Translated by the author and Michael Carlo C. Villas
I thought about homework for Ma’am Sela’s class on my way home. I didn’t dream to be anything or anyone. Carl, who masterminds computer games every afternoon, wanted to be a driver. Jaymee, my seatmate in Science class, wanted to be a doctor. I had no idea I was going to draw what I would like to be. I’ll surely be scratching my head when Ma’am Sela calls me next meeting.
Dodi Tomboy and her friends were munching on some ice candy. I suddenly craved for some ice candy so I bought some at Mana Lilya’s. A man sat on the bench outside their store. He was also munching ice candy while smoking a cigarette. I pinched my nose because he might puff his smoke at me.
I hate cigarette smoke, and I hate derelicts especially Buboy Juogon. Many of them gather at Mana Lilya’s store. They belong to the pack of Padot, Badang, and Pughak—drug addicts, according to Mano Oscar. Buboy Juogon was the village bully. Even if people knew his company was a group of thieves, they could not do anything about them because Buboy would just flash his knife. He would always blow smoke at me everytime he sees me. One time, I hit him with the bar of ice I just bought. I ran quickly after that. He threw a stone at me and all of them bums just guffawed. But after several months, they all suddenly disappeared.
I thought the man will also puff his smoke at me, but he blew it the other way. He wore sunglasses. I looked at him while munching on ice candy and waiting for my change. He had a black jacket and a grey hat on. He looked like one of the guys from the Cardo teleserye. I thought he was a police. Police! I knew it! I know now what I wanted to be! I now have an answer to Ma’am Sela next meeting!, I thought to myself.
I went straight for home which was a walking distance. When I was a few houses away, I turned again to see if the man was there. He was still there, watching where I was going. He watched me for a long time. I was glad someone was looking after me, someone who fights evil. Because of them, evil men like Buboy Juogon hide their tails between their legs. I look up to policemen. They have very nice uniforms. They look amazing with their rifles. Honest, Patriotic, Pro-People. Always there for those in need. Just like Tatay Digong!
A short distance from the house, I noticed a crowd gathered outside. Jerwin, Tangkay, and Tapuraw were there—Kuya’s friends. Kuya Inting has a lot of friends. It’s been always like this because he’d find himself everywhere. He always goes home late. I’m afraid of him sometimes. When he was in college, he would talk back to Tatay. Tatay would always tell him not to go out at night. But he just wouldn’t listen. He just answered back, pointing his finger at Tatay. Tatay would slap him back. Kuya would retaliate by throwing off the chairs, flashing his red eyes on Tatay. Neighbors would watch from the outside, and Brownie would go out and lie by the road. Nanay would cry everytime.
He sometimes even eats all the food and wouldn’t leave anything for us. His friends would crowd the house when Nanay and Tatay are away. They’d smoke if they’re around. At times, they drink and get drunk. Kuya would just give me five pesos and send me out. Then I go to Tagoy’s and play in those five-peso PCs. When my time is up, I return to him and ask for another coin. He would hit me in the head. Then I’d cry and tell him, “I’ll make you pay once Tatay comes home!” Daday, his girlfriend, would be the one to give me another five pesos. And that’s when I go back to Tagoy’s. They would go home just before Nanay and Tatay arrive.
One time, Nanay and Tatay took me to the prisonhouse. They said we’d visit Kuya. I wondered why it has to be there. I saw Kuya when we arrived. He had a cut on the lower lip. He couldn’t look straight to Nanay and Tatay. He had his face down. Nanay was scolding him. Tatay asked the police officer about what had happened. They said that they had an “operation” at the house of Dado Abuda. I remembered that surname. Abuda was Daday’s surname, Kuya Inting’s girlfriend. There were two dead because they fought back, the officer said. The two dead were Kuya’s friend, Danny, and Daday’s cousin, Harold. The police said they have long scouted the area, and they have discovered Danny was a drug pusher. I was looking at Kuya. He had his head bowed and apologized profusely to Nanay and Tatay. It was as though his arrogance had disappeared. “Suits you!” I thought to myself. He stayed two years behind bars.
So I wondered why Kuya’s friends were at our house, now the talk of the town. When I came in, I saw Kuya, Tatay, and Nanay. Kuya’s friends, Junior and Peter, were there, too.
“Hey ‘toy! What’s up?” Kuya asked me, gently. My eyes darted, and my eyebrows creased. I wasn’t happy seeing him back. I approached Nanay while munching on my ice candy, staring at him. Kuya grinned.
“Well, what was the catch?” Tatay asked Kuya.
“Six months, ‘Tay. On-probation, temporary liberty. We should be at home by 7. If violated, under the six-month period, there will be severe sanctions,” Kuya answered.
“That’s it, you are not to go out anymore, obey your Tatay, and please do not give us something to worry about anymore” Nanay said, holding back her tears.
“Not anymore, ‘Nay. I can’t bear it there. I’m afraid to go back,” Kuya answered while looking up like he’s talking to the ceiling.
“Ting, tell us about your experience in prison!” exclaimed Jerwin. “Yeah, what did they do to you?” added Tapuraw. “Do they really do things to you there?” asked Tangkay.
“Let’s reserve that for tomorrow. I’m tired. I want to stretch on a real bed. We can talk until the wee hours,” replied Kuya.
I was slightly amazed something changed in Kuya. He’s not so easily tempted as before. A little coaxing from Ate Daday and Kuya Harold would have sent him out on a drinking spree. His eyes also cleared; they weren’t red anymore. But I didn’t know how long this would last.
Not long before Tapuraw and some of Kuya’s friends left, a motorcycle arrived. Kuya peeped out the door.
“Ting! What’s up?” said the man who took off his helmet.
His face was a little familiar because I would see him tag along Buboy Juogon’s group sometime ago. It was Bornok, one of those in the company of Kuya Harold, Mano Danny, and Ate Daday. Kuya’s face suddenly dimmed. I didn’t know why he looked confused with Bornok’s appearance. But he eased up, approached Bornok, and hugged him. They talked at the frontyard. I was watching TV—it was Cardo, unaware he was followed by evil men.
Kuya’s behavior thereafter amazed me daily. He now wakes up early and helps Tatay wash the pedicab. He sweeps the frontyard facing the road. He even gives Brownie a bath. He now washes his own clothes and reads his books. If Nanay goes out to do laundry work, he goes with her. He pumps water for Nanay, and squeezes the water out from the blankets for her. When Tatay arrives, he prepares coffee for him. Our gossipy neighbors would always call on Kuya and ask him about many things. But the conversation would be cut short because Kuya would hurry home. Visits from friends become less frequent. Only the group of Tapuraw, machine shop mechanics all, and that one named Bornok, remained the most regular.
I think I was amazed at Kuya’s diligence for almost six months. Aside from treating Nanay and Tatay well, he was also surprisingly kind towards me. With small side jobs as mechanic and cook, he was able to buy a secondhand motorcycle he used for habal-habal. He now earns a living because Nanay and Tatay’s incomes could no longer make ends meet. He planned to return to school even if he was already way behind.
From then on, there were days he would pick me up at school. Tatay brought me there in the morning; Kuya picked me up in the afternoon. I liked the arrangement because it saved me extra money from my daily allowance. What I save from it, I spent on playing computer games. One time, Kuya got mad at me because he caught me at the internet café. He brought me home and scolded me. I thought he looked like Nanay when he scolded me. If he waved a broom in his hand, wore a dress, and cried while speaking to me about good conduct, I would have mistaken him for Nanay. I managed to withhold my laughter even if I was mad at him. But the anger faded when he bought me ice candy.
I was also amazed when I discovered that he was good in Math. He was my tutor. He even made me a deal. He said if I was able to improve my grade in Math, we would go to Tacloban. He said he’ll bring me to Robinsons.
“Really? No. I think you’re bluffing,” I told him.
“For real! Cross my heart, this is true, even if Bornok’s pig dies,” answered Kuya.
“Just do well in Math,” he added.
I did not understand what ‘cross my heart’ meant because it sounded like old street lingo but I got his point. I didn’t respond, and I did not show him my excitement, but that made me study hard. I really wanted to visit Tacloban.
The day after that, Ma’am Sela reprimanded me for beating my classmate, Junior. I was fed up with him because he made fun of my drawing. He said it looked like broomsticks, and that I was thin as bamboo but still had the guts to dream of becoming a police officer. I strangled him and set him off balance by blocking his steps. When he was flat on his back, I jumped on him and landed blows at him until his lips bled. I did not notice Ma’am Sela was already behind us. She pinched my ear and called for our parents. Kuya was the one who attended for me because Nanay had a cooking job and Tatay was out delivering cement for a construction project.
I told Kuya what happened and why I did that to Junior. I thought he would defend me but he stared angrily at me instead. I was somewhat baffled on why he left me defenseless. Junior had better parents because they looked into Junior’s wounded lips and tended them. I was nervous no one was on my side. It felt like all hope was lost. I even thought they would kick me out of school. I felt like crying.
After that confontation, everybody went out including Kuya, but Ma’am Sela told me to stay for a minute. My heart beat wildly. I thought I would be scolded again. But she wasn’t harsh to me. I was wondering why she didn’t get mad. She told me instead to sit, asked me to tell my side of the story, and advised me to never do it again.
“Alright, from now on, that’s your homework. This is your second chance. Nobody need not get beat up for their mistakes. It’s not hard to forgive.” I felt ashamed of myself because she only showed me kindness.
When I exited the classroom, I saw Kuya staring at me. I was puzzled why he acted that way. When I approached him, he gripped my hand. I freed myself from his hold, and I retorted angrily. I cried, but I was very mad at him.
“So, this is what you are, eh? A troublemaker?” he said.
I cried even more. My anger was hotter than the motorcycle’s muffler. I ran away from him. I ran and ran and did not ride on his motorcycle.
“Why did you go out of that prison? You should have stayed and rot there!” I screamed while running. I closed my eyes while running. That’s how I stumbled over a rock, bruising my knee. I winced from the pain but what I felt was incomparable to the marks Kuya left on my hand.
When I got home, I sat inside Nanay’s room, crying. I heard the roar of Kuya’s motorcycle. He was nothing to me at that time. I couldn’t care less if he didn’t go home. “Toy, ‘Toy…” It was Kuya calling me. I stood up and locked the door. I thought he’d knock and break in. I waited for him to push the door. I covered my face with a pillow because I thought he would hit me again like before. I thought that if he did that, that would be the last. I will throw at him the stone I kept in my bag. But these were the only words I heard: “I’m sorry, Ttoy. I just don’t want you to end up like me.” I stopped crying, and I heard footsteps walking away. I could not forget that moment because I already prepared myself not to forgive him. For a while, I resented him.
A few days after, Bornok visited us. He asked Kuya if he had some side jobs. It was not long ago that Kuya lost some side jobs because the shop decided to lay off some employees. Bornok whispered something in Kuya’s ear. I was there at the frontyard, playing with Brownie. Kuya suddenly blew a fuse, with glowering eyes and a booming voice. Bornok tried to calm Kuya down.
“Nok, don’t do this to me! I am not into that anymore!” insisted Kuya Inting. Kuya held Bornok’s collar and was about to hit him. But Kuya restrained himself. Brownie leaped on all fours and growled. Not long after, his rage and my panic subsided. For once, I thought Kuya summoned his demon back.
Bornok said, “My, my, you, that was just a joke! Alright, alright, quit that. You won’t be selling those anymore.” Bornok laughed.
“But let’s agree on this because I couldn’t find anybody. We need a butcher. It’s the fiesta of San Joaquin. I recommended you to Batâ Goryo. Please go there tomorrow.”
Kuya shook his head for a moment. He closed his eyes for a short time and thanked Bornok. He apologized, and they shook hands. Bornok wore his helmet, revved up his motorcycle, and rode away. Bornok was going straight on the road to Mana Lilya’s where he turned left. When the smoke from his muffler faded, I saw the man with dark glasses look towards us. He sat there at the bench, munching on ice candy. A multicab passed in front of him. He was gone when I looked again.
The following day, Kuya took me with him to San Joaquin because it was Saturday. I was still mad at him but I didn’t have a choice. Nanay had to cook for someone for the bisperas of Roque. Tatay was also away for carpentry work at Dada Waning’s. I’ll be home alone then had I not gone with Kuya. I did not say a word while we were on the road. I gazed at the distance and avoided meeting Kuya’s eyes.
He suddenly said, “Don’t worry, ‘toy, next Sunday, we’ll go to Tacloban.” My eyes grew big, and I suddenly felt excited but was careful not to show it.
“Bahala hiya,” I said in my thoughts. “Let’s see if I can forgive him once we’re in Robinson’s.” Way past houses by the roadside, I almost saw the huge Robinson’s Mall.
When we arrived, fiesta decors hang everywhere. The large stereo by the road thundered a cha-cha tune. We waited for Mano Goryo near the client’s house. It was past two o’clock when the butcher, Mano Goryo, arrived. He said he also prepared the meat at the hermana’s house. The client was getting grumpy because the butcher was late. They said this will take them all day to cook. So Kuya and Mano Goryo did not waste any time and did what they’re supposed to do.
The pig they slaughtered was as fat as the acacia tree near our school. I thought of how the client tended the pig to make it grow this big. Even if it was a huge boar, Mano Goryo killed it in a breeze. Kuya Inting did not almost help handle the pig. He merely prepared the chopping board and boiled water.
Mano Goryo doesn’t almost want anyone to help him with his work. Mano Goryo tied the legs of the pig and calmed it down. He always kept a very sharp knife. He looked at the creature as if to hex it, and then stabbed its throat. He knew where to cut the pig so it wouldn’t scream and its blood would drain. Kuya, who fanned the flames, and I were stunned at Mano Goryo’s slick methods.
When Mano Goryo was done, he stood up and washed his knife. We saw the pig’s eyes we were supposed to wash. It looked as though it was looking at something unseen. “Can it still see some light?” I asked myself.
I told Kuya, “Pity. The pig is fed and tended only to be butchered. So much for hope.” Kuya laughed.
“Doesn’t that sound humanly familiar? Giving false hopes?” he added.
“Why? Are you heartbroken, boy?” asked Mano Goryo.
“Not really, Mano,” I said, “just brokenhearted.” We laughed.
It was almost evening when we finished everything. Six-thirty, on Kuya’s phone. He was getting anxious because it was getting late, and it’s a thirty-minute drive home. The three of us were waiting for our share. But the client was out to buy other things. We told Mano Goryo we’ll have to leave first, as it was getting dark.
“How about your share?” Mano Goryo asked.
“I’ll just get it from you tomorrow, Mano, please receive and keep it for me tonight,” Kuya answered. So we left first, on our motorcycle.
We were almost ten minutes on the road, and I was getting heavy-eyed when Kuya’s phone rang. We slowly stopped by the roadside.
“Hello? Oh it’s you, Bornok! We’re here at the Welcome post… We agreed that I’ll get it tomorrow from Mano Goryo… The pay? I’ll just take it tomorrow… Why, where are you? You are at the high school? What are you doing there?… Oh, okay, we’ll meet you there.”
“Who was that, Kuya?” I asked him.
“Bornok. He said he was at the high school and that he’ll give me the pay,” Kuya answered.
“Will he give you your pay? He’s not the client, right? And also, isn’t it a bit weird how he went ahead of us?” were my questions.
“Yes, that’s true. What could Bornok’s be up to this time? It’s troubling. But let’s take our chance. It’s money anyway,” Kuya answered while starting the motorcycle.
When we arrived at the high school, no one was in sight. But some lights in the covered court were on. Bornok’s motorcycle was also there. No one was on the road. When we got off the vehicle, I climbed again and lied down on the seat.
“You won’t go with me?” Kuya asked.
“I’ll stay here. I feel sleepy, Kuya Inting,” I said to him.
“Okay. Just shout if ever the wakwak comes and bites you,” Kuya jokingly added.
“I am not scared of the wakwak,” I told him, but my hairs already stood on end.
Kuya looked around for Bornok but did not see him. He noticed tire tracks of vehicles that drove into the school. He went blank at first, then he looked around again. He was restless. I was sleepy by then, so the last thing I saw was Kuya entering the school premises.
“No! Sir please, No!” I was awakened by a scream.
I immediately woke up. I saw a few people passing by across the road—workers on the bridge of Guindug-an who were on their way home. The whole place was dark except the streetlights which were almost ten armspans apart. Windows of houses were already closed. I listened closely to check if I’d hear another shout but there was nothing. I remembered Kuya. I ran to the gate. I carefully looked around. There was just one lighted bulb in the covered court this time, and it was almost dark all over, but I could still recognize them. I saw a number of people in the covered court, and it was like they were ganging up on somebody. It was a hazy image because I was at some distance, and I was scared. I looked for a place nearby where I could clearly watch from above. I climbed up a tall guava tree that stood near the place where they were but still about a good distance from them. The tree was outside the school’s walls.
There I saw Kuya surrounded by seven men. Two of them wore black jackets and white shirts. The other three wore black and blue shirts. One of them had his hands on his waist. He was wearing a brown jacket but I caught a shimmer of his badge. I saw his uniform under the jacket. It was a police officer’s. He was looking at Kuya, and another guy sat on his haunches near him. I cleared my vision, and I recognized Bornok. He was shaking his head and facing downward. Kuya was kneeling in front of them, hiding his hands behind his back.
I could faintly hear Kuya sobbing, telling them, ‘Sir, please, I won’t. Please don’t make me hold it. I don’t use that anymore. Please have mercy on me. I have changed. My Tatay is just a pedicab driver, and Nanay is a washerwoman. I would like to continue my studies, Sir. Sir, I have changed, I swear. Please don’t make me hold that, Sir, please…’
He was facing the man who was trying to hand him a small sachet of something that slightly resembled the chlorine I’d buy from Mana Lilya’s. I was shocked when I saw the man. He was the one munching on ice candy at Mana Lilya’s. My hands and knees suddenly grew cold. I became a wet cloth sliding off the branch of the guava tree.
“Go on, hold it,” the man cajoled, before pulling in smoke from his cigarette. “Hold it, don’t you fight anymore,” he added.
Kuya Inting shook his head, sobbing.
“No Sir, I’m not like that, Sir,” Kuya begged him.
“So, you dare not hold it?” the man said mockingly.
He blew his smoke on Kuya’s face. I felt it was me receiving that smoke, like when Buboy Juogon would blow his smoke on me. My body shivers everytime I remember that. Then the man slapped Kuya in the face. The sachet he held flew over. Another guy in a white shirt under his jacket picked it up. The two of them kicked Kuya in the abdomen. Kuya fell on his face but he still hid his hands. One man tried to insert the sachet on Kuya’s pocket but Kuya curled and hid it.
“You son-of-a, you won’t obey, eh?” one guy shouted. He kicked Kuya again. The other guy with a black jacket lifted Kuya to a kneeling position and punched Kuya in the gut. Another guy punched Kuya’s face many times. Slap, punch, spit. When Kuya turned lying on his back, one of them kicked his leg.
“That’s to keep you from running away,” the man said. One of Kuya’s cheeks was beginning to swell. His right arm turned black. The man with dark glasses held Kuya’s hair and slammed his face on the floor. Kuya turned and lied on his back. His weary eyes looked at me. I covered my mouth. That’s the time I realized I’ve been crying all along. I did not want to leave Kuya, but I was scared. I didn’t see it clearly, but I felt as if his eyes were like the pig’s eyes he and Mano Goryo butchered a while ago: eyes searching for light. But, in my mind, what happened to the pig was nothing like the pain Kuya endured.
“You really don’t know when to give up, don’t you?” one of the men said. “You are a drug addict! I’m sure of it!” added another one. A man with his hands on his waist was just watching. Then he looked at Bornok, “Leave! Make sure about your moves next time!” Bornok scuttled from the scene.
I failed to notice one of them pick up a steel pipe from the debris of the reconstructed stage. He was dragging it. When I saw he was going to hit Kuya with it, I couldn’t hold back myself anymore.
All of them were stunned and looked around. I jumped off the tree and forgot my slippers. I went frantic. Cold sweat dripped from my body. Mucus dripped from my nose. I didn’t know if I was being followed. All my steps echoed and seemed to belong to them.
I was shocked there was a shadow in front of me. I thought somebody outran me. But it was only my shadow cast by the streetlight. I quickly glanced behind me and saw beaming flashlights. Those are, no doubt, of those men, I thought. I was still running. I met the construction workers I saw earlier, and it seems that in a short while, they’ll find out there are men on a chase with flashlights. I slowed down because they might see me. I was lucky to find out the way I was going led to the wall of Jaymee’s house, my seatmate in school. The wall had a hole small enough for us to fit when we wanted to eat at their house during lunch time. I squeezed myself in. I hid there beside the sacks of sand piled one after another. I was alert for the sound of footfall. Then I saw a beam of light rove above me. A man’s voice said, ‘Gone! Let’s go. We need to seize that kid.’ I made sure the footsteps were gone. My heart was a bird struggling to free itself, choking me with its every beat.
When I was sure they were already gone, I ran again. I did not knock at Jaymee’s anymore. I ran home. I did not stop from my tracks. I closed my eyes whenever a shadow appeared, even if I knew it was only because of streetlights.
I arrived home gasping for breath. Nanay was outside, crying and holding rosary beads. Tatay embraced me and asked ‘Where’s your brother? Where’s your Kuya!’ I was weeping. At first, I was unable to speak, then, someone was running towards us. It was Tapuraw. He could not speak at once because he was still catching his breath.
“Kuya is, Tatay, Kuya is at the high school, he was beaten up by men…” I felt like a toy was stripped off from me, or a punch landed on my face. I was wailing. Tatay ran. Tapuraw ran with him even though he failed to say a word. Shadows came out of our neighbors’ houses. I fell on my behind, and Nanay picked me up. Brownie howled, imitating me. Nanay struck him with a slipper.
The following day, I woke up to Nanay’s prodding. She asked me to buy eggs because she was going to make breakfast. She said we’d go early.
At the village store, the commotion the night before was now the stuff of rumors. People spoke in hushed tones, almost whispering. Mana Lilya and the gossipy neighbors at the corner were saying that Bornok sold Kuya. Jerwin said Bornok was an asset, but because he couldn’t quit his old trade, he stole a laptop. And so to avoid jail, he searched for somebody that could be ‘swapped’ in exchange. Kuya was the victim of this ‘swap.’ Some said Bornok turned to the other side. I was addled by their stories so I quickly ran back home.
We went to the police station. Kuya was there, behind bars. His eyes were swollen and had two front teeth missing. His face was dark with bruises and had a lump on his head. Scratches on the left side of his neck. Two bruises on his right chest. Three on his left. His hands shook because it was hit by a steel pipe, they said. I almost didn’t recognize him.
Nanay’s tears streamed while wiping her son’s bruises. But when I saw her, it was as though she had no feeling, as though there was nothing. She seemed to hold back her voice when she spoke. She carefully wiped Kuya’s bruises. I looked away.
“Ttoy, I’m sorry,” Kuya said. I didn’t look at him. I was still crying. I was ashamed I was unable to help. I wondered what he was saying sorry for. I restrained myself so as not to yelp like Brownie. I distracted myself by looking around. I gazed at the guards’ eyes. They were emotionless. They seemed to be out of their senses. I may not fully grasp what an emotion is, but I knew they had none.
Tapuraw arrived with the Barangay Captain that Tatay requested to help and accompany us.
“Fortunately, his drug test proved him negative,” started Tapuraw. “The one thing off is he was out past seven even on probation,” Tapuraw continued. “But, from what I heard, there were a number of suspicious ‘illegalities’ when Inting was captured. And these, you can bring to and question in court. That’s if you have an estimated 250,000-peso budget for the lawyer if you’d like to pursue the case. Another thing is, if you lose the case, he will be brought to Muntinlupa when convicted,” Tapuraw explained.
“Oh God, son, we don’t have that amount of money. What should we do?” Tatay said. But Nanay was consistent: “We’ll fight this, ‘ting, we’ll fight this…” Tapuraw shook his head and somewhat whispered, “…Tsk, it’s the fault of these assets’ assignments. They should report to their bosses every month…” Tapuraw said, sweating either because of the heat or anxiety, I didn’t know. I didn’t get much from their conversation, and we didn’t speak much afterwards. A brooding emptiness engulfed us.
We never said a word when we arrived home. Tatay sat on a bench outside and stared blankly at the distance. A little later, he picked up a rug and wiped the pedicab clean. He went to town and haven’t returned yet. Nanay segregated the colored from the white clothes and put them in separate basins. She was at the artesian well, doing the laundry quietly. I emptied my bag. My homework for Ma’am Sela fell on the floor. It was crumpled and torn. I threw it away. I’d like to draw that homework again, but this time, I’d do it differently.