The ice in my glass had long since melted, but I took a sip of lukewarm water anyway and quietly wished it were something stronger. “You can always spot the one who’s lying,” Beth had said to me right before I’d walked out on stage. “He’s the one who sweats the most.” Great advice from my campaign manager, but by the end of the debate, I was gushing buckets under the lights and hoping none of the cameras could see it. The clock on the wall said 7:57; three more minutes of torture, and then I could go get a cold shower and scrub away the last traces of my career.
Maggie Elden wasn’t sweating, at least not visibly; her trademark pastel pink starched skirt-suit was as crisp as a bite of Granny Smith apple. Everything about her screamed “professional grandmother,” from her white Daisy Dukes to her perfect denturework. Every time she flashed that pearly smile at the audience, I could feel my approval rating drop another two points. She waved like the Queen of England and addressed every questioner as “dear.” She fought fire with marshmallows, answering every policy question with a personal anecdote. She was old enough to have seen it all, too old to worry about petty things, and wise enough to know just what was best for the 44th Congressional District.
The only part of her that didn’t look like somebody’s great-aunt were her eyes; they glittered like rock candy above her gently amused smile, and they bored into my forehead whenever the cameras turned to me. The instant I started to speak, I felt like she was just waiting for the excuse to wash my mouth out with soap on prime time television. I wasn’t normally a stutterer, but every complete sentence without a stammer was a minor success and every “um” sent a fresh rivulet of sweat down my back.
Sam Walters, KMOD’s evening anchor and one of my supporters until fifty-eight minutes ago, turned to the audience and nodded slowly, his face solemn and sincere; he wasn’t sweating either. “Well, the race for the State Senate certainly has been a campaign of opposites so far,” he intoned. “We’ve got time for one more question in this debate, this one from an online submitter.” Across the bottom of the monitor showing the live feed, text scrolled across the ticker, which he read aloud. “Have you had a Malthus Exam, and if so, what was the result?” As he spoke, he turned to face me. “Let’s start with the incumbent. Congressman White?”
Maggie Elden’s rock-candy eyes drilled into my skull as I took a deep breath to buy time while I composed my thoughts. “That’s a… well, it’s a very personal question,” I started, staring at a point just to the left of Walters’ head, while the red light of the camera glared in my peripheral vision. “It touches on issues of personal liberty and privacy, both of which I consider very important.”
Sam’s eyebrows snapped upwards, but he nodded slowly, as if I’d actually just answered the question. “So, you’re saying that you haven’t been tested, then?”
His gently rising question was a lifeline and I grabbed for it. “No,” I said too quickly. “No, not yet. I….” I started to say something else, but then I caught Maggie Elden’s uncomfortably warm smile and I snapped my mouth closed. “No.”
“I… see.” Sam sounded as convinced as I felt, but he turned to Maggie Elden to give her a chance. “Ms. Elden, have you been tested?”
“Oh, my, yes, dear,” Maggie Elden said, beaming gently as the stage lights made a halo around her face for the camera. “When poor Tom, my husband, died—God rest his soul—I made it a point to find out how I would go, so I could make sure my family was protected. My children are very important to me, you know!” She waggled a finger at the screen. “I’m going to die of lung cancer, which only makes sense since I smoke. So, I get screened every year, but there’s been no sign of it yet!” She laughed. “You know I wouldn’t run if I thought my health were something to worry about!”
Sam Walters chuckled back at his new candidate-of-choice. “No, I suppose you wouldn’t.” Then, to the audience, he smiled. “I’m afraid that’s all the time we have at tonight’s debate; join us next week for Round Two.” He counted off three breaths, and said, “And… cut. Thank you all for coming.”
Even before he’d finished talking, the audience was up and filing out of the auditorium, murmuring to itself. Maggie rose from her seat and walked up to me, one white-gloved hand extended. “A pleasure, Congressman. Thank you for indulging me.”
A moment too late, I gave her hand a light squeeze, not quite a handshake. “The pleasure was mine, Ms. Elden, I’m sure.”
Maggie laughed at that. “The way you looked like you’d eaten a frog, I wouldn’t say so!” Then she immediately brushed aside the snipe. “Oh, don’t mind me, dear.” Her rock candy eyes glittered under the harsh stage lights. “I’m just saying you looked nervous, that’s all! You’re the incumbent! I’m sure you’ll be fine.”
“I’m sure,” I replied automatically. “Thank you. Please excuse me; I need to go.” Then, without another word, I turned and walked as calmly as I could behind the curtain, looking for a towel to wipe away all the sweat.
My campaign manager leaned just outside the main entrance to the auditorium, her arms folded across her chest, holding closed her brown overcoat. She watched me approach, her face a mask, her eyes half-lidded, her mouth neither quite a smile nor a scowl, just a line across her face outlined in Autumn Dust. “How are you feeling?” she asked as I approached.
I let out a breath, my shoulders deflating. “Spent. How’d I do?”
She held out one hand and waggled it in front of her, then slowly tipped her thumb downward. “Details later. Coffee?”
“Love to. Let me phone Rick.” She passed me back my smartphone, and I thumbed it open, then scrolled through for my husband’s number. “Hey, hon,” I said as soon as it clicked. “I’m gonna grab coffee with Beth. Want to meet us downtown?”
Behind him, I could hear the television, probably talking heads predicting my eminent downfall. “I’ll pass, thanks; I’ve got an early meeting tomorrow. Bring me home a brownie, though?”
I closed my eyes. “Of course. Be home soon. Love you!” We made kissy noises at each other, and then I dumped the device back in my pocket. “All set.”
The cool air outside sent a welcome shiver down my spine. I stood for several seconds on the concrete walkway just letting the heat leach out of my skin. The sky was overcast, the clouds a burnt sienna reflecting the city lights downtown. A light mist drifted down from the sky, further soaking my already-damp shirt. “So,” I started as we walked towards the parking garage. “How’d I do, really?”
Beth shrugged as she pulled the car fob from her pocket. Her headlights blinked at us, and we got inside. “It wasn’t your worst showing ever,” she offered as she turned over the engine.
“Faint praise,” I retorted as I fumbled with the buckle. “Seriously, is she ex-Psyops or something?” I leaned against the door, resting my head in one hand. “I swear, she was utterly unflappable.”
“She got under your skin about halfway through the debate,” My manager observed casually as she maneuvered out of the garage. “She played every factor to her advantage, you saw her doing it, and she knew you knew it. Still, you held your own for the most part, up until the end. Mind if I ask you a personal question?”
I looked at Beth, but her eyes were strictly on the road, and her hands held the wheel lightly, no sign of white knuckles. “Go ahead.” I tried to put a shrug in my voice, but it ended up coming out like a swallow.
Beth chuckled softly to herself. “What’d your Malthus test say?”
I took another deep breath. “It’s not really—”
“Bullshit it’s not, Alan.” Her rebuke was near-instant, but her voice never changed pitch. “Everyone in the audience with one ear on the screen heard the stammer in your voice. You spent the whole night talking facts and figures while Miss Manners rambled about her grandkids, and then suddenly on that question, you went all personal-privacy.” She took her eyes off the road to look directly at me. “Margaret Elden pulled ahead of you by six points in two minutes; you have to address this.”
I grimaced, both at the statistics and the accusation. “Fine. You want to know?” I wasn’t trying to spit the words at her, but after an hour of interrogation, I was in no mood for more. “It said DRUG OVERDOSE. There.”
Beth went silent for several seconds while the drizzle turned to a proper spatter, drumming steadily off the windshield and roof of the car. “I can see why you tried to dodge,” she finally offered, pitching her voice up over the rain.
“Yeah, no kidding,” I grumped. “Never mind that I don’t even drink!”
Light from a passing streetlamp reflected Beth’s smirk in the glass. “So what are you on?”
I rolled my eyes. “Nothing.”
Beth looked at me again. “No, seriously, Alan, what is it? Is it just pot, or something worse?”
“It’s nothing, Beth.” I could feel my voice getting away from me, so I pinched the bridge of my nose and took another deep breath and held it while I tried to get the pounding of my veins under control. “No pot, no tobacco, not even beer. I’m on cimetidine as needed for acid reflux, but the worst that’s ever done to me is give me a headache. I’m guessing at some point down the line, it reacts with something else I’m taking, but I swear I’m clean.”
Beth’s frown glinted off the window. “If you say so.”
I groaned and thumped the dashboard. “You see? This is exactly why I didn’t say anything. Getting the damned Malthus Exam was a mistake in the first place. Two little words, and you’re ready to assume I’m some kind of stoner.”
Beth pulled one hand off the wheel. “Okay, you’re right, I shouldn’t jump to conclusions.” The sienna clouds flickered gold and thunder boomed in the distance. “So why did you get tested, then?”
I shrugged. “It was Rick’s idea. Remember when his mom had that heart attack, three years ago? He wanted to find out if she’d recover, and while we were there, well, he figured we should all know.” I sighed. “Poor bastard got STARVATION. He’s put on thirty pounds since then.”
“I wondered. Shit, I’m sorry.” We both fell quiet at that, but then Beth hammered on the wheel with one hand. “No, wait. That’s it.”
I tilted my head to the side as I looked at her, trying to make sense of her outburst. “What’s it?”
She gripped the wheel in both hands and sat up in her seat. “That’s how to beat Maggie Elden. First, though, I need a commitment from you. Are you ready to come clean?”
I chewed on my lip and wiped one clammy hand on my slacks. “I think that’s a bad idea, but if you think I can still win this—”
“You can,” my campaign manager asserted. “You’re great with policy, Alan; you always have been. You’re an engineer and you’re great with numbers, but narrative’s your weak suit. Last time you ran, it didn’t matter so much, but that’s where Maggie shines. So, here’s how we’re going to spin this….”
Out beyond the lights, the crowd looked even bigger than last week; word of my dramatic nosedive at the end of Round One had spread all over town. I held my glass in both hands, doing my best to tune out the murmurs out beyond the edge of the stage. In two minutes, I’d make or break my re-election. I’d rehearsed the words in my head, but I had no idea how things were going to go.
“Mr. White?” I looked up at Maggie Elden, beaming down at me and clutching her purse before her like she needed directions to the library. “I just wanted to wish you good luck, dear.”
I smiled back and nodded, not putting down my glass. “Good luck to you, Maggie.” Her eyes hardened slightly and, for a moment, her smile looked like it would slip, but she headed over to seat and folded her hands in her lap, her head bowed. I looked again at the time, then over to Sam Walters. “I’m ready when you are.”
Our host nodded and motioned to the cameraman, who held up his hand. “Places, everyone! In five, four, three….” He fell silent, ticked down the last two seconds, then dropped his arm.
“Good evening from Jefferson State University auditorium.” Sam peered into the camera as he spoke. “I’m Sam Walters of KMOD, and I’ll be your host for the evening. Welcome to the second round of congressional debates being held for the 44th District. Tonight as before, we have Margaret Elden, wife of the late Senator Tom Elden, running against incumbent congressman Alan White. We ended the last round on a question from the internet regarding the disclosure of Malthus results, so I’d like to pick up with where we left off with a question about medical testing in general.” He turned to me and gave me his best stern nod. “Congressman White, do you think that people’s Malthus results should be a matter of public record? ‘The more you know,’ and all that?”
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Well, Sam, that’s a fascinating question, and there’s a lot of ways I could take that, but before I do, I’d just like to address one holdover point from the last round, if I may?” He nodded, and I continued. “The question stuck in my craw after I left, so Monday, I went and got myself tested. Didn’t take long, just a few drops of blood. The results were interesting, to say the least.” Sam’s eyebrows shot up; he wasn’t expecting this tack. “Drug overdose, it said.” I held up one hand. “It was a shock to me, too. I don’t even drink! Believe me, I had a long talk with my pharmacy about it.”
Gliding past any chance at interruption, I quickly continued. “The first person I told was Rick, of course. That’s one of those phrases that could mean anything. I’m probably a medical malpractice suit waiting to happen, but we’ll come to that when we get there. What’s more important is that this whole process of finding out how you’re going to die….” I paused and leaned back in my chair. “Well, it puts you in a mind to wonder about how everyone is going to go, and what we’re doing to make that as painless as possible for everybody.” I turned suddenly to Maggie Elden and leaned on the arm of my chair. “Margaret, you said that you’ll get lung cancer, didn’t you?”
When the red light on the camera aimed at Maggie Elden went live, her eyes were glassy and confused. “Well, yes, but I, that is, I don’t see what—“
I put on my best sympathetic face. “Your husband, Tom… is that insurance policy of yours something special he got for you before your test?”
“Well, I… I don’t know, really.” Maggie Elden blinked, glancing quickly between me and the camera. “I’d have to go check my records. Tom took very good care of me, you see!”
“Of course he did, Maggie,” I said, nodded slowly and deliberately back at her, exaggerating for the camera. “But I have to wonder how many other families out there will never get that chance. How many people’s parents tested them at birth to try to protect them, but now can’t get coverage because that result’s a pre-existing condition? How many children go hungry because Mom and Dad both drew ‘auto accident’ but can’t take public transit to work? What happens to all the hard-working people who can’t get hired because the test said ‘workplace accident’? How many people have to suffer just because they’re not going to get a lucky throw on the last roll?”
I turned back to Sam and steepled my fingers in front of my face. “We like to believe in the American Dream, that if you work hard you’ll get ahead. Senator White, God rest his soul, was a prime example of that, but not everybody gets to be in the right place at the right time with the right skills like he was, and that’s nobody’s fault. If we don’t build a government that understands and accounts for that, then what message are we sending? How can anybody feel good about getting ahead at the expense of everybody else?” I couldn’t hold the grin in any longer. “To answer your question, Sam, I think that until we have that kind of government, that kind of society… well, it’s guilty until proven innocent. That’s not the American way.”
Sam smiled at me and shifted in his seat. “Well, I don’t think I can ask anything more, Congressman. Ms. Elden, anything to add?” As the camera shifted off of me and back to Maggie, I lifted my glass and stole a glance at her. She blinked, caught in the stage lights like a deer. As I watched, a bead of sweat dripped down her temple.