Copacabana beach: the postcard of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, always loaded with tourists roaming around and basking in the sun. But not today. Soccer was on everyone’s agenda, everyone wanted to watch the game.
Pedro moved speedily, scouring the streets like a trapped mouse inside a laboratory labyrinth. His eyes hurriedly scanned the crowd, and he was glad to realize that he didn’t recognize anyone. He should be in a neutral zone, or perhaps everyone else was securing a viewing place. Who would not be watching the game at this point? From the street level, he looked upwards to the hills and observed the slum where he had descended from. Staring at it from below by the beach, those little colorful wood and cardboard shacks, some also made of brick and cement which littered the side of the hill, looked uninhabited, happy, friendly, peaceful even. Maybe today, because of the big game. But how unequivocal one could be, making such an assertion. The slum was dangerous, full of tricky, mischievous, back stabbing individuals who would do anything to get ahead.
People walked by in haste, trying to finish their last minute shopping and errands before banks and shops closed down earlier than usual. It was an important game, after all, and who would be crazy enough not to be in front of a TV? The streets were in chaos, and no one noticed his ragged clothes and bare feet trying to keep up with the pace of the busy pedestrians. Easy victims, he thought. People were too busy and too preoccupied to even notice him, and he felt even more invisible. He spotted a woman, absentmindedly counting her money after stepping out of a teller machine. Completely absorbed in her task, she was oblivious to his hunting eyes. A perfect prey. He slowed down and kept a short distance between them, observing her motions warily. She counted her money again, opened her purse and picked up her wallet. But she seemed to change her mind and instead, deposited the empty wallet back in her purse. Folding the stack of money in her hands, she cautiously inserted the notes in her jeans’ front pocket, never once noticing Pedro’s prying eyes on her.
Pedro ran like a hunted gazelle, jumping over flower pots and stray dogs obstructing the sidewalk, afraid the woman would soon realize her money was gone after he purposely caused her to trip over him. She had fallen on her hands and knees close enough for his swift small hands to pull the stack of notes from her pocket. In the midst of her pain and confusion, before she got up and noticed what had really happened, Pedro had disappeared from under her $100 dollars richer.
He finally stopped on a side street, breathless, still looking from side to side to make sure there was no one following him. He was panting and needed a drink of water; his throat was dry and itchy. He needed food too. It had been…since yesterday? Yes, his last meal of stale bread had been sometime yesterday. His stomach growled loudly. He looked at the beautiful new notes now crumpled up in his small dirty hands. The money he needed, with which he could eat and drink something substantial at least for today. And although most restaurants were also closing earlier, they would not serve a boy dressed like him. He had experienced the looks of disgust from patrons and waiters alike when he had tried to enter a restaurant before. Like a pesky insect, he was always sent out immediately, an unwanted, unsanitary creature who didn’t deserve to be there and was not worthy of being in their company or their space. How unfair it was. His mother had always taught him to be respectful of people and to pray every day, but no matter how much he prayed and how respectful he was of people, he was still looked down like a pest, a diseased and rabid hungry dog people were afraid of.
A street vendor was coming from the beach front with a basket full of fried seafood. On his left shoulder, the man balanced the strap of a huge white cooler which was probably loaded with soda cans. Pedro approached the man carefully, trying not to scare him, and touched his arm. “Sir, I have money, can I have some food and a soda?” The man stopped to look at Pedro and took the opportunity to put the heavy looking cooler down on the ground to stretch his arm, still holding on to the food basket. He scratched his head. “You tryin’ to mess with me, little fellow? If you have any money, it must be stolen, and I don’t want no stolen money,” he said. He stared at Pedro up and down suspiciously, trying to notice if the boy was carrying some sort of gun or knife to assault him. “Please,” Pedro implored. “I’m hungry. A nice lady in the street gave me money, I was begging,” he lied. The man scratched his head again, this time removing his cap, and used the back of his hand to wipe off the sweat dripping from his forehead. “Tell you what,” he said. “I’m in a hurry to catch the bus and get home before the game starts, so go ahead and take this, I’m done selling for today.” He handed Pedro a paper bag full of fried shrimp. The man opened the cooler he had placed on the ground, grabbed a can of soda, and gave it to the boy. “Now go and keep your money, let me try to catch the bus, I’m already late!” The man put his cap back on, lifted the heavy cooler and ran away without giving Pedro time to thank him.
Pedro sat down on the floor, devoured the fried shrimp and washed it off with the soda. He felt better but his stomach still hurt a little, not from hunger, but from being too full too soon. He felt like taking a nap; however the streets were becoming too deserted. If someone was looking for him, and they probably were, he would be an easy prey to catch. He got up shivering from the thought, felt his pocket to make sure the cash was still there, and walked towards the beach front, where he found a coconut water kiosk still open. A couple of foreign guys sat around a small screen TV by the corner drinking beer, animated with the game that had just started. It was better for him to stay around people, besides; no one would notice him with their eyes glued to the screen. He didn’t move or make a sound. His life might as well be over; he was too nervous to watch it. But he knew he had to hang on till the very last hope. Everything would be fine, he thought with a hint of optimism, and then his life would move on as usual again. It all depended on eleven men running after a ball. These critical 90 minutes would determine if the terror of being caught could be avoided.
What had he done? What would his mother have thought of him? She often told him to be honest. She didn’t want him begging for money, she didn’t want him stealing, she didn’t want him involved with the drug gangs and she didn’t want him lying. But how? How could he survive in the streets if he was just plain honest like she wanted him to be, with no food, no clothes, barely a place to sleep in that tiny cardboard shack in the slum?
And when all those other boys kept teasing him and bullying him because he was the only fool who didn’t steal, didn’t smoke, didn’t do drugs? What kind of a slum animal was he?
He tried to hang out with them, in hopes of being accepted by Maroon, the gang leader, the one who sold the stuff. Something white to sniff. His mother had warned him to stay away from anything to sniff; it would kill him. He was afraid of it; besides, Maroon would never give it to him for free and he understood it cost a ton of money, the very money he needed to buy food and clothes to survive. Maroon barely took notice of him, but when he did, he would kick him as if he was shooing away a stray dog, or he would spit on him.
Pedro hated Maroon. But Valdo, Maroon’s right side man, was nicer to him. Valdo didn’t kick him or spit on him, and sometimes Valdo would even give him a slice of bread or the rest of his beer if he was drinking one, and most of the time, he was drinking one. Although Pedro didn’t like the taste of beer, it was better to accept the offer and take the last sip from the warm glass bottle than to drink the dirty tap water from his shack. Valdo treated him more like a pet, which gave him an almost warm, fuzzy feeling.
Two days ago, Pedro had followed Valdo, who had been drinking more than enough beer, to the place where Maroon hid the white stuff. Valdo didn’t seem to care he was being followed to the abandoned shack, the last one barely standing on the long filthy avenue in the middle of the slum. Valdo unlocked the door, entered the shack, and lifted a ceramic tile from the broken, almost barren floor, taking from it a small clear plastic bag filled with white powder. He left the small vault open while he sat on the other side of the empty shack to sniff the substance, and Pedro saw lots of bags hidden inside. He watched while Valdo enjoyed his alcohol and drug induced stupor, and when he realized the man was too high to notice him, he grabbed one of the bags, stuffed it in his pocket and ran off.
Pedro had seen one of his neighbors buying the white stuff from Maroon many times before, so maybe he could make a deal. He came to Manuel’s house with the bag and offered it to him. “A whole bag? Where did you get that, boy?” Manuel asked, surprised. “I need to sell it. How much can you pay me for this thing?” Pedro asked. “I can give you 300. I will pay you later though, I’ll get the money from the bet, tonight,” Manuel said. “300? I think it is worth more than that. What bet?” Pedro asked. “It is worth more, sure, but I can’t afford more than 300 and I can only pay you later. I bet money on today’s game, we will win, but you need to give me the bag now,” Manuel said. Pedro handed Manuel the bag and left, eager to come by later to get the money he so desperately needed.
Pedro was suddenly startled by effusive cheers from the guys watching the game. He had been daydreaming, thinking about how he had gotten to this mess. A goal! Had his team scored a goal? Were they winning? No! The cheers were from the tourists gathered around him. His team was losing. But there were still 45 minutes to go, though. Certainly, the team would turn it around and win. Pedro felt feverish. He was sweating heavily, and a queasy feeling took over his entire body. As his stomach churned, he got close to the sidewalk to vomit the fried shrimp. His mouth tasted sour but he had nothing to drink. He ran to the seaside and washed his face and mouth with the salty sea water, returning to be closer to the TV and the people for the second half of the game. He looked around, making sure there was no one he knew anywhere in sight.
What would his momma think of this? Too bad she was gone. He missed her so much. Such a tragedy. No one ever found out who killed her, when she died from a stray bullet, walking home from her hourly job as a housemaid. When he found her, lying on the unpaved sidewalk, a single bullet to the side of her skull, her brains were scattered all over the blood stained floor. The gang wars in the slum prevailed, and occasionally, a shoot out would result in a casualty. And his mom had been one. Would he also be a casualty of the drug war if they didn’t win the game?
Before lunch time, Valdo had found him wandering in the slum. “Little traitor, you,” he said, accosting Pedro. “You got the bag from the hole, didn’t you?” Pedro jumped. “Maroon is furious, he wants it back,” Valdo said. “I don’t have it,” Pedro responded, shaking. “Then you owe him 500 for it,” Valdo barked while holding his arm in a tight grip. “I will get him 300,” Pedro managed to say. “300 won’t do. It is worth 500. He wants it tonight after the game, to celebrate the victory. And you better have it. We know where you live,” Valdo said, lifting his shirt to let Pedro see a knife tucked in his pants. “You thought you would get away with it?” Valdo laughed. “You’re nothing but a stray dog lost in the slum. Go get the money!” Pedro looked at him in shock. Tears filled his eyes but he forced them in. “I. I’m sorry. I was hungry. I’ll get the money after the game. I’ll give it back to you.” Pedro’s voice was slow and slurred. He got away from Valdo’s tight grip and ran down away from the slum to the sunny and festive city below. He knew Maroon had many other boys in his gang and they would be looking for him to make sure he would not disappear, that he would pay him back for the stolen drugs.
How could he have been such an idiot to give the bag to Manuel without payment first? What would he do now? He should have listened to his mom, but she was not there to give him a lecture anymore. There was no guarantee Manuel would pay him even if he won the bet, and he probably would not return the bag either. He knew he could not plead with Maroon. The bully would not spare him; he was furious and wanted his money back.
Cheers erupted again from the small crowd next to him. Another goal! His eyes widened. His heart was beating fast. He inspected the men now standing around him, dancing and celebrating. In a bout of desperation, he wiggled himself among them. One of the men felt a hand in his pocket and turned around abruptly, facing Pedro with disgust. The tourist yelled something in a foreign language, but before Pedro could react, the man and his friends were hitting him in the head. He barely escaped from the tourists’ heavy hands, running all the way to the beach front without looking back. When he stopped to take a peek, he didn’t see anyone coming after him. His head hurt and his legs were shaking. He sat near the water and reached for his pocket. It was empty. In his carelessness and fear while running away from his assailants, he lost the stolen money.
Rio de Janeiro woke up engulfed in a dense fog, with cloudy skies and a breeze cooler than normal. The weather was conducive to the sullen mood the locals felt after the team lost the game the day before, like the remnants of a hang-over. Such a profound sadness was hard to explain to those whose countries were not so obsessed with a World Cup soccer game. People moved about in a procession as if going to a funeral; some were gloomy, still unable to comprehend the loss. Others were infuriated, blaming the coach, the players, everything that could have gone wrong to culminate with the shameful loss, the drama which resulted in the country’s elimination from the sought after Cup. Desolation reigned. It was a tragedy, the dream was over.
The garbage man swept the street, gathering the rest of a short lived euphoria from the day before: flags and small pieces of paper were scattered all over the place. He was upset to see so much waste. In a bad mood, he noticed a big piece of cardboard covered with crumpled newspaper sheets, a larger volume, which would require a bigger trash bin to dispose of. He approached it, and after sloppily lifting several newspaper sheets, he unveiled a gruesome scene. A frail, brown skinned homeless boy dressed in rags and bare feet lay on a pool of blood on the floor, eyes still opened wide as if he had seen a ghost. The knife that penetrated him was still visible, inserted deep into his navel. The man made the sign of the cross, covered the small body back with newspaper, and walked away, shaking his head in horror. He had seen robberies and pick-pocketing before, but had never found a dead body. “There’s a homeless beggar boy stabbed to death over there,” he said anxiously to the cop stationed at the patrol booth by the beach, as he pointed to the corner where he had just found the body. Then, picking up his sweeper, he crossed the street and resumed his tedious job.
(1) Reader Comment
March 21, 2017
March 02, 2017
February 21, 2017
February 05, 2017
I really enjoyed this story. It made me think about my own predisposit
Thank you, Scott.
I have been living in Santiago for about one year and I can confirm th
This was an enjoyable read. I could easily picture the venue and und
Thank you so much, Melanie. I appreciate your kind words about my stor