Flash: J.D. Riso

Snapshots from a Clandestine Hell

The guard with the burn-scarred face throws today’s newspaper on the floor next to me. He turns towards the barred window, lights the tattered cigarette between his lips, and glares out at the jungle. The funk of his unwashed body hangs heavy in the stagnant air. I stretch my fever-ravaged limbs. The remnants of last night’s malaria delirium retreat to the depths of my body.

This ritual is replayed every few days. The snapshot of my progressively battered face is supposed to be incentive for the clandestine forces operating in their country to retreat. There is no “war” here, only furtive struggles where corporation-states use ignorant locals as pawns. They send in fresh-faced, bright-eyed bards who spread fables of revolution, utopia. Sheltered by the ensuing mayhem, the real takeover begins.

Reptile Man hurries in with a video camera. I’ve named him this for his scabby face and chartreuse eyeballs. He’ll soon be dead if his hepatitis isn’t treated. The snapshots haven’t made the media, as I suspected they wouldn’t. It would only bring unwanted attention to this part of the world. The rebels have had to resort to any method available. I imagine that now they’re demanding money for me. Each day they grow more confused by desperation. They weren’t supposed to be abandoned by their so-called saviors.

Scarface pulls me by the hair from my prone position. He pantomimes weeping and supplication as Reptile Man sets up the camera on a tripod. I swoon, and Scarface kicks me in the ribs for my weakness. Gritting my teeth against the pain, I force myself to kneel upright. Scarface puts the newspaper in my hands, the front page facing towards the camera. He pulls a hood over his head and wraps a bandanna around the lower part of his face. He aims his rifle at my head. Reptile Man pushes a button on the camera; the red light blinks like a tiny heartbeat.

I stare stone-faced into the lens. It used to annoy me when I saw journalists beg for their lives on the nightly news. No one forced me to come here. If torture were involved, I would beg for mercy, but these men hack down children like they’re overgrown weeds. I used to thrive on the danger. The deep, dull pound of my heart; the tingle of adrenalin saturating my cells. Every time I returned home, desolation set in. I’d end up hunched over a map, desperately scooping out the next high.

Agitated voices break the silence. The embodiment of corporate scourge appears in the doorway. He’s one of the many former mercenaries who litter this pillaged continent. Too old to do the dirty work, they act as intermediaries. His flat locust gaze lights up as he catches sight of me. A white woman is a delicacy in these parts. I meet his gaze with as much defiance as I can muster. His eye twitches, and he looks away.

Gunshots erupt in the jungle. The Locust tilts his chin up at Scarface, who cocks the rifle. A sob rises in me. This will be an execution video. Each second is now elongated and exquisitely vibrant—the percussive whir of the ceiling fan; the violin string tautness of Reptile Man’s neck muscles; the rich orange of the muddy footprint on the rough cement floor in front of me; the omnipresent stench of decaying bodies. I’m surprised to find that my tears are of relief. No more self-imposed responsibility; no more futile causes.

The Locust has triumph in his eyes, and also fear.

I turn my eyes away. He will not be the last image I see. I look out of the window into the equatorial hell that will soon devour my remains. My intentions were good, anyway.

I feel the cool circle of gunmetal pressed against my neck. Click. And for the slightest of instants, glorious warmth.