Buddha hates us all. And he hates me the most.
The little statue of Buddha I keep in my pocket, the one I stole from the pagoda, stares through me into the next life.
I thought it would bring me good luck or wisdom, but lately I have run out of both.
I am still in the jungle.
I like to think of the jungle as an octopus; it changes colour to suit its mood, it can change shape, and most importantly it can see the future; it knows what you are going to do before you do.
It’s wrapped its tentacles around me so tight I can barely breathe.
It’s a boneless thing, almost liquid, but it’s impossibly strong. You cannot touch it, not really, but it can touch you wherever it wants and it can squeeze itself into any orifice, no matter how small.
The air is thick with moths the size of hummingbirds and I have to swat away their powdery, pale bodies to keep them from stealing my blood.
One or two manage this biological theft, and they playfully spritz one another with the congealing fluid.
The undergrowth grows dark. The octopus is pissed off.
I sniff the air and my nostrils come alive with the fiery dampness of Cambodia; there is incense and chillies and durian and the watery blood of chickens left to dry in the sun.
Back in the west, smells are faintly whispered words and your nose struggles to listen. Out here, your nose gets a novel shouted at it.
The canopy above seems to pulsate like lungs, and with each rhythmic, throbbing breath a cloud of shimmering leaves sharper than razors is coughed forth and rained down where they are quickly carried away by ants.
The jungle begins to recede like a tide, it begins to retreat from me and separate into individual pieces that scuttle away from what looks to be four walls and a floor and the stump I was laying against is revealed to be a bed.
A hotel bed.
“Jom Riep su?” a voice calls. “Can do room service for you? Hello?”
Vines slither away into the darkest corners that they can find, and some truly hellish things undulate into the shadows beneath the bed.
I’m not in the jungle.
The Jungle’s in me.
I’m in a sleazy room on the mainland, far from the island and all that’s left is four walls and a fan that goes dud dud dud.
The room is as brown and tarry as the opium I have smoked in it, a real smudge of a place, and on the dresser and the bedside tables are piles of ash, burnt out incense sticks and little brass effigies of various, bird faced gods.
Despite the daylight trying to sneak into the room through the blinds, I have placed flickering lit candles around the room, as if to summon the night.
There’s a knock on the door again, and I hear a sigh.
I turn to face Jake, who is sitting on the bed next to me.
He stinks. The jungle is crawling all over him.
In my delirium I had forgotten he was even here.
“Tell the cleaner to fuck off,” he says.
“She’s a nice woman,” I say, and I picture the cleaner’s round, flattened face and her grandmotherly smile rendered bloody with betelnut.
It’s like I’ve lost the ability to think properly, in fact I don’t think at all, images just smear themselves across the inside of my skull like a flowering fungus.
I’m a raw nerve and I feel as though I have been skinned.
My body is just a naked knot of exposed receptors begging for mercy from the relentless stimuli that tortures them; the sweat crawling down my back, the mosquitos feeding on me, the parasites using my veins as a waterpark.
I’m sick, I tell myself. It’s dengue fever, it’s playing tricks on what’s left of your mind.
“Ahh yes good old Dengue, from the great vampire moth invasion of 2013,” Jake says.
The dead leaf rustle of a million pairs of moth wings flapping at once is a sound I’ll never forget.
“I’m sick Jake. I’m being serious.”
Jake shrugs and I grit my teeth.
The pain is so severe I am amazed that my bones are not broken. I can almost hear them cracking.
The last thing I want to do is remain in this body and endure this.
“Break bone fever they call it,” Jake sneers. “Maybe you really are fucked.”
I look around at the hotel room and realise you can’t hide from yourself in a room as small as this.
I need more codeine.
The sickness is destroying my cells and replacing them with particles of pure hell, pulling me apart from the inside out, starting with the soft tissue behind my eyes, and the tender gristle of my joints.
I’m shaking so savagely I can barely get the pills in my mouth.
I pour out an enormous measure of Khmer 31, the Cambodian answer to Jack Daniels, and mix it with some of the fermented papaya leaf extract the cleaner left for me yesterday.
I gulp the pills down with the concoction and gag.
“How many of those have you had? Fuck me I knew you were a fiend but I didn’t know it was this bad. You’re a fucking junkie.”
“They help with the pain. Just shut up will you.”
Jake is reading the label on my box of pills.
“I don’t think these are doing your mind any favours, what’s left of it anyway.”
I turn to face Jake to tell him to shut up again, but when I get a good look at him, I realise there is no point because he’s dead.
He’s monstrously swollen, a big balloon of a man, because they found him after the jungle had been chewing on him for a week.
“You’re dead,” I say and Jake shrugs.
It’s true. He killed himself.
Killed his wife too.
“You killed us all really didn’t you,” he says, and I can’t argue.
“Me and my wife. And the others. You’ve got a lot of bodies on your conscience. A lot of blood on your hands.”
I reach into the drawer by the bed and pull out the pistol, savouring the relief the cold steel brings to my boiling brow as I push the barrel against it.
The only thing stopping me from pulling the trigger is the awful feeling that it won’t work, that somehow the bullet won’t kill me and the things that hunt me won’t let me die.
I’m like King Midas in reverse.
Valium’s wake me up, speed puts me to sleep. Blood turns me on and women, they make me sick to my stomach so why would this bullet be any different?
“Where did you get that stupid thing from?”
I tell Jake I always had a yen for weapons, and relax.
“We all know that,” he says smugly.
Jake was one of the people who pulled me off that Swiss cunt I glassed. I also suspect he voted to have me removed from the island.
The whiskey and the painkillers hit me with a one two punch of confusion and anxiety. They haven’t helped at all.
I’m trying to remember how I got here, how I ended up so fucked up, but I can’t.
I know something bad has happened, something that hasn’t just changed the recognizable geography of my life, but mutilated it beyond understanding.
I am a man trying to put a grenade back together after it has exploded.
I am trying to pick pieces of shrapnel out of things and people and I am trying to make sense out of them, trying to draw some meaning from things that are individually meaningless.
“I think you better turn on the TV.”
I do as Jake asks.
On the first grainy channel, two kickboxers are having liniment rubbed into their lean muscles.
“Skip it,” Jake orders.
The next channel is the national news and I am plastered all over it. It’s on mute but I don’t need to listen to understand what they are saying.
My passport photo flashes on screen, followed by a panorama of black dog island; bodies under sheets on the pier and bored policemen doing their best impressions of concerned enthusiasm for service.
“I know you are counting on the Khmer old bill to be as shit as usual but the world is watching. It’s been on the BBC. Yer on top of the world ma!”
I drop the gun.
They will never make this stick I tell myself. I didn’t do anything wrong. Everyone was on everything; it was a chemical free for all.
“Was it all worth it? Was all this worth it? All this insanity?”
I think of the money, and I can picture each dirty, grubby transaction; backpackers handshaking sweaty old notes the colour of dried clay into my hands as I spewed out outlaw banalities, palming off my dignity quicker than my stock, spunking the money on drugs, shoddy pizza and brasses.
I’m crying and Jake is laughing in the way only dead men can.
So much for dead men telling no tales. The cunt never shuts up.
“What have I done Jake?”
“You and me, we’re gonna have a trip down memory lane. Set the record straight on a few things.”
He reaches under the bed and pulls out a rucksack, which he proceeds to open and empty onto the sheets.
I flinch, expecting scorpions or severed heads, but when I peel open my eyelids, I see an array of baggies and packages; there is MDMA, several sheets of acid, and countless strips of some kind of pharmaceutical. The writing on the crumpled boxes is illegible.
It’s a lot to take in. it all adds up to a nice life sentence in prey Sar prison, or if I am lucky, I will be put to death.
“Everything was fine until you showed up with your drugs. Paradise. You fucking poisoned the island with all this shit.”
And it’s true. I remember now.
Jake led me straight into my own memories, back to the beach of black dog island, Koh chkai kmaw, and I remembered it all.
Criminals crave anonymity, and on the island, I realised I wasn’t just anonymous, I was invisible.
No one was watching, at least not in the beginning I was just another dumb as fuck barang, staggering from one meaningless encounter to the next.
When I first got off the boat, I felt like I’d somehow wandered onto the set of a bounty advert.
So remote, so picturesque; a clump of neon green jungle encircled with a horseshoe of golden sand, permanently busy with backpackers from every corner of civilization.
Cut glass waters teeming with fish and a bustling sea front of restaurants and guesthouses.
The seedy bars and transient population were perfect hunting grounds for a predatory opportunist like myself.
I found a room and set up shop, ingratiating myself into the island clique of party hard expats and drop outs.
Jake holds up a box of pills.
“Tryptamazpine. Tryptamax for short. These. These are what destroyed everything.”
Tryptamax were surplus antivirals left over from the war that I got from a contact on the mainland.
I sold them to the expats on the island for a fiver a box.
You could gobble two or three pills and they’d space you out for a few hours and make you feel speedy. Maybe give you a hallucination or two if you were lucky, plus they had the bonus effect of protecting you from Malaria and Dengue which both crept around the island like flashers.
“A hallucination or two? This stuff made crack cocaine look like Brighton rock. Seizures, night terrors, fully fledged psychosis. And that was just the beginning.”
“I was taking them too. I didn’t know!”
I remember the night terrors and the mass sleep walking.
Islanders were waking up in all kinds of weird places, naked and sobbing.
I can remember coming around in the jungle, in the dead of night, a carpet of mosquitos on my naked body and moonlight dripping down my face, the taste of metal flowering on my tongue, a feeling in my skull like someone had tried to wake me up with a brick.
I can remember the seizures, folk dropping to the sand and spasming so violently they appeared to be break dancing.
“You’re forgetting all the bizarre behaviour. All the crying and hysteria, all the violence. My god the blood lust that came over us. Unquenchable. Real Jacob’s ladder shit.”
I knew what he meant.
We had decided, in a fog of madness that we couldn’t even see past, to kill all the stray dogs that plagued the island. We had justified it as something the locals would have wanted, especially after that kid was bitten, but really, it was something inside of us that called for it.
Two hundred scraggly mongrels, maybe more.
The fire burned all night. You could probably have smelled it in Thailand.
I remember how the chemicals melted everyone’s faces in my mind’s eye, and I remember how helpless the dogs seemed; no matter how fast the dogs seemed to be able to glide through the trees, they were never fast enough to escape us, and it seemed like the jungle led us straight to them.
The Khmers, they just laughed at us. They thought we were half mad or stupid anyway.
Chkai schkot they called us, crazy dogs.
And then came the suicides, five or more, Starting with Jakes.
“You wouldn’t have thought there was that much rope about.”
The joke is tasteless even for a dead man.
Jake looks about the room sadly. Some of his brain is exposed and the flies go in and out of it, as if they are bees and his head is a beehive.
Fluid is leaking out of his eyes, but I think it’s the next best thing to crying a corpse can do.
“I killed my wife. I killed my wife because of you. Because of this place. All those whacked out old war vets in those movies. You know what I mean. Nam or whatever. It wasn’t the war that scrambled them. It was this place. It’s in the soil and in the trees, and now it’s in me.”
I knew what he was talking about because I felt it in me too.
And then he lunges at me, this big rotten balloon and out of sheer instinct I raise the pistol and fire.
I had forgotten it was even in my hand.
The blast reverberates around the room and sucks at my ears, but for the first time in a while I see things with clarity.
The smoke clears.
Jake has vanished but the cleaner is there instead with a smoking hole in her cheek that’s pissing blood, and a surprised look in her eyes like she’s just won the lottery.
I didn’t even notice her come in.
She is still standing bolt upright. Her body doesn’t realise she’s dead. Mine doesn’t either.
Image by Honey Kochphon Onshawee from Pixabay
5 thoughts on “Dengue Fever by Alex Sinclair”
Hoo-wee, this one takes you through some changes. Beautifully done–the surreal element does a fine job of effectively carrying the narrative. That is very hard to do well, but it has happened here.
I really do enjoy your writing!!
Only you can get away with the use of simile as you do!!
This is as strong as I’d expect.
There could be questions regarding coherence, the MC isn’t really making sense but it works.
The line about smells was brilliant!!
This is better and more interesting than a lot that we get.
When reading, we need to realise that all the text is from the characters point of view, which takes this to a whole different level.
Boring isn’t so bad after all. Makes me so happy to know that a former actuary (more boring than accountants?) who only dabbled in drugs and drinks missed that excitement.
A horrific tale that’s all-the-more terrifying because it’s so well-written. It makes the unbelievable believable.
Bit of the old “apocalypse now.” Got the jungle in him the old heart of darkness, the vividness of delusion, decay and degeneracy. Pretty interesting about the drugs. I felt sorry for the cleaning lady.