‘What You Don’t Know’ by Elka Ray

Short story selected for the 2013 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology

Meredith stands a few feet from the edge, as close as she dares. Far below there are trees, so tightly packed that they look black. She kicks a chunk of gravel over the edge and watches it fall, losing track of it long before it reaches the treetops. The air smells of wet foliage and decay, surprisingly heavy given the altitude. As she inhales, Meredith imagines the workers who made this road, an army of small brown men chipping away at the cliff with their picks. She wonders if anyone were to fall, his body would remain sealed beneath tree roots and vines, gone forever.

A rustle in some weeds causes her to step back, mindful of the dead snake she’d seen some miles back. She turns towards the car, now standing with its hood raised. Bent under the hood, the driver reminds Meredith of a skinny frog caught in the jaws of some larger creature. Her guide, Arif, seems to have vanished.

She scrapes her hair from her nape, wishing she had hired a new car this year. She’d wanted one with four-wheel drive and air-conditioning, but Arif had been adamant. “This car special price,” he’d said. “New car is three, four times more money.” Calling long-distance from Canada, Meredith couldn’t be bothered to argue. Arif and the driver, Rojo, are relatives, cousins or some such. She’s been paying them the same rate for six years now. Too much, she is sure, although what does it matter?

Meredith sighs. She should have hired a new car, and a new guide for that matter. Over the years Arif has become less and less helpful, while the car is a wreck. Still, each year, when she sees the rusty green Toyota Corola parked out front of the airport in Jakarta, she’s relieved, grateful for the sight of something—anything—familiar.

The driver straightens up and spits. Squinting into the sun, Meredith tries to interpret his expression. Can the car be fixed? They’re still hours from Bukittinngi and traffic is sparse. They’ll be lucky to hitch a ride with some passing truck or ox cart.

Meredith moves into the shade to wait, squatting down on her haunches. Sitting like this isn’t as easy as it once was, despite all the yoga classes she’s taken. Not that she’s in bad shape. At fifty-six, she weighs less than she had in high school. Meredith swats at a fly, taking note of her arm’s thinness, which continues to surprise her. She’d always been on the plump side, especially after Andrew was born, constantly on some diet or another. When he’d disappeared, her weight had plummeted, and six years on, she’s still skinny. Tom, on the other hand, had turned to food for comfort, gaining eighty or ninety pounds since it happened.

She is startled to find Arif standing next to her, his face so flushed that Meredith wonders if he’s been drinking. “Motor trouble,” he says. “Too hot inside.” He wipes his hands on his pants and shrugs. “I go down hill. Nothing.”

Meredith opens her mouth to ask for clarification but stops herself. What’s the point? Arif’s English is about as meager as her knowledge of cars. She checks her watch: it’s going on four. This close to the equator it will be pitch-black by six. In a worst case scenario, they’ll be forced to sleep in the car. “So what do we do now?” she asks.

Arif fumbles in his shirt pocket for a pack of cigarettes, careful not to catch her eye. Lighting his cigarette he squints down the road. “We must wait,” he says.

Meredith feels a surge of anger. All she does is wait. From one trip to the next, another wasted year—waiting to buy her tickets, waiting to talk to someone at the Canadian embassy in Jakarta, waiting to drive to the mountains, waiting to meet the fat, bored-looking police of chief and waiting to hear the same tired excuses. She has spent the last six years in limbo.

The first vehicle to appear, some forty minutes later, is a bus. They stand by the edge of the cliff and watch, its progress so painfully slow that Meredith is reluctant to hail it. What if it loses momentum and succumbs to gravity? From above she can see the roof, piled high with boxes and bicycles and long flat objects that can only be surfboards.

Despite the surfboards, it’s no tourist bus, the interior packed with produce, caged animals and people, everyone staring blankly out the windows, resigned to the fact that, like it or not, they’ll have to make room for three more. Since the bus doesn’t come to a full stop, Meredith has to jump, an ungainly leap with Arif hovering behind her. She pushes her way through a thicket of brown knees and elbows, murmuring apologies, not that it makes any difference.

At the back of the bus she sees some white faces, blond kids Andrew’s age, a girl and two boys. One of the boys has a beard, causing Meredith to do a double-take. In the last photo Andrew had sent he’d grown a reddish beard, which had made him look older and rougher.

Since there aren’t any seats Meredith sits in the aisle on her backpack, the red one she’d bought at the Mountain Equipment Coop. She’s taken this bag on every trip; it’s part of the ritual. Each October she gets it out of the basement and puts it on the porch to air, after which she fills it, no longer having to think about what to bring. Meredith shuts her eyes. She feels disoriented, worn out from the heat and jetlag.

Her first inkling that something was wrong came when Andrew had failed to call on her fiftieth birthday. Such thoughtlessness was out of character. Tom had told her to forget about it. “He’s probably met some girl and lost track of time,” he’d said. “Kids are like that.” Her friends had tried to reassure her too. Meredith’s best friend, Laura, had a daughter who’d backpacked through Europe. “He’ll call when he runs out of money,” she’d said. “Wait and see.” Meredith had wanted to say that Indonesia wasn’t like Europe. They’d all been to Europe. It was civilized, while Indonesia was dirty and impoverished.

When she’d gotten in touch with the Canadian embassy in Jakarta nobody had taken her seriously. Kids stopped calling home all the time. They overstayed their visas and missed their flights, reasoning that a beach hut for five bucks a night beat washing dishes back home, or starting technical college. “Andrew’s not like that,” she’d said. “He’s about to start grad school.”

A long crack extends across the bus’ front windshield, zigzagging like an electrocardiograph to end in a small hole. Meredith wonders what made the hole. A rock? A bullet? The breeze from the open windows barely penetrates the bus’ interior, which smells of gasoline, hot plastic and cramped bodies. She feels nauseous.

“Look at that,” says one of the boys. “Isn’t it beautiful?” Meredith turns to look. It is beautiful, she supposes, the jagged white scar of a waterfall cutting through dark foliage.

The boy’s voice, slightly nasal, reminds Meredith of Andrew’s best friend’s, who’d given her the second clue that something had happened to Andrew. Scott had called about a week after her birthday. “I haven’t heard from Drew lately,” he’d said. “Do you know when he’ll be back?” Hearing the worry in Scott’s voice, Meredith’s own fears had been magnified. She hadn’t known what to say. Andrew’s lack of communication had seemed to hint at some failing on her part. She’d always prided herself on being close to him.

Andrew and Scott had met two years before at a swim meet. Like Andrew, Scott was a nice boy, good-looking and polite. She’d always liked him. “Have you spoken with him lately?” she’d asked, doing her best to keep her voice light.

“About two weeks ago,” he’d said. “Before that he called every few days.” She’d been surprised to hear they’d kept in such close touch. Was that normal? “How did he sound?” she’d said.

“We had a fight,” Scott had said. “I guess he’s still mad at me.” Meredith had been scared to ask what the fight was about. A few days later, when she’d called Scott again, his roommate had told her to call Scott’s boyfriend’s place.

She’d meant to say something to Tom later, after she’d had time to digest it, but the longer she’d waited, the harder it had seemed, until finally, she’d decided to keep quiet. So what if Andrew’s best friend was gay? Tom would just tell her she was imagining things. He was so proud of their boy.

Her thoughts are interrupted by the sound of retching, a young woman one row up spitting into a plastic bag. The smell makes Meredith’s throat rise.

“Man, this bus sucks,” says the boy with the nasal voice, the clean-shaven one with the lighter hair. “We should have taken the express bus.”

“You were the one who wanted to get away from all the tourists,” says the girl.

“This is nothing,” says the other boy. “I was on a bus in the Philippines where even the driver was puking.”

Meredith shuts her eyes. What is she doing on this wretched bus listening to these inane kids? She’s too late. It’s been too long. When she’d first sensed that something was wrong she should have gotten straight on a plane instead of wasting precious time making phone calls. “It’s only been six weeks since last contact,” one guy at the embassy had told her. “Your son had an open ticket, right?” Later, they’d made her feel like she was on trial. How did she know her son wasn’t a drug user? Why had they only had one child? What did she and her husband do for a living? How was Andrew’s relationship with his father? Any signs of abuse? Depression? Criminal record?

She’d told them about Andrew’s scholarships and swim medals. She’d shown them photos: Andrew as a chubby toddler running through the sprinklers; Andrew and Tom eating ice cream at the Calgary Stampede; Andrew in his cap and gown, standing next to Scott, smiling.

Three days ago, before leaving for Jakarta, Meredith had phoned Tom. Some new secretary had answered, a woman who’d said: “May I ask who’s calling please?” Meredith had wanted to laugh. She and Tom had been married for thirty-one years and this person didn’t even know she existed. When Tom had gotten on the line he’d sounded tired. They hadn’t spoken in a while. “I’m off to Indonesia tomorrow,” she’d said. “I just wanted to let you know.”

She’d heard another phone ringing in the background and Tom saying, “Leanne, can you get that?” When he’d gotten back on the line he’d sighed. “Please Meredith, you’ve got to stop this,” he’d said. “You’ve got to face the facts.”

She’d wanted to slam down the phone. “What facts?” she’d said. She should have known he’d try to discourage her.

“He’s gone,” he’d said. “Gone.” If he were able to say the word dead she might respect him more, but that’s the way Tom is. She can’t understand how he can live with not knowing.

The bus lurches around a corner, causing Meredith to knock against the legs of the man who’s sitting to her right. He turns and glares at her, then presses closer to his companion. “Sorry,” she says, wishing Arif was here to defend her, but he’s sitting near the front, chatting with Rojo. She watches them, Rojo laughing and shaking his head, Arif raising his hands in a gesture of surrender. When Arif looks back and meets her eyes, he blushes. Rojo stops laughing. She bets they were talking about her.

Meredith calculates how long it’s been since Tom left, counting seventeen months on her fingers. Their final fight had been about redecorating Andrew’s room. Tom had wanted to turn it into a guest room and she’d refused. “I can’t do this anymore,” he’d said. “I can’t live like this, pretending he’ll be back.” He’d started to cry. Seeing his quivering chins she’d hated him. How could he give up on his only child? How could he have allowed himself to become so fat and flabby?

The last trace of Andrew was his signature, which looked real enough, in the guestbook of a hostel at Lake Maninjau. That first frantic trip she and Tom had gone to the hostel and met the owners, a middle-aged couple who’d seemed nervous, which was probably understandable given the circumstances. They’d looked at the photo she’d brought and said they remembered him. He’d been traveling alone. “He was very quiet,” the woman had told her. At first Meredith had been convinced they knew something. Now, she’s not sure of anything.

The first trip, and maybe the second, she’d believed they would find him. Somebody had to know something. They just hadn’t asked the right questions yet. She didn’t trust anyone. Maybe the local police were in on it. And the villagers with their sullen stares, they had to be hiding something. She’d seen the fear in their eyes, heard their whispers whenever she passed. How could a healthy young man simply vanish?

That first trip she and Tom had stayed for six weeks. Every morning they’d been woken before dawn by the quavering strains of the call to prayer, broadcast over a loudspeaker from the village’s mosque. She had woken to that sound and felt sick. Tom had been angry, cursing everything in sight, the village’s muddy streets and the groups of skinny men squatting in the shade or walking arm-in-arm. “Bunch of queers,” he’d said. “Look at them! You can’t trust these people.”

She’s not sure when the trips had changed, when she’d stopped counting on answers. Now she can’t shake the fear that Andrew’s fate depends on her coming, as though her failure to come here might result in his death or something even worse, if that’s possible. What had begun as a search had turned into a pilgrimage, a superstitious offering to a God she doesn’t even believe in, as if He’ll bear witness to her sacrifice and throw down a miracle. She is his mother. If he were dead she would know. She would feel it in her bones. Wouldn’t she?

Meredith twists around to look at the white kids, the girl lighting a cigarette and blowing the smoke out the window. The bearded boy is listening to an iPod, his head moving in time to the music. They’re all wearing ethnic-style clothes, the boys in loose cotton pants and t-shirts, the girl’s skirt covered with embroidery, obviously expensive. Meredith takes note of her jewelry: a mass of silver bangles, three rings, and a thick necklace of coral and silver beads. The girl yawns. “My ass is so sore,” she says. “Are we almost there yet?”

Meredith looks away. What do they think they’re doing here, these dumb kids with their perfect tans and their sense of entitlement so thick it would take a bomb to penetrate it? This armor of blithe confidence sets them apart from everyone else on the bus. Everyone else, including herself, knows that they have no rights. Anything can be taken from you at any time. Anything.

It’s only hours later when she’s watching them jump off the bus and set about retrieving their ludicrous surfboards that Meredith realizes her mistake. They’re not Andrew’s age. These kids are in their early twenties, while Andrew would be twenty-nine. Is twenty-nine, thinks Meredith. He turned twenty-nine in June.


            Andrew Hume

            Was born in June

            And now he gets his very own room.


As she lugs her backpack off the bus she says it to herself, this imperfect rhyme she’d made up to encourage Andy to stop climbing into bed with her and Tom in the middle of the night. Isn’t it funny, she thinks, the things that stick in your head? She looks around for Arif but can’t see him, various taxi-touts and pony-cart drivers wave at her to get her attention. Meredith tries her best to ignore them.

It has gotten dark, a haze of bugs circling a nearby streetlamp. The road to Lake Maninjau is winding and steep. While she doesn’t want to spend the night in some abysmal guest-house near the bus station, it is dangerous to drive to Maninjau in the dark. She scans the dusty lot for her guide, feeling increasingly panicky. What if he’s gone too? She feels exhausted and off-balance.

Some distance from where she’s waiting the three white kids have gathered near a food stall. The girl adjusts one of her bra straps and Meredith looks away. The few local women who are about are fully covered. In her skimpy tank top, the girl’s just asking for trouble.

“Hi,” says the bearded boy, the word thrust at her like a stick, since, Meredith realizes, she’s been staring at them. He walks over to her and stops, almost close enough to touch.

“So your car broke down. Bad luck, huh?” He says it like a question.

“Yes,” says Meredith. She wants to say more but can’t think of anything, her attention consumed by studying him. He’s shorter than her son and his hair is blonder, although Andy’s hair might have faded in the sun. A tattoo circles one of his upper arms, a pattern of wavy black lines. Andrew had once wanted to get a tattoo and Tom had said, “Forget it. You’ll regret it when you’re older.”

The boy lights a cigarette, something self-conscious about his movements. “This your first time in Sumatra?”

“No,” says Meredith. “I’ve been here before.”

“Oh yeah? When was that?” He’s looking at her with fresh interest, probably imagining she’s some ex-hippie come back to relive the glorious travels of her youth. Meredith frowns. “Actually, I’ve come every year for the past six years. I’m headed for Lake Maninjau.” Her mouth is dry.

“Wow,” he says. “You must really love it there. We’re going that way too. Can you recommend a place?”

Meredith hesitates. “The Morning Star is okay.” She takes a deep breath. “But I don’t think you should—”

She’s interrupted by the girl, who looks cross. “Hey Phil,” she yells. “Where’s the guidebook?”

“In the top compartment of your backpack,” says the boy, then turns back to Meredith. “We shouldn’t what?” he says.

Throat tight, she tries again. “This place,” she says. “It’s not safe.” She can see skepticism in his eyes, and curiosity too. Is she really going to tell him, a complete stranger, about what happened to Andrew? How much effort would it cost her to explain, to accept his sympathy, to answer his questions? She feels sick with tiredness.

A few feet from where they’re standing a small, skinny pony is harnessed to a cart. The pony shakes its head and the bells on its harness jangle, the sudden movement and noise scaring Meredith. She jumps back, panicked, and the boy smirks. “Hey, it’s okay,” he says, and for a moment, she sees herself through his eyes: old, paranoid and alone. Her composure is ready to crack. She feels hollow inside. A hand flies to her chest, as if to reassure herself of its solidity, and the boy frowns. “You okay?” he asks. The other two kids, she notes, are also watching her.

“I…I have to go,” she says, amazed by the strangeness of her voice. “I can’t come here anymore.” She takes a deep breath. “This place… Just be careful.”

The boy looks bemused. “Yeah, sure thing,” he says. “Uh, you too.” Before turning back to his friends he gives her a sly smile, clearly convinced she’s unstable.

She’s sure the three of them will talk about her later, weaving her into their travel lore—the paranoid old lady from the bus. She imagines them mimicking her – You have a safe trip now – and stoops to retrieve her backpack.

“Meredith?” says a voice, and she looks up to see Arif. He is holding two bottles of water. “I got us taxi to Maninjau,” he says. He reaches to help with her backpack. “We go now.”

“I’m not going,” says Meredith. Arif frowns, confused. Turning, she sees the three kids walking towards another cab, the driver struggling to balance one of their surfboards. The blond boy who’d come over to her glances back, the girl looking back too. She sees the boy shrug, both of them smirking.

They have gone about ten steps when Meredith runs after them, the boy gasping in surprise as she pushes him to the ground, then slaps him. The others try to pull her off, to pin her arms, but she wriggles free of them, a whir of skinny sharp elbows. In the dark and the dust this boy could be her son. She kicks him, harder, and he screams. She kicks him again, then collapses onto hands and knees. Tears blind her eyes. Behind her own sobs, Meredith is sure she can hear her boy, crying out for his mother.



Author’s Bio:

Elka Ray is the author of one novel, Hanoi Jane (Marshall Cavendish, 2010), and two children’s books about Vietnam: Vietnam A to Z and 123 Vietnam! (Phan Thi Press, 2012) that she also illustrated. Elka holds British and Canadian citizenship and has spent the last 18 years living in Vietnam, where she works as a writer and editor. This year, Elka’s short story “The Yellow River” was featured in Lontar: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction. Another story, “You Get What You Pay For”, was included in Monsoon’s upcoming anthology Crime Scene Asia: Asia’s Best Crime Fiction. Elka’s travel writing has appeared in a wide range of magazines and guidebooks, including Executive Traveler, Persimmon Asian Arts and Fodor’s. Elka has a website and blogs about life in Vietnam at www.elkaray.com


Illustration by Alan Van Every (Featured image on the front page)



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