Summary: The good news is spread in many ways.
Fandom: The Sandman
Characters: Prez Rickard
Disclaimer: The Sandman belongs to Gaiman, DC Comics, and Vertigo.
Original Story: A Path Unvaried, by lorax
Notes: Many thanks to my beta oyceter for her excellent questions and suggestions. Many thanks as well to lorax for the opportunity to play with her wonderful story. The italicized bits that begin each section are taken directly from her story.
What Will Be Told (the Gospel remix)
Many stories are told of Prez Rickard: some documented, some plausible, some contradictory, some clearly impossible. (Some of the documented ones are false; some of the impossible ones are true. This is the way of stories.) Many tales are told about Prez's encounters with the Endless.
All those stories started someplace.
Prez is twelve when he discovers the Garden.
Ted Ryan is fourteen and utterly normal, an All-American boy. One night, he dreams of a garden. He walks its paths, around and around, searching for something, though he knows not what. In the distance, he sees a boy about his age, maybe a year or two younger, with bright blond hair.
Ted is a friendly sort, and he moves toward the boy, only to see that the boy is…either reading a book, or talking to a man. With dream-logic, Ted knows the book and the man are the same. The boy moves away, and Ted, curious, follows.
In following the boy’s path, he has to pass the man. Ted is not afraid, but he finds he is reluctant to draw the man's attention. Still, as Ted passes, even though the man does not even seem to see him walking by, even though Ted skirts him as widely as the path permits, somehow the man’s robe brushes Ted’s shoe.
"Wasn't that rude?" someone says, and Ted looks to his side to see a girl walking there, a girl with wild hair and mismatched eyes. "To walk right past you. Maybe he got hostility and hospitality confused. They’re confusing words. You can’t ignore guests, or they’ll flitter-flutter-fall away." She says, "I won’t ignore you," and she links an arm with one of his, and the two of them continue to follow the blond boy as he walks down a path of red, white, and blue flowers, until he disappears.
"He’s gone," Ted says in shock.
"We’ll catch up with him later," the girl says in a confiding tone, and Ted wakes.
He forgets the girl. He remembers the boy.
In the year that follows, Ted visits three different psychiatrists, and tells them all that a blond boy is coming to change the world. To save the world. To do something. (Two thousand miles away, Prez Rickard’s mother finds him at a town hall meeting, where he amazes his elders with his wisdom.) Ted bounces in and out of psychiatric care, meets a fellow patient with mismatched eyes who tells him solemnly, "Hospital and hospitality are tricky words, too," and eventually learns to tell the psychiatrists what they want to hear.
In later years, he works on Prez’s campaign, garnering much support for Prez on his own college campus; he only meets Prez himself once, shaking his hand in passing.
One hundred years later, long after Ted’s death, the memory of his dream will survive in his writings; he will be known as "the Presidential poet" for the way he combined prose and verse in his account of Prez Rickard’s life. The first section of The Account of Brother Teodosio is called "The Garden." It reads:
"In the beginning was the Garden, and the Garden was Destiny, and Destiny walked its paths. The Garden was the place through which Destiny walked, and the Garden was the time through which Destiny walked, and the Garden was the dream through which Destiny walked.
"One night, I dreamed of the Garden. In the Garden, from a distance, I saw a book, the book of Destiny, with a heavy chain that tethered it to the Garden. But the book was also a man, whose hands were pages in the book.
"One night, I dreamed of the Garden. In the Garden, from a distance, I saw a boy. He walked through the pathways of Destiny, and as he walked, the paths disappeared behind him, and as he walked, he came closer to the book.
"I saw him leaf through the book, touching its pages, and as he touched its pages, colors washed over him, red, white, and blue. When he left the book, he carried it with him, and he walked down a path of red, white and blue.
"I walked towards his path, and though I skirted the book as I approached, yet still I was brushed by a leaf from the book, and its colors washed over me, and since then this has been my Destiny: to follow him along his path."
He is fifteen when first he dreams the man. He sits in the oval office. . . Across the office a tall, pale man watches him. His dark hair is wild and to meet his eyes is to stare into a starry night and know that the stars are staring back.
Malika Johnson is eighteen, an up-and-coming artist, when she wakes from a dream in which she was not an artist but a painting. She hung on the wall of the Oval Office and looked out through flat eyes of oil at the scene in front of her.
When she wakes, she has forgotten her dream. Three days later, out of an impulse she does not understand, she begins a new painting. It shows an adolescent boy, about fifteen, seated behind the Presidential desk. A shadowy figure with starry eyes stands in the middle of the room. He stands while the boy sits, but somehow the balance of power is equal: Dream is neither a looming threat nor a supplicant; the boy is neither dwarfed nor all-powerful.
When Malika finishes the painting and surveys it, she thinks without vanity that it’s the best thing she ever painted; more than that, it’s very good.
Critics agree with her. Malika’s painting earns her a fellowship and several awards. Later, after Prez’s election, the painting also brings her a certain amount of controversy. Critics note that the figure in the painting strongly resembles Rickard as he was at age 15, the age he was when Malika created the painting. Speculations arise that the painting was precognitive.
It’s a speculation that Malika first denies; after the first six months, she refuses to answer the question at all. She continues to paint, becoming an artist of some renown despite her refusal of publicity. Some thirty years after Rickard’s death, she will break a long silence to give an interview to Barbara Pauley:
BP: So let’s put it on the table, get the obvious question right out there. Was the painting precognitive? Did you forecast the future?
MJ: No. The answer to the second question’s an unequivocal no. I’m nothing special, no fortune teller or anything like that, I can’t even predict whether to carry an umbrella when the sky’s full of clouds! [laughter] But the first question…I wouldn’t say precognitive. I wouldn’t say that. But you have to remember--oh, I know some of your viewers are young, they’re just babies, but you’re my age, you remember what it was like. For those of us who were teenagers then, there was such a sense of hope. There was such a sense of optimism. There were these possibilities bursting open all over the place. We thought we could change the world. No, we knew we could change the world. So I don’t think I dreamed up Prez, not him specifically, but someone like him. Someone like him in the Oval Office, someone young--I felt that was coming. We all felt that was coming. And we were right. We got Prez.
Now let me guess your next question, let me just guess--
BP: Yes, this is another question that’s been asked a lot, but…one of the other points of controversy surrounding the painting is, if it weren’t precognitive, if that wasn’t the reason you drew a young blond boy--is this the question you thought it was? [laughter]
MJ: I think so. Why a blond boy instead of a young black woman--why a blond boy instead of someone like me? Well, I said we had optimism. That’s true, we had a lot of optimism. But for me--not just for me, for many in my immediate circle--it was still, sometimes, a tempered optimism. As youth, we had the votes, we were in the majority: a young white man might be able to get there. But a young black man, could he have? I don’t know. I just don’t know. And a young black woman--oh, that one I know for sure. So maybe that was why. It’s hard, looking back, it’s hard to know what was conscious and what wasn’t, what I thought when I was painting that, why that was the image in my head.
BP: Yet the figure of Dream you painted was drawn from a tradition of African-American representations.
MJ: Mmm. Yes. Yes, it was. And if it were the young boy’s image of Dream, he would have been white, most likely, so…why? That young boy as our President, whose dream was that? Was it mine? Was it all of ours, to see someone young in the White House? And here I am asking the questions, but…honestly, that’s what I’ve got, same as you. Was it our dream or his or mine or everyone’s?
BP: Let’s bookend that painting with your other famous Presidential portrait from a decade ago. Now that one--you released that six months after the Inauguration. When did you start work on it? During the campaign, or after the election, or [laughter] I see from my face you know I’m going to ask, prior to that? Not in precognition necessarily, but in hope?
MJ: Ah, no, that one I started after the Inauguration. Right after, in fact, I turned off the television and went for the easel. I didn’t plan it. I didn’t know it was coming. I mean the painting, I didn’t know that was coming--but honestly, her presidency, too. All through the campaign, even in the months after the election but before the Inauguration, no, I didn’t quite believe it yet. I had horrible dreams, in fact, nightmares that the election had only been a dream, or that the election was real but she was assassinated before taking office, or one where Prez Rickard returned to run against her and of course he won in a landslide. But despite the bad dreams, it happened, a black woman President, in that office, finally.
I couldn’t paint that one until it was fact.
(The popularity of stories and visual representations showing Prez with other members of the Endless will wax and wane throughout the years. His followers will have schisms over his encounters with Delirium, Destiny, Despair. The number of texts showing Prez with Dream, however, will remain steady in popularity, and will by far outstrip the rest.)
Prez is newly twenty and the litter of the party that marked the occasion lies across the ballroom of the White House.
Holly Powell is fifteen and bored. Her father, Harrison Powell, is one of the new President’s advisors, and so Holly and her brother have come to Prez Rickard’s Inauguration party.
Prez is only four years older than Holly, but he and his cadre seem miles older than that; they treat Holly and her twin brother like kids, with the special condescension seniors in high school reserve for freshmen. Holly knows she’s lucky to be attending a historic event, and it’s probably lots more exciting than a normal Inaugural ball, but no one really talks to her except her brother.
Maybe it’s better that way: she dances with a few older guys, and the way they look at her makes her uncomfortable. It’s easier to dance with her brother, to be dismissed as a kid. They keep dancing while people leave and the ballroom empties.
Except for a moment, her brother’s hand on her hip, the nearness of his body, somehow reminds her of the older guy who’d made her most uncomfortable. It’s ridiculous; Holly continues to dance even as she laughs nervously and says, "It looks like everyone’s leaving." There are a few people scattered around the ballroom still, including Prez Rickard. He’s talking to a man…no, a woman. The woman catches Holly’s attention: she’s beautiful, not in the Barbie-blonde way of Holly’s mother (the way people say Holly is), but sharp-angled and androgynous. She leans close to Prez, her fingers splayed out on his arm. Her fingers are long and shapely and beautiful, and there is no reason why Holly thinks of spider’s legs.
Prez says something, and even across the ballroom Holly can hear the low amusement of the woman’s laugh before she walks away.
When she passes Holly and her twin, her twin drops his hands away from her and says, "Yeah, must be time to go." His eyes follow the woman, and he flushes and will not meet Holly’s eyes.
Holly Powell will eventually change her name to America Smith; she will become one of the foremost preachers in one of the largest denominations of Prez’s followers. As Revered America Smith, she will write:
"Prez knew temptation--never doubt he knew temptation. I, his humble disciple, saw him fight it. At his own Inauguration, the figure of Desire glided up to him and offered him anything he wanted. Desire whispered in his ear: give yourself to me, and I will give you all women, all men, anyone you want, anything you want.
Prez sent her or him away, my fellow disciples. When we lose hope, when we falter in our faith, always remember that he went ahead of us, and he sent Desire away."
Later still, America’s granddaughter, novelist Jacqueline Steele, will use her grandmother’s account as a base for her novel about young President Rex Packard. In Golden Boy, Golden Man, she will write:
"Rex’s eyes were caught by a vision across the room, a woman in a slinky red dress, with amber eyes and trim, cropped hair that bared the pale nape of her neck. For a moment, though he was loyal to Kathy in all ways, he felt his manhood stir. Then she gazed across the room at him, and he sank into her jeweled topaz eyes, which pulled him like a magnet across the room.
"They danced together, bodies swaying together, and though he had never met her before he felt as if he knew her, as if he had waited all his life to meet her. His brain was a confused muddle, leaving his body yearning for her. When she pulled him towards a secluded corner, when she pulled his lips down to hers, he was powerless to resist.
"'Give me a gift,' she murmured lushly in his ear, and he drew from his pocket the watch he had intended to give to his wife. Its crimson band matched her blood-red dress, he thought feverishly. He placed in on her delicate wrist, fastening the strap--and as he did so, the grandfather clock in the room struck three times.
"It broke the haze that had settled over him. He stumbled away from her, an expression of horror on his face, and fled to Kathy."
(Holly’s twin will, to the end of his life, deny that he saw Prez talk to any strange woman, much less a mythological being, at his Inauguration.)
Prez is twenty two and he stands in the sands of a desert whose name he has forgotten, though he knows he knew earlier.
Morgan Taylor is twenty-five during the peace talks. He writes letters to his wife at home that speak about his pride in his president who brokered these talks. He loves his work, which is hard but satisfying; he is pleased to serve at the pleasure of Prez Rickard, the brightest and most charismatic man Morgan has ever known.
(All right, it’s a little wearing to have to deal with some of the older advisors, who treat him as a kid. He’s three years older than their president! If Prez deserves respect, so does he, right? But he knows Prez values his work, and that’s what counts.)
Prez disappears one day from the talks, and they send Morgan to retrieve him. Morgan grumbles about it internally, because he’s not their errand boy, but he’s not crazy enough to turn down face time with Prez, so he keeps his grumbling internal.
He finds Prez outside, speaking to a man Morgan doesn’t recognize, a big bearded man who towers over Prez. Morgan should shout and run, because what’s Prez doing without his Secret Service detail, with a stranger? But the man isn’t hurting Prez, and as Morgan watches he slaps Prez on the back and strides away, into the desert. Prez watches him go, and for the first time, Morgan thinks he looks alone, burdened, dimmed. Morgan knows that Prez has been upset by some of what they’ve done here, by the necessary violence and destruction they’ve wrought in creating peace--but for the first time, Morgan himself is uneasy.
Later that night, Morgan writes a letter to his wife. "I don’t know, he looked really stressed--I wouldn’t want his job for the world," he writes. "And I’m not sure who that guy was, but I haven’t seen him around since even though I’ve kept an eye out."
Morgan is, objectively speaking, a pretty minor cog in Prez’s administration. His letters to his wife are never collected or published, and so memory of the incident dies with him. Thus, while many accounts will speak of Prez’s dealings with six of the Endless, there is one unquestioned omission: no one will ever suggest that he met with Destruction.
He is almost twenty-eight and his last term is drawing to a close.
Most of the women in the secretarial pool are old enough to be Prez’s mother, and they love him like a son. He’s the best and the brightest of their children, the one who lived up to his potential.
They don’t put themselves forward, don’t make a fuss or try to pamper him. They don’t presume on the relationship. But when Kathy dies, when Prez’s heart breaks, their hearts break too. They run what interference they can to keep people from bothering him; they bring him coffee and pastries; they fade themselves into the woodwork so that he will have some people around who do not ask anything from him.
In the last days, while outsiders agitate for a third term and insiders urge Prez to consider, just consider, the idea, these women compress their lips and say nothing, except for Marivel, who once tells Prez, "You listen to me: you don’t you do anything but what’s right for you, all right? Sir."
Observant women all, most of them, at one point or another, spot the girl who’s taken to wandering around the White House: a young girl with wild hair and fishnet stockings who dances closer and closer to Prez. They watch with grave faces and tight mouths, because some of them have an inkling of who, or what, they’re seeing. They don’t speak of it amongst themselves, or to their husbands, or to their children.
They are not the source of the leak.
But something does leak, somewhere, and whispers spread, whispers of a meeting between Prez and a girl with mismatched eyes, whispers of mental instability, of a man gone crazy with grief.
Many people ridicule such rumors, and it begins and for the most part will remain (aside from a few brief surges in popularity) a fringe belief. In later years, others will aggressively work to suppress this suggestion of imperfection in their Golden Boy. Thus, after a century or two or three or five, the only reminder of Prez’s encounter with Delirium will be in a child’s rhyming game:
Delirium went to Nixon,
Saying, "You need fixin'.
I've got some glue and some crazy too."
He said, "No, thanks,"
and threatened her with tanks.
She turned them into frogs that jumped away.
Delirium went to Prez,
Saying, "Want some Pez?
I've got a few and some crazy too."
He said, "No, ma’am,
Would you like Tim-Tams?"
She turned them into bees that buzzed away.
Delirium came to me,
Saying, "Want a TV?
It's got a view and some crazy too."
I said, "I’ll pass,
But you can have some grass."
She turned it into smoke that blew away.
Delirium went to you,
Saying, "Want a tattoo,
I've got ink that's blue and some crazy too."
You said, "No way,
Perhaps another day?"
And she turned into a bird that flew away.
She flew away,
But you know someday,
She’s gonna fly back to you, uh huh.
She flew away,
But she’s on her way,
She’s flying straight back to you, uh huh.
(References that will be meaningless to the children: Nixon, Prez, Tim Tams, TV, and frogs, which will be by then extinct.)
He can't remember quite how old he is when a squat grey face with pointed teeth stares back at him from the face of the clock he's fixing.
Teresa is very young when Prez finishes his second term and moves back to Steadfast. Her mother whispers to her when they pass Prez on the street, surrounded by a bunch of men in black suits, that this is a very important man. "We are lucky he has settled among us," her mother says, and reminds her that it is not polite to point.
He looks like a sad man to Teresa. "Did he lose his job?" Teresa whispers to her mother, because Prez looks like Teresa’s father did those six months when he wasn’t working, when they were very careful about what they bought, when even if Teresa brought her father a poem she wrote, his smile wasn’t as cheerful as usual when he praised her.
"No, no, honey," her mother says. "He, his wife..." her mother falters. "His wife went away like Grandma went away. You know how that made me sad. Well, he’s a little bit sad like that."
"Who are the men with him?" Teresa asks. "Are they his friends?" She thinks, with all the force of a little girl’s disapproval, that they aren’t doing a very good job of cheering their friend up.
"They’re because he’s so important," Teresa’s mother explains.
Teresa’s a little scared of them at first, but she loses her fear when Prez falls into the habit of running down their street most morning. If she looks out at the right time, very early, she can see Prez running with his group. They look funny when they’re running.
One night, Teresa wakes up in the middle of the night and peers out the window. She sees Prez running, and at first she thinks he’s alone, but there’s someone following him.
Teresa screams and screams. When her parents rush in, she is sobbing, and Prez is long gone from the window. "Honey, I bet you were still half asleep," her mother tells her, rubbing her back. "There’s no one following Prez, no one like that in this town." But Teresa overhears her mother tell her father, two days later, "I checked around--a couple of people do think Prez might have a housekeeper, because they’ve seen a little short woman trailing him when he shops. But we’d have heard about that if it were true."
Eventually Prez leaves town, and Teresa stops having nightmares of a short, squat, gray woman who watches, watches, watches.
Thirty years later, Teresa de Alba will write an award-winning play about Prez’s life. Out of the rags and flutters of her childhood memories, she will summon up a memory of a scary housekeeper Prez had. When she does her research and finds out that Prez lived alone during that time period, with no housekeeper, she shrugs and makes the figure mythical instead.
In interviews, after the play is a confirmed success, she flippantly talks about the problems they had in rehearsals: "We tried to surround Despair with rats, but it turns out a lot of rats are a little too friendly--they kept wandering off to play with people!" All the reviews mention the moment when the stage goes dark, when Prez sits alone, fixing watches, and a short, squat, gray woman watches from the corner, as being unexpectedly powerful, eerie, suggestive.
The play will later get a bit of a reputation as being cursed, after the fourth actor to play the role of Despair commits suicide. Despite that, it will remain the most popular of Theresa de Alba’s plays. Furthermore, stories telling of Prez's encounters with Despair will begin to enter the mainstream--although the pedantic will point out that since that part of the story was created by a playwright, it was inherently lacking in organic truth and validity.
Prez is not yet born. He is squirming and barely formed, a life form without name or purpose. Arms hold him and he is safe and loved and she smiles at him, and he believes that there can be a perfect world.
Sweat runs into Helen Rickard's eyes as she pushes. When she blinks, she thinks for a moment that she sees a woman standing in the corner of the room, a young dark-haired woman dressed in black, holding a baby. The woman smiles in encouragement, and Helen smiles back.
A blink, and the other woman is gone, and Helen's body and her pain is all there is. And then there is something else.
"He's going to be president someday," she tells the nurse later, exhausted and happy.
"Is he now?" the nurse says. She's been friendly all along, with a wide smile on her face that matches the yellow smiley-button on her shoulder, but for a fleeting moment her face seems hollow, cold compared to the warmth in the dark-haired woman's face.
"He is," Helen says firmly. "He'll get there."
"Well, then, little one," the nurse says, "welcome to this world." She asks Helen, "What will you name him?"
And though Helen never tells anyone of the dark-haired woman or the conversation with the nurse, though the nurse’s name is lost to history, though Prez Rickard’s birth certificate shows that his given name is Clay, every story, every account, will begin with this:
"Prez," his mother says. "His name is Prez."