Joel didn’t like being watched. It didn’t matter if it was his mama looking over his shoulder at everything he did, or if it was his grandparents ready to snatch him up from his jeepney driver papa. There was something that bothered him about the idea of someone ready to pounce on you for something you did, a distaste that he couldn’t perfectly explain without sounding like someone his mama would disapprove of.
“Tahimik ka lang,” he recalled her saying over one of these dinners, “Baba mo lang ulo mo, ha?”
He didn’t like this either, but truth be told, he was afraid of the stories he’d heard, about the things they would do to those people who talked too much.
So when last night he read his tropa talking about the laws that were being passed, and how scary they were and how dark times were coming, and his friend Martin countering that ‘they’ were already here, he felt bothered.
He tried reading the law, but the words were big and deep, he could only go by with what he understood they were saying. Reading wasn’t his strong suit; he learned best from listening and participating in the discussions of his old, chalky elementary classroom. He didn’t understand why everything changed so much, but his mama made it very clear that going outside could kill you nowadays, and so he obeyed as any good boy would, and did everything he could to stay inside.
Besides, even if the grownups wouldn’t explain it he understood that things weren’t changing any time soon. They were talking about “online classes”, and Joel felt excited about them. He loved using Facebook to talk with his friends and watching Youtube to watch the things they’d send him. If online classes were like that, then he knew it was going to be very fun.
He got up from his bed, a dingy thing that creaked with the lightest movements. He moved slowly, careful not to wake up his brother, James, who slept on a slightly better bed on the opposite side of the room. Anime posters and drawings marked his side of the room while toys and figurines marked his brother’s, with an exposed wooden frame for a ceiling where things scampered around when no one was looking . Under the gloomy, dim light of the dying light bulb it was hard to tell if he had woken James up, but in no less than a few seconds, he turned the knob of their door and went outside.
There, the waft of sizzling hotdogs mixed with slightly burnt rice, and an odd, moldy stench permeated through the small room. He enjoyed eating hotdogs, even though they’d been having it so much recently. Sometimes every day for lunch, sometimes even for dinner.
Across the room from where he stood was his mom, standing in front of a stove propped against the unpainted concrete wall.
“Ma,” he started, “Pahiram ng cellphone.”
She shook her head, not turning her attention away from what she was cooking. The light in the kitchen worked better than the ones in the rest of the house, and they served to show the various filth staining the metal of the stove.
“Kain muna tayo,” she told him, with that exasperation that Joel noticed but never pointed out. Tahimik ka lang, he thought. To point it out would be to acknowledge that it existed.
“Mabilis lang, ma.”
She relented, pointing at a smartphone by the side of the fridge. He took it and went back to his room, making sure to stay out of her way.
He went back to his room, and once he was settled on the edge of his bed, he opened the phone. The background photo was his parents standing together, with a wide expanse of water behind them. He would be home anytime soon, he knew, back from those jeepney protests that his organization had.
He opened Facebook, careful not to peek at the unopened messages that his mama had. He switched the accounts, noticing the number of notifications on his.
They were all about these arrests, these local tsupers who were to be taken into custody for apparently “breaking peace and order”. His friends had been messaging him, knowing that these were his father’s peers, and that it meant his father could be one of them.
He tapped on one of the articles, and upon inspecting the list of violators he couldn’t find his father.
A sigh of relief escaped him. He bit his lips, his fear turning into rage. Why did things have to be like this? Why was talking something to be so afraid of? The implications of these nebulous restrictions began to lose meaning. If the things he wanted to say were worth saying, then why should those things stop him?
In a frenzy, he began typing on the phone, words that he would usually let go and dismiss. But then and there, in that moment, they made so much sense. These were the things that needed saying, things that were never to be said because the big people said you should never say them.
When he was done typing out his thoughts, he took his time to look around. In the pitch black darkness of their bedroom, he took note of the shape of his brother, still asleep.
Ipis o daga? Di magsalita para di mapansin?
He swallowed his throat.
Pano kung kailangan mapansin?
He pressed the post button. It was easy, far easier than he expected. Like a drop of water joining its kin in the deep blue ocean, his voice would join countless others on their quest to speak.
This was what he liked to imagine. But the freedom was short lived, and the satisfaction even less so. In the snap of a finger, anxiety and panic began to set in. They were watching, weren’t they? He heard about it, that there were people who lived off watching the internet and reporting those who didn’t stay quiet. They would take him, snatch him up, and he would never see his family again, like they did to those other people.
Shivers ran up his spine. He bit his lips. Someone knocked on the front door. Eyes heavy with weariness, his hands shaking from a mixture of anger and panic, he closed his phone and went to let his father in.
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