"We are going away. Take only what you need, and hurry. Tonight we are leaving for America." My three sisters and I look at one another, then we leap out of bed and try to find our special keepsakes and trinkets. Once everyone has found their prized possessions, we silently slip out of our house and into the night. All eight of us carry a few meager belongings: money, food, and a toy or blanket. Darkness smothers everything, and the moon is covered by clouds. I can barely see my own feet, and the silence is deafening. Sneaking along the quieter roads, we make our way to the beach. Stiff soldiers in dirt-caked uniforms patrol the streets at night, their beady eyes darting back and forth looking for curfew-breakers. Many times, we have to scuttle behind bushes or houses like ninjas. Most of the roads are not paved, so it is excruciatingly hard to keep quiet when we walk along gravelly paths. The tiny rocks crunch ominously in the utter silence and every step seems like it will alert the soldiers to our presence. No one utters a noise. Even my youngest siblings understood the gravity of our situation and stay silent. Should a soldier catch us, we could be killed, tortured, or severely punished. Consequences for our escape race through my head, each one more gruesome than the last. Slipping through a tiny thicket of palm trees, we catch sight of the boat. It's caked with barnacles and seaweed, and the hull is dented. The odor of rotting fish finds its way into my nostrils, and I sneeze. My mother turns around and cuffs me, hard, and I double over in pain. A dull ache presses itself into my cheek, and I can feel the right side of my face swell. Holding my cheek, I stay behind my sisters as we sprint to the fishing boat, spraying up clouds of sand and rocks.
Other escapees are already boarding the grimy fishing boat and paying for their passage. Mother and Father pass the owner a few coins, and he snatches it from them and begins counting the money. His yellow, bitten fingernails slide over the money in a disgusting caress. Finally, he smiles, displaying two crooked, mud-colored teeth and spreads his arm towards the boat like a gentleman. We know better. Everyone, including the captain, trudges towards the boat and step on board. The floor rocks back and forth and my stomach immediately heave. I grip the rail, trying to steady myself. Leaning heavily on the side of the boat, we walk to a hidden hatch on the filth-ridden floor and peer in. Vomit, feces, and rot waft up in a putrid cacophony of smells that have accumulated over months. It is dark and damp, and the tiny space is already nearly filled with twenty other escapees. All of us look the same: gaunt, coffee brown eyes, sun-baked twig limbs, and cropped black hair. My family and I find an empty corner and set down our things. I sleep next to my three sisters. The four of us have two blankets to share and the clothes on our backs. Mother has a few packages of rice and meat wrapped in banana leaves, but they will only be enough sustenance for a day or so. The captain unties the boat, and we are off. I curl up under the blanket, trying to ignore the rocking of the boat, and close my eyes.
When I wake up, the boat is pitching wildly. Everyone is shouting, and water has begun to seep in through tiny cracks in the bottom of the boat. All of the girls wail and scream, while the boys think of ways to survive if the boat sinks. The walls seem to tighten and compress all of us, and a small pool of fetid water has gathered next to my head. I feel like someone is banging on my skull with a hammer, and my stomach curls and bubbles. My body heaves, and I retch all over my sisters and myself. My father has managed to light a cheap cigarette, and the air becomes grey. Peering through the haze, I can see my sisters and the other escapees vomiting, and the horrible stench combines with cigarette smoke. Someone has gone to the bathroom in his pants, so everyone moans and curses him. Goosebumps ridge my arms and legs, and my thin jacket is of no help. More water pours into the cabin, and now everyone is drenched. I despairingly lay my head down on my arm and try not to puke. The grooves on the wall are mesmerizing, and I will stare at them for days to come. I can hear my siblings bickering behind me like angry goslings, so I try to shut out the noise. All there is to do is sleep.
The days become weeks, which in turn melt into one another. We have passed security checkpoints many times, but no one suspects a simple fisherman of smuggling refugees out of a war-ridden country. The food storeroom is empty, so all of our stomachs ache terribly. Then, one day, we hear gunshots. Everyone freezes and angles their ears towards the ceiling. Rough, guttural voices order the captain to surrender all valuables. Pirates. Heavy footsteps march around the deck, and all of us below stay utterly motionless. I can't breathe, and I'm paralyzed. A boy sneezes, and it's all over. We can hear the crates being roughly kicked aside, and the hatch swings open with a loud creak. A hollow face peers into the darkness and smiles.
"Anything we can sell is now ours. Give us your valuables and your money," he orders. My mother inches behind my siblings and I and presses necklaces, bracelets, earrings, jewelry, and money into our hands. She tries to give her wedding ring to my sister, Lanh, but the pirate sees her moving and yells at her to stop. He strides toward us and points a gun at her face. "Hand it over," he says in Vietnamese, "I know you've got something." He holds out his hand for the ring, so I grab one of the bracelets my mother gave me to hide, thrust my hand behind my sister's back, and pull my hand back as if I had taken the jewelry from her. Revealing the bracelet, I drop it in the pirate's open palm. He collects the rest of the money from the other families and flings us a bag of rice the size of a pillow. Everyone scrambles towards the stained brown sack. My father gets there first and scoops out a handful. He lifts up the white kernels for everyone to see, and we all cheer! Later, when we cook the rice and begin to eat, I realize that this is the first time in weeks that I have truly been full. My stomach as tight as a drum, I lie down, and, out of the corner of my eye, I see my sister Chau scratch her head. Tiny white lumps fall from her hair, which I instantly recognize. Lice.
"Chau has lice." All eyes immediately whip to her hair and begin sifting through her filthy locks. When the majority of the passengers realize this is true, they banish her to a corner of the boat. Chau curls into a ball like a roly poly and cries softly under a blanket, and I start to regret my sudden outburst. However, it is too late to console her, for I could get lice, so I simply whisper my apologies and pray that she accepts them. Satisfied, I nestle under a thin blanket and fall asleep.
When I awake, everything is normal again. People retch and relieve themselves, the baby cries, my siblings and I bicker and fight, and the growing stench of life below decks has all but extinguished all traces of fresh air. My legs frequently fall asleep, for there is no room to run and play. I can see my ribs jutting out from my twig-like torso, and I am always hungry. Then, we hear a shout from above decks that resonates in our ears and warms our bones.
"Land!" Cheering and laughing, we all dance and celebrate. Our clothes are rags, our feet are bare, and our bodies are unwashed, but we don't care. This is the time for a new life and a fresh start. We have survived pirates, war, and near starvation. Whatever comes our way has to be better than our past lives, right?