Author: Elliott Silver
Feedback: Is priceless.
Timeline: The last part of the trilogy - after Smoky Martini and Paper Birch.
Author's Note: This one is for Jeanine because she told me I had to write it and she made me believe.
Summary: After spending well over an hour, I realized some things can't be summarized - this story is one of them.
In the distance, the bells tolled.
The sound washed over him like salt water over a nerve-raw burn as Toby walked in the bitter November darkness, wearing yesterday's suit because it had been too dark to rummage in his closet for a new one. The leather soles of his shoes skidded and slapped and hissed along the deserted sidewalk of Pennsylvania Avenue. Cold rain fell sullenly but not unwillingly, wetting his tweed jacket so that it smelled of tallowed sheepswool, old Montecristo smoke, the tang of Glenfiddich, and his waning deodorant. Water lufted against the macadam in sibilant whispers, spritzing the cuffs of his pants so that the wet fabric stuck to his skin and pooling in dark congested run-offs along the empty streets. The night, the wind, and the world were nothing but the sodden smell of wet concrete sinking into his bones, and the snap of wet November leaves against each other, hung to winter trees only by the conviction that they would not fall.
And the bells wailed on like thunder - Toby heard them every night in Washington; their echoes drown over the glowing skyscape like a cryptkeeper calling, bring forth your dead. Only Lady Liberty called, bring me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses- and she was stranded in New York.
Toby hated the sound, had hated it since he was a child, hated the ringing echoes that wound over the earth. He hated bells because it was the only sound that could make him wince; it was the only sound in the world that words could not describe - there were words for everything else. There were words for glass breaking - "shatter" - and for bullets rending flesh - "shot" - and for people crumbling without ever moving - "heartbreak."
And as he walked in the sound and darkness, water filled the holes of the world and the sky reached down to touch the toes of the land. But the earth was lost in black tar sleep and in the web of wet night, Toby walked alone to the White House. It was 4:28 am on November 6 and in several hours, the polls opened and the citizens of the United States of America voted for their next president.
And despite it all, he walked without dragging his toes or bowing his head because he wasn't that kind of man. If not for one speech - 986 words - the word 'hope' would never have occurred to him. And yet as he walked through the West Wing's labyrinth of hallways, listening to the growl-whine of vacuum cleaners and the building's timber groaning, the clean brisk smell of lemon oil, that was the word he thought of.
It had been two weeks ago - 13 days to election - and they arrived back in DC strewn with wrinkled clothing and dusty baggage after a tortuous campaign tour. They had barely peeled back their bloodshot eyes to shoulder open the doors to the White House, and no one paused to consider that they had always taken that access for granted until now and they knew now, bitterly, it was several lies too late.
Toby could barely remember where they had come from, except that it had been cold and yellow. He didn't want to remember more; he wanted to forget it all, the apathetic milling crowds, the words that didn't move anyone, the dust and the scrawled placards and the way no one stood straight anymore. The Communications Director dropped his shoulder bag in the corner of his office and shuffled aside nefarious-looking papers that had accumulated over the surface of his desktop and threw open his laptop, connecting cables and phone lines to it so that the screen flared blue. He sat down at the desk - collapse would have been the right word but Toby never collapsed - without bothering to flick on the light. His skin itched of sweat, his eyes felt sandblasted, and his palms reeked of printer ink and orange peel, which made him dizzy and nauseous.
He sat alone, aching, in the darkness because that was what he had been doing his whole life.
And he heard them all leave, one by one. Josh, grumbling incoherently and stumbling headfirst into walls; Sam, the wheel on his monogrammed Hermes luggage squeaking soprano; CJ, her heels clicking the way they always did - precisely and stubbornly unfaltering - as Simon Donovan escorted her out, his hand at the small of her back. He heard Charlie leave sometime after that, his lithe stride cat-patter-soft as he went home to Deanna, and what seemed like an eternity later, Leo leaving in a hush of swinging doors, a tangle of keys, and the Johnnie Walker Blue he craved like angels, but wouldn't drink.
Toby was the only one left, except for the man hiding in the Residence, almost certainly awake and playing a game of chess with himself, four moves from checkmate - Toby knew which ones they were - and never moving the last pieces.
It was all that was left - the uncharted moves, the fading footsteps, and the 64 unwritten speeches for the last cities and campaign stops. It was all they had - unfinished games of chess, cut-glass tumblers of black-label Maker's Mark sweating, and the way silence fell sweetly in the dark dread dead of night, the way it fell at no other time, when there were no words, it seemed there never had been and never would be, never needed to be.
That was all there was left when they all knew winning was hopeless and they still had thirteen days and forty-two cities and sixty-four speeches, when bravery seemed too much to ask.
The cursor blinked at him like a heart monitor, like the bell chimes of New York that last day he had spent with his father, when the sky had been the color of a northeaster, electric and ugly, and the song of ringing swept over the two Ziegler men like an undertow and Toby was still coughing up salt water that burned, burned like hellfire. Their last words had been not in anger, but in its very opposite, apathy - when his father had told him he could never change the world and since then that was all he had wanted to do. Toby picked up his pink rubber ball from his desk - he had always been fascinated at the perfect way it fit into the curl of his palm - and hurled it at the wall so hard and fast the Yankees would have been proud.
Toby had thought he could change the world with Jed Bartlet.
It hit not with a thump but rather a whoosh as the ball fell halfway between his desk and the wall, a crack running along its belly like the Liberty Bell, its insides exposing nothing but air and more darkness.
The cursor still blinked at him, reminding him of the first next speech due out in four hours. The printer ink on his hands looked like blood in the darkness, like the words he had never written.
He didn't know how long she had been standing there, and he didn't ask her because he knew she didn't either. She stood straight and tall, even though she had sprained her ankle in Topeka walking off stairs when she was still half-asleep and there was an extra step to the bottom than she planned. In the rush and bustle of motorcades and Air Force One and the Deputy Director's need for constant supervision, she had never gotten the chance to ice it or even tape an ace-wrap over the joint and now it was bruised and swollen.
He looked at her, when she was four feet away from him and he was sixty-three feet away from the Oval Office, and in his darkness her outline was ragged and blurry, the way flower petals ripped, the shivery way bells rung in salt water waves.
Donna came into his office biting the corner of her lip where she thought he didn't see and struggling not to limp as she sat on the worn leather couch by the door, resting her bony elbows on her kneecaps and her head on her cupped hands. She inhaled carefully, long and deep and slow, and then she did it again, as if she had to remind herself to breathe. And even as she looked at him in the darkness, her eyes were the clear color of morning glories, the ones so blue they can't possibly be real, and maybe they're not, because they only last a few hours before the morning sun beats them to death.
Toby went to her, lowered himself stiffly to the floor in front of her. She was wearing a silk shirt, mauve or maroon - he couldn't tell in the lighting - and it cut down to show her collarbones and neck, the pulse as her heart beat on.
Across from her, Toby opened his hand, palm wide and fingers splayed, and Donna wound her fingers through his empty spaces.
She tied her slender carpal tunnel fingers to his and he wrapped her flesh in his own as the soot-and-bone city rushed on - the swirled pads of his fingers brushed over the swell of her thumb and the peaks of her knuckles as she smoothed her thumb over the upended veins and tendons under his skin.
She had two paper cuts sliced into her index print, all broken skin and chopped nerves and as they held each other, the salt from her skin bled into his.
They sat there like that until morning, waiting out darkness together, until the sounds of Leo, and then Sam, and then the rest, returning to the West Wing like war-torn refugees. Only then did she let go and he watched her rise and leave, forgetting not to limp on the twisted ankle that she had never iced, and then he rose from the carpet that smelled of mildew and Raid ant spray and seated himself before the blinking cursor and wrote the last speech of the presidency.
Thirteen days after that Toby walked through the labyrinth of hallways, listening to the televisions blaring Jed Bartlet's last speech and all the words of Toby Ziegler's battered heart. It was those words that changed everything - because he had always wanted to write with her hands.
He was 44 years old, not too shy of 45. He was a moody, quarrelsome son of a bitch who bought his Ibuprofen with arthritis-easy caps and had a box of Just for Men hidden under his sink. He drank too much Glenlivet and was probably less than the edge of an ice cube away from an AA meeting himself. When he slept - if he slept - it was in an ancient leather recliner stuck by his window that looked over the domed Capitol, the color of gangrene at night. He was an old fighter too tired to fight anymore - he had seen Korea after the war and he had never won a politician to office. He was too old to lie to himself and believe there was honor in a world that never knew when it was at war or peace anymore. But he wasn't too old to believe that there was one last good thing worth fighting for and waiting for and believing in - it was all he had left.
Toby picked up the cracked rubber ball from the floor and sat in his office, cradling the broken sphere and listened to the rain against the windowpanes. There was nothing left to do but wait and he waited all day and into the ceaseless night.
And then after five years, the waiting was over.
When he looked at her, Donna's eyes were blue as wild flowers.
"The votes are in," she said and in her voice, Toby heard bells tolling - and he had never thought the sound could be so beautiful until she showed him the words with the blood and salt-sting of her hands.
She was standing in the shadows of his doorway and the fluorescent light from the hallway spilled over her like molten wax or a meteor's flame, and although she was standing in front of the only source of light trickling into the room, the space seemed brighter because of it. The screen of his laptop was black and the cursor still as he rose from his seat and standing very still, threw the cracked ball against the wall where he had thrown it thousands and thousands of times before. It hit the paneling and slid to the floor, where, without bounce or rebound, it rested peacefully, gracefully, gratefully.
Outside, the carillon cried over the city and held up the night sky on shaking wings, and Toby went to her. In an endless moment, they wound their arms around each other and they stayed that way for a long while, all tangled limbs and muffled breaths, blood pounding like bells beneath their skins, until there were no empty spaces and no darkness, so that her pulse was his, and that it was his lungs that expanded when she breathed.
Somewhere in the west wing a door slammed; somewhere else, someone sneezed and a printer was humming and someone somewhere knew if Jed Bartlet had won a second term. Running forms passed them in slipstreams of air and voice, blurred syllables and rush, but they didnít move, standing half in the bright hallway and half in the black clutter of his office.
Someone called for them, but all they heard was the faint wind and the crash of thunder unlocking the sky and the echo of bells, the crash of each other's hearts in harmony.
And Toby knew there was a word for the way bells sounded - "hope".
Donna's eyes were the color of morning glories when he stopped kissing her and her hands were in his, and his within hers.
And like that, they walked out of the darkness together.
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Post Script: If you are interested, there are three carillons in Washington DC: the Netherlands Carillon, the Kibbey Carillon, and the carillon in the Knights Tower.