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Rod looked at his watch. The conference had ended almost two hours early, because a speaker had failed to appear, apparently without letting anyone know in advance. In any case, he now had two choices, unless he wanted to reschedule tomorrow’s meeting with a delegation of visiting museum curators from Afghanistan, and he couldn’t.

One: return to his hotel room and browse a huge tome about Afghan artefacts – or – he could go to one of his old haunts, from back in college and see if through some miracle, one of his old friends had dropped by tonight of all nights.

In reality, he merely wanted to see the dear old place in its new incarnation, and – to be honest – put off studying those artefacts. Dusty old volumes – or not so dusty – really weren’t his top priority at this time. But Mac was counting on him, so naturally he’d do his best. Tomorrow.

Tonight, he’d use the extra hour or so to take a look at the old place and see if the atmosphere was still there. Twenty years ago he had been there almost every Friday or Saturday night, with his two or three closest friends, or – if he was lucky – Mac, who at that time hardly knew his name or his face, not like he knew hers. And not only her face – the rest of her too. Well, you’re only young once.

Twenty years ago? Suddenly he felt old. He and Mac had high school age kids. On the other hand, he and Mac had each other, despite the new and totally unexpected situation they were now in. If anyone had told him five years ago, that he’d be the ‘First Gentleman’ and live in the White House, he’d have laughed. The title hadn’t even been invented yet and besides, Mac hadn’t been interested in politics.

Not that he would change anything. Mac deserved her chance. He told the security people he would be ok. They frowned and silently exchanged looks. After a brief interval, the one who was in charge turned to him and let him know their decision.

“Sir, we’ll hold our positions outside. Just let us know when you’ll be returning to the hotel.”

For a second, a spark of his old independence made him wish to challenge that decision, then he recalled why the guards were there in the first place and swallowed his irritation. There were times when he wished he could just disappear into anonymity, like – a regular guy. But the man was only doing his job so he forced himself to reply in an even tone of voice.

“Thanks.”

Twenty minutes later, he was sitting roughly in the same place he used to, experiencing a feeling of a letdown. It was no use trying to recapture those days. The old place just wasn’t the same. While the decoration was fine and the open spaces no doubt made the room look more elegant, he missed the old color scheme and the comfortable if not exactly fashionable chairs. On the other hand, he knew it wasn’t the look of the place that disappointed him. He was the one who had changed. His priorities weren’t the same anymore. Back then, all he’d wanted was to have a good time. Get drunk. Get laid. See and do as much as possible before – he ended up married, middle aged and settled.

After another drink he was willing to look at the whole thing more philosophically. A good thing he had seen and done as much as he had. Besides, maturing was a good thing. When he looked at Horace and Rebecca he wouldn’t trade places for the world. The insecurity, the foolishness, the naivete, the awkwardness. None of that was anything to be missed.

Feeling more mellow now, he smiled relaxedly. After all, he was glad he’d taken the time to go out. This place or somewhere else really didn’t matter. It was good to just sit around among a group of strangers, minding his own business, not having to worry so much about appearances. Here, he was just a face in a crowd.

HIs neighbour raised his glass at him and caught his eye. Rod looked back, puzzled. Did he know this guy? What did he want? But the man merely smiled and nodded and looked back at his own glass. Rod gave a mental shrug. Maybe the other guy had mistaken him for someone else. After a few minutes he looked back and accidentally caught the other man looking in his direction. Not at him, but apparently at someone behind him.

Oh, well, nothing odd about that. He reached out his hand for his third and last drink, when someone brushed his arm and made his drink slosh over the side of the glass. Slightly irritated, he looked up but the man was already walking away. Arrogant bastard. Or perhaps he’d had one too many. No need to get all worked about it.

It was late. He’d better get going. Again, Rod glanced at his watch. It was time he was back at the hotel. He’d have to make an early start tomorrow. Suddenly, he felt dizzy. His head felt light and he was wondering if he’d eaten something that didn’t agree with him. The dizzy spell passed and he decided that he was just tired. His day had started before six as usual, and today he hadn’t had time for a proper lunch. Not like Kate Allen, his mother-in-law, used to prepare back home. He smiled at himself. After such a short while, thinking of the White House as home already came naturally to him.

He got to his feet and turned towards the men’s room. The room around him looked a little hazy, but he assumed it was just the smoke. Inside the men’s room, he walked over to the washbasins to splash some water on his face. Again, he felt the room spin around him and this time, strands of darkness blurred his vision. Blindly, he reached out for something to hold on to, but his consciousness slipped away and there was a sense of falling.

***

When he came to, he had difficulty opening his eyes. He kept fading in and out, but whenever he came to, barely, he had an unpleasant feeling something was wrong. It seemed he was lying down, but not on a bed. Underneath him was something hard and unyieldy. The surface of it felt slippery. Worse still, he wasn’t alone. Someone or something was pressing down on him. His insides felt as if they were on fire and he had difficulty breathing.

He tried to move his head and realized it was pinned down by something – no someone. Had there been an accident? Again he made an effort to open his eyes. He had to shut them again immediately. A sharp light blinded him. Instead of trying to see, he began to try and roll away from whatever was lying on top of him.

If only his head didn’t hurt so badly. What was wrong with him? Had the plane crashed? Or was it a car crash? An earthquake?

Someone said something in a loud whisper. For a while, nothing more happened, then mercifully the weight pinning him down was removed and it was easier to breathe. His entire body still hurt, but at least he was no longer held down.

He heard a sound as if from more than one person walking away. For a while, nothing more happened. He slipped back into unconsciousness then came to again. A door opened quite nearby and he heard noises as if from a party. Then someone shrieked. A woman?

“Hey, Marve. That guy – is he – ok?”

“I don’t know. Let’s get out of here. We’ll find somewhere else.”

Male voices. Rod moved his head and tried to look in their direction, but though he could see more easily, there wasn’t anything to see. A ceiling. A sharp light from overhead. A door. Nothing much else.

His memory began to return to him in snatches. He’d been in a bar. Then he was in the men’s room, feeling sick. Had he passed out? Was he still in that men’s room, or at least at the same bar? He didn’t think he recognized the room, but his eyes still weren’t working one hundred percent and his head still hurt. So did the rest of his body. He tried to look down on himself to see how badly he was injured, when he realized something strange. His clothes were gone. At least his jacket and shirt. His pants – were down by his ankles and his –

At this point, Rod felt a stirring of panic. His shorts were gone and – He was interrupted by the door opening again and this time he saw a man walking inside. They guy was dressed in what looked like black leather and he wasn’t alone. Behind him, Rod could vaguely make out another guy,

“Hey, are you done yet? Clem and I would like our turn if you’re through. Or if you’d like to join in -”

A wordless cry escaped Rod’s lips and the two men looked at each other in confusion.

“Hey, mister. Why don’t you stay off that stuff if it doesn’t agree with you? Jeez. Alright. Sleep it off. Come on, babe. There’s a room on the top floor. Ike will let me use that.”

Snatches of other memories flickered in Rod’s mind and again, he felt a shortness of breath which wasn’t due to being held down. Panic took hold of him and he began to hyperventilate. He didn’t know how long he lay like that, but he didn’t think it was too long.

Again, he heard footsteps from outside and he tried to move back. The slippery surface he was on turned out to be a sort of platform and when he reached the edge of it, he fell to the floor. He hit his back and lost his wind, but at that point he was beyond caring. His hand made contact with a piece of fabric and when he held it up, he thought he recognized his shirt. Ineffectually, he tried to cover himself up. One hand was groping for the waistband of his pants.

Whoever had walked into the room was now standing over him.

“Hey. You.”

He wouldn’t face the man, but it was no use. A hand gripped his chin, and though he thrashed about and sobbed in his terror, his face was tilted up for the man’s inspection.

“You won’t believe this, Pete. That caller was right. It is the president’s husband.”

“Come on. It’s probably just a lookalike. Could mean a story anyway. A funny coincidence, that sort of thing. Even if we have to retract later, we’ll still have sold -”

“No, I’m telling you it’s him. What’s his name – Rod. I’ve seen him. I’ve been to one of the White House press conferences and this is the guy.”

“Do you have any comment, mr Calloway?”

At last the strong hand let go of him and Rod was able to cower back into a corner. He stubbornly kept looking down. With shaking hands he pulled the shirt, or what was left of it, up to cover his chest. By now, he’d managed to pull his pants up to his waist, but they wouldn’t close anymore. Someone must have cut them open. Hunched over, he rocked back and forth, his mind in turmoil.

He never heard the cameras clicking, but became aware of other people crowding into the room. People were pushing and shoving and everyone wanted to see his face. Most of them didn’t go as far as to actually touch him, but one or two did like the first visitor and grabbed his chin.

“What’s wrong with him? Drunk?”

“Either that or on drugs.”

“I think he’s just faking it. Come on, think about it. The ‘First Gentleman’ – that’s a laugh – first hunk or whatever – nice abs, biceps too – caught in a compromising situation. Of course he’s pissed. Hey, Rod, smile for the camera. Does your wife know about what you do for kicks?”

“I say, do her voters know?”

At that point, some kind of brawl seemed to break out. People were beginning to struggle to get out, instead of pushing and shoving to get in.

After a few minutes of that, things began to settle down a little.

“Room secured. Did you get all the cameras?”

Rod missed the reply, but heard snatches of the rest.

“Couldn’t get – freedom of press – bastards.”

“Mr Calloway. Are you alright?”

Rod made an effort to look up. He wasn’t sure if whoever was addressing him was one of the establishment’s – whatever it was – own security guards – or his own agents. Something told him whoever it was meant to help him. But no one could help him. What had happened tonight would – The potential consequences could have such widespread effects –

“Mr Calloway – sir -”

After a while, they seemed to give up the effort of trying to communicate with him. Instead they held a whispered conference some distance away. Rod still picked up a word here and there, but most of the time he just sank back into partial unconsciousness.

“Injuries … drugged? … hospital … serious … doctor … somewhere secure … necessary … damage control.”

Now one of them, the one with a voice that sounded familiar, moved closer.

“Sir, we’ll have to move you out of here. If you’re seriously injured -”

The man seemed to reconsider, then his face moved closer.

Rod whimpered and tried to move away from him.

“Sir. Please. I won’t try to touch you. Let me look.”

Eventually, the man sighed and pulled back.

“Petersen. Get over here. See if he’ll let you take a look.”

A woman’s voice was saying something, which took a while to get through to Rod.

“Sir, please. Just let me have a quick look and we’ll get you out of here.”

The thought of being allowed to leave that vile room made Rod force himself to comply. He stopped trying to get away, and breathing shallowly, he slumped down immobile.

“Sir. I think he’s good to go.”

“Finally. Why did this have to happen on my shift? The President – Right. Let’s go. You and you make sure the guests and staff stay away. Jennings, Fuentes keep the press away. By now half the country will know.”

***

The next time Rod opened his eyes, he was in the back seat of a spacious car, rather like the one he was being driven in whenever he was going anywhere. Perhaps it was the one in which he’d been driven from the airport to the hotel. The doors were closed and the darkened windows kept out any curious eyes. It was a relief to find himself alone for a while. His head had settled down a little and his vision had cleared.

The enormity of what had happened had only just begun to sink in. Apart from the impact on his own life, he had to consider Mac. Her career. Her reputation. The children. Rod’s eyes filled with tears as he tried to imagine facing his children after – this. How could he see Horace or Rebecca, knowing that they knew what had happened to him? What would Mac think? Would she even believe that he hadn’t gone to that place of his own free will?

Someone had placed a jacket over him. It wasn’t his. This one had been made for someone quite a bit bulkier and a little taller. Rod pulled it closer around him and felt a solid weight dragging it down on one side. Could it be – He gingerly felt around inside it, and his fingers made contact with cold steel. A gun. Whoever had lent him the jacket must have forgotten to remove his weapon.

It suddenly hit Rod what he had to do. If he loved his wife and children, he wouldn’t expose them to the – ridicule of – what had happened. A husband who had been found in such – what was it the reporter had said – in a compromising situation. Compromised. What kind of a father would he be if he let his children find out what those men had done to him?

Driven by the fear of discovery, he pulled out the gun and held it in his hand, trying to find the proper balance. He’d never actually held a hand gun before. While he’d been in uniform, he’d learned to fire larger, heavier weapons, so this had to be easier, surely? Experimentally, he tried releasing the safety. After a few moments of desperate fiddling he got the hang of the mechanism and began to think of how he would do it. Briefly considering his abdomen, he changed his mind and decided to eat the gun instead. Less risk of missing.

The gun felt so heavy and his hand was shaking slightly as he raised it towards his face. He had to brush away a few tears with the back of his other hand, before seeing clearly again. Amy’s face flickered into his mind’s eye and he forced down the sobs which were threatening to overwhelm him. His little girl. What would she think, once she was old enough to understand? But she’d be better off without him. If he was still around when she realized what had happened –

With an effort he put the thought out of his mind. If he didn’t hurry – And his hesitation almost lost him the chance. Now the door to the left of him opened up and a jacketless man looked inside. Quickly sizing up the situation, the man launched himself at Rod and made a grab for his wrist.

A sharp pain shot through Rod’s wrist and he felt the gun slipping from his numb fingers, then a loud noise partially deafened him and something singed his skin.

The agents outside snapped into action.

“Jennings?”

“Sir. He had managed to find my gun -”

“You left your gun in there?”

“I’m sorry. My jacket -”

“Never mind. How bad is it?”

Jennings unhappily moved aside to let his senior agent take a look inside. From what could be seen during a cursory inspection not much harm had been done. A splash of blood on the cheekbone. That was all.

“Sir.”

Rod slumped down onto the seat again, dejectedly. He’d missed his chance. Now Mac would pay for his inadequacy.

***

They took him to a private clinic outside the city. Rod didn’t know exactly where it was and no one filled him in. They were met at the door by several members of the staff. He was placed on a stretcher and wheeled inside. What happened in the next hour or so, Rod tried his best to blank out. Unsuccessfully. Every detail stood out sharply in his memories of that night. He hadn’t thought anything except the loss of a family member could cause him to cry, like a baby. Refusing to meet their eyes, he kept his gaze firmly on his feet or the floor below him. He replied to their questions, if at all, in monosyllables.

It didn’t come as a surprise that the police wasn’t called in. At that point, he wasn’t in any state to object, even if he would have liked to. It wasn’t as if he cared much either way.

A female doctor in her late fifties or early sixties suggested that he see a counselor or a psychologist. He barely listened to her. Soon his wife would walk through the door and he’d be forced to face her and try to explain. How could he do that? He had no idea how he’d ended up in the situation he’d found himself in.

By now, he knew that his worst fears had been realized. Any hope he’d harbored of merely having been placed in what would seem like a compromising situation had vanished during the physical examination. The only thing that could vaguely be construed as good news, was that the doctor had been unable to find any DNA. Perhaps it had been done on purpose to avoid the possibility of anyone being physically linked to the crime. In any case, that was a good sign, the doctor had tried to explain to him. Less risk of infection.

Rod couldn’t see anything good about it. Less risk of infection might mean something to someone who had any hopes for a future. For him, the future had ceased to exist the moment he woke up and realized what was going on.

They left him in a room with only one bed. Small consolation. He’d been reassured that whatever drug had been in his system, had now more or less vanished. No negative side effects were to be expected. Again, this information didn’t make much impression on him. In his mind, he kept making up and discarding explanations for Mac. He had no idea how to tell her, or what to tell her. His mind was a blank.

In the meantime, Mac, who had been in an important meeting with the cabinet, had been called away to the phone. After being reassured that her children and her mother were fine, she immediately leapt to the conclusion that something had happened to Rod. A look of grim resolve settled on her face.

Ten minutes later, that look had given way to one of stupefaction. She had been unable to determine just how badly injured Rod was, or what exactly had caused it. In fact, she had very little idea of what had occurred. At least she had been reassured that Rod was alive and was likely to remain so, despite something about a gun shot wound. That didn’t make any sense. Had someone fired at him? Had Rod merely been in the wrong place at the wrong time? She had tried to find out the exact circumstances, but somehow, the security agent had been strangely vague on the details. There was nothing else for it. She’d have to go there in person to find out the truth.

Leaving the cabinet meeting in the capable hands of her Vice President, she looked in hastily on her children and explained – as far as she knew the explanation herself – to her mother. Half an hour later, she was sitting in her plane, on her way to the airport nearest to where Rod was. Apparently, he’d been hospitalized, but she didn’t understand why they’d taken him to such a small clinic, more or less out in the woods.

On the way, she at least satisfied her curiosity about the clinic. It was a small, highly exclusive sanitarium for wealthy people who needed to convalesce after plastic surgery or drug rehabilitation or some minor nervous breakdown. Isolated. Discreet. Why had they taken Rod there? Her initial reaction had been panic. This had been followed by a feeling of relief. Nothing quite as serious as she’d expected. Now, she wasn’t sure. There was something behind this – incident – which was puzzling and making her uneasy.

The senior agent in charge of Rod’s security during his trip met her at the airport. He rode with her in the car on the way to the clinic. She’d been right. There was definitely something he felt uncomfortable saying.

“How badly injured is my husband?”

“You’ll have to ask the doctor about that.”

“Alright. Where did this – incident – occur?”

“He’d gone to a bar and he’d asked us to return to the hotel. We couldn’t agree to that, so it was decided that we would wait outside the bar while he was in there. When he’d been gone for much more than the hour we’d agreed on, we went inside. There was no trace of him anywhere. After interrogating the remaining witnesses we determined that your husband had taken ill and had gone to the men’s room.”

“I see. Then what?”

“Someone had taken him out through a back door and out into the parking lot where he was placed inside a car and driven away to – another bar.”

“Another bar? Well, what happened to him there?”

“We’re not quite sure. When we found him he was – lightly injured and it seems he was under the influence of some drug. We think that was why he had to go to the men’s room – at the first bar.”

“Yes, I realize that too. Had he been shot?”

“No. That was later. In the car, on the way to the – clinic. We had to call ahead to make sure they’d receive him and that – security measures were up to -”

“Yes, yes. But how was he shot inside the car? With all of you there, it can’t have been a carjacking, surely?”

“No, madam President. He – there was some kind of accident. The gun went off and the bullet brushed his cheekbone.”

“Right. Then how was he injured at the second bar?”

“Madam President. The clinic is only about fifteen minutes’ drive from here. Any questions about his physical condition would be better addressed by a medical professional.”

Mac frowned. She was being given the runaround and she didn’t like it. Not only because she always hated that type of delaying tactic. This time, it was mostly because she was getting increasingly worried about Rod.

“Agent – Stanislawski – how badly injured was my husband? I’m not asking for a medical opinion. Just give me some idea of what to expect.”

“Ma’am – mr Calloway wasn’t badly injured. I’m sure he’ll make a full recovery.”

“I see. That wasn’t so hard, was it? I assume you’ve launched a full investigation into the incident?”

“Yes, ma’am. As we speak, we have agents following up on every lead -”

“Excellent. I’ll be following your work closely. However, what I actually meant the incident in the car. The – accident when my husband was shot. I shall expect a full report shortly.”

A look of discomfiture moved across the agent’s face, but was gone again, so soon, Mac almost wasn’t sure she’d seen it. Again, there was something decidedly evasive about the man. She’d have to get to the bottom of the whole thing. After she’d seen Rod and made sure he was ok.

The clinic turned out to look every bit as luxurious as she’d been led to believe. It looked more like a private house, though a bit on the large side, than an institution. The front of the building was lit up and several security agents in plain clothes stood deployed around it. Apparently, her people didn’t want to take any chances. Mac thought to herself, with a stab of irritation, that it was a bit late now, but she forced herself to remain calm. At least everyone was in agreement about one thing. Rod would be ok.

She could also see some men in uniform, presumably the clinic’s own security guards. The front door opened to let her and her four agents pass inside.

A woman about her own age met her and asked her to come along to see the doctor. Fine. She’d talk to the doctor and then they’d better take her to see Rod. The woman showed her into a spacious office, which didn’t look like a doctor’s surgery at all. Apparently it was merely a room to meet potential patients or their relatives.

A woman in her late fifties or early sixties was sitting behind the desk. She got up and held out her hand to Mac, who took it, while nodding briefly.

“Madam President – first of all I’d like to reassure you that your husband is not badly injured. He’ll make a full recovery. We have taken all precautions and – well – I’d like to recommend that he sees a psychologist. Later.”

“Yes. I see. Thank you. Exactly in what way was he injured? All I’ve heard was something about a gun shot wound.”

“Oh. That. It was a mere scratch. Nothing. It won’t leave a scar. No stitches were necessary.”

“Good. But what about -”

The doctor frowned slightly.

“I’m sorry. Didn’t the security people explain to you what had happened?”

By now Mac’s patience was wearing thin. She wouldn’t stand for any more evasiveness. In fact, now that she knew the essentials, why didn’t she just go and see Rod? They were wasting time. She pushed back her chair abruptly and got to her feet.

“Madam President. I apologize. I assumed – ”

“Everyone seems to have assumed a lot tonight. What is wrong with my husband? Why won’t anyone tell me? Let me see him. Now.”

She was sorely tempted to make that a direct order. After all, she was, technically, this woman’s superior.

“Madam President. Please. Sit down. I’ll -”

“You’ll explain to me now.”

“Yes. Of course. Your husband was given a drug, exactly which one will have to be determined later – we have taken blood samples and so on – and the result should be in some time tomorrow. Or – later today. This drug -”

“I knew he’d been given a drug. Then what?”

Again the doctor seemed to be hesitating and Mac decided that if she hadn’t blurted out the truth within one minute, she’d either order her to reply or go straight to find Rod.

“I’m sorry to have to tell you, but your husband has been the victim of sexual assault.”

All the fight seemed to go out of Mac at one stroke. No. That simply couldn’t be true. She’d been concerned about Rebecca and Amy. Horace too. But Rod – It had simply never occurred to her that her husband might –

“Are you sure?”

“There are – slight – injuries – inconsistent with consensual sex.”

Mac’s face lost every trace of color. She was feeling sick. For the first time in many years, she found herself in a situation she felt she had no control over.

“However, your husband will, as I said before, make a full recovery.”

“Physically.”

“Exactly. And as far as I could tell – there were no traces of DNA, which means the perpetrator or perpetrators must have been wearing condoms. We did of course take blood samples to test for STD:s but – ”

Mac’s eyes filled with tears and she looked down. This simply couldn’t be happening. How could something like that be possible? Someone must have – At the moment, she refused to take in the other implications of the attack on Rod. Whatever the consequences for her presidency, they could wait. Tonight she wasn’t primarily the President of the United States. For now, she was simply Rod’s wife.

“Take me to see him. I want to see my husband now.”

“Of course. This way, please.”

When she walked in, he was lying so still, Mac thought he was unconscious. The doctor had said something about a sedative. In a way, that would be a relief. Not to have to face him yet. Mac didn’t know what to say to him. Silently, she sat down and studied his face. The slight scratch caused by the bullet grazing him really was nothing. If she hadn’t been looking for it, she might even have missed it. What other injuries there might have been, none were visible. She thought she could imagine why and again, tears dimmed her sight. Furiously, she blinked them away, wishing she could find the men who had done this to Rod. She had never imagined being tempted to abuse her position and to –

When her vision cleared, she was startled to realize she was looking straight into Rod’s eyes. His breathing had been so quiet, she’d assumed he wasn’t awake. She forced herself to smile, feeling like a hypocrite. But she was pleased to see him, more or less in one piece, despite everything.

“Hey.”

“Mac – I’m sorry.”

“Sorry? Why? You have nothing to apologize for.”

“You have to know what I’m talking about. Didn’t they tell you -”

He broke off, not knowing how to explain if the doctor hadn’t already informed her. Tears trickled down his cheeks, but he wasn’t aware of it.

To Mac, each tear was a silent accusation. She hadn’t been able to do enough to protect her family. Someone had used the man she loved to get to her. She couldn’t stand it. It was simply too –

“Rod. Take it easy. I know. Just calm down. The doctor told me – you’re not badly injured. You’ll be – you’ll make a full recovery.”

As if that was of any consequence compared to –

“Your presidency – This will cost you – Because of me, you’ll lose -”

“No, Rod. Not because of you. And anyway, to hell with it. I didn’t sign up for this.”

As if he hadn’t heard her, he went on, in a dead, toneless voice, as if he was talking about someone else, something far removed from them.

“They’ll say – they’ll say I was cheating on you. With -”

By now, Mac was sobbing too, but her reaction didn’t filter through to Rod, until she put her hand on his and squeezed it.

Startled out of his compulsion, Rod looked up to see his wife in tears.

“Mac.”

“I know you didn’t cheat on me. I know you were drugged and -”

“That doesn’t matter. What matters is, I’ve harmed you and your presidency.”

“You haven’t harmed me. Someone did this to harm me, but right now, I don’t care. My family is more important to me than any job.”

“Being the President of the United States isn’t just any kind of job.”

“Yes, Rod, it’s just a stupid job. In fact, my stupid job hurt you. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that whoever is behind this did it to get to me. So if anyone hurt anyone, it was me. It’s my fault.”

“Mac, no. It’s not your fault.”

Strangely enough, now that Rod was facing Mac, he didn’t feel the same dread as before. All he wanted right now was to hold her. To comfort her. He could see that all this had been a horrific shock to her. In fact, he didn’t think he’d ever seen her this badly shaken before.

Though he was aching all over and inside too, he pulled her into his arms and held her, burying his nose in her hair. Somehow, he ended up feeling slightly comforted too.

***

Mac went outside to meet the security agents to find out how far along the investigation had come. She would make sure whoever was behind this was found and made to answer for his actions. This matter would be given the highest priority. She wouldn’t rest until she’d seen the culprit punished.

“Agent Stanislawski. Find us a room where we can meet in private. I want full access to whatever information your investigation has uncovered so far. Do you have anything on the actual perpetrators?”

“No, Madam President. Our agents are still questioning the guests at the – club, but so far, no one has had any useful information.”

“Keep working on it. I want to know who they are, and who’s behind it. Now – what about that gunshot wound?”

“Well, you see -”

Again, the man seemed not to know how to tell her something.

“Just say it, man.”

“It looks as if -”

Suddenly, it hit her with blinding force. Rod had been trying to kill himself. Either in shock over what had just occurred – or out of guilt over the potential consequences the incident might have for her presidency. In fact, he’d said something along those lines just now. Guilt? Over something that wasn’t his fault. Mac felt weighed down by the responsibilities of her office. How could she have lived with herself if her job – her bloody, stupid job – had taken her husband from her? Again she was seized by a cleansing rage which left her feeling fully alert and in control of herself. Someone was going to pay for this.

“We think that mr Calloway may have been confused and – it’s possible that he may have tried to – harm himself.”

“I see. And why was there a gun where he could lay his hands on it?”

“Jennings lent him jacket and – he must have forgotten his weapon in there.”

“So you do know who’s responsible?”

“The man will be discharged and reprimanded.”

“Make sure he is.”

Mac dismissed the agent and went to make arrangements to have Rod taken back to Washington. If he wasn’t allowed to come home right away, she would at least see him settled into a hospital back home.

***

Even before they were back in Washington, the first reports of the news came in. The mainstream media had picked up on what the tabloid reporters had seen in the room at the gay club. Even though half the country wasn’t even awake, tv stations were broadcasting news segments telling of the First Gentleman and his escapades at a gay club.

All the way back, Mac frowned in dismay and concern. She didn’t want her children to wake up to that kind of news. Rod was deeply asleep at the back of the plane. Mac walked back there to check on him several times during their short flight, keeping her countenance calm, in case he should wake up.

She called ahead to make sure her mother kept the children from watching the news. That was another complication. She would have to tell her mother something. Especially since she knew how much her mother cared about Rod. On the other hand, she also knew Rod wouldn’t want his mother-in law to know what had happened to him.

In the end, it became impossible to keep the secret from the twins. The only way would have been to keep them from going to school indefinitely, which wasn’t an option. Even that first morning, Mac had been forced to stand there and face their questions, hoping to find an explanation they could all live with.

At least Rod was more or less out of things. He’d been sedated and for the first few days, he was hospitalized under strict conditions of confidentiality.

Mac had to make up her mind in the blink of an eye. Part of her wished she could be more candid with the twins, because she knew they would find out the truth sooner or later, but she just couldn’t find the strength to stand in their own kitchen – well, strictly speaking, the White House’s kitchen – and tell Rebecca and Horace that their father had been sexually assaulted.

While her mother kept Amy out of the way for the time being, Mac weighed her words carefully and eventually managed to hit upon the right mix of truth and evasiveness. Now she knew how those security agents must have felt.

“Mom, what’s wrong? Has dad been in an accident?”

“Yes. He was injured in a car. A gun went off by mistake and a bullet grazed his cheekbone. Nothing serious. Just a scratch. And – he’d ingested something that didn’t agree with him at a bar we used to go to when we were at college. Just to make sure there are no negative side effects, he’s spending a night or two at a hospital here in Washington.”

“That’s all?”

Rebecca’s eyes seemed to grow to enormous proportions as she fixed her mother with an astonished stare.

“For a while I thought it was something really serious. So we’re going to school as usual?”

Mac knew what Rebecca was trying to pull and for a second, she hesitated. If she kept the twins home for a few days, the talk might have died down. Unfortunately, she knew this wasn’t going away. Sooner or later, the children would have to hear what people were saying about their father. It might as well be now.

Rebecca could see her mother hesitating and she seized on this tiny crack in the massive resolve her mother always showed when it came to staying at home from school.

“Oh, come on, mom. Please. You’ve been up all night and you must be exhausted. Grandma and I could -”

“What, Beccy? Bake me some cookies together?”

“Fine. I’m going. You always have to be so – upright.”

“Well, you have to admit that being upright is a good trait in a president.”

“Yeah, as in not chasing any interns and so on. But why can’t a President let her daughter stay at home from school once in a while?”

“She can. When the daughter is sick. Go on, Beccy, get ready for school.”

Rebecca gave an audible sigh and turned on her heel. Horace didn’t move. He fixed his mother with an unnerving stare.

“Mom, are you sure dad’s ok?”

“Yes, darling. He’ll make a full recovery.”

It was amazing how easily she fell into those glib phrases the agents and the doctor had used. Make a full recovery. Not be ok or fine. How could he? She couldn’t imagine anyone ever getting back to normal after what Rod had been through.

“Ok. I’d better make sure Beccy isn’t sulking in her room.”

“Thanks, honey.”

Again she considered changing her mind, even though that would undermine her authority, but she knew she would never be able to shield them from all the cruel talk out there.

Now she had to face her mother and as if that wasn’t tough enough, she’d need to think of something to tell Kelly before the press conference, and Jim Gardner. Besides, who knew? Nathan Templeton might show up on her doorstep asking awkward questions too. The thought of Templeton made her stop in her tracks. Surely even he wouldn’t stoop so low? She couldn’t imagine a Southern gentleman, as he liked to style himself, would dirty his hands with something so unspeakable.

***

The twins didn’t make it through the first day in school before someone made a reference to what had occurred that night. To begin with, all they caught were snatches of sentences. Whispers in the hallway. Hints.

Finally, someone who didn’t hear Horace coming, stood at the center of a group of gloating teenagers, telling the story as he’d heard it on the news that morning, before coming to school.

“And there he was. Lying on the floor underneath a half a dozen naked men. Honest to god. All naked and sweaty. Seriously.”

“You got to be kidding, Chris. The President’s husband? Get out of here.”

“No, no. It’s true. I heard it too.”

There were voices of assent from throughout the group. Then Horace’s presence began to filter through to them. Uneasily, the kids fidgeted, not willing to meet his eyes. Some of the girls slunk off. Only one guy stood his ground, a wide grin on his face.

“Speak of the devil. Or rather junior. You can tell us. Is it true that your dad’s a fag?”

For a second, Horace wasn’t sure he’d heard him correctly. Even though he’d been standing listening to them for a couple of minutes, he still hadn’t been able to truly understand what they were talking about. His dad? At least he knew what he was being asked and suddenly his temper flared.

“No. Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Then why was he caught with his pants down at a gay club? Last night?”

“You’re wrong.”

“He doesn’t know. Leave him alone. Let’s go.”

But the boy who had confronted Horace still wouldn’t back down. He had never liked Horace and this was an opportunity too good to turn down.

“Come on, don’t tell me you don’t know. Maybe you don’t want to talk about it. I mean, let’s face it, you’re his son. Who knows if these things are contagious or hereditary? Are you a fag too, Horace?”

The boy had a way of drawling the vowels in Horace’s name. It infuriated him, which more or less was the reason for it.

“Shut up. You take that back.”

“About you or about your dad?”

“About both of us. It’s not true and anyway you don’t know anything about us.”

“Oh, but I do. It was all over the news this morning. How your dad was in a gay orgy at a gay club.”

This time, Horace didn’t even bother to contradict the other boy. Not verbally anyway. His fist made contact with the other boy’s jaw. After the first second or two of stunned disbelief, the boy collected himself and fought back. Soon they were lying on the floor, rolling around, trying to gain the upper hand. Some kids were yelling encouragement, others merely stared avidly. It wasn’t every day you saw such a fight in the corridor.

The boy’s friend, Chris, kept on taunting Horace even now.

“Hey, look at that. That has to be how it looked at that club. Horace, don’t enjoy it too much. We’re in public.”

Someone had run to get a teacher, and soon Horace and his opponent were standing at arm’s length, being sent off to the principal’s office.

In the meantime, Rebecca had a rude shock coming to her in the girls’ toilet. She’d decided to touch up her makeup, and walked into a group of five girls talking and giggling animatedly.

“And Joss told me he’d been found at a gay club. Having an ORgy. Honestly. A GAY orgy. I mean, can you iMAGine? How would you feel if your husband was caught doing something like THAT?”

One of the other girls chimed in.

“My mom says it’s never for real, those celebrity marriages. It’s like in Hollywood. They’re just faking it, to get more publicity. Like, the President, well, she’s got to be married, right? Or they’d say she’s a lesbian or something.”

The girl broke off, as if she’d just thought of something, then continued, her voice raised half an octave.

“Maybe she IS! Anyway, so she get’s this gay friend of hers to pose as her husband and – now he just couldn’t hold it in anymore. He had to have some – ”

“Oh, come on, Tina. They have kids. Yummy Horace and that awful -”

By now, one of the other girls had jabbed her elbow into the talking girl’s side and was nodding furiously in Rebecca’s direction. Too late, the talkative one saw her mistake and began to smile insincerely.

“Oh, hi, Rebecca. I didn’t hear you come in.”

“What were you saying just now? About my brother and -”

“Oh. He’s such a hottie. Of course, you won’t be able to see it yourself, but we, I mean, most of us, think he’s just dreamy.”

“You’re right, I can’t see it, but you were saying something about me too, weren’t you? What were you going to say? Go on. Say it now.”

“I said – you’re awesome. Yes, that’s right. You’re awesome. With all your fantastic clothes and – everything.”

“You said awful, but never mind that. What were you saying about my parents?”

At this point, Rebecca’s voice had reached such a pitch, some of the girls were beginning to look anxious. One of them began to back off, heading slowly for the door.

“It was just that we all heard it on the news. About your dad at that gay club. I mean, it’s ok to be gay. Right, girls? It’s just that, if he’s married, shouldn’t he, you know, stick to his wife, like in ‘forsake all others’, you know? I was just saying that.”

“My dad isn’t gay. And you were saying that my mom -”

“Well, I was just thinking that if she’s married to a gay man, then maybe – but of course, that was just a thought. I feel SO sorry for her. With a husband who can’t get along without gay orgies. I mean, even if it’s ok to be gay, orgies must be like – you know, a bit too much?”

If she was expecting a reply from Rebecca, she was going to be disappointed. At least if she expected it in oral form. Instead, to her utter amazement, she found herself being slapped across the face. Hard. Her cheek turned a vivid, hot red, then she burst into tears. That didn’t stop Rebecca. She began to push and shove the other girl up against the wall. Too stunned to even try to defend herself, the girl just stood there receiving blow after blow on her arms, in her face, until the other girls tried to intervene. The one who was standing closest to the door fled in search of a teacher.

Ten minutes later, the twins met in the principal’s office. Horace was sporting a black eye. Rebecca’s eyes were red from crying and her face was blotchy and swollen.

“Beccy.”

Horace got to his feet and in a rare display of affection pulled his sister into his arms. Rebecca resisted him for a while, then slumped down against her brother’s chest.

“It was awful.”

At the mention of that word, she began to cry harder, as she recalled how that girl had referred to her exactly like that.

“They were saying stuff about dad and mom and about me and -”

“I heard it too. No, wait. What were they saying about you?”

“That I was awful. She said they all thought you were yummy and dreamy, but they hate me. Never mind. She said that dad had -”

“Yes, I heard that too.”

“It can’t be true, can it?”

Horace didn’t know. Right now, he felt he couldn’t be sure of anything. On the one hand, he knew his dad. What that boy had been saying, and apparently some girls too, couldn’t possibly be true. But where had they heard such a story? He was beginning to feel uncomfortable about the whole thing. His dad had been injured tonight. By a gunshot wound, according to mom. He’d – also been drugged – or used drugs? What if –

“No, Beccy, it can’t be true. Those girls were just being mean.”

“I know. But how could they have heard something about a gay club?”

“I don’t know. Sometimes – sometimes the press make up weird stories, just to sell papers. It could be something like that. Or – it could be someone who looks a little like dad.”

“I want to go home. Horace, can we go home?”

“I hope so. We’ll probably be suspended now.”

“Good. I never want to come back here.”

For the first time in his life, Horace agreed with his sister about school. Right now, he didn’t care if he never saw the place again.

***

Their security agents brought them home. Rebecca was still crying and Horace’s mind was working overtime. What they had heard in school just had to be a deliberate lie. Anything else would just be too dreadful to accept.

When they arrived at the White House, it seemed someone had called ahead and informed their mother.

Despite her work load, she was waiting for them in the living room. She immediately spotted Horace’s black eye and the state of Rebecca’s face and makeup. Guessing the reason for their condition, she sighed and searched her mind for something to say.

Before she had come up with anything, Rebecca began to cry and speak incoherently.

“Slow down, darling. I can’t hear you.”

“What’s wrong with dad? We heard some stories at school and -”

“Dad will be ok. Stop worrying about him. An investigation is being carried out right now, to find out what happened and who is responsible.”

“For what? For that gunshot wound?”

Mac bit her lower lip. It was too soon. She wasn’t ready yet. How could she explain this to her children? Even trying to talk to her mother had been bad enough. At least Amy was still in school. Fortunately, her friends would be too young to be interested in the morning news.

“No. The incident at the bar. You know the one where dad and I used to go at college.”

“When he took that drug?”

Mac hesitated. She’d already said almost as much and unless she chose to begin to lie to her children today, she’d have to tell them something.

“Yes. There’s evidence that there was a drug present in his blood stream. Then – later he was found at another bar.”

Rebecca and Horace exchanged glances. So it was true. Their minds filled with questions they were afraid to ask. Suddenly, confronting their mother didn’t seem so urgent anymore. The last thing they wanted was to make things more difficult for her, when clearly their father hadn’t worried at all about her well-being.

Horace hurriedly began to retreat.

“I see. Well, I’d better get going. I have some homework to do. Sorry about getting into that fight. It won’t happen again.”

Mac thought could see what was going on and she wanted to reach out and hold her children back. She wanted to tell them not to worry, that she had the situation under control. But how could she? Sadly, she nodded to Horace.

“That’s alright, Horace. After what happened – last night – naturally you were upset. I’ll talk to the principal about it. In the meantime – you can both stay at home. At least for a while. We’ll send for your homework and you can study here. Ok?”

“Ok, mom. Thanks.”

Horace didn’t sound enthusiastic, but she’d never expected him to anyway. Homework wasn’t Horace favorite pastime.

After Horace had left the room, Rebecca hung back, still undecided about what to say to her mother. In the end, she decided to do what Horace had. Retreat before she found out more than she wanted to know.

“Thanks, mom. I’m sorry too, for getting into that fight.”

This was news to Mac. She had assumed that the security agents had wanted to bring them both home after Horace had been suspended for fighting. So Rebecca too, had been fighting. That was something Mac hadn’t thought was possible.

“Yes, alright, sweetheart. You were upset. We’re all upset. I’m sure the principal will see that.”

“Ok. I’ll just get going now.”

In the doorway, she stopped and looked back. Suddenly, she couldn’t help asking the question which had been on her mind ever since that horrible moment inside the girls’ toilet.

“Mom -”

“Yes, darling?”

“You’re not – you’re not a lesbian, are you?”

“A lesbian?”

Her mother’s astonished tone of voice must have reassured Rebecca slightly, because the look of confusion on her face cleared up slightly.

“No, of course not. Is that why you got into that fight?”

“Yes. The girls were saying really aw – terrible things about me and you and -”

“What kind of things? Like me being a lesbian?”

“Yes. And they thought I was – awful and -”

“Well, they’re obviously wrong. You’re not awful and I’m not a lesbian. Not that there’s anything wrong with -”

“Stop it, mom. I know there’s nothing wrong with being a lesbian. I just don’t want you to be one.”

“What else were they saying?”

“That – Horace was a hottie and -”

“I see. And that was so terrible?”

Rebecca could see that their conversation was only going to backfire, so she wisely decided to put a stop to it.

“Yes. But never mind. They’re wrong. It was silly of me to get so upset. I’ll just go and – do my homework now. And you can go back to work.”

Mac couldn’t help smiling a little. For a while, she had thought that the twins had found out something about Rod, but if they had, they weren’t going to say so. And Rebecca was right. She did have to get back to work. Though first she was going to arrange for Rod to come home. The sooner he was safely inside their home, the less worried she would be. And the less they’d be exposed to cruel gossip.

***

When Rod returned home, the twins put in the briefest possible appearance, then vanished back to their rooms, with hardly a glance at their father. Mac was wondering if this was because of something they’d heard in school or if they simply didn’t want to have to explain why they’d been sent home. She suspected they knew something, but she had no way of explaining things clearly, so she had to let the matter go for the time being.

At first Rod was in too bad shape, emotionally, to notice that his older children were avoiding him. He went to bed and stayed there under the supervision of a nurse Mac had hired. Kate sent him trays filled to overflowing with his favorite food, but he had to send them back, practically untouched.

Even after a week had gone by, Rod failed to notice anything out of the ordinary in the twins’ behavior. They were always busy with their own lives, and normally he was too. It wasn’t until another couple of days had gone by that he noticed anything wrong. However, what happened didn’t involve the twins.

The first time he ventured outside his room, he found his youngest daughter lying on the couch in the living room, her face buried in a cushion, crying her eyes out.

Filled with concern, Rod hurried to her side and sat down. He stroked her hair gently and waited for the worst sobs to subside.

“What’s the matter, sweetie?”

Amy turned a tear-stained face towards him, looking utterly distraught.

“Come on, tell me about it.”

“Some of the children in school were saying that you – that you – that you don’t love mommy anymore. That you love MEN.”

A shiver went down his spine. So his secret had reached the ears of elementary school children. One of his worst fears had been realized and for a moment he was too stunned to reply. Amy took this as confirmation of her statement and began to cry even more violently.

Rod lifted her up so he could see her face and sat her down on his lap. Gently he brushed back the hair that was plastered to her forehead.

“Listen to me, Amy. Those children are wrong. I don’t love anyone more than I love your mom. It’s true. And I definitely don’t love any men. Who told you that?”

Amy mumbled something barely audible. Perhaps it didn’t matter anyway.

“You mustn’t listen to them. They have no idea what they’re talking about. Will you promise me you won’t listen to anyone who tells lies about our family?”

She nodded emphatically.

Rod managed to find a tissue in his pocket and began to wipe Amy’s face.

“There. Are you feeling better now?”

Her little face lit up and her smile touched him, even though he still felt chilled.

“Yes. Thanks, dad. I’ll tell them. It’s not nice to lie about people.”

“No, it certainly isn’t.”

“Ok. I’d better go now. I think grandma’s making cookies again. We’ll save some for you and mom.”

“Thanks, honey.”

Rod sighed. He’d have to talk to Mac about keeping Amy from school for a while. He’d had a vague feeling that the twins were around a lot more than before, but he wasn’t sure. Lately, he hadn’t exactly been paying attention.

Horace was doing his best to keep his distance from his dad. Their relationship hadn’t been good for quite some time, but now, angered over what he perceived as his father’s betrayal of his wife and family, he was filled with an intense bitterness. After the incident in school, he forced himself to follow the news attentively. The mainstream media mentioned the situation in such discreet wording, Horace put no stock in it. Other papers, and websites put it more bluntly. Each of those tabloids and similar publications confirmed what Horace had heard in school.

In his mind, he began to scrutinize his memories of his dad and part of him was beginning to believe there had always been something – not quite masculine in his father. What man, Horace asked himself, would be content to merely stay around the house all day and be a housewife? Forgetting, rather unfairly, that his father actually had a job, one which his mother had given him against the advice of her closest associates, he continued his harsh analysis of his father.

Horace was convinced that his father had ignored his mother’s precarious position and indulged his cravings. Not wanting to do anything to make things worse for his mother, he decided to give his father a wide berth. He went so far as to avoid coming to meals with his family, just so he wouldn’t have to run into his father. Whenever he wasn’t studying on his own in his room, or visiting friends, he made sure he was at the gym, working out. He noticed that Rebecca was doing the same, except for going to the gym. They avoided discussing the matter between them, but Horace could tell that his sister was just as mortified by the whole thing as he was. Another thing his father was responsible for.

Eventually, Rod became aware of his older children’s absence and decided to find out what was keeping them. He was wondering if perhaps his wife or mother-in-law were taking their protectiveness a little too far. At first, he’d been in too bad shape to really worry much about seeing his children. He still felt empty and traumatized, but time had at least healed him enough to take more notice of his surroundings.

It occurred to him that Mac hadn’t told him anything about how the twins were doing. Not even how they’d reacted to the news of his – of what had happened to him. What had she told them? Rod realized that he had no idea of any of that. Judging by Amy’s reaction, it would have been surprising if the older children had been unaware of something having happened.

When Mac returned from a late meeting, Rod was waiting for her, in the kitchen. He’d made himself a sandwich but he hadn’t been able to force himself to touch it.

Mac’s worried frown lifted momentarily as she caught sight of her husband.

“What are you doing still up, darling?”

“Oh, you know. I’ve been cooped up in here for so long, I’m not really tired.”

Mac smothered a yawn. She wished she wasn’t so desperately tired. Outside of her normal duties, she had been trying to follow the investigation into – Rod’s abduction. Nothing had come to light. Their efforts had been hampered by the need for secrecy. And why, she was wondering bitterly, did they need to do that? If she hadn’t been the President – But then again, if she’d merely been a college professor, who would have harbored enough of a grudge against her to launch an attack on her husband?

The tabloids certainly didn’t feel the need to treat the matter with silk gloves. All the investigation had uncovered was that the photographers and reporters who had found Rod at that – club – had been tipped off, anonymously by phone. That was more or less all the taxpayers’ dollars had been able to buy.

Absently, she began to nibble on the sandwich on Rod’s plate. What she wouldn’t do for just a few hours of sleep –

“Mac – aren’t the twins having dinner with us anymore?”

Mac had almost fallen asleep on the chair where she was sitting hunched over.

“What?”

“The twins. Aren’t they having dinner with us anymore?”

“Oh. I don’t know. Ask mom. I guess, with you mostly in bed and me mostly working – would you like to have your dinner at the table now?”

She was hoping this meant Rod was feeling a little better.

“Yes, but – I haven’t seen Horace or Rebecca, at least nothing more than their retreating backs since -”

A spasm of pain flew across his face, which seemed to Mac to have become thinner in the past couple of weeks.

She didn’t know what to say. Pushing away the plate, she tried to get to her feet, hoping she could persuade Rod to come to bed. She was more or less sleeping already.

“I was just wondering – did you tell them to leave me alone?”

“No. They’re probably just being teenagers. You know how they are.”

Yes. That was the problem. It was hard to tell if they were deliberately avoiding him because of what had happened – or if they were deliberately avoiding him anyway, because they were teenagers. How could he guess which it was? He sensed something had changed, but that could well be him, not his children. Anyway, if he found out the truth, would it make him feel any better? He doubted it, but it still felt odd, not knowing what his children were thinking about him.

“Come on, darling. Let’s go to bed.”

Rod looked up to find his wife looking more exhausted than ever. A stab of concern made him temporarily forget his own situation.

“Of course.”

He took her hand and walked with her towards the bedroom. Before they could go to bed, Mac wanted to look in on Amy. Their youngest daughter was fast asleep, almost diagonally across the bed. Mac straightened her out and Rod pulled up the covers and tucked her in. He wanted to stay and watch her all night. Here was something that hadn’t changed. But he didn’t want to alarm Mac by appearing different, so he followed her into the bedroom.

***

The next few days, Rod kept a close eye on the twins. To his distress he noticed that they refused to meet his eyes. Rebecca’s face flushed pink and she appeared nervous to even be in the same room with him. Horace seemed to have grown even more hostile than usual. On the few occasions Rod met him up close, he could see his son’s eyes glaring angrily at him. Rod couldn’t understand what had caused that reaction. He tried to sound Kate out, but he was embarrassed to even bring up the topic, so he was forced to let the matter go.

Amy still appeared to be her usual carefree self. Always on the lookout for a snack or other treat. It was amazing that she hadn’t become more plump that she was. But Rod was happy to see her so cheerful.

No matter how many times he tried, he was unable to catch Rebecca alone and get her to talk to him. She was always hurrying away to see a friend or shut into her room, doing whatever sixteen-year-old girls do, most likely talking on the phone.

One night, Horace had stayed in the living room watching a game on tv. He was lying on the couch, legs dangling over the armrest, eating popcorn from a dish standing on a side table. The scene was so much like the old days, Rod was hoping he could sit down and watch the ending of the game with his son, as if nothing had changed.

He was wrong. The second Horace saw him, the boy shot up and turned to leave.

Despite his misgivings, Rod suddenly felt he had to know what it was Horace was accusing him of.

“Wait.”

Horace was pretending he hadn’t heard and continued to walk quickly towards the door. Rod got up and put a hand on his son’s shoulder. The boy whirled around furiously, causing Rod to take a step back.

“Don’t touch me.”

His voice was filled with venom and again, Rod wondered what it was Horace felt he had done wrong.

“Stop. I want to talk to you.”

“Leave me alone.”

“No. Get back in here and sit down.”

Horace glared back at his father, looking as if he was going to refuse. The battle of wills was uneven, but eventually, the boy shrugged and sat down in front of the tv. The expression on his face told Rod he’d have trouble making Horace listen. All the while, he was wondering what exactly he thought to gain by confronting his son. What was he trying to prove? That he could still exert his authority as a father?

“Horace – why are you so angry?”

“You have a nerve, asking me that. After what you’ve done.”

“What have I done?”

“You know.”

Horace was still scowling at him.

“No. I have no idea why you’re acting like this. What is it you think I’ve done?”

It seemed Horace had a hard time believing he was hearing that question.

“You – cheating on mom – like that. Taking drugs. Orgies in gay clubs. You disgust me. How can you even think of treating her that way? I mean, it would be bad enough if she was still working at the university, but now – You don’t care at all, do you? But how could you – someone like you – a pervert.”

Rod felt his face drain of all color and he looked around for a chair to sink down onto. He found nothing other than the couch his son was sitting on, back straight and a mask of hatred on his face.

His own son believed he – Now Rod regretted forcing this discussion with Horace. It would have been much better not to know his son’s feelings towards him. It was so unfair. Somehow, though it was the last thing he wanted to do, he had to try and reason with they boy.

“You’re wrong. Horace, none of that is true.”

“Oh, really? And you’d tell me if it was?”

“Horace, if it were true, I wouldn’t be here. I’d have divorced your mother years ago – or never married her in the first place. And about – her position – I’d do anything to protect her and you should know that. I’d do anything to protect you or your sisters too. Look at me. You know me. I’m your father.”

“I’m beginning to wonder. Maybe mom was inseminated or something.”

“Trust me. She wasn’t.”

“Then why were you doing drugs? Why were you in an orgy at a gay club? Oh, I suppose you’re going to tell me that never happened either? You must think I’m really stupid.”

“I – didn’t take any drugs.”

“This is no use. You’re not going to tell the truth and I’ve had it with your lies.”

“I’m not lying. Listen to me. Someone gave a spiked drink at the bar.”

Horace stared at his father in disbelief. When he opened his mouth again, he sounded less aggressive.

“Why would anyone do that?”

The effort of making Horace listen to him had left Rod emotionally drained. Now what? How could he explain to his son what had happened to him that night? The images reared up out of the darkness of his mind and held him enthralled. He pressed his hands against his eyes and began to whimper in pain.

Aghast, Horace sat transfixed, staring at his father as if he’d never seen him before. For a second, he imagined he was seeing the side effects of long-term drug use, then a horrible thought entered his mind. Once it had taken hold, it wouldn’t leave him alone. What if – NO. That was something he definitely didn’t want to contemplate. Not his dad. Had he been wrong all along? Was his dad not the ruthless pervert he’d accused him of being? Was the truth something far more unsettling?

“Dad?”

But his father seemed to be lost inside some personal nighmare, only he could see. Anxiously, Horace placed a hand on his father’s shoulder. The violent reaction to his touch startled and shocked Horace and he snatched back his hand as if he’d burnt it.

“Hey. Dad. Please, calm down. I’m sorry. Please, forgive me for believing -”

The distress in Horace’s voice finally filtered through to Rod and he forced himself to snap out his brooding.

“I’m sorry.”

“No, I’m sorry, dad. I shouldn’t have talked to you like that. You were right. I should have known better.”

“Horace – it’s true. I was at that – place. Someone took me there while I was out and -”

Though Rod was once again in control of himself, his eyes dimmed with tears. He felt as if he was lying on that platform again, naked, and his son was watching. The shame made him want to curl up somewhere and die, if he could just somehow escape the pain and humiliation.

Horace’s own eyes were misting too and he began to sob. He wished he hadn’t found out the truth, but if he hadn’t, he still would have been walking around hating his own dad, who hadn’t done anything wrong, who was just an innocent victim of – If only he’d been Amy’s age and could still have been happily unaware of the evil that lurked everywhere. At the back of his mind, he’d known for a long time that Beccy was at risk and so was Amy. Though he didn’t want to dwell on it, he also knew that his mother might run the risk of falling victim to – He even knew, though he refused to think about it, that he too might be at risk. But he’d never imagined that his dad – It was just too – sick.

Without thinking he threw himself into his father’s arms and Rod held on to his son, somehow feeling responsible for the boy’s desolation.

At that moment, Rebecca walked in. Ill at ease, she wanted to turn and leave, but her brother, who had heard her come in, moved to stop her.

“Beccy, wait. Come here. There’s something you need to know.”

“I have to go and -”

“No, please. Listen to me. We were wrong. Dad hasn’t – What we heard in school wasn’t true. Dad, tell her.”

Rod shook his head as if to clear it. Right now, after the emotional turmoil, he felt too dazed to think of refusing. If Horace knew, Rebecca had better know too. He’d been foolish to think they could keep their older children unaware of what had occurred. Painful though it might be, for all of them, they would be better off knowing, rather than being exposed to sensationalist stories.

“Beccy – whatever you heard in school – I never willingly did anything to betray your mother. Someone spiked my drink and – had me taken to – the place where I was found. I’m not – I’ve never – ”

At first, it didn’t appear as if Rebecca had heard a word her father had said. She stood over them, looking as if she still would rather take flight.

Horace wanted to shake her. At times, she could be so – insensitive.

But Rebecca wasn’t indifferent to what she’d just heard. The impact of her father’s revelation was only just hitting her with full force. Her eyes filled up with tears and she began to sob. She ran up to the couch and threw herself into her father’s arms.

Rod held on to his children, feeling a certain distance to his own predicament. Once again, someone he loved had been hurt because of him. If he’d been stronger, he wouldn’t have missed. That shot wouldn’t have merely grazed his cheekbone, it would have ended the pain once and for all. Eventually, Mac and the children would have forgotten about him and –

As if Horace had been able to read his mind, he called out the insight that had just struck him.

“That bullet wound. On your cheek.”

He pointed to his father’s face, which made Rod pull back, rather self consciously.

“You were trying to kill yourself, weren’t you?”

Rod closed his eyes, wondering if the humiliation would ever end. He should have succeeded – or not even tried. Now his muddled attempt had caused his family even more distress. He knew Mac had guessed what he’d been about to do, but mercifully she hadn’t mentioned it.

“Horace -”

This caused Rebecca to sob louder and bury her face at her father’s shoulder. Horace patted her hair helplessly. He and his big mouth. What good had it done, confronting his father with that? Now Beccy was even more upset than before.

“Listen to me, both of you. I made a mistake. At the time I was – I wasn’t thinking straight and – it was wrong of me, but I – Anyway, I swear to you, I won’t abandon you. I’ll never do anything like that again.”

He might never feel the same again, but he still had responsibilities as a father and a husband. Whatever happened in the future, he couldn’t let them down.

***

Mac was sitting in the Oval Office, wondering for the thousandth time since the incident, who could have hated her enough to set such a trap for Rod to get at her. Or was she looking at it the wrong way? Was whoever was behind this, an enemy from Rod’s own past? Or were they both just pawns in a larger game? Was the attack aimed at the Presidency or the authorities in general? No, this targeted her or Rod directly. It had to be personal.

The investigation so far, hadn’t uncovered anything of importance. Everywhere they ran into dead ends. Whoever was responsible must have covered his tracks well. Or her tracks. She couldn’t ignore the possibility that it was a woman. In fact, the method might indicate that it was. What man would plan and carry out something like that? Someone who resented her and what she stood for?

She’d turned the matter over and over in her mind, and she couldn’t think of anyone she knew personally, who might wish to harm her or Rod. It had to have something to do with her position, or possibly Rod’s position.

Again, she considered the possibility that it might be Nathan Templeton’s doing. But she didn’t think even him capable of such an atrocity.

Strangely enough, not long after she’d taken the time to go over the matter again, Templeton walked in, appearing ill at ease. Mac suspected he’d come to take advantage of her presumed weakness and decided to play along for the time being, only to disillusion him when she knew what he was after.

“Madam President.”

“Nathan.”

“I – I’ve come to discuss a matter of some delicacy. The – incident – involving mr Calloway – ”

Mac’s face hardened. If he’d come to gloat, she’d throw him out. With her own two hands. Protocol be damned.

“Yes?”

“I have heard that so far your investigation hasn’t turned up anything useful.”

“Really? Where did you hear that?”

Templeton smiled and shrugged lightly.

Mac decided that she couldn’t sit here smiling and hinting. She’d ask him to his face, and if she mortally offended him, she could live with that.

“Before we continue this conversation I have to ask you something, Nathan.”

He raised his eyebrows slightly but as always the suave Southern gentleman, he made an elegant hand gesture encouraging her to speak.

“Were you responsible for what happened to Rod?”

Normally, Templeton’s face was an unreadable mask, showing only the emotions he wished to convey. This time, he was clearly taken by surprise, allowing his true feelings to spill onto the surface.

Mac prided herself on being able to read people’s faces, sensing the truth from them, if she really put her mind to it. It seemed to her that Templeton was not only shocked and astonished, he was also – at this she felt a slight hint of remorse – hurt.

“Madam President, I’ll try not to take offense. The emotional trauma -”

“Yes, yes. I know.”

“I would never stoop so low, even if I wanted to harm an enemy.”

He placed a great deal of emphasis on the last word, as if to say that he didn’t consider her an enemy, as much as a competitor or perhaps opponent.

“No. I did not have anything to do with what happened to mr Calloway.”

Mac faced him squarely, and in the end she was satisfied.

“I apologize. I -”

“Say no more.”

Smoothly, he waved the matter aside. Mac cursed under her breath. If only he didn’t take offense. At this time the last thing she needed was to have to watch out for a stab in the back.

“I came to offer you my assistance. As you know, I – have my own sources of information.”

“Have you heard anything?”

Templeton hesitated. Strictly speaking he hadn’t heard anything. He didn’t know anything for a fact. It was just a – hunch.

“Not exactly. It’s more of a suspicion.”

“Well?”

“No. I can’t tell you more until I have more to go on. If I can, I’ll bring you conclusive evidence.”

Mac forced herself to relax. She wasn’t about to declare war.

“Thank you, Nathan. I – appreciate your offer.”

Something in her tone made Nathan turn the full force of his gaze onto her. Even at his age, his eyes hadn’t lost any of their underlying steel.

“Don’t mention it. This – ignoble act deserves to be punished. Now, I’ll get back to work. Would you – give my regards to mr Calloway?”

Touched, Mac again smiled at her unexpected visitor.

“Of course. Please give my regards to mrs Templeton.”

“She’ll be delighted to hear from you.”

***

Nathan Templeton was amazed at what he’d uncovered. The truth was more astonishing than he’d expected. To think that the resistance to change of this kind had been so widespread. But he didn’t feel in any way intimidated by these people. He knew some of them personally and they couldn’t touch him. They wouldn’t have dared to touch the President herself. Templeton found himself filled with contempt for them, for choosing the cowardly option of striking at the President through her husband.

He picked up the file containing all the information his people had gathered for him. A copy of everything had been sent to his attorney for safekeeping, another had been mailed to his own office, just as a precaution. This one was going straight into the President’s hands. She could make up her own mind about what needed to be done. If she chose to use official channels, he’d place his own people at her disposal. If not, he would still offer his assistance.

Half an hour later, Mac was staring in astonishment at the papers lying on her desk in front of her. She scanned the pages again, not quite able to believe in what she saw.

“A group of anti-feminists?”

“You might wish to call them that. Personally I just see them as reactionaries.”

“I don’t get it. Why would they find me and my position so offensive?”

“Not only that. Your husband – the First Gentleman’s status – has been perceived as repugnant.”

“Why?”

Templeton shrugged elegantly. Why indeed? It wasn’t as if mr Calloway’s main occupation was to cook dinner, set tables or arrange flowers. In Templeton’s view, Calloway had made the only possible choice under the circumstances. He’d demanded a position at his wife’s side.

Contrary to what people might expect, Templeton himself wasn’t opposed to equality between the genders, as long as women did not end up ahead of men. Always the pragmatist, he felt capable enough to hold his position among his peers, regardless of their gender. Had his wife felt the inclination to hold down a job he would not have taken that as a slight against his ability to provide for her. As long as she did not end up supporting him.

“I don’t know. These people are narrow-minded and intolerant. I’m more surprised they actually managed to – carry out this attack. If you read that report – you’ll see that I suspect they had help from an unexpected quarter.”

“A Democratic senator?”

“I’m afraid we’ll never be able to touch him, but the rest of them -”

“Yes. I’m sure you’re right.”

“Now the question is, how do you wish to proceed, Madam President?”

Mac blinked. How? She wanted them prosecuted of course. Taken to court and sentenced to – a good many years in prison. What else? She was about to say so, when it occurred to her what Templeton was tactfully hinting. Would Rod be able to face a trial? Could her Presidency survive something like that? At a trial, every single aspect of the assault would have to be made public. If any photos survived, and despite the security agents' prompt action against the reporters at the scene, it would be surprising if none existed, they too would be made public, assuming they hadn’t already been published.

She sighed. What else could she do? Surely Templeton wasn’t suggesting she use her power to – exact revenge? And letting them get away with it, was even more unthinkable.

“If you like, I could use informal channels to – make sure they never get a chance to cause anyone else harm.”

“What sort of – informal channels?”

Templeton hesitated. How did he put this, without incriminating himself? Young Mackenzie Allen was unpredictable enough to do anything, despite her obvious gratitude towards him. She could be counted on to follow her conscience, no matter where it led her.

“Nothing – inappropriate, I assure you. Let’s say, that this group of people – a handful, after all – were to find their movements checked. Henceforth, they would find – shall we say – that the support for their work has diminished. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they were to come to the realization that perhaps political work has become – so difficult it might be best if they – abandoned it altogether.”

Mac digested this machiavellian speech in silence. If Templeton could do that, he certainly had powers she needed to be aware of. On the other hand, if he chose to do this to help her, he must have felt strangely moved by what had afflicted her family. Or – and this might be more likely – he felt such an act of kindness would place her in his debt. But she wouldn’t hesitate to accept that, if only it meant the people who had caused Rod so much pain were punished, all without a public trial.

“Thank you, Nathan. That would be – one could almost say – divine retribution.”

An amused grin flashed across Templeton’s features.

“You flatter me.”

“There’s just one thing – I hope I’m not offending you if I ask you something – again.”

“Ask away.”

“Why – did you feel – what made you want to -”

“Offer my assistance?”

Far from looking offended, Templeton instead seemed to be reflecting on something. At last, he appeared to come to a decision.

“If I told you a story from my youth, could we agree never to let it leave this room?”

“Of course. I won’t tell anyone.”

“On second thought, when it comes to mr Calloway, you may use your own discretion.”

“Alright.”

“When I was a boy I had a cousin. A young man some five or six years my senior. We were good friends. Close. Unlike some of my cousins I could mention. He was handsome, charming – a fine young man. I’m not ashamed to say that I admired him greatly. About a year previously, he’d married one of the loveliest young ladies for miles around, excepting my wife, naturally.”

Templeton smiled at the memory, then his eyes darkened as he continued with his story.

“There was a scandal, the nature of which we – members of the younger generation – were never officially told. One night, he – shot himself, not leaving any note or letter to explain his action. None was necessary.

When I was older, I was able to piece together the story. Another man had courted my cousin’s wife, before she accepted my cousin’s proposal. She had preferred my cousin, despite the fact that this other man was more – wealthy and had a higher standing than my cousin. He harbored a grudge against my cousin and with a few friends, as dishonorable as himself, plotted revenge. One night, as my cousin was coming home from his office, they ambushed him.”

Here Tempelton hesitated, before continuing his narrative.

“They – assaulted my cousin. He wasn’t too seriously injured physically, but the disgrace – you’ll understand that in those days – anything remotely connected with – homosexuality – was unmentionable. And they had taken care to provide photographic evidence. They were wearing masks of course, and I doubt if they could have been identified. Not in those days before DNA analysis.

He made his way home, in a state of devastastion. Not to his own home, where his wife was waiting for him. His parents’ house. He went into an empty barn on the grounds and – killed himself.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Oh. Yes. It was a terrible shock to me, even before I knew the full truth. That was the first time anyone I knew, anyone young had died. Before that, it never occurred to me that someone young could die. It was always grandmothers or uncles. Not cousins. Not one’s best friends.

But he knew his duty to his family. When I learned about the reason for his death, I felt horrified. Even if he’d been disgraced, he was so young. He had his whole life ahead of him. Not that I could imagine how he must have felt. But I would have gladly borne our family’s disgrace if only he’d still been alive.

His wife was expecting a baby – his son. That little boy had to grow up without his father. I just felt – that it would be a shame if the same thing happened to your little girl. Or the twins.”

Mac looked up sharply. Did Templeton realize what Rod had been about to do? Oh, of course he must have done. Just like everyone else who knew about the ‘accidentally discharged gun’.

“You’re right. It would have been a shame. It was a tragedy, that your cousin couldn’t have – lived in more tolerant days.”

“I know. There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t think about that. We’ve come a long way. At least I hope we have.”

Mac agreed. She certainly hoped they had, but knowing what her children must have faced in school, she wasn’t sure. Yet another reason for her to struggle on against the prejudices and ignorance.

“Nathan, I want you to know I truly appreciate what you’re about to do for us. If you – ever need a favor -”

Templeton held up his long, graceful hand.

“No. You don’t owe me anything. This one’s for Mark. And mr Calloway.”

Almost effortlessly, Templeton rose and bowed formally. Mac held out her hand and he took it. She squeezed it for longer than usual. Templeton’s gaze met hers unwaveringly. There even seemed to be a trace of affection there.

After the door had closed behind him, Mac remained deep in thought, looking, yet not looking out of the window. She had been touched not only by Templeton’s story, but also his selfless offer. Apparently, there were still hidden depths to discover in that man.

And now, she and her family might begin to heal. She was still considering whether she ought to tell Rod about Templeton’s offer or not, as she returned to her private suite that night. In the end, she decided against it. The less Rod had to recall the attack, the better. And that went for the children as well.

Though she had never wanted to consider that option in the past, she now began to make plans to arrange private tutoring for all three kids. She was hoping she wasn’t making a mistake, but she didn’t want to listen to any more anguished outbursts from Rebecca or the others. At least for the time being, they would be better off at home.

She wondered if the same applied to Rod. From her point of view, at least, that would be the most preferable solution. Not to have to worry about anything else happening to him. But she knew she would never insist if he should have other plans. He wasn’t a child and she couldn’t treat him that way. Whatever he chose to do, she would have no choice but to accept. She was only hoping he would want to stay close to her for the time being. One way or another, she would make sure her family was safe.

FIN

© Tonica