"Sammy's House" is Kristin Gore's follow-up to 2004's "Sammy's Hill."
The sequel finds the heroine, Sammy, working as a research staffer for the vice president. The 20-something handles crisis after crisis. She soon learns the president has fallen off the wagon and is secretly drinking. Even though Sammy's party is in power, the opposition remains fierce.
The book has a more serious tone than its predecessor. You can read an excerpt from "Sammy's House" below.
Until the woman whipped off her tailored black jacket to reveal a star-spangled bra and a surprisingly elaborate dragon tattoo, the only remarkable thing about this cruise was that it was nineteen months late. The celebratory boat ride had been promised long ago, in the first month of our new administration, but no one minded that the business of running the country had continuously delayed its actual launch. Victory was prize enough?who needed a cruise?
I tore my eyes away from the increasingly explicit show to scan the crowd for RG. He'd gone below deck to take a call from President Wye, and I was relieved that he still seemed to be there, unaware of these antics. He was the vice president, and as a member of the White House staff, one of my duties was to protect him from public embarrassment whenever possible. That job had become significantly harder in the last thirty seconds. I looked quickly around for help, but most people seemed frozen, capable only of staring with wide-open mouths. The stereo system played on, its background hum now transformed into a striptease soundtrack. Someone needed to shut it off. Someone needed to shut her off. I searched for the Secret Service agents posted throughout the boat. Would they get involved only if they deemed the stripper a security threat? By now, she'd reached a point where concealed weapons seemed an impossibility. Upon closer examination, the dragon tatooed on her shoulder appeared to be wearing a tufted pink tutu. I pondered its significance. Perhaps this unknown woman, who until a minute ago everyone had taken for an inhibited waitress offering shrimp dip and taquitos, belonged to a hard-livin', rough-and-tumble gang of rebel ballerinas. She was certainly nimble, judging by the ease with which she was now pirouetting out of her panties.
I was blinking from the flashes, both photographic and pornographic, and had just noticed the tattoo of a tap-dancing minotaur on the stripper's upper thigh when Harry Danson, the president's chief of staff, suddenly pushed through the crowd and covered her with his jacket. She tried to shrug it off, but Harry was very firm. It's in his job description.
"Just what is this all about?" he demanded fiercely, painfully aware of all the photos that had already been taken. There wasn't any press aboard; the cruise was for staff only. But though everyone was ostensibly loyally intent on protecting the administration from unnecessary scandal, it was hard to keep a story like this from getting out. I myself could think of five people I planned to regale immediately with this sordid tale. It wasn't often that one attended an office function and got entertained by a scantily clad exhibitionist inked with dancing fantasy creatures. It would be selfish to keep this to myself. "I'm a gift from the Exterminators," the stripper answered. "They say congratulations for making it this far. They didn't think you had it in you." I watched Harry's jawline stiffen. When he got angry, which was distressingly often, he looked like he'd had steel cheek implants. I'd met few people more ripe for a hernia. "Thank you, that will be all," he ground out through clenched teeth.
Harry and a couple Secret Service agents ushered the woman through the still-stunned crowd toward the caterers' station. The hushed silence that had accompanied her performance exploded into the sounds of a hundred and seventy-five people talking at once. The Exterminators were a very disgruntled band of former officials from the previous administration. Most of them had stayed in D.C. to form an opposition think tank, and nothing seemed to please them more than perpetrating juvenile pranks while they worked very seriously to sabotage every policy change we tried to make. They hadn't named their think tank the Exterminators. That particular moniker derived from one of the many vindictive stunts they'd pulled on their way out of the West Wing, which they had vandalized to the best of their abilities in a rage against their ouster. In addition to rigging booby traps and carving their initials into various pieces of furniture, they had also taken the time to enact a much more elaborate and dastardly scheme.
They'd ordered cases of frozen feeder mice -- available on the Internet to pet owners in need of food for raptors and reptiles -- and, in an impressive labor of hate, had carefully sewn several hundred of these tiny frozen mice into the hems of all the heavy West Wing drapes.
We'd noticed an unpleasant odor a few days after we'd moved in, but couldn't be positive that wasn't the way the place always smelled. But as the frozen feeder mice had thawed in their thick fabric tombs, the smell had intensified rapidly. In a little over a week, it had become unbearably wretched, rendering the West Wing virtually uninhabitable.
It had been difficult to locate the precise source, since the horrific stench had seemed to emanate from the very walls around us. The maintenance crew had finally discovered the tiny rotting rodent corpses after their fourth thorough search. That very day, a case of champagne had been delivered to the West Wing with a note that read: "To wash down the smell. Enjoy yourselves while you last, because we'll be rid of you before you know it. Love and kisses, the Exterminators." And thus, an annoying nickname had been born.
Even after the discovery and removal of the mice carcasses, the gut-gripping stink had lingered for nearly two months, despite all efforts to eradicate it. To their obnoxious delight, the Exterminators had inflicted a parting gift that had kept on giving.
I knew that my own party was perfectly capable of similar pettiness, because the previous administration had complained instantly to the press when they'd moved into the White House eight years earlier to find tuna sandwiches locked in all their file cabinets and their computers rigged to print the chorus of Bob Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man" no matter what the command. Some in the press had privately enjoyed the specter of then President Pile's political guru Carl Jones battling rebellious office machinery that taunted him with the words "Because something is happening here but you don't know what it is. Do you, Mister Jones?" printed over and over again, but the majority of columns and articles had chastised the outgoing administration for such childishness.
Had we been as eager to whine to the press, we might have garnered comparable support, but we weren't the same breed of tattletales. And even taking pride in that was immature. The whole embarrassing rivalry gave me flashbacks to junior high. Which, frankly, didn't seem all that long ago. I was twenty-eight now and working as a health care advisor to the White House, but I still often felt as awkward and unsure of myself as I had during those halcyon days of orthodontic headgear and New Kids on the Block fan clubs. Though I'd spent a few fascinating years as a Capitol Hill staffer to then Senator Robert Gary (RG to his staff), the White House was an entirely different universe. The stakes, the pressure, the perpetual potential for both extraordinary progress and crippling failure?everything was ratcheted up to a spectacular intensity now that I worked for the president and vice president of the United States. More than ever before, I felt like I needed to constantly prove myself in a new world full of gossip and cliques and all sorts of social politics. So in some ways, the junior high flashbacks were apropos. Though perhaps I had slightly more of a shot at a date with New Kid heartthrob Jordan Knight now. Slightly. Amid the fear and anxiety, I also felt a certain wide-eyed wonder at everything I was witnessing. At the inauguration of Wye and RG, I'd been awed by the sight of democracy in action. After a hard-fought, nasty election cycle, it had been thrilling and refreshing to observe the peaceful transfer of power. I'd watched everything from the sidelines, humbled by the remarkable nature of such an event, and grateful to be on the happier end of it. Granted, a week later I'd felt considerably less idealistic about the whole thing when I'd had to wear a surgical mask at my desk to filter the rancid fumes of decomposing mice.
And now those same clever saboteurs had disrupted our year-and-a half-late victory cruise by paying a woman to take her clothes off. They were classy, classy folks. "Everyone resume having fun," Harry Danson barked threateningly at the crowd. We instantly pretended to obey. I watched several people punching buttons on their cell phones and could practically feel the camera-phone photos whisking away to the world beyond White House control.
I noticed Lincoln Thomas standing by the starboard railing, as far from the heart of the crowd as he could get. As usual, he looked like a frightened stork?ready at the next instant to gather his thin legs and ruffled feathers and take off for calmer waters. Lincoln was my direct superior?the chief domestic policy advisor to the president?and I worked with him all day, every day. I was continually amazed by his excruciating shyness and considered it part of my job to try to help him overcome it. "What did you make of the show?" I asked, wondering if he might pretend not to hear me. It was an old trick of his. His eyes flitted to my face briefly, and then away again as he cleared his throat in his nervous way. Every conversation was a cage for him. He'd beat against it for a panicked moment, hoping against hope for escape, before realizing he was trapped. "Well, it was, er...exhilarating," he finally managed. "Not 'exhilarating' in the good, I was-enjoying-it way," he rushed to mumble. "I just mean it was very, um..." His face had turned red and taken on a desperate sheen.
"Unexpected," I offered. He breathed in gratefully. "Exactly. Unexpected," he agreed. "That's more what I meant. Not sexy or titillating or..." He trailed off, looking alarmed again. "So, I think we're all set for the bill signing tomorrow," I threw out. "Yes. Good," Lincoln answered thankfully. He was completely in his element when discussing work. It was everything else that he couldn't handle. "I'll see you then, there. I mean there, then. Bye," he blurted, before moving quickly away.
I watched him walk off to inflict his social awkwardness on someone else, then busied myself with some passing guacamole as I studied the remaining waitstaff. I was no longer fooled by their crisp jackets, which I now knew could be quickly shed like so much feigned politeness. Where had the stripper gone, anyway? Had she already been removed from the boat, with the help of the D.C. police? After a quick search, I spotted her sitting in a chair, being interrogated by an agent. And what about RG? I was glad Wye wasn't on board. The Exterminators would have felt even more insufferably proud of themselves had they managed to punk the president along with the entire West Wing staff.
I heard RG's familiar deep tones behind me and turned to find him in quiet conversation with Harry Danson, who was obviously briefing him on what he'd missed. Harry was considerably shorter than RG, with a bald, pointy head. He often reminded me of a very angry garden gnome. RG, in contrast, was a good-looking man whose distinguished demeanor conveyed a sense of calm intelligence, though these days his shoulders were too often tensed for conflict. Indeed, I noticed that his hair had grayed further over the past month, and the little lines around his eyes had burrowed deeper. When he'd joined the presidential ticket, he'd looked like a grown-up Boy Scout, but his face was considerably more worn-in now. Observing him, I was reminded of George Orwell's famous quote: "At fifty, everyone has the face he deserves." RG still had a few more years to sculpt his legacy, but his face was beginning to reflect the efforts.
I wondered if RG was bothered by the pace of his aging, whether it even crossed his mind. He blinked his tired eyes, said something I couldn't hear to Harry, and made his way to the center of the main deck. Someone clinked a spoon against a glass. Everyone quieted immediately, though I heard some scattered snickers, perhaps because RG was standing in the same spot where the stripper had begun her routine. It was almost impossible not to imagine what it would be like if he followed suit. It was a ridiculous visual, and to my horror, I suddenly found myself having to stifle my own inadvertent laughter. Against my will, I was picturing RG helicoptering his jacket around in the air and swiveling his hips as he loosened that trusty red tie. Don't start laughing, I ordered myself sternly. Even as I commanded, I knew it was a lost cause. Trying not to laugh was the one sure way to send me into hysterics, however unwilling or inappropriate. I had yet to recover from a recent incident at my great-aunt's funeral triggered by the prim preacher's involuntary burp during the homily.
I winced at the memory even as I felt insubordinate giggles rising up once again and stuffed an olive in my mouth to keep it occupied. Looking serious, RG began speaking. "For anyone visualizing me stripping, it ain't gonna happen," he deadpanned. Everyone laughed, which was a welcome release for my pent-up hilarity.
"I understand there's been some excitement this evening and I'm sure our friends on the other side are very proud of their latest stunt, but our celebration tonight is about a whole lot more than silly games," RG continued. "We were elected, and we're now here in D.C. because of a simple, real truth. The American people want more out of their public servants, and we're going to give it to them. With the extraordinary hearts and minds gathered here today, we can do anything. We're going to help this great country be even better. So on behalf of the president and myself, and the bright future we are all shaping together, I want to thank you. And I want to salute you. For your passion, your commitment, and your fantastic, important work."
I felt a swell of pride and joined the heartfelt clapping, relishing the communal thrill that raced through the crowd. We had all worked incredibly hard to put RG and Wye, and by extension ourselves, into the White House. Though it was easy to forget the greater cause in the midst of the daily grind, luckily it only seemed to take a little well-placed rhetoric to energize us anew. Particularly when it involved flattery.
I suspected that we were so easily rejuvenated because at our cores, we believed we really could change the world. I knew that this didn't make us all that fashionable or cool. Cynicism was definitely much more in vogue. But this crowd had somehow opted out of ironic detachment. For better or for worse, we cared. And so, though it occurred to me that we all might be suckers, the reality was that a year and a half after commandeering the White House, most of us still felt the blood-tingling, breath-skipping happiness of what we'd pulled off. No amount of criticism, opposition, or sabotage could take that away. At least we hoped not. "We've accomplished a lot so far, but it's only the beginning," RG continued. "We have an exciting few years ahead of us, so fill up on this shrimp dip. You're gonna need the energy."
I laughed along with the others and helped toast to our future, but RG's shrimp dip comment made me wonder about the possible hazards of the hors d'oeuvres we were consuming. Now that one of the waitresses had turned out to be a hired stripper, I was newly leery of the chefs. It's not like "cruise food" enjoys the most stellar reputation as it is. It seemed to me that I was perpetually coming across news stories about cruise ship passengers stricken by some mystery virus or another, and the sheer number of these incidents was worrisome. As far as I could tell, it was tough to go on a cruise and not come down with a hideous food-borne illness. Good Lord, we were probably surrounded by salmonella. I looked around suspiciously at the dumplings, bruschetta, and crabcakes laid out on their trays like so many invitations to gastroenteritis. We were doomed. I could sense it.
Feeling nauseous, I checked my bag for backup. I had Dramamine, various antihistamines, an eye patch, an EpiPen, some antibacterial ointment and Band-Aids, a Z Pak in the event I needed to start antibiotics right away, and Tamiflu to combat a sudden outbreak of avian flu. Friends found my first-aid kits creepy, but I considered them reassuring. I spent enough time researching health care issues to have an ever-expanding understanding of the countless mishaps and illnesses that were out there, just waiting to pounce. In light of the omnipresent danger, the best I could do was arm myself. The EpiPen had been the hardest to procure, since I wasn't technically deathly allergic to anything. But you never know, I argued with the doctor. Maybe I was deathly allergic to something obscure that I hadn't yet come across. I needed to be geared up for it when I did. I reminded myself to stay calm and not get too carried away. I knew deep down that the food was more than likely completely fine. But was that my abdomen cramping? If I'd contracted salmonella, I shouldn't experience symptoms for another six hours. Perhaps this ship was host to a particularly aggressive strain. I looked up from my kit to assess whether a medical helicopter would have enough room to land on the deck and saw that some of my more lubricated colleagues were fashioning a conga line. Should I break up the party to inform them of their intestinal peril?
Behind them, through the dusk, the Kennedy Center lights slid by. My eyes moved to RG, who was a few feet away, extricating himself from a conversation as he moved a safe distance from the conga parade. He happened upon my gaze as he made his way back toward the cabin.
"Seasick?" he inquired, confirming that I looked as bad as I suddenly felt. "I'm fine, sir," I answered unconvincingly. The helicopter ride would just make me more nauseous, I'd determined. Best to stick with a speedboat evacuation. Though now that darkness had fallen, any of these maneuvers would be tricky. How much longer were we on this damn cruise anyway? "Well, we're almost back to shore," RG said lightly, as if reading my thoughts. I hoped he was right. I didn't want to toss my cookies in front of everyone if I could help it. I'd prefer to get off the boat as soon as possible without causing an embarrassing scene. "Listen, I was impressed with your latest report on lifestyle drugs," RG continued. "It was very thorough, very intriguing. I'd like to hold a White House conference on them as soon as we can organize it. Write up a proposal, will you?" "Yes, sir." I nodded, pleased that my briefing had made the desired impact. I'd worked hard on it. And it was about time he started tuning in to the issue. And now that he had, I clearly couldn't afford the time deficit a full-fledged salmonella infection would create. I couldn't be bedridden for days when I finally had the chance to spearhead a White House conference. Okay, deep breaths, I instructed myself. I'd really only had some chips and guacamole and a few olives, nothing dairy or fish-based. Plus, this wasn't actually a cruise ship?just a riverboat hired for the evening. There was a chance I'd live. Just as I began to settle down and feel a sense of eerie calm, an explosion of shots rang out.
Reflecting back, it might have been my musing on mortality that was to blame for my reaction. Or a freshly fueled sense of paranoia thanks to the stripper's reminder of the saboteurs who meant us harm. Or perhaps I really had contracted salmonella and it had made a beeline for my brain. Whatever the explanation for my actions, in retrospect, I certainly should have behaved differently.
But the trouble with hindsight is that it never arrives in time. So as the shots exploded nearby, I reacted instinctively. I rushed past my boss, the vice president of the United States, and took a running dive headlong into the Potomac. For a split second before I hit the chilly water, it occurred to me that I might have overreacted. But it was only when I surfaced beside the boat, sputtering and in a fair amount of stinging pain, that I saw the fireworks lighting up the sky. In my defense, the fireworks had been a shock to everyone, and I noted that several people on deck were still crouched down in reaction to the abrupt explosions. None of them had opted for the extra precaution of taking to the water, but still, they'd attempted some form of self-preservation. Even the Secret Service agents had quickly circled RG, since the initial pops really had sounded like gunshots.
As I doggy-paddled to keep my head above water, I noticed something else about the surprise fireworks. Something besides the fact that they'd just created a mortifying new memory in need of swift repression. It appeared that these were the fancy kind that formed distinguishable shapes. One specific shape, to be exact. As I gaped at the night sky, weighing the pros and cons of drowning myself, the crackling lights danced together in the unmistakable design of a grinning mouse. The Exterminators' calling card. Didn't these people have anything better to do with their time? They were expending a lot of effort just to put an explosive exclamation point on their latest stunt, making sure we knew whom to credit. The police boats escorting us had cleared this portion of the river of any other craft, which meant that the Exterminators must have set off the fireworks from someplace along the shore. I scanned the riverbank, but couldn't make anything out in the darkness. As the first taunting mouse slowly faded into smoke, another one exploded even closer to the boat, just above the heads of the conga crowd, who had frozen in formation. Suddenly sobered, they all stared up at the pyrotechnic prank that rained sparks down on their paused parade. I could always slip away and float downriver to a new life, I considered as people began to point me out from the deck. I knew the currents were dangerous, but at the moment, they seemed more inviting than the looks and questions I'd have to navigate back on board.
"Sammy? Are you okay?" someone yelled. "Physically, yes," I answered weakly. "What?" "I'M FINE," I shouted more robustly. Besides being an idiot, obviously. As a life preserver clocked me in the head, I wondered how many people had actually witnessed my actions. Probably not many. Most of them had doubtless been looking elsewhere, searching for the source of the sudden gunshot-like noises. Gripping the life preserver, I kicked close enough to make out the faces of those peering down from the ship's railing. There was Lincoln, looking perplexed, and Harry, looking apoplectic. And there was RG, smiling. Smiling?
I did a double take, and on second glance his smile was gone. Perhaps it had existed only as a figment of my water-logged imagination. Or perhaps it had been real, but only because RG had been enjoying the thought of my imminent firing. Regardless, he was now looking decidedly grim and displeased. The rest of my ignominious return aboard was a shivering, soggy blur. And before I knew it, the boat was docked and everyone was disembarking. I comforted myself that the tattooed stripper received slightly more stares than I did as I shuffled quickly past the shuttle that had been arranged to return everyone to the West Wing. There was no way I was getting on that bus. I needed some alone time.
As I stood hailing a cab around the corner from 31st and K a few minutes later, wrapped in a towel I'd been lent, a siren bleated behind me. I turned to glimpse the official vice presidential motorcade rounding the corner, and stepped quickly back toward the shadows to do my best impression of an anonymous homeless person. If I don't look up, they won't spot me, I told myself as I pulled the towel over my head. Through the terry cloth, I heard the siren getting closer. And then: "Samantha," a voice called gruffly.
So much for my ostrich logic. They'd never struck me as the brightest birds. I reluctantly raised my head. Oh God, it was RG. Why on earth had he stopped? The Secret Service agent who rode in the passenger seat had leapt out and was now looking around alertly as RG leaned out from the shadow of his car. "Hello, sir," I squeaked, stepping hesitatingly back into the light. "Do you need a ride?" RG asked brusquely, indicating the extra SUVs and squad cars that had pulled close to form a protective barrier. Was this like one of those Mafia ride offers? I wondered. It was more my livelihood than my life that felt threatened. If he was going to fire me, I'd rather know sooner than later. But I felt too weak and disheveled and possibly diseased to weather it now.
"No, sir," I answered. "I'm waiting for a friend." "A friend," RG repeated. It did sound implausible. "A taxi-driver type of friend-stranger," I elaborated lamely. "Um, I'm sure we'll be friends by the end of the ride." I considered burying my head back in the towel. "Uh-huh," RG replied flatly. "Well, I'm not going to leave you here alone at night on a deserted street. Climb into one of the support vans. I'll instruct the driver to take you where you need to go." "Yes, sir," I answered meekly. "Thank you, sir." I could see the van he was referring to toward the rear of the motorcade. Should I just hustle back there, then? RG was still watching me. Uh-oh, I knew that look. He was weighing a decision. He was an avid hunter and I imagined that this was the look that came into his eyes as he was staring through his rifle scope, deciding whether or not to pull the trigger.
He sighed deeply and my career flashed before my eyes. "I'm going to tell you something and I'm going to say it only once. Understand?" His tone was harsh. I knew RG was capable of brutal tongue-lashings, and I steeled myself for one as best I could. "Yes, sir," I managed. "Listen to me carefully. You're a smart, capable advisor. You're normally an asset to our team. But God almighty, do you have some blind spots." I gulped. Here it came.
"So just do me a favor. On your ride home, I want you to focus on one thing." He paused. "No matter what loud noises you encounter, try not to fling yourself from the van. Belly flops on asphalt are a lot tougher to recover from." RG didn't lighten his tone or break into his teasing grin. I thought I saw the corners of his mouth twitch upward as he leaned back in his seat, but it wasn't until the car was pulling away that I finally found my voice again. "I'll try to remember that, sir, thank you," I said to the space where his car had been. But I certainly couldn't make any promises.