Ezzy pushed a roll of twenties across the tabletop. “I’m fed up with the conquistador,” he said.
“Huh? What?” Luciana peeked over the newspaper she’d been skimming. Her eyes widened behind a pair of heavy glasses. “Dude! Who brings that much cash into a Denny’s? Put it away! Madre de dios! What’s wrong with you?” She dropped a sticky napkin over the money. They weren’t in McAllen’s worst neighborhood, but Luci erred on the side of caution ever since a pickpocket stole her wallet. The thief made off with two credit cards and a “Buy Ten, Get One Free” coupon for Café Maria. Luci had been one small black coffee away from a complementary latte. The loss nearly broke her heart.
“What’s wrong with me?” Ezzy asked. “I’m fed up with—”
“The conquistador. Right. So? He’s been a pain since the sixteenth century. And what does that guy have to do with…?” She gestured at the small fortune.
“It’s payment for…” He pantomimed stabbing somebody.
“You want me to kill him? Me?”
Luci ignored the smug expression on Ezzy’s face and lifted the newspaper, end of conversation. An article titled, “Man arrested for homemade fireworks” caught her eye.
“I’d like to hire your coworker, the one who swims and dives,” he continued, ignoring the paper barrier.
“Consider this: the conquistador interferes when I draw water. It’s difficult to collect enough for one person, much less two.” A hardly subtle threat. Luci wondered how many people Ezzy had bribed and manipulated with his water. She couldn’t be the first. They’d only known each other thirty years.
“Fine,” she said. “Fine. By the way, life is hard enough without your vendettas.”
“It gets easier once you stop caring so much.”
She definitely hadn’t reached that point yet. “Just promise that it won’t be dangerous. I like Cocheta.”
“You have my word.”
Luci searched his face for signs of insincerity. He was born generations before the Great American Mixing Pot, and his high, broad cheekbones and dark eyes were distinctly Amerindian. But despite originating from Tenochtitlan during its heyday, he thrived in contemporary Texas. Ezzy spoke English with a southern drawl and wore polo shirts. He’d also developed an inscrutable poker face over five hundred years of lies. As always, she could not read him.
“So, this guy paid for his bill with fifty quarters and three pennies. What are we, a laundromat? I haven’t used change in years, dude. Credit cards are easier. Some people collect coins, though, like a hobby. Speaking of hobbies, you dive, right?” Luci was proud of her segue. “How’d you get started?”
The day after the rendezvous at Denny’s, Luci joined her coworker, Cocheta, in the drab break room at Ricardo’s One-Stop Computer Shop. Of course, the term “break room” was a misnomer. During the nineties, Ricardo fitted the supply closet with a coffee maker and metal table to improve employee morale. The rest of the space was filled with office supplies and filing cabinets. Luci had only worked there for eight years; however, she’d risen from sales associate to senior repair tech, despite a calculated lack of motivation. Initially, she worried that astute coworkers or customers would notice her stagnant appearance, her immortality. But it was a transient world; people washed in and out of McAllen like the tides. And folks who grew roots in the city, including Ricardo, were more worried about survival than a computer technician’s lingering youth. When pressed, she thanked good genes.
“How did I get started?” Cocheta repeated. “Long story.” Her soft voice barely rose above the whirring air conditioner. It seemed odd, coming from a tall and hefty woman. Cocheta’s stature was perfect for high-power sports: rugby, softball, maybe roller derby. But she swam instead. Go figure. Her prominent nose was accentuated by a silver stud in each nostril. More silver glinted from her ears and eyebrows and contrasted her dark skin elegantly. A mixture of Apache and black American, she paid homage to her native ancestry with a thick, long braid.
“We have thirty minutes, right?” Luci unwrapped a candy bar and took a bite. Stale. Of course. Detestable vending machine. Luci could survive on magic water and air for centuries, like a vegan vampire, but she appreciated good food.
“Okay. I’ll talk.” Cocheta stared at nothing in particular, as if memories were being projected on the wall. “Before we moved here, my family lived near Heron Lake. During the summer, my brothers and I would swim to cool off. Grandma, our babysitter, let us play unsupervised. Danger isn’t new, but people were less guarded when she grew up. My big brother exploited that freedom, or maybe it exploited him. Either way, he acted wild—and not in a harmless, liberated way. Jae stole beer, wrecked deer stands, that kind of stuff. One day, he tied a rock around my doll and threw her into Lake Heron. I learned diving to rescue Dolly. At first, I was afraid. Jae said big, toothy catfish scuttled along the bottom. They ate bodies dumped by gangsters. Luckily, the fear passed. Though I never found my doll, that summer taught me to love dives.”
“Cool, dude,” Luci said. “Cool. So, look, my acquaintance wants to hire a diver.”
“I’m flattered, but there are more experienced professionals. I can’t go too deep. Ten, twenty meters.”
Luci pulled a block of cash from her messenger bag. “Just speak to him, and this will be yours.”
Cocheta recoiled. “Luciana! Is this related to crime?”
“No! He’s an eccentric rich guy who dropped something into his well. That’s all.”
“Because I trust you. My friend has secrets. And …” She couldn’t meet her eyes. “… you need the money, right?”
Through their break-room conversations, Luci knew that Cocheta wanted many things: a degree, a car, a quiet little house near the heavy sea. Cocheta tucked the cash into her canvas purse. “I can’t promise anything,” she said. “This job is weird.”
“Extremely. Don’t you trust me?” Luci worked hard to seem harmless. At work, she never missed a shift, never neglected shop duties, or failed mandatory annual drug tests. Further, her style emulated the brainy hipster archetype; she wore heavy glasses, organic cotton v-neck shirts, tight jeans, and frayed scarves.
Despite all that, Cocheta still sounded wary when she asked, “Can you tell me what he dropped?”
“Something embarrassing. Ask Ezzy. I’m only the messenger. Are you in?”
She shrugged. “Yeah.”
“I could be sleeping in,” Cocheta thought, as she rode to Middle of Nowhere in Luci’s rusty white pickup truck; Ezzy’s home was inaccessible by public bus. They split from the highway thirty minutes out of McAllen and wound along unpaved roads that cut through scrubby wilderness. The white, dusty ground was interrupted in spurts by bristlegrass and green-yellow-gray tangles of leaves that Cocheta didn’t know by name. She peered from her window and searched for landmarks, but every mesquite tree was interchangeable with the next. She couldn’t even spot street signs.
“Ezzy likes solitude,” Luci said.
“Jeez. How’d you meet this guy?”
Luci drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. “Let’s say hitchhiking. Home life was bad, so I crossed the river to find work and met him instead.”
“No way. Ricardo would never hire an illegal.”
“Ezzy helped. Money can do anything.”
She shook her head, and her braid rattled as the fat pink beads dangling from one end knocked together. “It’s sketchy, Luci. Why’d he take an interest in you?”
“Don’t worry. Ezzy just wants somebody to boss around. I’m like Renfield from Dracula. Ezzy claims we’re relatives, but that’s definitely bull. He’s a pathological liar.”
“Do you have any real family?” Cocheta asked.
“Does it matter?”
She shrugged. “Look, if you’d rather not, fine.” The secrecy wasn’t new. In Ricardo’s break room, Luci discussed current events, technology, politics, and little-known artists who deserved recognition but “hopefully won’t get any, because fame changes people, dude.” But any personal conversations were one-sided. Though Cocheta respected her right to privacy, she also worried that secrets would land them both in hot water.
“Probably no close family left,” Luci said. “I can’t remember childhood too well. Anyway, if you still like me after today, maybe I’ll try to recall something. We’re here.”
An oasis of red and blue hydrangea plants interrupted the desert. Their leaves were deep green, as if untouched by the recent drought, and each plant towered over three meters high. Partially hidden beyond the vegetation was a one-story adobe home: unremarkable, about the size of most middle-income suburban houses.
Luci parked on the road. “The well’s out back. He erected a cutesy fortress around it.”
Flowering branches crowded the stone walkway outside Ezzy’s house. The colorful rocks underfoot shone, as if freshly polished. “Has he been renovating?” Cocheta asked.
“Sorta. Last week, a vandal wrecked the garden. It really pissed him off.”
“How did a vandal get all the way out here?”
“There’s a Spanish squatter who lives nearby. Here we are.”
As promised, the space behind Ezzy’s anticlimactic house contained a blocky concrete building, about the size of a two-car garage. The square windows in each wall were filled by steel bars instead of glass, giving it more of a cage-like appearance. Luci opened a creaking metal door and leaned inside.
“Ezzy? We’re here.”
A chipper voice said, “Great. Come in! I made lemonade.”
Ever vigilant, Cocheta peeked through a window near the door to survey the place first. A waist-high black well jutted from the stone floor like a sinister obelisk. Against the far wall, three wicker chairs were tucked around a plastic table. Ezzy, wearing a violet polo shirt, was arranging glass tumblers on the tabletop. The least reassuring pieces of furniture Cocheta observed were two steel cabinets and a porcelain bathtub filled with water.
“I’m not bathing here,” she said.
“It’s not for bathing,” Luci called out. Luci slumped into a chair and leaned back with a sigh.
“It’s for magic!” Ezzy clapped his hands. “Why are we speaking through a window?”
Cocheta shuffled to the doorway and paused at its threshold. “Explain the job first.”
“Worried?” Ezzy shrugged. “All right. Let me take you back in time. Five hundred years ago, the world’s strongest warrior came to be. That’s me. I dyed the earth with blood from wretched men. So it was and so it went, until my twentieth birthday, when Mictlantecuhtli Himself appeared to praise my work. Have you seen a god before? He stood twenty feet tall and smelled like hot blood. His head was a great white skull, a giant’s skull, and it had too many teeth.”
“What the -”
“Shh. Mictlantecuhtli said to me, ‘Great warrior, fill Mictlan with one million souls.’ And I replied, ‘My lord, a man can kill one hundred people every day for one hundred years, and the quota will still fall short.’ His teeth rattled like a gourd. This is how Mictlantecuhtli laughs. It’s the death rattle. Haha! That’s a joke. Anyway, he said, ‘I’ll give you twenty thousand years. One life for one million. Do you accept, Warrior?’ Obviously, I praised His glory. Never deny the gods. Mictlantecuhtli carved a map into my chest with His sharp bony finger. ‘Go north,’ He commanded. ‘And when you reach the Light Gray People and their desert, dig a well and drink its water. Here.’ He made a point on the map directly over my heart. And so the greatest warrior on Earth left the greatest empire on Earth to seek immortality in the barren lands of your ancestors.”
Ezzy pointed at Cocheta, who crossed her arms. “My ancestors?” she asked. “Which ones?”
“The Apache ones, obviously. I journeyed for weeks. There were no highways in those days. Every step was labor and danger. The wounds on my chest burned without reprieve. They soon became infected and spread fever to my head. For the glory of Mictlantecuhtli, I continued. When I could no longer walk, I crawled. And when I could no longer crawl, I ran, because I’m a man.”
Cocheta looked pointedly at Luci. She sought confirmation that Ezzy was only joking. Wealthy men were notoriously eccentric, right? But Luci would not return the stare. Instead, the petite woman gazed at the ceiling, as if frozen during a sarcastic eye-roll.
“When I reached my destination,” Ezzy continued, “my body was falling apart with injury and disease. This place, this wasteland where I built my estate, was even more desolate many centuries ago. A whirl of vultures gathered over my body as I dug a well with my bare hands. Soon, my fingers were bones. But they weren’t strong, like Mictlantecuhtli’s skeletal hands. One by one, they broke. As the vultures rejoiced, water bubbled from the hole I dug. One sip cured my wounds. This was the immortality Mictlantecuhtli had promised. The end.”
Cocheta tried to catch Luci’s eyes again, but they were still rolled back with either derision or reluctant piety. It was hard to tell.
“You must wonder why I need a diver,” Ezzy continued.
“Something fell in your well?”
“Something was thrown into my well. A conquistador. A garden vandal.” He spat on the floor, and Luci fetched a roll of paper towels and Windex from the cabinet. “Mictlantecuhtli sent him to replace me. I would not kill the weak. No children, for example. But Mictlantecuhtli loves all souls.”
“Is there a dead body on this property?” Cocheta had been worried about petty crime, but this was worse.
“Dead? I wish!” Ezzy started pacing. “He almost stole my twenty thousand years, so I told the conquistador, ‘Enjoy your immortality!’ and threw him down the well. Do you understand? It’s impossible to drown in those waters.”
“Think fountain of youth,” Luci explained. “I haven’t aged in thirty years because Ezzy shares the water every day. Plus, submerge a fresh corpse, and it lives again. The well can’t revive somebody who’s gone cold, though.”
“Anyhow,” Ezzy said, “the conquistador has suffered enough, but he still clings to life. I thought anyone would embrace death after centuries in a pit! That’s where you come in.”
Cocheta shook her head. “Please find another diver.” She didn’t believe in gods or magic; this had to be a ridiculous prank.
“Just a second,” Luci called. She chucked a used paper towel into the corner. “You need proof. By the way. Ezzy. You forgot the tarp again.”
“Sorry.” He crossed the room and rummaged around the cabinet.
“Am I being filmed?” Cocheta asked, lingering in the doorway. “Is this one of those internet videos?”
Ezzy drew a gun from the cabinet, pressed it against his temple, and fired. The sound punched Cocheta’s eardrums and sent her running. She crossed the back yard with powerful strides, her legs strengthened by her daily laps in the municipal pool.
As Cocheta fled, one image consumed her mind’s eye: Ezzy falling as blood sprayed from his head like a macabre fountain.
“Hey!” Luci shouted. “Wait!”
Cocheta hesitated near the hydrangeas. “There’s a first aid kit in your truck, right?”
“You think bandages can fix that?” Luci jogged outside and wiped blood from her glasses with a scrap of paper towel.
“The well already healed him. That tub was filled with magic water. It’s all real, dude. Open your mind. Look!”
Sure enough, Ezzy approached, gun in hand. He was sopping wet but otherwise unharmed. Cocheta’s life philosophy, a staunch belief in absolutely nothing supernatural, flashed before her eyes.
“What?” he asked. “Do you need more proof? My brain is spattered on the ground back there.” He waved the gun around; its barrel danced between the hydrangeas and Luci. Maybe his demonstration had been a feat of smoke and mirrors. Maybe the bullet just grazed him. Maybe this man was genuinely dangerous. She could not take that chance.
“Whoa!” Cocheta shouted and pointed above his head. “What’s that?” When Ezzy’s eyes flicked skyward, she lunged for the weapon.
“Dirty trick.” He tried to wrench away from Cocheta, but her grip on his wrist was vice tight.
“Drop it!” she said.
“No. This is mine.”
“Guys, stop!” Luci said. “Let’s just talk like civil adults, before—”
The gun fired, and Cocheta screamed as fiery, splintered pain tore through her upper arm.
“Ezzy, you jerk!” Luci shouted.
“That was an accident! Sorry! Hey, don’t cry. My water can fix you.”
Somehow, that didn’t reassure Cocheta. She allowed Lucy to guide her to the tub and then jumped unceremoniously into the water. A chill touched Cocheta’s bones, as if she’d been frozen and only partially thawed. In reality, she had jumped unceremoniously in pink water surrounded by porcelain.
“Right as rain,” Ezzy said. “No more accidents, though. That tub doesn’t have any power left.”
With apologetic quickness, Luci offered her a fluffy white towel, but she waved it away. Cocheta climbed from the tub and shed bloody water that pooled on the stone floor. Her jeans sagged awkwardly. “Okay,” she said. “I believe you.” The fountain of youth was a well in Texas.
“We’re prepared to offer fifty thousand dollars,” Luci said. She flourished a briefcase filled with cash, like someone from a gangster movie. “All yours. Just dive.”
“I can’t fight this conquistador.”
“You don’t need to fight,” Ezzy explained. “I’m the warrior guy. Me. Once he resurfaces, your job ends. Just dive, catch his attention, and run. I mean swim. He’ll pursue you to the barrel of my gun.”
“Pursue me?” The bone-deep chill returned. “Why?”
“Misery loves company?”
“Huh. It does.” Cocheta peered into the well and tried to estimate depth, but shadows engulfed the hole before it reached water. She considered her needs and her wants. Needs: bodily safety. Wants: a house on the sea, a computer science degree, an escape from McAllen before her roots grew too deep. “I’m game.”
Luci dragged a knotted rope from the cabinet and lowered one end over the edge. “It’s all right,” she said. “Trust me.”
A retort came too easily, so Cocheta just frowned as she slipped from her soggy jeans and t-shirt. Underneath, she wore a half-length diving suit. “My gear’s in the truck,” she said. “I’ll need the fin, goggles, and light.”
A half hour later, Cocheta entered the water. It felt blood-hot: at least ninety-eight point six degrees. Body temperature? Was this well a mystical artery that extended from Earth’s heart? It was only four feet in diameter, a confining width, but cramped spaces barely fazed Cocheta. Her diving hobby was incompatible with claustrophobia; a few meters down water became a wall that pressed against her body’s contours.
She adjusted her goggles and peered at the yellow circle overhead. “Ready!” Cocheta shouted. She turned on her diving torch, an intense waterproof flashlight strapped to her forearm, and started breathing exercises. Inhale, exhale. In, out. Again. Repeat.
A final breath.
No hesitation. Dive.
Her monofin transformed her legs into an imitation mermaid tail. Every kick drew Cocheta deeper. In the pure water, light traveled a great distance, but she still couldn’t see the well’s bottom—only black walls around her.
One minute passed. She should turn back soon or risk injury. Could somebody drown in the fountain of youth? Or would each breath revive and smother simultaneously?
The walls were gone. The well seemed to empty into a sea! Cocheta swept her torch from side to side; she was surrounded by empty water. The well exit above her resembled a black hole in the infinite pool. No good. She’d entered some messed-up Nth dimension. Cocheta prepared to ascend post haste.
Then she saw the conquistador. He was a stocky, pale man with a thousand-yard stare that had caught her in its sight. He approached from above with practiced quickness, his arm outstretched, his hand grasping like a claw-machine limb.
Cocheta almost screamed away precious air when the conquistador grabbed her braided hair and dove. She clawed his bony fingers, but every wound healed before it could bleed. The exit became a speck that danced in and out of the hazy light. She was deep, way too deep, but the water pressure didn’t build up, as if she travelled through a sea without gravity.
Her torch briefly illuminated the space below the conquistador. He was pulling her towards another hole! Did it connect to a second well in China? A pool on Mars? Another dimension? A place without time? Heaven or hell? Cocheta didn’t want to find out.
She had to breathe.
So she breathed.
Even the air over Lake Heron had not been more refreshing.
Cocheta kicked to reverse their movement then grabbed the conquistador by his wrist. When he released the braid to grapple, Cocheta knocked him back with her fin and began a quick retreat. The conquistador may have had centuries to practice aquatic maneuvers, but she had a fiberglass mermaid tail.
Black walls soon surrounded her again and she ascended frantically until light appeared overhead. It was dim but reassuring. Cocheta grasped the knotted rope and pulled herself completely from the water before she chanced to peek under her fin.
The conquistador had stopped his pursuit a few meters below the surface. His grinning face was wrinkled by ripples.
“Did he follow?” Ezzy shouted.
“No.” She had to escape. It would be easy for them to leave her in the pit; that possibility was cheaper than the alternative, too. “I’ll try again in a minute. Can we drink some lemonade first?”
After a moment’s silence, Ezzy replied, “Certainly! Come on up.”
They sat around the plastic table and sipped lemonade; the moment Cocheta tasted her drink, she knew that it had been made with well water. It was ambrosia.
“The well empties into a sea,” she explained. “It’s huge. I’m not going back.”
“Suit yourself.” Ezzy shrugged. “But no conquistador, no money.”
“I did everything you asked!”
“Luci gave you one thousand already. The big money is contingent on success.”
A house on the sea. An escape. Needs. Wants. “If I dive again,” Cocheta said, “and he still refuses to chase, will you throw in another thousand?”
Cocheta crossed the room and leaned over the well. She felt jittery. Take a breath. Another. Calm down. “Either of you got a penny?” she asked. “I’d like to make a wish.”
“Nah,” Luci muttered. “I never carry change. You know that.”
Ezzy fished a nickel from his pocket. Cocheta’s hand overshot the coin and rested on his arm. “Thank you,” she said.
“It’s the least I can do.”
“One more thing.” She tightened her grip, flipped him across her back, and chucked Ezzy down the well. A tremendous splash punctuated his fall.
Luci blinked owlishly. “That was amazing! You kung fu’d him!”
“I learned that from my brother. Goodbye, Luciana. Good luck.” Cocheta picked up the briefcase.
“Wait! Stay. Let’s share the water. We can have fun together. Ezzy will forgive you, and if he doesn’t, bully on him.”
Their eyes finally met.
“Sorry,” Cocheta said. “I have other plans.” And with that, she left.
A heady scent – hydrangeas – drifted through the window. Luci looked past the bars and enjoyed a quiet moment. It wouldn’t have worked out, anyway. Cocheta had ambitions beyond the desert and family members who’d notice her physical stagnation.
“Are you going to stay there all day?” Ezzy asked, leaning through the doorway. After Luci had fished him from the well, he’d rushed outside to tend his garden, which had been trampled during the earlier scuffle.
“Just a couple minutes longer,” Luci said.
“I’m relieved that the conquistador lives.”
“There’s nothing like a nemesis to keep you lively. In fact, before we hunt again, let’s find a replacement nemesis. Hey, Luci?”
“The man who stole your wallet: what did he look like?”
“Can’t remember,” she said, with a shrug.
A grin split Ezzy’s ancient face. “You will,” he promised. “Someday.”