All three of Mark’s attackers spoke Spanish. They knew English as well. Enrique Valdez especially used it when he wanted to tell other students how he felt about them. Earlier in the day during lunch, he flicked a french fry at Mark, cackling as it bounced off his right ear and made him flinch.
“Look at him cry!” Enrique exclaimed, though his friends Xavier and Sebastian sat right across from him in the cafeteria at Hughes Secondary School. He pointed at Mark, who gave Enrique his attention and tried to hold back the rage in his chest. He didn’t know why he allowed Enrique to take another fry, set it up and send it right between his eyes.
What Mark did know was that he made a mistake with the apple. He thought it to be a perfect form of payback. He snatched it from his tray with his jaw locked and the rest of his body all tensed up. Mark thrust his arm forward and let go.
An open carton of milk sat on the edge of the table near Enrique. As soon as the apple struck the flimsy container, its contents exploded. Milk splattered half of Enrique’s face. A good amount darkened and stained his Tennessee Titans jersey.
Teachers rushed to Enrique’s side. They demanded that he point out the culprit who committed this offense against him. Mark was filled with dread when the boys didn’t speak up. No one else told either. He had to lose himself in a sea of students for the rest of the day, but the fight happened anyway.
After school, the first blow came from Enrique, naturally. His right hook turned Mark’s vision white. Mark crashed down into a pile of playground wood chips. His left eye swelled like a balloon. Vomit charged up his throat. He swallowed it down under a flurry of kicks. A sole smashed his bottom lip, which suddenly felt wet. Another flattened all ten of his fingers. Mark finally yelped, though the cry wasn’t heard beyond the playground.
Grieta de ojos inclinados!
Enrique Valdez spoke Spanish when he was beating the living shit out of anyone he hated. Mark didn’t know why. The fists and feet continued crushing him. Blood ran down his chin, though some seeped into his mouth and left a strange taste. There was more Spanish, but the voices were all different now. Xavier, Sebastian, and Enrique took turns with the jeers and insults. Mark eventually grew still.
The beating stopped at about the same time. Mark heard a yelp. A hard thud on pavement. Someone blubbered before they started to sob.
Những mẩu rác rưởi.
Mark opened his eyes. It was definitely Vietnamese, a language his attackers didn’t know. Pained shouts followed hard smacks on skin, along with more crying and the occasional “Ow—ow! Stop!” The voices were different. Their pleas were all the same. Frantic footsteps fled from the playground. They quickly turned distant, dwindled, then disappeared altogether.
Someone walked over and stood above Mark. He was a tall boy in a dark shirt that clung to his lean frame. His black hair hung down, adding shade to his stony expression. He was Vietnamese, like Mark. Older, maybe even out of high school. It didn’t seem possible for him to be a student.
“Shit. They did you in pretty bad.” He knew English as well.
Mark blinked his eyes. He wondered if the beating became so bad that it caused him to pass out and dream. When he tried to get up on his own, pain surged through him again. A groan escaped him.
“Why are you letting people beat you up? Fight back.”
The young man lifted Mark by his wrinkled shirt collar with one hand. His rescuer pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped the blood from Mark’s face. Red streaks stained the cloth.
Keemo, why are we helping him? He's a pussy, let him learn how to fight.
Two other older teenagers stood meters behind Mark and the young man named Keemo. The one who spoke was taller than Keemo. He had spiked hair and the faintest goatee on his narrow chin. A heftier comrade with a buzz cut stood beside him with both arms crossed over his barreled chest.
Shut up, Kenny.
Keemo shoved the handkerchief in the back pocket of his denims. He observed Mark like something he just bought. Mark grew tense beneath his gaze. Keemo snatched his face by the cheeks with one hand and kept checking him repeatedly.
The tenements, right? You live with your mother, Chau.
Mark nodded as if Keemo’s words made it so. He had it in his voice, the essence of commanding anything before him.
My uncle knows your mother.
Keemo let go of Mark’s face. He led Kenny and the hefty boy off the blacktop. They traveled with confident postures.
“Let’s get you home, kid.”
The group cut through an alleyway. It shortened their progress from Hughes’ school grounds to Whitner Street. After turning right on Whitner, they followed with a left on Applewood Avenue, bordered by rows of trees beside the sidewalk. When Keemo stretched his right arm out toward the turn at Applewood and West Street, Mark’s gut jumped. A group of strangers knew where he lived.
“The Hanson Projects, right?” Keemo peered ever-so-slightly over his right shoulder.
Mark breathed in through his nose. It hurt him to do this.
“We live in places owned by white people. Your Mom pays money to an old white lady named Barbara Hanisch.”
“Barbara Hanisch is a bitch, I hear.”
Keemo waved Mark off in the direction of the Hanson Projects. He probably made a precise gesture at the exact window where Mark’s mother awaited him.
“Well. I think you should go now. Your mother will be pissed about the beating, but she’ll be glad you’re not dead.”
Mark and the older boys parted ways. He watched the trio recede into the distance before heading down West Street. His mind tried to wrap itself around what had happened. Those helpers came out of the air, at just the right time. The thoughts stayed with him as he got buzzed in by his mother, trekked up the tenement’s stairs until he reached the fourth floor and made it into the apartment at the end of the hall to his right. Mark remembered his wounds when his mother opened the door and clasped her hands over her face.
Laman…! Mark’s mother gasped her son’s real name, as if it choked her. What...what is this?
Mark tenderly touched his black eye. I got beaten up. I’m sorry.
Mark didn’t have a choice. His mother grabbed him by the wrist, slammed the door shut and glared down at him. She waited. Her face always aged in moments like this. The skin sagged as if years passed. Mark wondered if a grandmother, an old aunt, or another mystery relative hid in the expression. The only living family he knew of was his mother, Chau Dao.
Who were they?
Why don’t you tell me when you’re in trouble, Laman?
Vietnamese meant Mark was in trouble. All the discipline he received over the years prevented him from being troublesome. His mother was to thank for that.
...I don’t know. It just didn’t…
Before anything else was said, Ms. Dao wept. She covered her face to hide her grief and just wept. The sight was too common for Mark by now.
Mrs. Watson, the principal of Hughes School knew nothing about the bullying. That's what she said, at least.
“We understand your concerns, Ms.Dao. We’re very sorry Mark was dealing with this. We don’t condone bullying here at Hughes. It does so much damage.”
Her posture wilted behind her desk, although she tried to sit up straight. Mark’s mother came in brimming with criticisms from the moment she stepped into the office.
Ms. Dao gestured toward Mark. “Do you care about damage? Look at him. He has a black eye. His fingers were almost broken. The doctor checked on him and his stomach and legs...they’re deeply bruised. Everything on him is bruised.”
“I...I see that, Ms. Dao.”
“You really want to protect my son?”
“Yes, Ms. Dao, Yes. For God’s sake.” Mrs. Watson closed her eyes and sighed. “We are not perfect. I take responsibility for any oversight we had. Again, we don’t take this lightly.”
“Then expel those boys.”
“No need. Enrique Valdez is leaving The Hughes. So is Sebastian Garcia. Only Xavier Torres is getting suspended—and reassigned to a behavioral school so he can learn better social skills. The program is very effective on youths of his background. Who knows, maybe Mark and Xavier can become friends.”
“My son would be friends with no one in this school if it were up to me.”
“...I’m sorry it’s come to this for you.”
Mrs. Watson flipped through papers and pulled out a crudely scrawled apology from all three boys. Parts of one letter were pilled, as if the paper got caught in the rain. Mark read through all three. When Mrs. Watson asked Mark if he accepted the boys’ apologies, he nodded. A replay of yesterday’s events cycled in his head; the splattered milk on Enrique’s face, followed by the sobs and sounds of running.
For the next two weeks, Ms. Dao walked her son home from school. Though he hid his feelings, Mark resented the change. His face became warm whenever he went down to the school’s front double doors and found his mother waiting for him. She never smiled at him, though she had plenty of happy words for his classmates and the teachers on afterschool duty. Ms. Dao firmly guided Mark back to the apartment with her hand pressed in the small of his back.
She didn’t know about the older boys who saved Mark from a worse beating. Strangely enough, Enrique and the others didn’t mention their target’s rescuers. Mark wondered about this. He questioned, after a time, whether or not certain parts of the beating were illusions. However, Xavier returned to Hughes and Mark saw it; purple splotches on his sullen face. Xavier’s bottom lip jutted out like a slotted silver tray for laundry machine quarters. It didn’t seem able to tuck itself in.
Near the end of the school year, an early dismissal was scheduled for the Middleton School District. It was the Friday before Memorial Day and something called an ‘In-Service’ dismissed students at noon. Ms. Dao worked until the early afternoon, so she wasn’t able to pick her son up this time around. That morning, she glued her glare on Mark as she repeatedly instructed him to walk straight home from school. Ms. Hanisch would know if he were absent and would notify her.
He tried to obey. After the final bell rang, Mark cut through the alley leading to Whitner. He turned right, then left on Applewood. At the corner of West Street, he encountered the familiar stony expressions of the trio who rescued him.
Keemo smirked as Mark stumbled. “You look healthier.”
Mark’s throat swelled. “I’m not supposed to talk to you.”
“That’s a way of saying ‘hi,’ I guess.”
What else was Mark supposed to say? A couple things, maybe. “Thank you for helping me the other day.”
“No problem. We happened to be nearby and saw one of our own getting pummeled. It’s not a favor. It’s a duty.”
Mark glanced around, just in case his mother was spying on him. My mother doesn’t know about you. Mark spoke Vietnamese, in case Ms. Hanisch or someone else was the possible spy in question, listening somewhere nearby.
Keemo shrugged. She might anyway. You’re the one who’s not supposed to know about us.
You said you know my Mom.
Know of her. We haven’t met. I don’t know how that would go.
Keemo looked back at his friends. Kenny picked at something in his teeth. The hefty one rubbed his scalp while staring vacantly into space.
I’m taking him to Uncle’s. Keemo spoke as if Mark weren’t there. When Keemo’s friends heard the declaration, they stopped their casual stances. Both teens stiffened and straightened their spines, mimicking soldiers. It was like they were being watched by unseen eyes.
I’m taking you to Uncle’s. He’s heard all about you, ever since you were a baby. He wants me to bring you over his way.
Every dark tinted window along the street could have been an eye pressing down on Mark, tracking his movements. There were probably spies hired by his mother to swoop in and capture him if he went anywhere near trouble. The trouble in question stood before him, waiting for Mark to make a bad choice. After thinking about it, Mark nodded.
I’m supposed to be home before my mother.
You won’t be gone long. I promise you that much. She won’t even know.
Mark and the teenagers wandered into the worn and weary sprawl. For a time, a crowd appeared around them. The group seemed lost in the sea of many faces, but Mark kept close to Keemo until they all made it into a courtyard.
The courtyard was quiet and bound by black metal fencing. The points on each pole reminded Mark of spades on playing cards. Four cream-colored tile pathways cut across discolored grass. They converged at an oak tree in the center, which provided a large canopy of shade. Tenements loomed over the courtyard in their respective corners, casting even more shadows.
Lots of Vietnamese live here. Keemo made eye contact with Mark for the first time since they started walking. I live on the top floor with Uncle. I’m sure he wants to see you. Keemo gestured to the top of a building to his left, which appeared ready to fall as clouds moved above it. Come on now. He’s expecting us.
The tenement Keemo lived in had an elevator. Mark watched its numbers change on the way up until the elevator stopped on the twelfth floor. The corresponding hallway was clean; even the slightest hint of dust seemed tucked away from anyone’s sight. When the boys walked into Apartment 1201, Mark saw a compact living room with fresh scents drifting in the air. In the center of the room, five men sat around a table with narrow legs. They all held splayed hands of playing cards. One of the men was balding. His scalp shined beneath a lamp that swayed above the quintet of mature heads. He had a cigarette wedged between his lips.
At first, Mark thought the man was Keemo’s uncle. However, Keemo tapped a man in a black shirt. From the back, Mark saw his full peppered shoulder-length hair. Keemo whispered into the man’s ear. The man turned his head ever so slightly towards Keemo and Mark just knew these two were related. Their mannerisms gave it off, along with the reserved tone Keemo adopted to communicate with his uncle.
I brought him, just like you said.
Keemo pointed his thumb at Mark, who flinched as if the teen threw something at him. By the way, Uncle, could I borrow some money? Kenny and Daniel want to go to a restaurant with me. A new Chinese place.
Are you tired of your own people? The balding man smirked at the uncle’s quip before laughing. His companions joined in. Apartment 1201 clearly belonged to Keemo’s uncle. Soon, every hint of amusement died down as the men bowed their faces towards their playing cards again.
You’ll find money in my wallet. Keemo’s uncle pointed towards the door beyond the table, across the room and slightly to the right from the apartment’s entrance.
Keemo beckoned Mark to replace him by his uncle’s side. Mark’s wounds began pulsating with pain again. Perhaps the bruises ripped open, or his eye was losing sight. His skin crawled in the presence of the strangers, who smelled strongly of tobacco and liquor.
You. Mark looked at the balding man. You're Ban Dao’s son, Yes? Mark wondered how many words drifted in these tenements. Secrets and knowledge must have bounced around like light off a mirror. Do you speak? If Ban’s your dad, he was more talkative and that son-of-a-bitch didn’t know what words were, let alone Vietnamese. You speak Vietnamese?
“He doesn’t speak to people he can’t trust.” Keemo’s uncle smiled at Mark. “It’s a good instinct. Give him time before you go after him.”
A hand gently clamped the nape of Mark’s neck. Mark studied the uncle’s scar-riddled face and dark eyes.
I knew your father. Back home and here in Midtown. He put his cards down and the rest of the men followed, as if their lives only functioned through him. He helped me get on my feet when I moved here. The place you see now is where he put me. Ban always watched after his friends.
The playing cards and poker chips cluttered the table’s surface like debris. At the mention of ‘home’—Saigon, from what Mark remembered of his mother’s stories—maintained a lot of damage.
Your father would have asked someone to look at him when they spoke. I won’t expect any different with the roles reversed between myself and his son. Keemo’s uncle waited. Can you look at me, son?
Mark set his sight on a tanned face with several deep lines marked on the skin. A curved, jagged line zigzagged an inch below the right eye socket, ending halfway to the corresponding ear. Another was split in half by the man’s terse lips, slanting diagonally to the left. The left eye, its pupil and iris wilted like dying flowers, caused Mark’s innards to shrivel into gruel. Sometime in the past, they must have lost their color somehow because all that was left was a bleach blue tint and visible vessels in a sea of irritated pink jelly.
You look like him. A little at least.
...People say I look like my mother.
I can see that. You’re the curious type. That’s why your father was able to have her and make you.
Mark’s stomach flipped at the mention of his mother’s name. She was at home, in the Hanson Tenements, staring at the clock. At some point, she would pace back and forth. She’d weep in front of the mantle above the fireplace and sob about her late husband’s absence. Then she’d call the police and make the most detailed report in the history of her life.
I respect your father, so I also respect you for his sake. The first piece of respect I’ll display is advice.
Keemo’s uncle picked up his deck of cards. He tilted his head, beckoning Mark closer. With the eye he could see out of, Keemo’s uncle hinted at the cards in his hands. Kings, queens and jacks stared off into the distance, probably surveying everything they conquered. Keemo’s uncle spoke to Mark in the same way he did his nephew, making Mark feel as if they were only people in the room.
This is a winning combination. I always get this hand and devastate my friends.
He put the cards down and smiled at the other four men. The men at the table glared, either at their own decks, the poker chip towers, or the money. None of them dared to do so with Keemo’s uncle. They expressed displeasure by slapping their cards onto the table, cursing in Vietnamese. Uncle Keemo gathered the money and chips into his arms and smiled broadly.
If you dislike my way of playing, there’s the door. You can leave and never return, like I want.
This is bullshit. You’re cheating. The man with the cigarette brought back his frown.
If you burn my table with your tobacco again, I’ll throw you out the window.
The man with the cigarette rose and went over to the window, where he put out his cigarette with careful taps of his finger. Everyone was quiet as Keemo’s uncle counted the crumpled bills and pocketed them. Keemo emerged from the bedroom, counting greenbacks of his own.
Thanks again. We won’t be late.
Don’t be. I want your help with some business for later.
Absolutely. Good seeing you all.
Keemo walked out the door and the rest of the group followed. Mark made sure to walk side by side with Keemo, rushing to the elevator and hitting the “down” button first. When they got into the elevator, Mark started to speak but thought against it. When the boys got out, Mark noted the sky’s streaks of warm colors dancing across the blue. His stomach flinched again as a vision of his mother appeared in his mind.
I can’t hang out with older boys.
Keemo scoffed. But you followed us all the way out here. I wanted to see what your place was like, that’s all. Then you can enjoy some food. On my uncle.
I have to get back to my mother.
I can talk to your mother.
She’s very strict.
And she knows my uncle, who knows your father. You’ll be fine. Quit worrying about so much. It’s why those boys at the school saw you as weak.
Kenny and the third boy followed Mark out into the courtyard. They cut across the damaged grass, bantering with one another as Keemo held up the dollar bills. Mark’s body whirred like an engine fighting to bring its host vehicle to life. Fire wrapped itself around his heart. The flames flickered at the bottom of his throat, parching it to the point of burning.
He agreed to get a plate of food at a local Chinese place on the corner. The boys tried different soups while Mark settled for noodles. When his hunger dwindled with more than half his plate still full, the older boys picked the food from the plate, emptying it.
We always have to help you. Kenny stuffed a piece of dough-fried chicken in his mouth with a fork. I don’t mind this time.
Mark tried to smile since Kenny was being friendly to him. It was dark outside. Mark trembled from both the cold and the prospect of police siren lights brightening the night at any moment. He was surprised the peril didn’t happen until he reached the Hanson Tenements. He found his mother just outside the door, wrapped in a sweater and shivering. Her eyes flared when Mark appeared beneath the watchlight.
“Are you stupid? Have you become stupid now?” She glanced at the older boys before paying mind to her son once more. “I called the police station and they said they would put an alert for you! Now I’m going to be embarrassed because of you! What is your problem? What is wrong with you?” She focused on the boys again, particularly Keemo, as if she knew a leader from followers. And who are you?
Keemo made sure to show his face in the tenement’s floodlight. He even stretched out his hand and offered it to Mark’s mother, showing no fear or stiffness.
Hi. I’m Keemo Nguyen. Thanh Nguyen is my Uncle.
Mark’s mother appeared to struggle for air. Her eyes widened as she raised a hand to her mouth. They seemed to survey Keemo from head to toe. Mark glanced back and forth between the two, wondering what was on his mother’s mind.
Why are you with my son?
He was visiting my uncle since he knew your husband. I was the one who helped your son the other day, when he was beaten by the bullies.
Should that make me favor you?
No. I just thought you would want to know people are watching after your son.
She reached out to Mark, grabbing him by the wrist. Mark almost fell forward from the yank’s sheer strength. He stumbled forward, only to get caught by his mother’s other arm. She stood between him and the older boys. Keemo seemed unbothered, maintaining his calm expression.
“Young man, I will only offer you my thanks for the one good deed you did for my son. Otherwise, I do not appreciate your presence or bad influence on him.” Mark’s mother lifted a finger and darted it towards the boys with every other word. You reek of your Uncle. I even smell the cologne he wears. And the liquor he drinks. It was always disgusting. My husband drank the same type of bourbon and it made our home smell. I can’t even begin to tell you the rest—
Mark’s mother shook. Her fingers searched for him behind her and she found him. She patted his head and held him close to her hip. Mark felt his face burning. He lowered his face to the ground, away from both his mother and the older boys as well.
He’s the only one I have. He’s the only one Ban left behind, his only child. No other son, no daughter. Thanh knows that. He knows how I feel about him after Ban died, so you tell him to never, ever treat my son to anything. I don’t care how kind he is to Laman. He was kind to Ban, I’ll admit. But Ban is dead. I will never forgive that. Remind him, please.
Keemo put his arms behind him and backed away while keeping his eyes on Ms. Dao.
It was a pleasure finally meeting you. I know my Uncle and I passed you back at Market, but you never liked looking at us.
“No more discussions. Get out or I’ll call the police again!”
You’re such a wonderful mother, Ms. Dao. I heard your husband appreciated you.
“Get the hell out!”
The older boys left Mark and his mother alone. Mark’s mother glared at them until they blended into the dark. As they walked up the stairs, Mark trembled, thinking of what his mother would do once they got back into their apartment. When they entered through the door, he closed his eyes tightly, expecting another flash of white to follow.
“It’s late. Go to bed. You have school in the morning. I’ll wake you up as usual.”
She briskly dropped her hand from his shoulders and stormed off to her room, slamming the door behind her. For a moment, Mark heard nothing at all. Then, gentle sobs hiccupped from his mother’s room, along with whispers of a name. Mark already knew what she was saying. He already wondered how often she had to hide her wounds.
From that day forward, he never walked home alone. Mark wasn’t sure how the arrangements were made, but his mother had him come to the school’s main office to be picked up right before the final bell rang. She’d still be in her hospital scrubs, with weary bags bunched beneath both her eyes. Her hand would clamp to one of her son’s and they would be off, ahead of the horde of students.
They never exchanged a word. Mark didn’t dare to interact with his mother and he knew she wouldn’t acknowledge his glances. It was always about the alleyway, the right and left turn, and the final right that put them on West Street. It was always about the final stretch of road that weaved through the large city blocks of brick tenements, with the Hanson Apartments at the end of the journey. It was always about home and the safety Ms. Dao maintained within its walls.
She constantly watched him do homework, though Mark didn’t struggle with his studies. He actually liked thumbing through pages of U.S. History, learning about the English who came to America so they could take it over and make the land their own. He didn’t like that part of the tale, but it couldn’t be avoided. It all happened, but led to people of every race being in the same land down the line.
He commented on this one day when studying for a test. His mother sat on the couch, reading a book. When Mark mentioned the old president Richard Nixon, he heard his mother scoff from behind the covers of a novel called 1984. She glowered over her book’s top edge.
“He made us move away, you know that?” Mark’s mother said. “He made your father and I run away from Vietnam. It was supposed to be done 23 years ago, but it was only nineteen because he didn’t think the deal to end the war was good enough.” She scoffed again and resumed reading.
Mark almost asked about Mr. Thanh and Keemo and why the two of them never discussed their father beyond saying his name. Mark knew little about his father. He knew his name was Ban and recognized his image in the photos scattered across their living space. Otherwise, he hung over Mark’s head as an ornament of interest, a dangling object far too high to even brush his fingertips against.
They remained silent during these days. For an entire month, Mark studied under his mother’s watchful eye. She sat down on the couch and occupied herself in silence. She buried herself in a book. She hurried to Mark’s side and sharply corrected wrong answers and made inquiries. She stood up and walked to the living room’s sole window, a pane that offered a view of the bleak brick landscape of their neighborhood. Mark noticed how often she looked down at the street, and how her eyes always seemed to scan for a secret he couldn’t pull from her.
On the fourth Saturday of his mother’s strict supervision, Mark found an opening.
His mother was sprawled on the living room couch. Her body resembled the dead with the way her head hung to the side. Mark’s heart pounded as he snuck past her, making sure his shoes didn’t fall from the meager pinch of his fingers. He waited for discipline when he opened the door and an audible creak groaned in the apartment’s silence. When he rushed out and looked back at his mother on the couch, he started believing in miracles; she hadn’t moved, making Mark almost wonder if she really was dead.
Perhaps she was dreaming of his father.
Mark slowly sealed the door. It shut without causing a stir and Mark charged down the stairs, stuffing his feet into his sneakers once he got outside. The morning air was crisp. Dew layered on every available glass surface. As Mark walked through West Street, he noticed how many businesses and buildings were closed. Grates and slabs of sheet metal covered the doors. Curtains blocked onlookers from peering into the spaces.
He turned right onto the road he always took to school and remembered the rest of the way to the Nguyen residence. He sought new sights and different signs he may not have committed to memory during his first visit. Mark always felt like the city’s map would melt and muddle in his consciousness. He always had a hard time knowing which way was east or west, north or south. Somehow, he found the four giants surrounding the courtyard and just knew he was where he wanted to be. Daylight had barely begun.
He went inside the Nguyens’ building, found the elevator and its button to the twelfth floor. After rising to the very summit of the building, Mark rediscovered Room 1201 and rapped his knuckles against the door. Silence answered him and his stomach grew a little more acquainted with gravity. Another rap against the door and Mark considered leaving. He glanced back at the elevator while wood creaked, but this didn’t register with him until he turned back to the door and found it had been opened.
Thanh Nguyen looked down at Mark without a smile. Mark’s throat swelled to the point of closing, with shallow puffs of breath filtering up through the small slit it seemed to leave. Goosebumps swelled on his skin.
He waited for the reproving words: Go back. I heard your mother’s warning. Don’t get us all in trouble, boy. Thanh stopped staring at Mark and stepped forward, pulling the door with him by its brass knob. When it closed, he placed a hand on Mark and waved him toward the elevator.
We’ll go to the courtyard. The sun is very beautiful when it rises this time of year.
Outside, Mark noticed new details: the flowers planted along the black metal fence and the signs marking where everybody lived. Another woman—seemingly another Vietnamese native from a distance —walked her dog on an asphalt path.
Thanh led Mark to a tree in the courtyard’s center. He saw the sky regain its color. The sun wore a cloud like a veil, with the mixture of air and moisture matching its shape before it flayed into disjointed fragments. Thanh pressed a palm against the tree’s bark and turned to Mark.
Sit down, Laman. You look like you walked here.
Mark obeyed, saying nothing. He sat against the tree and felt its rigid texture sticking to his sweatshirt. He lifted his hood and put it on. The front loom of the hood protected his eyes from the sunlight.
Thanh breathed out. You like risking Chau’s wrath, eh? You’re bold, just like Ban was. He finally smiled at Mark, in a disarmed manner. I’m guessing she’s restricted you from even moving? That must be the only reason why you came at this hour. To avoid her so you could speak with me.
Mark nodded without looking at Thanh, then remembered his advice on the night of the card game. He observed Thanh, wondering about his scars and multitude of wounds. Mark wondered if his father may have suffered the same amount. Which ones took his life in the accident? Which ones did him harm beyond repair?
Did she ever tell you about your father? I’m curious to know.
Chau is very protective of everything around her, to a fault. I wish I was the same way with Keemo, stupid as he can be. You seem like the opposite person. You seem intelligent.
I do alright in school.
That’s your mother. I’m sure of it.
Yes. I don’t know what part of me is my mother and how I’m like my Dad.
I see. Ban… Thanh stepped away from the tree, getting closer to the light. The sun cast much of its golden glow onto the grass, revealing its features. The surface was still imperfect and riddled with dry spots.
Thanh looked back at Mark. I see your ambition in the way you visited me this morning. Your father always went after what he wanted as well. Back home, where we used to live...Ban saw Chau for the first time ever and I saw this brightness in his eyes. Thanh seemed to laugh to himself. He had his sights on her and did everything to court her, even during the difficult times of the war. By the time it was time for him and Chau to leave, they were betrothed. Once they arrived on U.S. soil, they married. Your father sent a letter to me about it, going on about miracles and such. He was a dreamer. I’m sure you are as well.
Mark stared at Thanh, who seemed to notice the boy’s attention and looked back at the sky. His back was turned entirely towards Mark as he imitated Keemo’s habit of locking his hands together behind his waist.
When your father sent for me, I was grateful. We started working in the same place, taking cargo at a warehouse at the harbors. We’d eat together during breaks, talking about America’s strange culture while looking out at sea. We didn’t like how the country treated us. The country simply didn’t love us so much. Mark watched Thanh bow his head, his back still turned to him. He seemed silent for a moment. ...So, we found other ways to make do in this city. Apparently, Middleton has a history of it.
The words swirled around Mark’s mind, spiraling like a cyclone. His mother never told a story about her father aside from what he did for work, what he looked like, and how he acted on the day Mark was born. His mother went on about how long Mark’s father held him until deciding on a name suitable for their first child. Ban decided to honor his wife’s side of the family, naming the boy after Chau’s father. He’d give the boy a little of himself as well, Chau explained. Ban decided his name wasn’t so bad for a middle name, and he also chose the nickname Mark to make it easier for Americans.
Otherwise, Mark knew nothing else. These new words were secrets, all of them, finally getting discovered and unwrapped in ways he couldn’t have imagined.
We...didn’t really want to do what we felt was necessary, but that was it. It was necessary. In Vietnam, I helped some American soldiers go home in caskets. I grew weary of their presence in our nation, and the way they thought their way of life was ours. So, I led them to death. We made them crawl into tunnels said to be strongholds for hiding Vietcong. That was a lie. They were traps laced with mines and bombs. We’d run before the explosions, before the screams. I didn’t enjoy it, but it was so necessary.
...Why are you talking about Vietnam? Mark knew about the war from class and wanted to know more later, but his father’s name rang through his mind like a bell.
You bring the past with you wherever you go. It’s common to say that, I know, but you probably don’t know it yet. Not that it’s your fault. Ban and I...we grew tired of our presence here because we didn’t have a presence. We just took up space and got in the way. So, we figured that if we were going to be treated like thieves, then we’d become thieves. Better yet, we’d be greater.
Mark imagined his father cloaked in a mask, or maybe a hooded sweater like the one he wore now.
We met men beneath bridges where trains passed over. There are alleys in this city full of dealers who love handing out...the means to our ends. Yes, I’ll call it that. Means to our ends. After that, we just started doing what was necessary. It was the reason why we had a better living than you would expect from mere warehouse workers.
Your father and I made money in two ways. Then, after you were born, your father tried to walk away. I was fine with this. For a long time, I was fine with everything your father chose to do because his choices brought me here. They made it so you could be born here and not overseas, where nightmares happened. For the longest time, it seemed as if we were at peace. Until…
Thanh clasped a hand over his face. Mark saw his cheeks glisten. When the sun’s rays touched the scars, the blemishes looked as if they were made of pure light. Mark hoped the warmth would lift the tears away.
We wronged dangerous people. They had their retribution. Your mother never really told you because she didn’t want to put an idea in your head about your father’s life, no matter how you took the truth. I take it this is the first time you heard it...but your father was murdered. No one ever found out who did it. The police never really cared.
Mark’s face suddenly felt cold. It dampened as images flashed through his mind’s eye: a mangled body in an alleyway, bleeding out until its last breath. There was the face he saw on his mother’s mantelpiece, but without the smile and bright eyes. Instead, the gaze dimmed and the skin was paler than even the white hues from the black-and-white photograph. He was truly a ghost, someone who was lifted from life and put into another world. Mark wanted to grasp the image and make it the next memory because even the worst moments seemed far better than no moment at all.
She never told you. What a shame. Thanh walked over to Mark. He wiped his tears away with his rough palms. Mark never realized how calloused the man’s hands were until they scratched against his skin, the touches akin to sandpaper.
She’s not a liar. She’s simply a misguided woman, trust me. I know she loves you more than anything because of who your father is. She misses Ban far more than I could ever imagine myself missing him in my darkest moments.
Get away from him now!
Thanh didn’t look back. Mark barely registered his mother’s presence. She was the fifth tower in the apartment complex, the giant with a greater shadow than any other. Chau Dao braced herself within a blanket, looking like a beggar woman from an old myth. Her face was far more tired than it had ever been, but her eyes were wide.
Did you hear me, Thanh? Get your fucking hands off my son and let him come to me. Goddammit, who are you to kidnap him?!
He came my way, Chau.
Don’t lie to me. You’ve always deceived me. You do this to everyone...EVERYONE. After all I did to protect you and Ban, the least you can do is stay away from my son! The least you can do is keep the hell away from what I have left.
Again, he went out of his way to visit me.
Out of your influence?
Out of a need for the truth.
Mark watched his mother cover her mouth with both hands, as if she witnessed a ghastly event. She trembled, as if the world’s weight crashed down on her. Mark watched her jump on Thanh’s back, bashing him with her fists while shouting incoherently. She eventually clung to him, clawing into the exposed skin around the straps of his tank top.
Thanh rose from the ground, carrying Mark’s mother with him. He didn’t seem to look at anyone in particular, not even Mark himself. His body somehow managed to stay upright, aside from the hunch caused by the weight of his attacker. He stepped away from the oak tree and moved closer to the sun’s light.
The two didn’t really fight. Mark’s mother kept shouting Bastard, Bastard! in a voice that grew hoarse. It was as if a rusted blade grated her vocal cords, filling her throat with blood. She buried her whole face in Thanh’s back and suddenly, there were only sobs.
When she slipped off Thanh’s back, Mark’s heart jumped when he thought she would hit the ground. However, Thanh reached back and clamped her wrist. Mark’s mother was limp. She allowed herself to droop and sag as she took deep breaths. Her words were not even whispers; they were distant hisses that barely mustered a decibel.
Both adults stood frozen in the sun. Mark waited for Thanh to let go, or his mother to come to and wrench herself from the man’s clutch. When the clock started for them once more, Thanh pulled her up and held her against himself. His arms enveloped her like vines.
Mark’s mother sobbed. She beat her hands against Thanh’s chest. She pressed her face against his shirt, soaking it with tears. Thanh patted her hair, matting down the strands that stuck out like wayward yarn. When Mark’s mother tried to sink from sorrow once again, Thanh held her up from underneath her arms before embracing her again. He whispered into her ear. Mark couldn’t hear the words.
He watched his mother stay still as Thanh gave her the message on his heart. At first, she still looked wrathful, unable to withstand what was being said to her. Then her face became gentle. When the tears dried for them both, Thanh and Chau walked over to Mark, who stayed safe in the oak’s shade. Thanh half-carried Chau to her son, though she moved her legs of her own volition. With a hand that asked more than demanded, Chau took her son back and helped him rise to his feet.
I...wish someone else told you. Namely me. Chau blinked remnants of her mourning away. Lying to you was wrong. Not telling you the truth was wrong. But the truth...it’s so painful, not just because of how your father died...but because I was there, seeing what he had done. Seeing what they had done. Doing nothing, that was wrong. But Ban wasn’t killed by Thanh. Someone else did it, and we may never know who.
Chau started weeping. Thanh wiped away her tears.The comfort was instantaneous, but the damage couldn’t be denied. Mark knew this second visit to Thanh Nguyen’s home was likely to be his last. He didn’t sense a reconciliation.
Mark and Chau walked back to the Hanson Projects hand in hand. Mark knew the last he’d seen of Thanh Nguyen was beneath the oak tree’s shade, in the center of the courtyard that was never too perfect. He may have peered at the sun, or at the path where he could expect his nephew. Perhaps he was looking nowhere. Either way, he was left in his solitude, in the lonely place he had always been since the day his closest companion died.
Mark and Chau started speaking more often about Ban Dao now that the secrets were revealed. Chau spilled out a dozen stories about Ban and the ambitions he brought with him to Middleton. She spoke of the way he held her hand when they crossed the Atlantic, when the plane rattled and Chau thought her grave would be marked somewhere in the bottom of the sea. She laughed at Ban’s need to build a house with his own hands, though he only managed to erect a shed and settled for renting a property months after living with a host family. Many stories came out like legends, but Mark knew each tale was true.
One day, Mark wanted to find out more. He sat outside his building’s front door, waiting for dawn this time. When the sun rose, his mother came downstairs with the first stern look on her face he had seen since the day of reckoning. A look from his own eyes caused hers to soften as she opened the door. They stared at each other for a while before Chau sighed and shook her head, pressing a hand to her brow.
He is dangerous. Even he knew this. But fine, you can go. Make your visit brief and do not run off with that nephew of his. I don’t like the musk around him at all.
Mark ran all the way to the estate where the Nguyens lived. The elevator didn’t move fast enough, with its overhead numbers illuminating far too slow for his impatience. When he knocked on Apartment 1201, he wasn’t surprised to see Keemo opening the door. What he didn’t expect was the lack of life in Keemo’s eyes, or the way his cheekbones were bonier than usual. He looked ill.
That was when Mark knew. His body wouldn’t accept it but his eyes had seen the truth. The apartment was quieter than it should have been. There wasn’t even a faint hint of tobacco or bourbon. Everything was empty.
Keemo didn’t let Mark in, which was good since the boy didn’t want to enter anyway. Thanh found out important information about Ban Dao’s murderer, information he didn’t relay to any authorities. He took a gun with him to a certain place and made his nephew swear not to tell anyone about his whereabouts. He disappeared for two days.
On the third day, Keemo called the police, concerned about his uncle’s absence. They hunted for him for a week. When the police arrived at his door late at night, Keemo had the same intuition Mark had. His uncle was found dead in the harbor with a bullet in his forehead.
The police mentioned a man named Valdez who was murdered around the time of Thanh’s disappearance. Keemo’s eyes brightened as he talked about hearing this news. He again patted Mark, who wondered how such a stoic teen could have such a gentle touch.
At least his pain is gone. He managed to get something out of it. You did too. The Valdez man...he had problems with your father. They were known enemies and people always suspected...but someone knew, Laman. Someone knew and told Uncle and Uncle fulfilled his promise.
Mark pulled away from Keemo. He thought of his mother before looking Keemo in the eyes for the last time. They didn’t say goodbye, but instead just stared. Mark ran.
Outside, the sprawl of brick buildings was empty. The city wasn’t as noisy. The sun didn’t shine as strongly. When he reached home, Mark knew he would have to tell his mother the painful truth, that a part of Ban Dao had been taken from this world.
She would shed tears. She would tremble and wonder what could have been if the world were a little more perfect. Mark would be by her side, supporting her. He would wait for a rough hand to show that beneath the weathered skin there was a gentleness akin to flower petals beneath it. He would wait for a steady voice and more tales. However, Mark knew there would be nothing but emptiness. He’d have unanswered questions, unresolved hurt, and a lifetime to wonder why the people who brought a soul here could fade away so quickly.