The Burning Hill
Vilson and Babão
Most people looked right through Vilson, like he was invisible. Sometimes he wished he were. The barely-there kid stood alone in afternoon shadows of the church, away from the others. He saw the cop car drawing up before anyone else did, and something cold and slippery moved inside him. Cops never came with anything good. He wrapped his skinny arms around himself, shoulders hunched.
The Candelária church was in central Rio, an island with multiple lanes of traffic washing past, surrounded by modern office blocks. It had become a safe haven for street kids, the sparse, dusty grounds at its front a patchwork of cardboard boxes flattened into mattresses.
The cop car pulled over at the kerb alongside the encampment, near a bunch of older kids kicking a Fanta can around in the harsh sunlight. The cop squinted through his open window and jabbed a finger at them, “I told you lot to clear out of this place,” he shouted over the roar of the traffic.
Most of the kids carried on with their game, intent on ignoring the cop. But one of them turned. At twelve, Gabriel was the eldest, the leader. He was Vilson’s big brother.
“Oh yeah, sure,” Gabriel shouted, puffing out his chest, “and make it easier for you to catch us and beat us? You’d like that, huh?”
“Watch your step or I’ll make you pay for that tongue, you little shit,” the cop shouted.
Gabriel picked up a stone and threw it at the cop car. It thudded into the dull paintwork on the rear panel.
“One more, just one more, and see what happens,” the cop shouted.
The other kids jeered, grabbing anything to hand, rubbish and stones, to hurl at the car.
The cop ducked his head back inside. Most of it missed the car, nothing hit him.
He went for the door handle, his other hand closing around the butt of his holstered pistol. But he managed to stop himself, breathing hard. Clenching his fist.
“You can’t touch us,” Gabriel forced a grin as he gestured at the traffic and at the church.
The kid was right, he was safe on his little island. Untouchable, with so many eyes on the encampment. More and more kids were seeking refuge in this place and every failed attempt to move them on had only served to embolden them. The surrounding area had become a hotbed of petty crime and they had made the church an eyesore. The place was meant to be a tourist attraction for chrissakes. Made to look fools by a bunch of filthy street kids. It was embarrassing.
The cop choked down his rage. But he was going to hold on to it, and blow on the embers when the time came. He revved the engine, rattling the loose exhaust pipe. Regaining his voice, he shouted, “You’ll pay for this disrespect, I’m telling you.”
The tyres squealed on the hot asphalt as the cop sped away. If there were any worries amongst the kids that the threat was genuine, they were swallowed in bravado as they cheered and threw more rubbish.
Gabriel went over to the shadows, ruffling Vilson’s shock of matted hair, “Don’t look so worried, brother.”
Vilson’s round eyes stared up at him from beneath the permanent crease in his brow, “You made him really angry, he said he would make us pay?”
Gabriel sucked on his teeth, “Cops, man. Assholes who can’t get any other job. They’re the real criminals, not us.” He put an arm around Vilson, “Forget about him. They wouldn’t dare do anything to us here, not under the eye of God.”
Vilson felt better, Gabriel was always right. It made his heart swell to have Gabriel as his brother. Everyone loved Gabriel.
No one ever took them for brothers, Vilson was skinnier and lighter-skinned. He wished he looked more like Gabriel. He stopped hugging himself, pushing his shoulders back, trying to imitate Gabriel’s confident posture.
He had felt lost and afraid when their mother had left them at the church, but Gabriel had said everything would be okay and Vilson had tried his best to believe him. Gabriel slid around most stuff thrown his way with an effortless shrug or joke, and he never took a step back. Following his lead was harder than it looked. But Vilson always had his big brother to look out for him.
Vilson awoke with a start late into that night, reaching out for Gabriel. The bed of flattened cardboard next to him was empty.
It felt as though the darkness had stolen something terrible from his nightmare, and it was still out there, crawling, its pale belly to the ground, coming for him. With the day’s traffic gone, the silence was oppressive. He sat up, hugging his knees to his chest. He tried to remember the prayers his mother had taught him. The words were jumbled and elusive, even the picture of his mother’s face was unclear. It was so long since she had gone.
A figure appeared through the low dusty haze. An adult. Another appeared a little further away. They were walking in a line.
There weren’t wearing uniforms but, like the other children who were awake, Vilson knew instinctively what was coming. And, like most of the others, he did nothing.
There was a shot on the other side of the encampment and then all the cops started firing. A handful of children jumped up and scattered, only to be pulled down by the bullets. One fell very close to him, a little girl, head cracking hard on the paving, dead before she hit the ground. Vilson flinched, the shock brutal, numbing.
Without Gabriel, he could not snap himself into action. He needed his big brother. His eyes moved back to the cops and their slow, deliberate advance, his head barely turning, hoping that the faintness of movement might keep him invisible. One of the cops was less than ten metres away. Even in the smudgy glow of the streetlights Vilson could make out the grim concentration set on his face.
A shout went up from one of the cops further down the line. More shouts as a group of children bolted into the road, trying to make the safety of the side streets, the line of cops breaking as they gave chase.
And still Vilson sat with his knees hugged to his chest. Someone grabbed his arm and hauled him to his feet, “Come on, man, let’s go.”
It was Babão, a mouthy kid that Gabriel was always telling him to keep away from. The kid was trouble. Babão dragged him away, ducking behind trees and bins until they made the walls of the church and the deep shadow of a large stone buttress.
They tried to catch their breath, hearing the shouts of the cops and the cracks of gunfire and the screams of children.
“We’ve got to get away from here,” Babão whispered.
“Not without my brother, we can’t leave without him,” it came out of Vilson in a thin wail.
“Keep it down, man, you’ll get us shot. Your brother took his chance, he ran, he probably made it, who knows? Now we have to take our chance. Let’s go.”
Vilson stood firm for a few moments and then let Babão pull him away.
Blend into the background. That had been Jake’s priority when he’d arrived in Brazil. Copacabana wasn’t the place to do that. Too touristy. Brazilians would never recognise him but a few Brits had given him a quizzical glance or double take. He had moved on from his first stop and rented a little apartment in Ipanema, and in the following weeks Copacabana’s sheen had started to fade. It hadn’t helped that the sniffier residents of Ipanema referred to it as Cocô-cabana – Cack-cabana.
He had cropped his hair and added to the holdall of clothes he had brought from the UK with some local shopping. His fair skin had moved on a few shades and he was working to revive the latent Portuguese he had grown up hearing from his mother. A couple of times he had even been mistaken for a Paulista, a native of Sao Paulo. And then he’d learned about the needle between Paulistas and Cariocas. Paulistas wrote off their rivals as beach bums and, to Cariocas, Paulistas were a bunch of try-hards, so he was no longer taking it as a compliment. But it was a step up from gringo.
And blending in had another practical purpose, it made him less of a target. Beneath the vibrant beauty of the city there was always the undercurrent of violence. He never wore a watch when he was out, and only carried a small amount of cash. That frisson of danger livened things up, though. The alertness to what was coming down the street brought the pretty things into pin-sharp focus. The smells were strong in his nostrils, the sounds of the city clear. Still an adrenaline junkie after everything that had happened pre-Brazil. Odd that, he thought.
He only needed to pass himself off at a glance to avoid getting taken for a clueless day-tripper with a pocketful of cash. And yet he wanted to get in deeper, disappear altogether. He had reason enough, but sometimes it was hard work. A night out in Copacabana was easy.
Most of the time.
Over the noise of music and talk in the bar, he hadn’t caught what the Dutch girl had said. He leaned forward.
“I said give me a break,” she shouted into his ear in her perfect English.
He tilted back to look at her face, trying to decide whether or not she was messing around. Pale-skinned, her cheeks were flushed with alcohol, her face screwed up. Had she misconstrued what he had said?
What had he said?
She was certainly fresh off the plane, ready to start ticking off her South-American-tour list. He wasn’t sure if she’d told him that or if he’d made the assumption.
Copacabana was meant to be easy. Drinking Caipirinhas was easy. Sweet and sharp, sugar and lime, masking the strong cane spirit beneath.
He was too many in to come up with a winning response, but he had to do something. He flashed her his best smile. She scowled and turned away, moving off through the crowd.
On the rare occasions that he smiled these days, it seemed to be landing as more like a challenge than an attempt to engage. He was trying to re-adjust, but forcing an already forced smile wasn’t getting it any closer to the mark.
He drained his glass self-consciously. He would get another. What has her problem anyway?
He joined the knot of people waiting to get served at the bar. He had chatted to a few locals in this place before, and to the girl behind the bar. She was at the other end of the bar but he managed to catch her eye, nodding and giving her a wave. She turned to serve someone without acknowledging him. His skin prickled. He told himself she probably just hadn’t seen him.
The Brazilian hip-hop thrashing the speakers and the white noise of shouted conversation around him were beginning to grate.
He drummed his fingers on the bar. He wasn’t near to getting served. Turning his head, he looked around the place, and then spotted the Dutch girl coming back through the crowd. She didn’t look so annoyed now. It was only when he moved into her path that she noticed him, checking, the scowl returning. She made to step around him.
“Hey,” he said.
She kept on going.
He just wanted to apologise. For whatever it was he had said. He held her arm, clumsily.
“Get your hands off me, asshole.” She threw the remains of her drink in his face, whipped her arm away and marched off.
A few people looked on, nudging and chuckling. He wiped a hand across his face, the alcohol stinging his eyes.
“Okay, you must go now,” it was a short Brazilian guy, speaking in English. The bar manager. He had an armful of empty bottles and a stack of dirty glasses in either hand.
“You upset girls in my bar, you must leave,” the manager said. Lots of people were looking now.
“You’re kidding? I didn’t do anything.”
“Go now or I get the security to make you.”
Jake’s angular features were unusual, they might belong here or there, difficult to place. In a nation of infinite variety, he should have fit, but he felt alien.
He didn’t belong in this place, or in Copacabana or Ipanema or anywhere. It was stupid to think he could just turn up, rent a place and make it his home.
“Okay, you win,” he said. He stepped back, pushed his empty glass across the bar and walked out.
The day had been a winter hangover interfering with the start of summer, torrential rain in the morning, the afternoon cloudy and grey. Drains overflowed and raw effluent ran down from the favelas, turning the sea brown, bathers and surfers replaced with a dirty froth and turds and sanitary products.
Colours that were more England than Brazil. That was unexpected. He had escaped England before, but not to get away from colours or even the shithole town he had grown up in. The place he had gone to then was a lot sweatier than Brazil, and not just because it was hotter. In his short time there it had been ten-percent boredom, eighty-five-percent exhilaration and five-percent terror. He had thrived on the mix, until the day it had gone belly up. He could have returned to England a minor hero, instead he chose notoriety, before cutting out to Brazil to wash all that stuff away. Tonight, he had picked exactly the wrong place to do that.
He crossed the road and the famous black and white waves of the beachfront paving. The beach had been deserted all day. It would be deserted now. He wasn’t sure of the time but it was after midnight when he had last looked at a clock, and that had been well before the evening had started to go south.
He held on to his Havaiana flip-flops, cool damp sand beneath his feet as he walked towards the crashing surf, wandering beyond the glare of the beachfront floodlights. The dark side of Copacabana beach was in his top three of places to avoid, but there was a knot of anger that had festered in his gut for as long as he could remember. And he was letting it tighten. He wanted to push at the world a little, to see if it would push back.
He kicked at the sand, watching the breakers for a while. He decided it wasn’t such a bad place to be. Maybe he just needed to avoid people. In a city. He smiled, and it felt genuine, even if it maybe didn’t look it. The smile broadened. The knot of anger was softening and he turned for the light and beauty of the city.
Two young guys strode out of the gloom, trying to screw down the tension that was crackling off them into menace. They were instantly recognisable, the kind of favela kids Jake was in the habit of crossing the road to avoid. But there was no road to cross, no crowd to absorb him. The world had pushed back.
The skinny, round-shouldered one pulled a revolver from the waistband of his baggy shorts.
Jake’s blood ran instantly cold. The salty breeze slipping over his skin as he rapidly sobered. He knew he should have run the moment he had seen them. He might have made it back to the clean, safe light of the beachfront, with its untroubled stream of bar-hoppers and loose traffic.
And then autopilot kicked in. He dropped his Havaianas in the sand and raised his hands to shoulder level in surrender, palms turned slightly inwards. Ready to strike.
The skinny kid’s hand shook as he pointed the revolver at Jake’s face. Jake could sweep the barrel away with one hand, chopping the other into the kid’s wrist, and he would be disarmed before he had chance to even think about pulling the trigger. Action is quicker than reaction. They had drummed that into him. And he was stronger than this kid, but there was also the one behind him.
The revolver was a spindly relic. Serious players, the kind that might pull the trigger just because there was no good reason not to, would at least carry something chunkier, more likely a semi-automatic. This kid was no psycho. It was probably less risky to let it play out. No need to go hero.
“Dá o dinheiro ai,” the skinny kid rasped, scragging the front of Jake’s shirt as he rammed the revolver into his cheek and then forced it into his mouth. The sight on top of the barrel chipped a front tooth and gouged the roof of his mouth. A flare of pain. He felt the sliver of tooth on his tongue and caught the taste of the barrel, sour metal and salty dirt, before the blood doused it.
The kid looked maybe seventeen or eighteen, less than a decade behind Jake. His bootleg Flamengo AFC shirt, with its horizontal red and black stripes, smelled of cooking oil and smoke. His partner stood back a little, shorter and twitchy looking.
“Dá o dinheiro ai,” the skinny one repeated, followed by a helpful translation in a thick Carioca accent, “give the moh-ney.”
The menace was sliding away from the kid, the tremor in his hand rattling the barrel against Jake’s teeth. He had guessed right. This kid just wanted to get his money and get home. Jake was going to be okay.
The shorter one spoke for the first time, “Puxa o gatilho, ‘lek! Mostra pra ele que ‘cê tá falando sério.”
Jake’s alcohol-fugged brain had to extract the words and reassemble them, the skinny one catalysing his translation as he pulled back the hammer with its double-jointed click. The shorter one had instructed his partner to show he was serious, and he was becoming more agitated. But if he was carrying a gun he would have pulled it by now. It was still okay.
Jake went for his pocket, slowly, and pulled out his scruffy fold of notes for the skinny kid to snatch. It was an acceptable amount and there was no one else silly enough to be out on the beach to panic them.
The skinny kid turned slightly to address his partner over his shoulder, the gun barrel rasping over Jake’s teeth. Adrenaline was twitching his muscles, but he resisted the urge to make any movement, even swallowing. Blood and saliva were pooling at the back of his throat. He was struggling to control his gag reflex, the overflow dribbling from the corner of his mouth. He swallowed.
The gun went off.
A brutal kick, Jake’s world exploding in a violating blitz of colour and noise. Blackness.
Swirling light. He was coming to, his grip on consciousness weak.
This was death, or the very last moments of life.
Hollow, sick ribbons of vertigo only anchored by the cool sand he found himself lying on. Burning snaps and sparks tracing across the dark, cloudy sky. His ears were ringing.
The right side of his face was pulsing, throbbing, burning. He could smell cordite. He moved a hand towards his face, the nausea hitting before he even touched the slick of sticky, hot blood and smashed flesh.
Faces were looking down at him. People. Gasping. Shocked. Rapid talking. Talking amongst themselves. Gringo. Talking to him.
A calmer face. A bright light shining in his eye, “Você está me ouvindo?” Can you hear me?
He thought he could hear gun shots, distant, from an unreal world. Shouting. More shots. Screaming.
The sounds rolled and stretched. It was all very far away now. He was dropping away into darkness, the light no more than a distant star. He was going.