Illustration by Fritzie Marie C. AmarTHE SLUMS may as well be the last place he wanted to be in. The stench of stagnant water and garbage brought an unpleasant welcome to the small community of scrap houses. Shanty people—men, women, and children dressed in tattered rags with black smudges from head to toe—watched the neatly-dressed stranger squeezing himself through the cramped path between the makeshift homes. As he went deeper into the shanties, he felt the residents’ hostile gaze. The smell of rotting garbage pointed to a creek at the end of the claustrophobic trail. Aside from the fact that the water wasn’t flowing at all and was trash lining the banks, dengue-carrying mosquitoes also buzzed around in swarms. Nevertheless, the children still chose to swim in the dirty water.

He felt like stopping these kids splashing in the dirty creek. But remembering the look he received from the locals earlier, he prompted to leave the kids to their business. He felt like a single deed, good or bad, could stir trouble in the slums.

The man walked along the elevated side of the creek, leaving the group of kids to catch their diseases. As much as he hated to leave those kids be, he feared the shanty town people’s reactions if ever he interfered.

At the end of the creek side was the man’s destination—a small shanty. An old woman sat on a rocking chair swaying back and forth outside the house. Unlike the rest of the neighborhood, the old lady smiled warmly at the man at her doorstep.

“I’m home.” he said.

“Jason!” she cried with joy. “Look at how much you’ve grown.”

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“I know. I haven’t come home for 10 years.”

“Come in, we have so much to talk about.”

“I guess we do.”

The inside of the house was as simple as it used to be. The dining room, living room, bedroom and bathroom were all crammed as one. Only candles fixed in old mugs lit the house up at night. Not a single plug was in the house, meaning there was no room for the TV, telephone, and computer—none of the luxuries only those with the money can afford. The household only fed on endless stacks of canned goods and instant noodles on the shelves. At one corner of the house were huge drums filled with clean water, covered to keep the mosquitoes away.

“Where is everybody? This place used to be lively,” said Jason.

“They all left this place ages ago, dear,” replied the old woman.

“What do you mean?”

The old woman pointed at the tattered sofa. “Remember when Joyce used to sit on that spot? She ran away just recently with a man we do not like.”

“Joyce ran away with a man? Who is he?” Jason answered, hardly believing the fact.

“A businessman. They’re probably in Dubai already.”

“Why didn’t you give him your approval? Joyce will have a great life with him.”

“I don’t want that naïve girl depending on the man’s riches. She has to earn on her own.”

“That’s a little harsh, don’t you think?”

“You know your cousin Joyce. She always wants it easy.”

Jason took a seat on a familiar spot as the old woman took her place by the lonely chair in front of an open window. The sun sifted through the bars, casting shadows on the concrete floor. The stench of the creek disturbed Jason.

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“That creek used to be very clean when you were still a kid,” said the old woman. “Look at it now.”

“And this place used to have more elbow room than I remember,” Jason said.

“Ten years brought plenty of change. This place is actually scheduled for demolition.”

“Demolition? But this land was given to us by relocation.”

“It’s sad to think that money makes all the promises nowadays, not good faith.”

“But where will we go from here?”

“I don’t know, dear. It’s only a matter of time before the bulldozers return.”

Jason decided to go back to the case of the missing family members. He knew the fate of his cousin. Now, he wanted to know what happened to the others.

“Where are Tito Largo and the kids?” he asked.

“They left this place five years ago for a better life abroad, just like your cousin Joyce,” she replied.

“Why are more people choosing to leave?”

“They have given up all hope for change.”

“But what about me? I stayed. I still believe.”

“And I’m very proud of you, dear. You’re the only one who stood by me when I tried stopping your relatives from living abroad.”

Jason heaved a deep sigh. Noise suddenly echoed just outside the house. When Jason stormed out to take a look, he saw a poor five-year-old child lying on a stretcher carried by two men clad in white. Around him stood his bereaved family.

“That’s the fifth one this week,” said the old woman.

“Fifth what?” asked Jason in reply.

“Dengue victim. Most of them are children.”

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“I just saw some children swimming in the dirty creek on my way here. I wanted to stop them but—”

“It’s a good thing you didn’t,” said the old woman briskly.

“But why? Those kids will end up in ward beds eventually.”

“Let them be, Jason. This is their home. Where would they go away from here?”

Jason fell silent looking at his grandmother. He gazed at the kids splashing by the dirty creek. A mother descended down the makeshift ramp to the creek to hand towels to the kids swimming below. Even from far away, he could tell how they were enjoying their quality time regardless of the murky color of the creek and swarms of mosquitoes. The kids jumped back on land and dried themselves with the towels.

“This is where they belong,” said the old woman, following Jason’s stare. “They know as well as you do.”

Jason tore his eyes away from the irksome scene.

“Do you think Joyce and Tito Largo will come back?” asked Jason.

“I pray that they do,” said the old woman.

“Yet with no hope for change?”

“There is change, dear. It is inevitable.”

“Where? When?”

“Wait for it.”

That afternoon, Jason bid his grandmother farewell. Tracing his steps back to the road at the other side of the slums, he looked at the creek one last time. Maintenance workers stood on both sides of the creek while guiding a backhoe slowly towards the heaps of trash clogging the waterway.

Jason chuckled softly.

“I guess grandma was right.”

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