Day 1: First Punches
The heavens do not smile today.
It was a scorching Friday in December, with the sun shining above a clear, cloudless sky. Passersby were sweating. The beads of sweat were freely flowing down their heads, even with a light breeze coming from the south and as they wore old, sleeveless cotton sando shirts, shorts and slippers.
The youngsters live in a place called Santa Marcella, which is a mixed residential area of around ten thousand people. Santa Marcella is further divided into ten neighborhoods called purok of varying sizes.
Innocent children, oblivious to the fact that they are living in a place like this, are playing outside to their hearts’ content, regardless of the punishing heat that slowly gave their skin an inconsistent brownish complexion.
Despite the rampant inconsistency in the quality of life of the place’s residents, most of the people greet each other in the morning and refrain from committing big crimes, preferring to eke out a decent life amidst all this, trying to get by with whatever jobs they could have.
Each purok was as big as a hundred football fields placed together in a square. More than half of the houses were rickety structures made up of rusty corrugated tin sheets, cartons or whatever they could scrounge from the junk shop.
The rest of the neighborhood consisted of high-walled, well-painted homes equipped with scary huge bulldogs that seemed to be ready to rip off body parts from the unlucky person who gets bitten by them, along with burly, armed guards and state-of-the-art surveillance cameras.
The roads ranged from well-paved asphalt roads to pathways made of pure rock; they were remnants of a time when the city’s local government still cared to pave even the farthest neighborhood road.
In spite of all this, one can still see that bougainvillea and hibiscus flowers, otherwise known locally as gumamela, grew abundantly on the sidewalks. It gave this community a sense of normalcy; a reminder that they were still alive and kicking.
In the purok near the main highway, spanky new Mitsubishi Pajero SUVs went on the same road with rickety wooden pushcarts, while respectable convenience stores such as 7-Eleven were juxtaposed together with street vendors who sold delicacies such as balut, chicharon and steamed peanuts. However, as one goes deeper into Santa Marcella, a kaleidoscope of unusually well-arranged bushes, nipa huts, streets lined with colorful trees, sawali fences, well-manicured bungalows and haphazardly constructed houses provided a weird sight.
All the activities of the village were held in the basketball court, which was the only one that the mixed residential community had. Most afternoons, the grownups of the village would play basketball there. Several wooden stalls sold ersatz tempura sticks that were made of 90% flour and 10% crushed shrimp paste, as well as different types of chicken barbecue that have been treated in orange coconut sauce.
The court was surrounded by a walled Catholic chapel, where Mass is held every Sunday at 6 in the evening. Every year, on September 28, the church celebrates a local festival, with a delicious banquet composing of seven appetizers, nine main dishes, and eleven types of dessert that was open to everyone.
In addition, one side contained small fields of tall, scratchy cogon grass, along with half a dozen stately acacia trees and scattered wooden benches that provided shade and rest for people who went to watch the games.
There was also a Sunni Muslim mosque; one can see the minarets regardless of one’s location in Santa Marcella. It was located close to the highway; twice a year, they open their doors to everyone and hold games, distribute free packed meals and give away boxes of dates and candies and dessert to everyone who came to the celebrations.
Both the left side and the back of the court also contained alleys that lead to Purok 1, which was the largest neighborhood in the village with more than 300 families. Meanwhile, Sampaguita Street, which faced the chapel, led to Purok 2, a smaller neighborhood of 50 families, as well as the outside world – there, everyone lived the city life. At the far end of the chapel, another road named Morning Glory Street to Purok 3, which was the home of 120 or so families, as well as the local day care center. Finally, there is a road to the right of the chapel, called Gumamela Street, which passed all the way through Purok 1 and towards the main road that led to the outside world.
These three neighborhoods are found in the center of the community, and as such, are considered to be among the most important ones.
Still, these children are oblivious to this bungled reality that they were living in. They wanted nothing but to play, to impress their peers and to keep their street cred intact.
In other words, they wanted to enjoy their childhood as much as they can.
The sun was frying everyone’s skin, even though it’s supposed to be the height of the cold season in the tropics at the end of the year. Even as the people wore sleeveless shirts, the sweat could be clearly seen on their skin.
Aldrin is a small guy who plays hide and seek and tag and marbles every day. Even though he’s already 10 years old, he still likes to collect marbles of different colors. At the same time, he does not like being treated as a kid. He decides to go to the basketball court, which was the center of the village. He had a chubby face that would have belonged to an angel, straight hair and a plump body, which always seemed to mesh with his dirty white sleeveless shirt.
When it’s school time, he studies hard, getting a couple of “line of 9s” on his report card and landing in the honors list. He doesn’t want his family to live in a house made of corrugated tin and broken-down wood in the future. Aldrin knows that it isn’t the future that he wants for himself. He wants to be a man someday, a person who can provide for his family.
It is the year-end break now and all he wants is to have fun. He takes a stroll as he savors the fresh air exuded by the hibiscus trees around him.
Three brothers named Joey, aged 12; Jayce, aged 13; and Joseph, aged 10; blocked Aldrin’s way. They were considered to be the top dogs of Purok 1, which is considered to be the most central neighborhood in Santa Marcella; it was where the basketball court, the multi-purpose area and the community parish were located.
Ironically, it is also the symbol of the diverse conditions of Santa Marcella: It was also full of shanty slums and lean-tos, with a couple of well-pained three-storey concrete houses here and there.
Joey wanted to assert their authority, simply because they can.
No one could question their strength.
While all of them were fat, Joey was tall for his age;, he is a fair-complexioned sixth grader who loves eating roasted peanuts and drinking Coca-Cola. He is among the top 50 or so students in his graduating class. Meanwhile, Jayce, is a blond-haired seventh grader who loves playing Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter on the arcade machine. Joseph is a tad bit shorter. He is a fifth grader who is ranked among the bottom of the pack – in a class that contained 1,200 students and 24 sections. According to him, whatever he lacks in size, he makes up with brains…as well as a large birthmark on his right neck.
They were the leaders of the so-called “Alley Boys,” the dominating gang in Purok 1. They had more than 40 members, who come from different families and backgrounds. However, they all followed the three brothers without question.
The three big boys tried to intimidate Aldrin with their cold, calculating looks. They wanted to show that they were the biggest, meanest guys in the neighborhood in that part of Santa Marcella.
“Hey you, what are you doing here?” asked Joey.
Aldrin gave a quick reply. “I am just passing by, dude.”
Incensed by this answer, Jayce hissed, “Give us one peso or we will punch you!”
With a brave voice, Aldrin shouted, “No!”
The three brothers just looked at Aldrin in shock and amusement, the contours of their faces barely concealing a devilish grin.
Without hesitation, the three brothers punched Aldrin, leaving him shocked, writhing in pain. Aldrin tried to fight back, but he was mercilessly pushed down to the dusty ground by the neighborhood bullies before they punched him again.
It did not take long for him to cry for mercy. While Aldrin was brave, his flesh was weak.
Aldrin was upside down, his face bearing the brunt of the sun’s heat. He was in a lot of agony. After all, six big fists were too much for him to bear and he thought that he was dying for a moment.
Gar saw the bullies punching Aldrin down as he was casually passing by to visit a friend. Needless to say, he ran to his younger brother’s rescue.
“Pick on someone your own size!” shouted Gar. He was quite tall and his arms were rather muscular, due to the fact that he was carrying large baskets of mangoes every day.
There was a short and violent scuffle. Gar went for Joey first by kicking him in the stomach and making him roll on the ground in intense pain.
Joey reacted sarcastically.
“What was that for?”
Gar howled, “Who said you can be petty kings here?”
His anger could be seen in his crimson face at this point, as he uttered curses while dispensing his style of justice to Joey and his brothers.
Then, he turned right and gave Joseph three solid punches in the face, in addition to casually kicking his legs and hands, as if he was a whack-a-mole set. He made sure that Joseph also writhed in pain as he received all those blows by lending the entirety of his force toward that effort.
Finally, he turned hundred eighty degrees, slapping Jayce in the face and punching his nose, making him bleed. All of these happened in the space of two minutes.
In those parts, it’s better for someone to be knocked out than to receive a slap on the face, as it was considered to be a mark of shame.
Afterwards, the three bullies promptly fled the place, limping as they went back to their part of the village.
Gar scolded his younger brother, “Aldrin, what are you doing here?”
Quickly, the younger one replied, “Kuya, I was just passing by!”
Gar couldn’t help but scratch his head in bewilderment. After all, he never told his brother that those bullies tended to prey on small youngsters who passed by their turf; he never expected Aldrin to venture that far from their house. Gar’s face started to swell further in anger as he thought of ways on how to avenge his younger brother.