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Elmo Lum


The truth is no one tells me anything. And the truth is even when they tell me something, sometimes the something they tell me is a lie. This was true even for my mother and father. But they didn’t lie all of the time, which is also the truth. One of the truths they used to tell me is that no one lies all of the time. So you can never tell if someone is lying just by knowing the someone who’s lying. You only know if the someone is lying if you know their story is not the truth.

     The truth is I am ten. But what happened to me happened when I was littler and eight, even though you probably can’t check on that because once a moment is past, the truth of it is gone. Which I heard someone say one time, but I didn’t know who that was, but which sounds like it’s probably true. Because now I am ten when before I was eight, so now I can never be eight again. Which means I can never say I’m eight anymore without lying, even if that was the truth before.

     This is my story of what happened to me and my mother and father who were with me mostly all of the time except for when I was in school and probably some other times, too. So this happened to all of us together. Which you can guess is probably true, because things generally happen to mothers and fathers and their children all together. Plus, I have no reason to lie. This is something my mother and father used to tell me: When people lie, it’s only when people have a reason. People only lie without reason when lying for them is a disease (which is when telling the truth is probably a disease for them also).

     The truth is my father made a deal. I wasn’t there to see it, but nobody claims he never made the deal. Which includes my mother and father. So it’s probably true he made the deal. Which he made when I was eight, when we needed money (like we always needed money) and which he made even though he never made a deal before. He cut a deal, was how they said it. Which I never heard that before—that when two people made a deal, it was cut.

     I don’t know anything about the deal because I’m ten and no one tells me anything. This is even though I was eight at the time, but no one told me anything then, either. So I’m not going to tell you anything about the deal because anything’s not something I know. And I don’t want to lie, because lying is bad, even though everybody sometimes does it. Even my mother and father. But I’m not going to make something up because I don’t want to be bad. I’m sticking up for myself. This is something my father used to tell me—that I have to stick up for myself. Although when he said it, he said it like, sometimes you have to stick up for yourself. So when he said you I don’t know if he meant actually me or if he meant everyone all over the world, which is sometimes what the word you means.

     My mother was furious. This means she was crying and frantic and loud and angry, because at one time I think my mother was like me: She didn’t know anything about the deal. She slapped my father when he told her, which I never saw my mother do before: hit my father across the face the way she sometimes hit me across the bottom. Which I know she did because I was watching them, although I was too far away to hear them talk. So I don’t know anything more about the deal.

     When my mother hit my father, I was afraid of watching him hit her back, except he didn’t, although he held her wrists so she couldn’t hit him again. Which she was trying. Which is half good and half bad: My mother and father both used to say it’s good to try even if you fail. Because the trying counts for something (even though they never said what for). Which is the half-good part. The half-bad part was my mother was trying to hit my father. Because (except for when mommies and daddies spank) you’re never supposed to hit anyone.

     Instead of hitting back, my father tried to calm my mother down. So he stayed quiet. Which meant I couldn’t hear my father. But I could hear my mother, who was yelling. So even though I was far away, I could hear my mother yell, “You stupid moron!” Which is a mean thing to say or yell. Which I know because I yelled that at a kid one time (which my mother slapped me across the bottom for, then told me that was a mean thing to yell).

     My mother yelled other things, too, which are bad to say and yell which I won’t put here, because they’re words that aren’t nice to yell, and I don’t want to get into any trouble. So instead I’ll put some of the other things she yelled, like:

     “What did you think? Did you think?”

     And: “Why would you agree to a thing like that? How did you let yourself?”

     And: “No, I won’t calm down. Don’t tell me to calm down. How can you say that to me and expect me to calm down?”

     And she yelled other things, too, only I don’t remember any of those other things she yelled, because the yelling happened when I was eight and I don’t remember everything anymore.

     So that’s everything I know about the deal. Which is nothing. Which is yelling. Because yelling is nothing, which my mother used to say. She said if you have to yell, it’s because you don’t have anything to say. Except she yelled at my father about the deal he cut, and she’d yelled at other times, too. Which means she didn’t have anything to say. Or else she just might have got angry. (Which is what my father used to say when he said he was sorry for yelling at me: that he just got angry and that he was sorry for yelling.)

     My mother’s yelling I heard after school. The morning after the yelling I got ready for school again, only that morning after I didn’t go to school. Because my father said, “Get ready—we’re going on a trip.” Which was already weird because he was still at home and wasn’t already at work.

     “But today’s a school day,” I said.

     Then he said, “Not today.” He said, “Today we’re going on a trip.”

     My mother came up behind him and my mother was holding a suitcase. My father was holding a suitcase, too, plus another little suitcase for me. So there was a suitcase for each one of us.

     “Aren’t I supposed to go to school?”

     “Not today,” my mother said. “Let’s go get the car.”

     When we left our house, my mother locked the front door.

     My father told her, “Come on.”

     My mother said, “It’s just a habit.”

     My father said, “Come on, already.” Which meant he was tired of waiting because he used the word already.

     We walked up the street together, my mother and father and me, carrying suitcases, except for me, even though I wanted to carry my own suitcase. Except my father didn’t want me to carry my suitcase because (he said) we were late as it was, and because (he said) I would slow us down. So my father carried both suitcases. When we got to the car, my mother and me got in while my father popped the trunk lid up to load all three of our suitcases.

     Finally I said, “Where are we going?”

     “On a trip,” my mother said.

     “Where to?” I said. Then I was sorry I said it that way.

     “Not ‘where to.’ Don’t end what you say with the word ‘to.’”

     “I mean, where are we going?”

     “Not today, okay?” said my mother. “Today’s not the day for asking so many questions.”

     It was spring when I was eight and we were driving in the car, but it wasn’t the part of spring when it’s warm but the part of spring when it’s cold. So I was cold. And so were my mother and father. Which I could tell because when they breathed, the air before their faces fogged, which only fogs when it’s cold. But it wasn’t cold in the car forever. After a while, the car warmed up, and it wasn’t so cold anymore, except outside the car. Except maybe when you stood in the sun. (Which I don’t know if that was true, because I was inside the car and not outside in the sun.)

     When we drove out of town, my mother began crying. The crying she did was in the quiet way. According to my father, this is the better way, which he never actually told me so. But when I used to cry out loud, he used to snap at me: Stop bawling. Then, There’s nothing to cry here for. And then, You’ll never turn a man if you cry. But when I would cry like my mother did (quiet) he wouldn’t snap so loud, and he wouldn’t grab my arm, and sometimes he wouldn’t even say anything at all. He would just look disgusted.

     He didn’t look disgusted when my mother began crying, because the rules for how to look when crying are different for a girl than a boy. He just reached one hand for her shoulder, which she squirmed from and said, “Don’t touch me.” So he put his hand back on the steering wheel to keep on driving.

     I said, “What are you crying for?”

     “No reason,” my mother said. “Okay?”

     Which I knew wasn’t true. Because crying is like lying. Which means it’s something you only do when you have a reason. Except for when you have a disease, and my mother didn’t have a disease. Except I didn’t say anything about it. First of all, because my mother was crying, and if I asked her about it, she would probably cry more. And second of all, I knew my father would tell me to stop asking stupid questions. And third of all, lies are not like men (although that includes women, too) who are all created equal. Which means some lies are created better than others. So when my mother said, No reason, it was the better kind of lie (or the best kind of lie), which is white. Which means it’s okay even when it’s not true.

     We drove (or my father drove while my mother cried and I didn’t say anything) for some hours to where the woods began, by which I mean the real woods. By which I mean not like the woods that grow near houses and towns and highways, but the woods for real, with real trees that don’t get watered or have people take care of them. They were woods you could get lost in, unless you maybe had a map of the woods and knew how to read the map, which I didn’t know how, so I’d probably get lost in the woods.

     Then my father stopped driving. By now we were up into the woods, meaning around us you couldn’t see anything except the woods, and the road was empty of other cars. My father got out and my mother got out and my father got me out of the car, which he left running while he popped the trunk lid up to pull out our three suitcases. These he left with my mother by the side of the road while he drove the car off the shoulder and into a pocket of woods which looked like he would have a hard time driving back out of.

     When my father came back to pick up his suitcase and my suitcase, too, I said, “What are we doing?”

     “We’re walking,” said my mother. She was carrying her own suitcase, too.

     “Without the car?” I said.

     Said my father, “You ask too many questions.” Which wasn’t what he meant. What he meant was I was supposed to stop asking so many questions.

     We didn’t walk along the road but into the woods, which didn’t have a trail, so the walking was hard because there was nowhere to put your feet. Although of course we put our feet somewhere. What I mean is everything we stepped on was spongy and soft, or was covered in branches, or was too big for someone to step over. So what I really mean is there was nowhere you were supposed to put your feet. So the walking went really slow, and it was hard and it was cold, because it was the cold part of spring and the sun barely shone between the trees.

     I wanted to stop walking because the walking was hard. My mother wanted to stop because I wanted to. My father didn’t want to stop because I didn’t know why, but he didn’t so we didn’t stop. Instead we walked, and in between when we walked, my mother and me rested by sitting on the ground or on dead sideways trees while my father put down his two suitcases. After he put down his two suitcases he would walk around through the trees, looking up, then looking down at a map and a compass.

     Every time it came time to walk again I didn’t want to get up and walk again. It was hard and it was cold, even though when you walked it wasn’t so cold. But I was tired. I was beat, like my father used to say, and I was whipped, like he used to say, too. And also wrung out (which is the kind of thing my mother used to say). I was tired so I begged my father to stop, but he kept on saying it was just a little ways more, and then a little ways more, and then a little ways more. Until I finally screamed, “But I’m so tired!” Which was telling the truth. Which I was the one who was telling—not my father. Who kept on saying it was a little ways more when in fact it never was.

     My father turned and grabbed my elbows and shook the living crap out of me. Which is the kind of thing my father used to say and which is not a great way to say it. But it’s better than some of the other things he used to say, and besides that was how he shook me. Which made me bawl, the shaking. Which I normally wouldn’t bawl at. Except that I was so tired. So that day in the woods when my father shook the living crap out of me, I bawled.

     “Quiet!” my father hissed. Which is like yelling but not so loud. He pressed the smell of his hand over my mouth. Which made me bawl harder. Which made him press the smell even harder until I sat and wouldn’t get up. My father didn’t let go when I sat, but he didn’t press so hard anymore. And besides I was bawling quieter because at least I was sitting down. Because sitting down felt better, because by then I was so wrung out.

     My mother hissed, “You’re hurting him!”

     My father hissed, “Do you want to be found?”

     My mother kneeled and took my hand and told me, “Kiddo, can you be quiet? Try and be quiet for Mommy, okay? I know it hurts but try and be quiet.”

     I was already quieter because I was sitting (because I was so wrung out), and my father wasn’t pressing so hard, and a minute had passed already. And it’s hard to keep bawling too long. So I was quieter already. And if I tried (and it wasn’t too hard because a minute had passed and it’s hard to keep bawling) I could get even quieter. So I did. Then my father let me go. He let me go and I didn’t keep bawling. But I was still crying, so my father still looked disgusted.

     My mother said, “He hasn’t had anything to eat.”

     “So get him something to eat,” my father said.

     My mother unclicked one of the suitcases and inside it wasn’t just clothes and things. Bread was inside, and jars and cans, and also a bottle of water. I never saw food in a suitcase before. My mother unwound the twist tie for the bag of bread and pulled out two slices, which were no longer in the shape of bread. (Since the loaf was smashed in the suitcase, none of the slices were in the right shape.)

     After the bread my mother pulled out a knife and spoon (which I never saw in a suitcase before, either) and spread the peanut butter out on one slice and the grape jelly out on the other. She put them together into a sandwich she handed to me, which made me quit crying altogether, because it’s hard to eat and cry at the same time together.

     When I finished it was just about nightfall. My father still didn’t sit down. My mother was sitting and eating a sandwich she put together just for herself. She was sitting where the ground was spongy next to the suitcase, which was still open, while my father kept moving to stand where he had enough light to read his map.

     “Come sit,” my mother said, “and I’ll make you a sandwich.” This was to my father.

     “We’ve barely started,” he said.

     “It’s dark already. We can start again in the morning.”

     I was cold even with my jacket my mother wrapped over me, and it was darkening, and I wanted to go home, and so I asked her, “When are we going home?”

     “Soon,” my mother said. “Okay? We’re going to be going home soon. You just have to be patient.”

     Which was a lie and which I knew was a lie. Because it was impossible to get home soon from there. After driving all morning and walking all afternoon we would never get home for hours and hours. So I didn’t care if the lie was white because I was so tired. I just wanted to be anywhere at home away from the dark and the tired and the cold and the woods.

     “I’m cold,” I said.

     My mother said, “I know,” then took my hand, then let it go because my father sat and she pulled out the loaf to make him a sandwich.








We slept that night in the woods, or tried to sleep, which wasn’t so easy because it was cold and the ground was lumpy even with the blankets we threw on the ground. I never knew the woods were so noisy, full of buzzing and creaking and cracks, and it was black except for little points of light from the stars that pricked between the trees. I wanted a fire (which I’ve heard people burn in the woods) but my mother and father told me no, so there wasn’t a fire, which meant I was cold even when mummied in two different blankets. Plus a fire would light up the woods instead of being dark, because when I was eight, I was more afraid of the dark back then than I am now.

     In the morning my breath made clouds. I wanted to sleep more, except I couldn’t sleep, because I was so cold, so instead of sleeping I just lay there on the ground. My mother and father kept sleeping. I don’t know how they could just keep sleeping when it was so cold, although it was no longer dark and it was sounding quieter in the woods. I watched my breath in the morning because there was nothing else to do except lie there and think about how cold I was and how my mother was lying when she told me, Soon. Which meant we would never go home again. Which I knew because when you know someone is lying that means (almost guaranteed) the opposite thing they tell you is true. So the truth was we would never go home again. We would just live out our lives in the woods, eating sandwiches out of suitcases and waking up to pull leaves out of our hair. We would live like animals, which is a bad way to live, according to my mother, who when I made a mess or got myself dirty, would get mad and say: Do you want us to look like a family of animals? Which I didn’t like thinking about, living like an animal in the woods. So I watched my breath instead. Which fogged in the cold, then faded as it spread in the air and disappeared and I stopped counting the seconds it took for it to fade.

     When my mother woke, she made sandwiches. This time she used lunchmeat from the other suitcase. After we ate, I was still hungry and wanted another sandwich, but my father told me we had to go.

     “Go where?” I said.

     My father didn’t say anything, which wasn’t exactly a lie, but when you don’t say anything, that’s not exactly the truth, either. And everyone knows it’s not the truth. But at least it’s not a lie, even the kind of lie that’s white. So nothing is at least better than something that’s a lie.

     My mother packed up our blankets and bread and lunchmeat back into our suitcases and clicked them shut, and I didn’t want to walk because I was still so tired. From the day before. “I’m still tired,” I said.

     My father said, “Me, too. We’ll take it easier today, okay?”

     Which didn’t turn into the truth. We walked through the woods the same way we walked before: My father marched up ahead with two suitcases, while my mother held the third suitcase and also onto me. We mostly didn’t stop, but when we did, my father didn’t sit. He put both suitcases down. Then from his pocket he took out his map and the compass. He looked around through the woods with the map and the compass for a minute, and then it was time to walk again. We walked all the way through afternoon. Then we stopped for what was supposed to be lunch. Which was one more sandwich, which I was tired of eating, but which I nibbled at anyway. So I wouldn’t have to keep on walking. Because by then I was more tired of walking than of eating one more sandwich.

     My father said, “Isn’t he finished with that sandwich already?”

     “He’s almost finished,” my mother said. “Sit and rest.”

     My father didn’t sit or rest. Instead he kept on standing. He looked at the map, and then at the compass, and then at the map again. “I think it’s just a few more miles.”

     We walked. And then we walked. Then walked some more, and then again, then one more time, and then—after a rest—another time after that. We walked forever (which wasn’t true, but forever was how it felt). And the sun went away (which also wasn’t true—what happened is the clouds came in). Which meant it got colder, and it started to rain, too. Off and on, which meant it would rain for a while and then the rain would stop. After a while it was hard to tell which was which. Because when it rains in the woods, the rain doesn’t hit you right away but drips off the branches off the trees. So after the trees get wet enough, it always feels like it’s raining because the trees are dripping down on you even though the raining is already stopped.

     My father shook rain off the map. He kept watching the compass and the map. The map he kept folding in different directions or turning sideways while he steadied the compass. Then he turned himself to look at the trees. Which was when he said, “Wait here,” and my mother said, “No,” and then said to me, “Wait here.” She walked over next to my father. Where she talked with him between the trees. So I couldn’t hear them talk. But I could tell they were more than just talking. Because if they were just talking they would talk in front of me, where I could hear what they were talking about. Plus the looks I could see on their faces were how they looked when they were arguing. So they were arguing but they weren’t yelling. Which means they were arguing something real. Because quiet is the way you’re supposed to argue when you argue something for real.

     When my mother walked back from arguing, for the first time since we drove in, she was crying and holding her wrist up to her nose. Since I’d long forgotten where we’d parked the car and I’d forgotten the way we walked in, I was long since lost, and I’d been thinking all of us were lost now for a while. Even though my father had a map and a compass. But finally I said it out loud because they were arguing, and I couldn’t stand it anymore, and I was cold, and I thought it was true. So I asked my mother: “Are we lost?”

     “We’re not lost,” my mother said.

     “It’s just slow going,” said my father. “But I think where we’re going is just a few more miles.”

     Now they were both lying. And I knew they were both lying. Because if we weren’t lost, it wouldn’t make my mother cry. And if we weren’t lost, my father would tell me in minutes instead of miles. So now I knew my mother and father were in cahoots. That they were both lying and keeping it secret from me. Which mothers and fathers do sometimes. To their children. Which is true. Even when they tell you it’s not. Even when they’re your own mother and father. But sometimes mothers and fathers are in cahoots. And that day I knew my mother and father were in cahoots there in the woods.

     We didn’t walk again. It was cold and wet and coming on to night, and we were lost even though my mother and father wouldn’t say out loud we were lost. So we just sat there and balanced jackets on our heads. Which looked funny but kept the rain off our faces. And which kept us awake—the rain, I mean, not the jackets. Although that night it wasn’t so cold. Or it didn’t feel so cold as the night before, which was weird because, even though the rain wasn’t hard, it was still raining. But even with it not so cold, it kept dripping down on me, which kept waking me up, until I finally slept through the dripping, because in the end I was still so tired.








When I woke it was light but the reason I woke was my mother was grabbing onto me. When I opened my eyes, she was leaning her arms and her head over my own head. But even with her leaning over, I could see the woods were crowded. That all around us stood different men, and that all the men carried guns. Some of the guns were rifles, except these were all strapped to their backs, so the guns they fingered the triggers for were all the pistol kind. I closed my eyes but not for sleep. I didn’t hear any explosions. Instead I heard one of the men say, “Got a little off course?”

     I heard no explosions, so I opened my eyes. My father was rolled face down on the twigs. His hands were on top of his head and most of the pistols were aimed at him. The man with the voice said again: “I said, ‘Got a little off course?’”

     My father said, “I’ve got nothing to say to you.”

     One of the other men kicked my father’s side and told him, “Wrong answer.”

     My mother stopped breathing and moved one of her hands to cover her mouth.

     The first man waved off the second. “I say that because you’re not really anywhere. You’re out here in the middle of nowhere. Which I have to say is a surprise. Because we were expecting you to make straight for the border. But then we didn’t find you there. So we thought maybe you were taking a more roundabout way. Which would have been the smart thing to do. Except you’re further off than I would have ever imagined. Because you’re not really anywhere at all. Because even though the border isn’t that far away, it looks like you’ve been taking the long way around. We would have come up on you yesterday except we kept thinking we were on the wrong trail. Because, frankly, you led us out here to the middle of nowhere.”

     “We have nothing you would want,” my mother said.

     “I assume,” said the man, “you know that’s not true. After all, here you are out here in the woods with your husband and the boy.”

     My mother grabbed me tighter.

     “See, you do know,” said the man.

     My mother said, “We won’t let you.”

     Said the man, “I think you know that’s not true.”

     My father said, “You’re bastards.”

     The second man kicked my father in the ribs.

     The first man laughed. “You’re the one who signed your own contract. So who’s a bastard? A deal is a deal, right? What’s owed is owed. Isn’t that the truth?”

     “You know it was never a fair deal,” my mother said.

     The man put up his hands like he was surrendering to a gun. “A debt is a debt is a debt. We’re just the messengers sent to collect.”

     “Bastards,” my father whispered. “You’re all bastards.”

     Said the man: “We’re just rendering a service. And we aren’t skipping out on the rendering. If we don’t skip out on the rendering, we won’t be skipped on our compensation. That’s how every deal works, right? Tit for tat? Something for something? Or did you not know? Because we’re not the ones welching on our agreements here.”

     “Bleed in hell,” my father said.

     “If you didn’t go and cut your own deal, then none of us would be standing here today. But then you cut your own deal. So here we are. Because you cut your own deal. So if we bleed in hell, you’ll be leading our way.”

     My father started crying. Some of the men looked disgusted.

     “It’s raining again,” said one of the men.

     The first man looked to the sky. “Let’s move out,” he said.

     Two men put away their pistols. They started to lift my mother from the ground. She screamed to me, “Run!” But then I was lifted. So I couldn’t run or do anything else.

     My mother kicked and bit and broke free, then one of the men hit her, and so she fell, and my father kept lying face down on the twigs. And kept on crying, too. And didn’t try to get up, which didn’t count for anything because trying counts for something, even though I never heard anyone say what for.

     My mother held onto the side of her head for some seconds before she got up on her hands and knees and started to crawl away from the men. Except one of the men who put his pistol away before pulled it out again, and grabbed my mother, and aimed his pistol at her head. So I screamed and shut my eyes. Because I didn’t want to hear any explosions. But then I didn’t hear any explosions. When I opened my eyes, my mother was like my father: face down on the twigs.

     They tied my wrists behind my back. “Walk,” said one of the men.

     He said it to me, but I didn’t walk. Instead I said, “Where to?”

     “Walk!” snapped the man.

     The first man laughed. “Give that boy some credit. He’s got some balls. That’s got to be respected.” And then to me: “Although you said that wrong. You’re not really supposed to end what you say with ‘to.’ It’s better to say instead, ‘Where are we going?’ Or something else like that.”

     I said, “Where are we going?”

     “We’re taking you to your new mommy and daddy.”

     My mother started crying harder and tried to get up, except she couldn’t because a man stepped on her back.

     I started crying, too. I wanted to go home to my real home. So I told the man, “I want to go home for real.”

     The man didn’t look disgusted even though I kept on crying. “I bet that’s true. But that’s not going to happen here and now. What’s going to happen here and now is you’re going to come with us. Because most of the time most people don’t get to do whatever they want. And you’re most people—you’re just like us. So you can’t just do whatever you want. So come on and come with us.”

     I didn’t say anything because I couldn’t think of anything to say.

     The man squatted in front of me and looked me in the eyes. “Plus if you don’t come with us, I’ll have to shoot your mother and father. Your ones right here. Then you won’t have anyplace else to go. Except with us. So come on now. Let’s walk,” said the man. “Okay?”

     I couldn’t think of anything else to do. So I did what he said: I walked. I walked even though I wanted to stay (not in the woods but with my mother and father). But I didn’t want to hear any explosions. So I walked with the man and the other men, too (except for two of the men who stayed behind in the woods).

     The first man held onto the end of the rope that was tied to my wrists. I kept looking back to the woods where my mother and father still lay on the twigs. After a while I couldn’t see them anymore, just the two men standing over them. Then after a while I couldn’t see the two men, just the trees growing up around them. I was still crying a little but the man still didn’t look disgusted. Then I heard two explosions. I started to run back. Except my wrists were tied behind my back. And the first man still held onto the end of the rope. My wrists were jerked and I fell to my face. Because I couldn’t keep myself from falling. Because my wrists were still tied. So I turned and screamed into the twigs instead: “You said you wouldn’t shoot them!”

     “Hold on,” said the man. “I never told you anything exactly like that.”

     I was bawling now for real and wanted to hit the man. Except I couldn’t hit the man. Because my wrists were still tied. So I didn’t hit the man. Which would be okay, even though hitting someone is bad. But my mother and father used to say every rule comes with one exception. But I still couldn’t hit the man. Because my wrists were still tied. All I could do instead was bawl, which the man didn’t look disgusted at. And which was the right way for him to look, because sometimes you’re right to bawl. And I was right to bawl right then. Even though you’re usually not. But I was right to bawl right then, because it’s true what they say, that every rule comes with at least one exception.