Jaime Gill

“Brace yourself,” Allie says as they step outside, but Phnom Penh Airport’s concourse looks much like ones Cal has trudged through before: drivers, taxis, and booths selling SIM cards and sandwiches. Only the thick heat feels different. 

Their driver, Vicheka, is squat and solid as a breezeblock. Allie found him on a Facebook group, insisted on a tuk-tuk to pick them up. “Only rich Cambodians drive cars,” she’d said, “and they won’t need our money as much.” The tuk-tuk is bigger than Cal had expected, like a stagecoach in a western with its doors blown off. 

“Careful with your things,” Vicheka shouts back as they nudge their way into the thick, sludgy lava flow of traffic. There are many cars, Cal notices. “Sometimes kids grab phones.” 

“I forgot,” Allie says. “Last time I was here there were many guns. Same now?” Cal hears her dumbing down her English and he’s not annoyed, he’s not annoyed. 

Vicheka laughs. “Not for long time. When were you here?” 

“Just before I had him,” Allie yells back, gesturing at Cal. “Sixteen years. This trip was his idea.”

“Not really,” Cal protests. She thinks she’s giving him credit, but it’s really responsibility. “You’ve been talking about going back to Cambodia forever.” 

“It’s easy to talk, but you found the flights. I wouldn’t have known how.” 

True. He’d spent half a day juggling flights across two different apps to arrange this stopover en route to Australia. Allie’s bad with technology. 

As the tuk-tuk prods its way forward, Cal starts syncing with the city, like a phone on a wifi connection that’s getting stronger. Something is different here, something more fundamental than the churning traffic and shabby buildings. When he works out what it is, he almost laughs. Everyone is young. Glamorous teenage couples drive past on motorbikes. Adolescents throng outside minimarts, joking and playfighting loud enough to hear over the traffic. A gang of boys play football under a flyover. 

“Makes Britain look like a huge old people’s home,” Cal says. 

Allie doesn’t answer. She’s staring at a searingly lit shopping mall with a sour expression. Cal’s been waiting for this. Allie’s moods are like kites: when they catch the breeze they soar, but they can plummet to earth in a sickening instant. 

“Would you like tour tomorrow?” Vicheka asks, pulling up outside their shabby guesthouse. “Killing Fields, palace, markets. Can go to gun range if you really want guns.” Vicheka smiles so much it’s hard to know when he’s joking. 

“Thanks, but I want to rediscover it for myself,” Allie says.

“Message if you change your mind. I can give good price.” 

In their twin room Cal logs them onto the wifi. Allie's phone springs to agitated life and she laughs and coos like a ham actor. Cal regrets setting her up on Facebook. He gets a WhatsApp: “Getting closer! Let me know when you land. Looking forward to next week. Dadx” Cal doesn’t reply. The concerned father act is new and late. 

“We’re going to have a beautiful time,” Allie says. 

“Don’t tempt fate,” Cal says, but he isn’t really superstitious. Fate doesn’t need tempting, anyway. It’s always waiting to punch you in the gut, whenever it wants, just to prove it can. 


Allie shakes him out of tangled fleshy dreams at 10 the next morning. 

“I’m awake,” he growls, blinking in brash sunlight the thin curtains barely dilute. 

“Then get ready,” Allie says, sounding caffeinated. “We’ve wasted too much time.” 

Jetlag ambushed them last night. By the time they’d checked in, showered, and eaten, they’d become zombies. Allie had given up on exploring, and they’d been unconscious by 9. 

Allie’s scowling at her phone.

“Dad?” Cal asks reflexively. Since he’d found out about her court case, he’d got into the habit of sending Allie ugly messages when he’d been drinking. Cal had caught a glimpse of one once, just long enough to see the words “useless bitch”, before Allie had jerked it away. 

“No,” Allie smiles brightly. “Just working out where to go.” 

It’s fiercely hot outside, even in the cramped street’s shade. They navigate through a slowly churning whirlpool of motorbikes, tuk-tuks, bicycles, and snack-carts. Drivers and shopkeepers shout hellos and invitations as they pass and though Cal feels strangely embarrassed, he also feels charged, like a tram sucking electricity up through the street. 

“Look!” Allie has halted outside a small bar crowned by a fluttering rainbow flag and a sign saying Space Salon And Bar. “Incredible. They didn’t have gay bars or gay hair salons when I was here. Now they’ve got two in one! Stand there, I’ll take a picture.” 

Cal grimaces. “Absolutely not.” 

“God, you’re no fun. Fine. Take one of me.” 

He does, and she pulls a strange flouncy pose. Is that what she thinks gay people look like? 

“Where are we going?” 

“Wherever. We’re just walking to get the feel of the city.” 

“A journey, not a destination.”

Allie frowns. “Where did you read that?” 

“Instagram,” he lies. She doesn’t like it when he quotes her literature at her. 

As the street ends, the city opens up like a fist unclenching. Cluttered buildings fall away, yielding to a concrete esplanade, and beyond that something so enormous Cal’s brain struggles to decode it. 

“Is that the Mekong?” 

“Nope,” Allie grins, tugging him forward and pointing to where the river, already three times wider than any he’s seen before, is swallowed by something twice as big again. “That’s the Mekong.” 

He’s heard its name all his life, flowing through Allie’s backpacking anecdotes and old war movies, but it’s even vaster than he'd imagined. Ferries cross to a far shore and what must be another town, though his eyesight isn't great and the town is very distant. Tiny fishing boats drift and a trawler toils upstream, all rendered inconsequential by the river’s enormity. 

He turns to share his excitement but Allie isn’t looking now. He follows her gaze to the skyscrapers clustered a mile or so downriver. That faraway look is back. 

“What’s wrong?” He hears his tone and hates it. 

“There were no skyscrapers when I was here. None. They used to put that in the guidebooks. ‘Phnom Penh, Asia’s low-rise capital’. I knew it would have changed, but not this much.”

“It hasn’t all changed. The Mekong’s still here.” 

She smiles. “You’re right. Stop being right, it’s annoying. Okay, let’s explore.” 

The heat is like a huge sweaty palm pushing down on them. Beside them, the ramshackle apartments and hotels look oddly mismatched, like someone up-ended a huge box of lego on the street. 

“The riverside will be packed later,” Allie says, reasserting her authority over the city. “It’s too hot now.” Yet even the few scraps of life they see enthrall Cal. Three monks walking so close to each other that their orange robes merge into a strange land-based jellyfish. A little boy driving a rustbucket motorbike past them and shouting “how are you” without waiting for an answer. A beautiful young couple huddled under a tree, giggling at a shared phone. Cal wonders what it would be like to be one of them. 

The esplanade ends abruptly, gobbled by a glossy riverside hotel. A shabby marketplace squats in its shadow, tables heaped with bananas and lotus flowers. “This was here before,” Allie points. “People buy those as offerings. But wait…” 

She peers between the stalls. 

“What are you looking for?” Cal asks. 

“Merit birds. A Buddhist thing. You buy them and release them to get good karma. I used to watch, it was pretty.” 

Allie strides toward a young girl in a stall’s shade, scribbling in a schoolbook.

“Soursdey,” Allie calls brightly. The girl looks up, wide-eyed. “Have merit birds?” The girl stares. 

Allie’s fingers mimic a bird flying, flap flap. The girl looks terrified. 

“Tweet tweet,” Allie says desperately and the girl laughs and gestures towards the river’s edge. 

They hear them first, a tiny chirruping choir. Then they see the cage. From a distance it looks alive, pulsing, but then they see it’s the birds fluttering inside, tiny finch-like things. There are at least thirty crammed inside, twitching in agitation. One bird briefly achieves flight but the cage repels it and it sinks back into its anxious crowd. 

“This isn’t very pretty,” Cal says. 

“It wasn’t like this before,” Allie says, squatting to look. “There weren’t so many. I’m sure…” She recoils with an “oh”, hand to her mouth. 

Cal stoops. At the bottom, face down in a plastic water bowl, lies a tiny, dead bird. They hear a cheerful shout and see a man striding their way, smiling. 

“No, no,” Allie shouts. They walk away fast, as if fleeing a crime, and seek shelter in the nearest cafe. Crisp AC air provides instant, blissful relief.

Allie asks for something traditional, but the café only has sandwiches and cakes. From their window table, they can see the skyscrapers. Allie stares at them as she chews a cheese sandwich. 

“They’re not spaceships,” Cal says. “They’re apartments. London has them too.” 

“Funny. Oh, I don’t know. Maybe all these changes just make me feel old.” 

“You always said how bad the poverty was,” Cal says. “Isn’t it good that it’s changed? Isn’t that development?” 

“Money doesn’t fix everything, Cal.” 

“Thank you, I know that, I’m not Donald Trump. But you can’t fix anything without money.” 

“Maybe not,” she says dully. “It just… feels like everywhere else now. It was poor before, but everyone was in the same boat. Nobody had much but they made up for that by enjoying themselves. It was more carefree. More charming.” 

“More poor.” He couldn’t help himself. 

“Can I just feel a little bit nostalgic, please?” she says, and her anger jolts him. “It just doesn’t feel like my city any more.” 

It was never your city, he doesn’t say. You lived here a month.

When they walk again, Allie’s mood is like a bicycle with a slow puncture, deflating inexorably. Cal points out everything unexpected and interesting they pass, his enthusiasm rising in counterpoint to her silence. The skateboarders in a temple’s shadow, the old men playing chess, the fortune tellers shuffling cards. He sounds like a market trader getting more desperate as a potential customer drifts away. 

Allie’s spirits lift briefly as they climb the concrete steps to the old Olympic Stadium where she once drank sunset beers with fellow backpackers, but when they see the sign saying it’s closed for refurbishment she sags, sitting down heavily on a step, head bowed. 

“You’re in the sun, Mum,” Cal says. 

“I’m not a dog in a car. I’ll move if I need to.” 

“Let’s find a cafe.” 

“Give me a minute to pull myself together. It’s the jetlag.” 

She pulls out a cigarette and lights it with shaking fingers. He sits down next to her, not close enough to touch. 

“I don’t think it’s jetlag, Mum.” 

She doesn’t reply. He pulls out his phone and finds the screenshot in his favorites, a list of AA meetings in Phnom Penh. There’s one tonight. He shows her, she reads, and her face darkens.

“So this is the rest of my life,” she says, all acid and self-pity. “I can’t have a bad moment without you wanting to hand me over to the AA police.” 

“Fine,” he snaps, and anger yanks him to his feet. “Keep going. Have a drink. Do whatever you want.” 

He’s halfway down the steps, eyes stinging with sweat and maybe tears, when she catches up and grabs his arm. He expects shouting, but she pulls him to her in an awkward sideways hug. 

“Don’t run off, I’m sorry.” She’s crying. Shit. “I’ll go. But don’t say I’ll drink again. I won’t. I’ve promised you that.” 

He pulls away. “Do you have any idea how many times I’ve heard that?” 

Her expression is flat and defeated. “I know. I’ll go. It’s a good idea, I just wish it wasn’t, and I wish you hadn’t had to look up meetings. I thought that after I stopped drinking you’d not look after me anymore. I thought I’d look after you.” 

“I’m 16. I don’t need looking after.” 

She tries to smile but it comes out wrong. 


“Do you want me to come?” he asks later as she puts lipstick on.

“No, you’re not sitting in a room full of addicts talking about their shitty lives. Do something fun. Why don’t you grab a beer or something? You can drink at 16 here. I think.” 

“Do you really think I want a beer?” 

“No,” she sighs. “But I wish you did. Most teenagers do. One drink won’t make you an addict, you know.” 

“Yes I know,” he says. “I’m not a kid.” 

“But that’s the thing, Cal, you are. You should act like one sometimes. Okay, well, have fun. Hopefully I’ll come back with some good stories.” She sideways hugs him. “I love you.” 

After she’s gone, he runs a bath. He’s always loved baths, his own personal safe space. Close the door, slide into the hot water, step inside a book: a triple lock against the real world. 

He sinks into the heat and opens a tattered paperback, but something is wrong. That other world won’t open to him. He stares at the words and wills them to work their magic but they refuse and he’s just a boy in a bath holding a handful of dead tree. 

The thin bathroom wall lets in the outside world: laughter, motorbikes, bad dance music. 

He gets up abruptly. He dries, dresses and runs wax through his hair, not asking himself exactly why. He checks the time. 40 minutes before Allie returns. Enough for a walk, just to look around, just to see.

The street is a different beast at night, an assault of neon and noise. Tuk-tuks and motorbikes race by on urgent missions or trawl by slowly. Men shout at women. Women shout back. 

Something is happening at that Space bar, there’s a crowd spilling into the street. He crosses to the far side of the road but can’t help but slow his step and look. Everyone’s facing the bar and a makeshift stage. A giantess prowls it in vertigo heels, bellowing about being invincible. Her face is hidden by a vast blonde wig with a black streak and she pantomimes blindness, banging into the wall and the DJ booth, grabbing an onlooker’s bald head for balance. There are whistles and whoops, and a dozen smartphones rise above the crowd’s heads like periscopes. 

When she takes her bow, bland dance music cranks up, and people turn back to friends. Cal feels suddenly exposed and begins walking on. He hears steps behind him and someone taps his arm. 

Cal turns, alarmed. “Don’t leave so soon,” a smiling, young Cambodian face says. “I was just passing,” Cal fumbles. 

“That’s how it always starts,” the man laughs. “Come and meet my friends.” He gestures towards a group of men watching, laughing. A tall blond white man winks, and Cal jerks his gaze away. 

“Thanks, but I’m late.” 

He turns towards the river and walks, but the man follows. “Wait, wait. Sorry, I wasn’t trying to scare you. I was trying to welcome you."

“I wasn’t scared,” Cal lies. “I just have to meet my Mum.” 

“Your mother?” The man’s head tilts like a bird’s. “How old are you exactly?”


“Are you sure?” 

“Do you want to see my passport? I really have to go.” 

“Okay okay,” the man says. “But you do like boys, right?” 

Cal’s mouth opens but no words come. It’s not the first time he’s been asked, or the first time he’s not known how to answer. The man scrutinises him, then rescues him. “Look, come back another night. It’s not usually so busy, it’s someone’s birthday tonight. I’m here most nights, come and meet me. We can talk.” 

Cal nods but the man sees his insincerity. “Honestly, I do mean talk. You’re not my type, I like older guys. But I like anyone as a new friend. What about you?” 

“What about me?” 

“You look like you need a friend.” 

Cal again has no idea what to say. “See you,” he says, and walks away faster. 

“I’m Frankie!” the man calls.

“I’m Jack,” he shouts back, not sure why he lied. He walks to the end of the block then turns left, heading back to the hotel without passing Space again. 

He’s back in the room when Allie gets back. She’s in a good mood, he sees it at once and feels a wash of relief. 

“Jesus, Cal,” she says, throwing herself onto her bed. “You think we have problems? You should have heard these guys complaining about their Cambodian girlfriends. You could tell these girls were half their age, but they were acting like they were the ones who’d been dealt a bad hand.” 

“Aren’t you supposed to get rid of resentments in meetings?” 

“Resentments? You know you talk like an AA brochure, don’t you?” 

“I’m handy.” 

Allie snorts. “Did you eat? Let’s get room service.” 

They eat pizza and flick through TV channels, laughing at Mandarin-dubbed Simpsons and an overacted Thai soap. When they stumble on an unbranded music channel, it’s showing nineties music, Allie music. When something by Britney plays, Allie does a little wiggling half dance on her bed, shimmying her shoulders. Cal remembers her playing this before things got bad and is surprised to remember some of the words. They sing the chorus together and grin at each other. 

“Let’s do tourist crap tomorrow, What was that driver’s name?”

“Vicheka. Good idea.” 

“See? I have them too.” 


The hornbills are monstrous up close, with their blood-red bandit masks and huge scimitar beaks. For the first time, Cal can see how birds descended from dinosaurs. There are over ten in the trees, sometimes swooping and startling tourists in the gardens of Wat Phnom temple. 

“I definitely don’t remember these,” Allie says. 

“New arrivals, came two years ago.” Vicheka drops his voice. “Someone high up kept them as pets, but they got out. Now they’re everywhere. Horrible things. They eat pigeon babies.” 

“How could you keep them as pets?” Cal asks. “They’re too big for cages.” 

“He had big land.” 

“But wouldn’t they just fly away?”

“You are smarter than high up guy,” Vicheka grins. “Maybe he thought they were like parrots.” 

“Don’t parrots fly too?” 

“Sometimes not,” Vicheka says. “When I was boy like you, my uncle bought parrot. Also horrible. It screamed and screamed, all the time. One night I go down when my uncle sleeps and open cage so it will fly away. But when I wake next day, there he is, sat on cage. Screaming. Wouldn’t leave.” 

“Cagebound. I’ve heard of that,” Allie says. “Birds that live in cages grow to love them, get anxious outside. It's a kind of agoraphobia." 

A hornbill swoops over her head and she ducks, screams, then laughs. Cal and Vicheka laugh too. Everything feels better today. 

“Where next?” Vicheka asks, “Russian Market?” 

“No, enough markets,” Allie says quickly. “Take us to your favourite restaurant and let’s get lunch. Our treat, your choice.” 

“No, your choice. I’m just driver.” 

“Yes, and you’ve driven us all morning. We’ve seen half the city. Your choice.” The restaurant Vicheka chooses is near and vast as a hangar. 

“Not what I was expecting,” Allie says quietly as Vicheka leads them.

“Did you two get engaged without telling me?” Cal whispers. “This looks like a wedding.” 

They pass dozens of tables before they find an empty one marooned in the middle of the room. Vicheka and Allie sit on one side, Cal at the other. 

“Many high ups come here,” Vicheka says. “Government people. Famous people.” Cal wonders if he could spot a Cambodian celebrity. 

“Where’s the menu?” Allie asks. 

“No menu,” Vicheka says proudly. “Buffet from whole world. I’ll show you.” 

As they rise, Cal notices a boy at the table behind Allie. He’s about Cal’s age and looks like whatever the opposite of a celebrity is. Most Cambodian men he’s seen had beautifully groomed hair that looked like they required hours of attention. This boy’s hair looks like an unmown lawn. But there’s something about him that snags Cal's attention. It’s his stillness. All around him his family buzz with movement, passing dishes, pulling crustaceans apart, talking, gesturing. The boy is still and stiff as a mannequin. 

The buffet spills across six aisles, diners queueing obediently at steaming vats and covered platters. Each aisle bears a sign: Korea, India, Japan. Cal queues for shrimp while Allie searches for something vegetarian and Vicheka hunts for dumplings. 

Back at the table, Allie blocks Cal’s view of the boy. She starts telling Vicheka about yesterday’s walk, details painted with a new gloss, until she trails off mid-sentence. Cal sees she is staring behind him. 

“I thought there were no guns now,” she says. 

Vicheka looks and his face darkens. “Stupid guy. Don’t look.” 

“There’s a gun on the table next to my son,” Allie says. “I can’t help looking.” 

Cal can’t either. He’s never seen a real gun before. He pretends to adjusts his seating and glances back. There’s a family behind, loud and boisterous. Between two men sits a short, squat, ugly gun, set down as if it were cutlery. 

“Is that legal?” Allie hisses. 

“No,” Vicheka says. "But he’s probably police so who will arrest him? Ignore.” “How do you ignore a gun at lunch?” 

“You eat,” Vicheka says and waves a stick of chicken satay in front of her face. She smiles and takes a bite. Are they flirting? 

Now that Cal’s shifted his chair, he can see the boy again. He still isn’t moving. There’s a plate in front of him, but he’s not eating. He stares in Cal’s direction, gaze fixed and unembarrassed. Cal feels fidgety, self-conscious, his skin hot. The boy has beautiful skin, Cal realises. Immaculate. He tries to pay attention to Allie and Vicheka, but when he glances back the boy’s still looking, as if a connection crackles through the air between them. 

Allie asks Vicheka about merit birds and Cal wants to listen but from the corner of his eye he sees the boy rising. The boy’s family look up, puzzled, calling after him, but he strides towards Cal with even, deliberate steps. It feels like the whole room hushes and everyone else fades. There is only him and the boy, the distance between them dissolving. Cal finds himself rising too, as if hypnotised. 

It’s only when the boy is closer, when Cal’s short-sighted eyes snap into focus, that he sees the boy isn’t looking at him at all and never was. He was looking at the table behind him. 

The boy passes Cal and there is an explosion of movement. One of the men understands before Cal does and grabs for the gun but the boy is faster. He snatches it, dancing backwards like a boxer. 

Screams and shouts shred the air. Cal can’t move but there are hands on him, tugging him down, as the boy shoves the gun inside his own mouth. 

Cal is blinded by hands as a sound smashes the world into pieces. The awful human noises that follow, crying and confusion, are muffled, as if in another room. 

He’s being dragged and Allie’s hands grab at his head to stop him looking. Gravity has stopped working, because there’s nothing solid under his feet. He twists his head once and sees a crowd of agitated figures like ants around a smashed nest, but then his head is grabbed again and he’s pulled outside, into hot air.

Vicheka sits him down on a step while Allie’s hands flutter around his face. People spill out of the restaurant, some silent, some crying. 

“Did you see it?” Allie asks. 

“No,” he says blankly. 

“Thank God. Are you okay. Cal, are you okay?” 

“Fine. Is he dead?” 

Allie is shaking. “Yes.” 

“We should go now,” Vicheka says, and he is a changed man, all his levity turned leaden. “We can’t go,” Allie says. “I’m a witness.” 

Vicheka’s reply is rough. “You think you speak Khmer so well? There are hundreds of Cambodians here. We can witness for ourselves.” 

Allie and Cal are silent as he drives them back, their day abandoned without discussion. Traffic moves around them, overtaking, horns blaring, as if it were an ordinary day. 


Somehow, incredibly, normality slowly reasserts itself back at the guesthouse. The smashed world reassembles its pieces, inflates, becomes a sphere once more. 

Allie chainsmokes on the balcony while googling symptoms of shock. Cal numbly watches CNN and slowly drifts down from his misty out-of-body vantage point. As he does, he observes Allie. She’s okay, not falling apart. She makes him drink water, watches him. She’s looking after him. 

She calls her sponsor and he’s glad. 

He googles “Phnom Penh suicide.” A brutal sentence, and useless anyway. Too soon for the news to be out. But the search pulls up other stories. A young lawyer who hung himself in his car garage. A Chinese businesswoman who plummeted from her twentieth-floor condo. A university student who overdosed on her mother’s pills. He stops reading. There must be a thousand stories like it every day, all over the world. 

They float through the afternoon. They talk, watch TV, read, watch a muted sunset from the balcony. 

Later his Mum takes a bath. Cal lies on the bed and listens to the street. After what seems a long time, he goes to the bathroom door and calls, “Are you okay?” How many times had they asked each other that today? 

"I can't hear. Come in." 

“You’re in the bath.”

“Jesus, you saw me naked all the time when you were a kid.” 

More recently than that, in fact, though she doesn’t remember. It was when things were getting really bad. He’d come home from school every day, nauseous with fear. The worst bit was turning the key to their front door, not knowing what he’d find behind. Sometimes she was in that brief window of happy drunkenness, and the house would be full of songs and cigarette smoke. Sometimes she’d be sprawled on the sofa, numbly watching TV, sipping from a coffee mug hiding vodka. One time he’d found her naked on the floor, and briefly thought she was dead, and wondered if that would be so terrible. 

“Are you coming in? I’ve pulled the curtain, don’t be scared.” 

The steamy heat inside is stifling and uncomfortable after the AC. He sits on the toilet. She pulls the bath curtain back enough to show her face. 

“Did you see it?” he asks 

“No, not really,” she says carefully. “I was mostly trying to get you out.” 

“But did you see his body?” 

“I saw his mother holding it,” she says, rubbing her forehead. “She had blood on her sleeves. I won’t forget that.” 

“I wish I knew why he did it.”

Allie pauses, looks at the ceiling, then speaks slowly. “He must have felt trapped, like he had no other way out. That’s the only reason.” 

“Have you ever felt like that?” 

“Sometimes,” she says, very softly. “But I always had a reason to stop.” 

She looks as if she is about to ask him the same question but changes her mind. Cal is relieved. He doesn’t want to lie. 

“Do you know what I keep thinking?” Allie says after a while. “I feel like I should want to drink. It’s so terrible. That poor boy. That poor family. But I don’t know… it wasn’t us. I used to care about everyone I met, or I thought I did. But I don’t anymore. It’s like I only have so much worry, and I need it all for you and me. Do I sound horrible?” 

“Not to me.” 

“How did you know?” 

“Know what?” 

“With that boy, you stood up like you knew what would happen.” 

He could tell her the truth, that fantasy of connection. She’d be fine about it, he thinks. But he doesn’t want to. Things are changing inside his head, like there’s a kaleidoscope turning and new patterns are forming. It’s not about the boy, or about that guy from the bar. The kaleidoscope has been turning for a while now, he just hasn’t quite worked out what he’s looking at yet, what the patterns mean. When he knows, he’ll tell her. 

“He just looked sad,” Cal says, and that’s not a lie. 

“You’re too sensitive. That worries me. I was sensitive, too. It can get you into trouble.” 

“We’re not the same.” 

“No. Thank God.” 

Another pause. 

“Can I go out?” 


“We’re leaving in the morning, so when else?” 

“Maybe you shouldn’t after what happened.” 

“I just want to look around,” he says, trying to sound casual. “I don’t want before to be my last memory of Cambodia.” 

Manipulative, he knows, and the words sound callous. Perhaps before should be his last memory. Maybe that was the proper way to honor that boy whose name he’d never know. Or maybe the boy would say to Cal live, since I can’t. How could he know? So many people would have questions for the boy and there would be no answers.

“Okay, but take your phone. Are you sure you’ll be fine?” 

“Yes. Will you?” 

“Yes, Cal, I promise.” 

He thinks about that promise as he descends onto the street. A lie of course, though a kind lie. She wouldn’t be fine. Not always. Neither would he. Fate always came for you, invited or otherwise. You couldn’t keep yourself safe, or anyone else. So what were you supposed to do? Lock the doors and hide? 

People shout as he passes, but he doesn’t really hear. He’s lost inside his head, squinting at patterns. Then a voice he knows, calling a name he made up. He turns in its direction.

Jaime Gill is a British-born writer living in Cambodia. His stories have been published by Litro, The Guardian, BBC, Beyond Words, voidspace, Wanderlust, In Parentheses, and Write Launch. He consults for non-profits while working haphazardly on a novel, script, and far too many stories, several of which have been long/shortlisted for awards including The Masters Review Annual Award, the Bridport Prize, the Rigel Award, and the Plaza Prizes. Find him at or