This story is by Samran Ramzan and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Isaac’s job was simple, round up the children and lock them in cages.
“Open your eyes,” said his partner, jabbing Isaac in the hip. The MPD insignia shone like a patch of blood on Antonio’s shoulder. A symbol he wore with pride. His bruised knuckles tightened around the steering wheel. He honked, turned on the sirens, but as if the whole city was blind and deaf, no one seemed to care.
Isaac stroked the pistol holstered around his waist. Would Antonio order him to shoot if the children didn’t cooperate?
“Like rats, they hide in their holes,” said Antonio, as the Toyota swerved into a narrow alley. Isaac unbuttoned the top of his shirt, cleared his throat. His stomach quivered. The weight of the task rested on his chest like a secret.
“Serve, Honor, Justice!” The Commissioner’s words blared on the radio. Words that tried to justify that locking street boys underground beautified the city for the Pope’s arrival.
Isaac dug his nails into his palms, tried to control his shaking hands. He rolled down his window to the young boys that circled around like flies, holding t-shirts with the Pope’s face. Men polished a bronze statue of the Pope next to the cathedral.
Isaac stopped looking. Disgusted by the smiles on their faces, but did they all know? If they spotted a child, slumped in the corner, would they tell? Would he?
Cameras recorded the preparations for the biggest Mass in Manila. Isaac’s eyes were tempted to believe the celebration, to become a part of it, but he shut them, squeezed hard until his eyeballs hurt.
Antonio’s door flung open. The engine running, he sprinted after three young boys.
“Take the left!” said Antonio, disappearing around the corner of a chicken shop. Isaac’s legs shuddered. He remembered the night he’d patrolled this alley, the flames that wrapped and danced around the orphanage. As if the blazes had reignited, the intensity of the flames surged through his body, squeezing his ribs. He gazed at the spot where Antonio had disappeared. After a few minutes, footsteps.
“You let the third one get away.” Gasping, Antonio dragged the younger of the two by the hair. The fear in the boy’s eyes terrified Isaac. Antonio’s agility was popular back at the station. In his authority, Isaac felt like a worm crawling into the ground. A child was no match.
“What are you looking at?” Antonio snapped his fingers. “Take them.” The younger one kicked Antonio’s shin. Antonio slapped him hard across the face.
“This one’s brave.”
“The job was to catch them, not abuse them.” Isaac yanked the boys from Antonio as if they were his own.
“Isaac the saint. I’ll make sure you’re the first to shake the big man’s hand.” He puckered his lips. Isaac stayed quiet.
Antonio leaned forward to the criminal that had abused his leg. “You go with this man and you don’t make a sound.” Antonio twisted the boy’s ear who dug his wet face into his brother’s bare chest. “Then, everyone’s happy.”
He gave Isaac a stern look. As partners, Isaac had failed him again.
The two boys climbed into the Toyota like wounded lambs. Before Isaac closed the door, he smiled at the younger one, who shivered as if he’d caught pneumonia.
“It’s okay. I won’t hurt you.”
The boys staggered down the steps of the prison.
“No one will hurt you,” whispered Isaac. A false promise. Even he wasn’t sure what they’d find down there.
“What’s your name?” Isaac tried to fight it, tried to obey the orders, but the fear in the boy’s eyes melted his heart. Names created attachments, difficult to sever.
“Rizal,” whispered the boy. His ribcage swelled with every breath.
“Alright, Rizal. Don’t talk to anyone down there. Stay with your brother.” The boy half-nodded, clenching his brother’s arm.
Desperation echoed from the row of steel cages four feet wide and three feet long. Moaning that Isaac had never heard before. Shirtless boys, some with no pants, fists around the steel bars, howled with fear. Rizal and his brother hid behind Isaac’s lean body.
Isaac surveyed for an empty cell, but soon, Rizal silently followed his brother into a cage with twenty pairs of eyes on them. Like a forgotten shadow, he wilted into himself with every step. The warder turned the key in the padlock and shuffled back to his chair.
“The Pope will leave soon.” As if those words forced the fear out of their minds.
“Why doesn’t he like children?” said Rizal’s brother. It wasn’t the Pope. Isaac couldn’t tell them that worshippers gathered above the prison, welcoming the Pope with choirs into a city cleansed of children like them. They pretended their shining city was the land of God, yet twelve feet beneath the stomping of feet, children shivered, naked, crowded in the dimly lit room. As if their private silences isolated their secret immorality.
“Tie this one up!” Antonio struggled with a screaming boy down the steps. His hand clenched a fistful of hair. “He’s a big problem.” The boy sucked his lower lip. Blood stained his teeth and collarbone. “Stay and watch this filth. You’re good at doing nothing.” Isaac gazed at the golden cross. Antonio wiped his knuckles with a handkerchief, scoffed, and climbed the stairs two steps at a time. Isaac wondered whether the God he knew allowed a man like Antonio to wear the cross around his neck.
The stench of piss and sweat filled the room. Isaac had a burning sensation in his throat. The boy with the split lip slouched in a corner of the cell, probably beginning to accept that the warmth of the sun existed only in his imagination now.
Were they all cursed? The Pope, the people, ones that blindly followed the ritual, unaware of what was happening down here?
For two hours, the cells were stuffed like cattle. Officers brought a handful of boys each, but Antonio hauled one every twenty minutes. As if he had a map of all the secret hiding places. For him, it had become a sport. Every time he left, he shouted the number of boys he’d locked up. With every number, Isaac felt warmth leave his body.
A boy next to Rizal fiddled with his genitals. Rizal’s brother picked dried mud from between his toes.
“Open this cell.” Isaac pushed his chest out like Antonio always did, demanding to be heard. “The orders are to move some to Quezon Jail.” The warder didn’t seem to care. He unlocked the cell and blew cigarette smoke in Isaac’s face.
The Pope had arrived. The crowd above erupted with divine energy. Choirs sang, but Isaac’s fear swelled like a tumor.
“Stay quiet…stay close.” Rizal and his brother followed Isaac up the steps. Isaac swallowed hard. He had no plan, didn’t know if anywhere was safe, but he knew saving Rizal and his brother was the only way to save himself.
Millions gathered around the cathedral like an army dressed in raincoats. Bishops and priests lined up by the entrance. Their pectoral crosses dangled over their white robes. Isaac kept his head down. Rizal and his brother shivered as rain washed their shirtless bodies. Maneuvering through the crowd, all eyes were on the cathedral. People chanted, held up posters of the Pope.
“Stay quiet.” Isaac closed the door of the Toyota. He turned on the sirens and honked his way through the crowd.
They rushed down the steps into the orphanage. Isaac tasted the faint smell of burnt carbon.
He halted. Under the carboard covered windows, three shadows huddled in a corner.
“Don’t be scared.” Isaac stepped forward, but stopped when the taller of the three held up a slingshot.
“You’re a police?” said the boy.
“Yes,” Isaac smiled, holding up his hands. “I am.” The boy pulled at the stone, wedged in the leather pocket. “But I’m not here to take anyone.” Rizal’s nails dug into Isaac’s arm, as the boy lowered his slingshot. “Can you watch my friends until I return?” The boy raised his eyebrows. He stared at Rizal’s feet, obscured by mud and rain water, and nodded.
As Isaac turned to leave, arms wrapped around his waist. There was joy instead of fear in Rizal’s eyes. Isaac leaned forward and kissed him on the forehead.
The Pope climbed the steps of the cathedral. Isaac jogged around the prison, crossed the flooded street. People held their infants up to the sky. Isaac pulled out the chain around his neck and kissed the golden cross.
All officers had been ordered to guard the cathedral, but Antonio kept his record going. Sweat seeped through his shirt. He dragged boys to the basement every hour now, while Isaac took two at a time to the orphanage when Antonio left.
Every time he led a boy out, Isaac inhaled the fresh air, the force of the Mass filled his body, and the enchanting choir brought him to tears.