2464 words (9 minute read)

BEST FRIENDS

Keo was Laotian. We were nine when we met, an awkward first meeting on the playground of our elementary school. He was picking a fight with my friend at the time, Matt. Over what, I can’t remember. Our other friend, Nathan, wasn’t doing anything to help the situation, so I stepped in. From the other side of the yard, I ran over. Matt was uncomfortable with the aggression of the situation, unable to protect himself. I, on the other hand, always wanted to be a hero. I admired the way a hero won in the movies, how they took control, how they held the power. But the reactions of a hero can be regrettable. There’s the rub. 

I stepped in between the two. Keo stopped. Out of fear that he would strike first, I raised my right hand and slapped him across the face, coloring his cheek rose-red. I was too afraid to punch him. That’s a whole other level. 

“That’s enough,” I said. 

The assault stunned him, but he moved forward. I felt terrible inside the moment my hand struck his face, but I held that truth close to the chest as I was in the midst of battle, careful not to show any compassion, making sure I maintained the power. He said nothing, hands by his side, and kept coming, like a marathon runner dying out but determined to finish the race, fighting the urge to give up and cry. I pushed him backward with every step forward that he took, but he continued toward Matt. He looked right through me, a sad look, like a death. But I kept pushing, broke him down. After ten minutes, he stopped, looked at me. He was emotionally spent, finally realizing that the only person with more determination than him that day was me. Then he turned and walked away without a word. The next day I was ostracized by the very friends that I had so honorably defended. Guess they thought I overdid it with loyalty…bastards.

I thought about Keo all weekend, wondered where he lived, what his parents were like, if he had any siblings. The following Monday at school I saw him on the playground at recess, alone in the corner by the fence, sitting, drawing something in the dirt with a stick. This kid probably hates my guts

I walked over, sat down across from him, grabbed a stick to create my own world in the dirt. 

“Hey,” he said without looking up. 

“Hey,” I said back. 

The exchange was more substantial than it would appear, and for the entire recess, we worked together creating a city in the dirt. I can’t explain how or why we became so connected after such an antagonistic first meeting, but an immediate friendship had commenced. Something about men and the heat of battle. When Keo introduced me to one of his older brothers, Viet, another immediate bond was created, and from that day forward we were inseparable. Keo also had two other brothers and three sisters, but they were all older except for one much younger sister. Viet was ten, two years older than Keo. My time with them was the most daring in my life to that point. They taught me how to roll in the cold, to live dangerously. They taught me how to make blow darts with a sewing needle, some thread, and a straw. For what purpose, I don’t know, but we made them. They also taught me how to sword fight. We would practice with bamboo for hours after watching whatever martial arts movie we had chosen that day. It was a wasted skill, however, as throughout all of my adventures, I never came across an instance where I needed to wield such a weapon…at least not as a child. Viet was the gutsier of the two, more the leader type. Keo and I looked up to him but he never took advantage, never pushed us to do anything we didn’t want to. He didn’t have to. He knew what we were willing to do.

The brothers lived right down the hill from me, at the bottom of Granite Street. It was the biggest, steepest hill in town, great for sledding in the winter. In the summer I’d walk down to the bottom of Granite first thing every morning, after my Frosted Flakes. A long fence pole stood tall in Keo and Viet’s backyard, about fifteen feet high, went all the way up to the bottom of Granite, just across the sidewalk. I would climb through a railing and slide down the pole like a fireman into their backyard. The process of it encompassed our relationship rather accurately. We broke some rules. We stole apples from the neighbors’ trees at night, rolled the paper boy after his last delivery on collection day, things like that. We were little assholes sometimes. One day Viet brought home these square little white rocks. Ninja Rocks, he called them. He said they could fracture glass, spider-webbing the entire surface, creating almost no sound. You could then gently poke through the web of glass and proceed to pillage whatever lay on the other side of it. It turned out to be a valuable asset when trying to break into someone’s car to steal their stereo, loose change—my introduction into burglary. I enjoyed the high of the fear in such things, and the necessity of having to be aware, observant of the situation and its surroundings because we didn’t want to get caught. Valuable life skills learned through scenes of botched adolescence. I wasn’t questioned much at home—standard stuff. 

"How was your day, hon?" Mom asked.

"Fine," I said.

"What did you do?"

"Nothing much."

That was good enough for her. Mom worked hard. She was busy with a full-time job and keeping up the house. She didn’t have time to see everything, and I was expert at hiding things, at lying, at making it appear that everything was fan-fuckin’-tastic. The way she saw it, if my chores were done and I was getting good grades, everything must have been fine. When I was home, I read books. She saw that as a good sign. I saw it as a way to escape the stench that the lion left behind.

Everything’s gonna be okay, Mom. 

Scraping against the nefarious sides of boyhood was exhilarating, for better or for worse. Those choices become much easier when you have sidekicks like Keo and Viet. None of us really knew what we were doing. We were simply bored, and our subconscious, our truth, took over. 

We are who we are. 

We were on a good run, undefeated in our battle against the world. Life was good. Until their father found a ten-gallon white paint bucket full of car stereos hidden on the back porch under some newspapers. I was constantly over there, so it wasn’t the first time I had seen him get mad at them, never toward me, although I’m sure in his native language he’d made comments about my habitual presence. This time it was different. 

Their father was as hardworking as anybody, blue-collar all the way. He clocked in at four a.m. sharp, six mornings a week at the local paper distributing company, assembly line manager, I believe. He was a quiet, stern man, but he was honorable. When my dad would drop me off at their house, Keo’s dad would usually come out to say hello. They’d pass bits of small talk back and forth. The language barrier was a minor hindrance. My dad had more to say, but Mr. Raddavong was a very respectful man and thought it was his duty to come chat with the father of the young white boy who was constantly at his house, eating his food, watching his TV—essentially invading the space that he had paid for. Sometimes my dad would slip him some cash to cover my expenses. My dad was good like that, and Mr. Raddavong, though he never asked for it, was always appreciative. 

After he found the car stereos, Mr. Raddavong stormed into the living room with the bucket in one hand and an Alpine car stereo in the other, his face the red of a raspberry wound. The three of us were all hunched in a lazy posture, watching a Ninja movie. We sprang upright when he stormed in. I don’t know what he said to them—he spoke in Laotian—but I knew by the looks on their faces, and his, that something bad was about to happen. The way they couldn’t look at him made the room cold. They both stared obediently down at the floor, hanging their heads under what felt like an entire sky of disappointment. In their father’s eyes, they’d done a great dishonor to the family name by stealing. Mr. Raddavong believed in working hard and taking care of his large family, period. He never looked in my direction, not once while scolding them. He knew I was involved, but I was not his son. 

Keo’s mom, a soft-mannered, soothingly quiet, sweet woman, was always motherly toward me. She calmly but swiftly guided me from the living room to the boys’ bedroom upstairs and motioned for me to wait. Two minutes later she brought me tea and biscuits. She turned the television on for me and left. I listened for a while, until the yelling stopped, then, I waited a bit more. Finally, I couldn’t take the quiet, the not knowing. I got up, shut the TV off. All sound seemed to evaporate from the earth. I opened the bedroom door. A similar quiet. 

Where is everybody?  

“Keo…Viet…hello?” I called out at a low, nervous level.

Nothing. I tiptoed downstairs, checked every room. Still nothing. As I was turning the corner in the hallway, past the wooden rack of house slippers that lay near the bottom of the stairs, I heard a dull, heavy sound.

Dthun, dthun

It was directly above me. Up until that moment I had always felt safe in that house. I searched my mind for ways to be unafraid, tried to reason with myself. 

They’re probably stuck outside doing yard work or something. 

Then, that sound again. 

Dthun, dthun! 

I flinched, but not enough to shake off my curiosity. I started up the stairs with chicken skin on the back of my neck and arms. I reached the top step.

Dthun, dthun!

It was coming from behind the closed door of Keo’s parents’ room. Their door was never closed. I looked behind me, downstairs. There was no one there. I walked slowly to the door, tilted my head to listen. I moved my ear closer to the door, almost touching it, hoping to hear something similar to the sound of crashing waves from a seashell. 

Dthun, dthun!

I jumped back, my skin now detached from my bones. I looked behind me again. I couldn’t take it. I reached for the handle, then remembered the story that Keo and Viet’s older brother, Visack, had told us of the Kasu—a nocturnal female spirit of Southeast Asian folklore. He’d told a good story, had us shaking in our boots. He told us how the Kasu would manifest itself as a woman, with her internal organs hanging down from the neck, trailing below the head, and that she preyed upon thieves. I pulled my hand away from the door, thought I heard something from downstairs. I listened again. Nothing. I hated not having my back against a wall. I reached for the door again. 

I’ll open it, pretend that I have to go home. 

I announced my entrance and turned the handle. My words had as much strength as Bambi’s legs. 

“Gotta go, guys…”

As I opened the door, I was hoping that Kasu hadn’t torn out their organs as punishment for stealing the car stereos. I’d be next. Anything else I figured I could handle. There was only Keo and Viet. They were sweating and exhausted, both bound to the bedpost with a never-ending lump of duct tape at the foot of their parents’ immaculately made bed—Keo on the left, Viet on the right—both dressed down to their underwear and their mouths were gagged with red bandanas. Viet was trying to adjust his position, attempting to lift the bed up enough so he could establish a more comfortable position. That must have been the sound I was hearing. Both of their legs were also bound, straightened out flat on the ground with duct tape across the knees, ankles, and thighs. I thrust toward them to help but was just as abruptly met with a strenuous grunt and shaking head from both brothers. Keo wiggled his chin above the gag and spoke in a voice backed by little breath. 

“Don’t, Jake,” he said. 

I was stunned. I knew their dad was a bit of a hard-liner, but this…

“What do you mean, don’t?” I asked. “I’m not gonna just leave you guys like this. What the hell is this anyway?” 

Viet managed to also pull his chin up above the gag. 

“Jake, just go back into the room.”  

“And do what? This is bullshit. You guys need to let me help you,” I said.

“No, Jake! You need to leave us alone.”

“Just go to the room, Jake,” said Keo. “We’ll be done in a couple hours.”

“In a couple hours? Seriously?” I said.

I couldn’t understand. Punishments in my house were like vanilla ice cream compared to this. I would have been sent to my room, lost TV time, grounded maybe, but never tied up to the bedpost like I’d just been kidnapped and held for ransom.

“Here. Help us with the gags,” said Keo. “Put them back over our mouths.”

“What the fuck?” I said. 

“Jake, please.”

I dropped to the floor next to them, frustrated. I wanted to respect their wishes, but it was hard to walk away from what I was seeing. I put the gags over their mouths, got up, and walked out of the room. 

I haven’t seen or spoken to those guys in years. After I’d moved away it was hard to stay connected. It’s a shame, so easy for people to lose touch with one another when you put even just two hours of distance between them. I hope they know that, on that day, all I wanted to do was be loyal to them.

Next Chapter: 7:55 PM - AUGUST 13