Kalle’s phone rang. It still felt like a miracle, even five years after everything fell apart. She was walking down Second Street, almost hot from the morning sun that was already beating down through leafless branches. Kalle could just barely hear the whirring from inside her daypack, but it wasn’t like “rush hour” was as noisy as it used to be now that everybody was on foot or bike.
From off to the side, out of the mumble-whush of people going to wherever they were trying to get to that morning, Kalle crouched, shrugging off her daypack. She oh-so-very-gently pulled out her frankenphone, SIM card hanging by a literal thread, and flipped the screen open. Chunky letters on the tiny screen spelled out YASIN. Holy shit HOLY SHIT she thought, freezing for a second. She mashed the big answer button.
“Yasin?” she yelped, louder and higher than she meant to. A moment of dead air. She was about to say something when an old familiar voice rasped over the line.
“What’s up, what are you doing?” It had been a long time, but he knew that already: no point in stating the obvious. “It’s been a long time,” her idiot mouth said anyway.
Split-second of silence. “Yeah,” he said, puffing out a silent chuckle. “Haven’t seen you since I left Iroquois City, back before-”
“Before it all went to shit, yeah, it’s been a minute. Where are you now?”
Another moment’s delay, just long enough to be weird: Yasin didn’t used to be a slow talker, really.
“Yeah, well, funny thing: I’m back,” he said.
“Back in the ‘Quois?”
“Close enough. You know the Ubermart out on 10?”
10 or ‘Business 10’ was the strip of stores and mini malls where everybody used to go for everything, back when there were cars. Now: a ghost town.
Pause. “Welp, that’s where I live.”
“At the Ubermart.”
“On Route 10?”
“What the whole-ass fuck, Yasin? What are you telling me, you’re squatting at the Ube?”
“No,” he said after another delay, “it’s not a squat, it’s legit. I’m up here for work and it’s part of the deal, they provide housing. I mean, it’s not nice, but I’ve sure as hell slept in worse. Especially… you know, since.”
Kalle frowned. She hadn’t heard anything about the Ubermart, and Hannah was on Town Council and definitely should have known about it. “What kind of work? At the Ubermart?”
Double-long pause. Kalle was starting to wonder if he’s had an injury or something.
“Well, now, um, I’m actually… not supposed to talk about it? But it’s, you know, like a factory gig.”
“A factory,” Kalle said. “In… the Ubermart.”
“Not there… anyway, it’s not important. I’m in town and I wanted to see what you’re up to.”
“I’m here,” Kalle said. “Lot of changes since you moved out of your aunt’s place.”
“No, I mean good changes, mostly anyway… I mean, compared to a lot of places. We get enough to eat. There’s work. There’s clinics, and you don’t have to pay.”
The line went quiet for so long that Kalle had to look at the screen to see if the call dropped.
“What, like a free clinic? Like… for everything, or just if you stub your toe or shit?”
“For everything,” she said. “Plus, if you get a virus… you remember that sketchy motel out by where Bargaintown used to be? You can live there until you’re… you know, done having whatever you have, different buildings for different viruses. It’s actually kind of nice there now.”
Yasin made a humpf noise, after a second.
“So,” Kalle continued, “things are OK. Not great, but where is it great?”
“No place I know. It sounds great,” he said. “I’m glad. Glad to hear the old shithole’s surviving.”
“You should come into town,” she blurted. “I’m living with some cool-ass people, we’re in a bubble and we do a bunch of shit for the community and it’s cool!” Kalle decided stopping talking might be a good idea.
“Yeah,” Yasin said eventually. “I mean, I don’t exactly have a way of getting around right now? They take us to where the… work is.”
“Like a bus?”
“More of a flatbed truck,” he said, “but yeah. You should totally come and visit, though.”
“Visit… the Ube? The Ube, where you live now?”
“Be a change of pace,” he said.
Kalle snorted. “I guess.”
“Anyway,” he said, think about it. You know where I am. I work 6 to 5 weekdays.”
“Whoa,” Kalle said, “That’s a long day. But wait… it’s after 6.”
“It’s Saturday, Kal.”
“Oh,” she said. “Yeah. I guess.”
The bubblehouse was a big, rambling Victorian that had been a B&B back before the viruses. The owner’s kid had died of the first covid and the owner herself of the triple-E—had breathed her last right in the upstairs bedroom on the second floor, the one with the big bay window—so with nobody to inherit, the city had taken over the building. The crew had been living there over a year already, after Hannah cut a deal with the Council as part of their Social Safety work.
Kalle had four big bricks of frozen ground turkey in her daypack. The meat situation had gotten a lot better in the last year, though they were all used to eating plant-based anyway. She came in through the basement bulkhead, dropping her mask and gloves in the little bin under the sink where she did her washing up. The basement was losing the stale smell of a long winter, but Kalle still wrinkled her nose as she unpacked her shopping into the chest freezer. She propped open the door on her way back out to let some air in.
Emily was in the kitchen, and Kalle waved a smile at her as she passed through the wide foyer. Nobody was masked in the house: that was the point of being in a bubble, after all. After the months of on-again-off-again isolation rules, people really realized how important physical contact was: that everybody needed it, almost as much as they needed food and water. Folks were locked down all alone, and suicides had skyrocketed, with depression, anxiety, addiction and all of that just going right off the charts. “Skin hunger,” it was called. Some families bubbled with other families, and for those types of people it worked fine. But not everybody wanted to live with family; not everybody was safe with family. So, they started forming little groups of “framilies” and crews.
Like a lot of things in the ‘Quois, it had been an idea that came out of Hiawatha College: the “alternative school” on the top of the hill. Hannah called them “the hippies” but not in a mean way. After the viruses and the uprisings made a wreck of everything, folks needed ideas on how to live their lives. It was the college that came up with the emergency system the Iroquois City Council had used to keep people alive through the bad days: basically, turning everything into city services, guaranteeing that everybody had enough. Even people who didn’t like the “hippies”—and there were a lot of them, especially in the conservative countryside—had to admit that the area was doing better than most places. So they just kept doing things that way.
Kalle slid her daypack into its cubby in the big walk-in closet behind the kitchen and headed up the stairs. Morning meeting was already happening, and Kalle supposed she was a little late. It didn’t matter, though. If something needed to be said to everybody it could wait for everybody and if it couldn’t wait… well, they all had phones now, even if they were frankenphones that D.B. had hacked together out of spare parts, like Kalle’s.
Hannah had her reading glasses on and was studying some piece of paper as Kalle walked in. Mojisola was sprawled on the cushion by the window and Justin was chit-chatting with Kendra and Rory. D.B. was snacking on something. Dex had their eyes closed, earbuds in. It obviously wasn’t an urgent meeting.
“How’s things at the Uncommons?” Hannah’s tone was mild, and she didn’t look up from her file, but Kalle knew she didn’t ask things just to ask.
“Good,” she said, finding space on the vintage banana sofa Rory had brought home from the swap meet. “Lots of greens and spring vegetables available, plenty of meat, and it looks like people are following the new regs about manure fertilizer.”
Hannah nodded. “That’s okay,” she said, in a tone that meant she’d wait and see. She put the paper down and looked up. “So let’s get updates on SS.”
Kalle sat, half-listening, half-meditating, as her crewmates spoke one after another, telling stories about arguments broken up, holes in sidewalks, biking on pedestrian-only streets and all the details of the crew’s Social Safety work that week. After the police had finally been disbanded following years of violence and abuse, Hannah worked on the Council to create the idea: crews of individuals with special skills who’d spend part or all of their time following up on reports of trouble, violence or damage, interviewing people, and sometimes getting directly involved. In Hannah’s crew, they had vets like her, Justin and Dex to handle the rougher stuff, with people like Moji, Kalle and Tif doing the creative interventions to resolve conflicts before they got out of hand. It had been a work in progress for a while, but the results showed. People really liked it, for the most part, and not living in fear of armed thugs in their midst improved everybody’s life. The city meeting where things got decided was basically a big version of this meeting, and everybody liked to complain about it as much as they appreciated not having to worry about food and power and internet.
“Now,” Hannah said at the end of the reports, “anything else?”
Kalle had almost forgotten about Yasin and hadn’t really planned on bringing the call up at the meeting. At that moment, though, she realized she needed to talk about it. “I got a call today,” she began.
Her crew listened patiently. It was just another benefit of the way she lived her life now that Kalle wouldn’t even have known was important back when she lived by herself. You needed to be able to think out loud sometimes, and once she described the conversation, she started to understand what was bugging her about it.
“I mean, I’m glad he’s back and all, but the whole thing feels like… I don’t know. Like an invasion, almost. Like somebody’s sneaking into town. And I want to know what they’re doing here.”
Hannah inclined her head. “You said it.” That was it too, Kalle thought. It helped to be understood, to be… to be validated, maybe. “Council definitely hasn’t heard a thing about this. I would know.” And if the Council didn’t know, nobody knew. Which meant it was a sort of an invasion.
“The pauses,” D.B. said suddenly. “They could be using a stingray to intercept calls going out of there and recording them.”
“A good point,” Hannah said, somewhat distracted. Kalle wasn’t sure if it was or not, and like most of them she only could follow part of what D.B. was talking about much of the time.
“What’s your relationship,” Justin interrupted, “with this Yasin?”
Justin wasn’t just ex-military, he was an ex-military cop, and he said things like this Yasin all the time. You had to really get to know Justin to see that he wasn’t actually a dick, it was just his way.
“We used to fuck.”
Justin nodded, unfazed.
“I’ll bring it to Sarabeth on the Council, but I think it’d be a good idea to check this out.” Hannah had the faintest of frown lines on her brow. “Kal, how do you feel about going to visit this friend? And just… noticing what’s going on?”
“I’m… okay,” Kalle said. “I guess?”
“I’m not saying spy,” Hannah said. “Just…”
“I have some concerns,” Justin said, “about her going alone. We don’t know what all this is about.”
“I’m not afraid of Yasin,” Kalle began.
“It’s not about him,” Justin cut in. “We’ve got some person or entity that is not only taking over an abandoned big-box store but is setting up some kind of off-book manufacturing facility. That means money. It means power. And money and power that wants to remain hidden means muscle and guns. So, yeah, I have some concern about just sending you in there unprotected.” Again, he wasn’t really a dick. He wasn’t.
“It’s a good point,” Hannah said. “Kalle, how would you feel about bringing somebody else along?”
Kalle shrugged. “Yeah, that’s fine. Maybe… Dex, would you be into it?”
Dex had been listening to the whole thing with a neutral expression. “Yes,” they said, their expression neutral.
“Okay,” Hannah said. “Again: notice. Both of you. That’s all.”
“Okay,” Kalle said.
“Yes,” Dex said.
About the author:
Paul’s short fiction has appeared in Wanderlust Journal, Utopian Eye, the Montpelier Bridge, and elsewhere. A teacher of English composition at the university level, he has written and edited textbooks for Salem Press and Bloomsbury Press, and was one of the co-writers of the non-fiction Recovery Dharma. His poetry will be featured in Subversive Futures, due out in the latter half of 2021.
He lives in Montpelier, Vermont with his wife Michelle, a German Shepherd Dog, a Maine Coon Cat, several thousand books, and an old truck.