A Bluer Ocean

by: Abigale

Character(s): Josh, Sam, OFC
Pairing(s): Josh/Sam,
Category(s): Romance, New Character
Rating: MATURE
Summary: It was the first time she allowed herself to imagine them. Sam and her son.

Miriam Lyman heard her son's voice long before the crown of hair appeared above the heads of the other disembarking passengers.

"Seriously, no more commercial flying, not until we are officially out of office!"

His dress slacks hung low on his hips, thin, bony; too thin, her boy. His boy, solid and healthy looking, much to her surprise.

"Mom!" Arms wrapped around her firmly, lifting her right off her feet, as she used to lift him. Twirling around, and she put a hand to her head.

"Let me down, Josh! Oh my!" Her feet felt the floor beneath her, but her heart was still spinning in her chest. "Let me look at you; let me see you both now." She pressed a dry hand to Josh's face, gave one reaffirming pat. He was real.

"And Sam." Miriam turned to face him, but he was already looking around, efficiently taking in his surroundings. "It's so, I'm so pleased...."

He bent towards her formally, and his lips brushed over the cheek she offered. His eyes were bluer than she ever remembered, and she couldn't envision having them looking at her for too long; they seemed to slash right through her.

It was the first time she'd allowed herself to imagine them. Sam and her son.

Their motions were unsynchronized. Josh set down his bag just in front of Sam, who scuffed it, and had to hop-skip around. They failed twice to capture their luggage as it swept past on the conveyer belt, and Miriam wondered how they'd ever managed to figure themselves out. She knew -- had listened to Josh's confession -- he hadn't a clue. She didn't ask about Sam.

But their voices flowed together seamlessly, and within moments she knew she would have trouble telling them apart, if one hadn't been her own child.

"Yehoshua, dear. Where's your jacket?" His tie was limp, twisted, and striped with unfashionably fat bars of red and blue.

"Packed," he answered with distraction, signaling Sam to block the progress of his suitcase while he stalked behind it.

"It'll be ruined!" Miriam scolded, all the while eyeing Sam's casually wrinkled chinos and his still-crisp gray chambray pinstripe shirt. She couldn't quite understand it, but she felt somehow annoyed by the contrast with her son.

Luggage rescued, car located, air conditioner turned on to quiet Josh's complaints, Miriam allowed Josh to drive, heading towards her rambler. She watched out the window as the sun-faded buildings glowed, their color saturated by dusk's flame.

Josh prattled on about their trip, the flight, the food, the crowds. She noticed his eyes flicker to the rearview mirror almost compulsively; searching for and finding Sam over and over.

She was shocked that he remembered the way home. Until he admitted that Sam had printed out directions from the internet, and Josh had studied them on the plane. "The internet?" she said to no one in particular, as the men lifted the bags from the trunk. "Don't they sell maps anymore?"

Inside, a cool and steady 68 degrees greeted them, stale potpourri scentless in a crystal bowl by the door. Without looking in that direction, Miriam told Josh to take their bags to the room; the second room, the 'guest' room. Smoothing down her silver-white hair, she excused herself to freshen up, not looking back.

"You have a dock?" Sam asked, when she joined them on the lanai.

She remembered then that Sam sailed or something, and Miriam scolded herself for not making arrangements to borrow a friend's boat for their visit.

"An acquaintance from my bridge club owns a motor boat of some sort," she said. "I can't imagine why I didn't think to ask him." She was tempted to tell Josh to stop tapping his foot, stop rapping his fingers against his thigh.

"Please, I wouldn't want you to go to any trouble," Sam said, though she could see the hint of interest in those eyes. His body seemed to be leaning towards the water as if he was being drawn there, but too polite to dash down the path without an invitation.

"Why don't you take a look, Sam? Just about now is when the manatee like to come by. You could feed them," Miriam suggested, watched as Sam's eyes cut over to Josh. "Just let me get you some lettuce." Heading back into the house, she spoke to Josh over her shoulder, enticing him to follow.

"I'd enjoy a nice gin and tonic, to cool off. I know you like your beer, but I thought maybe tonight you might join me?" Her eyebrows quirked up in anticipation.

"Sure," Josh answered hesitantly. "That sounds great, Mom. Sam?" He smiled at the dark-haired man, who remained where he stood on the lanai.

"Uh, sure," Sam agreed, his hands brushing over the pockets of his pants; lingering, then dropping to his sides.

She could see him, as she stood in front of the pass-through window above the sink, watched him bend to examine a plant by the wall; look up at the sky through the screened roof. Miriam measured out an extra dollop of gin in her own glass, then handed them to Josh to fill with tonic that sizzled when it hit the ice.

They returned to the lanai, with glasses and a plastic container filled with torn, limp leaves of lettuce. "Just sprinkle a few across the water, and they'll come to you in good time, Sam. There's been a family," Miriam turned to tell Josh. "A little baby started showing up a few weeks ago."

Sitting on stiff green and white striped cushioned chairs, Miriam and Josh watched Sam make his way down the sloping path to the canal's edge. The fading light made it difficult for Miriam to make him out clearly but Josh looked on, not squinting, a small, faint smile gracing his thin lips.

His ice cubes shifted when Josh took a sip of his drink, nearly spilling down his chin. "This is great, Ma," he told her, reaching out a hand to settle over one of her own. "It's great to see you." Lifting her hand to his mouth, he pressed it to his lips.

They made plans to go out for dinner at a casual café up in the shopping district known as the 'Square'. A short walk, but they'd drive, a concession to the length of Miriam's day and Josh's petulance.

"Sam would probably rather walk," Josh explained conspiratorially to his mother. "After being on the plane and all. We'll just let him think it's farther than it is, okay?" He winked at Miriam, and she tried to remember the last time he shared a secret with her.

Before this new one he brought home with him.

"Josh!" Sam's voice was a quiet shout, curiously boyish. "They're here!"

Josh joined Sam on the small dock, and they stood shoulder to shoulder, staring down into the gray-green water. Sam's head moved back and forth, following the lazy progress of the swimming behemoths, ghostly below them, but Josh's head tilted up frequently to look at Sam, that same smile in place that Miriam had noticed on the lanai.

Josh left Sam to continue pitching the curling leaves of lettuce onto the gently drifting current and returned to his seat by Miriam's side. He sighed heavily as he sat. "Oh god, Mom; I hope you have a lot of lettuce," Josh said without further explanation.

His hair had retreated another few centimeters she decided, studying him by the blazing decorative torch he'd insisted on lighting. She remembered a picture she'd cut out from a magazine, though she didn't normally keep such disposable souvenirs of her son's many accomplishments.

Toby Zeigler stood blurry but unmistakable in the background, while Sam and Josh were sharply in focus front and center. She'd stared at the photograph for a long time, making careless comparisons among all three men. Josh's hair, bushy and tinged with red, the same muddy color of his suit. Toby, so much skin punctuated by nearly black hair, neatly trimmed and distinguished.

Sam, perfect in every way.

That was back when they'd first entered the White House, flush with pride and purpose. The picture was tucked away between the pages of Josh's copy of President Bartlet's inauguration speech; a Mother's Day gift from Josh. Even back then he'd told her Sam was brilliant, but she thought he meant as a writer.

Out of the darkness, Sam seemed to materialize; conjured. He swung the empty container in one hand, carrying his nearly full drink in the other. His limbs were loose and limber, but she felt a sense of heightened-awareness about him that made her equally conscious of Josh, sprawled boneless beside her.

"So, you made new friends already," Josh teased as Sam stood before them, in front of the only two chairs on that side of the lanai. "And no, you can't bring them home with us," Josh added in a mockingly stern tone.

Miriam sat watching as the two men exchanged silent looks, lightning fast flashes of understanding crackling between them. Rising from her chair, she held a hand out to Sam, who stared back uncomprehendingly.

"I'll take the Tupperware, Sam. Then, I'm just going to get ready to go." She left Josh to explain their plans to Sam.

~~

"Her breasts are gelatinous!" Sam said, choking down his laughter. When he looked up, linking eyes with a returning Miriam, the chuckle died of strangulation in his throat. "Oh." He rose from the table, signaling Josh to do the same.

"Ma!" Josh had barely cleared the seat before he was firmly parked in it again. "Sam was... we were just, uh, the bartender." His eyes swung to his left, towards the amply endowed, and obviously braless redhead mopping the bar with vigor. "I was saying they must be... she must have gotten...."

Miriam waved off her son's discomfort, and summoned a wicked grin. "You live down here long enough, and you can spot the fakes a hundred yards off." She sipped at her cocktail, ordered in place of the beers the men were having. "Sam's right." A nod towards the young man brought a relieved smile to his lips.

They ate fish, all three. Miriam had thought that Sam was a vegetarian somehow, an idea that made her son laugh out loud, and Sam mumble something about hormones and antibiotics. Josh ate Sam's cauliflower, tilting the plate so they slid off into his potato.

Over coffee, Miriam snickered, throwing a hand over her mouth, when Josh tried to relate some nearly foiled attempt he'd made at securing a House vote for a bill that someone -- bestowing a proud smile on Sam -- had discovered contained a potentially calamitous misspelling.

"I shouldn't have had another drink," she said by way of an excuse, but really she was so delighted to have her son there. "When your father and I would sit on the patio with cocktails, I could always manage two. Now...." She swept her hair from her cheek. "I really should limit myself."

Josh's eyes lit up at the mention of his father, which in fact was her intention. He had Noah's eyes, and through them, she could see back into the life they used to share.

"Is someone following us, Sam?" Josh kidded when he kept looking behind them on the drive home.

"No, I just... didn't realize how close the Square was to the house."

Josh lobbed a knowing grin his mother's way. "Do you want to get out and walk the rest of the way?" Josh suggested. It was a long moment before Sam answered no.

It was still early, by Washington insider standards, but Miriam felt sleepy from the alcohol and the excitement and the look Josh gave Sam every time the younger man turned his head away.

She pointed out the pile of fresh towels -- twice the amount she'd put out for Josh's last visit -- in the bathroom by the guest room, and as Sam walked down to the dock for one last check for wildlife, she showed Josh where the coffee was, at his request.

"Uh, Mom, this is decaf," he pointed out, sniffing at the can.

Miriam busied herself with the tap, waiting for it to run cold. "Yes?" She glanced at him, and realized he was frowning. "Yes, Josh. I don't drink real coffee anymore. Do you really need to stay up tonight?" She didn't understand the deepening frown at all, not until she saw him glance through the small window at the shadow figure on the dock.

Josh replaced the lid on the coffee can and set it back down. "Ya know what? I think maybe I'll just have a beer. And I'm going to put this in the cabinet, is that okay?" he asked, avoiding her puzzlement. He shut the can away, and stepped around her to the refrigerator, trailing a hand across her shoulders as he passed.

"Josh? Are you hiding the coffee from Sam?" Miriam asked with amusement.

Josh looked as if he'd been caught in the act of something, and his mouth opened and closed a few fruitless times before he forced out the words. "Sam, Sam doesn't drink decaf, Mom." He lowered his voice, as if afraid it would carry through the window, across the lanai, down the slope and find Sam, staring contentedly up at the starry sky. "I'll figure something out in the morning, while you distract him," he said.

She couldn't tell if he was joking or not; there was a concerned furrow between his brows, but his eyes may have been teasing. She used to be able to tell, but now it seemed every time he spoke Sam's name his eyes did a little dance.

She was too tired now to wait for Sam to come back to the house, so Miriam kissed Josh on the cheek three times, fast, and patted his chest with an open hand. "You sleep well, my Yehoshua," she said, smiling at him. "Say goodnight to Sam for me, will you?"

Josh swept his arms around her thin frame and squeezed tightly, resting his face against the side of her head. "I will. You sleep well too, Ma."

Miriam slid out of his arms and left the kitchen, with one last look out the window in the direction of the water.

After her nighttime rituals were complete, she climbed into bed, a place that always felt as if it was gaping and wide open, no matter how many years passed. A book sat on the bedside table, and she looked at it a good long time before sighing, and reaching out for it.

A few chapters might put her to sleep, or engage her mind enough to keep her up another two hours, and that was one of the things she loved so about reading in bed. As she tried and failed to focus her eyes on the words, she become conscious that her body was far more tired than her mind, and she slapped the cover closed with a resounding snap.

Had she told the boys that she no longer bothered setting the security alarm? Or mentioned that the thermostat would kick the temperature down even lower overnight? She couldn't recall, but kept assuring herself it didn't matter.

Switching off the lamp, Miriam sat in the dark, eyes adjusting slowly until everything softened to a hazy half-reality, the larger objects in the room massed along the walls, the details of them lost until morning.

The newspaper, she realized with a start! That was what she had meant to tell them. If they arose before her, which was likely, she knew the first thing they would do would be to stumble to the front door to retrieve the paper.

And she had meant to warn Josh that it might not be there. She had intended to tell him in private, because she was slightly ashamed, and it warmed her face thinking of it even now.

Feuding with a paper boy at her age! She should be ashamed, but her feelings were tinged with satisfaction, too, that it had fallen to her to stare down the bully. It was she that her neighbors turned to when the pimply man willfully dropped his delivery at the end of poor arthritic Mr. Reinhold's driveway, or purposefully smacked the thick logs of newsprint up against the doors of the homes he knew housed excitable dogs.

So Josh should know, Miriam thought as she climbed out from under the covers. He shouldn't panic if there was no paper waiting for him, it would show up eventually.

The kitchen light was off, and the family room was lit only by the bluish glow of the muted television. She saw no one on the sofa, or in the comfortable chair near it, or even at the dining table in the center of that end of the house.

But the sliding glass door was open, just a flimsy screen between the cool air inside and the damp air out.

Could Sam still be down by the water, this late? Miriam shook her head sharply at the thought that she had neglected to show him where she kept the mosquito repellent, fearful that by tomorrow he'd be made miserable and cranky by the bites.

There was movement, just as she reached the entry to the dark lanai. Her heart jumped in her chest, but she reminded herself that of course she wasn't alone; her son was here, come to visit her. And he'd brought Sam with him; his Sam was here as well.

That was who she saw now, but it wasn't who was moving. Sam stood in the middle of the lanai, turned almost fully towards the canal. It was Josh who was in motion, murmuring something low that she couldn't make out.

When Josh got to Sam he stood behind him, and reached around front with a bottle, slipping it into the waiting hand. Then, bending his head down, Josh placed a kiss on the back of Sam's neck, lingering a moment before regaining his posture.

Miriam felt the brush of something against the back of her own neck, and brought a disbelieving hand up to touch the spot. She watched, enraptured, as Sam tilted his head back, offering himself to Josh. She could just make out an enigmatic smile on his lips in the light cast by the moon.

Josh stepped to his left slightly, and dipped his head, grazing his lips over the exposed throat, which elicited a faint groan from one of them. Miriam saw Sam's shoulders rise as if welcoming a deep breath into his lungs, and he tipped his head even more.

As Josh came around in front of Sam, Miriam stepped into the shadows without thinking. He nearly faced her way, and she could distinguish his features better than she would have thought possible in the poor light.

Maybe it was the heightened sense she was experiencing that made everything appear so clear. She thought she could smell the beer on their breath and hear the tiny little gasping sounds Sam made every time Josh touched his throat with his lips.

Both of Josh's hands came into sight, going to either side of Sam's face. And that's when they kissed.

Stealing back to her room, Miriam wasn't aware of the hand across her mouth holding the breath in her chest, or the tears clouding her eyes, or the thrum in her head. She was only aware that her son was in love with the handsome young man with the china-blue eyes.

~~

When Miriam had bought the little house by the bridge, she knew it might be the last home she'd ever know. It was narrow, but deep, and the layout suited her well. The light was at the back, which was where she tended to dwell.

Morning sun drenched the happy yellow kitchen, mostly through the side door and window next to the refrigerator, but a small amount trickled in the smaller pass-through above the sink.

Turning the corner into the kitchen, this was where Miriam found Sam, staring through the porthole size glass at the canal in off-white shorts and a snug heather gray tee-shirt.

"Good morning, Sam," she chirped. "On the lookout for your new friends already?" She saw him start and blush a little at her observation.

"Good morning, Miriam!" He took an elaborate step away from the sink, as though making way for her to pass. "Josh is taking a shower," he told her as he went to the table and sat.

"I see you found the...." The coffeepot was generously full, and its fragrance filled her nostrils. But in Sam's hand was a large cardboard cup, with the unmistakable sleeve from the bakery at the edge of the Square circling it. Miriam stared at it pointedly. "Did you go for coffee?" she asked incredulously.

Sam swallowed his mouthful quickly and licked his lips. "Um. Yes, I, I noticed last night that there was a place... I noticed you only had... There wasn't a paper, so I walked up to get one, and there was this coffee place, and...." He looked at his cup miserably, then up at her apologetically.

Miriam chuckled lightly. "Josh warned me about you and coffee. I'm sorry I didn't have some on hand for you." She reached for a mug that hung under the counter, and poured a steaming helping of the aromatic brew. Sam relaxed back into his seat, and watched her carefully. "Did you make this?" she asked when his gaze became discomforting.

"I hope it's not too strong," he said in a tone suggesting that he suspected it was. "Old habits."

"That was very thoughtful of you," she told him, pouring in a quarter inch of cream. She joined Sam at the table, and sipped carefully before smiling at him. "It's perfect," she informed him, and watched him beam.

Every section of the newspaper was separated, as if they'd each been gone through systematically. There was a small notepad next to them, filled with piles of words and hieroglyphic symbols. "It looks like you've been getting some work done." She waved her mug at the pad to indicate what she meant.

"And I was just about to throw that away before Josh came in," Sam explained, actually ripping the page away and balling it in his fist. "We had to make certain concessions to one another to make this trip," he admitted.

Miriam was curious. She wanted to know how these two negotiated the treacherous waters of a relationship, obviously deeply meaningful to them, yet also fraught with dangers she couldn't bring herself to imagine.

Miriam was an educated and liberal woman, but she still believed that good relationships worked because a balance of power had been accomplished. And for the life of her, she couldn't see how two men would ever be able to figure out how to do that.

She sighed.

"Are you hungry, dear?" she asked as she slid the front page around to look at the headline. Drought; and an assassination attempt in the Middle East. Nothing to keep her from fixing Sam some breakfast.

She busied herself above his protests, insisting that she'd stocked the refrigerator with so much food, she'd be eating it all for weeks if he didn't help. She had planned for Josh's first morning to be special. Removing a thick slice of Canadian bacon from the meat drawer, Miriam saw Sam's eyes widen, and she laughed with delight. "Can you feel your arteries closing already?" she joked, and Sam gulped before smiling back.

The eggs were poaching, the asparagus was steaming, the English muffins were toasting while Hollandaise sauce simmered away, and Sam had just poured Miriam another cup of coffee when Josh stumbled in wearing navy shorts and a white tee-shirt. He grinned widely at the sights and smells that met him.

"Hey, favorite people," he greeted them. "I hate feeling left out." Sam splashed some coffee into a mug for him, and topped his own cup off.

"Your mother is trying to fatten me up," Sam complained mildly. "No doubt you're next," he added with a mock frown, and an evaluating eye-crawl down Josh's torso.

Josh cuffed Sam gently on the back, and kissed his mother fully on the lips, and Miriam felt happy and warm to have so much life in her kitchen.

The boys ate double portions of eggs benedict, and Miriam found a jar of solidified instant coffee which she mocked Sam with. They drank orange juice made from her own trees, and Sam distilled the news into easy-to-swallow sound bites, which he fed Josh along with his breakfast.

"I'll pay you $5,000 to say that to Toby's face!" Josh dared after Sam disagreed with the wording of a White House press release on welfare.

"You don't have $5,000," Sam shot back around a mouthful of asparagus. "And if you don't let me do something about your finances, you'll be on welfare by the time you're fifty."

After being shooed from her kitchen so the boys could clean up, Miriam took her third cup of coffee into the family room and settled into the easy chair. The open floor plan allowed her to listen in on the conversation between the two men, which dropped suspiciously at one point, and was followed by a fit of loaded laughter.

They decided to spend the morning at a craft festival before lunch at the marina where they'd meet Miriam's friend, Thomas. He'd generously offered to hand over the keys to his 5.82 meter Bénéteau flyer for the next day or so.

In front of a lemonade stand, after an hour under the relentless Florida sun, Sam clamped his cap down on Josh's head and ordered him to keep it on. "No more kidding around Josh. You just don't have enough up there to keep your scalp from burning."

"But I look like -- "

"You're the best-looking guy here, and you'll continue to be until you're all pink and peeling, at which time -- "

"Sam's right, dear; listen to Sam -- "

"You'll be gross, and your mom and I will pretend we don't know you."

"Sam's right, Yehoshua," Miriam agreed, suppressing a grin at both Josh's alarmed expression, and Sam's earnestness. She had never been able to make Josh do anything to keep himself safe, but Sam seemed to have the knack.

They watched jugglers, and agreed that the children's chorus was adorable. Sam bought crafted souvenirs for everyone back at the West Wing, and Josh found a carved stand with tiny holes drilled into it for Donna to store her pierced earrings on.

Sam ate an oyster sandwich while sharing a beer with Josh, insisting that it wouldn't put a damper on his appetite, but when they sat at a shaded table overlooking the boat slips, he wrinkled his nose at the plentiful platters the waiters kept carrying by, and only ordered a small Caesar salad and stole all of Josh's French fries.

When Thomas found them at the table finishing their ice teas, he handed the keys to Sam, and gave minimal instructions, spending most of his ten minute visit speaking to Miriam about the weather and some common acquaintances.

She saw Josh, out of the corner of her eye, appraising the older gentleman. It tickled her to see something like jealousy there. If Sam hadn't been with them, as they walked down the pier to the boat, she might have taunted him a little with the fact that she and Thomas went to the movies together once in awhile and had dinner occasionally.

That wasn't a conversation for company, though.

Out on the water, aqua and clear and splashing against the hull, Sam puttered around the cockpit for a few minutes before turning his wide-open smile on Miriam. "Ready to take her out?" he asked with a mischievous gleam.

"I do like to go fast," she told him, ignoring the skeptical look on Josh's face.

Sam's shirt came off, he donned the cap he'd bought at the fair to replace the one given to Josh, and then they were off.

Between frequent checks with Miriam, Sam executed some sweeping turns that sent them flying over the small wakes left by other craft. She shrieked with joy when they came down sideways against one, sending plumes of water across her legs.

Josh held tightly, first to Sam's hips, where he stood at the controls, then to the back of his seat when Sam sat down.

"Are you trying to kill us?!" Josh yelled over the motor, the wind, and his mother's laughter.

"Yes," Sam deadpanned. "That's exactly what I'm going for."

They tooled around appraising the other boats, rating the different creamy white beaches, and listening to Sam's lecture on how well the little flyer handled.

Miriam felt secure in Sam's seamanship, so she adjusted her brimmed hat before kicking off her shoes and stretching her legs along the padded bench seat. The sound of Sam and Josh's comfortable chatter became background to the gulls and the sea, and the rocking motion lulled her mind into a dreamy daze.

The sun began to grow larger in the sky, as it started its descent into the west. Replacing his shirt, Sam engaged in a quiet discussion with Josh, who turned to address his mother.

"So, we're dropping you off at the marina, and then bringing the boat to the house, right?" he confirmed.

"If you're confident you can follow the maps," Miriam said, legs still extended across the seat. "I'm stopping on the way to pick up a few things, but I'm sure I'll still make it home before you. I'll have some nice gin and tonics waiting," she said by way of enticement.

"Make Sam's vodka," Josh suggested.

"Oh." Miriam suddenly remembered how Sam had come back from the dock the night before with his drink unfinished. "You don't care for gin?" she asked, already trying to recall if she had a decent vodka at home.

"Gin's fine," Sam said, shooting what could have been an admonishing look at Josh. His eyes were unreadable behind the dark glasses. "I just developed a taste for vodka when I lived in New York and dated a Russian." His words were taunting, and clearly directed at Josh.

"Was he a Communist?" Miriam wanted to know. She thought that would have been ironic, and exotic, and difficult for Sam to explain during his FBI vetting.

"She was not," he said flatly.

She watched Josh nod his head, and squint up at Sam. "You know where we're going?" he asked. "I'm not getting lost in the wilderness."

Sam laughed. "Not if you stay with me, you won't."

They slid gracefully up to the pier, where Josh firmly took hold of Miriam's arm to help her disembark. She took their bags of purchases with her, and started up the gangplank, looking over her shoulder to see the two men watching her ascent. "You go on now!" she shouted. "I'll see you two at home." It felt like the most natural thing in the world to say.

~~

On the counter, Miriam set the small sack of Sumatra blend coffee she'd stopped at the gourmet market for, along with a fresh loaf of French bread, a bulb of garlic, and five of the ripest tomatoes she could find. She placed the six-pack of dark beer in the refrigerator and then went to wash her face and change from her sea-soaked clothes.

It was dusky-dim out, the last rays of sunshine unable to penetrate the leafy trees on the other side of the canal. Miriam put on a Mandy Patinkin cd Josh had given her -- no particular occasion, it just arrived in the mail one tedious winter day.

She was dicing tomatoes for the bruschetta she'd planned to serve before the fresh Mahi-Mahi, when she looked up to see the flyer docked out back, and Josh scrambling up the path.

"Ma!" she heard him shout as he slammed open the screen door. "Ma! Are you here?"

Stepping onto the lanai, she ran right into him, flushed and breathing heavily. His dark eyes were flashing with alarm, and Miriam's skin prickled.

"Something's happened," Josh croaked, and for the first time Miriam realized that Sam wasn't with him.

She took Josh by the shoulders and held him tightly. "Is Sam alright? Was there an accident?" she asked desperately.

Pulling free, Josh took her hand, and began to pull her back into the house. "You have to call... somebody. Is there a number for, I don't know, a vet or something?" he asked, the words rushing out of him as he tugged urgently on her hand.

"Just wait, Josh," she ordered. "Is Sam alright?" The word vet had registered, but until she heard it from Josh, she wasn't assuming Sam wasn't the one hurt, and Josh was just being incoherent. "Where is he?" she persisted.

Pointing towards the dock, which sat at the low end of the slope, she could barely make out movement in the encroaching dark. What was he doing down there?

"Mom, please. He's gonna need to be sedated unless you call someone," Josh pleaded. "He, we, we hit something, a manatee, and we need to get help."It was clear to her then, and she shrugged free of Josh and made off for the dock.

Sam was still on the boat, pacing the short length as restlessly as an imprisoned cat. He held his cap in one hand, clenched into a ball until only the brim showed. When she called his name, he turned with a flourish, and scuttled over to the dock.

"Miriam!" he cried, voice full of anguish. "Is someone coming? I swear I cut the motor to below 5 miles per hour, I swear I did!" She reached the dock and steadied him as he climbed out of the boat. "And I was looking so, so carefully, Josh even said -- " At the name, Sam's eyes swept the lawn for his partner. " -- He said I should just get out and pull the damn boat through the water, if I was so worried."

His skin was milky white, and he was sweating profusely, and Miriam could feel his distress, heavy in the air between them.

Putting a thin arm around his shoulder, she began to guide him to the path, where Josh waited wide-eyed and breathing through his mouth. "These things happen every day, Sam. You aren't to blame." At her words, Sam spun out of her hold and stepped back towards the dock.

"I think I saw... Josh knows; I think I saw blood," he said, aiming his breathy words at the water. "I couldn't tell, I don't know. Dammit!" He threw the hat into the bow of the modest boat, where it fell silently.

It was a hard thing to watch, Sam's torment. He yelled at Josh to call for help again, and glared at him when he tried to take Sam's arm. Plowing his fingers through his thick hair, Miriam worried that he might actually pull it out as he continued stalking up and down the small dock.

"Sam," she tried again, stepping directly in front of him. "I'm going up to call the people at the Marine Life Center. But you should remember, dear, you see manatee every day with visible scars from propellers." It didn't sound as comforting out loud as she had expected it to. "They're tough animals, and going as slowly as you were, I believe you didn't do much damage."

She saw his features soften a little, and he allowed Josh to put his hand on his shoulder, and direct him up the path.

After her call, Miriam went out to the lanai, where Josh sat with Sam, encouraging him to drink from the ice water he held. Hesitantly, she told Sam that they registered the incident in their database, and the next morning someone would cruise the canal for signs of a wounded manatee, but that chances were slim it would be found, unless its injuries were serious.

"Then why don't they come now ?" Sam wanted to know. He couldn't accept that an animal he'd hurt would be left lurking in the water without anyone making an effort to help it.

It took an hour for Josh to convince Sam to go take a shower, and as it was he had to go with him to make sure Sam kept moving. The shower was still running when Josh returned, joining her in the kitchen.

In the clear florescent light, she could see for the first time the lines creasing his eyes and the tight, grim set of his mouth. "He's a wreck," Josh told her, though she didn't need the press release to know this. "I tried to tell him, I really don't think he hit it that hard." She put her arms around Josh, not because of his grief, but because she didn't think Sam would allow her to embrace him herself.

"I wasn't just trying to placate him, Josh. These things do happen all the time, and most just heal and live on."

"To die another day," Josh finished as he hugged her back.

Sam rejoined them in soft, faded jeans and a white linen short sleeve shirt, which was mis-buttoned. As Josh straightened them out, Miriam could hear him murmuring indistinctly; soothing words, by the look on Sam's face.

The intense misery was gone now, but Sam looked a little lost, and all through the meal his gaze crept through the dark towards the water.

As the three of them finished cleaning up the kitchen, Sam appeared at Miriam's side. "Do you think I could take some lettuce?" he asked quietly, and she gave him an entire bag of romaine; she'd gladly hand over anything this boy asked for, she realized, as her eyes followed him out to her son.

When they returned, Josh decided they needed ice cream. Not wanted, not suggested, but needed, and so they all trooped up to the Square on foot.

It was lively and bright when they walked out of the dark into the bustling atmosphere of the Square. Older couples meandered along looking into festively decorated shop windows while younger people -- usually in groups -- swung through the crowd, laughing and calling to one another.

The ice cream shop was a guilty secret of Miriam's. She often came up in the early evening when the heat of the day began to evaporate, and treated herself to a hazelnut Italian gelato, with a few biscotti. It felt wonderful to indulge her two companions in her usually solitary pleasure.

Josh ordered a Split Split -- a half banana split -- after Sam refused to share a whole one. Sam couldn't decide between the sangria sorbet, or the caramel praline. Instead, he made a last second decision and ordered two scoops of mocha toffee chip, which gave Miriam the opportunity to make fun of his coffee obsession.

They stepped away from the shop, and stood by the curb under an artistically lit palm tree to eat their treats. Miriam's gelato melted rapidly, and Josh babbled incessantly, a watchful eye on Sam, whose ice cream was so dense and rich his plastic spoon snapped in two.

She could feel the pull between them, the need to be physical like a rip current just below the surface. She was of two hearts in that moment. Glad that her son had found a happiness that seemed to radiate from his eyes, but resigned to the frustrations such a relationship was bound to cause them.

When they got back to the house it was still early, and after another glum visit to the dock, Sam joined Josh on the sofa in front of the television.

Miriam had planned to surprise Sam in the morning with the coffee she'd bought, but watching him slowly lower himself into the cushions, she decided he might be cheered by a cup of the real thing.

"That's -- Gee, Miriam, thank you for going to the trouble of buying that," Sam stammered when she made the offer. "But I'm pretty full right now." He patted a hand over his flat stomach, and smiled apologetically. "But I'll take you up on it first thing in the morning."

They sat in the diffused light of a single lamp, and Miriam listened to the two men regal her with more stories of the White House, seemingly unaware of the way their words looped through each other's narrative. Occasionally, Sam would detour into a bit of policy debate, and Josh would follow trippingly after him until one or the other would bring the conversation back into line.

They talked about watching an old movie on television. Josh complained that there was no popcorn, but when Marian reminded him that she'd bought the imported beer he'd asked for, he seemed content.

She was disappointed that the heavy-bodied brew didn't tempt Sam, and when she returned with Josh's bottle and her own glass of chardonnay, she found him slumped against Josh's right side, and his stare again directed at the night.

The old, lumpy recliner was Miriam's favorite spot to be. It conformed to her body like a lover, and supported her tired head at the end of the long, hot, days. She loved the feeling of putting her feet up, the immense rush of pleasure that ran up her body at the simple act.

"This is in black and white?" Josh asked dubiously, as the credits began.

"And is an absolute classic," Sam assured him before Miriam had a chance to respond. "I loved this movie as a kid," he added, sinking a little further against Josh.

"You've seen 'The Best Years of Their Lives,' Yehoshua," Miriam reminded him. She felt embarrassed somehow that Sam would think Josh hadn't been exposed to something as culturally significant as black and white movies.

Josh handed the last of his beer to Sam to finish, and Miriam offered to fetch another, but an almost undetectable elbow in his side brought Josh to his feet first. He returned with two beers, one of which he placed into Sam's hand.

As the movie played on, Miriam was reminded of seeing it for the first time, in a stately theater in New York City. They'd smoked cigarettes in the balcony, and gone for coffee during intermission during the three hour long show.

When she glanced at the sofa, she saw Sam had relaxed onto his side a little, head resting comfortably on Josh's shoulder, his arm draped across his leg. She bit back a comment when Josh took Sam's beer from his hand and began sipping from it. But what could she say? He had thankfully not mentioned her own increased alcohol consumption, assuming he'd even noticed it.

Two hours into the film, she excused herself to the bathroom. Returning, she noticed Josh's arm had found its way around Sam's shoulders, and it comforted her as much as she assumed it did Sam.

"I know," she heard Sam say. "I know, Josh, okay?"

Josh rested his cheek against the top of Sam's head for a moment, and then she heard something like "...better in the morning."

"For whom?" came the dejected reply.

They didn't move when she took her seat, and she was glad of it. During commercial breaks, Miriam answered some of the boys' questions about what it was like to be a girl during the war, and she enjoyed shocking them (especially Josh), with stories of she and her girlfriends trying to find sailors to take them dancing.

"Ma!" Josh wailed to her delight.

As the movie drew to a close, Sam untangled himself from Josh's embrace and said goodnight to them both. Josh, legs spread wide, arms draped across the back of the sofa, yawned noisily.

"Please tell me you don't sit like that in the White House, Josh," Miriam chided with a deep, disapproving frown. "It's vulgar."

He rolled his eyes, but brought his knees together. "So, we were thinking we'd like to take you out tomorrow night, since it's our last night," Josh told her. "You pick the place. And make it expensive, because Sam's paying."

"I thought you said 'we' want to take me?" Miriam fought a smile, and tried to look stern.

"Well, I'm going too," he said. "And... I'll drive."

Miriam wondered if Sam found Josh as charming as Josh thought of himself. The lights from a leisurely moving boat swept the room, and Josh grimaced.

"He thinks... Sam thinks it might have been one of the manatee that comes to your dock," he said in a tone that suggested he thought so too. "He thinks it was the mother." Josh dug his fingers into the braided seam at the top of the sofa. "And if I try to tell him it wasn't, then he thinks it was the baby."

Miriam bit her bottom lip. She knew that's what Sam thought, because it was what she was thinking as well. It was an everyday occurrence, to see or hear about accidents involving marine life. There were too many boats, and too many people and too much pain in life for it not to happen so frequently.

She tried to let Josh talk himself out of it, but she could see he knew it too. He kissed her and walked into the shadowy front of the house to join Sam.

Chapters: 1 | 2 |

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