Filemon fears fireworks. On a cold December evening, he is crouching beneath the table in their one-storey home, a shanty in an impoverished neighborhood in the Philippines. He is waiting for his mother to return from the bakery. Through the windows, the sparks from the fireworks illuminate the vicinity. They spew from kindled sticks and packages, emitting smoke that engulfs the atmosphere.
It is a tradition for many Filipinos to celebrate Christmas Eve with the whole family. But at eight years old, what is left of Filemon is his mother. After her shift as a laundry washer at a hotel in the city, she came home to take him so they could buy the bakery’s freshly baked chiffon cake together. Families always prepare their feast, and his mother has earned enough to buy them a treat. But when the fireworks started in the early evening, Filemon didn’t even go as far as the first step outside the door. Every blast sounded the same as the gunshots he remembered not so long ago.
“Wait here until I return,” his mother said. “I won’t be long.”
“But it’s not safe out there, Mama,” Filemon said as soon as he broke free from his mother’s hold.
“Piloy,” she addressed him by his nickname. She knelt before him and clutched his shoulders, “it is Christmas and there is nothing to fear. The people outside are our neighbors, and they won’t do any harm to us.”
“But what about Papa?” His mother looked away. Sighing, she said, “That’s a different story, my child.”
Her insistence was futile as the fireworks raged outside. So she agreed to her son’s wishes as she promised to get back soon. It is a small neighborhood, nestled beside the city’s river and under the bridge with blocks of shanty houses and narrow roads criss-crossing them.
His father used to drive along these roads with his rickshaw, pedalling the bicycle attached to the side of a wheeled container where the passenger can sit. A minimal ten pesos per passenger was enough, especially when the count of passengers each day reached ten. His father could already provide for them three meals a day. But that suddenly changed one fateful night.
It was late when the two shots disturbed the entire community. Filemon remembered the cries and murmurs that followed. Sleeping beside his mother on a mattress in their home, the shots echoed like a thunderclap. First there was chaos, and then there was the loud banging on their door. Their neighbors awakened them.
On the road two blocks away from their home, the crowd gathered. Clutching the skirt of his mother, Filemon hastened his pace. He heard his father’s name, then came the weeping. He was too young to understand the sight of a lifeless body strewn on the road, drenched by a dark red puddle beneath the streetlamp. The face, wrinkled and dark brown, could not be mistaken for anyone else. His mother slammed her fists against the cold concrete. The sight blurred as a film of tears covered Filemon’s eyes.
One bystander, who had been peeing in a corner when the scene of the crime happened, relayed what he had witnessed. A masked assailant on a motorcycle held out a gun and tried to shoot the passenger. But the first shot landed against his father’s ribcage. His father fell first, before the second shot hit the passenger’s head. His arms and feet splayed out on the road, falling face first on the concrete.
When the police arrived in the morning, they said that the passenger, who was identified as a 20-year-old out-of-school youth, was part of their narco list. The victim was supposed to be his father’s last passenger before he’d retire for the night, but then the assailant came and the first shot strayed to him instead. The police kept the names of alleged drug users and pushers in their community by orders of the current government administration. But even though they had no proof, the masked assailant remained a mystery. It was one of the many instances when killing became a norm. The administration campaigned to cleanse the society.
But the bullet still landed on his father. His life, like a firework’s spark, was there for a moment and then it was gone. Filemon had lost him. It is Christmas, but his father is not with them.
The fireworks outside continue to produce a series of blasts. The more the night lasts, the tighter Filemon holds onto one of the table’s legs.
Later, the door opens and in comes his mother.
“Piloy?” his mother calls him, stepping into their home, the floorboards creaking beneath her. She cradles the cake in her hand, gift-wrapped in plastic with a ribbon on top. She smells like the smoke of the fireworks outside, but she remains unharmed. Her presence relieves Filemon, who crawls out from under the table.
“Merry Christmas, my child.” His mother laid the cake over the table, just beside the glowing candlelight. Filemon stands and wraps his arms around his mother’s waist. His mother plants her hand over his shaved head and gently caresses it.
“I miss Papa, Ma,” he says, sobbing. His tears drenching the cloth of his mother’s white jumpsuit.
“I miss him, too, but there’s no need to be afraid, my child. Your father is in good hands now,” his mother says.
He looks up, and sees his mother’s cheek glazed in tears in the glow of the candlelight.
“He may not be with us anymore, but that doesn’t mean that he’s not in a better place.”
“Do you know whose birthday we are celebrating in Christmas, Piloy?”
Filemon is not sure of his answer.
His mother led him to the window. Together, they gaze at the sight of the colourful sparks. They glow like cinders for a brief moment and then disappear. Minuscule rockets take off into the sky and pop in mid-air. They ripple after every blast.
“The Son of God, my child,” his mother tells him. “We celebrate his birth, because we remember what he did.”
“What did he do, Mama?”
His mother pats his shoulder. Her touch comforts him. He does not fear the fireworks now with her beside him.
“He gave us hope, Dear One,” she says. “The world is full of bad people. They kill innocent lives. It happened during Jesus’ time.”
“Jesus,” the child mutters. “That’s his name?”
His mother nods. “He was innocent just like your father when they…”
“When they what, Mama?”
“There’s still so many things for you to learn, my child.” His mother holds his hand. “I believe your father is with him now.”
“Heaven, my son.”
Heaven… It’s where good people go to when they leave this world. Filemon believes his father is there now. He tightens his grip on his mother’s hand.
Outside, the fireworks continue to illuminate the evening. With the cake on the table, both mother and son celebrate Christmas Eve. After sumptuous slices, Filemon leads his mother outside so they can watch the fireworks closer and join their neighbors. He no longer fears them. The memory may still linger, but his father is now somewhere safe.
Angelo Lorenzo is a writer based in Cagayan de Oro City, Philippines. He writes about the local arts and culture scene in his hometown. He has works published on The Wellington Street Review, New Pop Lit, InQluded Magazine, Prismatica Magazine, and Burning House Press. Currently, he is taking his Master’s Degree in Literature at Xavier University – Ateneo de Cagayan.