For my little brother/The Road Away from Home
|For my little brother by Enoch Leung
The Road Away from Home
The Road Away from Home
The highway was busy. Car after car drove past me, kicking dirt, dust, and exhaust into my face and eyes. The air was hot and sticky, and as the sun crept over the horizon, I knew it would only get hotter.
Behind me was the dump. It looked strangely beautiful in the morning, almost civil and tame from a distance. In front of me lay the heart of the city, its jewels — rows and rows of skyscrapers — within sight of a place where human lives were less valuable than the garbage they lived on. It was where all the money in the city lived, where those who had money and jobs and schools and rules enjoyed air conditioning in the country's blazing heat, running water and working toilets, an opportunity to enjoy life and freely take its many paths.
Something I — we — don't have.
I kept walking, off the highway, through rough neighbourhoods where the buildings all seemed to contain dark and unsettling secrets, nestled close and tightly to each other. The streets were filled with potholes, filled with vehicles, filled with children. Thousands of them, some working, some sleeping, some playing with whatever they could get their hands on. For many of them, the streets were their home. I knew about them, felt their pain, their life, their good and bad days. A child runs in front of me, pushing a discarded tire alongside him. He reminded me of Evan, so young and carefree, living in a tight, restrictive world. It made me determined to keep going. The world was the foliage, I was the machete. He needed me to get through, needed me to create a path that he could use to get out. He was fortunate to have me, someone who was willing to give up their own lives so he could enjoy his. I looked at the boy and wondered if anyone in his life was willing to do the same for him.
My stomach ended the moment for me as I came to the realization that I hadn't eaten anything that morning. No pagpag. No rice. No dried fish. Nothing. I only experienced my brother's love, which was incompatible with my stomach. I had been hungry before, had stolen before a couple of times in the past for food, but on all those occasions I had a home to retreat to, had a family that I lived with and looked to for support.
Now I'm on my own... for now at least.
There was a street stall up ahead, selling fried meats and vegetables, among other things. I had no money with me, so I was going to have to steal. The stallkeeper was no fool either; judging by his appearance and how he monitored his surroundings like a hawk, it was pretty clear that he was trained to catch — almost expecting to find — a thieving little child.
I have to get around him somehow...
I approached the stall, trying to walk, look, and act normal. The stallkeeper noticed me, but didn't think very much of it. Street children were everywhere, and try as he might, he couldn't keep an eye on everyone. I eyed the contents of his stall. Spring rolls. Fish balls. Breadfruit. The rest was pagpag. Beef pagpag. Bean sprout pagpag. Chicken pagpag. Chicken pagpag... Julio sometimes brought them home as a "treat" when he was in a good mood and we had a good day. It went down well with rice, the chicken adding its own unique flavours to an otherwise plain meal.
Well, at least you did something, Julio. Used to.
Then, the shopkeeper made a mistake: he paused to take a swig of rice wine.
As soon as he did so, my hand shot out and grabbed a fistful of the chicken pagpag. Didn't have time to put it in a bag, could only snatch and run, getting grease all over my hands. The hot oil began to sear my skin; the chicken was still hot.
The bottle was dropped, landing on the ground with a smash. The shopkeeper yelled something at me. I couldn't hear it, for I was already running away, the wind whistling past my ears, but I didn't need to stop and think to know that he was anything but pleased.
The heat was starting to become unbearable. Without thinking, I stuffed the mass into my mouth. Now my mouth was on fire, the hot grease clinging to my tongue, cheek, and teeth. I almost choked. I turned around to see whether or not the stallkeeper was after me. No, he wasn't... no wait, no wait — actually, don't wait! There he was, running and shouting at me! "Stop, thief! Stop and get back over here!"
I knew better than to listen to him, however. I turned down an alley and fled, dodging and slipping past bodies and objects as I went, the food I had stolen still stuck in my throat. I coughed. I gagged. I could not breathe, and as I choked, I began to lose speed. The tears that welled up in front of my eyes obstructed my vision, and I stumbled and fell to the ground.
I tried to crawl, but my body was much too focused on trying to get the piece of chicken in my throat out. I coughed, convulsed, and retched, and for a moment, I thought it was over. Finally, after much effort, I managed to swallow whatever had tried to kill me. I was exhausted from the ordeal, tears still blocking my eyesight, making everything swim and wash around like an oil painting. I brushed a hand roughly against my eyes, trying to see. There was a tall, male figure standing over me. I looked up.
It was the stallkeeper.
"Stupid boy!" he barked. "Hand it back, whatever you stole." When he noticed that my hands were empty, save for the oil from frying, he became even more irate. "You asshole! Take and eat what you did not pay for!" He kicked me in the chest. "You damned kids! No wonder I see so many of you lying dead on the streets. Hell's just around the corner for you, I swear to God!" And with that, he turned around and strode off, muttering something inaudible to himself.
When he had turned around a corner, I crawled over to the wall and sat down, leaning my back against it. I was exhausted, my body was still throbbing from where I got my share of bruises. When I had caught up with my breathing, I looked around. The alley was empty, with nothing other than litter keeping me company.
What was I doing here?
I closed my eyes and asked myself the question again. What am I doing here?
My mother's face appeared before me. I could feel her presence, her personality, her love. Even after all that had happened, she had never stopped loving her two remaining sons, always continuing to fight for them to stay alive.
Thank you, mother. You were so good to me.
My father was next. I thought of him before he left home, when he looked forward to every day, every morning when he woke up. He would see past all the detestable sights around us and looked forward to seeing his three sons grow up hale and healthy despite the environment they lived in. "Grow up strong," he said to all three of us one day when I was younger. "The strongest people come from the poorest places."
Thank you, father. Alas, you should have stayed home...
My older brother, Julio. Well, who knows where he was right now. When he was still in his right mind, though, he said to me: "You know, Garrett, even though you're not the oldest around here, you're still pretty awesome.
Thank you, Julio... Now why did you throw it all away?
And finally, Evan. My younger brother. Out of my entire family, I had the most thoughts and feelings for him. They were numerous, flashing by me in a blur, so quickly I didn't have time to closely examine them. But one image stood out from the rest.
My brother. Knee-deep in trash. All around him, more trash. His whole life, grounded in trash. His home, a garbage dump. I was there with him; he sees me and he smiles. He always smiled whenever he saw me. But I knew he couldn't hide what he truly felt, no matter how much he tried to smile it all away.
I opened my eyes.
That's why I'm here.
I got up and began to leave. As I did, I felt like calling to the heavens: "Hang in there, my dearest brother! I'll come home for you, I promise I will!"
I stopped briefly. I looked back and fancied one more thought.
Thank you, Evan.
My hand came up with a fistful of plastic bag. No, the remnants of one, one shredded beyond usefulness.
I shoved the plastic aside and dug further into the bin, hoping to find something. Not all scavengers lived in garbage dumps like I did. Many simply dug through dumpsters and garbage cans at night, after the restaurants and food courts disposed of whatever scraps they had and before the garbage trucks collected the refuse. It was late in the day, too late for last night's dinner to still be edible, but I was hoping I'd get lucky. Just this time. Just this once.
A woman emerged from the store adjacent to the bin. "Hey!" she protested, and I turned around, startled. "Get your filthy head outta there!" She rushed up and brushed me aside by the ears. "Quit playing in the trash."
When I did not move, she shoved me again. "Out, you flea-bitten fungus! You're a rotten scum, digging around in garbage. Get your life together or don't get a life at all. Get out or I'll call the police on you! Shoo! Shoo!"
I scrambled. What else could I do? I ran down the busy street, away from the woman. She did not pursue. At least that was no repeat of this morning's debacle. The sun was setting quickly, and soon I realized I was in another debacle of my own: I had no place to spend the night in.
First I had no food. Now I have nothing to rest my head against. Maybe I should just go back...
A four letter word popped into my mind. Started with E, ended with an N. E-V-A... No, I thought, shaking my head. No, I'm not going back. Not now. Not yet.
I was tired, exhausted after having spent an entire day on my feet. I did not know where to go or where I might go, only that I had to somehow find a way. Right now, the only path I knew for sure I could take was towards home, and I was not going there. I won't accept defeat when the pain had just begun, when the journey had just started, when the train had just begun to pick up speed. I had farther to go, more earth to dig, more mountain to climb.
I hope you're thinking about me, Evan, because I'm thinking about you.
There was a small recess in the building just ahead of me. The walls were fringed with discarded cigarette stubs, one of them still smoldering slightly. The roof hung over just slightly enough to provide some shelter from the rain like an overhang. Somewhat.
It would do.
I crawled into the recess and lay down. The concrete, despite still being warm, was nevertheless a welcome relief from the heat of the day. The heat reminded me of my immense thirst, for I had very little to drink that day, and I was bathed in my own perspiration. My mouth felt like fur, my skin and clothes were soaked, and I had a headache that was pounding away at my skull with the force of a million sledgehammers.
The door opened. For a second, I braced for a rough impact, expecting some ill-mannered man to chase me out. I heard a cough, a belch, and then the dull thud of a thrown object landing in a garbage can. I looked up. It sounded like a bottle... a glass bottle.
As soon as the door was closed, I headed towards the garbage can. Funny, I had climbed mountains of trash all my life, hiked alongside miles of road having car exhaust being blown into my face all day, been chased by angry storekeepers for stealing their merchandise and raiding their trash, and yet this short trip of barely five feet seemed harder than any of the journeys I had made up to this point.
I finally reached the can, stuck my hand in, and came across something hard and smooth. I pulled out a bottle, still a little bit of beer at the bottom.
|For my little brother by Enoch Leung
The Road Away from Home