Authors: Marjorie M. Liu
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Paranormal
The children were playing on the road. It was flat and dusty. No traffic, though the boys took turns standing on a rock to keep watch. Not for other refugees, but for men carrying guns, or trucks with an unfamiliar shape or growl. Between the five of them, they owned a whistle, a gift from one of the doctors in the camp. The boy on the rock had it now, held tight in his fist. He was ready to blow the whistle, just in case.
The soccer game got rough. One hard kick, and the ball flew into the jungle. The boys threw up their hands, shouting, pointing fingers. The littlest one was responsible; he was shoved, unwilling, toward the thick brush and towering trees. He protested loudly, tripping over knotted vines, falling on his knees. Smaller than the ferns, or the twisting roots angling out of the ground; swallowed by shadows that radiated a thick wet heat that buzzed with stinging mosquitoes.
You are easy food for a snake,
laughed his friends.
The child watched. He glanced over his shoulder as the leaves closed behind him, shutting out the dawn light. It would be hours before the sun rose high enough to pierce the upper canopy. Until then, a constant twilight, fit only for leopards and spirits; cries of birds, echoing.
He heard a thud, off to his left. Heavy, like a melon falling. Or a body. He turned to run and his bare foot touched something hard and leathery. The ball. He had been standing beside it the entire time. He scooped it up, still ready to flee, but before he could take a step something fell from the trees in front of him. He screamed.
The other boys crashed through the bush, calling his name. He did not answer them. His attention was on the ground. He pointed as his friends arrived, and all of them fell silent, staring at the twisted body of a monkey sprawled in the dried leaves. A white stripe cut across its brindled forehead, and its tufted ears were yellow. Blood dotted its nose and the corners of its eyes.
The monkey was not alone. Other bodies lay on the ground; little lumps of dark fur that blended well with the shadows. The eldest boy whistled, rubbing his palms against his stomach as he stepped close and touched a limp haunch with his bare toe.
“Still warm,” he whispered.
“This one fell,” said the smallest, still clutching the ball. Another crashing thud, out of sight on their left, made them jump; they looked up and saw shadows swaying unsteadily in the branches, eyes blinking in the forest twilight.
“They are so quiet,” someone said.
“We should go,” murmured another, backing away.
The eldest stooped and picked up the dead monkey by its tail. The boys hissed at him, but he straightened his shoulders and flashed his teeth. “Aren’t you hungry?”
The smallest shook his head. “We are not allowed to take bush meat.”
“It was already dead.” The boy started walking, slinging the monkey over his shoulder. “Come on. If the
give us trouble, we will show them this place and prove we are innocent.” His grin widened, and he patted his flat stomach. “We will do that anyway, I think.”
The other boys looked at each other. Another monkey swayed and fell from the tree. It almost landed on top of them. Dead, with blood in its eyes. Like it was weeping.
The children ran from the jungle, calling after their friend who was already racing down the road toward the white tents of the refugee camp. The monkey bounced against his back. Blood dripped from its eyes into the dust, against his calves.
The boy was fast and his legs were long. He had a strong heart, the promise of meat in his belly; the sweet anticipation of seeing his mother smile. For that, anything.
He was dead by sunset.
His grip was strong but not painful. Rikki smiled through gritted teeth. “Maybe
want to give up, Jean-Claude. Before I beat you
She puckered her lips and kissed the air. The men gathered around the table laughed and slapped Jean-Claude’s shoulder. The cell phone kept ringing.
Muscles burned; her arm quivered. Rikki glanced at one of the soldiers and he plucked her cell from its clip and placed it in her left hand. Congo pop music, full of sharp beats, threaded through the open door of the stifling corrugated shack she was sitting in.
She flipped open the cell. “Doctor Kinn speaking.”
“Rikki, it’s Larry. Get ready to move. We’ve got a Hot Zone. Level Four.”
Jean-Claude slammed her hand into the table. Rikki did not notice. She closed her eyes, dizzy and breathless. “Where?”
“Between Bumba and Lisala. Mack is already there. He’ll fill you in when you arrive.”
“Fill me in now.”
“Not on this line.” Larry’s voice was cold, hard. Rikki knew that tone. She clamped her mouth shut and glanced at the soldiers. Only Jean-Claude met her gaze, and he no longer appeared quite so drunk. Rikki pushed back her chair, dug into her pocket and pulled out a twenty-dollar bill. She tossed it on the table and moved to the door.
“Transport?” she asked, staring out at the gates of the dock, which was crowded with yet more soldiers, all of whom were trying to control the endless bottleneck traffic of bodies: bare backs bent under loads of burlap sacks and bushels of sugar cane; uniformed porters stumbling beneath the immense luggage and wares of Zairean businessmen in loud suits and gold jewelry. Wheelbarrows pushed by gaunt men passed Rikki, along with scooters and creaking carts piled with clothing; castoffs from America, no doubt. Shouts slammed the air, as did fists; everyone wanted to be on that ferry idling on the river’s edge, and the only way to get there was to push and shove and fight for every step.
Rikki heard an odd clinking sound on the other end of the phone. Like glass. “Mack said you were in Brazzaville. Can you make it to Kinshasa by the evening?”
“Sooner. I’m already at the ferry.”
“Good. Colonel Bakker will meet you on the other side, and he’ll put you on one of the UN planes headed for the affected area. Questions?”
Rikki snorted, scuffing her shoes against the dirt floor, kicking debris into a stagnant puddle outside the door. “You just told me I can’t ask any.”
“Rules of the game,” Larry said, and then, softer: “Be careful, kid. This one’s trouble.”
“Story of my life,” she replied, and flipped her cell phone shut. Tried to imagine, for a moment, what she was headed for, but her mind stayed blank, and all she could do was watch as sunlight cut skeins through the dust and blue exhaust, the air thick and damp and hot. Her entire body was slick with sweat; she was glad she had cut her hair before this last trip to Africa. Short, like a pixie.
her daddy would say. A slip of a thing: his princess, his little Thumbelina. Small, but with a punch.
The soldiers were watching her. Rikki schooled her expression into something cool and easy; a well-oiled mask. Her second skin. The twenty had disappeared from the table, and in its place was a deck of cards. Jean-Claude stood only a foot away, his reddened eyes thoughtful. “What is wrong?”
Rikki thought, but she put a smile on her face and said, “Duty calls. You want to help me get on that ferry?”
Jean-Claude knew her too well. His eyes narrowed, so sharp, but he reached behind the door and picked up his rifle. He gestured to the others. “Of course. What are friends for?” And then, bending close, he whispered, “I would have beat you this time.”
His breath smelled like beer. Rikki shook her head and grabbed her backpack. “In your dreams.”
“Not without my wife’s permission,” he replied easily, and stopped her, just outside the shed. “You are going to a sick place?”
She hesitated. “Yes.”
Jean-Claude nodded, sucking on the inside of his cheek. No words, though. He turned on his heel, grabbed her arm, and pulled her toward the heaving crowd. The other men from the shed pushed ahead, clearing a narrow path that Rikki and Jean-Claude squeezed through. All of them were rough; brutal, even. People fell getting out of their way; packages were dropped and trampled. Rikki was almost knocked down herself, but Jean-Claude’s hand clamped tight and he hauled her upright, almost carrying her against his side.
The immigration official stomped out of his post as they passed. He was as tall as Jean-Claude, but twice as wide; he towered over Rikki and tried to grab her other arm.
blustered the man, but Jean-Claude rattled off a long stream of words in their native language, and pushed him away. No stamps in her passport this time around. An illegal departure from the country, but nothing that would land her in too much trouble—for the right amount of money. If she were caught.
The ferry’s metal ramp appeared, crowded with bodies, wares, and livestock. Another immigration official lay in wait at the top; Jean-Claude said a few more hard words, leaned in close—his rifle butt poking the man’s chest—and escorted Rikki past him. She heard her name shouted, and turned in time to catch a wave from one of the young soldiers who had been in the shed. She held up her hand, nodding, but Jean-Claude pushed her away from the rusted rail toward the other side of the boat, not letting her stop until the crowd thinned and they could see the smoky edge of Kinshasa looming on the opposite bank of the muddy Congo. Dirty steel and stone, cut from the jungle like a scar.
Jean-Claude still gripped her arm. His fingers squeezed hard, and in a low voice he said, “Make an excuse. Do not go.”
Rikki glanced down at his hand and raised an eyebrow. “Two years we’ve known each other, and you’ve never given me advice.”
His gaze flickered to her breasts. It was not a sexual look, but Rikki knew exactly what he was remembering, and it made her want to cover herself. She kept steady, though. Too much time spent building herself up to crack the mask now.
“Jean-Claude,” she said. A low sigh escaped him, but he lifted his gaze and looked her in the eye—which was almost worse. She could not stand his pity.
Or his words. His voice was too gentle, as though he was trying to soothe some wounded animal; rabid, wild. “I have never given you advice, because you were in no state to take it. Not then. And by the time you healed—”
“No.” Rikki finally had to look away. “No, Jean-Claude. Please.”
“Please,” he echoed. “Do not go to the sick place. Make an excuse.”
“You know I can’t do that.”
His hand tightened. “Rikki—”
“Let go of me, Jean-Claude.”
He did, holding up his hand, and glanced away; first at the slick metal deck, and then the swirling waters. “I hear rumors coming out of Zaire. More and more stories every day. The new government has changed the name of its country, but the people are still the same.” He gave her a hard look. “The UN will not be able to protect you.”
“I’ve got bigger worries than the rebels.”
Jean-Claude shook his head. “I was not speaking of the rebels.”
Around them a shout went up, accompanied by a ringing bell and a rough announcement that the ferry would be leaving at any moment. Goats bleated; a baby squalled; somewhere nearby, a woman crooned. A breeze licked the sweat from Rikki’s face, but she could not savor it. Jean-Claude backed away, holding his rifle against his chest.
Rikki swayed after him. “Spit it out. You have something to say.”
“No.” He stopped, wetting his lips, holding himself stiff. He looked uneasy, and the fleeting smile that appeared on his face was pained, sickly. Not him. Not like the man who had once saved her life. “Next time you come around, we wrestle again, eh?”
“Be careful,” he whispered—and turned, practically at a run, driving himself hard through the crowd, slipping around carts and stacked bushels of grain. Rikki pushed away from the rail, calling his name, but he never looked back. She lost him in moments.
The bell kept ringing; a black cloud of smoke coughed from the stern, burning Rikki’s nostrils. The ferry heaved, shuddering, and a low groan filled the air, followed by the chugging hack of the engines as the ferry finally pushed from shore. On her way. No turning back. She tried not to think of Jean-Claude’s words. Or that look in his eye. No telling what to make of his warning, either, which was…really crappy.
He was scared for you. Be grateful someone cares enough to be scared.
was scared. All the time. She just hid it better than most people. Rikki preferred being a hard-ass to having no ass at all. She thought her father would approve.
But here, now, there was nothing that could be helped, nothing to do but take a little care. Same as always. Rikki focused on her breathing. Watched the river and the people around her. Staying present, in the moment—savoring, while she could, the kind of solitude only a crowd could offer. Peace, among strangers. No demands, no ties. No shoulders but her own to lean on. Which was all she could trust to keep and hold. Lesson learned, hammered home. More times than she wanted to think about.
Friend to everyone. And friend to none.
A nearby man held a full-length mirror in his arms. It had been wrapped in cloth at some point, but pieces of fabric were slipping free. Rikki caught a glimpse of herself. Short brown hair, sharp brown eyes, a small face red with heat and slick with sweat. No make-up, but with lashes black as soot; a full pink mouth and cheekbones high and round. Natural born, her father had always said. Just like her mother.
Rikki felt like she was looking at a stranger. Tore her gaze away fast.
The ferry ride lasted only thirty minutes. No one approached her, though she heard the occasional murmur of
behind her back. Made sense. She was the only pale face on the ferry, and they were headed for Ngobila Beach. The Gauntlet. Hell Ground. No one went to the Beach unless they had to, and she would be an easy target for the soldiers. Good thing she liked trouble. Good thing those men knew it, too.
Up close, Kinshasa boomed with twisted shacks and spires, smoke that curled through the haze of humid air. Somewhere out of sight, dogs barked. Behind her, voices got louder; a buzz of excitement, fear. Rikki steadied herself.
Ngobila Beach held no surprises. Crazy, business as usual. It took a while for the ferry to dock, and she used the time waiting to study the crowd below, the forefront of which consisted mainly of screaming soldiers in green uniforms, and beggars missing limbs. Rikki watched one young woman utterly without legs drag her torso across the rocks, her hands wrapped in colorful rags. She had a bag slung over her shoulders, the canvas bulging with sharp-edged objects. The maimed woman glanced up at the ferry and zeroed in on Rikki. Stared into her eyes with a hollow intensity that was hard to shake off. But not impossible. Rikki had seen worse. She would be swimming in it by the end of the day.
People began pushing each other down the ferry ramp to shore. Rikki let herself be carried by the surge, pressed tight on all sides by tall strong men carrying grain sacks on their heads—men who flashed her friendly smiles when they saw her looking. They tried to make room; Rikki was almost half the size of everyone around her, and being short in such a crowd felt like moving in a furnace, a stifling pocket of trapped air that smelled like sweat and excitement and fear. Close to being trampled; closer still to suffocation.
Congolese soldiers waited at the bottom of the ramp. Black berets and green fatigues; handguns and rifles and AK-47s brandished like charms. One of the security officers stepped forward and grabbed Rikki’s arm. His breath smelled like beer and his teeth were white. Sweat rolled down his face. Rikki slid her hand into the top pocket of her cargo pants.
Simon.” Rikki smiled and slipped a fifty-dollar bill into his hand. The officer’s eyes crinkled and he palmed the cash to his chest, slipping it inside his shirt where no one could see it. He slung his other arm around her shoulders and gestured to the men with him, who began clearing a path through the crowd, much as the other soldiers had done for her at the Brazzaville dock.
He led her past the immigration office—a place that Rikki had learned, some years back, could be avoided in its entirety with one phone call and a well-placed bribe. Corrupt, yes; immoral, maybe. Rikki had taught herself not to care. Passports had a way of getting lost in that place; same with people. And she was always on a deadline.
“You have a guest waiting for you,” Simon said, as they passed through open iron gates into a quiet area free of the crowd. “He is a very frustrated man.”
“Most men are,” Rikki replied, and Simon laughed out loud. He was still laughing when they turned a corner in the dusty yard and Colonel Bakker came into view. His pale blue beret stuck out like a piece of sky.
Simon stopped and said,
“Au revoir, Docteur.”
“Until next time?”