La muerte y el jardín

by Ogiwara Saki (荻原咲)
illustrated by beili

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/212983.html)

PART I: LA MUERTE

He read his name on the list of the condemned. Opening his copy of La Nación, he found its dreadful heart, like crumbling kernels inside a sheaf of dried maize. If you asked him later, he would not be able to tell you just what emotion gripped him then, staring at the names of those Isabel Perón, President of Argentina, wanted dead. That list, that list, that concise and bloodless list of names, and his own among them, third from the bottom, smeared into the newsprint even when he rubbed his thumb over it repeatedly.

No use, he thought, and then the great clockwork gears of his mind turned, and he got up from his folding table very calmly. He went into his bedroom and packed his bags, and when he was done, he left the last of his rent in an envelope slid under his landlady’s door.

Otherwise inconvenienced, he wrote. Apologies.

:::

It was the end of 1975, and the air in Buenos Aires was thick and hazy, black smoke puffing out of the exhaust pipes of Ford Falcons lumbering down the narrow streets. As he walked past the cars, he ducked his head and held his bags closely to him, trying to appear as ordinary a student as possible — though the definition of student excluded ordinary in Perón’s Argentina, where to be a student was nearly the same as being a communist or a political dissident. He was, unfortunately, both, and now he paid the price of his name on a headhunter’s list.

As he walked through the Universidad de Buenos Aires campus, he passed his faculty building, the Departamento de Matematica. He imagined he saw the silhouette of his advisor in the window, hunched over his scribbled diagrams and proofs. Come hell or high water, or the steady disappearance of his PhD students to gunmen and firing squads, Professor Guzman worked on.

Mathematics, he had once exclaimed, is the study of eternity.

Eternity, if only! But his student knew little of eternity. Since the end of high school, he had lived under the auspices of seven presidents: Onganía, Levingston, Lanusse, Cámpora, Lastiri, Juan Domingo Perón, and now Isabel Perón. As coup d’etat followed coup d’etat, and the country wobbled unstably on its axis, he and his classmates grew more and more afraid.

Bolder, yes, but afraid nonetheless. He hid it well, even as he wrote a pamphlet declaiming the evils of José López Rega, Isabel Perón’s right-hand man, whom they called the Sorcerer. Fearless, his co-writer Amada had called him after circulating the pamphlet, but it was never lack of fear, only the knowledge that this was necessary. To live complacently in a corrupt society was to die day by day, he said, repeating the words his parents had once said to him, before they had disappeared like the many others.

To die day by day, piece by piece. He left the campus and found lodgings in a slum, where he stayed inside his room and did not go out. He paid a small boy to buy him groceries, and he watched the rallies from behind a grimy window. When it was too much, and news trickled to him of brethren lost and allies missing, he turned his gaze up and stared at the sun.

:::

He lasted in hiding for six months. As 1975 washed into 1976, and Isabel Perón was ousted by the military junta of Jorge Rafael Videla, they came for him. Not the Triple A, not under that name, but many of the same faces regardless, soldiers and police officers in green who banged at his door in the middle of the night and called his name.

He willed his hands not to shake, and he answered the door politely, showing them his false documentation and his forged identity. He had been careful; he had burned his books over the gas stove, tearing out the pages of his beloved Neruda and Marx. There was nothing in the cramped, cheap room they could use to implicate his association with guerilla activity, and yet he had not expected one thing: that they would have a student photo.

They grabbed him by the arms and put a bag over his head, shoving him down the stairs and into the Ford Falcon, where they kicked him to the bottom of the seat. He curled in on himself, breathing hard, and he could smell the stale sweat and cigarette smoke of their commander as he leaned down and said, “Look at you, so pink. Like a pig!”

He did not beg for his life. He did not beg for the lives of his family — he had none left, they had taken them all.

He didn’t know the name of the detention centre they took him to, nor the name of the prison where they transferred him. He suspected it was Rawson, where so many other political rebels were said to have gone, but he didn’t recognize it. The walls were smeared in dirt and blood, and he closed in on himself then, retreating deep into his thoughts as they kicked him, beat him, starved him. They shoved a bloody pair of women’s underpants at him. “This is your mother’s,” they said, and he did not speak. He closed his doors and locked them. He did not speak.

Then one day he did. They had shown him the pits where they were burying people alive, and were telling him they would bury him too, communist fuck that he was.

A strange thing happened, something even he could not explain. His lips quirked up in a dry, cracked smile, and his tongue moved over his parched mouth. “For the glory of Argentina,” he said, and he laughed.

The soldiers didn’t like the laughter. They looked at him, and they saw that he was laughing at them, and their faces grew mottled with rage. How dare he! they said. How dare he, lowest of the low, laugh at their exalted positions! But as he laughed, there was the sound of another prisoner joining him, a man being brought into the compound at that very moment. The sound of the two men snickering echoed through the grey walls.

“Who is this?” the commander demanded, pointing to the new prisoner.

“Luis Verdugo, sir,” the soldier accompanying the new transports responded. “He’s been giving me lip all the way here.”

“More lip than your wife gives you,” Verdugo said with a cocky smile, and that smile didn’t leave, even as the commander grabbed him by the arm and dragged him forward so that the two prisoners were facing each other. The first prisoner looked at Verdugo silently, the laughter dying on his lips. He felt suddenly very tired.

“You talk to me like that, you see what happens,” the commander said. He pulled out his pistol and placed it against the first prisoner’s head. “Lesson one. This is the price for insolence.”

The first prisoner did not close his eyes. He would not go into his death ignorantly; he would see the face of his murderer even at the last moment. His gaze was plain and direct, and the commander spat at him. “Not a pig,” he said. “At least Verdugo has passion. You are a ghost.” He cocked the pistol. “Goodbye, Ghost.”

“My name,” the prisoner said, “is Silvio Echevarria.” It was the first time he had said it in months. He said it not to the commander, but to Verdugo. “I have a name. They won’t remember it, so I’m asking you to—”

He never finished. The commander squeezed the trigger, and it was like summer, very hot and sharp, wind blowing through him, lifting him up and away from his pain.

illustrated by beili

PART II: EL PROCESO

When he was seven years old, Silvio Echevarria knew the capitals of all the nations of the world. Brilliant child, his parents said fondly, taking him to visit his aunts and uncles for lunch. Interesting child, his teachers said mildly, watching him pull heavy books out of his backpack and read them while the other children were running around wildly, playing soldiers and kissing games. Strange child, his classmates said later on, seeing how Silvio could work, machine-like, perfectly precise, his concentration an iron brand in his mind.

The truth was, his first faculty advisor had said, Silvio had the capacity to be great, but he squandered it. The problem with Echevarria, he wrote in a letter to another professor he never meant Silvio to see, but which he accidentally left open on his desk, is that he has no real ambition. He has abilities, but he has no particular desire to use them. He has let himself become ordinary.

Even his political dissidence did not seem to inspire respect in others. Instead of being a calling, they saw it as a duty. Do you think he actually cares? he once overheard a committee member ask, not knowing he was lurking behind her. Or do you think he just does it because of his parents?

They talked and talked, and then they forgot about him. Brilliant child, interesting child, strange child, ordinary. Even when they spun elaborate plans to take back the country from the Perónists, his compatriots would forget his presence, so rarely did he speak at their gatherings. They used him to coordinate logistics, for as a doctoral candidate in mathematics he displayed a cool head for logic — but when the wars came and the battles in the streets were fought, they did not remember him. Only Amada had, when she co-wrote that pamphlet with him, but Amada disappeared only a month later. She had been his closest friend, but when he went to visit her sobbing parents, he realized he barely knew her.

All this, yet being a ghost had not stopped the government from finding him. What a waste of his best talent, he thought dryly.

He thought of this again, when he woke. The sound of the commander’s gunshot was still ringing through his ears, and he gasped, his entire body wrenching forward, adrenaline and fear coursing through his arteries. He fell off the bed and hit the ground, smashing his knee against the floorboards, and then he looked up at the ceiling. His ceiling. His little apartment room from before he had gone into hiding, with the tidy bookshelves and the potted bean plants straining underneath the sunlight.

Dios mío, he thought, rising gingerly to his feet.

Someone was banging at the door. He flinched, his first instinct to see if he could climb out the window and out of sight — he was a prisoner, and so escape was forever on his mind. The banging became louder, but instead of a guard’s voice, he heard his old landlady. “Silvio!” she said. “Silvio! Your rent!”

“Señora Hurtado,” he said awkwardly, answering the door with a lurch. It was odd, though. The aches and pains in his body from prison were almost entirely absent, which led him to conclude that this was a dream. He was dead, and he was dreaming — he somewhat regretted now never taking up religion.

“Your rent,” Señora Hurtado said, sticking out her hand.

“I paid it already,” Silvio replied. “I left you a note as well, explaining my circumstances.”

“What note?” she asked.

He peered at her. “Don’t give me those fishy eyes!” she said, smacking him on the arm. He rubbed at his elbow. “You are a good boy, so I will extend you a few more days. But pay it then, you hear me?”

“Yes,” he murmured. He watched her turn on the rickety staircase and begin her descent. He opened his mouth and then closed it, uncertain. He opened it again, and called after her. “One moment!” he said. “What is today’s date?”

“I thought you university students all had calendars,” she said, sighing. “It is October 15th.”

“October of what year?” he inquired.

She looked at him with great suspicion. “Have you fallen and hit your head?”

“Please, señora,” he said.

“1975,” she said. “And don’t forget your rent!”

:::

Mathematics, Professor Guzman had once told Silvio and Amada, is the study of eternity, and if you comb through it with enough diligence, you will discover miracles.

Here was the first fact: that the day they had captured him was July 3 1976.

Here was the second fact: that Señora Hurtado was not lying to him. When he braved a quick trip to a local cafe to buy a newspaper, he saw October 15 1975 printed on the masthead.

Here was the third fact: it was not possible for the years to have reversed.

Here was the fourth fact: he was meant to be dead.

I must be mad, Silvio thought, sitting down on his mattress with the newspaper in his hands. I am still alive, but they have beaten me out of my wits.

The best course of action, he decided, was to go to sleep and wait out the night. The dream must have an end. The delusion must have limits. He was not particularly excited to wake up to prison, but he didn’t like the not-knowing either, and that the delusion was pleasant did not make it any more welcome to his sense of stability. Ignorance was the evil, not bodily pain.

He went to sleep in his old bed, in the room he had occupied since his undergraduate years. When he woke up to the sound of a fight underneath his window, he saw that it was October 16 1975, and a cold sweat beaded at his collar.

It wasn’t truly reasonable to think he had gone back in time, and yet as October 16th passed into October 17th, which then passed into October 18th, Silvio began to wonder. A year, he finally thought, doing the calculations. The passage of time in Rawson had always been tricky to measure, but he calculated approximately three months since the day he arrived to the day the commander shot him. Three months from July 1976 was October 1976, and so if he had indeed traveled back in time, it was by a year.

What a precise, clean measure! He felt better after reckoning it, though it did little to explain the strange turn of events.

He knew of one person he might explain it to and receive understanding, a writer-librarian friend of his parents’ by the name of Borges. However, Silvio did not know where Señor Borges currently lived, nor did he want to risk visiting such a high-profile intellectual. It was too dangerous, though it was tempting. For the same reasons he eliminated Professor Guzman from his list — he smiled, slightly, imagining how excited the professor would be to hear of such a metaphysical accomplishment.

So he had no one, which he’d rather gotten used to. In any case, disruption in time cycles or not, Silvio needed to take action. He couldn’t stay in this apartment for much longer, because here he was a known entity, a lodger whose name was recognized by everyone around him. If it was October 1975, he would have already written the anti-López Rega pamphlet, so his name would be circulating the echelons of the Triple A — they would come for him soon enough. He wasn’t safe here.

New lodgings and new documentation. He was sorry to leave Señora Hurtado, as he had been the last time, but once more he left his rent in an envelope slid beneath her door. He found a new place about half an hour south, the opposite direction from which he had gone last time — and where they had found him. His parents had left him money that the government had not managed to seize, and he used it to pay three months’ advance rent to a surly man with a spare room above his butcher shop, where the air smelled like blood and made Silvio dizzy with memories.

It was not ideal, but it would have to do. He had never been in this neighbourhood before. He had no connections here, no one who might recognize him and report him to the Triple A.

Efficiency was comforting. It gave him a goal and a purpose. After securing lodgings, he found an old contact to falsify his documentation papers, turning him into Alfredo Maestas, a man of no particular worth to society, nor danger either. Alfredo, he thought, moving through the streets. I must remember to answer to that name. With his new identity intact, he began searching for employment, as his parents’ cache of funds would not last past the year.

He advertised Alfredo Maestas as a secretary, a man of low status with some clerical training. Schooled enough to get tasks done, but not enough to suggest Silvio’s actual education. Alfredo Maestas had a high school diploma, skill with a typewriter, and beautiful cursive. He appeared for job interviews dressed neatly but slightly shabbily. When he admitted to knowing some French because of his half-French mother — which was a lie, he knew his French from spending a few summers outside Lyons when his mother was a university researcher — he eventually found his way into the French embassy, speaking to a mid-level diplomat named Señor Beringer.

It was November 28 1975, and Señor Beringer looked at Alfredo Maestas over the tops of his half-moon glasses. “Your penmanship is impressive,” he said.

“Thank you,” Silvio replied.

“What I am looking for in a secretary is a man who is quiet and discreet,” Señor Beringer said. “With no inherent vice. A clean man, a moral man. A man who will not give me any trouble.”

“I am your man,” Silvio promised. After all, there was no one quieter than the dead.

“We will see,” was the reply.

:::

The nights were harder than the days.

During the days he was able to occupy himself with work. He went into the French embassy at eight o’clock every morning, where he took a seat at his desk and answered Señor Beringer’s mail. He then typed out responses on the typewriter, drinking tepid tea, before spending the rest of the afternoon taking dictation or running errands. It wasn’t challenging work, but it was honest work, the kind of work his intelligentsia family might have looked down on — but Silvio didn’t mind. Silvio was glad to have a salary and an office where no one paid particular attention to him, the thin young man with the black vest and the threadbare trousers.

The nights, he had no such work to distract him from his predicament, and during the night he dreamed. If this was still a dream, if November 1975 was a figment of his subconscious, then what did it mean that he dreamed within a dream? When he huddled in his bed with the covers to his chin, he saw the walls of Rawson once more, the confines of his cell, the rats and the shit, the cries from the other prisoners, the heavy sacks of the dead. There was a smell in Rawson that he could never scrub out, and it followed him even into 1975, where he buried his face in the crook of his elbow and thought about despair.

He had expected to die there, to become one of the faceless, merely a number scratched into a logbook. Prisoner 3571, if they had even bothered to do that. That he somehow survived it, that he had somehow escaped was a startling realization, an icy chill that grabbed onto him and made freedom taste like brine.

There was no freedom from time. Silvio wasn’t a determinist. Rather, his parents had raised him to believe in an irrepressible potential for change, but Silvio was also a mathematician and he knew his paradoxes.

If he had traveled back in time a year—

—then one day he would need to end up in prison again, facing the end of the commander’s pistol—

—because if he was never in a situation where he wasn’t about to die—

—then God, the fates, those powers in question would never need to intervene—

It all came back, in the end, to one unavoidable fact: the situation of his current freedom necessitated a situation in the future that would spark it, and that situation could only ever be Rawson and his imminent death.

So he was not truly free, he thought, staring up at the ceiling at night, listening to the sounds of bottles breaking and people shouting at each other from across the street. He had been granted a temporary reprieve, a year of grace, but what was the point? He had no one and nowhere to spend that year. He could only wake up, go to work, and waste his lonely nights counting down the days until they found him again, and put that bag back over his head.

Inevitability, he thought. Just like Marx said, except Marx had been talking about capitalism and not time travel — but the conceit was the same. A glossy exterior hiding a rotten core.

December 1975 came, and Silvio awaited the advent of 1976 with dread.

303 days until I die, and he couldn’t shake the coldness from his bones, until even Señor Beringer noticed and asked him if he was well.

I have crawled on my hands and knees for men who would see me dead, Silvio thought, but his eyes remained impassive as he gave his employer assurances. Melodramatics were never of much use in accomplishing anything. “Or perhaps I may take a day off, if you don’t mind?” he finally conceded. Señor Beringer waved his hand and said he looked like he needed it.

What to do with his day off? He could go attend a meeting at his old socialists’ haunt — but that was too risky. He could reread his books — which he should have burned a second time, but what did it matter if they were going to find him anyway, come July. However, Silvio already knew every word of his books by heart, and he repeated the verses to himself dully as he walked home from the French embassy, ducking and sliding through the restless crowds. He could hear a commotion, women wailing, a very public arrest being made. He avoided that avenue.

What is wrong with me? he thought, climbing the stairs up to his room. I have a miracle, and yet I can’t even be happy.

:::

He remembered that name, one of the few names he’d ever heard uttered in the prison. Luis Verdugo.

It came to him on a cool day when he sat by his window, unwrapping a sandwich de miga from its wax paper. He had taken a portion of his embassy work home with him, and was making notes on Señor Beringer’s schedule for his trip to Córdoba — when suddenly, he thought, I can’t be the only one who made the jump.

Such a simple proposition, yet it had taken so long to drill into his hard head! Silvio threw the wrapper across the room and cursed. Then he felt foolish, and went to fetch it, depositing the remains carefully in a bag for garbage. Still, his thoughts began to run, churning through pistoned channels. “Luis Verdugo,” he said out loud, for he never forgot a name once he heard it. Could there be a chance that the prisoner named Luis Verdugo had been transported to 1975 as well?

Silvio didn’t even need to calculate the odds against finding Verdugo. Even if the time distortion had swept him into its wake, Rawson had collected an eclectic group of Argentines — Verdugo likely did not even live in Buenos Aires or the surrounding areas. Also, it was hardly an uncommon name. Silvio imagined he could search and find a thousand Luis Verdugos, and the process of sifting through them all, while still being a wanted man, was daunting.

Interestingly enough, it was the very challenge that spurred him onwards, for complicit in the despair was the boredom.

One of the few benefits of being involved in dangerous political movements was that Silvio had access to a far-flung network of contacts. He wasn’t close with any of them, not enough to call in favours more than once or twice a lifetime, but once or twice was enough — he didn’t have much of a lifetime left. There was a man whose daughter Silvio had once hid in his apartment during a search, and there was a woman he had once shared clean boiled water with when she came out of prison thirsty. Silvio paid calls to them discreetly, and if the reminder of his personal name wasn’t enough to trigger their memories, his family name did. Most of the older rebels had heard of the Professors Echevarria, and so they promised to pass the word: that somewhere in the city, he was searching for a man named Luis Verdugo who may possibly be the sort of person who would one day be arrested and sent to Rawson.

January 1976, the roaring sound of lumbering cars on the streets, the entire country seemingly up in flames — and a note slipped to Silvio in La Paz Café where he had been waiting.

A name and a street.

Silvio considered it with his usual methodical care. The address pointed to one of the roughest districts in the city, not quite the shantytowns but only a few steps removed from them, a place of poverty and violence — though, he reminded himself, with the government being what it was, there were few parts of Buenos Aires left that had not fallen to poverty and violence. What did he have to fear when he had seen his own neighbours dragged out of their homes at night by dogged policemen? So he wrapped up a fine bottle of caña quemada, one of his uncle’s last stocks that he had left to Silvio before he was murdered, and he took a second day off work, with Señor Beringer’s kindly blessings.

The address brought him to a street, bright and colourful, but with children running barefoot and men on motorcycles sneering at him from yellow alleyways. Silvio approached one of them carefully. “Do you know of a Luis Verdugo who frequents this area?” he asked, and the man dangled the cigarette from his teeth, reminding Silvio so much of the commander that he wanted to reel back and run.

“Why do you want to know?” the man asked. “Are you a friend?”

“I — yes,” Silvio lied. “I know his mother. Sweet woman. She helped deliver me.”

It took some wary bargaining, but after Silvio had given the man his plain wristwatch, he was pointed to a gambling den at the end of the lane, where a loud radio indoors was playing tango music that washed through the dusty street. Raucous male voices, and the sound of laughter, followed on the low notes of the music. When Silvio ducked inside the open door with its blanket for a flap, he saw the circle of seven men sitting around a messy table, and the man he remembered as Luis Verdugo dealing the cards with that bent-for-hell grin.

He was not a large man, Verdugo, but he was compact and muscular, with biceps clearly gained from the experience of hard labour. He had a broad face with a crooked nose, the face of a man who had been in more than a handful of fights. They were about the same age but that was about their only physical similarity. Silvio studied him the way he studied his equations for probability theory, noting the surprising speed and grace of Verdugo’s fingers, almost too elegant for a rough-hewn thug like him.

He looked up and saw Silvio lingering at the doorway. His face froze in recognition — not a man given to hiding his emotions, clearly. But then he flicked out a sweep of cards with a lazy motion, and said, “Go away.”

The gamblers turned and stared at Silvio, who felt the prickly weight of their attention. “I’ll wait,” he said.

“Got nothing to say to you,” Verdugo said.

“I’ll wait anyway,” Silvio replied, and he did. Unless Verdugo snuck out of the back entrance — and there didn’t seem to be one for the small gambling den — he would eventually have to leave through the door. So Silvio waited patiently, listening to the slapping, japing game of poker, and the clink of glasses filled to the brim with maté, to the voices of the men as they grew drunker and more ferocious, money won and lost on that circular wooden table.

The sun was setting when Luis Verdugo finally exited. Silvio stepped forward, never one to waste time.

“Ghost,” Verdugo said.

“I have a name,” Silvio said. “I believe I told it to you.”

“Didn’t bother remembering,” Verdugo said. “You were a breath away from having your brains shot out. Didn’t seem important to remember your fucking name.”

Silvio blinked. He lowered his voice. “But it is important. In the prison, our names and our histories are the only things we have.” He paused. “If you remember me from Rawson, then you must have traveled back with me. You know what I’m talking about.”

“Sure,” Verdugo said. “The miracle of God.”

“You don’t seem very happy to see me,” Silvio said. “I would have thought, a fellow brother who understands the complexity of your situation—”

What complexity?” Verdugo asked. He had a Hollywood laugh, a movie star laugh, and he reminded Silvio of all the handsome, cocksure boys who had ever sat with the pretty girls in the schoolyard, whom Silvio could never approach. “As far as I’m concerned, this is the happiest time of my life. I got out. I’m free. And I’m moving on. Don’t need your sorry face around reminding me of old mistakes.”

“It won’t last,” Silvio said. “The time paradox.”

“You’re a college student, aren’t you?” Verdugo interrupted.

“It is that obvious?” Silvio asked mildly.

“With words like para-dox? You better be careful they don’t shoot you on the streets,” Verdugo said. “Listen to me, Ghost.” He stepped forward, shoving his face towards Silvio’s. He smelled like smoke and tangerines, like spices. “It’s 1975. We got a second chance. We can either sit around crying about it, or we can use it. Just because you’re sobbing into your apron doesn’t mean you can bring it to me.” He grabbed the wine in the crook of Silvio’s arm and winked. “Thanks for the gift. Me and my compañeros will put it to good use.” He started strolling away, a swagger in every step.

Silvio stared after him, aghast.

:::

“What the hell are you doing?” Verdugo asked. “Are you stalking me?”

Silvio winced. “You needn’t put such a barbarian spin on it. I didn’t think we finished our last conversation very well, that’s all.” He handed Verdugo another bottle of his uncle’s vintage. “A second gift, since you claimed to enjoy the first.”

Verdugo took the bottle and wiped the sweat from his forehead. It was an odd setting, even Silvio would admit — a crowd gathered in a square near the gambling den, humid bodies and the fierce sun haranguing down on them, and Luis Verdugo with a rooster cage under his arm, staring up at Silvio like he had just found a cockroach in his chorizo.

Silvio continued, in that same polite tone, “I thought you might have been too busy last time. It was my mistake. You had just gotten off work — which is what I assume you do, you run that gambling ring — and you were probably thinking about going home. It was a bad time.”

“And this, you think this is a good time?” Verdugo asked skeptically.

Silvio looked at the squawking rooster. “Probably not,” he admitted.

Verdugo’s smile was quick and violent. It came over him like an assassination. “You ever seen a cockfight, Ghost?”

“No,” Silvio said.

“If you did, you wouldn’t be standing here trying to chat me up moments before I start the fight,” Verdugo said, pushing past him. “Use your head. Leave me alone.”

“Later then,” Silvio said, and he could hear Verdugo’s disbelieving scoff even as Verdugo moved to the centre of the anticipatory crowd, who shouted when they saw him, their ringmaster, their master of ceremonies. Silvio took a position near the back of the crowd, trying to remain unnoticed, but a clear space between two angled bodies provided him a decent view. He had never seen a cockfight before, his upbringing much more given to discussions of Heidegger than animal sport, and he didn’t want to watch one now — he could only imagine what it would be like, the viciousness, the barbarity. He had seen enough of that to sate him for three lifetimes, and another three after that. But he wanted badly to speak to Luis Verdugo, to reach out to someone else and find an understanding. So he stayed, and he watched.

The way Verdugo lifted his rooster from the cage, there was almost a tenderness to his gestures. He smoothed the rooster’s feathers with his thumb and murmured to it gently, a faint frown on his mouth. The other rooster-handler across from him didn’t show nearly the same considerations; he threw open the cage and grabbed the rooster roughly.

Verdugo doesn’t enjoy this, Silvio thought, and it warmed him slightly to an otherwise irritating compatriot.

The sun, the crowds, the avian smell — Silvio began to feel lightheaded as Verdugo and the other handler loosed their birds at some agreed-upon signal. The crowd roared with a relentless desire, almost as heady as sex, and Silvio blinked the sweat from his eyelids, forcing himself to watch the spectacle.

“I don’t think this is legal,” he said out loud, but as usual, no one heard him.

It was easier to focus on the colours, on the red plumage of Verdugo’s bird. It was easier to track it with the eye, the way that streak of red bobbed and weaved, the way it lashed out, the way it went down. It gained an unreal quality then, the way it had when the guards had beaten him for too long — it was just a colour, divorced from all qualities. He was able to stop worrying about such a commotion attracting the attention of the authorities, who might recognize him. He was able to silence his mind momentarily, and as he watched the red motions, he felt as if he had been lifted up from his body, like dying all over again.

He came to when the fight was over and Verdugo’s bird emerged the victor, the spectators crowing all around him, payments from bets being exchanged. Verdugo was grinning, smirking, looking like a disreputable prince. Men surged around him, congratulating him. Silvio tried to join them, to catch Verdugo’s attention, but it was too difficult — by the time the crowds thinned enough for him to catch a breath, Verdugo and his rooster were nowhere in sight.

illustrated by beili

:::

Well then. No one had ever accused Silvio of laziness.

Behind an apartment building on Calle Jacinth, Luis Verdugo pushed him into a wall and then pressed his arm against Silvio’s windpipe, choking him. “You do not come near my family,” Verdugo said angrily. “Whatever else you’ve got in your head — you leave my family alone.”

I’m not a threat, Silvio wanted to say, except he couldn’t breathe with the heaviness of Verdugo’s grip against him, and it wasn’t entirely true. He was a threat, a criminal, a name to appear on the lists of the condemned. In realizing it, Verdugo was obviously intelligent in his own way. By the same token, though, he could be made to listen to reason.

“You saw me in the prison,” he finally managed to gasp. “You know I’m not one of them.”

“So?” Verdugo asked. “They sometimes throw their own into prison. Maybe you’re part of the Triple A and you made someone mad. Wouldn’t be surprised. You’re making me mad.”

This close, he could count each one of Verdugo’s inky lashes.

“You don’t fight back, do you?” Verdugo said.

“What’s the point?” Silvio said, coughing. Verdugo finally stepped aside and Silvio struggled to find air again. “It won’t avoid a beating.”

“A man should always fight,” Verdugo said, teeth bared. In response, Silvio straightened his crooked knapsack and adjusted the messy angles of his shirt and his vest. He turned out the points of his collar once more, and frowned at a button Verdugo had ripped off. Careless. He would need to buy a needle and thread to repair the damage.

A woman poked her head out of the window above them, a señora with thick, wrinkled eyelids. Verdugo froze when he saw her — it was nearly comical. “I thought I heard your voice,” the señora said. “What are you doing out here, and who is with you?” Strangely enough, her voice warmed when she looked at Silvio, who raised his hand in greeting.

“Just some pesky fly, mamá,” Verdugo responded.

Señora Verdugo looked astonished. “Are you roughing him up? Why?”

“It’s no matter,” Silvio said. “I’m sorry to bother you. I’ll be on my way.” Not a full truth, as he planned to find Verdugo again the moment he was able, but there was no point in coming between a mother and her grown son. Verdugo frowned as Silvio prepared to leave, but then Señora Verdugo spoke again, in tones of great exasperation.

“You look starved, like a drowned rat. Why don’t you come up for dinner?”

“What?” Verdugo asked.

“Invite him up for dinner, Luis,” she said. Then she disappeared behind the window, and they could hear the sound of humming.

Luis Verdugo gritted his teeth, but like most men of their country, did not dare to go against his mother. He whirled on Silvio, who flinched at the sight of all that bulk and fury directed towards him. “Just this once,” Verdugo said harshly, “and you don’t cause any trouble, got it? You don’t tell them who you are or how we know each other.”

“I generally don’t bring up time travel in my day-to-day conversations,” Silvio agreed.

“And don’t tell them — don’t tell them where you found me.” Luis ran his fingers through his hair, making it stick up wildly. “They think I’m a construction worker. They don’t know about the gambling or the cockfights. They won’t know. Got it?”

“Got it,” Silvio said quietly. “You can trust me. I can keep my mouth shut.”

“Can you?” Luis muttered.

Upstairs, it was a small apartment, with three rooms shared by seven family members. Luis Verdugo seemed profoundly uncomfortable with letting Silvio inside, almost predatory in his own self-consciousness. He shouldn’t have worried. Despite the class differences, Silvio had hardly spent the last few years of his life in the lap of luxury. Señora Verdugo invited him in briskly and found him a seat around the table, where she sat with Señor Verdugo, a thin man Silvio later realized was blind, and four younger Verdugo offspring, ranging in ages from ten to seventeen. Luis was the eldest by far. However, despite the age disparity, they tended towards the same mold of short and stocky, dark-haired with clever, quick-flitting eyes.

“Luis, you have friends?” the second-oldest of the Verdugo children asked in faint mockery. Her mother introduced her as Valencia. She was the only child who was tall with maraca-stick legs.

“I have friends, and I don’t pick my own nose,” Luis replied. Valencia scowled at him.

Silvio watched the family meal in fascination. The table was set with plates of milanesa and mashed potatoes, the milanesa heavy with the taste of bread crumbs and garlic. It was very good, and it had been a long time since Silvio had eaten a home-cooked meal. He kept to his best table manners, which the Verdugo clan themselves seemed to ignore, squabbling over the food like a roost of chickens, the younger siblings kicking each other under the table, and Señora Verdugo presiding over the chaos while coaxing her husband to eat.

“What do you do?” Valencia finally asked Silvio, who paused in between bites to wipe at his mouth with his handkerchief.

“I am a secretary,” he replied.

“To a very important man?”

“Moderately important,” Silvio said.

“That’s ten times more important than Luis then,” she said, satisfied. Silvio turned to glance at Luis, and watched him roll his eyes.

“You see how appreciated I am?” Luis said. “I bring in all the money, I put this food on the table, and I’m not even moderately important on her eyes! What do you want next, a Cadillac?”

She sucked in a breath. “What I want is for the military to—”

“No politics at dinner,” Señora Verdugo interrupted, reaching over to refill Silvio’s glass of water. “And wipe your mouth. You have sauce on your chin. You see how Señor Ghost does it?”

“Ghost,” Valencia muttered. “What a stupid nickname.”

“Really?” Luis drawled. “I think it suits him.” He met Silvio’s eyes over the table in clear challenge, but Silvio did not blink.

“Thank you for inviting a stranger to dinner,” he said after the meal was over and he was helping Señora Verdugo and Valencia clear the dishes. Luis sat with his father in front of the radio, listening to Francisco Canaro and his orchestra perform Madrecita yo me muero while the younger children played with cards on the tangled sheep wool rug.

“It’s no trouble,” Señora Verdugo said. “We may not have much, but Luis always manages to bring us food. Friends, not so much.” She said it like a straightforward fact, like the sun was yellow and roosters had red feathers and oh yes, Luis Verdugo, in his own way, was probably as lonely as anybody.

“I have to tell you the truth,” Silvio said, handing over the dishes. “We’re not friends yet. I’m merely the dirt that has managed to attach itself to the bottom of your son’s shoe.”

“Well, there’s always time for that to change,” she said, and Silvio fell silent, because no, there wasn’t.

:::

From January 1976, he counted ten months until he would feel the cold metal of the commander’s pistol against his head, the singular velocity of a bullet. Yet his morbid count was halted by Señora Verdugo’s walking him to the door and saying, “You’re welcome to come back. I miss visitors.” She cocked her head and peered at him. “We used to have lovely gatherings, but between one president and the next, we seem to have misplaced them all.” Her voice was full of sardonic humour, and Silvio had chills that reminded him of his mother.

He nodded and promised he would return if it was all right. Her smile tilted to the left, and she said, “You don’t have any family, do you?”

“Do I have a sign on my back?” he asked, twisting around lightly. “Everybody seems to know everything about me.”

“It’s easy. A well-mannered young man who hangs around Luis?” she said, ticking it off on her fingers. “You must think I’m stupid!”

“Never,” he assured her.

“Ah, see? Such beautiful manners. Here my children just grab the food and ask for more, and you bring a handkerchief!” She patted him on the shoulder. “Come back. We’ll talk some more.”

A queer warmth spread through Silvio’s chest, dislodging some of his fear. It made him reckless. He shouldn’t come back — Luis was right, his very presence was putting the Verdugo family in danger. Yet it had been a truly pleasant dinner, surrounded by people who knew each other and bickered with clear affection. How long had it been since he’d had such a treasure? Surely it would be fine if he returned to visit once or twice more, enough to convince Luis to speak of their metaphysical situation. There had been a cockfight not a few blocks away, after all, and no police had come. That could be a good sign, and Silvio was desperate for good signs.

If he was to die come October, a few shared meals with friendly people was less than what he deserved, surely.

Selfishness rested on his tongue, an impulsiveness that would have surprised all of his former classmates, who had never thought the Ghost could be selfish, because that meant desire, and Silvio was supposed to be above desire. Even his own parents had cautioned him against it. Desire breeds weak minds, his padre had said, and then he’d twirled Silvio’s mother in the steps of a tango, up until the day the men in fatigues had come for them.

“I think too much,” Silvio said to the silence of his room after he had returned. “Válgame dios, I’m so tired.”

He remembered Luis’ dark, suspicious eyes from the balcony, watching Silvio cross the street after dinner, and he shivered.

So perhaps it was weakness that brought him back, a homesickness that even prison could not wear down in him. He purchased two loaves of thick, crackling honey bread from the marketplace, and then he returned to Calle Jacinth, where Luis nearly shut the door in his face, except Valencia yelled at him to let Ghost in. “If Luis hates you, then you must be good,” she said, and Luis gave Silvio the devil’s own look.

“I won’t get you into trouble,” Silvio said softly. “I promise.”

“How can you promise that?” Luis said. “It’s like promising the stars.”

“Most likely they won’t find me until July,” Silvio continued, ducking his head for their private conversation. “In the last timeline, that’s when it happened. July. And I’m even more isolated out here, so the chances are fewer.” He shuffled the bread in his arms. “Shouldn’t you be the one to worry? You were captured as well.”

“I shouldn’t have been,” Luis said darkly.

“Don’t be too hard on yourself,” Silvio said. “Even the best can’t always predict what will happen.”

“That’s true enough,” Luis snorted. “But when they came, it wasn’t for me.” His gaze shifted to Valencia, who was setting the table, and Silvio said nothing. It was not his matter to pry; what difference did it make how Luis had gotten himself into trouble? People had been thrown into Rawson for simply having a bad attitude towards police, that was how much power the state had.

Luis turned back. Silvio could see the outline of his muscles beneath his thin white shirt, and he forced himself to look away. Weakness, he thought. Even more weakness. Luis spoke. “Don’t think this means I trust you, or want you around.”

“Why do you dislike me so much?” Silvio asked. “I’m the one the commander shot, not you. If anything, I would expect pity.”

“You want me to explain it?”

“Apparently, yes.”

Luis showed his teeth. “Because you’re just like them. Those pampered, spoiled students. Sons of businessmen and professors. Making trouble for the rest of us. Stirring the hornets’ nest. You talk about labour unrests and the rights of workers — you’ve never had to work a fucking day in your life.” He jabbed Silvio’s hand. “Look at your fingers! They’re so soft.”

“I’ve only ever wanted to be your ally,” Silvio said, snatching his hand back. “I don’t know what I can do to make you see that.”

“You remind me of that place every time I look at you,” Luis said bluntly. Silvio reeled on his heels, shocked with electric heat, because that wasn’t right. They were supposed to be sufferers together, a community. Luis wasn’t supposed to lump him in with the guards, with the system, with them. The smell of blood stirred in his memories, and Silvio took a sharp breath.

“I’m sorry,” he finally said. “I don’t meant to — but you see, I’m going to die. October 1976. Ten months, more or less. I’m going to end up back in that place, and I’m going to be dead.”

“Most likely,” Luis said, “but what do you want me to do about it? If I’ve only got a year of freedom, I’m not going to spend it listening to your sob stories.”

“No sob stories. I just want you to remember,” Silvio said. He gazed at him. “Just like I said back then. Or what I will say — the chronology is somewhat complicated now, I’ll admit, but the sentiment is real. I don’t want to — I don’t want to die and have been nothing to no one. I’m the last of my family. I have no friends. I’m — an island,” he said, his voice straining for calm.

He knew Luis Verdugo was capable of mercy. He had seen it with the rooster, and Silvio felt little more than a clipped bird, so it seemed only appropriate that Luis extend it briefly to him. Not kindness, no, but mercy didn’t need kindness. Therefore when Luis finally said, “Make one wrong move and I will break your spindly bones,” Silvio nodded and promised to be good.

:::

Better than good was to be useful, and even though Silvio was far from a capitalist, he understood what it meant to have an exchange of goods. Señora Verdugo missed being a hostess, opportunities lost in the troubled times they lived in, and Silvio missed the company of other people. There was an equilibrium there he could negotiate, but he also understood that the desire to entertain was more easily sated than the desire for human company, so he had to give more in exchange as time went on. Instead of just coming over for dinner and telling watered-down, politically neutral stories about the people his parents knew — writers and artists and poets and some of the great luminaries of Buenos Aires — he helped with the dishes. He helped with repairing the children’s broken toys. He even helped with the mending, and Señora Verdugo praised his tiny, precise stitches.

“Let me adopt you as a third son,” she said. “You are more helpful than all my other children put together.” She paused to reconsider. “Well, maybe except for Luis.”

“Thank you, mamá,” Luis drawled. “It warms my heart, knowing your love for me.” She laughed and he came up to her, wrapping his arms around her and kissing her on the neck. Watching mother and son’s easy affection made Silvio look away. His own mother had not been so warm, but he remembered lazy afternoons in which they sat on the balcony underneath the sun, eating raspberries while she read him poetry and the fantastical writings of Juan José Arreola. He had burned his copy of La feria last among all his books.

January 1976 passed into February, and after February came March, an orderly procession of months that did not provide Silvio any peace of mind. He was restless, sleepless, an equation with its components in all the wrong places, and the only joy he had was visiting the Verdugos, sharing their food and listening to their conversation. It was voyeuristic. Of course it was voyeuristic, and it was selfish to the extreme. But Silvio was tired of sainthood.

If he could not be good in the large ways, then at least he could manage to convey it in the small ways, helping Señora Verdugo with the herbs that she grew on cartons on her balcony, bunches of paprika and parsley and rosemary, and cayenne peppers hanging dried from the rafters. None of her children took an interest in gardening. “It needs a patience contrary to the Verdugo nature,” she said in her typical sardonic way, and so she recruited Silvio to the task.

The fragrances stuck to Silvio’s fingers, and at night when he lay alone in his cheap, cramped bed, he would smell the spicy scent on his own skin. It would transport him away, away from his dreary life and into something better. A fantasy.

“You know,” Señora Verdugo said to him one day when they were watering the garden, “I came from a good family like you.” She gazed at him thoughtfully. “Maybe not quite so good, but my family had money. I went to a private all-girls’ school. We owned a car and a chauffeur.”

“What happened?” Silvio asked cautiously.

She looked inside the apartment, at where her blind husband was sitting on a rocking chair, listening to the radio as he so often did. “Love happened,” she said.

“I don’t know much about love,” Silvio admitted. “It seems very… messy. People do stupid things when they think they are in love.” He backtracked quickly, horrified at his own words. “I don’t mean to say you acted stupidly, señora! I’m sure you did what you thought was best.”

“I have a husband who adores me, and five clever children,” she said. “Does it matter some days now that we don’t have enough money? That Luis makes our fortune by gambling and back alley deals, scarce better than a criminal? That I do my own laundry instead of giving it to the maids? Sometimes.” She shrugged. “But the world changes. If you don’t learn how to bend like the willow, you will be swept away by the rain.”

:::

He tried to talk to Luis. His efforts weren’t quite as successful.

“What do you want? I’m busy,” Luis said.

“You’re playing toy cars with Pedro,” Silvio pointed out. The youngest Verdugo brother looked up and grinned at them both.

“A very important task, more important than talking to you,” Luis said, and Silvio was suddenly affixed with the desire to punch him in an impolite place. Why am I becoming such a brute? he thought, rubbing at his forehead. Luis smirked and turned back to Pedro. “Vroom vroom!” he said. “Look at the car! See how fast it goes!”

“One day I’m going to have a car just like that,” Pedro said.

“Of course you will,” Luis replied, ruffling his hair. “You’ll drive down the street and all the señoritas will come running.”

“Girls.” Pedro wrinkled his nose.

“You’ll change your mind when you get older,” Luis said. “Or maybe you won’t. There are men who live completely happily without girls. Or so I’m told.” He smiled knowingly up at Silvio, who went cold and careful. Had Luis guessed? No, it was impossible. Silvio was long used to hiding his own inclinations; he was a master of deception in that arena. “Isn’t that right, Ghost?” Luis prodded.

“There are other things besides girls,” Silvio agreed stiffly.

“Like what?” Pedro asked.

“Like books,” Silvio said, while Luis started laughing. “And… and math.”

“And math!” Luis said, slapping his thigh. “That’s your best answer? Math is better than sex—”

A rolled up sock came flying across the room and hit Luis’ head. “Don’t corrupt Pedro with your own nastiness,” Valencia said. “Just because you go around swaggering, sticking your man parts into everything you see, doesn’t mean—”

“My man parts!” Luis crowed, while Silvio bristled at the affront to his beloved mathematics. He imagined Luis saw him as a virgin — well, he wasn’t. Silvio had fumbled with classmates and fellow revolutionaries once or twice in the heat of the moment, and truth be told, he preferred the math. It was a lot more interesting. He missed his work at the university with a dangerous longing, and wondered if one day he would ever complete his thesis. Then he remembered his metaphysical situation, and that the answer was no. No, he would never finish and publish his thesis.

It soured the mood, and it made him less inclined to sit there and listen to over-confident Luis Verdugo mock him. But even as his irritation grew, he said nothing, until Valencia remarked, “Stop trying to bait Ghost. He’s never going to get angry.”

“I get angry,” Silvio said.

“When?” Luis asked. “Because I’ve never seen it.”

It just takes someone more than you, Silvio thought, looking Luis in the eye. Luis stared back, and the language between them was wordless but twisted up with memory and with knowledge. Prison — guards — execution. Single concepts, bitter regrets. Silvio read the images in Luis’ expression, but what Luis read in his, he would never know. He ducked his head with a grunt and went back to playing cars with Pedro.

:::

March was a long month, and Silvio watched Isabel Perón topple at the hands of military rule. Jorge Rafael Videla came into power, and the killings and disappearances went on. In April, he discovered that Valencia was a member of the ERP. It spoke to how comfortable he’d become with the Verdugos, that this fact even surprised him. Why should it? She was of the right age, a high school student with passionate opinions and a social group who would no doubt encourage her into rebellious activities. That it was the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo was somewhat of a surprise, as they were more militant than the average Argentine schoolgirl was used to, but these were changing times.

He overheard her argument with Luis after dinner, whispered words in the alleyway outside the apartment. Valencia’s voice growing louder and louder, while Luis’ got quieter, more deadly. “Why should you stop me?” she was saying. “This city needs to change! This country needs to change! They call it the National Reorganization Process? It’s tyranny.”

Luis grabbed her arm roughly. “I know it is,” he hissed. “You think I’m blind and stupid? I know how bad it’s gotten. But you’re fucking seventeen years old. This war isn’t yours to fight, you fucking brat.”

“The ERP’s been working against them this entire time,” Valencia said. “Do you know how this dirty war got started? Because we tried to to get justice! The Trelew Massacre when we tried to break our people out of Rawson, and they shot eleven of us!”

“Don’t talk to me about Rawson,” Luis said.

“What are you going to do to stop me?” Valencia shot back. “Lock me up in my room tonight?”

“If I have to,” Luis said, and the way he spoke, even Silvio was frightened of him. Valencia, however, did not appear to be, and she laughed in her brother’s face.

She was clever, oh yes, Valencia Verdugo was clever, just as her mother said. Silvio saw how Luis locked the room she was sleeping in, and barred the door and the window, but that didn’t stop her from fleeing anyway. It was midnight, and everyone else in her family was asleep except for Luis, who sat in the living room alert, but Valencia broke the locks on the window and climbed out without his notice, running swiftly and stealthily down Calle Jacinth, and right into Silvio, who was waiting for her at the street’s end.

“Ghost,” she said. “What are you doing here?”

“I think you should listen to your brother,” he said quietly. “What you plan to do tonight, with the ERP, it isn’t worth it.”

“Are you a Peronist?” she demanded.

“I am as far from a Peronist as anyone you could meet,” Silvio said. “I sympathize with your goals. I do. But you are young, and I don’t want to see you make the same mistakes that I did.” He stepped towards her, but Valencia recoiled, jumping two steps back.

“Do you know Hernando Sanchez?” she asked.

“Yes,” Silvio said. Hernando Sanchez, one of the former Triple A leaders. Hernando Sanchez, the commander who had arrested him. Hernando Sanchez, the man who would go on to shoot him in the head. His lips felt numb as he answered Valencia’s question, and she saw the storm in his eye.

“He’s a monster,” she said. “He lives in a fancy apartment on Avenida Roque Sáenz Peña. We’re going to bomb him tonight.”

Silvio felt his breath rattle inside his lungs. “No,” he finally said, while inside, an animal part of him snarled: I want to see him dead, I want to see him killed, I want to see him pay and pay and pay. “Let the others do the bombing. Don’t get yourself involved.”

“I need to,” Valencia said. “I’m going to.” Then she was off and running, her braids bouncing against her back. Silvio followed her as quickly as he could, but the streets were dark and soon he lost track of her. So instead he made his own way to Avenida Roque Sáenz Peña in the influential San Nicolás quarter. The moon was like a coin in the night sky. It was a clear night, and his blood ran as ice wine inside his veins. What a hypocrite he was, trying to stop Valencia, when he was the very same, when he had once burned with that passion, with that hatred.

He was too late. When he arrived, he could already see the lights go on inside an apartment at the end of the avenue. He could hear the sounds of shouting, and then a gunshot, followed by a scream. Luis will never forgive me, he thought, and it was as if a monster took hold of him. He forgot caution. He forgot safety. He was running hard towards the apartment, his only thought to find Valencia, running in a way he hadn’t even when they arrested him. He had gone with them without fighting, but this wasn’t about him. This was a young girl, a girl who might have been a cousin or a friend, a girl like thousands of other girls he’d known and forgotten.

He ran, and then he saw the fleeing ERP rebels scramble out of the apartment, dashing every which way. “Valencia!” he hissed, and there she was, confused and scared, blood oozing from a gash in her forehead.

He grabbed her arm, and he pulled her into the shadows.

“It didn’t work,” she said. “Someone tipped Sanchez off.”

“We can’t stay here,” Silvio said, analyzing her quickly. She was hurt, but it looked like a surface wound. “Can you run?” he asked. He didn’t wait for an answer. He could hear the sounds of heavy cars squealing in the distance, the sounds of the police. “You’re going to have to,” he said, and he took her hand in his, setting off through the network of alleys and back streets that he himself had once learned, running from these very enemies once upon a time, in a life he no longer lived.

They ran, Silvio and Valencia. Down the avenue and through the neighbourhood, past the Obelisco de Buenos Aires, which jutted like a nightmare in the darkness. Valencia was panting, losing strength by the minute, and Silvio was no athlete — but they had desperation on their side, and when they saw the sweeping lights of police vehicles heading their way, he pushed her in front of him. “You see that building?” he said. She nodded frantically. “Go upstairs, to Apartment 311. Ask to see Señora Ocampo. She owes me a favour. Stay with her.”

“What are you going to do?” Valencia asked, grabbing at him.

“I’m going to distract them,” Silvio said. “Don’t argue with me!” He shoved her towards Ocampo’s building. “Go!”

How easy it was to throw one’s life away when it was already promised to death, he thought, watching Valencia stumble away. He looked at his fingers, rich with the scent of garlic and cayenne, and then he swung out into the open, where the lights washed over him.

:::

Luis came for him. He tracked Silvio down to his room over the butcher shop, and he tossed a roll of bandages onto his lap. “Valencia told me what happened,” he said. “You don’t know how angry I am with her, putting herself in danger like that. And for what — to kill a man she’s never met?” He paced the floorboards while Silvio unwrapped the bandages, measuring one that would go over the gash on his arm. “You saved her,” Luis said. “Thank you.”

“That sounded like it was hard to say,” Silvio observed.

“As hard as a priest’s cock around an altar boy,” Luis said. “But my family owes you now. I owe you now. I’m a gambler, but I’m not crooked. I pay my debts.”

“I didn’t do it so you would owe me a favour,” Silvio said. “I did it because… because I was once like her, and with the coup in March, I can’t say I blame her.” Luis turned on him abruptly so Silvio raised his hands in peace. “I don’t think she should have done it. But you have to understand her position. She cares about this country. She cares about freedom and democracy.”

“Are you saying I don’t?” Luis asked.

“You don’t strike me as particularly political,” Silvio said. He winced as he applied the bandage. Running from the police had been difficult, but he’d managed by being clever and slippery. He had done his best not to let them see his face underneath direct light. “I’ve thought about what you said, that when they threw you into Rawson, it wasn’t you they were looking for. It was her, wasn’t it?”

Luis’ jaw was clenched tight. “Yes,” he said shortly. “They’d heard there was a rebel in the Verdugo family, but they didn’t know which who. So when they came and found the pamphlets, I told them they were mine. And why shouldn’t they believe me? I’m big and strong, ten times more dangerous than skinny little Valencia. It caught me off guard last time. I didn’t know Valencia was involved with the ERP at all. But going back in time gives me a second chance. Now I know.”

“You did a brave thing,” Silvio said.

“I did what needed to be done. If I have to, I’ll fucking do it again,” Luis said. His mouth curled insolently. “So, evading the police? I guess this means you’re not as boring as I thought you were, Ghost.”

“Can we be friends?” Silvio asked plainly.

“What, just like that?” Luis mocked.

“We’re dead men,” Silvio said. “We might as well be as straightforward as possible. I’d like to be your friend, Luis. I think we could be useful to each other in the days to come.”

“What does it matter if we’re going to die, like you say?”

“It matters to me,” Silvio said, and Luis looked at him for a long time with those incredibly dark eyes before shrugging.

“Whatever you want,” he said. “Just don’t ask me to take you to whorehouses or lend you money. I don’t do that even for my friends.”

“I’ll resist,” Silvio said dryly, but he smiled and held out his hand. Luis laughed at him openly, which Silvio supposed he would just have to get used to. Luis shook his hand, his grip strong and rough, and suddenly October seemed far away.

“Your job at the embassy, does it have long hours?” Luis asked. “Wait, what am I saying? Of course it doesn’t, since you manage to attach yourself to my family every evening.” He stuck his hands in his pockets and leaned back, studying Silvio like a pig at the market. “I’m going to need your help. I’ve got some people who owe me money after card games. They’re not paying up.”

Silvio furrowed his brow. “What can I do about that?”

“A couple of things,” Luis said. “I could use someone who can pretend to be a government official. You’ve got the fancy talk and weasley look down.” He laughed. “And one of the men is a university professor. You’ve got connections there, don’t you? You can find him for me.”

“I’m not your lapdog, Verdugo,” Silvio said, but it was a token protest only, and Luis’ smile curled into something smokier, a shade more meaningful. Silvio had seen him smile that way at girls on the street and pretty neighbours — Luis was a flirt, it was just in his nature. But he had never flirted with Silvio before, and Silvio was taken aback by it, annoyed by the responsive heat in his own belly. “You can’t just order me around like you want,” he added.

“Can’t I?” Luis said, and he leaned forward so that he was crowding Silvio against the bed. Silvio felt their thighs press together and Luis’ breath against the side of his head. His heart began to pound, traitorous mechanism that it was. “Oh Ghost,” Luis said. “If you want to hide your interest in men, you really should try a little harder.” He smiled against Silvio’s ear. “You’re lucky I’m so… flexible. We could fuck, if you wanted.”

Silvio shoved him back. “What?” he asked sharply.

“I do men sometimes,” Luis said casually. “And like I said, I owe you one. I could show you a good time. Right now. Tit for tat.”

“You’re not a whore,” Silvio snapped.

“Didn’t say I was.”

“So don’t insult me like that,” Silvio said. The ice wine in his blood was entirely gone right now, replaced by want and fury, a confusing mixture that addled his head. “Didn’t you just promise to be friends?”

Luis gave him a genuinely curious look. “You don’t fuck your friends?”

“No,” Silvio said.

“It explains a lot about you,” Luis said. “But okay, fine. No fucking. No touching. Your loss.” He went to Silvio’s desk and scribbled a note, which he tossed at Silvio on the bed. “Meet me at this address later this afternoon. We’re going to shake some assholes down for their money, you and me.”

:::

Luis seemed to take an inordinate amount of pleasure in bossing Silvio around. It didn’t make much sense when it was Luis who owed Silvio, not the other way around, but the structures of economy seemed to collapse wherever Luis Verdugo was concerned. He had Silvio accompany him to the gambling rings and the cockfights, and had him stand by Luis almost like a bodyguard, which was laughable because just looking at Silvio’s arms would disabuse anyone of that fact, and Luis was tough enough to take care of his own.

But it was the way Silvio talked, the way he comported himself — Luis saw those as useful tools. “This is the deal,” he explained one evening in April. “I’ve got Reynoso crouching on my territory, poaching my men. They’re going to his games and not mine, and I’m not having that, you hear?”

“I hear,” Silvio murmured.

“So I’ve got to use every weapon in my arsenal,” Luis said. “I’ve got to be ruthless. I’ve got to break his business down for the shit that it is. And you’re useful. If people look at you and think, that man Verdugo’s got connections to the upper crust, that benefits me. And what benefits me ultimately benefits you.”

“All right,” Silvio conceded. “But I won’t get into fights for you or do anything immoral.”

“Who’s talking immoral?” Luis said. “Just stand there and look smart and snobby, Ghost. That’s all I’m asking. You’re good at that anyway.” He peered at Silvio, standing too close, which was an intimidation tactic of his that Silvio was trying his best to ignore. “Valencia tells me you’re a genius. She’s your biggest fan now. I don’t know whether to believe her or not.”

“I don’t think I’m a genius,” Silvio said. “If I were such a genius, I wouldn’t have been in Rawson.”

“You breathe and you’re a candidate for Rawson,” Luis said.

“True enough,” Silvio said.

“But I’ve been thinking. She’s right. You’re good with numbers, and I can use that too. Gambling’s just numbers, after all.” Luis snapped his fingers. “Yes, no, you got me?”

“I got you,” Silvio said, and he did. It was hardly an enterprise his parents would have approved of, but it was what he was good at. Gambling was numbers, gambling was probability theory, gambling was a business that Luis ran as cutthroat as any pirate ship. He wasn’t crooked, but he wasn’t nice either. He couldn’t afford to be nice. He collected his money and he ran down debtors with all the feralness of a jungle tiger, showing up at their doorstep with a smile and a veiled threat. Give me what you owe me, was the implicit message, and even Silvio, who saw how gentle Luis was with his family, would have never tried to deny him what was his.

“Do you enjoy this?” he asked one afternoon.

“Earning money?” Luis said sarcastically. “It’s got some appeal to it.”

“I mean, if you could live any life that God gave you. What would you do?”

“That’s just wishful thinking,” Luis said, fanning out his cards. “God gave me one life. Wondering otherwise takes imagination, and imagination will be what kills you on these streets. This isn’t mansion land. We’ve got different rules.”

“I’ve never lived in a mansion,” Silvio told him. “You’ve got this entirely false impression of how I was raised. My family wasn’t rich. My parents were professors, not millionaires.”

“You’ve spent summers in France, haven’t you? I heard you tell my mother that.”

“So?” Silvio said. “It was rural France, hardly Paris.”

“‘Rural France, hardly Paris,'” Luis mimicked. “I’ve never fucking left this city until they took me to jail.” He looked at Silvio lazily. “I’ve got a cousin like you. Speaks French, spent time in France. He’s a bore at all the family reunions.”

“I’m not here to entertain you,” Silvio said. “You’re aren’t using me for that.”

“Well, I offered to use you for fantastic sex and mind-blowing blowjobs,” Luis said, “but apparently you aren’t interested in any of those.” He laughed as Silvio turned red underneath the midday sun.

“I have to go to work now,” he said tersely. “My real work, at the embassy.”

“Mmm,” Luis said, and watched him go with that infuriating, knowing smile.

Silvio wanted him. Silvio hated him. Silvio thought, This is what I asked for, when I asked him to be my friend. If only it had been someone other than Luis Verdugo who had been in prison with him. A nice young man, Silvio thought wishfully. An academic, maybe. Silvio could deal with academics. He had all his life. Academics didn’t get drunk and bang on Silvio’s door at four in the morning. Academics didn’t send Silvio on errands all around town, just to please his mother by surprising her with a freshly cut rose for her birthday. Academics didn’t make Silvio consort with thugs and pimps, all of whom lacked manners and who laughed at Silvio the way Luis did. They’d all taken to calling him Ghost, and he hated that, hated the erosion of his real name, the name his parents had given him.

Academics didn’t get into brawls two blocks from their own home, sending their opponents smashing through windows, and ripping their own knuckles into red stripes.

Silvio showed in time to see Luis stride out onto the street, past the broken window, and grab Ramón Tapia, a local moneylender, by the collar. Luis’ lips parted in a grin, and then he was punching Ramón in the face, a roundhouse punch that slammed Ramón into the ground. Ramón got up slowly, and lunged at Luis, but Luis kicked him down and pressed his boot into Ramón’s chest, until Ramón was gasping.

Satisfied with his victory, Luis strolled away. He saw Silvio, and he beckoned for him to follow. “What was that about?” Silvio asked.

“He insulted my mother,” Luis said.

“Oh,” Silvio said. “Talk about fiery Latin tempers. Was it really necessary to—”

“You’ve never punched out a guy because he insulted someone you love?” Luis said. “Figures.” He examined his bloody knuckles. “That’s going to sting.”

“I have bandages in my bag,” Silvio said. “I’ve learned to go prepared. Let me.” He pulled Luis into the alley behind Calle Jacinth and took out the bandage and a small bottle of antiseptic. He poured a few drops onto Luis’ knuckles, and Luis made a small hissing sound behind his teeth, but he didn’t object. Once his cuts were clean, Silvio started bandaging him, working quietly over Luis’ hand. He could hear Luis breathing the entire while, the two of them alone in the alleyway, and Luis’ hand was hot and calloused between his, worn rough from his years of hard work. He finished as quickly as he could and then stepped away.

“They’re going to ask what happened to my hand.” Luis’ gaze flicked up to the apartment in indication. “Tell them it was a construction site accident.”

“Yes,” Silvio agreed, and Luis smiled.

:::

Come May 1976, and Reynoso was gone, his gambling ring ripped to shreds. Luis had sole control of the operations in their area, and local people knew his name, as well as the name of his quiet, tidy partner. Verdugo and Ghost, they called them. Even though Silvio wanted to use his real name, he decided it would be safer to remain Ghost, because his real name had baggage. It had history. Ghost was no one. Ghost was just Luis’ right hand man, who accompanied him to games and fights, and who could be used as leverage when need be, because Ghost had connections. Or Ghost could make people believe he had connections simply by opening his mouth and revealing the polished cadences of his speech.

Silvio had always known speech was a weapon. Why else would he have written the pamphlet that had gotten him into all this trouble? But he had never considered it like this, where it didn’t matter what he said but how he said it. It felt like betraying his past, almost, but he’d be lying if he said he didn’t take a small thrill out of it either.

It was easier to be Ghost than it was to be Alfredo Maestas at work, and it was easier still to be Maestas than to be Silvio. He learned to navigate his new trinity of identities. Uncomfortably, but he did it nonetheless.

His birthday came in the middle of May, but he didn’t tell anyone. It hardly seemed important, and twenty-eight was a number that held little meaning for him. There was no way Luis should have known his birthday either, so it was a complete shock when he tossed a pair of tickets onto Silvio’s lap and said, “Happy birthday, my loyal henchman. Go treat yourself.”

Silvio picked up the tickets. They were for a retrospective theatre playing Así te quiero starring Tito Lusiardo and Carlos Morganti. It was one of Silvio’s favourite films from the 40s, and it had been his father’s as well. “How did you—” he began.

“It seemed like something a person of your… elevated refinement would enjoy,” Luis said with a twist of his lips.

Silvio looked at the two tickets. “Do you want to come with me?”

“Don’t you have other friends to take?”

“You know very well I don’t,” Silvio said.

“In that case, why not?” Luis replied. “Even a brute like me enjoys going to the movies.” It seemed a rather ominous thing to say, and Silvio didn’t know what to expect. They agreed to meet in front of the theatre in the evening. Silvio got there first, as he usually did, and he waited for Luis restlessly, keeping an eye out for police the entire time. When Luis showed up, Silvio had to stare, because it was the first time he saw Luis dressed nicely, with a clean-pressed shirt and a pair of good slacks. Yet at the same time his good looks were offset by clear signs of his rough and tumble life, by stubble and worn-down knuckles. Instead of being incongruous, it made him look even more desirable, like a young, confident gaucho. Silvio began to question whether or not this was a good idea.

“I really don’t know why you want to sleep with me,” he said.

“Hello to you too,” Luis replied, grinning.

“I don’t enjoy these games,” Silvio said, crossing his arms. “Your girls and your… boys, they might, but I don’t. So please, stop it. We’re going to watch this film as friends, and we’re going to leave the theatre and still be friends and colleagues. Don’t ruin that.”

They were in the open, with people milling about them, but Luis played fast and dangerous with the rules when he leaned in close. He smelled like cologne. “Is that really what you want?” he asked.

“You expect me to believe that you find me desirable?” Silvio asked under his breath, so that only they could hear. “You couldn’t even stand the sight of me at first.”

“You’ve grown on me,” Luis said.

“That isn’t enough.”

“We’re in the middle of a military junta rule,” Luis said. “As Valencia reminds me fucking endlessly. We could die any day. In your case, you have died. Or you will die. Whatever time loop theory you want to buy into. What’s the problem with releasing a little steam? You need it badly.”

“I don’t need it from you,” Silvio said. The shiver in his spine suggested otherwise, but Silvio did not let his body rule him. “I’ve seen people lose their heads over people they want and can’t get. I’m not one of them. I’m going to be smarter than that.” Desire was a weapon they had turned against you in prison, love the most fallible weakness of them all.

“They ruined you there, didn’t they?” Luis said, and there it was, spliced right into his voice — compassion. Finally compassion, and yet it prickled against Silvio like an itchy scarf, tying him up so that he couldn’t breathe.

“You were there for less than a day,” Silvio said. “They brought you in, and then time threw you back. You didn’t live there. You don’t know what it was like. I…” He made a futile gesture. “I died long before they put the bullet in me.”

“I’m sorry,” Luis said.

“It’s not your fault,” Silvio said tiredly. It was Sanchez’s fault. It was the government’s fault. It was the fault of this broken, corrupt world they lived in, the fault of everyone and no one. He gathered his composure. He was in public, so he shouldn’t be acting like this. “Now come on, don’t we have a film to see?” he said.

:::

It was like a switch had been thrown, and suddenly: no more sex. No more flirtation. No more advances. For good this time, and once the switch was thrown and everything else disappeared, Silvio and Luis became friends. Or what passed for friendship between two men as different as they were, which was a mixture of mutual understanding and prickly acceptance, Silvio working with Luis to keep control of his business ventures, and Luis reminding Silvio that he wasn’t alone. October was coming, but it was their problem, not just his.

“Why don’t you want to think about it?” Silvio said, rehashing their old argument as they sat in the gambling den, waiting for the others to arrive.

“You have to ask?” Luis said. “I’d think it was obvious! You say it’s inevitable. We’re going to be back in prison come October, and you wonder why I don’t want to think about it?”

“That it’s going to happen means we should think about it,” Silvio said. “We shouldn’t have our heads stuck in the clouds. I thought you would agree with that kind of concrete and rational thinking.”

“I believe in thinking about problems if you can fix them,” Luis said roughly. “You just want to think and mope. I want to figure out a solution.”

“What solution?” Silvio said. “I’ve explained it to you before. In order for us to have gone back in time, we need to be put in the original catalyst situation — which involves us being in jail.”

Luis threw up his hands in the air. “So it’s decided! We’ll be in jail, you’ll be dead, and I will find a way to charm the guards into letting me go. Problem solved.” He threw back a gulp of maté. “Ghost, you know what you really need? Even more than getting laid? You need to get drunk and just relax. We’ve already thrown off the time loop by you moving away from your old place, and us not getting Valencia caught. Who knows what’ll happen now that things have changed.”

“Nothing changes,” Silvio said.

“You sound like my fucking grandfather,” Luis said.

Silvio frowned. “You shouldn’t insult your grandfather.”

Luis stared at him. “You’re a fake person, aren’t you? You can’t be real. Someone made you out of stone and then you came to life, and that explains it.”

“What are you talking about?” Silvio asked irritably.

Luis leaned over and pressed his thumb against the wrinkle in Silvio’s forehead, smoothing it out. “Cheer up,” he said, and handed over a bottle of maté. “Drink this, unbutton your shirt, and enjoy the sun. It’s a beautiful day. We’re going to make lots of money.”

“Speaking of money,” Silvio said, and rolled his eyes at the way Luis’ face went fox-cunning at the mention of cold, hard cash, “I had a strange conversation with Señor Beringer today.”

“Who?”

“My employer at the embassy,” Silvio said, exaggerating his speech. “You know, where I work when I’m not with you. My employer, who pays me more than you do. Oh wait, you don’t pay me at all.”

“When did you grow so sharp-tongued?” Luis marveled. “All right, so you had a strange talk with Señor Beringer. What’s the problem?”

“He said he knew my parents.”

“Apparently lots of people knew your parents,” Luis said. “You said your parents held a tertulia every Wednesday.”

“He knew my parents, not Alfredo Maestas’,” Silvio said, and Luis went quiet. “You see? So he knows who I am. He said he knew all along. He said,” he hesitated, “he was a friend of my father’s, and that I can trust him.”

Luis looked at him head-on. “Can you?”

“I don’t know,” Silvio said. “I think so. I hope so, but it’s so hard to know who to trust and who not to. When my parents disappeared, I don’t know who tipped the police off. Maybe no one did. Maybe one of their friends. I just don’t know.” He looked down at his hand and saw that he was clutching the table.

“This Señor Beringer gives you problems, I’ll pay him a visit,” Luis promised.

“You can’t just beat up a member of a foreign embassy!” Silvio said. “What is wrong with you?”

“Why not? They bleed like anybody else, don’t they?” Silvio looked at him in vague horror, and Luis smirked. “We’ll deal with it when the time comes,” he said. “We’ll deal with everything when the time comes. We’re not oracles. We don’t know the future. So let’s just not think about it for once in our fucking lives. Let’s just be—” he flung out a muscular arm “—an incredibly well-endowed and dashing man with his ghostly companion, who happen to be enjoying a sunny afternoon, after which they will go drinking and tangoing. Or, I’ll go drinking and tangoing, and you can watch me from the sidelines invisibly as you always do.”

“I can tango,” Silvio said.

Can you,” Luis drawled.

“I just choose not to.”

“Mmm, yes, funny how so many people say that exact same thing,” Luis said.

:::

July 1976, and Luis tossed a notebook into Silvio’s lap. “My lap isn’t just a convenient place for you to throw your garbage,” Silvio said, barely looking up from doing Luis’ bookkeeping. He had good reason to protest — Luis had thrown coins, notes, a mango, and one time, a live chicken into Silvio’s lap while Silvio was working.

Luis sprawled out in his chair. “Just look at the damn thing.”

“It’s a book,” Silvio said. “I don’t know what you’re doing with a book since you can barely read. So I’m assuming you want me to read this for you. You—” He looked down at last, and his voice went slanted and wrong, his throat closing up as if in allergic reaction. It was a battered notebook with the binding half-gone, and it was as exactly as he remembered it. “This is my thesis,” he said. “This is my work. How did you get it?”

“The Universidad de Buenos Aires has really terrible security,” Luis said. “Did you know that, Ghost? Well, now you know.”

“I — uh, I —” Silvio struggled for words, which Luis was clearly enjoying. “Thank you,” Silvio finally said, choked up.

“It’s an ugly notebook, not crown jewels,” Luis said.

“It’s the crown jewels to me,” Silvio said, and that was the moment where he was in the most danger of his entire life — that was the moment he looked at Luis Verdugo and felt nothing but love.

Luis was still sprawled in his chair with his legs spread open, not because he wanted to seduce Silvio anymore but because that was just Luis’ way of doing things — he wanted to seduce the world. He said, “I took a look at it before I got here. Shit, that’s a lot of numbers. Mumbo-jumbo to me, of course, but not to you, right?”

“It’s algebraic combinatorics,” Silvio said worshipfully. “It’s the youngest subset of the combinatorics field, so there’s lots of fresh work to be done. I employ methods of abstract algebra in combinatorial contexts, using symmetric functions and association schemes. My work is with matroids and polytopes specifically to—”

Luis yawned.

But Silvio remained smiling. “They say going into pure mathematics is a waste of a degree because all the work is found in applied mathematics, but I don’t care. There’s nothing so wonderful as looking at a Cartesian plane and seeing it make sense. That moment when it goes from symbols to meaning — it’s like what the poets say. It’s that exact same feeling, like you’re close to God.”

Mira vos! Look at you, all excited by this,” Luis laughed. “You are such a fucking piece of work, you know that?”

Silvio looked down at his thesis ruefully. “I really wish — I really wish I would live long enough to finish this. Maybe I can pass it along to one of the newer grad students. They can find some use out of it.” He looked back up at Luis, who had gone flinty and unreadable while he watched Silvio from his insouciant position. Silvio looked at the curve of Luis’ neck, at the angle of his throat, at the stubble on his jaw, and that was a revelatory beauty as well. Silvio could map Luis out onto a graph, could calculate all the dimensions to find the inner pattern, and it would have been a life’s work.

It wasn’t bitterness he felt, or tragedy. It was merely a soft ache, like the end of a romantic movie when the rain was falling and one thought about all the possibilities there were in a story that could never end. But Silvio’s story had an ending, and so did Luis’. That was what separated them from characters in a film. That was what made them human. Humanity is the only grace we have against our enemies, Silvio thought, and it was enough then to be weak and in love, his own quiet shame to bear.

:::

August 1976, and one sultry night Silvio stayed so long at the Verdugos’ after dinner that Señora Verdugo said, “Just sleep over. We’ll roll out a blanket for you on the ground.”

“If it’s not too much trouble,” Silvio said, grateful for the offer. It had been a tiring day. First he had worked several hours at the embassy, and then he had gone with Luis to collect more debts, and spending time with Luis was many things, exhausting only one of them. He let the rest of the family wash up first before he used the last of the lukewarm water in the basin to clean his face. He changed into some of Luis’ spare clothes, which Luis handed over with his eyebrows raised. It was a warm night, warmer than all the rest, so they had opened the windows and the door to the porch. Silvio walked onto it before settling into bed, checking on the herbs in the garden, and then staring out at the glittering lights of Buenos Aires, his city, his beautiful, mad, destructive city.

Luis joined him on the porch. They said nothing between them, for there was nothing to be said. It was a beautiful night, and Silvio, for once, didn’t even think about death — at least, not until he heard the sound of the cars and the rush of the headlights, which made him freeze in memory. “The police,” he said.

“They’re heading this way,” Luis said tightly, and he swirled into action, marching back into the apartment. Silvio listened to him bark orders to his family, who went into a flurry, throwing clothes into bags, supplies into suitcases. Silvio stayed on the porch, watching the Ford Falcons get closer and closer. It didn’t necessarily mean anything. They could be on Calle Jacinth for any number of reasons. But gambling was with dice, not with Verdugo family lives, and when the family was ready he sprung into his allotted place on the board.

He knew how to do this. He was the only one who had gone into hiding before, who had had extensive dealings with the police and the Triple A and all the monsters of the Argentina government. “Follow me,” he said, and before the cars ground to a stop in front of the apartment, he led the family down the back and through the alleyway, Silvio at the head while Luis brought up the rear. Luis had a pistol. Silvio had never seen him with it before, but he brought it out now, keeping it steady in his hand.

Silvio felt empty, calm, and focused. He could hear Pedro crying, and could see Valencia’s fear. She had never quite recovered from that night with the bombing. Good, Silvio thought, because fear would keep them alive. He brought them through the network of streets and shadows, where they ducked at any sighting of police or authorities. Finally they reached his room above the butcher shop, and he ushered the entire family inside, where it was cramped but safe.

“Fuck,” Luis said. “Goddamnit, they must have seen. Either you or Valencia — they must have tracked you down to Calle Jacinth.” He turned his fury on Silvio, and Silvio said nothing. What was there to say? It could very well be his fault that the police had arrived.

Señora Verdugo spoke. “Boys, don’t argue. Not now, not over this.”

“She’s right,” Silvio said. “We need to think. We need to be careful. You should be fine in my place. I don’t have nearly the reputation in this neighbourhood that I have as Ghost in yours. I’ll go shopping for food in the morning. Make a list of everything you want me to buy.”

“I’ll go with you,” Luis said.

“No,” Silvio told him. “You have the pistol and you have a temper. You’ll draw too much attention. You’re better off here.”

“You want to just lock me up in your attic?” Luis asked dangerously. He took a step towards Silvio, who took a step backwards, nearly bumping into Valencia, who squeaked and dropped her bags. Pedro started crying again, and his siblings moved closer to give him comfort. It was a bad situation — it was the worst situation possible, and the guilt moved through Silvio like a shadow.

“I want you to live,” Silvio said simply. “If I brought this upon you, then I’ll find a way out. I promise.” He looked at Luis and thought, This is why I told you to think about our situation. We were always rabbits just waiting to be trapped.

Valencia spoke, her voice a hushed whisper. “I don’t think it was you, Ghost. I think it was me.”

“We don’t know that,” Silvio said. “Go to sleep. I’ll think of something.” There was only the one bed, which they gave to Señor and Señora Verdugo. Watching the two of them squeeze onto the limited space made Silvio’s heart ache, because this was not what such generous people deserved. This was not what any of the Verdugos deserved, and he didn’t care what Valencia thought. It was his own ignorance, his own damnable pride, that had brought them to this. He helped the children find space on the floor, and then he stepped out into the hallway with Luis, who was outlined in rage, in the desire to beat something into submission. But these weren’t stupid, drunken gamblers they were dealing with. This was beyond even Verdugo and Ghost.

“You’re not locking me up here,” Luis said. “I’ve got connections too, people who owe me favours. I’m going to call them in.”

“Fine,” Silvio said. “Do what you want.”

“They’re my family,” Luis growled. “I was taking care of them long before you ever waltzed into our lives.”

“I know,” Silvio said. He jerked his head sideways. “Just — you must be careful. Don’t be rash. Don’t be brave. I’ve tried to be brave in these situations. It won’t bring you anything.”

“I’m going to go right now,” Luis said. “If I don’t come back, you take care of them, understand? You take care of them, or I will haunt you and make your life a living hell.” He flashed his dark eyes at Silvio. “I know you now. I know what’ll make you miserable.” He didn’t give time for Silvio to respond. He tucked his pistol at his hip and strode down the stairs and out of sight. Silvio watched him go, as still as the proverbial statue, and it was only when he heard Pedro start crying all over again that he returned to the room to do what he could.

:::

Time, they said, was cyclical, and Silvio saw the truth of that. He had been in hiding once, and now he was in hiding again, crammed into a room with the Verdugos that smelled like blood on a good day, and the scent of bodies and dried piss on the worst. “I am sorry,” he told Señora Verdugo. “I am so, so sorry.” It hurt worse when she didn’t even bother to blame him, when she looked out at her unhappy children and her blind, suffering husband, and she wondered instead about the fate of her thyme sprouts in the little garden she had left behind.

“One day, señora, you will have the most beautiful garden you can imagine,” Silvio said. “I will make sure of it. There will be thyme and saffron and sage, and roses. Roses everywhere, roses as red as sunrises.”

“It sounds lovely,” she said, and left it at that.

Most days weren’t good days. To be fair, most days weren’t bad days either, but they fell squarely in between. They were nothing days, long days where there was no room to move or to breathe, where tempers flared and fights were fought, days when Silvio’s landlord looked at him suspiciously and then raised the cost of his rent. Because I’m not putting up with that noise for what you’re paying now, he said. Unless you want me to call the police? And Silvio felt chilled and lonely, pushed into corners where he couldn’t get out. Trust no one, but that was a futile rule, because they were humans, not lone wolves. They had to trust someone, only it had to be the right someone.

Luis went out in the mornings and prowled the streets, talking to people he knew, people who hated him. “Everyone has their own problems. They don’t want to get involved in ours,” he told Silvio when he came home at night, throwing his dirty boots on the floor. “Fuck them all. Fuck them in their tight, sour asses.” He cast Silvio a knife’s edge look. “What do you do all day?”

“I go to work,” Silvio said. Someone had to keep up a steady income, and Luis’ income was anything but steady now that he was on the run.

“For Señor Beringer?” Luis said cruelly. “What a lucky man! To have you as a faithful dog. Well, I can tell him it’s not worth as much as he thinks.”

Silvio reminded himself that Luis’ anger was an implosive thing, and that to bottle it up would be riskier than to just let it out. He could afford to be the subject of Luis’ wrath. Better him than Valencia, who was just a young girl and didn’t know better. “I put bread on the table,” Silvio said evenly. “It isn’t glamorous, but it needs to be done.”

“I can just imagine it,” Luis said. “You in the French embassy. Oh, how beautiful and luxurious it must be! Sipping tea and chatting with important people all day. Then you have to come back to us. To this.” He swept his arm about the room, and Señora Verdugo looked as if she would raise her head to object, but in the end she was too tired. She sighed and said nothing, while Luis went on. “You know what, Ghost? Enjoy it. You deserve it. Eat some cake! Drink some wine! I bet they have you attend fancy parties too. Of course they do. They’re French.”

“Are you done now?” Silvio asked dully, but that only seemed to make it worse. Luis lunged for him. Silvio drew back quickly, but Luis stopped halfway through, close enough still that Silvio could see the whites of his irises, could smell the layers of his sweat.

“Never mind,” Luis said. “Forget it. It’s useless talking to you. You’re a dead man. You’re always saying so. Only now—” he smiled mirthlessly “—only now I finally believe it.”

:::

Luis didn’t apologize, but the next day, he brought back two loaves of bread and three sweet medialunas, freshly baked — and freshly stolen, Silvio suspected. It wasn’t an apology, but it was enough to last for the rest of the day, especially when Luis broke one of the medialunas in half and gave half to Silvio. “You need your strength for work,” he said, and Silvio was grateful. Until the next day, when they started fighting all over again.

It was just restlessness, he knew. It was just close confinement and frustration coming out to prowl like lions, but knowing the cause didn’t stop anything. Luis could be terrible in his anger, vicious and unforgiving, and Silvio knew he wasn’t good at it either. He was the opposite, too cold and stoic, and the more Luis’ words bounced off him, the less catharsis any of them had, until it got to the point where Luis could be shouting his face, and all Silvio wanted was to go to sleep. He was tired, he was overworked, and he wanted Luis to get up and go away.

Truth be told, he wanted more than that. He wanted to feel Luis’ arms in his palms, to press his mouth against the precise angle of his jaw, to trace the knobs on his twice-broken nose, but those were faraway fantasies. They had no place here.

“You’re spending more time at the embassy,” Luis said one day. They were walking together up the stairs to Silvio’s room, and they could hear the sounds of the butcher shop beneath the floor. The smell of blood, as always, was ever-present, though they were getting used to it, and that only made Silvio feel worse.

“I am?” Silvio asked, hoping to deflect the subject. He didn’t want to talk about this, not yet, but Luis was impossible to shake off when he’d latched on.

“Are you fucking him?”

Silvio stared at him in astonishment. “Who?”

“Beringer,” Luis said with a flippant twist of his fingers that meant nothing and everything. “I know you don’t like your job, so there must be some reason you’ve been spending all those extra hours there. After all,” he added sardonically, “you have such a loving family to return to at home.”

“There’s an important event coming up soon, dignitaries from all European nations,” Silvio said. “I’ve been staying late because there’s more work to do.”

Luis smiled sharply. “You’re lying.”

“Why would I lie?”

“I can tell when you’re lying, Ghost. Your shoulders go all tense. It’s why you’re such a shitty gambler.” Luis stopped outside the door. “So back to my original question. Are you fucking him?”

“That is incredibly insulting,” Silvio said coldly.

“Well, I’ve never seen him,” Luis mused, “so I can’t say how insulting it is. Maybe he’s an Adonis for all I know. Maybe I should be congratulating you on such a fine catch. Or maybe,” he added, with an angry, lethal gleam, “I should be congratulating him. He was a friend of your father’s? Oh, I imagine he was.”

Work, and stress, and a bullet in two months’ time, October a tattoo branded onto Silvio’s skin, in the taste underneath his tongue. Those were the variables, and yet Silvio couldn’t quite say why he did it, after. Why the anger overcame him right then, when he knew Luis was just trying to bait him. Why he shoved Luis with both hands, surprising Luis so much that Luis tumbled backwards into the wall. And then Luis was on him, shoving him back, which only made Silvio even more furious. Silvio grabbed at him, yanking at the collars on his shirt. Luis bared his teeth as he grabbed Silvio by the neck and slammed him into the wall, the wall that separated them and where the rest of the Verdugos were, right now, waiting for the evening meal in the bags Silvio was carrying, the bags that Silvio had dropped the moment Luis went for him.

“You want to fight me?” Luis asked softly, his teeth trailing Silvio’s throat.

Silvio made another move, kicking Luis in the shins. Luis drew back, but only for a brief instant, not nearly enough time for Silvio to get away. His arm was back against Silvio’s neck, overpowering Silvio with his greater reflexes. “I want this to be over,” Silvio said, practically spitting it in Luis’ face. “I want you to take your attitude and shove it up your ass.”

“That’s what I offered,” Luis said. “Not that I’d ever offer it again. Not that I’d ever want anything to do with your stony face and your—”

“Shut up,” Silvio said, and then he lunged forward. A violent, sudden move that would have shocked everyone who knew him, and Luis met him halfway there, snarling, and then they were kissing. Angry, furious, desperate kissing, where their mouths clashed and their teeth met, and Luis let go of Silvio’s throat only for Silvio to grab him by the shirt and yank him closer, stopping any thought Luis might have of escaping. Except Luis didn’t seem to have any thoughts of escape at all, because he kissed back, roughly, his tongue sliding into Silvio’s mouth. He grabbed Silvio’s wrists, pinning them against the wall, and Silvio arched into Luis’ body, kissing him like the police were on their doorstep right now, like this was their last chance, like October was on their very heels — and then kissing him like none of it mattered, kissing him until there was blood in their mouths and Luis had ripped one of his buttons off, where it fell to the floor.

“Luis? Ghost? Is that you?” Valencia whispered from the other side of the door.

They jumped apart. Heart pounding like a rooster in a cage, Silvio wiped at his mouth and looked wildly at Luis, who was staring at him. It seemed like neither of them had anything to say, but Luis’ mouth was beautiful and wet. He was everything Silvio had been taught never to want, everything he wanted anyway.

Silvio looked down and saw dinner spilled all over the ground. I have responsibilities now, he thought, and he knelt quickly to salvage what was left of the food.

:::

September 1976, and this, Silvio thought, was the end of things. He had done his best. He had done what he could, and it was the only action he was capable of: to bring the story precisely to where it had began, with him alone, the way it was meant to be.

“I have something to share with you,” he told the Verdugos one night, clutching the papers to his chest with a fluttering nervousness that was unlike him, really, but these were unusual circumstances. “You might have wondered why I’ve been spending so much time at the embassy.” Here he looked at Luis, who gave him a flat smile. “I haven’t told you why, because I didn’t want to mention it unless it went through. The truth of the matter is, I’ve been working with Señor Beringer to secure these.”

He spread the papers on the floor, and the Verdugos crowded around, peering at the elaborate stamps and signatures. “What are these?” Valencia wondered.

“They’re exit papers,” Silvio said. “They’ll let you leave Argentina and emigrate to France. You can leave the country until the war blows over, until it’s safe to return.”

“I don’t know what to say,” Señora Verdugo said. “What you must have done to get these!”

“It’s nothing,” Silvio said. “Look, there are seven papers. One for each member of your family. There’s an embassy car that will take you to the coast, and from the coast there’s a boat that goes to Uruguay. From Uruguay there’s a ship headed for France, where you’ll apply for refugee status. It’s a long journey, but there are people who have agreed to help you get there. I’ve paid them what’s left of my parents’ funds, and Señor Beringer has helped as well, in remembrance of his friendship with my father.”

He dared to glance up at Luis, and Luis was as stunned as the rest of them.

“These are worth so much,” Señora Verdugo said. “Think of how much you can sell them for. Are you sure you want us to have them?”

“Mamá, don’t be stupid, of course Ghost wants us to have them,” Valencia interrupted. She picked up one of the documents with a hungry expression.

“They’re yours,” Silvio said. “They’re already stamped with fake identities for each of you. There’s no point in selling them, and I wouldn’t anyway.” He swallowed. “You have been very kind to me, all of you. I want to repay that. And also, I think, if I do this, if I help you flee Argentina, then I’ve done something good. I — I couldn’t save my own family. But I can do this.”

Señora Verdugo grabbed him, and he breathed into her hair as she wrapped her arms around him. “Why don’t you come with us?” she asked. “Why isn’t there an eighth?”

“Seven is the most I could get,” Silvio said. “Señor Beringer’s influence only extends so far.”

He looked to Luis. Say something, he thought, but Luis said nothing. As the next few days passed, he would look to Luis often, hoping to see a reaction, a forgiveness, an understanding. There was always nothing. Luis stared at him as if he was a stranger, as if he was truly an invisible phantom. It was fine, Silvio tried to tell himself. He had just saved the Verdugo family’s lives — why should he be greedy enough to ask for more? Luis Verdugo would live in France, where he would be happy. Where he would one day charm some lovely girl and settle down to raise a family of his own. Silvio had no doubt that with his wits he would flourish in France, because people like Luis flourished everywhere. They bent with the rain, they ran with the currents. They weren’t like Silvio at all, poor rigid Silvio who could only replay his own fate in a locked diorama.

Silvio caught Luis outside the butcher shop one morning. He felt like he had to speak, because the day after tomorrow the car would come for them, and he would lose the opportunity entirely. He grabbed Luis by the sleeve and tugged him aside.

“What do you want?” Luis asked.

“I never told you my real name,” he said.

“What, you want me to name my firstborn son after you? What’s the point of telling me now? We’re never going to see each other again.” He shook Silvio off and walked away.

Silvio felt sick, but it was no less than what he deserved for being so weak. Strength is a matter of acceptance, he remembered his father used to say, and so he let Luis go. He didn’t pursue the matter. He helped the Verdugos put the last of their affairs to rest, running errands and playing messenger boy in the city, making their goodbyes when they could not leave the building. Luis must have been doing the same because Silvio barely saw him, even on the last day, and when the morning came that the embassy car arrived to pick them up, he only saw a glimpse of Luis before he showed up just in time to climb inside.

“We will not forget,” Señora Verdugo said. She was the last to go into the car. “My dear, we will set out a plate for you at dinner no matter where we are.”

“Then I am happy,” Silvio said, and he kissed her on the cheek, kissed her goodbye.

He watched the car pull away, navigating the narrow street before making a right turn and vanishing from view. Even when it was gone, he stood there for longer than he needed to, stood there as the sun grew warmer and the minutes grew on, and shops all around him were beginning to open, voices shouting as people exchanged news. Then, when he realized the ache in his chest was never going to disappear, he went upstairs to his vacated room and sat on his bed. Well, he thought, back to normal. He looked at the calendar on his desk, and then at the leaves on the trees outside his window.

It was October.

 

PART III: EL JARDIN

“The city is changing,” Señor Beringer said. “We are going to be in this for the long haul.”

“Yes,” said Silvio.

It seemed like every day there was a new story: a new bombing, a new assassination, a new public figure kidnapped and vanished, only to have their body turn up in a countryside ditch two weeks later. And those were only the public figures. Ordinary people disappeared by increasingly large numbers, and even in his relatively untouched part of the city, Silvio could hear it at night, the sounds of the police and the army banging through apartments, dragging people out of beds, separating mothers from children, shooting men and women when they did not comply. The city was falling to hell, he thought, walking briskly between the embassy to his rooms every day, keeping his head down. It was good timing that the Verdugos had escaped, because who knows what would have happened. Between Silvio’s history and Valencia’s passion and Luis’ ability to shoot off his mouth, they would have been doomed.

Los desaparecidos, and he could hear them singing about it, protestors singing out their rage on rooftops, until they too were silenced.

Silvio ran into his old compatriots occasionally. “You should come back and join us,” they said, those who even remembered who he was. “You were, uh, good at writing, right?” one said, as if he couldn’t recall the explosive pamphlet that had started the entire mess.

“I’m tired,” Silvio said. “I don’t any fight left in me.”

Even working on his thesis became draining. He would stay up late after pulling longer and longer hours at the embassy and pour over his notes, making corrections to his hypothesis — and then he would go to bed exhausted, but that was the goal. To sleep so deeply that nothing could touch him, that nothing could move him. He was dead, so let him have the benefits of death. Let him have the peace.

He waited for time to catch up to him. The third week of October — he had it circled on his calendar. He waited for it with a dread that approached longing, until his thoughts were so tangled that even he couldn’t pick apart the strands.

The third week of October, and then there was a loud knock on his door. Silvio got up, limbs moving so slowly that he might as well have been underwater. Sanchez, he thought, and when he opened the door he was prepared to go with dignity, except it wasn’t Hernando Sanchez who was waiting for him on the other side. It was Luis.

Silvio stared.

“Why the fuck are you still here?” Luis asked, hands in his pockets. “If you were smart, you’d have gone up and found another place after my family left.”

“I didn’t feel like it,” Silvio said, his thoughts twisted up and confused. Luis brushed past him into the room and closed the door. “What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be on a boat to France.”

“Sorry I don’t just jump to do your bidding,” Luis said. “But that’s why you like me, isn’t it? Because I’m so contrary.”

You are insane,” Silvio said. He could hear his voice grow louder, louder and more ragged. “I mean it! What are you doing here? There were seven exit papers. Believe me, I counted! Seven of them. That includes you!”

“Shh, you don’t need to prove you’re good at math. I know you are,” Luis said, and then he curled his fist around a handful of Silvio’s shirt and pulled him in for a kiss. A slow, wet kiss that was entirely different from the kiss they’d shared before. This time, Luis kissed Silvio like they had all the time in the world, and Silvio didn’t know what to do except kiss back. When Luis started walking them towards the bed, he went with him.

“Why?” Silvio asked when they were kissing on the bed, Luis lying on top of him, hands tangled in his hair. He broke away to speak that one word.

“Because I wanted to do this,” Luis said, and then he was stripping Silvio out of his clothes. Silvio let him, watching him quietly, feeling as if this was a dream, a dream he had hallucinated in his own misery. It was a good dream, he decided, feeling the warmth of Luis’ skin against his own, and he helped Luis out of his shirt, seeing finally the splay of Luis’ muscles, the way they moved underneath his skin — it was gorgeous, and right now it was Silvio’s, Silvio’s to touch, Silvio’s to kiss, and he rolled them over so that he was on top, and he was kissing his way down Luis’ stomach until he reached his trousers.

He paused.

“Are you going to take them off or not?” Luis asked archly, and Silvio made a disapproving face because patience was a virtue, even in bed. He wondered if Luis would ever learn. Probably not, he thought as he unbuttoned Luis’ trousers and worked them down Luis’ hips. He leaned back to take a good look, and Luis grinned as he shoved his hips up, completely unselfconscious in a way Silvio could only admire.

Silvio licked Luis carefully, experimentally. Luis groaned, his breath catching his throat. His eyes closed. His eyelashes moved over his golden cheekbones. Silvio was entranced, and so he licked again, and again, learning how Luis liked it, learning his own responses — the excitement that burned through his blood, the tender want swelling up in his chest, right between his ribcage. Silvio learned how he could make Luis move, how he could wring those noises from Luis’ mouth, scandalous and obscene, until Luis was panting for it, lost in a pleasure that Silvio was only too glad to give.

He worked Luis to the brink, but then Luis grabbed him by the hair and tugged him forward, greedy as usual. “What?” Silvio asked, and Luis kissed him dirtily, his tongue exploring every inch of Silvio’s mouth.

“I want to fuck you,” Luis said, and Silvio sucked in a sharp breath.

“Yes,” he said.

He had the bed, he had the oil, and he had Luis. Maybe it had always come down to this, this simple equation. Maybe they’d been moving towards this all along, even on that very first day, the first time he had ever seen Luis Verdugo and knew he was going to die. Right now, however, it was not death that moved through him, but life. Life in a bed that smelled like the blood from the butcher’s downstairs, life with Luis moving over him and then in him, pushing his cock inside Silvio with one fluid thrust. Silvio gasped, and he saw Luis smiling down at him, a crooked little smile that made Silvio’s heartbeat go askew. He kissed Luis, bringing him down so that their breaths mingled as their bodies moved together, and then they were fucking. They were fucking. They were fucking on the cramped bed, fucking with their fingers in each other’s hair and their tongues in each other’s mouths. Fucking because it was all either of them could think of, because they were alive, because they were here, with each other, in the city that was burning around them.

“I gave my papers to my cousin,” Luis said much later, unwilling to remove his fingers from Silvio’s hair or to let him go, so they were tucked together with Silvio laying his head against Luis’ chest. “The one that used to live in France. He can have a job arranged once they get there, and he can speak the language. So I told him to take care of my family, at least until I arrive. He better,” he added meaningfully.

“I still can’t believe you didn’t go on the boat,” Silvio said. “Then why did you act like you were going to?”

“If I told you I wasn’t going to leave, you would have given me screaming hell,” Luis said. “So obviously I couldn’t do it when you were around. Besides, I had to meet my cousin in Córdoba and hammer the whole thing out.”

“Just so you could come back and have sex?” Silvio asked dryly. “Not that I’m complaining, but it seems rather drastic, even for someone as horny as you.”

“I’m horny? Look at you!” Luis said. His fingers tightened in Silvio’s hair, and Silvio looked up at him, right into his eyes. They held each other’s gaze. “I owe you,” Luis said. “I told you before, I pay my debts, and paying them means dragging you to France with me.”

Silvio exhaled. “You’ll regret it one day. This kind of uncertainty, it breaks you. It broke me.”

“You are such a liar,” Luis said. He sat up and pulled Silvio with him, and then he flipped them around so that he was pushing Silvio against the headboard, straddling his hips. “They never broke you. Don’t you see? You won. You escaped. You made your own fucking miracle. Silvio Echevarria, they’ll never break you.”

Silvio’s gaze flew upwards, and Luis crooked his mouth into a smile. “Yeah, I know your name. What sort of idiot do you take me for? You told me in prison. You kind of made a lasting impression.”

“I wasn’t sure if you’d remembered,” Silvio said, and Luis kissed his collarbone in reply. Silvio shivered.

“I’ve had time to think about this,” Luis said. “I was furious with you for so long, for you risking my family, for you being so, well, you. But then I realized. Before I ever met you, I heard you laugh. In that stinking hellhole, in the last place on earth. I heard you laugh, and I thought — don’t let this get to your ego — you were the bravest man I’d ever seen. It was like you were touched by the divine. Nothing could hurt you.” He paused. “Of course I also thought you were completely fucking crazy and a menace to everyone around you, but you know. We all have our faults.”

Silvio rolled onto his stomach and buried his face in the pillow. “I hate you,” he said.

“You practically begged to be my friend,” Luis reminded him, slinging an arm over Silvio’s hips. They both lay there silently for a moment, before Silvio sighed.

“We’ll have to keep on running,” he said. “If we don’t want time to catch up with us. If we don’t want to end up back there. We’ll have to run until the junta ends, and that might be for the rest of our very short lives.”

“Then we run,” Luis said. “It’s October 16th 1976. It’s been a year and we’re still not dead.” He rubbed his fingers over Silvio’s head. “No bullet in here yet,” he said, and his voice was quiet and sure.

“I don’t know what it means,” Silvio said.

“Means we can do this,” Luis said. “Means we’ll survive this and grow into grouchy old men who complain to all the young folk about how tough we had it. Those pampered, spoiled, peace-loving brats. You got me? We’ll be Verdugo and Echevarria, the two bastards they could never take down.”

“Echevarria and Verdugo, you mean,” Silvio said. “It’s more alphabetical.”

“Fuck you,” Luis said, laughing, and if Luis had remembered the sound of Silvio’s laughter, then Silvio remembered even more clearly the sound of Luis’. The first good thing he had ever heard in prison, and looking up into Luis’ face and his cocksure smirk, Silvio allowed himself, for the first time, to think of a story that had no ending, a story that went on and on, a story worth the telling. It was almost November.

“I believe you,” he said.

illustrated by beili

Author’s Notes

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