"Harper in '16." White letters, blue background, the numbers in red. A photo in the corner to remind you of his wink. But the posters didn't capture the essence anymore; the shadows in his smile, the hunger in his eyes. The posters didn't show you the iron in Harper's stance, or the way he went crooked when his rider took over.
Ted drove on slow and easy, sign after sign pointing to his polling place. He listened to the speeches, highlights and buzzwords counting down to the truth. It was the station's umpteenth before and after piece—Harper in Connecticut, solid and demanding; Harper in Washington, erratic threats and the whimpering of the crowd. The disc jockey prefaced each sound bite with fear.
They had come down to Earth from the harvest moon, in the year that ended the Mayan calendar. They were whispers and rumors, ugly murders in forgotten rooms; they were hints of slime and mouths painted in smoke, more mind than body, until New Year's and the start of the possessions. They took the pious and the damned, the destitute and the educated; they took any who dared to stand unprotected. But no-one ever thought they would take Harper.
Now it was Harper who stood tall, though waxy and drawn, while Brautigan was ragged and desperate. Every speech was the same, hoarse and troubled and dying: "A farce."
The streets near the polling place were lined with protesters, stabbing the air with burnt effigies and signs. Some wanted no election; some wanted anamendment; they bore signs about the Apocalypse, calls for a new Inquisition, and pictures of Harper next to the number of the Beast. Across the street stood the sick ones, bone-thin men and crook-backed women with glossy dead eyes, gallows humor behind hooked and broken teeth. The grass around them lay colorless and limp, and the front of every house was hidden in shadow. Ted locked the doors as he drove past.
"A farce," Brautigan growled, almost silent through the speakers. "We proved in 2008 that this election was not only for whites, not only for men; but this"—and he faltered—"this is a joke."
There was a brief silence, an electric murmur; and then the pained, effortful tones of Harper, frail but still sharp as diamond.
"This isn't about that," he said, and the crowd fell silent.
Ted pulled up across from the polling place. His ears were on the radio, and his eyes were on the sick.
"This isn't about these things," Harper said. "This isn't about that struggle. This is…an election like any other." His sentences ended on dry and rustling breaths. "This is an election about principles."
The hairs on Ted's neck spiked out. He reached across to the passenger seat, and brushed his fingers against the spine of the Bible.
"It's true"—Harper fought for each word—"that the problems of the President are the problems of his people. But this is already one of the problems of the people. We learned that after the convention. We learned that when we saw what happened to Standish and his cronies while they waited to stand trial. We learned when I spoke of the rain of maggots; when I spoke of the cries of your daughters."
Then from outside came the burst of motion, sick laughter from distended jaws. Ted kept himself under control, but reflex brought him a glimpse of the sick and giggling men as they rushed at the door of his car. Ted grit his teeth, and held up the Bible.
"And we learned"—a papery rustle, the susurrus of the crowd—"that a man can stand against this. That a man can be taken and still be himself."
The sick ones fell backward, their mouths letting out screams that had nothing to do with their tongues. They scrabbled alongside the houses, scuttling away from motion-sensitive lights. They hid in the shadows, and did nothing but glare as Ted opened the door.
"Democracy stands above men. Democracy stands above gods. Democracy stands above demons." The fervor was back, the hardness. "And democracy stands above this."
One of the women stared at Ted, eyes feline and glassy. He held out the Bible, and whispered his prayers.
"He will start the machines," she spat. "You will be the mortar for our tombs."
Ted coughed, and behind the cough was silence.
"Do not fear this," Harper demanded. "Do not fear its threats. A vote for me is not a vote for the Apocalypse." A long pause, too long for normal radio. "A vote for me is a vote for mankind."
There was a silence then, and a collective drawn breath; and then, cheering. To a man, the sick ones smiled.
The cheering faded into the background, replaced by a forced sign-off from the announcer. Ted turned off the radio before she could finish.
He stood next to the car, Bible in hand, and watched the polling place. Two men stood outside the garage, silver medallions trailing from their hands. They wore American flag pins and ashen faces, their shoulders rock-hard and their faces strained. Ted looked over his shoulder, and saw the possessed man scuttle forward.
"He will lead us," the man said. His words oozed through Ted's mind. "He will claim this land and the sun will go dark from the smoke." His eyes went thin and beady, a rat's face above a ragged, unkempt mustache. "We will burn your bodies after we've taken your minds."
Ted looked again at the polling place. His fingers wormed against the Bible. He looked back at the rat-faced little man, and he smiled.
"Don't vote your fear," Ted said, and the words turned to ash in his mouth. He gave a steely grin. "Always vote your conscience."
He marched into the polling place, as blood red filled the sky.