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Night Walk

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Then, as if in a trance, the president watched his own hand float up and reach across, coming to rest on the wound. The heat of it surprised him. As did the unevenness of the skin, like folds of a wet rag. The man’s flesh throbbed against his fingers. “That’s it,” he whispered. “Go ahead, touch it. It’s okay.” It felt as if the blood were seeping into his palm and rising up into the veins of his arm. “You can tell me,” the man said, in a voice of perfect peacefulness. “Whatever it is you need to say, you can tell me.”

But how could he? How could he say that for the first time he wished he were small? Small enough to slip into this wound, into the pain itself, to give the relentless vigilance up. To slip inside this man he so easily might have been, and vanish. For once he had no words, the wish itself too brief, too disavowed to capture.

He was about to mouth something, to improvise, to reassure the man, but then he felt an agent’s hand on his shoulder. It happened so quickly, the president looking up into his face as they were forcibly parted, seeing in the man’s eyes a look of pure pity.

Before he could orient himself again, he’d been hustled back into the Beast, which turned up onto the grass and was now speeding off the Mall, back onto the avenue, and up 17th Street.

Jones was still there on the far side of the backseat with a file in one hand, a phone in the other. He’d gone stiff and silent, a posture that did little to hide his disapproval and impatience with whatever folly this excursion had led to.

When they stepped away from the car under the South Portico, he heard the cry of an ambulance siren down the hill, headed back from whence they’d come. He and Jones made their way along the colonnade.

“We’ve received final confirmation, Mr. President. We have ten, maybe fifteen minutes.”

With a handkerchief he wiped the red smear from his fingers.

“The target’s still there?”

“Yes.”

“And the others?”

“All of them. They’re all still there.”

“Do it,” he said, turning on his heel, bringing Jones, who was following from behind, up short, his large frame snapping to attention.

Up in the residence, only the lights in the hall and in the small kitchen were on; the rest was a well-padded silence. He went to the cabinet, took down a glass, and poured himself water from the tap. His hands, he noticed, were shaking.

There were private parks, the chief of detail had told him several times already; there were cemeteries that closed at night, places where they could keep him safer if he still insisted on going for walks like this, unscheduled. He would have to do as they told him.

Sensing a presence, he looked up and saw his mother-in-law standing in her bathrobe, watching him from the semi-darkness of the sitting room. He and Michelle and the girls were a talkative family, always jabbering, most always energetic. But Marian had a quiet streak and often his communication with her was wordless—a look or a nod or a grip of the hand. And so it was now. She approached, coming to stand in the kitchen doorway, but she did not burden the moment with speech. She didn’t ask him what was on his mind or if there was anything she could do.

Forty years she’d spent in that little apartment of hers in Chicago, patient as a saint as her husband grew sick and pained and could barely fight his way out of bed. Forty years, and now this. This phantasm of an ending: her grandchildren playing in Lincoln’s house. The girls whose lives she now feared for every day.

He put down his glass and hugged her, knowing that very soon there would be children in pieces in the Hindu Kush, their limbs in the rubble showing up as heat on the reconnaissance imagery, their blood wetting the mortar, dead on the most pragmatic ground. A message sent.

Haslett’s short-story collection was a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist; his novel Union Atlantic will be published in February.


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