Listen to this story, narrated by C.S.E. Cooney:
This story contains graphic descriptions of violence.
It happens every couple of weeks. Mostly by knifing, once the boys reach the outskirts of Atahualpa Stadium, yards away from the fútbol crowds but still near enough the edifice to catch scents of cold Pilsener and empanadas con ají, a mixture that causes turmoil in their bellies. Boys eat empanadas while they cheer for their team, jumping up and down, some smothered under the giant flag of Ecuador. It shakes and bounces without wind, pushed only by fists and skulls. Hearts pound with others’ stomping and collapse with every referee call that doesn’t favor their team. The food doesn’t digest, as they get stabbed in their abdomen minutes after the match is over by boys who cheer for the opposite team. Or sometimes adolescent heads crack open on concrete terraces, on edges that don’t feel sharp to palms but do roughly graze jeans, remnants of blue sticking to cement.
It is the young adults who die during soccer games and after, because those who are above forty are immune to this kind of violence. Joaco is no longer allowed to attend games at Atahualpa Stadium. Like he ever did. The only soccer he’s watched live are the matches that take place in his high school’s field. And he’s playing in them. Midfielder.
Maybe when you’re older, beyond fifty, his father says to him, you’ll go to Atahualpa. Because you’re not getting murdered at seventeen for a missed penalty kick.
Tomorrow Joaco and his high school friends will lie to their parents and head to a game in Quito, the capital of Ecuador. When the annual game of Barcelona versus Liga is televised, ice-cream freezers in bodegas stop working. The ice-cream is slow to melt, nevertheless. Taxis don’t pick up passengers as they tour around the north, south, and the many valleys of Quito, meters still running, ghosts buckled up in the backseats. Their radios booming. Pigeons cease to fly anywhere near the stadium. Grandmothers stay inside their bedrooms. Embassies shut their doors early. Quito becomes quiet.
Together, the boys head uptown from Cumbayá, their birth valley and the only Ecuadorian territory they truly know. The capital scares them: maybe it’s the traffic jams or the children who sell gum and cigarettes on the streets. But, for Joaco, it’s the proximity to Pichincha, the volcano he only sees every other month when Mami takes him to visit Abuela. It is the volcano that erupted when he was seven — he can’t remember the lava or the mushroom cloud, but he remembers the ash between his eyelashes and in his unwashed hair. It’s the trail of grey in the shower, bits of ash falling from his body, it’s the proximity to becoming a victim, the ones who died watching the ash come down like snowflakes.
They’re riding Pedro’s car. It’s an old Mitsubishi his dad no longer uses since he earned a raise in the top animal slaughtering company of Ecuador. Four years ago, Pedro wrote a personal essay in his high school English class about the smell his father brought home with him every night. He wrote “blood” twenty-seven times. The principal had to speak with him and his parents about Pedro’s diction.
Joaco sits in the driver’s seat. He holds the tickets to the soccer match tightly, leaving bits of sweat between the printed bold letters.
I can’t believe we’re doing this, he says to his friends Martín and Benigno, his best friends sitting in the back seat; these two boys from Joaco’s twelfth grade class carry the lowest marks and highest incidents of vandalism.
It’s happening, Martín says. Benigno takes out his cigarette pack of Marlboro Lights, and Pedro catches him through his rearview mirror.
Aquí no, he says. It’ll stink.
Man, it already stinks, Benigno replies. He’s smelling the burning forests out in the equatorial landscapes, the ones caused by boys like himself. Fire haunts the capital, from the lava ducts underneath us all to the incendiary bits of forgotten cigarette butts and liquor bottles in eucalyptus forests. We carry a fire within us. Maybe this is what scares Joaco the most. We’re flammable.
They park their car in Quicentro, the mall next to Atahualpa Stadium, which is named after the last Incan king. Joaco receives several calls from his parents on his phone. He sends them to voicemail. He will not miss the epic match between the top two Ecuadorian soccer teams because his parents are worried.
The boys walk towards the stadium wearing their Liga t-shirts: white and red lined uniforms with a giant M stamped in the middle, the symbol of Movistar, Latin America’s highest-grossing telephone company. The company has only disappointed Ecuadorians once: when the earthquake of 2016 struck and families on the coast couldn’t call to locate their relatives. The lawsuit was dropped, however, because Benigno’s dad — the famous lawyer in Ecuador who fought against the new bullfighting laws and lost — explained just how much Movistar contributes to soccer culture. They fund it all.
Soccer fans from Barcelona, the opposing team, wear yellow and black. Their uniforms resemble the top-selling beer in Ecuador: Pilsener. Joaco makes eye contact with several of the Barcelona fans; he places his phone inside his pocket, as if the Barcelona fans—who do not attend private schools like Joaco’s—would want to steal his belongings. This is the life Joaco knows. It’s them and it’s us.
The match begins. The boys eat empanadas with ají. Half of the stadium is colored white, while yellow reigns over the other side. A goal for each team causes an uproar. Fighting begins in the stands, several feet away from Joaco. He feels the adrenaline of the stadium on the soles of his feet.
It’s like an earthquake, he tells Pedro.
Pedro, already drunk from the beer Martín and Benigno managed to sneak into the stadium, doesn’t understand Joaco’s analogy. He yells, Terremoto! Other high-class adolescent boys laugh at Pedro. He can’t contain his liquor. He’s a baby.
The match ends. Barcelona loses three to two. The Barcelona fans, upset with the loss, climb the fence dividing the stands from the field and jump. With broken legs and injured ankles, they run across the field, hustling towards the other side of the stadium, the side where Joaco stands crying for joy.
Ganaron! Ganaron! Joaco sobs. He finally answers a call from his mother, who claims she watched him celebrate the win on their living room television.
Get home this instant, she cries on the other side of the phone. Joaco can’t hear her.
The giant flag of Ecuador begins to cover Joaco’s white side of the stadium. He bounces up and down, hitting the condor on the flag’s shield with his head. The Barcelona fans, after they finish congratulating their favorite soccer players with unwanted hugs for their efforts and dodging the police officers who roam the soccer field with German shepherds, climb the next fence. Those who make it all the way up fall like giant pieces of hail on top of their country’s flag. Joaco remembers the day hail as big as his father’s Titleist golf balls—expensive sports equipment Joaco and company used to throw at preying birds from the school’s rooftop—fell on their car. The dents fixed themselves after months; the metal just gave in to the rising heat of the valley and popped. It’s happening all over again. How will the Earth pop in response?
The Barcelona fans injure those at the bottom, further flattening empanadas, smashing Benigno’s body to the ground. He swallows his cigarette. Pedro tries to escape, holding Joaco’s hand tightly. But the crowd won’t let them through. Martín tries to rescue Benigno’s body. (At the end of that day, he’ll be featured in El Comercio as the boy who saved his best friend. Benigno’s father will later hire Martín in his oil company as a lawyer’s assistant. They’ll lose the case defending Texaco in fourteen years.)
Pedro and Joaco fight their way through the chaos. They exit Atahualpa stained with blood and sweat, with beer and ají. Joaco doesn’t call his mother right away. Instead, he waits until Pedro drops him off at his home, rings the intercom, and looks at his mother through the screen: Perdón, mami.
After the legendary Liga versus Barcelona match, the volcano Pichincha becomes extinct. Its active status ends after five hundred years. Scientists believe the plate tectonics underneath Quito forgot about us. It’s as if the fallen bodies of Barcelona fans quench future tremors and earthquakes. For the rest of his life, Joaco’s body will not be covered in bits of grey, in remnants of Pichincha’s insides, its heart and lungs, its memories of land before all of us.
Before his senior year of high school is over, Joaco will have scored ten goals as a midfielder, earning the trust of his coach and making it all the way to the forward position. He’ll graduate without honors, head out to the local upper-class boy college, and graduate as a businessman. He’ll play soccer on the weekends with his kids, teaching them how to kick with the instep, not the tip of their toes. Joaco is going to tell his children stories about the Atahualpa Stadium during dinners, as if he’s witnessed several games within the four most tragic walls of Quito. He’s going to lie and say he watched greatness, and they’ll do so too when they’re older. Around forty or so. Because they are not going to appreciate it until then.