A Bright Future

The world was abuzz with speculation that in three days time Helen Bright was likely—if not certainly—going to become the first Green President of the United States of America. For this reason above any other, Helen had been somewhat reluctant to eat the current President.

Just days earlier, Helen had found herself in a state of near euphoria. The situation was, of course, dire. A biological weapon had been deployed in Washington, and party leaders had been called to an urgent quarantined meeting with leading doctors and biological weapons experts at the George Washington University Hospital.

Helen knew that the Republicans would use the terror attack to push for stricter sanctions on immigration. She had rehearsed the soundbites in her head. “Who do you think is going to dust your rifle rack, Senator, if you send everyone back to their countries of origin?” No. That sounded a bit racist. She would come up with something suitably belittling, but morally irreproachable. And the Democratic President would talk—a lot—but there would be very little in the way of action. This was the Greens time to shine. No one was addressing the source of the biological weapons themselves, and how we needed to return to chemical-free living. This situation would be the clincher for her presidency. She could feel it.

She had passed through the plastic wrapped corridors, exchanged her clothes for hospital issue pants and tunic, and nodded benignly at Hazmat suited wardens who ushered her through to the surgery, which was doubling as the meeting room. She pictured herself standing outside the hospital later (once the pesky biological situation was cleaned up, of course), looking very grave and austere. She might allow a tear to form, but not drop. Noble stoicism. Almost regality. “This is what happens when we rape and pillage our planet,” she would say. Maybe using the word ‘rape’ would upset people. But she wanted to shock them. She had been debating the best word to use when she realised that she was in the surgery and she was the first one there.

Well, that was a little embarrassing. She looked vaguely over her shoulder, but no aides had been allowed through the quarantine. It was a little like being the first one to a party. Over eager. Desperate. She cursed. There was nowhere she could go. The instructions had been explicit. They were to enter the hospital via a back door, where quarantine attendants would meet them and take them through the labyrinthine plastic wrapped corridors to the surgery. There would be no wandering about—in fact she had entered the room through an airlock, which made her suspect that they were locked in anyway. She sighed. The only thing she could do was look busy, so that when the other leaders entered she could pretend not to notice them and then, after a minute or so of discomfort on their part, she could pretend to jump and say something like “Gracious, I do apologise! I was just redrafting this policy, and was quite in my own world!”

She reached for a pen, but unfortunately she’d been forced to leave her bag with the attendants before entering quarantine. The room was quite bare. Aside from the meeting table and chairs, the only other furniture was an operating table and a set of drawers in the corner. The large surgical light suspended over the meeting table made her suspect that the operating table usually took centre position in the room.

She crossed and recrossed her legs. No, cross them at the ankle, Helen. She adopted what she had been informed was a more ladylike pose. Or did that make her seem old fashioned and subservient? She tried out a legs apart pose, like a man. She was the future President. She would be known for being uncompromising.

She jumped as the door opened, and a familiar face appeared. Her reaction was to stand up straight away, which irritated her. Too eager.

“Hello,” the President gave a quick smile. “Looks like we’re the first to arrive.”

“Yes,” Helen smiled in return. “Terrible situation.” She realised she was still smiling, and stopped abruptly. She wondered if the President felt threatened by her. He should. The election was just days away.

They made small talk for some time, and both excelled at it. When they had run out of family members, pets, and favourite destinations, they moved on to TV and movies. It was not their first meeting, but they had not sat together alone before, nor talked for such a long time. After what seemed like hours (and they had handed over their watches, so it was hard to tell) a silence fell between them, and the atmosphere changed somewhat. The President looked pale.

“I’m going to talk to the guys out there,” he said. “See what’s going on.” Helen nodded, wishing she had acted first. When she was President it would not do to let others take the lead all the time.

He tried the door, but it was locked. Helen had suspected that might be part of the quarantine procedure. The President looked alarmed. He rattled the door handle, and banged on the door, shouting “Hey! Hey!” No one came. He uttered an expletive that Helen had never expected to hear from the President of the United States of America.

“I’m sure someone will come back,” she said. The words suddenly seemed to echo loudly in the bareness of the room.

The President moved quickly, searching methodically around the edges of the room for a means of escape. He pulled open the drawers next to the operating table. His hands were shaking.

“Aha!” he exclaimed, as he came upon a drawer containing a variety of surgical implements. He took out a scalpel. “Perhaps this.”

He jammed tool after tool into the edges of the door, but to no avail. Most were too small and too weak, and the door was sealed securely from the outside. Defeated, he slumped to the ground, placed his head in his hands, and started to hyperventilate.

Helen was quite fascinated. She had imagined that the President would be impossible to ruffle in a crisis. She wasn’t sure whether to feel pity or disgust. It was lucky for the country that she would be elected soon. She sat on the floor next to him, and placed a hand on his shoulder.

“I’m sure they will come back,” she said. “There must have been an error. Perhaps we were taken down the wrong corridor, and the other delegates are in the right room wondering where we are!” The President did not respond, so she tried again. “We just have to sit tight and wait it out. Perhaps we should start the discussions now, so that we don’t waste the time that we’re here?”

The President looked at her. “I have a medical condition,” he said. “I am scheduled for an operation later today, and without it I will die. I’ve been waiting for surgery for some time, but unfortunately the list is rather long and my situation has become critical, so I’ve had to jump the queue a little.” He rubbed his head. “It’s a good system I put in. Really good. I just couldn’t wait any longer.”

“We will get out in time,” Helen tried to maintain a neutral expression, but felt that one of her eyebrows may be ascending without permission. “I’m sure your people will come looking for you if they know your operation is today.”

He paused for a moment. “My condition is not something I have chosen to share with people. I received the memo about the meeting this morning, and I thought I would be out in a couple of hours.”  He looked somewhat sad. “The election has come at a rather fortunate time for me. I’m not sure for how much longer I could keep doing this.”

“Oh.” Helen nodded. “Well. Happy to help!” she barked a laugh, and it sounded all wrong. The President did not laugh.

A long time passed, and no one came. They both took turns to urinate behind the operating table, while the other turned their back. The room was starting to smell. Helen was hungry and thirsty. They both wondered aloud if they had been tricked into coming here, and if the biological attack was a precursor to the main terrorist event.

They both slept on the floor. Helen wondered if the President’s condition was related to his heart, as he often put a hand there and looked afraid. She was afraid too. It was impossible to calculate for how long they had been there, as time seemed to slow down. At first they took it in turns to bang on the door and shout for help, but after some time (days, perhaps) they simply did not have the energy to do so any more.

After one fitful sleep, Helen awoke and saw that the President was dead. He looked peaceful, but he was no longer in his body. Helen had never felt so alone and, at that point, she felt certain that she would die too. She could not remember how long it was that a person could survive without fluid or food, but she knew that it wasn’t that long. She remembered watching documentaries of men surviving in the jungle by eating ants and drinking water from leaves. In one such show, the host caught a rat in a trap and ate it raw. The image of him tearing into the animal so violently, so viscerally, had haunted Helen ever since. There had been no need. The man was not really stuck in the jungle—he was just trying to show what could be done, and making an animal suffer in the process.

Helen had been a vegetarian since the age of ten, when she had watched a documentary about slaughterhouses and cried herself to sleep. “You’re a murderer!” she had pointed a stubby finger at her father as he ate his steak, juices dripping into his moustache. He had laughed. “You’ll never be able to give up meat!” he’d said. “I give you a week!”

But it had been thirty years. And, as a Greens senator, she had campaigned tirelessly to close down slaughterhouses, to increase awareness of animal cruelty, and to try to persuade people to stop eating so many goddamn corpses.

Helen Bright was hungry and thirsty, and she knew that she would die if no one found her soon. Her tongue felt like it was too big for her mouth. Earlier, her stomach cramps had led to a painful bout of diarrhea, but she couldn’t even smell the room any more. She felt as if she was floating. And as those memories drifted back into her brain—the TV host pressing the rat into his mouth and biting through its skin, her father with the juice from the rare steak glistening in his moustache—all she could think about was how it would feel to take a bite of the President.

Unsteadily, she made her way to the surgical tools, now in a pile on the floor. Anything sharp would do. She picked up a scalpel and crawled on hands and knees back to where he lay. And then she stopped.

“Greens Candidate in Cannibalism Shock!” “Greens Leader Murders President!” the headlines loomed so large in her head that she could almost see them written on the wall. She was nearly President. And, as nearly President, it was not the done thing to eat the current President. Especially not as the first vegetarian Green President of the United States of America. It kind of undermined her message a bit.

She paused. But the electorate had to understand that this was life or death stuff. They embraced the TV guy who ate animals willy nilly, when he could just have easily packed up his crew and gone to McDonald’s for lunch. Surely they would know that she was just doing what she had to do to survive and, if anything, be impressed by her resourcefulness and grit. They would never think she was a subservient ankle crosser after this. Besides, she was dying.

Helen cut into the President’s arm, but it required a lot more effort than she had imagined, and she did not have the strength. She set the scalpel down, leant forward, and took a bite.

At the taste of flesh and blood, all of her senses woke up, and the vegetarian Helen Bright entered into a frenzy of biting and eating, disrupted only by the occasional bout of vomiting as the President hit her empty stomach. The taste was not too bad. In fact, the only thing that mildly disturbed her was the noise. She started off oblivious to it, but the more she ate the more the tearing, crunching, and wet meaty sounds made her think of that TV host and the rat. She sat up, pushing her blood soaked hair back from her face. That was when the door opened.

They wanted to carry her out, but Helen insisted on walking, despite the armed guard at each side of her. The plastic had now gone from the corridors, and it looked like it always had before. She tried asking about the biological threat, and the other delegates, but no one would answer her questions. They walked her out of the front door, where she was met by the glare of the sun and the flash of the paparazzi.

“Senator! Senator Bright! Is it true? Did you kill the President of the United States of America?” A blonde woman was waving a microphone in her direction.

“Senator Bright! Helen! Can you tell us if the Greens party is a cover for cannibalism?”

“Senator! Did you murder and eat the President?”

Helen had pictured herself walking out of the hospital and into the sunlight. In this vision she had not been covered in human blood and flesh. She ran a finger over her teeth, and tried to give a reassuring smile. This would all be cleared up. She could explain.

“Helen! Helen! Are you no longer a vegetarian?”

A big fat tear formed in her eye, and rolled down her cheek, leaving a shocking clean skin coloured track in its wake.

In an office not so far away, the Republican leader picked up his phone. “Is it done?” he asked. A voice responded affirmatively, and he put down the phone. He looked around his office. It was a nice office, but the White House would be better. He patted his hair. It had been a rather satisfactory end to the week.

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