Chapter 78: Murphy's Law
Time was running short. Soldiers were still on the streets. I grabbed a few baby things, along with the revolver, and threw them in my backpack. Then I stopped with Mai at the US consulate to get our final papers before heading to the airport.
It was absolute turmoil. Security personnel were absent, and the scanning machines were still broken from the recent rocket and mortar attack. There was nobody to give the revolver to and nowhere to leave it, so I ejected the magazine and tossed it in two pieces into my suitcase, which drifted on the conveyer belt out of sight and out of mind.
I was already resigned to Stephan’s absence. Nevertheless, despite the pain of saying goodbye, I was still hoping that Brielle, at least, would meet me at the departure gate.
Mai and I breezed through a makeshift security checkpoint, and I hurried into the departure lounge. I was looking for a quiet place to sit and feed Mai when a pimply-faced, youthful security guard stopped me. “Madame, do you have something metal in your suitcase?” he asked, holding it in his hand.
“Oh!” I flushed red. In lieu of scanners, security agents had opened every suitcase and inspected them by hand. I had totally forgotten about the gun, so I was stunned by the confrontation. The unsmiling guard looked squarely at me and, with an icy sternness, said “Saum, follow me.” I did.
Holding Mai tightly, I was ushered into a small waiting room with old 1950’s naughohyde furniture and the heavy smell of stale cigarettes. A severely thin Cambodian man in a police sergeant’s uniform walked up to me and said, “This is very, very serious. You have broken the law of my country.” There was not the slightest hint of irony or bluff in either his voice or his manner.
A flood of explanations exploded from me. I tried to keep the desperation out of my voice, along with any hint of flippancy. “I’m sorry. I forgot that I had that gun in my bag. It isn’t loaded. Take it and let us go. My plane’s leaving. We’ve got to go. I have this baby with me. She’s an orphan. There are too many soldiers in the streets. Surely you can understand.”
The whip-thin sergeant clearly did not appreciate the situation. “You have committed a serious offense, and you will be detained,” he stated.
He left the small room and I sat down. Other people came in and out to see the American woman criminal. Some were polite and others quietly curious. I was given coffee and cigarettes.
It was dangerously close to my departure time, and I had been incarcerated in the small waiting room for almost an hour. Occasionally, someone would ask me a few questions, take some notes and then abandon me to smoke more cigarettes and wait. I smiled deferentially at anyone who came into the room, hoping to gain allies. I conversed with everyone who wanted to talk, and slowly I began to leak out personal information about Untac, my university credentials and anything else that might serve either to intimidate or to create a connection with someone. Mai, swaddled in blankets, slept undisturbed on the chair beside me.
Eventually I saw a stocky, pleasant-looking man with a countenance that combined both authority and kindness. My first instinct was to see him as an ally. He looked like a professional, but he was the first person actually to smile at me since my detention. Still, he could have come to take Mai.
“Saum looksray, the new government wants you gone,” he told me. They want to avoid a potential international incident, but . . .”
But? I could see his eyes narrow into tiny slits as his lips slowly curled into a sinister grin. My head spun and my fists clenched. Hon, Moam-Moam, Dara and all the horrors of the past year flooded my brain. A wave of cold penetrated down to my bones as my face drained of color, and I almost doubled over in pain from the terrible ache in my chest. Struggling to retain some composure, I took deep breaths until I could clutch Mai to my breast. They would not take her from me.
He spoke, but in a voice that sounded very far away. “You don’t mind. We must confiscate the gun, of course.”
I stood mutely for a few seconds, or maybe minutes. So dumbstruck was I by this request that I couldn’t process it at first. My muscles twitched and reality dawned. They wanted the gun, not Mai. “Ban, ban, I understand. Yes, take the gun.”
Knowing how capricious good fortune can be, I ran with Mai back toward the departure lounge, desperate to board my plane and leave Cambodia.
“CJ, mon Dieu, where have you been?” Brielle appeared right in front of me, gaping, with her hands on her hips. Leannán, Kyrill and Téphanes stood behind her, bouquets of flowers in their hands, their expressions mimicking Brielle’s—a mixture of consternation and relief. Brielle rushed forward to take me in her arms; Téphanes followed in her wake and grabbed Mai so that I could return Brie’s hug.
There was only time for a rushed explanation of my detention and subsequent release. Everyone’s eyes widened, and hands reached out to touch me reassuringly. Brielle took Mai from Téphanes, who shook a small turtle-shaped rattle that she had brought as a gift.
My flight number came up on the screen as the boarding call was broadcast from the desk at the entrance to the tarmac. Brielle handed the baby to me, sniffling back tears. Téphanes placed the rattle in my backpack and tucked a bouquet of flowers under my arm.
“I keep these other flowers to cheer up Brielle,” Kyrill said as he leaned in and kissed me on the forehead.
Leannán took his place by Brielle’s side, comforting her as best he could. There we were, four former strangers brought together on a journey of indescribable heartache and love, bravery and violence—saying goodbye, probably for the final time.
“Final call for flight 3478,” the speaker blared again.
No one moved but me. There were no more words, no more hugs . . . only the bittersweet ending to our year together.
Sighing, I carried Mai onto a DC-9 for the two-hour flight to our first stop in Penang, Malaysia. Fastening my seatbelt with the baby on my lap, I whispered into her tiny ear, “From this moment on, I vow to be the hero of my own life. And yours.”
Mai and I finally reached Los Angeles, the next stop on our way to Ohio, four days after we had embarked on our journey out of Cambodia. Smiling at the flight attendants, I carried her off the plane as if I had planned all along to rescue an infant and bring her home. I had finally learned to live without a script.