How to Get to Houston, in English and Vietnamese: Part One

short story

This short story was written by Gillian Pressley.

Stamped in pristine new passports, holiday visas. Three passports, three visas. One each for Bố and one for Mẹ and one for Lan.

Where else to go but Disneyland, “Where Dreams Come True”? It said so on the gates. Bố and Mẹ had been with her then, at the gates.

They had been with her on the airplane too. Her first time, and so excited-scared it was like she couldn’t breathe. Like when you have to creep to the toilet in the dark at Grandma’s house and maybe Grandpa’s ghost will be in there, waiting to catch you. Which also might be true, because her cousins told her so.

Kicking the back of the seat in front, until the lady there, with glasses with black frames and all this frizzly yellowy hair, spun around and gave her a look like a whole basket of angry snakes. Mẹ hissed at her to stop. Because Mẹ was still with her, and Bố.

But not acting like Bố and Mẹ usually did. Acting weird.

Mẹ all snappy when Lan bucked her flimsy plastic tray-table and sent her coke fizzing and splattering all over the lap of her favourite Frozen dress and the seat and seatbelt too.

Bố with his eyes goggling at the tiny seat-back screen, at stupid grown up movies, for hours. Flapping his hand at her like broke-winged bird when she reached across Mẹ to get his attention.

But still there, in their airplane seats, the whole looooong, boooorrrinnngg 16 hours.

At least she’d had her new ipad to play with. She’d still had that, at least. Though she hadn’t known it’s secrets yet, not then.

Lan is nine years old. She is Vietnamese. It says so in her passport. Admitted to the USA on 12 May 2012. Her Visa says, Visa type: Tourist. That means người đi du lịch. Travelling person.

When the angry-scary white man, giống như một con ma, like a ghost, looked at their passports, Bố and Mẹ were there. Lan couldn’t have answered his questions. He looked bored, and spoke like he didn’t really wanna open his mouth.

Bố and Mẹ had been nervous, Lan could tell. Like they wanted to make the ghost man happy, but didn’t know how. Like when you’ve been sitting in Cô Trang’s classroom and spacing out, and she picks you. And you really wanna answer her question, you really do, coz Cô Trang’s so nice and so pretty in her áo dài, but you just don’t know how.

Spaced out. That’s a new word she’s learned from Chris. She doesn’t know Chris’s other name, but that’s ok, Chris doesn’t care. Spaced out is when you can’t tập trung, can’t focus, coz your head’s gone another place, all on its own, and left you sitting there.

Like Bố and Mẹ left her. But she doesn’t wanna think about that now. She won’t.

Bố and Mẹ were still there on the special Disney bus, painted all over with Disney characters: Nemo and the Princesses, she thinks. If she remembers right. And she’s gotta remember right. It’s quan trọng, it’s important.

They were still there when they got to the hotel, and Bố carried her off the bus and into the huge shiny reception. And he didn’t know she was awake really, because she pretended to stay asleep. So Bố would carry her. She’s glad she did that now, coz that was the last time.

She didn’t know that then. She was just lazy and liked being all close to her Bố, coz he’d stopped being angry. She’s not lazy now. She can’t be lazy now, even if sometimes she wants to. Chris says so. Coz she’s got so far to go. She wishes Chris would stay with her, but Lan doesn’t know.
Sometimes Lan worries that Bố and Mẹ went away because she was lazy. Or coz sometimes she didn’t do what they told her to. Or coz she complained.

She remembers she complained the next morning, coz Mẹ said, không! No! No, Lan couldn’t wear her Frozen dress again, coz it was still all sticky-dirty with spilled Coke. And she had to wear her sparkly Princess t-shirt and shorts instead.

And she’d complained about breakfast, too. Coz it was so weird. Kỳ lạ. No noodles or đậu hũ or soup. Just all this bread, mountains and mountains of bread with different toppings and stuff inside, and there was dry cereal that Americans always drown in milk, and fruit. The fruit was the most normal thing. And eggs, and meat. Like breakfast at MacDonalds, but she only had that just one time, coz MacDonalds is expensive, even though she begged and begged.

Weird is another new word she’s learned from Chris. Chris is always saying that. Weird, weird, weird. And, gross, which is when things are super-bad, like the smell in the public toilets at the bus station in Tucson.
Tucson is three days and a whole state ago. Tucson was Arizona, but they’re in New Mexico now. She knows because they passed a sign, Welcome to New Mexico. Chris showed her.

There’s not much difference between being in Arizona and being here. Except in Arizona Lan still had enough money for the bus. But the red rocks and the dust and the gas stations and the cars and trucks and the truck stops, they’re are all the same. Exactly the same.

Lan wonders if it will be the same in Texas too. In Houston. She tries not to think about that too much. It makes her shaky, and maybe want to cry. It feels weird. She doesn’t know why.

The first time she tried to tell Chris where she was going, Chris laughed at her. She said she was going to Houston, and this strange girl-boy laughed! And Lan had thought maybe it was because this weirdo thought Houston was too far for her, that she was too little to go such a long way on her own.

So she’d scowled real angry and told the crazy-looking older kid, ‘Don’t you laugh! I got all the way here from Disneyland already!’ Even though she hadn’t been exactly sure where here even was.

‘It’s not that, you douchebag! It’s not!’ Chris had been trying to stop laughing. ‘It’s the way you say it! How-ston!’ she’d repeated. Then, seeing the confused look on Lan’s face, ‘Oh, maaaan. You weirdo! It’s Heeew-ston! No wonder you’re lost!’

Chris still hasn’t told her what douchebag means.

And it was weird, because Lan had been thinking this crazy girl-boy stranger was a weirdo, but Chris had been thinking the same thing about her. Chris told her so later, between Phoenix and Tucson. On the bus.

They don’t have enough money for buses now.

Now, Chris says they’re hitchhiking.

Hitchhiking is when you stand next to a road with your thumb sticking out, and hope someone will stop, and let you get in their car. Only, Chris says that’s the stupid way. Chris says it’s better at truck stops. Safer. So that’s what they do.

Lan isn’t sure about safer. She hasn’t felt safer since she lost Bố and Mẹ, back at Disneyland, at the parade.

Although being with Chris is better than before. A lot better.

After she lost Bố and Mẹ at the parade she was alone for three days, until she met Chris at the bus station in Phoenix. Alone except for the Disneyland cats. But she’s not sure they count. Không chắc chắn. Not sure.

A lot of things are not sure now.

She’d just had her tablet. Her new tablet. And when she worked out why Bố gave it to her, it made her happy and sad, both at the same time.
She wonders if that’s how Bố felt, when he set up the diary alert, and wrote his secret instructions. She has never wondered what Bố or Mẹ feel about anything before. Maybe when she finally, finally gets to Houston (Hew-ston) she’ll be able to call him and ask. Only maybe it will be safer not too.

She never used to worry about safer either. Maybe that was why Bố and Mẹ got away from her. She wasn’t worried enough.

She gets the feeling Chris worries a lot. All the time, weirdo. All the time. Like worrying is normal for Chris, and always has been. But then, worrying didn’t stop Chris from being on her own. From losing her family too. Whoever, wherever, they are. Chris doesn’t wanna talk about them.

Another weird thing about her. Coz who doesn’t wanna talk about their family?

So, but, maybe worrying more doesn’t help that much after all.

Bố and Mẹ had been with her at the beginning of the parade, just after sunset. When the sun went down in California, it took all the warmth away with it. That was different from home. Bố had bought her a new Disney jacket at one of the stores so full of Disney toys and clocks and cups and hats and clothes. It had the magic castle on the back in silver thread, and rainbow mickey heads all up and down the sleeves.

And then they joined the massive muddle of people all jammed up tight for the parade and fireworks. And she can’t remember, or doesn’t know, when Bố and Mẹ slipped away. Her eyes were all goggling at the colourful dancers and pretty car-thingies, all decorated like fairytales, like movies, like dreams.

It makes her cry, if she thinks about how she was noticing the wrong things. Chris says crying is for babies. Em bé.

‘Are you a baby? Coz if ya are, ya c’n just stay here. I ain’t no babysitter.’
Lan knows Chris didn’t mean that. Chris wouldn’t really leave her. Chris just acts mean, sometimes. So she’ll seem stronger.

Stronger = safer.

People, American people, act like what they’re not. A lot.

The waitress at the restaurant where they ate lunch, she was acting. But Lan didn’t know that then. Lan had just thought that woman was annoying. And anyway, she’d been Vietnamese. Một người Việt Nam. How was Lan supposed to know she was a liar?

Just as the parade ended, when everybody’s faces turned up to the sky over the magic castle, and Lan looked around and realised Bố and Mẹ were gone, the waitress appeared. As the first starry, sparkling bang bang bangs took over, there she was, taking Lan’s hand, telling her it was all right, everything would be ok, just come with her.

And Lan trusted her. But she lied.

But if she was a liar, that made Bố a liar too. Another thing Lan can’t think about.

And Chris, Chris lies sometimes too. But that’s different.

‘You lied,’ Lan said. ‘You shouldn’t lie.’ The way it came out of her, hissing-mean, like an angry snake. Maybe it was English. She was a different person in English. Not who she meant to be. Not who she wanted to be. Did that make her a liar too?

Chris had shrugged. Like it was nothing. ‘What’s it to you? Who died and made you the boss of me?’

The waitress, in her restaurant uniform, had taken Lan’s hand. Had told her that Bố wanted his little girl, his bé gái to trust the strange lady, as he did. Lan had seen them talking at lunch, hadn’t she? Hadn’t she?

Now she wishes she’d paid more attention. Not gone off in a sulk, abandoning her stodgy mac and cheese to watch the Pirates of the Caribbean boats trundle past the restaurant courtyard.

The way Bố had checked and checked his watch, like someone stopped at a traffic light. The long conversation with the Vietnamese waitress while her mac and cheese solidified into an unappetising brick of processed cheese and pasta.

The waitress had led her to a secret door, a ‘stage door’, with a sign on it: Disney Cast Members Only. She’d wondered who Cast Members could be.
She’d worked it out later. With so long spent stuck in those secret underground tunnels, how could she not?

Ok, so it was only one night, really… but it felt long.

Until she worked out what Bố had done to her tablet. Not that she really worked it out. Not like you do with a math problem. 2x = y + 4. Not like that.

An alarm went off on her tablet at one in the morning, when she’d been huddled on the cold tiled floor of a bathroom under Disneyland for hours, waiting for the sounds of the Disney Cast Members to die away.
Maybe she fell asleep for a while. She never liked to admit when she was sleepy, afraid she’d miss something. But there had been nothing to miss. Nothing happening, that is. Just the drip drip drip of the tap above her head, the shiny-smooth pebbly tiles under her fingers. The clip clop shush shush of Cast Members getting ready to go home.

Home. She had wanted to go home then. What she’d been missing was Bố and Mẹ. She misses them now. In New Mexico, somewhere. Chris said so. Lan missed the border, coz she fell asleep.

What nobody tells you is, when you’re travelling, especially hitchhiking you have to be so alert all the time, it’s like you’re electric, plugged in and fizzing. It’s exhausting.

That first night, it was her tablet that woke her up, shrilling. Her head had slipped to an uncomfortable angle, resting against the water pipes under the sink. Her neck hurt. So did her ass.

Another word Chris uses, a lot. Like ‘Move yer ass, will ya?’ and ‘Don’t pay attention to that asshole.’

Bố had set up an event alert. It took her almost a minute, still all dazed from sleep, for her fumbling fingers to shut off the alarm. The ‘event’ had said, Đến giờ để mở tài liệu, ‘Hướng dẫn thoát khỏi’. Time to open the ‘Escape Instructions’ document.

She hadn’t known there was anything like that on her tablet. It sounded like some kind of game. But she found it.

Later, on the Greyhound bus, when she finally had time, nothing but time, to think, she wondered. How long had Bố been planning this? Months? Years??

The first thing the ‘instructions’ said was:

Hãy bình tĩnh, con gái yêu quý.
Keep calm, precious girl.

And then, what to do.

How to get out of Disneyland.

How to catch the Greyhound bus, to Houston, Texas.

Her family, the family of Bố’s cousin, were waiting for her there.

The ticket was in the inside pocket of her new jacket, in a new Disney purse. With cash. One hundred and fifty dollars, in crisp, new bills. All in a pocket she hadn’t known was there.

She hadn’t been with Bố when he paid for the jacket. It had been so crowded in the store, Mẹ had taken her outside to wait. Bố must have done it then: opened the zippy pocket. Slipped in the new purse, with its secret money, its bus ticket, bought in advance.

San Barnardino.

Palm Springs.

The bus should have taken her all the way to Houston.

But there’d been a problem. The bus broke down before they even got to Palm Springs. They had waited for ages, before another bus came along. And when it did, it only went as far as Palm Springs. Palm Springs was still California. She could see that, on Google maps.

Texas was a whole two states away. Three, if you counted Texas itself. Texas was huge.

At Palm Springs the conductor told all the passengers to get off. She thinks maybe he’d said they could catch another bus, that their tickets would still be good. But he’d spoken so fast, and his voice was weird. She hadn’t been able to understand, not all of it.

She had tried following the crowd of disembarking passengers, but the station was so full of people, so confusing. So busy. Soon the group broke apart, scattered, all mixed up with other people, hurrying here and there, like frantic, crazy ants.

Plus, she’d needed the toilet. That toilet had been alright. Not disgusting, like the one in Tucson, where she met Chris.


Tucson, where Lan met Chris.

But her money was running out. She’d had to buy new bus tickets, to get that far.


El Paso.

Author: Gillian Pressley

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