This story is by Justine H. Cho and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The Man flinched when the sound of the bombardment shook the walls of the office as he entered it. He had not realized that the bombings were so near his home.
“It’s all right. We are safe for now.” The Agent said. “Did you see your family?”
“Not yet. I wanted to pick up the visas first. But, they should be packed and ready to depart. I sent word before arriving here.”
“Good. The truck will leave at 1100. Sharp. If you are late, they will not wait.”
In two hours? So soon?
Another explosion shook the walls. Maybe not so soon. Yet, his heart clenched. This town had been his home, his father’s home, and the home of his father’s father. The Man had hoped it would become his son’s home, but he wasn’t so sure now.
“There’s one more thing.” The Agent looked away avoiding the Man’s eyes.
“There have been many policy changes in our country.” The Agent bit his lip. The Man’s heart raced.
“I do not know anything about politics or policies. I don’t care. I just want my family safe. You know as well as I do that I took this position because it promised me the visas to bring my family across the border.”
The Agent swallowed.
“A lot has changed in my country since then. I tried, but with your limited immigration status, I could not obtain more than two visas for your family.” The Agent took out two pieces of paper and placed them on the desk.
The Man gaped at the Agent. The world seemed to sway before him.
“I have a wife and three children. You know this. What am I to do with two visas when there are four people?”
“It was all I could do. I’m sorry.” The Agent got up.
“No!” The Man grabbed the Agent. Then, he fell to his knees, all his pride forgotten. He would do anything, could do anything for his family.
“Please. Don’t do this. Give my place to my family. The baby doesn’t take any space. Let my wife and the baby take my place. Please.” If his family was safe, maybe he could find a way across the border on his own.
“I was able to get these because you work for us. Without you, I cannot give you even these two. Too many are seeking admittance. And unfortunately, not many welcome the foreigners. It was the best I could do.” The Agent pulled away and left the room.
The Man could not get up. His knees felt weak. The papers slipped off his hands. Another bomb dropped, somewhere close this time. The Man found himself clutching the papers.
How did it come to this? He did not want much. He just wanted to raise his family in peace. He didn’t care about the constant bickering of the men in power or those religious zealots willing to kill, going against all that God truly stood for.
He thought if he was good, did good, and devoted himself to his family, then his life will be good. How naïve he had been.
When the Man returned home, his family greeted him, their meager belongings packed into the small bags each will carry. The Man looked at his eldest. She turned seventeen this year, a budding beauty just like her mother. The Man’s heart clenched at what men could do to his little girl if he were not there to defend her honor.
His elder son will turn sixteen soon, and the life would be worse for him. They would either kill him or take him, put a gun in his young hands and force him to kill. His gentle son who loved to build things would be forced to become a demon to destroy and devastate. He would die a different death, one that would be worse than living.
It was then when the little one tittered and shot forth into his arms. The Man picked up his youngest not yet two years old.
“Dada!” the child smiled so brightly the Man held onto the child and almost wept. He was only vaguely aware of his wife waving the other two away, and the door closing softly behind them.
“What is the matter, husband?” His wife asked. He grabbed her and pulled her into his arms along with the child.
“I am just so happy to see you,” the Man said, his voice cracked and sounded strange, but his wife smiled and hugged him back. She laid her head on his shoulder. There were grays in her hair now. She was wider, more ample than she had been when she was younger. The Man breathed in her scents of basil and cumin, scent of herbs and spices that have clung to her. The basil scent reminded him of their shy first kiss under a warm rain. She had been his childhood sweetheart, love of his life. He had never known other women besides her. Never wanted to know any other but her. He squeezed his eyes tightly.
“Are you sure you are well?” she asked gently.
“I had worried,” the Man said.
“You worry too much,” she said, her eyes laughing. “You work hard. God will take care of us,” she said with such conviction the Man wanted to believe it.
But he had seen much while she had not. He did not have the unshakable faith she had in God. Even now, he blamed the God for allowing this war to happen; blamed his country for being too weak to protect its people; blamed the inability of the men in power to agree; and blamed the Agent’s country for not helping more. He blamed them all. But most of all, he blamed himself and his inability to do more to protect his family.
“I heard they have their roads paved in gold. Fruit trees grow on every road. No one goes hungry there. Isn’t that wonderful?” She smiled widely with eyes that sparkled with wonder and joy. It was what he loved about her. Even when her hair was graying, she still seemed like a child. When she laughed, he ended up laughing with her no matter how stressed he was.
“We cannot all go,” the Man confessed. The wife sat and listened all the while cooing their youngest on her lap.
“Why do you falter?” she said after he was done. “The choice is clear. The children are old enough to be on their own. We cannot remain together forever.”
“But the children. They are so young still. They need guidance and protection. They need…”
“Shhhh!” the wife placed her finger over his lips. “They are old enough. They will be fine. We were married at that age if you remember. They are old enough to take care of themselves.”
“But they will not understand.”
“Maybe not now. But they will.”
When the time came to leave the home, the man’s wife hugged each of the older children tightly. The man wondered how she could smile like that, with such warmth. No hint of sorrow that raged in his heart.
“Kiss your little brother goodbye, my dear children,” the wife said with a bright smile on her face.
“Aren’t you coming with us, mother?” the daughter asked.
“No. You go ahead with father, dearest. I have few things to prepare before I follow,” the woman said, “Go on now. I will see you later.”
“Get in the truck,” the Man instructed his daughter and the son who hesitated but climbed up on the seats.
The Man turned to his wife. The words would not come. His throat constricted, blocking air. He promised his wife he will stay strong, to do what must be done. He will bear this pain, bear the blames the children will surely unleash later. If his wife can bear this, then he must bear this and more.
She looked up at him, her face full of smile, but the knuckles of her hand that clenched a corner of her dress were white.
“I love you,” the Man said. It was the first time he had ever uttered those words, out in the open. Such small words for such big emotion. He wished he had said them before, said them often. He prayed to God that he could say them again. To her. “Stay alive and I will find you again.” The words came out a bare whisper, but she nodded, her eyes shiny with moisture.
The Man turned. This was a choice no man should have been forced to make.