A loud bang woke her from a deep slumber. It had come from outside the bedroom door. The puppy was still sleeping soundly at her chest. Chara sat up, careful not to wake him. She must have fallen asleep--at least this time, she was on the bed.
Bang! Smack! “Arrggh,” she heard Alexei groan.
Chara breathed a sigh of relief--it didn’t sound like anything suspicious. Chara was understandably jumpy since having spent the last few days in a strange house with a strange man, telling her a strange story.
She ran her hand across the puppy’s fur. It was soft and clean since its bath. It nuzzled into her chest and breathed deeply. She hugged its tiny, warm body tighter.
Just then, Alexei opened the bedroom door, and backed in, clutching a tray with four steaming bowls. He raised his eyebrows at her, clearly surprised to see her awake. “You wake up. You hungry?”
“Yes,” Chara nodded fervently, bringing her hand to her rumbling belly. She was ravenous.
He set the tray down at the foot of the bed. It was more steaming bowls of cabbage stew, and a bowl of what appeared to be ground meat, along with a water jug and two glasses. The pungent smell of the stew wafted to Chara and the puppy, who awoke with his nose twitching. He stood up immediately and waddled quickly over to the tray.
“Hey, hey, now. One second,” Alexei patted the puppy gingerly on the head.
“Is that for the puppy?” Chara pointed at the meat. She would have been happy to eat it herself.
“Yes, and I put meat in stew too. Give you strength,” he attempted an awkward smile.
She smiled back at him. She had decided to drop all talk of him letting her go for a while. She would instead befriend him and win his trust. Only then would she be comfortable attempting her escape. Plus, it would give her time to plan exactly how she was going to execute it, for which at this point, she had no ideas. “Thanks. Did you cook this yourself?”
He bent over the bed to place the meat bowl on the ground, along with a small bowl of water, and picked up the puppy and placed him on the floor beside it. “There you go,” he said. He looked up at Chara. “Yes, I try. I not cook before.”
Yeah, I can tell, Chara wanted to say, but of course she didn’t. She accepted a bowl gratefully from Alexei and set it on her lap, not wasting any time before dipping her spoon in and taking a mouthful. Though the meat was chewy and overcooked, it still added more flavor to the otherwise tasteless dish. “Alexei, do you have any salt?” she dared in a sweet voice, hoping she wouldn’t hurt his feelings.
“Salt?” he considered, without a hint of emotion. “Yes,” he nodded, and got up and left the room. He returned a few moments later clutching wooden salt and pepper shakers and handed them to Chara.
“Ahh that’s great, thanks Alexei,” she said, sprinkling the spices on her stew. “Do you want some?”
He pursed his lips and then nodded his head, reaching to take them from her.
“So, Alexei. Since I’m going to be here for a while, maybe we should get to know each other?” Chara suggested with a hopeful smile, gulping down another spoonful of stew.
He nodded again. “OK. What you want to know?”
“Well, tell me about yourself,” she said, turning to him and crossing her legs and adjusting the bowl on her lap. The puppy on the floor had eaten the entire bowl of meat and was now licking the bowl clean. “Where are you from? What do you do? You said you’ve lived here 20 years?”
“Yes, I am from Russia,” he divulged with a swallow. “I have import-export business here.”
Chara nodded. “I see. And what do you import and export?”
He thought for a moment. “Specialised chemicals.”
So, drugs. He’s a Russian mafia drug lord. Great. But Chara simply nodded. “Do you have a big company?”
“Yes. Many people work for me.” The puppy was loudly lapping up water from its bowl. Alexei poured more water from the jug for it to drink.
“Do you have any family here?”
He shook his head, slurping at his spoon. “No.”
“No wife? No kids?”
“No have wife. I look but I not find,” he responded, with a vague hint of sadness.
Chara realized that he must be lonely. Here was this big, gruff boss of the Russian mafia, running the drug trade on Koh Phangan, and he was looking unsuccessfully for a wife. Could that have been why he took Chara in? Because he was lonely?
She was silent for a while while she scraped at the bowl with her spoon to get every last drop of her soup.
“Alexei, why did you take me in? I mean, I get that you were helping me, and I really appreciate it. But I wondered what motivated you to do it?”
“I see many people...too many people...go to jail in Thailand. They not come out. Or they come out different person. Not same like before. Thailand jail very bad. Very dirty, very dangerous. Woman like you, she not last in there. I think you good person. I see you go crazy, but you not crazy person. You understand?”
Chara nodded, so, he did it out of the kindness of his heart? She wondered if she could possibly believe him, looking into his downcast eyes. He seemed somehow...genuine.
“I’m trying really hard to understand, Alexei. The part that I’m struggling with most is that you say that my friends Jak and Anna aren’t real. But I know they are,” she said softly. She didn’t want to call him a liar, but she needed to bring this point up again. How can he say they don’t exist? “Have you heard of Koh Exotica? The new party island in Mae Haad?”
He put his spoon down in his empty bowl, and set it down on the tray gently. He shook his head. “No, I not hear of this place,” he said, wiping his mouth. “In Mae Haad? Only hotel in Mae Haad.
“Yes, it’s new. Maybe one month? There are two Indian men named Sunny and Vinny involved too.”
He shook his head slowly and exaggeratedly. “No. I know every party place on island. This place not exist.”
Chara set her empty bowl on the tray and sat back on the bed. She felt like she was losing it again. She searched his face for a hint of lying or deceiving and found only that he seemed to be taking pity on her, and her apparent lost memory. Had she really dreamt up this whole thing? She started to doubt herself for the first time.
Alexei gathered the dog’s bowls from the floor, picked up the tray and stood up. He walked to the door and bent down and used one hand to scoop up the puppy, who was waiting patiently by the door. “He need pee?”
Chara blinked herself out of her daze and looked over. “Yes, you should take him outside.”
He nodded and left the room. He had never opened the door wide enough for Chara to get a look through, but this time, carrying so many things, Chara caught a glimpse of what lay beyond: it was a living room with a big sofa, and what appeared to the wooden counters of a kitchen.
The door closed quickly and Chara sat back on the bed, sinking into a pillow. Her mind drifted off, and she seemed to float up, out of her body.
She saw herself on Haad Rin beach. It was night time. She was at a party.
There were lots of people around her. She looked around for Jak and Chara, but they were nowhere to be seen.
Suddenly, there was a flash, and her hands wrapped around someone’s neck. She saw her hand reach behind her. When it came back around, it was clutching a small, silver gun. It glistened in the moonlight.
She saw herself pull the trigger. There was a loud bang that echoed across the beach.
Then in slow motion, she saw the man drop, and the blood flow in a thick, maroon river, down the sand, towards the lapping waves.