True, I was the mastermind behind the scheme. But whatever you might say about the despicable nature of what I did, it was not, as the press hints, an act of desperation but one of hope.
Not for me to do such things half-heartedly. I was the one who urged my friends to paper over our windows. Partly to make our escapade feel more real and to help us appear more convincing. Partly, so we wouldn’t get caught. In Singapore, they cop foreign workers for the slightest infraction and, no doubt, if they copped my friends and me, our special brand of idiocy would have involved incarceration.
I quickly knew things weren’t going well. We kept the room light on, my girlfriend and I. She refused to switch it off. My friends had, at my suggestion, locked the room. Another brilliant idea on my part. The lock was a double cylinder and needed a key to unlock it from the inside and the outside. And my friends hadn’t left us one. In a matter of hours I felt disoriented and anxious. Soon after that, I lost all sense of time.
The single bulb, no light fixture to shield it, became like a fire that I could never escape. It burned my eyelids if I tried to sleep on my back and the back of my head if I turned on my stomach.
The single bulb, no light fixture to shield it, became like a fire that I could never escape. It burned my eyelids if I tried to sleep on my back and the back of my head if I turned on my stomach. How could a single bulb burn so brightly? But it did. I managed to sleep for stretches at a time. When I awoke I looked for any little sign indicating what time it was and how many days had passed. I didn’t own a watch. Neither did Ashi, my girlfriend. We normally used our Blackberrys to tell the time, but we’d given ours up to our friends. Or at least I had willingly given mine up. Ashi was far more reluctant. But I convinced her it was part of the game.
I eventually found a tear, only millimeters long, in the paper. I didn’t dare rip the paper myself. Our friends would discover and then I would claim I wasn’t playing my role fully.
Imagine not being able to tell the difference between five minutes and an hour. Before this moment, if you tried to tell me how disorienting, how terrifying, such a state would be, I’d have laughed and said you were having me on. But, in that moment, it was all I could do not to go a bit mad. As a way to ease my mind, I started to count. One thousand one. One thousand two. One thousand three. But, in my disorientation, I always lost track.
I ran my finger over the paper—it was thick and coarse. I carefully separated the edges. The tear gleamed a golden yellow so pure it had to be morning.
I called to Ashi. I was tired, and I wanted to turn off the light. She answered with a whimper. She was normally a very strong person. That’s why I wanted her with me. But she’d become a hot mess after only a short time locked with me in an empty room. I’d let her sleep on the cot, thinking it might help her. But after several hours, she crawled under it. I could see her feet sticking out.
The room was small, six by eight. There was room for the cot and for a wooden chair. There was a toilet adjoining. We could have gone into the toilet to get away from the light, but what a smell. Like a public washroom. Hundreds of people had taken a piss in there. And all the surfaces felt slimy to the touch. The bathroom hadn’t been given a thorough cleaning in ages.
These schemes never work in the movies or on CSI, so I should have known better than to try.
When I reached my girlfriend, I pulled off one sneaker, then the other, exposing the soles of her feet. They were pink and calloused, the skin flaking away at the heels. I ran my finger lightly across. She shuddered. “Come out,” I ordered. “Or I’ll really hurt you.” She didn’t say anything. I ran my finger across her foot again. She whimpered. I pressed the corner of my nail deep into the flesh. I experienced the sudden sharp urge to draw blood, but couldn’t. The skin was too tough. She screamed and yanked her feet up to her chest. She tried to turn and, in the struggle, hit her head against one of the legs of the cot. She yelped, and I felt sorry. I tried to tell her, but I’m not sure she heard me, she was whimpering so loud.
These schemes never work in the movies or on CSI, so I should have known better than to try. Still, I had to do something. My girlfriend and I couldn’t just sit back home in Colombo and wait. Wait for what? The end of the war? More jobs? The Great Recession to end? All the politicians were good at was playing pucks with us. And it was—or at least would one day be—my money that I was pinching. Ammididn’t need it all, and we planned to leave her something. We planned to leave her with enough.
Charmaine, one of our co-conspirators, entered the room. When she opened the door, I tried to glimpse outside, maybe that would give me a hint about the time. I saw nothing but the corridor. Dark. It could be night. I glanced at the tear. It gleamed orange-gold.
When had she started cursing so much? She was acting, I realized. Like the bad bitches in the formula films. I felt another nervous stab.
“So how?” I demanded.
“We called your mother,” Charmaine told me. “We’ve told her we have you.” She had dressed head to toe in black. I experienced a nervous stab. She was taking this thing very seriously.
“How many days have we been in here?”
“Less than two days.”
She was lying. That wasn’t possible. Only two days. I was sure that it had felt like a week. She looked over at my girlfriend lying under the cot. “What the fuck?”
“We haven’t gotten any food. My stomach is paining.”
Charmaine made a puss-face. “Aslan is coming in ten minutes. He’s going to take pictures of you. You and Ashi looking way happy and well-fed won’t convince your mother to give us the money. Anyway, this was all your idea, no?”
I nodded my head slowly. My lips were dry but when I tried to lick them my spittle was thick and viscous and only made the skin feel tighter. “And you look a real hadda,” Charmaine laughed. “It’s going to scare the fuck out of ammi.”
I looked up at her. I was having a hard time focusing on her, and I didn’t know why I felt so tired. I had done nothing but sleep for two days. “What time is it exactly?”
“Twelve fucking thirty.” When had she started cursing so much? She was acting, I realized. Like the bad bitches in the formula films. I felt another nervous stab.
“In the afternoon or evening?” I demanded.
“Can’t you switch off the overhead light?” I asked my girlfriend.
“It’s not advisable,” Charmaine said before my girlfriend could answer. Advisable? Who in the real world spoke in such ways? But Charmaine left the real world a long time ago. “This building. These rooms are dirty. The light keeps out the cockroaches.”
My girlfriend started to sob. Charmaine walked over to the cot and crouched on her heels. She stroked Ashi’s leg. “Remember you wanted to do this.”
“At least give us a tele,” I said. “Maybe that would calm Ashi down.”
“We can’t afford one. We have no money. Remember? That’s why we’re doing this.”
“Then a radio. And give us our mobiles back. And I want a newspaper.”
Charmaine snorted. “You want this to succeed right? We’re going to make it succeed. Just wait. Aslan has some brilliant ideas.” I wanted to tell her that I, not Aslan, was in charge but my throat felt dry and no sound came. She stood up and left the room.
When she was gone, I crawled over to the window. I stuck my finger in the tear and widened it a bit more. I brought my eye to it but could see only light.
Two days. That didn’t seem possible. Was it true that I had scared myself so completely in only two days? I thought I was stronger than that. I wondered what Tony Jaa would do in this situation. He went through some bad shit in that movie. Gangsters stealing sacred Buddhist relics. A wheelchair bound crime lord sporting an Electrolux. All brand of dirty, lowdown thuggery. And then I started to giggle. Tony Jaa was an actor, fool.
When Charmaine left the room, I started counting. Aslan strode through the door when I reached five thousand twenty. He was holding a mobile in one hand. He threw a newspaper at me and commanded me to hold it up so that the date was visible.
Charmaine had been my batch-mate at law college. I always suspected she wanted something more, but she wasn’t my type of girl. She was hi-fi and loads of trouble because of it. Though I desired her, I didn’t have the stamina or the cash for all madness she would have caused me. But her boyfriend Aslan loved her. Bugger came from somewhere in Russia and was some sort of office manager at the Russian embassy. A definite alpha gent. There were rumors about him: he trafficked Russian prostitutes. And I believed those rumors, because how the fuck could he afford a girl like Charmaine. I met Ashi three years ago at Body by Chris. She was a doctor. We were all close. But I was the brains behind everything.
When Charmaine left the room, I started counting. Aslan strode through the door when I reached five thousand twenty. He was holding a mobile in one hand. He threw a newspaper at me and commanded me to hold it up so that the date was visible. Asshole hadn’t realized his phone would place a time and date stamp on any picture he took. He pointed it at me and clicked. “You look really bad,” he said in his thick Russian accent. “It’s going to terrify your mother.”
“Machan, we haven’t eaten in days.”
“Your idea. Correct?” countered Aslan. It had been my idea, but I hadn’t expected how difficult it would be. I had imagined feeling a few pangs of hunger, maybe, if I was lucky, losing a stone.
Charmaine returned with two McDonald’s bags. The smell was a punch to the gut. She threw the bag at me. Inside were two Big Macs and a large fries. “I don’t get anything to drink?” I croaked. “I’m really thirsty.”
“You’re going to call ammifirst,” Charmaine said. “We want you to sound all f’d up.”
I tried to eat everything slowly. I tried to enjoy it. But, still it didn’t last.
Aslan walked over to the cot. He peeked underneath. “Ashi,” he called. “We have food for you. But you have to come out and have a picture taken of you.” He set the bag next to the cot. Ashi reached for the bag. Aslan yanked it away. “First, pose for the camera.” She slid out and over to a wall. She looked horrible. There was a long purple-red bruise along the side of her head, where she’d hit the edge of the cot. She looked up at Aslan and smiled, a scared and confused smile. Aslan’s expression changed when he saw her like that. He’d been looking kind of smug, but, for a moment, he seemed genuinely frightened. He leaned over and ran his finger along the bruise. “Blyad,” he muttered to himself. “What happened?” She glanced at me.
Aslan swung around and made as if he was going to hit me. I tried to scurry away, but he grabbed my leg. “Why did you hit her?”
“I didn’t,” I screamed. “I was trying to play with her. Tickle her feet. And she hit her head.” He let go of me. He ran his hand through his hair. I noticed beads of sweat forming on his forehead, and he was breathing hard. He threw the phone at me. “Call your mother.”
I dialed. Ammipicked up immediately as if she’d been waiting by the phone for this call. She started crying the minute she heard my voice. “Putha, you’re alive. I’ve been so worried about you.”
“I don’t have much time to talk, ammi. The kidnappers have demands.”
“Who are these people?”
“Islamic terrorists. They have guns. They’re going to kill us if you don’t do what they want.” Ammigasped. Aslan had been right. It was a good thing I was so tired when I spoke to her. Otherwise, I would have started laughing.
“They have a ransom demand. 5,000,000 rupees.”
There was a long quiet. “So much?”
“Please ammi, they say they’re going to kill us in three days if they don’t get the money.”
Ammi took a long, whistling breath. “How am I supposed to get them this money, putha? This money, it cannot just come from anywhere. These people must know this.”
“You should bring a suitcase with the cash to this location.” I read the address from a piece of paper Aslan handed me.
“Aiyo, putha. Money doesn’t grow on trees.” Ammi’s voice had taken on a sadness that scared me slightly. It was as if she’d already resigned herself to my imminent death. “And how will I be able to buy a ticket at such short notice. These people, these terrorists, they do not realize how hard things are. I am only a small person.” All the anguish had disappeared, replaced by indignation.
“They’re going to kill us,” I repeated. My dehydration had caused my throat to become dry. My voice sounded hoarse now. My mother started to sob. “And you shouldn’t tell anyone in the family. No one else should be involved,” I said. “And don’t call the police.” My mother was very quiet. “You understand, no? You musn’t call the police because if you do they will kill me.”
Ammiwailed and screeched. I was a little worried because surely one of her servants would hear and want to know what was happening, but before I could console her, before I could explain everything would be okay, Aslan reached over and grabbed the phone from me. He handed me my large coke as my reward for a job well done.
I read the paper through twice. The army had made further gains in the North. Our cricketers had begun to recover from the attack on them. A twinge of remorse gripped me. All the violence in the world, and I was making this kidnapping up.
There was a story in the international news about a fellow countryman who had been kidnapped: a peace activist stationed in the Philippines. He had been kidnapped, a month before, along with two other Red Cross workers, by the Abu Sayyaf. They had asked for five million in U.S. currency. According to the article, the United States was offering to help hunt down the kidnappers.
It was that kidnapping that had given Aslan and me the idea.
Ashi and I had emigrated to Singapore hoping that at least I would find a better job. But as soon as we arrived, the recession hit, and I couldn’t find even the most menial labor. I started to run out of money quickly. My mother had sent me a bit at first, but then had told me she herself was struggling. I was a grown boy and hadn’t she paid for my schooling at St. Thomas’ and law college. She had always given me everything I needed, and I had to learn to fend for myself. I’d never learn the value of money, otherwise.
At the end of January, Aslan and Charmaine came to visit Ashanthi and me for a few weeks. When they arrived, I tried to borrow money for them. Nothing doing. They were barely getting by, they told us. That’s when I pointed to the article in the paper. Too bad we’re not these poor buggers, I told my friends. They’re worth five million. Why not? Charmaine had asked. It would be easy to fake, Aslan had added. Your ammiis rich. And that’s how I ended up here, in an abandoned warehouse at the edge of this foreign city, with windows that have been papered over.
Ashi crawled out from under the bed and sat against the far wall.
“These people, your friends, they’re not good,” she said to me.
“Then we aren’t good either.” She had no reply.
“I have a headache,” I said. I didn’t really. But since she was a doctor, I thought making up some ailment might distract her. She stood up and walked over to her purse. She crouched over it and pulled out a bottle of pills. “This is Zolpidem. Take one. It will put you to sleep.” She tossed the bottle over to me and smiled weakly. She pulled out a tube of Smarties. She tossed it at me. She smiled wider this time, then winced and brought a hand up to her bruise.
“Why did you crawl under the bed?” I asked. “It scared me.”
“I was trying to get away from the light.”
“I hate it too. I can’t tell what time of day it is.”
Ashi frowned. She stood up and strode quickly across the room. She tore the construction paper off, revealing an abandoned cityscape. Empty lots covered in rubbish and signs all written in a language I didn’t understand. “Don’t Ashi,” I begged. “If the police sees that there’s a light on, they’ll search the building. You know how they are here.”
“Why couldn’t we do this in a hotel,” she demanded. “In a house. With beds and a television.”
“We don’t have the money for a hotel and someone might have noticed something. We need to make this look real.” Ashi had forgotten that prior to this warehouse, we’d lived in a virtual ambalama, eight people in a one-bedroom apartment. No doubt, six of the eight would have easily ratted us out to ammijust for the sheer pleasure. I popped open the cap of the pill bottle and peered inside. I hated sleeping pills. The sleep always seemed too much like death. “I love you,” I said.
One year ago, Ashi had decided she didn’t want to be a government doctor. Her mama had found her a good job at HSBC. Out of the four of us, she was the one who’d been doing the best. But, still, when I wanted to leave, she agreed. Unlike ammi, Ashi had understood and supported my desire to make my own way.
Ashi slid down the wall and sat, legs splayed, on the floor. She didn’t need to tell me she loved me. I knew already, because why else would she have agreed to stay in this room with me when I begged. I stared out the window. A whirlwind of paper and dust cycloned past the window. The only abandoned warehouse in the cleanest, most beautiful city in the world. Outside a stray dog trotted past carrying what looked like a human foot. I concentrated and concentrated but couldn’t figure out what that dog was really holding in its mouth. I imagined for a moment Ashi and I, hiding from the zombies, like in that movie, 28 Days Later. This idea amused me for a moment, and I considered telling her but she’d never appreciated my sense of humor.
I reached one hundred seventy-two thousand fifty-two in my count, though I couldn’t be sure of the accuracy given how many times I had become distracted. “This is real,” Ashi said to me. Perhaps it was twenty minutes later. Perhaps it was the next day. I thought at first she was making some existential statement and so didn’t reply. After a moment, she tilted her head to the side. She resembled an odd, out-of-sorts sparrow. “Why are you betraying your mother? She has done everything for you. She lives for you.”
“You know why.”
Ashi rolled out of the cot and started banging on the walls and stomping her feet, creating quite a ruckus. She banged on the window (which had been nailed shut so she couldn’t open it.) She shrieked until her voice became hoarse. I tried to tell her to stop, but she wouldn’t listen. She even walked into the bathroom and flushed the toilet again and again. I explained to her as calmly as I could that she should simply try the door. We didn’t know for sure, after all, that it was locked.
Just at that moment, as if they had been listening outside, Aslan and Charmaine entered the room. “What is wrong with you?” Aslan demanded from Ashi. She shivered meekly before him. He grabbed her by the shoulder and shoved her toward Charmaine. Charmaine forced her roughly out the door.
Aslan tossed a bag at me—Chinese food I judged from the smell—and my Blackberry. “We’re expecting a call from your mother. She should have the money and be on her way by now.” He scratched his head and gave me a concerned look. “Pretend, right. You’ll do a good job pretending. Don’t give it away.”
“Where are you taking Ashi?” I tried to ask, but Aslan was already out the door.
After he’d left, I went to the door and tried the knob. It opened easily. Had we frightened ourselves so completely? I stood out in the hall, but realized I had nowhere else to go.
I heard the three sets of footsteps echo down the stairwell. They were going out. I could do that too, but I had no money. So I went back and ate my food. I picked up the phone and called my mother.
“Do you have the money ready?” I asked.
Her voice was raspy and distant sounding. “Of course darling I’m on my way. How are they treating you?”
“These people are going to kill me if you don’t do as they ask,” I said, between bites of my vegetable fried rice.
“I am going straight to police when I arrive,” my mother whispered into the phone. I wanted to laugh because if this were real, no doubt, the kidnappers would have heard her.
“You can’t. Didn’t you hear me? If the police are involved these guys will kill me.”
“But what if they kill me, darling? Have you thought of that? Then who will bring you the money?”
My mother’s logic was impeccable. How to explain to her that all I ever wanted in my life was the ability to determine my future? First her, then the war. No man could be expected to overcome such odds. “If you feel your safety is more important than mine, then you should call the police.” This should have been her shining moment, proof of her devotion to me. “I free you from any obligation to me.” I tried to sound mature and forceful. Instead, I sounded petty, like a spoiled child.
My mother wailed into the phone. “Annay, why has this happened to us?” What to tell her? Ammi, my schoolteachers, all the government officials had pissed their cockeyed nonsense right into my brain; all that existed now was fetid, putrid. Sludge.
“What news of the war?” I asked her softly.
“The war?” she stammered, clearly surprised that my kidnappers had allowed me such a question.
“We are winning, no?”
“We are winning,” she acknowledged. My flash of pride was quickly replaced by something else, something cold and tinny that coated the back of my throat and made it hard to speak.
I hit the button with the icon of the little red telephone.
By the time Ashi had returned I had counted up to one hundred ninety three thousand forty-two. She sat on the edge of the bed, and I noticed the bruise on her face had already begun to fade.
She didn’t speak. “What happened?” I asked her. “What did they do you?” She didn’t reply. “They gave you tight?” No reply. “Did they feed you?” No reply. I considered for a moment. “Do you still believe this is real?” She lay down on the cot, turned onto her side, arms hugging her chest.
She thought about my question for a long time. “I believe we’re in a real achcharu.” I lay down on the cot next to her. I held her tight to me and kissed her on the back of the neck.
“The door is unlocked. We have food,” I said. “Aslan and Charmaine are our friends.”
“We should leave,” she whispered. “Right now. Please, we’ll go.”
“Go where? To do what?” This city depended on foreigners but it wasn’t amenable to them. Only years before—foreign women, some of them maids bound in indentured servitude, some of them sex slaves—had jumped en masse from the windows of the city’s skyscrapers. A downpour of beleaguered, discouraged, broken women. “This will work,” I promised. “We’ll get the money like we planned, so that we can finally afford to get married. In style. Ammican’t stop us. Your parents won’t stop us. We’ll disappear. Become new people.”
“We don’t have to have money. Let’s just get married now. Please,” she begged. I didn’t know what to tell her. The one thing ammitaught me: marriage can’t work without money. “When I first met you, your love was soft,” she observed. “Now it’s like a razor. Do you know what I mean?”
I let go of her and turned on my back. Even though I was worried about wasting batteries, I used my Blackberry to scroll through the newspapers. I thought I could lull her by telling stories. The Red Cross was still negotiating for the kidnapped aid workers. Ashi wasn’t interested. I pressed her again to tell me what Aslan and Charmaine had said to her. She wasn’t whimpering any more. In fact, Ashi seemed quite stoic. More silence. After a few more questions, I gave up. “I’m sorry that I hurt you. I’m sorry that I caused that bruise.” I could feel her shrug.
I was full and with the overhead light off I could easily go to sleep. But in that half-breath just before deep sleep, ammiwas in front of me and I was small. I was trying to balance on something—a bicycle perhaps—but the earth gave way. I woke up gasping for breath. I had to start counting to lull myself to sleep.
When I was young, my grandfather exclaimed often that I was murdering the Queen. I didn’t know what he meant so I built an extraordinary plot around this. I was some sort of spy—maybe an assassin like in the Arabian Nights—and I was moving stealthily through the Queen’s castle, making my way to her bedchamber. She lay sleeping there, and all I had to do was slit her throat. Why this was necessary I hadn’t been told and given that I was an assassin-spy I didn’t have much by the way of a conscience. I was dressed rather extravagantly in harem pants, my head covered by a turban, my face masked. I easily dispatched all the obstacles—the knights who had been drinking with the King in the banquet hall and who stumbled on me as I snuck through the halls, the Queen’s guards, even her ladies in waiting. But I never slit the queen’s throat. I could never bring myself to imagine this part.
Only later was it explained. My uncle was making fun of my command of English. I should have guessed it an insult. My grandfather had always thought me a bit of the dunce. But still it was a nice dream, for a little while.
Charmaine staggered into the room in the early evening. “Aslan has been copped.”
Ashi sat up in her bad. “How? When?”
Charmaine jabbed a finger in my direction. “After landing, ammiwent straight to the police. They nicked Aslan when she tried to give him the money. I got away.”
“Aslan is in jail?” I asked.
“Not yet. But if he’s going to jail, so are we. Your ammirecognized him.” She jabbed her finger at me again. “She told him you said to go to the police. Is this true?”
“Where is Aslan now?” Charmaine asked. “In jail?”
“He texted me. Aslan’s leading the cops here. To prove he didn’t kidnap us.”
Charmaine nudged Ashi. “We could leave you know. We don’t have to stay.” She pointed at me. “Only he does.”
Ashi shook her head. “We have no money.” She hesitated. “What will we do? Throw ourselves out a window.” She giggled, I imagine, at the prospect of her body lying broken on some sidewalk somewhere.
Charmaine seemed to consider this seriously. “We could go outside,” she offered as an alternative. “Share a fag before they arrive.” Ashi stood up. Charmaine took her hand and led her out of the room. Ashi closed the door, and I heard one of them lock it. “Bitches,” I screamed at them.
I lay on the cot. It creaked and moaned under my weight. The middle of it sagged uncomfortably and I could feel the metal springs through the thin mattress. I turned on my Blackberry. No messages from ammi. I put the phone to my ear. Even though I hadn’t dialed a number, I could hear a sound. A dull, quick pinging. Maybe the last person I’d talked to—that would have been ammi—hadn’t hung up. But there was no indication I was still connected. Later that evening at the station, the police told me that ammihad been taken to the hospital with chest pains. I thought about that sound when they informed me of this. My own, personal, tell-tale heart.
I scrolled through the newspaper. Our army had found more bunkers in Puthukudiyiruppu. The army had opened one of the bunkers to a pro-government newspaper. The newspaper had published photographs of an Olympic size swimming pool and a movie screening facility. The headline heaped scorn on the cadre commanders, living in luxury while they sent their underage minions out on suicide missions. But I knew the truth. If you are going to have to live underground, you might as well do it in style.
No news of the aid workers. Was this ominous? Negotiations hadn’t succeeded so the newspaper outlets were no longer interested in the story? When I had stared at the screen long enough, I found the slit into which the story had slid. The lacuna glistened an aubergine dark. Somewhere in there nestled my one sure piece of knowledge: all our endings would bring us only guilt and shame. We are not so bright as to deserve anything else. I switched off my Blackberry and began my count.
Hasanthika Sirisena’s work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Glimmer Train, Narrative Magazine, Epoch, StoryQuarterly, Witness, Best New American Voices, and other publications. In 2008, she received a Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award.
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