Copyright © 2013 by Rafael
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this novel may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping, or stored in a database or any information storage retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the author. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, incidents, organizations and dialogue in this novel are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Though not the first, sixty years later, the second woman elected President bore the hopes of a nation.
Beloved and admired by all, no one doubted she would halt the country’s decline and restore America as the preeminent
Next to Hitler, fate would make her the most reviled person in history
Fevered crowds roaring their approval often filled Washington’s wide boulevards. This had no precedent. Electricity crackled the air. Thirty deep in places, the caged tension of those who waited for their hero had many on a nerve’s edge. Cries, calls, chants neared and swelled. Those at the rear strained to shove past the more punctual supporters. The early-risers elbowed and jostled not to lose their chance to glimpse the woman-of-the-hour.
“We’re with you, Dani. God bless you. Give ‘em hell, Dani.”
A solitary figure walked along Pennsylvania Avenue encircled by Secret Service agents. Those who shouted their love no longer remembered the origins of a lonely campaign given little chance to succeed. Even Wyoming’s two largest dailies, the Star Tribune and Tribune Eagle, chose not to have their A-team reporters cover her announcement and the Democratic Party had sent a neophyte two months removed from Journalism school. After all, Lauren Danielle Carson had never held elective office, run a business, or ventured very far from her home town of Mills.
But the townsfolk hadn’t given a hoot for any of that. 3,000 strong had gathered on the high school football field to cheer their favorite daughter. Everyone had a “Little Laurie” story tragedy had yet to reveal as Dani. Their encounters with her ferocious determination had left many shaking their heads, but her deep intellect remained hidden until she returned from college to teach world history at the same high school. When it demolished her opponents during the presidential debates, the good people of Mills just smiled knowingly.
One resident, Alberto Guzman the local grocer, became something of a celebrity when the national reporters learned he had a thousand Laurie stories. His personal favorite began with a confident ten-year old marching into the store.
“Good morning, Mr. Guzman.”
“Good morning, chiquita. Who might you be?”
“I’m Lauren Danielle Carson. I live on Oak street about two miles away.”
“Did you drive here?”
“No.”, she giggled, “I walked.”
“Well, what can I do for you?”
“My best friend speaks Spanish but she’s ten years old too and doesn’t know how to teach me. I think you’re a pretty smart man, could you teach me? Please, Mr. Guzman? I could help with your customers and whatever else you wanted around the store and you wouldn’t have to pay me anything.”
“Who told you I was smart?”
“Well, no one. But my Mom shops here all the time and she wouldn’t if you weren’t, right?”
Alberto couldn’t argue with her logic, but how serious could a ten-year old be? She might prove a disruption or distraction or both. The customer relations problem her mother posed tempered his urge to say no. “Please, Mr. Guzman?”
“I’ll tell you what, chiquita.” He pulled out a notepad, looked around the store, and wrote down the names of the first five objects he saw along with their Spanish equivalents. “Here, can you read that?” She nodded. “Take it with you and study the words. Repeat them in your head every chance you get, Spanish to English and English to Spanish. Just before you go to sleep, repeat them again. When you wake up, if you can repeat them backwards and forwards, you’ve memorized them. Come back here and I’ll give you another five words. At the end of the week you’ll have a vocabulary of 35 words. After a month it’ll be 140. You only need 125 to make yourself understood in any language, in any situation. If you do that, then you can help out around here and we’ll work on your grammar and speech.”
Fifty thank-you’s preceded her dash back out the store. Confident ten year olds did not have one-month attention spans, Alberto felt good about his cleverness. But after a week he began to wonder how he could have mistaken a bulldozer for an adolescent. Her excited 4:40pm, “Hi, Mr. Guzman.” became “Hola, Senor Guzman.” She never hesitated rattling off her five words. La senorita charmed his Spanish-speaking customers with adroit assistance and helpful suggestions. The Mexican truckers learned not to make mistakes on his supply deliveries. When she began to take her breaks with the Spanish language dailies, he shook his head and smiled to himself.
Then came the day staff, clients, customers, vendors, and neighboring proprietors crammed into the store to await Dani’s 4:40pm arrival. She had become indispensable, still underpaid, and college beckoned. Their shout filled the store. “Surprise!” When the applause died down Alberto approached to say thanks for her years of service and to accept the card from all those present. Her eyes widened at the enclosed check for $12,000. Alberto had matched the six collected. She stood rooted to the spot and squeezed her eyes in long blinks. “I did all my crying at home last night. My father once told me there’s nothing to gain doing it in public and have people feel sorry for you.”
Her pace reduced the 1.2-mile distance from the Capitol to a memorable blur. Inside 1300’s main gate one more surprise waited. The Mills contingent bordered both sides of the White House walkway. Between them stood Alberto, a cane in his left hand the only concession to 92 years. Dani brushed aside aides and security to stand before her first employer.
“Hola, Senor Guzman.”
“Hola, chiquita. I always thought you could be anything you wanted but I never imagined you being President. Now that you are, I can’t imagine you being anything else. When the country needs it most, you are the perfect President.” Clicks and whirs filled the air as photographers captured their long embrace.
Dani did not hurry through the warren of West Wing offices. At each doorway she stopped to encourage the assistant, deputy assistant, special assistant, or assistant to the assistant that stood there. The warmth on display amazed her but she thought it nothing more than the residual sympathy everyone emanated after the funeral. Her presidency only hours old, she had no appreciation yet for how the office’s power and majesty caused others to go beyond service to servility.
Ahead the corridor elbowed left to terminate at the Oval Office. The Vice President’s office sat at the bend and as they neared Dani gestured to an aide she would open it. “Mr. Vice President.” she offered.
“Well thank you, ma’am.”
Characteristic of his slow Kentucky drawl, the simple sentence strolled out as if he had considered each word in turn. A constituent with a talent for mixed metaphors awarded the nickname that followed him to Washington. “Listening to Samuel Whitmore speak is like watching television in slow motion.” As deliberate as his speech, “Slo Sam” became a rarity in Washington’s cesspool: a man of integrity.
They stood inside the doorway to survey a room that oozed power and authority. “You’ve done wonders with the décor, Sam.” Silence. The thought he hadn’t heard no longer occurred to her. She chuckled at the stories told of exasperated ex-colleagues in the House and Senate shouting at him, “Damn it Sam, will you say something.”
“The only thing wondrous is that for once I had the good sense not to change anything.”
Dani fixed him with a warm smile. Against the tradition of geographical balance she had opted for Executive balance. Sam not only had done everything in Washington, everyone respected and admired his sage advice. She needed to offset her inexperience and his wisdom comforted her. “I’m glad you didn’t waste it on anything so trivial. I’m going to need your good sense.” A slight bow of his head accompanied by a slow blink kept him in character. Dani turned to Sam’s aides and assistants who had filled the room. “Take good care of my Vice President. You’ll do the country no greater service.”
She continued down the short corridor where her personal aide gestured toward the Roosevelt room. Inside, as she had requested, the administrative, support, and secretarial staff had gathered. She turned in the entrance to close the door and held out her hand to stop further entry. “I’ll be just a few minutes.”
Awed and expectant expressions now added curiosity to their self-conscious postures. “I’ve noticed everyone around me is on their tippy-toes and I suspect they’re only going to tell me what I want to hear. Will you do something for me?” The vigor with which they nodded their heads left no doubt she had only to point toward the cliff from which they should leap. “I want you all to say, ‘Hi, Dani’” Their shout chased the tension from the room and the sense of subversive mischief made them laugh harder.
“I believe I’m going to quickly become disconnected from ordinary life and the people who make it possible. You will have the best seat to see and know everything that’s going on around here. You will also continue to experience life without all the filters through which it will come to me. If you think there’s something I need to know or be made aware of, give me a wink when you see me. I’ll find an excuse to come to your office and we’ll chat. Will you do that for me?”
They nodded and the return of their solemn demeanors endeared them to her. She waded in to shake hands while clicking mobile devices took pictures. With a knock, the door opened for the Chief of Staff to stick his head through. “Madam President?”
“I’ll be right there.”
Dani posed for a few more photos then walked to the door. With a hand on the knob, she turned to the group. “See what I mean. I know you are the ones who will have to do the actual work my office generates and your bosses will receive all the credit. It’s not fair and I’m aware of it. Thank you all.”
“You’re welcome, Dani.” The shout burst into the hallway. Disapproving looks and raised eyebrows pleased her to no end.
She closed the distance to her final stop. Aides and assistants waited there along with the Chief of Staff, her Press Secretary, Counsel to the President, and the omnipresent photographer. Steven, the lead agent on her security detail, took a last look around before he moved aside to allow entry. She paused at the entrance. “Take your time, Madam President.” her Chief declared. “When you’re ready to start the day, we’ll be right here.”
Dani stepped into the Oval Office. Steven closed the door. Over the mantel the Savior of the Union stared back. Further left the nation’s Father gazed with equal gravity. On election night, as evidence mounted momentum had swung her way, she remembered only an annoyance at the strangers who now imposed distance between her and others. She viewed the ensuing speeches and appearances as just an extension of the long campaign she’d waged. The massive, tradition-bound Inauguration prevented concentration on any given detail. But now a weight descended that stooped her shoulders. She stood alone, truly alone.
The constant pain lurking in the background stabbed through her heart. She closed her eyes. The morgue’s antiseptic smells filled her nostrils. Every night her memory resurrected the doctor’s pained expression. “I want to see my husband and sons.”
“You can’t, Madam President.”
“Why?” she screamed at him.
“Why?” she screamed again.
“They’re burned beyond recognition.” She collapsed.
Two weeks after the election found her husband and two little boys on a helicopter flight to their log cabin in the Wyoming Rockies where the family traditionally spent Thanksgiving. Besides the pilot and co-pilot, four Secret Service agents along with three Presidential aides accompanied them. When it fell from the sky, the spark-ignited jet fuel leveled eight square miles of dry timberland. Smoke eaters, due to the remote location, needed ten hours to bring the inferno under control; a time that brought the nation to a standstill.
When federal and state authorities descended on the smoldering crash site, they found no survivors. Furtive conspiracies and wild speculation crept underfoot. They continued long after the Federal Transportation and Safety Board’s investigation concluded mechanical failure, and nothing else, caused the horrible accident.
Dani, in the early stages of piecing together an administration, had remained in Washington to fly out the next day. With her back to the room, she stood at the window of Blair House while leaving a message on her mobile communicator. She didn’t notice Sam when he walked in, nor when he motioned everyone out the room. She hung up and turned to find him standing there. Genuine pleasure laced her exclamation. “Sam! Tim’s not answering his phone. Do you think it’s some Secret Service thing or other? Sam? What’s wrong, Sam?”
Two days later Secret Service and local police erected barriers at both ends of the block her house occupied. The world’s media and their telephoto lenses made her front lawn the most photographed piece of real estate, as they recorded the steady stream of political elite come to pay their respects. The cameras captured three mysterious women in dark glasses who not only remained at the house but also ran errands. An intrepid reporter cornered one in a pharmacy to learn the four had formed a deep and lasting friendship since their college sorority days. “Dani’s fine, she’s strong. She’s always been our rock and we’re just trying to help her get through this.” In an instant, the woman the world had known as Lauren Danielle Carson became “Dani”.
She had no chance to find solace in private. The nation demanded it mourn with their newest President. World leaders signed embassy condolences and announced plans for emissaries to attend the funeral. A stiff, stuffy, stylized, state ritual emerged, which required a President at its center. For a day, a great people could ignore their nation’s decline and once again display wealth, power, and stature. At the burial site, a bemedaled Brigadier General guided his next Commander-in-Chief to a spot before her husband’s coffin, itself flanked by two tiny caskets. With great solemnity, news anchors identified the moment as the President’s final goodbye.
Dani stood erect, rock-still. An occasional slow blink the only movement on a face etched with grief. She embodied what a lost America needed: strength, resolve, confidence. In that instant, the nation embraced not a President, but their Leader.
Though indifferent to the pageantry, the event brought great insight. She could not keep the Presidency separate from herself. Her duties exacted total commitment and forbade other priorities. Whatever her personal inclinations, the office did not permit them.
She opened her eyes and returned to the present. A long blink squeezed them dry. She walked toward the desk, the room’s dominant feature. A folded piece of once crumpled scrap paper marred its pristine top. Puzzlement and curiosity cleared her mind. She read its straightforward contents: R38 L28 R10. A sharp inhale recalled her meeting with the office’s previous occupant.
Though they stood at opposite ends of the political spectrum he could not have been more gallant and witty as he gave her the White House grand tour. Over lunch she marveled at the job lighting and makeup did to hide how much the man had aged. A sense of relief enveloped him at the thought he didn’t have much more to go. It would not have surprised her if without warning he plopped face first into the soup.
On the portico outside the Oval Office his mood turned somber as they shook hands goodbye. He leaned closer and lowered his voice. “Enjoy the moment when you return to the Oval Office as President. The previous eleven men who sat there learned it only lasts minutes after reading what you will. I’ll leave the combination to a safe located behind Lincoln’s portrait on the desk.” Then as now she didn’t know what to make of his cryptic remarks.
At the painting, the hinges along the left side indicated it opened from the right. She gave a tentative tug imagining the embarrassment if the whole thing crashed to the floor. The frame slid away smoothly before it locked at 90°. Flush to the wall sat a rugged looking safe with a combination dial on its face. Seconds later she walked back to the desk a manila folder in hand; the words, “Top Secret – President’s Eyes Only”, emblazoned in red across the top.
It took some minutes to make sense of the data filled pages. The sheer number of pie charts, bar graphs, tables, and columns overpowered their ability to clarify the dense, dry text. She flipped through the report to confirm it centered solely on the United States of Africa. That sparked her curiosity but not a desire to plow through the census, economic, financial, manufacturing, industrial, military, and agricultural statistics. She located the Executive Summary and leaned back in her chair.
“. . . makes it clear the United States of Africa has passed the point where direct competition can blunt the trend lines detailed by the preceding pages. Our conclusion: in two years Africa will, by every objective metric, overcome our economic advantages and surpass the United States as the unquestioned global superpower.”
Dani’s cheeks puffed in a slow exhale. She read the last sentence twice more. Heat surged through her body. She sprang from the chair, paced before the desk, ran fingers through her hair. The anxiety of all she had endured threatened to overwhelm her. Her administration had just begun and this report had just ended it. She would go down in history as the President on whose watch the United States became a second-rate power. Dani dropped to her knees on the Presidential Seal, clasped her hands and curled in. “My Lord. Have I sinned against Thee?”