by Andy Tu
Every night when I was little, my mother would turn the crank of a music box, and a metallic lullaby would doze my brother and me to sleep. Those notes would pluck and ping in my dreams, my dreams of floating down a curving, dark river, moonlight swaying along the water and a warm breeze hugging around my blanket. I’d drift toward a never-ending horizon, where bright stars blinked and waited.
On my fifth birthday, after I blew out the red candle on a cupcake, a loud rapping came at our door. My father ran into the other room and I heard the whirring of a machine shredding papers through its teeth. The door was kicked in and my mother yelled words in a language I didn’t understand as she tucked us between her arms in the corner of the bed, her legs shivering like when the train passed in the middle of the night, trembling from her bones. Three men entered, two flipping through our things and a short one waving a silver stick in my father’s face as my father said no, no, I don’t know, I don’t know. When the man raised the stick, my mother threw the blanket over our heads and plugged her fingers into my ears, and I heard the light pitches and soft rings of that lullaby, hopping along a scale, up, and down. Next to me my brother rocked back and forth in the orange glow of light seeping through the blanket and I wondered why he looked so different than I’d ever seen him.
Gradually, my mother spun the crank of the music box less and less as I fell asleep watching shadows glimmer along the wall and listening to vehicles pass our building, the grumble and vroom of the occasional truck or motorcycle. Gradually, my brother began turning in his bed like he’d eaten a bug and it was trying to eat its way out through his ribs. Gradually I began noticing the absence of my father’s printer-ink scent in the morning as he kissed my forehead, the way he’d pull the blankets up and tuck them under my chin. Gradually, I began wondering if he were real or just part of my dreams.
On the night a loud boom shook the ground so hard that the window cracked and crumbled into a thousand pieces, my mother pulled us out of bed and told me that we were going to play a game. I was to follow her and not look anywhere except at her back. Right there, she said, tapping her spine. Then she loaded bullets into a gun and handed another one to my brother, reminding him to keep the safety on until the time came, and when the time did come there were fireworks all around us dazzling through the night.
On the first night in our new home, it was my father instead who cranked the wheel of the music box as I fell asleep wondering where my brother was. The ashy wool of my mother’s coat softened the gravel against my spine and the notes of that lullaby dipped, and climbed, and snapped, softly like powdered fingers, more clear than ever before.
Andy Tu is an up-and-coming writer. His stories, which have appeared in thirty-nine magazines, are inspired by his travels; within the past five years, he has lived in Cambodia, Boston, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Colombia. He is currently querying agents to represent his first novel, a literary thriller, while moving back to his home town in California. Andy writes because every person is a mystery to him, and he longs to know their stories.