I heard the door opening and closing, not roughly, but loud enough to stir me from my dreamless doze. My eyelids fluttered open slightly, barely slits, allowing a small stream of light from the outside world to enter. The bottom of the table I slept under stared back at me, a few bolts and screws fastening it to the legs, preventing it from collapsing on top of me. I tilted my head slightly to the right. My brother Evan was still sleeping, his eyes still closed, his arms and hands still around me. Nothing out of the ordinary there. I was about to close my eyes again when a foot kicked me lightly in the head. I felt the vibrations shaking up my skull.
"Hey, wake up," a voice hissed. "Wakey wakey, Garrett."
I looked up. It was Aryan, the supervisor of our room. "Your turn to man the watchtower tonight. Get up!"
I nodded my acknowledgement. Very gently, I grasped Evan's limbs and carefully freed myself from his embrace. He had a monstrous grip for someone his age, and a stronger feeling of love, especially for me. When he slept, it normally went limp enough for me to slip out, although doing so would usually rouse him. I wanted to kiss him before I left, but I could sense Aryan's impatience with me, so I obediently slipped on a coat and stepped outside into the cold, frigid air of the night, which woke me up almost instantly.
"Keep an eye out for trouble that's headed for the camp. Radio security if you do. Most important of all, don't fall asleep, or the guards'll beat the living shit out of you. You understand?"
We got to the watchtower. "Kieron's already up there, so just tell him his shift's over. Your shift begins pronto."
I nodded and began to make my way up the ladder. The metal rungs were colder than ice, sucking the heat out of my hands. The winds buffeted me as I rose in elevation, unobstructed by the surrounding buildings. I shivered. As someone who grew up in the balmy climate of the Philippines, extreme cold was something I was not used to. With every step I took, I felt like I was going to die, freeze to death, becoming like the ice man mummy I read about once from a discarded magazine I found on Smokey Mountain. What an awful way to die, I thought. Especially to have your dead corpse be well preserved under the elements for people to see your body hundreds of years later. Finally, I reached the top. I wiggled my toes and fingers, and they responded. At least I was still alive.
"I'm... I'll take over..." I gasped.
"Thanks, buddy," Kieron responded. He was a nice guy, and I liked him from the day we first met. He was big and strong, but also very warm and friendly, and he'd often play with me and Evan when we were on break and had the field to ourselves. He was like my father, almost, at least for me. I thought of Ricky then, and how he was trying to be his little brother Joel's father.
"It's cold out. Check your fingers and toes regularly to make sure they still work." And with that, Kieron's face disappeared as he climbed down the ladder, back to the warmth of the barracks.
Now I'm alone. Just me and God. It would have been nice up here had it not been for the cold wind, which seemed to make me more and more lifeless with every passing second. I was shivering nonstop, but I still felt like a block of ice in a large, refrigerated room. The watchtower had quite an incredible view of the compound, though; a view I was apt to enjoy. I could see the main gates quite clearly, along with the road that led in and out of it. In the distance, I could see rocky mountains, their rough exteriors looking almost beautiful from a distance. To my right and left were all the buildings inside the confines of the fence that surrounded camp. There were a few guards patrolling the streets of the compound, keeping an eye out for runaway workers or those wandering outside their assigned buildings without supervision. There weren't any seats or chairs in the watchtower — it was believed that guards would find it too easy to fall asleep on duty if they sat down, although the cold made sleep an impossibility anyways — so I simply leaned forward on the sides of the watchtower, looking out and digesting the scene in front of me. Nights were generally quiet, but it was the quietness that workers looking to flee took advantage of. Whoever manned the watchtower was required to report anyone who was running away, or they could face a serious punishment. I kept an eye out for that now, not wanting to be called a "snitch" by my fellow workers, but also not wanting to be tarred and feathered by the superiors.
I heard someone coming up the ladder to the watchtower. Huh? I was pretty sure Aryan picked me to be the one staffing the tower tonight. Who was this? I looked down.
He was still a good ways off, but I extended my arms out to him anyways. The wind was blowing hard, and I could tell he was struggling. As soon as he was within reach, I grabbed him and hauled him up to where I was, squeezing him tightly, holding him close to me.
"Evan," I began, "what are you doing here at this time of night?"
"I heard Aryan's voice telling you to wake up, felt you moving my arms so you could get out, felt your warm presence next to me disappear." He was hugging me tightly as well, both out of love and from the cold, I guess. "I'm sorry, Garrett! I don't want you to get in trouble, but I just couldn't sleep without you! I was afraid that one of the other guys would take advantage of your absence and do something to me!" He looked up at me. He was a strong little boy, but also small, scared, and vulnerable at the same time. "Can I stay here with you tonight?"
Evan was technically not supposed to be out here, and if caught, he could be punished by the guards — and now so would I for not "reporting" him. But I couldn't refuse my brother. He was so sweet and dear to me; I willingly ran from home and joined a street gang to try to feed him, and fought Julio's gang in order to free him when he was captured. I wasn't afraid to go the extra mile for my brother, and I was ready to sacrifice my own life to save him at any hour of any day. Now that we were thousands of miles away from home, away from our family, away from familiar environments, we were the only things we had left, aside from God and love. I smiled. "Of course you may stay."
He was still tense, but he was obviously happy to be with me. He looked around, outside of the watchtower. "Wow!" he breathed. "You can see forever from up here!"
I followed his gaze. He wasn't looking at the camp he was trapped in now. He was looking at the sights of freedom, the vast expanse of the world beyond the compound's walls. The mountains. The sky. The clouds. The moon that was out. The vast array of stars. God's creation. I remembered the night God spoke to me in that overcrowded prison cell, how he placed the image of the night sky in my mind, how it took my breath away. Now I could see it for real, the Milky Way that we lived in, away from the lights of the city that normally would have crowded them out. Underneath all that activity was the earth, a well-crafted world of forests, mountains, streams, deserts, and oceans. Even though we humans had a nerve to turn away from God — like building the lousy fortress we were in right now — nothing could damage the beauty of God's creation for as long as God wanted. And He kept everything beautiful, for attentive people like us to be reminded that there is a great and powerful being out there, and He is on our side.
Evan was shivering. He had brought his arms together in a futile attempt to keep the warmth in. I noticed that he lacked a coat and was still in the clothes he went to bed with.
"Evan," I said, and he looked over. "Here—" I unzipped my jacket and brought the left side of the coat around his body. The coat was a few sizes bigger than I was, so it fit him like a tent, his head disappearing behind the fabric. I lowered myself to get closer to his level and helped him free his head so he could breathe. I slipped my left arm out of its sleeve and wrapped it around his body, squeezing him into me to warm him up. With the two of us sharing the same coat, some would probably find it uncomfortable, but for us it was quite snug and comfy indeed. His body felt warm and lovely next to mine.
"Better?" I asked.
He nodded. "A little. Thank you Garrett." Snuggling up together on the couch was something we did frequently at home. It was something I looked forward to being able to do every day, and I never tired of it. It was so nice to have a sibling that was willing to do it with you. My older brother, Julio, wasn't a fan of intimate moments, and for much of our lives he remained fairly distant from us. He's been trying to mend his mistakes — I knew it — but he hasn't quite reached the point that me and Evan were at right now. Still, he loved us enough to join us once.
I knew that the watchtower was equipped with a radio, and was afraid that Calvin — or any of the other guards — were listening in on us. "We should probably keep our voices low, so nobody hears us," I whispered.
My little brother nodded his head in agreement. "Okay."
"This is great that we can keep watch together."
The two of us looked back out at our surroundings again. It was an uneventful night, at least from where we stood. The patrolling guards below us hadn't caught anybody yet, and the road connecting the compound to the rest of the world was all but empty. A cloud passed over the moon, partially blocking its light, with little slivers of it slipping through and reaching my eyes. The wind continued to blow, and I could tell that it wasn't going to get any warmer soon, at least not until morning. I missed home — no point in denying that — but at the same time I wouldn't have traded this moment away for anything.
"Garrett?" Evan said softly. We were so close together that I could feel the vibrations of his chest as he spoke, and there was no way I would have missed a word he said. "Can I ask you something?"
"Of course you can ask me anything," I replied. "I'm here for you, just like I promised."
"It's about God," he continued.
I was no deacon, but I was his brother. "Just tell me and I'll try to answer," I said. "And if I can't, we'll pray about it, and God will answer it for us."
He swallowed, as if he were nervous. But about what? He knows I'm his brother. "If God loves us, why does He make us go through so much pain?"
Ah. The million dollar question. I had asked that question to God when He appeared before me. "God uses pain to make us stronger, Evan."
"How?" He was curious to know, a form of childhood curiosity that irritated many adults — my older brother included, maybe — but I knew Evan was young and that he naturally had lots of questions. Plus, the fact that he was curious to know more about God was a good sign, surely.
"Because when we go through pain, God uses it as an opportunity to teach us. God teaches us many things when we are away from home, when we're sick or uncomfortable or unhappy. To God, trouble is the perfect opportunity to show us how much He loves us, and how much we really need Him."
"But why pain, exactly? Why can't He do it in another way that doesn't hurt as much?"
I thought for a moment. "You know people that work out? Go to the gym? Lift weights?"
My brother nodded.
"When they lift something that's heavy, it hurts, right? It's easier if they just sat around doing nothing. But they lift that weight because they know it will make them stronger later on. When they lift it, they feel pain, and soon they'll have to rest. When they rest, their bodies rebuild their muscles, and the muscles get stronger. If they simply sat around, they're not really resting because they're already well rested. They need to feel pain in order for rest to mean anything. You know how you sometimes sleep in during the morning, and you don't really go back to sleep because you're not tired anymore, right?"
"I still don't get it," my brother said, adamant. "If God wants us to have big muscles, why doesn't He just give us big muscles? If God wants to teach us something, why doesn't He just make us know it? If God wanted to feed us... why doesn't He just give us food, like He gave the Israelites manna? Why do we have to buy it, or dig it out of the garbage?"
I didn't respond to that right away. Julio would've dumped him by then, and I'm sure many adults would've scolded him for being too curious and cheeky. But I couldn't, and I wouldn't. To be honest, some of the questions he asked were questions of my own. As tricky as some of my brother's questions were right now, it was for this reason that I loved him more than ever; I knew that this would help us both walk closer towards God.
My brother sensed the thoughts inside of me. "I'm sorry, Garrett. I know I should shut up, but I'm—"
I squeezed him warmly. "No Evan... I know you're curious, and I still love you even if I do feel irritated by you. But you're not bothering me right now..."
I felt his arms coiling around me. "There are so many questions I want to ask you that I'm afraid of asking mom."
"I won't tell her if you don't want me to," I said.
He was rubbing his head softly against my ribs. "I just want to know so many things..."
We were silent for a few minutes. Evan had squeezed his entire chest into mine as the temperature continued to drop and the winds continued to howl, whistling in my ears and turning them into ice. I could feel his heart beating strongly, and though I had felt his heartbeat before, it was still an incredible feeling — that someone would love you enough to allow you to feel the organ that kept them alive; one that, without which, one could not live. I've heard some stories about how the human heart could talk to whoever listened to it carefully enough, that it contained the secrets of the soul in its language, but it was tommyrot, I'm sure, just like astrology. Still a priceless experience, though.
"God gave us the ability to choose," I said, continuing our conversation. "God loves us so much that He made us in His own image, and He gave us the ability to make our own decisions. He allowed us to choose to follow Him and love Him and obey His commands. But with that ability to choose also meant that we could have the ability to choose not to follow God, to disobey Him."
"Why would He let us do that, though?" my brother asked. "If disobeying God means that we're to go to hell, and if He loved us, why would He let us go down that path?"
"Love is a choice, Evan. Love is a choice." I turned my head to get a glimpse of him. "God chose to love us. He never forced Himself to love us; He could just as easily have chosen to hate us. We are made in His image, so we also have the ability to choose. We can choose to follow God, or we can choose not to. If God made us all love Him, that wouldn't be love, would it? We wouldn't love God; we'd serve God because we had to, not because we wanted to."
My brother was silent. I let him digest my words. "So does that mean you chose to love me?" he asked.
"You're too young to remember this Evan, but I remember a day where I was sulking in our room, and you came up to me. I used to be mother's favourite child until you were born, and then she gave you all the attention that I once had. I felt lonely, and though I didn't hit you or yell at you or anything... I felt like I didn't actually love you..."
He looked up at me. This was all new to him. He could never remember a moment where I had genuinely hated him. Yes, we fought and argued sometimes, but we would always reconcile by the end of the day.
"I felt like pushing you away, Evan. Who knows where we'd be right now if I did? But you chose to love me, Evan. You didn't want to brag about the attention you got or anything. You wanted to be my brother first... and I chose to love you and let you hug me and play with me. Mom never forced us to love each other, at least not that I recall. Whenever I hugged you or kissed you, it was because I chose to do so. Remember the day when I came home from prison? You chose to run into my arms and love me. Nobody forced you to do so. You could have just kicked me in the shin and walked away. But you chose to love me, and I chose to love you. I chose to run away from home in order to feed you and pay for your schooling. I chose to fight the Cobras to the death in order to free you and bring you back. When I saw you shivering on your own just now, I chose to offer you my jacket. I did it because I chose to love you, Evan. Nobody forced me to do it. I did it out of my own will."
He simply stared at me, wide-eyed in amazement. When he again spoke, it was barely above a whisper: "So... the reason we love each other right now is... is because of me?"
I pressed my nose up against his nose. I felt him suppressing a giggle, being careful not to make too much noise, for fear of the guards or the radio hearing his excitement. "Ultimately the reason we love each other is because God loved us first... but you're right. You started all of this."
"So... I was right then when I said it was my fault that you got those scars on your back, right?"
I tickled him then. We laughed for a brief moment, then quickly cupped our hands over each other's mouths, remembering the rule about staying quiet. Even as we did so, the two of us continued to giggle softly behind our brother's hands. When we had regained control of ourselves, we removed our hands and wrapped our arms around each other once more.
"Don't feel bad about it, Evan. To be honest, I'm glad that I actually got those scars. I could have begged Julio to let me go home after that, but the day after the lashing I just asked him if I could see you again. I wouldn't let the fact that my older brother had beaten me with a pipe wrench get in the way of loving you." I brought his head closer to my chest. "And Jesus didn't let death get in the way of loving us. He had it far worse than us when He had to be nailed onto that cross. But if Jesus can do it, then so can we."
My little brother was silent. I told him that I would die for him before, but I knew how much he disliked the idea of being separated from me for the rest of his life. I could picture him visiting my grave every day, talking to me, weeping for me, telling me how much he missed my loving presence. "What does this have to do with my first question about pain?"
"God lets us suffer because He loves us. He knows that our suffering will make us stronger and help us grow. When we are in pain, God wants us to cry out to Him for help, and He wants to help us. If God just gave us whatever we wanted, we wouldn't think very much of God. We wouldn't love God as a God; we'd think of Him as a shopping mall, almost. We grow stronger and deeper in our love for Him when He lets us suffer, however." I turned to him. "Think about the time Julio kidnapped you, and I fought to the bitter end trying to free you. I'm sure Julio told you about what had happened to me, didn't he?"
He nodded. "He told me how Black Moth hit you with his brass knuckles, and how you bled and suffered." He was on the verge of tears. "It broke my heart to hear that, Garrett."
"But I never gave up on you, Evan. The more Black Moth tried to get me to stop thinking about you, the stronger the love I had for you. The same goes for when I was thrown into prison. In both cases, I came out of those circumstances loving you more than I did when I first entered them."
He squeezed me again. "I loved you more..." he began before burying his face into my shirt. I heard a few muffled sobs. "I couldn't believe you would get hurt for me, Garrett! I knew Julio wouldn't ever do that for me, but you did! I had never really understood what love and God and Jesus meant until all that! Now I know that there was more to it when you whispered 'I love you' into my ears and kissed me on the cheek at night. You didn't just say it; you really meant it! Julio was right about describing your love too! And you got the idea of dying for me from Jesus, because He died for you first! It's so haunting now... the way everything fits together..."
"Jesus suffered through all that pain and misery because that was the best way to prove that He loved us," I said. "That, and the punishment for disobeying God is death, and Jesus didn't want that to happen. We were supposed to be on that cross, Evan, but Jesus took that cross instead." I tightened my grip on him. "I told mom that, if Julio wanted to kill you, I'd beg him on my knees to get him to kill me instead and let you go free. And that goes for anyone, Evan. If a cop pointed a gun at you and said that he was going to shoot you, I'd run in front of that gun and take the bullet. Mom would never tell me to go in front of that gun, for she knows that I'll die. But I'll choose to go in front of that gun myself, because I know that if I didn't, you would die, and I don't want that to happen. Even if you were a criminal or a murderer and many would consider your death to be justified, I'd still take the bullet for you, because you're my brother no matter what, and I love you because you're my brother. I love you too much to let you die like that."
My little brother was silent again, but I could tell that the gears in his brain were turning. "So I guess the best way for love to be shown is for pain and suffering to exist."
"I hope this empowers you to do something," I said. "This world is filled with pain. It's filled with suffering. But that doesn't mean God doesn't love us anymore. Rather, it's an opportunity for us, as Christ's followers, to show the world that God still very much loves us, and that He still has a plan for all of us. It is our emptiness that makes God more important in our lives, more than ever before."
"So what about right now?" he asked. "God sent us out of Manila. We're stuck in this camp now, far away from home. God lets us suffer because He wants us to do something, right?"
I nodded. "This will not only strengthen the love we have for each other, but also gives us an opportunity to love others in here. Who knows how many lost souls are in here right now; people that have never heard of God but need Him all the same?"
"I'm scared..." he whispered. "I don't really know anyone around here. I don't know if I can talk to them. The only other person I feel comfortable with is Kieron."
"Don't worry, Evan," I said firmly. "God was with me when I ran away from home. He was with me when I joined the Diablo Wingz, when I got arrested, when I was in prison, and when I came home. He was with me when I searched for Ricky's siblings, when I tried to get him freed as well, when I went into the Cobras's hideout to free you, when Julio released you, and when we rescued Ricky. There's no reason to believe that He won't be with us now, as we're stuck in this camp, together. You can talk to Him at any time, Evan. You can pray on your own or ask me to pray with you, and we can talk to God that way. He's always listening, and He knows exactly what we need. He'll be with you even if we get separated — I'll try to make sure that doesn't happen, but if it does, don't think that I have stopped loving you. I will never stop loving you, Evan, and neither will God. We will always be brothers, just like we will always be God's children."
"And after that?" My brother was eager to know more again, but this time, he seemed to be seeking hope instead of just answers to his endless bank of questions. Hope for the present, hope for the future. "What does God have in store for us after this?"
"There's a long road ahead of us, and I don't know what may be on it. But one thing is for certain: He'll be with us every step of the way. I don't know if He'll send us back home or if He wants us to go somewhere else, but know that He will never abandon us, and we should not abandon Him either. And even if God does send us back to Manila, our work isn't finished yet. Think about all the pain and the suffering that happens in our own city — heck, our own neighbourhood. God wants us to tell the people there about Him, remind them that He's still with them, and that they should love each other unconditionally, the same way that God loves us all unconditionally... the same way we both love each other unconditionally." I turned to look at him face to face. "Sure, they may have already heard about the story of Jesus, but maybe they're still treating it as that: a story. They may not have seen how it applies to us in real life, right here, right now, today. That's where we come into play: we can tell them about the love we have for each other, how emotionally close we are, how I was willing to die for you. And we can tell them that Jesus loves us in the same way, how He is so emotionally close to us, and how He's willing to die for us all."
"Gosh..." my brother said. "That's a lot."
"Remember what I said—"
"God is with us every step of the way!"
I smiled. Evan was learning! "And I'll walk with you too, so don't worry, Evan. You'll never be alone. Ever."
I brought my face up to his cheek and kissed him. As I did so, I felt him turning his head slightly so he could kiss me on my own cheek as well. A kiss most parents would want to have with their children. I looked up, back out at our surroundings, and I almost forgot that we were on a watchtower in the middle of the night, located in a camp in the middle of nowhere with a cold, howling wind nipping at whatever part of our body was exposed. But I didn't care. I felt love running through every artery and every vein in my body, and it really felt like love, a love that could only ever originate from God, a love that would never wane no matter what happened to it, a love that was above every other kind of love, including and especially the sappy love found in low-budget soap operas and the "love" experienced during Valentine's Day that went along with a pink heart and a box of chocolates. Yes, I thought. This is real love. This is what we all need. And this is what we can all get, no matter how rich or poor, strong or weak, young or old we are. This is love that God gives to us as a gift, a love that we're not worthy of earning. And it's this love that costed God so much, yet the price tag is still zero...
And then I heard a voice. A familiar voice. A voice I'd heard before: I love you. You belong to me.
I love you. You belong to me.
Yes, Lord! I shouted. I love you too! I am Yours, and You are mine!