Hide and Seek

“We need a break from moving all this stuff, Kosal. Come find me one last time!” my little sister says. “I’ll be where the dragons made their final stand.”

Her rush past me blows some hair into my eyes, blinding me to her getaway on her bicycle.

I groan. “Peou! Come back here! I’m going to throw all your things away!”

As she pedals away on the dirt road, ignoring my empty threat, my eyes move to the family’s old not-so-white motorbike. The keys are already in the ignition. Then they move to the pile of boxes crowded around the front door, waiting for someone to carry them to the truck.

So… maybe I should give her a little bit of a head start?

Our mother pops her head out of the doorway, recognizing the smile on my face as I’m counting down the seconds on my watch. “Can I come? I never could keep up with you as children. But maybe now, with your help, and herhelp,” gesturing to the motorbike, “I can finally see where all your adventure stories took place.”

She sees my hesitance before adding, “I promise I won’t say anything about how fast we’re driving or where we’re going. I just want to see where you guys liked to go so much.”

“It’s been, what, like 15 years or so since we’ve been to our hiding spots, Ma. I don’t know what state they’ll be in or if they’ll be there at all.”

“Your sister has her phone with her, right?”

“Yes. Well, she should at least.”

“Then no problem. I’ve lived here for almost 30 years. I’ll remember what it used to be. And we’ll just call her if she hides in a new spot.”

As I straddle the bike to keep it steady, Ma uses the foot pegs to sit sideways, pulling up the bottom of her skirt a little bit so it doesn’t get caught in the wheel. With a little roar, the engine starts immediately, and we’re off down the dirt road.

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As we pass the houses alternating with the little groves of trees, waves of nostalgia and adrenaline hit me both at once. I urge the bike to go faster, but after hearing Ma clear her throat, I ease off the throttle. Hide and seek is a slightly different game when you’re playing supervised.

The green rice paddies and bright blue sky shimmer in the large puddles left by the rain from earlier this morning. The cows seem to be enjoying the cooler weather as well, blocking sections of the road as they move on to another field. It’s a wonderful day for a return to the old ways.

Ma leans towards my ear. “Do you remember that you used to say that the world was made of three colors: green, blue, and cows? I think you were right!” Her giggles make me smile. I do not remember ever being that clever, but I’ll take it.

I slow us down as we approach the port, easing it to a stop close by the ticket booth. The teenage girl inside issues me three tickets, one each for Ma and me, and one for the bike. The next boat should arrive in a few minutes.

Ma gives me a stern look as I give her the ticket.

“What?”

“You two used to cross the river to play these games?! So, when I had to force you to go get more rice with Pa, you could have done the journey by yourself? What a waste of money!”

My face breaks into a big smile. “That’s what you’re upset about? Money? Not the fact that I was about nine and Peou was eight, running between districts alone? Ma, your priorities… now I’m definitely glad we played those games since apparently you didn’t care.”

Her face turns into a mirror of mine. “Oh, we knew you and your little sister were crossing the river. We had family friends keep an eye on you for us so you wouldn’t get into too much trouble. I know you and Peou think you were such big troublemakers, but you were nothing compared to your big sister. She’s the one that prepared us for anything, including creating our network of little family spies.”

I freeze. And stare at her, my mouth agape.

“Don’t tell her this, but I’m actually very surprised that she turned out so well. Kosal? Are you listening?”

My mind is stuck in a stream of flashbacks of all the instances growing up where I snuck out of the house to meet friends… or – oh no – girlfriends, or just anything that I wasn’t supposed to be doing without their permission.

Her warm touch on the back of my neck stops me from completely reliving the full breadth of my adolescent delinquencies.

I am in so much trouble.

“Oh, it’s fine, Kosal. Like I said, you and your sister were fine compared Chanlina. If we had any real problems with you doing something, oh, you would have known.”

Loud voices and engines suddenly start up. The ferry is here. Thankfully.

Ma goes up to the second level of the ferry while I find a spot to park our motorbike. As soon as I get a spot towards the front, more motorbikes come in to fill the area around mine, making it difficult to get to the back of the boat where the stairs are. When I finally reach Ma, she’s staring out over the river, looking thoughtful, a stark contrast to the other passengers attentive to only their phones.

“Are you ok, Ma?”

She looks at me, her dark eyes searching into mine with a hint of sadness. “You know, Kosal, this landscape hasn’t changed so much since your father and I moved here. But sometimes I worry what kind of changes will happen once we go live with Chanlina. So much of our life has been here; so much of who we are as a family is here.”

I shake my head. “Change will happen whether or not you and Pa are here to see it. Why worry so much?”

“I was lucky that I had family in Thailand when the Vietnamese came in. I was lucky that they accepted your father into our family. We were lucky that we could move back here after the regime dissolved. We were lucky to have you three. Will our family’s luck change if we leave the home that has given us so much?”

I move my hands to hold hers now. “Ma. You’ve told me since I was little: ‘Luck is when the universe is on your side, but you have to be the one to ask what is possible first.’ Have you changed your mind about that? Or were you just lying to me so I would stop trying to get lucky on tests and actually study?”

She’s still looking at me with a mixture of sadness and fear. So I try a different approach. “Well, just to let you know, that saying didn’t really work until I got failing marks on all my classes in first grade and Pa’s ‘lucky’ ruler set me straight about what was possible. I had to get more ‘luck’ again in fifth grade. Then that ‘luck’ lasted me all the way to uni, actually.”

Her mouth changes into a small, closed smile. Suddenly a big laugh escapes it. Mission accomplished. She keeps laughing, drawing attention from the other passengers. Now, it’s just mean. I wasn’t THAT stupid.

“I remember Pa’s ‘lucky’ ruler. You didn’t see it that much. Chanlina saw it more, but Peou saw it the most. I thought something was wrong with her because it was needed so often. But then I learned that your Pa was the softest with her, so it wasn’t as ‘lucky’ as it was with you and Chanlina.”

People are starting to get up from their seats; the shoreline is almost in line with the ferry. It’s time to continue the game… after everyone leaves the ferry. Ma needs help getting down the ladder-like stairs so we’re forced to wait for everyone else to leave before we can take our time descending.

Getting off the ferry is so easy with everyone off the boat and already heading into town. The roads are paved now and there are so many buildings crowding the sides of the road. It’s a sign of what’s to come for our side of the river. Ma is right; change is coming.

I drive to the city’s main roundabout, where a smaller replica of Independence Monument was erected. It’s time for a quick drink.

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“Do you want to see all the places we liked to go to Ma? Or do you just want to find Peou?”

She finishes her water first before responding. “She’s 24 now, playing a child’s game. She can wait while I see your old spots.”

The smirk on her face tells me that she knows that my sister would be upset to hear this. We buy another bottle of water from the street vendor and we’re off on a tour of childhood memories.

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The buildings diminish in frequency as I drive us out of the city center. The road ahead turns to a red dirt road, but I take a right before we get that far. The winding path takes us by more rice fields, less vibrant green than our side of the river, but then a gate appears, with some figures occupying the guard post next to it.

I slow down and Ma exhales sharply, gripping the sides of my arms. She doesn’t want to be here.

“Are you ok, Ma?”

Her grip tightens. “I didn’t know you kids would come this far out to play your games. Do you know what this is?”

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“Well, yeah, it’s an old airport. When we were little we’d sneak around the guards sometime to chase the cows on the runway. The buildings were also great places to hide too, although we stopped coming here once one of the guards really scared us.”

She uses her grip on me to get off the motorbike and turns to face me. “What did they say to scare you?”

Looking at the guard post, I reply, “Well, I can’t remember the story exactly but it was about how the Ahp ghost would like to search the empty buildings around the airport, looking for blood or bodies to eat. He said she especially likes little children because we taste so fresh compared to old people like him. The way he told it scared us so much we ran away as fast as he could.”

Ma smiles. “Oh one of those stories, yes Ahp ghosts were always a great way to scare the kids into doing something you wanted them to do.”

“So what were you scared about before?”

Her face becomes contemplative. “As your father and I raised you we made a decision that we wanted to make your lives as happy and good as possible. As much the opposite of our childhood as it could be. In doing so, I think we unintentionally covered up much of what had happened in our country not so long ago. We were so eager to move on from the horrors of the past that we forgot to really tell you what happened. People died here, Kosal, our people died here to build this airport. Ahp ghost stories are nothing compared to the what happened here.”

Her face fills with sadness. A motion behind her alerts me to the guard that is waving us to come closer. A mixture of fear and the need to protect my mom from this vision of her past causes me to shout to the guard, “No, sorry! We just went the wrong direction!”

“Get back on Ma, let’s just go get Peou.”

She nods and gets back on the bike, again delicately holding her skirt out of the way of the tires.

I take the path from the airport and go straight, ignoring the left turn to go back to the town center. Up ahead is a fork that is surrounded by tall vegetation and trees. I take the left path and we pass by two ruined concrete buildings, another favorite hiding spot. It clicks in my head that these were probably military buildings, probably in connection with the nearby airport. My sister and I were playing in a graveyard without realizing it.

The path angles to the right and I find the break in the vegetation on the left. I slow the motorbike down to ease off the pavement onto the rocky grass. I see the little tell-tale stream and we stop. The engine silences and the sounds of the forest envelope us.

Ma looks confused. “What made this place so special to you two? All I see are trees. It would be easy to get lost, no?”

“Ma, just… listen.”

She looks around, attentive. “I hear… birds, the wind, the water from that little stream there… what else?”

A few moments later she hears it, a kind of weird soft rumble from off in the trees.

Her eyes grow wide. “What IS that? Did you two also cage wild animals while you were playing hide and seek?”

I laugh, a little harder than I probably should. “No, the only wild animal over there is Peou. You’ll finally see where the final dragon battle took place. Let’s go surprise her.”

The path to the battleground is a little steep in places and not very level in general. I carefully help Ma along the path through the dense vegetation. The rumbles get louder and crazier. Her grip on my arms tells me she’s a little frightened still. My little sister can do that.

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We arrive at an extremely wide concrete column with a large dark doorway cut into the side of it. Another roar escapes from inside immediately followed by the sound of Peou’s voice, apparently on her phone.

“Isn’t that cool? And yeah, I stopped by the airport too, since I wanted to show you guys, but they wanted money from me! Otherwise I couldn’t go past the gate! So fine, you creepy old guys can keep your cows and boring runway. I hope the Ahp ghost gets them. Have I told you guys that story yet?”

I sneak up next to the opening and growl as deep as I can into the water tank. Her reverberating scream overtakes the echoes of my growl. I step into the water tank to see her holding her phone up, the screen in video mode for some messaging app. The light from the hole in the ceiling illuminates her in the surrounding darkness.

“Enjoying your last hide and seek game?” I ask, very pleased with myself.

“Ugh! Kosal! You ruined the video I was sending to my friends!” She holds the phone up to my face. “Apologize to them!”

I wave in the bright light coming from the phone. “Hello, friends of Peou. This is her brother, Kosal. I am so so sorry that you are friends with her –“ She pulls the phone away from my face.

Her angry grunt multiplies into what sounds like a hoard of pigs in the water tank. I grin although she can’t see it.

“You ready to finish packing? Go outside. Ma is here.”

“Ma is here? Why did you bring her?”

“She wanted to see where we used to go as kids, so she helped me find you.”

“Wait, so does that mean that you drove the motorbike?”

“Yes, it does. Why?”

“You can bike back then. I’m tired. I’ll take Ma back with me. Thanks!”

She rushes past me, blowing hair into my eyes again. Her voice snakes into the water tank’s chamber. I hear her asking Ma if she would like to go inside. Ma declines. Her knees have had enough exercise for one day. Peou’s voice is now directed at me.

“Ok, we’re heading back now Kosal! See you at dinner or whenever you get home!”

“Ok! Make sure to ask Ma about the little family spies while we were growing up!”

I hear a “What?!” from my sister and then laughter from Ma.

After a minute it’s quiet again. I walk to the darkest area of the water tank, away from the door and the ceiling’s opening.

The conversations with Ma today are still turning in my head. My childhood was filled with ignorance, but that’s what my parents wanted. They wanted me to see the world as it could be, not as it was. But like the ‘lucky’ ruler, you can’t improve if you don’t understand the consequences of your actions, can you?

The light from the ceiling illuminates my hand as I reach forward, cutting it off from the rest of my body still in the darkness. How do you know how beautiful day can be if you’ve never experienced night?