For my little brother/Diablo Wingz
|For my little brother by Enoch Leung
Cigarette smoke drifted around and above my head. It stung my eyes, my lungs, and my throat slightly. I wanted to bat away the fumes, but was afraid of what Dodger would say. "You weak or something?" I could almost hear him saying.
We were in an alley, surrounded by walls of corrugated metal and concrete covered with graffiti. A few had obscene symbols and images sprayed on. The path was illuminated by sodium vapour lamps, casting off a ghostly yellow glow. The light made me tired and sleepy; I could never understand why this was the colour of "urban nightlife."
"Stay close to me," Dodger whispered into my ear as we turned a corner. Immediately I was hit with the strong stench of marijuana. I had smelled the drug before, had seen my older brother smoke it on occasion, but never before in this quantity and in such concentration. I blinked, almost toppling over. The smell emanated from an old, narrow door leading into a building that had its windows shuttered and barred. Dodger turned me towards that direction; with every step I took, my heart rate increased, beating faster and with greater intensity. The two of us were stopped by a tall, teenaged male. He was shirtless and barefoot, toting a large aluminum bat behind his head. "Who's this, Dodger?" he asked.
"His name's Garrett," Dodger responded, pointing to me. "He's a good one from what I can see. He's strong. Tough. Determined. Give 'im a chance."
The boy got up and close to us. I trembled before his presence. He was monstrous, at least two heads taller than I was, and he seemed ready to attack, dispose of anyone he didn't agree with. He wasn't looking at me though. He was looking directly at my escort.
"Last time you brought someone here they flipped out and almost brought the cops to our doorstep. How are we supposed to know this isn't another screwup by you?"
"Gimme one more chance," Dodger pleaded. "Look, I know I fucked up last time. I was younger though, younger and naïve. Just give him a shot; if he's no good, you can beat the tar out of me."
The boy snorted. He turned to me. "Don't go snooping around in places where you're not supposed to be in." And with that, he stepped out of the way, permitting us entry into the dilapidated building. Dodger kept a hand on my back, guiding, almost propelling me in the direction he wanted to go in.
"Don't wander in this place when nobody knows you, else they'll have your ass tarred and feathered."
Even without that warning, sheer fear would have contained me, locked me in, unable to escape. He kept pushing me, directing me through a dimly-lit, narrow corridor. We passed by several people, each one of them looking at me. Combined with my fear, I felt like an animal being paraded around the streets in a cage. Was I really that exotic, or were they just suspicious of me?
"Zippo!" Dodger shouted. "Zippo, where ya at?"
A head popped out of an open door, a lit cigarette in its mouth. Around his neck he bore a silver chain and a silver Christian cross. In his right hand was a glass filled with ale. "Sup?"
"Zippo, meet Garrett. Found 'im in a dumpster this morning—"
"You brought us another trashy clown?" Zippo remarked, interrupting his friend. "Literally."
Dodger shook his head. "Nuh-uh, Zippo — you haven't seen what he can do. He learns fast; got him to successfully clean someone's pockets within an hour of meeting him. We did a couple more after that, and then we took out a store. We got separated and I got cornered, but he actually came back for me!" I felt a rewarding pat on my shoulder. "I know he's the one."
Zippo shook his head. "Look, Dodger, he's too small. You said you found him in a dumpster. What, his mother abandoned him?"
"He's a scavenger..."
"Knew it!" Zippo straightened up and blocked the doorway. "Can't see a use for someone who's spent their entire lives digging through piles o' shit. You've barely even known him for more than 24 hours! Too soon, Dodger; too soon. You may as well just leave 'im back on the streets where he belongs."
Dodger was speechless. When he turned around and went back inside the room, though, Dodger shot his hand out and grabbed him by the shoulder. "Wait!"
The face turned around, its expression gruff and displeased. I could see a puff of smoke pouring out of the mouth. "What?"
"Give 'im a chance. Just this once. Just let 'im get a taste of the gang. If he's no good I'll remove him myself. Just give me a chance. Just give him a chance. I know I got the one, I just know it!"
"You know something, Dodger?" He turned around fully to look him straight in the eye. "You sound like a big crybaby."
Dodger began to sulk. "For fucks sake..."
Zippo knelt down to get to my level. "How old are you?" he asked me.
"A mother and a brother."
"Older or younger?"
He looked at me straight into my eyes. I was afraid, wanting to slink back, wanted to look away, but for some reason I looked straight back at him. He blinked; I blinked. He moved his eyes to the right; I moved my eyes to the left. He rolled his eyes; I rolled my eyes. Finally, he got up. "No offense, Dodger, but I still think you're shit." He grinned. "Although I think I can give this kid here a chance. Just once."
"Thanks... thank you so much, bro!"
"Don't be a tease." And with that, he let us in.
The room was packed and small, lit by a single hanging lamp perched over a long, rectangular table that occupied the middle, taking up the space. Sitting or standing around it were thirty or so men and women, many of them with lit cigarettes coming out of their mouths and drinks in their hands. The table held several smartphones, some of them with their screens lit, and several bottles of ale. A thug in his twenties, sporting a bandana wrapped around his head, was filling empty glasses up and passing them around the table to the laughing gangsters. "Here with my homies tonight for a good fuckin' time!" he exclaimed. "Drink up, light up; we've all been good today, haven't we?"
A head rose up from the crowd. He was young; I'd say around the age of nineteen. He wore a black baseball cap backwards and had three tattoos on his arms. "Malou!" he called out. "Malou! Gimme that beat, young dog; help a fellow homie out here, will ya?"
"Eeey, takin' that mic up again, C. Razor?" Malou took a swig from his glass. "Shout out to all my homies in here!" He cleared his throat and, after a brief pause, began to beatbox. Nearby side-conversations were extinguished rapidly in respect for the vocal bass machine. In the dim light, the thug named C. Razor straightened his cap and began to rap:
Yo, my name's C. Razor,
I'm blazin', hotter than a tazer,
It's my turn to bust a rhyme,
Cause we're drinking and smoking and having a good time,
We've run out of food,
But that's okay cause I'm cool,
I hustle like I'm broke,
Your shit's just a big joke,
Cause you're just gonna choke,
While you're sittin' in the corner sniffin' coke,
I rap with meanin' but you'll never know,
That's just how it goes,
I'm sittin' here with my homies cause I'm runnin' the show,
While y'all just goin' with the flow,
So many bitches here, my head's gonna blow,
I bright up the sky; I light up the sky,
This dope makes me fly cause I've never been this high,
It gets me every time,
I'm gonna be fine,
I'm gonna be out doin' every crime,
Guns in the jeep as we pullin' up to you,
Starin' down that barrel, we ain't got no truce,
Cause I'm cool and I don't need you,
Your blood's gonna fizz,
Cause I got all the jizz,
And when I got your fuckin' bitches you ain't gonna need this,
Shit, you'd be goin' around dropping yo' things,
Nobody goin' messin' around with the Diablo Wingz!
"A round of applause!" a tall, muscular teenager shouted as he poured the freestyler a glass. "A toast to our king tonight!"
"Hey Dodger!" Malou shouted. "Who you got there?"
"He's Garrett," Dodger responded, pointing to me. "Treat him well; he was a killer out there on the streets today!"
"Damn, he looks small."
"Small body, big soul," Dodger said, defending me.
The crowd laughed. "Pass me a glass," Dodger called out. Immediately three glasses filled to the brim with ale were thrust at him. He selected one and handed it to me. "First timer?"
Not really. I had a small amount of beer on my own, but never in a significant quantity.
"Doesn't need to be the whole thing; half a glass is good."
For a second, I held back. I remembered a time when I was younger, when I saw a man on the streets, being arrested and swarmed by police. He was intoxicated, resisting the cops and spewing forth the foulest and most obscene language I had ever heard. In his arms he was clutching several bottles, many of them looking similar to the ones in front of me now. How much would it take to get me drunk?
"Drink it, man! Cheers to a successful day."
The room grew quiet as everyone turned to watch me.
"How old is he?"
"He's ten," Dodger responded.
"Isn't he a tad bit young for drinks?"
"Naw, he can stomach it. He'll learn eventually."
I brought the glass to lips and allowed a few drops into my mouth. It had a pungent flavour, stronger than the beer I had yesterday, biting and cutting into my tongue, my teeth, my throat. Harshly bitter, nothing like the coffee I drank that morning. It seared the insides of my mouth, despite the fact that it was cold, and when I swallowed it, the liquid burned my esophagus, all the way down to my stomach.
"More, more! Half the glass! Half the glass!"
Everyone was watching me; I felt hot and uncomfortable. Anything to make the pressure stop! I tipped the glass and poured more of the liquid into my mouth. It was like a wall of flame going down my throat, and I gagged. Now I could really taste the ale; the flavour got into my nostrils and lingered there, refusing to leave. I swallowed my coughing fits down, along with the liquid. I had never tasted anything this bitter. I looked at the glass to see how much I had left to go.
It was half-full.
"Beautiful!" one of the gangsters said exuberantly. "You've got a tough one there, Dodger. I can see that makes up for your baldfuckery!"
Everyone laughed. Everyone except me and Dodger, at least.
I felt a pat on my shoulder. "Good job, Garrett."
I was still looking at the glass, looking at the remaining ale. It stung my throat, burned within me like a flambé, almost twisting me from the inside. The awful taste clung onto my tongue and teeth, stinging them with a tart, bitter flavour. But the gang was loving it; they were enthralled to see a ten year old boy drink like them. Whatever I did, I could not disappoint them, could not let them down, could not retreat and surrender. My brother's future was in my hands, and I had to come home alive. Alive and successful.
I gritted my teeth, swallowed hard, and opened my mouth for another round, bracing for impact. The alcohol still burned me, but this time, I burned it back. I was determined not to disappoint anyone, not myself, not the gang, not my brother. I swallowed each gulp hard; every time I did so, it felt like I was swallowing fireballs, and that sooner or later my stomach would give out and burst into flames, consuming me from the inside out. Finally, the glass was empty. I slammed it down, exhausted, panting, my face turning red. I couldn't be sure if it was the alcohol or the fact that everyone was watching me, watching as I drank more than I was expected to drink.
"Shit, this kid is good!" a voice shouted.
"Never seen anyone get good this fast."
"He'll replace Reyes someday! Don't need a psychic and a crystal ball to tell!"
"Damn, he's a 'Miracle Kid'!" The owner of the voice stood up. His head was shaven bald and his eyes concealed with rounded sunglasses. "Yeah, you hear that? 'Miracle Kid'! He'll be making the Cobras and the Red Cults shit themselves in their pants!"
"A round of applause for this little dude!"
Dodger knelt down to my level. "What the fuck did you..."
"I'll drink another one," I gasped. "If I have to, I will."
He shook his head. "Didn't bring you here for a drink; I know you killed it out there, but..."
"What's this thing about a 'Miracle Kid' I hear about?" a man's voice said, interrupting the conversation and the atmosphere of the room. He looked at me. "Is that the one?"
My cheeks were burning red. "What do you mean by 'Miracle Kid'?" Dodger asked.
"I hear some kid downed an entire glass of alcohol and someone said he could succeed Reyes once he retires. Or drops dead." He was still looking at me. "Dunno how many kids you bring in here but almost all of them are pathetic as fuck."
"That's why we call 'im a 'Miracle Kid'!" someone shouted.
"I see." He directed his gaze to Dodger. "You brought him here?"
The man gestured with his fingers, signalling him to come over. "And bring the kid with you."
As I left, the climate of the room was restored in an instant. "Hey, hey, someone bring the beat back! Gotta say something about this 'Miracle Kid' here!"
Once we were outside in the narrow, dark corridor, he turned to Dodger. "Who's this kid?"
"His name's Garrett."
"Where'd you find him?"
"In a dumpster."
"Look, I know it sounds fucking stupid, but you gotta see this kid." Dodger was again desperate to convince. "I met him this morning and by late afternoon we managed to successfully loot a store."
"What store was it?"
"Rodrigo's. He's the father of Arthur, leading gang member of the Red Cults."
I assumed Rodrigo was the name of the old shopkeeper.
"And you got away with it?"
"That's not all! We got separated while we were running out of there, and he came back to look for me when I got cornered in an alley. I could've died out there, but he saved my life!"
"And you brought him here because you think he'll be a good member?"
The man turned to me. "How old are you?" he asked.
"Ten," I replied.
"Hoo," he said softly, almost with a touch of morbidity and dark humour in his voice. "Hoo, you're in for some shit, man."
I did not know what he meant.
"We don't just let anybody into the Diablo Wingz. To survive out here, you gotta be tough. Only the tough can live here." He turned around and began walking. "Follow me," he said. "You too, Dodger."
He led us into a dark, sketchy room in the rear, illuminated only by an aluminum floor lamp that threw out a weak, yellowish light. Aside from that lamp and a few chairs, the room was bare. On one side of the room stood a concrete wall, covered with graffiti. Facing that wall were two boys — one was around the age of 15, the other couldn't have been any older than 12. Both of them had been blindfolded with a bandana and were trembling like china dolls on a store shelf in the midst of an earthquake. Behind them was a squarely-built thug in his twenties, wielding a thick wooden stick. He acknowledged our entry with a nod before turning back to his subjects.
"Alright now, here's the deal: you're going to scream to the world the name of your favourite street gang, and when you do, we'll see how you handle pain. Remember, we don't just allow anyone to join Diablo Wingz. We don't recruit chickens. We eat chickens! If you're a chicken, raise your hand and you can get the fuck out of here before we butcher you."
Neither of the two boys said or did anything.
"You first," the thug said, pointing to the older recruit. He cocked the stick back, ready to strike. "Say it!" he barked. "Say who you love the most!"
"I... I love Diablo Wingz," came a small, timid reply.
The stick was lowered. "Really now." The thug was unimpressed. "Are you a bull or a load of bullshit?" He thumped the boy on the back. "Don't be a turd." He raised the stick again. "Now who do you love again?!"
"I love Diablo Wingz!"
The stick bore down. For a moment, I thought I could see it motionless as it hung suspended in mid-air. A loud "CRACK!" rang out, startling me, shaking me from whatever haze I was in. The figure that was struck crumpled to the floor, and I didn't need to ask to know that the stick had scored on his bones.
"Get up!" his assailant growled, dragging him back into a standing position by the ear. "That was only one strike, and anyone can survive the first round. We're Diablo Wingz, not the corny-ass Girl Scouts." When the boy did not move, he thumped him again. "What's wrong? Too scary for you? You tell me right here right now: are you scared?!"
"N-N-No!" He was trying to be brave, be tough, be a man, but his speech was stuttery, like that of someone who had been left in the cold for too long. His assailant, though, only laughed. "Well, I'll give you a few more chances." Stick cocked, ready for more. "Now who do you love?!"
"I love Diablo Wingz!"
CRACK! Another sickening sound of wood meeting bone and flesh rang out throughout the room. The boy was on his knees again, whimpering in absolute pain. I felt sickened at the sight. I wanted to vomit, at the very least, run away from what I've seen. I looked at Dodger and the man beside me. Neither of them seemed the least bit appalled, or even surprised; in fact, I could've sworn they were enjoying it!
"I've seen worse, kid," the thug said. "Up! One more time, and this is gonna be my hardest." The boy struggled to his feet. He was still shaking, shivering almost, despite the heat and humidity. I wanted to bury my face into my hands to shield my eyes from the horror, but was afraid of what Dodger might say. Would he think that I was a wuss and have me removed for it? Would he get beaten as well for "screwing up"? I was afraid to know.
The stick was up again. "Show me how tough you are!" the thug shouted. "Now, get ready: 'I LOVE...'"
"I LOVE DIABLO WINGZ!"
A final swing. A final blow. One last fall. The thug grabbed him by the shoulders and hauled him up. "You're just a kid," he remarked, removing the blindfold.
"He's still a kid," Dodger said in reply.
"He'll grow up in a week." He shoved the 15-year-old towards the direction of the door. "Go 'n wait outside; we'll teach you the handshake in a bit." He turned to his younger victim, who was unable to see the commotion, but could certainly hear it. "You're next. Let's see how tough you are now."
The man standing beside me prodded my shoulder. "To really join the Diablo Wingz," he said, "you need to prove you can stomach it. We give everyone ten and up the 'Wingz Treatment', and if you chicken out, you're out of the squad. Period." He gave me an amused look, a look that made me uncomfortable. "You're ten. You'll be double-digits for the rest of your life. Now's the time you stop being a child." He lifted his head to again look at the torturous scene before him. "Only the tough survive in Tondo."
The poor younger boy was already crying, possibly in fear, before he got his dosage of pain. "Stop crying!" the thug ordered, "or else you can pack your bags and go home. You wanna go home, laddie? The choice is yours. You can sit at home and starve yourself alone, or you can sponge up your tears and grow up!"
The boy tried to stand up straight, trying to be tough. The stick was raised. "You know the drill. Which gang do you love the most?!"
"I-I-I l-love D-D-Diablo W-W-Wingz!"
The stick was swung, steering clear of the legs and instead striking him on the back. "Oh, come on!" the thug said in disgust. "You're worse than the last guy. You wanna be a man, but you can't even get rid of your pacifier." He thumped him on the back several times. "Grow up, or get out. Hmm?! What do ya choose?"
"I'll... I-I-I'll g-g-grow up..."
"Then act like it!" Stick up, posture square. "I love...!"
"I love Diablo Wingz!"
CRACK! There was a sharp exclamation of pain as the boy fell down. He crumpled over, shielding his inner body, cowering in utter fear and senseless pain.
"What a chicken!" Dodger shouted. "You cry like my grandmother."
I swallowed. Neither of the two who stood beside me felt like "friends", or whatever I had considered them to be beforehand, anymore.
The thug grabbed the boy by the ears and brought him back up. "We're not done yet," he said. "Make it or break it. Do, or do not. You either be tough or you don't come anywhere near our turf at all. No in-betweeners." He raised the stick again. "Alright then. 'I LOVE...!'"
"Wait!!" the boy screamed. "This is too much for me!"
The stick was lowered. "Oho!" the thug commented. "Good thing we caught a chicken before they got a chance to fuck anything up." He strode over to his victim and came in very, very close. The boy could not see his assailant, but could certainly sense his presence. "Remind yourself why you came here," the thug said in a low, dangerous voice. "You came here for a reason, did you not?" He walked around, circling the child, talking as he moved: "In Tondo, there is no work. There is no food. There is no shelter. Not when you're alone. Only the mounds of garbage to pick from. You couldn't feet a rat with those earnings." The thug turned in our direction, and he no doubt caught a glimpse of me. His eyebrows raised, acknowledging my presence. I immediately felt very afraid of him. "In Tondo, only those who are unafraid, who are willing to run the extra mile, who are willing to do whatever it takes for themselves and their fellow brothers and sisters, will live. The rest can only rot in the garbage they scrounge in."
He was again right next to the boy. "You have to be tough," he whispered in his ear, "or you will die."
The room was quiet, save for the sounds of the drinking and the cheering and the rapping next door. "You want to die, son?" the thug finally barked after several minutes.
"N-N-No sir. No sir. No sir!"
"Do you want to be tough, son?"
"You want to go home?"
There was a pause, as if the boy was wondering whether or not it was a trick question. "No sir."
The thug obviously knew what he really wanted, but he didn't press him on it. "Do you want to join the Diablo Wingz?"
"Yes sir... Yes I do!"
"Then prove it." The thug backed off in order to make room for the swinging of the stick. "Shout it out to the world: 'I LOVE....!'"
"I LOVE DIABLO WINGZ!"
The thug hauled the fallen boy to his feet and removed the blindfold. The tears, which had previously been hidden behind the fabric of the bandana, were now free to flow down his face. "Bah, so much water!" the thug said sourly. "You a monsoon?"
"He's just a kid," the man beside me commented.
"We ain't the Girl Scouts!" He shoved the boy roughly. "To hell with you, 'kid'! You wanna join Diablo Wingz? Clean up those damn waterworks."
"Who's the one who brought 'im in?" the man asked.
"Israel. Mostly brings us crazy bitches but he occasionally finds the lean young lad."
"Pah." The man cocked his neck. "Take him out; he can't take no more."
The boy was pushed out the door. "Go wash your face," the thug shot at him. He turned around and looked at me. "Who's next?"
Dodger gave me a gentle but firm push from behind. "If you want in, you better step up."
My blood turned to ice. I was ready to back out. Oh Lord, save me! But I could feel the eyes of Dodger and the other man — what was his name? — boring holes into my back. I dared not turn back now, for what would they think of me if I did? I needed to get in, needed to prove myself worthy of such a job, and to do that, I needed to prove that I was no fool, no clown, no jester.
Could I do it?
Yes, I can. I can I can I can I can I can...
"Anybody home?" the thug said impatiently, snapping his fingers around my head, breaking me from my trance. I did not see him approaching; he was now standing over me, his towering figure at that very moment being scarier than the stick he had used to warm the backs of the two boys before me. "You here to be in Diablo Wingz or you here just to get laid?"
I gulped. "To be in Diablo Wingz, sir."
"Well then act like it." He turned to Dodger. "Well, well, look who's here. The guy who brought me a turd a month ago. Thought I'd forget?"
He returned a sly smile. "Oh, I knew you'd remember. Just wanted to see what you'd say when I brought someone new."
"Yeah, and in the first few seconds of talking to him, I don't like what I see. He stood there silent when I called for the next person."
Dodger nodded. "Uh huh." He looked down. "Don't fuck me over in front of everybody!" he hissed at me.
I stepped up. "Alright, alright... I-I-I'm in."
The thug almost laughed. "Brave coward." He grabbed a bandana and began to wrap it around my eyes. It smelled of putrid sweat, tobacco, and a perfume with an aroma that made me want to gag. "Now listen to me, pal. This ain't no home for the weak and faint-hearted. Here in Diablo Wingz, all of our members have to prove they're up to the task of serving the gang." I heard the stick swishing and cutting through the air, as if he were practicing his strikes. "You're here for the gang, not for yourself. Fight for yourself and no one else, and we'd much rather you'd lie dead on the streets with a knife in your back. Fight for the gang, and the gang will fight for you."
He leaned in close. I could smell the odours from his body, emanating strongly; combined with the bandana, I wanted to throw up. "Are you here for yourself, son?"
And that was no lie.
The thug harrumphed. "Let's see it, then." I could hear the stick being raised, him taking practice swings. "If you want in, let's see how you stand. Who do you love the most?"
I sucked in a gulp of air. "I love Diablo Wingz!" I shouted, squeezing my eyelids together, bracing for impact.
CRACK! I heard the sound of wood meeting bone — my bone — and two seconds later, felt the pain. It was searing hot, like a fireplace poker, burning through my legs with the fury of a thousand suns. My frail body hit the ground, and despite having willed myself not to, I couldn't help but squeal from the pain.
"Don't be an ass, boy." He dragged me up back into a standing position. My legs wobbled, weakened from the strike, barely able to support my weight. I struggled, trying hard not to cry or show any indication of agony. "Stand up straight if you really love Diablo Wingz!" he ordered.
From behind my back, I could hear the man whispering to Dodger: "He's just a kid. A bloody kid, barely 10 years old. You're taking a huge risk with 'im. He's small, weak, short, almost stunted. You tell me, is his mother still alive?"
"Any other family members?"
"He has a younger brother."
"That's all he'd tell me."
The thug interrupted my eavesdropping of their conversation. "Fuck you, 'kid'! You wanna join Diablo Wingz, but you act like you're scared of a mouse running between your legs. Stand up straight! Stand up or I'll kick you in the asshole instead."
I scrambled back onto my feet. The thug had the stick raised again. "I love...?"
I swallowed hard. "I love Diablo Wingz!"
The stick came down again. I braced for impact, but nothing could prevent my descent to the ground. The concrete came up quickly, meeting my face with a brisk smack. It smelled pungent, like beer. As I writhed in pain, I could hear the man saying: "Damn, he falls pretty hard."
"You squirm like a slug." The thug pulled me back up again. "Grow out of your mother's womb."
When Dodger found his voice again, it was almost a whisper, as if he dared not to speak: "Shouldn't we go a bit easier on him? He's only ten..."
"Shut the fuck up!" the man barked. "What, are you suddenly having pity on the child? What's with you, Dodger? You weren't like this yesterday. Did the kid say anything that brought you to tears? Why aren't you a Wingz today?"
Dodger made no reply to that.
"Pity!" the thug said mockingly. "I pity Hound Dog. Got himself a knife to the back while he was in Cobra's turf. Served us well for many years, kept the Cobra's at bay for as long as he breathed air. A martyr indeed, but that's the thing — he did something." He pointed to me, his fingernails jabbing my skin. "Until he does something admirable, what did he do to deserve pity?"
Dodger was speechless. Finally, he said, "I... I take back what I said earlier..."
The thug, eager to return to business, got ready for another strike. "Listen, boy. When we select gang members, people fall into two different groups: those that are suitable for the gang, and those who aren't. That's it. There's no special section for little children; you get the same treatment as everybody else." He took a few practice swings with the stick. "I love...?"
"I-I-I love... I love D-Diablo...."
WHAM! The stick struck me on the shoulders. I gasped in pain, though I did not fall. The thug was displeased. "Seriously? You're pathetic."
In the background, I could hear the man chastising Dodger. "He's pathetic! And you're pathetic too! You shan't be bringing any more stragglers in here, hmm? You ain't the one with the right eye for finding the right people. I mean, you found this guy in a dumpster! That speaks for itself."
I felt Dodger's anger. Anger at me. I had let him down. I had let myself down. And in doing so, he was waist-deep in hot water.
I'm sorry... I'm sorry for you. I'm sorry for your gang. I'm sorry for... for...
I clenched my fist. "I love Diablo Wingz!" I screamed before boring down on my teeth, grinding them so hard, I thought I heard them crack.
The stick struck me again. I cried out, but the tenacity of my teeth successfully muffled and suppressed it. I fell, but I was so scrunched up and tight that I immediately scrambled back to my feet, albeit shaky and wobbly. The thug came over, stood in front of me, and placed his hands on my shoulders. "Let's see how your legs hold up." He pressed down on my shoulders. "Squat!"
I went down. "Up!" he barked, and I responded accordingly. "Down!" and I squatted. "Up! Down! Up! Down! Up! Down!" Every time I did so, I felt my feet and my legs smoldering, like hot coals in a fire, the pain climbing up towards my thighs. He kept going, making me do squats for what seemed like forever. Finally he said, "You're an interesting one, kid. Real interesting, but you do squat well." He began to remove the blindfold. "I'm curious to see what becomes of you a few years down the road." Then, instead of shoving me towards the door, he handed me back to Dodger. "Go. Take him out with the rest. Make sure he knows the handshake."
The man muttered something inaudible, as if in disapproval, but he didn't object. Dodger led me out into the small, narrow corridor, where the other two boys were also waiting. "I'm gonna go fetch Six Splints to come and welcome you to the gang," he said to us. "Don't wander off if you know what's good for you." And he left, leaving the three of us alone, seemingly unsupervised, but with nowhere to go.
There was an awkward silence. We simply stared at each other, the ice so thick you couldn't have cut it with a powered saw. Finally, the older boy came up to me and extended his hand. "I'm Marcos. What's your name?"
"Garrett," I said. I reached out and shook his hand firmly.
The other boy didn't respond. "What's his name?" I asked, gesturing towards him.
"Him? That's Lewis."
"Are you two brothers?"
He shook his head. "I only met him about a week ago. I was at home when I heard a commotion outside. I found him being kicked and yelled at by three men, who were demanding money from him, money that he didn't have, for failing to pay for medicine that he took from them several weeks prior. I gave them the 50 pesos that they demanded, and he's been tagging along with me since." He shrugged. "I didn't have much to offer him; I had been working for my father, but he got arrested a fortnight ago, so I had to ask one of the gang members here for help. After watching me suspiciously for a few days, he decided to let the both of us in."
I looked at the boy. He had stopped cowering, stopped crying at least, and was able to look at me. Somewhat. "Why are you here?" Marcos asked. "So what's your story?"
I straightened my back. "I'm here for my brother, my younger brother. I'm finding a way to get him back to school so he doesn't have to dig through piles of garbage every day."
"You're a scavenger?"
"My entire family is."
He nodded, as if he understood. "I see them all the time. I had to do it once too. It must be a hard life, living off what other people would consider refuse."
Our conversation was interrupted by a loud, high-pitched shrill: "Two hits! All that needs to happen. Me hitting you, you hitting the ground."
The sound came from a nearby room, its door slightly ajar. Very gingerly, the three of us peered inside. Lewis held back, as if an invisible wire was preventing him from moving any further into the danger zone. The room was also bare, save for a single wooden chair amidst concrete walls daubed with graffiti. The wooden chair was occupied by a girl who couldn't have been any older than 16. She was blindfolded, surrounded by two men — one tall and lean, the other short and somewhat stout — and a woman. The short one had a lit cigarette in his mouth, and with every drag he blew a cloud of smoke onto the girl's face. She coughed and gagged, unable to bat away the fumes, for her hands were tied firmly behind her back. The tall one had a two-by-four in his hands, thicker than the one used to beat me.
"I shall ask you again: pain or pleasure?"
"Pain," the girl said firmly.
"Ha!" the short one scoffed. "Wanna end up like your boyfriend whose head got so badly mutilated his skull got exposed?"
"I'd rather die than roll around with you three skinny asses!"
"Oh, I see," the woman said, crossing her arms. "Tough bitch's acting tough today!"
"Nico always brings us these crazy bitches. No wonder the Cobras and the Red Cults are pulling ahead." As he spoke, smoke poured out of the short man's mouth. He leaned in close, allowing the smoke to crawl, almost in a clandestine and stealthy manner, onto the girl's face, filling her nostrils, her mouth, and lingering there. She coughed violently, but from the look and expression on her face, she was far from backing down.
"Pain or pleasure, and you choose pain, huh?" The tall one reached out with the two-by-four, gently brushing the board under the girl's chin, allowing her to feel the roughness, the splinters, on the wood. "Pleasure, you know; pain, you also know. Choose pleasure and this won't continue any further. Choose pain and you'll... Why would you choose otherwise?"
The woman came up to her and grabbed her by the cheeks. The girl shrugged her hands off. "What the fuck!"
"Wow, what words coming from such a prim and proper lady!" the woman said mockingly, imitating a Victorian-era prude. "Say, are you a virgin?"
"Phew!" More smoke was blown onto her face.
The woman slapped her lightly several times across the cheeks and jaw. "Evaluate your options. If you choose pain, you lose that beautiful, beautiful face. If you choose pleasure... so what? You just lose a fucking title."
The tall one jabbed the two-by-four at her chest. "Pain or pleasure?"
The woman slapped her hard across the cheek. "Think again!"
The short one prodded the cigarette into her forehead. "Hmm?!"
The two-by-four jerked her head up violently. "Pain? Served pipin' hot here." The wood board dug in further and further, as if it were a knife going into its victim, ready to do its job. "Your boyfriend got pleasure anyway, when we threw him into the ditch for the rats. They ran over him, under him, into him and between every crevice, every depression, every small corner of his body."
From behind the chair I could see the girl's right middle finger becoming erect. Her three assailants, though, did not notice, for her hands were still tied behind her back, out of sight from anyone who wasn't paying attention.
The tall one leaned in close. "He got what he wanted to avoid," he whispered into her ear. "But he's dead. Dead and fucked."
Silence. I could never have imagined a gang hideout being this quiet. Even the small one didn't seem to give off any noise when he inhaled and exhaled from his cigarette.
"Pick your options carefully: pain, or pleasure?"
The girl's steadfast face was beginning to give way to fear and submission. "P-P-P-P..."
"I better hear what I want to hear!" the short one barked.
"P-Pleasure.... Pleasure, sir."
"Can't hear you!"
"Where are your manners?" the woman said. "Show some respect, bitch!"
The two-by-four was lowered. "Who you talking to?"
The girl sat up and looked directly at him, or wherever she thought he was. "Pleasure, please!"
The three began chuckling. "Shit, Sherwin; hell fuckin' yeah you got this whore goin'!"
"She's a virgin," the woman commented.
"Not anymore, soon she won't." The rope on her hands was removed, but not the blindfold. The woman made her stand up and began to lead her out of the room. The three of us quickly popped back and pretended to act normal as they exited, leading the girl to a small, wretched room at the end of the corridor. An impromptu curtain was drawn, but it wasn't big or wide enough to seal the doorway, leaving a small but sizable gap, a window to what was going on inside. I began to head towards it when I felt a hand on my shoulder.
"I have a really, really bad feeling about what they're gonna do to her in there," Marcos whispered.
I looked at Lewis, but he had turned his back to the scene and covered his ears with his hands. I began to move again when Marcos shook me. "Are you insane?!"
"I have to see what's going on," I responded.
"It'll haunt you for life," Marcos cautioned.
I turned to look at him in the eye. "Then let it haunt me." I shook his hand off and continued down the corridor. Marcos hissed at me, "Don't say I didn't warn you!"
I hid behind the wall and, being careful to remain out of sight, peeked behind the cloth. The room was illuminated by a single bare bulb on the ceiling, casting a harsh, fluorescent glow onto the room's occupants. The girl was standing beside a low-lying bed, containing an old mattress yellowed with age. The concrete walls were clean, being mostly devoid of the obscenities and gang symbols found elsewhere. The woman was standing in front of the girl, her back to me, partially blocking my view. The two men were leaning on the wall, the short one smoking his ever-present cigarette.
"Relax," the woman said soothingly, although I could hear the sarcasm in her voice. "First timer? Don't worry now... everything is going to be fine. Trust me."
The short man offered his taller colleague a cigarette, which he declined.
"Not sure what to do? That's fine. Has to be a first time for everything, no?"
"Get on with it!" the short man barked.
"I'll start." There was a slow, gradual sound of fabric shifting as the woman moved her limbs. The eyes of the two men widened as they followed their gaze on... what? I adjusted my angle slightly to get a better view. The woman's bare feet disappeared as a skirt was lowered over them. One of the men whistled.
The girl was still blindfolded, but it seemed she was able to sense exactly what was going on. Very gingerly, she began to undo the drawstring on her own clothes.
"Turn around and face them."
The girl did not move any further.
"Now!" the woman barked.
Slowly she hobbled, completing a 180° turn like a penguin, shuffling a millimeter at a time.
"Now continue," the woman said slyly. "And be more erotic! You act like my grandmother."
The short man laughed at her comment. The girl continued, squatting lower and lower, the men allowing their eyes to follow her. When she rose again, I could see the harsh white light basking her bare skin with an unsettling halo. I could try to describe the emotions of the men, but it was so... unusual, for I couldn't tell if they were pleased, delighted, disgusted, or mortified. They seemed attracted and drawn to the scene, yet it felt so repulsive and taboo at the same time. I stood there, frozen like a statue, unable to comprehend what I was seeing.
"You look like you've seen a ghost. What's wrong with you?"
I nearly jumped. It wasn't for me, though. "You're so pale. What, I'm not asking you to jump off a bridge."
"I'll take her first," the short one said, discarding his cigarette.
"I got a fucking hard-on," the tall one exclaimed.
"Yeah? Well, so do I." He turned to the girl. "Who's the sexier one, sweetie? Me or him?"
The woman was impressed. "Hey, not bad for your first time! You got a choice."
"Fuck you, man." The tall one straightened his back. "Go with me, and you won't forget my style. Go with him, and you'll only remember his tattoos."
The girl remained silent. She said nothing, even with the three of them poking and prodding her to make a decision. "I'll take her then," the short one finally said, "since she isn't saying anything."
The mattress groaned under the weight of two bodies beginning to recline on it. I saw the girl's face, partially obscured by the body of the taller man, her face perplexed with uncertainty. The stout man popped up, his back to me, bare of clothing to reveal the museum of tattoos he sported. "First timer?" I could hear him saying. "You picked pleasure. Pleasure it is."
Before I could see what was going to happen next, a hand grabbed my shirt from behind and yanked me back. "What the hell are you looking at, perv?"
The face was gruff and unforgiving, and from its appearance he didn't seem to be the least bit friendly or happy with what I was doing. "Don't be a pest. What've you been up to?"
I glanced over at Marcos and Lewis, who were hanging back helplessly. I gave them a look, telling them not to say anything. "Nothing, sir."
He didn't believe me, but he didn't press me onto it. He turned to Marcos and Lewis. "You two are older. Should be smarter. Wiser. Make sure he doesn't go snooping around into anybody's private business again."
The two nodded gingerly.
"You three better be good friends with each other, because you three are going to be together for some time." He gestured to us to follow him.
We were led back into the main room, where the other gangsters were still smoking and chatting. "Reyes!" he called out. "Reyes! Where ya at, dog!"
A head emerged from a cloud of cigarette smoke, almost like an angel poking his head out from a cloud of heaven. He had two women seated next to him, one on each side, their arms wrapped around his chest and torso. "Eh?"
"You got three new brothers here."
Reyes gave him a weak grin. "New? After three years, every kid in this city starts to look the same to me." He gave us a brief visual examination. "Interesting diversity here," he said sarcastically. "First one is tall and lean. Looks like a leader, although tall people tend to have less brains than a scrotum. Middle guy looks like he's had the living daylights whipped out of him. I could hold a mouse in front of him and he'd piss himself in his pants. And the little one..." He looked at me. "How old is he?"
The gruff face looked at me. "How old are you?"
"10. 10, sir."
Reyes's eyes lit up. "10? Small for his age." He took a long, hard look at me, his eyes shifting up and down, left to right, as he inspected my body. "Small, but he looks good. Ya, ya, he's good. Feel like he's got a lot in him. I can feel it." He tapped the two women and they released him. He got up and started to walk over to us. Well, me at least. "Where do you come from?"
"Smokey Mountain," I answered.
"That garbage dump?" he said, surprised. "Never knew scavengers could look that healthy. Name?"
He knelt down so his head was down to my level. "I see it in your eyes, Garrett. I see a fire in your eyes. A fire that most of the animals in this place don't have. You have it in you, Garrett. You have what it takes."
He got up. "I got the hang o' this, Six Splints," he said to the gangster who led us in. "You're free for the night." Turning to us, he said, "Follow me. It's too loud in here; smells like sweat and sex here, doesn't it?"
He led us outside into the alley, where several men and women were mingling. "Here in Diablo Wingz, we have a special handshake. Whenever you meet someone from our gang, you have to do the handshake with them. It's a sign of respect, and a way of knowing who's friendly and who's foe. I'm here to teach you that handshake, and with some practice, you'll be able to do it with your eyes closed." He snapped his fingers and signalled to one of the other boys. "Chapman!" he said, and a teenager stood up. "Help me teach these three the handshake."
The two angled their bodies so we could see what they were doing. "Start with your right hand," he said, raising his hand and arm. His assistant did the same. "Bring 'em together with the palms facin' inward. When your hands meet—" Their hands came together in the middle, making a slapping noise "—curl your fingers, so both of your hands make a fist together. Then, take your left hand, open it, and place it against your fist." He did as he said, and the other did the same. "That's the wing. Together, you make the body and the wings. The fist is diablo, the hands are the wings. You got that?"
We nodded our heads.
"You need us to repeat anything?"
We shook our heads.
"Let's see it, then." He motioned for his assistant to go back. He pointed to the oldest of us. "You there — let's see it."
First the hand. The 'slap'. A curl. Finally, the wing...
"Too slow!" he protested. "What's your name?"
"Don't keep me waiting, Marcos. If you're not on the same step as the person you're doing the handshake with, you'll fuck the whole thing up, and it looks bad. Try again!"
He tried again, this time a little bit faster. "Still too slow! Whole thing shouldn't take any longer than four seconds. You're taking five!"
Again. This time, he made it under the four second limit, but "now your technique is off. You're not curling your fingers, you're just massaging my palm!"
There was a laugh from the crowd behind him. "Shut up!" he roared. "C'mon, Marcos, they're laughin' at you."
He did it again. And again. And again, until finally the mobster shrugged and said, "Alright, close enough. Practice it on your own." He pointed to Lewis. "You ready?"
No, I'm not, I thought I heard him say.
"No longer than four seconds, and no palm massaging. Learn from other people's mistakes." He had less success with Lewis, who acted as if Reyes's hands were covered in slime. "C'mon, boy, I never sneezed into my hands!" he snapped. "I'm not the bogeyman. And stand up straight when you do the handshake! Confidence, boy, show me some confidence; I ain't your enemy."
I watched Lewis as he received his dose of verbal fireworks from the crime boss: "Too slow, God dammit!" ... "You're being a massage therapist like the guy before you!" ... "Jeez, you look weak and pathetic! What, did you get the shit beaten out of you as a child?" Finally, he was released with a rough shove. "Practice with Marcos over there you... What's your name?"
He didn't respond. "Huh?! What is your name?" Reyes repeated.
"He's Lewis," I piped up.
"Okay, Lewis, get some practice over there. Marcos, you better do it right and swell for him!"
Marcos swallowed and nodded nervously.
"Alright then, kid," he said, motioning for me to come over. "Let's see how you roll."
I eyed Lewis briefly before refocusing my attention on the mobster. "The Wingz needs new members that grow up fast and learn quickly. So far, I'm not too entirely impressed with these freshies." He looked at me right in the eye. "Let's see what you got."
He extended his hand out towards me. I did not hesitate; witnessing just how fiery his attitude could become with my two new partners was enough for me. I brought my hand up to his and curled my fingers, forming a fist. My left hand came up, forming the wing. Together, the final compilation looked almost like a butterfly.
"Not bad," he remarked. "Not perfect, but for a new recruit and for a ten-year-old kid..." He looked at me again. "Who brought you in here?"
"Dodger. Dodger did."
Reyes's eyes widened. "Really? The same guy who brought in a shithead a while ago?" He laughed, but seemed to believe me. "I'll have a talk with him. Thought he was the most useless piece of turd to walk the planet until today, when he brought you out of the blue." He thumped me on the back, not in an unkind manner, but almost as a compliment. "You'll be ballin', my friend. You'll see what I mean." And with that, he turned around and headed back inside.
Eyes were watching me, I could feel it. Eyes from Marcos, eyes from Lewis, eyes from the minglers who had stopped chatting. "Shit, man, some ten-year-old impressed Reyes on his first day!" someone said.
"What's his name?"
"Where does he come from?"
"Is he actually ten?"
"No fucking way!"
"Damn... the Cobras and the Red Cults will be salty once they hear about this."
"Nah, I don't think they'll give a shit one way or another. To them, he's just a ten-year-old boy. To us, he could be our secret weapon."
"Ha, yeah, could be. Who knows, he might be dead tomorrow morning."
"Or in jail."
"Give 'im a chance!"
"He's had a chance, hasn't he?"
"Let's just see where he is tomorrow, alright?"
Marcos gave me a gentle tap on the shoulder. "Stand firm," he said. "You'll make it through. Even I have to say that you have it in you. Something fuels you from within."
I looked back at Lewis. "What about your friend there?"
He sighed. "He'll be fine." He studied me again. "Are you really ten years old?"
"You're the oldest, young person I've ever met." He smiled at his own joke, but he was serious in his own words. "Don't give up, Garrett. Never give up. You've got a long road ahead of you." He gave me another reassuring pat before turning around to tend to Lewis.
There was no sleep for me that night. The events of the day kept replaying in my mind over and over again.
The hideout... The gangsters... The drinking and smoking... The 'Wingz Treatment'... The Handshake... The... the...
It would not leave me alone, would not leave my mind no matter how much or how hard I tried to will it to go away. The scene where they interrogated and tortured the girl. The scene where they led her into the room. The scene where they made her take off her clothes. And the scene where...
I hated to know. The very sights I had seen today had me appalled. It was so gruesome, so morbid, so blasphemous in their very nature. Something was holding me back, an invisible force that told me to stay away. I had seen the tears on Lewis's face, the cigarette smoke crawling into the girl's nose, the philosophy on toughening up their newest recruits...
No... not this... I wouldn't do this for anything. Not for a million pesos could one hope to make me do this. This was no place for a child — or any sensible human being, for that matter — to be. This was a place where people were looted, beaten, raped. It was a place where the absence of rules was the rule, where the strong take from the weak, and where the winners reap their illicit awards.
I can't be here... I can't! This was why my mother stopped worrying about my father, why she stopped caring about Julio. She was furious that they had turned to a life like this, a life where they could fight and steal and have as much intimacy as they wanted. The money they earned was but one of many rewards to be earned in a life of crime.
I covered my eyes with my hands. Oh, Lord... Help me!
I don't want to be here any longer. Just want to leave this place, this place of horrid sins, leave and go home to my... to my...
I opened my eyes again. My brother... my brother my brother my brother... He's the reason why I'm here. My mind raced back to the night where I had told him, had promised him, that I would make it all okay.
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.
I'll come home, I promise.
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 clenched my fist. No... forget what I said earlier. I will stay. Stay and get shot, maybe, but I will stay. I will keep going. I won't stop until I get what I need, what he needs. And I know I'll come home. I will come home.
For my little brother.
|For my little brother by Enoch Leung