The Wild Cards universe has been thrilling readers for over 25 years. David D. Levine’s “Discards” introduces Tiago Gonçalves, a teenager who scrapes collecting recyclables from the landfills of Rio de Janeiro. But after the Wild Card virus infects him, he learns to build something more.
In a dark, stinking room on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, its discolored cinder-block walls scarred with generations of graffiti, Tiago Gonçalves lay sweating and thrashing, delirious with fever.
For a bed, Tiago had the box spring from a child’s crib, stained and torn, over which was thrown a threadbare sheet that had perhaps once been pink. A battered plastic milk crate nearby held one pair of jelly shoes, three shirts too big for his skinny frame, two pair of shorts, some underwear, a plastic mug and spoon, a toothbrush, and half a cake of soap. That was all. But his most treasured possessions sat proudly atop the crate: an oil lamp assembled from discarded cans and bottles, using braided electrical insulation as a wick; a Swiss Army knife, its long-vanished plastic side panels replaced with scraps of teak painstakingly shaped to fit the hand and polished to silky smoothness; and a bouquet of flowers he had made by twisting together bits of colorful plastic bags.
All of these things Tiago had rescued from the landfill. But there was no one to rescue Tiago. He had lain here for . . . he didn’t know how long, days maybe, without anyone to care for him. The other three catadores—“collectors” of recycled materials— who shared this twenty-reais-a-week room had lives and problems of their own. At least João had shared some of his water and fried manioc cakes.
Tiago shivered in his sweat-soaked sheet, which clung to him like it was his own skin. He ached all over; he could barely raise his head. He wondered if he might be dying.
He knew death. He had seen death far too often in his fifteen years. Every time there was a war between the gangs of drug traficantes that ruled the favelas, bodies turned up in the dump. Sometimes they were headless and handless, oozing black blood from the severed stumps. Once Tiago had unearthed a tiny newborn baby, the umbilical cord still attached, from a bag of rotten food scraps. Rats had eaten its ears. At seven he had seen his father gunned down by the police while stepping from his own shower, during a drug raid based on mistaken information.
His mother, too, was dead, or at least that was what he assumed. Two years ago she had gone off to look for work and never come back. Most likely she had been unlucky enough to catch a stray bullet from some traficantes’ battle, never identified, and buried anonymously in a public cemetery. But deep inside he harbored the fear that she had tired of him, of the strain of caring for a hungry, curious boy as an unemployed single mother, and had run away, back to the countryside from which she had come before he’d been born.
He should never have been born. Just by existing, Tiago made things worse.
João poked his head around the tattered bath curtain that separated Tiago’s space from the rest of the room. It must be the end of his work shift; time passed strangely in this delirious room without windows. “Oi, Tiago! Just checking to . . . Nossa Senhora!” Even in the near darkness, Tiago could see the shock in João’s eyes, sudden wide white circles in his dark face.
“Wha . . . ?” Tiago struggled to sit up. “What’s wrong?”
“Have you seen your face?”
“No . . .”
João vanished, the curtain falling back, leaving Tiago blinking in dazed concern, heart pounding with fever and dread. João returned a moment later with the mirror from the men’s washroom, a shining triangular scrap with a deadly point. Without a word he held it up so Tiago could see himself.
At first he thought that what he was seeing was just an effect of the fractured mirror. Then, as he continued to stare and the mirror shifted slightly in João’s hands, he realized it was reality.
His face, formerly an ordinary but unlovely dark brown, had changed. It was now a dramatic hard-edged jigsaw of black, brown, and pink. One eye was still brown; the other, the one whose surrounding skin was lighter, was now hazel. His nose was divided down the middle—the left side had dark skin and a broad African nostril, the right was tawny, a slim Tupi Indian beak. Neither side matched the nose he remembered.
With wonder he touched his cheek. It was his own skin, not a mask—he could feel his fingertips lightly brushing his face—and its texture varied slightly, the pale skin smoother and the darker skin having a more waxy feel. The line between the two was distinct, but didn’t feel like a seam or a scar. He rubbed at it, first in concern and then in panic, but though both sides reddened and warmed, the color did not come off.
His hands were the same patchwork of colors.
Suddenly alarmed, he sat up and pulled his shirt open. Triangles and rectangles of a half dozen different shades ran all the way down his chest and stomach and into his pants. Legs and arms too. His own hands on the parti-colored skin felt like ice.
He realized he was making noises—ah, ah, ah—frightened, animal sounds. He clamped his mouth and eyes shut, hugged himself with his arms, and rocked, trying to calm himself.
“You got the virus, man,” came João’s voice through the keening in Tiago’s head. “The wild card.” He sounded half-terrified and half-awed.
“No!” Tiago moaned into his knees. But he knew it was true. What else could cause such a change to happen overnight?
The curtain rattled and Tiago opened his eyes. It was Eduardo, the oldest of the four and the one who collected the rent. “Que diabo!”
“He got the wild card,” João said, helpfully.
Eduardo clapped one hand over his nose and mouth and backed slowly away. “You can’t stay here,” he said, muffled. “You take your things and go, right now.”
“But it’s almost dark!” João protested.
Eduardo glared at João. “You wanna end up like him? Or worse, like some kind of fungus glob?” He shook his head, turned back to Tiago. “No. You go, now. Take your germy stuff, too. We’ll have to burn your mattress.”
João looked back and forth from Eduardo to Tiago. Tiago—still trembling, chilled, disoriented—just sat and stared back at him. Then Flavio, the fourth boy sharing the room, came in.
Flavio took one look at Tiago, shrieked, and fled.
“That’s it!” said Eduardo. He yanked down the curtain and threw it out the door. “Cai fora!” Beat it!
Tiago looked to João, but the younger boy just shook his head slightly, blinking in stunned incomprehension. He would find no support there.
Shuddering, barely able to stand, Tiago dragged himself out of bed. The Swiss Army knife he put in his zippered shorts pocket, along with his few bills and coins; the lamp and flowers would have to remain. The remaining contents of the milk crate he dumped onto the sheet, gathered up into a bundle, and slung over his shoulder.
He couldn’t even manage a good-bye. He just glared at the two other boys as he dragged himself out the door.
As he trudged down the street—really just a dirt track between houses assembled from cinder block, scrap lumber, and discarded doors, illuminated only by the flickering light of methane fires from the dump—he considered that he didn’t have enough money for even a shared room, and no one he knew had any extra space, even for one skinny little boy. Too late, he realized that he should have asked Eduardo for his share of the weekly rent back. But then again, Eduardo had probably already paid it to the landlord, or would claim to have done so.
The catadores worked around the clock. If he hurried, he might make the late shift, where he could pick up a few reais—if anyone would work with him. He turned his feet toward the Catadores’ Association yard, where the pickers received the fluorescent vests that showed their authorization to work and caught a truck to the landfill.
But when he arrived, he found the yard empty, with stacks of sorted plastics, papers, and metals sitting silently beneath the buzzing floodlights. The last truck had already departed. Only old Vitor, guardian of the cash box, remained, sitting on an upturned plastic bucket and smoking.
As he approached, Vitor looked up lazily, then jerked to his feet. “Porra!” he swore, the bucket rattling away behind him.
“It’s just me, Vitor. Tiago. The one who always brings the nice clean PET bottles.” But his hopes were already fading.
“Curinga!” the old man replied, crossing himself and backing away.
Tiago’s lip curled and he prepared to spit back a matching insult at the weak, shabby old man. But then he realized that Vitor’s slur, curinga, was just the literal truth.
Tiago had become a curinga—a joker. A twisted, pathetic victim of the wild card virus.
He didn’t belong here, not anymore. Not even the catadores, the lowest of the low, would associate with him. He was diseased, abased, offensive. There was only one place for him to go.
“I just need some money, man,” he said. He realized that tears were leaking slowly down his cheeks. He ignored them. “I need to get to Bairro dos Curingas.” Everyone knew Rio’s Jokertown—the neighborhood where the virus’s most unsightly sufferers gathered. There, at least, he would fit in. But Rio was a long way from the landfill, and he would need bus fare. “Can you give me an advance on tomorrow?”
Advances were strictly against the rules, and they both knew that Tiago would not be working tomorrow. Nonetheless, Vitor went into his little shack and returned with a small wad of money, which he flung at Tiago. The bills landed on the ground halfway between them.
Tiago sighed and took a step forward, reaching for the money. But before he could touch the bills, they fluttered up, seemingly of their own accord, to his outstretched fingers . . . and stuck there.
He blinked, shooting Vitor a glance that said Did you see that? But the old man just stood there trembling, clearly just wishing the scary curinga would go away.
“Thanks, man,” Tiago said. He pulled the bills off his fingers—they came away easily—and stuffed them into his pocket without looking.
As he trudged away toward the bus, Tiago wondered what the hell had just happened. Probably it was just a breeze that had moved the bills, and as for the sticking to his fingers . . . Well, what was there here at the dump that wasn’t sticky? Anyway, he was still feverish. Maybe he’d imagined the whole thing.
The few other people at the bus stop kept their distance, muttering and casting glances, and the driver eyed him warily. But he accepted Tiago’s fare—it was almost all of what he’d gotten from Vitor—and Tiago found a seat way at the back of the nearly empty bus.
Hours passed in diesel-scented, lurching motion. People got on, people got off; no one sat near Tiago. From the occasional muttered “Curinga!” he knew that it wasn’t just the stink of the landfill on him.
The last time he had traveled this route had been a couple of months after his mother had disappeared. He’d spent the first month in a series of wretched little homes, handed from one to the next; there was no government assistance for abandoned children, he had no relatives that he knew of, and none of his mother’s friends had the space or the money to house a hungry teenaged boy for more than a few days. But then the boyfriend of a woman who’d taken him in had tried to take Tiago’s clothes off. He’d kicked the man in the nuts and fled with only the clothes on his back.
After that he had lived on the street, becoming increasingly hungry and filthy, until one of the other street kids had let him in on a scheme: she had heard that the landfill at Jardim Gramacho was a place where you could make money by picking through the garbage for recyclable metals and plastics. It was smelly, difficult work, she said, but an honest living, and she knew someone who would give them a ride . . .
Weak, skinny, and ignorant, he’d barely survived his first few weeks as a catador. But eventually he had learned the ropes: where to go for a vest and a ride, how to be the first to a fresh load without getting run over, how to identify the plastics that paid the most per kilo, which of the buyers would cheat you. Eventually he had gotten good at it, even begun to take pride in his work—taking people’s discards and helping to recycle them into something useful. He’d stayed alive, if not prosperous, for two years; he’d even made a few friends.
Now all that was gone—taken by the virus.
He leaned his head against the chill darkness of the bus window and wept.
“Bairro dos Curingas!” called the driver. Tiago roused himself, shook his head to clear it, collected his bundle of belongings, and stumbled out the back door just before the bus roared off.
He stood, blinking and shivering, on the black-and-white pavement. He was sick and weak and hungry, and with three changes of bus he had barely slept; it must be past midnight. But now he stood at the gate of Rio’s Jokertown.
It was not what he had expected.
Curingas there were, to be sure. A man with writhing snakes for hair stood on a corner handing out leaflets. A grossly fat woman, wider than she was tall and with warty red skin, sat at the entrance of a club, calling out to passersby in multiple languages. Two scantily clad women, both with attractive bodies but hideous faces, danced on a balcony illuminated by spotlights.
But it was not what Tiago would consider a bairro—a neighborhood—at all. It was a commercial district, bright with neon and brash with music and chatter even at this late hour. People thronged the sidewalks, most of them normal looking and almost all of them white or light skinned. Tiago supposed that many of them were turistas rather than cariocas—Rio natives.
A man bumped into Tiago from behind, making him drop his bundle. As Tiago bent to pick it up, the man slurred a drunken apology and stooped to assist him.
The man stank of alcohol, with shabby clothes and gray hair. His eyes were red and bleary . . . and extended on stalks from his face.
Tiago swallowed, but he would need to learn to accept curingas if he was to be accepted himself. “Hey,” he said. “I’m new here. I’m looking for something to eat, and a place to stay.”
“Plenty to eat here,” said the eye-stalk man, waving down the street. Doorway after doorway gleamed brightly, and enticing smells mingled in the air.
But every one of those brightly illuminated doorways had a sentinel. Some of them were guarded by large, no-nonsense men in tuxedoes; others had only a friendly-looking attractive woman in evening dress, but Tiago suspected that those women had burly men backing them up. And although a few of them had mild deformities, none were frightening or disgusting.
The whole place stank of money. And Tiago . . . simply stank. “I don’t have a lot of cash,” he told the eye-stalk man. The few remaining reais in his pocket probably wouldn’t buy a packet of peanuts at a fancy restaurant like these.
The man’s eyes wavered and literally crossed, making Tiago slightly queasy. “Santa Teresa’s gone to hell anyway,” he muttered. “Just a tourist trap, anymore. The real curingas have gotten pushed out to the favelas.” To some people, favela meant neighborhood or community; others sneered it to mean slum. The difference depended on where you stood: on the morros, or hills, with the poor, or on the asfalto, or pavement, with the rich.
The black-and-white pavement of this place was hard beneath Tiago’s jelly shoes.
One of the burly tuxedo-clad men—his skin was black as night and white ram’s horns curled from his forehead—was keeping a wary eye on Tiago. Tiago knew that look; he’d seen it plenty of times while he was living on the street, before he’d gone to the landfill. It was a look that said I know you’re just waiting for an opportunity to zip in here and take some of those hot empadas off the bar, but I’ve got my eye on you.
Above the neighborhood gateway, a huge neon sign of a burly man in priest’s garb, with tentacles where his mouth should be, waved a welcome to the crowd below. The shadows shifted in the moving light from his waving arm, but the neon curinga’s welcome was not for Tiago.
“Where do the real curingas live?” he asked the eye-stalk man.
“Up there,” he replied, gesturing vaguely toward the hills.
Tiago shouldered his bundle and began to walk.
He walked for hours, asking directions of passersby as he went. Most gave him a cold glance, or even less acknowledgment than that, and breezed past without stopping. Some spat at or threatened him. One or two threw coins, and though he had not asked for money he was not too proud to scramble after them. And a few, a very few, tried to help. The consensus was that the curingas were mostly to be found in Complexo do Alemão, a large complex of favelas in the hills of the city’s North Zone—three hours’ walk or more away. Even if he had had enough money for the bus, none were running at that hour. Finally, too tired to go any farther, he hid himself beneath a heap of trash bags, arms and legs wrapped around his small bundle of possessions, and slept.
He woke at dawn to the sniffing noses of rats, and breakfasted on stale pão de queijo rolls rescued from the garbage behind a café just setting up for the day.
He knew he was approaching the complexo as the graffiti got denser and more elaborate. The ones that were executed entirely in black paint, he knew, were gang tags— they indicated which group of drug bandidos controlled this territory, though he did not understand their code. A further, more definitive sign was the rising terrain, as the wide, straight, paved streets of the asfalto gave way to the steep, curving, narrow streets of the morro. Eventually he found himself at a high concrete wall, plastered with graffiti and topped with an iron fence: the boundary of Nova Brasília. Of all the complexo’s favelas, this was—or so he’d been told—the largest, poorest, most dangerous, and densest with curingas.
He followed the wall until he came to a gateway, where two muscular young men lounged on folding chairs. One had bat-like wings, too small to be functional; the other had a shaven head crowned by a circle of white lumps—molar teeth—and was drinking a Coke.
Both men carried machine guns.
The man with the teeth wiped his mouth and tossed the can, rattling, into the gutter. That made Tiago wince—back at the landfill, aluminum cans fetched almost two reais per kilo. “Welcome to Nova Brasília,” he said. “What’s your business?”
“I’m a curinga,” Tiago replied, gesturing to his face. “I need a place to stay.”
“He’s a curinga,” the man replied, smiling at his partner, who smiled back. The man with the teeth dropped the smile and glared at Tiago. “We don’t care what you look like, you don’t come into this favela unless you’re on approved business.”
“Approved by who?” Tiago replied. These men wore civilian clothes and carried no identification.
“Comando Curinga,” the man with the teeth replied—Joker Command. It was a name Tiago hadn’t heard before, but it echoed the names of the drug gangs Comando Vermelho and Terceiro Comando—Red Command and Third Command—which were all over the radio. “We took over this favela from the Amigos dos Amigos back in March. And no one goes in or out without our say-so.”
The bat-winged man shrugged. “Nothing personal, kid.”
By reflex, Tiago snagged the Coke can from the gutter as he walked away. But half a block later he stopped.
He had walked all night. His belly rumbled. He had no money and nowhere else to go.
The man with the wings was, at least, not actively hostile.
He looked at the can in his hand.
Then he sat on the curb and took out his Swiss Army knife. Using the can opener, small blade, and corkscrew, he cut and carved and shaped the can’s soft aluminum until it was a bird—a stupid-looking cartoon bird with big round eyes and a spray of shredded aluminum feathers on its head. It was ugly, fragile, and covered with dangerous edges, but kind of adorable.
He went back to the gateway and presented the thing to the bat-winged man. “Here,” he said, “I made this for you.”
“Did you now?” said the bat-winged man, with no visible emotion, but he put out his hand and took it. The one with the teeth frowned at him, but said nothing.
The man turned the stupid little bird over, poked at its beak, and considered it at arm’s length while Tiago’s heart stood still. He expected the man to crush it in his fist and toss it away.
But instead he just grunted, “It’s cute. My girlfriend will like it.”
“So . . . can I come in?”
“All right,” the bat-winged man said, ignoring his partner’s glare. “And did you say you needed a place to stay?”
Tiago swallowed. “I did.”
The man eyed Tiago for a moment, considering, then scribbled on a scrap of paper. “This is my cousin Luiza’s address. Tell her Felipe sent you.”
Tiago tucked the paper in his pocket. “I don’t know my way around. Can you tell me how to find it?”
Luiza lived at the top of a “street” so steep, narrow, and twisty that not even a bicycle could traverse it. Tiago’s heart pounded from the climb as much as his nervousness as he rapped on the rusted metal door.
The door was pocked with bullet holes.
“Yeah?” came a voice from within, over the thumping funk music.
“I’m looking for Luiza.”
The door creaked open a finger’s width. One eye peered through the gap. “I’m Luiza.”
“My name’s Tiago. Your cousin Felipe sent me.” He briefly described the circumstances.
The eye regarded him for a moment, then the door closed. There was an extended rattling sound, then it reopened more fully, letting out a blast of music and a sweet whiff of maconha.
Luiza was a girl not much older than Tiago. Thin, with the black hair, medium-dark skin, and prominent cheekbones of one with a lot of indigenous heritage, she looked nearly normal except that her eyebrows were made of feathers—long, black, and shiny like a raven’s. They made her dark eyes look fierce and predatory. She wore a white sleeveless top and camouflage pants, and her belt and pockets were heavy with cell phones, pagers, beepers, and media players.
“That’s a lot of gadgets,” Tiago said.
“Cool, huh?” Luiza uncrossed her arms and looked admiringly down at her array of devices.
“Why do you need three cell phones?”
Luiza smirked. “This one works.” She pointed to the oldest and most scarred of them. “The rest are for show. But pretty soon I’ll be able to afford all this for real. So will you. Everybody wins in this business . . . except for the losers.” She pointed a finger at the side of her head and mimed a gun going off. “Bang, you lose.”
She ushered Tiago inside, closing and locking the door behind him. The room was dark, the window covered with old newspaper. Boxes and bags of Tiago didn’t know what, but could guess, were piled in corners. Most of the rest of the floor was covered with mattresses; a giant sound system pounded the air. “You know the drill?” Luiza said, raising her voice above the music.
Luiza rolled her eyes. “What we do here?”
“Uh . . . no.”
Theatrically she cradled her forehead in her hand and shook her head. “Nossa . . .” She looked up. “Okay. You’ll be an avião, right?”
Tiago was completely baffled. “I’ll be a jet plane?”
“A courier! Look, do you know anything?”
“I guess not.” But he was beginning to understand.
“You pick up the packages, at the dock, and bring them here,” Luiza said, making each word clear and distinct as though Tiago were a complete idiot, and deaf to boot. Which he likely would be if he stayed in this noise too much longer. “Then you take deliveries to the bocas and the bigger customers. If you get arrested, they just let you off because you’re underage. Entende?”
Tiago understood all right, but didn’t like what he was hearing. He’d seen too many people messed up by drugs and killed by traficantes to want any part of the process. But this was the only lead he had on a place to stay. He thought quickly. “No, no, you misunderstand. Felipe didn’t send me here to be an avião . . . he liked the little bird I made. I thought I could maybe make things like this and sell them.” It wasn’t exactly a lie. The bat-winged man hadn’t said anything about Tiago being a drug courier, he had liked the bird, and Tiago did think—or at least hope—that he could sell them.
Luiza looked extremely skeptical, but the invocation of her cousin’s name seemed to pacify her somewhat. “Well . . . okay, you can sleep in the corner. But you have to pay your share of the rent.”
Tiago was skeptical too . . . that he wanted anything to do with this crowd, that Luiza wouldn’t kick him right out once she talked with Felipe, that he would be able to afford whatever his share of the rent was, that he would be able to sleep at all with this noise. But it would be a roof over his head, for as long as it lasted. “It’s a deal.”
Tiago spent the rest of the morning prowling the streets for raw materials. His years as a catador stood him in good stead . . . He could spot reusable materials from a long way off against any background, no matter how messy, and could tell from the outside of a garbage bag what it was likely to contain. He picked up bottles, cans, plastic bags, broken electronics, and even a pair of metal shears that could be repaired. Those would be useful for cutting things his Swiss Army knife couldn’t. The best find was a tube of glue, mostly dead and hard but with a little usable glue left at the bottom.
In the afternoon he stuffed bits of packing foam in his ears against the music and reassembled the things he’d found into things he thought he could sell. He made a bunch of aluminum can birds—all goofy, all different—some plastic bag bouquets, a sort of teddy bear from brown medicine bottles, and an airplane made of old greeting cards that was colorful and actually flew. He probably spent too much time on that last one.
As he worked, aviões came and went, picking up or dropping off packages and money. Most of them were boys, mostly dark, and mostly curingas, but there were also some girls and some normal-looking people—which he learned were called by the curingas “limpos” or “nats.” Some looked curiously at Tiago, but mostly they seemed focused on their jobs; also, a lot of them were somewhat or more than somewhat stoned. Tiago decided he was happier not getting to know them any better than that.
When hunger and fatigue made him stop, he packed up the things he had made in an old suitcase he’d found and headed down the hill in search of someone to buy them.
It was a long walk from Luiza’s place at the top of the morro to the nearest busy tourist street. He had to endure questioning from the armed Comando Curinga guards at the favela’s entrance, and handed over the brown-bottle teddy bear as a good faith offering. On the way he scrounged some pizza crusts for his dinner. Eventually, following his ears, he found a well-trafficked corner with a spot by the wall where he could spread out his wares.
Mostly people just passed by, and that was okay. In general the city people, cariocas and turistas alike, didn’t seem afraid or disgusted of him because he was a curinga, but on the other hand they weren’t interested in him either. But some of the playboys—well-dressed young men—sneered or spat or kicked at him. One group of playboys kicked his little display across the sidewalk, laughing the whole time; he never did find all of the items. He did sell some birds and a couple of bouquets, though, earning a handful of reais for his day’s labor.
He hadn’t been there all that long when a couple of self-important men came and stood over his little sidewalk shop. They were big and beefy and pale and wore uniforms and carried big guns, but they weren’t police.
Luiza had warned him about these militias. “Mostly ex-cops, or off-duty cops,” she’d said. “The real cops won’t charge you if you’re underage, but these guys don’t care—they’ll just kill you unless you pay up.”
Tiago hadn’t realized that he had set up shop in a militia-controlled area.
“We can’t have street trash like you bothering the tourists,” one said, his eyes hidden behind reflective sunglasses.
“I’m not—” Tiago’s mouth had gone dry. “I’m not bothering anyone.”
“You’re blocking traffic with your garbage,” the other one said. He nudged one of Tiago’s birds with his shiny boot tip.
Tiago pulled the bird back out of the way. “Sorry.”
“Sorry won’t cut it,” said the first. He leaned down and took the glasses off; his eyes were just as hard and cold without them. “There’s a fine.”
Tiago looked from one to the other. Neither of them looked the type to forgive a fine in exchange for a handcrafted bird or a bunch of plastic flowers. “How much?”
The man smiled, but there was no humor in it. “How much you got?”
Without a word, Tiago held out the money he’d made.
Without a word, the man took it.
“Cai fora!” said the other.
Tiago scrammed, as ordered.
The day wasn’t a total loss. He hadn’t given the man everything; the proceeds of his first few sales were safe in his zippered pocket. And he’d retained his unsold stock, some of which he managed to sell by walking beside turistas and offering it to them on the move. But the effort was great, and the strain of keeping a wary eye out for militia was significant, for the paltry few reais this brought in.
It was very late when Tiago returned to Luiza’s apartment. He was so tired he had no trouble falling asleep despite the pounding bass, and he slept right through until the next morning when Felipe slapped him awake.
“What is this shit?” the bat-winged man said, shaking a plastic bouquet in Tiago’s face.
“Plastic flowers?” Tiago blinked quickly, panic and sleep mingling in a confused mess in his head. “I sell them to pay the rent. I’ll do better today.”
Felipe threw the flowers on the floor. “You were meant to be an avião!” Luiza stood behind him, arms crossed on her chest, feathered eyebrows making her look like one of the vultures that always circled above the landfill.
They were all vultures—the traficantes, the militias, the playboys, the cops who’d killed his father. They perched at the top of the heap and took their pick of whatever got stirred up by the people below, people trying to recycle trash into something beautiful or useful.
“I can’t do that,” Tiago said, knowing that it might get him hurt or worse.
But Felipe just made a disgusted noise. “Cai fora!”
He’d lived on the street before, and he could do it again. He was older and smarter and tougher now.
He stayed within Nova Brasília, mostly—curingas were not as welcome in the other favelas, even less so on the asfalto. He learned where and when the militias patrolled and how to avoid the traficantes and the cops. He found the warm dry places to sleep, the dumpsters where the food wasn’t too spoiled, the places to drink and wash, the hidey-holes and routes for escape.
When he could, he remade trash into something he could use or sell. But he couldn’t carry a lot with him, and no matter how much money he made it was never enough. Though many of the necessities of life could be scavenged, there were always things that required cash, like paying the militia for protection.
He begged when he had to.
Eventually he began to steal. First food from sidewalk markets, then goods from shops, then unattended cell phones and purses from café tables. He was small and lithe and fast and he knew the favelas better than his pursuers. But even that didn’t bring in enough cash. Sometimes the militia beat him when he couldn’t pay their “fines.”
He could feel himself wearing away.
One of the things Tiago learned was the locations of the bocas where the playboys from the asfalto came to buy drugs. He liked to hang around nearby—but not too close—because the rich young men, stupid and stoned, tended to lose track of their expensive phones, watches, and even, sometimes, sneakers. He could get in, grab the goods, get out, and turn the items into cash before the playboy had even left the favela.
Late one night he was lurking near a boca—hiding in a trash pile, looking just like the other discards—when he saw a whole gang of sharp-dressed playboys laughing and lurching their way along the street. They were clearly stoned out of their minds.
Then the lead playboy in the pack stopped to light a cigarette, and as he took the lighter from his pocket, a huge roll of bills came halfway out with it. The playboy didn’t even notice as he paused, puffing his smoke alight.
Tiago just about salivated at the sight. That was enough money to get him a good hot dinner and a room for the night. A couple of nights. Maybe even a week. But the man was too far away and surrounded by his friends.
Gritting his teeth in frustration, Tiago reached out for the money—a greedy, useless, symbolic gesture.
And the wad of cash whipped from the playboy’s pocket and flew across the street into Tiago’s extended hand, where it stuck.
With wonder Tiago tugged at the roll with his other hand, but it seemed firmly attached. It was as though it had somehow become part of him. He could feel every bill, all wrapped and nestled around one another like a warm pile of puppies.
How could this be?
The playboy noticed the motion, slapped his pocket, looked around, and saw Tiago sitting astonished and staring at the roll of banknotes wedded to his hand. “Hey!” the playboy shouted, breaking the spell, and gave chase. His companions followed.
But Tiago’s reactions were faster than the drug-soaked playboys’, and with his head start and his knowledge of the favela’s twisted streets he soon gave them the slip.
Later that night, warm and dry and wrapped in a towel after a long hot hotel bath, Tiago sat on the bed and watched in incredulous awe as some of his remaining bills flew up from the coverlet to his outstretched hand, wrapping around it like a glove of multicolored paper. All he had to do was want it to happen, and it happened.
He made a fist, opened it, turned the hand over. The paper crinkled but remained firmly attached. Then he relaxed, and the bills simply fell away, leaving both money and skin unharmed.
The power, whatever it was, could pull bills all the way across the room, at least, though the farther it got the more he had to concentrate to make it happen.
It worked on bills, but not coins. It worked on note pads and towels and pillows, but not the television or the glass ashtray or the iron bedstead. It worked on the lampshade, but not the rest of the lamp, and he had to scramble to catch it before the whole thing toppled to the floor and broke. Paper, wood, fabric, and plastic, yes; glass, metal, stone, and water, no. He wasn’t sure, but thought that maybe the power worked only on things made from plants and animals.
It could pull, but not push. The only direction he could move anything was toward himself.
He tried the carpet and the mattress and the wooden desk. He could feel the tug— when he really tried to pull the desk, his feet slid along the carpet—but he wasn’t strong enough to move any of them.
Maybe if he practiced he would get stronger. There was no telling; the wild card virus was unpredictable. Sometimes it created hideous curingas, sometimes it created aces—people with supernatural powers, like the lady with wings on the Peregrine Toothpaste billboards or the contestants on the TV show Heróis Brazil. Apparently this time it had done both at once.
His dreams were all of pulling and snatching and flying. Happy dreams.
Soon he was doing tolerably well, lifting bills, checkbooks, passports, and other small paper objects in a way no other thief could and most people didn’t think to protect themselves against. Operating from a distance, patient, and stealthy, he almost always got away clean; his victims rarely even saw him, and often didn’t immediately notice that they’d lost anything. He earned the respect of the fences and always got the best price for his goods. In a way, he told himself, he was still recycling—turning paper into cash.
Tiago slept in a warm bed with a full stomach nearly every night. He was making so much money that he could afford to let other street kids crash with him. Some curinga girls, and a few of the boys, were very grateful.
He made friends. He learned the limitations of his powers.
He started to get cocky.
One day he found himself in a situation that, just a few weeks earlier, would have seemed completely insane. He was in an enclosed space—a former nightclub, long abandoned, now used as a drug warehouse at the wholesale level—watching from just across the room as a major drug deal went down.
Fernandinho Oliveira dos Santos, head of the Comando Curinga, had just entered the room. One of Tiago’s fences had let him know that dos Santos would be meeting with the head of a Colombian syndicate to discuss distribution of a new and very potent variety of cocaine. The Colombian would be bringing a sample.
If Tiago could steal that sample, the fence had assured him, he could write his own ticket. Not only was the sample itself worth thousands, its unexplained disappearance during the meeting would set the Curinga gang and the Colombians at each other’s throats—a situation some others would pay handsomely to precipitate.
The fence had let Tiago practice on a bag of his cocaine. Tiago had found no difficulty drawing the stuff to himself at distances of up to half a block.
He was well situated, hidden behind a pile of broken furniture with a door just behind himself. He had scoped out his escape route. He was ready.
Tiago watched dos Santos carefully as he paced, puffing a cigar and talking on his cell phone. The grande chefe of the Comando Curinga resembled a warthog, very broad of shoulder and belly, with gray skin and enormous tusks protruding from the corners of his mouth. His tailored suit was white and shiny and immaculate, his shoes polished, his open-collared shirt a delicate shade of orchid.
His hands were big and thick as bowling balls and looked like they could crush stones.
Tiago swallowed nervously and hoped the pounding of his heart was not as audible outside his head as inside.
Dos Santos grunted, nodded, and clicked the cell phone shut, then spoke low to his lieutenants. They quickly positioned themselves around the room, covering all the entrances and exits—except for the door behind Tiago, which was half-collapsed and seemingly led nowhere. Only Tiago knew that a fast and skinny kid could slip out of the back via that route, leaving larger and slower pursuers floundering in heaps of broken wood, fallen plaster, and torn-up carpet.
The Colombian, a slight and elderly nat, entered with two of his own lieutenants, one of whom carried a briefcase which was attached to his left wrist by a chain. After cordial greetings in Spanish and a toast of cachaça, the briefcase was unfastened and opened.
Tiago tensed. He might not have much time to make the snatch. And the two drug chieftains were both leaning very close over the briefcase.
The Colombian lifted the sample from the case. It was a brick the size of a Bible, wrapped in aluminum foil and sealed in a plastic bag. But the wrapping wouldn’t stop Tiago—it was the plant-based stuff within that his power affected.
Dos Santos unwrapped the brick and peered at the white stuff inside, sniffed it, then called in one of his lieutenants, who did things with test tubes and colored papers. Tiago noted that no one was even tasting, never mind snorting or injecting, the stuff. None of them were that stupid.
There was a nerve-wracking amount of discussion, comparison, and inspection . . . all in Spanish, of which Tiago understood only a tiny fraction. He kept waiting for an opportunity to snatch the sample, but dos Santos or one of his lieutenants kept a tight grip on it at all times. Sweat ran down Tiago’s sides; he fully expected to be spotted at any moment.
Then Dos Santos set the package down on the table and reached to shake the Colombian’s hand. This might be his only opportunity.
He tensed to spring, then reached out and pulled the package to himself.
The shining foil-clad brick flew through the air in plain sight of everyone in the room. They all followed it with their eyes as it flew to Tiago and landed right in his hands.
Tiago jumped up to flee . . . and the pile of broken chairs and tables behind which he’d been hiding suddenly collapsed, knocking him down and trapping his foot.
As if in slow motion, he saw dos Santos and all the other traficantes pull guns from their jackets, belts, and briefcases.
And Tiago reached out with his power—blindly, unthinkingly, instantaneously, more powerfully than ever before in his life—to pull every bit of stray trash in the room to himself. Papers, plaster, broken furniture, big swaths of rotting carpet, even the Colombian’s jacket . . . all flew onto Tiago’s body, covering him completely.
But it did him no good. A moment later he heard the overwhelming sound of multiple automatic weapons firing in an enclosed space, and felt the pain of the bullets striking home. Back, side, legs exploded in agony.
Shrieking in pain, he jerked to his feet. He stood up . . .
. . . and up, and up, and up.
He found himself standing with his shoulders pressed against the ceiling, looking down at the stunned, upturned faces of the traficantes.
Was this death? Was he floating up to Heaven?
It didn’t feel like death, or like Heaven. Every motion felt ponderous, labored. Even moving his hand through the air felt like swimming.
He raised the hand to his face . . . and it was a hand made of trash. A junky, moving sculpture of broken chair legs, bits of plaster, and torn papers in a vaguely handlike shape. He made a fist, and the trash hand moved as though it were his own.
His whole body was made of junk. And it was enormous.
With wonder he put his hands to his face. Fingers of plaster and shattered wood touched eyes that felt like two empty coffee cups, their lids blinking at the contact. His tongue felt like carpet, but it tasted his fingers’ filthy plywood.
How was this even possible?
Again came the rattle of gunfire, not so loud this time, but again accompanied by the pain of bullets impacting his body. He screamed and backpedaled . . . and crashed through the wall behind him.
He fell heavily onto the floor of the room beyond, feeling wood and plaster cascading down on him from the shattered ceiling. When he struggled to his feet, somehow he had become even bigger. As he straightened he found himself looking down at the ceiling joists of the room he’d just left.
Pops and flashes of gunfire came from behind the mangled wall and ceiling, along with shouts and screams. Points of pain peppered his lower body.
He turned and ran, smashing through walls, gouging holes in the floor with his enormous feet. And then he was out in the alley behind the former nightclub, the night air cool on his face, his hands, his back. Behind him the building folded in on itself, the ancient, rotting wood cracking and slumping into a haphazard, unrecognizable pile.
Shuddering with fear and released tension, he collapsed in a heap. Literally. He fell down in the alley and his body—his gigantic trash body—simply collapsed, sloughing off of him, until it was only a heap of garbage all around him, leaving his own, original body unharmed in the middle of it.
Unharmed. Despite all the bullets he had felt striking him, somehow he was uninjured.
He was still clutching the foil-wrapped brick of cocaine.
He threw it into the wreckage and ran.
Tiago went to ground in his deepest, safest hidey-hole, way in the back of the old abandoned Coca-Cola factory in Nova Brasília. The place was a warren of squats, but he’d found a way to creep along a narrow alley and squeeze through a crack in the wall to a dry, protected space under the floor. He stayed there, shivering with reaction, all night, mind racing and unable to either sleep or concentrate.
When hunger finally drove him out of there, he kept his head down and his ears open. The word on the street was that the old nightclub had collapsed, killing eight people, including the grande chefe of the Comando Curinga and a major Colombian drug lord. Officially, it had been an accident, though some suspected a bomb. The lack of fire made that theory less plausible, but it was rumored that gunshots had been heard just before the collapse. Whatever the cause, the loss was a major blow to the Curinga gang, and both Terceiro Comando and the Amigos dos Amigos were beginning to muscle in on Curinga territory . . . including Nova Brasília.
There were no rumors of a giant man made of trash having been seen at the scene.
But even if no one but him knew it, he had killed eight people. True, they had been drug lords—terrible people, people the world was better off without—and they had tried to kill him first. But still, it was a terrible burden to bear. And who knew how many more would yet die, because Tiago had interfered?
With dos Santos dead, the traficantes would have to find a new balance of power. There would be assassinations, bombings, and gun battles all over the favelas as the various gangs struggled for dominance, complicated by the Colombians’ quest for revenge. Dozens or hundreds of gang members would be killed, and unknown numbers of innocent bystanders. People like Tiago’s mother.
Again, just by existing, Tiago had made things worse.
He slept on and off for nearly an entire day, awakening in the late afternoon to the sound of banging and shouting above him. Curious, he crept up a disused escape stair to the factory’s rafters, from which he could peer through an open inspection hatch into the cavernous main floor.
A huge swarm of militia in riot gear were evicting the people who lived in the factory, pushing and shoving them along with shouts of “Cai fora!” Behind them, workmen were tearing down the wooden and fabric partitions those people had put up to divide the giant space, tossing the wreckage and the squatters’ furniture into dumpsters. Other workmen were putting up lights, mounting speakers, and erecting a stage.
A man in a purple suit—his skin was purple too, his ears like fish fins—stood on the half-built stage, directing it all. “Rápido, rápido!” he called, clapping his webbed hands. “Get those squatters out of here! Clear out that garbage! Tonight Comando Curinga is gonna present the biggest baile funk Rio has ever seen!”
A baile funk—funk dance—was something Tiago had heard of but never experienced. They sprang up suddenly, raved for a night, and then vanished, like poisonous mushrooms. Loud, energetic, and sexy, they were places where playboys and girls from the asfalto mixed and mingled with the denizens of the morros, getting a thrilling taste of authentic “favela chic.” And drugs . . . lots and lots of drugs. The bailes funk were the place for playboys to enjoy maconha, cocaine, and crack in quantity, and the bands, funded by drug gangs, performed funk proibidão—“prohibited” music—whose lyrics glorified the gangs and their grandes chefes as heroes.
He had to get away from this, and quickly. But when he went to leave, he found his alleyway and alternate exits blocked by equipment or by gangs of workmen.
He retired to his hidey-hole under the floor, where he held his ears against the thump and bang of the baile funk setting up above him. It would certainly be worse when the music and dancing started, but unless an opportunity appeared to slip out before the dance began he would just have to wait it out.
The music started at eleven, a vast pounding beat that made Tiago’s belly feel like it was being squeezed and sent gouts of dirt down from between the floorboards. Brightly colored light swept through the cracks, and the smells of maconha and alcohol were strong.
And then the dancing started, right over his head, and instead of feeling squeezed he felt as though he were being stomped on by elephants.
He couldn’t stay here. The noise alone would kill him.
He climbed up the rickety stairs to the rafters. The music here was nearly as loud, but the dancers’ thumping feet were not so punishing, the air was fresher, and he could see what was going on.
Below Tiago a sea of bodies surged rhythmically—hair tossing, arms waving, heads pumping—thousands of people, driven to a frenzy by the music, the colored spotlights, the band’s shouted lyrics, and the vast quantities of chemicals they’d ingested.
With the darkness, the smoke, and the strobing, intermittent light there was no telling whether the thrashing figures were dark or pale, curinga or nat, even male or female. There were no individuals, there was only the dance.
Even though he hated the traficantes who had funded and were profiting from this dance, hated the way they’d evicted so many innocent poor people to have it, hated the damage they did to the community . . . even so, as Tiago looked down on the throbbing dance floor, he realized that in this melee even a curinga like him could fit in. His parti-colored skin would just look like a trick of the light.
He didn’t have to partake of the drugs; he could just dance and enjoy himself. He might even meet a girl. A nice girl, a kind girl, an adventurous and openhearted girl who could love a curinga . . .
And then the screaming started.
A wave was spreading through the crowd from somewhere below Tiago’s point of view—people trying to run away from something, crashing into other people, pushing them onto the dance floor. There were enough of them, screaming loud enough, that the noise could be heard even over the pounding funk.
Then the source of the wave and the screaming came into view. It was a large group of men—nats, from what Tiago could see, big and brawny, wearing bulletproof vests and carrying long machine guns. They were walking in phalanx, yelling at the crowd and pushing toward the stage.
A group of burly leather-clad curingas—Comando Curinga soldiers—came rushing from the stage area to meet them. But the invaders had the Curingas outmaneuvered and outgunned, and they were cut down by automatic weapons fire from both sides as well as from the main, visible group. Many audience members fell as well. The music stuttered to a halt.
Panic ensued, the crowd surging back and forth, but the invaders had men at all the exits. Then one of them raised his weapon and fired a long burst into the ceiling; Tiago heard the bullets ricocheting around the rafter space. The screaming intensified.
The man who had fired his weapon pushed his way to the stage, jumped up onto it, and grabbed the microphone from the lead singer. “Shut up!” he said, his words booming across the hall along with a squeal of feedback. “Shut up shut up shut up shut up!” he continued, until the crowd finally did just that. “Okay, listen up!” he shouted over the remaining moans and whimpers. “We are the Amigos dos Amigos and we are taking control of this dance, this favela, and this complexo. You will all line up over here”—he gestured to his left—“and give these nice men your money and your drugs. You can keep your phones and watches; we can’t be bothered.”
“Fuck you!” came a voice from the back of the hall, followed by a hail of bullets. It must be the Curingas, counterattacking; apparently the Amigos hadn’t gotten them all. The Amigos returned fire. The packed crowd heaved and flowed in every direction, running and climbing and crawling over one another as they tried to get away.
Tiago shook off the horrified paralysis that had overtaken him with the first gunfire. He should get to the stairs, get down to ground level, and get out of the building, right away.
That was what he should do.
But what he did instead was far stupider.
He jumped through the inspection hatch.
As he fell, he pulled with his power, harder than he’d ever pulled before. From the dumpsters in the corners of the hall, where they’d been shoved by the workmen who had cleared the squatters out, came huge quantities of trash—broken partitions, torn curtains, shattered tables and chairs—flying through the air and melding on to Tiago’s plummeting body.
He hit the floor with an enormous crash, which stunned him and knocked the wind out of him. But then he shook his head and hauled himself up.
He was already twice as tall as even the biggest of the bandido soldiers, but he needed more. Again he pulled, and more trash sailed through the air from the dumpsters and the heaps in the corners and the piles behind the bar.
Tiago became enormous—a gigantic statue of a man made of wood and cardboard and empty drink bottles and torn posters. He stood in a bare patch of dance floor, the colored lights still swirling all around, as the crowd and both gangs scrambled to get away from him. But one of the Amigos took a shot at him as he backpedaled.
Instinctively Tiago raised a hand to protect himself. With a splintering crack the bullet smashed one chair-leg finger.
Tiago cried out—it hurt like a sonofabitch. But it was only wood; no matter how much their bullets had hurt his huge body of junk, the drug lords at the abandoned nightclub had not managed to injure the real body inside it. He shook the hand hard and it re-formed, pieces shifting and grinding, until it had five fingers again.
Then he reached down with the renewed hand and smacked the Amigo into the bar, where he lay still.
More Amigos opened fire on him. Or maybe they were Curingas. It didn’t matter. He charged into the group, ignoring the tearing pain of the bullets striking his trash body, and picked up one bandido after another, flinging them into the dumpsters with the other garbage. Maybe some catador at the landfill would find them and make something useful of them.
Screaming from behind Tiago drew his attention. A huge wave of people was trying to leave through the front door, but they had crashed into a countercurrent: police in riot gear coming in. They were firing indiscriminately, hitting innocent audience members as well as bandidos.
At that Tiago’s blood really boiled.
He waded through the crowd, bellowing “Out of my way!” The voice of his garbage body was tremendous, hollow, echoing. The people tried to comply, scurrying away in all directions.
Tiago met the cops and stood staring down at them. Looking stunned, they stared back at him. The crowd pulled back in a big circle around the confrontation.
“Leave these people alone!” he told them.
One cop stepped forward, leveling his rifle at Tiago. “This is police business! Cai fora!”
He picked the man up and shook him until the gun flew from his hands, then set him gently down. He wavered momentarily, then collapsed to the floor.
Tiago looked around, but no one else stepped forward to challenge him.
“The ones without guns haven’t done anything but look for a good time,” he said. “Just let them go home! The bandidos . . . you can do what you want with them.”
A few audience members edged toward the door, reached it, sprinted into the darkness. More followed them, then more and more.
Tiago stood, hands on hips, staring down at the cops, while the crowd flowed past them. No one tried to stop them.
Soon the dance floor was mostly empty, and some of the cops were handcuffing the gang members Tiago had thrown into the dumpsters. But other cops were conferring, looking over their shoulders at him, maybe planning a concerted assault. Plainly it was time to go.
But for some reason he suddenly felt very tired.
As a matter of fact, he had to sit down right now.
He sat down harder than he’d planned, bits and fragments clattering off him as he slumped to the floor. Gently, quietly, he relaxed, his giant trash body slowly sagging into a pile of random garbage with a skinny curinga teenager lying in the middle of it.
Somewhere, something was dripping. Somewhere close.
That’s a lot of blood, he thought, and passed out.
He awoke to find himself handcuffed to the side rail of his bed.
The metal rail of the bed, in a white, sterile room that stank of antiseptics. The hand that wasn’t cuffed had tubes taped to it. It itched. There were beeping noises.
The thing that had woken him up was the sound of shouting from the hall outside. He couldn’t make out the words, but through the frosted glass of the door he could see several figures and much gesticulation.
Then the door opened, and a woman in an expensive suit came in. A pale woman, with lipstick and high heels. She had a briefcase. In the hall behind her, a uniformed cop and a doctor were both yelling at her.
“Take it up with my lawyers!” she told them, and slammed the door.
She closed her eyes, took in a breath, and released it. “So,” she said brightly, turning to him, “I’m Cristina Moraes from the Rede Globo television network. I gather you are Tiago Gonçalves?”
“Where am I?”
“You’re in the hospital. I’m told you will recover nicely, but you lost a lot of blood. The bullet nicked one of the big veins in your leg.” She gestured to his leg, which he saw was elevated and bandaged. It itched too, now that she mentioned it. “You’ll be here for a while yet.”
So apparently one of the bullets he’d shrugged off had made it all the way through his armor of trash to the real body within. He would need to be more careful next time.
If there was a next time. The presence of cops and lawyers outside his hospital room implied that he was in a lot of trouble. “So what’s going to happen to me?”
“Well, that depends on you.” She set her briefcase on the bedside table, sprang open the catches, and brought out a sheaf of papers. “If you sign this contract, we will make all those pesky criminal charges go away, and you will be a contestant in season six of Heróis Brazil. You’ll appear on television, earn a nice little weekly stipend plus expenses, and maybe win a cash prize. But the real money is in endorsements and speaking fees. Depending on how well you do in the competition, of course.”
Tiago flipped through the contract . . . pages and pages of fine print. “And if I don’t sign?”
She shrugged. “Then I walk out of here, and, well, whatever happens to homeless orphan curinga boys with big legal troubles and big medical bills . . . happens to you.”
“I see.” He closed the contract. “I guess I don’t have much of a choice.”
“I’m glad you understand.” She looked at him, tapping her lower lip with one finger. “I think we’ll call you . . . Garbageman.”
“No,” he said, and she blinked. “I don’t just pick up garbage and take it away. I turn garbage into something useful. Call me O Reciclador.” The Recycler.
She paused, considering. “I think we can work with that,” she said. “So do we have a deal?”
“There’s just one problem.” He looked at the contract, and his eyes stung with tears. “I . . . I can’t read. I can’t even write my name.”
Again the pale woman blinked. “Well. We’ll have to do something about that.” She held out her hand. “In the meantime, do we have a handshake agreement?”
His right hand was the one cuffed to the bed, so he shook with his left.
“Discards” copyright © 2016 by David D. Levine
Art copyright © 2016 by John Picacio