by Jay Lake
My cousin Victor and I stood in the night's hot rain, wondering if my sister would come back from the dead. The paramedics had departed, leaving nothing behind of Marisol but a spreading stain on the pavement and the tangy reek of blood. The cops holstered their guns and followed the ambulance; it was more valuable than my sister had been. We watched them go, red-and-blue party lights flickering like spastic stars among east Austin's old limestone buildings, making colored jewels of the rain.
"Drybacks," I said. The word itself tasted like dust.
Four of them had killed her, a Dryback Roll. It was one way they recruited. The cops had shrugged it off, written it up as an accidental death — Marisol hadn't been important enough to go rattle cages over, and Drybacks were big stuff these days. I spat, liquid from my mouth as proof-of-life. "Fucking muertados."
"Caballo," Victor said, laying a hand on my arm. "Show a little respect. Marisol is one of them now. Your sister, man."
When we'd been little kids, I was Horse and Victor was Bull — together we'd throw off the vaqueros and run free in the crisp-grassed, prairied hills east of town. Then the Drybacks crossed over, rising from their graves, and we grew up — pronto.
I sighed. "Toro, they killed her. And if she comes back, she'll be one of them. She's not my sister no more."
He shifted, a knife fighter waiting for the right time to pop the blade. "You got that look, man, like you're going to do something."
"What's to do? We can't kill the dead." I stared at Marisol's blood until the hot rain washed the reek away.
Marisol had always been strange. She spent a lot of time looking at birds. When she was seven, she built a set of wings from loose pigeon feathers she'd gathered. That's what she told Mama. I'd seen her kill and skin one of those pigeons up on the roof of our apartment building, but I kept my mouth shut. Mama would just shake her head and say, "Where did you come from, girl?"
The night the Drybacks Rolled her, my sister had been walking two blocks ahead of me and Victor. They crowded around her, in those long, black coats the Drybacks like to wear, stepped out of the alley to surround her like souljahs covering a gang boss.
Marisol didn't look surprised. She didn't scream. For a moment, I swear I saw her teeth flash in the sputtering glow from a streetlight, a smile for her killers before they took her down.
My sister was expecting it. She hadn't gone ahead to get a table at the club. She'd gone ahead to die.
I wasn't telling that to no one, not ever. Not the cops, not Mama, not even Victor.
I got home just after midnight, three beers to the good and Victor trailing behind like a dog that wouldn't hunt. There hadn't been any point calling — Mama hadn't had a phone since the 1990's.
She sat in the living room of our apartment in that faded blue housedress she always wore, big arms like Popeye's sticking out. Surrounded by orange vinyl furniture and velvet paintings of big-eyed kittens, wreathed in incense, Mama was making herself angry at Marisol and me. The late-night fight was our family ritual, like praying in church. Outside, the rain had stopped, leaving hot, sticky air that made me feel like an overfilled balloon.
"Beto, where you been?" Mama shrieked as soon as I stepped in the front door. Victor, the coward, stayed in the hallway. "Where's that slut your sister?"
"Mama," I said, staring at my jump boots.
"Is she out with that lousy Victor again? I told her a hundred times, she can't—"
"Mama." I was still quiet. It penetrated to her that I wasn't fighting back. I glanced up when she fell silent.
Fright stole the anger from her eyes. "Where is she, Beto?" Mama finally asked.
"Mama...Marisol is dead. Drybacks, Mama, muertados, they got her."
"Madre de Dios!" Mama screamed, a rising shriek like wounded dog. When I stepped to hug her, she threw a right hook that laid me on the shag carpeting. "You did this to her, taking her out on the street like a puta!" Then she kicked me in the ribs, screeching in Spanish I couldn't follow, until Victor grabbed me by the armpits and dragged me back out into the hall.
People were leaning out their doors, looking at us. Wincing, I stood up, ignoring Mama's screams, to glare up and down the hall. "What the hell you people staring at?"
"Come on," said Victor, tugging my elbow. "We got to go see Big Lamar."
I swatted his hand away. "What the fuck I want to see Big Lamar for, pendejo?" Big Lamar was a fence and a connection, not someone I dealt with much, especially not after midnight.
Victor leaned close to my ear, whispering. "Caballo, you're mad enough to hear a message about the muertados. People are getting ready to do something, something big."
I snotted back in my nose, hiding the sting in my eyes. "Yeah, yeah, but you drive. I need more beer."
All the way to Victor's car, I kept telling myself it wasn't my fault, that I couldn't have saved Marisol.
One night when I was fourteen and Marisol was thirteen, she came into my room. It was late, I was in the dark watching the reflected neon from the bar across the street blink on the brown stains in my ceiling.
"Beto," she said. My sister sat on the edge of my bed. She was wearing a pink quilted bathrobe Mamacita Lowery gave her for Christmas.
I didn't really want to talk. "Go to sleep, girl."
Marisol slipped out of her robe. She wasn't wearing anything else except white cotton panties with blue flowers. Her tits were coming in, little nipples like brown candies.
"Oh, Jesus." I sat up, grabbed the sheet and pulled it across my chest. "You crazy? Get away from me."
She leaned over me, her little tits bobbing in my face. She smelled like talcum powder and shampoo. The neon gave her a colored halo, a distorted angel flying over me. "You're the only boy who will never brag about me in school, Beto."
So help me God, when my sister pushed her nipple into my mouth, I came in my shorts, even as I wept on her breast.
Big Lamar's place was in an old warehouse down by the river, just west of the big, empty office buildings. Victor eased his 1974 Monte Carlo that direction, turning every couple of blocks, doubling back. "Shaking tail," he called it. Victor always drove his antique car that way, dodging invisible villains while classical music blared from the digital-audio deck.
I stared out the rain-bleared window, taillights and turn signals glowing like the candies in a crystal bowl I'd seen once at some lawyer's office. Shit, if you were rich, even your food was pretty.
"Marisol," I whispered to the rain, remembering the shine of her teeth in the streetlight just before the Drybacks took her down.
"Caballo," said Victor, "hang on to your anger, man. You need it to be strong. Big Lamar, he's going to find us a way through the wilderness, but we got to be tough enough to follow."
I saw a crowd of Drybacks on the corner of 4th and Red River. Could have been the same ones that took Marisol. Who knew?
All the dead were tall, their tendons and joints stretched out so they walked like stalking insects. Their eyes were a rich, gleaming brown, cockroach wings embedded in their pasty faces. And they had the fate of millions in their dried, raddled fingers. Claws of dead skin and pointed nail, hooked deep into the heart of the world.
"They said they were angels," I whispered to the window. My breath fogged the glass with my words, a little diagram of my soul that kept redrawing itself.
"God's on everybody's side, Caballo." Victor muscled the Monte Carlo's steering through a hard right turn, tires hissing on the puddles. "But He won't take the time to sort your ashes from mine."
I glanced over at my cousin. He was staring at the road, his little mustache quivering over tight lips. "If there's a God, Toro," I said, "He's a Dryback God. The meek are getting screwed while the dead inherit the earth." I leaned against the window again, yeast and hops rumbling on my breath. "Fucking muertados."
I came running home from school early the day President Ashcroft had that enthusiastic press conference with Princess Diana, the preachers of the "Christian Cabinet" smiling behind him on the dais like so many grinning skulls. It was on the monitors in the media lab, where I was editing the student news site. Princess Di was so tall and pale, much taller than she'd been in life. Ashcroft had always looked embalmed to me, but Di was like a wax model stretched in the sun and dusted with ready-mix concrete powder.
"Mama," I shouted, busting into our apartment. Mama didn't watch television, so she wouldn't know that Papa might be coming back to us finally.
I ran into the kitchen. Not in there. Maybe she'd gone shopping. Back in the living room, I heard a thumping from the hall. Mama was cleaning. I followed the noise into Marisol's room.
Gennady Miroslav, the Pain from the Ukraine we called him at school, had his face buried in my sister's crotch. She was spread out on her bed, blouse unbuttoned, naked from the waist down. Her room reeked of that sex smell, mucus and salt.
I drew back my boot for a hard kick to his ass when Marisol winked at me and touched her lips with a long, black feather she held in her hand. Gennady glanced over his shoulder and smiled, the skin around his lips glistening. "How ya' doin', Beto," he said with a nod, then turned his attention back to my sister.
I blushed, lowered my foot, and slunk out of the room. That night, while Mama lit candles to the saints and left the front door open for Papa to come home, I locked my bedroom door.
"Spit," said the huge Asian man in red leather. He held out a brass cup with a little bit of dark fluid at the bottom. This guy looked like an extra off the set of Dead Flesh or something, right down to the human teeth embedded in swirling patterns along his gleaming scalp. He smelled like his leather was fresh off the cow.
Victor touched my arm. "It's okay. Lai doesn't know you yet."
We stood in a short hallway just inside Big Lamar's warehouse. There wasn't much light, only a watery glare from streetlights outside the propped-open fire doors. The brass cup gleamed like an open mouth, the fluid a little poison waiting for me.
"Proof-of-life," said Red Leather. "Last chance before I rip your arms off."
I spat, proof-of-life, moisture from my body — something Drybacks couldn't do. The dark stuff at the bottom of the cup sizzled, giving off a scent of sweaty flesh.
Red Leather grinned. The teeth he still had in his mouth were inlaid with tiny red and black enamel dragons. "Enzyme checker. Some of the deaders been keeping water bulbs under their tongues." He jerked his head toward the next set of fire doors.
As Victor and I pushed our way through the metal slabs, I noticed the hallway cameras. There was a lot more security here than a thug with a cup full of chemicals.
Inside was like a rave combined with a revival meeting. Huge banners billowed from the shadowy rafters, silk-screened with patterns of life — leaves, waves, clouds, amber waves of grain. Spotlights whirled, casting blue glare across the hundreds of people in the warehouse. Couches, chairs, bleachers, the flatbed of an old truck — they were sitting everywhere. Others wandered around the room, dancing aimlessly to a hot electro-salsa that set my teeth on edge, fetching drinks from bars being run out of old ice cream carts, necking in the corners. Angry men stood on small crates around room, shouting at the crowd. The air danced with hormones, stress and alcohol.
Victor grabbed my elbow again. "Come on, Caballo, let's go where the real business is." His fingers pinched me as he led me through the crowd. All I could see were the young women, Marisol reflected in their fresh faces and writhing bodies.
No one in the room wore a dark trench coat, no one was too tall. No one was dead here.
Victor pulled open a door marked "Janitorial" and we slipped through.
Papa never did come home. After a while, we realized this was a blessing. President Ashcroft had the Office of Homeland Virtue pounding it into the schools and workplaces that the End Times were at hand, that the dead were back among us to prepare the way for the Second Coming. He even closed most of our embassies overseas and brought the military back, so people could be near their home churches.
But the muertados had their own agenda. It didn't take too long before they started doing the Dryback Roll, taking down people they wanted. What they wanted, why they wanted those people, I didn't know. Everybody had a theory, nobody agreed, except for the obvious — it was about power. By the time they got real scary, they'd been protected by Congress, and the Homeland Virtue Enforcement division was mostly staffed with Drybacks. "God's angels," Ashcroft had called them just before they'd finally Rolled him, too.
There were Drybacks all over the world, but most countries had the sense to round them up, control them, put them in camps. The United States was the only important country where they took over the system. Our church politics had paved the way. Within two years, America was Dryback Heaven, muertado-land. The dead were back, with nuclear weapons and satellite reconnaissance.
Still, nobody knew what they wanted, why the dead had come back at all.
I knew who Big Lamar was. Everybody knew who Big Lamar was. Most of us hadn't met him. I was surprised Victor seemed so familiar with him. Toro just kept surprising me, even after all these years.
Big Lamar sat in an old barber's chair, having his temples rubbed by a young blond man in a three-piece suit. Big Lamar looked like he was asleep. He wore black jeans and a Stevie Ray Vaughn t-shirt, with alien-head suspenders and ostrich-skin cowboy boots. He weighed about three hundred and fifty pounds, I'd guess.
The office was weird, full of spaceship models and old safes, bookshelves crammed with paperbacks and two ancient round-shouldered Coke machines, the kind with the narrow door on the left side. It had that dusty, rotten smell of old books. The floor was non-skid steel decking, the stuff with the little criss-crosses they use to cover the running boards of fire trucks.
"Big Lamar," said Victor. His voice was low, respectful, real different from his usual edge.
"You've brought us a friend." Big Lamar opened his eyes. I jumped. He had those glittering silicon prosthetics they'd given to flash-blinded Middle East veterans when I was kid, for a while, until the complications set in and the money ran out. I'd never seen them in real life before. They were rare, expensive, and dangerous to the user's central nervous system. Big Lamar's sockets glowed a guttering orange, as if he had hot coals inside his head.
He was lucky, or crazy, or both.
"Proof-of-life, my young friend," Big Lamar said. "Laiafi told me you behaved yourself at the door."
"There's three or four hundred people out there," I said. "They didn't all spit in a cup."
"They didn't all come to see me." Big Lamar waved away the young man in the suit and cranked the handle on the barber's chair until he was sitting up. "I understand you have just lost someone you love to the President's angels."
I stared at the non-skid floor. "My sister was Rolled tonight."
"It happens. You know why?" He cracked knuckles the size of walnuts. "Because we let it. The English, once they saw what was coming, they burned their Drybacks, just like they burned their mad cows half a generation ago. Practical and ruthless like we Americans never could be. The Russians..." He shrugged. "They are good at gulags. We Americans, we elected people who governed from their Bibles, and they looked no further than Scripture. Now where are we? In the land of the dead."
"<," I whispered.
"muertados," he said. "Drybacks. Deaders. Out of the mouths of graves has Thou ordained strength because of Thine enemies."
Big Lamar chuckled again. "Reread your Bible, son. I'm sorry about your sister. Are you ready to work against them who took her? Are you ready to work against her?"
All I could think of was Marisol's tight, brown nipple in my mouth, a halo of reflected light gleaming in her yellow hair as she bent to blow me. My hot shame and cold guilt melded into tears even as my groin surged. She was gone, she'd never come back, even if some tall, gray bitch returned with her name and face. The Drybacks had taken her, Rolled her into one of them. I fell to my knees on the steel decking.
"Yes, please, I want to stop this. I want the world back the way it was." I started to weep. "Make it whole. Help me make it whole."
Yellow hair billowed in my memory as the floor creaked. Big Lamar placed one hand on the crown of my head. I heard him spit, then a wet, sticky thumb was pressed to my forehead. "You are one of us, Roberto Malecon Lowery. You are my horse, Caballo."
When I looked up, his eyes were glowing like a forest fire. My forehead burned where Big Lamar had touched me, as if his fire had jumped to my brain.
"Welcome to the side of the angels," whispered Victor behind me.
The weirdest thing was, life didn't change much under the muertados. Hollywood made movies, Detroit built cars, tornadoes wiped out trailer houses. You couldn't really travel overseas anymore, and the British had to fight the Fourth Mideast War without us, but otherwise, no big difference. Countries still bought American wheat and sold us oil, even under the Dryback Embargo.
I still slept with my sister once or twice a week.
Mama must have known about me and Marisol all along, but Mama had given up on us. She counted it a victory that we even came home at night. Plus she was worried about Papa. Mr. Williams down the hall returned one day, a month or so after Ashcroft's big press conference with Princess Di. He kicked open his widow's apartment door, broke her neck and threw his daughter's boyfriend off the balcony. Mama became more afraid than hopeful, and the saints' candles disappeared from the little altar in the kitchen.
Mama never said anything to me about Marisol, but one day a few months after Mr. Williams came Dryback, I found an old Playboy magazine, from when they still showed skin, stuck under my pillow.
About four in the morning, an hour after receiving my chrism from Big Lamar, Victor and I were in the Denny's over by I-35, eating key lime pie amid the clatter of dishes and the steamy smells of the kitchen. The dining room was half-full of truckers, drunks and insomniacs. My forehead burned, a hot itch where Big Lamar had touched me, but no one stared. That little flame I could feel must be inside of me.
"Now what?" I asked Victor.
"Big Lamar's way, it's slow. You're a souljah, like me. He's gathering an army of us, people who believe life is for the living. But right now, we wait for orders, do what we can when we see the chance."
"What kind of chance?"
"This kind," said a woman, long fingers gripping my shoulder like vine on rock. "Hello, Roberto Lowery." Denny's was suddenly quiet — no conversations, no rattling cash register. Even the kitchen died down. Everyone in the dining room stared as my late sister leaned over and kissed my cheek. "Miss me yet?" she whispered in my ear, dry tongue like dust slipping across the curled flesh.
"Shit," I said, but I couldn't move. My forehead burned while my heart froze. Even now, her kiss thrilled me.
Victor pushed his chair back, got slowly to his feet. "That's no way to talk to your sister, Caballo," he said to me. He nodded at her. "Marisol."
"Hey, honey." Her hand didn't leave my shoulder.
Suddenly I wondered if somehow Victor had ever known about me and Marisol, that we fucked, my sister and I. Had fucked. I knew she'd been leading him on, but I didn't know where it had gone between them. What did he know about us?
I shook my head, clearing the panicked babble of my thoughts. Reaching for her fingers, I tried to pry them from my shoulder. "What do you want?"
Her fingers didn't move. I was afraid to turn and face my sister. I could hear chairs scrape, people getting up around the dining room.
"I came for you, Beto. The other side, the Dry side, you don't know what miracle awaits you." She stroked my hair. "Sorry, Victor, you're on your own."
That was when I knew she wasn't letting go of me. As regret and determination flashed across his expression, Victor stepped around the side of the table, snatched up his pie plate and hurled it over my head into Marisol's face.
I tore myself away from her grip as Victor grabbed a chair. Diners charged my sister with steak knives and ketchup bottles in their hands.
"It's not her," Victor shrieked, swinging the chair into Marisol's head.
She ducked it, stepping close to him as I tackled my friend, pulling him away. Marisol's long gray fingers struck out, slashing Victor's cheek. Then she spun on her heel, the little bud vase from our table in her hand. Four men faced her, another half a dozen crowded behind them. Marisol stood tall, three or four inches taller than she should, in a flowing trench coat. I couldn't see her face, but her hand was pale.
"Who's first," my sister said. "Who's coming over to my side?"
"Nobody else dies tonight," I shouted, grabbing her shoulder as she had grabbed mine. I yanked at Marisol, pulling her back from the face-off. "Get out of here, damn it."
She turned toward me as she stepped away from the fight, her cockroach-wing eyes gleaming. The trench coat hung open past her bare chest, belted at her waist, showing the curves where her breasts almost met. All I could see of her legs was a pair of high leather boots she'd never worn in life. "You don't know, Beto, but you will," she said. "I promise."
I watched her walk out of the restaurant. A dozen Drybacks waited in the vestibule, a whole crowd of tall muertados, their ivory grins shining to match their hive of gleaming brown eyes.
"Get out," said a trucker behind me as sirens wailed in the street. "And don't you little deathbirds ever come back here."
Victor and I split. As his Monte Carlo rocked through the ornamental shrubbery at the border of the Denny's parking lot, I realized my sister's grip had torn the shoulder of my leather jacket and left deep bruises on my skin. My forehead burned where Big Lamar had touched me. When I reached up to rub it, my fingers found blood.
The dead got their property rights back, at least in principle. Way too much money in those reverting estates for politicians to ignore. Under the Family Assets Restoration Act, estate disputes went to arbitration, but most of the judges were getting on in years. They saw their own interests very clearly. Old money wasn't just old anymore, now it was forever.
After a series of killings like Mrs. Williams' down the hall, many second marriages broke up. People didn't want the old spouse stomping into the bedroom in the middle of the night. The dead were possessive, jealous, just like angels of the Lord. They had their own concerns, but the Drybacks still cared about their old lives.
A lot of people killed themselves. A lot more people were afraid to. Marisol began working out with knives.
Victor shook tail down in the Rainey Street area until he was satisfied the cops weren't after the Monte Carlo. Then he pulled over behind a burned-out van, shut off the engine, and turned down the Beethoven on the digital-audio. We sat with the muted orchestra under the old pecans and cottonwoods, dark, rotten houses set back from the curb, and said nothing until a while after the windows had fogged from our breath. The sole streetlight outside gave the condensation a pearly, golden glow.
Reaching out one finger, Victor idly drew a little squiggle on the windshield. "What the fuck was all that, Caballo?"
Another squiggle, mirror-image to the first.
I didn't say anything, just stared into the misted windshield, watching him out of the corner of my eye.
"We all could've got killed in there." Big squiggle down the middle, joining his marks up into an angel.
"Rumble between live meat and muertados." He drew a little halo, cocked his head to look at his artwork.
"Full story, page A6." Victor jabbed his finger in my face, his voice suddenly thunderous. "She's not your sister anymore, Caballo. She's a fucking zombie slut from Hell, come back to steal your water and haul you over to the other side. I could have taken the little puta down right there, but you...you..."
"Marisol," I said to his finger as it hovered in front of my nose. "She's still Marisol."
"My girlfriend," said Victor. "Your lover. You were doing her all along, weren't you?"
I nodded, afraid to speak. Really, she was doing me, but I couldn't say that, not even to Toro.
His voice got distant, like he was talking to his memories. "She always hinted at something between you, like it was a big joke. I never believed her. Your sister was a tease, about everyone and everything. But I saw the way she touched you in Denny's. I saw how your eyes got wide and your face got hot when she blew in your ear. I know what that shit means, man."
"And that's how I know it's Marisol," I said, my chest shaking. "She's not just another muertado, she's come back for a reason, and she's got something to show me."
"You're a souljah, on the side of the angels, man, sworn to fight her kind." His hand darted out, grabbed my left wrist, pulled open my fingers, found the blood crusted on my fingertips where'd I'd wiped my forehead a few minutes earlier. "Caballo, she's the enemy. Trust me, man. Trust me."
I gently pounded my head into the cracked vinyl dashboard, my mind's eye clouded over in cockroach-wing brown. "She's still my sister."
That was when the side window exploded in blocky chunks of safety glass. Two pairs of long-fingered gray hands started to yank me out of the car, while Victor fought to pull me back. I screamed and shouted, making as big a racket as I could, but no one came to help.
The Drybacks finally got me out of the car with Victor's blood on my legs. I looked over the roof to see Marisol standing on the other side with a bloody, splintered baseball bat in her hands, a blissful look on her face as her slick brown eyes gleamed in the orange streetlight. Then they stuffed a sack over my face, sending puffs of stale cornmeal up my nose and down my throat, and hauled me choking into the back seat of a car.
A police scanner crackled as we drove away, narrating the routine violence of the night.
They did have their factions, the Drybacks. Princess Di got pulped in her Mercedes on the Washington Beltway a few months after the Ashcroft press conference. Spokespeople came and went in a ragged procession of sallow faces on the Webcasts and cable TV. But for us living, it didn't matter.
We were caught up in their dusty snares, dying by degrees.
"It's not what you think," someone finally told me hours later. His voice was nasal, with that gravelly hiss all the Drybacks had.
"Nothing's ever what I think." My voice sounded odd to me, muffled through the sack on my head. I was in a comfortable chair, maybe a wingback, with my ankles handcuffed to the chair legs. I needed to pee terribly.
And to hell with my sister, I thought. I was Big Lamar's horse, the Caballo, dragged into the heart of Dryback power but still breathing, still fighting.
Not like poor, damned Victor.
Somebody yanked off the cornmeal sack. The man leaning against a desk in front of me was short, especially for a Dryback, with a high forehead and a sharp nose. Wearing a very old-fashioned wool suit, he looked familiar, someone I'd seen in a picture once, maybe.
"Being dead makes a lot of people crazy. They come back that way." He smiled, a small apology crooking across his pallid cheeks, skin crinkling around his cockroach eyes. "Not all of us, but enough of us to be too many."
"You're killing America, man," I said. "You're killing the world. We're suffocating in the dust of the grave."
"You breathers, you argue about everything." He stuck out his hand, stepped forward as if to shake mine. "Call me Jack."
I stared at his hand. I could have taken it — they'd only cuffed my ankles, not my wrists — but I wouldn't. "Call me whatever you want," I said. "You own my ass now."
His smile slipped away with his hand. "Still arguing, Roberto. You don't know when to cut your losses. I can see why Big Lamar chose you."
"He—" I bit off my words. Whatever Jack knew about Big Lamar, I wasn't adding to it.
"It was meant to be." Jack's smile returned, this time a smirk. "Marisol knew Victor would take you to Big Lamar. She'd been working with us for a while. It was time for her to cross over to our side. Your sister dreams very big, Roberto. She makes things happen. She neutralized you, didn't she? Kept you from interfering with her life, with her tastes. And she knows how to follow power to its source."
I remembered her smile under the streetlight when the Drybacks took her down. "So if it's not what I think, what is it?"
Jack hopped onto the desk to sit with one leg dangling. "We're here to save the world, Roberto. The game's almost over — the whole biosphere is crashing, and most of you don't even know it. When was the last time you saw a frog? Drank really clean water? Had a normal season of weather? Being fruitful and multiplying was a bust, my friend. That's what's so great about the dead. We don't reproduce."
"You're already in control. What more do you want?"
He leaned forward, as if that would give his words more force. "If the breathers understand we're here to save the world, and give each of them a shot at eternity in the bargain, they'll stop fighting us so hard. We're here to help, to save you along with the world. We can't do that if we have to rumble in the streets every night."
"Easy," I said. "We just accept the Dryback Roll and we live forever. As dead men."
No more kids.
No more love.
No more kindness.
Drybacks were passionate, in a jealous, angry way. They weren't benevolent, not ever. I thought of Marisol and the splintered bat. Their violence showed what was really in their dry, crusted hearts.
"Exactly." He beamed. "You took Big Lamar's christening. You've got credibility. You can be the bridge that binds the worlds, unites the living and the dead."
"Why me? Why now?"
"It has to start somewhere. Marisol is a rising star among us, so we brought you in as a favor to her. Power for both of you, brother and sister, living and dead. You're as good a prophet as any, and better than most."
I thought about that. "You'll never know what I really say behind closed doors."
"Oh," said Jack, "don't worry. Our horse, our Caballo, will have a bull to mind his way."
Victor stepped around from behind my chair, cornmeal sack in his hand. He was taller, paler, than he should have been, with those cockroach-brown eyes. His head was lumpy where Marisol had hit him. "Hey there, Beto."
They'd taken even him. The snatch on me had been a Dryback Roll on Victor. Tears clouded my eyes. "Victor, man..."
"Marisol was right, Beto." He grinned, yet somehow his face was almost vacant. "It's a fucking miracle, like you've never known."
"Victor will keep you honest," said Jack, "while you bring yourself to believe what we're about. Simply serve us, for now, and soon enough your commitment will become genuine. If Victor fails in his duties, well, I'll send Marisol after you both."
One by one, I thought, the people I love fall around me. I was so tired I could barely stand, but I followed Victor from Jack's office, through a maze of carpeted halls and out of the Texas State Capitol building into the glare of Austin's morning sun. From a window above and behind me, my sister's voice pealed in laughter most unlike a Dryback.
I dreamed of my sister, but she had become huge, tall as the office buildings downtown, her skin the color of the moon. She had a blazing halo, like all the neon in the world had been set on fire, and her knives had turned into an enormous sword.
We argued, her voice booming like summer thunder while I answered with the whispers of grass in the wind, but then I couldn't remember what the disagreement was. Marisol finally reached down to pluck me in her giant fingers, and hurl me up into the sky, where I flew forever toward the brassy sun. Somewhere far behind me, Victor called my name, as breath fled my body.
When I came to, I was home, in Mama's apartment. My neck ached something fierce, and I felt tight, stretched, thirsty — like I'd spent the previous night drinking. Mama was nowhere to be found, but Victor was slumped at the kitchen table. I reached for his shoulder, to shake him awake, but I realized that Drybacks never slept. My fingers hovered over the leather of his trench coat, then I pushed gently.
"Victor," I whispered. "Toro."
He collapsed to the floor, a rattle of bones and skin. His face was drawn and hollow, an old corpse's, and the lumpy spot in his head had sagged badly. There was a bloody mark on his forehead, but otherwise he might have been dead for weeks. Really dead, not Dryback dead.
I didn't know whether to be relieved or grief-stricken. I closed my eyes, summoned a prayer from the days of my youth when Mama still could make us go to Mass, and tried to remember my friend the way he was in the old days, before Marisol had come to me, before the Drybacks had come to the world, before the world was stolen from us. Just Caballo and Toro, running together through the long grass past the edge of town — what we'd always be. Then I wiped regret from my eyes and bent down for a closer look.
The mark on his forehead was a thumbprint, bloody and huge. Big Lamar's chrism. I hadn't known Drybacks could die this way. Die, or whatever had happened to Victor. I reached to close his lids, but the cockroach-brown eyes crumbled inward at my touch. So I covered his face with one of Mama's dishtowels, fished the keys to the Department of Public Safety cruiser out of his pocket and left.
My forehead throbbed, the mark aching and hot. I didn't believe a word of Jack's ecobullshit — he was right about the state of the world, but that couldn't be what the muertados were about. I had to find Big Lamar before Marisol found me.
Outside, it was barely past dusk, but the streets of our East Austin barrio were deserted. Usually there'd be low-riders, hydrogen bombers, bicycles, skateboards — everybody who owned wheels came out about now. It couldn't be the cop car I was driving; the streets were deserted when I set out.
I'd slept the day away. What had happened while I was dreaming?
When I got on I-35 things seemed more normal. Trucks roared up and down the highway like every day. Car traffic was lighter, but at least there were people. Driving was tricky because someone had busted off the rear-view mirror in the cop car. I didn't bother with Victor's trick of shaking tail. I just headed south, for downtown and Big Lamar's warehouse.
I didn't see any Drybacks when I drove through downtown, not the usual street corner gangs, nothing. Live bodies were scarce too. It was like the prairie east of town just before the thunderstorm — an eerie calm.
I ditched the DPS cruiser a few blocks from Big Lamar's warehouse. Showing up in a cop car didn't seem to be my best move. The few people on the sidewalk weren't interested in me, but several helicopters hovered in the bruise-purple evening sky.
The fire doors we'd gone through the night before were closed. Had it been that recently, I wondered? Only a lifetime ago, last night. I pounded on them, hammering with the heels of my fists. They didn't seem as solid as they had the night before, denting under my blows.
Laiafi finally opened the door, peeking out at me. He was wearing a bowling shirt, but the teeth in his scalp were just as impressive as last night. He seemed surprised I was actually outside.
"Big Lamar's expecting you," he said after a moment, the little tooth-dragons in his mouth dancing with his lips as he spoke.
I followed the huge Asian into the warehouse. The banners still hung from the ceiling, but the ice cream cart bars stood forlorn like bumper cars at the end of the night. The place was quiet and cold as an old water pipe.
"He's still around? Looks like the party moved on."
Laiafi looked over his shoulder at me. His fists clenched, but he didn't answer. We walked through the door marked "Janitorial," and there was the office.
To my surprise, it had been virtually stripped. Big Lamar sat alone in the dark in his barber's chair, dressed just like he had been the night before. All the books, the toys, the models, were gone, subsumed by the boxes stacked around the walls of the room. The masseur in the suit was gone, too. Laiafi hadn't followed me in, either, so it was just me and Big Lamar and a whole lot of shadows. I was surprised how the details of his room stood out in the darkness.
"I'm in trouble," I said without preamble.
He smiled, his prosthetic eyes glittering in the gloom of the office. "No, you're not."
"You don't understand," I said. "Victor, he's dead. Really dead, I mean. They did a Dryback Roll on him, and twelve hours later he was dust on my Mama's kitchen floor."
"How's your forehead?"
I reached up to touch the chrism. My finger came away warm, bloody. "Weeping." I rubbed the blood away. "They got me, they brought me in. I'm supposed to be an agent for the muertados. Unite the living and the dead."
"Death, my young friend, has the advantage. It always wins in the end." He reached into his pocket, pulled out a peach-colored woman's compact. "Here. Have a look."
I took the compact, turned it over in my hand. The peach plastic looked so pale against my skin, which seemed gray.
"In the mirror, I mean." Big Lamar didn't disguise the amusement in his voice.
There was no need for me to look. I knew what I would find. I rubbed the back of my hand against my forehead. "They got me when I was sleeping. My dream, about my sister, that was my trip to the other side. That was the miracle everyone goes on about?"
"The miracle is that we survive." Big Lamar popped out his glowing contacts, one at a time, to expose his cockroach-brown eyes. "Well, some of us." He smiled again. "Even the dead have their factions. Especially the dead. There are...call them viruses...that can be effective. Harmless to the living, but when one crosses over, ah, well, they blossom. All they need then is a carrier to deliver them."
Big Lamar's chrism had made me a carrier. And Victor before me.
"Victor," I said. He must have Rolled me, taken me over to the other side in a spasm of the disease. Or some addled notion of revenge. I looked at the blood on my hand. "Me." I had perhaps a few hours left to live. Or whatever it was I did now.
"And it's loose among Jack's people." Big Lamar levered his huge bulk up out of the barber chair, then cocked his head. "Aren't you going to try to kill me now? Vengeance?"
I shrugged. I found I really didn't care. "What's the point? You're dead, I'm dead, pretty soon I'll be dust. Someday you'll be dust, too."
The door clicked open. Marisol walked in, Laiafi's head beneath her arm still trailing blood, an enormous sword in her hand. Just like in my dreams, almost.
"Hello, Beto," she said. She nodded at Big Lamar. "You too."
Big Lamar grunted. "How unexpected to see you here."
"Every struggle has its factions," said my sister. "Some are better hidden than others."
"So it seems." Big Lamar popped his alien head suspenders loose and swung them slowly over his head like a bolo. Marisol dropped Laiafi's head and slid into a two-handed stance with her sword. They closed in a flash of cloth and metal, the suspenders binding on the sword with a shower of sparks. There were wires, or something worse, inside that cloth.
The two of them danced apart, Big Lamar almost floating on his feet. His speed was unreal, his grace improbable. So was my sister's — whoever she really was. They circled, probing each other's weaknesses, the suspenders flashing, the sword darting. It was clear they were well-matched.
I scooped up Laiafi's head from the floor, my hands on each ear. It was heavier than I expected. I realized that he looked surprised. I glanced up as I heard a clatter to see Big Lamar yank my sister to the floor. He'd snagged her calf with the suspenders. The sword spun, just out of her arm's reach.
Big Lamar tugged the suspenders free as he stomped one huge foot down on Marisol's blade. He spun the suspenders over his head, ready for a killing blow. Marisol tried to stand, but missed her footing on her torn calf.
Then I slammed the toothy top of Laiafi's head into Big Lamar's temple with all my strength. He stepped sideways, looking as surprised as Laiafi had, and swung the suspenders toward me. I dropped, trying to duck under them, and narrowly missed being gutted by Marisol's blade as she cut Big Lamar's left leg off at the knee.
He toppled like a redwood, that huge weight going down in a landslide. Marisol swung again, and Big Lamar's head left his shoulders. There was no blood, just a little bit of black fluid weeping from a neck stump like beef jerky.
I lay on my back next to the barber's chair, gasping. "Who the hell are you?"
"Your sister," she said. Marisol had her hands on the huge slash in her calf, pushing the lips of the wound together.
That was when I realized she was bleeding. But Drybacks don't bleed. "Besides that, I mean."
Marisol grunted, wincing from the pain in her leg. "I'm the one who killed Jack and Big Lamar." Her eyes watered. I realized they were the pale blue she'd had in life. "Victor was right about one thing — there really are angels at war here on Earth. He just chose the wrong hero to follow."
Jack, Big Lamar, President Ashcroft — all our heroes were bastards. "I don't think there ever was a good choice of heroes. All the lies sound the same to me."
She stood up, shrugged. "Go home, do the right thing, plant a garden, take care of kids. That's all God ever wanted the human race to do."
I realized that really, it was what both Big Lamar and Jack had argued for, each in their own way. Wait. Take care of things. Work with us, people.
My legs felt weak, so I decided not to stand up. "Now what happens?"
My sister spread her wings, feathers gleaming like polished steel. She limped over to me, sat down, and pulled me to her chest. "We wait for you to die, just like Victor did, then I move on to another task. Heaven is patient, even in these late days."
Her blade-sharp feathers sheltered me across the slow hours until the dust pooled thick in my throat. Finally, I saw the miracle come.
"All Our Heroes Are Bastards", © 2003, 2013 Joseph E. Lake, Jr. Originally appeared in The Third Alternative, August, 2003.