On January 22, 2086, exactly ten days before my eighth birthday, the president went on television, like presidents usually do after winning elections, and announced that very soon everyone could go anywhere they wanted with the help of a teleportation device. I didn’t know what he was talking about, but Bà Ngoại got really excited, the crinkles of her eyes scrunching together as her mouth stretched into an almost toothless smile. She kept grabbing my shoulder to balance herself, like I was a cane. She’d point at the image of the machine when it flashed on the screen. After that announcement, she pulled all the government brochures about the teleportation devices out of the mail, leaving the rest for Má and Ba to sort after they came home from work. She spent hours reading them with baby Xuyên in her lap. Even though she didn’t know much English, she knew some words that I hadn’t learned yet, like “liability” and “atomization.”
There is still that stack of brochures and flyers on our kitchen counter. Each one has a gold government seal on it, the one with a horse, a ship, and an airplane. After Bà Ngoại left, Má and Ba left the pile alone. Má sometimes dusts it, and sometimes I do, too.
On February 22, 2086, eight men in white jumpsuits came in giant trucks and rolled one big machine onto our block. I think it was supposed to fit only one person, but it looked like maybe three could fit. That was what Bà Ngoại said, even about the apartments in our neighborhood. The machine was taller than Bà Ngoại, way taller. It reminded me of port-a-potties, the outside bathrooms I learned about on the projector. The white jumpsuit men wrapped caution tape all around to keep us out while they ran tests during the day. In the afternoons and evenings, a security guard stood outside of it. We were the first neighborhood to get the machine. Bà Ngoại said it was because our neighborhood was poor and this could help people go to work fast.
From that day on, Bà Ngoại woke me and Khánh up early every morning, just before the sun came up. She took Xuyên in her arms, and made us go with her to the teleportation device, pointing the way up the broken asphalt and the line of tall, grey buildings with her chin. We walked up to the device, which looked small but bright next to the apartment complexes around it. The white jumpsuit men always came by in the morning to run tests on the machine, and Bà Ngoại liked to watch them. She dragged her clogs against the sidewalk. The sound echoed in the empty streets: Shh. Shh. Shh.
She shuffled in circles around the machine, not caring if she interrupted the white jumpsuit men’s work. They mostly ignored her, pressing buttons on a pad outside the machine while she stood really close to them, peeking over their shoulders. She spoke aloud about the machine as if they understood. “There are holes for you to breathe.” “The paint is the color of cucumber skin.” “You pull the lever like in Las Vegas.”
I had a lot of questions about how it worked. Can you really go anywhere? Are the machines dangerous? What happens to your body? But I was too shy to ask the men, and Bà Ngoại never said anything directly to us. Khánh said it was because Bà Ngoại liked to talk, not discuss.
Má complained that Bà Ngoại visited the machine too much, leaving Má to prepare dinner alone while Bà Ngoại took walks to the end of our block. “She doesn’t even speak English, but the security guard talks to her anyway,” Má said during one dinner. Bà Ngoại didn’t respond. She scooped a big spoonful of rice into her mouth and acted as if no one had said anything.
I remember the night she disappeared. It was the end of April, after the last petal of the last magnolia flower fell off the tree at the end of our block. Má tried to teach Xuyên to say her own name and Xuyên giggled the whole time. She kept repeating, “Má.” We had steamed broccoli and hardboiled eggs with fish sauce for dinner. Bà Ngoại said that in New Vietnam this was peasant food, something that can be made quickly and feed lots of people.
Bà Ngoại started shaking her head, the clip in her silver bun wiggling. “Here, broccoli is expensive and it is no good,” saying only the “no good” in English. I think she liked to say it because those words were easy to pronounce perfectly.
Khánh asked why broccoli was no good here. Bà Ngoại starting chewing and paused for so long I thought she didn’t hear the question. “It is no good. The stems and tops are very big but they go soft too fast. And it’s too sweet. I like Việt broccoli. The stems are small and strong and bitter and take time to chew.” She stabbed a stem with her fork but didn’t put it to her mouth.
I stared at my plate, wishing I had more broccoli.
After we washed and dried the dishes, Khánh reviewed my homework with me. Bà Ngoại sat next to us, flipping through a little magazine about the teleportation devices that we had gotten in the mail earlier that day. She said “wow” a lot and smiled at all the pictures. I stopped my homework to read with her for a moment. She was looking at instructions on how to use the teleportation device. They were so easy even I could understand it. There were drawings showing how someone could use the keypad outside the machine, type in a place to go, and go there. The ‘someone’ was a boxy outline of a person, like when the police on TV outline dead bodies on the street or sidewalk. Bà Ngoại used her thin, pointy pinky finger to slowly read the English. Then, all of a sudden, she slammed her magazine shut. “It’s time for bed,” she said, standing up. Khánh and I never argued with Bà Ngoại, so even though I hadn’t finished my homework, I got ready for bed.
Late into the evening, way past everyone’s bedtime, Bà Ngoại woke up and got ready. She put on her best clothes—short black linen pants, a short-sleeved brown linen shirt, and her pair of government-issued black leather clogs. She combed her hair the way she liked to do before temple, I think. We can only guess this stuff based on what we found the next day: missing clothes in her drawer, and the comb with two strands of her silver hair she left on the bathroom counter.
I imagined Bà Ngoại making her way down the block, the way she did on our morning walks. She walked slowly, but with focus, like when Khánh has to pluck rau thơm leaves, careful not to smash any of the tiny snails. Bà Ngoại did not rip the caution tape. It was untied in a way that reminded me of how she opened wrapped presents. She was always careful not to damage the ribbon or tear the paper because she wanted to save it all for later.
Once she arrived in the machine, Bà Ngoại put in her destination. Maybe like the way she used the news ticker—with her face so close to the keypad she could type with her nose. And then she pulled the lever. And then she disappeared.
Bà Ngoại did not nudge me and Khánh to wake up for our morning walk. Instead, we woke up late to the sound of Má’s footsteps going quickly up and down the hallway. Khánh and I got out of bed and heard Má calmly telling Ba to call the police. She took us with her around the block to look for Bà Ngoại. I grew a little impatient with her. Why wasn’t she running? I tried to walk faster but Má pulled me back by my arm, saying she didn’t want people staring at us. Our walk felt like it lasted forever before Khánh pointed at the transportation device. Bà Ngoại’s jade medallion hung on the doorknob. That was when we all knew what Bà Ngoại had done.
It took a week before any police came because they thought we were making things up. After all, the security guards were there around the clock. It didn’t make sense to us, either, but Má thought maybe a guard was late to the second shift or something. She laughed a little as she remembered that Bà Ngoại said one guard was always complaining that the other one was “flaky,” not knowing what the word meant.
For a long time after, Má talked to anyone in uniform about the camera inside the machine. She wanted to see the tapes. The police said the cameras were not working because the machine was not supposed to be used and Bà Ngoại broke the rules, and so there was no footage. A week before, they used a video recording to capture a graffiti artist spraying “Death Machine” in beautiful neon yellow.
It has been two years since my Bà Ngoại disappeared.
Even though we can’t see her, Bà Ngoại is still here. She leaves clues for us. For example, when Má and Ba watch the news, Bà Ngoại changes the channel to the one that plays K-dramas in Vietnamese. The first time it happened, Má turned white as a ghost, threw herself to the ground, and prayed to the ceiling for forgiveness. Ba tried to appear calm, but his eyes got so big, they were like egg whites. Khánh recognized the drama. It was one they liked to watch together. In it, a man pretends to die in a car accident so he can get money from insurance. Two of his ex-lovers become detectives because they know he likes to lie. They become friends even though they hate each other at first. They try many things that do not work. The last thing they do is dress up like the ghosts of his dead relatives to get him to confess. The episode that was on the television was the last episode, the one with the confession.
“I am not who you think I am,” he repeats again and again. “I am just a man. I am not a monster,” he cries.
We all crowded around the television to watch this episode, completely quiet, except I thought I heard Má crying behind me.
One day while Khánh and I helped Má fold the rags, Má started talking. It wasn’t really to us. In fact, it looked like she was talking to the rags.
“Sometimes I am not sure if she got stuck in the machine. Maybe she just ran away. Maybe … maybe she is just dead.”
I was scared to look at Má, so I just stared at her hands folding the rags into long rectangles. It was the first time I ever thought that Bà Ngoại could be dead. I moved my body, as quietly as I could, closer to Khánh.
Bà Ngoại never talked about Ông Ngoại, and I never met him. Má only said one thing about him. She said it to me when we went shopping for my school uniform. It was kind of out of the blue.
“Your Ông Ngoại was a bad man,” she said, flipping the folded shirts to look at the sizes. “Very bad.” I stopped walking down the aisle to look at her, and she took a deep breath and looked surprised. She gave a look like the one time Khánh blurted out to her that I had broken a teacup even though Khánh had sworn not to tell.
“Anyway, I don’t want any of you to be like him or marry someone like him,” she said, wrapping a collared shirt around my neck. For the first time I thought about how Bà Ngoại used to be married. I wanted to know what he did so I could make sure not to be like him or marry or even be friends with someone like him. Before I could ask my questions, Má quickly grabbed the shirt and walked to the next aisle, her clogs stomping so loud they echoed. She then began to explain how to look for quality fabric.
Sometimes, we find candy wrappers all around the kitchen, the ones for the black sesame caramels she likes so much. Bà Ngoại always said those candies were almost like the real thing, that back in New Vietnam candy was sticky, chewy, crunchy.
At first, Má worried that the small messes were a sign of Bà Ngoại in a bad way. She worried Bà Ngoại was getting old and forgetful. But now she laughs because she knows Bà Ngoại left the wrappers in places she would look, like on the handle of the rice container, or next to the tea kettle, or in the belly of a silver spoon. It’s nice to hear Má’s laugh, the one that starts from her nose and escapes from her mouth in one short “hah!” For a while I had forgotten what the sound was like.
We slowly got used to Bà Ngoại the way she was, there but without her body. After a few weeks we began to hear her, too. Her sharp laugh, a cough, or the drag of her slippers across our dark purple carpet. Shh. Shh. Shh. Baby Xuyên would sometimes laugh out of nowhere, and Má’s dark brown eyes began to focus intensely on her face, hungry for more signs of Bà Ngoại.
She was not the only one to get stuck in the machines. A similar thing happened in another neighborhood like ours in a different city. A teenager went into the machine on a dare by his friends. He had typed in “hell” as his destination. No one knows where he actually went. Later, a squirrel jumped through the open doors of device in a different city and somehow set the device off. Nine cases total. They became known as The Disappeared Nine, or the Disappeared Eight if people did not want to count the squirrel.
For a few months, many people were angry. On the news, we saw so many bodies fill the lawn in front of the White House. Many of them filled our neighborhood, too. When they came, Khánh and I peeked through the blinds of our bedroom to look at them. We loved looking. We had never seen so many different kinds of fabrics and colors and patterns and designs for shoes. We argued over which ones were the best.
We also read the signs out loud to each other. “Stop human testing.” “Justice for the Disappeared Eight.” There was one I couldn’t read, and so I asked Khánh for help. But Khánh struggled through it, too. “People of Color are not your guinea pigs,” the sign said. I watched Khánh’s eyes move across the giant vinyl banner. “Do you know what a guinea pig is?” Khánh asked me, pronouncing it “gwin-eahh.” I nodded my head. I knew because we had one as a pet in our second grade classroom. Its name was Peaches, and I hated it. It had hands with thin, fast fingers like miniature versions of Bà Ngoại’s hands. The similarity bothered me. Of course, I did not tell Khánh this.
Má and Ba went out protesting with the people too, at first. But they didn’t like it when people asked them sad questions. Má did not like crying on camera. She did not like watching the television, either.
Some of the families of the Disappeared Eight reached out to Má. Some were very nice, but they spoke languages she couldn’t speak, so they quickly lost touch. One of the moms who spoke English kept slowly shouting words at Má and tried to get her to sign papers without explaining anything. Má told me that even though the woman’s eyes looked sad and full of tears, her words were like fire bombs. Má did not want to leave the house for a long time. Even today, she leaves through the back door.
On the television, the president promised everyone he would spend lots of money to find the missing people. “Three billion dollars,” Má repeated this number over late night tea and rice crackers with our aunt and uncle. She shut off the projector and turned around to the counter where Cô Phương, Anh Vũ, and Ba sat. Khánh and I peeked in through a crack in our wall.
“You know it is not true,” Cô Phương said. “He is just waiting for people to be less angry. He did that after the drone strike in New Laos. He is doing the same thing now.” She brushed crumbs off the countertop. Má’s eyes followed her sister-in-law’s hands. She was clearly annoyed.
“He can’t forget us,” Má said. “How could he ignore such a big mistake?”
Anh Vũ interrupted. “The government chose to put the machines in our neighborhoods first because no one wants us here anyway. They act like they like us, but you see them staring at us when we pass by.”
Ba shouted at his brother, “You are reading too much propaganda.” Má touched his arm and told him to lower his voice, telling him that the children were sleeping. Khánh and I smiled at each other from behind the wall, feeling the thrill of fooling our parents.
Ba sank back onto his stool and growled. “They saved us. Our country was collapsing on itself, again, and they came in and saved us. The U.S. is paradise compared to anywhere else we could have ended up,” he said.
Anh Vũ straightened his back and scoffed. He refused to look at Ba. “They didn’t come in just to save us. If they did, it would not have been so hard to get here. They had flying cars and bullet submarines and they left us to swim with the sharks.”
“Why is Ba so mad?” I whispered to Khánh, who shrugged two bony shoulders in response. Khánh said, “He’s like that sometimes, gets mad out of nowhere. Snaps at everyone about the war. He was like that even before Bà Ngoại—” Shh. Shh. Shh.
“Chào Bà Ngoại,” Khánh and I said, reaching for each other’s hands. I thought the room got warmer. I thought I smelled Bà Ngoại’s lotion, clean and fresh like linen. I looked at the darkness, hoping for once to see at least an outline of her body, but I saw nothing. I squeezed Khánh’s fingers and got a squeeze right back.
I don’t know what was true from that conversation, but the crowds in our neighborhood got smaller. People used to leave nice notes and pretty flowers in front of the teleportation device. Monks at the nearby temple would come to clean out the dead flowers and sweep the trash, but they come less often now because all that is left is shredded caution tape and the machine. The white jumpsuit men never came to take it away.
Má and I sometimes stop by the teleportation device when we go to the grocery store together. Other times, we rush by it and she refuses to look in the direction of the machine. This one time Má and I stood for a long time close to the machine. Má brushed her thumb against the keypad, and reached for the lever—I reached my hand out to stop her, somehow thinking she would pull it and I would lose her, too.
“Don’t worry,” Má said. “I am not leaving you. I just wanted to know what Bà Ngoại was thinking.”
I hugged her. “Sometimes I can’t remember what she looks like,” I said. I couldn’t stop myself from saying it.
Má’s eyes filled with water and she held me tight. She said, “In Vietnamese, the word nhỏ means remember, but it also means, to miss. When you say I miss you, in English, it feels empty. But in Vietnamese, it has many meanings. It means …” she struggled to explain. “It means, I want you here, I wish you were here. It means, I remember you. So then, I miss you becomes, I know you are not here, so I am trying to remember you.”
I don’t know if I understood exactly what she meant at the time, but I cried, too.
This morning was the two-year anniversary of Bà Ngoại’s disappearance. I woke up at 4 A.M. to the sound of paper being torn: Má was ripping yesterday’s sheet off our daily calendar. She made bamboo soup and lit incense. She said this meal was for good luck. I waited impatiently for the incense to burn out so we could finally eat the soup. As I slurped the glass noodles into my mouth, Má told me a story.
“Xuyên was a stubborn baby and did not want to leave my body. After I gave birth to her, I was so tired. Everything hurt; my mind and my heart. Your Bà Ngoại, my Má, wanted me to get better. She wanted to make me healing soup. But the ingredients are not easy to find, many are illegal to get here. Plus, Bà Ngoại did not have enough money for the solar bus.” Má pronounced it “so-la but.” I tried not to laugh.
“Do you know what she did? She went to the so-la but stop, and she pretended to be so old and so foreign. She kept saying ‘don’t know’ each time the bus guards tried to say something. She sat in the front seat and just kept saying that. ‘Don’t know, don’t know.’ Can you imagine that?”
I nodded my head, thinking of the way Bà Ngoại would say that to me when I asked lots of questions.
Má continued. “She got on the so-la but for free because the guards didn’t know what to do, and the other passengers were getting impatient. She took the so-la but all the way to New Chinatown. You think your Bà Ngoại is not smart? She is very smart. She knows how to use the underground tunnels. She also knows how to bargain! She traded one jade charm for ginger, red beans, and two dried jujubes. She said she had to argue for five minutes and then pretended to leave. Do you know why?”
“To make them regret?” I asked.
“You’re smart like her,” Má said, smiling. I smiled really big back at her. “When she returned to the sellers, she got a fistful of rice and a clove of garlic. Garlic! And that’s not all! She demanded money for the bus fare back. They laughed at her. You know what she told them? ‘You don’t want me to stay here.’ And they gave her the bus fare.”
Má laughed her way through this story. I sat attentively, trying to keep every detail in my brain. This was the first time Má told me a story about Bà Ngoại without crying. It felt so good to listen.
I had a beautiful stack of rainbow joss paper in all shapes and designs. I was going to burn it, but Khánh reminded me that Bà Ngoại isn’t dead. Instead I took my paper offerings and drew money and clothes on them. Then I took my drawings to the teleportation device. I did not have to change the destination. It was still set to the closest city to her home village in New Vietnam.
It is getting harder for me to remember Bà Ngoại before 2086. Sometimes I think I remember a story, but Khánh tells me that it’s someone else’s memory. Sometimes I try to draw her in my mind and I’ve forgotten the shape of her nose or ears.
I was bored and dragging my feet up and down our hallway when suddenly I remembered two things about her.
The first thing:
One day I came home from kindergarten crying because my teacher told me her brother died for my family. I liked my teacher very much and wanted her to like me. When she said that, I knew she would never like me, and I felt guilty for causing his death. I told Ba, who just told me to do my homework. He looked mad so I quickly got my books out. I couldn’t stop crying, though. Halfway through a grammar exercise, Bà Ngoại came out from the kitchen and placed a peeled tangerine on the counter. She took off a slice to hand to me and said, “bỏ đi.” Throw her words away. The tangerine tasted sweet and a little salty from my tears.
The second thing:
I remembered another time when Khánh showed me pictures from a chapter of a history textbook about the Second Vietnam War. The first was a line of U.S. soldiers standing in front of a tank. Khánh and I made up names for them.
“Henry and Rebecca and Harold!” I exclaimed.
“Abigail and Robert and Trent!” Khánh said, laughing.
Another was a photo of a drone. There were close-ups of the legs. The caption talked about how much weight the drone could hold. Khánh and I calculated that it could carry us times five and a half.
Another photo was taken from above, like from an airplane. It was a photo of land with dust clouds in different spots. Khánh turned the page, and we saw an image of a Vietnamese person lying face down on the ground.
“It’s a Vietnamese person!” Khánh shouted.
“Isn’t it ‘New Vietnamese’ person?” I asked. I liked correcting Khánh.
“At the time, it was just Việt Nam, I think,” Khánh said.
“Wait, are we New Vietnamese?” I asked Khánh.
Bà Ngoại rushed over to slam the book shut. “Quên đi,” she said. “Forget it.” I jumped with surprise because I didn’t know she was listening to us. I thought she was just folding laundry.
So my strongest memories are of Bà Ngoại telling me to forget. These stories are my own. I remembered them without the help of a photograph or someone else’s story. They must be important, so I hold onto them. I repeat them to myself when I go to the bathroom, the only time I’m really alone. I refuse to write them down. I don’t even share them with Khánh.
Over time, the people and the journalists went away completely. Má still did not leave the house through the front door. When Ba thought he was alone, he sometimes read news stories about Bà Ngoại and the others. He imitated the sounds of English words he did not understand. He wrote them down on a memo pad to look up later. He noticed when they misspelled her name, and when they stopped using her name completely. Then they started getting more things wrong, like Bà Ngoại’s age and the date she disappeared.
Once, Khánh and I crouched down behind the kitchen counter and peeked enough to see what Ba was watching on his tablet. It was a nightly news special. The segment was titled, “A Refugee, Twice Removed.”
“She was an elderly refugee from New Vietnam who escaped a war-torn homeland only to attempt a return. She trespassed on government property—unaware of the consequences. Perhaps she thought she was going back in time.”
He wrote down the word “trespass,” and pulled up the term in the dictionary app. When he found the word and its meaning, he quickly shut off the tablet altogether, not bothering to finish the article. The video was not finished but he stopped the announcer mid-sentence.
“Those dog shits act like she was just an old and stupid foreigner,” he muttered to the air. “They act like she didn’t know her ass from the sky. They talk about the teen who went to hell with more goddamn respect.”
Khánh and I had to cover our mouths to stop laughing. Ba never talked like that in front of us. We ducked even lower and hurried back into our room. We buried ourselves beneath the blankets and whispered Ba’s speech to each other between giggles. We were laughing so hard, we were gasping for air. When I calmed down enough, I asked Khánh why Ba was so upset.
“I don’t know. Maybe the reporter said something wrong.” Khánh sighed, making the air under the blankets thick.
“How could it be wrong? It was on the news!” I said, my voice rising.
“Do you know what ‘trespass’ means? He looked upset when he read the definition.”
“I have no idea! It sounds like a mean word, though. Like something you call someone who is a bad person. Do you think—”
Shh. Shh. Shh.
Khánh grabbed my hand. “Chao Bà Ngoại,” I whispered. Khánh echoed me in a shaky voice. I squeezed Khánh’s hand tighter.
Khánh didn’t want to play with me, and Xuyên was taking a nap, so I played hide-and-go-seek by myself. At first, I pretended I was hiding from Khánh. That got pretty boring because Khánh was in the room and wasn’t paying attention anyway. Then I pretended I was hiding from a ghost. That got a little too scary, and difficult, because how do you hide from something invisible? So I pretended I was hiding from a drone. First I hid in places like the shower or in my closet. I thought those places would be so easy for a drone to find me. Then I started to test where else I could fit. I tried to hide my body between Má and Ba’s headboard and the wall, and then between the dresser and their open door. I was concentrating so much on testing where I could fit that I entered Bà Ngoại’s room without even thinking about it.
Bà Ngoại’s bed was really small and low to the ground. I placed my stomach against the ground and tried to shimmy my body underneath the bed. My t-shirt scrunched up and the ground was so cold against my stomach that I almost made a sound and ruined my whole game. I tried to grip the floor to pull me under, but my fingers felt something else—a small box. I paused my game to fish it out.
It was the box for her government-issued clogs. I opened it. Inside was a single picture. Of me.
Only I was different. There were banana trees in the background. My hair was really long. And I was wearing linen short pants and a short-sleeved shirt and flip-flops.
This wasn’t me … This was a picture of Bà Ngoại as a child.
I carefully placed the photo back in the box and slid the box back under the bed, following the pattern of cleared dust I had just created by reaching underneath. Then I went to the counter and started my homework early.
Khánh and I took a shortcut to school one morning because Xuyên was throwing up a lot. Khánh cleaned Xuyên while I cleaned everything around her. This made us leave a little later than we were supposed to go. Khánh offered to stay home and help around the house, but Má gave us both the cold stare of death. My face turned red with anger at Khánh because I hadn’t said anything and still got in trouble.
“Your lunches are already made and packed. You are going to school.” Without another word, Khánh and I took our lunch bags and left through the back door.
The shortcut isn’t really dangerous. It just feels that way because we pass through a part of town that no one goes to anymore. It used to be for sorting trash, and then turned into a resting place for junk. A long time ago, scientists realized junk yards were not good for the earth so they sent junk to other places. I don’t remember where.
There are rumors that people live in the rusting cars in our old junk yard, but I’ve never seen one. Bà Ngoại never let us go there. She was very strict about it. I thought of her when we stepped into the junkyard.
I was still really sleepy. Taking care of baby vomit made me feel more tired than usual, and so I was slow to move. I had trouble keeping up. Khánh really hated being late and rushed ahead of me. After a minute, Khánh stomped back in my direction, grabbed my hand, and rushed us both through the field. My lunch bag bounced against the ground. I noticed a white car covered in dust, the kind of car that big families used to drive. I know this from our history textbook, from the chapter on transportation. This chapter calls the Disappeared Eight “an unfortunate mistake.”
I almost sent Khánh and me crashing down when I stopped to look at something on the car. There was a message written with a finger on the back window. I thought it said, “WISH ME,” and in that moment I was sure Bà Ngoại had written it.
Khánh lifted me up and grabbed my hand again as we both ran our way to school. I told Khánh about the message during lunch break. I tried not to cry when I described the car.
“You butthead,” Khánh said between open-mouthed chews of beef jerky. “It said ‘WASH ME.’”
I replayed the moment several times in my mind after this. Then I began to doubt my own story.
Last night, I woke up to the sound of crying. It wasn’t Xuyên. Xuyên’s cries sound like emergency sirens. This crying sounded like a weak vacuum cleaner trying to start. It was Má.
I could hear Ba’s muffled voice over her sobs. He said, “Xuyên needs a room. She is getting too big to stay in ours.”
Má did not stop crying. With some effort, she could only manage to say, “ma—ma.” Sometimes with the “a” drawn out really long. Sometimes, with the intonation going down. Those times, it sounded like she was saying the Việt word for “monster,” or “ghost.”
Ba’s voice grew soft. “Bà Ngoại would have wanted Xuyên to have the room. Most of her stuff is junk anyway …”
Má was trying to say more, but could not get enough air into her lungs. Xuyên started to stir in her crib.
Ba tried to reason with her. “I can make an altar space—”
“How could you say that? How could you?” she screamed. “My mother, she is not dead, she is not dead!”
Xuyên started making sounds. I heard Má gasp for more air and then cry more. I held my breath. After what felt like forever, Má finally spoke.
“Everyone acts like she is dead! Everyone acted like she died the moment we arrived in this damn country. This dirty country. This country with its blood on its flag. Where is she? Where is Bà Ngoại? Where is her blood?”
Má’s voice became muffled, like Ba had put his arms around her. She relaxed much more after that, like he was squeezing all her anger out. “I need to see her … I need to know. Everyone acts like she is dead! Everyone acted like she died the moment she put her foot on this dirty country’s dead soil. You can’t grow anything here …. They made it that way. They plant us here and act like … like we were always dead.”
Ba stayed quiet like he usually did when one of us became upset. Má took a deep breath and said, “You remember the reporters, Anh? Remember that white lady? They all acted like we were stupid and our culture is backwards. That we couldn’t take care of our own.”
Ba tried to calm her by shushing her, but it did nothing to calm her down. Instead, Má began to scream, “She isn’t dead! You see her, too! I know you do! She isn’t dead! You—”
Her sobs ate up her words. I wished with all my might for them to stop, but they didn’t. I sat up and looked over at Khánh for comfort. I wanted a hug. I wanted someone else to see. But Khánh was in a deep sleep, the kind with eyes searching for something behind a closed door.
Desperate, I reached out and placed my hand against the wall, which was cold to the touch. I felt Má’s cries beating against my palm like a heartbeat.
And then I heard that familiar sound in the hallway.
Shh. Shh. Shh. Eventually, I fell asleep.