The stomps of heavy feet will chunter up the staircase. Heavy breathing, a semblance of panting. With reserved calmness, his voice will call out: Arnie! Sam!
Sam will flinch badly to the sound of her own name. She will be hunching over in the darkest part of her closet in a deep squat, her hands clasping over her mouth to prevent any fatal noises from escaping. Tears will stream down her face like ribbons, her breathing in a stagger, her eyes squeezing shut. A dream to be anywhere but here. The silver body of Jesus on the crucifix will stare expressionless on her wall.
Arnie will be under the bed, a mirror to the monsters that his father had the habit of scaring him with. His breath will be in suspense, the coldness of the room will prickle his feet despite the socks and Batman converses he’ll be wearing; his body flexing and tensing, his hands in fists, a second heartbeat slamming in his ears. Too afraid to move; too afraid to think.
A new set of steps will appear in half-step, prancing up to the base of the steps; frantic and careening. Lighter and faster.
“Hey, hon. I’ve got something to talk to you—”
“Hey, I’ll be with you in a moment.” The staccato of the words, the lack of emphasis on any particular word, the slight unease of the second voice at the words hey hon.
“Kids! Come on out!”
“Honey.” A calm yet thin voice. “You don’t have to go up.”
The transition up will stop, momentarily. “Oh, so you already know.” A dreadful monotone fills the house. “Even better — we can go talk to Sam.” The dissonance by the word talk will give Sam an espresso shot of fear, unable to suppress a tiny and shrill shriek; Arnie starts feeling his hands shake uncontrollably as his eyes lock onto where the entrance to his room is.
“Dear, you are not — you can’t—”
“What do you mean, Jen? I’m just going to talk to them. That’s all. I heard something from John, and I just want them to talk to me about it.”
“Look, if they want to talk about it, they will. Just give them some time.”
There will be a pause. An awkward silence. The only thing the kids will hear is the air conditioning kicking on, filling it.
“No, I think I should talk to them about this now.”
“I— I’ll come down.” Arnie’s voice. He’s going to get out from under bed, the effort distracting him from how heavy his chest is. He’ll crawl to a standing position at the top of steps, carefully trying to control his breathing. His father and mother will have moved over to the den by the time his bare feet touches the top of the cold wooden stairs.
“Hey, buddy.” Father’s face will warm up. He’ll be sitting in his favorite chair, a wide green armchair with tapered oak legs. He’ll sit the way he usually does, his back lying on the cushion and his legs hanging over the left arm of the chair. A new writing journal in his hand and the same pink pen in his right. “How was school today?”
“Um, it was okay, Dad. I got a B on that test.” Arnie will slowly descend, hiding his shaking hands.
“The, uh, test for math, right?” Father will be looking at his journal, his eyes glancing off occasionally at his 8-year-old son.
“No, it was for social studies. Remember? The one you helped me with.”
Father will take a moment to respond. “Oh, yes. I remember.” He’ll swing his feet around and sit upright. “Good job, Arnie!” He’ll have a beaming smile. A smile will touch at Arnie’s lips.
“I’m sorry I didn’t get a 100,” Arnie will say as he reaches the bottom of the steps.
“Nonsense. It doesn’t matter what grade you get, as long as you try your hardest. Sure, getting a 100 is good, but it’s just a number.”
Arnie’s expression will become stoic, the taste of something like Khổ Qua in his mouth. Bitter and hard to chew.
The boy will approach his father, passing by pictures of the family of four and the pictures of his grandparents — right next to the Bible they gifted last spring — trying to keep all of his emotions inside. Arnie could not let what Sam will have told him to slip. He’ll give the hardest and loudest high-five he can muster, his hand whacking his father’s palm. Their usual tradition.
“Yeouch.” Father’s smile will not waver. “Stings every time,” he’ll say. He’ll rustle his son’s hair, and Arnie will start to relax his shoulders. Only the boy’s left hand will still be trembling slightly. “Hey, y’all have lunch yet?’
“Not yet,” Mom will say. She’ll be sitting across the room, flipping through the pages of the manuscript for her new book. Her spectacles will sit at their usual place on her head. Arnie will have asked her a thousand times before whether or not she actually needs them to see. Why would you need glasses to see things right in front of you? “Sorry honey,” she’ll say. “I just got home, and I hadn’t had time to prepare.”
“That’s alright.” Father will place his journal down on the coffee table, tucking his pen in his right pants pocket. “I’ll make something, and I’ll have the chat with Arnie and Sam after we eat.”
Sam will turn on the water faucet as the sound of the kitchen fan kicks on and something sizzles in the frying pan. She’ll wash her face, trying to erase the signs of crying; the redness in her eyes, the pinker complexion, the uneasiness. Water will splash on the cosmetic bottles; acne cream, face cleanser, makeup remover. The restroom will be dirtier than usual, the floor crowded with an assortment of clothes. There will be hardened blobs of excess toothpaste in the sink, the smell of sweat will fill the small room, and one of the lightbulbs will have been burned out by then, leaving only half the room lit. The bathroom, surprisingly, will be missing its mirror, the room’s off-white color emphasizing the bright white rectangle left behind.
“Sam!” Father’s voice. “Sam, đi xuống ăn! Hurry, the food will get cold!”
“Dạ!” Sam will respond while drying out her eyes. “Coming!”
Sam will come down, passing by the photos and the barely read Bible to see the rice dishes her father will have prepared. A plate of chả will be sitting next to a plate of American egg omelets with green onions. Small bowls of rice will already be prepared.
“Mời ăn!” Mom will say, putting a few dirty plates in the sink. Her Vietnamese will have gotten better, her accent on par with Arnie’s. Her blonde hair will be tied into a bun, her brown spectacles sitting on top of her head. “Don’t just stand there, sweetie. I just invited you to eat and all—”
Arnie will interrupt. His body will be bobbing up and down, trying to awaken the Kryptonian flight he knew for sure he always had. What will be seen is an eight-year-old bunny-hopping around on a tile floor.
“Arnie, buddy.” Father will be toiling away making more food. “Have a seat. That’s an order.”
Arnie’s feet will clap as he stands at attention, his right hand in a salute. “Yessir!” Arnie will plant himself in his designated seat.
“Yeah.” Sam will try to resume whatever the previous tone of conversation was. “Thanks, mom.” Sam will take a seat next to Arnie, who will be too focused to start eating.
“Sam, how’d school go?” Father will ask, plating one more chả in the center. Mom will wash some of the plates, picking up after father’s laziness.
“Ryan asked me out in the hall earlier this morning.” Sam will be hiding her face in the small bowl. She will have always hated eye contact.
“Mrs. Porter’s kid?” Mom will sit down by the window, the light matching the color of her freckles. “Or Mrs. Warren’s kid?”
“It’s Dr. Warren, actually. And I turned Ryan down.”
“Really?” Father will say, taken by surprise. He’ll do a sign of the cross before taking a bite of rice with his wooden chopsticks and interrogating Sam. “Reason?”
“Nothing in particular.” Sam will quietly break off from the conversation. Father will assume it’s a tricky subject and stop pushing for a response.
“My turn to enter the story!” Arnie will raise his plastic fork above his head like Trần Hưng Đạo’s mighty sword. “So, Dad. I know we didn’t write a contract or anything, but how long is that tree house going to take?”
“Oh.” Father’s face will morph into a feigned horror. “Right. Listen, Arnie. Trees are not meant to be lived in.”
“But trees, Dad. Trees can’t wait.” Arnie’s usual smile will return, and he will jump about from his seat to the kitchen floor while stabbing his fork at nondescript demons and monsters. “Hyah! I need a treehouse to protect myself. Hyah!” A sword swipe at an inviable threat. A jab here and there with the plastic knife.
“Hon, get back here — you’re not done eating.”
“I’m not hungry!” He’ll continue to stab away at the putties.
“Arn, listen to mom.” Sam will try to focus on her plate of food.
“Hiyah! Hah. Hugh.”
Frustration will grow in Sam’s chest. “Dude, chill.”
“Pew. Pew, pew. Take that!”
Sam, visibly upset, will say, “Hey Arn, sit down!”
“Why should I?” he’ll say. “I don’t listen to monsters!”
A flash of thunder will arc across Sam’s face. Arnie’s eyes will suddenly fill with tears, shocked as he stares up at the older sibling from the kitchen floor. Sam will tower over her younger sibling, the hand she slapped him with still trembling. “Don’t call me that! Never call me that!”
“Sam!” Father will say, almost jumping out of his seat. Concern will wash over both parents’ faces. “You can’t hit him like that! Whatever your brother did, as the older brother, you should be more understanding.”
Sam will look directly into her father’s eyes. A tonic of fear and sadness will fall from hers. “Come on, Sam. Tell him.”
“Dad, I need to tell you something.” They’ll both be standing, facing off against each another. “It’s important. I’m sure it’s about what you wanted to talk about.”
Mom will look at both of them before examining her youngest on the floor. Arnie won’t be crying, he’ll just be in a paralyzed daze. “Hey Arnie, let’s go to your room while Sam and Dad talk really quick.”
While Arnie is taken to his room, filled with plastic swords and guns that light up and make laser noises, Sam will invite her father to sit back down. “What did you want to talk about, Dad?”
“I heard from John that Arnie told him something strange. Last week Arnie was running around the backyard, y’know, like he usually does. He had a cold last week, and he told John that you made a new friend. Normally our neighbor wouldn’t care enough to tell me a story like that, but Arnie caught you two doing something.”
“Dad, I’m not going to lie to you.” Sam will hesitate, her head filled with thoughts. “Arnie heard us chattering downstairs and caught me— and he caught—”
“Yeah,” Sam will say after a pressured silence.
“Sam, that’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“But Dad.” Sam will be squeezing her hands hard, like she’s trying to remove some kind of stain from her skin. “His name is Damian.”
“Hmm.” Father will lean back, arms crossed. “I see. Is he nice?”
“Yeah, I think so.” Sam won’t look at her father. “Nicest boy I’ve met.”
“Sam. Look at me.”
Sam’s head will tilt upwards slowly, and the beginning rays of sun will break through the darkness of doubt. Despite the tears in her eyes, Sam will be able to see the smile on her father’s face, just like the smile he had when she won her first geography bee. When she scored a 1400 on her PSAT. When she got to showcase her art at an exhibit at school.
“Honey, if you think I’m going to be upset, then you don’t know me that well. I love you, Sam, no matter who you choose to be. Or more importantly, who you always were.”
Tears will stream out even more now, fatigue slowly building in her arms. “Thanks, Dad.”
“Come and give me hug; feels like an entirety since my boy gave me one.”
“Hesitation will rear its head, but Sam will be ready this time. She’ll grip her hands, and for the first time in a long time, raise her head with resolve. “Dad, I don’t identify as male.”
“Oh, really? You really should have told me as soon as you knew that.”
“No, I’m sorry. I should’ve done more than simply assume. So, what do you identify as?”
A smile will return to her face, beautiful and rare like the sound of a busy street free from cars. “I think I prefer the female pronoun.”
“See, look at you smile now. All that brow furrowing for nothing. You silly goose.” The both of them will sit back down as mom returns with Arnie in tow, slightly more sheepish than usual. “You didn’t need to worry about something like that.”
“Hey, you two solve everything in here?” Sam will chuckle through her smile while wiping away her tears with her sleeve. However, she will be fully aware of the sting on her hand that hasn’t dissipated and the bitter taste that will form in her mouth. Sam will tell her mom that she’s fine, and they can continue eating. “We should, but I think there is one thing we should really patch up.”
Mom will usher Arnie, who will be really interested in his shoes, to the kitchen. Dad will frown, seeing Arnie still wearing shoes in the house.
“I’m sorry for saying you’re a monster. You’re not a monster, you’re my brother.”
“Hey, buddy.” Sam will squat down, trying but failing to make eye contact with her little brother. “I’m sorry for hitting you. As the older sibling, I should be more understanding.” She’ll patt Arnie on the head, ruffling through his hair like Father usually does. “I promise, as your older sister, I will do my best to not hit you very hard.”
“You’re my sister now?” Arnie will have the purest form of confusion in his eyes. “Does that mean that I’m a girl now, too?”
“We’ll talk about it at the table.”
Dinner will continue its usual run. Sam will try to explain to Arnie the new circumstances, but success won’t seem possible for the moment.
“So, if I kiss another boy, does that make me a girl?”
Mom will confess her bisexuality to Sam in a whisper, and Sam will demand why this information wasn’t made available sooner. “So much has happened recently; your dad making tenure at the university, you making all-state orchestra, me going on tour for the latest book. Not to mention how long the move out took us. Sorry I didn’t say anything sooner, but it’s been a busy few years, and I didn’t get a chance to talk to you about you.”
After exchanging plates some more, Father will complain to mom about politics again while mom pretends to care about the new city tax codes. “Oh honey, after we finish I’m going to need you to view the latest version of my manuscript.” Father will respond that he’ll gladly read it, though his expression will show clear dissatisfaction with being a proofreader. Everyone in the room besides Arnie will know Father, an author himself, is happy for the success of mom’s fiction series. Even if his own success in that department will have been an utter disappointment. A few dozen copies will have been sold.
“Hey, Dad,” Sam will say suddenly. The food will be mostly scarfed up, mainly by Father. One omelet still remains. “Is it alright if I have a few friends stay over next week?”
“Sorry, sport. But your grandparents are coming over next week. Remember?”
“Oh yeah, I forgot. They’re coming over to check the new house, right?”
“Yeah,” Mom will say. “So, you’re going to need to clean up stairs. Your grandparents don’t like when the house is filthy.”
“They’ll think I’m doing a terrible job at raising you two,” Father will point at his two children. “Like we live in a chuồng heo.” A dissatisfied look will envelop Father’s face. “The amount of times my mother would say that I lived in a pig sty. Unbelievable.”
“Well, dear.” Sarcasm will paint over Mom’s face like a three-year-old discovering crayons can leave a trail on white walls. “Your mother does have a point there – you do tend to leave your messes unattended.” The two supposed adults in the room will pretend to bicker.
“Regardless of my falsely alleged living habits, I’m afraid we won’t be able to have your friends over for the time being. I’m sorry; I know three months is a long time, but its something we have to deal with.”
“No, that’s cool. I just have to make some phone— Oh, that reminds me,” Sam will say, reaching for her phone. “I’m off.” Her parents will ask where she’s heading off to so suddenly. “Oh, Damian and I are going to do a study date. Then we’ll go get something to eat afterwards.”
“Sam,” Father will say with more finality than usual. She’ll turn around halfway from the door, her bag already around shoulder. “Sam, for the time being it’s best if you don’t see Damian.”
“What— what do— what do you mean, Dad?” Confusion will take hold of the entire table. “Why— why can’t I see him?”
“Look, my parents aren’t exactly as understanding as your mother and me.”
“Okay, but what does that have to do with me exactly?”
“Well,” Father will hesitate, a few sounds escaping in an attempt at something coherent, but he keeps having to restart — like a saxophone player repeating one hook that they just couldn’t grasp. “It’s going to be so much harder for you— and I don’t want them to judge you for something that isn’t wrong with you.”
“Dad,” Sam will say, returning to the table. “I feel judged every day of my life. For the longest time I was so worried that you, my dad, would hate me for being me. I’m not scared anymore, since I know you’re in my corner. I’m sure grandma and grandpa would have an issue with it, but they’ll get over it eventually.”
“No, that’s not how they think.” Father will notice Arnie’s concern that something is happening again. “Arnie, I think you should go clean up your room to prepare for when grandma gets here.”
“I don’t want to!” Anger will flare up in Arnie’s eyes. “I always have to go away when the adults are talking. I’m big enough to know what is happening now.”
“Arnie, I don’t think you should be here for this,” Sam will tell him.
Mom will try to coax the eight-year-old to go do his chores, but Arnie will be adamant about staying. “Adults act like they know everything. I’m not stupid. I want to know, too!”
“No! I’m tired of being the dog!”
“ENOUGH!” Father’s voice will explode, shocking Arnie into silence. Mom will have a bewildered look in her eyes. Sam will remain unphased. “Go to your room. Now.”
“Fine.” All the emotion inside Arnie will be sapped away. He’ll sadly march away, whispering to himself. “I’m just their dog. I’m not important enough to talk to.”
“I don’t get why I have to give up something to make you feel comfortable?” Sam will be gripping the sides of her shirt — a purple tank top.
“This has nothing to do with me, Sam; I’m simply asking, for a while, for you to hold back—”
“Hold what fucking back? I do that every day!” She’ll be on the verge of tears, a kind of shaking emanating from her core. “Do you know how many times I told myself that Damian and I weren’t meant for each other, or how many times I’ve lied to myself at night that that person was who I am? Do you know what’s that is like?! Do you?”
“Both of you, please, don’t do this? If we want to talk, we should do it quietly.” She’ll look at Father, disappointment in her eyes. “You’re being incredibly unbelievable right now.”
“Am I really? My parents are way more conservative than yours, and even yours would have had issues if you married someone else.”
“What’s that’s supposed to mean?” Mom will say in a soft, almost tired tone of voice. She’ll be almost on the edge of getting brassed off. “The hell does that mean?”
“We’ll hash it out later, but I need to have Sam try to understand here—”
“Nope.” Mom will shake her head. “Nope. Nope. I can’t do it. I can’t listen to this anymore.” Mom will look at Sam, her eyes softening on her child. “He’s too afraid, dear. I don’t think he’ll listen.” She’ll walk out of the kitchen, heading to the door.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m heading out— getting some fresh air. I think you out of all people should try to get some.” She’ll slam the door shut.
“Sam, they all know something is up already— my parents, the church they go to. John is a super blabber mouth. They know. They’ll run your name through the mud with that kind of information. You know I love you, Sam. Your identity is more valuable to me than anything else. But, it would be so, so, much harder if— Sam, you would just make it harder for yourself for the next few months if you hung around Damian. It would be too obvious. It makes it so much harder for me to protect you.”
“Protect me?” She’ll be forcing back a laugh. “Locking me up is your way of protecting me? How fucking absurd.”
“We sometimes need to make sacrifices here. I don’t like it either, but it’s better than having the people we need to associate with know. I’m sure your grandparents have heard something by now — most of the people at church have already asked me about it. They already know, and they basically all saw you with Damian in your room from the way they described it to me. John himself — I never once talked to him outside of church stuff — and yet here he comes, waltzing up to me and asking if my son is queer. As if that was somehow an insult to me. As if people can somehow attack me through my kids.” He’ll wipe his hand over his face. “Regardless, I can’t let them hurt you, and I refuse to have you go through that. If we can keep quiet about it for a while, then what they all know would be seen as a lie, and we can live the way we want to.”
“My life is a lie, then?” Father will be silenced by the remark. “That’s how it should be, right? Similar to yours?” Sam will take her bag and plop it back onto the floor. “We can’t keep running, Dad. Eventually you’ll run out of road.” Sam will take a deep breath in and a slow breath out. “Fine. You win. But mom is right. You’re so afraid of what your two parents will say, what so many people will say, that you’re willing to ruin you own life for their empty acknowledgment. Congrats, you coerced your family into it too. But they don’t know me.” She’ll sling her bag over her shoulder. “Once this is all over and those two leave, I might as well. Congrats.” She’ll march upstairs, slamming the door for the final time.
Father, left alone, will sit in the kitchen as the chrome yellow light floods over the tables, chairs, and kitchen counter tops. As the leftover omelet stares up at him, tears will streak down his face. The crucifix hanging at the other end of the wall will stare at him, emotionless. He’ll grab his chopsticks, cut into the egg, and eat it while his family is out living their lives.