Finding Alberto (Chapter 10)

Story by Joan Lopez-Flores & Rico del Rosario

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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.

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