For my little brother/Friend In Me
A Talk with God
|For my little brother by Enoch Leung
Friend In Me
Friend In Me
"Everyone up!" the guard barked.
It was a tight squeeze, with everyone standing up straight amidst the limited floor space available. There were small boys sandwiched between their bigger, taller cellmates, shielded from the guard's field of vision. According to him, they didn't exist, for they practically disappeared like a drop of water in an ocean, a fallen kernel in a massive cornfield.
The door was unlocked. "We can squeeze in one more." A boy, I assumed, was shoved inside, though I couldn't see him with the crowd of heads and bodies in the way. "Like I said, don't start anything that'll earn you a few more scars." Door closed, then locked. As soon as the guards were out of sight, the inmates stirred and returned to their original positions.
The boy had an ugly scar on his left cheek, a large one that began at his ear, stretching across his face before stopping just short of the mouth. His hair was black, but the tips were dyed blonde. His face wielded a mask of resilience and steadfastness, yet appeared to be whipped and defeated, as if he had his wits beaten out of him. His figure was slim, his arms and legs having lost some of their muscle mass.
I found myself staring at him. I looked over to my right. The "newer" boys who stared at me when I was first thrown into the cell had their eyes fixed on the prison's newest resident as well. I directed my gaze back at him. He was seated on the wall, his knees up, his hands over his face, like what I had done on my first day. I remembered trying to fight the tears, trying not to cry, especially not in front of everybody else, not wanting to look weak. He was doing that now, albeit with limited success.
Go. Talk to him.
I looked up, searching for the origin of the voice, but came back fruitless. Talk to him, the voice repeated.
"What? Why? Nobody spoke to me when I first showed up."
I brought him here in this very cell for you to do something for me, the voice said. I brought him here so you could reveal me to him.
Huh? What was He trying to get me to do?
Do not be afraid — remember that I am with you. I love all my children; I want all of them to receive my grace. But they need to know about me first. Your mother showed me to you, which is why you were able to receive me. I need you to do that here — many here are unlit candles. I am the flame, the one who inhabits your candle right now. I do not go out when you use the candle to light an unlit one; instead, I spread and burn in both. I've chosen you to bring my light into the dark lives of other people. I need you to help me save my children, my lost sheep.
I took a deep breath. Don't be afraid... The candle doesn't go out when you light another one... Save His lost sheep...
I got up and headed towards him. The boys who had been staring at the newcomer now had their eyes on me, as if surprised at what I was doing. If ignoring new cellmates was the status quo around here, I was breaking it. I knelt down beside him. "You alright?" I asked.
He looked at me through his fingers, eyes red from crying, but he didn't say anything. After a moment, his eyes disappeared behind his hands again.
Sit down next to him, the voice advised. Get down to his level. Above all, be patient. You are representing me; you are his first impression of me.
I sat down, resting my back against the wall, knees up, in a similar position to his. For a while, we sat quietly, letting the time pass by. I did not know what to say, wasn't sure what to do other than to sit and think. Above all, be patient. You are representing me, you are his first impression of me...
"I... well, I was here for trying to rob a jewellery store. I was doing it for a gang, one that offered me money and a roof to sleep under if I did as I was told. I entered the jewellery store with two other boys, but we got caught. I tried to run away, but got cornered in an alley by the police. They pinned me into the ground and handcuffed me. I tried to resist, but one of them hit me, hit me really hard with his baton. I've never felt such pain before in my life until that moment. The other two boys ran off when they saw me being pushed into the backseat of a police car." I paused. "I felt... betrayed when I saw that happening. I thought they were my friends..."
The boy looked up sharply, his face wet from all the crying. "Leave me alone," he said. "Don't bother me."
I inhaled deeply, then exhaled. Off to a great start. All I wanted was a chat and here I was getting told off.
Above all, be patient.
Several minutes passed. I could sense the tension in him beginning to deescalate, and decided to try again. "I came from a poor family, living by Smokey Mountain. Every day we had to go to that landfill and dig around the piles of trash, looking for something to resell. Sometimes we would find still-edible food in there, and we'd eat it and save some money. Sometimes we'd get sick if we didn't clean it properly, didn't cook it well enough. But if we didn't eat it, we'd starve."
"I don't need to hear your sappy stories!"
I looked up, as if to plead for help, beg for assistance. Don't leave him. Don't give up on him. He needs me.
I swallowed a lump in my throat. "I left home because of it, didn't want to condemn myself to a life of garbage-scrounging. I looked for a way to earn money, enough of it to bail my family out of the pit they lived in. I probably went down a path that I'd later regret taking." Inhale. Exhale. Then, "But I wasn't doing it for myself..."
The figure beside me grabbed my shirt and shook me violently. His eyes were beet red, anger having driven all the tears away. "I asked you to shut up and leave me alone! I've been through enough already, and now I'm here to rot in this place for who-knows-how-long! Why don't you just leave me to myself?"
I was frozen, motionless, a look of surprise on my face. Well, about as motionless as the figure's hands would let me be. His breathing was heavy like a dragon, ready to spew forth hell at any moment. He was like a bull ready to charge, a bomb ready to explode, a fire ready to flare. But the moment passed, and something within him caused the flames to wane, extinguishing them. The fury disappeared, his grip loosened, and he retreated back into himself, the tears returning with greater intensity.
Was it something I said?
I remained absolutely still. I felt like I had struck a nerve there, touched upon something that disturbed him greatly, the visible ends of a string that led to something deep. I was afraid to probe further, for I didn't want to intrude, but the voice in my head again spoke: Share your own story, and he'll be more comfortable sharing his. Let your burdens out; don't keep them in.
I sighed, but the voice reprimanded me for even considering getting up and leaving him on his own. You're not the only one here who could use some help. I brought you two together to give you both an opportunity to heal.
Trying again. "Hey... no hard feelings. I'm not trying to make you pity me; it's just easier if we tell our... stories... and get this weight off our shoulders."
"Y-You can go t-t-talk to a wall."
"But a wall doesn't listen as well as a person does." I tried to relax, tried not to look like a paperclip. "I won't tell anyone else if you don't want me to."
He buried his face into his own shirt as the tears became too heavy and populous for his own hands to catch. I could see drops of water soaking through the fabric, and it was evident for everybody else in the room that he was crying, but he didn't seem to care. He seemed defeated, ready for his grave.
Like how I felt only yesterday...
"I left home for my brother's sake, my younger brother," I continued. "My father left home two years ago, hoping to find money for the family, but he got corrupted and never came home. He didn't send us anything, not even a sign that he was still alive. Without him, scavenging became more difficult, and me and my two brothers had to leave school to work on the mountain. It saddened me to leave school, and perhaps my older brother felt it as well. But it killed my younger brother — he was only four at the time. I hated seeing him on the mountain instead of at school, and he wanted to go back as well. But we couldn't afford it — the money we made was only barely enough to feed all of us.
"Then, a year ago, my older brother left home, again looking for money, though whether it was for the family or for himself, he seemed vague about. My mother feared the worst for an entire month until he came home, although for him, it was hardly home. He had a gold chain around his neck and several tattoos on his arm, and had been on the streets selling drugs. My mother was furious when she learned about this and threw him out, wouldn't accept a centavo from him. After that, he comes home only once in a while, though he never speaks to anyone. According to my mother, he doesn't exist.
"One evening, my little brother asked me whether or not he could go to school again. I've said 'No' to this question many times before, but always felt guilty afterwards, for it always left him in tears. So that night, I promised him instead that I'd find a way to get him back to school, get him off the mountain, keep the food on the table, and that even if I couldn't, I would come home, no matter what. I left home two days later, hoping — praying — that I wouldn't go down the same path my father and older brother went down, a path that would alienate me from home. I had hoped that the thought of my younger brother would keep me on the path, keep me from falling. But who knows how successful that was? My father had completely disappeared off the face of the earth; my older brother could be anywhere in the city having a shootout. As for me, I got arrested after trying to rob a jewellery store. I saw my companions flee the scene as the police handcuffed me. I feared the worst, that I may never be able to keep the promise I made to my younger brother, which is why I tried to fight. I was beaten, and then marched into prison with a gun behind my back.
"Just yesterday, my mother and younger brother visited me. I felt terrible seeing my brother behind the fence; he must've thought that I had failed, that I wouldn't be able to make it home again. He was crying, and the sight mortified me. I realized that, when I left home, I made him poorer than he already was. I wanted to give him a future, give him an education, give him the richness he deserved. But he was already rich when he had me. He found peace at night because he knew I slept right next to him, within arm's reach. He found confidence when he was on the mountain because he knew I was never too far away to help him. He knew that, if he ever felt lonely, if he needed someone to talk to, someone to answer his questions or share his secrets with, he had me. Now that I'm gone, he spends every night all alone in his room. I wanted to make him rich, and in doing so made him broke. I tried to remind him of my promise, the promise that I would come home, but he seemed to have lost his hope, his faith in me. I fear he has convinced himself that I will never be able to go home."
I glanced to my right. The boy had stopped moping in his shirt and had turned to look at me. He was gaping, tears still slowly coming out of his eyes. "What... What happened to him?" he asked, somewhat timidly, as if he were afraid of breaking me with his words.
"I don't know," I responded. "I hope he hasn't forgotten about me, hope he still believes I can come home, that I can still see him again. Until then, I know that every day and every night is an agony for him, knowing that his favourite person in the world is sitting behind bars. And every day and every night is an agony for me, knowing that I was the one who started this whole debacle."
"What about your brother's schooling?" He sat up, attentive, wanting to know more. He had stopped crying. "If you stayed home, what would your brother think?"
I didn't respond immediately. "I guess he'll be rich, but never knows it. Always thinking he's poor." It felt funny to say it, but: "I think getting separated is the best thing that's ever happened to the both of us."
"Huh?" The boy was confused. "But... But you just said that you regretted doing this!"
"I guess it makes sense when they say you can love and hate something at the same time." I closed my eyes, trying to picture my brother. "Suffering can bring us closer together. Pain makes us value comfort more. Hatred makes us value love more."
Now it was the boy's turn to be completely speechless. I could tell he was lost in thought, the way he focused his eyes on a spot, almost exactly like my brother when he was contemplating the hard questions in life. Finally, he said, "I'm... I'm sorry, I—"
"I don't need people to feel sorry for me," I responded in a somber tone. I wanted to say more, but I could feel the tears coming back, like they were always after me. I bit down hard on my tongue, and it hurt.
He shifted uncomfortably, as if he felt pressured to share his story now that I had shared mine. He played with his fingers absentmindedly, drumming them against each other, forming intricately random patterns. Finally, he said, "I guess we do share some similarities. None of this will make sense, however, unless I start from the beginning...
"It started when my younger brother was born. Like you, I was the middle child of the family. I have an older sister, two years older than me. When I was four, I was about to have a little sister, but she was stillborn, and my mother almost died. But she managed to recover, and when I was seven, she gave birth to my little brother. Things started going downhill from there.
"When my brother was about a month old, my father began to drink and smoke. He complained about how we were all a burden on him and that we were all staying at home instead of trying to find food for the family to eat, despite the fact that me and my sister had all dropped out of our studies to find work. My mother was still weak and shaken by her near-death experience, and found it difficult even to stay home and raise my brother. My father would often get into arguments with my mother, and it always ended with him leaving the slum we lived in and slamming the door. But he would always come back the next morning.
"This continued for several more years. When my brother was three, my father's drinking and smoking worsened, and he began to shove and hit us. He hit my mother, he hit my sister, he hit me. On more than one occasion he would try to hit my brother, blaming him for the whole ordeal, saying that he was the reason we were beginning to go hungry. My mother, who would normally retreat into a corner and whimper at the sight of his tantrums, would suddenly get violent and fight back with ferocity whenever my father approached my brother. Oftentimes my mother would ask me and my sister to take my brother out of the house, and all night my brother would be crying. Crying as he heard my parents continuing their fight.
"My brother's fourth birthday was the worst day of his life. I came home late one evening, exhausted and sweaty after an entire day of work. I could hear my mother and my father fighting. The TV was on, and my sister explained that my mother had hoped it would keep my brother occupied, keep his mind off what was going on. But my parents had gotten so loud and so violent, not even a cherry bomb could've attracted more attention. My father had a bottle, still half-full of liquor, in his left hand; with his right he would strike my mother whenever he felt it was necessary, which was, for him, almost all the time. My mother wanted to leave him, take her belongings and us and move away from him. He was irate, and threatened to kill her if she left. But my mother was firm in her decision, and soon she had us ready to leave. My mother was about to set foot out the door when my father grabbed a bolo knife and raised it up in the air, ready to strike. My sister quickly got in front of mother to protect her, I quickly got in front of my sister. The knife sliced through the air, hitting my face like a bullet. I fell to the ground, feeling and tasting blood on my face. I had been cut across the left cheek; that explains the scar, which I still have today. I don't know if it will heal.
"My mother and my sister picked me up and started dragging me out of the house. My father followed, yelling at me, saying how foolish I was for getting in the way. He threw insults at my mother and my sister, the language was so foul I couldn't possibly say it out loud. With every word that spewed from his mouth, I got angrier. I began to clench my fists and teeth, my wound beginning to bleed faster as I did so. My mother was pleading with me to turn around and run, to get away from my father. But I wouldn't listen, continued to let the fire burn in me, continued to try and stare my father down. Eventually, he said something about my brother, and I know you're curious to know what he said. I can't bear to say it — it was so awful and malicious — but I lost it then. Nobody should ever dare to say such a thing, not to anyone in my family, not even from my father. I broke free from my mother's and my sister's grasp and lashed out at him, but he was much too quick for me. He kicked me in the stomach, so hard that it knocked all the air out of my lungs. As I tried to catch my breath, he towered over my body and raised the knife in the air, and for a moment, I thought I was going to die, slain by my own father."
He paused to brush a tear from his eyes. I realized that I had been holding my breath the entire time, completely dumbfounded at what he had to say. "How did you get out of there? How did you... survive?"
"My brother began crying, the situation becoming too much for him to handle. It was so unsettling that even my father looked up. While he was distracted, my mother and my sister rushed in and pulled me out of there. We ran off into the night, didn't stop running until we were a good distance away from him. We sought shelter in an alley when it began to rain. After I had coughed up blood and cleaned my wounds to the best of my abilities, I stayed up the entire night crying. I thought my life from now on was destined to be on the streets forever.
"Without the income my father provided, we needed to find a way to support ourselves entirely. Me and my sister took to stealing to get the food and money we needed to get by. Some days, we couldn't find half the things we needed, and we would often go hungry so my little brother could eat. My mother fought hard, but every day she grew weaker and weaker. One morning, she begged us to stay strong and to care for my brother. 'I can't go on,' I remember her saying. 'You two will need to be his parents.' A few minutes later, she fell silent. She had stopped breathing.
"Life became more difficult, especially for my brother. We often had to leave him alone so that we could find enough food during the day to eat. I began to take bigger risks in order to find more of what we needed. Sometimes, I got into fights with other people over food, often with boys my age, but sometimes with older, bigger people. I remember being cornered in an alley, a pineapple under my shirt as I tried to flee with it. I was knocked down and kicked repeatedly, over and over, until I gave up the fruit. I was sore, throbbing with pain in every inch of my body, but nothing hurt more than the thought that we spent an entire night without anything in our stomachs, an entire night of hunger that kept us awake. I felt it, my sister felt it. But my little brother felt it worst of all.
"Yesterday I tried to rob a grocery store, looking for food to feed my little brother, but I got caught and ran away. I hid in an old building, hoping to spend the night there until the police forgot about me, but someone in the building spotted me and led the cops there. I tried to escape by jumping out the window, but one of the officers grabbed my pants and dragged me back inside. I fought them, wriggling out of their grasp, at one point trying to tackle one of them to get out. One of them took out their baton and hit me in the back. The pain was unbearable, so great to the point that it immobilized me. I was completely helpless when they dragged me out and brought me here. I bad-mouthed one of the guards who were tormenting me; that's why they were so angry at me when they locked me up in here. They told me that I was completely useless, and that the only place fit for me was prison. And that's that. That's why I'm here, my permanent home for me to rot in for the rest of my life."
He buried his face into his hands again. "You're lucky — you got to see what remained of your family again. I didn't. They probably don't even know I'm here."
I was silent as he began to sob. I felt a little guilty; after all, he had been through so much more than I have. My father, as much of a "demon" he was according to my mother, never raised a hand against any of us. He never hit us or yelled at us, save for the times I did something wrong. And I had left home despite the fact that we were still able to find food to eat, that we still had some money and a roof to sleep under. He, on the other hand, had nothing. He had no choice but to steal in order to survive. He had been slashed with a knife, kicked and beaten on the streets until he was completely bruised, and he had done it all to save his own family, while I merely got clubbed and punched in the gut because of my own faults, my own ignorance.
I was unsure of what to say or what to do. I felt like I was in no position to offer any condolences, my own story appearing petty before his. The most I could offer was: "I'm sure that, someday, you'll be able to go back to them."
The moment was shattered by a gruff, familiar barking: "Hey you! New kid!"
We both turned to the owner of the voice. It was the same boy who had attacked me yesterday. "Get me some water, will ya?"
The figure beside me rose to his feet. "Go get it yourself, buttcheeks! You're closer to the water container than I am!"
The king of the cell pretended to be surprised. He got up and flexed his arm muscles, revealing well-toned, well developed biceps and triceps. "Do I need to explain myself any further?"
"Yeah, you very well need to! Who made you the lazy, heartless despot that you are right now?"
"What'd you just call me?" The voice was dangerously soft and low.
"What part of my comment did you not understand? The 'lazy', the 'heartless', or the 'despot'?"
The cell fell silent. Everyone, except maybe the new kid, knew exactly what was going to happen. They stopped and stared, and very gingerly tried to distance themselves from the debacle.
The king began marching over to where we stood. "Make up your mind, kid," he snarled.
I felt like slinking back as he approached. He was taller and bigger than both of us, and his attitude was red hot like a furnace. Anyone who was smart enough would've turned on their heels and ran away. Yesterday I submissively accepted my reward from him, like a deer staring into oncoming headlights, waiting to be run over. The boy I had been chatting with, though, puffed up his own chest, trying to make himself look bigger. I saw him clenching his hands into fists. He looked completely unafraid at the hulk in front of him. It was like David versus Goliath, but I was almost certain that Goliath would win this round.
"I asked for a glass of water, not a sample of your sass."
"You want a glass of water? Go pour it yourself. I'm not your mother."
"You're not my mother. But I am the one who runs this place."
"And who made you king here?"
"I disagree with your half-assed reign."
"And I disagree with your bloody face!"
The arm stiffened. I quickly shot out and grabbed it before it could strike anything. "This is a bad idea; just pour him the glass of water."
The boy turned around to give me a funny look and said, "Are you crazy?! I'm not kissing this guy's feet!"
"Just do it!" I insisted. "Yesterday I refused to pour him a glass of water, and he punched me in the gut for it. Hurt like hell, and I got nothing from it except pain. If you fight him, he'll just beat you senseless and get someone else to do it."
The boy didn't respond. I could tell he was still fuming, fire still burning inside of him. "Do as he asks," I said. "It's easier to just follow through than it is to fight."
His breathing was deep, about as deep as a raging bull. He glared at Goliath, then back at me. "Please," I begged. "Let it go, let it go..."
Giving Goliath one last glance, he strode off towards the plastic container of water in the corner. He wouldn't look at his would-be assailant in the eye, unscrewing the lid, filling the cup, replacing the lid and the container. Goliath smiled smugly to himself, and without another word, resumed what he was doing beforehand.
The atmosphere relaxed. When things had mostly returned to normal, the boy leaned over and whispered, "That guy's a serious dick."
"Just because he's a dick doesn't mean you have to be one. I learned that the hard way."
The boy ran his hands through his hair. "I just don't want anyone to see me as weak or 'soft'. I'm not weak! I'm not soft! I ran in front of a knife, for hell's sake! I'm strong... I tell myself that I am strong."
Brave. Strong. Hard. The words echoed through my mind as I thought of last night. Brave. Strong. Hard.
"My name means 'brave, strong, hard'. My mother named me for that reason. And in some ways... I am."
"What's your name, by the way?"
"Garrett," I responded. I extended my hand for a handshake. "Brave, strong, and hardy Garrett."
"At birth my parents called me Richard, but everyone calls me Ricky now." He shook my hand. "Garrett... sounds like a tough name."
I'm not tough. I'm a miserable wreck. I was a coward and a fool and an idiot. I don't deserve the name "Garrett". I don't deserve what I've been given. These compliments are just a bunch of...
"Yeah," I said, trying to smile, smile my thoughts away. "I guess I am tough. And so are you."
A Talk with God
|For my little brother by Enoch Leung
Friend In Me