My six week trip to Southeast Asia was fueled by a desire to revitalize and recharge my life. As part of the yoga and meditation retreat I’m attending this week, I’m practicing creative writing every day, one of my favorite ways to activate my mind and something I’ve lost touch with over the years. Yesterday I wrote a short story, mad-lib style. I asked the other retreat-goers to provide me with a location, time of year, character names, and three objects that I would have to weave into a story. Once they gave me a list, my writing began. What follows is the raw version of that story, mostly unedited. I hope you enjoy.
Time of year: Christmas
Character names: Pepito and Selina
Object: Motorbike, pineapple, octopus
It started with a cup of coffee. Noor took a slow, long sip from her chipped mug, and closing her eyes, recalled her mother’s kitchen back home in Pakistan, which always smelled like herbs and spices. And coffee. The coffee was Noor’s favorite smell in the world. Her mother always had a fresh pot brewing, morning or evening. “It’s welcoming and warming,” her mother would say, who enjoyed being prepared for the unexpected visitor or just casual conversation with her daughter before school or after a long day.
Noor exhaled, bringing herself back to this moment. She pushed her long black hair behind her ears and stared down at the hundreds of papers sprawled across her table. The morning sun was just beginning to pour into the window. Her flat was outside of São Paulo, a quiet and modest home where she could escape the craziness of Brazilian city life. This was another early morning for Noor, positing the accumulation of data, interviews, and maps. She was a medical researcher sent to Brazil to investigate rumors of a new form of medicine that was curing cases of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, around the world. For the past two years, she was tracking down known diagnoses of ALS that had committed to a new medicine from Brazil that was claimed to reverse the disease. Two years of work, and no one could definitively point her the right direction of this medicine. There were knowns and unknowns, just like any mystery, but Noor was ready for a breakthrough. She’d scoured the entire country, from the northernmost regions of the Amazon rainforest, to the Tríplice Fronteira in the south. The end had to be in sight.
About an hour later, Noor’s colleague and friend Selina burst into the apartment.
“Today’s the day! Are you ready?” she asked, energy bubbling.
“I’ve been looking over these maps and it looks like we have no other options. So yea, I guess so,” Noor replied concededly.
A giant map of Brazil sat in front of the two women, covered in X’s, signifying regions that were definitively not home to this mystery medicine. One giant circle remained unchecked: the Atlantic Ocean. Not only was surveying an entire ocean daunting, but there had been news reports of pirates up and down the Brazilian and Uruguayan coast these last few months. As much as Noor wanted answers, she was hesitant about the trip. Much of her and Selina’s research over the past two years was independent, their research was funded by a university and required periodic updates, but there were no escorts, no bodyguards, no safety mechanisms in place when they trekked into wild and remote regions of the country. Their intellect and intuition always served them well when they found themselves in dicey situations, but there’s no reasoning with pirates.
“Okay, well pack up your mess and let’s get going!” Selina barked.
Noor rolled up several maps, threw them into a rucksack, and hurried out the door with Selina in tow, who was now talking about shopping and holidays and traveling. Noor paid little attention as she put on her helmet and started up her motorbike.
She paused, shooting Selina a mischievous smile. “Do you ever stop talking?” Selina’s mouth agape with a wide smile, Noor sped off, leaving her friend in the dirt road’s dust. The two had become more than just coworkers over the years, they were best friends. A yin and yang, complementing one another in all the cliché ways best friends do.
They arrived to the port of Santos nearly two hours later and set in to their normal routine: asking questions. What is your primary export here? Have you heard of a medicine curing uncurable diseases? Have you heard of medicamento de oito pernas? Every time the girls thought they were on to something, they’d hit a dead end. The most useful information they’d gathered till now was from a woman in Lençóis who knew of the medicine, but not how it was cultivated or curated, only that it was the eight-legged medicine giving regenerative power back to severely disabled people. Both Noor and Selina immediately took this to mean scorpion or spider venom, as the rainforests of Brazil were swarming with arachnids. But it wasn’t scorpion or spider or any eight-legged land creature. This left one other option: an octopus.
So the two women traipsed throughout the port well into the night, and with no answers to show for it, they ended their day at a local pub. Selina drank beer, Noor drank pineapple juice and the two sat in perplexed silence. The only other sounds were a slight murmur in the mostly empty bar and a TV playing game show reruns.
At last, Selina looked at her watch and gasped. “Oh my gosh, my mother is going to kill me. I promised I would Skype in for family dinner! I gotta run. Talk to you tomorrow?”
Noor smiled and nodded. “Yea, definitely. Get home safely. Wish your family a Merry Christmas for me.”
Selina rolled her eyes with a smile, grabbed her bike helmet and sped out the door. Noor was a Muslim and didn’t celebrate Christmas like Selina, whose family in California was likely diving into Christmas Eve feast right about now. Noor gulped the rest of her juice and leaned back in her bar stool, watching a woman in a headdress on the television roll out a brand new washing machine to some lucky game show winner. The bartender warmly asked if she’d like another.
“I’m all set, thank you,” she replied, handing the bartender money for the beer and juice. As he walked away, Noor’s eyes fell down the bar behind the counter. A purple cooler was nestled under a few cases of beer with a hand-written label that read: Medicamento de oito pernas.
“Holy fuck!” Noor shouted.
“Everything alright, senhorita?” The bartender shouted from down the counter.
“Yes, yes. But could you come here? That cooler—what’s in it? Where did you get it from? Who did you get it from?”
“Aah, my friend Ale is a diver and works for this man who is harvesting octopus ink for medicine. He told me it’s fetching loads of money around the world. Newest craze. I’m sure it’ll be like how Americans love avocados. Everyone will want it, use it, and it’ll pass.”
“How can I find Ale?”
“He went out for a dive tonight actually. He should be back in a few days.”
“Can I rent a boat to go to him?”
“No, senhorita, it’s Christmas! No one is for hire until after the holiday. He’ll be back by then. Go home and enjoy the holiday with your family. Come back after.”
A brief moment of disgust passed through Noor’s mind. I don’t have a family, she growled to herself.
“It is extremely important that I talk to Ale as soon as possible. I know how to use a boat. Could I rent one of your skiffs?” Noor pleaded.
The bartender only shook his head, leaving Noor huffing to herself in frustration. It was then that the two remaining bar patrons, both young men around Noor’s age, approached her. Their smiles were kind and they spoke in Australian accents.
“Hey, we heard you wanted to meet Ale? We’re headed out to meet him now actually. We’ve got our own boat, if you don’t mind sleeping on a cot. We’ll give you privacy. Just thought we’d offer. You sound like you’re in a bind.”
The men seemed friendly, they claimed to know Ale, and this would be just like renting a boat and captain. Noor looked at the bartender for some kind of validation. He shrugged.
“Okay,” Noor said.
The two men, known as Paul and Marcus, were adventure junkies who left Australia years ago, chasing waves around the globe. They settled in Santos, not known for its surf or diving, but because they’d landed a great job working with Ale. The three of them worked for a man named Pepito, who was outsourcing this medicine for top dollar around the globe, which was supposedly curing incurable diseases, not just ALS. Noor hanged on every word and told them all about her years of research, about Selina, about this breakthrough that now seemed imminent.
“I just can’t wait to tell the world about this miraculous cure!” she exclaimed. After some laughs and smiles, the men set up a cot below deck for Noor, saying they were happy to sleep under the stars up above.
That night Noor had a dream about her mother. She was young and her face was full of life. The two were walking through their local market back home in Pakistan, Noor was just a child, holding her mother’s hand. She kept telling her mother she had something important to tell her, but when she tried to speak no words came out. As they continued to walk, the market turned into jungle. Selina was now holding her mother’s other hand. Noor’s mother was growing older, weaker. Noor kept trying to speak, to tell her that it was going to be alright, that she had a cure, but still no words came from her mouth. Her mother’s grip loosened and let go of Noor’s hand, her face now gaunt. Noor begged Selina to help, but she just shook her head saying she didn’t know how. Silently screaming, Noor woke up with a jolt. It was morning.
Walking up to deck, Noor noticed another boat tied up next to Paul and Marcus’s. Noor followed the voices to a small crowd of men all perched on the other boat. Paul and Marcus were among them.
“Morning!” Noor shouted out. “Are one of you Ale? I’m so excited to meet you and your team!”
“No, chica, we did you one better,” Paul replied. “We’ve brought you Pepito.”
Without a second thought, Noor hoisted herself onto the adjoining boat, hand extended to meet Pepito.
“It is such an honor and pleasure. How did you discover this? How have you been outsourcing? How is the ink harvested? When do you –” Noor’s breath cut short as she saw two men standing behind Pepito wielding AK-47s. She looked from the guns to Pepito to Paul and Marcus to Pepito again. Pepito’s face was firm and emotionless.
“My business will stay my business,” he said.
A hand came from behind Noor with a cloth tucked into the palm. It covered her nose and mouth. All quickly went black.
A few hours later, Noor came to and cautiously opened her eyes to take in her surroundings. She was propped up in the corner where the stern and port side met, her hands tied behind her back. All she could hear was engine as they sped through the water. She counted five men on deck, four with guns, one was Pepito. She looked around and could see no other boats, but in the distance she could see land. They were speeding away from it. Her mind racing through possibilities and exit strategies, the decision seemed obvious in the moment: she had to jump overboard. Noor scooted herself forward, settled onto her knees and toes, and rolled over the side of the boat into the water, neck and back first.
The water was colder than she expected and the salt was already stinging her eyes as she tumbled underwater in the boat’s wake. She stayed under as long as she could. When she surfaced, the boat was still zooming straight ahead. She hoped it would be a while before they noticed she was gone.
This was such a dumb decision, Noor kept saying to herself. These waters were full of sharks and her hands were tied. Land was a mile or more away. But staying on the boat would definitely not have increased her chances for survival she concluded. First thing’s first, she thought. Get my hands in front of me. With nothing graceful about it, Noor slipped underwater, tucking her knees tight to her chest, forcing her tied wrists to loop under her feet, bringing her arms from behind her back to the front. Great, that wasn’t so hard. Now, land.
She swam as long as she could, frog-kicking, arms struggling as long as she could. After an hour, Noor’s body was giving in to exhaustion. She tried floating, but noticed her body temperature rapidly decreasing now that she’d stopped moving. Fuck.
A boat motor hummed in the distance. Fuck again. Noor knew it would be the pirates, retracing their steps now that they’d noticed she was missing. She tried to make herself as small as possible, and waited for the boat to pass. Instead, it came straight for her, closer and closer. Soon she could make out that it wasn’t Pepito and his thugs after all. The boat’s motor kicked into lower gear and pulled up within five meters of Noor. A young man in board shorts poked his head over the side.
“G’day!” he shouted in a thick Australian accent. “Are you diving? Where’s your craft?”
Noor didn’t answer.
“Uuuuh, English? Do you speak English?” he stammered. “You know, you don’t look like you’re diving. Here,” he tossed a safety float into the water.
Reluctantly, Noor grabbed hold. She had no other choice. The young man easily hoisted her out of the water. He was much bigger close up. Noor had barely gotten a good look at him when her legs collapsed underneath her.
“Oh shit, your hands. Ah fuck. Did Pepito do this?”
Noor’s eyes shot up with menace to meet the young man’s.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” the man said, pulling a knife out of a cabinet on deck. He cut the ties around her wrists.
“Okay, so you probably don’t want to trust me right now, and I’m going to explain why you can, but right now, we should probably get as far away from here as possible,” he hopped over some scuba gear laying on the deck and started up the engine. He jerked back to look at Noor and hopped back toward her. He squatted down, extended a hand, and said, “I’m Thomas by the way.”
Noor couldn’t help but smile. “I’m Noor.”
“Noor! Light! Beautiful name. Let me get you some water.”
He handed Noor a thermos then bounded back to the wheel, speeding them toward shore. As Noor regained some strength and confidence, she made her way toward Thomas. Seeing her, he quickly moved some towels and tshirts draped over the seat next to the captain’s chair without saying a word.
“So tell me why I can,” Noor forced out.
“Can what? Oh! Trust me, ya? Ha well it’s a long story. I moved here a few year ago with some buddies—”
“Paul and Marcus?”
“See you’ve met them too. And we heard about a diving gig that paid really well. All we had to do was explore the reefs and find a specific kind of octopus, collect it, bring it to the ship, wait for one of the biologists to do something to it, then throw it back in the water. Didn’t take me long to realize what we were doing was completely illicit. I thought we were helping research. I’m an engineer, not a biologist, so I thought it was all good. But as you’ve noticed, Pepito’s only in it for himself and the money. Paul and Marcus were willing to stay on board, and I wanted nothing to do with it.”
Thomas continued to tell Noor of his dealings with the pirates, how he learned about the ink harvesting, how Pepito was part of an organized criminal network that had infiltrated various markets with this eight-legged medicine. He managed to leave the network because he had built a friendly relationship with Pepito, and agreed never speak of the business to anyone again. Though it didn’t sit well with Thomas, he agreed that the alternative was much less favorable. He was now working in São Paulo as a sustainability engineer with the state government, and only took his boat out on holidays when he had the free time.
The two pulled into a small port just north of Santos, a sleepy-looking fishermen’s village. Thomas took Noor to a small lodge on shore, tucked in an alley behind a bait and tackle shop. Inside was neatly ordained with an Australian flag, surfing posters, and even a photo of Thomas, Marcus, and Paul. Noor sat down on a couch as Thomas talked to her from across the room in the tiny kitchen as he prepared food. It was well after dinner time, but Noor was starving.
“I bought this flat in case I want to get an early start or have a late night on the water, yea, but don’t feel like driving back to the city. It’s quiet here, everyone’s friendly, but keeps to themselves. It’s my private refuge…So what are you going to do now?”
“I’ve got a lot to think over. But most importantly, I’ve got to get this information to the university and INTERPOL. They’ll know what to do. I think I’m mostly still in shock.”
“I can’t imagine. I’m so sorry this happened to ya,” Thomas said, walking over to Noor with a mug which was visibly steaming.
Noor quizzically looked at the mug. “Did you just make coffee at 10pm?”
Thomas gave Noor a big smile.
“Yea. I’ve just always thought it’s welcoming and warming.”
Noor smiled and clasped the mug between her hands.
It ended with a cup of coffee.