Then the dead man seems to regain his purpose and shuffle slowly to where the three stand by the car. He scrapes his feet across the frozen tarmac and tries to lift his arms in a pathetic attempt at grasping. His skin is completely grey with blue undertones – death gone to pallid ash. The dead don’t take naturally to temperatures such as this. They don’t move well to begin with, and the cold slows them down considerably more. For this reason, there are more communities of survivors in the north where the seasons make it safer for many months of the year.
The dead man reaches for them, his fingers immobile on the stumps of his hands.
Poor thing, says the Vestal Amata. Do you have to kill it?
It ain’t doing him any favours to keep him alive, Moses says.
He walks over to the dead man and pulls a small folding knife from his pocket.
The dead man reaches for Moses, opening his mouth. There is no smell to the man, dried up and frozen as he is, and Moses can see the shrivelled tongue in the well of his mouth, the cracked grey palate, the teeth turned to chalky stone.
The arms grasp for him, but Moses gets to the man’s side and reaches one arm around the back of his torso to keep the arms lowered. It is a gentle gesture, almost like a brother’s embrace. The dead man looks confused. He tries to rotate his head to a position where he might get a bite out of Moses, but the neck doesn’t allow such range.
Be still now, Moses says quietly.
Then he takes the knife in his free hand, unfolds it, and raises it in front of the dead man’s face.
Close your eyes, Moses says to him. It is tender, the process, like a surgery or a baptism or a sudden kindness. Close your eyes now, he says.
He raises the knife to within an inch of one of the eyes, and the dead man instinctively closes them. He is peaceful now, his mouth still open but more by muscle slack than appetite. And then, with quick precision, Moses thrusts the knife deep into the man’s eye socket. A little dribble of fluid, neither pus nor blood, spills from the burst orb of the eyeball – and then the man’s whole body goes limp.
Moses lets the body down gently onto the ground and removes the knife from the eye socket. Then he sweeps up a handful of frozen dirt from the verge to clean the blade with.
Poor thing, says the Vestal again.
You want to say something over him? Moses asks.
Vestals must have blessings, she says. Don’t you think?
But neither of the Todd brothers responds, and after a while of standing shivering over the dead man, they all return to the car.
They drive. They snow abates, having left a thin dusting over everything. Moses looks behind them in the rearview mirror and sees the two parallel tracks of his tyres marking their progress over the whited earth.
There’s a town called Dolores, but there’s not much in it – just a few blocks of houses north and south of the main drag, which is called Railroad Avenue. But it must be on the edge of some active grid, because they see the lights miles before they reach it. It’s the first electricity they’ve seen in weeks, travelling the deserts of the south-west as they have, and their minds get filled with visions.
But what the town of Dolores is is an outpost at the base of a mountain range – a last stop of civilization before the rangy wild. And it is an outlaw’s town, a bawd’s town. The Todd brothers have seen many assemblages such as this – pirates congregated at a pit stop for travellers. They provide safety and services for a fair exchange of goods – and they steal what they want above and beyond that fair exchange.
It is night when they arrive, and snowing again – the streetlamps illuminating the flakes in smoky circles as they fall. They drive slowly, stared at by men whose gesture of welcome is that they hold their rifles casually at their sides. But in the middle of town they arrive at a large inn with twin gabled roofs, and a woman comes out to greet them.
Welcome to the Historic Rio Grande Southern Hotel, she says.
She is thick around the bosom and waist, and her flesh is pushed and pulled every which way by a bustier that cinches her middle, and squeezes her br**sts up into a shelf of flesh. Her face is rouged, and her tinted hair piled in a gaudy stack on top of her head.
She smiles invitingly to the Todd brothers as they climb out of the car, and the smile diminishes when the Vestal Amata emerges after them.
We’ve got three churches in town, the madam says and folds her arms across her chest. They’re not in the best condition, but they’re still full of relics. Families like to stay there sometimes when they pass through.
In the windows of the gabled house behind her, there appear faces of girls all lipstick and powder. Their eyes dash back and forth, curious about the newcomers.
No, ma’am, Abraham says and limps forward on his wounded leg. I reckon this is the place for us, Vestal or no Vestal.
The smile reappears on the madam’s face.
Then come on in, she says. Homestyle comfort right here in little Dolores.
The town is grey and low, spread out in the small valley between the foothills of a mountain range to the north-east. Like most survivor towns, the outlying structures are run-down or fully collapsed, and all the residents have huddled into a few maintained buildings in the centre of town. Across the street from the Rio Grande Southern is a long ranch-style building like a train depot, with a raised porch that circles it entirely. At one end is a sign for what probably used to be a barbecue restaurant. The words Flying Pig are painted across it, and it looks like someone in town has restored the sign to its original colourful state. Except, dangling from the overhang of the place, there’s a skeleton of a swine to which some scallywag has wired white wooden wings. And such is the playfulness of the town called Dolores – muddied with grim horror.
The sky overhead is slate grey and shallow with ugly clouds. Likewise, the street is pocked with dirty puddles of icy snow, the painted median lines long weathered away, the verge of the tarmac crumbled with use and age. It is a place to make you feel crushed, squeezed to suffocation between a low sky and a flat earth, as though life here continues narrowly, in a thin margin between earth and atmosphere. The residents stoop in towns such as this for fear of striking their heads on fallen skies.
The three travellers are escorted into the Rio Grande Southern by the madam. Abraham stays in the lobby of the place with the Vestal Amata and a small host of women wearing all variety of nightclothes, while Moses follows the madam into a back room to make arrangements.
Watch her, Moses says to his brother and points to the Vestal.
Aye aye, brother, Abraham says and smiles at the roomful of women.