For my little brother/Departure
|For my little brother by Enoch Leung
The Road Away from Home
Julio was gone the next morning, long before the rest of us woke up. He never told anyone where he went, or why. I'm not even sure why he comes home in the first place; if he's so well-off wherever he goes, why come back?
We ate a small breakfast. We had to be quick, in order to get to the mountain before the first garbage trucks arrived. Smart, successful scavengers fleeced the trucks as they approached the dump, many even climbing aboard to get their hands at the bounty while it was still fresh. We get a lot of pagpag this way, before it gets a chance to spoil in the heat of the day.
We're running now, getting there before it's too late. My brother holds my hand, like mother had ordered him to, looking to me for security, safety, leadership. I did not mind, even though it slowed me down a bit.
The garbage trucks had just arrived, in them the city's garbage that they had collected overnight. People were already scaling the sides of the truck, trying to get into the hopper, trying to get at the loot first.
My brother was too young to climb up a moving truck. "You be careful, alright?" I said to him before running towards the vehicle. He followed, keeping a healthy distance away. He knew the drill — we did it every day. I ran alongside the truck and grabbed the handle, pulling myself up on board, taking great care not to allow my limbs to get caught on anything. Some ill-mannered scavengers often used other bodies as leverage to help themselves up to the hopper. My small size and strength made that very unlikely, but my mother wanted me to stay on the safe side. "Just come home alive is all I'm asking," she often said.
I reached the hopper, where the pile of trash was rapidly disappearing as the scavengers attacked it with full force. I filled my arms quickly with Styrofoam food containers, all of them packed with uneaten food from the night before. My brother was beside the truck, his arms ready to catch. I threw the containers down at him before scrounging the hopper for more. Having his help was a luxury many did not have, for I could simply toss him all the valuables rather than having to carry everything by myself. A few brought bags with them onto the truck, which became bulky and heavy as they filled. Many of them gave out under the pressure, spilling their contents back into the hopper. Occasionally he would miss, and someone else would come and swipe the dropped objects before he had a chance to pick them up. I made sure he didn't get into any fights, willing accepted having his cargo heisted before him. It was cheaper to lose profits than it was to deal with the drama of having a brawl.
Soon, the truck was empty. Well, at least, devoid of all the smaller, portable materials, leaving behind only the larger, bulkier items that were too heavy to be thrown out of the truck by hand. I looked down at my brother, who had his arms full. I scrambled out of the truck and jumped down to the ground.
"How're you doing?" I asked.
I thought he smiled. "Tired," he responded.
I opened a bag and filled it with all the non-foods we had collected. Plenty of plastic bottles, jugs, cartons, cups, spoons. Many shopping bags, all of them punctured with holes like Swiss cheese. Today, we had some luck: entire spools of copper, electrical wires, all undamaged. They were worth more than common plastic, which was everywhere. I tied up the bag and slung it over my shoulder, my brother carrying the unprocessed pagpag. It had to be cleaned and cooked soon, before they spoiled and became permanently inedible.
"You did good today, Evan," I said. "Someday, you'll be a good scavenger."
He did not respond. I wonder if I had just stabbed him with my words, left a hole in his chest, letting him bleed.
The sun had just disappeared below the horizon when me and Evan returned home. Together, we managed to earn about 20 pesos; every little bit of our earnings counted towards the family, though. The heat of the day and the relentless sun beating down on our heads left me with a slight headache and an unquenchable thirst.
"Ma," I said, walking through the doorway. "We're home."
My mother had large bags under her eyes. I could tell she had been working all day as well, scrounging the mountain, trying to make the money needed to keep the family going. "Help me get dinner set up," she said.
All our meat was purchased pre-cooked. Our vegetables tonight were a mix of fresh and pagpag, evident slightly in their colouring. Even the rice tonight didn't smell or taste as good as it did yesterday; hopefully that will change tomorrow.
I bit into the meat, which had a nice, pleasant aroma and taste. "KFC", they called it, a wildly popular fast food chain in America, a face familiar to Westerners in the city. "The Americans may or may not like our food," my father once said, "so they turn to the things they know and love back home." They ate it with their hands, licking their fingers afterwards to get all the grease and salt; it tasted too good to refrain from doing so. I would have done so, tried to be an American for a day, but I was wiser not to, for one: my mother was watching me, and two: my hands had been digging through garbage all day, and without good soap it was difficult to clean.
I remembered a day when I went into the city, to the places where all the tourists and the wealthier people mingled. Remembered going into a mall, where every inch smelled of money. Money, money, and more money. Everyone had money, everyone was happy, everyone was well fed. Nobody had to sleep in a slum, eat pagpag, scavenge on Smokey Mountain. Everyone except me. I had to do the things nobody else in there had to do.
I looked at my brother, who was eating silently, again lost in his own thoughtful world. I wondered if he ever thought the same way as I did. He sat quietly, his eyes fixed on a spot in the wall. Finally, he looked up at mother and said, "Will I ever be able to go back to school?"
My mother didn't reply immediately. "I wish I could say yes."
"Garrett said I could if dad came home."
There was another pause. "God forbid," she said, "unless he promises to abandon his foolish ways forever."
Evan opened his mouth to speak. I feared that he would tell mother about what I had promised him the night before, and quickly interrupted: "Maybe Julio will come back and help us. Evan can go back to school again."
My mother waved my opinion away. "I refuse to touch his filthy money. I'll only look at him again if he burns all of it, removes his tattoos, his gold necklace."
I shot my brother a look, begging him not to tell mother about our conversation last night. He got the message, and thankfully ended the conversation there.
Mother grew suspicious. "I hope you two aren't plotting anything..." she began.
"No, we're not," we said simultaneously.
Later that night, as I lay on the floor waiting for sleep to come, my brother asked, "Why won't you tell mother what you're planning on doing?"
I had no answer. I regretted making that promise to my brother, a promise that keeping would make my stomach turn. Several ideas came to mind, but none seemed very sound. My father and my older brother had all left home, looking for a way to bring the family a secure income, but both were deemed by my mother to be "corrupted." At first, I felt that way too. After all, how dare my father leave home! How dare Julio ignore us in our state of poverty! Speaking of Julio, his money almost certainly meant that he was able to eat like a king every night, putting no thought towards his family, made no effort to reintegrate himself, no effort to lift a finger to help any of us. He didn't even talk to any of us. He could've just come home, become a scavenger again, help take the work off our shoulders so that we could have enough to afford to allow Evan to go to school. He's a demon, a monster, a thug.
Or is he?
I swallowed. I knew doing this was wrong, what my father and my older brother did was wrong. But how wrong was it? Is something justifiable if it was done for good intentions, meant to benefit others, meant to help someone in need?
Now, don't get too over yourself, Garrett...
But what if my brother got cut, needed to be cleaned up and have his wound treated, needed bandages to stop the bleeding? If I took a first-aid kit and used it, wasn't I taking supplies that someone else who's also bleeding needed as well?
He's my brother... why would I just sit there and watch him bleed? Of course I would do something to help him!
And every day, whenever I eat something, I'm eating food that some other hungry soul needs as well.
But I can't just starve myself! To help someone, another must pay for it.
"I don't want you to do anything that makes mother unhappy," Evan said. "I know you mean well, but..."
I sat up. "I promised you, Evan; I told you I'd find a way."
"I don't want mother to throw you out like she did Julio!"
"Then let her throw me out. I won't let her stop me — or you." I got up and, carefully stepping over my brother, made my way over to the dresser.
"What... What are you doing?"
I dug my hands through drawer after drawer, looking for what I wanted. My hands closed around a small knapsack, in good condition except for a tiny, insignificant hole. We last used this for school, I thought. Now I'm going to use it for my brother to...
Evan's eyes widened. He knew exactly what I was planning to do. "You can't do this!" he protested, running up and grabbing the bag from my hands.
I wrestled with him. "You don't understand, Evan," I said, struggling with his monstrous little grip. For someone so young, he sure had a lot of determination and wit to stop someone four years older than himself.
"Yes, I very well understand!" His eyes began to give way to tears, but his grip did not falter. "You're going down the path our father and Julio went down. They never came back! Mother won't accept them, and now I've lost them forever! I won't let you go down there! I won't lose you, I won't let that happen!"
"Evan!" I snapped, picking him up. He squirmed, tried to break free, but I held on, carrying him back to his bed. "You need to calm down."
"Not when you're about to jump into a ravine!"
I made him sit, placing my hands on his shoulders, looking at him directly into the eyes. He fidgeted, trying to avoid me, but I shook him firmly. "Listen carefully, Evan. I just need you to listen to me, listen to what I have to say."
He stopped moving, but continued to avoid eye contact, looking around me, looking away from me, looking at anything that wasn't a part of me.
"I know why dad and Julio left. They did it for us, for the family. They wanted us to have a future, a future better than being a scavenger for our entire lives. But they fell off the edge because they got distracted. They thought of themselves, and themselves only. They stopped thinking about us, became indifferent to us. That's why Julio's seldom home, dad never. They're only answering to their own needs, their own desires."
Tears came streaming out of his eyes. I bit my tongue, trying hard not to cry, trying not to lose myself, let myself fall apart. "It won't happen to me, though. I won't let it happen to me. I'm not doing this for myself. I'm doing it for you. I don't know where I'll go, don't know where the road might take me. But I won't go over the edge. You're my lifeline — you will keep me on the right track. I need you to do that for me. I need your support; otherwise, I cannot make it. Remember that I'm not looking for wealth, for fame, for glory. All I want is to see you go back to school, and I'll do anything to make that happen."
My brother fell silent, except for the sniffling as his tears dwelled within him. He reached up and tried to brush away the waterworks with his hand. His next words came out as a quavery stammer: "Will you p-p-promise.... promise me that y-y-you'll c-c-come h-h-home?"
My pinky was up. "I promise," I said. "No matter what happens, even if I can't find what I'm looking for, I'll still come home to you alive. I will not break this promise; God take my life if I do."
He threw his arms over me and emptied his tears into my chest. I patted him comfortingly on the back, gritting and gnashing my teeth as I fought to suppress my own tears. I needed to appear strong to my brother, let him know that I could do it, that I was tough enough to make this difficult decision. I'll come home... I'll come home to you alive... I will not break this promise, God take my life if I do...
"W-W-When are you l-leaving?" he asked.
I had originally hoped to slip away in the darkness of the night, before my mother noticed. But my brother's sudden outburst made me guilty, even after explaining myself. Part of me wanted to go, embark on such a dangerous journey if it meant he could have the opportunity to leave poverty. The other part wanted me to just stay, stay safe and call this all off, let this all just be a bad dream and an infeasible thought.
"Early, tomorrow morning," I said finally. "But I'm going, no matter what."
"You'll stay here for one more night?" he said, choking on his tears slightly.
So that's that, I thought. One more night, just one more night. I hope it's not our last night together. And if it is, at least he knew about it.
There was no sleep for me. I tossed and turned, unable to shut my brain down. It kept me up all night, pleading, arguing, debating with me. I wanted to stay, I wanted to leave. I wanted to cry, I wanted to scream. I felt like this was all just a bad dream, and at the same time knew I was living in the grim reality of life, my life, his life. My mother's life. I wonder if she'll let me back into the house after this.
My brother fared poorly as well. He slept on-and-off, evidenced by short moments of silence, followed by muffled sobbing. I felt like I had poisoned him and sat with him in the same room, watching, listening to him die slowly, painfully. He knew that, soon, he would have the entire room to himself at night, all alone. While I didn't know how he felt when Julio left, I was almost certain that he would not appreciate my absence. Nights would become hell for him, with nobody to answer his questions, or even to listen to him.
Several nights on your own is better than a lifetime of scavenging, Evan! Remember that!
The night felt long, but passed by far too quickly. Soon, the night sky began to give way to a faint, reddish hue that grew stronger and richer with every passing minute. I looked at the clock. 5:30 AM. My mother woke up at 6. I had half-an-hour to leave.
Immediately I got up and hurriedly finished packing the few belongings I wanted to bring with me. My father and Julio both left the house with relatively light loads; I did the same. Soon, the knapsack was over my shoulders, though it was so light I wondered if it would've made a difference at all if I had just left it behind.
My brief frenzy woke my brother up from his light, dreamless slumber. He was watching me now, not knowing what to say. He knew this was the moment where we had to say goodbye...
I grasped his hand. "I'll come home, I promise," I said.
He hugged me again, one I feared might be the last. "I hope you do," he said simply.
"Remember Evan: you're my lifeline. I'll always think about you, and that will keep me going. Don't forget about me... and I won't forget about you."
"I won't forget."
He reluctantly released me. I ruffled his hair playfully, trying to get some positivity into my blood. "Take care of mom for me."
I got up and left the room, closing the door softly behind me. Not long after I had done so, I heard loud, audible crying from behind the door.
The morning air felt uncannily cool, despite the fact that nights in the city were almost always warm. The air had a funny taste to it, like a mix of sulphur and vehicular exhaust, combined with the faint odour of Smokey Mountain. I looked back at my house, which now seemed like the best place in the world for me to be in. Goodbye, home, I thought. I wonder if I'll ever see you again.
Memories came flooding back, all the happy ones that took place right here, right outside the house. Times when we would sit outside with the other kids in the neighbourhood and play card games. Times when we would find an old, discarded ball and play football, passing the ball to anyone who wanted to join. Times when we would make a makeshift basketball net and take turns dunking and shooting, right up until the time when the ball went sailing through someone's window. Times when the neighbours all got together and enjoyed a barbeque on the street, where everyone brought their own food to roast on the open fire; my father chatting and snacking with his friends; my mother laughing exuberantly; me, Evan, and Julio having our own little party with everyone else our age.
Those days are gone. Now, it's nothing but nostalgia.
I took a deep breath, pushing those memories aside. All that mattered now was the task at hand. I picked up my feet and began walking, away from my childhood home, my safe haven, my castle.
It would be many, many months before I would even be able to see the street I lived on again.
|For my little brother by Enoch Leung
The Road Away from Home