“Billy! Hey, Bill! Check this out.  My reach died,” Vero laughs.  “The cell’s stuck half in.  No warning or anything.”  She points up toward the Alto Train’s fuel cell compartments.  The forks of her reach truck are unmovable, their steely arms stiffened deep within the train’s topmost cavity.  She turns the truck off and waits a moment before attempting to restart it.  The power light blinks wearily at her, then fails to come on at all.  “I can’t believe this.  Never seen it cut out so quick like that.  Didn’t even wind down!”

“Yeah, I seen that before. You know these batteries is all ancient, like fifteen twenty some years, right?” Billy cracks his neck then continues swapping from his station.  Like most swappers, he’s still too small to see completely over the console and relies on an array of mirrors to manipulate the truck.  He rotates his reach halfway to the north wall, then lowers the forks down to the stockpile of locomotive fuel cells, slides them in, lifts, and pulls back again.  He spins the reach around again precisely, lifts the forks high, and slides the cell into the train.  “There’s a pallet jack in the hothouse,” he calls over to Vero, “call Jimmy bring it by ‘fore your meter goes off.  Let him know you’re out. Why don’t you snap them electrodes up top while you wait?”

Vero makes a call on the radio to Jimmy, the Alto Section Foreman.  She puts in a request for a replacement truck battery, but he’s busy helping another kid.  Vero is forced to walk there herself for the pallet jack, so she lets Billy know what’s happened and abandons her truck.  This is fine; she’d rather stroll over to the hothouse than climb up the train any day.

The corridor leading up is flanked on either side by inoperable windows that stand between the turbine fields of the Chamuscado Mountains to the south, and those of the Agridulces to the north.  The railway cuts through both ranges, the flatlands that lead away to the city, and continues on to the desert’s eastern interior.  All tracks converge at this station.  The hothouse itself is the central electric fuel cell recharging plant for this, the primary station of Acton Trains.

Jimmy’s the mastermind who rearranged it to house the larger Alto Train cells along the bottom stretch of outlets, with the smaller Baja Train cells stacked tight to line the upper compartments.  Before Jimmy’s plan came along, the kids stuck them anywhere they’d fit, and often that resulted in a backload of depleted cells that were too heavy to be supported by the upper divides.  Now everyone recognizes his new way as an obvious, simple arrangement that anyone could’ve come up with, but it was all Jimmy.  It earned him his big promotion.  Today his face is sullen.  When Vero arrives, he’s only just finished helping one of the older girls load a batch of cell replenishments.  The girl starts the cart and as she pulls off on delivery, he begins to scrub the tread from the concrete.

“Jims, I’m down.  Need a pallet jack and recovery pronto.”  Vero walks directly toward the only available jack, and removes a clipboard from the wall.  As she signs the unit out to herself, she glances back over at the foreman.  “Mark me off twenty minutes, wouldja? Hey.  Hey, cabron, you awake? You even hear me dude?”

Jimmy continues to scrub the floor.  He doesn’t look up at her, but through his teeth tells her quietly and with only a slight movement of his lips, “You and Billy meet me off the tracks after shift, canya?  Don’t say nothin’.  Bring me some oil if you got it. I’ll pay. I’m good for it.”  He scrubs and scrubs.

Something like panic fertilizes Vero’s body.  She feels it energize her limbs and push against her fingers.  She opens them wide then makes a fist, then spreads them out like brittle sticks and leaves them like that for a moment.  Jimmy’s the saint of his crew, and rarely misses a chance to extol the meaty benefits of living oil-free.  She uses the pallet jack to retrieve a fresh cell in silence.  When she’s loaded and ready to return to her station, Vero offers, “See you round.” She drives off, alit with concern.

After removing the old battery and as the new one mounts itself, she waves Billy down from his task.  He lowers his truck.  When he’s within speaking range she tells him, “Jims asked me for oil.  He didn’t look so good.  I don’t know what to think.  You seen him today?”

Billy looks surprised, shakes his head and replies, “I ain’t seen him since Monday.”  He squints, “Last time I seen Jimmy shoot, his ama had her head off by the cutters.  No.  He either sneakeen’ real good or ‘bout to blow some ugly out. God I hope it’s the shootin. That culo’s lotsa things, but he ain’t oily.  He just ain’t.”

Vero’s hand opens and closes again.  “He wants to meet us both after work.  Call in the crew, huh?”

“Yeah, yeah, alright.  God I hope he’s just shootin. Aw, shit.” Billy pulls up on his reach and slides the last of the cells from his work order into the Alto Train.  When he finishes, he lowers his truck again and shuts it down, then punches a code into his monitor.  “I’ll come help you clamp them electers after you finish swapping.  Gonna just break.  I’ll call ‘em ri’now.  Gimme a sec. I know that fool ain’t oily. I know that fool.  Aw hell, I bet he gonna blow out.”

Billy leaves his truck and enters the nearest break room.  It’s lined with long, cheap tables and framed prints of overaged youths.  Billy picks up a courtesy phone, the gaze of his blue eyes coming to rest blankly on a framed youth’s lapel.  He dials Cole, Watch Boss over the Fixers, a team that has the toughest job around, but for the best pay.  They clean and repair the railroad tracks, and though it’s hot and rough, sometimes the tracks provide their own reward.  Cole makes enough money to keep his own room at The Stump.  He lives there with his two brothers.

Today, the tracks have born fruit; not one but two birds were found dismembered near to them.  Incredibly, each bird still possessed its oil sac, and Cole has spent the better part of the morning extracting the oil.  All he needs, he tells Billy, is something to cook it in, and some starch with which to cut it.  Billy promises the tools, and Cole agrees to get the rest of the crew together off the tracks, at the graveyard, after shift.

As soon as the closing bell rings, Vero and Billy head together to the locker room.  Like many street kids, they slip from matching work uniforms to matching crew colors.  Theirs are bristling blue sashes crisscrossed upon bare chests.  The ends of the sashes drift down almost to the backs of their knees.  Beneath the cloth, they are a mass of skinny bodies in jeans.  They wear knives tied to their legs, and huaraches to their feet. Like every day, today Billy has to tie Vero’s sash for her.

“I wonder what’s happened,” she muses and stands straight, facing her open locker.  “Is Cole bringing the oil?”

“Yeah. He got lots.”

“Good, ‘cause I’m out and need to get my brain offa Jims.  Starting to sweat.  Feel pretty bad.” She inhales deeply, then holds her breath briefly before blowing it out.

“Lean forward.  Good thing y’ain’t got no tits yet.  Goddamnit, lean forward.” He tugs on the sash, pulling it taut.  He’s fixed it for her dozens of times, but today his hands are clumsy.  He cracks his neck then tugs again, repositions the sash, and tucks it beneath the inside wrappings, letting the ends hang down.

“I could have.”  She fastens her knives to both sides of each leg with thin twine that loops through twin sheaths.  She’s decorated the twine with quail beaks. “I could,” she repeats.

“Come on,” he says as he buttons up his jeans and flips his own sash around his slender, pale body without effort.  “I gotta know what he done.”

Normally, Billy would be overjoyed about the dead birds and free oil.  The idea that he would soon inject a larger than average amount of purer than average stuff into his arm would normally be enough to send him dashing down the tracks with Vero, belting out throaty anticipation chants.  Oil has taken on almost superhuman characteristics for many street kids, Billy included.  He’s not addicted to it yet, unlike her, but he’d rob for it anyway.  Vero doses on each break at work, all day, every day.  It’s why she’s smaller than normal.  This evening, Billy’s thoughts orbit around one central fact: Jimmy wants the oil.  This frightens him.  It affects his mood so distinctly that he doesn’t speak a word to Vero along the way to the graveyard, and doesn’t even notice that she’s trailed behind, also lost in thought.  Eventually, the two youths reach the path that leads off the tracks and on to the railcar graveyard.

Vero calls up, “Billy, what do you think’s happened?”

He shrugs without turning around.  He stops a moment to grab a fistful of rocks, and throws them at one of the dead cars that they’ve approached.  The rocks clatter down the side of it, and somebody hollers from inside.  “Dunno.  Maybe they cut up his other mother,” he laughs.  “Maybe he been shootin’ all this time and jus kep it low.  Dunno.”  Soon they approach their car—it is theirs, Vero and the Fixers tagged it a month ago—and push the door open.

The rest of the crew is already inside, even Jims.  Their railcar is from the old days.  It’s even made of steel, or at least the frame is.  The door’s newer, a castoff from work, where Vero’s much lower in rank than either Jimmy or Cole.  Here, though, she leads them.  This is her crew. Born and bred, hers.

“Evening, Rats.” says Vero as she climbs up into the car.  The small crowd returns a mumbled chorus of hellos to her.  “Jims, do you mind all this?” She steadies herself and indicates the others with her free hand.

“No.” He looks down and is abashed.  “Thank you.”

Vero nods.  She helps Billy climb into the car, and he slams the cobalt door shut, keeping only the top vents open. Someone’s already lit a pinyon fire and though the sun hasn’t set yet, the youthful faces inside of the car glow from the warm light of the fire and sun.  A small pijuro climbs on his brother’s shoulder to open a slider window, letting in still more light and air.  The car smells of sweat and smoke.  Most of the seventeen Desert Rat members are railway or turbine employees, but a few are still just streetkids that steal or trick for food.  The pijuros of the crew are easy to spot: the boys wear azure lipstick and false, turquoise-colored lashes.  The girls shave their heads and paint their faces and stomachs with blue clay.  Every Actonian loves androgyny. Every Rat wears blue.

“Are you using or are you gonna blowout?” Vero stands before Jimmy.  Her stance is wide, her arms crossed against her sash-tied chest. Her thin body casts an imposing shadow over the boy.

“I’m a blowout.  And tonight I’m using.  I’m a blowout.  Oh, we’re fucked.  We’re so fucked,” he moans.  Jims’ tawny head droops between his knees.  “I’m sorry, fellas, I am.“  His face contorts and he suddenly appears younger than the fourteen years he owns.

Vero turns to the boy Cole and insists, “Where’s the oil? Give him a needle already.”

Cole is slung low over a molcajete, into which he squishes a few juniper berries to mix with the oil.  He glances up and responds, “Billy said he’d bring the cookin’.  I need starch if we gonna shoot.  Gotta cook it, you know.” He turns to Billy.  “You got it? You got my potato, culo?”

Billy’s forgotten to bring the tools, he was so afraid of what this meeting would entail.  He offers to run to town to buy them, but Vero interjects.

“I’ll go.  Billy, next time remember your promises.”

“I will,” says Billy. Oh god, he thinks, now we’re all cold for crows, “I was locked, you know, on Jimmy.”

“Well, I’ll get the fucking potato and some heat.  Jims, don’t you say a word till I get back.  Billy,” she turns again to her coworker, “prep the needle while I’m gone.”

Vero slides the car door open again, exposing the seventeen small Rat-faces to the twilit landscape for a moment, then slams it.  She walks out past the graveyard and follows the path, then the tracks, directly into town.

Central Acton is a mass of street hawkers.  It’s full of the wealthy and the soon-to-be, or at least the wannabes.  Vero’s been a regular customer here since she was a small girl, and knows where to get the best produce.  Today she doesn’t want the best.  She wants the cheapest.  For this, she runs to Yucca Boulevard, where the service people shop.  This is where her own mother shopped before her head was off by the police.  She has this tragedy in common with Jims.  Both heads off, both arms pierced.  On Yucca Boulevard, Kyle’s Kornucopia sells the cheapest and rankest produce.  Vero intends to buy a potato full of eyes, but realizes that she’s left her card at work again. She can’t buy anything without it.

She looks around for anyone she might know to spot her some change, but sees only the grocer, who’s arguing with somebody over the price of wilted alfalfa sprouts.  Vero absentmindedly strokes the beaks that adorn her knives.  One potato is enough to cut tonight’s shoot and the next, and the next.  One potato is twenty cents.  She has a lot more than twenty cents on her card.  Twenty cents is nothing.  One potato is nothing.  She takes the potato with the most eyes and stuffs it in her pants.  She’s moving it into position when the grocer glances over from his conversation and spots her with her hand down her pants.

Vero’s hand, along with the lump in her pants, is completely conspicuous. The grocer rushes over from the sprouts to grasp the girl by the shoulders, “That’s it!” he yells into the Friday evening crowd, “that’s it! I’m not taking any more losses from you gutter shits! Police!” he cried out, “Police! I have a goddamned thief! I have a thief,“ he cries. Vero has never been caught stealing.  This is her crew’s job.  She’s never had a direct hand in this, at least not since bringing the kids together.  The girl shrugs.  She pulls the potato from her pants.  As she lowers it back to the produce shelf, the potato is intercepted by a third hand.

“My boy is ornery, isn’t he? Tell me,” asks the man connected to the hand, “how much for this potato and a pound of yellow squash?”

“This little fucker’s going to prison, old man. I don’t care who he is.” The grocer hasn’t released his grip on Vero’s shoulders.  She stands between the two of them, calm but interested in what’s happening.

“This boy belongs to me, and I believe you won’t feel a loss today.”  He pulls a card from his waistband and offers, “I’ll give you fifty dollars for the squash and that potato.  Do you still want the potato, boy?”

“Yes sir,” replies the girl, “I need it.”  She wouldn’t call the man kindly, exactly.  But his pale, nearly translucent silk suit proves his wealth.  That wealth is enough to compel Vero to behave for a moment.

The grocer licks his lips, and loosens his grip on Vero. “Give it, then.  Come on pal,” he says to the man.

The man punches something in on his card then hands it to the grocer.  His skin is smooth and dark in some places, light in others.  Vero considers the man’s lean frame, the outline of which she can easily trace through his suit.  He has poor posture, she observes, and leather shoes.  When the transaction concludes, the man thanks the grocer, taking the bag of produce in one hand, and Vero’s hand in the other.  He begins to walk eastward.

“Where are you taking me?”

“I thought we’d have dinner together, child.  What do you call yourself?”


“Well, Veto, we’re going to have a fine time, you and I.  We’re going to have a fiesta.” His damp grip on her hand tightens somewhat.  She decides not to correct him, but is suspicious.

“Thanks. I’m awfully poor, sir.  That potato was gonna be my only meal in two days.  Two days, sir.” She blinks as she looks up at him.

“Yes, you are slight, aren’t you? Quite helpless.”

“Would you help me out? Would you spare a bit? Just a few bucks maybe?”

“I’d be happy to fill your belly, Veto.  You must help me with something in the meantime. Do not ask me for money again.”

Vero believes that she’s met men like this before, and decides to disappear. “Thanks for helping me out sir, but I’ve really got to get going.  I was just on my way—“

“I think your plans can wait awhile, don’t you? After all, if it weren’t for me, you’d be in handcuffs and unable to go anyplace, isn’t that right?” The man looks down at her and smiles.  “I’d hate to have to make a phone call.”


“Good boy,” the old man smiles down at Vero, “that’s a good boy.” The two turn onto Prim Avenue, one of the wealthiest residential streets in Acton.

The man, known as Hicks Jaybourne by his peers, lives on a middling lot lined with cherrywood trees.  He may live on Prim, but the driveway leading to his house is only large enough to fit an electric bike.  Vero scuffs her feet on the darkened dirt pathway and thinks, he ain’t rich enough to have a goddamned car. She eyes him again as they walk.  This prick’s a fraud, she thinks. I gotta get the hell out of here. I gotta go shoot, I gotta go shoot.

“How long have you lived on Prim, sir?”

He answers her quickly, without returning her gaze, “All my life.  My father built this house.”

This keeps her quiet, and he pulls her along the grounds toward the house.  Along the way, she eyes his gardens.  He may not have a car, but he’s got a vast network of imported flora that requires imported water, as well.  His hands are sweaty.  Vero slides free from the grasp and runs in the opposite direction as quickly as she can.  Her huaraches slap against the dirt.  She begins to turn once again onto Prim Avenue when a searing pain shoots through her calf.  She drops to the ground, clutching at her leg.

Sr. Jaybourne stands over her with a longshot taser held tightly in his fist. “And now you ask me to carry you inside, boy.  What a shame.”  He draws Vero up into his wet arms; she is too surprised to fight him.

“You shot me.”

“If one behaves as a jackrabbit, one will be treated as one.  Do not try to leave again. You may leave when I am ready.  Understand?”

She doesn’t answer.  She looks at the approaching house and tries not to feel his body against hers.  She begins to plot her escape and all the time she knows that she must shoot within a couple of hours.  Sr. Jaybourne calls out for someone named Ario.  This turns out to be a thin, gopher-faced woman.

“Ario, this child has fallen and may have hurt himself.  Please clean him up and set him with dinner at the table, thank you.”  He looks down into Vero’s face and asks, “Can you walk with Ario’s help?”

“Let’s find out.” she glares at him.

Jaybourne lowers Vero to the ground and the Ario woman helps to steady her.  The man says, “…and Ario, this is a street child.  He is a liar and a thief.  I have been witness to both behaviors in the short time that I’ve known him.  Rather than allow him to go to prison, I believe that he might be improved by some good, honest work. Watch your pockets.  Close your ears.  I will change for dinner. Quickly, please.” He then turns and walks inside the house, without another word or glance.  Vero shakes her head.

“He just shot me with a taser.”

“Sure enough.  Name is?”

“Vero. Jesus, is he crazy?”

“You oughtta be thankful. Shut that mouth, Veto.”

Vero.  Not Veto.”

“Vero ain’t no boy’s name.  Venga, now.” The woman helps her limp into a bathroom, and draws a bath for her.  “Mister Jaybourne eats clean. You show him respect and wash.”  Vero sits on a wicker chair as the woman collects items for the bath.  “He’s a good man,” continues Ario.  She lifts herself onto her toes and reaches into a deep cabinet.  She retrieves a dark green pair of drawstring work pants, and a matching t-shirt.  “These might fit.” She stands before Vero, evaluating the girl.  She nods, as if she’s decided something. “Now peel off and go have a bath, be sure to soak that leg.  Call out when you’re clean, and I know clean.”

“Just let me go, lady. This is kidnapping. This is crazy.  You people are crazy!”

“What’s crazy is your mouth.  You ungrateful boy.  You just call out when you’ve finished.” The woman leaves the room and closes the door.  By the time she’s finished bathing and dressed in the wrong colored boys’ clothes, Vero’s leg is fine, but her body has begun to tremble.  Her withdrawal will only get worse from here.

She is frightened of the man’s taser, and the stuffed quail and cactus pear look delicious, so she resigns herself to eat with the old man at his long table.  He makes her uncomfortable, talking about her boyish arms and big appetite.  She is afraid to tell him that she’s not a boy.  She’s frightened of lots of things, but even her fear lessens with the weight of her desire for oil.

When they finish eating, he coaxes her out to his backyard, placing his patchwork hands upon her shoulders to walk behind as if to direct her.  She feels exposed and unhappy. She feels his breath bearing down upon her.

“Why are you making me stay here? What are you doing? I need to go.”

“You will pay your debt and then you may leave.  And if you like, I will tutor you another day.”

“Horse shit, you’ll never see me again.”

“So you say.” He pats her on her lower back.  “Right over there, Veto.” The man points at a pinyon stump with an axe buried within it.  There are several sections of cut trees beside it. “I need you to chop that wood.”

“It’s night time! She protests. “I can’t chop wood at night!”

“You can, and you will.  It’s hardly dusk, and there will be plenty of starlight.  Now go.”

The old man settles himself into an oversized rocking chair.  He sways back and forth, watching the dimly lit Vero walk glumly to the stump.  She hasn’t quite figured out how to get out of this mess.  He’s got the taser in his breast pocket; she saw its outline.  The backyard is fenced in with adobe and too high to scale.  She can cut through it with the axe or try to cut off his leg, but knows she would be caught.  But they think I’m a boy, she thinks, I could probably get away with anything.

She picks up a section of wood and rests it on the stump.  Next she grips the axe; it’s heavy.  She isn’t very sure if she can use it to chop wood, much less to kill him.  She swings it high over her head and brings it down as hard as she can, missing the section completely.  The axe head is buried deep in the tree stump.  She jostles it until it comes free, and tries again.  This time she succeeds, and the wood splits clean through. Vero turns behind her in triumph, and Mr. Jaybourne grins at her from the lit porch, raising a fist in her direction.

This will, Vero decides, keep her mind from the oil.  The oil, the oil, the oil.  The sooner she finishes, the sooner she can shoot.  She brings the axe up and throws it down.  The wood splinters.  She pulls up, and heaves down.  She brings another wood section to the stump and begins to chop that one.  Her arms weaken after only two sections.  If she was a boy she’d probably barely have broken a sweat—but she continues anyway; the quicker done, the quicker to shoot. She chops as hard as she can, and when her arms are so weak that she cannot lift the axe anymore, she’s only finished four sections.

Vero tosses the axe down near her feet and leans over the stump to catch her breath.  She hears the man approaching and turns around to complain, but he grips her from behind and pushes her face-first against the stump, hard. Her breath comes out.

The man leans in with his mouth against her ear and whispers, “There are no free tickets in life, Veto.” She tries to free herself, but fails.  Hicks Jaybourne brings his hand around to the front of Vero’s body and clutches at the air between her legs, then quickly jerks back and shoves her away from him.  She falls to the ground.

“Where is it?” the man demands, “What’s happened to you?”

“Where is what, you sick fuck?” Vero is terrified and confused. Her hand clenches tight and then opens wide and free.  Then it clenches again.

“Your cock boy, where’s your cock?” He knocks a fist against his leg, his face disfigured.

“I don’t have one.” She smooths her pants with her hand. “I don’t have one,” she repeats.

“That’s impossible!”

Vero laughs and draws herself up.  “Look pal, I just ain’t got no tits yet from the oil.  Let me scoot on out of here and dose and I won’t tell no one what you done. I don’t have what you want so just let me go.”

“You’re a drug addict? You’re just a child!

“But old enough to fuck, huh sir? That right sir? Piss it.”

Hicks opens his mouth to speak, but closes it again, turns, and walks quickly back to the house.  Vero remains where she stands.  The sky has deepened and become pockmarked with stars.  She looks up at them, grows dizzy, and straightens her clothes again.  Her fists clench.  Sr. Jaybourne opens the back door, enters the house, and closes the door again behind him.  Vero turns to survey the adobe fence.  She turns back to observe the house.  She looks up one final time, and sucks in her breath before she begins to move her body toward the house again.

She grips the door handle and she turns it, opens the door, and holds the jam for support as she steps inside.  The old man isn’t immediately visible, but Vero hears a conversation coming from the next room.  It is an audible knot, thick with moans and hisses. Then the house goes silent but for footsteps approaching her.

Ario appears and crosses the room to touch Vero’s face.  “I got a daughter myself.  She got took from me and put in the Cué.  I ain’t seen her in three years.”

Vero meets the woman’s gaze and tells her flatly, “I don’t care.”

The woman nods and says, “Mister Jaybourne says you got a will that’s good for general labor.  He’ll pay, a wage and a roof. You really a shooter?” She reaches to take Vero’s arm and check, but the girl snatches it away again.

“Lady, I got a crew to take care of. And I already got a job.  Unless you got a way to fix my boys and me up real good, I don’t see why any of my business is yours.” Vero is neither defiant nor desperate.  She is only lightheaded.  She is composed and in charge.

“Yes,” Ario replies, sticking her fat tooth out from behind her lips, “Yes, well. Mister Jaybourne says you stay the night without them drugs.  You’ll get three hundred dollars.  That’s a week, every week.  You make that at the turbines?”

“I don’t work at the turbines.”

“It’s the railway then? You didn’t hear the wire tonight, didja?”

“I guess I was too busy getting attacked by your patrón to watch the wire.  Do ya think I’ve missed the novellas, too?”

Ario either doesn’t hear or understand what Vero’s told her.  She doesn’t even blink, but instead informs the girl that, “Acton Railways is complying.”

Vero vision whirls.  Complying.  That means she’s out of work.  Everyone’s out of work.  Legally, children under the age of fifteen can’t work anywhere, but it’s an ancient law that isn’t a bit practical, and hasn’t been enforced for centuries.  The new mayor’s incited some new wave of activism among the people with houses, but Vero had no idea their protests would actually influence anybody.  If Acton Railway goes legal, it means the turbines will too, and no doubt the trashmen will follow.  If Acton Railway goes legal, all the children will become pijuros or thieves.  No more kids. Oh Santos this is Jimmy’s blowout.  Oh Madre what about the Rats. She says nothing, but a rush of heat fills her face and she feels sick for the future and the oil. Her stomach roils.

Ario continues without much pause, “Well, sleep on it.  I’ll take you to your room. We have pastillas to help you in the night.”

“I bet you do,” says Vero. “Now go,” she commands before turning to vomit on a mandala-woven rug.

The girl cannot keep the pills down.  She finds that if she sits upright in the bed they’ve made for her, and neither turns her head nor moves her eyes, she is fine.  But if any part of her body moves, she vomits again.  If she tries to sip water, she vomits.  If she breathes too deeply she vomits.  Hicks doesn’t appear during the night, but sends a doctor to inspect her with beeping meters and activated cloths.

“She will not die,” he concludes from another room, but Vero disagrees.  His muffled voice sounds stupid to her.  “She has no fever, she isn’t convulsing.  Her symptoms are mild.  This is no worse than the hangover we shared in Valencia, eh old man?” She hears laughter.  Within fourteen hours, Vero throws up thirty-two times, and at the end of it she sleeps and is weakened.  She is thirsty.  She first peers into, and then empties the plastic cup they’ve left for her.  Her grounded room smells of vinegar and oranges, not vomit nor sweat.  Ario cleaned even while the girl was sick, and the possibility that this contributed to her nausea doesn’t escape Vero’s notice.

Hicks appears in her bedroom the next morning supporting a tray with coffee and a bowl of menudo.  He asks her to sit up.  She complies, and the man straddles the tray against her stretched-out legs.

“I hope you’ll stay,” he tells the girl.  “I hope as well that you’ll forgive an old man his savagery.” He touches his forefinger to his chin, nods, and reaches into his jacket pocket.  He retrieves three hundred dollar bills and lays them on the tray beside the food.  “You’ve spent one night but expended a week’s energy.  Your first week’s wage, then.” He waits for her to meet his gaze before continuing, “Should you decide to stay, you’ll receive another three hundred by next Wednesday.  You’ll help Ario around the house, and keep the lawn.  You’re to stay here and off the streets, and if I see any narcotics, even a hint of them, you may return to your hovel without pay.  We’ll not speak of the incident again.  Clean yourself by lunch,” he adds, then turns around and strolls out the door, latching it behind him, humming an ugly tune.

Vero leans in to hover over the steaming food. Her eyes are closed.  The soup’s steam slickens her face.  She thinks of Billy and the other kids.  She imagines a crashing of glass, and a woman’s scream.  Many angry children shout a cacophonic Vero, Vero, Vero. The Desert Rats hurl rocks through Hicks Jaybourne’s windows, front and back.  The Rats have billy clubs and jackknives, all with her own quail beaks.  Billy lags behind the others to lift Vero through the bedroom window and out to safety.  The others rush the dining room where Hicks eats his poached egg with soft cheese and fall upon the man.  The Rats beat the old man senseless with their weapons, and finally to death. One of the youngest boys in the crew, a pijuro, giggles and smears the blood from his club across his cheekbone with a pinky finger. Mr. Jaybourne’s face no longer makes sense.

“We got nothin’ to lose!” Jims is animated, full of oil and bloodlust. He drives his knife across the dead man’s guts to pull out his intestines. “We all fucked now,” he repeats.

“All I want is some goddamned oil,” Vero sighs, lifts her dampened face up, and leans back to sip the black coffee.  She will stay in this house and work for the man’s money, and she will send every penny home to her boys.  The window beside her bed opens to the gardens of Hicks Jaybourne, where birds of paradise grow up from below the windowsill, their bright orange flowers indifferently gazing into the room where she lies.