User:K6ka/For my little brother
For much of his life, Garrett has grown up in the slums of Manila. Every day, he and his family has to go out to the infamous Smokey Mountain - a large landfill - "scavenging" through other people's garbage in order to find scraps they can resell for profit. His father and his older brother have both left home, leaving him, his mother, and his younger brother Evan to fend for themselves.
Garrett loves his younger brother dearly, and one night, promises him to find a way to send him back to school. He leaves home and follows the path his father and older brother took - a life of crime in the city's underbelly - with the intention of bringing his earnings home to spare his family the need to scavenge. His plan does not end well; after an unsuccessful robbery, Garrett is arrested and joins the thousands of children imprisoned in the Philippines for petty crimes.
Emotionally and spiritually torn, Garrett believes his life is doomed to an eternity behind bars, never to see the brother he loved again. One night, however, he has a vision of God, who urges him to stay positive and to value love over other earthly desires. "Come home for your family's sake," the voice says to him. "Families were designed to be together. Love is only meaningful if shared."
Soon afterwards, Garrett meets another boy in prison who also suffered a similar fate, and together they are offered a chance at healing, despite the prison's monotonous conditions and their low-lying position in the cruel pecking order of the other prisoners. The two form a close bond, and are able to find love - both from the God that created them, and the support garnered from friendship.
This story, while a work of fiction, is sure to captivate readers as the characters deal with poverty, loneliness, crime, religion, and ultimately the love for their families. It also sheds some light on the real-life issues that real street children in the Metro Manila region often face on a daily basis.
For my little brother
- 1 For my little brother
- 1.1 My Promise
- 1.2 Departure
- 1.3 The Road Away from Home
- 1.4 Criminal Hospitality
- 1.5 Diablo Wingz
- 1.6 Discovery
- 1.9 Confinement
- 1.10 Put-down
- 1.11 A Talk with God
- 1.12 Friend In Me
- 1.13 Divine
- 1.14 Diving Deep, Deeper
- 1.15 A Rough Encounter
- 1.16 Salvation
- 1.18 Freed
- 1.19 Homecoming
- 1.20 Evan
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 100 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 was. 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.
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."
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.
"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 had put myself through.
Julio was gone the next morning, long before the rest of us woke up. He never told anyone where he went, or why. I'm not even sure why he comes home in the first place; if he's so well-off wherever he goes, why come back?
We ate a small breakfast. We had to be quick, in order to get to the mountain before the first garbage trucks arrived. Smart, successful scavengers fleeced the trucks as they approached the dump, many even climbing aboard to get their hands at the bounty while it was still fresh. We get a lot of pagpag this way, before it gets a chance to spoil in the heat of the day.
We're running now, getting there before it's too late. My brother holds my hand, like mother had ordered him to, looking to me for security, safety, leadership. I did not mind, even though it slowed me down a bit.
The garbage trucks had just arrived, in them the city's garbage that they had collected overnight. People were already scaling the sides of the truck, trying to get into the hopper, trying to get at the loot first.
My brother was too young to climb up a moving truck. "You be careful, alright?" I said to him before running towards the vehicle. He followed, keeping a healthy distance away. He knew the drill — we did it every day. I ran alongside the truck and grabbed the handle, pulling myself up on board, taking great care not to allow my limbs to get caught on anything. Some ill-mannered scavengers often used other bodies as leverage to help themselves up to the hopper. My small size and strength made that very unlikely, but my mother wanted me to stay on the safe side. "Just come home alive is all I'm asking," she often said.
I reached the hopper, where the pile of trash was rapidly disappearing as the scavengers attacked it with full force. I filled my arms quickly with Styrofoam food containers, all of them packed with uneaten food from the night before. My brother was beside the truck, his arms ready to catch. I threw the containers down at him before scrounging the hopper for more. Having his help was a luxury many did not have, for I could simply toss him all the valuables rather than having to carry everything by myself. A few brought bags with them onto the truck, which became bulky and heavy as they filled. Many of them gave out under the pressure, spilling their contents back into the hopper. Occasionally he would miss, and someone else would come and swipe the dropped objects before he had a chance to pick them up. I made sure he didn't get into any fights, willing accepted having his cargo heisted before him. It was cheaper to lose profits than it was to deal with the drama of having a brawl.
Soon, the truck was empty. Well, at least, devoid of all the smaller, portable materials, leaving behind only the larger, bulkier items that were too heavy to be thrown out of the truck by hand. I looked down at my brother, who had his arms full. I scrambled out of the truck and jumped down to the ground.
"How're you doing?" I asked.
I thought he smiled. "Tired," he responded.
I opened a bag and filled it with all the non-foods we had collected. Plenty of plastic bottles, jugs, cartons, cups, spoons. Many shopping bags, all of them punctured with holes like Swiss cheese. Today, we had some luck: entire spools of copper, electrical wires, all undamaged. They were worth more than common plastic, which was everywhere. I tied up the bag and slung it over my shoulder, my brother carrying the unprocessed pagpag. It had to be cleaned and cooked soon, before they spoiled and became permanently inedible.
"You did good today, Evan," I said. "Someday, you'll be a good scavenger."
He did not respond. I wonder if I had just stabbed him with my words, left a hole in his chest, letting him bleed.
The sun had just disappeared below the horizon when me and Evan returned home. Together, we managed to earn about 300 pesos — every little bit of our earnings counted towards the family, though. The heat of the day and the relentless sun beating down on our heads left me with a slight headache and an unquenchable thirst.
"Ma," I said, walking through the doorway. "We're home."
My mother had large bags under her eyes. I could tell she had been working all day as well, scrounging the mountain, trying to make the money needed to keep the family going. "Help me get dinner set up," she said.
All our meat was purchased pre-cooked. Our vegetables tonight were a mix of fresh and pagpag, evident slightly in their colouring. Even the rice tonight didn't smell or taste as good as it did yesterday; hopefully that will change tomorrow.
I bit into the meat, which had a nice, pleasant aroma and taste. "KFC", they called it, a wildly popular fast food chain in America, a face familiar to Westerners in the city. "The Americans may or may not like our food," my father once said, "so they turn to the things they know and love back home." They ate it with their hands, licking their fingers afterwards to get all the grease and salt; it tasted too good to refrain from doing so. I would have done so, tried to be an American for a day, but I was wiser not to, for one: my mother was watching me, and two: my hands had been digging through garbage all day, and without good soap it was difficult to clean.
I remembered a day when I went into the city, to the places where all the tourists and the wealthier people mingled. Remembered going into a mall, where every inch smelled of money. Money, money, and more money. Everyone had money, everyone was happy, everyone was well fed. Nobody had to sleep in a slum, eat pagpag, scavenge on Smokey Mountain. Everyone except me. I had to do the things nobody else in there had to do.
I looked at my brother, who was eating silently, again lost in his own thoughtful world. I wondered if he ever thought the same way. He sat quietly, his eyes fixed on a spot in the wall. Finally, he looked up at mother and said, "Will I ever be able to go back to school?"
My mother didn't reply immediately. "I wish I could say yes."
"Garrett said I could if dad came home."
There was another pause. "God forbid," she said, "unless he promises to abandon his foolish ways forever."
Evan opened his mouth to speak. I feared that he would tell mother about what I had promised him the night before, and quickly interrupted: "Maybe Julio will come back and help us. Evan can go back to school again."
My mother waved my opinion away. "I refuse to touch his filthy money. I'll only look at him again if he burns all of it, removes his tattoos, his gold necklace."
I shot my brother a look, begging him not to tell mother about our conversation last night. He got the message, and thankfully ended the conversation there.
Mother grew suspicious. "I hope you two aren't plotting anything..." she began.
"No, we're not," we said simultaneously.
Later that night, as I lay on the floor waiting for sleep to come, my brother asked, "Why won't you tell mother what you're planning on doing?"
I had no answer. I regretted making that promise to my brother, a promise that keeping would make my stomach turn. Several ideas came to mind, but none seemed very sound. My father and my older brother had all left home, looking for a way to bring the family a secure income, but both were deemed by my mother to be "corrupted." At first, I felt that way too. After all, how dare my father leave home! How dare Julio ignore us in our state of poverty! Speaking of Julio, his money almost certainly meant that he was able to eat like a king every night, putting no thought towards his family, made no effort to reintegrate himself, no effort to lift a finger to help any of us. He didn't even talk to any of us. He could've just come home, become a scavenger again, help take the work off our shoulders so that we could have enough to afford to allow Evan to go to school. He's a demon, a monster, a thug.
Or is he?
I swallowed. I knew doing this was wrong, what my father and my older brother did was wrong. But how wrong was it? Is something justifiable if it was done for good intentions, meant to benefit others, meant to help someone in need?
Now, don't get too over yourself, Garrett...
But what if my brother got cut, needed to be cleaned up and have his wound treated, needed bandages to stop the bleeding? If I take a first-aid kit and use it, aren't I taking supplies that someone else who's also bleeding needed as well?
He's my brother... why would I just sit there and watch him bleed? Of course I would do something to help him!
And every day, whenever I eat something, I'm eating food that some other hungry soul needs as well.
But I can't just starve myself! To help someone, another must pay for it.
"I don't want you to do anything that makes mother unhappy," Evan said. "I know you mean well, but..."
I sat up. "I promised you, Evan, I told you I'd find a way."
"I don't want mother to throw you out like she did Julio!"
"Then let her throw me out. I won't let her stop me — or you." I got up and, carefully stepping over my brother, made my way over to the dresser.
"What... What are you doing?"
I dug my hands through drawer after drawer, looking for what I wanted. My hands closed around a small knapsack, in good condition except for a tiny, insignificant hole. We last used this for school, I thought. Now I'm going to use it for my brother to...
Evan's eyes widened. He knew exactly what I was planning to do. "You can't do this!" he protested, running up and grabbing the bag from my hands.
I wrestled with him. "You don't understand, Evan," I said, struggling with his monstrous little grip. For someone so young, he sure had a lot of determination and wit to stop someone four years older than himself.
"Yes, I very well understand!" His eyes began to give way to tears, but his grip did not falter. "You're going down the path our father and Julio went down. They never came back! Mother won't accept them, and now I've lost them forever! I won't let you go down there! I won't lose you, I won't let that happen!"
"Evan!" I snapped, picking him up. He squirmed, tried to break free, but I held on, carrying him back to his bed. "You need to calm down."
"Not when you're about to jump into a ravine!"
I made him sit, placing my hands on his shoulders, looking at him directly into the eyes. He fidgeted, trying to avoid me, but I shook him firmly. "Listen carefully, Evan. I just need you to listen to me, listen to what I have to say."
He stopped moving, but continued to avoid eye contact, looking around me, looking away from me, looking at anything that wasn't a part of me.
"I know why dad and Julio left. They did it for us, for the family. They wanted us to have a future, a future better than being a scavenger for our entire lives. But they fell off the edge because they got distracted. They thought of themselves, and themselves only. They stopped thinking about us, became indifferent to us. That's why Julio's seldom home, dad never. They're only answering to their own needs, their own desires."
Tears came streaming out of his eyes. I bit my tongue, trying hard not to cry, trying not to lose myself, let myself fall apart. "It won't happen to me, though. I won't let it happen to me. I'm not doing this for myself. I'm doing it for you. I don't know where I'll go, don't know where the road might take me. But I won't go over the edge. You're my lifeline — you will keep me on the right track. I need you to do that for me. I need your support; otherwise, I cannot make it. Remember that I'm not looking for wealth, for fame, for glory. All I want is to see you go back to school, and I'll do anything to make that happen."
My brother fell silent, except for the sniffling as his tears dwelled within him. He reached up and tried to brush away the waterworks with his hand. His next words came out as a quavery stammer: "Will you p-p-promise.... promise me that y-y-you'll c-c-come h-h-home?"
My pinky was up. "I promise," I said. "No matter what happens, even if I can't find what I'm looking for, I'll still come home to you alive. I will not break this promise; God take my life if I do."
He threw his arms over me and emptied his tears into my chest. I patted him comfortingly on the back, gritting and gnashing my teeth as I fought to suppress my own tears. I needed to appear strong to my brother, let him know that I could do it, that I was tough enough to make this difficult decision. I'll come home... I'll come home to you alive... I will not break this promise, God take my life if I do...
"W-W-When are you l-leaving?" he asked.
I had originally hoped to slip away in the darkness of the night, before my mother noticed. But my brother's sudden outburst made me guilty, even after explaining myself. Part of me wanted to go, embark on such a dangerous journey if it meant he could have the opportunity to leave poverty. The other part wanted me to just stay, stay safe and call this all off, let this all just be a bad dream and an infeasible thought.
"Early, tomorrow morning," I said finally. "But I'm going, no matter what."
"You'll stay here for one more night?" he said, choking on his tears slightly.
So that's that, I thought. One more night, just one more night. I hope it's not our last night together. And if it is, at least he knew about it.
There was no sleep for me. I tossed and turned, unable to shut my brain down. It kept me up all night, pleading, arguing, debating with me. I wanted to stay, I wanted to leave. I wanted to cry, I wanted to scream. I felt like this was all just a bad dream, and at the same time knew I was living in the grim reality of life, my life, his life. My mother's life. I wonder if she'll let me back into the house after this.
My brother fared poorly as well. He slept on-and-off, evidenced by short moments of silence, followed by muffled sobbing. I felt like I had poisoned him and sat with him in the same room, watching, listening to him die slowly, painfully. He knew that, soon, he would have the entire room to himself at night, all alone. While I didn't know how he felt when Julio left, I was almost certain that he would not appreciate my absence. Nights would become hell for him, with nobody to answer his questions, or even to listen to him.
Several nights on your own is better than a lifetime of scavenging, Evan! Remember that!
The night felt long, but passed by far too quickly. Soon, the night sky began to give way to a faint, reddish hue that grew stronger and richer with every passing minute. I looked at the clock. 5:30 AM. My mother woke up at 6. I had half-an-hour to leave.
Immediately I got up and hurriedly finished packing the few belongings I wanted to bring with me. My father and Julio both left the house with relatively light loads; I did the same. Soon, the knapsack was over my shoulders, though it was so light I wondered if it would've made a difference at all if I had just left it behind.
My brief frenzy woke my brother up from his light, dreamless slumber. He was watching me now, not knowing what to say. He knew this was the moment where we had to say goodbye...
I grasped his hand. "I'll come home, I promise," I said.
He hugged me again, one I feared might be the last. "I hope you do," he said simply.
"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 won't forget."
He reluctantly released me. I ruffled his hair playfully, trying to get some positivity into my blood. "Take care of mom for me."
I got up and left the room, closing the door softly behind me. Not long after I had done so, I heard loud, audible crying from behind the door.
The morning air felt uncannily cool, despite the fact that nights in the city were almost always warm. The air had a funny taste to it, like a mix of sulphur and vehicular exhaust, combined with the faint odour of Smokey Mountain. I looked back at my house, which now seemed like the best place in the world for me to be in. Goodbye, home, I thought. I wonder if I'll ever see you again.
Memories came flooding back, all the happy ones that took place right here, right outside the house. Times when we would sit outside with the other kids in the neighbourhood and play card games. Times when we would find an old, discarded ball and play football, passing the ball to anyone who wanted to join. Times when we would make a makeshift basketball net and take turns dunking and shooting, right up until the time when the ball went sailing through someone's window. Times when the neighbours all got together and enjoyed a barbeque on the street, where everyone brought their own food to roast on the open fire; my father chatting and snacking with his friends; my mother laughing exuberantly; me, Evan, and Julio having our own little party with everyone else our age.
Those days are gone. Now, it's nothing but nostalgia.
I took a deep breath, pushing those memories aside. All that mattered now was the task at hand. I picked up my feet and began walking, away from my childhood home, my safe haven, my castle.
It would be many, many months before I would even be able to see the street I lived on again.
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.
I woke up, stomach growling, head still pounding, but otherwise unable to sleep, for the sun's morning rays were boring holes through my eyelids.
Argh... my stomach... my head... my eyes...
Night seemed like hell. The air was hot, sticky, and polluted. There was virtually no end to the sounds of the city, the cars passing by, the people that roamed the streets. I woke up several times throughout the night to the sounds of conversation, cargo being moved, laughter, sometimes drunken. I knew that I was in plain sight of everyone, and occasionally I received the dirty look, but for the most part nobody really cared. To them, I was just one of thousands that live on the streets. I was as ordinary as the rice they ate every day.
Speaking of rice, I needed some. Badly. I got up and hobbled over to the trash can, hoping to find something. I couldn't, and I didn't.
Behind the building... look behind the building.
There was a dumpster tucked against the rear wall, looking almost somber in the morning light. It was filled, but I had to work quickly, before the garbagemen came and emptied it. It was an easy taxi home — just ride the truck back! — but I knew that was not an option for me. I lifted the lid, struggling with its weight, and, trying hard not to fall in, combed at whatever was within arm's reach. Anything, any food that was still edible, any sort of liquid that I could still drink, any pagpag. I still had no money, barely had the motivation or strength to steal right now. My luck had to turn.
Nothing was turning now, though. I untied the two bags closest to me and dug through. My hands brought up only crushed plastic, bits of Styrofoam, and pop cans. All the cans were empty, the plastic was clearly out of the question, and the Styrofoam...
The Styrofoam! The Styrofoam container! There was one, jutting out of a poorly-knotted garbage bag in the corner. I reached and reached, but I was too small, and my arms were too short. I crawled along the rim, trying to get over the container, though I had no action plan as to how I was going to fish it out of there. I could see it now, saw bits of bones poking out of the lid. Someone's dinner last night that they didn't manage to finish. I'll eat it if they won't eat it...
But I can't get it!
I clung tightly onto the edge and, trying to control my descent, lowered myself into the dumpster. It was dark, a powerful, putrid odour inhabiting the space, almost like home. I felt around with my feet, hoping to find some surface to stand on, but I could not feel anything. My arms were beginning to give; they had begun to shake alarmingly. I tried to pull myself out, but I had no strength. My fingers slipped, and I fell inside.
Trash. Lots of it. I had grown up on a landfill, digging through other people's refuse since I was a toddler, yet never before had I gone on a dumpster dive before. The bags and their contents cushioned my fall, and had it not been for the metal contraption that had now swallowed me whole, I would've likened it to home.
Home... Home? Ha!
I cried for help, but I knew that even if someone heard me, they would not answer. No boy on earth would get himself into a dumpster except the hungriest, most desperate ones who lived on the streets. Who cares about them? Who honestly cares? They disrupt traffic, fill the sidewalks, clog the rivers with their sweaty bodies, pollute the public image of a city desperate to solve its internal problems. Who cares? No one! You were lucky if you were able to survive, because many didn't. The police didn't keep an eye out for our well-being; they were there to cleanse the streets of us, regardless of what it took to get there.
I was going to have to get out of there myself before I wound up inside the belly of a truck.
I opened the container. Much to my disappointment, there was less food in it than I had anticipated. I grabbed the bones and sucked at the scanty pieces of meat still clinging onto it. There was a little bit of rice, some beans that were losing their colour. Not enough for someone like me. Not even close. But it will have to do.
Trying again. I tried to jump, struggling to keep my balance from the unstable layers of haphazardly placed garbage bags under me. My fingers met the edge, but I was not strong enough, leaving only a few scratches and a loud, grating noise. I tried again, but I could not pull myself out of there. I tried to stack the bags of refuse up to form a step stool that I could use, but the bags were far too bulky and heavy, most of them being stuck or pinned underneath other bags, and soon I was too exhausted, tired from my ordeal, tired from hunger, tired of everything. I slunk back, panting and sweating, and for a moment I was ready to accept my fate, to be taken out with the trash. And if I didn't survive, my body would at least join my fellow scavengers back home...
"What's goin' on in there?"
I was startled, but too weak to even move.
"Who's in there? Huh? A scavenger, no doubt."
Footsteps. They were right outside the dumpster, could hear them clearly even in the muffled interior. I tried to sit up straight.
"Mute? Hey, no worries, didn't mean to scare ya. Just wanted to let you know that I saw a garbage truck turning the corner."
Uh oh. All of a sudden, a burst of energy surged through me, and I stood up, albeit on shaky legs. I'm not done yet. No, I'm not ready to die.
The dumpster darkened. A head appeared over the opening, peering inside, blocking some of the light from entering. "A kid?" he said. "How old are you?"
I hesitated. "T-T-Ten..." I stammered.
"Well then, ten-year-old boy, I have some news for you. There's a garbage truck driving up this very alley, all set to empty this dumpster's contents. You can either stay there and who knows what pile of shit you'll land in, or you can scram and get the hell out of here. What do you choose?"
I stiffened. "I'm getting out."
The face smiled. He threw one leg over the edge, sitting, "riding" on the edge like a horse. He extended a hand out to me. "Hold on if you want out."
I could hear the garbage truck now. It was backing up, the siren's repetitive beeping noise ringing through my ears. BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, it went, getting louder and louder with every passing second. I didn't know who the mysterious figure was, but I figured my life was worth the gamble. Desperate, I grabbed onto his hand and squeezed it firmly.
"I might pull your arms off," he began.
The beeping noise had begun to sting my ears.
"Just pull me out!" I said, desperate to avoid my fate.
He laughed. "Impatient dog." With a firm pull, he lifted me up and hauled me over the edge. I was so light that he was able to do it single-handedly. "God, you're a feather," he remarked as he dropped me.
I landed on the ground. My legs were still shaking. The siren had now grown to deafening proportions as the truck came to a halt. Two men emerged from the cab, having caught sight of the two of us. The boy who pulled me out — I could now see his face clearly in the sunlight — swung his feet over again and jumped down.
"Quit diggin' around in there, boy!" one of them called out.
"You got a death wish or somethin'?!" the second, I assumed was the driver, shouted. "You could die in there, y'know!"
I was too frightened — well, tired, really — to even speak, but the boy jumped right in. "Fuck off!" he barked. "Neither of you've ever been hungry enough to dig through shit looking for something to eat!"
"My day job is getting rid of this 'shit'!" the driver responded. "And you know what? I think you're shit too!"
The boy shoved him back roughly. "You'll regret every single word you've said in your life once I'm done with you," he seethed.
"Yeah? Go ahead and fight me, you fucking glue sniffer!"
The first one got in between the two. "Enough, enough! There's no need to get into a fight here." He turned to the boy. "Look, I got a wife and two children, a home with a hot shower and Internet, and a life unlike you. I'm not gonna throw it away because of a turdface!"
The boy's temper flared. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a dull, rouge-coloured stick, about the size of a flash drive. He clicked a button, and something shiny shot out, glistening in the daylight.
The first one immediately backed off, but the driver was not finished yet. "Yeah, go ahead and stab me! I'd like to see you try!" He cracked his knuckles and flexed his arms. "Winner survives and gets the truck, loser gets to bleed to death in this alley."
The two grappled each other, wrestling over the knife that would bring them victory. Aside from the rumbling of the truck's engine as it idled, the grunts and groans of the two fighters were the only sounds to be heard. They twisted, pulled, squeezed, and wound themselves up in unsightly human knots, occasionally getting the knife dangerously close to each other's throats. Finally, the first one mustered the courage to break them up. "Hell, we're behind schedule because of this stupid fight." He turned to his colleague. "Let's just go. It's not worth it." And to the boy he said, "You stay outta trouble, kid. Back when I was young, if you were caught out here twisting the law the cops would give you a warning. Now, they don't even bother with that. You do something stupid, and they'll just shoot you. Less paperwork, less red tape." The two returned to the truck, the driver still fuming. "And move out of the fucking way so we can empty that dumpster!"
The boy glared at them, but seemed to have no reason to disobey. He moved himself to the side of the alley and gave the truck room to take out the trash. The two of us watched silently, watched as the truck lifted the dumpster up into the air, watched as it liberated the contents into the hopper, watched as the truck lowered the dumpster back down with a bang. Neither of the two garbagemen looked at us the whole time. As the truck began to leave, the boy got up from his slouch on the wall and turned towards the truck. He held up a fist and, slowly but steadily, raised his middle finger.
"That's your name?"
"Not my real name, but that's what everyone calls me, so that's my name."
I had been talking to the boy who had pulled me out of that dumpster. He was five years older than me, sturdily built and well-rounded. He had several tattoos on his arms, and supposedly three under his shirt. I didn't find it necessary to ask to see it, though.
"So what's your name? And why were you in that dumpster?"
"My name's Garrett," I responded. "I was in the dumpster because I hadn't eaten anything the night before, looking for any pagpag I could find."
"You're a scavenger?"
"Got any parents?"
I didn't want to talk about my father.
"I'm asking about anyone else in your family."
Oh. "My brother... I have a younger brother."
"Huhm." He stopped walking to get a careful look at me. "The way you mention him, it seems you two have a thing together."
"I... I, uh..." It seemed bizarre that someone you met just an hour ago would act like they knew you well, could read your secrets and all the things you wouldn't explicitly mention.
I shook my head.
"I prefer not to say." I wasn't even going to lie to him, for fear that he would figure out.
He stopped at a crowded coffee shop. The aroma of food aggravated my stomach, which rumbled loudly. The measly scraps I had eaten weren't enough for my stomach to call a decent breakfast. He turned to me. "You hungry?"
Now there was definitely no need to lie there. "Very."
He came back out with two breakfast biscuits — one for me, one for himself. I unravelled the paper and took a bite into it immediately. Bacon, cheese, eggs. It all smelled and tasted so good, better than anything I would ever have been able to eat back at home. I felt guilty, for thinking of home reminded me of my younger brother. I was eating like a king — like my father and Julio probably were — while Evan and my mother were still stuck with pagpag. But this time, my stomach won me over, and I was so hungry, I wolfed the whole thing down in four bites.
"You seem hungry," Dodger commented with amusement. He had been watching me down the thing like a tiger at the sight of meat.
"I am," was the best reply I could compose.
In his other hand was a large paper cup, filled with coffee. He offered me a sip; I was so hungry, anything that could go into my stomach appealed greatly to me. I had never tasted coffee before. It was a mixture of acrid bitterness, mouth searing temperatures, sugary sweetness, and creamy milk. It was hot, and at first I couldn't taste anything. After a few more sips, the taste of coffee lingered in my mouth, clinging onto my teeth and tongue. It felt odd and wonderful at the same time.
"So tell me, why exactly are you here?" Dodger asked as he ate his own breakfast. "If you got yourself a loving mom and a little brother, why aren't you with them right now?"
I straightened up. "I'm here because of my brother... my younger brother."
His eyes lit up. "You got into a fight with him and hate his guts?"
"No... the opposite, actually."
"You love him so much that you just have to get away from him?" He was laughing softly to himself.
"Actually, I left because... I'm from Smokey Mountain."
"The dump site?"
"Yeah. That's why I'm a scavenger."
"Huh." He drank from his coffee. "What does that have anything to do with your brother?"
"I don't want my brother to be a scavenger. I want him to be able to grow up and get out of there, get out of that smoldering dump. I want him to be able to go to school, but if he doesn't scavenge, we can't get enough to eat. If I can scrape together money — any money, any amount — I hope I can get him what he wants, what I want for him."
He didn't say anything. He had leaned back on the wall, staring thoughtfully ahead, occasionally feeding himself his load of caffeine. "I'll do whatever it takes," I continued. "Just as long as I can come home to him again, I'll do it. Even if I'm cut and bruised."
For a few minutes, we were silent. His eyes were onto me, carefully making their close observations of me. His eyes were mostly fixated onto my face, though what he was looking for specifically, I did not know. Finally, he discarded his empty packaging and stood up. "Stick with me and I'll see what I can do for ya."
I got up as well. "Where are we headed?"
"Not so fast." He was studying me again. "You don't know who I really am, do you?"
Huh? What did he mean by that?
"Can you keep things on the DL?"
"DL — Down Low. If I tell you something, can I trust you not to be a pest and go yapping about it?"
"You can trust me."
He stared at me. "I've only known you for a few hours now," he finally said, "and from what I can see about you, I can tell you have a mind of iron."
I was unsure whether or not I should feel flattered by that comment.
"Look, I'm gonna be honest with you: you're physically laughable. All those years of eating cheap food and pagpag has stunted your growth. But you've got something in you, kid, something burning in you. Something that screams determination, something that keeps you going forward even when everything else is trying to get you to stop. I can't quite put my finger on it, Garrett, but I'm about to find out."
I was quiet, but I felt quite warm and good on the inside. It was pretty rare for me to be praised in this way.
He pointed to a man with an oversized shirt and large, bulging pockets walking down the busy road. "You see him?"
"You're going to go over there, get in front of him, and distract him. Pretend that you and I are playing or something and keep him busy while I jack his shit." He cautioned me with a sharp look. "You better not go tellin' your mother I told you to do this, or else I can't keep you out of jail."
I swallowed. I had stolen things before — yesterday was an example of that — but never before had I stolen, or helped someone else steal, under the directions of someone I barely knew.
"Look normal!" he snapped. "He's getting away, hurry up and get to 'im!"
I ran towards our victim. He had his hands inside his pockets, guarding their contents from any wandering fingers. I got in front of him and, turning my body around to face him, stepped on his shoes.
"Todd!" I yelled, pretending to look around him. "Todd, pass me the ball already!" I faked left and right, brushing and pushing against the man with my hands as if to get him out of the way. "Gimme the football!"
The man removed his hands from his pockets and tried to brush me aside. "Don't play in front me, dammit!!" As he did so, Dodger came up behind him and quickly pulled two objects out of his pockets. I made a show of kicking him in the legs, as if to try and get at the invisible football behind him. "Ow!!"
"Right, let's go!" Dodger shouted, and I darted along with him out of there.
"Not bad," he said, panting, after we had gotten a healthy distance away from the crime scene. "Good use of the football there."
"Thanks." I eyed the objects in his hands. "What did you get?"
In his right hand was a wallet, thick and made of genuine leather. He opened it and revealed 200 pesos, all freshly printed, as if they had just come from the bank. He counted out 100 and handed it to me. "You were pretty damn good, for a first timer."
One-hundred pesos! One-hundred pesos! All in a few seconds! I had never made this much money, this quickly, before.
He pulled out the credit cards and stuffed them into his pocket. "These things are worth tons," he explained. "Just gotta use them before he gets them cancelled." He dug through every corner and pocket of the leather wallet and, after taking out whatever he deemed valuable, tossed it aside. In his other hand he had a shiny, metallic object, one roughly the size of, if not bigger than, my hand.
A cell phone.
"iPhone," he said, shaking his head. "These things are hard to crack." He fiddled with the touchscreen for a bit before giving up. "How'd you like that?" he asked me.
My mother's face flashed in front of me. I almost gasped. "You're following in your corrupted father's footsteps!" I could hear her saying. "You've followed in your corrupted brother's footsteps! Why would you do this to me, son?! Why?!"
For Evan, I thought. For Evan. I won't get caught up in this. I'll only take what is enough, and then I'll go home. Enough for Evan's schooling — not even mine's, just him.
"You alright there?" Dodger asked, snapping his fingers in front of my face. "You can't be dozing off at this time of day."
I looked up at him and tried to grin. "When can we do it again?"
The stool was moved into position. I was huddled under a table, its surface filled with merchandise being sold. On the other end, just a few steps away, was the counter with the cash register. I remained silent and waited for Dodger's signal.
We had spent much of the day stealing whatever valuables we could get our hands on, mostly money. After emptying a few more pockets on the street, Dodger decided it was time to step it up a notch. I've had more luck stealing from stalls and vendors this time, now that I had him helping me. Occasionally, when confronted with an intimidating situation I would hold back, and he would always holler at me to "Man up! Just get in there and do it!"
Evan... these earnings are for you, not me! I won't keep a centavo of what I get for myself! I promise!
Now we were taking on an entire store, a small one, but definitely wealthier than everyone we've looted from so far. Above the noise of the street outside and the obnoxious chatter of someone talking loudly on their phone, a table fan, rattling slightly from its age, kept a hot breeze moving throughout the store. Without the wind — which was what I was experiencing, crammed under a table, insulated from the fan — the humidity was so thick, it was possible to cut it with a knife. A plastic, disposable knife.
Dodger came up to the cash register; I could see his feet. "Could you spare this for a good friend?" I could hear him say.
"What, are you saying that you forgot to bring money again today?" a gruff voice responded. It must've come from the aged, grey-haired man who was tending the till, of whom I caught a glimpse of before I disappeared under Dodger's instructions. "You were here only yesterday using that same excuse!"
"I promise, I'll pay you." I heard the jingling of coins. "Here, I'll pay half the price for now. I'll give you the other half later."
"I bet I won't see the other half!" The ruffling of paper. "How much is that? 15 pesos?"
"Don't forget about what you 'bought' yesterday — I'm expecting another 30 pesos from you." There was the sound of a tray being opened, money being counted... and a sudden struggle that ended as abruptly as it began.
"Son of a bitch!"
"Now, Garrett!" I saw his feet darting off and out of the store. I shoved the stool forward into the narrow aisle at the perfect time; both the man and the cell phone chatterbox ran into it as they attempted to pursue the thief. The old, stern man fell to the ground, his body partially blocking my escape route. I slithered and squeezed past him, but his hand shot out and grabbed my foot. "You're not going anywhere, kid!"
I struggled with his monstrous grip. "Let go of me!"
"Not until the police swing by for a visit!"
Desperate, I lashed out with my other foot. I hit something fleshy and bony, a sizable elevation in the middle that cracked when I struck it. There was a sharp yelp of pain, and the grip on my feet relaxed. I scrambled back to my feet and ran from the place as fast as my legs could carry me. Half a block away, I managed to catch up to Dodger.
"What took you so long?" he yelled.
"He grabbed onto my foot!"
"How'd you get out?"
"I kicked him in the face."
He cocked a grin. "You don't just let any old hag hold onto you, eh?"
"Hey!" It was the cell phone guy, running towards us at top speed. "I'm gonna call the cops on you!"
Thanks for the tip. We both started running, running as he yelled at us to stop. "Stop if you know what's good for yourself!"
If I stop, I'm never going to get anything good for myself. And neither is Evan.
"Let's split." Dodger pointed down an alley. "You go down there, I'll go the other way. We'll meet at the bridge up ahead."
"Okay." I turned and ran in the direction he pointed, brushing aside boxes and bodies as I went. I turned a corner, hid behind some crates, and stopped to catch my breath.
The cell phone guy didn't hesitate. He immediately went after Dodger, who had the money. When my breath had caught up with me, I turned and headed in the direction of our agreed-upon meeting spot, remaining in the shadow of the alleys. People caught sight of me, but they didn't care. To them, I was just one of thousands. I was no big deal. They saw people like me every day.
I reached the bridge, an aging, concrete structure that crossed a polluted river filled with garbage. The guardrails were short, crumbling and dilapidated in some areas. I could see several slums — haphazardly constructed structures — lining the dirty river, a few with TV antennas precariously perched on their roofs. There was light but noticeable traffic moving across the bridge, jauntily bumping along the pavement. I looked behind me and shielded my eyes from the setting sun. No familiar face in sight. I was going to have to wait, and be ready to run in case my pursuer got to the bridge first.
I hope that doesn't happen.
I waited — first standing, then sitting down on the curb — for God-knows-how-long. I watched as the sun drooped lower and lower below the horizon, giving way to night. All the street lights came on, bathing the roads with a cold, yellow glow. I watched as the cars, the bicycles, and the pedestrians went by, an activity as mundane as day, yet strangely mesmerizing and captivating. Finally, I got up. Him taking this long clearly meant that something was amiss.
I can't let this slip through my fingers. I can't! Not when the going's good!
I retraced my steps, recrossing the bridge, running back towards the spot where we last saw each other. I turned down the road that he took, though where he went after that was anybody's guess. I darted blindly across an intersection, skipping a red light, almost getting hit by a jeepney. I squeezed and bumped past bodies along the narrow sidewalk; brushing them aside, I did not slow down. I ran down what seemed to be miles and miles of dark, sketchy alleyway, not knowing where I was going or what I was getting myself into. I didn't dare call out; wherever Dodger was, he almost certainly had unwanted company. I tripped and stumbled over a discarded computer monitor, but I wouldn't let that stop me.
I got to a crossroad, a crossroad of alleys. I had four directions to choose from: go straight ahead, to the left, to the right, or turn back. Not knowing which option I should take, I stopped to catch my breath. That was when I heard, "Gotcha now, you sick son of a bitch."
It came from the left. I turned towards that direction and, almost tiptoeing, headed towards the sound. Well, sounds. "This wild goose chase is over. You've kept us going for quite a while now, but sooner or later, someone's got to give."
"You three are a fucking joke!" That sounded like Dodger.
"Well, I may be the fucking joke here, but I didn't joke around when these two came along, hmm?"
"Does it look like I'm joking around?"
"Was I joking around when I said you could get incarcerated for theft?" It was an older, rougher voice.
"Does it look like I care?"
"Are you joking?"
"Does it look like I'm joking?" There was the cracking of knuckles. "You think it's pretty easy living out here on these streets, huh? Just mill around and do nothing, right? Well, you're wrong. If you do that, you'll be dead faster than the police can brandish their batons and club the living shit out of you. Am I joking around? You three are a fucking tease."
"We'll be the ones laughing," a younger, crisper voice said, "once you realize just how much of a tease you are once you wake up behind bars."
"Only the tough survive out here in Tondo."
"And I agree," the old one said, "because we have survived and are surviving. We'll put you out of this misery if you so choose."
I turned my head slowly around a corner. There was Dodger, cornered and surrounded by three men. One of them I recognized as the cell phone chatterbox from the store we looted; the other two, I didn't recognize. Dodger had his back against the wall, but I knew he was a long ways off from giving up.
"I'd rather die!"
"You think we'd actually kill you?" the cell phone guy remarked. "Boy, I'm not going to jail because of you."
"No," the young one said. "No, we can't kill him. Can't bring in a dead body. We'll just beat the tar out of him and then say he tried to fight back."
"I can deal some of those blows," the old one joked.
"Not unless our friend here fights back as well, and I have no doubt he will give us some trouble."
"Kid, you know how to fight, huh?"
"I bet he does."
There was a click, and the three men backed off. In the dim light I could see the shiny glare of the blade of Dodger's knife. "I don't go down that easily. Which one of you are willing to face me one-on-one?"
The three paused hesitantly. Finally, the older one got back into the ring. "I'll drag you by the ears to the police station once I'm done with you!"
"Not if this knife gets you done first!"
"One is none. Two is one." The cell phone guy stood boldly beside his teammate. "What, are you going to whine about how 'unfair' it is?"
"I never said that. We're on the streets here. There are no fucking rules to follow."
The younger one jumped back in. "You know what? You're right. There are no fucking rules to follow. Don't go cryin' for anybody, cause we're not obliged to give you a gold star and kiss you on the forehead for being a good little boy."
I stiffened. All three of them were ready to put up a fight with him. Three versus one. Three grown men versus one teenaged boy. I figured Dodger would hold his ground against one person easily, but not a trio.
I have to do something!
"Watch it, kid."
"Yeah, you'll be watching me as I slit your goddamn throat!"
The older one made a fist and rammed it into the boy's stomach. I immediately grabbed a rock — the largest one I could find and still throw with reasonable strength — and hurled it towards the men. It struck the younger man in the shoulders, and he screamed in agony.
"What the hell?!"
The other two turned around. "Son of a whore!" they shouted, catching sight of me. I was about to turn around and run away when Dodger got up and kicked the two in the rear. "Run, Garrett! Get the fuck out of here!"
I needed no persuasion. I was out of there, retracing my steps, running back to where I came from. A few seconds later, Dodger came out, a cell phone in his hands. "You know where to go!" he hollered at me. "Get back to where we agreed to meet up."
I nodded. Back down the miles of alleyway, brushing past bodies on the narrow sidewalks, darting across the intersection against the light, onto the bridge with the dilapidated guardrails crossing the polluted river. I stopped, breathing heavily, exhausted and numb from the whole ordeal. I was still shaking, still felt like the three men were there next to me, still felt like I was in danger. I looked back. Dodger had made it, crossing the street to get to my side.
"Phew..." he gasped. "That... that was some shit we got out of!" He looked at me and nodded, smiled. "Thanks for that."
"How'd you find me?"
"I don't know... I just ran back to the spot where we split, headed down the road you took, and just kept running from there."
"Lucky." He pulled the cell phone out from his pockets. "Swiped this from the smartphone chatterbox guy, guess he can't go bitching about calling the cops anymore." He pressed the power button and turned the phone off. "That way he can't track us."
He gave me another odd look. "You remember what I told you this morning, right?"
"You told me lots of things this morning."
"About keeping things quiet?"
"Yeah." I remembered that.
He looked around, as if to check for any unwanted eavesdroppers. "I figured I could trust you enough to join my gang."
I was silent. My mind immediately raced back to Julio and what he had gotten himself into. He had also joined a gang, a street gang, involved in the shabu trade. He had built himself a reputation in there, earning respect and profit as he went. He no longer needed his family after that; the gang became his family, his benefactor. He made enough money to ensure that he would never have to touch any part of Smokey Mountain ever again.
Evan... I just need to think about him! I knew my older brother fell into a pit that he never got out of, the pit being the very gang he joined, the new lifestyle he chose. He thought about the gang, and how the gang could benefit him, bring him all the riches that we and the garbage dump never could. He was sick of being poor, and the gang opened the door for him to get out, escape from poverty. He never went back, except maybe as the odd tourist to his own family and his old home.
I can't go down that path... I needed a lifeline, an escape hatch, a ball of string. My younger brother would be all of those things. I had to remember the fact that I was doing it for him. Not for myself. Never for myself. No matter what happened, I had to hold on to that thought. Anything I earned would go to my brother, anything to get him off the mountain, get him back into school, back to being a child again. It would all be for him. For Evan. For my little brother.
I looked straight into Dodger's eyes. "You can trust me. I'll do anything to get in."
He nodded. "It's been a long day, but I feel like I've learned a lot about you, Garrett. You just get better and better the longer you're at this. Something inside you drives you, it really does. You even came back to look for me, and I've never had a kid do that. Never heard of any stories about that ever happening either." He started walking, and he gestured for me to follow. "You're a prodigy, you know that? If there's a kid out there that's younger and better than you, I've never heard of 'im. You'll make it through just fine."
My breathing was heavy. The longer I followed him, the more nervous I became. It wasn't the environment that he was leading me in. It wasn't the idea of being led into the darkness. It was the fear that I would lose my grasp on my brother, that I would forget about him and my original purpose. I bit down on my tongue, hoping to hold myself together.
"Just a bit of a forewarning," Dodger continued. "Most of our members are pretty civil and chill; if you're part of the same gang, as long as you don't dick with them they're cool with it. But some people are just total assholes, dare I say. Watch out for them, and I'll point them out to you when I see them. And before I get another hammer thrown at me..." He stopped and turned around. "...we don't take wusses. No dodos. No wankstains. None of that crap." His eyes flared slightly, and I almost slunk back. "You're not one of them, are you?"
What was he going into? No... a better question would be, 'What am I getting myself into?' I knew my mother would say that what I was doing was wrong, that these people were not there to help me, wouldn't hesitate to drown me in the river to save themselves. But my brother kept coming into the equation — at least I still had a grasp on my original goal. I'd drown in the river to save my brother. Anytime. Without hesitation. I'd do it for him.
"No," I said firmly. "I won't back down. I won't clown around. I won't stop till I get what I want or I drop dead." A pause. "Why do you ask?"
He sighed. "Last time I did this, I brought back someone who pissed his pants and screamed like a banshee at the thought of pain. Got yelled at by the leaders after they kicked him out." He started walking again. "I'm confident you won't be giving me — or yourself — any trouble."
I followed behind him. "What's the name?"
He stopped again, this time not in an unkind manner. He looked around nervously, as if to check for eavesdroppers again, before whispering into my ear: "Diablo Wingz is the name. 'Wingz' with a 'z'."
I blinked. "Why the secrecy?"
"We got a ton of other rival gangs knocking on our doors." He resumed walking. "If they discover who we belong to, they won't hesitate to put a bullet between our eyes."
I stood still, silently allowing his words to sink in. They won't hesitate to put a bullet between our eyes...
Was I going to die?
He turned around. "What's up? Scare ya now, did I?"
"So you're saying... I could die?"
He crossed his arms, unimpressed. "Look, kiddo, you can die at any moment in your life. I'm surprised you spent ten years of your life on Smokey Mountain without ever asking yourself whether or not you could die. People die on that mountain all the time. People die in this city all the time. You're going to die anyway in life. May as well roll with it." He straightened his arms. "Where I'm going, you could die at any moment, but if you don't have it in you to fuck up, you won't die. Fight hard for the gang and you won't die. Fight for yourself or fight for nobody, and the gang could care less if you drowned in your bathtub." Without another word, he turned around and walked away.
I watched him go. My mind was racing; I knew I was at the crossroads for a crucial decision. The words he had just said stopped me dead in my tracks, but the flame in me told me to push on. Do it, it seemed to say. Do it for Evan.
I clenched my fists. Immediately I started to run, running to catch up to him.
"Guess I didn't scare you enough."
"I'm scared," I said. And I was being honest. "But I'll do it. Scared, maybe, but I won't let that stop me."
He didn't look at me, but I could tell he was beginning to smile.
"Here's to an early welcome to the team," he said.
Here's to you, Evan. I felt like a rock climber getting ready to rappel down the formation. I hope my brother has the belay secured...
I had no idea how far I'd fall.
Cigarette smoke drifted around and above my head. It stung my eyes, my lungs, and my throat slightly. I wanted to bat away the fumes, but was afraid of what Dodger would say. "You weak or something?" I could almost hear him saying.
We were in an alley, surrounded by walls of corrugated metal and concrete covered with graffiti. A few had obscene symbols and images sprayed on. The path was illuminated by sodium vapour lamps, casting off a ghostly yellow glow. The light made me tired and sleepy; I could never understand why this was the colour of "urban nightlife."
"Stay close to me," Dodger whispered into my ear as we turned a corner. Immediately I was hit with the strong stench of marijuana. I had smelled the drug before, had seen my older brother smoke it on occasion, but never before in this quantity and in such concentration. I blinked, almost toppling over. The smell emanated from an old, narrow door leading into a building that had its windows shuttered and barred. Dodger turned me towards that direction; with every step I took, my heart rate increased, beating faster and with greater intensity. The two of us were stopped by a tall, teenaged male. He was shirtless and barefoot, toting a large aluminum bat behind his head. "Who's this, Dodger?" he asked.
"His name's Garrett," Dodger responded, pointing to me. "He's a good one from what I can see. He's strong. Tough. Determined. Give 'im a chance."
The boy got up and close to us. I trembled before his presence. He was monstrous, at least two heads taller than I was, and he seemed ready to attack, dispose of anyone he didn't agree with. He wasn't looking at me though. He was looking directly at my escort.
"Last time you brought someone here they flipped out and almost brought the cops to our doorstep. How are we supposed to know this isn't another screwup by you?"
"Gimme one more chance," Dodger pleaded. "Look, I know I fucked up last time. I was younger though, younger and naïve. Just give him a shot; if he's no good, you can beat the tar out of me."
The boy snorted. He turned to me. "Don't go snooping around in places where you're not supposed to be in." And with that, he stepped out of the way, permitting us entry into the dilapidated building. Dodger kept a hand on my back, guiding, almost propelling me in the direction he wanted to go in.
"Don't wander in this place when nobody knows you, else they'll have your ass tarred and feathered."
Even without that warning, sheer fear would have contained me, locked me in, unable to escape. He kept pushing me, directing me through a dimly-lit, narrow corridor. We passed by several people, each one of them looking at me. Combined with my fear, I felt like an animal being paraded around the streets in a cage. Was I really that exotic, or were they just suspicious of me?
"Zippo!" Dodger shouted. "Zippo, where ya at?"
A head popped out of an open door, a lit cigarette in its mouth. Around his neck he bore a silver chain and a silver Christian cross. In his right hand was a glass filled with ale. "Sup?"
"Zippo, meet Garrett. Found 'im in a dumpster this morning—"
"You brought us another trashy clown?" Zippo remarked, interrupting his friend. "Literally."
Dodger shook his head. "Nuh-uh, Zippo — you haven't seen what he can do. He learns fast; got him to successfully clean someone's pockets within an hour of meeting him. We did a couple more after that, and then we took out a store. We got separated and I got cornered, but he actually came back for me!" I felt a rewarding pat on my shoulder. "I know he's the one."
Zippo shook his head. "Look, Dodger, he's too small. You said you found him in a dumpster. What, his mother abandoned him?"
"He's a scavenger..."
"Knew it!" Zippo straightened up and blocked the doorway. "Can't see a use for someone who's spent their entire lives digging through piles o' shit. You've barely even known him for more than 24 hours! Too soon, Dodger; too soon. You may as well just leave 'im back on the streets where he belongs."
Dodger was speechless. When he turned around and went back inside the room, though, Dodger shot his hand out and grabbed him by the shoulder. "Wait!"
The face turned around, its expression gruff and displeased. I could see a puff of smoke pouring out of the mouth. "What?"
"Give 'im a chance. Just this once. Just let 'im get a taste of the gang. If he's no good I'll remove him myself. Just give me a chance. Just give him a chance. I know I got the one, I just know it!"
"You know something, Dodger?" He turned around fully to look him straight in the eye. "You sound like a big crybaby."
Dodger began to sulk. "For fucks sake..."
Zippo knelt down to get to my level. "How old are you?" he asked me.
"A mother and a brother."
"Older or younger?"
He looked at me straight into my eyes. I was afraid, wanting to slink back, wanted to look away, but for some reason I looked straight back at him. He blinked; I blinked. He moved his eyes to the right; I moved my eyes to the left. He rolled his eyes; I rolled my eyes. Finally, he got up. "No offense, Dodger, but I still think you're shit." He grinned. "Although I think I can give this kid here a chance. Just once."
"Thanks... thank you so much, bro!"
"Don't be a tease." And with that, he let us in.
The room was packed and small, lit by a single hanging lamp perched over a long, rectangular table that occupied the middle, taking up the space. Sitting or standing around it were thirty or so men and women, many of them with lit cigarettes coming out of their mouths and drinks in their hands. The table held several smartphones, some of them with their screens lit, and several bottles of ale. A thug in his twenties, sporting a bandana wrapped around his head, was filling empty glasses up and passing them around the table to the laughing gangsters. "Here with my homies tonight for a good fuckin' time!" he exclaimed. "Drink up, light up; we've all been good today, haven't we?"
A head rose up from the crowd. He was young; I'd say around the age of nineteen. He wore a black baseball cap backwards and had three tattoos on his arms. "Malou!" he called out. "Malou! Gimme that beat, young dog; help a fellow homie out here, will ya?"
"Eeey, takin' that mic up again, C. Razor?" Malou took a swig from his glass. "Shout out to all my homies in here!" He cleared his throat and, after a brief pause, began to beatbox. Nearby side-conversations were extinguished rapidly in respect for the vocal bass machine. In the dim light, the thug named C. Razor straightened his cap and began to rap:
Yo, my name's C. Razor,
I'm blazin', hotter than a tazer,
It's my turn to bust a rhyme,
Cause we're drinking and smoking and having a good time,
We've run out of food,
But that's okay cause I'm cool,
I hustle like I'm broke,
Your shit's just a big joke,
Cause you're just gonna choke,
While you're sittin' in the corner sniffin' coke,
I rap with meanin' but you'll never know,
That's just how it goes,
I'm sittin' here with my homies cause I'm runnin' the show,
While y'all just goin' with the flow,
So many bitches here, my head's gonna blow,
I bright up the sky; I light up the sky,
This dope makes me fly cause I've never been this high,
It gets me every time,
I'm gonna be fine,
I'm gonna be out doin' every crime,
Guns in the jeep as we pullin' up to you,
Starin' down that barrel, we ain't got no truce,
Cause I'm cool and I don't need you,
Your blood's gonna fizz,
Cause I got all the jizz,
And when I got your fuckin' bitches you ain't gonna need this,
Shit, you'd be goin' around dropping yo' things,
Nobody goin' messin' around with the Diablo Wingz!
"A round of applause!" a tall, muscular teenager shouted as he poured the freestyler a glass. "A toast to our king tonight!"
"Hey Dodger!" Malou shouted. "Who you got there?"
"He's Garrett," Dodger responded, pointing to me. "Treat him well; he was a killer out there on the streets today!"
"Damn, he looks small."
"Small body, big soul," Dodger said, defending me.
The crowd laughed. "Pass me a glass," Dodger called out. Immediately three glasses filled to the brim with ale were thrust at him. He selected one and handed it to me. "First timer?"
Not really. I had a small amount of beer on my own, but never in a significant quantity.
"Doesn't need to be the whole thing; half a glass is good."
For a second, I held back. I remembered a time when I was younger, when I saw a man on the streets, being arrested and swarmed by police. He was intoxicated, resisting the cops and spewing forth the foulest and most obscene language I had ever heard. In his arms he was clutching several bottles, many of them looking similar to the ones in front of me now. How much would it take to get me drunk?
"Drink it, man! Cheers to a successful day."
The room grew quiet as everyone turned to watch me.
"How old is he?"
"He's ten," Dodger responded.
"Isn't he a tad bit young for drinks?"
"Naw, he can stomach it. He'll learn eventually."
I brought the glass to lips and allowed a few drops into my mouth. It had a pungent flavour, stronger than the beer I had yesterday, biting and cutting into my tongue, my teeth, my throat. Harshly bitter, nothing like the coffee I drank that morning. It seared the insides of my mouth, despite the fact that it was cold, and when I swallowed it, the liquid burned my esophagus, all the way down to my stomach.
"More, more! Half the glass! Half the glass!"
Everyone was watching me; I felt hot and uncomfortable. Anything to make the pressure stop! I tipped the glass and poured more of the liquid into my mouth. It was like a wall of flame going down my throat, and I gagged. Now I could really taste the ale; the flavour got into my nostrils and lingered there, refusing to leave. I swallowed my coughing fits down, along with the liquid. I had never tasted anything this bitter. I looked at the glass to see how much I had left to go.
It was half-full.
"Beautiful!" one of the gangsters said exuberantly. "You've got a tough one there, Dodger. I can see that makes up for your baldfuckery!"
Everyone laughed. Everyone except me and Dodger, at least.
I felt a pat on my shoulder. "Good job, Garrett."
I was still looking at the glass, looking at the remaining ale. It stung my throat, burned within me like a flambé, almost twisting me from the inside. The awful taste clung onto my tongue and teeth, stinging them with a tart, bitter flavour. But the gang was loving it; they were enthralled to see a ten year old boy drink like them. Whatever I did, I could not disappoint them, could not let them down, could not retreat and surrender. My brother's future was in my hands, and I had to come home alive. Alive and successful.
I gritted my teeth, swallowed hard, and opened my mouth for another round, bracing for impact. The alcohol still burned me, but this time, I burned it back. I was determined not to disappoint anyone, not myself, not the gang, not my brother. I swallowed each gulp hard; every time I did so, it felt like I was swallowing fireballs, and that sooner or later my stomach would give out and burst into flames, consuming me from the inside out. Finally, the glass was empty. I slammed it down, exhausted, panting, my face turning red. I couldn't be sure if it was the alcohol or the fact that everyone was watching me, watching as I drank more than I was expected to drink.
"Shit, this kid is good!" a voice shouted.
"Never seen anyone get good this fast."
"He'll replace Reyes someday! Don't need a psychic and a crystal ball to tell!"
"Damn, he's a 'Miracle Kid'!" The owner of the voice stood up. His head was shaven bald and his eyes concealed with rounded sunglasses. "Yeah, you hear that? 'Miracle Kid'! He'll be making the Cobras and the Red Cults shit themselves in their pants!"
"A round of applause for this little dude!"
Dodger knelt down to my level. "What the fuck did you..."
"I'll drink another one," I gasped. "If I have to, I will."
He shook his head. "Didn't bring you here for a drink; I know you killed it out there, but..."
"What's this thing about a 'Miracle Kid' I hear about?" a man's voice said, interrupting the conversation and the atmosphere of the room. He looked at me. "Is that the one?"
My cheeks were burning red. "What do you mean by 'Miracle Kid'?" Dodger asked.
"I hear some kid downed an entire glass of alcohol and someone said he could succeed Reyes once he retires. Or drops dead." He was still looking at me. "Dunno how many kids you bring in here but almost all of them are pathetic as fuck."
"That's why we call 'im a 'Miracle Kid'!" someone shouted.
"I see." He directed his gaze to Dodger. "You brought him here?"
The man gestured with his fingers, signalling him to come over. "And bring the kid with you."
As I left, the climate of the room was restored in an instant. "Hey, hey, someone bring the beat back! Gotta say something about this 'Miracle Kid' here!"
Once we were outside in the narrow, dark corridor, he turned to Dodger. "Who's this kid?"
"His name's Garrett."
"Where'd you find him?"
"In a dumpster."
"Look, I know it sounds fucking stupid, but you gotta see this kid." Dodger was again desperate to convince. "I met him this morning and by late afternoon we managed to successfully loot a store."
"What store was it?"
"Rodrigo's. He's the father of Arthur, leading gang member of the Red Cults."
I assumed Rodrigo was the name of the old shopkeeper.
"And you got away with it?"
"That's not all! We got separated while we were running out of there, and he came back to look for me when I got cornered in an alley. I could've died out there, but he saved my life!"
"And you brought him here because you think he'll be a good member?"
The man turned to me. "How old are you?" he asked.
"Ten," I replied.
"Hoo," he said softly, almost with a touch of morbidity and dark humour in his voice. "Hoo, you're in for some shit, man."
I did not know what he meant.
"We don't just let anybody into the Diablo Wingz. To survive out here, you gotta be tough. Only the tough can live here." He turned around and began walking. "Follow me," he said. "You too, Dodger."
He led us into a dark, sketchy room in the rear, illuminated only by an aluminum floor lamp that threw out a weak, yellowish light. Aside from that lamp and a few chairs, the room was bare. On one side of the room stood a concrete wall, covered with graffiti. Facing that wall were two boys — one was around the age of 15, the other couldn't have been any older than 12. Both of them had been blindfolded with a bandana and were trembling like china dolls on a store shelf in the midst of an earthquake. Behind them was a squarely-built thug in his twenties, wielding a thick wooden stick. He acknowledged our entry with a nod before turning back to his subjects.
"Alright now, here's the deal: you're going to scream to the world the name of your favourite street gang, and when you do, we'll see how you handle pain. Remember, we don't just allow anyone to join Diablo Wingz. We don't recruit chickens. We eat chickens! If you're a chicken, raise your hand and you can get the fuck out of here before we butcher you."
Neither of the two boys said or did anything.
"You first," the thug said, pointing to the older recruit. He cocked the stick back, ready to strike. "Say it!" he barked. "Say who you love the most!"
"I... I love Diablo Wingz," came a small, timid reply.
The stick was lowered. "Really now." The thug was unimpressed. "Are you a bull or a load of bullshit?" He thumped the boy on the back. "Don't be a turd." He raised the stick again. "Now who do you love again?!"
"I love Diablo Wingz!"
The stick bore down. For a moment, I thought I could see it motionless as it hung suspended in mid-air. A loud "CRACK!" rang out, startling me, shaking me from whatever haze I was in. The figure that was struck crumpled to the floor, and I didn't need to ask to know that the stick had scored on his bones.
"Get up!" his assailant growled, dragging him back into a standing position by the ear. "That was only one strike, and anyone can survive the first round. We're Diablo Wingz, not the corny-ass Girl Scouts." When the boy did not move, he thumped him again. "What's wrong? Too scary for you? You tell me right here right now: are you scared?!"
"N-N-No!" He was trying to be brave, be tough, be a man, but his speech was stuttery, like that of someone who had been left in the cold for too long. His assailant, though, only laughed. "Well, I'll give you a few more chances." Stick cocked, ready for more. "Now who do you love?!"
"I love Diablo Wingz!"
CRACK! Another sickening sound of wood meeting bone and flesh rang out throughout the room. The boy was on his knees again, whimpering in absolute pain. I felt sickened at the sight. I wanted to vomit, at the very least, run away from what I've seen. I looked at Dodger and the man beside me. Neither of them seemed the least bit appalled, or even surprised; in fact, I could've sworn they were enjoying it!
"I've seen worse, kid," the thug said. "Up! One more time, and this is gonna be my hardest." The boy struggled to his feet. He was still shaking, shivering almost, despite the heat and humidity. I wanted to bury my face into my hands to shield my eyes from the horror, but was afraid of what Dodger might say. Would he think that I was a wuss and have me removed for it? Would he get beaten as well for "screwing up"? I was afraid to know.
The stick was up again. "Show me how tough you are!" the thug shouted. "Now, get ready: 'I LOVE...'"
"I LOVE DIABLO WINGZ!"
A final swing. A final blow. One last fall. The thug grabbed him by the shoulders and hauled him up. "You're just a kid," he remarked, removing the blindfold.
"He's still a kid," Dodger said in reply.
"He'll grow up in a week." He shoved the 15-year-old towards the direction of the door. "Go 'n wait outside; we'll teach you the handshake in a bit." He turned to his younger victim, who was unable to see the commotion, but could certainly hear it. "You're next. Let's see how tough you are now."
The man standing beside me prodded my shoulder. "To really join the Diablo Wingz," he said, "you need to prove you can stomach it. We give everyone ten and up the 'Wingz Treatment', and if you chicken out, you're out of the squad. Period." He gave me an amused look, a look that made me uncomfortable. "You're ten. You'll be double-digits for the rest of your life. Now's the time you stop being a child." He lifted his head to again look at the torturous scene before him. "Only the tough survive in Tondo."
The poor younger boy was already crying, possibly in fear, before he got his dosage of pain. "Stop crying!" the thug ordered, "or else you can pack your bags and go home. You wanna go home, laddie? The choice is yours. You can sit at home and starve yourself alone, or you can sponge up your tears and grow up!"
The boy tried to stand up straight, trying to be tough. The stick was raised. "You know the drill. Which gang do you love the most?!"
"I-I-I l-love D-D-Diablo W-W-Wingz!"
The stick was swung, steering clear of the legs and instead striking him on the back. "Oh, come on!" the thug said in disgust. "You're worse than the last guy. You wanna be a man, but you can't even get rid of your pacifier." He thumped him on the back several times. "Grow up, or get out. Hmm?! What do ya choose?"
"I'll... I-I-I'll g-g-grow up..."
"Then act like it!" Stick up, posture square. "I love...!"
"I love Diablo Wingz!"
CRACK! There was a sharp exclamation of pain as the boy fell down. He crumpled over, shielding his inner body, cowering in utter fear and senseless pain.
"What a chicken!" Dodger shouted. "You cry like my grandmother."
I swallowed. Neither of the two who stood beside me felt like "friends", or whatever I had considered them to be beforehand, anymore.
The thug grabbed the boy by the ears and brought him back up. "We're not done yet," he said. "Make it or break it. Do, or do not. You either be tough or you don't come anywhere near our turf at all. No in-betweeners." He raised the stick again. "Alright then. 'I LOVE...!'"
"Wait!!" the boy screamed. "This is too much for me!"
The stick was lowered. "Oho!" the thug commented. "Good thing we caught a chicken before they got a chance to fuck anything up." He strode over to his victim and came in very, very close. The boy could not see his assailant, but could certainly sense his presence. "Remind yourself why you came here," the thug said in a low, dangerous voice. "You came here for a reason, did you not?" He walked around, circling the child, talking as he moved: "In Tondo, there is no work. There is no food. There is no shelter. Not when you're alone. Only the mounds of garbage to pick from. You couldn't feet a rat with those earnings." The thug turned in our direction, and he no doubt caught a glimpse of me. His eyebrows raised, acknowledging my presence. I immediately felt very afraid of him. "In Tondo, only those who are unafraid, who are willing to run the extra mile, who are willing to do whatever it takes for themselves and their fellow brothers and sisters, will live. The rest can only rot in the garbage they scrounge in."
He was again right next to the boy. "You have to be tough," he whispered in his ear, "or you will die."
The room was quiet, save for the sounds of the drinking and the cheering and the rapping next door. "You want to die, son?" the thug finally barked after several minutes.
"N-N-No sir. No sir. No sir!"
"Do you want to be tough, son?"
"You want to go home?"
There was a pause, as if the boy was wondering whether or not it was a trick question. "No sir."
The thug obviously knew what he really wanted, but he didn't press him on it. "Do you want to join the Diablo Wingz?"
"Yes sir... Yes I do!"
"Then prove it." The thug backed off in order to make room for the swinging of the stick. "Shout it out to the world: 'I LOVE....!'"
"I LOVE DIABLO WINGZ!"
The thug hauled the fallen boy to his feet and removed the blindfold. The tears, which had previously been hidden behind the fabric of the bandana, were now free to flow down his face. "Bah, so much water!" the thug said sourly. "You a monsoon?"
"He's just a kid," the man beside me commented.
"We ain't the Girl Scouts!" He shoved the boy roughly. "To hell with you, 'kid'! You wanna join Diablo Wingz? Clean up those damn waterworks."
"Who's the one who brought 'im in?" the man asked.
"Israel. Mostly brings us crazy bitches but he occasionally finds the lean young lad."
"Pah." The man cocked his neck. "Take him out; he can't take no more."
The boy was pushed out the door. "Go wash your face," the thug shot at him. He turned around and looked at me. "Who's next?"
Dodger gave me a gentle but firm push from behind. "If you want in, you better step up."
My blood turned to ice. I was ready to back out. Oh Lord, save me! But I could feel the eyes of Dodger and the other man — what was his name? — boring holes into my back. I dared not turn back now, for what would they think of me if I did? I needed to get in, needed to prove myself worthy of such a job, and to do that, I needed to prove that I was no fool, no clown, no jester.
Could I do it?
Yes, I can. I can I can I can I can I can...
"Anybody home?" the thug said impatiently, snapping his fingers around my head, breaking me from my trance. I did not see him approaching; he was now standing over me, his towering figure at that very moment being scarier than the stick he had used to warm the backs of the two boys before me. "You here to be in Diablo Wingz or you here just to get laid?"
I gulped. "To be in Diablo Wingz, sir."
"Well then act like it." He turned to Dodger. "Well, well, look who's here. The guy who brought me a turd a month ago. Thought I'd forget?"
He returned a sly smile. "Oh, I knew you'd remember. Just wanted to see what you'd say when I brought someone new."
"Yeah, and in the first few seconds of talking to him, I don't like what I see. He stood there silent when I called for the next person."
Dodger nodded. "Uh huh." He looked down. "Don't fuck me over in front of everybody!" he hissed at me.
I stepped up. "Alright, alright... I-I-I'm in."
The thug almost laughed. "Brave coward." He grabbed a bandana and began to wrap it around my eyes. It smelled of putrid sweat, tobacco, and a perfume with an aroma that made me want to gag. "Now listen to me, pal. This ain't no home for the weak and faint-hearted. Here in Diablo Wingz, all of our members have to prove they're up to the task of serving the gang." I heard the stick swishing and cutting through the air, as if he were practicing his strikes. "You're here for the gang, not for yourself. Fight for yourself and no one else, and we'd much rather you'd lie dead on the streets with a knife in your back. Fight for the gang, and the gang will fight for you."
He leaned in close. I could smell the odours from his body, emanating strongly; combined with the bandana, I wanted to throw up. "Are you here for yourself, son?"
And that was no lie.
The thug harrumphed. "Let's see it, then." I could hear the stick being raised, him taking practice swings. "If you want in, let's see how you stand. Who do you love the most?"
I sucked in a gulp of air. "I love Diablo Wingz!" I shouted, squeezing my eyelids together, bracing for impact.
CRACK! I heard the sound of wood meeting bone — my bone — and two seconds later, felt the pain. It was searing hot, like a fireplace poker, burning through my legs with the fury of a thousand suns. My frail body hit the ground, and despite having willed myself not to, I couldn't help but squeal from the pain.
"Don't be an ass, boy." He dragged me up back into a standing position. My legs wobbled, weakened from the strike, barely able to support my weight. I struggled, trying hard not to cry or show any indication of agony. "Stand up straight if you really love Diablo Wingz!" he ordered.
From behind my back, I could hear the man whispering to Dodger: "He's just a kid. A bloody kid, barely 10 years old. You're taking a huge risk with 'im. He's small, weak, short, almost stunted. You tell me, is his mother still alive?"
"Any other family members?"
"He has a younger brother."
"That's all he'd tell me."
The thug interrupted my eavesdropping of their conversation. "Fuck you, 'kid'! You wanna join Diablo Wingz, but you act like you're scared of a mouse running between your legs. Stand up straight! Stand up or I'll kick you in the asshole instead."
I scrambled back onto my feet. The thug had the stick raised again. "I love...?"
I swallowed hard. "I love Diablo Wingz!"
The stick came down again. I braced for impact, but nothing could prevent my descent to the ground. The concrete came up quickly, meeting my face with a brisk smack. It smelled pungent, like beer. As I writhed in pain, I could hear the man saying: "Damn, he falls pretty hard."
"You squirm like a slug." The thug pulled me back up again. "Grow out of your mother's womb."
When Dodger found his voice again, it was almost a whisper, as if he dared not to speak: "Shouldn't we go a bit easier on him? He's only ten..."
"Shut the fuck up!" the man barked. "What, are you suddenly having pity on the child? What's with you, Dodger? You weren't like this yesterday. Did the kid say anything that brought you to tears? Why aren't you a Wingz today?"
Dodger made no reply to that.
"Pity!" the thug said mockingly. "I pity Hound Dog. Got himself a knife to the back while he was in Cobra's turf. Served us well for many years, kept the Cobra's at bay for as long as he breathed air. A martyr indeed, but that's the thing — he did something." He pointed to me, his fingernails jabbing my skin. "Until he does something admirable, what did he do to deserve pity?"
Dodger was speechless. Finally, he said, "I... I take back what I said earlier..."
The thug, eager to return to business, got ready for another strike. "Listen, boy. When we select gang members, people fall into two different groups: those that are suitable for the gang, and those who aren't. That's it. There's no special section for little children; you get the same treatment as everybody else." He took a few practice swings with the stick. "I love...?"
"I-I-I love... I love D-Diablo...."
WHAM! The stick struck me on the shoulders. I gasped in pain, though I did not fall. The thug was displeased. "Seriously? You're pathetic."
In the background, I could hear the man chastising Dodger. "He's pathetic! And you're pathetic too! You shan't be bringing any more stragglers in here, hmm? You ain't the one with the right eye for finding the right people. I mean, you found this guy in a dumpster! That speaks for itself."
I felt Dodger's anger. Anger at me. I had let him down. I had let myself down. And in doing so, he was waist-deep in hot water.
I'm sorry... I'm sorry for you. I'm sorry for your gang. I'm sorry for... for...
I clenched my fist. "I love Diablo Wingz!" I screamed before boring down on my teeth, grinding them so hard, I thought I heard them crack.
The stick struck me again. I cried out, but the tenacity of my teeth successfully muffled and suppressed it. I fell, but I was so scrunched up and tight that I immediately scrambled back to my feet, albeit shaky and wobbly. The thug came over, stood in front of me, and placed his hands on my shoulders. "Let's see how your legs hold up." He pressed down on my shoulders. "Squat!"
I went down. "Up!" he barked, and I responded accordingly. "Down!" and I squatted. "Up! Down! Up! Down! Up! Down!" Every time I did so, I felt my feet and my legs smoldering, like hot coals in a fire, the pain climbing up towards my thighs. He kept going, making me do squats for what seemed like forever. Finally he said, "You're an interesting one, kid. Real interesting, but you do squat well." He began to remove the blindfold. "I'm curious to see what becomes of you a few years down the road." Then, instead of shoving me towards the door, he handed me back to Dodger. "Go. Take him out with the rest. Make sure he knows the handshake."
The man muttered something inaudible, as if in disapproval, but he didn't object. Dodger led me out into the small, narrow corridor, where the other two boys were also waiting. "I'm gonna go fetch Six Splints to come and welcome you to the gang," he said to us. "Don't wander off if you know what's good for you." And he left, leaving the three of us alone, seemingly unsupervised, but with nowhere to go.
There was an awkward silence. We simply stared at each other, the ice so thick you couldn't have cut it with a powered saw. Finally, the older boy came up to me and extended his hand. "I'm Marcos. What's your name?"
"Garrett," I said. I reached out and shook his hand firmly.
The other boy didn't respond. "What's his name?" I asked, gesturing towards him.
"Him? That's Lewis."
"Are you two brothers?"
He shook his head. "I only met him about a week ago. I was at home when I heard a commotion outside. I found him being kicked and yelled at by three men, who were demanding money from him, money that he didn't have, for failing to pay for medicine that he took from them several weeks prior. I gave them the 50 pesos that they demanded, and he's been tagging along with me since." He shrugged. "I didn't have much to offer him; I had been working for my father, but he got arrested a fortnight ago, so I had to ask one of the gang members here for help. After watching me suspiciously for a few days, he decided to let the both of us in."
I looked at the boy. He had stopped cowering, stopped crying at least, and was able to look at me. Somewhat. "Why are you here?" Marcos asked. "So what's your story?"
I straightened my back. "I'm here for my brother, my younger brother. I'm finding a way to get him back to school so he doesn't have to dig through piles of garbage every day."
"You're a scavenger?"
"My entire family is."
He nodded, as if he understood. "I see them all the time. I had to do it once too. It must be a hard life, living off what other people would consider refuse."
Our conversation was interrupted by a loud, high-pitched shrill: "Two hits! All that needs to happen. Me hitting you, you hitting the ground."
The sound came from a nearby room, its door slightly ajar. Very gingerly, the three of us peered inside. Lewis held back, as if an invisible wire was preventing him from moving any further into the danger zone. The room was also bare, save for a single wooden chair amidst concrete walls daubed with graffiti. The wooden chair was occupied by a girl who couldn't have been any older than 16. She was blindfolded, surrounded by two men — one tall and lean, the other short and somewhat stout — and a woman. The short one had a lit cigarette in his mouth, and with every drag he blew a cloud of smoke onto the girl's face. She coughed and gagged, unable to bat away the fumes, for her hands were tied firmly behind her back. The tall one had a two-by-four in his hands, thicker than the one used to beat me.
"I shall ask you again: pain or pleasure?"
"Pain," the girl said firmly.
"Ha!" the short one scoffed. "Wanna end up like your boyfriend whose head got so badly mutilated his skull got exposed?"
"I'd rather die than roll around with you three skinny asses!"
"Oh, I see," the woman said, crossing her arms. "Tough bitch's acting tough today!"
"Nico always brings us these crazy bitches. No wonder the Cobras and the Red Cults are pulling ahead." As he spoke, smoke poured out of the short man's mouth. He leaned in close, allowing the smoke to crawl, almost in a clandestine and stealthy manner, onto the girl's face, filling her nostrils, her mouth, and lingering there. She coughed violently, but from the look and expression on her face, she was far from backing down.
"Pain or pleasure, and you choose pain, huh?" The tall one reached out with the two-by-four, gently brushing the board under the girl's chin, allowing her to feel the roughness, the splinters, on the wood. "Pleasure, you know; pain, you also know. Choose pleasure and this won't continue any further. Choose pain and you'll... Why would you choose otherwise?"
The woman came up to her and grabbed her by the cheeks. The girl shrugged her hands off. "What the fuck!"
"Wow, what words coming from such a prim and proper lady!" the woman said mockingly, imitating a Victorian-era prude. "Say, are you a virgin?"
"Phew!" More smoke was blown onto her face.
The woman slapped her lightly several times across the cheeks and jaw. "Evaluate your options. If you choose pain, you lose that beautiful, beautiful face. If you choose pleasure... so what? You just lose a fucking title."
The tall one jabbed the two-by-four at her chest. "Pain or pleasure?"
The woman slapped her hard across the cheek. "Think again!"
The short one prodded the cigarette into her forehead. "Hmm?!"
The two-by-four jerked her head up violently. "Pain? Served pipin' hot here." The wood board dug in further and further, as if it were a knife going into its victim, ready to do its job. "Your boyfriend got pleasure anyway, when we threw him into the ditch for the rats. They ran over him, under him, into him and between every crevice, every depression, every small corner of his body."
From behind the chair I could see the girl's right middle finger becoming erect. Her three assailants, though, did not notice, for her hands were still tied behind her back, out of sight from anyone who wasn't paying attention.
The tall one leaned in close. "He got what he wanted to avoid," he whispered into her ear. "But he's dead. Dead and fucked."
Silence. I could never have imagined a gang hideout being this quiet. Even the small one didn't seem to give off any noise when he inhaled and exhaled from his cigarette.
"Pick your options carefully: pain, or pleasure?"
The girl's steadfast face was beginning to give way to fear and submission. "P-P-P-P..."
"I better hear what I want to hear!" the short one barked.
"P-Pleasure.... Pleasure, sir."
"Can't hear you!"
"Where are your manners?" the woman said. "Show some respect, bitch!"
The two-by-four was lowered. "Who you talking to?"
The girl sat up and looked directly at him, or wherever she thought he was. "Pleasure, please!"
The three began chuckling. "Shit, Sherwin; hell fuckin' yeah you got this whore goin'!"
"She's a virgin," the woman commented.
"Not anymore, soon she won't." The rope on her hands was removed, but not the blindfold. The woman made her stand up and began to lead her out of the room. The three of us quickly popped back and pretended to act normal as they exited, leading the girl to a small, wretched room at the end of the corridor. An impromptu curtain was drawn, but it wasn't big or wide enough to seal the doorway, leaving a small but sizable gap, a window to what was going on inside. I began to head towards it when I felt a hand on my shoulder.
"I have a really, really bad feeling about what they're gonna do to her in there," Marcos whispered.
I looked at Lewis, but he had turned his back to the scene and covered his ears with his hands. I began to move again when Marcos shook me. "Are you insane?!"
"I have to see what's going on," I responded.
"It'll haunt you for life," Marcos cautioned.
I turned to look at him in the eye. "Then let it haunt me." I shook his hand off and continued down the corridor. Marcos hissed at me, "Don't say I didn't warn you!"
I hid behind the wall and, being careful to remain out of sight, peeked behind the cloth. The room was illuminated by a single bare bulb on the ceiling, casting a harsh, fluorescent glow onto the room's occupants. The girl was standing beside a low-lying bed, containing an old mattress yellowed with age. The concrete walls were clean, being mostly devoid of the obscenities and gang symbols found elsewhere. The woman was standing in front of the girl, her back to me, partially blocking my view. The two men were leaning on the wall, the short one smoking his ever-present cigarette.
"Relax," the woman said soothingly, although I could hear the sarcasm in her voice. "First timer? Don't worry now... everything is going to be fine. Trust me."
The short man offered his taller colleague a cigarette, which he declined.
"Not sure what to do? That's fine. Has to be a first time for everything, no?"
"Get on with it!" the short man barked.
"I'll start." There was a slow, gradual sound of fabric shifting as the woman moved her limbs. The eyes of the two men widened as they followed their gaze on... what? I adjusted my angle slightly to get a better view. The woman's bare feet disappeared as a skirt was lowered over them. One of the men whistled.
The girl was still blindfolded, but it seemed she was able to sense exactly what was going on. Very gingerly, she began to undo the drawstring on her own clothes.
"Turn around and face them."
The girl did not move any further.
"Now!" the woman barked.
Slowly she hobbled, completing a 180° turn like a penguin, shuffling a millimeter at a time.
"Now continue," the woman said slyly. "And be more erotic! You act like my grandmother."
The short man laughed at her comment. The girl continued, squatting lower and lower, the men allowing their eyes to follow her. When she rose again, I could see the harsh white light basking her bare skin with an unsettling halo. I could try to describe the emotions of the men, but it was so... unusual, for I couldn't tell if they were pleased, delighted, disgusted, or mortified. They seemed attracted and drawn to the scene, yet it felt so repulsive and taboo at the same time. I stood there, frozen like a statue, unable to comprehend what I was seeing.
"You look like you've seen a ghost. What's wrong with you?"
I nearly jumped. It wasn't for me, though. "You're so pale. What, I'm not asking you to jump off a bridge."
"I'll take her first," the short one said, discarding his cigarette.
"I got a fucking hard-on," the tall one exclaimed.
"Yeah? Well, so do I." He turned to the girl. "Who's the sexier one, sweetie? Me or him?"
The woman was impressed. "Hey, not bad for your first time! You got a choice."
"Fuck you, man." The tall one straightened his back. "Go with me, and you won't forget my style. Go with him, and you'll only remember his tattoos."
The girl remained silent. She said nothing, even with the three of them poking and prodding her to make a decision. "I'll take her then," the short one finally said, "since she isn't saying anything."
The mattress groaned under the weight of two bodies beginning to recline on it. I saw the girl's face, partially obscured by the body of the taller man, her face perplexed with uncertainty. The stout man popped up, his back to me, bare of clothing to reveal the museum of tattoos he sported. "First timer?" I could hear him saying. "You picked pleasure. Pleasure it is."
Before I could see what was going to happen next, a hand grabbed my shirt from behind and yanked me back. "What the hell are you looking at, perv?"
The face was gruff and unforgiving, and from its appearance he didn't seem to be the least bit friendly or happy with what I was doing. "Don't be a pest. What've you been up to?"
I glanced over at Marcos and Lewis, who were hanging back helplessly. I gave them a look, telling them not to say anything. "Nothing, sir."
He didn't believe me, but he didn't press me onto it. He turned to Marcos and Lewis. "You two are older. Should be smarter. Wiser. Make sure he doesn't go snooping around into anybody's private business again."
The two nodded gingerly.
"You three better be good friends with each other, because you three are going to be together for some time." He gestured to us to follow him.
We were led back into the main room, where the other gangsters were still smoking and chatting. "Reyes!" he called out. "Reyes! Where ya at, dog!"
A head emerged from a cloud of cigarette smoke, almost like an angel poking his head out from a cloud of heaven. He had two women seated next to him, one on each side, their arms wrapped around his chest and torso. "Eh?"
"You got three new brothers here."
Reyes gave him a weak grin. "New? After three years, every kid in this city starts to look the same to me." He gave us a brief visual examination. "Interesting diversity here," he said sarcastically. "First one is tall and lean. Looks like a leader, although tall people tend to have less brains than a scrotum. Middle guy looks like he's had the living daylights whipped out of him. I could hold a mouse in front of him and he'd piss himself in his pants. And the little one..." He looked at me. "How old is he?"
The gruff face looked at me. "How old are you?"
"10. 10, sir."
Reyes's eyes lit up. "10? Small for his age." He took a long, hard look at me, his eyes shifting up and down, left to right, as he inspected my body. "Small, but he looks good. Ya, ya, he's good. Feel like he's got a lot in him. I can feel it." He tapped the two women and they released him. He got up and started to walk over to us. Well, me at least. "Where do you come from?"
"Smokey Mountain," I answered.
"That garbage dump?" he said, surprised. "Never knew scavengers could look that healthy. Name?"
He knelt down so his head was down to my level. "I see it in your eyes, Garrett. I see a fire in your eyes. A fire that most of the animals in this place don't have. You have it in you, Garrett. You have what it takes."
He got up. "I got the hang o' this, Six Splints," he said to the gangster who led us in. "You're free for the night." Turning to us, he said, "Follow me. It's too loud in here; smells like sweat and sex here, doesn't it?"
He led us outside into the alley, where several men and women were mingling. "Here in Diablo Wingz, we have a special handshake. Whenever you meet someone from our gang, you have to do the handshake with them. It's a sign of respect, and a way of knowing who's friendly and who's foe. I'm here to teach you that handshake, and with some practice, you'll be able to do it with your eyes closed." He snapped his fingers and signalled to one of the other boys. "Chapman!" he said, and a teenager stood up. "Help me teach these three the handshake."
The two angled their bodies so we could see what they were doing. "Start with your right hand," he said, raising his hand and arm. His assistant did the same. "Bring 'em together with the palms facin' inward. When your hands meet—" Their hands came together in the middle, making a slapping noise "—curl your fingers, so both of your hands make a fist together. Then, take your left hand, open it, and place it against your fist." He did as he said, and the other did the same. "That's the wing. Together, you make the body and the wings. The fist is diablo, the hands are the wings. You got that?"
We nodded our heads.
"You need us to repeat anything?"
We shook our heads.
"Let's see it, then." He motioned for his assistant to go back. He pointed to the oldest of us. "You there — let's see it."
First the hand. The 'slap'. A curl. Finally, the wing...
"Too slow!" he protested. "What's your name?"
"Don't keep me waiting, Marcos. If you're not on the same step as the person you're doing the handshake with, you'll fuck the whole thing up, and it looks bad. Try again!"
He tried again, this time a little bit faster. "Still too slow! Whole thing shouldn't take any longer than four seconds. You're taking five!"
Again. This time, he made it under the four second limit, but "now your technique is off. You're not curling your fingers, you're just massaging my palm!"
There was a laugh from the crowd behind him. "Shut up!" he roared. "C'mon, Marcos, they're laughin' at you."
He did it again. And again. And again, until finally the mobster shrugged and said, "Alright, close enough. Practice it on your own." He pointed to Lewis. "You ready?"
No, I'm not, I thought I heard him say.
"No longer than four seconds, and no palm massaging. Learn from other people's mistakes." He had less success with Lewis, who acted as if Reyes's hands were covered in slime. "C'mon, boy, I never sneezed into my hands!" he snapped. "I'm not the bogeyman. And stand up straight when you do the handshake! Confidence, boy, show me some confidence; I ain't your enemy."
I watched Lewis as he received his dose of verbal fireworks from the crime boss: "Too slow, God dammit!" ... "You're being a massage therapist like the guy before you!" ... "Jeez, you look weak and pathetic! What, did you get the shit beaten out of you as a child?" Finally, he was released with a rough shove. "Practice with Marcos over there you... What's your name?"
He didn't respond. "Huh?! What is your name?" Reyes repeated.
"He's Lewis," I piped up.
"Okay, Lewis, get some practice over there. Marcos, you better do it right and swell for him!"
Marcos swallowed and nodded nervously.
"Alright then, kid," he said, motioning for me to come over. "Let's see how you roll."
I eyed Lewis briefly before refocusing my attention on the mobster. "The Wingz needs new members that grow up fast and learn quickly. So far, I'm not too entirely impressed with these freshies." He looked at me right in the eye. "Let's see what you got."
He extended his hand out towards me. I did not hesitate; witnessing just how fiery his attitude could become with my two new partners was enough for me. I brought my hand up to his and curled my fingers, forming a fist. My left hand came up, forming the wing. Together, the final compilation looked almost like a butterfly.
"Not bad," he remarked. "Not perfect, but for a new recruit and for a ten-year-old kid..." He looked at me again. "Who brought you in here?"
"Dodger. Dodger did."
Reyes's eyes widened. "Really? The same guy who brought in a shithead a while ago?" He laughed, but seemed to believe me. "I'll have a talk with him. Thought he was the most useless piece of turd to walk the planet until today, when he brought you out of the blue." He thumped me on the back, not in an unkind manner, but almost as a compliment. "You'll be ballin', my friend. You'll see what I mean." And with that, he turned around and headed back inside.
Eyes were watching me, I could feel it. Eyes from Marcos, eyes from Lewis, eyes from the minglers who had stopped chatting. "Shit, man, some ten-year-old impressed Reyes on his first day!" someone said.
"What's his name?"
"Where does he come from?"
"Is he actually ten?"
"No fucking way!"
"Damn... the Cobras and the Red Cults will be salty once they hear about this."
"Nah, I don't think they'll give a shit one way or another. To them, he's just a ten-year-old boy. To us, he could be our secret weapon."
"Ha, yeah, could be. Who knows, he might be dead tomorrow morning."
"Or in jail."
"Give 'im a chance!"
"He's had a chance, hasn't he?"
"Let's just see where he is tomorrow, alright?"
Marcos gave me a gentle tap on the shoulder. "Stand firm," he said. "You'll make it through. Even I have to say that you have it in you. Something fuels you from within."
I looked back at Lewis. "What about your friend there?"
He sighed. "He'll be fine." He studied me again. "Are you really ten years old?"
"You're the oldest, young person I've ever met." He smiled at his own joke, but he was serious in his own words. "Don't give up, Garrett. Never give up. You've got a long road ahead of you." He gave me another reassuring pat before turning around to tend to Lewis.
There was no sleep for me that night. The events of the day kept replaying in my mind over and over again.
The hideout... The gangsters... The drinking and smoking... The 'Wingz Treatment'... The Handshake... The... the...
It would not leave me alone, would not leave my mind no matter how much or how hard I tried to will it to go away. The scene where they interrogated and tortured the girl. The scene where they led her into the room. The scene where they made her take off her clothes. And the scene where...
I hated to know. The very sights I had seen today had me appalled. It was so gruesome, so morbid, so blasphemous in their very nature. Something was holding me back, an invisible force that told me to stay away. I had seen the tears on Lewis's face, the cigarette smoke crawling into the girl's nose, the philosophy on toughening up their newest recruits...
No... not this... I wouldn't do this for anything. Not for a million pesos could one hope to make me do this. This was no place for a child — or any sensible human being, for that matter — to be. This was a place where people were looted, beaten, raped. It was a place where the absence of rules was the rule, where the strong take from the weak, and where the winners reap their illicit awards.
I can't be here... I can't! This was why my mother stopped worrying about my father, why she stopped caring about Julio. She was furious that they had turned to a life like this, a life where they could fight and steal and have as much intimacy as they wanted. The money they earned was but one of many rewards to be earned in a life of crime.
I covered my eyes with my hands. Oh, Lord... Help me!
I don't want to be here any longer. Just want to leave this place, this place of horrid sins, leave and go home to my... to my...
I opened my eyes again. My brother... my brother my brother my brother... He's the reason why I'm here. My mind raced back to the night where I had told him, had promised him, that I would make it all okay.
I'm not looking for wealth, for fame, for glory. All I want is to see you go back to school, and I'll do anything to make that happen.
I'll come home, I promise.
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 clenched my fist. No... forget what I said earlier. I will stay. Stay and get shot, maybe, but I will stay. I will keep going. I won't stop until I get what I need, what he needs. And I know I'll come home. I will come home.
For my little brother.
"I can't see this group working out at all."
"Well, if we don't give them a go on their own out there, how the hell are we supposed to know for sure?"
"You're getting the youngest member of the group — heck, probably the whole gang for all I know — who's barely been here for over a day to lead two boys who are at least two, three years older than he is!"
"You saw what the Cobras did, didn't you? Best way we can pull ahead is to crown someone younger. This kid's our best chance, and I won't let a bleeding pessimist like you hold us back!"
"I can feel this leading up to failure, Reyes!"
"I can lead you up to failure if you don't shut up!"
A Styrofoam container filled with steamed rice was pushed over to me. "Eat it," a voice ordered. "Don't matter what you're doing or what you're thinkin', but you gotta eat."
I was so hungry, I needed no encouragement to dig in. Marcos glanced at Lewis and asked, "It's not poisoned, is it?"
"Do we have a reason for killing the three of you?" came the response.
"Yet." The thug got up and left the room without further comment.
The door opened. The man who had been critiquing Dodger last night while I was being given the Wingz Treatment emerged, his face spelling utter defeat. Behind him came Reyes, who was grinning slightly to himself. "I like to keep my options open. Dunno about you, Dix Cent, but my best bet is on that ten-year-old boy; from what I've seen so far, he's top notch and cream of the crop, at least for a young recruit. You should be flattered that he chose us instead of the Cobras."
I felt immensely pleased on the inside. I had a feeling he deliberately said that in front of me so I could feel some pride in myself.
The man was quiet. "What about the other two?" he asked when he found his voice again.
Reyes looked at Marcos and Lewis. Marcos had taken a few bites of the rice and was trying to entice Lewis to eat. "They'll grow up eventually. Besides, they seem comfortable with the ten-year-old."
I felt pleased again.
Reyes laughed. "Suit yourself, but I have final say around here."
The man shrugged, expressing clear disapproval, but he didn't press his boss on.
The elite gangster came up to me. I felt nervous, not because of his background, but because I feared screwing up after the praise he had lavished on me. "I spoke with Dodger yesterday," he began. "Apparently you have yourself a lil' brother?"
"Yeah." I glanced over at Marcos, but he was too busy eating. "I do."
"How old is he?"
For a moment, I feared telling him, wanting only to protect Evan, but I decided otherwise. There are lots of six year olds on Smokey Mountain. How is he going to know which one? "He's six."
"You take care of him like a bigger brother would?"
He turned to Dix Cent. "See? That's a man right there. I know because I was an older brother myself. Had to raise him myself on these very streets, and look at where I'm at now." He looked at me again. "I like what I see, and I can see this kid ten years down the road."
I felt pleased again.
Dix Cent waved it off. "Alright, alright, you've made your goddamn point." He looked around. "You still need me?"
Reyes was talking to me, though, completing ignoring his question. "You good with these two over there?"
"Yeah... I'm fine."
"No quarrels or anything that'll fuck you all over?"
He laughed. "You know what? People are usually tough and unwilling to listen when they first join. It's like dealing with screaming, crying children at a daycare, but worse." He turned to Dix Cent. "Don't think you'll be having any problems with this guy. If he's a problem, then I can just chastise Dodger myself. Speaking of Dodger... bring him to me. I'm not quite done with him just yet."
Dix Cent nodded. He gave me one final sinister glance before departing.
The crime lord turned to us. "You three stay here and eat your fill. I'm gonna assign Dodger to look after you, and when he gets back he'll have something for you to do. Yesterday was just the start; it's going to go uphill from here." He gave us a nod. "Keep yourself together; this is a new beginning, not an ending." And with that, he left.
I looked back. Lewis was poking and prodding the rice in front of him with his spoon. "Why do you trust these people?" he said to me and Marcos. "Who knows what sort of surprises they put into this rice that'll kill us flat in an hour? I'd die sooner eating this than if I just starved myself."
"It's a risk worth taking," Marcos commented. "And anyway, they gave the rice to us and Garrett. They love Garrett, I know it. Why would they want to kill him all of a sudden?"
"It's a trap."
"A trap that'll accomplish what, exactly?"
Before Lewis could answer, I interrupted their conversation with: "If Lewis doesn't want the rice, I'll take it. I'm hungry."
"When you're on the streets," Dodger said, "keep your eyes open, cause if you don't, anyone can catch you by surprise. See a cop? Walk by 'im and act normal, cause it's people like us that he'll keep a suspicious eye on. Don't try anything funny, don't look at him funny, don't try to be funny. He won't raise his eyebrows."
Almost by coincidence, a police officer appeared from a crowded intersection. Dodger didn't even blink. I tried to act normal, walk normal, pretend like everything wasn't out of the ordinary, but I couldn't help but eye the equipment on his belt. He had a gun, securely nested in its holster, and a nightstick. Marcos and Lewis must've noticed too, but I couldn't turn to look at the expression on their faces.
When the cop was a good distance away, Dodger commended us: "You three did good so far. That was just one cop, though, and it looked like he was goin' somewhere, not just wandering around looking for trouble. And it's not just the cops you need to worry about." He pulled us aside and pointed. Crouched behind a sign was a sturdily-built fellow, six feet tall and wearing plain clothes. His eyes were concealed behind a pair of sunglasses, and there was a slight but noticeable bulge in his inner jacket pocket. It took me a while to realize that it was a hidden gun.
"Some people here don't mind squealing to the police," Dodger cautioned, "so keep your eye out for them and make sure they don't recognize you."
"Who are they?" I asked.
"The cops'll give money to those who rat out people they disagree with. People are so poor, they'll do anything to buy their next meal." When the sinister figure turned his head to look the other way, Dodger quickly led us across the street and we scurried past him. "Sometimes they'll just kill you, no questions asked. Easier and faster to just shoot you than to run after you if you make a break for it."
"Isn't that illegal?" Marcos asked.
"You really think they'll get arrested?" He laughed. "Hell, the cops themselves do some of the killing. They sure as hell don't mind having some of their work done for them."
Lewis kept glancing over his shoulder repeatedly. "Is he coming after us?"
"Dude, you're the one looking behind your back. Do you see him coming after us?"
"Then he probably isn't." He stopped and made eye-contact with the owner of an electronic scrap store. The two nodded in acknowledgement of each other's presence, and Dodger gestured for us to follow him down the alley. "This way."
"Where are we headed?" I asked.
"You'll see." He stopped at a door, almost completely camouflaged by the matching colours of the wall it was on, and knocked loudly on it. "Who's there?" a rough voice demanded.
"It's me, Dodger," he replied. "Don't be too hard, bud; I got young company with me."
The door cracked open, slightly ajar. The two conversed quietly through the gap for a few seconds before opening the door fully. "Boys," Dodger said, gesturing towards a dark, hooded figure. "This is Francis, one of our founding members."
"Been a while since we chatted, huh Dodger?" The two did the Wingz handshake. "See you've grown since then." He looked at the three of us. "Well, well, who've you got here?"
"And you got all of 'em?"
"Nah, Israel got two of the three, but I got the youngest — the one over there, his name's Garrett. Got a lot to say about him."
"Oh?" He made his way over to where I was. I tried to straighten my back and look tough; I couldn't look bad in front of him!
"How old are you?" he asked me.
"Where you from?"
He laughed. "Well, Dodger, I'm sure you know April Fools was—"
"It's not a joke!" Dodger was adamant. "Look, I found him just a day ago, and already he's proven himself to be a skillful young lad. He may be small and he may be weak, but he shows determination like nobody else. Don't think Reyes was this good when he joined his first gang."
"What'd he do to get you all excited, sprinkle fairy dust over you?"
"He bailed me out when I got cornered in an alley by three armed men."
"He's got a little brother, and he's bringing his earnings home to send the little one back to school."
Francis perked up. He was interested. "You doing all of this for him?"
Dodger slapped him on the back. "See? Knew you'd like him. Y'know, Reyes was an older brother too. Last night everyone was callin' him a 'Miracle Kid' after he downed an entire glass of ale and took the Wingz Treatment with an iron skin! They say he's the answer to the end of our war with the Cobras and the Red Cults."
"You introduced these three to the gang?"
"I brought Garrett in. Israel took care of the other two."
Francis turned to us. "Welcome to the Wingz," he said. "No doubt you've already got a taste of our family over at our main hideout. We're all into protecting one another, alright? If you see a fellow Wingz in trouble, you better step in and help them, cause we're not buccaneers here. If you want a more selfish gang, you're in the wrong place. You three understand?"
"Come with me," he said, leading us through a small, miserable tenement, populated with winding corridors lit by aged fluorescent lamps and packs of bodies crammed into narrow living spaces. A few of them were smoking; others had drinks in their hands. Many were trying to cook, bathe, and sleep amidst the lack of free space. The air was hot, humid, almost stagnant, as if I were trapped in a box with no breathing holes. The polluted city air was almost a godsend to me when we stepped out into the courtyard. It was still packed, with more people and clotheslines draped with a rainbow of fabric occupying the picture, but it was no longer a bog, where bodies sank in to rest indefinitely, unable to rot.
"The Cobras and Red Cults used to use this building, but they later abandoned it. They did leave some of their symbols behind." He pointed to a concrete wall, covered in graffiti. "See the two in the center? One green and one red. Green one with the snake is, obviously, the cobras. The one with the red, bloody cross is the Red Cults."
"Why are the gang symbols placed side-by-side?" Marcos asked.
"The Cobras and Red Cults have an alliance. They used to be fierce competitors, until we entered the picture. That's how powerful we got."
"What about now?" I asked.
He sighed. "They managed to knife Juan and Antonio, two of our most affluent members, but we're still keeping our heads above the waterline." He looked at me. "That's why everyone was excited to see you, I suppose."
"Fast track him," Dodger advised.
"That ain't up for me to decide."
While they were talking, I was looking closely at the symbol for the Cobras. It seemed so... familiar. I thought back to the few times my older brother came home, for reasons unknown. He sported tattoos along his arms, an array of them stretching from his shoulders to his wrists, overlapping skin that covered his muscles and veins. One of them was a green snake — a cobra, to be precise — its neck expanded and its tongue hissing at me menacingly.
If I put my finger on it correctly...
"We've been on a steady decline," Francis continued. "The Cobras — man, they sure do take things without asking. They showed up in a block that we claimed as ours and declared themselves to be the new owners. A year ago they got a new member that quickly rose their ranks, and boy, do they never shut up about him. He's been heavily involved with their shabu and weed trade, and he's made them richer than ever. He's not even 16... I would say 13, judging by his appearance. Guess it's their version of a 'Miracle Kid'."
I was still looking at the Cobras' symbol. I felt my hand beginning to shake. "What's his name?" I asked, my voice barely above a whisper.
"His name," I repeated. "What is it?"
He inhaled, deep in thought. "If my memory serves me correctly... I think his name was Julio. Unlike most people, he didn't select a pseudonym for himself. Everyone refers to him by his real name."
Julio. Julio. The name of my older brother. The green cobra seemed to jump out at me, stinging my neck, my cheeks, my eyes. My brother is part of the Cobras.... my brother is part of the Cobras.
The pieces of the puzzle fell into place before me.
My older brother is part of the Cobras.
I am part of the Diablo Wingz.
The Diablo Wingz and the Cobras hate each other.
I shook my head. So what? My mother threw him out of the house; he's there to serve the gang. I'm here to serve my younger brother, who still matters to me. Julio doesn't care about me, or anyone else in his family. This doesn't concern me. This shouldn't concern me.
"Garrett, you alright?" Marcos asked, tugging at my shoulder. I looked up. Francis and Dodger had moved on, and I had been left behind. "You seem lost."
"Lost in thought."
"Something about that cobra that's got you captivated?"
I wondered if I should tell him about Julio, but decided not to at the last moment. "Nah, I'm good. Nothing special about it." I took a glance towards the direction the group had gone. "Let's run before we really get lost around here."
"What's up with you?"
My hazy doze was abruptly ended by Dodger's voice. "C'mon Garrett, get something to eat. You've been half-starved for your entire life; the gang's happy to feed its hungry members."
I nodded weakly, but the aroma of food did little to lift my spirits. The thought and shock about the gang my older brother was in still had me pinned like a wrestler pinning his opponent down on the mat. I had left home and was on my own, still firmly attached to Evan, though for how much longer, I could not tell. The sights I had seen, the suffering I had endured, the situation I was in... now exacerbated by the dreadful thought that I was pulling more threads apart, seeing things I wished I had never seen, knowing things I wished I had never known. My older brother was in a rival gang, and though we may be family, our gangs could pull us apart even more so than we already were. What if I had to kill my older brother? What if he had... to kill me?
"Hey Garrett! Cheer up, man; you've been great so far! What's been keeping you in the doghouse lately?"
I shook my head, but he was expecting a verbal response. "Nothing."
"Well if nothing's up, why are you so depressed?"
I remained silent.
"Actually... yeah, don't answer that question. Just grab something to eat. Better than anything you'll find on your own, trust me. Look, even Lewis is eating it!" He slapped his thigh in laughter. "First he seemed like he was too scared to pee in the corner, now he's practically fighting over the juiciest pieces of pork!" He looked at me. "C'mon, Garrett. Join in."
I nodded again, but stayed inert.
"I know you're hungry. Maybe you'll lighten up a bit after a bite."
I still didn't move.
"You want me to get you something?"
"I'm fine... I can manage."
He patted me on the back. "You're strong, Garrett. I know you are." He turned around and went back for another plate.
Slowly I gritted my teeth and clenched my fists. So what if my brother and I were technically enemies now? Julio was never a big part of my life; he spent most of his time with his father. When he left, so did Julio, who seemed to have otherwise forgotten about his other two siblings. I almost never saw him while I worked on the mountain; he could've easily been smoking cigarettes by the dozen while the rest of us pawed through the trash. When he left, I was slightly disappointed to see him go, but otherwise I never felt emotionally distressed, for I still had and was taking care of Evan. He felt like a sheet of perforated paper attached loosely to my life, and it was only a matter of time before he was folded and then ripped off cleanly.
So why should I care? Why do I feel like he still has bits of himself still clinging onto me like glue?
I shook my head vigorously, trying to force the thought out of my head. It didn't work. I tried again and again, but the more I fought it, the more it wanted to stay. Finally, my stomach rang the bell; its growling set my mind's course on food, for I hadn't eaten in hours. The image of the cobra, however, remained in the foreground of my mind. It stared at me, almost ready to strike, ready to sting me with its venomous fangs. Behind the cobra was my older brother, who stared me down with a face that consisted of a mixture of disdain and shock. I had no way of fighting him; no flying creature could hope to live once it had the clutches of a snake wrapped around its wings. The cobra and my brother seemed to recede away into the distance, as if I were falling from the perch I was on towards my inevitable death, getting farther and farther away until they disappeared from view.
I still had the one-hundred pesos Dodger had given me the day I met him. The paper bills felt heavy in my hands, the weight of my illicit "rewards". It was the same kind of money that Julio tried to bring home, money that my mother rejected and torched. She called it "dirty"... but the bills felt so clean and new, as if they had been freshly printed on that day. They were slightly crumpled and wrinkled from being stuffed into my pockets. I stared and ran my finger over them, trying to focus on the faces, the colouring, the material they were made out of. The money reminded me of the one person I was doing this for, the person that all of my earnings would go to, and the person I was trying to set free.
Ev-... Ev...n... Ev-uh...
I stopped. I felt my hands beginning to clench, crumpling the bill slightly in my hand. I may as well come home empty-handed if I were to ruin all of the banknotes I had worked so hard to earn. I looked at the bills in my hand again, straightening them out the best I could. I saw my mother's face, a flash of flame, and then the banknote slowly beginning to char as the fire licked away at the paper, melting away the printed faces and designs. The bill crumbled into hot ash in my hand as the fire consumed it, inching from one end of the paper to the other. I stopped and blinked. The fire was gone, the bill in tattered but legible condition again.
One hundred... one hundred... how much more can I make? Two hundred? Three hundred? Four? ...maybe a thousand! Two thousand! Three! Whatever the number, it will be enough to keep the food on the table, long enough for Evan to finish fourth, maybe even fifth grade. And if I kept it up, kept coming back with more, he might be able to make it to Grade 12. If I play my cards right, there might even be some left over...
...but for who?
Myself... I almost laughed. Of course I could use some money! I sure could use some new clothes, maybe a basketball of my own so I didn't have to ask around for one. If I hit gold, we could get a new TV that didn't show more static than a fuzzy wool sweater.
Hit gold... Now how was I earning this money? My mother called my father a criminal the day he left and called the money my older brother produced "money from the Devil". Who knew where my father was? My brother made his profits through the illegal drug trade. The one hundred pesos in my hand right now were stolen, having been swiped from an unwary man's pockets along with his wallet, credit cards, and smartphone. Who knew where my future profits would come from? What if I was sent out to kill someone? What if they tasked me with managing their drug trade, like Julio? What if I had to do something that I had never heard of before that would fill my pockets and destroy my morality? What if I lost my bearings and my brother, dooming myself to disownment by my own mother?
No... that won't happen! I won't let that happen! I swear to God I'll...
My fists clenched again, and with a sharp flick of my arm, threw the bills away from me. I watched as they spread out, forming a cloud of coloured paper as they floated down towards the ground, landing softly on the ground like falling leaves. I glared at the mess I had made with immense loathing. Get away from me! Get away from me!! Stop corrupting my mind!!! The bills had no response to my unspoken words; the printed faces only stared back at me with their beady eyes. It's just paper it's just paper it's just paper...
Paper can't save my brother!
My head fell back in exhaustion, and I slouched wearily against the wall. I was ready to give up at that moment, the love for my brother and my mother tearing me apart in the middle. I remembered everything my mother said and did about my older brother's money, the way she described it, the way she burned it, the way she sobbed afterwards. I remembered everything I said to my dearest younger brother, how I wanted him to go back to school, how I promised to find a way to accomplish that goal, how I promised to come home to him no matter what. I didn't want to anger my mother, but at the same time I couldn't let my brother down so easily.
I brought my hands up to my face, sparing my eyes from the sight of my first "paycheque" before me, catching the hot, frustrated tears as they fell. It burned and seared my hands as they slid down, cutting through my wrists and dragging a knife down my arms before landing on my lap and legs, where they smoldered like coals from a fire.
Would money really help my brother — heck — any of us?
The answer came to me almost immediately, and I felt like laughing out loud. Without my father and without Julio, we had barely enough money to keep enough food on the table for the three of us. If Evan went to school, we'd be going to bed hungry every night. Our meager income made it difficult to sustain ourselves for extended periods of time; it was not at all uncommon for my mother and I to go hungry so Evan could eat. Now that I was capable of bringing home one hundred pesos within a matter of seconds, I could pay for food that was even better than scrounged pagpag and actually keep it on the table, for once. If Evan no longer had to scavenge to bring in enough money just to eat, he could go to school. What do you mean 'Money can't help my brother'? Of course it can! It will!
I sent a hand out and grabbed one of the bills. It burned my hand, as if it were on fire, but I clung onto it and brought it towards me. It was money that could buy food, water, amenities... it could buy the things we needed to survive. Why, then, would it feel so... wrong... to get it?
I'm doing it for my brother... I'm doing it for my brother...! I'm doing it for my...
I sighed. There were too many possible answers for one measly question.
"Come a lil' closer to me, sweetie."
I stopped dead in my tracks. I was on my way to see Dodger, who had asked me to meet up with him in fifteen minutes. I had a pretty good idea what was going on in the direction I heard the voice — there was no way I could've ever forgotten that horrific scene as much as I'd like to — but for some reason, something drew me in to see what was going on.
"I said get closer to me! I feel a cold gap between the two of us!"
"Ugh! How close do you want me to go?"
"Don't argue with me!"
The sound was coming from a window, its shutters shut except for a small gap created where the shutters failed to close fully. Two forces were at conflict within me now: one was a kinetic force, driving my legs and feet to walk towards the scene. The other force was a voice in my head, telling me to yield and run away. Get outta there! Get outta there! Get the hell away from there! it screamed. But aside from words, it had no power over me. I was at the gap between the shutters before I knew it.
"Hell, is this your first time? What's holding you back tonight?"
"What?! You're pushing me back while simultaneously scolding me for not coming forward!"
"Well that's just too darn of a shame, sweetie. You're just going to have to try harder if you wanna be a breadwinner."
I crouched and brought an eye up to the small gap, being careful not to make any noise. I felt like squeezing my eyelids shut, for I was certain that I knew what was going on inside, but an invisible, indescribable force kept them open. It wouldn't permit me to even blink, and I wondered how long I could watch this gruesome picture before my eyes dried up like raisins. Someone help me! I begged. Someone drag me out of here and spare me from what I'm about to see!
"You're still not giving me what I asked for, bitch!"
"Good bloody fuck... you're impossible!"
"This'll turn into a bloody fuck soon if you keep hanging back!"
I bit down on my tongue and looked inside. The room was bare, save for a lamp, a small table and chair, and a bed. Two figures — a man and a woman — were huddled onto it. The man kept spewing forth taunts and insults as he... as he...
"Ugh! Why do you have to be so loud? You'll disturb all the neighbours!"
"Me? Loud? Ha! You're being a fucking librarian right now." He turned his head and hollered. "Yeah, go ahead and shush me you slut!"
"Ugh! Fuck you! My son is nearby and he'll hear us!"
"Do you really think I give two shits about that bastard?"
"How dare you insult my son!"
"Woman, I could care less about your son. It wasn't me who gave birth to him!"
The voice came back and yelled at me. Get out! Get out!! But, try as I might, my legs did not obey. I wanted to shield my eyes, but no matter how hard I tried, my body did not respond. The only response I received were from my senses, which continued to relay the numbing scene in front of me. The two in the room still hadn't noticed me, but oh, how I wished they did! Perhaps I'll finally be able to run away once caught.
"He's only eight! You know how hard it is to take care of an eight-year-old? I go hungry thrice a week just so he has enough food to survive!"
"I'll make that four times this week if you don't give me what I ask for. What, you think that isn't fair? Of course it isn't fair! You'll always be clutching your empty stomach unless you either sing for your supper or euthanize the damn child."
"I can't do that!" the woman shrieked.
"How could you even consider such a horrid option?! He's a child! He's my son! My job as a mother is to care for him and raise him until he's old enough to live on his own. I am a mother, not a murderer! You have no heart if you believe that I could just remove him from this world and expect to suffer no consequences. You wouldn't know! You have no children! You're just a heartless thug that cares more about his lust than love!"
"Shut up!" he roared. And then, right before my very eyes, he struck her hard across the face.
I froze. What had the woman done to warrant such treatment? I thought about my mother, and how she worked so hard to keep the three — two — of us alive. She was up before dawn and never saw her bed again until well after dusk. Even in what seemed to be her perpetually-tired state, she wouldn't hesitate to run into the path of an oncoming truck barrelling toward her sons to whisk them out of there. This woman was selling her body to buy her son food... What was so wrong about that?
What was so wrong about what I'm doing?
I heard footsteps. Afraid of getting caught, I broke away from the window and began walking towards my original destination, trying to look normal. The footsteps never actually reached me, so I was safe, but I had had enough. The woman, the way the man struck her, the words she screamed and spoke — it never left my mind. It would never leave my mind, no matter how hard I tried.
When I had finally arrived, Dodger seemed a bit annoyed. "What took you so long?" he demanded.
"Call of nature," I responded, covering up what I had really been up to.
He shrugged it off. "Reyes is about to send you off on your first mission, but I gotta warn you — it'll be hard, it'll be rough, and most of all, it'll be dangerous. If you pull this off, though, you'll be making everyone else here proud — and jealous — of you. You up for the task?"
"What is it that he wants me to do?"
He looked at me in the eye. "He wants you to venture neck-deep into enemy territory."
"Is it dangerous?" I asked, even though I was pretty sure I knew the answer.
He blinked. "You seriously asking that question?" He dug around in his pockets. "I'm going to answer that question with something I'm gonna give you." He produced a small brown object with a silvery side of metal and handed it to me. "You'll need this to survive out there."
I stared at it.
"You're not asking me to... kill someone, are you?"
He shook his head. "This is in case someone jumps you, and you've got nowhere to run."
I still didn't take it. "What does Reyes want me to do that is so dangerous I'll need a weapon 'just in case'?"
"Take it, Garrett," he said firmly, ignoring my question. "I know you're tough, but you can't fend off an armed, brass knuckled snake charmer with your bare hands, can you?"
He had a point. I closed my hand around the switchblade and grasped it firmly. It felt heavy despite its light weight. The handle felt smooth and cool as I ran my fingers over it. I depressed the button and the blade snapped open with a click.
"Don't pick a fight with anyone unless you absolutely have to," Dodger advised. "This is not a suicide mission. We're not like that. The Wingz are not like that."
I turned the blade slowly around, letting it catch the light, reflecting it into my eyes with a glitter. My hands shook; the power to badly wound someone was in my hands, only a few inches long. What would my mother say, knowing that I had been entrusted with this power by someone she didn't trust? I looked up at Dodger again.
"Think of the other people that work with you," he said. "Then you'll see why I gave you this. It's not about you. It's about the people around you. I know you're capable of this, Garrett. I wouldn't have given you this if I didn't."
The people around me... the people around me...
The people I work with... the people I work with...
The people I love...
I felt my hand and arm beginning to stiffen. I closed the blade and nodded firmly. "I'm ready."
He took me to Reyes, who was in a hot, stuffy room talking to three shirtless men, each of which carried a small backpack. "You three know the drill," he said to them. "Don't be brash and don't be dicks, and this won't turn out ugly. I'll be checking in with you in about five hours. You understand?"
The three nodded, and were dismissed.
"Hopefully there will be no sappy brouhahas like last time," he said to himself. He turned around and acknowledged our presence. "Well, well, look who's here..."
"Your favourite new gang member, I guess," Dodger said.
"We'll see how he holds up after this."
I glanced nervously at him, but tried hard not to show it.
He put his hands on my shoulders and looked directly at me. "How you doin' so far?"
"I'm good," was my response.
"Nothin' holdin' you back or anything?"
I shook my head.
"The reason I'm asking this is, after ten years living and working with street gangs, I've learned one thing: never admit a member that doesn't want to stick around." He patted me on the shoulder. "Good to see you're still going strong."
Dodger leaned against the wall, his arms crossed. I was impressed at how he was still able to do that despite the unbearable heat of the environment we were in.
"Now I know everyone thinks you're awesome and everything, but you have to listen to me very carefully, because what I'm about to say is very important." I looked at him. He wasn't bluffing. There was no humour in his voice whatsoever. He was dead, dead serious. "I'm going to need you to get something for me."
"What do you need me to get?" I asked.
"You know the Red Cults, right?"
I nodded. "They're the gang that's allied with the Cobras right now." The word "Cobras" felt funny on my mouth; the thought that my older brother was in it still haunted me. I still couldn't understand why, though.
"I know you've barely hit double-digits," he continued, "but I firmly believe that you're mature enough to handle this."
He showed me a ring on his left middle finger; up to now I hadn't actually noticed that he wore a ring. "What do you see?"
"What about the ring?"
Huh? "It's... shiny."
"It... looks nice...?"
Where was he going with this? I could only stare at the ring, though; I had no idea what he wanted me to say.
"You can't just go around and buy one of these at a 7-Eleven, son."
I tried again. "It's expensive?"
He smiled. "You got it. Took you a while, but you got it." He produced his phone from his pockets and showed me a picture of a sizable, reddish gem, roughly the size of two thick textbooks stacked over each other. "It's not exact, but it's pretty close to what I want you to get for me."
I looked over at Dodger. He was staring at the phone screen as well. "You want him to get this?" he asked, a hint of disbelief in his voice. "What are you going to do with that?"
"Not so much the object itself as much as it is about the people it's coming from." Reyes was looking at me again. "I'm going to need you to get a ruby similar to this one for me. From the Red Cults."
"No way!" Dodger remarked. "The Red Cults aren't going to let anyone even look at this thing that easily! They gotta have six-foot tall punks armed to the teeth with shotguns and German shepherds all ready to rip anyone that crosses their field of vision apart!" He looked at my slim figure. "If a bouncer has no chance against them, what chance do you think young Garrett here has?"
Reyes still had faith in me, though. "I need you to break the status quo, Garrett, even more so than you've already done. Like I said, this is going to be quite dangerous, and it's not going to be easy, but I'm certain you can do it. You understand?"
He turned to Dodger and addressed his concerns: "You're right that they're not going to give something of that value up without a fight, but the truth is, they can't be arsed to monkey guard it with twenty shotgun-wielding idiots and five flesh-eating dogs."
"Still no ordinary Joe's storefront."
"I'm not asking him to rob the Malacañang. He can handle it; I'm sure he can."
While they argued, I stood there, still studying the picture of the ruby. Obviously if Reyes wants it, it has to be worth more than just peanuts. How much was it worth, exactly?
Will Reyes let me keep a portion of the money?
Enough to feed a hundred families the size of ours for a year, maybe.
That's a lot.
Reyes's hands were on my shoulders again. "You can do this, can you?" he asked.
"Be honest with me."
"At best the Red Cults will make it their priority to kill you for the next three months; at worst, you'll be lying dead on the streets," Dodger piped in.
"Enough about what may or may not happen! What I'm asking is: can you do it?"
I will. But can I?
"That's not what I wanted to hear. It's not enough for someone to just try to do it; anyone can try. I'm asking whether or not you can do it."
"I don't know..." Dodger was saying. "Like, I know he's a 'miracle' and all, but at the end of the day he's still just a garbage scavenger..."
I looked at Dodger. I'm not just a scavenger! I wanted to say. I'm a brother! I'm someone with and of potential! You can't put me down with that! You won't put me down with that! But everything I wanted to say was summed up with the two words I probably dreaded saying the most: "I will."
Reyes turned to stare at me. "'You will' what?"
"I can. And I will."
Dodger shifted uncomfortably. "I... got some stuff to do." And he exited the room.
"Hold it!" Reyes called out, and he reluctantly retreated. "I didn't say you could go. I'm not done with you yet."
He leaned weakly against the wall. As for me, I was praised: "I like what I see here. Attitude is the biggest step. There is nothing without spirit."
That made me feel a little bit better, not just for the mission at hand, but for my goal as a whole, the very reason why I'm doing this. I have the attitude. I have the spirit. I can do this. For my—
"What's wrong with you, Dodger? Thought you were the one who tried to convince everybody that he was an angel that descended from heaven or something."
"Yeah but... this is too much, too soon."
"Didn't you bring him into the gang the very first day you found him? Wasn't that too much, too soon as well?"
"Doesn't matter if it's too soon," I interrupted. "I'm ready. That's what matters."
Reyes patted me on the back, as if I were his son. "See? He knows he's ready."
On the outside, I felt strong; on the inside, I still had my doubts. Dodger's points were not without merit. I really had little experience with stealing; much of my life had been spent digging and playing in mounds of garbage. This was something I had never done before, and Reyes was leaning on me to do it.
"You'll be doing this with both of your... what were their names again? Whatever, you'll be the leader of the squad, and your job is to make sure that they actually do shit instead of running off. This is a huge responsibility: think you can handle it?"
"Yes," I responded without thinking, and almost immediately kicked myself. Grr... I was jumping into the deep end and I didn't even know how to swim!
Now Dodger was getting suspicious of me. "You're kidding, right?"
Yes! I wanted to scream. Yes, this was all just a joke! But I couldn't disappoint the one who so lavishly spread praise on me, like butter on a piece of steak, and I could only respond with the answer that I hated.
"Relax: he's got the hang of it. The two are comfortable with him anyway. More than me, at least." He laughed. "If I told them to run from a burning house, they'd just stare at me like deer at oncoming headlights."
"Still... the Red Cults? Really? It's easier to steal from the Cobras's warehouses, where they have a guy who's high on coke armed with a bolo for defense and a limp in his leg. Why don't you send him there for starters?"
"We've intruded into that warehouse enough times, and obviously the Cobras aren't that stupid. Plus, I've been to that jewellery store before in disguise, and it's not as elaborate as you think." He turned away from him in mild disgust, as if he were displeased with himself for wasting his time arguing. To me, he continued: "I've seen those two boys recently; don't worry, there not the panty-wetters they were when they first joined the gang anymore. You'll be in charge of them, and it's your job to make sure that they learn and train faster under your control. It's all for the gang, son. We're all one big family, happy or not, and everyone's got a role in keeping the whole organization afloat. Got it?"
"I understand, sir."
When Dodger opened his mouth to speak again, "This better not piss me off!" Reyes warned.
"I'm not... was just about to ask about why you'd want — need — a ruby."
"Two reasons: one, it's one of the Red Cults's most prized possessions, and probably the few that they legitimately own. Two, it's got a huge price tag on its head, and I know someone from Thailand who'll pay top dollar for it. It would turn the tables of this ruthless chess game; it'll be like adding a few queens to our ranks and capturing the enemy's rook."
Dodger wanted to say more — I could tell by his facial expressions — but the look on his boss' face shushed him. "You've changed sides like a pancake being turned over. What's wrong with you? Discouragement is the biggest silent enemy, and what irks me is that this gang is full of such demoralizing turds. I thought you were Garrett's mentor, not his irrational mother. Go stand outside the door and wait until I tell you to come back in."
"Do it!" Reyes snapped. A little more gently: "I won't be long."
Dodger, having tasted a sample of his boss's anger, nodded and promptly left.
Now it was just me and...
"Seems to me was have a lot of pessimists around here. No wonder we're falling behind," he lamented to himself. To me, he said, "Everyone around here's staring at you in disbelief. We've got young members like you, but none of them have the sort of magic that I see in you. Prove to me that I'm not blind or delirious, and you'll prove to the gang you're worthy of anything."
I nodded. "I won't let you down; I'd be letting myself down as well if I did."
Before he dismissed me, he gave me two things: a blueprint of the jewellery store, and a hand-drawn sketch that approximated the ruby. "We got the blueprint only a week ago, so it should be up to date. The address is printed on the bottom-left. Make sure you go to the right store, Garrett: this is important. We have specific targets in this gang; we don't just attack whomever, whenever. The jewellery store has a silver storefront, grey concrete exterior at the rear and the sides, a well-lit 'Juan's Jewels' neon sign at the front. You can't miss it, and there's no way you could possibly get it wrong. And if you somehow get it wrong and cut the throat of some innocent, you're going to wish for death like a birthday wish."
I studied his face. No sense of humour, no sign that he was joking. He was dead serious in what he said. If you somehow get it wrong... you're going to wish for death like a birthday wish.
"I won't fail," came my determined response to that.
"You got this, Garrett. Go and make the Wingz proud!" And he dismissed me. As I left, he added, "And tell Dodger to come in."
He was waiting outside, staring nervously at the ground, alerted when I exited the room. "Does he want me?"
Dodger thumped me on the back. "Reyes's leaning on you, bud. Don't fall over." And with that, he headed inside the room.
I put my hand inside my pocket and patted the knife comfortingly.
It was another warm evening. The gang had, as usual, gathered together as one "family" and were chatting, smoking, and eating together. My growling stomach had finally enabled me to grab something to eat — mostly street food and some homecooked meals that the other members brought in, almost like potluck, but definitely better than the cheap stuff we ate at home. What lay ahead of me tomorrow still troubled my mind, though, and I couldn't enjoy the scene as much as I'd like to.
"I remember when I was first sent out on mission," Dodger said. "Couldn't sleep the night before. I was busy practicing all the techniques I could use with my knife to break free if I got caught. You'll be fine, man! You killed it the past few days! I mean, if Reyes says you're ready, you probably are."
He was just trying to make me feel better, I knew it, but his consoling only amplified the butterflies in my stomach. My dinner lurched and sat like a shotput inside a bag made of animal skin. Out of all the things I had done and said, the most important was the promise that I made to my brother, that I would make it home alive no matter what. That promise was about to be tested; I was waist-deep in putty that was difficult for me to get out of.
Marcos and Lewis came up to us. "You always seem to be lost in thought," Marcos said to me. "What's up?"
"Nothing," I lied.
"Oh there's something," Dodger said. "Garrett, it's your responsibility to tell them."
Great. I looked at him, then at the two, then back again. "Reyes has assigned us on our first mission, starting tomorrow," I began.
"Already?" the two said simultaneously.
"I asked that too," Dodger chimed in, "but Reyes says otherwise."
"We're to rob a jewellery store, one owned by the Red Cults."
"He wants us to what?" Lewis asked, as if I just told him that we were to board an alien spaceship and fly to Mars.
"A jewellery store? The Red Cults?" Marcos was flabbergasted. "I don't like the sound of either, let alone both."
"You wanna file a complaint? Reyes has office hours right before happy hour every Thursday," Dodger said sarcastically. "God, isn't he thrilled to hear your pessimism!"
The two blinked, utterly confused.
"You weren't there," I tried to explain. "Reyes flipped out on Dodger for objecting. He doesn't like criticism. He thinks we're ready... He says he knows were ready."
"I don't know... still sounds risky to me." Marcos sat down next to me. "What is he looking for, exactly?"
I produced the sketch of the ruby and handed it to him. "He wants this. Most expensive possession of the Red Cults, apparently. He's going to sell it to someone in Thailand."
Lewis could only stare at the sketch. "How big is it?" Marcos asked.
"Not too large. Should be enough to carry with both hands."
"Why does he want all three of us to go? Three's a crowd, isn't it?"
The answer to that question was answered by Dodger: "Reyes believes in a family. He's going to send the three of you so you'll figure out how to work together to get the job done. Was for me anyway; there were five of us on my first assignment, myself included."
"Where's this place?" Lewis asked. He had settled down quite comfortably next to me; the shyness he exhibited on his first day was almost completely absent.
"Reyes gave me a blueprint as well; he's serious about this." I unfolded the sheet of paper from my pockets and straightened it out.
"What, you think Reyes'll just let you wander in without knowing a thing about the place?" Dodger retorted. "He believes in success, not suicide. Plus, he loves you too much to lose you so soon."
Marcos and Lewis were huddled around the blueprint, studying it intensely like two students cramming before their final exam. "The place isn't big at all. I bet the last place I lived in was bigger than this store."
The lively atmosphere was suddenly shattered when someone yelled, "Cults!!" Immediately, knives, guns, and machetes were drawn. A few even armed themselves with chairs and glass bottles. "Quick!" Dodger said, jabbing me with his elbow as he brandished his own weapon. "Your knife!"
I did not feel brave, tough, or even remotely ready to do anything right now. With shaking hands, I fumbled with the switchblade in my pocket before I managed to get it out. I depressed the button and the blade flicked out with a click. I felt like throwing up. I hope I don't have to do anything!
"Get closer!" Dodger said. "Don't hang back! The gang fights, wins — and loses — together."
Very gingerly I made my way forward. I could see the rival gang, their own weapons drawn and aimed at us. All of their members wore mean, fierce looks on their faces. Our gang had scrambled to form an inward crescent that extended to the alley's walls, effectively sealing the route off. Those in the front row were lean and somewhat slim, while the bigger, muscular gangsters — almost like bouncers — stood behind them. I was behind the palisade, supposedly safe in the backlines, though I could sense the disapproval of my cowardliness behind my back.
A Wingz pushed their way to the front. "What the hell are you guys doin' here?!"
"Why can't we be here?" came the snarky response. "This an invite-only picnic you're having here?"
The Wingz who took charge cocked his pistol. "Yeah, and what better reason do you have for being here? This is our turf!"
"You took six grand and an 8 ball from us. But that's nothin' compared to the Cult you nabbed as well."
"You seriously think you can just waltz in, ask for what you want, and leave like this is some sort of a shopping mall?" He stiffened, and the gang behind him got prepared as well. "Give us a good reason why we shouldn't just kill you right now!"
The Red Cult, unfortunately, wasn't scared. He snapped his fingers, and a stocky figure came to the front, brandishing a shotgun as he went. "You can keep the shit you stole. But we want our Cristian back. If you don't make a path, shit's gonna hit the fan for you."
"Hey!! What's going on here?!" It was Reyes! He pushed his way through the crowd towards the front lines. "Red Cults!"
"We appreciate the greeting," the rival thug said sarcastically.
"You have any sort of business to do around here? If not, then do us all a favour and get the fuck out!"
"Bring us Cristian or we'll cut your throats!"
"Why would you ever want that son of a bitch back?"
"You think we'll just let you keep one of our members in the back of a truck, gagged and blindfolded with duct tape?" He gestured towards their bouncer again. "He'll fuck you up. All of you up. We won't stop searching your turf until we get what we want." The shotgun's pump was cocked. "You have a decision to make, Reyes; you gonna risk the lives of everyone in your gang, or are you just gonna give Cristian back to us?"
Reyes pointed his finger at him like a pistol. "You better watch out! Soon, I'll have your ass so roasted that we'll be able to make bacon from it. You'll be eatin' all the rocks on the streets as we finish off this chapter and close the covers of this book. Everyone will forget you and your venom-sucking allies; nobody will remember that you even existed, or even had money. You may as well go live in purgatory, for hell can't be arsed to admit you." He snapped his fingers. "Bring them the faggot they want so badly."
"You have a way with words," the Red Cult remarked as two Wingz headed to fetch them their cargo. "I've never actually observed you do anything, Reyes, since taking position as a leader. You while away the days sitting in your private office, staring at the piles of cash that'll soon disappear. Thinking about buying rubber bands to hold them together? Don't, cause it'll all disappear soon enough."
"Maybe it'll disappear, but not before you." He flinched, which triggered a flurry of activity as some Red Cults pointed their guns at him. "So? Are you going to shoot me? Go ahead, you fucking turds! We'll give you that Cristian's dead body for you to carry home. Take him to his parents. They won't be able to stand it."
The two Wingz returned, dragging a young teenager with them. He was blindfolded and gagged with duct tape that covered much of his face, almost like a mummy, leaving a few holes for his nostrils. "You have one hell of an outspoken loudmouth," one of them said. "He has the mouth of a sewer and the mind of a swine." The crescent parted ways slightly, like the Red Sea for Moses, as the captured Red Cult was escorted through the crowd towards his teammates. Finally, they dumped him several inches into the No Man's Land between the two gangs, a level playing field occupied by Reyes and the other Red Cult.
"Take him," Reyes said. "Don't just stand there. Take him and then get out. Don't try anything stupid."
The Red Cult leader shrugged. He snapped his fingers and ordered three of his men to remove the duct tape from their friend. As soon as his mouth was freed, Cristian shouted, "You sick son of a whore, Reyes! Here's hoping that hell's flames will burn your skin off and leave you screaming for the Saviour that'll never save you! I've only two words for you, bastard: Fuck you!"
Reyes took out his own gun and bludgeoned the butt into the teenager's head. Immediately, three gunshots rang out: two from the Red Cults, and one from our side. I wanted to run; I had brought a knife to a gunfight! There was no way I'd survive.
"You'll be covered in your own blood soon, Reyes!" the leading Red Cult warned as he trained his firearm on the Wingz's leader. Reyes did the same. "One wrong move, and I'll cut you into two!"
"You gonna kill me for teaching that sick brat a lesson?" He laughed, a laugh that made me uneasy. Who could seriously laugh when their life was at the mercy of a finger? "Take him. Tar his back until it's warm enough to fry eggs on it. That'll teach him not to insult the ones that have him under their thumbs."
The two stared at each other, guns brandished at each other's heads, for what seemed like forever; their gangs stood right behind them, ready to act upon and against even the most subtle of movements. Finally, the Red Cult leader lowered his gun. "We got what we asked for."
"Now give us what we requested," Reyes responded.
The Red Cult leader began to back off. "Let's go!" he barked. "We'll leave these pathetic demons to enjoy the rest of their picnic tonight." Cristian was picked up and carried off as the rest of the gang slowly backed out of the alley, their weapons still in their hands. As soon as they were out of sight, the tension eased, and everyone began to put away their weapons. I breathed a quiet sigh of relief and closed the switchblade, replacing it in my pocket.
"That was close," someone remarked.
"We've had worse," Dodger said. To me: "You have to be ready for whatever might happen, Garrett. The other gangs around here know this is our turf, and for the most part they don't tread on our land and we don't tread on theirs. In the event that someone does show up, though, you have to have something to fight with on hand. No 'leaving shit in the bathroom' or any of that. You gotta be ready. Understand?"
Marcos and Lewis were still staring at me. "You have a knife?" Marcos asked. "Where'd you get that from?"
"Dodger gave it to me," I answered.
"You think you're ever going to have to use it for real?"
"I hope not."
Rain was coming down heavily when we got to the jewellery store, water pooling up on the streets as it fought its way towards the nearest storm drain. The narrow alley leading to the rear offered some protection from above, but the torrential river sloshed past our feet, slowing us down.
"We got the right one, right?" Marcos asked.
I nodded. "Almost certain that this is the one." Reyes made it very clear about the jewellery store we were to clean out: "Has a silver storefront, grey concrete exterior at the rear and the sides, a well-lit 'Juan's Jewels' neon sign at the front." And the warning: "If you somehow get it wrong and cut the throat of some innocent, you're going to wish for death like a birthday wish."
We got the right one... for sure we got the right one. No mistake. Never any mistakes.
Marcos produced the blueprint from his pockets and unfolded it to reveal the floor plan. "Remember what Reyes said about this place; there a security alarm system installed. Probably a few Red Cults lurking around here too. They're very protective of their assets. Especially this one."
"We've come too far to turn back now."
"I'm not saying we should turn back," Marcos defended himself. "I'm just saying we should be careful..."
I looked back at Lewis. He had composed himself, mostly, but was carefully advancing down the alley, carefully checking every step he took and every inch of the environment around him. "Please, Lewis," I said, "we got over here without getting killed."
"I'm just trying to be careful," he responded, glancing at Marcos.
"The longer we stay here, the more dangerous it gets," I insisted. He didn't like my answer, but he did quicken his pace. Somewhat.
"How do we get in?" Marcos asked. "We're not mice; we can't just squirm in through a gap in the wall."
My eyes caught sight of his answer — a window. Slightly ajar, a tight squeeze, but a solution nonetheless.
Marcos and Lewis followed my gaze. "Are you crazy?! How are we supposed to fit through that?"
"You won't. I will." I tried to reach the window, but it was too high up. I could see the size of the opening at this angle though. It was smaller than I had expected, no doubt small enough to keep someone Lewis's size out. The window could be smashed, but it would create too much noise. I tried to picture myself crawling through that opening. Was I really small enough?
Only one way to find out.
I picked up and pushed whatever nearby materials I could grab and stacked them underneath the window — a wooden crate, a few discarded McDonald's pallets, a folding chair. I stood on the chair and tried again. I was still a few inches away from the ledge.
"Mind giving me a lift?"
Lewis hung back. Marcos was a little more open, but he too had doubts. "You're going to do the deed alone?"
I shook my head. "You're going to lift me through that opening, and once I'm in I'll open this window further for the two of you. We'll decide what to do next later."
Marcos was reluctant, but lacking any better ideas, relented. He got onto the crate, being careful not to lose his balance, and prepared to lift me up. "Give me a hand, Lewis," he said.
"I'm light as a feather," I replied, "shouldn't be too hard."
I gave him the thumbs-up, and he wrapped his arms around my body and hoisted me into the air. He grunted slightly from the weight, but it was all that was needed to get my hands onto the ledge. His hands were on my feet, preventing me from sliding back down. The gap was even smaller than I had expected, and I felt myself being sandwiched by two seemingly unwavering forces — the ledge under me, and the window above me. Marcos kept pushing, hoping that it would help me get through, but it only felt like I was being forced through a torture device on a conveyor belt. I wanted to tell him to stop, but I didn't dare make a peep, for fear that someone on the other side would hear me.
Argh, this is harder than I thought.
"I hope you're doing alright in there," I heard Marcos saying. "It really does look like a tight squeeze."
I squirmed, wiggling my body, trying to get myself through the opening. It seemed like forever, moving forward mere millimetres at a time. I felt my rib cage being dragged painfully along the ledge, making every attempt to breathe an unspeakable agony. I wondered what would happen if Marcos let go... would I slide and fall back outside? Or would I be stuck there, hanging helplessly by my bones, halfway in, halfway out?
"I won't let go until you're in, Garrett," Marcos said, as if in response to the unspoken words in my mind. "Just let me know if you need anything."
I extended my hands and felt around for the wall under me. It was cool and rough, like concrete. I pushed against it, trying to make some progress. One by one, my ribs went over the ledge, and then my fleshy stomach, followed by my waist. And then...
"You're in, Garrett! Just be careful; you might fall in and hit something. I'll hold onto your legs until you tell me to let go."
My hands dangled towards the ground, their fingers extended, trying to find a solid surface in the darkness. My hand came across a cold, ceramic object, rectangular in shape and covered in dust. I placed my hands firmly on it, and it gave slightly, but not enough to throw me off balance. What was this thing?
"You find anything?"
"Yeah," I said quietly.
"Can I let go now?"
My two feet were released, and unlike the rest of my body they had no trouble getting through the window. My hands almost screamed at me as they bore the weight of my entire body, unsupported and unaided. I tried to move slowly to avoid making any noise, but my legs and body curved sharply down to the ground. My legs hit water with a light splash. Water? What?
The dim light entering through the window was partially blocked by the shadow of a head. "You alright there, Garrett?"
I got up, shaking the water from my feet. A quick inventory — no broken bones, no sprained joints, everything still in one piece. I looked up and flashed him the thumbs-up again, though I wasn't sure if he could see it or not. "All good."
"You sure?" He tried to look around, but couldn't see anything other than inky darkness. "What is this place?"
My eyes slowly became accustomed to the light. I could make out the outlines of the objects in the room. Two walls and a door, all slightly elevated from the ground. A bowl-shaped object in the middle, water inside of it. A small, white tank, capped at the top with a white, porcelain cover.
I clambered on top of the toilet tank. "Watch your head; I'm going to try and open this thing."
His head ducked down as I fiddled with the handle. It was old and rusted, squeaking loudly as I turned it. The window began to creak open, inch by inch, almost taking an eternity to open. The more I cranked, the harder it became to open it. Finally, Marcos said, "I should be able to fit through." He gestured towards Lewis. "C'mon."
Lewis crawled through the opening gingerly, aided by me and Marcos. We lowered him gently to the ground, narrowly missing the toilet seat and the drop into the bowl. "You sure you can get through all by yourself?" I asked Marcos.
He nodded. "I'll be fine." He used his arms to hoist himself up over the edge and, with some difficulty, managed to squeeze through. It was just big enough to accommodate him.
"Where are we?" Lewis whispered nervously.
"A bathroom of some sort," I replied.
"We have to find the safe," Marcos said. "Reyes is looking for a specific ruby; it's stamped and isn't in the display case. He also warned us not to take anything else." He looked at me. "He seemed to have incredible faith about you following that last point."
I nodded and gritted my teeth. The place had more money than we would ever make in our lifetimes; I could probably get enough to pay for Evan's college tuition, if need be. I couldn't let Reyes down though, nor could I let myself down.
I kept running. Running and running and running, until I had nowhere left to run. My route had been blocked with a small dumpster, its lid closed, appearing to me as a dark, shadowy figure, like a monster. Behind me, I could hear the officers catching up, their footsteps getting louder and louder as they approached. I tried to squeeze past the dumpster, between the walls and the metal contraption, but my heart sank when I saw the chain-link fence, stretching from wall to wall, sealing off the alley, the tops guarded with barbed wire. Even without the dumpster, there was no way I could climb over that fence.
I was trapped.
"Hey!" one of the officers yelled. I turned around to face them, backing up slowly, hoping to create some distance, even though I knew such efforts were fruitless. Both of them had their firearms drawn and pointed at me. "Drop your weapon!"
I hesitated, but realizing that a boy armed with a knife had no chance against two trained officers with pistols, did as I was told.
"Put your hands up!"
I raised my hands slowly above my head. A sign of surrender. An indication of my resignation. What other choice did I have? The two were getting closer and closer, both on high alert. They were ready for whatever I might try to do to them.
One of the officers broke the silence. "I got him," he said as he holstered his weapon. From his belt, he produced a pair of handcuffs. "Keep the gun on him in case he tries something funny."
As soon as he got near me, so close that his shirt occupied most of my field of vision, I made a break for it. At least, I tried to. I attempted to slither past the cop who was apprehending me, but he rammed his entire body into mine. WHAM! My body hit the dumpster with a sharp bang, the air and senses being knocked out of me. I heard the hammer of a gun being cocked back and, soon afterward, found myself staring down the barrel of a pistol, ready to fire, ready to shoot me, ready to silence me. Forever.
"Got 'im... I got 'im," the cop pinning me down told his colleague.
The gun backed away slowly, still aimed at me. Two strong hands turned me around so I was now facing the dumpster before slamming me back down against the metal. With one hand he held my head, almost controlling me, as if he were trying to break into my mind; with the other, he patted me down, checking my pockets, every inch of my shirt and shorts. When he was satisfied, he turned his head and nodded to his partner. "He's got nothing else."
Two hands. Two hands were now holding me down. My head was released, but still I could not move more than a slight wriggle. I could hear the handcuffs clinking as they were readied. Ready to arrest me.
Arrest... I was being arrested... I was about to go to jail...
A face popped up in front of me. It was a face that I used to be able to see every day, a face that I loved, a face that I adored. A face that was reminiscent of home, of family, of the people closest to me. A face that always lit up at the sight of me, regardless of whatever dire situation it was in.
Evan... my brother... I'll never see him again...
I gritted my teeth hard. Evan... no... no, I can't let them arrest me! I can't let my brother down! I can't!
I pushed back hard with all my might. The two cops were slightly taken aback by my sudden outburst of energy, but their grips on me did not falter. I thrashed, trying desperately to break free, break free of their superhuman grasp on me. The more I fought, the more determined I grew to get out. I can't... I can't let my brother down! I can't let you bring me down! I promised him I'd come home, I promised!
I thrust back with my foot and scored on a kneecap. There was a grunt of pain, and for a brief second, the monstrous grip on me loosened slightly. Wasting no time, I squirmed to get out. As the cop I kicked struggled to keep me in, the second cop brandished his baton; I didn't see it coming until it was too late. One moment, I was standing up; the next, I was on the cold, hard ground, completely dominated and overtaken by mind-numbing pain. I tried to move, but couldn't, couldn't even move my fingers. I wanted to scream, anything to relieve the pain, but my ability to make any noise, aside from a slight whimper, had been beaten out of me. It felt like a searingly hot poker, fresh from the fireplace, had been jabbed into my back. I could still feel it, feel the baton as it met my skin, burning a rectangular hole in my back. Up to now, I had never experienced such physical pain in my life; even the Wingz Treatment was a pedicure compared to this.
A shadow came over me. I felt the mass of a body as it clambered on top of me, using its entire weight to keep me down, although I couldn't move regardless. "You son of a slut," the cop muttered. I heard a click, and the spot around my wrists immediately tightened. I was completely powerless to stop it. "We got you now, fucking Rugby boy."
I was picked up and dragged, for I was unable to communicate with my legs. The squad car was waiting for me, its lights flashing, the red and blue lights leaving brightly-coloured holes burning in my eyes. I turned my head, slightly, to shield them from the blaze. In the corner of my eye, I could see Marcos and Lewis, safely hidden behind a mailbox, watching me.
The door was opened. "C'mon," the cop said as he began to shove me inside.
Help! I wanted to say. Help me! But the two did not come to my aid. As soon as they saw the opportunity, they were out of there, running away as fast as their legs could carry them, their backs turned towards me.
Come back! Come back! Come back...
"Move!" The view of the outside world disappeared as I was thrown in. The door was slammed shut; there were no handles on the inside. Separating me from the front of the vehicle was a metal mesh, old and rusted, but still, I figured, strong and resilient.
It was a mini-jail cell. A temporary cell, for the ride to my permanent one.
The officers got in and started the car. "You gave us a shit ton of trouble out there, son," the one who whipped me with the baton remarked. "God knows what else you could've done out there on your own!"
I had no response. As I felt the car beginning to move, I closed my eyes and, despite my best attempts not to, let a single teardrop fall.
The handcuffs dug into my wrists, which throbbed with every step I took. A police officer marched beside me, toting an assault rifle in his hands. In front of me was a uniformed guard, complete with peaked cap and polished boots. He wore spectacles and a dour look. "Name?" he asked.
I swallowed a lump in my throat. I dare not lie, eyeing the gun the cop had. "Garrett Garcia Alonto Tañag, sir."
"And your crime?"
"Stealing from a jewellery store, sir."
The guard removed his glasses and scoffed. "Seems like eight out of every ten child inmates are in here for thievery. What, have parents nowadays completely failed at educating their kids on how to pay for their own shit?"
His comment seemed to be directed more at the cop, who answered, "Many of these kids are orphans. That explains their ignorance."
"Shame," the guard said sarcastically. He paused to take a sip from his water bottle. "You have any parents?" he said to me.
"Yes sir — my mother."
"Must either be the mother refusing to teach or the kid refusing to learn," the cop said. "Or maybe an uncanny mixture of both."
The guard smiled smugly. "Well kid, lemme start by telling you that the streets are no safe place for anyone to be. We're doing you a favour by locking you up in here; we're keeping you outta trouble." He leaned back. "And if you haven't gotten it through your thick skull by the time you walk out of this prison, you're coming straight back."
The cop produced a key from his belt and began to remove my handcuffs. They tightened, and I resisted.
"Quit squirming around," the cop ordered, "unless you wanna spend your entire life in these."
I tried not to move as the cuffs tightened again. I gritted my teeth in pain, trying hard not to cry out. I caught a glimpse of the guard, who was mildly amused at my suffering. Soon, the cuff on my left hand came off. I brought it up in front of me. An ugly red mark took the place of where the cuff was.
"And hold still!" the cop growled.
I bore holes at the guard with my eyes, directing all my physical reactions to pain to my teeth, gnashing them so hard I thought they would break, trying not to give him the satisfaction of witnessing my pain. He wasn't at all affected, and even laughed at what he called was my "feeble attempt at being tough." Finally, after what seemed like forever, the second cuff was gone. My right hand had a matching red mark; together, my hands looked like they had been flogged.
"The guards at this prison already have enough shit to deal with," the cop said as he holstered his equipment. "Don't give them any more of your antics." And with that, the cop turned around and headed out the door, his assault rifle still in his hands.
Now it's just me and the guard...
"Gregory!" he barked, and a second guard appeared. "Welcome our newest resident to the complex."
The prison had no uniforms, no bathroom amenities, not even any beds. Inmates were packed into cramped, rectangular cells with concrete walls and floors. An overflowing slop bucket in the corner served as an unpleasant, yet unavoidable, toilet. Some cells had short chairs and tables, and many had shelves tucked against the walls which served as beds. Still others had no furniture whatsoever, forcing their inhabitants to sleep on the floor. A few cells were so cramped that prisoners took turns sleeping and standing. Two guards pushed me along the corridors, their batons drawn ready to neutralize me in the event I try to escape. To both my right and left were cells, each of them filled with people, some rattling the bars, others sulking behind them. The ones on my right contained only males, while the left seemed to have been intended for female prisoners, though I was surprised to see a number of males in there as well.
"This is where you go if you don't grow up," one of the guards said. "We're showing you this now so you'll know better than to fuck up again when you're out of this place."
"And get this — boys are more likely to wind up back here than girls. That's why we ran out of room for 'em, not that we're running a fraternity in here."
I would later learn that I, in fact, had been considerably lucky to wind up in this prison, where adults were separated from children, and males from females. Many prisons lacked such a structure, often placing young children with fully grown men. Abuse of all kinds were in no short supply, and those who survived the ordeal suffered permanent mental and often physical damage. Until then, though, I was under the impression that I had been sentenced to Hell on Earth, second only to hell itself.
The guards stopped in front of a cell. "Form up!" he barked. Immediately, everyone in the cell began to scramble; those who were seated immediately stood up, those on the shelves immediately got off. All of them formed haphazard ranks that stretched the entire width of the cell, down to the rear wall. Everyone inside was male, many my age, some younger, some older, but nobody over the age of 18. A few of the children looked frightened, afraid of what might happen next. Many others simply stared straight ahead, their eyes and faces hardened, as if made out of cement.
"Might be able to fit one more in here," one of the guards commented after doing a feeble headcount. "Bet all the other cells here are like this."
The other guard shrugged. "Not in the mood for a walk today." He began to unlock the door. "Congratulations," he said sarcastically to the inmates, "you've earned yourself a new friend."
I was shoved inside. "Don't start any shit," the guard said. The door was locked and the two left, leaving me alone with my new "cellmates".
I was nothing special. New inmates arrived at the prison on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis. As soon as the two guards were out of sight, the other boys broke out of their trance and resumed doing what they had been doing earlier. A few of them, all of which I supposed were also new, still had their eyes on me, though none of them offered any comfort or reassurance.
I seated myself by the wall and sulked. Things couldn't have gotten worse than what I had anticipated. First, I left home and my brother in a flood of emotional tears, then I spent a night on my own in the streets, followed by Dodger picking me up and bringing me into his gang. I was surrounded by police, abandoned by Marcos and Lewis as I was struck, roughed up, and handcuffed. Now I'm here, for a length of time only God knows. I may never be able to get home again; my mission was a failure. I'm sorry Evan... looks like you'll have to be a scavenger for the rest of your life now...
Evan... Oh God, I'm sorry Evan, I let you down!
The tears began to build up behind my eyes, burning like hot fire. No... not now. Not with those other boys watching! I clenched my fists and gritted my teeth, and after some effort, managed to get the tears to retreat. Think about something else... Something other than the-one-who-must-not-be-named.
The slop bucket. I needed to go. Badly. There was no privacy to be had, no doors or curtains to hide behind. Anyone who needed to go did it in plain sight of everyone else.
I covered my face and thought of Evan instead, catching the tears in my hands as they fell.
Night fell, and soon the other boys were beginning to retire for the day, though the cramped, crowded cell made sleep more of a joke than a reality. There were no beds, only shelves without pillows or blankets. There wasn't enough space for everyone, forcing most boys to sleep on the floor. The heat and humidity of the climate made it a blessing for one to get the cool, concrete floor, and unsurprisingly, the older, more influential boys enjoyed tolerable temperatures on the ground, while the younger, less fortunate ones got the upper shelves. If a younger boy, who lacked any friends in the upper ranks, tried to sleep in a spot on the floor reserved for a more senior inmate, they would be forced to do whatever the older boys thought would be a suitable "punishment", whether it be downright physical assault or having to sleep near the slop bucket. At best, the boy would just be thrown back onto the shelves; at worst, they'd be huddled by the bucket, clutching their body in pain as it throbbed from being kicked and beaten mercilessly.
I was new, "fresh meat", and without a doubt, I got the upper shelves as my bed, though I hardly called it such. The shelf was just wide enough to fit me; it was not possible to sleep along the length of the shelf due to the sheer quantity of occupants. Everyone was packed in like sardines, with barely enough room to move around. Turn too much, and you'll bump into the person sleeping next to you. Be too careless when getting off, and a drop to the ground will destroy any hopes for a peaceful night. And regardless of how bad the urge is, never pass any gas, or your neighbours will never forgive you. But even if you were used to the uncomfortable shelf, the too-close-for-comfort embrace, and the gravity-based wake-up technique, and even if you managed to hold in whatever wanted to come out the other end, there was one thing that was impossible to escape: Heat.
You'd think that, growing up in a country that was 14 degrees from the equator, heat would be something I'd be used to, but nothing could get me used to what I was in now. When you're stuck in a tightly packed prison cell with eighty other boys, when the two boys next to you are literally only a hairline away, and when you're all sweating and breathing and trying to sleep, nights became an absolute hell. It was more comfortable sleeping on the streets than it was in here.
I slept on-and-off, with more off than on. When I did sleep, my dreams were fragmented and distorted, consisting of almost unrecognizable images. Occasionally, though, I was able to recognize a few familiar scenes. I could see my mother preparing a meal of pagpag for us to eat. My father came home through the front door, his earnings for the day in his hands. He would go over to my mother and kiss her lightly on the cheek, and she would smile at it, a mixture of 'I'm glad you're home, sweetheart' and 'Now why don't you go and help me make dinner instead of flattering me?' in her expression. Julio would chat with father, joking and laughing, talking about things other than our house, the food, or Smokey Mountain. My mother would make sure Evan ate every little bit of food in his bowl, and would scold him when he didn't. When we were done eating, Evan would play with me, always climbing up my arms and shoulders like a cat, waiting for me to flip him over and hang him upside down. When he had a bit more energy, he would wrestle with me, and I would always let him win, always letting him have the upper hand.
Those days... oh, how I remembered those days! The days when we had plenty of love to go around. We were still poor, still had to eat pagpag and scrounge the mountain for scraps. But we were together, that's what mattered. All Evan needed was us.
First my father, then Julio. Now me.
I woke up, my eyes wet with tears. Doing my best not to jab my sleeping neighbours, I wiped them with my hand and tried to go back to my dream. The heat was unbearable; I was thirsty, my mouth felt like fur, my throat parched like a desert. I was bathed in sweat, sweat that could not evaporate, leaving me drenched in something that could not cool me off. I looked down at the ground, wishing I could sleep there. Even though all the "lucky" boys there had arms and legs crisscrossed around them, entangled in an unsightly human web due to the lack of space, I figured it must've been better, or at least cooler, than the shelves.
Can't sleep up here... What time is it? ... I'm tired, so tired... but yet I can't sleep! ... Maybe I should risk it and go sleep on the ground ... No, I can't, it's too crowded down there. And I'm not sleeping by the slop bucket.
The slop bucket. I had been holding it in for hours now, the urge getting bigger and bigger as the minutes passed. The heat was one thing, sleeplessness was one thing. Together, they were a bad enough combination already. Now I had one more thing to juggle...
Oh fine. I'll do it.
I slowly muscled my way over the edge, trying not to wake anybody in the process. I hauled myself over very gently, moving at a snail's pace. By the time I felt the ground with my toes, my arms were on fire, having held up my body weight for what seemed like forever. Tip-toe over the sleeping masses. And soon, I was at the slop bucket. It smelled the worst at night, as the bucket was only emptied in the mornings, leaving an entire day's worth of human excrement to rot overnight. I was over it now, the stench making me want to vomit.
Christ, this is harder than I thought.
I fumbled slightly before I was able to get it out and begin relieving myself. My back tingled, as if it were being watched by a million pairs of eyes. Even though the bucket was in the corner, I felt naked, exposed, like I was smack in the middle of the room. I swallowed, hoping to control myself. Get yourself together, I said to myself. You're almost done... almost done...
The trickling of water ceased. I pulled my shorts back up and dusted them off. Now to get back without anyone noticing. I began to retrace my steps, tip-toeing back to where I slept. Over a limb, over a head, over a hand. My movements were slow, almost stealthy, like that of a spy. Soon, my tedious bathroom trek was almost over. It had taken me well over forty minutes for a simple pee.
The light at the end of the tunnel drew me in, like gravity drawing in a falling aircraft to the ground. I took a step and landed on something soft yet firm, fleshy yet tough...
I looked down. I had just stepped on someone's stomach. His sharp exclamation of pain shattered the silence of the night, stirring everybody awake. The other boys had begun to turn their heads and eyes to look at me. Oh great, and I thought I was being watched before!
"Sorry," I whispered. "That was an accident."
The boy coughed. "It's fine." He tried to roll over to get into a more comfortable position, but his packed neighbours made it an impossibility. "Just... just let me sleep it off."
I climbed up the shelf, back to my own spot. I felt prying eyes staring at me from the darkness, like eyes in dark caves. I lay down and waited, waiting for everyone to go back to sleep. The heat was still unbearable, I was still thirsty, and I was sweating more than ever, but at least I had answered the call of nature. I put my head down and squeezed my eyelids shut, trying to go back home, to my family, to my brother.
The wind was blowing, ruffling through my hair, my shirt flapping in the breeze like a flag. The toxic smell of garbage was almost pleasant to me, as was the sunset blinding my eye. In the middle of that sun stood a small boy, his back turned towards me, looking into the distance across the ocean at a horizon filled with red.
"Evan!" I called out.
The boy turned around, his face still concealed by the glare of the setting sun. "...Garrett?" he said softly, so soft that I wasn't sure if he actually said it or not.
"Evan! It's me, it really is me!"
The boy began running, running towards me. His arms reached out in front of him as he rushed to touch, smell, embrace the one person he longed to see again. I started to run towards him, my own arms wide open, ready to receive him the moment we met. He leapt forward, and I braced for impact. But it never came. As my arms came together around his body, he simply disappeared. I tripped, falling face-first into the ground, where I met the earth with a dull thud.
My eyes flickered open. The earth was replaced with the wooden shelf, the setting sun a view of the prison cell I was in, the ocean the huddled mass of sleeping boys.
Just a dream... it was just a dream.
Just a dream.
I covered my eyes with my hands and allowed several tears to come out. Just a dream! And it hurt, knowing that it was only one. I only wanted one thing then — to be able to see my brother in person. All my thoughts were focused on him, couldn't think of anything else even if I tried. My brother was all that mattered to me; even my own life was second priority.
Whatever you're doing right now Evan, I hope you're thinking about me.
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 sighed. The idea seemed so absurd now that I thought about it.
The rice tasted bland in my mouth. The vegetables were discoloured, as if they had been left in the pot for too long. The pork was slightly undercooked in some parts, the red rawness of the meat clearly visible as I ate around it. But it was food, and it wasn't pagpag. I hadn't had anything to eat in almost sixteen hours.
"Everyone up," the guards said gruffly when most of us were finishing up. "Everyone up and out." They did an inattentive headcount of the masses as they vacated the cell, often missing the younger boys as their heads were buried and hidden behind the bodies of the taller ones around them. The last ones to leave the cell were a group of older boys. From what I had observed yesterday, they were the oldest, strongest, and most influential people in the cell. They dictated who could do this, who could do that, who got to sleep on the floor, who had to sleep on the shelves, and who got the slop bucket as their pillow.
"Let's go, you five!" the guard growled impatiently. "It's always you five that make every single bloody morning a living hell!"
The five were in no hurry to leave. "Have to eat my breakfast, sirs!" one of them said. "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, right?"
Five guards, one for each of them, were beginning to close in. "You sure have a load of attitude, Ferdinand, but we've had quite enough shit from you. From all of you." He removed a baton from his belt. "We've beaten the shit out of you and your faggot-kissing friends before, haven't we? Seems like none of you learned a thing from it."
"Whoa whoa, there, what'cha call me, sir?" He stood up. "I don't appreciate language like that, sir. Your mom didn't teach you to be a 'good little boy' when you were growing up?"
The guard stiffened, but the boy behind Ferdinand stood up. "Talk to me, bruh."
Ferdinand stepped aside. "Talk to my boss."
"Neither of you are bosses of any kind," the guard snarled. "When I'm around, I'm God. And I can keep you in this prison for as long as it takes for the five of you to grow up. Instead of being on the streets, you'll be in here. Yeah, we have lovely accomodations here, don't we? 'Bout as comfortable as the shithole slum you live in. Hope it reminds you of home."
The "boss" approached his nemesis. "You've got yourself a lovely hotel for us here," he said sarcastically, "but you sure ain't got no control over the guests that stay in it. Go ahead. Fight me. I'm used to it. You wanna be tough like me? Come and get it. I'll give you scars to match mine."
One of the guards exited the cell and headed towards us. "Let's go," he barked. "Your friends in there are going to be out of service this morning."
They led us off. Those who attempted to stay behind to watch the proceedings were forcefully dragged by the collar of their shirts. I did not see what was going to happen, but when I turned a corner, I thought I heard a baton cracking. The guards led us into the yard, a prison yard paved in its entirety with concrete and asphalt. The latter showed signs of aging, with weeds protruding from the crevices. The yard was divided down the middle by a sturdy, barbed wire fence; on one side stood all the older, adult inmates, on the other stood the younger ones. I was in the latter group, and though I saw no reason to talk to anybody on the other side, I didn't have anyone on my side either. The only person I wanted to see, to talk to, to feel the presence of beside me, was my brother. Even if we could exchange no words, I wanted to be able to see him, and him to see me.
"Garrett?" a voice barked.
I looked up.
"Garrett Garcia Alonto Tañag?"
That was my name. I stood up. "Here, sir."
The guard turned to look in my direction. He motioned for me to come over. "Someone wants to see you."
I followed. Who wants to see me? I didn't know anyone here yet, and I haven't done anything wrong in prison. At least, not yet. The guard led me out of the yard and back inside, the glow of the sun replaced by the sticky humidity that clung onto my skin, my clothes, my hair, and wouldn't go away.
"Who wants to see me?" I asked, somewhat timidly. The baton was clearly visible on the guard's belt. I eyed it nervously.
He didn't respond right away. "Someone important. Someone you know."
Someone I knew?
We came to a door. Before he opened it, he turned to me and said, "It's your mother. And your brother."
My eyes instantly lit up as soon as I heard that. My brother... I was going to see my brother! But that moment faded quickly, as I was faced with the grim reality of the situation I was in. I had promised him that I would come home, that I would not fail, and that I was doing it for him. What would he think, knowing that I was now in prison?
And my mother... oh no, my mother... She knew the secret now, for sure. She know knew what we had been hiding from her on the very last night I was home, that I had planned to run away from home in search of a better future. For myself? Or for my...
"Let's go," the guard said. He had the door open already. I walked in, heart in my throat, afraid of what I was about to see.
The room was quiet. Only two other inmates were in there, speaking with their visitors, minding their own business. Prisoners were segregated from the outside world by a wire mesh, small enough for fingers to get stuck within. The guard led me to a chair; seated across was my mother and my younger brother.
The guard pushed down on my shoulders, forcing me into the chair. "Five minutes," he barked. "Don't be obnoxious."
Slowly, I turned my head to look up. My mother had tears in her eyes, a face of anguish. "I'm... I'm sorry, ma-" I began.
"What has happened to you..." Her voice cracked over the last few words.
I swallowed a lump in my throat. "I... I did it f-for... for Evan. I... I wanted him to be able to, uh, go to school..."
My brother sniffled, and I could see a tear coming down his face. "I didn't mean for things to end this way... I just wanted him to not have to be a scavenger for the rest of his life. I did it for him, I really did. I wasn't looking to make myself rich... It's just... I couldn't bear seeing him in that landfill. I-"
"That's enough." My mother suddenly became stiff and cold. "That's the crummy excuse your father and your older brother gave to me, and look at where they went. Your father could be dead right now, Julio could be on the streets mugging people. I can't even fathom what you might be capable of doing in a few months' time!"
"Ma! I didn't want to do this... I just..."
"You've turned away from me, Garrett! Why would you just walk away and leave us behind? Your father and older brother both said they were going out to find money for the family, and they both instead found money for themselves. How am I supposed to know that this is going to be any different? You are even the first to get themselves imprisoned! If your father was ever arrested, I was never told anything about it."
"And now that you're here, I can only hope that prison will keep you out of trouble, keep you off the streets, keep you from going down that path. At least I know where you are at night." She jabbed my brother. "And I hope this teaches you a lesson as well! Now that you know where your brother is, I hope you won't have any intentions of joining him in there!"
My eyes slowly turned towards Evan. He had remained silent the whole time, watching me, observing my roughed-up appearance. I knew that he felt I had changed dramatically from the last time we saw each other; for better or for worse, I couldn't be sure.
"I'm... I'm sorry, Evan," I said softly, trying to reach out to him, halted by the wire mesh.
He placed his own hands on the mesh, trying to reach me. I felt the tips of his fingers, the only form of physical contact possible. "I'm sorry too, Garrett..."
I glanced over at my mother. Her face was buried in her hands, and she remained almost motionless. "What happened the day I left?" I asked my brother.
"Mother was quick to notice you were gone. At first, I told her that I didn't know where you went. She went around the neighbourhood, asking everyone if they had seen you. I had to go out on the hill on my own... I felt like crying! I had never felt so lonely and vulnerable in my life before. By the next day, my mother was sure that you had run away from home like father and Julio, and she was certain that I knew something about it. She made me confess, made me spill the beans. I told her about the conversation we had. I told her about your plans. I told her that you said you were doing it for me. At the end of it, I was crying, and I couldn't stop for hours. I felt like I had betrayed you, and myself. It's my fault, Garrett... I should never have told her anything."
"How did you find out that I got sent here?"
"A police officer came to our door. He gave mother a letter that said you had been arrested the night before. She immediately left the house and headed towards the prison, dragging me along. I was crying the whole way. I thought you had failed, that you would never come home."
"No," I said firmly. "No, I have not failed. I will come home, Evan, I promise I will. I will find a way."
"In here?" There was doubt in his voice. "I'm scared at the thought that you'll be here forever!"
"Stay positive, Evan, stay positive!" I was beginning to stiffen. "Don't stop thinking about me. Just think about the good times we spent together. Listen, I'll do whatever it takes for me to get back home. In the meantime, I need you to stay at home and take care of mother, okay?"
My mother broke out of her frozen state. She got up from her seat. "We're going, Evan. I've lost another son; I can't stand it in here any longer." She grabbed my brother's arm and began to drag him away.
"Ma! Mother!" I gripped the mesh, as if to rip it to shreds. "I'm not trying to be like Julio! I want to come home, I really do!"
She ignored me, continued to march onward like a soldier. My brother had stopped fighting with her grip, almost completely surrendering to her will. "I never break promises!" I shouted. "Don't lose hope in me!"
I got no verbal reply. The guard opened the door for my mother, who turned around and grabbed Evan's shirt with both hands for better leverage. The last I saw of my brother was a look of almost complete disbelief. Soon, the door closed behind them. It felt like the door to my own house, my own family, being slammed shut inches before my nose. I called for them over and over, begging for them to come back, but only succeeded in aggravating everyone else in the room.
The guard came over. "Huggy time's over," he growled mockingly, grabbing me roughly. "Come with me."
I did not fight him. Whatever strength I had left was gone. He pushed me along, my body as frail as a bag of bones, giving way to whichever way he chose to shove me. He opened the door to my cell and pushed me in. With a sharp flick of his wrist, he locked the door and strode off, almost eager to be done with me.
I climbed up to the spot where I slept and lay down. The scene of my mother's departure, my brother's face, the door closing behind them, kept replaying in my mind non-stop. My mother has left me... my brother has lost faith in me... the door to my own home has been closed.
I really am stuck here forever, aren't I?
I turned my body to face the wall, shielding my face with my arms and hands. Making sure not to allow the other boys to see me cry, I let loose all the tears that had been bottled up within me, like a volcano erupting after centuries of being dormant. The water took bits and bits of my vision away, blurring and distorting it with greater and greater intensity as time passed. Eventually, my sight disappeared, and all I could see was black.
A Talk with God
"Hey you!" a voice called out.
They must be referring to me, I thought.
"Yeah you! I'm talkin' to you!"
No... No, I don't want to talk to anyone.
"Get me some water, will ya?"
How hard is it for you to go and get it yourself? You're closer to the water jug than I am.
"I know you're ignoring me," the voice insisted. There was a brief pause, occupied with the sound of a fork scraping against a plate and food being shovelled into a mouth. "Don't make me come over there; I will if I have to, though!"
Just leave me alone... My mother has left me, and maybe my brother has too. I'm all alone in this world. I'm better off dead right now. Just let me die up here... please just let me die...
"I wasn't kidding, kid. Get me some damn water or I'll remind you who runs this place!"
At this point, I had no response. I covered my eyes with my arm, hoping to shut everything out, retreating to my inner depths, where nobody could reach me. My body felt like a castle, a bunker, for my soul to hide in. I felt like burying myself in my own body, becoming my own coffin, my own grave, my own resting place. Despite my best efforts, though, I couldn't block out the sound of a chair being pushed back as its occupant rose.
"You've got five seconds to get your ass movin' before I get there."
One. Two. Three. His footsteps grew louder and more menacing as I counted the seconds, perhaps the seconds towards my doom. Or at least, what he thought was a suitable punishment.
He was almost on to me now. I could almost smell his bodily odours as he neared, which reeked of a teenaged male that hadn't seen a shower in months, maybe years. I could also feel the heat, the glowing flames of his disgust towards me for snubbing him. In my right mind, I would've scrambled and gotten the hell away from there. I had no motivation to live, however, no desire for life. I simply lay there, waiting for him to come to me, like an executioner to his victim.
Two hands slammed down against the shelves, causing them to rattle and shake violently. "You deaf, dumb, and blind?" he said in a dangerously low tone. "I asked for water, not you havin' a doze."
The room grew silent. All the other boys had turned their heads to look. They all knew who the king of the cell was, and they became uneasy whenever he was fuming. Now, I had angered him, provoked him, almost begging him to unleash his whip, which the other boys were petrified of.
The boy snorted. "Must be mute as well. What, did your mother pull your tongue off? Is that why you can't speak?"
The shelves quivered slightly as the other boys on it shifted to add distance between themselves and the scene, which was building up with every passing second. I couldn't be bothered to care. I wanted nothing, I asked for nothing. I already lost everything except my physical life; maybe I should lose that too.
The two hands shot out and grabbed my shirt, lifting me up into the air. I was startled, but did little, if at all, to fight back.
"How bloody hard is it for you to pour me a fucking glass of water?" he barked into my face. "Five seconds of your life that you instead wasted for a catnap!"
I tried to speak, say something to defend myself, but my throat and my mind were empty, lacking any eligible words to speak. My body was also hollow, not even bothering to try and wriggle out of his grasp or to lash out and kick him in the chest, to try and stand up for itself.
"You are one sick, son of a whore," he said through his teeth. His right fist clenched, and with a powerful swing of his arm, sent it charging into my stomach. The pain was registered immediately, as was the air being knocked out of my lungs. A sharp cry of pain escaped my lips, which echoed through the entire cell, the prison, my head, my mind. I crumpled forward, taking the pain like a tree taking the blow of an axe to its trunk. I tried to breathe, but had no strength to draw any air in, only managing a few choking coughs. I tasted blood, creeping up from behind my mouth, thought I would cough it out, cough out blood.
His left hand, which still had my shirt, released me, dropping me to the cold, concrete floor. I curled up into the fetal position, trying to hold myself together, keep myself from falling apart. I coughed violently, several times, as liquid migrated to the opening of my mouth. I spat, trying to clear the passageways, and small amounts of blood came out, settling onto the floor beside my head. My breaths were nothing more than loud, fruitless wheezes as every breath took monstrous amounts of strength that I did not have. It would've been easier for me to just stop trying, stop trying to breathe, stop trying to live.
The boy came over and towered over my helpless body. "Shithole," he muttered as he put one foot on my head and rolled it over, hitting it against the shelves. He turned around and pointed to another boy. "You!" he barked, snapping his fingers. "Get me some water, will ya?"
After seeing what had happened to me, there was no argument or resistance. I heard him running as he fetched the jug of water and quickly filled his master's glass.
Several minutes passed. The atmosphere in the cell began to wind down. Conversation stirred up again, the boy who assaulted me resumed eating as if nothing had happened. No guards came rapping on the bars to see what was going on; as fights were such a common occurrence in the prison, none of them could be bothered.
I lay there, alone. Alone as I was despite the fact that there were many other boys around me. I placed my hands and arms up over my head to shield them from the abhorrent nature of the outside world. Being careful not to let the other boys, especially my attacker, see me cry, I bit down on my tongue and let the tears fall.
Another sleepless night. The sweltering heat and humidity did little to soothe the pain. My stomach was still throbbing, now also accompanied by the strong sensation of hunger. I was in so much pain, I couldn't eat. Heat, pain, hunger. Combined together, they made sleep an absolute impossibility, an insomnia that made nights feel endless and bodies restless.
I rolled over, or at least tried to, given the cramped conditions of the cell. The sleeping bodies of the two boys next to me were very close, so close that the tiniest movement could arouse them. A little more effort, and the boys would become dominoes, with the unlucky one on the end being rewarded with a drop to the ground, right onto the body of the boy under him. I moved very slowly, using no more energy than it takes to wiggle a toe or finger. After about half-an-hour, I was able to get from one side of my body to the other, facing the bars to the cell. I strained my eyes to get a good look, for I was afraid of moving my head. Bodies, sleeping bodies, stuffed into each other like sardines. Even those who were supposedly "privileged" enough to get the cool of the floor had to deal with limbs, hands, and feet in their faces, over their bodies, like a human knot. A few of them, who I presumed were siblings, had their arms around each other in a hug, sparing their neighbours a tiny bit of room. As a whole, it was a garbage dump, a dumping ground for children to be tossed in and forgotten.
I was tossed in. And I was forgotten...
No, you're not.
I looked around. Was the voice real? It certainly felt like it was. I scanned the cell, looking for the origin of the voice, but found no suitable candidates. Everyone was sleeping...
I have not forgotten about you. I have not forgotten about anybody in this prison. I have not forgotten about your family.
Who is it? My mind came across a number of possibilities as to whose voice this could be. Could it be... Could it be...
Go to the moonlight.
Light from the moon streamed through the bars of the cell and formed a small spotlight, illuminating the empty ground. Nobody slept there; the light was enough to drive any person foolish enough to try catching any shut-eye in the halo insane.
Very gingerly, slowly, I began to move my limbs. I quietly undid my sandals, as it was easier to move silently without any footwear on. I held onto the shelf tightly, carefully moving my legs out one at a time. When both were free, I gently lowered myself onto the ground and tip-toed over the sleeping bodies, towards the halo of white light. I stepped into the light, which illuminated my body with a white, snowy glow.
I tilted my head upward, towards the light. The moon stared back at me, its rough yet elegant beauty, its seas, ridges, and craters reminiscent of a grandmother's face. Surrounding the moon were stars. Countless stars, dotting and populating the night sky, with more of them appearing the longer I stood watching them. A band of white stretched across my field of view, looking like a lengthy river of spilled milk. Every dot, every single pixel of the view, had a star, a faraway star, its light having departed from its parent long before I was even born, going through empty regions of space before finally reaching earth, entering my eyes, telling me of its existence, an echo from a distant past.
I blinked. Wait... this isn't possible. The prison was located in the city, and in the city, all of these stars would not be visible. Too much light, too much of our own existence.
I brought you a sample of my creation, my beauty, my glory, the voice said. I am the one who created the moon, the stars, the universe that you see. I created the earth you are standing on right now. I created all the life, all the plants, the animals, from the smallest bacterium to the largest whale.
I was speechless. The view of the night sky still had my attention, which now had more stars than ever. In the corner of an eye, I could see a streak of bright light as it fell downward towards the earth.
A shooting star!
Above all, I made humans. We molded them after our own image. I made your ancestors, your successors, your parents, your siblings. I made everyone that is living in this world today, and everyone that once lived, and those who will live. I made you, and I made you with your perfections and imperfections, your strengths and your weaknesses, your curves and your angles. I made you with a purpose, a role, a goal in life, a life that I personally breathed into you. Humanity I made to be the pinnacle of creation, to be the stewards of everything I made. I made humanity to care for the universe I created, and I made humanity to care for each other, to look out for one another. I did this all with love, a love for the universe I created, a love that still burns today.
I put a hand up to my eye, rubbing away a tear that escaped. But why? I asked. If you made me, and if you love me, why would you let me get locked up in this prison? If you love everyone, why do you tolerate seeing your children rot with me in here?
I do not tolerate it. I cannot tolerate it. I am against sin. The voice was firm and unwavering. Humans let the Devil in to my universe by sinning against me. They cursed my name. They disregarded me. They tried to reject me. But I made humans to specifically require me, to need me, to crave me. I am their missing puzzle piece. I made it that way. Nothing completes the jigsaw better than me. And I have a plan, a plan to save my creation. All of it. Every one of my children matters to me. And that includes you. If I had to choose between saving the entire universe except you, and saving you only, I would save you. You are, after all, the pinnacle of my creation. You are more precious to me than all of the galaxies in the universe combined.
But if I really am more valuable than everything out there, how come I suffer?
Suffering is how I make you stronger. You may feel weak now, but I promise you, the trials I put you through will help you grow. I will show you your talents, your gifts, the treasures I gave you the moment you were conceived. I gave you these as a gift, with the intention that you will use them to serve me. It sounds like a bad deal, but I am the one who made you, after all. I know what's best for you, and I won't refuse you what truly makes you happy. You will find it if you follow my plans, the way to me that I had in mind for you long before you were born. I cannot promise that it will not hurt, and I will tell you that it is difficult. But the most important thing you must remember is that I will not abandon you. I will always be there, and if you open your eyes and watch carefully, you will see me.
My legs were beginning to give way like jelly. I got down on my knees, holding onto the bars for some support. What do you want me to do? Was imprisoning me part of your plan?
Yes. However, I did not put you into prison for you to rot. I put you here for two reasons: one, I put you in here to see the corruptness of the judicial system here, to see how my wandering sheep are, instead of being brought back to the herd, considered to be hopeless delinquents and are ignored by the people who should have been helping. And two, so I could show you what your family really needs.
What do they need? I wondered. I did all this because I believed my brother needed a future, an education, and my family needed money, a sense of hope and security. I left home to bring them that.
They do need that, the voice responded, in a gentler tone this time. However, when you ran from home, you left them poorer than ever. Your mother believes she had lost her middle-born child to sin, like she lost your older brother and your father. She is completely devastated, believing that you had been possessed and lured away from her. But your brother...
Yes! My brother! How is he doing? I wanted to know, badly.
Every night is very, very painful, both for him and for me. He cries every night, finding it impossible to rest in an empty room, knowing that you have been taken away from him. He misses you terribly, he wails for you whenever he gets the chance. I cannot bear having to watch him go through that, knowing how much he really loved you. I know you love him too, that you miss him as well.
My brother, Evan. I thought of him, thought about his face, his sweet smile, his laughter, his joyful and gay nature. It was a powerful wave of emotions, so powerful that I succumbed to it immediately. My posture collapsed and I came down to the floor, unable to stop crying.
I understand why you left home. You wanted to go out and work hard to help your brother and your family. You were willing to go to the extremes to ensure that they could be happy, so that they would be well fed and have a prosperous future. That is why your mother named you "Garrett"; it means "brave, hard, strong". You were brave, incredibly brave, for going this far, and your strong-willed determination to make life better for your mother and your brother has kept you from turning back. But money and education, as valuable as they are, are nowhere near as rich as the love you can offer them. The richest bachelor on earth is poor, in my eyes, when compared to your family, but only if you are there to support them. Your brother, especially; after your father and older brother left, he turned to you because it was the only male influence he had left. If he lost you forever, no amount of money or knowledge would ever make him as rich as he was when he had you.
I couldn't respond, even in my mind. Every bit of me had surrendered, like a picked rose that was losing its petals as the sun set and darkness arose, losing its beauty and strength as it died. I'm not brave, I thought. I'm not hard. I'm not strong. I've been drained, defeated. I'm finished.
Anything but. I know this because I made you, and I know you better than anybody else, including yourself. I know that you still have the bravery, the courage, the strength, the hardiness in you to carry on. You are only ten years old. You have a long life ahead of you, I know it. I know because I planned it out for you. Whenever you feel like the life in you is about to give out, talk to me. I will hear you.
I turned my head to look at the sky again. The moon and the stars were still there, shining brightly like an ocean of diamonds. Come home, the voice continued. Come home, for your family's sake. Families were designed to be together. Love is only meaningful if shared. You must choose now, Garrett — the choice is yours. You can continue doing what you've been doing, or you can go back. I appeared before your father and your older brother in this very fashion as well, and they both chose to keep going, keep moving away from the path I laid out for them. I will not stop you if you choose to leave me, but know that I will not be the only one saddened by your decision.
The moonlight illuminated my tears, which glistened like wet paint. The sight of the night sky again took my breath away, its beauty unrivaled, forever out there as a symbol, a token, of its creator. I will, I said. I will. For my little brother.
Friend In Me
"Form up!" the guard barked.
It was a tight squeeze, with everyone standing up and straight with the limited floor space. There were small boys sandwiched by their bigger, taller cellmates, shielded from the guard's field of vision. According to him, they didn't exist, for they practically disappeared, like a drop of water in an ocean, a fallen kernel in a massive cornfield.
The door was unlocked. "We can squeeze in one more." A boy, I assumed, was shoved inside, though I couldn't see him with the crowd of heads and bodies in the way. "Like I said, don't start anything that'll earn you a few more scars." Door closed, then locked. As soon as the guards were out of sight, the inmates stirred and returned to their original positions.
The boy had a scar on his left cheek, a large one that began at his ear, stretching across before stopping just short of the mouth. His hair was black, but the tips were dyed blonde. His face wielded a mask of resilience and steadfastness, yet appeared to be whipped and defeated, as if he had his wits beaten out of him. His figure was slim, his arms and legs having lost some of their muscle mass.
I found myself staring at him. I looked over to my right. The "newer" boys who stared at me when I was first thrown into the cell had their eyes fixed on the prison's newest resident as well. I directed my gaze back at him. He was seated on the wall, his knees up, his hands over his face, like what I had done on my first day. I remembered having tried to fight the tears, tried not to cry, especially not in front of everybody else, not wanting to look weak. He was doing that now, albeit with limited success.
Go. Talk to him.
I looked up, searching for the origin of the voice, but came back fruitless. Talk to him, the voice repeated.
What? Why? Nobody spoke to me when I first showed up.
I brought him here in this very cell for you to do something for me, the voice said. I brought him here so you could reveal me to him.
Huh? What was He trying to get me to do?
Do not be afraid — remember that I am with you. I love all my children; I want all of them to receive my grace. But they need to know about me first. Your mother showed me to you, which is why you were able to receive me. I need you to do that here — many here are unlit candles. I am the flame, the one who inhabits your candle right now. I do not go out when you use the candle to light an unlit one; instead, I spread and burn in both. I've chosen you to bring light into the dark lives of other people. I need you to help me save my children, my lost sheep.
I took a deep breath. Don't be afraid... The candle doesn't go out when you light another one... Save His lost sheep...
I got up and headed towards him. The boys who had been staring at the newcomer now had their eyes on me, as if surprised at what I was doing. If ignoring new cellmates was the status quo around here, I was breaking it. I knelt down behind him. "You alright?" I asked.
He looked at me through his fingers, an eye red from crying, but he didn't say anything. After a moment, his eyes disappeared behind his hands again.
Sit down next to him, the voice advised. Get down to his level. Above all, be patient. You are representing me, you are his first impression of me.
I sat down, resting my back against the wall, knees up, in a similar position to his. For a while, we sat quietly, letting the time pass by. For a while, I did not know what to say, wasn't sure what to do other than to sit and think. Above all, be patient. You are representing me, you are his first impression of me...
"I... well, I was here for trying to rob a jewellery store. I was doing it for a gang, one that offered me money and a roof to sleep under if I did as I was told. I entered the jewellery store with two other boys, but we got caught. I tried to get away, but got cornered in an alley by the police. The other two boys, I could see from the corner of my eye, they left me, abandoned me as they pressed me against the wall and handcuffed me. I tried to resist, but one of them hit me, hit me really hard. I've never felt such pain before in my life until yesterday."
The boy looked up sharply, his eyes wet from all the crying. "Leave me alone," he said. "Don't bother me."
I inhaled deeply, then exhaled. Off to a great start, I was. All I wanted was a chat and here I am getting told off.
Above all, be patient.
Several minutes passed. I could sense the tension in him beginning to deescalate, and decided to try again. "I came from a poor family, living by Smokey Mountain. Every day we had to go to that landfill and dig around the piles of trash, looking for something to resell. Sometimes we would find still-edible food in there, and we'd eat it and save some money. Sometimes we'd get sick if we didn't clean it properly, didn't cook it well enough. But if we didn't eat it, we'd starve."
"I don't need to hear your sappy stories!"
I looked up, as if to plead for help, beg for assistance. Don't leave him. Don't give up on him. He needs me.
I swallowed a lump in my throat. "I left home because of it, didn't want to condemn myself to a life of garbage-scrounging. I looked for a way to earn money, enough of it to bail my family out of the pit they lived in. I probably went down a path that I'd later regret taking." Inhale. Exhale. Then, "But I wasn't doing it for myself..."
The figure beside me grabbed my shirt and shook me violently. His eyes were beet red, anger having driven all the tears away. "I asked you to shut up and leave me alone! I've been through enough already, and now I'm here to rot in this place for who-knows-how-long! Why don't you just leave me to myself?"
I was frozen, motionless, a look of surprise on my face. Well, about as motionless as the figure's hands would let me be. His breathing was heavy like a dragon, ready to spew forth hell at any moment. He was like a bull ready to charge, a bomb ready to explode, a fire ready to flare. But the moment passed, and something within him caused the flames to wane, extinguishing them. The fury disappeared, his grip loosened, and he retreated back to himself, the tears coming back with greater intensity.
Was it something I said?
I remained absolutely still. I felt like I had struck a nerve there, touched upon something that disturbed him greatly, the visible ends of a string that led to something deep. I was afraid to probe further, didn't want to intrude, but the voice in my head again spoke, Share your own, and he'll be more comfortable sharing his. Let your burdens out, don't keep them in.
I sighed, but the voice reprimanded me for even considering getting up and leaving him on his own. You're not the only one here who could use some help. I brought you two together to give you both an opportunity to heal.
Trying again. "Hey... no hard feelings. I'm not trying to make you pity me; it's just easier if we just tell our... stories... and get this weight off our shoulders."
"Y-You can go t-t-talk to a wall."
"But a wall doesn't listen as well as a person does." I tried to relax, tried not to look like a paperclip. "I won't tell anyone else if you don't want me to."
He buried his face in his own shirt as the tears became too heavy and populous for his own hands to catch. I could see drops of water soaking through the fabric, and it was evident for everybody else in the room that he was crying, but he didn't seem to care. He seemed defeated, ready for his grave.
Like how I felt only yesterday...
"I left home for my brother's sake, my younger brother," I continued. "My father left home two years ago, hoping to find money for the family, but he got corrupted and never came home. He didn't send us anything, not even a sign that he was still alive. Without him, scavenging became more difficult, and me and my two brothers had to leave school to work on the mountain. It saddened me to leave school, and perhaps my older brother felt it as well. But it killed my younger brother — he was only four at the time. I hated seeing him on the mountain instead of at school, and he wanted to go back as well. But we couldn't afford it — the money we made was only barely enough to feed all of us.
"Then, a year ago, my older brother left home, again looking for money, though whether it was for the family or for himself, he seemed vague about. My mother feared the worst for an entire month until he came home, although for him, it was hardly home. He had a gold chain around his neck and several tattoos on his arm, and had been on the streets selling drugs. My mother was furious when she learned about this and threw him out, wouldn't accept a centavo from him. After that, he comes home only once in a while, though he never speaks to anyone. According to my mother, he doesn't exist.
"One evening, my brother asked me whether or not he could go to school again. I've said 'No' to this question many times before, but always felt guilty afterwards, for it always left him in tears. So that night, I promised him instead that I'd find a way to get him back to school, get him off the mountain, keep the food on the table, and that even if I couldn't, I would come home, no matter what. I left home two days later, hoping — praying — that I wouldn't go down the same path my father and older brother went down, a path that would alienate me from home. I had hoped that the thought of my younger brother would keep me on the path, keep me from falling. But who knows how successful that was? My father had completed disappeared off the face of the earth, my older brother could be anywhere in the city. As for me, I got arrested after trying to rob a jewellery store. I saw my companions flee the scene as the police handcuffed me. I feared the worst, that I may never be able to keep the promise I made to my younger brother, which is why I tried to fight. I was beaten, and then marched into prison with a gun behind my back.
"Just yesterday, my mother and younger brother visited me. I felt terrible seeing my brother behind the mesh; he must've thought that I had failed, that I wouldn't be able to make it home again. He was crying, and the sight mortified me. I realized that, when I left home, I made him poorer than he already was. I wanted to give him a future, give him an education, give him the richness he deserved. But he was already rich when he had me. He found peace at night because he knew I slept right next to him, within arm's reach. He found confidence when he was on the mountain because he knew I was never too far away to help him. He knew that, if he ever felt lonely, if he needed someone to talk to, someone to ask his questions or share his secrets with, he had me. Now that I'm gone, he spends every night all alone in his room. I wanted to make him rich, and in doing so, made him broke. I tried to remind him of my promise, the promise that I would come home, but he seemed to have lost his hope, his faith in me. I fear he has convinced himself that I would never be able to go home."
I glanced to my right. The boy had stopped moping in his shirt and had turned to look at me. He was gaping, tears still slowly coming out of his eyes. "What... What happened to him?" he asked, somewhat timidly, as if he were afraid of breaking me with his words.
"I don't know," I responded. "I hope he hasn't forgotten about me, hope he still believes I can come home, that I can still see him again. Until then, I know that every day and every night is an agony for him, knowing that his favourite person in the world is sitting behind bars. And every day and every night is an agony for me, knowing that I was the one who started this whole debacle."
"What about your brother's schooling?" He sat up, attentive, wanting to know more. He had stopped crying. "If you stayed home, what would your brother think?"
I didn't respond immediately. "I guess he'll be rich, but never knows it. Always thinking he's poor." It felt funny to say it, but: "I think getting separated is the best thing that's ever happened to the both of us."
"Huh?" The boy was confused. "But... But you just said that you regretted doing this!"
"I guess it makes sense when they say you can love and hate something at the same time." I closed my eyes, trying to picture my brother. "Suffering can bring us closer together. Pain makes us value comfort more. Hatred makes us value love more."
Now it was the boy's turn to be completely speechless. I could tell he was lost in thought, the way he focused his eyes on a spot, almost exactly like my brother when he was contemplating the hard questions in life. Finally, he said, "I'm... I'm sorry, I—"
"I don't need people to feel sorry for me," I responded in a somber tone. I wanted to say more, but I could feel the tears coming back, like they were always after me. I bit down hard on my tongue, and it hurt.
He shifted uncomfortably, as if he felt pressured to share his story now that I had shared mine. He played with his fingers absentmindedly, drumming them against each other, forming intricately random patterns. Finally, he said, "I guess we do share some similarities. None of this will make sense, however, unless I start from the beginning...
"It started when my younger brother was born. Like you, I was the middle child of the family. I had an older sister, two years older than me. When I was four, I was about to have a little sister, but she was stillborn, and my mother almost died. But she managed to recover, and when I was seven, she gave birth to my little brother. Things started going downhill from there.
"When my brother was about a month old, my father began to drink and smoke. He complained about how we were all a burden on him and that we were all staying at home instead of trying to find food for the family to eat, despite the fact that me and my sister had all dropped out of our studies to find work. My mother was still weak and shaken by her near-death experience, and found it difficult even to stay home and raise my brother. My father would often get into arguments with my mother, and it always ended with him leaving the slum we lived in and slamming the door. But he would always come back the next morning.
"This continued for several more years. When my brother was three, my father's drinking and smoking worsened, and he began to shove and hit us. He hit my mother, he hit my sister, he hit me. On more than one occasion he would try to hit my brother, blaming him for the whole ordeal, saying that he was the reason we were beginning to go hungry. My mother, who would normally retreat into a corner and whimper at the sight of his tantrums, would suddenly get violent and fought back with ferocity whenever my father approached my brother. Oftentimes my mother would ask me and my sister to take my brother out of the house, and all night my brother would be crying. Crying as he heard my parents continuing their fight.
"My brother's fourth birthday was the worst day of his life. I came home late one evening, exhausted after an entire day of work. I could hear my mother and my father fighting. The TV was on, and my sister explained that mother had hoped it would keep my brother occupied, keep his mind off what was going on. But my parents had gotten so loud and so violent, not even a cherry bomb could've attracted more attention. My father had a bottle, still half-full of liquor, in his left hand; with his right he would strike my mother whenever he felt was necessary, which was, for him, almost all the time. My mother wanted to leave him, take her belongings and us and move away from him. He was irate, and threatened to kill her if she left. But my mother was firm in her decision, and soon she had us ready to leave. My mother was about to set foot out the door when my father grabbed a bolo knife and raised it up in the air, ready to strike. My sister quickly got in front of mother to protect her, I quickly got in front of my sister. The knife sliced through the air, hitting my face like a bullet. I fell to the ground, feeling and tasting blood on my face. I had been cut across the left cheek; that explains the scar, which I still have today. I don't know if it will heal.
"My mother and my sister picked me up and started dragging me out of the house. My father followed, yelling at me, saying how foolish I was for getting in the way. He threw insults at my mother and my sister, the language was so foul I couldn't possibly say it out loud. With every word that spewed from his mouth, I got angrier. I began to clench my fists and teeth, my wound began to bleed faster, my mother pleading with me to turn around and run, to get away from my father. But I wouldn't listen, continued to let the fire burn in me, continued to try and stare my father down. Eventually, he said something about my brother, and I know you're curious to know what he said. I can't bear to say it, for it was so abominable and wicked... but I lost it then. Nobody should ever dare to say such a thing, not to anyone in my family, not even from my father. I broke free of my mother's and my sister's grasp and lashed out at him, but he was much too quick for me. He kicked me in the stomach, so hard that it knocked all the air out of my lungs. As I tried to catch my breath, he towered over my body and raised the knife in the air, and for a moment, I thought I was going to die, slain by my own father."
He paused to brush a tear from his eyes. I realized that I had been holding my breath the entire time, completely dumbfounded at what he had to say. "How did you get out of there? How did you... survive?"
"My brother began crying, the situation becoming too much for him to handle. It was so unsettling that my even my father looked up. While he was distracted, my mother and my sister rushed in and pulled me out of there. We ran off into the night, didn't stop running until we were a good distance away from him. We sought shelter in an alley when it began to rain. After I had coughed up blood and cleaned my wounds to the best of my abilities, I stayed up the entire night crying. I thought my life from now on was destined to be on the streets forever.
"Without the income my father provided, we needed to find a way to support ourselves entirely. Me and my sister took to stealing to get the food and money we needed to get by. Some days, we couldn't find half the things we needed, and we would often go hungry so my little brother could eat. My mother fought hard, but every day she grew weaker and weaker. One morning, she begged us to stay strong and to care for my brother. 'I can't go on,' I remember her saying. 'You two will need to be his parents.' A few minutes later, she fell silent. I put a finger under her nose. She had stopped breathing.
"Life became more difficult, especially for my brother. We often had to leave him alone so that we could find enough food during the day to eat. I began to take bigger risks in order to find more of what we needed. Sometimes, I got into fights with other people over food, often with boys my age, but sometimes with older, bigger people. I remember being cornered in an alley, a pineapple under my shirt as I tried to flee with it. I was knocked down and kicked repeatedly, over and over, until I gave up the fruit. I was sore, throbbing with pain in every inch of my body, but nothing hurt more than the thought that we spent an entire night without anything in our stomachs, an entire night of hunger that kept us awake. I felt it, my sister felt it. But my little brother felt it worst of all.
"Yesterday, I tried to rob a supermarket, a model gun in my hands. I was otherwise poorly prepared and could only carry so much of my loot with me. I hid in an old building, hoping to spend the night there until the police forgot about me. But someone in the building saw me and led the cops there. I tried to escape by jumping out the window, but one of the officers grabbed me and dragged me back inside. I fought them, wriggling out of their grasp, at one point trying to tackle one of them to get out. One of them took out their baton and hit me in the back. The pain was unbearable, so great to the point that it immobilized me. I was completely helpless when they dragged me out and brought me here. I bad-mouthed one of the guards who were tormenting me; that's why they were so angry at me when they locked me up in here. They told me that I was completely useless, and that the only place fit for me was prison. And that's that. That's why I'm here, my permanent home for me to rot in for the rest of my life."
He buried his face into his hands again. "You're lucky — you got to see what remained of your family again. I didn't. They probably don't even know I'm here."
I was silent as he began to sob. I felt a little guilty; after all, he had been through so much more than I have. My father, as much of a "demon" he was according to my mother, never raised a hand against any of us. He never hit us or yelled at us, save for the times I did something wrong. And I had left home despite the fact that we were still able to find food to eat, that we still had money and a roof to sleep under. He, on the other hand, had nothing. He had no choice but to steal in order to survive. He had been slashed with a knife, kicked and beaten on the streets until he was completely bruised, and he had done it all to save his own family, while I merely got clubbed and punched in the gut because of my own faults, my own ignorance.
I was unsure as to what to say or do. I felt like I was in no position to offer any condolences, my own story appearing petty before his. The most I could offer was: "I'm sure that, someday, you'll be able to go back to them."
The moment was shattered by a familiar, gruff barking: "Hey you! New kid!"
We both turned to the owner of the voice. It was the same boy who had attacked me yesterday. "Get me some water, will ya?"
The figure beside me rose to his feet. "Go get it yourself, buttcheeks! You're closer to the water container than I am!"
The king of the cell pretended to be surprised. He got up and flexed his arm muscles, revealing well-toned, well developed biceps and triceps. "Do I need to explain myself any further?"
"Yeah, you very well need to! Who made you the lazy, heartless despot that you are right now?"
"What'd you just call me?" The voice was dangerously soft and low.
"What part of my comment did you not understand? The 'lazy', the 'heartless', or the 'despot'?"
The cell fell silent. Everyone, except maybe the new kid, knew exactly what was going to happen. They stopped and stared, and very gingerly, tried to distance themselves from the debacle.
The king began marching over to where we stood. "Make up your mind, kid," he snarled.
I felt like slinking back as he approached. He was taller and bigger than both of us, and his attitude was red hot like a furnace. Anyone who was smart enough would've turned on their heels and run away. Yesterday I submissively accepted my reward from him, like a deer staring into oncoming headlights, waiting to be run over. The boy I had been chatting with, though, puffed up his own chest, trying to make himself look bigger. I saw him clenching his hands into fists. He looked completely unafraid at the hulk in front of him. It was like David versus Goliath, but I was almost certain that Goliath would win this round.
"I asked for a glass of water, not a sample of your sass."
"You want a glass of water? Go pour it yourself. I'm not your mother."
"You're not my mother. But I am the one who runs this place."
"And who made you king here?"
"I disagree with your half-assed reign."
"And I disagree with your bloody face!"
The arm stiffened. I quickly shot out and grabbed it before it could strike anything. "This is a bad idea; just pour him the glass of water."
The boy turned around to give me a queer look and said, "Are you crazy?! I'm not kissing this guy's feet!"
"Just do it!" I insisted. "Remember what I said about having felt extreme pain yesterday? That was because I refused to pour him a glass of water, and he punched me in the gut for it."
The boy didn't respond. I could tell he was still fuming, fire still burning inside of him. "Do as he asks," I said. "It's easier to just follow through than it is to fight."
His breathing was deep, as deep as a bull about to charge. He glared at his Goliath, then back at me. "Please," I begged. "Let it go, let it go..."
Giving Goliath one last glance, he strode off towards the plastic container of water in the corner. He wouldn't look at his would-be assailant in the eye, unscrewing the lid, filling the cup, replacing the lid and the container. Goliath smiled smugly to himself, and without another word, resumed what he was doing beforehand.
The atmosphere relaxed. When things had mostly returned to normal, the boy leaned over and whispered, "That guy's a serious dick."
"Just because he's a dick doesn't mean you have to be one. I learned that the hard way."
The boy ran his hands through his hair. "I just don't want anyone to see me as weak or 'soft'. I'm not weak! I'm not soft! I ran in front of a knife, for hell's sake! I'm strong... I tell myself that I am strong."
Brave. Strong. Hard. The words echoed through my mind as I thought of last night. Brave. Strong. Hard.
"My name means 'brave, strong, hard'. My mother named for that reason. And in some ways... I am."
"What's your name, by the way?"
"Garrett," I responded. I extended my hand for a handshake. "Brave, strong, and hardy Garrett."
"At birth my parents called me Richard, but everyone calls me Ricky now." He shook my hand. "Garrett... sounds like a tough name."
I'm not tough. I'm a miserable wreck. I was a coward and a fool and an idiot. I don't deserve the name "Garrett". I don't deserve what I've been given. These compliments are just a bunch of...
"Yeah," I said, trying to smile, smile my thoughts away. "I guess I am tough. And so are you."
The wind was blowing, ruffling through my hair, my shirt flapping in the breeze like a flag. The toxic smell of garbage was almost pleasant to me, as was the sunset blinding my eye. In the middle of that sun stood a small boy, his back turned towards me, looking into the distance across the ocean at a horizon filled with red.
"Evan!" I called out.
The boy turned around, his face still concealed by the glare of the setting sun. "...Garrett?" he said softly, so soft that I wasn't sure if he actually said it or not.
"Evan! It's me, it really is me!"
The boy began running, running towards me. His arms reached out in front of him as he rushed to touch, smell, embrace the one person he longed to see again. I started to run towards him, but as we neared, the gap between us became more and more profound. He was just barely out of reach, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't close the distance, couldn't reach whatever was in front of me, as if invisible hands were holding me back. I was running, moving, but not going anywhere, like a runner on a treadmill at full speed. No, I thought, not this again!
I took a flying leap and tried to cross No Man's Land, tried to break free of my restraints and bridge the gap. The ground met my face, the boy seemingly vanished into thin air. It hit me with a slap in the face, and with it, I opened my eyes in shock.
I looked around. The ground had receded away from me, leaving my head dangling precariously above a significant drop. Below me were the legs of three sleeping bodies, none of them matching the description of the boy I saw just moments earlier. And speaking of bodies, my own...
I gripped the shelf and hauled myself backwards. Soon, I was back on the right side of the edge, a solid surface for my head to rest upon. The two boys next to me were still sleeping. Surprisingly I had failed to arouse them.
It was that dream. Again. I had it again.
I stretched my legs and tried to go back to sleep. Sleep evaded me, wouldn't let me catch on to it. I couldn't toss and turn due to the cramped nature of the room. Too many sleeping bodies, too much heat, too little comfort.
Too many thoughts.
I tried to roll over and accidentally kicked Ricky, who was sleeping beside me, in the back. "Sorry," I whispered, "I didn't mean to."
"That's fine," he responded in a groggy voice. "I can't sleep either."
There was a quiet shuffle. I looked up to see a small boy on the opposite side of the room, making his way over the pile of bodies towards the slop bucket. He misstepped and set foot on someone's arm. There was a sharp "Ouch!" which cut through the night air like a knife, jolting everybody awake.
"It's too hot up here," Ricky continued. "Too crowded, too packed, too compact. Can't move around, can't turn my head, can't even get out. I feel like I'm suffocating in an open box."
I rubbed my eyes, trying to clear the image of my brother in my eyes. So close, yet so far. It hurt knowing that it was a dream, a painful dream even though I always longed to see him.
He tiled his head slightly, as if he were trying to look at me. "You ever get used to this?" he asked.
"I've only been here for a few days. I don't think I'll get used to this even if I lived here for a year."
He sighed. I felt like I had just shot him with my words. "And years I'll probably be in here for."
The moon emerged from a fleet of passing clouds in the sky, again casting a ghostly white halo in one corner of the room. It was again empty tonight, an island of peace and emptiness in an ocean of rejects. I wonder...
He sat up, or at least, tried to. "Screw it. I can't sleep tonight."
My eyes were still fixated on the moonlight. Do it, a voice said. He needs time to accept me. Better sooner than later.
"Let's go for a little walk, shall we?" I said. "We won't go too far."
"I see what you did there."
We climbed down, taking great care not to step on anybody. There was a great deal of squirming and fidgeting below us as the boys all tried to go back to sleep unsuccessfully after the uninvited wake-up call. A couple of times I came close to losing my balance, but was able to get across without falling on top of anyone. Finally, we came to the little halo, the unspoken, indescribable "sacred corner" of the room.
"I wonder why nobody sleeps here."
I turned to look at him. "Who can sleep with the moon staring you down with its light?"
I directed my vision upward. There was the moon, its age-old beauty lighting up the night sky with a soft glow. Around it shone thousands upon thousands of stars, like little pearls in the ceiling. It was a mesmerizing display that took my breath away. I stared, watching the universe in silence.
Ricky followed my gaze. "Whoa," he whispered. "I've never seen the night sky like this before..."
I am the one who created the moon, the stars, the universe that you see, the voice echoed through my mind.
"It's... it's really beautiful," he continued. "A bit spooky too, in a good way."
"It is beautiful," I responded. I sat down, cross-legged, still looking up. "I've always wondered what the most beautiful thing out there was. I look up at the night sky and find great beauty in the heavens."
Ricky was silent. He had sat down as well, allowing the light of the universe to take him.
"The night sky is beautiful. There's no doubt about it. It's better than anything humans have ever built. But it's not the most beautiful thing out there. I think... the most beautiful thing in existence is not the stars, but whoever made those stars."
He did not reply. His breathing was deep and heavy, interrupted only occasionally by him swallowing.
"When I was four, shortly after my younger brother was born, my mother took me to church. They taught me about someone named God who created everything — you, me, this universe. They taught me how the first people God created disobeyed and turned their backs on Him, creating all the misery in the world. They taught me that, in order to solve the problem, He had to find someone to dish the punishment for sin — death — on. He decided to take that punishment on Himself, went down to earth in the form of Jesus, knowing that He would eventually be killed. And He was. He did it for us, so we wouldn't have to die ourselves. I guess I never took the story seriously until my father left."
Ricky turned his head to look at me. "What did you do?"
"When my parents were arguing, I huddled in my bed, hoping for it to end. I prayed to Jesus... the first prayer I ever took seriously. It wasn't like saying Grace before meals, nor was it the bedtime prayers my mother sometimes made me say. For once I said it with conviction, with sincerity. And funny enough, I didn't ask for anything corny, like for Him to walk through the door to fix everything. I didn't ask for money to bring us out of poverty. I didn't even ask for Him to get my parents to stop arguing."
"What did you ask for?" He sat up straight. "Wouldn't you ask for any of those things?"
"I instead asked Him to talk to me. I asked Him to explain to me why my father wanted to leave. Above all else, I asked Him to help me discover myself, to find my purpose in life." I swallowed. "And yesterday, He did just that. He answered my prayer."
Ricky was rigid. I had his full attention now. "But... how?"
"In the same way that we're looking at the night sky now. Funny enough... I almost forgot I said that prayer. It would never have crossed my mind again. But He remembered." I looked up at the sky again. "Shouldn't it be impossible to see those stars? We're in the middle of the city right now. We shouldn't be able to see stars at night. But somehow, we are."
He looked up again. "I don't see how this has anything to do with you — or me."
"What needs to be done to prove to you that God exists?" I asked. "You can say it's all just an illusion, something that you trick yourself into believing. Or you can really believe that God exists. But believing existence is one thing. Believing in all the stories, the promises, the gifts... that's something different."
He brought his legs closer to himself. "I think I heard something about it. Not an awful lot, but I did hear things like... crucifixion. Turning water into wine. Feeding five thousand."
"What did you think of it?"
He shrugged. "I thought it was just a fairy tale."
Not unusual. After all, who would seriously believe that at first sight? "I guess you can argue and debate about those stories. But not when you put it upon yourself, when you slip on those shoes and try to apply the concept of God in your own life."
"I guess." He was silent for several minutes. "You mentioned 'God' speaking to you yesterday, right? What did he tell you?"
"He told me a lot of the things I told you. He told me about my brother and the close, indestructible relationship we had. He told me about the meaning of my name. He told me how I was made to be brave and strong, and how I lived up to the name. He told me about how he had appeared before my father and my older brother, and how they both rejected Him. He pleaded with me, something I would never have expected from someone who claims to be the ultimate creator and ruler of the universe. He begged me to come home and mend the heartache I caused for my mother and my younger brother. And... He told me a bit about what to expect in my future."
"He only said that I would go through pain and challenges. My life wouldn't be easy, and He knew because He personally planned it out for me. But I won't do it alone; He told me that He was always listening to me. All I had to do was talk to Him."
"So, essentially, he's planned for you to suffer?" He almost scoffed. "That sounds noble."
"He also told me that it would all be for the better," I said. "He said that I already had gone through some of his trials — by being locked up in this prison. If I hadn't gotten locked up, if I had just gone on with my criminal ways, I would never have realized the bombshell I had dropped on my family. Now, more than ever, I want to go home. I want to apologize to my mother. Above all, I want to apologize to my brother. I didn't mean to hurt him in the way I did.
"It was also part of His plan that made me come to you. I could've easily just left you in that corner on your own, but He scolded me for thinking about doing that. The ice was thick, and I know you let your anger flare at me. I think most people would've left after that. But I persisted. I didn't give in because I knew someone was watching, and He planned for us to come together. I'm glad we did. I guess His plans are nicer than they seem; I think Him knowing everything helps with being able to see things we can't."
He put a hand on my shoulder. "Whatever you believe in," he said, "thanks for putting up with me. I do get violent sometimes."
We were quiet for several minutes. Behind us, most of the other boys had caught up with sleep and were dozing again. The night sky continued to appeal to me as I absorbed as much of the glory as I could. Finally, I said, "There is one thing God does want us to do, and if we do it, He promises us something we can't get on our own wit."
"What is it?"
I drew in some air to calm my tingling nerves down. "He says that, if we believe that Jesus is our One and Only Savior, that He really did die on the cross for our sins and that He rose from the dead, and that it isn't all just a fairy tale, He promises us salvation. When we die, we get to go to heaven with Him."
"And that's it? A small fee for a big ticket?"
I nodded. "But it's the thought and belief that counts. You really have to believe, you can't just move your lips and say it. And it's the only way to get it, this gift, this promise. That's the hard part — accepting that fact."
He didn't respond. He was drumming his fingers together, his eyes focused on a spot in the wall. He reminded me of Evan, the way he sat and pondered. After what seemed like forever, he said simply, "I'll have to sleep on this."
"But I thought you said you couldn't sleep."
He gave me a playful shove. "Seriously? Shut up." He looked around. "I'm gonna try and sleep here in the coolness of the floor. Care to join?"
The moonlight bore through my closed eyelids, making sleep an impossibility. It was like trying to sleep with a spotlight pointed at your face. I cracked my eyes open to catch another glimpse of the stars. I smiled. You keep me up all night, but I'll never tire of this. Then I closed my eyes and tried fruitlessly to sleep.
Diving Deep, Deeper
"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 themselves invented. Laughing. Joking. Occasionally, Julio would get caught cheating, and father 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, 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, my father 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. 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 bowl 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 to 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 coughed. "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 would make 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, the 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-I would run over to him. I would hug him, kiss him, and whisper into his ear that I love him. 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 own 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 to each other, as fast as our legs can carry us, but we never meet. He always vanishes into thin air, as if he 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 reached out with my hand, 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, his expression, 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 are 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. Long 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. What sort of a meaningless goal is that: to send someone back to school? 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 air. They're the reason I find motivation in living, because I know if I die, I've abandoned what little I have left. I know that, instead of holding on, I've 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 shoulder. "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, only to sit and contemplate about the time we were wasting, the lives we were losing, the childhood that was 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 activities 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 too that I had Ricky. We were getting more and more comfortable with each other, the more we found 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, 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 towards 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 with me. Until 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 remembered him entering my 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 had I 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.
"We've been close together ever since that day. 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; 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 want to just be with him again," Ricky said after a long pause.
"Yeah." I brushed against 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 could 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 supermarket. 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 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 the 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 just told 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."
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, drilling holes into a spot on the wall with his eyes.
"Within a month, he had begun hitting us, the two of us. 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 over, 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 that I felt in that very moment. The thing that hurt most was knowing my father 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.
"I wish he came home," I thought out loud.
Ricky turned. "Who?"
"He might think I'm too old for piggyback rides, but at least he's 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 the 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, but not long after my father 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 revealed my face again. "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 you two 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."
A Rough Encounter
"Well well, looks like the two freshies have become friends with each other, haven't they?"
I looked up. Our conversation had been interrupted by none other than Goliath himself. This time, he brought some of the other boys with him. A few were short but squarely built, boasting arm muscles that put even Goliath's to shame. Some few were tall, like basketball players, towering over and intimidating all the younger inmates. Most were about a head taller than me, their shirts off to reveal any tattoos or battle scars they had. All of them had rough faces that, no doubt, were used to scare children into doing what they wanted done. I've seen people of the like before. Can't think of anyone who lived on the streets before to not have encountered such people at least once in their lifetime.
"Got a problem with that?" Ricky asked. He began to stiffen again, like he did when he got angry. I jabbed him with my elbow to try and communicate my message, but he wasn't getting it.
Goliath scoffed. "You think we were going to just ask you for water and leave it at that?" He looked at his cronies. "We saw you chilling together, chatting and crying. Must be some sad storytelling, hmm?"
"Emotional," one of the boys mocked.
"Yeah, go and cry like a bitch would when she's clearly asking for more." A few of them began to mock our tears, wailing: "It hurts! It hurts!" A fake tear. "Uhhhhh......."
Ricky got up. We were up on the shelves, so he managed to make himself the tallest head in the cell. "Who are you to judge?" he seethed. "You don't know what we've been through. If anyone has to hear what we have to say, don't you think they'll naturally get a bit emotional? I've got a brother and a sister to take care of, and I've starved myself so they could be fed. We've been trying, fighting, to find a way out, while all you do is rove and sniff Rugby. You don't know what it's really like out there, for while we're all down here, you're high up there. You'll fall, maybe not today, but definitely someday, and you'll fall so far and land so hard back into reality you'll regret everything you've done to avoid your problems. You'll regret this very day that you got together to try and sucker me into being your slave for the rest of my life!"
His speech, meant to intimidate our oppressors, unfortunately failed to do its job. Instead, the boys laughed.
"Hoo, he's talking now! I thought you were mute at first."
Goliath smiled smugly to himself. He approached my friend — my brave, perhaps a little bit incautious, friend — and pretended to be scared at his new height. "Your mother sure gave you a big mouth. Too bad she couldn't give you a bigger brain." He cracked his knuckles. "So, you say you're hardened enough to run this place, huh? Sure, we'll step aside if you want to get high so badly." He looked around. "You'll just have to bring us all down."
"Yeah, Big Mouth. You have big muscles?"
"He's got a thick skull. Too bad it won't save him from a fist."
"Fist? Just look at the scar on his face! What, you've been hit with a bolo or something?"
"I have," he said quietly. "My own father gave it to me."
"For what?" a tall boy sneered. "You got caught fucking with his bitch?"
Ricky's breathing was heavy. It was the same "charging bull" breathing he usually had when he was angry and ready to fight. I poked him. "This is a really, really bad idea..."
"Giving in is worse," he responded.
"This is crazy! We may as well think of a way to get out of here instead of picking fights with the other boys."
"It'll take a miracle for that to happen... I'm not about to let these people kick us around after everything we've been through."
Goliath had begun removing his shirt. Sprawled across his chest was a tattoo of a Chinese dragon, its mouth open, spewing forth a flurry of flame. Under the tattoo, slightly obscured by his abdominal muscles, was a light reddish burn scar. "You think I don't know what you've been through?" He pointed to the scar. "When I was seven my drug-addicted father ran a hot poker into my stomach. Hurt like hell. You think that scar on your face makes me cry for you?" He laughed. "You've hardly scratched the surface."
The rest of the gang had also begun preparing for a brawl. Many were following their leader's example, removing their shirts to reveal whatever they had underneath. Others were simply drawing up, making themselves look bigger and tougher than they originally were. No... all of them were already bigger and stronger and tougher and older than us. I felt like burying myself in my own body again. Two weak, frightened boys versus six strong, robust teenagers. Well, I was frightened.
"You're a cockroach compared to us," Goliath said mockingly.
"I'm a small being with a big soul," Ricky responded unwaveringly.
"And a big ego."
"You're the one with the ego here."
"That doesn't make you any more of a saint as standing in a garage makes you a car, kid."
"I'm not just defending myself. I'm fighting for my sister and my brother. I'm fighting for my deceased mother. I'm fighting for my friend and his own fragmented family." He looked around. "I'm fighting for everyone else in here, all the people you find contentment in making the lives of a living hell. I do what I feel is right, and that's why I stole in order to feed my four year old brother. Even that wasn't enough sometimes, and I starved myself so he could eat." The cell became quiet. Even the thugs seemed to have hit the pause button. "I've been cut, beaten, and rejected, but that hasn't stopped me. I'll keep going until the day I drop dead bleeding."
"Then we'll make that day today!" Goliath snapped.
Ricky shoved him back. The bully was so surprised at his ferocity that he even stepped back, but not for long. "I won't let that day be today, or anytime soon," Ricky said. "You might leave me bruised and abused at the end of the day, but it'll take strength you don't have to get me to call it quits. I may not win, but I won't lose."
Goliath raised his fist, but Ricky managed to duck and dodged the attack in time. He swung back, but the hulk grabbed his wrist, halting the punch. He could have simply broken the wrist right there, but he, perhaps seeking a harder, more gratifying battle, pushed his opponent back instead. Ricky fell, but immediately got back up.
I had enough. I tried to drag my friend out of there by the shoulders. "This is way too dangerous, Ricky. Let's end this before anyone loses an eyeball."
"Stay out of this Garrett, or you'll get hurt." He didn't even look at me.
"Me? Getting hurt? Look at what you're getting into! Imagine what sort of damage these guys can do."
He turned his head, pointing to the scar on his face. "Pain? Damage? I've been through worse."
"You gonna fight for your new friend, kid?" one of the boys asked.
I hesitated. I didn't want to jump head-first into a situation I knew I couldn't win in, but at the same time I did not want to abandon my close friend.
"I won't complain if you don't fight," Ricky said, reading my mind. "In fact, it's better if you don't fight at all."
"It's best if we all just dropped the fight."
I felt like I had just talked to a wall. Goliath landed a punch on Ricky's jaw; he retaliated by going straight for the neck. The two engaged in a tight clinch, but try as he might, my friend couldn't overpower his opponent. Goliath took him down, letting his head hit the ground with a dull thud. He crouched over him and began punching Ricky's head, over and over non-stop. Ricky brought up his hands to defend himself, with limited success.
"That's enough," I said.
Ricky kicked desperately and tried to slither out. He created some distance between Goliath, but the other boys got to him before he had a chance to stand up. Each of them took turns kicking their victim, who had curled up into a protective ball to shield himself from the blows.
I intervened again. "Leave him alone; you've taught him his lesson already." I dove in and grabbed Ricky by the shoulders. "Let's get out of here."
He brushed me off. "I-I'm fine."
"No you're not..."
Goliath came over and pushed me aside to gain access to Ricky. "You're fine? Well so am I." He grabbed him by the shirt and hauled him upright. "By the time we're done with you, your abs will be so strong you can do a sit-up while hanging upside-down." He curled his hand up into a fist and rammed it into his stomach. Goliath turned his head to look at me. "Remember this? This is how you looked!"
I watched Ricky suffer, a sickening feeling in my stomach. He had doubled over and was struggling with each breath. He was coughing violently, and I knew that he would soon cough out blood, like I had. Whatever hope or idea he had of standing up against his aggressors was now gone; he had stopped fighting. That's probably how the police got him after they whipped him with the baton, I thought.
Goliath grabbed his victim's face and forcefully turned it to look at him. "Consider me impressed," he whispered in a dangerous tone. "You're the first person in this cell to have stood up against us with such fury. You're pitiful, but you do try." He shook Ricky vigorously. "Hope you enjoy your stay here, because we're going to make your life in here an absolute living hell. Just so you remember who's in charge here!"
He relaxed, but did not let go. He signalled to his cronies. "Jack this motherfucker up. Jack 'im up till he's too weak to wiggle his pinky." He released the boy and backed away, letting his friends do the rest.
They crowded around him, forming a palisade that obstructed the view from the outside.
"Jack 'im up!"
"Yeah, screw 'im over!"
"Let's just do somethin' with 'im already, aright?"
The sickening sound of fist and foot meeting flesh. All the other boys who hadn't already done so shielded their eyes, unable to take in what was going on. I should have done so too, but for some reason I watched on. The attackers continued their assault, stooping down briefly to pick up their victim, who I presumed had slid down to the ground in pain. The longer I witnessed the scene, the angrier I felt. I was surprised to find myself clenching my fists in rage. Normally, I would've bolted and hid in a corner until it was all over, unless my brother was the one being attacked.
He's not your brother...
But I saw a part of myself in there, inside that palisade, being kicked and spat on repeatedly. He ran in front of a knife, went great lengths to find food for his starving brother, and befriended me in prison, and this was his ultimate reward. To say he didn't deserve it was an understatement; it completely disregarded what he did do. Prison was bad enough. What do these boys know about him? Had they ever stopped and wondered what it would be like to walk in his shoes for a day? Would they still bully him the way they were now if they did?
God, why do you let this happen?!?!
I rushed forward, pushing and forcing my way through the human wall. I got to Ricky, who was bruised and bleeding, and threw his arm over my shoulder. "Enough is enough — we're getting out of here."
He didn't even fight me. The boys were jeering and hurling insults at us. "You couldn't have been serious in willingly getting into this kind of trouble," I said to him.
"I've been through worse," he rasped. "Nothing hurts more than being rejected by your own parent. These boys can't possibly top that. No physical pain in the world can match the pain I felt the day I left home!"
"Good riddance," Goliath shouted out to me. "Remind that pest not to get on my nerves again, and I won't hit 'im. I'll just scare him into doing what I want done."
To my surprise, the battered body in my arms stiffened. Again! I quickly cupped my hand over Ricky's mouth and nodded to the bullies, who weren't too eager to let the flames die down. "I'll keep him out of trouble."
Goliath smiled smugly as he descended from his comfortable perch on the shelves. After a while, the other bullies took their attention off us as well. Soon, the tension began to wind down as everyone else let out the breaths they had been holding, almost glad that it was all over.
I turned to Ricky. "Don't be ridiculous. It's the small things that add up and hurt the most. Just because they're all less painful comparatively with your father doesn't mean you can just let it happen to you. Even if I walked through the fiery depths of hell, I still don't want to have to go through the hells of earth, even if they're nothing compared to what's down there. You can't keep doing this to yourself. I know you're trying to be strong, but this is making you weak!"
He shook his head. "I'm doing this because of my brother and my sister. I wouldn't let myself get hurt if I was the only one in the equation. But... nobody touches those two. Nobody!! They're all I have left. Those bullies can have the two for their own pleasure over my dead body. I'll show them that it'll take a lot more than that if they want me to back down."
"Your brother and sister aren't here right now," I seethed. "And even if they were, would you really still do this? What would your brother and your sister think if they saw you getting kicked, beaten, and tortured in here? You can't protect someone from pain by causing them more pain. I know you wouldn't hesitate to jump off a cliff to save your family, but getting roughed up in here isn't going to help them if they're being held at gunpoint right now. You suffered a knife blow for a reason; if you hadn't gotten in front of that knife, your mother or your sister could be dead right now. They're not going to die if they only get insulted in here."
He tried to speak, but he gave way to his own emotions, and he burst into tears. I relaxed myself and helped him down, using the wall for support. He continued to cry, his loud sobs clearly audible from around the cell. I knew the bullies could hear; I fought the temptation to look at them. I didn't want to see their facial expressions. My friend's crying took me back to the last night I spent with my brother. He had thrown his arms around me and emptied buckets of tears into my chest. I had bored down on my teeth and tongue to keep from crying, as I tried to appear strong to him, let him know that I could do it, that I was tough enough to make this difficult decision.
I'll come home to you alive...
I bit down hard on my tongue, so hard I tasted blood. Oh, stop reminding me about all these things! But his crying kept bringing those awful memories back, over and over again. I looked at him and for a moment thought I was seeing my brother, wishing from the bottom of his heart that I would come home, and how I wished I could put my arms around him and make it all okay.
My arm was still around Ricky's shoulder as night fell. His face was still buried in his hands, but it appeared that he had stopped crying. I had remained silent the entire time, picturing my mother and my younger brother in my head, trying to insert myself into the photograph. To be there with them.... to be there for them.
Finally, he moved. "I-I'm... I'm sorry..." he began.
"There is nothing to be sorry about."
"I wasted your time and ignored your advice," he said. "I-I know... you were just trying to be a good friend and all, but at the end it's really, really my fault." He sniffled. "Shouldn't have fought when I couldn't win, shouldn't have shouted back when I was insulted. I really should have just let it go and backed off... But I don't like being considered weak. I'm not weak, because I'm strong."
"You are strong," I responded. "I mean, what you did was a bit foolish, I'll admit... But it was daring of you to do so."
"But I've been far too weak recently," he said in a muffled voice. "I've cried too much... can't stop crying. My father said crying was for the weak, and even my mother told me that boys shouldn't cry. But..."
I tapped him on the shoulder. "Too weak?" I almost scoffed, but got serious again when I let my own words sink in. "You've... been through a lot already. Nobody should have to endure your pain, especially not someone your age. I think you're qualified to cry."
"Neither should my siblings. Or my mother."
"They have reason to cry. You're no exception; you're human just like them."
There was a long pause. "I just want to be able to see them again," he said softly.
"So do I."
He brushed his hand roughly across his eyes. "It's unmanly to cry."
"I see where you're going."
"I know what I've been through and all, but it still seems so... feminine to cry. The strong shed no tears."
"You think they don't... but didn't Jesus cry?"
He looked at me. "He did?"
"Why would he?"
Good question. "I... I think He cried because He got rejected by His own people, the people He was trying to save. He came to earth to save the people He created, and nobody would believe Him. He knew it was going to happen; He knew He was going to die. But He still couldn't help but cry."
He was silent for a bit. "What does that have to do with me?"
"I... well, I thought that, if the Creator of the universe permits Himself to cry, then surely you can too."
"That doesn't mean I should, though. It could've just made him look weak too."
"Hey." I straightened up. "He cried because He had emotions. He cried because He loved the people, not because He was a baby. He could be happy or sad, nervous or angry. He had feelings too. If you love your sister and your brother, wouldn't you cry for them too?" I stopped to deal with my own tears, which were coming back. "If you're strong in love, you're strong in tears."
We were quiet for several minutes. When I became uncomfortable with the silence, I asked, "You love your sister and your brother, don't you?"
"Of... of course," he responded. "I'm sure I told you that, didn't I?"
"If you loved them, you wouldn't be afraid of crying when you think about them."
He dried his tears with the fabric of his shirt. "H-H-Have you ever cried in front of your brother?"
I nodded. "More than once. But I always tried not to. I wanted him to view me as a strong big brother, not a weak one."
"So you admit it."
"Yes. Yes I do. I know how you feel when you said you didn't want to cry. I'm guilty of that too."
"I... I've always tried not to let my own brother see me cry. I know my sister has seen me cry, and she knows why. But whenever I hold them close, it's almost a war I'm fighting within myself to stop those tears from coming out..."
Again, my mind went back to that night. That night... the last night I spent with Evan. My brother had his arms around me, bawling. He knew I was going to leave him, and he knew mother would be anything but pleased. He was afraid that I might not make it. He was afraid that, even if I did survive, mother wouldn't look me in the eye ever again. At least, that's what happened to Julio; he didn't seem all that affected by his decision to leave home at all. And yet, on the night before I left, it seemed harder to fight back the tears than it was to actually do the deed. I needed my brother to have confidence in me, and to shed unmanly waterworks in front of him was enough to demoralize myself as well.
"You wanted to show your brother and your sister that everything was okay, I'm guessing," I said.
He nodded. "It felt awful, just lying to them about that. I really believed that I was stuck on the streets forever. I still do. My sister can handle it, but can you really tell a four-year-old that his home was now the unpredictable, dirty streets? It hurt even more knowing that we were on our own, with no mother and no father to go to." He was on the verge of tears again. "I knew I had to stay positive somehow, but that seemed less feasible with every passing day."
I closed my eyes, thinking of my brother once more. His smile, his laugh, his very presence. I remembered on the day I left him, I had ruffled and played with his hair in an attempt to build up some of that positivity. "Was there anything about your brother or sister that made you smile just by thinking about it?" I asked.
He didn't respond right away, instead closing his own eyes and thinking intently. When he again spoke, it was a barely audible whisper. "Their smiles... whenever they did. I remember a time where we bumped into a group of children playing football. They didn't mind the intrusion and even invited us to play with them. My brother had never played ball before, but they never went rough on or bullied him, and me and my sister were always by his side." He took a long, deep breath. "It was the happiest all three of us had been in a long while. My brother was laughing, exhausted, but happy. His smile was a rare occurence, but it was so beautiful it warmed me down to the core. It... it reminded me that there's still hope out there in the cold, cruel world."
We sat quietly for several minutes, the only sound being the calm, steady breathing of the sleeping bodies beside us. I was tired, physically and emotionally drained after the events today. I was about to nod off when Ricky, out of nowhere, said, "Why does God let us suffer?"
I woke up. "Hmm?"
"God," he repeated. "Why does he let people suffer?"
I thought I had answered this question before. "He... He does it to make us stronger. He does it to teach us, to complete His picture."
"Yeah, yeah," he said. "But out of all the things, why suffering? Why pain? Why misery? How exactly is parenting my younger brother supposed to make me and my sister stronger? How is casting us onto the streets of Manila without any loving or caring parents supposed to help us? Why did I have to be beaten, assaulted, abused by my own father? Isn't there a better way?"
"Well... if God is eternal, and if He created us, then doesn't He already know what's best for us? He can see the big picture that we can't see. He understands things that we don't understand."
"That's the thing," he interrupted. "I don't get it. Why should I get it? Why doesn't he just explain things to me? If he wants people to follow him, why doesn't he explain what he's doing instead of leaving us all in the dark?"
"I...". Oh great, he has me now. I genuinely had no answer to that question, at least, none that would satisfy him. I felt a bit trapped and lost, and doubtful in my own beliefs and my own faith.
He put an arm around me. "It's okay. I didn't mean to make you doubt yourself."
I swallowed, still having no answer for him.
"It's just.... those questions have been bugging me, and I imagine you'd ask those questions too."
He had a point. Those questions, which had never really crossed my mind until now, were some very good ones, now that I thought about it. If I had thought about those questions sooner, I might have been too frightened at myself to recite them out loud. Now, though, he had said them, and all of a sudden it didn't seem nearly as sacrilegious or blasphemous as it once seemed.
"Does the question make you uncomfortable?" he asked me. I could tell that he was curious, but at the same time didn't want to tarnish the one and only friendship he's made so far in this prison.
"No," I lied. "No, not at all."
He didn't believe me. "You don't need to be afraid of admitting it... I learned that from you. Now that I've told someone my painful story, it's like removing an elephant from my chest. I may still be a prisoner, but at least I can breathe again."
"G-G-Glad to be of help."
"And that's what I want to do," he said, straightening up. "I want to help, help my brother and my sister. It's hard to offer help when you need help yourself. But even in the most helpless of situations, there's always some hope. You just have to believe."
"I-I believe," I remarked. "I believe that I'll get out of here someday. No, I will get out of here someday. I will come home to my brother."
"And I believe too. I'll see what's left of my family again."
His arm was still around me. I shuffled closer to him and tightened my own grip. It felt nice, feeling the warmth of another human being next to me; it felt warmer knowing that he was my friend. A fairly new friend, but a close friend nonetheless.
"Belief is what I need. It's what I need more of." He turned his head to look at me. "I don't know what the future holds for me or my siblings, but I only want it to be bright. Especially for them. It breaks my heart to see them suffering on the streets, every day being a fight for survival. In this prison, I've been removed from the streets, and I'm being fed without having to steal for it... and I met you. I met a loving, caring friend that opened up to me. Something inside me says that I should be grateful for what I have, and I am. But I can't help but think about the boy and the girl I left behind. I would rather give up these so-called 'luxuries' to live on the streets with them, because they're my family. They're all I have left. I want to be able to help them. I want to give them hope, a hope for a bright future. I'm determined to get them — and myself — a safe home where we can be looked after, a place where we can be children again."
I sat very still, slowly absorbing what he had said to me. It sounded similar to what I had hoped for when I left my home and my brother.
"You said... something about, if we believe in Jesus, we can go to heaven, right?"
I nodded very slowly. "If we believe He's our One and Only Savior... and if we repent — if we admit that we've done something wrong — and if we ask Him to forgive us, He will. He will save us."
"I never met Him," he said, "until I met you. And I can see that He's in you, that He works with you. The way that you first approached me, and how you put up even with my violent attitudes... the way you loved me even after seeing my dark side and my soft side..." He paused to dab at a few tears with his shirt. "...If Jesus wasn't real, then we wouldn't be here, chatting in the middle of the night. You wouldn't be here, wallowing in your determination to go home. I wouldn't be here revealing my benevolent personality. For all I know, you could be on the other side of the room, cowering and crying yourself to sleep, and I could be here struggling to deal with my injuries after being assaulted by those boys. Even though I never really believed in Him... I have this feeling that He exists anyhow, and He wants me. I think He wants to see my brother and my sister come to Him as well."
Slowly, I turned my head to look. His face was a mix of emotions: part sad, part happy. Part devastated, part motivated. Part discouraged, part determined. Well, from what I saw, he was mostly determined. Determined for...
"...Christ," he said aloud, as if he had been reading my mind. "Bring me to Him... I'm ready for it. I want to be saved, and I want my brother and my sister to be saved as well. C-C-Can you do it?" He swallowed. "W-Will you do it?"
Several moments passed. It felt awkward; he had made a request, and I wasn't responding to it. I wanted to move, but found myself too stunned to get my nerves working. I wanted to speak, but I had apparently lost my voice. When I found it again, I said simply, "I-I'm glad you asked."
He got up. "W-What do I n-n-need to do?" he asked. "What do my siblings have to do?"
"Come with me," I said quietly, standing up and making my way over to the cell bars.
The cell seemed dark and lonely. The sky was overcast, blocking out the moon and the stars. Despite the heat and humidity, I felt goosebumps erected all over my body. My hands were shaking, but I did not know why.
"I'm ready whenever you're ready," he said.
I swallowed and nodded. I had never done anything like this before. My mother was a strong adherent to Roman Catholicism; my father was the spiritual leader of the family right up until he left. Julio used to attend church, but after my father disappeared he treated it more like a drop-in club that he didn't feel like he belonged in. Evan was a bit quiet on the subject, but he was willing enough to pray with me and my mother, and was definitely more committed than Julio was.
So where do I stand?
I knelt down on the ground, feeling the coolness of the concrete in my legs, which further amplified the tingling and the butterflies in my stomach. From the corner of my eye, I could see Ricky doing the same.
"It doesn't matter what you say, but more so of what you believe in. I can give you a template of what you should say, and I can say it with you... but I can't say it for you. I can help you, but I can't cross the line for you. You have to make that jump yourself."
He nodded. I could tell he was just as nervous as I was.
"R-repeat after me."
There were millions of ways to say this prayer, but I could only pick one. I was afraid of stuttering or stammering, and I was afraid that I would lose my voice halfway through, unable to continue. Relax, a voice inside my head said. There is no need to rush. Go at your own pace, and he will follow. You are not carrying him on your shoulders; you are helping him to cross a bridge.
Relax... go at my own pace... he'll follow...
"Dear God... I know that I have sinned against you, and that I do not deserve your love and forgiveness."
From beside me, I could hear my friend repeating what I had said. His voice felt so distant and so small. "I know that I have sinned against you, and that I do not deserve your love and forgiveness."
"But today, I believe that I have been saved from sin, because of my Lord Jesus Christ, who took the punishment away from me."
"But today, I believe that I have been saved from sin, because of my Lord Jesus Christ, who took the punishment away from me."
"It is through faith, and by faith alone, in Him that I place my trust in You for salvation."
"It is through faith, and by faith alone, in Him that I place my trust in You for salvation."
"I pray that You will for all my sins, past, present, and future..."
"I pray that You will for all my sins, past, present, and future..." His voice cracked over the last few words.
"...and I thank You for your grace and your forgiveness — the gift of eternal life."
"...and I thank You for your grace and your forgiveness — the gift of eternal life."
There was a brief pause. I felt my stomach beginning to settle, the hair that had stood on end beginning to relax. I reached out and tapped Ricky on the shoulder. When he turned around, I threw my arms around him in a hug. "Congratulations."
He seemed a bit confused and unsure at first. "T-T-That's it...?" he asked. "A-Am I saved?"
"If you really believed it — every word of the prayer — and if you really mean it... you'll be saved. It's the only way to be saved."
With that, his face, his eyes, and his prior emotions disappeared. He wrapped his own arms around me and, for what seemed to be the hundredth time, began to sob. "T-T-Thank you..." he managed to say before the tears sealed his mouth and throat, and all I could hear was a muffled noise. His body felt warm against mine, and on the inside, I felt quite surprisingly good.
Am I saved? Yes, you are. Yes, you've been saved you've been saved you've been saved been saved been saved been saved.
"I wish you the best of luck in your journey," I whispered into his ear.
He had no verbal response. I could sense him wishing to say Thank you, but the words seemed to mix and merge with one another, repeating themselves over and over. Thank you thank you thank you thankyou thankyou thankyou thankyouthankyouthankyou...
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 on who gets the most stuff, and the most valuable. I remember one of my oldest — and closest — friends got 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 around 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 stuck with me even after all the stupid things I did, and how you shared what you valued to me: your faith, your story, your family. I've been counting the days, the weeks 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 than if my brother and my sister were 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 for 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 remembered 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, 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 what he felt. 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 those 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 in 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. It felt unsettling to realize that we lived just 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."
The guard tapped on the bars of the cell with his baton. "Garrett Garcia Alonto Tañag?" he called out.
I stood up. "Yes sir."
"You've an important visitor. And it's not your mother." The guard unlocked the door and motioned for me to come out.
I looked at Ricky. "I'll be right back," I said as I rose to leave.
The guard led me through the prison in relative silence. He said nothing to me, nothing insulting, although nothing positive either. He led me to a room, bare except for a table and two chairs seated across from each other. In one chair was a Caucasian woman, blonde hair tucked up neatly into a bun. Her skin was slightly wrinkled, showing her age. She had blue eyes which lit up immediately when they saw me. "Hello, Garrett," she said warmly. "Please, have a seat in that chair over there."
I sat down. Without hesitation, she began to talk. "My name is Gloria Chapman, and I'm a retired journalist and news reporter for the BBC. Recently, I've taken an interest in the Philippines, and I've been trying to raise awareness about the street children population in this city. It is depressing sometimes, but nothing brings me more joy than being able to offer help, even a little, to those in need. I also love the smiles I get in this country, and if smiles were used as currency in this world, the Philippines would certainly be the richest of all.
"My travels have taken me to Smokey Mountain, which I found was quite a shock. I know you live near there, so I'll spare you the gory details... but oh, how terrible it must be! I went around meeting the locals, and as always, the hospitality I received was heart-warming. Among the families I chatted with included your mother and your younger brother. I was writing a blog on Smokey Mountain, so I interviewed the people there. Your mother, at first, claimed that your younger brother was an only child, but he teared up so greatly, I knew there was something deeper. I didn't mean to get personal, but your mother eventually told me about your father, your older brother, and you. Your younger brother, I believe his name was Evan, found it within him to tell me that you were his favourite person, that you fell into a life of crime so that you could find him the money to go back to school, and how he saw you in this prison. At the end, I couldn't help but brush a few tears from my own eyes as well."
She paused, and with a handkerchief, dabbed at her damp eyes. I could tell that these tears were genuine, and not the fake, drama llama tears found on television. Hearing my brother stirred up something within me, and I fought back my own tears.
She sniffled. "Your brother's story really touched my heart, and it got me interested. I spoke with your mother, and while she seemed reluctant at first, she eventually agreed to let me find a way to get you freed. I've been negotiating with the prison warden for some time now, and he's agreed to let you go in exchange for 40,000 pesos. I personally believe that you are not a bad child, that you are no criminal. You had no foul intentions, and in the end, you only wanted to help your brother. I believe freeing you is perfectly justified."
40,000 pesos?! "That's a lot for us to pay off!" I said. "I don't want to cause any trouble..."
She smiled. "You do not have to repay me," she responded, "except by, perhaps, doing as your mother and your brother — especially your brother, he's so sweet — requested."
"What is it?"
"They've asked for you to stay at home. They're both aware of what you did, and honestly, I don't know many people, especially children, who would risk their lives for someone they cared for, like you did. But we've all agreed that the best you can do is to be there for your brother. He's so young, after all, and it's hard for me to see him cry. Imagine the torture your mother has to endure seeing him cry every day."
How could I say 'No' to my brother again? It seemed like a fair deal to me. "I..." The tears I had been holding back for so long were beginning to win over as the realization of what I had been praying for to happen for so many months now was becoming a reality. I was going home.
Home... To the landfill, the slum, eating pagpag... But home! To my brother. My little brother...
"Is there anything else you would like?" she asked, not unkindly. "Any questions? A request? Something to eat, drink?"
I brushed a hand across my eyes. "Can... can I see an inmate in this prison? Just one last time?"
The door swung open. I turned around to see Ricky entering the room, a guard behind him. "You have five minutes," the guard said before closing the door.
"You wished to see me?" Ricky asked.
I nodded, getting out of the chair. "A woman just came to see me, having talked with my mother and my brother. She's..." I looked over my shoulders and whispered, "...bribed the warden to let me out. I'll being going home soon, after this. Looks like I'll be able to keep the promise I made to my brother after all."
He was silent for a few moments. "I guess you're happy," he said soberly.
"Maybe, until I thought of you. I'm going free while you're still stuck here. I'm going home guilty, thinking about how you deserve freedom more than I do. After all, I was the one who ran from home even when there was food on the table. I ran even though I had a healthy relationship with my mother and my brother. I really didn't have to leave to begin with, really didn't have to steal or anything to get by. You, on the other hand, you had no choice. You ran because your father drove you out. You stole in order to feed your siblings. You don't even have a solid roof to sleep under. If you simply sat around and stayed home, who knows what might've happened to you?"
He sighed. "You're right about that. I don't even know how my sister and my brother are doing on their own, without me. If there's anything I want to do right now, it's to see them, talk to them, let them know I'm still alive and that I'm still fighting."
"I'll fight with you," I said. "I'll do whatever I can to at least bring them to you, at most I'll try to get you out of here. If I can't do that, I'll look after the two for you. It's the least I can do."
He hugged me. It caught me by surprise, and it took me a few seconds for me to realize what had happened. "Thank you," he said, in a barely audible whisper. "It's the first in a long list of 'Thank yous' I have. Thank you for being bold and breaking the ice between us. Thank you for listening to me when I needed someone to talk to. Thank you for bringing me to Jesus. Thank you for... just being there. You are a true friend, Garrett."
I hugged him back comfortingly. "I have to thank you as well. You're the only one in this prison that I felt comfortable talking to, and I'm glad we could get this close. After I saw my mother and brother leaving me, I thought I lost my purpose in life, and I wanted to just die. You helped me realize that I had so much more to do, and that I still have so much more within me. You are a true friend, Ricky; you brought my life back on track."
He released me and patted me on the shoulder. "Go home to your mother and your brother. Be there for them. Don't leave them; they need you more than ever. I'll get by in this prison, I'll survive. I still tell myself every day that I am strong, that I am tough."
I nodded. "I'll do whatever I can to help you and your two siblings. It doesn't matter how far apart we are, or whether or not one of us is imprisoned. Our friendship topples any physical barrier. Just don't forget about me."
He laughed. "Even a blow to my head won't shake any memory I have of you."
I got serious again. "Take care of yourself now, Ricky. Don't go getting into any fights with the other boys around here. You have to be strong for your sister and your brother. You're too valuable to be wasted getting kicked and abused. The scar on your face should remind you of the price you've paid."
"Take care of yourself too, Garrett. The last thing your brother needs is to see you behind bars again. Don't go getting yourself arrested again so you can be with me; that's absurd."
I lowered my head to hide a grin. "I'm not crazy enough to do that."
The guard opened the door. "Time's up!" he barked. "Prisoner, it's time to go back to your cell."
We hugged one last time. "Godspeed, Garrett," he said as he turned around to leave.
"Godspeed to you too, Ricky."
He gave me a smile and a wink as he exited the room, the guard following behind him. I knew for sure that this wasn't the last time we would see each other.
I watched as the city flew past me through the rolled-down window of the car. Gloria was behind the wheel, navigating the crowded streets with ease. She caught a glimpse of me in the rear-view mirror. "Your brother is very fortunate to have you," she said.
I could only nod as I brought up a hand to wipe away a few tears.
"I know you cannot wait to see your brother, and I'm sure he misses you dearly too." Her smile waned slightly. "I do remember what your mother said about your unfortunate older brother, who I hear, also left home."
"She... she never talked to him again," I said in a quavering voice.
"Your mother was, understandably, very angry at him. She couldn't accept the fact that her eldest son had become a drug dealer." She paused as she weaved the vehicle through a narrow, congested intersection. "But she did tell me that he came home on occasion."
My mind raced back to the discussion I had with Ricky. Maybe he's trying to remember all the good times, the life that he once had and lost. 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.
It's not too late... It's not too late...
"It's not too late," I said out loud.
I straightened up. "It's not too late for him to come home. Even though I never really knew him and loved him like I did Evan... he's still part of my family. He's still my older brother. And to my mother, he's still her son." I paused briefly to take a breath. "I want to talk to him, form that bond we didn't have in the past. I know he's still grieving over my father's departure, but.... he's still my brother. He's also my brother. I'm still there for him."
She was quiet. I could see her eyes beginning to water up in the mirror. A few tears escaped her grasp and slid down her face.
"I want my father to come home," I said suddenly. "I want my older brother and my father to come back. I don't care about what they did or what my mother thinks about them. They're still a part of my family. I... We, we were one happy family. It didn't matter that we were living in a cramped slum having to pick from a garbage dump and eat pagpag. We were together, and we had love for each other, for our friends, and for our neighbours. It was enough. I wouldn't have swapped places with the King of Arabia if I had my family."
We rode along in silence for several minutes. I knew my words had sunk deep inside the car, and they kept bouncing around in my head. I was almost dazed, as if I had surprised myself with my own soliloquy. Finally, she said, "You are very, very thoughtful, Garrett. I wish I knew more people like you."
We drove along in silence for several minutes. Finally, she asked, "So what do you plan on doing once you get home?"
I could go on and on about the possibilities. Sleep in a place that wasn't packed with eighty boys. Eat food that wasn't prison food. Be able to roam about freely without being restricted by bars and bullies. But all I could say was, "I just want to see my brother again."
She smiled. "That's it?"
I almost grinned. "I could die happy after that. Just want to see him again, tell him that I still love him after all I've done."
The wind was blowing, ruffling through my hair, my shirt flapping in the breeze like a flag. The toxic smell of garbage was almost pleasant to me, as was the sunset blinding my eye. In the middle of that sun stood a small boy, his back turned towards me, looking into the distance across the ocean at a horizon filled with red.
"Evan!" I called out.
The boy turned around, his face still concealed by the glare of the setting sun. "...Garrett?" he said softly, so soft that I wasn't sure if he actually said it or not.
"Evan! It's me, it really is me!"
The boy began running, running towards me. His arms reached out in front of him as he rushed to touch, smell, embrace the one person he longed to see again. I started to run towards him, hoping to close the gap between us quickly before something or someone could separate us again. He leapt into my open arms, almost taking me off my feet, and squeezed me tightly. I blinked, half-expecting my brother to disappear right before me, like he always had in my dreams. He didn't. Every bit of him was real this time, his flesh, his soul, his beating heart. I hugged him back, so tightly I thought he couldn't breathe.
"G-G-Garrett..." He was crying. "I... I m-m-missed you..." He buried his face into my shirt, and despite the fact that it had several months worth of sweat and grime embedded into the fabric, he found more comfort in it than he would any tissue paper on earth.
I turned my head and kissed him lightly on the cheek. "I... I missed you too..." I realized that I was crying as well, tears pouring out of my eyes, as if they had been bottled up within me up until now. With my right hand, I tried to brush away the tears, appear strong to my little brother, but my efforts were in vain. I finally gave up and allowed my brother to hear the audible sobs, which brought a wave of great relief as I wept freely.
"P-P-Promise me you w-w-won't l-l-leave me again?" he said.
I looked at him. His eyes told me everything I needed to know, that when he saw me in prison I had torn him to pieces, driven a knife into him, murdered him, left him to die. His youthfulness, his innocence, his boyhood, I had ruined for him. I knew that, if I left him again, broke my vow as his brother, I would have done away with him, ended him right there. Tears were still coming out of his eyes, and the sight broke my heart.
I brought him close, again offering my shirt to mop up the misery and grief I had caused for him. "I promise," I said. "I promise, I will never leave you and mother ever again. No matter how hungry we are, no matter how poor we are, no matter how much I want to leave, I won't. I will always be there for you, always sleeping next to you if you need me at night, always listening so I can hear you when you call for help."
"Do you really mean it?" he said in a small, small voice.
I sniffled. "Yes... Yes, I do mean it."
He was reluctant to let go of my chest, but eventually, we had to move on. I lowered him back onto the ground and he stood beside me, holding my hand tightly. He looked up at me, still crying, but one emotion dominating all the others: Happiness.
It came back to me too. Hey, remember the good old days when the mountains of garbage was our playground and we'd climb up and come running back down as fast as our legs could carry us? You would piggyback on me, squealing with delight as the air sped past you as if you were flying. And the times when I tripped and almost fell over but saved myself just before we hit the ground? You can't have forgotten — I haven't!
I smiled. "Let's go back to mother, shall we?"
He smiled back and, still holding onto my hand, began to walk. I remained still, catching him by surprise when his arm did not follow. He looked at me. "Aren't we going?"
My smile grew bigger and bigger. "How about we run there, together, with you on my back, like we used to?"
He appeared a bit confused, but not for long. With a boyish, lively laugh, he scrambled onto my back and wrapped his arms around my chest.
"Ready?" I asked my passenger.
"Always!" he said gleefully.
"Well, let's go!" And I took off, running as fast as my legs could move, jumping over obstacles as I went, past the slums built onto the garbage dump, past the piles of burning refuse, onto the rough, paved streets of our neighborhood, down our small street towards our house. Out of breath, I set him down on the ground. "Last stop, everybody off!" as I used to say, and he laughed. He was about to run inside when he turned around and gave me an unsure look, as if he expected me to run away before mother could see me.
"Go," I said. "I promised I will stay. I will never leave you again."
He turned around and, entering the house, called out: "Mom! Mother! Garrett's back! Garrett is finally home..."
I looked up towards the sky, where the reddish hue of the setting sun was beginning to give way to the darkness of the night. "I promised him," I said, "and I promised You." Then I turned and headed inside the house.