Ben and David exchanged a glance that reflected years of growing up together, sharing hidden jokes, conspiring against parents and agreed, but Ben kept the guide book safely in his bag just in case.
They backtracked and took the highway north, watching the land change. The fields and crops and empty plains gave way to more rugged terrain; mountains loomed out of the sky and disappeared; the road deteriorated until it was only a narrow lane.
The heat became worse, not just sun striking the roof of the car, but a deeper denser heat, a humidity they'd never experienced before, a rottenness in the air that crept into your bones and brain, making your eyes water and the breath die in your throat. Sweet potato and maize fields stretched out either side of them, dry and willowy in the early-evening heat haze. Termite mounds stood ten feet tall, skyscrapers among the cornstalks and grasses, like totem poles from another race, the tenements of a forgotten people.
The town of Masindi appeared out of nowhere. One minute they were driving the dirt road, yellow fields bordering them on both sides, and the next they were on a dusty corrugated street with white single-storey buildings, women carrying baskets on their heads, kids and more kids, the whole African movie-trailer cliché right before their eyes.
They stopped for beer and food at a tiny stall still bearing the name of the Asian proprietor who'd established it before being expelled by Idi Amin in '30. The old man, the new owner, served themwarmNiles, the slogan 'The true reward of progress' making David chuckle as he swigged the sweet beer.
They watched cars go by leaving trails of dust in the air. Faroff volcanoes shimmered on the horizon like things unsubstantial and contingent. Children came and held their palms out, smiled, laughed and danced on the spot as Ben handed them money.
They sat in the rear of the cafe washing the dust and heat from their bodies, glad for the stillness after eight hours of bad road. Murchison wasn't far, another few hours' drive north; they'd stay in Masindi for the night, it was decided, and head there tomorrow.
'I still can't believe it.' David was sitting under a palm tree, peeling the label off a bottle of Nile. 'Being here, I mean.'
'Remember how much we talked about it?' Ben leant forward, spilling ash over the table. It had been their only topic of discussion these last few months, cramming for exams, finishing their dissertations, the horizon of the holiday the one bright thing to look forward to, the question of where to go burning in their minds.
David finished off his beer. 'The three of us here, together.' He paused so they could all savour this. A shadow briefly crossed his face. He stared at the thin tapering road. 'Who knows where we'll be this time next year.'
'I think Jack's got a pretty good idea,' Ben smiled, his teeth shining white in the sun.
Jack looked off into the distance, the volcanoes smoky and out of focus like cheap back-projections in a pre-war movie. 'I wish I did,' he replied, thinking back to the day, three weeks ago, when he'd broken the news. At first, he'd wanted to keep it secret, alternately proud and a little ashamed of his good luck, the way you always are with close friends. But they'd got drunk one evening, another in a long line of housemates' birthday parties, and he told them about the deal: three albums, a decent amount of money, a cool London-based record label.
'I wish it felt real. I wish it felt like something I could celebrate, but I keep thinking I'll come back and find a letter apologising for the mistake they've made.' Jack focused on the table, the empty green bottles like soldiers standing silent sentry.
Excerpted from A Dark Redemption by Stav Sherez. Copyright © 2013 by Stav Sherez. Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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