"Why is Hillary campaigning in Michigan today?" Emma asked.
"I don't know," I said. We were at the breakfast table, the day before the election, and I was double-fisting a giant cup of Maryland Club coffee. I promised myself for the tenth time that I would lay off the caffeine once the election was done. And Tastykakes. And of course I wasn't going to tell anyone about the McDonald's hamburger I ate last weekend, but I still felt a little guilty about that.
"Shouldn't she be in North Carolina? Or Arizona?"
"She needs Michigan as much as any other state, I guess."
"And the final event is in Philadelphia. Why is that? Trump isn't polling well in Pennsylvania, or I thought not."
"They're probably just being careful," I said. "Everyone knows it's going to be a landslide for Hillary. And they have to have the last event somewhere."
"You don't think there's any need to worry, do you?" she asked. "I mean, it's not like Trump could possibly win."
"No. There shouldn't be anything to worry about. Unlike my race."
"You haven't called off the victory party, have you?" she asked. "I mean, I know the polls look bad, but you still have a chance, don't you?"
"I still have a chance," I said. "And, no, I didn't call off the victory party. Even if it isn't a victory for me, we can still celebrate for Hillary. It's at the Hanover Inn."
"Okay," she said. "And you're going to have a lot of the Ellington College students there?"
"Oh, sure," I said. "Look, I have to go and make the final push. You and Richie be good for me while I'm gone."
"I'm going to make a quick Costco trip," she said.
We had all gone to our polling place at Hanover Hills Elementary, and we had all voted--I even held little Richie's hand when I pushed the button for Hillary Clinton, so he could say that he voted, too. Then it had been a tough day helping ferry voters to the polls, and doing everything I could do to try to at least make the margin respectable. When I pulled the Prius up to the Hanover Inn, I knew that I had, at last, gone the distance. Whatever would happen would happen. I still had a chance to go to Congress and be a part of the Clinton team and pass meaningful progressive legislation. And if I lost, I still had a wife who loved me and a baby to bring up and a multi-million trust fund. I was, for the moment, content, and when I walked into the Hanover Inn, I knew I had done my best.
The Hanover Inn was decked out with bunting. By that I mean there were red, white, and blue cloths on everywhere. I don't understand why this cloth is called "bunting," which I thought was a baseball thing, and I don't get why putting that cloth on the wall is decking anything out, and I was more than a bit annoyed that I was paying for it. But it looked patriotic, which I guess is a good thing to be on Election Day.
I was looking around for Polly, my campaign manager, but I couldn't find her anywhere. I finally ran into Emma, who was poking around behind the podium.
"Have you seen Polly?" I asked her.
"She's back here," she said. "Justin, have you seen the early returns out of Florida and North Carolina yet?"
"No," I said. I hadn't looked at the Presidential election at all.
"You need to come back here," she said.
"What's back there?" I asked.
"You remember I told you I was going to Costco?" she said.
"This is why."
Emma had taken an auxiliary ballroom and turned it into a safe space. It was the largest, most comfortable safe space I had ever seen. The floor was blanketed with, well, blankets. There were beanbags and plush cushions layered on top of that, and a few of the Ellington College students were lying on the cushions in the fetal position. There were TV monitors throughout the room, all playing YouTube cat videos. And, shockingly, Polly was in the far corner of the room, sipping on a juice box full of cold chocolate milk.
"What's going on?" I asked Emma.
"She's been like this since MSNBC said they couldn't call Pennsylvania for Clinton," Emma said.
"Justin, you have to talk to her."
I grabbed a juice box and a plush blanket with a cute green turtle on it and sat down next to Polly.
"What's wrong?" I asked. "We're not losing that badly, are we?"
"Pennsylvania is what's wrong," Polly said. "We lose Pennsylvania, it's game over. And Michigan isn't looking so good, either."
"Clinton's going to win in a landslide," I said. "Everyone knows that."
"What if everyone's wrong?" she asked. "What if we're all wrong? What if we wake up tomorrow, and Donald Trump is President? Justin, do you realize what that means?"
"You're scaring me," I said. "Polly, I need you. This campaign needs you. Snap out of it."
"You just wait," she said. "You just wait, Justin Trudeau-Fairchild. Trump is going to win this thing, and you'll be in here with me before the end of the night."
"Okay," I said. "You're clearly overstressed. It's been a long campaign, and everyone is tired. You stay here for a while, and come out when you're ready. Do you want anything?"
"I'm going to finish my chocolate milk, and then watch a little Dinosaur Train on my Netflix app."
"You do that," I said. "You do that."
"Is she going to be okay?" Emma asked.
"She'll be fine," I said. "This is an overreaction to some early polling, that's all it is. Hillary's going to win."
"What about you?" she asked.
"I don't know," I said. "Let's check."
I turned my phone on and googled the Hanover County clerk's department; they had a running tally of election results up. With 45% of precincts reporting, I was down 54%-45%.
"Could be worse," I said. "Lot of ground to make up."
"I'm so sorry, Justin," she said. "I know you worked so hard for this. It's not fair."
"I know," I said. "But Hillary will win. You'll see. And if she wins, we know we made a difference.
That's what's important."
The final results came in about a half-hour after that, just around the same time that MSNBC called Ohio for Trump. I hadn't made up any ground at all; in fact I'd lost a little in the more rural parts of the county. Mark Campbell had won the race, 56%-43%. I wanted to throw my phone across the room, but instead I called Campbell and wished him luck in Congress. He was gracious about the whole thing, as well he might be. We agreed that he would address his supporters first, and that I would give my concession speech once he was done. I went back into the safe space to tell Polly, and to see how she was doing.
She had a pack of raspberry-coconut Tastykakes in one hand, and a tablet with a PowerPuff Girls episode playing in the other. "It's over," I said. "I lost. I'm going to be giving my concession speech here in about twenty minutes."
"This isn't about you, Justin," she said. "This is about Pennsylvania. And Ohio. And Michigan, oh God, if he wins Michigan, it's all over. We're doomed. The Republic can't be saved."
I thought about asking if she would share one of her Tastykakes, but thought better of it. "These are all close races," I said. "But we still have a long way to go. Can you at least come out with me to the podium?"
"I can't do it, Justin," she said. "I need to be here, in a safe space. You go out there and be brave for both of us."
"I can't do it without you," I said.
"Of course you can," she said. "You don't need me. And I'm sorry about all those times I called you an idiot. Because you're not, not about important things."
"No," I said. "I really can't do it without you. Because you were supposed to write my concession speech. I don't have one ready."
"Oh," she said. "That. I'll just send you my draft. Good enough?"
I sighed. "I guess it'll have to be."
I made my speech, although it took me a few minutes to figure out how to use the Dropbox thingy that Polly had saved it on. It wasn't long, and I stood there and delivered it, with Emma and Richie and my mom and dad standing behind me. I gave the speech, and we all hugged, and the few people who were left for the party either started to slink away, or to head back to the safe space.
"You ran a good campaign, kid," my dad said. "Sorry it turned out like it did. It wasn't your year, that was all. You did your best."
"Thanks," I said, and I meant it.
"Why don't your mother and I take Richie and Emma with us? I'm sure everyone needs their sleep. You can come home as soon as the election's called."
"It might be late," I said.
"It might be," he said. "You come home when you can, and get some sleep. We'll start talking about what you want to do next after you've had some breakfast."
"I hadn't given it any thought," I said. "I always figured I would win, up until the last couple of weeks."
"I know. It's a tough break. But you're a married man now, with a kid. Can't have you unemployed for too long. We'll talk."
"Okay," I said, although it promised to be a very painful conversation. "I ought to be able to find something in the Clinton Administration, if it comes down to it."
Dad smiled at me when I said that, just a little. "Oh, I wouldn't bank on that one."
The safe space was full. Emma had done an excellent job supplying it, except that she had bought plain regular Kleenex instead of the organic fair-trade unbleached kind, which I guess was because Costco wouldn't carry it. Some people were using the Kleenex anyway, but others were just letting their tears run down their faces. I took my jacket off, sat down on one of the few remaining pillows, and switched my phone on.
"What's going on?" one of the Bernie Bros asked. "Is it still bad?"
"They called Iowa for Trump," I said. "Still waiting on Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan."
"Don't say his name," he said. "This is a safe space."
"Sorry. But you asked."
"He's going to shut down the college, isn't he? I mean, not just our college, but all of higher education."
"It won't be that bad," I said, feeling more secure about that than I actually felt.
I tried not to look at my phone. I tried organizing a sing-along to a Bubble Guppies episode. But nobody was paying me any attention, and I stopped. A few people went home, but most of us stayed up past two o'clock until the official word came down that Trump had pulled off the upset. I helped Polly to her feet and drove her home, and made sure that she made it to bed. Then I drove home, down the sad and lonely windswept New Jersey streets, feeling like a character in a Springsteen song. There was a light burning in the upstairs window.
"I'm home," I told Emma.
"What's going to happen to our country?" she asked. "I'm so scared."
"I'm scared, too," I said. "I never thought Hillary could lose. We worked so hard for her in Washington, and in this campaign, and I thought it would all pay off. But it hasn't."
"Little Richie is going to grow up in a world that's defined by hatred and misogyny," she said. "We have to stop that."
"I know," I said. "But right now, we need to go to sleep."
I woke up that morning filled with a new enthusiasm and vitality. I did not know what the rest of my life held in store. I still didn't know what I was going to do, or where I was going to live, or how our country could hold itself together without the strong, guiding hand of Hillary Clinton to lead us all into the sunlit uplands. All I knew was that there was a battle yet to be fought, and I was a social justice warrior. This was my time, and I would make the most of it.
But first, I was going to go downstairs and make myself some chocolate milk and watch about seventeen straight episodes of Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood. I had gone the distance, and I had earned it.