This was originally publish in Bare Bone #5.
The Unappeasable Host
by Jeff Somers
IT WAS hot, was all he knew. Hotter than he’d ever imagined it possible, dozing on a couch in his apartment, sullenly sweaty when the city temperature hit eighty. Eighty! He prayed for eighty degrees, now. He thought it must be at least 125 degrees. He thought he must be melting, slowly, some horrible former man, running away like candle wax. He supposed he was knee-deep in culture and ought to be absorbing something meaningful, but all he knew was that he was hotter than he’d ever been in his life. He didn’t think there were numbers to describe the amount of kinetic energy in the air.
He swabbed his forehead with a rag and stared around at the rest of the group. He was on an elephant. The whole tour group was riding the huge beasts. They smelled, he thought, like rotten beef jerky.
“Where are we going again?”
Pong, their guide, turned his small, tan head slightly, and said something in his language of marble-mouthed vowels. Then he turned away again. “We go to visit the Hill Tribes.” he said. “These people still live by ancient tradition.”
These people still live by begging from tourists, he thought icily.
In the tour literature, this part of the trip had seemed admirably fascinating. Over beers and burgers with his friends, that part had seemed the best part. On elephants! In the jungle! Visiting tribes that clung to thousand-year-old ways and rules!
He looked around sourly. He was melting onto an elephant and would have the pungent scent of sweated-on rotten beef jerky following him into the afterworld. He swatted at flies and took a drink from his water bottle, wishing he’d stayed in the hotel today, played sick, and just laid on his bed with the ceiling fan on high, misering his strength.
The other members of the tour seemed to be enjoying themselves, as far as he could tell. He didn’t see how it was possible, but they were chatting and laughing, awkwardly perched on their own elephant couriers. An elderly woman noticed him looking at them all and waved.
“Having fun, Harry?” she called out.
He managed a small smile and waved back. “Can’t wait to meet the Hill People!” he sang back, thinking She’s fucking eighty years old and she’s bouncing along on an elephant in 1000-degree heat. She’s senile. When he was eighty, he planned to spend most of his energy devising new ways to get things from the fridge without getting up from his bed. Still, he had to admit, privately, that she was amazing. She looked fifty, and had more energy than most of the others, who were all easily forty years younger. Her enthusiasm, though, annoyed him. He just wanted to go home, and it felt like she was single-handedly pushing them all forward, into the Hills, carrying ridiculous gifts for the beggar children who would swarm them.
“Christ,” he whispered to himself. “I’ll bet a game’s on channel five back home, right now.”
Pong turned to grin at him. “You want to go home, Mr. Harris?”
Mistah Harrie, he pronounced it. Harry still couldn’t tell if their guide was making fun of him or was just having trouble with consonants. He gave him a neutral look and shook his head. Pong was smart, so Harry suspected he was being made fun of. He knew he had a reputation as the dead weight of the group, the sourpuss. It embarrassed him, because the trip had cost so much, and so much effort had gone into its planning – to come and be so thoroughly unhappy made him feel like a whiner, especially since he was alone in his unhappiness. That had made him grit his teeth and stick with it -though he could have simply kept his hotel and plane reservations and left the tour. That would have meant more money after what he’d spent on the tour, though.
“I’m just as happy here.” he asserted to Pong, who nodded amiably and turned around.
Harry sagged in the saddle behind their guide. Elephants! He hadn’t expected elephants, though everyone said it was right there in the brochure. He supposed it had been. It didn’t mean he’d expected it.