“Can you at least try to avoid the potholes?” I asked, bracing myself on the dashboard as the Land Rover drove over what had to be the three hundredth one this afternoon.
“You wanna drive, rook?” was the less-than-friendly reply I received.
I glanced to my right. With the soft-top of the truck down, Thomas Boone looked like the picture of ease; dark Ray-Ban aviator sunglasses, wind whipping through that thick hair, white tee-shirt billowing, one hand on the steering wheel as he drank from a Coca-Cola can. He didn’t look like he had just spent seven hours driving on rutted dirt roads in Middle-of-Nowhere, Mozambique with a worn-out suspension and shock absorbers that hadn’t been replaced since 1997.
“I would,” I responded, holding up the map of southern Africa in my lap, “if you weren’t such a terrible navigator.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my navigating,” he stated.
My eyebrows rose. “Oh, really?”
“I hate to tell you this,” I said, “but I get nervous when you even look at a map.”
He turned his head, giving me a deadpan look. “If this is about yesterday –”
“You mean yesterday when you got us lost?”
He grunted. “Well, that’s how you remember it,” he rumbled, turning his attention back to the road.
“What else would you call driving in the wrong direction for an entire morning?” I questioned.
“Sightseeing?” he offered.
Unamused, I blinked at him from behind my sunglasses. “We were the definition of ‘lost’, Boone.”
He gestured to the dead GPS mounted on the dash. “Well, there were some minor technical difficulties,” he responded. “And the map said there would be a road there, so…”
I brushed my bangs out of my face. “So, now we’re taking the longest possible way to get there –”
“Only because you insisted on taking Route 208,” he cut me off. “We could have just taken the other road and cut through to 406.”
“Did you see that ‘other road’?” I asked, indignant.
“Yeah,” he said.
He shrugged with nonchalance. “It looked good to me.”
I exhaled sharply. “Oh, come on.”
“What?” He moved his hand to rest on the top of the steering wheel. “It did.”
“It was barely wide enough for this truck,” I argued.
“It would have been fine,” he countered.
“We couldn’t have gone more than ten miles an hour on it.”
“Not with you driving,” he said, looking sideways at me. “We’d have to slow down for every single pothole, wouldn’t we?”
I pressed my lips together unappreciatively. “You know what? If we get a flat tire, have fun fixing it yourself,” I told him, “because I think I’ll take advantage of thirty minutes of reprieve from your driving to take a nap.”
“‘Reprieve from my driving’?” he repeated.
“If you can even call it that,” I retorted.
He didn’t say anything. Instead, he made no move to avoid a large puddle on the side of the road. He drove straight through it, causing the truck to tilt and spray water outwards. I had to grab onto the door handle to stay in my seat. The front-end suspension squeaked in protest. When we were back on even ground, he casually took another sip of Coke.
Straightening in my seat, I shot him a look, seeing his lips twitch into an almost imperceptible smile. Sometimes, I got the feeling he enjoyed trying to exasperate me. Not wanting to give him the satisfaction, I turned my head, watching the landscape pass by.
The long grass that lined the side of the road was dry, the ends browned and brittle as they waved in the breeze. The sun’s rays were hot and powerful, beating down on the back of my neck. January in Mozambique was smack-dab in the middle of its merciless summer. The air conditioner in the Land Rover had stopped working two days ago, so we had to put the soft-top down. My cotton shirt was permanently damp with sweat, and I longed for the subzero temperatures that Washington, D.C. was currently experiencing.
Prior to four days ago, I had never been to Mozambique. Driving from the capital, Maputo, we had seen the scenery change from palm trees and bustling towns to thick, green brush interspersed with small rural villages. Down south, there had been people milling about on the side of the road, walking to and from villages, balancing baskets of food or wood on top of their heads, selling bananas, nuts, firewood. Now, further north, there were more chickens than people.
“Are we staying straight?” Boone asked as a narrow dirt road that branched out to the right came into view.
Smoothing the map out on my lap, I traced the road with a finger. “Yeah, straight until we cross the Limpopo river,” I replied. “Then just follow the road to the left.”
We settled back into silence. Since boarding the plane in D.C., we had been switching from hot to cold. There were periods when we would bicker like an old married couple, and then wouldn’t speak for hours. I hated the tension, the awkwardness, and the pressing feeling of so many things unsaid, but that was what happened when you slept with your partner.
Closing my eyes and biting my lip, I remembered everything about that night. I remembered Boone showing up unannounced at my apartment, getting angry with me for setting him up on a date with someone else, and then telling me things I didn’t know I had been waiting to hear. And then I had kissed him. What had ensued still made my cheeks burn and my chest tighten. All those pent-up feelings and that nearly tangible sexual tension had come to a breaking point.
Boone had even stayed until morning, something he avoided with his usual one-night stands, but had retreated as fast as he could when I offered to make pancakes for breakfast. I should have known that his emotional unavailability and commitment-phobia would eventually show itself. I hadn’t asked for anything, though, and I resented the fact that he treated me like a girl who just wanted to tie him down. We hadn’t talked about “it” since I told him that we should forget anything ever happened.
But forgetting was impossible. Despite my best efforts to do so, I could still recall every detail, every word, every touch. It had been especially difficult these past few nights, when we had to stop on the side of the road and sleep in the back of the Land Rover. The bench seats folded up so we could lie on the floor, but it was still a tight fit. I spent more time awake than asleep. I didn’t like the fact that my arm pressing against Boone’s made my heart pound just as much as hearing hyenas cackle in the distance.
Boone started to slow down, downshifting into third gear. “There’s a roadblock up ahead,” he told me.
I peered through the dusty windshield. Ahead, the right side of the road was closed off by a mound of sandbags, and the left side was obstructed by seven men. Each of them had an assault rifle gripped loosely in their hands.
“They aren’t police,” I said, squinting at them. They weren’t wearing uniforms of any sort. “Or military.”
“No,” Boone said. He set the Coke can in the cup-holder in order to put both hands on the steering wheel.
Wiping sweat from my forehead, I asked, “Then who?”
“Whatever criminal group controls this area,” he replied, sounding calm. He had an incredible ability not to lose his head, no matter the situation. Unless he was angry with me. Only then did he seem to lose it. “I bet I can guess which one, too.”
We knew we were going to run into something like this eventually. This meant we were getting close to where we needed to be. I took off my sunglasses, readjusted my ponytail, and folded up the map. When we were about a hundred yards away, one of the men directed us to pull over. I let my heart beat as fast as it wanted but made sure my nerves didn’t show.
“Try to act like you can stand me, yeah?” Boone said before he yanked the gearstick into park and turned off the engine. He took his sunglasses off, too. It was always a good move to look as approachable and harmless as possible. He slipped them into the pocket of his cargo shorts.
I didn’t get a chance to respond. Two men came over to Boone’s side of the truck, both of them in their early twenties and faces shining with sweat. One was wearing a Manchester United jersey, the other an orange shirt with a torn seam on the shoulder. Their fingers rested on the triggers of their guns, and I surreptitiously glanced over them. They were AN-94 assault rifles.
The one in orange looked Boone and me over, and then asked us something in Portuguese.
I shifted in my seat to face him. ”Olá,” I said.
He said something else I didn’t understand, his brow furrowing.
I shrugged and smiled a bit in embarrassment. “Um, você fala inglês?” I said slowly in broken Portuguese, asking if he spoke English.
He shook his head, but then turned around and beckoned another man over. “Edmundo,” he called. ”Vem traduzir aquí."
Edmundo, a short, stocky man, came over. As he glanced over the Land Rover, I thought I saw a hint of a smirk on his lips. He spoke to the other two men, and then said to us in accented English, “What are you doing here?”
“We’re going to Manhambo,” Boone replied.
“And what business do you have in Manhambo?” Edmundo inquired, adjusting the strap of his gun.
“We’re, um –” I stopped to smile at Boone. He gave me a warm smile back. “We’re volunteering with MozCare for our honeymoon. We’re going to help build an elementary school in Manhambo.”
His eyes darted to my ring finger, probably checking for a diamond. I was only wearing a simple gold band for that precise reason. “I want to see passaportes,” he demanded.
He didn’t have any authority to ask for them, but we were going to play the dumb tourist card so we could get through the roadblock without any problems.
“Sure,” I said, reaching down into the bag between my feet. I took out two blue Canadian passports and handed them to him.
Flipping the top one open, he glanced at me. “Katherine Pirek?” he read.
“Well, it’s actually Katherine Francis now,” I informed him, as if I was incredibly happy about that fact. I touched Boone’s arm. “We just got married five days ago.”
He handed my passport to the man in the orange shirt, and then opened the second one. “Dominic Francis,” he said. He looked in the back of the passport. “Your visa was stamped in Maputo.”
“Yes,” Boone said.
Edmundo scratched his chin. “You have driven all the way from Maputo?” he asked.
“Yes,” Boone said again.
He laughed. “On these roads? I pity you,” he said, flipping through the other pages.
“It’s been rough,” I admitted good-naturedly.
“The first test of our marriage, you know?” Boone added.
I gave him a saccharine smile. “The first of many, I’m sure.”
He returned the smile, and I thought I saw genuine amusement underneath the façade.
Edmundo gave Boone’s passport to the other man, and then stood back, waving a hand. “Okay, can you get out of the car?”
“What?” I said, surprised.
“Get out,” he repeated in a no-nonsense tone. He took his gun in his hands. Even though it was pointed at the ground, the message was clear.
I put up my hands. “Okay, okay,” I said a bit shakily, opening the door. My boots crunched on the dirt.
Boone got out of the truck, too. Edmundo made us stand at the front of the Land Rover. “Put your hands on o capô,” he ordered.
We both leaned against the hood. The dark green metal burned the palms of my hands. Edmundo and the two other men began searching through the truck, rifling through the front seat pockets, my bag, the glove compartment, and our duffel bags and camping equipment in the back of the truck. I saw them pocket the wad of US dollars in my wallet, dismount the GPS, and grab Boone’s iPod.
The one in the orange shirt was especially thorough in his search. He looked behind the seats, under the floor mats, in the nooks and crannies, and even under the spare wheel’s covering.
Cautiously, I met Boone’s eyes. Every day, I wavered between deciding whether they were grey or blue. In the direct sunlight, they were clearly blue, startlingly so. He gave me a heavy look. I quickly glanced away, pressing my palms harder against the hood. We didn’t want them poking around under there. That would certainly ruin the innocent newlywed illusion.
Edmundo hopped down from the truck bed. He came to stand next to me. “Move,” he instructed.
He wanted to check under the hood. Shit.
I stared down at my hands for a moment, willing the tears to come. It didn’t take much; I was already frustrated. I was dirty and sweaty, my back hurt from nonstop driving on rough terrain, Boone had been irritating me for four days straight, our stuff had been ransacked, and I had to pee like a racehorse.
I straightened, sniffing loudly and wiping tears from underneath my eyes. “Please just let us go,” I pleaded. I made sure I was still blocking his access to the hood.
He grimaced, looking a bit taken aback. “Move away from the caminhão,” he commanded, waving the gun to demonstrate what he wanted.
I let out a startled sound, stepping back from him. “Don’t – please don’t point that—that thing at us,” I begged, starting to cry.
“Kate?” Boone said.
I turned my head and gave him a pointed look that said, ”Just go with it.”
He didn’t question it for a second, reaching out to smooth a hand down my arm. “Kate, it’s okay,” he reassured me, managing to sound anxious at the same time.
“It’s not okay, Dom,” I said frantically. “It’s not okay. They’re pointing guns at us, guns.”
“Move,” Edmundo demanded again, but sounded a fraction less secure.
“Please – please can we just go?” I pleaded with the appropriate level of desperation. “We don’t want any trouble—”
"Meu Deus,” he muttered. “Now.”
I cried louder and harder, meeting his eyes with my tear-filled ones and mustering the most helpless face I could. “Sir, please, you’ve already t-taken everything you wanted,” I said. “M-money, the iPod, the GPS –”
He grabbed my shoulder to forcibly move me out of the way, dragging me about three feet away from the Land Rover. I immediately fought him, pulling at his hands. “Oh my God, no, no, please –”
Edmundo’s fingers dug into my shoulder hard. If I wanted to do this right, I had to put on my best hysterical female act. There was nothing that scared men more.
I began gasping for breath, sobbing at the same time. I was sure I looked a mess. I pressed one hand to my chest, and used the other to clutch at Edmundo’s shirt. “I-I can’t breathe,” I rasped, panicking. “I c-can’t breathe.”
Disconcerted, Edmundo held me out at an arm’s length. He hadn’t been expecting a full-fledged panic attack. ”Oh, meu Deus,” he cursed. ”Impedir. Impedir."
“She’s hyperventilating,” Boone said from behind me, his voice serious.
I heard a confused, ”O quê? What?”
“Hyperventilating, you know? Like she can’t breathe,” Boone tried to explain. I had to give him credit for sounding sincerely worried. “Just let her go. Come on, man, please.”
Edmundo said something under his breath.
“Kate, deep breaths, okay?” Boone said. “Keep taking deep breaths.”
After a few seconds, Edmundo released me. Boone stepped forward to wrap an arm around me. Leaning forward with my hands on my knees, I took deep, shaking breaths, but didn’t stop crying. My throat was burning with the effort.
The two other men came over and said something to Edmundo, sounding mildly distressed. I didn’t know much Portuguese, but it sounded a lot like they didn’t want to deal with us any longer.
“Come on,” Boone said, one of his hands stroking my back. “You—you can keep the stuff, but just let us go. Please.”
There was a pause. I gasped in a couple painful breaths for good measure.
The man in orange eventually handed our passports back, while Edmundo grunted, “Go.”
Boone didn’t waste time in pulling me up, helping me walk to the left side of the truck. He opened the door, pushed me onto the seat, and slammed the door shut. Jogging over to the other side, he hopped into the driver’s seat and quickly started the engine.
The three men stood back. The orange-shirted one gestured to the men standing in the middle of the road to let us through. The Land Rover roared to life, tires stirring up the dirt as we tore out of there. Boone drove through the roadblock, deftly fitting through the narrow space between sandbags. I slumped down in my seat, covering my face with my hands.
We cleared the roadblock, and I peeked through my fingers. The road opened up again. It looked like we were going to hit even thicker vegetation up ahead, the bushes giving way to taller, bigger trees and denser underbrush. According to the map, we were headed for Limpopo National Park, an enormous 10,000 square kilometer jungle-like area with very little infrastructure.
When the men were merely specks in the side mirror, I sat up in my seat. Wiping the tears off my face and smoothing my bangs to the side, I reached down and picked my discarded sunglasses up from the floor. I slipped them on.
“Clever,” Boone commented, shifting the gearstick up.
“What, you didn’t learn that in training?” I asked.
I smiled. “When in doubt, cry as much as you possibly can,” I replied.
He gave that deep-throated laugh that sent tingles up my spine. “Nah, can’t say I did,” he said.
“Well, it’s very effective,” I told him.
“Obviously,” he said, pulling his Ray-Bans out of his pocket. “For a second, even I didn’t know what to do.”
I rested my elbow on the window frame. “I couldn’t let them check under the hood,” I said.
He put on his sunglasses. “I know,” he said seriously. “That was a close call.”
“Yeah, four handguns, a SAT phone, and two passports under different names would have made the whole newlyweds-on-their-honeymoon story a little less believable,” I said.
He swerved to avoid a pothole. “No kidding.”
The sun glinted off the wedding ring on his left hand. I let my head fall back against the headrest. “Did you see their guns?” I asked, voice low and serious.
His jaw tightened. “Yeah, I saw them,” he answered. “AN-94s.”
“Advanced Russian assault rifles, all the way down here in Mozambique,” I said. “Imagine that.”
He turned his head to look at me, one corner of his mouth curving upwards into a half-smile. “I think we’re in the right place, Kate.”
The small bundle of nerves in the pit of my stomach grew slightly bigger. “Me, too,” I said.