Floating Down The Stream

Floating Down the Stream is a mystery novel set in Portland, OR, that includes many of the same themes that I write about in my nonfiction work: intentional community, gender, polyamory, social & environmental justice, and more.

Read the first three chapters below, and if you like it, consider making a Patreon pledge to support the writing, editing, and publication of the full novel!

1

Amrit steered the car into the bright lights of the refueling station. It was as empty as the road had been for the last twenty or thirty miles. There were few residents in this part of the country, no commuters at this time of night, nothing to break the darkness except for the occasional headlights of a driverless cargo truck.

More lights turned on as they pulled in, illuminating the station just for them. There were a handful of pumps and chargers, most of them for electric vehicles, only one supplying the biodiesel the old car required.

Amrit parked beside it, turned off the engine, and waited. He glanced anxiously at Josef in the passenger seat, who was focused intently on the map of Cascadia.

The last time Amrit had been here, several years ago, an attendant had hurried up to greet him, opening the gas tank and refueling the car for him.

But then he remembered: there would be no attendant this time, not since the new regulations had been passed. Unnecessary labor, including most menial jobs like this one, had been outlawed. There were exceptions of course, for work that still required a human touch or ingenuity: organic agriculture, health and wellness, education. But the laws were clear: if a robot could do the work, it should do the work.

And sure enough, as Amrit got out of the car, he heard the clumsy, mechanical sounds of a robotic arm trying in vain to unscrew the gas cap.

He swatted the arm out of the way and removed the cover, just in time for it to reach out again and insert its metal nose into the gas tank.

“Select payment,” said the pump.

Amrit pulled out $20 from his back pocket, but realized there was nowhere to put it; the pump didn’t accept cash. Amrit turned back to the car. “Do you have the cards?” he asked.

Josef looked up from the map, bunching it up to the side and reaching his hands into the glove compartment. He drew out two cards, one his, one Amrit’s, and handed them over. They hadn’t used either card yet, and if they didn’t work now, they would be stranded.

It was only because of these cards — and the several thousand dollars on them — that they were here, that they gotten up the courage, and the means, to leave the commune.

“Credit, debit, or GBI?” asked the machine.

Amrit selected the third option — guaranteed basic income — and swiped the card. “Payment accepted,” said the gas pump. And just like that, they were free.

They hadn’t been prisoners on the commune, exactly. When he was seventeen, Amrit’s family had sent him on a kind of Rumspringa for several months in Bend, Oregon. Josef had spent summers in Boise and Missoula. But they lived so far outside of mainstream society — both socially and economically — that leaving for good had seemed impossible.

And then the Basic cards had come in, unexpectedly. Everyone in the commune — even those who had forsaken money years ago and lived off of trade and barter — was entitled to one.

The new Cascadian Council had passed a bill that guaranteed a basic income of $1,000 per month to every citizen, from Arcata all the way up to Juneau. There were no more food stamps or housing vouchers — no one would be told what to spend their money on. But no one would go homeless or hungry, or worry that their basic needs wouldn’t be covered. Nor would they be prevented from earning additional income from any job they acquired.

And so, after three months of thinking, and planning, and staring at maps — and watching as the money was credited to their accounts each month, so that they could be sure this was real, that the new government wouldn’t go bankrupt — Amrit and Josef had hatched a plan: they were going to move to Portland.

The pump beeped and the robotic armed jolted back to life as it withdrew its nozzle from the gas tank. “Fueling complete,” it said. Amrit leaned back against the car with relief.

“All set?” said Josef. He had come around the car to investigate. Instinctively Amrit grabbed his arm and pulled him closer, leaning his head on Josef’s shoulder, as he’d often done while they’d researched and planned their escape.

But Josef seemed distant, and Amrit straightened up. Here, outside of the commune, away from the culture they’d grown up with — what were they to each other, exactly? Away from the constraints of Three Rivers, would the connection they had shared there just … end?

A pair of headlights shone from the other side of the parking lot, approaching the pumps. Amrit froze. Had someone discovered them missing so soon, even in the middle of the night? Had one of their parents come after them, to get back the car they had stolen?

But the vehicle was silent and steady, not at all like the noisy, old-fashioned vehicles they drove at the commune. It was only a truck — a driverless tractor-trailer — gliding ghostlike toward its electrical recharging station.

Amrit watched as a robotic arm reached out, grasping at the truck’s side. The headlights on the cab turned off and it settled in for the night.

“Come on,” Josef said. “Let’s get going.”

2

They drove through the night, stopping only for a few hours in the parking lot of a campground just south of Mount Hood. When the sun came up, Amrit slept in the passenger seat while Josef took over the driving, making their way through Gresham and into Southeast Portland.

Here, they parked and stopped at a coffeeshop for breakfast, taking out their Basic cards once more. Amrit was still half in disbelief they really worked: it would have taken decades for them to save up this much money from the measly stipends they earned at the commune.

“They haven’t all quit their jobs,” said Josef, as they waited for their sandwiches.

It was true: the coffeeshop was bustling, customers typing busily on their laptops, baristas hard at work behind the counter. It was just as Amrit remembered things being in Bend a few years ago, before the new charter — and the basic income amendment — had been ratified.

“I guess we’ll have to get jobs too,” Josef added.

Amrit shrugged. He hadn’t thought about that. He had imagined going to school, maybe doing some gardening, taking on a few freelance projects for a bit of extra cash. But he hadn’t pictured a day job: that seemed like something out of different era, a way of life more suited to one of the neo-capitalist cities on the East Coast.

“Let’s worry about finding a place to live first,” he said.

And so their next stop was to walk down Division St., past the apartment complexes lining the road, many of them so new that they hadn’t even been moved into yet. They were three or four stories each, boxy buildings painted in red and grey tones, with tree-lined courtyards and bike shops and yoga studios on the street level.

One of them had a “Now Leasing” sign by the front door, and Amrit pointed to it. “Let’s try that one,” he said. Its windows were wide and shiny, overlooking a painted intersection.

Josef shrugged. “All the same to me.”

The front door opened onto a lobby filled with house plants, an abstract painting of a fir tree, and several empty couches. There was a fireplace in one corner, and a door at the far end that led to the mailboxes and indoor bike racks. To the left was the front desk, where a young woman, only a few years older than they were, sat behind a laptop.

“Welcome to the Douglas Fir Lofts,” she said. “My name’s Emily. Can I help you?”

“We’re looking for an apartment,” said Josef. He set down his bags beside the desk, leaning his arms on it heavily. Amrit only realized now how tired they both must look.

“Well, I can’t help you there,” she said with a smile. “We don’t have apartments. We only have the finest single-unit live-work spaces designed just for Generation Z.”

“We’ll take one,” said Josef, pulling out his GBI card.

Emily looked at it uncertainly. “Can I tell you a bit about our amenities first?” she asked. She slid a laminated brochure across the desk to them.

There were pictures of the units — open floor plans with a kitchen and sleeping area in the same large room — plus photos of a fitness room, an outdoor barbecue, and the very same lobby in which they now stood.

She rattled off a few of the premium features. “We’re LEED-certified,” she said, “with solar heating, eco-friendly furnishings, and an advanced air-filtration system to keep out the smoke during wildfire season. Even our pet-washing station recycles its wastewater for reuse on the living roof. And, we like to think of ourselves as a tight-knit community,” she added.

“A community?” said Josef, frowning. “Does that mean we have to do cooking and childcare and go to mutual criticism?”

She laughed. “Oh, no, nothing like that. What I mean is, we make it easy for you to get to know your neighbors. We’ve designed the place so you can run into new friends — while checking the mail, taking the elevator … you know. That sort of community.”

“Ok,” said Amrit. Just as long as their lives wouldn’t be micro-managed, the way they had been at Three Rivers. And then, just to be sure — “and there are no restrictions on relationships?”

Josef frowned at him. Emily looked from one to the other, and her face softened. “Oh, of course not,” she said, going off-script for a moment. “Everyone is welcome here, no matter what their race or gender or … relationship status. Will you be applying for a unit together?”

“Yes, we just need one,” said Josef gruffly, offering her the card again. He’d only ever been to a hotel, had never leased an apartment, and Amrit wanted to tell him to slow down, they didn’t need to rush into this, but he didn’t think Josef wanted to hear that right now.

“Are you married?” asked Emily.

“Um — ” said Amrit.

“No,” said Josef.

Well, they weren’t married, not the way Emily meant it — and yet there had been the ceremony, they had made a commitment —

“I don’t mean to pry,” said Emily. “It’s just that — if you’re renting together, I’ll need to know your combined income for the application.”

“Just the basic income for now,” said Josef.

“I see,” said Emily. “And will you be looking for work? We encourage all of our residents to have some form of employment — ”

“Yes,” said Amrit. “We just got here. We haven’t had time to apply yet.”

“Ok,” said Emily. “Well, that won’t be a dealbreaker. But I’m going to have to ask you to put down an additional deposit to secure the unit. Your monthly rent will come out to $1450, and we’ll need you to pay first month’s rent, second month’s rent, last month’s rent, and a security deposit of the same amount, which will be refunded when your lease ends.”

Amrit did the math. That was nearly all of the money they had saved up from three months of GBI deposits! They wouldn’t have anything left for emergency expenses. Even after they got settled in, two-thirds of their income would be going to pay rent each month.

It didn’t sound like a great deal. But, they needed a place to live. And they had known all along that rent would be higher here than in the eastern parts of Cascadia — but so were wages too. Amrit doubted that any of the other buildings on the street would be any more affordable.

“We’ll take it,” said Amrit. But Josef was right — he was going to have to get a job.

3

Within a few hours, they had filled out the required paperwork, and gone through the necessary background checks, and had all of the fees and deposits withdrawn from their Basic cards. Emily congratulated them and handed them their keys.

“Welcome to your new home,” she said. “We hope you’ll think of yourself as part of the Doug Fir Family. I’ll be hosting a meet-and-greet for our newest residents on Saturday and I’d be honored if you’d join us. And,” she added, “I live on the second floor, if you need anything.” She slipped her business card into Josef’s hand.

“Thanks,” said Amrit. He was too tired to think that far ahead. He hadn’t really imagined anything past this moment, when they were finally free of the commune and had a place to call their own, at least for as long as they could afford it. He just wanted to shower and sleep, and not have to worry about anything until the next day.

They carried their bags to the elevator and rode it to the fourth floor.

“She was pretty cute,” said Josef, “and I think she was into me. But now she thinks we’re gay.”

“And weird,” said Amrit. “Why did you have to go and mention mutual criticism?”

“I just wanted to make sure,” he said. “Before we committed to anything.”

“Besides,” said Amrit, “do you really think the first girl we meet is going to want to date a pair of guys who just walked off of a commune?”

Josef didn’t say anything. They headed down the hallway, past a few potted plants and a window overlooking the street below. The apartment next to theirs had a Cascadian flag on the door — a green and blue stripe on either side, and a fir tree on white in the center — and a decal that said Go Back To California. The smell of pot was wafting out of it.

Amrit pulled out the key and unlocked the door to their unit. The room was bigger and brighter than he had envisioned it, with a large bed along one wall and a futon and coffee-table beside it. At the far end was a balcony, just large enough for a couple of chairs. Running along the wall was the kitchen: sink, stove, refrigerator, and table all in a line. Nearest to the door was a bathroom, and even that had a window facing onto the main room, with shades drawn.

There wouldn’t be a lot of privacy here — not that that was something they were used to, anyway, at the commune. But Amrit wondered, suddenly, what their arrangement here would be. Would they continue to share a bed? Or would Josef insist on opening up the futon, setting up their sleeping spaces side by side, as if they were roommates?

Amrit dropped his bags on the bedside table. The room was fully furnished, but missing some necessities: plates, towels, bed sheets.

“I’ll make a trip to the store,” said Josef. “Why don’t you get settled in?”

“All right,” said Amrit.

And so he found himself alone in the empty apartment, in a city he had never been to before, with nearly all of the money they’d brought with them entirely used up.

He collapsed onto the unmade bed, ready for a nap. But he couldn’t stop thinking about Josef’s tone at the front desk, and what he had said about Emily.

He remembered the Sex Ed class when they had first learned about relationship structures, in the fifth or sixth grade. There were some parts of the world, Mrs. Davis had said, where people thought it was natural to form partnerships of two. But these relationships rarely lasted, and often ended in bitter break-ups and divorces.

In other places, there were no limits to how many relationships you could have, and people had many partners and claimed to love them all. But this only led to the opposite problem: you could go your whole life without making a commitment, without ever settling down.

Here at the commune, she said, they knew that partnerships of three — triads — were what worked best. They were what God and nature had intended.

“Can anyone name the first Biblical triad?” Mrs. Davis asked.

“Adam and Eve and Lilith,” the students replied as a group. They all knew this one by heart.

“Yes. First God created Adam and gave him a wife named Lilith. But God saw that they were still lonely, that they could not make each other happy on their own. So he created a second wife, Eve, who became their partner too. Can you think of any other Biblical triads?”

“Jesus, John, and Mary,” said Amrit.

“We all know the story of Mary Magdalene, how they met and fell in love when Jesus visited the brothel that she worked at. But many of us forget that the disciple John was his partner too, and that when Jesus died, John and Mary turned to each other for comfort and support. How about in more recent history?” she asked.

“The guy who wrote Wonder Woman,” said Eliza, the most well-read of the bunch. “He lived in a triad with two female partners.”

“Henry, June, and Anais,” said someone else.

“Yes, thank you. Any others?”

Josef raised his hand. “Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed — ”

Mrs. Davis nodded. “It wasn’t until recently that historians found out that Abe and Joshua had been partners long before he married Mary Todd. But Lincoln lived at a time when he couldn’t be open about his sexuality, and so they were never able to live openly as a triad. There are so many reasons that people avoid forming a long-term triad: social expectations, family pressure, jealousy, infidelity. Can you think of any other triads that didn’t work out?”

“Harry, Ron, and Hermione,” someone said. The class laughed.

“And Katniss, Peeta, and — what’s-his-name. Look, love triangles make for a good story, that’s for sure. But every love triangle is just a triad waiting to happen. That’s why we encourage you to start thinking about your partnerships early. It can take years to find one partner, never mind two. Once you have a strong foundation, you can begin looking for your third.”

And so that’s what he and Josef had done. Not right away, not until several years later — but that had been when it had started, when the idea began to form in Amrit’s mind. They’d become friends, and then lovers; and then as everyone around them told them how perfect they were for each other, it had begun to feel real, solid, permanent. They’d even gone through the ceremony that made them formally bound to each other in the eyes of the commune.

But back then, there hadn’t been anyone else for them to choose from. There was no one there who was a better fit than Josef. There was no one whom they both liked well enough to consider forming a triad with. And so they’d never shared a bed with anyone else, or had sex with anyone else, or even — at least as far as Amrit knew — kissed anyone else.

That wasn’t the case any more: here, there were other people to choose from — people with whom he might have more things in common with than Josef. Girls like Emily, even.

Of course Josef would want to sleep with other people. Amrit did too; there was nothing wrong with that. But would Josef still want to sleep with him?

He had finally started to doze off when he heard the front door open and Josef return home. He saw his shadow moving about through the shades on the bathroom window. There was the sound of bags being opened, and furniture being moved about; and Amrit felt sure that Josef must be pulling open the futon, making his own bed.

But no — Josef was merely pulling out sheets and blankets and throwing them haphazardly onto the bed, as tired and spent as Amrit was.

“Sorry it took so long,” he said, and kissed Amrit lightly on the forehead before climbing into bed beside him. “I’ve never driven in this kind of traffic before.”

“Thanks for going,” said Amrit. He crawled under the blankets that Josef had spread out, resting one arm over Josef’s torso and letting his forehead press into the small of his back.

They slept fitfully, sometimes right beside each other, other times with a space between them, as though they were saving room for someone else.

****

Like what you’ve read so far? Support my work with a Patreon pledge to help fund the writing, editing, and publication of the full novel!