There had been nights when they’d wished themselves twins. Twins, at least, could be expected to share a connection deeper than skin, wrought through some inexorable force of nature. Rural superstition might be willing to accept the peculiarities of twins. But alas they were related only by their parents’ marriage and not by blood, which was what really counted as far as any villager was concerned, and so they had always been considered unnatural, tainted.
Still they had each other. Even after Khoi was taken north, for theirs was not the kind of bond that distance could stretch thin.
Lying on her bare cot in the heavy moonlight, Thi watched the blood trickle idly from a puncture in her palm and wondered if that was such a blessing after all.
Three and a half years he’d been gone. They were both thirty-five, no longer flighty children barefoot in a muddy village, and yet she’d cried on that day when his fear shot through her chest like errant shrapnel that only dug in deeper with the realization that he had been taken. Though even in her horror she’d allowed herself no more than two minutes to grieve—for he’d be able to feel that too, and she would not burden him further.
The news had spread soon after Khoi had been rounded up and shipped north with all the other southern sympathizers: reeducation. The word very nearly broke her, because it meant he would not be returning, and that meant she was finally alone.
But no, not quite. The pain—physical on top of emotional—kept her company on nights like these when an accidental injury, a pinprick from his sewing duties perhaps, painted itself onto her skin. Thi wondered if they could send messages this way, carving crude words and diacritics into soft brown flesh. She was nearly desperate enough to try. The camps had opened up to limited family visitors last year, but she could barely afford her rent, never mind a cross-country train ticket, and he would not send letters for fear of incriminating her.
And now that she had left for good, any letter he might finally decide to mail would reach their old Saigon residence and rot atop the floor tiles for all eternity.
The Malaysian refugee camp was just as hot and humid as Saigon summers, even after sunset, but here the weather felt twice as oppressive—or perhaps that was just melancholy rearing its familiar horned head. All around her lay thousands upon thousands of people, shifting and restless and anxious, but Thi had never felt quite so lonely.
“It’s only twenty feet.”
“They won’t let you fall!”
The boy huffed, “Goddamn chinks,” and went to find another partner for the ropes course. Nam watched him leave with some disappointment, but mostly relief. What was the boy’s name? Jason? Gabe?
Ah. Jabe. White people were so strange.
The first time Nam had met his uncle’s Chinese-American girlfriend, he’d thought she was white because he’d never met a white person before, and assumed anyone who didn’t speak Vietnamese was white. That was eight years ago. He was twelve now, and presently trapped in a summer camp that was crawling with white kids. He briefly wished he lived in a neighborhood not dominated by Asian people—maybe then he’d be a little cooler, speak these kids’ unspoken language a little better.
“Are you gonna do the ropes?”
Nam turned to find a girl, maybe a couple years younger, blinking at him with owlish green eyes. “No, are you?”
“Nah. I’m Sarabeth. Wanna paint?”
And just like that he made a friend. At camps like these everyone formed groups in rapid succession, eat or be eaten, the leftover kids allying in formations that would never exist outside of these pseudo-woodsy borders. He wondered what was wrong with Sarabeth, normal by all rights yet standing here talking to one of the leftovers.
In a few years navigating the social intricacies of teenage life would be a different kind of struggle, but of course he didn’t know that yet, didn’t savor the arid simplicity of summer camp while it lasted.
Sarabeth painted a three-panel transformation of a caterpillar to a butterfly while Nam sketched in careful pencil a mountain-lake landscape before filling it in with watercolor. He was debating whether to add a moon shining from the corner when a stab of pain at his elbow made him drop the pencil with a hiss.
He knew immediately that it was nothing he had done. The skinned elbow was one of countless little injuries he’d occasionally find on his body for as long as he could remember. Never anything major—a broken leg would have sent him straight to Bà Thi, who was the quieter of his grandmothers but who had always looked at him with a sad sort of fondness—but sometimes he’d wake in the night with a racing heart, or gasp during class with a spontaneous surge of excitement.
Sarabeth looked over in mild concern. “Are you okay?”
“Fine,” said Nam, dipping a paper towel in the water bucket and pressing it over his elbow. He’d never told anyone, not even his older brother Anh Minh. The incidents felt inexplicably sacred, intimate, almost as if there was someone who was experiencing all the same things on the other end, swearing him to shared secrecy.
Nam had outgrown all his imaginary friends, but he didn’t have very many in real life, and despite his stringent almost-teenager-grow-up-already policy, he found he rather liked the idea of having a special connection that surely no one else had, even if he didn’t know to whom he was connected. The elbow hurt, but it was a good kind of hurt. A hurt that was impossible, which he defied by feeling it.
Not many people would consider prisoner-of-war to be a lucky position, but Khoi had learned to make the best of sticky situations. And compared to most of the other men in the camp, he was indubitably fortunate: thanks to the small tailoring shop he’d run with his stepsister—blood-sister—Thi back in Saigon, the warden had assigned him to stay indoors sewing and mending while his fellow inmates spent their days laboring under the blazing tropical sun.
The most he’d suffered was the occasional pinprick. Khoi ran a calloused thumb over the fresh scab on his palm. Had Thi even noticed it? On that day nearly four years ago, when the guards had escorted them onto a truck and he’d understood immediately where it was headed, he had come so close to taking his own life. If he were to be beaten or starved, Thi would experience every blow. Better to spare her while he could.
But he’d stopped short. They didn’t know the extent of their bond. Didn’t know of any other siblings who were tied the same way. What if she could feel the wheels of the truck crushing down on her bones, feel her body giving out at the same time as his?
Khoi imagined his sister crying out as she fell to the floor of their shop or the tiny apartment above, dreadfully alone, no one left to hold her. Perhaps the ghosts of their parents, biologically his mother and her father, would rise wearily from their photographs on the altar to cluck and shake their heads at their children’s abnormal misfortunes.
Part of him cursed himself for clinging to the excuse of protecting Thi. Part of him was relieved. Most of him was sick with terror, no matter how desperately he tried to tamp it down for her sake. The truck rolled on.
He gazed up at the yellow harvest moon and vowed that if he ever got out, he would never again set foot in a camp, or really any configuration of people who shared one or two damning common traits that got them shoved together in a poor facsimile of proper living conditions.
Family before pain. One day at a time.
Mai was finding English to be a hideous and distinctly absurd language. Why should she spend her weekends trapped inside a repurposed hair salon learning how to conjugate utterly unpronounceable verbs while her younger siblings got to run around with the new puppies?
Well, she knew why. Her parents had explained that in no uncertain terms. Any hope of college in America began with learning English, and at age twelve she was already hopelessly behind. But college was still light-years away.
She tapped her pencil against the desk in an idle rhythm. At times like this, she almost wished her Other Self would trip or stub a toe, just so she could experience something that wasn’t abject boredom. She imagined sending a thought down the line that connected her to Other Self: Hope you’re having more fun than I am!
Vân interrupted her reverie to lean over and slip her a note. Mai opened it and stifled a laugh—Vân had sketched an alarmingly accurate representation of their instructor’s pinched pink face. She passed it to Hà Linh on her other side, who was not so successful in keeping silent. The instructor whipped around at the giggle-snort.
“It was worth it,” said Vân as the three girls walked back to their neighborhood. “He really did look like a pig.”
“It was a good drawing,” agreed Mai, who was weighing the merits of telling her parents she’d been kicked out of English boot camp versus maintaining the lie for another five weeks.
Hà Linh only stared absently into the distance. Her parents were far richer and far stricter than Mai’s, and they would not take the news well. But after doling out punishment, they would simply find her a new language program and start the process all over again. Mai hoped the three of them would end up in the same place. They didn’t attend the same primary schools, but all their parents hoped for the same future goal of sending their children to America, and long torturous weekends in close proximity had made them fast friends.
As they rounded the corner into the neighborhood, they all waved and split off, leaving Mai to walk the rest of the way home by herself. She reached out to Other Self and hugged that perpetual warmth of security closer. Even when Other Self made her flinch with a cut that materialized out of nowhere, she was glad for the phantom presence that stayed with her even when her friends had gone.
Raucous barking welcomed her as she walked through the door. She waded through the trio of wriggling brown puppies, laughing merrily. “Hello, Sugar! Hello, Salt—oh!” Pepper had thrown himself into her path. She skipped to the side to avoid stepping on him and tripped over a shoe, scraping her elbow against the stucco wall as she fell.
As Mai picked herself up, she noticed who was sitting by the window. “Ông Khoi,” she said, ducking her head in greeting. Her grandfather rarely left his hammock in the yard nowadays. Truth be told, she hadn’t spoken to him in quite some time—there was something about his quiet demeanor, his solemn regard that was forever tinged with sadness even when it was fond, that unnerved her ever so slightly.
The old man nodded back. She wondered if she should explain why she was home early. Then again, she wondered if he even knew about her weekend occupation.
“Kicked out of class?” he asked, a faint smile tugging at his lips.
“It’s all right,” he said. “I won’t tell. You’ll be just fine wherever you go—your mother and father just worry, as all mothers and fathers do.”
“But I don’t want to go to America,” she blurted. She immediately clapped a hand over her mouth. Why, why had she said that? It was something she talked about often with Vân and Hà Linh, who felt much the same way, but it wasn’t a sentiment to be shared with adults, all of whom seemed to be fixated on college and foreign markets and other such horrible topics.
Ông Khoi only tilted his head and fixed her with a knowing gaze. “I’ve never quite believed that America is the only future left to us, but surely it can’t hurt to attend college there. And you have some time yet.”
“I just want to stay here with my friends,” she protested, acutely aware of how childish she sounded but spilling it out anyway. “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t live here.”
“Will you do me one favor, Mai?”
She nodded cautiously. Ông Khoi leaned forward, his dark eyes sharper than she’d ever seen them. He glanced at the red rash on her elbow. “Hear this story, Mai. And wherever you go to study, I think you already know you’ll never be alone.”
Johanna Dong (@johanna_ktd) is currently studying economics at NYU, though she was born and raised in Southern California. Her work has previously been published or is forthcoming in Cosmonauts Avenue, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, TRACK//FOUR Journal, and the Jellyfish Review.