Whenever Jacob goes out—to the grocery store for packages of hot dogs and cans of SpaghettiOs and cases of pop, or to the gas station to fill up the tank of his truck—he locks Minh in the closet beneath the basement stairs. If someone—a TV repairman, A Jehovah’s Witness, a neighbor—comes to the front door, he sends her to the closet. Yesterday, a little girl selling magazine subscriptions caught sight of Minh through the screen door and Jacob said Minh was his adopted sister. “She doesn’t speak English.” This isn’t true; Minh was born in Des Moines.
The closet is the darkest dark. The musty cold seeps into her bones. At first, Jacob kept her in there all the time. He tells her if she runs away or thumps on the ceiling of the closet or signals somebody through the windows, he’ll go to her house and take one of her little sisters. He says, “I know where they live. I’d probably take Cai, not Lan.”
Jacob calls Minh Heather. He tells her they’re married. She knows this isn’t true. She doesn’t think it’s even legal for a fourteen year old to get married. Jacob is twenty-nine. He tells her she’ll forget her mother and her step-father and her little sisters, but it’s been seven months—this Minh overheard on the TV last week—and Minh’s impressions of her lost family seem bolder and sharper now than when she lived with them. Her mother scolds Minh and Cai in rapid-fire Vietnamese whenever they pop wheelies on their bikes on the street in front of their house. Lan, the littlest one, likes to collect leaves and flowers and press them into an old telephone book between sheets of their grandmother’s parchment paper where they eventually dry into flattened papery bouquets that smell of nothing; the centers remaining mushy sometimes for weeks.
Another thing the TV said was that they’re in Minnesota, not Iowa. Jacob got angry when Minh heard that and locked her in the closet and didn’t even bring her anything to eat later.
He’s making a scrapbook. It looks like a photo album but the only photograph in it is a single Polaroid of Minh, perched on the edge of Jacob’s bed, staring into the camera solemnly. Newspaper clippings fill the pages. Seventh grader vanishes from local campground. Step-father questioned in the disappearance of thirteen-year-old Minh Vang. Even though the scrapbook is about Minh, she’s not supposed to look at it.
Lying on her air mattress on the concrete floor, Minh likes to unravel every memory she has—the time her mother shrieked at a spider in the bathtub and the taste of her grandmother’s beef pho, and how Minh and her sisters danced and threw rice and ate themselves sick on frosted cake the day their mom married Paul.
Minh’s favorite memories are of Quick. Quick didn’t go camping with them that weekend because he always chases rabbits and squirrels and cats and geese and it drives Paul crazy. Stupid mutt doesn’t listen for shit.
Jacob alternately tells her that her family sold her to him and that when he first saw her—lifting the lid off a trash can behind the portable toilets in the campground to drop in an apple core—he fell into instant love with her and knew he had to bring her here, to his house. Well, really this is Jacob’s father’s house but the father died before Minh ever got here. Sometimes Jacob tells her he died of a heart attack in his sleep, and other times he tells her that he—Jacob—pushed his father down the basement stairs and killed him. Once, he told Minh that he poisoned his father to death. Inside the closet, Minh pictures the father lying on the other side, twisted at the bottom of the steps, his limbs and his neck bent at impossible angles.
Jacob doesn’t have a real job. He sells drugs and mows lawns and walks people’s dogs. Minh wants to go with when he walks the dogs but he says no, someone might recognize her.
Jacob sprinkles pepper onto his Macaroni & Cheese. He wipes his mouth with the back of one hand. His mouth disgusts Minh—thin, short lips that are always chapped. The skin between his top lip and his nose is always red and peeling; his tongue constantly darting out to probe at the raw flesh. He says, “I heard on the news your family held a memorial service for you. Nobody’s looking for you anymore.”
Minh bets Quick still looks for her, in her bedroom and in the backyard and at the school bus stop. Jacob stuffs a spoonful of noodles between his cracked lips. “Everybody’s forgotten you already. Everybody but me.” He drops his bowl and fork into the sink and goes into the living room, switches the TV on. A commercial is playing for potato chips, and then one for deodorant. Jacob’s favorite show, Pranksters, comes on and she occasionally hears his hooted laughter as she scrubs bits of powdery cheese and gluey noodles stuck to the bottom of the metal pot. Strange to think the man who raised Jacob purchased this pan. The house has many things that need fixing—a leaky faucet, a running toilet, a shutter that bangs against the side of the house when it’s windy—but Jacob never repairs them.
She wipes the spoons dry and sets them neatly in a drawer, rubs a dish towel around the edges of the clean bowls. She uses a sponge to rub the tabletop and the countertop. Dirt bothers her now. Above the stove, the yellowed, grease-spattered wallpaper is peeling away from the wall, revealing another layer of paper—faded blue and green flowers—beneath.
Outside, a dog howls and Minh pushes a dingy curtain aside to peer through the smudged glass. She glances at the back door. Quick has come into her mind and won’t go. Minh thinks of bringing him home from the pound, of curling up in her bed with a Nancy Drew book and his silky head on her lap. She thinks of Quick sitting in her bedroom, waiting for Minh to come home.
She has the sudden thought that if Jacob is in jail, he won’t be able to hurt her sisters. But would he go to jail? If Minh walks out the back door right now and goes next door or across the street and says, “I’m Minh Vang,” will Jacob tell everybody she wanted to go with him? He’s always talking about something called a statute of limitations. Minh isn’t sure where the statue is, or what it has to do with anything, but he says that since more than six months have passed he can’t get into trouble for what he did.
She hears Jacob moving around in the bedroom and the muscles in her neck and shoulders tense up. Footsteps. The toilet flushes. She creaks open the back door, looks over her shoulder. On the top step, there’s a red plastic jug of gasoline for the lawnmower that leans up against the side of the house. Minh lifts the jug. The gasoline sloshes against the sides of the container. She can smell it. She twists the cap, sets the jug on the floor.
Her fingers find the long slender barbeque lighter in a junk drawer, buried beneath a wrench, a magnet in the shape of Florida, a handful of faded receipts, some coins, a box of scattered thumbtacks. She splashes a trail from the center of the kitchen linoleum to the edge of the carpeted living room. At the sink, she scrubs her hands with soap. Paul’s father—not Minh’s grandfather but sort of—lives on a farm. When he burns tree stumps and piles of branches, he says, Only when it’s wet out. Never during a drought.
She fills a bowl with tap water, over and over again. It’s not the gasoline that burns, see, it’s the vapor.
From the bedroom, Jacob is yelling for her. Minh stands in front of the back door. Jacob appears in the archway between the living room and the kitchen. “The hell? Didn’t you hear me calling you?” He glances down at the soaked dish towel and the doused scrapbook lying at his feet. He looks at the lighter in her hands. He says, “Don’t.”
Minh stands in a puddle of water. She bends. The lighter clicks. The fine hairs on her arms sizzle and vaporize. The flame kisses the path of gasoline she’s laid with a dull WHOOMP. It races across the room. Minh thinks of Quick running toward her. Jacob twists away, stumbles backward, goes down.
The screams and the flames follow her down the steps, through the yard. As she crosses the street, Minh pictures his entire body blistered red and scaly like his chapped lips.