Title: When Broken Glass Floats
Author: Elliott Silver
All feedback replied to and kept in a little writer’s journal.
Timeline: The real "Posse Comitatus" …
Summary: CJ learns when glass breaks, it shatters.
They buried him at 9:30 in the morning on a Thursday, the last one in May. It was a perfectly, wretchedly beautiful day. Late spring sun lit up all the rows of gravestones in Arlington, christened them and bleached them so white that they looked like sails in a sea of manicured green.
They were all there, Toby, Sam, Josh, and Donna, standing beside him and holding his hand in a dark navy suit. The President had even come, although Abbey was in some far distant corner of the world doing something more important than flying back for the funeral of a man she had never known. There was a small band of his colleagues from the secret service, hulking and powerful in their dark business uniforms, and of course, all the agents that he had worked with while protecting her. Pam, the black woman who had studied astrophysics and Greek literature in school, still stood beside her, and that was how CJ knew it was real.
Because Simon wasn’t there instead.
As the minister spoke in drowning monotones about the resurrection and the life, CJ realized that she hated Arlington, hated it because it reminded her of her failing father, hated it because Simon had kissed her back that night on that street. She hadn’t kissed him, he had kissed her.
She had made the announcement to the press that night. She walked back from weeping on a street not far from the theater where no one had wondered at her, each step hurting in the Dolce and Gabbana heels she had worn to impress Simon, just as Sam was getting ready to make a statement. There was no argument when she stopped him and stood in front of the clustered reporters in her black Vera Wang and stood stock still for a second as she racked her brain for what to say. She knew he wouldn’t have wanted her to be the one to have to say it, but she also knew he wouldn’t have wanted anyone else.
She heard her name on their raucous voices as the reporters called up questions about whether the president had enjoyed the show, what the reaction was between the two candidates, and what use the President felt Shakespeare had to the modern world.
"The President was very impressed with the scope and range of the show tonight and applauds all the fine actors who made it possible, as well as wishing to thank the Archbishop for his invitation tonight. If you want to know about Governor Ritchie’s reaction, you’ll have to ask him yourself, although he missed most of the play. Traffic was a real pain, I hear. As far as I know, the President and Governor Ritchie exchanged only passing words related to the quality of the show tonight. And about two hours ago, Secret Service Agent Simon Donovan was shot and killed as he attempted to stop an armed robbery about two blocks from here."
She remembered hearing more questions and none about Simon but she’d said the rest would be covered at home and they’d slipped into the motorcade and then Air Force One and gone home as though the world had spun on perfectly.
But the problem with worlds was that they rarely spun on perfectly.
On the perfect green of Arlington, Hogan pressed her hand. The girl understood far too well and when CJ had told her, she’d asked simply if she could come to the funeral as well. She’d been holding CJ’s hand since they arrived, although CJ wondered if it wasn’t the other way around.
As she looked around her at the flag-draped coffin and the gun-bearers waiting to salute the fallen, she knew Simon would have hated all the fuss and bother.
When the minister called her name, she rose from her seat and stepped carefully on the cushioned turf to the head of the casket. Simon had no family except for a few scattered relatives who hadn’t wished to attend. She couldn’t remember who had asked if she’d like to speak at the funeral, if it was Ron his boss or perhaps she wondered briefly, if it had been the President who had asked her.
She hardly knew what to say until she remembered back past her Contemporary Lit classes to her grandfather’s funeral. She had been thirteen when J.C. Cregg had died but she remembered the burial in halting detail and she remembered what she had read to him then.
Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on the snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the mornings' hush,
I am the swift uplifting rush,
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars, that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there, I did not die.
She said the verses from memory and when she was done, she’d sat back down and Hogan had immediately taken her hand again. The color guard folded the flag over the coffin and Hogan had begun to cry silent tears that rolled down her face. CJ handed her tissues and tried not to wince when the guns ricocheted their salute into the sunny, still air and no one fell on their ass.
She knew they were worried about her. The President made her talk to Stanley, but only after she’d fielded the heat about the assassination of the Qumari defense minister. She did it perfectly.
It was so convienient that he’d already been in town.
"I’d just like to tell you up front that I don’t want to talk to you," she’d informed him as she soon as she walked into the cheery little room in the west wing whose name she always forgot. He’d wanted her to meet him out of the White House, at a restaurant, a coffee shop, anywhere but here, where she would be less likely to cause a scene by refusing to talk to him or walking away from him. She knew too well that he wanted her out of the White House because Simon was in all the rooms there. And she knew too well he was right. A wet-eared reporter had taken his place in the briefing room and in no uncertain terms, she’d told Carol not only to chew him out but to make it clear that no one was to stand at the far corner of the room closest to the stairs and the aisleway where he had always stood, hands together, eyes watching everything in the room and the woman behind the podium. She’d told Carol it was part of a new fire escape plan.
"Both Josh and the President said the same thing before I talked to them," Stanley said as she sat across from him. "But it seemed to help them." He asked her questions and she answered them. She talked with an aggression borne of poise. He could see that the grief was still too near and he could also see there was nothing he could do. He could help Josh and the president of the free world, but he couldn’t help this one woman. She was fine, that’s what everyone saw and she wanted them to see. She did her job perfectly but she was everything from fine.
The command center across from her apartment had been dismantled before she even knew it was gone. Both Pam and Simon’s boss had stopped by to see her and she’d told them she was fine but hurrying off the a nonexistent meeting or to leak information that wasn’t there so she didn’t have to talk to them. It was her job, that was what she did. She couldn’t very well tell them that she had once said, whether she meant it or not, that the government should give .357 Magnums to the criminals because that was exactly what had happened. She couldn’t tell them because that was their job, that was what they did. And so they told her the New York police had arrested the second robber – they were both careful not to say Simon’s murderer in her presence – and that both men were being charged with heavy sentences. It didn’t bring Simon back.
And the problem with not brining him back was that he was still everywhere she went. All along she’d protested about not being able to drive her car and now that she could, being behind the wheel in the convertible made her feel like she was sixteen and sneaking out to meet the boy her parents forbade her to date. He’d told her out on the street that she was free, that she could drive her car, have a drink, eat a grapefruit even, but she felt the last thing from free. She’d tried to throw away the black Vera Wang, but in the end, it had seemed like such a shame to relegate such a beautiful dress to a landfill, and so Donna had taken it and donated it to charity. It seemed one more meaningless tragedy after another, now that she had no one to have drink with or eat a grapefruit.
But although the apartment seemed empty without the agents there to disrupt her and the west wing seemed less full, it was her office she couldn’t bear. She’d hardly touched it since New York except to hang her coat on the loose hook on the door and to shuttle memos and faxes and folders from her shelves and inboxes. She used her computer only when she had to, although she’d been assured that it was virus and stalker free, more safe and up-to-date than at any other time she had used it, including when she bought it.
She handled the news more skillfully than she could remember. She reported on the tense situation in Qumar regarding the US lease on its airbase, the latest comments from the Ritchie camp, a meeting with Britain and the always charming Lord Marbury, the snarls and snide remarks coming from the women’s movement that had been mostly provoked by suave little Josh, public interest in the President’s itinerary for Father’s Day, and as usual, the coming election in November.
She did her job well because it was all she had left when she was falling apart. She did her job well because if she couldn’t make one last thing in the world go right, she didn’t see much sense in being in it.
The President called her to his office and after Charlie closed the door, he continued reading a well-worn book. "When he shall die,/ Take him and cut him out in little stars,/ And he will make the face of heaven so fine/ That all the world will be in love with night,/ And pay no worship to the garish sun."
"Romeo and Juliet," CJ said. "I always preferred Anthony and Cleopatra, Mr. President," she continued as they stood on opposite sides of the huge mahogany desk in the Oval Office.
"You handled the Vietnam situation very well," he told her, taking off his reading glasses.
"Thank you, sir." Dealing with Vietnam was touchy to say the least. She couldn’t remember what she’d said exactly regarding the new Vietnamese ambassador, their economy, and the US trade regulations. But apparently it had been alright.
"I have to meet with the Cambodians tomorrow," he began, setting down the book. "I’d like you to talk with the foreign minister while I meet with the prime minister since you handled the Vietnam situation so well."
"Of course, Mr. President."
"It’s tough dealing with them today, isn’t it," he said in his best Bartlett Nobel-prize winning voice. "After My Lai and Tonkin and the embargoes, letting go of the past has been hard for them."
He looked at her and she smiled as she could only when she needed to.
"I’m fine, Mr. President."
He watched her for a second more. "Ok, what’s next?" he asked and moved on. And the truly horrible thing, CJ realized, was that after that Thursday in May, she didn’t know.
Toby was waiting when she returned to her office. "I think you need to take some time off," he told her without preamble, the way he did when he was saying what came to his mind, instead of thinking before he said anything, the way he did when he was writing.
"Why?" she asked, sitting down behind the desk He was the last one she wanted to talk to because he was the one who knew her the most.
"Because no matter what you say, I don’t think you’re fine."
"Stanley thinks so."
"And now so does the President," Toby said.
"Am I not doing my job?" she asked.
"No, no," Toby said shaking his head and she could see he was troubled about what to say. "But in all the time I’ve known you, doing your job this well only means something else is wrong."
"I think that’s either a backwards compliment, or an insult," and her tone was laced with anger.
"No one would think less of you if you take some time to grieve," Toby told her and she knew that was why he had come, because he had talked to the President and knew not even the most powerful man in the would could recognize the pain she was in.
She couldn’t tell him that she was terrified of taking time off because her days would be filled with absolutely nothing, except one thought. And the only way she could keep that one thought at bay was to keep her mind on other people’s pain.
She couldn’t tell Toby she had loved Simon, because Toby was half in love with her himself.
The Cambodian delegation, as it turned out, was two people. She met with the foreign minister and they talked about international politics, world literature, and ice cream flavors in the Mural Room as the president met with his superior in the Oval Office.
"I heard you saw The War of the Roses," Keat Kheng said. "Was the interpretation good?"
He couldn’t have known, she knew as she grasped for words and wondered how she could relate Henry VI to a coherent sentence.
In the end, she couldn’t manage anything.
"Why doesn’t good win over evil?" she asked him at last when neither knew what to say.
The man stared at her and then smiled a sad smile. "In my country, when the Khmer Rouge took over but before we grew too hungry to contemplate philosophy, we had a saying," he told her. "When bad times are upon us, we say that is the time when broken glass floats."
"Yes, I’ve heard that," CJ said.
"But do you know the rest?" he asked and continued. "We say when good and evil are thrown together into the river of life, first the klok or squash that represents good will sink, and that the armbaeg or broken glass that represents evil will float. But we also say that broken glass never floats for long. In the end, it too must sink."
The President came in at that moment with Penn Ngeth, before she could say anything, inviting the man to the Oval Office as well. She could only imagine someone who grew up under the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, in one of the poorest countries in the world where the life expectancy was barely over fifty and the average annual income was 260 American dollars, to believe that broken glass would not float forever.
She stared at the blue screen on her computer, thinking about broken glass, and at last began moving the papers on her desk. Old memos, briefing notes scribbled in her almost illegible handwriting, Carol’s crisp conglomeration of the files she’d asked for all jumbled in haphazard piles. She dumped most of it in the trash and put what needed to be saved and re-filed in its correct place on the corner of her desk for Carol, although it was after seven and her assistant had gone home for the day.
He’d been gruff that day and her being flip hadn’t helped matters. When she couldn’t find her pen to sign off a few last minute things, there’d been more than a few words between them right before they left the office to board the plane for New York. After he’d made a comment to the effect of how she ever made it on her own alone, he had given her his. Simon had pulled it from his coat pocket and handed it to her with the look on his face that clearly said she was way past getting on his nerves, and yet that he didn’t mind. It had been a silver pen, a very classy one by a very fine maker, and he’d said, before she could ask being the nosy person that she was, that it had been his upon being admitted into the secret service. It wrote beautifully as she signed the papers, handed them to Carol, and followed him out towards the waiting plane. She’d tried to hand it back to him, and he’d said gruffly with that half-smile of his, that she’d better keep it.
The narrow band of the pen had been inscribed, Special Agent Simon Andrew Donovan, U.S. Department of the Treasury. She hadn’t cried since New York, hadn’t cried at his funeral while she recited her grandfather’s poem, hadn’t cried at all.
It was a stupid meaningless pen. The problem was that it meant everything. Holding his pen, CJ lifted her jacket off its hook, wiped at the tears that were like broken glass, and closed the door behind her.
Arlington was deserted at dusk. The sentinels were at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and in the dim light, the white tombstones glowed ghostly as if not even darkness could hide those scars. She wound herself through the ribbon-like rows until darkness fully shrouded her and she found his grave.
Simon Andrew Donovan, it read simply. Six other graves had already been filled in the row beside his, extending the line further down the white spokes of the cemetery that had once been Lee’s plantation. Even the ground here knew the meaning of defeat.
She knelt down without thought, scraping her knees in the dirt the way she had when she was a child and J.C. had agreed that Claudia Jean wasn’t a proper name and had begun the tradition of calling her CJ. The mound had barely been regrassed since the funeral and the white marble headstone was still rough with newness, not smoothed and weather-eaten like others. She felt ridiculous saying anything aloud, as if someone could hear her, and she didn’t know what she would say to him now that she had found his pen.
To say now that she had fallen in love with him seemed preposterous to explain now that he was dead. But it was what she spoke into the night air, fluttered with blinking fireflies, as she rested her head against the tombstone, let it abrasive hewn rock grind at her forehead, and cried and said it again.
She cried for everything they had lost, everything they might have had. She cried for herself, and she cried for him. She cried for the emptiness, she cried for having the strength to do her job so well no one thought anything was wrong, she cried for not having the weakness of Cleopatra. She cried when she was not a woman who cried for anything, who had not cried indeed since she had been thirteen and had read a poem at her grandfather’s funeral.
She didn’t know when she would have stopped except that her cell phone rang. She had forgotten she had left it in her coat pocket and was surprised it still had enough battery to work. By rote and used to international crises that denied one the luxury of not answering the phone, she took it from her pocket, sniffed back her tears and cleared her throat, and answered.
"Answer me this," he said. "Did you really think I would leave you alone?"
CJ sat in shock for a second, her mind working either lightspeed or too sluggishly. "Who is this?" she asked, since fear seemed a worthless reaction.
"CJ," the voice said and of all things, her mind said it couldn’t be.
"Who is this?" she demanded again.
"Would it help if I said, ma’am or Ms. Cregg? Would it help if I said when you said you didn’t try to kiss me, I knew you were lying too? Would it help if I said at least I can fire a gun without falling on my ass? Would it help if I said if anyone’s coming for you, they still have a bulls-eye on their chest?"
CJ’s chest hurt when she stopped breathing.
"Would it help if I said I couldn’t bear to see you crying? Would it help if I said you still owe me a drink?"
"Where are you?"
"It’s not over, CJ, that’s what I can tell you. It’s not over."
"What do you mean?"
"He’s still out there."
"Who?" she said and then more harshly when she understood, "What?"
"The man we picked up was a decoy. The man we’re tracking wasn’t after you specifically, but both of us."
"What do you mean?"
"You’re just the beginning of a much bigger plan, one that involves us all." She didn’t make a sound and he continued. "You’re still under secret service protection, even though you can’t see them now. And neither can he. Without us in the picture, the hunter becomes the hunted. I had to do it, CJ. I had to so he didn’t do anything to you."
She didn’t know what to say.
"If I was dead, you were safer. And if he thought I was dead, I had a better chance of getting him by working undercover than we ever had of getting him any other way."
"So you don’t have him yet."
"No." It hit hard in his voice like glass breaking.
"And what about me thinking you were dead?" She wanted to ask if that mattered to him at all.
"It needed to be real, CJ. If I told you, you wouldn’t have grieved. He would have known."
She wondered if he knew how much she had grieved.
"But what about New York?" she asked. "What about all the blood?"
"We wear bulletproof vests, CJ." He said it the same way he told her "they give us lessons" and "we run beside moving cars".
"Where are you?"
"CJ, I can’t – "
"Where are you?"
There was a silence on the phone and she wondered if her battery had gone or if he had hung up.
"Behind you," he relented at last. CJ turned around, put his tombstone behind her, and looked up a small ridge.
"Not there, to your left." In the darkness through the fireflies, she saw the shadowy outlines of a figure against the backpattern of stars and a crescent moon just beginning to rise.
"How do I know it’s really you?" CJ squinted through the darkness but she couldn’t see anything more than white crested rows of headstones that looked like the rushing tides.
"I am the soft stars, that shine at night," he said, and then he was beside her and she didn’t jump but reached out and even in the darkness as she touched his face, knew that it was him and he held her. "Do not stand at my grave and cry," he whispered. "I am not there, I did not die."
She didn’t know how long they stood there among ghosts and the lowering night until she knew she had to let him go, because she knew there was more than Vietnam, more than My Lai and Tonkin, more than broken glass, more than the past.
She couldn’t ask him if he was coming back. She couldn’t ask him when it would all be over.
"You can’t act as if anything’s different," he cautioned her. "You have to go on being the United States’ press secretary." Watching her through the darkness had hurt. It had hurt that she had carried on perfectly. It wasn’t until he realized she was doing the same thing he was that he knew.
"I know," she said.
"CJ, not even the President knows."
And she took a breath at what it had taken for him to come back, a man who had probably never broken the rules breaking every one that mattered. And she knew why she preferred Anthony and Cleopatra over Romeo and Juliet, because they were not children, because they fully knew what they were doing, because love was worth death and transcended death, because their love was too much to be contained within the limits of this world.
"When you come back," she said and he stopped her with a kiss.
"When I come back, I’m not even doing paperwork to see you," he said and she swore she heard broken glass sinking.
She felt him leave only by the emptiness that was where there had been none. She looked at the white gravestone that held only an empty coffin and the hope that good would triumph over evil.
In Cambodia there was an expression for bad times, when the world spun off its axis and things fell apart. All around her in the night at Arlington, the fireflies flew in swooping light as if they were broken glass melding in the darkness, to make the night not quite so deep. CJ felt the broken pieces within her, felt where they had cut and bled, felt where Simon’s had cut and bled within him. In the night, the fireflies continued like meteors and she reached to catch one with her hands the way her grandfather had taught her. When she opened her thumbs, a tiny green light blinked and bled over her. As the small insect flew back into the night in a blink of glass-like light like the soft stars that shone at night, she felt the broken pieces of glass within her, and she felt them not float, but sink.
All things West Wing belong to Aaron Sorkin, John Wells, NBC, etc … I own the stories.