Mai Vembada

National Geographic

THE GIRL CLIMBED THE LAST FIFTY METRES to the top of the ridge. Sweat shone on her arms and ran down her face, but she breathed deeply with pleasure. Coming from the deep woods to the north, Murapi was not used to the brilliant sunshine that baked everything all day. Or the lack of tree cover to shield her from potential enemies.

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Bravery, a novella. Part Three.

12.    RIOT

The Beatles poured down the stairs as Benjamin opened the door the next Monday. Walter Holst was working at home.

“Hi, guy, how was school?” he shouted as Benjamin slammed the front door.

“Fine.” Benjamin dropped his backpack in the hall and headed straight for the refrigerator.

“Why do I ask? ” His father came into the kitchen with a used glass. “Refill, please?”

Benjamin poured out the orange juice for them. “How come you’re home early? And where’s Mom?”

“Aha! The observant scout. The Lady of the House has gone to the City for a job interview. And your lowly servant has brought his labors to your doorstep so as to meet you.”

“Wow,” said Benjamin with feigned sarcasm. “What kind of job?”

“Grace Lines. Either Schedules or Operations. Apparently both divisions are interested.”

“Good for Mom. What happens when she starts working?”

“She hasn’t said yes yet, son. But you may have to get used to me again.”

“You gonna walk me to school?”

“What for? She doesn’t walk you now, does she?”

“Nope, I was just checking to see if there would be any real changes around here.”

“Except for more toaster breakfasts and cereal, no difference at home. Load the washing machine while I get dinner in the oven, would you? The white stuff is all ready to go for a hot water wash.”

Benjamin grabbed a banana from the top of the refrigerator and headed for the laundry room in the basement.


Tuesday brought the rain that Benjamin always associated with long, wet winters in Virginia. It was colder in New York. The dampness got into everything and made the cold feel worse.

“Umbrella, Benjamin?” asked his mother as he donned his yellow poncho over his raincoat and backpack.

“Nope. We’re not allowed to bring them to school. Remember?”

“Seems a strange rule,” she said.

His father came up. “Perhaps they think they’re weapons, like the umbrellas with poisoned sword points in those late-night TV stories.”

Benjamin almost volunteered the reason and thought better of it. He waved goodbye and stepped out in the rain.

He hated these steady drizzles that could go on for weeks. Not heavy enough to cool his rain gear, but too much rain to take it off. He began to sweat under the vinyl. He wondered what Mando might be doing in this weather. Would he come around looking for Benjamin? Would he come to school?

“Yo! Holster!” a voice shouted just behind him. Benjamin jumped. Alex slapped him on the back. “Touchy today or dreaming?”

“Little of both, I think,” said Benjamin. “I wonder what Mando is doing?”

“Hanging around the house, I’d guess,” said Alex. “Officer Mendoza told me that guys like Mando don’t make much trouble in the rain. Only the hungry and the desperate come out in bad weather.”

They crossed Sanford Avenue to the school. Benjamin could not wait to get to his locker and shed the poncho and coat.

Mr. Morricone finished his explanation of cold fronts in science class just before lunch.

“So what about this stuff?” asked Greg Ho, who sat near the window.

“This kind of front moves very slowly,” said the teacher, “it could rain for a week like this.”

“Looks like it’s stopping to me,” said Marina. Benjamin turned around. So did Mr. Morricone.

“So it is, Miss Albano.” Before he could react to the tittering near the door, the bell rang.


“Walter, we don’t have any milk for breakfast,” said Carla, closing the refrigerator door. “How could you let that happen?”

“There was a full quart in there this afternoon,” said Walter. He dried the glass he was holding and put it in the cupboard. The two grownups turned to stare at the dishwasher.

Benjamin stopped with a dripping pan in mid-air. “Hey, I get thirsty after school. Soccer practice is tough.”

“Well, does the jock feel tough enough to run to the store for another carton?” asked his father.

“It’s late, dear,” said Carla.

“It’s only over on Union. Not five minutes each way.”

“That’s not what I mean,” she said.

“This is Flushing, honey, not Manhattan.”

“It’s okay, Mom,” said Benjamin. “I know a short cut behind the store that is even faster.” He dried his hands, took two one-dollar bills from his father and jogged into the night air.

The darkness in the service alley behind the convenience store surprised him. He had always used it in the daytime.

As he emerged on Union Street, Benjamin noticed a couple of Diablos on the corner beyond the store. He looked for Mando, but the only familiar form was Ling Huang’s bulk. Benjamin ran into the store.

When he came out, the block was clear. He ran around the store into the service alley which cut two blocks off the run home. Again, the darkness made him uneasy. So did the silence.

“Hey, Holster!”

Benjamin froze. Ling and two Diablos stepped out from behind a dumpster, blocking the end of the alley. Benjamin turned around to see Mando and three more Diablos. He swallowed hard. His heart raced. “What do you want, Mando?” he said, hoping his voice did not shake.

“You, Holster. You owe me.” The seven Diablos circled Benjamin. Half of them slapped chains in their open palms. Mando and the other two cracked their knuckles and made fists.

“Look, Mando, I’ve never done anything to you. Why don’t you just —” Benjamin felt a sharp pain in his side as a chain cracked behind him. He started to run between Mando and Ling. Mando grabbed him by the arm. Benjamin thought his shoulder would tear out as Mando used Benjamin’s momentum to swing him up and back into the circle. Benjamin closed his eyes as the pavement rose to meet him. The rest was a blur. Someone kicked him in the ribs. He could not open his eyes. He curled up and gritted his teeth. Something slapped him in the head, cold and wet. The milk. He heard a siren. He opened his eyes. He was alone.

A police cruiser tore down Union Street, answering a call or chasing a speeder. Benjamin staggered to his feet. The pain in his side subsided somewhat so he could breathe, but every breath ached. He felt silly with the milk all over him. He started toward the street as fast as he could, but Mando and the Diablos did not return.

What could he tell his folks now?

Alex’s house was on the way home. He knew that Alex would be watching his younger brother and sister while his mother worked as a cashier at the Key supermarket.

“Shit, man, you look terrible,” said Alex at the door. “What happened?”

“Mando caught me in the alley off Union on my way back from the store. I don’t know what he would have done if a police cruiser hadn’t come by.”

Alex led him to the bathroom and got out the first aid kit while Benjamin took off his jacket and shirt. The marks from the kick and the chain were already bruising up, but the skin was not broken. Benjamin washed his face and rinsed the milk out of his hair. Alex treated the cut over his eye, while he finished the story.

“Where are the cops?” Alex asked.

“They were going somewhere else. The siren must have spooked the Diablos.”

“Mando not alone? How many?”


Alex let out a whistle. “That’s big trouble, man. Means that any Diablo could come after you now, not just Mando.”

“Great. Now what do we do?”

Alex thought. “First of all, you need to finish the errand and figure out what to tell your folks.”

“I forgot about that part. I’ve never come home beat up before,” said Benjamin. “I don’t want them to go nuts over this.”

“You think that might depend on how hurt you look when you get home? How bad does it feel?”

“I can walk ok. I guess it will clear up.”

“Then take an extra carton of milk from our fridge and see how it goes when you get home.”

“I can’t lie about this,” said Benjamin.

“I know,” said Alex, “but you also don’t have to run your mouth.”

“Gotcha. Thanks, Alex.”

“Forget it. See you tomorrow.”


“Benjamin, where have you been?” asked his mother. “You’ve got milk all over you.”

“What’s with the Band-aid on your face?” asked his father.

“I lost it in the alley coming back. I stopped at Alex’s house. He fixed me up and gave me another carton of milk.”

“Are you all right?” asked Carla Holst.

“Sure, Mom, fine. I’m sorry I took so long.”

“Well, you’re lucky your friends are as well-prepared as you are clumsy,” said his father. “Accidents happen, son. Now go get ready for bed.”

“Yes, sir.” Benjamin moved to his room before the conversation could go any further.


The next day, Benjamin felt the stares when he walked into his first class. The bell rang for assembly in the yard outside. When he stepped out onto the school yard the kids went silent.

Then he saw the Diablos. There were at least three dozen of them, each with his white tee-shirt and black jacket. They stood together near the doors.

“Probably got chains in their pockets, too,” Alex observed. “And there’s Mando.”

“This is weird, man,” said Jim. “I’ve never seen everybody so quiet.”

The doors opened. Officer Washington stepped out first and stopped. Officer Mendoza paused inside for just a few seconds. Just time enough for Mando and his gang to gather around Officer Washington.

“Line up, everyone, let’s get this over with,” said Officer Mendoza, guiding Betsy to his partner’s side.

“Yeah, let’s get it over,” said Mando. “Why don’t you two pigs just buzz off? We gotta go to school.”

“Just as soon as we check you all out, Mando.”

Betsy started straining at the leash even as her handler spoke. “Step over to the bus, Mando,” said the policeman.

“Why should I? Get your fuckin’ dog off my case, man!” Mando kicked Betsy hard in the side. Benjamin winced as the dog yelped.

No one knows quite what happened next. Officer Mendoza tried to restrain Betsy, but even as he opened his mouth, a heavy motorcycle chain cracked his head from behind. Benjamin looked at Officer Washington just in time to see him go down in a crowd of Diablos.

Betsy was loose and her handler was down. She lunged at Mando’s arm as it came out of his pocket with a pistol. The pistol fired as Betsy grabbed his arm. He dropped the gun and fell backwards with the dog tight on his arm. Two Diablos kicked at Betsy from the side, and Mando broke loose, his tattered sleeve soaked with blood. He ran tried to run, but Betsy charged after him and brought him down again. The Diablos backed off.

Ajudami! Help!” Mando screamed as loud as he could. He thrashed and kicked, but Betsy hung on to his arm. Benjamin ran to the edge of the crowd. He dropped to one knee and raised his hands to his mouth.

“Betsy! OUT!” he shouted.

The dog released the teenager, who crouched over his bleeding arms. She looked up and saw Benjamin.

“Betsy, come here!” Benjamin put out his arm and took the leash of the dog that came to her. He stood up, wrapping Betsy’s leash around his hand to control his shaking hand.

“Hey, guys, Holster’s got the dog!”

The crowd of fighting kids fell quiet. They yielded as Benjamin walked Betsy to her fallen handler. Alex showed up with Jim and Jerry.

“Jim, take a look at Mando,” Alex said. “Jerry, go see about Officer Washington.” Then he knelt by Officer Mendoza. Benjamin stood behind Betsy and let her approach her handler.

The dog whimpered as she nuzzled the policeman’s face. Alex looked over his wounds.

“Bleeding’s stopped, but we better not move him. May have hurt his neck.”

They heard sirens coming from the 109th Precinct on Union Street. An ambulance rounded the corner from Parsons Boulevard. Benjamin noticed that suddenly there was only one Diablo left in the school yard: Jim Sabatini was cutting off Mando’s sleeves with Mando’s own knife. Officer Washington had gotten up on his own and was moving the bystanders away from the three Scouts tending the wounded. The school nurse came out with her first aid kit as the ambulance arrived.

Betsy growled when the paramedics moved toward Officer Mendoza.

“Take it easy,” Benjamin said. “That’s the dog’s handler. She’s pretty upset. If you move gently, she won’t bother you. I think she’ll stay with me if she knows no one is hurting him.” He looked across the yard and caught Officer Washington’s eye. Mendoza’s partner signalled to some new arrivals from the squad car to take over and came over to Benjamin.

“You really are family now, Benjamin. You two okay?”

“I’m afraid she’ll attack the paramedics. I don’t know how to take her away safely.”

“Just bring her along, talking gently. You keep the leash, and we’ll go to the car together.”

The boy and the policeman made their way to the patrol car. Soon they were on their way up Willets Point Boulevard to Fort Totten. Officer Washington hit the lights and the siren approaching the gate and the military policemen waved them through.

“Where are we going?” asked Benjamin.

“K-9 unit. Need to have a vet check out Betsy before we take her home. She might have something broken, too.”

The New York Police K-9 Unit hugs a secluded corner of the Army fort, behind a small neighborhood of soldiers’ houses. Water laps the yard on the east and south. The main building is a simple cinder block structure. The kennels are outside.

“Betsy was trained here, before Dom became her handler.”

The veterinarian and some handlers in civilian clothes were waiting as they pulled up to the loading dock. Before Benjamin had even gotten out of the car, Betsy and the K-9 officers were out of sight in the building. Officer Washington showed him to the office, then vanished to clean up and call in his report.

Benjamin sat at the receptionist’s desk and scratched the ear of a friendly bloodhound who sniffed everything on him and then licked his hands.

“He’s still young,” explained the trainer, with the calm tones of a man who knows his business. “We’re training him to track people.”

“He sure seems friendly. Is it okay?”

“Sure, son. I’ll have him taken out if he gets carried away.” But before he did, Officer Washington returned.

“Betsy has a cracked rib. They’re going to keep her here for a while to take care of it and to see what happens to Officer Mendoza.”

“Where is he now?”

“Resting at Queens Hospital. They say nothing’s broken, but he has to stay under observation overnight.”

“Can we see him?”

“Sure. I called your parents already. They’ll meet us there.”


THE HOLSTS, THE WASHINGTONS, and Marta and Manuela Mendoza showed up at the hospital about the same time. Benjamin became the center of attention in Officer Mendoza’s room, which made the Scout feel a little uneasy.

“I’ll be out of here tomorrow,” said the patient, “and Betsy will be home in just a few days. She’ll be off duty for a while, but you all come over and see her.

“Especially you, Benjamin. You obviously have a natural way with her.”

Suddenly Benjamin had the feeling that something was missing, a hunch that he should be doing something else.

“Where’s Mando?” he asked.

“Another ambulance took him away,” said Officer Washington. “Why?”

“Does anyone know his real name? I want to see if he’s here at Queens.”

“I see where you’re going, son,” said Officer Mendoza. “Good thinking.”

“I got it here in my notebook,” said Officer Washington. “I been thinking of having it printed on report forms to save me trouble. Come on, kid, let’s go find Mando.” It did not take long.

“He’s on the third floor in the general ward,” said the nurse at the duty station. It occurred to Benjamin as they walked around, that nobody ever mentioned visiting hours. But then, he was walking around with a very big police officer.

Mando lay alone at the end of a long row of beds. He was staring at a window too dirty to see through. Except for the bandages on his arms, he seemed unscratched. The noise from the other patients made his silence seem eerie to Benjamin.

They got right up to Mando’s beside before he turned his head.

“Holster, what you doing here?” Then he looked at the policeman. “You gonna arrest me here?”

“Time for that later,” said Officer Washington, “I’m following him tonight.”

“I just wanted to see if you were all right.”

“Yeah, I guess so, no thanks to that attack dog of yours.”

“She’s not mine, Mando, and she’s not an attack dog.”

“He tried to kill me!” Benjamin felt the heat in his stomach.

“Oh, stop it, Mando. You’re acting like a stupid baby. I came down here ’cause I really wanted to see you. I was hoping you weren’t hurt too bad. Betsy is trained to stop people, not kill them. And that’s all she did: she grabbed your arm and held on.”

“Yeah, look at me!” Mando waved his arms. It made him wince, so he put them down.

“If you had stopped thrashing around, she might have let you go. Considering you cracked her ribs when you kicked her, I’d say she treated you pretty good.” Officer Washington stepped to the edge of the bed.

“All right, you two, calm down. I didn’t come down here to get in another fight. I’ve had enough for today.”

The two boys sulked in silence for a moment. Benjamin spoke first.

“How long are you in here for?”

“Dunno, couple days, I guess. I been cut up worse before. They never keep you long. It’s just a real pain this time, ’cause I can’t get anything with these stumps. And of course the nurses never come.”

“What do you need?”

“Everything. But some water would be a start.”

Benjamin filled a glass from the pitcher and held it for Mando to drink. Mando managed to sip some, but it was hard. Benjamin saw a McDonald’s bag at the bedside next to Mando’s and asked the patient for the straw. He unwrapped the straw and put it in the glass. Mando could hold the glass well enough with both hands and drank his fill.

“Thanks, Holster.”

“Hey, man, I was in the hospital once. It’s no fun.”

“Anyway, thanks.”

Benjamin filled two glasses and put them where Mando could reach them. He saw his parents at the other end of the ward. “Got to go, Mando. Get well quick.”

14.    JHS 189 – QUEENS

“IT’S BEEN TWO WEEKS SINCE THE RIOT,” said Alex at lunch. “No sign of Mando, and no drug searches either.”

“I saw Officer Washington the other day,” said Benjamin. “He said not to expect Mando. By the time he gets out this time, he’ll be over sixteen and won’t have to come back to school.”

“Can’t say anyone will miss him.” Alex tossed his sandwich to Jim, who threw an apple back.

“I dunno,” said Benjamin, peeling a banana. “He seemed kind of different in the hospital. Like he was thinking, y’know?”

“If you say so, Ben,” said Alex. “Sorry, I mean Benjamin.”

“That’s okay. I’m getting used to Ben – and Holster!”


The end

© 1993, 2022, JT Hine