The flightless birds Matteo, Kaylee, and Jorge rode were about the size of small ponies, but twice as fast. Matteo didn’t know too much about avians from stock shows, but he guessed their rounded navy beaks indicated racing stock heritage had been mixed with regular farm breeding stocks. They must’ve cost Jorge a fortune.
San Petrol Ave was unusually busy, with a solid mix of bikers, diesel-powered ranch trucks, and automated sedans. Like the lane markings, the potholes were especially difficult to spot after last week’s rains. Somehow, the chachalacas sensed and glided over them with ease.
“Is it supposed to hurt my back this much?” Matteo shouted across the afternoon traffic.
“Your body position is excessively rigid, mi amigo,” Jorge said, with a single wisp of hair bobbing defiantly in the wind.
Matteo resented himself for not being angry enough towards his captors. Was he that easily bought? And how humiliating to be bested by some random blonde girl.
::Stop complaining about a little discomfort. Are you interested in this girl or not?
Weird AI dad was right, even though he wanted to say how clearly he could feel the nerve endings in his spine. “What happened to the other AI, maybe I want her back,” whispered Matteo.
::No puedo hacer eso. You need to learn how to get a real live woman, entiendes?
Kaylee yelled from up ahead, “Don’t lock your knees. This is only my second time riding. It’s not as hard as you’re making it out to be, hon.”
Great, another motherly comment. He was already blowing it like with Anna.
The bird had purred when Matteo had stroked its neck for the first time, and then tried to snap his fingers off the next. Controlling its movement with his weak core musculature (thanks to his hammock and gulf nutrition) was a serious challenge. Then he relaxed his knees and more weight fell to his calves and feet. It was easy.
“Worry more about the slow cars. These birds get distracted all the time. It’s why they’re always constantly looking in every direction. Still, not as bad as horses.” Kaylee turned up Palomita Blanca on the analog radio mounted to her chachalaca’s pack. A few downy feathers escaped to the wind.
“I don’t understand why these people are driving under the required speed limit. Why don’t they program their cars to drive like normal people?” said Jorge.
“Welcome to Alamo City. Y’all ain’t from ‘round here, huh?” Matteo said. “I knew something was off when we didn’t take the shortcut down Southwest Military. Not that I’m interested in where you are or any of your back stories.”
“What? Speak up!” said Kaylee.
“Nothing,” said Matteo. Soft-spoken loser that he may as well have been.
It was a long, anxious ride to the deep South side of town where Loteria had persisted since before Matteo was born. Still, for every story of someone losing a finger on a bet, there was another about free face-painting and cotton candy at the petting zoo. Who knew what they could be in for?
The traffic cleared all at once and they were able to pick up speed. Tex-Mex restaurants covered by hand-painted menus and second-hand stores camouflaged in Disney characters, became a colorful blur. Down much further they dipped into the region where the city’s zoning laws evaporated entirely. Pre-fabricated homes of slate grey, green, or candy apple red, complete with above ground pools and BBQ decks, burned in the heat right next to farming acreage next to car charge stations next to fruit stands next to used car dealerships, and so on.
A few more miles and the scenery became a coarse checkerboard. They whizzed by undeveloped land, plots of dying grass. Abandoned construction projects sat frozen in time — white concrete slabs with unused water pipes sticking straight into the air. Single-story duplex barrios became less and less frequent, their laundry lines less busy.
Finally, they reached the edge of a sizable valley where the black asphalt of the road ended and a chalky caliche path began. The trio stopped to take in the view: dozens of blocks of abandoned strip malls and their parking lots, baked adobe orange in the sun.
“It’s in that old mall,” said Jorge, pointing to the center of the mass.
“Uh… there’s a hundred old malls. Which one are you talking about?” Matteo wondered if Jorge’s eyes worked completely differently or was he just being an asshole? And how did he know where he was going if he was new to the area?
“Just follow me,” he replied, lending no sense of his mood. He charged down to the valley and they followed. A hot wind blasted through their clothes, drawing and drying sweat at the same rate.
The Loteria, that is, the Loteria of el Distrito Loteria, bloomed from the remains of a turn-of-the-century shopping center. The only story Matteo knew for certain about it was that his mom had been to the movies in it a long time ago, when it was nothing more than just a mall. Though, he suspected she must’ve spent more time there, maybe for her work, ever since she came home one time very late, drunk, and made him promise he would never visit.
Decades ago, before the estuary had settled onto its shore, a flood-driven brush slide had buried both stories of the complex, leaving the rooftop as the only entrance. They approached a stairway built inside of a large air conditioning duct. Matteo quickly realized how Jorge had spotted it — the rooftop was gleaming in solar panels.
A guard wearing a black Cowboys hat and a peach-colored guayabera stood at the entryway. Matteo and Jorge dismounted the birds and patted away the white dust from their jeans. Matteo looked him in the eye and nodded his head.
From atop her chachalaca, Kaylee spoke to the man, who appeared overserious or uncomfortable. He mumbled something, sounding irritated and rushed. Her voice grew impressively, exposing the privilege Matteo suspected she had grown up with. “No. Los pajaros se vienen con nosotros.” The man sighed and nodded and let them inside.
::Why did you let ese pendejo talk to your girl like that? Your mom raised you right you know better than that. You shouldn’t have even let her talk to him in the first place.
The inside of the mall was illuminated by multicolor strung lights and white utility lights in most corners, and also by sunlight shooting through gaps in the drop-tile ceiling. Power strips and cords lining the floor made walking treacherous, and limited Matteo and Kaylee’s ability to gawk at the assortment of busy stores. Each rental space had been hollowed out to some degree, though a few kept their original sale banners and signs. Port-a-potties blocked the entrance to the long-decommissioned bathrooms.
Cumbia rebajada and tejano played in the background. The man at the Informacion desk directed their group to a man wearing a cowboy hat and a starched button up tucked into faded jeans, which were themselves untucked over cracked boots. “Those are some good looking pajaritos, ay? How much you find them for? I can get you a good deal. Unless they bite. They bite?” he said. His intention to manipulate a deal out of Kaylee was unimaginably obvious.
“Not for sale,” she said.
“Ok. I was just asking. How many cocks you think you want, then?” He said while adjusting his crotch and without breaking a stare.
“Excu-” she started.
“No mas un gallo, but since there are three of us using your services, we’re prepared to pay three times over that asking price,” Jorge said pointing, “This is with full consideration of the odds on your display board, over there. Which, frankly, are not in the favor of your customers.”
“Shit! Did you know this was going to be animal fighting?” Matteo asked Jorge.
Jorge rolled his neck and loosened his shoulders like a boxer made of twigs. “No. But the odds are good. That’s what the guy on the flight over here, told me. Unbeatable odds is what he said. He had a glass eye and an expensive cane. I believe his testimony.”
“Dude, I can’t do this… Do the chickens die every time? Or do they get maimed or… ?”
“What’s your little boyfriend with the lipstick saying?” the man asked Jorge.
“Aw man, my lips aren’t red aren’t they?” Matteo said casually, hoping to show the man he wasn’t intimidated in the least.
“It’s raspa dye, my friend. Completely different chemical make-up than lipstick. It’s available to trade in large qualities, if you’re interested,” Jorge said to the man.
The man said something to Jorge and went back to updating the probability chart with a dry erase marker.
Jorge cradled Matteo’s cheek in his cold hands. “Matteo, you’re not thinking clearly. What do you suppose these humans might be inclined to do to us after showing us their illegal gambling set up and sensing we have some form of moral objection to it?”
“What do you mean ‘humans’? We’re not like aliens, dude.”
“Yes, I am an alien,” said Jorge, surprised he had to point it out. “Are you blind? Do your eyes function?”
“Goddangit you guys, watch your language. Matteo, fighting chickens against other chickens is no worse than what we’re gonna do with the,” she whispered “Church… probably.” Kaylee looked serious, fighting the burn of a chile-tamarind watermelon lollipop in her mouth.
“Yeah… well, don’t say ‘goddangit’. I’m Matholic, you know,” Matteo replied.
“You are not. You’re a scientist. Well soon enough, anyway,” she said and turned to a harsh whisper. “You’re gonna get us killed. These people are for real Matholics. They believe in invisible angels watching everything and devils and curses. Just look at that painting!” She pointed to a 3D virgin Mary picture that moved depending on what angle you looked at it from. From the left, there was a virgin, the virgin. But from a little to the right, woop, there was baby Jesus in her arms ready to save the world and punish the sinners, according to Numerological Law. “Maybe it would go good in the basement. As something to look at when stoned,” she added.
“I think you’re the one being racist, against my religion,” said Matteo, pointing at her with a slightly flexed finger, willing himself not to nudge her on the shoulder.
She looked back to Matteo who was somehow now holding the leashes to both her and Jorge’s chachalaca. “Oh no, where the heckfire did Jorge get off to?” she said.
Matteo and Kaylee sifted through generations of families in the crowd with their eyes. Kids holding glowing, spinning plastic lightsabers and LED blinking flowers bumped into their legs. The accordians seemed to play louder and with more bass, and they were both dipped into an auditory hypnosis.
The birds darted their heads, looking at nothing or everything. Just as Kaylee and Matteo began to sweat, Jorge put his hands on their shoulders from behind.
“Baby Jesus Christ,” they said in unison, then shot each other suspicious looks.
“It’s going to be…” Jorge’s pupils shot up in his eye sockets, then returned “223.1 Byte, rounded up, U.S.”
“That’s a lot of lollipops,” Kaylee said stuffing her bag of watermelon candies into a pack on her bird. Matteo couldn’t afford even candy and didn’t want to talk.
Jorge pulled out a satchel and weighed it in his hand. “I don’t have Byte enough for all of us, but don’t worry about it.”
“Ok, well we need that Church asap I don’t want to come back here and it’s getting dark — night sellers will be coming out soon,” said Kaylee.
“Alright, the guy says we’re gonna have to go downstairs. Follow me,” said Jorge. “The man said it’s ok if we’re short on Byte. If we lose, we might just have to pose as some other people and spend some time on the Barge as payment.”
“Chingado! I just got out of there!” Matteo sounded, incredulous.
“Just for a month,” said Jorge.
Kaylee smiled at Matteo, drinking in his fear. “I’m in. You are good at this stuff, Jorge. I’m bored anyway. Hanging out with a criminal hasn’t been as fun as I thought,” she said.
“You’ve got to be joking. You know what? Fuck it, whatever I prefer jail to this,” said Matteo.