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Release Date: 12 February 2016
As a member of a wealthy and influential family, Jaime “Jamie” Abello had his life mapped out. Being shipped off to LA with an insurance scam linked to his name was not part of his plan.
It had seemed so simple: pass the Philippines Medical Board Exam;practice in the family-owned and -controlled hospital; join the Board by age forty; and find a partner with whom he could settle down and be himself.
Instead, his father supplies him with a surfeit of money and dangerous secrets and sends him to a strange country.
The Pediatric Residency Program Jamie applies for brings him face to face with untouchable
Program Director, Miles Kwon, whom Jamie soon finds to be a man of integrity and vision.
When tragedy strikes, Jamie finds himself falling deeper into depression. Unexpectedly, it’s
Miles who helps him work through his pain.
Will Jamie ever experience a life with a loving partner, or will his father’s secrets cause him to lose everything he’s gained?
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Into the Land of the Unknown
I MADE IT. The words ring in my head on an endless loop.
I had anxiously monitored the Medical Board Exam results with some of my school friends. The way they did it here, the major newspapers knew before any of the examinees, receiving the official list of board passers directly from the country’s Professional Regulation Commission or PRC. The Manila Bulletin, The Inquirer, and their equals all had full-page layouts ready for the first-hour printings.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to read the lengthy list, so I have no idea who among my classmates made it.
I was in the hospital when the results were released. A simple case of food poisoning resulting in an embarrassing episode of vomiting and diarrhea. Most likely from eating bad balut, an exotic native delicacy. I was out with a group of school friends the night of the results. We’d stopped at a sidewalk vendor, bought some of the boiled fertilized duck eggs straight from the bucket full of hot sand, and enjoyed the unique flavors that blended well with a bottle (or more) of ice-cold beer. An hour later, I had an IV line in my arm.
My father hired a special nurse, and it was she who gave me the good news as she stood by with a pail, ready to catch whatever I needed to throw up. Just one of the benefits of living in a cosmopolitan area like Metro Manila and having a family name that is the same as the hospital’s. My grandfather, Manuel, had founded the Dr. Ricardo Abello Memorial Hospital in 1968.
A great-grandfather started it all way back before the war. Thanks to the backing of his own father, whose agricultural lands produced sugar cane, he was able to set up his first pharmacy. One soon expanded to two, then three, before going regional and finally national. The other businesses grew from the first.
My father, Jose Manuel, is the current CEO of the Abello Group of Companies, Inc., dealing with insurance policies and the import and distribution of medical pharmaceutical supplies. For almost a hundred years it has been one of the largest family-controlled companies in the Philippines. His younger brother, Fred, sits on the hospital board. My two older brothers, Francisco and Arturo, work with my father as vice presidents, but lately they have been openly challenging him on his decisions. Knowing my father’s dominant personality, I find it curious he has never once corrected them for their insubordination. Neither has he taken up their obvious challenge to his authority.
Then there is my father’s wife, Margarita. Her family invested in the company when she started dating my father. On their marriage, her father gave her a substantial amount of money to buy shares. Now she has her own seat on the board.
Yeah, my family has that much money going around. Nice, isn’t it? You might think I must be spoiled rotten, and that I go through life and money like there is no tomorrow. Well, in a way I do, but not really. Truth is, all that money and influence doesn’t make my family well-liked. Respected, yes. Feared, yes. But not liked. It doesn’t help that power struggles and infighting amongst the family members are quite famous. At times, they make headline news. In addition, like any family, we have skeletons deep in our closets. I am one of those skeletons.
As for all that money? Well, that really is the root of all of my present troubles.
When my nurse told me the exam results, I choked on my tears. I had worked so hard to get to this point. I had passed! I had made it! This was the best news ever!
Three hours later, my whole world collapsed because of that money.
FLYING ALWAYS WEARS me out. I’m lucky enough to fall asleep for a few minutes but I wake up feeling worse than before. With my medication wearing off, all I can do is sip ginger ale and try to block reality. I fail. Miserably.
I step into the jet bridge after the exhausting thirteen hours and thirty-five minutes on the Manila–LAX flight. Immediately, the disgusting odor one can only define as “airport tunnel” overwhelms my senses. Ugh! It’s a mixture of not-so-nice body odors, stale air, fuel fumes, synthetic deodorizers, and a whole lot of other chemical scents all packed into eau de aéroport cologne. It never fails to make me nauseous. At the very least, it triggers my gag reflex.
Walking fast to avoid being trampled by the passengers hurrying toward me from every direction, I follow the signs that will lead me to my bags. First, though, I have to locate the restroom. I need to pee so badly. Moreover, I am nauseous. Did I mention that?
I look around and spot the universal male and female signs. I rush toward the male one, only to grind to a halt when I see the long line of pee-pee-dancing passengers awaiting their turn. I sigh. Another shitty day.
Ten excruciatingly slow and full-bladder-painful minutes later, I am finally able to relieve myself and run out of that obnoxious, gag-worthy restroom. I walk toward the baggage-claim area and, as I reach it, I see the first of my sixteen bags slide onto the conveyor belt.
Yes, sixteen bags. Before you ask, I am temporarily moving to Los Angeles and will be staying in a nice little hotel owned by one of my dad’s best friends. Sometimes being the son of a rich man has its advantages. Why sometimes? I’ll tell you later. I am too tired, too nauseous, and, yes, there are the second and third bags.
I SURVEY THE suite. The size of the room surprises me a bit, but maybe it shouldn’t. Trust Letty Salvador to step up to the task of getting me here in three days. The first-class tickets and this suite-with-a-view, readied within a short time, make me wonder at Margarita’s decision-making skills. How could she have fired Letty? She is such a gem.
I have a feeling my father knew something was going down and contacted his now-ex personal assistant behind Margarita’s back. Maybe he bought the tickets before he discovered his wife and sons’ betrayal. Somehow, that thought makes me more depressed than I already am. I shake my head, trying to clear it of the funk into which I am sinking. I have no time for depression, especially now, knowing what I have to face in this country, alone.
Back in Manila, I had been vomiting into the pail my private nurse was holding up for me when my father entered the room, accompanied by Letty. He rushed the nurse out the door while Letty took over pail duty.
“Jamie, you are leaving for LA once we get you out of here. Dr. Martinez has been instructed to clear you to be released from the hospital.” My father was succinct.
“Wha… why?” I tried to speak, but emesis got in the way.
“Margarita. She has finally gone off the deep end. She and your brothers are meeting with the board. I sent in my resignation last night and they only just got the email. I am leaving for Morocco in two hours, and you are flying out as soon as Dr. Martinez gives you something to put a stop to your vomiting. Letty has sent all the details to your alternate email account.”
I tried to sit up, confused about what was going on, but Letty pressed me back onto the bed. I squinted up at her, and then at my father. “What’s going on?”
“Everything is in the email I sent you. Don’t think about anything else right now, just focus on getting well enough to stand without falling on your face. You need to take that flight. It’s going to be a long one and you’ll need your energy to get things moving,” Letty said.
“Call me once you get to LA. I will send you an email with my new contact numbers.” My father sighed and ran his hand over his face. “I won’t see you for a long time, hijo, but you need to get out as quickly as you can. It’s best you don’t know anything until you get there. Letty will get in touch with you as soon as you’re settled in the hotel. Remember: get to LA and follow the instructions. Once you’re done, call me. That’s all you need to know for now.”
My father leaned down to kiss my head, but wrinkled his nose and shook my hand instead. He turned to leave, then hesitated. Returning to my side, he closed his mouth, as if not daring to breathe in, and then bent to hug me. “I love you, hijo. I wish I could explain more but there’s so little time. I’ll see you on the other side,” he said as he patted my back. Then he turned away, avoiding my eyes, and left the room.
That was three days ago.
I walk into the en suite bathroom and take a long, hot shower, washing the grime and odors from my body. Done, I wipe the fog off the mirror and run my hand over my face. I decide I need a shave. I go through my travel kit and take out a disposable razor, still wrapped in plastic.
Standing there, shaving off my beard, I examine my reflection in the mirror. To Filipinos, I look the typical Spanish mestizo—tall, with pale, pinkish skin, light-brown hair, and hazel-green eyes. What they call a coño boy. I’m more muscular than most Filipinos, and definitely hairier. Many friends and lovers have told me I am attractive, but to my mind I’m just an average-looking young man. One who now has dark circles under his eyes.
Thinking over the tasks I still have to complete, I ignore the physical and mental fatigue. I have no time to feel tired. Now that I am here in LA, I need to work my way through the prioritized itinerary. With my Spanish passport I have ninety days to apply for a temporary residency visa. Later, I can put in for an EB-5. Yeah, not so simple. Then again, I have money and an existing business to help get my status changed to something more permanent. It will be easier for me than those who do not have my money or connections. I think.
My father took the necessary precautions years ago. Thanks to my birth mother, I have dual Filipino and Spanish citizenship. As her son, I registered under a different name; one that was acceptable in Spain. According to my Spanish passport, I am Jaime Antonio Caño, though my Filipino passport says James Anthony Abello. No one other than my father and Letty know I have a different name on the passport I used to enter the US. Should anyone search for James Anthony Abello, they will have a hard time.
Once I get that EB-5, I should be able to take the United States Medical Licensing Examination. I hope. I have the necessary documents to support my application, thanks again to my father’s years of careful planning.
I know I will have to pass the many requirements, but once again, that is the easy part. The next few steps will be more challenging. It will take years to accomplish it all. For starters, I need to apply for the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates and hope to get it soon. It’s now the end of February, and I need the certification by June so I can get a matching via the Electronic Residency Application Service.
The whole process is complicated and technical, but I’m not going to be a statistic. I refuse to be one. Having eidetic memory and high IQ technically makes me a nerd, so passing exams is the least of my worries. I also have the drive, and now the despairing determination, to make it. In my case, money is no issue. With what my father set aside for me, it won’t be a problem for the rest of my life, even if I decide never to work. I love medicine, though, so I look forward to training further. Foremost in my mind is how I can get a hospital to accept my internship application.
I am too tense and tired to fall asleep. Besides, it’s only eight in the morning here, so to minimize jet lag I have to stay up until at least seven-thirty tonight. I am still lost in my thoughts, dressing myself, when the spirited tune of Macarena blares out. I jump, and glare at the brand-new phone I threw onto the bed before taking my shower. A glance at the screen reveals the caller is Letty.
“Hey, Letty. I’m here,” I say, trying to sound calm. I zip up my pants and walk shirtless over to the settee by the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the smoggy horizon. I frown. Wow. Great freaking-dirty view. Whoever said the pollution levels were at their lowest was either lying or in complete denial.
“Hi, Doc,” Letty says, a smile in her voice. “How was your flight? Still nauseous? Did you take your Dramamine?”
“Bad.” Can you tell I complain a lot? “It smelled so bad in that plane. I don’t know what was wrong with their ventilation system, but the body odors got circulated and re-circulated. Yes, I am still nauseous. Yes, I took my pills, Nurse Letty.” Okay, so I sound like a brat. That’s beside the point.
“That’s good. Now let me give you an update. Are you sitting down? This may take some time.”
I sigh and try to relax into the luxurious settee. “Okay. Shoot.”
Ten minutes later, I am in shock central. Ever heard of the saying ‘thunderstruck’? It’s worse than that. I see spots of red and blue, and before I realize what’s happening, I’m hyperventilating. Damned panic attacks.
Letty continues to speak, oblivious to my distress. “So, all you need to do is rest for a day or two after your appointment with the bank this afternoon. Local time. Your documents are all currently being processed for the status changes. Expect to get notifications in your email about your USMLE schedules soon. I trust you to pass them, so I can follow up the rest for you.” I can hear her tapping on a keyboard. “Your father says you shouldn’t worry about expenses. He opened a bank account in Los Angeles back in 2008 when you were there with him for the Medical Expo. The money is more than enough to allow you to live quietly for the rest of your life. That is, if you don’t follow your older brother’s fancy for casinos and women.”
Letty’s mind works very fast. If my attention diverted for even a minute, I would lose track of what she is saying. It’s a good thing I’m used to her abrupt, matter-of-fact style—as well as her habit of speaking two thousand words per minute.
“I know that. I was with him when he opened the account,” I say, massaging my chest to calm my nerves. I mentally count to ten and then back down again, listening with half an ear to whatever else Letty has to tell me.
“What he didn’t tell you is that yours is the only signature required on that account. You can sign without your father’s presence or leave. As for the businesses he set up, Margarita knows nothing about the R.M.C.K. Group of Companies. It was all hush-hush. The American partners had signed memorandums of agreement before you were even born, so she has absolutely no knowledge of it. Your name is the only one your father added to the MOAs, as he wanted you to get the chance you deserve.”
That last bit of information leaves me speechless. I had no idea my father had taken all these precautions. A throbbing pain deep between my eyes begins at the thought of what he has done to make all this possible. My heart aches as I realize what he has given up to get me out of the country and settled in another.
“But how could he do that? He can’t exclude my brothers or Margarita as heirs to those companies.” Our family laws are very precise. Heirs are those of blood. Not the chosen like in other countries. Not unless something extraordinary happens, and that would be stretching it too far.
“Yes he could, and he did. He used the money and assets your maternal grandfather set aside for you. Margarita and your brothers are not connected to those in any way. It’s all yours.”
I let out a long breath and rub my aching temples. I feel so tired. Unbeknownst to me until ten years ago, my maternal grandfather left everything in my name after his daughter, Anna Caño, died. I had loved that old man but never really formed a close relationship with him. Margarita made sure to prevent anything developing between us.
“Margarita doesn’t know of the existence of the bank account. Nor does she have any idea how involved it is in the R.M.C.K.,” Letty continues, her curt, no-nonsense tone making me sit up straighter on the sofa. “I quietly transferred the monies whenever your father instructed me to. He swore me to secrecy, and you know I can’t stand anyone in your family except for you and your dad, so it was an easy decision.”
I shake my head. “This is unbelievable. How did Dad do all this without Margarita finding out?”
“Open your documents bag and read the folders with the bank’s and R.M.C.K. Group of Companies headings. All the details should be in them.” Letty ignores my question, oblivious to my inner confusion.
Heart heavy, head aching, I stand and reach for the document bag. Sorting through the endless folders packed within it, I locate the two Letty mentioned. I open them and scan the contents. My mouth drops when I see that, indeed, there is only one name on both the bank account and the company. Not my dad’s. Mine. And the amount involved…
“Why?” I ask, putting down the folders. My heart is racing and I run trembling fingers through my hair. What has my father done?
“He knew what was going on, even if he pretended he didn’t. As far back as 2005, he already suspected what Margarita and your brothers were doing. He simply bided his time until you graduated from medical school.
“He wanted you to gain confidence by first passing the exams here before sending you off. All this he designed so Margarita and your brothers would never be able to lay their hands on what was left of your family’s company. He knew that when he was gone, Margarita would make sure only your brothers had a stake in the business. She doesn’t know about your adoption and recognition, and even if she does, she’ll refuse to acknowledge you’re an Abello.” Letty sighs, sounding just as tired as I am.
“Your father knew she wanted to control the shares with your brothers. Well, he gave her that pleasure by resigning and turning full control over to them. By doing this, he gives her what she wanted all along, but you get yours as well. She does not have control of the monies in your name, the properties you inherited from your maternal grandfather and real mother, nor the investments, businesses, and companies there in the States. Those are all yours. Before your father left for Morocco, he sent me an email instructing me to expedite the plan he and I had prepared when he first found out about Margarita’s betrayal. That was right after your grandfather died.”
“He could have fought back. He could have regained control. He could have just not left her to do what she did.” This is a fucking nightmare. I only want to be a doctor. Is that so hard to understand? I admit I like money, and what it can do for me. But not like this. I never imagined it would be like this.
“Look, Jamie.” The puff of air as she says my name clues me in to her growing frustration. That is never a good sign. “Your father knew he was being played for a fool, but he sacrificed everything for you. When Margarita refused to look at you when he brought you home after you were born, he knew she resented your birth and his relationship with a woman she considered lower in social status. He never expected it would escalate to such hatred, but he did love your mother, and her death destroyed him. So he transferred all his love for her over to you.”
Letty’s words trigger memories of Margarita and my father shouting at each other. She had accused him of no longer loving his legitimate sons—only me. I hadn’t understood what they were talking about; I was only four or five at the time. I remember my father turning from her tears and going down the stairs, only to stop when he saw me in the foyer, clutching my battered wooden toy car. He looked down at me tenderly before picking me up and asking if I wanted a ride. I nodded, and we went to a mall to eat ice cream.
“When he suspected you were gay, he dared not discuss it with anyone. He protected you. He even had bodyguards follow you around. When you decided you wanted nothing to do with the company because you said you wished to be a doctor, he encouraged you. He loves you, and he risked his name and reputation for you. The only thing I don’t agree with is his treatment of your older brothers, and honestly, I don’t blame them for choosing their mother over him. Now you are safe and he is finally away. You have the money and the businesses there.” Her voice has deepened, warning me of the seriousness of the situation.
Neither of us says anything for a while. She gives me the opportunity, but I have nothing to say. I am overwhelmed by all the revelations.
“It is now your job—no, your duty—to do what you need to do. Stick to the plan. You have the documents. Keep them in a safe place. Go to the bank; they will give you an envelope with a set of instructions on how to wire the money to Virginia. Follow the instructions to the letter. Once that’s done, go to sleep. You need to rest before your move. The limousine will be there in five hours. Use the time between now and then wisely.”
“All right. I will.” I sigh into the phone. I am so tired. “But, Letty… I never asked for this. I never planned this. I don’t even like LA!” I know I sound like a petulant child, but please, I’m done in. Give me a break.
“I know. But that’s beside the point!” I can hear the impatience in her voice. “You do what your father told you to do. I am here to guide you through the process. Once he’s ready, your father will join you wherever you choose to settle.” Thankfully, Letty’s voice has turned from aggravated to reassuring. I hold on to that, knowing she is right. As always. I just hope nothing gets in the way of her and my father’s plans.
“How about the other partners? What do they say about this? My being here and all.”
“They were all briefed by your father before he left for Morocco.”
“They don’t expect me to show up, do they? To the board meetings?” Even if I had practically grown up in my father’s offices, listening in on his conference calls and attending a few meetings either with him or to represent him, the conglomerate life had never appealed to me.
“Your father maintains his hold over your shares, so you don’t have to worry about that. In case your signature is required, the necessary documents can always be sent via email for you to sign electronically.”
I groan in relief. “Good. You know how I hate having to talk business. I can’t stand the pressure.”
Letty’s full-belly laugh makes me squirm. She always has that effect on me, making me feel inadequate.
“You can’t stand the pressure? Being a doctor is not demanding?”
“That’s different. What my father and brothers do day-in and day-out takes a lot out of your soul. Being a doctor is totally different.”
“I know what you mean, Jamie. You are a nurturer; you feel and you care. You would never survive in the world your father loves, craves.”
“It’s also safer, Letty. I won’t have to make financial decisions. Dealing with numbers, that’s not my thing.”
“I know, Jamie. This is me, remember? I must warn you, though, should anything happen to your father, you would have to face up to the responsibilities of running the companies.”
I nod, and then realize she can’t see me. “I’ll deal with that when the time comes. Though I hope it doesn’t for a long, long time.”
“You should always remember your grandfather’s caution, too, Jamie,” she continues. “Blood is thicker than water, but money is a very different thing. Margarita and your brothers, they don’t think your blood should even be related to theirs, but they do want your money.” With that, she ends the call.
Her final words send fear coursing through my body. It numbs and scares me. She quoted my maternal grandfather and father’s favorite warning there, at the end. They’d spoken those words to me repeatedly, almost like brainwashing, since as far back as I can remember. When I was a little boy, I thought the words of warning sounded cool. Now I realize how true and applicable those words are.
I sit on the sofa, staring at nothing. Ahead of me is the so-called clean view of the Los Angeles skyline. I can’t really think about anything except trying to pick up the pieces of what is now my life. God, I’m only twenty-four years old. I should be out enjoying my freedom. But here I am in hiding, and although I have money, I can’t trust anyone to know I have it. I was never spoiled as a child—far from it—but I am used to being free to do whatever I wish and getting whatever I want… as long as I stayed off Margarita’s radar. Now I feel trapped and scared. How I got to this point is no fault of mine. I realize my birth was the trigger that drove Margarita to her vindictiveness. Yet that was not my fault. I was the product of a love affair and had no say in it.
How long I sit there, I have no idea. When the house phone rings, I automatically pick up the handset. It’s the concierge, telling me my limo has arrived. I glance at the digital display on the handset: one o’clock in the afternoon. Five hours have passed and I have no idea how.
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