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Chapter 51: The Confession

All we had to eat was a bowl of leftover spaghetti in the fridge. “H’ants,” Brielle shouted, pointing to the sauce that was crawling with tiny ants. There was hardly enough electricity to keep anything cold, much less keep out the ants. Too hungry to do anything else, we threw the noodles in a pot, warmed them on the gas burner and called them dinner.

Our resilience was another small triumph over Cambodia’s hidden adversaries. Danger always lurked close beyond the landmine sign or the sheltering dense jungle. Cambodia held other perils, too―perils of the heart.

Dusk was falling and the advent of darkness mirrored my mood, which had followed me since the incident at Knoldombau. After a dinner eaten in silence, Brielle stayed at the table rather than clearing the table or going to her room.

I shook out the uneaten ants and rinsed our bowls in a bucket of water. Brielle patted the chair next to her. “Parle avec moi, talk with me. You never told me what really happened at Knoldombau.”

As much as I would have preferred to confess my crush on Stephan, Brielle deserved to hear the story, which might seem less terrifying if I recounted it aloud. Ignoring Brie’s request to sit next to her, I stood with my back against the doorframe of the little hallway leading to my bedroom.

“The CivPol from Cameroon awoke in the truck to find his partner missing. At first he thought the Jordanian must have gone outside to take a pee but, when he didn’t return after a few minutes, he went out to find him with only a flashlight. No gun, no knife. Not calling out for fear of waking the entire village, he began to make his way to the edge of the forest where there might be more privacy for doing one’s business.

“The hands that grabbed him from behind were not his partner’s hands. And the butt of the rifle that hit him on the head was not his partner’s, either. It was his screams that woke the village.

“The CivPol swear it was guerrillas who attacked. Could be, and they could have been planning to attack Wati and me, who were asleep in the pagoda. But with the whole village awake, they slinked back into the forest.

“Honestly, the worst part was waiting to find out if the CivPol from Cameroon would be okay and if the guerrillas had really gone for good. Because we couldn’t leave until first light, we tended to his injuries and kept an uneasy vigil through the night.

“Instead of driving directly back to the office in Skon, we stopped at the Unmos’ house to report to Radush in person. Russ had already heard about the incident and was there. He was livid, screaming at Radush. ‘You said you’d keep them safe. What the bloody hell happened? Where were you when the bloody gits attacked in the middle of the night?’

“I was next on his list of people to scream at. ‘Havra, you effing almost lost a foot. Then you set up your whole team for a massacre. You’re effing done with sleepovers.’”

“Russ returned his full attention to battering what was left of Radush’s ego. As he did, Wati and I slipped out of the room, leaving the men to battle over blame while we headed to our office to restore calm to our teams.”

Brielle started to get up when I finally finished the story, but I held up my hand to stop her. Taking the seat beside her, I said, “Okay, I do have something to tell you, but it’s not about the other night. I need to put that behind me.” Then the words tumbled out. “I find Stephan really interesting.”

“Interesting, qu’est-ce que c’est, what is this interesting? He is a militarist,” she said with her lips pursed and her eyes rolling.

“Y’ know, he’s a new friend—someone to talk with.”

“I think maybe he is very handsome, no?” Brielle stared at me with new interest, relieved to change the topic from guerrilla attacks to romance.

I didn’t answer right away. Not yet prepared for this discussion, I asked her if she wanted to try the Cambodian marijuana that one of the DESs had left at the house as a gift for my letting her sleep on our couch when she was too drunk to drive to Phnom Penh late one night. Brielle smiled mischievously. “Why not? I try when I was at the Université Sorbonne but my father, he disapproved.”

I lit the kerosene lantern, which gave the room a soft glow. Moving to the bare wood floor, we put our backs up against the bamboo settee and lit the marijuana-stuffed, filtered Marlboro. “When I see him in uniform, I can feel the blood rise in my cheeks. He’s too handsome and powerful looking,” I said, seeing Stephan in my mind’s eye with his UN beret perched at a sexy tilt. “I don’t know if he’s really interested. Nothing has happened between us and besides . . .” I paused. “He’s married.”

Brielle took a long drag of marijuana, coughing a little as the smoke heated the back of her throat. “Ou la la, arrête! I should tell you to stop this relationship en cette moment. You'll hurt and be so unhappy, but you'll be better off,” she said and then suddenly giggled. “But you won’t . . . stop.” She made a lot of sense, for someone who was already higher than a kite.

“CJ,” Brie continued sternly, stifling another giggle and folding her arms across her chest. “What game are you playing? You are a lady-killer.”

Laughing, I tried to restart the conversation by making light of my confession. “Ach, it’s a man-killer, not a lady-killer. Don’t worry. As far as I know, Stephan is inaccessible to me. The biggest problem is that he is married—maybe even happily—and the fact that he is more than a decade younger makes a romance even more unlikely.”

Brielle was having none of it. She slid a thumb and index finger down her chin from the corners of her mouth. She looked like an inquisitor. “No, a lady-killer . . . like a wife-killer.”

“I’ve been the wife in such relationships,” I sighed. “I’m not a home wrecker. I’ll never be one.” I believed that, too.

“Do you really think you can hold this tigre by the tail? You can’t have an affair with a married man and claim that you’re not a home spoiler, even if you don’t have a bullet to his head.”

“Gun, not bullet.”

Brielle stiffened.

“Okay, so maybe I could be a home wrecker,” I admitted. But even with Brielle, I clung to my claim that my brief encounter with Aiden had rekindled something I was missing from my life—a bit of passion and romance. “Stephan is lust, not deep emotion; he’s simply a part of my year of living dangerously,” I said, trying to sound convincing in my attempt at rationalization. I didn’t say I found Stephan’s story of surviving Soviet oppression so fascinating that, if I wasn’t careful, it might absorb my whole being and the self-sufficiency I was beginning to own.

Trying to look like an urbane bad girl, I took another long hit of marijuana but choked on the smoke and burned my throat. “I don’t think that I’m cut out for this lifestyle,” I said sullenly as I gave Brielle a little wave and headed for my bedroom. Lying in bed, I counted backward from one hundred in an attempt to bring on sleep and, with it, an escape from the sea of moral contradictions in which I was drowning.

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