create | encounter

winning submissions & honorable mention pieces

2nd Place: Following the Bends

October 12, 2018

Chanlina waited until nighttime to take the files. She had worked late, staying behind after the others had left the office. This would not attract attention—she frequently worked into the evening, as Mr. Yi’s bad health meant she had to do more for him. (Also, working late allowed her to avoid her husband for a few more hours.) When the office seemed empty, she went to Mr. Yi’s office and logged on to his computer. This was not noteworthy, either: she frequently used his computer. Someone viewing security camera footage would not find her presence suspicious. Although she felt light-headed—fear? excitement?—Chanlina tried to maintain a tired, bored expression for the camera as she clicked through the folders.

 

A meeting two weeks earlier had brought her to this moment. She had left the house before sunrise, shivering and thinking of how much warmer it must be back home. She drove into work through one of Shanghai’s winter rains, listening on the radio to the latest news of fighting on the central Viet Nam front, and started work at her usual early hour. Mr. Yi had met her on the way to the senior staff meeting, hobbling and grimacing. Chanlina wondered how much longer he could get by on just a cane.

 

The staff room slowly filled with white- and gray-haired men and their assistants. Mr. Zhou, the director, arrived last, being wheeled in by one of his assistants. His eyes were bright amid his lined face. They went through the meeting’s agenda quickly, and Chanlina thought the gathering was about to end when Mr. Zhou made the announcement.

 

“We have not been able to reach an agreement with the Americans about the undersea drilling. They, backed up by their government, are simply not compromising. So, I have decided to send senior staff to New York to talk to them directly. Perhaps that will make an impression.” The bright eyes settled on Mr. Yi. “I have chosen Yi to go, later this month.”

 

Chanlina glanced at Mr. Yi, whose expression had not changed. He had not told her this was coming. He could not be happy about this, as traveling was difficult for him.

 

After the meeting adjourned, Mr. Yi took her aside. His eyebrows—still dark despite his white hair—were furrowed. This meant something important was coming. “I’ll need more assistance on this trip to New York than I have before. Reaching an agreement on the drilling is very important,” he added, as if that were the reason he wanted assistance. “And talking to Americans is much harder now that it used to be. So, I would like you to come with me.”

 

Chanlina smiled and thanked him while she considered what to make of this. A business trip meant time away from the house, which was good. Also, she had never been to the United States—although the visit would naturally be a tense one. It would be cold in New York, as well. She thought again of home. She remembered how the sunrise would light up the mist on the Tonle Sap River. Chanlina wondered what her mother was doing right now.

 

Then, there in the hallway with Mr. Yi, the idea had come to her. Without meaning to, she had smiled more broadly.

 

She was so close now to making it all happen. She couldn’t succeed, though, if she just presented herself without having anything to offer. This was why she was in Mr. Yi’s office now. He received technical reports—describing maintenance problems, procurement needs, other details—about all the undersea drilling equipment, including the submersibles the workers rode underwater. And Chanlina knew the company worked with the People’s Liberation Army Navy. She occasionally saw naval officers meeting with Mr. Zhou or Mr. Yi—although she was never invited to those meetings. The equipment probably had military uses.

 

She had opened up documents Mr. Yi would need for the negotiations. She had waited until now to print copies so she would have a reason, if anyone walked in, for why she was on Mr. Yi’s computer. Also, having these documents open was useful if the security camera behind her could pick up the computer screen. Shifting in the chair so that her body temporarily blocked the screen, she found the folder with the technical reports. Then she switched back to the negotiation-related documents and returned to her natural position in the chair.

 

Chanlina pretended to study the documents for a moment longer. Then she shifted again and, acting as if she were just leaning forward and resting her hand on the computer, plugged in the thumb drive. Some more pretend study of the screen. Another shift, and she copied the files. Some more pretend study until the transfer completed. The transfer complete, she lingered a little longer; leaving quickly would be suspicious. Chanlina printed the negotiation documents and left the office with them and the thumb drive. Driving back to the house through the rain, she rehearsed what to say to the Americans.

 

***

 

Sleeping on the flight from Shanghai to New York, Chanlina dreamed of her mother. She often did. She usually dreamed of Mother amid a flock of birds: chickens, or ducks, or sometimes Pittas. Mother might just sit among them as they clucked or chirped; or she might bat at them with her arms. Chanlina sometimes wondered if the birds were meant to be her sisters. Certainly they made the same amount of noise. And Mother would occasionally give the birds the thin smile she would always give Chanlina and her sisters when her patience was at an end.

 

Mother had many different smiles, for different moods and occasions. The best was the one she would give when genuinely pleased: a broad smile that made her whole face crinkle up like someone crumpling up a piece of cloth. That was what Chanlina dreamed of on the flight: just Mother’s face crinkling up in the best smile of them all.

 

Chanlina had not seen that smile while waking for a long time. Even when she was still at home such smiles had become rare after her father’s death and all that followed. Smiles after that she recognized as not reflecting happiness. And when Mother had brought news of the offer from a man in China—an offer of marriage to her eldest daughter; an offer that could help their family—she had not smiled at all.

 

They had to change planes in Vancouver. Mr. Yi and Chanlina disembarked along with the man from the security department nicknamed “Big Lin,” who was there to help Mr. Yi get around. For travel, Mr. Yi had exchanged his cane for a wheelchair and Big Lin wheeled him to the next gate with Chanlina following.

 

At the gate, Chanlina waited to take her next step. Sitting there, she saw a group of women with a man at their center walk down the concourse. The man, silver-haired and in a dark suit, leaned on a cane with one hand and on one of the women’s arms with the other. The other two women carried bags.

 

The women were well-dressed but looked odd: their skin was so smooth and even, without marks or changes in tone; their heads twitched slightly. And they looked so similar—were they related? Then Chanlina realized they were all androids. She watched as the man uttered a command in Japanese, and he and the android women turned into one of the airport shops.

 

She sat there as a TV screen blared about naval maneuvers in the South China Sea. The western news made it sound as if China were the one at fault, with no mention of everything the Americans were doing wrong. Chanlina felt irritated—an odd reaction, she supposed, under the circumstances.

 

Finally, she got up and told Mr. Yi and Big Lin that she had to use the ladies’ room. Chanlina had earlier noted the signs for a cybercafé in the terminal. She followed the signs quickly, not wanting to be away too long. Perhaps she was being too cautious by not using her own phone, but she wanted to leave as little of a trail as possible.

 

The cybercafé door was shut and had a sign: “Temporarily Closed for Maintenance.” She paused. Was there another one? She had to get back to her gate soon.      

 

Turning around, she noticed that the Japanese man and his androids were sitting at the gate across from the closed cybercafé. The man was looking at his phone.

 

Chanlina walked over to him, bowed slightly and put on what she hoped was her most winning smile. “Excuse me, sir.” The man looked up. “My phone.” Chanlina held it up. “It’s not working. May I have yours? Just a moment?” Her Japanese was poor, so she hoped he understood.

 

With a slight nod, the man handed over the phone. Searching online in Japanese was not easy and not helped by how her hand trembled slightly. This was taking too long; she had to get back to the gate. She found what she wanted, though: the address of the American Office of Foreign Missions in New York. Chanlina memorized the address.

 

With another smile and a thank you, she handed the Japanese man his phone. This had worked out better than she had hoped. Using a stranger’s phone left even less of a trail than using a cybercafé.

 

As Chanlina handed back the phone, her movement triggered the nearest android, whose head swiveled to look at her. Chanlina looked at the symmetrical plastic face free of birth marks, moles, or pimples. The sunlight shining through the gate’s window hit the android’s eyes, making them shiny and opaque. Chanlina turned and hurried back to her own gate.

 

New York was familiar in some ways: it had the same crowds of graying people and was cold, as expected. They received more stares and suspicious looks, though, which became even more intent when people heard them speaking Chinese.

 

When they arrived at the American company’s office, they were met by a man who at first Chanlina thought might also be an android. He had the same taut, fixed face and glossy hair. When he spoke, though, he was clearly human.

 

“Hi there, good to meet all of you. Thanks so much for coming all this way so we could work this out. I’m just sorry we couldn’t offer you better weather while you were here! Oh well, what can you expect for February? I feel jealous of my old man. He lives down in the islands. He’s probably at the beach right now! The guy’s pushing 90 and he’s still body surfing!”

 

Chanlina found it hard to keep up with what the man was saying but felt sure she was not missing anything important. He had that American habit of talking without really saying anything. Would that get tiresome after too long here?

 

With introductions out of the way, the negotiations began and the man who greeted them, along with other American businessmen, now spoke more slowly and seriously. Mr. Yi handled the talks well, as he always did. He could seem friendly and reasonable while giving little away. As in past talks with Americans, he claimed Chanlina’s English was better than his and occasionally asked her to translate something, so he had more time to think about his response. Watching him work, she considered how what she was going to do would be hard for him.

 

That night at the hotel Chanlina read a message on her phone from Mother. The message talked about the problems of managing the family shop and her sisters’ time in school. Chanlina wanted to call her but doubted she could prevent herself from telling Mother what she was about to do. She lay on the bed, holding her phone, and wondering how quickly she could get a new job and keep sending money home.

 

***

 

Chanlina acted on the last day of the trip. Despite Mr. Yi’s skill, the negotiations had not succeeded and they were returning to China without an agreement. She waited until the last day because looking for her would be harder if Mr. Yi and Big Lin had to catch a flight. They were to have breakfast before checking out of the hotel; Chanlina called Mr. Yi to say she was not feeling well and would have to come down later.

 

She waited in her room for fifteen minutes, her heart feeling like it was trying to break out of her chest. Then she grabbed her bags, went to the stairwell, and ran down the stairs onto the street. Chanlina didn’t feel the cold; she was sweating.

 

Calling a car beforehand would have been risky, so she had to find one now. She scanned the sea of cars and hailed an old-fashioned taxi. The cab, its paint peeling and rust showing beneath, pulled over.

 

Chanlina settled inside the cab, which smelled of body odor and perfume. As they drove along, she found herself again rehearsing her words. There was no need to practice now—they were not hard English words to say—but she kept repeating them to herself.

 

“I am from China. I wish to defect. I have information.”

 

She reached inside her purse to grasp the thumb drive. She squeezed it, as if that could get the cab there faster.

 

“So, where you from?” the cab driver asked.

 

“China,” she said, only half listening. Then she paused and spoke again. “No, Cambodia. I am from Cambodia.” She could say that now. That was home.

 

“Are you just visiting? Here on business?”

 

“Yes, business.”

 

“How long are in town for?”

 

“I don’t know.” That was the truth.

 

The driver asked her more questions, about how she liked the city and what she was going to do during her stay. She answered vaguely, still rehearsing in her mind the words she planned to say at the Foreign Missions Office.

 

“You have kids back home?”

 

“No.” The cab was stalled in traffic. When would they get there? Her heart was still trying to break through her ribs.

 

“I have three kids!” He gestured at photos on the dashboard. “They make a lot of trouble,” he laughed. He chattered away, telling stories about his children. Then he asked, “So you have any family back home?”

 

“My mother. And two sisters.”

 

He nodded. “I have a sister and a brother.” He paused. “My mom died last year.”

 

“Oh. I’m sorry.” “Yeah, it was real tough. She was sick for a long time, you know? She was strong, but she just couldn’t take care of herself anymore. She needed help—to take a shower, go to the bathroom, eat. It was real hard. It ended up that me and my brother and sister had to go to the doctor and ask him to help her so she wouldn’t go through it anymore.”

 

Chanlina did not understand. “You asked the doctor to help her? Why wasn’t the doctor helping her? You said she was sick.”

 

The driver glanced at her in the rearview mirror. “No, what I mean is…He was helping her before, but she wasn’t getting better. And she wasn’t happy, either. So, it ended up that we asked the doctor to give her pills.”

 

“Pills?”

 

“Yeah. You know, so she could die.” Chanlina was not sure she understood the driver’s English. “The doctor gave your mother pills so she could die?”

 

“Yeah, that’s right. It wasn’t easy, but I mean she just wasn’t happy anymore. She shouldn’t have to live like that.”

 

“And you can do that? A doctor can do that?”

 

“Yeah.” He looked at her again in the mirror. “It’s a free country!”

 

Chanlina leaned back in her seat and thought about this. She stared out the cab’s window at the street, at the snow and the graying people shuffling past. She felt her heartbeat slow down. The sweat on her scalp and face and back cooled. The sunrise on the Tonle Sap again flashed through her mind. Then she spoke.

 

“I am sorry. Can you take me back to the hotel?”

 

The driver turned around. “What?” “No, it’s fine. It’s fine. I will pay you. Just take me back to where you picked me up.”

 

He shrugged. “OK.” He moved the cab over so they could make the next turn.

 

While the cab idled at a red light, Chanlina rolled down the window. Now she felt the cold; it scraped against her wet face as she leaned out the window. She saw a sewer grate by the curb. She took the thumb drive out of her purse and dropped it down the grate. It clattered away.

 

Chanlina rolled up the window, sat back, and tried to think of the excuses she would give Mr. Yi.

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