Short story selected for the 2011 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology
The leech made a sickening squelch as the heel of the Timberland boot ground it into a pulp, smearing its pink contents across the rock face.
“Goddamn bloodsucker,” swore the owner of the Timberland, a tall youth with his blond hair gathered up in a ponytail. In the steamy heat of the tropical jungle, he was shirtless, beads of perspiration dotting his chest and back. His well-sculpted torso was a testament to hours spent in the gym, his smooth hands, manicured nails and soft skin belied the fact that he had never worked hard a single day in his life.
“Ya Allah…” sighed a shorter, middle-aged man, an indigenous Malay. His complexion was swarthy; countless years spent under the harsh sun had cured his skin to a leathery hide. He closed his eyes and muttered a prayer over the leech jam. When he looked up at the young, brash Westerner, he shook his head with disapproval.
“You didn’t have to kill it,” he chided, his heavy Malaysian accent contorting the word didn’t into something that sounded like deen.
The youth spat on the creature’s corpse. “Have you seen what it did to me?” he demanded, pointing at his leg. A bleeding wound comprising a perfect circle of fine puncture marks marred his toned, tanned calf.
“Aih!” the older man waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. “Won’t kill you. Will bleed for a while, but just put a plaster on.”
The young Westerner grumbled as he rummaged in his backpack for the first aid kit. This business trip he accompanied his father on was not turning out at all like he planned. Normally, while dad was holed up in board meetings, conferences and business dinners, junior would be jamming it up in the glitziest, most exclusive nightclubs in Kuala Lumpur and getting acquainted with the exotic local girls, always eager to get up close and personal to a handsome, mysterious gwei lo.
But no, daddy dearest had to get the dumb notion that his son was not appreciative enough of what he had, and that before he could inherit the family business, he needed to see things from a different perspective.
“There is more to life than just one big, never-ending party,” his father had said during one of his tedious lectures, “and the sooner you learn that, the better.”
And so here he was, trekking through the middle of nowhere, with a guide that barely spoke English, all to get a better appreciation of the luxuries his dad thought he took for granted.
“Plus,” his father had added, “it’ll be inspirational to experience how some of the natives live with nature.”
Inspirational my mosquito-bitten ass… all the nature I’ve experienced have been the blood-sucking kind…
The young man finished applying the plaster and tossed the wrappings carelessly on the forest floor. Without a word, his guide collected the litter and stuffed it into his own pocket.
“Where to now?” the young man’s tone was brusque, not bothering to hide the fact that he didn’t want to be there.
The Malay glanced up at the purple sky.
“Almost sunset,” he replied in his halting English. “Follow me, we find place to camp.”
“Ugh!” the youth made a face and spat out his dinner. “What the hell is that?”
“Fish and rice, cook in bamboo,” replied the other man in between hearty mouthfuls of food.
“Yeah well, you can have my share.” He shoved his metal lunchbox at the older man, reached into his bag, and produced a bag of Doritos, a Mars bar, and a can of beer. As he munched, he whipped out his iPhone from his back pocket.
“So… what do you guys do for fun?” he asked the guide, more to relieve his mind-numbing boredom than any attempt at being friendly.
The older man smiled. “I play sepak takraw; it’s like volleyball, but we use feet.” With his fingers, he shovelled a handful of food into his mouth, and the younger man frowned at his refusal to use cutlery when eating.
“I show you how to play some time? When we go back to village?”
“Ye-ah…” the youth mumbled, only half-listening, as he fiddled with his phone, scrolling aimlessly through the menu on the screen. He settled on the camera function, aimed the phone at the guide.
“Say cheese… or whatever it is you say.”
In the dimness of the sleeping jungle, the flash from the camera was like a bolt of lightning, lighting up the forest like a flare.
With a sharp cry, the older man jumped up, spilling his dinner across the dirt. He rushed at the youth and gripped the younger man’s wrist.
“Don’t take photo! Delete! Delete!” he shouted, clenching the youth’s hand so hard his fingertips turned white and began to tingle. His eyes were wide with fear.
“Huh? Get off me! What’s your problem?”
“Please, please… delete!” the guide begged, falling to his knees. “I tell you when you delete. Faster!”
“OK, OK, fine! Jeez!” With a few deft taps of the touch screen, he removed the photograph from the phone’s memory.
“There, done.” He shoved the glowing phone into the guide’s face to prove the offending picture was gone. “Now will you tell me what the big deal is?”
The man sat back with a sigh of relief, his shoulders sagged, but his breathing still ragged. He whispered something unintelligible.
“Hantu,” the guide repeated, more audible this time, but still quiet, almost reverent, as if saying the name out loud was enough to incur a case of bad juju. “Ghost, spirit that live in jungle. They can curse you using photograph.” His mouth moved silently as he struggled to find the right words. “They take your…” he patted his chest with both hands.
“Your heart?” the youth asked. The man shook his head.
Wonderful! I should be out partying, but instead I’m stuck in this hellhole playing charades with a superstitious old jungle man!
“Your life?” he tried again, scratching the fine peach fuzz growing on his chin. More head shaking. “Your soul!” Bingo. The man nodded so hard he resembled a bobble-headed doll.
The youth raised a sceptical eyebrow. “So you’re saying there are bogeymen in the woods who will steal my soul if I took a picture of myself?”
“Ya!” the Malay insisted. “Some of them, they people who die early, die young. They want to… how you say… get second chance, live again. But they need a body. They are the most dangerous. Especially for young man like you.”
The Westerner laughed. “This your version of campfire stories to scare us city dwellers, jungle man?” On a whim, he raised the iPhone at arm’s length, aimed the camera at himself, and pressed the ‘Capture’ button.
“No!” the guide cried, as the surrounding woods lit up once again in a brilliant flash of white. “What you doing? You crazy?”
With a smirk, the youth showed him the image. It showed the young man with his tongue sticking out, as if mocking the older man’s irrational panic.
“Don’t play-play!” the guide urged, his dark complexion blanched. “Delete! Delete! Delete!”
“Relax! I’m sure I can handle a little attempted soul stealing.” With another chuckle, he added, “In fact, that’s a good pic. I like it so much, that…” he began punching some commands into his phone. He showed the result to the guide.
The photo had been set as the background image, making it visible at all times.
The youth returned his phone to his pocket, took one last swig of beer, belched, and stood up.
“I need to take a leak,” he announced, as he walked towards a copse of trees.
“Eh, wait, wait!” called the guide.
“What, I can’t even piss in peace now?”
The older man pressed his palms together in an entreating gesture. “Before you do, say ‘Sorry, ‘tok’, and after, say again. Ask permission first. So you don’t make spirit angry.”
The youth blinked at him a couple of times, then his lips curled up in a sneer. “Whatever you’re taking, I want some!” he laughed. He continued walking, calling over his shoulder, “I’ll try not to piss on any of your invisible ghosts, OK?”
Deeper and deeper into the thicket he went, until he was plunged into a stuffy darkness. Using his illuminated phone as a torch, he found a spot that looked relatively bug-free, with no waist-high shrubbery he might catch his tackle on. Whistling the tune to The Teddy Bears’ Picnic, he unzipped his cargo shorts, and aimed a warm jet at the trunk of a gnarled old tree.
Something rustled in the bushes behind him.
“Jungle man?” he called out, zipping up his fly.
Must’ve been an animal of some sort… bat or fox… or snake… please don’t let it be a snake… I hear all snakes here are venomous…
The last thought was enough to spur him into a brisk walk back to camp.
He managed two steps before something grabbed his ankle, sending him sprawling.
“What the—” he landed with a wet splat in tepid mud. Whatever had caught him still had a stranglehold on his foot.
It’s an angry spirit, he thought in a panic. I must’ve pissed on his tree!
The mud was slippery, and he stumbled a few times before finding purchase. Flipping himself up to a sitting position, he turned to face his assailant. In the black shadows, he could make out a darker shape, long and broad like a humanoid body, as if someone—or something—had rugby-tackled him to the ground, and was now laying prone, staring at him.
He screamed when the spirit blasted a bolt of blue at him.
It took a few seconds for him to realise the eerie glow was coming from his iPhone. Groping for it with trembling fingers, he shone it at his attacker.
The thick fallen log stared back in defiance through a gaping hole in its rotting trunk. Still panting, the young man directed the phone at his feet, at the tangle of liana around his ankle.
A flash of embarrassment soon gave way to anger. Cursing, he kicked at the vines until they released him, then gave the offending tree stump a good solid kick, caving the bark in.
Simmering, he tried to brush himself off, but the slimy mud clung fast to his skin, his hair, his clothes.
This is gross. I need a bath.
There was a stream they had crossed on their way to the campsite. He could get himself cleaned up there. After a brief moment to collect his bearings, he marched through the tall grasses, phone held high to light the way.
Stupid jungle man and his stupid superstitions… setting up camp so far from water… the Malay man had claimed water spirits stalked the riverbanks at night.
A gentle gurgling signalled that he was getting close. Pushing through one final shrub barrier, the youth stepped onto the soft, squidgy bank of a clear shallow stream, its surface a black rippling mirror in the near-darkness of the rainforest sub-canopy. The air was silent, unnaturally so; no chirping of crickets, no squeaking of bats, no chittering of monkeys, not even the buzz of the ubiquitous insects. But it was cooler there, less muggy, and once more the youth wondered at the sanity of his indigenous guide for forsaking this pleasant, convenient camping ground, all because of some silly ghost story.
Stripping down to his underwear, the young man dumped his muddy clothes in a bundle on the shore, balanced his phone carefully atop the pile, and waded into the knee-deep brook. He shivered, but it was a refreshing shiver, as he splashed the chilly water over his face.
There was a noise behind him, a sort of cartoon bubble-blowing sound, like a rock plunging into water.
He spun round. Nothing. Not even a ripple. The stream appeared to have stopped flowing, the surface flat as a sheet of glass.
He shuddered again. It felt as if the water temperature had dropped by ten degrees.
Then the tiniest ripple appeared, just six feet from him, and began to propagate, spreading out in ever-growing concentric circles. When the outermost circle reached him, it hit him like a tsunami, knocking him off his feet. He landed hard, the pebbles on the streambed scraping his skin and invading the inside of his Gucci underwear.
“What the hell?”
An eight-foot column of water shot up from the centre of the ripple source, a twisting vortex of dark liquid with two glowing pin-points of red, set at about a giant’s eye level, that stayed in place no matter how fast the water tornado it floated in swirled.
Before the youth could scream, the pillar of water crashed down on him, swallowing him whole, absorbing him into its frigid centre. It spun him round and round, and he felt as if he was swirling around a gigantic sinkhole, teetering at the edge of a vertical drop into oblivion. Panic seized him. He kicked and flailed. His lungs cried out for air, but no amount of thrashing could propel him from the centre of the spin cycle.
All at once, the spinning stopped, but the youth remained suspended in the belly of the liquid tower, flapping about like a disoriented goldfish whose bowl had been shaken too vigorously. His lungs were at bursting point, but he was trapped within the water column, surrounded on all sides by a flowing transparent curtain, as if he was looking through one of those glass windows with a sheet of water cascading down it. Through his see-through prison, he saw what looked like a miniature version of the water tornado dancing near the shore, but this smaller column appeared to be emitting a strange blue light.
Then he spotted his iPhone, spinning and glowing in the centre of Twister Junior.
Unable to hold his breath any longer, he inhaled a lungful of frigid water. It pierced his innards like needle-sharp icicles, swelling his lungs like water balloons.
And then those balloons popped, and there was only pain and darkness.
The youth woke up with a start. His eyelids flew open, offering him a view of the ceiling of his tent, the morning sun dappling the canvas in a riot of light and shadows.
A dream, he thought, with a nervous giggle. That guide must have spooked him with his ghost stories more than he thought.
It was all just a nightmare.
Relief washed through his veins as he prepared to sit up.
But he couldn’t.
He tried again, blaming the uncomfortable sleeping bag for his numb limbs.
But he was frozen in place.
Confusion at the unexpected paralysis became full-blown horror. He tried to call for help, tried to yell “Jungle man!” but all he managed was a muffled “Ngh-mphh-mmm!”
His tongue was getting in the way. It was jutting out between his lips, and he couldn’t retract it.
What was wrong with him?
And what was that massive shadow looming over him, advancing downwards towards him?
It looked like a giant hand.
A silver Jeep pulled up in front of the straw hut. The back door opened, and a tall man stepped out from its air-conditioned, leather-lined interior into the sweltering heat. Despite arriving at the fringes of a tropical rainforest, he was dressed in a silk Armani, long sleeves rolled up, and tailored slacks. His hair had aged to a dignified shade of grey, with a dusting of silver at the temples. His son was waiting for him in front of the shack, a younger version of the father: tall, athletic and tanned, his blonde hair tied back in a ponytail, a diamond stud in his left ear lobe. The stubble on his chin was still post-pubescent fine, but long and unkempt, in need of a sharp razorblade.
“Dad!” the youth enveloped his father in an eager embrace. “Am I glad to see you!”
The Armani shirt returned his son’s hug, but not without surprise. He thought the boy had outgrown hugs, or any form of affectionate display.
Breaking the embrace, the older man held his son by the shoulders, studying him at arm’s length. As can be expected, he looked tired, sunburnt, covered in bug bites, happy to be returning to civilisation.
But something was missing: the cocksure aura, that arrogant swagger, was gone.
The grey-haired man smiled. His last-ditch attempt at re-educating his son had worked.
“Get in the car,” he told the youth. “Ahmad will get your camping gear. You can tell me all about it on the way to the hotel.”
As his chauffeur loaded up their ride, the man thanked the jungle guide profusely for his role in his son’s dramatic change of attitude, and gave him a hefty tip.
He didn’t see the youth’s eyes glowing red through the blacked-out windows of the Jeep, didn’t see him fidgeting with his iPhone, a menacing, knowing smile playing across his lips, as he tapped on the phone’s background image, a picture of himself, his tongue stuck out, making a face.
A fun picture.
But the eyes in the photo were saucer-wide with terror.
The father got in the back seat and slammed the door. His son put the phone away and smiled at him, blue eyes twinkling.
“So, tell me about your adventure.”
“Well, Dad, there’s this creepy ghost story, see…”
gwei lo: Common term for a Westerner; loosely translated as “white ghost”.
Hantu: ghost; spirit.
sepak takraw: Southeast Asian sport using a hollow wooden ball and played with the feet.
‘tok: Contraction of ‘datok’, a Malay term of respect for an elder.
Illustration by Alan Van Every
About the Author:
J.C. Martin is a displaced Malaysian living in the wilds of south London. She works as a martial arts instructor to fund her writing obsession. Her short stories have been published by New Asian Writing, Pill Hill Press and Static Movement, and she is the winner of the 2010 Story Quest Short Story Contest organised by IFWG Publishing. Her short story, True Friendship, was published in the 2010 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology. You can follow her online here.
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