Story — From the March 2019 issue

Run Me to Earth

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They were released.

For the first time in seven years, they stood outside in the courtyard of the reeducation center. They looked across at the gate. They remembered none of this. The flagpole and the towers. The cameras. Prany counted the sentries in the towers. He heard the rattle of keys as the guard behind him, wearing a green uniform, undid his handcuffs. Then the guard undid Vang’s. They rubbed their free wrists. Vang made fists with his hands.

Illustration by Simon Pemberton

Illustration by Simon Pemberton

Prany dug the soles of his new shoes into the dirt. He watched Vang’s hands and then turned to see the building they had exited. It resembled a schoolhouse or a gymnasium. The flag flapped in the wind. The sun on him. The immense sky. His neck was stiff. He knew that if they were forced to run right now his legs might buckle. Not because he was weak, but because in this moment, in the new environment, out in the open, his entire body felt uncertain.

It was early. A different guard wearing a short-brimmed hat stepped out from the balcony above them and lit a cigarette. A rifle was slung behind him. His figure tall against the blue sky. He tapped his cigarette and the ash fell. It was already cold by the time it hit Prany’s shoulders. The guard tried again, aiming at Prany’s face.

Prany pretended not to notice. He couldn’t stop looking at the sky. From inside came the faint noise of an announcement on the loudspeakers. Then he caught the sounds that had kept them company through the years: the hum of the electrical wires outside the cells, the footsteps in the small rear yard where they were able to play a bit of soccer and during the monsoons feel the rain on them.

The birds. He remembered the shock of hearing one, unable to recall the last time he had. It was almost enough to get him through the week. He had once stopped in the field where he had been forced to work, not caring that in ten seconds he would be punished for it. Then the desire to see the bird had driven him insane.

Someone was playing soccer now. He caught the sound of a ball bouncing, waited for another. An hour ago, they had signed documents pledging loyalty to this country. They had been brought to a concrete room where there was a long, wooden desk and two chairs across from each other. A portrait of the prime minister was hanging on the wall. Then a man they had never seen before, wearing an ill-fitting suit, came in, sat on the chair below the portrait, and gestured for Prany to take the other.

Prany was unused to the grip of a pen. He wrote slowly, watching the ink appear and bleed, forming his name. A part of him was stunned he still knew how to write it. He had never learned how to read or to write, had hardly ever considered language as something visible, but from Vang they had learned how to write their names one night at the farmhouse, all of them unable to sleep. Vang by a desk with three legs, the other built of books, and the three of them taking turns writing on a damp page in his notebook, in candlelight, the ink smearing as they ignored the sound of the distant bombers.

Years after that night, in their cell one day, he wondered aloud where the notebook was, and Vang, pausing, replied, “I never had a notebook.”

That was the first time Prany stopped being sure of his memories.

In the room, Prany asked the official in the suit across from him what day it was. The official seemed surprised.

They knew months and years. They didn’t trust days.

The officer said, “Today is Wednesday, the second of February, 1977.”

It occurred to Prany that he couldn’t recall how his sister wrote her name, would not have been able to identify her handwriting among a thousand others.

“When did I come in?” Prany said.

The guard behind him reached for Prany’s neck and slammed him down against the desk. Prany gripped the pen. Immediately his nose began to bleed. His nose often bled. He sniffed as hard as he could and swallowed his blood and wiped his lips with his tongue. The official was looking at him as though Prany had asked him whether he owned sheep.

“You came in on the tenth of January, 1970. Both of you did. You were at one of those decrepit mountain camps. All of you, how many were there? One hundred? Hiding like mice in your huts with your ten bullets and rusty rainwater. You couldn’t even farm. So malnourished you were probably dying and didn’t know it. All that, because of what? You lost. We are not animals. We would have taken care of you. We did take care of you.”

Behind him, Vang, silent, was leaning against the wall beside the guard.

“We’re approaching the next decade,” Prany said.

“Yes. Quite.”

“How’s it going so far?”

From behind, he heard the guard step toward him again, but the official waved him away. The man took off his glasses and cleaned them slowly, looking at Vang, whose own glasses were covered in scratches and almost unwearable.

“A new decade for you, too,” the man said. “Your age.”

“That’s right. A new decade for me.”

“That’s wonderful,” the man said. “A fresh start.”

“Yes,” Prany said. “A fresh start.”

“How many men are given that in life? To start again. To have that chance. You are now a member of this society, men of this society, both of you, and you get to contribute to its success. What a gift.”

Only then did the man reach across and take back the pen. It was as though he were waiting to see what Prany would do with it. Prany had done nothing. He watched the man tap it on the edge of the desk and consider Prany. There was a clock on the wall above his head. Behind Prany, a square of sky.

The man took out a file and confirmed their relocation and new postings at a village in Luang Prabang. From a sheet he read to them that they would report to the administrative office tonight. There was a temporary room in a house that they could stay in for the week. It had all been arranged. This was also a great gift for them: to be together, given that they were not related. Others were not so lucky, he said.

“As you have learned, our country is rich in natural resources, and we should develop them. Under the old regime we were not working hard enough, yes? How could we under such oppression? So dysfunctional were we, corrupted by the Japanese, the French, the Americans. We had to always ask people, and countries, for help. But now, here, all of us: look at us now. We broke that cycle. We freed you. We taught you how to be self-sufficient. We taught you how to grow food if you didn’t know how. We taught you how to build fishponds. To raise pigs and chickens. You worked this land. Every day, you worked this land. This center, as far back as it goes, was your land. You helped us, and you helped yourselves. It is all wonderful. Now you will be self-sufficient. You will use all this knowledge to help your village. And then your village will help others. You will, together, collectively, be hardworking and clean and pure. You will prosper from your education these past years, and you will think on this day as the first in your new life and be grateful to us.”

“You’re very generous today,” Prany said, and this time the man leaned across and gripped Prany’s left hand, crushing the fingers, pulling him across the desk. Prany stifled a scream.

“The Party and Government’s intelligence is clear and bright,” the official said. “All praise, all praise, all praise.”

Vang quickly repeated the words and then, after a pause, Prany, breathing between his teeth, said them, too: “The Party and Government’s intelligence is clear and bright: all praise, all praise, all praise.”

The official let go. For the first time, he addressed Vang: “I am actually feeling quite generous today. But you’ll have to keep an eye on this one. In fact, if he gets into any trouble, it’s you we’ll come for, yes? Do you understand? He’s your responsibility now.”

The official looked down at the file.

“Doctor,” he said. “Yes. Quite. Sorry, no doctor postings available.”

He chuckled and gave them their new papers. He also slid over clothes for them that smelled harshly of chemicals. Then the official stood, congratulated them on their reeducation, and wished the two of them good health, good work, and long, peaceful lives.

Now, in the courtyard, a van pulled up. The guard on the balcony went inside. Prany held on to a head cushion and climbed up after Vang did. The windows had been blacked out. The divide between their seats and the front had been walled up as well, so that they were blind as they drove across the courtyard, the van bouncing slightly as they left through the gate.

Without turning, Vang spoke to Prany softly, the way they were used to doing. He was speaking in French. On the second day, using a hammer, they had broken the bones of the doctor’s fingers first, wanting names of CIA officers. Wanting the location of Hmong fighters. A woman they called “Auntie.” Then they broke Prany’s fingers.

Vang’s recovered. Prany lost the use of his left hand.

“The dates,” Vang said. “In that room. Why did you want to know the dates?”

The van bounced again as they turned onto a smoother road. The driver sped. In the dark, Prany could hear only the air. He watched the quick shadows in the thin space along the bottom of the side door. He had forgotten about speed. The speed of a vehicle. He grew light-headed again. He fought it by breathing deeply.

In the prison, in their later years, they had mostly left Prany alone, but they had kept returning to Vang. They called him the pretty doctor. The men would lift him by his arms and drag him down the hall, barefoot, to where the interrogator was waiting for him, and he would be gone for an hour. Prany couldn’t hear him. He couldn’t hear anything. He counted the seconds to distract himself and to time how long he was alone. In that hour, it was the complete silence that terrified them.

Vang asked him again. “Why did you want to know the dates?”

Prany said that he wanted to hear someone other than themselves say it aloud. The months, the years. He asked whether Vang understood. This doctor he had now known for a decade and who had kept practicing French with him in the cell as a thread of sanity.

Vang, whom he would never see after today.

“Stay focused,” Vang said. “We’re out.”

Then the doctor mimed punching the ceiling a few times, his arms like pistons, restless as they sped across the smoothness of a paved highway. The wind grew louder. The engine.

Seven years. Prany was twenty-five. Vang was almost forty.

They had no idea where they were.

They were dropped off at a bus station near Vang Vieng. It didn’t matter anymore, but Prany had timed how long they had been in the van and wondered if they had been kept somewhere in the north, near the Chinese border.

There was a time when he used to spend all day attempting to orient himself by the shape of a far slope, the temperature during the colder months. The wind and the weather, or the flight path of a bird—a bird! This need for a compass. The delirium of it. He would have offered his other hand simply to know.

When the van door opened, Prany was still unsure of where he was, whether he was in fact still in Laos. He almost wept. It wasn’t because he recognized the bus station. He had never seen it before. It was simply because they hadn’t been taken back, that the building looked different than the buildings of the prison.

And because they were still in Laos.

“Take the first bus,” the guard in the passenger seat said. “Wait at the bench. Good health.” And then the van drove away, leaving the two of them in front of the station, which appeared empty.

Vang kneeled to retie his shoes. They had been given matching clothes—white shirts, gray trousers, and black shoes—and they were still getting used to them, the feel of them, that smell, the shapes. Whose clothes were they wearing? In first imagining and then planning this day, they had been uncertain about the clothes. To them it was a miracle that they had been given anything at all.

They were about two hundred kilometers southwest of Phonsavan. Closer to Vientiane. They were not yet used to the brightness as they walked around to the back of the station, lifting their hands for shade as they found the shell of what had been a school bus, rusted, propped up on bricks. Behind it, two small billboards that had probably been intended for the roadside were stacked against the wall: in the first, there was an illustration of an elephant carrying felled logs through a forest; in the other, a woman repairing a chair.

No one came. But Vang kept a lookout as Prany opened the lid of a trash container. He didn’t spot the box at first. He saw only the garbage and some rotten fruit and rice, and he held his breath, wondering whether something had gone wrong.

But then it was there: the shoebox with an American brand on the lid, as they were promised.

He flipped it open. Inside, there was a thick envelope of money and a small hunting knife, the blade folded into the metal handle. A stray dog appeared, sniffing their shoes, his nose following the scent of the garbage. Prany reached in to the garbage container again and tossed the dog a handful of the fruit and rice. Then he passed the money and the knife to Vang and left the shoebox there.

They returned to the front of the station and waited. They stood in the quiet, with a mountain range in the east and a village to the north, a small collection of rooftops by the river. They were distracted by the vast emptiness. There were no buses, no one on the road. There was only the mountain. The distance.

From the road, an old man appeared, crossing the lot and sitting on the bench near the front entrance to the station. He was wearing clothes similar to theirs, and they waited to see if he would try to speak to them, but he didn’t. He lifted up his sleeve as though he had a watch and scratched a knuckle in a way that made Prany suddenly remember a girl he had met in a southern town. He had convinced her to ride a rickshaw he had stolen for an hour to try to make some money. This was before the fighting intensified across the country. Her profile in the rearview and the scent of her in the back as she kept reaching over his shoulder, her money grazing his ear as she told him to keep going.

Where did they go? He tried to remember. He and Vang hadn’t moved from the station entrance. He was tired. They were both so tired. Shy of the new landscape. This new world. Still afraid. The way the feeling was there like a contrail as they kept gazing out at the distance. How nothing came up from behind the ridgeline, how in five minutes nothing in the landscape had altered. How there was no sound other than the wind. The gait of the dog and the dust.

“Shall we walk?” Prany said.

They could. In their plan, they had talked about saving their energy, but it wasn’t far. Prany suddenly wanted to walk forever. He thought he could. He paced a little. He could feel his heart. Together, they tracked a bird in the air. How many birds did they end up watching? He had witnessed the doctor grow older. Gray was appearing in his hair. In his memory of the man, there was only this face now, not the one that would lean so close to the keyboard of the piano that they thought he was going to disappear into it.

Prany remembered now. Eventually, he took the girl to a ceremony a relative of hers was hosting. She got out without looking at him and then, to his surprise, took his wrist and made him follow her up a hill. They entered a landscape he had never seen: a high field domed in suspended candlelit lanterns hanging from poles. It was as though he had stumbled upon that other world the shamans claimed they had access to. There was a small crowd and a shaman was standing at the center. The girl he had driven took the string the crowd gave her and bound her wrist and then bound the rest of the string to Prany’s. They were all bound, the entire crowd. And then they approached the shaman, who flung the smoke of the incense over them.

He came back never knowing what they were celebrating, just that they had been bound, he with those strangers and the girl, and that they had been blessed. Still in the echo of it as Alisak and Noi slept by a river. He had stopped on the way and bought as many pears as he could carry, the fruit spilling from his arms. They never noticed he was gone. Only the new scent on him, the incense and the girl’s perfume of herbs and flowers.

A car appeared, approaching the bus station. They tracked it like the bird as it approached, slowed, and turned in. The old man on the bench ignored it. Other than the van that had dropped them off, it was the first vehicle they had seen. They checked the road one last time for any sign of the bus they were supposed to take, but nothing else came over the ridge.

The window rolled down. “Faster to ride with me,” the driver said. He nodded and gestured to them to come in. He was wearing sunglasses. They had slid down his nose, and he looked first at Vang and then at Prany, who brought his arms behind him.

It was a taxi. Or some version of one; there were no signs. There were strips of duct tape across the passenger seat and a jug of water on the floor. They checked as quickly and discreetly as possible—what he was wearing, the dash, the backseat—for any clue that he might be an official or Pathet Lao, but couldn’t find any.

So Prany named an inn on the western side of a reservoir. It wasn’t very far, perhaps five kilometers south. He asked the driver if he could take them there.

“I know it,” the driver said, and named a price.

They didn’t argue with him. They got in, and then they were heading south. They stayed silent, staring out the windows. Prany kept waiting to get used to the speed of a vehicle. The speed of the world passing. The undulating shapes of the hills. An abandoned farm and what looked like a new cement factory. There were still bomb craters in fields that hadn’t been filled and the remnants of a roadside restaurant, the windows and the door all gone.

The driver was eyeing them through the rearview.

“What time is it?” Vang said.

“What?”

“The time.” Vang lifted his wrist.

“Noon,” the driver said.

Vang grinned. It had been years since he had asked for the time and someone had answered him. He leaned forward and asked if they could hear music. The driver laughed, pressed a button on the radio. All they could hear was static.

“You’re not from here,” he said.

They approached the boundary of the massive reservoir that seemed to them an inland ocean. It was impossible to see the far bank. The taxi followed the road that ran along the reservoir’s western side, passing islands, some of them with old structures. A blue ferryboat with no passengers cut across the water. Then, just as quickly, they drove away from the reservoir and entered a forest. Soon, a sign for the inn appeared, and the driver turned onto an unpaved road that they followed for a kilometer until it opened out onto a round courtyard.

The building was on the far end. It was a wide, two-story structure with fading red paint and dark shutters. There were some plants and a copper fish at the center of the courtyard, so oxidized they were unsure what it was at first, the fish in midair, as though caught and being reeled in.

“So then, where are you from?” the driver said, pulling up to the front.

They had practiced this.

“Phonsavan,” Prany said.

They had practiced every day for years, but in that moment he didn’t say what he was supposed to say. Suddenly, those years collapsed, and he felt as though he were falling. It was too late now. He knew Vang was avoiding looking at him. It would be the one mistake Prany would think of, not at this moment, but one day months from now, leaping out of a van and running.

“I have a cousin in Phonsavan,” the driver said. “Good restaurant. You must know it, yes? Best food in the town.”

He named the restaurant. He said, “Survived the war, the restaurant,” and Vang said, “Yes. Wonderful,” and took out double the amount the driver had asked for. The driver paused, trying to hide his surprise. Then he pushed up his sunglasses and slipped the money into his back pocket.

“I can wait,” the driver said. “If you have somewhere else to go.”

They shook their heads, opened the door, and got out.

“You tell him I drove you today, yes? When you get back. You’re on a trip, yes? But tell him when you get back.”

They waited for him to drive back down the unpaved road through the forest. “Don’t worry,” Vang said, and reached for the copper fish, wanting to touch it, but changed his mind.

They headed in. The burst of a ceiling fan spinning above them. There was another fish in the small lobby, this one made of gold and standing on a pedestal. It was gleaming. The floors, too. Above them hung a chandelier. They caught the scent of flowers. The sound of trickling water. It was the most opulence they had encountered since the farmhouse, and they didn’t move, suddenly distracted by it all, until a young man standing behind the reception desk called to them and smiled.

It wasn’t him.

Behind the receptionist, on the wall, were room numbers and large hooks for the keys. All the keys were hanging on their hooks. Prany and Vang glanced at each other, and then they asked if there was a room available.

From somewhere down the hall came faint music. A slow ballad Prany thought he recognized.

“Only one?” the receptionist said, still smiling, looking at Prany and then Vang.

“Yes.”

The receptionist said if they wanted two separate rooms he could offer them a discount.

“Are we the only guests?” Vang said.

“Two rooms,” the receptionist said, ignoring him. “It might be more comfortable that way. And a discount.”

“Only one,” they said.

The receptionist regarded them, their clothes. He asked for identification.

This was the moment they had been curious about. They had no identification. They had their papers, but they were supposed to be on a bus crossing the country by now. They opened the envelope and passed a handful of money over to him and said they had forgotten to bring their papers, that they were very tired from a long trip, that they were teachers at a school, and they were heading back home to Vientiane and wanted only to spend the night. They handed him another stack of money to be safe.

Whatever the receptionist was considering was unreadable. They waited, holding their breath. The sound of trickling water seemed to grow louder. Then the young man took the money and selected a key from the wall. As he slid it across the counter, he asked if they needed help with their luggage. They said no. He smiled again. There were maps of the area on the counter if they wanted to take a walk. There were also flyers promoting “self-sustainability” with brightly colored illustrations of farms and lush grass.

They asked if there was a restaurant, and the receptionist pointed down a hall. Then he looked around, leaned forward, and said, quietly, “Please. No sex stuff, okay?”

They didn’t know how to respond to that.

“Okay,” Vang said, and they went to the restaurant.

There were five tables in the room. They sat in the corner by a window with a view of a small garden. They had the restaurant to themselves. Prany placed his hands on the tablecloth, feeling the texture of it. Outside, a child wandered along the garden path, shouting on occasion at someone they couldn’t see and pointing at the soil. They had seen so few people today, but it was still unbelievable to Prany to be seeing someone other than those they had seen for years. To see them unharmed. Unbelievable to see different clothes. To see a child.

The receptionist appeared by their table, this time wearing an apron. He fumbled with a notebook and wet the tip of his pen with his tongue. They asked what the kitchen was serving, and he pointed behind him at a chalkboard on the wall. There were two things. Vegetables and rice. And, to their surprise, meat and rice. In the camp, they had never seen the animals they had raised after they had brought them across the fields to be slaughtered. The way their gaits changed as though they understood that something different was about to occur, and Prany unable to look at their eyes.

They ordered four servings of each. The young man hesitated, wondering if he had misheard, so they said it again: four of the vegetables and rice, and four of the meat and rice. Then they asked what kind of drinks were offered, and they ordered everything he listed. Sodas, beer. They asked whether there was anything else in the kitchen that wasn’t on the menu. The receptionist had stopped writing. He said they probably had some papaya and some kaipen, and so they ordered all of that, too. They took out the envelope and gave him another stack of money. He pocketed the bills without looking at them and hurried away. They would do everything to get the manager’s attention.

Outside, the child trampled a plant. Not long after, a young woman appeared in the garden and kneeled by the ruined plant and began to salvage as much of it as she could. She was perhaps Prany’s age and wearing slippers. Prany watched as she rolled up her sleeves to collect the dirt that had fallen on the stones of the path and carried it back over into the garden. Over and over she did this, somehow avoiding getting dirt on her clothes or even on her slippers.

Prany studied her profile. Her patience. Her resemblance to the manager. There had been no mention of a family. Did it matter? It didn’t to him. He glanced at Vang, but the doctor was looking down at the section of the floor between his feet and rapidly tapping his chest with his fingers. Prany returned to the woman out the window: she brushed the dirt from her hands and left, ducking under the low branches of two trees.

Where was the food?

As the minutes passed, Vang still tapping his chest, Prany began to imagine that it was all a joke. Any moment now someone would appear and clap or begin to laugh, maybe Auntie herself would appear, and the lights would go out and the daylight would vanish. The woman and the child outside and this inn would vanish. The loudspeakers would blare, rattling their eardrums like a detonation, and it would turn out that they hadn’t left the prison at all, that this was another one of the guards’ games. That the man who had interrogated them for years was waiting for them in that same room that had turned Vang so quiet.

For a moment, this seemed possible.

But the food arrived, all of it. They could smell it everywhere now. They leaned over the table and ate, with shyness at first and then more violently. It was dry and not very warm, the meat was tough and the rice was almost raw, but they tasted flavors they had forgotten existed and ones they had thought of so often that Vang began to cry silently. He wiped his eyes and kept eating. They didn’t speak. They drank their beers and ate and opened the colorful bottles of Fanta and drank them, too, shocked by the sudden sugar, some of it spilling from their mouths onto their shirts. They kept eating and drinking. They ignored the receptionist watching them from the kitchen door. No one else came into the restaurant. They ordered more Fantas and beer and one more dish.

When the receptionist came back again, they asked how the inn had meat, had all of this. They slid him more money, and Prany gestured out to the garden and the lobby.

“The manager,” the receptionist said. “He knows people.”

“Where is he?” Vang said.

“He’s a good man. He takes care of us. My family. He’s a good man.”

They slid him more money.

“He hasn’t come in yet.”

“When will he come in?”

“Soon,” he said.

“Tell him to come see us, yes?” Vang said.

“Is there a problem? He’s a good man.”

“No problem.”

They had trouble finding their room, uncertain of how the numbers on the doors proceeded, but then they found the stairs and went up. They had been given a corner room on the second floor. The hallway smelled of damp wood. Prany took the key and tried the lock, but it wouldn’t turn. He tried again. They thought they heard footsteps and stopped, but no one came. Prany passed the key to Vang. The key turned. They stepped inside.

There were two Western-style double beds. Red mattress covers. A brochure, trifolded and standing up. Vang laughed softly. Beds! They turned on the light in the bathroom and saw the folded towels and the toilet. A shower. Then they froze at their reflections in the mirror, their similar clothes, their gauntness, the deep hollows below their cheekbones, and their broken postures. Their age. They stood in silence, avoiding looking at each other through the mirror. They were just bones and old, older.

They returned to the beds. Prany sat on the edge of the one closest to the window from which there was a view of the back of the inn, the paths, the hills. He waited for the child and the mother, but they didn’t appear.

Prany took off his clothes and folded them carefully on top of the dresser. His working papers slipped from the pocket of his trousers and he knelt to examine them. He didn’t know what all the words meant. He tore the papers up, Vang’s, too, and flushed them down the toilet. He grabbed a towel like Vang had, wrapped himself in it, and went over to the bed. The room was small, but to them it was a palace. He thought he would walk around because he could, but like Vang, he ended up staying there on the bed.

He reached over and held Vang’s hand. “What if he doesn’t come?”

“He’ll come,” Vang said.

“But if he doesn’t?”

Vang didn’t answer. Prany kept holding his hand. He watched as the doctor breathed as slowly as he could. His own heart was pounding, but he focused on Vang’s breathing, the way they had practiced, matching his, and as they waited, he felt the shudder of his body against the towel, the soft mattress, his full stomach, this feeling as though he were falling and floating somewhere terribly far and deep and vast. He thought of Noi and the fruit he had dropped that had rolled down the banks of the river, the way he had chased after them, and he thought of how he had bashed his head against the wall one day in the cell, over and over again, until Vang woke, pinned him down, and held him.

He remembered the soothing hum of a song coming from deep within the doctor’s chest as Vang tried to stop the bleeding with his shirt. Then a joke Vang made about how, in a cell, it was impossible for him to misplace his glasses.

He saw that hall of mirrors in the farmhouse and the woman who had kept wanting to get up, forgetting she had lost the use of her legs. The way they had left her and so many others there, on that last day, unable to move them as they had fled.

That day, so many years ago, he had gone back for them all. Alisak and Noi and Vang. In the chaos, he had driven back across the Plain of Jars, seeing smoke rising from a field. A farmer waved a pale shirt, indicating to him someone was alive. He only found Vang. By then, the helicopters had already gone. In their desperation, they had driven across the country, all the way to the Mekong, and had survived the crossing.

He thought of the papers he had just torn up, floating in the toilet water. He imagined the life that had been given to them this morning and understood it would not have been all that bad. He felt the rhythm of going to work every day and helping a village grow food. It seemed good; it seemed okay. It was something he could have done. He knew how. He could do things like that now. He could grow food. He could help a village, and a village could help other villages. Maybe he should. Maybe the center had been right. Maybe what had been waiting for them was wonderful. He let go of Vang.

Prany woke to footsteps. The sudden knock snuck into him and rattled his teeth. He crossed the room and peered into the eyehole.

There he was. They had imagined this day for so long, but as he opened the door, they forgot to envision that the man standing in the hall would be, like them, older. Much older. That the man who had been their interrogator when they had arrived, the man who had used a hammer on their fingers and who had continued to torture them, had continued to torture Vang, had aged. His hair was thinner and gray. He had gained weight around his waist and was wearing a collared short-sleeved shirt with a tiny horse embroidered on it. He seemed, simply, like an old father. Someone healthy and at peace.

It was clear the interrogator didn’t recognize them. They were sure he wouldn’t have. What had they been to him? So little. It had taken them two years to discover he had retired, had inherited this inn from an uncle.

“I’m the manager of this establishment,” he said. “I wanted to personally welcome you to the Vientiane Prefecture, the most beautiful place here in Laos, the most beautiful place in the world. All praise, all praise, all praise.”

“All praise, all praise, all praise,” they said.

The interrogator looked over Prany’s shoulder at Vang. If he was disturbed that they were only in their towels, he hid it. He said, “Please let me know if there’s anything you need, and I will personally assist you.”

Prany opened the door farther. He apologized for their appearance. He said they had stained their clothes and were waiting for them to dry. He gestured for the man to come in and offered him a chair by a small table in the corner. The interrogator stayed where he was, holding the bottle of whiskey he had brought with him. He offered it to them, but they declined. He wiped his brow with a handkerchief. His eyes stayed on Vang, who was by the window, and they waited to see if some recognition came.

The interrogator shut the door behind him and locked it. He opened the whiskey and drank it himself. He asked where they were from. Whether they were enjoying their stay. He said he catered mostly to foreign diplomats and that it was rare to have guests of such means who weren’t here officially. That it was quite the honor for him. That he heard they were teachers, but he knew that was not true, though they need not worry, he was most discreet.

Then, more quietly, he asked whether they needed entertainment. He said they looked like men who wanted to have some fun. He said, “You like the young entertainment? I know the young entertainment.” He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and said again that he was most discreet. That he knew the best and the youngest. Fresh like the best fruit.

“Fresh like the best fruit,” Vang said.

Before the interrogator could say anything else, Prany and Vang stepped toward him, grabbed his arms and his head, and threw him down against the table so that his body was folded over the edge. They twisted his chin up, shoved a small towel into his mouth, lifted him back up, and slammed him down again. They pulled back on his arms as though they were levers, as hard as they could, hard enough that they heard both shoulders pop. The only sound that came from the man was a murmur of surprise, a grunt, and then his attempts at breathing as his body struggled. They had already broken his nose. Using their weight, they pressed down on the top half of his body as hard as possible, but Prany was already out of breath. There wasn’t a lot more strength left in him, he realized.

Years in a cell. The two of them wrestling as quietly as they could to build up stamina.

It wasn’t enough. Before panic could set in, the interrogator freed himself from them and collapsed onto the floor. They braced themselves for him to shout, but he didn’t. The towel that was still stuck in his mouth was already soaking up his blood. He crawled slowly toward the door, both of his arms dragging strangely along his sides. Vang grabbed his waist, pulled him back across the floor, and together they knelt and pressed their weight on him again.

Because of Prany’s damaged hand, Vang was holding the hunting knife. He grabbed the interrogator’s hair and pushed his head down and began to stab the interrogator in his side, above his belt. The interrogator bit down hard on the towel and screamed, and his eyes welled up and reddened. He flopped like a fish. Prany shoved the towel deeper into the interrogator’s mouth and jammed his knee down against him. He watched as Vang kept stabbing him, faster, all across his side, the carpet beginning to grow wet. Vang’s glasses fell off, but he ignored this, kept stabbing. Then he leaned down and spoke into the interrogator’s ear as the body jerked. Prany didn’t hear what Vang said. He watched Vang’s mouth moving beside the ear and watched as Vang gripped the knife with both hands and pushed down into the back of the throat, the blade slipping down slowly at first and then softly.

It was done. The interrogator went still. Vang let go of the knife, which was still in the man. It was like a piece of rock had sprouted from his neck.

They took off their towels and pressed them against the interrogator’s body to soak up the rest of the blood. They headed into the bathroom, where Vang vomited, kneeling over the toilet. The Fanta and the beer and all the food he had eaten slushed into the toilet bowl. He shut his eyes. He laughed. He laughed louder, and Prany covered the doctor’s mouth. Prany turned on all the waterspouts, the shower­head, and the faucet. He helped Vang up, and they began to wash themselves. They opened all the shampoos and unwrapped the soaps and cleaned themselves and each other as fast as possible, as thoroughly as possible, all without looking in the mirror.

They got back into the clothes they had come here with, the clothes that had been given to them. They looked once more at the interrogator on the floor, at his open eyes, the knife in him, his crooked arms. The wet carpet and the towels growing darker.

They left the inn, the two of them crossing the lobby where there was still the faint music playing, and hurried past the courtyard and down the road through the forest. They didn’t look back.

Vang handed Prany the rest of the money and said, “You find Auntie. You go.”

They had forgotten to clean Vang’s glasses. Prany took them as they walked down the treelined road, trying to rub the blood away as quickly as possible. The scratches on the lenses were stained red. Prany’s breathing became erratic, and he began to shiver. And then he stopped and clung to Vang, pressing their foreheads together, wanting to be close to him one last time, wanting to hold him one last time. This man who was the only person he knew anymore.

“And then you find your friend,” Vang said softly. He took back his glasses and put them on. “You find him. Go.”

They parted by the highway. Prany walked back to the bus station and Vang crossed the road and shouted, once, up into the air, an animal-like noise, a bellow. His shape grew fainter as he descended the slope, headed home, to swim in the reservoir for the first time in his life.

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is the author of a novel, Snow Hunters, and, most recently, the story collection The Mountain.

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