One more excerpt from “Where the Campaign Ends,” this one from the very beginning. Want to read the rest? Click over to the “Orders” page and you’ll be all set!
You feeling okay, Boss? You look like hell.”
Riley Evans stood next to her longtime employer Ryan Williams in the wings of the Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center in Birmingham, Alabama. Outside, furious storms rolled through north-central Alabama, and the pair could feel more than hear the muffled thunder rumbling through the building.
Williams had spent the past two decades working as a political consultant, but this night and the months preceding had been well outside his normal experience. He surveyed the scene unfolding around him at the Republican Party’s election results watch party with a mix of dismay and resignation. Across the stage, a jazz band attempted to infuse energy into the cavernous room with a series of old standards. Two big-screen televisions flanked the ballroom, currently showing welcome messages but ready to tune to local television as soon as polls closed and results started to come in. Candidates for offices big and small, from the hopeful future Senator Merrick Comstock to incumbent County Commissioner Gloria Castille, sat with well-wishers in various green rooms throughout the facility. And high above it all, tucked safely in netting in the rafters, red, white and blue balloons were waiting to be released in a deluge when Comstock’s victory had been assured. Dozens of well-dressed men and women mingled throughout the hall, drinking flutes of champagne and snacking on hors d’oeuvres delivered by waiters in faux black-tie attire. Husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, all had gathered together for what they hoped to be a traditional celebration in what had been the most non-traditional of years.
For all the people there, it was the lack of attendance that most caught Ryan’s attention. Only a few hundred people had braved the thunderstorms pummeling Jefferson County to come to the party, rather than the 1,300 the center normally held. At least, Ryan hoped the droves stayed away because of the rain and not the equally stormy campaign the state had endured for the past few months. The air felt heavy from the humidity outside and tasted stale as it was circulated through the building’s heating system.
Ryan let Riley’s question sit and turned toward his assistant, who was more partner than employee after years working together. “We’ve never had anything like this,” he said.
He glanced over his left shoulder and smirked. “I’m not talking about the rain. What in the hell are we doing here?”
Riley’s brows rose in surprise. This was the closest to an admission of error she had heard from the ever-confident Ryan since they’d met. “Are you feeling okay? You’re not really getting introspective on me after all these years, are you?” Riley put a hand on Ryan’s arm and turned him to face her. “You know the rules. Hell, Boss, you wrote the rules. We come in, we do the job. Win or lose, we do the best we can with what we have and that’s that. No emotions, no regrets.”
Ryan smiled thinly. “Did I really make you that cynical?”
“I’m really not, not like you,” she said. “If I was I wouldn’t have Nick waiting for me when this is done.”
“You’re really choosing this moment to harp on me again for not settling down with someone?”
“Not at all. But sometimes having a better half keeps a person from making a stupid decision, like coming across the country to get the wrong candidate elected.”
“That’s what I have you for,” he grunted.
Ryan turned back toward the half-empty auditorium, Riley following suit. “The rain’s going to screw with our numbers.”
Riley took a look at the man standing beside her. He looked as he always did on Election Night. A tailored black suit accenting his trim 6-foot-2 frame, pinpoint white button-down shirt and, on this evening, a violet paisley tie. Power comes from the man, he always told her, not the tie. Straight brown hair suspended with product and combed up and to the right. Not the slightest hint of a five o’clock shadow appearing on his square jawline.
But, despite his usual outward appearance, something was different. This was the fourth election cycle they had worked together, and it was the first time she had seen Ryan melancholy as they awaited results. Even with defeat certain, he always had been able to draw energy from the end of the campaign, like a high-schooler on the last day of school. As she watched him, a single, unexpected bead of sweat rolled from his forehead, down his nose and dripped onto his tie.
He lifted his chin slightly in response.
“Seriously, are you feeling okay?”
“I’m just tired, Riley,” he said. “I’m very, very tired.”
Photo credit: Josh Putnam via Twitter