A silenced scream

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By Lea C. Lazaro

Summer was about to end when Christine first saw it standing in the garage at the corner of Santos Street, right at the curve leading to a small university campus. It was a large steel monster, reaching up to a man’s shoulders. Slightly rusting at the corners, it was painted a moldy green and implanted with bulbs that gave off a dull yellow glow.

The jukebox was just a last-minute detail. The Escorial family, who lived at this corner of Santos Street, had decided to open a small canteen in what used to be their garage. It was a good business, they believed, with their house situated near the university’s east gate, they were sure to have plenty of customers. Hot meals and snacks would be served to the students, and a small photocopying machine would bring in additional income. The jukebox, the family agreed, was just an added attraction.

Eight-year-old Christine sat down on the sidewalk in front of her house, shaded by the tall Indian trees lining their gate. She set down the pail filled with soil and water on the concrete beside her. Unmindful of the late afternoon heat, she watched as, across the street, several workmen brought long tables, benches, and stools into the garage of Joy’s family.

“Joy? Are your parents really turning your garage into a canteen?” Christine asked the girl standing next to her.

“It’s practically finished. Can’t you see?” Joy replied. She sat down next to Christine. “Mom said the canteen would be finished in time for the opening of classes in June.”

Christine looked crestfallen. “But how can they do that to us? That garage is our playhouse.”

Joy shrugged. “Who knows? I don’t want to ask my mom about it. She’s so grouchy lately. We’ll be playing at your house all the time now.”

Joy was Christine’s only playmate in their neighborhood, primarily because they were the youngest children there. The older ones, determined to show how grown up they already were, now refused to mingle with “babies.” Joy was still interested in playing, despite being a year older, much to Christine’s relief. But she now relegated the chore of gathering soil and dirt for their “daily mud pie specials” to Christine, while she contented herself with picking leaves and stirring the pail of goo.

Christine felt a twinge of betrayal. Their playhouse was taken away, and with the start of classes, she would be seeing less and less of Joy. She was an only child and she looked up to Joy like a sister. So many things were changing, and she could not keep up.

Joy stood up, carefully brushing the seat of her shorts with her hand. “Come on, “ she urged, offering Christine her hand to help her up. “Mom wants me home early today. I’ll wait until you finish making your witch’s brew.”

Christine let herself be helped up. She looked down at the pail of soil and water, and then at the horrible green object inside the canteen. Feeling embarrassed, she picked up the pail and said slowly, “It’s okay, go ahead. I’m finished with this, anyway.”

Joy crossed the street to her house. “Okay,” she called back. “See you.”

“Yeah,” Christine whispered as she watched her friend enter her house. Then she turned and slipped inside their white front gate.

* * *

Classes began, and Christine found herself in the second grade. It wasn’t very different from the first; being an above-average student, Christine found school easy. She liked her subjects well enough, and soon she met new people and found new friends. She also began spending less time on play, and more time thinking to herself and reading in their garden.

But Christine missed Joy, whose third grade classes were held from morning until late afternoon. When they met on the street, Joy would be tired from school work and would go straight home. Christine’s classes were held only in the afternoons, so in the mornings she found nothing much to do.

It was in the morning when Christine could not escape the hated object in the new canteen—the ugly old jukebox. The “green machine,” as she called it, would be operating as early as 7:30 in the morning, when some college students would hang around the canteen before their classes started. For a few coins, the students could pick out any song they wished to be played. Christine didn’t mind the songs being played. Although she did not understand them, it was the volume that irritated her. When the machine started, the entire street, literally, would hear it.

Every morning, Christine would be awakened by the first song played on the jukebox. After having breakfast, she would play or just sit in their garden. She watched as students and neighbors stepped up to the jukebox, dropped their coins, and pressed the buttons for their selected songs, which were mostly of the pop and rock variations. Sometimes, she stayed inside her room and tried finding something to do, but she loved spending time outdoors, and even the green machine could not keep her away.

Christine became accustomed to spending her mornings in their garden, reading or just watching the students at the university walking past their gate. She would stay there until she had to get dressed for school.

Often, Regie, the tricycle driver Christine’s mother hired to take Christine to and from school everyday, would stop by and talk to her or even play with her at times. The middle-aged man had been with their family for some time now, as driver and mechanic for the two tricycles that their family owned and rented out. Regie would bring Christine small bags of candy or little plastic toys, and would join her in making up stories and playing “what if.” He took her mind off her irritation with the jukebox across the street.

Sometimes Christine would wonder about this thin, dark-skinned man who was always around. She would ask Regie if he had a wife and kids, realizing that she had never seen them.

“How come you’re always here?” Christine would ask him. “When do you spend time with your family? Where are they?”

A small smile would flutter into Regie’s face, and he would keep his eyes lowered. “They’re home,” he would say in his low, raspy voice. “This is a good book you have here,” he would say, or “Don’t you like these green mangoes I brought? Mang Rodolfo gave it to me, from the trees in his backyard.”

Then Regie would smile again, with half-closed lids, and start whistling a tune that Christine did not recognize. She would forget that she had asked a question about his family, and they would be joking and laughing once more, until she would have to eat and get dressed. Then they would talk and laugh again on the way to school.

Pretty soon she became oblivious to the blaring noise and decided that it was not all that bad. But the jukebox reminded her of Joy, whom she no longer saw. And that made it difficult to erase the resentment Christine felt for the changes that were happening in her life. She just listened to Regie’s constant whistling and felt relieved that she had a new playmate, even if, she admitted to herself, he was a little weird.

* * *

The months passed by quickly; Christine enjoyed school and performed well in her subjects. She became engrossed in studying and spent as much time as she could reading books. Joy, meanwhile, joined several clubs during the school year and spent the summer promoting their activities, and was rarely seen at home. Christine still missed having Joy around, but since she was not playing that much anymore anyway, she found less time to brood over it. Even the green machine eventually became less annoying. Christine was able to tolerate the noise; her preoccupation with her playtime with Regie took attention away from it.

One day, Christine had barely finished breakfast when Regie arrived. She quickly shoved the last spoonfuls of food into her mouth and jumped off her chair. She went out to the garden where Regie stood, whistling.

“You’re early, “ Christine said, looking up at Regie as she sat down on their stone bench.

“I am?” Regie said absentmindedly. He sat down next to her, leaving a small space between them. “I didn’t notice.”

“You are,” Christine said, nodding. “Don’t you have to drive our tricycle, for the students?” She pointed to the tricycle parked outside their house by the gate. “Did you notice that the green machine isn’t playing today? It’s so peaceful,” she added.

Regie looked at the tricycle, his face blank. “Not today,” he said, ignoring her last question. “I asked your mom if I could start driving the tricycle outside after I take you to school. So we have more time to play with this gift I brought you.”

Christine’s eyes brightened. “Gift? You have a gift for me?” she asked. “Where?” She looked around.

“It’s in the tricycle,” Regie said, “on the seat. Why don’t we go and get it?”

“Yay!” Christine jumped up happily, grabbing Regie’s hand. “Come on!” She tugged him outside their gate.

Regie held on to the little hand and allowed Christine to lead him to the tricycle. She stopped by the sidecar and looked up to Regie for approval.

“Go on, get inside. It’s right there,” Regie urged, his hand guiding Christine’s back.

Christine slipped inside the sidecar and sat down, lifting a small basket from the seat and placing it onto her lap. She lifted the lid and squealed with delight at what she saw. “A kitten!” she exclaimed happily. She lifted the kitten with her tiny hands and hugged it close.

“You said you liked kittens, so I got this one for you,” Regie said in his raspy voice. “Do you like it?”

“I love it! Thank you so much!” Christine, keeping the little meowing creature close to her chest, lifted an arm and leaned up towards Regie.

Regie stared at the little girl, beads of sweat forming on his brow. After a moment’s hesitation, he flashed a small smile and bent down.

Christine wrapped her arm around Regie’s neck. “Thank you,” she said.

Christine felt Regie’s arms close around her. She tried to pull back to end the embrace, but Regie was holding her tight against his chest.

She tried pulling her arm, but she couldn’t move. Regie’s big arms arrested her, his short, quick breaths of air suddenly loud in the cramped space of the sidecar.

Christine heard the kitten yelp in pain, and she quickly pulled again. She finally freed herself from the embrace, and she looked up at Regie, confused.

Regie turned his face away from her, but she could see the frown that knotted his brows together, and she could hear a slight wheezing as his breathed deeply. His eyes avoided her, darting this way and that.

Suddenly, the kitten wriggled away from Christine’s loosened hold and sprang out of the sidecar. “Regie, my kitten!” she screamed.

It took a second before Regie heard the girl’s voice above his heavy breathing. Then he gave a start and jumped out of the tricycle.

In an instant before Christine could follow, she heard a car’s screech and a loud, dull thud. It sounded very close to the tricycle. She hurriedly peeked out of the sidecar.

What she saw was a blur—Regie, lying crumpled on the concrete, his shirt torn. Blood everywhere; everything on the ground was red, and still spreading, closer and closer to the tricycle. His body was partly underneath the trunk of a car.

Christine stared down at Regie, horrified, bits of hysterical screams and whispered conversation finding their way to her ears—the car was backing up, the driver didn’t see…the man came out of nowhere, probably the tricycle…that man was with the tricycle owner’s little girl…

Christine clapped her hands over her ears, wanting to block the thoughts, but it was no use; they repeated themselves over and over again. She felt hands around her shoulders, guiding her into the house, away from the street. Her head whirling with confusion she wished desperately for the noise of the jukebox she so despised; she wanted to hear the deafening roar, drowning out everything else—the sound of sudden, unexpected tears, the scream inside her head…

But the green machine stood cold and mute.

Montage Vol. 6 • August 2002