For my little brother/Criminal Hospitality
The Road Away from Home
|For my little brother by Enoch Leung
I woke up, stomach growling, head still pounding, but otherwise unable to sleep, for the sun's morning rays were boring holes through my eyelids.
Argh... my stomach... my head... my eyes...
Night seemed like hell. The air was hot, sticky, and polluted. There was virtually no end to the sounds of the city, the cars passing by, the people that roamed the streets. I woke up several times throughout the night to the sounds of conversation, cargo being moved, laughter, sometimes drunken. I knew that I was in plain sight of everyone, and occasionally I received the dirty look, but for the most part nobody really cared. To them, I was just one of thousands that live on the streets. I was as ordinary as the rice they ate every day.
Speaking of rice, I needed some. Badly. I got up and hobbled over to the trash can, hoping to find something. I couldn't, and I didn't.
Behind the building... look behind the building.
There was a dumpster tucked against the rear wall, looking almost somber in the morning light. It was filled, but I had to work quickly, before the garbagemen came and emptied it. It was an easy taxi home — just ride the truck back! — but I knew that was not an option for me. I lifted the lid, struggling with its weight, and, trying hard not to fall in, combed at whatever was within arm's reach. Anything, any food that was still edible, any sort of liquid that I could still drink, any pagpag. I still had no money, barely had the motivation or strength to steal right now. My luck had to turn.
Nothing was turning now, though. I untied the two bags closest to me and dug through. My hands brought up only crushed plastic, bits of Styrofoam, and pop cans. All the cans were empty, the plastic was clearly out of the question, and the Styrofoam...
The Styrofoam! The Styrofoam container! There was one, jutting out of a poorly-knotted garbage bag in the corner. I reached and reached, but I was too small, and my arms were too short. I crawled along the rim, trying to get over the container, though I had no action plan as to how I was going to fish it out of there. I could see it now, saw bits of bones poking out of the lid. Someone's dinner last night that they didn't manage to finish. I'll eat it if they won't eat it...
But I can't get it!
I clung tightly onto the edge and, trying to control my descent, lowered myself into the dumpster. It was dark, a powerful, putrid odour inhabiting the space, almost like home. I felt around with my feet, hoping to find some surface to stand on, but I could not feel anything. My arms were beginning to give; they had begun to shake alarmingly. I tried to pull myself out, but I had no strength. My fingers slipped, and I fell inside.
Trash. Lots of it. I had grown up on a landfill, digging through other people's refuse since I was a toddler, yet never before had I gone on a dumpster dive. The bags and their contents cushioned my fall, and had it not been for the metal contraption that had now swallowed me whole, I would've likened it to home.
Home... Home? Ha!
I cried for help, but I knew that even if someone heard me, they would not answer. No boy on earth would get himself into a dumpster except the hungriest, most desperate ones who lived on the streets. Who cares about them? Who honestly cares? They disrupt traffic, fill the sidewalks, clog the rivers with their sweaty bodies, pollute the public image of a city desperate to solve its internal problems. Who cares? No one! You were lucky if you were able to survive, because many didn't. The police didn't keep an eye out for our well-being; they were there to cleanse the streets of us, regardless of what it took to get there.
I was going to have to get out of there myself before I wound up inside the belly of a truck.
I opened the container. Much to my disappointment, there was less food in it than I had anticipated. I grabbed the bones and sucked at the scanty pieces of meat still clinging onto it. There was a little bit of rice, some beans that were losing their colour. Not enough for someone like me. Not even close. But it will have to do.
Trying again. I tried to jump, struggling to keep my balance from the unstable layers of haphazardly placed garbage bags under me. My fingers met the edge, but I was not strong enough, leaving only a few scratches and a loud, grating noise. I tried again, but I could not pull myself out of there. I tried to stack the bags of refuse up to form a step stool that I could use, but the bags were far too bulky and heavy, most of them being stuck or pinned underneath other bags, and soon I was too exhausted, tired from my ordeal, tired from hunger, tired of everything. I slunk back, panting and sweating, and for a moment I was ready to accept my fate, to be taken out with the trash. And if I didn't survive, my body would at least join my fellow scavengers back home...
"What's goin' on in there?"
I was startled, but too weak to even move.
"Who's in there? Huh? A scavenger, no doubt."
Footsteps. They were right outside the dumpster, could hear them clearly even in the muffled interior. I tried to sit up straight.
"Mute? Hey, no worries, didn't mean to scare ya. Just wanted to let you know that I saw a garbage truck turning the corner."
Uh oh. All of a sudden, a burst of energy surged through me, and I stood up, albeit on shaky legs. I'm not done yet. No, I'm not ready to die.
The dumpster darkened. A head appeared over the opening, peering inside, blocking some of the light from entering. "A kid?" he said. "How old are you?"
I hesitated. "T-T-Ten..." I stammered.
"Well then, ten-year-old boy, I have some news for you. There's a garbage truck driving up this very alley, all set to empty this dumpster's contents. You can either stay there and who knows what pile of shit you'll land in, or you can scram and get the hell out of here. What do you choose?"
I stiffened. "I'm getting out."
The face smiled. He threw one leg over the edge, sitting, "riding" on the edge like a horse. He extended a hand out to me. "Hold on if you want out."
I could hear the garbage truck now. It was backing up, the siren's repetitive beeping noise ringing through my ears. BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, it went, getting louder and louder with every passing second. I didn't know who the mysterious figure was, but I figured my life was worth the gamble. Desperate, I grabbed onto his hand and squeezed it firmly.
"I might pull your arms off," he began.
The beeping noise had begun to sting my ears.
"Just pull me out!" I said, desperate to avoid my fate.
He laughed. "Impatient dog." With a firm pull, he lifted me up and hauled me over the edge. I was so light that he was able to do it single-handedly. "God, you're a feather," he remarked as he dropped me.
I landed on the ground. My legs were still shaking. The siren had now grown to deafening proportions as the truck came to a halt. Two men emerged from the cab, having caught sight of the two of us. The boy who pulled me out — I could now see his face clearly in the sunlight — swung his feet over again and jumped down.
"Quit diggin' around in there, boy!" one of them called out.
"You got a death wish or somethin'?!" the second, I assumed was the driver, shouted. "You could die in there, y'know!"
I was too frightened — well, tired, really — to even speak, but the boy jumped right in. "Fuck off!" he barked. "Neither of you've ever been hungry enough to dig through shit looking for something to eat!"
"My day job is getting rid of this 'shit'!" the driver responded. "And you know what? I think you're shit too!"
The boy shoved him back roughly. "You'll regret every single word you've said in your life once I'm done with you," he seethed.
"Yeah? Go ahead and fight me, you fucking glue sniffer!"
The first one got in between the two. "Enough, enough! There's no need to get into a fight here." He turned to the boy. "Look, I got a wife and two children, a home with a hot shower and Internet, and a life unlike you. I'm not gonna throw it away because of a turdface!"
The boy's temper flared. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a dull, rouge-coloured stick, about the size of a flash drive. He clicked a button, and something shiny shot out, glistening in the daylight.
The first one immediately backed off, but the driver was not finished yet. "Yeah, go ahead and stab me! I'd like to see you try!" He cracked his knuckles and flexed his arms. "Winner survives and gets the truck, loser gets to bleed to death in this alley."
The two grappled each other, wrestling over the knife that would bring them victory. Aside from the rumbling of the truck's engine as it idled, the grunts and groans of the two fighters were the only sounds to be heard. They twisted, pulled, squeezed, and wound themselves up in unsightly human knots, occasionally getting the knife dangerously close to each other's throats. Finally, the first one mustered the courage to break them up. "Hell, we're behind schedule because of this stupid fight." He turned to his colleague. "Let's just go. It's not worth it." And to the boy he said, "You stay outta trouble, kid. Back when I was young, if you were caught out here twisting the law the cops would give you a warning. Now, they don't even bother with that. You do something stupid, and they'll just shoot you. Less paperwork, less red tape." The two returned to the truck, the driver still fuming. "And move out of the fucking way so we can empty that dumpster!"
The boy glared at them, but seemed to have no reason to disobey. He moved himself to the side of the alley and gave the truck room to take out the trash. The two of us watched silently, watched as the truck lifted the dumpster up into the air, watched as it liberated the contents into the hopper, watched as the truck lowered the dumpster back down with a bang. Neither of the two garbagemen looked at us the whole time. As the truck began to leave, the boy got up from his slouch on the wall and turned towards the truck. He held up a fist and, slowly but steadily, raised his middle finger.
"That's your name?"
"Not my real name, but that's what everyone calls me, so that's my name."
I had been talking to the boy who had pulled me out of that dumpster. He was five years older than me, sturdily built and well-rounded. He had several tattoos on his arms, and supposedly three under his shirt. I didn't find it necessary to ask to see it, though.
"So what's your name? And why were you in that dumpster?"
"My name's Garrett," I responded. "I was in the dumpster because I hadn't eaten anything the night before, looking for any pagpag I could find."
"You're a scavenger?"
"Got any parents?"
I didn't want to talk about my father.
"I'm asking about anyone else in your family."
Oh. "My brother... I have a younger brother."
"Huhm." He stopped walking to get a careful look at me. "The way you mention him, it seems you two have a thing together."
"I... I, uh..." It seemed bizarre that someone you met just an hour ago would act like they knew you well, could read your secrets and all the things you wouldn't explicitly mention.
I shook my head.
"I prefer not to say." I wasn't even going to lie to him, for fear that he would figure out.
He stopped at a crowded coffee shop. The aroma of food aggravated my stomach, which rumbled loudly. The measly scraps I had eaten weren't enough for my stomach to call a decent breakfast. He turned to me. "You hungry?"
Now there was definitely no need to lie there. "Very."
He came back out with two breakfast biscuits — one for me, one for himself. I unravelled the paper and took a bite into it immediately. Bacon, cheese, eggs. It all smelled and tasted so good, better than anything I would ever have been able to eat back at home. I felt guilty, for thinking of home reminded me of my younger brother. I was eating like a king — like my father and Julio probably were — while Evan and my mother were still stuck with pagpag. But this time, my stomach won me over, and I was so hungry, I wolfed the whole thing down in four bites.
"You seem hungry," Dodger commented with amusement. He had been watching me down the thing like a tiger at the sight of meat.
"I am," was the best reply I could compose.
In his other hand was a large paper cup, filled with coffee. He offered me a sip; I was so hungry, anything that could go into my stomach appealed greatly to me. I had never tasted coffee before. It was a mixture of acrid bitterness, mouth searing temperatures, sugary sweetness, and creamy milk. It was hot, and at first I couldn't taste anything. After a few more sips, the taste of coffee lingered in my mouth, clinging onto my teeth and tongue. It felt odd and wonderful at the same time.
"So tell me, why exactly are you here?" Dodger asked as he ate his own breakfast. "If you got yourself a loving mom and a little brother, why aren't you with them right now?"
I straightened up. "I'm here because of my brother... my younger brother."
His eyes lit up. "You got into a fight with him and hate his guts?"
"No... the opposite, actually."
"You love him so much that you just have to get away from him?" He was laughing softly to himself.
"Actually, I left because... I'm from Smokey Mountain."
"The dump site?"
"Yeah. That's why I'm a scavenger."
"Huh." He drank from his coffee. "What does that have anything to do with your brother?"
"I don't want my brother to be a scavenger. I want him to be able to grow up and get out of there, get out of that smoldering dump. I want him to be able to go to school, but if he doesn't scavenge, we can't get enough to eat. If I can scrape together money — any money, any amount — I hope I can get him what he wants, what I want for him."
He didn't say anything. He had leaned back on the wall, staring thoughtfully ahead, occasionally feeding himself his load of caffeine. "I'll do whatever it takes," I continued. "Just as long as I can come home to him again, I'll do it. Even if I'm cut and bruised."
For a few minutes, we were silent. His eyes were onto me, carefully making their close observations of me. His eyes were mostly fixated onto my face, though what he was looking for specifically, I did not know. Finally, he discarded his empty packaging and stood up. "Stick with me and I'll see what I can do for ya."
I got up as well. "Where are we headed?"
"Not so fast." He was studying me again. "You don't know who I really am, do you?"
Huh? What did he mean by that?
"Can you keep things on the DL?"
"DL — Down Low. If I tell you something, can I trust you not to be a pest and go yapping about it?"
"You can trust me."
He stared at me. "I've only known you for a few hours now," he finally said, "and from what I can see about you, I can tell you have a mind of iron."
I was unsure whether or not I should feel flattered by that comment.
"Look, I'm gonna be honest with you: you're physically laughable. All those years of eating cheap food and pagpag has stunted your growth. But you've got something in you, kid, something burning in you. Something that screams determination, something that keeps you going forward even when everything else is trying to get you to stop. I can't quite put my finger on it, Garrett, but I'm about to find out."
I was quiet, but I felt quite warm and good on the inside. It was pretty rare for me to be praised in this way.
He pointed to a man with an oversized shirt and large, bulging pockets walking down the busy road. "You see him?"
"You're going to go over there, get in front of him, and distract him. Pretend that you and I are playing or something and keep him busy while I jack his shit." He cautioned me with a sharp look. "You better not go tellin' your mother I told you to do this, or else I can't keep you out of jail."
I swallowed. I had stolen things before — yesterday was an example of that — but never before had I stolen, or helped someone else steal, under the directions of someone I barely knew.
"Look normal!" he snapped. "He's getting away, hurry up and get to 'im!"
I ran towards our victim. He had his hands inside his pockets, guarding their contents from any wandering fingers. I got in front of him and, turning my body around to face him, stepped on his shoes.
"Todd!" I yelled, pretending to look around him. "Todd, pass me the ball already!" I faked left and right, brushing and pushing against the man with my hands as if to get him out of the way. "Gimme the football!"
The man removed his hands from his pockets and tried to brush me aside. "Don't play in front me, dammit!!" As he did so, Dodger came up behind him and quickly pulled two objects out of his pockets. I made a show of kicking him in the legs, as if to try and get at the invisible football behind him. "Ow!!"
"Right, let's go!" Dodger shouted, and I darted along with him out of there.
"Not bad," he said, panting, after we had gotten a healthy distance away from the crime scene. "Good use of the football there."
"Thanks." I eyed the objects in his hands. "What did you get?"
In his right hand was a wallet, thick and made of genuine leather. He opened it and revealed 200 pesos, all freshly printed, as if they had just come from the bank. He counted out 100 and handed it to me. "You were pretty damn good, for a first timer."
One hundred pesos! One hundred pesos! All in a few seconds! I had never made this much money, this quickly, before.
He pulled out the credit cards and stuffed them into his pocket. "These things are worth tons," he explained. "Just gotta use them before he gets them cancelled." He dug through every corner and pocket of the leather wallet and, after taking out whatever he deemed valuable, tossed it aside. In his other hand he had a shiny, metallic object, one roughly the size of, if not bigger than, my hand.
A cell phone.
"iPhone," he said, shaking his head. "These things are hard to crack." He fiddled with the touchscreen for a bit before giving up. "How'd you like that?" he asked me.
My mother's face flashed in front of me. I almost gasped. "You're following in your corrupted father's footsteps!" I could hear her saying. "You've followed in your corrupted brother's footsteps! Why would you do this to me, son?! Why?!"
For Evan, I thought. For Evan. I won't get caught up in this. I'll only take what is enough, and then I'll go home. Enough for Evan's schooling — not even mine's, just him.
"You alright there?" Dodger asked, snapping his fingers in front of my face. "You can't be dozing off at this time of day."
I looked up at him and tried to grin. "When can we do it again?"
The stool was moved into position. I was huddled under a table, its surface filled with merchandise being sold. On the other end, just a few steps away, was the counter with the cash register. I remained silent and waited for Dodger's signal.
We had spent much of the day stealing whatever valuables we could get our hands on, mostly money. After emptying a few more pockets on the street, Dodger decided it was time to step it up a notch. I've had more luck stealing from stalls and vendors this time, now that I had him helping me. Occasionally, when confronted with an intimidating situation I would hold back, and he would always holler at me to "Man up! Just get in there and do it!"
Evan... these earnings are for you, not me! I won't keep a centavo of what I get for myself! I promise!
Now we were taking on an entire store, a small one, but definitely wealthier than everyone we've looted from so far. Above the noise of the street outside and the obnoxious chatter of someone talking loudly on their phone, a table fan, rattling slightly from its age, kept a hot breeze moving throughout the store. Without the wind — which was what I was experiencing, crammed under a table, insulated from the fan — the humidity was so thick, it was possible to cut it with a knife. A plastic, disposable knife.
Dodger came up to the cash register; I could see his feet. "Could you spare this for a good friend?" I could hear him say.
"What, are you saying that you forgot to bring money again today?" a gruff voice responded. It must've come from the aged, grey-haired man who was tending the till, of whom I caught a glimpse of before I disappeared under Dodger's instructions. "You were here only yesterday using that same excuse!"
"I promise, I'll pay you." I heard the jingling of coins. "Here, I'll pay half the price for now. I'll give you the other half later."
"I bet I won't see the other half!" The ruffling of paper. "How much is that? 15 pesos?"
"Don't forget about what you 'bought' yesterday — I'm expecting another 30 pesos from you." There was the sound of a tray being opened, money being counted... and a sudden struggle that ended as abruptly as it began.
"Son of a bitch!"
"Now, Garrett!" I saw his feet darting off and out of the store. I shoved the stool forward into the narrow aisle at the perfect time; both the man and the cell phone chatterbox ran into it as they attempted to pursue the thief. The old, stern man fell to the ground, his body partially blocking my escape route. I slithered and squeezed past him, but his hand shot out and grabbed my foot. "You're not going anywhere, kid!"
I struggled with his monstrous grip. "Let go of me!"
"Not until the police swing by for a visit!"
Desperate, I lashed out with my other foot. I hit something fleshy and bony, a sizable elevation in the middle that cracked when I struck it. There was a sharp yelp of pain, and the grip on my feet relaxed. I scrambled back to my feet and ran from the place as fast as my legs could carry me. Half a block away, I managed to catch up to Dodger.
"What took you so long?" he yelled.
"He grabbed onto my foot!"
"How'd you get out?"
"I kicked him in the face."
He cocked a grin. "You don't just let any old hag hold onto you, eh?"
"Hey!" It was the cell phone guy, running towards us at top speed. "I'm gonna call the cops on you!"
Thanks for the tip. We both started running, running as he yelled at us to stop. "Stop if you know what's good for yourself!"
If I stop, I'm never going to get anything good for myself. And neither is Evan.
"Let's split." Dodger pointed down an alley. "You go down there, I'll go the other way. We'll meet at the bridge up ahead."
"Okay." I turned and ran in the direction he pointed, brushing aside boxes and bodies as I went. I turned a corner, hid behind some crates, and stopped to catch my breath.
The cell phone guy didn't hesitate. He immediately went after Dodger, who had the money. When my breath had caught up with me, I turned and headed in the direction of our agreed-upon meeting spot, remaining in the shadow of the alleys. People caught sight of me, but they didn't care. To them, I was just one of thousands. I was no big deal. They saw people like me every day.
I reached the bridge, an aging, concrete structure that crossed a polluted river filled with garbage. The guardrails were short, crumbling and dilapidated in some areas. I could see several slums — haphazardly constructed structures — lining the dirty river, a few with TV antennas precariously perched on their roofs. There was light but noticeable traffic moving across the bridge, jauntily bumping along the pavement. I looked behind me and shielded my eyes from the setting sun. No familiar face in sight. I was going to have to wait, and be ready to run in case my pursuer got to the bridge first.
I hope that doesn't happen.
I waited — first standing, then sitting down on the curb — for God-knows-how-long. I watched as the sun drooped lower and lower below the horizon, giving way to night. All the street lights came on, bathing the roads with a cold, yellow glow. I watched as the cars, the bicycles, and the pedestrians went by, an activity as mundane as day, yet strangely mesmerizing and captivating. Finally, I got up. Him taking this long clearly meant that something was amiss.
I can't let this slip through my fingers. I can't! Not when the going's good!
I retraced my steps, recrossing the bridge, running back towards the spot where we last saw each other. I turned down the road that he took, though where he went after that was anybody's guess. I darted blindly across an intersection, skipping a red light, almost getting hit by a jeepney. I squeezed and bumped past bodies along the narrow sidewalk; brushing them aside, I did not slow down. I ran down what seemed to be miles and miles of dark, sketchy alleyway, not knowing where I was going or what I was getting myself into. I didn't dare call out; wherever Dodger was, he almost certainly had unwanted company. I tripped and stumbled over a discarded computer monitor, but I wouldn't let that stop me.
I got to a crossroad, a crossroad of alleys. I had four directions to choose from: go straight ahead, to the left, to the right, or turn back. Not knowing which option I should take, I stopped to catch my breath. That was when I heard, "Gotcha now, you sick son of a bitch."
It came from the left. I turned towards that direction and, almost tiptoeing, headed towards the sound. Well, sounds. "This wild goose chase is over. You've kept us going for quite a while now, but sooner or later, someone's got to give."
"You three are a fucking joke!" That sounded like Dodger.
"Well, I may be the fucking joke here, but I didn't joke around when these two came along, hmm?"
"Does it look like I'm joking around?"
"Was I joking around when I said you could get incarcerated for theft?" It was an older, rougher voice.
"Does it look like I care?"
"Are you joking?"
"Does it look like I'm joking?" There was the cracking of knuckles. "You think it's pretty easy living out here on these streets, huh? Just mill around and do nothing, right? Well, you're wrong. If you do that, you'll be dead faster than the police can brandish their batons and club the living shit out of you. Am I joking around? You three are a fucking tease."
"We'll be the ones laughing," a younger, crisper voice said, "once you realize just how much of a tease you are once you wake up behind bars."
"Only the tough survive out here in Tondo."
"And I agree," the old one said, "because we have survived and are surviving. We'll put you out of this misery if you so choose."
I turned my head slowly around a corner. There was Dodger, cornered and surrounded by three men. One of them I recognized as the cell phone chatterbox from the store we looted; the other two, I didn't recognize. Dodger had his back against the wall, but I knew he was a long ways off from giving up.
"I'd rather die!"
"You think we'd actually kill you?" the cell phone guy remarked. "Boy, I'm not going to jail because of you."
"No," the young one said. "No, we can't kill him. Can't bring in a dead body. We'll just beat the tar out of him and then say he tried to fight back."
"I can deal some of those blows," the old one joked.
"Not unless our friend here fights back as well, and I have no doubt he will give us some trouble."
"Kid, you know how to fight, huh?"
"I bet he does."
There was a click, and the three men backed off. In the dim light I could see the shiny glare of the blade of Dodger's knife. "I don't go down that easily. Which one of you are willing to face me one-on-one?"
The three paused hesitantly. Finally, the older one got back into the ring. "I'll drag you by the ears to the police station once I'm done with you!"
"Not if this knife gets you done first!"
"One is none. Two is one." The cell phone guy stood boldly beside his teammate. "What, are you going to whine about how 'unfair' it is?"
"I never said that. We're on the streets here. There are no fucking rules to follow."
The younger one jumped back in. "You know what? You're right. There are no fucking rules to follow. Don't go cryin' for anybody, cause we're not obliged to give you a gold star and kiss you on the forehead for being a good little boy."
I stiffened. All three of them were ready to put up a fight with him. Three versus one. Three grown men versus one teenaged boy. I figured Dodger would hold his ground against one person easily, but not a trio.
I have to do something!
"Watch it, kid."
"Yeah, you'll be watching me as I slit your goddamn throat!"
The older one made a fist and rammed it into the boy's stomach. I immediately grabbed a rock — the largest one I could find and still throw with reasonable strength — and hurled it towards the men. It struck the younger man in the shoulders, and he screamed in agony.
"What the hell?!"
The other two turned around. "Son of a whore!" they shouted, catching sight of me. I was about to turn around and run away when Dodger got up and kicked the two in the rear. "Run, Garrett! Get the fuck out of here!"
I needed no persuasion. I was out of there, retracing my steps, running back to where I came from. A few seconds later, Dodger came out, a cell phone in his hands. "You know where to go!" he hollered at me. "Get back to where we agreed to meet up."
I nodded. Back down the miles of alleyway, brushing past bodies on the narrow sidewalks, darting across the intersection against the light, onto the bridge with the dilapidated guardrails crossing the polluted river. I stopped, breathing heavily, exhausted and numb from the whole ordeal. I was still shaking, still felt like the three men were there next to me, still felt like I was in danger. I looked back. Dodger had made it, crossing the street to get to my side.
"Phew..." he gasped. "That... that was some shit we got out of!" He looked at me and nodded, smiled. "Thanks for that."
"How'd you find me?"
"I don't know... I just ran back to the spot where we split, headed down the road you took, and just kept running from there."
"Lucky." He pulled the cell phone out from his pockets. "Swiped this from the smartphone chatterbox guy, guess he can't go bitching about calling the cops anymore." He pressed the power button and turned the phone off. "That way he can't track us."
He gave me another odd look. "You remember what I told you this morning, right?"
"You told me lots of things this morning."
"About keeping things quiet?"
"Yeah." I remembered that.
He looked around, as if to check for any unwanted eavesdroppers. "I figured I could trust you enough to join my gang."
I was silent. My mind immediately raced back to Julio and what he had gotten himself into. He had also joined a gang, a street gang, involved in the shabu trade. He had built himself a reputation in there, earning respect and profit as he went. He no longer needed his family after that; the gang became his family, his benefactor. He made enough money to ensure that he would never have to touch any part of Smokey Mountain ever again.
Evan... I just need to think about him! I knew my older brother fell into a pit that he never got out of, the pit being the very gang he joined, the new lifestyle he chose. He thought about the gang, and how the gang could benefit him, bring him all the riches that we and the garbage dump never could. He was sick of being poor, and the gang opened the door for him to get out, escape from poverty. He never went back, except maybe as the odd tourist to his own family and his old home.
I can't go down that path... I needed a lifeline, an escape hatch, a ball of string. My younger brother would be all of those things. I had to remember the fact that I was doing it for him. Not for myself. Never for myself. No matter what happened, I had to hold on to that thought. Anything I earned would go to my brother, anything to get him off the mountain, get him back into school, back to being a child again. It would all be for him. For Evan. For my little brother.
I looked straight into Dodger's eyes. "You can trust me. I'll do anything to get in."
He nodded. "It's been a long day, but I feel like I've learned a lot about you, Garrett. You just get better and better the longer you're at this. Something inside you drives you, it really does. You even came back to look for me, and I've never had a kid do that. Never heard of any stories about that ever happening either." He started walking, and he gestured for me to follow. "You're a prodigy, you know that? If there's a kid out there that's younger and better than you, I've never heard of 'im. You'll make it through just fine."
My breathing was heavy. The longer I followed him, the more nervous I became. It wasn't the environment that he was leading me in. It wasn't the idea of being led into the darkness. It was the fear that I would lose my grasp on my brother, that I would forget about him and my original purpose. I bit down on my tongue, hoping to hold myself together.
"Just a bit of a forewarning," Dodger continued. "Most of our members are pretty civil and chill; if you're part of the same gang, as long as you don't dick with them they're cool with it. But some people are just total assholes, dare I say. Watch out for them, and I'll point them out to you when I see them. And before I get another hammer thrown at me..." He stopped and turned around. "...we don't take wusses. No dodos. No wankstains. None of that crap." His eyes flared slightly, and I almost slunk back. "You're not one of them, are you?"
What was he going into? No... a better question would be, 'What am I getting myself into?' I knew my mother would say that what I was doing was wrong, that these people were not there to help me, wouldn't hesitate to drown me in the river to save themselves. But my brother kept coming into the equation — at least I still had a grasp on my original goal. I'd drown in the river to save my brother. Anytime. Without hesitation. I'd do it for him.
"No," I said firmly. "I won't back down. I won't clown around. I won't stop till I get what I want or I drop dead." A pause. "Why do you ask?"
He sighed. "Last time I did this, I brought back someone who pissed his pants and screamed like a banshee at the thought of pain. Got yelled at by the leaders after they kicked him out." He started walking again. "I'm confident you won't be giving me — or yourself — any trouble."
I followed behind him. "What's the name?"
He stopped again, this time not in an unkind manner. He looked around nervously, as if to check for eavesdroppers again, before whispering into my ear: "Diablo Wingz is the name. 'Wingz' with a 'z'."
I blinked. "Why the secrecy?"
"We got a ton of other rival gangs knocking on our doors." He resumed walking. "If they discover who we belong to, they won't hesitate to put a bullet between our eyes."
I stood still, silently allowing his words to sink in. They won't hesitate to put a bullet between our eyes...
Was I going to die?
He turned around. "What's up? Scare ya now, did I?"
"So you're saying... I could die?"
He crossed his arms, unimpressed. "Look, kiddo, you can die at any moment in your life. I'm surprised you spent ten years of your life on Smokey Mountain without ever asking yourself whether or not you could die. People die on that mountain all the time. People die in this city all the time. You're going to die anyway in life. May as well roll with it." He straightened his arms. "Where I'm going, you could die at any moment, but if you don't have it in you to fuck up, you won't die. Fight hard for the gang and you won't die. Fight for yourself or fight for nobody, and the gang could care less if you drowned in your bathtub." Without another word, he turned around and walked away.
I watched him go. My mind was racing; I knew I was at the crossroads for a crucial decision. The words he had just said stopped me dead in my tracks, but the flame in me told me to push on. Do it, it seemed to say. Do it for Evan.
I clenched my fists. Immediately I started to run, running to catch up to him.
"Guess I didn't scare you enough."
"I'm scared," I said. And I was being honest. "But I'll do it. Scared, maybe, but I won't let that stop me."
He didn't look at me, but I could tell he was beginning to smile.
"Here's to an early welcome to the team," he said.
Here's to you, Evan. I felt like a rock climber getting ready to rappel down the formation. I hope my brother has the belay secured...
I had no idea how far I'd fall.
The Road Away from Home
|For my little brother by Enoch Leung