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The Younger Man
Author: Karina Halle







Nine Years Ago

Valencia, Spain



“He’s coming home! Grab your little brother and hide,” my mother hisses at me. She puts her frail hands at my back and pushes me toward Armando who is sitting on the couch and squinting at the fuzzy screen on the television.

Armando doesn’t pay me much attention. Even at age seven, he’s used to this nightly chaos.

On the best nights, Father doesn’t come home at all.

My mother has been spending most of the evening staring outside the window and watching down the street for my father. Normally he’d be out very late, until we’re in bed — though not asleep. We always hear him come in, the sound of thuds on the wall and his slurring, things breaking when there is nothing left in this house to break. Then the yelling. My mother yells at him, then he yells at her, and if things get really bad, he might come in our room and yell at us, his outline looking monstrous in my doorway.

Other times we don’t see him for days.

And every once in a while, he comes home for dinner smelling like alcohol but acting happy enough. I think those are the days he wins something from his gambling.

In a perfect world, he would win every day, so I could have the father that I really want.

“Come on, Armando,” I say to my brother, holding out my hand. “Let’s go in my room.”

“No,” my mother says hurriedly. “No, it’s best that you leave the house. Go out the back.”

I stare at her for a moment. There is no official way to get out the back. I sneak out the kitchen window sometimes to meet a girl or my friends and I always get in trouble for it. She’s highly superstitious and keeps a potted cactus on the back windowsill to ward off evil spirits, so she hates the idea of me accidently knocking it off. If she’s telling us to leave, to go out the back, maybe this is more serious than I thought.

“Alejo,” my mother says to me, lowering her voice and staring me right in the eye with the kind of intensity you can’t turn away from. “Your father lost his job today.”

I blink. “What?”

“He lost his job. Felix called me earlier. Your father is not going to be in a good mood, do you understand me? Now please, take Armando to the park and stay there for an hour.”

Only my mother would send her thirteen and seven-year-old children out at nine o’clock at night in one of the worst neighborhoods in Valencia.

“Come on,” I say again to Armando, and this time he abandons the couch and comes into the kitchen with me.

I push a chair to the window and open it, the hot night air smelling putrid, and I climb out, careful not to knock over the cactus, and into the alley behind the house. My feet step in something sticky, and I wince, trying to pull Armando out without him getting hurt.

Once he’s on the ground beside me, I glance through the window. I only see fear and sorrow in my mother’s eyes before she turns and heads out of the kitchen.

“Where are we going?” Armando asks me as I grab his hand and pull him down the dark street, the only light coming from a few windows of the neighboring houses. “Why couldn’t we have stayed in our rooms?”

“You heard Mama. Father lost his job. He’s going to be angry.”

“When isn’t he angry?” Armando mumbles. Then he looks at me with big eyes. “Can we go to the beach? Mama didn’t say we couldn’t.”

The beach was slightly safer than the park and the same distance, so we head down one of the busier streets where there are more people. They say Valencia doesn’t have a lot of crime, but even so, you never know in this neighborhood. I’ve seen tourists get robbed who’ve wandered too far from the beach. We have no money but there can be bad characters here.

We pass by Miguel, a homeless man who lives in a cardboard box complete with a curtain. Tonight, his curtain is closed. Normally if it’s open, he’ll give Armando a piece of candy even though my family can barely afford it, let alone him.

The thought makes my pulse quicken. My mother is always talking about how little money we have, how we are behind rent, how we can barely afford the tiny place we live in with no hot water. If my father really got fired, I don’t know how we’re going to survive. He works hard as a dockhand but he gambles too, and that’s where so much of the money already goes. My mother paints little bulls to sell to tourists when she can but that doesn’t bring in much. What doesn’t go to food, goes to my football equipment.

As if he can sense it, Armando squeezes my hand as we wait at a stop light and says, “I’m scared.”

I look around. “We’re okay. We go to the beach all the time.”

“Not at night. And I’m still scared. Of what will happen at home.”

“Nothing will happen. We will be fine.”

But I don’t believe that at all.

The beach is deserted at night except for some people in the middle of it having a bonfire. I don’t know if it’s the local homeless population (who aren’t as scary as they seem) or tourists, so we give them a wide berth.

Armando runs down across the sand to the crashing waves and I have to run after him, yelling at him to stay away from the water. He doesn’t know how to swim very well and he’s even more impulsive than I am.

I sit down on the sand a few feet away and watch him chase the surf, the faint light from the city bouncing off the crests of the dark waves. I wish I had brought my football with me but we had left in such a hurry. These days, it’s the only relief I get. I play for the school team, of course, but when I’m not doing that I’m trying to sneak in sessions in the park or wherever I can. When I was younger, maybe a bit older than Armando, my father wanted me to be a great football player so he put in the time with lessons and training. He said that I had a natural gift.

Maybe he’s right. It does come easy to me. It feels more natural than breathing. But back then I don’t remember being poor. I remember there being enough food and my parents were happy and football meant everything to all of us.

Now, I think it just means something to me.

A way out of this life.

If only I could get seen playing by the right person, I might have a shot at playing professionally, even at my age.

If only life worked that way.

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