December 31, 1999
The guest in room 216 left behind a copy of The Washington Post on the nightstand when she checked out. As with all the other newspapers she had come across for the past year, Mrs. Loan Nguyen neatly folded it and tucked it safely in her cleaning apron before vacuuming and preparing the room for the next guest. As the morning wore on, the newspaper’s slight weight grew until it tugged on her apron pocket like an impatient child. The itch to read it became so distracting that in one room, her partner, some new girl from El Salvador, had to restack the bathroom towels in the proper order. Mrs. Nguyen apologized after the second mishap, but in her mind she scoffed. She probably doesn’t even speak enough English to understand what I’m saying.
Finally, her lunch break arrived. In the break room, she spread the newspaper out over the table and ran her hands over the deep creases and fine ink, taking her time to pick off little bits of crusted food as she went along. She had waited this long, what would a few more moments matter? When it was tidied to her liking, she flipped through each section, skimming headlines and articles. She became so engrossed that she didn’t hear the refrigerator door open and close.
“Loan, the newspapers again?”
It was Mrs. Teresa Hernandez-Vargas, the only person tenured at the Evening Light Inn longer than Mrs. Nguyen.
“Mmm-hmm. It’s tonight.” Mrs. Nguyen leaned back in her chair. “Only a few more hours.”
Mrs. Hernandez-Vargas sighed. “You think too much about this. Like my son, Jorge. He always worries. Homework, schoolwork, grades. He thinks the world will fall apart. He’s like an old man.”
Mrs. Nguyen sighed and returned her attention to the newspaper: Y2K Bug Disaster Looms; What to Expect at Midnight; How Y2K Will Change Your Life. She felt her pulse quicken and a small, familiar knot growing in her gut.
Mrs. Hernandez-Vargas sat across from her and quartered an apple.
“Do you really think anything will happen?”
“Bad things,” Mrs. Nguyen mumbled.
“Did you close your bank accounts already? Change it all to gold?”
Mrs. Nguyen snorted at the gentle chiding in her friend’s voice. This wasn’t the first time Mrs. Hernandez-Vargas had asked about their accounts. Always joking, of course. Teasing. It’s nothing, as her daughter would say. You’re being crazy. Still, it stuck with her, these questions. They were friends, but in America, whom could you really trust?
“Rosa’s quinceañera is next weekend. If we’re still alive, why don’t you bring your family over? I haven’t seen the little ones in so long.”
“Little!” Mrs. Nguyen looked up. “Don’t you remember? Kim has a baby now. And Bobby is going to graduate from high school this year.”
“Of course. That’s right. And the other one? My oldest thought he was cute.”
“Martin?” Mrs. Nguyen’s shoulders slumped at the mention of her middle child. “Who can say what he does? Trouble.”
“Ah.” Mrs. Hernandez-Vargas smiled at her sadly, remembering. “That’s right. You told me. Same with my cousin and her son. She tells him all the time, I don’t want to know! Whatever it is, don’t go to jail.”
Mrs. Hernandez-Vargas finished her last bite of apple. “But with your Y2K obsession, who has time for children?” She laughed.
“You laugh now. We’ll see what happens.”
“Loan, what can any of us do if anything goes wrong? Hmm?”
Without waiting for an answer, she got up, rinsed her knife in the sink, wished her a Happy New Year, and wheeled her squealing cart into the lobby, leaving Mrs. Nguyen alone with her thoughts and her articles.
When Mrs. Nguyen started at the Evening Light Inn years before, neither she nor Mrs. Hernandez-Vargas spoke much English. Even so, they gravitated toward each other, pointing, miming, and mumbling mispronounced words in half-conversations. Who had the time to take English classes, or even the money to pay for them? Not when there were so many bills to pay, children to look after. But the years passed, and bit by bit, they learned. Nearly 20 years later, there they were, still. Old now. Mrs. Nguyen scanned another article, squinting at the long, confusing words describing the possibility of missile silos going haywire and launching at predetermined targets. That’s different. She wondered what it would be like to see the sky filled with thin streaks of fire, crisscrossing, raining down all around her. Her husband might know. On another page, a columnist warned that the banks had all but given up against the Y2K Bug and records of everything would disappear the moment December rolled into January.
Mrs. Nguyen nodded, feeling the weight of the world pushing down on her, not an altogether alien feeling, though in a body much changed from the one in her youth, when she ran along riverbanks in South Vietnam, selling fish and candies to the villagers. Or when she was a young bride, barely out of childhood and already heavy with child, and with a husband locked away in a prison camp. But that was all before they made their frantic escape from Vietnam with Bao and Kim. Her younger brother, Bao. He was what, 14 when they left? So young, but already strong. Kim was just a toddler then. And now she had her own child. Had it been so long? She looked down at her wrinkled hands and stretched her rough, calloused feet, and listened to her ankles creak. In her childhood she was quick, lithe. Now she was a grandmother. Some days, she even walked with a limp, like her husband, rattling her cart along the corridors of the Evening Light Inn and looking very much a ghost next to the bright, smiling Mrs. Hernandez-Vargas.
On her way home from work, Mrs. Nguyen stopped at the grocery store and picked up a half cart’s worth of canned chicken soup. She wasn’t sure what compelled her to clip so many coupons since she couldn’t stand the stuff. In fact, if her doctor had not instructed her otherwise, she would have attempted to subsist on rice alone, like the monks in the pagoda near her village. But here, her doctor told her, in America, she needed meat. Such a sin.
Mrs. Nguyen pulled into her driveway in Springfield and parked behind her husband’s car. She had begged him that morning to leave work early and was pleased he had done so. 10 years ago he wouldn’t have listened to her request. Not even five years ago. How quickly things change. In the living room, crates filled with a year’s worth of newspapers lined the walls, stacked nearly to the ceiling, well above her head.The Washington Post. USA Today.The New York Times. The Wall Street Journal. The National Enquirer. Anything that held any information about the Y2K Bug. Boxes huddling around the old, beat-up sofas and underneath the side tables overflowed with magazines and even a few books she had never read. Somewhere she had even stowed three VHS cassette tapes smuggled out of the WETA building by a friend who cleaned the offices there. Everything was meticulously grouped by date, though she often wondered if she should have organized everything by the types of data she had gleaned instead. She found the appropriate crate and filed her newest acquisition away.
In the kitchen at the rear of the house, Mrs. Nguyen dropped the cans of soup into an empty box and set it with the other canned goods by the sliding glass door. She caught sight of her husband, Mr. Thanh Tran, as he climbed a ladder out of a large hole in the ground in the middle of the backyard. He picked up a bag of potatoes from the pile of supplies next to the hole and gingerly lowered himself onto the ladder and disappeared back down into the earth. Mrs. Nguyen zipped up her coat and carried a container filled with packages of instant macaroni and cheese into the backyard. She stood by the open hatch, which was camouflaged with grass and dirt, and waited for her husband to appear. The faint sound of shuffling boxes came from below, and as she peered into the dark, her breath blooming before her, she caught the glow of orange candlelight flickering against the packed dirt walls. The shuffling stopped, and a moment later, the top of Mr. Tran’s head appeared and he climbed up to her.
“Where are the boys?” she asked in Vietnamese when he reached her.
Mr. Tran raised his arms above his head and stretched his back before answering. His hair clung to his sweaty scalp. She imagined steam rising from his skin.
“Bobby’s in D.C. playing chess.”
Mr. Tran shrugged.
She nodded. “How did you get off so early?”
“I told them I was sick.”
“It’s cold. I’ll make you some tea.”
The phone was ringing when Mrs. Nguyen returned to the kitchen.
It was Kim. Mrs. Nguyen smiled. It was always nice to hear from her daughter, even in English. She sat at the kitchen table and answered in Vietnamese. “How are you? How’s Eugene and my granddaughter?”
“They’re fine. Wendy’s been running a fever, but it broke last night.” Kim’s Vietnamese was thick and awkward and she often had to switch to English. “How’s dad?”
“He’s working in the backyard. Did you use green oil on Wendy? It will help. You have to be careful when it gets cold. Make sure she’s wearing a coat if she goes outside.”
“Do you want to store anything here with us? Make sure it’s canned!”
“Are you busy right now? I want to come by with Wendy and take a nap.”
“Yes, yes. Come over. I’ll make dinner.”
“No, you don’t have to do all that.”
“Is Eugene coming? He likes my nem nuong, doesn’t he?”
“He’s on call at the hospital. Don’t make such a bother, okay? I just need some sleep.”
“At the hospital? Tonight? He should be at home with you and Wendy.”
“It’s New Year’s Eve. It’s going to be busy in the emergency room. Just stop, okay? Wendy and I will come by in a little while.”
“Don’t forget to bring your things to store!”
After they hung up, Mrs. Nguyen put the kettle on the stove and pulled from the refrigerator the ingredients for nem nuong, going over in her head how much meatball paste she would need. Her three children, her husband, her son-in-law, her granddaughter. She’d have to call to see if her brother Bao was coming by. And herself. She couldn’t forget herself, could she? What a full house tonight. She remembered her family’s gatherings when she was little, and how her mother and aunts would fill the kitchen, each one working on a separate dish as they gossiped and laughed. She hummed happily as she mashed the pork and fish sauce together and began rolling little meatballs.
After South Vietnam fell in 1975, Mr. Tran returned home long enough for him and Mrs. Nguyen to marry and conceive Kim. She remembered mostly from this time his weariness, a marked change from the broad-shouldered, straight-backed boy of her youth. His limp seemed to worsen each day, his capacity to endure his own weight ebbing. He spent his days alone, or drinking and exchanging war stories with old friends. Even Mrs. Nguyen’s father tried to talk to him, to get him to snap out of his melancholy. She thought revealing her pregnancy would ease things for him, give him something, anything, to look forward to. And for a while, it did. He seemed happy then, or at least made an attempt to appear so, a kindness for which she felt an immeasurable sense of gratitude. He even began building little trinkets and toys.
But by the time Kim was born, Mr. Tran had been taken. Reeducation camp, they called it. She and other South Vietnamese knew it for what it was. Prison.
He did not return until 1979, and what little he had kept of himself from the war had been further lessened. To Mrs. Nguyen, he was a stranger. Kim, who was already three, cried when she met him. His body had shriveled down to scarred flesh strung tightly around brittle bones. He spent his days drunk and his nights crying out in his sleep. This lasted for months until one day he came home late at night, not stinking of alcohol.
Mr. Tran had met a man who could get them out of Vietnam, he explained. He dug through their belongings for all their gold and jewelry. He dropped them in handfuls on their bed. Rings and bracelets and gold leaves. There was the necklace with the ivory-carved Buddha pendant Mrs. Nguyen’s grandmother had purchased when she became pregnant with Mrs. Nguyen’s mother. It was to be Kim’s. They argued. She screamed and cried. It wasn’t until Mr. Tran promised that the gold would include passage for Mrs. Nguyen’s younger brother that she relented. In the weeks that followed, Mr. Tran improved. He avoided alcohol. He exercised. He and Kim got acquainted. Mrs. Nguyen had second thoughts of leaving, but the possibility of Mr. Tran reverting to his old ways terrified her. And when he talked about leaving Vietnam, she saw in his eyes the spark she had fallen in love with all those years ago, and how could she risk losing that again? If not for her, then for her daughter, who needed a father, and not a broken man.
Three weeks later, on a moonless night, Mrs. Nguyen, Mr. Tran, Bao, and little Kim piled into a rotted old boat with a dozen other families and slipped into the still sea. They held their breaths as they puttered past the border, between patrol boats, and away from Vietnam. Among them were children, former soldiers, farmers. Mrs. Nguyen worried that the creaking old vessel would collapse under all the weight. But it proved seaworthy, at least in that respect. And once on the open water, they kept a wary eye out for pirates. But it was greed, not pirates, which eventually caught them.
The motor, fawned over by the man who sold them passage as newly rebuilt, gave out in the middle of the sea, stranding them for nearly three weeks with little water and less food. Mrs. Nguyen mixed flour and seawater to feed Kim, who spit it up after a few small gulps. She wailed until she could only make dry, choking noises. Around them, people waited for a sure death.
An old woman was the first to go. Her granddaughter, a young woman of about 20, refused to let them throw the body overboard. Mr. Tran tried to reason with her.
“We can’t bring her with us,” he said. “There’s nothing you can do.”
“Please,” the young woman begged, her grandmother’s head in her lap. “She just needs some sleep.” The old woman’s black, loose clothing was soiled from years of labor in the rice paddies. The granddaughter sniffled and scratched at sections of the old woman’s shirt caked with dirt, staining her fingertips reddish-brown.
Mr. Tran shook his head and walked away.
Mrs. Nguyen watched him confer with Bao and another man. She knew they were on the verge of forcing the young woman away from the corpse. She crept over and sat next to the young woman and held Kim in her lap as she cried.
“We’re going to get sick,” Mrs. Nguyen said quietly. “Think of the children. We can’t have her here.”
“She’s fine,” the granddaughter whispered. “I told her we could make it. She didn’t want to come.”
Mrs. Nguyen looked around at the people who hadn’t eaten in—how many days now? She couldn’t remember. Too many. She bit her lip and forced out the words.
“Nobody has eaten in so long. We must get rid of her quickly. Do you understand?”
The air between them chilled, and Mrs. Nguyen saw in the young woman’s eyes an awful dawning. She pressed her grandmother’s head against her belly and begged to be left alone.
Mrs. Nguyen got to her feet and led Kim away. She nodded to her husband.
Mr. Tran turned and squinted at the afternoon sun. He shifted his weight from his good leg to his bad and back again as though he were afraid.
Mrs. Nguyen and Kim watched the clear sky spreading before them. For long moments, the boat people were silent except for the young woman’s soft crying. Waves gently rocked the boat, and the quiet, shearing sound of wind skipping over water reminded them that they were stranded. Vietnam was no longer visible, but in front of them lay the rest of their trip, an open, empty ocean, devoid of landmarks except for the stark line where water and sky met. Mrs. Nguyen stared into the distance, trying to see through water and the curve of the horizon to divine their path. She felt her husband’s hand on the small of her back, and she leaned a little against it, grateful for something on which to rely, if only for a moment. And then it was gone, and she heard him address the young woman.
“Have you said goodbye?” he asked.
The granddaughter, whose back was turned to him, sobbed.
“You’ll go crazy if you can’t let go,” he said.
His voice sounded hollow and distant and Mrs. Nguyen looked to his face to make sure he had spoken.
The young woman ignored the words and held her grandmother’s head tighter in her lap, as though nursing a baby. Around them, women cried and men cast uneasy looks at the body.
As the sun set, Bao and another man dragged the young woman away from the body. She screamed, twisted, and kicked, her face a bulging, angry mass of red. Mrs. Nguyen feared she would overpower them in her grief. But she eventually collapsed, forcing them to struggle with her dead weight. Two other men hoisted the corpse by its underarms and ankles and threw it overboard. The young woman screamed and yanked her hair out in clumps and crawled to the edge of the boat, but Mr. Tran held her back, his stoic expression melting into sympathy. Finally she gave up and huddled, shaking, on the deck.
Down below, the corpse bobbed with the ocean’s ripples, its black clothes dark with water. The setting sun lent the sea a burning quality, and the bright purples and dark oranges mixed together around the body, claiming it as its own. But it didn’t leave or sink right away. It floated alongside the boat, rubbing its head against the side. As night fell, Mrs. Nguyen deposited Kim in Mr. Tran’s embrace and made her way to the young woman and held her as she cried for death to take her as well.
Kim and Wendy arrived about an hour after her phone call. Wendy slept in a bundle of colorful winter clothes, and when Mrs. Nguyen took her from her daughter, Wendy smacked her lips. Mrs. Nguyen pressed the back of her hand against her small forehead and it was cool, though her little body felt warm in her arms.
“Come eat,” Mrs. Nguyen said brightly. “The nem nuong is ready.”
“Mom, I told you not to worry about dinner,” Kim said with a sigh.
“But Eugene likes my nem nuong.”
“He’s working tonight. I told you that.” Kim kicked off her shoes and tossed her coat on the closest sofa. She looked around with a grimace, picked up a newspaper, and shook her head at the headline. “You need to get rid of these. It’s crap, mom. Nothing’s going to happen. You can’t even see the floor.”
“Of course, of course.” Mrs. Nguyen carried Wendy over to the sofa and eased herself down. “The food is getting cold.”
“I’m really tired. I’ll eat when I wake up, okay?”
“But I made so much.”
“Okay, okay. Go sleep in my and daddy’s room.”
Kim disappeared down the hall.
Mrs. Nguyen slipped Wendy’s small wool cap off and brushed her dark bangs aside. Her granddaughter looked Vietnamese, despite Eugene’s Chinese blood. Strange. Of course, she and Mr. Tran had some Chinese blood too. But still, Wendy would have definitely fit right in with all the babies she remembered being born in her village in Vietnam. She heard the rear sliding glass door open and shut, and a shuffle of feet as Mr. Tran removed his shoes.
“Look who’s here,” Mrs. Nguyen said.
Mr. Tran limped into the living room, his face spreading into a toothy smile when he saw his granddaughter. “Who’s that, huh? You found another baby while I was outside?”
“I pulled this one from the trash. Her mom didn’t want her.”
Mr. Tran laughed and leaned down to kiss Wendy’s chubby cheek.
“Careful, you’ll wake her,” Mrs. Nguyen said, scrunching up her face. “You stink. Go shower and come to dinner. I set your clothes in the hallway bathroom. Kim’s sleeping in our room.”
Mr. Tran limped down the hall. After a moment, she heard the water run. She stood and circled the living room, gently rocking Wendy, and after a while, wandered down the hall to Martin’s room. The door creaked open, revealing piles of clothes strewn about his bed and chair, and half-empty dishes piled high on his nightstand. Dust clung to his unused computer, and a pungent, earthy odor hung in the air. It smelled faintly of skunk. How does he live like this? She shook her head and switched Wendy to one arm. With her free hand, she gathered several dishes and headed to the kitchen where she dumped them in the sink. On the table, her nem nuong grew cold. She popped a small one in her mouth. Just one wouldn’t be missed. A little greasy, but good. A flush of guilt warmed her cheeks, but she ignored it and swallowed. Eating a small one wasn’t greedy. There was enough for everyone, even her.
Mrs. Nguyen turned on the rear porch light and stared at the bunker’s closed hatch from the kitchen, its slight discoloration the only clue that it was different from the rest of the lawn. She wondered what the bunker looked like with all the supplies sorted. In her arms, Wendy slept soundly. Mrs. Nguyen hesitated for a moment before slipping on her coat and gently fitting Wendy’s wool cap back onto her granddaughter’s head.
The bunker smelled strongly of damp earth, though the temperatures had been below freezing for the past week. Mrs. Nguyen lit a candle, and light spread softly along the concrete blocks that made up the walls. It was a small space, maybe 150 square feet, but offered more than enough room for everyone in the family. She was happy. They had constructed the bunker that past summer. Convincing Mr. Tran hadn’t been easy, and once they started, the weather seemed to conspire against them at every step. Twice they had to start from scratch after heavy rainfalls had flooded the pit, causing it to collapse upon itself. But they persisted—they were, if anything, tenacious—and slowly the walls took shape. The tunnel grew. The ceiling held. And during a lucky stretch of clear weather in August, they finished. Now she surveyed their work. Large wooden columns braced against the walls on either side of her rose to the ceiling where they were connected by large beams that supported the weight of the ground above. Shelves packed with food ran down the length of the bunker. Pushed against the shelves were benches made with the same wooden planks Mr. Tran had used to build the floor. Beneath the benches were bags of candles and waterproof matches and sleeping rolls and blankets. Everything they could possibly need. There was even a small altar with pictures of her dead parents and an incense pot. At the rear of the bunker stood a wall of bottled water. She lowered the candle and set it on the nearest shelf. A tingle of excitement crept through her, an electric humming promising that somewhere on the other side of midnight was proof she wasn’t foolish. She wasn’t blind to their disdain—her children, her friends. Their eyes said it all: How silly. How embarrassing. What a peasant. She had gone over everything in her head countless times and knew she wasn’t wrong. Catastrophes struck when nobody was looking, during breathless moments reserved for the watching stars, and the aftermath gave birth to entirely new lives. Who could have imagined her in this strange, foreign land? Who could have foreseen her daughter marrying so young? Or the birth of the child now napping in her arms?
Wendy woke and stretched her chubby cheeks in a yawn. She turned in Mrs. Nguyen’s arms and looked around, blinking at the dark, at the shadows. Her brows furrowed and her cheeks grew red as she began to cry.
“Oh, oh, oh. It’s okay, it’s okay.” Sometimes Mrs. Nguyen imagined Vietnamese words among her granddaughter’s cries and gibberish. This was not one of those times. She tried whispering soothing sounds but Wendy kept crying. She sighed, glanced around the bunker one last time, blew out the candle, and climbed back up.
In the kitchen, Bobby, her youngest, stuffed his face with noodles and nem nuong.
“How was chess?” Mrs. Nguyen asked. Wendy whined and Mrs. Nguyen held her over her shoulder and patted her back. She turned so Wendy could see Bobby. “See Uncle Bobby? Who’s that? Huh? Who’s that?”
Bobby blew out his cheeks and puckered his lips like a fish. Long strands of noodles hung from his mouth. Wendy giggled and he swallowed.
“Chess was fine.”
Mrs. Nguyen set Wendy on the counter and washed her hands. When she was done, they sat and she fed Wendy noodles from Bobby’s plate.
“Where do you play in D.C.?”
“Hmph.” Mrs. Nguyen fed Wendy tiny bits of nem nuong. She drooled and smiled, her round cheeks pushing the folds of her eyes nearly closed. “Have you seen Martin?”
Bobby shook his head.
“You’ll stay in tonight?”
“I don’t know.”
“Yeah.” Bobby got up and put his dish in the sink. He took Wendy from Mrs. Nguyen and swung her gently through the air, eliciting squeals and giggles.
Mr. Tran came into the kitchen, his hair still damp.
“I’ll take her downstairs,” Bobby said.
Mr. Tran snorted as he heaped noodles onto his plate. “For what? To teach her how to play games?”
Bobby shrugged and made farting noises against Wendy’s cheek.
“She needs her milk,” Mrs. Nguyen said.
“I’ll feed her.” Bobby and Wendy went into the living room for Wendy’s bag and headed downstairs.
When they were alone, Mr. Tran scowled.
“He plays too much. He sees me walk like this, and he doesn’t help with the boxes.”
Mrs. Nguyen nodded sullenly, her arms naked.
“You’re not eating?” Mr. Tran asked.
“I’ll eat in a little while.”
Mr. Tran patted her hand. “Don’t get too skinny. Remember what the doctor said.”
“Is Bao coming over?”
“I called him earlier but he wasn’t home.”
“Too bad. Did you see the bunker yet?”
Mrs. Nguyen smiled and squeezed her husband’s hand. “Thank you.” She sighed. “Even Teresa at work makes fun of me.”
“Nobody knows how bad it can be.”
As evening turned to night, Mrs. Nguyen wondered where Martin was, whether he’d even come home. Whatever it is, don’t go to jail, Mrs. Hernandez-Vargas had said. What did she know about jail? An image of Martin came to her, as skinny as Mr. Tran had been when he returned from the prison camp. She bit her lower lip, remembering Martin’s terrible temper. He had once beaten Bobby so badly they had to keep Bobby out of school for a week for fear that Mr. Tran would be blamed. Mrs. Nguyen watched her husband’s jaw muscles clench as he chewed. His cheeks had fattened over the years. Even so, she wondered where they had veered off course, if somewhere between Vietnam and Thailand they had lost their way and never recovered. Perhaps Martin was born lost. After her husband had eaten and she had a handful of meatballs, she shoveled the remaining nem nuong into a plastic container for Kim to take home with her.
A little before 11 p.m., Mrs. Nguyen and Mr. Tran began bundling themselves up in their heaviest winter clothes. Kim and Wendy had already left, and Bobby stayed shut up in his room. With much reasoning from Mr. Tran, Mrs. Nguyen left Bobby alone, and together they suited up to ring in the New Year down in the bunker. As she dressed, she went over in her head the many problems to expect: airplanes dropping from the sky; missiles launching; banks no longer working; everything else falling apart. Power, water, cars—everything—relied on computers nowadays. Who knew what would survive the next hour? She slowly pulled up her zipper, counting the click of each tooth as her husband tied his bootlaces.
The front door opened. Martin had come home.
“Is there anything to eat?” he asked when he saw them. He opened the refrigerator.
“Where have you been?” Mrs. Nguyen asked.
Mr. Tran walked outside.
“Out,” Martin said in a bored voice. His shirt was wrinkled, and from across the kitchen she could smell cigarette smoke and alcohol on him, though he was only nineteen.
“Well, we’re going into the small house,” Mrs. Nguyen said, unfamiliar with an English word to describe the bunker. “Are you coming with us?”
Martin snorted. “Where’s all the food?”
“Why didn’t you eat? You always have money to throw away.”
“I don’t like eating at Eden at night.” Martin closed the refrigerator door.
“Eden! What’d I tell you about that place?” After several shootings years ago, Mrs. Nguyen warned her children against going to the Vietnamese strip mall.
“Whatever. I’m going to bed.”
Mrs. Nguyen wanted to scream at her son, but instead, she watched him disappear down the hall and slam his bedroom door shut behind him. She filled a glass with cold tap water. It tasted stale and faintly of metal. The lump in her throat persisted. She took a deep breath and went outside.
Dozens of lit candles scattered along the shelves flickered when Mrs. Nguyen climbed into the bunker. Mr. Tran sat on a bench, the gentle candlelight lending his skin a soft, orange glow that stripped away the years and the stress and whatever terrible anger was in him that kept him alive for so long, and for a moment, he looked a boy again. But the illusion fell away as she sat next to him and he put an arm around her. She felt cold.
“Martin’s not coming?” he asked, his voice as gentle as she had ever heard it.
She shook her head.
“So selfish,” Mr. Tran said.
“There’s so much food down here,” she said, numbly poking through a shoebox filled with small, thin packets. “Broth mix. What do I need this for?” Her chest swelled, and when the urge to throw something came, she didn’t fight it. The shoebox bounced off the wall of bottled water. The pouches scattered. Her eyes blurred and she tilted her head back and stared at the ceiling. She watched a beetle scurry across a beam and disappear where the wood and dirt joined. Then there was another. And another. Her eyes focused and she realized there were dozens of beetles crawling along the ceiling, moving back and forth. The bunker was alive with them. Normally she would have sprung to her feet, rag or rolled up newspaper in hand, ready to kill them all. But now she recognized that she and her husband were intruding on the beetles, that the dark and the earth were meant for them, an entire world where she and Mr. Tran were unwelcome guests.
Mr. Tran rubbed her back.
“We had to leave?” Mrs. Nguyen whispered.
“Yes. We had to.”
For a long time they sat, letting the flames from the candles dance and move in the soft breeze of their breaths. Along the walls and packed dirt ceiling, the light grew and shrank, climbing in and out of the uneven dents and dimples in the dirt as shadows rose and fell between the stacks of goods they’d collected. When she blurred her eyes, Mrs. Nguyen imagined she saw the silhouettes of her children and her brother and her dead parents, and she wished that instead of seeing their outlines, she could feel them. She wanted to touch their heft, their presence, but the creeping doubt in her mind told her they were beyond her reach, that the only things left to her were shadows dancing on the wall.
A screech of tires jolted her from her daydream. Mr. Tran’s arm tightened around her waist. Then they heard distant cursing and yelling.
Is that Martin? Why is he screaming?
Mrs. Nguyen exchanged a glance with her husband. They scrambled up the ladder and burst through the hatch. For an instant, the night was still and normal. But then everything fell on her at once. The sound of a car speeding down the street. Echoes of screaming. And then she saw it. A ring of hazy orange surrounding their house. Through the sliding glass door she saw the source of the glow.
The living room was on fire.
Rough hands pushed her aside. Mr. Tran limped toward the house, his shoulders dipping unevenly as he moved.
“Thanh, don’t…” she began.
Mr. Tran waved a hand toward their neighbor’s house. “Call the fire department!”
Mrs. Nguyen ran.
Their neighbor, an elderly Cambodian woman whom they rarely spoke to, left the screen door between them but assured her she would call the fire department. Mrs. Nguyen thanked her and hurried to the front sidewalk. There she saw the front door standing open, and through a broken bay window, she spotted Bobby beating a burning sofa with a blanket. Flames crept up the wall behind him, high enough to lick the ceiling. Around him, Mrs. Nguyen’s collection of newspapers and magazines and books and three VHS cassette tapes burned. The air swirled with sparks and cinder and bits of burning paper. Mr. Tran appeared behind Bobby and unloaded a small fire extinguisher at the sofa. White smoke filled the room and spilled out through the broken window and rose in a thick gray plume. From the corner of her eye, she spotted Martin running toward her from down the block, barefoot.
“What happened?” she yelled. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Martin snapped as he headed toward the front door.
Mrs. Nguyen grabbed his arm as he passed.
He whirled on her, his eyes hard and cold and black, and she felt her heart skip a beat. He pulled free of her grip and charged into the house.
A page of burning newspaper fluttered out through the open door and the wind dragged it along the sidewalk to where she stood. The paper burned to nothing. Her gut clenched and waves of nausea swept over her and she felt her head spinning, spinning. She bent over and vomited acid and saliva and bits of nem nuong and noodles. When she was done, she wiped her snot and tears as hiccups shook her body.
A moment later, just as she felt the ground teetering beneath her, Mr. Tran and Bobby rounded the corner from the side of the house, covered in sweat and black soot. Bobby rubbed his arms in his tee shirt and sweatpants and she saw him shivering as he approached. Mr. Tran reached for her and she gratefully fell into his arms.
“Where’s Martin?” she asked.
“He went to his room,” Bobby said.
“What?” Panic drove away her nausea and she moved toward the house. Much of the smoke from the extinguisher had cleared, but the living room still burned. Mr. Tran’s arms circled her waist, pulling her back.
“Martin!” she screamed. “Come out!” Mr. Tran tightened his hold on her but anger and fear lent her the strength to pull free from her husband.
“Goddammit,” Mr. Tran said, grabbing her wrist. “Stay here. I’ll go find him.”
Before she could answer, Martin stumbled through the front door in a coat with a black bandana pressed over his nose and mouth. He had his backpack slung over a shoulder.
Mr. Tran rushed forward and grabbed him by the collar. “What happened?”
“Let go,” Martin snapped. He pried his father’s hand loose. “Some car drove up and they threw a bottle at the house and everything started burning. I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” Mr. Tran roared. He looked his son up and down and pointed down the street. “You don’t know them? How don’t you know? Huh? You chased them down the street.” He pushed him. “You’re lying. You’re a liar.”
In the distance, a fire engine’s siren screamed.
Martin shifted the backpack on his shoulder. “Get out of my way. I have to go.”
“Go where?” Mr. Tran hissed. “Huh? You can’t tell the police what you saw?” He grabbed Martin’s backpack. “Or you can’t let them see this?” He yanked at a strap.
Mr. Tran threw a punch. It landed with a crack on the side of Martin’s head. At the same time, they both pulled the backpack in opposite directions and it burst open at the zipper. Five large, clear, plastic bags, the gallon-sized Ziploc ones, tumbled to the ground, each bulging with clumpy green material. A pungent, earthy odor filled Mrs. Nguyen’s nostrils. It smelled like Martin’s room. She looked down at the packages and up at her son.
“Don’t fucking touch me!” Martin screamed. He shoved his father with all his might, driving him backward.
Mr. Tran stumbled, lost balance, and collapsed.
Bobby wrapped Martin in his arms and pulled him away.
Mrs. Nguyen hurried to her husband’s side. He waved her off and slowly stood, his bad leg shaking as he straightened. His eyes burned and his face was red and mean. She held him by the elbow but he didn’t move.
Martin broke out of Bobby’s hold and silently repacked his bag, shooting glances around the neighborhood. When he finished, he glared at them before spitting and turning away, disappearing into the night.
“Go on!” Mr. Tran yelled. “Don’t come back here! You’re an animal! Goddammit! Piece of shit!”
“No, no, Cuong, stop!” Mrs. Nguyen screamed, using Martin’s Vietnamese name. “Come back, Martin!” She looked to her husband, to Bobby. They would not meet her gaze. She screamed for Martin again.
But he was gone.
Mrs. Nguyen fell to her knees and scratched at the hard, frozen ground, at a dead tuft of brown grass, at dirt and tiny rocks. Her fingernails cracked and broke and she felt heat and blood as her hands grew slick. She pressed her forehead to the earth and wished very hard for her son to return but when she sat up there was no reply. There was only the sidewalk, only darkened houses and porch lights, only floating, curious faces appearing behind curtained windows. Only shadows.
The firemen extinguished the fire quickly. They were lucky, the fireman with the gray mustache said. Just superficial damage. The police came and took their statements. There was no mention of Martin. Mr. Tran and Bobby went to an all-night hardware store for a sheet of plywood to nail over the broken bay window. Alone, Mrs. Nguyen wandered through the living room, keeping a silent inventory of what had been lost in the fire, what could be salvaged. The room looked hollowed out, a charred and inky maw. Puddles of ash and melted carpet covered the floor. Her boxes had burned to smears of black. Her magazines, her newspapers. All her work. All gone. Her fingers throbbed in the haphazard bandages she had wrapped around her hands.
The clock in the hallway chimed three times and Mrs. Nguyen felt her strength leaving with each intonation. Three o’clock. What had Martin called it? The witching hour? What an odd thing to call it. She remembered the boy Martin had been once: clever, small enough to fit on her back, and filled with whispered stories. She could never tell which of his stories were real and which he had spun on the spot to confuse her. The witching hour, he had once explained to her gently, was the easiest time to communicate with the dead. He had spoken with the most patience she had ever seen in him before or since. When was this? Ah. She remembered now. Had more than a decade really passed? Her mother had died that week, and there wasn’t enough money to return to Vietnam for the funeral. Martin was the only one of her children to lie with her as she cried, the only one to sit with her through the rituals and the prayers. The only one to mourn a woman he had never met. Later, after the window was boarded up and she lay in bed next to Mr. Tran, she imagined little Martin there with her still, his head nudging her shoulder, whispering his tales. But when she opened her eyes to search him out, he had gone, leaving her to float off somewhere in the dark.