There was something about the changeover from September to October. Something more than a flip of the calendar. There was a different hum to the air, a heaviness that perhaps came from the tilt of the Earth leaning over, almost as if she were sighing, and from the leaves falling like amber and ocher and apple-red brightness all around. A bite to the air, and a hiss against the skin. In politics, October regularly brought the “October surprise,” an event that always occurred before a presidential election, and even in non-election years, it seemed like October was the month where Washington held its breath, waiting.
Jack had outdone his predecessors. He’d gone ahead and delivered a September surprise, outing him and Ethan and their relationship. If he could have, he’d have started a countdown calendar the day he announced their relationship, like he’d done when he was a child, making a string of interlocking loops in colored construction paper that stretched around the Oval Office. He would have torn one loop off each day, a countdown until he was out of office, and—
And alone. Again.
But, Madigan and Black Fox had trumped even Jack’s earth-shaking announcement. An attempted coup. A nuclear weapon strapped to his chest that would have devastated DC. Madigan, so close to destroying the Middle East and upending the world.
But Ethan had come back. In the middle of the worst day of Jack’s life, when he was on his knees in the Oval Office with his once-friend, Jeff Gottschalk, strapping a bomb to his chest, Ethan had returned in fire and glory. A real-life action hero, just like in every movie he’d ever loved. The man of his dreams, come to save the day.
Weren’t they supposed to live happily ever after, then? After the dust had settled and they’d caught all the members of Black Fox they could, and worked toward healing the nation rocked with shock, weren’t they supposed to have their happy ending?
In a way, they did. Ethan was alive, and Jack wouldn’t trade anything for that. Ethan, alive, meant more to him than everything else—his presidency, his career, everything. Even their relationship. Had Ethan wanted to walk away after all that had happened, and say that loving Jack—loving the President of the United States—was too much, Jack would have understood. It would hurt, oh so deeply… but Ethan would still be alive.
But, Ethan still wanted to be with Jack, and Jack— Oh, he so wanted to be with Ethan.
They made it work. Ethan’s forced transfer. His exile to Iowa. Jack, alone in DC during the week, and hoping with everything within him that no international crisis stole away his weekends with Ethan.
Ethan’s transfer had happened two weeks ago.
In September, there was still the business of cleaning up after the coup, still rounding up sympathizers to Black Fox and Madigan, and Irwin was still awkwardly juggling the handoff of being the former director of the CIA and becoming Jack’s chief of staff. They were still helping the nation through the shock, beefing up intelligence collections, working with Congress as they opened investigative committees into what had transpired and, in closed door congressional sessions, issuing a sealed indictment against Madigan as a traitor and a terrorist.
The first week Ethan was in Iowa, there was still so much happening. The presidency was never dull—there was never an idle moment—and in between Congress, calls with their allies, and everything else, the days had passed in a blur. And then Ethan was back, and they had their first weekend together.
It was good. Really good. He’d been nervous, at first. Would Ethan want to keep up the long distance relationship, and a long distance relationship that was so far from normal at that? But, it had gone well. Great, even. Sometime between playing footsie under the kitchen table and Ethan kissing his hair and whispering he loved him before they feel asleep, Jack realized they could make this work.
And then September turned into October, and the world didn’t quite seem like it was a top spinning out of control and about to wobble off kilter at any moment. The business of the presidency settled back around his shoulders. Irwin got his feet beneath him as chief of staff. The banality of politics, and of DC, surrounded him again. Working with—or working against—Congress to try and get traction going on his determination to strike at the Caliphate. To take them out, once and for all.
Leaves had fallen in the Rose Garden, blanketing the White House lawns in a carpet of gold and cranberry. He’d smiled that evening while leaving the Oval Office, heading back for the Residence next to Scott Collard, his new detail lead.
Occasionally, Scott would chat with him about the recent football game. Most of the time, Scott kept his interaction to polite nods and discrete smiles. Distance, and lots of it. The kind of distance he was supposed to have with his Secret Service agents.
Up in the Residence, one of the stewards had lit a fire in his study, and he walked in with a soft chuckle. Seemed his habits were becoming known. Retiring to his study, both with and without Ethan, had become something of his routine. A place to relax with Ethan—where they had spent so much time together when they were not-dating before The Kiss—and after, when Jack rested his head on Ethan’s chest and watched football or baseball with him, his hand stroking over the warmth of Ethan’s skin. And, when Ethan wasn’t there, it was a place he could retreat to, surround himself in memories, and try to get a little bit more work done in peace.
A mess of his files were strewn about the giant Victorian desk hovering at the back of the room, and over one arm of the sofa, a discarded T-shirt of Ethan’s lay.
Oops. Jack grinned. Apparently they had forgotten that shirt when they were cleaning up after—
He snagged the shirt on the way to his desk, holding it to his nose and breathing deep. Ethan. Even after everything—the outrage from his party, the barrage of the media, the confusion and disdain from the public—he’d still choose Ethan.
There was work waiting for him, always, endless work, but instead, Jack shoved away his spread open files and pulled out a fresh notepad. There was an endless assortment of notepads scattered around the White House, all emblazoned with the Presidential Seal and the address of his home: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC. Grinning, he spun the pad closer as he sat at his desk.
Maybe it was October. Maybe it was the changing of the seasons, and the weight in the air, the reminder that all things changed; all things had their moments of fire and gold before being tucked away, to either wither and perish in winter or be held safe and warm through the long, dark night. Maybe it was just that he missed Ethan, missed him in this second week of their long-distance relationship.
He started and then stopped. How should he begin? Part of him wanted to put down, “My dearest Ethan,” but Ethan would no doubt snort at that.
Or, perhaps not. His lover was a man with a romantic heart, he was discovering. Bringing roses along with breakfast in bed. Waiting until Jack had fallen asleep, softly stroking his hair, before drifting off himself.
This house is empty without you here.
I’m sitting in the study, where we spent so much time together, laughing, talking…and other things… I can almost feel your presence, like I’m waiting for you to just come down the hall with another beer for the both of us. The air is heavy with my anticipation. There are times I swear I can hear you just around the corner, and I turn, waiting to see your smile.
The White House is creepy when you get right down to it. It groans and creaks, and plays cruel tricks on me, making me believe the settling wood of this ancient house is your footsteps.
And, so much history in these walls. How much they’ve seen! How many presidents have sat at this desk, perhaps composed letters here, even? This was once Lincoln’s office. To my right, his bedroom. To my left, his library. I’m walking the floors of men who have gone before me, men who are, when it comes down to it, my betters.
There was a thought. Frowning, Jack tapped the end of his pen against the paper. What had started out as a silly love letter to Ethan had turned, suddenly, veering into the murky uncertainties of his subconscious.
What he’d hoped for when he was elected — a prosperous, strong, independent America— and what he had hoped to accomplish had become entirely undone. By his choices, and by choices thrust upon him. Ethan, Madigan, and so much more. The Caliphate, and their rise in the Middle East. Russia, and President Puchkov’s mercurial behavior. The Russian president was friendly now, even said he was looking forward to seeing Jack at the upcoming G20 summit.
Not too long ago, Puchkov had called him a Russian faggot and hung up on him.
It was hard to forget.
Enough. Jack dropped his pen, abandoning his letter, and rose from the desk. His thoughts weren’t fit for love letters.
What was he doing? Who was he to be president? He’d wanted to stabilize the country, bring civility to politics, be a good man, and maybe even bring back some honesty to Washington. Who was he to lead the nation through the aftereffects of a coup? Of a madman, and a black hole of hatred sucking down the Middle East? And, of a world reorganizing along the fault lines of his choices?
Perhaps it had been a mistake to run for president. How could he run a nation when he didn’t even know himself, the newspapers said. His character had been trashed from coast to coast. Either he was confused about himself and his identity— and in no place to run the country— or a liar, and how could he be trusted ever again?
Sighing, Jack collapsed on the couch, lying back and grabbing his book from the side table. A biography of President Lincoln, his favorite president, and one he was rereading, trying to glean wisdom from between the pages. Part of him was trying to channel the old man himself, bring a piece of Lincoln’s wisdom and clarity into his turbulent mind. How had Lincoln managed to steer the nation when the country was so bereft around him? How could Jack possibly do anything similar?
He still had Ethan’s shirt with him, and he sniffed it once before settling it on his chest. Stupid, perhaps. Sentimental, for sure. But it was like an anchor for him, a soothing touch to his bones.
An hour passed, and then another. Almost time for his call with Ethan.
Rising, Jack set the book back on the table and pinched the bridge of his nose. He had too many questions, too many thoughts swirling in his brain. How did he do all of what was needed—
Creaking, down the hall, like heavy footsteps walking away, made him freeze.
He was the only one in the Residence The stewards were done for the night, and unless there was an emergency, they wouldn’t enter. They also walked differently, a different cadence to their footfalls, practiced decorum and whisper soft steps that faded away from hearing.
There shouldn’t be anyone with him.
Heart pounding, Jack rose slowly, eyes wide, not blinking.
Not another coup. Not another attempt on his life. Please.
Not that he’d be surprised. So many hated him now. Secret Service agents were everywhere in the White House, even more so than before.
But no one should be up here with him. In his home.
Creeping to the doorway, Jack’s breath hitched in his chest, catching on his shaking lips. Should he call Ethan? If this was an attack, then whoever it was would have gotten past the agents below, and he was on his own. Should he call Ethan, say goodbye? Tell him he loved him one last time.
He hesitated, exhaling.
Down the hall, a door closed, the hinges creaking, the heavy brass doorjamb catching in the frame.
Jack pushed out of his study, staring down the center hall, down toward where the sound had come. The footsteps had stopped, their heavy, aching creaking, and none of the doors were open.
A drape twitched, though, a sheer bit of ivory fluttering amongst the heavy draperies over the East Sitting Hall’s fan window. Maybe an open window?
Swallowing, Jack hurried down the hall, looking right and left, and checked the windows.
All were closed.
Every hair on the back of Jack’s neck stood on end. A rush of cold flooded through him, like ice being poured down the back of his shirt. Exhaling, he turned, slowly, his eyes darting around the sitting hall.
The doors to the Lincoln Bedroom were wide open.
No. No, he wasn’t going there in his mind. He’d never believed in ghosts, never believed in the supernatural. Never believed in the hereafter, and only believed in God enough to hold a grudge. He was not going to stand in the White House, in his house, and believe in ghost stories.
Chiming from his pocket made him jump, and he cursed under his breath, pulling out his phone. Time for his call with Ethan. Finally.
Shaking his head, Jack glared at the doors again and strode back down the hallway to his bedroom and toward his conversation with Ethan. To normality. Ghost stories belonged in the past, when people were superstitious and came up with explanations for what they couldn’t explain. Doubtless, the footsteps he’d heard were simply the old house settling. He was prone to thinking the worst at times, what with coming out the other side of an attempted coup. Anyone would be jumpy at noises after that betrayal, after having a nuke strapped to your chest.
That’s all it was. His jumpy mind. The creaky old house with too much history. Him, too much alone without Ethan.
Well, he could rectify that. Smiling, Jack slid onto his bed and pulled his laptop close, opening Skype and dialing Ethan’s number. When Ethan answered, with that same nervous smile on his face that he wore every night, Jack’s worries melted away.
* * *
Curiosity, though, was like a virus.
While the Speaker of the House of Representatives wailed over the phone, lambasting Jack for torpedoing their party and making their jobs infinitely more difficult in the House, Jack pulled up a search on his phone. Lincoln’s ghost had its own dedicated internet article, and thousands of additional sites. The speaker kept railing into Jack, about how their party was destined to lose in the primaries, about how they were all considered lame ducks in Congress, about how the democrats were being purposefully obstinate in the face of their party losing all credibility within their constituencies, thanks entirely to Jack’s behavior.
“Mr. Speaker,” Jack finally interrupted. “Have you considered working with the democrats on this?”
The speaker hung up on him.
Par for the course, that one. Leaning back, Jack propped his feet up on his desk and scrolled through his phone. Lincoln’s ghost was said to haunt the bedroom that bore his name, but not because he had slept there ever. It was his Cabinet room. His war room. His presidential office before the Oval Office had been built, and where he had managed four years of the Civil War. Where he had drafted the Emancipation Proclamation. Where he had steered his Cabinet, and thus the nation, toward moving the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives, and on to ratification.
How many sleepless nights had Lincoln spent in his office—at the time, just down the hall from his bedroom— wondering and re-wondering over his decisions. Ruminating, night after night, about the country he was supposed to lead?
In some tiny way, Jack felt a kinship with his predecessor. How did anyone unite people so vehemently opposed to you in every way?
He leaned over his desk and grabbed his phone, buzzing for his secretary. “Mrs. Martin, could you invite Congressmen Brussard up to the White House, please?”
A long pause. “Democratic Leader Congressman Brussard?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He smiled.
“Of course, Mr. President.”
* * *
Congressmen Brussard was a man who knew his party was on the rise. He moved in a swell of pride, smug arrogance in the swing of his arms and the curve of his smirk as he shook Jack’s hand and sat in the Oval Office. Jack tried to stay above it, ignoring the barbs and digs at his party’s current state —shambles— and his destined short-tenure in the Oval Office. “What matters is now,” Jack said, forcing Brussard’s gaze away from mentally redecorating the office. Brussard would be starting his own presidential primary run in a year. “What matters is addressing the world as it is, right now, and doing what we can to better our world. Today. For everyone.”
Eventually, Brussard left with narrowed eyes and a pinched expression, but he agreed to convene his party’s leaders and discuss Jack’s offer of compromise in exchange for their support of his proposal to take action against the Caliphate.
After Brussard left, Jack sank back on his couch, slumping and staring at the seal of the President of the United States sculpted into the ceiling. The eagle, supposedly fierce, seemed mocking, as if it were coming in to strike at Jack, tear him apart, an attacker instead of a vanguard.
“How did you do it?” he whispered.
* * *
He wandered to the White House Library after the day had ended, when the visitors and tourists and staffers had melted away, and it was just him and his Secret Service shadows. Most were friendly with him, smiling and saying hello, at least. Not a single one would broach the kind of friendship he’d had with Ethan, before—
But, he didn’t really want that kind of friendship with any of them. He just wanted Ethan.
So maudlin his thoughts had become, lonely and dripping with self-doubt. Sighing, Jack wandered the shelves in the small library, his fingers running over the spines of books collected by his predecessors. Pulp fiction and dog-eared paperbacks shared space with 19th-century hardback romances and even a few 17th-century treatises on philosophy and the French language.
What was he looking for? Something to give him answers? Some kind of presidential rulebook or handbook that could guide him in all his choices? Such a thing did not exist. He was wasting his—
His fingers stopped, hovering over the fraying spine of an old hardback, at least a century old, by the look. Letters of Lincoln scrawled over the faded fabric in ornate and patchy golden script.
He pulled it down and left the library.
* * *
Sleep evaded him, even after talking to Ethan for almost three hours. Day after tomorrow, and Ethan would be back with him at the White House for the weekend. Perhaps it was nervous excitement that kept him tossing and turning. Whatever it was, he flopped like a fish and glared at the ceiling, and, finally, turned on the bedside light.
Letters of Lincoln stared at him from his nightstand.
Grabbing his reading glasses, he pulled the old book into bed as he sat up and began to turn through the worn pages.
As he read, his heart hammered, and his breath caught in his throat.
“Til 1842 no men were ever more intimate,” Joshua Speed, Lincoln’s lifelong best friend, wrote. Until Speed’s marriage. Letters flying between the two men lamented the “requirement” of marriage in order to continue in politics of the day.
And then, after Speed’s marriage, Lincoln wrote, “Loving is a painful thrill, and not to love, more painful still. That surely ‘tis the worst of pain. To love and not be loved again. Yours forever, A. Lincoln.”
Pages and pages of letters. They spoke of everything: the dissolution of the union, the tensions tearing their world apart, just before Lincoln’s election and the outbreak of the war. Lincoln asking if Speed was happy in his marriage, if taking the plunge was worth it. Asking him to come visit, long paragraphs about missing the man, and the warmth of his body in their shared bed.
Jack kept reading. The hours passed, and the moon rose and fell, traveling across his bedroom floor.
And then, introducing the next segment of letters—
“Captain Derickson, close bodyguard of the President, was shortly on a footing of such marked friendship with him that he was often dining with the president. In fact, Capt. Derickson advanced so far in the president’s confidence and esteem that he frequently spent the night with him, sleeping in his bed, and making use of his excellency’s nightshirt! Thus began an intimacy which continued unbroken—”
Another letter from Lincoln, to his bodyguard.
My Captain, your presence at my side, as always, soothes my peace of mind. I have no doubts about my safety, not while you are near. But, more than just the safety you bring to my body, you give to me a sense of peace in my soul, the like of which I have not experienced for many, many years. I treasure you dearly, and I wait for you, eager for your presence every chance I get. Come, let us speak of the future, and of this nation, and together, we will whisper into the night, steadying this ship that has gone to off course. Come, and be that piece of my soul that I need. Come, my captain. I wait for you—
Creaking down the hall broke Jack’s reading, stopped the mumble of words tumbling from his lips. Jumping, he stared at his open bedroom door with wide eyes.
There it was again. Creaking.
Heavy, hard footsteps over creaking wood. As if a man were pacing just down the hall from Jack’s bedroom.
The Residence had been carpeted over fifty years ago. There was no hard wood to pace over. There was no creaking floorboard to groan under a man’s weight.
Throwing back the covers, Jack jumped from his bed, still holding the book. He tucked it under his arm, like a football, and strode for the door.
Damn it, what was making that sound?
It couldn’t be—
Slowly, Jack padded, barefoot, down the carpeted hallway toward the Lincoln Bedroom. The Residence was dim, all lights turned off, and only the moon cast through the windows of the East Sitting Hall scattered any light at all. Silvery and liquid, the moonlight danced over the walls and the silk couches and caught in the shadows of the corners.
Exhaling, Jack stood in the center of the East Sitting Hall, in between the Queen’s Bedroom – Andrew Jackson’s bedroom, once – and the Lincoln Bedroom.
The doors to the Lincoln Bedroom were shut.
He listened, closing his eyes.
Pacing, again, coming from within the Lincoln Bedroom. Heavy footsteps, as if a man were walking back and forth, restless in the middle of the night.
Jack breathed out, shaking. He clenched the book close to his side. How many times had he heard the stories? Jokes on the campaign trail, laughter about the haunted White House, people asking if he’d dare sleep a night in the “haunted” Lincoln Bedroom. How he’d laughed them off.
And now, did he open the door?
Striding forward, Jack gripped the handle and pushed the door open, stepping into the Lincoln Bedroom in just his boxers and his undershirt. Perhaps not the attire to greet a ghost—the ghost of Lincoln, even— but there were stories that claimed Winston Churchill had met Lincoln’s ghost completely naked after a bath, smoking his cigar, so this had to be better than that.
Of course, that was supposing there was anything in the bedroom at all. The White House was old, and it creaked and groaned and settled every day. What if this was just more of the same? What if he was being ridiculous?
He stood in the doorway, one foot tapping on the dark paisley carpet. Lincoln’s giant bedframe rose against the far wall, and two floor-to-ceiling windows faced the South Lawn, hung with heavy drapes. An empty fireplace sat opposite the bed, with two Victorian silk settees facing each other just before the bone-white mantle.
Darkness swallowed the room whole, only gray moonlight coming from behind him and stretching into the bedroom. The pale fingers only went so far, leaving most of the room encased in a dense stillness, a weight heavier than just the night. The hairs on the back of Jack’s neck rose, and his breath slowed. A chill tap danced down his spine, a slide of ice that slithered through his bones.
The drapery at the far window, a heavy gold velvet, twitched.
Beneath the golden fabric, sheer ivory gauze blustered, moving as if a man were turning, turning back from gazing out over the South Lawn.
Jack’s breath caught and held, as the ivory gauze twitched again. There, standing in the darkness, was the shivering outline of a man. Tall, too tall, and gaunt. Sunken eyes, arching cheekbones. A short beard. Dark slacks, a white button-down without a collar, and a vest partially buttoned overtop.
“Holy shit,” Jack whispered. His hands clenched around the book, the book of Lincoln’s letters. “It’s you.”
What did you say when you saw the ghost—that you never believed existed— of the man you most admired as president, as your predecessor, and who you strove to emulate, and fell so incredibly short of his esteemed mark? Lincoln, and his presidential star fixed so immutably high in the heavens, and Jack’s, crash landed on earth in the wreckage of public opinion and a national tragedy.
He took a shaking step forward. Lincoln’s ghost went back to the window, gazing outward.
“What do I do?” Jack whispered. His lips trembled, and his voice. “Mr. President…what do I do? How do I—“
Slowly, Lincoln’s ghost turned back to Jack, staring him down. Faintly, almost as if Jack imagined it, a horse whined, and the clip-clop of hooves against cobblestones sounded, cobblestones that hadn’t been a part of the White House for nearly a hundred years.
Lincoln smiled. His etheric gaze turned soft, and even though Jack could see right through him, see the curtains and the wallpaper and the sconces beyond him, he was transfixed by Lincoln’s eyes, the warmth in their dark depths.
The horse whined again, and Lincoln’s attention shifted to the window. He raised one hand, as if waving to someone outside.
“Oh God,” Jack’s knees almost gave way, and he collapsed to the edge of Lincoln’s bed. “You’re waiting.” His voice shook, and he bit his top lip, one hand covering his mouth. “You’re waiting for him. For Derickson.”
Lincoln’s ghost gave Jack one more smile over his shoulder before fading away, leaving Jack entirely alone in the dark bedroom, hunched over on the end of the bed, shock rocking him to the core.
Shock, followed swiftly by loss. Aching, agonizing loss, so deep that Jack doubled over with it, curling in half, and gasping. Sobs overtook him, wrenched from his chest, and his teeth clenched together, gritted against the sudden anguish tearing through him.
“Ethan…” His hands rose, covering his face. “God, Ethan. I want you back here. I want you here with me. You are the piece of my soul that I need. I want—“ He pressed his lips together. “I want to whisper into the night with you. Try and right this ship together. God, Ethan… I’m waiting for you, too.”
Slowly, the tears subsided, drying in the palms of his hands as his breathing slowed. The book he’d carried had fallen to the mattress, lying open on another of Lincoln’s letters to Captain Derickson, his bodyguard.
I thank God for good men like you, my captain, for if I were alone, I do not know how I would rise from my bed in the morning, much less gather the strength to face the people. I thank God every day for you, as well as await you and your stately counsel, woven through with tenderness, a gift you’ve given your very weary president.
“Ethan…” Jack breathed again. “I miss you so much.”
He flicked the book closed, and, glancing to the window, left it on the bed before he rose and headed for the door.
At the bedroom’s doorway, half in moonlight and half in shadow, Jack swallowed and stared back at the window where Lincoln’s ghost had stood. “I’m waiting, too,” he whispered, nodding. “I need him, too.”
When Jack walked back to his bedroom, he caught the faint sound of wood creaking and the heavy footfalls of a man pacing.
He tried to smile and closed his eyes as he nodded. “Me too.”
When he slid back into bed, he fished out Ethan’s discarded shirt, shoved under his pillow, and clutched it close, inhaling the fading scent of his lover. “It’s you,” he whispered into the shirt. “You give me strength, Ethan. And I’ll wait for you every night until you’re here with me.”
Timestamp: Just after Ethan’s transfer to Iowa.
Notes: The friendship between Joshua Speed and President Abraham Lincoln was often called “the most intimate relationship of Lincoln’s life.” Letters written between Speed and President Lincoln were filled with heartfelt declarations of everlasting friendship and intimacies, and the two lived together – and shared a bed – for over four years.
The quote introducing Captain Derickson, and that exclaims over how Derickson used “his excellency’s nightshirt”, comes straight from the “History of the 150th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, Second Regiment, Bucktail Brigade,” written by Lt. Col Thomas Chamberlain, the commanding officer of Captain Derickson and the Bucktails. The account of the Bucktail Brigade was reviewed by the members, and the passage about Captain Derickson and the president remained uncontested. It was published in 1895, but not examined in detail until the early 1990s.
There are only two surviving letters between Captain Derickson and President Lincoln, neither of which detail the specifics of their relationship. I have taken creative liberties with the content of the letters written by President Lincoln to Captain Derickson in this story.
And, Lincoln’s Ghost is a popular topic, and one that is always talked about in the White House! For more information, just hit up Google for a ton of great stories about his ghost, and the other ghosts that haunt the White House.
Hope you enjoyed!