You think someone you love would never rob a bank, but then they rob a bank.
“Steven would never rob a bank… That’s the most absurd thing I ever heard,” Mom said when the detectives delivered the bad news.
“The fingerprints were identical!” one of the detectives retorted.
“We used computers,” the other one chimed in.
Genie screamed, but we ignored her. I wanted to scream too, but I was too grown up. I was so responsible, Mom put me in charge while she went to the police station.
I asked her, “But what happened to Dad?”
“No questions,” she said. “You’re a big boy now.”
Genie wasn’t as grown up as me so she kept asking, “Where’s Dad? Where’s Dad?”
“Don’t be a baby,” I told her.
“Will Dad be okay?”
“Shut up,” I said. “By law, they are obligated to give him a fair trial or else.”
Dad was found guilty on one-hundred-eighty counts of burglary. They put him in the Guinness World Book of Records.
After Mom told her Dad wouldn’t be coming home, Genie cried so hard, we had to go to Pinkberry to make her stop. Then we had to sell the house.
We moved out of the town where everyone knew Dad’s name, and our names by association. I changed my name to Winston, Mom changed her name to Cynthia, and Genie changed her name to Salamander.
“But I want to be Genie!” Salamander screamed in Cynthia’s face.
Cynthia sat her down on her lap. “Why are you screaming?” she asked Salamander. “Do you hear anyone else screaming?”
“But Mom!” Salamander said.
“Cynthia,” she corrected her.
In our new home, in our new beds, in the same dark, Salamander asked me how Dad was supposed to find us when we were so far away.
“He won’t. That’s the point.”
“If Dad is bad, does that mean he’ll go downstairs?”
I shushed her. “You’re being crazy. Don’t worry about Dad.”
“If Dad is bad, he won’t get into Heaven… How will we see him again?”
“Heaven isn’t real,” I said. “There’s no evidence to suggest that it is.”
“It is!” she insisted. “I remember. I remember being in Heaven before I was born… I was swimming around in the clouds with God and Jesus and all the angels.”
I shook my head. “Prove it. You’re not a credible academic source.”
In the following years, I chose the path of a scholar and Salamander was well on her way to becoming a philistine.
She exercised nonstop—crunches in bed, pull-ups in the shower. She raced alongside the bus to school.
People asked me, “Isn’t that your sister?” but I ignored them. I was too busy reading about fossils or cumulus clouds or the executive branch of government—real things—to pay her any mind.
In her trapper keeper, Salamander kept a picture of a bodybuilder punching her fist clean through a man’s chest, squeezing his slimy red heart on the other side. “For inspiration,” Salamander said.
She was brutish and overzealous, but I was happy she was happy. Salamander smiled when she flexed, all the endorphins. She was so proud of the way her biceps bulged.
Salamander’s abdomen was always tingling. She threw up (“from exhaustion,” she said) at least twice a day. They took an x-ray at the hospital and there were all these worms inside her. We found out she had been bulking up by only eating raw meat.
Cynthia and I did all we could to regulate her diet with more savory options. We grilled specially-imported Kobe beef for dinner. We served her only the most tender, most abused shanks of veal.
Salamander was ungrateful. She enjoyed the company the worms gave her.
I had to slap an uncooked kebab out of her hand. It slid across the room, but she got to it before I could stop her. I had to pry her lips open, reach through her teeth, and yank out the pink meat before it slid down her throat. Cynthia was still at work when I took Salamander to the hospital for her fractured jaw.
The news reported that Dad had snapped a guard’s neck and tunneled out of prison. We assumed he was smart enough to stay away from us, but that was probably silly. History had already proven how little we knew about him.
It felt sincere when I told people I had no idea who he was.
Salamander bragged about him though. “My dad is the bandit of bandits,” she told her classmates. Luckily, they didn’t believe her.
She karate chopped a desk in half. “My name is Genie!” she screamed as the security officers forcibly escorted her off campus. “My name is Genie!”
Dad’s unlawful genes must’ve run deep in her blood, because then Salamander tried sneaking into Heaven like the criminal she was born to be. But the paramedics brought her back.
She coughed up a handful of pills and a family of curling parasites. The doctor had to tie Salamander down and tell her that Heaven wasn’t real.
“Of course you—a doctor—would say that,” she said. “You’ve never believed in anything that wasn’t a number.”
“I can tell you the exact neurons that are making you think these crazy thoughts. I can do that with science,” the doctor shot back.
“Oh, so neurons are real, but Heaven isn’t?” Salamander said.
“They are necessarily mutually exclusive!”
Salamander wouldn’t admit she was wrong, so she had to live at the hospital. She wasn’t allowed to use a knife or fork. She had to eat spaghetti with two spoons.
To pay off the hospital bills, Cynthia had to work both the day and night shift at the accounting firm.
I delivered pizzas for one-dollar tips. I had to pay for my courses at the community college with wrinkled and sweaty singles. Things would be easier once I became an environmental engineer, I thought. I would become an environmental engineer and make a better world.
Cynthia and I were too busy or embarrassed to visit Salamander very often. After we admitted this to each other, we only saw her on Christmas and her birthday.
On her birthday, we weren’t allowed to light the candles on her cake. We just pretended. We dimmed the lights and stood in the dark as Salamander blew out the imaginary flames.
Dad had last been spotted in Puerto Rico. He was back to his old tricks—robbing banks even though it was illegal.
When we saw her at Christmas, Salamander didn’t seem to be getting any better.
“The doctor said you won’t stop being suicidal,” Cynthia accused.
“No, I’m not. The doctors are liars.” Salamander tried to throw a Styrofoam tray at the wall, but it just spun around in the air before floating to the ground.
“Doctors can’t lie,” I said. “Doctors have to be objectively unbiased or else they wouldn’t be doctors.”
“Heaven isn’t real. If you die, you’ll be dead. That’s it,” Cynthia said.
“I’m not suicidal!” Salamander shouted. “That’s not how it works!” She looked at me for help, but I didn’t understand her either.
“The way Heaven works,” Salamander explained, “is you have to be good. You can’t kill yourself, because that would be bad. You have to be good to get into Heaven.”
“Stop it,” Cynthia said. “You are not allowed to go to Heaven. I don’t want you there. It’s not good for your mental health.” She threatened to move Salamander to a permanent facility if she didn’t shape up.
Salamander shrugged. “Do it. I know that’s what you want. You don’t want me in the family anymore.” She was just as stubborn as Cynthia.
“Please,” I whispered to Salamander. “You don’t want to be locked up too.”
That made Salamander think.
“This isn’t how our family is supposed to be,” I said, squeezing Cynthia’s hand.
“Fine,” Cynthia conceded. “Salamander can come home. But only if she promises not to go to Heaven.”
I really thought Salamander would refuse. So many facts had come between her and her Heaven, and she had hurdled over them with unsubstantiated faith. But that same day, we bundled her up in real clothes that didn’t tie in the back and marched triumphantly through the automatic sliding doors, arm in arm in arm.
Technically, she had kept her promise.
We didn’t know which name to have engraved on her tombstone, so we decided to throw Salamander’s ashes into the ocean.
I was at the pier to wish bon voyage to Cynthia when she said, “Remember when I was Mom?”
“I had to fly a helicopter from the U.S. embassy to an aircraft carrier,” she said. “I lived in refugee camps for years—in a tent. When my family came to America, we didn’t know how hard our lives would still be… I wanted to be a teacher—no, a psychologist. But my parents said the people closest to the numbers were the richest, so I became an accountant.”
I didn’t know.
“I hate being an accountant,” Cynthia said to me. “My parents and your dad’s parents had come from the same village and were so happy to find each other halfway around the world. Your grandpa told me what a nice, decent boy you dad was. Our parents wanted us to be one big family together.”
I reached out to touch the urn Cynthia held in her arms like a baby.
“Take her somewhere nice,” I said, and hugged her goodbye. “Goodbye, Mom.”
So many awful things had happened to us all in a row, it wasn’t statistically possible. When I read that her cruise ship had been swept up in a twister, I stomped my graphing calculator into bits.
With Dad finally extradited safely back to the States, the government was free to fry him up.
My graduation ceremony was the same day he was scheduled to die. I sold off the tickets I’d reserved for my family, and put the money in the bank. I was ready to trust again.
“Where’s everyone?” Dad asked, strapped down in the chair.
“Just me,” I said.
While the prison guard adjusted the dial to the highest setting, Dad and I made small talk.
“Genie killed herself,” I told him. “She figured the only way we’d be together was if she went to Hell with the rest of us.”
“Amen,” Dad said.
“Was she right?” I asked.
Before he could answer, I watched a thousand wild volts course through his body. And that was it.
I imagined Dad floating down on glittery electric angel wings to be with Mom and Genie.
Daniel Nguyen's work has previously been published in Chronogram, Midwest Literary Magazine, and FORTH Magazine.