Chapter One

American Evacuation

On the evening of April 28th, 1975, two days before communist tanks rolled through our neighborhood on their way into central Saigon, Dad burst through the kitchen doorway as my brother Vinh was scraping the last bit of rice from his plate. Mom was in the bedroom, tucking Tu into bed, and my sisters were already asleep. “Go to your room!” Dad shouted to Vinh and me, even though I was fourteen and could usually stay up with the adults. I wanted to ask Dad what was happening, but when I saw the angry glare of his eyes, I hurried to my room. Vinh climbed into bed, but I squatted against the wall, beside the doorway, so I could hear what my parents were saying.

“The Americans are evacuating,” Dad said. “The communists are closing in on the city. We must leave the country in the morning.” I couldn’t believe what I heard. I had never thought my father would run from the communists.

“We can’t leave,” Mom pleaded. “This is our home, our country.”

“The communists will overthrow Saigon in less than a week,” Dad said. “It will be their country then.” There was a long silence. I waited for Mom to say something, but she didn’t. In Vietnam, the father is the head of the family and his decisions are final. I crawled under my mosquito net, blew out the lantern and fell asleep, wondering where we would go.

I woke the next morning to the banging of Mom’s spoon against the wok. The smell of fried eggs and pork drifted through the darkness. Vinh was still curled in his covers, so I bounced my pillow off his head to wake him. When I walked into the kitchen, Mom was packing clothes and food into our backpacks. Dad sat silently in his chair. “We’re taking a trip,” Mom said, but she didn’t say where we were going.

By the time I had finished breakfast, Mom was pushing my brothers and sisters out the door. I wanted to take one last look around the house, but Dad rose from his chair and told me to hurry. With Mom and my two sisters on one moped, Dad and my little brother on the other, and Vinh and me on our bikes, we rode single file out our drive, through our neighborhood, and onto Highway 1.

At first, it seemed like a normal Saigon morning, except for a few more people on the streets. White flares lit the sky, and produce trucks bounced along the highway, delivering their goods to the city. As we rode, I watched fishermen load their boats on the banks of the Saigon River. We circled north of the city for a half hour before turning onto the airport road. There the scene changed. Abandoned cars and pushcarts blocked the road, and people on bicycles and mopeds weaved between them. People with anxious faces were all around us, pushing forward. A chain-link fence ran along the right side of the road, and buildings lined the left. As we moved forward, the road narrowed and the people poured into the funnel. The roar of jet engines blended with the roar of voices. I could see planes taking off above us, but I couldn’t see the airport gates.

Dad weaved through the people, beeping his horn, and we followed in single file. The street became too crowded and we had to stop. Dad yelled for people to get out of his way, then he jumped off the moped and pushed it through the crowd. My little brother Tu hung on his shoulder crying, and Mom was right behind him shouting, “We’ll never make it! We’ll never make it!”

When Dad finally stopped, he told us to leave our bikes and follow as close to him as possible. But Mom kept saying that we couldn’t make it, and I thought she was right. Sweating bodies rubbed against me as Dad tried to convince her we had to escape. We were pushed tighter and tighter until my bike was held up on both sides by the crowd.

“We’ll never make it,” Mom kept saying. “We should get the children out of this mob and go to Grandfather’s house.” It was unusual for Mom to argue with my father, and I was surprised when he finally agreed with her. We pushed our way out of the crowd, then rode south to Red Cross Street.
Grandfather lived with Mom’s brother and his family only a few miles from the airport. I loved spending the night there because I could stay up late reading Grandfather’s kung fu books to my cousins, but this night Mom made us go to bed at eight. The steady rhythm of machine gun fire and occasional rocket blasts echoed through the house, but I didn’t feel scared. I thought my father could solve any problem. But not knowing what would happen next or where I was going gave me an empty feeling. I still had that feeling when Grandfather shook my shoulder early the next morning to wake me. I got dressed and went to the table for breakfast. Before I sat down, Dad motioned for me to follow him outside. We stood face to face on Grandfather’s porch. The yellow street lights reflected in Dad’s tired eyes.

“Viet,” he said and then paused for a moment. “We’ll try to escape as a family. But if we can’t get to the airport together, I’ll tell an official I found you and your brothers and sisters on the street with no parents. If we can convince them you’re orphans, they may let you into the airport and put you on a plane.” What was Dad saying? We couldn’t leave my parents. Where would we go? Who would take care of us? But before I could resist, he went on.

“I’m depending on you because you’re my oldest son. You’ll have to act like you don’t know me, and you’ll have to pull your brothers and sisters away before the officials realize it’s a plan to get you on a plane.” I tried to speak, but he wouldn’t give me a chance. “I know you don’t understand what’s happening, but you must do what I say. It may be your only chance to live a free life.” I told him I would do what he said, but I thought nothing could be worse than splitting up our family. Dad walked back into the house, and I followed.

It was just before five when we said goodbye to Grandfather and my cousins and started walking to the airport. Abandoned cars still blocked the streets, and luggage, bikes and trash were scattered on the sidewalks. Dad said he thought we were early enough to make it, but as we walked onto the airport road, I saw the crowd was as thick as the day before. Everyone was fighting for position. As we followed Dad through the crowd, I watched people trying to climb over the airport gate and soldiers knocking them back with the butts of their rifles. We moved forward, and the crowd packed tighter until I could feel the hot breath of those around me. We were packed so tight that when the soldiers opened the gate to let a few people in, I was carried forward by the crowd. Then the soldiers beat us back as they closed the gate. Bloody faces pushed by me. I knew my whole family couldn’t make it through the gate, and I was glad we couldn’t get close enough for Dad to give us to the officials.

By noon, we were back at Grandfather’s house. We had just finished dinner, and I was wrestling with my cousin on the living room floor, when Dad turned the radio up and told us to be quiet. I rolled to my feet as President Minh made the announcement. “Soldiers of the Republic of Vietnam. Cease firing. Stay where you are. We are waiting to meet with the Provisional Revolutionary Government to discuss the turnover of our civilian and military administrations.”

I knew the Provisional Revolutionary Government was the same thing as the communists and watched Dad to see what he would do next. He was silent for a moment, then he rose from his chair and raced toward the door. Mom ran after him, grabbed his arm and pleaded for him to stop. “If we can’t escape,” he said, “we must fight until the end.”

Grandfather followed them to the front porch and told Dad to listen to the rest of the report. Dad argued at first, then came back in. After we sat listening for a few minutes, Nguyen Huu Hanh, the man in charge of the South Vietnamese military, came on the radio. He ordered our troops to lay down their weapons and surrender to the communists. Dad’s eyes were on fire. He glanced at Mom, stood up slowly, and walked out the door.
Grandfather said to let him go, but Mom motioned for us to follow and ran out behind him. Without saying a word, she sat Tu on the back of Dad’s moped, then climbed on hers with my two little sisters. Shouts of “Peace! Peace!” echoed along the street. A young woman in a red wedding dress shuffled up the sidewalk, singing, “The war is over! I will see my husband again!”

Dad looked at the woman and said, “The war is not over. This is only the beginning of our suffering.” Then he started the moped and zoomed out of Grandfather’s yard.

We were home less than a minute before Dad had his police uniform on and his gun in his hand. Mom pleaded with him as he ran out of the house, but I knew he wouldn’t stop. He returned a half hour later with eight of his men in full combat gear. He said they were going to the church tower to fight until the end. His eyes were wide and his face determined, but I could see fear in the other men’s faces as Mom cried out, “The French couldn’t beat the communists! The Americans couldn’t beat them! Our whole army surrenders to the communists, and now you think you can beat them with one squad. You will accomplish nothing! You will die and leave your families with no fathers!”

Dad told the men in his squad to step out if they wanted to surrender, and one by one, they all did. I was seeing my father as a new man—a man out of control. “Go home!” he shouted to the men. “Go home and be cowards. I’m going to our station.”

As soon as he left, Mom started hiding our valuables. Then she carried things to the back yard—she took furniture, books, toys, my father’s uniforms, photo albums. She stacked them in a pile, and I watched silently from the porch as she lit everything on fire. I was terrified. “Why are you burning our things?” I asked. “Why are you acting so crazy?” She kept running in and out of the house, bringing out more to burn. “You have to tell me what’s happening,” I said. “I have to know.”

Mom sat beside me on the porch. Her wavy black hair hung over her eyes and tears rolled off her soft, round cheeks. “These things are no good to us anymore,” she said. “The communists will take our things anyway, just like they did in the North. We need to get rid of everything that links us to the Americans. If the communists find out that your father was an intelligence officer for the Americans, they will torture him.”
I knew Dad was an officer in the Army and that after getting wounded he became a police officer, but I didn’t know he was an intelligence officer too. I became more frightened when Mom told me this, but I still didn’t understand what was happening. Most of our neighbors were going about their business. Some of the people on the streets were cheering because the war was over. “How do you know they will torture him?” I asked. “Why isn’t everyone scared?”

She stood up, poking the fire with a bamboo stick. A pale blue flame blazed up, igniting one of my father’s uniforms. “People don’t realize what life under the communists is like. Your father and I know because we lived in North Vietnam when the communists took control there.”

“I want to know what happened to you in the North,” I said. “I want to know the whole story.”

She poked the fire a few more times, then sat next to me. “The communists took over our village,” she said. “They were disguised as peasants, and they asked the farmers in our village if they could work in the rice fields in exchange for food and a place to sleep. They didn’t want money. They wanted the trust of the farmers who rented land from people like my father. When the communists earned the trust of the farmers, they told them to rise up against the landlords. They organized groups and preached that all men should be equal. They convinced the people that the landlords were cheating them.”

Beads of sweat covered Mom’s face as she stared deep into the flames. Anger flashed in her eyes as she remembered. “The communists broke into our house. They took your Grandfather away! Then two of them moved in with our family. They ate our food. They slept in our beds. Every evening after chores, we had to sit in the living room and listen to them ridicule what my father had done. And when they brought him back, they made him get on his knees in front of our family and the people who worked for us. I had to stand in front of him and say he was an evil man, that he should be punished for cheating his countrymen. I had to say these things or the communists would have tortured us.”

She stood up and walked over to poke at the fire. She wiped her hair from her face, then she turned to me and shouted, “They made one of our servants spit on my father!” She walked slowly back to the porch and sat next to me again, grasping my arm. The air must have been ninety degrees, but her hands were cold and shaking.

“But we’re not rich,” I said. “We haven’t cheated anyone…have we?” I told her I thought everything would be fine, but she didn’t reply. Her black eyes were set straight ahead, gazing into the flames. When she let go of my arm, I stood up and walked to our front yard. The neighborhood was silent, but in the distance I could see South Vietnamese airplanes flying and hear explosions as they bombed villages outside Saigon. I thought the pilots must have been diehards like my father and were refusing to give up. Later I heard they were trying to keep the communists away from the airport so the officials could evacuate.

Dad didn’t speak when he came home. We hadn’t eaten, but no one was hungry, except my little brother Tu. He had been crying all day and was starting to irritate me. Mom and Dad whispered to each other most of the evening, and I could tell Mom was trying not to cry, but every few minutes she would shake, and tears would roll down her cheeks.

They didn’t seem to notice we were there, so I walked to the river and sat on the bank. It was evening, and the orange sky reflected across the water. Fish splashed and birds raced around the trees. I sat on the bank for a while, listened to the current, and wondered how nature could be so peaceful when my life was so confused. I skipped rocks until it was too dark to see them, then I walked home. Mom and Dad were still sitting in their chairs, staring at the floor. I went to my room and collapsed on my bed. The problem was too big. I knew the adults would have to work it out.

The morning sun was over the trees and glaring through my window when I woke. I didn’t want to get out of bed, but the sun was so hot that I rolled into the shade on the floor. The only sound was a strange voice on the radio. “This is the Vietnamese Liberation Front,” it said. “Everyone remain calm. We have won our independence. Vietnam is one nation. We are free from the imperialist….”

The Liberation Front was another name for the communists—they had taken over the radio station. I didn’t know it at the time, but they had seized most of the city, including the Presidential Palace. Dad came into my room right after the announcement and said we were going to the airport again. He rushed us outside and we rode into the city. Russian tanks with children hanging on the sides rolled along Highway 1. The children had red bands on their arms and were singing and shouting, “Liberation! Liberation!”

Some people were waving to them and cheering. Others stared at them with terrified faces. Still others went about their business as if nothing was happening. Dad raced along the highway, and Vinh and I pedaled as fast as we could to keep up. When we got to the airport road, we saw that no planes were taking off. The communists had bombed the runways, so we rode back home and Dad made us stay in the house for the rest of the day. The man on the radio kept saying, “Do not fear. The war is over. Our country has united and beaten the American invaders….”

I still couldn’t understand why my parents were so frightened. The communists were cheering and shooting their rifles into the air, but I didn’t see them shoot anyone. The man on the radio said we were free from the American imperialists. I didn’t know if the Americans had been our friends or our enemies, but I knew I would find out what the communists were like. They were all over the city. I kept looking at Mom and Dad, wondering what they were going to do to make everything right. They sat with blank faces next to the radio, listening to communist songs along with the rest of us. Every fifteen minutes, the music would stop and a voice would say, “This is the Vietnamese Liberation Front. We have defeated the American invaders….”

I was tired of listening to the radio and seeing my parents so upset, so I snuck out the back door and rode my bike to the river. When I saw the first star, I wished that I knew everything. I was starting to realize the problem was too big for my father, so I asked God if He would make everything right, but he didn’t answer.

When I returned home, Mom and my sisters were cleaning the dishes. No one asked where I had been. I sat next to Dad in the living room. His eyes were open, but he looked dazed. As I moved closer to him, I knew he could sense my presence, but he still didn’t speak. “What will happen now, Dad?” I asked. “Please tell me what will happen.” He sat motionless, so I tried again. “What’s wrong with communism? Why do we have to be scared? Why are you acting this way?”

His eyes got bigger and he looked angry, but his voice was soft. “There’s no way you can understand. You’re only fourteen years old. You haven’t lived under the communist rule.”

“But it’s my life. I may be young, but I have a right to know what will happen to me.” I could feel tears in my eyes, but I wouldn’t let them come out.

Dad put his hand on the arm of my chair for a moment, then sat back and said, “The communists will control our lives. They’ll steal our freedom.”

“I know that much,” I said. “But how will they control our lives? What freedom will they take away?” Dad looked away for a moment and then back at me. His eyes were bloodshot from lack of sleep. His short black hair, which he usually slicked back, was sticking straight up. A thin beard was growing on his sunken face. “I know you’re tired,” I said, “but I need to know more. I need to know why you hate the communists and why they hate us.”

His face showed compassion for me, and he thought for a moment, then began to speak. “Every time we escape foreign domination of one kind, it’s followed by domination of another kind,” he said. “You know that we fought the Chinese for a thousand years before the French moved in and controlled our country.” I nodded as I remembered ­learning about the French in my history class.

“They treated us like animals,” Dad said, “like tools for the promotion of French wealth and their dream of conquering China. But our people never lost hope for freedom and organized groups to fight for independence. Ho Chi Minh was the leader of one of these organizations, and his group was supported by Russia and the communist parties in other countries. People followed him because he promised freedom, equality, and a better life for the peasants. But what the people didn’t understand, and what Ho Chi Minh didn’t understand, was that communism was no better than French imperialism.”

“But what’s wrong with communism?”

“The communists take your freedom away,” he responded. “You can’t understand until you’ve lost it. They control everything about you: what you eat, what you wear, who you’re allowed to talk to, what you’re allowed to say.”

“But why did anyone follow them if they take your freedom away?”

Dad was frustrated because I still didn’t get it. He looked down and was silent for a few seconds. I thought he was going to tell me that I couldn’t understand, but he went on. “Many people followed them because they promised a better life. They promised to get rid of the French landlords and give the land back to our people. But their promises were false. Under communism, no land belongs to the people. Nothing does. Everything belongs to the state, and the state is owned by the communist party. So when the communists gained control of the North, they made the taxes so high that no one could afford to own anything. Their theory was to tax the rich the heaviest and have lower taxes for the poor, but it didn’t work.”

“Why? Why was it bad to help the poor people?”

“Because the communists gave too much power to the peasants. They ordered the peasants to execute the landlords, but the landlords bribed the peasants and moved to the South. So to satisfy the communist leaders, the peasants executed innocent people. Instead of killing the French landlords, they killed anyone who didn’t believe in and support the communist government.” I still didn’t really understand, and Dad saw the confusion in my face.

“The communists terrorized the villages in the North,” he said. “The peasants who had been suppressed by the French were now intoxicated by their new power. When the French were beaten, instead of forming parties and voting for a new government, the communists demanded complete control. They raided villages and tortured anyone who didn’t support them. My father was one of these people. He was not a wealthy man. He was as happy as anyone to see the French beaten, but he believed in democracy. He believed that everyone should have their say in the government.”
“What happened to my grandfather?” I asked. “Why didn’t he move to the South when you did?”

“The communists raided our village,” Dad said. “They came when we were having a meeting to discuss the land taxes. My father was one of the village leaders and was making a speech about the land taxes when the communists circled around us. They looked like ordinary farmers and fishermen, but they carried weapons and ropes. I was standing at the back of the crowd with a friend. I watched them grab my father and tie him up. I ran for him, but it was too late. They were too strong and no one would help me. I was on the ground, struggling under the feet of the communists, while they humiliated my father…while they beat him in front of the whole village.”

Dad’s eyes became fierce. He leaned toward me and shouted, “That is what communism is about! That is what will happen to me when they find out I escaped from the North. When they discover the position I held in the American-sponsored government.”

“How will they know whose side we’re on?” I asked. “Mom burned your uniforms. We can pretend we’re on their side.”

“They’ll infiltrate the South just like they did the North,” he said. “They’ll know everything about everyone. They will control our lives and steal our freedom!” He was shaking with anger. He sat back in his chair and took a deep breath, and I watched him for a few minutes. His eyes became empty, gazing into nowhere; he didn’t seem to notice when I stood up. I went to my room and drifted to sleep thinking about what he had said, wondering if the communists would hurt my family.

Somehow I ended up at Tam’s house. He was my best friend at the time. It was dark when I got there, but the door was open, so I walked inside to see if he was home. The smell of raw meat hit my nose as I walked through the shadow of the doorway. For a moment, I was in total darkness. I called for Tam quietly at first, but there was no answer so I tried a little louder. “Tam…Tam?” Still no answer.

I walked through the house to Tam’s bedroom, wondering where everyone could be. My skin became cold as I walked into his room. “Tam?” I whispered. “Are you here?”

Then I saw Tam’s feet sticking out from under his covers. “Tam! Stop playing games. What are you doing in bed so early?” Tam still didn’t answer, so I walked slowly to his bed and pulled the covers off him. They were heavy, wet and cold. Tam was face down on the bed. I nudged him, but he didn’t move. A chill shot through my bones. I grabbed Tam’s shoulder and pulled him over. His body was stiff, and he had the head of a dog! It was Tam’s body, but he had the head of a dog. Blood was everywhere. I tried to scream, but no noise came out. I ran from his room, and the door slammed behind me.

I ran to the kitchen to get out the back door. There were people sitting with their heads on the kitchen table. They looked the same as Tam—their throats were slashed. Blood oozed from their wounds. Long dog tongues came out of their mouths and rested in the blood on the table. I edged along the wall to the back door. It wouldn’t budge. My body shook. I thought my heart would beat through my chest. I ran for the front door, and it slammed shut in front of me. Another body with a dog’s head leaped from behind the door. It laughed in a deep voice and charged toward me. Its cold hands grasped my neck and shook me until I forced my eyes open. It was morning, and I realized I had been dreaming.

I threw my sweat-soaked covers onto the floor and sat on the edge of my bed. My heart was still racing as I pulled on my trousers and went to the kitchen. Mom was sitting at the table. She didn’t ask why I was up so early. She just said for me to stay around the house for a while because my father wanted to talk to all of us. Everyone was awake and sitting at the table by the time I finished breakfast.

Dad’s eyes sank deep into his face as he began to speak. He said he didn’t expect us to understand what he was about to say, but that he had to explain it anyway. “You know for the last week we have been trying to leave the country,” he said. We all nodded. “We’ve been trying to escape because very soon the communists will have total control of our city. And when they do, they’ll take your mother and me away from you. They’ll take your freedom away and teach you things that are not right. Things I have spent my whole life fighting against.”

Dad was silent for what seemed to be a few minutes. We waited patiently for him to continue. “We’ve always saved money because we wanted to send you away from this country,” he said. “We know there have been things you wanted that we wouldn’t give you because we were saving as much as we could. But now it’s too late to escape. We have nothing to save for. You can do what you like with the money we have. When our money runs out, your mother will cook our last dinner, and we will all go to heaven.”

Tears flowed down Mom’s cheeks. She covered her mouth to keep any sounds from escaping. My little brother and sisters cried. I don’t think they understood what was happening, but they felt my mother’s emotions. Vinh sat expressionless next to me.

“It is better to die by our own hands,” Dad said, “than to die by the hands of the communists.” I could see the veins in his neck getting bigger and bigger. His spirit seemed to be tearing at his body. I didn’t feel confused anymore; I couldn’t feel at all. My little brother Tu was only three years old. It wasn’t fair that he had to die just as his life was ­beginning.

“What is die?” he asked. “Why do we die?” Mom looked at Dad, but he didn’t answer Tu’s question. His arms were shaking as he stood and walked out of the kitchen.

I stayed in my room until late afternoon when Mom asked me to bike to the market for some food. She gave me 50,000 piasters and told me to get the food and anything else I wanted. I couldn’t believe she gave me so much money.

When I got to the market, it was empty except for an old woman sitting next to a cart full of chickens. She said my money wasn’t worth anything because we had a new government, but when she saw how much I offered her, she didn’t refuse. I grabbed the fattest chickens from the cart and headed home. When I got there, our neighbor Mrs. Hoi was walking out of our house with a bag of rice. She said hello and asked how I was doing as she walked by. I greeted her and hurried inside to ask Mom why she had given our rice away.

“Mrs. Hoi’s husband has been out of work,” she said. I began to tell her we needed the rice because everything was so expensive, but she interrupted me. “The communists have taken over your father’s station. They’re using it as a place for people to register with the new government.”

“Is Dad going to register?”

“He left a few minutes ago to see what’s happening. I just hope he comes back.”

I put the chickens on the counter, and Mom examined them, then she boiled some water to soak the feathers off. She had the chickens plucked, carved and frying in the wok by the time Dad got home. I listened as he told Mom he had registered with the communists. He said he had lied about his occupation during the war. He told them he was wounded in battle and had been an ordinary civilian police officer since the nineteen sixties, omitting any mention of his role as an intelligence officer. When I finished dinner, I went to my room to read. I thought about the times Dad would make me go to bed at nine, but I would stay up anyway, holding an oil lamp under the covers so I could see my book. He would come into my room, see the glowing covers, and start yelling at me. Now I could stay up all night if I wanted, but I wasn’t sure how many nights I had left.

I woke the next morning to unfamiliar voices in the living room. I jumped out of bed, thinking the communists were there to take Mom and Dad away. But when I got to the living room, I saw five of our neighbors going through our house collecting our things. What are you people doing?” I shouted. “Put our things back!”

Dad told me to be quiet and pushed me to my room. “We have no use for these things anymore,” he said. “The sooner we get rid of everything the better. We have to leave these things, and I want to give them to people we know and care about. I will not leave anything for the communists.”
I nodded to him as though I understood, and he left me sitting on my bed. I realized then that dying meant losing everything I had. I sat on my bed for a while, feeling sorry for myself. Then I rode my bike to Tam’s house. Mom had given me some money, so Tam and I rode around trying to find something to spend it on. We rode down Highway 1 to Benh Bac Danh Street, pedaled south along the river until we found a tobacco shop that was open, and spent the rest of the morning smoking cigarettes under the Highway 1 bridge. I couldn’t get the thought of dying out of my head, and while we were under the bridge I told Tam what Dad had said about going to heaven.

“My father told me there’s no way we can escape the communists,” I said. “Our whole family is going to die together. I think my Mom and Dad are going to kill us.” Tam had been my best friend since the first grade, and I could tell him anything. At first, he looked like he didn’t hear what I said. He did that when he thought I was making up a story. He sat motionless, staring into the water. “I don’t think I want to die,” I said. “I’ve heard the horror stories about ­communism, but I don’t think it could be worse than death.”

Tam turned to me, looking into my eyes to see if I was telling the truth. “Are your parents crazy?” he asked. “They’re going to kill you?” It sounded different to hear him say it. My parents were actually going to kill me. They were going to kill all of us. “You should run away,” he said. “You can stay at my house.”

We were silent for a moment. I knew I couldn’t stay at Tam’s house. It would be the first place my parents would look for me. I think he realized this too. “Or you could live in the banana groves across from Bach Danh,” he said. “You can eat the fruit to survive. I’ll visit you.” I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t know what death was like. I didn’t know what communism was like. All I knew was what people told me, and it was starting to seem like no one really knew anything.

“I can’t believe your parents are going to kill you,” Tam said.

“Dad told us that Mom would cook our last dinner and we would all go to heaven. He told us it would be better to die by our own hands than by the hands of the communists.”

“I don’t think the communists will kill you.”

“But my father was a spy for the Americans.”

Tam’s eyes became uncertain, and he looked toward the ground. “You shouldn’t go home,” he said. “Come with me to Bach Danh Harbor and we’ll take the ferry across to the banana groves.” I agreed to go, but I didn’t think I would stay there. I didn’t want to run away. I wanted to be with my family, no matter what Dad decided we should do.

When we got to the harbor, the ferry wasn’t running, so we walked along the bank of the river, looking for flat rocks to skip. I had stopped to light a cigarette when Tam screeched and pointed down the river. When I looked to where he was pointing, I saw a body hanging from a tree. We crept along the bank to get a closer look. It was a man in a South Vietnamese officer’s uniform—the same kind of uniform my father used to wear.

Dried blood covered the man’s face and chest. His feet dangled in the water. The current had pulled the body against the rope and embedded it in his neck. My stomach turned, and I looked the other way to keep from throwing up. Then I saw another body floating in the water. It was naked and bloated up like a pale blue balloon. I heaved until my stomach felt like a small tight knot. Tam grabbed my arm and helped me up the bank to our bikes. I kept thinking I would wake up and it would all be a dream, like my nightmare about Tam. I wondered if there really was a heaven, and if there was, I thought maybe Dad was right and we should all go to heaven together.

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