by L. Vocem
First published In Litro Magazine
Juan Carlos launches forward, agile, quick, like a gazelle leaping into the avenue, into the moving cars. Motorcycles buzz between the lanes. Buses belch dark diesel fumes, filling his lungs, slowing him down, leaving him out of breath. He tries to hide beside one of the buses, looks back, looks ahead, across the bustling avenue. He runs again and bounces off the hood of a por puesto taxi. The driver honks and screams hijo-e-puta, mal parido, flicking a fat middle finger at him. Three more lanes of traffic and he can be on the other side, but not a single car lets him pass.
He turns his head and notices the afternoon glare bouncing off the shiny black helmet, the Guardia National that kept looking at him, the one who started to walk in Juan Carlos’ direction, the one that screamed at him to stop.
Breathe, breathe deep, don’t let the fumes drown you, suffocate you. Fatigue is setting in. He knows he has to put more energy in those legs. Run, damn it, run. The black helmet gains on him, now at the edge of the avenue, while a cacophony of honks suffocate the air.
Juan Carlos takes off again. His tennis shoes claw the wet pavement, as he flies across large puddles of water, dodging moving vehicles, bullfighting noisy motorbikes, until finally he reaches the other side of the avenue. As he jumps on the sidewalk, a por puesto taxi splashes dirty water all over him, staining his only starched white shirt—the one he uses for work. Carajo. There’s no time to moan. He runs along rows of acacia and caoba mahogany trees.
People walk in the opposite direction. They don’t move out of Juan Carlos way. They are slowing him down. They see him, but veer their eyes away. They can tell what is going on. He knows they don’t want to be connected, as if he did not exist. They know this could happen to them, to their children, to their cousins, to their brothers, at least not today.
Today he’s nothing but a reminder of things that they hate but feel powerless to do something about. But what can they do? Who can they trust? They have marched, they have worn their tear gas masks, waved the flags and nothing changes, other than there’s less food, less medicine, less freedom – people dying from eating food from garbage cans or cooking yucca amarga.
But here he is, running, trying not to get caught. Juan Carlos jerks his head back, looking for the black helmet, then glances forward for an opening in the crowd. God have mercy, people please let me through! He says to himself, almost as a whisper, really wanting to scream it at them.
Juan Carlos notices that the black helmet has been bogged down by the flow of the crowd, but he can’t tell how close, or how far he is. Maybe the black helmet is tired too, maybe his lungs are about to burst and a deluge of sweat pours down his face like him.
He thinks about the black helmet’s gun. Does he have riot plastic bullets, or ordinary bullets aimed to kill. It doesn’t matter for even in riot mode, they put marbles or shoot the plastic bullets quema ropa, point blank. He had a good friend bleed to death while he held him, ignoring the sting of a plastic bullet that found his own shoulder.
But this is different. They are hunting them down. That’s what they did to his friend Marcelo a week ago, even though he didn’t do much but show up at demonstrations with his gas mask, with a shield and plenty of flags. But he went to school with people that knew people. He had been to parties with the people that were killed in El Junquito – the ex cop that stole the helicopter and threw grenades on the roof of a government building, more for show, more for demonstration than trying to hurt anyone. At least that is what people said, not the government. They found him hiding in the chalet of a doctor in the mountains. They surrounded them, threw rockets at them. And when they turned themselves in, they assassinated them, bullet to the forehead. Then they burned the evidence, and sequestered the bodies. And now they are going after anyone connected to them.
Juan Carlos knew some people, but not directly. They talked about what they were doing in some of the gatherings where they made and painted shields with words like libertad, abajo con la narco-dictadura. They built gas masks from two-litter plastic coke bottles. They talked about all their families leaving the country – the Venezuelan diaspora, the news in the internet called it. They talked about where to get food, toilet paper, harina PANcorn flour.
Juan Carlos sees the soldier again, his black helmet peering through the crowd. Why did he run? He should have acted casual. Why didn’t he confront him when they were asking for papers, give them a look like he was a somebody. That’s what Marcelo did a week ago. And they took him in. They have not told the family where he is. Or what has happened. More than likely they are torturing him, like they’ve done to others. They even had the gall to release to social media the story of one man they beat so bad, they dislodged his testicles. And to further the humiliation, they posted the photo of the man all over the Internet.
There’s a shopping center ahead that connects the crowded avenue to a parallel street with less traffic. Beside, there are more trees where Juan Carlos can hide and plenty of side streets where he can lose the black helmet. Juan Carlos might be able to sneak through, maybe the black helmet won’t notice. Then catch his bus or even a por puestotaxi several blocks down, closer to the river. What if he has to run all the way to Las Mercedes? He’ll run all the way to his house if he has to. What if they have already been to his house? He’s not letting the black helmet catch him.
Juan Carlos slows down his pace and takes the chance to breathe, build his strength, get ready—just in case. Maybe he won’t notice him. But how could he not, one look at his long hair, his white shirt—he can’t be missed. Try to walk, not run, follow the people, mix with them, let them cloak you, he thinks. Don’t look back, he will notice you, he will recognize you among all these people going home.
Juan Carlos enters the mall’s courtyard. The afternoon’s rains have turned the sidewalk and the polished granite into a slimy mush, stomped constantly by passing shoes. The structure is composed of two office towers with a large steel canopy thrown across the sky to produce an open ten-story high atrium that shields the courtyard and several levels of storefronts from the tropical sun and rain. He passes several stores. A shoeshine boy in ragged clothes and no shoes crouches in front of one of the window displays finishing a job. A shining plastic mannequin smiles behind him.
Juan Carlos hopes that he lost the black helmet. Maybe he’s home free, yet wants to look back to see if the black helmet is still following him. Maybe he lost him. Maybe the black helmet is five steps behind. And what if the black helmet is just ready to grab him.
He has to look. He can’t. Juan Carlos keeps walking, cranes his head slightly, as if looking at one of the window displays, back to where the shoeshine boy is. The boy stands and looks at something intently. He knows the black helmet is not too far, he can see it in the boy’s eyes. The black helmet will probably stop to harass the kid. Maybe he is one of them, one of their militias, a colectivo. He hears a voice telling the shoeshine boy to get the hell out there, “vete carajito.”
Juan Carlos can’t tell whether it is his persecutor or someone from one of the stores. He has to see who it is. He turns a little more. It is not the black helmet, but a sales clerk with a name-tag from the men’s store dressed in a fancy suit, like the ones on display. But the shoeshine boy is not looking at him, he’s looking at the crowd. Juan Carlos follows where the boy’s eyes are looking and they lead to…! There he is, his shiny black helmet and shadowed impersonal face. Has he seen him? Is he going after the shoeshine boy? Is he coming his way?
Juan Carlos walks faster inside the crowd, doubling his pace. He arrives at a balcony where there’s no way to continue but down an escalator. How stupid of him, how could he have forgotten about the escalator? He will be completely exposed, trapped, with people in front and behind him, unable to run or do anything. He has no choice, there’s nowhere else to go, so he moves towards the escalera electrica, following the mass of people, filtering into the machine like the grains in a sand clock. Juan Carlos grips the black handrail and places his feet on the metal step that is going to deliver him to the other side some twenty meters below, where more stores stand side by side and a waiter cleans the water from a table as he prepares for the early evening clientele.
The man in front of Juan Carlos looks at his watch, then picks at a fingernail with his teeth. The person behind him, whom he has not turned to see, is moving his briefcase back and forth, poking Juan Carlos back pocket where he keeps his wallet. If only he had money like his Uncle’s side of the family. He could pay for a visa and go to the States.
Marcelo could have tried to bribe them, but last week he had to be so brave. “Tu no sabes con quien te metes,” you don’t know who you’re messing with, Marcelo told them. He heard him as he arrived at the scene holding two iced cold coconuts.
Juan Carlos doesn’t have any money. He works so he can barely make ends meet and help his mom with the groceries, whenever basics are available. He should be in school, he should be studying, so some day he can get a real job, making real money. But everyday, inflation eat up his paycheck and he can’t even buy food, a pair of shoes, have dinner at the restaurant down from the escalator, or buy the starch and soap to wash his now stained white shirt.
Juan Carlos does not belong to any political party. He’s only been to the demonstrations, gathered to make gas masks, shields, signs. He wishes he could go back to the university and study instead of having to work, just barely to exist. Or move to Spain or Argentina. Money, money, money, if only he had money. His Dad used to make decent money, but now is not enough, and most of it goes to get insulin through the black market. If he gets stopped he can use his uncle’s name. He’s in the Fuerzas Armadas. Even though everyone in the family seem to hate him. “Why don’t you do something?” His mom has screamed at her own brother. “Throw some weight around!” He is not that happy either, and give him a few drinks and he starts cussing and mumbling estamos hasta la nuca de cubanos, we’re up to our necks with Cubans.
When they were at the beach with Marcelo, the black helmets didn’t take well to what Marcelo had said. They surrounded him. The girls pulled back. Juan Carlos wanted to interfere. He wanted to tell the little soldiers in their black helmets that his uncle would take them out of their comfortable duty in the big city and send their sorry asses to the Delta, to the middle of the hot swampy jungle, where little soldiers like them dropped like flies from malaria, encephalitis, yellow fever, cholera—where they drowned in their own shit before they even saw anyone. If only he had said that at the beach while they were beating Marcelo. But Marcelo gave him a look to not get involve, to lay back. He held the two iced-cold coconuts with straws coming out watching his friend getting beat up, then taken away. He feels so guilty, he should have done something. Alejandra and Marisela told him not to blame himself. They would be torturing him right now for all they knew.
He hears a shout. The man in front of him stops eating his fingernail, veers his sluggish eyes and looks up the escalator and then at him. He hears the commanding shout again. There’s no mistaking—it’s the black helmet. He turns and sees the black helmet pointing a finger at him, ordering him to stop, not to move. But the ground, the step in which he stands, the escalator, keeps moving, disregarding the command, oblivious of his authority. The black helmet yells louder in a commanding tone at the people on the escalator to get out of the way. Where are they going to go? They can’t go up. They can’t go down any faster, they would kill themselves if they jumped to the sides. So these people, the very element that keeps Juan Carlos from getting away, is keeping the black helmet from getting to him.
With loud shouts and pushes and shoves the black helmet moves his way down the escalator. Juan Carlos has to get going and passes the man having fingernails for dinner. He pushes and says “permiso, permisito” excuse me, and pushes through another person, feeling the fabric of their clothes, the bad breath of their long day—of smoking cigarettes and drinking con leche’s. But he is not moving fast enough, and his pursuer in the black helmet seems to be gaining on him. At the sight of the man covered in protective black plastic plates and menacing gear, people do what they can to get out of the away. But with him, they don’t want to be too cooperative. They remain unmoved by how close he gets to them as he slides across, touching their bodies, invading their personal spaces, breaking the solitary trances in which the daily rituals of going back to their homes have placed them.
I’ll never make it, he thinks. He is trapped inside the apathy of this people. They are so full of bravado during the demonstrations, but on an average go to work day, they don’t help. At this rate the black helmet is going to get to him, and as he can now see on that bellicose face, unleash all his wrath and furry upon him, to punish and humiliate. The black helmet screams again, telling him to remain still, that he doesn’t want to make things worse for himself. The black helmet roars to the people to remain still and move aside as he approaches him. A woman in front to him has panic written all over her face. He can’t tell if she’s scared of him, thinking that he is going to steal her purse like a common criminal, or of the loud menacing screams of his persecutor under the black helmet.
He can’t get past this woman, she’s frozen there. He’s doomed, soon to be going in their paddy wagon to some detention center, asked questions, and then what. Will his family know where they are keeping him? They’ll break him, but to what avail, so he can tell them that he was good at painting the Venezuelan flag on shields, that he was guilty of throwing tear gas canisters and rocks back at them.
He looks at the lady with the petrified expression and when her eyes meet his he says “Doñita, that’s not a policeman, it’s a Guardia Nacional, and I’m not a criminal, so please let me through.” Her expression remains the same, as if rigor mortis has set in. He clearly sees that she is not going to do anything. So he jumps from six meters high and lands on top of a table. He twists his ankle, it hurts, it hurts like the devil. He steps down on a chair and on to solid ground. He looks up at his persecutor. Where was all this adrenaline at the beach, when he stood there. The black helmet motions as if he’s going to jump too, but he’s too high up on the escalator. He keeps pushing his way through the people, screaming at the top of his lungs, asking the people to stop him, that he is an enemy of the revolución, un traidor a la patria.
People move away. The black helmet advances.
Air, heat, fire, anger, adrenaline takes over every cell, muscle and nerve of his body and he runs, runs, pushing tables and chairs aside, runs with all he’s got, with all that he’s ever put into a run. Do it for fucking Marcelo, even if it is to run away from the black helmet instead of confronting them. There are people sitting at a table in front of him. He is not able to veer to the side, it’s too late, so he jumps on top of the table. Glasses fly about, shatter as they hit the floor. He lands, and runs with more force, more power. He can feel his own body in motion. He’s flying now. He hears the black helmet slide and land on a table as he did. He hears metal bouncing of the ground, boots stomping. He hears tables and chairs shoved around. The black helmet screams again, ordering, demanding, demeaning. He keeps running with a new acquired desperation. He turns slightly and sees the black helmet reaching the end of the tables. The polished granite extends another twenty meters, wet, slippery, mushy. Juan Carlos has to turn, he can’t slow down, but the tennis shoes don’t hold, so he slides and slides, managing to keep his balance, until he finds a grip on the ground and lurches forward with all his force into the street. His persecutor, his predator, his black helmet runs behind him until he finds the slippery quagmire at the end of the tables. He slides too.
Juan Carlos hears the black helmet stomp a couple of times and fall. A deep hard hollow sound follows, like a helmet hitting the ground and the sharp cling of metal, once, twice, cussing, screaming.
Juan Carlos runs and runs, down the avenue, into a group of buildings, across their parking lots, until he find himself under a canopy of old mango trees hovering over a quiet street that runs parallel to the highway. He wants to look, he wants to savor this moment, but there’s nothing to savor. He should have confronted the bastard, defend Marcelo, anything. Now only what ifs remain, and some hope, maybe Marcelo’s okay. He slows his pace, now aware of a sharp pain in his ankle. He walks, limping, taking quick steps, taking in deep gulps of air. He runs again until he’s out of steam. He looks back, the Avila mountain peering through the clouds, no site of the black helmet.
He pulls out his phone and calls home. His mother answers and immediately asks what’s wrong. He asks if they have been there for him. She says no. He tells her what happened. He tells her what happened the week before, with Marcelo. She listens. She tells him that they will call his uncle, if anything they will find whatever money they can and get him a ticket out. Panama and Colombia are no good, the frontiers are bogged down with masses of people fleeing the country. There are Primos in the States. They are illegal there, but they are surviving working in construction. And one more thing, his mother says taking a pause.
“You shouldn’t have started to run.”