“A factory?” Moji cried. “A chip factory right here?”
“He says they call it a ‘foundry.’” Kalle wasn’t even sure why she added that irrelevant detail, but Moji was on a roll anyway.
“They’re trying to bring the old way back. Dollars. Workers with no rights, dependent on the company for everything, for their lives. And the pollution… this panda stuff…”
“Piranha!” D.B. yelled suddenly. “They use it to clean the board. When you take sulfuric acid and mix it with hydrogen peroxide there’s a very exothermic reaction and it heats up to 150° Celsius, that’s like 300° Fahrenheit, it softens plastic and it also makes them hydrophilic, like so water spreads out along the surface rather than beading up-”
They called Liam the Manic Pixie Dream Boy, or Dreamboy, or just D.B. because… well because he was the way he was. He was the crew’s tech wizard, despite being younger than everybody, and in the old world he’d probably have been making apps for some company… and probably have been heavily medicated. Instead, he was the resident genius and had a crew around him that rolled with his personality.
“Got it, D.B.,” Hannah interrupted, “but what about toxicity?”
“Oh,” D.B. said, “the worst. Corrosive, burns your skin and forget about your mucous membranes, your upper respiratory tract and your eyes, sheesh. They stopped using it because there were safer alternatives like KOH-ethanol, NoChromix, or Nano-strip, which if you ask me…”
“Got it,” Hannah said gently. “So we’ve got captive workers in an abandoned big-box store in Tuscarora Brook and an unregulated semiconductor fab occupying a Lincolnville pie-plate factory. Is that about the size of it?”
“Pretty much,” said Dex. Justin sat up, reacting to a sound only he could hear. Kalle turned as he took out his old ruggedized Android and slipped out of the room to take the call.
“All right.” Hannah stretched, scratching close-cropped auburn hair. “This is probably something the Council should hear about. It’s out of town, true, but it could affect people down here, and they might want to try and figure out what’s going on.”
“Meaning,” Moji said, “we’ll have to try to figure out what’s going on.”
“Let’s not assume,” Hannah replied with a wry tone. “But we will look into whatever we’re tasked to look into, because we are, above all, civic.” Civic was the buzzword for everything the Council did.
Justin came back in the room. Hannah saw his frown, looked a wordless question at him.
“A stranger,” he said, “collapsed. At the Uncommons. Somebody nobody’s ever seen before.”
Justin shrugged. “Don’t know. They rushed her to the clinic, though. Miscarriage.”
The Council was incensed.
After the stranger had been examined, they found evidence of multiple chemical contaminants in her system. Essentially, she had an induced abortion and had come close to toxic shock. She was healing, slowly, but the chip factory situation was now the hottest topic in town.
However much the Council had wanted to avoid taking a position up until then, everybody had a strong reaction to outsiders coming in and operating some toxic plant in their midst. A small group was delegated to go meet with the plant owners. At the same time, Kalle and Yasin talked again. Yasin was confused and suspicious about Kalle’s living situation, and didn’t seem to be able to understand her explanations. Kalle ended the call frustrated and a little uneasy.
The corn plants were just about ready to set tassels, and Kalle noticed they were drinking water like nobody’s business. The pump was fully charged, so she moved the hose from plant to plant slowly, making sure that the roots all got completely soaked.
Usually, Kalle could not care any less about gardening. Weeding, in particular, made her want to scream. But every once in a while, her head was so churned up that doing something repetitive and mindless felt calming to her.
Yasin was a part of her life that was long gone. Even before the viruses and the crash… even before he left the ‘Quois, he had been completely out of the picture. He was kind of remote, and Kalle herself had beginning to get sick of men in general anyway, so they just drifted from each other, the way folks do. But there were things she missed about the person she used to be when she was with Yasin. Maybe it was just that she associated that time in her life with Netflix and decent Indian food, stuff that was long gone and probably never to return. But there wasn’t ever a lot of time to look back, and Kalle wasn’t that much into reminiscing. It was funny the way memory could punch you in the head sometimes.
There was a crew meeting on the back porch of the bubblehouse. Kalle coiled the hose up with more care and attention than she usually put into it, putting the hand tools back right where they belonged. She knew she was just dragging her feet, without even being sure why, and she hated it. But she made sure that the pump was cleaned and plugged back into its charger before she left the shed.
The evenings had been warmer than usual for the time of year, which is why they’d decided to meet outside. Somebody had even put out the tiki torches. Kalle drifted toward the smell of citronella, trying to make herself small and inconspicuous as she found herself a stool off to one side of the deck.
Justin was holding court. “We can’t say we don’t need industry. Everybody who’s been advocating self-reliance and a local-based economy should be on board with more manufacturing happening here.” He raised his voice just a bit to carry over the murmured comments. “And if it’s high tech manufacturing, so much the better. D.B.’s done a great job keeping phones and computers running, but how long until the parts just don’t exist anymore?”
The Dreamboy started to calculate figures on electronics recycling out loud: this was just his way of thinking, not a part of the conversation, so folks kept on talking.
“At what cost, Justin?” Moji’s tone was mild but with an edge of frustration right under the surface. “That’s all I’ve said and all I will say: what’s the cost of having this factory in our community? All the toxics and that aside, what’s gonna happen with all those people basically dependent on this nameless company? They may not have been our neighbors, but they’re human beings. They’re basically living like… like feudal serfs.”
“I know you don’t like to hear this,” Justin said, “but nobody is forcing them to be there.” Moji and a bunch of people started yelling all at once, and whatever he said after that was lost. Hannah stood up and waved her hands for everybody to settle down.
“Let’s… agree to disagree how much choice starving people have,” Moji said, to murmurs of agreement. “How about just the health concerns of a bunch of people living in an enclosed space? What if they get virus starting to spread in there and then come down the hill? This is the exact issue that started the emergency and it’s the reason we all worked so hard— including you, Justin —to build things the way we did: we’re all connected, ultimately. We got into trouble because we acted like something over there was completely separate from everything over here. And we saw how that worked out. How many millions died due to the viruses, and how many millions died because they weren’t useful to the money economy anymore?”
Justin spoke into the silence. “I hear you. I really do. But the world doesn’t work like Iroquois City. People want their smartphones back. Even you guys do!”
“I don’t know about that,” Rory said.
“Rory, I guarantee you would be putting your dinners on Instagram if you could. I guarantee it.” Rory waved him off with half a smile. “We’ve made it into a point of pride, and I think that’s fine, but we didn’t choose to have the whole tech world crash. It happened and we made the best of it. Some of you wouldn’t go back to Facebook and Snapchat and all of that but the point is that you’d get to choose.”
“It’s a moot point, though,” Moji said. “We’re not the customers of whatever they’re making out at the pie plant. It’s people in New York and Boston and wherever they still have hard cash. What they want is for us— for this community —to deal with the consequences of their need to bring back the tech industry.”
“Yes,” Justin said. “You’re right. One hundred percent. But if they don’t do it here, they’ll just do it somewhere else. So if you want to talk about the way of the world before the emergency, that’s it in a nutshell: the not-in-my-back-yard thing. If we say we don’t want it here, it doesn’t make it go away. Even if they listen to us, which probably they won’t. It makes it some other community’s problem.”
Moji glared at him for a few seconds, then nodded. “Fine. You’re right about that. But that brings us right back around to the question of cost. Hannah, you hear anything from Council about the folks who were supposed to talk to the plant owners?”
Hannah had been slowly and methodically working a piece of wire crochet in her lap as she listened. “I actually got a text message from Sarabeth just before we started. They did track down a company in New Jersey and reached out. We’ll see if they hear anything back.”
Justin shrugged and sat. “If we’re lucky we can negotiate with them.”
“And if we’re not lucky?” Moji leaned back in her folding chair.
“Well,” Justin said, “let’s jump off that bridge when we come to it.”
This all, oddly, gave Kalle an idea.
In her role as a death midwife, Emily had access to sign out one of the city’s compressed-air vans. Kalle met her where she worked down at the transition house: a sort of combo counseling center and funeral home that was also a performance space. It took a conversation of more than a few minutes, but eventually Emily agreed.
Getting up the hill in the clattering van was easy and quick. It occurred to Kalle that it was time, rather than distance, that told you how far away a place was. She could take a jitney 20 miles to the reservoir in a lot less time than it took to pedal the few miles up to Tuscarora Brook.
Yasin looked at the minivan and laughed. It was, like a lot of things out of the ‘Quois, more than a bit of a hack job. The air tank took up a lot of the storage space and the doors had all been replaced with bamboo panels for weight. But it beat riding— or, as Yasin said, walking.
They coasted back down the hill, and Emily turned the compressor back on to trundle over to the clinic, delivering some supplies they’d picked up along the way.
Kalle knew that Emily had been meeting with the sick woman to help her grieve the loss of her pregnancy. Yasin and the woman hadn’t really met— women were housed separately from men —but they vaguely recognized each other. The woman suggested she may not go back to work at the foundry. Kalle watched Yasin absorb that info. He seemed a little curious but didn’t ask the woman any questions. Kalle just let it go, and they headed out on foot from the clinic, Kalle thinking she’d walk him thru town to Riedel Park. When they were growing up it was always “Nee-del Park.” These days, it had changed a lot, and not just because opioids had disappeared.
They scuffed through the dust of Fifth Street, cutting across town. Fifth was a non-driving street, so the planter boxes were pushed almost all the way out to the ghostly traffic line in the middle.
Yasin shook his head. “So you people eat, like, roadkill vegetables?”
“What?” Kalle skirted a couple of steel barrels full of soil with young corn just peeking out.
“This,” he said, waving a hand at the jumbled boxes in the street. “Seems dirty.”
“Plants grow in dirt, dumbass.”
“Nah, but… you know what I mean.”
“Folks just got real hungry,” Kalle said after a second. “As soon as they could plant something, they did… anywhere they could.”
They passed a planter made out of the bed of an old pickup.
“I guess,” Yasin said. “So whose… farm is this?”
Kalle spread her hands. “Nobody’s. Everybody’s. I mean the people living in the housing are probably who’s taking care of it.
Yasin’s eyes narrowed over his mask. “The ‘housing?’ What’s the ‘housing?’”
“That,” Kalle said, waving a hand at the row of buildings. “That’s all public. Meaning they don’t pay rent or anything.”
“So, like… they’re squatting?”
“No,” Kalle said. “Council lets folks live there.”
“What do the owners think?”
Kalle turned and stared at Yasin as they walked through. She waited.
“Oh,” he said, finally. “Right. They don’t have owners.”
“Nope.” Kalle looked up at the old brick building, probably dating back to the 1800s, a place where generations had been born, lived and died before someone had made it into condos. “Not any more.”
The City Library took up the whole middle of the block between Ash and Birch. It was busier than it used to be in the age of e-books and Amazon Prime. Kalle crossed to the opposite side of the street to avoid the crowds.
Yasin noticed the turn. “Scared?” he teased.
Kalle shook her head. “Nah. But it’s just common sense. Don’t walk into a crowd if you don’t have to.”
Yasin was silent for a minute. “So you don’t have vaccines up here?”
Kalle snorted. “You see anybody in the ‘Quois who looks like they can afford a vaccine? Besides, most of them aren’t better than 50% if they don’t kill you deader than the virus.”
“Hell nah!” Kalle took a breath. Yasin had always been good at baiting her. “We just can’t afford that kind of stuff. What about you?”
“I’d take it if I could. I already lived through one of the covids?”
“Oh yeah? Which?”
“Twenty-two. And maybe I had the encephalitis, I dunno.”
“Oh you’d freaking know if you had the triple-E,” Kalle said. “I knew a couple people.”
“And they lived?”
“Yeah, lucky enough. I mean, Council gets antivirals from an NGO or whatever in Denmark, and they’re always trying to find some way to get a hold of vaccines. But those things are all locked down by Big Pharma, and we don’t have cash to buy them. It’s all barter, or charity.”
“What do you mean, you don’t have cash?”
Kalle smirked to herself, reached into a pocket and pulled out a handful of wooden nickels.
Yasin stopped. “The fuck are these?”
“Local money, yo! We ran out of dollars that first winter and we’ve been using nickels ever since.”
“This looks like some shit you’re win at a fair or something.”
“I think that’s what we started with. But they’re cheap and easy to make.”
“And people just… take them? Like money?”
“Of course! They’re money,” Kalle said. “Look, I’ll show you,” she said, walking towards a fruit stand under a dusty oak.
“No, they’re not,” Yasin said. “They’re literally wooden nickels. That means worthless. You know… ‘don’t take any wooden nickels?’”
Kalle bobbed her head at the woman behind the fruit stand and picked up an apple.
“Hi,” the woman said, a smile in her voice. “That’s a nickel.”
Kalle handed her the disc and passed the apple to Yasin. “It’s money. You use it to pay for stuff. That’s what money is.”
“Doesn’t make sense,” he grumbled, rubbing the little apple on his pats to polish it. “Anybody can make a dumb little thing like this.”
“You could,” Kalle said, walking on, “but what would be the point? You’re not gonna get rich on wooden nickels. It’s just a way to trade for stuff. For big things you either make a big trade— like a whole season’s harvest for a tractor or something —or you get a grand from Council.”
They kept walking. Yasin seemed irritated, and Kalle couldn’t really figure why. She hadn’t planned on giving a whole lecture, but it was just so unusual to run into anybody who didn’t already know how everything worked.
“So this Council,” he said, slowly. “They run the show? Like they give people houses, tractors, whatever… where do they get it? Dead people?”
“A lot of it, yeah,” Kalle said. “But there was an emergency when it all started, and we just… kind of pooled our assets. It worked. So we just kept on doing it.”
“Sounds like communism.”
“And there it is!” Kalle laughed. “Yeah, we have a bunch of people around here who say that’s exactly what it is.”
“Well, isn’t it?”
“Partly,” Kalle said, “yeah. But it’s not like anybody’s holding a gun to people’s heads or coming in at night to take their stuff. There’s still plenty of family farms and businesses, still a lot of people who don’t fuck with the new system. People can do it or not. But it works for a lot of us.”
Yasin nodded in a distracted way. He didn’t seem to get it, which was fine. Kalle still felt a little sting, though. She guessed she wanted him to appreciate this thing she’d been a part of building. But she’d been able to get used to it over months and years. It was like Yasin had dropped in out of the pre-virus world.
They came to Union Street, busy with people on foot and bikes and the occasional delivery truck. Down three blocks was Riedel Park, the off-center heart of the town. It used to be a sketchy, run-down field of beat-down grass with cracked pavement covered in scattered cigarette butts and syringes. In the past few summers, though, had been transformed into something else.
Gardeners competed for the rights to decorate sections of it with flowers and edibles and little fruit trees in boxes along meandering paths. There were open lawns of clover where people could chill or picnic with enough space between them to be safe.
And on the far side, across a block of First Street that was closed to traffic, was the Uncommons: the city’s open market, where you could get anything from tomatoes to carburetors.
People were everywhere in the broad space, but circulating carefully around each other so nobody got too close. Kalle always saw a kind of grace in it, like a dance or the flocking of birds. There was a low hum of dozens and dozens of conversations, punctuated by the occasional laugh, a barking dog, the squeal of a little kid.
Yasin took it all in. He looked faded, a flat version of the vibrant community that swirled around him. Kalle supposed he hadn’t been a part of anything for a while, and that made her a little sad.
His eyes were distant, seeming almost overwhelmed. “Wow,” was all he 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.