The Potrero Complex

Issue 38 by Amy Bernstein

The Potrero Complex
Synopsis

The Potrero Complex follows journalist Rags Goldner as she seeks to unravel the mysterious disappearance of a local teen named Effie Rutter. Rags' quest, like her life, is greatly complicated by the world she lives in, which is just two years into recovering from a worldwide pandemic that killed millions. Paranoia, poverty, fear, and mad power grabs force Rags and everyone around her in the small town of Canary to grapple with how to live a "new normal" in a world where all the rules have changed.

Chapter One

MISSING: A teenaged girl with lanky blonde hair and a sunburst tattoo on her cheek.

The holographic posters, brighter than day itself, lit up the air on every block of Main Street. They were the first thing Rags Goldner noticed as she and her partner Flint Sten turned onto the street.

The girl’s name was Effie, and she was sixteen.

Effie’s pixelated image beamed down at Rags like a celebrity unaware that her fifteen minutes of fame were up.

Rags refused to give a damn about the missing girl who, after all, she didn’t know. Nor did she know much about the town, Canary, where the driverless ShareCar she and Flint had leased for their move had brought them. But missing kids make news, and as Canary’s newly imported one-and-only newspaper editor, Rags knew she’d be expected to do something about it. Which meant she wouldn’t control the news hole on day one. Which meant all kinds of people would come at her to do one thing or another.

Rags hadn’t been in town five minutes and already she could tell things were going to get complicated—and complicated was the very thing she and Flint were trying to get away from. Damn all the politicians and peacekeepers and their gatekeeping bullshit.

“Ah, crap,” Rags said as the car made a final turn toward its programmed destination. Her twitch flared up: the muscles in her upper left cheek and the outer corner of her left eye performed an uncontrolled little dance.

“Huh?” Flint had not noticed the lit-up Effie because he was looking down, reading a screen. Rags knew he was immersed as usual in his own world.

“Turning Main Street into Times Square won’t help them find the girl,” Rags said. “What a waste. And all that light pollution.” She stretched her face, willing the twitch to stop. Flint held up his dataphone and aimed it at one of the digital posters as they cruised by. The static image of Effie sprang into augmented-reality motion: she turned her head, blinked, and laughed.

“Stop doing that, Flint,” Rags said. “Just don’t.” No way that girl, out there somewhere, is smiling.

“Don’t get spun up so fast.” Flint looked over at her for the first time in hours. Their connection was like a faulty wire, fritzing on and off. “Give yourself some room to ramp up,” he said, putting his hand on top of her head in a familiar gesture: simmer down. It helped. The twitching nearly stopped. “We haven’t even come to a full stop yet. Pace yourself.”

“Well, look,” Rags said. “They’ve plastered her face everywhere. Probably been like that for weeks.”

“You think the story’s gone cold, right?” Flint said. “What do you call that?”

“Beat up. I’m guessing the story’s beat up. The first thing I’m going to hear is they want me to flog it some more. Remind me, why are we doing this?”

“Let’s not,” Flint said, looking back down at his screen. “Anyway, it was your idea.”

As the ShareCar rolled noiselessly down Main Street, Rags saw almost no one out and about except: a woman standing on a corner, waiting—for what? Rags caught a dead look in her eyes as they passed. And: a block farther on, a man and a woman in shabby coats, arguing. He was handing her what looked to Rags like a bicycle pump. She was handing him, in return, a loaf of bread. What kind of town is this?

The ShareCar parked curbside at 326 Main Street. For well over a century, the little brick building, sandwiched between other little brick buildings, had housed the Canary Courant. The feisty little newspaper printed anything and everything within the bounds of what people once called “common decency” about the town of Canary, a tiny hamlet in the northwestern corner of Maryland, not far from the Pennsylvania border. The kind of town no one had heard of.

The fact that the Canary Courant was still a going concern in 2030 was astounding, even mysterious, and a key reason that Rags was here. Though perhaps not the only reason. The paper’s survival was even more of a puzzle when one considered that the town itself, which had been shriveling for decades, was now skeletal. The pandemic, which everybody called The Big One, had raged for nearly five years. It hollowed out an already hollowed out place, killing off over two-thirds of the elderly population hunkering down in Canary. Those folks never knew what hit them—their dreams of living out their days on their front-porch rockers, eating breakfast on the cheap at the town diner destroyed in an agony of fever and blood.

On Canary’s rural outskirts, on their way into town, Rags had seen the crematorium. A hulking cinderblock rectangle erected for one single purpose: to incinerate the infected dead into piles of decontaminated black ash. She was sure Flint missed it—though it was very hard to miss, rising up from a flat expanse of undeveloped land—just as he’d missed seeing Effie until she pointed it out. Like I’m his goddamn tour guide.

Now, nearly two years after the Big One had officially been declared over, Canary’s survivors were like a mouth full of missing teeth—families broken by a plague that took not merely the elderly but also children and their parents with a seemingly vicious and terrifyingly random determination. With an emphasis on random. Survivors everywhere were known as “the Luckies,” though Rags only ever used that term in its most ironic sense.

And yet, even in a near-ghost town like Canary, in a still brittle economy, in a world where print media was a rare novelty, the ink-on-paper edition of the Canary Courant lived on, as quirky and creaky as Miss Havisham in the attic, each folded issue tossed at sunrise (by a young father and son living on gig income) in the doorways and onto the walkways of the town’s remaining subscribers, every Wednesday and every other Sunday.

Rags knew the basic facts about the paper, but she deliberately suppressed her own journalistic instincts when it came to figuring out how it managed to keep going. Turning a blind eye was both expedient and convenient at the time. She knew income from print ads—about as old-fashioned as you could get—was the sole reason the paper continued to exist. It surely wasn’t due to subscription revenue. But she didn’t know why anyone would buy print ads in a tiny newspaper serving a dying community in a digital world. There’d be time, she figured, to get to the bottom of that.

The main thing was that this improbable job came her way at a time when she and Flint were looking for an escape hatch that would take them away from the exhausting hysteria and suffocating autocracy that made post-pandemic big city living unbearable in countless ways. They came to Canary in search of a simpler life—though Rags, if pressed, could not readily have defined what that would look like. Freedom from fear? Freedom to forget? She kept these notions to herself because she did not think Flint would admit to any of it—let alone acknowledge the possibility. Rags had worried before they arrived that an out-of-the-way place like Canary would see an influx of people seeking—or imagining—that this place would prove to be some kind of oasis. But from the little she’d seen so far, there was nothing oasis-like about this town and the garish and intrusive billboards of the missing Effie radiated an anxious thrum, nothing like a small-town welcome.

Rags and Flint left the ShareCar with programmed instructions to continue on and wait for them at the house they were renting a few blocks from Canary’s miniscule town center. The entire move, including Rags’ new job, had been planned remotely, so this was their first time actually in Canary. In the grand scheme of things, given the terrifying and unpredictable upheavals they’d already lived through, moving hundreds of miles away to a new place sight unseen didn’t feel at all risky.

From the outside, the newspaper office mimicked the virtual reality images Rags had already seen: a plate glass window with old-fashioned gold lettering rimmed in black: The Canary Courant. Since 1910. Rags doubted there was anything very “current” about it; the very name itself advertised what a relic it was, with its pretentious echo of old French. Someone must have had the artwork repainted many times over the years—and who even knew how to do that sort of thing, anymore?—but that was a line item Rags wasn’t going to worry about. She was here on purpose yet still felt faintly ridiculous about the whole thing.

All this ye-oldy feel-good yesteryear crap—some kind of amusement park for blinkered folks. A post-apocalyptic Disneyworld? Or maybe Westworld—a place where you could trick yourself into relaxing, just for a moment.

Yet here she was, along with her IT-guru partner, a software developer steeped in AI arcana, who was definitely not the ye-oldy type. Fitting in, for both of them, was beside the point. Rags figured they’d both settle for some kind of new equilibrium. She waved her dataphone in front of the Digilock and the heavy front door swung open. The newspaper office was a step up from the threshold because, Rags learned later, the floor had been reinforced a century ago to support the heavy metal printing presses that used to take up a third of a space with their loud, clackety racket.

And here she is, like part of the furniture, Rags observed as she entered the square-shaped newsroom, the old floor creaking. A woman likely more than twice Rags’ age—a surprise in and of itself, in this day and age—stood up quickly from a battered wooden desk, her chair scraping against the floor. Rags knew only her first name, Merry. She was dressed in loose-fitting wrinkled clothes, her shoulders as broad as a man’s, her hair silver-grey and so long it touched her buttocks.

“You’re here,” Merry said with a slightly accusatory edge that did not escape Rag’s notice, as though she’d been doing something she shouldn’t.

“Yup,” Rags said, her eyes flicking around the room. She made a quick mental list of all the things she intended to change. Rags hated clutter the way healthy people hate cancer: it was offensive, invasive, and should be eliminated quickly and surgically. The heavy furniture would have to go, and the old-fashioned filing cabinets, and the shelf of tacky journalism awards—the fake-gold winged angels, the stupid quill pens mounted on blocks of glass. Rags guessed that most if not all of the people who’d won those awards were long dead, one way or another. She’d call someone as soon as possible to haul all this crap away. The place looked like a mausoleum, for Chrissake. And that told her all she needed to know about Merry, who radiated the territorial energy of a fox guarding its cubs.

“I’ve got tomorrow’s front page made up on screen,” Merry said. “I suppose you want to see it.” She sounded deflated. Rags saw Flint make a tiny, familiar gesture: flicking on his ear discs, so he could drown out the voices around him and listen to the soundtrack of his choice. With this personal sound cushion enveloping him, Flint glided around the room like a restless ghost, ignoring the two women, fingering every piece of tech there was, and there wasn’t much. Rags turned her attention to Merry—watching her watching Flint, to see how much this invasion of Merry’s claimed space unsettled her. Rags didn’t bother to introduce them, as Flint wasn’t likely to visit the newsroom again.

“Is it all about the missing girl?” Rags asked.

“Is there another big story in town I’ve missed?” Merry asked, her blue-grey eyes staring icily at Rags. “Because if so, be my guest. You’ve got two whole hours until we send the file to the printers.” Merry stepped back away from her desk, as if inviting Rags to step in. Rags read the gesture as it was intended: What the fuck do you know?

Well, this wasn’t going to be pretty. In that moment, Rags had to admit to herself that while she thought she longed to live in a place where she could pursue small stories of no consequence, instead of big ones that traded in life and death, she was never going to check her personality at the door. She wouldn’t look for trouble, but she wouldn’t back away from a fight, either, especially if she knew going into it that she had the upper hand. She was editor-in-chief, after all, not Merry—a hold-over from a previous regime with an ill-defined job, as far as Rags knew.

Rags sat down at a battered desk nearly identical to Merry’s and began opening drawers, which contained random bits of long-obsolete office junk: Post-It notes, ballpoint pens, paperclips, a box of peppermint Tic Tacs. Rags popped a Tic Tac in her mouth and bit down hard; it was stale and tasteless.

“That’s Freddy’s desk,” Merry said.

“You mean it was,” Rags said.

“For a long time, yeah. He was a damn good copy editor. Nothing got past Freddy. That’s what everybody said.”

“Except the Big One, I’m guessing,” Rags said, without an ounce of sympathy. “Snuck right up on him.”

“Yeah, it did,” Merry said flatly, turning back to her screen. “So what’s your plan, Polly?”

“Don’t call me Polly. Call me Rags.”

“I was told the new editor-in-chief is named Polly,” Merry said, as if trying to catch Rags in a lie. “I wasn’t told anything about somebody named Rags.”

“Yet here I am,” Rags said, rising from Freddy’s chair. She stood behind Merry and looked at the screen. “How many stories on this girl, Effie, have you run this month, Merry?”

“We try to post something every week.”

“Why?” Rags asked.

“Why? Because we’re trying to flush out new leads, Pol—Rags.”

“Are there any?” Rags asked, scrolling around the digital home page of the Courant.

“Not in over a week,” Merry said.

“So it’s a beat-up story but you keep milking it for, what, sympathy?”

“No!” Merry said, turning red. “You don’t have any children, do you? Because if you did, you’d—”

“Bury it,” Rags said.

“You want me to bury the lead story? And replace it with what?” Merry was still flushed and biting the inside of her lip. Rags noted how little it would take to get her really and truly riled up.

By this point, Flint had found an ancient PC from 2010 sitting on a dusty windowsill and he was taking it apart, down to the motherboard and its old components. Rags knew he was going to wait her out, and this would keep him happily occupied until she was good and ready to leave. He was patient in this type of situation, which Rags appreciated; his tolerance of her own need to press on, push hard, was essential to balancing them out. Maybe here, finally, she’d find a way to press less—but things weren’t starting out that way.

Rags touched Merry’s screen to scroll through the pages of the main news well. It was only a couple of pages long before you hit sports, the crossword (unkillable), and then those unaccountably robust print ads listing everything from flying lessons to bizarre personals. She told Merry to make the lead a story about a leaking septic tank and to bury the Effie story right before the sports section. The need for the switch was obvious. The Effie story had had its day, and anything that remotely threatened public health, like a septic tank problem, belonged well above the fold, and it was a thin fold, despite the ads.

“And when the next kid goes missing, you want us to bury that, too?” Merry asked.

“What do you mean, the next kid?” Rags asked.

“It’s going to happen,” Merry said, grimly.

“You don’t know that.”

“You don’t know anything,” Merry said, teeth clenched.

“Then tell me, Merry. Tell me what I don’t know.”

Rags could see Merry’s chest rising and falling, as if she was struggling to hold something in. But Merry said nothing.

“Switch the stories,” Rags said. There was no way she’d back down and let Merry have her way. And besides, if there was nothing new to report on the Effie case, then there really wasn’t a compelling reason to give the story the banner headline for the week. Rags had no qualms about her decision. “Flint, let’s go find our new home.”

Flint had his head deep inside the guts of the old PC. She called to him again. He straightened up, dusted off his hands, and followed Rags out without a word to Merry, leaving the deconstructed computer in bits and pieces on the desk.

About the Author

Amy Bernstein

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Amy L. Bernstein writes about the intersection of politics and culture for the stage and the page. Her novel, “Ell,” will be published by Scarsdale Publishing. Selected short plays are published by Routledge and Leicester Bay Theatricals, and short fiction by Flying Ketchup Press. Poetry has appeared with Passaic/Voluspa. She is a 2014 recipient of a Ruby Artist Award from the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance. Learn more about Amy’s work at amywrites.live.