Writer’s note: I didn’t realize I’d used the name “Tori” for the main character until I revisited the story a few days ago, preparing it for the blog. I guess it’s only fitting, after all. Anyway, just wanted to clarify so that readers didn’t think this was another episode of my hunter’s adventures. This was originally written for my 100F fiction workshop in college, and based on true events. Oh, and also a warning for some mild cursing. Enjoy!
Tori closed the bedroom door quietly. The summer heat had ebbed away in the cool night but her hands still sweated. They left damp ghost prints on the cool metal knob and on the glossy surface of a Sailor Moon poster. She stared at the other Scotch-taped decorations on her door: the remnant of a Metallica keychain, her Chinese name written in black felt marker, and a sketch of a winged angelic figure. Everything except the poster and keychain were made by her. She took an especial pride in the neat brushstrokes of her name. It had taken her three weeks to perfect the penmanship and stroke order. This room had been hers for four years since her family moved into the house in 1996. The walls had been bare then but they have since filled up with sketches, posters, awards, and maps. Tonight was going to be the first night that she did not sleep in her room, in her bed surrounded by her things.
Mom slept in Tori’s room now, just for this one night. The last two weeks had taken much out of the middle-aged woman. She spent every day and every night keeping watch over Dad, losing sleep and weight and who knows what else. When the doctor finally realized Dad had pancreatic cancer last month, Tori watched as a change came over Mom. Mom gave the case to several different hospitals. She went to every doctor specializing in Chinese remedies and practices all over Northern California. She sought the wisdom of family elders. Every opinion was the same. Dad didn’t have long left to live. The doctors estimated one month. Dad insisted on coming home after his second trip to the emergency room.
He said he did not want to die in a hospital.
The insurance company sent along a hospital bed, I.V. drips, and a nurse who checked on his condition once a day. Tori learned how to prepare a fresh saline bag by watching the nurses in the hospital. She knew what the pancreas was and its function. Dad developed diabetes shortly after she turned three. The house was still stocked with plenty of sugar-free foods. Even the ice cream and candies were sugar-free.
A rough rustling from the bedroom across the hallway broke Tori from her fatigued reverie. She tiptoed into her parents’ room, adjusting her eyes to the light. Dad was struggling to sit up in the hard hospital bed. His hands, bones wrapped in papery skin, were latched onto the metal railing. Tori let him lean his weight onto her shoulder. She felt his warm cheek, stubbly from weeks of not shaving, against her face. It reminded her of Saturday mornings with the whole family together for breakfast. He used to catch her tiny five-year-old body into his arms and nuzzle his unshaved scruff into her neck, making her squeal with ticklish delight. She almost smiled. She felt him try to take a breath and let it out, the air rattling and shaking in his chest. Then she caught the sour, foul tang under her nose as he exhaled. Still supporting his weight, she reached for a yellow basin on the nightstand. Tori held the basin in front of Dad and looked down at his hands. The knuckles whitened as he braced himself against the railing then vomited. She took slow breaths, ignoring the hot, rotting stench rising from the basin.
When he was done, Tori placed the heavy basin aside on a chair. She helped him lay back onto the bed like she was packaging a fragile vase in a box. She poured out the dark brown liquid into the sink and rinsed out the basin, keeping it nearby. The first time he had vomited the stuff, she was alarmed and curious. How, she asked herself, could someone throw up if they had not eaten for three days? With a damp cloth, she wiped up the corners of his mouth.
“Looks like our places switched, Dad,” she whispered. “Now I’m cleaning your mouth, just like you used to clean mine before I could hold chopsticks.”
Dad did not respond. Tori pulled up the thin linen sheet around his shoulders. He used to be a tall, stocky man. She thought about sitting on his big shoulders as the family hiked Diamond Head in Hawai’i and not being afraid of falling. She sat down next to the basin on a cushioned plastic chair, looking at Dad. His body was reduced to a skin-wrapped skeleton. The head looked like it could break off of the neck if without proper support. Everything convened at his swollen belly, pregnant with cancerous cells and gallons of dark, bitter bile.
Tori pushed her glasses back up her nose, the nose pads slippery with sweat. She shifted her weight in the chair. Two months ago, she sat in a similar chair with the rest of her seventh grade classmates. The school year was drawing to a close and it was time to hand out awards of achievement in the three major disciplines. Tori knew she had no hope for the science award; it wasn’t her fault she couldn’t take the teacher seriously because he looked like Mini-Me with a blonde toupee. Her chances for the one in English would have been better if she didn’t openly hate the man who replaced the original instructor. That left math. Ever since skipping into Algebra 1 after scoring a 98% on the placement exam, she had been struggling all year to catch up and stay afloat.
She started to regret telling Mom and Dad about the ceremony. She didn’t look to see if they had come. She knew they were there. The awards were announced one by one. When they announced her name for the math award, she stared at the teachers for a full minute, jaw unhinged, while the other students turned to her, cheering. She shook hands with the head of the math department and looked out at the rows of plastic chairs. First she spotted Mom. Then she saw Dad in his bright green trucker cap from his old job, raising his hands to her like a victorious boxer.
Dad continued lying on the hospital bed with his eyes closed. Tori listened for each breath, watched each rise and fall of his chest. When she heard the phlegm and bile begin to affect his breathing again, she adjusted bed so he sat up more. The buttons were stiff, snapping and popping into place whenever Tori pressed them. They were like the buttons on the new oven in the old house. The family had bought it after Dad started taking baking lessons at a local college. Dad’s love for baking started when he flipped through one of Mom’s Better Homes and Garden magazines. At first, he was looking for an idea for the backyard but came across a chocolate chip cookie recipe instead. On the rare Saturdays Dad had off from driving buses in San Francisco, he’d wake up early as if he were going to work again. Tori would always hear him. She would jump out of bed and follow him into the kitchen as quietly as a six-year-old could. While he set out ingredients, she set out her plastic pink-and-white rolling pin and pulled up a footstool to stand on. Together, they measured out flour and rolled dough. Sometimes their creations were successes, sometimes not. After some hours of work, Mom and Tori’s brother came out to the kitchen, blinking from sleep, enticed by the aroma of cinnamon or warm yeast.
Tori jumped when Dad suddenly sat up in his bed, struggling to stay upright on his quavering, thin arms. She grabbed the basin and towels again. Her eyes watched his face, noted each contortion and grimace.
“Dad? What is it?” she whispered.
His jaundiced eyes open. They stared straight ahead, looking past her. She looked over her shoulder while trying to support his weight with her hands. All she saw was the blank, white bedroom wall. He raised his arms like he was about to hug her. Then he leaned forward. Tori slowly stepped away, easing her hands from his shoulders. She sat back down onto the chair. His hands were grasping at the air in front of him. He was seeing something she could not.
“Dad? What are you doing?”
Then he spoke. She hadn’t heard his voice in so long, since the first time the hospital put him on a respirator. His voice was rough with lack of use, choked with fluids. “Friends. My friends came to visit.”
It was not the same voice she remembered. It did not have the same conviction. It no longer sounded like the dragon’s roar. This was not the voice that yelled, “Fuck you mother!” at a man in Oakland’s Chinatown over a parking spot.
Tori watched in silence as Dad continued grasping at the air, his eyes continuously focused on some distant point. The pain in his face eased away just enough so that only his brow furrowed. His mouth moved like he was talking. Sometimes, he even became animated, gesturing with his hands and lighting up or frowning. He had not exhibited this much strength in three weeks. Tori took it as a sign of hope. Maybe the doctors were wrong. Dad was strong. He was fighting off the cancer on his own. The time he spent lying on the bed with his eyes closed, he wasn’t sleeping. He was concentrating and targeting the sickness. He was getting better. She couldn’t wait till everyone got up in the morning to see Dad better, stronger, improved.
Dad broke the silence again. The guttural voice said one word. “Baba.”
His right hand had a firm grip on an invisible something. Tori stood next to the bed and tried to see what Dad was seeing. He was calling for his father, seeing his father. The stories surrounding the man were few and varied. He had died when Dad was only a teenager; no one wanted to speak about him. Dad told the few stories he knew, once, at the dinner table years ago. Tori and her brother had heard the stories about how good they had it here in America. This one was different.
“He was a druggie,” Dad had said. “He smoked opium, snorted bak fun. Made us broke, no money. He used to beat your pawh-pawh, beat me. My brother and sister too young to remember. They always taken by my ah-pawh to eat and play anyway.”
Tori had looked at Dad with big brown eyes, not completely understanding what was being told to her. Her big brother offered nothing except shameful silence.
“One day he had too much. He do it on purpose or not, I don’t know. I found him in front of the bathroom. Dead. Just like that. From then on, I had to work. Keep everyone’s tummy full. Make sure your auntie and uncle have money for school. If I lucky, one day, maybe I get to sit on sidewalk and draw with piece of brick. One time I draw a running horse. Everyone say it look so zhun, so good. But then what? I have to go back to work…”
She sat back down, still watching Dad hold his father’s invisible hand, talking to his father. Tori did not keep track of how much time passed. When Dad lurched forward and motioned for her, she picked up the basin and let him vomit again. She wiped his mouth, cleaned everything up and went back to watching him converse with his father. If any actual words were exchanged, she did not hear them.
But she had an idea of what was being said.
The rest of the night went on. He vomited from time to time and went back to talking. Then he stopped. His hands dropped to his side. He turned toward Tori and said, “Up. Help.”
Tori lowered the railing. She lifted his brittle legs up from the bed, swinging them around over the edge. She knew she could not help him stand. Dad just wanted to get out of bed and all she could do was make sure he did not fall. She lowered him onto the floor. It was like watching a baby. He dragged his body along the carpet. Her eyes followed his movements, slow, painful. When she offered to help him, he just waved his hand at her like shooing away a fly. So she just stood next to the bedroom window, watching. Sunlight caught her eye through the thin curtains. Another hot July day was here. She could feel the heat of it already.
Dad finally stopped near the master bathroom. His strength finally gave out. The breath came in ragged, shallow gulps. Tori rolled him over onto his back, elevating his head onto her lap. His eyes were still open. This time, they focused on her.
She thought he smiled.
By the time Mom woke up and came into the room, Tori was still sitting on the floor with Dad’s head on her knees, next to the bathroom. His eyes were closed. The rattling, choking sound quieted. His lips paled. The image of Dad burst into a million liquid shards as Tori lowered her head.