When the Clausens got to the voting place, most of the town had already arrived. Clausen was tired from work, and tired of voting, but he tried to smile as he held Claudia’s hand and Jenny and Jimmy went up the steps in front of them.
The voting place, as they all called it, was the basement of the Nomdom Church, and it still smelled a little of punch and cake from an anniversary held down there. In the center of the room, as always, the ballot box sat on a folding table. Ballot cards, squared to the size of an open palm, were stacked around it. Next to the papers were a few dozen short, yellow pencils of the kind Mr. Clausen used to keep his golf score on the few Sunday afternoons there wasn’t a vote scheduled.
Mr. Daniels waved to them as they came in. Next to Mr. Daniels stood Mr. Connors and Mr. Kingsley and several other men with whom Mr. Clausen went to Rotary Club. Similar knots of men stood around the low-ceilinged room, all of them drinking from Styrofoam cups, a few smoking, talking about football or hunting or golf. Nearer the walls, the women talked with their hands covering their mouths, smiling and sometimes giggling. Mrs. Clausen waved to a group and headed over, her heels ringing on the tile floor. Jenny, who wanted to be called Jennifer since she had just turned thirteen, ran to a group of her friends sitting on metal chairs they had unfolded from a stack against the wall, and Jimmy, who now preferred the name Jim, did likewise.
Mr. Clausen accepted a cup of coffee as he joined the group of men. He blew on the rim. “Didn’t slip something extra into this, did you boys? I could use it today.”
Mr. Daniels laughed. He had a loud laugh that caused heads to turn. “No, although I wish. Rough day?”
“Long. And didn’t especially want to come here after work.”
“Third one this week,” Kingsley said, “and it’s only Wednesday.”
“Four last week,” Connors said. “And four the week before that.”
“Do you know what it is this time? The vote?”
Mr. Clausen shook his head as he sipped his coffee. “They haven’t said yet. I’m sure they’ll announce it last minute like they always do. Sometimes I think they do that so we won’t really have a chance to think about it.”
“What do you think it will be?” Kingsley asked Daniels.
“Whatever it is, you can be sure it will be important,” Daniels said. He paused just long enough. “Like the other fifty-three votes we’ve had this year.”
The other men laughed, but Clausen just felt tired. He wanted to be home. He had been sitting at his desk all day, cold-calling people and telling them the importance of buying war insurance, or satellite-debris insurance, and he knew whatever the vote was wouldn’t matter. It never did.
Another dozen people filed in. Clausen wondered how many people in North America Central were crowded into basements, standing in little groups, drinking coffee laced with liquor, laughing, just waiting for this to be over so they could go home.
“I heard it’s something to do with Russindia,” Connors said. He was a beefy man, who wore too-tight collars, so that they seemed to trap all the blood in his face. He was always red, and sweating, and Clausen suspected he drank too much since his sweat always smelled of scotch.
“They haven’t caused any problems in months,” Clausen said. “More likely it’s another war bond vote, or another laser satellite.”
“We aren’t at war,” Daniels said. “At least, not openly.”
“We had two war bond votes last month,” Clausen said. “And one or two laser satellites. You know, the fact of us not being at war has never stopped them from issuing more war bonds.”
“You should be happy,” Connors said. “More satellites flying overhead means you can sell more satellite-debris insurance.”
Before Clausen could reply, Daniels looked at his watch. He dumped his coffee into the trash can and clapped his hands.
“It’s time,” he said, in a half laugh. “Everyone, it’s time.”
Daniels hit a switch and a screen came down from the ceiling. Another switch and the lights dimmed. A moment later, the screen slowly focused on the president, sitting at a desk with his hands folded in front of him and the North America Central flag behind him. The president was smiling politely, waiting patiently for all the thousands of feeds from all the little towns across North America Central to zone in.
“How does he do it?” Clausen said. It was hot in the basement, always was. Across the room, he heard his wife laugh.
“Do what?” Kingsley said.
“Just sit there, smiling, waiting patiently. All these votes that mean nothing. And he is like this on every single one. Smiling, happy. Just sitting there. He must get tired of this. Don’t you?”
“Incredible waste of time,” Kingsley said. Kingsley had a squared haircut and heavy, thick-rimmed glasses. “I don’t think they even count the votes.”
Connors reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a flask. “Everyone knows the votes don’t mean anything,” he said. “Just vote yes on everything, that’s what I do. That’s what we all do.” He proffered the flask. “So have a drink, I say. Look at them, they are enjoying it.”
Clausen looked around. The girls were whispering in the corner, looking at the boys, who were obviously trying to ignore the girls and not succeeding. Claudia stood with her women’s group, all of them laughing and touching one another on the arm and drinking a little too quickly from their Styrofoam cups for it to be coffee.
But Clausen couldn’t enjoy it. He thought, late at night when everyone was asleep, that the votes were just a way to keep people happy, keep them believing they had a voice, while in anonymous gray buildings, shadowy figures ran their own agenda.
Last month, they had voted to preserve part of the North American Forest, as if it wasn’t already devastated. They had voted to recognize Carribea as a “friendly ally.” Then to recognize Iranistan as a “hostile ally.” Three, four times a week, there was a vote. There was no way they could even count that many ballots, since they had done away with computer voting.
Some days, like today, Clausen could hardly stand it. The room seemed too small. His tie too tight. His country was just a big blotch on a map that didn’t mean anything anymore. What the hell was North America Central, anyway? He knew North America and Central America had formed a supercountry—most countries were supercountries now—but why call it North America Central? On days like today, he hated names like North America Central and Carribea and Iranistan.
All afternoon, with the afternoon light coming in lazily through the front glass, he had been thinking of walking home, hearing about his kids’ days at school. Thinking about kicking back in his chair, mixing a drink before dinner. Then, after dinner, sitting on the back porch smoking a cigar while night fell.
But before any of it could happen, the radios and TVs and computers and town loudspeaker had all come on with the announcement: Vote called for this evening. All persons of voting age are to report to their local voting place. No exceptions. Remember, the only democracy is a True Democracy.
“God, I’m sick of this crap,” Clausen mumbled.
Daniels slapped him on the back. “I know. But this is the price of democracy—wouldn’t want to go back to having men make our decisions for us, now would we?”
He was laughing again, but Clausen only smiled thinly. When the Reform Movement first started, the leaders of the movement said everything would be changed. No more surrogate politicians, who did whatever they wanted to. Get rid of the bums, the movement leaders said. Throw them all out.
But nothing changed. The nation was always on the verge of war. Always some crisis looming on the horizon.
The president had finally begun talking. Clausen tried to focus, but they never even heard the results of the elections.
“Can you believe that?” Daniels said when the president had finished.
“What is it?”
“What is it? Weren’t you listening?”
No, Clausen thought. Around the room, people were moving toward the table and the little slips of paper. They were laughing and talking, couples inviting other couples over for dinner or drinks or movies. At the edges of the room, boys edged closer to girls, the old ritual dance. As they got to the table, they grabbed a ballot and a pencil and checked one of the boxes half-heartedly while still talking, then dropped the ballot into the box and walked away, as if they had just thrown trash into a receptacle.
“I couldn’t hear well,” Clausen said.
“Vote on whether the word ‘War’ should be replaced with ‘Advanced Hostilities Between Formerly Friendly Countries,’” Daniels said.
Clausen blinked. “What? Are you serious?”
“Serious as a heart attack,” Connors said, drifting over. “Hey, who wants to grab a drink after we vote …”
Goddamn, Clausen thought. He could have been in the back yard, throwing the ball with his son. Or listening to his daughter tell about her day. Or walking around the neighborhood with his wife, or having a drink with his feet up, or any of a hundred other things.
He shuffled toward the table. When he got there, he took the small piece of paper and a pencil. He didn’t look at the top of the paper nor did he check either of the two boxes, one marked “yes” and one marked “no.” Instead, he wrote “Who gives a flying dog shit?” on the paper and folded it and put it in the box. Then he walked out, whistling to himself.
He was sitting in his recliner with a scotch and soda when someone knocked on the door. He could hear his wife in the kitchen, preparing supper. Jimmy—Jim, he reminded himself—sat at the kitchen table, doing homework. From upstairs, Jenny’s voice drifted down, talking to one of her friends on her ear-phone.
The knock came hard and loud and sudden. Clausen spilled some of his drink, then cursed.
“Who is that?” his wife said. She came out of the kitchen, drying her hands on her apron.
Clausen gripped his drink as the knock came again. “I have no idea,” he said. Then, smiling to take the sting out of it, he said, “I haven’t answered the door yet to see.”
His wife stopped drying her hands. Clausen thought she looked like his mother for a second, a memory from forty years ago: apron, dress, new hair style she might have spent all afternoon getting.
She stuck her tongue out at him. “Well, go see then.”
He set his drink down and stood, inventing new curse words as he went toward the door. He hadn’t even been home for thirty minutes. He had chuckled on the way home from the vote, thinking of what he had written. Halfway home, he started worrying there’d be trouble because of it, but then he thought, what could they do?
Two men in dark gray suits stood at the door. One of them had his hand raised to knock a third time. The man held his hand up still, as if deciding whether or not to knock on Clausen’s face. Both of the men looked young, with short black hair. Both of them had dark eyes.
“Yes?” Clausen said. “Can I help you?”
“Might we come in, Mr. Clausen?” one of the men said. “I’m sure this will just take a minute.”
“What will just take a minute?” Clausen said, but the men had already pushed past him, into the living room.
His wife still stood in the narrow hall between the kitchen and living room. Jimmy had joined her. Clausen saw his daughter’s feet on the stairs.
The two men stood in the living room with their hands folded in front of them. Out the window, Clausen could see a long black car parked in the driveway.
“You had better tell me who you are and what this is about before—”
“Mr. Clausen,” one of the men said, “you know who we are.”
Clausen wished he had brought his drink with him. He saw his daughter creep down the stairs to join her mother and brother, the three of them retreating back into the kitchen just a bit, so as to be out of the line of sight of the two men, and he was reminded again of his mother, forty years ago, before the reforms.
When he looked back at the two men, he saw bulges in their suits that might or might not be wire guns.
The second man cleared his throat. “We understand there was some,” he paused, as if searching for the right word, “confusion at the vote this evening.”
“Confusion?” Clausen said. He wondered how big a wire gun was.
“Your vote did not fit into the parameters outlined by tonight’s vote.”
It took Clausen a moment to decipher that. He means, you didn’t check yes or no, Clausen thought, or for or against, or any of the prescribed phrasings. He reached to the side table and took the drink.
“I thought all ballots were private?”
“They are,” the first man said. Clausen thought he was maybe a year or two older than the other, though he couldn’t place an age on either man. “As long as they fit the parameters required of the vote. This isn’t about privacy.”
The second man said, “You see, Mr. Clausen, democracy only works when all votes are counted, and everyone participates. You know how it was before?” He raised an eyebrow but didn’t wait for Clausen before continuing. “The political world was corrupt, Mr. Clausen. Politicians did what they wanted, despite the will of the people. Mega-corporations bought votes—even other countries bought votes. The world was close to collapse.”
He drew a deep breath, as if this were important, or, perhaps, as if he were saddened that he had been forced to explain all this to someone who should have known better.
“We cannot return to that, Mr. Clausen,” he said. He shook his head sadly. “We simply cannot.”
Clausen finished his drink. Something in the man’s tone scared him even more than the thought of them carrying wire guns.
“Look,” Clausen said. “It was just a lark. Long day at the office. I was tired. Not thinking correctly. Just wanting to get home. You guys know how it is.”
He held out his hands. The two men stood looking at him, faces expressionless.
“Someone,” the older of the two began slowly, “someone might take your vote to mean you don’t care about the election process. Which could be construed to mean you don’t care about your country.”
“It would be a shame,” the younger man said, “if that were the case.”
“A terrible shame,” said the older. “There are fines, Mr. Clausen. The very real possibility of prison time. And there are other, more serious penalties, as well. Were you old enough to remember when the government changed to its present course?”
Clausen started to shake his head, but then he did remember. He had been four or five years old. There had been riots. Fires in the cities. The military mobilized, and tanks rolled through the streets, airplanes overhead, soldiers with rifles. He remembered seeing on TV men hung from flagpoles, dragged through the streets behind vehicles. His father had locked them in the basement for days, until the TV told them all was clear.
“I do,” he said. His voice swung like a siren.
“You wouldn’t want something like that to happen again, now would you, Mr. Clausen? Even if it only happened on a small scale, say, to one family, on one street, in one little town?”
Clausen shook his head stupidly. He could see himself reflected in the man’s eyes. He wanted to answer, to say, No, no, he absolutely did not want something like that to happen, but the two men nodded, and when they did, they simultaneously opened their suit jackets to show Clausen what waited inside.
“And you promise you’re not going to do anything?” Claudia said.
Clausen looked up at the sky. It was still daylight, but the first stars had come out. Or maybe they were satellites. In the sky above them were thousands of satellites, holding lasers and missiles and the very real possibility—real enough he sold insurance against it—they might plummet to earth. They had just left the house, headed to the vote that evening. The kids ran ahead of them. “I promise.”
“Really, David,” his wife said. “I can’t believe you did something so silly. And for what? I mean, really, what were you thinking? Endangering your entire family, your country, everything, because you were tired of voting.”
“We’ve been over this,” Clausen said. After the two men left the night before, he had calmly—after a couple of drinks, anyway—explained what he had done. Claudia looked at him as if he had grown horns. Jenny ran crying upstairs, saying that her life was over if any of her friends found out. Jimmy said, “You just check yes or no on a piece of paper, Dad. How is that difficult?”
And, of course, he felt like an idiot then. But later, after the kids were asleep, he had tried to explain to Claudia.
“It’s real,” he said. They were lying in bed. The streetlight fell in the window. A cloud of insects hovered around the light.
“I don’t want to hear it,” Claudia said. “Just promise me you won’t do it again. Like Jimmy said, it’s just making a check mark in a box on a piece of paper.”
“But don’t you see?” Clausen said. “This shows the voting is real. We treat it like a joke. But it’s real. Why else would they come here and threaten me? We need to tell everyone it’s real. It’s really real.”
“Oh, stop,” she said. Her sigh sounded like a gas stove ticking on. “I don’t care whether the votes are real or not. They’re fun. We get to see friends, come together like a community. So, I don’t care. But I do care if they come arrest you.” The streetlight fell on her bare breasts. Her hair was down, brushing her bare shoulders. “Those men had guns. They were at our house, where our children live.”
She rolled over and stared at the wall. When her breath evened out, Clausen went downstairs. He poured another scotch, but didn’t drink, just stood holding it. Down the street, all the lights were off. He wondered if a black car were out there, circling the neighborhood. He wondered how they had counted the votes so quickly. He did not wonder what “more serious punishments” meant—he knew that answer.
Claudia was cooking breakfast when he came downstairs the next morning. She kissed him on the cheek, then leaned back and looked at him, wondering.
He was on the phone that afternoon, half-heartedly trying to sell war insurance to a young couple, when the radio gave the announcement. Out the window, he could see the town square. It was summer, and hot, the bright white light of the sun glaring off the parked cars. The square was deserted, but as he watched, a long black car rolled by, and two men peered at him through the window. When the car had passed, the thought came to him that the town looked the same as it had when he was a boy. But he could remember his father dragging him along the street as people broke out windows and fire bloomed from some of the stores. He remembered a man hanging from the flagpole, his black tongue sticking out of a bloody mouth.
That’s what they did to people who disagreed, he thought.
Claudia had been waiting for him when he got home from work. She had gotten her hair done again. She smelled like the perfume he bought her for their last anniversary.
“The kids are upstairs, getting ready,” she said. “You heard there was a vote?”
A few minutes later, they were walking to the church. The kids ran ahead. All along the warm streets, people were walking toward the church basement, and the box with its little square cards and little yellow pencils.
“And you aren’t going to do anything?” she asked for the third time. He squeezed her hand. When the street around them was empty, he stopped her.
“I’m not going to do anything,” he said.
Claudia leaned in to kiss him. They walked to the church, holding hands.
Daniels and the others were waiting when Clausen came in. Claudia went to talk to the women. Jenny joined her friends in one corner. Jimmy joined his. Their laughter drifted over. He could smell cigarettes and booze, like parties in college.
“Rough day, Clausen?” Daniels said.
Clausen walked over to get a cup of coffee, giving himself time to wonder if Daniels and the other men knew about his visitors the night before. The coffee burned his tongue when he drank. “What do you mean, Daniels?” he said. His voice rose at the end, and he tried to reign it back, but failed.
“You look a little tired,” Daniels said. He watched Clausen over the rim of his Styrofoam cup.
Clausen took another drink, feeling it burn all down him. “Yeah,” he said. He smiled weakly. “Didn’t sleep well. Then a long day at the office.”
“Hope it’s nothing to worry about,” Daniels said.
He wondered if Daniels knew. But the men had only threatened—they had given him a choice. And the choice wasn’t even hard. And it did matter, now that he knew the votes were counted. Someone was listening. Someone was working on things. Later, he’d tell Daniels and Kingsley and Connors, get them to tell others. They’d start paying more attention to the votes, educate themselves. Really change things. Stop the constant threat of war. Stop the satellites spinning, so crowded in outer space, if they all fell at once, the world might end.
He looked around the room at the people he had grown up with. Good friends, most of them, or at least acquaintances. He lived in a beautiful town, in a beautiful country, even if the country he had once known was three or four or eight countries now, even if he had to come down here every night to check a box marked yes or no on a piece of paper. He saw his wife laughing with some of the other women, saw her shoot him a warning look, a look so quick, only a man married to the same woman for twenty years would have noticed. He saw Jenny—Jennifer, he reminded himself, because she was grown now, or almost grown—whispering to some of her friends, all of them giggling. Jimmy—Jim—was holding forth to the other boys, all of them glancing at the girls from the curves of their eyes.
This, Clausen decided, was important.
Beside him, Daniels glanced at his watch, then dumped his coffee in the trash and clapped his hands.
“It’s time,” he said, laughing. “Everyone, it’s time.”
The screen lowered and the president came on. They waited patiently, until all the thousands of feeds from all the thousands of isolated towns linked in. Clausen saw more than a few flasks appear from coat pockets, more than a few drinks laced with bourbon or gin.
The president cleared his throat.
“My fellow North America Centrals,” he said. “War has come. It has come swiftly and surreptitiously. The enemy has massed at our borders.”
Clausen heard someone—a young girl, maybe Jenny—laugh. Someone said they thought the president had a big nose. The president paused to let the news resonate through the little room, but most of Clausen’s neighbors had taken the moment to whisper to someone standing next to them.
They don’t get it, Clausen thought. It’s real. The vote is real. And he is going to ask us to vote to send our children to war. He grabbed Connors’s drink and raised it, ignoring the other man’s surprised look.
“All war, any war, is a terrible thing,” the president said, his face alight with concern, and sadness. “But this war will not be fought as wars have in the recent past, with drones and satellites. Our enemy has the same technology we do—their drones are invisible, as ours are to them. Their military structures and bases are deep underground, further than bombs can penetrate. Their satellites are too well protected.
“This war must be fought on the ground, with your sons and daughters. Tonight, I need your vote—North America Central needs your vote—to keep the wolves at bay. It will be a long battle. Many of us may not see the end of it. But if we do not fight—if you do not vote to fight—then none of us will.”
The noise in the room rose as the president’s face faded out, but it wasn’t the uproar Clausen expected, the outrage or the worry. It was the dull drone of conversations resumed, plans being made, drinks being finished. Daniels was clearing his throat, trying to get everyone’s attention, telling them to vote orderly and systematically, but no one was listening. There was a general atmosphere of fun in the air, but underneath, Clausen felt rising hysteria, though it may have been his own.
He stood there while Daniels herded everyone into a line. He heard Jimmy telling everyone to vote yes, just for some excitement. He heard Claudia saying she always enjoyed the patriotic shows on TV when there was a war. Clausen heard Connors saying we’d wipe them off the face of the planet, but he could only think—who? Who are we going to wipe off the face of the planet? They didn’t even say.
He was the last in line. On the vidscreen, old-time fighter jets streaked past, the North America Central flag waving. There were vague eruptions in the distance, then men marching, more flags. He thought of the dead man hanging from a pole.
“David,” Claudia said behind him. “Everyone is waiting. You have to vote.”
“We can’t leave until everyone has voted, Clausen,” Daniels said, laughing again, though now his laugh sounded hollow and weak. He handed Clausen a ballot. Clausen heard Jimmy’s—Jim’s—voice, saying maybe his father had written so many insurance cancellations, he had forgotten how to write the word yes. He heard the crowd blow up with laughter.
“Come on, Clausen,” Connors said, his words slurred, sounding desperate and breath-heavy, the way all drunks did, or men who actually were heavy of breath and desperate.
He looked down at the ballot and Jim’s joke hit him then. At the top of the little square paper were the words: For or Against the Initiative for North America Central to go to War.
Beneath the words, there was only one box.
Work dragged by the next day. After the vote, he had stayed up drinking too much, looking out the window at the neighborhood, the little town he lived in. He loved it here. Always had. When others were talking about getting away, moving to the city, he had never once thought of leaving. He looked at the sky and wondered if the drones were coming. If the satellites would fall, or if, possibly, his vote would be read and counted.
He was hungover half the morning, and then sat through the long, hot afternoon with the door propped open, watching the slow cars down main street. It could be 1950 again, he thought, though those days were long gone.
When he got home, Claudia was rushing about, getting ready. She didn’t look at him when he came in. On his walk home, he had felt a hard, hot ball forming in his stomach, some premonition, though he had tried to ignore it.
Jim came down the stairs and brushed past him. Jennifer followed. Clausen stood in the front hallway, watching them walk around him. When he looked back up, Claudia was crying.
“What is it?” he said.
She shook her head. “Why are you so stubborn?” she said, through tears.
Why couldn’t you just vote yes?”
The hard, hot ball in his stomach flared then, and he knew what the premonition had been. No one had called at the office all day. No one had stopped in to say hello, to drink a cup of coffee, to discuss golf on Sunday. When he had looked down at the ballot the night before, and seen only one box, the one marked “Yes,” Clausen had thought about the two men. About his sudden knowledge that the votes were read and counted. So, he had penciled in “No,” thinking he might make a difference. Now Claudia was crying in the kitchen hallway. Jim and Jennifer were standing on the front lawn, waiting, he knew, to walk with their mother down to the church to vote. About him. Jail time or a fine, like the two men had warned. He crossed to the sidebar and poured a drink.
“I’ll vote against,” Claudia said. She stabbed at her eyes with a tissue. “And the children will, too. But, really, you have to stop this nonsense.”
“I thought—” Clausen began, but couldn’t finish because Claudia was shaking her head.
“No, ” she said. “You didn’t.”
Well, at least I don’t have to vote, he thought, after she had left. He raised his drink. His stomach had settled. They would vote on a fine, and he would pay it, and he would talk to them all and smooth it over. In fact—he stood and grabbed his coat. He finished off his drink and threw the jacket on and started for the door. He would go down and explain his case. Tell them he had wanted the best for everyone, blah-blah-blah, hadn’t wanted a war, think about our kids. Connors would slap him on the back and Daniels would spread his hands the way he did and say, “Well, we all want what’s best for the children,” and Clausen would go outside while they all voted for a very small fine and then—
When he opened the door, the two men in gray suits were standing there. He couldn’t tell if they were the same ones or not. Out past them, the sprinklers on the lawns were switching on. The street was empty.
“Mr. Clausen,” one of them said. “We may come in.”
They pushed past him and stood in the living room with their hands folded. They seemed to be waiting. Clausen’s stomach was cold now. Very cold. His face felt as hot as beefy Connors’ face always looked. Like he had swallowed something and it had stuck in his throat.
“Mr. Clausen,” one of them said. “As I am sure you have been made aware of, the people of your town are now voting about you.”
“It was just a—”
“Lark, yes. So you have said before. But others do not see it that way.”
He fell silent. The two men seemed, again, to be waiting.
“How do you see it?” Clausen said. His voice shook a little.
The two men exchanged a glance. One of them put a hand to the earbud he wore, then, after a moment, shook his head slightly.
“The vote is whether or not you have been unpatriotic.”
Clausen’s mouth went dry. In the revolution, they killed people declared unpatriotic. He thought of the man hanging from the pole.
“But it will just be a fine, right?” He felt his voice rising, thinking of the guns the men wore beneath their blazers, the fires in the streets, the satellites falling overhead. “Maybe a few days in jail?”
One of the men touched the gun inside his jacket. The other put his hand to his earbud again, as if he were listening for a final report.