Binh Son, Vietnam: October 2008
This was her wish. Dad kept saying that from the moment we boarded our flight at JFK to our first step onto the fertile soil of Bình Son, which in English means “peaceful mountain.”
En route to our penultimate destination, Tran, our middle-aged guide, tells us all about the scenery through lively gesticulations and nasal broken English.
“This place all rice field now.” He lifts both hands and spreads them wide. Enthralled by the verdant fronds and the sound of exotic fauna, I hardly notice the weight of my backpack. “But during war, Vi?t Nam C?ng S?n come here in Bình Son.”
Perhaps it’s because I appear more Vietnamese than American that he breaks into the native tongue. Ironically, Dad, an American, knows more about this country than I do. He’s quiet and has been holding the urn under his arm, staring out at the hills.
Out in the lush green paddy fields, a boy prods his water buffalo with a bamboo stick, distracting me from Tran’s narrative. “Viet … what?” I’ve had enough years in weekend Vietnamese language classes to read and write. But this term escapes me.
“Vi?t Nam C?ng S?n. V.C.” Tran laughs. “You know, Vietcong? Charlie?”
I glance over to Dad, to whom this would hold more meaning.
That same emptiness in his eyes, which have grown darker and more profound since I was a child, evokes a blunt pang. It's been over a year. Rather than drawing closer, he's grown more distant.
Of course, Tran has no idea that he’s hiking with Peter Carrick, Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist who earned coveted accolades for his on-the-spot photos of the massacre at Hu?. Nor does Tran realize that his daughter, Xandra Carrick, is a respected photojournalist in her own right. I may not have won a Pulitzer—not yet, anyway—but at twenty-seven, working for the New York Times is not too shabby.
“Vietcong fight American soldier here,” Tran explains, stopping to catch his breath.
I can take some pictures, which I do more out of responsibility to my craft than anything. “Now just rice farm family and water buffalo. Even water buffalo part of family. You know, Ch?ng c?y, v? c?y, con trâu di b?a.” Which means, The husband plows, the wife sows, water buffalos draw the rake. A proverb Mom taught me years ago, but it’s lost on Dad, who keeps staring at the hills.
“You okay, Dad?”
The boy driving the long-horned beast is at most twelve years old. His loose pants are rolled up past his calves and his feet are submerged in ankle-deep water.
Narrow, peaked hills stand over the horizon, Titans guarding this remote village nestled in the manifold waterways of the Mekong. Palms sway in the earthy breeze blowing through the window and brushing through my now unruly hair.
I reach for Dad’s hand. One can only speculate on the reason for his reluctance to make this trip. As for me, this is my first time in Vietnam and I’m taken by its overwhelming beauty. “Was it like this when—?”
“Xandra, please. Don’t.”
“But there’s so much I want to know about this place, about you and Mom.”
“You know my answer.” The same for years, from the moment I first developed an interest in his career and experiences during the war.
“Your mother would understand.” Dad’s gaze returns to the hills. “She knew how I felt about coming back here, but …” His gaze wanders off, draws him away to a time, a place, far off and forbidden. I know that look.
“Never mind, then.” I kiss his hand, lean into his chest.
For the next fifteen minutes, we continue quietly along the trail. Finally, Tran turns around and smiles, a gold tooth glinting in the setting sun. “Okay, we here.”
Still in awe of the breathtaking landscape, I set my pack down, and stretch. The ground is soft and moist, but at the same time it’s as solid as the sidewalk outside my apartment on Central Park West.
Beyond the hilltops, the sun falls to rest in a poignant wash of amber. The chrink-chrink of Rain Quails rings out invisibly behind an emerald veil of bamboo in the distance. Every thought arrested, every word, no one speaks.
The light is perfect, though it won’t last much longer. And despite the somber occasion, I simply cannot forsake the scenery. These shots will help me to remember.
The shutter sounds from my Nikon ripple the silence like a stone tossed into a glassy pond. Still transfixed on that same spot up in the hills, Dad lets out a pointed breath. “Probably not the best time.”
“Just a couple more. For Mom.” A twinge works its way up and lodges in my throat. As Charles Kuralt so aptly put it: “There is melancholy in the wind and sorrow in the grass.”
“Make it quick, will you?” He pads over to Tran and hands him a roll of greenbacks. “Cám ?n nhiêu l âm.”
With both hands, Tran receives his payment and bows. He waves and returns to the trail from whence we came.
All is tranquil as the sun passes her mantle to the rising moon. We are serenaded not only by the Rain Quails’ ditty but by a chorus of frogs and crickets as well. Farmers and their water buffalo slosh back to their huts about half a mile downstream of us. Yet they can be heard as though a mere stone’s throw away.
For the first time in this journey, Dad puts his arm around my shoulders, warming my heart as nothing else can. He points to a vacant hut, with a kerosene lamp glowing in the window. Leaning into the security of his strong shoulder, I nod and take a moment to consider the significance of this place. Both to him and Mom.
“We start at daybreak.” He takes our bags and approaches the hut. “Let’s settle in.”
As I follow him into the hut, an unexpected irony arises: I’ve never traveled so far just to say good-bye. But I am glad to have made the trip. Mom would be pleased.
This was her wish.
Making people disappear isn’t quite as easy as I remember. Of course, I’m not as young as I used to be. Rigor mortis will soon set in, and I’ve got to dispose of this poor lass’s body straightaway. How can I possibly be doing this again?
Thankfully, no one’s around this time of night. And with her limbs properly weighed down, she’ll stay under until … Bugger! Only three bags in the trunk. I shall have to improvise.
Right. Everything is ready. I cross myself and pull her ever-stiffening body from the trunk. She’s slight—just shy of forty-five kilos, I’d venture—but quite muscular in the limbs.
A heavy duvet of clouds obscures the moon. It’s beastly cold out. Here on the remote side of the pond, far off the path, the rowboat is hidden behind the thicket of reeds, exactly where I left it last night. My headlights are off and I’m parked close enough to lower the body into the boat and row out.
As I lower her into the inky water, I’m careful not to splash. Her sweatshirt balloons, and bubbles surround her. A mane of flaxen hair spreads on the water’s surface.
Bollocks, she’s not sinking!
With my oar, I nudge her down. Even though her hands and feet have submerged, her hair still floats. A halo around the back of her head.
In the distance, a pair of headlights looms. It’s a blooming patrol car. No choice, I’ve got to row back and get away from here. But look at her—the back of her sweatshirt and her head are still bobbing at the surface.
Back in my car now. Slowly making my way back to the main road, I steal another glimpse. She’s still just beneath the surface, her blond hair a clear marker.
The patrol car’s headlights vanish behind a bunch of trees. If they turn left, they’ll be here in less than a minute.
I’m about to crawl clear out of my skin.
And then it happens.
Two large bubbles pop out from under the sweatshirt, just at the nape of her neck, and the weights do their trick. The lass’s body sinks to the bottom of the pond.
That was too close.
With all lights off, I drive off. A minute later, I can see in my rearview mirror that the squad car has just passed the pond. Didn’t even slow down. I’m well on my way home now. Into the warmth of Nicole’s embrace, and to kiss Bobby as he dreams of ponies and puppies.
Good Lord, what have I done?
Napa Valley, California: October 2008
Until recently, I had never cared for his line of work, or his career aspirations. Politics was never my cup of tea. But one thing I’ll say for my husband: if there’s anyone who can do the job right and get this country back on track, it’s him.
In his first term as one of California’s senators, Rick had been widely acclaimed as a no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is legislator who produces results, not just talk. It’s a testament to his worthiness of the US presidency.
And, yes, he’s an independent. How about that? Not since Ross Perot has the nation perked up its ears and listened like this. When my husband looks the nation in the eye and promises change, they believe him.
And they ought to.
I know better than anyone that Rick is a man who never accepts defeat, who always keeps his word. Just look at his service record. He doesn’t like my bragging on him like I do, but I am proud of him. He’s a decorated hero who saved many lives during the Vietnam War.
I’m sure whatever shred of privacy we’ve enjoyed will soon be obliterated when Rick wins the election. But that loss of privacy doesn’t frighten me in the least. We’ve lived a very open life for the whole world to see. No secrets, unlike our opponents whose pasts keep coming back to haunt them.
Despite the efforts of those slimy politicians to defame him—both Republicans and Democrats—no one has ever been able to dig up any dirt on Rick. You know why? Because there isn’t any. So what will the public find when they scrutinize the life of President Colson?
They’ll find a loving father who never missed a game his star quarterback son played before going off to Princeton. They’ll find a devoted husband who stood by me for three decades, even after I became wheelchair bound with MS. I can count on the fingers of one hand how many times he couldn’t come with me to doctors’ visits and PT sessions. He always kept family a priority, wasn’t afraid to say no to his career. I think it’s his integrity and unwavering principles that have garnered him the reputation and respect he now enjoys.
I’ll never forget the day I found out I had MS. Jack was eight months old and learning to walk. The news caught me by surprise. Besides fatigue, which all new mothers experience, I thought I was fine. But when I got the call to see my doctor as soon as possible, Rick made the appointment. You see, he had noticed the symptoms before I ever did. From the day I got pregnant, he always had his nose in medical books and journals, researching and monitoring my health.
When we got the news, I broke down and cried. It was supposed to be the happiest time of our lives. Jack was our pride and joy, Rick had just been elected deputy district attorney, and his political career was taking off like a rocket.
Rick took me in his arms and just held me for the longest time. When I calmed down, he said, “We’re going to beat this, Suzie. Don’t you worry. I promise, I will do everything in my power.”
I wanted to say, “Who are you? God?” But he was so sincere, I didn’t have the heart to suggest he was just saying things to make me feel better. Well, I was wrong. He wasn’t just saying it. Did I mention that one of Rick’s greatest strengths is that he can look tough decisions in the eye and face them down?
He took a sabbatical to take care of me and Jack. A year out of his career at its height. And whatever free time he had, he spent talking to medical experts, going to the library, you name it.
Sure, there were some rough days where I wished I could just curl up and die. But I have to say, because of the love of this beautiful man, every day of my life has been worth living. None of the billions of dollars I’ve inherited could ever make me feel this way. Because in the end, what do you take with you? Not the money, the houses, or yachts; not the fame of being the heiress of the Colbert Media empire. Judging by the way Rick’s lived, he never cared for those things anyway. No, what you take with you into eternity is the love of those who’ve sacrificed themselves for you.
We now have two beautiful boys, Jack and Gary. I call them boys, but they’re really fine young men, both attending Ivy League schools on full scholarships. Rick is on his way to the White House, and I, though frail, am the luckiest, most blessed woman on the face of this planet.
Lest you roll your eyes or gag from the sweetness of it all, I’ll confess Rick isn’t perfect. In fact, he’d be the first to admit it. There are times he gets so involved with his responsibilities that he’ll allow himself to get overwhelmed. And those are the times he just sort of vanishes for a few hours. Okay, sometimes it’s a day or two. But when he comes home, he’s left it all at the office and it’s as if nothing’s happened. He’s able to give us his full attention again.
Sure, I’m biased. I haven’t got even a fraction of the knowledge of pundits. But no one knows this man as I do. And I’ll put whatever days I have left into supporting him.
I believe in him.
GRACE TH’AM AI LE
Thirty-Five Years Ago
Binh Son, Vietnam: January 7, 1973
I always knew the war would come to the South. Before the Communists sent the Vietcong back down the Ho Chi Minh trail, before the Spring Festival attacks during T?t Nguyên Ðán, I knew. I had seen it all in my dreams. I even foresaw my parents’ deaths, which left me and my brother orphans, forcing us to flee to the village of my aunt and uncle.
Some of the boys in Bình Son, on this side of the Mekong Delta, had expressed interest in joining the Vietcong, my brother included. Everyone else feared this would eventually draw a confrontation to our otherwise untouched hamlets.
And so it had.
The trip back from Saigon was only 120 kilometers, but it was like going from one world to another. At first glance, you would not imagine a war was taking place. Abundant green mountains, flowing waters of the Mekong, all resting under cotton clouds and sunlit skies.
Amongst the countless generations of farming families, I was the first girl, if not the first person, to leave and go to university. Now, upon my return, my entire life had changed.
At the bottom of the dusty road, where the foot of Bình Son touches the water, all that remained of the huts in the neighboring village were charred embers. Not a soul stirred. I could only hope that everyone had escaped.
Higher up, I looked to the hills where once I lived. Where Huynh Tho still lived. Perhaps, because it was hidden behind bamboo and palms, it had been spared. So quiet were the mountains. But for the whispering wind, nothing stirred. Not even a bird.
Off the road’s side, I walked under the shade of the trees. I had to find my brother and quietly bring him back to Saigon before it was too late.
Quietly. How do you take an angry young idealist who espouses the goals of the Vietcong away from his village quietly? The thought of an argument with Huynh Tho made me as anxious as did the war itself.
I stepped toward the path leading to our village. Each snap of a twig jolted me, as if it were a gunshot. But there was no one in sight. The utter quiet unsettled me.
Without warning, less than ten meters from the path, a terrifying explosion threw me to the ground. Through the ringing in my ears and the clouds of dust and smoke, I could tell. A battle had just erupted all around me.
“Huynh Tho!” Disembodied and hollow, my voice sounded as though I were underwater. Flashes of light, thumping explosions reverberating in my chest, the tat-tat-tat-tat of gunfire. Too frightened was I to lift my face from the dirt.
But that is what I had to do. For if I remained, I would surely die. And Huynh Tho, who was only sixteen, would be left alone with nowhere to go. Disregarding the fear that clutched my heart, I crawled to the most remote part of the woods.
This proved a terrible mistake.
In hopes of hiding behind the trunk of a tree, I got up to run. Someone began shouting. My English was not so good at the time, but the little I had learned at university sufficed.
“Get down!” cried the American, from somewhere I could not see. “Lady, get down!”
I spun around, seeking the direction from which the desperate voice called. In that instant, a whisking sound rushed toward me. A sharp twinge knocked me back, as if struck by a stone.
Then came the searing sensation below my collarbone, which I shall never forget. A spot of blood spread on my shirt. My head grew faint. My body became too heavy for my legs. Down I went.
The world around me blurred.
I began to shake.
So cold …
After scattering her mother’s ashes in Vietnam, photojournalist Xandra Carrick comes home to New York to rebuild her life and career. When she experiences, in her darkroom, supernatural visions that reveal atrocities perpetrated by American soldiers during the Vietnam War, she finds herself entangled in a forty-year-old conspiracy that could bring the nation into political turmoil.
Launching headlong into a quest to learn the truth from her father, Peter Carrick, a Pulitzer Prize laureate who served as an embedded photographer during the war, she confronts him about a dark secret he has kept—a secret that has devastated their family.
Her investigations lead her to her departed mother’s journal, which tells of love, spiritual awakening, and surviving the fall of Saigon.
Pursued across the continent, Xandra comes face-to-face with powerful forces that will stop at nothing to prevent her from revealing the truth. But not before government agencies arrest her for murder, domestic terrorism, and an assassination attempt on the newly elected president of the United States.
Darkroom is a riveting tale of suspense that tears the cover off the human struggle for truth in a world imprisoned by lies.
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Reading Group Guide
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. In Darkroom Peter Carrick withholds the truth in order to protect his family—a lie of omission. Do you think it’s ever moral or acceptable to lie? Why or why not?
2. Xandra Carrick is a strong individual but vulnerable when it comes to her relationship with her father. How much does your relationship with your father (or other paternal figure) affect your view of yourself?
3. Xandra’s visions bring her knowledge that put a burden of responsibility on her shoulders. Have you ever become privy to something that you struggled with, wondering whether you should turn a blind eye or bring it out into the open? How difficult was that decision?
4. Peter Carrick was not a religious person, yet he was married to Grace, a deeply spiritual woman from a different culture and ethnicity. How do you think their differences affected their marriage and life? Have you ever had to overcome such vast differences?
5. How were the following characters imprisoned by the lies and secrets they kept? Peter Carrick, Ian Mortimer, see more
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