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Authors: Patricia McCormick

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BOOK: Never Fall Down: A Novel
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Even okay if I sleep sometime. Even if it’s daytime. And now I sleep very deep, like never before in the building with all the kid crying and moaning. I sleep good here, in the straw with the horse, his good smell, his breath very sweet and warm on me. Now I sleep like thirsty man getting water for the first time; never can I get enough of this good sleep.

And sometime I think maybe it’s okay if the Vietnamese never come, never rescue us.

NO MORE TIME FOR SLEEPING NOW. THE RADIO, IT SAYS THE
Vietnamese are coming close. Now is panic; everyone flee the leader house, jump in truck and ride away very fast. One guy, he take the little white horse and ride away. They don’t even remember me, so I have to run all the way to camp by myself.

Panic is at the camp, too; some kid running around like crazy, some crying, a few running into the wood. But no one chase them. All the Khmer Rouge soldier in the middle of the square, polishing the gun, loading string of bullet onto their chest, canteen, grenade, knife, anything they can use to kill.

The kid who not escape, they all in a line, each one getting a rifle. Some kids so little, the gun is taller than them. Other kid, bigger one, they play with the gun like toy. One little boy, he looks down inside the hole where the bullet is, and—
bang!
—he shoot himself in the head, die right there; no one even notice.

Chaos everywhere, but I see Siv and Kha strapping the string of bullet on themself. I run to them, say, “Follow me,” and the three of us, we go to find Sombo. “Please,” we beg him. “Let us come with you.” We tell him we can be good fighter—run fast, hide, shoot, do anything. Sombo pull me away to talk private. He look at me hard.

“Why you not run away?” he says. “You leave now, maybe no one will see you. Maybe you go home now, find your family.”

Family. How can I find my family? My family now is only these two guys, Siv and Kha. And Mek. And also maybe Sombo, this Khmer Rouge, this one guy always kind to me. I don’t say this to him. Also I don’t tell him now I’m more scared of Vietnamese than even Khmer Rouge. I just say, “I show you how to play the khim. Now you show me how to use the gun.”

 

All the kid from the band, from the dance group, about twenty kid, the Khmer Rouge put us in special fighting group with Sombo as leader. Kid only. Little Fish with the Big Sting they call us. Special mission for our group. Spy. Sneak in place where the men can’t go. Bring back information. Big honor to be in this group, they tell us.

All of a sudden I’m Khmer Rouge. These people I hate, now I’m one.

Strange feeling, but also a little bit good. Like now we have some power, now we have gun, now we all Cambodian fighting together to kill the Vietnamese.

I think of all the time I play soldier with my little brother, how we hold our arms like airplane, how we shoot with our fingers. Little part of my heart is afraid now. But most of me, I feel excited. Real war is happening now. And I am real soldier.

 

Our group, the Little Fish, we the first to leave camp. But Mek, he has to stay, to fight in a different group with the men. He come to our group, his face very sad. Slow, he touch the gun on my shoulder, the bullet on my chest. Then he bless me, sprinkle dirt on my head to protect me and chant, very low, very quiet. Old Buddhist chant from before the Khmer Rouge. He chant a long time, tear running down, then he open his eye, kiss me on the forehead.

“All my children die,” he says. “Now, you my son. And I think maybe now because this war, we never will see each other again.”

I tell him no. I tell him when all this fighting is over, we will be together again, again like father and son, eating sugar, singing the old songs; but he only shake his head.

The ground now is shaking, same as long time ago when my brother and I play war outside the movie palace. I know this sound. It means war is coming, coming close. I look to Mek to say good-bye; but now his eyes have no light, like before, like when I met him, dead inside. And I know already in his heart he said good-bye to me. Already in his heart, like his children, I’m gone.

 

The first time I shoot the gun, it kill me. Big gun, tall as me, I put it on my shoulder and aim at the palm tree. Just for test. Just to see what it feels. The trigger is like old hinge, stiff, not moving, then—
bang
! In my shoulder a hard fist—very strong, like fist of a giant—hit me, lift me off my feet, and now I’m flying in the air, no sound, only dirt spraying. Very slow I float, looking up, high; the sky very beautiful, blue, and cloud like pillow.

I’m on my back now, very peaceful. And I think: this must be what dying is. Very nice feeling. No pain. No sound. Not even feeling like I have a body.

Then I see Siv leaning over me with a worried face. Maybe Siv in heaven, too, I think. He talking, moving his lip, but only sound now is like Sombo radio when he can’t find the station. Rushing sound. Like strong river is nearby.

Now I see Kha and also other boy, all laughing. I see this laughing, but no sound with it. Then Sombo come and lean over me. I ask him if I’m dead. My own voice, very big in my head.

Sombo smile, shake his head. “You okay,” he says. He is yelling very hard, I can tell from his face, but his voice very tiny and very far. “Your ear, too, it will be okay,” he says.

Rest of the day, all the boy try shooting the guns. Nobody train us. We just teach ourself. Some fall down like me; some, the big one, they don’t. All of us, we can’t hear after. And we shout at each other and point, make a face so we can understand, laughing when no one can hear. Laughing more when someone falls down. We shoot and shoot, killing only the grass, the trees. So much fun to have a real gun. Sort of like pretend time with my brother. Only better.

 

We walk a very long time now to get to the war. We carry gun, bullet, grenade, pot for cooking, all kinda thing. All boy, only one girl, little girl with missing tooth in front, she carry the rice. Big bag of rice, she carry on her head. Long walk, three day, very hot, gun is heavy, very long, hurt the shoulder to carry. Big guy like Siv, even hard for him to carry. Little guy like me, sometime I drag it behind.

Sombo shout at me very angry. “This gun is your life. You lose it, mean you give it to the enemy.”

He also yell at Kha for walking too slow. “You don’t keep up, we leave you behind,” he says, even though Kha have diarrhea very bad now, so bad he has to run to the bush all the time.

This Sombo is a different guy. Not the same guy who plays the khim very dainty, like girl. This Sombo, he’s real tough guy now.

 

Our group, the Little Fish, we meet up now with big group of real soldier. We hold our gun very proud, make ourself tall, face fierce, so we also can be tough guy. But these soldier, so busy digging ditch for fighting, they don’t pay attention.

That night, their leader, short guy with a Buddha belly, he says our unit has important job. Like a hiding game. He says we only have to sneak into the field, tall grass, perfect for hiding, he says, and sniff with our nose. “The Vietnamese, they have special smell, bad smell, from bad food they eat,” he says. “You smell them, you can tell us where they hide.”

One kid, dancer from the old camp, he asks what we do if they see us.

“You shoot the air,” the leader says. “Then we know where you are, we come and help you.”

Our group, now we’re very scared but also very excited. Important job to do and real soldier for backup. Also this leader says he has a special herb to protect us. “Make you feel extra brave,” he says. “Make the bullet bounce off you.”

This herb, he says, just extra protection. “Little fish like you, smaller than regular soldier, too hard to see, too hard to hit,” he says. “No bullet can find a little fish.”

 

With only a sliver moon for light, we crawl through the tall grass like snake, not talking, only sound is heart thumping in our belly. We go far across this open field, like cobra, very fierce, very brave, no grown-up to tell us where to go. Only our nose for guide.

Then we smell it. Bad smell, sour, like cabbage cooking. Vietnamese smell, and also strange language. A language very fast, very angry. We stop now, so close to these soldier, not knowing what to do. The dancer, he whisper at me, says, “Let’s go back.” Another kid, this kid very short, shorter than me, he says maybe he can stand up, see what the Vietnamese look like, see if really the bad smell is babies cooking. I try to grab his leg but too late. He stands up only one minute, then the bullets come.

Now is panic everywhere in our group. The standing-up kid, he turn like a statue, not moving. Another kid, he jump out of our hiding place and run back where we came. Another kid, he only hug himself in the grass and cry.

Then the standing-up boy, he sink down in the dirt, only a dull sound of bullet going into his flesh. The running boy, we can hear him now, lying in the grass behind us, crying, saying only the word
mommy
, over and over. The rest of us, we don’t remember even that we have gun. We just make ourself very small, very low, like worm, like invisible, and wait for the real soldiers to come rescue us.

 

Now bullets also coming from behind. Real soldiers, finally, they shooting at Vietnamese and coming to save us. But some kid so scared, they go crazy; they try to escape, they run from these new bullets from behind, run to the Vietnamese side to get away. They got shot in front from Vietnamese, in back from Khmer Rouge.

 

After, only six Little Fish survive. Me and Siv and Kha and three others, we huddle back at the camp, our bone chattering, waiting for the Khmer Rouge to tell us “good job.” But they don’t pay attention; they only want to talk to themself or maybe sleep. Later, the head guy, he walk past our group; now everyone asleep but me. “These little fish, we got to get more of them,” he says to another guy. “They good for catching the big fish.”

I think about, long time ago, catching frog with Hong, how you put little frog on the string and wait for the big one to come eat him. And I understand now. We not real soldiers. We just bait.

 

One day after fighting Sombo tells me to come with him. No big deal. Kha and Siv, they know I’m a little bit Sombo favorite, so they just close their eye to nap. When me and Sombo, we get to the edge of camp, I see group of kid. Little girl who carries the rice and other kid I never saw before. Sombo says we leaving this camp now to become a new group. I ask what about Kha and Siv, but Sombo, he doesn’t say anything. He says only march, and he keep his shark eyes on me so I don’t look back.

Like brother to me, Siv and Kha, And not even a chance to say good-bye.

 

Many day walking, through rice fields and also forest, hottest time of the year, no rain, the sun like fire on our skin. Our leg like wood, our mouth like dust. All of us carry a heavy gun; but the girl who carry the rice on her head, she also has a hard job and is just little kid. Sometime her knee wobble under this heavy load, and sometime I carry the sack for her. Always this girl walk behind me now. “You have like magic power,” she tell me one time. “All this shooting and never do you get hurt. So I stay near you and maybe nothing bad will happen to me.”

Finally, after two day walking, we get to the new camp. New job now for the Little Fish. We stay in trench, deep trench, near the road, wait for Vietnamese to come. We hear them coming, we jump out and shoot. Like before, real soldier stay behind. Little Fish go out front.

We dig this trench ourself, then hide there, take turn sleeping. But three boy in my trench, all of us, we too scared to sleep. One boy, he sings very quiet, a baby song, like lullaby, a song for learning the numbers, over and over. The other boy, he pick small bugs from his hair and eat. I lie in this trench and think: maybe this is my grave.

 

All night is very quiet. Only maybe some cricket. Then you hear it. Bird screeching very loud. Next you feel it. Earth shivering. Because tanks are coming. Bird is the first warning. Bird knows to fly away from this fight coming.

Because Vietnamese, they have tank, cannon, many soldier, and rifle that shoots one hundred bullets with no stopping. We just kid with old gun. Shoot only one bullet each time.

Never before I been so afraid. At the camp you afraid all the time, because any time you can die. From starving, from diarrhea, from ax. But I learn a way to stay alive there. I learn to play my music, do what the Khmer Rouge say, never make them mad. And somehow—some good luck, some good thinking, also maybe some good trick—I stay alive.

Now no good thinking, no good trick can help. And I think: why I stayed alive? Only so I can die today?

 

We jump out of the trench and into so many bullet it’s like rain. But we too scared to shoot, only hide in the grass. Then I feel wetness on my cheek, something warm. I touch; and on my hand is blood. I look at the singing boy and see that half of his face now missing; and all on my neck, in my hair, is blood and brain and tiny piece of bone.

The other boy, he vomit. But me, I feel crazy, like all of a sudden my blood is electric; and I shoot and shoot and shoot. Only shooting, no thinking. No fear, even. You don’t even see what you shooting. Except one time, I see this Vietnamese guy, kid, like teenage, running to hide behind a tree, and I point the gun at him and shoot. He stop, his face surprise, like almost smiling. Then he gone. Only grass where he was. Standing one minute, gone next minute. Dead. I think: this guy is dead. And I’m the one who do it. I feel crazy, like not myself, like shooting machine. Like maybe I can shoot and shoot forever.

Until Sombo, he tell me, “Okay, stop now, it’s all over.” And he take me back to camp, where right away I go to sleep, very hard, like dead myself.

 

More walking, more hiding, until we get to another camp. We join now with other kid, some real Khmer Rouge, and some like us, just kid who get gun one week ago to fight the Vietnamese.

We now one unit. But one Khmer Rouge, young guy name Phat, maybe only one or two years older, he says the new kids are not real Khmer Rouge. Not loyal from the beginning like him. We only soldier now because they force us.

So Phat, he says new job will prove if the Little Fish really love Angka. When tank comes, he says, we have to climb up and put the grenade inside. Very, very dangerous this job.

Little girl who carry the rice, who now cuddle at my side at night to be warm, tells me don’t do it, it suicide. But I tell her it’s also suicide to say no. Because this guy, I think he might kill us if we don’t.

BOOK: Never Fall Down: A Novel
7.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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