The community hall was packed when Caleb Sinclair edged through the propped-open doorway. It was early spring and the night air was still cool, almost cold, but too little of it was getting inside; the place was stifling. The windows, above eye-level in the high-ceilinged room, hadn't been opened in living memory. Caleb pulled his jacket off and noticed that the buzz of conversation in the room was more subdued than it had been just moments before. Then the volume flared up again, and he winced at the familiar pattern, the surprised quiet followed by the catty gossip.
He turned to his friend Matt, standing hesitantly beside him, and forced a grin onto his face. "At least this time they're staring at you, not me."
But Matt Dean was used to being the town's golden boy, and apparently he wasn't ready to joke about the change in his fortune. "Maybe I should leave," he suggested quietly.
"Why?" Caleb demanded. "It's your town as much as theirs, right?" He waited, then raised an eyebrow, reminding Matt that the choice of words wasn't accidental. When Caleb had come out of the closet, Matt had stood by him without question or hesitation, and had given more pep talks than anyone should ever be asked to. Caleb was more than happy to return the favor of friendship now. "Besides, it's not your fault. It's not even your parents' fault."
"I don't think many of the people here agree with you on that."
"Bullshit." Caleb looked around the overcrowded room; he didn't think they had a chance of finding seats, but he hoped they could find somewhere to stand, somewhere farther from the exit Matt seemed so eager to use. "The bitchy ones are the loudest, but that doesn't mean they're the biggest group. Besides, nothing's decided yet. That's the whole point of the meeting."
Matt didn't look convinced, but he trailed along as Caleb led the way to the back corner of the room. They edged in next to Mr. Shackleton, who had taught them both geography years ago in high school, and nodded a greeting as a thin, past-middle-age woman made her way onto the low stage at the front of the room. Hazel McAllister, the mayor. She fumbled with the microphone, then cleared her voice and spoke to the quieting crowd.
"Thank you all for coming out tonight. I know you have some concerns, and I have some concerns, as well. But hopefully we can get some information here, and at least have a better idea of what's going on. What's being proposed."
The mayor looked over toward the small group of strangers sitting in the front row. Caleb couldn't see their faces, but their backs were almost uniform--conservative haircuts and white collars just showing above dark business suits. There was one woman with them; her dark hair was coiled into a bun and she was also wearing a sedate jacket, although it was in a rich cream color. Caleb looked around at the rest of the crowd and saw the familiar baseball caps and cowboy hats, the shaggy hair above worn work shirts, and almost smiled. It was pretty damned obvious who the outsiders were. He glanced over toward Matt; he'd had the sense to dress casually, at least. Italian loafers instead of work boots, but that was probably just as well. It had been a long time since Matt had worked on a farm, and everyone in the room knew it. They wouldn't have appreciated it if they'd thought he was wearing a costume.
And how stupid was it that Caleb had to worry about that? That Matt had to worry about it? Matt Dean, a local boy who'd left town only long enough to get his medical degree before returning to help address the area's critical doctor shortage.... Matt had to worry about how he was presenting himself to the community. He had to prove himself to the people he'd grown up with.
For the first time, Caleb wondered whether he was doing Matt a favor, standing by him. Was Matt's friendship with the community's only openly gay man just one more way that Matt was defying community values?
Then one of the well-dressed men from the front row stood up and started for the stage. His shoulders were a little distracting: broad, almost rangy, tapering to a slim waist and tight ass. His suit fit so well it must have been custom-made. Or else bought at a store that specialized in dressing superheroes. Clark Kent and this guy would be the store's main clients. And then the man turned around, and Caleb forgot all about the shoulders.
He was a superhero. He had to be. Nobody was that good-looking in real life; nobody had a jaw that chiselled, or eyes that blue. Maybe in Hollywood, but not in Rocky Creek, Ontario.
The man's smile wasn't wide, didn't seem overdone, but Caleb felt its warmth like a fire on a cold day. And his voice had just the right tone, deep and strong, as he said, "On behalf of Caplan International, thank you for coming to meet with us. My name is Peter Carr, and I'm really happy to be here in Rocky Creek. It's a beautiful part of the country, and I can absolutely understand why you're all so worried about protecting it. I hope that when we're done here, you'll agree with us that our project is not the threat it has initially appeared to be."
There was a stir in the crowd as people turned to their neighbors to discuss this new wrinkle. More than a few women already looked convinced, and the men seemed a little more favorably disposed as well. Peter Carr didn't just look the right way, he also said the right things.
Caleb was mostly just glad that the crowd's attention was off Matt; the rest of the night would unfold as it would, and Caleb could return to his favorite position: unnoticed on the sideline. With the trouble he was having keeping himself from staring at the beautiful man in front of the room, it was just as well that he wasn't being observed too closely.
Carr waited for the crowd to settle down, then continued. "We've got a lot of experts here to talk to you today, and I think their information is important. I think it's essential that you all understand that we're not just charging into this. We've done our homework, we're being careful, and we know what we're doing. But I think the other important thing about meetings like this is for us to make it clear that we're not faceless monsters attacking you from the city. We're people too. We have families, and places that we love, and we understand your concerns. We do." He seemed so sincere, so kind. His smile was gentle, and he let the audience buzz a little before resuming at just the right time. "So I'm going to turn the stage over to the experts. We've got... well, there's a lot of engineers. Sorry about that." He grinned at the men in the front row as if sharing an old joke. "But there's also an economist, and an ecologist... I'm a lawyer, but I don't really"--another quick grin--"I don't really do lawyer stuff, if that makes sense. It's my job to make sure we're not breaking any laws, but also to make sure that we're working with people in the most cooperative, respectful way, to keep us all out of court." He nodded as if reinforcing that message, then stepped to the side. "So now I'm going to introduce Riva Singh, the project engineer for this job."
That was maybe their first misstep, Caleb decided. The engineer was beautiful and poised, and when she started speaking, explaining their plans, she sounded like any other Canadian. But her skin was dark, her last name wasn't Dutch or German or British, and for the insular community of Rocky Creek, that was enough to label her an outsider. A foreigner, regardless of where she was born. There wasn't much open racism in the community, but that didn't mean there wasn't plenty of it under the surface.
But the engineer seemed oblivious to any of those undercurrents. She took Peter Carr's place on the podium and raised a remote control, clicking it until the ceiling-mounted projector sent an image to the screen behind her. A beautiful shot of the fertile farmland they all lived in, looking out toward the lake, and Caleb was pretty sure he knew the exact spot it was taken from in the provincial park. He could see his own property, and he realized again just how close it was to the proposed pit. The engineer was talking, explaining technical details in clear, straightforward terms, but Caleb had trouble paying attention. This was really happening. That was his farm, his home, nestled in right next to the proposed site.
When Singh was done, a few other experts stood up and gave their reports, explaining how the quarry would help the local economy and wouldn't hurt the environment. The slides kept coming, showing graphs and charts, long reports with key phrases highlighted and enlarged to a legible size, and lots of shots of people. Happy engineers in the lab, smiling over positive reports. Happy construction workers in hard hats, operating heavy equipment. Happy families driving happy cars down happy roadways paved with happy aggregates. It was over the top, in Caleb's opinion, but he couldn't deny that the tension in the room had lowered considerably. Happy engineers talking to happy townsfolk, apparently.
Which was more than a little awkward. Caleb glanced sideways and saw Matt's frown, and was reassured. He wasn't the only one who didn't like how things were going. But he wasn't sure there was much Matt could do about any of it, not from the position he was in.
A final slide, and then Peter Carr returned to his place at the podium, smiling out at the audience as if they were all his best friends. "I know that was a lot of information all at once--we've got printed reports for you to take home and read over, and all of this is also available at our website. Like I said, we're committed to being open and honest about this entire process. We're not here to shove the quarry down your throats; we're convinced that once you think about it, you won't really have any objections to it." Another warm smile, and then he said, "So, thank you all for coming. That's the end of our presentation, but we're all planning to stick around for a while, to answer any questions you have, one-on-one. I'll remind you who everyone is: Riva's our project engineer, Malcolm can answer economic questions, and Sean's our ecologist. If you'd just like general questions answered, I'd be happy to help you with that. So, thanks again for coming out, and drive safe."
That was it? They were being dismissed? It made sense, Caleb realized. A full-group question period would give people a chance to hear their neighbors' objections, and could fire the crowd back up to the way it had been before the meeting started. So they were all being managed, just as they'd been managed right through the rest of the presentation. Caleb didn't want to get involved; he wanted to lean back into the shadows and let things flow by him. But he remembered his own words from earlier, the ones Matt had spoken to him years before. It was his town as much as anyone else's, and he had as much responsibility as they did to ensure that it wasn't ruined. And, of course, it was his farm that was right next to the damn pit.
"How many jobs?" he said quickly, his voice loud enough to carry over the rustling of people getting ready to leave. "You said you're bringing jobs to the community, but you didn't give a number. And you didn't say whether they'd be jobs people around here might be able to fill, or whether you'll be bringing in people from outside."
The crowd stilled, but Peter Carr's smile was as warm and relaxed as ever. It was almost overwhelming when he turned it, full force, toward Caleb. "That's a good question. I think Malcolm is going to be setting up over by the windows, there, and I'm sure he can answer that for you."
"It might be a question a lot of people would like to hear the answer to," Caleb forced himself to say. Damn it, everyone was looking at him, and he could feel the heat rising to his face. But it was his town, his farm, so he continued. "You guys are all about efficiency, right? So it'd probably be most efficient to give your answer to the whole group. And you're all about openness, so you wouldn't want to give the impression that you're trying to keep people from hearing something...."
"Of course we aren't," Peter said reassuringly, with another smile. "I just don't want to hold people up. Maybe... why don't we take a short break, to give people who need to be somewhere else a chance to escape, and then we'll see where we are." He nodded toward the crowd, giving them permission to move. The pause was long and a bit awkward, but nobody stirred. Peter's smile still seemed relaxed, but Caleb wondered whether that was all part of the act. "Okay, then. You're all interested in hearing about the jobs. Great. Malcolm, can I pass this over to you?"
"Sure, yeah," Malcolm said, stepping up to the front of the room. "Well, we're not sure about jobs right now, to be honest. We're currently employing about fifty people, with the agricultural operation. The quarry would be more labor intensive--more jobs per acre. So we might lose some of the farming jobs, but we'd have more jobs overall, and we'd absolutely try to hire the farm workers for new jobs in the quarry, assuming they were interested. So, a net increase, for sure." He paused as if hoping he was done, but he read the room well enough to know that he wasn't. "You guys want a number. The problem is--we don't know. The more land we work at once, the more jobs we'll have, but the shorter time the jobs will last. We're still working out plans on that, and I really can't give you a firm number. I don't want to mislead you."
Caleb wasn't sure whether the man was being evasive or honest, but he seemed to be done speaking, and the crowd was apparently going to accept that. Caleb wondered if he had the courage to push any further. He hadn't really cared about the jobs, not for himself; there were other things that concerned him a lot more. It had been his weak attempt to play to the crowd, but it obviously hadn't worked all that well. No big surprise, really; he'd half expected some of them to storm out of the place in protest for him daring to open his mouth. But there were questions that needed to be asked, and people needed to hear the answers. Caleb took a deep breath.
But he didn't have to speak again. "What about the water?" It was Mr. Shackleton, the geography teacher. "You're planning to go a long way below the water table, right? And the quarrying will produce a lot of silt, and there will be fuel and oil and whatever else introduced into the runoff. We're upstream from an internationally recognized bird sanctuary, and the wetlands there are crucial to a number of species. You said you were confident that the water could be cleaned. I don't share your confidence."
This time, the pause was only awkward for the Caplan representatives. The community members were getting their energy back, the indignation that had brought them to the meeting returning, and they swiveled back to face the front of the room, waiting for an answer.
The ecologist was the logical one to answer, but he kept his back turned to the audience, even when Peter Carr leaned over and nudged him. Finally, it was Carr who stood up. "I'm sorry to hear that you're not confident. That's something that worries me... it's absolutely our goal to have you all feel comfortable with the process."
"Let's stop worrying about 'the process' and start worrying about the facts." It was Carol Diefenbaker speaking. She and her husband worked one of the farms right next to the proposed quarry land. The back of their property lined up with the back of Caleb's, and he knew her well. Well enough to know that she was a pit bull; she didn't look for trouble, but if it found her, she bit down hard and didn't let go. The Caplan folks had better brace themselves. Caleb smiled, and saw Matt grinning beside him. "It's great that you want us to be confident and comfortable, but that doesn't count for much if we're confident and comfortable in the wrong damn things! I want to know that my well is safe, and I want to be able to enjoy my property without worrying about shaking and dust and noise coming from next door! I want to be able to drive down the road without having to deal with hundreds of gravel trucks. Hundreds, that's what I heard! And, yeah, I want to know about the jobs, and the wetlands, and all the rest of it. You've given us a lot of nicely polished bullshit tonight, and if you're getting out of the farming business, then you really don't need any of that for fertilizer!"
Caleb couldn't tell who said it first, but it was soon followed by whooping and agreement and applause, and the crowd that had been about to file away and go home was suddenly alive, involved, and angry. Just like they damn well should be. It was their town too, and they shouldn't let some slick talker from the city pull the wool over their eyes. It didn't matter that the man was beautiful, not if he was using his looks to do ugly things.
Caleb smiled in triumph and looked toward the front of the room to see the beautiful man staring back at him. His expression was strange. He didn't seem angry, and he certainly didn't look intimidated. He was absorbing the noise of the room as if they were cheering for him, and he was looking at Caleb with what really seemed to be gratitude. He was glad that Caleb had spoken up, happy that all of this was happening. But Caleb had no idea why.