“Hey, Sis? You realize that the guy who’s selling you the laptop lives out in Frackville, right?”
I leaned over my sister’s shoulder and whispered a few non-English swearwords. “Why the hell would he be out there?”
“So this means I have to go outside the city limits, then.”
“It’s only an hour’s drive beyond the wall.” My sister shrugged. “People do it all the time and they’re fine. Katie went outside just two weeks ago to visit family.”
Mother emerged from the living room, her face drawn. “Right into the middle of the Disturbance. This laptop worth this to you?”
“I need a laptop to do my work. No worries, Mom.”
I continued to tell myself I wasn’t worried even as I got ready for my trip in front of the bathroom mirror. I pulled my hair back and stared at my face, belatedly regretting all the time I spent lounging in the sun over the summer. Was my skin a bit too tan?
Maybe it wouldn’t matter. Even though I had chosen my rattiest jacket and ripped jeans, it was painfully obvious I was a cityfolk.
I grabbed my knife and purse. It really was going to be okay.
At the checkpoint, a pot-bellied bearded man with a gun slung across his back sauntered up to my car. I rolled down my window.
He nodded. “Hello there. Purpose of trip?”
“Just travelling to Frackville to purchase a laptop.”
“Mmmmm, going shopping, huh?” He eyed my purse eagerly.
“How much is the toll going to cost me?”
“I don’t know yet.” He chuckled. “You got your ID on you?”
I handed my metropolitan ID card to him.
He scowled darkly. “Maria?”
“I’m Ukrainian,” I snapped.
“Oh. Yeah, I guess your last name does look Russian. That’s okay, then.”
“Can I go?”
“Not sure.” He leaned into my window. “What are you doing trying to go into Nowhere unaccompanied, anyway? It can be dangerous for females around here.”
“My father died defending the city during the killing days,” I said coldly. “It’s your militia’s fault that I don’t have a male guardian with me.”
To his credit, he looked abashed at this. He cleared his throat and stepped back from the car. “I see. We need to run one more quick check on you, ma’am. Rob?” He gave my ID to the other guard, who was holding a tablet. “Check her voting record?”
Rob typed my name in. “She didn’t vote at all last election.”
“Lucky for you,” the first guard said. “You won’t get hit with our wrong candidate surcharge.”
“Great.” I felt relieved and, for once, grateful for the political cynicism which led me to be a non-voter back in 2016.
“We’ll be nice. Let’s make your toll payment an even hundred bucks.”
I forced a polite smile, made the payment and accepted my ID. As I slowly drove away, a truck came to a stop at the checkpoint, and the guards gestured at the truck driver to get out so they could inspect his goods. I heard the driver yelling obscenities at them, and I sped up until the checkpoint was out of sight.
The laptop seller lived in a little white house in Frackville’s mostly empty downtown area. Across the street, there were a couple of abandoned buildings, with a Trump poster peeling away from one of the brick walls.
I knocked on the door. A skinny old man cracked it open and peered out at me.
“Hi! I’m here to pick up the laptop?”
“Nice to meet you, Maria. Come on in.”
His name was Gus. He grinned at the knife on my belt (“They still don’t let you have guns in the city?”) and then vanished into the back of the house. I sat on the sofa and waited. There was a cross hanging in the entry hallway, but I noticed a distinct lack of Trump portraits. This was an encouraging sign.
I smiled at him when he returned, bearing the laptop. “I see you’re not a big fan of President Trump, eh?”
He fidgeted nervously. “May his soul rest in peace.”
President Trump had been assassinated soon after the beginning of what we all called the Disturbance–because nobody wanted to call it a civil war–but the Disturbance rolled right along without him. It was common for the residents of the Nowhere lands to give a place of honor in their home to portraits of the Martyr President, sometimes building miniature shrines in his memory.
After his initial moment of anxiety, Gus relaxed. “Yeah, I never did like him much. He seemed like a big talker to me. Seemed like a fake.”
“Doesn’t that get you in trouble around here?”
“Me? No. I leave the militia guys alone, and they leave me alone. I’ve lived here forever, anyway.”
I examined the laptop. It was small and the keyboard was wearing out, but it would have to do.
Gus shuffled his feet. “Sorry, I would offer you some coffee, but I only have a tiny bit left, and I don’t know when the roads will be clear for me to go get groceries.”
“So what kind of work do you do?”
“I knit handmade hats and scarves. I sell them online.”
I glanced up at Gus. “Would you like my website address? Maybe I could make you something?”
“No need for that. Doubt I could afford it.”
There was no time for me to hang around any further. I stood up and looked out once again upon the desolate street.
“Are you ever angry at the militia, Gus?”
“About what they did to your town?”
Behind me, I could hear his soft laughter. “The town has always been like this, before the militia ever came. There haven’t been any jobs in Frackville for years and years. Why do you think the people here voted for Trump?”
I opened the car door. I couldn’t wait to leave this dead zone and go home.
Somewhere in the distance, the small figure of an armed man crossed the road. The sight should have made me scared, but instead it made me sad. How had we created a world like this? How had we allowed this to happen?
The curtains in the front window of the little white house moved. I didn’t want to make Gus uncomfortable by staying there too long. I got in the car and started on the drive back to the checkpoint and my exit out of Nowhere.