For twenty dollars, this dude named Byron promised to beat the crap out of you. That’s pretty much what the flyer said, and the flyer was all over the neighborhood. The first one we noticed was up high on the half-dead palm tree in front of that kid Ricky’s house—this was a few years back, before the city widened the streets and got rid of the palm trees altogether—and after that, for at least the next three days, we saw those flyers everywhere, on every pole and tree for blocks, all the way to the strip mall and back. No one knew who put them up, but I guessed it was this Byron guy. Still though, no one knew any Byron in this neighborhood, and way after, when I went around asking again, people acted like they’d never even seen the flyers in the first place.
Ricky thought no one was looking when he pulled one of those flyers—the whole thing, not just the little tabs Byron (or someone) had made at the bottom with only phone numbers hanging off—down from the corkboard by the entrance of Sedano’s grocery store. Usually at Sedano’s there’s only flyers for lost pets, choreographers offering up their services for the next Miami-area quinceañera, people renting apartments near the beach who were in over their heads and now needed roommates, crazy homeless people looking for things like chess partners, and the store’s weekly specials (ground pork by the pound, about-to-spoil mangos, bread). But not that week. That week there was the promise of Byron—Byron who would beat the crap out of you for twenty bucks. Ricky tucked that promise into his school binder and tried to sneak past me outside, where I stood by the broken baby merry-go-round (someone—not me—had jammed the coin slot). It was weird to see Ricky outside of school without his big sister three steps ahead of him, and I was taking a break from my boys’ usual drama, so those two things put together are probably why I backed off and just let him go.
Someone—not me—must have seem him with the flyer, must have heard that he called this Byron, because by the next morning, all forty of us in first period were talking about the fight. Mostly, people wondered about Byron. They were like, Who the fuck is Byron? And other people would go, I don’t know, don’t fucking ask me. The girls debated: is it BY-ron or by-RON? Who cares, we answered. We said this stuff and waited around our lockers for Ricky or his sister. That girl was a weird ghost who, out of the four thousand people they crammed into North Miami Beach Junior High back then, was the only one who hadn’t missed a day of school since kindergarten. She knew the names of teachers she didn’t even have. She was a ninth grader like us, but she talked about going to college, about going out-of-state (no one asked her about it—she just said this stuff, like in the lunch line or if you got stuck working with her in groups). Ricky, who was only in sixth grade, was enough like her school-wise but worse because he had glasses and baby fat and was always doing weird shit like mumbling and blinking hard and smacking himself in the head when he got lost on his way to class, which is why we knew his name—to mess with him in the hallways—but not hers. That day, neither showed up for school, and by the end of sixth period, it was all we could do to stay in our seats. We wanted to bolt, to stand outside of Ricky’s house and wait for Byron to stomp by, fingers rattling the chain-link fence as he passed. We wanted to see the twenty change hands.
Nothing was going on when we got there. Nothing. For a minute we just stared at the house like it might float away. Then I grabbed the chunky arm of some girl who talked to the sister enough to count as a friend and shoved her through the fence. Yeah, Angie knows her, someone said. Angie, go find out—maybe Byron’s in there already?
The yard was a minefield of dog turds and spiky weeds. Angie danced through them like a pro; she didn’t have a dad mowing her yard either. She knocked on the door and jutted out her hip, her hand going to her waist. No dogs barked and I started to wonder where those turds even came from.
We only got a crack, only a shadow of the sister, thin fingers around the doorknob. We all leaned left to see inside, but it was dark in there. The sister wore a faded Mickey Mouse t-shirt that hung down to her knees. She had on one of those hats that’s also an umbrella—the kind our dads used to keep the sun out of their faces while they worked. She pulled it off her head and threw it somewhere behind her. Someone near me said, Hey Byron, and there were laughs and the sister shifted back into the house a little.
A few more seconds and the door closed up again. Angie must’ve gotten more but never passed any of it on to us. She came back through the turds and waved her loud hands at us. Get the fuck away from this house, she yelled. Whose side are you on, someone said. Pssh, she said. We sucked our teeth but let her through. I don’t even know that girl, Angie said. She wiped under her eyes. Are you crying, someone said. And Angie said, Shut the fuck up, you fucking animal.
From that we pretty much figured there was no Byron, at least not yet.
Angie charged off the way we imagined Byron would. She stormed three houses down the block then slammed the door to her own house, then we heard—all the way from the sidewalk in front of Ricky’s—her grandma yelling at her about slamming the door. Finally someone said, Fuck it, and so we walked to Sedano’s. Inside, there was a new flyer to replace the one Ricky took. All the tabs were on it—we guessed no one but Ricky wanted to get the crap beat out of him.
After we found our spots out front, someone said, Seriously? Was Angie crying?
Maybe she’s on her period.
We laughed at that even though half of us didn’t really get what it meant.
That girl is weird.
No, the other one.
Yeah, we all said together.
Ricky’s sister looked nothing like him. She was dark and he was lighter-skinned; her hair, which she wore up all the time in a bun, was stick-straight and his was curly like almost an afro. At school she seemed to always be rushing towards something really important down the hall, a hand on each of her bookbag’s shoulder straps to keep it steady, while he walked around bumping into people because he was staring at his shoes. When he first started in sixth grade, I didn’t even know they were related until I saw her hovering near him during lunch his first day. He was crying and lost and had come to the ninth grade lunch instead of the one for his grade. She held his hand even though they were almost the same height and neither seemed embarrassed as they walked up to the vice principal, who out of nowhere put a palm on each of their backs like he knew them, then scanned the tables with squinted eyes, then took them and their food from the cafeteria to somewhere else. No one but me seemed to notice as they left through the side doors, leaving the rest of us to eat in that noise, and I wondered what was going on that made them so special.
Someone’s little brother wandered over and tried to climb onto the busted baby merry-go-round. The big brother slipped his hands under the arms of the little one and swung him off, saying, It’s broken. Go find Mami inside. The kid started to wail but did as he was told.
The next day Angie wasn’t at school. It was the worst thing that could’ve happened, because no one could ask her all the questions we’d said in our heads out by Sedano’s. Like, What did the sister say to you? Why was she wearing that umbrella hat? Did you figure out why Ricky took that poster? Did he really call Byron? We decided we needed answers, so it was Angie’s house we went to after school that time. Her mom came to the door, flip-flops slapping against the bottoms of her feet, her toenails with those fancy lines painted on them. The straps of her tank top cut into her shoulders, and she wasn’t wearing a bra.
She asked us each how our own moms were doing and we said fine whether it was true or not. We asked after Angie, saw immediately that that was a mistake because then she thought we were all in love with her kind-of-fat daughter, which was not the case. Todos estos muchachos! she squealed. She put her hands on her hips like Angie did and a roll of stomach peeped out at us. I saved things by saying, We actually just want to know what happened yesterday at Ricky’s house when she talked to Ricky’s sister.
In Spanish she said, I wish I knew. She didn’t tell me either. All she said was she wanted to stay home with me today. She wanted to make me lunch. It was weird, but what can you do?
Someone behind me went, Ask her about the umbrella hat!
Shut up, someone else said.
Behind Angie’s mom, there was a sliding glass door that led out to the backyard. A dog jumped as high as the doorknob, over and over again.
That dog is crazy, Angie’s mom said just to me. You want a dog?
Let’s just go to Ricky’s house, someone said.
Listen, her mom barked, Don’t.
She must’ve loved it, all us guys looking at her like that, with so much wanting. She held it as long as she could, stood up a little straighter, the roll tucking itself back under her shirt. The dog out back was still jumping.
Whatever is going on over there is not your problem, she said, leaning out of her front door a little more than before. People shouldn’t always be up in each other’s business. Sometimes it’s better not to know. Do you understand?
I think we nodded, more or less.
Her boobs swung in her shirt as she leaned back inside.
She said, Ricky’s sister has a name.
But she didn’t tell us what it was. She just left it like that, and we didn’t ask about it, and she closed the door. We heard Angie’s grandma again behind it: What was all that? And Angie’s mom, because she was and is a crazy bitch, said, A bunch of nobodies, that’s what.
There was no Ricky, no Ricky’s sister, the day after that either. At the beginning of lunch, we heard from other people that a teacher’s aide had went from class to class asking for the homework assignments for both of them. Angie was back but avoiding us, even me when I tried to ask during homeroom if her mom had told her we’d been by. What she said to me was, All of a sudden you care? We decided enough was enough, and somebody said the time had come for us to take matters into our own hands (his words, not mine). We left school during lunch and headed to Sedano’s. One of us dipped inside and came back with a phone number tab.
Let’s fucking call this guy, he said.
Somebody had a quarter and it was in the payphone in seconds.
Byron? We’re calling Byron? I heard myself say. I don’t know why I was nervous about it—I wanted to call as bad as anybody, maybe even more.
No, we’re calling your mom. Of course Byron, you retard.
I shoved whoever was next to me, like he’d said it.
Saying retard is not cool, someone said.
Who cares, someone said.
Actual retarded people? I guessed.
Shit! It’s ringing!
We all moved closer to the phone, and someone pounded the volume button to get it as loud as we could. There was a click and then we all heard the recording, a not-that-deep voice that sounded like a white dude: You have reached Byron (so, it was BY-ron). If you are calling about the flyer advertising my services, please leave ONLY your name and a number where I can reach you directly. If you’re calling for anything else, leave a regular message. If this is that kid again, please, stop calling. I have already contacted the proper authorities. Stop calling.
There was a super long beep during which we hung up.
Oh my god! someone said.
Oh my fucking god, bro! said someone else.
I didn’t say anything, because something was seriously, seriously wrong.
You think he means Ricky?
It’s gotta be Ricky!
How can Ricky be messing with that guy?
There was no picture of Byron on the flyer, but we all seemed to have imagined him as a big guy, crazy strong, mad at so many things that he had no choice but to fight people, maybe make some money at it. Why else would you offer to fight people like that, unless you were huge already and just waiting for your big break? Didn’t he have to be training for something bigger? We’d pictured him as Cuban like us, or Puerto Rican like Angie’s family, or Dominican, something familiar. But the Byron on the recording sounded like he was from another planet, like South Beach or Key West—some nice part of Florida. He sounded official, like a teacher. And that’s what I didn’t figure out until way later: of course Byron wasn’t just some thug from the neighborhood. How could anyone pay rent by fighting? He had to have some serious day job, maybe the kind that had rules to it—he couldn’t just ignore the things people tried to keep secret the way the rest of our neighborhood could.
Only some of that was going through my head as I watched the other guys laughing, another quarter in hand, fingers punching in the same numbers in the same order. They huddled together to listen, but I stayed away, still hearing the words from where I stood. I didn’t get it, that recording, coming in that voice that rocked the picture of Byron in my head. I couldn’t put the vice principal’s suit on a guy I’d imagined as harder than most of us, couldn’t imagine his palm doing anything but smacking the heads of paying customers. I leaned against a too-small seat on the still broken merry-go-round, facing away from the guys and the phone, and when I put my hands on it to steady myself, they came back sticky—from candy, maybe ice cream—from something that had been sweet. Then I did the only thing that made any sense to me: I left the other guys there by the payphone to freak out and just listen and guess at what it meant, and I headed to Ricky’s house to talk to the one person who’d actually spoken to Byron.
The sister was home, but at first she wouldn’t open the door.
She hissed from the window, Haven’t you guys done enough?
I had no idea what she was talking about, and I said so. I wiped my hands on my jeans and said, I wanna talk about that guy Byron. Then I said, I’m all by myself.
A bunch of latches and locks swung out of place. I could only see a strip of her face and body at first. She looked past me, out to the street, before watching me for a second and half-smiling. Then she looked down at her feet. She wore the same Mickey Mouse shirt from the first day.
You called him too? she said.
Yeah, just now, sort of. I got the answering machine.
She opened the door a little more. Brownish paste smudged her upper arms, like handprints of blood, or worse. I tried not to look at it.
Why would you pay someone to fight you? she said.
Did Ricky fight him? Is that why he isn’t at school?
She actually laughed, loosened her shoulders a little. No, we called Byron for something else.
I didn’t know if I believed her, was the thing. That’s why I kept pressing her. I said, Cuz Byron’s recording says he was gonna call some authorities?
Her head snapped up straight. We already knew about that, she said.
Is Ricky here? Can I just see him?
You’re really here for Ricky? Like Angie really didn’t tell you anything? she said. Her voice caught like she was about to cry but she didn’t close the door on me. I stuck my foot in the crack so that she couldn’t slam it shut and said, She really didn’t, okay? Just let me in.
I pushed my way through before she could say anything. Behind her in the room were couches and tables in places that didn’t make sense. Against the back wall of their living room was a totally not-beat-up Ricky, sitting on the very edge of what looked like a hospital bed. In the bed, there was a person—like a blob—with the arms and legs tied down. The face was the biggest, roundest thing I’d ever seen. Dark hairs splattered the lower part of the cheeks but there was none—none—on the head. A huge stitched-up gash sat near the left ear where there should’ve been a sideburn.
Down on the tile floor, the strip of light from outside got smaller and smaller, then disappeared. I heard the door click shut behind me.
The sister sighed like she was bored or maybe tired and said, like she’d practiced it, After her surgery, some man was coming by, helping us, but like a week ago, she said she didn’t want any more treatment—it made her feel worse and there was no point—so it’s just us taking care of her. Now we’re just keeping her comfortable.
The woman—I could not believe it was a woman—stared at me, the skin around her eyes puckered and greenish. She opened her mouth to talk but only this too-deep moan came out.
Ricky patted her arm and said, It’s okay, Mom. He’s a friend from school.
What I wanted to do then was bolt—fly home and try to forget the monster living right there in our neighborhood. I wouldn’t tell anybody anything, wouldn’t even try calling Byron’s number again, would promise myself that I’d stop trying to figure shit out and never tell anyone this story. And I think I would have done that, except when I turned to run, the sister was redoing all the bolts and locks. She said to the door, Yeah, Mami, he’s a friend, don’t be scared, okay?
No sound came from the bed.
The last chain slid into place. I looked down at my sneaker; I’d stepped on one of the turds.
The sister came my way and kept talking. She said, Ricky thought the guy on the flyer—that we could pay him something if he helped us move her. Then we could clean her better. But that turned out to be the worst idea so far. He said he had to report that we were here alone. So either him or Angie messed up our plan.
Why did she tell me any of this? I don’t know. To this day I wish she hadn’t.
I said what turned out to be true: It wasn’t Angie, I swear.
The mom moaned again and though the sound definitely wasn’t words, she was telling them something.
I finally turned around and moved further into the house, swallowing the smells of vomit and dying, scraping my shoe on the tile step that led into their living room as I followed the sister down.
We were together in that house for an hour, tops. The sister spent part of the time complaining about Byron not answering his phone, not returning their calls. She talked about it like it was the most normal thing in the world—to have scared the shit out of some wannabe street fighter who was also a personal trainer or a physical therapist (she couldn’t remember, said it wasn’t important). I did and didn’t want to look at their mom. I couldn’t figure out which was worse to do—stare or ignore. I told myself that if I got out of there without screaming or crying, I’d rip every single one of Byron’s flyers down on my way home. That was something I could handle.
I asked in the first few minutes why she was tied down, and they said she kept trying to tear out her stitches, and that she kept getting up and falling down right away, and then they couldn’t get her back in bed. Byron, he could’ve have helped them out, they said. So we’d imagined Byron the same way—huge, tough. I was mad at him, almost, except that now I understood why he’d stayed away: he’d gotten all this over the phone. The main reason the sister didn’t ask any of us in the neighborhood for help, I know now, is because she’d sized us up already—she knew none of us was strong enough.
In that hour with them, the last one they had in their house, I managed to do two horrible things. The first was that I asked if the mom was retarded. I can’t even confess this now without feeling so much shame that I want to start this whole story over again, to find a version where I don’t ask it, where I already know what was wrong with her, where the ending is different. The thing is this, almost right away that afternoon, the sister saw my face and said, She’s not so bad, watch. Then she put on the umbrella hat and started moving around—dancing she called it—and the mom on the bed laughed and tugged her hands up from where they were tied and I said it without even thinking it through: Is she, like, retarded? I might as well have slapped Ricky and his sister. They growled, No. And I thought the sister would kick me out then, but she didn’t. She ripped the hat off her head and walked over to her mother and smoothed down the wires of hair growing from her face. The mom stopped laughing and took in huge gulps of air (I still worry that she wasn’t so gone yet—she lived another four weeks—and understood exactly what I’d said) and suddenly all three of them were crying with the kind of pain I hope I never see again.
The second wasn’t that I refused to open the door for the rest of the guys when they finally came, pounding their fists. That’s something I can be proud of, even if the guys still give me shit about how I made them miss out. It wasn’t that I moved aside like nothing when the DCF people came and couldn’t figure out who needed rescuing. I was a kid taught to respect and avoid official-looking people; what else was I going to do? And it wasn’t that I’d given in to whatever was tearing at me the next night and called Byron around midnight, having practiced the way I’d curse him out in the mirror, the stack of flyers I’d ripped down shaking in my hand, and then, after finally pressing down on that last digit, hearing a weird chime and a voice saying the number had been changed to something he was no longer giving out. So here it is, the second thing. After the mom was loaded, shrieking, into the fire rescue truck, after they put Ricky and his sister into that unmarked police car, the social worker lowered the back window a crack so they could get some air. The sister yelled Hey, and I knew it was for me. I ran over, not caring who from the crowd saw, and she begged me, her hair spilling out from the bun and into her face, Make sure they lock our house, Carlos, please. And I went to tell her that I would, but I couldn’t start the sentence—I still can’t believe I didn’t know her name then, to promise her that I’d do what she asked.