In an alternate 2020 timeline, Al Gore won the 2000 election and declared a War on Climate Change rather than a War on Terror. Green infrastructure projects have transformed U.S. cities into lush paradises (for wealthy, white neighborhoods, at least), and the Bureau of Carbon Regulation levies carbon taxes on every financial transaction.
Maddie Ryan is a 24-year-old English teacher at a predominantly Black high school in Houston. Teaching is just a job for her; it pays the bills, and she lives for band practices with her queer punk band, Bunny Bloodlust.
When Maddie learns that the neighborhood where she teaches and her band plays is to be sacrificed for a new electromagnetic hyperway out to the suburbs, she joins a Black-led organizing movement fighting for the neighborhood. At first, she’s only focused on keeping
her band together and getting closer to the band’s guitarist (and her crush) Red.
But working with Save the Eighth forces Maddie to reckon with the harm she has already done to the neighborhood—both as a resident of the gentrifying Lab and as a white teacher in a predominantly Black school.
When police respond to their protests with violence, the Lab becomes the epicenter of “The Free People’s Village”—an occupation that promises to be the birthplace of an anti-capitalist revolution.
In The Free People’s Village, Sim Kern dares to ask the question that many socialjustice-minded individuals have long grappled with: When justice comes knocking, will you be brave enough to answer?
Release date: September 12, 2023
Publisher: Levine Querido
Print pages: 388
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The Free People's Village
When my co-teacher first introduced me to Fish, he’d seemed so exciting. Or maybe that was the bar. I was newly divorced, and I’d never been in a place as seedy as Poison Girl, where a thick coating of grime caked the sticky tables, and taxidermied animals, and velvet paintings of topless women decorated the walls from floor to ceiling. The “good Catholic” voice in the back of my head shrieked that this was a den of sin and sodomy, but I’d made a decision to stop listening to that crusty old fart. In fact, I was making a habit of doing the opposite of whatever she said. Above the shelves of whiskey bottles were four especially mesmerizing paintings. The artists had used just a few brushstrokes to highlight the full breasts and long stomachs of gorgeous girls on soft, black fabric, and I couldn’t tear my eyes away from them long enough to catch the bartender’s eye. The nun in my head yelled, “Lesbian! Queer! Whore!”
I let myself revel in the thrill. Maybe I am, I thought. So what?
My co-teacher dragged me outside in that heady state, to a gravel backyard strung with party lights, where cockroaches occasionally flew down from the trees into shrieking girls’ hair. At a table next to a giant papier-mâché Kool-Aid Man weathered by the elements to a dull pink, she introduced me to a guy named Fish.
It’s painful now for me to remember being attracted to Fish, but I was that night. Maybe my feelings for the girls in the paintings got transferred onto him. Maybe the realization that I might be queer had, in fact, freaked me out, and I was grasping for proof of my heterosexuality. Or maybe it was because Fish was the polar opposite of my ex-husband, Colton.
Colton and I had split after four years of marriage when I was the ripe old age of twenty-two. Where Colton had been all compact, hard muscle from marathon training, Fish was a soft, six-foot-two giant. Instead of clean-shaven and buttoned-up, Fish had a wild red beard, mad-scientist hair, and wore torn band T-shirts and jeans. And after being married to a man who’d made me kneel in prayer with him before and after every sexual encounter, the “Hail Satan” tattoo sprawled down Fish’s forearm held a magnetic fascination for me. I wanted to lick it.
At the bar that night, Fish was so animated and charming—I didn’t realize that he was just in his buzzed sweet spot, somewhere between three and ten drinks. He paid for all my beers and told me about the great bands he hung out with in Houston, how he was about to close on a property in the Eighth Ward—right near my school—which he was going to turn into an anarcho-communist creative space. He had all these big dreams for throwing shows and art installations, and having a farmer’s market and makerspace there. The way he talked about all the things he was planning for the Lab, I expected it to be ten times the size it was. I asked him how he’d gotten the money to buy such a place, and he told me about his app.
Of course I used CarbonSwap. Everyone did. Back then, it was the only way to transfer small amounts of carbon credits using your phone. Me and the other teachers had used it that very night to come up with the carbon tax for the pepperoni pizzas we’d split. At first I didn’t believe Fish was really its creator, but he pulled up an article to show me. There he was, the twenty-three-year-old wunderkind who’d dropped out of college and created a multimillion-dollar app. Of course, none of those puff pieces explained that Fish had only been able to drop out because he had a cushy trust fund to live off of, which he’d used to criminally underpay the guy who did the actual coding for CarbonSwap. But I’d learn about that months later.
I bought Fish’s story of being a self-made millionaire tech genius. None of the teachers I worked with had dreams any bigger than going on a solar cruise to Cancún for spring break. Meanwhile, Fish wanted to engineer a new society, starting with this “Lab.” And the nun in my head hated him, so that was an endorsement. He was my ticket to the secular, hedonistic world of rock ’n’ roll and bad choices, and after surviving the last few years of my miserable marriage, I wanted in.
So I went home with him that night.
He closed on the Lab the next day. A week later, I’d overhear him joking to the dudes in Venus Gashtrap that if bragging about the Lab hadn’t gotten him “such good pussy,” he might not have signed on it.
What a charmer.
A few weeks later, he took me to see the Lab for the first time. My footsteps echoed in the big, empty warehouse, and the sun streamed through high windows onto a clean, cement floor and walls that were still painted stark white. Fish gestured around the space, showing me where he was going to have the zero-waste food shop and the community 3D printer. Even then, I could tell there wasn’t enough room in the space for even half his big dreams, but it was still fun to hear him go on about them. I believed he’d at least make a few of them come true, and I suppose he did. We had plenty of art installations and countless shows at the Lab, but we never did get the bike shop set up or the fibers studio.
Fish must’ve stepped outside to take a phone call or something, because I found myself alone in the cavernous space. I heard voices coming from the cracked door to the front offices. Fish had moved into the second-floor-turned-loft-apartment a few days ago, and he’d told me that a local band had already claimed one of the ground-floor apartments. He was giving them a steal on the rent because he loved their music so much. Bunny Bloodlust, a guitar-and-drums duo. He hadn’t shut up about what geniuses they both were.
Curious to meet his new tenants, I stepped into the hallway to the apartments. The left-side door was wide open, and someone was picking guitar inside. Now that I was in the hallway, I didn’t know what to do. Embarrassed for snooping, I made a beeline for the front door, but as I passed the open apartment, someone called out, “Hey, is this your shoe?”
I turned, and that was the first time I saw Red, leaning against the doorframe, twirling that shiny red pump by its heel. Right away, my heart started skipping every other beat, but at the time I figured I was just nervous about meeting someone who—according to Fish—was a local music god. I didn’t know that, up to that point, Bunny Bloodlust had only recorded a three-track EP. They’d never even played a real show, thanks to Gestas’s legal status.
“It’s not mine,” I said about the patent leather shoe. “That’s not really my style.”
“Huh,” Red said, scanning my “style” up and down. I cringed, realizing I was still wearing my dorky, linen work clothes. “Some girls were over here last night. I figured you might’ve been one of them.” Red stepped back inside the apartment and chucked the shoe in a corner, but the door was still wide open. I couldn’t tell if I’d been dismissed or invited in.
“You want a beer or something?”
Heart in my throat, I stepped inside, where Red was filling a take-cup from a keg in a corner. There were clusters of empty malt liquor and whiskey bottles around the room, and the whole place had that stale-beer-and-weed stink of the day after a party.
“I’m Red, by the way. Xe/xim. That’s Gestas, he/him.” Red nodded at the dark-skinned Black guy on the futon, fingerpicking a melancholy bluegrass tune on an acoustic guitar.
If I’m being honest, which I never was back then, I was scrambling to “figure out” Red’s gender. I’d never hung out with a trans person before. I’d grown up in this queer-hating, strict Catholic world. My brain still wanted to lump people in one of two categories, but I couldn’t figure out which Red was. And I couldn’t figure out xir ethnicity on sight either. Xir skin was light brown or dark olive. Sharp-cornered, brown eyes and black hair, buzzed short on the sides, and long enough on top to crest on xir forehead. Eventually, of course, I learned what gender Red had been assigned at birth, and which of xir ancestors had colonized which others. But Red lived for the squeamishness of white, cishet people not being able to figure out just “what” xe was.
Gestas’s gender presentation also made my head reel. He went by he/him, so okay, I thought, he’s a guy. But he was wearing this torn, macho-looking, heavy-metal T-shirt with a baby-pink, pleated, A-line skirt. He had a scraggly, curly beard, but sparkly gold eye shadow from the night before was smudged all around his dark-brown eyelids. I’d never met someone so masculine and so feminine at the same time. Colton would’ve spat out his coffee at the sight of Gestas, and that was enough for me to like him on the spot.
I clocked, then quickly glanced away from the glowing, green light embedded just beneath the skin of Gestas’s right shoulder. Fish had told me about this—that one of the new tenants was an AHICA inmate, confined to the property through the At-Home Incarcerated Criminals Act. I’d never met an AHICA inmate before, even though I knew there were tens of thousands of them all throughout the city, stuck inside their homes.
I must have introduced myself, and I hope I remembered to share my pronouns. I took the offered beer but felt too nervous to drink much. There was another guitar sitting on the futon beside Gestas, and I picked it up, at first thinking to just move it out of the way. But it found its way into my lap instead. I wanted to impress them, wanted to show them both that I wasn’t just some red-heeled groupie they could party with one night and forget the next morning.
I put my ear right up against the fingerboard and barely grazed the strings to check that it was in tune. I listened to Gestas for a few bars, watched his fingers, figuring out the chords. He cocked an eyebrow at me curiously. He settled into a pattern. I strummed a harmony. He moved through a key change. I followed. He sped up, changed the time signature, and I chased him, rounding out his melody. Then he settled into a predictable chord progression, and it was my turn to take the lead. I locked eyes with Red, who was watching us with an unnerving, crooked grin. This was—what? An audition now? A sudden, nervous sweat broke out all over my body. I tried to chart a melody, but I hated the way it was coming out. Too happy, too much C and D major—nothing like Gestas’s haunting tune had been. I was gripped with this wild, irrational fear that they were laughing at me, that they could tell all my music was hopelessly infected with Christianity and youth-group aesthetics. I blanked on how to resolve the line. The notes came out jarring and dissonant. “Sorry,” I muttered, staring down at the guitar, gut roiling in shame. Expecting them to—what? Laugh at me? Chase me out of their apartment?
“Don’t apologize,” Red said. “That was just getting interesting.”
“You’re pretty good,” Gestas said, and I must have blushed the color of the orphaned high heel in the corner.
Red reached for the guitar in Gestas’s hands, and he offered it up, plus his seat, settling again behind a banged-up, glittery pink drum kit in the corner. He started playing a 4/4 beat, softly, inviting in our guitars. Red took the lead, and for the first time I got to watch xim coax a narrative from the strings. Xe improvised an aching melody, twisted it with tension, then resolved it with a glimpse of a peaceful pasture, before plunging the line into anger and despair. Xe made it seem effortless. I fucked up following some of the chords, but for the most part, I was able to add fullness to xir sound. I don’t know how long we played—it could have been ten minutes or an hour. Through the music, we were telling each other a little of what we knew about pain and loneliness and the beauty that springs up in the ugliest places. I started to feel like we’d all known each other for ages, even though we’d still only exchanged a handful of words.
Red resolved a line and stilled xir strings. Gestas faded the drums out with a shimmering brush on the snare.
“Do you play bass too?” Red asked. “We’ve been talking about getting a bassist.”
I was shaking my head no when a voice boomed “I do!” from behind me. Fish had been listening in at the doorway for god-knows-how-long. He strode into the room and placed a hand on my shoulder. That was the first time I ever flinched at his touch.
“I’m not as good as you guys, but if you can write down the chords for me, I can keep up. I’ve actually got a vintage Ibanez five-string upstairs, real beauty, that’ll work great with your sound. And have you thought about upgrading your amps and mics? Because I can totally hook you up with that—and any pedals you need. I wanna invest in y’all! You don’t have to let me perform with you or anything, to pay me back, but it’d be hella cool to jam together sometimes. I mean we all live here now, right? Band house!” He pumped a fist in the air. “So cool!”
“You’re with him?” Red asked, cocking an eyebrow at the heavy hand resting on my shoulder, an unmistakable note of derision in xir voice.
“Maddie’s the one who convinced me to sign on this place!” Fish boomed. I squirmed uncomfortably, knowing that he meant that I’d slept with him after he’d bragged about the Lab. I already regretted my entanglement with him. But Fish owned the building. Soon he’d own all the band’s sound equipment. And I would put up with him touching me, way longer than I had any desire to, because I thought that if I ditched him for Red, he’d kick xim out of the house, destroy the band, and use his ever-growing connections in the music scene to make sure Bunny Bloodlust never played another show in town. So I let him buy me dinner, and a new amplifier, and a season pass to my body.
Playing with Bunny Bloodlust was the only thing that had seemed to matter since I’d gotten divorced, and lost my faith, and the world turned flat and dull. Even with Fish dragging the rhythm on the floor behind us, playing with our band was the first time in my adult life I’d felt excited about being alive.
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