“All I’m asking for is some courage, Minh. You’ll get a chocolate.”
Trí swings his net of chocolates in my face mockingly, like a pendulum trying to hypnotise me into another of his minions.
“Do it yourself!” I scowl. “You’re scared of getting caught!”
1982. We came to Australia by boat.
On our fourth day at the camp, the camp leaders gave all the kids our first Australian chocolate, in the form of little nets filled with coins. I popped a whole coin in my mouth. The chocolate was sweet, heavenly… beautiful. I took another coin, then another, reliving the glorious feeling. Too soon were ugly balls of foil scattered across my lap, the remains of the God-sent treat. I wasn’t alone. Everyone had emptied their nets by the next day. All, but Trí.
Only Trí was left with a perfectly full net of chocolates. He has been gaining power since, just like the Vietnamese government.
“Do it with me, Minh,” Hoa pleads. She’s a year older than me but has fallen under Trí’s spell.
I glance at the coins swinging in the ripened sunlight, already tasting the chocolate in my mouth.
“Fine!” I scowl regrettably.
Trí stuffs a plastic bag into each of our hands. “One coin for every nine batteries. I want my remote car working again.” He nudges us towards the hole under the fence.
Hoa gets down on her stomach and wriggles underneath. She vanishes like worms tossed on dank earth. Sprawling ivy expands across the fence. We can’t see Hoa from the other side.
There are always consequences for going against the rules. It’s not the camp leaders we’re afraid of, it’s our parents. How many beatings would we get for this?
Hoa’s hand reappears from the hole, intending to find me.
“Come and see what Australia looks like.”
I glare at Trí with bullets.
He only smirks.
I snake my way through the fence. At the other side, my elbows are met with cold concrete, and Hoa takes my hands, helping me up. When I look up, I think ‘clean’.
These buildings stand proudly with ‘clean’. ‘Clean’ gleams in the shine of the cars that buzz by. I see ‘clean’ in these dotted roads.
Hoa guides me to a shopping strip. Australians tower over us but only for moment, as they quickly pass by. The small shops, with their signs and windows are big fish with mouths agape, sitting side by side, trying to invite smaller fish inside.
Hoa takes me to the backs of these buildings, where trash bins are plenty. Here, it reminds me of the dusty streets of Vietnam, and here is where we find stupid Trí’s batteries.
In my frustration, every battery found is swiftly snatched by Hoa. Her bag fills quickly, while mine remains wrinkled up in my fist.
“You’re hogging!” I finally snap at her. “Give me some if we’re doing this together!”
She squints up to me, squatting in front of a bin. “Who said together?” She rolls her eyes.
My anger steaming inside my cheeks, I march down the alley and back onto the street.
I’ll get out of this camp soon. I’ll build a humongous factory that will produce all of the chocolate in the world. Hoa and Trí will be at the doorsteps of my extravagant mansion, weeping at my golden slippers.
I lean against the shop to my right. My anger slowly sizzles away. We have chosen these clean streets and buildings over Vietnam, but, did I really belong here?
An elderly couple walk towards the door of the shop. I drop my head to my scrubby runners. I can hear them muttering English to each other. The wife sounds irritated.
I look up at the moment she slaps her husband’s hand away. She scoffs as she steps into the shop.
The elderly man resorts to the window of the shop, just a few steps beside me. That’s when he notices me staring at him.
I dart my gaze away immediately, but I hear an unexpected sound. It’s a soft, humble sound that comes from the man. It’s a chuckle.
I return my gaze back. The wrinkles on his face crease further together as he smiles. It’s a smile that reminds me of a place that once felt distant, but I am now safely in its grasp.
It makes me all giggly inside, I smile back.
He gestures towards the shop with his thumb, giving an exaggerated sigh. It’s his wife.
I hold my hand up as a talking mouth. Your wife talks too much? I make my talking hand ramble like how Mother does, when she isn’t impressed with Father sneaking cigarettes.
The man laughs.
A bell tinkles behind us. The man’s wife steps outside with paper bags cradled in her arms.
The man sees her and digs in the pockets of his trousers. He turns back to me and holds his hand out.
I shake it without hesitation.
He presses something into my palm, then lets go and rushes back to aid his wife with the groceries. The couple fade into the sea of fishes. Just like that. Gone.
I look down at the specimen in my hand. The plastic wrapper glares back at me. The lolly it wraps around glows green.
A hand clamps around my shoulder. “Time to go.” It’s Hoa’s voice.
I move the lolly back and forth in between my fingers. The captured light seesaws with it.
Hoa shakes my shoulder, until peering over to see what I have.
“No one likes the green ones,” she remarks. “Give it to my uncle. He might give you a minty. Minties taste better.”
As we walk down the street, I place the lolly on my tongue. I taste it, I forget the small weight swinging in Hoa’s bag. I taste the sweetness, it reminds me of a place that once felt distant, but I am now safely in its grasp.
I taste the lolly.
I think, ‘home’.