Junior second runner-up: Freedom Forgone for Loved Ones, by Ridha Ali
“Grandma! They ruined our wall again!” Ting Ting said. My five-year-old granddaughter came running to me while I cleaned up the place.
“I told you not to go out there alone” I yelled as I dusted my cupboard.
“But they are so mean!” she reported as I kneeled down.
“It’s fine darling, the angels will clean it up just like the last time!” I forced a smile.
“Really?” She gave me a hopeful beam that shone her eyes, a smile that was never reflected on for as long as I could remember.
“Yes, Ting, by the time you wake up, it’ll be gone, the angels are always on good people’s side, remember?” I touched her cheek and assured her.
“Then I should sleep quickly so that they have enough time. I love you, grandma!” She pulled me into a tight embrace before she ran off into her room.
“I love you, Ting.” I whispered as I made my way to the bathroom, picked up my mop and walked outside the house.
“BLACK FAMILY” The words as big as my granddaughter were painted on our brick wall with black paint. A sense of hopelessness and guilt washed over me. I placed down the bucket as my vision started to become blurry and tainted by tears. I blinked once and they fell and slid down my cheeks. I bit my lower lip in an attempt to stop myself from sobbing. There was no time to cry, there was no point to it. I have to be strong.
“There is no use for crying, my love.” I heard a familiar voice, soft and soothing. He walked to me, hugged me, and wiped away the tear on my cheek.
“This is all because of my great grandfather.” His delicate voice now had a hint of bitterness and anger. “It was he who became a member of the Kuomintang Army yet it is us who faced all the discrimination. Because of him, five generations of his kids will be disbarred.” He sighed, refusing to even glance at the vandalism before us and continued.
“There will be a better future for you, for us, I promise.” He said as he placed his hand on my shoulder. The man whose eyes always shone bright in humour now were firm with rigidity and it scared me a little. “We will move to Hong Kong, where a better life is waiting for us.” He pressed my shoulder reassuringly. I pulled away from my husband’s grip and looked up at the wall.
“How will we escape?”
“I don’t know, but we must try. If we don’t, our son, Bingwen will be treated like a dog for the rest of his life, Ting will have no future and you will have to clean this everyday.” He said and finally acknowledged the wall.
The tears that had stopped were now leaving traces down my face. My husband looked at me and smiled. It was impossible to stay upset at him because despite the horrible circumstances, having him around reverberated a ray of hope.
Each passing day was filled with torment and hate from the neighbourhood, but he made it easier to live and to fall in love with him. After all we laughed and cried together as our skins folded into wrinkles and as our hair turned from glossy black to rough and grey throughout the years.
The first orange-hue ray of the sunrise kissed the still dust-laden rubble with the same loving care as the undertaker with the recently departed. The sun itself had barely risen and the city had the subdued quiet of dawn. Only road sweepers and early morning factory workers hurried through the otherwise deserted streets of Shekou.
Today was the day of change I dreamed of for my family. We were going to do something not knowing what it will bring about and that scared me but I kept going, because if we do it then my son will have a stable job, my Ting will be able to go to school and my family will be comfortable.
“Where are we going grandma?” Ting yawned as she rubbed the last traces of sleep from her eyes.
“To a better future.” was the only thing I said. I looked back at home, holding a bag full of food with one hand and holding onto Ting’s on the other.
“Ma, do you want me to carry Ting, is she hurting your knees?” my son asked, and I only smiled.
“No son, she would never hurt me,” I smiled. But in reality I couldn’t breathe; it felt as if someone was choking me. My heart was racing and my knees were tired and all I wanted to do was curl up into a ball.
Despite it being early morning, the soldiers from Chinese Civil War were roaming around, keeping their critical eyes on everyone that walked by.
“No direct eye contact, act natural.” My husband whispered as we walked by and pretended to be normal yet somehow that made me regulate my breathing patterns. I could feel my pulse pounding in my temples. I had a feeling that I would be attacked anytime, that one of them would pin me to the ground and the others would grab my husband and my son and before we know it, we would be lashed in front of my Ting.
“Hey, wait!” A soldier ordered and I froze.
“Where are you heading?” He eyed us.
“Just taking the family to the park.” My husband and son did all the talking, I was too paralyzed to do or say anything.
“That would be 300 yuan to get to park.” The soldier said folding his arms.
“300? That’s too much!” My son exclaimed.
“Are you going to tell me what’s too much and what’s not?” The soldier was not pleased.
“We will have little left if we paid for that, please understand sir,” My son asked nicely.
The soldier closed the distance and grabbed my son’s neck and started to choke him. “How dare you disrespect me!” The solder punched his jaw and stomach. Ting started to cry..
“Please don’t hurt my papa!” Ting cried but he showed no mercy. “I will pay you my money!” My husband shouted as he covered my son from the blows of the soldier.
The solder smirked as my son laid on the ground, quivering.
My husband quickly handed him money and apologized. When the guard finally left us alone, I quickly took my napkins out of my handbag and wiped away the blood from his mouth.
“Why were they hitting you Daddy, what did you do?” Ting cried and hugged him tightly.
“This is not right, I do not deserve to see my loved ones getting hurt,” I said, but it only came out as a whisper.
“I am fine, we should keep moving quickly.” My son said slowly as he got up wincing.
We slowly walked forward, hiding away from any guards we could find. I held Ting close to myself because I was so afraid of losing her.
After two days of walking, hiding in hillside bushes until night and surviving on wild plants and our own food, we were relieved to finally reach the sea. Ting strode down the path with her eyes shining as she jumped up and down. If I weren’t already 45, I would have skipped too.
“Water finally!” Ting screamed giddily.
“This is the the shortest escape route, we now have to swim four kilometers then we will be in Hong Kong.” My husband said, out of breath.
“But grandpa, I can’t swim.” Ting looked at the sea helplessly.
“I’ll carry you on my shoulders.” My son smiled, his lip still red from the soldier’s beating.
“No I’ll carry her,” my husband started to say.
“No, you have a weak back, it would hurt you even more. I am fine. I will carry her,” he persisted.
We all got in the water, it was freezing and it made my legs numb but the longer we stayed, the more immune we got to the temperature.
“Hey, get out of the water!” I heard someone bark out the order, we turned around to see a guard standing on the shore looking furious. Panic rushed through me and I realized that this was it, the end..
“If we get out, they will kill us!” My husband said and we quickly swam further in.
When I looked back again, I saw the guard had stepped into the water, one hand holding a bat and fear settled in as I realized that if we get caught we would not be alive.
“Swim faster! Faster!” Our son rushed us, but my weak knees could not swim any faster.
“I can’t swim any faster!” I cried out. Ting was screaming, everyone was rushing and trying to stay afloat.
Over the sound of Ting’s cries, I heard my son say “Papa take Ting on your shoulders, take good care of her, and I love you Ma.” My heart sank.
“What do you mean?” I asked but I knew what he was saying.
“Instead of being beaten to death, I’d rather risk dying in the sea in my quest for freedom.” My son turned around and I screamed, “No!” I watched as my son swam back to his killer and I watched the guard pull him to the shore and beat him blue till he stopped moving at all. It was then silent, dead silent.
My face was red and the water had filled my eyes, I could have done something yet I did nothing, even though my body was moving forward. The pain burned away my body like fire. I thought I could be strong but I completely lost it when Ting asked “Where did daddy go?” My husband didn’t say anything, he was quiet.
After a long moment of just swimming, my husband shattered the silence “Do you feel something on your foot?” I shook my head.
But fear creeped up to my face and I let out a shriek when I saw a shark fin.
“Grandpa! Shark!” Ting screamed.
Its fin swam around us and we froze not really knowing what we should do, then we started to swim faster and faster until my head hit a rock as darkness filled in and I felt like the need to close my eyes.
“Wake up! Wake up!” I could hear voices. However all I saw was darkness; my head felt heavy.
The next moment I opened my eyes and I was surrounded by faces that I didn’t recognize. I blinked and then blinked again.
As I got up from the shore I noticed my clothes had dried.
“Where is my husband and where is my granddaughter?” I asked. No one replied. “Ting, where are you, Ting?” My voice shrilled as horror started to sink in.
“Please, tell me right now where are they?” I pleaded.
“We couldn’t save them, the shark…” He was saying something but I felt my head heavy again, everything was spinning around and nothing made sense.
I held a bag of groceries in my hand as I walked back to my house through the alley. The hawkers screamed to grab attention, women clumped together and chatted their days away, their husbands worked tirelessly in construction companies.
With new survivors coming in every day, sometimes they get lucky, sometimes they come alone, slowly Hong Kong was developed by mainlanders coming here for a better life. How Hong Kong was built based off many strong refugees never seems to surprise me any more.
I passed a sign that said “Hong Kong”. I saw that every day for the past 20 years and every day it reminded me of my home, of my child and his child, of my love. I may have gained my freedom but I lost everything I have ever loved in doing so.