In which Sophie's classmate sees her and remembers his mother.
The teen who gave the card earlier to Sophie had reached the store’s exit and was about to push its door when she faced a young man who was about to enter.
She froze, but the new customer, who went by the name of Emilio, let her exit first and even opened the door for her before he went in.
Emilio was a web designer for a nearby tech start-up, and he came to buy his lunch, for he won’t be able to go out later due to the amount of work he needed to complete within the day.
He was about to approach the food section when he saw Sophie.
A few years ago, they went to the same elementary school but got separated afterward, as Sophie studied in a science high school while he studied in an arts high school.
He immediately recognized her because he had a crush on her during their elementary days but did not dare to express himself and let her know.
“She’s all grown up,” he said upon seeing her. Sophie’s face reminded him of his mother, so he started to reminisce and quietly dream of his past.
I was adopted by Mom when I was eight, after my biological parents, both university professors, died while visiting their childhood home, murdered by their neighbors for the eighty-dollar cash in my father’s wallet. I used to call her Auntie Elizabeth, but after the incident, I always called her Mom.
I could still remember the looks of Grandma and Grandpa when Mom introduced me to them. It was pure happiness and genuine respect for her and her decision, and not a tinge of judgment as most would have expected, for Mom was their oldest daughter and a single woman, and having me as a son would bring her nothing but disadvantages, complicating her prospects for having her own marriage and family. She would always have to explain how she, a maiden who had never had a relationship before, suddenly became a single mother.
Many years later, after she recovered from a sickness that separated us for more than a decade, Mom would reveal that she preferred not to marry and that having me as her son was all she wanted for her own family.
My grandparents’ family was large, having eight sons and seven daughters. I heard they never lost a single baby from childbirth and had all their children grow healthily. The fifteen siblings, excluding my mom, would later on all get married and help build Grandpa’s successful retail business. Being the oldest child, Mom became like a second mother to her siblings when her parents’ work began to take off.
Our street was known for my grandfather’s family name, as most of the houses there belonged to his sons, daughters, sons-in-law, and daughters-in-law. When Mom introduced me to my newly acquired relatives, I was able to count fourteen houses scattered along the street and aligned to Grandpa’s home. His house, which they called the mansion, was the largest and most majestic looking among them as it was located within an intersection and was highly elevated, adding to its imposing aura. They said Grandpa’s mansion was among the most beautiful houses in the entire village, and it certainly was the one on our street.
But it was never like this before, as there was a time when my grandparents, their children, and their children’s families were all crammed in one wooden bungalow. That was thirty-plus people living in just one house. They only moved out one by one when they started buying the lots and building their own houses. Most of my uncles who joined Grandpa’s family were farmers, carpenters, construction workers, and truck drivers. Their lives would all change, together with that of my grandparents.
During those early days, my grandpa’s business was in the buying and selling of vegetables and fruits. He began with one retail shop, as that was all he could manage with his wife. But with the growth of his children and the addition of his newly gained sons-in-law and daughters-in-law, his business expanded as well, and he was able to have multiple stores within our village. Many years later, my grandparents would retire while their children operated the vegetable and fruit shops for them.
Every year, during New Year and Fiesta, all of my grandparents’ children and their families gather in the mansion. The women would cook dishes in the large kitchen while the men played cards and drank beer in the living room, with their children playing in the garden. After lunch, there would be a film showing with my Grandpa’s Betamax and huge colored television, one of the first in our village. Overall, I could say that my grandfather and his children were a success story. But this is ordinary when compared to Mom’s journey.
She was precocious and would have definitely been a prodigy if her early childhood had enough intellectual stimuli, like the presence of learning materials or guiding mentors, and had not been surrounded constantly by her parent’s customers, delivery men, workers, and baskets of fruits and vegetables. She developed an interest in drawing at an early age, using the bits of charcoal she collected from a nearby store that sold them and pieces of newspapers from a friendly magazine vendor. The whole day, while her parents were busy managing their stores, she would draw every fruit, vegetable, and customer that she could see. If she had a mentor who could have guided her, she would undoubtedly have been an artist.
But during those years, having accountants for daughters was the trend among the ambitious, and Mom’s destiny had already been sealed by that trend alone. So, she never got trained, and her potential didn’t develop in her first interest. As there were no books, magazines, or other reading materials in my grandpa’s home, her precociousness and intellect only started to bloom and get noticed when she began elementary at age seven.
She was the valedictorian and the brightest student of her batch and would repeat the same feat every year while she was in elementary. And though she would not perform the impressive educational jumps that other prodigies her age would normally do, her parents became aware of her potential and decided to invest in her. My grandparents’ trust in her would later contribute to her accomplishment of becoming the first person from our village to enter the most prestigious university in our province.
But that would still be in the future, and before that, Mom would have to go through the four years of high school. And it was here where she gained her first claim to fame. During those years, there was a television show where students from all high schools in our country would compete, named Battle of the Brains. Schools from our entire province were so backward that they could not even pass this show’s elimination round.
However, this all changed when Mom began high school. With the support of her team, her school won against all the schools from other villages, later becoming the champion across the province. And for the first time, we were able to enter the elimination stage of the Battle of the Brains. Her high school would already have been proud and happy with this achievement, but nobody expected that she would go on and continue her conquest, beating all the other provinces in the entire country.
The national championship between Mom’s unknown school versus a prestigious science high school from the capital became a huge television event. Even the people from our village prepared to watch because the underdog team was their own. Grandpa opened his mansion to all who didn’t have the means to watch the championship and invited everyone to join his family. My relatives even prepared free desserts and snacks for all. When Mama’s team won the national contest that day, my grandparents were very proud, and there was a big celebration in the mansion, with all of Grandpa’s fourteen children and their families cheering with him. That day, my grandparents decided that they would support Mom and send her to wherever she would like to take college because she had gained their trust and respect.
For three more years while in high school, Mom and her team would repeatedly defend their title, winning the championship annually in the Battle of the Brains. And as expected from the student that beat all the other high school students in our country, she became, of course, the valedictorian of her class every school year, receiving multiple awards, medals, and special recognitions for her contributions to the school. On her graduation day in her fourth year, she delivered the valedictory address to the graduating class.
Her academic success was only beginning, though. As shared earlier, accountancy was the craze of parents at that time, for banks were still considered rare and just starting to get introduced to the villages. So, when Mom entered college, she had to major in accountancy as that was what my grandparents considered the best for their daughter. Everybody wanted to become an accountant, and working in a bank was popular even among men. Back then, we only had one bank in our village, while some towns were lucky to have two. Nowadays, banks are everywhere.
When Mom took the entrance exam in our province’s most prestigious university, she got the highest score and received a full scholarship, including a separate allowance for books, food, lodging, and transportation. To please her parents, she majored in accountancy, which she completed in three years. This was when schools only gave the standard two semesters per school year. She stayed for one more year in college and had a second degree in economics. She graduated summa cum laude and was selected to deliver the graduation speech.
While preparing for the board exam to become a certified public accountant, Mom registered for her master’s degree at the same school. After a few months, she took and passed the board exam, gaining the top position and placing our unknown village again in the news. With her achievement, Mom received multiple offers from various multinational companies and accepted an executive position while at the same time taking a teaching role at the university. Within three years, she completed both her master’s and Ph.D., and a year later, she became the first woman to head the university’s economics department.
My grandparents were beaming with pride for all the accomplishments Mom had achieved. She became a role model for all her nephews and nieces. And that meant most of them would later take accountancy when they attended college, regardless if they had a knack for it or if it was what they really wanted to do. My uncles and aunties believed that emulating Mom meant that their children also had to take the same major. She financially supported my cousins while attending college and always provided help when they had difficulties and needed advice.
Mom became friends with my biological parents while she was taking her Ph.D. and was often invited to our home, which was not far from the university. Later on, after she bought her own house next to ours, I would often visit and stay with her when my parents had to attend conferences or go out of town for a few days.
It was during one of those visits when my biological parents met their fate. They returned to their childhood home to sort out an issue on their property, as my natural grandparents were already gone. On the same day of their arrival, the neighbors entered their house to get whatever cash they carried with them. These robbers didn’t even confirm or ask if they brought money in their return. They just attacked and later found out that there were only 80 dollars in cash in my father’s wallet, plus an atm card that the robbers didn’t know how to use or access.
I was with Mom at that time, studying with her in the library, when we received the phone call. She cried afterward, and a few days later, she initiated my adoption and filed the necessary papers. I was in Grade Two when it happened.
A few months passed, and my first summer vacation with Mom was about to begin when she asked me if I would like to visit my biological parent’s hometown. She added that we could stay in a hotel as it would be safer. I said yes, and she then shared a story she had heard from my biological parents, a cherished memory they had about the location of their first meeting. Mom promised she would bring me to that plaza where my father and mother first met and fell in love.
Mom and I visited my parents’ village two days before the Fiesta. The plaza was full of kiosks, booths, and stalls selling food, vegetables, fruits, clothes, utensils, toys, appliances, magazines, books, and everything a family would need could be found there. She introduced me to snacks I had never seen before and whose taste I would definitely not forget.
She shared with me that my father met my mother in one of such shops in the plaza, specifically the one that sold second-hand books. One day, my mother, who loved to collect and read romantic novels, was browsing the rows of books in the shop. A young man approached her, a high school student the same age as her, and recommended one of the paperbacks in the shop, saying that he had completed it and is one of the most beautiful love stories he had read. They introduced themselves to each other, and from that day on, they became close friends, leading to their decision to go to college together and, later on, marry and have a family. They were very compatible, Mom said, saying that my parents rarely had any arguments with each other.
While looking at the various shops in the plaza, Mom noticed a peddler who sold amulets and talismans. He was positioned in front of the village’s holy temple, selling his wares to the visitors.
I was unsure how it began, but I heard Mom arguing with the peddler about the items he was selling.
“Those amulets and talismans are pagan in origin, and they should not be sold in front of the holy temple,” said mother. “It is irreverent.”
“And how would you know that? Are you trained and educated in theology? What do you know?” shouted the peddler. “You are killing my business, woman!”
“I’m just saying... why don’t you move your shop over there, not in front of the temple.”
“But the customers are here in front of the temple! Leave me alone! I’m making a living here!”
Soon, the peddler’s older brothers and cousins arrived and surrounded Mom. There were six of them, and they dragged her inside a shop next to the temple.
“You shut up, woman! What are you doing to my brother?!”
“Should we beat her?”
“I know something better!”
“Are we going to use that?”
“It worked last time.”
“Okay, you two will be the shouters, and we will keep her here until the crowd starts to build up.”
Two of the younger brothers went out of the shop and started screaming.
“Why did you burn the Scriptures?”
“She burned the Scriptures!”
“A woman burned the Scriptures!”
At the start, nobody paid attention to the two brothers screaming in front of the temple. However, soon a few men became curious about what they were shouting.
“Why, what happened?”
“Someone burned the Scriptures!”
“Really? How can anyone do that?”
“Somebody burned the Scriptures!”
“Where? Who burned the Scriptures?”
“We caught a woman who burned the Scriptures!”
“She burned the Scriptures!”
As though that last line was the cue that the other brothers were waiting inside the shop, they started screaming inside too.
“Why did you burn the Scriptures? Tell us?”
“Do you hate the Scriptures?”
“Did you burn all of the Scriptures? All of them?”
There was now a chorus of alternating shouts from both the brothers inside and outside the shop where they held Mom by force. A large crowd had formed in the streets around the shop, claiming that a woman inside was caught burning the Scriptures. The crowd could not really see or know what was happening inside the shop as it was surrounded by many onlookers. But by the sound of the shouting, it appeared as though a trial was happening inside. The crowd repeatedly heard the shouts of why the Scriptures were burned and how much of it had been burned.
“How much of the Scriptures did you burn?”
“You can see it for yourself! She burned them!”
“Why did you burn them?”
The screaming continued until, finally, when the size of the crowd had been large enough for the siblings, the two younger brothers shouted outside the shop:
“Bring her out and beat her with sticks!”
“Make her pay for burning the Scriptures!”
The crowd immediately became larger. As more people saw the crowd, the more people asked what was happening, and the faster the accusation spread until everyone became fully convinced that the Scriptures were truly burned and that it was Mom who did it. A horde of angry temple visitors flocked in front of the shop upon hearing the accusations.
When there were more than 300 men surrounding the shop, the brothers brought Mom outside and shoved her on the pavement in front of the temple.
“Make her pay!”
The mob began to beat and kick her in the back. Mom tried to protect her head, but everyone was relentless; they all wanted to leave a print of their shoes on her body.
By now, all the worshippers inside the temple had heard the commotion and learned about a woman that burned the Scriptures. The worshippers began rushing out, the crowd increased, and the size of the angry mob doubled.
While all of this was happening, I was running everywhere, looking for the police. By the time the policeman and I arrived, they had already begun thrashing her in the streets. The policeman, though alone, grabbed Mom by the hand and tried to separate her from the hundreds of angry men who wanted to attack her. Fortunately, three more policemen came to back him up.
The mob was persistent, though, like a pack of hyenas trying to take a bite on a few lions. As if acting with impunity, some members of the mob punched Mom in the face, and some kicked her in the back, though the four policemen were in front of them. One of the officers became annoyed with the relentless mob and fired three warning shots, temporarily dispersing them.
The whole street was now filled with hundreds of onlookers, curious people, and members of the angry mob. The four policemen with Mom were trapped in the middle of this mass of bodies.
“It’s not safe here,” said a policeman to his colleagues. “Why don’t we bring her to the precinct building.”
“It’s one mile away. There is no way we can pass this crowd.”
“Let’s bring her inside the temple. It’s safer there.”
But the mob was adamant and would not let the policemen pass. They blocked the entrance of the temple.
“I am telling you, please leave!” shouted a policeman.
“Brother, let us have her!” chanted the mob.
“Why not let us have her?”
“Stand back, please!” shouted another policeman.
“Give us permission! Let us have her!”
By now, there was no doubt in the minds of everyone, including the onlookers and the curious, that Mom was guilty of the accusation. The rumor swirled and jumped from man to man in that whole street: a woman burned the Scriptures.
“Get her! Get her!” the mob began to chant, blocking the policemen from all sides.
Then one of the policemen noticed another path to the temple, through the roof of the shop where Mom was held earlier by the peddler’s brothers.
“Let’s use the roof. Bring her up there.”
“Yes, I think that should work.”
The policemen realized that the shop’s roof was the only safe place for Mom and the only path for them to escape the mob. Two of the policemen climbed the shop in advance and went to the roof. Sensing the urgency, the remaining policemen began to pull and put Mom near the roof of the shop, so the mob could not drag her back to the street.
One officer held out his hand so Mom could start climbing, while another below pushed her up so she could fully go on the roof. They were successful and were able to bring Mom on top of the shop’s roof; however, a few men from the crowd also climbed the roof and started throwing wood planks and large rocks at her. One of them hit her with the planks, which made her lose her bearing and roll down back to the mob below.
This time, there were no more policemen to protect her, as they were all left on the shop’s roof. Mom was pulled by the mob away from the shop and back into the middle of the street, where hundreds of angry men surrounded her.
Mom stood up to face the mob and tried to explain herself, but a man bludgeoned her with a thick piece of wood in the face and made her stumble. She rolled three times like a log and stayed on the ground for a few moments. Then the men around her began kicking her again.
As there were hundreds of men in the street, some of them could not see what was happening. They started climbing the roofs of the other shops so they could watch as Mom got thrashed by the men around her.
“She stopped moving!”
“Is she dead?”
“No. She fainted.”
To the surprise of many, the policemen who were protecting Mom earlier didn’t try to go near her this time. Instead, they began doing traffic work and redirected the vehicles, as the cars could not move due to the huge commotion.
The mob continued beating Mom until one of them shouted:
“Go back, go back, stand back. Let’s check her.”
“Is she dead?”
“Get the car!”
One of the men brought a car where Mom was lying on the road and ran her over, dragging her body by almost a hundred meters. Then he kept on driving over her, bringing her nearer to the river. By now, the traffic police were gone, nowhere to be seen.
“Let’s burn her body and then throw it into the river!”
“Let’s stone her!”
The mob then dragged her body to the nearby bank of the river and took turns stoning her.
“Drop her into the river! Drop her.”
“So the dogs will eat her.”
“One moment, one moment!”
“Hang her for all to see!”
“Let the world see it!”
“Damn you! Damn you!”
One of the men wanted to ensure the Mom was really dead, so he pulled a large rock, the size of a huge watermelon, and dropped it into her face. Upon seeing this, the men hurled large stones at her, over and over.
“Take this, take it. Take this stone.”
Then they began to set her on fire, but she would not burn because her body was soaked in too much blood. So the men began to cut pieces from their own clothes as fuel and igniter for the fire. Finally, Mom lit and burned. I sat on the road and bawled because I could not do anything to save her. I could never forgive myself for what had happened to her.
And then the police appeared, while Mom’s body burned brighter and brighter.
“Stay away from the fire. Disperse! Be careful near the fire!”
And then the crowd scattered, returning to what they had been doing before. Two days later, Mom was announced innocent.
Mom’s body was still burning, so I took a bucket I found near the river and turned off the fire. Two doctors came, a father and a daughter. They brought Mom into an ambulance, and later that day, the female doctor fetched me from the hotel and brought me to a hospital, where Mom was resting in a coma.