“Remember, class,” the teacher stated gently. Her voice was like the flaps of a butterfly: quiet, uneventful, and only listened to because the students feared anything above a whisper would crack her in half. “Elections are not a popularity contest. Vote for the friend that you think has been the kindest, most-upstanding citizen.”
Henry Bell had lots of friends—he was friendly, at the very least, with everybody in the class. Of course, there were fluctuations. He would trust Valerie Cross with his baby sister, and he didn’t even trust himself with his baby sister. Elizabeth Horowitz was temperamental, but overall, not terrible. Lorraine Staff was a whiny pain, but really good at drawing, and practically ran the daily-recess lollipop sale.
Ernest Newman, however, was the worst. Ernest Newman was the one person Henry actively wished would not win. Henry didn’t think Ernest Newman could possibly win any election, because nobody at all liked Ernest Newman. People didn’t like toads, so why should they have liked Ernest?
It was quite a shocker, then, when Ernest Newman won.
“I have counted your ballots,” the teacher continued, rustling her hand through an upside-down top-hat from an Abraham Lincoln unit. Inside lay folded slips of notebook paper, each anonymously submitted with the name of the year’s kindest, most-upstanding citizen.
“The results are unanimous: this class’s favorite choice seems to be…Ernest Newman!”
When Ernest Newman’s mother Dianne was sworn in as PTO President that evening, Henry Bell learned that elections were very much popularity contests.
That day marked a catalyst in Henry Bell’s decade of living: adults lied. They lied all the time. They lied when they taught the Golden Rule. They lied when they said that the homework was easy. They lied when they said that the green-beans were not canned—fresh green-beans never have that weird, sweet liquid underneath. They lied when they told Henry that they picked that year’s Top Student, that year’s Kindest Student, that year’s Coolest Student, or that year’s Brightest Student based on merit, because, as long as Dianne Newman was PTO President, Ernest seemed to win.
Right after college graduation, at Henry’s class’s five-year reunion, Henry finally got a chance. Henry and most of the students who hadn’t taken a gap year had finished their initial degrees. They were spread all over the country and Henry loved that, he loved going somewhere large and exciting, stepping on a train each day knowing that he was starting anew. He wasn’t lonely—Valerie Cross, his definitively best friend who he would still trust with his now-teenaged sister, had gotten into college in the same city, her scholarship slightly greater but Henry slightly busier. Both of them majored in Political Sciences with his minor in Economics and hers in Foreign Affairs, and Valerie tutored local children six days a week while Henry was engaged in nearly every club.
“Lucky, you don’t have a job,” Valerie complained.
“Lucky, you don’t need to be up at six in the morning,” Henry complained right back.
“I never told you to join the Actor’s Troup,” Valerie replied. “I have no idea what it has to do with your future careers…unless you’re trying to get on Saturday Night Live, because we all know that college acting is a joke.”
Henry loved it when Valerie got annoyed.
By the reunion’s end, however, Henry realized that not everyone had been as busy as him or Valerie. Elizabeth Horowitz had gotten married, Lorraine Staff had a few kids, already, and Ernest Newman had an announcement.
“I’m-“ he began, but his mother snatched the microphone—why was his mother even at the reunion?
Right; PTO President. Somehow.
“We’re moving,” she announced, whipping a fake tear out of the corner of her eye. “We’re accepting house-warming gifts starting next Tuesday.”
That day marked another catalyst in Henry Bell’s two decades of living. He yanked Valerie to the corner of the room—some stupid students giggled; they probably thought they were making out—and he whispered his plan.
“You’re running for mayor?” Valerie shouted, completely ruining the point of the whisper.
“Yes!’ Henry quieted her. He wanted to make sure Ernest Newman and his mother were out of town before he announced his campaign. “And I want you to be my campaign manager.”
“Yes, yes, hooray!” Valerie squealed, bouncing up and down a few times. Her hair danced on her head like a dandelion-puff. “I’d love to be a manager! I can just see it: today, campaign manager; tomorrow, Speaker of the House.”
Henry hadn’t thought of that. He could be president, for all it was worth! He could see it surprisingly clearly: Bell and Cross, “Not Based in Nepotism.”
But he had to keep his goals in order. First: mayor. Henry shook Valerie’s hand and hurried off to the library.
Why was he running? To spite Ernest, in a way, but mostly because he had seen first-hand that the town was running based on lies that were taught to innocent, pure children; Henry Bell was young, fresh, and, he quickly decided, startlingly truthful. Henry strode into the library and hurried over to the Self-Help books.
“How to be More Honest: to Yourself and Everybody Else,” by Dr. Amanda Driver. There was a doctor involved, so it looked legitimate. Henry flipped to a page about facing goals head-on.
The next day, Henry had a very honest talk with himself. He realized that he needed a better haircut, new shoes, and some campaign to go off of.
“You teach those city-kids all the time.” Henry was calling Valerie on the phone while dumping coconut oil onto some brown, laced-up shoes. “Where do you think I can volunteer?”
“You could do kids, too,” Valerie suggested. “You get started at the local preschool.”
Henry marched over—assertively—to the preschool and submitted his résumé.
“You can teach the kids about current events,” the teacher explained. She looked like the first crayon taken out of the box: colorful, clean, and prepared. “For liability issues, you must always be accompanied by another teacher…”
Henry actually did listen to all the liabilities, but it turned out to not have mattered. He was kicked out after reading the kids a book.
“It had bunny-rabbits in it!” he protested.
“I don’t care!” The crayon-teacher practically kicked him out.
“You cannot traumatize the children with those graphic descriptions of violence.”
Henry huffed and added “Part-Time Teacher” to his résumé.
“You like books? Try the library,” was Valerie’s genius solution.
For the second time in a week, Henry frequented the library.
“We actually have a special program for that,” the librarian beamed. She look like crayon-teacher’s sister. “On Thursdays, we read to a small group of senior citizens suffering from Dementia…”
It turned out that the bunny-book riled them up too much, and a bunch of nurses had to come and cart them off. At least they hadn’t been traumatized.
“The petting zoo has rabbits,” Valerie added, missing the point. “You can go there.”
After getting his pant-leg gnawed by a goat, Henry quite—for the first time, he quit before he was fired.
“This is tiring,” Henry complained, lying sprawled-out on Valerie’s couch. “I have no platform to build on!”
“What do you like doing?” Valerie prompted, folding two socks into a little ball. “Once you figure that out, the rest will fall into place.”
“I like winning elections.”
“You know what I meant-“
“I like college; college was fun.”
“You had all sorts of hobbies in college,” Valerie remembered. “You were in all of the clubs. Just think of it like that!”
That was a valid point. With a newfound eagerness, Henry hopped off to sign up for every possible opportunity.
He carried golf-balls. He kept the ledger for a hardware store. He filed taxes. He sent emails. He stamped boxes of crackers with their expiration date.
He painted stop-signs. He folded shirts and pants. He managed a cash register and handed out quarters. He laced shoes. He coached aspiring basketball players.
He experienced blisters, paper-cuts, scammers, strained eyes, squished fingers, un-washable stains, too much lint to count, more scammers, more eye-strain, and far too many bruises on the head from being pegged by a blindingly orange rubber-sphere.
And he was fired from each and every one.
“I really have no platform,” Henry moped. He splashed some soapy water on the nearest table and rubbed it weakly with a paper towel. The only job he could hold was a cleaner at an “Adult Restaurant”—by that, it served alcohol at all hours of the day—and the rest of his hobbies were discarded along with all the other things he had lost after finishing college.
Valerie mumbled something indiscernible, squinting into the setting sun. She was making great use of Henry’s employee-discount. A few days ago, she had complained that she was tired of living sensibly and always being such a stoic role-model to her students; since then, she had sampled practically everything on the menu, all of it for free. She was also very likely drunk.
“I mean, forget about nepotism; ‘Vote for Henry the Failure.’”
“You’re not a family,” Valerie slurred, then began to cry. She was most definitely drunk. “I want a family!”
“You want me to propose?” Henry rubbed his forehead. “Valerie, if I can’t even run for mayor-“
“No!’ Valerie stomped. “Not like that. I want to be the family!”
“I can help you with that.” A man popped out of nowhere; literally, he materialized from the shadows and swept Valerie away. It was the weirdest interaction Henry had ever witnessed, and that was including anything with Ernest.
The not-weird part was when Valeria admitted, a few weeks later, that she was pregnant.
“With somebody else’s child?” Henry asked. “Who even is-“
“This is my child!” Valerie crossed her arms and stamped both feet. “I don’t care who the other person is; she is mine and I will not tolerate suggestions to the contrary.”
Valerie was a doting, expecting mother. She made the child listen to classical music every night, read to her stomach every morning—not the bunny-book, unfortunately—and only did the softest of exercises. Her whole being grew soft, rounding and smudging at the edges, and she hadn’t lost her sharp tongue or practical solutions but grew a warm crevice especially reserved for this child.
Heather Margaret Cross was born exactly nine months after Valerie began rubbing her stomach, and Henry was stuck with her.
“I’m the only one with a job,” Valerie shrugged, depositing Heather on Henry’s lap, avoiding either of their gazes. Henry sighed. He had been fired from the restaurant, for “Not being as dedicated a worker as was standard,” and apparently was now the designated child-rearer.
“I’m sorry, Heather,” Henry huffed, wrapping her in a sling in probably the wrong way, and dragging her to the park.
It turned out that Heather was the best thing for Henry’s campaign. The town just ate up the image of a “Caring single father—” Henry was definitely single and growing into the father, slowly but surely.
Heather was the town’s celebrity; she was practically erect on a billboard. Everybody knew Heather, and everybody loved Heather. When Henry submitted his formal application to run for mayor, he didn’t even have to include a photo, there were enough online. And as he left the courthouse, he was swallowed by a crowd of fans.
Valerie was not one such fan.
“Why are you pasting my daughter everywhere?” she hissed.
“Your daughter? I’ve been taking care of her!” Henry shouted back, bouncing Heather a few times in his arms to further reinforce his status as a parent.
“I’ve got a job—that bit doesn’t matter. What does is that you’ve been splaying her all across the internet. Are you aware of the pedophiles?”
“Of course I am aware of the pedophiles!”
“Then why would you subject her to a global bunch?”
A camera clicked just beyond Henry’s left ear; he whipped around and saw that the previously-adoring crowd was now swallowing their drama whole. They probably thought they were a couple on the verge of a divorce. Maybe they thought they were cheating on their respective spouses. Either way, they were going to get it wrong, and Henry got out.
“Don’t run away from me!” Valerie shrieked, waving her gradebook frantically.
“I’m not running away from you; I’m trying to protect Heather!” Henry replied.
Even though she had on heeled shoes and was carrying a stack of essays, Valerie managed to get to their respective house before Henry—he blamed it on being delicate and slow, for Heather’s sake. After all, one does not frequently run marathons with babies in their arms. Despite this caution, Valerie ripped Heather from his grasp and stormed out.
Henry marveled at how Heather did not cry throughout the whole thing.
Valerie did not cry either; she never even came back. Henry was almost afraid to leave and explain how he as such a “Dedicated single father” could have lost his daughter in one afternoon, but eventually he did, and blamed it on her “Crazy mother.”
He really dug the “Crazy mother” thing into the ground. It seemed to be the logical line of defense. Henry lost his kid, but it wasn’t his fault. Henry wasn’t volunteering anymore, but it wasn’t his fault. Henry was a complete mess, but it wasn’t entirely his fault.
When voting day rolled around, Henry drove by the closest polling center—the same library he had read to “Be confident” in and waved once at a small line outside. Then he saw a bubblegum-pink stroller with what looked like Heather in it, and he drove away.
Henry fully expected to win. Valerie did, instead.
The back of Henry’s mind was telling him that it was all due to the “Crazy mother” story; that that turned all the true families against him because wishing negatively on one’s opponent is not what helps one win. Many adults had taught Henry that, and he hadn’t bothered to listen, but it wasn’t his fault!
Valerie stood proudly on a mahogany podium, Heather clutched tightly, giggling in her arms, and accepted the position of mayor despite her short campaign and past outbursts. She thanked the people of the town for supporting rebuilding relationships and new growth, and especially thanked them for not falling for the stigma surrounding a “Crazy, single mother”—Valerie even did air-quotes.
The whole time, Henry reminded himself that she was certainly crazy, certainly single, and barely a mother, but none of it was his fault.