Palm trees with the sun setting in the middle
Fiction

Runaway Tobias

Country of Origin: Philippines

Trigger Warning: Child Abuse, Violence

Editorial note: DG Sentinel does not endorse any religious views of the authors or essays we publish. Our goal is to uplift stories, voices, and fables from around the world. All views are the writers’ own. 

Like any other orphan, Tobias was curious about so many things. When he was younger, he wanted to know who his real parents were and why they had abandoned him. As he got older, he wanted to know what it was like to be outside the walls that surrounded the orphanage, or what it was like to attend a big school, or join a basketball team, or go to a mall, or own a mobile phone or fall in love.  

Growing up in the orphanage together with thirty other children was not easy. Being the eldest at 16, he was put in charge of doing the household chores and served as an errand boy to the cook, whom he described as a very mean old lady with a poisonous tongue. He swore he could have died a hundred times already because of the many demeaning and hurtful words she hurled at him.  

When he got the chance, he ran away, convinced he could survive the streets like his older roommates. “The unsheltered world is the real world,” they claimed. And so he followed suit. In his mind, he also wanted to prove to the nuns that he was old enough to look after himself. Besides, he was trying to find out the answers to the many questions in his head.  

Convinced that the nuns would be relieved to have one less mouth to feed, and thus save  the congregation a few hundred pesos, he took off when the guard was off duty. He went out the back door and climbed the barbed fence. Oh, how many cuts he suffered! He took two shirts, one pair of shorts, a bath soap, and a torn but clean blanket he found hanging on the clothesline near the backyard fence. He had less than a hundred pesos in coins, which he earned singing carols around the neighborhood the previous Christmas.

During his first day on the streets, he enjoyed his newfound freedom a lot—no curfews, no prayer time and, most of all, no house chores. How he hated running errands for the cook or cleaning the orphanage’s stained floors, which never looked clean no matter how hard he scrubbed.  

He looked up and saw the immense sky above him, like a new universe has  suddenly cracked open and welcomed him into its endless abode.  

Roaming the city park, he joined the countless mendicants pleading and tugging at any person’s soft spot for any left-over food or coins. Come sundown, he found a suitable place to spread his blanket, a spot hidden from the public eye, uninhabited and most of all free from the stench of urine. On his first night he cried, feeling more abandoned than ever before. He managed to control his whimpering, clutching a cross pendant hanging from a black string around his neck. 

The days that followed were characterized by hunger, heat, loneliness and destitution. His coins were gone. And people strolling in the park wanted to keep theirs. He suddenly longed to be sheltered. He wanted the feel of a clean shirt against his back. The stench of poverty appalled him, adding to the restless stabbing pain of a hungry stomach.  

As days passed, watching other vagabonds do their rounds, he learned to wash  himself in public toilets when the caretaker went on a break. He also sourced food from 

families on picnics or couples on dates, and even ate leftovers from the trash. But the food—although clean—had a wasted quality, a hint of decay, unseen but grimly felt. Soon he grew weary; he wanted something freshly cooked. At night, he began dreaming of hot soups in a warm kitchen at the orphanage. He would wake up clawing the air, a growl of hunger echoing from his gut. 

After several more days in the park, he made friends with other street urchins  who talked about how pickpocketing could bring in more moolah than begging. One single wallet could yield several hundred pesos—equivalent to a week’s supply of  decent food. A handbag could yield perhaps thousands of pesos since its contents could easily be sold to anyone for easy cash.  

He wasn’t too keen on robbing people after all, so he walked away from the group,  clutching his abdomen as if to silence the perennial rumblings. He was so hungry he  wanted to sit down on the ground and maybe taste a few blades of grass when no one  was looking. Even the water in the park’s pond looked inviting. “Anything, just grab anything worth ingesting,” his innards seemed to be saying.  

It was high noon. The sun was shining overhead. He felt his head pulsating from the heat, making him feel hungrier than ever. A spell of dizziness made him rest under a tree. Its leaves made him think of boiled kamote tops the cook used to serve in soy sauce and lime. The brown trunk reminded him of grilled eggplants dipped in egg  and fried to a deep delicious brown. His stomach gave another growl. 

Looking around, he saw a middle-aged man sitting beside a young girl. The girl looked disheveled, her dress stained. Her face lit up when the man handed her a glass and told her to drink.

Tobias thought he could easily grab the glass from her to ease his hunger. But he stayed, watching her small frame almost quivering with delight. With  great envy, he wondered what the glass contained: Was it fruit juice? Was it cola? Iced tea perhaps? His stomach gave another growl. This time, it came with a painful jab like a dagger driven into his belly.  

Unconsciously, his hand reached to his cross pendant and clutched it. But his grip was without strength. He closed his eyes and began to rock himself to and fro, chanting a short prayer he learned from the nuns. Soon, he felt calm.  The pain momentarily subsided.  

Opening his eyes, he saw the man clutching the girl’s arm, bidding her to go with him.

“Let’s walk a little bit up to the street corner,” the man said.  

“I have to go home,” the young girl pleaded.  

“I’ll give you money later. Come on. It won’t take long,” he insisted.  

Tobias knew something was amiss. She was being forced to do something against her will.  

“Don’t be stubborn,” growled the man, as he tugged on the helpless girl. 

Tobias sprang to his feet but his knees wobbled. His stomach gave another growl. It wasn’t the best time to meddle in other people’s business. 

“Hey, don’t force her if she doesn’t want to go with you,” he finally managed. 

“Don’t meddle, boy, or you might get hurt,” the man replied.  

Tobias demanded the man release her. In a flash, two other men emerged out of nowhere. They took turns beating and clobbering him to a pulp. Tobias was not even able to return a punch. 

The girl screamed, “Please stop! Leave him alone!” but was quickly  silenced, her mouth tightly shut by the man’s hand.  

Tobias was badly bruised, his face bleeding, his arms covered in cuts.  

Suddenly, thinking of her own survival, the young girl bit her captor’s arm, making him loosen his grip. She ran off quickly, leaving her slippers behind. She ran and ran, away from the bad men, trying not to look back at the young boy who tried to help her.  

Her captor screamed at his two companions.  

The two men left Tobias and ran after the girl like bloodhounds.

Tobias lay on the ground, his eyes puffed and half-closed. His nose broken, his lip bleeding profusely, blood spilling into his mouth, staining his teeth red.  

Dusk had fallen and the horizon was now colored purple, fading into orange and  blue. Tobias was amused at the thought that even the sky was bleeding, sympathizing with his fate. He tried to sit but his whole body trembled with the effort. He winced at the  pain.  

“Help!” he gasped. 

No one seemed to be around. He struggled to stand up but fell right back down. 

He thought of the orphanage, the young children who ran around not caring about their future, the cook who always gave him errands and the soft-spoken nuns who taught him how to pray. 

He lay on his back, facing the sky. He felt sad, wishing he hadn’t left the orphanage. He murmured a prayer. He felt sorry for all the bad things he did. He also said a prayer for the young girl and hoped she was able to escape her attackers.  

Then he felt a strong grip on his shoulder, someone lifting him up. He heard a man’s whisper, “It’s going to be okay. I got you.”  

Tobias woke up in a hospital room. A kind nurse making the rounds smiled at him  and asked how he was feeling. 

He tried to smile back, but gave a wince instead, realizing that the slightest movement caused a shot of pain. He was badly bruised all over. He fell asleep once more.  

The second time he woke up, he saw a nun beside his bed. It was sister  Consolacion from the orphanage.  

“Tobias, we are so glad you are getting better. Get some more rest and soon we will be going home.”  

Tobias felt guilty for leaving the orphanage and getting into trouble. He later learned that the girl he had tried to save called for help and the park’s security guard heard her. After calling the police and the child welfare department, they were able to contact the orphanage and confirm Tobias’ identity.

A local news reporter got hold of the story from the police station and went to see Tobias for an interview. Shortly, he was on TV, the face of a hero who got mauled for standing up to defend a young girl.  

Soon, flowers and gifts began to arrive at the hospital—sent by people who saw the feature on TV and who wanted to express their thanks and admiration for him.  

Tobias was pleasantly surprised. For the first time in his life, he had received not just one gift—from the congregation on the day of his birthday—but hundreds, filling up the entire room. There were shoes, shirts, towels, blankets, candy, chocolates, balloons, toys and other wonderful treats from well-wishers. 

 “What would you like to convey to your fans, Tobias?” asked a reporter in a live interview.  

“I am thankful for everything they sent me, from the grandest gift to the simplest,  hand-written card. I may be an orphan but I know I am loved. I am just a simple boy who tried to help another person. I guess God needed me to be there in that exact spot  when the trouble happened. I guess no matter how difficult our situation may be, God put us there because that’s where we need to be.”  

When Tobias got well enough to go back to the orphanage, he received a hero’s  welcome. He hadn’t grasped how overjoyed he would be to be back among the other children, the nuns, and even the cook whom he used to loathe. The gifts he received at the hospital, he joyfully shared with others. There were shrieks of delight everywhere: smaller children enjoyed eating the chocolates and candies, and the older ones took turns playing video games. 

That night, as he lay in bed, looking at the stained ceiling of the dormitory that he shared with 30 others, he said a prayer of thanks. 

—THE END—


Thank you to Kacper Janusz for their inspired edit on this piece and everyone else on the Fiction team.

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I.S.A. Crisostomo-Lopez is a writer based in Binan City, Philippines. She earned her B.A. Communication Arts degree from the University of the Philippines Los Baños in 1996 and her M.F.A. in Creative Writing degree from De La Salle University Manila in 2003. She is married with four children. She has published several works of fiction including “Passage,” which was anthologized in “Hoard of Thunder 2: Philippine Short Stories in English” by UP Press. She has also written storybooks for children -- “Si Lola Apura at si Lolo Un Momento” by Adarna House and “Ang Bisikleta ni Kyla,” by Philam Foundation. Her latest work is a YA science fiction trilogy, the “Driftland” series available on Amazon dot com. A new novel, “The Waters of Manila Bay are Never Silent” will soon be launched by Penguin Random House SEA.

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