Bryan Corpuz walks along the road barely aware of the passing vehicles. Two things bother him. The first is his lack of money. The second is the death of Brigadier General Delos Reyes.
The young man is on his way to a drugstore, in the public market of Tacurong, where he is supposed to buy a week’s worth of medicine for his diabetic father. The money in his pocket, however, is not even half of the amount he needs. When he comes back home later, he might have to explain why. He might have to tell his parents that he is not just on a month-end break; he has gone AWOL from service. He is a soldier no more.
The other thing bothering Bryan is the same news that has shocked the nation. General Delos Reyes, the highest-ranking finance officer in the army, was found dead in a hotel in Makati this morning. The official had been involved in a massive corruption scandal, and he was scheduled to appear in the Senate hearing today. With his death, he took with him the dark secrets of the armed forces, and Bryan’s last hope of being called back for duty.
Bryan is so preoccupied that he doesn’t notice a white van pull up right in front of him. He’s surprised when the door opens and two armed men step out of the vehicle.
“Get in,” one of the men tells him.
The strangers need not use threatening words. They need not brandish or point their guns at him. Having been a soldier, Bryan knows what weapons can do. As though the men are just his pals giving him a ride, he steps inside the vehicle without a word.
They are traveling away from the city. That much Bryan can tell. He has been inside the van for about half an hour, his eyes blindfolded, his hands cuffed behind him.
Before his eyes were covered, Bryan had seen that there were four men in the vehicle. One was driving, two flanked his sides, and one sat behind him. Though none of them was in full uniform, Bryan could tell they were military men. Each had at least one item on him that was government issue—shirt, shorts, cap, a shawl.
“Who are you?” Bryan asked.
“Shut up,” the man on his left said, snapping the cuffs around his wrists. The man behind him secured the blindfold. Bryan thrashed about, but hands pinned him to the seat, and the cold barrel of a gun kissed his cheek.
Bryan now senses that the road has become bumpy and the traffic sparse. The van must have left the highway. “Where are you taking me?” Bryan says.
“Just wait,” someone answers. “Don’t be too excited.” The others laugh.
“Our boss wants to see you,” another man says.
Bryan feels rather calm. He knows that he’s safe for the meantime. The men won’t hurt him as long as he doesn’t try to escape. They’re not the ones who want to hurt him. They have no personal interest in him. They are merely following orders, being good soldiers.
Another reason Bryan doesn’t fear much for his life is that this has happened before, when he was called to report in Manila and met the wife of Brigadier General Delos Reyes. In the national headquarters, men took him to a van and blindfolded him. After nearly an hour of traveling through bustling streets, he was led to a nondescript office, where the general’s wife was waiting for him.
Bryan wonders what is wanted of him this time, if the abduction has anything to do with the general. The general is dead, so he cannot be the boss the men have referred to. He also doubts if the general’s wife is the boss. When he met her, he had the impression that the woman had her hands full in Manila and would not bother to go to Mindanao except maybe for a vacation. In addition, her husband has just died; she must be busy attending to the details of his funeral.
Bryan knows, however, that she’s a vicious woman. In Manila, she seemed more powerful than her husband. She seemed capable of doing anything. Bryan won’t be surprised if she’s here in Mindanao to bring more misery to his life. He won’t also be surprised if he learns that she has something to do with her husband’s death.
Bryan has always wanted to be a soldier. When he was in grade three, the teacher asked the class what they wanted to be when they grew up. Most of the boys, including Bryan, said they wanted to be a soldier, while most of the girls said they wanted to be a teacher.
Bryan’s family was still living then in Lambayong, a sleepy town in Sultan Kudarat Province, just beside Tacurong City. Their village was populated mostly by farmers, and the only professionals the kids there had a chance to be acquainted with were their teachers at school and the soldiers who would pass by in trucks whenever they had an operation against Muslim insurgents. The kids had heard of other professions, such as being a doctor or a lawyer, but they found them too lofty or strange.
When Bryan finished high school, he was already eighteen, old enough to enter the military. A distant uncle in Cotabato Province, a soldier with considerable position, offered to help him apply. But Bryan’s mother objected. She wanted Bryan to continue studying and be a teacher. Bryan was an only child, and his parents were earning enough to send him to college; they owned a threshing machine, a wide solar drier, and several tracts of farmland. Unable to disobey his mother, Bryan gave up his dream and took up education.
Things changed when Bryan’s father was diagnosed with diabetes, while the young man was in his second year in college. His father’s disease was discovered late and had developed complications, the worst of which was kidney malfunction. Because of the medical expenses, in a little more than a year, the family had to scrape off a living. The farms were sold or leased, the business was closed, and Bryan had to stop studying.
When the hiring for soldiers opened again, Bryan’s mother felt she had no choice but let her son go, and in a rather sad turn, Bryan found himself fulfilling his dream. The worst, however, was yet to happen.
Soldiering itself wasn’t difficult for Bryan. Though the six months’ training wasn’t much different from a long series of torture sessions, he had been physically and mentally prepared for it. After the training, he was assigned in the town of Magpet in Cotabato Province, but did mostly dull patrol duties. He had entered the armed forces when the separatist rebels and the government had just started a new round of peace negotiations. The nightmare began only when, in his fourth month of service, Bryan availed of a loan from the military’s own savings and loan association.
The loan amounted to two hundred thousand pesos, payable for thirty-six months. Bryan received three-fourths of the amount only, after the advance interest, service fee, and other fees he didn’t understand were deducted. With the one hundred thousand pesos, he bought a small lot in Tacurong and built a simple house on it. He made his parents move to the city so that his father would be near the hospital. The rest of the money he allotted for his father’s medicine.
After a few months, when the money was almost used up, Bryan was summoned by his commanding officer. The colonel told him that the processing of his loan had been illegal. Only soldiers who had been in service for at least a year could avail of the amount granted to Bryan.
Bryan was aghast. The loan had the permission of the colonel. “How did this happen, sir?” he asked. “You certified that I was eligible to—”
“I also didn’t expect this, Corpuz,” the colonel said. “I just wanted to help you and those from your cohort who also applied for the loan. Someone from a higher office discovered the transaction.”
“What will happen now, sir? What should I do?”
“There will be an investigation.”
Bryan had never been so nervous in his whole life.
“You are ordered to report in Manila next week. From the national headquarters, some people will take you somewhere else. Don’t do anything that will worsen the situation, Corpuz. Just say yes to everything they tell you.”
“Yes, sir,” Bryan said. He felt a little relieved. If all he had to do was say yes to superiors, he had no problem with that. Soldiers are trained to do just like that, and trained well he was.
Bryan’s abductors are talking about Brigadier General Delos Reyes. They are speaking in Tagalog, but judging by their accent, Bryan can tell their mother tongue is Hiligaynon, just like his. “Do you think he was murdered?” the driver says.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” the man on Bryan’s left says in a funny accent. His family must have come from some isolated town in Panay. “I saw on TV,” Funny Accent Man says, “that Delos Reyes had a gunshot in his head and a gun in his hand. The old fool must have committed suicide.”
“Suicide?” the driver says, chuckling. “A corrupt official taking his own life? You’re in the Philippines, man, not Korea or Japan. Whenever the big shits here are charged with something, they pretend to be sick and ask for a hospital arrest. I’ll bet my neck his cohorts silenced Delos Reyes.”
“We’ll find out soon what really happened,” Funny Accent Man says. “They’re doing an autopsy.”
The van slows down and stops. The vehicle’s door is slid open, and Bryan feels fresh, cold air blow on him. He hears chirping birds. Though he still can’t see a thing, he knows now where the abductors are taking him—to an abandoned house in a secluded place, where neighbors are miles away, far enough not hear someone’s screams and pleas.
“How was your trip to Manila, Corpuz?” the colonel asked Bryan.
“As you said, sir, I just did everything they asked me to do,” Bryan said. “Some men took me from the national headquarters and brought me to the wife of General Delos Reyes.”
“What did she tell you?”
“She said I could be removed from service anytime because of the loan. She went on and on how messy the situation I had gotten myself into. But she said her husband could help me. She said General Delos Reyes could stop the auditors or some people from probing into my loan. I agreed. I didn’t have any choice. I was even thankful someone’s going to save me.”
“What did she make you do?”
“In exchange for the protection, she made me apply for another loan.”
The colonel didn’t say anything.
“She made me sign a form,” Bryan said. “The blanks were empty. I didn’t know the exact amount. She then gave me permission to come back here in Mindanao.”
“I’m glad your problem is over, Corpuz,” the colonel said.
“But, sir, I almost have no money left. I paid for the airfare to and from Manila, and the other day, when I received my pay slip, I found out that there’s a new deduction from my salary and the amount is the same as my first loan. Did the general’s wife take two hundred thousand from me?”
“Probably not, Corpuz. The new deduction might just run for six months or less, not thirty-six months.”
“I hope so, sir. My salary is the only thing my family relies on now.”
A few months later, a corruption scandal rocked the armed forces. A party-list representative accused the highest-ranking military officials of money laundering. The lawmaker said the generals siphoned the modernization fund from the United Nations into their personal bank accounts abroad. The amount involved was more than one billion pesos, and the key to all the transactions was chief comptroller General Delos Reyes.
Bryan was barely interested in the news. He had more pressing matters to worry about. However, when the deduction for his second loan did not stop even after six months, he began to follow the case of “the dollar generals,” as the media had dubbed the accused military officials. By then, the Senate had become interested in the case and had decided to conduct an investigation. The generals had been summoned to explain.
An idea formed in Bryan’s mind, and he proposed it to his commanding officer. “Sir, I want to contact the congressman who made the exposé,” Bryan told the colonel. “I’ll tell him about the irregularities in our lending agency.”
“Are you out of your mind?” the colonel said. “Where does your loyalty lie, Corpuz?”
“Sir, if the generals are found guilty, the whole institution will change. Ordinary soldiers like me won’t be duped again.”
“Corpuz, the Senate hearing is simply ‘in aid of legislation.’ Do you know what that means? The result of the investigation will just be used by the senators as a basis in creating or changing laws. They have no power to send the accused to jail. In other words, it’s all for show. The senators simply want to their faces to be seen on TV every day because each of them wants to be the next Philippine president. Besides, they’re talking about a billion pesos in the hearing. The senators won’t be interested in your little loan.”
“But, sir, I’m not the only victim. My batchmates who availed of the same loan told me they were also extorted by the general’s wife. It’s possible that the same thing has happened to the batches before us, or to the soldiers in other camps.”
“I don’t want to hear any more of this.”
“The moment you say no, Corpuz, you stop being a soldier.”
Another drop of water falls on his skin, travels down the length of his back, and seeps into the waistband of his underwear. The abductors have stripped Bryan of his clothes and tied him to a chair, under a dripping faucet or hose. They have also stuffed his ears with sand.
Bryan knows what the men are trying to do. They are subjecting him to a kind of psychological torture. During his training to be a soldier, he had an instructor who discussed in class the different ways to torture a captive. In the kind of torture being done to him right now, the aim of the abductors is to deprive him of his senses and make him feel nothing but the drops of water. The method is supposed to make him disoriented and even lose his mind.
Knowing what’s going on helps Bryan get a hold of himself. He realizes that being beaten or killed is not his worst fear. He was more scared when he learned that he might be dismissed from service and would have no money to pay for his father’s medication. And poor abductors. Even that fear he has long overcome. When he walked out of the camp and hitched a ride home, he had given up on life. He was ready to face anything.
Bryan had tried talking to his commanding officer a few times more, hoping the colonel would back his plan to contact the whistle-blowing party-list representative. The official refused to listen and even told him, “I’ll dispose of you myself if you don’t shut up, Corpuz.”
The day after the colonel threatened him, Bryan received a call from his mother, telling him his father had been rushed to the hospital again. His mother said, her voice cracking, “Bryan, the doctor said your father must undergo dialysis as soon as possible.”
“Make them do it, Mang,” he told his mother.
“It’s going to cost a lot. We can’t afford it.”
“Let me worry about the bills.”
“But you’ve told me there isn’t much left in your salary.”
“We can’t let Papang get worse, Mang. I’ll figure out a way.”
“Son, if you can’t get money anywhere right now, we can . . . we can lease the title of the lot. I know a lender . . .”
“The lot we just bought? No, Mang. That was my first investment from—” Bryan covered his mouth with his palm, not wanting his mother to hear the sound that came out of his throat. Unable to further control his feelings, he turned off the phone and punched the trunk of the mango tree he was hiding behind.
His phone rang repeatedly, but Bryan ignored the call. After several minutes, when he felt calmer, he wiped his eyes and called his mother. “Do it, Mang,” he said. “Lease the title.” He then walked out of the camp as though he was just going on a stroll. When he had walked for some two hundred meters, he saw a delivery truck going south. He hailed the vehicle. He was going home.
His father is dead. Bryan cries. His eyes, though, are dry; his tears are flowing from the base of his neck to his buttocks.
Some men, talking in muffled voices, untie a rope that fastens him to a chair, but they keep his handcuffs and blindfold on. They pull him along with them, his unsure legs trying to keep pace with theirs, tripping a few times.
He starts to regain his senses when he is made to sit and the world chugs and travels forward. He remembers what has happened to him. Armed men forced him to get inside a van two or three days or one week ago. They then took him to a house and detained him. Now they are taking him somewhere else.
The trip doesn’t take as long as before. The vehicle’s door is opened, and cold air blows on Bryan’s naked skin. The men pull him out.
Someone grabs his ear, and on reflex, he pulls his head away. The man yanks him back by the hair, and he isn’t able to resist when the man’s fingers probe into his ear. To Bryan’s confusion, the fingers brush the sand out of his ear, not pricking his eardrum or inflicting some sort of pain.
He begins to hear chuckles. “Do you hear me now?” someone says.
“Good. You should thank the boss.” Bryan recognizes the voice as that of Funny Accent Man. “The boss is giving you one last chance.”
What does he mean? Bryan wonders. Are they letting me go?
As though he has heard Bryan’s thoughts, Funny Accent Man says, “We’re letting you go.”
Bryan cannot believe what he has heard. He senses there’s a catch. He knows they’re not setting him free just like this.
Soon enough, Funny Accent Man laughs aloud. “We’re letting you go, man, but you should run for your life. On the count of three, I’m going to pull the trigger of my gun.”
Bryan feels the men step away from him, giving him room to move.
“One!” Funny Accent Man says.
He remains standing. He can’t understand what’s going on.
“What are you waiting for?” another man says.
“Run, baby!” says a third man. “Run!”
Bryan bolts into a run. In a short while, he finds his legs buried in knee-high grass and ankle-deep mud. He’s in a rice field, in an open field. He has nowhere to hide.
He continues running. He can’t see a thing, and his fettered hands hamper him from gaining speed or just keeping his balance. He trips and falls to his knees. He stands up and runs again.
A gunshot pierces through the air, and it occurs to Bryan that he will be twenty-two next week.
Jude Ortega hails from Sultan Kudarat. In 2012, he attended both the Davao Writers Workshop and the Cornelio Faigao Memorial Annual Writers Workshop as a fellow for fiction.