« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

A Hot Day’s Night

New fiction from the author of 'The Windup Girl.'

 

Pass me that allen wrench,” Charlene said.

Lucy hesitated, considering the ethical boundaries of journalism, then stretched across Spanish roof tiles for Charlene’s toolbox. Warm metal clinked under her fingers. The wrench glinted in the moonlight as she passed it over to Charlene, where she had lifted a solar panel and was fiddling beneath it. The black shadow of Charlene’s body shifted. Metal ground against clay tile. Something cracked, a sharp, vandalistic report in the silence of the suburb.

“Hold this up,” Charlene said. “I need to get underneath to the alarms.”

“You didn’t say anything about alarms,” Lucy said.

“You think utilities just leave the good stuff lying around? Just because the people are gone, don’t mean the electric company don’t want their electricity. Now hold the panel up, will you?”

With a sigh, Lucy shoved her arm into the gap. Charlene’s flashlight flickered on, its red beam illuminating the hole between the panel and the roof. “Hold it there.” Charlene pinched the penlight in her teeth, peered into the shadows. “Well, I’ll be damned.”

Lucy didn’t like the tone of Charlene’s voice. “What now?”

“They got it set to close a circuit with the grid current if we cut this loose. Electrify the whole damn roof. Do me a favor and don’t move. I don’t want to end up as a crispy critter.”

“Christ. I thought you said you knew what you were doing.”

Charlene laughed. “I thought you said you wanted to see the real Phoenix.” She crawled over Lucy, and starting rooting through the toolbox. “You know where my snips got to?”

“I’m trying not to get electrocuted!”

Charlene grinned, a flash of white teeth and a black gap where her incisors had gone missing. “What’s the matter? Too much story for you?”

Lucy didn’t take the bait. She kept her arm grimly in the gap, holding up the panel and trying not to think about 220 volts ripping through her body. She wondered if the sweat covering her would make her a better conductor. One hundred-and-two degrees at 2 a.m., and the temperature probably wouldn’t make it down to a hundred before dawn. She blinked salt out of her eyes, trying not to think about sweat beads dripping from her arm and closing some circuit that would leave her as fried scavenge meat for crows and magpies and vultures.

I thought you wanted to see the real Phoenix.

Aimée van Drimmelen

From Lucy’s vantage, she could see plenty of the city sprawling across the basin. In the past, at this time of night, it would have been a heavy quilt of light, ending only where mountains and wilderness designations pushed back against development. Now, though, abrupt geometric holes of inky blackness punctured the blanket. Building-block cutouts of darkness as if a child had taken scissors and started cutting patterned holes, industriously trimming swatches out of Phoenix. A subdivision here. A development there. A whole township, cut right from the heart of the blanket.

In the daytime, with desert sun searing down, the metro area’s sprawling suburbs appeared largely equal. Chandler was the same as Scottsdale, was the same as Gilbert, was the same as Avondale or Peoria or Mesa or Fountain Hills. All dusty, all the same. But at night, these gaps were revealed. Places where the aquifer had collapsed after overpumping. Places where inter-city water-sharing agreements and hydro development contracts had shattered. Places where Central Arizona Project water no longer re-filled the aquifer, and where water wells had sucked cones of depression so deep and wide that others were left pumping sand. Points of failure in an overstressed system, that now showed as black swatches of hollowed houses, where nothing moved except coyotes and the occasional Merry Perry refugee.

Charlene’s Phoenix. The real Phoenix. The only aspect of Phoenix that seemed to be growing.

Charlene finally found her tools and returned to the panel. She flopped prone and dug into the wiring. In the far distance, traffic rumbled on the broad boulevards that crisscrossed the city, but here in the abandoned subdivision, all was quiet except for the rattle and click of Charlene’s tools.

It was hard to write stories about silence, Lucy thought. Most journos who covered the drought spent their time out near the borders of California and Nevada and Utah, filing stories about Arizona barbarism and Merry Perries, who’d fled out of Texas only to be crucified in the medians of the interstate.

Sometimes they wrote stories speculating about who was responsible for attacks on the Central Arizona Project, describing the exquisite vulnerability of a canal that stretched across three hundred miles of burning desert just to give Phoenix a sip of the Colorado River. They spun conspiracy theories on whether it was California or Las Vegas to blame for repeatedly bombing this last critical IV drip, always tying it to the apocalyptic depths of Lake Mead and Lake Havasu and the rest of the Colorado’s shrinking storage capacity, no longer able to share. These stories at least had a few pictures of blue lake reservoirs with white bathtub rings on red sandstone to recommend them. The reporters fed eagerly on the scarcity and mayhem and conspiracy, wrote their stories, and then jumped on the next flight out, eager to get back to places where water still came out of the tap.

Meanwhile, Lucy stayed, and hoped for something deeper.

“Ha!” Charlene held up a triumphant tangle of wiring. “We’re not frying tonight!” Her gap-toothed smile flashed in the darkness. “Told you I know what I’m doing.”

Charlene’s missing teeth: They had first caught Lucy’s eye while she was drinking in the late afternoon up on the rooftop of Sid’s, watching the regulars as they reclined under raggedy umbrellas and passed a .22 down the line, taking potshots at whatever moved in the half-built subdivision that Sid’s occupied,­ like an outpost in a stick-frame construction wilderness.

And then Charlene had emerged, climbing up the ladder to the roof, buying a round for everyone because she’d just scored big, grinning that gap-tooth smile. As soon as Lucy figured out what Charlene did for a living, she knew this was the story that would break open the silence of Phoenix’s emptying subdivisions.

The suburbs were quiet, but Charlene was loud. Lucy would write a little about the woman’s background — and then shift focus, different angles for different publications. She could do one about the changing nature of Phoenix sprawl for Google/NYTimes. A piece for The Economist about the scavenge economy rising from the ashes of the old construction and sprawl economy. A longer piece for Kindle Post that she could keep the rights to. Three stories, at least, easy money. Except that Charlene’s story came with strings.

“Duck!” Charlene whispered.

“I can’t!”

Headlights shone in the darkness, coming around a curve and illuminating their street.

It was too late to run. Lucy smashed herself flat against the roof tiles, feeling like a bug on a microscope slide. The SUV was nearly silent, riding on its batteries. Only the hiss of its tires as it drove up the dust-rutted street announced it.

“You ready to run?” Charlene whispered.

“Run where? My truck’s parked in the garage down there!”

“Oh yeah.” Charlene chuckled. “Good thing I closed the garage door. Otherwise they’d nail us for sure. Or you, at least. You, they’ll definitely track down. Probably better hold still.”

Down on the street, the SUV seemed to be slowing.

“I’ll bet you’re wishing you were back in Connecticut right now, writing stories about seawall breaks and hurricanes, instead of lying here waiting to get your face kicked in.”

Lucy bit off an angry response. Maybe she could just explain herself. Explain that she wasn’t really with Charlene at all. Just a journalist doing a story. Not a thief. Not part of the story. Just writing about the lady they were locking up —

The SUV eased closer, rolling just below them. The whole area was illuminated, daylight invading nightscape. Every instinct told Lucy that they’d been spotted, that she needed to bolt.

Charlene gripped her wrist, hard. “Don’t you dare rabbit now, sweetheart.”

Aimée van Drimmelen

The nearly silent electric vehicle slid past, reached the end of the street and disappeared around another curve. Lucy let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding.

Charlene scrambled up and grabbed the solar panel she’d been working on. Started wrestling it down to the edge of the roof, moving quickly.

“You’re lucky we got a lazy one. Sometimes they’re motivated, swinging their searchlights all over, using their damn eyes to look around. Nothing worse than a motivated junk patrol.”

“Are there a lot of those?” Lucy could still feel her heart pounding.

“Nah. It’s way easier, now. Used to be that everyone thought the owners would come back. They kept saying Roosevelt Lake would fill up again, or there’d be enough water in the CAP to share around. Made junk patrol feel like they had a real job. Protecting private property and all that shit.” She snorted. “But the reality is, there’s just not much use for granite countertops or three bathrooms in a house if there’s no water going down the toilets or filling up the sink. These places deserve to be scavenged now, and junk patrol knows it. Biggest problem is getting to the good stuff first, before someone else does.” She set the panel at the edge of the roof. Waved to Lucy. “Grab a crowbar. We need to get the rest of these panels down before they come back.”

“I didn’t agree to that. I’m just here to write your story.”

Charlene shot Lucy an irritated look. “You want to be here when the junk patrol loops back around? Maybe get a smile like mine?”

“I didn’t say I was going to help you ––”

“Steal?” Charlene supplied.

“— take things. We agreed I was going to write your story.”

Charlene shrugged. “Well, you don’t get shit unless you help. The way this works is you put your sweat into my business, and I put a little of my own sweat into yours. We help each other out, right? Either that, or you can go back downtown and hang with the rest of the out-of-state reporters, drink your hotel martini, file some vulture story about Merry Perries getting strung up on the interstate and get the hell out. Your choice.”

Lucy hesitated.

“Can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs,” Charlene said.

Eggs.

Ethics.

Lucy remembered a J-school professor of hers, Shondra Goh, talking ethics and boundaries and the dangers of identifying too much with subjects.

She sighed. “Give me the crowbar.”

“That-a-girl!”

They went to work, prying up each panel, Charlene crouching down to cut wires and disable the silent alarms that would summon the junk patrol. Lucy handed allen wrenches and snips and diamond-bladed hacksaws, and Charlene dismantled twenty kilowatts worth of solar panels with medical precision.

“You know I used to install these systems?” Charlene said. “Back when people were building them?” She chuckled. “And now here I am getting paid to rip them out.”

Lucy didn’t answer. With each crack, pry and heave, she wondered if she’d finally become too compromised to call herself a journalist. Her and her stories: Before she’d moved down to Phoenix, they’d seemed so nicely compartmentalized. And now, here she was, pulling her truck out of the garage so they could load solar panels into the back. Taking part in Phoenix’s most popular pastime.

Maybe that was the story, Lucy thought, as she heaved herself back up onto the roof. The real story. Not that Charlene had remade herself as a pillager of other people’s lives, but that Phoenix had a way of stripping away a person’s moral compass. Once it got bad enough, you got desperate enough; the person you started out as wasn’t the person you ended up as.

“Hey, Charlene?” Lucy asked as she lowered another panel over the rim of the roof and into Charlene’s waiting hands.

“Yeah?” Charlene took the panel with a grunt, and hauled it over to set it with the rest in the back of Lucy’s truck.

“How come you didn’t leave? I mean. When you could?”         

Aimée van Drimmelen

Charlene returned and held up her hands, waiting for Lucy to hand down the next panel. “Hell. I don’t know. Guess it just didn’t seem real to me. Slow apocalypse, you know? In hindsight, it all looks real clear. But at the time?” She got hold of the panel as Lucy lowered it, set it down on the driveway’s hot concrete. Leaned against it. Her sweat gleamed on her face in the moonlight as she looked up at Lucy. “You could kind of see it creeping up, like, out of the corner of your eye, but you couldn’t see it up close and sharp.” She shrugged, picked up the panel and hefted it into the truck with the rest. “We’re good at doing shit like running away from the junk patrol. I mean, that’s a threat you can understand, right? But who the hell thinks about running away from an extra hundred-degree day?”

Charlene turned sharply at a noise. “What’s that?” she called. “What do you see up there?”

Lucy straightened. One street over, headlights glowed. “Junk patrol!”

“You were supposed to keep your eyes open! You’re the one up top!”

Lucy didn’t bother saying that it was hard to keep a lookout and dangle panels over the edge of a roof. She took a breath and jumped. Her ankle twisted as she hit the driveway, but she staggered for the truck, limping and hopping while her ankle flared. She yanked open the truck door and heaved herself inside.

“Get it back in the garage! They’re almost here!”

For a horrible moment, Lucy couldn’t make the truck start, but then it came alive. The truck’s headlights came on automatically, a beacon announcing that there were thieves in the neighborhood.

“What are you doing?”

Lucy killed the lights.

“Come on! Come on!”

“I’m trying!” Lucy jammed the truck into gear and roared into the garage. Charlene slammed the garage door down. Lucy jumped out, almost fell as her ankle flared again.

“Did they see us? Did they see us?”

“Shut up! I’m trying to listen.”

They both pressed their ears to the metal of the garage door, straining for tell-tales. Listening for voices. For radios. For someone calling for backup. A minute ticked by, while blood pounded in Lucy’s ears and sweat dripped from her nose.

With the truck off, the garage was pitch black. In the ­silence, Charlene’s form rustled. There was a faint buzz and then a firefly of light came on, the purple tip of a cigarette, glowing as she took a drag, illuminating her sun-wrinkled features.

“You want?” she asked.

Lucy took the cigarette. Activated it. Felt the nicotine buzz as she inhaled.

“Never feel as alive as when you think you’re about to get your teeth kicked in,” Charlene said as she accepted the cigarette back. She started to laugh.

“Would you be quiet?” Lucy whispered fiercely.

“Don’t worry. They’re gone.”

“How do you know?”

“Junk patrol isn’t subtle when they’re on your trail.” She took another drag, then rolled up the garage door. Moonlight flooded in. The air outside was cooler than in the garage. A relief. Fresh after the black heat.

“Nice night,” Charlene said. “Bet it gets down to ninety-nine before dawn.” She took another drag on the cigarette. “You want to search the house, see if there’s anything else you want?”          

“I just want to get out of here.”

“Suit yourself.”

An hour later, just as the dawn was starting to break the horizon, they dropped the panels with a tattooed man who paid Charlene with a wad of paper money along with a Crypto-Cash card. Charlene checked the card value, then pressed the paper money into Lucy’s hand.

“What’s this?”

“Your share.”

Lucy tried to give it back, but Charlene waved her off. “No. Take it. It’s yours.”

“I can’t —”

“You journos always make your money selling stories more than once. Just think of it as another angle on your story.”

She climbed into her own truck, rolled down the window and leaned out. “I’ll meet you at Sid’s tomorrow, and we’ll do it again. There’s a place down in Chandler that looks like it’s probably got twenty-five kilowatts.”

“I’m not going again.”

“Sure.” Charlene laughed. “Keep telling yourself that.”

Paolo Bacigalupi, author of The Windup Girl, has won the Hugo, Nebula and Michael L. Printz awards and was a finalist for the National Book Award. The Water Knife, a political thriller about a water war between Las Vegas and Phoenix, will be published by Knopf in May.