By: Tessa Rose
Their first victim that day was an entitled-looking woman at the Quicentro Shopping Mall. She had just come out of a boutique, arms full of shopping bags with expensive clothes. And fancy clothes were something nobody truly needed. Not when you already had a designer purse and a fur coat. Maria wondered what she could do with money like that. Maybe visit the Galapagos, stay in one of those fancy resorts with those huge swimming pools and endless stretches of white sand. Someday.
One of the woman’s shopping bags fetched Maria $300. Two obnoxiously patterned blouses and a single pair of boots cost just as much as Maria’s monthly rent. She wondered how much this woman’s rent was. Selling those ugly blouses was easy, but the boots were hard to part with, that brown leather felt so luxurious in Maria’s hands; she had always had a weakness for shoes. She would walk across the globe in those beautiful brown booties if she could. But for her brother’s life she sold them with a smile.
The crew had a successful trip back into Old Town. Maria snagged a fake gold watch from some business gentleman, sold for $50. Josue flirted with at least five different women, collecting their numbers along with their bracelets and rings, totaling $30. Roy had borrowed some elderly gringo’s wallet, for just a moment, which had $65 in cash inside. Oscar managed to pluck one of those small digital cameras from a tourist’s pocket, sold for $80. Today was a good day. But it wasn’t enough.
The rush had been much more intense when she’d first started two years earlier, full of belonging and fresh rebellion. She’d been a new woman, just turned seventeen, when she met Mr. Marcello. Charmingly sassy and bouncy, she had been the perfect example of the rebel youth Quito had to offer. Mr. Marcello had treated her like a hidden treasure, not like her mother who looked at Maria with tired eyes, as if she was fed up with Maria, like she was a bad cough she just couldn’t get rid of. Her mother had her children too early. That’s what Maria told herself. Mr. Marcello and his people were all she truly needed. Times had changed, and so had she. Rebellion faded into obedience, the only difference between Mr. Marcello and “the system” was how they labeled their authority. The years she spent under his control suppressed her charm, turned it into distrust and cynicism. Daniel would tease her, telling her she was turning into mother. She hoped he was mostly joking.
All the streets in Quito looked the same, especially after two years of scouting them for Mr. Marcello. Some were dirtier than others and much more uneven, but they seemed to have the same stones. Every street, old or new, had the same arrangement of grey cobblestone. It was the buildings that changed. In Old Town, all the buildings had an air of old observance to them. They were nothing special, just a bunch of aging stone that stretched high with a few wall carvings etched into colorless siding. Even that stupid mall, the Quicentro Shopping Center, had the same browning stone exterior with black metal framing. It was always an odd thing to stop in one of those shops; the insides were always sickeningly modernist and bright compared to the beautiful architecture of the shells of old stone and siding they were encased in.
Maria preferred the La Union neighborhood, where old buildings were the ugly kind of old and the people were predictable; where grey stones were covered with bustling street corners and flurries of people with different faces that stepped into exhaust-filled buses. The grimy white brick buildings were the same inside and out— old, forgotten and dirty. The corner store that Daniel worked at sat close to an intersection, just two houses down from the actual street corner. Regardless, it sold all the items a corner store should sell— plantain chips, beer, cigarettes, gossip magazines— it had everything. Roy always jokingly said it was the answer to almost all his problems. The pastel yellow paint that covered the outside of the building had been peeling off for years, the door creaked no matter how much oil was poured onto its hinges, and a permanent scent of musk filled your nostrils and made your head feel stuffy. Old, but not elegantly ancient.
Maria remembered when she and Daniel had joined Ninos de La Mundo. Her mother had only taken them to church once before. It had been Daniel who had the idea. It’s for kids like us, he had said, For people who need a family. Maria had always wanted one of those. They had decided to join the youth group a week later. Thankfully the group met right after school, so Mom hadn’t needed to know. She probably would have told them they were wasting their time. So they had constructed their own little family with the other church kids. They prayed and laughed together, all of them free of the burdens of the real world while they sat guarded by the white walls of the Santo Domingo Church. In that small world Maria had a place with God. A safe place. Years later it had been obvious Maria and Daniel hadn’t truly belonged in the Ninos de La Mundo, they never had money for donations or mission trips and they hadn’t once brought in their mother to pray with them. Maria dropped out when she was thirteen, just after she had met Oscar and Josue in school.
“Come on, you don’t actually believe in their crap, do you?” Josue had said. “They just want your money, that’s why they have all those stupid fundraisers.” Josue had just given Maria her first cigarette that day, showing her how to inhale the smoke, a small grey cloud billowing around him.
“Yeah he’s right. Anyways, we actually like you for you, Maria.” Oscar had said to her, “After all, it’s not like any of them actually know you, the real you.”
He had been right. Maria hadn’t shown up the next day. Or the next year. Daniel had kept going to church. Everyone misses you, he had said. Maria ignored him, convinced he just didn’t understand that they only said those things to be polite. To be fair, he didn’t have problems with needles until after he moved out into his own apartment, and left the church to work full time a the corner store. Daniel had disappeared from their prayer circles unnoticed, just like Maria. She had always wondered if they had totally forgotten her and Daniel, replacing them with other lost faces and fatherless kids. Probably.
Grey stones paved a path up the hill from Daniel’s apartment to a timeless grey stone plaza with little authentic Ecuadorian shops lining its stones, and a grey fountain plopped in the middle. The Santo Domingo Church stood at the end of the grey stones of the plaza, its marble clean white walls towering over the grim brown of the city around it, with black iron decorating the corners and window frames. The dome was a combination of light gold and deep silver, depicting images of birds and trees seemingly untouched by the years. The doors were a thick red wood, with squares carved out, making it look like those chocolate bars they sold at the corner store. It was beautiful, though there were also the poor old Ecuadorians who begged for money around the outside. The white church cursed their people years ago, and they became an avoidable reminder of dark pasts. They still held onto their traditional white blouses and multicolored skirts and pants, but their presence was invisible. Crowds sidestepped around them, and the people had forgotten them, almost as if they were disappearing, evaporating into the humid air, but no one cared to notice. Maria felt an old ache in her body when she saw them. A part of her was sitting there with them, waiting for the white to leave, wishing the white never came. It had been years since Maria had stepped into the Santo Domingo Church.
Grey stones led her down other paths, paths far more profitable. Like that which led to the courtyard where she now stood. The grey stones from the street turned into white marble stones encased by peeling pastel blue. The apartments above were gated by black iron fences, probably to keep people like Maria out.
The two gringas looked tired, climbing out of the taxi into the heart of Old Town. Given their droopy eyes and piles of luggage, there was no doubt they had just come from the airport. They were weighed down by far more bags than they needed. The older one had an expensive-looking camera slung from her shoulder. Perhaps she was a professional photographer traveling the world, capturing beautiful places within flat images, with bags full of equipment. Then again, they were probably just your average tourists who couldn’t part with any of their things and, last-minute, decided to bring everything, just in case. The younger one was wearing a fluffy Patagonia jacket, her eyes wide with anxiety. Maria guessed that she had never been to a place like Old Town before.
Maria’s cheetah print heels announced her, but the gringas did not turn to look at her and her boys until they were right in front of them. Her boys knew the formula; distract the target, then disappear. Maria approached the younger one and rapidly fired off questions in Spanish. The wide-eyed girl stumbled through an earnest, badly accented greeting, confusion crossing her face. In her fluster, the gringa failed to notice Oscar casually pick up one of the packs and silently vanish around the corner. Maria figured she must be quite a sight with her electric blue jeans and cheetah print tank, matching her heels. Maria always hoped that the dyed blue streak in her hair and her bright magenta lipstick would force people to notice her. Not like the girl in front of her, who obviously just wanted to be invisible in that moment. Unlike her, Maria knew how to be invisible. A pang of guilt shook her unexpectedly; this girl hadn’t done anything to her. As she stared into icy blue gringa eyes, Maria sent out a silent prayer for this girl, and, for good measure, a prayer for herself. She hoped she could still steal from little innocent white girls and still be saved. She slipped away from that fluffy Patagonia jacket and strode in long quiet steps away from them and into the shadows of the city of Quito, Josue and Roy trailing her.
Maria remembered her first day on the job. The first task Mr. Marcello had given her, to prove her loyalty, was simply to collect money from those poor souls who were in his debt. She accepted the work graciously, a sense of importance and kinship flooding her body. She wouldn’t let anything tear her from this new home. After all, both Josue and Oscar had joined, and they were all Maria had.
“That’s my girl.” Mr. Marcello’s lips had curled into a drippingly sweet smile polished with fluorescent teeth as he sent her off to do his chores.
Once she started, it had been easy enough work, knocking on doors and demanding money. Almost like that church group she had liked so much a few years ago. Of course, they would go to doors with bibles in their hands, not empty promises. One man in particular proved to be a little more work for Maria. The door opened to the stench of musty gin and sweat, a middle aged man in the doorway. “I’m with Mr. Marcello,” Maria said, trying not to breathe too much toxic air in. “You owe him, and he’s gonna need that money very soon. We’d better not disappoint him, no?” The man grumbled, stepping further out onto the street sizing up Maria. After an extended silence the man leaned in closer, his odor inescapable.
“Fuck Marcello.” He stared at Maria.
“Yeah, not my type. But you should definitely try.” Maria smirked. “Doesn’t change that you still owe him, asshole.”
That was a mistake. The man raised his eyebrows, nodding, planning his comeback. Maria guessed guys like him didn’t have the mental capacity for quick comebacks. A hand grabbed her by her ponytail and slammed her against brick wall.
“So he sends you. And you’re what— supposed to intimidate me?” His breath became even worse, the stench of stale air pierced her nostrils and filled up her throat. Maria whimpered, feeling the weight of her actions. This had to be the start of her penance.
A pause. Then, a figure came from the grey stone streets, and the bad man retreated back to his stench and gin.
“You okay?” The figure turned to her— a man, not too much older than her, his eyes soft.
“Yeah, fine” Maria adjusted her ponytail. “Marcello sent you, didn’t he? Well, I don’t want help. So you can go back to whatever you were doing.”
The nice man chuckled, his teeth a pale shade of yellow. Probably drank too much coffee. “Nice to meet you too,” He said, “I’m Roy.”
“Maria.” She turned and started walking away.
“You know what happened to me on my first day on the job?” Roy jogged to catch up. “I tried to steal a pack of cigarettes and a pack of gum from a corner store, the one down on 28th, you know the one with that old lady— Mrs. Heredia, I think? Anyways, I ended up in her dumpster.” That purchased a tiny giggle from Maria.
Roy lead them through the streets. It was obvious he knew all the twists and turns the grey stones took, and where they led.
They were on their final stop of the day when they turned off of grey cobblestone, into a familiar concrete alley. Maria knew this alley. Her heart panicked, stopping altogether when Roy started to climb that familiar black metal stairway. Please not him, Maria thought, and considered sending a quick prayer to the heavens. Roy halted at a familiar door, turning back to her expectantly. Maria shook her head. Roy shrugged and knocked.
The door swung open. Maria was frozen. She didn’t feel real. She wondered if her older brother truly was standing in that doorway, if she was really there at all. Maybe she didn’t have to be.
“Greetings from Mr. Marcello Wallace, sir.” Roy started, not even knowing. Daniel’s gaze passed from Roy to the space behind him, seeing nothing.
Maria knew how to disappear.
They found Oscar in their usual spot— behind the breakfast place that served delicious fried plantains and had the best horchata in the city. He was so wrapped up in the contents of the gringa’s backpack that he didn’t notice them approach.
“Oscar,” Maria barked, eager to see their spoils.
He whipped around, wide-eyed, ready to run, and almost tripped.
“Maria.” He released a held breath, and grinned. “You gotta see what we got. It’s real good this time.”
She grabbed the pack from him and peered inside, her expectations low. A glint of metal led her to a shiny Apple laptop, and not an old one either. This one was one of those newer, thinner ones. The sleek matte metal glittered in her eyes, and Maria smiled. Maybe God did love her, maybe he understood. Further into the bag were several cases of jewelry, nothing with any substantial value, but all sparkly enough to fetch a small sum.
“That computer could sell for five hundred easy,” Roy said, arms crossed. “It looks new.”
“Not to mention the jewelry in there,” Josue said, his lips carved into his usual smirk. “It looks like we have all you need, Maria.”
Between the clothes, the watch, the camera, and the contents of that black backpack, she could save her brother’s life. Maria owed them big time.
In cash, $1,000 doesn’t look like much. All those bills seem rather insignificant after you hold them all, knowing their worth. They seemed fragile and delicate. Even more so when she handed them over to Mr. Marcelo’s greedy little pig hands. He sneered at her, taking them, a “happy doing business with you” and the money was gone. Her brother was safe from the bad people for now. Maria would make sure to never again let him back into Marcello’s company.
Maria skipped down grey cobblestone, through the La Union Square and the white church, wondering where she now stood in the eyes of God. Perhaps she could step inside their white walls just once more. In this moment, Maria felt she would be permitted. Just for a second. Righteousness engulfed her, and she placed a hand on the red wooden doors. Fear made her retreat, fleeing the square. Those doors are too heavy, she told herself.
Maria ran to the corner store, the neon open sign flickering, drawing her in. Mrs. Heredia wasn’t in her usual spot behind the counter, and Daniel was nowhere to be seen. Two little girls sat in her seat behind the cash register instead, one braiding the other’s hair. One of them had a turquoise skirt and the other had a deep pink one, but their blouses were the same traditional white material, embroidered with images of birds and trees. They sat unmoving, invisible, obliviously at peace in their own corner of the world. Daniel must have had the day off.
She found her brother in the alley right beside his apartment, slumped over. Maria checked around his body for empty needles. He was always broody, but there was a darkness in Daniel’s eyes that made Maria’s stomach churn.
“How did you do it?” Daniel asked, his voice raspy and low, not meeting Maria’s eyes.
“It doesn’t matter how. What matters is that you’re safe.” Maria placed herself next to him, trying to find something in her brother that wasn’t broken.
“It does matter.” Daniel stood up with disgust, staring back into his sister’s eyes, hoping that God was watching. “Tell me, sis, have you always been one of the bad people?”
Maria managed to drag Daniel out from the alley. She told him they were going to church. You’ll see, she had told herself. The sun hung behind the mountains, not quite set but had disappeared from sight, giving the streets a cool glow. The mountain air of Quito was thin, always had been, but as Maria climbed her way up the sloping streets to the church, the air seemed lighter, her lungs thicker. It was colder than usual and goosebumps decorated her bare arms. Daniel was dragging behind her, telling her he already had gone to pray today. He had his head slumped back with angst, looking like a toddler having a tantrum. Maria was jealous of the tattered jean jacket he had on, and waited for him to catch up, grabbing his arm and shoving her hand through the space between his elbow and his torso, feeling suddenly exposed. His stained white shirt sagged just enough so that you could see the cross pedant he wore underneath. It stared at her. You’ll see.
Maria reached the Santo Domingo Church steps, her cheetah print heels loudly clinking against the marble. Daniel groaned, rolling his eyes, doubt emitting from his body. Maria ignored it, this wasn’t about him. She felt the cool marble ascending over her, closing around her body. The redwood doors were just before her, looking warm and welcoming, vibrant against the colorless stone sides. Her hand made contact with the wood, feeling the grains within it. The paint had faded after years of people opening and closing them. Maria was suddenly very aware of the impact her hand had on the door and the tiniest print it would leave behind. She realized the door felt rougher than she had remembered. She looked back to her brother, who was leaning against the marble sides, staring at Maria impatiently. She waited a moment, hearing the chatter of the square behind her. She wasn’t alone. She pushed gently against the door, but nothing moved. She pushed harder, this time with both hands, one around the handle, one firmly against the wood, but nothing happened. She leaned her entire body into the door, willing it open but the doors didn’t even give her a slight creak.
“The church is closed for today.” A gravely voice came from the side of the church. A priest dressed in white smiled at Maria. “The inside needed to be cleaned. It’ll be open 10 o’clock tomorrow morning, and we’d love for you to join us in prayer then, sister.” The priest walked past them into the square, fading into the crowd.
Maria looked to the sky as the last light of the day disappeared behind the mountains, engulfing the white marble of the church in a grey shadow.