He ran through the streets and parks of the District; the unusually warm February air still brisk on his sweaty, naked form even with Old Glory wrapped cape-like around his shoulders. As he looked at the blood drying on his hands, the phrase “Tree of Liberty” came unbidden to his mind. He realized now how out of control things had gotten.
His feet slapped the rough pavement and the cold sod as he darted from one terrain to the next, always avoiding the clopping of the black shoes, the squawk of walkie-talkies, and the grasping arms of the men in the dark suits. He knew they were supposed to protect him but he knew they were also his keepers. Or they would be if they could catch him but he’d tricked them, slipped away, shucked off his clothes, jumped over his desk screaming and stabbed one with the finial of the staff of the flag he was now wearing. He bowled through another two then bolted out the front door before they’d gathered their wits. Now here he was, his old football knee injury adding itself to tomorrow’s regrets as wounds tended to do.
He could still run even at his age, though he’d never tried to run during the Reverie before. He’d been in good shape until the responsibilities of the last few years made it harder to find time for exercise, which wasn’t counting the almost obligatory golf he rarely played. So now his heart raced, and he huffed like a steam train. He had to get out of the open, and soon, to catch his breath and put a plan together.
He darted deftly between the cars in the street, their occupants already deep in the throes of the Reverie. For an instant he looked into the face of a woman sitting in the passenger seat of a silver electric car, her eyes rolled back in her head. He couldn’t decide if he envied her or not. This was the only moment of the year she would have to bear this burden. For him, it was the only day of the year he didn’t –at least for now he was free.
He slowed tentatively to a jog, breathing heavily as he approached Thomas Circle. He thought to head northwest to Dupont, when he spotted SS agents approaching on foot, suddenly running and shouting into their walkie-talkies.
He panicked, veering off the circle onto 14th Street going south. He had no idea where he was going or what he was going to do but something inside told him to keep running. He took an alley to his left hoping they’d lose sight of him for a minute. He looked about for somewhere else to duck. He glimpsed someone waving from a doorway just ahead, ushering him in. He stopped for the first time since he’d taken off from the White House. He was breathing so hard he feared he’d pass out. How could anyone be moving during the Reverie except himself and the “SS”?
He thought he heard shouting back in the direction of the street, unsure if he was imagining the clopping of shiny black shoes on the asphalt. He rolled the dice and rushed into the doorway of what was apparently a bar – The Green Lantern. Eyes wide as dinner plates, he recognized the waving man’s face –William Jefferson Clinton slammed the door shut behind him.
“You!” Was all he managed to get out before pitching forward to hold his knees, puffing and wheezing.
“Now, now there, catch your breath, man. You’ll be okay, now, you’re among friends.”
“Clinton!” He puffed out.
“Hey, call me Bill. Here, uh, let’s get you some more clothes.” Clinton reached for a jacket hanging from one of the chairs, it’s occupant staring at the overhead, eyes rolled back, deep in the Reverie. He snagged the man’s ball cap holding both out.
“I know who you are, we all do. We’ve met, remember?” Said Clinton.
“Oh yes, at my inaug-”
Just then another familiar face appeared on a slim frame in a fitted suit, speaking with a calm, deliberate voice. “Bill, we’d better get him to the Enclave, there’s no time.”
“Thanks, Obama.” Clinton winked.
Catching his breath, he tied the flag around his waist, slipped into the jacket, and pulled on the cap.
“Wait, isn’t this a gay bar?” He asked, not with contempt but confusion.
“Yes, so?” They said in unison. Obama continued. “They won’t think to look for you here right away.”
Clinton added “Yeah, you’re not the Veep.”
They ushered him away from the bar, past the tables, heading down the hall to the restrooms and coat check.
“I don’t understand. There’s a basement?”
“It’s going to be fine, you’ll see, we just need to get you to it.” Clinton threw open the half-door of the coat check and scanned the floor. He stooped down, pulling up a trapdoor leading to a dodgy set of wooden steps just large enough for them to squeeze down single-file. They made haste, even on the rickety stairs as the already dim red neon lighting in the back part of the bar faded overhead. After what seemed a brief enough but still unknowable length of time, they stopped. Obama pounded on what sounded like a solid wooden door.
“Annuit cœptis” he intoned, and a door-shaped crack of light appeared before them. The crack widened as the door swung inwards with a groan. Another familiar face with an affable grin appeared from behind the knob.
“George, can you let the others know he’s here?” Obama, asked.
“Sure, sure, no problemo.” He waved then scurried off somewhere out of sight. The trio pressed inside. As Clinton shut the door behind them, the space opened up.
It seemed at first to be some kind of speakeasy, especially considering it was underneath a bar already, but crossed with a stately gentleman’s study, or maybe a private library crossed with a pub. The décor was a complete mish-mash of Americana from all periods. The architectural elements were likewise a hodgepodge of Early Colonial, Greek Revival, Art Deco, and other more recent styles.
“What the hell? What is this place?” He looked about in wonder as a steady, slow-moving figure approached. “Wait, you’re kidding me, is that-?”
“Yes, I’m Jimmy.”
“It’s...an honor to meet you, Sir.” Against logic he reached out to shake the departed man’s hand while still clutching the edges of the flag together at his waist.
“Now, none of that, we’re all equals here. Well, except you’re in a rather unequal situation. But we’ll help you with that.” Carter’s smile was tired but comforting.
“You said ‘we’re all equals’ here...who you do mean?”
Carter turned at the waist, raising an arm in a sweeping gesture.
Seated in various and sundry stuffed leather chairs or at sturdy wooden tables and benches were unmistakably a good many of the previous presidents of the United States, even those long dead. There was Nixon sulking with his headphones and tape player, FDR puffing on a cigar while holding forth from his wheelchair by the fireplace; and prideful, puffed-up Andrew Jackson giving it right back to him. A haunted, wizened Reagan shuffled by, wringing his hands as if to wash blood off them, mumbling pitifully “I didn’t know...I didn’t know it was going to get so bad...” There were dozens of them.
He was still wide-eyed and worried about his sanity yet finally feeling somewhat himself. A million thoughts ran through his head as he adjusted the flag wrapped around his waist, securing it. He felt a little guilty wearing it like this. This was hardly the worst violation of the Flag Code he’d committed today, but at least this returned his dignity.
His tone became firmer. “Alright, is someone going to fill me in on what is happening?” He looked from man to man, his emotions still running high but his demeanor suiting someone accustomed to leading others. However, this assemblage of men, living and otherwise, was without equal and he wasn’t exactly cutting a presidential silhouette in his ball cap and star-spangled kilt.
“Welcome to the Enclave,” began Clinton. “This is where presidents go on President’s Day. The former presidents anyway. Most of them. You probably noticed there’s some missing faces.”
“I did notice, yes. I don’t see Kennedy for instance… or Lincoln.”
The air seemed to get sucked out of the room. Clinton and Carter looked down, while Obama turned his head to look somewhere far away.
“We...try not to talk about them.”
“I -I’m sorry.”
“Well, you didn’t know. Suffice so say some of us haven’t shown up here. Some might never. Like the guy before Joe.”
“Well I’m not surprised he doesn’t hang out in the basement of a gay bar.”
“Hm? Oh, we’re not in the bar. The basement is just one of the ways to get here.”
“Well then where are we?”
“I told you, the Enclave. It’s where we go. Unless the Dream is done with us. We are here to advise the sitting president if he needs us. We think some of us pay our dues in office and are exempt. I’d say some of us aren’t wanted but most of those are here too, so we don’t know everything about it. We just know on President’s Day we are here, while everyone else is in the Reverie.”
“How long has this been happening? The Reverie has only been a thing for the last ten years.”
“Yes, but you don’t know why it happens do you? You think it’s a tradition. Something the country does to maintain civic solidarity. Never thought about how impossible it is, did you?”
“No, you’re... right. Everyone just does it like it’s normal. There’s… no way it can even be real. We don’t have technology like that. It’s not enemy action?”
“No, not an attack. An accounting. It’s not from outside, it’s from inside. From the American Dream. When the Dream fractured, the pieces started to grind against each other. The Reverie was its truce. Every President’s Day after, everyone living on U.S. soil –except the president and the Secret Service –experiences what it is to be the president for a length of time equal to the entire administration of one of us. It’s a blink of an eye to the outside world, but it seems like months and years to them. It’s one entire day to whoever is sitting in the Oval Office – one day to be completely free of the responsibility... the soul-crushing things you can’t ever unknow. You can’t even remember any of it right now can you? You just know you want out. We understand.”
“I...can’t remember all those intelligence briefings, not the content, just that they happened. I remember I’m the president but I can’t remember the details except it’s so much. I think a person would have to be crazy to want it.”
“Crazy or stupid.”
“What about George… Washington?”
“Unfortunately the Enclave wasn’t conceived then. His loss is what inspired the whole thing. Good for him. He did more than his share for this country, he deserves his rest. He’d just be disappointed with how things turned out.”
“Is that Benjamin Franklin? How-?”
“A long story. Suffice to say the Enclave wouldn’t exist without him.”
“Ok, so certain ones are missing. But even factoring out Franklin there’s still too many here. I’m number 48 -”
“Actually you’re number 52.” Obama interjected.
Clinton continued. “More long stories, sorry. But you being 52, like the stars on that flag you’re wearing is why we think you’re being motivated to flee now. We think the Dream is behind it. It’s giving you a chance to change things.”
“But how? What can I do that the other presidents couldn’t?”
Carter reached over to touch his forehead, dazing him, and he felt himself pulled away back to his desk as the Reverie faded. The dead man's words echoed in his mind as he snapped awake. “That’s for you to figure out when you wake up, Mr. President.”
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