Betong awoke and brushed his greasy hair out of his eyes. It was not the bitter cold night air, nor the mosquitoes feasting on his thin legs, but the intense growling of his stomach that woke him from his slumber.
It had been a day since he had last eaten. He remembered it was a stale piece of bread that was handed to him as he was sitting near a stoplight, with his left hand outstretched, hoping to catch a coin, or a bill, or by any chance, some miracle.
He found himself sleeping in the park again, across a stone statue of a hero. He looked for a moment at the replica as his eyes adjusted to the dim glow of the street lights. He examined the curves and features of this still being, the triumphant expression on his face. Betong wondered what this hero fought for. He wondered if heroes still existed for a kid like him.
Betong got up and realized that he had to get home. It was very late, and his mother would be waiting for him. He hoped to come home to any meal, any decent morsel of food.
He had several transportation options:
1. He could hitch a ride home on the kariton of his dear old friend Aling Nenita. But she wasn’t collecting trash at this end of the city tonight.
2. He could muster up the remainder of his strength to do a stunt fit for a daredevil – latch on to the back of a moving jeepney, stay hidden from the driver’s sight, hold on for dear life, and alight at the eskinita near his home. It takes agility, timing, and an extremely strong sense of urgency (bordering on desperation) to accomplish this feat – a rite of passage for street children everywhere.
Looking around, Betong saw no Aling Nenita nor any speeding jeepneys. There were empty streets that night – a strange sight in the heart of the busiest city in the country.
His stomach roared louder, demanding the attention of all his organs to listen to its desperate plea – WE NEED TO EAT! – and, heeding this call, Betong started to walk home.
It was a 30 minute walk to his home, but as his stomach growled louder and his insides churned against themselves, Betong began to run. The only hope that kept him going was to get home to the sight of his best friend – a dog named Chippy.
There was no more stronger bond than that of Betong and Chippy. Even stronger was the boy’s bond with his dog than with his five other siblings. Betong found a friend in Chippy, a sanctuary, a respite, from the cruel reality of his world.
Five-year-old Betong was scouring a pile of trash for food on a chilly night like this one. As he was digging amongst the trash, he found a small, shivering puppy inside a cardboard box. It was starting to rain, and, looking at the puppy’s fragile body, Betong knew that it would surely die in the cold if it was left alone. So, he took the tiny creature in his arms and brought it home. He wrapped the little puppy in his own shirt, and decided to call him Chippy, the label on the box where the puppy was found.
Since then, the two were inseparable. Chippy followed Betong everywhere. They played all day in the hot sun during the day and salvaged whatever they can from trash cans in the city at night – their favorite past time. As they played, Betong thought, this life isn’t so bad after all. As long as I have Chippy by my side, I know that I am never alone.
But this day was quite different. Instead of taking Chippy with him on his regular rounds, Betong’s Nanay had asked him to leave Chippy at the house. Nanay said that there were robbers on the loose in the other barangay, and the house needed the protection of a guard dog. Betong hesitated because he thought, who would rob houses in the middle of the day? But he cannot say “no” to Nanay. He reluctantly agreed, and left Chippy in the house. Betong had to tie the chain around Chippy’s neck. (He was the only one whom Chippy would allow to do this. Other people would have had their hands bitten off.)
Betong hurried along excitedly along the dusty, unpaved pathways to his home. He would finally hear his beloved Chippy, jumping and barking as if to say, “Welcome home! I missed you! Can we play?” He imagined himself throwing his tsinelas and Chippy would leap to fetch it for him; and as the dog brings back the slipper, the boy will forget all his tiredness and it will be as if the day had not been cruel.
But as he drew near his house, he felt different. Eerie. Was it the incessant growling of his stomach? Was it the cold wind blowing and teasing his ears? Wait. That was it. Why did he only hear the wind? Why was there no sound of a barking dog?
Betong’s heart pumped faster in his chest. He carried his tired legs higher off the ground and he began to sprint towards his makeshift home. His stomach dropped to the ground as he saw the chain on the ground, but no sign of his Chippy.
Betong screamed, “Chippy? Chippy? Nasan ka?” He hoped that Chippy, being the smart dog that he is, had escaped to look for him and now that he was back at home, Chippy would make his way back, too.
Betong cried out into the void, yet no barks or yelps echoed his calls.
Instead, he heard a sharp voice cutting through the night, calling his name.
“Betong! Ikaw ba yan? Halika na. Kumain na tayo! Niluto ko ang paborito mo!” It was his Nanay.
The smell of Betong’s favorite meal wafted through the air, out their window, and into Betong’s nose. Adobo? But they didn’t have Adobo since it was his birthday last year. There wasn’t any celebration at all. Why were they having this special meal tonight?
There was something comforting about the salty and sour and tangy and sweet flavors of all the ingredients, blending together in a harmonious savory meal. He was now hungry as ever, and the thought of Chippy left his mind for a few minutes. This day would not be too bad after all, Betong thought. He entered their house and saw an appetizing spread of freshly cooked rice and delicious Adobo on the table, waiting to be devoured.
“Wow, Nanay!” Betong exclaimed. “Parang birthday ko ulit ah!”
“Siyempre, para sayo talaga yan Betong. Tapos nang kumain ang mga kapatid mo, ikaw na lang ang hinihintay. Halika na sasabayan na kita.”
Betong could not help but smile. Finally, a hot meal that will ease all of the unfortunate scenarios he had encountered throughout the day. He sat down at the dining table, ready to feast.
He inhaled the wonderful aroma and took his first bite, and lo and behold! It was delicious.
But… it was not the Adobo he was used to. He examined his plate carefully. Then, he realized something odd. Something… was not right.
“Anong klaseng Adobo po ito?”
“Nanay, anong Adobo ito?” Betong persisted.
Nanay continued eating.