Finding Alberto (Chapter 11)
Jan 04,2014 0 Comments
Elena was just then an intern. The old man who was at the ER was coughing out pails of blood. He was in the advanced stages of tuberculosis, a disease no longer recognized in the US and puzzles even the best of doctors. The man was Asian, possibly Chinese, and decidedly suspicious of hospitals. He self-medicated on traditional herbal medicine until his daughter forcibly strapped him onto the car and drove him to the hospital. The head nurse barked orders. “Bring the patient to the isolation room. Contact Dr. Burke immediately!” Elena was a bit rattled. “You, intern! Clean up this mess!”
The head nurse meant the blood. It wasn’t her job to mop the floors. She wasn’t an orderly. But she was new. She’s an OFW. No matter that she passed licensure exams; she wasn’t welcome here. She had displaced many American nursing graduates that the Declaration of Independence has freed to pursue happiness but has instead joined the throng of the unemployed.
Elena remembered that time, scrubbing the floors, getting her gloved hands dirty with infectious blood and sputum. But now she scrubbed something else altogether. The men have disposed of Marco’s body somewhere in the woods. Like garbage they hauled his body and dragged it into the dark.
Elena fought panic and tears as she wiped vehicle seats… it seems cleaning is routine for nurses. But she was shaking. And she knew nothing she could do could truly erase the smell. Nor the memory from her head. She used the water bottles handed by the hotel maid to Marco to wash the blood off. “They were in love,” Elena thought, and she knew if she kept thinking about the hotel maid she’ll break down crying. She found a sharp stone on the road by the van wheels and quickly, before she was caught, she carved a cross on a nearby tree. She’ll come back for Marco’s body. She’ll exhume it and give him a decent burial.
The men have returned. They loaded themselves onto the van. One of them got out a roll of duct tape and fastened Elena’s left wrist to the wheel. “You can drive this way,” the man said.
“You do realize this is dangerous,” Elena said. But that plea fell on deaf ears. The man plastered duct tape on Elena’s mouth. Elena protested, but the man’s hands were rough and brutal.
“Quiet. Tonight we sleep.”
Dawn broke. Elena woke up with a start when the man stripped off the tape from her mouth. Pain shot through her spine as she must have slept in that awkward position.
“Drive,” he ordered.
The rest of the men were gone. The man beside her pointed a gun to her temples. Elena stared at his face. He had a mole on his nose. “You do anything crazy, woman, and you’ll be in the woods just like your friend.” He turned the key in the ignition. The van lurched, and soon Elena was driving as the pale sky gained more light.
“Make a right here,” the man ordered at a turn. They drove for ten minutes, the man giving Elena directions. Soon at the far end of the street they found the rest of the women. One of the women stood out. She looked distraught and afraid.
Elena parked the van. The men forced the woman into the back. She didn’t make a sound. She looked too weak. “What did you animals do to her?” Elena said.
“It’s my turn,” said the man who had the gun. He was replaced by another man who spoke in rapid Chavacano. He took the gun and resumed pointing it at Elena. The man with the mole went to the back and proceeded to rape the woman.
“Drive. Just keep driving,” said the man rapidly.
“Why do you do this?” Elena said, seething in anger.
“Kung ano sa altu, siya sa baha,” replied the man with a smirk. “The government politicians rape. We rape. Same thing.”
“Are you MNLF? Bangsamoro?” Elena asked.
“You will drive.”
“I am not driving, you devil.”
“I will blow your brains out.”
“Let the girl free.”
“Let her free, and I’ll drive,” Elena said
The man spoke in Chavacano to his mates. The men laughed. “Never mind. We are all finished with her,” he said, his hand at his crotch.
“Demonyo.” He slapped Elena. She reeled against the wheel.
“You follow the highway. We’re going to Tagoloan.”
“Sira-ulo ka ba? That’s in Cagayan de Oro. That’s hours away!”
“So start driving.”
“Bring the girl to sit here with me, and I will drive you. I will drive you to whatever sinkhole in hell you deserve to rot in, and I’ll bring her to the hospital,” Elena said.
“Gaga,” said the man. But he opened the door, went into the back, and dragged the woman out. She clung to her hijab and covered her face in it, weeping loudly. The man put her in the passenger seat in front between him and Elena.
“Ako bahala sa’yo. Dalhin kita sa ospital,” said Elena. And she drove. The country drive was not silent. The woman never stopped sobbing. And loud reports from gunshots were heard from all directions.
They found their way to the Maharlika Highway. To their right, across the calm Moro Gulf, was Sacol Island.
“Puta!” the man exclaimed, looking at his cellphone. He spoke in Chavacano to the men.
The woman suddenly spoke up. “Sana mamatay kayong lahat. Uubusin kayo ng militar.”
“What’s going on?” Elena asked.
“Puta!” said the man again. “Hindi heto pinag-usapan natin ni Tanda. Tang’na.”
“Tawagan mo si Pogi.”
“Di nga sumasagot. Tang’na!”
A few hours later they were stopped at a military checkpoint. The man with the mole stepped out and greeted the soldiers.
“Pero pumasok na pera?”
“Galing kay Sexy at kay Tanda. Si Pogi di pa bayad,” said one of the soldiers.
“Putang-ina! Usapan eh isang contingent lang ipapadala nila. Puta! Inuubos na kami.”
The soldier pointed a finger at him. “Umayos ka. Kung di sa’kin naratrat na bunganga mo sa crossfire. Tumupad ka sa usapan, gago ka!
“Ang usapan ay proteksyunan niyo paglikas namin. Ginago kami nung Tatlo.” The man with the mole walked away from the soldier and climbed into the van.
“Officer, please help!” Elena cried. But the soldier acted as if he did not hear the woman driver or passenger. Instead he spoke to his radio. “Unit Bravo Romeo. Vessel on the move… Roger… Wonder Woman on the wheel…”
“Keep driving,” said the man with the mole. “You’re our ticket. So long as you’re driving, this ship is invisible.”
Elena drove on. Half an hour later they drove by the coastline on their right side. On their left was the rise of a mountain. It was thickly wooded and looked uninhabited by humans. There was no one out here to help them.
“Shit!” Elena said. “Who paid you money to incite an insurgency?”
“Stupid woman,” said the man with the mole from the back. “Where have you been? No TV? People talk about Napoles, Napoles, Napoles. We get money. We create diversion. People talk about Bangsamoro Power. Your stupid government pays us like we’re puppets then sends out inutil soldiers.”
“You will all die in hell. I will drive straight into the sea and drown you all,” said Elena. The men laughed.
“Huwag po, Ale. May dalawang anak po ako,” pleaded the woman.
“Pinagdarasal mo ba lagi ang mga anak mo?” Elena asked.
“Araw-araw po. Limang beses isang araw.”
“Then you better start praying for them five times more today.” Elena took a deep breath and pressed her foot on the gas. The van accelerated within a few seconds. The man with the mole started cursing loudly. The other men begun speaking excitedly in Chavacano. The woman was praying aloud to Allah and Catholic saints.
“Putang-ina mo!” cried the man with a gun. He rolled down the window and fired two shots. Elena stepped on the brakes and the van skidded into a halt. The woman let go of her hijab and put her hands on the dashboard to steady herself and was weeping wildly.
“Yung susunod na bala sa utak mo!”
“At sino magdra-drive sa inyo? Gunggong!”
“Are you afraid to die? I’m not,” Elena declared, not caring if she was understood speaking in English. “I’m an old woman. I’ve lived my life, I have nothing to lose.”
“Then die,” said the man, aiming the gun at Elena’s face. “Akala mo ba hindi kami makakakuha ng kahit sinong babae na kaya mag-drive?”
Elena’s torso and thighs were drenched with cold sweat. She shivered a bit. And then her breathing calmed. There was no experience of “my life flashed before my eyes” for her. This was it. The last thing her eyes will ever see was the barrel of a gun aimed at her point blank.
“Hamal, ibaba mo ang baril,” ordered the man with the mole. The man didn’t budge for a few seconds, before he lowered his weapon.
“May mga tagό,” he said.
Elena saw that there were men and women surrounding the van. There must be about twenty of them. They just surrounded the van and stood like sentinels. They were dressed ruggedly. None of them knocked on the van or brandished a weapon. But the man with the mole opened the door.
“Hindi niyo laban ito. Sa aming Moro ito.”
“At ang laban namin ay hindi sa inyo,” said one of the NPAs. “Kami na maghahatid sa inyo. Palayain niyo ang mga bihag.”
It was Alberto. “Ka Emie, ikaw na ang maghatid sa mga kaibigan natin,” he said.
A woman stepped forward and nodded to the man with the mole. Alberto went around the van and opened the driver’s door. He carefully removed the duct tape off of Elena’s wrist.
Elena fell into Alberto’s arms. “They’re monsters! I want to go home! Alberto, bring me home… Alberto, the woman. The mother… they raped her.”
“We’ll bring her to a local healer. It’s over now, love,” Alberto said.
“And Marco, they killed the young boy. They dumped him in the woods!”
Six gunshots. All MNLF men fell dead. The woman named Emie finished them off.
“It’s over now…” Alberto said, holding Elena tight to himself.
Story by Joan Lopez-Flores & Rico del Rosario