He'd been against this from the beginning. Well, okay, not from the very beginning, but for at least the last two lotteries, and possibly the one before that. He'd already decided that no matter what happened, he would not be a part of the next one. Someone else would have to host the 2005 Harvest King lottery.
It was barbaric, really. It smacked of pagan sacrifice to dark gods and superstitious nonsense. Did anyone really believe that stuff about how if the Harvest King saw the Eerie Wolf (and why did Chaney have such a hard time getting that word out?) that Eerie would have thirteen years of prosperity? It was just coincidence, that was all.
Every thirteen years, every male over thirteen put his name into the lottery. And every thirteen years, the Powers that Be (Chaney, the Mayor, and Radford) hand-picked their own candidate. Someone who was usually a bit of a troublemaker, an upstart, the kind of boy the town could do without. Sometimes they had one singled out months in advance.
This time, there hadn't been a name to write on the blank ticket. No one knew his name, the mysterious boy with the grey hair and the big black coat who came into the store and helped himself to half the canned goods. Who did he think he was, stealing food like that? Didn't his mother feed him?
In the end, the mayor had written "the kid with the grey hair" in the blank space, and Radford had slipped it into the drawer for safekeeping.
There was a different name on the ticket he had just taken out of the drawer. A name he hadn't expected to see. Hadn't wanted to see. This was a good kid-a little too inquisitive for his own good sometimes, but a good kid nonetheless. It had to be a mistake.
This whole thing was a mistake.
"What's going on here?" he mumbled to Chaney, under his breath. "This isn't the name!"
Chaney, smiling for the eagerly waiting crowd, whispered back, "What difference does it make? Just read it."
He had no choice now. All of Eerie was looking at him expectantly, hoping that their son or brother or husband had been chosen this year's Harvest King. How naïve they were.
"The lucky winner is . . ." God, what he wouldn't have given, at that moment, to be able to just walk away from this whole mess. But if he did that, he'd never be able to show his face in town again, much less make a living.
"Our very own boy from New Jersey, Marshall Teller."
Where was he? Oh, there he was, way in the back. As everyone around him started cheering, the boy looked confused. Come to think of it, Radford didn't remember Marshall buying a ticket.
Someone put his name in, he thought. Wasn't that nice of them?
Someone who had no idea how this whole thing really worked.
Or did they?
Where was that little grey-haired punk, anyway? He was usually easy to spot, even in a crowd, but the cluster of people around Marshall was too thick to make out individual faces. Maybe he was there, maybe he wasn't.
Mayor Chisel sidled up to him. "Good choice for an alternate. That kid's been asking nosy questions since he came to town. Stirring things up. Good riddance."
Radford looked at him in surprise. "He's a good kid! He doesn't deserve this!"
"Shhhhh! Keep your voice down! We don't want them to suspect anything!" The mayor looked around the room at the cheering and applauding townspeople, smiling an oily fake smile and pretending that they hadn't just sent a young boy to his doom. Radford thought of telling him, right then and there, that he wasn't going to do this anymore. That it was time to let this particular tradition go. But the words wouldn't come out.
He watched as the boy was crowned and then photographed, and he hoped that Marshall enjoyed the last day of his life.