Michael C. Keith

Grande Alfil

Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies.
Nobody that matters, that is.

—Edna St. Vincent Millay

 

Thirteen year-old Elon Gonzalez was about to become the champion runner of Mexico City's Highway 57. He had survived thirty-six sprints across the busy artery and made more money—albeit a modest sum—for his daring efforts than any other boy in recent memory. By contrast, Elon's handler, Roberto Muentes, had become rich by local standards, taking no risks while reaping a disproportionate share of the payoffs. In the process, he had also developed a modicum of affection for the youngster, since Elon bore a strong resemblance to his long dead and beloved brother, Basillio. His feelings for his star runner put him in conflict with his vocation. Bo, as he was called, realized that the odds were high that his protégé would be killed or terribly injured. A speeding car would eventually toss Elon's small body into the air like a rag doll.

Only rarely would an offending vehicle stop to offer aid. The ever-growing number of street urchins in the city resulted in a profound devaluation of their lives. Bo had witnessed the gruesome sight of runners catapulted to their deaths on more than one occasion. Fortunately for him, none of his boys had been among them. In the past four years alone, sixteen children had been killed trying to earn a few pesos. Every year, as the number of homeless children rose, more boys participated in the popular death-defying game of chance. As they did, the volume of betting grew to an all time high. It had quickly become the city's version of the X Games, and although it was illegal, authorities did nothing to curtail the grim competition.

As Elon's record-breaking run approached, wagering reached unprecedented heights. It was the biggest pool Bo had ever seen, and he stood to make a small fortune. While the prospect of a big payday excited him, he was filled with foreboding. A nagging sense that Elon would not make it this time weighed on Bo and disturbed him. On the other hand, the boy was all bravado and basked in the attention he received from the other runners, who had come to call him Grande Alfil—great runner.

The much-anticipated event was scheduled for 1 PM, and by noon dozens of gamblers and spectators gathered on both sides of the highway. Early afternoon offered the best conditions for the competition, with lighter traffic than during commuter periods, allowing for higher speeds and more space between cars for runners. A designated starter on the pedestrian bridge above the highway would give the signal to commence by waving a red cloth. He would do so when he believed the risk factor was at a sufficient level to pose an acceptable challenge to the runner. Starters were compensated by the handlers and took their jobs very seriously. A call that was regarded as bad by bettors would cause a firestorm and jeopardize winnings.

Given the importance of Elon's run, the most experienced starter, Ramon Fuentes, who was almost eighty, was chosen to wave the bandera. He appeared on the bridge at the designated time and indicated he was prepared to give the signal. At that moment, despite the fact that all wagers had been placed, Bo told Elon he was cancelling the run. Every molecule of his being told him that his prized competitor would fail in his bid to break the all-time survival record.

"We will do this another day, Elon. Santa Muerte will be with you then."

"No, it is with me now. I can win, Bo," protested Elon.

"¡No juego hoy!" announced Bo. "¡Mañana . . . mañana!"

The throng of bettors protested loudly as did Elon. Confusing the commotion below as the signal to begin, the elderly starter waved the red cloth.

"No!" shouted Bo, as Elon began his run to the cheers of everyone assembled.

Halfway across Highway 57, he was clipped by a pickup truck and sent spinning into the air. His body struck the cement divider and bounced back onto the road just missing the wheels of another passing vehicle.

"Elon! Elon!" shrieked Bo, dodging traffic as he ran to where the boy lay.

As he lifted Elon's twisted and bleeding body, the child moaned indicating he was still alive.

"You will live, mi niño," whispered Bo.

When he managed to reach the sidewalk, the crowd of onlookers circled him.

"Give us our money," bellowed several men, determined to collect their winnings.

Bo removed a clump of bills from his pocket and threw it to the ground. He then placed the injured boy on the hood of an abandoned car and dialed his cellphone for an ambulance. The crowd quickly dispersed fearing it would be implicated in the situation. Bo waited until he saw the approaching flashing lights, and then he, too, left the scene.

A week would pass before Bo would learn the fate of Elon, and when he did he felt both relief that the boy had survived and remorse that he was paralyzed. After the accident, Bo decided against grooming another runner to replace Elon. He no longer had the stomach for the life he had been living. His savings, which he now regarded as blood money, would allow him to escape his bleak existence. He had always dreamed of living along the coast where he could fish and swim. With that in mind, he gathered his few belongings, including the metal box that contained his fortune, and set out to catch the bus that would take him to the coastal city of Tehuantepec. On the way to the depot, he planned to visit Elon in the hospital to give him money that would guarantee his long-term care.

Unbeknownst to Bo, however, Elon's older brother was out to avenge his sibling's misfortune. He was waiting in a car he had stolen, determined to inflict on Bo the same fate that had befallen his little brother. When Bo left his apartment house adjacent to Highway 57, Adullo Gonzalez followed him. At the opportune moment, he made his move, driving the car onto the sidewalk and rolling it over Bo. No one but a handful of waiting runners witnessed the act as Adullo sped away.

"It's Señor Bo," shouted the first boy to arrive at the motionless body.

Soon he and the others were rifling through Bo's belongings.

"¡Mucho dinero!" bellowed a boy upon opening the bent metal box.

In a gleeful frenzy the money was divvied up, and Bo was left to die. The last image his failing mind conjured was that of Elon waving victoriously from the median strip.

"Mi campeón," he muttered with his last breath.

—Michael C. Keith

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