CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|On the Brink
I’m standing in the jungle, ankle-deep in mud. It’s dark and hot and the heat seeps through my camouflage gear. My boots, my flak jacket and holster, everything is wet. I hear Kim breathing nearby. She’s in camouflage as well, black face under her eyes. Her breath is deep and, no matter how many times we’ve done this thing, she’s always a little nervous before we go in.
I suppose I am too. We never know exactly what will occur. How people will react. Lately it’s been kind of slow. Last week I had a guy tell me to go away and let him sleep. I told him that wasn’t going to happen and shoved him out of bed with the butt of my rifle. After that he didn’t look so amused. In fact he looked kind of scared. Kim says that’s always the best. When they’re scared.
Mud seeps into my boots. It will be hard to do the march. This is normally a dry time of year and we hadn’t anticipated the rain, but Commando Bill says we’ve got to go ahead. We were going to do it Monday, but the guests were delayed. Monday’s never a good night for a raid anyway. They’re always just settling in. Tuesday was their trip to the cloud forest and the jungle climb. We would have done it on Thursday, but the last group was taken on Thursday and we’re afraid this new group has been warned. In fact they probably have. That’s what usually happens. And we need the element of surprise.
Surprise is key, Commando Bill says. He’s my boss, and I do what he says. So we’re standing in the rain, waiting for the signal. Commando Bill’s on the other side with Jeremy, the cook. We’ve got the village surrounded. Kim’s maybe only ten yards away but I can hear her chest, going up and down. That flutter in her breath. I’m having trouble staying focused. Kim’s not really my type in her civilian clothes, but she turns me on when I see her in full gear. I’m not the kind of guy who wants girls to dress up as nurses or maids, but there’s something about a military uniform. And Kim looks good in hers.
I’m thinking about Kim straddling me with her gun at my throat, when I hear Bill’s high-pitched whistle—a parrotlike sound. From all sides we’re marching in. The huts, which are made of balsa wood and palm fronds, are lit up with those amber lanterns. It’s very pretty like an amusement park. I’m sure they’ve just finished their sumptuous meal—roasted corn, quail, fruit compote for dessert.
It’s a kind of a joke around here—the last supper, their final meal. I wonder what it must feel like to be them. To know we are out here. That we are coming. That at any moment they’ll be taken away even as they sip their pinot noir.
We approach silently and I can see inside the huts now. Their beds have been pulled back. The hurricane lanterns are lit. Gossamer curtains grace the roofs. The silhouettes are moving inside. A man and his young wife look as if they’re about to make love. An older couple is reading in bed. One family with their teenage son is hanging out, gabbing. No one under sixteen is ever allowed. Commando Bill and Sonya have been very strict about the rules.
It’s peaceful for that moment before we go in—the calm before the storm. I’ve heard that people with epilepsy feel this way. It’s as if the world pauses and everything, and everyone, stands still. Then Bill gives a shout and we raise our guns and rush into the camp. We hear screams as we go from tent to tent. Maybe a little phony, though some sound like shouts of real surprise. “Okay,” I yell, walking into one hut, rifle poised against my chest, “Everyone out.” The guests have told Bill that they are most afraid of me.
This is the hut of the businessman and his trophy wife. She’s maybe fifteen or twenty years younger than he is and very nice to look at. She’s standing in a nightie, bent over the sink, brushing her teeth. “Out, now.”
She looks up at me. Her blonde hair falls across her breasts. She has gorgeous, thick lips. “Can I finish?” she pleads.
I’m getting so tired of these groups. We’ve tried everything to get them to be startled and scared, but the truth is more and more they’re just acting put upon. I guess the word is out about us. Commando Bill must know this because he’s already coming up with new schemes. He’s put “Suicide Bomber” back on the table, though Sonya is resistant. She says, “Let’s wait until there’s another terrorist attack.” We’ve tried “Illegal Alien: Crossing Borders,” but it’s a hard sell, getting our clients to do the trunk of the car thing. And nobody even signed up for “Slumming: A Journey among the Sad, the Sick, and the Starving.”
“Get out. Move,” I tell her. She gives a little snort as I shove her with my gun.
The man and his young wife, who is spitting toothpaste into the sink, are clearly put out. He looks like he was ready to jump all over her. He seems a little sad as he’s shaking his head. I think he was hoping for tomorrow. “Does it have to be tonight?” he says with that air of entitlement, smiling through his fake white teeth.
What do I have to do? Read him his rights? Show him the contract. Yes, it has to be now. It is now. “March,” I tell him. “Move it.” Then I ad-lib. “Or you’re a dead man.”
I hadn’t planned on staying in Costa Rica this long. I’d done a lot of adventure travel. I led white-water rafting through the Grand Canyon and hikes along the Inca Trail. I’d done some extreme adventure in places where sane people wouldn’t go. I started my own company and took a group of lunatics on a three-month journey from Alaska across the Bering Straight. I probably would have settled for something more sedate—pilgrims to the Holy Land, say—but when Amy and I broke up, I had to get away.
Amy and I had been together since we were twenty (and now I’m twenty-five), but she grew tired of my roving ways. She got a dog, bought a house outside of Denver. She bought dishes while I was hiking to Nepal. When I returned Amy said she’d had enough. She took the dishes and the dog. When I heard that Bill had started an adventure travel company of his own, I gave him a call. “Come to Costa Rica, George,” he said when I contacted him. “It’s not that different from ‘juve’ boot camp.”
That’s where I met Bill—when my parents dropped me off at that place in Oregon where they made you hike in the snow. I must say it made a man out of me. Every day we went from outpost to outpost, and Bill was in charge. I’d been what my guidance counselors called a “problem child” and my parents in a desperate move sent me there. I guess it was “juve” or jail. At first I hated boot camp, but then it was like being on a long trip. We kept walking in the snow. Only we didn’t know we were walking in circles until we moved up to Stage Two. Then we were in on The Big Secret. We were going nowhere fast; that was the message there.
It’s not so different from this place where we drive our guests in circles too. Only they never have time to figure it out.
“I’m interested,” I told Bill when he asked me. They were opening this eco-resort, but the details were vague. I should’ve known something was up when he told me it was called “On the Brink” tours. Anyway I’ve stayed.
I’m going hut to hut. Kim with her tight ass, her pointy breasts, that black face under her eyes, shouts in a way that makes my hair stand on end. “March. Outta here. Now!” Her unicorn tattoo shimmers in the moonlight. She’s got her gun raised on an old lady and her companion. She’s screaming at the top of her lungs and the old lady’s trembling. God, I want her to scream at me that way. I want to be off with Kim under the stars, my hand slipping under her holster into her cargo pants, and have her shouting at me just like this. “Move the fuck out, now.”
The old woman is trembling. Though she and her husband have read the brochure and know the first rule of captives (“Appear to cooperate”), tears are in her eyes. Her face is caved in and I realize she doesn’t have her teeth. I hesitate and think I should let her go back and get them, but that would break the mood. Obviously she wasn’t thinking the raid would come tonight. Nobody would take her teeth out if she thought so. I experience the thrill that they’re actually scared. I see it in the old lady’s eyes.
Now we get them out front, hands over their heads. Personally I think we should tie their hands behind their backs. But we tried it once, and the group complained in their post-trip survey. Our numbers went down. Kim and Jeremy have guns pointed at them. The old woman is crying, but I think it’s because she doesn’t have her teeth. Her husband just looks tired and tries to comfort her.
“Hands over your heads,” Commando Bill says again. The young wife in the nightgown demurs as I prod her with my gun. She raises her arms in her see-through nightie and her nipples point out in the dark. “March.”
We line them up single file and head into the blackest of night. Before us is the trail, leading into the woods. They know that they must march. They know they are free to try and escape, but they must be successful. They must be certain they won’t get lost and that they can return to camp without being caught. Otherwise things will go badly for them. Or for those they love. There’s always the Solitary Stockade, though we haven’t used it in a while. Anyway they’ve all been grilled on the first rule of hostages: “Appear to cooperate.”
It is dark and quiet in the jungle as we follow the trail. The moon is a thin slip. This is the Walk. I like the silence. It’s very Zen. The way everyone falls into step. They no longer resist or make fun of us. They seem genuinely frightened by the darkness and awed. They have no idea now where they are going or what awaits them.
I hear the old lady whispering through her gums. “Isn’t this taking a long time?”
“Shush,” her husband says, “I’m sure we’ll be there soon.”
I want to comfort them. To tell them it will be all right. I know what’s ahead. I know how long this walk will be. They march in silence. No one tries to escape. Everyone seems very subdued, which isn’t how it should be. This is because they think it’s almost over. They think their ordeal is done. They know too much. That’s part of the problem. I’ll have to talk to Bill.
We live in an old army barracks a few hundred yards from the Village. It’s just some barren rooms with hammocks. Maybe if you’re lucky a table and chair. We have an outdoor shower that consists of barrels of rainwater that trickle through some pipes. Outside of some paltry pay, we get clean sheets on straw beds and three meals a day, which are made mainly from the leftovers that the guests don’t eat. I should’ve left months ago, but I’m still here.
Maybe it’s because of Kim. I like to be near her. She uses almond soap and has an earthy smell. Or it’s because I haven’t really got anywhere else to go. As we head back to the barracks, I sidle up to her scratchy uniform. She doesn’t seem to mind, but she doesn’t seem to notice either.
Jeremy’s got a meal waiting when we return, much simpler than what the guests are having right now. Boiled cassava root and roasted goat, no salt (Jeremy doesn’t believe in salt) and a watered-down and heavily sweetened glass of guava juice. “Rebel regime?” I ask him.
“Naw, just leftovers,” Jeremy, a red-headed kid from Santa Cruz, replies.
Kim washes the greasepaint off from under her eyes and returns in jean shorts that make her hips look a little wide and a T-shirt that make her breasts a little small. She’s definitely not as sexy out of her camouflage gear, and I’m always a bit deflated when she changes into her civilian clothes. Still part of me just wants to drag her out into the jungle and ravage her.
“Oh, now we wait another week,” Kim sighs. It’s true that between when we take a village and when we drive them back to the airport there’s not that much for us to do. A few nature walks and a trip to the hanging vine or the waterfall, that’s about it. We’re both excited because we’re scheduled for the “Tsunami Special” for next week. (“You Never Know When the Wave’s Gonna Hit”) But there’s a rumor that this group might have cancelled.
“We could go up to the volcano,” I offer, which is something we like to do in our spare time.
“I don’t know.” She takes a bite of her cassava root, then pushes her plate away. Jeremy makes a face as he takes her plate away. “I’m just not hungry,” she tells him.
“You okay?” I lean closer to her across the picnic bench that serves as our dining room table.
“I’m just bored.” Kim sits back and fiddles with a strand of her long dark hair. Let me pull on that hair, I want to say to her. Let me unravel that snarl. I can help you be unbored. “I’m ready to do something else with my life.”
“Yeah, me too. Like what?” I stop eating too and go to the cooler for a beer. “You want one?” Kim shakes her head.
“I’m thinking about going back to school. Maybe in anthropology. I don’t know. What about you, George?” Kim’s a good girl. She’s from Jersey, actually. Barnard grad. Cultural anthro major. She wound up in this place kind of like me. Looking for adventure, to get away. Try something new. My guess is she’ll be heading back soon, though she never says to what. Or even where. “Oh, I’m saving my money down here.” This is a lie and now I prepare for another. “I’ve been thinking about getting my MBA.” Actually I’ve never thought about getting an MBA before, but I think Kim would like this. “You know, maybe open my own eco-resort somewhere.” Her eyes widen and she does seem impressed. “What do you think?” I reach across the table. It is a good excuse to touch her hands.
“I think it’s a great idea.” She squeezes my fingers in her warm paws and a small flame ignites within me. Then Kim gets up and yawns. Not many women look sexy when they yawn, but I like seeing the dark cavern of Kim’s mouth and the way her lips spread out across her whole face. And her teeth. They are very straight and shiny. She brushes them with palm fronds. “I’m going to bed down …”
“Me too …” We head off to our separate barracks. I’m not very tired, but I ease into my hammock. In the quiet I can hear Kim, breathing, her hammock swinging, through the wooden slats. I hear other things too. Critters like spiders and scorpions crawl around in the dark. Iguanas run across the roof, dragging mango rind. Lying on my back, I imagine Kim. Everyone has been taken. We’re alone. It’s just me and her. Her sleeves are rolled up and that unicorn tattoo pulses in the moonlight.
On Sunday we drive the old group back to the airport in the pickup truck. They pile in, and they’re all smiles. The guy with the trophy wife stuffs some bills into my safari shirt. “That was a great adventure we had, son.” He gives me a wink. The whole ambush thing turns couples on, but I don’t like to think about it. A teenager high-fives me and the old lady has her teeth back and she and her husband have a little lilt to their step as if they’ve been getting it on as well. Everyone looks tanned and well fed. I’m sure we’ll get a good report on this one.
We wave good-bye and there is some exchange of email addresses and we’ll be in touch, though we know we’ll never see any of them again, and that little flurry of activity that comes with departures. After a few moments I turn to Kim. “You wanta smoke?”
“Sure. Why not.” We head out behind the palapa on the side of the landing strip where we smoke a roach while we await the next group. We sit, smoking on our joint, listening to some monkeys screech their heads off.
Kim takes a drag. ”George, how long are we going to keep doing this shit?” She’s dressed in a jungle green T-shirt with a scooped neck and a pair of khaki shorts. Her dark ponytail is pulled back tight against her skull. I lean forward. Even though she’s not in uniform, I want to touch her. I want to dip my fingers into the V of her shirt. I want to draw the tip of my rifle along the side of her face. “How long?”
I’ve thoughts of dragging Kim off. Take her with me into the jungle. Ravage her there. I’m not an animal, but there is an animal in me, and it has this strange hunger that I can’t explain. I am this close to kissing her. “I don’t know,” I reply. “Not much longer.” I take a deep hit, hold it in my lungs.
“I can’t stand these people with their North Face duffels and fanny packs, their stupid digital cameras and straw hats.” She digs at the ground with her foot. “Another month or so and I’m out of here.”
“I’m going with you.” I am so close I can taste her, but, as always, Kim pulls away.
“The ‘Tsunami Special,’” I tell her, holding the smoke deep in my lungs before I let it out, “it will be our last.”
We shake on that, then give one another a hug. I hold her a little too long. I’m starting to think Kim’s coming around. Perhaps even tonight. Just then a small plane buzzes out of the clouds. It appears in the sky and we cup our hands to see as it lands on the narrow grassy field. Our new group comes tumbling through customs, which consists of a desk with an armed guard in this jungle outpost. Our guests, a motley crew, emerge from baggage, lugging the usual stuff.
Our numbers are smaller than the last. A few months ago, right after that bombing at that supermall, we had twenty or more in each group. Now, with the economy being what it is, and nobody traveling even to Paris or Rome, we’re down to twelve. And they’re not even under the palapa when I hear one of them say, “What is this?” a middle-aged man in a Hawaiian shirt and straw hat asks. “Last year at Sandal’s we had our own butlers!” Complaints about the accommodations while still at the airport are never a good sign.
“Okay,” I’m pointing along with Kim, “let’s line it up here in the shade,” and they all collapse, fanning themselves into the folding chairs. In the shade of the palapa I check out the new crew in their flip-flops and Hawaiian shirts. They’re sucking on their Evian bottles. “So folks,” I begin as I always do, “tell us about yourselves.” We like to know the demographics.
“Well, it’s kind of a family reunion,“ a stocky red-headed woman who seems to be the leader pipes up, and the others agree. There is general laughter and it does seem as if they all look alike—rather square, vault-shaped people without much in the way of waists or necks.
“Yeah, Cousin Joey, I haven’t seen you in ten years,” one twenty-something young man shouts out. There are some ooohs and ahhs. One kid body checks another, and everyone laughs, but Kim and I stare straight ahead, giving them a nod. It is one of our rules. Never engage.
“We will drive to the village,” I inform them. “The ride will take approximately two hours and we will not stop so if you need to make a pit stop, do it now.” The guests gaze at the two palm frond huts, designed for bathroom visits. “And I suggest you bring your own tissue.” I slam a roll onto the picnic table as our meager charges straggle off to do their business.
Soon they are piling into the back of the pickup with the usual moans and groans. Roughing it is part of what we offer. We could afford a van down here, but the truck was Sonya’s idea. “Let them get the feel of adventure, even controlled adventure, right away.” “Controlled adventure,” this has been just one of Sonya’s contributions to the travel world.
Sonya’s right about another thing. After a terrorist attack, our numbers go up. And we certainly could use one about now. Though I know they wouldn’t want to admit it, I think Bill and Sonya are secretly wishing for one too.
After Bill stopped working at juvenile detention camp, where they met (she was one of the graduates), they started “Sentimental Journeys”—river trips down the Nile, the Mississippi, nostalgic trips into the past—castles along the Danube. But then 9/11 happened and no one wanted sentimental journeys. No one was sentimental anymore. They added some extreme travel to their repertoire—living with a Stone Age tribe in Brazil, being helicoptered into the rain forest in New Guinea for an indefinite period of time. “Adversity travel,” they called it. But it hadn’t caught on.
They needed a theme, Bill said. One night, as he likes to tell it, kind of tipsy, they came up with “On the Brink Tours: Experience the Best. Prepare for the Worst.” It started as a joke. Then they tossed it around with a few travel agent friends. And somehow it caught on. For a short while, when it was in the news, “The Tsunami Special” (“You Never Know When the Wave’s Gonna Hit”) was our biggest success. As was “Stranded,” in which a plane makes an emergency landing in isolated terrain. The pilot and crew are ostensibly dead. And you’ve got three days of freeze-dried food, though in truth they come and get you after Day l. And Sonya’s been working hard on “The Global Warming Package” which will include drought, flood, and some mild form of starvation.
This tour, “Hostage for a Day,” until now has been fully booked, but I guess not enough is happening in the world. Of course there’s the usual bombings, the threat of Iran, and the wall going up on the West Bank, but none of this is hitting close enough to home.
After two hours on the potholed road, and the spotting of a pair of toucans and a troop of howler monkeys, which they all go crazy over with their digital and cell-phone cameras, we reach the Village. I like to see the looks on their faces when we arrive. The thatched huts with the sun-bleached linens and white sofas, the hurricane lanterns that glow amber. “Primitive luxury,” another one of Sonya’s contradiction in terms. She’s got a great oxymoronic mind.
Everyone piles out, dragging their duffels and supplies. We point them in the direction of their huts and the room-temperature showers. Half an hour later they meet us under the main palapa where Jeremy has prepared mimosas, made of guava juice and fresh mint, platters of sliced fruit, and local goat cheese.
Bill’s all set up in his camouflage gear and pointer for his PowerPoint orientation. “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to our Village. I am Commando Bill.”
“Good afternoon, Commando Bill.”
“You will always—is that clear, always—refer to me as Commando Bill. In our Village we have certain rules … They are for your protection and safety, as well as for the protection of our staff who must go looking for you if you go off and get lost. The first rule, no one, and I mean no one, leaves the Village unattended. No self-guided tours, please …”
They all laugh, as they always do, when he does the “self-guided tour” stuff and, before long, he’s deep into the three rules for captives: 1. Appear to cooperate, 2. Befriend your captors, 3. Plan your escape. Some days he gets a little philosophical and this is one of those days. “Be sure you know who the real enemy is. It could be you …” He points to an old geezer and the crowd goes wild with “Not Uncle Bernie.” “Or you …” He holds a mirror up to someone’s face. A loud sigh. Bill quiets them down with his hands. “And remember sometimes the best way to resist is to go along.”
There are some nods from the audience and a few references from the California part of this family about dropping your chi. The red-headed woman who appears to be the leader says, “Oh, yeah, that’s what they teach you in martial arts.” Kim yawns. Her mouth opens and that sexy lip of hers widens across her face, but she shouldn’t be yawning now. I make a sign, shake my head. “No,” I mouth back. And she gives me a grin.
When orientation is over, everybody heads out. The guest go to their huts to get settled and prepare for the evening and we go back to the barracks. That evening over a pot of recycled goat stew, Kim says to me, “George, do you remember our talk from the other day?” I nod. Of course, I want to tell her. I know every talk we’ve ever had. “Well, I don’t want to go to grad school.”
She makes a face and stops eating the greasy stew. “No. I’ve decided on culinary school.” She whispers so Jeremy won’t be offended, I think.
“Cooking school, not anthro?”
“Naw, anthro would make my parents happy, but it’s not what I really want. I like to make stuff in the kitchen. You know, veggie dishes. I like to pickle things.”
“Pickle things?” I never knew this about Kim.
“Beets, beans. It relaxes me. I want to cook. Do you think this is crazy?” Her eyes shine at me in the darkness.
“I don’t think that’s crazy. It’s a great idea.” My mind is racing. I’m remembering our talk from a few days before. “We could be partners,” I tell her.
“Oh, George,” she’s giggling now. “I don’t think we could work together.” It’s night in the jungle now and moonlight shines on her face.
“You could run the restaurant in my resort.” Suddenly this resort is taking shape. I’m envisioning a beach bar, thatched roofs, an infinity pool. Kim seems to be getting into the idea.
“I’d make only organic food … Or what comes out the sea. Catch of the day,” she laughs, then kisses me on the cheek. I reach for her, but she’s slipped away. “I’m going to bed,” she says. I get up, thinking that at last I’ll follow her, but she makes a little gesture with her hands. A sort of “no no,” and I sit down.
Bill calls a staff meeting in the morning. Since there are so few of us, he almost never does this, but now he does. Everyone who works at the village and behind the scenes shows up at the barracks. Bill’s dressed in an olive green T-shirt and khaki shorts. Sonya has her hair pulled back and she’s dressed in one of those bright colored peasant blouses she wears. But they are both looking grim. “Well, I wish I had better news to report …” He hesitates, glancing over at Sonya who urges him on. “I don’t have to tell you that our numbers are down.”rdquo;
We all nod.
“Sonya and I … We aren’t going to let any of you go so you can relax about that.” And we all do. There is a visible sigh. “But we need to do better. Pump up the enthusiasm.” He raises his arm into a fist. “Get the word out. We’ve got a great product here, but we have to sell it.” Then he breaks the news to us. The “Tsunami Special” has been cancelled indefinitely. It was very popular for a while, and Bill and Sonya spent a lot of money getting the wave just right. But now the numbers are down. “And we just can’t afford that wave due to the high operating cost,” Bill concedes.
So we’ll have to wait another week for what we spend most of our time doing. “Hostage for a Day.” It’s not that we don’t have other things to do. There’s maintenance around the village. Chopping back palm fronds and cocoanuts. I take care of the airport transfers to and from San Jose and Kim supervises housekeeping which Sonya refuses to do. And Jeremy, of course, has little time off because he’s got to cook 24/7.
It’s pretty much a shoe string operation on the back end, but the tourists never know. They get the high-end stuff—the feather beds and jacuzzis, the gourmet rain forest food. Jeremy has learned to do hundreds of things with casava root. Our guests don’t know that it’s just a few of us doing a bunch of odd jobs until the reenactment begins. “Only the best,” Bill, a golden boy just past his prime, says. “Show them the best.”
He claps his hands like a coach with his players and we all clap ours.
The next night we take them. Even though it is early in their trip, they seem to be expecting us. The kids all have their teeth brushed. The parents are in their pajamas, but wearing hiking boots. Who wears hiking boots to bed? I pull back the curtain of the family with a teenage boy—the one who buttheaded the other kid at the airport. He’s sitting on his cot, iPod blaring and doesn’t even know I’m here. His parents go quickly, but he just looks up at me with glazed eyes as if he’s stoned, which is strictly verboten, his head bobbing back and forth like a bobbly toy. “Hello, Junior,” I say, “let’s move it out.”
He continues to groove to his music and I know he’s not playing along. “Okay.” I rip his headphones off, hurling them across the floor of the hut and he looks at me in disbelief. I can tell his holiday, probably his whole life, rests in those headphones. “Come on. You’re outta here.”
“Hey man, take it easy. This was my parents’ idea.”
“I said move it.” He gives me a grimace with his pimply face.
He could care less. He moves slowly, with poised indifference off the bed.
“Fuck you, man. I’m not putting up with any of this shit.”
“Oh, yeah,” I tell him. “You wanta bet.”
Now I’m standing there, calling his bluff, but really what am I supposed to do? Drag him off? Shoot him? Bill’s never given us the drill for this. Can I just say, “Suit yourself, man”?
No, I cannot.
I am, after all, the tour guide, and he must do what I say. His safety depends upon it. I point the gun at his head. “Move. Or you’re a dead man.”
I surprise myself at how forceful I sound and the kid actually moves out of his hut. Now we get them all out front, lined up, outside of the kid, and he’s docile now, no one resists. “Okay, march!”
We come to a clearing where we make them sit on the ground. “Sit down; don’t talk. We’ll tell you when to get up.” The man with the trophy wife tries to apply the second rule of captives to us. “Befriend Your Captors.” He offers candy and cigarettes which I’m sure he slipped into his pocket for this occasion.
“Sit down and shut up,” I tell him. Whenever they try to apply the second rule, I apply my own first rule. Never Engage. That is death to any rebel fighter.
“Well, do you mind if I smoke?” the man says, trying a new approach.
“I said sit down and shut up.” And he does.
In the darkness Kim sits across from me. Her greasepaint is applied a little heavily and in the light of the moon she looks like a raccoon. Or a very sleepy lady. We’re all just staring into space. At last we hear the rumble of the truck. “What took him so long?” Bill says under his breath. Jeremy’s driving. This guy wears many hats. Rebel, driver, short-order cook. It’s a large pickup, the kind you’d transport migrant workers in. Its back panel is down and the group rises before we tell them to rush to it. “Nobody move until I say so,” Bill shouts. He’s very effective as a leader and he likes his power.
When everyone is sitting back down, Bill gives them the look-over. He glares at each one and finally shouts. “Okay, everybody into the truck.” We nudge them with our rifles and they scream, feigning fear as we shove them inside. We hop on board, slam the panel shut.
For half an hour or so we bounce around on jungle roads. They think they’re being taken somewhere but really we’re just driving around in circles.
Finally the truck comes to a halt and Kim, Commando Bill, Jeremy, and I hop off. Our guests bid us adieu, though there is no promise we won’t be back. They return to their village where their beds have been straightened, clean clothes laid out, and small treats with glasses of cognac wait at their bed tables. In the morning, tired from their ordeal, they will all receive baskets of breakfast delivered by a dark-haired maiden to their huts.
In an hour we’re back at camp. “That felt more like a fire drill than a hostage situation,” Kim says as she heads to her bed. “I’m getting some shut-eye.”
“Don’t you wanta have a smoke?” I plead.
“Naw, I’m tired.” And she blows me a kiss.
I reach up and catch it. Then I crawl into my hammock, but I can’t sleep. I just lie there, listening. I love the jungle at night. I love its hoots and its howls. I like the darkness and the unknown. Lying in the hammock, I like thinking that Kim is just a few doors down. I picture her swinging in hers, gazing up at the stars. I think about going in there and ravaging her, dragging her out into the jungle, and I fall asleep, thinking that one day soon I will.
For our next trip to the airport we need two vans. We’re picking up twenty-two—more than we’ve seen in a while. “Way to go,” Bill says when the numbers come in. The news must be getting out on the message board. The CEO of a telecommunication company thought “On the Brink” could serve as great crisis training for middle management, and he booked it overnight. Bill and Sonya couldn’t be happier. Maybe it’s also the new Guatemalan chef (Jeremy left in a huff) or the recent school shootings, which always help. Hard to tell, but we are definitely back in the adventure travel zone. As Sonya says, “the word is out.”
“Now here’s a marketing angle we hadn’t considered,” Bill chimes at our staff meeting before we head to the airport.
“We can change our business model,” Sonya adds. “We could have sales conferences here.”
At the airport we picked up ten “suits,” including the CEO himself, Andy, who looks like he’s twelve years old and has silky brown hair. Then there’s an assortment of wives and a few teenagers, and Andy’s two boys. They are a rowdy bunch, but more fun and younger than the last. They all seem to have known one another forever, and it turns out that they’re all zillionaires from some little Internet start-up they began in college “while sitting around the frat house, drinking,” one of them shares.
On the way to the village they’re all slapping one another on the arm. “And you said we’d never get out of Atlanta.”
Kim sits in the passenger seat, her body rigid beside me. I don’t believe I’ve made any progress on this front at all. I’m starting to think she’s gay. Or just not into men. Or not into anyone for that matter. It’s like she moves through the world with a Lucite bubble around her. Every time I want to reach out and touch her, this invisible shield is there.
We drive them to the village and there’s no grumping this time. “This is so authentic,” Andy says. “It’s just what I was hoping … You never know from the Internet …”
“Wow,” Pete pipes in, “It’s like an episode of ‘Survivor.’”
They all laugh. It is nice to have a good-natured crowd. Picks the spirits up in the camp. That night at a staff meeting we decide to go in on Tuesday. “That’ll give them a few days to hang out in the rain forest,” Bill offers. “Andy told me they all want to swing from vines.”
On Tuesday morning we lead them for a hike in the jungle, and Andy walks beside me part of the way. “This is such a cool concept,” he says. “I really like the product you guys have got going on down here. It so fits with our corporate model. You know, testing your limits, the element of surprise, being ready for the modern world.”
“Yeah, well, that’s the idea.” I don’t tell Andy that I’m just a flunky. Just a hired hand. Let him make me an offer I can’t refuse. And he does.
“You know when you come back up to the States, stop in Atlanta. I want to talk to you.”
Just then an armadillo crosses our path, and the cameras are firing away. “Oh, my god,” Andy says, “It’s just amazing here.”
After dinner we’re ready to take them. Kim and I put on our camouflage. We rub the greasepaint under our eyes. “This is it,” she tells me. “My last one.”
“Mine too.” I am so ready to kiss her. To take her in my arms, and maybe she’ll even let me once we’re out of here. For now we just grab our toy rifles and march to the village. Soon we can see the amber lights and hear the laughter. They are unsuspecting, which will make it all the more fun.
We’re about to take them when I notice a guy standing between me and Kim. He’s got on camouflage gear as well and the same black greasepaint, but his gun looks pretty heavy and his boots come up to his knees. “Nice equipment, buddy,” I say, but he doesn’t reply.
I’m assuming Kim already gave her notice. I’m about to give mine. I turn to her in a whisper. “Hey, who’s the new guy?”
In the dark I see her shrug. “What new guy?”
“You don’t know who he is?”
“Cállate la boca,” we hear him say. And then in English. “Shut the fuck up.” I look around and he’s not alone. There are several more all around us. “Muévelo,” he says in that kind of loud whisper just under his breath.
We are moving in unison towards the village. But it appears the others have already been taken. Andy, with his hands over his head, gives me a wink. “Hey, buddy,” Andy says to one of the men, “Who sent you guys? Central Casting?” There’s a chuckle from the group until the rebel hits him with his rifle butt and Andy sinks to the ground. Pete gives him a hand as we merge with our group onto the trail. This is the walk. I know the four parts. And the rules. Kim is just ahead of me, but I hear her whimpering. “Shut up,” I tell her. “Don’t let on you’re afraid.”
I will befriend the one behind me. I will plan my escape. But for now I’m following orders. I am walking in silence with the others. I listen to the jungle sounds. The rustling in the brush. An animal scurrying out of the way. The footsteps and heavy breathing as we march into the unknown.
Mary Morris (www.marrymorris.net) is the author of six novels, three collections of short stories, and four travel memoirs, and has coedited Maiden Voyages, an anthology of the travel literature of women, with her husband, Larry O’Connor. Her numerous short stories and travel essays have appeared in such publications as the Paris Review, TriQuarterly, the New York Times, and Vogue. The recipient of the Rome Prize in Literature, Morris teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College.