In the days Ladez Hammalka was a young boy in an ancient roving Gypsy clan, he remembered hard times, tight belts and empty bellies. He remembered going with his mother to beg on a street corner when he was too young to be on his own. When he reached nine years old, he was sent to find his own street corner along with his brothers and sisters. His mother sometimes went with his father, sometimes on her own, for the more members of their family were out there, the more they would come home with. Living on the public’s kindness, some nights everybody went to bed hungry.
The Gypsies had no communal property, everything belonged solely to their respective families. There was a code the Gypsies lived by; while they were not above swindling and conning their respective marks, thievery from another within the clan was not tolerated. Ladez Hammalka remembered the screams of those who had found out the hard way as their thieving fingers were severed, before being turned out of the clan for good. But mostly Ladez Hammalka remembered the nights he could not sleep, staring at the ceiling of their tent, hunger growling inside him like a wolf, rocks beneath his back getting larger by each hungry hour. Sometimes he fainted.
The man who called himself the leader of the clan was a weak individual named Hurfong Sammenz who had been in the position for as long as Ladez had been alive. The rest of the clan possessed no individuals who wanted the responsibility and so they blindly followed Sammenz. They wandered aimlessly across the country, crisscrossing it at random, sometimes buried in snow in the mountains or dehydrating in the desert in August. The older and weaker members of the clan had started expiring before mutterings of removing their leader reached his ears. Rather than take a chance on a violent coup, Sammenz vanished in the night, taking with him as many valuables as he could easily lay his hands on.
Without a leader, the clan began loosely drifting apart, finally going their own separate ways. The Hammalka family, crammed into two large vans along with everything they owned, never stayed in one place for more than a week before they were told to “move along.” Sometimes these warnings came through official channels; sometimes one of Ladez’s brothers came back to their camp with a broken arm or one of his sisters returned home with a black eye and a split lip, refusing to make eye contact. Then it was time to cram all eight children and all of everyone’s possessions into the two vans again. Over the years as the family grew and the children did likewise, their food situation became more and more dire. More often, all the food went to Mother, who was expecting their next sibling and was eating for two.
One night, Ladez heard Mother and Father talking outside the tents at night, when they thought the children were all asleep.
“…can’t go on much longer…”
The voices dropped lower than he could hear, and he fell asleep before he heard another word.
The next day, the family stopped at a gas station. His parents seemed anxious, glancing at him frequently as the rest of the kids hopped out of the vans, stretching their legs. Elbowing his siblings out of the way, Ladez ran for the store, his stomach churning. Last night, they had eaten from the dumpster of a deli that threw out all its unsold perishable food at closing time. Something had upset his stomach and he was not even sure he could get into the bathroom before everything unloaded in his pants. Bursting through the door, he looked around wildly.
The clerk looked up from the register. “Paying customers only.”
“I’ll buy somethin’, PLEASE…” Ladez said as his stomach gave another almighty creak and groan.
Another eternal moment as the clerk considered, then nodded towards the back door. “Out the door and to the left.”
Ladez sprinted out the back door and turned left, sobbing with relief as he saw the bathroom door, unoccupied and open.
When he was certain he was finished, he walked gingerly around the back of the building, picking his way through the overgrowth to make sure the clerk wouldn’t catch sight of him. He was so focused on avoiding the clerk that when he saw his family’s vans pulling out of the station and back onto the main road, it didn’t register until he saw the empty spaces at the pump where the vans had sat. He forgot the burning of his sphincter as he sprinted after the vans on legs that were still weak, yelling hoarsely as they pulled further and further away. Coming to a halt, chest heaving, he watched them drive off down the road, out of his life forever.
Of course, Ladez didn’t know that yet. Returning to the gas station, he found a spot to wait where he could easily see them returning to pick him up, apologizing profusely for having left him in the commotion of getting everyone back in the car. He would be merciful, he decided, give them some hurt looks and maybe a tear. But he would not rake them over the coals. He loved his family too much for that.
The adult Ladez sat in his motorhome which still reeked of burned flesh. His hand throbbed where he had pierced it, and he flexed it, feeling the torn edges of the puncture knitting together slowly. In a few hours, it would be smooth and unmarked again.
A rapping at the door of the cruiser opened his eyes. His eldest daughter Zara peered in, her dark eyes wide. “Father?”
“Come, Zara. What have you?”
The girl entered the motorhome, shifting nervously from foot to foot. “There are more men here to see you.”
Ladez raised one bushy eyebrow. “Back for more?”
“They will not enter,” she said, glancing at the door as though to verify it. “They want you to come out and speak to them.”
Something in her tone awoke an uneasy feeling in Ladez, one he had not experienced often. “There is more. Tell me.”
“One of them is darkness,” she said, forking the sign of the Evil Eye at the door. “You should be careful of him.”
Zara had too often been proven correct in her analysis of strangers. This disquiet in her deepened the unease Ladez felt. He stood without speaking, opening the door and stepping out into the night.
There was a campfire burning outside the camper, casting yellow flickers of light on the faces of the two smaller men standing beside it. Their faces were blank and hard, their arms crossed over expensive suits. The third man towered behind them, a bulky shadow cloaked in darkness, exuding darkness. Ladez, who was nowhere near as sensitive to the auras of others as his daughter Zara, could feel the menace from the tall figure. Unbidden, a chill ran down his spine.
“What do ye want from me?” he asked, crushing his fear of the tall man down deep where they could not see it. “Do ye come to experience the burning, like yer friends?” He grinned, a smile so fake that the two men could easily tell.
“We have come to deliver you your last invitation,” Rocco said, his voice flat. “Return wid us to speak wid the Don, or Tony will ‘ave no choice but to make you.”
The towering figure shifted slightly. Ladez peered into the shadows but could make out nothing but a silhouette. He could smell the menace baking off the man, and tried to keep control of the conversation.
“And if I don’? You have no power here,” Ladez said dismissively. “I could turn ye to charcoal with a whisper of my will, all t’ree of you.”
Brando laughed and spat into the fire. “Try it.”
Piercing his palm again, Ladez flicked his hand at them and cried “Bur–!”
Before the word had left his lips, the silhouette had stepped forward, the fire casting light over his chest while leaving his face shrouded in black. Ladez let the word die unfinished as he saw his youngest son, three months old, dangling from the man’s enormous hand by his head. The man held the infant up, his arm straight out. Tendons in his hand stood out as his hand tightened on the child’s skull. Ladez could hear a sickening pop from inside the man’s hand.
“Now ‘e’s got brain damage,” Rocco said, flicking his cigarette into the fire. “Keep playing wid us and Tony will crush ‘is skull into pulp. Come wid us now, and your boy will just be a little slow in de head. Up to you, Pops.”
Rage and terror fought a bitter battle in Ladez, his child dangling from one enormous hand as the two men in the firelight smirked at him. Behind him, he could hear Zara weeping quietly.
“I come wi’ you, I have word dat dere be no damage to my family?” Ladez asked, fighting to keep the tremor from his voice.
“One t’ing at a time, gran’pa,” Brando said. “Let’s go talk to de Don an’ you can hear what he has t’say. Otherwise, Tony’s just getting started.”
Ladez looked over his shoulder at Zara, looking at him with red-rimmed streaming eyes. “Go, papa,” she moaned. “Or they kill us all.”
Turning back, Ladez nodded. “Release me son and I go wi’ you.”
“No, ‘e’ll be coming wid us, in case you get any ideas.” Brando grinned as Tony tucked the little body inside his jacket, where it made only the smallest of bulges.
Ladez ground his teeth together in impotent fury.
“After you, gramps,” Rocco said, stepping aside and gesturing magnanimously.