For my little brother/My Promise

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First chapter For my little brother by Enoch Leung
My Promise
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"Sometimes being a brother is even better than being a superhero."
— Marc Brown

My Promise[edit]

The ground was warm and unsettling, about as warm as the air that sat above it. The crunching of plastic was audible as I walked, stirring whatever was hiding underneath the surface. In the distance, I could see smoke rising, a weak breeze blowing some of it over at me. The strong, pungent smell of burning copper, plastics, toxicity, hovered over me like a cloud, filling my lungs. It was like waving a gigantic flag, signalling for Death to come and pay us an early visit.

I dug my hands into the earth — polluted dirt as they say — and groped around looking for anything worth extracting. Bottles. Containers. Milk jugs. Bubble wrap, even. Whatever that was thrown out and discarded by its original owner was a bounty, at best the ability to afford food for another day. Anything that wasn't too badly damaged or could be easily cleaned up and repaired was gathered and collected to be sold later on.

My hands came across something rough, its sides filled with grooves and patterns. I pulled, slowly at first, and then with a sharp yank, using my feet as support to keep myself upright as I leaned backwards to get at whatever I had found. Finally, it popped free, sending me tumbling down the hill. I fortunately had little to travel before I reached the bottom.

I looked at my hands. A plastic jug, otherwise intact except for a small tear near the spout. I placed it gently into a bag filled with my total finds for the day and resumed searching, digging, "scavenging".

It's a life nobody wants to live. Nobody came here because they loved the smell and sight of garbage. They came because they had a choice, a very simple one: they could sit in their homes and starve, or go to the mountains of litter and recycle whatever they can find, reselling them to provide for their empty stomachs. Many of these people had families, and only those who were sane would live here if it meant their children could at least be fed.

I looked up. The sun was beginning to set, staining the clouds in the sky with a dirty yellow. I gathered my findings into my arms and began to descend the hill. "Smokey Mountain", they called it, named for the smoke that frequently arose from the hill as tires, copper, wood, even coal, were burned by the locals. The air is toxic. Every minute I stand breathing it kills me a little bit inside. But I would die faster if I avoided the hill altogether, for the hill meant money. Money to buy food. The hill often provided us with food itself. Food, discarded food, from the various restaurants and food courts across the city. It is cleaned and cooked, and then eaten. We call it pagpag, and if it's cleaned and cooked properly, it is safe to eat.

The day begins early in the morning, when the garbage trucks come and unload their cargo onto the mountain, having collected it from around the city overnight. Scavengers — people who make their living picking from the scraps of Smokey Mountain — flock to the trucks like sheep to a shepherd, lost souls to Jesus, as the trucks brought them what they needed to survive. The early bird gets the best worms, while those who arrive late can only hope there is something valuable still buried deep beneath the filth. They had to work quickly as well, collecting as much as their arms could carry before workmen, seated in large digging machines, shovelled the garbage into barges docked nearby. They were hoping to prevent another Smokey Mountain from appearing, after the original dump was closed by the government several years ago. Trying to avoid another artificial hill that echoed the sounds of wasted, discarded souls, a shameful symbol of the poverty in the city.

I placed my loot beside a group of women, who were counting and sorting the heaps of garbage into different bags. Everything had to be carefully organized and measured for scavengers to receive a fair payment for their work. On a good, profitable day, a scavenger could hope to make up to 500 pesos. It was usually enough to feed themselves and their family for at least one more day. A woman began to go through the things I had found, examining everything closely for rejects. Some things she set aside, knowing that they were far too mangled and damaged to be reused. A number of others she tossed into the bags, ready to see life again. Finally, she reached into her pockets, counted 10 pesos, and handed it to me. "God bless your family," she said.

I took the money without argument. Any amount that one could hope to earn in this place was a luxury, a blessing, a gift. If you got angry and tried to debate with the women who paid you, they could simply close the discussion by sending you home empty-handed. It was easier to accept their judgement as fair than it was to try and entice them to give you more. Every little bit that I earned went to feeding my mother, my younger brother, and myself. It was just enough to get by, just enough to survive, but nothing more.

All over Smokey Mountain were huts, impromptu shelters, erected using whatever material was available nearby. Most of them were scrap metal, hammered and screwed together haphazardly, rusting at the edges. A few of them were solid, wooden structures that fared poorly when faced with an errant spark from a nearby fire. None of them had running water, no toilets or indoor plumbing, and most could only receive electricity at night, when the generator was running. The generator could not run 24 hours a day, and could not keep all the lights on, due to its age and condition. Most families used portable lamps and flashlights instead to save on electricity, a few daring to use candles in their flammable construction. The ground was slightly squishy, almost like sponges, due to the compacted layers of trash underneath, making for a very poor foundation. Landslides were not uncommon, burying houses and bodies underneath to later be excavated by hungry scavengers. There was no set system for handling the dead — people who died simply disappeared.

I was fortunate not to have to live on the mountain. Surrounding the landfill were large towers, government housing projects built to house the dislocated when the original Smokey Mountain dump was shut down. Inside, units were so small and uncomfortable that residents only used them for sleeping, living their lives instead in the communal areas. At the base of the towers were a vast quantity of slums that housed those "fortunate" enough not to be in government housing. It was in one of these houses that I lived, dwarfed and sandwiched by the towers and the mountain. At times, the mountain seemed taller than the towers themselves, acting like its own addition, its own spot, in the city's skyline.

I turned down the street I lived on. The houses seemed small and dreary, as if they were shrubs and bushes on the forest floor, having their share of sunlight stolen by the bigger trees in the canopy above them. A few of them had their lights on, still others with smoke rising from their chimneys. The door to my house was open. I entered the house and placed my arms around my mother, who was seated in a chair, lost in her thoughts.

"Ma," I said, "I'm home."

She nodded slightly and pointed to a bowl of food. Pagpag: meat and vegetables salvaged from garbage, cleaned and then cooked. A few spoonfuls of rice as well. Looks like she was able to go and buy some today, I thought. I took the bowl and sat down on the couch, eating very slowly and carefully. Any wasted food is money wasted, and thus we hardly ever wasted food. Food dropped on the ground had to be eaten, as it was too precious to lose.

My brother, my younger brother Evan, was beside me. He was four years junior to me, being only two months past his sixth birthday. He hugged me closely and laid his head on my shoulder, like he always did every day when I came home from the mountain. I put my right arm around his body and we sat there together, quietly eating, contemplating. I often thought about my monotonous life and how I wished, oh just wished, for something to turn the tide, something to create ripples in my life, something to make it interesting, and at the very end, something to free us from our own prison. As for him... I was never entirely sure what Evan thought of.

My older brother, Julio, was in the lounge chair, seated perpendicular to it, his head and his feet jutting out from the sides. He was seldom home, often being gone for weeks at a time. My mother was initially angry, then timid, then sad. Soon, she simply began ignoring him, looking past his shoulders and not cooking his meals. He was barely affected, as he always seemed to be able to find something for himself to eat, never sharing any of it with the family. He did little, if anything, to help us, like he was doing now, staring fixedly at the ceiling, lacking any purpose, any job, any role in the house.

About two years ago, my father left the family. He told us that he was moving to a different part of the city, where he heard there was lots of work and prosperity. I remember the night before he left, when I could hear my mother and my father arguing with each other. Mother was crying, father was determined to leave. "I will send you money, any amount that I make," my father said. "It is for our children, and for our sake; we cannot live our entire lives picking from the dump and eating pagpag!" But my mother would not approve. "No amount of money could console me knowing that you have become a criminal!"

Father was gone the next morning, leaving behind my brokenhearted mother to care for her three sons. Money became tight, and we barely had enough on the table to feed half of us. While a few local schools offered free classes, my mother felt that our education was less important than our very ability to survive, even if it meant working at Smokey Mountain for the rest of our lives. So we forwent school, and all three of us instead became scavengers, gathering recyclables from the mountain of garbage to be resold. Without our father's strength and guidance, we together were only able to provide just enough money to feed everyone. None of us had time to study or do anything else.

A year later, Julio became sick of scavenging. Early one morning, as we were leaving for the mountain, he turned in the opposite direction and, with a small, almost insignificant wave, walked away from us. He didn't come back that evening. My mother became distressed, wondering where her son went. She asked our neighbours, asking if they had seen him, but he had seemingly vanished. About a month later, he came back a completely different person, as if aliens had abducted him and altered his personality. My mother was relieved... and relief turned to anger as she questioned my brother. Julio gave her — and us — the cold shoulder for a few days. He did not explain to us where he got his gold necklace or the tattoos on his arm until one evening, when he finally broke his silence. He had joined a street gang, specialized in the production and transportation of shabu. I later learned this to be a byword for methamphetamine. He claimed that he did it to try and bring home some money, something for the family to use, but my mother would not accept the money he produced from his pockets. "I won't lay a finger on that dirty money of yours!" He begged, pleaded, for mother to accept the cash, before he threw it in my direction, making it snow pesos all around me. "Take it, Garrett," he said before leaving the house.

I stared at the money before my feet. Money meant food, schooling, a future. I bent down to pick it up, but my mother slapped my hand away. "I will not use money from the Devil!" She swept the money into a big pile outside and, much to my surprise, set it on fire. All the neighbours came running, trying to beat out the flames, get their hands at the money, accusing my mother of "wasting what we could all use to eat!" My mother had no response. She retreated to her room, and from her closed door, I could hear her cry.

After that, he came back only intermittently. One day he's home, the next he isn't. When he did come home, he never ate with us, claiming that he had already eaten. My mother no longer prepared his portion of dinner, let alone acknowledged his presence. He never spoke to any of us unless he needed to, which was uncommon. He was about as foreign to me as a Martian, an extraterrestrial.

That's him right now. If I burst into flames and burned to ashes right now, I don't think he would've raised an eyebrow.

Evening stretched into the night. I looked up at the clock and tapped my younger brother lightly on the shoulder. "It's time for bed, Evan."

My brother rose and made his way to the bedroom. He half-walked, half-sulked. I knew how much he wanted to go to school, to not go to the mountain, to not have to rummage through people's garbage to eat. I hated seeing him like that, seeing his childhood spoiled, wasted, discarded. I close my eyes and tried to imagine happier days... days when the mountain was our playground. Days when, after school, we would climb to the top and come bounding back down as fast as our legs could carry us, leaping over heads and obstacles as we went. We were still poor, still had to eat pagpag, still had to live in a cramped house on a miserable street. But what we lacked in physical possessions, we had an abundance of love and energy to share, to go around.

Looks like we ran out.

I looked to my left. My mother had busied herself with housework, cleaning the floor, the table, the furniture. With so little space in the house, she'll be done in no time. I looked at my older brother and shrugged. Who cares about him? I thought. He's doing just fine on his own. I got up, splashed my face, and then my hair, with water. Water was such a precious commodity that even a shower was far too wasteful. We supposedly had running water, but service was erratic and whatever came out of the sink was often murky and filthy. Some say that those in the government housing buildings used all of the water, leaving none for us. All of our water had to be bought from reservoirs and hauled by hand in large jerrycans, which didn't come cheap. And without our father, water was our gold. The most we could do to keep clean was a sponge bath, which left the washcloth black from all the grime. Eventually, I forwent the cloth and scrubbed myself the best I could with my bare hands. I looked somewhat clean after that, at least.

The bedroom was dark. My brother had already gone to sleep, or at least, I thought he had. I removed my shirt and, trying to keep quiet, tiptoed to the spot where I slept and lay there. We had no beds; all of us slept on the floor which, despite the fact that it was cold and hard, offered some relief from the heat and sweat of the day. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep. A few minutes later the door opened, and my older brother entered, not bothering to keep quiet. He shut the door loudly behind him, headed straight for his spot on the floor, and in the blink of an eye, was out like a light.

I slept on the left side of the room, my older brother the right. My younger brother, being the baby, naturally slept between us. I didn't mind; ever since my father left home, Julio was often cold and dark, and seemed to prefer sleeping on his own. Evan, on the other hand, never minded company, and with Julio being gone for extended periods of time, he must have felt quite naked and exposed on one side.

For a few minutes, the room was silent, save for the slow and steady breathing of its three occupants. I could hear my mother shuffling as she retired to her own bedroom, the sighing of relief at the conclusion of another busy day, the lights being turned off. The figure beside me shifted as it tried to get into a more comfortable position. The breathing became steady, consisting of deep, lengthy breaths. More movement, accompanied with a small sigh. I felt sleep coming to me, about to end the day, finding it harder to open my eyes with every passing second. I was about to go out when a voice asked, "When will I be able to go to school again?"

Julio never responded to my brother's "midnight questions", even in the best of times. It was always me who answered. "Someday," I said. "Someday, when this is all over and we can all forget about this. Maybe, if dad comes home... if he's still alive."

"What if he isn't?"

I rolled over and looked at my brother. His eyes were open, wide open, a clear indication that he was a long ways off from sleep. "Then we make do with what we have," I said. "We'll keep living our lives. We pray, hoping for something to happen."

My brother shifted uncomfortably, and I could tell my answer did not satisfy him. "That might mean I will be a scavenger for the rest of my life. I don't want to be a scavenger. I just want to go back to school, want to learn, laugh, play..."

Julio let out an audible sigh, as if to say, "Oh, shut up!" But I couldn't say that to Evan, not in a million years would I dare myself to do so. I loved him too much for that. "Why did dad have to leave us?" he wondered aloud. "If he stayed, I'd be in school right now. We wouldn't have to be on that dump the entire day."

I remained silent for a little while, not knowing what to say. Even I wished that he would be able to go to school. I hated the sight of him on the mountain of garbage, digging through heaps of refuse, looking for anything recoverable. He looked so young, so innocent... someone who shouldn't have to live like this. He deserved, no, needed to go to school.

But how?

Finally, I spoke, in a voice that almost lacked strength, confidence, courage: "I... I'll make sure you go to school."

My brother gave me a funny look. "How?"

Good question. I'll crawl through broken glass, under barbed wire, walk over fire, swim across an ocean, even get kicked and beaten, if somehow it would mean you could get the education, the opportunities, you desired. I'd travel the ends of the world, take a bullet between my eyes, bleed till I dropped dead, if it made your dreams come true. But all that came out was, "I'll find a way. I promise, I will."

"You do?"

Julio's dim figure in the background turned his back towards us. I could sense him wanting to say, "Garrett, you and your childish fantasies..."

But it's not a childish fantasy!

I extended my pinky out to him. "Yes, I do."

He was hesitant at first, as if he was afraid of causing me unnecessary grief and burden, but he offered his own pinky and cemented my promise. He wanted to say something, but tears had already begun to form in his eyes. I leaned over and kissed him gently on the forehead, like his father used to do, like his mother always did. I saw two droplets of water stealing stealthily down his face. "What will you do?" he asked quietly.

"Whatever it takes," I responded.

"Such as...?"

"If I had to drown in a flood to save your life, don't you think I'd do it?" I gently wiped the tears off his face with my hand. "If I had to die in order to give you the future you wanted, I'll do it. I'll do it because you're my brother."

He clung onto my arm. "B-B-But... But I don't want you to die..." I saw the tears coming back to him, saw him choking on his own tears, and I knew I had just made it a difficult night for him.

Maybe I was a little too extreme...

"Alright, maybe I won't die. Maybe I won't take my life for your schooling. But I promise you, Evan: I'll find a way. I don't care how long it takes, how much pain I have to go through, how many mountains I have to scale. I'll do it — I'll do it for you."

He nodded, and I felt his nervousness receding. He turned to lie on his back again, and I could see his eyes beginning to close. Good night... I'm right here if you need me...

But what about me? I don't have anybody to lean on, do I?

Where do I go from here? Can I keep this promise I made with my brother even if my own future seems bleak?

Is this promise even feasible?

I stared silently at the ceiling and wondered what I was putting myself through.

First chapter For my little brother by Enoch Leung
My Promise
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