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?”
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