Javier hears the words, but they don’t register. Women don’t talk to men like him. He shoves his hands in his pockets, keeps his gaze trained on the ground.
“Hey, you. Mr. Hawaiian shirt.”
From the corner of his eye, Javier sees the sea of multi-hued, multi-generational faces staring up at the woman, perched in the bed of her pick-up. They all want work, or seem to want it. Some probably only stopped for the entertainment of watching a tiny, fiery-haired woman try to hire day labor from a pool of rag-tag men, recently released into the general population after a night in the county homeless shelter.
Javier persists in staring at his feet. The redhead knows she has his attention, though, because she says, “What do you know about fire layin’?”
Javier kicks a stone in his path. “I got some experience. What of it?”
“I got ten mommas fixin’ to lay. I need a coop and nesting boxes, ASAP.”
“Why don’t you do it yourself?”
“Ten mommas. Ten fireproof nesting boxes. Two days — or so says the weather man. You want the job or not?”
Javier shrugs. “What do I get for it?”
“Three hots and a cot, enough pay to buy you a couple new shirts. You should probably burn that one.”
Javier looks up and reveals the burn scars marring his left cheek and jaw. They match the marks on his left forearm that his short-sleeve shirt fails to cover. The scars make people wary; so does his questionable immigration status. Few will take the risk of hiring him and the ones who do usually try to take advantage of him. But something about this woman intrigues. Javier smiles at her. “This is my best shirt.”
The woman snorts. “Then you need this job worse than I thought.
Javier sheds his Hawaiian shirt and works in an undershirt, soaked through with sweat. Even in the shade of a magnolia, where Gilda has set him up with fire-rated drywall and a five-gallon bucket of liquid flame retardant, Javier’s blood boils. The birds need the heat, requiring 100-plus temps for laying, and this day promises to approach the threshold. The weatherman says tomorrow for sure and Javier has three nesting boxes to finish before then.
Gilda brings Javier a glass of tea. He guzzles it before the ice cubes can melt, but he instantly regrets it. “Uh,” he says, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Brain freeze.”
Gilda sips her own tea and smirks at him. “Shouldn’t be so greedy.”
When their break ends, Gilda joins Javier. He likes how hard she works to keep up with his more experienced skills. “Why did you wait until the last minute?” Javier asks. “You should have finished these boxes a while back.”
“The birds were a surprise,” says Gilda. “Sorta dropped on my doorstep a couple days ago.”
“Don’t know. But you see I got them laying hens and I do an okay egg business, so they must have thought I could handle these girls.”
“You didn’t try to sell them? They don’t come cheap.” Sexual potency and rejuvenation after consuming pulverized feathers, miraculous crop yields from guano fertilization, meat served as a delicacy in some countries; these birds turn a comfortable profit, if one overlooks the hazards of breeding them.
“Maybe I’m keen to the challenge,” says Gilda.
“Most people don’t breed on a whim.” Javier flicks his fingers across the burn scars on his cheek to illustrate his meaning. “It’s dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. Get careless and you’ll get burned.”
“Is that what happened to you? You got careless?”
“Birds, authority, beautiful women… I took a lot of risks when I was younger, learned a lot of lessons the hard way.”
Javier winks. “Now I’m a lot more cautious.”
For once the weathermen’s predictions of hundred-plus temperatures proves accurate. Javier and Gilda stand at a safe distance from the recently finished coop and watch the occupants of the new nesting boxes settle into place. Gilda keeps her water hose close by, just in case. “I been reading on-line,” says Gilda. “Says they’ll wait until the hottest part of the day to start laying, and then… pop, pop, pop, one right after the other. Sorta like microwave popcorn.”
“But when has your microwave popcorn ever come along with thousand degree blasts of flame?”
Gilda frowns. “Are you sure those nesting boxes will hold up?”
“They should do the trick, but they’ll need to be regularly replaced. The brooding and incubation keeps up a steady flame, sort of like a pilot light. It weakens the box’s fireproofing over time.”
“I hadn’t really thought that far ahead,” says Gilda.
“Typical chick survival rate is about fifty percent. This time next year, you’ll have at least fifteen, ready to lay. And then you gotta keep them all fed — they only like live prey — keep them warm, healthy, and happy. On top of your regular laying hens, phoenix breeding is going to double your work.”
Gilda starts to ask another question, but is interrupted by a momma bird’s soft cry, followed by the jettison of flame. A plume of dazzling plasma, like a sun flare, rockets into the sky. Javier’s breath catches in his chest. Another bird sings out; another blaze reaches to the clouds. Javier grips Gilda’s elbow and tugs her away from the coop.
“My God,” Gilda says. “It’s amazing.”
“Sure is,” says Javier. “I’d almost forgotten.”
Gilda turns to look at him. “Double my workload, huh?”
Javier nods. “At least.”
“If you could set aside your caution, I’d offer you a business partnership.”
Javier considers it — the inherent perils of phoenix breeding and trusting a woman he barely knows. Then he unbuttons his Hawaiian shirt, balls it up, and chucks it into one of the laying boxes, ensuring its incineration. He smiles at Gilda. “I guess that’s a risk I’d be willing to take.”
K.B. Sluss’s fiction has appeared at Daily Science Fiction, Stupefying Stories and a few other places. She’s anticipating publication of her first novel with Red Adept Publishing, some time in 2015.