When she wakes she finds herself strapped in the back seat of a Jeep. Her mouth is gagged with a small towel from the hotel and she can only sputter. Hands zip-tied, the seat belt crosses her body like a beauty pageant sash.
The driver grunts. She can’t make out his features except that his face is pockmarked. Another man, in a leather jacket, on the left passenger seat, turns back and smiles, as if trying to reassure her. There is a container on the passenger’s lap; he looks like he is going on a picnic. Driver mutters something about using more chloroform. Passenger asks her if she is hungry.
She tries to reply but can’t say anything. She wonders if he is mocking her. She wants lamb stew cooked for hours, until the meat pulls away from the bone like candy floss. Still drowsy, the lights of the cars they pass are as faraway as stars.
She has seen Passenger before. He was with his boss in Paris, always hovering in the background.
She tries to stay awake. She holds on to the memory of her arms circling around her husband, while they speed on a motorcycle through cracked roads, honking at lambs. Recognising the futility of begging, she hums, through the towel, a lullaby to her children. She thinks of her daughters, probably sound asleep in their father’s house. They have outgrown the mattress she bought, their legs dragging on the cold concrete floor. She only calls late at night because she does not want them to hear her. The oldest will already be able to judge her for fleeing them and the country.
She tries to think of what she can say. Her breathing is so heavy it fills the jeep.
Have you dived? Driver asks Passenger, countering the silence.
No. I don’t swim. Almost drowned when young, Passenger replies.
You should. Our country has some of the best diving. Sidapan, Tioman. Water clear like glass.
I can’t learn to swim now.
When you’re down there, you’re surrounded by this blueness, and all the coral. It’s amazing, abang. I was diving two weeks ago, and there was this school of barracuda. You know how they swarm around, and when you first see them, all you remember are their teeth.
They don’t bite you?
They won’t. Humans don’t taste good to them. They’re after fish. They just circle around us. It’s like you are caught in a disco ball. Hypnotized.
All she can do is watch the traffic outside the jeep; the low boom of sound as they pass cars and lorries.
She remembers that at this time of the year, the weather in her country would be starting to cool, days of high blue skies and the horizon a single unbroken line.
They turn onto a highway, pass some half-hearted barriers. Driver squeezes the jeep past them, the vehicle rocks back and forth, its wheels tossing up gravel. Passenger complains about the suspension; it feels like he is on a massage chair gone amok. Knowing that they are nearing their destination, she tries to scream but ends up choking on the fibres. She tries to struggle and free herself, slamming her body against the seat but the two just ignore her.
The highway is unlit. The jeep is the only vehicle on the smooth, freshly paved road. Driver presses down on the accelerator until Passenger cautions him to slow down. They are driving on the country’s future, on a newly-birthed road that hugs the low hills. They are not far away from the city and they can still see lights spilling into the night sky.
She knows that they carry guns. Desperately, she tries to come up with something that can change her fate. Passenger’s fingers tap the basket. She wonders if she will even have a chance to speak.
The jeep takes a turn, diving right into the jungle. It stops at a clearing, abandoned and empty. There is a maze of ditches around them.
Meant to be a rest stop, but they got more money so moved it further down, Driver says.
Who would want to have a rest stop here?
Not about the stop. About the contracts.
The boss in this?
He has a finger in everything. He’s like a dam. It all flows to him, right?
They take her from the back seat and her feet drag in the mud. Driver pushes her into a ditch. Her head strikes the soggy earth. She lies there, wondering if they are going to leave her there. Maybe that’s all they will do.
Driver jumps into the ditch and turns her to face him. She can hardly make out his features. He removes the towel from her mouth. She asks for mercy; she tells them about the child inside her, in English, Russian, French, Malay and even Mongolian. She says she will return to her country and never disturb their boss again.
Driver apologises, and says that it is because of the child inside her that they have to do this. He raises the gun, allowing her time to pray.
She tries to keep a memory, knowing it might be her last. She tries to remember singing lullabies to her first daughter, but the one memory that sticks is that of being in the Paris subway one evening, alone, fearful. The tunnel is dark and she stares at the billboards advertising vodka and trips to Taiwan. When the train finally arrives, she is so relieved that she feels a joy so clear it bursts her heart. The scene of the train crawling to the station is trapped in her head. She curses herself for the memory clamped to her brain.
In the ditch, her body folded, she resembles a baby on the verge of being released from the womb. Driver drags himself out of the ditch, brushing away the soil, putting away his gun.
Your turn, he says to Passenger.
After putting on his gloves, Passenger opens the container and takes out the C4. He steps carefully into the ditch. Trying to figure out the best way to place the explosives on her body is like a puzzle. When the headlights go off, he is terrified. Driver turns them back on, laughing at Passenger’s fear. After his hands have calmed down, Passenger places the explosives around her. Her eyes refuse to shut; they flick open every time he closes them. The blood seeping into the ground is like tar. His sweat drips onto the soil; it has been years since he has set explosives.
Driver complains about not getting a cell phone signal and Passenger scolds him; he is trying to concentrate. Satisfied that the explosives are in place, Passenger scurries out like a desperate mole. They back the jeep away. But when Passenger presses the button on the detonator, the explosives do not go off. The jungle fires back accusations. Monkeys chatter. They edge the jeep nearer, and Passenger keeps punching the button but nothing happens. Driver lets out a half-sigh.
Passenger returns to the ditch, sweating like he’s just run a marathon. Driver complains that he is missing soccer. He turns on the radio, but only gets white noise.
Driver asks Passenger if he knows the right phrase to say to the tree spirits before he takes a pee, and Passenger tells him to just apologise to them. Driver asks if he can take a shit, and Passenger tells him to just hold it in.
They still hear lorries grumbling on the road far off.
We are not far enough, says Passenger.
Scared what? The employer will protect us, says Driver.
Driver and Passenger know each other from their terms as police officers before becoming body guards. The pay is far better, they get to travel the world and they do not have to listen to ridiculous complaints, although Driver sometimes misses the days when he could get into fist fights, swinging his baton and smashing heads. He knew how to incite someone into attacking, which expletives to use.
Passenger remembers when Boss first met the girl. She was translating for some businessman with a bushy moustache, and Boss kept staring at her and nodding. He wanted to warn her to stay away, to turn down the boss’ dinner invitation, but he always knew how to keep his mouth shut. He wonders now if he can just turn back, saying that the explosives are faulty, have her body returned to her country, but it is now all too late.
Once he rearms the explosives, they back away. Passenger presses a button to set off the charge, pumping it furiously but once again, the bomb does not go off. Driver passes him a cigarette. He turns off the headlights of the jeep and they are once again in darkness. The trees above form veins of sky.
Just relax, abang, Driver says. He massages Passenger’s shoulders. They take in the quiet of the jungle. After they finish their cigarettes, the headlights come on again and Passenger tries once more.
Driver asks for some of the C4 to smoke. He heard from an American he met in Copenhagen that they can give a high. Passenger tells him to go off and smoke his cigarettes and not to disturb him.
Bored, Driver goes to sleep while Passenger works on the explosive. He has placed the bath towel over her face. He hears Driver slapping mosquitos.
The problem is with the explosives. Who knows how long they were kept before they were passed to him? He shapes it over her body, as if he is making a mould, presses the wires deeper. Even now, her skin is still warm. He picks off an earthworm that crawls across her cheek, refusing to let them mar her pale skin.
After about thirty minutes, he wakes Driver up and they reverse the jeep. Driver asks to push the detonator. Passenger hands it to him.
Good luck, Passenger says.
The explosion sounds like Chinese firecrackers popping, and a burst of birds scatter into the sky. The whole jungle is awakened by the noise. Earth rains down on them and the jeep. Driver lets out a whoop of triumph.
He gives Passenger a thumbs up. There is a crater large enough to swallow a house. Passenger wants some petrol to burn the remains but Driver says it is too complicated to drain any from the tank. They leave her masticated body for the jungle to consume.
Isn’t this how the corpses are dealt with in their country? Their bodies broken into pieces? says Driver, on the drive back.
No, I think that’s Nepal. Or Tibet.
Passenger thinks he can hear the explosion still echoing amongst the trees. Driver drops Passenger off at his house; dawn is creeping into the sky. As Passenger fumbles for his house keys, he still sees light scrawls in his eyes, the explosion burned into his corneas.
When the sun emerges, the Native spots the tire tracks leading from the road. He imagines partygoers, fuelled on alcohol and ganja, partying through the night, and hopes to retrieve some leftover beer bottles. The city people always forget about those who still dwell in the forest.
The tracks of the jeep lead to a single large crater, where a fierce light beckons him. At the edge of the crater he finds an earring, small as a dot, reflecting the sun. After he pockets it, he notices the shattered body, the human remnants scattered amongst the new mud, the broken earth.