Excerpt: A Hostage by Charlotte Mendel

Ultimately a post-modern fable, A Hostage cleverly plays with perceptions of truth while exploring the concept of imprisonment, the wider impacts of social media, and challenging widely held assumptions about fame. A Hostage probes Western political naiveté along with novelistic hubris as it, often hilariously, explores the relationship of the individual to society. Published by Inanna Publications.

Consciousness seeps around the edges of my brain. I try to ask my husband for water, but before I can open my mouth, exhaustion overtakes me again.

The second time consciousness knocks, I’m determined to stay awake. I struggle to open my eyes; complete darkness rewards me. A frisson of fear courses through me, and I quickly close my eyes again. A raging headache throttles my brain, and my dry lips stick together; I slide my hand across the mattress. Where the hell is my husband?

Of course, I’m not at home. I am… focus… my brain feels so heavy and stupid.

I’m in a hotel room! Like, duh. I guess that’s what they call a blackout; how much did I drink, anyway? Yesterday had been a great day: hanging out in Dahab in the Sinai, swimming, getting stoned with tourists (predominantly white) and locals (predominately brown).

My memory floods back as my brain comes to life.

I had left my family in Israel and grabbed a few days to do a solo trip in the Sinai. Our yearly holiday is always spent with my husband’s family in Egypt; the problems start on the first night and deteriorate from there. His mother circles around the table, serving. I don’t judge; different folks, different strokes. Making us happy makes her happy. The problem starts when Adam forgets he’s Canadian and launches a whisper-hiss competition in bed.

“I can’t believe you didn’t help my mother; she’s getting pretty old.”

“You help her.”

“You know she won’t let me.”

“The kids can help her.”

“I’m asking you to be an example to Rebecca.”

“By reinforcing Egyptian sexism?”

This was the point when whispers escalated to hisses. Of course, I ended up helping my aging mum-in-law and exemplifying misogyny. But this year I actually convinced Adam that I deserved compensation for two weeks of cooking and cleaning, while he sat around smoking and playing cards. So I popped over to the Sinai by myself for a couple of days. I remember lying against the carpets in the restaurant last night, realizing that whatever happened in my life, I would never be happier than I was at that moment. Two wonderful children, a good husband, a ninety-year-old mother who was also my best friend. A fucked-up, miserable human being, surrounded by love and fortune. How did that happen?

And then the Jewish part of my mind kicked in: when will the other shoe drop?

I sit up cautiously, pressing the pain in my head with my palm to hold it at bay. Praise the thoughtful hotel maids, there is a big bottle of water and a glass by my bed. I fill it and drink, again and again.

The horrible throbbing in my head seems to recede a little and I look around the hotel room. Surely there’d been a queen-sized bed? My single bed stands in the corner of a square, plain room. There is a door beyond the foot of my bed and another in the corner opposite. A desk and chair squat in front of a window, supporting my carry-on. I’m surprised to note that there are also several shelves of books. I totter to the door at the foot of my bed and open it to reveal a small bathroom equipped with toilet, shower, sink, and mirror. Just what I need.

Perhaps not. The mirror reveals a ghastly face, with black mascara streaking my cheeks. I retrieve my toiletry bag from my carry-on and wash thoroughly. It is wonderful to rinse the nasty taste from my mouth.

I walk over to the window, catching my breath against the force of the sun scorching through it. Dunes and large hills covered with sand-coloured rock stretch in every direction. Below is a parking lot–sized cement floor, surrounded by a high, wire fence. Buildings dot the area, and a group of men march in formation toward my building. They are in army uniform. They have brown faces and black hair. Moustaches.

A tremor of fear sweeps through my body. What is going on?

I close my eyes tight, wishing myself back in bed, ’round about the time before I woke up properly. I turn toward the shelves of books, seeking answers, or comfort. All my favourites.

Jane Austen. The Brontës. Dickens.

A Hero.

Turn Us Again.

Reversing Time.

My books. A wave of panic rears its ugly head and strikes at me; I rush to the second door and pull frantically at the knob, knowing already that it’s locked. Somehow I’m on the floor, struggling to breathe.

There is a gentle knock at the door. I freeze; they are coming for me. I am in an army camp somewhere in the Middle East. They know about my Israeli passport. They’ll think I’m complicit in Palestinian suffering. I will be tortured and raped and murdered.

The knock comes again. Why the fuck are they knocking (are they waiting for me to invite them in so they can torture and murder me)? I leap to my feet and begin to search feverishly for a weapon, grabbing and discarding the plastic water bottle, darting into the bathroom and seizing

my face-cleansing lotion, which happens to come in a relatively hefty glass bottle. Positioning myself to one side of the door so it will hide me as it opens, I raise the bottle, ready to smash it over a head.

There is a final, peremptory knock, and the door opens slowly.

Whoever it is doesn’t advance into the room, although he’s saying something in Arabic. The few Arabic words in my possession are mostly swear words, served up during Hebrew language lessons along with please and thank you. Curse words stolen by the Israelis, along with everything else. Hey, if you’re going to resurrect a 3,000-year-old language, you’ve gotta revamp it a little bit. I weigh my options. I could say “Shukran” to thank him for the food, or “Coos emek”—your mother’s cunt, to curse him for my captivity. It really is an impossible decision.

Charlotte Mendel is a traveller, an author, a parent, a farmer, a teacher and an environmental activist. Her two published adult novels have both won prizes; her first YA novel, Reversing Time was published by Guernica Editions in 2021. Charlotte has lived in Nova Scotia for 20 years and raised two wonderful children; this year she left her partner of 32 years and is in transit—her first destination is Europe. www.charlottemendel.com