Michael is driving north on a cold, grey December afternoon.  He has just returned from Iraq, where he was on assignment reporting for a major American newspaper.  He scans the radio looking for a distraction, but the barrage of news reports, inflammatory opinions, and holiday shopping commercials do little to preoccupy him from an overwhelming sense of hopelessness.  He’s traveling to Madison out of instinct; in search of a piece of himself that is missing, lost in the heat and chaos of Baghdad.

Michael is about forty, nice looking though a bit too thin, and unusually tan for December.  Behind Michael’s eyes burn unseen demons and he is haunted by his memories.

Arriving in Madison, Michael parks his car and wanders downtown.  He lived here once, and as he walks State Street, Michael is filled with memories of his college days—a time of ideas and idealism.  The students are mostly gone for holiday break, but a handful of last minute shoppers move about looking for just the right something for somebody.  Their presence only emphasizes Michael’s solitude.  He stops at Union Terrace to gaze at a frozen Lake Mendota.  Slowly, a distinct memory comes to him: a discussion between himself and his best friend from college, Ben.  They debate as young people do about the potential conflict between making money and making a difference in society.  Michael argues strongly for the latter.  His last, youthful line, “To change the world,” resonates with him now, nearly twenty years later, on a cold winter day.  Snow begins to fall.

Michael checks into the University Inn and orders a bottle of whiskey from room service.  In his room, drink in hand, he looks out at the city he once knew framed like a large picture in the window.

Shortly before dawn, Michael is lying in bed with his eyes wide-open, blood shot, and filled with dissonance.  He hears yelling in both Arabic and English.  And gun shots.  Michael gets out of bed and goes to the bathroom.  He splashes water on his face.  The yelling and violence follow him.  He takes a shower, but the water cannot cleanse his mind.

In the dim light of an overcast morning, Michael walks through the campus of the University of Wisconsin.  He enters a building, goes up a staircase, and stands at the back of a large lecture hall.  Again, a distinct memory comes to him: a classroom discussion about the subjectivity of truth.  The memory is interrupted by the presence of Professor Walker.  Clearly proud of Michael, Walker teases him about the possibility of winning a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the war in Iraq.  Walker is a noted Professor of Journalism and was Michael’s mentor in college.  Widely published and respected, Walker is best known for his coverage and criticism of the Vietnam War.  In the same classroom Michael learned how to become a journalist, Michael asks Walker how he adjusted after returning from Vietnam, verbalizing his own hopelessness for the first time.  Walker says that he finds hope in teaching.

Shortly before noon on the same dreary day, Michael sits in his car outside The Plaza, waiting for it to open.  Larry, about 45 with a beard and belly, unlocks the door and goes inside.  Moments later, Michael enters the bar as fluorescent beer signs flicker on in the window.

The Plaza is a typical college tavern: lots of space, a couple of pool tables, and several wide screen TVs.  Christmas decorations with beer labels on them adorn the ceiling.  Larry is setting up for the day’s business.  Michael sits at the end of the long bar and orders a drink.  Larry recognizes Michael and embraces him warmly.  They were friends in college and haven’t seen each other for many years.  Michael asks Larry about Ben.  Larry tells of Ben’s wife, Maria, and her death from breast cancer.  Michael did not know.  It’s been over a year now.  Michael asks for Ben’s address.

Michael is sitting in his car along a residential street on Madison’s east side.  Christmas lights blink throughout the neighborhood.  The houses are common of small American cities: first homes of families two generations ago that today seem to change owners every couple of years.  Ben’s house is two stories, has an open porch, and a large front window through which any passerby can see a well decorated Christmas tree.  The sidewalk has recently been shoveled of snow.  Michael climbs the porch stairs and rings the doorbell.  To his surprise, a young girl of about 10, with large eyes and a precocious demeanor, opens the door.  Playing the adult, she asks, “Can I help you sir?”  From the other room, “Who is it Maddy?” is heard.  Dishtowel in hand, Ben appears—a large, friendly man in his forties.  He is surprised to see Michael.  They embrace and for a moment, Ben is at a loss for words.  Then begin the questions, “What are you doing here? How are you?”  Michael is awkward and vague, answering in short statements, “I’m on vacation.  I’m okay.”  (Both lies.)  Ben introduces Michael to his daughter, Maddy.  Their father/daughter relationship is unusual considering her age.  He does not treat her like a child, speaking in condescension or ignoring her presence when “the adults are talking.”  Instead, she is always included in the conversation.  On occasion, Ben even confirms what he says with her by asking, “Isn’t that right Maddy?”  Michael is uncomfortable.  Clearly, he has little experience with the beauty of children.

Michael is sitting in the kitchen drinking a beer while Ben finishes the dishes.  Maddy can be heard playing nearby.  Ben talks of Maria’s death and how difficult it was.  She suffered near the end.  When Ben talks of his wife he conveys a quiet solace.  “She is no longer in pain,” he says.  He also mentions how he lost his job as an engineer and his difficulty in finding a new one.  When the subject turns to Michael and Iraq, the journalist becomes anxious.  He suggests they go out to The Plaza and have a few drinks—just like “old times.”  Ben calls his neighbor to ask if she can baby-sit Maddy.

Their night at The Plaza is a collage of drinking, pool playing, and conversation.  Because it is only two days before Christmas, the tavern is relatively empty except for Larry, a few local kids home on holiday break, and a couple of “regulars.”  In this scattering of customers is Ash, a charismatic 26-year-old Political Science graduate student at the UW.  Ash holds the pool table when Michael and Ben first arrive and introduces himself to their challenge as “Ashley Karl Davidson the Fourth and I’m gonna to change the world.”  The old friends immediately like him.  As the night progresses, the three men exchange shots of tequila, shots of pool, and shots of ideas.  Topics discussed include: congressional corruption, the significance of punk music, the need for media reform, and “who the hell is Jessica Simpson and why the fuck is she important?”  Whenever Iraq is mentioned, Michael changes the subject.  Towards the end of the night the men are suitably buzzed, especially Michael.  They close the bar (with at least one call to the baby-sitter from Ben to “check in”).  Before they part, the men promise to continue their marathon conversation and pool game tomorrow night at nine.

Michael and Ben are standing outside The Plaza waiting for a cab to drive by and take them home.  Michael, very drunk, stumbles into the alley next to the bar to relieve himself.  Suddenly, he goes berserk—smashing the garbage cans and boxes located there.  In his rage, Michael mumbles something about “victims” and “chaos.”  Ben does not understand.  The eruption ends as abruptly as it began.  Michael, in tears of pain, collapses in the dirty snow.  Not knowing what else to do, Ben sits in the alley next to his friend and comforts him, like he would Maddy when she has a nightmare.

Ben half carries Michael up the stairs to his house as a taxicab pulls away.  Inside, Ben helps Michael into bed and then looks in on Maddy.  The glimmer of an idea comes to him as he watches his daughter sleeping peacefully.

Early the next morning, Michael is lying awake in bed.  He slowly gets up, goes to the kitchen, and puts a kettle of water on the stove for tea.  As the kettle heats, Michael withdraws into himself and his eyes burn with troubled memories.  He does not notice when the boiling kettle begins to whistle.  Awakened by the noise, Ben enters the kitchen wearing his bathrobe and looking a bit hungover.  He grabs the kettle off the stove and says nothing, seeing the look on Michael’s face.  Ben pours a cup of tea and hands it to his friend.  They sit for a while in silence, drinking tea, pondering their private thoughts.  Finally, Ben asks Michael to stay for Christmas.  His mind returning to the present, Michael quietly accepts the invitation.  Ben then asks Michael if he would look after Maddy while he runs some errands (pick up a ham for tomorrow, buy a couple of last minute presents for Maddy, etc.).  Michael hesitantly agrees to the favor, unable to decline because of his friend’s hospitality.

Later that morning, on his way out the door, Ben gives instructions, “there is turkey for sandwiches in the fridge, make sure Maddy eats some carrots for lunch, and (to Maddy) no sweets.”  Michael nervously asks, “How long will you be gone?”  Ben smiles mischievously, “A few hours…Don’t worry buddy, Maddy will keep you busy.”  Ben kisses his daughter and leaves.  Michael and Maddy sit across from one another in the living room, each waiting for the other to make the first move.  Finally, Maddy asks Michael what he likes to play.  He doesn’t know what to answer.

During the course of the day, Michael gradually becomes more comfortable with Maddy and they become friends.  They play, have lunch, and play some more.  The two of them have fun.  Michael even laughs.  Late in the afternoon, Michael and Maddy play on the living room floor.  Ben stands unnoticed on the porch, watching them through the living room window.  He sees the relaxed, almost serene look on Michael’s face and smiles.

Later that evening, Michael is seated in a booth at The Plaza telling Ben and Ash of his experiences in Iraq.  The mood is more somber than the night before.  The stories are sad and revealing.  Michael talks of the difficulty of being objective as an embedded reporter when one relies on the troops for protection.  He discusses the day to day struggles of Iraqi people—the corruption, the death, the constant fear.  Most of all the fear.  Soldiers are afraid because they are unable to differentiate friend from enemy.  Civilians are afraid of torture and assassination from either side.  Journalists are afraid to leave the protection of the Green Zone and find out what is really going on.  In a specific story, Michael describes seeing an accidental massacre in which a platoon of American troops killed an Iraqi family.  “It was the fear, the chaos…They are all victims.”  Ben says he felt Michael’s writing was incredible; that it helped the reader to understand what is going on over there.  Michael doesn’t agree.  “If I really captured what Iraq is like, we would immediately withdraw.  The American people would not tolerate such horror.  But reporting is not enough.  The madness continues day after day, month after month, and now year after year—people viciously destroying one another.  I was helpless, a witness with no hope of justice.”  When Michael finishes, the three men sit in pensive silence.

Outside The Plaza, Michael, Ben, and Ash stand in the snow sharing a cigarette.  Ben invites Ash over for Christmas.  “Why don’t you come stay the night?  No one should spend Christmas alone.”  Ash accepts the invitation.

It is early Christmas morning and Michael lies awake in bed.  Minutes later, he sits in the living room with a hot cup of tea in his hand.  Before him is the Christmas tree; unopened presents underneath.  Outside, snow continues to fall as a grey dawn begins the day.  Ash enters, yawning, and half awake.  He sits for a moment in silence across from Michael, then gets up, and turns on the Christmas tree lights.  The room fills with color.  “That’s better,” says Ash.

            Later that morning, Michael, Ben, and Ash are in the living room watching Maddy open her presents.  A natural with children, Ash sits next to her on the floor.  Michael watches them for a while, then turns to Ben and says, “I wish I could go back.”  “To Iraq?” his friend answers.  “No…Back to the time when I believed I could make a difference—change the world.”  Hearing Michael, Ash answers, “I believe I can.”  Ben looks down at his daughter and replies, “So do I.”  After a pause, Michael responds, “I hope so.”

Driving away from Madison, Michael rolls down the windows of his car and lets in the cold, grey world.