For my little brother/Confinement
|For my little brother by Enoch Leung
The handcuffs dug into my wrists, which throbbed with every step I took. The police officer who had brandished the baton marched beside me, toting an assault rifle in his hands. In front of me was a uniformed guard seated behind a thick wooden desk, complete with peaked cap and polished boots. He wore spectacles and a dour look. "Name?" he asked.
I swallowed a lump in my throat. I dared not lie, eyeing the gun the cop had. "Garrett Tañag, sir."
"And your crime?"
"Stealing from a jewellery store, sir."
The guard removed his glasses and scoffed. "Seems like eight out of every ten child inmates are in here for thievery. What, have parents nowadays completely failed at educating their kids on how to pay for their own shit?"
His comment seemed to be directed more at the cop, who answered, "Many of these kids are orphans. That explains their ignorance."
"Shame," the guard said sarcastically. He paused to take a sip from his water bottle. "You have any parents?" he said to me.
"Yes sir — my mother."
"Must be either the mother refusing to teach or the kid refusing to learn," the cop said. "Or maybe an uncanny mixture of both."
The guard smiled smugly. "Well kid, lemme start by telling you that the streets are no safe place for anyone to be. We're doing you a favour by locking you up in here; we're keeping you outta trouble." He leaned back. "And if you haven't gotten it through your thick skull by the time you walk out of this prison, you're coming straight back."
The cop produced a key from his belt and began to remove my handcuffs. They tightened, and I resisted.
"Quit squirming around," the cop ordered, "unless you wanna spend your entire life in these."
I tried not to move as the cuffs tightened again. I gritted my teeth in pain, trying hard not to cry out. I caught a glimpse of the guard, who was mildly amused at my suffering. Soon, the cuff on my left hand came off. I brought it up in front of me. An ugly red mark took the place of where the cuff was.
"And hold still!" the cop growled.
I bore holes into the guard with my eyes, directing all my physical reactions to pain towards my teeth, gnashing them so hard I thought they would break, trying not to give him the satisfaction of witnessing my pain. He wasn't at all affected, and even laughed at what he called my "feeble attempt at being tough." Finally, after what seemed like forever, the second cuff was gone. My right hand had a matching red mark; together, my hands looked like they had been flogged.
"The guards at this prison already have enough shit to deal with," the cop said as he holstered his equipment. "Don't give them any more of your antics." And with that, the cop turned around and headed out the door, his assault rifle still in his hands.
Now it was just me and the guard...
"Gregory!" he barked, and a second guard appeared. "Welcome our newest resident to the complex."
The prison had no uniforms, no bathroom amenities, not even any beds. Inmates were packed into cramped, rectangular cells with concrete walls and floors. An overflowing slop bucket in the corner served as an unpleasant, yet unavoidable, toilet. Some cells had short chairs and tables, and many had shelves tucked against the walls which served as impromptu beds. Still others had no furniture whatsoever, forcing their inhabitants to sleep on the floor. A few cells were so cramped that prisoners took turns sleeping and standing. Two guards pushed me along the corridors, their batons drawn ready to neutralize me in the event I try to escape. To both my right and left were cells, each of them filled with people, some rattling the bars, others sulking behind them. The ones on my right contained only males, while the left seemed to have been intended for female prisoners, though I was surprised to see a number of males in there as well.
"This is where you go if you don't grow up," one of the guards said. "We're showing you this now so you'll know better than to fuck up again when you're out of this place."
"And get this — boys are more likely to wind up back here than girls," the second one added. "That's why we ran out of room for 'em, not that we're running a fraternity in here."
I would later learn that I, in fact, had been considerably lucky to wind up in this prison, where adults were separated from children, and males from females. Many prisons lacked such a structure, often placing young children with fully grown men. Abuse of all kinds were in no short supply, and those who survived the ordeal suffered permanent mental and often physical damage. Until then, though, I was under the impression that I had been sentenced to Hell on Earth, second only to hell itself.
The guards stopped in front of a cell. "Everyone up!" one of them barked. Immediately, everyone in the cell began to scramble; those who were seated immediately stood up, those on the shelves immediately got off. All of them formed haphazard ranks that stretched the entire width of the cell, down to the rear wall. Everyone inside was male, many my age, some younger, some older, but nobody over the age of 18. A few of the children looked frightened, afraid of what might happen next. Many others simply stared straight ahead, their eyes and faces hardened, as if they were made out of cement.
"Might be able to fit one more in here," one of the guards commented after doing an inattentive headcount. "Bet all the other cells here are like this."
The other guard shrugged. "Not in the mood for a walk today." He began to unlock the door to the cell. "Congratulations," he said sarcastically to the inmates, "you've earned yourself a new friend."
I was shoved inside. "Don't start any shit," the guard said. The door was locked and the two left, leaving me alone with my new "cellmates".
I was nothing special. New inmates arrived at the prison on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis. As soon as the two guards were out of sight, the other boys broke out of their trance and resumed doing what they had been doing earlier. A few of them, all of which I supposed were also new, still had their eyes on me, though none of them offered any comfort or reassurance.
I seated myself by the wall and sulked. Things couldn't have gotten worse than what I had anticipated. First I left home and my brother in a flood of emotional tears, then I spent a night on my own on the streets, followed by Dodger picking me up and bringing me into his gang. I had been beaten as part of my "training", saw two distressing scenes that I could not get out of my mind, discovered where my older brother went, and almost had to fight in a gunfight with a knife. I was surrounded by police, abandoned by Marcos and Lewis as I was struck, roughed up, and handcuffed. Now I was here for a length of time only God knows. I may never be able to get home again; my mission was a failure. I'm sorry Evan... looks like you'll have to be a scavenger for the rest of your life now...
Evan... Oh God, I'm sorry Evan, I let you down!
The tears began to build up behind my eyes, burning like hot fire. No... not now. Not with those other boys watching! I clenched my fists and gritted my teeth, and after some effort, managed to get the tears to retreat. Think about something else... Something other than the-one-who-must-not-be-named.
The slop bucket. I needed to go. Badly. There was no privacy to be had, no doors or curtains to hide behind. Anyone who needed to go did it in plain sight of everyone else.
I covered my face and thought of Evan instead, catching the tears in my hands as they fell.
Night fell, and soon the other boys were beginning to retire for the day, though the cramped, crowded cell made sleep more of a joke than a reality. There were no beds, only shelves without pillows or blankets. There wasn't enough space for everyone, forcing most of the boys to sleep on the floor. The heat and humidity of the climate made it a blessing for one to get the cool, concrete floor, and unsurprisingly, the older, more influential boys enjoyed tolerable temperatures on the ground, while the younger, less fortunate ones got the upper shelves. If a younger boy, who lacked any influential friends in the upper ranks, tried to sleep in a spot on the floor reserved for a more senior inmate, they would be forced to do whatever the older boys thought would be a suitable "punishment", whether it be downright physical assault or having to sleep near the slop bucket. At best, the boy would just be thrown back onto the shelves; at worst, they'd be huddled by the bucket, clutching their body in pain as it throbbed from being kicked and beaten mercilessly.
I was new — "fresh meat" — and without a doubt, I got the upper shelves as my bed, though I hardly called it such. The shelf was just wide enough to fit me; it was not possible to sleep along the length of the shelf due to the sheer quantity of occupants. Everyone was packed in like sardines, with barely enough room to move around. Turn too much, and you'll bump into the person sleeping next to you. Be too careless when getting off, and a drop to the ground will ruin any hopes for a peaceful night. And regardless of how bad the urge is, never pass any gas, or your neighbours will never forgive you. But even if you were used to the uncomfortable shelf, the too-close-for-comfort embrace, and the gravity-based wake-up technique, and even if you managed to hold in whatever wanted to come out the other end, there was one thing that was impossible to escape: Heat.
You'd think that, growing up in a country that was 14 degrees from the equator, heat would be something I'd be used to, but nothing could get me used to what I was in now. When you're stuck in a tightly packed prison cell with eighty other boys, when the two boys next to you are literally only a hairline away, and when you're all sweating and breathing and trying to sleep, nights become an absolute hell. It was more comfortable sleeping on the streets than it was in here.
I slept on-and-off, with more off than on. When I did sleep, my dreams were fragmented and distorted, consisting of almost unrecognizable images. Occasionally, though, I was able to recognize a few familiar scenes. I could see my mother preparing a meal of pagpag for us to eat. My father came home through the front door, his earnings for the day in his hands. He would go over to my mother and kiss her lightly on the cheek, and she would smile at it, a mixture of 'I'm glad you're home, sweetheart' and 'Now why don't you go and help me make dinner instead of flattering me?' in her expression. Julio would chat with his dad, joking and laughing, talking about things other than our house, the food, or the mountain. My mother would make sure Evan ate every little bit of food on his plate, and would scold him when he didn't. When we were done eating, Evan would play with me, climbing up my arms and shoulders like a cat until I flipped him upside-down and held him there as he squealed. Oftentimes we simply sat together, enjoying each other's presence even if we exchanged no words. When he had a bit more energy, he would wrestle with me, which was an interesting challenge given how little space we had. Oftentimes I got the upper hand, being that I was four years older than he was, and it wasn't hard for me to win. To keep him happy, I let him win every once in a while, deliberately being weak or letting opportunities slide by so he could get a hold of me, make me tap out, and pretend to be a gold-winning athlete. Sometimes we'd make a mess and our mother would glare at us, making us clean up after ourselves; but after we finished we continued the fight outside, getting a few scrapes and bruises here and there. If Evan didn't win, he would usually try to claim victory one more time before bed, sneaking up behind me and squeezing his arms around my neck until I tapped.
Oh, how I remembered those days, the days when we had plenty of love and joy to go around. We were still poor, still had to eat pagpag and scrounge the mountain for scraps, but we were together, that's what mattered. All Evan needed was us.
First my father, then Julio. Now me.
I woke up, my eyes wet with tears. Doing my best not to jab my sleeping neighbours, I wiped them with my hand and tried to go back to my dream. The heat was unbearable; I was thirsty, my mouth felt like fur, my throat parched like a desert. I was bathed in sweat, sweat that could not evaporate, leaving me drenched in something that could not cool me off. I looked down at the ground, wishing I could sleep there. Even though all the "lucky" boys there had arms and legs crisscrossed around them, entangled in an unsightly human web due to the lack of space, I figured it must've been better, or at least cooler, than the shelves.
Can't sleep up here... What time is it? ... I'm tired, so tired... but yet I can't sleep! ... Maybe I should risk it and go sleep on the ground ... No, I can't, it's too crowded down there. And I'm not sleeping by the slop bucket.
The slop bucket. I had been holding it in for hours now, the urge getting bigger and bigger as the minutes passed. The heat was one thing, sleeplessness was one thing. Together, they were a bad enough combination already. Now I had one more thing to juggle...
Oh fine. I'll do it.
I slowly muscled my way over the edge, trying not to wake anybody in the process. I hauled myself over very gently, moving at a snail's pace. By the time I felt the ground with my toes, my arms were on fire, having carried the weight of my body for what seemed like forever. Tiptoe over the sleeping masses. And soon, I was at the slop bucket. It smelled the worst at night, as the bucket was only emptied in the mornings, leaving an entire day's worth of human excrement to rot overnight. I was over it now, the stench making me want to vomit.
Christ, this is harder than I thought.
I fumbled slightly before I was able to get it out and begin relieving myself. My back tingled, as if it were being watched by a million pairs of eyes. Even though the bucket was in the corner, I felt naked, almost exposed, like I was smack in the middle of the room. I swallowed, hoping to control myself. Get yourself together, I said to myself. You're almost done... almost done...
The trickling of water ceased. I pulled my shorts back up and dusted them off. Now to get back without anyone noticing. I began to retrace my steps, tiptoeing back to where I slept. Over a limb, over a head, over a hand. My movements were slow, almost stealthy, like that of a spy. Soon, my tedious bathroom trek was almost over. It had taken me well over forty minutes for a simple pee.
The light at the end of the tunnel drew me in, like gravity drawing a falling aircraft towards the ground. I took a step and landed on something soft yet firm, fleshy yet tough...
I looked down. I had just stepped on someone's stomach. His sharp exclamation of pain shattered the silence of the night, stirring everybody awake. The other boys had begun to turn their heads and eyes to look at me. Oh great... and I thought I was being watched before!
"Sorry," I whispered. "That was an accident."
The boy coughed. "It's fine." He tried to roll over to get into a more comfortable position, but his packed neighbours made it an impossibility. "Just... just let me sleep it off."
I climbed up the shelf, back to my own spot. I felt prying eyes staring at me from the darkness, like eyes peering out from dark caves. I lay down and waited, waiting for everyone to go back to sleep. The heat was still unbearable, I was still thirsty, and I was sweating more than ever, but at least I had answered the call of nature. I put my head down and squeezed my eyelids shut, trying to go back home, to my family, to my brother.
To my little brother.
|For my little brother by Enoch Leung