Bà nội uses one swollen foot to pull herself around in her wheelchair. That’s the image I see, the sound I hear, when I think of home. Most people probably think about their dog—something we’ve never had—or stories around the dinner table—which we rarely ate at—but not me. I think of the mother to my father, the woman I never get past easily unless her back faces me and I tiptoe behind. The woman who reaches for my hand when she sees me. She squeezes my hand as if it’s the last thing she’ll ever do, with so much pressure that her bones crush against mine and her chapped skin tickles my palm. Our hand-teractions are a combination of squeeze, shake, hold, eye contact, more squeezing, more eye contact—if I’m able to pull my focus from the drool on her chin—until I let go of her hand, bow my head like an obedient Vietnamese grandchild, then retreat into my bedroom.
Even with the door shut, I hear the residue sticking from bà nội’s wheels against our hardwood floor, and the whirring of metal rods spinning in place. It mingles with the sounds of our air-con whooshing, kitchen-clanging, and Mom’s footsteps thumping from upstairs. Bà nội’s breathing, a low rumbling deep in her chest, broadcasts her presence so that the grandchildren have time to run away. Dad and I often compare her to Darth Vader because her breathing prefaces her arrival—but with Victorian elegance. She wears pearl necklaces and silk blouses even though she has nowhere to go. Queen Elizabeth Vader.
But as I step out of my bedroom, my fingertips gently grazing the door frame, I hear nothing.
The blue corduroy couch in front of our basement fireplace is empty. Uncle Liem must’ve been organizing the garbage or assembling plastic bags which he’d cut, fold, and tape into whatever he needed—like that time he made slippers with fancy back straps. Faint radio chatter fills the basement kitchen every morning as he microwaves oatmeal and completes chores. He is bà nội’s fifth child out of seven, and her very own food-heater-upper, laundry-doer, and TV-buddy. He reminds me that the unmarried and unemployed are probably the most content of all people. He even dresses in the same sweater vest and track pants he wore in a photo of him and me from 2004, back when he still built me blanket forts.
“Lucas? Mom?” I call out.
No one replies.
Re-entering my bedroom, I shut the door behind me, gently releasing the handle. Mom or Dad probably drove bà nội to a doctor’s appointment, and uncle Liem must’ve accompanied them. I guess they brought Lucas too, him being too young to be left alone.
When I was younger, I’d ask Mary, our Filipino caregiver, where my parents went. She’d tell me they were at work, or at the grocery store. I would sit cross-legged in my bedroom, absentmindedly play with dolls, brushing plastic hair behind plastic ears, and check the window every so often for their arrival. But now I’m older. Fifteen, to be exact. A teenager who can make her own food and take care of herself. Just like the protagonist who tells their mom they’re going out and doesn’t get questioned about where, when, why, or with whom? Not like I was the type. Where would I go? The closest bus stop was at least a four-hour hike away and I, with my frizzy bangs and flat chest, could never hitch a ride with strangers, speeding down the highway into an unexplored horizon. I was not the type.
I look out my window. Dark green shadows from the forest surrounding our house fogs the view of my backyard. In the corner of my windowsill, strands of spider silk form an empty web. I should probably get rid of it, but instead I fold myself into the rumpled blankets on my bed.
Flipping onto my back, I try to remember what I was doing just before I left my room. Instead, I notice that the air conditioner above my bed isn’t working. There is no gentle hum nor breeze through the vents, no crack nor thump as wood stretches and walls shift in our aging home.
I kick my legs under the blankets, annoyed that the sheets have lost their coolness. Behind my bathroom door, cracked slightly open, so that only a silhouette of my sink is in view, I feel something peering at me. Instead of shutting the bathroom door firmly, like I always do before sleep, I retreat deeper into my bed. I strain to remember if I have school, if I have something to study, if I am supposed to be somewhere, if someone is waiting for me.
I clutch the shirt on my chest, but no matter how hard I focus, I can’t see if it’s mine. Panicked, I sit up and scan my room. I squint as hard as I can, but my eyes capture only blurry figures. The blankets kicked into a fussy ball at the end of my bed are wrapped around my ankles, but I don’t feel their weight.
I slowly stand up on my bed, making myself taller, listening carefully for any sound.
A shiver slides down my spine. I’m alone.
I leap as far as I can from my bed, but there is no impact between my foot and the hardwood floor, despite my clumsy landing. My shoulder slams against the doorframe and I jerk away.
The basement living room blurs in front of me. I stagger, shaking my head to get rid of the dizziness. The staircase to my left leads to our front foyer, where Mom, Dad, and Lucas’s rooms are clustered together. You should feel thankful that you get your own space downstairs, they tell me.
Instead, I run toward the opposite side of the basement, where bà nội and Uncle Liem’s small bedrooms are located. My socks slide against the hardwood, so I use my hands to push against walls as I fumble my way through my house, toward the darker, narrower staircase that leads to our main floor. I jump up the stairs two steps at a time.
Finally, I make it outside. A smeared circle in the gray sky blazes without heat. I stand wild-eyed, feeling the air sagging around me, pushing down on my shoulders, strangely dry as if it hadn’t rained for years. I gasp but my lungs fill with a rancid smell instead. The front door sways open, soundlessly.
In moments like these, you think, ‘What now?’ Like when you yell at the TV because the main character, half-eaten by a shark, struggles and ends up losing so much more blood. You think, ‘Just give up, buddy. Stop struggling and maybe you’ll die in peace.’ Death isn’t a dead-end, though. I refuse to believe it’s possible to live a life with five senses, only to be tossed into nothingness. Even the memories sitting next to my mother, me comforting her without knowing why she was crying, were worth experiencing. Even the mindless, mundane chatter with schoolmates, walking through locker-lined hallways, glancing at the boy with smiling eyes, must be a small taste of something greater.
I sense something exit the door, but I turn my back before I can see it. The last thing I see will not be the thing that kills me. Facing our driveway, I see our black mailbox, rudely propped on a wooden post across the street, in front of our neighbour John’s house. No cars pass on the street. I only interact with my neighbours on rare occasions, mostly while waiting for the school bus. If I ask for help, I don’t think they’ll know who I am.
If there’s a will, there’s a way, I hear my dad saying in his naturally authoritative tone, as if everything in his life as an immigrant came easily, which it didn’t. I realize that if can’t outrun this thing, the only escape is up. I lurch myself into the air.
My body clenches because if I relax, I’ll fall. I’m inches away from the thing I’m running from and finally see that it has the figure of a young girl. She tries to grab my ankle. Her fingers miss me, but my ankle tingles, as if her hand is there. I wobble upwards, higher, anywhere away from the ground. The girl stares up at me but doesn’t try to follow.
For a second, everything is peaceful. A smile spreads across my face. Trees dot the ground, and my bungalow zooms outward. Fog covers the textured grey city and the blue silhouette of Lake Ontario.
I’m not flying. I don’t think I am. My arms are behind me, like Clark Kent in Smallville, but there’s no wind blowing around me. This feels more like hovering based on sheer will, like how Neo, who bends the spoon in The Matrix, must learn that nothing exists except his mind. I don’t try to understand the thing I’m running away from. But I did it. I got away.
Suddenly, without reason or cause, the city below gets too small, too fast, and I realize I’m falling upward, gravity reversed, rushing too fast into the sky. I can’t see where I’m going. My arms flail but there’s nothing to grab. Hair tangles around my face. I can’t breathe.
Wake up, Elisa. You need to wake up. Now.
My eyes flicker open and I sit upright.
Cool air blasts through the vent above my head, rumbling along with the murmur of Dad’s snores. Birds chirp outside my window. I slowly unclench my fists, noticing the sting from my fingernails that dug crescents into my palms. My heart beats sporadically as my body realizes I’m now in bed, blankets tangled around my ankles. The same bed I ran from earlier.
“Are you okay?” Mom asks as I slide onto the kitchen chair. She slices an apple and gives me a motherly ‘I-see-and-know-all-things’ look. Dark circles under her eyes show she probably didn’t rest well either. She has always been a chronic light-sleeper. Despite this, her skin is fresh, her natural waves tussled, her movements precise.
I shrug to say, ‘Of course I’m okay. Why wouldn’t I be?’ The dream—no, nightmare—should be forgotten within a few minutes. Mom continues cutting the apple, as if she is satisfied with my answer.
“I had a bad dream last night,” I confess.
“I was running away from something at home. All of you were gone,” I reply, shaking off the feeling of falling upward. “I haven’t had a bad dream in forever.”
Mom bites into an apple slice and looks at me as if the answer is easy. “Whenever I have a nightmare, I just pray. I ask God to keep me safe before I go to bed.”
“Don’t you always have nightmares though?”
“Not all the time. Sometimes—”
“Because you tell me you have nightmares all the time.”
“Then I pray that God helps me forget them.”
I poke at my cereal with my spoon. I know Mom is trying to help, but her advice feels dismissive. She cleans up the dishes, wipes splashed water off the counter, careful to rub the corners around the tap, then declutters the counter.
I stuff my lunch box into my backpack. Mom kisses me on the cheek, a Vietnamese kiss with her nose, and wishes me a good day. I suddenly feel like a kid again and wish I could cling to her and ask to stay home, but I don’t.
I’m used to being alone. Not in a stuck-in-a-jail-cell type of way—although I was not above lying to my parents about attending swimming lessons—but in an anxious, surrounded-by-people-yet-misunderstood way. No one, not even Mom—who wakes up early to make me breakfast and who worries about me day and night—knows half the sadness in my mind. My problem is staying silent, smiling like a character whose only role is to move the plot along.
Bà nội rocks herself in her wheelchair in front of the basement sliding doors. Her breathing is steady as she inhales then exhales sharply, her strength sapped. On my way out, I slide by, silently, to avoid her intimate greeting and missing my bus. But I glance back one more time midway up the stairs. Bà nội looks out the window, her expression solemn as if she sees not the scenery but her memories.
At least when you’re dreaming, you eventually wake up.