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Authors: John Shors

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical

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BOOK: Dragon House
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AUTHOR’S NOTE
In 1965, the United States sent combat troops into Vietnam to thwart a communist takeover of the southern half of the country. Fighting alongside their allies, the South Vietnamese, American forces waged a conventional war against the North Vietnamese, who received substantial logistical support from China and the Soviet Union. In 1975, Saigon fell, and the few remaining American troops were evacuated. During the course of the conflict, about five million soldiers and civilians were killed.
In 1986, the Vietnamese government launched free-market reforms, which led to substantial economic growth. The United States established diplomatic relations with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in 1995.
PROLOGUE
The Dreams of Another
T
he hospital room looked as ill as the patient it housed. Though everything was the color of fresh snow, the room’s walls, ceiling, floor, and linens seemed tainted—as if the stains of misery and death had been scrubbed from them too many times. The room smelled not of life, but of chemicals and atrophy. Several bouquets of once-proud flowers leaned limply. Balloons that no longer tugged against their moorings hung in the stale air.
A man who looked older than his sixty-one years lay atop the room’s only bed. He had been a large man, but now only the length of his frame hinted of the shadow he’d once cast. Clear tubes darted into his nose, the back of his hands. A razor hadn’t slid over his face in more than a week, and a gray-and-white beard obscured the blemishes of time that dotted his skin.
His daughter sat beside his bed. She was taller than an average-size man, though her shoulders and waist were slender. Her eyes were as dark as walnuts. Her hair, a comparable color, was unkempt and rife with wide curls. Her face was thin like the rest of her. After thirty-one years of wear, the contours of her forehead and cheeks had been infiltrated by faint wrinkles. At first glance she might have appeared awkward, but when she leaned forward to adjust his blankets, her movements were graceful.
“Are you still cold?” she asked, looking at a bag of clear fluid that hung from a steel post beside him. Her gaze followed a tube that ran from the bag into his flesh. “I could ask for another blanket,” she added, wishing that he weren’t so emaciated, that cancer hadn’t already claimed so much of him.
He tried with little success to shake his head. His forefinger rose and her hand found his. “Do you remember,” he asked faintly, “why I . . . why we chose your name?”
Iris had heard the story and nodded. “But tell me again.”
“I wanted a reminder of the good in the world.”
“Was I?”
“You are . . . the good in the world.”
She smiled, wiping a tear from her cheek with her free hand. “Can I get you anything? Anything at all?”
He closed his eyes, appearing to fall asleep. He soon began to mumble and groan. He continued conversing with someone, though she wasn’t sure whom. She sensed him fading away from her, falling into a distant world, and she leaned closer to him, squeezing his hand. Her grip seemed to bring him back. He opened his eyes. He studied her, recognizing her once again. “I’m sorry. . . . I failed you. Sorry I didn’t . . . give you what I wanted to.”
“Don’t be—”
“My baby girl. My sweet baby girl. I made . . . such a mess of things.”
She brought his hand to her lips, kissing it. “I don’t want you to be sorry. You did your best. That’s what matters.”
“I thought . . . I could leave the war. Be good to your mother. To you. And I tried so hard . . . to leave it.” His eyes glistened. His lips quivered.
She leaned over him, kissing his brow. “I love you.”
He moaned faintly. She’d been told that the painkillers had numbed him to suffering, but still, she worried.
“We had some good times . . . didn’t we?” he asked, his voice no stronger than the rustle of wind passing through leafless limbs.
“Of course we did.”
He nodded.
She realized that he needed to hear about such times, needed to be reminded of what he’d done right. “I remember sitting on your shoulders,” she said, “and walking to Cubs games. Listening to the crowd. Looking at all that grass. I loved those games. Do you know how special I felt? How lucky? I never wanted those afternoons to end.”
A smile, feeble yet poignant, lit his face. “What else?”
She adjusted his pillow, stroked his hair to one side. “I loved it when you picked me up from school. When you took my hand and we walked to the ice-cream store. And you taught me how to ride a bike, and how to put a worm on a hook.” She recalled a photo of the two of them holding a basket of bass, and her eyes began to tear again.
“Don’t cry, my sweet Iris.”
“I don’t want you to go. I’m just not ready for that.”
“I’m so proud of you. Proud that you escaped . . . the world I made for you. Proud of the . . . of the woman you’ve become.”
She started to respond but stopped, aware that he wanted to say something else.
His lungs filled and emptied. “Two things in my life . . . I’ve been proud of. You . . . and my center in Saigon. You’re both so wonderful.”
Iris stroked the back of his hand, careful to avoid the bruises that covered most of his flesh, the wounds left by needles. “I’ve been thinking a lot about your center,” she replied, trying to hide her apprehension. “I’m going to go, Dad. I’m going to finish what you started. What you almost finished.”
“What?”
“I’ll go to Saigon and see that it’s opened.”
“No.”
“I’ve already decided.”
“But . . . but your reviews. And your novel.”
“I can take everything with me.”
“Iris . . . don’t go for—”
“I want to go. I need to.”
“Why?”
“Because I love you. Because it will make you happy. And because you’ll . . . rest better knowing that you helped those children. The beautiful children you’ve told me so much about.”
Tears welled in his eyes. “Come here,” he whispered.
She leaned against him, wrapping her arms around him, shuddering when she felt him kiss her head. “I want to go,” she whispered. “I want to see the good that you’ve done.”
“Are you sure? It’s so far from home. From your mother.”
“She understands. She thinks I should go.”
“She does?”
“Yes.”
“And you . . . really want to?”
“I want to do it for you. And those children.”
He licked his cracked lips and she placed a piece of chipped ice in his mouth. “I love you more . . . more than anything else . . . in this world,” he said. “I don’t . . . deserve you. I never have.”
Her tears dropped to his chest, and she stroked his brow. “Please don’t go. I’m not ready. I want more time with you. I need more time with you.”
“I went . . . a long time ago. Except for you. I tried . . . and tried and tried . . . never to leave you.”
“You didn’t,” she replied, fighting the shudders that threatened to consume her. “I promise that you didn’t. I missed you . . . when you left. But I knew you still loved me.”
He tilted his head so that his flesh pressed more firmly against her palm. “Someday . . . if you have a child . . . will you take her to a ball game and tell her about our afternoons . . . and about how her grandpa wanted to take her? I would have taken her. And we’d have done . . . the same things. Eaten peanuts. Cheered with the crowd.”
“I’ll tell her everything. And I’ll take her. I’ll show her where we sat.”
He nodded, searching her face, longing to bring it with him on his journey. “I love you,” he said. “I love you . . . so much, Iris. More than words . . . can say. And I’ll find you in Saigon.”
“You will?”
“I’ll listen for children’s laughter. And I’ll follow . . . I’ll follow it to you.”
“Promise?”
“I do.”
She kissed his brow, aware that he was between worlds, drifting from one to the other. Weeping silently, she carefully climbed into his bed and lay beside him, comforting him as he’d done for her when nightmares had left her shaking.
“My baby girl,” he whispered. “You shine . . . such a light on me.”
ONE
Dusk and Dawn
T
he small apartment that Iris had rented for two years resembled the office of a college professor. In the living room, on wooden tables and shelves, piles of books were stacked like cords of firewood. The books were old and new, worn and untouched. Hundreds of hardcovers comprised the bases of these piles, while pa perbacks teetered on top of them. Several of the piles had tumbled, and books were strewn in odd places.
The rest of her home was unremarkable in every way. The kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom could have housed a monk. No luxuries abounded. No family photographs gathered dust. Twenty stories below, the pulse of Chicago drifted up to her closed windows. Horns, sirens, the rumble of a passing elevated train seeped into her room—though she’d long ago learned to block out such sounds.
Though Iris would have normally kept her books in perfect order, since her father’s death five weeks earlier she’d been far less inclined to complete such tasks. Her thoughts had dwelled on her memories of their time together. She tended to think about their best moments—of renting a canoe and paddling to an island, where they camped for two nights, of him teaching her how to throw and catch a baseball. She tried to ignore painful recollections—times when he’d unexpectedly gone away or broken his promises to be by her side. As a young girl, she’d hated such occurrences. They’d made her feel unloved and unwanted and, most of all, confused. She didn’t understand why he needed to be away from his family. How could he love her, yet leave her so easily? The misery and bewilderment that this question created had lasted for years.
As a teenager, Iris had resented her father. It wasn’t until after finishing college that she began to grasp why he’d so often been gone. He had never told her of his demons, but she’d read several books about the war and realized that his maladies weren’t unusual. He’d been wounded deep inside, where light never reached and couldn’t help him heal.
Iris wasn’t sure exactly why she was going to Vietnam. Of course, she’d wanted to put her father at ease during his last days, and her words about traveling to Saigon had done just that—resonating within him. But a part of her also needed to complete his dream. Over the past two years, he’d spoken to her about this dream, about his longing to do something good. And she had seen beauty in what he was trying to accomplish. Her love for him had grown then—because he’d confided in her about his hopes and fears. And when he had taken trips to Saigon, they’d been with her blessing. He’d returned with pictures and stories, and they had eaten pizza in her apartment while he told her about the children he was trying to save. During these conversations, which often lasted long into the night, she had never felt closer to him.
Though her father had often been gone during her childhood, her mother had tried valiantly to fill the holes in Iris’s life. Because of her mother’s unending support, Iris couldn’t imagine growing up alone on the streets, with no one to care for her. And upon hearing her father’s stories of such children, she had instinctively wanted to do something to help. Of course, she’d never expected to try to finish what he’d started, but as his death had loomed, she knew that she couldn’t walk away from the children. She couldn’t leave them alone, not when she might be able to make their lives better.
Now, as Iris lay on her futon, she tried to suppress her nervousness about what she’d promised her father. Propped up on her chest was a battered copy of
Heart of Darkness
. The book had long been one of her favorites, and with thoughts of her trip to Saigon dominating her day, she thought it apt to read about Marlow’s journey through the Congo and through himself.
Iris laid the book down on her chest and closed her eyes. The lone window in her room was darkening, as dusk unfolded in the city below. Though she had eaten only a premade salad for dinner, and though her stomach was in want of more food, she was ready for sleep. She’d spent the afternoon packing and e-mailing her contacts in Saigon about her visit. After turning off the evening news she had showered, brushed her teeth, put on lightweight pajamas, and crept into bed.
She rolled to her left and glanced at the urn containing her father’s cremated remains. One of his last wishes was to be cremated, and she’d done as he asked, sobbing when she had first opened the silver container and seen his remains. She’d touched him, surprised that the urn didn’t contain ashes but rather tiny pieces of bone. How she longed to somehow fashion those pieces back into the man she had glimpsed on and off through the years—a man who loved her, who was able to temporarily place his sorrows aside and push his little girl high on a swing.
A soft but abrupt knock on her door caused her heart to skip. Iris had few visitors and couldn’t imagine who’d stop by without calling first. She stood up, buttoned her top higher, and walked toward the entryway. Peering through the peephole, she saw a woman’s familiar face. Iris opened the door and leaned toward her former neighbor. “Mrs. Woods?”
BOOK: Dragon House
2.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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