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Raymond was lying on the pavement. It felt cool despite the rancid smell of stale urine it emitted. His train of thought was groggy. All he could hear was a dull deep thud in his head, as if it was repeatedly being beaten with a hard blunt object. He tried to open his eyes. They were plastered shut tight with sleep. Painfully he forced his eyelids apart. Vision was hazy. All Raymond could see were grey contours. His cheek felt good on the filthy but cool concrete.
Slowly he sat up rubbing his face with his grimy hands. He took in his surroundings. It was definitely not a place where a concerned or competent parent would want their fifteen year old child to be. Then again, he didn’t have concerned or competent parents. There were rapists, gangsters, pushers, pimps and junkies all around. There were ragtag homeless families sharing a scrap of cardboard for a bed and teenage mothers comforting crying babies whilst at the same time sporting bulging bellies. A mentally challenged man sitting naked in a corner was screaming incoherently at the top his lungs. The tumultuous drone of engines, advertising street vendors, and just the general, daily cacophony of Manila however drowned his deranged shrieks. Getting up, he rummaged in the pockets of his smudged, ripped and stained basketball shorts. Twenty pesos is what he found. Just enough for a miniature bottle Coke and a cup of rice. That would enough to hold him over for a few hours.
He slouched lazily from under the bridge in which he and so many others had sought refuge from the night’s downpour. In fact, Raymond had lived there for six months. He didn’t crinkle his nose anymore as he stepped down into the ditch and waded through the knee deep run off. It stank of an open septic tank and something dead, but from several months of living on the streets, he’d gotten used to the smells of the city. Staring down into the dark brown mush, he could just make out his reflection. His jet black hair was long and tangled. His face was thinner, and his complexion sallow. His maroon shirt was now so worn that the logo on it was incomprehensible. His eyes which were unusually bright hazel most of the time were now dull and black. Under his nose clung specks of dried rugby. He has been sniffing the solvent before falling away into a wonderful dream.
Raymond spat disdainfully into his reflection, hating what he saw. He had never really wanted this. He had a well off family. His mom stayed at home and tended to the household while his dad went to work as a doctor. They lived in a modest home in the suburban part of town. He and his siblings went to school. But it was also there where it all went wrong. It was on his way to school where he met his barkada or gang. They consisted of his three friends. Mark, Nicky, Jojo. Also in their gang was their leader, Val.
The four other gang members often made fun of Raymond for going to school calling him a bading or sissy mama’s boy. Raymond loathed the name-calling, but didn’t dare skip class. His uncle was the English teacher and would tell Raymond’s father immediately if his son had cut class. This however was to Raymond’s advantage, making him the only literate member of his gang.
Raymond’s best friend, Nicky, often confided in him that he only called him names because if he didn’t, the others would tease him too. In reality, Nicky always said that he would give anything to learn to read and write. Nicky hadn’t ever had the opportunity though. His mother was deathly sick with bronchitis and his father was an unemployed drunkard and drug abuser. He regularly beat his family during his drunken rages and drug-induced simulations.
Nicky himself was the main caregiver and bread provider of the family. He worked daily shifts at the vinegar factory. The result was poor wages and severe acidic burns on his legs and forearms. The skin on his fingers was deathly white, drained of all melanin, and bleached by the condiment he bottled all day. By night he was the janitor at Raymond’s high school. When he didn’t bring home enough money to support his father’s habits, he was beaten mercilessly and told to get out and never return. Nicky was only 13 at the time.
At the times when Nicky was forced out of his house, he lived on the streets with Mark and Jojo. There they smoked cigarettes and sniffed rugby, a powerful hallucinogen. They practiced their dance moves for dancing at discos for money. Then after that, they would usually mug a poor drunk man going home late at night. Val would always put them up to it.
Nicky once told Raymond that he wasn’t considered a full member of the gang. The other three thought of him as the tag-along rich kid that was too scared to defy his parents. Infuriated by these words, Raymond blurted out,” I can be just as tough as those guys!”
Nicky grinned. “Yeah, but they said you would have to prove it first.”
“And how would I be able to do that?” Raymond spat through gritted teeth.
“Cutting class would be a start” Nicky simply replied with a snide grin. Raymond flung down his bag of books. Nicky led Raymond away to the abandoned building that Raymond passed everyday on his way to school, where the rest of the gang hung out. It was an old animation studio that had been evacuated due to a fire. As they entered the burnt doorway Raymond could hear voices inside. Nicky called out,” I’m home! And guess who I have with me? The bading!”
Raymond heard the scuffle of feet and saw three figures emerging from the shadows. His eyes adjusted to the dim quickly and saw the silhouettes of his friends. Into the light came Mark, Jojo and Val, all with wide grins on their faces. Val looked Raymond straight in the eye and said, “ Welcome to the group pal.” Raymond grinned.
Raymond spent the night there; sleeping on one of the filthy, thin mattresses on the floor. He was awoken the next day with a kick to the side. His eyes flashed open. Above him stood Val. He handed him a bottle full of yellowish-green paste. “What’s this?” asked Raymond.
“Breakfast” said Val. Raymond took a sniff from the bottle. Immediately his head started spinning. His mind grew blank. His stomach clenched up and released. He vomited all over the floor.
“What the hell was that stuff?” groaned Raymond.
“Rugby” Val said. “Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.” Nicky gave Raymond a wink.
After several more attempts at rugby, Raymond had the time of his life. He was the Sun. He was a golden dragon. He was all-powerful and almighty. Then as suddenly as he had left the cruel bonds of reality, he was back on Earth. He was cold, angry and hungry. He was depressed. It was night by now, and Raymond was tired and hungry. His bottle of rugby was dry. Tomorrow, he would get a new bottle.
Raymond woke up at noon the next day. He rubbed his head groggily. It was late at night. Either he had slept a few hours, or slept a whole day. He didn’t know. He had lost all sense of time. It was not like he cared. He just wanted more rugby. Rugby would make it all better. He felt nauseous at the moment. He had a raging headache pounding in his skull. Yet, despite the throbbing pain, he wanted more rugby.
Val, who was leaning against a wall ten feet away, was smoking a cigarette. Raymond dragged himself up to him and said,” I want more rugby.”
“ So do I,” Val said in between puffs of smoke rings.
“ Where can I get some more?”
“ Do you have any cash? If not, we’ll have to mug someone.”
“ Let’s do it,” said Raymond in his desperation for one more hit.
“ Okay then,” Val replied coolly. “Just let me finish this smoke…”
A couple of minutes later, the four of them crept outside. By the looks of it, it was late. The usually busy streets were deserted. The restaurants were quiet. There were no people outside…except for one man. Bingo! He looked well-off. He wore a silk shirt, had a protruding belly, had a gold watch on his wrist and wore a thick gold chain around the little bit of neck he had. He was drunk by the looks of it. There was a definite swagger in his step, his face was red and his hair disheveled. Also, he was singing, “ I’m Just a Gigolo” at the top of his lungs in a slurred voice. He was a perfect candidate.
Silently they all agreed to jump him at the next corner he turned. They then positioned themselves strategically. When he rounded the curb, the gang surrounded him from all edges. Seemingly suddenly sobered up, his eyes widened in fear at the sight of them. Raymond and his gang looked pretty scary in the deep shadows of the night. They were filthy and shaggy. Their hair was wild and greasy and matted in places. They also wielded heavy pipes.
The drunken man let out a shout of help. But, there was no one there to hear him. “ Give us the watch and the chain,” Val said in a hoarse whisper. The man hesitated but then complied. He had no choice. “And the watch” commanded Val. He handed Val the watch too. “Good boy” said Val.
As Raymond, Nicky, Jojo and Mark turned to leave, they heard a tremendous crack behind them. They whirled around to see what it was. Before their eyes stood Val holding his metal bar over his shoulder. It was darkened with blood. Lying sprawled at his feet was the man, now bleeding massively at the head. He was dead or unconscious. They couldn’t tell. “What’d you do that for?!” yelled Jojo.
“He would have squealed us out.” Val simply replied.
“He was too drunk to remember anything!” shouted Mark. Raymond was at a loss for words. His mind was blank except for the image of the poor man lying spread eagle on the pavement, one arm dangling from the curve. His mouth was slightly open. A trickle of blood dribbled from the corned of it. What had they done? An innocent man had lost his life for a bottle of shoe glue.
“I want out…NOW!” gasped Raymond.
Val gave Raymond a look of utter disgust and was about to say,” I knew from the very start you were a bading!” When a loud siren wailed a few hundred feet away from them. A police van careened around the corner blaring its signal. They did the only thing sensible. They ran. They split up into four different directions. Nicky and Raymond ran neck to neck, pounding the ground with their bare feet so hard and fast that they burned. They swerved into a dark alleyway and climbed a fence. Raymond got over it first, when BANG! Raymond turned around to look for the source of the sound. Nicky lay slumped in a heap on the ground. His tee shirt was soaked black with blood. There was a hole in it right where his heart was positioned. Right behind his friend was a burly policeman wielding his smoking pistol. He was coming at them fast.
Instinctively Raymond raced back to his friend’s side, but before he could climb back over the fence again, Nicky groaned, “No, leave me. Get away before they catch you.” His face was pale as a sheet. But he still managed his grin. His eyes tinkled. Anther bang reverberated through the empty streets. A policeman rounded the corner. “RUN!” roared Nicky with all the strength he could muster. Raymond didn’t need telling twice. He sped off, nothing but adrenaline pumping through his veins and mind. He heard dull blows of club meeting flesh echo from the alley behind and muffled groans of his friend. He ran for what seemed like hours. He just ran. He ran until it starting raining heavily and the streets started to get flooded. He ran under a bridge and collapsed with exhaustion and grief…
Now it was six months later. Raymond was staring at his reflection in the murky water. He was still the same he had been since that night Nicky had died. As for the other three…He didn’t know what had become of their fates. They were probably locked in some God forsaken “rehabilitation” center sharing a cell with rapists, murders and the criminally insane.
Raymond still couldn’t wipe the guilt from his soul. It was his fault his friends were rotting away in prison somewhere. It was his fault that Nicky was killed that night. He had wanted rugby so badly. He was dependant on it. It was the only warmth in his now barren life.
He couldn’t go home now. It was to late. Too much damage had been done. No. What would his father say? Even his kind-hearted mother would be ashamed of him. He had assisted in the murder of a man. His family wouldn’t be able to forgive him. God wouldn’t be able to forgive him. He wouldn’t be able to forgive himself.
For six months he had scavenged from garbage cans. He had stolen bags and purses for money. With the money he didn’t buy food. He bought rugby. Rugby kept him alive. But now he wasn’t the Sun for as long as he used to be. Now he wasn’t almighty anymore. More often now he saw demons. He saw Nicky’s pale face haunting him. It kept telling him,” It’s all your fault.” Then he would hear someone screaming. He would wake up to find it was he who was shrieking.
He couldn’t take it anymore. He wanted to be happy. He wanted to be strong. He wanted to be the Sun. He stood on the railing of the bridge looking down. It was high. The setting Sun met his eyes. It was blood red. Raymond smiled. In his head Nicky was telling him,
“Come friend. Come join me.” Raymond took a step. A fleeting gush of air. All went black.