“Friends, gun violence has reached an epidemic in America,” Jeffrey Harrison said to the camera. He was in his fifties with a chiseled chin and hair graying at the temples. “Gun violence is the number-one cause of death in children. If elected President, I’ll get these dangerous guns off our streets and keep our children safe.” The video switched to an image of a classroom. “I’m Jeffrey Harrison and I approve this message.”
Barbara Hughes stroked Cora’s head. Her tabby jumped off the couch as Barbara reached for the remote and switched off the TV. She hoped Harrison would win because his opponent, Ron Lundgren was a bigot and a bully who wasn’t qualified to run a lemonade stand. Barbara drained her glass of Merlot and went to bed. Tomorrow was election day and she needed to be at the poll at 6:00 AM.
Barbara nodded to the policeman and stepped into the high-school gymnasium. Gordon Pierce, the precinct warden, was already there. As this was their third election together, the rhyme Gordon the warden had lost its luster but new poll workers continued to find the tired joke amusing. As clerk, Barbara earned forty-dollars of extra pay for recording the day’s events and helping Gordon deal with challenges and inactive voters. By 6:10, seven more volunteer poll workers had arrived. After giving the oath, Gordon set them to work putting up tables, posters, and voting booths. Those who had worked before set up the Poll Pads at the check-in tables. These were touchscreens the size of a book that connected to the voter database via WIFI hotspots. The eighth worker was a no show.
Gordon got keys from the policeman, opened the drawers in the ballot box, and verified they were empty. He slid a beige Accu-Vote machine, the size of a laptop, into the slot atop the box. When a voter fed her ballot into the rollers, the machine would tabulate the results before depositing the paper ballot in the drawer below. Gordon powered it up and ran two zero tapes before moving to the next ballot box. Barbara recorded all of this in the green notebook.
When the polls opened at 7:00 AM, retirees in walking shoes and pastel clothes were at the head of the line. A few workers in business casual voted before their commutes as well. The process was straightforward. Once a worker verified a voter’s information on the Poll Pad, she would hand the voter a ballot and save a printed receipt of the voter’s check in to ensure an audit trail. The voter would then fill out the ballot and feed it into one of two Accu-Vote machines atop ballot boxes. The third Accu-Vote processed absentee ballots and early-voting. Problems were referred to the warden or clerk. It was slow and tedious but the rules were there for a reason. Democracy demanded accuracy. Not long after Gordon went to lunch at 11:30, a poll worker summoned Barbara to the check-in.
“I don’t have a record of Mr. Raphael.”
“Please come this way, sir.” Barbara escorted the voter to the clerk’s table. “What is your name and address?”
“Michael Raphael, 4522 Park Street.”
Barbara couldn’t find the name. “Have you changed your name or moved?”
Barbara called the city clerk but they had no record of Mr. Raphael.
“I can give you a provisional ballot,” she told the voter. “If we can verify you’re registered, we’ll count it.” Barbara placed the provisional ballot in an orange bag after Mr. Raphael filled it out.
The polls closed at 8:00 PM and it took fifteen minutes for those remaining in line to finish voting. Gordon got the ballot box key from the policeman, fed an end sheet into the Accu-Vote, and printed two ticker tapes. He then removed counted and uncounted ballots, and keeping them separate, handed them to poll workers before moving on to the next machine. Workers tallied uncounted ballots and tabulated write-in candidates. Barbara recorded seven write-ins for “Nobody,” two for “Ninja Turtles,” and four blanks. Even though, the gym was empty of everyone except poll workers, Barbara read the tallies aloud at 10:00 PM. They placed ballots in gray boxes, sealed them, and gave them to the policeman to take to city hall. Barbara made sure that she’d recorded the tallies, challenged voters, provisional ballots, complaints, and payroll in the green notebook before placing it in the canvass bag. By the time they’d packed everything, Barbara had worked for seventeen hours. She drove home to a warm cat and big glass of Merlot.
Barbara woke to the results that Jeffrey Harrison had won the presidency with fifty-one percent of the votes compared to Lundgren’s forty-seven but Lundgren was having none of it.
“Dead people voting in Chicago, illegal aliens in New Mexico, and ballots dumped in Vermont,” Lundgren’s whiney voice shouted on the radio. “This is the most corrupt vote in American history.”
Barbara switched it off. She’d taken two days’ vacation from work. She’d donated yesterday to her community. Today was her day to recover. She didn’t need to ruin it listening to that fool’s baseless accusations about the painstaking job she’d performed, yesterday. She opened a can of cat food for Cora and drove to an organic market where she bought basil, heirloom tomatoes, olive oil, and mozzarella. After a lunch of caprese, she caught a matinee and took a walk in the park.
Barbara set the handpiece, dental picks, mouth mirror, probe, toothpaste, and floss on the tray. Despite the flexible schedule, her job as a dental hygienist paid well. She displayed the first patient’s x-rays on the monitor as he entered and sat in the dentist’s chair.
“We did x-rays last time, Mr. Kelly, so it will just be a cleaning, today.”
It was a typical day. The Wagner boy wasn’t flossing and Dr. Johnson told Mrs. Williams she needed a crown on her number-30 molar. When Barbara got home, she fed Cora and heated a frying pan to cook some salmon. Her cell phone rang.
“Hello.” All she could hear was heavy breathing. “Hello?” Barbara hung up.
She overcooked the salmon and sat down to dinner when the phone rang again. It was the same heavy breather so she hung up. The phone rang again when she was washing up.
“Listen, you asshole, stop calling me!”
“Gordon? Sorry, I was getting a prank call.”
“Have you seen the website?”
“They’re calling themselves Americans for a Fair Vote. Go take a look.”
She booted her laptop and found the website. As well as Lundgren’s accusations, it displayed state election officials and several poll workers. Under Precinct 4, she found her name, address, phone number, and email.
Over three hundred emails with messages like, “I’m going to cut off your tits, you traitor,” crowded her inbox. That was one of the milder ones.
“I’m going to file an injunction to have the website take your names down,” Doug Turner said.
Barbara regarded the city attorney in the Zoom window. He wore a dark suit but his collar was open at this hour.
“That’s easy for you to say,” a poll worker interrupted. “Your name isn’t on their hate list.”
“Even if you do take it down, who’s to say our details won’t show up on another website?”
“Look,” Turner said. “I know it’s stressful but the important thing is not to engage with these people. That’ll just pour gasoline on the fire. For God’s sake, don’t make any public statements. The Secretary of State has already commented on the integrity of the election. Just be cool and this will all blow over.”
Barbara returned home from work to find “Die Bitch!” painted in blood-red letters next to her front door. She called the police. Barbara was stroking Cora when two officers, a man and a woman both clean cut and tired, arrived twenty minutes later.
“We have a report of a vandalism,” the woman said.
Barbara pointed to the obvious.
“I’ll check around back,” the man said.
“What time did this happen?” the woman asked.
“It was here when I got home from work around 4:30,” Barbara said. “I’m one of the election workers who got doxed on that website. This is part of their harassment campaign.”
The woman wrote Barbara’s statement down and the man returned.
“No evidence of an attempted break in,” he said.
“This is for you.” The woman handed Barbara a receipt. “You can to get a copy of the police report for your insurance.”
“That’s it? What am I supposed to do?”
“You might want to install deadbolt locks and put some bars on your windows.” The male officer touched the bill of his cap. “We’ll keep a look out.”
Barbara got a bucket of soapy water and began sponging off the hateful message. Bars on her windows! What nerve! As if she was supposed to live like a prisoner in her own home! She bore down but only managed to turn the graffiti from red to pink. Walt Chambers, her neighbor with the Lundgren for President sign in his yard, stood in his doorway watching but didn’t offer to help. Barbara threw the bucket into her yard and went to bed.
The harassment continued. Barbara deleted emails unread. The internet provider took the offending website down but a dozen more sprung up in its place. Her work was a respite until she found her tires slashed in the parking lot one evening. The police recorded her complaint and did nothing.
Barbara came home on a Thursday night to find her front window broken. She opened the door and saw the shambles inside. Cora’s body lay on the kitchen floor. The intruder had twisted her neck and stomped her into paste. Bloody boot prints led to the living room and bedroom where bookshelves were overturned and her laptop smashed. The police arrived in sixteen minutes this time.
Her dead cat did not merit the full, CSI treatment. Police took pictures of the boot prints and dusted her laptop and bookcase for fingerprints.
“Is there a friend you can stay with?” an officer asked.
“My daughter is in Madrid studying abroad and my ex-husband lives in Monterrey with some bimbo who is twenty years younger than him.”
After the police left, she took one of the gummies left from before her medical marijuana license had expired. They’d helped her with the nausea during chemo and she’d kept a few just in case.
Barbara almost turned back when she saw the circular, NRA sticker on the gun shop’s door. She took a breath and stepped inside. Rifles hung on the walls and glass cases by the counter contained pistols that she couldn’t tell apart. All she knew was that they were big, black, and square. She stopped in front of one with a turquoise frame that seemed small enough to fit her hand.
“Help you?” The clerk was in his late twenties, had a patchy beard, and wore his hair in a man bun.
“I had a break in and I’m looking for something…”
“Have you done any shooting before?”
Barbara shook her head.
“For home defense, I’d recommend a pump-action shotgun like a Remington or a Mossberg. Even the sound of you racking the slide will send most criminals running. You’re a little small so a 12 gauge would have too much kick. A 20 gauge like this one would be best.” He racked the slide open and handed her a shotgun.
Barbara held it like a live rattlesnake.
“Holds seven in the tube and one in the chamber. I recommend mounting a light on the rail for home defense.”
“I’ll take it.”
“Let me have your ID and I’ll get a Form 4473 for your federal background check.”
Barbara filled in her details and denied felonies, domestic abuse, and advocating the overthrow of the government. She paused at a question that asked, “Are you an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana or any depressant, stimulant, narcotic drug, or any other controlled substance?” She’d had a medical marijuana license so she wasn’t illegal. Barbara answered no.
The clerk spent a half hour on the phone before telling her the sale was approved. Barbara’s bill for the shotgun, ammunition, light, and cleaning kit came to just over a thousand dollars. She put it on her credit card.
“You should take shooting lessons so you know what you’re doing.” The clerk handed her a card. “Stephanie’s pretty good. She’s an ex-cop.”
“I haven’t had much luck with cops,” Barbara replied.
“You know what they say?” the clerk added. “When seconds count, the police are twenty minutes away.”
Barbara’s one-hour class gained her a sore shoulder and the knowledge that her firearm shot high. She’d have to aim at an intruder’s groin to hit his chest. The harassment continued but no thugs were going to chase her out of her home. She felt safer with bars on the windows and the shotgun propped in a corner next to her bed.
Pounding on Barbara’s front door woke her from a deep dream. She opened her eyes and looked at the alarm clock. It was 4:30 AM.
“Police! Open up!”
She put on a robe, looked through the peep hole, and saw a half-dozen men in blue windbreakers on her porch. She unlocked the door.
“Barbara Hughes, you’re under arrest for violation of the National Firearms act and lying of a federal form.” The lead ATF agent handed her a warrant.
“What? You pigs didn’t lift a damn finger to help me when thugs were breaking into my house and you have the gall to arrest me for trying to defend myself just because I used some pot when I had breast cancer!” She crumpled the warrant and tossed it in the agent’s face.
“You have the right to remain silent. If you give up the right to remain silent, anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.”
Agents handcuffed her hands behind her back and drove her to a federal courthouse where she surrendered her purse. Before her mug shot and fingerprinting, a matron made her take off her clothes.
“Drop your panties.” The matron put on rubber gloves. “And face the wall.”
Barbara called Arthur Wheeler, the lawyer who’d handled her divorce. She waited five hours in a holding cell before pleading not guilty in front of a judge. After making bail, she left five-thousand dollars poorer and with a court date in August.
“It’s you luck day.” The assistant prosecutor was blonde, had an upturned nose, and wore her self-righteousness like a power suit. “The charges could send you to prison for five years but if you plead guilty, you’ll get out in one.”
“Where the hell were you when thugs stomped my cat to death?” Barbara asked.
“Your personal grievances are not my concern,” the prosecutor said. “My priority is keeping firearms out of the hands of criminals and ending this epidemic of gun violence.”
“May I talk to my client?” Art Wheeler asked.
“Of course. The deal lasts until 5:00 PM.” The prosecutor left the room.
“Look.” Wheeler leaned forward so Barbara could see his bald spot. “We can fight this but your statement to the arresting officers hurt your case. If I were you, I’d take the deal and save a hundred-thousand-dollars in legal fees. That way you’ll still have some resources when you get out.”
“My administration has done more to take guns out of the hands of criminals than any in the past three decades,” President Harrison’s voice said over the radio.
Barbara reached toward the dashboard and turned it off.
“Really sucks the way it turned out.” Gordon took the exit toward the chain-link fences topped with razor wire in the distance.
They rode in silence until he pulled over by the entrance that said Federal Correction Facility.
“Guess this is it.” Barbara removed her bag of books and clothes from the backseat. Who knew if the guards would let her keep them? “Thanks for the ride.”
As she walked toward the prison entrance, she vowed to never vote for anyone like Harrison again. Of course, as a convicted felon, she could never vote period.
Jon Wesick is a regional editor of the San Diego Poetry Annual. He’s published hundreds of poems and stories in journals such as the Atlanta Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, New Verse News, Paterson Literary Review, Pearl, Pirene’s Fountain, Slipstream, and Space and Time. His most recent books are The Shaman in the Library and The Prague Deception. JonWesick.com. Jon recommends Planned Parenthood and the ACLU.