For my little brother/Together as One
|For my little brother by Enoch Leung
Together as One
Together as One
Water squirted violently out of the hose. I struggled with it, trying to get the stream where I wanted it to go instead of all over me. The spigot was rusted, the stopcock difficult to adjust, and the hose stiff and rigid. I fiddled with the knob, with limited success. A little bit clockwise and it would turn off; a little bit counterclockwise and the hose would practically kick me back like a bucking bronco. I was going nowhere with this.
Then, all of a sudden, it stopped. The hose, once a wild frenzy, was now under control like a domesticated dog. I felt two extra hands on it. I looked up.
"I got the hose," he assured me. "Get the bucket and we'll rinse it out."
The bucket. The slop bucket. The bucket that held everyone's excrement. It was my turn to clean it out. It was a job no one else wanted to do, and now I'd been here long enough to have to do it. At least I had a friend who didn't mind.
I smiled at him. "Thanks." I held the bucket in my hands as he trained the hose onto it. Brown, murky water rushed out, trickling along the pavement, its colour matching the stains on the floor, before it found a drain to empty itself into.
"Just doing what a friend's supposed to do," he replied when the bucket was clean. He coiled the hose up like a snake and replaced it. "If you could take a few shots for me, I'm obliged to take a few shots for you."
We headed back to the exercise yard where everybody else was. Whoever was responsible for cleaning the slop bucket had to remember to bring the bucket back to the cell after the exercise rounds concluded, or there would be no slop bucket for business to be done in until the next day. It had already happened to our cell twice. I was determined not to join the hall of fame; I was going to carry the bucket the whole time. "I made a lot of friends back home on the mountain," I said. "We would often meet up at an agreed-upon spot in the mornings and we'd stick together for much of the day. We would all look out for each other, care for each other, make sure we were all doing okay... and compete with each other. A lot."
"It's always a contest about who gets the most stuff, and the most valuable. I remember one of my oldest — and closest — friends found a laptop, and we spent the next twenty minutes chasing him for it."
He smiled. "I got a joke... but it might offend scavengers like you."
"Just say it."
"If it offends me, we'll work it out." I cracked my knuckles. "We'll see who's the better fighter."
He laughed. "Alright then. You scavengers sure have a way of fighting over who gets the most garbage."
I put a hand on his shoulder. "You sure have a way of running into knives and not learning your lesson."
He gave me a playful shove. "Says the guy who plays in trash all day!"
We wrestled for a bit. When we finally got to the yard, a guard came up to us. "Where have the two of you been?" he demanded.
"Washing the slop bucket," I answered.
"It shouldn't take you half an hour to do so!"
"The water pressure was weak today," Ricky claimed. "Took us a while to get it clean."
He gave us a look of disdain. "You're not fooling anybody, the two of you. I've got my eye on you both." He let us off, but I could feel his eyes boring holes into my back as we walked.
When we were out of earshot, Ricky commented, "He wasn't that scary to me."
"I was a bit nervous of him," I admitted.
"He's not as big or intimidating as the older guys in our cell. Personally, I'm more terrified of them than I am with every guard in this place combined."
"And yet, you stood up to them."
"If they were picking on you, you bet I'll be over there by your side."
"Like a good friend?"
"Like a good friend."
I set the bucket down and sat against the wall. Ricky did the same beside me. It was a cool, shaded part of the yard, shielded from the sun and the wind. There was still no escape from the humidity, but it was tolerable, at least. Four boys were sitting in front of us, playing a card game. They acknowledged our presence but didn't seem to mind.
"Speaking of good friends," Ricky continued, "could I ask of you to do a favour for me?"
"If I can do it, I'll do it."
"I've been wondering a lot about what you did for me, how you broke the ice between us, how you stayed with me even after all the stupid things I did, and how you shared what you valued with me: your faith, your story, your family. I've been counting the days, the weeks, the months since I was brought in here, and I couldn't have imagined spending all that time on my own. Alone with them. I feel bad for saying this, but I'm glad you're stuck here with me."
I laughed softly. "If it makes you feel better, I'm glad you're stuck here too."
"It's not the same as my brother and sister being here... but you're far better than nothing." The glow on his face dimmed down. "And my siblings... they're exactly what I want to talk to you about."
I was quiet. While we shared countless stories and jovial moments with each other, I had always been the one who talked about my little brother more, if only because Evan was the one I loved most out of everyone I knew in the world, and he was the reason why I left home to begin with. He talked to me about his brother and his sister too, but to a much lesser extent than I did.
"You mentioned that... people who don't follow God, who don't follow Jesus... they'll go to hell, right?"
I nodded slowly. "It boils down to that, yeah."
"That's what worries me. It's not about where I'm going, but about my brother and my sister. If I had the opportunity to talk to them about it, even if it's just for five minutes, I'd do it. I love them too, so much that I'd rather join them in hell than go to heaven alone." He looked at me. "Is that an option?"
I had no answer to that, admittedly.
"Of course, I'd rather take the more positive alternative, but there is no knowing when that may be possible."
"I don't see either of us getting out of here anytime soon."
"I know," he said sadly. He put a hand on my shoulder. "Garrett... can you do something for me? Even if you can't do it, can you at least agree to it?"
I hesitated. What did he want me to do? I feared the worst, but waved that thought off. I had known him to be a warm-blooded, friendly face that always went the extra mile to protect his friends and family. If he paid such a huge price and did it all with love, surely he had a heart for me too.
"If you ever get released from this prison, if you get out of here before I do, could you find my siblings — my younger brother and my older sister — and take care of them for me?"
I turned to look. He was on the verge of tears. His request was simple, but I knew that what he was asking for meant a lot to him — and to me as well. It was a huge price for me to pay... should I do it?
"It's expensive, but then again, so was what you did for your brother Evan."
Evan... oh, the price I paid — and was willing to pay — for him! It felt like an eternity ago... I remember telling him that, if I had to die to give him a brighter future than the dank life he lived, I would. I was willing to give up my own life for him, the surest and most undeniable sign of true love. Ricky saw that in me, and I knew he had the same love for his two siblings and his mother; the scar on his face was enough evidence for me to prove that. He only wanted the best for them, and he would do anything to ensure their safety and a secure future. When he couldn't hold the torch, though, he needed help, and if I could, what sort of a friend was I to refuse?
I nodded my head firmly. "I'll do it. They can stay in my home for as long as they need to, and I will do whatever it takes to get you back together again. At the very least, I'll tell them about my faith, your faith, our faith. You will definitely see them again."
The tears spilled over the edge. "Thank you Garrett..." he managed before the sobbing began. He hastily brushed away a bout of tears from his eyes, but a second wave came back as quickly as he did so. The other boys took notice, and I knew exactly how he felt about that. I put an arm around his shoulder comfortingly. When he managed to compose himself, I asked, "What are their names? Where can I find them?"
He inhaled, exhaled, calming his nerves down. "My sister's name is Analyn; she wears a red tank top and beige cargo shorts. My brother's name is Joel, and he last wore a purple T-shirt and black shorts with white side stripes. You'll know it when you see them; they share a close bond with each other. I last saw them under the LRT lines in Tondo. They may have moved, but I can't imagine them having strayed very far from there."
"I'll do my best," I said. "I'm sure I'll find them eventually."
"I'm afraid they might have to become scavengers, though; we only make so much in a day to feed the three of us at home."
"They won't mind," he said. "I don't mind either. I just want a roof to sleep under, a place to call home, someone that cares about us."
I realized, at that moment, I had all three of the things he asked for. I had a place to retreat to, a place to sleep in that was sheltered from the elements, and people that cared about me and always looked out for me. My friend, up to now, didn't have any of those things; he now had the latter, but nothing could wrest his mind from the two people he loved the most. To live a life digging through other people's garbage, looking for parts to recycle and resell, was a blessing to him if he could have those three things.
"I know I asked for a lot from you, so I figured it's time for me to repay you." He looked at me. "Is there anything I can do for you, as a good friend?"
I nodded. "I'd have to ask for the same favour from you: if you get out of here before I do, could you find my brother and tell him that I still love him?"
"Without a doubt."
"The last time I saw him, he had a look of disbelief on his face. He thought that I was done, joining my father and my older brother on the list of people who ran away from the mountain into the criminal underworld. He must've thought that I would never be able to see him again, that the prison was my permanent home and there was no way I was going to get out of it. From the start, I begged him to never forget me, to always think about me no matter what happened or what he thought might happen. I fear that he'll stop doing that, and to him I'll just be like the two other men who walked out of his life. I don't want that to happen. I want him to know that I'm still fighting, still thinking about him, and that I'm different from those before me. I want him to know that the bond we share is unbreakable, and that, no matter what happens, I will find a way home. I just need him to hold on and wait until that day comes."
He nodded. "We're fighters, you and I. Whether or not we fight together or fight alone, I know we'll be fighting. We'll fight for what matters to us, what's left of our families, what's left of our old lives. We'll keep going, and nothing can ever hope to stop us. The force that drives us today will be there tomorrow, and will never rest until we're done."
"We're invincible," I commented.
He smiled. "Yeah. We're invincible."
We were quiet for a bit, until something popped into my mind. "When are we ever going to be 'done'?"
"What do you mean?"
"Like, even if I get home, and even if I managed to get my family together, and even if you got back to yours, we're not done. Life doesn't just end there. There will be new problems. There will be more trouble ahead."
He paused. "I... I guess you're right... you do have a point there."
"I guess the better question is: are we going to keep fighting forever?"
I let that thought sink in. The thought that life was just a vicious cycle of conflict, continuing indefinitely until Death came and ended it all, seemed intimidating. It felt unsettling to realize that we lived to fight, and eventually, to die.
"We... we'll just have to, I guess." He straightened up. "I think it matters not if we have to fight, have to struggle through problem after problem until we stop breathing. What really matters is that we're not alone in the fight. We have to fight together, not each other."
I smiled. "Well said."
"If only more people in the world followed that philosophy."
"If that were the case, neither of us would be here right now. Nobody would be poor, as everybody would be helping each other out. We wouldn't have had to take the risks we took just to eat. I wouldn't be eating toxic waste. You wouldn't be robbing stores."
"Says the guy who joined a street gang and tried to rob a jewellery store!" he joked, playfully shoving me over.
We laughed for a bit. "Seriously though," I said after we had calmed down. "It's not that easy. We can't just make everyone into good people in the blink of an eye. There will always be some snakes in the grass. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. That doesn't mean we should give up the fight."
"And we need to be careful about what we're fighting for."
He put an arm around my shoulder, pulling me closer towards him after his shove. "I'm fighting for you, Garrett, and I'm pretty sure I've made the right decision."
"You sure I'm not the snake that bites you in the ankle?" I asked.
He lifted his foot up and pointed at his ankle. "Bite me. See how long it takes before I die."
"I'm not gonna do that," I replied.
"Why not? Are you too much of a saint?" He bit down on his tongue, and I could tell he was trying hard not to laugh at his own comment.
"No, for one very simple, logical reason: who says that you're not going to stomp on my head before I nip you in the ankle?"
He grinned. "Good point."
"I guess there's a huge element of trust in there," I said. "You have to trust someone that they won't turn on you, or abandon you, or leave you for dead. It's faith in the uncertain."
"That's hard," he commented.
"That's very hard."
He sighed. "There's quite a distance to fall if that trust is violated..." He closed his eyes. "I know I've talked about this before... but now I'm seeing it in another light..."
"Does it involve your father?" I asked.
It had been difficult for the both of us to open up about our personal lives, but as time dragged on, we became far more comfortable with each other. Well, at least I was. I couldn't speak for him; he was definitely more comfortable with me now than when I first met him, but there was still a lot of things, I'm sure, that he had yet to tell me, or anyone outside his family, for that matter.
"You don't have to tell me if you don't want to," I said.
He shook his head. "No... I think this relates to you as well. When I was in school I remembered hearing one of my teachers say that 'Every child needs a father'. Every child needs a father, right? Sure, everyone has a father that made it possible for them to be conceived, but not everyone has a father that actually is a father."
"What do you mean?" I asked, even though I was pretty sure I knew the answer.
He sniffled. "A father loves you. He plays with you, takes time out of work to be with you, teaches you your lessons. He's there for you when you're born and he'll never stop mentoring you until he's on his deathbed. He's someone who knows you, knows your strengths and your weaknesses, your quirks and your behaviours, your personality from an insider's perspective. He's someone you can trust, someone you know will be there for you when you need him the most, someone you know won't let you down." He sniffled again, and brushed his arm across his eyes. "But my father wasn't like that. After my little brother was born, he lost everything that made him a good person, let alone a dad. He didn't spend time with me, aside from hitting me or yelling at me. He didn't teach me anything. I was foreign to him, as if I weren't his son at all. He lost my trust. I couldn't trust him anymore, couldn't trust him with my secrets, couldn't trust him with whatever was troubling me, couldn't even trust him with my life. He wasn't really my father anymore."
My breathing was slow. Obviously I was in better terms with my father than he was, but even though he never hit any of us, I realized that I didn't really know him that well. "My dad wasn't really there for me either... Obviously he's better than yours, if we compared the two, but at the same time I realized that I was never really close to him. My older brother knew him well, so it wasn't that he didn't know how to be a father... it's just that he kinda forgot about me and my little brother."
"Which one is worse?" he croaked. "A father that hates you or a father that's indifferent to you?"
"A father that hates you, obviously."
"Or is it?" He looked up. "Somehow I don't think the obvious answer is the best answer."
I thought about it for a while. Obviously anyone would think poorly of a man who drank, smoked, and beat his wife and kids.
So why would it not be the best answer?
"I'll be frank: I'd kill to make your father mine, even if he's not home right now. But you said that you never really knew him that well."
I straightened my back. "Why would you want my father?" I asked. "He's not that great. Sure, he played with me... sometimes. And he played with Evan... sometimes."
"But my father hit me. Yours didn't."
"Yeah, but—" A plausible answer popped into my mind. "—I think anyone with a sense of morality would raise an eyebrow if they saw your father hitting your mother. But nobody would say anything about my father. At first glance, he looks like an ordinary man. They're not going to think twice about what he's done or doing at home. They're not going to see the silent stabbing, the invisible wounds that come from it. Anyone can see the knife your father wielded, the gash on your face that he created. But nobody's going to see what my father's neglect has done to me. Nobody can see those scars. They're not physical. They're not visible." I bit my tongue. Now it was my turn to cry. "I just wanted a father that actually thought of me as his son! I wanted a father that I could look up to and model myself after. I wanted a father that I could love, and could love me back. I wanted a father that was the most awesome person to me in the world."
"A father so awesome that he seems like a superhero to you?"
I nodded. "So awesome that he seems invincible... at least when you're a kid."
He straightened his face. I could see his fists beginning to clench. "I can't complain more than my little brother. My sister and I knew who my dad was before he began drinking. But my little brother has never known a dad that really loved him, or even took care of him. To him, a dad is a monster that lives in your house, ready to jab lit cigarettes into your arms for not filling his glass with liquor fast enough. That's not what a father is. That's not what a father's supposed to be like." His face darkened. "I hate that man."
That man. Not 'my father' or 'my dad', but 'that man'. He hated 'that man'.
"Hey," I said, putting a hand on his arm. "No room for hatred now. I mean, you told me that he wasn't always a brute. Who knows what he's up to now? Getting vengeance on him isn't going to help you or your siblings. It's definitely not going to get your little brother a proper dad."
He relaxed slightly. "Well you're right about that."
I thought about the night where I had the vision from God. He turned to you because you were the only male influence he had left.
Me? Male influence?
A father plays with you, takes time out of work to be with you, teaches you your lessons.
I had countless memories of me playing with Evan; his laughter was the thing that fuelled my soul and spirit most of all. On the mountain I frequently stopped to check on him, see if he needed my infamous piggyback ride to put that smile back on his face again, even if it meant reduced profits that day. Going back even further, when we were still in school, my little brother would almost always turn to me first if he needed help with his homework, and my mother would often find me and Evan sitting on the couch, going through his workbook together. I helped him solve each and every question to the best of my abilities. I wasn't a natural student, and sometimes I'd get the answers wrong too, but my brother didn't care. I think he enjoyed the time I spent with him more than his grades.
I smiled, even though my eyes were still red. "You know, my little brother may not have had a good fatherly figure, but he had someone — me."
"That can't replace a father."
"I know, and perhaps nothing will. But at least my little brother had me to fill in the gaps, at least some of them. I played with him; I took time out of my work to be with him; I know his personality, his strengths and his weaknesses, and I know him inside-out. I was there when he was born, and I'll always be there for him until the moment I die. He has a shoulder to lean on, someone to trust in, someone to confide his secrets to. Most importantly of all, I love him. And doesn't love pretty much sum it all up? Doesn't love pretty much cover everything we've mentioned? If you love somebody, wouldn't you play with them? If you love somebody, wouldn't you spare them a lot of your time? If you love somebody, wouldn't you know them well? If you love somebody, wouldn't you be trustworthy for them?"
"I guess that means those sappy soap operas that talk about 'love' really aren't about love, then," he said.
"What do you mean?"
"You know those TV shows that talk about dating and love and how this guy and a girl 'were made for each other'?" He laughed, an uneasy laugh. "Garbage. It's all surface level, now that I think of it. The two never really know each other; they don't spend that much time with each other; they're not trustworthy. They just kiss each other on the cheek, maybe giggle hysterically at some lousy joke, and that's that. As soon as the sun sets, they're gone."
"We can do better," I said.
"We can do better."
"It's just that... since my own father wasn't that great to me, the worst I could do was to watch my little brother go without a father as well. I never thought of it that way when I did it, but I started doing many of the things a father normally would have done. I did it to him because I didn't want him to suffer the way I did. It's not perfect, and it'll probably never be as good as having a real father, but when your parents are gone, your siblings are the next best thing."
"True," he said simply.
"I know you feel quite bitter about your dad and what he did. But some days, you seem to miss him quite a lot."
He sighed as he wiped his eyes again. "Well... sometimes he wasn't as bad as he seems to me now."
"Think about your little brother," I said. "You wouldn't want him to go without a fatherly figure, would you? Wouldn't you provide it for him? Wouldn't you give him every piece of yourself, support him and love him in every way that a father would love his child? Wouldn't you try your best to be the father that he never really had?"
His fists were beginning to clench again.
He looked at me, his eyes red from his tears, his pupils dilated. He was not angry, or even unhappy, but determined and strong willed. "I will," he said firmly. "I will, not because someone forced me to, not because I'm trying to look good in front of other people, not because I want to gain karma points from society, but because he is my little brother. He has a brother in me for sure, just like a true father would have a father in him, a true mother a mother in her. My sister has a sister in her; I will have a brother in myself."
"You sure that isn't a mistake?" I kidded.
"Shouldn't it be 'He has a father in me'? Aren't you trying to be the father he never had?"
He didn't respond immediately. "I'm not his real father," he responded. "I'm his brother. I'll be his brother. I'll love him like a true brother would. But... I can't replace his father, not wholly at least."
I felt a little ashamed at my little joke after hearing his serious answer. "But you'll still do all the things a father would do, right?"
He nodded. "Of course I will. Of course I'll love him and care for him and spend time with him. I just can't call him my son and he can't call me his father. But if he had to list the people that loved him most, I'll be on the list for sure."
I was quiet, reflecting carefully on what he was saying. "Sounds to me that it's not about replacing things, or being somebody that you're not, but doing the best you can based on who you are."
"And it really doesn't matter who you are; you can bring positive change, no matter how small." He gave me a serious look. "Just because you're not related to any of my siblings doesn't mean you can't love them too."
"We're all related in this world," I said. "We're all brothers and sisters."
He smiled. "If only we all accepted that."
The bell signalling the end of our recess was rung. "Let's go!" the guards barked. "Everyone back inside!"
We got up and obediently did as we were told. I made sure I had the slop bucket with me.
"Friends and family," I said. "Together as one."
He nodded and smiled in agreement. "Together as one," he repeated.
|For my little brother by Enoch Leung
Together as One