The Scent of the Freetails
What could happen when a community decides to take ownership of its power grid and its data?
Every parent feared that their kid would become a juicer, but Raj had never considered that his daughter might fall for one. He liked to believe that all the juicers lived far enough away that they couldn’t pose a threat. And like most Houstonians, he’d tried to prepare himself for the day when they came calling.
He was motoring along the scrubland I-10 highway at 75 miles an hour in a hybrid Ford F-150, mulling over his self-defense lessons. His daughter Rosa, riding in the backseat, had just been hailed by a glimmering summertime billboard.
SCHLITTERBAHN! THE HOTTEST, COOLEST TIME IN TEXAS.
YOUR FAMILY-FRIENDLY WATER PARK.
DON’T MISS IT! TURN NOW!
“Schlitterbahn!” Rosa said, as they drove past. “Can we go?”
“We’re almost in San Antonio,” Raj replied.
“It says we’re still 45 minutes away.”
Like most billboards in Houston, this one was sticky—the image imprinted itself on their windows for several miles. The sign appeared brightest in the rear of the car, showing Rosa rotating images of a waterslide, a lazy river, and a sprinkling fountain. On the passenger side, where Raj’s wife Helena sat, the billboard displayed a frosty margarita.
Helena swiped away the billboard like a cobweb. “They’ve got one in Galveston, Rosa. We can go when we get back home.”
“It was destroyed by Hurricane Xander,” Raj’s daughter argued.
“Water’s not good for your leg.”
“I would take it off, Mom.”
“Then how would you get around?”
“I would swim! It’s a water park. Besides, they use recycled water. It’s good for the environment.”
“I fail to see,” Raj said triumphantly, “ how a water park in the middle of Texas could ever be good for the environment. We’re going to San Antonio.”
“I could use a margarita though,” Helena muttered.
Every trip on a highway out of Houston meant negotiations with his daughter. Rosa, who was 14 and shared her mother’s thick black hair, would pepper him with sophisticated arguments mingled with guilt. Raj had learned to withstand the barrage. He had to: he could no longer afford an ad-free vehicle package.
The billboards stopped as soon as they crossed the county line, respecting San Antonio’s more conservative data ordinances. The route offered glimpses of open country—bent barbed-wire fences curling beneath gnarled oaks, the thick spears of longhorn cattle—but the suburbs of the two cities nearly touched, about to connect like the fingers of God and Adam in the Sistine. As they drew closer to the city, the lawns became xeriscaped with succulents, a world apart from the spongy Bermuda grass Raj manicured in his front yard back in Houston. The landscape felt puckered, thirsty, with solar arrays blotting out the horizon like the blue-black scales of a pelagic fish.
Raj couldn’t shake the feeling that he was driving toward a colossal mistake—San Antonio was known to harbor more than a few juicer gangs. He reached for the pulse stick in his jacket pocket. When his fingers touched the handle it vibrated, but he quickly withdrew his hand, afraid that his wife would hear the weapon’s cartridge spin up.
The road split and then split again into separate lanes for automated vehicles, rapid-transit buses, and carbon-burning vehicles. The larger shipping trucks, packed together like a peloton, were forced to exit before entering the city limits. He could see them unloading their wares onto smaller two-axle vehicles not far off the highway.
“Raj,” Helena said quietly in the passenger seat beside him, “you said we’d go to La Estrella first to drop off our bags.”
“I don’t want to be rushed. We’ve been planning to go to the Alamo for months.”
“No, we’ve been planning to go to La Estrella for months, and you glommed on the Alamo like they were two peas in a pod. It’s one of the only neighborhoods we could afford here. We should get a good look at it.”
“Rosa should know her history. It’s important for Texas. It’s important for this country.”
Helena pushed her hair behind her ear. “I’ve never once heard you mention it before.”
“The Alamo has been around for 500 million years or something,” Rosa observed from the back seat.
“Helena, I’m not comfortable dragging our kid into a neighborhood with that kind of reputation.”
“I’m not a kid!”
“I talked to Yeimi about it,” Helena said. “It’s perfectly safe.”
“We’re going to the Alamo. We’ve got plenty of time.”
The lane for the Alamo, now lit from underneath by neon logos, turned sharply to the left, dropping them in the center of the city. Helena was right, of course. Raj had hated the Alamo as a kid. He’d visited it on a school trip soon after immigrating with his family from Guyana, an English-speaking country in South America with oil reserves rivaling those of Venezuela. Raj had been something of a flirt back in his home country, and well-liked, so he sat next to a pretty classmate on the bus ride to the monument and tried to make her laugh. After a few unsuccessful tries, she replied: “I can’t understand what you’re saying. You don’t even sound Mexican.” He became instantly ashamed of his accent that day, wanting to scrape his heritage from his tongue.
Raj parked his F-150 at the Alamo—his own truck, not a school bus this time—and was charged $100 for the day because his car used gasoline. The electrics, he noticed, were charged half that amount, San Antonio’s subtle way of frowning on the carbon-intensive largesse of Houstonians. Rosa dangled her strong leg over the side of the car and twisted on her artificial leg with a click. There was a soft whir as the servomotors kicked in, and she hopped down from her seat. They stood in line for nearly an hour in the stultifying midday heat, to Raj’s mounting frustration. Rosa handled it well at first, engrossed in her flexy. The ticket salesperson said they could rent AR goggles that would allow them to watch the recreated Battle of the Alamo right before their eyes for a special one-time offer of $75 per person. Raj declined.
By the time they stepped inside, he could register Rosa’s disappointment as she watched other children wander the grounds with their goggles on, laughing and reacting to the simulated battle.
“Why won’t he get me the goggles?” Rosa asked her mother, as if Raj wasn’t there.
“We can’t afford it,” Helena said softly.
Just like his first school trip, he found the history of the Alamo extremely confusing, since it wasn’t even clear whether Texas had been a part of the United States at the time, and anyway, the Americans, if that’s what they were, had lost. The importance of the resolute adobe walls with its barren horse corral had been lost on his 10-year-old mind, and he’d wandered the grounds alone until he chanced upon some dioramas. It was there that he’d learned how a slave named Joe had miraculously survived the final assault by General Santa Anna’s troops after being shot and bayoneted. He found it unnerving at the time. How had Joe survived? What was the man even doing there, and why didn’t he have a last name? Raj himself was descended from Indians (from India, not Native Americans) and Africans (from the Gambia or somewhere close to it), yet he saw a warning in the strange diorama.
Maybe that was why he’d come back. This was the very place where he’d decided to assimilate to the best of his ability. He could hide out in dusty corridors and feel sorry for himself about his Guyanese accent, or he could become a Texan. Two years later he’d developed an acceptable drawl and used his soccer skills to become a tolerable kicker for the middle-school football team—enough to blend in, if not exactly to make him a star. The Alamo had broken him. It had also made him into the man he was today: found him a profession, a family, and a place to call home. Right now he felt duty bound to protect all of those things.
“Raj,” Helena interrupted. “We should get going. Yeimi told me we need to arrive before dark if we want to see the bats.”
“We’ve got plenty of time.”
“We don’t know where we’re going. And why do you keep reaching into your pocket?” Helena asked. “What’s in there?”
“Raj, what did you bring?” Her whisper felt like a shout.
“It’s for safety.”
“Safety? From what?”
“I researched the neighborhood, Helena. Juicers raped a girl last year. She nearly died.”
“Yeimi told me those kids were from another neighborhood, Raj. They weren’t from Estrella. They were caught.”
“It’s a pulse stick,” he confessed.
“Good Lord, Raj. What the hell are you thinking?”
“We’ve got to think about Rosa. It’s the only weapon guaranteed to stop a juicer.”
“How dare you, Raj! Please don’t start this again. You’re not taking a gun into La Estrella. Stop making excuses. We’re going. You promised me. You promised we would give this a chance.”
“It’s not a gun.”
Raj looked back at the Alamo, the fattening afternoon shadows making it seem larger than it really was. This was where his Texan life had begun, but it couldn’t tell him where it should go. What had he promised his wife, exactly? He tried to remember the words.
While Helena and Rosa used the bathroom, Raj purchased a Mobility Pass to transport them to La Estrella, since they couldn’t access it with their truck. The automated vehicle arrived five minutes later, a roomy sedan with plenty of seating and space for their luggage. Helena grabbed him by the arm as he was loading up their suitcases. “Leave it in the truck, Raj.”
“Leave the gun in the truck or I am taking Rosa, and I swear I will leave you here to fry in this damn heat.”
Raj started to protest, but saw Helena’s furrowed brow and thought better of it. He reopened the truck and slipped the pulse stick into the glove compartment, peering around to see if anyone was watching him.
“It’s perfectly legal,” he said, as much to himself as to Helena.
Once they were seated in the rented car, the AV’s guide kicked to life. “We’ll be in La Estrella in 25 minutes. It’s known for being the first Dark Sky community within the San Antonio city limits, which makes it an excellent spot for stargazing. The area is also famous for the Mexican freetail bat, with a seasonal population of more than 3 million animals.”
“Are we going to see them, Mom?” Rosa asked.
“You bet, honey. Maybe even more than once.”
The AV merged into a dedicated lane as packed as a Houston traffic jam. The car quickly synced with the oncoming traffic and accelerated. The vehicles were evenly spaced, although they tended to appear in clusters, depending on the size and aerodynamics of the transport. Their sedan naturally clustered with other sedans. Peering into other vehicles, Raj could see people engrossed in conversation: a woman knitting; a man watching a video; an elderly woman with her head tilted back, snoring. A few riders had activated their privacy screens. There were also clusters you could join according to your interest—it wasn’t uncommon to find a string of gamer shuttles linked together, their passengers peering into the ether and jerking their bodies in spasmodic movements. They had AVs in Houston, of course, but the city hadn’t designated entire sections of the city for them, so passengers there still had to fret about getting rear-ended by a manual driver.
“Bats don’t attack people, do they?” Rosa asked, suddenly nervous. She tended to flit between enthusiasm and extreme caution.
“No, silly,” Raj said. “They eat insects. Or fruit.”
“The Mexican freetail bat,” Helena dictated, reading from her flexy, “feasts on a diet of moths, dragonflies, wasps, and ants.”
Raj was thinking about the $3,000 he had spent on the pulse stick and the $2,000 on lessons to learn how to use it, which was the electromagnetic equivalent of kicking a juicer in the ribs. He normally didn’t worry about money, but times had changed. They had lent Helena’s cousin Yeimi $50,000 in a fit of generosity. But last year he ran out of clients, and Yeimi cursed him out when he’d asked for the money back.
This year, along with a Christmas card, Yeimi sent $20,000 and an invitation to come visit her in La Estrella. Helena was convinced her cousin had turned over a new leaf. Raj wasn’t so sure, but he’d accepted the money.
Raj used to delight in his daughter’s company, clowning around with his family, but mirth had left him lately. He couldn’t seem to find the energy, and he could feel Rosa withdrawing. She was right; she wasn’t really a kid anymore. Nor was she a woman. When he tried to make sense of his proper role, he became overbearing like his own parents—exactly the type of adults he’d once disliked.
The AV smoothly exited the dedicated lane away from the river and came to a stop behind another half dozen cars unloading their passengers. A drone luggage porter was already waiting for them at their stop. The air felt cooler here, as if a layer of heat had been peeled away like a lemon rind. Looking toward where the street should have continued, he noticed that it ended abruptly and had been converted into gardens with a wide central path.
“There she is!” Helena said, waving her hand. “Yeimi! Yeimi, over here!”
Yeimi was a jocular fourth-generation Mexican American with a lilting Texan drawl like his wife’s. She wrapped the family in a big hug, which he couldn’t help but return. Guyanese and Mexicans shared a love of welcomes and goodbyes.
“Looks like you’ve found yourself a porter,” Yeimi observed, pointing at the luggage carrier. “It’s about a 15-minute walk.”
As the AV pulled away with new passengers, Raj felt exposed, standing on the curb in a strange neighborhood with no means to drive away. There would be no swift exit. He looked over at his daughter to see how she was managing.
“Rosa, I thought you charged your leg.”
“I did charge it.”
“Then why is it red?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you use it to charge your flexy?”
“I don’t know,” Rosa said, her eyes downcast. “I forgot.”
“How will you get around?”
“I’ll shift it to kinetic,” she said, striding confidently onto the walking path. This setting used her own energy to add juice to the limb, keeping it at a minimum charge. But Raj knew the lack of extra battery power would exhaust her. It was like walking with a five-pound weight attached to your ankle.
“La Estrella is a little different,” Yeimi explained, assuming the role of host. “These sidewalks are laced with PV. Solar cells. Once you spend enough time in this neighborhood, you’ll see them everywhere. They’re in the windows, roof tiles, chimneys, even the cladding. If there’s a spot the sun touches, we’ll use it in La Estrella.”
There were modest Craftsman, Victorian, and Spanish Revival dwellings painted in pastels, reminding Raj of the vibrant neighborhoods he’d been raised in back in Georgetown, Guyana. Peering closer, he could see how the technology was interwoven into the colorful fabric of each house. The luggage porter slid along quietly beside them.
“Feels so open here,” Helena said, happily.
“You won’t find any power lines or overhead streetlights,” Yeimi went on. “We’re an energy-sovereign community. Fought like hell to become one, too. Here, this is one of our four batteries. We call this one Blubber.”
“Like the fat that whales store. Full of energy. This powers about 500 homes.”
The battery was protected by a high fence with warning signs indicating electric shock. It was about 40 feet long by 15 feet wide and high. True to its name, there were murals of whales and narwhals painted on the battery, which must’ve been drawn by children.
The teenagers leapt out from behind the battery before Raj could do anything. There were three boys and two girls wearing tight clothing with the kind of hypnagogic patterns that young people currently found cool. One of the kids was nearly as tall as Raj and heavily muscled, his biceps popping out of his shirt unnaturally. His veins writhed beneath his skin like garter snakes.
Peddled like drugs, kids took the growth hormones before they hit puberty and their muscles erupted into their bodies at adolescence, giving them superhuman strength. Juicing scared the hell out of parents because they couldn’t know if their children were using until the effects manifested themselves years later. Videos of juicers tossing cars were common, along with the frightening social tics that came from the mass disruption of their endocrine systems.
A glowing 3D image of an angry rodent floated above the kids. It looked like a gang sign. Raj cursed himself for leaving the pulse stick behind. It was designed for exactly these types of situations—clearing an area efficiently without killing anyone.
Yeimi forced a laugh. “Carlos,” she said, addressing another one of the teens. “You can’t just jump in front of people like that. You’ll scare your cousins half to death. You were supposed to meet us at the drop-off.”
“Sorry, Mama. Tim took forever.”
“I’m sorry, Ms. Hernandez,” the juicer said sheepishly. He had a crackly, pubescent voice. “I was working out.”
“What else could you have been doing, Tim?” Carlos asked sarcastically.
Gradually Raj calmed down. He couldn’t believe it—his nephew had been a pudgy little brat when he’d last seen him. Carlos was now tall and lanky, with bright eyes. And somehow he seemed to be in control of this entire crew.
“Carlos,” his daughter said, shaking free of Raj’s grip. “It’s me, Rosa.”
“Mom said you would need help getting around,” Carlos said. “But you’ve got a leg.”
“People like me aren’t supposed to exist anymore. But I can walk fine.”
“No, it’s cool. I didn’t mean anything by it—”
“What is that thing above you, a gopher?” Rosa asked.
Raj’s daughter didn’t have patience for anyone who pitied her.
“It’s a wombat, actually. They have them in Australia.”
“They poop cubes too,” Tim chimed in.
“Gross!” Rosa laughed.
“We unite our flexies with the insignia app,” Tim explained. “Yesterday we were a vampire and it freaked people out.” He ran his fingers through his hair, spiked with some kind of gel creme. “You want to see the bats tonight? We know a place that none of the tourists can find. Best spot in La Estrella.”
“We’re going to the house first,” Raj intervened. “We’ll all watch the bats together.”
“It’s not a baseball game,” Rosa argued. “We don’t have assigned seats.”
“When I say that we’re going together—” he began, waving his finger in the air.
But Helena pulled Raj aside. “Raj, we need some time to catch up with Yeimi and Peter.”
“We’ll have plenty of time to catch up—”
“Not if Rosa’s with us. Come on, Raj. She’s been cooped up all day in the car, and she sat through the Alamo. Let her have some fun.”
“Have you seen that boy? He could break her like a twig. How is it responsible to let her run around in a neighborhood like this?”
“Carlos will take good care of her,” Yeimi announced to everyone. “Don’t worry, or he’ll answer to me, won’t you, Carlos?”
“You too, Tim.”
“Right, Ms. Hernandez,” the juicer said.
Raj looked from Carlos to Tim and to his daughter, trying to assess the situation. No one had prepared him for this. “You’ll call if you have an issue,” he said, feeling outmaneuvered. “Anything.”
“We’ll call if the bats suck out our blood, Dad.”
“You won’t survive the first bite,” Tim laughed.
“Hilarious. Keep your flexies on.”
He watched as Rosa mingled with her cousin and the juicer, surprised at their enthusiasm for one another. At that age, he’d believed that overexcitement was uncool. But maybe that was because he was an immigrant kid trying to blend in at a Houston middle school. Rosa paced confidently away, seemingly unconcerned that her leg was about to become leaden and heavy.
“Did you see that?” Helena said to Yeimi.
“Sure did,” Yeimi laughed. “Tim’s such a sweetheart. Couldn’t hurt a fly.”
“What?” Raj asked. “What did you see?”
“Blind as the bats, Raj,” Helena said.
“Sparks,” Yeimi said. “I saw sparks.”
“What, from the battery?”
“Blinder than the bats,” Yeimi laughed.
Now he realized they were talking about love or, worse, sex, a topic he had studiously avoided with his daughter. Rumors about the denizens of La Estrella had reached Houston. The story went that the subdued lighting, energy restrictions, and quiet ambiance made people naturally throw off their clothes in the cool of the evening, swapping partners like outfits. Even though La Estrella had become a tourist destination, it remained shrouded in lusty mystery—not even searchable on satellite view. Photos and videos were geofenced so that they couldn’t leave.
More people were joining the walking path now: locals going for a stroll, tourists hopping off AVs to watch the bats, commuters returning from work. Instead of the sticky billboards of Houston, the older buildings were painted with festive murals, which Yeimi explained were voted upon by the neighborhood. One depicted a half-naked woman with her bare breasts exposed, nurturing an infant with a bib that read Independencia energética.
Finally, they arrived at Yeimi’s home, a low-slung three-bedroom ranch house that would have been considered small in Houston. Except there was no driveway and no garage. Instead, there was a fenced garden with various herbs and vegetables, and a backyard with some kind of succulent grass that shined silver. There was also a freestanding climbing wall where Yeimi explained that Carlos practiced bouldering. It didn’t look like the home of a family that had struck it rich, which meant that paying back $20,000 couldn’t have been easy for them.
After unloading the suitcases, the baggage porter didn’t hold out its hand for a tip or announce anything. It simply turned around and wheeled back to the AV drop-off, ready to help the next passenger who had paid for a mobility package.
Yeimi’s husband Peter was barbecuing synthetic pork in the backyard when they arrived, and Raj found himself drawn to the barrel smoker like a mosquito to hot blood. Yeimi and Helena lingered in the kitchen to catch up. Peter had large hands and a wide chest, with thick arms. He was some kind of fitness buff. Not a juicer, but the middle-age equivalent.
“This a real steel drum?” Raj asked.
“No, it’s a Carolina smoker. Got it from a neighbor.” Peter flipped a tenderloin with a sizzle. “It cooks at a low temperature so you’ve got to take your time with it. You get the money?”
“We got it. Thanks.”
“No need to thank me. We wanted to thank you. We invested that money in this house. Couldn’t have afforded it otherwise. It may not look like much, but we’re proud to own it. Of course, a portion went to the community association, but it’s worth it.”
“The way everyone talks about this place, it sounds like some kind of commune.”
“Heh, it’s no commune. We all chip in toward the batteries. Since we’re equal partners with the grid, we get paid when we contribute more than we take. They can’t just look at our usage and charge us accordingly, because we’ve walled that off too. If they want access to our data, they can pay for it. Otherwise, we’re a black box to them. No one has to live here, though. Some people don’t like having to put down their hairdryers at night when the great battery in the sky turns off. You have to be more mindful.”
Peter opened a cooler and pulled out a rack of ribs. Unlike Houston, where heat could linger until the early morning, the temperature was dropping swiftly. A prickly pear cut a long shadow on the sandstone gravel sprinkled about the yard.
“I suppose the most socialist thing,” Peter added, “is that you can’t sell your home for more than seven percent of what you paid for it. The excess goes back into the neighborhood. But we’re planning to stay, so we’re not worried about it. You know the first term that comes up when you ask for La Estrella on your flexy, Raj?”
“Sex? Sex, no. Not in my household anyway.” He slapped Raj on the back, chuckling. “No, it’s crime. Rape. Murder. Anything they can throw at us. The data lords didn’t forgive us when we started keeping our information from them. It’s how they try to keep people away from us. I paid you that check out of our energy credits. Learning how to convert our own data into money, that’s what scares them.” He turned over the ribs, the fat spitting into the grill. Raj’s stomach rumbled. Somewhere along the way he’d forgotten to eat.
“There’s work here for people with your skills,” Peter added.
“How do you know?”
“You’re an engineer, right?”
“Petrochemical. I don’t have any background in electrical.”
“But you clean up dirty water, right?”
“I clean up refineries—crackers and oil tanks. Brownfields. Most of it’s been remediated already in Texas.”
“Sounds like you worked yourself out of a job, Raj.”
Raj knew he was right. He could’ve thrown in his lot with the typical petrochemical engineers and focused on production, which was a much more lucrative job when the price of oil was high. He had a cousin who had retired in luxury before he turned forty. But even after Raj’s resolution to become Texan, back at the Alamo, he had secreted away a piece of his Guyanese heritage. He would work in oil, but he would clean it up too, as if he could scrub his newfound identity clean of guilt. He had never expected the oil market to collapse so swiftly. No one had.
“I don’t know about crackers,” Peter went on, “but we could use your help here along the river. Helena told Yeimi you need the work, so I hope you don’t mind me being so forward. There are going to be more neighborhoods like us. Lots of spills to clean up. La Estrella was built around an old tannery—you wouldn’t believe the shit they used to cure leather. Cyanide, someone told me.”
“Chromium, more likely.” Raj tried to get Peter off his soapbox. “Don’t you get tired of the darkness here?”
“Tired of the dark?” Peter smiled, amused. “Raj, my man, you don’t get tired of it. It’s how we were meant to live.”
“Raj, time to get going,” Helena shouted from inside the house. “Yeimi said the bats fly out in 15 minutes.”
“Regular as clockwork,” Peter said.
Yeimi sent them ahead, telling them she would prep for dinner. Outside, the neighborhood had been transformed. Instead of overhead street lighting, fiber optics tracked along the walkways in soft colors: cobalt blue, forest green, blood red. The illumination was so faint that if you looked directly at the lights they disappeared like starlight, but somehow the combined effect steered Raj and Helena in the right direction. Some homes had pathway lamps instead of the inset lighting. Hundreds of people were walking along the path, many in a jubilant mood. In the distance, Raj heard a trumpet climbing through a scale.
Helena slipped her hand into his, something she hadn’t done in years. He couldn’t recall the last time they’d gone for a stroll anywhere except when they were on vacation—their neighborhood in Houston only had one sidewalk, and it led to the convenience store. Next to that was a strip club, a symptom of Houston’s utter lack of zoning.
“Yeimi told me USAA is hiring,” Helena said. “They prioritize veterans.”
“You want to work for a bank?”
“Who knows? I might be good at it. They pay on time, unlike my clients.”
“I wish you hadn’t told Yeimi about our problems. It’s private. I’ll get my consulting practice going again soon.”
“They want to help us, Raj. They were in our situation just a few years ago and you helped them. There’s nothing wrong with them returning the favor.”
“It’s not like we’re living on the street. I grew up in Houston. I like doing things our way. This place is some kind of socialist experiment.”
“No, you like doing things your way, Raj. Not our way.”
“What about Rosa? It’s not like we can drive her wherever we want in here. There are barely any roads.”
They paused at a home with LEDs that swept over its facade like water, timed to some kind of electro-zen music. He felt nothing but strident, grating notes in its atmospheric soundscape, as if the music was stripping away the lacquer of self-reliance he had so diligently painted over his life. I want to leave this place, he thought. As soon as possible.
“Have you heard from her?” Helena suddenly asked.
He pulled out his flexy. “Someone buzzed me a second ago.”
They looked at the screen together. The message from his daughter read XKJŒOF*(S*ESD.
“What does that mean?” Helena asked.
“She probably sat on it.”
“I’m sure she’s fine,” Helena said, hopefully. But he could sense the growing nervousness in her voice.
“I’ll try her,” he said, firing off a message.
But Rosa didn’t return his message. “Should we look for her?”
“I don’t know.”
And then he did something he promised his daughter he’d never do—he checked the battery of her leg remotely. OFF. Not low, not yellow, not green, but off.
“Her leg is off.”
Helena started to protest, then kept silent.
“We’re her parents,” she said, as if justifying the privacy intrusion. “Tim said they were going to a place that the tourists don’t know.”
“I thought that juicer was joking.”
“She’d call us if anything went wrong.”
“But what if she couldn’t call us?”
The thought of Rosa fallen down, with no means of getting up, hadn’t crossed his mind since she was three years old. Everything she’d done since then suggested that the very opposite would happen—that she was resilient, that she would always find her way to them. But the whispered lighting and silhouetted strangers became menacing in Raj’s head.
“Your hand is sweating,” Helena said, rubbing her palm on her dress.
He should have been projecting calm. He should have been resolute. But the fiber-optic paths and the twinkling lights were making him anxious. And the pulse stick was miles away in his truck. He had nothing.
Finally they came to the canal, which was a causeway with a bridge arching over it. He’d expected a more enduring structure, like the chipped limestone bridges of the San Antonio Riverfront, maybe, with a WPA logo emblazoned on its ribbing. This was a utilitarian bridge, free of adornment. Steel and concrete. The green-brown water flowing underneath was almost certainly laced with trihalomethanes and perchlorates. The entire trip—come to La Estrella to see the bats!—was starting to feel like a nasty marketing trick.
Where was Rosa? He began to doubt everything: the hard sell by the cousins, the batteries painted like Easter eggs, the juicer trying to blend in like a normal kid. This was a solar Wonka factory with a river flowing with garbage liquor instead of chocolate.
He heard a countdown begin in the throngs: “Twenty, 19, 18 …”
“What are they doing?” he asked.
“It’s a countdown until sunset.”
“Ten, nine, eight …”
“Someone help us!” Raj shouted. “We’ve lost our daughter.” But his voice was drowned out by the jubilant crowd.
“Three, two, one …”
And then at the count of one, or within a few seconds of one, the first bat flitted from beneath the bridge, zigzagging across the blue-black sky. He thought he heard the flutter of its wings. It sparked a chittering, high-pitch susurration that emanated from the heart of the bridge, as if the ugly structure had come alive. The bats spilled out from the shadows in a rush of frenetic energy. Thousands, then tens of thousands of bats corkscrewed into the dusk.
“There she is!” Helena said, grabbing Raj by the arm.
“There, down on the bank by the water.”
Rosa was there, pointing up at the bats as they swept past. She was sitting on the gravel bank next to her cousin Carlos and what must have been his girlfriend, who was clinging to him possessively. They were laughing. And even Tim, who must have watched the bats a hundred times, looked up with a smile, enjoying the sight.
“Rosa!” Helena shouted, waving her arms. “Rosa!”
Now Raj noticed the scent of the bats, a raw guano musk, a kind of peat-moss purity, earthy and primal.
“She can’t hear us,” Helena said. “Should we go down to her?”
When the last bats trickled out of the bridge, the entire riverscape lit up in a dizzying array of fiber optics. The moon was hoisting its way above the live oaks. He looked down at his daughter’s face, radiant with expectation.
She could be fine here, he realized. Somehow, in the maelstrom of parenting, he had overlooked what she had become. He could be fine. He clasped Helena’s hand as the moon slipped above them. He pulled his wife into the crowd, and they began to dance.