For my little brotherEdit
The ground was warm and unsettling, about as warm as the air that sat above it. The crunching of plastic was audible as I walked, stirring whatever was hiding underneath the surface. In the distance, I could see smoke rising, a weak breeze blowing some of it over at me. The strong, pungent smell of burning copper, plastics, toxicity, hovered over me like a cloud, filling my lungs. It was like waving a gigantic flag, signalling for Death to come and pay us an early visit.
I dug my hands into the earth, polluted dirt as they say, and groped around looking for anything worth extracting. Bottles. Containers. Milk jugs. Bubble wrap, even. Whatever that was thrown out and discarded by its original owner was a bounty, at best the ability to afford food for another day. Anything that wasn't too badly damaged or could be easily cleaned up and repaired was gathered and collected to be sold later on.
My hands came across something rough, its sides filled with grooves and patterns. I pulled, slowly at first, and then with a sharp yank, using my feet as support to keep myself upright as I leaned backwards to get at whatever I had found. Finally, it popped free, sending me tumbling down the hill. I fortunately had little to travel before I reached the bottom.
I looked at my hands. A plastic jug, otherwise intact except for a small tear near the spout. I placed it gently into a bag filled with my total finds for the day and resumed searching, digging, "scavenging".
It's a life nobody wants to live. Nobody came here because they loved the smell and sight of garbage. They came because they had a choice, a very simple one: they could sit in their homes and starve, or go to the mountains of litter and recycle whatever they can find, reselling them to provide for their empty stomachs. Many of these people had families, and only those who were sane would live here if it meant their children could at least be fed.
I looked up. The sun was beginning to set, staining the clouds in the sky with a dirty yellow. I gathered my findings into my arms and began to descend the hill. "Smokey Mountain", they called it, named for the smoke that frequently arose from the hill as tires, copper, wood, even coal, were burned by the locals. The air is toxic. Every minute I stand breathing it kills me a little bit inside. But I would die faster if I avoided the hill altogether, for the hill meant money. Money to buy food. The hill often provided us with food itself. Food, discarded food, from the various restaurants and food courts across the city. It is cleaned and cooked, and then eaten. We call it pagpag, and if it's cleaned and cooked properly, it is safe to eat.
The day begins early in the morning, when the garbage trucks come and unload their cargo onto the mountain, having collected it from around the city overnight. Scavengers, people who make their living picking from the scraps of Smokey Mountain, flock to the trucks like sheep to a shepherd, lost souls to Jesus, as the trucks brought them what they needed to survive. The early bird gets the best worms, while those who arrive late can only hope there is something valuable still buried deep beneath the filth. They had to work quickly as well, collecting as much as their arms could carry before workmen, seated in large digging machines, shovelled the garbage into barges docked nearby. They were hoping to prevent another Smokey Mountain from appearing, after the original dump was closed by the government several years ago. Trying to avoid another artificial hill that echoed the sounds of wasted, discarded souls, a shameful symbol of the poverty in the city.
I placed my loot beside a group of women, who were counting and sorting the heaps of garbage into different bags. Everything had to be carefully organized and measured for scavengers to receive a fair payment for their work. On a good, profitable day, a scavenger could hope to make up to 500 pesos. It was usually enough to feed themselves and their family for at least one more day. A woman began to go through the things I had found, examining everything closely for rejects. Some things she set aside, knowing that they were far too mangled and damaged to be reused. A number of others she tossed into the bags, ready to see life again. Finally, she reached into her pockets, counted 100 pesos, and handed it to me. "God bless your family," she said.
I took the money without argument. Any amount that one could hope to earn in this place was a luxury, a blessing, a gift. If you got angry and tried to debate with the women who paid you, they could simply close the discussion by sending you home empty-handed. It was easier to accept their judgement as fair than it was to try and entice them to give you more. Every little bit that I earned went to feeding my mother, my younger brother, and myself. It was just enough to get by, just enough to survive, but nothing more.
All over Smokey Mountain were huts, impromptu shelters, erected using whatever material was available nearby. Most of them were scrap metal, hammered and screwed together haphazardly, rusting at the edges. A few of them were solid, wooden structures that fared poorly when faced with an errant spark from a nearby fire. None of them had running water, no toilets or indoor plumbing, and most could only receive electricity at night, when the generator was running. The generator could not run 24 hours a day, and could not keep all the lights on, due to its age and condition. Most families used portable lamps and flashlights instead to save on electricity, a few daring to use candles in their flammable construction. The ground was slightly squishy, almost like sponges, due to the compacted layers of trash underneath, making for a very poor foundation. Landslides were not uncommon, burying houses and bodies underneath to later be excavated by hungry scavengers. There was no set system for handling the dead — people who died simply disappeared.
I was fortunate not to have to live on the mountain. Surrounding the landfill were large towers, government housing projects built to house the dislocated when the original Smokey Mountain dump was shut down. Inside, units were so small and uncomfortable that residents only used them for sleeping, living their lives instead in the communal areas. At the base of the towers were a vast quantity of slums that housed those "fortunate" enough not to be in government housing. It was in one of these houses that I lived, dwarfed and sandwiched by the towers and the mountain. At times, the mountain seemed taller than the towers themselves, acting like its own addition, its own spot, in the city's skyline.
I turned down the street I lived on. The houses seemed small and dreary, as if they were shrubs and bushes on the forest floor, having their share of sunlight stolen by the bigger trees in the canopy above them. A few of them had their lights on, still others with smoke rising from their chimneys. The door to my house was open. I entered the house and placed my arms around my mother, who was seated in a chair, lost in her thoughts.
"Ma," I said, "I'm home."
She nodded slightly and pointed to a bowl of food. Pagpag, meat and vegetables salvaged from garbage, cleaned and then cooked. A few spoonfuls of rice as well. Looks like she was able to go and buy some today, I thought. I took the bowl and sat down on the couch, eating very slowly and carefully. Any wasted food is money wasted, and thus we hardly ever wasted food. Food dropped on the ground had to be eaten, as it was too precious to lose.
My brother, my younger brother, Evan, was beside me. He was four years junior to me, being only two months past his sixth birthday. He hugged me closely and laid his head on my shoulder, like he always did every day when I came home from the mountain. I put my right arm around his body and we sat there together, quietly eating, contemplating. I often thought about my monotonous life and how I wished, oh just wished, for something to turn the tide, something to create ripples in my life, something to make it interesting, and at the very end, something to free us from our own prison. As for him... I was never entirely sure what Evan thought of.
My older brother, Julio, was in the lounge chair, seated perpendicular to it, his head and his feet jutting out from the sides. He was seldom home, often being gone for weeks at a time. My mother was initially angry, then timid, then sad. Soon, she simply began ignoring him, looking past his shoulders and not cooking his meals. He was barely affected, as he always seemed to be able to find something for himself to eat, never sharing any of it with the family. He did little, if anything, to help us, like he was doing now, staring fixedly at the ceiling, lacking any purpose, any job, any role in the house.
About two years ago, my father left the family. He told us that he was moving to a different part of the city, where he heard there was lots of work and prosperity. I remember the night before he left, when I could hear my mother and my father arguing with each other. Mother was crying, father was determined to leave. "I will send you money, any amount that I make," my father said. "It is for our children, and for our sake; we cannot live our entire lives picking from the dump and eating pagpag!" But my mother would not approve. "No amount of money could console me knowing that you have become a criminal!"
Father was gone the next morning, leaving behind my brokenhearted mother to care for her three sons. Money became tight, and we barely had enough on the table to feed half of us. While a few local schools offered free classes, my mother felt that our education was less important than our very ability to survive, even if it meant working at Smokey Mountain for the rest of our lives. So we forwent school, and all three of us instead became scavengers, gathering recyclables from the mountain of garbage to be resold. Without our father's strength and guidance, we together were only able to provide just enough money to feed everyone. None of us had time to study or do anything else.
A year later, Julio became sick of scavenging. Early one morning, as we were leaving for the mountain, he turned in the opposite direction and, with a small, almost insignificant wave, walked away from us. He didn't come back that evening. My mother became distressed, wondering where her son went. She asked our neighbours, asking if they had seen him, but he had seemingly vanished. About a month later, he came back a completely different person, as if aliens had abducted him and altered his personality. My mother was relieved... and relief turned to anger as she questioned my brother. Julio gave her — and us — the cold shoulder for a few days. He did not explain to us where he got his gold necklace or the tattoos on his arm until one evening, when he finally broke his silence. He had joined a street gang, specialized in the production and transportation of shabu. I later learned this to be a byword for methamphetamine. He claimed that he did it to try and bring home some money, something for the family to use, but my mother would not accept the money he produced from his pockets. "I won't lay a finger on that dirty money of yours!" He begged, pleaded, for mother to accept the cash, before he threw it in my direction, making it snow pesos all around me. "Take it, Garrett," he said before leaving the house.
I stared at the money before my feet. Money meant food, schooling, a future. I bent down to pick it up, but my mother slapped my hand away. "I will not use money from the Devil!" She swept the money into a big pile outside and, much to my surprise, set it on fire. All the neighbours came running, trying to beat out the flames, get their hands at the money, accusing my mother of "wasting what we could all use to eat!" My mother had no response. She retreated to her room, and from her closed door, I could hear her cry.
After that, he came back only intermittently. One day he's home, the next he isn't. When he did come home, he never ate with us, claiming that he had already eaten. My mother no longer prepared his portion of dinner, let alone acknowledged his presence. He never spoke to any of us unless he needed to, which was uncommon. He was about as foreign to me as a Martian, an extraterrestrial.
That's him, right now. If I burst into flames and burned to ashes right now, I don't think he would've raised an eyebrow.
Evening stretched into the night. I looked up at the clock and tapped my younger brother lightly on the shoulder. "It's time for bed, Evan."
My brother rose and made his way to the bedroom. He half-walked, half-sulked. I knew how much he wanted to go to school, to not go to the mountain, to not have to rummage through people's garbage to eat. I hated seeing him like that, seeing his childhood spoiled, wasted, discarded. I close my eyes and tried to imagine happier days... days when the mountain was our playground. Days when, after school, we would climb to the top and come bounding back down as fast as our legs could carry us, leaping over heads and obstacles as we went. We were still poor, still had to eat pagpag, still had to live in a cramped house on a miserable street. But what we lacked in physical possessions, we had an abundance of love and energy to share, to go around.
Looks like we ran out.
I looked to my left. My mother had busied herself with housework, cleaning the floor, the table, the furniture. With so little space in the house, she'll be done in no time. I looked at my older brother and shrugged. Who cares about him? I thought. He's doing just fine on his own. I got up, splashed my face, and then my hair, with water. Water was such a precious commodity that even a shower was far too wasteful. We supposedly had running water, but service was erratic and whatever came out of the sink was often murky and filthy. Some say that those in the government housing buildings used all of the water, leaving none for us. All of our water had to be bought from reservoirs and hauled by hand in large jerrycans, which didn't come cheap. And without our father, water was our gold. The most we could do to keep clean was a sponge bath, which left the washcloth black from all the grime. Eventually, I forwent the cloth and scrubbed myself the best I could with my bare hands. I looked somewhat clean after that, at least.
The bedroom was dark. My brother had already gone to sleep, or at least, I thought he was. I removed my shirt and, trying to keep quiet, tiptoed to the spot where I slept and lay there. We had no beds; all of us slept on the floor which, despite the fact that it was cold and hard, offered some relief from the heat and sweat of the day. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep. A few minutes later the door opened, and my older brother entered, not bothering to keep quiet. He shut the door loudly behind him, headed straight for his spot on the floor, and in the blink of an eye, was out like a light.
I slept on the left side of the room, my older brother the right. My younger brother, being the baby, naturally slept between us. I didn't mind; ever since my father left home, Julio was often cold and dark, and seemed to prefer sleeping on his own. Evan, on the other hand, never minded company, and with Julio being gone for extended periods of time, he must have felt quite naked and exposed on one side.
For a few minutes, the room was silent, save for the slow and steady breathing of its three occupants. I could hear my mother shuffling as she retired to her own bedroom, the sighing of relief at the conclusion of another busy day, the lights being turned off. The figure beside me shifted as it tried to get into a more comfortable position. The breathing became steady, consisting of deep, lengthy breaths. More movement, accompanied with a small sigh. I felt sleep coming to me, about to end the day, finding it harder to open my eyes with every passing second. I was about to go out when a voice asked, "When will I be able to go to school again?"
Julio never responded to my brother's "midnight questions", even in the best of times. It was always me who answered. "Someday," I said. "Someday, when this is all over and we can all forget about this. Maybe, if dad comes home... if he's still alive."
"What if he isn't?"
I rolled over and looked at my brother. His eyes were open, wide open, a clear indication that he was a long ways off from sleep. "Then we make do with what we have," I said. "We'll keep living our lives. We pray, hoping for something to happen."
My brother shifted uncomfortably, and I could tell my answer did not satisfy him. "That might mean I will be a scavenger for the rest of my life. I don't want to be a scavenger. I just want to go back to school, want to learn, laugh, play..."
Julio let out an audible sigh, as if to say, "Oh, shut up!" But I couldn't say that to Evan, not in a million years would I dare myself to do so. I loved him too much for that. "Why did dad have to leave us?" he wondered aloud. "If he stayed, I'd be in school right now. We wouldn't have to be on that dump the entire day."
I remained silent for a little while, not knowing what to say. Even I wished that he would be able to go to school. I hated the sight of him on the mountain of garbage, digging through heaps of refuse, looking for anything recoverable. He looked so young, so innocent... someone who shouldn't have to live like this. He deserved, no, needed to go to school.
Finally, I spoke, in a voice that almost lacked strength, confidence, courage: "I... I'll make sure you go to school."
My brother gave me a funny look. "How?"
Good question. I'll crawl through broken glass, under barbed wire, walk over fire, swim across an ocean, even get kicked and beaten, if somehow it would mean you could get the education, the opportunities, you desired. I'd travel the ends of the world, take a bullet between my eyes, bleed till I dropped dead, if it made your dreams come true. But all that came out was, "I'll find a way. I promise, I will."
Julio's dim figure in the background turned his back towards us. I could sense him wanting to say, "Garrett, you and your childish fantasies..."
But it's not a childish fantasy!
I extended my pinky out to him. "Yes, I do."
He was hesitant, at first, as if he was afraid of causing me unnecessary grief and burden, but he offered his own pinky and cemented my promise. He wanted to say something, but tears had already begun to form in his eyes. I leaned over and kissed him gently on the forehead, like his father used to do, like his mother always did. I saw two droplets of water stealing stealthily down his face. "What will you do?" he asked quietly.
"Whatever it takes," I responded.
"If I had to drown in a flood to save your life, don't you think I'd do it?" I gently wiped the tears off his face with my hand. "If I had to die in order to give you the future you wanted, I'll do it. I'll do it because you're my brother."
He clung onto my arm. "B-B-But... But I don't want you to die..." I saw the tears coming back to him, saw him choking on his own tears, and I knew I had just made it a difficult night for him.
Maybe I was a little too extreme...
"Alright, maybe I won't die. Maybe I won't take my life for your schooling. But I promise you, Evan: I'll find a way. I don't care how long it takes, how much pain I have to go through, how many mountains I have to scale. I'll do it — I'll do it for you."
He nodded, and I felt his nervousness receding. He turned to lie on his back again, and I could see his eyes beginning to close. Good night... I'm right here if you need me...
But what about me? I don't have anybody to lean on, do I?
Where do I go from here? Can I keep this promise I made with my brother even if my own future seems bleak?
Is this promise even feasible?
I stared silently at the ceiling and wondered what I had put myself through.
Julio was gone the next morning, long before the rest of us woke up. He never told anyone where he went, or why. I'm not even sure why he comes home in the first place; if he's so well-off wherever he goes, why come back?
We ate a small breakfast. We had to be quick, in order to get to the mountain before the first garbage trucks arrived. Smart, successful scavengers fleeced the trucks as they approached the dump, many even climbing aboard to get their hands at the bounty while it was still fresh. We get a lot of pagpag this way, before it gets a chance to spoil in the heat of the day.
We're running now, getting there before it's too late. My brother holds my hand, like mother had ordered him to, looking to me for security, safety, leadership. I did not mind, even though it slowed me down a bit.
The garbage trucks had just arrived, in them the city's garbage that they had collected overnight. People were already scaling the sides of the truck, trying to get into the hopper, trying to get at the loot first.
My brother was too young to climb up a moving truck. "You be careful, alright?" I said to him before running towards the vehicle. He followed, keeping a healthy distance away. He knew the drill — we did it every day. I ran alongside the truck and grabbed the handle, pulling myself up on board, taking great care not to allow my limbs to get caught on anything. Some ill-mannered scavengers often used other bodies as leverage to help themselves up to the hopper. My small size and strength made that very unlikely, but my mother wanted me to stay on the safe side. "Just come home alive is all I'm asking," she often said.
I reached the hopper, where the pile of trash was rapidly disappearing as the scavengers attacked it with full force. I filled my arms quickly with Styrofoam food containers, all of them packed with uneaten food from the night before. My brother was beside the truck, his arms ready to catch. I threw the containers down at him before scrounging the hopper for more. Having his help was a luxury many did not have, for I could simply toss him all the valuables rather than having to carry everything by myself. A few brought bags with them onto the truck, which became bulky and heavy as they filled. Many of them gave out under the pressure, spilling their contents back into the hopper. Occasionally he would miss, and someone else would come and swipe the dropped objects before he had a chance to pick them up. I made sure he didn't get into any fights, willing accepted having his cargo heisted before him. It was cheaper to lose profits than it was to deal with the drama of having a brawl.
Soon, the truck was empty. Well, at least, devoid of all the smaller, portable materials, leaving behind only the larger, bulkier items that were too heavy to be thrown out of the truck by hand. I looked down at my brother, who had his arms full. I scrambled out of the truck and jumped down to the ground.
"How're you doing?" I asked.
I thought he smiled. "Tired," he responded.
I opened a bag and filled it with all the non-foods we had collected. Plenty of plastic bottles, jugs, cartons, cups, spoons. Many shopping bags, all of them punctured with holes like Swiss cheese. Today, we had some luck: entire spools of copper, electrical wires, all undamaged. They were worth more than common plastic, which was everywhere. I tied up the bag and slung it over my shoulder, my brother carrying the unprocessed pagpag. It had to be cleaned and cooked soon, before they spoiled and became permanently inedible.
"You did good today, Evan," I said. "Someday, you'll be a good scavenger."
He did not respond. I wonder if I had just stabbed him with my words, left a hole in his chest, letting him bleed.
The sun had just disappeared below the horizon when me and Evan returned home. Together, we managed to earn about 300 pesos — every little bit of our earnings counted towards the family, though. The heat of the day and the relentless sun beating down on our heads left me with a slight headache and an unquenchable thirst.
"Ma," I said, walking through the doorway. "We're home."
My mother had large bags under her eyes. I could tell she had been working all day as well, scrounging the mountain, trying to make the money needed to keep the family going. "Help me get dinner set up," she said.
All our meat was purchased pre-cooked. Our vegetables tonight were a mix of fresh and pagpag, evident slightly in their colouring. Even the rice tonight didn't smell or taste as good as it did yesterday; hopefully that will change tomorrow.
I bit into the meat, which had a nice, pleasant aroma and taste. "KFC", they called it, a wildly popular fast food chain in America, a face familiar to Westerners in the city. "The Americans may or may not like our food," my father once said, "so they turn to the things they know and love back home." They ate it with their hands, licking their fingers afterwards to get all the grease and salt; it tasted too good to refrain from doing so. I would have done so, tried to be an American for a day, but I was wiser not to, for one: my mother was watching me, and two: my hands had been digging through garbage all day, and without good soap it was difficult to clean.
I remembered a day when I went into the city, to the places where all the tourists and the wealthier people mingled. Remembered going into a mall, where every inch smelled of money. Money, money, and more money. Everyone had money, everyone was happy, everyone was well fed. Nobody had to sleep in a slum, eat pagpag, scavenge on Smokey Mountain. Everyone except me. I had to do the things nobody else in there had to do.
I looked at my brother, who was eating silently, again lost in his own thoughtful world. I wondered if he ever thought the same way. He sat quietly, his eyes fixed on a spot in the wall. Finally, he looked up at mother and said, "Will I ever be able to go back to school?"
My mother didn't reply immediately. "I wish I could say yes."
"Garrett said I could if dad came home."
There was another pause. "God forbid," she said, "unless he promises to abandon his foolish ways forever."
Evan opened his mouth to speak. I feared that he would tell mother about what I had promised him the night before, and quickly interrupted: "Maybe Julio will come back and help us. Evan can go back to school again."
My mother waved my opinion away. "I refuse to touch his filthy money. I'll only look at him again if he burns all of it, removes his tattoos, his gold necklace."
I shot my brother a look, begging him not to tell mother about our conversation last night. He got the message, and thankfully ended the conversation there.
Mother grew suspicious. "I hope you two aren't plotting anything..." she began.
"No, we're not," we said simultaneously.
Later that night, as I lay on the floor waiting for sleep to come, my brother asked, "Why won't you tell mother what you're planning on doing?"
I had no answer. I regretted making that promise to my brother, a promise that keeping would make my stomach turn. Several ideas came to mind, but none seemed very sound. My father and my older brother had all left home, looking for a way to bring the family a secure income, but both were deemed by my mother to be "corrupted." At first, I felt that way too. After all, how dare my father leave home! How dare Julio ignore us in our state of poverty! Speaking of Julio, his money almost certainly meant that he was able to eat like a king every night, putting no thought towards his family, made no effort to reintegrate himself, no effort to lift a finger to help any of us. He didn't even talk to any of us. He could've just come home, become a scavenger again, help take the work off our shoulders so that we could have enough to afford to allow Evan to go to school. He's a demon, a monster, a thug.
Or is he?
I swallowed. I knew doing this was wrong, what my father and my older brother did was wrong. But how wrong was it? Is something justifiable if it was done for good intentions, meant to benefit others, meant to help someone in need?
Now, don't get too over yourself, Garrett...
But what if my brother got cut, needed to be cleaned up and have his wound treated, needed bandages to stop the bleeding? If I take a first-aid kit and use it, aren't I taking supplies that someone else who's also bleeding needed as well?
He's my brother... why would I just sit there and watch him bleed? Of course I would do something to help him!
And every day, whenever I eat something, I'm eating food that some other hungry soul needs as well.
But I can't just starve myself! To help someone, another must pay for it.
"I don't want you to do anything that makes mother unhappy," Evan said. "I know you mean well, but..."
I sat up. "I promised you, Evan, I told you I'd find a way."
"I don't want mother to throw you out like she did Julio!"
"Then let her throw me out. I won't let her stop me — or you." I got up and, carefully stepping over my brother, made my way over to the dresser.
"What... What are you doing?"
I dug my hands through drawer after drawer, looking for what I wanted. My hands closed around a small knapsack, in good condition except for a tiny, insignificant hole. We last used this for school, I thought. Now I'm going to use it for my brother to...
Evan's eyes widened. He knew exactly what I was planning to do. "You can't do this!" he protested, running up and grabbing the bag from my hands.
I wrestled with him. "You don't understand, Evan," I said, struggling with his monstrous little grip. For someone so young, he sure had a lot of determination and wit to stop someone four years older than himself.
"Yes, I very well understand!" His eyes began to give way to tears, but his grip did not falter. "You're going down the path our father and Julio went down. They never came back! Mother won't accept them, and now I've lost them forever! I won't let you go down there! I won't lose you, I won't let that happen!"
"Evan!" I snapped, picking him up. He squirmed, tried to break free, but I held on, carrying him back to his bed. "You need to calm down."
"Not when you're about to jump into a ravine!"
I made him sit, placing my hands on his shoulders, looking at him directly into the eyes. He fidgeted, trying to avoid me, but I shook him firmly. "Listen carefully, Evan. I just need you to listen to me, listen to what I have to say."
He stopped moving, but continued to avoid eye contact, looking around me, looking away from me, looking at anything that wasn't a part of me.
"I know why dad and Julio left. They did it for us, for the family. They wanted us to have a future, a future better than being a scavenger for our entire lives. But they fell off the edge because they got distracted. They thought of themselves, and themselves only. They stopped thinking about us, became indifferent to us. That's why Julio's seldom home, dad never. They're only answering to their own needs, their own desires."
Tears came streaming out of his eyes. I bit my tongue, trying hard not to cry, trying not to lose myself, let myself fall apart. "It won't happen to me, though. I won't let it happen to me. I'm not doing this for myself. I'm doing it for you. I don't know where I'll go, don't know where the road might take me. But I won't go over the edge. You're my lifeline — you will keep me on the right track. I need you to do that for me. I need your support; otherwise, I cannot make it. Remember that I'm not looking for wealth, for fame, for glory. All I want is to see you go back to school, and I'll do anything to make that happen."
My brother fell silent, except for the sniffling as his tears dwelled within him. He reached up and tried to brush away the waterworks with his hand. His next words came out as a quavery stammer: "Will you p-p-promise.... promise me that y-y-you'll c-c-come h-h-home?"
My pinky was up. "I promise," I said. "No matter what happens, even if I can't find what I'm looking for, I'll still come home to you alive. I will not break this promise; God take my life if I do."
He threw his arms over me and emptied his tears into my chest. I patted him comfortingly on the back, gritting and gnashing my teeth as I fought to suppress my own tears. I needed to appear strong to my brother, let him know that I could do it, that I was tough enough to make this difficult decision. I'll come home... I'll come home to you alive... I will not break this promise, God take my life if I do...
"W-W-When are you l-leaving?" he asked.
I had originally hoped to slip away in the darkness of the night, before my mother noticed. But my brother's sudden outburst made me guilty, even after explaining myself. Part of me wanted to go, embark on such a dangerous journey if it meant he could have the opportunity to leave poverty. The other part wanted me to just stay, stay safe and call this all off, let this all just be a bad dream and an infeasible thought.
"Early, tomorrow morning," I said finally. "But I'm going, no matter what."
"You'll stay here for one more night?" he said, choking on his tears slightly.
So that's that, I thought. One more night, just one more night. I hope it's not our last night together. And if it is, at least he knew about it.
There was no sleep for me. I tossed and turned, unable to shut my brain down. It kept me up all night, pleading, arguing, debating with me. I wanted to stay, I wanted to leave. I wanted to cry, I wanted to scream. I felt like this was all just a bad dream, and at the same time knew I was living in the grim reality of life, my life, his life. My mother's life. I wonder if she'll let me back into the house after this.
My brother fared poorly as well. He slept on-and-off, evidenced by short moments of silence, followed by muffled sobbing. I felt like I had poisoned him and sat with him in the same room, watching, listening to him die slowly, painfully. He knew that, soon, he would have the entire room to himself at night, all alone. While I didn't know how he felt when Julio left, I was almost certain that he would not appreciate my absence. Nights would become hell for him, with nobody to answer his questions, or even to listen to him.
Several nights on your own is better than a lifetime of scavenging, Evan! Remember that!
The night felt long, but passed by far too quickly. Soon, the night sky began to give way to a faint, reddish hue that grew stronger and richer with every passing minute. I looked at the clock. 5:30 AM. My mother woke up at 6. I had half-an-hour to leave.
Immediately I got up and hurriedly finished packing the few belongings I wanted to bring with me. My father and Julio both left the house with relatively light loads; I did the same. Soon, the knapsack was over my shoulders, though it was so light I wondered if it would've made a difference at all if I had just left it behind.
My brief frenzy woke my brother up from his light, dreamless slumber. He was watching me now, not knowing what to say. He knew this was the moment where we had to say goodbye...
I grasped his hand. "I'll come home, I promise," I said.
He hugged me again, one I feared might be the last. "I hope you do," he said simply.
"Remember Evan: you're my lifeline. I'll always think about you, and that will keep me going. Don't forget about me... and I won't forget about you."
"I won't forget."
He reluctantly released me. I ruffled his hair playfully, trying to get some positivity into my blood. "Take care of mom for me."
I got up and left the room, closing the door softly behind me. Not long after I had done so, I heard loud, audible crying from behind the door.
The morning air felt uncannily cool, despite the fact that nights in the city were almost always warm. The air had a funny taste to it, like a mix of sulphur and vehicular exhaust, combined with the faint odour of Smokey Mountain. I looked back at my house, which now seemed like the best place in the world for me to be in. Goodbye, home, I thought. I wonder if I'll ever see you again.
Memories came flooding back, all the happy ones that took place right here, right outside the house. Times when we would sit outside with the other kids in the neighbourhood and play card games. Times when we would find an old, discarded ball and play football, passing the ball to anyone who wanted to join. Times when we would make a makeshift basketball net and take turns dunking and shooting, right up until the time when the ball went sailing through someone's window. Times when the neighbours all got together and enjoyed a barbeque on the street, where everyone brought their own food to roast on the open fire; my father chatting and snacking with his friends; my mother laughing exuberantly; me, Evan, and Julio having our own little party with everyone else our age.
Those days are gone. Now, it's nothing but nostalgia.
I took a deep breath, pushing those memories aside. All that mattered now was the task at hand. I picked up my feet and began walking, away from my childhood home, my safe haven, my castle.
It would be many, many months before I would even be able to see the street I lived on again.
The Road Away from HomeEdit
The highway was busy. Car after car drove past me, kicking dirt, dust, and exhaust into my face and eyes. The air was hot and sticky, and as the sun crept over the horizon, I knew it would only get hotter.
Behind me was the dump. It looked strangely beautiful in the morning, almost civil and tame from a distance. In front of me lay the heart of the city, its jewels — rows and rows of skyscrapers — within sight of a place where human lives were less valuable than the garbage they lived on. It was where all the money in the city lived, where those who had money and jobs and schools and rules enjoyed air conditioning in the country's blazing heat, running water and working toilets, an opportunity to enjoy life and freely take its many paths.
Something I — we — don't have.
I kept walking, off the highway, through rough neighbourhoods where the buildings all seemed to contain dark and unsettling secrets, nestled close and tightly to each other. The streets were filled with potholes, filled with vehicles, filled with children. Thousands of them, some working, some sleeping, some playing with whatever they could get their hands on. For many of them, the streets were their home. I knew about them, felt their pain, their life, their good and bad days. A child runs in front of me, pushing a discarded tire alongside him. He reminded me of Evan, so young and carefree, living in a tight, restrictive world. It made me determined to keep going. The world was the foliage, I was the machete. He needed me to get through, needed me to create a path that he could use to get out. He was fortunate to have me, someone who was willing to give up their own lives so he could enjoy his. I looked at the boy and wondered if anyone in his life was willing to do the same for him.
My stomach ended the moment for me as I came to the realization that I hadn't eaten anything that morning. No pagpag. No rice. No dried fish. Nothing. I only experienced my brother's love, which was incompatible with my stomach. I had been hungry before, had stolen before a couple of times in the past for food, but on all those occasions I had a home to retreat to, had a family that I lived with and looked to for support.
Now I'm on my own... for now at least.
There was a street stall up ahead, selling fried meats and vegetables, among other things. I had no money with me, so I was going to have to steal. The stallkeeper was no fool either; judging by his appearance and how he monitored his surroundings like a hawk, it was pretty clear that he was trained to catch — almost expecting to find — a thieving little child.
I have to get around him somehow...
I approached the stall, trying to walk, look, and act normal. The stallkeeper noticed me, but didn't think very much of it. Street children were everywhere, and try as he might, he couldn't keep an eye on everyone. I eyed the contents of his stall. Spring rolls. Fish balls. Breadfruit. The rest was pagpag. Beef pagpag. Bean sprout pagpag. Chicken pagpag. Chicken pagpag... Julio sometimes brought them home as a "treat" when he was in a good mood and we had a good day. It went down well with rice, the chicken adding its own unique flavours to an otherwise plain meal.
Well, at least you did something, Julio. Used to.
Then, the shopkeeper made a mistake: he paused to take a swig of rice wine.
As soon as he did so, my hand shot out and grabbed a fistful of the chicken pagpag. Didn't have time to put it in a bag, could only snatch and run, getting grease all over my hands. The hot oil began to sear my skin; the chicken was still hot.
The bottle was dropped, landing on the ground with a smash. The shopkeeper yelled something at me. I couldn't hear it, for I was already running away, the wind whistling past my ears, but I didn't need to stop and think to know that he was anything but pleased.
The heat was starting to become unbearable. Without thinking, I stuffed the mass into my mouth. Now my mouth was on fire, the hot grease clinging to my tongue, cheek, and teeth. I almost choked. I turned around to see whether or not the stallkeeper was after me. No, he wasn't... no wait, no wait — actually, don't wait! There he was, running and shouting at me! "Stop, thief! Stop and get back over here!"
I knew better than to listen to him, however. I turned down an alley and fled, dodging and slipping past bodies and objects as I went, the food I had stolen still stuck in my throat. I coughed. I gagged. I could not breathe, and as I choked, I began to lose speed. The tears that welled up in front of my eyes obstructed my vision, and I stumbled and fell to the ground.
I tried to crawl, but my body was much too focused on trying to get the piece of chicken in my throat out. I coughed, convulsed, and retched, and for a moment, I thought it was over. Finally, after much effort, I managed to swallow whatever had tried to kill me. I was exhausted from the ordeal, tears still blocking my eyesight, making everything swim and wash around like an oil painting. I brushed a hand roughly against my eyes, trying to see. There was a tall, male figure standing over me. I looked up.
It was the stallkeeper.
"Stupid boy!" he barked. "Hand it back, whatever you stole." When he noticed that my hands were empty, save for the oil from frying, he became even more irate. "You ***hole! Take and eat what you did not pay for!" He kicked me in the chest. "You damned kids! No wonder I see so many of you lying dead on the streets. Hell's just around the corner for you, I swear to God!" And with that, he turned around and strode off, muttering something inaudible to himself.
When he had turned around a corner, I crawled over to the wall and sat down, leaning my back against it. I was exhausted, my body was still throbbing from where I got my share of bruises. When I had caught up with my breathing, I looked around. The alley was empty, with nothing other than litter keeping me company.
What was I doing here?
I closed my eyes and asked myself the question again. What am I doing here?
My mother's face appeared before me. I could feel her presence, her personality, her love. Even after all that had happened, she had never stopped loving her two remaining sons, always continuing to fight for them to stay alive.
Thank you, mother. You were so good to me.
My father was next. I thought of him before he left home, when he looked forward to every day, every morning when he woke up. He would see past all the detestable sights around us and looked forward to seeing his three sons grow up hale and healthy despite the environment they lived in. "Grow up strong," he said to all three of us one day when I was younger. "The strongest people come from the poorest places."
Thank you, father. Alas, you should have stayed home...
My older brother, Julio. Well, who knows where he was right now. When he was still in his right mind, though, he said to me: "You know, Garrett, even though you're not the oldest around here, you're still pretty awesome.
Thank you, Julio... Now why did you throw it all away?
And finally, Evan. My younger brother. Out of my entire family, I had the most thoughts and feelings for him. They were numerous, flashing by me in a blur, so quickly I didn't have time to closely examine them. But one image stood out from the rest.
My brother. Knee-deep in trash. All around him, more trash. His whole life, grounded in trash. His home, a garbage dump. I was there with him; he sees me and he smiles. He always smiled whenever he saw me. But I knew he couldn't hide what he truly felt, no matter how much he tried to smile it all away.
I opened my eyes.
That's why I'm here.
I got up and began to leave. As I did, I felt like calling to the heavens: "Hang in there, my dearest brother! I'll come home for you, I promise I will!"
I stopped briefly. I looked back and fancied one more thought.
Thank you, Evan.
My hand came up with a fistful of plastic bag. No, the remnants of one, one shredded beyond usefulness.
I shoved the plastic aside and dug further into the bin, hoping to find something. Not all scavengers lived in garbage dumps like I did. Many simply dug through dumpsters and garbage cans at night, after the restaurants and food courts disposed of whatever scraps they had and before the garbage trucks collected the refuse. It was late in the day, too late for last night's dinner to still be edible, but I was hoping I'd get lucky. Just this time. Just this once.
A woman emerged from the store adjacent to the bin. "Hey!" she protested, and I turned around, startled. "Get your filthy head outta there!" She rushed up and brushed me aside by the ears. "Quit playing in the trash."
When I did not move, she shoved me again. "Out, you flea-bitten fungus! You're a rotten scum, digging around in garbage. Get your life together or don't get a life at all. Get out or I'll call the police on you! Shoo! Shoo!"
I scrambled. What else could I do? I ran down the busy street, away from the woman. She did not pursue. At least that was no repeat of this morning's debacle. The sun was setting quickly, and soon I realized I was in another debacle of my own: I had no place to spend the night in.
First I had no food. Now I have nothing to rest my head against. Maybe I should just go back...
A four letter word popped into my mind. Started with E, ended with an N. E-V-A... No, I thought, shaking my head. No, I'm not going back. Not now. Not yet.
I was tired, exhausted after having spent an entire day on my feet. I did not know where to go or where I might go, only that I had to somehow find a way. Right now, the only path I knew for sure I could take was towards home, and I was not going there. I won't accept defeat when the pain had just begun, when the journey had just started, when the train had just begun to pick up speed. I had farther to go, more earth to dig, more mountain to climb.
I hope you're thinking about me, Evan, because I'm thinking about you.
There was a small recess in the building just ahead of me. The walls were fringed with discarded cigarette stubs, one of them still smoldering slightly. The roof hung over just slightly enough to provide some shelter from the rain like an overhang. Somewhat.
It would do.
I crawled into the recess and lay down. The concrete, despite still being warm, was nevertheless a welcome relief from the heat of the day. The heat reminded me of my immense thirst, for I had very little to drink that day, and I was bathed in my own perspiration. My mouth felt like fur, my skin and clothes were soaked, and I had a headache that was pounding away at my skull with the force of a million sledgehammers.
The door opened. For a second, I braced for a rough impact, expecting some ill-mannered man to chase me out. I heard a cough, a belch, and then the dull thud of a thrown object landing in a garbage can. I looked up. It sounded like a bottle... a glass bottle.
As soon as the door was closed, I headed towards the garbage can. Funny, I had climbed mountains of trash all my life, hiked alongside miles of road having car exhaust being blown into my face all day, been chased by angry storekeepers for stealing their merchandise and raiding their trash, and yet this short trip of barely five feet seemed harder than any of the journeys I had made up to this point.
I finally reached the can, stuck my hand in, and came across something hard and smooth. I pulled out a bottle, still a little bit of beer at the bottom.
I woke up, stomach growling, head still pounding, but otherwise unable to sleep, for the sun's morning rays were boring holes through my eyelids.
Argh... my stomach... my head... my eyes...
Night seemed like hell. The air was hot, sticky, and polluted. There was virtually no end to the sounds of the city, the cars passing by, the people that roamed the streets. I woke up several times throughout the night to the sounds of conversation, cargo being moved, laughter, sometimes drunken. I knew that I was in plain sight of everyone, and occasionally I received the dirty look, but for the most part nobody really cared. To them, I was just one of thousands that live on the streets. I was as ordinary as the rice they ate every day.
Speaking of rice, I needed some. Badly. I got up and hobbled over to the trash can, hoping to find something. I couldn't, and I didn't.
Behind the building... look behind the building.
There was a dumpster tucked against the rear wall, looking almost somber in the morning light. It was filled, but I had to work quickly, before the garbagemen came and emptied it. It was an easy taxi home — just ride the truck back! — but I knew that was not an option for me. I lifted the lid, struggling with its weight, and, trying hard not to fall in, combed at whatever was within arm's reach. Anything, any food that was still edible, any sort of liquid that I could still drink, any pagpag. I still had no money, barely had the motivation or strength to steal right now. My luck had to turn.
Nothing was turning now, though. I untied the two bags closest to me and dug through. My hands brought up only crushed plastic, bits of Styrofoam, and pop cans. All the cans were empty, the plastic was clearly out of the question, and the Styrofoam...
The Styrofoam! The Styrofoam container! There was one, jutting out of a poorly-knotted garbage bag in the corner. I reached and reached, but I was too small, and my arms were too short. I crawled along the rim, trying to get over the container, though I had no action plan as to how I was going to fish it out of there. I could see it now, saw bits of bones poking out of the lid. Someone's dinner last night that they didn't manage to finish. I'll eat it if they won't eat it...
But I can't get it!
I clung tightly onto the edge and, trying to control my descent, lowered myself into the dumpster. It was dark, a powerful, putrid odour inhabiting the space, almost like home. I felt around with my feet, hoping to find some surface to stand on, but I could not feel anything. My arms were beginning to give; they had begun to shake alarmingly. I tried to pull myself out, but I had no strength. My fingers slipped, and I fell inside.
Trash. Lots of it. I had grown up on a landfill, digging through other people's refuse since I was a toddler, yet never before had I gone on a dumpster dive before. The bags and their contents cushioned my fall, and had it not been for the metal contraption that had now swallowed me whole, I would've likened it to home.
Home... Home? Ha!
I cried for help, but I knew that even if someone heard me, they would not answer. No boy on earth would get himself into a dumpster except the hungriest, most desperate ones who lived on the streets. Who cares about them? Who honestly cares? They disrupt traffic, fill the sidewalks, clog the rivers with their sweaty bodies, pollute the public image of a city desperate to solve its internal problems. Who cares? No one! You were lucky if you were able to survive, because many didn't. The police didn't keep an eye out for our well-being; they were there to cleanse the streets of us, regardless of what it took to get there.
I was going to have to get out of there myself before I wound up inside the belly of a truck.
I opened the container. Much to my disappointment, there was less food in it than I had anticipated. I grabbed the bones and sucked at the scanty pieces of meat still clinging onto it. There was a little bit of rice, some beans that were losing their colour. Not enough for someone like me. Not even close. But it will have to do.
Trying again. I tried to jump, struggling to keep my balance from the unstable layers of haphazardly placed garbage bags under me. My fingers met the edge, but I was not strong enough, leaving only a few scratches and a loud, grating noise. I tried again, but I could not pull myself out of there. I tried to stack the bags of refuse up to form a step stool that I could use, but the bags were far too bulky and heavy, most of them being stuck or pinned underneath other bags, and soon I was too exhausted, tired from my ordeal, tired from hunger, tired of everything. I slunk back, panting and sweating, and for a moment I was ready to accept my fate, to be taken out with the trash. And if I didn't survive, my body would at least join my fellow scavengers back home...
"What's goin' on in there?"
I was startled, but too weak to even move.
"Who's in there? Huh? A scavenger, no doubt."
Footsteps. They were right outside the dumpster, could hear them clearly even in the muffled interior. I tried to sit up straight.
"Mute? Hey, no worries, didn't mean to scare ya. Just wanted to let you know that I saw a garbage truck turning the corner."
Uh oh. All of a sudden, a burst of energy surged through me, and I stood up, albeit on shaky legs. I'm not done yet. No, I'm not ready to die.
The dumpster darkened. A head appeared over the opening, peering inside, blocking some of the light from entering. "A kid?" he said. "How old are you?"
I hesitated. "T-T-Ten..." I stammered.
"Well then, ten-year-old boy, I have some news for you. There's a garbage truck driving up this very alley, all set to empty this dumpster's contents. You can either stay there and who knows what pile of sh*t you'll land in, or you can scram and get the hell out of here. What do you choose?"
I stiffened. "I'm getting out."
The face smiled. He threw one leg over the edge, sitting, "riding" on the edge like a horse. He extended a hand out to me. "Hold on if you want out."
I could hear the garbage truck now. It was backing up, the siren's repetitive beeping noise ringing through my ears. BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, it went, getting louder and louder with every passing second. I didn't know who the mysterious figure was, but I figured my life was worth the gamble. Desperate, I grabbed onto his hand and squeezed it firmly.
"I might pull your arms off," he began.
The beeping noise had begun to sting my ears.
"Just pull me out!" I said, desperate to avoid my fate.
He laughed. "Impatient dog." With a firm pull, he lifted me up and hauled me over the edge. I was so light that he was able to do it single-handedly. "God, you're a feather," he remarked as he dropped me.
I landed on the ground. My legs were still shaking. The siren had now grown to deafening proportions as the truck came to a halt. Two men emerged from the cab, having caught sight of the two of us. The boy who pulled me out — I could now see his face clearly in the sunlight — swung his feet over again and jumped down.
"Quit diggin' around in there, boy!" one of them called out.
"You got a death wish or somethin'?!" the second, I assumed was the driver, shouted. "You could die in there, y'know!"
I was too frightened — well, tired, really — to even speak, but the boy jumped right in. "F*ck off!" he barked. "Neither of you've ever been hungry enough to dig through sh*t looking for something to eat!"
"My day job is getting rid of this 'sh*t'!" the driver responded. "And you know what? I think you're sh*t too!"
The boy shoved him back roughly. "You'll regret every single word you've said in your life once I'm done with you," he seethed.
"Yeah? Go ahead and fight me, you f*cking glue sniffer!"
The first one got in between the two. "Enough, enough! There's no need to get into a fight here." He turned to the boy. "Look, I got a wife and two children, a home with a hot shower and Internet, and a life unlike you. I'm not gonna throw it away because of a turdface!"
The boy's temper flared. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a dull, rouge-coloured stick, about the size of a flash drive. He clicked a button, and something shiny shot out, glistening in the daylight.
The first one immediately backed off, but the driver was not finished yet. "Yeah, go ahead and stab me! I'd like to see you try!" He cracked his knuckles and flexed his arms. "Winner survives and gets the truck, loser gets to bleed to death in this alley."
The two grappled each other, wrestling over the knife that would bring them victory. Aside from the rumbling of the truck's engine as it idled, the grunts and groans of the two fighters were the only sounds to be heard. They twisted, pulled, squeezed, and wound themselves up in unsightly human knots, occasionally getting the knife dangerously close to each other's throats. Finally, the first one mustered the courage to break them up. "Hell, we're behind schedule because of this stupid fight." He turned to his colleague. "Let's just go. It's not worth it." And to the boy he said, "You stay outta trouble, kid. Back when I was young, if you were caught out here twisting the law the cops would give you a warning. Now, they don't even bother with that. You do something stupid, and they'll just shoot you. Less paperwork, less red tape." The two returned to the truck, the driver still fuming. "And move out of the f*cking way so we can empty that dumpster!"
The boy glared at them, but seemed to have no reason to disobey. He moved himself to the side of the alley and gave the truck room to take out the trash. The two of us watched silently, watched as the truck lifted the dumpster up into the air, watched as it liberated the contents into the hopper, watched as the truck lowered the dumpster back down with a bang. Neither of the two garbagemen looked at us the whole time. As the truck began to leave, the boy got up from his slouch on the wall and turned towards the truck. He held up a fist and, slowly but steadily, raised his middle finger.
"That's your name?"
"Not my real name, but that's what everyone calls me, so that's my name."
I had been talking to the boy who had pulled me out of that dumpster. He was five years older than me, sturdily built and well-rounded. He had several tattoos on his arms, and supposedly three under his shirt. I didn't find it necessary to ask to see it, though.
"So what's your name? And why were you in that dumpster?"
"My name's Garrett," I responded. "I was in the dumpster because I hadn't eaten anything the night before, looking for any pagpag I could find."
"You're a scavenger?"
"Got any parents?"
I didn't want to talk about my father.
"I'm asking about anyone else in your family."
Oh. "My brother... I have a younger brother."
"Huhm." He stopped walking to get a careful look at me. "The way you mention him, it seems you two have a thing together."
"I... I, uh..." It seemed bizarre that someone you met just an hour ago would act like they knew you well, could read your secrets and all the things you wouldn't explicitly mention.
I shook my head.
"I prefer not to say." I wasn't even going to lie to him, for fear that he would figure out.
He stopped at a crowded coffee shop. The aroma of food aggravated my stomach, which rumbled loudly. The measly scraps I had eaten weren't enough for my stomach to call a decent breakfast. He turned to me. "You hungry?"
Now there was definitely no need to lie there. "Very."
He came back out with two breakfast biscuits — one for me, one for himself. I unravelled the paper and took a bite into it immediately. Bacon, cheese, eggs. It all smelled and tasted so good, better than anything I would ever have been able to eat back at home. I felt guilty, for thinking of home reminded me of my younger brother. I was eating like a king — like my father and Julio probably were — while Evan and my mother were still stuck with pagpag. But this time, my stomach won me over, and I was so hungry, I wolfed the whole thing down in four bites.
"You seem hungry," Dodger commented with amusement. He had been watching me down the thing like a tiger at the sight of meat.
"I am," was the best reply I could compose.
In his other hand was a large paper cup, filled with coffee. He offered me a sip; I was so hungry, anything that could go into my stomach appealed greatly to me. I had never tasted coffee before. It was a mixture of acrid bitterness, mouth searing temperatures, sugary sweetness, and creamy milk. It was hot, and at first I couldn't taste anything. After a few more sips, the taste of coffee lingered in my mouth, clinging onto my teeth and tongue. It felt odd and wonderful at the same time.
"So tell me, why exactly are you here?" Dodger asked as he ate his own breakfast. "If you got yourself a loving mom and a little brother, why aren't you with them right now?"
I straightened up. "I'm here because of my brother... my younger brother."
His eyes lit up. "You got into a fight with him and hate his guts?"
"No... the opposite, actually."
"You love him so much that you just have to get away from him?" He was laughing softly to himself.
"Actually, I left because... I'm from Smokey Mountain."
"The dump site?"
"Yeah. That's why I'm a scavenger."
"Huh." He drank from his coffee. "What does that have anything to do with your brother?"
"I don't want my brother to be a scavenger. I want him to be able to grow up and get out of there, get out of that smoldering dump. I want him to be able to go to school, but if he doesn't scavenge, we can't get enough to eat. If I can scrape together money — any money, any amount — I hope I can get him what he wants, what I want for him."
He didn't say anything. He had leaned back on the wall, staring thoughtfully ahead, occasionally feeding himself his load of caffeine. "I'll do whatever it takes," I continued. "Just as long as I can come home to him again, I'll do it. Even if I'm cut and bruised."
For a few minutes, we were silent. His eyes were onto me, carefully making their close observations of me. His eyes were mostly fixated onto my face, though what he was looking for specifically, I did not know. Finally, he discarded his empty packaging and stood up. "Stick with me and I'll see what I can do for ya."
I got up as well. "Where are we headed?"
"Not so fast." He was studying me again. "You don't know who I really am, do you?"
Huh? What did he mean by that?
"Can you keep things on the DL?"
"DL — Down Low. If I tell you something, can I trust you not to be a pest and go yapping about it?"
"You can trust me."
He stared at me. "I've only known you for a few hours now," he finally said, "and from what I can see about you, I can tell you have a mind of iron."
I was unsure whether or not I should feel flattered by that comment.
"Look, I'm gonna be honest with you: you're physically laughable. All those years of eating cheap food and pagpag has stunted your growth. But you've got something in you, kid, something burning in you. Something that screams determination, something that keeps you going forward even when everything else is trying to get you to stop. I can't quite put my finger on it, Garrett, but I'm about to find out."
I was quiet, but I felt quite warm and good on the inside. It was pretty rare for me to be praised in this way.
He pointed to a man with an oversized shirt and large, bulging pockets walking down the busy road. "You see him?"
"You're going to go over there, get in front of him, and distract him. Pretend that you and I are playing or something and keep him busy while I jack his sh*t." He cautioned me with a sharp look. "You better not go tellin' your mother I told you to do this, or else I can't keep you out of jail."
I swallowed. I had stolen things before — yesterday was an example of that — but never before had I stolen, or helped someone else steal, under the directions of someone I barely knew.
"Look normal!" he snapped. "He's getting away, hurry up and get to 'im!"
I ran towards our victim. He had his hands inside his pockets, guarding their contents from any wandering fingers. I got in front of him and, turning my body around to face him, stepped on his shoes.
"Todd!" I yelled, pretending to look around him. "Todd, pass me the ball already!" I faked left and right, brushing and pushing against the man with my hands as if to get him out of the way. "Gimme the football!"
The man removed his hands from his pockets and tried to brush me aside. "Don't play in front me, dammit!!" As he did so, Dodger came up behind him and quickly pulled two objects out of his pockets. I made a show of kicking him in the legs, as if to try and get at the invisible football behind him. "Ow!!"
"Right, let's go!" Dodger shouted, and I darted along with him out of there.
"Not bad," he said, panting, after we had gotten a healthy distance away from the crime scene. "Good use of the football there."
"Thanks." I eyed the objects in his hands. "What did you get?"
In his right hand was a wallet, thick and made of genuine leather. He opened it and revealed 200 pesos, all freshly printed, as if they had just come from the bank. He counted out 100 and handed it to me. "You were pretty damn good, for a first timer."
One-hundred pesos! One-hundred pesos! All in a few seconds! I had never made this much money, this quickly, before.
He pulled out the credit cards and stuffed them into his pocket. "These things are worth tons," he explained. "Just gotta use them before he gets them cancelled." He dug through every corner and pocket of the leather wallet and, after taking out whatever he deemed valuable, tossed it aside. In his other hand he had a shiny, metallic object, one roughly the size of, if not bigger than, my hand.
A cell phone.
"iPhone," he said, shaking his head. "These things are hard to crack." He fiddled with the touchscreen for a bit before giving up. "How'd you like that?" he asked me.
My mother's face flashed in front of me. I almost gasped. "You're following in your corrupted father's footsteps!" I could hear her saying. "You've followed in your corrupted brother's footsteps! Why would you do this to me, son?! Why?!"
For Evan, I thought. For Evan. I won't get caught up in this. I'll only take what is enough, and then I'll go home. Enough for Evan's schooling — not even mine's, just him.
"You alright there?" Dodger asked, snapping his fingers in front of my face. "You can't be dozing off at this time of day."
I looked up at him and tried to grin. "When can we do it again?"
The stool was moved into position. I was huddled under a table, its surface filled with merchandise being sold. On the other end, just a few steps away, was the counter with the cash register. I remained silent and waited for Dodger's signal.
We had spent much of the day stealing whatever valuables we could get our hands on, mostly money. After emptying a few more pockets on the street, Dodger decided it was time to step it up a notch. I've had more luck stealing from stalls and vendors this time, now that I had him helping me. Occasionally, when confronted with an intimidating situation I would hold back, and he would always holler at me to "Man up! Just get in there and do it!"
Evan... these earnings are for you, not me! I won't keep a centavo of what I get for myself! I promise!
Now we were taking on an entire store, a small one, but definitely wealthier than everyone we've looted from so far. Above the noise of the street outside and the obnoxious chatter of someone talking loudly on their phone, a table fan, rattling slightly from its age, kept a hot breeze moving throughout the store. Without the wind — which was what I was experiencing, crammed under a table, insulated from the fan — the humidity was so thick, it was possible to cut it with a knife. A plastic, disposable knife.
Dodger came up to the cash register; I could see his feet. "Could you spare this for a good friend?" I could hear him say.
"What, are you saying that you forgot to bring money again today?" a gruff voice responded. It must've come from the aged, grey-haired man who was tending the till, of whom I caught a glimpse of before I disappeared under Dodger's instructions. "You were here only yesterday using that same excuse!"
"I promise, I'll pay you." I heard the jingling of coins. "Here, I'll pay half the price for now. I'll give you the other half later."
"I bet I won't see the other half!" The ruffling of paper. "How much is that? 15 pesos?"
"Don't forget about what you 'bought' yesterday — I'm expecting another 30 pesos from you." There was the sound of a tray being opened, money being counted... and a sudden struggle that ended as abruptly as it began.
"Son of a b*tch!"
"Now, Garrett!" I saw his feet darting off and out of the store. I shoved the stool forward into the narrow aisle at the perfect time; both the man and the cell phone chatterbox ran into it as they attempted to pursue the thief. The old, stern man fell to the ground, his body partially blocking my escape route. I slithered and squeezed past him, but his hand shot out and grabbed my foot. "You're not going anywhere, kid!"
I struggled with his monstrous grip. "Let go of me!"
"Not until the police swing by for a visit!"
Desperate, I lashed out with my other foot. I hit something fleshy and bony, a sizable elevation in the middle that cracked when I struck it. There was a sharp yelp of pain, and the grip on my feet relaxed. I scrambled back to my feet and ran from the place as fast as my legs could carry me. Half a block away, I managed to catch up to Dodger.
"What took you so long?" he yelled.
"He grabbed onto my foot!"
"How'd you get out?"
"I kicked him in the face."
He cocked a grin. "You don't just let any old hag hold onto you, eh?"
"Hey!" It was the cell phone guy, running towards us at top speed. "I'm gonna call the cops on you!"
Thanks for the tip. We both started running, running as he yelled at us to stop. "Stop if you know what's good for yourself!"
If I stop, I'm never going to get anything good for myself. And neither is Evan.
"Let's split." Dodger pointed down an alley. "You go down there, I'll go the other way. We'll meet at the bridge up ahead."
"Okay." I turned and ran in the direction he pointed, brushing aside boxes and bodies as I went. I turned a corner, hid behind some crates, and stopped to catch my breath.
The cell phone guy didn't hesitate. He immediately went after Dodger, who had the money. When my breath had caught up with me, I turned and headed in the direction of our agreed-upon meeting spot, remaining in the shadow of the alleys. People caught sight of me, but they didn't care. To them, I was just one of thousands. I was no big deal. They saw people like me every day.
I reached the bridge, an aging, concrete structure that crossed a polluted river filled with garbage. The guardrails were short, crumbling and dilapidated in some areas. I could see several slums — haphazardly constructed structures — lining the dirty river, a few with TV antennas precariously perched on their roofs. There was light but noticeable traffic moving across the bridge, jauntily bumping along the pavement. I looked behind me and shielded my eyes from the setting sun. No familiar face in sight. I was going to have to wait, and be ready to run in case my pursuer got to the bridge first.
I hope that doesn't happen.
I waited — first standing, then sitting down on the curb — for God-knows-how-long. I watched as the sun drooped lower and lower below the horizon, giving way to night. All the street lights came on, bathing the roads with a cold, yellow glow. I watched as the cars, the bicycles, and the pedestrians went by, an activity as mundane as day, yet strangely mesmerizing and captivating. Finally, I got up. Him taking this long clearly meant that something was amiss.
I can't let this slip through my fingers. I can't! Not when the going's good!
I retraced my steps, recrossing the bridge, running back towards the spot where we last saw each other. I turned down the road that he took, though where he went after that was anybody's guess. I darted blindly across an intersection, skipping a red light, almost getting hit by a jeepney. I squeezed and bumped past bodies along the narrow sidewalk; brushing them aside, I did not slow down. I ran down what seemed to be miles and miles of dark, sketchy alleyway, not knowing where I was going or what I was getting myself into. I didn't dare call out; wherever Dodger was, he almost certainly had unwanted company. I tripped and stumbled over a discarded computer monitor, but I wouldn't let that stop me.
I got to a crossroad, a crossroad of alleys. I had four directions to choose from: go straight ahead, to the left, to the right, or turn back. Not knowing which option I should take, I stopped to catch my breath. That was when I heard, "Gotcha now, you sick son of a b*tch."
It came from the left. I turned towards that direction and, almost tiptoeing, headed towards the sound. Well, sounds. "This wild goose chase is over. You've kept us going for quite a while now, but sooner or later, someone's got to give."
"You three are a f*cking joke!" That sounded like Dodger.
"Well, I may be the f*cking joke here, but I didn't joke around when these two came along, hmm?"
"Does it look like I'm joking around?"
"Was I joking around when I said you could get incarcerated for theft?" It was an older, rougher voice.
"Does it look like I care?"
"Are you joking?"
"Does it look like I'm joking?" There was the cracking of knuckles. "You think it's pretty easy living out here on these streets, huh? Just mill around and do nothing, right? Well, you're wrong. If you do that, you'll be dead faster than the police can brandish their batons and club the living sh*t out of you. Am I joking around? You three are a f*cking tease."
"We'll be the ones laughing," a younger, crisper voice said, "once you realize just how much of a tease you are once you wake up behind bars."
"Only the tough survive out here in Tondo."
"And I agree," the old one said, "because we have survived and are surviving. We'll put you out of this misery if you so choose."
I turned my head slowly around a corner. There was Dodger, cornered and surrounded by three men. One of them I recognized as the cell phone chatterbox from the store we looted; the other two, I didn't recognize. Dodger had his back against the wall, but I knew he was a long ways off from giving up.
"I'd rather die!"
"You think we'd actually kill you?" the cell phone guy remarked. "Boy, I'm not going to jail because of you."
"No," the young one said. "No, we can't kill him. Can't bring in a dead body. We'll just beat the tar out of him and then say he tried to fight back."
"I can deal some of those blows," the old one joked.
"Not unless our friend here fights back as well, and I have no doubt he will give us some trouble."
"Kid, you know how to fight, huh?"
"I bet he does."
There was a click, and the three men backed off. In the dim light I could see the shiny glare of the blade of Dodger's knife. "I don't go down that easily. Which one of you are willing to face me one-on-one?"
The three paused hesitantly. Finally, the older one got back into the ring. "I'll drag you by the ears to the police station once I'm done with you!"
"Not if this knife gets you done first!"
"One is none. Two is one." The cell phone guy stood boldly beside his teammate. "What, are you going to whine about how 'unfair' it is?"
"I never said that. We're on the streets here. There are no f*cking rules to follow."
The younger one jumped back in. "You know what? You're right. There are no f*cking rules to follow. Don't go cryin' for anybody, cause we're not obliged to give you a gold star and kiss you on the forehead for being a good little boy."
I stiffened. All three of them were ready to put up a fight with him. Three versus one. Three grown men versus one teenaged boy. I figured Dodger would hold his ground against one person easily, but not a trio.
I have to do something!
"Watch it, kid."
"Yeah, you'll be watching me as I slit your goddamn throat!"
The older one made a fist and rammed it into the boy's stomach. I immediately grabbed a rock — the largest one I could find and still throw with reasonable strength — and hurled it towards the men. It struck the younger man in the shoulders, and he screamed in agony.
"What the hell?!"
The other two turned around. "Son of a wh*r*!" they shouted, catching sight of me. I was about to turn around and run away when Dodger got up and kicked the two in the rear. "Run, Garrett! Get the f*ck out of here!"
I needed no persuasion. I was out of there, retracing my steps, running back to where I came from. A few seconds later, Dodger came out, a cell phone in his hands. "You know where to go!" he hollered at me. "Get back to where we agreed to meet up."
I nodded. Back down the miles of alleyway, brushing past bodies on the narrow sidewalks, darting across the intersection against the light, onto the bridge with the dilapidated guardrails crossing the polluted river. I stopped, breathing heavily, exhausted and numb from the whole ordeal. I was still shaking, still felt like the three men were there next to me, still felt like I was in danger. I looked back. Dodger had made it, crossing the street to get to my side.
"Phew..." he gasped. "That... that was some sh*t we got out of!" He looked at me and nodded, smiled. "Thanks for that."
"How'd you find me?"
"I don't know... I just ran back to the spot where we split, headed down the road you took, and just kept running from there."
"Lucky." He pulled the cell phone out from his pockets. "Swiped this from the smartphone chatterbox guy, guess he can't go b*tching about calling the cops anymore." He pressed the power button and turned the phone off. "That way he can't track us."
He gave me another odd look. "You remember what I told you this morning, right?"
"You told me lots of things this morning."
"About keeping things quiet?"
"Yeah." I remembered that.
He looked around, as if to check for any unwanted eavesdroppers. "I figured I could trust you enough to join my gang."
I was silent. My mind immediately raced back to Julio and what he had gotten himself into. He had also joined a gang, a street gang, involved in the shabu trade. He had built himself a reputation in there, earning respect and profit as he went. He no longer needed his family after that; the gang became his family, his benefactor. He made enough money to ensure that he would never have to touch any part of Smokey Mountain ever again.
Evan... I just need to think about him! I knew my older brother fell into a pit that he never got out of, the pit being the very gang he joined, the new lifestyle he chose. He thought about the gang, and how the gang could benefit him, bring him all the riches that we and the garbage dump never could. He was sick of being poor, and the gang opened the door for him to get out, escape from poverty. He never went back, except maybe as the odd tourist to his own family and his old home.
I can't go down that path... I needed a lifeline, an escape hatch, a ball of string. My younger brother would be all of those things. I had to remember the fact that I was doing it for him. Not for myself. Never for myself. No matter what happened, I had to hold on to that thought. Anything I earned would go to my brother, anything to get him off the mountain, get him back into school, back to being a child again. It would all be for him. For Evan. For my little brother.
I looked straight into Dodger's eyes. "You can trust me. I'll do anything to get in."
He nodded. "It's been a long day, but I feel like I've learned a lot about you, Garrett. You just get better and better the longer you're at this. Something inside you drives you, it really does. You even came back to look for me, and I've never had a kid do that. Never heard of any stories about that ever happening either." He started walking, and he gestured for me to follow. "You're a prodigy, you know that? If there's a kid out there that's younger and better than you, I've never heard of 'im. You'll make it through just fine."
My breathing was heavy. The longer I followed him, the more nervous I became. It wasn't the environment that he was leading me in. It wasn't the idea of being led into the darkness. It was the fear that I would lose my grasp on my brother, that I would forget about him and my original purpose. I bit down on my tongue, hoping to hold myself together.
"Just a bit of a forewarning," Dodger continued. "Most of our members are pretty civil and chill; if you're part of the same gang, as long as you don't dick with them they're cool with it. But some people are just total ***holes, dare I say. Watch out for them, and I'll point them out to you when I see them. And before I get another hammer thrown at me..." He stopped and turned around. "...we don't take wusses. No dodos. No wankstains. None of that crap." His eyes flared slightly, and I almost slunk back. "You're not one of them, are you?"
What was he going into? No... a better question would be, 'What am I getting myself into?' I knew my mother would say that what I was doing was wrong, that these people were not there to help me, wouldn't hesitate to drown me in the river to save themselves. But my brother kept coming into the equation — at least I still had a grasp on my original goal. I'd drown in the river to save my brother. Anytime. Without hesitation. I'd do it for him.
"No," I said firmly. "I won't back down. I won't clown around. I won't stop till I get what I want or I drop dead." A pause. "Why do you ask?"
He sighed. "Last time I did this, I brought back someone who pissed his pants and screamed like a banshee at the thought of pain. Got yelled at by the leaders after they kicked him out." He started walking again. "I'm confident you won't be giving me — or yourself — any trouble."
I followed behind him. "What's the name?"
He stopped again, this time not in an unkind manner. He looked around nervously, as if to check for eavesdroppers again, before whispering into my ear: "Diablo Wingz is the name. 'Wingz' with a 'z'."
I blinked. "Why the secrecy?"
"We got a ton of other rival gangs knocking on our doors." He resumed walking. "If they discover who we belong to, they won't hesitate to put a bullet between our eyes."
I stood still, silently allowing his words to sink in. They won't hesitate to put a bullet between our eyes...
Was I going to die?
He turned around. "What's up? Scare ya now, did I?"
"So you're saying... I could die?"
He crossed his arms, unimpressed. "Look, kiddo, you can die at any moment in your life. I'm surprised you spent ten years of your life on Smokey Mountain without ever asking yourself whether or not you could die. People die on that mountain all the time. People die in this city all the time. You're going to die anyway in life. May as well roll with it." He straightened his arms. "Where I'm going, you could die at any moment, but if you don't have it in you to f*ck up, you won't die. Fight hard for the gang and you won't die. Fight for yourself or fight for nobody, and the gang could care less if you drowned in your bathtub." Without another word, he turned around and walked away.
I watched him go. My mind was racing; I knew I was at the crossroads for a crucial decision. The words he had just said stopped me dead in my tracks, but the flame in me told me to push on. Do it, it seemed to say. Do it for Evan.
I clenched my fists. Immediately I started to run, running to catch up to him.
"Guess I didn't scare you enough."
"I'm scared," I said. And I was being honest. "But I'll do it. Scared, maybe, but I won't let that stop me."
He didn't look at me, but I could tell he was beginning to smile.
"Here's to an early welcome to the team," he said.
Here's to you, Evan. I felt like a rock climber getting ready to rappel down the formation. I hope my brother has the belay secured...
I had no idea how far I'd fall.
Cigarette smoke drifted around and above my head. It stung my eyes, my lungs, and my throat slightly. I wanted to bat away the fumes, but was afraid of what Dodger would say. "You weak or something?" I could almost hear him saying.
We were in an alley, surrounded by walls of corrugated metal and concrete covered with graffiti. A few had obscene symbols and images sprayed on. The path was illuminated by sodium vapour lamps, casting off a ghostly yellow glow. The light made me tired and sleepy; I could never understand why this was the colour of "urban nightlife."
"Stay close to me," Dodger whispered into my ear as we turned a corner. Immediately I was hit with the strong stench of marijuana. I had smelled the drug before, had seen my older brother smoke it on occasion, but never before in this quantity and in such concentration. I blinked, almost toppling over. The smell emanated from an old, narrow door leading into a building that had its windows shuttered and barred. Dodger turned me towards that direction; with every step I took, my heart rate increased, beating faster and with greater intensity. The two of us were stopped by a tall, teenaged male. He was shirtless and barefoot, toting a large aluminum bat behind his head. "Who's this, Dodger?" he asked.
"His name's Garrett," Dodger responded, pointing to me. "He's a good one from what I can see. He's strong. Tough. Determined. Give 'im a chance."
The boy got up and close to us. I trembled before his presence. He was monstrous, at least two heads taller than I was, and he seemed ready to attack, dispose of anyone he didn't agree with. He wasn't looking at me though. He was looking directly at my escort.
"Last time you brought someone here they flipped out and almost brought the cops to our doorstep. How are we supposed to know this isn't another screwup by you?"
"Gimme one more chance," Dodger pleaded. "Look, I know I f*cked up last time. I was younger though, younger and naïve. Just give him a shot; if he's no good, you can beat the tar out of me."
The boy snorted. He turned to me. "Don't go snooping around in places where you're not supposed to be in." And with that, he stepped out of the way, permitting us entry into the dilapidated building. Dodger kept a hand on my back, guiding, almost propelling me in the direction he wanted to go in.
"Don't wander in this place when nobody knows you, else they'll have your *ss tarred and feathered."
Even without that warning, sheer fear would have contained me, locked me in, unable to escape. He kept pushing me, directing me through a dimly-lit, narrow corridor. We passed by several people, each one of them looking at me. Combined with my fear, I felt like an animal being paraded around the streets in a cage. Was I really that exotic, or were they just suspicious of me?
"Zippo!" Dodger shouted. "Zippo, where ya at?"
A head popped out of an open door, a lit cigarette in its mouth. Around his neck he bore a silver chain and a silver Christian cross. In his right hand was a glass filled with ale. "Sup?"
"Zippo, meet Garrett. Found 'im in a dumpster this morning—"
"You brought us another trashy clown?" Zippo remarked, interrupting his friend. "Literally."
Dodger shook his head. "Nuh-uh, Zippo — you haven't seen what he can do. He learns fast; got him to successfully clean someone's pockets within an hour of meeting him. We did a couple more after that, and then we took out a store. We got separated and I got cornered, but he actually came back for me!" I felt a rewarding pat on my shoulder. "I know he's the one."
Zippo shook his head. "Look, Dodger, he's too small. You said you found him in a dumpster. What, his mother abandoned him?"
"He's a scavenger..."
"Knew it!" Zippo straightened up and blocked the doorway. "Can't see a use for someone who's spent their entire lives digging through piles o' sh*t. You've barely even known him for more than 24 hours! Too soon, Dodger; too soon. You may as well just leave 'im back on the streets where he belongs."
Dodger was speechless. When he turned around and went back inside the room, though, Dodger shot his hand out and grabbed him by the shoulder. "Wait!"
The face turned around, its expression gruff and displeased. I could see a puff of smoke pouring out of the mouth. "What?"
"Give 'im a chance. Just this once. Just let 'im get a taste of the gang. If he's no good I'll remove him myself. Just give me a chance. Just give him a chance. I know I got the one, I just know it!"
"You know something, Dodger?" He turned around fully to look him straight in the eye. "You sound like a big crybaby."
Dodger began to sulk. "For f*cks sake..."
Zippo knelt down to get to my level. "How old are you?" he asked me.
"A mother and a brother."
"Older or younger?"
He looked at me straight into my eyes. I was afraid, wanting to slink back, wanted to look away, but for some reason I looked straight back at him. He blinked; I blinked. He moved his eyes to the right; I moved my eyes to the left. He rolled his eyes; I rolled my eyes. Finally, he got up. "No offense, Dodger, but I still think you're sh*t." He grinned. "Although I think I can give this kid here a chance. Just once."
"Thanks... thank you so much, bro!"
"Don't be a tease." And with that, he let us in.
The room was packed and small, lit by a single hanging lamp perched over a long, rectangular table that occupied the middle, taking up the space. Sitting or standing around it were thirty or so men and women, many of them with lit cigarettes coming out of their mouths and drinks in their hands. The table held several smartphones, some of them with their screens lit, and several bottles of ale. A thug in his twenties, sporting a bandana wrapped around his head, was filling empty glasses up and passing them around the table to the laughing gangsters. "Here with my homies tonight for a good f*ckin' time!" he exclaimed. "Drink up, light up; we've all been good today, haven't we?"
A head rose up from the crowd. He was young; I'd say around the age of nineteen. He wore a black baseball cap backwards and had three tattoos on his arms. "Malou!" he called out. "Malou! Gimme that beat, young dog; help a fellow homie out here, will ya?"
"Eeey, takin' that mic up again, C. Razor?" Malou took a swig from his glass. "Shout out to all my homies in here!" He cleared his throat and, after a brief pause, began to beatbox. Nearby side-conversations were extinguished rapidly in respect for the vocal bass machine. In the dim light, the thug named C. Razor straightened his cap and began to rap:
Yo, my name's C. Razor,
I'm blazin', hotter than a tazer,
It's my turn to bust a rhyme,
Cause we're drinking and smoking and having a good time,
We've run out of food,
But that's okay cause I'm cool,
I hustle like I'm broke,
Your sh*t's just a big joke,
Cause you're just gonna choke,
While you're sittin' in the corner sniffin' coke,
I rap with meanin' but you'll never know,
That's just how it goes,
I'm sittin' here with my homies cause I'm runnin' the show,
While y'all just goin' with the flow,
So many b*tches here, my head's gonna blow,
I bright up the sky; I light up the sky,
This dope makes me fly cause I've never been this high,
It gets me every time,
I'm gonna be fine,
I'm gonna be out doin' every crime,
Guns in the jeep as we pullin' up to you,
Starin' down that barrel, we ain't got no truce,
Cause I'm cool and I don't need you,
Your blood's gonna fizz,
Cause I got all the jizz,
And when I got your f*ckin' b*tches you ain't gonna need this,
Sh*t, you'd be goin' around dropping yo' things,
Nobody goin' messin' around with the Diablo Wingz!
"A round of applause!" a tall, muscular teenager shouted as he poured the freestyler a glass. "A toast to our king tonight!"
"Hey Dodger!" Malou shouted. "Who you got there?"
"He's Garrett," Dodger responded, pointing to me. "Treat him well; he was a killer out there on the streets today!"
"Damn, he looks small."
"Small body, big soul," Dodger said, defending me.
The crowd laughed. "Pass me a glass," Dodger called out. Immediately three glasses filled to the brim with ale were thrust at him. He selected one and handed it to me. "First timer?"
Not really. I had a small amount of beer on my own, but never in a significant quantity.
"Doesn't need to be the whole thing; half a glass is good."
For a second, I held back. I remembered a time when I was younger, when I saw a man on the streets, being arrested and swarmed by police. He was intoxicated, resisting the cops and spewing forth the foulest and most obscene language I had ever heard. In his arms he was clutching several bottles, many of them looking similar to the ones in front of me now. How much would it take to get me drunk?
"Drink it, man! Cheers to a successful day."
The room grew quiet as everyone turned to watch me.
"How old is he?"
"He's ten," Dodger responded.
"Isn't he a tad bit young for drinks?"
"Naw, he can stomach it. He'll learn eventually."
I brought the glass to lips and allowed a few drops into my mouth. It had a pungent flavour, stronger than the beer I had yesterday, biting and cutting into my tongue, my teeth, my throat. Harshly bitter, nothing like the coffee I drank that morning. It seared the insides of my mouth, despite the fact that it was cold, and when I swallowed it, the liquid burned my esophagus, all the way down to my stomach.
"More, more! Half the glass! Half the glass!"
Everyone was watching me; I felt hot and uncomfortable. Anything to make the pressure stop! I tipped the glass and poured more of the liquid into my mouth. It was like a wall of flame going down my throat, and I gagged. Now I could really taste the ale; the flavour got into my nostrils and lingered there, refusing to leave. I swallowed my coughing fits down, along with the liquid. I had never tasted anything this bitter. I looked at the glass to see how much I had left to go.
It was half-full.
"Beautiful!" one of the gangsters said exuberantly. "You've got a tough one there, Dodger. I can see that makes up for your baldf*ckery!"
Everyone laughed. Everyone except me and Dodger, at least.
I felt a pat on my shoulder. "Good job, Garrett."
I was still looking at the glass, looking at the remaining ale. It stung my throat, burned within me like a flambé, almost twisting me from the inside. The awful taste clung onto my tongue and teeth, stinging them with a tart, bitter flavour. But the gang was loving it; they were enthralled to see a ten year old boy drink like them. Whatever I did, I could not disappoint them, could not let them down, could not retreat and surrender. My brother's future was in my hands, and I had to come home alive. Alive and successful.
I gritted my teeth, swallowed hard, and opened my mouth for another round, bracing for impact. The alcohol still burned me, but this time, I burned it back. I was determined not to disappoint anyone, not myself, not the gang, not my brother. I swallowed each gulp hard; every time I did so, it felt like I was swallowing fireballs, and that sooner or later my stomach would give out and burst into flames, consuming me from the inside out. Finally, the glass was empty. I slammed it down, exhausted, panting, my face turning red. I couldn't be sure if it was the alcohol or the fact that everyone was watching me, watching as I drank more than I was expected to drink.
"Sh*t, this kid is good!" a voice shouted.
"Never seen anyone get good this fast."
"He'll replace Reyes someday! Don't need a psychic and a crystal ball to tell!"
"Damn, he's a 'Miracle Kid'!" The owner of the voice stood up. His head was shaven bald and his eyes concealed with rounded sunglasses. "Yeah, you hear that? 'Miracle Kid'! He'll be making the Cobras and the Red Cults sh*t themselves in their pants!"
"A round of applause for this little dude!"
Dodger knelt down to my level. "What the f*ck did you..."
"I'll drink another one," I gasped. "If I have to, I will."
He shook his head. "Didn't bring you here for a drink; I know you killed it out there, but..."
"What's this thing about a 'Miracle Kid' I hear about?" a man's voice said, interrupting the conversation and the atmosphere of the room. He looked at me. "Is that the one?"
My cheeks were burning red. "What do you mean by 'Miracle Kid'?" Dodger asked.
"I hear some kid downed an entire glass of alcohol and someone said he could succeed Reyes once he retires. Or drops dead." He was still looking at me. "Dunno how many kids you bring in here but almost all of them are pathetic as f*ck."
"That's why we call 'im a 'Miracle Kid'!" someone shouted.
"I see." He directed his gaze to Dodger. "You brought him here?"
The man gestured with his fingers, signalling him to come over. "And bring the kid with you."
As I left, the climate of the room was restored in an instant. "Hey, hey, someone bring the beat back! Gotta say something about this 'Miracle Kid' here!"
Once we were outside in the narrow, dark corridor, he turned to Dodger. "Who's this kid?"
"His name's Garrett."
"Where'd you find him?"
"In a dumpster."
"Look, I know it sounds f*cking stupid, but you gotta see this kid." Dodger was again desperate to convince. "I met him this morning and by late afternoon we managed to successfully loot a store."
"What store was it?"
"Rodrigo's. He's the father of Arthur, leading gang member of the Red Cults."
I assumed Rodrigo was the name of the old shopkeeper.
"And you got away with it?"
"That's not all! We got separated while we were running out of there, and he came back to look for me when I got cornered in an alley. I could've died out there, but he saved my life!"
"And you brought him here because you think he'll be a good member?"
The man turned to me. "How old are you?" he asked.
"Ten," I replied.
"Hoo," he said softly, almost with a touch of morbidity and dark humour in his voice. "Hoo, you're in for some sh*t, man."
I did not know what he meant.
"We don't just let anybody into the Diablo Wingz. To survive out here, you gotta be tough. Only the tough can live here." He turned around and began walking. "Follow me," he said. "You too, Dodger."
He led us into a dark, sketchy room in the rear, illuminated only by an aluminum floor lamp that threw out a weak, yellowish light. Aside from that lamp and a few chairs, the room was bare. On one side of the room stood a concrete wall, covered with graffiti. Facing that wall were two boys — one was around the age of 15, the other couldn't have been any older than 12. Both of them had been blindfolded with a bandana and were trembling like china dolls on a store shelf in the midst of an earthquake. Behind them was a squarely-built thug in his twenties, wielding a thick wooden stick. He acknowledged our entry with a nod before turning back to his subjects.
"Alright now, here's the deal: you're going to scream to the world the name of your favourite street gang, and when you do, we'll see how you handle pain. Remember, we don't just allow anyone to join Diablo Wingz. We don't recruit chickens. We eat chickens! If you're a chicken, raise your hand and you can get the f*ck out of here before we butcher you."
Neither of the two boys said or did anything.
"You first," the thug said, pointing to the older recruit. He cocked the stick back, ready to strike. "Say it!" he barked. "Say who you love the most!"
"I... I love Diablo Wingz," came a small, timid reply.
The stick was lowered. "Really now." The thug was unimpressed. "Are you a bull or a load of bullsh*t?" He thumped the boy on the back. "Don't be a turd." He raised the stick again. "Now who do you love again?!"
"I love Diablo Wingz!"
The stick bore down. For a moment, I thought I could see it motionless as it hung suspended in mid-air. A loud "CRACK!" rang out, startling me, shaking me from whatever haze I was in. The figure that was struck crumpled to the floor, and I didn't need to ask to know that the stick had scored on his bones.
"Get up!" his assailant growled, dragging him back into a standing position by the ear. "That was only one strike, and anyone can survive the first round. We're Diablo Wingz, not the corny-*ss Girl Scouts." When the boy did not move, he thumped him again. "What's wrong? Too scary for you? You tell me right here right now: are you scared?!"
"N-N-No!" He was trying to be brave, be tough, be a man, but his speech was stuttery, like that of someone who had been left in the cold for too long. His assailant, though, only laughed. "Well, I'll give you a few more chances." Stick cocked, ready for more. "Now who do you love?!"
"I love Diablo Wingz!"
CRACK! Another sickening sound of wood meeting bone and flesh rang out throughout the room. The boy was on his knees again, whimpering in absolute pain. I felt sickened at the sight. I wanted to vomit, at the very least, run away from what I've seen. I looked at Dodger and the man beside me. Neither of them seemed the least bit appalled, or even surprised; in fact, I could've sworn they were enjoying it!
"I've seen worse, kid," the thug said. "Up! One more time, and this is gonna be my hardest." The boy struggled to his feet. He was still shaking, shivering almost, despite the heat and humidity. I wanted to bury my face into my hands to shield my eyes from the horror, but was afraid of what Dodger might say. Would he think that I was a wuss and have me removed for it? Would he get beaten as well for "screwing up"? I was afraid to know.
The stick was up again. "Show me how tough you are!" the thug shouted. "Now, get ready: 'I LOVE...'"
"I LOVE DIABLO WINGZ!"
A final swing. A final blow. One last fall. The thug grabbed him by the shoulders and hauled him up. "You're just a kid," he remarked, removing the blindfold.
"He's still a kid," Dodger said in reply.
"He'll grow up in a week." He shoved the 15-year-old towards the direction of the door. "Go 'n wait outside; we'll teach you the handshake in a bit." He turned to his younger victim, who was unable to see the commotion, but could certainly hear it. "You're next. Let's see how tough you are now."
The man standing beside me prodded my shoulder. "To really join the Diablo Wingz," he said, "you need to prove you can stomach it. We give everyone ten and up the 'Wingz Treatment', and if you chicken out, you're out of the squad. Period." He gave me an amused look, a look that made me uncomfortable. "You're ten. You'll be double-digits for the rest of your life. Now's the time you stop being a child." He lifted his head to again look at the torturous scene before him. "Only the tough survive in Tondo."
The poor younger boy was already crying, possibly in fear, before he got his dosage of pain. "Stop crying!" the thug ordered, "or else you can pack your bags and go home. You wanna go home, laddie? The choice is yours. You can sit at home and starve yourself alone, or you can sponge up your tears and grow up!"
The boy tried to stand up straight, trying to be tough. The stick was raised. "You know the drill. Which gang do you love the most?!"
"I-I-I l-love D-D-Diablo W-W-Wingz!"
The stick was swung, steering clear of the legs and instead striking him on the back. "Oh, come on!" the thug said in disgust. "You're worse than the last guy. You wanna be a man, but you can't even get rid of your pacifier." He thumped him on the back several times. "Grow up, or get out. Hmm?! What do ya choose?"
"I'll... I-I-I'll g-g-grow up..."
"Then act like it!" Stick up, posture square. "I love...!"
"I love Diablo Wingz!"
CRACK! There was a sharp exclamation of pain as the boy fell down. He crumpled over, shielding his inner body, cowering in utter fear and senseless pain.
"What a chicken!" Dodger shouted. "You cry like my grandmother."
I swallowed. Neither of the two who stood beside me felt like "friends", or whatever I had considered them to be beforehand, anymore.
The thug grabbed the boy by the ears and brought him back up. "We're not done yet," he said. "Make it or break it. Do, or do not. You either be tough or you don't come anywhere near our turf at all. No in-betweeners." He raised the stick again. "Alright then. 'I LOVE...!'"
"Wait!!" the boy screamed. "This is too much for me!"
The stick was lowered. "Oho!" the thug commented. "Good thing we caught a chicken before they got a chance to f*ck anything up." He strode over to his victim and came in very, very close. The boy could not see his assailant, but could certainly sense his presence. "Remind yourself why you came here," the thug said in a low, dangerous voice. "You came here for a reason, did you not?" He walked around, circling the child, talking as he moved: "In Tondo, there is no work. There is no food. There is no shelter. Not when you're alone. Only the mounds of garbage to pick from. You couldn't feet a rat with those earnings." The thug turned in our direction, and he no doubt caught a glimpse of me. His eyebrows raised, acknowledging my presence. I immediately felt very afraid of him. "In Tondo, only those who are unafraid, who are willing to run the extra mile, who are willing to do whatever it takes for themselves and their fellow brothers and sisters, will live. The rest can only rot in the garbage they scrounge in."
He was again right next to the boy. "You have to be tough," he whispered in his ear, "or you will die."
The room was quiet, save for the sounds of the drinking and the cheering and the rapping next door. "You want to die, son?" the thug finally barked after several minutes.
"N-N-No sir. No sir. No sir!"
"Do you want to be tough, son?"
"You want to go home?"
There was a pause, as if the boy was wondering whether or not it was a trick question. "No sir."
The thug obviously knew what he really wanted, but he didn't press him on it. "Do you want to join the Diablo Wingz?"
"Yes sir... Yes I do!"
"Then prove it." The thug backed off in order to make room for the swinging of the stick. "Shout it out to the world: 'I LOVE....!'"
"I LOVE DIABLO WINGZ!"
The thug hauled the fallen boy to his feet and removed the blindfold. The tears, which had previously been hidden behind the fabric of the bandana, were now free to flow down his face. "Bah, so much water!" the thug said sourly. "You a monsoon?"
"He's just a kid," the man beside me commented.
"We ain't the Girl Scouts!" He shoved the boy roughly. "To hell with you, 'kid'! You wanna join Diablo Wingz? Clean up those damn waterworks."
"Who's the one who brought 'im in?" the man asked.
"Israel. Mostly brings us crazy b*tches but he occasionally finds the lean young lad."
"Pah." The man cocked his neck. "Take him out; he can't take no more."
The boy was pushed out the door. "Go wash your face," the thug shot at him. He turned around and looked at me. "Who's next?"
Dodger gave me a gentle but firm push from behind. "If you want in, you better step up."
My blood turned to ice. I was ready to back out. Oh Lord, save me! But I could feel the eyes of Dodger and the other man — what was his name? — boring holes into my back. I dared not turn back now, for what would they think of me if I did? I needed to get in, needed to prove myself worthy of such a job, and to do that, I needed to prove that I was no fool, no clown, no jester.
Could I do it?
Yes, I can. I can I can I can I can I can...
"Anybody home?" the thug said impatiently, snapping his fingers around my head, breaking me from my trance. I did not see him approaching; he was now standing over me, his towering figure at that very moment being scarier than the stick he had used to warm the backs of the two boys before me. "You here to be in Diablo Wingz or you here just to get laid?"
I gulped. "To be in Diablo Wingz, sir."
"Well then act like it." He turned to Dodger. "Well, well, look who's here. The guy who brought me a turd a month ago. Thought I'd forget?"
He returned a sly smile. "Oh, I knew you'd remember. Just wanted to see what you'd say when I brought someone new."
"Yeah, and in the first few seconds of talking to him, I don't like what I see. He stood there silent when I called for the next person."
Dodger nodded. "Uh huh." He looked down. "Don't f*ck me over in front of everybody!" he hissed at me.
I stepped up. "Alright, alright... I-I-I'm in."
The thug almost laughed. "Brave coward." He grabbed a bandana and began to wrap it around my eyes. It smelled of putrid sweat, tobacco, and a perfume with an aroma that made me want to gag. "Now listen to me, pal. This ain't no home for the weak and faint-hearted. Here in Diablo Wingz, all of our members have to prove they're up to the task of serving the gang." I heard the stick swishing and cutting through the air, as if he were practicing his strikes. "You're here for the gang, not for yourself. Fight for yourself and no one else, and we'd much rather you'd lie dead on the streets with a knife in your back. Fight for the gang, and the gang will fight for you."
He leaned in close. I could smell the odours from his body, emanating strongly; combined with the bandana, I wanted to throw up. "Are you here for yourself, son?"
And that was no lie.
The thug harrumphed. "Let's see it, then." I could hear the stick being raised, him taking practice swings. "If you want in, let's see how you stand. Who do you love the most?"
I sucked in a gulp of air. "I love Diablo Wingz!" I shouted, squeezing my eyelids together, bracing for impact.
CRACK! I heard the sound of wood meeting bone — my bone — and two seconds later, felt the pain. It was searing hot, like a fireplace poker, burning through my legs with the fury of a thousand suns. My frail body hit the ground, and despite having willed myself not to, I couldn't help but squeal from the pain.
"Don't be an ass, boy." He dragged me up back into a standing position. My legs wobbled, weakened from the strike, barely able to support my weight. I struggled, trying hard not to cry or show any indication of agony. "Stand up straight if you really love Diablo Wingz!" he ordered.
From behind my back, I could hear the man whispering to Dodger: "He's just a kid. A bloody kid, barely 10 years old. You're taking a huge risk with 'im. He's small, weak, short, almost stunted. You tell me, is his mother still alive?"
"Any other family members?"
"He has a younger brother."
"That's all he'd tell me."
The thug interrupted my eavesdropping of their conversation. "F*ck you, 'kid'! You wanna join Diablo Wingz, but you act like you're scared of a mouse running between your legs. Stand up straight! Stand up or I'll kick you in the *sshole instead."
I scrambled back onto my feet. The thug had the stick raised again. "I love...?"
I swallowed hard. "I love Diablo Wingz!"
The stick came down again. I braced for impact, but nothing could prevent my descent to the ground. The concrete came up quickly, meeting my face with a brisk smack. It smelled pungent, like beer. As I writhed in pain, I could hear the man saying: "Damn, he falls pretty hard."
"You squirm like a slug." The thug pulled me back up again. "Grow out of your mother's womb."
When Dodger found his voice again, it was almost a whisper, as if he dared not to speak: "Shouldn't we go a bit easier on him? He's only ten..."
"Shut the f*ck up!" the man barked. "What, are you suddenly having pity on the child? What's with you, Dodger? You weren't like this yesterday. Did the kid say anything that brought you to tears? Why aren't you a Wingz today?"
Dodger made no reply to that.
"Pity!" the thug said mockingly. "I pity Hound Dog. Got himself a knife to the back while he was in Cobra's turf. Served us well for many years, kept the Cobra's at bay for as long as he breathed air. A martyr indeed, but that's the thing — he did something." He pointed to me, his fingernails jabbing my skin. "Until he does something admirable, what did he do to deserve pity?"
Dodger was speechless. Finally, he said, "I... I take back what I said earlier..."
The thug, eager to return to business, got ready for another strike. "Listen, boy. When we select gang members, people fall into two different groups: those that are suitable for the gang, and those who aren't. That's it. There's no special section for little children; you get the same treatment as everybody else." He took a few practice swings with the stick. "I love...?"
"I-I-I love... I love D-Diablo...."
WHAM! The stick struck me on the shoulders. I gasped in pain, though I did not fall. The thug was displeased. "Seriously? You're pathetic."
In the background, I could hear the man chastising Dodger. "He's pathetic! And you're pathetic too! You shan't be bringing any more stragglers in here, hmm? You ain't the one with the right eye for finding the right people. I mean, you found this guy in a dumpster! That speaks for itself."
I felt Dodger's anger. Anger at me. I had let him down. I had let myself down. And in doing so, he was waist-deep in hot water.
I'm sorry... I'm sorry for you. I'm sorry for your gang. I'm sorry for... for...
I clenched my fist. "I love Diablo Wingz!" I screamed before boring down on my teeth, grinding them so hard, I thought I heard them crack.
The stick struck me again. I cried out, but the tenacity of my teeth successfully muffled and suppressed it. I fell, but I was so scrunched up and tight that I immediately scrambled back to my feet, albeit shaky and wobbly. The thug came over, stood in front of me, and placed his hands on my shoulders. "Let's see how your legs hold up." He pressed down on my shoulders. "Squat!"
I went down. "Up!" he barked, and I responded accordingly. "Down!" and I squatted. "Up! Down! Up! Down! Up! Down!" Every time I did so, I felt my feet and my legs smoldering, like hot coals in a fire, the pain climbing up towards my thighs. He kept going, making me do squats for what seemed like forever. Finally he said, "You're an interesting one, kid. Real interesting, but you do squat well." He began to remove the blindfold. "I'm curious to see what becomes of you a few years down the road." Then, instead of shoving me towards the door, he handed me back to Dodger. "Go. Take him out with the rest. Make sure he knows the handshake."
The man muttered something inaudible, as if in disapproval, but he didn't object. Dodger led me out into the small, narrow corridor, where the other two boys were also waiting. "I'm gonna go fetch Six Splints to come and welcome you to the gang," he said to us. "Don't wander off if you know what's good for you." And he left, leaving the three of us alone, seemingly unsupervised, but with nowhere to go.
There was an awkward silence. We simply stared at each other, the ice so thick you couldn't have cut it with a powered saw. Finally, the older boy came up to me and extended his hand. "I'm Marcos. What's your name?"
"Garrett," I said. I reached out and shook his hand firmly.
The other boy didn't respond. "What's his name?" I asked, gesturing towards him.
"Him? That's Lewis."
"Are you two brothers?"
He shook his head. "I only met him about a week ago. I was at home when I heard a commotion outside. I found him being kicked and yelled at by three men, who were demanding money from him, money that he didn't have, for failing to pay for medicine that he took from them several weeks prior. I gave them the 50 pesos that they demanded, and he's been tagging along with me since." He shrugged. "I didn't have much to offer him; I had been working for my father, but he got arrested a fortnight ago, so I had to ask one of the gang members here for help. After watching me suspiciously for a few days, he decided to let the both of us in."
I looked at the boy. He had stopped cowering, stopped crying at least, and was able to look at me. Somewhat. "Why are you here?" Marcos asked. "So what's your story?"
I straightened my back. "I'm here for my brother, my younger brother. I'm finding a way to get him back to school so he doesn't have to dig through piles of garbage every day."
"You're a scavenger?"
"My entire family is."
He nodded, as if he understood. "I see them all the time. I had to do it once too. It must be a hard life, living off what other people would consider refuse."
Our conversation was interrupted by a loud, high-pitched shrill: "Two hits! All that needs to happen. Me hitting you, you hitting the ground."
The sound came from a nearby room, its door slightly ajar. Very gingerly, the three of us peered inside. Lewis held back, as if an invisible wire was preventing him from moving any further into the danger zone. The room was also bare, save for a single wooden chair amidst concrete walls daubed with graffiti. The wooden chair was occupied by a girl who couldn't have been any older than 16. She was blindfolded, surrounded by two men — one tall and lean, the other short and somewhat stout — and a woman. The short one had a lit cigarette in his mouth, and with every drag he blew a cloud of smoke onto the girl's face. She coughed and gagged, unable to bat away the fumes, for her hands were tied firmly behind her back. The tall one had a two-by-four in his hands, thicker than the one used to beat me.
"I shall ask you again: pain or pleasure?"
"Pain," the girl said firmly.
"Ha!" the short one scoffed. "Wanna end up like your boyfriend whose head got so badly mutilated his skull got exposed?"
"I'd rather die than roll around with you three skinny asses!"
"Oh, I see," the woman said, crossing her arms. "Tough b*tch's acting tough today!"
"Nico always brings us these crazy b*tches. No wonder the Cobras and the Red Cults are pulling ahead." As he spoke, smoke poured out of the short man's mouth. He leaned in close, allowing the smoke to crawl, almost in a clandestine and stealthy manner, onto the girl's face, filling her nostrils, her mouth, and lingering there. She coughed violently, but from the look and expression on her face, she was far from backing down.
"Pain or pleasure, and you choose pain, huh?" The tall one reached out with the two-by-four, gently brushing the board under the girl's chin, allowing her to feel the roughness, the splinters, on the wood. "Pleasure, you know; pain, you also know. Choose pleasure and this won't continue any further. Choose pain and you'll... Why would you choose otherwise?"
The woman came up to her and grabbed her by the cheeks. The girl shrugged her hands off. "What the f*ck!"
"Wow, what words coming from such a prim and proper lady!" the woman said mockingly, imitating a Victorian-era prude. "Say, are you a virgin?"
"Phew!" More smoke was blown onto her face.
The woman slapped her lightly several times across the cheeks and jaw. "Evaluate your options. If you choose pain, you lose that beautiful, beautiful face. If you choose pleasure... so what? You just lose a f*cking title."
The tall one jabbed the two-by-four at her chest. "Pain or pleasure?"
The woman slapped her hard across the cheek. "Think again!"
The short one prodded the cigarette into her forehead. "Hmm?!"
The two-by-four jerked her head up violently. "Pain? Served pipin' hot here." The wood board dug in further and further, as if it were a knife going into its victim, ready to do its job. "Your boyfriend got pleasure anyway, when we threw him into the ditch for the rats. They ran over him, under him, into him and between every crevice, every depression, every small corner of his body."
From behind the chair I could see the girl's right middle finger becoming erect. Her three assailants, though, did not notice, for her hands were still tied behind her back, out of sight from anyone who wasn't paying attention.
The tall one leaned in close. "He got what he wanted to avoid," he whispered into her ear. "But he's dead. Dead and f*cked."
Silence. I could never have imagined a gang hideout being this quiet. Even the small one didn't seem to give off any noise when he inhaled and exhaled from his cigarette.
"Pick your options carefully: pain, or pleasure?"
The girl's steadfast face was beginning to give way to fear and submission. "P-P-P-P..."
"I better hear what I want to hear!" the short one barked.
"P-Pleasure.... Pleasure, sir."
"Can't hear you!"
"Where are your manners?" the woman said. "Show some respect, b*tch!"
The two-by-four was lowered. "Who you talking to?"
The girl sat up and looked directly at him, or wherever she thought he was. "Pleasure, please!"
The three began chuckling. "Sh*t, Sherwin; hell f*ckin' yeah you got this wh*r* goin'!"
"She's a virgin," the woman commented.
"Not anymore, soon she won't." The rope on her hands was removed, but not the blindfold. The woman made her stand up and began to lead her out of the room. The three of us quickly popped back and pretended to act normal as they exited, leading the girl to a small, wretched room at the end of the corridor. An impromptu curtain was drawn, but it wasn't big or wide enough to seal the doorway, leaving a small but sizable gap, a window to what was going on inside. I began to head towards it when I felt a hand on my shoulder.
"I have a really, really bad feeling about what they're gonna do to her in there," Marcos whispered.
I looked at Lewis, but he had turned his back to the scene and covered his ears with his hands. I began to move again when Marcos shook me. "Are you insane?!"
"I have to see what's going on," I responded.
"It'll haunt you for life," Marcos cautioned.
I turned to look at him in the eye. "Then let it haunt me." I shook his hand off and continued down the corridor. Marcos hissed at me, "Don't say I didn't warn you!"
I hid behind the wall and, being careful to remain out of sight, peeked behind the cloth. The room was illuminated by a single bare bulb on the ceiling, casting a harsh, fluorescent glow onto the room's occupants. The girl was standing beside a low-lying bed, containing an old mattress yellowed with age. The concrete walls were clean, being mostly devoid of the obscenities and gang symbols found elsewhere. The woman was standing in front of the girl, her back to me, partially blocking my view. The two men were leaning on the wall, the short one smoking his ever-present cigarette.
"Relax," the woman said soothingly, although I could hear the sarcasm in her voice. "First timer? Don't worry now... everything is going to be fine. Trust me."
The short man offered his taller colleague a cigarette, which he declined.
"Not sure what to do? That's fine. Has to be a first time for everything, no?"
"Get on with it!" the short man barked.
"I'll start." There was a slow, gradual sound of fabric shifting as the woman moved her limbs. The eyes of the two men widened as they followed their gaze on... what? I adjusted my angle slightly to get a better view. The woman's bare feet disappeared as a skirt was lowered over them. One of the men whistled.
The girl was still blindfolded, but it seemed she was able to sense exactly what was going on. Very gingerly, she began to undo the drawstring on her own clothes.
"Turn around and face them."
The girl did not move any further.
"Now!" the woman barked.
Slowly she hobbled, completing a 180° turn like a penguin, shuffling a millimeter at a time.
"Now continue," the woman said slyly. "And be more erotic! You act like my grandmother."
The short man laughed at her comment. The girl continued, squatting lower and lower, the men allowing their eyes to follow her. When she rose again, I could see the harsh white light basking her bare skin with an unsettling halo. I could try to describe the emotions of the men, but it was so... unusual, for I couldn't tell if they were pleased, delighted, disgusted, or mortified. They seemed attracted and drawn to the scene, yet it felt so repulsive and taboo at the same time. I stood there, frozen like a statue, unable to comprehend what I was seeing.
"You look like you've seen a ghost. What's wrong with you?"
I nearly jumped. It wasn't for me, though. "You're so pale. What, I'm not asking you to jump off a bridge."
"I'll take her first," the short one said, discarding his cigarette.
"I got a f*cking hard-on," the tall one exclaimed.
"Yeah? Well, so do I." He turned to the girl. "Who's the sexier one, sweetie? Me or him?"
The woman was impressed. "Hey, not bad for your first time! You got a choice."
"F*ck you, man." The tall one straightened his back. "Go with me, and you won't forget my style. Go with him, and you'll only remember his tattoos."
The girl remained silent. She said nothing, even with the three of them poking and prodding her to make a decision. "I'll take her then," the short one finally said, "since she isn't saying anything."
The mattress groaned under the weight of two bodies beginning to recline on it. I saw the girl's face, partially obscured by the body of the taller man, her face perplexed with uncertainty. The stout man popped up, his back to me, bare of clothing to reveal the museum of tattoos he sported. "First timer?" I could hear him saying. "You picked pleasure. Pleasure it is."
Before I could see what was going to happen next, a hand grabbed my shirt from behind and yanked me back. "What the hell are you looking at, perv?"
The face was gruff and unforgiving, and from its appearance he didn't seem to be the least bit friendly or happy with what I was doing. "Don't be a pest. What've you been up to?"
I glanced over at Marcos and Lewis, who were hanging back helplessly. I gave them a look, telling them not to say anything. "Nothing, sir."
He didn't believe me, but he didn't press me onto it. He turned to Marcos and Lewis. "You two are older. Should be smarter. Wiser. Make sure he doesn't go snooping around into anybody's private business again."
The two nodded gingerly.
"You three better be good friends with each other, because you three are going to be together for some time." He gestured to us to follow him.
We were led back into the main room, where the other gangsters were still smoking and chatting. "Reyes!" he called out. "Reyes! Where ya at, dog!"
A head emerged from a cloud of cigarette smoke, almost like an angel poking his head out from a cloud of heaven. He had two women seated next to him, one on each side, their arms wrapped around his chest and torso. "Eh?"
"You got three new brothers here."
Reyes gave him a weak grin. "New? After three years, every kid in this city starts to look the same to me." He gave us a brief visual examination. "Interesting diversity here," he said sarcastically. "First one is tall and lean. Looks like a leader, although tall people tend to have less brains than a scrotum. Middle guy looks like he's had the living daylights whipped out of him. I could hold a mouse in front of him and he'd piss himself in his pants. And the little one..." He looked at me. "How old is he?"
The gruff face looked at me. "How old are you?"
"10. 10, sir."
Reyes's eyes lit up. "10? Small for his age." He took a long, hard look at me, his eyes shifting up and down, left to right, as he inspected my body. "Small, but he looks good. Ya, ya, he's good. Feel like he's got a lot in him. I can feel it." He tapped the two women and they released him. He got up and started to walk over to us. Well, me at least. "Where do you come from?"
"Smokey Mountain," I answered.
"That garbage dump?" he said, surprised. "Never knew scavengers could look that healthy. Name?"
He knelt down so his head was down to my level. "I see it in your eyes, Garrett. I see a fire in your eyes. A fire that most of the animals in this place don't have. You have it in you, Garrett. You have what it takes."
He got up. "I got the hang o' this, Six Splints," he said to the gangster who led us in. "You're free for the night." Turning to us, he said, "Follow me. It's too loud in here; smells like sweat and sex here, doesn't it?"
He led us outside into the alley, where several men and women were mingling. "Here in Diablo Wingz, we have a special handshake. Whenever you meet someone from our gang, you have to do the handshake with them. It's a sign of respect, and a way of knowing who's friendly and who's foe. I'm here to teach you that handshake, and with some practice, you'll be able to do it with your eyes closed." He snapped his fingers and signalled to one of the other boys. "Chapman!" he said, and a teenager stood up. "Help me teach these three the handshake."
The two angled their bodies so we could see what they were doing. "Start with your right hand," he said, raising his hand and arm. His assistant did the same. "Bring 'em together with the palms facin' inward. When your hands meet—" Their hands came together in the middle, making a slapping noise "—curl your fingers, so both of your hands make a fist together. Then, take your left hand, open it, and place it against your fist." He did as he said, and the other did the same. "That's the wing. Together, you make the body and the wings. The fist is diablo, the hands are the wings. You got that?"
We nodded our heads.
"You need us to repeat anything?"
We shook our heads.
"Let's see it, then." He motioned for his assistant to go back. He pointed to the oldest of us. "You there — let's see it."
First the hand. The 'slap'. A curl. Finally, the wing...
"Too slow!" he protested. "What's your name?"
"Don't keep me waiting, Marcos. If you're not on the same step as the person you're doing the handshake with, you'll f*ck the whole thing up, and it looks bad. Try again!"
He tried again, this time a little bit faster. "Still too slow! Whole thing shouldn't take any longer than four seconds. You're taking five!"
Again. This time, he made it under the four second limit, but "now your technique is off. You're not curling your fingers, you're just massaging my palm!"
There was a laugh from the crowd behind him. "Shut up!" he roared. "C'mon, Marcos, they're laughin' at you."
He did it again. And again. And again, until finally the mobster shrugged and said, "Alright, close enough. Practice it on your own." He pointed to Lewis. "You ready?"
No, I'm not, I thought I heard him say.
"No longer than four seconds, and no palm massaging. Learn from other people's mistakes." He had less success with Lewis, who acted as if Reyes's hands were covered in slime. "C'mon, boy, I never sneezed into my hands!" he snapped. "I'm not the bogeyman. And stand up straight when you do the handshake! Confidence, boy, show me some confidence; I ain't your enemy."
I watched Lewis as he received his dose of verbal fireworks from the crime boss: "Too slow, God dammit!" ... "You're being a massage therapist like the guy before you!" ... "Jeez, you look weak and pathetic! What, did you get the sh*t beaten out of you as a child?" Finally, he was released with a rough shove. "Practice with Marcos over there you... What's your name?"
He didn't respond. "Huh?! What is your name?" Reyes repeated.
"He's Lewis," I piped up.
"Okay, Lewis, get some practice over there. Marcos, you better do it right and swell for him!"
Marcos swallowed and nodded nervously.
"Alright then, kid," he said, motioning for me to come over. "Let's see how you roll."
I eyed Lewis briefly before refocusing my attention on the mobster. "The Wingz needs new members that grow up fast and learn quickly. So far, I'm not too entirely impressed with these freshies." He looked at me right in the eye. "Let's see what you got."
He extended his hand out towards me. I did not hesitate; witnessing just how fiery his attitude could become with my two new partners was enough for me. I brought my hand up to his and curled my fingers, forming a fist. My left hand came up, forming the wing. Together, the final compilation looked almost like a butterfly.
"Not bad," he remarked. "Not perfect, but for a new recruit and for a ten-year-old kid..." He looked at me again. "Who brought you in here?"
"Dodger. Dodger did."
Reyes's eyes widened. "Really? The same guy who brought in a sh*thead a while ago?" He laughed, but seemed to believe me. "I'll have a talk with him. Thought he was the most useless piece of turd to walk the planet until today, when he brought you out of the blue." He thumped me on the back, not in an unkind manner, but almost as a compliment. "You'll be ballin', my friend. You'll see what I mean." And with that, he turned around and headed back inside.
Eyes were watching me, I could feel it. Eyes from Marcos, eyes from Lewis, eyes from the minglers who had stopped chatting. "Sh*t, man, some ten-year-old impressed Reyes on his first day!" someone said.
"What's his name?"
"Where does he come from?"
"Is he actually ten?"
"No f*cking way!"
"Damn... the Cobras and the Red Cults will be salty once they hear about this."
"Nah, I don't think they'll give a sh*t one way or another. To them, he's just a ten-year-old boy. To us, he could be our secret weapon."
"Ha, yeah, could be. Who knows, he might be dead tomorrow morning."
"Or in jail."
"Give 'im a chance!"
"He's had a chance, hasn't he?"
"Let's just see where he is tomorrow, alright?"
Marcos gave me a gentle tap on the shoulder. "Stand firm," he said. "You'll make it through. Even I have to say that you have it in you. Something fuels you from within."
I looked back at Lewis. "What about your friend there?"
He sighed. "He'll be fine." He studied me again. "Are you really ten years old?"
"You're the oldest, young person I've ever met." He smiled at his own joke, but he was serious in his own words. "Don't give up, Garrett. Never give up. You've got a long road ahead of you." He gave me another reassuring pat before turning around to tend to Lewis.
There was no sleep for me that night. The events of the day kept replaying in my mind over and over again.
The hideout... The gangsters... The drinking and smoking... The 'Wingz Treatment'... The Handshake... The... the...
It would not leave me alone, would not leave my mind no matter how much or how hard I tried to will it to go away. The scene where they interrogated and tortured the girl. The scene where they led her into the room. The scene where they made her take off her clothes. And the scene where...
I hated to know. The very sights I had seen today had me appalled. It was so gruesome, so morbid, so blasphemous in their very nature. Something was holding me back, an invisible force that told me to stay away. I had seen the tears on Lewis's face, the cigarette smoke crawling into the girl's nose, the philosophy on toughening up their newest recruits...
No... not this... I wouldn't do this for anything. Not for a million pesos could one hope to make me do this. This was no place for a child — or any sensible human being, for that matter — to be. This was a place where people were looted, beaten, raped. It was a place where the absence of rules was the rule, where the strong take from the weak, and where the winners reap their illicit awards.
I can't be here... I can't! This was why my mother stopped worrying about my father, why she stopped caring about Julio. She was furious that they had turned to a life like this, a life where they could fight and steal and have as much intimacy as they wanted. The money they earned was but one of many rewards to be earned in a life of crime.
I covered my eyes with my hands. Oh, Lord... Help me!
I don't want to be here any longer. Just want to leave this place, this place of horrid sins, leave and go home to my... to my...
I opened my eyes again. My brother... my brother my brother my brother... He's the reason why I'm here. My mind raced back to the night where I had told him, had promised him, that I would make it all okay.
I'm not looking for wealth, for fame, for glory. All I want is to see you go back to school, and I'll do anything to make that happen.
I'll come home, I promise.
Remember Evan: you're my lifeline. I'll always think about you, and that will keep me going. Don't forget about me... and I won't forget about you.
I clenched my fist. No... forget what I said earlier. I will stay. Stay and get shot, maybe, but I will stay. I will keep going. I won't stop until I get what I need, what he needs. And I know I'll come home. I will come home.
For my little brother.
"I can't see this group working out at all."
"Well, if we don't give them a go on their own out there, how the hell are we supposed to know for sure?"
"You're getting the youngest member of the group — heck, probably the whole gang for all I know — who's barely been here for over a day to lead two boys who are at least two, three years older than he is!"
"You saw what the Cobras did, didn't you? Best way we can pull ahead is to crown someone younger. This kid's our best chance, and I won't let a bleeding pessimist like you hold us back!"
"I can feel this leading up to failure, Reyes!"
"I can lead you up to failure if you don't shut up!"
A Styrofoam container filled with steamed rice was pushed over to me. "Eat it," a voice ordered. "Don't matter what you're doing or what you're thinkin', but you gotta eat."
I was so hungry, I needed no encouragement to dig in. Marcos glanced at Lewis and asked, "It's not poisoned, is it?"
"Do we have a reason for killing the three of you?" came the response.
"Yet." The thug got up and left the room without further comment.
The door opened. The man who had been critiquing Dodger last night while I was being given the Wingz Treatment emerged, his face spelling utter defeat. Behind him came Reyes, who was grinning slightly to himself. "I like to keep my options open. Dunno about you, Dix Cent, but my best bet is on that ten-year-old boy; from what I've seen so far, he's top notch and cream of the crop, at least for a young recruit. You should be flattered that he chose us instead of the Cobras."
I felt immensely pleased on the inside. I had a feeling he deliberately said that in front of me so I could feel some pride in myself.
The man was quiet. "What about the other two?" he asked when he found his voice again.
Reyes looked at Marcos and Lewis. Marcos had taken a few bites of the rice and was trying to entice Lewis to eat. "They'll grow up eventually. Besides, they seem comfortable with the ten-year-old."
I felt pleased again.
Reyes laughed. "Suit yourself, but I have final say around here."
The man shrugged, expressing clear disapproval, but he didn't press his boss on.
The elite gangster came up to me. I felt nervous, not because of his background, but because I feared screwing up after the praise he had lavished on me. "I spoke with Dodger yesterday," he began. "Apparently you have yourself a lil' brother?"
"Yeah." I glanced over at Marcos, but he was too busy eating. "I do."
"How old is he?"
For a moment, I feared telling him, wanting only to protect Evan, but I decided otherwise. There are lots of six year olds on Smokey Mountain. How is he going to know which one? "He's six."
"You take care of him like a bigger brother would?"
He turned to Dix Cent. "See? That's a man right there. I know because I was an older brother myself. Had to raise him myself on these very streets, and look at where I'm at now." He looked at me again. "I like what I see, and I can see this kid ten years down the road."
I felt pleased again.
Dix Cent waved it off. "Alright, alright, you've made your goddamn point." He looked around. "You still need me?"
Reyes was talking to me, though, completing ignoring his question. "You good with these two over there?"
"Yeah... I'm fine."
"No quarrels or anything that'll f*ck you all over?"
He laughed. "You know what? People are usually tough and unwilling to listen when they first join. It's like dealing with screaming, crying children at a daycare, but worse." He turned to Dix Cent. "Don't think you'll be having any problems with this guy. If he's a problem, then I can just chastise Dodger myself. Speaking of Dodger... bring him to me. I'm not quite done with him just yet."
Dix Cent nodded. He gave me one final sinister glance before departing.
The crime lord turned to us. "You three stay here and eat your fill. I'm gonna assign Dodger to look after you, and when he gets back he'll have something for you to do. Yesterday was just the start; it's going to go uphill from here." He gave us a nod. "Keep yourself together; this is a new beginning, not an ending." And with that, he left.
I looked back. Lewis was poking and prodding the rice in front of him with his spoon. "Why do you trust these people?" he said to me and Marcos. "Who knows what sort of surprises they put into this rice that'll kill us flat in an hour? I'd die sooner eating this than if I just starved myself."
"It's a risk worth taking," Marcos commented. "And anyway, they gave the rice to us and Garrett. They love Garrett, I know it. Why would they want to kill him all of a sudden?"
"It's a trap."
"A trap that'll accomplish what, exactly?"
Before Lewis could answer, I interrupted their conversation with: "If Lewis doesn't want the rice, I'll take it. I'm hungry."
"When you're on the streets," Dodger said, "keep your eyes open, cause if you don't, anyone can catch you by surprise. See a cop? Walk by 'im and act normal, cause it's people like us that he'll keep a suspicious eye on. Don't try anything funny, don't look at him funny, don't try to be funny. He won't raise his eyebrows."
Almost by coincidence, a police officer appeared from a crowded intersection. Dodger didn't even blink. I tried to act normal, walk normal, pretend like everything wasn't out of the ordinary, but I couldn't help but eye the equipment on his belt. He had a gun, securely nested in its holster, and a nightstick. Marcos and Lewis must've noticed too, but I couldn't turn to look at the expression on their faces.
When the cop was a good distance away, Dodger commended us: "You three did good so far. That was just one cop, though, and it looked like he was goin' somewhere, not just wandering around looking for trouble. And it's not just the cops you need to worry about." He pulled us aside and pointed. Crouched behind a sign was a sturdily-built fellow, six feet tall and wearing plain clothes. His eyes were concealed behind a pair of sunglasses, and there was a slight but noticeable bulge in his inner jacket pocket. It took me a while to realize that it was a hidden gun.
"Some people here don't mind squealing to the police," Dodger cautioned, "so keep your eye out for them and make sure they don't recognize you."
"Who are they?" I asked.
"The cops'll give money to those who rat out people they disagree with. People are so poor, they'll do anything to buy their next meal." When the sinister figure turned his head to look the other way, Dodger quickly led us across the street and we scurried past him. "Sometimes they'll just kill you, no questions asked. Easier and faster to just shoot you than to run after you if you make a break for it."
"Isn't that illegal?" Marcos asked.
"You really think they'll get arrested?" He laughed. "Hell, the cops themselves do some of the killing. They sure as hell don't mind having some of their work done for them."
Lewis kept glancing over his shoulder repeatedly. "Is he coming after us?"
"Dude, you're the one looking behind your back. Do you see him coming after us?"
"Then he probably isn't." He stopped and made eye-contact with the owner of an electronic scrap store. The two nodded in acknowledgement of each other's presence, and Dodger gestured for us to follow him down the alley. "This way."
"Where are we headed?" I asked.
"You'll see." He stopped at a door, almost completely camouflaged by the matching colours of the wall it was on, and knocked loudly on it. "Who's there?" a rough voice demanded.
"It's me, Dodger," he replied. "Don't be too hard, bud; I got young company with me."
The door cracked open, slightly ajar. The two conversed quietly through the gap for a few seconds before opening the door fully. "Boys," Dodger said, gesturing towards a dark, hooded figure. "This is Francis, one of our founding members."
"Been a while since we chatted, huh Dodger?" The two did the Wingz handshake. "See you've grown since then." He looked at the three of us. "Well, well, who've you got here?"
"And you got all of 'em?"
"Nah, Israel got two of the three, but I got the youngest — the one over there, his name's Garrett. Got a lot to say about him."
"Oh?" He made his way over to where I was. I tried to straighten my back and look tough; I couldn't look bad in front of him!
"How old are you?" he asked me.
"Where you from?"
He laughed. "Well, Dodger, I'm sure you know April Fools was—"
"It's not a joke!" Dodger was adamant. "Look, I found him just a day ago, and already he's proven himself to be a skillful young lad. He may be small and he may be weak, but he shows determination like nobody else. Don't think Reyes was this good when he joined his first gang."
"What'd he do to get you all excited, sprinkle fairy dust over you?"
"He bailed me out when I got cornered in an alley by three armed men."
"He's got a little brother, and he's bringing his earnings home to send the little one back to school."
Francis perked up. He was interested. "You doing all of this for him?"
Dodger slapped him on the back. "See? Knew you'd like him. Y'know, Reyes was an older brother too. Last night everyone was callin' him a 'Miracle Kid' after he downed an entire glass of ale and took the Wingz Treatment with an iron skin! They say he's the answer to the end of our war with the Cobras and the Red Cults."
"You introduced these three to the gang?"
"I brought Garrett in. Israel took care of the other two."
Francis turned to us. "Welcome to the Wingz," he said. "No doubt you've already got a taste of our family over at our main hideout. We're all into protecting one another, alright? If you see a fellow Wingz in trouble, you better step in and help them, cause we're not buccaneers here. If you want a more selfish gang, you're in the wrong place. You three understand?"
"Come with me," he said, leading us through a small, miserable tenement, populated with winding corridors lit by aged fluorescent lamps and packs of bodies crammed into narrow living spaces. A few of them were smoking; others had drinks in their hands. Many were trying to cook, bathe, and sleep amidst the lack of free space. The air was hot, humid, almost stagnant, as if I were trapped in a box with no breathing holes. The polluted city air was almost a godsend to me when we stepped out into the courtyard. It was still packed, with more people and clotheslines draped with a rainbow of fabric occupying the picture, but it was no longer a bog, where bodies sank in to rest indefinitely, unable to rot.
"The Cobras and Red Cults used to use this building, but they later abandoned it. They did leave some of their symbols behind." He pointed to a concrete wall, covered in graffiti. "See the two in the center? One green and one red. Green one with the snake is, obviously, the cobras. The one with the red, bloody cross is the Red Cults."
"Why are the gang symbols placed side-by-side?" Marcos asked.
"The Cobras and Red Cults have an alliance. They used to be fierce competitors, until we entered the picture. That's how powerful we got."
"What about now?" I asked.
He sighed. "They managed to knife Juan and Antonio, two of our most affluent members, but we're still keeping our heads above the waterline." He looked at me. "That's why everyone was excited to see you, I suppose."
"Fast track him," Dodger advised.
"That ain't up for me to decide."
While they were talking, I was looking closely at the symbol for the Cobras. It seemed so... familiar. I thought back to the few times my older brother came home, for reasons unknown. He sported tattoos along his arms, an array of them stretching from his shoulders to his wrists, overlapping skin that covered his muscles and veins. One of them was a green snake — a cobra, to be precise — its neck expanded and its tongue hissing at me menacingly.
If I put my finger on it correctly...
"We've been on a steady decline," Francis continued. "The Cobras — man, they sure do take things without asking. They showed up in a block that we claimed as ours and declared themselves to be the new owners. A year ago they got a new member that quickly rose their ranks, and boy, do they never shut up about him. He's been heavily involved with their shabu and weed trade, and he's made them richer than ever. He's not even 16... I would say 13, judging by his appearance. Guess it's their version of a 'Miracle Kid'."
I was still looking at the Cobras' symbol. I felt my hand beginning to shake. "What's his name?" I asked, my voice barely above a whisper.
"His name," I repeated. "What is it?"
He inhaled, deep in thought. "If my memory serves me correctly... I think his name was Julio. Unlike most people, he didn't select a pseudonym for himself. Everyone refers to him by his real name."
Julio. Julio. The name of my older brother. The green cobra seemed to jump out at me, stinging my neck, my cheeks, my eyes. My brother is part of the Cobras.... my brother is part of the Cobras.
The pieces of the puzzle fell into place before me.
My older brother is part of the Cobras.
I am part of the Diablo Wingz.
The Diablo Wingz and the Cobras hate each other.
I shook my head. So what? My mother threw him out of the house; he's there to serve the gang. I'm here to serve my younger brother, who still matters to me. Julio doesn't care about me, or anyone else in his family. This doesn't concern me. This shouldn't concern me.
"Garrett, you alright?" Marcos asked, tugging at my shoulder. I looked up. Francis and Dodger had moved on, and I had been left behind. "You seem lost."
"Lost in thought."
"Something about that cobra that's got you captivated?"
I wondered if I should tell him about Julio, but decided not to at the last moment. "Nah, I'm good. Nothing special about it." I took a glance towards the direction the group had gone. "Let's run before we really get lost around here."
"What's up with you?"
My hazy doze was abruptly ended by Dodger's voice. "C'mon Garrett, get something to eat. You've been half-starved for your entire life; the gang's happy to feed its hungry members."
I nodded weakly, but the aroma of food did little to lift my spirits. The thought and shock about the gang my older brother was in still had me pinned like a wrestler pinning his opponent down on the mat. I had left home and was on my own, still firmly attached to Evan, though for how much longer, I could not tell. The sights I had seen, the suffering I had endured, the situation I was in... now exacerbated by the dreadful thought that I was pulling more threads apart, seeing things I wished I had never seen, knowing things I wished I had never known. My older brother was in a rival gang, and though we may be family, our gangs could pull us apart even more so than we already were. What if I had to kill my older brother? What if he had... to kill me?
"Hey Garrett! Cheer up, man; you've been great so far! What's been keeping you in the doghouse lately?"
I shook my head, but he was expecting a verbal response. "Nothing."
"Well if nothing's up, why are you so depressed?"
I remained silent.
"Actually... yeah, don't answer that question. Just grab something to eat. Better than anything you'll find on your own, trust me. Look, even Lewis is eating it!" He slapped his thigh in laughter. "First he seemed like he was too scared to pee in the corner, now he's practically fighting over the juiciest pieces of pork!" He looked at me. "C'mon, Garrett. Join in."
I nodded again, but stayed inert.
"I know you're hungry. Maybe you'll lighten up a bit after a bite."
I still didn't move.
"You want me to get you something?"
"I'm fine... I can manage."
He patted me on the back. "You're strong, Garrett. I know you are." He turned around and went back for another plate.
Slowly I gritted my teeth and clenched my fists. So what if my brother and I were technically enemies now? Julio was never a big part of my life; he spent most of his time with his father. When he left, so did Julio, who seemed to have otherwise forgotten about his other two siblings. I almost never saw him while I worked on the mountain; he could've easily been smoking cigarettes by the dozen while the rest of us pawed through the trash. When he left, I was slightly disappointed to see him go, but otherwise I never felt emotionally distressed, for I still had and was taking care of Evan. He felt like a sheet of perforated paper attached loosely to my life, and it was only a matter of time before he was folded and then ripped off cleanly.
So why should I care? Why do I feel like he still has bits of himself still clinging onto me like glue?
I shook my head vigorously, trying to force the thought out of my head. It didn't work. I tried again and again, but the more I fought it, the more it wanted to stay. Finally, my stomach rang the bell; its growling set my mind's course on food, for I hadn't eaten in hours. The image of the cobra, however, remained in the foreground of my mind. It stared at me, almost ready to strike, ready to sting me with its venomous fangs. Behind the cobra was my older brother, who stared me down with a face that consisted of a mixture of disdain and shock. I had no way of fighting him; no flying creature could hope to live once it had the clutches of a snake wrapped around its wings. The cobra and my brother seemed to recede away into the distance, as if I were falling from the perch I was on towards my inevitable death, getting farther and farther away until they disappeared from view.
To be continued...
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