Rigorous
Volume Four, Issue 3



The People We Serve

Cyrena Lee


It had just turned 9 o’clock in San Francisco when Fiona’s phone buzzed. She groped blindly for her phone.

It was her sister on FaceTime. “WAKE UP!!! You’ll never guess who I just talked to at this funeral.” Hana yelled from halfway across the world. She had been living in Taiwan for the past few months, taking a self-imposed sabbatical from work. Fiona sat up in her bed and yawned. Work had been even more stressful lately due to the increasing political chaos; at any moment her non-profit organization could have their funding cut.

“I’m awake. Funeral?” She squinted one eye open. Fiona preferred sleeping in on Saturday mornings.

Hana’s hair was pulled up into a high ponytail that kept swishing and freezing momentarily on screen. “Duncan. Our cousin. Remember him??”

“Of course. Duncan died?!” Now Fiona was awake. Duncan was one of their Taiwanese cousins that had come to live with them for a year, when they were all kids. She hadn’t seen Duncan in years. He moved to Los Angeles after his year with them on the East Coast, to live with another aunt.

“No, no, it was his Wai Po’s funeral. At a mosque here. So weird, I didn’t even know it existed. Anyway—”

“Wait, Wai Po?” She blinked, confused. Their maternal grandmother was shared, and she had already passed a couple years back.

“No, no, Auntie XiaoLing’s adopted mom, so I guess, our Wai Gong’s sister? Wait. I guess we are related then.” Hana rolled her eyes. “Whatever, anyway.” Things like that in their parent’s homeland used to happen all the time, babies were swapped, promised, forgotten. Their grandmother was so intent on having a son that she promised her next baby—if it were a girl—to her own infertile sister-in-law, who was Muslim. And that baby happened to be their mother’s sister, Auntie XiaoLing.

“Duncan and I were talking and I found out he is a COP. In the LAPD.”

“Jeez. Not the best time.” Fiona got up out of her California King bed to move towards the kitchen for some tea.

“It gets worse.” Hana was yelling now. “He is a TRUMP supporter! Can you believe that?! I mean, for an immigrant himself that is pretty rich. He kept going on and on about how bad the illegals are, and that I couldn’t even imagine what they are up to.”

Fiona sighed. “I can’t say I’m surprised. He’s...a cop.”

“It was terrible. He was just like, I’m a Republican, of course I’m going to vote for Trump.” Hana mimicked their cousins’ FOB accent, which made Fiona laugh.

“And he’s still Muslim too?” Fiona steeped her organic green tea and set a timer for three minutes.

“A ‘cultural Muslim’, if anything. I think they just… don’t eat pork. I doubt he even reads the Quran. The funeral was so weird, women weren’t even allowed in. I’ll send you some pictures. How is everything else going over there?”

“The protests and looting has been really bad. We packed emergency bags, just in case, to camp out in Marin County.” Fiona and her partner had just purchased a starter home in Oakland, which was getting safer in some areas, but still. One could never be cautious enough.

Now it was Hana’s turn to sigh. “Why can’t the police just stop killing innocent people? Anyway. I have a good friend’s wedding in LA next week actually, so I’m going to head back to the States. Do you think you could come meet me?!”

“Next week? Are you going to stay with Duncan?”

Hana let out a laugh. “Yeah, right. No, staying with some friends. Come! We can go to the protest together there.”

“Hm. Jackie did just buy a pretty sick house. Not sure if you saw it on Instagram. That pool. She did invite me and Elle…”

“OHH, yes! That’s perfect. I’ll send you my flight info. Okay, gotta sleep now, it’s late here. Love you.” Hana’s face disappeared and in its place, a slew of notifications and alerts popped up on Fiona’s phone, reminding her again of the chaos that was brewing in the outside world, along with Hana’s flight confirmation.

Fiona removed the bag from her green tea and blew on it and looked at the flight details. Business class. She rolled her eyes; Hana had been such a spoiled child, but had studied hard and worked endlessly as an investment banker before burning out. In her time off, she had become way more relaxed and was now even politically-involved. But some tastes for comfort didn’t die so easily.

It was funny, she thought, how the news of a death didn’t faze her as much as the news of being related to a Trump supporter. But she supposed that it all made sense, since she had so many extended family members, it was hard to really make the time except for the closest ones. And she was happy to see Hana again soon.


***


Officer Hsu had been working long hours lately. His job had always been tough, but with the rise of violent protests, he had been working overtime. It was also his first day back at work, after an exhaustingly short trip and long flights back and forth from Taiwan for his grandmother’s funeral. He took a hot shower and then settled into dinner, which his wife Tina had made him. Niu rou mian. His favorite comfort food, that was even more comforting when home was so far away. By pure chance, Tina had grown up in the same town as his mother did, and the taste of the braised beef soup was almost the same as he remembered as a kid. He considered himself lucky.

“How was your day?”

“Fine.” Duncan immediately hovered over his bowl of steaming noodles and inhaled with his eyes closed. He didn’t have the energy to tell his wife about his heroic arrest. That would be for another day.

“Well. Don’t forget to call your mother, she rang earlier.” Tina was tired, too. She opened up her phone and started to eat. She had moved to America at a younger age than her husband, and Duncan took pride in how American her accent was. Meeting her was the best thing that had ever happened to him. Getting married was next, and becoming an official LAPD officer followed shortly thereafter.

“Okay, babe.” Duncan tucked into his meal with one hand, and in the other he checked his Facebook comments. He had posted a selfie of himself in his riot gear earlier that day—partly out of pride, because he thought he looked smart and handsome, but also partly to stand up for his job, which was to protect and serve. Especially in a time where it seemed like everyone was against his line of work. He fought hard to get his job, went through background screening and then a six-month training program. He even had to learn a bit of Spanish, which was now his third language.

But his favorite part of it all was wielding guns. There were so many varieties and Duncan collected them like a wine collector. Only to hold a 9mm Beretta 92FS in one’s hand was real power, while drinking back expensive grape juice only gave one the illusion of it. The television was on in the background while they ate dinner, both of them distracted by the multitude of screens. Tina was chatting with one of her friends. Duncan was happy to receive so many comments of support—one even from a former high school teacher he had, Mr. G. The one rare kind teacher he had who treated Duncan like he was going to be an American and wasn’t just some immigrant kid from Asia. His thoughts were interrupted when he heard the word “Mexican’ on Fox News. For a second he anticipated seeing himself on television. But it was a report about how a Mexican drug cartel was fueling homelessness in LA. Nothing about how he had saved someone from being stabbed to death.


As night fell, Duncan closed his eyes in bed. He needed to get sleep because the next day he had another long shift, and he was still jet-lagged. He had called his mother, reassured her that everything was fine, not as violent as the media made it out to be. It was strange to have gone to Taiwan for such a short trip, the more time he spent away the farther away he felt from who he used to be. He also ran into one of his American-born cousins there, who disparaged him for being a Republican. The memory of this sour interaction still made him burn a bit with bitterness; those ABC types always considered themselves to be so much better. But they really didn’t understand anything, probably could not even list all the amendments to the constitution like he had to learn. Hana was a fancy girl, born to one of his aunts who had the luck of marrying rich and immigrating to America early. When they were kids, she was just his cool American cousin, and she made it clear by speaking in rapid-fire English when he’d arrived there that she wasn’t going to make his life easy. Even now she wanted to make his life hard, by wanting to defund the police. He scoffed with his eyes closed. She knew nothing about what happened in the dirty streets where people like her would never be caught dead.

“Baby, is everything okay?” Tina turned to him.

“I’m fine, babe. Sweet dreams.” And Duncan fell asleep, apprehensive about the days to come.


Early the next morning, Duncan got dressed, which was one of his favorite parts of the day. If clothes made a man, his uniform made him an important man of the law. At the precinct, after guzzling his usual coffee, he greeted his fellow officers quickly before heading to the locker room area. There was not much time to shoot the shit, though, because there was a big protest later that day. It was a high-pressure, high-stress situation, and they were trained to be on edge.

Duncan pulled on his riot gear, and proudly admired the stitched handiwork of his last name in white capital letters across his black helmet. He didn’t waste time to report to the briefing that day and hurried to gather with the rest. There were 9,000 other officers he considered brothers and sisters. He could not let them down. As he walked, he spotted his friend and colleague, Officer Tolentino. He almost didn’t recognize him because he was dressed in plainclothes, but he still had on his steel-toed boots which were shined in his signature fashion. Tolentino seemed to be in an important meeting with a few other officers Hsu didn’t know by name. Confused, Duncan trotted over. They usually marched together.

“Officer Tolentino!” He called out. At the sound of his voice, Tolentino turned towards him. His usually friendly face was drawn back tightly. He didn’t make any room for Duncan in his circle or any introductions.

“Officer Hsu.” He nodded his head, a clear indication that this was the extent of their interaction. Duncan looked back and forth at his fellow officers for a moment before backing away. If he wasn’t briefed on something, it was none of his business. He nodded and trotted onwards. He had seen the news, the awful videos. People were in an uproar about race but they missed the point; there were bad people in this world, regardless of their skin color. There were always outliers, wicked ones. Especially in the civilian population. His job was to protect the people he served.

“Should we get him in on this mission?” Another officer who was chewing gum, smacked it loudly.

“No.” Officer Tolentino shook his head. “He’s a model minority, that one. Meant to follow the rules.” The group of four officers let out a few chuckles.

Another one spoke. “I heard he’s a Muslim. You ever hear of that? A Chinese Muslim. Next thing you know, the Jews will be marching for Blacks.”

Tolentino let out a low whistle. “America is getting confused about who the enemy is. And we gotta make it clear.” And the group continued talking about their plans for the protest later that day.


***


Hana and Fiona had been marching for hours, since early afternoon. There was a buzz of excitement in the air, and at first, they pointed out the snarkiest and funniest signs to each other. But as the day dragged on, the moods changed. They were rounding a corner in Santa Monica, near the Patagonia store.

“Ohh, I want to get the same jacket you just got.” Hana looked at the store and squeezed Fiona’s arm.

“Copycat.” Fiona whispered back, and then nudged Hana at the sight ahead. A chorus of voices began to speak over each other in an air of disorganized chaos. The LAPD was arriving in forces like a black cloud of Storm Troopers. Somebody in the crowd, armed with a trumpet, even started to toot the Imperial March, much to the crowd’s delight. The joke ended when an officer swiped at the trumpet, knocking it to the ground, snapping it into two pieces.

Chaos broke out, and leaders began to yell. “If you’re white, move to the FRONT! If you’re black, move to the back! Protect black lives!”

Hana and Fiona looked at each other, fear in their eyes. “Where should we go?” Fiona whispered. The leader didn’t say anything about non-black or non-white people.

“Umm. I don’t know, somewhere in the middle?” Hana dragged Fiona slightly towards the front of the crowd. The two were pushed along further, and caught the words ‘white enough’ in the wind of excited yelling. There was electricity in the air. Hana spotted a Filipino man with a brick, wearing some really nice steel-toed boots.

“Fiona.” She grabbed her sister. “That guy. He looks like he has a gun.”

“It’s a COP! The COPS are inciting violence!” Somebody yelled to her left. Hana’s heart was pounding, and she didn’t stop to think. She just ran towards that man and tried to grab the brick from him.

“Hana!” Fiona ran after her sister, stopping with horror when she saw that the man had taken her by the arm and flipped her and the brick into the store window. Glass shattered everywhere and screams exploded, people began running in all directions. The steel-toed boot man had disappeared. Hana was bleeding. She got up in a daze, desperately trying to find her sister. She walked but limped slightly, winced when she felt a sharpness in her ankle that had hit the glass a second after the brick. The brick, Hana thought. She should take it as evidence.

“Looting at the Patagonia store. Report immediately.” Officer Hsu was at the frontline, charging towards the violations of law that had just taken place. He saw a young woman holding a brick and charged at her. “Put down the brick!” He yelled, holding his shield guard up.

Hana saw an officer charge at her. “FUCK YOU.” She yelled and hurled the brick at him. Violent force. A threat. Officer Hsu raised his metal baton and swung for her arm, but instead made direct contact with her head. His heart beat wildly when he saw blood pool out on the concrete sidewalk. Never had he made a girl bleed like this before. He tried to get a look at her face, to see if she was still breathing, when his stomach turned when he recognized the face. Impossible. But it was, it was his cousin Hana. He backed away instinctively. His mother would kill him if she knew that he had hurt the daughter of his Auntie that had so generously taken him into their home in America.

Memories of his childhood came ringing back into his ears, of Hana teasing him about his English. The implication was that he wasn’t good enough. Duncan took a step closer. He had to check on her. The amount of blood was not insignificant.

But he couldn’t risk it. He had a wife to take care of, and he was there to protect the country. The protest had just begun to turn ugly, and there were more bad seeds around that he had to stop. His cousin, it had turned out, was one of them.

On the floor, Hana continued to bleed. Fiona bent over her and cried out for help. Smoke began to fill the air. Tear gas. The sunset blazed like a painting of heaven while the earth burned like hell.

“Did you see which cop? Did you see a badge number?” Fiona cried at her sister. “Was he black? White?”

“No, I don’t fucking know, he was a cop. Does it matter? White probably.” Hana struggled to stand, on the cusp of consciousness. She fell again into Fiona’s arms.

Fiona struggled to pull Hana up. “We need to get out of here. Can you walk?”

Duncan marched forward. He turned slightly to look back one more time, but his eyes glazed over with tears he was not expecting. It had only occurred to him then, that his cousins were his actual blood, blood that he had just split onto the ground. But he steeled himself. The only thing that they had in common was that they were both American now—Taiwan was a distant dream, their mothers aging, their mother tongues vanishing—and even then, he was far more American than Hana or any other of his ABC cousins. They only cared about themselves, crying about black and white when they weren’t even either of those things. He cared about protecting all that was good on this earth, and all of the freedoms this country afforded. He decided not to turn back and instead charged forward. All he saw ahead was a fiery crimson red.



Cyrena Lee: "I am a writer based in Paris. I often think about dreams, rock climbing and spicy food. For recent examples of my work, please check out the anthology Writing for Life (Into the Void) and a non-fiction book on lucid dreaming, publishing this October 2020. Currently, I’m working on revising my first novel and other short stories."




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