Finding Alberto (Chapter 10)
Nov 28,2013 0 Comments
It was close to five o’clock in the afternoon when Elena arrived at the airport. The sun was low in the horizon, and the heat was unbearable. It would be another twelve minutes before Elena was able to collect her luggage. The flight did not take long but she was tired and hungry. Most of all she questioned herself. What am I doing here?
The Zamboanga International Airport was once called Moret Field, solely owned by the US Army. In 1945, it also became the base port for both the US Marine Corp and Aircraft Group, and up to 300 planes landed on or lifted off it in a given day. In 2004 it came under the management of the Manila International Airport Authority and was used for Balikatan exercises during the Arroyo administration. About 5.2 million US dollars were spent in projects to improve the airport, but any construction had been halted due to lack of further funding from the government.
As she stepped out of the Zamboanga International Airport, busy today as it was a weekend, Elena surveyed the spanning exterior of the airport, which, from above with its series of triangular roofing like a Toblerone bar, looked to her like a discarded giant hand fan made of steel. A boy who looked about 15 approached her. “Atilano po?”
Remembering that she had booked a pension house in Atilano Compound, Elena followed him. She allowed him to take her luggage. There was a van outside the waiting area, amidst porters, people holding names printed on cardboard, tricycle drivers and vendors. The boy carefully loaded the luggage into the van and, as Elena took her seat, closed the door. He then circled around, climbed into the driver’s seat, and drove off.
“Anong pangalan mo?” Elena asked.
“Marco po,” replied the boy.
“Hindi ka ba nag-aaral?”
Marco grinned. “Hindi na po. Hanapbuhay na po. Sa Casa Don po ba kayo?”
“Oo,” said Elena, making a mental note to leave a good tip for the young boy. She gazed outside the window. As the dusk light slowly died, the streets of Zamboanga City became alive with streetlights. Hotels, al fresco restaurants, ancient churches, sari-sari stores and home fronts began to be lit up. There was some traffic on the street.
Elena reached for her phone and rang Alberto’s number. It kept ringing but he didn’t pick up. “I’ll worry about him later,” she told herself, but the truth was there was nothing else in her mind but him. Waiting for the traffic light to change, a child, her head covered in a veil, knocked on the window and broke her reverie. She reached down to get some coins but the light turned green and the van gunned down the road.
Elena was not at all disappointed by the accommodations of the Atilano Compound. Elena’s room was sparse. There was a wooden bed made of bamboo. The white mattress was thick and hard. The TV was small. The capiz windows were shut to the wind, and the aircon was humming. She did remember to tip Marco who followed her all the way to her room. When she closed the door, she went to bed and fell right asleep in her clothes.
She woke up at ten-thirty p.m., startled by a terrible dream. In it, she fell into a fish pond of dark, murky water. Surprisingly, she found she could breathe underwater, and that in the deep, the water wasn’t inky black at all, but bright and clear, as if all it was was a large pool of water. Children dived from above freely into the water and swam, their laughter filling the pool like bubbles. As Elena sank to the bottom, she let go of her purse, her bag, her cellphone. She saw that well-dressed men and women strolled on the bottom of the pool, some of them even dressed in large skirts and tall hats, as if it were the Victorian era. She explored a corner of the pool where a sunken wardrobe stood, its mirror reflecting the light, the water distorting the reflection. The wardrobe was opened and instead of clothes, there were piles and piles of books in them, rare books, strange titles, books by banned authors, and they were here being sold at very high prices.
“Excuse me, you’re stepping on my purchase,” said one gentleman.
“Pardon me, Señor,” replied Elena, for to her the gentleman looked like Crisostomo Ibarra. She stepped aside and found she was indeed stepping on a guitar case, which the gentleman Ibarra was stuffing with books from the wardrobe. Suddenly Elena felt sorry for Hannah and wanted to be with her more than anything else. And she looked up to see a wooden staircase going up to the surface of the water, and she knew instinctively that if she climbed up those stairs she would find Hannah waiting for her.
Elena reached for her phone. It blinked 10:38 P.M., 08 September 2013. No Messages.
Elena dialed Hannah’s number. When the answering machine beeped, she left her daughter a message: “Hon, I miss you. I want to hear from you soon. I dreamed about you last night. I hope you’re doing okay. Did you remember to feed Aunt Mintsy’s fish?”
A click, and then Hannah came on the phone. “Hi, Mom! Sorry, I just walked in the door. How are you?”
“Hannah! I’m good. I think. I’m in the south. I’ll stay here for a few days, see new things. Then maybe I’ll go back to California and I’ll see you.”
“OK! Sounds good. Ma, Aunt Mintsy’s goldfish… well, I couldn’t take care of it.”
“Oh. Did it die?”
“I went to the river. I set it free. I think it was happy to go.”
“Well… that’s fine. Are you eating well?”
There was a loud knocking on her door.
“Ma’am! Ma’am!” came the urgent call. A clinking of keys, and soon the door burst open. A hotel maid came in, her Muslim veil almost falling off her hair. She began speaking excitedly in Chavacano.
“English, please. Tagalog?” Elena said.
The maid reached out to her and grabbed her wrist and led her off the bed. In snatches of Tagalog and English phrases, she explained to Elena that the MNLF rebels had raised a Bangsamoro flag at the City Hall, and that the Armed Forces are on their way to make an attack. She said all this as she led Elena out of the room and into the corridor.
“Wait!” Elena rushed back into the room and made a grab for her purse. On the phone, Hannah’s electronic voice called out, “Mom? What’s going on?” The maid went back and all but roughly pushed Elena out of the room.
“Mom?! Mom?” said Hannah’s voice, small and distant, halfway around the world.
Elena was joined at the lobby by other guests. Some were angry, some were sleepy. Others bristled with excitement.
“Dito po kayo, Ma’am,” said the maid, as they managed the forced evacuation.
A man bellowed, “What the hell is going on?” The hotel staff looked as panicked as anyone. And people began yelling and asking questions.
Outside, almost drowned by the voices of guests and staff, the report of gunshots pierced the night. Elena heard it and her knees began to buckle.
“Tubig,” she whispered.
Then the young boy, Marco, found her. He held her by her shoulders and led her outside. The van was waiting there, its door open. The hotel maid came running after them and handed Marco two bottles of water. “Ingat,” she said.
Marco almost nearly carried Elena into the van; Elena feeling weaker and her breaths shallower; and Marco himself buckled Elena’s seatbelt. He rushed outside, closed the door, and barked at the maid. “Sasama ka ba?”
When the maid hesitated, Marco hugged her, planted a kiss on her mouth, and then jumped into the driver’s seat. More gunshots were heard, and dogs began howling. Houses began turning off their lights, and the street became dark.
“Ingat,” said the maid again, and the van rushed off into the street.
“Umatake po ang MNLF,” said Marco.
“Bakit niyo iniwan yung ibang tao? Yung ibang guests?” Elena said.
“The military, Ma’am, will get them.”
“And where are you taking me?”
“To safety po.”
“Hinihintay po kayo ni Ka Pluma.”
“Who?” Elena demanded.
“Ah. Ka Pluma po ang tawag namin sa kaniya. Si Ka Alberto po. Pinapasundo kayo. Dun po tayo pupunta.”
The van wound through the streets. It turned left and right and straight and rounded many corners that Elena lost track. She looked outside. Everything looked eerily peaceful. And the moon gave little light, as it was waxing. A shy crescent up above, indifferent to the yellow crescent and star with a scimitar on the Bangsamoro flag the infidels put up.
“Are we going to the airport?” Elena said.
“I forgot my wallet, my IDs, my passport in the hotel.”
“We’ll take care of that po.”
“Are you MNLF?” she asked Marco. She suddenly feared that if Marco was a rebel, and that if Alberto was of the same party with him, then she had no one to trust in the world.
“Hindi po, Ma’am.”
“Ano ka? NPA?”
But Marco didn’t reply. Elena did not hear any plane or aircraft or helicopters, and she began to seriously doubt if they were truly heading to the airport.
“Marami po kami, Ma’am, hindi lang po kami nagpapakilala, pero ganun na nga po,” said Marco. “Don’t be afraid of me po, Ma’am. Ka Alberto helped me po finish school when my parents were killed by the government soldiers. I owe him my life. I take you to him po.”
Elena remembered that up to that point she has never uttered a prayer.
The van slowed down.
“Are we here?” Elena asked.
“Checkpoint po,” Marco said.
Marco came to a complete stop and rolled down his window. There was a bar across the path and they couldn’t go further. Men with flashlights surrounded the van. One of them kept his flashlight on Marco’s face. The young boy kept his head face down.
“De donde lugar usted,” the man with the flashlight said.
“Hotel po. Tourist. Going to the airport,” said Marco.
“Or going to heaven,” said the man with the flashlight. He aimed a gun to Marco’s head and fired. Elena stifled a scream and she felt like the gunshot went to her head, too.
“You, lady? Do you know how to drive?” the man said, turning his flashlight on her.
“I said do you know how to drive?”
Elena couldn’t move. The man reached in the window and unlocked the door of the van. The side door, the one to Elena’s right, slid open. Five men with flashlights climbed onto the van. Another opened the door in front and pulled out Marco’s body.
Marco’s killer pointed the gun at Elena. “Get out of there and get in front. You drive!”