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The President's Angel
By Sophy Burnham
Ballantine BooksCopyright © 2013 Sophy Burnham
All rights reserved.
It was on the 695th night of his reign that the President saw the angel. He awoke from a light and fitful sleep to see the form balancing on the end of his bed. The President no longer slept with the First Lady by then. She said she could stand the snoring but not the moans. He had moved into the East Bedroom, where he found an unexpected benefit: Each morning through the east window, he could watch dawn break open the shell of night. Somehow that had become important to him.
The President had no trouble dropping off to sleep. He finished work around ten P.M. (and he counted state dinners as work these days, he who had always been ready to dance and talk till one). By eleven he retired to his rooms, to read or brood. Twice recently he found himself desperately holding on to Anne. "How was your day? What did you think of the Ambassador's new young wife?" He didn't want to face another pile of memos placed on the nightstand for him to consider before he slept. But the President was in bondage to the White House, to rules, to procedures, and to computer printouts. Sometimes his eyes were too tired to focus at night. He asked Frank to read the memos aloud while he lay in bed, eyes closed. They usually brought bad news. The economy recovering ... means rising inflation. ... The Other Party is preparing an attack; your advisors recommend. ... This is the latest news of war in the Middle East, war in Central America, war in Ireland, war in Africa, war in Asia, war in the Far East. ... Good night, Mr. President. Sleep well.
Each night he fell into a pool of sleep, where he stayed suspended dreamlessly for as long as three hours at a time, before jerking awake, alert as an outlaw. A night-light on the bedside table permitted him to find his glasses. He would read mystery novels, plowing through one paperback after another until, eyes blurring with fatigue, he'd fall asleep again, but this time fitfully and fighting off the dreams.
Therefore it was not unusual for the President to awaken with a start at four A.M.
He regarded the specter without surprise. It was white. It was luminous. It seemed to have a human form, and yet no definition at the edges of its shape, as if, being made of light, it blurred away. And yet it had a face. An aureole of hair. And clothing of some sort of light. He (or was it she? The President could not tell its gender) it balanced on one foot playfully, then hopped onto the other in a kind of minuet. Seeing the President watching, it stopped and seemed to melt until both feet settled on the footboard, then slipped on past, or possibly through the solid wood, until they rested on the coverlet. Then the angel sat on the footboard and smiled at him with such compassion that the President felt a sob catch in his throat. Its eyes were filled with love. He wanted to weep. He passed one hand across his eyes, in hopes the hallucination would disappear, but when he opened them again, it was still there, resting its elbow on one knee and contemplating him, head cocked with puzzlement.
The President spoke aloud. "Aren't you going to tell me to Fear Not?"
He meant it as a joke, the quick good humor that had won him six elections before a landslide presidential race. It came out too loud and his voice quavered at the end. The angel, startled, faded almost into dusk. At the same moment, the President heard a knock on the door.
"Are you all right, sir?" It was Frank, his aide-de-camp, his valet, his guardian and guard. The angel shimmered dimly on the bed.
"I'm fine," he said. "Go to sleep. I'm just talking to myself."
He sat up higher in bed and tucked a pillow behind his back. The silence drew out and the angel reappeared full force, an aurora of colors flaming in the room. He caught his breath, for the light was blinding him and the colors were no longer in front of his eyes but inside them too, and the light was no longer at the foot of the bed but surrounding him. He was electrified with heat. Again he cried aloud. Frank opened the door.
"Sir? Do you need anything?"
Officious bastard, thought the President. He lay on the pillows, washed in light. All he wanted was to be left alone.
"Your light's burned out," said Frank, and he slammed his kneecap against the bed. "It's black as pitch in here. I'll get a bulb." He knew the President didn't like the dark.
The President wondered why he bothered when the room was full of light. He wondered why Frank did not comment on the angel smiling from the foot of the bed. His next thought was whether he was having a stroke or possibly dreaming. But Frank screwed the new light bulb into the lamp and turned on the switch.
"There." He shook the old bulb at his ear, then looked puzzled. "Oh. It wasn't dead." He tossed it in the trash basket anyway, not having registered his own words. "Good night, sir. Sleep well."
"Good night, Frank," the President said, and relaxed into that radiating light, the angel flaring, flaming on his bed.
* * *
The Premier sat bolt upright in bed. The angel stood, colossal and rectilinear. It was so large that its head touched the ceiling, brushing against the decorative plasterwork. In one hand it held a sword, hilt up, and from every corner of the room he could hear singing, a paean of praise.
The Premier, who had grown up in the godless state and never set foot in a church, crossed himself. Slowly the light went out. Slowly the angel disappeared.
And no one knew anything untoward had happened in the Enemy capital. The Premier did not mention it. He was ashamed of his gesture — a superstitious cross. Several times during the next days, he tried to erase it. He didn't know how. In his imagination he traced a backward cross. And once, in defiant rage, he tried the Star of David over the soiled spot. Heart, throat, forehead: How did his hand know exactly how to make a cross? For a week after the apparition, he found it hard to sleep. His mouth turned down in a grimace and his aides slunk by or jumped to do his bidding. The Premier's mood was black. Little things set him off. He made ferocious decisions. He took a mistress. He was not about to allow an apparition to deflect him from his appointed course.
* * *
The morning after the angel appeared, the President found himself thinking about the apparition during a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and again in the afternoon with his economic advisors. He caught himself up short. He had too much to do to daydream about the implications of a spirit realm. Later in the week he asked Rosemary, his secretary, to call his doctor: He had the beginnings of a cold, he said, but don't tell anyone the doctor had been called. The last thing he wanted was the Press on his tail.
"Have you ever known anyone who had apparitions, John?"
"Only madmen." The doctor laughed. "Why? You seeing things now?" John Deering had been the President's physician for twenty years.
"Not likely. Book I was reading last week. Can't even remember the name of it now," the President lied. "But the question was raised about whether everyone seeing things is sick. The author's premise was, no."
"It makes for dramatic impact, I suppose. Breathe out."
The stethoscope lay cold against his skin.
"Your lungs are clear. Stress would make you see things. What kind of apparitions?"
"Oh." The President gave a hearty laugh: "Ghosts, spirits, angelic manifestations. Whatever."
"Overwork would do it," the doctor said, pulling his ophthalmoscope out of its case. "Did the character in the book actually see them wide-awake or just dream them in his sleep?"
"Saw them, wide-awake. Waking up from sleep. In the book they turned out to be real," the President added.
"Well, they never are. Hold still. If I were seeing things or dreaming them, I'd attribute it to stress, or maybe food intolerance or lack of exercise. You're fit as a fiddle, Matt. Do you get enough sleep?"
"Oh sure. They keep guard on me."
"Wake up in the middle of the night?"
"I read for a while."
"Have trouble going back to sleep?"
"Trouble eating? Loss of appetite?"
"Feeling low? Depressed?"
"They work me here." He realized he had lied for the last two questions.
In the end the doctor prescribed a mild sleeping pill and cautioned his friend to get more exercise, an hour a day if possible. He recommended swimming, but anything the President liked would do.
That night the President took two pills. The angel did not come. The next morning he climbed through drugged and heavy clouds to reach the light of day.
* * *
In those days, the major problem confronting the two Empires was economic. The U.S. subsisted as a garrison state, as did its sister nation, the Eastern Orthodox. Arms and armaments comprised the major sale commodity of both nations. These were sold to the lesser nations in the world, which resold them to each other. Food was scarce, but arms of war remained the major standard of currency. Arms had the advantage of always going out of date. Also they were expensive. They required hard machinery and high technology, an educated populace to service them, and constant replenishment of parts.
They served small purpose beyond the scope of war, which is to say, the destruction of ones enemies. This kept the focus of attention of every nation turned on the enemies whom the weapons were supposed to guard against.
Since weapons were the major currency of the world, the only way to pay for them was through interest-bearing loans from the banks of the civilized, armament-producing nations. Sometimes one or another small country would default on a loan, or not pay interest on its debt, as happened with several Latin countries. It created economic panic. Then the banking nations, which were located north of the Equator, met in convocation and decided by a mental and mathematical prestidigitation to rearrange the terms. Feeling much better, they so advised the nations to the south. The entire system was a house of cards held together by the willing suspension of disbelief.
"But that can't stick," said the President, when the situation was first explained. His economic advisors assured him that it could, for the nation was enjoying unprecedented growth, due to the sales of armaments.
"The only thing holding the framework together, then, is the agreement of the banks and loaning nations to hold it together, is that right?"
"Yes sir," answered the head of the Federal Reserve.
"It's an illusion," the President said.
"It's not an illusion if we all agree it's real."
The President thought of the story of the Emperor parading naked down the street.
"All that's needed," he told the head of the Federal Reserve, "is one little child to shout, 'He hasn't any clothes!' The whole structure will come tumbling down around our ears."
"You forget the rest of the story, Mr. President." The chairman of the Chase Manhattan Bank leaned forward, grinning wickedly. The ice cubes tinkled in his scotch.
"Oh?" said the President. "What's that?"
"The little boy shouted: 'But he's naked. The Emperor has no clothes.' At which suddenly everyone could see the truth. The people were so shocked they turned on the child and beat his brains out with cobblestones."
"Goodness." The President gave a laugh. The banker sank back in his chair and sipped his scotch. The two White House economic advisors looked at him quizzically.
The banker nodded for emphasis: "Then the horses pranced, the flags waved, and the Emperor continued to sashay down the street. Everyone agreed he looked magnificent in his magic clothes."
At night sometimes the President thought of that. The economic recovery was based on fraudulent statistics. Rooms were filled with the calculations of computers. Forests fell for the paper on which to print the numerals that described the past or foretold the future growth of world economies.
The President knew the fiction could not be continued forever. At some point the economists would turn the page and find themselves at the end of the book.
The President was also concerned about the arms race. Nation after nation had nuclear weapons now: many of them overpopulated, and poor. Any one of them could detonate a weapon that would destroy a million or two of the ten billion people on the earth, leave a hole in the ozone layer, burn out the radiation shield that protected the eyes of mankind from the sun — as well as those of insects, dogs, and the pigeons in the air.
There were fifty thousand nuclear weapons in the mid-eighties. By the time of the events recounted here, these had increased to the hundreds of thousands in landscapes plotted and pieced — fold, fallow. ... Everyone agreed they did not want nuclear war, but no one agreed on how to prevent it.
In the night, alone, the President lay awake. He was not sure if he was the Emperor or the child.
The President's name was Matthew. He was called Matt. His middle name was Madison, and his last name was Adams. He had won the election partly on his name. The name Adams recalled a period of principled Puritans. The name Madison recalled uneventful serenity, coupled with Virginia aristocracy. Matthew was the name of a saint, and Matt a comic book hero. His election occurred at a time when the nation felt nostalgic for high ideals. Very few people knew the President's forebears had taken the surname after dropping a Middle Eastern one. The country had been whiplashed by a decade of change. All it wanted was to stop.
Matt had the requisite presidential thick hair which he could run one hand through when he was putting on an "aw gee" act with the Press, and which, coupled with an engaging grin, could make a woman's heart twist. Also he was smart. He was direct, directed, and tough, and he had politically cunning advisors.
His concern was to run the country.
Theirs was to see that he got reelected at the completion of his term. The goals were sometimes contradictory, but until the President saw the angel at the foot of his bed, that did not bother him unduly. He was popular in the polls. Playing the part of a President may have been more important than being the President, he found. He had been astonished in his early days to discover ... how little power he had. But he had the style that went with the perks that the people associated with power; and that was a form of power in itself. He could order a cup of coffee or a limousine. He could change his busy schedule at will, and pick up the telephone and call anyone in the world. He never had to handle money or pay a bill. He could walk into the War Room and spot (with a flick of an electronic switch) where every friendly submarine in the world lay hidden at that moment, and some of the enemy ones as well. He could spy on the missiles of the Eastern Empire. He could light boards with darting slashes to represent military units, his own or those of the Barbarians he played against. And he enjoyed it. But power is an elusive thing. It was diffused between a hundred units and a hundred thousand men and women, and at times it seemed to him that his job was merely to maintain the fiction of a monarch in command, while his advisors scurried like squirrels from one group to another, offering flattery, warnings, or rewards.
During the day, the President was kept too busy to wonder about the questions that pursued his nighttime dreams.
During the night he could not keep the dreams at bay.
Here is a dream he had after he saw the angel. He was walking across a lawn of fallen leaves. The leaves were wet and mildewed from a long period of rain or perhaps from wet and mildewed skies. At the end of the lawn was a shallow pond. Its water was black. In it he could see the sodden leaves that had dropped to the muddy bottom. There was also a kind of sea grass that thrust like spiky eels above the surface. It was in every way unpleasant. He thought: I have to do this fast, or else I'll never dare. So he jumped in.
When he jumped, he realized he was wearing his favorite cashmere sweater and gray flannel pants, and the water was above his head. It was so cold he could not move, and he would drown if he did not begin to swim, but he could not move. He called for help. A woman, walking across the lawn, asked indifferently if he wanted cheddar or Jarlsberg cheese....
He woke up trembling, struck by the joy of being still alive. Then he groaned at what the dream might mean. He took dreams seriously. Was it a warning that he was leaping without looking?
And if so, into what?CHAPTER 2
For many weeks that fall the angel did not reappear. The President had time to relax into himself. Also to take his soul by the scruff of the neck and scold it for deceiving him. In other words, he got a grip on himself. His staff relaxed as well under the beam of his easy smile. The President began to laugh at the apparition he had seen.
He even spoke of it to Frank. The valet, his white-haired, balding confidant, listened with his usual calm detachment. He neither ridiculed the idea nor accepted it.
"Crazy?" prompted Matt.
"I've seen too many impossible things," said the older man, "not to believe in impossibility."
"Nonsense!" snorted the President, annoyed to discover the responsibility for denouncing it lay fully on himself.
Excerpted from The President's Angel by Sophy Burnham. Copyright © 2013 Sophy Burnham. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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