The message was clear, the threat an accusation that would not require the slightest detail to be taken by the news, and Lars’ stomach was in knots. It wasn’t the first time he had read over the email, and it wouldn’t be his last. He had kept it from Beth, not sure how she would handle the news, let alone try to spin it in a positive manner. There was little that could be said of it, Lars had to admit, beyond the basics. It was in the past and should stay there like so many other dead memories. It was precisely the type of problem he faced and stamped with his campaign slogan, “Look to the future, shake off the past, and endure today.”
Enduring the hardships of the campaign trail and all that came with being a glaring red target for both ends of the media spectrum to take aim at was handled with little issue. It was the looming storm cloud of yesterday that distracted Lars. He had his subsequent few speeches written up, saving room for any drop-in issue that might become a sudden talking point. Hate it all he liked; among those potential swing issues he would have to make a statement on, the email had to be added to the list. There would be no correct way to approach the subject, he would merely have to accept it, but that posed another question. Should he be forthcoming about the scandal?
It could hardly be said that he was a coward, but considering his stance on the Market, leaning into this controversy might sink him. His constituency rode heavily on a zero-tolerance platform towards defunding and deflating the Love Market on a national level. The slightest inclination that he held back, or worse, was linked to the Market more directly than being aware of it could mar his campaign altogether. A solution would need to be found before the election; that much was apparent.
He knew that Miss Tanning, the perspective vice-president, would do well enough on her own if the news came out after Lars was elected. Together they had rallied the nation to question the Market’s influence over almost every facet of modern life. They had designed policies, and their campaign to suit each other in case one or the other was unable to continue the run for office. It was a prospect neither wanted to consider, but like trying to go against the cartel in their home territory, it was a dangerous game. They just had to make it to the polls without controversy. If he made it over the finish line only to be shot down the next day, Lars figured it would be well enough. They just needed a candidate in office, and from what he saw in the streets, Lars knew the citizens did as well.
The turnout for the town hall meeting in Harbor, Michigan, told the story of desperation in the face of endless nightmares of flesh. Though capable of accommodating nearly five hundred people, the auditorium was packed twice its capacity as standing room only, and still, there were more squeezing in from the cold until it looked as though sardines might find more personal space in a tin. Lars would have rather gathered them outside had he known the volume of the audience, seeing even more lined up along the streets and buildings waiting to get a chance to see him. However, it was unwise to be out in the open for long. Even the auditorium left room for a lurking assailant ready to turn their life over to stop the attack on the Market, and indeed there had been more than a few in the past.
As he waited to approach the microphone, Lars searched the audience and tried to discern those telltales that he had been informed of when security weighed a crowd. No one’s face was concealed by either a mask or another form of disguise. There wasn’t anyone tucked away in a corner or any other suspicious place. All eyes were on the stage, and very few doing more than staring on with bated breaths. The more apparent signals, signs in opposition to the campaign, people sporting paraphernalia for other candidates, or the blatant overly large apparel concealing a weapon were also absent. This was not an assurance of safety, but Lars could breathe easier with the thought everyone in the auditorium was there to support him, not undo him.
What little anxiety remained in the face of assassination fled as Lars took the podium to a hail of cheers and applause. He waited for the commotion to fade, searching still to find not only potential dangers but those he might be able to score well-constructed questions from. It wasn’t that Lars was underprepared for overly discussed propositions, only that he had a fleeting moment of time for this function. He needed to be back on the road and en route to another similar meeting before his next debate. Going over even by minutes would have Beth in hysterics.
As the audience hushed, Lars began with another slogan, “How far do you see? How far down this long, winding, twisting road of life do any of us actually see? This is the question that lawmakers, senators, and former presidents failed to ask themselves and their peers and certainly did not answer. Twenty years ago, when the Love Market became a force in our nation, no one asked how far we saw this going; they simply let it ride. It’s no secret any longer than our president Jackson Reed was given a massive incentive to turn a blind eye to the annexing of property and people by the Markets in his terms. Bridget Bishop could be seen as equal to his as she, in one term, led us into three conflicts still playing out to this day. She did not look beyond the next four to eight years, but still, she retired outside of any country locked in these endless stalemate battles. But we should never forget to campaign on the failings of another is no better than living in the past and saying now with a present mind what should have been done. My policies, our party’s politics, if elected to office, are means to upend what dreadful conditions we find ourselves in now and plan for a future wherein children can grow up with hope. I will not mislead you in this, my generation, perhaps the one after, and even another thereafter, will pay for what has been done in years past, but on our backs, those generations to come will know a world we can only dream of. Today’s pains are tomorrow’s prosperity.”
From the initial speech, Lars launched into taking questions, most of which were easily assuaged by the outline of his campaign. How would they stifle the Markets? Regulations against public indecency, quashing the sexualization of children, and capping the commodification of human flesh. What would come after the Markets? Factories would come back into style, and mandates put in place for higher tax rates and penalties for domestic companies seizing labor from the third world. How will the other parties work with the Gray Party? Compromise. Though our goals are important, to make progress today means more progress can be made tomorrow. And then there was the question he wasn’t sure he could answer so easily. What will be done about the Wilderness and nomads living there?
“The Wilderness is no small issue, nor would reintegrating those people who have gone into the empty world and tried to live that rural life as we once did,” Lars paused a moment, still trying to put together the whirlwind of thought in his mind. There was too much to say about the subject and plenty he shouldn’t mention. It would be easy to spout a yarn about his childhood, so many candidates did that without a thought. And just as easily, he could have lied like his peers might, but their truth would be his fiction.
He could still remember the farm and their cattle in the days when winter was isolated in its own season. The crops still grew, and his uncle had shown him how to plant and harvest. Those city lights, far away like distant stars, were still a mystery to him, and so were those folks who would come with trinkets and cloth to trade for milk and eggs. If Lars were to tell all, he might swing the vote so far in his favor the election would be declared a fraud. But he wouldn’t falsify his life; he would walk gently across the thin ice before him. He offered a hopeful grin to the waiting masses, “It will be another weight upon our backs and the backs of those to come, but those who wander are not lost. One day, they will be part of our society once more. They will be the growers of your wheat, those who tend to the cattle for your meat, and a driving force in rebalancing the scale towards center. Today, many might see savages, but I see agriculturists and ranchers. Tomorrow, their positions will be envied and not loathed. And the day after, we will knit together with them to make a nation of whole cloth and not rags.”
The auditorium exploded with applause and chants for Lars, which had become quite regular for his public appearances. Still, the looming threat of a malefactor remained forefront in his mind as he waved and began off-stage, shaking hands as they were offered from the crowd. He knew he’d pressed close on time, and Beth wouldn’t be thrilled with him even if he had come short of the limit. It wasn’t as though she could help to be curt about the situation. Her job was management, and sound as she might be, contending with the unforeseen was another issue.
Once backstage, Lars was not met immediately by Bethany but by a woman ten years her junior and twice her years in artificial beauty. Though he wasn’t in favor of unexpected visitors, Lars offered his hand as politely as possible. She took it and clearly tried to impose herself, gesturing to lead him away. Lars was only a man, but he had machinations beyond what a Marketer might think was the more tempting deal. He allowed humor to touch his face, “My apologies, but I’m on a very strict schedule.”
“Have you decided?”
“To drop your campaign against the Markets? There is less than a month until the election. We’d hate to have to spoil your ambitions because you won’t play ball,” there was no question in her tone, only the facts of the matter.
Lars set his jaw and rubbed his goatee, “What do you think that news could really do? Do you think it will sink the whole party? Bridgett is as much a pillar of it as I am. If you get rid of me, you’re left with a candidate who neither has skeletons in her closest nor the past of failed bills put before Congress. Slinging mud at me will only bury the Markets with less concern for those who depend on them. Take that to whoever you answer to, and tell them if they’ve got the nerve to come out against me, they’d better do it because they’re wasting time.”
He parted from the woman and rejoined Beth by the car. She looked impatient, but if it were for Lars or the procession slowly slithering past the sidewalk their driver would have to cross, it was hard to tell. Once they were in the car, she launched into the most recent statics from across the nation. Lars had a lead on both parties. Their public division hardly equated to their private cooperations. It was all the more reason Lars worried how soon any information the lurking opposition had could be published nationally.