The bullet flew from the 9mm handgun at a supersonic speed of 1100 feet per second, threatening to penetrate his forehead any second now. Yet the smooth shiny silver tip simultaneously dawdled at a leisurely pace, enabling Fabs time to spontaneously use his mind for the last time, conjuring up a single memory from his past.
This moment wasn’t his life flashing before his eyes; it was just one solitary memory. Fabs was sitting with his brother and sister on a hill under a tree. He didn’t remember they had been out all day scavenging for plastic that they could save and take to the recycling plant. He didn’t remember how they later exchanged it for money that would nourish their subsistence living. Scavenging for plastic wasn’t hard manual labour, but rummaging through bins and becoming dirty and smelly was nonetheless tedious and tiresome. It is always good business sense to walk a few miles towards the mall and richer neighbourhoods. Unfortunately this exposed them to the privileged. Sometimes being in trouble for looking through their bins, always feeling humiliated that their uneducated minds meant they could not live a life like theirs.
On this particular day, the one firmly lodged at the forefront of his mind, Fabs didn’t remember the feeling of humiliation and exhaustion he had felt. The heat persuaded them to rest on the top of a hill under a scorched tree; some goats were grazing on thirsty grass nearby. Fabs didn’t remember that he had prayed to God on that hill for change, for something or someone to intervene and change his path. He didn’t remember that he had prayed that God might allow him to go to school one day, that he might become an educated scholar able to love and care for his family. Fabs also didn’t recall how long they had stayed on that hill; that they had played there for many hours, not making their way back to the village until dusk had fallen. In the moment before the bullet shattered his skull, perished his brain and retreated from behind his left ear, Fabs merely construed a visual of happiness frozen in time. His sister was feeding the goats with the greenest grass she could find, shrieking with laughter as the goat continued to chew her fingers after the grass was gone. His brother was trying to climb the tall starved, spindly tree that stretched up to the heavens almost pleading in a desperate prayer of its own for water. Joel spent his last moment recounting the laughter of his two siblings on that hill. He remembered feeling roused by their playfulness, elated by their pure innocence and fortified by their dependence on him. The moment passed and the bullet smashed through his skull taking with it an empennage of memories, hope and talent that Fabs’ mind didn’t have time to reminisce. Last of all the bullet took the love Fabs had for his brother and sister.
Fabs was abruptly shaken to consciousness by the pelting of the rain on their aluminium rooftop. The droplets sounded like thunderous gunshots fired simultaneously and repeatedly from hundreds of assault rifles. The realisation that rain as heavy and full as this could be as much a death sentence as any gunshot slowly sunk into his cognisance as the fragments of his dream vaporised amidst his reality. His grandmother, who was already awake peering outside of the hut, distinctly submitted, “People are leaving for higher ground. The rain has been falling for some time.”
As Fabs had slept the prevailing winds had begun to bluster, the sky had become cold and dark, threatening destruction through torrential rain. A stretch of inevitability hung over the people of Cagayan De Oro, breaking and twisting over trees and mountains, forcing a race to safety. Joel rubbed his eyes in an attempt to relieve the last moments of sleepiness before he untangled himself from his blanket. The sounds of panic and confusion in the slum outside engulfed him, consumed him. He began to drink in the cries of people beyond the small dimensions of his shanty house, the chaotic rumbles of people running, the clanging of people dropping things. His bestirred perceptiveness meant he was suddenly drunk to the dangers that surrounded him. He could feel dread from way down in the pit of his stomach start to flutter and awaken only to claw its way up his oesophagus and take a hold of his windpipe so tightly he found it difficult to breath.
Nadia was tired; it was the last lesson of the day. Nevertheless, she bounded into the classroom and spilled the contents of her bag over the desk. The desk was coupled with another desk making enough space for a group of four, which suited Nadia perfectly. Her three friends followed her in and between them they engulfed the table. With a little more precision, her friends arranged their pencil cases and books on the table ready for the lesson. Nadia became aware of soft music playing, classical she thought, violin perhaps, sounding a little sad. She glimpsed Miss Rivington for the first time. She was standing at the front of the classroom, patiently waiting to be noticed with a backpack slung across her shoulder.
The buzz of quizzical interest succumbed to silence as Miss Rivington refused to acknowledge any of the questions or shouts directed at her and merely indicated for the class to be quiet and listen by holding a finger to her lips and waiting patiently for the class to settle. The music became heard and the mood could have become solemn had the class not been filled with 12 year olds that were just getting over the excitement of lunchtime antics.
“Hello Class, I have bad news. Something terrible is about to happen. I don’t have time to explain just now. Imagine you are at home; I am at your front door ordering you to evacuate. I am allowing you time only to run around your house and collect ten items you want to put into your backpack to take with you. You cannot take more than a backpack with you. You have two minutes before we have to leave. Write down the ten items you will take.”
Miss Rivington indicated for the class to open their books and write using hand gestures to save her voice. To demonstrate what they should be doing, she turned to the board and wrote with a blue marker the numbers 1 to 10 on the white board. Next to number 1 she wrote Tito.
“My cat, Tito,” She explained, “He´ll have to fit in the bag, seeing as it is an emergency.” She smiled triumphantly and held her pen poised next to number 2 with her head turned towards the class, making sure that they began to follow her instruction.
Nadia pulled out her pen and opened her geography book, no time to write a title and date if there is only two minutes to create this list. So she began making her list straight away. My horse won’t fit in my bag, Nadia realised sadly. Nadia thought about her house, she explored her bedroom with her mind to decide what she would take.
Fabs didn’t have many belongings besides the clothes he wore now in bed. A couple of T-shirts, one pair of trousers he wore to school, a school shirt, his school shoes and the blanket he slept in. Fabs only held a particular attachment to his school uniform. The NGO, Gugma Sa Kabataan, had purchased it for him and with it came a sense of belonging. Being part of something, an institution that allowed him access to a different future, alternative to the hopeless one he was born into. Everyone knew he was poor, they knew he was a street child and had to go to work early in the morning before school and sometimes again after school in order for his family to be able to eat. Fabs did not have access to the machines that washed their uniforms so well. Nor did he have one of them hot things that presses over the shirt to make the fabric straighten. His uniform didn’t hang as nicely as theirs did over their full figures. However, uniform was obligatory and when he wore it he felt as one with the privileged. He could pretend his life was not dissimilar to theirs.
He pretended he too had parents from an educated background and he was not a stranger to his siblings. He pretended he had not been abandoned or neglected by his own mother. He imagined his uniform hugging his very own fit and muscular frame, showing it off to be just as elegantly clean and pressed. He pictured his skin to be just as nourished with vitamins and minerals, creating lighter tones in his complexion. His hair was also just as shiny and neatly combed as theirs. But unfortunately his daydreams never lasted long. The reality was that his hair was matted in dusty tufts piled up on his head, his malnourished skin reflected darker spots, his scrawny body did not provide an elegant structure for his uniform to hang well from, his mother had abandoned and his father neglected him.
Fabs hurriedly pulled his uniform on over his lean body and picked up his blanket and draped it over his shoulders. Even though the rain was heavy and his clothes and blanket would get wet, they would eventually dry without being lost or damaged. “Come on Grandma, Let’s go.” He ordered.
The sad violin music had stopped playing but Nadia couldn’t remember when. Miss Rivington asked some people to share their lists. Nadia punched the air with great velocity to be noticed first, she made enthusiastic noises which certainly gained a side glance and a smile from Miss Rivington, however, it did not result in her being picked first. Third; after one boy that didn’t really want to contribute and another who just listed a load of computer games. Teachers were always so strange with whom they chose to hear from. Nadia shared her list and her friends all agreed they had similar items.
“So you can have 5 yes/no questions now as a class to try and find out what is going on.” Miss Rivington said.
Leo stuck up his hand and so when the teacher nodded to him he asked, “So, what’s going on?”
Miss Rivington sarcastically groaned and smiled at Leo, “Very clever Leo, unfortunately you know this question game better than that. But just to remind you all your questions need to be closed not open. I can only answer yes or no. But for your information, what’s going on is that we are learning and building skills on something called empathy. Empathy is putting your-self in the shoes of someone else and trying to understand their situation. Four questions left.”
There were sanctimonious groans from the class as they discovered their classmate had just lost them a question, followed by some sharp protests to which Miss Rivington shrugged her shoulders and held up her hands in mock defence. Smiling she shouted, “Next question,” over their grumbles.
Submitting defeat, the class quietened down to ponder a plausible and suitable question. Some hands shot up. Nadia wasn’t sure what she could ask so her hands remained resting on the desk, her fingers twisting and turning her pen.
Miss Rivington pointed at Filip, whose glasses were clearly delineated by the reflecting winter light shining through the large windows that dominated the out-facing wall of the classroom. His full face expressed the proud smugness of having thought of a really good question. “Is it a natural disaster?”
“Great question, yes.”
All hands shot up along with the sound of huge sharp intakes of air. In the last lesson Miss Jenn had highlighted to them something that was happening in the news. Nadia had her hand up so her fingers were now twirling her pen in the air, but she secretly hoped she wouldn’t be picked. Desperately she tried to recall what she was evidently supposed to remember. There was a storm, really bad weather, what was the name of it?
“Tropical storm Washi!” Exclaimed Kerri, who was sitting beside Nadia. Nadia pushed away feelings of resentment towards her intelligent friend who always remembered everything.
“Well done, the storm is fast approaching your home in Cagayan de Oro and you and your bag are ready to go. Oh but wait, luckily there will be room for you to take three people with you in the evacuation vehicle. So who will you take?”
Miss Jenn indicated for us to write down the three people that we would take. She turned to the board and wrote a new column of numbers, 1. 2. 3. Nadia watched and wondered who she might write. Fragments of a conversation she had overheard flooded back to her. Miss Jenn had laughed about some word that Nadia didn’t know; spinster. She had laughed but her eyes had looked sad.
Miss Jenn had written down three teacher’s names. Nadia realised that she could imagine them being friends, they were perhaps the same age.
Nadia wrote the numbers down in her book and knew exactly who will fill them. Mum, Dad and Jason. Luckily, Nadia only had one brother and so it wasn’t very difficult. Kerri needed more spaces as she had two brothers and a sister plus her mum and dad. In fact a lot of protests began from the class as their families didn’t fit into three spaces.
“Well,” Miss Jenn began, “You have to remember that we are lucky enough to be in the classroom and we do not have to make these decisions in a real life situation. It is not to say, however, that you are leaving these family members behind to die. They may be rescued in another vehicle and you could meet up safely in a few days.” This somewhat lightened the decision making process for the class and Kerri left her dad and brothers off the list.
People shared their choices with one another and some people decided to take each other. Nadia loved her friends but she was sure that if this happened in real life their families would look after them. She kept her choices as mum, dad and Jason.
“Grandma!” Fabs screamed as tears stung his
eyes and he gasped for breath while flailing his arms around in an attempt to grab her and force her to move.
His Grandma slapped him around the back of his head to help him regain his lost composure. She preferred calm methodological steps to be taken; flash floods, mud slides and tropical storms were common occurrences in this part of the world. This was already the 19th storm to pass through the coastal city this year alone.
“Fabs, yes, the rains are heavy and the Cagayan river banks are already swollen but we are far enough away from the river so damage will be kept to a minimum. These people are panicking but there is no need. The storms always pass us by quickly enough as they head North, so go back to sleep. We’ll clear out the water with buckets in the morning.”
“Grandma, the rain is relentless, it has not stopped since before we went to bed hours ago, it is so heavy and I fear it will not stop. I pray to God that it will, but please Grandma, please, take a walk with me to shelter on the hill under that tree until the rains pass, please.” He desperately shrieked, whilst pulling on her arm to lead her away from the slum.
Fabs felt a force push into his chest and the surprise threw him off balance, falling backwards from the step of their hut he pounded hard into the water soaked soil beneath him. “Go boy,” his Grandma bellowed from her vantage point. “Come back in the morning to help me clean up the mess. I do not need to listen to your crying all night.” With that she closed the door of their hut and Fabs sat flabbergasted for a while hesitantly fidgeting with the muddy water he sat in, wondering if he should beg his Grandma for forgiveness and be allowed back inside. She was probably right and no harm would come to them. Fabs picked himself up and decided instead that now would be a good time to look for his father. He would know what to do for the best and Grandma would have to listen to him.