When he arrived, the hill station was deserted. Sweat and disappointment seeped from his pores and ran in annoying rivulets down his spine. It had taken him nearly two full days of traveling from Phnom Penh to reach Bokor and heâ€™d undertaken the journey hoping to finally come face to face with his old herpetology prof.
A four days earlier while diligently trying to drink himself into unconsciousness at a bar in the capital, heâ€™d run into the British consul.
â€œI believe one of your fellow countrymen, a doctorâ€¦chap whoâ€™s fond of snakesâ€¦ up at the old Bokor hill station for the summer.â€ The shiny-faced diplomat had grinned gleefully and downed his scotch. â€œDidnâ€™t you go in for that sort of thing?â€
Jeremy, bleary-eyed, had tilted his head back in an attempt to focus on the man. â€œâ€˜Scuse me? Heâ€™s Irish?â€ The alcohol had rushed through his blood and lit a quiet fire of hate for the smarmy Englishman.
â€œYesâ€¦ Irish. Peter Connolly pee-aitch-dee. Know him?â€
â€œâ€˜Course I know him,â€ Jeremy had spat out. â€œBastard fuckinâ€™ ruined my life.â€
The rest of the evening had been a gaping hole, but the following morning, through the cacophony of a thunderous headache, Jeremy had remembered only one thing: the name, Peter fucking Connolly fucking pee fucking aitch fucking dee. He had taken the train south.
Now, three days later, he stood filthy and soaked in sweat at the top of a god-forsaken hill. Breathless, with rage-driven blood hammering at his eardrums, he knelt down in the tall grass in front of the burned-out church and wept.
â€œYou took my wife, you bastard,â€ he croaked at the old building.
It felt true and simple and final. And with no one around, no one to hit, no one to rail against, Jeremy sobbed out his self-pity and added to the downward flow of salt-ladden liquid that gravity pulled inexorably towards the earth.
Having lost Elspeth to his professor, he had fled his university post. Heâ€™d reinvented himself a slimy, backstabbing business analyst and gotten a job with one of the global consultancy companies. But the drinking had taken its toll and the powers that be had exiled him, first to a flyblown office in Burundi and then, after an absurdly violent altercation with the local police, to Cambodia.
Exile hadnâ€™t helped. With nothing to do, his moods alternated between self-pity and self-hatred. By four oâ€™clock on any given afternoon, the gin had managed to unify the two and then drown them dead, like squalling infant twins.
â€œIs everyone gone?â€
Jeremy looked over his shoulder to the source of the voice. A tall young man in ragged grey shorts and a burgundy t-shirt stood ten yards away. Sober, Jeremy was mortified at being discovered on his knees, bawling like a baby. He stood, brushing the grass off his jeans and wiped the moisture off his face with the shoulder of his shirt.
â€œLooks that way,â€ he said, facing the boy.
â€œFuck! Where have they gone?â€
â€œIâ€™ve no idea. I just got here myself. Iâ€™m not part of the research group.â€
â€œWell, theyâ€™ve left some of their gear up in the ballroom of the old hotel. Maybe theyâ€™re just taking a day off,â€ the young man said cheerfully.
Jeremyâ€™s heart stuttered; perhaps the journey wasnâ€™t pointless after all.
â€œMaybe,â€ he agreed.
â€œIâ€™m Andrew.â€ He waded towards him, high-stepping in the grass, offering his hand. â€œIâ€™m not part of the team either. Was hoping to get taken on, though.â€
Jeremy shook it. â€œNice to meet you. Jeremy.â€ The emotion was ebbing away and he fought to overlay it with a casual tone.
Andrewâ€™s hand remained nestled in his. The clasp was strong and neat, despite the sweat. Andrew cocked his head and looked at Jeremy with a suspicious humour. â€œAre you sure you arenâ€™t Dr. Connolly? Youâ€™ve got a very Irish accent.â€
Jeremy withdrew his hand. â€œI donâ€™t think youâ€™re George Bush just because you sound like an American. Connollyâ€™s not the only Irishman in Cambodia, you know.â€
â€œNo, of course not. I just thought, you know, maybe you were fucking with my head.â€
A grim smile settled over Jeremyâ€™s face. â€œNo, Iâ€™m afraid youâ€™ll have to wait for the real Dr. Connolly for that.â€
â€œIâ€™ve got a couple of beers on me,â€ said Andrew, hefting the backpack off his shoulder. â€œYou wanna sit in the shade and have one?â€
â€œSure, why not. Never look a gift horse in the mouth.â€
They walked up the broken steps and into the blackened hulk of the church. Half of the roof had fallen in and the place smelled of dead things and jungle growth. Against a wall, a single wooden pew did battle with a creeping vine for its identity. Andrew sat down, opened his rucksack and pulled out two silvery cans. Jeremy sat beside him and pulled out his cigarettes. He offered one to Andrew.
They settled in silence, sipping warm beer and smoking imported Marlboros in the gloom of the ruin. After a long while, Andrew spoke.
â€œSo what are you doing here?â€
â€œIâ€™m a consultant â€“ with Price Waterhouse.â€
Andrew stiffened and looked at Jeremy. It was clear from the young manâ€™s stare that he was having the predictably academic, anti-suit reaction. But he recovered fast.
â€œNo â€“ I mean what are you doing in Bokor?â€
â€œOhâ€¦ right. Iâ€™m just here to see an old friend.â€
â€œAre they pulling his funding?â€
â€œNot that I know of. Itâ€™s a personal visit,â€ Jeremy said with as much neutrality as he could manage.
Andrew eyed him again. This time with a look that Jeremy couldnâ€™t really identify. â€œYou married?â€
â€œGot a girlfriend?â€
The other man burst out laughing. The sound echoed crazily off the ruined walls and sent two birds flying out the hole in the roof. â€œShit, no! Iâ€™m gay.â€
â€œYou got a problem with that?â€
Jeremy hesitated and then silently cursed himself for doing it. He could have said that some of his best friends were gay but, since he had none, it would have been a lie. He settled for something simple.
â€œNo, I donâ€™t give a fuck whether youâ€™re gay or straight or from Mars. Couldnâ€™t care less.â€
The stream of light entering the church through the broken roof had shifted and was creeping closer to their feet. It was almost one in the afternoon. The cicadas were shrilling in waves as the occasional cloud obscured the sun.
â€œThatâ€™s a shame,â€ said Andrew, breaking the non-silence. He glanced at Jeremyâ€™s face.
A slow smile crept over the other manâ€™s mouth and his gaze swept upwards to meet Jeremyâ€™s face again. â€œYouâ€™re kinda hot for an old guy.â€
â€œIâ€™m not an old guy, for fuckâ€™s sake. Iâ€™m thirty two!â€ It burst out like a winy protest. Jeremy was shocked by his own reaction. â€œAnyway, itâ€™s irrelevant. I donâ€™t sleep with men.â€
â€œNever will or never have?â€
Jeremy stood up; the conversation had become uncomfortable. He placed the empty beer can next to Andrew on the bench. â€œItâ€™s not that I donâ€™t appreciate the compliment, really. Iâ€™m not offended or anything. I just donâ€™t have sex with men.â€
Andrew glared up at him. There was a tinge of belligerence in his eyes. â€œNever will or never have?â€ he demanded again.
â€œNever have. Probably never will. It just doesnâ€™t appeal to me.â€ Jeremy tried to make his voice sound kind. He was tired now and slightly buzzed from dehydration and the one beer. He smiled down at Andrew and began to pick his way between the fallen rubble to the door of the church.
â€œHowâ€™ll you know unless you try?â€
Jeremy looked back at the boy, sitting half-obscured in the shadows. â€œThatâ€™s not an issue I care to deal with right now.â€
The climb to the summit had been hard, but the trek back down to the foot of the hill was horrific. The heat suffocated and the red clay on the dirt track was loose and made for dangerous going. Added to the physical hardship was the itching, nagging feeling that Jeremy had just run away from something. Once or twice, heâ€™d looked back up the track to see if Andrew had followed him.
By the time heâ€™d reached the bottom, he was feeling feverish. His gut crawled with that old familiar feeling. At first, Jeremy tried to dismiss it as lack of food and water but his legs began to cramp as he walked the last 100 yards into the village. Heâ€™d caught malaria in Burundi and, in times of stress, it had plagued him ever since. He stumbled into the darkness of a squat concrete building that looked like a karaoke bar and sported a sign that read â€œHotelâ€.
The shivers took him as he leaned against the counter. Behind it a nut brown girl missing her two front teeth grinned at him.
â€œI want a room. Yes?â€
She nodded, the smile still stuck on her face but didnâ€™t move an inch.
â€œA roo-oom. A bed. Yes?â€
The little girl, who couldnâ€™t have been more than fourteen and obviously didnâ€™t speak anything but Khmer, nodded again, this time with more gusto. Behind her, a plastic beaded curtain clattered and moved. An old man of matching size shuffled out and shooed the girl aside. He replaced her, her smile and her missing front teeth.
â€œMonsieur would like something?â€ The only difference between the old man and the girl was about 60 years. Otherwise, they might have been twins.
â€œDoâ€¦do you have a r-room?â€ asked Jeremy, his chattering teeth making it hard to speak.
â€œBien sur, Monsieur!â€
The old mad shuffled out from behind the counter and grabbed Jeremyâ€™s wrist in his gnarled old hand. â€œDo you have luggage, Monsieur?â€
â€œNoâ€¦no I donâ€™t.â€
â€œI see.â€ The old man began to pull him through the rainbow curtain of plastic color and into a black corridor. He stopped on the left and pushed open a squeaking door.
The room was in half-light, empty save for an old, chipped, iron bed. It smelled of mould and as Jeremy entered, it closed around him like a vice, pulling him in and striping him in the light that leaked through the shuttered window.
â€œYou want the girl? Sheâ€™s clean, Monsieur.â€ The little man offered another gapped smile and blinked two rheumy eyes.
A tremendous shudder wracked Jeremyâ€™s body and he felt his stomach lurch into his throat. â€œFuck no! Just go away. Leave me alone!â€ Stumbling to the bed, he collapsed face-first. â€œGet me some gin,â€ he moaned into the pillow. The door squeaked shut behind him.
The sound of clinking woke him. The room spun sickeningly as Jeremy opened his eyes. The nut brown girl stood beside the bed, a bottle of Gordonâ€™s and a glass clutched to her chest with one arm. With the other, she pulled the mosquito netting down around him. Jeremy wanted to move. He really did. But his head was a sack of wet concrete and his muscles were jelly. She unscrewed the bottle cap and poured a little gin into the glass.
â€œMore,â€ he croaked.
The girl looked confused for a moment, then nodded and filled the glass. She pulled up the netting and offered him the tumbler. Jeremy tried to prop himself up onto his elbows, but flailed pathetically and only managed to roll himself over onto his back.
She said something in Khmer, ducked beneath the netting and climbed onto the bed. Jesus! Sheâ€™s just a fucking child, thought Jeremy. What child should have to do this, see this, be like this?
Aloud he said. â€œJustâ€¦just leave the glass and go.â€
The arm he tried to raise flopped uselessly against the rumpled sheet and the effort left it singing pins and needles into his bones. He whimpered in frustration. The little girl wriggled closer and slid a spidery arm beneath his neck. For a moment, Jeremy thought he would scream. Fear and disgust surged through him like electricity, but the thin arm beneath him pulled him forward, raising his head up off the pillow. She held the glass to his lips and, nodding encouragingly and speaking in soft, unintelligible little spurts, she tilted it back till the burning liquid flooded his mouth. Jeremy drank like a man dying of thirst.
Half-way through the glass, he felt the gin hit his system. The warm, comforting deadness spread outward from his belly and washed over his extremities. Where there had been twitches and jerks, pins and needles, now there was nothing. A moment later, the wave hit his brain. Jeremy sighed as he felt his head lowered back onto the pillow. Slowly, surely, the fear, the disgust, the anger, the hatred â€“ each like tiny lights on a monstrous Christmas tree â€“ they all winked out.
Jeremy knew he was dreaming. He could feel the unreality of the space he moved through; the high grass brushed at his legs as he walked towards the ruined church. His steps rang hollow on the stone as he climbed the stairs and yet, he felt the ground under his bare feet. Inside the light was green, like sun filtered through leaves, but Jeremy realized that the roof was intact and the light came flooding through stained glass windows on either wall. The windows were identical: vines twining upwards around a ragged wooden cross until they reached the cross bar. Lethargic along the beam, acid green tree-snakes basked in the sunlight.
It was then he noticed Andrew, standing naked in front of the ruined altar â€“ the stained glass drenching his skin in forest colours. Jeremy knew it was Andrew, even though the man had his back to him, because dreams tell you things you shouldnâ€™t know. The lines of colour from the window painted the body in camouflage; individual muscles delineated in subtly different shades of green.
Movement caught Jeremyâ€™s eye and the snakes on the crosses began to writhe. Across the small of Andrewâ€™s back, over his buttocks, the colours slithered, marking the skin in dark green streaks as they moved.
It drew him. He had to touch it. Jeremy walked the length of the rubbish strewn nave until he was standing behind Andrew. And still the colours moved along the skin, defying the shadow that Jeremy should have been casting. He felt like a hungry ghost, standing there, leaving no mark.
Hesitantly, he reached out and touched the skin on Andrewâ€™s back. The young man didnâ€™t flinch. Instead a low chuckle erupted from somewhere deep in his throat. The rich, sticky sound drew Jeremy closer, until he covered Andrewâ€™s back and his arms slid around his waist. The skin was cool and reptilian, dry and yet somehow slippery. Jeremy felt his cock stiffen, thicken, cradled between the cool globes of Andrewâ€™s buttocks.
â€œI knew who you were the minute I saw you,â€ said Andrew.
Jeremy had no words. He didnâ€™t understand how someone else could know him when he himself had no idea who he was. The smell of Andrewâ€™s skin was tart with sweat and delicious; it did battle with Jeremyâ€™s reason and won with ease. He let his hands slide down, into the nest of hair between Andrewâ€™s legs and his fingers closed around the huge, stiff cock rooted there. Jeremy held it with both hands and squeezed, and it began to writhe, thick and erect beneath his fingers. Like a snake caught, the cock moved, pulsing and reticulated, sliding through Jeremyâ€™s hands until its frenzy triggered a blinding light that shattered the stained glass and the dream in one explosive orgasm.
* * *
â€œYou donâ€™t look so good. You donâ€™t smell so good either.â€
Jeremy opened his eyes. They watered in the blinding light of the room. A blurry, dark silhouette stood out against a backdrop of brightness.
â€œJesus Christ. Turn the light off, for fuckâ€™s sake!â€ whimpered Jeremy.
â€œItâ€™s ten in the morning, you stupid Irish wino. They told me youâ€™ve been in this room for eighteen hours.â€ Andrew walked around the bed, pulling the netting aside, and sat down on the edge of it. â€œYou sick or something?â€
â€œMalaria. Itâ€™s nothing. From time to time the fever comes back and I get delirious.â€
Andrew looked down at Jeremyâ€™s crotch. â€œNice dreams, I guess,â€ he said, smirking.
Jeremy looked down at himself; the crotch of his jeans was stained dark with semen that still hadnâ€™t dried. â€œOh, fuck,â€ he moaned, rolling over onto his stomach. â€œLeave me in peace, would you?â€
â€œWhy would I do that when I could get off on humiliating you instead?â€ joked Andrew. But he slapped Jeremyâ€™s thigh good-humoredly and stood up. â€œCome on, you need to have a shower. You stink.â€
â€œThese are the only clothes I have here.â€
â€œFuck that, Iâ€™ll lend you some.â€
* * *
The cold water had felt good, the clean jeans and t-shirt felt even better. Now they sat at a rickety table in the shade of the hotelâ€™s ripped awning, eating fish and rice and drinking cold beer. And now that Jeremyâ€™s head had cleared, he felt slightly uncomfortable sharing a table with Andrew. The dream was still too vivid.
â€œIs the research team back up at the hill station?â€ asked Jeremy.
â€œNaw. And theyâ€™re not gonna be back for a couple of days. The guy who runs this place told me theyâ€™d gone to Sihanoukville. Figured Iâ€™d wait for them here.â€
Jeremy made a non-committal noise and swallowed the dregs of his beer.
The lack of response caught Andrewâ€™s attention. He glanced up and then shrugged.
â€œIâ€™m sorry about yesterday. If I freaked you out, I mean.â€
â€œNo. Donâ€™t worry about it. You didnâ€™t freak me out; I just have a lot on my mind.â€
The answer came easily, casually, but the jeans Jeremy had borrowed â€“ the jeans that had fit so well â€“ began to feel tight around the legs and crotch. He swiveled around in his chair and found the nut brown girl sitting behind them in the shadows, dangling her bare legs. Jeremy held up his empty bottle and nodded at her. She sprang up and ran into the back to get him another.
Andrew, whoâ€™d watched the interchange, stared down at his empty plate. â€œYouâ€™ve made a friend, I see,â€ he said quietly.
â€œYeah. Her grandfather tried to sell her to me yesterday. I hate this fucking country.â€
Something lifted off Andrewâ€™s shoulders. â€œHe offered me the same deal last night. That freaks me out, every time.â€ He smiled sheepishly. â€œI was kind of worried you had taken him up on it.â€
â€œJesus. Donâ€™t be disgusting,â€ Jeremy muttered under his breath. He looked up as the girl came out, carrying two brown bottles and put them on the table. Droplets of condensation pooled about their bases on the melamine table top. He nodded at the girl and watched her scamper back into the hotel. Finally, Jeremy sighed and said, â€œI donâ€™t do men or children. Are we clear on that?â€
Andrew took a swig of the cold beer. â€œHey, no offense. Itâ€™s just you never know with guys in this part of the world. And, Iâ€™d really appreciate it if you wouldnâ€™t equate homosexuality with pedophilia, okay? Cos thatâ€™s way outta line.â€
Jeremy looked Andrew straight in the eye. He lifted his own bottle by the neck and clinked it against Andrewâ€™s. â€œFucking right. I apologize.â€
By two oâ€™clock, even under the shade of the awning, the heat was unbearable. They moved inside to a table at the back of the bar, drinking and talking. Someone had thoughtfully put on some Khmer pop music. Jeremy didnâ€™t need to speak the language to know it was all about love and loss. It always was.
The beers were beginning to take their toll on both his stamina and his clarity of thought. Every question Andrew asked seemed more complicated than the last.
â€œSoâ€¦ why did you get out of herpetology?â€
â€œDâ€™you not think itâ€™s kind of stupid for an Irishman to be obsessed with snakes?â€ Jeremy queried back. â€œI meanâ€¦ fucking St. Patrick got rid of all the ones in Irelandâ€¦â€
Andrew laughed and then straightened his face again. â€œThatâ€™s funny, but itâ€™s not an answer.â€
â€œNoâ€¦ yurright. Sâ€™not really, is it?â€
â€œI read your paper on the lycodon cardamomensis at university.â€
Jeremyâ€™s eyes rolled up into the back of his head. He was trying to remember what the heck that was.
Andrewâ€™s face fell a little â€“ the disappointment was clear. â€œThe new wolf snake you found here, in the Cardamom Mountains.â€
â€œThat was bloody ages ago. Yes, okay. I remember nowâ€¦ I think.â€
â€œJesus, Jeremy. How can you forget that you actually found a whole new species. Do you know how rare that is nowadays? Fuck, I was in awe of guys like you!â€
Jeremy tried to fix on Andrewâ€™s face but the beer made it hard. â€œOh, how the mighty fall, donâ€™t we?â€
Andrew shook his head in annoyance. â€œBullshit. How could you just give it all up after doing something so great? Soâ€¦ what was it?â€
â€œHe stoleâ€¦ he fucking stole my wife.â€
Andrew looked at him warily. â€œHe stole your wife?â€
â€œâ€˜Sright. Stole her away.â€
â€œShit, Jeremy. You are too drunk to be having this conversation.â€
â€œButâ€™s the struth. He stole her.â€
Andrew stood up and walked around to Jeremyâ€™s chair. He put an arm around his back and pulled him to his feet. Jeremy stood unsteadily, trying to look Andrew in the eye, trying to make him understand the depth of his despair.
â€œYouâ€™re fucking wasted. You need some sleep.â€
â€œDonâ€™t need sleep, Andy. Need my wife back.â€
Step by step, Andrew got him back down the dark corridor and into Jeremyâ€™s room. It was still and dark, but cooler than outside. Gently, he let Jeremy slide down onto the bed and hoisted his feet up onto it. He undid his boots and pulled them off.
â€œCollony stole her,â€ Jeremy protested drowsily.
â€œNo one steals anybody, Jeremy. They just leave.â€
â€œDonâ€™t leave. S-stay. Please.â€
â€œJeremy. Youâ€™re a fucking mess, my friend. Sleep it off.â€
* * *
The next morning, when he woke, Jeremyâ€™s old clothes were clean and sitting in a neat pile at the end of his bed. He took off the oneâ€™s heâ€™d slept in â€“ Andrewâ€™s â€“ and had a shower. It was in the shower that he cringed inwardly and wondered why it was that alcohol could wipe an entire day blank when it felt like it, or leave you with crystalline memories of exactly what had taken place. He remembered the afternoon before with excruciating clarity, especially the part where heâ€™d begged Andrew not to leave.
It couldnâ€™t have been more than six thirty when he emerged from his room and ventured into the front of the hotel looking for coffee. The nut brown girl was on her knees, washing the aged linoleum with a filthy cloth. She looked up and showed her lack of dental care when she saw him.
Outside he met Andrew, sitting at the same table under the awning, with his feet propped up on the chair opposite.
â€œHey,â€ said Andrew, pushing an aluminum chair out. â€œWant some coffee?â€
Jeremy sat down and nodded, ruffling his shower-wet hair with his fingers. â€œIâ€™ll get those clothes you lent me washed today. I canâ€™t thank you enough.â€
â€œItâ€™s no problem.â€
The girl shuffled over to the table and set down a cup and saucer with a drip filter on top. Jeremy peered under the metal lid to see if the water had dripped through yet. He caught a whiff of the ground coffee and, just for a moment, the world seemed fine. Heâ€™d heard a myth somewhere that there were people who felt like this on a regular basis.
â€œIâ€™m sorry about yesterday,â€ ventured Jeremy. â€œI was very drunk.â€ He felt odd about apologizing; he didnâ€™t know why he was doing it.
â€œDrunkâ€™s not the half of it, bud. You are one bitter, fucked up son of a bitch.â€ Andrew was staring out over the dirt road, avoiding eye contact.
Jeremy thought about arguing, but decided to let it ride. It was too early in the morning for a fight and the coffee was good. He changed the subject.
â€œAre you going back up to Bokor today?â€
â€œYeah, later this afternoon. Apparently thatâ€™s when the teamâ€™s due back.â€
â€œYeah â€“ me too.â€
Andrew put his feet on the ground and sat up in his chair. â€œLook, you can tell me to mind my own fucking business, but why are you really here? I mean, are you really planning to go up there and duke it out with Connolly in the middle of the jungle? Seems kinda stupid to me.â€
â€œMind your own fucking business.â€
Andrew gave a little dry laugh and shook his head. â€œI said you could tell me to mind my own business. Didnâ€™t say I would though. Is your wife gonna be up there?â€
This was something, ironically, Jeremy hadnâ€™t considered. When heâ€™d pictured himself striding through the ruins, giving Connolly a piece of his mind and perhaps a punch or two in the face, it hadnâ€™t even occurred to him that Elspeth would be there. He kept silent.
â€œI donâ€™t know.â€
â€œWhat do you mean you donâ€™t know. Youâ€™re gonna go up there and do the Tarzan thing, and you donâ€™t even know if sheâ€™s going to be there to reclaim?â€ Andrew looked at him incredulously, then slowly his face grew blank. â€œYou donâ€™t even care about her, do you? You just want revenge.â€
â€œShitâ€¦ Iâ€™m right. It has nothing to do with your wife. This is just macho territorial bullshit.â€
Jeremy turned on him, slamming his cup down on the table. Suddenly the rage was streaming through his veins like acid â€“ burning him from the inside out. â€œShut the fuck up, you useless little queer! How the fuck would you know anything about it? You donâ€™t know me; you donâ€™t know how I feel. The bastard took my wife and destroyed my life.â€
Jeremyâ€™s voice had slowly risen in both volume and pitch. He was inches from Andrewâ€™s face now, straining not to hit him. Surprisingly, Andrew didnâ€™t back off, didnâ€™t flinch at the onslaught. He sat there, absolutely immobile with a look of total calm on his face.
â€œYouâ€™re a lying asshole. You know that? I know your type. I know exactly who you are,â€ said Andrew. It was delivered in a soft, even voice.
â€œOh yeah? Who the fuck am I then, clever boy?â€ The force of Jeremyâ€™s words sprayed spittle over Andrewâ€™s composed face.
â€œConnolly didnâ€™t steal your wife. She left you. And now youâ€™ve made that imaginary theft into the excuse for why your whole life is shit. You donâ€™t care about anyone or anything. Youâ€™re just a pathetic, self-pitying loser.â€ Andrew stood up then, pushing his chair back with a screech, and walked off down the dusty road.
Jeremy watched him walk away. He could hear his one heart pounding away in his chest. Finally, once Andrew had disappeared into the dust and the morning haze, Jeremy got up and went back to his room.
He fished the half-empty bottle of Gordonâ€™s from under the bed and lay there, resting it on his chest for a while. As his anger ebbed away, self-pity took its place. He unscrewed the cap on the bottle while the young manâ€™s words rambled around the walls of his skull and took a deep, long pull of gin.
â€˜Fuck him,â€™ thought Jeremy. He kicked the boyâ€™s folded clothes off the end of the bed with his foot. â€˜Who gives a shit what the little bastard thinks.â€™
But he did care, and Andrewâ€™s words stung like hot little needles every time they jabbed, unbidden, in his head. He cringed and kicked at the bottom of the metal bedstead for each involuntary repetition.
The gin fermented everything, turning the pity into self-loathing. Jeremy thought backwards, the months and years of humiliating failures heâ€™d drifted through. Elspeth â€“ he didnâ€™t love her now; he couldnâ€™t even remember if he ever had. All he knew was that she had been a possession stolen from him. And every loss that followed had felt like a theft. He curled onto his side and cried.
* * *
It was past four in the afternoon by the time Jeremy managed to haul his ass back up the hill to the Bokor station. The flies buzzed around him greedily, sipping the sweat off his face and neck as he climbed. He looked inside the old church, but it was empty.
About 100 yards away, up on the bald crest of the hill stood the ruined hotel. It had once been a luxurious casino but all that had been blown away after the Khmer Rouge. Now it was another abandoned husk.
Jeremy peered inside the main ballroom. Rubble and litter strewn, he recognized the teamâ€™s equipment: cages, cold-boxes, wire frames, piled against the far wall. Above it was a grand mosaic of graffiti. Finally, he called out but got no response. There was no one.
He left the old casino, heading east over the crest of the hill and back down into the lush vegetation. Somewhere, further down, he could hear the sound of water and as he descended further it became a roar. Jeremy was almost certain heâ€™d lost his bearings now. This wasnâ€™t the path back down to the village. Heâ€™d passed a number of unfamiliar abandoned villas on his way and he was hoping to come across some sort of established trail. The heat and humidity were making his head throb and the sun was low in the sky, turning the undergrowth to monochrome.
He came upon the river so suddenly he almost didnâ€™t notice it until his feet were wet. It cut a widening path through the jungle, heading downwards to the sea on one side. Jeremy breathed a sigh of relief. If he could follow it down to the coast, surely he could walk to the nearest fishing village and get back to the hotel that way.
Then he looked up and saw him, standing in the shallows beneath what seemed like an enormous waterfall. Andrew was shirtless, wading along him soaking shorts, head down and oblivious. Jeremy walked up the pebbled bank of the river towards him in silence. He didnâ€™t want to shout or disturb the scene in any way. It was so innocent, so perfect, so very beautiful. But Andrew lifted his head and caught sight of Jeremy first.
â€œTheyâ€™re still not back,â€ he yelled above the roar of the water. â€œYouâ€™ll have to put your boxing match on hold till tomorrow.â€
Jeremy stood knee deep in the water, a foot or two away. He looked down at the rocks beneath his feet â€“ fast flowing water, clear in places and a riot of algae in others â€“ and considered for a moment.
â€œI wasnâ€™t looking for them. I was looking for you.â€
Andrew looked at him suspiciously, unconsciously slapping an insect that had landed on his bare chest. â€œYeah? Well you found me. What do you want?â€
Jeremy reached out and took Andrewâ€™s arm. â€œI want you,â€ he said simply and pulled him into the white curtain of plummeting water. For a second he thought that Andrew would stop him; his face unreadable, but Jeremy thought he saw a thousand things flit across it just before he pulled him into the water, just before he closed the gap between their faces in the spray and kissed him.
If there was fumbling, Jeremy couldnâ€™t remember it. All he would remember was that he suddenly felt washed clean in that single moment. He would remember the taste of Andrewâ€™s mouth, even as the water slid over their faces; the way his own cock rose almost instantly, pressed against the other manâ€™s crotch; the hunger with which his hands pulled at the wet clothes between them; the relief of feeling Andrewâ€™s hot, hard cock in his grasp. They jerked each other off with wordless determination, coming one after the other in violent jerks and downed moans, and the water took whatever they spent down to the sea.
* * *
Doctor Jeremy Oâ€™Neil finally did run into Peter Connolly, along with Elspeth Connolly, five years later at a herpetology conference is BogotÃ¡. He smiled and nodded politely to both of them, before turning back to Andrew.