Stars and stripes adorned each lamppost on Main Street in Middleton. Mrs. Snyder, the mayor’s wife, had hand-sewn them all herself, and her youngest son, Charles, hung each one exactly 12 feet off the ground, measuring with meticulous precision to ensure that every citizen of Middleton who walked down Main Street saw a perfect line of red, white, and blue. The giant banner on the town hall read, “ELECTION DAY!” in giant red block lettering.
Tom Washington led his son, Ben, a newly minted 18, and still awkward-looking man-child, through the crowded street packed with vendors, gangs of children on their bikes, and fellow voters. The vendors and their carts lined the sidewalks, selling an assortment of goods from hotdogs to miniature flags to sparklers and fireworks and voting paraphernalia. Tom tipped his fedora and placed his hand on Ben’s back, guiding him through the tiny gaps within the mob clogging the street.
Election Day had become an unofficial holiday in Middleton. Everything shut down, including the schools and post office. Middleton had one of the highest turnout rates of any town in the state, and they were proud to be held up as an example of a small town where people still held the democratic process sacred.
“Pop, can we grab a dog before we vote?” Ben asked. “I’m starving.”
“How can you be hungry already? Your mother made us that delightful breakfast this morning so you wouldn’t have to vote on an empty stomach.”
Ben shrugged and looked longingly at the hotdog vendor as they marched past.
“I remember my first election,” Tom said. “I was so excited I didn’t eat for two days beforehand.”
As they passed the post office, Tom spotted John Brown and several other men from the plant crowding around a brand-new Chevy. Brown puffed out his chest and rubbed the hood of the car, wearing a smile he only seemed to be slightly trying to suppress.
“Damn fool,” Tom whispered to Ben.
He tried to sneak past without being noticed, but Brown looked up and spotted him almost as if he had been waiting for him.
“Tom!” Brown shouted. “You see the new ride?”
Tom instantly slapped a mannequin grin onto his face. “Sure did, John. She’s a real beauty.”
“Bought it with all the money I saved on my refund, thanks to the Freedom Party.”
Brown and his fellow Freedom Party members laughed and elbowed each other.
“Enjoy it while you can, gentlemen,” Tom said. “Once we win this election today, the Liberty Party’s gonna put an end to all those handouts. You’ll have to start working for a living again.”
Brown dismissed the comment with a wave of his hand. “Whatever you say, Tom. Hey, your boy voting this year?”
Tom nodded and suddenly his wooden smile transformed into a genuine grin. He wrapped his arm around his son’s shoulders and squeezed. “Sure is.”
Ben glanced back toward the hotdog stand.
“First-timer, huh?” Brown looked Ben up and down. “Looks like another fine addition to the Liberty Party.”
Brown and the other men cackled and stomped their feet.
Tom stepped toward the men and the fancy car, but Dan Wilkins, another man from the plant and a fellow Liberty man, cut him off and dragged him by the arm away from the cackling hyenas and back into the steady flow of humanity slowly inching its way toward the high school football stadium. Ben came stumbling after.
“Don’t let those Freedom fools get to you,” Dan warned his friend. “Save that rage for the election.”
Tom instantly calmed and checked to make sure Ben had followed. “Thanks, Dan. Politics always gets my blood boiling. Can you believe that fool bought a new car right before an election?”
“Well, while that fool flushed his money down the crapper on that overpriced piece of tin,” Dan said, “I made a much wiser investment.”
He raised his arm to reveal a morningstar club with a tri-spiked head and leather grip.
Tom whistled. “That’s a work of art right there. Must have set you back a pretty penny.”
“A bit, a bit, but it’s worth it.” Dan motioned toward Ben. “Your boy voting this year?”
“He’ll be out there with the rest of us Liberty men.”
Dan nodded. “That’s great. We need more young people who are interested in politics. See you two out there.”
Dan forced his way back into the crowd and disappeared.
Tom and Ben continued their trek to the football stadium. They passed a blade sharpener who seemed to be overrun with customers.
“Procrastinators,” Tom said, shaking his head.
Near the entrance to the stadium, the usual throngs of protesters lined the fence, heckling anyone who walked past. Ben stepped closer to his father as they walked past the first line of protesters.
A man in a t-shirt and ripped jeans held up a sign that read “Embrace the Chaos.” He jumped down off his milk crate and grabbed Ben by the arm.
“Hey, little man, you don’t want to go in there. These politicians don’t care about you. Let your voice ring out with silence.”
Tom pushed the man away. “Damn anarchist! Why don’t you get a damn haircut and start contributing to society!”
A group of women protesters held poster board and chanted, “We have voices, too!”
Tom hurried his son past and into the gravel lot of the stadium.
“Dad, do you think women will ever be able to vote?”
Tom shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s not my decision to make.”
Volunteers holding signs pointed Liberty Party members to the visitors’ side of the stadium.
Tom and Ben stepped up to the table where the blurry-eyed volunteer sat with the list of names tacked to a clipboard. Her nametag read, “Doris.”
“Name?” Doris asked without looking up from her list.
“Thomas Washington,” Tom said proudly. “And Benjamin Washington. It’s his first time.”
“I need to see identification for all first-time voters.”
Ben fished his draft card out of his jeans and handed it to Doris. She took it, checked two boxes on her list and then handed it back without even looking at it.
She instructed the Washington boys to step to the line forming at the visitors’ entrance to the field.
Tom ushered his son to the line and they waited with the rest of the party members as voters continued to sign in with the volunteers.
An older man sporting an eye patch, a prosthetic left arm, and wearing a red, white, and blue ribbon made eye contact with Tom.
“Good turnout this year,” the man said. “Word is we’ve got those Freedom Party bastards outnumbered.”
Tom nodded. “That’s good, but the only numbers that matter are the numbers at the end of the election.”
“True, true, but a good turnout always helps. This your boy?”
Tom nodded. “Sure is. A proud new member of the Liberty Party.”
“Always good to see a first-timer out here. Lost my own son in the election eight years ago. That was a doozy that one. We were outnumbered three-to-one. Nothing but a sea of blue on the field that day.”
Tom turned and pointed to a three-inch scar running down his neck into his collar. “That’s where I got this little beauty mark. Didn’t think I was gonna see another election.”
Ben scanned the crowd for any vendors working the lines, but there didn’t appear to be any. His stomach rumbled, and the thought of waiting until after the election to eat depressed him more than anything.
“You doing all right?” Tom asked.
“Dad, who are we voting for again?”
“The Liberty Party.”
“I know that, but the guy we’re voting for? What’s his name?”
“What a question! You don’t even know the name of the man you’re voting for?”
“That’s why I’m asking.”
Tom cleared his throat. “Why, his name is—it’s…” He removed his hat and wiped his forehead with his sleeve. “It’s not his name that’s important, son; it’s what he stands for. He’s our party’s candidate. He represents everything that is right about this country, everything those Freedom Party members are fighting against.”
“Oh,” Ben said. “Okay.”
* * *
It was another 45 minutes before the line started surging forward. A cry rose up from the horde of men and was echoed on the home side of the field where the Freedom Party members gathered.
“This is it,” Tom told his son. Ben yawned.
They reached the front of the line where two more volunteers waited next to the weapons rack. One volunteer’s nametag read “Stan” and the other “William.”
“What’s your pleasure?” Stan asked.
Tom tilted the brim of his fedora from his eyes and surveyed the weapons rack.
“Hmm … let’s see. I guess I’ll stick with the tried-and-true lochaber axe.”
Stan chose a freshly sharpened lochaber axe from the rack and handed it to Tom.
William nodded to Ben. “What about you, kid?”
Ben glanced at his father.
“We’ve got a first-timer here,” Tom said. “What about something small, something easy to handle.”
“Got just the thing.”
He reached back to the knife rack and retrieved a stiletto dagger. He placed the handle in the young man’s hand where the fingers, now five sentient beings working independently of the hand, immediately wrapped themselves around the leather. Ben smiled and turned the dagger over, feeling the weight of the steel against his palm.
William handed the duo red mesh jerseys, the same kind Ben usually wore during games in gym class to distinguish one team from another.
Tom patted Ben on the back and walked his son onto the field.
* * *
They gathered in the visitor’s-side end zone with the other members of the Liberty Party while volunteers stood huddled at midfield, checking clipboards and arguing with one another. The non-voting members of the community filled the bleachers on both the visitor and the home sides, depending on their party affiliation. The Liberty Party stood nearly 200 strong, but there seemed to be just as many men wearing blue jerseys standing in the opposite end zone. The crowd rumbled with murmurs and angry shouts. Middleton elections were notorious for starting late, and this year seemed to be no exception.
“When’s the election start?” Ben asked.
“Soon, son; soon.”
In the home end zone, the members of the Freedom Party waited patiently, caressing their knives and clubs and spears, talking politely about politics. John Brown paced back and forth near the front of the end zone, eying Ben and caressing his war hammer.
Tom pulled his son to the side, out of hearing range of the other party members. “Remember what we talked about. At the buzzer, run as fast as you can. Always try to keep your back to our end zone. Aim for the torso. It gives you the biggest target.”
Ben nodded. He switched the stiletto to his dominant hand, dropped it, picked it up again.
“Just remember,” Tom continued, “what we’re doing today is important. Standing for what is just and right is what democracy is all about.”
The scoreboard emitted a high-pitched buzz, and the two end zones emptied. The mobs on both sides of the field, Tom and Ben included, rushed toward center field. A low battle cry, like the sound of a wolf’s howl, rose up from the field and intermingled with the chants from the bleachers. Red and blue mixed at midfield, and the clashing of metal filled the stadium, mingled with the tearing of flesh and cries of agony, to create a twisted symphony of pain and suffering. The sound emptied out of the stadium and carried down Main Street, where the red, white, and blue flags blew carelessly in the wind.