The President and the Speaker have been locked in the windowless room for forty-eight hours. There are no beds, no chairs, only a small toilet in the corner. Neither man liked dropping his pants in front of the other. The room is close, and a little smelly. They take turns sitting against the wall and pacing. There’s not enough room for both to pace at once. They’ve been told they will be released only when they are honest with each other.
They began by restating their core governing principles. They thought that would be enough, but the door did not open. Within the last hour Speaker Boehner has hinted that he does not want to loose his leadership position. President Obama has conceded that he does not want to be remembered as the one who couldn't get anything done. They glance at the two-way mirror: We’ve admitted our fears, let us out of here. But the door does not open.
Another day and night pass. They have had no food or water. It is hot in the room, and both men have stripped off their shirts. John admits that he did not like the smell of old men and whiskey and urine when he unloaded kegs and swept out his father’s bar. He helped care for his ten younger siblings, but he would have liked not to have been responsible for anyone but himself. Barack says that all the time he was growing up he never felt he fit in. Not white, not black, part of each, not wholly either.
At dawn of the fourth day, the door opens. They put on their shirts and pull themselves together as best they can, expecting photographers. But when they step out of the room, they are not in Washington but in a forest. The forest floor is shadowed. A sun-dappled mist shrouds the high canopy. The birds are just waking.
They walk for a while, hoping to see houses or a road, but there is nothing. They stop and rest and walk again. They lick the moisture off leaves and eat grasses and wild berries. In late afternoon, with the forest already growing dim, they stop to make shelter. They break pine branches for a lean-to. Exhausted, they sleep through the night.
In the morning they find pine needles and twigs and flint and they strike a rock against the flint and make a fire. They take turns tending the fire so it does not go out. They find more berries to eat and John walks in widening circles until he finds water. They move their camp to the bank of the stream and drink the water. They catch crawfish under rocks in the stream and lay them on the coals of the fire and eat them. In a deep pool downstream, Barack scoops out a trout with his hands. They gut it and strip a sapling and skewer the fish and cook it over the fire.
They have stopped talking about themselves. They don’t speak much at all, in fact. There is no need to. Both know what must be done.
After days of following the stream, camping beside it, eating its fish and drinking its water, they come upon a cabin in a clearing. They feel they should be overjoyed to have found other human beings, but they are cautious as they approach. John knocks on the door while Barack hangs back. He says he doesn’t want to frighten whoever is inside.
A middle-aged woman with a blue head scarf answers the door. She beckons them inside and gives them hot soup while her children watch from near the fire, an older girl and two young boys. They study the strangers with a combination of curiosity and feral wariness.
The woman says she and the children have been alone for years. Her husband went into the forest one day and did not return. They have a garden behind the cabin and they fish in the stream. The children know how to forage for berries and mushrooms. She cannot leave them to look for a way out of the forest, and she is afraid to take them on a long journey that might kill them.
Her daughter is bright, the woman says. She could learn and do something better with her life if she could find the way out. She asks John and Barack to take the girl with them when they leave. The girl does not want to leave her family. Perhaps she is afraid. Perhaps she is just loyal. But her mother tells her she must go, not just for herself, but for her brothers too.
The woman wraps some berries and vegetables in a bandana and gives it to Barack and John and the girl. It is all she can spare, she says. She stands in the doorway of her cabin and watches her daughter walk off between these men who have come into her life so unexpectedly and to whom she has entrusted the most precious things her in life: her child and her hope for the future.