Title: The Mall
Series/Sequel: first of two mall stories.
Disclaimer: The characters belong to Aaron Sorkin etc
Summary: Sam has a problem with malls.
The Mall by Jen
It probably began with the coffee mug incident. Sam was trying to clean up the apartment, working his way through the rooms with a damp dustcloth. Working his way around Josh, who had spread himself across the living room couch, table and floor with a seemingly endless pile of Sunday newspapers. He came across a coffee mug of Josh's nestled on a shelf among his contract law texts. It had pasted itself to the bookshelf and came away reluctantly, leaving a sticky ring on the wood.
Sam had whirled around, furious, holding the dirty mug aloft,
"This is the third empty cup I've found this morning, Josh."
Josh turned a page, barely registering Sam's irritation. "Sorry." His eyes never left the newspaper.
"You don't give a damn, do you?!" Sam paced in front of the bookcase, brandishing the coffee mug.
Josh sighed, still not looking up. "It's just a coffee cup. I'm not going to get all anal over a piece of crockery."
"I am NOT getting anal. I just like to keep this place clean. For the miniscule amount of time we spend in this apartment, you seem to have an enormous capacity for creating an extraordinary mess."
Josh glanced upwards, annoyed at Sam's tone. It was Sunday. He was tired. And he wasn't in the mood for Clean-up Sam. He narrowed his eyes, knowing exactly how to grate on Sam's fractured nerves,
"Miniscule? Extraordinary? Capacity? Sam, you've been dusting the dictionary again. It's Sunday, for God's sake, let's just use little words."
"Josh-" Sam flung out his arms in exasperation and the coffee mug smashed into the shelf, disintegrating in Sam's hand.
"Dear God, you're such a-"
"DON'T say it!" Sam snapped, bending down to retrieve the broken shards of china.
"But you really are, Sam."
Sam straightened, his lips a tight line, gingerly clutching the remains of the mug.
"Shut the hell up, Josh." He stormed into the kitchen, dumping the china with a crash into the bin. A moment later, Josh heard the bedroom door slam. He sighed in relief and went back to reading the paper.
Sam steamed across the bedroom and threw himself into his favourite chair by the window. He hissed out some angry air between his teeth, trying to calm down. He glanced at his tightly clenched left hand, unwilling to investigate the sharp stinging there while he was so cross. Running his other hand through his hair, Sam then leaned his forearms along the windowsill, propping his chin on his sore fist. He let his eyes stray across the world beyond the glass. The morning sun had a cool spring brightness, catching every leaf and twig without revealing the depth of the colours; Sam felt he was somehow washed in a gentle water-coloured image of his own garden, the hues subtle and changing, lacking the brilliant clarity of summer but possessing a quiet confidence in its own pastel beauty.
Sam sighed loudly, enjoying the view, forcing himself to calm down a little. He closed his eyes after a moment, tiredness welling up over him like lava, spilling down through his brain, his eyes, his chest, sweeping through his churning stomach. He felt the heaviness of relaxation as his breathing slowed and steadied.
The telephone rang. Sam ignored it. He heard Josh pick up, then raise his voice,
"Sam, it's Toby. I took it in the kitchen."
Already, his footsteps were padding back to the couch. Sam knew from past experience it was easier to just go to wherever Josh answered rather than battle for him to hang up in the kitchen so Sam could take it in the bedroom. He rose wearily, his hand still closed in a tight ball, and headed for the telephone.
Josh was already buried deep in his newspapers again. Sam passed through into the kitchen and sat down at the table, picking up the phone with his good hand. He laid his still tightly clenched fist alongside the phone cradle.
Five minutes into Sam's conversation, Josh wandered into the kitchen to make a fresh pot of coffee. He glanced across at Sam, leaning on one elbow, eyes closed, trying to concentrate on whatever Toby had to say. Josh started with surprise as he caught sight of Sam's other hand, little trickles of red sliding around his whitened knuckles.
Frowning, Josh fetched a flannel and ran it under the hot tap. He sat down at the table and took Sam's hand in his own. Sam's eyes flew open in surprise, but Josh kept his eyes down. He turned Sam's hand over and slowly forced his fingers open, mopping up the trickles of blood with the warm flannel. He found three ragged little cuts. He closed Sam's hand around the flannel, then rose and collected disinfectant and band-aids from the kitchen cupboard, putting the kettle on before sitting down again at the table. He took the flannel and dampened it with disinfectant, then began to wipe Sam's hand. Sam gasped, causing Toby to stop talking,
"Nothing. I – ow – Toby, can I call you back?"
The phone clicked dead. Sam looked across at the top of Josh's head. "I'm – ow – I'm sorry about the – ow – about the coffee cup thing… can you go easy with that stuff, it stings!"
"How the hell do you do these things to yourself?" Josh patted Sam's hand dry and unwrapped some band-aids. He sounded more tired than irritated.
"I can do this." Sam tried to withdraw his hand but Josh held on.
"You've got three cuts here. Sam, you think it was a dumb idea to be waving a coffee cup next to a bookcase?"
"I'm not sure I WAS thinking. I'm sorry."
This time Josh looked up for a moment, and he smiled at the earnest blue eyes staring at him. "Just hold still while I get these covered up."
Sam nodded, flinching slightly as Josh covered the first cut. He squinted painfully at Josh, "I went into a sort of cleaning frenzy." He scrubbed his free hand back and forth across his eyes. "I think I'm just tired."
"Did you sleep much last night?"
"I'm not sure really, I –ah…yeah?" he tailed off.
"Maybe not so well." He shrugged, then stiffened, "Ow!"
"Okay, hold still, one to go."
* * *
Two hours later, Josh leaned back on the couch with a satisfied sigh. He had read through all of the papers and magazines piled around him, and was ready for a late lunch. He turned his gaze to the still form next to him on the couch. Sam was sprawled bonelessly into the corner of the couch, dark hair hanging forward across his eyes, his sore hand protectively entwined in his t-shirt. He had been asleep for over an hour, drifting away as Josh grappled with the New York Times Sunday Supplement. Josh was pleased Sam was getting some sort of sleep but wished he'd sleep better at night – he could tell Sam was going through a sort of jumpy phase, poor sleep, irritability, and cleaning - cleaning up constantly. Josh snorted at that. Sam stirred and blinked his eyes open slowly.
Josh reached across and placed a hand firmly on Sam's stomach, feeling the light fluttering of his breathing and the tremor of electricity their contact caused.
"It's lunchtime." He stood up, suddenly restless. "C'mon, let's go out, get something nice to eat."
* * *
3 a.m. Sam prowled restlessly around the living room, straightening the chairs and smoothing out the cushions on the couch. He felt nervous and edgy. They had gone for lunch in a small arcade and Sam had been unable to swallow more than a few bites, jiggling in his seat and infuriating Josh no end. Finally Josh had reached the limit of his tolerance, which was pretty low at that moment, Sam having used up all of his get out of jail free cards during the morning. He had leaned forward and gestured for Sam to do the same. When their heads were nearly touching, Josh had put his mouth close to Sam's ear and whispered slowly and distinctly,
"I want you to go away, far, far, away for a long, long walk. I want you to get all this shitty restlessness out of your system, and when you get back I want you to start acting like a normal human being, if that's even remotely possible. You will stop the frenzied cleaning, you will sit still on the couch and you will eat a full meal tonight, or, God help me, I may not be responsible for my actions."
Josh had sat back with a tight, menacing smile on his face, and picked up his knife and fork. Sam had sat there, still leaning forward, frozen, a stunned look on his face. This slowly melted into a more wounded expression, but when it became obvious that Josh was not going to even look up again, Sam had sat back, meticulously folded his napkin, placing it at the side of his plate, stood up carefully and walked away.
The evening had brought a change of weather, a light rain and a cool wind. Sam had arrived back at the apartment soaked to the skin, long, uncontrollable bouts of shivering rattling his bones and clacking his teeth together. His keys had clattered all around the keyhole before he was able to open the door. He slipped inside, closing the door quietly, surprised to find Josh coming towards him, arms outstretched,
Sam took a step backwards towards the door,
"Josh, I'm wet."
Josh was undeterred and wrapped his arms right around Sam, who finally leaned into the embrace with a huge, relieved sigh. His shivering slowed as he soaked up Josh's warmth. They stood there, tightly locked, absorbing one another, their breathing rhythms coming together slowly, one cold tense body entwined with one relaxed warm body, one shock of spiky wet dark hair mingling with one set of lighter unruly curls. Josh finally moved his head a fraction,
"Sam, why didn't you come home when the weather turned?"
"I wasn't relaxed enough."
Sam wriggled his shoulders a little before tightening his arms around Josh. "I walked and walked but I still felt…" he paused, clearly unhappy with his own emotions, grappling for clarity, "Josh, I still feel so, so, I don't know, so intense." And he sounded so miserable, so defeated that Josh knew he had to do better than he had today.
"Shit, Sam, that didn't mean you had to stay out in the rain." He gave Sam a gentle shake, "C'mon, have a shower then I 'll find us something to eat."
* * *
Later, back on the couch, Sam had scrooched up into a corner, feet up, wrapping his arms around his shins and resting his chin on his knees. Josh was lazily eyeing Foreign Correspondent on television.
He turned and focused his gaze on Sam's eyes, so incredibly blue, startlingly appealing. He felt himself drifting into the blueness, a glimpse of vibrant Amazon glinting in the rainforest, a snatch of deepest ocean stealing the distant sun's rays, the great bowl of twilight sky above an Arizona desert – Josh started visibly as Sam's toes poked him in the ribs. Good grief, he frowned at himself, where did all that imagery come from? He grabbed Sam's foot and ran a firm fingernail down the sole from toe to heel. Sam's body leapt and twisted as he yelped aloud,
"Yow! What was that for?"
"You've been a bad influence on me."
"Why? What were you thinking? You were staring at me."
Josh snorted, "I'm not sharing. I have an awful fear that I was just inside your head for a minute! Man, that was weird."
And now, at 3 a.m. Sam was awake and wired, and he'd only had four hours sleep. His eyes swept the room and he noticed irritably that everything was clean and tidy, dusted and orderly. Even Josh's papers were in a neat folded pile on the coffee table, and Sam knew better than to remove those before morning. He shook his hands nervously, flicking them from the wrist, then wiping them up and down on his t-shirt. Recognising the rising tensions within, Sam decided dubiously to return to bed, try to relax – there was only a couple of hours to go, and maybe he'd rest better lying down…
* * *
Waiting at the traffic lights, Sam stifled a yawn. He could feel Josh gazing at him, and drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, looking everywhere but at the man in the passenger seat.
"What d'you mean?"
"Don't get coy, Sam. What time did you get up the first time?"
Sam shrugged, "I dunno."
"Sam!" Josh's voice rose an octave with exasperation. "There could be a Force 8 hurricane and an earthquake simultaneously and you'd still tell me the exact time! I guarantee if I had to search for you two hundred miles into the Gobi Desert, and found you dehydrated, collapsed half buried in the sand, you'd later recount the tale that I found you at 2.17 p.m., gave you a drink at 2.18 p.m. and lifted you onto my camel at 2.23 p.m.! Don't give me that vague crap!"
Sam smiled slightly at this outburst, and eased his car across the intersection, focusing intently on the road. Josh shrugged, realising there was no point pursuing the issue right now – they were nearly at work.
Toby was calling for Sam even before he'd hung up his overcoat. Sam uplifted his coffee and wandered into Toby's office, plonking down on the couch.
"Hey, Toby, what're we in for today?"
He watched Toby unpack his satchel, dumping newspapers and files across the desk, creating an instant mess. Sam sipped at his coffee, averting his eyes from that disaster, flexing his other hand nervously. There was a silence for a minute, so Sam glanced back at Toby, who was staring at him. Sam raised an eyebrow questioningly.
"Are you all right?" Toby frowned at Sam.
"Course I am. Why?" Sam looked down at himself. "Am I bleeding somewhere or something?"
"No, no, you just look a little-" he waved a grasping hand in the air, " a little – off."
Sam's eyebrows flew upwards, "Off? Like I've been out of the fridge too long?"
"No! Not that! You seem kind of edgy at the moment, that's all. Last couple of days. And now you look like you haven't slept."
There was a moment's challenging silence, then Toby shrugged.
He rifled through a pile of notes and produced a sheaf of closely hand-written notes.
"These are from Davis Holland. I need you to go through them and make a summary – they’ll be valuable. It's just a shame he refuses to have anything to do with typing. I suppose you could get Bonnie to type them up first…have a look, whatever you do, I need a summary today. I have a meeting tomorrow with the fanatic farming field boys from Environment!"
Sam leaned across to take the notes. He frowned at the small writing, "Why does the best soybean expert we have access to have a phobia about typing? And what about a dictaphone? Tape recorder? Secretary?"
"Let's face it – he's a psychiatrist's dream, phobias flowing out of his fingertips."
There was a silence for a minute, and Sam bit his lower lip thoughtfully. He put his head on one side, looking over Toby's shoulder, "Toby?"
"Do you think people with phobias should see a psychiatrist?"
"If it's interfering with their daily routine, ye-" Toby suddenly stopped, inwardly groaning at his choice of words, and came around the desk. He sat down on the coffee table right in front of Sam. "No, of course not, Sam. Sometimes it's better, easier, more manageable to just not get into a…uh, a challenging situation. It doesn't mean you need that sort of help." He rubbed his forehead, "On the other hand, if a few chats with a brain-guy can get you back on track, there's no harm in that. Are you thinking about…"
Sam stared hard at the report in his hands.
"No, no, just – okay, I'll get on to this. I think Bonnie's swamped anyway with the crime submissions, so I'll just grit my teeth and read the fine print."
He stood quickly, and slipped away from Toby into his own office. Toby stayed sitting on the coffee table for a moment, running over that last exchange in his head. He knew Sam was asking in a very obtuse way if Toby thought he needed help. Psychiatric help. And Toby really had no answer for that. Sam's phobia was harmless enough if he just avoided the one thing that set him off, it didn’t affect his work, and he never mentioned it. So there was no reason for Toby to be recommending anything. But he could tell Sam was a bit uptight at the moment. He shrugged. An uptight Sam probably harboured more doubts than the cheerful version. He'd be fine by tomorrow. Hopefully.
Sam dragged his glasses off and placed them on the desk. He dumped the pages he'd been poring over, and rammed the heels of his hands into his eye-sockets, rubbing in hard, grinding circles, the pain of that pressure countering somewhat the piercing headache he'd acquired trying to summarise Holland's tiny script.
There was a humour-laden snort from the door. Sam released his eyes from their latest punishment and blinked painfully at the door, trying to find a long-range focus somewhere amongst the stars flickering around his line of vision. Josh sauntered into the room, his coat flapping. He walked past Sam and peered out of the window.
"Do you think that rain's gonna hold off? I have to head up to the Hill."
"It's meant to clear this afternoon."
Josh leaned on the back of Sam's chair and looked down at the top of his head.
"You looked like crap just then. What bizarre form of punishment have you come up with now?"
"Davis Holland and his very small handwriting – Josh, can't we find a better soybean expert, who can TYPE?"
"Mmm." Sam closed his eyes and leaned into the back of the chair. Josh reached around and gently laid his cool fingers against Sam's temples. He rotated them in tiny circles, slowly widening then shrinking down again. Sam relaxed visibly, eyes still closed, shoulders softened, a contented sigh quietly escaping his lips. Josh made a mental note to try this again tonight. After a couple of peaceful minutes, Josh slowed and finally laid a hand on the top of Sam's head.
"Take it easy today, okay? No crises."
"Tell the country, will you? And Toby!"
"Sam, really, I don't think… nah, never mind, I'll see you later. Need to talk to Toby."
Josh slipped into the next office. Sam picked up his glasses with a sigh and began to read again.
Josh tapped on Toby's doorframe. "Got a minute?"
"I just- well, I have to, can you-"
"Spit it out, Josh!"
"I'm going up to the Hill – I'm a – can you just keep an eye on Sam for me? He's kind of–"
Toby glared at Josh, "I'm not blind or stupid. He's a walking trainwreck. I was just hoping he'd get through today in one piece."
Josh glanced involuntarily at the window into Sam's office, at the dark head bent over, reading. He smiled gently.
"Yeah, well, I'd better get going."
Toby wrote solidly for about twenty minutes, pleased there'd been no phone calls, but his mind kept drifting back to a niggling concern about his Deputy. Toby swung his chair away from his desk and began to bounce one of his little rubber balls against the cupboard, a rhythmic, soothing pattern that gave him space to think. Early on in the campaign, stationed in Colorado Springs for a 'break', he had taken Sam downtown from their motel to find a good site for a temporary campaign office. Sam had been raving eloquently about the skiing in the Rockies, keen for Toby to experience the majestic awe of the massive, snow-drenched mountains, waxing lyrical about the depth and texture of the snow, and the crisp clarity of the air, ignoring Toby's insistence that he would rather do just about anything else in the world before he would go skiing. They had passed over a couple of sites on Toby's list, and the third one was in one of the main downtown malls. As they neared the location, Sam stopped talking about the snow, in fact, he stopped talking about anything. Surprised, Toby had glanced sideways at his new Deputy and was perturbed to notice Sam had grown very pale, and was starting to slow the pace of their walk. The mall gleamed brightly just ahead, a huge construction in gleaming glass and aqua-coloured pipes, the electric doors hungrily humming open and closed for the shoppers.
Sam slowed to a stop near the door, running a hand nervously through his hair,
"Why, why don't you, why don't you go um go, why don't you go in and and I'll, I'll, I'll, I'll go on to the next one?" His hands were fluttering around one another, and he was rocking back and forth on his heels and toes.
"There's two in here we need to see, c'mon!" Impatiently, Toby had stepped in behind Sam, urging him forward, nudging him gently with his shoulder. Sam had stumbled forward slightly and they had been swallowed up by the gleaming monstrosity.
It was super-bright and noisy inside. The first site they looked at was just inside the door and not particularly suitable. They headed for the next one, Toby still mildly concerned that Sam was very quiet. As they moved into the throng of shoppers, music reverberating around the cavernous rooftop, Sam had bent his head down, shoulders hunched protectively, as if he didn't want to be seen. After bumping into three people, Toby grabbed him by the arm and yanked him out of the flow, against a garish, tile-coated pillar.
"What the hell are you doing?" He still had a firm grip on Sam's upper arm and realised belatedly that Sam was shaking. Toby ducked his head a little, to look at Sam's eyes.
The young man was breathing rapidly, sharp, shallow breaths darting in and out, his eyes
Toby frowned. "What's wrong?"
"I –ah, I don't feel so well. Can we go outside?"
"Do you want to sit down?" A shake of the head. Keeping hold of Sam's arm, Toby had steered him back they way they had come. As they slipped through the doors, Sam shuddered and took in a huge breath.
"What was that?"
Sam hadn't answered. Irritated, Toby had flagged down a taxi and bundled Sam into the back seat. They rode back to the motel in silence, Toby then peeling Sam out of the seat and practically marching him up to the room he was sharing with Josh. The door was open, and Josh was reclining on one bed, reading brochures. He grinned up at Toby,
"Hey, you sure you don't wanna do a day-trip up to the snow? We'll just let you play, build a snowman!" Toby lugged Sam into the room and shoved him towards the other bed. Josh had sat up straighter, as Sam stumbled towards the bed, sitting down and burying his head in his hands.
"Sam, what's the matter?" He glared at Toby, "What did you do to him?"
"He decides to get ill in the middle of a shopping mall, for God's sake. I had to practically carry him outside."
Josh leapt off the bed, papers fluttering to the floor in every direction.
"You were IN a MALL?"
"You don't need to shout, Josh."
"Okay, okay," Josh ran a hand through his hair. "Toby, can you leave us alone for a sec, then can I meet you in a few minutes, maybe in the bar?"
Toby shrugged, "Yeah. Is he all right?" Sam hadn't moved.
"He'll be fine. I'll catch up with you."
Toby left, closing the door discreetly. Josh later told Toby he had sat down on the bed next to Sam.
"How bad was it?"
Sam's shoulders twitched slightly. Josh rubbed his hand up and down Sam's back for a minute. Finally, Sam lowered his hands.
"I was okay at first, we looked at one place, but as we went further in…I started to lose it." He looked right at Josh, his blue eyes full of distress, his face white. "D'you think he'll want to get rid of me? We were just starting to really do good work together."
Toby stopped bouncing the ball and squeezed it firmly, crushing it into an egg shape. Ginger tapped on the door, cracking his musings. She handed him a copy of his schedule.
"You have that meeting with Boyd in five, and Sam's nearly done with the summary. I'm going to type that up while he does the welcoming thing for the Belgians with CJ. Then you both have that funding review at eleven. Do you want to see the notes for the environment meeting beforehand? And then you have that dental appointment at two and the visit to the new suburban bushland park with the President at three-thirty. You saw the speech for that, right? Sam finished it on Saturday."
"Yeah, that all sounds good." Toby stood up, dropping the rubber ball into a drawer. "Thanks." He picked up his notes and followed Ginger out, sidestepping into Sam's office.
"How's the handwriting analysis going?"
Sam looked up, a pained expression on his face,
"I am right off soybeans, Toby, I swear, if anyone offers me a meal involving soybeans in the next forty-eight hours, I shall likely explode messily all over the room." He made a face, as if he could already see the mess his exploded body would create, and how would one tackle the clean-up job, sticky blood, chips of bones, skin, great globs of gore…
"Please try to concentrate. You right for the Belgian thing?"
The soybean summary'll be finished?"
You're coming with me to the funding review? You're ready for that?"
"You sure? You don't look any better…"
"Toby, I am trying to sound cheerful here. Please humour me, I'm hoping it may eventually help me to FEEL better."
"I need you to draft some ideas for the opening of the new Children's Wing at the Sacred Heart Hospital. It's at the end of the week, but we may as well get it going. Just do some framework for now, get Bonnie to do the research this afternoon, maybe."
Toby looked at Sam for a moment, causing Sam to shift impatiently in his chair, then he turned and left the Bullpen.
Sam picked up a pen. He began to craft a few sentences, something that always helped him to get into the mood of a speech. His first sentences rarely existed by the time the speech was finished, but they were the catalyst to spur him on his way.
'The best reason in the world brought me here tonight, our future, our children. The gift you generous people have brought is the ability to prevent the suffering of hundreds of children, our children, every year. Your extraordinary commitment to an incredible five years of fund-raising has enabled this charity hospital to open a glorious new wing devoted to the poor children, the marginalized, who are no less likely to become our teachers of the future, our soldiers, our bishops, our farmers, our scientists, our leaders. You are giving them a chance where there was no chance before…'
Sam sat back and glanced at his watch. His headache was easing, but he really had to finish the soybean summary. Grinding his teeth, he settled down for one last effort.
Half an hour later, he was done, and done in. His head had a feeling he imagined was akin to a moose stepping on your head, over and over. Sam pictured the moose, a tall, gangly brown moose, with huge antlers and a tired face, large hooves lifting and dropping on his head…
"Sam, CJ wants to know if you're ready-" Bonnie stopped dead at the sight of Sam's distant features. "Sam?" CJ pushed past her and walked right up to Sam's desk. Leaning forward, she snapped her fingers right in front of his eyes. Sam's body leapt like a bolt of lightning had hit him. He stared at CJ, startled, and blinked in surprise.
"Where had you gone?"
"Let's move, Spanky. We've got Belgians to welcome!"
* * *
"Yes, Mr President."
"There's a bookshop I want to visit."
"A bookshop, Mr President?"
Yes, Charlie." He rubbed his hands together excitedly, "This bookshop, it specialises in classics, poetry, early editions – it's my kind of store, Charlie."
"Yes, sir, we've been there before."
"No, no, this is another bookstore."
"And you felt a pressing need to go there because…"
"They've built a mall around it. It fought against the mall, and the mall went ahead but the store was allowed to retain its character, frontage AND oak tree growing right outside the door."
"An oak tree growing in a mall, sir?"
"It's a hundred years old! The mall design has incorporated the oak tree, in fact they rethought the whole theme of the mall, redesigned it with indoor gardens. This shop has character, Charlie. And I'd like to go there. Today."
Charlie sighed, "Where's the mall, Mr President?"
* * *
Sam had annoyed Toby no end during the funding meeting, and when they reached the Bullpen afterwards, he caught Sam's sleeve and jerked his head towards his own office.
He let go of the sleeve when they were inside, and shoved Sam towards the couch.
"Sit!" The command barked out between clenched teeth. Sam eyed Toby nervously.
"What did I do? I backed you all the way. I made good comments."
"You wriggled in your seat. You bit right through a pencil!" Sam blushed slightly at that. "You polished your glasses eleven times. You lost your pen twice. You're a nervous wreck. Have you eaten today? Hmmph, I didn't think so. Come on."
"What? Where?" Sam was flustered.
Toby pulled him up off the couch, "We're going to the Mess. You're going to eat something."
Sam sat and poked at a sandwich for ten minutes before deciding he wouldn't make it out alive if he didn't eat it. Toby tried to ignore him as much as was humanly possible, relieved when Sam began to nibble at the sandwich at last.
Charlie popped his head in the door.
"Hey, Toby, just wanted to warn you, on the way back from the park, the President wants to pop in to a bookstore in the new mall over that way. Ron's okayed it, so…there's no speech or anything, he just wants to buy some books there."
Toby rolled his eyes.
"Sure. Thanks, Charlie."
Sam tried to work steadily after lunch, but when Toby had left for the dentist, he told Bonnie he was going to have a quick lie-down on Toby's couch. He felt tired and scratchy, the headache still lingering and the sandwich impersonating a sea-horse, bobbing about in his stomach. Sam didn't want to be a total wreck when Josh returned from the Hill. He lay back and closed his eyes, willing his jangled nerves to sort themselves out and leave him in peace.
At three-fifteen, Ginger gently shook Sam awake.
"Toby didn't make it back from the dentist – there was some sort of abscess and they gave him too much anaesthetic and he's not even able to stand up yet. He needs you to go with the President to the opening of the park. Here's the speech and the notes."
Sam struggled into a sitting position.
"Thanks, Ginger." He yawned widely, and rubbed his eyes.
"You really need to stop doing that, Sam. And you'd better go brush your hair. You look like you've been dragged through the gorse bush backwards. How's the head?"
"I'm all right, I guess." He stretched and stood up, collecting the speech off Ginger, before getting his coat from his own office.
* * *
The park opening had gone without a hitch, just Sam and the President riding back in the limousine. Sam was still tired, and was looking over a map of the new park when he sensed the car was slowing down. Sure enough, the motorcade was pulling into the carpark of a huge mall. Sam looked up in surprise,
"What's going on? This is a mall."
The President turned to him excitedly,
"Didn't Toby tell you? We're going to a bookstore"
"Yes! Acorns to Oaks – it's an extraordinary little store. I'll explain why later. We can't stay there for long."
"It's IN the mall?"
"Sure is. Slap bang in the middle."
Sam paled visibly, biting his lower lip, a worried frown between his eyebrows. The President misunderstood his concern,
"It'll be fine, Sam. We're just going to breeze in, look around, congratulate the owners for protecting their store AND the oak tree, buy a few books, then get going. Ron's okayed the whole thing, albeit reluctantly."
The Presidential motorcade pulled up at a side entrance to the mall and agents quickly cleared the way. President Bartlet straightened his tie and jacket, running a hand over his hair.
"C'mon, Sam, let's go."
Sam opened his laptop, "Ah, I'll just wait here for you, sir."
"No way, Sam, you just have to see this."
Sam closed his laptop. He reluctantly followed the President out of the car, agents hustling them forward. As they made to go through the electronic doors, Sam slowed noticeably, an agent bumping into him,
"Please keep moving, Mr Seaborn."
Sam glanced backwards,
"Sorry, I just- " he tried to stop in the doorway.
"Please keep moving forward, Mr Seaborn." The agent placed a firm hand on Sam's shoulder, propelling him forward to keep pace with the President. Sam stumbled slightly, and the agent's grip moved to Sam's upper arm he regained his balance.
The group made its way into the mall. It was huge without appearing ungainly, five levels of stores spiralling upwards, every railing and divider trimmed with polished, pale pine, every level sharing specially designed indoor gardens, vibrant splashes of green visible in all directions. There was a relaxed feel, muted lighting, no blaring muzak. All the same, Sam could already feel his heart pounding as the mall swallowed them whole. He could see different arms of the shopping centre reaching out to four points of the compass, the centre focused on a glorious sky-lit rooftop.
He tried to slow the pounding, to breathe slowly even as they strode along, but his breath was starting to come in shallow gasps and Sam began to panic – he was losing control, the thing he hated most about this. They were nearing the bookstore, the oak tree clearly visible, surrounded by a small, white picket fence.
Sam knew his body was walking beside the President and he could hear him expounding on the history of the American shopping mall, but his mind was flying in wild circles, out of control. He tried to focus on his feet, left, right, left, right.
The processions slowed to a stop outside the bookshop. Agents were already in position inside and around the store, and they opened the door for the President, a bell tinkling warmly. Sam finally managed to evade the guiding hand of the agent behind him, stepping sideways and leaning against the wall next to the wood-framed bay window. He pressed a hand firmly against his stomach in an attempt to fight the rising nausea, his breath still spurting in awkward, jerky gasps.
Hearing the President's voice and accompanying laughter, Sam tried to straighten up, knowing he should be in there, but he could no longer move. The storefronts nearby seemed to shimmer and sway, adding to Sam's nausea. In desperation, he closed his eyes. He felt completely out of control. Drawing in ragged breaths, Sam pressed his back against the wooden storefront, trying to find some sense of stability as his legs began to shake.
Two strong hands suddenly gripped his upper arms, something Sam could feel despite the overpowering blackness that was enveloping him. Sam blinked desperately, trying to focus on the man in front of him.
"Mr Seaborn…Sam?" The hands shook him gently, but he couldn't respond. "Sam, are you ill?" Sam tried to reply but could only gasp haltingly. His blue eyes were wide and pleading. He heard the agent holding him speak to someone else,
"He's having some sort of attack – asthma maybe? We need to get him out of here. It's too risky to delay anyone here."
"Is he sick?"
"I can't tell."
There was a pause. Sam leaned into the strong grip of the agent. The other one spoke into his microphone,
"Ron, we have to move Princeton out…me and Flynn. He's sick or something. We're heading for the motorcade…yeah, okay." He looked up. "Let's go."
An agent on each side of him, they eased him away from the bookstore wall. Sam found his legs seemed to move independently of his brain, responding to the forward propulsion of the agents. Within a couple of minutes, they had cleared the exit.
Bright sunlight washed over the trio as they stopped by the presidential limousine. All three were panting, Sam gulping hungrily at the fresh, cool autumn air. His knees gave way, and he began to sink downwards. The agents quickly caught him under the armpits and levered him into the car. One climbed in beside him to ascertain his condition.
"Sir? Sam? Are you in pain?"
Sam managed a jerky shake of his head.
"It's the mall!" he gasped. "Problem...with malls." He waved a limp hand, "Panic attack."
"A panic attack? Really? Are you all right now?"
Sam leaned back against the seat, perspiration beaded across his forehead. He nodded weakly. The agent sat and observed him for a long moment, then withdrew to report back.
Sam sighed deeply. He should have stayed out of the mall. He closed his eyes and focused on his breathing, trying to still the tremors rippling through his insides.
Five minutes later, the President, with his entourage of agents, bustled through the glass doors. He moved rapidly into the car clutching a bag of books. Doors slammed, sirens started up and they were on their way.
Jed Bartlet leaned back and looked closely at his speech-writer. Sam, sensing his scrutiny, tried to keep his eyes on the seat in front of him. Jed absorbed Sam's very sharp, pale features and slight trembling.
"Sam, why didn't you say something?"
"I- " Sam shrugged, keeping his eyes straight ahead, "Sometimes I'm okay… It's not important."
"But it is, Sam. I had no idea. I would never have made you come in. How often has this happened?"
"How often has a President of the United States dragged me into a shopping mall?" Sam gave a weak grin, catching Jed's eye for a moment.
"No, you idiot. How often do you get these panic attacks?"
"Hardly ever, sir. I try to stay out of malls if I'm feeling … a little, ah, stressed."
"Has it been a problem for a long time?"
"Years. I was lost in a mall when I was nine." Sam laid a hand across his stomach, grimacing. Jed leaned forward in consternation,
"You all right there, Sam?"
Sam sighed, "Yes, sir. Just… -butterflies."
Jed frowned at his tense, complicated young speech-writer leaning tiredly against the seat, and wondered how he couldn't have known about this.
"I'm sorry, Sam. You've tried some sort of therapy?"
"My parents tried, but… Josh has some plans for a sort of 'confrontational exposure and response therapy' – we just need to find some time to give it a go."
"Josh is a smart guy. It's worth a try. You can't avoid malls for ever."
"I've survived so far. It's just, it's hard having something that's beyond your control."
Jed snorted, "Try running the country. I'm not sure I'm EVER in control." He picked up his bag of purchases, "Let me show you the books I found…"
* * *
CJ knew about it. One evening on the campaign trail, they'd been sharing a few beers, and Josh had asked Sam if he was still afraid of Toby, who was elsewhere that night. That had started Donna quizzing everyone to admit what they feared the most. Caught up in a sense of 'truth or dare', CJ's spiders and Donna's bats had paled into insignificance when Sam had hesitated at his turn, leaving Josh the opportunity to fill the gap,
"Sam's scared of malls."
Their mouths had dropped open, their eyes focusing on Sam's panicked expression.
"SHOPPING malls?" CJ managed to get around a widening, wicked grin. Sam had blushed scarlet, ducking behind his bottle of beer. Josh, already three beers down, had quickly sensed their interest and leaned towards the two women conspiratorially,
"Some days, if he's already strung out, he can't even go through the entrance to a mall without completely freaking. We even struggle in arcades!"
Sam sank low in his seat, trapped between Josh and Donna, and elbowed Josh hard in the ribs.
Josh shifted a little to avoid any further assault. Donna was frowning, trying to grasp the concept Josh had laid before them,
"How do you get afraid of a shopping mall?"
CJ and Josh collapsed against the table, laughing. Donna was not put off, leaning seriously and a little drunkenly towards Sam,
"Is it every mall or just one mall in particular?"
CJ banged her head on the table, screeching hysterically, and Josh wiped his eyes, awash and snorting with humour. After a minute, Donna patted Sam's thigh,
"C'mon, Sam, tell me what happened to you."
"Yeah, Sam," chortled CJ, "Tell us the whole story."
Sam shook his head, miserably embarrassed, his eyes fixed firmly on the label of his beer bottle. CJ reached out and touched his hand gently, momentarily sobered by his expression,
"Sam, we promise not to laugh. It's just, you were a high-flying lawyer in New York City –" she sniffed back another giggle, "- where did you shop?" All three burst into raucous laughter. Sam squirmed with discomfort. Josh shuffled back close and flung an arm around his shoulders,
"I'll tell 'em."
"No, Josh, -"
"It's okay, Sam," Josh's speech was slightly slurred and he leaned his head towards Sam's, "No-one will laugh at you, okay?"
"We promise," added Donna, and CJ nodded encouragingly.
Josh took on the air of a story-teller,
"Sam was nine years old, a small, weedy little boy-"
"I was not weedy!"
"Okay, okay. Slight. Anyway, this slight, dark-haired little boy and his Dad drive to LA's biggest, newest, shiniest shopping mall to buy the Mom a Mothers' Day gift. Somewhere in this big mall, the slight boy gets separated from his Dad, and after wandering in vain for some length of time, completely freaks out."
"I did NOT completely freak out…"
"Did someone scare him? Was he abused? Was he just terrified? No-one knows what happened in those hours he was alone, but when he was finally found and reunited with his Dad, he was in such a state they had to take him to hospital where he was sedated and kept under observation for the night." Josh paused as CJ and Donna absorbed this information, then continued, "He's hardly been able to go into a mall since. It sometimes brings on the most amazing panic attacks."
CJ stared at Sam, marvelling anew at his complexity. Donna had more practical things on her mind,
"Did your Mom still get a Mothers' Day gift?"
* * *
By the time the motorcade neared the West Wing, Sam had the shakes again, and was battling an overpowering desire to throw up violently all over the car. Jed had asked the agent in front to request Josh meet them at the door.
And there he was, wringing his hands as the car pulled up. Jed told Sam to wait in the car, then left him alone. He stepped over to Josh,
"Something you guys forgot to tell me, Joshua?"
"I'm sorry, Mr President, it was supposed to be Toby."
"Toby was going to tell me?"
"No, sir, Toby was accompanying you to the Mall. But he was held up at the dentist. Where's Sam?"
"He's still in the car. I'll let you extract him in peace." The President moved on inside.
Josh opened the car door and looked inside. He took one look at the pale, shivering wreck and shook his head.
"Sam, Sam, what the hell…" he muttered tiredly. "C'mon, let's get you inside."
He leaned in and helped Sam slide out of the car, throwing a supportive arm around his waist. As they reached the Bullpen, Sam stopped.
"Josh, I, I, I need- "
"What d'ya need, Sam?"
"I –" Sam frowned. He shrugged in defeat, "I dunno."
Josh steered him inside, Ginger and Bonnie both staring in concern at Sam's appearance. They headed into Toby's office. Toby looked up with surprise, coming to his feet as he, too, realised Sam was unwell. Josh kicked the door shut and deposited Sam on the couch, before turning to Toby, his eyes flashing,
"A shopping mall, Toby. You sent him to a freaking SHOPPING MALL."
Toby held his hands up, conciliatory style,
"Josh, I'm sorry, the book-store, it went right out of my head. It wasn't scheduled."
"Look at him, Toby. He was out with the PRESIDENT." Josh was shouting. "How d'you think THAT feels?"
"It was a MISTAKE, Josh. We all make them. I didn't PLAN it."
"One hell of a mistake, Toby."
Toby moved over and sat on the coffee-table, his usual place to focus on Sam. He looked at Sam, still awfully pale, still flickering with a slight tremor, his eyes barely registering the argument raging above him.
"Sam, it was a genuine mistake. I'm sorry."
Sam lifted a hand vaguely, "It's okay."
Toby glanced up at Josh. "He needs to get some rest."
"Yeah, I'm gonna try and get away early. Can I leave him here for now?"
Josh slipped out, leaving the door open this time. Sam focused on Toby,
"I am right here, you know. You can talk TO me."
"Sorry. You – ah – want to lie down or something?"
"No, I'd rather do some work, maybe on the Sacred Heart thing…" Sam rubbed his hands up and down his thighs nervously. "Toby…"
"Toby, I have to get on top of this thing. Today, it was, it was awful. I should have been in that book-store, not holding up the wall outside like an idiot." Sam suddenly pressed a hand against his mouth, closing his eyes for a moment.
"Sam?" There was a moment's stillness, Sam breathing through his nose over his hand, then he opened his eyes again, lowering his hand,
"It's okay, just felt a bit nauseous."
"This thing, with the malls, it really affects you, doesn't it? I mean, physically."
Sam turned his mouth down dejectedly, "It's way out of my control. Once it starts, it spirals downhill all by itself. My mind, that's not even there anymore, they're like two separate things, mind and body."
He stood up shakily.
"I think I'll just go for a walk outside."
"It'll be dark soon."
"I won't go far, dad!"
Toby snorted with relief, "Get out!"
Sam wandered out on the lawn, inhaling deeply the cool air. Winter would be upon them soon. He stared up at the few golden leaves still clinging to their branches by the tiniest of leafy threads. How tenacious. Like us, he thought, clinging to leadership, to guiding the country through turbulent times. Sam sank down slowly onto the lawn, and drove his fingers amongst the thick green blades of grass, feeling the dampness and chill of the heavy mud fill his fingernails. He clung to the earth, centring himself on the planet, renewing his place here, grounding his nervous self into a calmness that comes from being alone with nature. He closed his eyes, and imagined that beyond the roar and hum of the nearby traffic, he could hear the world slowly turning, a regular, repetitive, secure turning that he could embrace in the midst of all the chaos around him.
After some time, he could feel the chill of the earth seeping into his joints. He rose stiffly and turned back towards the West Wing. Josh was walking towards him across the lawn. They stopped in front of one another, inches between them. Josh searched Sam's face in the deepening gloom. Sam smiled back, a serene, sparkling smile, a tired smile too, and Josh grinned back, his dimples deepening as his grin widened. They turned together and headed back to the office side by side.
But there is a sequel…Therapy.
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