The swallows skipped like flat stones across the surface of the infinity pool, their wings spread, and a lone woman in a gauzy beach coverup--what she might have called a kaftan if that word didn’t sound so matronly--watched them. The tunic didn’t merely protect her pale skin from the sun, which already was sinking into the trees to the west, it hid from the world the scars on her thighs at the edge of her bathing suit. The birds, their feathers a deeper blue and a more pristine white than their cousins in North America, looked playful and frivolous, and she was beginning to resent their happiness because her disquiet was morphing moment by moment into dread. She lowered her sunglasses to gaze beyond the pool, down the long, flat stretch of driveway she could see from here, and the lines of statuesque dipterocarp trees that bordered the pavement like sentinels and were at least seventy or eighty years old. They’d been planted by some French overlord and they’d survived the wars. She was hoping to see him on his bike, hurtling through the open wrought-iron gates, past the guardhouse (manned this afternoon by a sweet and slight teenage boy in a uniform that looked like it belonged on a bellman from a grande dame hotel from a distant era) and down the straight stretch of asphalt, but she saw nothing. No bicyclist. No cars. No delivery trucks. The idea crossed her mind that he had stopped at one of the massive beach hotels to dive into the ocean on his way back; he’d expressed his disappointment that the bike tour hadn’t booked them at a property on the water, the way they had the last time he was here. No one would presume that a tall American wasn’t a guest if he raced in, leaned his bike against a palm tree, and cooled off in his bike shorts in the waves.
Still, she tried to will him to appear, she tried to fashion an image of his black-and-red bike helmet from the heat that hovered, even this late in the day, like mist atop hot, fresh pavement.
She swatted a mosquito on her knee and sat up on the chaise, her bare feet on the bluestone tile, and dropped her magazine. Her hands were moist with sweat and sunblock, and she wiped them on her coverup. An animal, a tiny rodent of some sort, skittered beneath the chaise and into the nearby brush. A salamander froze. She reached for her phone and sent him yet another text asking him if he was okay. She’d sent him five now, each one a little more urgent and anxious than the one that had preceded it. He was an hour and a half late. If he’d had a flat tire, he would have texted. The sag wag--their slang for the support wagon, a van technically--would have left to rescue him. There was pretty good cell coverage in this corner of Vietnam, though apparently it was spotty in some of the inland stretches and up over the pass that would comprise a part of his ride. If he’d stopped for a cup of iced coffee--or even hot coffee; he was obsessed with the way the waitstaff at so many places here would bring a French press to the table--he would have let her know. If he were lost, he would have sent her what she imagined would have been a comical Mayday. She’d heard nothing from him since they’d parted midmorning.
The sun wouldn’t set for a few hours, but it troubled her that his bike didn’t have a light.
For an hour now, her thoughts had grown steadily darker, a step-by-step ascent into the thin air of trepidation: He’d been hit by a car that had left him hurt by the side of the road. He’d been hit by a truck that had sent him careening over a guardrail, and his broken body was bleeding out amidst the rice paddies or in some thick copse of bamboo. He had a head injury, and he needed her right now to do a SCAT 2--a sport concussion assessment--on him. How many had she done in the ER on others in the last year? Thirty-five? Forty? Probably more. Maybe one a week, whether it was a pedestrian hit by a cab or a teen in a pickup basketball game or a college kid who had just done something stupid. How was it you could give yourself a concussion playing beer pong or quarters? She’d treated university freshmen who’d managed the seeming impossibility playing both.
Once again, she made a list in her mind of all the innocuous possibilities for Austin’s absence. There were the villages along the route, and there were the little places on the flats on the north side of the mountain where the fishermen would get their provisions and the small snack shacks on the southern slope where tourists would stop to gaze out from their plastic chairs at the sea. Maybe he’d pulled over for noodles or steamed rice cakes or even a can of the Tiger beer that he loved, and he’d forgotten his phone on a little round wooden picnic table at the restaurant. Or his phone had run out of power. Or the cell coverage on the switchbacks was worse than they knew. Or he’d thought he’d sent her a text and forgotten to press Send. Certainly, she’d done that in her life, finding the text in its bubble, unsent, hours later or even the next morning. In this scenario, his phone was sitting in the left kidney pocket of his cycling jersey, and he had accidentally put the device on mute. (The scar from where the bullet had struck his arm was right around the hem of the short sleeve of most of his bike shirts.)
But no matter how many scenarios she crafted in her mind, the bottom line was that he was still late.
He spoke enough Vietnamese to ask directions on the street and order dinner in a restaurant--though the waitstaff had spoken English at every spot they had dined as a group on the bike tour--and when he’d had a tailor make him a suit in Hoi An, he had started to speak to the tailor and his two young female assistants in Vietnamese, but it was clear early on that they were being polite and indulging him. They saw so many Western tourists that they spoke a little German and French, as well as the King’s English, and soon they all stopped the charade and it was as if he were ordering a suit at a tony Manhattan department store. The same had occurred when he’d had her fitted for a black and silver cheongsam--this one cut so short it was like a chemise--the neck hole so tight it was like a dog collar. She couldn’t imagine in reality that she’d ever wear it as anything but foreplay. Both outfits were going to be delivered to the hotel that night.
In any case, she presumed, he could probably ask his way here in Vietnamese in a pinch. In her mind, she saw him smiling and asking a farmer or an old woman or a waiter, “Da Nang?” “Hoi An?” and pointing in one direction or another.
She pulled off her ball cap and adjusted her ponytail. He would tease her about her anxiety when he returned; she would chastise him for making her worry.
And she would remind him that they met when she dug a bullet out of his arm, so she would always have cause for alarm when it came to him. For worry. He was who he was. One time, he’d been biking in the Adirondacks and hit fifty-five miles per hour on a long, steep downhill into Keene Valley, passing logging trucks and then UPS trucks and then a guy in a Lexus. She had heard the story from a cycling acquaintance of his that past summer, who told her that he had beaten the rest of the riders to the bottom of the hill by minutes. Literally, minutes. A year ago, the first time he had come to Vietnam on a bike tour, he’d nearly driven the tour guides mad one night by disappearing for three hours after dinner in Ho Chi Minh City. They’d actually waited up for him in the hotel bar. They’d been moments from calling the police and the American consulate when he finally returned. His excuse? Just exploring the city. He’d met three French bicyclists, and they’d compared notes on the different stages and mountains in the Tour de France, because they had all biked them for fun at some point in their cycling lives.
She had brought to the pool, along with her magazines and her iPad and phone, the map for the day with the two possible bike routes. There were eight of them on the bike tour, a smaller group than usual, apparently, and today they’d been allowed to choose rides of twenty-four and thirty-nine miles. She stared at it now, even though she knew that he would only be on the route at the very end. He wasn’t doing either ride. Yesterday the group had planned to ride the Hai Van Pass over the mountain, a thirty-five-mile route along Highway One and the only real climb on the itinerary: twenty-three hundred feet of ascent. Austin had been looking forward to it immensely, in small part because of the exertion, but mostly because of the pilgrimage. The road would take him near where his father had been wounded and his uncle had died in what the Americans called the Vietnam War and the Vietnamese called the American War. Unfortunately, it had poured all day long and the tour leaders wanted no one--not even a rider as experienced as Austin--biking down the tortuous, steep slope of the mountain in the rain. The road would be too slick and the descent too dangerous. And so the whole group had taken the van from the hotel in Hue to their next stop on the outskirts of Hoi An, and gone shopping there in the City of Lanterns. It was when Austin had bought his suit and picked out her dress.
Now, today, Austin was doing the ride in reverse and doubling the ascent by riding north over the mountain to the Hue side, and then back over it and through Da Nang to their little hotel near Hoi An. It would be a ride of about seventy miles and forty-six hundred feet, which was grueling and long, but not all that grueling and long for him. He did at least a half dozen rides that distance every summer. He did at least two centuries--rides of a hundred miles. And the forecast today had been nothing but sun with the temperature in the high seventies. It was a perfect afternoon for him to stretch it out and get what he called that good wobbly feeling in his legs at the end of a lengthy, exhausting ride. It was the perfect day for him to pay his respects, the cerulean skies a sign that he was meant, finally, to visit the corner of the world that in so many ways had defined his father’s life. Austin’s wasn’t a military family, but it was a family of privilege and responsibility where it was expected fifty years ago that you did your duty when you were asked: both of his grandfathers had served in the European theater in the Second World War, both had survived, and both had gone on to esteemed (and lucrative) careers in different facets of banking. And so when Austin’s father’s number came up in the lottery in 1970 and he was drafted, he went. He postponed his freshman year at Bates by, in the end, three years. His brother, four years his senior and a newly minted graduate of Syracuse, enlisted, because he couldn’t imagine his younger brother in the jungles without him. It didn’t seem fair. He was sent to Fort Benning and Officer Candidate School, where he would leave a lieutenant and be given command of a forty-three-person rifle platoon almost upon touching down in what was then South Vietnam.
Alexis knew Austin had not felt the same pressure or evidenced any desire to enlist thirteen years earlier, when he’d finished college. At the time, America had been trying desperately to extricate itself from Iraq and determine whether it would ever be possible to leave Afghanistan. And Austin? He once told her--and it had felt like a confession, the way he had shaken his head ruefully--that he wasn’t his father and his uncle. He simply wasn’t hardwired that way.
Alexis sighed when she imagined those siblings, so close that they went to a spectacularly unpopular war together.
She wished she had demanded of Austin that he let her accompany him on his ride today. But she also knew that her body probably wouldn’t have forgiven her if she’d tried to ride the seventy miles and forty-six hundred feet of climb with him. And, of course, she would have slowed him down. She could barely keep up with him on even the shorter rides; he was always pulling a little ahead, realizing how far behind him she was, and doubling back. And so along with the two single women in the group and a pair of married accountants, today Alexis had done the long ride: thirty-nine miles. Only the elderly couple from North Carolina, the Coopers, had done the shorter, twenty-four-mile route, but that was more because Alan Cooper wanted to spend the afternoon at some nearby bird sanctuary than because they were incapable of riding farther. They were in their early seventies but stupendously well preserved. If she lived another forty years, she hoped she’d be half that together.
The night before they had left for Vietnam, a guy roughly Alan’s age had been brought in to the ER just after dinner with an intracerebral hemorrhage. He’d collapsed at the dining room table, spilling his wine and toppling a tower of polenta and basil and sliced tomatoes, and was long unconscious by the time the EMTs arrived. She suspected instantly that’s what it was, and that the poor man’s brain was quite literally drowning in blood. The CT scan confirmed it. It was clear that emergency surgery was necessary and even if the fellow survived, he was likely going to be a vegetable when they were done. But she kept him alive until the family could all arrive or at least be allowed to weigh in long distance on how to proceed. They decided on the surgery, which was fine, and Alexis had learned the next morning, when she’d called the hospital before leaving for the airport, that the old man had died in the OR. The memory made her love the idea that the Coopers were on a bike trip in Vietnam. You just never knew when a stroke was going to leave you a stringless marionette on the dining floor beside the half-eaten remains of your supper.
Copyright © 2020 by Chris Bohjalian. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.