Only $25 left. And Chris had said keep it, for food.
Lan didn’t know how much money Chris had, if she had any at all.
She’d bought Chris Coca Cola, cans of Red Bull. Snickers bars and Doritos. Gum. Once, a piece of pie with ice cream at a diner, that they shared.
At home she always shared with her friends. They shared with her too. It was bình thường. Normal.
El Paso is on the border with Mexico. Almost Texas. Almost there now.
Chris says they ‘gotta watch out’ for the Grasshoppers. ‘Great food, though y’never know what all that mince could be. Minced what? Dog? Rat?’
Confusing. Grasshoppers eat dog? Eat rat? Maybe American grasshoppers are different from Vietnamese ones. More ferocious.
The way Chris’s face bunched up, and her voice, Lan thought it was better not to mention that some people back home ate dog meat. Thịt chó. They had it at her grandmother’s house once. Back in Bố’s hometown. It tasted normal. A bit stringy though. A bit tough.
‘Food’s the only good thing about them Taco Jockeys though.’ Taco jockeys? ‘Gotta watch ‘em. You stick with me though. We’ll be all right.’
Later, she gets it. At the truck stop, Chris ‘scopes out possibilities’, looking at the different trucks, huge monsters, inspecting what drivers are around from a safe distance. She dismisses every single one she don’t like the colour of.
This, this, is like home. White skin is better. White skin is the best. Everyone knows it. Everyone wants it. Mẹ had had special cream for whitening, and they always covered up in jackets and hats if they had to go out in the sun.
Americans don’t do that. They don’t seem to care how dark they get.
But Chris can tell the difference. She says.
Which means, not that truck or that one and definitely not this one here.
But, something weird: when they finally find a ride, the driver is black. The blackest black you ever saw. Blacker than the road, which anyway is covered in a reddish kind of dust.
So Lan’s still bối rối. Still confused.
If Bố were here, maybe he could explain it. Bố was good at explaining things. Like homework she didn’t understand, or why Americans all liked waiting in line.
But Bố isn’t here. He’s probably back in Sài Gòn by now. He’s probably back home. Or maybe at work. She isn’t even sure what time it is there now.
Are they sleeping? Eating breakfast? Can they do those things without her? Really?
At the end of Bố instructions, he’d written Hãy gọi Bố Mẹ khi mà con đến đi!
Call us when you get there.
Her elbow propped in the window, stubble-hair pushed flat by the cross-wind, Chris looks over at Lan, stuck, uncomfortable, between the black driver one one side and Chris on the other. Every time the driver shifts the gearstick, his knuckles brush against her thigh.
‘Ya say ya got relatives down in Houston?’
Lan nods, looking at Chris out of the corner of her eye without turning her head.
The wide windshield of the truck has a kind of rainbow-shape of clearer glass, outlined in crusty greyish dirt. Dead bugs are stuck to the glass.
On the truck radio, a weird kind of music, all twangy and sad. All the singers seem to have gritty, sandpaper voices that she can’t understand. The black-black driver, who said his name was Troy, taps along to the rhythm with one hand resting on the leg of his jean dungarees.
‘They legit, or what?’
Chris either doesn’t get, like Chris herself would say, that there’s a lot of words she uses that Lan, in turn doesn’t get, or Chris just doesn’t care.
‘Are they what?’
‘Legit. You know, legal.’ She narrows her eyes at Lan, thinking.
‘I don’t understand.’ The way Chris is looking at her , Lan can feel the nước mắt, the eye water, starting to sting in her eyes. She digs her fingers into her grubby shorts. She doesn’t want to cry. She must not cry.
She shakes her head. ‘No. I don’t know legal.’
Chris huffs, turns her head away again. Like even the same old boring scrub and cracked up earth and dust is more interesting than Lan. She mutters something; it sounds like, Don’t know from shit. Never mind.
A minute later, without turning her head from the window, Chris says, ‘Just where did you say they were living, exactly?’
Lan knows the address. It was on Bố instructions, which she has almost học thuộc lòng. Learned by heart.
They had to learn many things by heart at school. Lan is good at it.
Aunty Nhi and Uncle Thạch live in an apartment on the corner of Holman and Travis streets, in ‘Little Saigon’. Of course it’s not the real Sài Gòn, just like Aunty Nhi and Uncle Thạch aren’t her real uncle and aunt. That’s why the street names aren’t Vietnamese, and they write ‘Saigon’ wrong.
But something about the way Chris says it, the way she doesn’t even look at Lan, and whatever that question was before, that Lan didn’t understand, it makes her not want to tell. She’s told Chris before, she knows she has. Now, the question feels uncomfortable. It feels like a mosquito bite, itchy, but that if you scratch it, it will get worse. It might bleed, or even get infected.
That happened to Lan once, back at home. Mẹ took her to the hospital, to get some horrible pills from the doctor.
But Mẹ isn’t here now. There are no pills for this.
So when Chris finally turns to look at her, waiting for her answer, Lan just shrugs.
And Chris looks at her, and does something weird with her face, that makes her nose scrunch like garbage paper, and mouth twist like a lemon.
Only here, Lan has learned, what she thought were lemons, the green ones, are limes. Lemons, real lemons, are yellow, and bigger.
‘Well girls, this ‘ere’s Van Horn. Reckon ya’ll oughta git down ‘ere if ya’ll’s wanna head on down to Houston. I’ll be turning off fa Dallas soon.’
Pulled up in the almost empty parking lot of a grocery store. H&H Drive In Grocery. Light fading behind them. A low sprawl of a town.
Next to Lan, Chris levers open the cab door, climbs down onto the sort if metal step. Lan, still drowsy, shuffles after her.
The black driver leans after them, pulls shut the door. ‘There’s a diner down a couple blocks thataway,’ he gestures, broad sweeps of his long arm through the open window. ‘Most likely ya’ll be able to pick up annutha down der.’ He pulls himself back into the cab.
‘Sure. Thanks mister.’
It doesn’t sound too much like Chris really means thanks. Chris turns, begins walking the way the driver pointed.
Behind them, the truck turns, massively, slowly. Noses out into the road.
‘An’ hey, y’all!’ the driver’s face hovers, dark in the dark cab, ‘Ya’ll girls watch yaselves! Not every trucker out here honest as ol’ Troy, ya’ll got that?’
Chris already way up ahead on the sidewalk. Lan stands there. Stupidly. Uncertain. Squints up at the black man.
‘Sure! Thanks Mister!’ she repeats. Only this time, she hopes it sounds like she means it. Even if Chris didn’t.
Then she turns and scurries down the sidewalk after Chris.
Who hasn’t stopped for her. Hasn’t waited.
Bố and Mẹ would never have done that. Although of course they hardly walked anywhere at home. If Americans loved their big fat cars, back home, everybody drove their motorbikes everywhere. Cars were for rich people.
It was another weird thing, hardly any motorbikes. Motorcycles. That’s what they call them here.
She wonders if Aunty Nhi and Uncle Thạch have a car.
She wonders if they’ll be like Bố and Mẹ, or more like Americans. Like the lying waitress, or Chris.
She’s a little bit scared to find out.
‘Ôi! Hey!’ she calls into the gloom. Chris’s grey hoodie blends into the twilit suburban street. Hãy đợi em! She wants to say, to shout. But In English, aloud loud loud: ‘Wait for me!’
They sleep in the alley behind the diner. The noise of rats, scrabbling through garbage, and smaller things.
In the morning, ‘How much ya got left?’
Lan checks her special Disney wallet. ‘Nineteen dollars and some cents.’
‘Nuff fer breakfast then. C’mon.’
The next truck has Target in big tall letters on the side. This driver’s white, with weird long hair straggling down his back, under a worn brown cowboy hat. He has a leather waistcoat with a fringe, a wide, wide belt, with a skull-shaped buckle, and dirty jeans. One of his front teeth is grey. Lan doesn’t like the way he smells.
She wishes she could sit next to the window, but Chris always gets there first, and Chris is bigger than her.
Lan is embarassed to ask. Xấu hổ.
Places with names impossible to pronounce.
Không thể phát âm dược.
But she can read them, the weird names, and match them up with her map app. Another thing Bố told her to do. In case she got lost.
Is she lost though? She’s not sure. She’s in a new place, she’s in Texas, but it looks the same as New Mexico, and Arizona before that. She can follow the blue dot that marks where she is on the map, but does that really mean she knows where she is?
She nods off. All the driving, with nothing to do. For days and days.
She wakes to a strange weight on her leg. The pressure of something heavy. It’s a hand. On her leg. A big hand, with nasty hair on the back of it, and on the wrist.
Mr Weird Waistcoat doesn’t look at her. Doesn’t take his eyes from the road.
The smell of him. It feels like it’s all around her, like it’s eating up the air, so she can’t breathe.
Moving just her opposite hand, so slowly, so very very slowly, it’s like a tiny snail creeping along a blade of grass, she reaches across the few inches that separate her from Chris, and pokes her in her leg.
Maybe legs are dangerous today.
Chris whips her head around. Lan can feel her face so tight, her skull digging into the back of the smelly leather seat, like the way it got thrown back on the fast fast whirly train at Disneyland, because of the speed. She wants to scream.
But this is not Disneyland, and Bố and Mẹ are not here to make things all right again.
She uses her eyes. Just her eyes. She looks at Chris, and down at her leg. At the hand. The nasty, hairy hand on her leg. And back at Chris again. Frantic and do something, do something, do something, help me. Cầu xin, begging, with her eyes.
Begging. A word she knows coz Chris said, ‘ I never beg, got it?’
And Chris reaches out, fast as a snake, and slaps the nasty hairy hand away. Like a snake could attack a bear.
Only bears don’t like being bit.
And maybe bears are fast too.
So fast, suddenly there’s an arm, wide as a palm trunk, smashed against Lan’s throat. And that nasty hand grabs Chris’s hair hard, right close to her skull, yanks her head so hard and fast, it’s almost touching Lan’s shoulder.
The truck’s going slower a bit. But not much. And it’s swerving. On a motorbike, không sao. No problem. But this truck is bigger.
So much bigger. It’s a problem.
‘Back off, Mister.’ Chris’s voice is right next to Lan’s ear. It’s stony. It’s threatening.
The glint of metal is threatening too.
‘You wanna loose some fingers, or you gonna stop this here truck and let us out?’
‘Chris! Không! No! Chị đang làm gì? Don’t!’
‘’S under control, kid. Just you shut up, will ya?’
All so fast, Lan không thể theo dõi, but the hairy bear-arm comes off her throat and the hand lets go of Chris and Lan can breathe better.
But the truck. The truck’s not going straight anymore and Chris is leaning right over her now, with the knife in her hand.
‘That’s it, Mister. We’ll just git down right here.’ She keeps her eyes glued tight to Mr Weird Waistcoat, and she says, ‘Open that there door, kid, and git down. Now.’
Walking along the highway. Dust, cigarette butts, flattened cans and plastic bottles. Bristly weeds that remind her of Weird Waistcoat’s hairy arm and hand.
Chris sticks out her thumb every time a car or a truck goes by.
No one stops.
It’s hot. Lan is thirsty.
She doesn’t know how long they walk before the old car pulls over. A young man with a fuzzy chin looks out at them. The face of young woman with a mess of yellow hair hovers at his shoulder.
‘You kids need a ride?’
Chris stops walking. Looks at the dusty old car. At the faces in the open window.
Lan stands behind her. Watching. Sợ. Afraid.
‘Yeah. Where ya going?’
The man laughs. It’s a nice sound. Lan likes it.
‘Anywhere’s gotta be better than here, right?’
Chris just looks at him. His smile goes away.
‘Houston, kid. We’re rolling on down to Houston. Where else? Now you coming, or you wanna keep walking till your feet fall off?’
They see it from far. Houston, all lit up like waiting magic against the fading day.
It feels better than Disneyland.
Where dreams come true.
It’s so BIG.
She never dreamed of this.
How’s Lan gonna find two little Vietnamese people, swimming around like two tiny fish in there?
She’s got her map app. She’s got her blue dot to follow. The blue dot is her. Is Lan on the map. In the map. Finally here.
The nice lady in the car shared some potato chips with them, and a big big bottle of Doctor Pepper. Lan’s still hungry though. Her stomach makes hungry sounds as they stop-start stop-start through traffic lights and all the cars, cars, cars, coming closer and closer to…
‘Hey!’ the yellow-haired woman twists around in her seat. ‘I heard that! You girls hungry?’
Lan looks at Chris. She wants to say yes, she wants to, but Chris is the leader. Chris always decides what they do. What they don’t do.
‘Hey Jed? Reckon they’re hungry. Let’s look fer a drive-in, huh?’
‘Whaddya kids like, then?’ Jed, the man with the fuzzy chin, keeps both hands on the wheel. He looks at them in the skinny mirror he has up there. Like it was put there just for watching strange backseat kids. A little dreamcatcher, with pretty bluey-green beads and soft, floaty feathers, hangs from the mirror’s plastic arm.
Lan can look back at Jed, while the dreamcatcher keeps her hopes and dreams in the car, so she won’t lose them.
She looks at Chris again, real quick. Chris flicks her eyes to the mirror and over the yellow-haired girl. Then she stares out the window again. She shrugs.
Lan watches her. Then whispers to the yellow haired girl, to the man’s pretty eyes in the mirror, ‘Taco Bell.’
Lan đã thử, tried, tasted, Taco Bell in California. It was near the bus station. She saw the words beefy, and cheesy, and 89 cents and the yellow and purple colours, so she went inside.
The words on the menu were difficult to say, so she pointed. And the nhân viên, the girl with the funny hat behind the counter, smiled at her.
The beefy-cheesy taco was delicious. It was yummy.
She wants to go there again.
They see the glowing Taco Bell sign.
Chris says, ‘Sorry, can we go in? I gotta go to the bathroom.’ She doesn’t look at them when she says it. She looks at her sneakers on the floor of the car. They used to be white, but now they’re dirty. They’re not white anymore.
Yellow hair girl looks at Jed. He shrugs, but not like Chris. It’s a shug that says, chắc chắn, sure. It says, I’m always happy, no matter what.
Inside, they get in line.
As they get to the front, Jed takes his wallet out, from the back pocket of his jeans.
Chris looks around. Finds the sign for the bathroom.
‘Whaddya want?’ Jed asks, with his pretty eyes, his fuzzy chin.
‘Whatever.’ And that shrug again. The one that means, I don’t care about nothing.
When Chris comes back, she just picks at her food. Picks out shreds of lettuce, globs of cheese.
Lan closes her eyes and chews, feeling the meat roll around, between her teeth and on her tongue. The melty cheese and creamy sauce.
Lan feels Chris jump up, before she sees her with her eyes. Their chairs, bolted to the table, shudder. Chris dives, skids, spins, her dirty sneakers squeaking against the dirty tile floor.
And she’s gone, out the door.
‘What the – ?!’ Jed, that’s his name, his face is all bare and naked, even his fuzzy chin can’t hide it: giận dữ. So angry. His hand slaps his back pocket. Feels inside.
‘That little –‘ he starts toward the door, and the city night outside.
‘Jed! Jed!’ The yellow-haired girl grabs after him. Catches him by the arm. Her eyes slide to Lan, and back to Jed again. ‘Don’t.’ She says.
The way she says it, it reminds Lan of the way Mẹ used to say, hãy đừng… What was it Lan had done to make her so mad, back then? She can’t remember.
Why do người lớn, big people, no, grown-ups have to be so angry? Chris was angry too. But Chris is gone.
Jed pulls his arm away. ‘That thieving little shit just stole my wallet!’
They go to the police station.
Lan is scared. She does not want to meet the cảnh sát, the police. The police in Việt Nam are yellow dogs and you must pay them money. Lan does not have enough money for the police, if they want money, although Bố said in his instructions that she could not pay the police to get out of trouble in America.
She cannot meet the police. The police are trouble. Bố said so. He wrote it down.
Also, Jed is still angry. He shouted at her, and called her names, names she didn’t understand, until the yellow-haired girl, Clem, calmed him down.
‘Calm down,’ she said. ‘Just calm down, Jed. You can see it’s not her fault.’ And then quieter, so quiet that she thought Lan couldn’t hear, ‘I don’t think she even understands what’s going on.’
Clem was wrong. Lan understands. She does.
As Jed and Clem get out of the car, and start walking towards the low brick building, Lan hangs behind. She does not want to go in there.
‘Come on, kid,’ Jed says. His always happy shrug is gone. His eyes don’t seem so pretty. ‘Come on. No way are you staying out here and running of to join your little friend. No way. Jist git yer little ass over here.’
Next to Jed, Clem looks from him to Lan, back and forth, and back and forth again. She puts her hand on Jed’s arm. She lifts the other one, stretches it out towards Lan. ‘Come on,’ she says. ‘He doesn’t mean it. No one’s going to hurt you. Don’t be scared.’
Unsure, still scared, Lan hesitates. Then steps forward, carefully, like stepping into the ocean where the waves can knock you down, and takes Clem’s hand.
They do not like her passport and they do not like her visa.
It is the wrong visa, they say.
Where are her mother and father, they want to know.
‘At least it’s not another one from Guatemala,’ one of them says.
They have blue uniforms and different colour skins.
She was right to be afraid but she was also wrong.
They do not say anything about money, but they separate her from Jed and Clem.
Clem says, ‘It’s all right honey, they’re just gonna help you, is all.’ She squeezes Lan’s shoulders with one arm. ‘ You go with these here nice men. It was nice knowin’ ya, but I think ya’ll need to find ya’ll’s family, all right honey?’
She squats down in front Lan, scoops her big cloth handbag into her lap. It’s made from lots of scraps of colourful material, all stitched together with green thread. There are tiny round mirrors all over it too. They twinkle and flash in the bright bright police station light. Clem rustles around in her bag. Fishes out a scrap of paper, a tính tiền, a receipt, and a pen. She writes a string of numbers, tucks the paper into Lan’s hand.
‘That there’s my phone number, sugar. You call me any time, ya hear? Any time at all.’ She puts her hands on Lan’s shoulders, squeezes again. ‘Don’t be scared now. Ya’ll’s gonna be OK.’
Then she stands up and goes to Jed. She looks back once at Lan, sitting alone on the cold metal chair, and then they go away.
The policemen talk so fast. And their voices are so weird. It’s hard to understand.
‘Where’s your family, kid? Where’s home?’
That part she understands. She tells them: Uncle Thạch and Aunty Nhi. She writes down their address, the apartment in Little Saigon, on the corner of Holman and Travis streets. Her hand is shaking, and the letters come out wrong. Not straight.
They leave her alone in the little room again, with a table and two chairs. The air conditioning is very cold. Lan tugs her Disney jacket from her bag, and puts it on.
She swings her feet and waits and waits. She puts her head down on the table. It is not comfortable. It squishes her ear. It is hard and flat against her skull.
Later, she is being carried. Her skinny legs and sneakered feet rock against a big woman’s thighs and knees.
Lan remembers the last time she was carried. Back when Bố and Mẹ and Lan were still together. Bố carried her into the hotel at Disneyland, on their last night together. But she didn’t know it was their last night together, not then.
There was something else important to remember about that night. Something about the bus. But Lan’s forgotten what it was.
Then she is in a car. The radio crackles with far-away voices, and city streets wind by, but she falls asleep again.
And then they’ve stopped. And the policewoman is opening her door, while the other goes to press a button to the side of a big door. She’s stepping out onto the pavement. They are parked at a corner, and she can read the green street signs, two, with white letters, on a pole underneath a tall street light. They say Holman St and Travis St.
And when she turns, just as the big policewoman takes her hand, in front of her, the wide doorway opens. The policeman on the doorstep speaks to two people just inside. And then, coming out of that wide doorway and down the steps, are two faces Lan can recognise.
Uncle Thạch and Aunty Nhi.