Cardboards and Dirty Coins

I woke up with a burning and shooting pain at the back of my head and a confusion. It must be the streaks I sniveled finally setting in. The street was cold and dark. I couldn’t tell if it was dusk or dawn. The cement dust, the city damp and alcohol-soaked urine in the moss-covered pavement were all I could smell—and something metallic, like dirty coins in your sweaty palms, that was almost a taste.

I stood up straining my hands up against the rough wall. It was screaming BAWAL UMIHI DITO. I folded the cardboard I slept in and huddled it under my armpit. How did I end up here? Another gang war! I hurriedly searched my body for icepick or homemade gun wounds but I had none. I agonizingly gasped for air. It was what I feared most.

I walked around and passed by children sound asleep under the street lamps. If I woke up with a groping of a stranger, I’ll ask the pervert to double the pay, I thought to myself. Ambling without certain direction for some time, I felt like I was not getting any further.

Suddenly, a crying boy, about ten years old, came to me and said “Noy! Where have you been?” He whimpered, wiping his tears and nose. “What happened to your other slipper?”

I looked at his filthy face trying to remember his name. For a while, I did not recognize my brother! Ah, yes. He’s my brother. I looked at my soiled sordid feet. A thick line of dirt swirled on my ankles and toes. I have been walking half barefoot for hours.

Then, like the murky flood that forever took most of my family away, I suddenly recalled why I was running in the streets.

“Where is father?!” I desperately demanded of my brother.

“He t-told me t-to let you w-wait… here,” he stammered.

“Listen to me. We need to get to Papa. The police did not let him lose. It was a trap! It was a fucking trap! Putang ina! They won’t give us errands again. And then… and then they kill every one of us! Fuck! I saw Roel’s brains splatter in the asphalts! Fuck the police! We need to run. Papa was in the program too, isn’t he? Papa did what he was told to do. This is fucking unfair! Tell me. Where is Papa!”

The shrilling screams pierced the eerie darkness. But the city did not seem to care. The streetlamps, neon signs and billboard halogen lamps flickered here and there. Taxis and buses hurried through the indifferent metropolitan thoroughfares.

I let go of my brother’s skinny arms. My fingers dug deep in them. They will certainly bruise.

My brother shook with fear… or hunger. I don’t know. He took my hand.

“He told me to wait here. You and me…”

My small brother sat on the side street and leaned on the wall.

“I am very tired,” he yawned with half shut eyes. “Oh there’s your other slipper,” he pointed just nearby.

There it was. The slipper was upside down and ripped. I must have stumbled running away… scared. I looked at my feet and they were very pale… I wailed so loud that my lungs and ears hurt. I howled as my jaws stiffened in pain. I cried till my head was light and my eyelids thinned and sore.

I turned to my brother. How long has it been since we lost him in the storm surge? We couldn’t even bury his body! How could the fucking ocean overflow?

“I’m your kuya now… see?” I said to him. “Were you cold when you drowned?” My throat, arid as the dirt roads on long droughts, tightened in agony. “Were you lonely we left you in Tacloban? Don’t worry, I’m here now.”

I unfolded the cardboard huddled under my arms and spread it on my brother. The carton bore the words: PUSHER AKO, HUWAG TULARAN. I sat beside him and cried. There were no more tears only blood dripping from my left eyebrow and gushing at the back of my skull. Yes, the blood tasted like something metallic, like dirty coins in your sweaty palms.

NOY. (artwork by Chrysthelyn Siena Quides)
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