“White Lies” by Sea Tong Veng

“White Lies” by Sea Tong Veng

 

Waiting for a spark of ideas to write her new novel was a lot more difficult than initially planned: apparently, a bottle of red wine in her favorite armchair in front of the window did not do the job. As always, Hannah Lee began after putting her son, Andrew Lee Bengtson, to sleep, the few hours before bed when she believed she was most creative. Except creativity was never really in her favor, and of course, it was not; she had a career counseling troubled children at the Highmore Mental Institute. Her only prove of any creative quality came from the résumé she had lied about.

Everyone lies on their résumé, she thought while taking a sip of the alcohol. It was the fourth glass she had poured herself, and already, she started talking alone in her mind again. Her sipping soon turned into gulping as if the taste has completely subsided to that of regular water. She didn’t even care anymore about the new novel; her thoughts were wandering through the woods of black memories now where an exit was impossible to locate. Even the best-crafted map could not save her. She knew very well that such behavior was a sign of acute depression. No one would spend months around an idea of a book that was obviously not going to work. They would simply give up by the first week or so and move on to something else because it was unhealthy.

Ironic isn’t it? She didn’t bother wiping away her tears because she knew the crying wouldn’t stop, and who was going to see her anyways at this time of night? I know almost everything about mental illnesses, but every night I end up at the same spot thinking about the same damn thing. She realized that she had deliberately brought on the situation to herself. That night like many other nights, she cried until she fell asleep, and the black trees surrounded her favorite armchair faded with her dreams when the sun shined its first light through the window.

This time, however, she woke up to the moon half-eaten by the dark. Her throat was dry, so she went into the kitchen for a drink of water. Her head began aching. She couldn’t be hungover on a Tuesday; She has a seven-year-old and a full-time job to deal with.

From the living room, her phone rang, and walking to get it seemed longer than it should.

“Hello?” She barely made out the word.

“Hannah, this is Bradley.” For a moment she thought she was still dreaming. Why on earth would her boss be calling at four in the morning?

She didn’t reply.

“Hannah?”

“Y-yes. Yes, something the matter?”

“I know this is a crazy time, but we need you to come to the hospital right now.”

“What’s wrong?”

“The police just found the missing boy, and he’s here at E-7. His condition looks… critical.”

Hannah tied her eyebrows and stood straight up asking, “Critical how?”

“Well, this is why we need you. Dylan left an hour ago, and he’s not picking up his calls, so could you come in?”

“Bradley, you know I have my son with me.”

“You could call your mother for help like you did last time. The boy’s mother is very concerned. She’s a single mother and has been—”

She interrupted, “You think I would say, yes, because she’s a single mother and I am—”

“I think. You would understand.

She took a deep breath and glanced at the emptied wine glass.

“Hannah, please,” Bradley begged.

“I’ll be there.” She said biting her lips.

 

Driving to the institute, she called her mom to make sure she could take care of her son; for which her mom agreed she would. The relationship between the two of them needed plenty of mending. Being a rebellious Asian daughter like Hannah was not very easy, especially when she had a conservative father. Mrs. Lee had only started reconnecting with her daughter after her husband’s death, and at such time, Hannah was already having strains of her own. Before then, the most of a support Mrs. Lee could provide was money—her husband had a lot of that—but Hannah never accepted the offer. It made her felt like a product as though her love had a price tag on it, not that she would ever admit she loves her mother anyways.  

 

When she arrived back home, her son was at school, and her mother had already left. She let off a sigh of relief when she closed the front door and thanked god for sparing her the trouble of sitting through a conversation of heavy-cultured and philosophical nonsense. She had heard enough of those already, growing up.

She shuffled into the living room, tossed her laced jacket on the sofa, and grabbed the glass and wine bottle to put them on the kitchen counter next to the sink.

“It would be nice to have a little conversation with a human being, though.” She murmured looking around the room to see if there was any cleaning up needed to be done.

You did. With the boy.

“A real conversation.”

Besides the laptop and some worksheets on the dining table, everything else was fairly cleaned and in order.

“Plus, all the boy said was, ‘he left me alone in the woods.’ Over and over again. Not even sure if he was talking to me.”

He’s in shock.

“Yeah. It lasted long too. A trauma like that would take months of case study until I could start piecing together the story.” She laughed, “I don’t even know if I’ll be around that long.”

Not funny, Hannah.

“Relax. I’m talking about the novel. It might be a big payoff, and I don’t have to work at that depressing place anymore.”

You know that’s not the reason why you’re unhappy.

She stopped talking, for there was no ending in an argument with her own mind. She cautiously wiped off the imaginary sweat from her forehead. All of a sudden, the house appears larger, so large that it made her felt like some vermin needed to be disposed. For the first time in forever, standing in her own house, she thought she didn’t belong. And if she didn’t belong at home, she surely didn’t belong anywhere else. 

It would be nice to have a little conversation with a human being.

A real conversation. It would be nice.

A little conversation with a human being.

It would be nice to have a little conversation with a human being.

She went to take a seat and turned on her laptop.

It would be nice to have a little conversation with Jake.

Jake, her best friend, her husband who was in the military completing a classified mission abroad. She hadn’t talked to him and was obviously eager to hear his voice. Only in the loneliest moment would she allow herself to think about her husband, which was irrational, of course, but she found it a lot more difficult to miss him than to suppress her thoughts.

The screensaver was a picture of Jake, her son, Andy, and she. It was a good trip, that one. The summer sun of South Point beach bleached the clear sky. Seagulls suspended in midair, extending their wings above Hannah’s flying hair.

It would be nice to have a little conversation with Jake.

She pressed on the video call button.

But the chance of him picking up is merely impossible.

“With just enough luck, it might work.”

Hannah, you’re delusional.

“I don’t care.”

The call got no answer. She tried again. And again. And again. And again. Her chest started tensing, but she didn’t stop. The cursor was moved followed by few clicks here and there. The opened folder cuts her husband’s face in half.

You know, things don’t go your way just because you never give up. It’s—

“Hannah.” She felt her heart stopped for a moment.

“Jake. Oh, god. I didn’t think you were gonna pick up.”

“Well,” He did a voice impression only the two of them understood. “Everything depends on time and luck.”

Hannah finished the sentence with him, “And right now I’m feeling both.”

They laughed at the inside joke.

“It’s so great to hear your voice again.” She told Jake with a smile.

“It’s great to hear your voice too. In eight weeks, I can be home again.” He eyed over the computer cam and nodded a sign of acknowledgement at someone before asking, “Are you still doing the screen records of these calls?”

“Of course, I am. Every single one of them.” She lifted her eyebrows. “Anyways, don’t forget what you’ve promised Andy. He can’t wait to get his next nametag.”

“Ah, right. His ‘Dad and Super Army Team Nametags Collection.’”

Hannah grinned, “I can’t believe you both agreed on that title. Dad and Super Army Team?”

“What? You don’t like it?”

“It’s like a cartoon show idea that never got out.”

“Well, you have to start getting used to it. One day it’s gonna be a world-famous display.”

There was a moment of laughter, before Hannah uttered, “You know, I’ve been thinking—”

Jake interrupted, “So, how’s your novel coming?”

She lied, “It’s… been good so far. I mean I’m only started writing, but so far… it’s good.”

“Yeah? I can’t wait to read it.”

“Maybe I should let Andy decides on the title.”

“Oh, no.”

“Mom and Super Story!” She teased, “Get used to it, Bengtson.”

“Didn’t know it was gonna backfire so quickly,” He chuckled.

Hannah’s expression shifted. “Don’t use the word backfire, Jake.”

“Hannah, it doesn’t—”

“I don’t care. Just don’t say it.”

“—mean anything.”

“No, it means something because later I won’t—”

“It’s just a word.”

“—be able to stop thinking about it.” Hannah’s breath speeded up.

“Alright? I’m fine. I’ll be fine.”

“You don’t know that. You don’t.”

Jake paused for a moment as if waiting for her response.

“You don’t know what’ll happen. I’m here. And you don’t know—”

Maybe the connection was disrupted because Jake did not react to Hannah’s words at all.

“—what it’s like being here. Y-you don’t—”

Jake finally spoke, “Right. Don’t think about it too much.”

Hannah began sobbing.

“I’ll be with you in no time.”

She tried to continue talking, but the constant gasping prevented her. Jake didn’t stop, though.

“We don’t have to talk about something else if you don’t want to.”

Didn’t know it was gonna backfire so quickly, echoed his voice.

Didn’t know it was gonna dive south so quickly.

“The other day,” Jake completely ignored the fact that his wife was having a breakdown; he just kept talking. “Christian suggested I could bring back a name tag that has Andy’s name on it.”

He didn’t know it was gonna backfire so quickly.

The tone started becoming dry, and somehow, there were multiple voices.

He didn’t know it was gonna backfire so quickly.

He didn’t know what would happen.

Hannah had one of her hands pressing at her chest. The pain was unbearable: it didn’t seem like it was going to stop. She was trapped in the woods again, and this time, there were forest beasts chewing at her flesh. The voices appeared to be screaming from underneath the ground.

“It might take some hard work, but I think I can pull it off fine.”

He didn’t know what would happen. He couldn’t pull it off.

It backfired so quickly he wouldn’t see it coming.

She could see her husband phrasing words, but no sound was heard from him; it was blocked out by something else much louder.

He would never see it coming.

With her other free hand, Hannah pushed the laptop off the table with enough force to break it.

The trees bent over blocking the little light there was. She could feel, in complete darkness, then, the teeth grinding against her bones. It didn’t seem like it, ever, was going to stop.

 

It was the fifth week before coming home that Jake Bengtson got shot in the field at approximately two forty-five in the afternoon. His friend, Christian, who was present during the incident could not save him.

Days after Hannah Lee received the formal knocks on her front door, she was battling over the decision of deleting the screen records, but sitting down with the videos in front of her, she wind up watching them instead, and sometimes, at the hardest times, she would pretend to have a conversation with him. She would pretend to wait for her husband to come home and hand his son the nametag he had promised. She would lie to herself that the long hours at night with the wineglass was for her fiction ideas when it was actually just an excuse to drink.

In all the years of detesting her mother’s life, she could never imagine they would end up in the same position, so overwhelmed by her own presence that she became aimless, and the razor-thin line of her existence was the constant deception that masked her reality—the reality of Jake’s sudden parting that walked, with loud steps, around the house, slept heavy at her side of the bed, and stares dead at her face from the mirrors and, most disturbingly, from her son’s eyes.

After years of detesting her mother’s life, she could not believe they had ended up in the same position. Perhaps, this meant something.