chasing a starlight
Please, Kim, hear the phone
I can’t get there, please be home…
She’s packing up all their things into the duffel Chris gave her when the phone on the side rings. She looks at it, black and angry and shrilling incessantly, and then picks it up like she’s seen Chris do, holding it to her ear. “Hello?”
“Kim.” Chris’ voice is breathless, relieved. “Thank fuck.”
“They’ve locked the gates, they’re not letting anyone else in or out.”
“What?” Her heartbeat thrums in her ears, all sudden panic and fear. “What, how – I’ll come, I’m almost ready…”
“No! Listen to me. It’s going to be alright. Go and find one of the girls from the club and get to the river, there are people taking refugees out of the country. There’s money in the top drawer to pay them. You’ve got my gun. Get yourself to Thailand. I’ll find you there, okay?”
“Repeat it back to me.”
“One of the girls from the club. Go to the river – get a boat to the sea and then around to Thailand. There’s money in the top drawer for it.”
“Good girl.” Shouting, in the background. The line crackles. “I’ve got to go. I love you.”
“I love you too.”
The phone goes dead. Kim stands and stares at the wall for long moments, fighting back tears. How did it all end up like this?
When she first gets back to the club, she thinks that no-one is there. The shutters are all down, the windows are shut, and there are no lights on.
“What are you doing here?” The voice is harsh, makes her jump. One hand goes to Chris’ gun, tucked inside her dress. She can’t see who it is in the gloom that gathers in the corners of the streets.
Gigi steps out of the shadows. There’s a bruise purpling around her eye. The curl of her mouth is feral. “Has your marine abandoned you?”
“No, he hasn’t.” Kim stands her ground. “The embassy gates are locked.”
“I know, I’ve just been there.”
“He phoned me. Told me how to get out.”
Suddenly, a little life sparks into Gigi’s face. “How?”
“I don’t have any money to pay them.”
“I do, if you want to come.”
“Chris didn’t want me to go to Thailand on my own.”
Gigi curls her lip. “Okay, then.”
“I’m coming. Where do we find these people?”
The river is lit up with silver, and there’s a little group of people on the bank, refugees like them with battered suitcases and bags. A man in tattered clothing with a grimy hat pulled down over his hair is collecting money.
They join the fringes of the group. Gigi reaches out to grasp Kim’s hand tightly as he looks up at them. “Ladies,” he says. There’s a knife tucked into his trousers – she can see it glinting.
“My sister and I need to get to Thailand,” Gigi says.
“Five hundred dollars.”
“That’s too much.”
The man spits onto the riverbank. “Take it or leave it.”
“No. Four hundred.” Gigi cocks one hip. “I could throw in a little…favour.”
The man looks her up and down. “Fine. Four-fifty. I’ll come and get you when we’re in international waters.”
“Done. Kim, do you have the money?”
Kim puts the duffel, their duffel, down onto the riverbank, all mud and slime and trash, and counts four-fifty out of the wad Chris told her to take. Almost all of it, but not quite. She hands it over, and the man jerks his thumb over his shoulder, to a ratty, falling-apart wood and rust boat bobbing silently on the river. “Get on.”
Kim wakes to the dawn and Gigi’s hand on her shoulder. She blinks the sticky sleep out of her eyes, and turns to look at the other woman. There are dark circles carved under her eyes and her red lipstick bleeds out of the corners of her mouth. Kim starts to speak, but all Gigi does is shake her head.
Hundreds of miles and storms and cold, wet, terrifying nights out on the open water with nothing but a few planks of wood between them and the dark monsters of the deep ocean, they finally land the boat in a dirty, broken part of Bangkok, walking with cramping, trembling legs out of their fears of drowning and into a completely new world. Well, Kim thinks it’s new – there are no bombs, no helicopters, no tell-tale wires of mines sticking out of the roads – but Gigi looks less than impressed.
They find a street-corner and sit on it, sharp hips touching and bags under their knees. “Where next?” Gigi asks. Kim looks at the fifty dollars, and the two tatty holdalls that have all their worldly possessions and sighs.
“The American embassy,” she says quietly. “I need to ask them if they’ve heard from Chris, he told me…”
“He told you what?”
“He told me he’d find me.”
“And you believe him?”
Before this, before their mad, frenzied dash to the docks, before three weeks of rushing, roaring slate-grey waves and the fear of three hundred people crammed onto a fishing boat built for forty, she would have risen defensively to the bait, snapped something about howdareGigidoubtit but now all she does is lower her head onto the other woman’s shoulder and sigh.
“It’s the only thing keeping me going,” she admits. Gigi reaches out to take her hand.
They end up in a bar – of course they do – it’s the only thing Gigi knows how to do anymore, and when Kim starts throwing up in the mornings, lying on her grimy pallet in their little shanty apartment across the street from work and clutching her stomach.
“You’re not ill,” Gigi says after the eighth morning in a row. “You’re pregnant.”
“You haven’t used your rags since I’ve known you,” Gigi sits down on the edge of the pallet, and reaches out to roughly brush her hand across Kim’s hair. “And your breasts are looking bigger.” Then, “is it your soldier’s?”
“It would have to be,” Kim murmurs, feeling the acid splash up her windpipe. “I haven’t…I’ve only danced here so far, I haven’t…”
“Well they’re not going to let you dance for much longer. The second you start to show you’re out.”
“How long will that take?”
Gigi gives her a considering look. “A couple of months, I suppose. It’s different for everyone.”
“Well, I’ll just have to start looking for new work after a couple of months.”
“It’s not going to be that easy,” Gigi warns and Kim shrugs.
“What else can I do? I’m not getting rid of the baby, and you can’t bring enough in to support us all on your own.”
“Tell the American Embassy you’re having a half-American kid?”
“If only,” she sighs, curling her legs protectively around her stomach. Gigi pats her back and stands up, shucking off the robe they were all given to protect the spangly underwear that passes as a uniform.
“Come back down when you feel better and keep me sane. I’m going to murder Marie if she gives me any more shit about being a refugee.”
“She’s just jealous you dance better than her,” Kim mumbles, feeling the bile rise up her throat again.
The time stretches out in fits and bursts of monotony; the only thing Kim lives for is the hope that one day, when she goes to the Embassy, something will have changed, a contact will have been made, they’ll smile and give her American papers and tell her to get on a plane immediately. Bit by bit by bit the hope gets fainter and fainter, the light at the end of an endless tunnel growing dimmer. Every time she stands in front of the wrought-iron gates, she tells herself this will be the last time. Every time the clerk smiles gently at her and says, “I’m so sorry Mrs Scott, we will let you know as soon as your husband makes contact,” she feels a little part of herself die inside.
It’s seven months later and the baby is kicking her to pieces and she’s standing outside in the monsoon rain, wondering whether to go in again. Gigi told her that some things you have to keep fighting for; all Kim thinks is that what happens when you run out of fight?
She trudges in, wringing out her hair before stepping over the threshold. There’s not much of a queue today – she’s learnt the best times to come here, the times when the clerks are getting to the boring hours of their shifts and don’t mind stopping to have a little chat to a pregnant laundry woman who has deluded herself into thinking her husband is going to come and get her and whisk her off into the sunset. Today is a little different; there’s a man, broad-shoulders and rainwater dripping off his coat talking quickly in English to one of the clerks. She zones out, folding her arms across the top of her belly and enjoying the warmth from the heaters drying out her skin.
There’s a silence, suddenly, and she comes back into herself. The man has turned, is staring at her, his mouth falling open, catching flies.
“Kim?” he breathes. Her heart catches in her throat, thrumming painfully in the back of her mouth. Is this real? Say this is real, please, oh please, oh…
“Chris,” she gets out, and then he’s moving towards her, scooping her into his arms and kissing her like eight months and continents and oceans haven’t conspired to keep them separate, like wars haven’t been lost and cities haven’t fallen. They break apart, foreheads together, his hands running up and down her arms as though he’s reassuring himself that she’s real, that’s not a vision that will melt away into thin air and dust and shattered hopes at any second. She doesn’t realise she’s crying until he wipes away the tears with his thumbs, his eyes falling down to the curve of her stomach.
“Later,” she whispers, wrapping her arms around his neck and tucking herself into him like they did on the last nights of Saigon.
The clerk behind the glass is smiling when they turn to face her, Chris’ hand tucked around Kim’s waist. “She’s been here every week waiting for you,” the woman says to Chris.
“I knew he’d come to find me.” Kim leans her weight against his side, feeling the ache of her swollen ankles.
The woman smiles and hands through a form. “Fill these out and bring them back in a couple of days – we’ll start working on getting you a visa. There are some for your sister too.”
“Thank you,” Kim says, and together, they head out into the drumming rain.
“Your sister?” Chris asks as soon as they are far enough away from the embassy gates. He’s wrapped his raincoat around her despite her protests – you’re pregnant, Kim, I’m not letting you catch a chill – and his hand is on the small of her back, warmth seeping into her spine and trickling through her limbs.
“Gigi, you remember her? From the club? We pretend to be sisters so we don’t get separated.”
“Yeah, I do. Where is she now?”
“She’s at work – still a bargirl, it’s the only work that’ll hire us.”
“I danced at one for a bit, and then…” Kim looks down at the mountain of her stomach and laughs, “Baby happened.”
“Yes, it’s yours. You’re the only man I’ve been with.” She slants a glance up at him through her eyelashes. “You’re not angry, are you?”
His smile is wider than the Pacific Ocean. “No. Why would I be angry? You’re alive, you’re here, you’re having my baby…” He looks down at her, the a hail of emotions dashing across his face. “I’ve been so scared – so many things could have gone wrong, storms, pirates…John kept telling me not to get my hopes up but I knew, I knew that you weren’t dead. I could feel it.”
“Just like I knew you’d come back to me.”
He turns, then, and kisses her, right in the middle of the street with silver splashing around them from the broken shards of the clouds and people rushing past in the business of their daily lives, and she feels like she’s come home.