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The Great Presidential Debate of 2024

13 February 2017

Sam Crestwell loved America. His patriotism was so pure and infinite that words were insufficient to convey its profundity. It was woven so intrinsically into his sense of self that it had become inseparable from his existence.

It was almost impossible for him, then, to get his head around the fact that America did not love Sam Crestwell. The affection that he harbored for his country may have been beyond measure, but the disdain with which his fellow citizens viewed him was all too quantifiable. He looked down at the report on his desk, the one that summarized his campaign’s latest polling numbers, desperate to find something that he’d misread or overlooked.

His twentieth reading of the data didn’t suggest anything beyond what he’d gleaned from the first nineteen. For all those old chestnuts about statistics being open to interpretation, the figures on that page were damningly devoid of ambiguity. Just forty-one percent of the voting public had even recognized his name at the first time of asking. Of those, more than half reported either “disliking” or “strongly disliking” him. Only twelve percent had responded with anything that could, even in the most charitable light, have been construed as positive, and a mere two percent admitted to being likely to cast a ballot with his name on it.

His eyes drifted down to the footnote at the bottom of the page, where the small print explained that the survey’s margin of error was somewhere around five percent. For a fleeting moment, he perked up. Seven percent sounded a good deal more promising than two. He felt like he could maybe build on seven. In a crowded primary field, no one was polling much above twenty. Of course, whatever optimism he’d conjured was dispelled as soon as he reminded himself that it was equally likely that two percent represented an overstatement of his support. The numbers implied a not-insignificant probability that he wouldn’t receive any votes at all.

He tossed the report across his desk, where it landed atop an untidy pile of newspapers, all of which had already pronounced the Crestwell campaign dead. The Post had been the first major daily to write him off, but it hadn’t taken long for the Times to follow suit. Just that morning, the Journal had quoted sources “close to the candidate” to support their assertion that he was folding his tents. One talk radio pundit claimed to have already seen a leaked copy of his withdrawal speech.

A lifetime of business and political success had left Crestwell unprepared for a letdown like this. When that delegation of party grandees had approached him about running for president, they’d scoffed at his potential opposition. The incumbent was limping to the end of her second term, the vice-president had ruled himself out, and the list of candidates who’d already thrown their hats into the ring inspired no one outside the fraternity of late-night comedy writers. The country obviously needed Sam Crestwell.

He rose and paced in a circle around his office until he found himself back behind his desk. The good people of New Hampshire were set to go the polls in a little over a month, and Crestwell was finding it harder and harder to keep a straight face as he made his daily profession of faith in their discernment. He understood that the following evening’s debate might represent his last chance to fix things. As the only candidate with an economic agenda based on actual, recognized mathematics, he still clung to hope, regardless of what the talking heads were saying.

“Tomorrow night,” he murmured to himself. “We’ll show ‘em tomorrow night.”

* * *

As he stood at his lectern awaiting the opportunity to speak, Crestwell surveyed his opponents. They seemed as unremarkable as ever, save for the rotund man in shirtsleeves two podiums to Crestwell’s right, who had forsaken his jacket in order to ensure that no one would fail to notice the .40 caliber Glock strapped beneath his left armpit. That strategy was working, at least on Crestwell, who kept catching himself stealing glances at the weapon.

A week before the debate, The Honorable William “Billy” Sanford had announced his intention to come heavy, more or less daring the rest of the field to question his right to do so. Crestwell’s initial inclination had been to do just that, but he’d been persuaded that his complaint wouldn’t have been well-received by a state full of people whose license plates exhorted anyone tailgating them to “live free or die.” The only member of the field who’d made any public statement about it at all had been the Free-The-Weed Guy, who’d threatened to fire up a bong onstage if Sanford came armed, which, in turn, had led the local police chief to publicly affirm his commitment to enforce his state’s strict prohibition on cannabis. When Crestwell looked over at the next podium, he saw the pro-dope candidate standing behind it empty-handed. Whether the Free-The-Weed Guy had consciously chosen to heed law enforcement’s warning or had simply gotten high and flaked on his promise seemed to Crestwell to be an open question.

The moderator’s baritone put an end to Crestwell’s musings. “Welcome back to Manchester, ladies and gentlemen,” he purred, pausing for the audience to applaud in accordance with the hand signals of the production assistants who stood, off-camera, at the front of each section of the theatre. “I’m Chuck Wadsworth, and we’re glad to have you with us here on the American News Network on such an important night.” He paused again, as if to let that sink in, before going on. “Let’s get right back to it. As you know, Congress has been debating tax reform for decades, but nothing ever seems to get done. I’d like to invite each of the candidates to give us their thoughts on this very important issue.”

A wave of adrenaline surged through Crestwell’s body. He squared himself up to his lectern and cleared his throat, ready for his moment, but felt himself deflate when he heard the moderator say Henry Cole’s name.

“Cheers, mate,” Cole replied. “What are you on about now?” Cole was conducting his entire campaign in an English accent, which was curious in light of the fact that he’d been born and raised in Topeka. The thing that really bothered Crestwell was that Cole wasn’t even doing it right. One day, he’d sound like a Yorkshire farmer; the next, more like a football hooligan from the East End. But his substantial lead in the polls suggested that housewives in Des Moines thought they were listening to Winston Churchill.

“The question, Mr. Cole, was about tax reform. Can you explain your plan to the American people?”

“Taxes. Right, then. Brilliant.”

After a few seconds passed without anything further from Cole, Wadsworth followed up. “Uh, I’m not sure I understand, Mr. Cole. Are you saying that the tax code is ‘brilliant’ as it is, or…”

Cole cut him off. “Of course it’s not brilliant. Never said it was brilliant, did I?”

“Well, actually, you did say…”

“C’mon, guv. You’re just takin’ the piss, aren’t you?” He turned and spoke directly to the nearest camera. “Look at ‘im, takin’ the piss, right?”

“Uh, I’m not sure you can say that on the air, Mr. Cole.”

“Steady on, mate. Forget about the piss. Just leave it.”

“Happily, sir. Is there anything you want to tell us about taxes?”

“This lot here,” Cole said, gesturing toward the other candidates as he spoke. “This lot’ll tell you that we need to have a go at the richest blokes, make ‘em pay their share and all. But look at a rich bloke, yeah? I mean, he’s done something with ‘imself. He’s made it happen. He’s earned all that dosh and it’s ‘is, innit?”

“So,” the moderator replied, seemingly relieved at not hearing the word “piss” again, “you’re not in favor of raising rates on top earners?”

“Not raising anyone’s rates, Chuck. Lowerin’ ‘em. That’s what I’m about.”

“It sounds like you’re proposing an across-the-board tax cut?”

“Right. Massive cuts. Massive.”

“But, last year the federal budget deficit was…” Wadsworth’s voice trailed off as he pawed through a stack of notecards. After several seconds of dead air, he set them down and went on. “Forgive me. I don’t have that precise figure handy, but I think we can all agree that the deficit was substantial. Wouldn’t ‘massive’ tax cuts undermine your previous commitment to balance the budget?”

Cole smiled. “Your forgetting two things, mate. First, the government’s full of dead wood. Bloody wankers, the lot. I’ll start ‘andin’ out P45’s the day I take office. That’ll get us ‘alfway there. And growth will sort the rest. Low taxes, massive growth, simple as.”

The moderator nodded. “Thank you, Mr. Cole. We need to move on to our next candidate. Mr. Sterling, you have one minute.”

It bears mentioning that John Sterling had not, in fact, existed prior to 2023. Some months before the start of the primary season, a mid-level marketing executive at the GentleChem Pharmaceutical Company had come up with the idea of sponsoring a candidate whose sole purpose would be to plug GentleChem products at every opportunity. They used focus groups to determine that “John Sterling” would be the optimal name for a pretend president, and then they held a national casting call to choose who would get to play him. The role went to a community theatre actor from Phoenix named Hugh Chapman, who had helpfully agreed to change his name to John Sterling in order to avoid any confusion with the election authorities.

While other companies wasted their money on thirty-second commercial spots that viewers tended to ignore in favor of bathroom breaks, GentleChem’s sponsorship bought them a spokesman who could extol the virtues of their drugs for minutes at a time in interviews, debates and town halls. But the real kicker was the fact that the voters actually seemed to like Sterling. Polls showed him among the front-runners, consistently a good nine to twelve points ahead of Crestwell.

As Sterling adjusted his microphone, one could have been forgiven for forgetting that he was a fabrication. His distinguished salt-and-pepper hair, chiseled features, and sonorous voice all conveyed a presidential air. The only thing that detracted from the illusion was the sight of his immaculately tailored grey suit festooned with patches trumpeting the names of various GentleChem products, like a stock car racer’s fire suit. But after months on the campaign trail, hardly anyone seemed to notice it anymore.

“Thank you, Chuck,” he began. “It’s great to be back in New Hampshire!” He paused long enough to allow the audience’s polite applause to dissipate before continuing. “My fellow Americans... When we gathered in Iowa City, I told you about how GentleChem’s revolutionary, non-addictive synthetic morphine was helping me manage my diabetic nerve pain. I’m proud to report that FauxPium has continued to improve the quality of my life, and the lives of millions of other Americans like me.”

He paused again, waiting for more applause. It came, just a smattering at first, gradually swelling until everyone in the auditorium was on their feet in joyous celebration of man-made opiates. Sterling let the cheers wash over him for a few seconds before he raised both hands in a plea for silence. “Tonight, I want to tell you about another problem, one that’s causing incredible suffering all across our great nation.”

Wadsworth chimed in. “Uh, Mr. Sterling, may I remind you that my question was about taxes?”

Sterling ignored him and ploughed ahead. “Like so many of you out there, I haven’t defecated since last Thursday.”

Crestwell almost choked on his bottled water, but when he looked out at the audience, he saw more than one subtle nod of empathy. Apparently, bowel problems were more endemic in New England than one might have expected.

“FauxPium is amazing,” Sterling went on, “but for some people, it can really slow down the digestive system.” He contorted his face into a look of grave concern, which he held for about three seconds before he allowed it to morph into a broad smile of relief. “Luckily, our friends at GentleChem have come up with a solution.”

He reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a clear plastic bottle filled with radioactive-looking orange fluid. Holding the bottle out toward the camera, he announced, “Introducing EvacuFlow. Just eight ounces of this will keep you regular for a week.”

With that, he unscrewed the white cap and set it on the lectern in front of him. With a flourish, he raised the bottle to his lips. The audience, the moderators and the other candidates watched in rapt attention while he chugged the faintly glowing liquid. When it was all gone, he turned back to the camera and smiled. “That was our original Citrus Explosion flavor, and I sure do love that pleasant, mild tang. EvacuFlow also comes in Mountain Mint Avalanche and White Chocolate Waterfall. Ask your doctor about it today.”

As soon as he’d gotten those last words out, a bell sounded, signifying the end of Sterling’s allotted time. Wadsworth took the opportunity to re-assert himself. “Uh, thank you Mr. Sterling. That was certainly… enlightening. You heard the bell, though, so it’s time to move on. Ms. Everwet, can you tell us…” He stopped midsentence and hesitated before going on. “I apologize. I realize that I just addressed you by your, uh… your former stage name. I meant to say ‘Ms. Plawicki,’ of course. Forgive me. Can you share your tax plan with us?”

Mary Ann Plawicki was a decade removed from adult video stardom. About two-thirds of her supporters were evangelicals enamored with the idea of her having allowed Jesus to take the wheel and steer her out of the smut business, while the rest clung to the hope that she was using her candidacy to gin up publicity for the launch of a new line of MILF porn. She arranged herself at her podium, bending forward at the waist so that everyone could get a view of her cleavage, but not so far as to make it obvious that she wanted them to. “Chuck, let me just start by thanking God for pulling me out of my old life.”

Someone in the audience shouted, “Praise Jesus!” which Plawicki acknowledged with a smile before she went on.

“Hearing you say that name just now… it brings back so many difficult memories. I was only nineteen years old when I shot my first scene. It was at a mansion in the valley, and they had me lie out by the pool, wearing nothing but a G-string while four guys rubbed me down with oil. They were all so young and fit and muscular, and I was so young and innocent. It’s awful to think about it now…”

“I apologize again, Ms. Plawicki. I didn’t mean to…”

She cut him off and continued. “It was hot that day… so hot… and before I knew it we were all naked, our bodies glistening with sweat and oil, sliding and rubbing all over each other. And those men were so… so well-endowed, and I was scared, until demon lust possessed me and I surrendered to them, to all of them, and they were relentless. They just did whatever they wanted to my tiny teenaged body…” She paused, and the room was perfectly silent until she spoke again. “Thank you, Chuck, for reminding us all of the healing power of Christ. Because even though anyone who Google’s ‘Annie Everwet First Gangbang’ can still watch that scene in super-high definition, the woman from that video and all those other videos on the internet doesn’t exist anymore. I have been born again!”

Another “Praise Jesus” rang out from the audience. Crestwell wasn’t sure if it was the same guy as before.

“Amen,” Plawicki replied, before turning her attention back to the moderator. “Now, what was your question, Chuck?”

Wadsworth stared blankly ahead until his female colleague kicked him in the shin. “Oh… uh… forgive me, please. Lost my train of thought there for a moment. We were talking about taxes, but I’m, uh, afraid we’ve used up our time. We’ll have to move on to the next candidate.”

The blonde at the podium pressed her lips into an exaggerated pout. “Aw, Chuck. Maybe we can have a little one-on-one interview sometime?”

Crestwell wondered if anyone else noticed Wadsworth blushing. The newsman composed himself and mumbled something about Plawicki’s upcoming appearance on his network’s morning show, before he turned toward Crestwell’s side of the stage. Crestwell tensed up until he heard the moderator call on Billy Sanford.

“Tell you what, brother,” Sanford began, “my campaign is focused on one issue and one issue only: the sacred right of the American people to bear arms.”

“Yes, Congressman. You’ve made that abundantly clear. We can all see that you brought your sidearm with you tonight…”

One of my sidearms, Chuck. One of ‘em.”

“How many others do you own?”

“Nice try, Chuck. The government would love it if I gave ‘em a list of all my guns, wouldn’t they? Make it nice and easy for ‘em when they come to try to take ‘em away…”

“Sir,” the moderator interrupted. “It seems worth pointing out that you are a sitting member of Congress, so when you mention ‘the government…’ Aren’t you actually a part of that?”

Sanford shook his head. “I’m talkin’ about the unelected Jewww-diciary. They’re the ones always lookin’ for a chance to take a dump on the Second Amendment.”

Wadsworth hesitated before responding, as if he couldn’t decide whether to take issue with Sanford’s paranoia, his anti-Semitism, or both. He did neither, opting instead to try to steer the conversation back toward the topic at hand. “Mr. Sanford, my question was about taxes. Can we get back to that?”

Sanford shrugged. “I’m not even sure that income taxes are constitutional, Chuck. I think we need to take a look at that.”

“The Sixteenth Amendment would seem to address that concern, no?”

“Amendment,” Sanford muttered. “I ain’t talkin’ ‘bout amendments. I’m talkin’ about original intent, the Founding Fathers… Anything after that is questionable.” After a beat, he added, “Except for the first ten. Those were all right.”

“What about the Thirteenth Amendment? The Fourteenth?”

“Like I said… questionable.”

“Sir, am I to understand that you are questioning the abolition of slavery?”

“Easy there, Chuck. I’m not sayin’ that I support slavery. I’m just pointin’ out that whether it was properly abolished is an open question, constitutionally speaking.”

“I really don’t think it is…”

“That’s the problem with the liberal media. Someone pipes up with a view that y’all don’t like, and you just brush it off. Folks need to hear both sides.”

“But there’s only one side. No one seriously thinks that slavery might still be legal…”

“There you go again,” Sanford sighed, and the audience ate it up. Once their laughter died down, Sanford went on. “But none of that would even matter if everyone just exercised their right to properly arm themselves.”

“I’m not sure I follow…”

“I’d like to see the IRS try to take anything from me,” Sanford snorted, as he massaged the handle of his Glock with his fingertips.

The moderator shifted in his seat. “Wait. Just to be clear… Are you advocating armed resistance to federal tax collectors?”

“Your words, Chuck, but if that’s how you want to put it…”

The journalist opened his mouth to reply, but nothing came out. He just stared up at the stage, confounded by the futility of arguing with a man like Billy Sanford. Sanford grinned back at him, until the silence was broken by a thunderous peal of flatulence from the other side of the stage. Sterling leaned in toward his microphone and mumbled, “Excuse me.”

“Well, on that note,” Wadsworth said, “we’re going to have to leave this here. We need to move on to the other candidates now.” He paused and looked down at his note cards. “Mr. Johnston, can you tell us about your…”

The Free-The-Weed Guy cut him off. “Excuse me, Chuck. I’m sorry, man, but I noticed that you let that lady over there pick her own name, so I was hoping you’d…”

“Actually, Mr. Johnston, she was simply correcting my mistake. I had referred to her improperly at first, but then we used her real name.”

“OK, but I was really hoping that you could call me ‘Doctor Feelgood’ from now on.”

“Umm… that’s not your name.”

“But it sounds cool, doesn’t it?”

“Well, Mister…”

“Doctor,” the Free-The-Weed Guy interjected.

Wadsworth took a deep breath. “OK, Doctor… Feelgood. Why don’t you just tell us about your tax plan?”

The Free-The-Weed Guy nodded. And then he kept nodding for another twenty seconds, making it seem jarring when he finally started to speak. “About a month ago,” he began, “I picked up an ounce of that Tangerine Dream – you know, sativa strain, the buds have those little orange hairs, really nice when you’re stressed out – anyway, I had an ounce of that. All my friends found out, and a whole bunch of people just showed up at my house. Every time I packed a bowl there were, like, ten people passing it around, you know?”

He seemed to be waiting for a response, so the moderator finally said, “Uh huh. Go on.”

“So,” the Free-The-Weed Guy continued, “after a couple days, I look in the jar, and I’m dry again. And I didn’t have any cash left, so my cousin and I just went over to Bo’s place, and he hooked us up.”

“Hooked you up?”

“Smoked us out, man. We shared, and then he shared.”

“And who’s Bo?” Wadsworth asked.

“Man, everybody knows Bo. He grows his own. Really kind.”

“Bo is a kind man?”

“No, man, his buds are kind. Bo’s a little sketchy.”

The moderator shrugged. “Uh, that’s a very interesting story, Mister…”

Doctor.”

“Sorry, I meant Doctor… but what about your tax plan?”

“That’s it, Chuck. Share when you can, mooch when you need to.”

“All right, then. Thanks for that. I think we can move on to Mr. Crestwell now.”

Wadsworth had barely finished his sentence when Crestwell jumped in. “Thanks, Chuck. Before the debate, my assistant gave your producer a PowerPoint presentation. Would you mind putting that up so the folks at home can see it?”

The moderator put his hand to his ear. “Sure… OK, I’m told that the graphic is up now.”

“Great,” Crestwell replied. “If you take a look at the first slide, you’ll see that I’ve plotted per capita GDP against effective tax rates, and you’ll notice the inflection point at…”

“Excuse me, Sam” Sterling interrupted. “Chuck, I’m really sorry, but is there any way that we could break for a commercial?”

“Hang on,” Crestwell huffed. “I’ve been waiting this whole time.”

Wadsworth held up his hand. “I’m sorry, Mr. Sterling, but we need to stick to our schedule. Our next break will be in eight minutes. Go on, Mr. Crestwell.”

“OK,” Sterling replied. “It’s just that…”

Crestwell cut him off. “As I was saying, there’s an inflection point here at…” He paused when he heard the whoosh of steel brushing across leather, and looked over to see Sanford fondling his drawn weapon. Crestwell stared for a moment, but did his best to compose himself and continue. “Uh, sorry. I was about to address the historical effect of marginal tax increases on…” He was interrupted again, this time by the loud click of a metal-on-metal mechanical action, which caused him to jerk his head toward Sanford. “Billy,” he snapped, “did you just put a round in the chamber?”

“Uh huh,” Sanford replied, as he pointed the barrel of his pistol toward the ceiling and squinted down the sight, taking aim at the light fixture above the stage.

“Why would you do that?” Crestwell asked.

“Gotta show ‘em we mean business. Nothing says ‘business’ like one in the hole, am I right?”

Before Crestwell could answer, Sterling let out a deep groan and then yelled, “Oh my God! Can we please go to commercial?”

This drew an immediate reprimand from Plawicki. “I’ll thank you not to take the Lord’s name in vain.”

“Sorry,” Sterling muttered. “But this stuff is really working. I really have to…”

Wadsworth tried to take control. “Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Crestwell has the floor.”

Crestwell looked over at Sanford, who appeared to be tracking an imaginary flock of geese across the ceiling, muttering, “Pow… pow… pow!” as he shot them down with make-believe bullets.

“Uh, Chuck? Is there anything we can do to convince the gentleman from Alabama to holster his weapon?”

“I’m good,” Sanford announced.

Wadsworth held up his palms in a gesture of futility. “He says he’s good. I suggest we just keep going.”

Crestwell massaged his forehead and tried to gather himself. After a moment, he went on. “Fine. Let’s just go to the next slide. You’ll see that I’ve charted the differential between the productivity of the average American worker and the per capita productivity of the rest of the G20 for every year since 1945. This demonstrates a striking correlation between…”

“Oh my God!” shrieked Sterling.

Mary Ann Plawicki immediately started in on him. “Mr. Sterling! Please show some consideration for…” Before she could finish her thought, though, her expression of smug superiority melted into a mask of horror. She buried her nose into the crook of her elbow and screamed, “Oh my God!” herself, apparently oblivious to having doubled down on the same blasphemy for which she was in the process of censuring Sterling. She howled into her sleeve. “That is putrid!”

Sterling gripped his podium with both hands, his face streaked with sweat and running mascara. He stared straight ahead, wide-eyed, for several seconds before he turned and ran offstage without saying another word.

The Free-The-Weed Guy turned to Crestwell and, in a loud whisper that was picked up by his microphone, said, “Man, I think that dude just shit his pants.” He followed this with a full-throated belly laugh, in which a good part of the audience joined.

“Ladies and gentlemen! Ladies and gentlemen!” Wadsworth yelled. “Please! Can everyone please calm down?” Once the buzz in the theatre died down to a manageable level, he continued. “That was, uh… an unfortunate development, but we need to get back on track. And I would ask each of the candidates to do their best to maintain the decorum of this debate.” He glared at the Free-The-Weed Guy, then added, “In light of all of the interruptions, we’re going to re-set Mr. Crestwell’s clock to one minute.”

“OK,” Crestwell replied, clearly thrown off. He flipped through his notes and muttered, “Where was I again?” before he went on. “Ah, yes,” he said, his voice strengthening. “I was just about to discuss the dampening effect of…”

A single word rang out in a low voice from the podium next to him: “FREE!”

“Really?” Crestwell moaned. “You can’t just wait until…”

“THE!” the voice continued.

Crestwell’s shoulders slumped and he shook his head, resigned to the fact that there was nothing he could do to stop the last word from coming.

“WEEEEED!” With that, the Free-The-Weed Guy flashed a triumphant smile as he tipped over his lectern to reveal a four-foot high plastic tube, filled about a third of the way with water, with a bowl full of marijuana sticking out of one side near the bottom. He tossed a yellow Bic lighter to Crestwell, who caught it instinctively.

“Hey, man,” the Free-The-Weed Guy said. “Would you mind kneeling down and sparking that bowl for me? This is a two-man bong.” Crestwell stood dumbfounded, staring at the lighter in his hand, while the Free-The-Weed Guy went on. “When the tube gets full of smoke, just yank the bowl out…”

“I know how a carb works,” Crestwell shot back.

The Free-The-Weed Guy laughed. “Cool. Whenever you’re ready, man.”

“I’m not gonna light your weed for you.”

“Bummer. I don’t think that guy over there is psyched to do it, either.” He gestured toward Sanford, who had his gun trained on them.

“Jesus Christ, Billy! Put that thing away!” Crestwell yelled.

“I will not!” Sanford shouted back. “I’ve got to protect myself from this dope fiend.” He addressed the Free-The-Weed Guy. “Put your hands on your head and step away from the dope! I am making a citizen’s arrest!”

Behind Sanford, Crestwell saw a phalanx of policemen crossing the stage at a trot. He smiled at the thought of them disarming the crazy redneck, but the cops steamed right past Sanford and gang-tackled the Free-The-Weed Guy instead. As they beat him with their truncheons, Sanford shouted his approval. “That’s right, boys! Get some!”

For Crestwell, hearing Sanford whoop it up was the last straw. He put his head down and bull-rushed the corpulent congressman, driving him backwards until they both smashed into the nearest podium and sent it crashing to the ground. From across the stage, Cole shouted, “It’s all kickin’ off now, innit?” before he ran over and threw himself onto the pile, punching indiscriminately at whichever combatant he could reach.

The three of them rolled around on the floor in a flailing mess of limbs, pawing and cursing at each other, until a blast from Sanford’s pistol froze them. Sanford and Cole disentangled themselves and scrambled to their feet. Crestwell stayed down. The last thing he remembered before passing out was Henry Cole looking down at him and muttering, “Bollocks.”

* * *

In the days following the debate, GentleChem terminated their sponsorship agreement with John Sterling. He formed a new partnership with the world’s leading manufacturer of adult diapers, but Plas-T-Pants didn’t appeal to the electorate in quite the same way that painkillers and boner pills had. He suspended his campaign after a dismal showing in the New Hampshire primary and returned home to his community theatre, where he was last seen playing the role of Macbeth.

Mary Ann Plawicki ultimately surrendered to the commercial imperative and abandoned her campaign in favor of launching a new porn site on Super Tuesday. Olderandwetter.com drew stinging condemnations from the cabal of evangelical leaders that had supported Plawicki’s candidacy, but that only seemed to add to its popularity. It became the most lucrative adult business on the internet, attracting over one hundred thousand subscribers in its first week of operation. Netflix has confirmed that a miniseries based on Plawicki’s life story is currently “in development.”

Henry Cole had already become somewhat of a curiosity in Britain, and his willingness to jump into a fistfight with an armed congressman led all the English papers to rate him a “proper hard man.” This, together with his “simple, direct philosophy,” convinced the board of Newcastle United Football Club that Cole was the right man to steer their faltering team clear of the relegation zone. They offered him £10 million, and he left the campaign trail on April 1 to become the club’s third manager of the 2023-24 season. He was recently spotted in a Tyneside pub reading Roy Keane’s autobiography.

The Free-The-Weed Guy never made it out of New Hampshire. He resides at the state prison in Concord, serving a seven-year sentence for drug possession. He plans to run for president again in 2032 (2028, if he can make parole in time).

The New Hampshire Attorney General’s office considered prosecuting Billy Sanford for the shooting of Sam Crestwell, but concluded that he had a valid defense under the state’s stand-your-ground law. Cleared of wrongdoing and with no challengers remaining in the race, Sanford seemed a shoe-in for the nomination until he was laid low by a jittery homeowner’s shotgun while campaigning door-to-door on a muggy evening in his home district. The local authorities elected not to pursue criminal charges against the shooter, a seventy-two year-old grandmother who invoked the terror inspired by a large, armed man pounding on her door in the gloaming as justification for unleashing the fatal blast.

Sam Crestwell survived Sanford’s bullet, but suspended his campaign in order to convalesce at his summer home in Maine. In the immediate aftermath of the incident, he received a flurry of attention from the media (more than they’d ever paid him as a candidate, he noted), but that faded quickly enough. When the news of Sanford’s demise broke, a slew of journalists beat a path back to his door in search of a reaction, but their interest waned once they gathered that he wasn’t going to say anything inflammatory about his late adversary. By the middle of July, he felt like a thoroughly forgotten man.

At that point, he certainly wasn’t expecting a phone call from the party chairman. “Sam,” the chairman began. “How are you? I hope you’re recovering well.”

“I’m fine, thanks. Feeling much better. How are things with the party?”

“Well…” was all the chairman could say before his voice faltered. He hesitated and cleared his throat before he went on. “That’s, uh, actually why I’m calling today. We were hoping that you’d feel well enough to join us in Atlanta next month…”

“I don’t think so,” Crestwell shot back, unable to imagine a more unpleasant destination. “If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not be sideshow at the convention.”

“No,” the chairman replied. “I don’t think you understand. We’re hoping that you’ll come to the convention to accept the nomination.”

“Nomination?” Crestwell asked. “You mean, for president?”

The chairman laughed. “Of course. You’ve, uh, seen what’s happened with all the other candidates, I trust?”

“Uh huh.”

“Your country needs you, Sam.”

Crestwell lowered the phone and walked over to the large picture window overlooking the bay. He stood for a while, watching the waves lap against the rocks on the shore, until he remembered the tiny, muffled voice, still talking. “Hello? Sam? Hello?” He raised the receiver back to his ear and heard more clearly. “Sam? Are you still there? Are you all right?”

“I’m here,” he replied.

“Your country needs you,” the chairman repeated.

Sam took a deep breath and sighed. “No,” he lamented, “I don’t think it does.” He hung up the phone and checked his watch. It was time for his next dose of FauxPium.


WaldnerArmed with degrees from Duke University and the University of Michigan Law School, Bob Waldner moved to New York City many years ago to seek his fortune. Not being an adept fortune-seeker, he started writing fiction. His short stories have appeared, or are scheduled to appear, in The Saturday Evening Post, Pinball, theEEEL and Mulberry Fork Review. He continues to practice corporate law in Manhattan, where he lives with his wife, Erinn, and his two daughters, Maureen and Madeleine. You can find him on the web at www.bobwaldnerbooks.com.