This week’s Free Fiction Friday story from UnWrecked Press is “This Divided Land.”
UPDATE: Now that the free week is over, you can read the rest of this story by downloading an ebook from Amazon and Smashwords. Then you can read it on your laptop, desktop, Kindle, iPad, Nook, iPhone, or whatever device you use to read ebooks.
This story was first published in Jigsaw Nation, May 2006.
“Of all the stories in Jigsaw Nation, this was the one that felt the realest, and maybe that’s why it had such a strong impact on this reader. Well recommended.” — SFReader
“Michael Jasper turns a story of unrequited gay love in “This Divided Land” into a fairy tale (no pun intended) through a carefully measured Fairy Godmother narrative voice.” — Strange Horizons
This Divided Land
Once upon a time, not long from now, there lived two people who had fallen in love. Alan was from the northeastern mountains, and Zack was from the Midwestern flatlands. They met in the virtual world long before they ever met in person, but by their third shared linkup, each knew he’d found the person he’d been seeking all his life.
Like most of his peers, Alan was too poor from a raft of college loans and the oppressive taxes to move away from his parents’ three-room home just yet, while Zack still enjoyed the comforts of his family’s sprawling house in the gated community in the suburbs. They were young, foolish, and in love, a potentially lethal mix for two men in this divided land.
A typical night together for them consisted of a quiet room, a screen, a connection, and a touchpad. Alan would often be doing something else on his system at the same time—traversing another world with a troupe of disparate peoples from around the globe, writing to one of his aunts, watching music, processing his photos of black mountains and frozen streams—while Zack was content just to chat with Alan; he had to stay focused and keep one eye on his bedroom door, should his father decide to check on him without knocking. The connection he and Alan shared was hacked and encrypted, but Daddy paid the bill.
Weeks passed, and Alan, the adventurous one, grew tired of the lack of contact. He suggested they meet halfway between the mountains and the plains, at the border. Zack, the timid one, went silent for a few days after that, making Alan wonder if he’d gone too far too fast.
He would later learn that Zack’s father had gotten the monthly tracking statement from the sub-department of Government information, letting him know exactly where every member of the family had visited in the virtual world on his house’s various connections. Daddy had wanted to know about a certain address in the mountains that had been linked to countless times in the past few weeks.
Zack lost his touchpad for that, and he had to cajole a new one from his mother on the sly. Thanks to a tip from one Alan’s online friends, he found a new connection to hack into. The setback had only made both of them more determined to meet at the border.
Alan took on the most risk, demanding to do so, because he wanted be the one to cross the border and enter foreign territory. He’d never done it before, though he’d come close once as part of his job before he was laid off, before he signed on for another year of state unemployment with benefits (his mother had stopped asking him when he was moving out when those government checks started coming in on a regular basis).
Alan already knew, after only a month and a half of being with him virtually, that Zack didn’t have the fortitude to make a border crossing. He also had a feeling Zack was going to have trouble simply getting out of the house without tipping off his father, who worked long hours for a top multinational industry but always seemed to know exactly what his son was doing.
Alan loved Zack in spite of Zack’s lapses into weakness; those lapses may have been part of why he loved him in the first place. Alan liked taking care of people, which explained why he was still at home, living off his monthly checks and paying just the minimum on his loan bills—his father had seizures from the mercury dumped years ago in the lake next to the family home, and his mother was always off visiting her sister down south, where she wanted to move once Alan’s father died and live off his money with lower taxes and no snow.
Alan downloaded his most recent check onto his money card, packed a backpack full of provisions, and drove his father’s mud-spattered truck came down the mountain, heading west to meet his soul mate in a foreign land. He tried to cover his fear of the other land with bravado, but even singing along with his satellite couldn’t drown out the memories of the “family-friendly” lynch mobs and the “one-man, one-woman” marriage terrorists, to say nothing of the all-powerful government information department on Zack’s side of the border.
Part of him wanted to see this place close-up, to try to understand how someone as perfect and funny and sharp as Zack could have grown up there. Another part of him wanted to snatch Zack away from there and take him to the mountains. There no one would bother them so long as they did their public service and paid their community fees and taxes.
And a growing part of Alan was scared witless at the thought of crossing the border. And his wits were about all he had left these days.
Zack left home with just his touchpad and his money card in his jacket. He signed out of house security claiming to be visiting a local faith-based center for the formerly homeless, where he’d been volunteering for the past year, on his father’s suggestion. He drove the newer of the two Hummers his father bought him, bulling his way through the heavy noonday traffic on the toll interstate. He’d just get up to speed when he’d have to stop and wave his money card at a sensor stop, and the oversized cars and trucks around him would honk at his slowness. After being cut off three times trying to get off the five-lane, he took the first exit he could access, his nerves shot and his confidence dwindling.
On the bumpy side roads, Zack made his way east in silence, too afraid to activate any of the technology in his urban tank for fear of alerting his father—or the government information department– of his adventure. The penalty for being queer and out in public was a choice between chip implantation and five years in prison. Zack never wanted to have to face that choice in his life.
At the foot of the mountain, Alan left his father’s truck at the recycling center, where they’d drain the oil and the tank of non-ethanol his pops had been meaning to filter for years now. He got on the free ultralight train and rode a nearly empty car down through the mountain pass and into the hill country. He grew more apprehensive with each mile of friendly territory slipping past.
He had his story memorized for the border crossing, and he went over it as the train car began to fill up with people, most of them white and unwashed, carrying children that clung to them like small monkeys. They were headed down to cross the border as well, providing cheap labor for the flatstaters who could afford such things, rich folk who demanded white workers now that all the non-natives had been sent back to Mexico and Africa and Canada. The children were especially in demand for their skills with dusting hard-to-reach areas and cleaning bathrooms.
Alan’s story? He was going to work as a porter and butler for a young businessman named Zack. He had the contract loaded in his touchpad, though he was afraid to send it to Zack over the linkups they shared. Zack—Alan figured he could tell Zack all about his scheme after they’d met and had time to simply be with each other. His lips and arms ached for the touch of the young man he already felt he knew intimately.
While Alan slid down with ease toward their rendezvous point at the border, Zack was stuck behind an armored bus. The bus wouldn’t let him pass, and it stopped often, forcing Zack to stop as well. A quick check of the satellite streams told him that the soldiers on the truck were patrolling the countryside for a group of protestors that had crossed the border, heading for the state capitol. The soldiers would be shooting to kill, in that case.
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