Corey Orlick, nearly eighteen years old, stood in the spreading shade of a big plastic oak and peed thoughtfully on his Uncle Galvin’s grave. When he was finished, he wiped his eyes, sucked a tear from the back of his hand, and shook out a few more drops, careful to direct them into the spreading golden funnel at the foot of the plot. On the headstone, under the engraved legend HERE NAPS GALVIN OSPREY ORLICK, a digital readout showed the year’s accumulated moisture, plotted against a slowly shifting curve indicating how much precipitation was still needed over a goodly span of years before old Galvin might conceivably consider ending his well-deserved “nap.” In the afternoon glare, Corey could hardly read the figure, but he knew it was still too low to matter. He’d tacked on only a few more cc’s, but his pisspores felt dangerously light and low, rustling against his skin.
His incautious pissing was a futile gesture, a waste of precious reserves, but he couldn’t help himself. He’d been coming out here twice a week for a year now, praying for his uncle’s revival, praying old Galvin might rise up and see the things being done in his name—and with his money. Corey made up for all his wasteful, wishful pissing by digging evaporation pits in his yard and throwing in stray bits of garbage he sneaked from his job at The Succulent Steak; letting the sun suck all moisture from the scraps to condense on the plastic covers, where he lapped it up like rubbishy dew each evening when he rose. But since last week, when Mr. Bell had caught the dish-wiper with her pockets full of cactus peels, Corey had cut back on his thieving, which meant cutting back on his grave-watering as well.
“Oh Uncle,” he moaned. “If only you’d wake up. By the time the rains come, there won’t be a thing of yours left!”
A woodpecker rapped sharply at the trunk above his head, making the whole tree reverberate with a hollow sound. Clouds of dust sifted over him. Nature seemed intent on bringing down the plastic tree, so tall and green and out of place among the sere and barren hills. The oak was artificial, but the cool shade beneath it was real enough. This was the only place in Gas Lake where Corey felt anything like comfortable these days.
At that moment he heard footsteps scuffing past on the road below the hill. Ducking behind the tree, he spied Marlys Runyon running past with a tight, anxious expression, frantically slurping up her tobacco rope as if it were a strand of limp yucca spaghetti. Her look suggested that some plan of hers had gone awry, which made his heart gladden. He watched till she disappeared, then he crept down the far side of the hill and made his way through the stumps and ashes toward town.
Marlys cursed when she saw the last few inches of baccorish come twisting out of her pocket, crawling steadily toward her mouth. Where would she get the money for another?
She thought of Medford Bannister, and laughed at herself. To think she’d been planning to give her news away!
At the edge of the dunes, she cut left, avoiding on one side the sand that burned her bare feet and, on the other, fields full of fire thistle. Between the two regions was a tough mat of grabgrass, almost cool, the best place to walk. She hurried along till she saw Medford’s gleaming roof, then cut across the dunes as fast as she could.
The house was half-buried after a day of wind; every few hours a powerful blower evacuated clouds of sand. If Medford ever neglected this task, or if the blower broke down, the house would be buried inside a day and might never surface again. Medford could have lived in town, safe behind the grabgrass barriers, but that would have exposed him to busybodies.
Marlys’s feet blistered before she reached the shade of the porch. Medford opened the door the instant she arrived, alerted to her approach by his alarm system. She rushed in and leaped into a chair, raising her feet and screaming, “Ice!” Before she finished the word, Medford was already pressing a huge lump of it against her soles, letting the precious stuff run between her toes and his fingers, dribbling onto the floor.
“You’re so reckless!” she said. So rich, she meant. Her sighs were ecstatic. The lump quickly melted away for no purpose except to numb her; just as it vanished, he stroked the last sliver down her calves, her inner thighs, making her slippery. She twisted, and he stumbled aside, grinning with frustration.
“I didn’t come out here for that,” she said.
“Couldn’t help noticing you’re just about out of rope. Only natural to think—”
“I’d sell myself for a twist of tobacco? You’re slimier than you look, Med.”
He backed away sheepishly, pulling the gold wire bands of his spectacles back over his ears. “Marlys, you know I don’t think of you that way. I can buy all the sex I need, but I love you.”
“Anyway, I have something else to sell.”
He looked suddenly crafty. “How much?”
“Don’t you want to know what it is first?”
“You’re not carrying anything, so it must be information. I know you won’t tell me what you’ve got until I pay. So I ask you again, what’s your price?”
The phone rang. Medford’s grin widened.
“Don’t answer that!”
“Your info just depreciated, that it?”
“If you answer, I won’t tell you a thing.”
“Needn’t worry yourself, hon; you’re overexcited. Of course I won’t answer if you don’t like it. Now . . . how much?”
She waited till the phone stopped ringing. Satisfied that he’d buy the news from her, she answered, “A coil.”
“That all? Hold on a sec.” He backed into the house, though he usually carried more than enough cash on his person. If he really loved her, he should have given it to her outright as a gift. But she’d made it clear a few times that she didn’t like accepting gifts from him. So she sold him the things he could have for free, and gave for free what others had to pay for. He’d received a whole collection of her dried-out horny toads, gratis.
He walked back in the room a few minutes later, empty-handed, looking smug.
“Well?” she said.
“Just checked my messages. Hear there’s a Rehydrator in town.”
“Shit!” She jumped from the chair, staring toward him. “You cheap—”
He slapped a thick brown coil into the hand that was reaching for his throat. “A deal’s a deal, Marlys. I was saving this last one for you anyway.”
“Why, thank you, Medford. What a gentleman.”
She kissed him, spat out her last inch of rope, nipped the end of the new one between her teeth, and unreeled several feet of it till the thick bulk fit in her pocket. The first chew on a fresh rope was heavenly. She sat down to suck on it while Medford picked up the piece she’d spat, and wiped the spot with his handkerchief before throwing both into the kitchen recycler.
“You still want to hear it?” she said.
“I told you, I got a call. Rehydrator’s come around saying he’s going to rejuvenate Galvin Orlick, and apparently he proved it with a dead dog.”
“And that doesn’t worry you?”
Medford shrugged. “I’ve seen these stunts before.”
“Medford, I was there. The guy’s no faker. That dog was like an old sanded-down floorboard till he doused it. Next thing you know, it was running in circles, pissing on stumps.”
“It’s an old trick, Marlys, no reflection on you for falling for it. They’re confidence men, all these Rehydrators. Just like the Rain Men.”
“But the process works. I’ve done it myself.”
“You’ve dried things out, Marlys, but have you made them live again?”
She shook her head. “Well, no. I never learned that part.”
“Exactly. You nor anyone else. That’s the essence of the scam. Galvin may have believed the lungfish process worked, and the people who fall for rehydrators may believe it, but we know better.”
“You don’t think he knows, do you? It’s a weird coincidence, him coming around right now.”
“No, how could he?”
“Still, we should be careful. I’d like to check him out.”
“Be my guest. But I’m sure this piker will take off as soon as he sees there’re already sharks in our pond.”
“Meaning you and me?”
Medford opened the icebox for another cube and came at her with it melting and pooling in the palm of his outstretched hand. “Honey, at worst it might require a little orchestration. That guy’ll be gone before this cube gets done melting.”
“I’m not letting you waste another one,” Marlys said, and, leaning forward, she took it between her teeth, holding it there until her mouth was full of ice water and the searing pain exquisite.
In the first slow easing of the day’s heat, as the streets of Gasoline Lake filled with people starting to go about their business in the dusk, the Rehydrator saw three figures coming toward him down the dusty road, looking less impressive than their long eastward shadows. The one he’d called “Sheriff” was among them, though he hadn’t believed for a minute that the man really was any such thing. In fact, the obvious sheriff was first of the three, her polished star glinting orange in the late-evening light.
Fritzy ran out and barked at them as they approached the truck. The Rehydrator sat down on the steps. “Settle down, Fritzy. These look like friends.”
He spoke loudly, hoping this was true.
“You’re the Rehydrator?” the sheriff asked. She was a tall, sunbaked woman with frazzled yellow hair. She wore a light beige blousy uniform over her pisspores, and carried a sleek gun in a breakaway holster. Ammo darts were lined up along her belt.
“That’s right.” He put out his hand. “Hope I’m not breaking any ordinances parking out here. I plan to come into the Town Hall and apply for whatever permits I’ll need just as soon as it’s open.”
“It’s open now,” said Culp, the man who’d accused him of being a charlatan. “There’s a fifty-dollar fine if you don’t—”
“Settle down, Norris; I’ll take care of this,” the sheriff said. “We used to be concerned about open fires around here, but you can see there’s nothing left to burn these days. Just don’t flick matches out at Gasoline Lake. Since you’re not harming anybody, and you seem to have something to offer the town, we’ll just treat you like any other visitor.” She glowered at the clerk. “With courtesy.”
“I am a visitor,” the Rehydrator said.
“I heard you have something a bit more complicated in mind. Something to do with Galvin Orlick.”
“I came to see about reviving him.”
The sheriff didn’t speak for a moment. She seemed to be judging him from what she could see.
“A lot of people think he can’t be revived,” she said at last.
He scooped up Fritzy. “I revived Orlick’s dog.”
“How did you say you got ahold of that pup? Galvin’s buried in a sealed vault. If it was interred with him. . . .”
“I understand his body is checked periodically—that he has custodians.”
“He does,” said Norris Culp indignantly, “and I’m sure they would have noticed if his dog went missing.”
The sheriff nodded. “His tomb—and his estate—are overseen by the Bannister office. Gas Lake’s oldest law firm.”
“A town this size has more than one?”
“That’s a prerequisite, son,” said a short, plump, graying man, stepping forward to shake the Rehydrator’s hand. “In a grievance, one firm can hardly represent both parties. I represent the other. Lawrence Wing, Esq. I hope if you have any trouble with Norris here or the Town Hall folks, you’ll call on me.”
His hand was soft and dry, but in the gloom the Rehydrator couldn’t read his eyes.
“Is it possible the dachshund never was in the tomb with Galvin?” Wing asked.
The Rehydrator shrugged. “Could be.”
“We still have a problem,” the sheriff said. “Galvin Orlick didn’t want to be revived until the drought had ended. We’re thirty hard years into this one, and it could last another seventy, eighty more—might never end, really. From what I’ve heard, Galvin couldn’t stand even ten years—and they were damp by comparison to these last. What makes you think he’d appreciate being revived, even if you could do it?”
“He’s dead,” Culp said flatly. “Not just dried-out—dead.”
“Bullshit,” Wing snapped.
“Only a lawyer like you could twist things around to make it seem otherwise.”
“Only a lawyer like Med Bannister could confuse the issue in the first place!”
“You see the basic problem,” the sheriff said, separating Wing and Culp.
“I apologize,” Wing said to the Rehydrator. “There’s a touchy question of whether, in his present condition, Orlick can be considered alive or not. And if not, there’s the question of what should be done with his estate—liquid and financial.”
“Well, if I were to revive him, he could settle the matter himself, don’t you think?”
“He’s dead!” Culp said. “And only you, Wing, would defend him.”
“Well, I have to admit that’s apparently true,” Wing said to the Rehydrator. “You might say I’ve been defending Galvin in the public interest ever since his existence first came into question. Pro bono, I might add, since I have no access to the Orlick trust—unlike Bannister, who was the first to think up the tricky question.”
“Bannister,” said the Rehydrator, recognizing the name. “Orlick’s custodian?”
“Damn right. Medford Bannister, Jr. He’s been living off the estate for years, sucking it dry, if you ask me, in the process of questioning his benefactor’s existence.”
“You take a one-sided view of these things,” Culp said irritably.
“Perhaps, Norris. But unlike Galvin’s so-called custodian, I stand to profit nothing from my perspective except a small moral victory, perhaps the pleasure of partaking in a precedent. Don’t forget that I knew Galvin.”
“I could solve your problem with a quick procedure,” the Rehydrator said.
“It sure would be a lot faster than working it out in the courts,” said the sheriff, the last bit of sunlight twinkling in her eyes.
“Sheriff!” Culp exclaimed. “You can’t mean you condone this!”
“I’m impartial, Norris. I’m also curious.” She petted Fritzy’s snout, letting the dog lick her fingers. “You say he was dried stiff this afternoon?”
“Everyone who saw it will vouch for me,” said the Rehydrator.
“Not everyone,” Culp said. “I’m convinced it was a sleight of some kind. I’ve seen other magicians who could do as much.”
“Sleight of hand would have failed miserably in Fritzy’s case,” said the Rehydrator. “I can demonstrate my process again with any preserved specimen you care to contribute.”
“No kidding?” said the sheriff. “I’ve got this little dried horny toad. If I brought it around, could you . . . you know?”
“I’d be delighted to revive it, providing it hasn’t been pickled or stuffed.”
“No, Marlys Runyon gave it to me as a gift when I first came to Gasoline Lake. She did it herself. She runs a small-time trade in them—sort of a front for her other work. Lots of men in town collect her horny toads.”
The Rehydrator made a sweeping bow. “Anytime. Until I get my bearings, I’ll be right here.”
The sheriff beamed at him. “Well, that’s all. Don’t mean to seem suspicious of strangers, but I had a few requests to check you out, and I can’t deny the citizens their peace of mind.”
“I understand. Thanks for the welcome.”
“Good night, now. I’ll be back with my horny toad tomorrow.”
“Good night to you,” said Lawrence Wing, taking the Rehydrator’s hand again.
Norris Culp strode down the road without a word, turning on his heel once to wait till the sheriff followed.
The Rehydrator watched them go, then sat and waited for his next visitor to get up the courage to come forward. He’d seen someone lurking about in the shadows of the burned woods. Finally, as expected, a skinny young man crept forward. The Rehydrator felt a puzzling sympathy for the fellow even before he spoke.
“M-Mister?” the boy said. “I-I missed your show today, but I heard about it later. I heard what you came for, and it worried me. You’re asking for trouble. I thought I better warn you what’s really going on around here.”
“I appreciate that, son. Would you like some water?”
The Rehydrator reached back inside the truck for a jug and a cup. When he offered the cup, the boy sipped slowly, sighing and smacking his lips after each little sip.
“This is delicious. Thank you, mister.”
“Not at all. Now, why don’t you have a seat and tell me your name.”
“I’m Corey. Corey Orlick. Calvin was my uncle—my father’s brother. My dad died last year. Now I’m the last living Orlick in Gas Lake.”
The Rehydrator sighed and sank down beside the boy, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Is that right? Exactly what kind of trouble am I asking for?”