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Olaf drove me home and it was rather uneventful. But I couldn’t help but think about Jesse. I loved him with all of my heart and I basically just betrayed him. I chose my career and fakeness over the real him. And the real me. I couldn’t feel more disgusted by myself. It was so hard to make a decision because I loved my career. When I was younger, I was wimpy and no one ever took me seriously. No one in Airedale High School certainly thought that I would be their mayor. But here I am. After high school, I went to a good college (not the Ivy League), received a solid education in political science, and came back to my hometown to make waves.
It was relatively successful and people forgot the old me. When I came back from college, I was a transformed man. Before, I was so awkward. I wore oversized clothes, glasses, and barely spoke. But after college, I looked more like an adult. I wore better-fitting, more mature clothes and was more outspoken with my opinion. I looked more like a man and it gained people’s respect. In turn, I felt more like a man and acted more like one. All of my childhood and adolescent years, I was told by my father I would never be a man.
Part of that was due to my romantic preference and the other part was perhaps due to either mannerisms I had at the time or mannerisms I obtained because I constantly was told I would never be a man. You know, psychological cycle stuff like that. So when I became mayor, it was like an infinite rush of energy. I wouldn’t classify it a power struggle, but it just felt nice to feel important. I wasn’t just a man; I was THE man.
The longer my tenure lasted, the more confident I felt. It was almost a dream come true. I could do what I wanted and I had lots of plans for Airedale. Huxley’s plans seem good on the surface, but I know the problems that he and his “administration” will cause. I am determined to not let that happen but I just had to stop all of this other mumbo-jumbo with the scandals. I am not ashamed of who I love; I love Jesse with all of my heart and I now realize I want to spend the rest of my life with him. But deep down, when someone targets me or discriminates me because of my love for Jesse, it brings me back to the days of my adolescence where my own family and friends judged me. I feel like that insecure child again, and I don’t want anyone to make me feel like that.
That’s why I don’t come out fully. I know that the people will emasculate me due to my relationship with Jesse and then deduct I’m unfit to be mayor. If I’m unfit for mayor, then that leaves only one person to be mayor: Huxley. Everyone, especially the young progressive animals, seem to love Huxley and think that he’s just going to be the best thing that ever happened to Airedale. I don’t trust either him or his brother.
When Huxley was on the committee, he was determined to air out everyone else’s dirty laundry and expose scandals. But what about his own scandals? Or his brother’s? Cobb is seen as such a nice lawyer that does nothing but strive to protect the people. But at what cost? I know for a fact that Cobb has illegally obtained evidence and fabricated evidence to make his clients look innocent. There was even a trial about it, but that stayed mum hush for some reason and Cobb chose to just settle. The whole thing ended up weird and he only got fined heavily—he didn’t even get suspended from the bar.
As for Hugh’s scandals, they actually form a lengthy list, but those never seem to make it out of the closet of skeletons. Let’s form a bulleted layout to make things easy (it’s never simple to explain these things through a paragraph):
• Hugh set up a security database containing the names of all of the Airedale residents and even sent drones after people who were not formally accused but “suspicious” of animal discrimination related crimes.
• He used allocated funds for special projects towards funding the drones.
• He had hundreds of phone lines tapped so he could track conversations and monitor what was being said. He claimed this was to promote national security, due to the threat of Silas’ power vacuum.
• He lied to the committee when questioned about these crimes and blamed it on my current deputy mayor, Matthew Akins.
• He withheld evidence that proved he and Cobb had actually committed these crimes.
• The rest of the committee planned a disciplinary trial but we eventually reached an agreement that Hugh would be fined.
Admittedly, I had someone else on the committee alter the election results so Hugh would be voted out of office. But how could you not do that??? Hugh was invading personal privacy and I fear he’ll do worse if allowed to have unrestricted power in the mayoral seat. No one else knew what he was doing before, so it was doubtful anyone would understand now. The only reason I never said anything, especially in an attacking smear campaign sort of ad, was that Hugh and Cobb claimed to have proof that I rigged the election. I’m hoping the two wrongs cancel each other out and make a right.
I know things don’t usually work that way, but we’ve had a mutual arrangement. I don’t expose them and they don’t expose me. However, if they do anything else, I’m contemplating it. Ambrosia, Isabelle and I are the only ones that know about this besides the committee members. We all could vouch for the validity of the claim but who is to say that the people would believe us? Besides Isabelle, we’re all humans and we’re all representatives of the old political bloc.
That‘s why I just stay neutral and avoid it. Things are relatively easier this way.
While it’s easy to keep those things out of my head, what is NOT easy to keep out of my head is Jesse. Every time I close my eyes, I see his face. I imagine his body and I feel his warm touch and embrace. I can’t escape him whether I’m awake or asleep. He’s in my dreams and my subconscious thoughts. He said he wanted time so I knew I couldn’t text him. I needed to give him space, but it was so hard. I finally realized I loved him and he was absent.
I wanted to be patient but I was just worried I would lose him if I waited too long. Should I have pursued him more? Or should I have let him have his space so he can heal and cope in his own way? I paced in my bedroom, staring at the wall. I needed to be studying my debate guidelines Isabelle gave me a while ago. I needed to watch video tapes of Huxley and read direct quotes and statements from him so I could adapt on how to act on the stage.
But now, all I could do was think of Jesse. It made my stomach hurt just to think that I chased him away. It hurt me to think that I am basically cheating on him with Ambrosia and pushing him away, acting like he doesn’t exist and like he’s not worthy of my love or public affection. It tore me up inside. I knew that if the tables were turned and I was in his position, I would be furious and distraught at the same time. I couldn’t imagine the emotional stress Jesse was enduring right now.
It made half of me glad I pushed him away because I already hurt him. It made the other half of me hurt because I wanted nothing to do more than to console him and make him happy again. He told me I hurt him already and that tore me up inside too. My adrenaline was rushing too quickly and I needed something to help me combat this. The only thing I knew was sitting in the bottom of my drawers. I dug through them and pulled out some baggies. They contained my Fruity Delight.
I conducted my normal routine. I poured the contents onto the coffee table. It was all muscle memory; I didn’t need to be told what to do next. I lowered my face. My nostrils burned. My eyes twitched. My mouth itched. My teeth involuntarily grinded into one another. Several moments later, the room started to spin. Soon enough, everything went black.
I stared at this young horse, wondering what he wanted. If there was anything I loved, it was a proposition. I could just tell that this kid had a raw courage and spunk that is only ever found in progressive adolescents. He didn’t need to open his mouth and I could just tell he was on our side. While my brother leaned back and waited patiently to hear, I leaned forward. My body language, unlike my brother’s, showed that I wanted the horse to say what he wanted as soon as possible. The horse cleared his throat and licked his lips nervously.
“My name is Edward and I’m the president of the Moral Majority. It’s a pleasure to make both of your acquaintances.” Now that was an organization name I was familiar with. I watched Hugh’s face furrow into a concerned frown but I hoped he had the smarts to keep listening. “I have been very observant of the latest events with Mayor Stefan’s administration, including the most recent scandal. I had a tremendous proposal for you and was curious if you were interested in what I have to say.”
Hugh cleared his throat. “I’m interested in what you have to say no matter what. Whether I am willing to take action on what you have to say or not is a different story.” The horse shrugged.
“We want the same things, do we not? We here at the Moral Majority believe Mayor Stefan is unfit for Airedale and that you would be the perfect man. You believe the same thing. We can work towards a common goal here.”
“What is your point, Edward?” Hugh asked narrowing his eyes in suspicion. The horse sighed and folded his arms together. Oh Gog, my brother’s bluntness is losing this potential here. I see it fading before in my eyes. Teenagers are rarely ever patient and sensible about things.
“My point IS that we can work together and I have a proposal that Moral Majority help you get you where you want. We’re currently receiving loads of Bell donations to run smear ads against Mayor Stefan’s campaign and we actually have intelligence workers that uncover key pieces of evidence every day.”
I butted in the conversation now. “What type of evidence are we talking about here?” I asked. The horse sneered.
“A magician never reveals his tricks. Now, I mean, if the magician was teaching a class and received compensation…” My brother rolled his eyes and asked Edward what he wanted from us. “Now we’re talking. We want several things…nothing too demanding though, don’t worry. Just your personal endorsement, regular Bell donations, a vow to protect the interests of all animals, and a promise to pass two laws immediately when you get in office. In return, we would be more than happy to swear our votes to you and give you full access to our evidence for your usage.”
Hugh held up his hand. “Whoa whoa pull the emergency brake on the train, Porter. What two laws are you interested in me passing?” The horse shrugged.
“The first one is no biggie. Outlaw animal discrimination once and for all. The second one is a tad more complex. The Moral Majority stands for ethics and conservatism and we wish that this aspect of society be more dominant in everyday life. We emphasize family and security, so this second law really accentuates that. We want you to sign a law that sets up a Homeland Security agency and a citizen database to monitor the influx of refugees coming from Silas.”
Hugh pursed his lips. I shook my head. My brother learned his lesson before about going overboard with security databases and privacy invasions. We settled that with the current administration but we keep quiet about it now. It’s more pleasurable this way. A silence settled in between the three of us. I could tell my brother was pondering this; I was glad I wasn’t in his position. After a few moments, my brother nodded vigorously.
“Yeah. Yeah. You got yourself a deal, Edward.” Hugh reached forward to shake the horse’s hand. The horse shook back and smiled.
“Perfect. It was a pleasure doing business with you, gentlemen.” He said. This young man had such a charm to him. It made me smile. It reminded me of me. He took a few steps backwards and nodded. “I can’t express the gratitude of Moral Majority, of the family and the children that will be impacted by the future politics of Airedale.” The horse left the office and Hugh and I watched as he escorted himself out of the building. As soon as we were confident that Edward was gone, I huffed testily and turned towards Hugh.
“What in Gog’s name are you thinking?” I asked. My brother pursed his lips and lowered his eyes.
“I’m thinking about the voting bloc. I’m thinking about how many people the Moral Majority will encourage to vote for me whether or not they’re a part of the organization. I’m thinking about the future.” I rolled my eyes.
“You’re too idealistic. Quit being so dreamy-eyed and focus on the now. You can always look towards the future but you can’t forget your past. You were kicked off the committee for that.”
“It wasn’t an official demotion!” Hugh interrupted, fire burning in his eyes. I let my breath hitch and shook my head. Hugh gestured wildly. “Everything will be fine. I’m not going to let this get out of hand like I did before. It will stay contained and controlled. For the record, I think it’s a good idea that we have a Homeland Security. I’m surprised War Hawk didn’t get on that sooner.”
“Because War Hawk knows that such a thing would hurt humans. They want the Silas refugees to come in so human-run businesses can use them for cheap labor and take jobs away from local animals.” I said bitterly. A knock made us both snap our heads to the door. It was just Morgan. We both exhaled a sigh of relief. Not only was she our trusted secretary but also she hated Mayor Stefan just as much as we did. The red-haired secretary hesitated before entering the office. I asked Morgan what she was doing in here.
She picked up the remote and turned on the TV, hurriedly shuffling to a new channel. “You guys have been talking for a bit and you haven’t seen the latest news.” It graced us on our screen: the kiss. Mayor Stefan dipped the human girl for a kiss and they made out for several seconds before breaking apart. Morgan bit her lip. “Isabelle organized this huge press conference and proclaimed that Ambrosia and Mayor Stefan are a thing.”
“Who on Earth would believe that?” he said in confusion. Morgan shrugged.
“I know.” She said exasperatedly. “Apparently, a lot of people do believe it. It’s spreading fast and some are really buying it. You and I both know the truth though…”
“Of course!” I exclaimed. “Typical of Isabelle and the rest of the administration to pretend like Jesse isn’t real. Did he really say that he ‘loved him like a brother?’” Morgan nodded. I scoffed. “I don’t know who Mayor Stefan is trying to kid. We’ve seen the evidence. Everyone inside and outside the county believes the anonymous sources. They’re fighting a losing battle. They’ve lost ounces of blood but they’re still trying to block with a sword…” I trailed.
“You got to commend the man for trying.” Hugh said dryly. I couldn’t help but agree. “Nevertheless, we’re drowning in evidence now and will be drowning in more as long as Moral Majority holds up their end of the deal.” I nodded silently. Morgan asked us what we were talking about and wondered out loud why the horse was in there. Hugh took over the reins to explain that Edward was the leader of Moral Majority and that Hugh just made an under-the-table deal with them. Morgan had no qualms thankfully.
That only would have made me worry more.
My brother has gotten so far in his campaign; I was not going to have some radical shluffs ruin it in two seconds. If it came down between them and my brother, I would obviously choose Hugh. There was no question about it, so I just hoped for them and me that they kept their toes in line. Morgan gestured outside.
“I have some work to get back to. Things are busy and all with the firm, while the politics reigns on. I’ll leave you too to whatever you have to get to before the debate tomorrow.” She strode out of the office, shutting the door behind her. Gratefully, I turned to Hugh.
“I’m debating ‘accidentally releasing’ that information I found out about the deal with Smash Melee Corporation. What do you think?” I asked. Hugh shrugged and I groaned. Sometimes, my brother took too long to think over things. I wanted him to just make a decision sometimes and stick with it, without flip-flopping or questioning himself. All that energy spent on self-doubt could be used more productively elsewhere.
Hugh set his chin on his hand and seemed to ponder the issue. “I’m neutral about that. Mostly because we weren’t privy to receive that information and had no reason or jurisdiction behind the reveal of that information. However, I think it’s something that the public needs to be aware about.” Hugh quit playing Devil’s Advocate. When you’re the mayor, you can’t get away with that. Hugh sighed and didn’t say anything. I waited a few moments and then prodded him on the shoulder.
“C’mon man. What do you want me to do? I’ll just make a decision without you then…” I trailed, fully possessing no intention to do so. Hugh exaggerated moaning out loud and clapped his hands.
“Fine. Wait till after the debate. If things go well for me, you don’t have to. Otherwise, if things still look favorable for Mayor Stefan, then release it.”
“Thank you for making a decision. I’m so proud of you.” I said mockingly. Hugh punched me lightly in the shoulder and shook his head. I stood up and opened the door. “Now, I’ve coached you enough for the debate. You don’t need to be sitting in here polluting my airspace. Go on home and relax. Just remember, you have a big day tomorrow.” I said with a wink. Hugh nodded slowly and stood up.
“You’re right. Thanks, Cobb. You relax too. I know you’ve been stressed lately.” He said, flashing that classic Huxley smile. As he left the office, I sighed to myself and couldn’t help but believe strongly that my brother was going to be our next mayor.
I was awoken by a strong pounding on my bedroom door.
I groaned and rolled over. Wait, I wasn’t even in a bed. What happened last night? Oh Gog. That’s right. All the memories of last night flooded into my brain. I sighed deeply, remembering the emotional turmoil I was going through. And of course, today was the debate. I had no idea how much I ‘slept in’, but I knew I had 0% time to sleep this off. My head hurt and my body muscles ached.
I straightened out from my position on the floor and my neck hurt too. Bluh, this would make standing up at the podium a pain in the neck. Uh, no pun intended? I swear I’m not trying to be funny. Isabelle’s shrill voice can be heard from the other side. I hurried to clean up last night’s fiasco and open the door. Just as the little dog vows to kick the door down and get Cranston if she can’t kick it down herself, I whipped the door open. The dog’s face was red and she looked out of breath. And angry.
“Mr. Mayor! You only have an hour until the debate!” I leaned my head back in my room and stared at the clock. It was 12:57. The debate started at 2. I groaned and Isabelle grabbed my hand, dragging me towards my closet. “I’ll send makeup and the stylists to get you ready. Stay here!” The dog tore away from me, her loud stomps down the stairs echoing from the hallway. Within a few minutes, the makeup artists, wardrobe consultants, and the hair stylist were coming up. Wait, hair stylist? That could only mean…
“Afternoon, Stefan.” I looked up. Harriet was looking at me right in the face. She carried her portable stylist chair with her and unfolded it in front of me. Once everything was set up, she told me to sit down. The makeup artists were fighting with Harriet for room to access my head. Meanwhile, the wardrobe consultants were arguing over what I should wear. I gulped away some stress.
“Afternoon, Harriet.” I obeyed her, sitting down in the chair. I let her place the barber’s cape around my shoulders. The last time we spoke, things were awkward. I accidentally alluded to being an animal-hater and I knew that touched a nerve with her. Given our history and the things she knew about me, it wasn’t the smartest action. Thankfully, Harriet was civil today.
“Afternoon, Stefan. Nervous about the debate today?” she asked. I shook my head.
“No. I’ve practiced enough to know what I have to say when I have to say it.” Harriet grabbed an electronic razor and began working at my undercut, which was now no longer short and trimmed. She also worked on my growing beard a little.
“That’s good to see that you’ve prepared. I wish you the best of luck out there.” I smiled.
“Thank you. Although, I figured you would’ve been a Huxley supporter.” Harriet frowned lightly.
“Don’t judge my political preferences by what I look like. Despite my paws and my fur and my glaring appearance of an animal, I wouldn’t want to see you lose to some animal.” I internally winced. Before I could let a jibe like that just roll off my shoulders, but now it physically hurt me. I opened my mouth to say something but Harriet cut me off. “I know you came from a terrible childhood but that doesn’t excuse your actions or thoughts, Stefan.”
I sighed. “I know. I’m just trying to change. I know I’ve been gross and I just want to make myself a better person. Without everyone throwing my past in my face.” Harriet’s expression softened.
“It’s nice to see that you’re willing to try. You’re not going to get anywhere unless people see you’re a different man.” Harriet turned her head to stare at the wardrobe and makeup people who temporarily were out of hearing range. “And lying about being with Jesse isn’t a step towards that.” She whispered. My face paled.
“How did you—“. I started. Harriet held up a paw.
“I knew I was your beard senior year, dude. Don’t underestimate me or our bond. I know more about you than you’d care to realize. We’ve had a long relationship as friends.” I sighed. She set a hand on my shoulder. “If you can’t be honest with people you don’t know, how can you be honest with yourself or people you do love?” I just stared at her. She pulled her hand away. “You need to tell the truth.”
“You understand why I can’t.” I said firmly. Harriet shrugged.
“You and your happiness are more important than anyone else. Don’t forget yourself on the way up.” I nodded. Harriet fiddled with my hair a bit and quieted down once the makeup people and wardrobe came back in. They started to work on me now, applying foundation to my face and giving me clothes to try on. Thirty minutes later, I was ready to go. The debate was only in a half hour.
When I finally stood up and was ready to go, Harriet gave me a hug. I was surprised at the sudden embrace but gave in. I missed her. We had a strange relationship but it was one that I cherished. She was the only animal, even beyond Isabelle, that I truly cared about. She was different from everyone else. Maybe if I was straight, I would have ended up with Harriet. Alas, here I was.
“Good luck. Don’t be a stranger.” I thanked Harriet and was hustled out of the bedroom by Isabelle. I was rapidly escorted to the debate. I was shoved into a town car and shuttled off. I immediately knew where the venue was by the media attention alone. Cameras, people and the accompanying vans were stationed everywhere. It took my driver forever to get even close to the door. Isabelle, who was riding alongside of me, rested a paw on my shoulder.
“You can do this, Mr. Mayor. I believe in you.” She jumped out of the car and began yelling at the news crews. “Okay, okay! Everyone get back now!” Police and bodyguards, including Copper and Booker, stepped in to make a path for me. Olaf opened the door for me and I clambered out. In the distance towards the front door of the building, I saw Ambrosia. She was leaning against the door, off to the side. Smiling.
I cleared my throat and nudged my way through the crowd. The people lightly moved aside for me and filmed and took my picture as I entered the building. Just as I passed Ambrosia, I stopped abruptly and smiled at her. I made an extravagant show of kissing her in front of the media. They clamored for more and I fed into the attention…that is until everyone noticed another town car pull up.
Two pigs embraced the media. I rolled my eyes and didn’t want to see what would happen next. As the camera men brushed past us roughly, I grabbed Ambrosia’s hand and led her inside the warm building. Isabelle was now inside and took me away from Ambrosia.
“Come on, Mr. Mayor. You have to get mic’d up so you can go onstage.” I nodded and stared back at Ambrosia. Isabelle pursed her lips. “Stay here, Ambrosia. When I’m done prepping Mr. Mayor for the debate, I can escort you to our assigned seats. We have chairs in the front that are saved specifically for us.” Ambrosia smiled.
“Okay, thanks Isabelle.” She folded her hands together and I allowed Isabelle to guide me away. We didn’t have much time to talk about anything good. Anything privately. More strangers surrounded me as they put final touches on my makeup and attached the microphones to my body. I took a deep breath. I was used to this type of attention. I brushed a hand through my spiky short undercut. I had been preened for the spotlight over the past ten years. This time would be no exception.
Isabelle stood by patiently as the people took only a few minutes to ready me. Within moments, I heard a deep voice over the building’s loudspeaker system. “The first 2016 Airedale Election debate will occur in three minutes. We ask that all participants and moderators now proceed to the stage to be in place for the start of the debate.” Isabelle pulled me away from the microphone people and grinned, grabbing my hand and leading me towards the stage.
“This is it. The moment we’ve all been waiting for.” My stomach pitted and I couldn’t help but feel sick. It felt like Isabelle had sprinted to the stage border. She stood behind the bordering wall, serving as the boundary between the open area and the backstage. “Knock ‘em dead, Mr. Mayor. You remember everything we went over. You’ll be fine.” I took the cue to step out onto the stage. Large bright lights shone down on me. I was used to this. I didn’t need to feel nervous or scared—this entire experience was natural to me.
The moderators were seated at a long table before me. They were all familiar. I either recognized them as political pundits who enjoyed loving or criticizing my actions in office. Joe Foster was the main man—he had his own TV show and he was the veteran pundit. Terrence Kirk was more of a rookie in the field, simply commentating on a larger group show. Alison Banks was more than just a pretty face. She was one of the smartest pundits out there, having her own successful TV show as well.
I took my place at the podium. A second podium remained empty besides me. I knew Huxley would take his place there soon enough. While I made small talk with the moderators and “played nice” in the hopes they would later do the same, I heard whistling and cheering and clapping from the audience. My head flew to the right.
Huxley strolled out confidently, waving to the crowd and smiling lightly. I bit my lip and continued my conversation weakly with the pundits. The pundits had no interest in me though. They wanted to examine Huxley like a specimen in a laboratory. That’s all he was to these humans. They weren’t genuinely interested in what he had to say. These people were humans after all.
The crew began to count down. The lights were shining. The equipment was whirring. We were ready to start. I took a deep breath. Before I knew it, Foster’s booming voice could be heard echoing throughout the building. “Welcome to the first 2016 Airedale Election Debate. I’m Joe Foster and with me today are Terrence Kirk and Alison Banks. We will be moderating tonight in the debate of the incumbent Mayor Stefan and challenger Mr. Hugh Huxley. This is gearing up to be a good night so sit down, relax, and enjoy the debate.”
The music played for a moment as the camera panned between me, Huxley and the moderators. Then the camera flashed back to Banks. She looked down at her papers and immediately jumped into moderator mode. “Good evening, gentlemen. Let’s go right into this debate now. Both of you are fighting in a race for a town that is torn between being desperate for change and not wanting to risk on something new. For your introductions, explain why the public should either choose change or normalcy. Mayor Stefan, you may start first.” I nodded and cleared my throat.
“Thank you, Alison. In all my years as mayor, I’ve learned something very important. That consistency and normalcy matter the most. Some change is healthy, yes. But on large scales, you have to be careful of the risks that change can carry. Especially with children, it’s important that there is no fear and no questioning of the unknown. Children shouldn’t have to worry about the state of their nation—that’s for the adults to do. Children don’t have to be put into that position if the party in power remains levelheaded and maintains a controlled growth.” The bell rang in the background but I needed to keep going. “Security and safety are basic needs that fall under the government’s role to provide for the general welfare. My job in office is to ensure that the people are safe and secure. I can do that by allowing a controlled growth but not allowing that growth to metastasize and possibly risk the stability of Airedale.” Applause rang out and I was grateful that people agreed with me.
Banks pointed to Huxley. The pig straightened his tie and squared his shoulders. “If we’re going to bring children into this debate, how about we come to the realization that our town needs change FOR the children?” Loud claps and shrill screams came from the audience. I bit my lip as Huxley continued. “Airedale needs change and it needs it now. The faster we make those changes, the faster our town can recover and become great again. People may seem afraid of the change that is to come, and that’s understandable. All people are afraid of change, but change doesn’t have to be scary. Change comes with positive and negative effects, but in the long run, change helps us grow. We need a brighter future. Our children deserve that.” Huxley stopped speaking before the bell rang and people applauded for him.
I could tell this was going to be a very back-and-forth debate. I needed to be on my game and not stumble at all. Kirk spoke up now. “Mayor Stefan, the past few weeks have been showcasing you in the spotlight in a negative way. This isn’t new for you, but with the latest electoral tension in Airedale, voters are not responding positively with your scandals. How will you decrease your media attention in upcoming weeks, months, and possibly years?”
“The voters know that I am not a politically correct politician. I say what I feel and I don’t hold back. This sometimes doesn’t resonate well with the media or constituents, and I’m okay with that.” I said. “The media is always going to find something wrong with me to pick at. It’s what their job is, and I respect that. But I’m not going to change who I am or what I say for anybody. If the media wants to cover me or has anything to say about me, then I’ll let them. I support freedom of the press, and whether or not any media allegations are true or libelous, I’m not going to be angry or upset about what they have to say.”
Huxley spoke up immediately after me, refusing any of the moderators a chance to speak. “I personally wouldn’t want a leader who is a ticking time bomb. A mayor’s job is to command, not to be in the front of every newsstand magazine. Our people need someone to look up to and admire as an executive.”
I huffed angrily. “The people do admire me and look up to me. If they didn’t, I wouldn’t be the mayor for ten years in a row. They trust me and they have faith in me to provide stability and leadership for Airedale. I have the experience and the ability that they need in a leader.” There was a lull in the back-and-forth that allowed Kirk to get a word in.
“Mr. Huxley, on that note, you say that the people of Airedale need someone new. A breath of fresh air. Your grassroots campaign relies on the voice of the people—the name of your political party literally means ‘the party of the people.’ Why are you right for Airedale?”
The pig smirked. “Look at where we are now. Stagnant and suffering. Mayor Stefan has failed this town every way around. He makes back door deals and he’s corrupt. He’s not the shining beacon of purity he may have once been in Airedale. Leadership has changed him and the amount of experience he has in politics has not made him a better person; it has made him overconfident. We need a humble leader and someone who can relate to the people on a deeper level. I can be that person.” Foster took over the commentary.
“Those are strong accusations about Mayor Stefan, Mr. Huxley. Do you have any specific proof to back that up?” I pouted at Huxley and Huxley merely shook his head and sneered.
“I have my ways and methods. I just know. I’m not going to rat on anything in particular, but just believe me when I say that Mayor Stefan is not the honest man people may think he is.” Foster chuckled.
“If you say so, Mr. Huxley. I was just asking on behalf of the people of Airedale. Don’t you think they deserve to know?” The pig didn’t say anything. My hands clenched into fists. It was official. I was out for blood and I knew exactly which wounds to incur.
Foster turned to me with a curious look on his face. He asked if I had anything to say about all of this. Half of me wanted to shrug it off and be the pacifist. The other half of me wanted to dig my nails into the side of the pig’s face. I remembered Isabelle telling me I needed to keep my composure. I just didn’t know how much I needed to keep this composure. It was clear Huxley was privy to some secrets but how…well I wasn’t sure. But I was going to have someone find it out. I had my ways and I had my methods too. Huxley wasn’t the sly fox in this game. If anything, he was the clumsy hound who just managed to walk into the forest.
I was dominant in every way, shape and form.
I needed to be Mr. Charming and I knew exactly how to do that. “I don’t know exactly what type of intelligence Huxley has access to, but I wonder if it something illicit based off of his refusal to talk about it…and of course his track history.” Huxley’s face grew pale. Haha. Foster narrowed his eyebrows.
“Track history? Mayor Stefan, do you care to elaborate on that statement?” he asked. I nodded.
“Actually, I do. You can check my facts and determine they are in fact correct. Huxley in the past, when he was on the committee, has spied on the people of Airedale and has mishandled money allocated for special projects to use them for drones. No one would actually know this because they believe Huxley’s record is unblemished, but if you search for proof of this in the records, you would find this.” Foster turned to Huxley.
“Any intention on defending yourself, Mr. Huxley?” Huxley shook his head.
“None, Joe. I don’t need to defend myself against someone who is still much worse on the scandal scoreboard than I am. This is just a desperate attempt to slander me so he can seem like the better candidate.” Foster shrugged and moved on in questioning. I felt victorious. I knew the media would dig into this and Huxley’s campaign would have to do some backtracking.
“The situation in Silas is far from changing. Cesar’s rhetoric is becoming more bellicose and the stability is quickly deteriorating. With the inefficiency of the neutral peacekeeping force and the strong possibility of Cesar’s forces, now calling themselves the X-Panthers, possessing nuclear weapons, how would either of you plan on dealing with Silas as mayor? Mr. Huxley, you may start.” The pig’s face took a grim expression.
“I think it would be a very unwise decision to jump into a war with the X-Panthers. They have the home field advantage and the guerilla tactics to blow us out of the water. I would prefer to strengthen the peacekeeping force and give them more authority to take action. If we get too involved, it’ll only worsen the power vacuum in Silas and give the civilians and the X-Panthers a personal reason to hate us. My number one priority is to keep the people of Airedale safe, and I plan on preventing any terroristic vendettas from occurring.”
All eyes suddenly turned on me. I pursed my lips confidently. “The situation is Silas isn’t getting better. I refuse to call them the X-Panthers. Cesar and his ragtag group of rebels are terrorists and I will call them such. They don’t deserve the respect of being called some convoluted group name. If the proof of Cesar possessing nuclear weapons was crystal clear, I do not oppose contacting other mayors and determining a plan of action. A strengthening of the peacekeeping force isn’t enough at this point. Air strikes aren’t working either. We need determined boots on the ground and an iron fist shoved in Cesar’s ear. If Cesar even tries any terroristic attacks on us or our allies, I assure you it will lead to more definitive military action.”
Kirk raised his voice to get a quick question in. “Mayor Stefan, does this mean that war with Silas could be a possibility?” Oh Gog. Be smooth about this, Stefan. I can’t scare the viewers. A scared population means fear and confusion grips more than reason.
“Anything is a possibility. At this exact moment, there is no reason we should jump right into war, but if things escalate or worsen—which is a probable outcome—then it becomes a larger option.” Huxley cut in as soon as I stopped speaking.
“We want to lower costs and make the economy more manageable for the people. How can that be done if we’re jumping into another war, spending more money and sending more of our boys into a pointless conflict? We need to focus domestically and keep our efforts at home. When we start to worry about things that don’t concern us, we only get burnt.” I scowled.
“And when we play isolationist, we get burnt anyways because our guard is down and the opposition thinks we’re vulnerable and passive. We have to show Cesar we mean business and I’m the only person who can do that for Airedale.” Kirk asked another question about the Silas situation.
“Gentlemen, regarding the Silas situation, there’s another huge consequence stemming from it. That is the refugee issue. Hundreds and hundreds of animals—families—are seeking asylum and attempting to flee from Silas. They want to be free from Cesar’s regime and safe from his influence. Some people disapprove of the refugees’ arrival in Airedale because they believe it will make our town unsafe and that it will heavily affect the economy. Would either of you allow Silas refugees to come to Airedale?” I decided to speak first.
“I would allow the refugees in, given a simple background check, possessions check, and social media check. These people are mostly families fleeing a regime of terror and violence. The parents just want the best for their children and who am I to refuse that? Airedale is a great town that is only growing. It would be wrong of me to refuse these families a better life. As long as they aren’t part of Cesar’s group, only here to plant roots and spread their ideology and plan terroristic attacks against us, I have no intention of refusing them.” Huxley looked stern about this and I remembered his history. It would be interesting to see what he has to say about this.
“It’s difficult for me to trust the refugees on the level that Mayor Stefan can. Obviously, he has an immense level of trust in them, but as for me, I’m wary. Any one of them can be a part of the X-Panthers. They could have been sent by Cesar to infiltrate our town. They could be lying about who they really are—I don’t trust them completely. Before I would let refugees into Airedale, I would need to investigate their background and their motives more deeply.” Huxley gave me a weird look. “Besides, my priority is protecting the people of Airedale. Not allowing in refugees just to give human-run businesses cheap labor.”
Before I could retort anything, Banks butted in and announced we were going to commercial break. I slouched against the podium and sighed. Huxley slid out from the podium and headed off stage. No doubt to talk to his brother. Isabelle approached me and tugged me off stage.
At least she was grinning.
“Mr. Mayor, great job! You’re doing brilliant out there. I can tell the people are visually responding to what you have to say and that they like it. Huxley is unsure of himself and simply is firing out libelous statements to make himself look better. Keep up what you’re doing and you’ll be fine.” I nodded my thanks and took a sip of my bottled water. She continued babbling on. “The moderators are being easy now and they’re not bugging you too much, so just keep firing back and not giving them any reason to pick at you. Ooh, I’m feeling really optimistic about what your post-debate poll numbers will be!” She exclaimed.
A voice on the loudspeaker proclaimed that the candidates return to the stage. Isabelle squeaked and upon wishing me luck again, scurried away. I swaggered confidently back to the stage. Huxley looked like his brother gave him a firm talking to. We settled ourselves back in the stations and prepared to resume the debate. The cameras flashed. The lights flickered on. Foster was leaning forward, speaking now.
“Welcome back to the first 2016 Airedale election debate. I’m Joe Foster, here with Terrence Kirk and Alison Banks. We’re going into the open question round straight from real constituents, submitted through social media.” The screen lit up to the side of me and Huxley. “Let’s begin. Alice has a question for Mr. Huxley.”
A yellow koala showed up on the screen, the footage clearly being taken by webcam. Her feminine voice soon filled the arena. “Hi Mr. Huxley. I had an important question about the economy. Airedale’s new Bell Boom ordinance has raised my taxes and has forced me to take on a second job—which was very hard to find—just to support myself in an apartment. I fear that the economy will never change and only worsen. It makes me wonder how I’ll ever be able to one day buy a house and settle down to help support my family. How do you plan on changing Airedale’s economy so people like me can have a future to look forward to again?”
That totally didn’t make me cringe on the inside. Okay. Maybe it did. Huxley jumped right into answering. And of course playing the emotional card. “Alice, I’m so sorry you have had to do all of that just to support yourself. You are a single woman and shouldn’t be forced to exert all of that extra effort to live in an apartment. You and every other struggling person and family out there in your identical position are the reason I am fighting for change. When I get into office, the Bell Boom ordinance will be gone and we can work to restore our lives to normalcy. So we don’t have to be in Alice’s position ever again.”
Loud claps rang throughout. What?! No. This can’t be happening. Repeal the Bell Boom? That will be worse? It will cause such economic instability and may even cause a deeper collapse. Do these people not understand economics? Oh Gog.
Foster clicked on the screen to pull up another video. “Mayor Stefan, this question is for you from Derwin.” The video of the blue duck, similarly recorded as Alice’s, replaced the previous video.
“Mayor Stefan, you may never understand the plight of an animal. You’re a white human and you always will have that privilege. Day by day, the animal civil rights makes leaps and bounds in progress that I never would have imagined possible when I was a child. Today, I have a child of my own and I see the progress all around us, except in our own hometown. Yesterday, my child came up to me and cried, asking why he was born a duck. He didn’t want to be an animal anymore and it’s because of the discriminatory practices that your administration has allowed in this town. Teachers are allowed to have preferences. There are still old archaic signs in the schools that were never removed, saying ‘No slurries allowed.’ Why do you continue this to be allowed in today’s society? My question for you, Mayor Stefan, when will this change?”
That made me feel so bad. My stomach pitted and I couldn’t help but feel terrible. In all honesty, I’ve been meaning to abolish animal discrimination for a day or so now. It wasn’t right anymore and I was positive of that. It just has been pushed to the back of my mind and I needed to talk to Isabelle about it. We’ve been putting off any conversation about the topic, but I want to speak to her about it after the debate. I was sure about that. The floor was turned over to me now. The video had stopped.
“Derwin, I am so sorry that your son feels that way. You’re completely right. The archaic practices of animal discrimination have been paradigm for too long now. They need to change. I know I’ve been neutral about the issue before, but recently I have come to the conclusion that I will abolish animal discrimination.” The gasps that I heard. The light claps that jumped into a sheer roar of applause. I examined people’s faces.
Isabelle and Ambrosia looked astonished. The audience looked stunned and happy at the same time. The pundit moderators were shocked. But the best looks in the house…were the Huxley brother’s faces. Hugh’s face turned pale and his eyebrows rose so far into his hairline that they were just gone. Cobb looked angry…and he had every right to be. My abolishing animal discrimination could be a complete game changer for Huxley’s campaign and the election.
When the cheering subsided, I held my hand up. “I admit that it’s taken me too long to figure this out, and I would like to apologize for that. I understand some of you may take a long time to forgive me or you may never forgive me at all, but I will work to change that and to change my reputation among you guys.”
After that, the rest of the debate went on rather boringly. I was dominating but Huxley kept getting a few zingers in there. Then the last part was coming. Foster was leading up to it…”Okay, Mr. Huxley and Mayor Stefan. It’s time for the closing statements. You have one minute each. Go.”
I wanted to let Huxley go first. I wanted to have that last statement and pierce through the people’s hearts. Huxley may be the candidate for the Populist party, but I was the people’s man. If I wasn’t the people’s man now, I would make myself one. So Huxley got the first pick. He stared into the camera, undoubtedly to get the people’s attention.
“We need change and I’m the man for the job. This town needs to change for the future of our children and ourselves. Otherwise, we will descend into the dark pit of destruction that Mayor Stefan fully intends on taking us in. I relate to you. I understand your plight. I’m the only one who can fix Airedale. I humbly ask for your vote in the 2016 election.” The cameras, the lights, and the eyes of thousands of animals both present and at home turned to me. I gulped.
“I will be the first one to admit that I am not perfect. I have flaws and I haven’t always done the right thing when it comes to leading Airedale. I promise to fix every bad thing that has happened due to something that I thought would be positive. I promise to eliminate animal discrimination. I promise to be the best I can for you. You’ve trusted me all this time, even though I’ve proven I really don’t deserve it. I have kept us safe and I have provided a curtain of stability and security…and I will continue to do so. If you will believe in me—if you will trust in me once more, I will be honored to receive your vote in the election.”
Foster turned towards the camera. “Thank you viewers for joining us at this debate tonight. Toy Day is only a week away so we wish you a merry Toy Day and happy holidays. From all of us here at the Airedale Broadcasting News Network, goodnight, everyone.” The cameras were still rolling but thankfully, the mics were turned off. I didn’t have to worry about any leaked soundbites, but I still was going to be cautious. Ambrosia and Isabelle rushed into the stage.
Ambrosia reached out and grabbed my hand. I gripped it tightly and kissed her on the lips. Isabelle touched me on the shoulders and whispered to me. “We need to talk about your animal discrimination promise. Privately. Let’s go somewhere.” I nodded, following the dog out of the arena. I wasn’t going to stick around for any interviews. By the look of the Huxley brother conference across the stage, neither were they. Isabelle led me and Ambrosia out of a side door into an outside alley, where Olaf was duly waiting for me with the car.
We climbed into the limousine and I sat next to Ambrosia. Isabelle plopped down across from me. She drummed her paw against her chin, humming softly. I broke the silence to talk to Ambrosia. “I appreciate you being here to support me. I understand how hard this is for you.” I said. She shrugged.
“It’s fine. I enjoy supporting you whether or not we’re together. I hope that after all this is over, we can be closer friends.” I nodded. Right. Friends. Why did that word touch me so suddenly though? I wasn’t into Ambrosia in a romantic way. Isabelle spoke up.
“Mr. Mayor, are you sure about this whole abolition of animal discrimination thing? This is a huge move and I just want to be sure you’re making the decision of your own volition…not being forced by anyone.” She opened. I shook my head, assuring Isabelle this wasn’t the case.
“Like I said out there, I had been thinking about the issue for quite some time. I was aware how hurtful it was to our children and our society, and I didn’t want it to label us anymore. It wasn’t right to keep it for so long, and I want to change it.” Isabelle nodded understandingly.
“Before you abolish animal discrimination in the morning, I think I have an idea.” I stared at her in confusion. Isabelle’s face broke out into a wide beam. “I want you to learn about animal discrimination’s physical consequences and witness how others experience it firsthand.” The dog cleared her throat. “There’s an inner-city elementary school for impoverished kids and their families. I think if you talked to them about animal discrimination, you would learn a lot more about the practical aspects of the policy.”
“That sounds…really interesting. I want to go.” Isabelle smiled, pumping the air with her fist.
“Great! I’ll set up an appointment with the principal and the teacher for tomorrow morning.” We rode in the car for quite some time until Ambrosia asked a rather…random question.
“Under the current laws of animal discrimination, what would happen if an animal claims a human…attacked her?” Isabelle piped right up, interrupting me and any thoughts I could afford to harbor.
“The human would naturally be protected and the animal would be assumed to be crazy or lying. Humans in the legal and judicial system are always given the benefit of the doubt, regardless of any proof by the alleged victim or lack of proof by the alleged defendant. Alleged being a key word here.”
“And after Stefan abolishes animal discrimination, how will that change?” Ambrosia softly inquired. Isabelle continued to astonish us with her legal knowledge.
“It will take some time for everyone to be used to animal toleration, but eventually the victim will be considered equal and plausible in a court of law. The victim, especially if she has proof, will have a strong chance of winning a case.” I cut in before Ambrosia could say anything else.
“Why are you asking these questions, Ambrosia? Is there something you’re not telling us? I feel like you’re hiding something.” She didn’t say anything and lowered her hand. I hesitated but reached out to hold her hand. “Look. If you know something, you should say something. I don’t know what you’re referring to and I don’t even understand the context. But Ambrosia…I am the most powerful man in Airedale. I can help you with whatever you need.”
Ambrosia had a strange blankness to her expression and refused to say anything more. I stared into her eyes. There was a strange guilt and shame mixed together. I wanted to peel back the layers and uncover what was beneath. However, I didn’t want to be too nosey or make her uncomfortable. If she wanted to tell me or if she should have told me, she would have. Right? Ambrosia has always made the right decisions before. I couldn’t imagine she would stumble now.
“I don’t want to force you to reveal something you’re not comfortable with.” I said barely above a whisper. She sighed.
“I shouldn’t be uncomfortable. It didn’t even happen to me. I just feel strange talking about someone else’s business when she’s personally made a choice to not do anything about what happened to her.” I opened my mouth to reassure Ambrosia. To tell her she didn’t NEED to tell me. I wanted her to trust me as a confidant. I didn’t want her to feel like she was snitching on her friend. But apparently, like Ambrosia usually does, she independently took the reins. “My friend Lottie was attacked by her superior at her workplace, the HHA. She’s pregnant.”
My blood chilled. I knew the only superior at HHA who would do such a thing: Austin. Austin had a rather infamous reputation around the home, but Lyle trusted him. People trusted Lyle. How does that saying go? A friend of my friend is a friend of mine? Something like that. But anywho, Austin wasn’t exactly a shining pinnacle of character. People chose to trust Austin though because he was a human. I knew better than that.
I clenched my fists and bit my lip. “The nerve of that twit…” I trailed off. Ambrosia grimaced.
“I don’t want you to do anything you might regret.”
“I’m not going to regret knocking that boy’s teeth in. You don’t attack anyone.” I took a deep breath and exhaled sharply. “I won’t tell anyone you told me. I will take care of everything myself.” Ambrosia asked me how. And at this exact moment? I wasn’t sure. I was taking Ambrosia’s word for it…well I mean, she couldn’t have been lying. But I knew the district attorney would want there to be conclusive proof. I had nothing right now. I sat back in my seat and brushed a hand through my hair.
“Don’t do anything rash, Stefan.” I shook my head.
“I won’t. Arrange for Lottie to meet me now so we can talk. I think a test would be the best thing. I’ll get some camera footage and see if anyone saw something on the camera…or if there were any witnesses.” Ambrosia reached out to me.
“Stefan, are you sure? I’ve been hiding it for so long because I didn’t want anyone else to get their hands dirty on my or Lottie’s account.” I looked into her eyes. I knew Ambrosia was a good friend; she would give a stranger the shirt on her back. Maybe Isabelle arranged for the two of us to get closer for a different reason. Maybe she wanted me to learn something and take a page out of Ambrosia’s book. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was working.
Some of the girl’s virtue rubbed off on me. “I’ve never been so sure of anything in my life.”
Ambrosia began to quickly text Lottie. Isabelle fiddled around on her phone, contacting the district attorney for me. This may just have been a personal vendetta for it, but I knew Ambrosia and Lottie didn’t have the power alone to bring themselves justice. Sometimes people need a little boost in life. I can be that boost for them. We reached the town hall more quickly than I thought we would. I was the first one out of the car, pulling my coat closer around me. The wind was blowing very briskly.
I opened the door for Isabelle and Ambrosia and hurried inside. Isabelle was now off the phone and looked successful. “I arranged the thing at the school for you tomorrow, Mr. Mayor! And the district attorney is okay with getting a warrant from the judge so you can look over that camera footage. That should all be accomplished by the police department in a few hours.” We both looked over at Ambrosia. She realized we were staring and cleared her throat.
“Um, she doesn’t technically know what we’re going to be doing. I kinda tricked her into coming by saying…uh…’hey you wanna meet me for lunch at work?’” I facepalmed and Isabelle looked flustered.
“You lied to her?” I asked in exasperation. Ambrosia nodded. I groaned. “She’s not going to be happy when she realizes what’s going on.” Ambrosia smirked.
“Hey, you’re no one to talk and give me a lecture about lying, sir.” I chuckled. She had a point. Let me just insert my foot in my mouth right now. Within fifteen minutes of so after this small exchange, the door opened. An otter walked in. Wait a minute. This was the same female otter that was talking to Ambrosia that day. What if they were talking about the incident that day? I shook all of that out of my brain.
The most important thing right now: uncovering the truth.
I wasn’t satisfied after the debate.
My brother tried his hardest to get some zings in at Mayor Stefan, but I fear they weren’t enough. I basically saw Hugh floundering out there and I was nothing I could do about it. While my brother appealed to the audience at times, there were other times that it was difficult to watch. The worst thing happened when Mayor Stefan got his zing in about our past history. Hugh’s past issues with the committee and his dabble in too much political power.
I could only imagine the fact checking that would be going on. The consequential media coverage would be disgraceful. I needed to get on the ball and handle it. But for now, I was escorting Hugh off the stage. I didn’t want him to deal with any post-debate interviews, so we quickly made our way out of the building. People wanted pictures, people wanted to ask questions, but we ignored them all. Hugh seemed mentally distracted; I knew by now that it was his way of being flustered.
As we got in the car and headed back to our headquarters, Hugh began to rant. “It’s not fair that Mayor Stefan revealed my past like that. I’ve refrained from saying tons of things about him! I should have made a mention about the fighting arena deal. I don’t know what stopped me from saying something…” he trailed. I smirked.
“Your class. Look, I wouldn’t worry yourself too much right now or beat yourself up over it. Your polling numbers are still up. The people still love you. You have the support of an entire voting bloc. This is one stumble, IF it’s a stumble at all. It may not snag your campaign. Mayor Stefan’s past is much worse and a future with him isn’t optimistic or bright.” Hugh nodded.
“You’re right. There’s plenty of time to get everything together. I can pull out with a win.” Hugh cleared his throat. “What did you think about Mayor Stefan’s turnaround about animal discrimination?” I scoffed.
“It’s a political bluff. He’s using it, just like he’s played the card every other time, to temporarily gratify the people and assuage them. I feel like he’s not going to do anything. Remember, deep down, he’s a human and he always will be.” Hugh hummed to himself. I shuffled through some papers, notes that I had scribbled to myself.
“This may be your first debate, but this isn’t your first rodeo in general. You’re an eloquent speaker and a strong politician, but you need to combine the two together to have a dominating stage presence. You seem weak alongside him. You seem like the puny underdog that the humans want you to be. You know how people feel about debates—they use it heavily to choose who they like. Your rhetoric needs to be stronger. Your presence more powerful. A few zingers here and there do nothing but provide some comedic relief and maybe a small headline on Facebook news.” Hugh nodded in understanding.
“For Toy Day, I wanted to do something nice. I wanted to do something notable over the holiday for the people that many people would know Mayor Stefan would never do. What should it be?” he asked. He gestured vaguely. “I want to do something to give back to the people who have suffered under Mayor Stefan’s tenure, but I’m not sure what. I feel like he’s going to cover the whole “animal discrimination” thing and I don’t want to piggyback off of that…eh. No pun intended.”
I held back a chuckle. “Yeah. Well, you figure this. Mayor Stefan is never going to bash his Bell Boom ordinance. If you do something pertaining to that, you’ll be unique.” Hugh nodded and noted I was right. I smirked. “Of course I’m right. How about we make a visit to the homeless shelter? There are hundreds of displaced people and families there, after forcing to foreclose on their homes.”
The car stopped and I could see we were at the headquarters. Hugh and I prepared to gather our things together so we can go home in our respective vehicles. As soon as we stepped out of the car into the cold weather, a figure stepped directly in front of us. My eyes adjusted to the darkness and I realized it was Edward. I cleared my throat and stepped forward, arm extended to give me and Hugh some more space.
“Edward, what can we do for you?” I asked assertively. The horse snorted.
“We need to talk inside. Now.” Hugh shook his head.
“It’s been a long day, Edward. Surely we can make an appointment for tomorrow morning—“ I heard a click. A black revolver was pointed at the two of us. My hands rose. Hugh hesitated but rose his hands as well. “Edward…” Hugh trailed nervously. “Put the gun away. Do you realize what you’re doing right now?” Where were the nosy chauffeurs when we needed them? Oh right, they drove away. Because we don’t normally have a chauffeur. Sigh, they were only hired for the night.
“Don’t patronize me!” Edward yelled. “I didn’t know you had a corrupt history when you were on the committee!” I sighed.
“Edward, please. Holding us at gunpoint isn’t going to help you get your answers or any resolution. You’re making a mistake.” Edward shakily and suddenly held the weapon higher, pointing it at our chests.
“You both hid the truth! You used the office to get your way! You both should be ashamed of yourselves!” I looked around, hoping no one was around to hear. I felt Edward prod my shoulder. “Take out your keys. We’re going inside and talking.” I acquiesced to the man’s demands and carefully pulled out my keys. We proceeded into my building slowly. Edward corralled us into my office and sat down in my chair, forcing Hugh and me to sit in the “guest chairs.”
“Edward, what do you want with us?” Hugh asked. The horse reluctantly set the revolver down on the desk; he was still able to access it in a split-second.
“I want to know why. We believed in you. We ALL believed in you!” he exclaimed.
“You still can believe in me.” Hugh said calmly. “My past does not define what my tenure will be. We all make mistakes and sometimes, you can’t believe what you hear.”
“I did the fact-checking. Everything Mayor Stefan said was true.” There’s a shocker. “I want an explanation.” Edward said firmly.
“I was looking out for the best of the people. They need more security and that was the way to obtain it. You don’t understand, Edward.” Hugh started. “Sacrifices had to be made and they needed to be made in the field of privacy. Which would you rather have? Security and safety or your personal privacy?”
“I want both! The people want both! It’s your job to balance them, not undermine one for the other.” In a fit of sudden anger, Edward picked up the revolver and pointed it at us, waving it around wildly. “Tell me one reason why I shouldn’t tell the world right now. Why I shouldn’t cut off the deal right now and give the bloc over to Stefan?” he bellowed.
I raised my hands. “Edward, think rationally.” I said smoothly. “Regardless of what Hugh did in the past, we have to look towards the future. He is the best choice for Airedale. Stefan is not. If you give your bloc to Stefan, you will be making the worst decision for the future of our generation.” Edward exhaled sharply and fingered the gun in his hands.
“Edward,” Hugh opened, “If you kill us, you will be found out.”
“I have no intention on killing you idiots.” Edward spat. “I just wanted to know why you would ruin a good thing. Every animal in Airedale has so much hope for you. You can do so much for our town that Stefan never can or will.”
Hugh reaches out and touches the gun. Edward didn’t recoil backwards. “There still can be hope. Look at me for how I am now. Not who I was before. Now please, give me the gun.” Edward refused and stood up.
“I’ll leave. But I will use this for leverage. If you even attempt to cross me…” Edward waved the gun around some more. “There will be consequences.” I pursed my lips harshly.
“You are barely in the position to bargain. You’ve held us at gunpoint. It’s more like if you cross US, there will be consequences.” I said sternly. “Don’t try to use any of this information to blackmail us. We’ll be honorable and keep our end of the deal for the people. I can only hope you keep yours for the sake of the Airedale community.” Edward just stood there staring at us. Hugh gingerly stood up and opened the office door.
“Edward, I think you need to leave.” Edward turned on his ankle and stormed out of the office. We heard the front door slam. I peered out the window and watched the horse get in a car and peel away. I hurriedly rushed to the front door and lock it. We didn’t need him to come back, especially with any accomplices and a plan. I returned to the office to find my brother reclined in a chair, his head in his hands.
I retrieved some water from my water cooler in the corner and handed it to him. My brother gratefully took the water and sipped at it slowly. I cleared my throat and sighed. “Should we call the police?” I asked. Hugh shook his head.
“No. He was acting out of emotions. I don’t want to see him or the Moral Majority suffer for his actions.” I bit my lip. Hugh was too nice sometimes; he let things slide and I didn’t want to see people walk all over him. He was a pushover and I wished…he wasn’t. “We’ll pretend like nothing happened and if Edward tries anything funny, we’ll speak up then. For now, I’m tired and I would just like to go to sleep.” I nodded and we made our way out of the building.
In silence, we proceeded to our cars and drove away. I was worried about this new dynamic. Moral Majority was important but scary. We had to make the right calculated move or it would be disastrous for all of us.
I tried to look into Lottie’s eyes and I was met only with emptiness and sorrow. She sat down silently in front of us and Ambrosia attempted some light conversation with the otter. The girl exchanged glances between me and Ambrosia, whisper-hissing asking what was going on. The two were having a fierce conversation and I was just awkwardly sitting there witnessing it. Isabelle had the wisdom to “leave” and do paperwork at her own desk.
I cleared my throat and waved at the girl. “Uh, hi. I know Ambrosia kinda dragged you here on false accord, but—“
“But you’re being a nosy human trying to spy in my business!” she snapped. I gulped. Okay, she was going to be feisty.
“I’m really not trying to be invasive. I just want to help.” Lottie hung her head.
“That’s what they all say. How should I trust you?” I sighed.
“I understand you’ve been put through a lot. I swear, I have no intentions to hurt you. I can help you. I’m one of the most powerful people in Airedale and I will believe what you say. I can help you bring justice to—“
“I don’t need your help. I’m just fine by myself. I can’t believe that Ambrosia dragged you into all this!” she exclaimed. She went to stand up and I grabbed her hand to pull her back down. She yanked her arm out of my grasp. “Don’t touch me!” That probably wasn’t the smartest move. I ran in front of her to block her from walking any further.
“I’m sorry! But please. Just hear me out.” Lottie scowled and folded her arms.
“No one else in Airedale trusts you. Why should I?” she asked. I sighed deeply.
“I’m trying to change that. If everyone looked at me for who I was instead of who I’m trying to be, would you do the same?” Lottie huffed and returned to her seat. “Thank you. I know of Austin too well. I know he’s a jerk and I am quite aware with his…history. This could be the nail in his coffin and he deserves to be charged for all that he’s done. He needs to be held responsible for his actions instead of sliding with it because of old-town politics.”
Lottie pursed her lips. “The Vanders are a powerful family. If you went against Austin, wouldn’t you lose them as voters?” she asked carefully. I realized this would be a possibility. The Vanders owned multiple businesses and were strong conservative human voters who basically came with a bloc of their own. I didn’t care though. Their son deserved to realize the error of his ways. Affluence shouldn’t guarantee or prevent anything.
“I would, but I’m not afraid to lose them. I’m going into this election as a changed man. I want different supporters. I want real supporters. People that will support me for who I am and not what I do for them. If you tell me everything about what happened between you and Austin, I promise you that I will do everything in my power to make you feel safe from that man.” Lottie nodded and descended into the story.
It was just as I suspected: Austin attacked her in the alley. He should be so ashamed of himself. He was her superior at work. He’s supposed to be a figurehead of respect, trust, and admiration. By the time Lottie finished her story, my blood was boiling and I wanted to kill Austin myself. Ambrosia calmed me down and thanked Lottie for telling the story again. I nodded.
“Yes, thank you, Lottie.” I straightened my posture and cleared my throat. “I’m going to put some calls in. To the police. To Lyle. To the DA. Austin isn’t getting away with this.” I gestured to Lottie’s stomach region. “Now, about your…um…extra passenger, what do you plan on doing?” Lottie blushed when she realized what I was talking about and shrugged.
“I’m-I’m not sure yet. I’ve been researching my different options but I’m not sure yet. I didn’t really talk to Ambrosia about it, but I know I need to make a decision soon.” Ambrosia put a hand on her friend’s shoulder.
“Lottie, don’t feel pressured into making a decision you’ll regret. I don’t want you to be rash about things. You have some time.” The girl nodded.
“I know, but I also know that I can’t waste time anymore. I was leaning towards adoption because then at least a needing family can have a child. But at the same time, it drags everything out so much…” Lottie trailed. Isabelle came over, cutting all of us off.
“We don’t need to talk about this now.” The dog piped in. “Mr. Mayor, we can get those calls out tonight if you like. We don’t have anything else to discuss with Lottie.” I nodded.
“Yes, Isabelle’s right. Lottie, thank you so much for talking to us tonight. You can go now.” Lottie nodded and, saying her goodbyes to Ambrosia, headed out of the office. I stood over at Isabelle’s desk, grateful that the secretary stepped in and prevented us from talking about the inevitable. Isabelle asked me what to tell the people I wanted to call. I sighed, not wanting to have to relay the news. “Tell the police that I have beyond reasonable doubt Austin Vander committed an assault crime on Lyle’s niece Lottie. Tell Lyle that I need to have a word with him regarding the people he employs and has representing his company. As for the DA…tell her I have all the proof I need.”
Isabelle nodded and waved me away. “Very good then, Mr. Mayor. You’re free to go for the night. I’ll handle all of this. I’ll see you tomorrow morning. Meet me here at 6:30 so we can take a towncar over to the schoolhouse.” I nodded and wished her a goodnight. I glanced over towards Ambrosia’s desk but she was gone. It was a shame; I kinda wanted to ask her if she wanted to have dinner with me. I guess she was tired too.
Even though it was cold and Olaf was expecting me to get in the limousine with him, I told the anteater I would walk tonight. Olaf stared at me with concern but let me go, assuring that there would be security available in case something happened. I thanked him and trotted off by myself. Tonight I just wanted to be alone. For too long, I’ve gazed at my town through almost literally rose-colored glass. I needed to see Airedale how my constituents saw their home town.
I trudged through the snow and stayed to the icy sidewalks as the cold winds blew against me. Christmas lights and other holiday decorations lit up the town and I realized that I had wandered into the downtown plaza. The shops were still open and people were hustling around getting last minute shopping done. Alongside of me, the door to a café blew open. A child and his mother hurried out, the boy babbling away about his day. The mother just trying to balance all four large bags in her hands.
One of the bags ripped, its contents pouring out onto the concrete. I rushed over to help her. I gathered the items in my arms and handed them to her. “I hope nothing’s broken, ma’am.” I said lightly. She thanked me and stared at me for a moment. She didn’t realize who I was in the dark. My face turned pink and I wanted to look away. I was too embarrassed to even do that. She clicked her tongue.
“Thank you, sir. Have a good night.” She gripped her son’s shoulder tightly and hurried away. I was in front of the Able Sisters’ Shop now. In the window was a large sign. It read “Accepting Clothes Donations for Christmas!” Suddenly, I came up with a crazy wild idea and burst inside the store. The two hedgehogs looked up at me on confusion. The one by the sewing machine bowed her head slightly.
“Mayor Stefan. It’s quite a surprise to see you in here. What can we do for you?” My eyes scanned the store until they spotted the donation box in the corner. It looked rather light….and not very burdened with clothes inside.
“I want to donate some clothes. Are you still accepting?” They nodded and the one by the sewing machine—Sable I believe her name was—asked me where my clothes were. I dumbly pointed to my shoulders. “I plan on donating the clothes I have on now. I want to buy some clothes in here that I can walk home with.” The sisters exchanged confused looks but didn’t ask any questions as I began to strip in the middle of the store.
The blue sister—Mabel—rushed over to me with a blanket. “Mayor Stefan! We have a changing room in the back!” I stopped undressing abruptly. Mabel blushed and showed me the curtained-off area in the corner. I told Mabel I needed to pick out clothing first. She stood back and waddled over to her sister, while I browsed the aisles. I quickly picked out some denim jeans, a blue flannel shirt, a basic black coat, and some blue sneakers for myself. I handed them all to Mabel so I could pay for them. “That’ll be 2,000 bells.”
I scoffed inwardly. In any normal town, it would be 1,780 Bells. My Bell Boom ordinance obviously caused the prices to be higher. I handed over the money and immediately went into the changing room with my new purchases. I looked different when I came out. My fancy clothes were bundled up in my hand and I placed the folded clothes in the box. Sable stared in shock and Mabel was speechless. I opened the conversation awkwardly.
“I hope someone can get some good use out of those clothes.” Mabel cleared her throat.
“Are you sure you want to donate those clothes, Mayor Stefan?” Sable hmmphed in the corner.
“Mabel, don’t question the mayor. If he wishes to donate his expensive clothes, by all mean, let him.” Mabel scowled.
“I’m not questioning the mayor. I’m just checking to make sure he’s making the right decision.” I interrupted the bickering sisters.
“Believe me, I am.” I slipped the coat over my shoulders and smiled at them. “I want to do more to help the community and to show people I care. I hope this shows my true intentions.” I nodded a ‘good night’ and a ‘Merry Christmas’ to the women and walked out of the shop. The bell tinkled to signal my departure. I didn’t turn around but if I would have, I would have seen the two sisters staring at my retreating figure in awe and disbelief.
I felt bad for betraying Lottie like that, but I knew that this was for the best.
Lottie needed justice and Austin needed to be put in this place. I knew Austin for years, but he couldn’t get away with what he has done. I walked home from the debate and was accustomed to the smell of Chinese food by my apartment. What I wasn’t accustomed to was the man sitting on my steps. He stood up at the sight of me and grinned sheepishly. It was Jesse. I narrowed my eyes at the man and approached him.
Jesse stood up and blushed. “I know it’s kinda weird that I just showed up at your place like this. But I need someone to talk to. I’ve felt…so alone. Can we talk?” I nodded and let Jesse in. I don’t know how long he was sitting outside but I wanted him to get in the warmth. Jesse’s muscles visibly relaxed once we were inside. I offered him something warm to drink like coffee, but he turned it down. I made myself some hot chocolate and sat down on the couch. He sat alongside of me. I sipped my hot chocolate slowly and smiled.
“Is everything okay, Jesse?” He shrugged.
“Not really. I know I had told Stefan I needed time to think about things, but I wished he would try a little bit harder to win me back. Believe me, I understand the conflict he’s going through as a politician. I’m not being selfish. I just would like to think that he can make the decision.” I nodded sympathetically.
“I haven’t known Stefan for nearly as long as you, but I can gather that he isn’t the best with his emotions. What I do know is that he loves you dearly. He just struggles with telling you it.” Jesse sighed.
“I know he loves me, but I guess I just want him to say it. I understand that can be hard for him, but he needs to learn to be open with me.” I’ve been doing nothing but playing the mediator in all of this. Even though I was playing the role as the awkward fake girlfriend/fiance, I wanted to help these two get back together. They seemed like they were really in love with each other—I could tell they were destined to be soulmates.
“Have you thought about everything?” I asked slowly. Jesse nodded, leaning back on the couch.
“I have. And I’m okay with everything. I wish that Stefan would stop the lying and come out and be genuine. I don’t want him to hide who he is anymore. I just want him to be happy though. So it’s conflicting…” Jesse trailed. I rested a hand on his shoulder.
“Well, Stefan is working on changing. I see it in him. This whole experience is changing him and he’s working to be a better person. I think if you talked to him, you guys can resolve your issues.” I cleared my throat. “It’s completely up to you, but perhaps I can arrange to have you guys meet. As much as I will support Stefan by playing this…role…I can’t be a lie forever. I want Stefan to come out and show the world who he really is. I think he might be very close to doing so.”
Jesse bit his lip. “I always was a pragmatic person. I‘m not pessimistic but I choose to stay realistic. I can’t imagine Stefan doing anything like that until I see it.” I nodded. “I’m sorry.” Jesse said suddenly. “I don’t want to drag you into our drama like this. It’s already bad enough that Stefan has involved you so much.” I shook my head.
“No, seriously, it’s okay. I really want to help you guys and I want you to see that Stefan has changed. He’s promised to abolish animal discrimination and I really think this is the first step to Stefan becoming a better man.” I thought of something suddenly. “Tomorrow morning, Stefan is going to an elementary school to talk about animal discrimination with them. I want you to come.” I said firmly. Jesse spluttered in confusion.
“What? Come? Do you have any idea of how much attention that will cause?” I nodded.
“Absolutely. But you don’t have to like come in the schoolroom or anything. I want you to just like stand in the far corner and see him interact and I want you to see how he’s changed.” Jesse sighed, unsure of himself. I could tell he seemed sad. “I know Stefan would be happy to see you there.” Jesse shrugged.
“Maybe. I just—I’ve given up being the shining knight to swoop in like in the movies. I want Stefan to do that for a change. I’ve shown Stefan that I love him and I want him to prove himself to me for a change.” I nodded understandingly. He sighed. “We’ll see. But I don’t know.” Jesse sniffled and I could tell he was holding back tears. “I miss him and I feel so alone. He hasn’t tried to contact me at all and it seems like he’s falling into this persona role of being ‘in love with you.’” Jesse suddenly looked at me, his eyes red and swollen. “By no means am I mad at you, Ambrosia! I’m really not. I’m not even mad at Isabelle. It’s him. He’s accountable for his actions. I love him and I hate him all at the same time and it’s really conflicting for me.”
I engulfed Jesse into a hug. “I’m so sorry. I had no idea you felt this way.” He sniffled and shook his head.
“It’s not your fault. I didn’t tell you my feelings before. Between the media and all of this attention, it’s taken a toll on me. I’ve felt so…hopeless and empty. Sometimes I just want to give up.” My stomach pitted.
“Jesse. Please. Don’t think that way. If you feel that way, I want you to talk to me or anyone. Just talk it out. There’s so much to—“
“Live for. I’ve heard it all before. I’m trying hard to fight through it all, but it’s difficult.” I pursed my lips.
“I’m going to talk to Stefan tomorrow. Please come to the schoolhouse. Even if you just show up after everything, I think you two need to have a conversation. Stefan is changed, I promise.” Jesse smiled.
“I appreciate you trying, Ambrosia, but I don’t want Stefan to feel forced to talk to me.” He said. I insisted that Stefan wouldn’t be forced. I explained that Stefan was scared and that, most likely, he was giving Jesse space and time to sort through everything. I could tell Stefan didn’t want to be a bother but it was all weighing on his mind. Jesse nodded and stood up. “Okay. I’ll come to the schoolhouse tomorrow. I don’t know what time I’ll be there, but I’ll definitely come.” I smiled and stood up with Jesse, taking his hands in mine.
“Sounds good. And Jesse…if you feel that way again, you need to talk to someone. Even if that means you knocking on my door at 4 o’clock in the morning, I’ll be here for you.” Jesse nodded and thanked me. We shared another hug and the man soon left my apartment. Exhausted, I lay against my couch and groaned loudly. Stefan…I hope he was going to give Jesse a chance. Poor Jesse needs it.
Isabelle requested my presence at the schoolhouse. I didn’t think I really needed to arrive at the same time as Stefan, but Isabelle was picky about it. She made it sound like I needed to. The last thing I wanted was Isabelle to be mad at me. I scrambled out of bed and dressed. I was quite surprised to see Olaf in the town car outside of my apartment. I narrowed my eyes in confusion and the window rolled down. I saw a much simpler Stefan staring at me. His hair wasn’t gelled or spiky anymore. Instead of being coiffed and groomed neatly, Stefan’s hair was messy. He didn’t shave and there was some stubble forming on his face. I hurried into the car and was more surprised to see a casual Stefan in front of me. Usually at all times, he is dressed in slick button-down shirts, dress pants, and fancy shoes. Right now, he was clad in a red flannel shirt, jeans, and hiking boots.
“What’s with the new look?” I asked. I scanned his wrists. His watch wasn’t there anymore. “You don’t have your watch on.”
Stefan pursed his lips. “I’m just going to a school. I don’t need to be dressed up.”
“You’re always dressed up. Is everything okay?” I asked hesitantly. He nodded.
“Peachy. I’ve uh, decided to revamp my look. I will be formal when formal is necessary, but I’ve decided to be less fancy.” I looked him over. The casual look suited Stefan, but we all knew him as a man in the suit. This might be a little revolutionary, even for these progressive-desiring people.
“Stefan, we all knew you as the suave executive. Are you sure you want to change up your look like this?” I asked. Stefan huffed.
“I’m doing this for me. I’m donating a majority of my clothes through the Able Sisters’ Christmas clothes drive and I’m transforming myself into a new me. New clothes help me achieve that and all.” I nodded. Stefan seemed so intent on changing and moving on from the person he was. Would now be the best time to bring up Jesse? Well, I guess it’s better now than later. Otherwise, Stefan would only be surprised and taken aback at the school. It would be more optimal that I tell him beforehand so he’s not off guard in front of the kids.
“Jesse came to my apartment last night and we talked.” I started. Stefan turned to me and stared with an aghast expression. I stumbled over my words, trying to figure out what the right words to say are. “He misses you. I told him that you two should really talk over everything.” Stefan hummed softly in response. I cleared my throat. “I…told him to come to the school today.” Stefan narrowed his eyes and clenched his fists.
“What did you do that for?” he asked testily. I held my hands out in a surrendering motion.
“Please don’t be mad. He really wanted to see you. I think you two need to talk over everything. Hopefully resolve things.” I stopped and stared in his eyes. “I know you’re holding back your emotions. You both need to talk over everything and I think it’ll all be better.” Stefan sighed and brushed a hand through his messy hair. It’s not normal to ever say Stefan’s hair is messy…
“We’ll talk about this later. I don’t need you involving yourself in my business.” He said. I huffed and crossed his arms.
“I think it’s a little late for that, Stefan.” He rolled his eyes and smirked.
“You’re right. I just want to get through this day without any hitch or incident.” Olaf pulled up in front of the schoolhouse. It looked like your typical elementary school. There was the brick exterior, the gold bell, the cobblestone steps. But it told a darker story. The condition of the school was dilapidated. Bricks were chipping. Steps were uneven and worn. The bell looked like it hadn’t been rung in years. Austin probably was even in charge of the project as district manager and all. The fact disgusted me. The double doors opened and the principal hustled outside with who looked like a teacher. Through the windows, I could see young children peering out at us. Olaf opened the door for us and we both clambered out. The principal, a jovial-looking man, shook both of our hands.
“Mayor Stefan! Miss Ambrosia! It’s a pleasure to have both of you visit our school. We’re looking forward to you meeting all of the children.” Mayor Stefan nodded and exited the car. I followed shortly after. The teacher seemed like a very young woman but she looked happy as well. To be in her position, I assumed she had to be a very inspiring teacher. The two led us into the schoolhouse. The inside wasn’t much better than the outside. A moldy, musty smelled filled the halls. The lockers were old and rusty and the floors were stained.
The hallway wasn’t too long. We were only in the hallway for a minute until we were led into the classroom. The room was small and just as dilapidated as the rest of the school. A small shelf in the corner held old dated books. There were twenty desks but approximately fifty children in the room. They were goofing off and yelling before we came in, but hushed to a silence when we came in. The principal grimaced but plastered on a smile.
“Boys, girls, please welcome our special visitors Mayor Stefan and his friend Ambrosia!”
Fifty pairs of eyes stared back at us in despair.
These kids looked so sad.
I was immensely grateful that I wasn’t dressed like a juicebag at this moment. The principal left the room and the teacher stayed. She introduced herself as Molly Singer. Molly was a nice girl, a brown duck with the most beautiful eyes and the kindest heart. I could tell she really cared about those kids. I introduced myself to the kids and began talking to them individually and in groups. Ambrosia stood off to the side but wasn’t standoffish. She immersed herself into the experience appropriately.
The kids mingled among themselves, talking to me mostly. They bounced around and showed me their room and attempted to play with us. One of the boys was a red octopus. He was proud to tell me his name.
“My name is Octavian!” he exclaimed. I held out my hand for him to shake seriously.
“What a unique name. You know who you’re named after, right?” The boy nodded.
“Yes! My dad told me the story himself. Octavian was Julius Caesar’s nephew. Julius Caesar adopted him as his son and he eventually became the next emperor of the Roman Empire!” I nodded in agreement and asked Octavian if he enjoyed learning about Roman history. “I do a lot. I go to the library and read so many books on it.”
“Do you sometimes use this school’s library?” I asked. He shrugged, looking down at his shoes sheepishly.
“Sometimes I do. But usually this library never has good books. They’re either old or really messed up. So I just go to the town library.” I nodded again.
“So Octavian, what do you want to be when you’re older?” I asked. His face lit up brightly.
“I want to be a historian! I want to work at a museum with all sorts of historical stuff.” I smiled, not being able to help but absorb this boy’s enthusiasm. “Buuuttttt, my dad tells me that I’m not being realistic.” I furrowed my eyebrows and asked him what he meant. “Well, my dad is a history teacher. He told me he originally wanted to be a historian but he wasn’t able to make a lot of money doing it because he was an animal. So instead he had to become a teacher where he could actually get a job and make decent money.” My stomach sank.
“What does your mom do? What does she think?” Octavian shrugged.
“My mom’s a nurse and she says my dad’s right. She told me that the only way I can make money is if I become a doctor, but she also said I may not be able to become a doctor or make it into medical school because I’m an animal.” My gut felt like it did ten 360’s on a rollercoaster. I set a hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“Octavian, listen to me. You can be whatever you want to be, whether you’re an animal or a human. Times are going to change, okay? I promise. You’re not going to have to worry about all those things anymore. So just…do what you want to do and find a career that you really love. You seem like a smart boy so I’m confident you’ll get whatever job you want.” Octavian smiled, thanking me and hopping away to his teacher.
I moved onto another child. There was a small koala sitting in the corner by herself, playing with a stuffed teddy bear. I sat alongside of her at the small table and smiled. “Hey there.” I greeted. “I like your bear.” She smiled weakly.
“Thanks. I’m Melba.”
“I’m Stefan. How come you’re over here by yourself?” The girl shrugged.
“Sometimes the other girls aren’t the nicest to me. They say mean things so I just sit over here by myself.” I nodded; I told her I understood and I told her it gets better. “Do you have people say mean things to you too?” she asked. I nodded again.
“I do. All of my life, people have called me names and have said mean things either to me or behind my back. It hurts, doesn’t it?” She nodded. I prodded her shoulder gently. “But you know what you say to haters like them, right?” Melba shook her head. “You have to stand up to them and tell them that they don’t bother you. When they see that they’re not affecting you, they can’t win anymore so they back off.”
“Is that what you do to people who are mean to you?” I laughed a little.
“I try to. Are you going to try that on the people who are mean to you?” I asked. She nodded vigorously, smiling at me. “Awesome.” I held my hand out to give her a high five. She leaned forward and slapped my hand. “So tell me, Melba, what do you want for Toy Day?” I asked. She shrugged.
“I don’t know. My parents are going through a rough time right now and I know they need a lot of things. I kinda want Jingle to just get them things, but at the same time, I do really want this dollhouse I’ve seen in Nook’s window for a couple weeks now…” the girl trailed. I asked her what they needed. “My dad lost his job because they were making cuts and only fired animals. My mom can’t get a job anywhere because no one is hiring animals. We’re behind on our rent and our landlord won’t give us a break.” She stopped and stared at the wall. I gulped nervously.
“I’m sorry to hear all of that, Melba. I hope things will get better for you soon.” The koala didn’t answer me. My thoughts were shattered by a shrill whistle piercing the room. Molly stood there, releasing the whistle from her lips.
“Okay children! It’s time for lunch now! Head to the cafeteria now please. Single file! Stay in a line!” The duck tried to retain order but most of the kids rushed out of the classroom and hustled down the hallway. The girl gave up trying. I chuckled, my companion leaving me for food. Both Ambrosia and I were abandoned by our little buddies and we walked over to Molly.
“What are we allowed to do for lunch?” Ambrosia asked. Molly pointed down the hall.
“You and Stefan are permitted to go to the cafeteria as well. I’m sorry if it’s not exactly the food you may be used to…” the teacher trailed awkwardly. Ambrosia shook her head.
“No, no! Don’t apologize. Stefan and I are fine with any type of food.” Ambrosia proceeded to walk out of the hallway and she looked at me to follow. Something was bothering me and I needed to make it right. I hesitated.
“Uh, Ambrosia, I’ll be right there. Go on without me. I’ll catch up.” Ambrosia nodded in understanding and left the room. I turned to Molly and winced, not knowing how to open this conversation. “So, Molly, I was, uh, talking to one girl about Toy Day. She was talking about all of the struggles her family is going through right now financially. I’m aware that most of the students come from impoverished families…are all of the students’ families going through similar struggles?” I asked carefully. Molly nodded.
“Yes. All of the families are going through a lot of suffering right now. We try our best here at Polk Elementary to have a solid support system and appropriate counseling services and afterschool activities, but sometimes it’s not plausible. We have neither the funding nor the people to handle the amount of people that need our services. But why do you ask?” she asked. I twiddled my fingers idly.
“Well, honestly, I am very interested in helping out all of the class’s families for Christmas. I want the parents to not have to fear about their future or their financial burdens. I want the children to not have to sacrifice their simple want of toys. I’m willing to fund it all with my personal money.” Molly narrowed her eyes at me.
“Mayor Stefan, are you sure about all this?” She realized what she was asking and cleared her throat. “I mean, if you’re willing to help, then I can’t stop you. But I don’t want you to do something that you might not wholly want to do.“ The duck stumbled over her words. I held out a hand and cut her off.
“No need, Molly! I really do want to help.” I chuckled warmly. “Believe me, they are all a great group of kids and I want to see them have a good Christmas.” Molly nodded.
“I commend your generous spirit, Mayor Stefan. We can talk it over after all of this and I can give you the contact information of all of the families.” I smiled.
“I would greatly appreciate that. Thank you, Molly.” I left the classroom and prepared to meet Ambrosia back at the cafeteria. I had just passed through the doorway and was ready to turn down the hall, when I felt the hand on my shoulder. I whipped around in silent shock to see Jesse standing there.
He looked amazing. He was dressed very nicely—he was dressed like how I would normally dress. When he saw the way I was dressed, his face curled into a playful grin. He didn’t kiss me but I did notice him staring at my lips.
“Hey.” I said breathlessly, unable to say much else.
“Hey, Stefan.” Jesse greeted warmly.
“H-how long were you standing there?” I asked. Jesse smirked.
“Long enough to know that you are great with kids.” I couldn’t help but snort out a laugh. Jesse brushed a hand through my hair. “Your hair. It’s messy.” I just laughed in response. “Ever since I’ve known you, your hair is always coiffed and spiky. And your wardrobe…” Jesse trailed, gazing at my casual attire. “I’ve told you a bunch of times that I love a man in a suit, but I like this look. I can get used to it.” Jesse ran a finger against the collar of my flannel. I chuckled and almost gave into his touch.
I snapped myself back to reality. Things with Jesse were complicated and I was standing in the hallway of an elementary school on break from a special appearance. I couldn’t exactly be completely intimate. This had nothing to do with conventional modesty or shame in that manner—we were in public and there were kids around. I placed a hand on Jesse’s shoulder to steady him and give ourselves some bounded distance.
“I’m happy you came out here today.” I said with a deep sigh. “We need to talk and I have a lot of things on my mind that I want to tell you.” Jesse nodded and held my hand.
“I do too.” He cleared his throat. “I get it if you can’t talk now, because you have lunch and this appearance but—“ I couldn’t take the rambling anymore. I leaned forward and kissed Jesse. Surprisingly, he kissed back. After a few moments, he tore away and sighed. “Stefan…what does this mean?”
“It means I love you.”
I was sitting at a table myself after I had grabbed some food. It was your basic cafeteria food but I didn’t really care. I wasn’t as finicky with my food as Stefan might have been. I grabbed a hamburger and some macaroni and cheese. I had no idea if it was good. Ultimately, I was making a gamble. My phone buzzed alongside of my water bottle and I narrowed my eyes. I unlocked my phone to see Isabelle had messaged me.
“Check the news! There’s several different things breaking! I’m on my way to the schoolhouse. Don’t move anywhere.”
I gulped nervously. Isabelle clearly meant business if she was rushing over here. I checked all the Airedale news outlets on my phone. The first news that hit was not about Stefan for once. It was about Hugh. Apparently, people were fact-checking the whole “misappropriation of funds” and “privacy invasions” of Hugh while he was on the committee. People were reeling and a lot of commenters were talking about how it completely changed their view of Hugh.
I felt relieved to know that the other side of the campaign was receiving some pressure for once. I looked at the next news…oh Gog. Apparently, paparazzi caught Jesse coming to the schoolhouse. They must have been down in the hallway talking. I scrambled to eat the rest of my food and check on Stefan. He still hadn’t come out into the cafeteria yet. Once I was done, I threw away my leftovers and placed the tray on top of the trash can. When I rushed out into the hallway, Stefan and Jesse were in the hallway, talking with Molly. Isabelle had just pushed open the door and was sprinting down the corridor. The secretary grabbed Jesse by the shoulders, although her size really wasn’t enough to make an impact.
“What on earth do you think you’re doing here?!” she exclaimed. I intervened.
“Isabelle, I’m sorry! I invited Jesse here.” I said. Isabelle looked like she was going to choke me. She sighed and shook her head. “Those two have to hash out their problems, and I think it’s wrong to continue this charade any longer.” Stefan cleared his throat.
“Ambrosia’s right.” He wrapped his arm around Jesse’s waist. “I love Jesse and I’m not afraid anymore. I want to admit it to the world.” Isabelle nodded.
“Okay, that’s all great and stuff, but can you wait like a day?” she asked testily. “I want to ride off of Hugh’s news break. People are discovering the truth behind his dishonesty.” Stefan smirked and told Isabelle and me what he was just talking to Molly about—giving back to those kids’ families. Isabelle beamed. “Mr. Mayor, that’s great!” she said happily. I couldn’t believe it. Stefan really was changing. Molly spoke up.
“I just gave Mayor Stefan the information of all of the children’s families. I’m sure they will truly appreciate his generosity.” She gestured to the cafeteria. “If you would like to cut the day short, we understand. The kids enjoyed having you two here. We can just go in real quick and tell the children you two are leaving…” she trailed. Stefan nodded.
“That sounds good to me. I’ll be seeing them again shortly anyways. This week, I’ll personally be going to the people’s homes and telling all of the families I’m giving back to them.” Molly smiled widely.
“Wonderful, follow me.” We trailed behind the duck as she entered the cafeteria and blew her whistle. “Children! Mayor Stefan and his friend Ambrosia have to leave now. Everyone, come say goodbye!” All of the children abandoned their lunch trays and sprinted over to us. They wrapped their little arms around our waists and babbled and hoped we would come again soon. I hugged them all and told them goodbye. I was quite impressed by the friendly role Stefan was playing.
I never pegged him as being good with kids. Apparently, you learn something new every day. Molly escorted us outside, thanking us again for coming. When Isabelle opened the door, Olaf was at the base of the steps. And so were ten different reporters with cameramen. They stood there snapping photographs and recording video footage. They screamed out to us, asking why Jesse was there. Isabelle’s face turned white; I felt embarrassed. I had caused this. Surprisingly, Stefan wasn’t mad but I would think he would at least be flustered.
He grabbed Jesse’s hand and strolled forward. Isabelle tried to stop him but Stefan didn’t flinch. He smiled with determination at the crowd and raised his hand, Jesse’s still clasped in Stefan’s grip.
“Yes! I am dating Jesse. Not Ambrosia. I love him and he loves me. I am not ashamed and if you have anything to say about it, I don’t care.” Pushing his way through the people, he got in the car. Isabelle and I hurriedly scurried after them. Olaf made sure to peel away promptly. While Isabelle was hyperventilating in the corner, Stefan sighed, feeling bad for the girl. “Isabelle, I’m sorry. But I had to do this. I’m turning over a new leaf. A new me. I need to be honest with the people. You can’t cover me up anymore.” She nodded.
“Y-you’re right, Mr. Mayor. I’m sorry too. I didn’t mean to keep hiding who you really were. I just wanted the best for your campaign.” He nodded.
“I know. And Ambrosia…I’m sorry you had to get all wrapped up in this. You know I was being selfish and not really thinking in terms of the picture, right?” he asked with a grin. I smirked.
“Yeah, but it’s okay. I’m fine with everything.” My phone dinged and I looked down. All the news outlets I was subscribed to were blowing up. They all couldn’t stop talking about Stefan coming out. I chuckled and put my phone on ‘silent.’ Those notifications would be driving me crazy. We proceeded through the car in silence. There was nothing else for me to do today. I just wanted to go home and relax. The holidays were coming up and Isabelle was in charge of getting everything in order for the election in two months. February 1st was the date to be exact.
In the meantime, we had Christmas and one or two more debates to go. There was a mean road to travel in the meanwhile. Olaf pulled up in front of my apartment and dropped me off. I grabbed my possessions and stumbled onto the sidewalk. I stuck my head back in the car momentarily.
“So, does this mean the whole song and dance are over? You don’t have to kiss me or wrap your arms around me in public? Or declare your undying love for me and the children I may potentially provide you?” I asked with a sly grin. Stefan laughed.
“That’s right. Again, sorry about the awkwardness. If it makes you feel any better, if I was a different man, maybe you and I would have worked.” Stefan said cheekily. I rolled my eyes and resisted the urge to smack him playfully.
“I feel so lucky.” I shut the car door and waved as Olaf pulled away. Once the town car was around the corner, I turned to go up the stairs to my apartment. I smashed right into a human body. I staggered backwards and my face tinged pink. “I’m so sorry, sir!” I was pretty sure I slammed into a man. “It’s my fault. I wasn’t paying attention.” I looked up and saw a man with groomed red hair. I groaned loudly. “You know…I’m really sick of random men showing up at my apartment.”
Austin grabbed my shoulder and dragged me into the alley alongside the Chinese restaurant building. “You foolish girl, I know what you’ve done!” I scowled nastily.
“Yeah, and I know what you’ve done!” I pushed Austin away from me. His back collided with the brick wall and he hmmphed in pain. “How could you? I know you’re not the biggest fan of animals but this is a new low. Even for you.” Austin frowned.
“You should stick your nose out of my business. I don’t have to explain myself to you. I deal with my employees how I choose to. That day, Lottie was acting out of place. Her uncle gave me the jurisdiction over this district to handle the branch [i]how I choose[/i].”
“That doesn’t mean that the way you choose is right.” I snapped. “Attacking Lottie wasn’t the answer. You’re in a deeper heap of trouble than you can imagine.” I said firmly. I cleared my throat, not knowing if telling Austin was the solution. However, my mouth worked faster than my brain at this adrenaline-high moment. “Lottie’s pregnant.” Austin’s face paled. I crossed my arms and widened my distance between me and him. “What are you going to do now?” Austin cleared his throat and straightened his posture.
“Nothing. Because that thing inside of her has no relation to me.” My stomach twisted. “I have nothing to do with…all that. I have the best lawyers in Airedale and I will come out of this with my hands clean. Now, I digress.” Austin reached out to grab me and I tried to fight him off. He wrapped his arm around my neck, gripping me in a choke hold. I could breathe but it still was an intimidating position. He lowered his face so it was close to my ear. I squirmed around and tried kicking him.
“Let. Go. Of. Me. You. Stupid. Juicebag!” I yelled. He held his hand over my mouth, trying to silent me. It just so happened that no one was around to hear my cries. He slapped me and told me to shut up. I groaned and he whispered in my ear.
“I have a message to pass on for Miss…Lottie. You tell her to march her little tail to a doctor’s office and press ‘delete’ on her insides. If you know what I mean.” My stomach twisted further as I realized what he was implying. “That’s the best thing for her that will save us all time and money and aggravation. But hey, it’s her choice I [i]guess.[/i] But if you tell anyone of our little ‘encounter’ today, I’ll make the choice for Lottie. And press Backspace myself.”
Austin suddenly let go of me and pushed me to the ground. He turned to run away. I stuck my leg out to trip him. It only halfway succeeded. He stumbled a bit over his feet but retained his balance. Austin sprinted out of the alley. By the time I had gotten to my feet and ran out to chase him, he was gone. I grumbled under my breath. His threat seemed real. I didn’t want to tell Stefan or anyone, but at the same time, I knew Stefan had the power to make Austin pay. I looked down at my hands and wrists.
Yep, they were all dirty and scratched up from the asphalt and dirt. Some fresh blood was mingled with the cuts. I contemplated calling Stefan. By now, his number was definitely in my contacts. Some people were staring at me now as I scrolled through my phone. Sure, now they show up. Where were they when I was screaming and struggling? I pressed the green ‘Call’ button. Stefan answered after two rings.
“Ambrosia? Is everything alright?” I sighed.
“Not really. Austin just attacked me.”
The past week has been frustrating.
I have enough on my plate with the election, reception due to me coming out, and any other type of controversy directed my way. Now, I have this drama with Lottie and Austin Vander going on. After Austin attacked (but thankfully not traumatized) Ambrosia, I sent police forces over to her apartment and our case against Austin was solidified. The DA was on my side and the evidence was stacking up against Austin. The Vanders could have all the lawyers on their side, but everything is there. Plus Lottie has me on her side! She can’t fail!
In other news, the reception of me coming with Jesse is tough. I didn’t hold a press conference about it or anything, but people are aware that I lied about being with Ambrosia. Surprisingly enough, some people understood why I had to lie. A lot of people were happy with me for being open and coming out of the closet. I felt happy for being myself and my relationship with Jesse couldn’t have been better. Every day is a step and process, but we get through it together.
I’ve been changing up my look and continuing to donate a lot of my fancy clothes to charity. Or selling it and donating the money to charities. My new look has been receiving positive attention too. And honestly, I like it. I’ve also been changing up my home a bit. The mayoral mansion always will be a mansion but some of the things…well they’re a little too pompous. At least too pompous for the new ‘me’ now. Jesse doesn’t mind a bit and I honestly commend him for it. I initially thought he would be afraid because I used to pamper him, but he is embracing my more grounded look.
It was the day before Christmas Eve. Today was the day I was personally delivering my “gifts” to the underprivileged families of the children from the elementary school. But first, I had some home renovation projects to do.
Official looking moving men stood in my foyer. They had equipment prepared to remove three giant busts from my foyer. One of me. One of Julius Caesar. One of Napoleon Bonaparte. I’ve had them in my foyer for as long as I could remember. The men had the same personality type as me (ENTJ) and they reminded me of the power, ambition, and drive within myself. I was ultimately comparing myself to the two men. And now I realize what a pompous butt I must have looked like to literally everyone else in Airedale. I was donating the two busts of the historical figure to the museum. Caesar and Napoleon had a tremendous impact on world history. I barely made a dent. So my bust was going to be destroyed. I planned on donating it to the recycling center. They could use all of that marble for something good. Maybe provide free marble countertops to people or something.
Jesse walked in, wrapped in a robe and gripping his coffee. He sidled alongside of me, staring as the men prepared to remove the giant marble busts.
“Babe, are you sure that you want to do this?” he asked. “I admit, you’ve made quite a few changes already. I don’t want you to take it too far and lose yourself.” I shook my head.
“I’m not losing myself, Jesse. I’m actually finding myself for once in my life.” I cleared my throat. “I’m not going to stop until I’ve finished the job, so to speak.” I looked in his eyes and smiled. “I’m sure.” One of the moving men hobbled over towards me. The muscular bird grunted to his comrade and faced me.
“Okay, Mayor Stefan. You ready for us to haul this bust out of here?” he asked. I nodded. “Alright, you’re the boss.” The man turned and yelled back to his workers. “Let’s lift it up, boys!” he bellowed. The men grunted and pushed against their equipment. The bust of me hovered above the ground and they began to take it outside. I stood back, watching literally the old me levitate out of the house. I didn’t want to watch them handle me further than that.
I shut the door. I faced Jesse and smiled. “I should get ready. I need to go house-bouncing downtown.” Jesse nodded.
“Okay. While you do that, I’m going to unpack my stuff. I have work tonight, so I probably won’t be here when you get home. Don’t wait up for me.” I gave my subtle approval and walked to the coat rack. I was going a little formal today. I had a red and white dress shirt with dark jeans on. I slid a pea coat over my body and walked out of the door. Olaf was waiting for me. The moving truck was gone. The anteater opened the door for me and I slid in the car.
He quickly took me to the first house. Which just happened to be Melba’s home. Thanks to Molly and Isabelle, I was able to find out a lot of information about the respective families. For example, I was able to find out that Melba’s father had a business degree with a specialty in home design. He didn’t work for this branch of the HHA, but I knew I could make some adjustments. I talked to Lyle about Austin Vander and convinced the otter to demote and fire the human. In turn, due to the gaps in the hierarchy, Lottie was promoted to district manager and there was an open spot that Lottie left behind.
This led me to a dilapidated townhouse in a greasy section of downtown. I stared up at the rotting house and stepped onto the sidewalk. If it weren’t for my nearby security of Copper and Booker, I’d be worried for myself. My presence still wasn’t necessarily welcome in these animal-heavy parts of Airedale. I ascended the concrete steps and knocked on the door. A male brown koala opened the door. He looked at me warily.
“…Mayor Stefan? What are you doing here?” he asked. His face paled. “Oh Gog. Please don’t tell us our landlord sent you here! We’re sorry. I know we’re behind but we’ll pay him—“ I held my hand to cut him off.
“Your landlord didn’t send me. I’m here of my own accord. Ozzie McBourne, correct?” The koala nodded. “Mind if I come in?” Ozzie stood aside and allowed me to walk in. I could see Melba in the corner, huddled over some homework. Two younger siblings were playing a video game on the TV. The seemingly stressed mother was just emerging from the kitchen. When she saw me, I thought she was going to drop the soup in her hands.
“Kids, lunch is ready—gasp!” She quickly put the soup down and ripped off her oven mitts. “Mayor Stefan! What brings you to our home?” I gestured for the family to sit down on the couch. I pulled a chair from the dining room table and sat across from them.
“A while ago, I visited Melba’s elementary school to talk about animal discrimination and to learn how it affects people practically. I was ashamed to realize how much my archaic policies have affected families like you, and it made me see that things need to change. I was idiotic and I’ve been working to change myself and change what people think of me. When I talked to kids like Melba, I learned how much there were people in need this Christmas season, because of what I had done to Airedale.” I cleared my throat and bit my lip.
“I’m in a more giving mood this season. I want to truly give back to the community that has given so much to me. Melba was telling me that you, Ozzie, and your wife can’t find jobs because of policies and thoughts that companies are allowed to have. She told me you guys are struggling with your rent and your landlord is being…juicy. I want to change that for you and the tens of families in the Airedale community that are dealing with these issues.” I stood up and dug two envelopes out of the pocket of my coat. I handed the first one to Ozzie and the second one to his wife. They both exchanged confused glances and opened my envelopes.
Ozzie’s envelope contained a letter from Lyle, saying that he and his wife would be hired at the Airedale branch of the HHA. They read it together and I thought tears were going to fall from their cheeks right there. Ozzie sniffled and stared up at me. “Mayor Stefan, thank you so much. You didn’t have to do this for us.” I smiled.
“You both need jobs to support yourselves. Lyle is a great boss and his niece Lottie is an excellent manager. The Airedale branch of the HHA is a great company. Look in the other envelope.” Ozzie’s wife gasped and nearly dropped the envelope. Ozzie pulled out the check and stared at in shock. I smiled lightly and explained. “Now I know 500,000 Bells is a lot of money…way more than you guys actually need. However, I want you to use it as a foothold of security. Your rent is approximately 25,000 Bells a month, but I want you to use that to pay off your debts and possibly find yourself a home in the suburbs.” I looked around. There were bugs crawling in the corner. Buckets were scattered across the floor because there were random leaks. “Plus, not to be offensive, but this isn’t the forever home for your family. You need to find something better and I want to help you guys.”
Ozzie and his wife were now fully-out crying. The kids were staring at them curiously. I smirked and stood up. There was a knock at the door. I opened it and Olaf was standing there, dressed up as Jingle. He was holding boxes and bags galore. One giant box stood out from the rest. The children ran over and grabbed the presents that ‘just so happened’ to have their names on them. Melba walked over to the giant box and stared at it. I nudged her shoulder and grinned. I turned towards the family.
“I forgot to mention…Melba said she wanted a dollhouse this year.” Ozzie stood up, his knees shaking together. He held his hand out to shake my hand and pull me in for a hug. He and his wife wrapped me into a warm embrace and hugged me tightly. I chuckled, appreciating their gratitude as they thanked me again. “You’re welcome. I want to thank your daughter for helping me see the error my ways and helping me go down the right path.” I removed myself from the hug. Ozzie was grinning.
“Mayor Stefan, thank you so much again. You’ve changed our lives for the better. I don’t know how to repay you…” he trailed. For once in my life, there wasn’t an urge within me to ask for something in return. I turned down any offers and made my way to the door.
“You can repay me by working to improve your lives and bettering yourselves as people. Now, if you’ll excuse me, there are more families I must visit today. Merry Christmas.”
The media attention was hitting us harder now.
In the beginning of the campaign, Stefan was feeling the pinch. But now, we were just being annihilated. Donors were withdrawing money. Influential contributors were dropping their public support. It seemed like the only people that stuck by us were the Moral Majority. We weren’t even sure if they were a good ally at this point. Since the news hit, things have been rough. Stefan’s been receiving more positive news attention than before.
Even though he finally came out and admitted he was with Jesse and he had to subsequently admit the whole Ambrosia stunt was a lie, people didn’t seem to mind anymore. The aggression was focused towards my brother. For lying. For cheating. For acting like nothing was wrong. It didn’t look like there was any way for us to tumble out of this. Meanwhile, Stefan seems to have redeemed himself. His image has changed completely and honestly, it was quite shocking. No longer was he the distant, formal mayor that people couldn’t relate to. He was dressing more casually. The news hit that he helped out impoverished animal families of an elementary school class by paying their rent and basically giving them all this money and pulling them out of poverty.
The historic vain busts that Stefan had in his mansion were removed. Two were donated to a museum and the third one was destroyed and recycled to create free marble countertops for impoverished families. Stefan was just being the ultimate Giver so it made Hugh’s appearance to the homeless shelter look like a pity round. And now this? This was the finisher. I sat in my executive chair staring up at the television.
Every now and then, my thoughts would be broken by real-life fireworks. Screaming. Partying. Music. Even in my own office by animals. Pretty much everyone was celebrating. The news headlines were flying across the screen. Pundits were happy for once with Stefan. In bright bold text, in the red banner, the headline read: “MAYOR STEFAN ABOLISHES ANIMAL DISCRIMINATION IN AIREDALE.”
Yep, he signed it today. Christmas Day to be exact. Isabelle was probably grumpy that he dragged her in the office on a holiday. But, I guess this was his Christmas gift to us all. How lucky. Don’t get me wrong. I wanted animal discrimination abolished just as the next person did. I just didn’t want it abolished now. I didn’t want him to go through this revolutionary change and be happy and hearty. This change of mind is great and all, but for all that’s still surviving in this campaign, Stefan needs to stop. I wanted Stefan to remain stubborn and obstinate, so Hugh could swoop in like the magic knight and abolish animal discrimination himself. Now this threw a wrench in the plans and I fear it’s permanent. Morgan knocked on the wall and peeked her head in the door.
“Cobb? You okay? You’re kinda quiet in here.” I pursed my lips and turned away from the TV.
“I’m good. I just…I’m afraid about the campaign.” Morgan stared at the TV and smirked.
“We still have some weeks before the big election. Things can always turn around. There’s another debate…some more scandals might hit.” She added with a wink. I raised my eyebrows. Edward peeked his head in and sneered. I scoffed and leaned back in the chair.
“I have enough on my plate today. Do I really need you all up in my ear too?” I asked. I gestured for Morgan to leave and shut the door. She obeyed and Edward sat down in front of me. He looked weapon-free this time around. I leaned forward and frowned once Morgan was out of earshot. I folded my arms together. “What are you doing here? You have a lot of nerve showing your face around here.”
Edward grinned evilly. “I actually have the upper hand, sir.” The horse pointed to the TV. “I have to give Mayor Stefan some credit. He’s changed and he’s been working to better the lives of animals. This hopefully is only the start of something fresh and new.”
“But you shouldn’t like him. He came out. He’s living with his boyfriend in the mayoral mansion.” I said sternly. Edward nodded, waving his hands around.
“You’re right, I admit that. Which is the only reason why we’re still rooting behind you.” Way to be blunt, pal. “Hugh is the solution and we still believe that. At the moment, Stefan is winning in mock polls and we need to change that.” Edward cleared his throat. “Moral Majority has found hefty evidence about Stefan’s dealings with the fighting arena. It’s developing and they’re going to break ground soon. There’s been no committee discussion on it at all.” I narrowed my eyebrows.
“Really?” I asked. The horse shook his head. “Hmm….” I trailed. “Are you suggesting what I think you’re suggesting?” I inquired, getting an idea of what Edward was hinting at. Edward grinned. I sighed. “We could do that. I mean, you could release info about the whole fighting arena thing and get people mad at Stefan again. But the question is, will it work?”
“Of course it will!” Edward exclaimed. “Stefan has a history of lying and the people need to understand that. He may be able to change his actions and his appearance, but he can’t change the fact he’s a pathological liar.” I hummed, wondering if Edward perhaps wasn’t misusing the term. Edward clenched his fists tightly. “We can still launch the worst smear campaign that Mayor Stefan has ever seen. He won’t see what’s coming and everyone will soon see the truth. Invading a little privacy to ensure national security is nothing compared to overriding the committee—the people’s choice of representatives.”
I cleared my throat. “Do what you have to do, Edward, for the best of the campaign.” I stood up and led him out of my office. “I had no hand in this.” I said loudly with a wink. Edward headed out of the office and walked down the hallway. I sighed once he was gone and anticipated my brother’s arrival. I actually had an appointment with him. We were supposed to talk about things and begin making plans for the next debate. Luckily for us, we had no wives. No children. No immediate family to freak out over the fact that we were hanging out in the office instead of spending time at home. Soon enough, the blue pig let himself in thankfully and plopped on the chair in front of me. He stared at the television curiously and rolled his eyes.
“You don’t need to sit here and torture yourself now. It’s Christmas.”
“It’s the day your campaign has officially collapsed.” Hugh twirled around in his chair.
“Not true! It’s a…setback that Mayor Stefan finally decided to abolish animal discrimination, but we still can have an advantage. Think about it this way. Don’t look at it politically. Abolishing animal discrimination is a good thing overall. It’s something we needed and you know it’s something I advocated. Even though I wasn’t the man to sign the bill, I support it 100%. I’m not going to be a juice bag and say that just because I didn’t personally do it, all of the sudden, the abolition of animal discrimination is invalidated in my eyes.”
I sighed. Hugh had a point. That was the problem. Hugh always had a point! He was too much the voice of reason, and sometimes he would use his own voice against him. The man was his own worst enemy. I nodded.
“You’re right. But we have to figure out how to proceed from here. We need a plan of action. I gave Edward permission to go ahead with any smear campaign for the whole fighting arena thing. And anything else obviously. He says it’ll work and I really hope he’s right. I’m trying to keep a poker face about it, but we need him and Moral Majority’s intel more than I would like to admit.” Hugh sighed.
“How can we trust him?” he asked slowly. “The man was going to kill us if I didn’t talk him down. He might do it again.” I shook my head.
“Nah, I think he was just feeling on edge. He wanted to show that he meant business. We’re good now so I don’t think we’ll face that again. Hopefully.” I sighed. I was placing a lot of faith on hope. Something that I never would trust any other time. I looked at my brother. He was still the epitome of loads of animals’ hopes and dreams. We needed him. He needed us too. “I don’t know how I’m supposed to face the press. They keep pushing and trying to find out more about what we had done back in the day. Man, I don’t know how Stefan and Isabelle do it every day. It’s so rough trying to configure plans for everything.” Hugh pursed his lips.
“Cobb, if I become Mayor, it’ll only be worse. Are you sure you can handle—“ I couldn’t help but snap at my brother.
“Yes, I can handle it! How dare you even imply—“
“You can’t blame me, Cobb! You seem to be under a lot of stress and I don’t understand why. I’m fine and—“
“It’s because you have a different personality than I do, Hugh! You just let everything roll off your shoulders and I can’t do that. I have to take things head on and handle them.” I scoffed and pushed away from the desk. “We may be brothers but we’re different people. We handle things differently. Once we both reach that understanding, we can make amazing progress.” Hugh cleared his throat and I faced away from him. Great. We’re having an argument on Christmas Day. It was one holiday too late to give thanks for blessings and ask for presents and hope.
I needed some miracle for Christmas.
Stefan finally abolishing animal discrimination was NOT it.
It was New Year’s Day.
The first day in 2016 was already going off with a bang. People were still celebrating the abolition of animal discrimination. I swear, I think they’re going to make a whole holiday out of it. It’ll last a week long and give people an excuse to party in between Christmas and New Year’s. Not to mention that things in Stefan’s campaign were going off without a hitch. Even though the Moral Majority launched a smear campaign about Stefan, there wasn’t a huge uproar about it.
People loved that Stefan’s image was changing. They loved that he was more generous and kind. They loved that he was trying to be more down-to-earth and honest. Yeah, the information about the fighting arena was somehow leaked and released but it wasn’t a huge deal. People immediately did fact-checking and determined that Moral Majority had their details wrong. The committee in fact DID know about the fighting arena. The people who didn’t know about the fighting arena were the general public and the zoning board. That was literally it.
Stefan and Isabelle blamed someone who was in a lower position and they confessed and resigned. All was well…I think? In other news, Austin had his trial and was found guilty. Pretty much, I knew that was going to happen. All of the evidence was against him. Stefan had the best lawyers. At the end of the day, even beyond the Vanders, Stefan was the most powerful man in Airedale. The Vanders weren’t exactly happy about that. They weren’t very nice and made some threats…Austin made some threats to me too.
Before he was carried away into jail until his sentencing day.
I was sitting on the couch binge-watching a TV marathon, eating some Chinese food I ordered from downstairs. Just because it’s a New Year doesn’t mean things have to change drastically. Sometimes things are great just the way they are. I heard a knock at my door. I got up and walked across the room. I knew it wasn’t Austin because there were not breaking news text alerts that someone broke out of jail. Jesse was happy and contently living with Stefan, so I knew it wasn’t him either. I opened the door and saw it was Lottie. The girl stood there happily.
She looked happier than I’ve seen her in ages. I let her inside and offered her some refreshments or food. Lottie declined and sat down. She stared at my Chinese food and spoke up. “I want to thank you for smacking me in the face and helping me see the truth about things.” I sat down, swallowed some water and stared at her curiously.
“The truth about what?”
“Just everything with Austin. Stefan getting involved really made me see that Austin needed to be put to justice.” Lottie cleared her throat. “I’m so grateful for you guys seeing it through to the end and helping get Austin convicted. I would be so terrified and scared for myself and my child if he were still free.” Lottie grabbed my hands and gripped them tightly. “I don’t know how I would have lived like that. So thank you.”
I nodded and mumbled a ‘you’re welcome.’ I didn’t know what else to say. Lottie didn’t hesitate and kept talking. “I’ve made a very important decision that’s going to change my life forever.” She started. I stared at her and quickly swallowed some rice so I wouldn’t choke on it. “I’m going to give the baby up for adoption.”
Wow. Lottie was finally going the responsible route for once. I was sad for her because she would be carrying her child, delivering it, and having to give it up. However, I knew that this was the most responsible thing to do. There are plenty of families out there that can’t have children and would love to be parents. Lottie’s decision would really help out a lucky couple. I rested a hand on her shoulder and smiled.
“That’s a huge decision, Lottie. I support you whatever you choose. I just want to make sure…are YOU sure?” I asked. Lottie nodded.
“I’ve never been surer of something in my life. I want to make this terrible thing that happened to me into something good. And I can do that by giving my child up for adoption and making a lucky, lovely family complete and happy.”
“I’m proud of you for coming to that decision.” We hugged and as I pulled apart, Lottie stood up.
“I should go. There’s still work that has to be done down at the office. With the latest changes in employment, we’ve had some new hires. I have to work on training them and then Uncle Lyle has to keep training me. I’ve been promoted to district manager!” she exclaimed. I beamed, proud of the girl.
“I’ve heard. Congratulations! I’m happy for you.”
“I couldn’t have gotten all this if it wasn’t for you. So thank you Ambrosia!” At that, the otter waved and hurried out of my apartment. I shook my head as the door slammed. Was I ever going to stop having all these random people in my apartment? I sighed and continued to eat my dinner. I wasn’t intending on having any plans. It was technically a holiday and a lot of shops and businesses were closed. If I went out right now, it would be boring. Although…New Year’s resolutions were all about change, right? Maybe I should do something right now…
The heat kicked up, reminding me how cold it was outside. I liked staying under my blanket on my soft couch. I’ll just stay here for now.
I sat at my desk, finishing up some work. A couple weeks had passed and we were closer to the election than ever. We were in the middle of January and the election was February 1st. We were so close to the date and we all were so nervous. Stefan was doing well in the election. There was another debate coming up this weekend, and we were all busy trying to focus on that. Stefan was leading in the polls and pundits actually liked him for once. They were even saying he would take the election. That was bloated talk, but it wasn’t necessarily difficult to believe. Isabelle and Stefan were sitting in the corner, working on the last debate prep. I was working on the paperwork for that and the…ahem…new fighting arena.
Their mumbles in the corner were distracting me.
“Mr. Mayor, you can’t just say things like that!” hissed Isabelle. Stefan scoffed.
“Why not? I’m being myself and I’m telling the truth. Isn’t that what the people want?”
“Not like that, sir! You need to be more subdued!” she exclaimed.
“Subdued is NOT in my vocabulary or my brain capacity.” I cleared my throat a couple times, but they weren’t getting the picture. I finally spoke up and asked them to hush down. Stefan blushed. “Sorry, Ambrosia. Isabelle’s not getting my new vibe over here.” I rolled my eyes.
“I don’t really care. I’m trying to work on stuff. Hush it down over there.” Isabelle and Stefan acquiesced and kept their conversation to a lower volume. It wasn’t necessarily library-quality whispers, but it was good enough for me. The door suddenly slammed open and National Security Director Connors stood there sternly. He stormed in the town hall and slammed the door shut. I scoffed, giving up on being productive today, and placed my papers down.
Stefan stood up and asked Connors what was going on. The tall muscular man scowled and held out papers to Stefan. “We just received breaking intel. Our systems underwent an outage today and we’re confident it was a cyberattack.” Stefan asked what that meant. Connors sighed. “Our computers were hacked and we traced it back to Moral Majority.” Oh Gog. That organization that was real weird about morals?
“A-are you sure?” Stefan asked nervously. Connors nodded.
“Absolutely sure. And Cobb’s leading the pack. He’s authorizing those MM brats to spy on us and steal our data. This is completely unethical, Mayor Stefan. We have evidence that they’ve done this before without our knowledge. These multiple offenses are serious and we can use them to incriminate Cobb and his goons for good.” Connors clenched his fists. “Hugh can get disqualified from the election and kicked out. It’s all down to a single word from you, sir. Yes or no?”
Stefan gulped and I could tell he looked nervous. I know how much he’s changed and I could tell he was thinking about being merciful. I shot out of my chair and ran over to him. Connors and Stefan stared at me weirdly. I cleared my throat awkwardly. “Stefan, look, you can’t let this slide. You can’t accept them spying on you. It’s wrong and they’re not playing the game right. Don’t keep it a secret. You need to reveal this and show everyone the truth behind the Huxley campaign.”
Stefan pursed his lips and nodded. “You’re right, Ambrosia. I can’t accept this anymore. I’ve portrayed that I am a no-nonsense man and I will continue…to be…a no-nonsense man.” Stefan turned towards Connors. “Yes, release the information. Let the world know that Cobb Huxley condones spying on the other candidates instead of winning fairly.” Connors nodded and hustled away. Stefan slumped into his seat and I sighed.
“Why? Why does all of this drama have to happen to me?” Stefan asked wearily. I shrugged and Stefan continued to rant. “I know Moral Majority hated me but I didn’t know to this extent. I can’t believe they had the audacity to spy on my campaign and use the hacked information to feed to Huxley.”
“I do.” I said softly. “That Moral Majority is a weird bunch. I’m all for principles and values too, but they’re a little radical. They take their views too far and they’re not afraid of who they stomp on or hurt on the way.”
Within the next two hours, Connors released the news and every detail of the incident. It was breaking news on every outlet and it was only a matter of time until Cobb and Hugh would hear and somehow retaliate. Ughhhhh GOG.
Crap was going to hit the fan.
I was at the office prepping Hugh for the last debate, which would take place this weekend. Right now, we were waning in the polls and Hugh needed to make a great impression in this debate to jump back up. I had authorized Edward from Moral Majority to use whatever intelligence necessary to turn the people against Stefan. At the moment, the intelligence circulating around was about the fighting arena. However, people were fact checking it like crazy, so we found out that the committee actually DID know about the fighting arena.
There goes that plan.
Hugh and I were going over what to say and how to handle situations when my phone dinged. I stared down at it, reading the notification carefully. The news outlets were reporting that I teamed up with Moral Majority to spy on Stefan ad hack into this computer systems. There was a recent cyberattack and they traced it back to our campaign. My stomach pitted. Hugh leaned over towards me.
“Cobb, is everything alright?” he asked. I sighed and showed him the phone. I knew I had to; I couldn’t hide this from my brother. Hugh stared at the phone and sighed deeply. “Cobb…I thought you said this was all going to be okay.”
“I thought it was!” I exclaimed. “I didn’t know that that all was going to be traced back to us. I thought Edward, if anything, would’ve taken the downfall for it.” Hugh groaned and suddenly, we heard gunshots. Multiple ones. We shot up from our seats and opened the door. Rushing out to the reception area, we saw Morgan lying on the ground. She was clearly dead. I looked up to see the culprit: Edward. He stood there with a gun in his hand. Half of me wanted to run; however, I knew that there was nowhere to run. Nowhere to really hide either.
“Did you hear the news?!” Edward exclaimed in a shrill voice. “Did you hear it?!” Hugh winced.
“Yes, yes we did. About the hacking and the spying and all that…”
“We’re doomed! We’ve been found out. BEEN HAD. There’s no hope for us or this campaign anymore. The police area headed this way and they’re going to have their way with us.”
“Edward, you need to calm down! Put the gun down!” I yelled. Hugh jabbed me in the shoulder and hissed that I need to stay collected. If I freak out, it’ll only ‘exacerbate Edward.’ I rolled my eyes and scoffed, refusing to say anything else.
“There’s no way we can escape. At this point, our morality is challenged and if we are caught now, after that, we will die in dishonor. There’s only way that we can keep our morality pure!” I narrowed my eyes and scowled. Hugh asked how. We both heard a click. Edward was pointing the weapon at us. “If we all die now, before the authorities catch us, we can still be morally pure.” Hugh and I were both silent. Edward was grinning at us.
“…You’re sick, Edward.” I whispered. Edward furrowed his eyebrows.
“I am NOT!” He lunged forward at me and Hugh jumped into separate us.
“Yeah, convince yourself of that. You’re doing a great job so far!” I bellowed. Hugh looked like he was going to smack me.
“Cobb, not helping! You need to keep your temper under control. Let me talk Edward down.” Hugh shoved me across the room. I slammed into the wall and pouted. Hugh faced Edward. “Edward, please. You don’t have to do this. There’s so much more to life that we haven’t seen yet. There’s so much more that can change.”
“What’s the point of living if I’m going to be morally impure? I’ll live the rest of my life marred and scarred.” Edward said.
“No, you won’t! There’s something in this world called forgiveness. Whatever you believe in…it has compassion and will forgive you! We all know that you were just doing what you thought was right and proper. You weren’t doing it out of evil…” Hugh trailed.
Yes, he was, Hugh. Moral Majority is a cultish evil organization, when are you going to get that through your head? I leaned forward and remained on my haunches. I wasn’t going to take any of this lying down. I wanted to take Edward down. I needed to tackle him. I also needed the authorities to come. Even though they were bound to arrest us too, I would rather be arrested more quickly than killed more quickly.
Edward nodded slowly. “You’re right. Do you believe something will forgive you and Cobb?” he asked. Hugh grinned.
“I know it.” Edward nodded again.
“Okay. I’m glad that you guys are sure of it. B-because, otherwise, I would have had to save you guys from moral impurity too. But since you guys believe you will be okay, I don’t have to do that to you.” Phew, so he wasn’t going to kill us? I hope. Hugh spoke up.
“You don’t have to do it to yourself either! You’ll be okay. You just need a little bit of help for you to see that.” Hugh said. Edward scowled at hearing the word ‘help’ and slowly crept closer. I prepared myself. If Hugh was going to try anything funny, I was going to tackle that boy to the ground. Just as Edward was a step away from Hugh, he shook his head vigorously and backed up.
“I can’t. I can’t. I can’t just trust blindly that I’m not going to be morally impure. I have to take matters into my own hands. Sorry, boys. Thanks for the ride.” A shot rang out. Edward fell to the floor. We both stared in awe. Hugh and I backed away from Edward’s body, now slumped on the ground. The door to the office slammed open. SWAT officers and other authoritative figures burst through the door and pointed weapons at us. We raised our hands and fell on our knees. They quickly detained us and carried us outside. The men stared at the scene on the floor and some escorted us out rather quickly.
One of the high-ranking officers—I could tell by his badge—handcuffed us and pinned us against the car. “What in good Gog’s name happened in there?” he asked with a sneer. My stomach pitted. What do I even say? I felt my head slam into the hood of the vehicle. “Answer me now. We know what you did with the whole spying thing. The sooner you tell us the truth, the easier this will be on everyone.” I groaned. Hugh spoke up.
“Edward had a breakdown. He thought he needed to die in order to remain morally pure so he…” My brother trailed off. I didn’t say anything. The officer scowled.
“Ugh. Pitiful.” A handful of officers walked towards us. The man detaining us immediately spat out commands. “Call an ambulance. We need paramedics out here immediately. Take these two idiots to the station. Someone else call Mayor Stefan and tell him [i]personally[/i] that we have the Huxley brothers in custody. I’ll stay here and deal with all this nonsense. No one say anything to the news outlets if they press you. Leave that to me.” The officers saluted and began to fulfill the commands.
Two officers took Hugh and me into a SWAT truck. We sat down on the bench and watched the doors slam on us. I winced and looked over at Hugh. He looked sad and dismayed. This wasn’t any of his fault. It was mine. I went too far. I was doing too much because I just wanted us to win. I failed my brother when he needed me the most. I couldn’t reach out and be affectionate because of the handcuffs. To get his attention, I cleared my throat. Hugh glanced over at me.
“Bro, I’m sorry.” Hugh mumbled that it was okay. We heard the engine of the truck roar and before we knew it, we were moving somewhere. There were no windows, merely a small glimmer of light shone from a barred hole in the top corner of the truck. It allowed some air in, but it also made us cold. We shivered a bit and hoped that we would reach the police station soon. After approximately 15 minutes, the truck stopped and we could hear some doors shutting. The officers must be letting us out now. We heard people talking outside and clamoring loudly. There must have been reporters outside. Oh Gog, this was going to be embarrassing.
The doors to the truck opened, revealing A LOT of light. And a lot of people. They were all screaming out for comments. I didn’t say anything and kept my head down. I could tell Hugh was itching to say something, but I jabbed him sharply in the shoulder. The guard that was leading him inside whispered in his ear.
“If you so much as utter a word, I will make you regret it, Huxley.” I kept my arms lax as the guard wrangled with me and wrestled me inside the building. I can’t get the screams of those reporters out of my head. They were asking Hugh and me what happened. They were asking if everything was true. Did I really team up with Moral Majority and spy on Stefan? Did Hugh know? Did Hugh have any part of it? What did this mean for the rest of the campaign? Was there still a chance for us? I didn’t even know the answer to some of these questions myself. How was I supposed to answer them for someone else?
We were led into a jail cell in a neutral waiting area and told to stay there and shut up. I sighed and I plopped on the wooden bench next to Hugh. We were in the cell by ourselves; I’m sure the SWAT team was commanded to keep us in solitary confinement. Hugh and I were high profile people. They couldn’t risk something happening to us along the way.
About an hour later, the same guy who had pinned me to the car before was standing in front of us. He was grinning evilly.
“We’ll be dealing with you two tomorrow. For now, I recommend you get comfortable.”
A few hours have passed and so much has already happened. Connors personally called me to tell me that the SWAT team infiltrated Huxley’s office and captured Hugh and Cobb. He would be coming by later to deal with all of this. He also said he had a package for me that he would be delivering. I stayed in the corner, talking to Ambrosia and Isabelle. My focus was too shot to attempt debate preparation. I mean, there may not even be a debate after all of this. Who knows?
I wouldn’t hold my breath though.
Booker ran in the Town Hall with a briefcase in his hands. He had an urgent look plastered across his face and he seemed nervous. “Mayor Stefan!” I hopped off my chair and hurried over to the dog. “Uh, I have an important package for you. I was delivered this and told to give it to you directly!” This must have been the package from Connors. I thanked the dog and opened it up immediately.
There was nothing inside except a note and some sort of blinking, beeping device. I stared at the blinking device before beginning to read the note. Ambrosia and Isabelle, concerned because of the mysterious package and the noise, left their chairs to join me in the center of Town Hall. I began to read the letter.
Mayor Stefan, your tenure in Airedale has been atrocious. You have done some good things for our town, but mostly bad things. Your moral impurities are piling up and there is no reason that you need to continue running Airedale. For the better of all the people and all the animals that have suffered under your tyranny, I hereby call an end to your regime—
“Stefan!” Ambrosia yelled. “It’s a bomb!” I looked down at the briefcase in shock and threw it down. I asked her how she knew. The girl held a hand over her mouth. “I saw the countdown…there’s only like 30 seconds!” I grabbed everyone that was behind me and pushed them in front.
“Let’s go! Let’s get out of here NOW!” I bellowed. The note still gripped firmly in my hands, I sprinted out of the Town Hall. We wrenched the door open. We ran straight into Copper who was running into the Town Hall. His eyes bulged when he saw us and began to splutter out words.
“I received intel that there’s a bomb being sent your way and—“ Copper blurted quickly. I groaned out loud and cut him off.
“We know! We just got it! Now move!” Copper got the hint and backed up, allowing us to leave. Isabelle, Ambrosia, Booker, Copper and I sprinted across the plaza. The forest—the trees that could cover us—were approximately 1000 feet away. They would protect us. We ran to the edge of the forest and stopped at the trees. Just in time, we looked back and the Town Hall burst into flames. The bomb exploded. Wood planks flew everywhere and the nails and splinters shot outward. Glass from the windows shattered and catapulted everywhere. The giant clock installed in the Town Hall dropped with a loud clang. The metal beams that were used as inward support collapsed and melted. The entire Town Hall was falling to pieces.
Ambrosia and Isabelle held their ears as the shockwaves rang across Airedale. Thankfully there were no houses nearby. Thankfully there wasn’t much of anything nearby. A cloud formed above the Town Hall and soon smoke billowed. The fire siren sounded next and it would only be a matter of time before fire trucks showed up. Ambrosia and Isabelle gripped me tightly. I sighed, grateful no one was hurt. I looked down at the note, now crumpled, in my hands. I let go of the girls to read the note in full. The chicken scratch made me realize that this note was hastily written and the water stains near the edges made me wonder if there wasn’t a huge wave of emotion behind this letter too.
Mayor Stefan, your tenure in Airedale has been atrocious. You have done some good things for our town, but mostly bad things. Your moral impurities are piling up and there is no reason that you need to continue running Airedale. For the better of all the people and all the animals that have suffered under your tyranny, I hereby call an end to your regime.
You don’t deserve to run Airedale anymore. The people deserve better you and I am here to make that change. I have received a sign that you are unfit and that Hugh Huxley must take over Airedale. You are too morally impure to lead us and be our role model anymore. For the children and our future, I am confident that this is the best thing. We thank you for the progress you have made and we despise you for what you have stolen from us.
You will never change. And even if you do, you are too morally impure to escape a fate of eternal fire. Rather than let your sins build up, I have decided to be merciful and let you end everything now. There’s a place for people like you and you will meet it soon. By the time you finish reading this letter, the bomb will explode. So the last words I want you to read are this:
I, Edward, and Moral Majority do not excuse your actions or believe your sudden change. You are a fraud. You will get what you deserve.
I sighed, out of breath. Invigorated from the traumatic event. If Ambrosia hadn’t intervened, I might have read the letter further. I might have wasted more time. I might have killed us all. If she wasn’t there, we all would have died in the explosion. I reached a hand out to Ambrosia and showed her the letter.
“It was Moral Majority. They planned this. This whole thing. I-I…thank you.” Ambrosia looked up at me curiously.
“For saving all of us.” Ambrosia read the letter carefully and closed her eyes when she was done. She handed it back to me. I handed the letter to Copper. “You need to take this as evidence and use this in whatever investigation is now processing against Moral Majority and the Huxley’s.” Copper nodded and saluted me gravely.
“Yes, sir. I’ll make sure this letter is examined by the police. As for you guys, we need to get you all somewhere secure. It’s clearly not safe here.” Police units and fire trucks soon showed up. Copper and Booker hustled away to inform them of what was going on. I felt a large hand on my shoulder. I twirled around to see Connors standing behind me. He nodded sternly.
“Mr. Mayor, I immediately heard the news of what happened and made sure I was here in person to deal with the situation.” Connors said. “I’m sorry about the Town Hall. I had no idea about the plan until someone had come in with intel. There must be some leak, because someone knew to send the bomb in the briefcase and claim it was from me.” I smiled to relieve some of the tension in the air.
“It’s fine, Connors. I’m just grateful no one was hurt.” Connors grunted.
“We’re going to get all of those sickos from Moral Majority. They’re not going to get away with this.” I nodded.
“Under your watch, I could never imagine they would. Look for who that leak is and deal with them equally. They don’t deserve to be in a position of intelligence, seeing as what they did with. There has to be a mole somewhere.” Connors saluted.
“Absolutely, sir. I have trusted men of mine to take you, Ambrosia and Isabelle somewhere safe. We’re not allowing any of you to return to your homes until there is a safety clearance.” I opened my mouth to refuse but Connors shook his head. “I’m not accepting ‘no’ for an answer. Follow me.” Connors attempted to lead us away but Isabelle was lingering. I pursed my lips.
“Isabelle, come on! The Town Hall will be okay!” The girl was standing there staring forward. She huffed, stomping her foot on the ground.
“Mr. Mayor! All my papers! Look at them, they’re destroyed!” I looked up at the sky. Burnt fragments of papers, undoubtedly important to some aspect, were floating in the air and gently settled to pollute the plaza. I chuckled. “Grrrr!” Isabelle growled. “Luckily, I have cloud storage or everything would have been lost!” Isabelle hustled to rejoin the group and Connors led us to an area where some policemen stood.
“I would trust these men with my life. They’ll be escorting you to a discreet area, until I personally give them the word to let you go. I won’t let you guys wander out in the open when there are crazy people out there who will do anything to kill you.” I thanked Connors and shook his hand firmly.
“I appreciate everything, Connors. I seriously do. I’ll be talking to you.” The policemen carefully watched as Ambrosia, Isabelle and I clambered into the car. I knew these policemen from working with the department closely. They were coworkers of Copper and Booker—they weren’t my bodyguards but I knew them well enough to trust them equally. Anyone who was a confidant of Connors would become a confidant of mine.
“Jesse’s worried.” Ambrosia suddenly spouted out. I stared at her intently.
“How would you know?” I asked with a smirk. Ambrosia held up her phone.
“He texted me. He just was watching the news and saw the footage of everything going down.” Ambrosia was scrolling through a news feed and pursed her lips. “Edward…he…uh…just read this.” I took the phone from Ambrosia and read carefully. I sighed out loud. Edward was dead. He took matters into his own hands.
“How cowardly. That man will never receive justice in the eye of the law. He got out easy.” I spat bitterly. Ambrosia shrugged.
“Hey, look at it this way. He’ll never hurt anyone ever again.” I scoffed.
“His policies have passed down to people and inspired them to do terroristic things. I will not be satisfied until all of Moral Majority is vanquished.” Ambrosia shook her head. Gog, she always showed me the opposite argument of things…and she did a good job of doing it too.
“Not everyone in Moral Majority are bad people. Some of them are just simple families and animals that want better. But that is on its way to being provided, since you abolished animal discrimination.” I nodded. “Don’t go too ham on Moral Majority. The bad people should get what they deserve, but don’t punish all for the actions of a few.” I sighed.
“Ambrosia, why are you so wise? Can you just become mayor instead?” I asked with a grin. She shook her head.
“Many people, including a past you, would call me an animast for what I just told you. Now I’m wise?” She asked with a smile. We both shared a laugh while Isabelle was hastily checking her cloud app to make sure all of the documents were there. “I personally never had a desire for politics. Never licked my fancy.”
The car was already driven into an area of town that I wasn’t familiar with visually. The dirt road rubbed against the tires and the car had to drive slower. I nodded and gazed out the window. “Maybe that’s a good thing.”
Today is the day.
Today is the election. Everything that I have done for the past X amount of months has led up to this moment. Despite Cobb and Hugh being arrested and subsequently bailed out to await trial, Hugh stayed in the election. It’s crazy to think, but there is still a chance he could win. Some people are wild enough to vote for someone who’s currently considered a criminal. I feel confident I can win, but I don’t want to jinx myself. Not yet anyways.
The Town Hall is currently undergoing reconstruction by the HHA. They’re doing a great job in quickly and efficiently bringing back a better town hall for Airedale. I’m happy to say that Lottie and Ozzy are both doing an amazing job managing the project. For the time being though, Isabelle, Ambrosia and I are doing work at the mansion. As I speak, we’re hustling around the mansion prepping for the poll results to finally be counted.
Isabelle was typing away on the computer. Ambrosia was typing on her phone and scrolling through mobile social media feeds. The TV was playing in the background. The pundits were going crazy as the ballots were being tallied. I glanced over at the clock. It was 7:47. The ballots were projected to be finished counting at 8:00pm exactly. I sighed and glanced over at Isabelle.
“I’m nervous.” I said out loud to no one in particular. Isabelle grinned.
“There’s no reason to be nervous, Mr. Mayor! I’m confident in you.” Ambrosia chuckled.
“Really, Stefan. I think you’re fine. You’re running against someone that will most likely be sentenced in a trial next month.”
“That doesn’t mean anything. This is the people’s choice, and what if the people still don’t believe in me?” Ambrosia shook her head.
“That’s nonsense. You’ve changed and we all see it. The people will too.” My cell phone suddenly rang. I sprang to answer it. It was Connors. I grunted a ‘hello’ through the line. Connor’s gruff voice could be heard on the other end.
“Mayor Stefan, I apologize for calling so close to the end of the poll time but I have news about the Town Hall bombing.” I stayed silent, waiting for Connors to tell me his news. “We found the leak. His name is Vladimir Utkin. He is a Moral Majority rebel that had somehow infiltrated my ranks.” I sighed.
“Please tell me you got him.” I said firmly. I didn’t see Connors nod but I could only imagine his head bob curtly.
“We did. As soon as we found out, I personally led the raid in his apartment. Mayor Stefan, there was Moral Majority paraphernalia everywhere. We found plans, papers, blueprints….this man was planning this for quite some time. We believe that this was an independent mission initially, but he ended up teaming up with Edward to pull off this attack.” Connors cleared his throat. “Surprisingly, the man had no idea we were coming. He was sitting on his couch watching television when we barged in. Only when he saw us did he try to run. By then, he was surrounded.”
I shook my head. “How did he even infiltrate your ranks? You personally ensure everyone has a clean record.”
“I do, and this could have been a fatal error on my part, sir. So for that, I apologize. Utkin was a young naïve man with big plans for the world. When he initially joined my ranks, he was a bright-eyed recruit with shining potential. He got tangled up with the wrong people and sharply declined. He was smart to realize that we don’t internally monitor once we hire. I will make sure we emphasize regular monitoring of our men from here on out.” Connors said. I nodded and looked at the television.
The audio buzzed to life as the pundits announced breaking news. A new red banner flashed across the screen. The results were in.
“I have to go, Connors. The polls are closed. Thank you for calling.” Connors mumbled a ‘Good luck, sir’ and hung up the phone.
We all rushed closer to the TV, like it was going to make things any different. Whether we were halfway across the room, standing in the kitchen, or teetering on our toes one centimeter away from the screen, the election results would be the same.
The pundit’s deep voice rang throughout the room. “Breaking news, ladies and gentlemen. All the votes for the Airedale election have been counted. The winner…and the mayor of Airedale…is incumbent Mayor Stefan!” I couldn’t believe it. My ears were pounding. The pundit continued. “Mayor Stefan has won in a landslide victory, receiving 91.2% of the vote. Hugh Huxley received an abysmal 8.8%.”
We all cheered. Hugs, high fives and screams emanated from my living area. I was ecstatic. Jesse who was standing beside me embraced me and brought me in for a kiss. I sighed a breath of relief that I didn’t even realize I was holding in. I removed myself from Jesse’s hug and stared at the television. The camera shifted to the front of my house.
“News cameras are positioned in front of Mayor Stefan’s mansion. We await the mayor to emerge and give an acceptance speech. We bring you live coverage of Hugh Huxley and his concession at their campaign headquarters.” The blue pig popped up on my screen. Cameras surrounded the pig. I could see greedy little Cobb standing by his side. Questions were audibly bustling out of the reporters’ mouths but Hugh ignored them all.
“I would like to congratulate the incumbent Mayor Stefan on winning the election. It has been a rough few months, full of ups and downs. It was a new experience for me and I am grateful to have lived it. I would like to thank all of the volunteers who took out the time to help my campaign. I would like to thank all of the donors who used their personal money to fund my endeavors. I don’t know what’s in my future, but I’m not afraid of what awaits me. Thank you and goodnight.”
There was minimal clapping. Mostly questions. Tons of them just bombarding the poor man. One audible one being “If you weren’t involved in criminal activity and corruption, do you think you would have won the election?” Hugh turned at this question and narrowed his eyes.
“That would be one for the people to decide, not myself.” At that, he walked away. Isabelle turned down the volume as the pundit returned on the camera to talk about the election. We all let out some sighs and I turned to Isabelle.
“Should I hold my acceptance speech now?” The girl shrugged.
“The sooner you do it, the sooner they’ll be out of here. No point in keeping them waiting, I say.” I nodded, saying Isabelle was right, and threw on my coat to head outside. The press was waiting for me. I didn’t realize Jesse had followed me and was standing close to my left side. I smiled and held up my right hand for silence. The reporters piped down and I smiled warmly.
“I would like to thank all of you for your support. I understand the things I’ve done and I understand that it may not have been easy for people to vote for me. However, I want to show you all that I have changed and will continue to change. I’ve realized the error of my ways and I want to move forward from them. My priority is to serve the people and I haven’t done that in a while. So I would like to thank all of you…the volunteers, the voters, the donors. You all had a role in my victory so I can’t stand up here and credit myself or a group of people close to me.”
I reached out and grasped Jesse’s hand. “I hope that you all will continue to support me as I embark on this new journey to change Airedale. Thank you all.” The press cheered. Some people who were choosing to spectate cheered. I heard questions ring out about me and Jesse but I ignored them all. I heard questions being asked about the Huxley case. I ignored them. Ambrosia, Jesse, Isabelle and I holed ourselves back up in the house.
Isabelle began to gather up her stuff and Ambrosia, upon seeing the dog do so, started to do the same. I smiled at them and told them to have a good night. I wanted them to relax and enjoy themselves. I knew I was going to do the same. I excused myself momentarily to “go to the bathroom.” I wasn’t exactly going to the bathroom. If I won the election, I made a promise to Gog. I was certain to carry out because I was serious about keeping my word. I entered my bedroom and headed immediately to my bottom drawers.
Opening them up, I revealed all of my stash of Fruity Delight. I grabbed the baggies and headed for my bathroom. I emptied all of the contents into the toilet and threw the bags into the sink (I had a garbage disposal in my bathroom sink—it was very convenient sometimes.) With one last deep breath and a newfound determination to be a better man and politician, I flushed the toilet. Watching the white powder go down the drain didn’t bother me anymore. Maybe in the past, yes. But I was focused on changing. This was one of the first steps to change.
I headed back downstairs and Isabelle and Ambrosia were just laughing. I hugged them both goodbye and told them not to come into work tomorrow. We would make up a special holiday for ourselves and relax. Isabelle, of course, was reluctant to do so but I insisted. The two girls left for home and I was happy. Just after they left, I got a text from the DA saying that Austin Vander was most likely going to get at least ten years in prison, since he was also connected to the attacks on other animals. I shot out the text to the group chat and I think we all were happier if possible.
I don’t know what Lottie was going to do with her baby, but I was glad that she was provided justice. No one deserved to go through what she went through. That’s why I supported whatever choice she would make. Lottie didn’t talk about it ever, so I didn’t want to force it. I assumed she would tell me or Ambrosia would tell me, if Lottie wanted people to know. Since there was an absence of such knowledge, I assumed Lottie wanted to keep it secret. Which is perfectly fine. It’s none of my business.
Later on in the night, Jesse and I were sitting on the couch watching television. I looked over at him and sighed. “How did I get so lucky?” He laughed.
“What do you mean?”
“I just mean that I don’t really deserve all of this. I was terrible just months ago and people didn’t think I was going to be the mayor of Airedale for another term. They were confident I would be kicked out of town and now they all voted for me pretty much.” Jesse smiled.
“You’re too hard on yourself. You’ve changed and you’re continuing to change. We all see that. You’ve made so much changes in such a short amount of time that I honestly wouldn’t have believed it if you told me this would happen.”
“Still though…”I trailed. “What if I just end up proving people right and not changing fully? Or changing the way they want me to change?” Jesse shifted his position so he could face me.
“Stefan, you’re still allowed to be yourself. You don’t have to prove yourself to anyone, even me. You are you and that’s the way it’s always going to be. It’s great that you’re being more accepting, tolerant and open to the people’s needs. However, you can still be the mayor how you choose. None of us can change that. At the end of the day, you make the decisions. You can make those decisions however you choose.” I nodded.
“Thank you. What would I do without you?” Jesse laughed and shrugged.
“Maybe descend into some kind of addiction, lose everything because you’re so distraught and be homeless on the streets?” If only he really knew. I was so glad how everything turned out even though I was such a terrible person before. I couldn’t ask for anything better and I couldn’t ask for anyone better by my side. Ambrosia, Jesse, and Isabelle have all been so supportive and I hope they continue to stay by my side.
Throughout life, I kept sprinting in a race that I never could win alone. It’s as cliché as a turtle and a hare analogy.
When I finally slowed down and took a glance at the real life around me, I could finally understand I needed a support system to maintain not only myself but also my city.