The Oval Office, May 24, 2068
He’s ready for you.”
Natalia Alaniz stood. Her heart pounded as she brushed a wrinkle from her skirt. After all the strides of this twenty-first century, why had no one invented a method to keep clothes from wrinkling? Did she look professional? She brushed the thought away with one more swipe and followed the secretary.
Breathless, Natalia pinched herself. Since childhood, she’d dreamed of this room. Old and new media often used this setting for broadcasts and photos. Yet standing in this place bathed her in surreal almost as much as the sunlight filtering through the floor-to ceiling windows. Her eyes roved from the ornate desk to the curved walls, landing on the Seal of the United States, emblazoned on the carpet at her feet.
“Your first time, I see.”
Startled, she spun as another voice, the one in her ear, spoke, “Don’t be too much the fan. Remember, you’re the professional.”
he held out her hand. “Mr. President. Thank you for seeing me.”
Mr. David Joshua Salem, President of the United States, shook her hand, and guided her to the chairs set up, all in one motion. Natalia’s mind screamed like a teenage groupie—I’ll never wash this hand again! —while the voice in her ear brought her back to earth. “Breathe, smile, and make nice.”
“You’re correct, sir. This is my first assigned interview on-site outside of the Press Corps room. I’m sure it shows all over my face.”
“Not at all. You are doing fine. You’d never believe how I behaved the first alone moment I had in here.”
“Would you like to tell me about it?” She’d have an exclusive.
He shook his head and chuckled. “You are good. Almost let that secret out of the bag.” He winked, taking the other chair.
“Well perhaps we can get started.” She double checked her right earring. Her producer’s voice came through loud and clear. Next, she touched the statement necklace that held the camera, waiting a second to hear the “looks good.”
Last, she handed the tie clip to President Salem. He put it on. She gave him a thumbs-up as her producer expressed approval for the wireless reception.
“We’re set.” She paused, ignored her thumping heart, and began. “This is Natalia Alaniz, correspondent with CBS Sunday Morning, streaming live from the Oval Office. My guest today is President Salem. Good morning, Mr. President.”
He leaned back, ever so slightly. “Good morning, Ms. Alaniz.” Open, friendly.
One last glance at her bracelet of notes. For months she dreamed of and prepped for this moment. Now here it was. She took a breath. “You are concluding your first term in office and gearing up for a second. Overall, the American people seem to think they know you. Is that accurate?”
“Pretty much, yes, that is accurate. In this day and age, not much is hidden. The opposition has tried to expose my sins or faults. But what you see is what you get. I’d say I’m fairly transparent.”
“Your military career is of public record, along with the heroic actions for which you received the Medal of Honor while serving in the Sudan War. I understand you come from a long line of warriors.”
President Salem crossed his legs. “I guess you might say that. My father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all served in the military.”
“How did their service impact you and your new program, Plows of Peace? How does it impact you as Commander-inChief?”
He chuckled. “I am who I am because of their choices as much as my own. The nucleus of Plows of Peace started many years ago in my family, eventually growing to include others from my hometown. We believed the time was ripe to present it on a bigger stage.”
“Do you view Plows of Peace to be the Peace Corps of the twenty-first century? In some ways that might put you on level with President John Kennedy, wouldn’t it?”
He sat straighter. “I don’t see that. I just know POP, as we affectionately call it, has served many. By championing it with a national platform, the number of people helped grows exponentially.”
“So, what was the nucleus for POP? How did this get started?”
He smiled. Memories twinkled in his eyes. “There was another warrior. She inspired the idea.”
“Another? Who was she?”
He nodded and held out his hand. “Come, I’ll show you.”
He led Natalia to a table behind his desk, picking up an oldfashioned double frame from a group of digital photos, two fiveby-sevens hinged together. The left held a shot of an elderly Asian woman. Her smile tired, but gentle, nearly closed her eyes to thin lines. Strands of silver hair wisped about her face while the rest was pulled to the back. She appeared to be… Natalia couldn’t guess. Her only thought was ancient.
The one in the other frame included the woman, though one could see she sat in a rolling chair—what they used to call a wheelchair. Now her smile was wide. A small child, perhaps preschool age, pushed the chair from behind. “This is my Bà.” He rubbed his thumb over the rolling chair picture. “My greatgrandmother.” Pointing to the boy, he added, “That’s my son, David Junior.”
“He met his great, great-grandmother?” How could that be?
“Yes.” He sighed. “She passed away not long after this. Bà lived to be 104 years old. I remember when it was taken. DJ says he remembers, too, though I’m not sure that it’s her or the photo he recalls, but yes, they were great buddies.”
This was something new. Excitement bubbled from her toes. And he seemed to want to talk. So, she nudged. “She’s lovely, very sage like.”
“She was. And she was more than determined. Not ruthless or anything negative, but her faith, the way she loved, it was strong, tenacious. You could say relentless.” He replaced the frames.
“How do you mean?”
Mr. Salem motioned to the chairs. “To understand, you must go back one hundred years to a city once called Saigon.”
How Can I Be Sure
Saigon, Viet Nam. January 1, 1968
Hien gazed square into the eyes of the man whose hands held hers, the man whose eyes captured her heart. The heart that was about to pound out of her chest if his eyes didn’t hold her captive. If she blinked, it would all fall apart.
And so would she.
“Michael Ryan Wheaten, do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife? To have and to hold from this day forth, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, ‘til death do you part?”
He said I do! Heart, calm down!
“Nguyen Han Hien, do you take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband? To have and to hold from this day forth, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, ‘til death do you part?”
Michael squeezed her hand.
She squeezed back. “I do.” A tear etched its way down her cheek, plopping in a warm, wet blob on her new red ao dai, the traditional Vietnamese dress she bought for today.
Tears welled in his blue eyes too. He looked so handsome in his Air Force dress uniform.
“By the power vested in me by the United States of America, I now pronounce you man and wife. You may kiss your bride.”
Michael’s lips were on hers before she caught a breath. But how sweet to faint in those arms. More than a peck but not so much as to be embarrassing, they broke off the kiss together. He swept her off her feet.
He spun her around before planting her feet back on the ground.
Heat flooded her cheeks. Hien glanced at the man who performed the ceremony. The officer grinned. So did Michael’s parents. Apparently, it was not too embarrassing.
His father, Minister Ernest Wheaten, a retired colonel, pulled her into an embrace. “Welcome to the family, Hien. You are now Hien Wheaten. Think you might get used to being a Wheaten?”
Hien nodded, whispering her new name in her brain. Yes, she could get used to anything with Michael by her side.
His mother, Melanie, hugged her, not as effusively as his father, but still warmly. “We’re so happy for you two.”
Then she was back in his arms.
With a new name.
And a new home.
So much new.
But she could figure it all out with Michael.
That evening she lay curled in her husband’s arms. He tucked a few wayward strands of long hair behind her ear. “We can’t tell my mom yet. Dad plans this big surprise once we get out. Brother Charlie’s enlistment won’t be up for a while. He’s already told me he wants to reenlist. He and Lai might settle down here, with her teaching and all. They’re not sure.” He sighed. “I’m rattling on.”
“No, Michael. I love the sound of your voice. I want to just listen. Tell me more plans.” Her finger made lazy circles on his sternum.
She nodded, nuzzling next to his neck. His words flowed softer than the moonlight, filtered by the cherry tree leaves, through their balcony window. Their bed in the room he kept at his parents’ in the embassy villa was only a single, but she had no complaints about sharing it tonight. Or any night.
“Okay, so the farm is near a little town called Breadville in Indiana. It’s a few miles from Bunker Hill Air Force Base. Kokomo would be the nearest bigger town, I suppose. Peru’s not far either. Mom and Dad came for a visit one time while I was stationed there, and we got talking about the future. Dad has wanted to retire to a farm like where he grew up, and I suppose I’ve always listened to his stories, because he’s got me thinking that way too. We found this place close to some of Mom’s family. The farmhouse is in good shape. It has all sorts of possibilities. My cousin is caring for it until we can get there. He lives close by, so he said he didn’t mind. It will still need work, though.”
Hien nodded into Michael’s shoulder. She could do anything if they did it together.
“But here’s the part you can’t tell Mom.” His finger made a slow trace from her temple to the base of her throat. “Dad is signing the farmhouse over to you and me as a wedding gift. He plans to build her a new house on another part of the property, but this way we won’t have to inherit the farm. It’ll be ours when we move back. Think you might enjoy being an Indiana farmer’s wife?”
She nodded and nibbled his ear. As much as she loved his voice, it was time to stop talking.
“Morning, Hien! Glad you’re back. Where’ve you been?” Nick Jones, a correspondent for a small newspaper in upstate New York, threw out the soliloquy as he dashed past. Hien figured out awhile back that he did not want answers unless he was sure it led to a story. If he wanted answers, he would pause to give you the opportunity. No pause, no real interest.
Today he didn’t slow down. “Morning!” She plunged herself into the atmosphere of stale coffee and keyboard clacks and headed for her desk.
To call it a desk was a kind misnomer. Rather it was a disintegrating school desk with the attached seat removed. A metal pipe protruded where it once had been. However, it was perfect to stow any immediate work and a few belongings—a box of Kleenex tissues, two Bic pens, a stenographers pad, an extra tube of Slickers lip gloss (the only makeup she allowed herself because Michael liked how it tasted).
Hien did not mind. Her camera always stayed with her. Two or three spare rolls of film lay hidden in the Kleenex box, and that, as well as the rest of her treasures, remained stashed beneath the lift-up plywood board which served as a desktop, though it barely held on by the grace of one tiny hinge.
Unused film disappeared faster than they could replace it, unless you had the backing of a big media outlet. Hien’s photos were for the independent market. There was no telling who might buy them. Film was a precious commodity not to be wasted. Out of habit, she felt inside the tissue box. The canisters were where she’d hidden them.
She started with the Corps as a translator. Her English was fluent. In truth, it was extremely fluent, thanks to the Catholic school nuns who drilled the language into her and her brother. She gained a reputation for accuracy and an awareness of semantic subtleties.
One day, she brought her camera to an interview and snapped a shot. No other cameras were available. The correspondent she assisted grew excited for the photo. He did not care how amateurish it turned out.
It turned out better than amateurish. Hien’s life changed.
Tony Bennett crooned from someone’s radio, extolling that for once in his life he had love and hope. Hein understood. He sang her story.
Had it only been a year since she left her family in Huế? One year. She went from a daughter to a working woman, from translator to photographer, from single to married. Her twoweek-old ring glittered like the candle in the little paper boat she sent sailing down the Houng River last Tet, filled with wishes for the new life she would start the following week in Saigon. The river gleamed that night with all the tiny New Year boats sailing off into the future.
Funny, in two weeks it again would be the New Year—Tet. What would this New Year bring? Perhaps she would become a mother. She and Michael might start their family. Four more weeks and he would be done flying sorties over jungles. They could leave Viet Nam. She would say goodbye to everything familiar, more than when she left Huế for Saigon. But the excitement tantalized. Her destiny lay on the other side of the ocean. She was sure.
Indiana, what a strange name!
She shook her head. Hien checked the schedule for the darkroom. Someone got there before her. Too much daydreaming. She knocked, inquiring how long the wait.
Of course, she could fly to Huế. When she lived there, she built her own darkroom in the bathroom of her parents’ apartment building. People knocked on the door there too. But it was a four-hour flight.
She missed that world—her family, the city, her home. Never did she expect to return to it. Yet, her family was there.
She sighed. Her family had not attended her wedding. They sent word that it was too dangerous to travel. At least, that is the reason they gave.
Hien shrugged and knocked again.
“Almost done. Five minutes.”
“Okay.” What could she do but wait? She leaned against a table cluttered with dirty paper coffee cups, crumbs, and dried smeared something.
Mat Morrissey shouldered past to grab the schedule clipboard, grunted as he perused, and tossed it back onto the file cabinet. “Hien, you gotta let me in ahead of you. I think I’ve got something. Something big.”
“I’m not sure. You know that niggle when you know something, but you’re unsure what it is?”
Hien nodded. She did not know, but she knew Mat. He could not let go of this any more than her brother’s dog could let go of a bone. “Fine, you may come in with me. I will share my time, but you must tell me what you learned.”
Mat hesitated. “Deal. But I’ve got the scoop. Right?”
Mat checked his watch, then pounded on the door. “C’mon, Riley! You’re holding up the show!”
The voice behind the door called back. “Gimme a sec, Morrissey! Geez Louise!” Usually the language was saltier, but Hien was sure Steve Riley realized she was there and controlled himself. Finally, the lock clicked, and the door opened.
“About time, man!” Mat pushed through.
“Hey, you can’t rush perfection!” Steve waved a sheaf of photos. “And, you’re welcome.”
“You coming, Hien?”
“Coming, Mat.” She smiled at Steve as she hurried past and shut the door fixing the lock which would keep others from coming in and destroying their work. Steve left the safe light on. “Where were you shooting?”
Mat opened the small film canisters. “I was over by Huế last evening. Just got back. There’s this feel in the air. Something’s not right. That city used to be so beautiful, even the atmosphere. The one place the war overlooked. Now it’s like walking into the opening of a suspense movie.”
“What do you mean?” He shrugged, the red glow casting eerie shadows on his face. “Like nothing is out of place, yet something is. It’s a sensation I can’t shake. I swear, if Alfred Hitchcock stepped out from behind a tree, I wouldn’t have been surprised. Terrified, yeah, but surprised, no.”
Hien’s heart climbed its way up her throat. “My family is there.”
“Oh, sorry.” Mat’s gaze met hers and then returned to his work. He was reconsidering his bargain.
“I remember the area well. Perhaps I can see something.”
“Perhaps.” He didn’t raise his head. They worked in silence until Mat had his second roll developed. “Man, I thought for sure there was something. I’m just not seeing it.”
“Let me look.” Hien started with the first photo hanging from the drying line. A teenage girl on a bicycle. She studied the next. Then the next. Bicycle girl was not the only human photographed, but the manner in which she showed in different places… and she was only in maybe eight shots? But Hien could see it, rather sense whatever it was Mat meant. But she could not put a name to it either. “The city looks weird, different.” The fear she had pushed away reared.
“Yeah. There’s a curfew in effect for the locals. They don’t get far from home that late in the evening. This isn’t even inside the Citadel. I took these in the Triangle district, just south of the river. Still, I can’t shake the eeriness. What does it mean? Have they gone underground or are they following orders? And why was that girl in those places?
Hien shook her head, reviewing each shot. It was where she grew up. It was where her mother lived. Mat developed sixty photos altogether and only eight of the girl—a girl she had never seen—but in a different locale each time. Who was she? What happened to her beautiful city? “What is this?”
Mat searched where she showed.
The girl did something near a doorway. What? “Hand me a magnifying glass, please.”
He grabbed one from the table.
She peered closer, pointing to a shadow in the doorway next to the girl. Was she talking with someone? Was it supposed to be secret? It made no sense. Huế was beloved by both the north and the south. Battles raged near it, but neither side wanted to desecrate the Imperial City. Plus, the cease fire for Tet was just around the corner.
She must see for herself. “Can you get me there?”
“Not a good idea.”
“I must go. I need to see this.”
Mat shook his head. “I can’t take you there. Not without some kind of security team. Your new husband would kill me deader than dead.”
“If you will not take me, I will go on my own.” New husband or not, she almost added. Michael was on call for a flight today, anyway. He would not learn of this before she returned tonight.
Mat paused. His eyes gave him away before he spoke. “This is against my better judgment, but there’s a guy who owes me. Let’s go.”
Hien returned her film canisters to her purse for another time and grabbed her camera before Mat changed his mind.
“C’mon, Hien, the sooner we leave, the sooner we can get back to Saigon.”
The immense cargo hold of the C-130 Hercules allowed no room for conversation. The plane’s four engines roared loud enough to silence the most talkative. That left Hien running scenarios in her mind and asking herself questions she had no information with which to answer. Mat appeared calm, from the waist up. The rhythm of his right knee bouncing the entire flight belied him.
The second they rolled to a stop, he was out of his seat, heading for the cockpit.
“When do you need to take off?”
The pilot, Capt. Juan Andrade, shrugged. “This is a turnaround flight. Just long enough to unload.”
“Can you give us an hour?”
“An hour, yeah, I’ll stretch it that far. But, if you’re not back, I’m not waiting.”
Hien grabbed Mat’s arm, speaking in his ear. “Tell him not to leave us!”
“She says don’t leave us.” Juan shrugged again. “Then be back in an hour.” He returned his attention to the controls.
“We’d better move. I’ll get a vehicle.” Mat climbed out and ran for the operations shack, leaving Hien to dismount the plane on her own.
She followed, only to have him return, running with keys in hand.
“Let’s go.” He grabbed her elbow, steering her toward a jeep on the edge of the runway. They both jumped in, he started it up, and they were on their way into the city. Hien gave him directions to her parents’ apartment building. That was the easiest place to start.
Fifteen minutes later, they pulled in front. Everything looked the same, though different. The tree outside her old bedroom window appeared taller. The flowers in the pot beside the door bore a different color. A neighbor she did not recognize swept the stoop of the adjacent building. Her heart did a little twist. This must be the definition of bittersweet.
Clambering out, she motioned for Mat to follow, and ran to her parents’ door, what used to be her door. She tried her old key, but it did not work. She reinserted it, trying again. It would not turn. Hien left the key in the lock and knocked. “Mẹ, chính là con.” She called to her mother. Now she heard her brother’s dog, Bao, barking from the back of the apartment. Surely someone was there. Bao grew quiet. She knocked again. “I do not understand, Mat. Mother should be here.”
Mat tapped her shoulder, put his finger to his lips, and pointed down.
A small piece of paper stuck from the threshold. The folded sheet moved, sliding further out. She stooped to retrieve and opened it. Only three scrawled words.
Rời khỏi, Nguy