It was quiet. Beside the breeze intermittently rattling through the leaves, there was nothing. Just the two men: one thinking and the other waiting.
Carl shifted his weight, interrupting the solitude with the creaking wood of his chair. “I always loved it here,” he said as he took another sip from the red, plastic cup. The harsh liquid stung his throat and made his eyes burn. “You remember that one time, we can up here? It was just after that crisis with Cuba? Fall of the first year, first term. And you wanted to blow off some steam so you got those shot guns.”
James smiled at the recollection and took a long swig from his cup. “Yeah, I remember,” he said, staring into the trees.
“Remember, you took a shot at that bird but almost killed that marine?”
“Yeah, I remember.”
Carl laughed. “I thought he was going to kill you, but then he saw you and was all, ‘I’m sorry Mr. President. I didn’t mean to get in your way, Mr. President.”
James took another drink. “We’ve had good times,” he said, still looking into the trees. The red plastic cup bent under his fingers. He was struck by its weakness, by its pliability. The trees around him were so different, so permanent, so lasting. The contrast caused him to wonder how he would be remembered. Would his eight years be thought of as pliable and disposable, or defining and permanent?
Carl took another sip and gagged. He peered into his cup, glaring with distain at the orange sludge. “This is the worst,” he mumbled to himself. “Having a drink with the President of the United Sates and this is what I get. Jesus.”
James pretended not to hear his friend’s complaint, and the silence resumed as the two men listened to the trees.
“What about the aide to the French Prime Minister? Remember her?” James said with a grin.
“Oh man,” Carl said. “How could I forget? Bridgett? Or Bernice? Those legs though, wow. In that blue dress? Wow. You should advise France to make those legs a national treasure, because, I mean, wow.”
“I’ll look into that,” James laughed. “Do you remember her husband?” he said with a grin.
“I remember his right hook,” Carl replied. “I thought the Secret Service guys were going to kill him. Guns all drawn. Everybody screaming. That was crazy. All I did was give her a kiss. I thought the French were into that.”
“Yeah,” James said. “Yeah. The Service boys weren’t too happy.” James refilled his glass from the pitcher on the small wooden table between them. “When it was over, I thought they were going to shoot you.”
“You know,” Carl said. “There are a lot of ways to get hammered: whiskey, scotch, bourbon. Oh, you remember that German beer we had that one time.”
“Spring of the third year, first term?”
“No, no. Not that one. The one they brought you from the monastery. It came in that super old looking barrel.”
“Winter, second year, second term.”
“Yeah, yeah. That one was great. That stuff would get ya drunk quick.”
“This is my drink,” James said, lifting his glass in the air.
“Or what about that the Irish whiskey? I bet you still have a few bottles left. Where do they keep that stuff? That stuff was fantastic.”
“This is all I need.”
“I’m just saying. You have the world’s alcohol supply at your fingers and we’re downing out here in OJ and shitty vodka.”
“It’s my drink. Helps me think.”
“Not even good vodka. Shitty, plastic bottle, bottom shelf crap. I bet if you called Russia, they’d send you some good stuff.”
“I doubt it,” James said, darkly.
A Robin landed on a branch above them. The noise of its wings drew their attention. It looked down on them. Its red breast blared bright and beautiful against the backdrop of browning leaves. The wind blew and the bird looked to the sky. Then, as carefree as it had come, it took flight again.
James took another long, slow drink as he watched the bird disappear. He looked to the dirt. He could feel a familiar knot of regret building in the base of his throat. He crunched the plastic cup in his fingers. “I didn’t want this, you know. I didn’t ask for this.”
“I know,” Carl said.
“Some leaders, they want this kind of thing. They want something to test their metal. They want a chance to prove to the world that they are worthy of the office or some other nonsense. They want to solidify their legacy. But I never wanted this. I didn’t wish for it.”
“I would have been happy with a forgettable run, I think. Like a Fillmore or a Harrison. Just add my name to the list. I don’t need kids to study me. I don’t need elementary schools named after me. And for god sakes, keep my face off the damn money.”
James took another long drink. “And I didn’t ask for those bastards to invade. That ambitious son of a bitch.”
“I’ve done everything. You know. I tried talking to them. I tried sanctions. I even tried reaching out personally.”
“That one speech you made in Berlin was a work of art.”
“Right? A god damn work of art. I mean, come on. That thing was brilliant.”
“Damn right. But that goddamn megalomaniac just won’t stop. It doesn’t matter how many speeches I give or how many times I plead. And we’ve got to make him stop. It can’t continue. We’re the only ones. We’re it. I mean, who can make him stop? It’s not just about pride, Carl. It’s not. People are dying. Good, innocent people are dying. He’s slaughtering them. I won’t be the type of leader that ignores that. I won’t. I can’t.”
“And it’s not about the trade. You know that. You know I don’t give a shit about the trade regulations. I wouldn’t do this because of the trade. And everyone knows there’s no goddamn oil there anymore. I don’t care what the pundits say. There’s not going to be any financial gain for this. You know that. You know that’s not what this is about.”
“I hate that bastard for making me do this. I hate it, Carl. I hate it.”
Carl laughed. “Me too. Trust me, me too.”
James took another drink and then filled his glass again. The breeze caught the leaves and made them buzz. A yellow one let loose its branch and floated to the ground. It took it’s time, drifting back and forth on a sea of air.
“Remember that time in Japan?” Carl said with a mischievous smile.
“Why do you always bring this up?”
“They served us that weird sushi.”
“It wasn’t sushi.”
“Well, it looked like sushi. But then you put it in your mouth, and it started to squirm around.”
“Yeah. I remember.”
“I was all, ‘Spit it out. Spit it out.’ But you kept trying to push it back in because you didn’t want to upset the Prime Minister What-ever-his-name-was. But you couldn’t get it down.”
“Prime Minister Abe. Yeah. I remember.”
“So you decided to force it down with those black chop sticks.”
“And I hurled all over the white table cloth.”
“And you puked all over the table. All the cameras were popping.”
“If I remember right, you just sat there and sipped your tea.”
“I didn’t want to interrupt your moment. I’m supposed to be in the background, remember. I didn’t want to get in the way.”
“What was I going to do? You got branches of armed service men ready to defend you from attacking squid that won’t comply too your chop sticks. You don’t need me for that.”
“No,” James said taking another long drink. “I don’t need you for that.”
The breeze rattled the trees again and ran through James’ hair. He inhaled as much of it as he could. It sent a chill down his spine and forced a shiver from him.
“It doesn’t have to be this way, you know. There’s always other options,” Carl said, breaking the silence.
“We’re out of options.”
“You’re never out of options.”
“We’re out of options.”
“You’re the fucking President of the United States. You’re never out of options.”
“Do you think I want this? I don’t want this. I don’t’ want to be known for this. I don’t want this to be my legacy. But he’s shooting kids in the street, on fucking camera. On fucking camera, Carl. It’s got to stop.”
“This is extreme. Think what will be on camera after you drop those monsters. Think Hiroshima, but worse. Because you know they’ve made them better. You know they’ve spent the past decades making them better. Once you do this, you can never go back. Never.”
“What would you have me do? Roll out the troops? Put our boys in his path? You know he’s gone chemical already. You saw what he did to the Germans. And how long before he launches at us? Sure, he’s not capable now; but what’s it going to take. A month? A year? Would we even know?”
“People are going to die, James.”
“People are dying, Carl. People are dying right now. How many have died in the four hours we’ve been out here? And why? Because I’m too much of a chicken-shit-coward to take that goddamn knife and get the goddamn codes. You know, if only it were a button. A big red button in the oval office. That’s how they talked about it when we were kids. A goddamn red button. That would be so much easier. None of this nonsense.”
“It’s not supposed to be easy.”
“Don’t lecture me.”
“You need to see it. You need to see what you are taking. You don’t get to push a button and not get blood on your hands.”
“Fuck you, Carl.”
Carl laughed. “Yeah, pretty much.”
“It’s not my fault. It’s not. There’s no other way. He has to be stopped and this is all we’ve got. It’s the last option.”
“Keep telling yourself that.”
The sun broke through the clouds. Its light danced through the branches, sparkling in the leaves.
“I’m ready,” James said to the silent men standing at attention behind the chairs.
“You don’t have to do this,” Carl said.
“Gentlemen, hold him,” James said.
Two statuesque marines came to life. They moved behind Carl and penned him to his chair. Carl fruitlessly thrashed against them. A third knelt behind him and looped a leather rope around Carl’s feet, pulling his legs tight to wide, firm the legs of the chair.
“Stop,” Carl pleaded. “Stop, James. Please. Please don’t.”
James stood, took a deep breath, and faced his friend.
Carl’s eyes were wild with fear. “Please, James,” he cried. “Please don’t. Please don’t.”
James held his hand out toward the commander. “Give me the knife,” he said. The army commander in his dress greens placed the hilt of the sharp silver knife in his president’s extended hand.
“Oh James,” Carl moaned in sorrow. “Oh James. Please don’t, Jaime. Please. Please don’t.”
James stood in front of his friend and looked him in the eyes. “Carl Alexander Fishburn, the United States of America thanks you for your service to your country.”
“Oh Jaime,” Carl sobbed. “Jesus, Jaime. Please don’t. Please don’t do this.”
James slid the knife into his friend’s neck. He was surprised at how easily it went in. He made a small circle, just as the doctors had shown him the night before. Blood filled the wound, obstructing his vision.
Carl let loose an ear piercing scream that transformed into a choking gurgle. He thrashed against the Marines, struggling to escape, to fight back.
James reached into the open wound with his thumb and two fingers. Blood spurt, splattering across his face, stinging his eyes and staining his blue polo. He dug deeper, searching through the wet, soft tissue.
Carl thrashed a final time before his body went limp.
James’ work was easier now that his friend was still. Finally, he found the small plastic vile. He pinched it between his thumb and index finger. Squeezing tight, he pulled it from his friend’s neck.
Having retrieved the capsule, he took a step back. His friend’s lifeless body lay in the chair before him. He stared at the stain of blood covering half his friend’s chest. He watched it trickle and pool on the ground.
“Mr. President, sir,” a voice said from behind him.
James turned and handed the bloody vile to the Air Force Lieutenant General. “The code is in there,” James said. “Unleash hell and put an end to this.”
“Yes, sir,” the soldier replied, taking the capsule.
James leaned forward and placed his hand on Carl’s bloody cheek. “I’m sorry, old friend,” he said. “I’m sorry.”