Another blow in the back. Shit, these seats must have been designed by some sadist on a particularly bad day. Even an inverted bucket would have been more comfortable. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the damn driver hadn’t regarded it as a matter of honor to find every single pothole this shitty backwater road had to offer. Well, if you could actually call this stretch of compacted mud a road.
The fat woman next to me was still sleeping, which was a miracle. Sure, she had some extra cushioning built in to dampen the worst impacts, but I was barely able to cling to my seat. Sleep was totally out of the question. I envied her for that ability, but unfortunately, it led to her sliding slowly towards the aisle and pushing me off the seat. I was just glad that her head wasn’t resting on my shoulder anymore.
I looked in the direction toward which her mass was inevitably pushing me. It was still occupied by the chickens whose cackling contributed to the acoustic background for this trip to hell. I felt no urge to land on those chickens, especially as their sinister looking owner opposite the aisle was still staring at me like an axe murderer.
The bus was groaning with each impact, and I began to wonder if its breaking apart might bring a mercifully quick end to this disaster. Anything interrupting this misery would be welcome; even an accident might be more comfortable. Sweat and dirt were stinging in my eyes, I had long since given up trying to dry my forehead as my sleeves were soaking wet, anyway.
The bumping was bad. The view was shitty. The noise was grating on my nerves. The worst thing was the stench, though. To say that the bus was fully loaded would have been the understatement of the year. It was solidly packed and ungodly hot. Most of the passengers seemed to be farmers, and I guess you couldn’t blame them for their hygiene after a long day in the fields. The result was a bouquet of odors that seemed thick enough to cut with a knife.
All of this was bad, but there was one thing that made it almost unbearable. I was doing this voluntarily. Hell, I even paid for this. Backpacking in some exciting, tropical country, the great culinary adventure before I got too old for this and kids would have to be considered. Christine had firmly stated that I was crazy, that my cooking efforts were a waste of time, anyway, that I should grow up and find a decent job, that this trip was a complete waste of money and she wasn’t coming. Period.
Sadly, it had not turned out to be the dream vacation that I had envisioned. As much as it pained me, I had to admit that she had been partially right.
Sure, the tropical jungle I had always wanted to see was right behind the fogged window panes. In the beginning, I wasn’t able to get enough of it. I was fascinated by the smell, the plants and the animals. I couldn’t understand why the locals seemed to completely ignore the marvelous nature around them. After a few weeks, I began to understand them. After a few nasty encounters with the local fauna, the jungle now seemed scary, hot and made travel very uncomfortable.
One of my goals had been to come in contact with the local population. Again, I had succeeded. At that very moment, I was in contact with an enormous local ass that was slowly pushing me off my seat. Compared to the torture bench I was sitting on and the relentless mass of advancing flesh to my side, even the chickens below me started to look damn comfortable, creepy looking owner or not.
One upside was that I had indeed been able to improve my cooking skills a lot. It was amazing how much these countries had to offer and how little of that was known back home. As shitty as the rest of the trip had turned out to be, this knowledge was safely stored in my head and made the rest more or less bearable.
Still, I so wished for the damn bus to finally stop.
To my surprise, it did exactly that. Confused, I looked around. This didn’t look like the ancient temple city I wanted to reach. There was nothing to be seen but jungle and suddenly frightened looking locals around me. The driver got off his seat, pushed the squeaking front door open and quickly stepped aside.
I expected some peasants wanting to board. Instead, men in green uniforms entered the bus. As always, I couldn’t guess whether they were military or police. I had previous encounters with both and they were always solved by a small pile of bribe money discreetly changing ownership.
These guys looked much more formal than the ragged gangs I had met before. Their uniforms were actually quite ... uniform and clean. They tried to look very serious and professional as they scanned the scared travelers on both sides of the aisle. This was actually quite interesting. I, as a westerner, felt like an untouchable impartial observer of whatever was about to happen between those locals. I thought about taking out my phone to get some juicy shots for my Insta account.
This was why I hadn’t chosen one of those boring all expense trips for which Christine had made a plea. I was young, I wanted to see foreign countries, raw and unfiltered.
They continued their way down the crowded aisle, trying to step over the terrified chickens and that small pig in the middle of the bus. Their leader suddenly looked at me and smiled. Everyone around me seemed to deflate. What? Seriously? Whatever was going on, I should have nothing to do with it. I was a tourist.
He turned around, pointed at me and said something to his companions. Wait. This didn’t look good. I wanted to get to know the local culture, but maybe not THAT raw and unfiltered.
He pointed at me again and crooked his finger. I don’t know whether it was his natural authority or the weapon he was carrying, but I stood up like a puppet. He pointed at the fragile net and tubing contraption that served as an overhead bin. I understood and grabbed my backpack.
I felt slightly worried, but still relied on my immunity. I even hoped that after this had been straightened out, I might be able to wrestle a more comfortable ride to my destination out of it. As I followed him out of the bus, I noticed the pitying looks on the faces around me. They looked at me as if I was on my last walk. ‘You have done nothing wrong, you’re just a tourist,’ I tried to calm myself down. For some reason I felt like my immunity relied on my acting appropriately, as if I actually was untouchable. It was important to show no fear.
Just fractions of a second after I had left the bus, the driver slammed the door shut behind me. The old diesel coughed to life immediately, and the bus pulled away like it was escaping the devil himself. Damn, this didn’t look good.
“Listen...” I started before I was silenced by a punch to my gut. The leader stood there smiling and waited patiently for me to recover a bit before pointing at my backpack.
What? This was about my backpack? They wanted to steal something, maybe? The only valuable items were my phone and a bit of cash. They could have that; I just wanted to get away from this shit. Hell, right at this moment I just wanted to leave this damn country for good and never to return. I suddenly missed Christine and my home, terribly. I was even willing to admit that she had been right all along and that this trip had been a terrible idea.
The leader said something in the local language and gestured for me to unpack my gear. Adding a surprising touch of professionalism, one of his underlings was recording the whole scene with his phone. That worried me a bit, as this was obviously not about robbing me or slipping some evidence into my backpack.
Still, I had nothing to hide. Slowly, I unpacked my stuff and placed it on the muddy ground. My t-shirts, two pairs of jeans, my spare pair of shoes, powder packed in plastic foil, a few fresh pairs of socks. Wait, what powder? I was quite familiar with the contents in my backpack, and I was certain that I had never seen that before.
Like an idiot, I pointed at it and said “Wait, I have never seen that before.” Yeah, sure, like they had never heard that before. They would, of course, believe me immediately, apologize for the inconvenience and let me go. Yeah, sure. Damn. Damn. I had, of course, heard about the ridiculously strict drug enforcement laws in these countries. I had heard about tourists being used as couriers against their will or without even knowing it. That had been a purely theoretical scenario. Until now, that is.
Passively, I let my hands be cuffed behind my back, I endured the guy’s smug grins, I let myself be led towards their beat-up Jeep. There was nothing I could do, anyway.
The small room was rather dark, as there was no window and it was at the end of a corridor. The walls might once have been painted red, but they were almost completely covered with a layer of grime. It was hot everywhere, but this particular part of hell felt like an oven. A rather dirty oven, to be specific. A grumpy guard had wordlessly shoved me in there. I had been shoved around a lot since they had pulled me out of that bus.
I had seen various local police stations, each one shabbier than the last. I had seen police officers shamelessly pawing through my belongings, which were apparently now reduced to the things I was wearing. I had been screamed at in a language I didn’t understand. My lack of response hadn’t bothered anyone or stopped anyone from continuing to do it. I had been hit, shoved against door frames, car roofs and desks. In short, my life had turned into a complete nightmare. I had long since decided that my thirst to experience the local culture had been completely quenched.
Now, in this grimy dark cell, I was alone for the first time. I felt relief as I heard the steel grid fall into its lock behind me. It gave me a few seconds to ponder my situation, something I hadn’t been able to do while being mistreated.
Okay, I had been framed, that much seemed certain. My protestation of innocence would impress no one, even if they understood my language. Shit. I was in deep shit. I had no specific knowledge about the local penalties for drug related crimes, but my guess was that they were not very lenient. It could range from long prison terms to death.
My only hope was that my government would somehow bail me out. The problem was that to describe the relationship between the countries as tense would be a vast understatement. I wondered whether my government would even be informed about my fate. Shit.
I was still confused about what had happened. I hadn’t noticed anyone tampering with my backpack, and being rather paranoid about theft, I had kept an eye on it the whole day long. It must have happened at the hostel while I was asleep.
My thoughts were interrupted by two police or correction officers opening the cell door and motioning me to undress. Unbelieving, I hesitated, which earned me a good smack with a baton. Shortly afterwards, I stood there in just my underpants and was instructed to remove them as well. They didn’t try to hide their enjoyment when they motioned me to turn against the wall and lean forward. They at least used a rubber glove while they took the last remnant of my dignity.
I was relieved when the humiliating examination was over. At least, this time they didn’t find any objects that I didn’t know about. The orange overall I was given was grimy and torn, but I was glad to get dressed nonetheless.
They led me out of the building into the open. The light was blinding; sweat was running down my forehead into my eyes. As I waved the flies from my face, something sharp poked into my back and got me going across the dried mud courtyard.
We were approaching a gate in a fence that connected two shabby low buildings. The other side of that fence was packed with faces staring at me with wide open eyes. They looked hungry, desperate, aggressive and somehow disturbingly inhuman. One started to shout something and suddenly the silence was replaced by a deafening cacophony of voices.
The officer in front of me unlocked the gate and beckoned me to follow him. We entered a narrow corridor that was formed by a fence on each side. The whole corridor seemed to be filled with wildly flailing arms and noise. I was suddenly terribly afraid. They could not possibly throw me into this lion’s den? Being a westerner, I still clung to the hope of a nice comfy single cell for a few days until all of this had been sorted out.
I stood transfixed, staring at the mass of humanity in front of me until another sharp poke into the back got me going again. What followed was pure horror. Hands groping me everywhere, spit landing on every part of my body, abject fear running through my veins. Weirdly, the officer in front of me wasn’t touched by anyone. He was like Moses parting the Red Sea. Unfortunately, it closed again as soon as he passed.
We finally stopped in front of a cell door. “Paris” was painted on it in crude, but colorful letters. Like every opening I had seen so far, it was packed with bodies. I turned around and saw that the equally packed cell door on the opposite side was marked “London.”
Like an idiot, I pointed at the door to “Paris”, shook my head and said “NO!”
He just laughed, opened the door and unceremoniously pushed me inside.
It was too dark to see much. It was strangely silent, and I noticed that the rest of the prison had suddenly fallen silent as well. Although it was hard to imagine, it was even hotter in there. The air was so thick with humidity and stench that I was afraid I would suffocate on the spot.
After a few seconds, my eyes got used to the darkness and I looked around. I was surrounded by dozens of men. They were all watching me. No one moved. The room was completely silent. The small circular space around me was the only part of the room that wasn’t solidly packed with men, and they were all watching me.
Cold fear ran down my spine. For the first time, I really contemplated that I might not survive this. Calling for help was obviously useless; the officer had just thrown me in there and left.
One guy stepped forward. He just stood there, looking at me calmly, like he owned me now. ‘Show no fear. Show no fear. Show no fear.’ I repeated this in my mind over and over, like a mantra.
He calmly lifted a hand and slapped my cheek gently. I thought that this wasn’t so bad until the whole mob descended on me. The first few hits hurt like hell, but after a while it got better. I think large parts of me just went numb. I just collapsed and let them have their way with me.
Strangely, my only thought was that Christine had been absolutely right about this trip being total nonsense, and now it was time to pay for my stubbornness. I had laughed so often about her sitting at home while I enjoyed some sunset or marvelous beach bar and I guess karma was finally striking back. It just seemed a bit excessive.
I remember writhing on the compacted mud floor in pain, half awake and confused. I remember naked feet in front of my face, lots of naked feet. I remember stench and heat as I slipped in and out of consciousness.
My whole body hurt as I was roughly pulled into an upright position. The man in front of me wasn’t tall, he wasn’t muscled but he had a distinctly mean look. This was a man who was used to fighting, used to winning and used to having no regard for anyone.
He calmly looked into my eyes for an eternity before he started to speak. I watched him attentively, nodded at the appropriate times and tried to smile despite my battered lips. One problem was that I had not the slightest idea what the fuck he was saying. The other problem was that the things he said to me might have been crucial for my prospects of surviving this nightmare.
I was reasonably sure that he was explaining some kind of rules of the house. His finger was waving just in front of my face and his expression was dead serious. His tone was assertive, and all of those details led to the conclusion that the things he said to me were rather important. I decided that nodding politely, even after he slapped my face from time to time, and mimicking the others’ behavior was the best strategy.
The days to follow showed me that I was dead wrong. Slowly, I decoded the rules in there. First, I was at the very bottom of the pecking order. This meant that simply copying my cellmates’ behavior turned out to be unhealthy.
Second, the only way to move up in the pecking order was money. Mine was not gone, it was just that someone else had it, in this case a bunch of corrupt prison guards.
Third, I practically had a big “victim” sign on my forehead. I had never been in a serious fight in my whole life. I wasn’t physically imposing; my behavior was non-threatening and I hadn’t a cruel bone in my body.
As a result, my life in that shitty cell was pure hell. The higher-ranking inmates had more or less decent bunk beds, while I was assigned a spot on the compacted mud floor. Their food at least seemed edible, while mine was just puke-inducing. I had to be half starved before I was able to keep it down. These were obviously not the natives whose culinary secrets I had wanted to learn. Worse yet, right from the start I had the honor of cleaning the toilets, which were just holes in the floor. That task was way beyond anything I had imagined up to that point.
I spent most of the time just sitting or lying on the floor, waiting for my trial or for my government or wife to rescue me from this hell, but nothing happened for weeks. Luckily, I was ignored by my cellmates most of the time, except when the sanitary equipment needed to be taken care of. Being ignored was the best thing that could happen to me, I realized, as I watched the endless and surprisingly brutal fights among the 43 inmates of this overcrowded hole.
More than once I desperately wished to be in that damn hot sweaty bus again. It seemed like heaven, compared to this. I fondly remembered the potholes, the fat woman next to me, my sweaty shirt and the agitated chickens. Even the arrest and the ride in the police car seemed desirable, now.
The shouting and screaming rose to a deafening level and the cell door window was packed tightly with higher ranking inmates. This meant that some new, unlucky fellow was about to be thrown into one of the cells. I just hoped it wouldn’t be ours. It was already fully packed and I had learned that newcomers were invariably meaner and more dangerous than I was, so they didn’t even replace me at the bottom of the food chain.
I sighed as I heard our cell door being opened, and surprisingly, the noise in our cell suddenly died down. This had happened when I had been thrown into this cell, but not since then. I looked up to see who had caused this unusual reaction.
In a cell packed with smallish, but dangerous looking and swarthy locals, the new guy was totally out of place. He looked like a giant out of Gulliver’s tales. The cell had been packed before, but now it seemed too small even for this single person.
He was huge, he was broad shouldered, he was white and he had a long blonde mane. He looked as out of place as Thor in a kindergarten. The aggressive guy that had explained the facts of life on my first day had been the undisputed king in here so far. Tentatively and without any enthusiasm, he approached the newcomer, probably to stake his claim.
Bracing himself, he lifted his notorious forefinger again and started his usual rant. Casually, and almost too quickly for the eye to follow, “Thor” punched him straight in the face. The guy flew backwards, blood flying from his face in a weirdly perfect parabola.
The whole cell was deadly silent.
Grinning viciously, “Thor” slowly looked around.
“Anybody else want some?”
I was too stunned at first to realize that this was the first person I could understand since I entered this shithole. The locals shied away from him as far as they could. Then he spotted me.
“Hey!” he said.
To this day, I believe that Victor saved my life. I learned later that he was no saint, but right then he was definitely my savior.
The locals scurried around, eager to please him. As his new best friend, I found my toilet cleaning duties were immediately transferred to some other unlucky dude. Victor decided that we’d get the bunk bed in the smaller room, which was a bit separated from the main room. This was where the cell’s nobility had resided and to my surprise, the former alpha males left their territory with strained smiles on their faces. I soon had access to the best food available (which was still pretty bad, but at least edible) and was generally treated with respect.
Victor soon ended the local tradition of extorting money from weaker prisoners, but didn’t do away with the pecking order. I felt like a pig when I watched my successor at the bottom of the totem pole suffering, but to be honest, I had no compulsion to clean the toilet anymore and there just wasn’t enough edible food for everyone. We remained a totally unequal society. I was just at the other end of the food chain, having taken the place of the guys I hated for doing that, before. Morally, I was on shaky ground, but my life was at least bearable this way.
Victor spoke the local language and ruled the cell undisputed. For some reason, he and I never talked about why we were in there. We talked a lot about the corrupt local government and justice system, and that was enough to imply that everyone in there had to be innocent. No one believed that, but we left it at that.
“What are you going to do?” he asked out of the blue. We had been busy with our usual occupation: staring at the opposite wall.
“What?” I still believe that the prison routine numbed most of my brain cells. I doubt that I would have been able to read a simple newspaper, even if one had been available. Hence, my answers were not exactly eloquent. Victor patiently explained.
“Simon, when you get out. What are you going to do first?”
“Get out? Vic, I’m in here for ... hey, I don’t even know how long. Shit...”
“I have no idea how long I’m stuck in this shithole. Damn, that sucks.”
“Yeah, it changes you, right?”
“Yeah. Vic, to be honest, I don’t think that I’ll ever get out of here,” I answered in a dejected tone.
“Stop, Simon. Okay?” He turned around, looking appalled. “Of course, we’re going to get out. Our embassy...”
“Vic, there is no embassy in this banana republic. We don’t even have diplomatic relations with...”
“Simon,” he interrupted me, looking me in the eyes. “Simon, I’ve always been lucky. I’ve always rolled sixes.”
“Yeah, I know. For every guy rolling sixes there has to be a guy rolling ones. That would be me. Let’s be honest, nobody gives a shit about me. If someone cared or wanted to get me out, it would have happened by now.”
“Come on, these things take time down here. I bet someone is working on your release right now.”
“Somehow, I really doubt that,” I answered with a sad smile.
A local came slinking into our semi-separate private room and Victor just casually waved him away. He didn’t just have the physique to do that, he also had the natural authority. Our private zone had no door and no separate toilet, but the wall separating it from the main room was a definite privilege.
“Okay, Simon. Just imagine you’d get out.”
“Ah, Vic, don’t tempt me. I don’t even want to think about it, it might drive me crazy. I might start thinking about Christine, about what she might be doing right now. How lonely she must be, worried, desperate.”
“Christine? Your wife?”
“Vic, be realistic, look at me. I’m completely average.”
“I have no idea about that, I’m not gay. Even if that’s true, why shouldn’t your wife be totally hot?”
“You know, there is this theory about the hotness of a normal couple being about equal.”
“Haha, Simon, I don’t give a damn about things like that. If I see a hot woman and I want her, I try to have her. I don’t give a shit about rules. I want it, I take it.”
I looked at him in wonder for a while and nodded. He was right. That was how he was. That was exactly how I wasn’t. I had always been the shy unassuming artistic type. He had this can-do attitude, just taking what he wanted from life.
“So, you’re married to an insanely hot woman, Vic?”
“I sure am,” he smugly replied. “I’d show you a photo if I had one, but let me tell you, you’d be amazed.”
“Wow.” I totally believed him. He was exactly the kind of guy who got the really hot women. He was big, bold and confident.
“Simon, let’s make a deal, okay?” He suddenly sounded very serious. “We will get out of here sooner or later.”
I looked at him, skeptically. “You will, Vic, I’m sure. You will roll a six and just walk out.”
“Nonsense. We will both get out. Get that into your over-skeptical head, man.”
“Okay, let’s for a moment assume we both get out.”
“Right, that’s the spirit. The first one to get out visits the other’s wife, tells her what’s going on and looks out for her. Okay? I’m a bit worried about my girl being all alone in the world, without me being there to protect her.”
“Yeah, sure, why not.” Easiest thing I ever had to promise. It would never happen anyway.
He looked unusually solemn as he held out his hand. I shook it.
Something was happening.
Everybody felt it. An outsider would have been totally oblivious, but after a few weeks, we could feel the prison as if it were an animal and we were trapped inside. We felt its pulse, heard its voice, smelled its odors.
The animal was tense. It was as if the whole prison braced for something.
Everything was way too silent. I peeked around the corner. No one in the main cell was uttering a single word. No one fought for the places at the small window in the cell door. Everyone cowered in the darkest corners. Cautiously, I returned to our smaller room. Even Vic’s unquenchable optimism seemed affected and we exchanged nervous glances.
I pointed towards the main room and had just opened my mouth to say something when a loud boom interrupted me. Silence. Another boom. Impossible to tell which direction or how far away. Holy shit, something serious was going on and it hit me that this could very well my last day on Earth. Before Vic had saved me, this prospect would hardly have bothered me, but now that my life had become bearable, I felt like I had something to lose. I realized that if Vic was killed, my surviving might lead to nothing but a prolonged and painful death. The other inmates would release their aggressions on me the moment he was gone.
Gunfire. I was no expert, but even I knew that those were automatic weapons. I could hear men shouting and screaming.
Suddenly, something big crashed into the main cell from the outside. I was just about to peek around the corner when Vic pulled me backwards. He put a finger on his mouth to silence me. Guys in the main cell were suddenly shrieking and a loud boom shattered our abode, followed by another and another. Deathly silence followed.
Vic motioned me to follow him towards the main cell. I had no idea how he knew when it would be safe to check; maybe he just followed his intuition.
The main cell was pure horror. It seemed like an off-road vehicle had crashed through a wall into the cell. It was riddled with bullet holes and the bloodied remains of the windows told me everything I needed to know. I had no way of telling if the men inside had been guards or attackers and had no intention of finding out.
I was shocked. No one in the main cell escaped injury. A few were moaning in pain, but most were dead. Blood was everywhere. It looked like one of the more violent Tarantino scenes.
“Hand grenades,” Vic whispered, and I nodded as if I had known that all along.
Vic stared at the hole in the wall that had been struck by the car.
“Shall we?” he asked, grinning. He gestured broadly with his hand as if he were inviting me in to a grand dining room or something. I just stood there and stared at him stupidly.
“I don’t know, Vic. This isn’t even an outer wall; it just leads to the courtyard. They will just shoot us on sight.”
“Chicken. No risk no gain. Let’s leave this shithole. Time to roll sixes, Simon.” His eyes were shining. This was his moment. I, meanwhile, was deathly frightened, certain I was about to roll a one.
“Okay,” I reluctantly said, just as we heard someone fumble with the cell door’s lock.
“Shit, they’re coming. Run, Simon. I’ll keep this door closed. One of us has to do it and you can’t survive in here without me.”
“Vic...” I truly didn’t know what to say. Vic, the daredevil, was offering to sacrifice himself for my escape? Before I could even say anything, he was blocking the heavy steel door’s latch.
“Just go, you idiot. Eat a nice steak for me. Go fuck your girl. Tell my wife that I love her. Go!”
The last I saw of him was his usual grin. I turned around and jumped through the gap. I felt sad. I had just left behind only true friend I’d ever had in life. It wouldn’t matter in the long run, though, as we would probably both die there.
The light outside was blinding after months in the dark stifling cell. The wind and fresh air were almost dizzying. I had to move, though, if I wanted to enjoy such sensations for more than a few seconds. I ran towards the next building, trying to ignore the corpses that were strewn all over the courtyard. I couldn’t climb the fence, so looking for an exit through the guard house seemed to be the only option.
Luckily, the guard house in question was deserted. One of the walls was completely gone, but there were no corpses inside. Without knowing what exactly I was looking for, I checked the back room.
All the questions I didn’t even have were answered at once.
I saw what this fight was about. I understood why I had been arrested. I even suspected why they had built the prison in this backwater: close to the border.
On a table were loads of plastic wrapped packages containing a white powder, and I had a distinct feeling that it wasn’t baking powder. There was some sort of microscope, a small leather pouch, a black cloth and a shockingly large pile of what looked like diamonds on top of it. This was no jailbreak; this was a drug war.
At the back wall was a rack and something completely alien looked at me. It was a thing from a different world and it clearly didn’t belong in there. My backpack. I quickly grabbed it and turned around to get out of there. On a whim, I folded up the cloth with the diamonds inside, packed them into the leather pouch and took it, as well.
The shooting had started again and I sincerely hoped that it wasn’t Vic who was being shot at. I guessed it wasn’t him; this sounded more like a fierce, ongoing firefight.
I left the small building and turned towards the main gate. To my amazement, it had been completely blown away. An off-road vehicle was peacefully burning in front of it. There was not a soul to be seen. I passed through the gate, ran over the mud road and into the jungle.
I mindlessly ran deeper into the forest for a while before I stopped, caught my breath and checked my backpack. Amazingly, everything was still there. My passport, my MRE packs, a few soft drinks, my hidden money stash, hell, even my cell phone and my money were still there. This had never been about theft. My arrest had been about eliminating competition in the drug business. My money was peanuts for them, anyway. Out of mere paranoia, I wanted to switch off my cell phone, but the battery was dead anyway.
Before I had been thrown into that hell hole, I had come to dislike the jungle. Now it had turned into my friend. It would hide me if I stayed away from the roads. I thought I could make it to the border without a problem. Once I had crossed it, I would be safe. I had more than enough money to make my way back home. I hid the diamonds in my backpack as well as I could and got on my way, thinking about my friend Vic behind me and hoping he was okay. I felt incredibly guilty, but there was nothing I could do for him now.
There it was. It looked almost exactly the same. It was totally familiar, yet weirdly alien: my house. Her car was in the driveway, so I knew that my wife would be inside. I felt some excitement, but I was also anxious. I had no idea what kind of reunion I was about to experience.
Why had I never heard from her? Had she even bothered to try to save me? Had she even been thinking about me? All those thoughts that I had pushed out of my head for 15 months to cling to some kind of sanity were now rushing in with a vengeance.
I just stood in front of my own house, unable to move, to make up my mind, to do anything. I had imagined this scene so many times, and it was always something like me riding in on a white horse amid a victory parade with fireworks, my beloved wife waiting for me, overjoyed to have me back. Looking around, it seemed that the reality was bit more mundane.
I tried to stall, not knowing what else to do, and looked around. This should feel like home. I knew this street, the ugly garbage cans, the pale green street light posts, the cracked pavement. All of this should have been as familiar as anything could be, yet for some reason seemed so unreal and strange. The air was too dry and lifeless, without any scent; the colors were too muted, the temperature was too chilly, everything was so absurdly clean, yet ugly.
The house in front of me had been my home for years, but I felt like a stranger. Fifteen months in a third world hellhole had changed me, that much was certain. I avoided the question of whether I really wanted to be there, as I had the feeling that I might not like the answer.
Just to get it over with and because it seemed the right thing to do, I rang the doorbell.
The door opened and there she was: Christine, my wife. She seemed to be absolutely unchanged. I never saw it before, but the term “typical satiated first world wife” sprang to my mind. I expected to see joy, happiness, relief. I saw none of those. What I saw instead was pure shock. This was not what I had looked forward to. Wordlessly, we just looked at each other for what felt like 10 years.
“Simon,” she stated in a neutral tone, in case I had forgotten my own name, or maybe she had.
Not the most eloquent thing to say, but still loquacious compared to my reaction. I was busy coping with my disappointment. She definitely didn’t seem happy to see her long lost husband. To make things worse, a man appeared behind her and he sure looked like he lived there.
No one asked me in, so I continued to stand there like some inconvenient surprise visitor, disturbing a happy couple in their home. This was certainly not the happy reunion I had imagined.
“Christine,” I finally managed to answer, just as dumbly.
This seemed to break the stupor.
“I’m sorry, Simon, please come in,” she formally said.
“Thank you.” What a ridiculous conversation between a married couple at the entrance of their own house!
The whole reception would have been just as warm if I had been a Jehovah’s Witness, except I’d have had more to say. I didn’t know the details yet, but I already knew that Christine and I were history. I just couldn’t decide what I felt about it.
I followed them into the living room. My living room, to be specific. It still looked like it had when I had left.
“Please, have a seat.”
“Thank you, Christine, but isn’t this technically my house as well?”
She was clearly surprised by my question.
“Wherever you’ve been, whatever you’ve done, you have changed, Simon.” Her tone was weirdly emotionless, given the situation. She had taken the place on the sofa next to the other man. They were holding hands as if to give each other strength. That simple gesture annoyed me. Christine saw this, but defiantly tightened her grip. “You seem harder. You have lost a lot of weight.”
That was it? Those were the first real sentences my concerned wife had to say upon the arrival of her long-lost husband? No curiosity about where I had been, how I was?
“You are right.” I tried to keep my voice as emotionless as hers had been. “You seem to have gained a bit meanwhile. I’d say about a hundred and twenty kilos,” I said while pointing at the flabby mass of flesh next to her.
“Simon, I fully understand that this must be surprising to you, but there’s no need for insults.”
“That’s all you have to tell me?”
She sighed, but looked determined to get it over with.
“Simon, I’ll try to make this simple. We are not married anymore. Try to imagine how I felt, for once. You vanished without a word. You never considered my feelings, my confusion, my loneliness.” She was slowly gaining steam, now that she was talking about herself and her own suffering.
“Did you contact anyone about my disappearance?”
“What?” She seemed clearly surprised. Shit, I thought, this explained why nobody had tried to get me out of there. “Why should I? You simply announced that you’d spend a long vacation without me in some tropical hinterland to discover their cooking secrets. Did you ever think about contacting me? How do you imagine I felt when you just abandoned me without a thought?”
Who was this woman? Had she always been that self-centered? Was it even worthwhile to discuss things with her, to reveal the truth? I felt utter disappointment, but it was not about my cold reception, anymore. It was about discovering the truth about the person she was, or had turned out to be.
“After I hadn’t heard from you in an eternity, I was starting to fall apart. You deeply hurt my sense of self-worth. How could you just abandon me that easily? Didn’t you love me at all? The whole situation was tearing me apart; you can’t imagine how much I suffered. I felt so lonely and powerless,” she explained and seemed ready to dissolve into tears of self-pity. Really, I thought? Had she always been this way? Has she changed this quickly or had I always managed to ignore how ugly she was on the inside?
“Finally, my therapist advised me to move on with my life. Just on cue, Philipp came into my life as a god-send.”
She turned to look him in the eyes affectionately and squeezed his hands again. The sight was sickening, as it was clearly done for my benefit.