Every President has secrets. So does every First Lady.
Today, Shona Wallace was deep into her favorite secret as she knelt in the damp dirt, hiding behind the crabapple trees in the White House Rose Garden. On this cold March morning, she didn’t have to look for the cameras. She knew where they were. For now at least, no one was watching.
During the day, just a few steps outside the Oval Office, the garden was used for presidential press conferences and greeting visiting dignitaries. But now – at 5:30 a.m. – the outdoor garden was dark. Desolate. As if the First Lady were the last person left on the planet.
And really, wasn’t that the point?
Plunging her fingers into the dirt, Shona took a deep breath, letting the smell of fresh mulch transport her back to those days right after college when she and the President lived in that little yellow rental house in Michigan with the bad toilets and the narrow garden that flooded with every rain. Two weeks after moving in, she got the news that her mother had died. The garden saved her then. She cared for it, and it blossomed: Her matchless burgundy dahlias, which she used to wear in her hair. Three kinds of tomatoes. When they were running for governor, she dug up two hundred tulip bulbs from her mother’s garden and planted them in her own.
Even when your mother’s gone, and your husband’s working so hard he only comes home to sleep, you can count on your garden. You plant it; it sprouts; life blooms. That’s not some cheap metaphor for life; it’s a basis for sanity. Everyone needs something they can count on, a world they can own all themselves.
“Dammit!” the First Lady muttered, down on her knees and tugging with her bare hands on a buried tree root. The root was heading toward her precious bed of English bluebells, set to bloom this spring and perfect for cutting.
Even before Orson’s Presidency started, Shona had known she’d need a garden. During the campaign, she’d felt the burn that came with the spotlight of public life. And she’d had it all planned. On her very first night in the White House, she had sought out a little patch of land among the flowerbeds of the Rose Garden. It would be her ground. Her sanity.
Telling only the Secret Service, she’d slipped outside at five in the morning, knelt down in the dark, and planted the seeds of coral bells and morning glories. Many of the seeds came from her grandparents’ flowerbed by way of her mother’s. Shona had even grown early spring flowers in college, in an inconspicuous patch of ground she commandeered behind the dorm. She’d planted more flowers, even some vegetables, when she and Orson lived in that old rental house, and even later when they were in the governor’s mansion. Would she stop now, when she needed it most?
She never told reporters she was a gardener or tried to use it for political gain. Somehow that would ruin the purpose. No matter where life took her, or what her critics said (they had ripped her apart for gaining weight during the first year of her husband’s Presidency: “the freshman-fifteen First Lady”), here was the one patch on the entire planet where Shona Wallace, wife of the President, could run things just the way she wanted to.
“Gotcha…!” the First Lady whispered, gripping the buried tree root and pulling hard. God, the cold March dirt felt good. And it smelled so fresh, full of promise. Winter had put so much on hold; she loved getting back to work in the earth. With a sharp tug, the root began to yield, though not by much.
Leaning on her left elbow and probing blindly into the dirt, the First Lady felt-
Something solid. Not a rock. The root felt weird – almost soft. Spongy. She turned and pulled a penlight from her tool kit, shining it into the hole and squinting down to see what was in there. Under the dirt, it looked light gray, but as she pulled it closer, it was greenish-blue, with a tint of pink. Like skin.
A hiccup erupted from her throat. The spongy root had – Those weren’t branches. It had fingers. Four fingers. Squeezed in a fist… An arm… Oh God! Someone was buried in –
Stifling a scream, the First Lady dropped the penlight, which fell into the hole. She jumped back, scrambling, crabwalking away from the pit. The press and early staff would be here any minute. Her body was shaking. Just don’t scream.
“Orson…” she whispered, stumbling toward the West Colonnade of the pristine white mansion. She was gagging and sobbing uncontrollably.
In the Rose Garden, the penlight still rested in the open hole, shining its little spotlight on a dirt-encrusted hand.
Each morning, the nurses watched him.
At 5:45 a.m., they’d see him step through the hospital’s sliding doors. By 5:50 a.m., he’d be up among the mechanical beeps and hisses of the ICU. And by 5:55 a.m., the young man with the boyish looks and sandy hair would approach the nurses’ station, dropping off that day’s breakfast: doughnuts, bagels, sometimes a dozen muffins.
The nurses never made requests for food, but over time the young man had learned that Nurse Tammy liked a pumpernickel bagel with a thin slice of tomato, and that Nurse Steven preferred asiago cheese. Over these past three weeks of hospital visits, they’d gotten to know him too. Beecher White.
“How’s he doing?” Beecher would ask as he presented his breakfast offering to the hospital gods.
“Same,” the nurses would say on most days, offering kindly smiles and pointing him to Room 355.
The dim room was sealed by sliding glass doors, frosted at the bottom and transparent at the top. For an instant, Beecher paused. The nurses saw it all the time, family and friends picking out which brave face they’d wear that day.
Through the glass was a seventy-two-year-old man with an uneven beard lying unconscious in bed, an accordion breathing tube in his windpipe, a feeding tube snaking through his nose and down into his belly.
“Okay, who’s ready for some easy-listening country music from the seventies, eighties, and today?” Beecher announced, sliding the door open and stepping into the room.
Aristotle “Tot” Westman lay there, eyes closed. His skin was so gray he looked like a corpse. His palms faced upward, as if he were pleading for death.
“Rise and shine, old man! It’s me! It’s Beecher! Can you hear me!?” he added.
Tot didn’t move. His mouth sagged open like an ashtray.
“TOT, BLINK IF YOU HEAR ME!” Beecher said, circling to the far side of the hospital bed and eyeing the pale purple scar that curved down the side of Tot’s head like a parenthesis. When Tot was first wounded and fragments of the bullet plowed through the frontal region of his brain, the doctors said it was a miracle he was alive. Whether he was lucky to be alive was another question.
Three weeks ago, during surgery, they shaved off half of Tot’s long silver hair, leaving him looking like a baseball with yarn sprouting from it. To even it out, Beecher had asked the nurses to do a full buzz cut. Now the hair was slowly growing back. A sign of life.
“You’re still mad about the hair, aren’t you?” Beecher said, pulling an old black iPod from his pocket and switching it with the silver iPod in the sound dock on the nearby rolling cart.
“Wait till you hear this one,” he went on, clicking the iPod into place.
Tot’s only response was the heavy in-and-out hiss from his ventilator. In truth, Tot should’ve been in a rehab facility instead of the hospital, but according to the nurses, someone from the White House had made a special request.
“I brought the Gambler himself,” Beecher added, hitting play on the iPod as a crowd started to cheer and guitars began to strum. “Kenny Rogers, live from Manchester, Tennessee, then another from the Hollywood Bowl, and a 1984 private corporate concert that cost me a good part of this month’s rent,” Beecher said, taking his usual seat next to Tot’s bed. One of the doctors had said that familiar music could be helpful to patients with brain injuries.
“Tot, I need you to squeeze my hand,” Beecher added, pressing his hand into Tot’s open palm.
Tot didn’t squeeze back. His ventilator coughed out another heavy in-and-out hiss.
“C’mon, Tot, you know what today is. It’s a big one for me. Just give me a little something…anything,” Beecher pleaded as Kenny Rogers began belting out the first verse of “Islands in the Stream.”
“By the way, Verona from Human Resources? She said if you wake up and come back to work, she’ll wear that tight black sweater she wore to the Christmas party. In fact, she’s here right now. In the sweater. You don’t want to miss this.”
“Okay, Tot, you’re leaving me no choice,” Beecher said. From his pocket, he pulled out a ballpoint pen, then turned Tot’s hand palm-down and pressed the tip of the pen into Tot’s nail bed.
At the sharp pain, Tot pulled his hand back.
In neurological terms, it was called withdrawal. According to the neurologist, as long as Tot responded to painful stimuli – like a sharp pinch or a poke with a pen – his brain was still working.
“It’s good news,” the doctor had promised. “It means your friend’s still in there somewhere.”
“C’mon, you chatty bastard – don’t ruin my big day. I’m not celebrating alone,” Beecher said, again pressing the pen into his mentor’s nail bed. As the skin below the nail turned white, Tot again pulled away, but this time… A nurse saw it from the hallway. Tot’s head moved sideways, as if he was about to say something.
Beecher shot up in his chair. “Tot…? Tot, are you – ?”
Tot’s head sagged down, a string of drool falling from his bottom lip into his beard as Kenny Rogers – accompanied by Dolly Parton – continued to sing.
Slumping back in his seat, Beecher let go of Tot’s cold hand. A swell of tears took his eyes.
“It’ll happen. Give him time,” a female voice said softly.
Beecher glanced toward the sliding glass door. It was the nurse with the crooked teeth, the one who liked pumpernickel.
“It’s a brain injury. It doesn’t heal overnight,” she added.
“I know. I just wish he could – ” Beecher stopped himself and swallowed hard.
“He’s fortunate to have you,” the nurse said.
“I’m fortunate to have him,” Beecher replied, standing up from his seat and wiping his eyes. He turned to the body in the bed. “Tot, you get some rest. I know you’re tired,” he added, leaning in and giving his mentor a gentle kiss on the forehead. “By the way,” he whispered into Tot’s ear, “if you’re good, I’ll bring you a photo of Verona in the black sweater.”
“If it helps, happy birthday,” the nurse called out as Beecher headed for the door.
“How’d you know?”
The nurse shrugged. “I’ve been doing this for fifteen years. Heard you say it was a big day.”
Nodding a thank-you and heading out to the hallway, Beecher glanced over at what bagels were still uneaten at the nurses’ station.
Each morning, the nurses watched Beecher.
Each morning, Beecher watched Tot.
But each morning, Beecher and the nurses weren’t the only ones keeping tabs.
Diagonally across the hallway, peering through the open door of the visitors’ lounge, the bald man known as Ezra eyed Beecher as he trudged down the hallway toward the elevators.
Ten days ago, Ezra had come to the hospital searching for the old man known as Tot. He knew Tot’s history. He knew what Tot had done all those years ago. And he knew that with a bit of patience and a side order of good luck, he’d find out everything else he needed just by sitting in this waiting room and studying who else came to Tot’s bedside.
A few of Tot’s coworkers had visited. There was an old lady who came every few nights and stroked Tot’s arm. But more than anyone else, there was the archivist. Beecher.
At the National Archives, Beecher was Tot’s protégé and best friend. In a way, he was also Tot’s family. And based on what Ezra had heard thanks to the nightlight-shaped microphone that he had plugged into the wall socket next to Tot’s bed, Beecher was most certainly a member of the Culper Ring.
“Want a bagel?” one of the nurses called out as she passed the visitors’ room. “We’ve got plenty.”
“I shouldn’t,” Ezra said, his slitted eyes curving into a grin. “I’ve got a big day ahead of me.”