are you just tuning in? Start here with the Intro
VI. Aeon Mall
“What bank you have?”
I look up and Sunny has both of my debit cards in his hands. He is holding them up in the air as if to catch the light from the street so he can read them. Funny, I don’t remember giving them to him, but I guess at some point I must have. It doesn’t bother me that maybe he’s memorizing the numbers on my cards. I‘m already too far gone now.
The tuk tuk trip seems to take forever. We pass by several ATMs along the way, so they must be taking me to a specific one, or to be sold into sex slavery, or to a back alley ditch.
We arrive in a big parking lot of vehicles outside a shopping mall. The sign says Aeon Mall. I find out later that Aeon Mall is the largest shopping center in Cambodia.
“Come on Ms. Niko, we have no time to spare now.” Sunny is already out of the tuk tuk and Mie is pulling my arm to get me out too. I don’t remember what we are doing here, but the feeling of panic hasn’t subsided. We speed walk through the parking lot to the entrance. There is a uniformed officer standing there, looking right at me.
I could call for help. I could run and scream. Surely I would be saved, surely. But I don’t. Instead I hear a voice in my head telling me to play the part.
I straighten up. I shake the terror off again. I casually flip my hair. I link arms with Mie like we are old friends. Like there’s a perfectly harmless and pleasant reason a young American woman is hurrying to a set of ATMs with a desperate looking Cambodian couple.
It feels vital that no one walking by us catches a slight hint of what’s really going on. I exaggerate my friendliness towards Mie. Force myself to have a carefree expression on my face. It feels like I’d rather die than let anyone suspect foul play.
I guess I must have caught Stockholm Syndrome at some point during the tuk tuk ride.
“Aeon Mall is closing in ten minutes” says a robotic voice over the loudspeaker. My eyes catch a clock, it’s 9:50pm. “We must walk faster” says Mie, skipping ahead. There are people everywhere. Families with shopping bags trying to get their children out the doors and into their cars. People dressed in business suits talking on headsets. I pray that no one notices me and at the same time I pray someone somehow notices me. Yet I do nothing at all to draw attention to myself.
“I have to pee” I whisper to Mie. “I don’t feel good.” I realize I haven’t peed in hours. I haven’t been drinking water either because I’m too paranoid it might be drugged. Mie starts talking to me about urinary tract infections. She thinks I may have one if my stomach hurts. She’s touching my lower stomach to show me where it would hurt and my vision starts to blur. There are too many passing faces, too many colors, too many noises and smells and feelings. Too many feelings that don’t make sense and thoughts that loop in and out without ever going anywhere.
We pass a Starbucks and an Adidas and a Levi’s. I almost step on two little boys. They are arguing in a frenzied alien language. Everyone is dressed in the latest fashion. Nobody looks poor. It’s a far cry from the Cambodia I experienced earlier today. I remember all the children living on the street. I remember the naked babies I saw climbing through trash piles in search of food. I remember the smears on their legs and torsos. The snot coming out their little noses. Nothing makes sense. Nothing ever makes sense.
We get to a row of ATMs but all I see is a water fountain. I let go of Mie and make a bolt but Sunny catches my arm and yanks me back. I am surprised by his force and he can tell.
“Sorry Ms. Niko, I don’t want to scare you but Mr. Aziz is a very powerful man. He takes Blackjack very, very seriously.” He whispers, “Epol told me he has many guns.”
Sunny instructs me to use the second ATM machine from the left but I don’t want to. “Don’t worry, I’m your bodyguard”, he puffs his chest up. For some reason, I don’t feel the slightest bit protected. He takes my card out of my hand and puts it in the machine.
“Pin! Pin number! Hurry!”
I don’t want to, but I watch myself enter my pin number and watch all four asterisks pop up on the screen sealing my fate. It’s like I no longer exist in my body. Like I’ve floated all the way to the top of the 4th floor and I can see the entire mall beneath me. I watch my ant-sized body take out $1,000 from the ATM machine.
I zoom back into myself. I look into Sunny’s eyes. “No. I don’t have any more.” It isn’t that much of a lie either. I’m fresh out of graduate school. I don’t have a job. I’m backpacking through Southeast Asia because it’s cheaper than renting a room in San Francisco. I don’t have a savings.
He tries to take more out anyway. My bank denies the request. $1,000 is the daily maximum withdrawal limit.
“Other card! Other card!”
We go through the same process. Sunny demands my pin number, I enter it even though I tell myself not to, he takes out $1,000, he demands more, my bank denies the second request. Sunny gives me my $2,000, I hide it in the pouch around my neck and put it under my shirt. This $2,000 was practically all I had in the world. I needed it.There is no way I’m giving this money up, I tell myself. Besides, it’s just for show. For reserve. “One hour.” It’s fine.
All of a sudden we’re back in the tuk tuk and I’m crying. Bawling my eyes out. Slobbering. Begging them not to make me go back to their house. Begging them to just let me go on the side of the road. I can feel every tear explode on my lap like bombs of desperation and helplessness.
Sunny and Mie appear shocked and confused at my outpouring of emotions.”Ms. Niko, we are your friends! Your first friends in Cambodia. Your only friends in Cambodia! We are only here to help you.”
“Well you aren’t helping me. I’m crying. I want to go home. I said no, I said I don’t want to play Blackjack. I said I don’t have money. I said I want to leave, I said I want to go h-”
“-but Ms. Niko, now you are going to win!”
They keep saying that, but what does that really mean?
Assuming I somehow win, Mr. Razak Aziz is just going to lose then walk out into the night without his $40,000? Then Epol is just going to hand me $20,000 and say see you next time, kid? Then what? I just hop a bus to Siem Reap with that much cash in my pocket? I can’t get on a plane with that kind of money. I can’t waltz into a bank and make a deposit. How would I ever get it home? How would I ever get away with this? It’s unthinkable.
But I’d be lying if I said there isn’t some tiny part of me that feels a little thrill from the prospect of winning. Maybe I will somehow get out of this alive, and I’ll just keep traveling the world for a few months and I won’t have to worry about money for awhile, and all my problems will magically go away, right? It’s fine.
“Then you can help your family, your mom and your brothers. Maybe even help your sick father. You can start to pay off your student loans!” I told them earlier I was raised by a single mom, that my dad was an alcoholic who abandoned us, that he had lung cancer. “You smoke too much, not good for you Ms. Niko”, Mie had said. I told them how I had to take out over $70,000 in loans to afford living in California while getting my M.A. degree. How I have dedicated most of my life to helping others. How social justice and equality is the most important thing to me. How all I want to do is make a tiny little difference.
Now they are using what I had shared with them about my personal life to coerce me into finishing the game. They are tugging on the right heartstrings, cuz I am too broken to even fight back. I realize I’ve failed again to escape, though escaping is the only thing on my mind. I’m paralyzed by fear. That was probably my last chance to get out of this. Why didn’t I run away? Why didn’t I yell for help? I have no answers but just keep clutching the pouch with my $2,000 for dear life. For reserve.
Epol calls Sunny on a shitty Nokia cell phone and Sunny hands it to me. I’m still crying. Epol assures me everything is fine, that they would never harm me, that I am safe in their home, that they would never trick me, that I am just a nice smart American girl that happened to be interested in Blackjack and now we’ve found ourselves with a huge opportunity to better our lives.We’re taking from the rich to give to the poor. We’re the good guys.
I don’t believe a word he says.
I’m hyperventilating. I’m sweating. My ears are ringing with heat. My heart is pounding. It sounds like the four horsemen of the apocalypse. My vision turns into dark tunnels. I can’t breathe. I can’t see. I can’t. I can’t….
I find myself in a hazy dream world. A flashback. My first time in Asia. Before I was Ms. Niko. It’s 2010 and I’m sitting in lotus position wearing the most exquisitely pattern fabric. I see thick matted dreadlocks of hair hanging down from my head and intricate mehndi designs covering my hands. My skin is bronzed by a scorching sun that knows no clouds. It’s 116 degrees. I’m in a dimly lit room in a small village deep in Gujarat, India. The room is filled with smoke and incense. Dusty books and colorful beads. The Brahman astrologer looks at me wide-eyed. He says,”someday before you are too old you will come into unexpected wealth”.
“What? Like you mean I’ll win the lottery?” I scoffed. There is no wealth in my family. No unknown great aunts to leave me an inheritance, no hopes of stumbling across a buried treasure.
“I can not say for sure. But unexpected riches will make their way into your life. You may not see it directly, but you have earned this wealth in a different lifetime.”
I cling to this memory with every molecule in my being.
NEXT: VII. #ForReserve