Sergeant Christopher Scott's funeral was held one week later. The police report stated that the cause of death was suicide via a rifle shot to the temple. Family and close friends attended the ceremony, along with Keisha who accompanied Tom, Julie and their mother, Ellen. Their family friend, John Thomas, also was in attendance as they paid their final respects and lowered his casket.
"How are you holding up?" John asked Ellen, who managed to keep it together.
"Some days are better than others," she replied sadly, fighting back the tears. She hugged John and thanked him. "You have our sincerest gratitude for calling the police after Tom called you. We can't thank you enough."
"Don't mention it, Ellen." John replied. "I didn't realize how bad it had gotten. I don't blame you guys for staying away from him. He was determined to end his life sooner or later."
Ellen agreed. "I tried, John." Her tears started falling. "I tried to get be there for him, but he didn't want the help."
John embraced her again. "Don't blame yourself, Ellen. You're a good woman and a good mother. You did everything you possibly good. Chris gave in to his demons and there was no chance of him coming back."
She inhaled. "How come you're not affected by them? What made you stronger than him?"
John looked down. Every day is a battle for me, but I chose to get help. I went to therapy for my PTSD, took my meds, went to support groups. I served the Vietnamese community to become a better person. I knew my life was important enough to live. Chris didn't and that is his cross to bear, not yours or the rest of the kids."
She kissed him on the cheek. "Thanks, John. You're a dear friend."
Seeing Tom across the way, John waved to him and went to see him. Keisha and Julie decided to give the two men some privacy. He hugged Chris's son and tried off him some comfort.
"Hey, Uncle John." Tom greeted him. "Thank you for everything."
"Sure," the former G. I. smiled. "I know you're already getting plenty of this but my condolence." He quickly shifted to another topic. "I heard you're in culinary school now."
Tom nodded. "I am. I'm training in Vietnamese cuisine. I guess I'm going back to my roots. In fact, the woman training me, you might know her. Gigi Van Trahn?"
John's eyes widened. "Gigi? How is she?"
Tom smiled. "Older now like you. She runs a popular eatery called The Great Sacred Bird."
John cocked his eyebrows. "You do know what she used to do?"
"A bargirl in Saigon?" The young man answered directly. "Yeah. But you can't judge someone by their past. She's done well for herself." He laughed. "She has me call her Auntie Gigi and she takes care of this really disgusting old man who likes to be called the Engineer."
"The Engineer?" The veteran's mouth dropped. "He's lives here too?"
Tilting his head in suspicion, Tom probed the man. "You know this guy?"
John signed and nodded. "Look, it's not my place but Gigi and the Engineer were friends of your mother."
"No, Tom." John shook his head. "Your birth mother, Kim. Again, it's time you ask about your biological mother to Ellen. It's time to stop with the secrets and move on!"
The dingy place looked dirty and smelled of too much smoke. But he did like watching the flashing lights. They were always pretty to look at.
The dark-haired woman carries him up the stairs to another room, not as pretty as the flashing lights, but he loved sleeping next to her in the soft mattress that they shared. She always smelled nice like orange trees.
"Now, Tam," she said to him. "My brave boy. One more kiss and then we say goodbye."
She dressed him in new clothes and put a cap on him. It looked nicer than the rags he normally wore. She sat him on the bed while she smiled and disappeared behind a curtain.
Then a loud bang. It scares him and he cries.
People run into the room. A man, a woman, and another man. None of them look like him. Uncle Ho grabs him and soothes his tears and as his exotic companion rubs his head, shielding him from something.
It's too late. He sees.
The dark-haired woman lies unmoving as a man carries her in his arms crying.
The boy cries out to her.
Tom jolts out of bed. It's two o'clock in the morning and Keisha is sound asleep in his old bedroom. He kisses her forehead, gets up, and heads out to the kitchen.
The lights are on as his mother sits at the dining table sipping a cup of tea in her hand.
"Couldn't sleep either?" she says worried.
He shakes his head. He takes a seat next to her.
"Any ideas of what you want to do with the house?" Tom asks her.
"Sell it, I suppose." She answers. "There's too many bad memories here."
"You know, Mom," he began. "Keisha and I have been talking and you're welcome to live with us in New York. We can find a nice place together in Brooklyn."
She set her cup down. "That's sweet, son, but you two need your space. I've been talking with Julie and we've decided to move to California together. I can be close to your sister while she goes to school there and my connections can help me find an accounting job real fast. Plus, the sunshine and beach air will do me some good as a change of scenery."
"That's great, Mom." Tom smiled. He sighed.
Sensing something bothering him, Ellen probed him for answers. "Spill it. Something is on your mind. Tell me."
"Mom, it's not important."
"Don't lie, Thomas." She replied. "I'm your mother. I can tell when something is bothering my children."
He finally confessed. "It's something that Uncle John said. He said it's time I knew the truth about my biological mother, Kim."
Ellen's eyes widened. She inhaled a breath and clutched her teacup harder. "I knew this day would come. I want you to know that I wanted to tell you the truth, but your father forbade me because it brought out too many bad memories for him."
He touched her hand. "I think it's time I know what really happened to my birth mother, please."
She inhaled. "Your mother didn't die in childbirth as we had told you. We softened the blow so that you would never be burdened with the truth. Your father was stationed in Saigon during the last few days before we pulled out our troops. He met your mother, Kim, at seedy bar where she was working as a bargirl there. They fell in love, got married, and that is when things went wrong."
Tom gulped but remained calm. "What went wrong?"
"The fall of Saigon," his mother explained. During the chaos and the storming of the embassy, Chris and your mother got separated. The only identification she had was his gun that he left for her; they wouldn't let her through the gates. The copters left and Chris felt guilty about it ever since."
"Then what happened?" Her son probed her for more answers.
"Three years had passed. Believing your mother had died, Chris and I met and got married. Seeing how his marriage to your mother had never been legalized, he had moved on with his life. Sadly, he never told me about his past in Vietnam. Then your Uncle John, who was working for an organization to reunite American fathers with their children, informed us that Kim was very much alive and had a son, you! That is when your father confessed everything to me."
"Weren't you upset that he had another family?"
"Of course, I was," Ellen admitted. "What woman wouldn't, but I loved your father enough to search for her and you. We learned that she had escaped to Bangkok and supported herself by working as a bargirl there. When Kim learned that her husband had remarried, she panicked and privately begged me to take you to America. She hoped we could provide a better life for you than she could."
Tears began to fill her eyes. Tom held her hand for reassurance.
"Understand, I was confused at the time," she told him. "Another woman giving away her own child to a stranger. I didn't have time to process it all and I refused. Left with no other choice, she told your father and I and John, who was with us, to meet her at the bar she was working at. We heard a gunshot in her room and found her body on the floor while you were crying on the bed."
Her face streaked with tears recalling every painful moment. Her put her head down.
"You were so helpless calling out for your mother! You opened your arms to me and the moment I held you, I knew I could never let you go! You were mine, Tom! Not by birth but a maternal connection that only a mother understands! I held you, loved you and comforted you! And by damn, I would die for you because you are my son, and no one can tell me otherwise!"
"I know, Mom," he whispered to her. He picked her up and drew her into his arms, while she sobbed into his shoulder. "I love you. This Kim person brought me to you for a reason. She brought me you, and Julie and Dad. I'm proud to be your son. Nothing is going to change that."
Ellen lifted her face, sniffed, and embraced him even tighter. "I'll always be your mother, Tam!"
Tom laughed. "Who else would you be?" He kissed her cheek. "And please, let's stick to Tom."
His mother giggled, wiped her eyes, and went into kitchen cupboard. "Tea?"
"Sure, Mom," he said proudly. "I'd loved a cup."
The Great Sacred Bird
Tom contacted Auntie Gigi to speak with her private. She offered to meet with him afterhours when the restaurant closed at nine. Taking the subway there, he arrived at the eatery and knocked on the door that had been turned with a closed sign.
Tran opened it to let him in. The young man noticed a strange change in the old man. He almost seemed polite and well-mannered. The empty floor looked bizarre at night with no customers, but most restaurants do after they close. Pointing to an empty booth, Tom met Auntie Gigi as she sat inside the empty station with an old cardboard box on the table.
She grabbed his hands as he took a seat. "I'm sorry about father. It very sad."
"Thank you," he replied.
"I know reason you here." She told the young man. "You know that we friend with mother."
Tom nodded. "I want to know everything. Please don't spare me the details. I need to know the truth."
Auntie Gigi sighed. She opened the lid of the box to reveal a dirty rag and faded photograph of a woman in a traditional Vietnamese wedding dress standing next to his father. She looked young, beautiful and innocent.
"Her real name Anh Kim Nguyen." She explained. "American call her Kim. She born in west province of country. Her parent killed when Vietcong bomb village. No place to go, she go see Engineer." She pointed to Tran in the corner who looked sad listening to her story. "Tran offer her job as dancer like me at bar called Dreamland. I don't like her at first because she new girl and I am jealous. But she sweet and kind and we become friend."
She pointed to the picture of his father.
"Your father, Chris Scott, marry her. We go to ceremony. They separated when Americans leave and she pregnant with you. I help hide her and you from Vietcong. She have baby and I deliver you." She took out the dirty rag. "This what we wrap you with. Your blanket. We carry you in it. You so beautiful. She name you Tam. You sometime sleep in my arm and you laugh and smile at me. You so cute! Then evil man who work for Vietcong want to marry Kim. She no like to marry him. He try to kill you but Kim shoot him with your father gun. I watch from window."
Tom's brain starts jumbling with memories. He was in the room when his mother shot this person. He witnessed it!
"We run away with help of Engineer. We go by boat to America. You call Tran, Uncle Ho. You so cute! Boat trip dangerous. Many people shot by Vietcong or pirate who want to steal. We make it but not America. It Bangkok. We work in bar, while Engineer be our pimp again. Kim work as bargirl but I'm too old so I cook, clean and I work as bartender. Your father come and claim you but won't take Kim because he have new wife now. Kim sad and shoot herself with father gun. You cry and Uncle Ho and I comfort you. But you go with father and new mother to better life."
Suddenly, it all started to make sense why loud noises scared him. He had seen his mother murder a man to protect him, heard gunshots on the water while escaping on boat, and witnessed his mother commit suicide. The trauma of that still haunts him. Like his father, his PTSD was something he also inherited. However, unlike his father he would not let that ruin his life. He would seek help for it.
Auntie Gigi rummaged through the box to pull out an old envelope. "This Kim also. I was scared that your father and new mother might throw away. I kept it hidden. Kim last letter to you!"
Tom took the envelope and pulled it out the letter. He handed it back to the older woman. "I'm sorry, it's written in Vietnamese."
Auntie Gigi nodded. "I'll try read as best I can."
My brave boy. Out long wait has ended. Smile Tam, for you have a father at last. He has come to take you home. All I dream for you, he'll do. You're still mine, but I can't go along. Don't be sad. Even though I'm far way, I'll be watching you.
Spirits know when to fly when it's time. There is no reason to mourn, for the great sacred bird is reborn. From the ashes, he'll rise and on his wide wings, I'll watch you from up above. I'll will never be far but, my son, it is your turn to know your father's love. I know now why I came to this earth, so you can find your place. But for that, I must leave your embrace.
You will be with your father now. Give all your love to him when I am gone. Take one last look at me. Don't forget what you see. For now, you must move on.
You will be who you want to be. You can choose whatever heaven grants. As long as you, can have your chance, I swear I'll give my life for you.
No one will stop what I must do. My son, I give my life for you.
A streak fell from Tom's face. He went over and hugged Auntie Gigi and kissed her on the head. "Thank you doing that. And thank you for saving me."
The older woman cried too touching his arm. "You look like her. You have Kim eye and kindness and sweetness in face. You go live American dream like she want. You be that chef!"
"I will, Auntie." He grinned. "Thanks for everything." Before he went, he marched to Tran who started to cry from Kim's letter. To the old man's surprise, Tom put his arms around him and hugged him. The Engineer sobbed. "Thank you, Uncle Ho, for protecting me and keeping me safe."
Tran sniffed. "You remember?"
"Of course," Tom smiled. "How could I ever forget?"
Asian Culinary Arts Institute
A month later…
Chef Wan savored the pho soup, enjoying the boiled meat broth that complimented well with the tendon and flank steak mixed with rice noodles. The extra touch of sprouts, herbs and mint really made a very hearty meal.
"Excellent work," he nodded to Tom. "I especially liked the layered banh da lon surprise cake you made. The use of steaming tapioca starch, mung beans, taro, rice flour and coconut milk added an additional touch to your dessert that was just exquisite."
"Thank you, chef," Tom replied, proud of himself. Now it was all up to Chef Wan to decide who was going to be awarded the sous-chef position at one of his restaurants.
Chef Wan tasted everyone's dishes and then turned to his students. "I am now going to take thirty minutes to deliberate and come back with the final results." He exited the room as the students began to nervously chat amongst themselves.
"What do you have to worry about, Tom?" Eva Salonga rolled her eyes. "Everyone knows you're a shoo-in."
"I don't know about that," Tom replied to his classmate. "You made some excellent Thai curries and your pad thai looks incredible."
"Don't be modest, Tom," said his other classmate, Simon Pryce. "That egg omelet thing you made I'm sure is delicious, not to mention those spring rolls."
"It's anyone's game at this point," said Tom, unsure if he would be chosen. Secretly, he hoped it was him.
Half an hour later, Chef Wan returned to the classroom.
"I've made my decision," the instructor began. "And I'm going to change my original plan. I'm not only to going to need one sous-chef but two for my restaurant in Greenwich Village."
All students started to murmur in excitement. The odds of winning the coveted position just increased.
"The two chefs that I've chosen represent dishes that I think will go well at this location." He declared. "The winners are..."
"Simon Pryce and Eva Salonga!"
Tom's heart sank. He really hoped it would be him. Putting on a brave face, he applauded his classmates who hugged each other in excitement. However, Chef Wan raised his hand to say something else.
"I want to give an honorable mention," Chef Wan stated. "This particular person had a rough start and possessed the techniques necessary to cook and prepare Asian cuisine but there was no heart to his cooking. No soul. But that all changed today when I tasted such fine, exquisite Vietnamese cuisine that appeared to be made from love. That is why I'm asking him to work under one of my executive chefs, as the new sous-chef to my eleventh restaurant soon to be opened in Brooklyn. Please acknowledge my new sous-chef…"
Tom's mouth dropped. He looked at his instructor. "Are you serious?"
"Yes, Chef Scott." Chef Wan laughed. "I'm dead serious! You're opening my next one in Brooklyn!"
The young man leaped into air with joy.
Brooklyn, New York
Three months later…
The private opening of the restaurant was packed. Between the students of the Asian Culinary Arts Institute and their guests and Tom's own family and friends, the young man was racing around trying to ensure everyone was taken care of.
"This pho soup is amazing, honey!" His mom Ellen complimented her son. She looked radiant. Getting some sun in California with his sister, Julie, really helped with her complexion.
"I'm more addicted to these spring rolls," said his sister munching on her appetizers. "You should make these for me next time you visit."
"Will do," he winked at her. He turned to his girlfriend. "How are you liking the food?"
"Delicious as always, babe," Keisha laughed as she kissed him. "Now get back to work, you're busy!"
"Yes, mam," he saluted.
He crossed over the booth where his Uncle John, Auntie Gigi and Uncle Ho, aka Tran, aka the Engineer, were seated exchanging fond memories. To no one's surprise, the Engineer decided to wear a loud suit to the soiree.
"How are you all doing?"
"Good, Tam," laughed Auntie Gigi sipping on her champagne. "Your banh xeo crispy better than mine!"
"No one's banh xeo is better than yours!" He teased.
"I can vouch for that!" He winked at Lien Minh.
Auntie Gigi slapped his arm. "You fresh! You might get some tonight!"
Tom frowned in embarrassment. "Auntie Gigi!"
"What?" She rolled her eyes. "You take girl out bar but no take bar out girl! I'm still wild and single!"
"So am I!" Uncle John laughed.
Tran picked up his beer bottle. "Let's have a toast!" He gave Tom his water glass. "Tam, you toast with us!"
"Okay, okay!" He relented. He raised his water glass as everyone raised up their wine glasses and bottles. "To Auntie Gigi, she taught me everything about being proud to be Nam' as well as how to cook delicious Vietnamese food! To the real Miss Saigon!"
"To Miss Saigon!" They yelled in unison as they clinked glasses.
Tom left them behind to enjoy their evening as Chef Wan shook his hand to congratulate him.
"Excellent event, Chef Scott," he grinned. "You're going to do so well here."
"Thank you, Chef Wan." He said his teacher, now employer. "Would it be okay if I take a five? I need to discuss something with my girlfriend."
"Sure, bud," Chef Wan agreed. "Take fifteen."
Tom made his way to where Keisha was sitting and tapped her on the shoulder. "Could I see you outside?"
Confused, she followed him out the door.
The evening was pleasant as stars appeared in the cleat sky. Keisha met Tom right on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant.
"Are you okay?" She asked him, concerning something awful had happened.
"Of course, I am," he smiled. He touched her hands with his. "Keisha, this entire journey of knowing who I am and where I came from finally gave me the closure I needed. I'm American, yes. But I'm also Vietnamese from my birth mother's side. And she sacrificed a lot to make sure I got to fulfill my dreams. She dared to love a man who could never reconcile his demons. I don't want that for us."
Keisha looked Tom with worry. "What are you saying?"
"I'm saying that I inherited those demons, Keisha." He admitted. "I also suffer from PTSD, maybe not as severe as my father's or Uncle John's, but I'm a war orphan. I've witnessed things that no child should have to see. I've carried this trauma all my life and that is why loud noises scare me. I've suppressed it and I'm scared that I'll turn out like my father if I don't get a handle on it. I need help!"
She hugged him. "Thank you, babe," she whispered. "You're not anything like your father. You acknowledge you have a problem and you are seeking help. That's the first step."
"I know," he sighed. "I guess what I'm trying to say is this." He got down on one knee in front of her. She gasped. "Keisha Davis, I love you with all my heart and ever fiber of my being. I want to marry you. But I don't want to go into a marriage when you have a husband who is crippled by some sort of mental illness. I want to have children with you and be a good father, but not at the expense of hurting you or our family. So, what I'm asking is that you are willing to wait for me while we figure this thing out together?"
"Yes!" Keisha cried. "The answer is yes! I love you, Tom, and I will wait and weather this storm with you!" She wiped her tears away. "I don't care how long but we will get through this together. I know therapists and PTSD groups." She wrapped her arms around him. "We can do this, Thomas!"
Their lips met, embracing each other in assurance of their future. No expectations, just plain love, compassion and support.
Thomas "Tam" Scott glanced into the night sky as he saw something bright flying overhead.
"Tom, what is it?" His girlfriend asked.
"Probably nothing," he smiled down at her. "Thought I saw a fiery bird in the sky. I must be dreaming."
They both laughed as they went back inside.
The phoenix rose from the ashes. Carrying him across the pain and torment of his fallen brothers, he saw the peace that laid ahead. He watched and saw her. His beloved wearing the white ao dai dress when he first saw her.
He called out to her. "KIM!"
She extended her arms out to him and ran toward him. "Oh Chris, I still believe…"
How in one night had they come so far?