For my little brother/Two Souls
|For my little brother by Enoch Leung
A Rough Encounter
"My father wasn't always drunk and violent. I remembered him playing with me as a child. There are photos of him and my mother together, happy."
I listened quietly as Ricky lamented about his past life. In my mind, I thought about my own father. He and Julio sure were close, like peas in a pod. I pictured the two seated by the dining table, playing the card game that they had invented themselves. Laughing. Joking. Bonding. Occasionally, Julio would get caught cheating, and dad would respond by producing his own hidden deck of cards from under his shirt.
"He changed drastically after my stillborn sister came out. For several days, he was convinced that my mother would die. He refused food, didn't go to work, didn't leave the house for anything, but only stayed at home to cry hysterically. He almost became paranoid of childbirth. He was not pleasantly surprised when, three years later, my mother found herself pregnant again. My father wanted the pregnancy aborted, but my mother refused. 'I will not kill my children, even my unborn ones,' she said firmly. My father began talking and talking to her less, and at times was even hostile to her. When my brother was born, he wouldn't even look at him."
He bowed his head. "His attitude towards children, especially his own, changed forever. He saw the burden in taking care of them, the way they costed him time and money. His stillborn daughter still shook him, and his work ethic was already very low. To work harder to provide for an extra child that he had negative thoughts for was too much for him to bear. His health and strength vanished, and he became nasty. In the past... sometimes, he could go for a full day on only a plate of rice; he was hale and hearty enough for that. After my brother was born, he needed to smoke a pack a day to control his violent tempers.
"I remember one night when we really had nothing to eat, no food on the table for anyone. My father had gotten into a drunken fight at work and was violently dismissed. He came home, his breath strong with the smell of hard liquor, unable to walk straight. After he had thrown up, he lay across the dining table, bawling uncontrollably like a baby. My mother nervously reached out to comfort him, mostly to clean up after his mess. His hands shot out and grabbed her violently, shaking her body every which way. 'I'll forever hate the day you refused to get rid of him!' he barked, his voice red-hot with raw anger as he pointed at my brother. 'I always go to bed hungry because he ate all the food!'
"I took my brother out, with my sister following closely. After he had cried for a long while, he said, in a timid voice, how guilty he felt being in the family. He was well aware of the fact that his father did not like him, and that we often skipped meals so he could eat. I told him that he was wrong, that we really loved him, and that he was no burden on us. It felt terrible, lying to him like that. Many times I was tempted to just leave him on his own, letting him fend for himself. Every time I was about to leave, though, I felt like I was committing a crime."
He turned to me. "How could you leave somebody behind like that? Somebody that you willingly go hungry for. Somebody that you dropped out of school to work for. Somebody that you don't realize how close you are to until they're one of the only things you have left." He grimaced as he fought the flood of emotions that were welling up within him. "Me and my sister, we had a choice: ourselves, or him. And we both chose him. At times, it seemed foolish, the decision we made. Why would we kneel before him? Logically, it made sense to just abandon him. After all, he was the cause of our current situation. If he had never been born, I wouldn't be here right now. My father wouldn't be the mess that he was, and I presume, still is. My mother wouldn't have to die. Me and my sister would be in school right now, getting an education, a future, an opportunity to stay off the streets. If I had just thrown him out, pretended that he never existed, forgot about him, wouldn't we be able to repair our lives? Things would be better for all of us. All except him. The four of us versus him. Wouldn't more of us benefit from getting rid of one?
"It would've made sense, if my brother was a dog or a cat. If you ran short of money and needed to get rid of one family member, wouldn't the pets go first? But my brother was no dog. My brother was no cat. He was human, like me, and even though he costed more to feed and to take care of than any dog, the thought of throwing him out and leaving him on his own seemed... no, is, wrong. My father was right when he said that my brother was the reason we were all suffering. Just because he's right on something doesn't mean he's right on others, though. My mother refused to abort him because she believed he had intrinsic value. He was more valuable than any object she could think of. Even though he was the weight that made us drop, you'd have to be mad to discard him.
"In many ways, my brother is the reason I'm in here right now. I would actively seek revenge on anyone who condemned me, naturally; I would hate them with my heart, my mind, and my soul. If I saw my brother right now, it would be understandable if I tore him to shreds and murdered him, spilling his blood onto my hands. But..." He briefly looked down at his hands, as if to check for blood. "...if I saw him right now... I would run over to him, hug him, kiss him, and whisper into his ear that I love him dearly. I'm not saying this for appearances; I say it because I mean it. I really do. He's my brother, and he'll always be my brother, no matter who or what anyone or anything tried to do to change it."
His hand came up to wipe away some tears. "I can almost see him right now," he said, looking at a vacant spot in the cell. "He turns around to see me. I will him to come over, and he comes running towards me. Whenever he nears me, though, he always fades away, and no part of him ever reaches me. Not even the wind."
I swallowed and shifted uncomfortably. He was going deep — very deep — with this. Every time he mentioned his brother, I thought of Evan, and it always brought tears to my eyes. "Last night I had a dream about my brother, my little brother," I said. "It was the second time the dream had happened. I saw him standing atop Smokey Mountain, looking into the horizon at the setting sun. I cry out to him, and he hears me and turns around. We run towards each other as fast as our legs can carry us, but we never meet. He always vanishes into thin air, as if he had never existed. I'm left lying face-first on the ground, all by myself, all alone, without him." I took a long, slow, deep breath. "I always want to see him, yet I hate that dream. I hate it because I can't touch him. I hate it because he always disappears. I hate it because... it's not real. I wake up to find myself in prison again."
We stared ahead, trying to envision our siblings in front of us, running towards us, but never making it home. I extended my arm, trying to hold onto the hand of my brother as he reached out towards me, as if we both knew his image was waning, hoping to make contact before he disappeared completely. Everything seemed real — his hand, his body, his face — right up until the point where my hand simply passed through his. A blink, and he was gone.
"I'm dreaming. I know it," I said. "Love makes you delirious, makes you stupid. Love something and it builds four walls around you. You're surrounded by it, unable to escape. You're left seeing things that aren't really there, leaving others to believe you're cuckoo while you cry out to the image in your head. But it's just that. An image."
Ricky furrowed his brow, and I could tell that he disagreed with my statement. "What was the last significant thing you said to your brother?"
My mind raced back to the moment when my mother grabbed my brother and hauled him out of the visiting room. No, not that... before that. I told him to keep thinking about me, to not forget about me. Just think about the good times we spent together...
I went back further, back to the day I left home. Evan was crying; he didn't want me to leave him alone. He hugged me one last time, one I feared might be the last.
I'll come home, I promise!
I hope you do.
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 shook my head. This is absurd. I may as well tell him that I was going to heaven tomorrow and to find my face amongst the stars at night.
"I told him to not forget about me, to always think about me. In return, I wouldn't forget him, wouldn't stop thinking about him. Apparently that was supposed to help me." I almost snorted. "When I promised my brother that I'd find a way for him to go back to school, my older brother rolled over in his bed, as if to say, 'Garrett, you and your childish fantasies...'. I guess he was right about that. How are you supposed to send someone back to school when you can barely afford to buy food and water? And to think that simply dreaming about each other would propel me to success, as if we had supernatural abilities. It's absurd." I rubbed my fingers onto my face, around my eyes, hoping to wake up from my own idiocy. "My love for my brother has driven me to the point where I may be insane, and he might as well be dead or dying. I created a ton of hope only to destroy it. I drew a map only to burn it. I blinded myself with my own imagination only to walk off the edge, and I foolishly encouraged my brother to do the same. At the end of the day, what's the whole point about dreams? They're just dreams."
Ricky shook his head. "No," he said. "No, they're not just dreams. Dreams are more than just that."
"More than just what? They're just that. Visions. In my mind. They're not real."
"It's what happens in your mind that matters. Your mind is you. We do things because we can envision them in our minds." He straightened his back. "Every day, I remind myself of two things: one, that I am strong; and two, that I still have a brother and a sister. Being strong means nothing if I have nothing to be strong for. My brother and my sister are who I'm fighting for. I have to keep thinking about them, keep dreaming, keep believing; otherwise, my life is pointless. Every time I see them in my mind, they remind me that I'm not alone in this world. I'm not the only one who had a father whose drinking and smoking got so bad to the point they had to leave home. I'm not the only one who had to live on the streets because they had no choice. I'm not the only one who lost their mother. I'm not the only one who has to steal for food. I'm not the only one who has to cry themselves to sleep every night. They might be only images to you, but they're something special for me. They're the reason that I get up every morning, that I eat whatever food I can find, that I inhale and exhale every breath of fresh air. They're the reason I find motivation in living, because I know if I die, I would've abandoned what little I have left. I know that, instead of holding on, I'd let it all go to waste."
He squeezed his eyes shut. I knew he was trying to picture his two siblings again, living up to his own words. "What... What if they're both dead?" I asked. "What if your brother and your sister died?"
He was silent for a long while. "Then whatever memories I have of them become more important than ever," he said, his eyes still closed. "I'd have to keep them alive in my mind for as long as possible. People can continue to live on after their death in our heads. They'll continue to live until we ourselves die, or until we forget about them. It would make me more determined to keep living, stay alive, and to never forget; as long as I do not fail to do either, they will not die." He sighed softly. "If my brother and sister died tomorrow, I'd think about them so hard till it hurt my head. No matter what I do, I'll always feel like they're nearby, watching over my shoulder. I'll forever be burdened by the fear that, if I forgot about them, I would end them for good. My mother taught me that, saying that she kept her mother — my grandmother — alive in her mind, even though she died long before I was born. She kept her alive right up to the point where she could no longer keep herself alive.
"You shouldn't stop thinking about what really matters to you. What if your brother died tomorrow? If your memories were all that remained of him, wouldn't you fight to keep it? If you were willing to subject yourself to a life of crime, homelessness, misery, and prison for your brother, wouldn't you fear the moment you forgot about him after he died and was no longer? Even now — as you sit in prison, knowing, or at least believing, that he is still alive — wouldn't you think about him, dream about him, in the hopes that one day you two will be able to hold each other again? You promised him that you would come home again. Don't give up on that promise by trying to forget about it. Your dreams should be a reminder that a promise is a promise, and that a brother is a brother. Love your dreams, because they may be the only things you'll have left."
At this, I had no response. I sat quietly as I allowed his words to sink in. Love your dreams, because they may be the only things you'll have left...
He jabbed me lightly on the shoulder. "You do want to go home, do you? You want to see your brother again, right?"
I blinked. "Of... Of course I do."
He patted me on the back. "Better start dreaming harder, then." He relaxed and leaned back on the wall again. "My mother said that dreams can come true if you allow them to." His gaze was on that vacant spot in the wall again. "If I try hard enough, I might be able to see whether or not my mother was right after all."
The days were long and monotonous, the prison offering little for its inmates. There was nothing to do behind bars other than to sit and contemplate about the time we were wasting, the lives we were losing, the childhood that was being robbed from us. The heat and humidity, being unbearable at night, intensified during the day, making sweating — alongside eating, sleeping, and socializing — the only feasible activity to do.
It's so boring in here. Every day feels like a waste of time. People that could've been in school right now are instead stuck here, wondering if they'll ever be released. Even my old life of scavenging was more interesting and meaningful than this.
It helped that I had Ricky, though. We were getting more and more comfortable with each other, the more we found out about what we had in common. I admired him largely for the fire that burned within him, a fire that refused to go out even after all he had been through. I still felt a little guilty talking about myself when he was the one who deserved the arrogance and self-pride — after all, who was the one who ran in front of a knife to save his mother and his siblings from his own father? But he didn't mind. He was curious to know more about my younger brother, and how we became so closely attached to one another even before my father and Julio left home.
"You had a happy family," he said. "You and your little brother had plenty of happy moments to share. I never had much of those moments. It was hard to play, laugh, and wrestle with my brother when my father was about. I never really did any of the things brothers would do to their siblings."
I slunk back, feeling as guilty as ever for taking what I had for granted. There was rarely a moment where I felt uncomfortable being around Evan; he was so lovable and jovial in almost everything he did. Whenever he hurt himself whilst playing, he would mope around for about a minute, two at most, before jumping back on his feet and rejoining the game with renewed energy, as if his injury had never happened. Sometimes, he would approach my father or my older brother when he needed help or a playmate; sometimes he would approach my mother. It was clear that he liked me best, though, as he always turned to me, always wanting and willing to tag along with me wherever I went. He would do anything provided I did it with or alongside him. He loved every moment that he spent with me, and I never tired of his presence. My father and my older brother mostly kept to each other, forming a father-and-son relationship of sorts, but they still took notice of the two of us playing and laughing, and they either nodded or smiled with approval.
"I never had much in common with my father; he gave most of his attention to my older brother, and in turn my older brother spent more time with him than anyone else. It wasn't that they forgot about me, but rather spent far too little time bonding with me. Before my younger brother was born, I only had my mother. My father and my older brother looked at Evan more like a plaything, something to cuddle like a teddy bear. Now my mother was giving him all the attention, all the love in the family, and what little I had was gone. I was used to it — was used to not getting my way — but I couldn't help but feel terribly lonely around my own family. I remember him entering our bedroom one evening, where I was staring off into space. Everyone else was busy doing their own thing without me. He sat beside me, looking at me, not unkindly. I felt like pushing him away. 'Go back to being mother's little baby!' I wanted to say. But he wasn't arrogant or selfish. He wasn't rubbing it in my face that mother was giving him all the love and I wasn't getting anything. He genuinely wanted to play with me, at the very least be with me. He was so young, so sweet, and so warm; it felt unfitting to tell him off like that. I accepted him, and to this day I still wonder what I would've become if I had rejected my own brother. I still haven't thanked him for being the first one to open up his arms. If he hadn't taken that first step, we wouldn't be the closely-knit brothers that we are today.
"Sure, our relationship had some ups and downs, but we always remained close together no matter what. After a day of school and scavenging, a day of work and studying, we would always find time to play. We often played with the other children in the neighbourhood, but nothing ever beat 'brother to brother' time, and we hardly went a day without a bit of it. Things weren't all fun and games, though; one time, he came down with a fever, and he was cranky and miserable. My older brother slept in the living room to get away from him, but I stayed right by Evan's side. I didn't wave any magic wands over him, nor did I even pray for him — this was before my father left home, the day I actually took prayer seriously. We didn't talk an awful lot either; he needed rest, and I knew that. I just sat there, right next to him, just being there for him. I really didn't do that much, but my brother received a great deal of comfort from it. Simply showing him that I cared enough about him to spend sleepless nights together was enough to help him heal. A few weeks later, I came down with my own illness, and he did exactly what I did for him. He was so warm blooded, so selfless and so kind." I let the tears fall this time. "He helped me learn that one person can do so much just by being there."
I turned around to wipe my eyes. "The most brotherly thing you can do," I continued, "is to just be there for your sister and your brother. If that's the only thing you can do, then do it."
"I guess that's why you just want to be with him again," Ricky said after a long pause.
"Yeah." I brushed my arm across my eyes a second time. "I know that I hurt him by leaving home. I neglected the fact that I was his most valuable asset, and that we can overcome any obstacle together. Even poverty. I know I can fix all this by proving to him that I'm not like his father or his oldest brother. I can fix this by proving to him that I'm really there for him, that I'm someone he can lean on and trust that I won't fall."
He leaned an arm against my shoulder. I cocked my head to look. "What...?"
"Just seeing if you'll fall when I lean on you," he said jokingly.
I playfully brushed it off. "I see being hit by a knife hasn't dented your sense of humour."
He sighed. "Funny, we're all into making the whole incident a joke." He rubbed his hand on his face, feeling around the scar caused by the knife. "All my father did was flick his arm, and it's given me a permanent reminder of him on my face for all to see. The thoughtless act of a single moment can have long-lasting effects."
"That's what life is, isn't it?" I scratched the back of my head, which was itchy. "You make a whole bunch of little decisions for a great deal of significant events."
"Like me." He massaged a spot on his back. "I should never have tried to rob that grocery store. I went too far, pushing the limits to the point that I fell off. I was prepared to spend a night or two away from my brother and my sister; I put little thought on what would become of them. I only knew that I needed to steal food to keep from starving. And... I earned myself the salty sting of a baton on my back."
"I feel you. Hurts to the point where even the simple task of moving your fingers becomes an impossibility."
He stiffened. "It wasn't nearly as bad as the times my father hit me."
I fell silent. Immediately I became uncomfortable with what he was going into.
"It wasn't what he used to hit me with; he mostly used his bare hands. I think the part that hurt more was knowing that he was my father, someone who was supposed to be my guardian, my teacher, my caregiver." A brief moment of silence. "Your parents hit you, didn't they?"
"Of course they did."
"And what for?"
This could be embarrassing. "Well..."
"It's fine if you don't want to say it."
"No, it's just..." I paused. "...really silly, now that I look back at it."
"Was it because you did something wrong as a kid?"
I nodded. "Something that you look back on and realize the stupidity of your actions."
I sensed him trying to smile. "Care to share it, then?"
Christ. "Well... one time, my mother went out of her way to buy us some Christmas presents. My father had left three months prior, so scraping the money together for those gifts was difficult enough. She had bought us new tsinelas for our feet. These were brand new too, not stuff salvaged from the mountain. Me and Evan, we were quick to trade in our old, worn-out footwear for something fresh and new. But Julio got himself the best pair: it was black, with blue stripes along the sides and over the straps. What really drove me nuts was the fact that he seldom, if at all, wore them. He continued to wear his old slippers, keeping his new ones 'hidden' somewhere in our bedroom. I knew where he hid them because I had seen him taking them out once."
Ricky smiled. He knew where this was going.
"I'm still not sure why he didn't wear the new ones. Maybe he just liked his old pair better. Maybe he thought they looked 'too good' to use. One day the thought of those brand new tsinelas gathering dust irked me, to the point I decided, 'If Julio doesn't want those slippers, I do!' So, one evening, when I was sure he was preoccupied doing something else, I snuck into the bedroom and quickly searched for the forbidden footwear."
"And you got caught," he assumed.
"Spectacularly." I lowered my head to hide a grin. "I remember slipping my loot under my shirt and trying to walk out of the room, looking innocent. Who knows what I was planning to do with those? Maybe I was going to sell it. Maybe I was going to show it off to all my friends. Maybe I was going to hide it in a secret spot in the alleyway only I knew about. Whatever I hoped to do just never came to fruition. I bumped straight into my older brother as I rounded the corner. I was caught by surprise. In the shock, the slippers fell out onto the floor, as if the hand of God personally exposed me."
Ricky coughed a couple of times to cover up laughter.
"I felt naked almost, standing there awkwardly with the evidence of my failed theft in front of me. My mother was right behind him, and she was anything but pleased with what she saw. She obviously got mad, made me apologize to Julio, and gave me my well-deserved reward in the form of corporal punishment. What was even more interesting was the fact that she used the very slippers I tried to steal on me."
"How many times did she hit you?"
"Five. There were times when she hit me more than that, but five for stealing a relatively unused pair of..."
"You totally deserved it. All five of them."
I gave him a lighthearted shove. "Seriously? Shut up."
There was several minutes of silence between us. Well, as much silence as we could maintain, laughing at my younger self. It felt weird to share an embarrassing moment whilst inside prison, but it felt good at the same time. "I admit... I've never told that story before," I said finally.
"Not even to your little brother?"
"Well he was watching me while I was being disciplined, so he knows."
The brightness on his face dimmed down. He still had a grin on his face, but I knew I had stumbled upon something dark and ghastly within him again.
I was afraid of another uncontrolled emotional outburst. "I-I'm sorry, I didn't mean to..."
He shook his head. "I don't need people to feel sorry for me. I just need someone who can... who can listen to me. It's like what you said: I can get this weight off my shoulders if I tell you what I've been through."
I nodded. "Yes... I guess you're right on that."
"If it makes you uncomfortable..."
"Whatever makes you comfortable, Ricky. I'm here for you. I'm your friend."
He took a deep breath. "My father didn't start hitting us until a good three years after my brother was born, enough time for the alcohol and cigarettes to sink in. He yelled at and berated us before then. He would criticize everything, from the slum we lived in to the static on the TV, to the bed that he claimed left his back sore and out of place, down to my sister's clothing, the way I sported my hair, and my mother's cooking, which he also ranted about 'There not being enough of.' He would only stop talking when he got too hysterical and collapsed to the ground crying, or when the alcohol got the upper hand and he had to vomit.
"At first, it was just, as my mother claimed, 'midnight fits', where he flailed uncontrollably in his sleep, accidentally striking my mother in the process. She often appeared to us in the morning with black eyes and a nosebleed. One time, she got smacked in the mouth, and woke up to find dried blood between her teeth. She refused to talk about it any further, but after a few weeks of morning agony, we both knew she was hiding something. He never said a word about what he did, but only remained sullen and silent, sitting upright and rigid in his chair, drilling holes into a spot on the wall with his eyes.
"Within a month, he had begun hitting us, me and my sister. He also began to get more violent with my mother, often yelling at and striking her in front of us. Most of the time, he would use his bare hands, but on occasion he would use whatever object he could get his hands on and could carry. Sometimes he threw rocks at us, sometimes a sandal or slipper. Sometimes he would wield a stick and use it to 'warm our backs'; it also served as a javelin if we were out of his immediate reach. One time, though, he got really mad and used one of his liquor bottles on me. He struck me on the shoulders after I refused to bring him a lighter. The pain was absolutely unbearable, comparable to the police baton, and I remember lying on the ground helplessly, immobilized with shock and fear."
Now the tears were coming down. I put an arm around his shoulder. "I-I-I haven't gotten to the w-w-worst p-part y-y-yet," he said in a quavery voice.
"Take your time," I responded.
It took him a few minutes to compose himself. "One day, I came home to my father grabbing my mother by her shirt, shaking her and yelling at her violently. It didn't seem unusual at first, dare I say; he frequently did that during his countless fits. As soon as he heard me enter, though, he redirected his attention and anger towards me. 'You!' he barked, pointing a finger at me. 'You hid them, I know you did!'
"'Hid what?' I asked. 'I didn't hide anything!' But his hand came down upon me and he slapped me across the face. He called me a liar and that he was determined to milk, if not beat, the truth out of me. I looked at my mother, who explained that he couldn't find his cigarettes. 'He blamed me for hiding it from him.' I denied knowing anything about his cigarettes, but he wouldn't buy it. He cited that, since I was the most distant from him, as I spent much of my time avoiding him, I was his prime suspect. He fired question after question at me, and if I gave him an answer that he felt was unsatisfactory or was a lie, he would strike me:
"'You did it to despise me.'
"'You took it, the whole thing! Hidden it someplace I don't know.'
"'I swear, I didn't take the smokes!'
"'Hiding it so you can smoke it later. I bet you smoked a few just now!'
"'I don't smoke! I never smoke! And it wouldn't be your cigarettes!'
"'You better tell me where it is!'
"'I don't know! I swear, I don't know!'
"He had me cornered. My back was up against the wall. I had nowhere left to run. He grabbed me and flipped me around, banging and pinning my face against the wall. 'I'll show you what I do with liars,' he whispered in a mean, menacing tone. He grabbed my arm and yanked it behind my back. The pain was unbearable; I felt like screaming, but I couldn't.
"He leaned forward, bringing his mouth close to my ear. I could smell the alcohol in his breath. 'I am the father,' he said. 'You're just the son. Whatever I say to you is right, and whatever I tell you to do, you must obey. Is that understood?' When I refused to reply, he tightened his grip. 'Is what I said clear?!'
"'I am the son,' I said through the pain. 'You're the father. But you're not always right. You're not right about my brother. You're not right about my mother. You're not right about my sister. You're not right about me!'
"He didn't like my answer. He pulled even harder, taking away my breath and my strength with it. 'Tell me where my cigarettes are!' he demanded.
"'I... I don't know, I really don't...'
"'Gave it to your sister, huh? Or your brother? Or maybe your mother has them!'
"'They don't have it... I don't have it!'
"He twisted. I saw black inkblots staining the edges of my vision. 'I won't hesitate to break your arm if I have to!' he seethed.
"'You have no right to... I didn't do anything wrong.'
"He kneed me, and for a moment, I thought my arm had been broken. There was a sharp jab of pain, as if a knife had been thrust into me, but I was still in one piece. I couldn't speak or move; the pain was so intense, even the hot tears that emerged from my eyes brought no relief. The world began to disappear for me as my vision waned.
"'That's enough!' my mother cried out. 'He didn't do it, I know he wouldn't!' My father responded by knocking my head against the wall again. 'You know nothing,' he growled, 'other than how to starve us all.'
"'Leave my daughter and my sons alone!' she wailed. 'I took them! I took your smokes! I threw them into the river!'
"My father snorted. He knew that my mother was bluffing to save her precious son, but he released me anyway. I was ready to slide onto the ground in exhaustion, but he had one more thing in mind for me. 'Whether or not you stole my packs,' he said, pulling me back up into a standing position, 'I'm still the father and you're still the son. The son does not talk back to his father.' His hand clenched into a fist, and he rammed it into my stomach, knocking all the air out of my lungs. I fell to the ground immediately after he dropped me, writhing in absolute pain. My cheeks were burning, my arm was on fire, and now I felt like vomiting, like coughing out blood. Every breath I took was an agony. It would've been easier to just stop breathing and die right there on the spot."
"I feel you," I said. "After that kid punched me in the gut, taking even the smallest gasp of breath was impossible. I thought I was going to die for a moment."
"If that kid came at me with a spiked bat, I'm almost certain the pain I would endure wouldn't come close to the pain I felt in that very moment. The thing that hurt most was knowing my dad was the one who did it. It seems like I hate him now, but oddly enough I'm still somewhat drawn to him." He wiped his tears with his shirt. "He was a great father."
I thought back to the time when my father was home, when he actually played with me for once instead of giving all the love to Julio. When Julio was out of breath on the Piggyback Express, my father would swap him with me, and I'd get to feel the wind in my hair, through my fingers, under my shirt. Julio was still his favourite child, and when Evan came out, he got more rides than I did, but he at least played with his children. He was at least a father... sometimes.
"I wish he came home," I thought out loud.
Ricky turned his head. "Who?"
"He might think I'm too old for piggyback rides, but at least he was the reason why the three of us could go to school." My father was lean and strong, almost perfect for the mountain, and he worked very hard to provide for all of us. With him, we could at least spend half a day at school; a short amount of time, but it was school nonetheless.
I didn't explicitly answer Ricky's question, but he was able to figure it out. "Guess you want him back too, huh?"
"My mother was pretty mad when he left, don't know what she'll say if he comes home one day." I shook my head, trying to get the memory of that awful night out of my head. No use; their voices continued to ricochet about in my skull. "It's for the nostalgia, mostly, but if he stayed, Julio and I wouldn't have left home. I guess we've gotten used to him being gone... well, except Julio."
"Lemme guess: Your father was to Julio as you are to Evan."
I turned to stare at him. "Huh?"
"That means I'm right," he said, grinning to himself. He dwelled in his own moment of pride before catching a glimpse of my stare. "...I was right, right?"
"Yeah... you're right... but how would you know?"
He got serious in the blink of an eye. "I think every child wants some sort of a parental figure. That's probably why I still want to see my father; I want him as a parent, even after all he's done. After my mother died, me and my sister were left to raise a frightened four year old boy on our own. Poor soul; his father never liked him, and his mother had moved on. He turned to my sister for a motherly figure; he turned to me for a fatherly figure. It was my mother's dying wish, and even though he was a stressful burden on us... it's scarier knowing what would've happened otherwise."
When my father left home, Julio was the most shaken in the family, second only to my mother. He was very close to him, having enjoyed all his love and attention as a kid. He used to be cheerful and talkative; his father's departure left him defeated and empty. He began to talk to us less and less, and while he never turned violent or angry, his presence turned the air to ice.
I was affected too, obviously, but as I had less in common with him and more with my mother, I wasn't so badly hurt. I knew Evan loved his father like any child would, but not long after dad left, he directed his full attention and love towards me. Looking back, I essentially became his surrogate father. Maybe having a real father would've been best, but I honestly wouldn't have traded places with any child who still had their father; Evan was the game changer, and I loved him dearly.
"You mentioned piggyback rides," he said. "I'm guessing your father gave you and your two brothers plenty of free rides."
"Mostly to Julio, although he did play with me. Evan got more rides than I did, being the baby of the family, and it was always heartwarming to see him riding on my father's back, even if I felt a little bit jealous. When he left, Julio was probably too old for piggyback rides, so that wasn't on his mind. I guess I was still young enough at the time. Evan? He wasn't too old for anything."
"I'm sorry for him. Looks like he never flew again."
I turned my head, but failed to conceal a smile.
"What's so funny about that?"
I wasn't smiling about his comment, though. I was smiling because of the memories the comment brought up. "I'm actually smiling because, well, he did get the opportunity again." I turned back towards him. "I gave it to him. On my own back."
His eyes widened. "You...?"
"Maybe I couldn't get piggyback rides anymore, but I hoped that, even if I couldn't receive, I could still give. Evan wasn't that heavy at all, so whenever we felt depressed working on the mountain, I'd entice him to climb onto my back, and I'd run as fast as my legs could carry me. I wasn't nearly as robust as my father, but it was enough for me to hear Evan squealing with joy again." I wiped a tear from my eyes... oh, how annoying were those tears! They never went away. "I was a super-brother to him."
He smiled. "Now I wanna meet your brother. The way you describe him, it seems like the two of you were made for each other."
"What's the first thing you're going to do with him as soon as you see him again? ...If you see him again?"
"Oh, I don't know." I leaned back. "Hug him. Play with him. Kiss him."
"All the things a big brother would do to his little brother?"
"Yeah, like not leaving him alone."
"Sounds like you've learned your lesson." He laughed for a bit, then turned to me. "Wait, was that a..."
"I don't know how many times I need to poke him before he gets irritated with me."
"I used to find some delight in annoying my sister during better times. If I had a particularly good day I'd find some tiny object to stick into her hair, and my mother would punish me for it. We're an interesting mixed bag, aren't we? When times are good we get on each other's nerves. When times are bad we hold each other like we're about to die." The smile died down. "My brother never experienced a really 'good' day of his life, so I'm not sure how he'll be able to manage our mischief when — if — we get off the streets."
"He needs to learn." I tried to picture Evan as a street kid, every day being a fight for survival. "Would you really want your brother to stay on the streets forever?"
"I guess you're right." He sighed. "If we do get out of this, I hope he'll remember that, no matter what, me and my sister were always beside him. We're inseparable, because we're siblings. Like how you and your brother are inseparable."
"Well, me and my younger brother, yeah. I guess Julio can complete the trio again if he so chooses to."
"He should. He's still part of the family; he's still your older brother. He can't change that fact."
"It's just that my mother has... pretty much rejected him. She doesn't talk to him anymore, almost pretending that he doesn't exist. He comes home randomly for whatever reason, doesn't eat or chat with us, only spends a quiet night and then leaves early the next morning. My mother acts as if he wasn't there during these 'visits', save for not sitting on him. I don't even know why he comes home. What's the point? He doesn't do anything."
"Maybe he's trying to remember all the good times, the life that he once had and lost, the halcyon days of his childhood. You should talk to him, let him know that you're still there for him, just like you're there for Evan. It's not too late." He paused briefly before: "Your mother's just going to have to learn to accept him again."
|For my little brother by Enoch Leung
A Rough Encounter