The Juggler

Nov. 26, 2018
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Average Rating: 4.0
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A drop of water hit Basco in the eye, and he nearly dropped a steak knife.


Chianti yelped as his Basco’s balance wavered, and her hands gripped his ankles tight, pushing his shoes into her shoulders. He heard her mutter darkly beneath him, and he didn’t have to hear her words to know what she was saying. He couldn’t blame her. She was placing a lot of trust in him, after all; he was the one standing on her juggling five knives with his face turned towards the sky.


The pair was on a median in the middle of a busy street. Their third, Loran, walked among the idle cars at a traffic light, collecting money in an old orange suede hat. It was a dangerous routine, but one that drew in a lot of money for the seventeen year olds. They hadn't made much all day thanks to the intermittent rain, and they were growing desperate.

"Fifteen dollars," Loran called, running over just as Basco was catching his knives. Blond waves fell over his bright blue eyes as he peered into the hat. "That makes sixty so far. We gonna try another light?"


"Maybe one more," said Basco, moving his knives to one hand to push his dark hair out of his face. "It's gonna rain again soon. And my knives are getting wet."


"Is that why you almost dropped one?" Chianti asked.


Basco's dark eyes widened in surprise. "You noticed that?"


Chianti loosened her hold on Basco and he jumped down easily. "You nearly fell off my shoulders, menso," she said with mock severity, slapping his shoulder with the back of her hand. A fat raindrop fell on her arm, and as she examined it, more fell, signaling the start of another storm.


"Pinche rain," Chianti cursed, glaring up at the sky. "Guess there's no more shows tonight. Split it, Loran."


"I'll stay out longer," said Basco, watching Loran's quick fingers divide the money evenly.


"You don't wanna cut your finger off," Chianti warned as she pocketed her share. "And how're you gonna collect money by yourself?"


"I've done it before," said Basco. "I'll be okay."


Chianti looked at Basco, tugging doubtfully at her long dark braid. Loran pulled at her arm as he smashed his hat on his head. "C'mon, Basco'll be fine. We got enough to buy stuff at the store, so they can't kick us out while we wait the rain out."


"Listen to Loran, you know he's the smartest." Basco gave Chianti an encouraging smile, and she finally relented, allowing Loran to lead her across the median. Basco watched as they waited for a break in traffic before crossing the street towards a line of concrete buildings with doors and windows cut into them. Loran's pale hair and face stood out nearly as much as Chianti's bright teal dress in the growing gloom.


Basco wrapped his knives in an old shirt before stowing them in his backpack. He knew a good intersection that was always busy, even in the rain. It was in a touristy part of New Leon, which meant lots of people tipped there, even if they didn't give much.


The buildings grew taller and newer as he got closer to his spot, fewer concrete walls and more made of brick or steel or stone. The lights got brighter, the clothes got weirder, and the crowds thicker. Here, you could walk into someone from anywhere you could imagine.


It was pouring rain by the time Basco got set up at his chosen intersection, and everyone who might have stuck around to watch had ducked into shops and restaurants. Still, Basco threw up his knives just as the light turned red.


Fifteen minutes passed before someone finally gave him one dollar, but Basco kept going, never missing a beat, never fumbling a knife. If there was anything he prided himself upon, it was never dropping something he was juggling.


He considered giving up and going home, but remembering that he only had nine dollars to go before he could buy his great-aunt Marya's medication rooted him to the spot. He would stop when he got to forty dollars, he told himself. The thought made his stomach turn; forty dollars wouldn’t be enough to buy any food for his great-aunt Marya and his little brother Dante for tomorrow, but he still needed time that night to do his homework and cook. Basco couldn't afford to fail; he wouldn't be allowed to apply for internships if he did.


Maybe if he gave them his share of dinner, he thought, it'd last them the whole following day. Basco himself would have to go without much to eat until he got more money juggling after school, but as long as it didn't rain, that was doable. It wouldn't be the first time he spent the day hungry.


Twenty minutes later, he had thirty-five dollars in his pocket, and it was raining harder than ever. Only one or two cars stopped at any given light, and few wanted to open their windows and get soaked to help him. Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled, but Basco kept juggling, his jaw clenched and his throat tight.


He only needed five dollars. Just five dollars.


An expensive black car stopped beside him and rolled its passenger window down.


"Get in."


Basco caught his knives as he strained to look into the window. The darkness inside seemed to swallow the light. He couldn’t even make out an outline.


"Why?" he finally asked.


The driver's side window rolled down next, and hand wielding a gun bled out of the darkness. Basco froze.


"I'll give you those last five dollars, Basco," the voice promised. It sounded like a woman’s voice. "I'll even leave you at the pharmacy. Just get. In.”


Basco's heart pounded painfully as his eyes went from the gun to the dark void where the woman's voice came from. He might be able to run fast enough to keep from getting shot, but she knew how much money he had and where he had to go next. How did she know that? What else did she know about him?


"Your address is 82 Luz Drive," the woman said, as if reading his mind. "Dante's going to worry if you don't get home soon."


Basco knew he had no choice, then, and packed his things. Closing the door behind him, he turned towards the mysterious woman. The frail light coming in through the tinted windows gave him nothing but her silhouette.


"What d'you want with me?" he asked gruffly as the car moved forward. He hugged his backpack to his chest and scowled out the window, his clothes sticking uncomfortably to his skin.


"Basco Fernandez," she said, and for the first time, Basco noticed she had the same accent he did. She was from New Leon, too. "Seventeen. Graduating in three months and already applying for internships in the mayor's office, even though you're too young. Your parents died two years ago in a fire. You live with your great-aunt Marya, who has arthritis, diabetes, and suffered a stroke in June. Your little brother Dante is ten years old, and likes cars, especially red ones."


A chill went through Basco that had nothing to do with the rain. Despite knowing all he’d see was darkness, he couldn’t help but turn his gaze back to her.


"I am Doña Ochoa," said the woman. She lit a cigarette, the tiny flame giving Basco a brief glimpse of her face. Shadows rested on her cheekbones and forehead, sculpting her into a marble statue. "I'm sure you've heard of me."


"You lead the Agiad Dynasty," Basco said faintly. "They run the city."


"Very good," said Doña Ochoa, and drew a breath from her cigarette. "What else do you know?"


"The Agiad Dynasty controls almost everything going in and out of the city, especially drugs and alcohol. The state and federal government doesn’t want to touch you. The only power that ever stands against you is the mayor's office." Basco's grip on his backpack tightened as hot anger boiled up inside of him. "And you burn down anything that stands in their way."


"One last thing.” She blew smoke out into the car cabin, the smell dark and sweet. “What else do they call me?"


Basco licked his lips. "The Juggler."


"Excellent." A light switched on, and Basco blinked, temporarily blinded. A tan woman with perfectly painted red lips studied him, smiling. Her suit alone was worth his house, he was sure of it. With his old, soaked clothes; dirty backpack; and uncut hair, Basco felt poorer than he ever had in his life.


"What do you want with me?" he asked, hoping to sound demanding. Instead, his voice sounded as small as he felt.


Doña Ochoa gave Basco an amused look. "Plucky, no? What do you think, Manuelo?"


The driver grunted.


"I knew you were a good choice," said Doña Ochoa serenely.


"Choice?" Basco repeated, his palms beginning to sweat. "For what?"


"Basco - of course I can call you Basco, we're among friends - I have been watching you for quite some time. Do you know why they call me the Juggler?"


She sure liked to ask questions, Basco thought. "Because you can handle everything at once."


"Yes," she said, taking another drag of her cigarette and exhaling. Basco smothered a cough. "But did you know I also like to juggle?"


Basco's eyebrows shot up.


"I'm very good, but I hear you're the best juggler in town," she said. “Do you think this is true?"


"I gotta be," Basco said before he could stop himself.


This time Doña Ochoa's eyebrows were the ones that were raised. "And why is that?"


"If I'm not, we don't eat."


There was a silence during which Basco was convinced he'd just signed his own death warrant. He jumped when the silence was punctured not by a gunshot, but by laughter.


"Ay, you're much funnier than Manuelo!" Doña Ochoa wiped an invisible tear from her eye. "Well, I'm not sure you're better than I am, but you're definitely better than the idiots that work for me. Pendejos."


"What did you choose me for?" Basco asked again. "For a juggling contest?"


"Forget about that internship at the mayor's office," Doña Ochoa said seriously, snapping out of her good humor. "Come work for me instead."


Basco’s mouth fell open like a fish. Work for her? For the Agiad Dynasty? The question shot a flare of fury into his chest, and he rounded on her.


"You're a murderer!" he snarled, forgetting the danger he was in. "You're the reason my parents are dead, and why our shop is gone!"


"That was unfortunate," Doña Ochoa said, tapping cigarette ashes into a tray built into the door. "They should have just given me the food I requested. It was for a good cause. Instead they tried to hire a hitman against me, and my bodyguard at the time took it too far. He can no longer cause such problems."


"You just wanted it for your gangs," Basco spat, his face contorting in fury. "And my parents would never do that, so don't you dare - "


It only took a sharp quirk of her brow to shut Basco up. "I wanted it for Los Reyes," she said, voice cool. "Surely you've heard of it. It's only the biggest homeless shelter in the city. Chianti lives there right now, doesn't she? And Loran lived there, too, last year."


Basco glared at Doña Ochoa, struggling to keep his temper in check. He couldn’t afford to piss her off when she knew so much about everyone he loved.


"Who do you think made sure you found Marya, hm? It wasn't the social worker." Doña Ochoa sighed, leaning back into her seat. "The problem with people is they don't understand how the city works. You think you can make a change by working for the mayor. You're wrong."


"Mayor Gamoa is a good man, not corrupt like you!" Basco was unable to control how loud his voice was growing. "He would never - "


"Gamoa is mine. Here," she said, pulling out a cell phone. "Let me show you."


She pressed a button and the phone rang. A moment later, a voice Basco knew from the news came out of the speaker.


"Doña Ochoa!" sang the mayor. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"


"The empanada place you suggested was shit," said Doña Ochoa, her voice teasing. "You need to learn what empanadas should actually taste like."


"I'm sorry! Shall I send a health inspector to shut it down?"


"No, no. No need for that," Doña Ochoa assured him. "But next time, make sure a place is actually good before you send me there to spend money. I don't want to pay to eat trash when I can get that for free off the street."


"I'll find you a better place, I promise!" Gamoa simpered, so desperate to please it made Basco sick.


"Thank you, Mayor Gamoa, I'll talk to you later." She hung up on him without waiting for his response and turned to Basco with a smirk. "Be my protégé. Either way you'll be doing what I say, so might as well skip the middle man."


Basco tuned her out, eyes as lost as his thoughts. He had looked up to Mayor Gamoa, idolized him: Gamoa had been poor, too, barely making enough as a bus boy to pay for his siblings' education. In the end, he had won his position fair and square in a world filled with dirty games, and was fighting to clean up the streets for future generations. Or, at least, Basco had thought so. Now he wondered if Mayor Gamoa was really just a poor kid desperate for money and power who had won the jackpot and would do anything to keep it.


"Basco," said Doña Ochoa briskly. "Do you remember how last year, Gamoa passed legislation that cut school tuition in half for the poor?"


Basco nodded numbly.


"I paid for that," she said. "I bribed everyone into passing it. Because those crooks known as politicians are worse than any hitman I've ever hired."


Basco stared out the tinted window.


"Did you know every city in the region ran out of vaccines last winter because the state government couldn't pay for them? Who do you think smuggled them into New Leon? People complained about the high prices, but no one noticed that there were people coming in from miles away because you couldn't get them anywhere else."


"Why..." Basco began, struggling to keep up, "why're you telling me this?"


Doña Ochoa gave him a sad smile. "I've been an orphan since I was ten. The Don before me was orphaned at eleven, and the Doña before him at fifteen. I could go back further. All of us survived by juggling on the streets for cash. The Agiad Dynasty is a dynasty of poor orphans, Basco, who choose each other because only the vulnerable know what the most vulnerable of people need. And all of us were expert jugglers, because we prided ourselves on never dropping a thing. The crime is just part of the show, because who better to control crime than the people who hate it most?"


She locked eyes with Basco, and he found he couldn't look away. Her eyes were the same shade of brown as his.


"You are the best juggler in the city after me," she said quietly. "In every sense of the word. You want to make a difference? I'm giving you the chance. But you only get one.”


The car had stopped outside of the pharmacy. The rain had stopped, and Basco could see through the window the shelf where his great-aunt's medication sat waiting for him. He had enough to pay for a week's worth. It was still only one of the many, many medicines she needed.


"It's eight," Manuelo announced from the driver's seat.


Dante would be wondering where he was. He must be hungry; he was still too afraid of fire to use the stove by himself. Basco needed to get home. But more than that, he needed someone to tell him if this was the right thing to do. He needed money, and power, and the ability to help the people he loved. He had none of that.


“Time to make a decision, Basco.”




Basco turned to back to Doña Ochoa. "When do we start?"

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Clear prose and engrossing concept!
naricorn rated this work:

Nov. 27, 2018, 6:34 p.m.

Love how you start the piece with so much motion! Your prose rings clear and reads fluidly. There are hardly ever awkwardly constructed sentences that take me out of the story. You have such balanced descriptions of characters, giving me just enough so I can visualize key features and fill in the blanks without rattling off a list of descriptions.

Doesn't the first paragraph imply that Chianti notices Basco almost dropped his knife? And that Basco knows, since he hears her mutter darkly? How did Basco get into juggling? Surely someone must have taught him. Unless you're saying the dynasty all turned to the activity organically. Is knife juggling common in this setting? If so, that detracts from the uniqueness of the dynasty heads.

If Dona Ochoa is the reason why Basco's parents are dead, wouldn't he have brought it up earlier before she asks him to work for her?

Mayor Gamoa being in Dona Ochoa's pocket was unexpected and a nice twist, and I appreciate how this story wrestles with the theme of good and evil in relation to the law. The way you subtly point out similarities between Dona Ochoa and Basco--i.e. their eyes and accents--as the conversation progresses is also a nice touch.

Again, loved the story! A lot of these are minor details. I see why this won the competition.

Comment Rating: 5.0

Strong storytelling
baileym rated this work:

Jan. 21, 2019, 9:20 a.m.

The theme I grabbed onto after finishing is summed up in your big of dialogue, "who better to control crime than the people who hate it most?" I think you did a great job with character motivation in a very economical way. The pacing is superb, the reader understands quickly that the character has a choice to make and makes it by the end of the story. The circumstances are contained and the language and paragraphs easy to breeze through. The specificity and simplicity I think are your strongest suits here, when used to deploy an intriguing plot and characters. There were only a few phrasing issues that gave me brief pause, but your storytelling is clear and so these were minor problems for me. This is clearly a strong excerpt for a larger story, and you know how to tease a reader into wanting more!


Comment Rating: 5.0

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My who-knows-who-many-th reread of this story, and I wanted to say THAT's the word I was thinking of when I left my review so long ago. Economical! And I loved that piece of dialogue, too.

Please give me more I beg you
procrastinator_extraordinaire rated this work:

Nov. 27, 2018, 4:44 p.m.

Hi there and first of all thank you for putting this up for free for us to read!
I really enjoyed reading this, I have to say, especially towards the end!

There were a few small hiccups that you might want to think about altering.

I am by no means a professional, so take this with a grain of salt, but I'll just chronologically list what I noticed while reading :)

I particularly struggled with the first paragraph (tho this might have just been me).
"A drop of water hit Basco in the eye, and he nearly dropped a steak knife."

Maybe "one of the steak knifes" for clarity? if you want to keep it mysterious until the explanation I respect that too, but it threw me off ("why not the steak knife? why a ?")

"Chianti yelped as his Basco’s balance wavered, and her hands gripped his ankles tight, pushing his shoes into her shoulders. "

I think you meant to write either his or Basco's, personally I would choose Basco's for clarity bc I wouldn't know immediately that Chianti is the name for a girl and then I could think the "his" refers to Chianti.

They hadn't made much all day thanks to the intermittent rain, and they were growing desperate.
this is a super small thing, but the thanks to is quite the positive construction and maybe something like due to would fit better? Though of course thanks to can be used very sarcastically. Is this the case here?

In general in your place I would have a look again at your descriptions. It's something we all do: adjectives, adverbs and show don't tell. example: Basco's dark eyes widened in surprise. "You noticed that?" If you delete the "in surprise", the reader will still get the general feeling, but you are showing not telling. This is one of the issues found throughout the text, also with speech descriptions (warned when said would suffice bc it's clear, etc.) (but to be fair, I don't have a big problem with this, sometimes it's nice to be told imo and can enrich a story. so just think about it and change it maybe at a few key places)

for some reason "It was pouring rain by the time Basco got set up at his chosen intersection" just sounds a bit off to me, mabye leave out rain? idk tbh

"The driver's side window rolled down next, and hand wielding a gun bled out of the darkness." a hand + bled doesn't really fit imo

Basco knew he had no choice, then, and packed his things.
the packing part sounds a bit off

"And you burn down anything that stands in their way." who is "their" referring to? couldn't figure that out, threw me out of the story. The Dynasty?

This was everything I found in two read-throughs. I hope there was something useful in between there!
Overall, the text was engaging, had a good balance of exposition, character and plot and honestly just makes me want more :)

Comment Rating: 4.67

Straightforward. I want the noir film.
SethLaRue rated this work:

Dec. 2, 2018, 2:19 p.m.

It's just a tad cliche in a mostly fun way. I don't know. It's written well, and the dialogue is smooth. I think you don't give the Dona enough character maybe, but she's not boring or anything. Same with Basco. Anyway, it'd be a great movie probably. Car in the rain, lighting a cigarette in the back of a black car. Atmosphere. Great shots. It's hard to do that as well in a short story. For one, you make Basco so bold in denouncing her, there should be tension in that boldness. The driver could pull a gun. She could pull a gun. Anything really. I mean if this really is the murderer of his parents I wouldn't mind having his mind drift to the knives in his bag. It just needs more happening for this to be the whole dang movement.

Comment Rating: 4.5

Kitsy rated this work:

Jan. 21, 2019, 12:40 p.m.

First off, having juggling be an integral part of the story is unique and makes it interesting. The characters all seem to play off of each other well and their dialogue reads naturally. I can imagine like it movie in my head, which to me is the sign of a good story.

I just want more description, make it richer, make it feel real. This place sounds interesting and I want to be able to create the image of it in mind clearly. There are some that you give that are great. I love the description of the Don lighting her cigarette in the car. That bit shows how you want to create your atmosphere, I'd say just slow down and linger some of making the space and the people more three dimensional and personalized.

There are some great lines in here too. I really love "The crime is just part of the show, because who better to control crime than the people who hate it most?" It's definitely setting up a theme that I could see carrying on if this work was continued.

I'd love to see this carried on and see all the twists and turns of this city, how it works and what happens to your juggler. Thanks for sharing this!


Comment Rating: 4.0

Strains credibility
GeoB rated this work:

Feb. 7, 2019, 11:30 a.m.

I liked the spine of the story--a mobster using street performers, but when it’s revealed the big gang has always been run by orphan jugglers, and they’re recruiting Basco to be the next Don, I think the narrative loses credibility. To me, it just seems a bit too contrived.

I liked the imagery. And I liked the crisis Basco faces trying to feed his family and buy the medicines his grandmother requires; this sets up the potential for some nice conflict. Even the mechanical problems I noticed can be easily fixed, but juggling orphan mobsters? I really find that plot device hard to swallow.


Comment Rating: 3.0

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"Spine of the story" is such a cool phrase. I think I might try it out sometime. Personally, I just accepted that juggling might be the most common activity for children on the street (I wasn't sure how Basco got into juggling.) But I'm not sure, when it's revealed all the dynasty heads were jugglers, whether scbonifaz intended that in a literal sense.

I loved this!
DrKinchi rated this work:

Feb. 12, 2019, 2:01 p.m.

This was an amazing start to a promising novel! I can't wait to read more. Though I was first confused with the beginning, when Basco was introduced as a knife juggler, I was later pleasantly surprised with such an original, creative occupation; it certainly makes Basco way more interesting and loveable already.

I appreciated already having so much information in this introduction, but the thing that bothered me a bit was that it was mostly in the dialogue. I think it would have fit much better in Basco's internal monoluge (in some parts, of course), rather than in another character's dialogue. But then again, it fit VERY well throughout most of the text, and I loved every bit of it. Can't wait to read more!


Comment Rating: 3.0