than your short-order cook or your girl Friday or whatever Toby called it, the kid with her hand up at the back of the class. The kid who doesn’t get called on.”
“I’m not saying you made me feel that way. Well, not all the time. You never did it on purpose.” Donna smiles faintly, blinks up at the car’s ceiling. “You gave me more chances, more leeway and responsibility, than most people would have. And you don’t know what that was like, to be taken seriously, to be relied upon, when I’d spent so long just wanting to be noticed at all. To be thought of. To do something, or be something, more.”
“Would you just let me get this out?” Donna demands.
“Sorry,” Josh says.
“It’s fine.” There’s that strange, faint smile again. “So I meant it, when I told you I was grateful. Grateful is an understatement. But by the end, I didn’t know why I was doing the job anymore. At first it was about Bartlet, and then it was about governing and learning and helping, and then it was about proving myself, and then…” She swallows. “It was about you.”
“What?” Josh is staring now, not even pretending to watch the road. They haven’t moved in at least five minutes anyway.
“I was there because of you, because you took those chances on me. Because I cared too much what you thought. I knew that wasn’t a reason to stay. I knew that I wanted—that I needed—to do more. That I needed to do something that was about me. It’s not like I quit to hurt you. God, I wanted your support; I wanted you to tell me I could do it. For a minute there, I thought maybe you’d want it for me, too.” Donna looks out the window while Josh tries, unsuccessfully, to process what this means.
“I would have,” he says, after ten seconds of disbelieving silence. “If we’d had that lunch. I mean, after I’d given up trying to talk you into staying, after I’d gotten over myself, I would have told you that you’d never needed me. I would have told you that it had always been, um...that it had always been the other way around.”
Donna turns even further towards the window, shoulders drawn, and she’s not crying, but when Josh sees her reflection in the glass, he can tell that she wants to be.
“I wished I could come back the second I’d left,” she says, “and pretty much every second after that. But I was furious that you’d ignored me, and I was furious at myself for letting you, and I needed to be someone who didn’t want you to say everything you just said. So I went to work for a person I didn’t want anything but a job from, and I’m not going to pretend to be sorry for that.”
Another pause. Donna turns back to him, and in a rush, in the second it takes for her to meet his eye again, Josh recognizes her completely—everything from the way she’s crossing her arms to the blush creeping up her neck and across her cheeks.
“I’m not sorry for leaving you, because I had to do it,” Donna tells him. “I’m sorry it took me so long to tell you why. And I’m sorry that it hurt.”
Josh exhales, listens to the steady drone of the rain against the car’s roof. The last time they’d been in Louisiana, six years ago, Donna had disappeared into the French Quarter and come back clutching two little cups of café au lait and a paper bag full of beignet. It had rained then, too. Josh had ducked under the awning of the hotel with her, his jacket slung over one shoulder, and devoured the hot pastry while they waited for the motorcade. As usual, the schedule had gone to shit by 10:15 AM, and they were beyond late. Josh was stressed about something (or nothing). Donna was covered in powdered sugar (and beautiful). He’d watched her when she was bemoaning D.C.’s lack of crawfish po’boys (while she was simultaneously trying to remember the exact year of the Louisiana Purchase) and forgotten to check his pager.
It hadn’t been anything, that moment. Just a quiet blip in the chaos of another day spent staffing the President. Just ten minutes with Donna. Ten minutes he can remember in excruciating detail, for no reason other than that they were spent with her.
It’s obvious what Josh has to do next.
“So, ask me again,” he says.
“Huh?” Donna’s startled, eyeing him almost suspiciously. “Ask you what?”
“Ask me to hire you again.”
Yet another pause. Josh clenches his jaw, and the traffic keeps standing still.
“Okay,” Donna begins. “I’m Donna Moss. I’m your campaign’s new spokesperson. I think you might find—”
“Thank God,” Josh says. “There’s a pile of stuff on the desk.”
When they finally get to New Orleans, he buys beignet and café au lait at a stand in the airport. They sit together by the window at their gate, watching the downpour and listening to the increasingly dismal announcements about delays. Donna worries aloud about how Lou handled the briefing without her. Josh is stressed about everything. She spills coffee down the front of her new skirt. He says something a little too cutting when she yelps and accidentally splashes the rest of the cup over her shoes. She swears at him, but grins when she thinks he’s not looking. (He is looking. He really has missed her so goddamn much.)
One hour becomes two hours becomes three, but he doesn’t care. Donna’s talking to him instead of at him, and there’s powdered sugar smudged across her cheek.
Josh forgets to check his cell phone.
“What are the odds you’ll let me out here and give me a fighting chance?” Josh wants to know.
The wind howls pointedly, funneling a cloud of snow over the windshield of the car. Donna, who’s driving, just raises both eyebrows and shrugs.
“I don’t know, Josh. What do you figure?”
“I figure,” Josh says, “that if it’s a choice between your brothers and hypothermia, I’m picking hypothermia.”
“They like you!” Donna protests, and now, Josh has to laugh.
“They absolutely do not.” This is true. He knows it for a fact. (“We don’t like you,” the bigger one had growled into his ear, halfway through the reception. “In case you were wondering.”)
“They will like you. They just have to get to know you, that’s all.”
“I’m not holding my breath,” Josh says, folding his arms and hunkering down into his seat.
“Well, I’m married to you, so they’re gonna have to try,” Donna says. She makes a right at a rusty stop sign, and the car skids in the icy intersection, fishtailing into the empty left lane. Josh grabs for the handle on the ceiling.
“I don’t think they care that we’re married,” he says. “I think they care that I’m the lecherous Democrat who seduced you away from clean, wholesome living—and, uh. Knocked you up, I guess.”
“Clean? Wholesome?” Donna practically scoffs. “This is Madison we’re talking about, not...I don’t know, wherever the Cleavers lived.”
“Mayfield,” Josh supplies.
“Right. This isn’t Mayfield. I mean, it’s not San Francisco, either, but I think Marc still smokes pot on the weekends. Tony’s registered as an Independent, even if he’d never admit it in good company.”
“Which one’s which? I can never remember.”
“Jesus,” Donna mutters.
“I’ve only met them once!”
“Tony’s the tall one with the beard,” Donna says. She swipes one gloved hand across her forehead, frowning at the windshield. “Marc’s the balder of the two. And the oldest.”
“Well, they’re both taller than me,” Josh says, just as the car starts to shudder. “Holy—okay, that’s it. I know you’re the queen of driving in snowstorms, but you’re also currently five minutes away from giving birth—”
“Five minutes or five weeks, honey?”
“Like I care about semantics right now!” Josh glances from the window to the windshield twice, and swallows. The world has dissolved into terrifying, solid whiteness. “Pull over.”
“This is normal. It’s just ice built up in the wheel wells,” Donna says. She says something else, too, but Josh can’t hear her over the steering wheel. It’s vibrating so intensely that Donna’s struggling for grip.
“Donna!” Now, Josh is outright shouting. “Pull. Over.”
“I need you to calm down,” Donna shouts back. “I can’t see! I can’t think—”
The impact is staggering.
That’s Josh’s first coherent thought, somewhere in the midst of the screeching and the furious rush of the wind. Staggering. The word echoes through his brain again and again while he struggles to find his breath. His voice. Anything.
Staggering, Josh thinks. Then: open your eyes.
He does, and immediately wants to close them. Images swim before him in a series of dizzy waves: his own hand, fingers splayed against the dashboard (the bright silver of his wedding band popping against the dark vinyl); something big crunched against the windshield; the gold flash of Donna’s head, bent so far towards the window that her nose must be pressed against the glass. Josh can’t move, can’t get a good look at her face. It’s gotten very quiet. Very cold.
Think. You have to think.
The car, he thinks, is in a ditch. The car, he thinks, has hit a telephone pole. The car, he thinks, is decidedly not working anymore. The car, he thinks, is also in the middle of nowhere, in a whiteout blizzard, an hour and a half away from his in-laws’ place. Nobody, he thinks, knows to expect them, because Donna believes in Christmas surprises, and doctors (and airlines) believe in pregnant women not flying during the final trimester, and Josh believes in doing whatever his pregnant wife suggests, even if what she suggests happens to be a thirteen-hour road trip in December, especially if that thirteen-hour road trip means the Secret Service clears them for unaccompanied travel.
And so, Josh thinks, we’re fucked.
His eyes slip shut again.
(earlier that year)
"You’re fucked.” Sam says it matter-of-factly, follows it up with an encouraging grin. “Nothing new there. Just—be sorry. You remember how, right?”
"I’m very sorry,” Josh says, and tries not to blink. His future in-laws seem to be collectively glowering at him from across the room. Donna’s father looks particularly murderous; he’s drinking one straight scotch after another, lining the empty glasses up along the edge of the bar. He’s also staring at Josh in a way that invites concern.
“Your best move,” Sam says, “is to own it completely.”
Sam adopts a suspiciously practiced face (smirky, yet abashed) and shoves his hands into his pockets.
“‘God, that was so rude of me,’” he says.
“My voice is not that squeaky.”
“‘I wasn’t thinking! I’m kind of an asshole!’”
“Would you just…?” Josh grabs Sam by the elbow, tugging him off to the side and out of sight of the Moss clan. “I need a game plan”—Sam’s expression grows, if possible, more absurd. His eyebrows have nearly disappeared into the swoop of his hairline—“and I hate you. My face never looks that stupid.”
“‘Please oh please don’t kill me,’” Sam continues. “‘Why, think of the child!’”
“Shut up,” Josh snaps. “You’re hurting, not helping.”
“I’m not the one who, a) clumsily outed my pregnant fiancée to a roomful of very Midwestern, very Republican, very Protestant linebackers and then, b) made a crack about Roe v. Wade,” Sam snaps back. “You’ll take whatever help you can get.”
Josh runs a hand over his forehead. “It just seemed easier,” he says. “People kept foisting champagne on her and making comments and Donna was starting to lose it, a little bit. I didn’t see the point in a....y’know, an elaborate story.”
“The ‘elaborate story’ of when and where and in what context Donna chooses to tell her family and friends that she’s pregnant?” Sam asks.
“I wasn’t thinking.”
“Yes. You are an asshole.”
Josh nods. There’s no getting around it. “Do you think she’s going to come back?”
“I think it’s your job to make her,” Sam says.
“When do you think I’ve ever been able to make Donna Moss do anything?” Josh asks, hoping he doesn’t sound as miserable and defeated as he feels.
“If you want, I’ll run interference for you while you give it your best shot,” Sam says, with the barest hint of sympathy. “I’m good at charming in-laws.”
Josh can see his mother over Sam’s shoulder, deep in conversation with three of Donna’s cousins. She keeps shrugging expressively, sloshing around a glass of white wine. C.J. hovers just beside her, nodding along and jumping in whenever there’s a break in the seemingly endless story. Both of them roll their eyes, almost in unison, and then C.J. leans in to whisper to the group. Everyone bursts into peals of laughter that make Josh’s palms itch with humiliation.
He spins back around to Sam. “All right. Yeah. I’m gonna…”
“Go,” Sam urges. “And remember: be sorry.”
Josh is. (Very.)
The lobby of the Hay-Adams is busy, but not packed. Josh doesn’t make eye contact with anyone as he weaves through a crowd of people clustered near the front desk. It’s unlikely that any stray Moss family members/linebackers have wandered out here to look for Donna, but he doesn’t feel like finding out. He feels like finding Donna first. A larger, less brave part of him feels like finding his way into the nearest hole, preferably one that leads straight to the bottom of the Potomac.
Before Josh can consider whether this plan has any real or practical merit, Donna calls him.
“C.J. texted me,” she says, cutting Josh off halfway through his hello. “I hear that you just disappeared into the lobby, looking, quote, ‘appropriately pitiful.’ I’m outside.”
“Okay,” Josh says. His voice cracks, because of course it does. “Look, Donna...”
“Use the side entrance, not the main doors. Chris parked on the street.”
She hangs up without saying goodbye, and Josh swallows. Chris might technically be the lead agent to the White House Chief of Staff, but he’s always liked Donna a lot better than Josh. Donna remembers things, like Chris’s last name. She asks about his kids. She brings him chocolate croissants. Josh, on the other hand, is routinely cranky and forgetful, and once spilled an entire Venti latte on Chris’s Blackberry.
Yeah. This is going to be great.
Outside, Chris stands just beside the running car in that oddly casual-yet-menacing way of his, hands clasped behind his back.
“Hey, man,” Josh says. He tries for a friendly smile; Chris, as per usual, does not smile back.“Uh, Donna’s in there?”
“In the car? Yes, sir.”
“Right. And you think it’s...safe?”
Chris’s cool professionalism barely cracks. “I guess we’ll see.” A pointed pause. “Sir.”
“Reassuring,” Josh mutters, and then he sucks in a breath, opens the door, and slides into the car. Chris isn’t far behind.
Donna is stretched out across most of the backseat, eating what looks like an entire platter of the coconut shrimp from the buffet. She lifts up her feet to make room for Josh, and settles them back down on his knees as soon as he’s buckled in. Her strappy heels are missing.
Chris cranes around the driver’s seat. He doesn’t exactly smile at Donna, but something about his eyes seems far less threatening than usual. “Around the block again?”
“If you wouldn’t mind,” she says. “I don’t want to risk it.”
“Risk what?” Josh asks.
“My mother is looking for me,” she says, without glancing up from the platter. As if on cue, the car pulls away from the curb.
“Oh.” Josh scratches at the back of his neck. “Okay. I’m gonna start groveling now.”
“You’re everything my father warned me about,” Donna says through a mouthful of shrimp. “Except he said you’d have more drugs. Where are the drugs, Josh? I’m a woman with needs.”
“Um,” Josh says, “I think I have a couple Advil PM?”
Donna fumbles to set the shrimp down on the floor and then buries her face in her arms. When her shoulders start shaking, Josh panics.
“Oh my God,” Josh whispers, leaning forward to grab both of her arms. “If I promise never to talk to anyone ever again—including and especially your family—will you please, please, please still marry me tomorrow?”
Donna’s shoulders keep heaving. If anything, she seems more distraught.
“It’s just that I wasn’t thinking!” he says, not without desperation. His voice is cracking again. “All the champagne! Your cousin, telling you how full your face looks! Who the hell says that to anyone, let alone the bride? And your mom, bugging you about how long you’ve made her wait for grandkids! And that one guy with the droopy eye—”
“My great-uncle,” Donna gasps out.
“Yeah, your great-uncle, telling everyone you might be too old to have kids by now anyway—” Josh stops, helplessly rubbing Donna’s arms as she makes a strangled wheezing noise. “I mean, it just seemed like the thing to do. I wanted to shut ‘em all down.”
When Donna looks up at him with a red face and watery eyes, she’s laughing like she hasn’t laughed in weeks (planning a wedding, they have learned, is almost as stressful as winning an election). She’s laughing, and she’s reaching for him, and she’s dragging him to her, and she’s kissing him, and for the first time in half an hour, Josh can breathe.
“God, I love you,” Donna says, her nose bumping against his. “The Due Process Clause! My right to choose whatever I want, including motherhood, even at my advanced age! ‘Let’s raise a glass to the 14th Amendment, folks! God bless America!’ My brothers are going to smother you in your sleep.”
“Does this mean the wedding’s still on?” Josh asks.
“Only if you promise to work the separation of church and state into your vows.”
“What makes you think I haven’t already?”
“I hate everything,” Donna replies, “except coconut shrimp and you.”
“God bless America,” he says. Donna starts laughing again, and Josh takes this as an invitation to keep kissing her for as long as she’ll let him.
They don’t make it back to the rehearsal dinner for twenty-five more minutes.
Josh hates everything.
Mostly the cold: it’s the kind of cold that aches, that slows time to an unbearable crawl. It’s probably what’s waking him up.
But also: pain, thrumming through his skull in staccato bursts, right in time with his breath—and impossibly, even his breath hurts. Josh imagines his lungs are a tube of toothpaste somebody’s squeezed from the middle.
And then: the car. The car is in a ditch, and there’s snow, snow everywhere, and nobody knows, and nobody’s looking, and hadn’t Josh said he’d pick hypothermia over Donna’s brothers, and it’s so goddamn cold, and Donna—
The world slams back into perfect focus at approximately the same time Josh jolts forward against his seatbelt, gasping into consciousness. His head feels the way the car’s splintered windshield looks, but the windshield alone is enough to send adrenaline searing through him, to make Josh remember how to think.
How to move.
“Donna,” Josh chokes out. His voice is swallowed up into the nothingness just outside, into the storm and the panic and all the quiet and the persistent, impenetrable cold. He’s straining against his seatbelt and the pain to get a good look at her, but all he can see is the line of her back, her mussed hair half-caught in her scarf.
“Donna,” Josh says again, louder this time. He gropes at his seatbelt until the latch gives, lunges across the console for her shoulders. “Donna, please.”
“Ice,” Donna says, turning her head sharply. Her face is paler than Josh has ever seen it. There’s a bruise spreading across her cheek. “In the wheel wells.”
“Are you...” Josh can’t think anymore.
“What?” Donna’s hand is on top of one of his now, her fingers catching around his wrist.
“Are you—is the baby—?”
“I’m okay. We’re okay,” Donna says. Her grip tightens. “Josh. I think we hit a telephone pole.”
“Yeah,” Josh manages. His voice breaks in exactly the same place it always does. “We’re fucked.”
Maybe it’s the shock, or maybe it’s the cold, or maybe it’s the only thing they can do: they laugh helplessly, clinging to each other, until they relearn how to breathe.
In a minute, Josh will remember their cell phones.
In twenty-five minutes, there will be sirens and stretchers and thick wool blankets and people who know what the hell they’re doing.
In three hours, the doctors will say that Donna is bruised and a little shaken, but fine, that she’d avoided the brunt of the collision, that the baby’s vitals are strong and everything seems to be in order, that they’ll just keep her overnight for observation. There will be talk of Christmas miracles.
In five hours, Josh (two cracked ribs; one concussion) will stumble out to the waiting room and greet each of Donna’s enormous brothers by name. He’ll shake her father’s hand. He’ll let her mother wrap him in a cautious, familiar hug. They’ll all gather around Donna’s bed and drink vending machine coffee and ignore any lingering tension. Of course, there won’t be time for that. There will only be relief, and family.
Everything else—the demolished rental car (no collision coverage!) and awkward questions (“So that would be an age gap of, what, eleven years?”) and bickering about whose idea it had been to drive through a blizzard (“You said it was barely a flurry!” “You said not to stop until we hit civilization or Starbucks, whichever came first!”) and vaguely uncomfortable political discussions (the tallest and scariest brother, it turns out, is not so much a registered Independent as a self-described “conservatarian”)—will wait.
A California sunset, C.J. had told them, is not an exaggeration.
“A California sunset is why postcards were invented,” she’d continued, and banged her glass against the table for emphasis.
Sam had nodded solemnly in agreement. Toby had lit another cigar. Donna had been falling asleep in her lounge chair, wrapped in a gigantic towel. Josh, hyped up on Redbull and general contrariness, had picked a fight. “We have oceans back east. We have skies. Give me a break.”
“A California sunset,” C.J. shouted, jabbing a finger in Josh’s face, “is why all of these goddamn people live here.”
C.J. had been a bottle of wine deep, but as was usually the case, that hadn’t stopped her from being right.
This California sunset is something, at any rate: a fiery sun dropping down through an abstract painting of a sky, straight to the luminous sea. Josh had forgotten the world could look like this. He’s even having trouble concentrating on the road, which is a real problem, because 90% of the drivers here are too rich and douchey to care about common courtesies like turn signals or stopping at stop signs. A cherry red Porsche cuts them off just as Josh tries to merge into the right lane; meanwhile, a motorcycle decides to skip the traffic by riding the line. It nearly decapitates their side-view mirror.
“Fuck me,” Josh calls after the motorcycle. “Actually, fuck you.” Donna pushes her sunglasses back, considering.
“Okay,” she says, “but not in front of the kids.”
“Aw, c’mon. They’re sleeping anyway.” Josh reaches over to run a palm over her knee.
From the backseat, Toby snores. He’s leaning against the window, chin tucked against his chest. Sam has a ball cap propped strategically over his forehead. Josh can just catch a glimpse of his noise-cancelling headphones in the rear-view mirror.
“Point,” Donna says, grinning over her shoulder at the two of them. “They have had quite the day.”
“And quite the night,” Josh says. “What with all the sugar and booze and plotting…”
Donna pulls a face, turns away. “Not this again.”
“I think they’d practically crafted a stump speech by the third round. C.J. has a staff all hand-picked out—but I still say we could do better than Ryan Pierce for Deputy—”
“Josh,” Donna cuts in. “Look at my face right now.”
He does (eyebrows: raised; mouth: dangerously thin; head: tilted) and frowns.
“Hey. You’re upset about this.”
“What tipped you off?” She crosses her arms and looks past Josh out the driver side window, her eyes following the coastline. The sun has almost dipped past the horizon.
“But…” Josh keeps frowning at her. This doesn’t add up. “You love the plotting. You were the one who figured out which districts are up for grabs. You were the one who said we needed to take back the House!”
“Yes,” Donna bites out, and her entire expression shifts. It’s not anger, Josh realizes, his confusion rising. It’s not even regular put-upon wifely annoyance. “I know what I said. I guess I just don’t find this as amusing as the rest of you.”
She turns away with distinct finality, rooting around for her purse and her cell phone, adding something about the real kids and whether or not they’re behaving for their grandmother, wondering aloud if C.J. is actually going to be able to meet them for dinner on schedule.
The conversation is over, but Josh is still making sense of it. Just ahead, a Corvette tries and fails to beat a red light, and when Josh slams on the brakes to avoid being t-boned, he can barely muster up an expletive. He’s too busy picturing last night, how they’d all been clustered together around the table on C.J.’s terraced patio, giddy with long overdue reunion, talking too much and drinking even more.
But it had been good, hadn’t it? The trip had even been Donna’s idea—she and C.J. had orchestrated it, conspiring to drag Toby back from his sabbatical and Sam away from his recent divorce and Josh out of his jobless/purposeless slump. Donna had insisted all of them needed to spend time in a place that had heard of sunshine. C.J. happened to live in such a place. And anyway, Danny had taken Oliver to Brussels for the New Year, so C.J. was only too happy to spend her unexpected stretch of childfree time drinking good Merlot and swapping war stories.
And last night, Donna had been in her element. She hadn’t seemed that relaxed since their anniversary, even in the middle of a vodka-fueled rant about Republicans. Really, it had been more of a strategy. A Republican administration was both inevitable and necessary, Donna had said, waving away Josh’s snort of derision. (She wasn’t wrong, but he didn’t have to like it.) A Republican majority, though. Again? That was unacceptable. That, Donna told them, was fixable—and here was how they could get to work before the midterms. She was so energized, so laser-focused and eloquent, that even Toby had looked impressed.
That was definitely why he’d said it, why he’d stopped Donna mid-sentence, peered at her over the rim of his glass, and asked: “So, when are you going to run for something?”
Donna was also mid-gesture, but at this, her hands dropped to her lap. “What?”
“You heard me,” Toby said, shrugging. He took a sip of his drink, a strange smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. Donna blinked and started to shake her head, but Sam jumped in, leaning forward to punch Toby’s shoulder.
“Hey there, my friend,” Sam said. “Now we’re cooking.”
“With gas, even,” Toby replied. He didn’t stop watching Donna.
“Yeah, yeah,” C.J. said. Her entire face brightened. “I mean, my God, you even consult for EMILY’S List—”
“Early Money is Like Yeast,” Toby whispered knowledgeably at Josh. They both snickered, although why, Josh couldn’t explain. They’d had a lot of Grey Goose.
“—you can talk anyone into anything, and you certainly know your way around. The Minority Whip is already afraid of you!”
“We just had a friendly disagreement about school vouchers,” Donna said. “It’s not like the sight of me strikes terror into his heart or anything. We share a grudging respect.”
“Oh, please. Grayson nearly broke his neck trying to avoid you at the inauguration!” Josh yelled. Donna winced at him, and he lowered his voice. “Yeah, this is good. So, we’ll put you up for what, the Virginia 11th? Campaign on...on education reform, and women’s health, and…?”
“And vodka,” Sam said, raising the (mostly empty) bottle. “And freedom.”
“And taking back the House!” C.J. said. “And—how did you put it, Donna? ‘Rallying the voters around common sense and agency to effect lasting, big-picture change?’”
“That doesn’t mean anything!” Donna protested. “That’s just, you know, the way I talk when I’m tipsy.”
“It’s not too far off from making real sense,” Toby said. Like magic, he produced a fountain pen. “Sam, hand me that napkin.”
“You can’t write when you’re drunk!” Sam threw the napkin at him. “Remember the first State of the Union?”
“That’s what I have you for,” Toby mumbled. He was already scribbling. “You can still edit with a couple in you, yeah?”
“Hang on—two adverbs in the first sentence? What are you, a freshman Lit major?”
“So what I’m thinking,” C.J. said to Josh, summarily ignoring Sam and Toby, “is Elsie Snuffin.”
“Oh, yeah,” Sam said, looking back over. “She’s great. Really funny.”
“Elsie Snuffin,” C.J. repeated, “and Grace Martinez, and Owen What’s-his-bucket, that kid with the eyepatch—”
“He doesn’t have the eyepatch anymore,” Josh said. “It was a one-time thing.”
“He wore it for, like, two years!”
“Whatever. The eyepatch is gone.”
“My point, Joshua, is that I’m thinking of Owen…?”
“Owen Carter? You have to mean Owen Carter.”
“How many Owens with eyepatches do you know? At any rate, he’s a wunderkind. He’d take her entire social media presence to new and exciting places—”
They’d carried on like that for at least an hour and a half, cackling and planning and somehow drinking more vodka, but hadn’t Donna been doing all of that, too?
Maybe. If Josh thinks hard, he can almost see her laughing. She’d laughed, right?
But no, he realizes, his stomach sinking with understanding. Donna had stopped doing much of anything but staring up at the sky after half an hour. She’d responded whenever somebody directed a question or a joke or an idea at her, but she hadn’t been plotting with them, exactly. She’d been brooding.
“Donna,” Josh says, glancing away from the road and over to her. She’s tapping busily at her iPhone, but she pauses, her finger hovering over the screen. “Did you think we were joking?”
“I think you were drunk,” Donna says.
“Well, yeah,” Josh concedes, “but that’s the best way to start any campaign.”
“Josh,” Donna says, her tone dropping almost to a whisper. “I don’t like to be laughed at, okay? I know you guys didn’t mean anything by it—”
“Hey, who was laughing at you?” Josh asks, holding up a hand. “You had a plan, and Toby’s right. You make a lot of sense. We were laughing because we were excited, and also because, y’know. Alcohol.”
“The thing is, I do actually want to run for office one day,” Donna says.
“I know that!”
“I’m utterly serious about it.”
“I know that. What do you think last night was?” Josh fumbles around in his pocket for his cell phone and tosses it her way. “Look at my inbox.”
Donna stares at the phone, and then at Josh. “What did you do?”
“I e-mailed Angela at the D-Triple-C, and I also got ahold of your boss. EMILY’s List would be thrilled to recommend you.”
“But it’s not the time,” Donna says.
“Really?” Josh asks, swallowing a grin. “Why not?”
“I’m…we’ve barely gotten Leah off to kindergarten,” she says. “Sophie’s still in diapers.”
“So what? They have grandparents and babysitters and teachers who adore them. And me, by the way. I haven’t accepted any job offers.”
“Yes!” Donna points the phone at him, apparently vindicated. “What about you? You’ve hated everything since the White House. Your career is important, too—you told me that you and politics were through! You told me you wanted a quiet life! You told me you were going to build a bunker and live there until the American people threw Haffley out of the West Wing! Besides, the girls need stability. They’re at exactly the wrong age for this, and they hate flash photography, and we can’t plan our family’s lives around Mommy’s shot-in-the-dark congressional race.”
“Okay, let’s back up a bit. One,” Josh says, ticking off a finger, “I think it’s safe to say that if we’re talking about whose career to prioritize, it’s your turn. I’ve got an entire roster of options and no shortage of powerful friends. I’ll figure myself out. Two, I was mostly kidding about the bunker.”
“You wanted to draw up blueprints, Josh.”
“I said mostly.” He clears his throat. “Anyway. Three, the girls are never gonna be at the right age for this. Right now, they’re little, and they need you, and they both hate cameras. In ten years, they’ll be bigger, and they’ll need you, and they’ll both hate lots of other things.” Donna heaves a sigh.
“Especially us,” Josh says. “So, that’s not a real reason. You’re going to have to do better.”
“I’m green,” Donna says, without missing a beat. “I’ve only got—”
“Fourteen years in the White House, a Master’s in Public Policy from Georgetown, two years of high-level political consulting, and a seat on the Montgomery County School Board?”
“You’re making it sound like more than it is.”
“Chief of Staff to the First Lady of the United States,” Josh says. “Special Assistant to the President of the United States. Senior Political Consultant. Here’s a soundbite for you: Wide-eyed, corn-fed farm girl transforms into savvy Washington insider. Dedicated, hardworking underdog basically exemplifies the American Dream, live and in color. Thanks for feeding into the Myth of Meritocracy, by the by.”
“I didn’t do it alone,” Donna says. She’s starting to smile. “I mean, granted, it was mostly me. You helped, I guess.”
“What I’m saying,” Josh tells her, “is that I’d vote for you, even if I didn’t have a little bit of a crush on you.”
“What a glowing endorsement.”
“Do you hear me laughing?” Josh takes back his phone, and then takes Donna’s hand. “It’s the time.”
“You’re serious,” Donna says, staring down at their clasped hands. When she looks up, her face is shining. The fading sunlight streaming in through the car windows is only part of that. “You think I can do this.”
“You don’t need me to tell you that.”
“But you’d like for me to tell you anyway?”
“Yes,” Donna says, running her thumb over Josh’s knuckles. He has to watch the road because some asshole in an Escalade keeps weaving in and out of traffic, but if Josh could look at Donna—really look, the way he wants to—he’s pretty sure she would put any sunset to shame.
“I think you can win,” Josh says. “I know you can do this.”
Toby coughs loudly.
“Hi,” he says, tapping Josh’s shoulder. “You know, I assumed that once you two crazy kids finally got yourselves sorted, these awkward little moments would be fewer and further between.”
“Hey there, sleepyhead.” Josh squeezes Donna’s hand while Toby mutters something under his breath.
“I suppose you’ll think I’m playing a poorly timed joke,” Toby continues, now tapping Donna’s shoulder, “but while I was resting my eyes—”
“While you were snoring, you mean,” Josh says.
“Okay, look, we must have hiked five miles up that canyon! All for the same damn ocean I’ve been forced to stare at a thousand damn times!” Toby takes a breath, collecting himself. “While I was resting my eyes, I had a thought.”
“Okay,” Donna says, clearly trying not to giggle. “What thought?”
“You still have that property on Lake Michigan?”
“We share it with my cousin for part of the summer.”
“Good. And you can still wax poetic about cheese curds and bratwurst and.... I don’t know, football?”
“Go, Pack, go!” Donna pumps a fist.
“You betcha,” Toby says, deadpan as ever. “So here’s my thought: what’s a wide-eyed, corn-fed, go-getting farm girl like you doing in a district like the Virginia 11th?”
“I’m saying, it’s obvious,” Toby says. “I’m saying, I don’t just think you could kick Dwyer’s Chicago-born, Bears-loving, farmer-hating ass all the way around the Wisconsin 1st. I know you can. And you should.”
“He’s not wrong,” Sam pipes up. The ball cap hasn’t moved an inch; he’s still mostly asleep. “Plus, you’re much prettier than Dwyer.”
“Plus,” Josh says, “you’re infinitely smarter.”
“Plus,” Toby says, “I wrote you a speech. I don’t write those for just anybody.”
They’re at a stoplight, so Josh can turn and take in the full effect of Donna, beaming and at an almost unprecedented loss for words. Roughly twenty years ago, Josh had handed an ID badge to a girl with a smile like that. It’s strange to think of that moment in the context of everything that came after, the way the days unfolded into decades, how the road twisted and dead-ended until they found themselves here, at the beginning of another campaign mapped out on a napkin.
Josh has a hundred things he wants to say, and maybe later, he’ll say them. Right now, they don’t matter. Right now, the only words required of him when Donna manages to ask, “So. Wisconsin?” are: “For you? Anywhere.”
Sam groans, but with affection. Toby sighs, but it’s more out of habit than anything. Donna rolls down the window, lets the salty, slightly cool January breeze and the faint roar of the Pacific Ocean pour in.
“Hey,” she says, turning to the backseat. “Did you guys know this was the first ocean I ever saw? Bartlet for America, ‘98. We had about five minutes to take a breath before the bus left for a rally in Santa Monica, and Josh told me to spend them on the beach. He made me take off my shoes.”
The light turns green. Josh hits the gas and they speed forward into the gathering dusk, the stories and laughter and time blurring together like cars passing on a highway, like colors smudging in a California sky.