Rebuilding Home picks up where For my little brother left off — Garrett's home again after spending several months on the street in a street gang and in a degrading prison, all in the hopes of sending his little brother back to school, but his journey has only begun. Now he has two goals: Reunite a cellmate he befriended with his siblings; and finding his departed older brother, who is a prominent member of a rival gang.
We find Garrett the way he started, a 10-year-old living in an impoverished slum in Manila, having only his mind and the clothes on his back to piece together the clues needed to serve his friend and find his brother. He is often lost and unsure of where to go, lacking much-needed guidance for someone his age, but he has his wits. He has his determination. He won't back down.
He's not alone, though. His beloved little brother, Evan, insists on accompanying him after months of struggling to cope with the thought of his brother's uncertain fate. Their time together is cut short, however, when Garrett's older brother, Julio, has other plans, ordering his gang to abduct Evan. Garrett will stop at nothing to save his little brother, but he has to contend with the fact that his older brother — a member of his own family — had Evan prisoner.
Family, friends, and the love that holds them together are sorely tested in this captivating novel as Garrett grapples with poverty, criminals, his own brother, and even a near-encounter with death, all while trying to save the people he loved.
The sequel to For my little brother.
It all looked so familiar to me, the cramped slum that I now stood in. The furniture, the walls, the ceiling, the floor, the way they were designed and laid out was something I had not seen for months. It was nothing special, no elaborate designs or anything to hint at our humble collection being expensive and extraordinary. It only meant anything, if at all, to me, for it was the place that I grew up, knowing, flourishing, and loving in.
It was home.
"Ma!" a young voice cried out. "He's here! He's home! Please, ma, don't kick him out like you did with Julio! He wants to come home, he really does!"
Oh, my brother. My sweet, sweet, younger brother Evan, his arms wrapped around his mother's waist, begging and pleading with her. I was almost afraid to look at my own mother, for I was unsure of what she'd say once she saw me.
"Ma..." I began, "I'm home. I've come home..."
She rushed up to me. For a moment, I thought she would strike me, understandable considering what I had done to her. Her arms shot out, and I braced for a painful impact. But the slap I was expecting missed my face, instead aimed for my back and my shoulders, drawing me into her. The next thing I knew, her head was next to mine, sobbing uncontrollably.
"Ma... I-I-I'm s-sorry... If you want to send me away, g-g-go ahead."
She sniffled. "I thank the Lord with all my heart, my mind, and my soul; He has brought my son home," she said, ignoring my comment.
I looked down at my brother. He was standing beside me, glancing nervously at my mother, afraid of what she might do next.
"B-B-But ma," I stammered, "aren't you a-a-angry at m-m-m-me?"
She pulled her head back. "Of course I'm angry," she snapped, shattering the moment. "Furious. Disgusted. Enraged. But..." and she paused to wipe away a wad of tears from her eyes "...I'm h-h-happier that you've c-c-come home, happier than I am angry."
"I... I know I've wronged you, ma. I know I've wronged God. I shouldn't have left home, and I don't deserve to come home..."
"But while he was still a long way off, the father of the prodigal son ran to his son and kissed him," my mother said, interrupting me. Much to my surprise, she kissed me on the cheek. "I love you like a mother would love her son; although you broke my heart and flared my temper, I still love you, and I am so glad you retraced your steps."
I finally hugged her back. "I'm... I... B-B-But... T-T-Thank you...". I closed my eyelids and squeezed out the tears, letting them trickle down my face like a monsoon. From around my body came another warm embrace as my brother held onto me like a koala would a tree, unwilling to let go. I was fine with that; he was the person I loved best.
"How... How about we sit down?" I asked. "I have a lot to tell you — both of you."
My mother seated herself in the old armchair, while I took the sofa. My brother, naturally, took the seat next to me, his arms still clinging onto me.
"Tell me," she said. "Tell me everything."
I'm home, I thought. I'm home I'm home I'm home I'm home..... I'm home at last. At long last I am home. At long last I am home after several months of thievery, sin, imprisonment... yet rich in love, remorse, and self-realization. It was so vivid, my journey, that I could feel, see, smell, even taste every bit of it, right up to and beyond the very moment when it began, on that night that I wasn't sure if I liked or regretted living through. That night felt like an eternity and a day ago at the same time.
"I don't know where to start..." I began. "It seemed so long ago, and so much had happened since that day."
"Start with the first day, the day you left," she said.
I looked at Evan. His face had changed — he had gotten older — but he still had the lovely appearance that I looked forward to seeing every day. Even better was the fact that he was still hugging me, wanting no distance between the two of us anymore. A lot has changed, but a lot hasn't changed at the same time. "I left home at 5:30, before you woke up. I wanted to leave the night before, but Evan... Evan cried so much, I stayed for one more night. Just one more night. I feared it would be the last, but even if it was, I hoped that he would have that one final chance to say goodbye."
I had barely started, and already Evan was crying. "I left the house and neighbourhood, but I had nowhere to go. I didn't know what I was going to do or who I was going to meet, only that I needed to find a way, no matter how obscure the path was. I didn't even eat breakfast, and that was my first mistake... I was so hungry, I stole from a street vendor."
My mother's face darkened. That didn't surprise me at all. My little brother was looking up at me. "What did you steal?" he asked.
"Chicken pagpag. I was hungry, having had nothing to eat since the night before, so I just reached in and grabbed one."
"What happened after that?" he asked. "Did he call the police?"
I shook my head. "He took the law into his own hands and started chasing me. I tried to run, but I choked on the food and he caught up to me. Kicked me a couple of times in the ribs. Hurt like hell."
My mother still appeared glum. "You're not angry at me, are you?" I asked nervously.
She sighed. "Perhaps I am, my son, but this was all the past, and while I wasn't around to see it, God certainly was. And God has forgiven you." She straightened her back. "Please continue; you mustn't hide the story from us."
"I'm not," I said, "but I've done so many wrong things... seen so many wrong things..."
"I'm here for you!" my little brother chirruped. "You can tell me anything! You can tell me anything that you don't want anyone else to know, and I won't tell a soul! I'm here for you, just like you're here for me!"
I smiled. My little brother knew exactly what brothers were for. I wasn't too sure how my mother felt about some of what he said, but before she could say anything about that, I tried to move on: "I spent the rest of the day looking for food, scavenging through garbage, like we always did. I spent my first night on the street sleeping under an overhang, in plain sight of everybody. I never stopped thinking about Evan the whole time, knowing that he was also spending his first night on his own like I was. I slept on and off, kept being woken up by loud noises and my uncomfortable environment. By the next morning, my stomach had become a raging bull; I had been hungry before, but never before on my own. I tried to search through a dumpster, looking for breakfast, looking for even the smallest bit of food to feed my stomach, but I fell in. The dumpster's walls reached well over my head, and there was no way I could climb out on my own. I was scared — I didn't know what would happen to me once I was thrown into the garbage truck — and I tried to call for help. And someone heard me. He was a boy, I would say around the age of fifteen, and he managed to pull me out of there. He didn't tell me his real name, only referring to himself as Dodger.
"Dodger and I took to the streets, and together we stole from more people and vendors, this time with more luck. The first guy we robbed together, I still remembered how we took his wallet and his phone, and how Dodger gave me half of what was inside the wallet — one hundred pesos. I had never earned this much money this quickly before, and I don't think any of us here have. I thought that I had hit a gold mine, and with a little luck, I could see Evan in school again.
"Dodger was impressed with my performance, and on the same day I met him he invited me to his street gang, called the 'Diablo Wingz'. He brought me in and offered me a drink, a drink that I downed in full, at the shock and surprise of everyone else. They gave me a special treatment normally given to all recruits over the age of nine, named the 'Wingz Treatment', where they whacked me in the back, shoulders, and legs with a stick whilst I was blindfolded. They were trying to weed out 'chickens' from their ranks; I had to be strong, and at that moment, I felt that I had to be strong for Evan's sake! I bit my tongue and withstood all of that pain, all of my beatings. I was sore after the Wingz Treatment, but it was nothing compared to what I would soon have to endure.
"That night was also the night I witnessed the first of something immoral, something so deeply disturbing I could not describe it. I saw a girl, no more than the age of sixteen, being threatened by two men and a woman, blindfolded and her hands tied behind her back/ They kept asking her, 'Pain or pleasure?', over and over again. She kept saying 'pain' until they threatened to cut her and kill her, throwing her dead body into the ditch for the rats. She finally relented to 'pleasure', and they took her to a small room where they... where they..."
"What did they do?" my little brother asked. My mother, though, already had a pretty good idea of what had happened. Should I tell him? Should I tell... "They... they..."
"Raped her?" my mother said softly, so quiet that it was barely above a whisper.
My brother looked up. "What's rape?"
I bit my lip as I squeezed Evan tightly. I had done so much — seen so much — seen and done things that shattered my dignity, my spirit, my soul. How could I still call myself his older brother, knowing all the things I had seen and done? How was I to explain to him all the sins in the world, and how there were people out there whose lives were shrouded in evil? And what about me, a ten year old boy having borne witness to the ills humanity was capable of, having stepped beyond a point of no return, whose childhood — perhaps his entire life as well — would never be the same. When my mother and my brother saw me in prison, she had hoped that my imprisonment would serve as a deterrent for my brother, a deterrent to keep from going down the path I took. None of them would have imagined my release, my eventual return home, and perhaps my forgiveness from God. Now they wanted to hear my story, hear what I had been through, and to reveal the sin that I saw and committed. And to do that, I would have to break my little brother's childhood too.
I was saved by the bell though, or at least, by my mother. "You will learn what rape means when you get older," she told him.
"But what is it?" he repeated, his childhood curiosity getting the hold of him. "I don't know why you can't just tell me!"
I kissed him on the cheek. "I'm sorry Evan," I said, "but mother's right. I can't describe it right now. You will know what it is when you grow up."
"Will you tell me, Garrett?" he asked. "Will you tell me what happened when I'm old enough?"
I looked at my mother with uncertainty. Should I?
"Choose what's best for your brother," she answered simply.
I smiled slightly, even though the answer wasn't exactly helpful. "I promise, Evan."
"You haven't finished your story," my mother said. "What did you do in the gang?"
"They taught me their handshake, introduced me to some of their top members, and showed me the gang symbols of their biggest enemies." I paused. Uh oh... this was where I had to tell them about something relatable, something close to home. "That's where I learned about Julio."
"What?!" the two shrieked simultaneously.
"Julio... he's alive. He's an elite member of a gang called the Cobras... and the Cobras are fierce enemies of the Diablo Wingz."
My mother gasped. "You could've... you could've had to fight and kill your older brother!" She shook her head in dismay. "It would break my heart to see that happen, watching the two of you kill each other..."
Evan wasn't nearly as surprised. "He left us, ma! He left and never came back! At least Garrett did, but Julio doesn't care about us anymore!"
"I was shocked when I heard about it, Evan. I know he's left us too, but I don't know why it feels like I... miss him almost."
Silence. An uncomfortable silence. My mother wallowed in the dreadful thought that our two gangs had divided us, even more so than we already were. I again squeezed my little brother; I didn't want to be separated from him again. "Evan... even if we fight, know that I'll always love you as a brother."
My mother tried to force herself to smile. I knew what she was thinking; she was well assured that at least two of her three sons would not abandon each other to the clutches of death.
Moving along. "Reyes, the leader of the gang, was impressed with my initial performance, and so he made me the leader of a small group consisting of two other boys — their names were Marcos and Lewis. He wanted us to rob a jewellery store that was indirectly owned by the Red Cults — another rival gang — and he expected us to figure out a way to get the job done on our own, and since the two other boys were comfortable with me, he believed that I — we — could do it. But we couldn't. We failed the mission. Someone spotted us and called the cops. They had Marcos pinned onto the ground, trying to keep him there long enough for the police to arrive. I rushed up behind him and, with a knife Dodger gave me, cut the cop's cheek. I got separated from the other two as I ran for my life, but the police found me and cornered me into an alley. I tried to run from them, but they drew a baton and hit me on the back. It was so painful, I couldn't move, could only feel the coolness of the ground as I lay there. But the pain from the baton wasn't the worst part. My failed mission wasn't the worst part. The worst part was that I feared I would never be able to go home again, that I had failed Evan." Tears began streaming down my face once more, and I tried unsuccessfully to wipe them off. "Any money that I had earned up to that point was gone. I couldn't even bring them home... and I know ma would never accept them, but I had promised Evan that even if I found nothing, I'd still come home. I thought I couldn't keep that promise anymore, even if I tried.
"The police drove me to prison, where I was locked up in a cramped cell with several other boys, a cell that was well over capacity when they threw me in. There were no beds to sleep in, only the floor and some shelves. The shelves were miserable places to sleep in, for they were crowded and precarious, and the heat of the room made sleep a painful chore. The older, more influential boys got the coolness of the floor, forcing the younger and newer inmates to sleep on the shelves. My first night was painful; I had a raging thirst, a desperate urge to pee, and two boys squishing me in from both sides. I couldn't believe such a place like this existed on earth, couldn't believe that someone would let this happen.
"On the second day, the two of you visited me. It should have been a joyous occasion to be able to see the two of you again, but it felt awful and dreadful. I didn't know what you were going to say now that you've seen and heard about what I've done. Worse off, I saw Evan behind the fence, and I couldn't help but think that I had let him down. He was probably kicking himself for asking whether or not he could go to school again; after all, if he didn't ask, I wouldn't have gotten the idea that led up to this." I turned to Evan. "Whatever you were thinking on that day, know that this is not your fault. All you wanted was to go back to school, and there's nothing wrong with that. This whole mess was my fault, Evan. Don't feel guilty. I only wanted to see you prosper, even at my own expense."
He sniffled. "I-I-I th-th-thought I'd n-n-never see y-y-you a-again..."
"I reached out for you in there, for I feared that it would be the last time we'd see each other again, and I didn't want to say goodbye without being able to hold your hand. One more time. One last time." I tried once again to brush the tears from my eyes. "I really thought I was going to be stuck behind bars forever..."
My mother had been quiet while I spoke, listening to me carefully. At this point, she broke her silence: "I caught a glimpse of you reaching out for each other through the wire mesh. Even now, I cannot get that image out of my mind. It broke my heart to see you in there too, but so was what you did — or tried to do — to Evan while you were in there. I can't imagine your father or Julio even looking at me in the eye in there, but I could still see, quite evidently, that the two of you still loved each other." She rubbed her eyes. "And now, I can say with confidence that that still holds true today."
"I thought you had lost hope in me, Evan! When ma started dragging you away, you had a look of utter disbelief, as if you really believed that I would never be able to come home. I was scared when I saw that look; I thought that you had forgotten about what I had told you to do on the day I left..."
Evan rested his head on my shoulder. "I really did feel that way at that moment..."
"I really wasn't like Julio, I promise I wasn't! I was still doing it for you, even up until that moment. I just wanted to get you off the mountain..."
My mother placed a hand on my wrist. "You mustn't let the past get the better of you now," she said gently. "The two of you are together again; you made it home by the grace of God."
I ran my hands through my brother's hair. "After you left, I lay on the shelf in my cell, thinking about all the possible ways I could die in prison. One of the older boys — I nicknamed him 'Goliath' — ordered me to get him a glass of water. I was so defeated and demoralized, I just lay there, not responding to him. He got ticked off and punched me hard in the stomach. It hurt so much then... It seemed easier to just stop breathing and die there on the spot. I don't know what hurt more: the Wingz Treatment, getting hit by a police baton, watching the two of you leave me, or being punched in the gut, but I could only bite my tongue and try not to let the other boys see me cry.
"Later that night, however... I had a vision from God. I heard a voice speaking to me, and when I looked up, the ceiling of the cell had been replaced with the night sky. I could see the moon and the stars, things that I had never seen before, outside of pictures, up until that point. I thought I was delirious, thought I was hallucinating and that everything I was seeing was a product of my imagination... but the voice that spoke to me seemed so real, I couldn't help but wonder if it really was God.
"The voice told me about Creation, how God created everything in the universe, and how He created humanity. He created humanity to take care of Creation, but we abandoned that role and sinned against Him instead. He told me that He loved me so much, He chose to bear the punishment for sin onto Himself so that we wouldn't have to. It was basically like what they always talk about in church, only that it seemed different this time. This time, it was God Himself that was telling me about this.
He also told me about my life, how He allowed me to suffer because He knew that was the best way to make me stronger. He told me about how life was going to be difficult, and that He would be with me every step of the way. He told me that He had planned for me to get arrested, to get locked up, so I could be given the chance to heal. He also told me about the two of you, how you—" I looked at my mother, "—believed that I had fallen into a life of crime, how you—" I looked at my little brother, "—missed me terribly. I felt awful, not just for what I did, but how I hurt the two of you. I'm not like dad or Julio, and I mean it when I say it. I really missed the two of you while I was away."
"I missed you too, Garrett!" Evan said. "I knew you were different from Julio because I missed you more than I missed him!"
"And God pleaded for me to come back to Him, and to come back to you. Both of you. My family." I sniffled. "He told me that He had begged dad and Julio to do the same, and they both rejected Him. He begged me to come back, back to His loving arms." I brushed some more tears away from my eyes. "And I listened. I promised to follow Him. For my little brother Evan. And you too, ma... I know how much you love us."
My mother and my brother could only smile. Their smiles warmed and welcomed me, and it felt like I was at home again. "The next day, the guards brought to our cell another boy. He had black hair with the tips dyed blonde, and he had a large scar on his left cheek. I didn't know what to do with him, but I felt that voice talking to me again, and He told me to go and talk to that other boy. I sat down next to him, trying to introduce myself, but he was too embarrassed to talk to me. I tried a couple more times, and he grew cross with me. He grabbed my shirt and barked into my face, but after a few moments his emotions took control again, and he started crying. I wanted to run away at that moment, having received a dose of his anger, but God told me to stay and to share my own story. So I did. I told him about our life, our struggles, our poverty. I told him about how dad and Julio left home. I told him about how I left home, and how I tried to be different. I told him about how I got arrested, how I tried to fight the police, how I was marched into prison. Later that night, I also told him about my experience with God the night before.
"He warmed up and got comfortable with me, and he shared his own story. His name was Ricky; he was 11 years old with an older sister and a younger brother. When he was four, his mother had a stillbirth, and she almost died. His father was badly shaken up by the incident and began to dislike his own children. When his younger brother was born, he became an alcoholic and started attacking his family, hitting his wife and his three children. On his brother's fourth birthday, his mother tried to take her children and leave him, but he tried to attack her with a bolo. Ricky's sister got in front of her, while Ricky got in front of his sister, taking the first strike of the blade. It hit him across the face, which explains the scar. His family managed to get away from the house after that, living on the streets from then on. His mother died shortly afterwards, and they were all alone: two children trying to take care of their youngest sibling.
"Ricky became desperate for his two siblings, and started taking greater risks to try to care for them. The night I had the vision from God, he got arrested trying to rob a grocery store. When he tried to fight back, the cops hit him with a baton before driving him to prison. The guards threw him into the same cell that I was in... a godsend for the both of us. He told me that his father was supposedly baptized as a child, but he didn't talk about the church that much, and so the three weren't believers. I talked to him a lot about the subject, and he listened.
"There were a group of older boys in our cell that bullied the younger children into submission, having them do whatever the older boys wanted done. The day after Ricky was thrown in, the boys came over and tormented us. Ricky was friendly and selfless to me, but when those boys arrived, his aggressive side got the better of him again. He tried to fight the boys who were attacking us, and they roughed him up pretty badly. Even though what he did was kinda foolish, deep down inside I really admired him for standing up to people bigger than himself. He looked like someone who wasn't going to just sit around watching his siblings get hurt; he was going to fight to protect them.
"Later that night, though, after fighting with the older boys in our cell and getting bruised and hurt all over, Ricky told me that he only wanted the best for his siblings, and that he could see God working within me. That night he accepted Christ, and I helped him say the Sinner's Prayer. I was amazed at how quickly he came to believe through me, considering how he told me that he didn't think much about the church, only that his alcoholic father came from one. The fact that we had nothing to do in prison gave us plenty of time to talk, and the two of us became very close. We're still close today, and I hope I'll be able to see him again someday.
"A few months after he accepted Christ, he asked me to do him a favour: if I ever left prison before he did, he asked me to find his siblings and to take them in and introduce them to Christ. He asked for a lot, considering how I had no hope of leaving prison back then either, but I agreed to it anyways. Now that I'm out, though, I think I owe Ricky a favour..."
My mother brushed a tear from her eyes. "God took what was bad and made it good... He did it with you beautifully." She nodded her approval. "They can come here and live here for as long as they like. They will become part of our family."
Evan was still looking at me. "What are their names?" he asked.
"Ricky's older sister is named Analyn, while his younger brother is Joel."
Evan looked at my mother. "Can we feed them?" he asked her.
My mother nodded. "They were on the streets and they could survive. If God wants it to happen, it will happen."
I felt Evan leaning his head on my arm. "Be good to them, Evan," I said to him. "Be nice to Analyn and Joel when they live at our house, and if Ricky gets freed, be nice to him too. Treat Joel like you would a little brother, the same way I treated you like my little brother."
I turned to Evan, who was still holding onto me. "Evan," I said, trying hard not to cry. "Evan... I-I-I'm so s-s-sorry... I'm really sorry. I sh-sh-shouldn't have left you. I didn't mean to h-h-hurt you. I only wanted to help, just wanted to m-m-make things better. I didn't realize my actions would cause you so much grief." I blinked, and in doing so let loose a massive teardrop. It felt like hot oil sliding down my face, burning and searing my skin. "W-W-Will you f-forgive me, my brother?"
He hugged me even closer, his head against my chest. I could feel the vibrations from his muffled sobs brushing up and rattling against my rib cage. He did not explicitly answer me, but from his actions, I knew what he wanted to say. I bent my neck and kissed my brother on the head. My eyes welled up with tears, and this time, I made no effort to control them. To my left, I could hear my mother saying a prayer of thanks: "I thank the Lord with all my heart and my soul, for He has brought my two sons back together as brothers... Whoever hates his brother cannot love You."
Brotherhood. I liked that word. My brother was still crying, but he knew that I wouldn't have dreamed of leaving him again. I am his brother, he is my brother, and from the moment we were born to our last breath on earth, and for eternity thereon, we'll be standing together as inseparable, infinitely loving brothers. We are of the same blood, same home, same dreams, and nobody, not even the Devil himself, could break our bond. I liked that idea. I loved that thought. And it felt better to know that it was the truth.
Two pairs of feet were pounding up the slopes of the mountain, making a thunderous noise like a four-legged beast, the biggest and baddest beast my brother and I could make together. It sure had been a while since the both of us had the opportunity to play with each other. Now, nothing stood between us, except maybe the wind whistling past our bodies, as we raced up and down the slopes of compacted trash. Think I got a few pins and needles jabbed into my bare feet, but I didn't care. When we reached the summit of the tallest hill, we collapsed into an untidy heap, looking up at the sky, laughing and panting.
"Want to go for another run?" I asked.
"Too tired," he gasped. He crawled over to where I was and squeezed his head into mine. I giggled and reached out for him, and for a while we lay there, nuzzling each other like two horses. I loved my brother as much as I loved my ma.
After several minutes, we got up, but it wasn't completely dark out yet. We fixed ourselves a small, impromptu bench and watched the sunset, watching as it sank lower and lower below the horizon. From my point of view, it looked as if the sun was sinking beneath the waves of the ocean, like a sinking ship. I stared straight at it, allowing it to bore holes into my eyes that were clearly visible when I closed them. I knew it was bad, that looking at the sun would make you blind, but it mesmerized me all the same.
My brother was watching the proceedings with me. His arms were around me, something he did that I had grown to love a long time ago. "Garrett," he asked, "where does the sun go when it sets?"
"To the other side of the world," I replied.
"What is on the other side of the world?"
I sighed. "Other people. Other countries. Other places. Better places, sometimes."
He looked up at me. "What about us?"
"What about us, on this side of the world? What happens to us when the sun doesn't shine?"
"We sleep. We wait for the sun to rise again."
"What if we can't sleep?"
I wondered if he was referencing my prolonged absence from home. The thoughts came back to me, and I fell silent.
"I missed you the most at night," he said. "I missed hearing you wish me goodnight and kissing me on the forehead. I missed knowing that you were right beside me if I ever felt scared or weak. I missed having a brother that cared for me." He squeezed his head into my ribs. It hurt and felt comforting at the same time. "You say that we sleep at night. Isn't that a good thing? We need sleep. But when you left, it was the first time I felt night become like what night really is — when the sun doesn't shine, when the source of life is hidden from view, when there is only darkness to be seen. I felt that way, Garrett. I felt like my torch was burning low, my eyes had nothing to see, and my world had grown cold. I knew that it was very likely I would never be able to see you again."
I hugged him closely. "I'm sorry..." I whispered.
His gaze had returned to the setting sun. "Then you came back. And it felt like morning, when the sun reemerges and breaks the curse of the night. It felt like the old became new; you're still my brother, but you're different at the same time. I never really knew how much I missed the sun until I could not see it anymore."
"I promise Evan... I promise I won't do that ever again."
"It scares me to know that, if life is like day and night, then night will come again," he continued. "Someday the sun will set again. Someday night will return. It will be a long, sleepless night all over again." He looked up at me again. "But night won't last forever. Night will eventually end. Night will always end. The sun will always rise again. The curse will be broken, and the old will be new again, like every morning." His hands closed around my hands. "This must be life. There will be day, and there will be night. The day doesn't last forever, but neither does the night. Morning is where everything gets refreshed, but there is no morning if there is no night."
I let his words sink in. I had never seen him get this philosophical before. My mind raced back to my first encounter with Ricky, my third day behind bars. I think getting separated is the best thing that's ever happened to the both of us, I had told him.
I made it night. And in doing so, I made sure there would be morning.
It really was the best thing that had ever happened to the both of us.
I smiled. Oh, where would I be without my little brother?
It felt nice to be able to sleep at home again. I had gone from sleeping on the streets to sleeping underneath tables inside gang hideouts, to sleeping in a cramped prison cell packed like sardines with hundreds of other boys. I was still sleeping on the floor, but at least it was the place I had grown used to sleeping in. And of course, my brother was there. My sweet younger brother. My homecoming spelled the end of his drought of having to sleep alone, and he was fine with that. It felt good to know that I was no longer hurting him that way.
"Evan," I said, turning to him, "I know I promised you many things, but this time I really mean it. I promise you that I will never leave you again. I promise that I'll always be there for you, always there because you're my brother. I promise you'll never have to suffer the agony of sleeping alone again."
"To the day you die?"
"To the day I die."
I kissed him one more time on the cheek, wished him goodnight, and rolled over, waiting for sleep to come. It didn't take long; this morning I was still in prison, chatting with Ricky. I still felt guilty for leaving him, having developed such a strong bond with him. Neither of us would've survived in there without each other. I knew Ricky was strong, however, and I was certain that he would never stop fighting for his siblings. Whether or not he realized it, he had done a lot for me, and it was only natural for me to help a good friend.
Tomorrow, I'll try to find them. Doesn't matter how long it takes; I have to try. My friend ran in front of a knife to save them, so surely I should be able to look around Tondo for them.
But first, I needed to get some sleep. It had been a long day. A long day, but one I wished would never end. I was home. Home with my mother. Home with my brother. My brother was no longer crying, no longer suffering in silence, no longer forced to endure night on his own. I was here, and I would never leave him, no matter what.
I felt two arms wrapping themselves around my body. Evan had snuggled in, hugging me tightly, holding me close to himself. I rolled over slightly, being careful not to squish his arms and hands, to get a better look. His eyes were closed, but it was clear that he wouldn't let go of me even in his vividest dreams. I smiled and put an arm over his shoulder, squeezing him into me. I thought about the people who had no siblings, how they missed out on opportunities like this one. I thought about those who did have siblings, and wondered if they had experienced the joy and love of one. I thought about the people who hated their siblings, refusing to talk to them, and even praying for their demise. I thought, at that very moment, that despite my bleak background and history, I was more than fortunate to have the opportunity to have a brother, to experience his boundless love and joy, and how we'd never drift apart; though we sometimes fight, at the end of the day we always come back together, because we are brothers. Arguments that dissolve even the best of friendships stand no chance against the special bond we have. I realized that I had found true love, something that people well into their adult years still search and yearn for; I had found it at the age of ten, right in my own family, in the eyes of my own brother.
Analyn and Joel
I ran from home so my little brother wouldn't have to scavenge. Now here I was, scavenging with my little brother once more, my promise to bring him a better future seemingly having gone up in smoke. It probably vanished months ago when I was arrested and brought to prison, but at least I kept one promise. Scavenging almost seemed nice now. It was definitely more legal than being in a street gang.
"Found something!" my little brother cried out. He was a few steps away from me, hacking through a pile of discarded plastic bags. He was holding a coloured bag of candy, opened and half empty. I could catch a glimpse of the logo: Skittles.
"Care to share?" I asked.
He smirked. "Get it yourself!" And for the next few minutes I was chasing him, running and jumping over the mounds of compacted trash, trying to get my hands on the bag of candy. Soon, he tripped, and I caught up with him, attacking him with tickles until he gave up the candy. I chuckled to myself, popping a piece into my mouth. I tasted a bit of dirt — wasn't sure if it was already on the candy or if it came from my own dirty hands — but it was nice to have something to eat, no matter how small the quantity. I handed the bag back to my brother. "Gotta share!" I said. "Big brother gets a piece first."
He took the candy back. "You're so mean, Garrett!"
I playfully shoved him over. "Big brother always beats little brother."
"I should be a cop one day!" He got up. "Then I can arrest you for stealing!"
"Chicken pagpag, a hundred pesos, and a bag of Skittles!"
I ran my hands through his hair and tousled it. "You can charge me on the first two, but I at least gave you your Skittles back!"
He grinned. "Okay, but you still haven't returned the chicken and the money." He pocketed the bag of Skittles; I presumed he wanted to save it for later. "I'll be watching you, just to make sure you don't steal anything else!"
Earlier that morning, I told mother that I was going to spend the afternoon looking for Ricky's siblings — and for Julio, if there was time. My mother was initially hesitant to let me go, for we needed all available hands to find enough to eat for a day, but she finally let me go after some persuading. My little brother wanted to come with me, and boy, he sure got his way: some pleading and begging and crying and mother finally allowed him to go. I could tell he really wanted to come, and I couldn't blame him for that. He hadn't seen me for months on end, and now that I was home, he was going to treasure every single second he spent with me. But mother still had the strongest argument: "It's too dangerous, Evan. You shouldn't be going."
"But I want to go!!" Evan cried out. "I want to be with Garrett! I haven't seen him for all these months now, and he's not like Julio! He'll protect me!" He looked up at me. "Won't you?"
"Of course I'll protect you," I had said. "Just hold on to my hand and I'll make sure we both get home safely."
Perhaps it really was best if he had just stayed behind and helped with the scavenging, but honestly, I didn't mind. In fact, I wanted him to come along with me. Loneliness was something I experienced on the day I left home, and the world felt foreign and intimidating without having anybody that I knew by my side. Now I had a companion, and I'd be lying through my teeth to say that I didn't want him coming along.
"In my defense," I responded, "I ate the chicken ages ago. Nothing to return there. And as for the money, the cops took it from me before throwing me into prison."
"Get scavenging!" my brother said. "Save up and return that one hundred pesos you stole! And as for the chicken..."
"What, you want me to vomit it back out and give it back to the stallkeeper?"
He pretended to ponder thoughtfully for a moment. "Yes!"
"You're sick, Evan! You're sick!" I wrapped my right arm around his neck and, with my left knuckle, gave him the roughest noogie I could deliver. He squealed, shouted, and tried to tap out, but it wasn't hard for me, being the bigger brother, to hold on to him. Eventually, he managed to wriggle out, and I let him tackle me and take me down, just so he wouldn't tell mom about what happened. For a good while we forgot about the work we had to do, lying on piles of garbage and laughing together. It was good to know that we still had a child in each of us. Me especially, given the sights I had seen and the places I had been in. I wonder if Ricky, Analyn, and Joel still have it within them to be children again...
After we had our findings weighed and our toils paid, we set off towards the city, towards my friend's siblings and our older brother. If we could find them. My little brother and I were holding hands as we trudged down the mountain and onto solid ground, paved streets and sidewalks beneath our feet. The two of us were hungry, but we rarely had the opportunity to eat lunch, and even if we did it wasn't enough to fill our stomachs. And hunger, at least to me, was far more bearable when you had family that understood your situation with you. Evan certainly knew how I felt.
My brother reached inside his pockets and pulled out the bag of Skittles. He popped a few into his mouth and offered it to me. "Want some?"
I grinned slyly. "Are you seriously offering candy to a thief? I thought you were going to arrest me!"
He retracted the offer. "Fine then," he said, tight-lipped, although I could tell he was trying hard not to giggle. He ate three more pieces before putting the bag back into his pocket. When he seemed to have forgotten about the whole incident, I suddenly stuck my hand into his pocket and tried to fish it out. "Hey!"
"I told you, Evan; gotta watch out for me!"
"You're so sneaky, Garrett. You should go to prison!"
"Funny thing is, I have gone to prison!"
We both laughed, but the laughter was short-lived. We both knew how much it hurt when the prospect of never being able to see each other again seemed to be reality. I held onto Evan's hand again, and right away we were serious.
"How strange that we were turning this whole thing into a joke," I said quietly.
Evan rested his head on my arm. "And how I was joking about you being a criminal... But you're no criminal to me! You're my big brother!"
"The same goes for Ricky. He's no criminal; he was only trying to provide for his family. He didn't mean to do anything wrong."
We walked along in silence for a bit. "Is Julio a criminal, then?" he asked.
I sighed, but I did not have an answer to that question.
"Mother won't let him back into the family because he's a criminal, right? But she let you come back."
I squeezed his hand once. "I will always be your brother, Evan," I replied. "And I will always be mom's son." A pause. "...We will always be God's children."
Evan looked up at me, but I had nothing more to say. I simply smiled and continued to walk, holding his hand like an older brother would.
I last saw them under the LRT lines in Tondo.
Ricky's words were echoing through my mind as we searched the district looking for his two siblings. I had told Evan about what he said too, and he was keeping an eye out for anything matching the descriptions as well.
My sister's name is Analyn; she wears a red tank top and beige cargo shorts.
We reached the LRT lines and walked alongside them. They were elevated above the roadway via large concrete pylons erected on the median, away from the hustle and bustle of the busy streets, away from the traffic and the poverty and the misery of the city below. Every few minutes a train would rumble past above us, carrying commuters who were able to afford the system's fares where they needed to go. It was a way of avoiding the city's problems, a way to avoid having to look at the grim realities of the world. Realities like us. Nobody cares about us.
My brother's name is Joel, and he last wore a purple T-shirt and black shorts with white side stripes.
Nobody cares about the people we were looking for either. Well, not really. Actually, that was untrue. Completely untrue.
Ricky cared. We cared.
You'll know it when you see them; they share a close bond with each other.
"I think I see them!" Evan said, pointing.
I turned my head to look. A girl and a boy sat huddled together, nestled in a small cove formed when the median barrier broke just short of a pylon. They seemed small and withdrawn as the world passed by around them. They were literally in the middle of the road, but nobody paid any attention to them. They were invisible, almost. But I could see them. My brother could see them.
The traffic light ahead turned red. As the cars on the road came to a halt, I squeezed my brother's hand and led him across the street, weaving through the maze formed by the stopped traffic. I felt eyes staring at us, probably wondering what we were doing, but I didn't care. When we got to the median, I took a good look at the two siblings.
A girl. Red tank top. Beige cargo shorts.
A small boy. Purple T-shirt. Black shorts with white side stripes.
Sharing a close bond with each other.
The girl was seated on the pavement, her legs tucked in slightly due to the narrow space between the median and the pylon. Seated on her lap was her little brother, who was resting his head on her shoulder. Both seemed to be very tired, and I thought they were asleep. As soon as the girl sensed our presence, however, she became alert and immediately brought up her left arm, shielding her face and her brother. I could see her brother burying his face into her shirt, hugging her tightly. My heart went out for them; Analyn couldn't have been any older than 13 according to Ricky, yet the way she sheltered her four year old brother was reminiscent of a mother protecting her child. It reminded me of the love I had for Evan, the love God had for me, the love I was certain Ricky had for the two before me.
Oh, if only you were here, Ricky!
The ice between us and the two, however, was very thick, made thicker by their withdrawal before I could even speak. The two were clearly filled with shame, shame from having to live on the streets. How many people would've scoffed at or just ignored the two? How many more people will do that before they finally get a home? How many people will continue to look down upon the two when they were poor and miserable through no fault of their own?
I looked down at Evan. He was watching the two as well, feeling uncomfortable with the scene. He knew their story, knew why they were there and who they were looking for, but even he felt distressed with the whole situation. He had seen poverty too — heck, he lived in it — but he wasn't desensitized to it yet. He still felt discomfort observing the ills and miseries of this world, the holes in God's creation that resulted from sin. Our sin. All of our sin. I squeezed his hand again, reminding him that I was right there if he needed me. I wonder if anyone can still see the light that shines through, the way Analyn and Joel love each other even in their dire state of affairs.
I knelt down so I could get to their level, the same way I did to Ricky when he was sulking by himself in prison. "I'm Garrett," I said, my voice cracking, lacking in confidence. "This is my brother, Evan."
The two did not respond.
"I... I know someone that you know really well."
Analyn's fingers parted slightly. I could see her eyes through the gaps, regarding me with caution. She still seemed tired and fearful, but I could also see a small flame starting to build up within her, a flame not of aggression but of defense, ready to protect Joel at all costs. It was the same flame that burned within Ricky. I almost retreated. On the day we first met, Ricky had grabbed my shirt and barked into my face. He would no doubt take on that form if he spotted someone attacking his siblings. I could tell that Analyn had no trouble doing the same if she felt Joel was being threatened. I could feel my little brother becoming just as uncomfortable as I was. Uh oh...
I decided to cut to the chase. "I know your brother, Ricky."
At the sound of his name, the two perked up and looked at me. Well, Joel did. Analyn was still wary of me.
"I know where he is. He is... in prison. I was imprisoned with him, and I was let go early. Before I left, your brother asked me to come and find the two of you. He's alive and well, and he hasn't forgotten about you."
I could feel the tension in the air beginning to wind down. My little brother relaxed, and I did too. I could sense Ricky's siblings beginning to open up a little, but they were still very cautious of me. I couldn't blame them. What if they thought I knew their father and I was just making this up so I could lure them back to him?
"Your brother asked me to take care of you. You can stay at my place if you want. I live near Smokey Mountain, and we'll have to scavenge there every day in order to survive. But I promise that it'll be safe. My mother won't mind taking care of you two. If your brother gets freed, he's welcome to stay as well. I won't separate the three of you."
Too soon, perhaps? They barely knew me, and already I was inviting them back to my house. What was I thinking? But it was Analyn who spoke next: "C-C-Can you bring us to him?" she asked. Her voice seemed weak and shy. I could see the fear in her eyes; she was definitely not comfortable with me. Not yet, at least.
I nodded. "I can."
"Is the prison far?"
"A lengthy walk, but I know the way." I tried to straighten up. "Would you like to come and see him now?"
Analyn and Joel looked at each other. I felt like smacking myself in the face. The two don't even know me! I realized that nothing short of Ricky telling them in person would convince the two that I was a friend and not a foe. And before I could bring them to Ricky, they needed to be convinced that I wasn't there to hurt them.
Great. How do I escape from this catch-22?
Then I heard Evan say, "Hi Analyn. Hi Joel."
The two reacted immediately when they heard their names. "How did you know our names?" Analyn asked.
"My brother told me," Evan said. "And in turn, your brother told my brother."
I looked at my little brother. He was rolling, seemingly fearless as he broke the ice and tried to foster a relationship between him and my friend's siblings. And who could possibly hate him? He was so sweet and lovely to just about everyone he met. "My brother reminds me of your brother," he went on. "My brother tried to steal for me. He wanted me to go back to school. But he was caught by the police and taken to jail." I thought he would break down at that point, the awful memories of seeing me behind bars getting the better of him, but he managed to keep himself together. "My brother did not lose faith in me. He still loved me even when he was imprisoned. He went so far to try and take care of me, and he wasn't going to stop until he was home with me." I felt him letting go of my hand as he squatted to get down to their level as well, hands in front of him, proving that he had nothing to hide. "And from what my brother said about your brother, he is no different. He also loves the two of you, and he hasn't given up on you yet. He will never stop thinking about you, no matter what. My brother did not lose hope, and he was freed. Your brother will not lose hope, and he will be freed too."
Analyn and Joel were speechless. All of their attention was now focused on my little brother. I too was stunned. He's obviously learning from me! I wanted to pat myself on the back for being such a good role model for him. Quite unlike our father. Quite unlike Julio. I thought about the conversations I had with Ricky, how I became Evan's surrogate father. I was clearly his biggest role model.
Evan turned to Joel. "I feel you," he said softly. "I feel your pain. It must hurt, knowing that your older brother is gone. I was deeply hurt when my own brother got arrested. I missed him terribly. But at least I still had my mother, and I still prayed and hoped that my older brother would eventually come home. And he did. You have your sister, Analyn. You shouldn't stop hoping and praying for your brother to come back. He will come back soon. You will see him again. Your sister loves you, Joel; don't be afraid."
Joel was paying attention, but he was still quiet and withdrawn. He definitely seemed more comfortable with Evan than he did with me, but I could tell he was a shy one. His father must've beaten all of the confidence out of him, I thought. Poor soul. The only person he seems comfortable with now is Ricky and Analyn. I wonder if he can learn to trust someone else again...
Evan pulled out the bag of Skittles from his pockets and offered it to Joel. "Want one?"
Analyn was skeptical. "It's not poisoned, is it?"
"No, it's not." Evan reached into the bag, selected a piece, and popped it into his mouth. "Both of you can have it. The whole bag."
I wanted to kiss Evan right there! What would I do without him?! I could see Analyn accepting the bag, regarding it uneasily. She took a piece of the candy and ate it very, very slowly, probably to check to see if it was poisoned and if it would kill her in five seconds flat. Only when she felt sure the candy was safe did she give it to Joel, who also only ate one. He offered it back to us, but Evan insisted that they keep it. "It's yours," he said. "All of it!"
I wanted to cry right there, not because of our bleak history or their dark background, but because of the beauty of the situation. My little brother Evan was offering them his heart — and an entire bag of candy — all at no cost to them. Analyn was protective of her little brother from the very start, from the way she shielded his face to how she tasted the candy before giving it to her brother, knowing that it would kill her if it indeed was poisoned. Even Joel, who was so scared and nervous of strangers that he would've made Lewis look like a superhero, was offering us the entire bag of candy back; I was certain he was hungry, had known hunger very well, and that any food he could get his hands on was a blessing. And he was still willing to share it with us.
"...Thank you," Analyn said to Evan. "Thanks for your hospitality."
Evan smiled. "Sometimes, when we didn't have enough food on the table for everyone, my brother and my mother would go hungry so I could eat. If you live at our place and we don't have enough for everyone, I'll go hungry too so you can eat."
I put my arm around Evan. What an incredible brother he was! "Would you like me to come back tomorrow?" I asked. "If you're not comfortable with me now, I can let you two think about it."
Analyn was starting to become a little more comfortable with us now, but her guard was still up. "We'll need to talk about this, me and Joel. We'll let you know what we think tomorrow."
"Do you need anything?" After seeing Evan selflessly giving away his bag of candy, I thought it was time I stepped up my game. "Some food? Clothes? Anything? I don't have much either, but I'll try."
She shook her head. "We... We can survive. We have survived."
After we had said our goodbyes and wished them well, we made our way back across the street and onto the sidewalk. When we were about a block away from them, I bent down and kissed my brother on the temple. "Good job, Evan."
"Huh?" He looked at me, confused.
"You helped break the ice between us and them. You talked to them about our history, our relationship, and how they should remain hopeful even when times are bad. You even shared your entire bag of candy with them." I held his hand again. "I'm proud of you, Evan."
He smiled and nodded. "Thank you Garrett," he said.
I'm proud of you, Evan.
I'm proud of you.
Proud of you.
Words my father never said to me. He never said it to Evan either. I thought about the time when I joined the Diablo Wingz, how Dodger and Reyes must've felt proud of me. It was a feeling I rarely got to experience, and with the gang lavishing praise onto me, it was easy to see why people from broken families fell into the criminal underworld; they got approval they couldn't get anywhere else.
I'm proud of you.
Another thought came to my head. When Jesus was baptized, the heavens opened up, the Holy Spirit came to rest on him, and God the Father said, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."
The Father. Proud of His Son...
I brought a hand up to my eyes and wiped away a few tears. Why, my earthly father, why?! Why couldn't you love me the same way God loved His Son?!
1. Scavenge on the mountain. Check.
2. Find Analyn and Joel. Check.
3. Find Julio.
While I knew that my older brother was in the Cobras, and while I knew their gang symbol, I didn't know where their hideout was at all. Unlike Analyn and Joel, I had no lead on where to go, so I simply wandered around Tondo, looking for the Cobras' gang symbol. I described what it looked like to my little brother — a green snake — and how it related to the tattoos on Julio's arm, which we sometimes got to see on the rare occasion he dropped by his old home.
"Why did they choose a snake?" Evan wondered.
"Because it scares their enemies, I guess," I replied.
"Is the gang dangerous?"
I nodded. I felt Evan squeezing my hand uneasily.
"Were the Wingz dangerous?"
"Yes," I said quietly. "They were very dangerous if you weren't on their side."
"Will they kill us?"
I stopped, squatted down to get to his level, and looked into his eyes. "Evan," I said gently but firmly, "I know you want to come along, but ma still has a point: it really is dangerous. I wish I could say that they wouldn't kill us, but they might. Might."
Evan looked back at me. I could see the fear in his eyes.
"I'll do my best to protect you, but it really is better if you just stayed at home. I'll go in. I'll take the risk. I'll try to find Julio."
"But..." And my brother's voice fell to a whisper: "You promised that you'd never leave me..."
"I'm not leaving you. I won't leave you. If I die, it's not because I wanted to leave you. I'm trying to find Julio, that's all. I just want to talk to him. I'm not going to join their gang. I'm not going to leave you and mother again. I want to bring Julio back home. At the very least, I want to tell him that I haven't forgotten about him, and that I really want him to come home again."
My brother wrapped his arms around me and hugged me tightly. "You have to make a decision," I whispered into his ear. "You have to choose now, and I hope you'll choose wisely. I've made the decision not to leave you again. I need you to make the decision whether or not you'll go into the hideout with me — if we find it."
He was silent for a while. I kept my arms around him, keeping him warm, protected, safe. Safe. How safe was he, though? No hug would ever stop a bullet headed his way. If a Cobra really did want to shoot us, the most I could do was to die first. He would most likely join me in my grave shortly afterwards.
Finally, my brother spoke: "I-I-I'll go," he whispered. "I'll go... with you."
I swallowed. Hard. Part of me wished that he hadn't said that, that he would go home and stay out of harm's way. The other part, however, was glad — almost elated — that he had chosen to come along; it meant that I wasn't going to be lonely, that I wouldn't have to go in there alone. I patted him on the back and released him. "Are you disappointed with me?" he asked timidly.
I almost smiled. "No," I lied. Well, half-lied.
"Am I a burden to you?"
"No Evan," I said.
"But isn't it—"
"I'll protect you, Evan. I promise I'll protect you, to the best of my abilities. You know that I'll go the extra mile for you."
He hung onto my hand as we continued walking, looking for any clues that might lead us to the Cobras' hideout. When the moment passed, he became a little more lighthearted. "You're such a nice criminal!" he joked.
Even though the situation ahead of us was serious, I couldn't help but grin at that comment.
"Look who's here!" a voice cried out suddenly.
I turned around, startled. A hooded figure, his face concealed by the dim lighting, had his finger pointed towards me. "It's that 'Miracle Boy' from Diablo Wingz!"
Immediately I knew what was about to happen. "Run Evan!" I shouted as I took off. My brother followed closely behind me, running as fast as his legs could carry him. The figure yelled something, and the unsettling tranquility of the area was shattered. "There's a Wingz in our turf!"
A shadow jumped out in front of me, an axe raised in the air. I barrelled into his legs, knocking him off his feet, but he was quick to recover. He grabbed onto my shirt, and I desperately kicked out at him to free myself. My brother hadn't slowed down one bit. I ran and caught up to him. "This way!" I yelled, heading down another direction. The path appeared to be clear, leading directly onto the street, and out of Cobras' territory. I kept running, my mind focused on getting to the light at the end of the tunnel. I heard a young voice screaming — composed of a mixture of pain, shock, terror — and it called out my name. "Garrett!"
I turned around and stopped, and my blood turned to ice. My brother didn't make it; the thugs that had been chasing me had caught up to him. He was thrashing around violently in their iron grips, trying fruitlessly to break free. He was still screaming, crying out to me, crying out for anyone to help him. The sound chilled my bones and shook my soul, and it haunted me from within. "Evan!" I began to run towards him, but a figure stepped out and blocked my path. Next thing I knew I was staring down the barrel of a pistol, aimed directly at my left eye. With my right, I could see its wielder's face.
"Don't come any closer," he growled.
"Julio!" I wasn't sure whether or not to feel relieved that I had found him, or remain horrified at the gun he was pointing at me. "I've been looking for you all—"
"Why are you here, Garrett?" he demanded. "Did mom tell you to come and hassle me?"
"N-N-No... I came on my own accord. I just came to... to t-t-talk to you..."
"You're talking to me right now. Are you happy?"
"Garrett!" My brother's screams brought me back to my senses. "Help me!"
I flinched. So did Julio. He pulled the hammer back. "Don't think I don't have the guts to end you with this thing."
"Evan!" I cried out. To my older brother, I pleaded, "Please Julio... let me get to him!"
One of the thugs approached him. "He's the 'Miracle Kid' the Wingz were talking about!"
"Heard he got busted."
"If he was, then why is he standing before me right now?"
"Either it was all a hoax or he somehow got freed."
"Who knows?" Julio remarked. "The prisons here are full of shit anyway. Don't think they keep paperwork. Whatever the case may be, he certainly isn't behind bars right now."
"Why does it matter?" I tilted my head slightly so I could see past the two. Evan's face was plastered with a look of sheer terror, afraid of what might happen next. He was looking at me; I could read the emotion in his eyes even from this distance. I couldn't leave him like this. "Please, Julio... all that matters now is—"
"Should we put a bullet between his eyes?" The thug gave me a look of disdain. "Would demoralize the Wingz all right. Let 'em know their 'Miracle Kid' isn't as blessed as they thought he was."
My eyes slowly turned towards Julio. He was still holding the gun, still had it pointed towards me. His hand was shaking... the hand that was holding the gun. He was the one with the gun, and his hands were shaking.
"Julio..." I thought I whispered. "Don't!"
Silence. I thought time had frozen. My older brother seemed to have stopped moving. Everyone seemed to have ceased all signs of life. Even Evan had stopped thrashing around.
Finally, the gun was lowered... barely. Julio turned his head slightly to face the people behind him. "Take the little one away," he ordered. "Tell Black Moth that he's the little brother of 'Miracle Kid'."
"Garrett!" He was being dragged away from me now; one frightened child versus three pairs of strong hands that kept a hold on him no matter how hard he tried to break free. "Let go of me!! Don't take me away from my brother!" He grew more and more desperate as the distance between us increased. "Julio!! Tell them to stop!!"
I tried to sidestep around my older brother, but he jabbed the barrel into my chest. I doubled-over in pain. "Enough is enough, Garrett. Go home. It's better for everyone. Especially you."
"Better?!" I was flabbergasted. "How is this good for anybody?" I tried to catch another glimpse of my brother. "Don't take him! Release him! He's done nothing wrong; he's not part of the Wingz! Take me instead! Take me and do whatever you want with me, but don't hurt my little brother!"
"Garrett!" Julio seethed. I tried to run past him, but he shoved me back hard, sending me tumbling to the ground. I scrambled back to my feet, but not before I saw myself staring down the barrel of his gun again. "How hard is it for you to just leave me alone?!"
"Not hard," I gasped, trying to catch my breath. "All it takes is a flinch of your finger. Then I'll leave you alone. Just let Evan go home. Let him live. He's young, innocent, carefree. He won't be of bother like me."
"Garrett!!!" My brother's voice was getting smaller and smaller. Julio began to back away, gun still pointed at me, following his gang which had his youngest brother. His youngest brother. My youngest brother.
"Julio! You can't do this! We're brothers! I'm your brother; he's your brother! You can't rip our bonds apart! You can't!"
"Garrett!" The voice was starting to become muffled. I saw the gangsters covering his mouth, pinching his nose, grabbing his throat, anything to get him to quiet down. "T-T-They're... they're going to... they're going to kill me!"
I took a step forward, almost instinctively. A gunshot rang out. An eerie, high-pitched whizzing sound was audible as the bullet whistled past just inches away from my ear. The bullet almost spoke to me, like a banshee before one's death. I shuddered at the thought of having heard Death whispering to me as it barely missed me. Next time.... next time....
"No more, Garrett. No more." Julio was very tense. "I don't want this to turn ugly."
I turned my eyes to look. Evan was being dragged into an open doorway. He was fighting to get one last glimpse of me. "Garrett!"
"Evan! I'll find you! I promise I will!"
He clawed at the edge, digging down with his fingernails to avoid being dragged in. His fingers slipped, and he disappeared from view.
It struck me too, that my brother and I were separated again. This time, though, he was dragged and forcefully taken away from me, out of my grasp, out of my control. I looked at Julio, mortified at what he had done. He still had the gun pointed at me, was still backing off towards the building that my brother was dragged into. "W-W-What are you g-going to do to him...?" I asked, my voice barely above that of a whisper.
"If you try to find out," Julio said, "I'll bring him to the morgue."
I stared at him in shock, but he was in no mood to converse with me. When he was far enough, he holstered the gun into the fatigues of his pants and turned his back towards me. I had just witnessed a side of him that I had never seen before, a side that was completely foreign and unlike his personality. This was not the older brother I grew up with; this was not the older brother I knew. He may not have been as close to his family as I would've liked, but the thought that he would have the guts to kill his youngest brother was unthinkable. I wanted to run after him, but my strength was leaving me rapidly. Colour left my face, and my legs became weak and wobbly. I remembered feeling a cold, icy chill going up my spine before I saw concrete, and then... nothing.
"Friend" from the Past
It felt unbearably guilty to come home alone. As soon as my mother saw me, she rushed out and ran towards me. She knew that me being solo was a sign that something was wrong. I ran into her arms, biting my tongue, trying not to cry. "Where's Evan?" she whispered into my ear.
As soon as I opened my mouth, the tears poured out like a fountain. "I t-t-tried, m-m-ma... I r-really t-t-tried..."
She squeezed me tightly. She knew how close I was to my little brother, having endured months without being able to see his face or hear his voice in agony. I was more than overjoyed when I saw him again, still alive, still waiting for me. I promised him that I would never leave him again. And now...
"Don't let it go to your head. You tried, but it was out of your control." She patted me comfortingly, but nothing could console me now. "You will see each other again. God will allow it. God will make it happen."
"I-I-I p-p-promised h-him ma — I p-promised I'd never leave him..."
"You haven't broken that promise. I know you'd never dream of leaving him." She looked up at the sky. The sun had set hours ago, and there was no moon; only a few white clouds populated the heavens tonight. "For now, though, we need to rest. We must stop and regain our strength before we think of anything else."
My own home felt cold and foreign to me. My mother was there — I knew it — but she couldn't fill the gap that my younger brother once occupied. Our TV was on, the image slightly blurred and obscured by white, fuzzy static, but it might as well be a wall coated with drying paint. I stared blankly ahead, reaching out to my right, feeling around the spot where Evan used to sit beside me. I felt almost naked, exposed, and cold in the absence of my brother's warm touch. I missed feeling his body next to mine, missed having him lean against my shoulder, missed hearing his voice whenever he spoke. I couldn't snuggle in with him, couldn't whisper any endearments or secrets to him, couldn't kiss him behind the ears. Everything that I could've ever wanted to do, everything that I looked forward to doing every day, I couldn't do. I felt incomplete without my brother. I had felt such pain before, but that thought gave me no comfort.
My mother sat down beside me, and I hugged her tightly. She was not the same — she could not replace my brother or his love — but I was in such a miserable state, even the tiniest bit of comfort was welcome. I tried to think of Evan, like I always had when I was imprisoned, and whenever I did so, I couldn't help but cry. I buried my face into my mother's shirt, my sobs muffled by the fabric, the same way my brother buried his face into my shirt. I felt like a little boy again, a little boy who fell and hurt himself, and his mother was there to make it all feel better. Except my mother was not enough.
"What happened, son?" she asked softly, not in an unkind manner.
I swallowed a sob. "J-J-Julio... J-J-Julio took m-m-my b-brother..."
"You saw him?"
"H-H-He w-was h-h-holding a g-g-gun... p-pointed a-at m-m-m-me..."
My mother's eyes grew dark. I had a pretty good idea of what she felt about that.
"H-H-He g-g-got his g-gang t-t-to t-take E-E-Evan... a-a-away... I-I-I tried t-t-to s-save him... but he f-f-fired at m-m-me..."
"Were you hurt?" There was concern in her voice.
I shook my head. That was only a half-truth though; I was not harmed physically, aside from a few bruises when he pushed me to the ground. Inside, though, my heart was bleeding, having been torn apart not by brute force, but by my brother's actions. My mother was quiet, letting my words sink in, letting the weight of the disturbing thought trouble her as she silently surrendered to it. She pressed her lips together to keep her emotions from spilling over.
"You know, when you left home, your younger brother held me and hugged me in the same fashion as you are right now."
I brushed a hand roughly across my eyes. Try as I might, but I couldn't speak anymore. I could only picture my brother, clinging onto my mother in my prolonged absence. I had hurt him, I knew it. I left him at home, him not knowing what would become of me, or whether or not we would see each other again. Now I was the one at home, hoping — praying — that my brother would be alright.
"He would always long for you, wishing for the day his prayers would be answered and you would walk in through the door. After that BBC journalist visited us, he emptied his tears into my arms and begged me, almost on his knees, to let you come back home." When I whimpered slightly in response, she continued: "I can't say too much about Julio, but I knew that there was someone in the house that would never let me sleep at night if his favourite person in the world wasn't allowed back in." She sighed softly. "I knew the two of you really loved each other, and I am thankful for that. You came home because of Evan and your immense love for him. Your father and your older brother never really had much of an anchor, and there was nothing here to really bring them back."
"I-I-I'll try, ma..."
She kissed me on the cheek. "I know you will."
"I just want our family back, don't want our family to be split or divided anymore. I saw what Ricky did for his family, even after all that had happened to them. He's still fighting for them; they're still hoping for his return. They'll do anything to get back together again."
She was quiet for a moment. "I'm sure you feel that I couldn't bear the thought of even seeing your departed father again. But to be really honest—" She swallowed hard, as if to swallow tears, "—I wish he came home."
"He wrong us," I replied. "He shouldn't have left us, and he shouldn't have cut off contact with us even if he did." I shuddered; the memory of the night he left, the argument my parents had, was still fresh in my mind, untainted by time. "We haven't heard from him since. No letter, no phone call, nothing."
My mother sighed. "If I can forgive you, and if God can forgive us, I can forgive him."
I shook my head, but not in disagreement; I was trying to get that awful memory out of my head. I was afraid to see my father, afraid to know what he had become.
"Whether or not he comes back, things will never be the same around here." She patted me on the back and tried to smile. "Enough of this dank discussion; tell me something that did go well today. Did you find your friend's siblings?"
I nodded. "They're wary of me though; I can't blame them, after all they've been through. They want to see Ricky in person first to confirm that I'm not a stranger."
She hugged me again. "You know, maybe it wasn't so bad of you to have left home at all; funny how I said that. I see God used it as an opportunity for you to reach out to His children."
His children. My friends. Us. All of us.
"Ma," I began, "does God love us?"
"All of us. Of course He does."
"Does He love me even after what I've done?"
"Does He still love Julio even after what he's done?"
"Does He still love my father?"
My mother answered that with a more generalized statement: "God loves even those that we hate."
"Does He?" I asked. "Does He love even the ones in street gangs? The drug dealers? The criminals? Those who are behind bars?" I shuddered again as another horrific memory surfaced. "Those who... rape others?"
"Jesus didn't die just for those who loved and followed Him," my mother responded. "He died for everyone on earth. He died for those who had wronged and angered Him, even if they hadn't been born yet. He died for everyone, for all sins."
How could one still love people who did all that? How could one love the gangsters that tortured the poor girl? How could one love the gangsters that served me the Wingz Treatment? How could one love the hardened teenager that attacked me and Ricky in prison? And speaking of Ricky, how could one still love his father, who drank, smoked, and assaulted his own family? I thought of the scar on Ricky's face. How could anyone love the one who made that scar?
"God loves us in ways we don't understand," my mother said, answering my unspoken questions. "I cannot explain that. No deacon or priest or cardinal or even the Pope himself could explain that. We can only accept this wonderful fact, the fact that our God loves us unconditionally."
I was silent. When I again spoke after what seemed like forever, it was barely above a rasping whisper: "Will you let Julio come home too?"
She sighed. "It will be hard, and I understand why you'd have objections. But God wants us to forgive our enemies, because we too don't deserve to go home, to our permanent home, the home He has prepared for us." She rubbed my shoulders. "You have to remember that he's still your older brother, and that he's still part of our family. He's still my son; I can't change that. He's still Evan's eldest brother; he can't change that."
"What if he kills Evan? What if I'll never see him again?"
"We can only forgive. Forgive, forgive, and forgive again. There is no room for hate, no need for revenge."
"I can't let that happen!" I stiffened. "I can't let Julio kill my brother! My little brother! He'll have to wrestle me till we're both panting and sweating our veins out before he can even think about using that trigger on Evan!"
My mother tried to calm me down, but I just couldn't, not at that moment, not with that thought in my mind. "How could you still forgive someone who took the life of your own child?! How could anybody forgive someone who killed their closest family member? How could God ever forgive someone that killed their own brother or sister? How can you let that slide?" I stood up. It was impossible for me to keep still anymore. "He had better watch out," I threatened under my breath. "If he ever kills Evan, I don't know where I'm going to go or what I'm going to do, but whatever happens, I swear to God it'll be bloody. I won't stop until Julio pays for it in a way that satisfies my thirst for revenge, or until I'm covered in my own blood screaming at the top of my lungs!"
"Garrett!" she said sharply, interrupting my moment. She rarely ever said my name out loud except to call for me and when she was angry, usually at something I did. This time, I was certain it was for the latter. "Sit down! Where are you getting all these ideas?" She tugged at me, though she did not force me down into my seat like I had expected her to do. "You mustn't let the abominable street gang philosophy get the better of you. It is not within us to exact revenge on those who do wrong. Only God can do that. Only God has the authority to decide on a suitable, ultimate punishment. We can only pray for them in the meantime; we can only pray that the best decision will be made on their end."
I panted, having used up my reserves of energy in that brief outburst. My mind was spinning a mile a minute, and nothing legible could come to my head. When the whirlpool of thoughts settled down, I said, "I just want to be able to see my little brother again."
"It will happen," my mother reassured. "You will see each other again. By the grace of God, I am certain that you will be reunited."
She was still holding onto me; I finally relented and rested weakly on the sofa. She kissed me on the cheek. "You must rest for now, as it has been a long day for the both of us. Remember that there is a lot ahead of you, and that God will be with you every step of the way. But you mustn't drive yourself to fatigue and neglect yourself. How can you save your brothers if you are dead?"
I wanted to say something in response to that, but I was too exhausted to even move my mouth. It came out as an inaudible murmur from my throat, almost like a dog's whimper.
"Nothing can sever the bonds you share. Your love is eternal. Your brotherhood is indestructible. No matter what happens, you will never be separated and you will never be alone."
I sniffled and swallowed, hoping to get some life back into my voice. "It won't be the same without him," I croaked.
"It wasn't the same here without you," she said in response.
I rested my head on her shoulder again. "I was really sorry about what I did... I hurt him, I really did! I really meant it when I apologized to him..."
"He loved you more than anyone else. He loved you more than he hated you, and I'm sure there was nothing in him that resented you."
"I loved him too ma... that's why I have to bring him back. Even if it costs me my life."
I heard a quiet sigh, but other than that, she gave me no verbal response.
"I'll do it, ma. If he really was in danger, I'd swim in a river filled with crocodiles to save him." I paused to collect my thoughts. "Remember what I told you about Ricky? He ran in front of a knife to protect his siblings and his mother. He could've died out there — his father could've driven that knife into his stomach and left him to bleed to death — but he did it anyway. He wouldn't let death get in the way of love." I looked at her. She still didn't seem to approve. "Didn't Jesus die for us? Didn't He do it out of love? He could've ran away, or defended Himself at trial, or even send a bunch of angels to pull Him out of there. But He didn't. Didn't He?"
She sighed again. I felt her defenses coming down. "He did die, didn't He?"
"Yes, my dear," she said softly. "He did die for us."
"And He did so willingly, didn't He? Nobody forced Him to die, right?"
"No... He did it voluntarily. He had no obligation. He chose to go to the cross."
"And He did it because it was the only way to save us from sin. He did it because He knew that the penalty for sin is death, and He didn't want us to die, right?"
I felt some confidence returning to my flesh and bones, this time fuelled by determination rather than rage. "So if Julio says that the only way he'll let Evan go is if I'm to be beaten and killed, will you let me go?" I looked at her; the pressure was on. "Will you let me surrender my life to save my little brother, your youngest son? Will you let me do it, not because I was tasked or forced to do it, but because I myself was willing to make that sacrifice? Will you let me do it not out of foolishness or even wiseness, but out of my own heart, soul, and love?" A few seconds of silence. "Will you?"
Now it was her turn to cry. She wiped her eyes with her hands. "I don't know how many people can ever have the opportunity to parent a child like you..." she sobbed through the tears.
Was that a 'yes' or a 'no'? "But will you let me do it?" I asked again.
"God will choose what's best," she said simply. And she got up and left to prepare dinner.
'God will choose what's best'? But what was best?
The dining table felt empty without my brother. I wondered how he felt when he had to sit at this table without me. If there was any "good" to come out of my brother's absence, it was the fact that we had one less mouth to feed, and thus more for the two that remained. My mother and I knew better, though; it was a shame to even think that!
My mother kept her prayers short but sincere: "Dear Father in Heaven, thank you for providing for us even when we are weak and when we are poor. Please forgive us of our sins, and forgive others for the sins they have committed; though we seek revenge it is only by your infinite loving Grace that we are granted the opportunity to heal. In Jesus's gracious name we pray, Amen." And the meal began, for her at least.
I didn't open my eyes just yet. I had one more thing to add. One more thing to add to that prayer:
Please choose what's best.
First it was Julio that got this room to sleep in. Then I popped into existence and found a spot here. Four years after my birth, Evan joined the family, and for the next few years it was the three of us, sleeping together in the same room. Julio seemed more like a distant king while me and Evan developed a close bond, but the room still felt one person closer to emptiness when he left. Then I left, and Evan was forced to, for the first time in his life, sleep on his own. Now it was my turn to sleep in this room alone, and it felt terrible. Sure, I missed snuggling up with my little brother when I was sleeping inside a street gang's hideout — and later, an overcrowded prison cell — but not in my own home. I was used to Julio's absence, but the spot where my little brother slept on felt cold and empty. I reached out, trying to feel for the one person I knew wasn't there. It was like trying to touch one's own shadow.
It hasn't been a day and already I miss you, Evan. I really, really miss you.
I rolled over and sighed. I was tired, yet I could not sleep. My mind would not let the thought of my little brother go, keeping it alive and bouncing around inside my head, giving me no peace of mind. Mind-numbing images of whatever my brother could've been doing right now flashed past my eyes. Best case scenario was that he was unharmed, albeit alone, sleeping in a miserable room, or at least trying to sleep, like I was. He could be in a crowded room, being laughed at and roughly shoved by drunk or high gang members, with nobody to protect him, or even for him to simply turn to for comfort. Or he could be dead right now, the worst outcome of all. The image of my little brother, lying dead in an alley, his lifeless body facing up towards me, the muscles on his face frozen in time... it wouldn't go away, wouldn't leave me alone, wouldn't stop haunting me. I slapped myself in the forehead trying to get it to clear, but still, the unsettling thought of my younger brother's untimely death...
I kept tossing and turning, but nothing could keep me in there any longer. Without Evan or even Julio, the room felt bare and foreign to me. Eventually, after what seemed like forever, I got up and turned on the light. Forget it. I can't rest. I can't rest my mind. How can one rest knowing that their loved one's fate was uncertain?
I looked down and tried to picture my brother again. I wonder how he spent all those nights in this room alone without me.
How he did it was irrelevant to me, however, because I couldn't do it. At least not tonight.
I quietly left the room, being careful not to disturb my mother or the neighbours. I tiptoed outside, where the warm, night air greeted me. It was nice at night, when the heat of the day gives way and the sun no longer beats down with the force of a raging bull. I wandered around, not really knowing where to go. My legs were moving, but it didn't feel like I was controlling them, as if they were walking on their own. They brought me up the slopes of Smokey Mountain, the garbage crunching under my feet, the refreshing air replaced with the smell of sulphur and charcoal. I reached the top, where there was a clear view of the harbour to the west. Oftentimes my brother and I would set up an impromptu bench, or simply sit on a ledge, and watched as the sun set over the water. I seated myself at that spot now, staring off into the distance. I remembered the last time I sat with him up here — only a day ago — and how he remarked that life was like day and night; sometimes the sun would shine, and sometimes the sun would set. No matter what happened or what one tried to do, however, the sun will always rise, and will always set. Right now, the sun had set; I bit my tongue and wondered when it would rise again.
I smelled cigarette smoke. And then...
That sounded familiar. I turned around and saw a well-rounded teenager, a lit cig in his hand, tattoos running up and down his arms. "Dodger?"
"Heard you got busted," he said. "The gang's been wonderin' about you."
"What are you doing here?" I asked.
He shrugged. "Tondo's my home. I'm here cause I can." He took in a drag. "I remembered you saying that you lived around here, so I thought I'd get some leads about your whereabouts." He dusted the ashes off his cigarette. "Guess you got freed, and I'm happy to see that you're alright. 'Least I didn't find you in another dumpster." He wanted to laugh at his own joke, but there was nothing funny about it.
"I can't go back," I said. "At least, not yet."
He shrugged again. "Wasn't here to bring you back, but whatever you say. I've no control over what Reyes wants to do once I tell 'im you're alive and well."
"I need to find my brother," I said firmly. "Both of them."
His eyes lit up. "Both?" He smiled. "Guess that explains why you were hesitant to mention who else was in your family when I asked. You do have more than a mother and a lil' brother. Tell me about them."
I felt like kicking myself for saying that last part. Why would he need to know? I'm more concerned about Evan than Julio. But, I said it now, and there was no denying it. "I have an older brother. About a year or two ago, he ran away from home and joined a street gang, buying and selling drugs for profit. He, like me, wanted to bring home money to support us, but the more time he spent with the gang, the more and more detached he became from the family. He comes home every now and then, only to spend a night, not looking or talking to any of us." I gritted my teeth. "I want to bring him back."
"Uh huh." I saw the red glow of his cigarette as he inhaled through it. "Now tell me about your little brother; I'm curious about him. Considering how Reyes lauded you for being a 'protective older brother', I'd like to know how he got away this time."
"I fought to protect him!" I snapped. "I tried my hardest, but it was armed thugs versus one kid! I had no chance!"
"Whoa, whoa." He backed off slightly. "I didn't mean to be harsh. You haven't even told me what happened to him." He had another puff from his cigarette. "You mentioned something about 'armed thugs'. What happened, and why was your brother there?"
"I was looking for my older brother," I said. "Remember when you brought me, Marcos, and Lewis to Francis?"
"He briefly mentioned someone named Julio, who was part of the Cobras."
I swallowed. "That Julio is my older brother."
He was surprised. "Can't say too much right now, but if he's part of the..."
"That's not important right now! I was probing their territory, trying to find a way to contact him. My younger brother was with me — he insisted on coming — and I let him tag along because I knew he couldn't bear spending any more time without me. I was recognized, though, as being part of Diablo Wingz, and so the gang was keen on getting rid of me. I was making a break for it when my younger brother got caught. I stopped and ran back towards him, but Julio — my own older brother — pulled a gun on me. I was so scared, staring down the barrel of his gun, the gun that my own brother was holding. I couldn't believe he could actually kill me... not because I was his brother, but because I used to be in a rival gang. He kept that gun trained on me as I watched my younger brother getting dragged off into the distance." I buried my face into my hands, unable to fully comprehend the memories of that horrific moment, a moment that occurred less than 12 hours ago. "I still can't believe he let me live... He warned me not to come back for him, but I can't! He has my younger brother held prisoner, and I don't know what he's going to do to him. For all I know my younger brother's body could be in a dumpster right now, all set for me to find his remains tomorrow morning when the garbage trucks come and dump their load on the mountain. But if he's alive... I promised him I'd never leave him again! He's my brother, and I'd do anything for him. I left home, got roughed up on the streets, entered a life of crime, got assaulted by cops, and spent many grueling months in a degrading prison for him. I went through all that trying to help my brother, and I won't let that effort go to waste."
Silence. He was staring at me, his mouth probably agape, for what seemed like forever. The cigarette dropped from his hand, and it took him a while to realize what had happened. He stepped on the cig and smothered the flame with his sandals, all the while not saying anything.
"My priority right now is my younger brother," I continued. "Julio can have his way, but no one touches my little brother. I have to get him back. That's the only thing that absolutely must happen."
He still wasn't saying anything. "Please," I begged, "I need your help. I'm not doing this for myself, or anyone else. I'm not doing this to gain money or fame, or even to be crowned a hero. I'm doing it for my brother, and for my mother's sake. I know this is outside the scope of any gang, of anything that you might be assigned or even want to do, but this is different. This is family, my family. My family's been segregated and divided amongst itself. My father left the family and never came back. My older brother Julio is part of your rival gang. Now my younger brother has been captured, and I don't know what they might do to him. I can't lose the people I grew up with, can't lose the people I feel closest to, can't lose the people that mean everything to me."
He sighed, but still, not a word came from his mouth. He mindlessly kicked at some of the trash at his feet, probably frustrated at the fact that there was no suitable place for him to sit. I had gotten used to it, but for him it was something he'd rather avoid doing.
"Remember when I was being given the Wingz Treatment? I was asked if I was there for myself, and the answer I gave wasn't a lie — I really wasn't there for myself. Thing is, though, I wasn't there for the gang, but for my brother. I never really did anything with the gang in mind; I drank more than you advised me to, impressed Reyes with the handshake, and tried to resist arrest because I was doing it out of love, the love I had for my brother and how I wished for him to go back to school and get off this dump. I know you and everyone else thought I was doing it out of contempt for the Cobras, but I really had no room for hatred." I was practically on my knees. "Please, Dodger, I need you to help me. Help me find my brother. I know it's not for the gang, but this is my family. Nothing should come before them."
He shuffled uncomfortably. Finally, he spoke: "Y'know, Reyes won't be the least bit happy when he hears about this..."
"I'm not looking for help from the whole gang," I said. "I just need someone I can trust, someone that'll help me get the one I love most back. It's a thankless job, but it needs to be done." I got up. "If you don't wanna help, that's fine; I'll go alone."
"Alone?" He looked at me sharply. "No one's gone into the Cobras' turf alone and made it out alive."
"If it's the only way, that's the way I'll go."
"You'll die, Garrett."
"I'd rather die trying for my brother's sake than to sit around doing nothing."
I got him there. He was quiet again, completely taken aback by my words. "I mean it," I said through clenched teeth. "My brother has meant everything to me for the past six years. We have the same nose, same eyes, same ears. We're of the same blood, same genes, same parents. There isn't anyone more like me than him, and there isn't anyone that I feel closer to than him. To leave him to his fate would be to reject him as my own brother, and I can't do that. He'll always be my brother, no matter how hard I or anyone else tried to change that fact. I have to save him, even if it'll cost me my life." I thought of Ricky, how he ran in front of his father's knife to protect the ones he knew and loved. "I don't care who's behind that trigger, but they're going to have to kill me first if they want to keep my brother."
He looked at me soberly. "So, you're not coming back to Diablo Wingz?"
I shook my head. "I promised my brother... and my mother."
"I know it sounds corny, but they're my family. I can't leave them. I learned that when I was in prison, daunted by the thought that I'd never be able to see my brother again. The gang may pride itself as being one happy family, but I realized that, in order to join the Diablo Wingz family, I had to leave my old family behind. And I can't do that. Why would I leave the family that I was trying to support? I may never be able to go back."
"You don't have to," he said, perking up. "There are lots of people, even people roughly your age, that have family outside of Diablo Wingz. You can be in more than one family at a time. You have to. They may or may not overlap, but you're always going to act and behave differently around your family of friends than you are with the people that live with you."
I clenched my fists. "God forbid."
Immediately I wished I hadn't said that, wished that I could bring those words back into my mouth and down my throat, but it was too late for that now. "I'm tied to my family by God. I tested that bond by joining the gang. I hate to diss you, but I can't go back to that immoral place. I love them too much to break the promises I've made now." I looked up at him. His eyes were flaring, and I felt afraid in his presence. "I know I sound vain and selfish, taking from the gang and not giving back, but my brother just means too much to me."
He gave me a long, hard look. I knew he was examining me closely and carefully, scrutinizing over every word I said. It reminded me of the day we first met, when he treated me out for breakfast, and I told him about my brother. Finally, he said, "You know what, Garrett? Mateo — the one that gave you the Wingz Treatment — he said you were one interesting kid. I have to say I agree with him. You are an interesting one, Garrett, and I don't mean it in a mean way. To be really honest... I admire you. I admire how you had the guts to climb into a dumpster to look for food, how you downed that glass like a heavy drinker downing shots at a bar, how you got beaten, hassled, and arrested, and how you got out of jail and went straight home because you did it all for your brother. Your little brother."
I wasn't sure whether or not to feel flattered or horrified. This sure sounds a lot like what Reyes would say about me in front of everyone...
"That being said, I am disappointed to hear that you were, in fact, a Leech. That's what the Wingz call someone who joins only to help themselves, not the gang. You joined to help your brother and, what everyone will say when they hear about this, yourself."
I almost gasped. "Don't tell anyone about this!" I said desperately. I was afraid of losing whatever trust and faith Reyes — or any of the other gang members — had in me. I feared it would only make it harder to get my brother back.
"Leeches are bad for business," he continued, having seemingly ignored my request. "Have enough of them in a gang, or any group for that matter, and things'll fall apart. That's why Francis, when he helped start Diablo Wingz, had the mindset of purging rogues from the gang; his last gang fell apart because he had too many people in it who didn't give a fuck about what they were a part of, only keen on smoking shit and pocketing the gang's cash."
"I didn't mean it that way! It's not like I didn't think about the gang at all... it's just that my brother was first, and I was doing it all for him! That was my goal from the beginning!"
He kept right on going. "You're lucky: we don't kill Leeches anymore. Got too messy after a while. But I have no idea what they might do to you, cause up till now, all Leeches were grown-ass men in their forties and fifties. You're going to be someone they've never dealt with before."
I slunk back, defeated. "Well... if you're going to tell them, I can't stop you..."
I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked up. I hadn't seen Dodger coming over to where I was. "Jeez," he remarked, "I never knew you could be this scared."
What? "So... you're not going to...?"
He patted me on the shoulder, but his face grew serious again. "Be here for me first thing in the morning; I'll come and find you." And with that, he left, descending down the mountain, back to solid ground.
I watched him go, speechless. I had no idea what he was going to do, or whether or not he actually meant to help me or not. I knew that he was loyal to the Wingz, and that he was no doubt displeased with how I, as the gang's 'Miracle Kid', was a Leech. My true intentions had been revealed, as I had always meant to love my brother. A few more months in the Wingz, though, and I might've been "cured" of my Leechness. I would've joined my father and my older brother, then, in their lustful quest and disregard for the family they came out of. Try as I might, though, my brief presence in the gang still left an impression on its members, and they really believed I would be the one to restore their former glory.
Be here for me first thing in the morning...
But for what?
I looked back out towards the ocean. The sky was dark, well past midnight, and I was exhausted after today's ordeal. First locating Ricky's siblings, then the dangerous hunt for my older brother, being separated from Evan yet again, and now having told Dodger the truth. The truth about who I was and who I had become, that Julio was my older brother, and that I never had, and never will, bow down towards any gang. I wanted nothing more than to be with Evan. It had been one of those days that I wished never happened, wished that the day would simply vanish from the calendar, and nobody would put a thought towards it.
The grim reality.
I got up, brushing the dust off my shorts, and with a sigh, trudged towards home.
It was five in the morning when Dodger and I met up again. Barely four hours since Dodger gave me the instruction to be there for him. I wondered if he had slept at all last night, because I hadn't.
"You're here early," he commented when he spotted me. I had been waiting for a good fifteen minutes now. "Thought I would be the one waiting for you."
"I know this place better than you do," I said. "Wouldn't make much sense for me to be late."
He shrugged. I spotted a piece of paper in his hands. "What's that?" I asked, pointing.
He handed it over to me. "Have a look," he said simply.
I unfolded the paper and examined it. It was a road map of Tondo, or at least a ripped out piece of one. The edges were uneven, suggesting that Dodger either was a terrible ripper of paper, or that he salvaged the map from the garbage. A circle, made with red pen, was drawn on the map. In messy handwriting above the circle were the words "GANG HIDEOUT".
"'Gang Hideout'?" I read aloud. "The hideout of whom?"
"The Cobras," he responded. "No, not the Wingz. Wouldn't draw that on a map anyways, in case a cop finds it and tracks us down. Spent the whole night playing recon of the area, trying to find places that'll be good for sneaking in." He rubbed his eyes. "Mostly for you, although I guess the Wingz might find it useful as well."
For me? "Wait, so you're...?"
He laughed, an uneasy laugh. I could also hear the tiredness in it. "Well Garrett, I can say with confidence that you're the most awesome ten-year-old I've ever met before."
I could only stare at the map in my hands.
"Before you ask: No, I didn't tell anyone in the Wingz that you were alive or out of prison. Let them wallow in their ignorance for a lil' while longer, I figured. Just asked if anybody knew where the Cobras' hideout was, took a map and marked it down, then went there myself to see what it was like."
He gave me a funny look. "You seem eager to go in there."
"I'm not eager for danger; I'm eager to save my brother. The sooner I get him back, the better."
"You eager to start today? Right now, even?"
I opened my mouth to say "Yes", but thought twice about it. I loved Evan, but I also promised Ricky that I would do something. "Not today; I've got work to do. I'll see if I can do it tomorrow." I looked up. "You have a plan?"
"Not really." He gestured for me to return the map, and I did. "Since you seem braver than I am — at least, when it comes to going into enemy territory — I figured that you would be the one who went in and did the actual rescuing. Me? Well, if you want me to go in with you I can, but your brother doesn't know who I am, and I'm guessing that Julio doesn't either. Julio might hesitate to shoot you, but he'll have no problem putting a bullet between my eyes. If you need anything, though, I can try and get it for you. You need a gun? I can get you one."
I shook my head.
"You think you can win, going in unarmed against an entire gang?"
"I'm armed with the Holy Spirit," I said firmly. I surprised even myself with that statement. Looks like mother taught me my lessons well. "I don't need a gun. I won't try to kill anybody. Either I get my brother or I get killed."
Dodger only shrugged. "Okay then, your call." He flexed his arms. I could see his tattoos stretching along with his skin. "I'm good with maps and stuff, so if you need me I can explore the area more and draw it out for you. If you wanna just yolo it all, though, that's up to you too. Pretty sure Reyes would've wanted you to have some intel, though; he gave you a blueprint before your failed robbery."
"He also wanted me to 'yolo' the mission on my own," I said. "Well, us. How's Marcos and Lewis, by the way?"
He smiled, as if he were glad I asked that question. "They're doing fine. Got reassigned to another group, although I think Reyes still think they're responsible for your arrest. They haven't forgotten about you; still bring you up occasionally when they talk. I have a feeling you kinda miss them too."
I did, but not really. The image of them running away from me as I got pushed into the police car still haunted me. I knew Ricky, given his personality and his actions, would have tried to fight those cops — and joined me in the backseat for the ride to prison. Man... what would've happened if Ricky and I joined the Wingz together? Would've been nice knowing that I wasn't the only one who was a "Leech".
"Speaking of Reyes... poor him! He got crushed like a can when he heard that the cops picked you up. When the Red Cults showed up to demand that we return a shipment of shabu that we stole, he didn't even leave his office. Wound up with two Wingz getting shot. A real bummer for everyone in the gang." He sighed. "Been rebuildin' ourselves and we're making progress, so I guess we're doing okay."
I looked down at the ground. "I don't know how news can spread, but apparently the Cobras know who I am. They even correctly labelled me as the 'Miracle Kid' from the Wingz. Not sure what'll happen if the Wingz hear about me breaking into the Cobras' hideout. I don't want them to think that I'm a risen angel that returned from the dead to save them."
He laughed at my comment. "You're a pretty good comedian, Garrett."
"Maybe you find that funny, but I was being serious there." I straightened up. "I'd prefer cutting all ties with the gang, if you don't mind. If it means telling them that I'm dead, so be it."
Now he was quiet. I could tell one part of him was disgusted at me for being a Leech, while the other admired me and knew that I wasn't lazy or apathetic, unlike what I presumed most Leeches in the Wingz were. But I really had to cut the gang out of my life, leaving it behind as a thing of the past. I definitely had no plans on getting arrested again, unless the police were corrupt. Sure would be interesting if I got thrown into the same prison as Ricky again...
Speaking of Ricky...
"Hey," I said, "I've got other things to do today. I'll catch you later." And with that, I got up.
"Hold it," Dodger said. I stopped. He walked over to me and placed his hands on my shoulders, looking at me straight into the eyes. I was startled, and I admit, slightly afraid. "You know what you're getting into, right?"
I could only stare at him.
"You're doing something that no Wingz on earth has ever done before."
"I'm not a Wingz..."
"I know that. But you still once were, at least. Sure, you might've been a Leech, but it's not because you were unfit for the job. You really have it going inside of you." He relaxed slightly. "I hope you realize that what you're doing is extremely dangerous."
"I know I could die. But I'll still do it. I have to save my brother." I paused. "At best, I'll save my older brother too."
He seemed a bit confused at that last part. I couldn't blame him. "Why would you need to save your older brother? He's not at risk of dying," I could imagine him saying. "I'll talk to you tomorrow, Dodger. Same place, same time. I'm—" A pause. "—I'm glad you're doing this for me."
He patted me firmly and released me. "It was really nice knowing you, bud. If you die, I'll really miss you." He gave me a wave, turned around, and trudged off.
I sighed. I wasn't sure what my mother would say about this, that I was partnering with a member of the same street gang I joined months ago to help save my little brother, but at this point, I figured that any sort of help would be beneficial right now.
Ricky... Analyn and Joel...
As soon as Dodger was out of sight, I rushed back home, slowing down when I neared my house, lest I disturb my mother. I quietly entered and dug through the little plastic container where we kept our food. No vegetables. No meat. No dried fish. Nothing. All we had was some rice. I got some plastic wrap and scooped the rice into it with my hands, folding it up into an impromptu bag. I stuffed it into my pockets before setting out for the mountain again. I should try to find something before I meet Ricky's siblings again, I thought.
Finding Analyn and Joel wasn't an issue now that I knew where they were. But navigation wasn't the problem.
They were in the same spot where I found them yesterday, though I presumed they had moved since the last time I saw them to find food. They were still asleep, poor souls. They had to take care of themselves entirely, with nobody to care for them, no means of making money to buy food and other amenities. I at least had my mother, who loved us and did her best to care for us. When we went hungry, it wasn't because she didn't try. It would be harder for all of us, certainly, once Ricky, Analyn, and Joel moved in with us, but I knew my mother wouldn't mind. "God will always provide," I could hear her saying.
As soon as I neared them, Analyn woke up and shielded her brother.
"It's me, Garrett," I said.
The two looked at me and relaxed. "I thought you were someone else," she said. She looked at my sides. "Where's your little brother?"
I swallowed. There was no way I could possibly suppress the tears now. "M-M-My older br-br-brother... he t-t-took him..."
"You have an older brother?" she asked.
I nodded. "H-H-He r-r-ran away f-f-from h-h-home t-t-t-too... j-joined a street g-g-gang..." The whole time I was rubbing my eyes with my hands, to no avail. I grabbed my shirt and buried my face into it, speaking through the fabric. My voice must've sounded muffled to them. "Y-Y-Yesterday m-m-me and my l-l-little brother went l-l-looking for h-h-him... and he o-o-ordered his g-gang t-t-to capture h-h-him..."
The two were quiet. I had told them only part of the full story, but it was enough to get them thinking. I reached into my pockets and pulled out the rice. "I-I-I brought y-y-you s-s-something to e-e-eat..."
I felt a hand on my wrist. "Thanks Garrett... sit down with us. Please."
I needed no encouragement. I sat down cross-legged across from them, although the cove was so small that my knees were practically touching them. The two didn't seem to mind, fortunately. They seemed much more comfortable with me now, although I could still sense Analyn's doubts.
"Don't forget about what your brother said, Garrett," Analyn went on. "Don't stop hoping. Don't stop believing. You'll see your little brother again."
I nodded, trying one more time to clean the watery mess from my face. I watched as the two ate, watched as Analyn gave most of the food to her little brother, making sure that he ate everything that she gave him. She hardly ate anything at all. My heart went out for them again.
"A-A-Are you guys coming to s-s-see your brother?" I asked when they had finished eating.
She nodded. "We never told anyone else our story, and the fact that you seem to know us so well might mean that you really do know our brother."
"He has a scar on his face," I said. "Your father lashed out at him with a bolo on the night you left home."
She sniffled. "I got in front of my mother, while my brother got in front of me. We weren't going to let our mother get hit like that. He'd have to kill the two of us first."
The two got up, and when the traffic light turned red, we crossed the street back onto the sidewalk. Joel was holding onto his older sister's hand and wouldn't dare stray any more than a few feet away from her. He reminded me of Evan; the day I returned home from prison he rushed into my arms, almost taking me off my feet, and when I lowered him back onto the ground he held onto my hand tightly. Someone could've charged at him with a chainsaw and he'd still have his hands glued to mine. He was more than someone who was cute and nice; he was a real human being, one with feelings and a conscience. Yesterday was sufficient proof of that.
"I befriended your brother in prison," I said as we walked. "I saw him sulking in the corner of the cell, crying into his hands. Everyone else left him alone, but something within me told me to talk to him. It was a bit bumpy at first, but eventually we became very close. I helped your brother regain his strength, and he helped me regain mine." I sighed. "He never deserved to be arrested in the first place; he stole because you were all starving. But — and dare I say this — I'm glad he got arrested, and I'm glad he went to the same prison as me. He helped me a lot during those tough times. I told him about my troubles and he told me about his. Your brother is very selfless and very kind, yet very tough and protective of the two of you."
"I figure you're made of the same material," Analyn said. "If what your little brother said is true, then you're not that much different to Ricky. No wonder you two became friends."
"Yeah." I wiped my eyes again. "I know you guys are dying to see him after all these months. I want to see him too, even though it's only been a few days."
It was a long walk, at least an hour's trudge in the hottest, sweatiest part of the day. Analyn could probably handle it, but the journey was hard on young Joel, and we frequently stopped to rest. Analyn was incredibly patient with her youngest brother, never once blaming him for the delays or becoming irritated with him for his tiredness. I thought of Ricky, how he said that it made sense to just abandon his brother, leave him for dead, but that love won at the end of the day, and that his brother would always be his brother no matter what happened.
You and I do have a lot of things in common, Ricky...
The two stopped again. Not surprising there. I saw Joel whispering something into his sister's ear. I realized that I had never actually heard him speak before; seemed too shy to talk to a puppy, almost. Evan wasn't a natural extrovert either, but once he was comfortable, he'd dance on tabletops to garner attention. Joel, on the other hand, seemed to be afraid of everyone. Everyone except his two siblings and his mother, I guess. I could see the stub of a close friendship between him and my younger brother, although he didn't say anything to Evan either. Given what Ricky told me, he probably never went to school before, didn't know what it was like to make friends or meet new people. Ricky only mentioned one time when Joel had the opportunity to be a child: when they had bumped into a group of children playing football. I wonder if he's comfortable enough to live with us.
Analyn looked up. "How much further do we have to walk?" she asked.
"A few more minutes," I promised. I hope I can find a way to talk to him once we get there...
Analyn whispered something else into her brother's ear, and I could see him nodding. "He's never walked for so long before."
Hopefully he's not up for the biggest disappointment in his life.
We reached the prison after a few more blocks. Funny, but I had so rarely seen the outside that I almost forgot what it looked like, even though I had spent months inside that building. I wondered if it was possible to forget what you looked like if you could never see your own reflection for years. The prison was a solid concrete building, dilapidated and filthy, but still proving to be a formidable challenge to escape from. I hesitated. I was a free man, but returning to prison — even as a visitor — unnerved me.
"Is this the place?" Analyn whispered.
I nodded slowly. "This is the place where me, Ricky, and thousands of other people were thrown in to rot."
"That's what I'm guessing. Mostly adult men, although there were tons of children in there as well. Our cell had over eighty boys all crammed inside. It was packed. Shouldn't have been more than forty of us in there."
"And they say that's where bad people go to."
"It's where good people wind up too. And even bad people don't deserve to go to such a place. Not in the name of God, they don't."
I thought I heard Analyn say, "But what about our father?" The answer to that question was far from my mind, however. A better question would be: "How do I get them to Ricky?"
"Follow me," I said as I led them around to the side of the building. I remembered the yard had one fence that stood between the prisoners and the outside world. The tops were secured with barbed wire, and guards occasionally patrolled the fence to check for creative prisoners, but you could see freedom beyond the chain-link fence. And with luck, you could probably see a few passerbys on the street below.
"They usually let us out into the yard at least once a day," I explained. "Nicest part of the day where you're no longer stuck inside a boring old cell. Hopefully we can find your brother there..."
The prison yard was elevated above the street, making it difficult for outsiders to look in. An unscalable concrete wall covered with graffiti intimidated and dwarfed the three of us. I could hear chatter on the other side of the fence, suggesting that the prisoners were still in the yard. The street climbed slightly uphill while the yard remained level, allowing someone who was tall enough to get a glimpse inside before a second concrete wall rose up and replaced the chain-link fence, blocking the view. I stood on my tippy-toes as I tried to look inside. I was just tall enough to reach the fence, my nose level with the pavement. Analyn was tall enough to make it too, but Joel was going to need some help here.
"Is he in there?" Analyn whispered.
I scanned the premises. We were on the children's side of the yard — the yard was divided down the middle by a fence to segregate adult prisoners from the younger inmates — so that was a plus. Kids. Kids. More and more kids. Some were barely Evan's age; most roughly my age; and in the distance were several teenagers. I shuddered. When we were in prison together, we had a group of older boys in our cell that terrorized all the younger inmates, and one time they even fought Ricky, leaving him sore and miserable. Interestingly enough, it was also the day he accepted Christ as his saviour. I almost smiled. Sometimes, God really does use the worst of days to make His glory shine bright.
"I think there's more people in there than three schools combined!" Analyn commented.
"It's easier to just throw a kid into prison than it is to teach them how to be a good citizen," I remarked.
Joel was tugging at Analyn's arms, wanting to get a glimpse. Analyn picked him up and lifted him into the air so he could see past the fence. "He hardly weighs much," she explained. "Not sure if that's something to be horrified about."
"He is only four years old," I said.
"I can't see him," Joel said quietly. Loud enough for me to hear, though. His voice was small and weak, almost lost in the background noise of the city. Yet it was probably the sweetest voice I had ever heard, still young and innocent and childlike, like Evan's. My heart broke again. How Ricky must've missed hearing his little brother's voice!
"I hope he's there and not—" Analyn began.
And then I saw him. An eleven year old boy, sitting by himself in a shaded area of the yard, leaning against the wall. His hair was black, but the tips were dyed blonde. The clothes he was wearing were the same ones I last saw my friend wear.
"Ricky!" I called out.
The figure looked up, trying to search for the origin of its name. I caught a glimpse of his left cheek, which had an ugly red scar scrawled over it. It was him!
"Ricky! Psst, hey! Over here!" I waved my arms.
Ricky turned towards our direction. As soon as he saw us, I could see his face light up. Right away he got up and hurried towards us. "Garrett!" he exclaimed.
"Ricky! I found your siblings!"
"Ricky!!" Analyn and Joel were clearly excited, overjoyed at their reunion with their brother, even if it was only temporary. Ricky reached through the fence and tried to hold onto their hands. "Ricky! You're alive!"
"I'm glad you two are alive! I'm sorry, Analyn; I'm sorry, Joel. I promise I'll make things better once I get out, I promise! I won't stop fighting for you!"
Joel's small fingers found it easy to slip through the chain-link fence. Ricky crouched down and kissed them gently. "I love you Joel. Listen to Analyn now, alright? Promise me."
He nodded. "I promise!"
Ricky turned to his older sister. "I love you too, Analyn. Don't stop fighting, cause I haven't. I'll get out of here someday and be with the two of you again. Garrett's a friend, and he'll take care of you. Don't be afraid — he's a selfless soul."
Analyn nodded. "I love you Ricky! I'll always love you no matter what!" I could see the two fighting back tears. I felt my eyes beginning to glisten as well. Goodness... a lot of crying these past few days!
Ricky turned to me. "Thanks, Garrett," he said. "Thank you for finding my siblings and bringing them here."
"It's the least I can do," I said. "And I'll do so much more."
"It's going to be tough, being a scavenger, but at least they can be safe." He sniffled. "As long as we can have a home, I'm happy with that." He brushed his arm across his eyes. "Where's your little brother? Did you see him again?"
I nodded. "But..."
The tears came out again. "My older brother took him... He ordered his gang to take him..."
I felt Ricky reaching through the fence and grabbing my hands. "Don't forget about what you said, Garrett. You two are inseparable. You two are still brothers... all three of you are still brothers. I'm praying for you, Garrett. I know you'll never stop until you get your family together again." He squeezed my hands tightly. "You're strong in love."
"You're strong in love too, Ricky. You and I are both fighters."
I leaned weakly on the fence as my emotions overtook me. He patted me on the back. "God is with you, always," he said. He turned to his two siblings, who seemed surprised at what he said. "Did Garrett ever tell you he was Christian?"
Both of them shook their heads.
"I know dad said he was baptized as a child, and we know what happened to him." He was suddenly bold and confident, excited and motivated, a sense of urgency in his actions. "But Garrett is the real deal; he's a real Christian, and he helped me understand what God is. He told me about the things mom never told us about, acted in a way dad never acted in. He told me that God is an angry and jealous God, yet a loving and patient one as well. He works with the poor and the broken — people like us! He's chosen us, the weak, to lead the strong. Above all else, God loves us. All of us. He loves you more than even I ever could. Listen to Garrett; just listen to what he has to say. I want for the three of us to be together forever, long after our inevitable death."
Analyn and Joel were speechless.
"I know it sounds hard to believe, but I now realize that dad never was a real Christian. We shouldn't be looking at him for answers about the subject. He never brought Christ to any of us. But I can see God working within Garrett. It was God that brought Garrett to me on the day I was thrown into prison, where He helped break the ice between us. It was God who helped us become friends, and it was God that helped the both of us heal. I know He can help you two heal as well. God works through other people, and I can see Him working through Garrett."
I wonder what my mother would think if she were here right now. "You've become a pastor, Garrett!" I could hear her saying. I almost chuckled. Hehe, not quite... but I am God's servant, that's what I know for certain!
Ricky turned to me. "Be patient with them, Garrett, just like you were patient with me. Feel free to bring them back here to visit me; you know I'm always happy to see them."
I nodded. "Our families will be healed. God is more than happy to heal our wounds and to adopt us into His family."
He smiled. "Remember how you said we were all brothers and sisters? You're absolutely right, Garrett. You're a brother to me. Sometimes I wished you were my biological brother too."
I laughed, and he grinned. "Once you get out of there and move in with us, we'll really be able to call each other 'brothers'."
"Brothers and sisters are what friends can never be."
"And we are all brothers and sisters."
"That's the best part."
A bell was rung, signalling the end of exercise rounds. It was time for Ricky to go back inside. "I'll see you guys soon! I love you Joel! I love you Analyn!" A brief pause. "I love you Garrett!"
Joel gripped the fence with his little hands. "I love you Ricky!" he cried out. Ricky started to walk back towards the building, his head turned towards us. I could see tears in his eyes. He mouthed back those three powerful words. The guards yelled at him to hurry up, and he had to comply. Before he turned a corner, though, I could see him giving us one last glance, one last wave...
A guard came up to us. "Hey!" he snapped. "No visitors here! Get out!"
The three of us fled. Me especially, fearing that the guard would recognize me. As soon as we were a safe distance away from persecution, Joel buried his face into Analyn's shirt and sobbed. "I can't believe Ricky has to live with those mean guards!" he cried.
Analyn patted him on the back. "It'll be alright, Joel. Ricky is strong. No matter how mean or how cruel the guards are to him, he will never give up on us. He will always be our brother."
Poor Joel. Looking at him again made me wonder how Evan must've felt when he saw me behind bars, rejected by society, left to rot unjustly without regard for the life I was losing. Life was short, too short to be wasted in a place like prison. Especially the life of a child.
"C'mon," I said, trying to add some positivity to the atmosphere. "Let's see if we can find something to eat."
The sun had already set by the time I returned home. Analyn and Joel, now reassured by their brother's testimony of me, had agreed to stay at our place. It was going to be cramped and miserable for all of us, but they were at least happy to have a solid roof over their heads. Mary and Joseph were thankful to at least have a dirty old barn to rest in, I thought. Not the most glamourous of accommodations, but at least it was better than having to sleep on the street.
"Mom," I said when I saw her. "I brought them. I brought Analyn and Joel."
"Good evening," Analyn said as she greeted my mother. "You must be Analyn," my mother said. She was tired, but she tried hard not to show it.
"I am. How are you today?"
"Exhausted, but in good spirits." She looked at her little brother. "And you must be Joel."
Oh Joel, the poor soul; he seemed very frightened of my mother. He clung onto Analyn's body like a koala, terrified of the whole scene. It would seem that he had some serious problems with trusting other people. I was no social worker, and I didn't want to forcefully separate him from his siblings, but I pitied him, wishing he could have the opportunity to go to school and to talk to people outside of his family. I knew better than to run away from home again, though.
"It's okay, Joel," Analyn was saying to him. "She's not here to hurt us. She's Garrett's mother; she means no harm."
"Joel's the shiest of the three," I whispered to my mother. "He doesn't seem to trust anyone other than his two siblings. Given what Ricky told me, I don't think he's ever been to school before."
"God bless the child," she responded. "It pains me to think about what his father did to him."
Joel had calmed down — barely. I knew he loved and respected his older sister, but he still felt uncomfortable with his new, unfamiliar environment. "You guys can sleep in our bedroom," I offered. "I'll sleep here on the floor."
Analyn smiled. "Thanks, Garrett." It was Filipino tradition to be hospitable to visitors in your home, even if it came at the expense of your own conveniences. "It's great to see that you're still willing to share your home with us even when you don't have much yourself."
"We are made rich by the love of Jesus Christ," my mother explained. "It is enough for us."
Joel was looking at me. "Is the mountain dangerous?" he asked timidly. I was a bit surprised, not at the question, but at the fact that he was asking me directly instead of using Analyn as a proxy. He was still very cautious of me, but I was happy that he was becoming more acquainted with me.
"There are some danger spots, but I know how to manage. I'll tell you what to do and how to stay safe out there."
"Are you two hungry?" my mother asked. "I'm afraid we don't have much right now — just a bit of rice and some vegetables. Garrett might be able to help you find some pagpag tomorrow morning."
Analyn shook her head. "Well, I can survive, but Joel's too young to go hungry so often."
"No, you should eat something as well; the two of us can manage," my mother said, smiling. I smiled too, even though it meant going to bed hungry tonight.
Analyn relented. "Alright. I'll eat something."
Soon, the two of them were seated together at our small table, eating what little food we were able to provide them with. Analyn, as usual, was taking care of her little brother, making sure that he was at least somewhat fed and tended to. She spooned much of what was on her plate onto her brother's plate as well, and she only ate when Joel insisted for the fifth time in a row that she eat something. Even so, it was barely a bite. I could see that Analyn clearly felt that she had a responsibility to care for her brother, and it seemed to come so naturally, as if she would've done it even if her mother didn't beg her to. I think Julio should take some lessons from her on how to be a good, older sibling.
"I'm happy that the two are at least off the streets," my mother said to me.
"Yeah." I looked at the two again. They were taking this meal very seriously, chewing their food at least twenty times before swallowing to make it last. On good days, me and Evan sometimes played at the dinner table, stealing bits of food off each other's plates until mother yelled at us. It wasn't uncommon for our forks to clash into each other and make an awful scraping noise as we tried to heist a bite. Usually, though, we only had just enough food for everyone, and we would sit and eat quietly and obediently. One time, when we only had enough food for Evan, I remember watching my little brother eat half the food on his plate before passing it on to my mother. She shook her head, and he offered it to me. "You eat it, Evan," I said. He offered it again, and again, and again. When he tried a fifth time, I simply leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. "Eat it," I ordered, and he finally did. When he was done, my mother and I could only hug him and cry.
"They seem more comfortable with me now that they got to see Ricky," I said. "I took them around to a fence that led into the exercise yard and called Ricky over. Even though there was a fence in between them, the three were so overjoyed to be able to see each other again. In many ways, Ricky reminds me of... myself."
"If anything, the way Analyn cares for Joel reminds me of how you take care of Evan," my mother responded. "The two of you drifted closer and closer to each other when your father and your older brother left home. If I died tomorrow, I will at least rest happy, knowing that you and Evan would never leave each other no matter what. I can see the two of you as fully grown men, still a pair of closely-knit brothers." She sighed. "If only their father could see the closeness between his children..."
"He claimed that he was baptized as a child," I said, "but it seems like he forgot God."
"Baptism doesn't mean you're saved, or even that you know God. I could sprinkle water onto your head any day of the week, can't I?"
The two of us laughed.
"I can't say too much about him," she continued. "I've never met him before, nor do I even know where he lives. But I do hope he comes back to God and realizes the damage he has done. In the meantime, though, I can see that God's plan has worked out so far. Your friend has received Christ, and hopefully his two siblings will accept Him as their saviour too."
"When Ricky was talking to his siblings about God, he told them that he could see God working within me."
"That's how God works in this world, Garrett. He works through other people. When you accept Christ, God gives you His Holy Spirit to protect you and to guide you. Jesus told us to go out and make disciples, and the Holy Spirit helps us with that endeavour."
I sighed. "If only dad were more like you... Still faithful, even after all these years."
"Just because he left us doesn't necessarily mean he isn't Christian anymore. You left, and your faith was made stronger, not weaker. God has different plans for all of us, but the final result is always the same. The destination is always the same. God's plans will always eventually lead to Him."
"And I assume Julio too?"
She smiled. "Of course."
I felt my fists clenching. My mother tapped me on the shoulder. "Don't get yourself worked up, Garrett. Remember what I told you last night. Sometimes we just need to step aside and let God handle things. Sometimes, God wants us to stay out of a situation; other times, God wants us to wait for His command. And there are times when God wants you to take action right away."
I felt my knees starting to grow weak. "If I try to save Evan... am I interfering with God's plans?" I asked.
She shrugged. "The only answer I can give to that is prayer. Prayer, and more prayer. I'm not God, so obviously I can't answer that question with certainty. God may want you to stay out of this, but chances are you might be part of His plan."
I looked up. Analyn and Joel had finished eating, with Joel resting quietly on his sister's shoulder. Analyn stroked her little brother's hair ever so gently, comforting him and providing him with refuge. How tiring it must be for Analyn and Ricky to have to parent their youngest sibling! If they knew about the Heavenly Father... the Good Father...
"I wish my earthly father was more like God," I whispered out loud.
My mother patted me lightly on the back. "All earthly fathers fall short of God's standards for fathering," she said. "You must understand that your earthly father is a sinner too, and that he's a child of God as well, just like you. Forgive him and accept him, just like God forgave you and accepted you."
"What about their father?" I asked. "Look at what he did to Joel. He robbed them of their childhood."
"They will be assured to know that there is a perfect Father out for them, and that not all hope is lost. You mustn't project the image of your earthly father onto God, for God is not your earthly father. Your earthly father is imperfect, and so are all earthly fathers. Only God the Father is perfect in His parenting."
Analyn got up. I wondered if she had been listening to us. "Joel's tired after today's events," she explained as she picked up and carried her brother. "Time for him to go to bed."
I nodded. "Come with me," I said as I led them to our bedroom. "We only have the floor to sleep on, but it's quieter inside the bedroom."
She nodded. "It's better than the streets by a long shot." Our bedroom was small, bare except for a small dresser in the corner. Normally I slept on the left side of the room, while my older brother slept on the right. Evan slept between us, and while it would've made for a nice photo — youngest brother sleeping inside the protection of his older siblings — Julio has never really cared about being an older brother to us. Evan had always slept closer to me, and I never minded his presence. If anything, it was Evan who should've slept on the left side of the room, closer to the wall, while I separated him from Julio. Oh great... now I'm starting to view Julio as an enemy...
"You can sleep here, Garrett. There's room for the three of us..."
I declined the offer. "It's alright. I'll let you guys have some privacy."
Joel held on tightly to his sister's body as she lowered him onto the ground. He seemed reluctant to let go at first, but fatigue won over, and his grip loosened. Before Analyn left, she kissed him gently on the forehead. I wanted to cry again. I too liked to kiss my little brother on the forehead before he went to sleep. My father used to do it to him before he left, but I had no recollection of him doing the same to me. I remembered what my mother said, and I relaxed slightly, but I couldn't help but feel a little irritated with him.
"It will be good for Joel to be able to go to school," I said.
Analyn nodded her agreement. "Me and Ricky had to drop out of school after he was born, since we couldn't find enough food otherwise. After my father threw us out, school was pretty much out of the question for the three of us. Survival became our number one priority. None of us had time to study or anything."
"Me, Evan, and Julio — my older brother — used to be in school, at least until my father left. Before that, we had to scavenge too, but at least we could spend at least half a day at school. Now we have to scavenge full-time just to find enough to eat."
"We had less food than usual today because Garrett went out to find you two," my mother said.
"I apologize for the—" Analyn began.
My mother smiled it off. "We don't mind. We're happier knowing that you're safe here. Safer than being on your own on the streets, at least."
Analyn looked at me. "Ricky mentioned something about you being a Christian," she said.
Uh oh, I thought. Here we go about this.
"I'm sure Ricky told you about this... Our mother never said anything about the topic, and our father said he was baptized as a child. But I can't imagine him being anywhere near a church, let alone inside of one. But he claimed it, and whether or not it was true, it had an impact on our lives. I never saw the church as a place of refuge of any sort, a place for people to seek rest and shelter in. I only knew that the church 'raised' a brute like our father."
I looked over at my mother. She was paying attention, but didn't seem aghast or irritated by her account of the church. In fact, she remained remarkably patient and calm. I relaxed slightly when I saw that. I thought she'd get quite cross at the blasphemy of—
"My parents never took us to church, nor did they teach us about any of those things. Forgive me if I sound harsh, but it's because I—"
"—never had much exposure to the concept of God," we both said together. Analyn gave me a funny look.
"Your brother Ricky was in the same boat," I explained. "He wasn't exactly open to the idea of God when I first talked to him about it, but it wasn't because he was a bad person. He just didn't know what God really was like."
"He seemed a bit... I don't know. I could tell he had changed a lot, but it seemed a bit strange for him to talk about God. That wasn't something I was expecting to see or hear from him."
"Me and Ricky talked a lot about the subject during those months in prison. Sorry for, uh, brainwashing your brother..."
She laughed at my joke. "I guess you want to 'brainwash' me too, right?"
"Well—" I looked over at my mother briefly. "Your brother was serious when he told you about Christianity. And I am too. He really cares about the two of you, and you already know that. He shared it with you because he knew it was important. As much as I could joke about the topic, there's a serious side to it."
"Tell me about Ricky first," Analyn said. "I'd like to know how you approached him about the subject."
And I told her. I told her about the night before and how I saw the stars of the night sky, how God spoke to me, how it seemed so real at the time. I told her about the night me and Ricky had that conversation, the cramped conditions of the cell, how I told him about my past and how I said my first serious prayer when my parents were arguing. I told her about his responses, how he found the idea difficult to believe, how he responded to what little he knew about the subject (Or maybe God turned all of the water my dad drank into wine came to mind). When I finished, she said, "To be honest, I think I would've said the same thing as well."
"I can't blame you," I responded. "I didn't really understand what they taught me at church, not until I was locked up."
"I did not accept Christ until I was twenty-one," my mother said suddenly.
Me and Analyn stared at her. This was something she had never told me before.
"For the first twenty years of my life, I resisted God. My mother and my father kept dragging me to church until I was eighteen, after which I bluntly refused to go. I thought that God was asking for more from me even though I had nothing left to give. I grew up in poverty too, just like the two of you. Just like everyone else around here. There's no opportunity to leave this place, no hope or chance for a better future. I hated God for creating me that way. I was angry at Him for allowing people who disowned Him to lead such wealthy and extravagant lives even when the rest of us were poor and hungry. I thought that, if I could just become one of those people, if I could shun Him too and think only of myself, I could get there as well."
The two of us were speechless.
"A few days after my twenty-first birthday, however..." She placed her hands over her face. "...I got raped."
Silence. Dead silence. I looked at Analyn, and Analyn looked at me. I had no idea why she was telling us these things, things that she never told me or Evan about before.
"I-I-I won't get into the details about what happened... but after the incident, I was so ashamed of myself, I couldn't bring myself to go home for about a week. I thought that my parents would kick me out, and I thought all my friends would disown me. For an entire week I lived on the streets, mostly keeping to myself in an alleyway, hoping that nobody would see me or do anything to me. But a family friend recognized me, and she brought me home — against my will, almost.
"When I got home, my parents were waiting for me. They had brought someone from our church — someone that I didn't know very well, considering how I avoided that place for about as long as I can remember. She told me about her life, how she avoided church and was a truant, how she tried to do things her own way. Both of her parents were deceased, and she was living with her aunt, who was a Christian. The aunt would always persuade her to go to church, but she would always refuse. She was still bitter about her parents's death, believing that they had left her too early, and she thought that God didn't love her by taking them away. The aunt never raised her voice or grew cross with her, but she became more and more desperate to bring her niece to Christ. So she went to my parents, asking for help. They tried to talk to her, inviting her over for dinner, hoping to at least befriend her, but she rejected all efforts to 'Christianize' her. One time, when they tried to gift her their copy of the Bible, she ripped half of the pages out and threw it into the garbage.
"This continued for several more months, until one night where she was lured into an illegal brothel. For three days she had to serve people, selling her body for their pleasure against her will, and if she tried to fight back, her employer would whip her. She managed to escape by faking illness, but the damage had already been done. She returned to my parents and her aunt a completely different person. I was a baby at the time, so I have no memories of the incident, but she couldn't stop crying after she had told her story. She thought that the blame was on her, that somehow it was her fault that she had been used, and that she couldn't possibly live with the guilt. She tried to take her own life, but her aunt stopped her. She said that she couldn't be her niece anymore, but her aunt said, 'I love you no matter what happens to you, just like God loves you no matter what happens to you.'"
I looked at Analyn. She was taking in my mother's story the same way Ricky was — I thought she would've dismissed the story, but she was paying attention. I guess my mother's account was more realistic and less ridiculous than my hallucination. Was I really hallucinating on that night?
"Once again, she asked why God would let horrible things happen to her if He really loved her. The aunt said, 'We are all broken people, and we need God to heal us. We often don't realize that, however, and we try to heal ourselves on our own. It takes a lot of pain for us to realize that we can't do it on our own. We try to carry the burden on our own, not realizing that God is willing to carry it for us.'
"She took my hands and told me that God was always willing to take me back, that He wanted nothing more than for me to come back to Him, and that He wouldn't leave my side no matter what. Even if other people rejected me for being raped, He wouldn't. He allowed me to get raped so I could realize that nobody could love me like He could."
Analyn was quiet, carefully reflecting on what my mother said. "So you're saying that... God let us suffer so that we would have to... depend on Him?"
So, essentially, he's planned for you to suffer? I remembered hearing Ricky say. That sounds noble.
"He lets all of us suffer, one way or another," my mother said. "God allowed me to suffer, interestingly enough, by letting me have my way. He let me disobey my parents. He let me avoid the church. He let me wallow in my hatred for the rich. And that's what led up to me getting raped. God doesn't let us suffer because He wants us to feel bad; He lets us suffer to show us that there is something greater. He loves us even after all we've been through, even when we're so miserable that most people won't dare to look at us. He loves you even when everyone else ignores you."
That last point. He loves you even when everyone else ignores you. They certainly knew what it felt like to be ignored by passers-bys.
"Growing up poor meant that I could see God more easily. People who had lots of things, lots of money in their pockets, lots of food in their stomachs, they have a harder time coming to know and understand God. To them, they don't need God. It's hard for them to part from their luxuries because it seems better than God. But I had nothing, and God, who was everything, came to me. He made His own, and He gave me Himself. He made me new and made me His own."
"But why would I ever want to belong to someone else?"
I broke my silence: "We know what it's like to suffer. We know what it's like to be hungry. We know what it's like to be ignored. And because of that, we can sympathize with the broken more than someone who never experienced a bad day in their life."
"And you're saying that God experienced a bad day in his life?"
I waited for my mother to say something, but I felt her nudging me, telling me to answer the question. I guess I really have become a pastor, haven't I? Ha!
"You've... You've heard of Jesus, right?" I asked.
She nodded. "Yeah... of course."
"Well... the reason why He is so important is because He is God. He left heaven to come down to earth as a human, to feel pain and misery and suffering, and at the end of it all He had to experience death. He experienced our pain. He knows how we feel. He couldn't have been in the center of our lives if He didn't know about our pain."
Later that evening, as I lay on the floor of the living room trying to sleep, today's events replayed themselves over and over in my mind: the conversation I had with my mother, the conversation with Analyn about God, bringing Ricky's siblings to the prison to meet him, talking to Dodger at five in the morning... Yesterday's events spilled over into my thoughts too: finding Ricky's siblings for the first time, searching through the Cobras' hideout, finding Julio... Evan getting kidnapped...
I rolled over and covered my eyes with my arm. No... no... not this again! Last night was miserable enough all on its own. Now I was pooped from a long day of walking and talking, and though today had been mostly positive, given the debacle yesterday, I still needed sleep. My thoughts, however, promised me that sleep would be a distant fantasy tonight.
I miss you Evan... I want you back, I really do! But I don't know where to start... I don't even know if I'll make it...
My mother's voice entered my mind: Sometimes we just need to step aside and let God handle things. Sometimes, God wants us to stay out of a situation; other times, God wants us to wait for His command. And there are times when God wants you to take action right away.
"Jesus...?" I whispered softly. "Will you let me sacrifice myself to save my little brother, the same way you sacrificed yourself to save me?"
A voice popped into my head. Fool, it said to me. Fool. Why would your little brother ever need saving?
I blinked. This wasn't the answer I was expecting. I opened my mouth to speak again, but the voice interrupted: Why would your little brother need saving? it repeated. He's with your older brother. Brother with brother. Nothing wrong with that. You wouldn't call the cops on your brother being with your brother, huh?
I gritted my teeth, but the voice was not finished its ramble yet: Why are you so eager to invest every little bit of yourself into a mission that's clearly dangerous? You're one boy versus an entire street gang. You have no chance. And even if you did, why would you bother? This was all your little brother's fault, anyways. He wanted to come along. He ought to face the consequences for his decisions.
I froze. The voice had a point there. My little brother was the one who wanted to come along, even after my mother's warning. He should've known that waltzing into the alleyways of the city was no walk in the park. He should've known that it was dangerous. Heck, I even told him that we could die if we went in there. Why, then, did he insist on coming along? Was he just crazy?
He's crazy, he's crazy! If there's anyone that needs to do the saving, it's him. He ought to save himself from his own mess...
Then another thought came to my head. No, not just a thought... a vision. A vision so vivid it seemed real to me.
I saw a hill, devoid of any trees and vegetation, comprised almost entirely of hard, barren soil. The sky was dark, the sun obscured by clouds like a solar eclipse — so dark that it might as well be night. I could see three crosses erected in front of me, with the one in the middle dwarfing me with its size. Nailed to the cross was a middle-aged man, his physique largely obscured by the darkness, but the figure still recognizable. On the ground — in fact, all around me — were leftover pieces of wood, nails, and rope. I looked down at my hands. In them they carried a hammer and a few extra nails. I looked back up at the figure on the cross, confused at the scene before me. The man was looking down at me, his eyes nothing more than slits peering out into the world. Blood was dripping down from his unsightly perch, and I could tell he was in agony. His mouth opened, moved very slowly, and over the howling wind were the words, "I love you Garrett..."
My eyes popped open. I blinked, and blinked again. The cross and the man was gone, replaced by the sights of my own living room, though I could still feel the wind, hear the wind... and the words "I love you Garrett..."
Huh? What was that supposed to mean?
The cross... the cross... the cross...
It was the crucifixion of Jesus, a story I've heard numerous times, a story celebrated worldwide every Easter. I knew the scene, the crosses, the hills, the weather, the man being crucified... but I couldn't understand the hammer and the nails in my hand.
"I love you Garrett..."
I know you love me, Jesus, and I love you too! But... what does this have to do with my little brother?
My heart was beating faster and faster the closer we got to the Cobras' main hideout. It was my third time, but it felt just as scary and intimidating as the first. The more my fears tried to hold me back, though, the stronger my determination to fulfill my mission became.
Dodger patted me on the shoulder. "Good luck, Garrett," he said before going into hiding.
I swallowed, nodded, and continued the remainder of the journey alone. Someone had seen me enter their territory, I was certain, for I heard the faint rustling of footsteps. I tried not to look at the direction the sound came from. What were they going to do to me this time? Were they going to shoot me? Hit me from behind with a stick? Kick me in the kidneys until I crawled out of their turf? I had little time to wonder, however, as my vision was suddenly blocked by a hulking two-by-four stopping just short of my face.
"Don't move, you fucking Wingz."
"Back again, huh?"
"And I'll always be back until I get what I want."
The two-by-four was lowered, revealing the face of the Cobra that had apprehended me. "You know what we want? Your dead body being dragged along the streets of Manila, giving everyone the chance to see your blood and your stupidity — and what happens when you play douche with us."
"Then do it," I said. "Kill me right now and do as you please with my body."
The thug jabbed me with the two-by-four. I staggered back, only to be whacked from behind. "This is a family squabble that revolves around you and your two brothers," a voice from behind snarled. "You got your older brother, who keeps telling us not to kill you, and you've got your younger brother, which is the very reason why you keep coming back for more!"
I rubbed my back. "I told you: I'm not giving up until you give me my brother back."
"We're not giving you your brother!"
"Then I won't stop coming back."
There was a sharp crack as the wood board met my shoulders. I fell towards the ground, but immediately tried to scramble back onto my feet. There was another crack, and this time I felt the ground on my cheeks for a little while longer before springing back up again.
"You may be stupid, but you sure are bold," one of them commented.
Consider the Wingz Treatment to be formidable training for this! I thought.
The Cobra behind me thrusted his two-by-four several times into my back. "You're lucky we can't kill you, but you won't be thinking that once we're done with you today," he promised. "You'll be in so much pain, you'll wish you were dead."
I braced myself. "Go ahead, then! Put me in that sort of pain. Make me wish I was dead. Dare me to curse my God!" When I got no response, I made a break for it. I managed to slide past my first attacker and escaped my second. Two successive cracks could be heard as the wood splintered against the ground — or maybe against me, but I could not feel it. My run was short-lived, however, as I found myself staring at the feet of someone in front of me.
"Fuck off, Garrett!" he snapped as he kicked me in the face. I tasted dust. "You wanna join the Cobras? Too bad — we're not accepting applications from ex-Wingz members."
"I told you, I want Evan back!" I cried out.
He kicked me again. "Just leave already, Garrett. Stop trying. I'm losing my patience. We are losing our patience."
The two Cobras behind me shuffled over, and Julio snapped his fingers. "C'mon, Garrett. The path out of this place is clear. Now get out."
I did not move.
"That wasn't a suggestion. That was an order."
I still didn't budge.
"You planning on leaving anytime soon?"
I shook my head. He stepped on it.
"This is the last chance I'm giving you to leave," he warned. "Otherwise, you'll be paying Black Moth inside a very lovely visit. He can't wait to meet you, this 'Miracle Kid' of the Diablo Wingz. You think he's a nice guy? I look like the Pope compared to him."
"I'm... not... leaving..." I mumbled through the pavement.
He rolled my head to the side. "Will you reconsider that?"
I did not respond. He took my silence as a "No."
"What do we do with him?" one of the thugs asked.
Julio released my head. I spat out the dirt and dust from my mouth. "Take him to Black Moth."
Two pairs of hands grabbed me roughly and hauled me to my feet. I wanted to fight back, but didn't — couldn't. They forced me to walk as they directed me inside. I turned my head and looked around, examining my surroundings, trying to find my...
"Evan's not in here, just so you know," Julio responded without looking back. "Even if he was, I wouldn't let you pass him."
My heart wilted, but my spirit did not falter. I had no idea where I was being taken, but my spirit was prepared for anything that might happen to me. Faith. Faith that I will survive. Faith that I will find my brother. Faith that my God is watching me... He is watching me...
Julio opened a door, the sound of the hinges creaking snapping me out of my thoughts. My two assailants dragged me inside and dumped me in front of a large, wooden desk. I fell on my knees, hurting them on the hard floor, though it was nothing compared to the pain they had inflicted on me. I looked around. The room was dimly lit, a thick odour of shabu and tobacco sitting stagnant over the room like a bog. The only light in the room came from a small hanging lamp that lit up the desk, nothing else. A figure was seated in the chair behind the desk, its back turned towards me. Julio shuffled over to one side of the room, facing perpendicular to me, his hands behind his back. My two "escorts" backed up towards the wall behind them, ready to carry out further orders to torture or transport me. The figure behind the desk moved slightly. In his right hand was a lit cigarette. He swiveled around in his chair, allowing the light to reveal his face. He had a large face with small, pudgy eyes and a small mouth. His eyes, despite their size, glistened with danger, and it made me uncomfortable right away.
"Well well, who do we have here?" he wondered aloud. "The very renowned 'Miracle Kid' from the Diablo Wingz!"
I remained silent. I was still on my knees, still below him even though he was sitting. He was practically peering over his desk to get a look at me.
"Your gang loved you, but they jumped the gun." He smiled, an unpleasant smile. "I know Reyes. He dropped out of middle school and still fails at basic arithmetic, I hear. He's mean to his enemies, nice to his friends, and that's about it."
My gaze fell away from him and onto the floor.
"You seemed like an invaluable member, but alas, you got arrested. I've been there before. I know what it's like." He leaned in close. "I tell you this: Reyes has never seen the insides of a prison before. Not in his life! He won't feel your pain; he'll never have pity on you. He may be devastated now, but he has no idea what sort of shit you've had to go through."
I made no response to that.
He got up from his seat and circled his desk to get to where I was. "You made the wrong decision by joining the Wingz, my friend," he said. "You should've followed your older brother here into the Cobras. You've got potential; I'm sure Reyes said that, and this is the only time I'll ever agree with him. You do have potential. The Wingz just couldn't handle it." He straightened his back. "Imagine what the two of you could've been capable of. Two brothers, together in the same gang. The Wingz, a pitiful, failing gang, would stand no chance against us." He crossed his arms. "Too bad you went down the wrong path. Sorry I couldn't help you, Wingz."
I shook my head. "I'm not a Wingz... not anymore... I'm not with them."
"Ha!" He flicked some ash from his cigarette. It landed on my arm, burning them slightly, and I jerked my arm back. "Ever heard of the phrase 'Once a Wingz, always a Wingz'? What, Reyes never taught you that? Pffft! He was the one who made that saying up!" He flicked more ash at me. "Stupid Reyes. I pity you; you deserve so much better."
"I deserve nothing from them," I said firmly. "I'm not a Wingz. I'm not a gangster. I'm just an impoverished boy who's trying to find his little brother."
He gave me a dirty look. "You're still a Wingz to me, so act like one!" He knelt down to get to my level. "Gimme the Wingz handshake, boy!"
I didn't move. I still remembered the handshake, of course, but no one could make me do it again.
"Do it, you fuckwit! Don't keep me waiting!" He cleared his throat and began to imitate Reyes: "Too slow! Whole thing shouldn't take longer than four seconds. You're taking five! Stop being a massage therapist! C'mon, I never sneezed into my hands! Jeez, you look weak and pathetic! Did you get the shit beaten out of you as a child?!"
I looked at him, amazed. He sounded exactly like Reyes, and even used the same volatile vocabulary as he did!
"Yeah, I sounded like him, didn't I?"
I was too stunned to respond.
"I know him personally. He never changes, I tell ya. Always spews forth the same verbal cocktails to every new recruit he meets." He extended his hand out to me again. "C'mon now, gimme the Wingz handshake. Show me how tough you are."
I didn't move. He flicked more hot ash at me. "Do it!"
"I'm not a Wingz!" I said. "I won't do it! I'm—"
He drove the end of his lit cigarette into my forehead. The heat seared my skin, and I screamed in pain. "I wondered where the old Garrett went," he commented coldly.
I reached up and felt around the burn area. I touched the affected flesh, sending a sharp jolt of pain through me like a bolt of lightning. Black Moth extinguished his cigarette and slipped a metal object with four holes through his fingers. I looked to my right, where Julio was standing. He had seen his boss burn me with his cigarette, had seen me experience pain before — heck, he dealt some of the blows himself — and though he tried hard not to show it, he too seemed uncomfortable by the scene.
"You know what we do with Wingz that find ourselves in our turf?" he asked me. "We show them our classy brass knuckles." He showed me the metal object around his fingers, which reflected the dim light into my eyes irregularly. "Homemade. Made this myself after a recreational blacksmith taught me the art. A fine hobby of mine, when I have the time to tend to a forge." He snapped his fingers with his other hand, which was free. "Hold him."
The two Cobras behind me hauled me to my feet again. I staggered, my legs feeling like a weak foundation beneath me. Black Moth smiled grimly. "Julio told me everything about you that I want to know," he said in a low, dark voice. "Shame you brought your little brother along, poor child. He hid his face and presented his back to me when I met him. Wouldn't let even his eldest brother touch him after that." He cracked his knuckles. "Shame you keep coming back as well. You really think you're gonna get anywhere pissing the hell out of us?"
I nodded. "And that's why you have to give me—"
His fingers suddenly clenched as his arm cocked back and drove his brass-knuckled fist into my stomach. Every bit of air left my lungs as I felt my internal organs jarring around inside of me, turning to goo-like gelatin. I tried to breathe, but couldn't. I tried to scream, but my lungs were empty. I couldn't even double-over in pain, for the two Cobras kept me upright with their iron grip. It reminded me of the time when I ignored Goliath, the bully in my prison cell, when he demanded that I pour him a glass of water, and he punched me in the gut for it. He seemed almost like a Sunday school teacher, however, compared to the demon in front of me.
Black Moth sucked on his knuckles, pleased at the damage he had caused, the agony I was in. "I don't take any orders from a Wingz," he said, beginning to circle me. "I'm well aware of the 'Wingz Treatment' they gave you. How intriguing! They train you by whipping the living daylights out of your fleshy body?" He flashed a smile. "We save the torturing for our enemies, and trust me, it makes the Wingz Treatment feel like a pedicure." He looked at me. "You know Antonio? They had to have told you about him. You know what we did to him?" He showed me the brass knuckles again. "We gave him some shit, and then we knifed him."
"I'm not a Wingz," I gasped. "I told you that. I'm—"
It came again. My breaths were reduced to fruitless wheezes as I tried to survive. I felt like cringing; it would've been easier to throw in the towel and admit defeat. I looked at Julio. He was cringing too.
"I've got one, no, two requests for you, Wingz," he said to me. "One, you call yourself a Wingz, because you are one. Two, you never come back here again. Stop coming for your brother, stop being an ass. You understand me?"
I couldn't look at him, not just because I didn't want to, but because I was too weak to move my head. "You hear me?" he barked suddenly, almost scaring me out of my wits.
"I refuse," I muttered under my breath.
He grabbed my chin and, despite my attempts to fight it, forced my head to look at him. "What did you say?" he whispered in a soft, darkly dangerous voice.
I wanted to squeeze my eyes shut, but I kept them open. I wasn't going to bow down to him on either of those two points, especially the latter. I wasn't going to give up until Evan was safe at home. And I wasn't going to be a coward either way; I'd look at him right in the eye as he pulled the trigger that would end my life.
"I repeat: What did you say?!" he roared, his white-hot temper bearing down on my face with the fury of a million suns.
I could've said lots of things to him. I could've told him that the Wingz trumped his puny gang. I could've told him that I wasn't going to relent until my brother was in my arms. I could've even told him to give me mercy and to let me go. But none of those words reached my mouth, and all that came out was: "Eat my shit."
Did I really just say that?
I must have, because he came at me again. This time, the two Cobras dropped me just as the fist came charging in, so I literally fell onto the punch. The force was so great that it sent me upwards into the air like a bird, before the fist retreated and left me to continue the three feet back to earth on my own. It hit me like a massive slap to the face, and I lay there, thinking I was dead, hoping that God would come and spare me from this miserable universe quickly.
Black Moth personally came around and grabbed my shirt, pulling me off the floor. "I make Reyes look like your best friend, huh?" he snarled. "I make the guys who gave you the Wingz Treatment look like they're your stewards. I even make your very own brother Julio look like he's the Archbishop of Canterbury!"
I tried to turn my head to look at my brother, but he shook my shirt again. "You better not be sticking your head around here again, boy, or I'll overrule your quasi-impunity around here."
He struck me across the face, his brass knuckles still on. I tasted blood. "Go back to the Wingz," he said. "I bet Reyes is consuming box after box of tissues at his loss. Bring him a pacifier. And a piece of candy."
"I'm not a—"
He struck me again. I felt the two Cobras standing by beginning to stiffen. I looked at Julio, begging him silently to help me. He was cringing at the scene; I couldn't be sure if he wasn't used to seeing his boss getting this violent, or he was uneasy at the fact that this was happening to his younger brother. Help me Julio... Help me...
Black Moth's eyes lit up, as if he had a brilliant idea. "I tell you this: You leave this place and rejoin the Wingz — that miserable, pathetic gang — and I'll let your brother live. If I see you around here again, I'll kill him... and you as well. You understand? You wanna see your little brother die?!"
His proposal sunk deep within me. My brother's life was top priority to me, and I couldn't let anything happen to him. If I went back to the Wingz and did as Black Moth asked, he'd let Evan live...
My brother would be safe.
Or would he?
I stared at the crime boss in front of me. How could I trust this guy's word for it? What if this was just a way to rid himself of me so he could do with Evan as he pleased? What would he do to my brother?
Make him a criminal?
Sell him to a brothel?
I felt the strength suddenly returning to my arms and legs. "Never!" I seethed. "You're lying to me, you're lying to me! Once I'm gone you'll just brainwash him and use him against me! If I let you have Evan I'd just be handing him over to you like a chocolate bar! I won't! Never in my wildest dreams would I ever disown my own brother like that! If you're going to kill Evan, or do anything nasty to him, you'll have to take my life first! I won't stop until you leave my lifeless body out for the ravens to pick clean!"
He raised his brass-knuckled fist and swept it across my face. Inkblots obscured my vision as I met the ground again, my body too numb to move. No part of me was about to back down, though; I wasn't going to take back what I had just said. My brother was worth the pain! I bit my tongue and fought back tears as the image of my little brother entered my mind. I love you Evan I love you Evan I love you Evan...
Black Moth kicked me in the gut. "C'mon, Garrett. Go home. Stop coming back for your brother. Your efforts are fruitless."
He kicked me again. "Hmm? Don't snub me, boy; get out of here and don't come back."
I won't listen to you!
Another kick. "You wanna die, son?!"
Kill me. Go ahead. I dare you. Stop threatening me. Just do it.
A fourth kick, this one stronger than the rest. "You take me as a fool?!"
"That's enough!" my older brother said suddenly. I heard him taking several steps towards us. "Leave him alone."
His boss whirled around. "What's the matter with you, Julio? You having sympathy on a Wingz?"
"You've made your point; let me take it from here," Julio pleaded. "I'll get rid of him myself."
There was a brief but uncomfortable pause. "You better not come running to me for help with this kid again," Black Moth warned.
Two fingers snapped, and the two Cobras grabbed me and lifted me up again. "Let's go," one of them said gruffly. "You haven't been through the worst yet, kid; I've seen him kill someone with a bloody, agonizing death in this very office before."
"You damn right this was the Bunny Hill!" Black Moth shouted. To me, he cautioned: "I mean business here. If you try to shit on us again, your body will see the insides of a dumpster."
I already have, funny enough. But I had no room for laughter within me. As I was being dragged through the doorway, I shouted, "Wait!"
The crime boss looked at me. He had seated himself at his desk again, another cigarette in one hand, a lighter in another. "What?"
I turned my head to look at him. I was panting, exhausted after my ordeal, but I wasn't finished the race yet. "You can kill me, and you can kill my brother. But you can't kill the bond we share."
He lit his cigarette, inhaled slowly, and exhaled, letting out a long stream of smoke. "Fuck off already."
My two escorts carried me away again. I had no reason to resist them. I had told Black Moth what I wanted him to know, that we would always win in the end.
They threw me outside, where it had begun to rain. The wet concrete seemed almost pleasant to me. Julio came out from behind them. "Go home, Garrett," he said. "Leave us alone. Leave me alone. I don't wanna get in trouble again. You hear me?"
I didn't answer him. I felt like I had made my point clear enough times already.
Fortunately, none of them pressed me onto it. They headed back inside, slamming the door after them. I rolled over onto my back, facing the sky where raindrops were pelting down from. My face was soaked with them; I ran my tongue around my mouth and drank the water thirstily. My ribs and my stomach were sore, my cheeks badly bruised, my head pounding. But I was alive. I had survived. I closed my eyes, permitting the tears that had welled up on top of them to fall, and whispered a silent prayer of thanks to the Lord.
I heard footsteps. "Garrett!" Dodger's voice cried out. He sloshed through the torrent towards me. "Man, you're in bad shape. What'd they do to you?"
I sucked in air. "Things that made the Wingz Treatment feel like a pedicure," I managed to say.
"This is getting too dangerous, Garrett," Dodger warned. "By the looks of it, it seemed like they were ready to kill you."
"You warned me about that already," I responded. "I told you I won't stop until I get my brother back. I didn't get him this time, so there will be a next time where I try again!"
He shook his head. "You're crazy, Garrett. Even we at the Wingz don't treat our enemies like this."
"I don't care about the Wingz!" I gasped. "I only care about my brother right now, and how I need to bring him home."
"Speaking of home, looks like you need a lift there." He hoisted me up onto his back and began to carry me out through the rain. "Even Reyes would have second thoughts on sending you on a mission this dangerous."
"He had me try to rob a Red Cults's jewellery store," I said in response, my speech slightly stuttered from the bumps and the awkward position I was in.
He laughed. "Really? The Red Cults are angels compared to what I've seen the Cobras do!" He stopped, presumably at a traffic light. "You really need to know your limits, Garrett. This is getting way too dangerous for anybody. Just think: is this really worth it?"
"You don't know how much I love my brother!"
He sighed. "You can keep doing this if you want. I prefer not to have my head stuck onto the end of a pole."
I perked up. "What?!"
"I'll bring you home and that's that. I'll let you make the decision whether or not to carry on from there." The light turned green and he continued walking in relative silence. I felt the bumpy ride in my back, knocking and twisting my spine out of shape. The rain that once felt so refreshing on my skin felt cold and disheartening. My mind was spinning — and pounding, from all the beatings today — as I tried to come to terms with what had just happened. I had depended on Dodger's support to map out their turf and keep my spirits up. Now, he was gone, withdrawing his support. He found it much too dangerous for even someone like him to carry on. From the day he pulled me out of that dumpster to now, I thought I had someone I could lean on, to an extent.
I was wrong.
My mother scrubbed and cleaned my wounds as I lay on the couch, every inch of my body throbbing with pain. Ricky's two siblings were by my side as well. I told them about what had happened today, how I was confronted initially, how they dragged me in, how Black Moth tortured me, how Julio left me. That last part hurt, especially considering the fact that he had stepped up to drag Black Moth away from me.
"This is getting too dangerous, Garrett!" my mother warned.
"You'll get yourself killed," Analyn added.
I shook my head. "I can't let that stop me," I croaked.
"Once Death has his fingers around your neck, that'll stop you for sure!" my mother said.
I turned my head to look at Ricky's sister. "Your brother didn't hesitate to take that knife for the two of you, wasn't he?"
She fell silent, knowing that it was the truth.
My mother covered her face with her hands. "I've lost a husband and two sons already," she lamented. "What happens if I lose you? How could I live with all that grief?"
"What happens if Evan dies?" I responded. "What if Julio kills him? What if my eldest brother kills my youngest brother? How could either of us live with that grief?"
"The stakes are high."
"The stakes were always high."
"What if I lose you, Garrett? What are the odds of you coming home with your brother? What are the odds of you coming home with both of your brothers?" She shook her head. "I know the power of your determination and your heart, but it isn't enough to stop a bullet coming your way."
I looked at Joel. He was quiet, like he often was. He was now comfortable around me and my mother, but he still seldom spoke to anyone other than his sister. I knew his story; Ricky had told me, something that none of us in the room would ever want to retell, or even recall. I knew how his father had hit and abused him, to the point that he was driven out of his own home. "Analyn," I began, "what would you do if your abusive father captured your little brother?"
The room fell silent. Analyn turned to look at her brother. Only she could picture the gruesome scene; only she knew what her father looked like.
"Would you leave him in there, knowing how much your father hated him? Would you let him get beaten and attacked in ways that only God could describe? Would you ever sleep at night knowing what was happening to him?"
She brushed the tears that had gathered around her eyes. She shook her head.
"Would you, if you could, go face-to-face with your own father, and refuse to back down until your brother was safe again?"
She hugged Joel tightly, and her little brother hugged her back. She was too emotionally shaken to respond — I felt bad for doing that to her — but I knew the answer, and I was sure my mother knew it as well.
I turned to my mother. "If I could give Evan a phone call right now... the best thing I could tell him is that I haven't given up on trying to save him, and I would never stop trying for as long as I loved him."
She placed a hand on my shoulder. "And I know you will never stop loving him. Even when the two of you fight, there's always something deeper within the both of you that pulls you back together."
I looked back at Analyn and Joel, thinking back to the scar on Ricky's face. I wondered what would happen if Goliath, the top of the pecking order in our cell, were to go after their little brother, their youngest sibling. They would defend him, brother and sister together, to the bitter end, until both of them were too numb to move. To others, it was just another boy. To them, it was their mother's dying wish to protect and care for him, and while they were on the streets, one of the only things they had left. I blinked, and I felt the tears building up rapidly.
"Mom," I said quietly, "if I die, am I a fighter or a fool?"
She somehow managed to crack a smile, in the solemnness of the situation. "You are my son," she said simply.
Silence reigned for several minutes. Finally, Analyn broke it with: "No matter what happens... I know your brother will come home."
I brushed away some of the tears from my eyes.
"When we were on the streets, I kept a dream, a ray of hope, alive inside my heart. I tended to it like a fire and refused to let it go out. I believed that, one day, our suffering will end, our strength would be restored, and our future empowered and brightened." She lay a hand on me. "And then you came along. Even though you and your family were poor and broken as well, you took us in. Although we are still poor, and our lights may still be dim, there is little to suggest that we cannot make it through. The flame inside me still burns, and it will continue to burn until we're back together again."
Another teardrop came out, stealing its way down my face. This time I made no move to wipe it.
"Don't let that flame in you die out, Garrett. Keep the fire going. Keep it alive until you get your brother back. The day will come."
I felt some strength beginning to return to my limbs, my face, my soul. I nodded my head firmly. "I will. I will keep that flame going. For my little brother."
I woke up the next morning exhausted, but awake; tired, but alert. I slept relatively little last night, mostly tossing and turning as my brain refused to yield. Inside of me burned a fire, a fire that grew in strength, heat, and intensity as the minutes passed. By the time the sun came up, the fire was about as hot as the surface of that star.
"Mom," I said as soon as I saw her, "I have to bring Evan back."
She gave me a worried look.
"I have to, ma; I can't just sit around here waiting for whatever bad things that might happen to him. I love him too much for that. I don't just want him home, I want him out of Julio's gang. I don't want him to go down the same path I went. I don't want him to be beaten and be thrown into prison. I don't want his mind to be hardened into thinking everybody's out to get him. I don't want any of that to happen to him."
My mother sighed, but she didn't say anything. She set about preparing breakfast, but I knew my words were being processed silently in her mind.
I turned around. Analyn had woken up and was standing behind me. I knew from the look on her face that she had heard us — well, me at least. I knew that she needed no convincing to side with me. I couldn't help but think about what her family had been through and how they stuck together despite all of their hardships, and how I wanted to do the same.
"Mom," I said, trying again, "do you know what I said to Evan the day I came home? I promised him, from the bottom of my heart, that I would never leave him again, and that I would always be there for him, always there every day and every night if he ever needed me. I didn't say it to look good or anything; I said it because I really meant it. I really, really couldn't bear myself to leave him no matter what happened. Even if we were starving on the streets, without a roof and without any food, I would never leave him no matter how bad our situation became. I would never leave him even if the grass seemed greener on the other side. I would never leave him even if someone threatened to kill me otherwise. I would never leave him even if someone offered me a mansion with food and running water and clean bedsheets, but for some reason he could not come along; I'd rather starve to death with my brother than to live a long life knowing that I left him for dead."
My mother stopped and sighed. I got her there, I was sure of it. "You know, only a fool could ever miss the fact that you love your little brother more than anyone else on earth."
That wasn't quite the answer I was expecting...
"Perhaps the family I have right now wasn't exactly the family I wanted, and sometimes I wonder why God didn't just give me the family of my dreams. But the more I think about it, the more grateful I am to be able to raise the family God has given me." She looked at me. "You don't know the warm feeling I get in my heart when I see the two of you playing with each other — even if you make a mess — and how you do the things I did to you to each other, the way you hug, kiss, and snuggle up together. There is nothing more heartwarming than that, and I'm thankful that God gave me the opportunity to see that happening to my own children."
I still wasn't sure what to say in response to that. "But will you—?"
"Why don't you eat breakfast first?" she said, ending the moment. "We could all use some food in our stomachs this early in the morning."
There was no one to greet me when I entered Cobras territory. I had a good feeling that I had been spotted — no one would allow a cop to just waltz into their hideout undetected — but I didn't care. They probably expected me anyway.
I stood there, arms a few inches away from my body, my fists clenched, as if they were expecting a fight I needed to fend off. I smelled shabu in the air, wafting towards me, but when I turned towards what I thought was the direction of the smell, there was not a soul in sight, as if a ghost had smoked it. I don't know how long I stood there for, but it seemed like a day had passed before I relaxed my muscles. I half-expected someone to jump out and take advantage of my guard being down to strike at me, but no one came. I seated myself by a wall and waited. Waited patiently, for who knows what. I didn't know what was going to happen. I didn't know what I was going to do. I only knew one thing: that I was going in, all-or-nothing. I had made up my mind.
There was no turning back.
The door adjacent to me opened. Three Cobras emerged, each of them with a glass bottle in their hands, laughing and talking. They turned their heads and pretended to be surprised at me.
"Look who's here; that lil' son of a bitch is back!"
"What's he here for? His little brother? Aww, that's fucking cute!"
"Better take 'im out soon, in case he's a spy for the Wingz for something."
"Oh right, he's a member of the Wingz."
"Why do we just let him sit out here like that? Why don't we just kill him or something?"
"You hear? His older brother is Julio, and he told us not to kill him."
"Seriously? What is this, a family affair I'm not aware of?"
"Beats me." He kicked me lightly. "What up, Wingz?"
"I'm not a Wingz," I muttered.
"And he just says that he isn't a Wingz!"
"'Once a Wingz, always a Wingz,' eh?"
The one who kicked me shoved me roughly by the shoulder. "Don't matter what you think. We say you're a Wingz, so you're a Wingz in here whether you like it or not."
"I'm not a Wingz!" I repeated firmly. "I'm not here for them either. I'm only here for my little brother."
Another shove. "Beat it, Wingz!"
"I'm not a—"
I felt the blunt end of a bottle being forced into my back, and my body crumpled to the ground. "Get Julio. Tell 'im his snot-nosed brother's back for another round." One of them immediately left.
"You know something?" He set the bottle back onto the ground. "Up to now we've been pretty darn nice to you. One, because you're a kid; and two, because your older brother told us not to end your life." He cracked his knuckles. "I can see Black Moth gave you a slight taste of what he normally does to his enemies. Even the Red Cults get nervous when they hear about how we once mauled a cop that betrayed us." His voice came closer and closer, as if he were moving in to make me uncomfortable and intimidated. "Your grace period is over; time to see how you hold up."
Two figures approached. One was the gangster that had just left. The other was my older brother Julio. He didn't greet me or anything, just cut to the chase with a "What are you doing here?"
I didn't respond.
"Have you forgotten about what happened yesterday?" He pointed to some of my bruises. "Still fresh. You can't have forgotten about them already."
"What are you waiting for? Get out of here!"
"For Evan," I said quietly.
The sounds of clicking as one thug absentmindedly played with his lighter.
"Or death. Whichever comes first."
I felt a foot pushing me to the side. "C'mon Garrett. Don't play with me. Just get out. Evan's safe. Stop coming back."
I looked up straight at him. "No," I said firmly.
No. One word. Perhaps the most powerful word in history. No.
My brother was struck dumb, but not everyone else. "Roast his ass, Julio!" they barked. "Roast his ass!"
What the hell is wrong with you? I thought I heard Julio say. Still, he gave me one more chance: "I told you: Evan is safe. You don't need to come back for him, and you shouldn't be coming back for him. If you stick around here, I can't offer you much protection anymore."
"Evan's only safe when he's home," I responded. "A street gang is no place for a child."
"Says the kid that joined a street gang himself!" one of the gangsters retorted.
"And that's why I'm qualified to say it." I wanted to stand up, but they forced me back down, as if to prevent me from getting into a good position to fight them. "I've seen the insides of a street gang with my very own eyes, and I came out alive to tell the tale. I know what it's like in there, and I am not going back." I looked at my older brother straight into his eyes. "I know Evan doesn't belong in one."
"He's bluffing!" one of the gangsters shouted. "He's probably still workin' for the Wingz, and he's come to recruit his little brother into it."
My fists clenched, but it was Julio who spoke next: "Now you're just asking for it, Garrett. I don't know if I can keep Evan alive for much longer, but you're at the mercy of everyone else in the Cobras." There was a brief pause. "I can't save you if they decide to kill you. You've pretty much signed your own death warrant."
"Let us have him!" one of them requested. "We'll spare you the trouble."
"Just don't tell Black Moth; I'll decide when to break the news." He looked at me. "I'm sorry Garrett... why am I even sorry?! This isn't my fault! This is entirely on you." He stepped back, and the three Cobras rushed towards me. I was dragged onto my feet, being held in an awkward angle as I heard the glass bottle scraping along the ground. I didn't need to ask what they were doing; I knew that my courage was about to be tested again.
A dull thud. A sharp sting of pain in my stomach. "That's for you, Wingz!"
I bit down on my tongue and gritted my teeth together to keep from crying out. I wasn't going to squeal like a stuck pig for their ears.
The bottle came down again. It hit my ribs, and the breath I had been holding in came hurtling out. "That's also for you!"
I'm not a Wingz! Your blows don't hurt me, because you're attacking me for who I'm not!
Another one, again on my stomach. My body could no longer keep itself upright and it crumpled to the ground, the gangsters letting me come crashing down. "Enough. What are we waiting for? I got better shit to do!" There were three clicks. Three sharp clicks. Clicks that sounded familiar. I looked up. My three assailants had their switchblades out, the knives ready for action. It reminded me of the time Dodger gave me a switchblade before my first mission, the mission that ended with me being arrested. The knife felt heavy despite its light weight. I remembered how my hands shook, how I stared at the blade in awe and terror for what it could do, how I had the power to kill someone in an object that slipped easily into my pockets.
Now I was on the receiving end.
"We're gonna cut you another hole!" one of them threatened. "Yeah, we'll see what it's used for! Huh! Any mouse'll tell you it's a good thing!"
I looked at my older brother, but he wasn't paying attention. He had turned his head, presenting his back to us, wasn't going to even watch me get killed. I wasn't sure whether or not to be relieved or horrified at that.
The thug thrusted his knife towards my neck. My hands instinctively shot out and grabbed his hand, struggling desperately to keep the knife away from me. It was all that stood between me and my death.
"You're a tough one, kid." The more he pushed, the more I resisted. Every ounce of strength and energy had been channelled to my arms and hands, fuelled by the sudden desire to live at the prospect of death. The moment was only brief, though, for it was interrupted with a "What the hell's goin' on here?"
The thug who had the knife at my throat looked up. I took advantage of his distraction to slide out from under him, but not before finding myself face to face with Black Moth himself. Again. He pointed a finger at me like a pistol. "You!"
I staggered to my feet. "Yeah, that's me. I'm here."
"Julio....!!" he seethed. My older brother slunk back. He wanted to disappear, I could tell.
The three gangsters spoke up, a barrage of words: "It's that Wingz!" ... "He's back!" ... "He's spying on us, I tell ya!" ... "We tried to take him out until you came!"
"Shut up!" Black Moth barked, waving his hands in the air. "Shut up! Shut up! I can't hear a thing when you're all chirruping at the same time!"
"I told him that we would for sure—" my brother began.
"You too, Julio!" He whirled around and thrusted his fingertips at his chest. "It's your fault your two brothers are here anyway. This ain't a daycare centre. I told you to clean this mess up and you failed. What's up with you? You were never like this before! I can't believe that you're making a shit ton of stupid decisions!"
My brother remained silent.
"He's a tough one!" the thug who tried to stab me said. "A formidable Wingz for sure. Never knew they had members who were this brave!"
"I told you for the millionth time, I'm not a—"
Black Moth struck me hard across the face. "Shut up!" he roared, although I would've done so anyway after being hit. "Keep an eye on that kid. Make sure he doesn't go runnin' off. Julio, come with me. You and I have a lot to talk about."
My brother cursed, spat on the ground, and reluctantly followed his boss to the side. The three thugs grabbed me and held me firm. I would've squirmed out of their grasp had they not kept their knives pointed at me — a knife to my neck, a knife to my chest, a knife to my stomach. They knew exactly where to stab me. "Don't try anythin' funny, kid, or you'll have Black Moth chasin' you down for the rest of your life," they threatened.
Several minutes passed. "What do you think's taking them so long?" one of them wondered aloud.
They better be getting Evan, I thought.
"Probably finding something to punish this little guy with."
"You mean 'the Wingz that keeps saying he's not a Wingz'?"
"You'll have to figure out how to shorten that."
"I'm not a Wingz!" I snapped. "You can kill me right now for saying that again, but I refuse to readmit myself into that hellhole!"
None of them had a chance to get back at me, though, for I heard Julio and Black Moth returning. My older brother looked drained and defeated, as if his boss had whipped the living daylights out of him. "Don't just stand there!" Black Moth barked. "Get to it! Get your ass moving!"
Julio, with his boss so angrily watching, wasted no time. "Take him. Tie his hands, cover his eyes, and follow me."
My face was forced into the ground as I felt my hands being tied tightly behind my back, almost cutting off the blood flow. My head was briefly lifted from the ground before my vision was obscured by a thick fabric that covered my eyes and parts of my nose. It smelled like sweat and shabu, reminding me almost of the bandana used to blindfold me during the Wingz Treatment. Once again I was forced onto my feet, and this time made to walk. Run, almost. They pushed me along faster than my legs could carry me forward.
"Move!" one of them barked.
"Hurry up!" another added.
Julio must have been with us, for I heard his voice: "I can't help you anymore, Garrett. You're fucked. You're completely fucked. It's all on you now. There's no way you can save Evan like this. Maybe if you had used your mind for once, you wouldn't have been as stupid as swine in a slaughterhouse!"
I heard a door being unlocked, then opened. "Search him," Julio ordered, and the three thugs had my face and body squeezed into the wall. I felt hands digging through my pockets and patting down every inch of my body, under my feet, under my shirt, even through my hair. Finally, one of them said, "He appears to be clean."
The blindfold was removed and the rope untied. I tried to look around at my surroundings, but instead I was given a forceful shove into a room filled with darkness. "I hope you didn't promise mom you'd be back before dusk, because that's not happening. I'm sorry if you did... why am I even sorry for you?! God, you little..."
Julio slammed the door shut. A few seconds later, I heard it being locked, leaving me alone with...
The room was pitch black, or so it seemed at first. My eyes quickly became accustomed to the dark, having been blindfolded moments earlier, and soon I was able to make out the shapes and figures of my solitary confinement. The room was bare except for a small cot tucked against the wall and a barred window, high up and out of reach. The door behind me was locked, and from a quick examination, was too thick for me to break through.
Where was I?
The answer slowly dawned on me, and while it didn't explicitly answer my question, I had a pretty good idea where the pieces of the puzzle were located now.
I had been taken prisoner by the Cobras.
I sat down on the cot. It was bare of any mattress, being little more than a wooden frame with wooden planks to serve as my "bed". I lay down, the rigidness of the cot leaving my back sore and feeling out of place. I rolled over and nearly fell off the cot, though the cot was so close to the ground that I had little to travel before hitting the ground. I wasn't sure if sleeping in a cramped prison cell with eighty other boys was any more comfortable than this. At least I have the room to myself...
Myself. All alone. Nothing to keep me company, except for this lousy cot. At least in prison I had Ricky, and even if it weren't for him, I'm sure that eventually I'd be able to befriend one of the countless other boys. Now I had...
I got up and looked at the window. It was small, but even if it were big enough for me to crawl through, there was no way I was getting past those bars. I moved my cot over so it was directly under the tiny window, clambered onto it, and stood on my toes. I could not see much from this angle, aside from a building across a narrow street that was all but deserted. There was a small stain that partially blocked my view, indicating that this was a glass window. I could not reach in far enough to even touch the window, so I couldn't break or rap on it to make noise.
There goes any hope of escape, at least through there.
I sat on my cot again, bowed my head, and prayed. My life was no longer in my hands.
The door opened, bringing light into my dark confinement. I looked up, almost squinting from the blinding light, like God appearing before Saul, shielding my eyes. Who is it?
Julio. My older brother Julio.
In his right hand he carried a large pipe wrench, slightly rusted and tarnished at its edges. His hands were shaking; his form seemed to lack confidence.
"Julio," I said directly, "will you let me at least see my little brother? Even if you refuse to free him right now, will you at least let me see him? Talk to him? Reach for his hands?"
He swallowed. "I can't..." he began.
"What do you mean 'you can't'?" I demanded. "You have more influence in here than I do! Weren't you the one who ordered for my brother's imprisonment? What about my imprisonment? Didn't you make those decisions?!"
"I admit it, I made the first one," he responded, "but not the latter. Black Moth told me to lock you up in here. He was tired of seeing and hearing about you sitting outside in the alleys within our turf; whether or not you were doing anything malicious, he didn't care. He wanted you gone. If you were a plague of cockroaches, he'd have you cleansed and eradicated by now."
"Then why doesn't he just kill me already?!" I didn't know why anyone would ask to be killed, but my sense of logic seemed absent right now. "If you — and Black Moth, for that matter — want to get rid of the pest that I am right now, you can go to his office and tell him to come over here and shoot me himself!"
The hand holding the pipe wrench was still shaking. I looked at it. "What's that for?"
Julio seemed to be on the verge of tears. "I'm sorry Garrett, but Black Moth's assumed control of your confinement here right now. I don't have the power to set you free."
"I'm not asking to be set free! I'm asking for you to free Evan! Why can't you just do that? Why didn't you just do that in the first place? If you had freed my brother — your brother as well — then none of this would've happened! I wouldn't be here right now! This wouldn't have turned as ugly as it did!"
He looked over his shoulder. "All of that doesn't matter now, Garrett. What is important right now is the fact that you're now under Black Moth's thumb, and I've become the slave to his orders." He swallowed again. "I'm sorry, Garrett... I didn't orchestrate this..."
"What?! Orchestrate what?!" I became desperate. "What are you..."
He bit his lips. "I'm going to need you to take off your shirt and bend over your bed."
"Do it!" His voice was not of anger, or even of frustration, but was almost pleading me to do it. "Just do it, Garrett."
I shook my head. "You can't be doing this to me... I'm your brother!"
"If Black Moth doesn't see anything by the time he comes to check on you, you will suffer anyway — and me as well." He was getting more and more nervous and afraid, almost as nervous as I felt. "It's better for the both of us, Garrett. I'm sorry..."
My hands felt cold and clammy. I thought my face was turning white and pale. My limbs jittered uncontrollably as I began to remove my shirt, inch by inch. The fabric went over my head and I watched as it slowly progressed upwards, past my eyes, revealing more and more of my body. I felt my brother urging me to hurry before we both landed into hotter waters, but I couldn't make myself go any faster.
"Over the bed... crouch over your bed..."
My heart was in my throat. I made my way over to the cot and crouched over it, my hands extended, reaching for the other side. My back was exposed to whatever assault and pain he could inflict on me. I was on my knees, almost like a sinner begging in front of the Lord in repentance. I was shivering, even though the room was not cold.
"I'm sorry, Garrett... I have to... I wouldn't if I didn't have to..."
I squeezed my eyes shut, bracing for impact. Heavy beads of sweat appeared on my forehead, despite the fact I was shivering. Was I even cold or hot?
"If this doesn't hurt, Black Moth will kill me... This has to hurt, I'm sorry that it does!"
"I hope you'll forgive me after this..."
The pipe wrench was swung towards me. Two seconds later, I felt the pain. I had endured pain before, was no stranger to it — I had been kicked in the chest by an angry shopkeeper; whacked by wooden sticks as a form of 'training'; struck by police batons in the back; punched in the gut behind bars; and found myself on the receiving end of a brass-knuckled fist — but this was different. Never before had I been brutally tortured by my own brother, by someone who was a part of my family, by someone that I loved — or was supposed to. I screamed in pain — could scream now that the blows weren't aimed for my lungs — but its release did little to mitigate the pain.
I heard Julio taking in another breath, bringing in fuel for the next round, before he swung the wrench again. I felt my body breaking apart into pieces, falling into disarray before me with every blow, out of my control. But the damage it endured was nothing compared to what was happening to my mind and my soul, which shattered like china at the very first strike, and each successive blow was like an additional bomb going off. Memories and images flashed before my eyes, being smashed to bits with every blow I received.
Bam! A memory, this one of my older brother playing cards with his father. Had a few extra cards tucked underneath the table. Gone.
Bam! Another memory; my older brother being given a piggyback ride. Gone.
Bam! My older brother, doing his homework, when we were still in school. Gone.
Bam! My older brother, his arms around me and Evan. A rare moment, but I was quite happy when he did that. I still remember this?
Gone. Gone. Gone.
The wrench came down again. When I had recovered from my screams, I rasped, "Julio..."
He hit me again. "I can't..." I thought I heard him whisper, before it struck again. "I can't..."
Again. Again. Again. And again. Every time it came, my cries of pain became weaker and more faded, as if they were being swallowed by an invisible sea of darkness. My brother was breathing heavily — he had exerted so much energy into beating me, even he was feeling it. I tried to beg him to stop, but I felt far too weak to defend myself with words of any kind. They wouldn't have been able to help me, anyway; no matter how desperately I begged for him to stop, he couldn't. Wouldn't.
I heard footsteps outside the door. "Working hard, Julio? Well done."
My brother dropped the pipe wrench. It fell onto the ground with a loud clatter. He couldn't speak; he was panting heavily, like a dog.
The Cobras leader strode towards me. I felt my hair being pulled back. "Sure hurts being beaten by your own brother, huh?"
I didn't respond. Couldn't respond. My back was on fire, my mind was a pile of debris, and my soul was all but lifeless.
He released my head and examined my wounds, red raw from direct contact with the wrench. "Normally I'd see this on someone who was assigned to come here," he said. "Assigned by their bosses to conduct some business. Sometimes they steal our secrets. Sometimes they steal our shipments. Sometimes they're here to pummel a bullet into someone's head. But never before have I seen someone, especially someone so young, come here voluntarily, almost as if they were asking to be whipped senseless."
My breaths were nothing more than fruitless wheezes. I had no wind left in my sails. I'm here for my little brother, I wanted to say. But nothing came out.
"I'm impressed. Consider it a privilege to be able to impress an entire gang with your resilience." He came in close. "You know what? Out of every Wingz that have ever set foot in this hideout, you are easily the most awe-inspiring one of all."
I'm not a Wingz...
"You're one brave kid, son. You're one brave kid." He got up. I heard the pipe wrench being dragged along the floor. I wanted to run — I knew full well that whatever mercy my older brother had on me would never be reflected in him — but both fear and pain immobilized me.
"You too, Julio. You had the guts to do it to your brother."
"Like you... asked me..." He was still panting. "He's badly hurt... He's been through a lot..."
Black Moth walked over to me again. "How far are you willing to go for your little brother Evan?" he asked slyly.
Very, very far.
Well beyond the horizon.
But I was at my limits. I had gone too far. This was too much. This was all too much for anyone, let alone a ten year old boy, to bear.
I was done. Ready to give up. I would never see my little brother again. They were serious — I could tell in all their actions. They weren't going to let me have my brother back. And to prove it, they didn't hesitate to beat a boy until he bled.
Too far... too far Garrett... you've gone too far... we've gone too far...
My fists clenched. I was still going! "To death!" I shouted at the top of my lungs, investing every little ounce of energy I had left within my frail corpse. "I'm gonna keep going, and I won't stop until I die!"
Dead silence. It reigned for several minutes afterwards. My wounds were still raw, my mind was still in shambles, but I felt my soul returning once more. It would keep going. Even if my body gave out on me, and even if my mind shut down and destroyed itself, my soul would still be there. It would still live. It would never die.
Black Moth turned his head. "Your brother's spooky," he said to Julio. "Has he been playing with Ouija boards recently?"
"You sure he's not possessed?"
"Why would he be?"
"Because he's not scared of me at all."
My brother had no answer.
The crime boss pulled at my hair again. "You know what death is like, son?" he asked. "Death is the point of no return. It's the point where no one on earth can ever compel you to eat, sleep, breathe, or speak again. It's the point where you rot in the ground, and no one could care less if you did. It's the point where you can no longer fight for anything, not even for your little brother. And speaking of him, when you're dead you're useless to him. No amount of hugging or kissing will ever bring you back to life. Ya hear me?!"
"Do you know what death is?" I asked. My speech was broken up into staggered bits as I made every effort not to cry out in pain. "Have you been there before? Do you have any idea what it's like to be dead?" I tried to look at him, but my neck muscles were far too weak to move my head. "I don't, but I do know this: if I'm destined to die, right here, at your fingertips, I have nothing to fear, because Jesus also died, and He knows what it's like. And you know what? Death has to be the most dreadful thing in the world and the most wonderful thing in the world. Nothing can be better than the opportunity to die for someone, to sacrifice one's own life for the life of another. If you kill me, you would've granted me the honourable privilege to die for my little brother, and even if you don't free my brother, it would've still been living proof of the infinite, genuine love I have for him, and you can't change that. If you free my brother, I will have won by having achieved what I came for, and if you kill me, I will have won by going to my permanent home, home with my God, my Creator, my Father. And my victory is grounded in Him, and He will always win. What do I have to be afraid of? Why should I ever be afraid when I'm with a God that never loses? You've hit me hard with that pipe wrench, but no pain will ever bring me down. No pain ever stopped God from loving me, so why should it ever stop me from loving my brother? At the end of the day, no matter what happens, we are still brothers, we are still part of the same family, and one day, if that day is not today, we'll be able to walk together, hand in hand, forever. That's something you can't change or take away, and that's the one thing I desire the most from this world."
Nobody said anything. Both Black Moth and Julio were completely speechless as I made my soliloquy, and they remained speechless afterwards. I, too, was stunned: I left the leader of a street gang speechless!
It didn't last for long, though. Black Moth grew cross. "How eloquent, kid," he said sarcastically. "You're big with words. I'm big with pain." The pipe wrench was readied for another assault. "Son of a whore! I'll see what you'll be saying after this!" There was no additional warning. Once again, the blows returned, coming in quick succession after another. He made it his top priority to put me through the greatest pain he could physically inflict on me; I heard his grunts of effort with every strike. Funny enough, though, it didn't hurt as much as when my brother did it; though my body was crumbling again, my mind and soul strengthened with every blow of the wrench.
Black Moth didn't stop there; he added insult to the injury, quite literally: "Stupid... asshole... son... of... a... fucking... bitch!" he seethed, one word at a time. The lashing slowed down as he grew tired, his profane verbal fireworks being the final bits of coal that fuelled the flames of his fury. Finally, panting, almost dead from his own ordeal, he gave me one final slash with the wrench, promising to be the worst one of the evening. My back was about as hot as molten lava. I heard the wrench clatter onto the ground. "You cuntbag Wingz! Here's hoping you rot in purgatory!" I heard him staggering out. "Come, Julio."
Julio didn't move; I turned my head slowly, trying to get a glimpse of him. His face was frozen with fear; he had cowered in the corner, afraid to watch his brother getting tortured by someone with the Devil as his lifeblood.
"Come!" Black Moth barked, and Julio scurried out the door. It was promptly closed and locked, leaving me to suffer on my own. Perhaps I'll die tonight, I thought. They've left me in here to die.
Night fell in earnest. In the distance, through the tiny window in the cell, I could hear the laughing and cheering as the gang members smoked, drank, and ate with each other. It reminded me of the Diablo Wingz, where every evening they would share an evening meal together, and would chat with each other like long lost buddies. Perhaps this was why so many orphaned, broken, and rejected people joined the street gangs of the city; it gave them a sense of family that they couldn't get anywhere else.
I lay, stomach-first, on the wretched, miserable wooden cot the Cobras were "so generous" to provide for me. My back was still in excruciating pain, the wounds still fresh and raw, almost like meat at a butcher's. I couldn't lie on my back — couldn't even put on my shirt — not knowing what sort of horrible mess I would create if I did. I still couldn't believe my own brother could do this to me, to hurt me in such a manner. I was alive, though, and I could still pray. Pray for my little brother, in the hopes that he was still alright, still alive. And if they had killed him, I prayed that he was looking down at me from heaven.
"Jesus," I whispered, "I have suffered through unimaginable pain, having witnessed the kidnapping of my little brother, being beaten by my older brother, and being all but mauled by the leader of this dangerous street gang. You watched as I left home and joined the Diablo Wingz, where I was set to fall into a life of crime, defiling Your name and Your glory, my family and my dignity, my own soul. Yet you gathered me in Your own arms, carrying me into a prison of degrading conditions — a curse to many, a blessing for me — so You could heal me and bring me back to You, and to give me the opportunity to bring some of Your lost sheep to Your loving arms. I have endured more physical pain than most people would in their entire lifetimes. I have gone so far and I don't know if I will be able to find my way back. I feel my strength leaving me... I feel my spirit waning..."
I heard a small voice within me, a voice so small and so deep that I wasn't sure if it even existed: Do you want to go home?
I stopped. My eyes popped open. Go home? I was afraid of admitting the truth, but the voice within me was a link to my inner self, my subconscious, the sacred temple inside of me. The answer, though I didn't dare say it out loud, was to me the most honest answer I could ever give:
I realized how I missed home. I missed home when I was on the streets. I missed home when I joined the Wingz. I missed home when I was thrown into prison. But today the feeling of homesickness was stronger than ever, and it frightened me. Here I was, directly trying to save my little brother, risking my very life and soul once more for his sake, and here I was, wanting to retreat. Home to Smokey Mountain. Home to my mother. Home to my friend's siblings, who were more than overjoyed to be able to join a family again.
Oh, how I'd love to go home! But the thoughts of the comforts of home burdened me, not because it was in itself evil, but because it would mean the end of my mission. I was not done. My little brother was still held captive; my older brother was still immersed in his gang. I feared that my decision and desire to go home would mean abandoning them both.
I looked up. "No," I said firmly. "No... I am not going home, not yet. Do not end what you have started; do not call me back home until my work is complete. I must keep going, for my brother's sake... For both of my brothers..."
The door opened. I turned around, the light searing my damp eyes. It was only then that I realized I had been crying.
He had a red first aid kit in his right hand and a flashlight in the left. With his foot, he closed the door quietly behind him. The darkness of the cell disappeared quickly when the flashlight came to life. He set the light down on the floor.
"Julio! What are you..."
"Shh!" He opened the kit and began pawing through it. "Don't be so loud; I'm not supposed to be here with you right now!" He produced some gauze, cotton swabs, and a bottle of antiseptic.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"Cleaning you up, stupid." He dampened the swabs with the antiseptic. "I need to see your back," he said.
I gave him a sinister look, but presented my back to him again. What more could I do? My wounds screamed at me again as he rubbed the disinfectant into my flesh. I bit my tongue and tried hard not to cry out.
Julio didn't say much either. He cleaned one wound, then the next, all without uttering a word. He didn't bandage my battle scars, likely in fear of what Black Moth would say if he saw them. The antiseptic stung my flesh, and I gripped the edges of the cot in order to avoid squealing. When he finished cleaning the last wound on my back, he immediately began packing up.
"Wait!" I said suddenly when he rose to leave. "Why did you do this?"
He didn't answer, but he didn't ignore me either. He stood there, breathing heavily. His expression was dark.
"You didn't want to hit me, did you?"
Still no response. I didn't like his silence. "Julio, I hope you know that, if someone tried to order me to lash Evan till he bled, I wouldn't do it. I don't care what they'd do to me. I don't care if I had to get lashed with him. I'd rather suffer with my brother than to make him suffer in order to save myself."
He sighed. He retrieved his flashlight, turned it off, and opened the door.
"You haven't answered my question."
He turned his head to look at me. "It's something I can't explain. To be honest, I don't even know why." And with that, he left, closing the door behind him, heard him lock it.
I rested my head weakly on the frame. It was going to be a long night, all on my own. I had no Evan, no Ricky, no friendly faces, nobody. I had spent nights on my own before, but never before like this. I had told my mother that I would willingly suffer for my little brother, would willingly take the fatal blow if I had to. Now, I wasn't so sure, not about whether or not I'd actually make that sacrifice, but whether or not it would do any good for those I left behind. What if they killed me and still didn't release Evan? What would happen, then? What would happen if my brother was doomed to spending the rest of his life being used in a brothel, further devastated by the fact that I was now dead? What would happen to my mother, my friend, and his siblings when they got word of my death? What would happen to everyone else that knew me? All my friends on the mountain? Those in the Wingz that knew me by name? My older brother? Would they even care? And what about me? What use is of everything I would be able to gain if I knew that everything else was lost? My life was lost; my family was lost; my brother was lost. The only thing my mother would ever gain was a spot in the cemetery where my dead body would reside, for her to mourn me.
I buried my face into my hands and cried. And I kept crying, crying and crying and crying, until I could cry no longer, when even the dim lighting of my cell faded from existence.
I woke up long before the sun came up, still tired, still in agony. My back had somewhat healed — the pain wasn't nearly as bad as it was yesterday — but it was now accompanied by a raging hunger and thirst. I hadn't eaten in over 24 hours; my appetite had been suppressed when I entered the hideout, having been replaced with the sense of courage, fear, tenacity, and a lot of pain. Now that I had a chance to settle down overnight, though, my other bodily functions had kicked in, reminding me of my empty stomach and my parched throat.
Food. Water. Things that I desperately needed. I curled up into the fetal position, trying to make myself comfortable in the state of misery I was in. I hope they gave my brother those things as well.
I heard the lock being turned and the door being opened. It was my older brother again, his figure tired and drained, as if he hadn't slept last night. In his hands he carried breakfast: a bowl of lugaw and a small glass of water. He set the two down on the ground in front of me. I could only stare at it.
"You need to eat, Garrett," Julio insisted. "Just take it."
I wanted to say something, but my stomach growled, and my dry mouth wasn't making things any easier. I grabbed the bowl, gulping down the plain watery gruel, slugging the glass of water down. He watched me as I ate, not saying anything, as if he were an indifferent butler watching his master eat. When I had finished, he didn't leave right away, but instead sat down on the floor next to me. The lugaw did not fill me — it was far too light and thin and watery for that — but it was still better than nothing, and with something in my stomach to keep it quiet for a bit, I took up the opportunity to talk to him.
"Will you let me see my brother?"
"Is that all you ask for?" he said in an annoyed voice.
"That's what I came here for initially, and that hasn't changed." I tried to sit up, but my back screamed at me. "I want my little brother back. That's your little brother too, just so you know!"
He looked down at the ground. "I really tried to warn you," he said. "After the second time you showed up, Black Moth told me that the next you came back, he would treat you like he would any other Wingz. That brass-knuckled showdown he gave you? It normally lasts for hours, or until he gets what he wants. He means business, trust me." He shifted uncomfortably, but he still continued to stare at the bare, concrete floor. "That was one of the reasons why I wanted you to just leave and not come back; I didn't want you to get hurt like that. He gets angry with me too, since he knows I'm your brother. He accuses me of luring you in here to cause trouble."
"There's truth to that, you know!" I straightened up, this time biting the insides of my cheek to resist the pain. "This wouldn't have happened if you didn't take Evan. Why did you even take him, anyway? You haven't answered that question, and no matter what I do, you don't seem to give much thought to it, like you just did it for the hell of it. If you want this to stop, just let us both go! Why can't you do that? Why did you wait until it was too late? Now you say that I'm out of your control; what about Evan? Does Black Moth have custody of him now? Are you seriously just going to sit there and watch while both of your brothers get tied up, gagged, and blindfolded, thrown into the back of a truck, and driven out towards God-knows-where? Are you seriously going to let that happen??"
"I don't have control over that if that happens..."
"So?! I didn't have control over anything when I ran away from home, looking for money. I didn't have control over what could've happened to me on the streets. I sure as hell didn't have control over my arrest or my imprisonment. I didn't have control of a lot of things, but that didn't stop me. What's stopping you?"
He looked defeated. I almost retreated at the sight, afraid of the damage I caused. I tried again, this time a little more gently: "Will you at least let me see Evan? That's all I'm asking for right now."
He sighed. "No, you're right, Garrett..." He got up and peered out the door, as if to check for anybody else. "Don't be loud, or someone will hear you, and then all three of us are going to be knee-deep in hot water."
My back was still too sore to see the fabric of my shirt. As I walked out, Julio covered my eyes with his hands. "What...?"
"Shh!" he hissed, and made me walk. Straight for what seemed like fifteen steps. Left turn. Forward for another ten. Right. Through a door, and another three steps. During the entire journey, I didn't speak a word — not daring to make a sound — fearing any sort of consequence for this illicit trip. Without my vision, my mind was generating vast maps of what it approximated were my surrounding environments. Where was he taking me?
We stopped. "Don't make too much of a fuss," he warned as he removed his hands from my eyes. We had stopped in front of a thick, wooden door, strong enough to resist a battering ram. There was a small slot in the door, which I was just tall enough to reach. Julio slid it open and snapped his fingers. "Wake up! You have a visitor."
"Evan!" I cried out.
"Garrett?!" a small voice inside responded.
"Evan! It's me, it really is me!" I scrambled, almost trying to scale the door, trying to get a better view. I saw a pair of eyes, similar to mines, looking up at the slot. It was Evan!
"Garrett!!" I reached through the slot, hoping to hold the hand of my little brother. He grasped my hand firmly, unwilling to let go. "I missed you..."
Julio jabbed at my back, and I almost screamed. "Not so loud, you two. I don't wanna get roasted."
"Evan!" I wasn't going to waste this precious moment. "Evan, I need you to stay strong! I won't stop fighting for you until you are freed! You have a brother in me, Evan; I won't let you down!"
My little brother, too, was trying to get a better glimpse of me. "Garrett! Be careful, they're dangerous people!"
"That won't stop me, Evan. Nothing will stop me."
"Julio told me about what happened last night," he said. There was concern and sincerity in his voice. "Are you okay?"
"I'm alright, Evan. Bruised, but alive, and that's what matters."
"I'm afraid that they might kill you! I don't want you to die! I'm sorry, Garrett; this is all my fault. I shouldn't have followed you. This wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for me!"
"No!" I said firmly. "No, don't you dare think that, Evan! This is not your fault! I will find a way! You're my brother, remember that! You'll always be my brother no matter what happens to either of us!"
I felt my hand beginning to slip as gravity started dragging me down. I squeezed his hand tightly as the ledge obstructed my view of his eyes. "I will never leave you in here alone!" I said to him. "That's a promise! That's a promise I won't break!"
Julio looked over his shoulder. "I hear someone coming; hurry up you two!"
With one final outburst of energy, I leapt up to the slot and blew my little brother a kiss, for I couldn't get close enough to kiss him for real. "Stay strong, Evan! I know God is with the both of us!"
Before Julio closed the slot, I could hear my little brother saying "Be careful Garrett! Be careful..."
Be careful be careful be careful be careful...
My eyes were covered again. "Let's go," Julio said, and he led me away. I didn't fight him. I had asked to see my little brother, and I got what I wanted, for once. At least I knew he was still alive.
Once we were back at my cell, and as soon as he took his hands off my eyes, I pounced on him again: "Why did you cover my eyes?"
"I can't let you know where he is," Julio responded. "This doesn't come from me, but from Black Moth himself. He doesn't want you to see Evan. He's not going to just let a Wingz get what he wants."
"I'm not a—"
"Oh, shut up! You've said that a gazillion times already!"
"That's because it's the truth! You don't tell the preacher at church to shut up for repeating the truth, do you?"
"Black Moth doesn't think it's the truth. His truth is more truthful than your truth, at least in his eyes."
"Why does he want me to call myself a Wingz, anyway?"
He looked at me. "Because you joined them at one point, and to him, once you've been polluted with whatever the Wingz has in store for you, you're forever tainted. Wouldn't look as bad on him if he tortured a Wingz as opposed to some 'innocent' kid." He picked up the empty bowl and glass. "I need to take you to Black Moth."
He shrugged. "Beats me. You wouldn't mind what he does to you if you loved Evan that much, right?"
"He's already made his point, I get it — he wants me gone. I already have the scars from last night to prove it. What more does he want? Has he gotten my point yet? If he wants a permanent solution, he has to put me to death first!"
He glared at me. "I'm in enough trouble with Black Moth today, Garrett. I don't want to get into any more trouble just because you didn't listen to me. If I keep being lenient on you, Black Moth's gonna make me take off my shirt and do to me as I did to you. Would you like that? Would you like to see me suffer as well when you could've prevented that from happening? You say you'd suffer with your brothers rather than avoiding the cane yourself, yet you ignore the third option where you could opt to avoid having any of your brothers suffer and take all of the suffering into your own hands. Wouldn't you do that to Evan if you could? Of course you would! So stop arguing with me and do as I say!"
He had a point. I reluctantly followed him as he led me back out, my back still exposed, still too sore for me to wear my shirt. Julio took me outside and took the long way around the hideout, navigating through the quieter alleys. It still wasn't enough, though, to stop three men, sitting outside a few steps with lit cigarettes in their hands, from noticing my battle scars. "That's right — eat our shit, Wingz!" one of them shouted.
I bit my lips to avoid lashing out at them. I'm not a Wingz! I'm not a Wingz, dammit! Stop calling me that!
A sharp shove. "Don't say anything," Julio warned. "Just so you are informed, Black Moth has completely overridden my order not to kill you, so your life is at the mercy of everyone else in here. You wanna live? I wish I could say that I could keep you alive if you just did as I said, but that's not feasible anymore. Doesn't matter if you listen like a dog or piss me off like a brat, but if you don't want me to get into any more trouble, by God you better listen to me!"
I remained silent the rest of the way. There was nothing more for me to say or do, other than to see where God would lead me and what He told me to do. My older brother was right; I had been getting him into trouble all along, perhaps inadvertently, but still in hot water. In my defense, though, I was also trying to get him out of trouble, get him out of and away from the gangs of the city. All I wanted was for him to come home and the three of us to be brothers again. I wouldn't have continued coming back if he didn't take Evan. This wouldn't have escalated if Evan was safe at home or in my arms. None of this would've happened if Julio didn't capture his own little brother. I was getting my older brother in trouble because he started this whole mess in the first place.
I gritted my teeth, but did not stop walking. How dare he!
Black Moth's office seemed drearier today, despite the fact that it was sunny out. He gave me a snide look, one that seemed sinister to me, as if he had been expecting me.
"At least he's here on time," he said to my brother. He pointed to a spot on the floor. "Leave 'im there."
With a forceful shove, my older brother pushed me down onto the ground, on my knees like a sinner in repentance. It hurt, but I tried not to cry out in order to avoid giving Black Moth any additional gratification over my pain. Plus, I had been through worse. Much worse. Like last night.
Black Moth opened his drawer and pulled out his brass knuckles. I trembled with fear. No... not this again! He slid them on, giving me a sly look as he did so, and strode up towards me.
"How you doin'?"
I didn't answer.
"What, you mute or something? I'm asking you a question. A nice question."
Should I respond or...?
"C'mon Garrett, don't ignore me! You ignore a friend that asks how you're doing?"
It's a trap, I thought, and responding would just be like—
WHAM! His hand slapped me hard across the face, the brass knuckles cutting into my skin like little knives. I straightened myself almost immediately, bouncing back from the strike. He grinned unpleasantly. "That's a strong one, right there." He came around behind me and examined my back. "Ouch," he said sarcastically, "that's gotta hurt."
It hurt more when you took Evan away from me.
He turned to my older brother, who was leaning uneasily against the wall. "How's your brother today?" he asked. "And be honest with me!"
"He told me that he wouldn't bat an eye if you ripped half his skin off, but he's not going home without his little brother."
Black Moth turned to me. "Is that true?"
I looked at my brother, almost in disbelief. Was he putting words into my mouth? He wore a look that seemed to say, "Don't say anything stupid if you know what's good for the both of us!
I nodded slowly. I knew for sure that telling him the truth about what happened this morning — about how I got to see Evan — was suicide.
He grinned. "I gotta admit, you are one brave boy. Braver than your older brother, even. Would've been nice if you joined us instead of the Wingz."
I did not respond.
He straightened up. "Y'know, I was actually being serious there." He turned to my older brother. "Never seen a boy so young so brave. Foolish? Maybe. But he's easily braver than anyone else I've seen before. I wonder what drives him to keep coming back, even when he's flying in the face of death."
My older brother opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. He looked at me, then back at Black Moth. "I..."
"C'mon, Julio; you're his brother. You ought to know him best, out of everyone here. What was he like at home? Hmm?"
Julio looked at me. "He..." he began, when he realized that he didn't really know. He didn't pay much attention to me at all. Sure, he acknowledged my existence, and sure, he sometimes played with me. Sometimes. But trying to include him into my life was like trying to reapply a well-used sticker onto a sheet of paper. You'd be lucky if it stuck for long, if at all. "Sometimes I'd see him playing with his little brother Evan..."
Black Moth gave him an unimpressive look. "Yeah, no shit. Not like every other kid who has a sibling does that."
"He also hugged him... and sat next to him with his arm around his brother's body..." Julio was still looking at me, as if he were studying me, reading me, extracting the answers out of me. "...I saw him kissing Evan once too..." He said that last part with a melancholic tone, almost as if he were holding back tears.
Black Moth snorted. He waved my brother's comments off and glared at me. "Alright, dirty Wingz," he said. "You haven't spoken a word since entering this office. Still remember what we did to you just two days ago? We have a refresher for you, one that we're all too happy to deliver if you don't speak up." He waved the brass knuckles in front of me, so close that I couldn't miss it. "You better have a good reason as to why you keep coming back for more," he growled in an unsettling tone.
I didn't respond, but I wasn't ignoring him. I was thinking about an answer for him too. Why did I keep coming back?
I thought of my mother. Yesterday morning was the last time I saw her. You know, only a fool could ever miss the fact that you love your little brother more than anyone else on earth.
I thought of Analyn. Before I left, she hugged me and thanked me for bringing her and Joel to Christ. If Jesus dying for us was the definition of true love, then your willingness to do the same for your little brother is no different.
I thought of Ricky, talking to him through the prison fence after bringing his siblings over to meet him. I know you'll never stop until you get your family together again. You're strong in love.
I thought of Gloria, the day she was driving me home from the prison, home to see my family and my little brother again. You know love better than most adults think they do.
Black Moth grabbed me by the ear. "Hrm?!" he barked into it. "Answer the damned question, you son of a slut! From what Julio told me, your little brother wanted to come along when you snuck into this hideout the first time. Adorable, isn't it? Guess you two don't know just how dangerous it is in here, 'specially if you're a Wingz! Your little brother knows you're one, huh? I bet he does! And the two of you were still stupid enough to waltz in here! You come from a family of retards or something?! Hmmm?!?!"
I thought of the second night I spent without Evan, the first night Analyn and Joel slept at our place. I had a dream, a vision so vivid that it seemed almost real to me. The crosses at Calvary, the man dying on the one in front of me, the hammer and nails in my hand...
I love you Garrett...
A brass-knuckled hand swept across my face, knocking out a breath that I was about to take in. As I struggled to remain conscious, I felt his knee smashing into my ribs, over and over again, until I saw inkblots staining the edges of my vision. "Stupid Wingz," he muttered. "I made you reconsider your life decisions, huh?!" He grabbed my shirt and hauled me up into the air, shaking me violently every which way. I tried to breathe, but the shock of the situation made it almost impossible to do anything other than wheeze. I'm going to pass out, I thought. Just make it end for me. I'm done.
And then the answer hit me. I saw the hills and the crosses again, but this time, I was on the cross, looking down at the scene before me, elevated above the ground. Black Moth's violent shaking was replaced by the unsettling swaying of the cross, almost like a canoe in stormy water, building up my anxiety over the cross being blown over, sending me crashing into the ground. I tried to breathe, but even the slightest movement of my chest hurt like hell. It reminded me of the time Goliath punched me in the gut, how it seemed easier to just stop breathing and die than it was to live. I saw my little brother Evan at the foot of the cross, the cross that I was on. He looked up at me, could see the agony and the pain in my face, I was sure. He looked terrified, even though he wasn't the one who was dying. In his hands I could see a hammer and a few nails, some rope coiled around his shoulder.
"Evan..." I thought I said, my voice barely above a whisper. Breathing was an absolute hell, let alone talking, but I suddenly felt compelled to say the next three words to my little brother: "I love you..."
Evan buried his face into the cold, hard soil beneath me. I could hear him crying. "I'm sorry, Garrett!" he wailed. "I'm sorry, it's all my fault! Please forgive me, Garrett! Please forgive me...!"
I suddenly knew what that vision meant.
I clenched my fist and tried to look at Black Moth straight in the eye. "I love him," I rasped, sucking in air. "I love my little brother, and no matter what he does to me, whether he hurts me directly or indirectly, whether he hits me or insults me, whether he curses my name or spreads rumours about me... I will love him! Even though it was his fault that we're both in this mess, I'll still love him. I'll keep coming back for him, even though he doesn't deserve me! He will always be my brother, the same way I am God's child! I will love him forever, the same way Jesus loves me! There's nothing you, or Julio, or anyone else in this gang could ever do about that! You can never get me to hate my brother! You can never get me to go home until I have him back! You will never win!!"
Silence. I had expected Black Moth to hit me, but he just stared at me. My older brother was staring at me too, his mouth agape. For a good while, the two were looking at me, almost in disbelief at what I had just said. My words had hit them hard, harder than any gun or knife, the same way God's words had hit me hard when I was in prison. Even though I was currently at the mercy of Black Moth's grip, even though I was hungry and thirsty and in otherwise bad shape, and even though I was trapped in a gang's hideout with no hope of escaping, I was still alive. Still fighting. And I was going to fight. I was going to fight this with love. I stared back at Black Moth, trying not to give him any indication that I was weak or even in pain. I was going to stand by my words, and I wasn't going to take them back. Ever.
When Black Moth recovered, his voice was barely a whisper: "Are you serious, kid?"
I glanced up at Julio. He was completely dumbfounded. I looked back at the crime boss. "Yes," I said firmly. "I'm not backing down."
"Garrett..." Julio said. Black Moth didn't even try to stop him. "...are you...?"
"You should have stayed with us, Julio," I gasped. "You would have understood if you went to church with us."
Black Moth scowled. "Yeah, very nice, kid. You don't know what life really is like. 'Course you don't know! You're only ten! You've barely scratched the surface! You'll be saying all your things about love now, but in ten, fifteen years or so, you'll be thinking, 'Man, I was so fucking naïve back then!'"
Julio straightened up. "C-C-Can I have a moment with him?" he asked his boss.
Black Moth glared at him, but he didn't say anything.
"Just one minute," my brother pleaded. "You can charbroil him after that."
"I stand by what I just said, and what I said yesterday too," I rasped. "I'm not afraid to die. Not for my little brother."
The crime boss punched me in the gut. My insides turned to jelly, but fortunately it wasn't nearly as bad as the treatment Goliath gave me. "Nah," he said, grinning slyly. "I won't kill you. I'll just keep torturing you till I hear you screamin' to the heavens for mercy." He released me, and I hit the ground with a thud. "Julio! Take him out!" he ordered.
My brother nodded, grabbed me by the shoulders, and dragged me out. Black Moth didn't even look at me as I left.
When we were outside, my brother hauled me into a standing position and made me walk. Much to my surprise, he wasn't dragging me or pushing me. His hand was on my back, but it exerted no force over me, like the hand of a friend. I felt bruised and abused, and his odd change of attitude seemed like a guilty pleasure to me. I half-expected him to bring me to Evan, completely defiant of his old boss now that I did the things he would never have the guts to do, but instead he just brought me back to my wretched cell.
"Are you going to free Evan?" I asked. "I'll take whatever Black Moth throws at me. If he gets you in trouble, I'll say that it was all my fault and I'll take all the lashings. At the very least, let my brother go home."
He sighed. He opened his mouth, as if to say something, but he stopped himself at the last second and just shut the door.
I spent the rest of the morning a bit dazed, sitting on my miserable cot, staring at a spot on the wall. The words I had spoken had taken me aback as well, not to mention the new understanding I had of Jesus and His immense love for me.
I love because You first loved me... I see what it means now; I finally understand. Not only were you willing to die for me, but you were willing to still do it even after I betrayed you.
I had goosebumps lined up all over my skin. I shivered, even though the room was sweaty and humid. It was incredible what knowing and understanding the truth did to you. I finally understand, God... You were the one behind it all... Your plan was executed beautifully.
I heard the lock turn and the door being kicked open. My heart almost wilted. Black Moth...
But it wasn't Black Moth. Wasn't Julio either. Perhaps I had hoped it would be an angel — or at least my little brother — but my thoughts stopped short when I saw—
A Cobra was behind him, holding two guns behind his head. "C'mon Garrett, I'm getting you out of here," Dodger said, his voice stuttering slightly.
Huh? "But I thought—"
"No time to argue, Garrett; just come with me!"
"You're goin' back to the Wingz," the Cobra behind him explained in a gruff voice. "Black Moth was happy to see your old friend drop by for a visit to send you back to that hellhole."
I shook my head. "I told you; I'm not going back to the Wingz!"
"Please Garrett!" Dodger pleaded. "Just come with me! I'll explain further once we go outside!"
The Cobra pulled back the hammer of one of the pistols. "You gotta commend your friend for being damn brave for coming in here!" he snarled. "He was well aware of the brass-knuckled showdown that is Black Moth's signature move, and he still came and tried to negotiate with us." He pulled back the other hammer. "If you don't come with him, though, you'll be seeing his brains all over the floor."
My eyes widened. "Dodger..."
"I trust you, Garrett. I trust you'll make the right decision." He was terrified at the prospect of death, no doubt, but he was trying hard not to show it with his "gangster" façade. "I know what you're capable of doing; you made it this far for your little brother. You can do this, Garrett... you can do this..."
I swallowed. Hard. I definitely was not going to break my promise of not rejoining a street gang, but at the same time I couldn't bear the thought of watching Dodger getting killed before my eyes.
Why, though? a voice in my head said. Why are you so into protecting Dodger right now? I mean, he's a criminal! He's not your little brother. You don't love him, do you?
I clenched my fist. I already knew the answer to that! I got up, staggering to my feet. My legs were wobbly and shaky, as if they were made out of ramen noodles. "Alright... I'll go..."
The Cobra released Dodger, though he kept his guns at the ready, just in case we did something stupid. "Get on with it."
"Might want to put on your shirt," Dodger said, pointing. My shirt was still in the spot where I last left it, just before Julio whipped me with the pipe wrench. As I turned around to get it, Dodger gasped. He caught himself "breaking character" and cupped his hand over his mouth, but I could still read the expression in his eyes. "What... What did they do to you?"
"I'll explain later," I said through my teeth, trying to keep myself together. I slipped on my shirt — my wounds screamed at me — and limped out of the room with Dodger and the Cobra, who led us outside. He wasn't done with me, though; just before we left, he clubbed me in the back with his gun. I doubled-over in pain. "You stay outta here, you damned son of a slut, or I'll just kill you. Won't ask questions; I'll just cock this pistol and nip you between the eyes." He kicked me a few times, spitting on me before shoving me outside. Dodger followed, although he was in better shape than I was.
"Hey Garrett... you alright?" he asked when the Cobra left.
"Why did you do this?!" I demanded, but I was far too weak to stand up straight. I slouched over like an old man, gripping the wall for support. Dodger offered me his arm to lean on, but I brushed it off. "I told you that I'm not going back to the Wingz! I was going to die here rather than retreat! The only time I would ever leave this place is if the Cobras finally decide to free my brother. I'm not changing my mind!!"
"Wasn't here to do that," Dodger said soothingly. He placed a hand on my shoulder, which I again shrugged off. "I knew that you weren't going to give up without your brother, and I'm not here to change that." He paused. "I wasn't actually here to bring you back to the Wingz. That was just a lie I used so I could get in to free you."
I looked up at him. "How did you know that they had me prisoner?" I croaked.
He almost managed to smile. "I knew you'd never listen to me when I told you it was too dangerous. Had a pretty good feeling that you were gonna come back the next day, so I woke up early and hid outside. I saw you enter the hideout, saw you waiting there for what seemed like forever, saw those Cobras hit you and try to stab you." His weak smile waned. "I saw Black Moth. I saw how angry he was at your older brother. When I saw them blindfolding you and dragging you away, I had a pretty good idea what was happening."
I tried to stand up again, but couldn't. Dodger again offered me a hand, and this time I took it. "I didn't know if they were going to kill you and all, but I knew that there was no way you could ever save your little brother if they pretty much had you hostage. I went in, told them I was a Wingz and that I was here to bring you back. They had a gun pointed at me the whole time. Intimidating, I tell ya. Don't think Reyes ever made me do something this scary." He got serious when another thought popped into his mind. "So what happened to your back?"
"My brother... my older brother Julio..."
"He did that to you?" he asked incredulously.
"With a pipe wrench... Last night he made me take off my shirt and crouch over my cot before beating me with the wrench. How many times, I don't know, but it felt like forever. Felt like infinity..." My voice trailed off. The memories were about as fresh and raw as the wounds on my back.
"Damn Garrett... that made the Wingz Treatment look like nothing, did it?"
"That wasn't the worst part," I croaked. "The worst part was that my own brother did it. That hurt the most of all. The person I grew up with... he had the guts to do this to me. He said that Black Moth ordered him to do it, but..." I bit down on my lips, but it was becoming harder and harder to keep the tears in. I brushed a hand across my eyes, trying hard not to look weak in front of him. "I-I-I know he's a Cobra, but at the same time he's still my brother..."
Dodger gave me a sober look. "I know you've been through a lot, Garrett. It's hard being in your position, in your shoes, in your life. Can't let a bad event keep you back, though."
"I'm not!" I said firmly. "I'm still going to fight for my little brother. I haven't given up on that yet. It's just—"
"—you wanted to save your older brother too?" he said, finishing my sentence.
I looked up at him. "How did you know that?" I asked.
He managed to grin. "You said something about saving your older brother as well back on Smokey Mountain. Didn't understand why, but I guess you want to bring him home too, huh?"
I slowly nodded my head.
"Even after he whipped you with that pipe wrench? You still gonna let him back into your family? What will your parents think?"
"Even if my little brother betrayed me, I'll still love him," I replied. "No matter what he does, he can never get me to stop loving him."
"You never know," he said. "Someday the two of you are gonna get into a big fight with each other and a lot of 'I hate yous' will be thrown around."
"And if that happens, I'll apologize, and I'll still tell my brother that I love him. There's no excuse that can dissolve true love like that."
That got him there. He was quiet. Perhaps now would be a good time to talk to him about the discoveries I had made recently, the discoveries about love and God, but I couldn't forget about the task at hand, the task that I was committed to fulfilling no matter what the costs of doing so were. "How are we supposed to save my little brother now?"
"What do you suggest?" he said. "I freed you because I was pretty sure that no plan of yours could ever work while they had you imprisoned. You have any ideas?"
"I did have a plan! ...sort of." I paused. "My older brother visited me in my cell this morning, and I took up the opportunity to talk to him. I managed to convince him to let me see my little brother; he's stuck in a cell with a thick door and a small slot. He covered my eyes while he led me there, though, so I don't know where it is..."
As I was telling him about what happened, I saw his eyes go from interested and hopeful to dejected and disappointed. I sensed a part of him hating himself for that, as if to say, Yeah, you really thought it was going to be that easy?
"He took me to Black Moth's office after that, and I told him what I pretty much told you just now: That I'd still love my brother no matter what happened or what he did to me. It didn't stop him from calling me a Wingz. It didn't convince him to free my brother. But I did get him... at least for a bit."
"What did he say after that?"
"He just shrugged, punched me in the gut, and said that he was just going to torture me rather than kill me. He's seeing more gratification watching me suffer than watching me die." I clenched my fist. "That's not gonna stop me, though! I promised my little brother that I wouldn't leave him again, and I'm not leaving him here on his own! I'll still keep coming back for him for as long as I live!"
Dodger didn't say anything. He was still paying attention — somewhat — but it was clear that he was letting me run the show from here.
"My older brother did a lot of awful things to me, sure. He was the one who kidnapped my younger brother in the first place; he was the one who threatened me and told me to leave; he was the one who hit me with the pipe wrench. But he also did some good things too, much to my surprise. He spoke up when Black Moth was hitting me with his brass knuckles; he cleaned my wounds after whipping me with the wrench; at the very least, he's letting Evan live... If that's not miracle enough, then I don't know what a miracle is. After Black Moth saw me today, he took me back to my cell, not by dragging me by the ears, but by..." I stopped to think about my next words: "...He had his hand on me, like a friend, almost."
Dodger grunted in approval. "Not to be mean and all, but can you cut to the chase?" he said. He was trying to hide it, but I could tell he was getting impatient.
"I might be able to get Julio to free Evan," I said simply.
Dodger was silent. He pondered over my suggestion for two, three minutes, not saying anything. He looked at me, then his hands, then the street around him, and back at me again. "I'm not going in with guns and glory," I added. "I'm going in as an impoverished boy, half-starved for most of his life, living on a garbage dump scrounging through piles of trash. I'm leaving in the same state that I came in; I'm not looking to get rich or strike oil or anything. I just want my family back. That's it."
Dodger still wasn't saying anything. He simply stared at me. "My older brother's the best option we have, the best non-violent option. I don't want to kill anybody if I can help it. Even though they're criminals, they still deserve a chance at life. Even though they're part of a rival gang, I still have to respect them."
I must've surprised Dodger there, but I still got no verbal response from him. "Please Dodger... I need your support. You've done a lot for me, even before I was thrown into prison. Even though I was a Leech and all you still invited me into the gang and led me, Marcos, and Lewis around. After I got home, you came onto Smokey Mountain looking for me; you helped me with trying to get back into the Cobras' hideout to free my little brother. Now you came back to free me from captivity... You've paid a heavy price for me... Thank you for all that you did."
Dodger's eyes lit up. Probably didn't have much experienced with being thanked. "I need you to help me, just one last time. Please."
Dodger smiled. "Y'know what, Garrett? I have to admit, you're more mature than any other adult I've known so far. You're thanking me for what I did? No, thank yourself, I've seriously been inspired by what you, a scrawny ten-year-old, did for your family. I know I sound like fucking Confucius when I say this, but you're a boy who moves mountains." He slapped me on the back, but his smile temporarily faded when I grimaced. "Sorry man... forgot about your back."
I waved it off. "I'm alright... I'll survive."
"You'll do more than survive. You'll prosper. I can see it in you that you're still a winner even when everyone else calls you a failure." He straightened up. "I'm in. All in. For you."
"For my little brother," I said.
He shrugged and nodded his agreement. "Yeah, I guess... for your little brother."
"For my older brother too," I said. "And my mother. And my long-departed father. For God and love."
"Hey hey... let's not get carried away." I gratefully used his arm for support, although I could feel renewed strength within me that helped fight off the pain. "Where do you think Julio is right now?"
I didn't really have an answer for that. "Oh, we'll find him," I said. "I mean, I found you."
"Actually, it was me who found you. In a dumpster. Crying for help. Remember?"
It felt funny to be working with Dodger again. Just two days ago he backed out of the whole ordeal, afraid of being incapacitated over someone he didn't even know. Now, though, he was back, apparently drawn by some charm I had. Maybe I really was a miracle to the Wingz, even though I wasn't a part of that gang. At least, not anymore.
It was a long walk home, right during the sweltering heat of the afternoon. There were blisters on my feet, and surely Evan's too. I was hot, sweaty, and sunburnt from the elements. I felt like someone who had been locked in a tanning booth for too long and came out broiled like fish in the oven. But none of that bothered me. I had achieved one of the greatest victories in my lifetime: I had won my little brother back from a street gang.
He was quiet during much of the journey, though he never let go of my hand. He was tired — I knew it — and I was pretty sure that he wanted nothing more than the opportunity to go home. It had been a rough time for him, definitely one that no one should ever have to endure, but God bless: we had made it through. And we were walking out of it together.
I looked at him. His face seemed drained of his once-boundless energy, one that I had always looked forward to seeing. I knew he was happy, but fatigue had completely disguised that. His pace had also slowed as he grew weary of the journey. Soon, he would have to stop and rest. It was too much for him to handle, all in one go.
"Evan," I said, and he roused slightly from his depressed state. I stopped and knelt down. "Climb onto my back; I'll carry you."
Normally, he would've squealed at the chance to get a free ride on his favourite person's back, but today he barely had the strength to nod. He leaned weakly on me, taking some time to get onto my back. He wrapped his arms around me and rested his head on mines, almost sleepily. My back nearly did a double-take — I had forgotten about the cuts there — but I stayed firm. When he was secure, I got back up and, struggling slightly with the additional load, resumed walking. I was tired too — I won't deny that — but I loved my little brother so much, I didn't care. I didn't care if home was a few miles away or a million miles away; I'd carry my brother past every milepost on the road. I continued on, my brother still resting his head, and for a while I thought he had fallen asleep. After a few minutes, Evan broke the silence with a "What about your back?"
I looked up at him, but did not stop walking. "I don't want to hurt you, Garrett. I won't ride on your scars." I felt him beginning to slip off my back.
"No Evan — I'm fine!" I tightened my grip on him, trying to prevent him from getting off.
"But your back—"
"My back's fine. Stay on, Evan. I insist." My little brother stopped fidgeting. "You're not hurting me at all, Evan. I want you on my back. I want to carry you. There's food for the body and food for the soul, and even when my body is hungry, your presence and your love is the richest thing my soul can taste." I stopped so he could readjust his position on my back. "This ride isn't free, but you have already paid your fare — you paid it by being my little brother."
He was silent. When he again spoke, it was barely above a whisper: "Do you mean it?"
"Yes. Yes, I do mean it."
He squeezed his head into mine as I continued walking. After about another mile, he whispered, "Thank you Garrett."
"You're welcome, my dear brother."
"I'm sorry about the scars on your back..."
"It's not your fault Evan."
"I shouldn't have followed you. It was too dangerous; ma was right about that. If I didn't come with you, none of this would've happened."
"I got these scars for you, Evan," I said. "I got them for you, just like my friend Ricky got one on his face for his mother and his siblings."
"That's why it's my fault. If I didn't come, you wouldn't have to have gotten those scars."
I shook my head. "If there's something we can blame for these, Evan, it's love."
My brother appeared to be confused.
"I learned what true love really meant after Julio took you. I told Black Moth that I was willing to die for you even if you betrayed me or tried to kill me. I told ma that if my death was the only way I could save you, I'd do it. I couldn't bear the thought that the six years we spent together could come to an end. I know what gangs are about, Evan; I joined one myself, and I must tell you that they are no place for anyone to be, let alone a six year old boy. I couldn't let that happen to you, Evan. I couldn't bear the thought of you going to prison like I did. You're not a bad child, and I know that. All you wanted was to go back to school, and I tried to provide that; I tried to bring you your future back. But everything I saw along the way, all the sin and the suffering and the brutality of heartless people... God let me go through all of that for a reason. I learned that everything the gangsters, the police, and the prison guards did to me could've easily been done to you. I couldn't let that happen, Evan. It'd break my heart to see you suffer."
If my brother was tired, he didn't seem that way now. He was attentive and alert, alarmed at what I was saying.
"I had to save you, Evan, I really had to. If God didn't reveal Himself to me in prison, who knows what would've become of me when I was released? It would've hardened my mind, and once I was out, I'd go back to the street gangs. I'd join Julio and dad in their lives of sin and self-centeredness, not putting a thought back to you or mother. God saved me that way, and when the Cobras captured you, I knew I had to save you as well. I had to get you out of there before they used you for their own means, before your mind became hardened like a criminal, and before it would've become too difficult to save you. I want for us to be together, Evan; I want for the both of us to go to heaven. I don't know about Julio — definitely nothing about father — but I want our brotherhood to stand the test of eternity. Even after mom dies, and even before we start families of our own — if we ever do — we'll still have each other. No human relationship lasts longer than the one siblings have, and I didn't want that to be wrested away from us. You're so young, Evan — you're only six years old. You're young enough to have your mind completely changed, for better or for worse, and I didn't want you to be reformed so badly that you'd forget God. I'd die to make sure that didn't happen, Evan. I'd die to make sure you'd never see the depths of hell, just like Jesus died for everyone so that they wouldn't have to go to hell." I sniffled. I hadn't realized that tears had been silently streaming down my face as I spoke. "That's when I discovered what true love really meant, Evan. True love means that you're willing to die for the person you loved. Jesus loved me so much, He died for me. I really loved you Evan... the thought of you suffering was too much for me. I'd die to save you from that. I'd die to save you a million times if I could. There's no greater demonstration of love than that. And for me, there's no greater honour in being able to die not because I was ordered to, but because I wanted to save you. If I had to die — as young as I am — in order for the both of us to be able to spend an eternity together, I'll do it. We might be physically separated for the rest of your life here on earth, but at the end of all that, nothing will stop the both of us from being able to love each other, forever."
Having unloaded my entire soliloquy onto him, he was taken aback, completely speechless, as my words pooled up around him, like a small bathroom drain trying to drain an Olympic-sized swimming pool. When the waterline had gone down, he began to cry. "I..." But he could no longer compose any words, could only cry into whatever he could bury his face into from his high perch on my back.
I bit my lips, but the small river of tears that had been flowing out of me upped its current. I stood there, not knowing what to do or whether I should try to keep moving. I couldn't wipe my eyes because my hands were holding onto Evan's legs. I couldn't walk because I felt my own legs beginning to give under me. I gently lowered my little brother to the ground, turned around, and hugged him tightly. He hugged me back, emptying his tears into my shirt. I felt bad, making him cry, but at the same time I felt good inside, for I had told my brother what I wanted him to know. For a long time, what seemed to me like forever, we stood there in our brotherly embrace, letting the tears flow freely. Finally, I brushed my arm across my eyes and released him. "We have to move on," I croaked. "We still have to go home."
He nodded. He scrambled back onto my back, and we continued on the rest of the journey in silence; a silence not of discomfort or resentment, but one of pure love and joy; a silence that seemed to say, "No words are needed between two loving hearts."
There were blisters on my feet, and surely Evan's too. I was hot, sweaty, and sunburnt from the elements. I felt like someone who had been locked in a tanning booth for too long and came out broiled like fish in the oven. Above all else, I was tired, tired from my day, tired from my fights, tired from the long walk home. But I had something to look forward to.
I was home. And I had come home with my brother. My youngest brother.
My mother was the first to see us. She exited the house and ran towards her two dearest sons. "Ma!" Evan cried out. I lowered my little brother to the ground with great care, and when his feet touched the ground he rushed into his mother's arms. Both of them were crying. "I-I-I'm home..."
I put my arms around the two of them, and my mother extended her reach to include me into the hug. "I've come home, ma..." I said. "I brought Evan home."
"I-I-I'm so p-proud of you two..." she gasped. "You've gone so far, yet you've stayed so close to each other."
Analyn poked her head out the door. "Garrett!" she exclaimed. I rushed into her arms and hugged her tightly. "You're alive..."
"I thought I wouldn't make it..." I whispered. "I really thought I was going to die."
I felt a warm embrace around my lower body. I looked down and found Ricky's younger brother, Joel, hugging me tightly. He had always been a shy one, always hanging back, never first to jump into a social activity. Him hugging me now, though, clearly meant something. I bent down and hugged him back. "I know your brother would do this for you too."
My mother tapped me. "There's someone inside that wants to see you."
"Who is it?"
"Come and see for yourself."
I released Joel and headed inside. My younger brother was right by my side, and I knew he was more than happy to be home with me. A figure was seated on the couch that me and Evan used to sit in, its face dark and solemn. It was alerted to my presence, my entering through the front door, and it turned to look at me.
I felt Evan grabbing my hand again. I tried to speak, but nothing came out; my mouth wouldn't even open. I looked at my mother, but she had nothing to say to me either. She gave Julio a look that seemed to say, "Say something!", and he did.
"I know you have many things to say about me, Garrett. Some good, most of them bad."
I did not say anything.
"I know you're angry at me, Garrett. I took your little brother — also my little brother — and dragged him into the depths of the Cobras. I know you joined Diablo Wingz several months ago in order to support him and send him back to school. I am more than aware that our gangs are sworn enemies, and when I saw you in our turf, I did as any other Cobra would do."
I remained silent, though I felt my anger beginning to build up within me. My fists were beginning to clench and stiffen.
"I hope you know, Garrett, that I could've killed you out there. I could've killed you and Evan. But I didn't. I couldn't. I really couldn't. I was about as scared as you were, even though I was the one behind the trigger. You were no ordinary Wingz. For one, you were a child. A small child. Secondly, you are my brother. I haven't forgotten about the two of you, I really haven't. Deep down inside... I really missed the two of you. I know I was never the best of brothers, but when I was away from home, I realized just how much you really meant to me."
"Why... did... you..."
"Remember all the times I came home randomly? I know mom gave me the cold shoulder, and I know I pretty much ignored all of you. Occasionally the gang lets me go home early; most of the time I go to my usual place, where I board with a number of other Cobras. But sometimes... I just felt like coming back to this place. I don't know why, but I couldn't bear the thought of slamming a door behind me and never going back. This was the place I grew up in, after all. Even if all three of you disappeared, I'd still find this house to be eerie... eerie and delightful at the same time."
My mind raced back to one of the discussions I had with Ricky. Maybe he's trying to remember all the good times, the life that he once had and lost, the halcyon days of his childhood.
I tried to quell it, but it burst forth with uncontrolled fury. I grabbed a fistful of my older brother's shirt and hauled him to his feet. "Why did you take Evan?" I barked at his face. "Why did you drag Evan into your gang and let him get used and abused without saying anything about it? Why would you let him get hurt when you know I'd die to protect him? Why didn't you even release him like I begged you to and take me instead? Why, out of everyone in the world, would you do this to your little brother? Why?!"
"Garrett! Please!" My mother tried to persuade me to let go, but I shrugged her off. "You know I'd never let the person who kills my brother live for as long as I'm around. You know that I'd go all those extra miles to do whatever it takes to get what he needs. You know that I'd starve myself to a skeleton so he could eat and survive. You know that I'd run in front of any knife or gun pointed at him and take that first strike. You know I couldn't possibly forgive someone like you!"
Julio was slightly surprised at my outburst, but he was, in no means, scared or terrified at me. His sober look did not falter. "I know you hate me for what I've done. If you're going to hit me, punch me, slap me... do it. I won't fight back. I deserve it, I deserve all of it! If I'm to be flogged, I know exactly why." I thought I saw his eyes beginning to water up. "I know why you left home in the first place; I left for the same reason. I wanted to bring the money I made home, hoping to bail us out of the life that we lived, to replace the efforts that our father once provided. But ma wouldn't accept it. She wouldn't accept who I had become. I'd look at myself in the mirror and I couldn't see the Julio that this family knew. I instead see a Julio that sold and smoked shabu, one who garnered a positive reputation around the wrong people, and one that seemed more focused on satisfying his own selfish desires and appetites. I didn't see what my mother disliked about me, only that she didn't want my money and that I may as well keep it. I didn't care about my family anymore. My priority was finding pleasure with the money I made to fill that empty gap inside of me. No matter how hard I tried though, no matter how many joints I smoked, or bottles I downed, or people I slept with, I never filled that gap, never satisfied that hunger or quenched that thirst. It was like filling up a fuel tank continuously, but it would always remain empty."
People he slept with? I looked at my mother, but she didn't seem surprised; I assumed he had already told her. "You didn't do anything to—"
"No, I didn't," he said quickly, defending himself. "Nobody did anything of that sort to him."
I looked at Evan, for only he could give a trustworthy testimony. "What did Julio do to you?"
He didn't respond right away. "He... he sometimes fed me, sometimes talked to me... but he didn't do anything else."
"Did anyone else do anything to you?"
"I did everything I could to keep their hands off him," Julio interrupted before my brother could say something.
"I'm not asking you!" I snapped at him. This time, a little more gently: "Did they do anything else to you?"
"They... they... sometimes they would hit me..." The memories hit him hard, and he shuddered, tears sprawling out of his eyes. He hugged me tightly and cried into the fabric of my shirt, like he now always did whenever he was afraid or felt threatened. I gave him several minutes for him to pull himself together.
"Anything else?" I asked.
He shook his head.
"I know it doesn't seem like it, Garrett," Julio said, "but I—"
"Why did you take him?" I demanded, interrupting his comment. "You haven't answered that question yet. Why did you take him and not me? Why did you even consider taking either of us? Why would you do that to your brothers, Julio?!"
He took a long, slow, deep breath. "I know this might not make sense at first, but—"
"Why did you take him?!" I thundered.
"Because of what?!"
"Give him some time, Garrett," my mother said gently over my shoulder.
"...because I knew you loved him."
I gave him a long, hard stare.
"I told you it wouldn't make sense when I said it."
"You took Evan away from me because you knew I loved him?! You wanted to break us apart, did you?"
He was sullen and silent for a moment. "Remember what I said about why I came home randomly?"
Ricky's comment again echoed through my mind.
"I was at conflict with myself when I was behind the trigger, I really was. Part of me, the foreign side of me, was apt to kill you. You were a Wingz, I was a Cobra, and our gangs were at war with each other. It made no sense to let you live. But the other part of me was glad, almost elated, to see you. I heard about you, figured that you left home for the same reasons that I did, and that part of me felt brokenhearted, as I knew that we were now at odds with each other. Though we may be enemies, I also knew that you were still my brother, and I couldn't change that."
"You haven't answered my—"
"I'll get to that."
My mother put her arms around me. "I know you're angry," she said quietly, "but he has a lot to say to you, and he means it. He really does."
I was still tense, would not let that fury die down just yet. I felt Evan's hand closing around mines again, and I squeezed it tightly.
"I knew how close you were to Evan, and I knew you'd never rest at night if something ever happened to him. So I took him, knowing that you would keep coming back, relentlessly trying to save him until he was freed or you were killed. I hated myself for doing that, I really did! Part of me was angry at the fact that I didn't just kill the both of you. Mum must've thought that the old Julio was completely suppressed and senseless, but at that moment, when I held the gun in front of you, that part of me came back to life. It was all that stood between me and you going on a one-way trip to the grave."
My breathing was heavy; my mother and Evan tugged at me, begging me to calm down, but I didn't. I couldn't.
"The Cobras wanted to kill you; it would be a terrible blow to the Wingz once they knew that their prospective star was dead for good, but I told them not to. I wouldn't allow them to kill you no matter how hard they tried, because you're my brother. I couldn't let them kill Evan either, because he's also my brother, and I knew that you'd never rest until you had your hands around my neck if I let Evan die. All the times you came into our turf, I came out to do two things: one, to tell you to leave; and two, to see you. I felt bad for not being the brother you and Evan needed; I would've denied ever being a brother if I could. But the determination, the look on your face, how you came back almost every day even after the Cobras hurled death threats at you, and how you'd always be pestering me to free your little brother... I needed to see that. I needed a taste of that. Even though I am technically the bigger brother, I knew you had the qualities of one, qualities that I felt I lacked, and I still do." He looked at me. "I learned from you, Garrett. People think I'm crazy, learning from my younger siblings, but I did. Every time I think of you, I am amazed at how far you'd go for Evan. You'd jump into a pit while I'd climb out; you'd starve yourself while I'd overindulge; you'd give your life while I'd give some money. You'd do it all for the life of your little brother — my little brother as well — Evan."
Speaking of Evan, he was really crying now, though his tears were not of misery. I bent down and hugged him again, brushing my arm across my eyes in a futile attempt to control the flood. Everything Julio said was true; Evan knew it, I knew it, and now everyone in the house knew it. I really would go that far to keep my brother safe, and if I couldn't suffer for him, I'd suffer with him. I thought of Ricky and how he'd do the same, and how we had so much in common despite all our differences.
Julio had given up on hiding his tears. I had rarely seen him cry. "Your love shook me," he managed to say through the sobs. "How could it not shake anyone who was paying attention?" He buried his face into his hands. "I made many mistakes in life. I don't deny it. After dad left, I thought there was nothing else in here that could keep me in. What's the point of spending all day on the mountain picking up after other people's trash to sell for peanuts? I left because the life I was living in was a trap, a trap that I could not get out of. I had no future living off meager earnings from the mountain. I was destined to live my entire life here. I left because it all appeared so dull and mundane to me, with nothing interesting or exciting to hold me down. I needed a way out. I needed a ticket to the train that would take me to greener pastures. But I didn't realize that I already had a plot of fertile land, one that I had been standing on the whole time."
I looked at Julio, then at Evan, and then back again. I shared a tight bond with my little brother, and while Julio wasn't entirely foreign to us, he didn't appear in the photograph. I couldn't picture him in there, couldn't picture him being the older brother that we both could've used. We had gotten along just fine without him, haven't we?
"Dodger was being pissing-ass annoying about me not being your older brother. And you know what? He's right. I should've built a solid bond with the two of you, bonds that I desperately needed when dad left. I didn't realize that there were still people within my own walls that were still part of my family. I should've taken the reins, but instead I abandoned my post, ditched my responsibilities, tried to forget about you. I know I was never the older brother you and Evan needed, and..." He trailed off, and for several minutes he was quiet. Absolute silence. When he managed to recover, his voice was barely above a whisper: "...I'm sorry."
I had no response. I still could not comprehend the idea of my older brother actually apologizing to me.
"I'm a terrible mess, and I know it," he continued. "I know there are many reasons as to why you should hate me, or at the very least, snub me for as long as you live. If I had never woken up from the slumber I had spent the last several years dozing off in, there wouldn't be any point in me sitting here talking to you. But I have. I know that I was never really your brother, nor was I Evan's, but I'm willing to make up for it. I'm sorry, Garrett... I really am! I know I won't be able to make up for it all in a day, and I've got years of bad habits to break, but I really hope that... you can forgive me, for everything I've done." He paused to wipe tears from his eyes. "I want to be your brother again. I want to be Evan's brother again. I just want to be part of this family again."
"He really means it," my mother said quietly. "Forgive him. Forgive him, like I forgave you. He has done much worse than you, but he's sitting in front of you now. If I can forgive someone like him, surely you can, too."
I still had no response. My arms were still wrapped tightly around Evan. My mother knelt down to get to our level. "You know how Evan gets on your nerves sometimes, right?" she asked.
Evan and I rarely fought, but it did happen from time to time. I tried to remember the last time we fought violently, how I felt so flustered and angry that I couldn't look at him for several minutes. Within an hour, though, it was back to horseplay and the two of us laughing, as if nothing had happened.
"I know I did wrong," Julio said. "And that's the thing. I know I'm wrong, and I admit it. This whole mess wouldn't have happened if it weren't for me." He looked at me straight in the eye. "I just want us to be together again. I really missed you, Garrett. I missed you and Evan, mom and dad, how we used to be a family despite the environment we lived in. I'm trying to change, I really am. But I can't do it without your support. I need your help, Garrett; this seems crazy, but this time around, the older brother really needs a younger brother to lean on." A tear trickled down his face. "Will you do it? Will you give me another chance, a chance for me to heal? A chance for all of us to heal?"
I felt my breathing beginning to soften. When I had reached a point where my anger had tapered off, and the burning desire within me could not longer be suppressed, I rushed towards my older brother and threw my arms around him. I bit my tongue, but several sobs escaped my lips, audible to all. Julio put his own arms around me, and for the first time in what must've been years, I felt like he was my brother again. I had no idea how I could've felt this close to him.
He patted me comfortingly on the back. "I just want for us to be together again," he repeated. He broke the hug and looked at me in the eye. He was not unkind, though he was serious. "Mom told me about what you've been doing, to get someone you met in prison freed, to get him back to his own siblings." I wanted to look away from him, but he kept his hands firmly planted on my shoulders. "I'm proud of you, Garrett. I really am. I was a terrible role model for you, but you kept going and growing. You've done all the things I should've done, with the attitude I should've had. And you are teaching Evan all the things I should've taught the both of you. He's grown faster with you than he did with me."
I was quiet. When I found my voice again, I asked, "What about your gang?" I knew that the Diablo Wingz were unlikely to come looking for me, if Dodger was true to his word.
"They're not my gang anymore," he replied.
"Won't they come looking for you?"
"If they come, I'll deal with them." He patted me on the shoulder. "Like I said, I'm learning from you; consider this an opportunity to redeem myself and be the protective brother that I never was. After all, you were the one who risked your life to save Evan. From me."
My mother came around us. "You don't know just how proud I am of the both of you. You have both ventured into the darkness, but came back into the light. You have, perhaps unknowingly, trained and conditioned each other for the brutal journey of life ahead. You have remained connected to the family, even after all that you have been through. At the end of the day, no matter what happens or what you've done or where you've been, you are still brothers. All three of you are still brothers."
Evan wrapped his arms around me; I wrapped my arms around him; and Julio knelt down to our level and wrapped his arms around the both of us. I wasn't sure how Evan felt, being hugged by his own kidnapper, but he did not shrug him off. Perhaps he had forgiven his eldest brother; perhaps he was comforted by the fact that I was there to defend him if need be; perhaps he was just too tired and exhausted from his ordeal to even care. Whatever the case was, it felt good for the three of us to be together again.
One thing I knew Evan disliked the most was having to sleep without me. He was no stranger to that fear now, having endured several months spending the nights on his own. The past few days must've been worse, being held prisoner in an unfamiliar environment by his own eldest brother. I only wanted everything to be normal again, to do the things I missed doing with him, and I'm certain he must've felt the same way.
My older brother, too, was a returning glory, though it is funny how I worded that. For years, his presence didn't seem to mean an awful lot to me, and when he left the rare nights he spent with us didn't feel special at all, as if he were an inanimate household ornament that sometimes adorned our room. Today, though, he felt like a part of our family again, a missing piece that was finally reconciled with its origins. He had years of bad habits to break — I knew that — but after today's events, he felt much better at home. His old home. The place he grew up in.
We were sprawled out on the living room floor, a new thing for my brothers now that Analyn and Joel had our old bedroom. Julio slept slightly closer to us, but he still faced the other way, keeping his back towards us. Evan had his head by my chest, entombing himself into the warm, protective cove my anterior provided. My arm was around him, sliding under his head to reach his left shoulder blade, gently nudging him towards myself. My life was a bag full of uncertainties, and I could not tell if this was the last night God permitted us to be together.
"Evan," I whispered quietly into his ear. The silence was so thick, though, that even the slightest sound was amplified to great magnitudes. I was afraid of having disturbed Julio, whom I heard shuffling over, perhaps in mild annoyance. My younger brother's eyes fluttered open ever so slightly, half-awake, half-dozing. His eyes seemed so small at night. He looked up at me.
"I love you."
I felt Julio shuffling again; this time he heard me for sure. Evan's eyes closed again as he buried his face into my chest once more. "I love you too Garrett," his muffled voice said.
I heard Julio sigh, a loud, audible sigh. It reminded me of all the times Evan asked me questions in the middle of the night, how I was always the one who answered, and how my older brother would always keep us at arm's length. It had become habit for him to just let the two of us do our own thing and cut himself out of our picture. That was a habit he was now trying to break, an attempt to reintegrate himself back into our family. It would not change our situation, would not make us rich or even lift us out of poverty, but it would bring us closer together. One step closer to what our family used to be. One step closer to full reconciliation. Even if my father could not be found, Julio would be his remaining legacy in the house. If I ever needed to think about my long-departed father, my older brother would be there for me, carrying a piece of him wherever he went.
I don't love my brother.
I love my brothers.
I smiled and kissed Evan gently on the cheek. Julio heard it, no doubt, but I didn't care. He wanted to be a brother again, and the best I could do is to show him what one was like.
The door was opened. Behind it were two people: one, the guard holding the door open, and two, a young boy, around eleven years old, although his physical stature was short for his age. He had black hair with the tips dyed blonde. An ugly red scar stretched across his left cheek, beginning at his ear and stopping just short of the mouth. His face wore a look of resilience and steadfastness. His face was familiar to me, and for two of the three people I brought along, it was family.
He was my friend. He is my friend.
"Analyn!" he exclaimed, rushing into her arms. He closed his eyes and let the tears wash away the iron look on his face. His sister turned her head and kissed her brother's cheeks. "I missed you, Ricky..." she said.
Her brother returned the kiss. "I'm sorry... I-I-I c-c-caused you so much g-grief... I-I'm h-h-here now..."
The smaller boy wrapped his arms around Ricky's waist. "Ricky..." he murmured before emotion gripped him.
Ricky knelt down and hugged his younger brother tightly. "Joel..." he said quietly in his ear before kissing him lightly on the cheek, "...I love you."
Watching the whole scene unfold before me made me want to cry as well. I squeezed tightly against Evan, trying hard not to shed any tears. He looked up at me. "This is how I felt when I came home and saw you for the first time in months," I explained to him.
The three of them — all three of them — were crying, together in each other's arms. I felt sympathetic for them — they had lost both of their parents, their old home, their old treasures. All they had left was each other. What touched me even more is that the three of them were almost happy to become scavengers with me and my family. They didn't care. All they wanted was a home, a roof to sleep under, an opportunity to get off the streets, and most importantly, the ability to be together.
Ricky, I admired, for his bravery and courage to go to the extremes to protect what remained of his family, his siblings.
Analyn, I admired, for her perseverance and refusal to give up her younger brother no matter how bad things were, her determination to find him a safe place, off the streets.
Joel, I admired, for... Well, he reminded me of Evan. When you were able to get past his shy, withdrawn side, he was practically Evan's twin.
Finally, Ricky stood up. He threw his arms around me and hugged me close. "Thank you Garrett," he whispered. "Thank you for taking my family in. I know we'll be scavengers, but I would rather suffer with you than to be free alone." He brushed the tears from his eyes with his hand. "I owe you my life."
I hugged him back. "I... I'm just happy you and your siblings are together again."
"We wouldn't be here right now if it weren't for you. I know you have a big heart, the way you were willing to suffer for your brother. I knew you were willing to suffer for us."
I patted him lightly on the shoulders. "I think you're the one with the big heart, Ricky. Who's the one with the scar here?"
He laughed at my comment. "If I have to, I'll get another one on my right cheek."
"Like a good friend," I said in agreement.
"Like a good friend." He smiled at me. "Maybe you should get one for yourself." He looked at my brother, who was still standing beside me. "I see you got your brother back."
"I would only let my older brother's gang have him over my dead body." I pointed towards my back, still covered with welts, though they were healing. "I got a ton. For him. My older brother whipped me senseless with a pipe wrench. But I didn't care. All I wanted was my brother back."
"They say love makes you stupid," he remarked, "but it makes you do the unthinkable."
I grinned. "Talk about the unthinkable: I got my older brother back as well."
"Guess he always wanted to come home the whole time?"
"Yeah." I grasped Evan's hand. "I realized that he still felt the responsibility of having to take care of his two younger brothers, even though he never adhered to it. But it was enough to keep Evan alive. He couldn't bring himself to kill his brothers. He still had that in him. I'm thankful for that."
"He came home?"
I nodded. "He has years of bad habits to break, but—" There was a pause, "—my mother forgave him, like she forgave me. I just hope that, if my father ever does come home, she'll forgive him too." I looked at him. "I'm just like you, Ricky; I just want my family back too."
"You five planning on getting out of here?" the guard said impatiently, interrupting our moment.
I nodded. "Let's go."
Once we were outside, Ricky said to me, "I guess I'm going to be playing in mounds of trash every day for the rest of my life now."
I cocked a smile. "Hey, you'll get used to it. Besides — you're not on the streets anymore."
He put an arm around me. "Who knows what the future holds? It's filled with trash, that's all I know."
"We can only move forward from here. We have nothing — and need nothing — other than faith. Faith in the future, faith in the bleak, faith in the unknown."
"What makes you say that?" I asked.
"You made me say that. What do you think could've happened to me or my siblings if we never went to prison together? Sometimes the best gems are buried under the ugliest rocks."
I thought of Evan, before I remembered that this time he was right beside me. I squeezed his hand, and he responded by squeezing mine. "And sometimes the best gems are those you're born with."
He smiled. "You got me there."
We walked along in silence. Well, as much silence as we could maintain at the prospect of facing what lay ahead of us. It was filled with doubt; my promise never to leave my brother also meant that he would likely never see the insides of a school again. His future — and our future as well — seemed to comprise of us living in the same wretched conditions doing the same things over and over for the rest of our lives. The road seemed to have no end, no forks in sight, not even the slightest hint that it would change, or even go anywhere. I knew Ricky and what remained of his family seemed optimistic about their new life, but I wondered about how long it would last before they faded into the background, like the rest of us seemed to have. Who knew what God had in store for us? All of us?
The smell of strong cologne snapped me out of my thoughts. I looked around. A wealthy, well-dressed but unshaven man sporting a khaki dress shirt and beige cargo shorts passed us. His pockets seemed "ripe for the picking," as Dodger once said, and for a brief second I wondered about how much money he had in his wallet. The first time I picked a pocket, it was with Dodger's aid, and he gave me half of the two hundred pesos our victim had. Nobody working on the mountain picking at trash or dismantling old objects could ever make that much in such a short amount of time...
"What're you looking at?"
I realized I had stopped to look back at the man, who was long gone. "Oh, nothing," I lied.
Ricky gave me a weak grin. "I know what you're thinking. It seems like a ladder to get out of the pit." He continued walking as soon as I had caught up with him. "But whenever you climb that ladder, a landslide sends you back further than you originally were. One moment you seemed to be making progress, the next you're wondering if you could ever get out from under a boulder."
I nodded. I knew exactly what he meant. "I promised. I promised him — my brother."
Suddenly, I stopped. The other four stopped as well.
"What's wrong?" Analyn asked.
I smiled slightly.
"What's so funny?" Ricky wondered.
I looked down at my little brother. He was still holding onto my hand, having stopped when I stopped. He was looking up at me, a look of confusion on his face. I knew he wouldn't have wanted to spend any more time away from me, and he knew I was apt to live up to that promise. But there was something within him, something I could see, something I was pretty sure only someone as close to him as I was could see.
"Tired?" I asked him.
He shook his head, but still, I could see it.
I knelt down, bringing my head down to his level so I was no longer towering over him with my natural height. I drew him in close, my mouth close to his ear. This was something only us brothers needed to know, something between the two of us only. "Scared?" I whispered into his ear.
He wanted to shake his head, but he was afraid of what might happen if he lied, claiming he wasn't scared of something he was really scared of.
"What are you scared of?"
He knew it was a brother-to-brother time; though we were in the middle of a busy street, there was nobody and nothing else I could see other than him. He got up and close to my face and said, "The future. I'm scared of the future... I want to go to school, but I don't want you to leave me. I don't want to be poor anymore, but I don't want our family to break apart."
I was quiet for a moment. "I don't know the answer to our problems, but I do know one thing." I darted my eyes left to right, as if to check for unwanted eavesdroppers. "Our bonds will never break apart. Our love will never wane. That much I know, but that means a lot. No matter what happens to either of us, no matter what happens to this country or this world, you'll always be my brother and I'll always be yours."
I looked up briefly. "I told Ricky that I liked giving you piggyback rides..."
And just like that, his eyes lit up. Though I had given him countless rides even before I left home, numbers could not set the limit on how many rides he could get.
"Remember, Evan: I want to carry you. I'll do it even with the scars on my back. We'll show Ricky that. We'll show everyone that. We'll show everyone how sweet the taste of love is even in an ocean of bitterness. There's no shortage of love between you and me, and God will keep it that way for as long as eternity goes."
His smile was a mile wide as he scrambled like a monkey onto my back. I straightened my back and looked at my friends. "Let's go."
The three of them kept looking at us as we walked; they were no strangers to our background now. They knew where we came from, the sort of life we lived, the life we're living now, the obstacles that we had been through. They knew that my brother had been traumatized by his eldest brother's gang; they knew that I had my back slashed by him with a pipe wrench. They knew that we had been through things that would've shattered any sort of self-confidence, every ounce of dignity, leaving an empty shell devoid of life, spirit, and hope. Yet in losing so many things, we had found our true wealth, a wealth that we were all born with, just waiting to be exposed once the cruft around it was cleared. We had found love, a timeless gift from God, an enduring flame that survived even the strongest of winds, the rainiest of storms, the most brutal of conditions that would extinguish any other fire. We had found ourselves, the very being that God created, full of imperfect perfections, one of billions, yet still unique and very much alike at the same time. And, most of all, we had found each other, and though many others had what we had, we had discovered the true meaning of our greatest possessions. We had our possessions taken and tested. But we had passed the test, still alive, still strong, and most importantly, still together. If this is not true love, I thought to myself, then love does not exist.
From the corner of my eye, I could see Ricky studying us, how Evan was laughing despite what he had been through, how I was smiling even with the painful welts. Slowly, I saw the corners of his mouth starting to rise. Soon, his smile was about as big as mine. He tapped his own brother on the shoulder. "Climb onto my back, Joel!"
I grinned. Someone was learning to be a big brother!
Joel did not respond. He looked at me and Evan, then at his sister, then at his brother again. "C'mon!"
Analyn picked her little brother up and, through his uncomfortable squirming, helped him onto Ricky's back. "It's my turn after yours!" she said.
"Not if I get him home first!" And with that, the three — well, two — were running, each wanting a turn to carry their youngest sibling on their back before they got home.
They had found their home.
I looked up at Evan. I wanted to kiss him, but couldn't at this angle. "You see? We did make a difference."
He squeezed me tightly. It hurt and felt wonderful at the same time. "We always make a difference."
The three had stopped to wait for us to catch up. They had gone quite a distance in such a short amount of time. "Do you think we should run?" I asked.
My little brother did not give me a verbal response, but instead turned his head and kissed me on the cheek. Up to now, I had always been the kisser, being the bigger brother that I was, and never hesitating to show Evan just how much I really loved him. Now I knew what it was like to be kissed by your little brother, and probably what he felt whenever I kissed him. Sure, your mother hugs you and kisses you like no one else can, but your siblings can love you in a way that's unique too.
I smiled and began to run.