It didn’t take long to learn that Somchai had not seen or heard anything from Kaila’s father in years. At first Kaila felt crushed by the news, but when she showed November Skies’ latest article to Craig and Somchai, they quickly encouraged her by pointing out that many of the locations which the article covered were quite nearby. Her initial hunch had been wrong – now that she looked back she knew it was a stretch, seeing as she based it on a reference to an old article, not new information. That hunch had gotten her to people who could help though, and both Somchai’s family and Craig made it clear that they were willing to help her with any time and resources they had available.
Somchai of course was busy most of the time. He was at work most of the day, and when he wasn’t there he needed to be resting. Kaila usually saw him in the evenings when she and Craig ate dinner with the family, everyone seated around a table with the main dish consisting mostly of rice with some vegetables. Occasionally a piece or two of meat could be found within the serving. After dinner, Somchai would sit around with Craig and Kaila and the two men would tell her about Jeffrey Oliver. Kaila loved to hear their stories. They showed her father at his finest: fighting for the truth, investigating matters that no one else dared look into. Sadly, his article on the factory in which Somchai worked had not brought about the changes they had hoped for, but Craig had plenty of other stories to tell of articles he had tackled with her father that led to all sorts of environmental reform. It was good to hear stories in which her father was the hero.
Jeffrey Oliver’s name wasn’t usually held that way in Kaila’s home. All Kaila had ever heard there was that her father was a no good busybody and a scoundrel (according to her grandfather), and while her mother didn’t necessarily speak badly of him, the conversation always ended with the fact that her father had left, suddenly and without warning, and never come back. One night as Kaila sat listening to these stories, she wondered if her mother ever feared that Kaila would do the same, just run away forever. Kaila supposed that Aileen’s fear had been justified in one sense: Kaila had sort of run away. It wouldn’t be forever though. She’d be back as soon as she found her father, and then… then Kaila wasn’t sure what she would do.
It was a question Kaila found popping into her head quite frequently during that week in Thailand. What would her next step be after this? Would she go back to school? She didn’t particularly like the thought, especially since her grandfather would be even more adamant on her returning to her business major after she had been off gallivanting on the other side of the world. Whenever the thoughts surfaced, Kaila simply pushed them back down. There would be time to sort out her life later. For now, she wanted to live in the moment.
Most days were spent following Craig while he did his work. Craig travelled around the region frequently. His main work was focused on the Samrong Canal, documenting the lives of the people who lived along it. Not the people who lived in apartments like Somchai, Apsara and Chaisai. Though their living conditions were frugal, at least they always had a roof over their heads and enough food for each day. The people who lived directly by the canal, on the water’s edge, lived in absolute squalor. Kaila had seen pictures of people in extreme poverty before, but it was different to be there in person. It was frightening. Kaila hated to admit that the first thing she thought of when she saw a beggar crumpled over in the street was that she hoped he wouldn’t come nearer, but it was a gut reaction for her. Craig seemed so comfortable compared to her, talking with the people they met, asking them questions and taking their photograph if they’d allow it. He had a Polaroid along with him in addition to his regular camera, so if people wanted a copy of their photo he could give them one instantly. The children especially loved this.
At some point during the day, Craig would head out from the slums to find an internet café where he could document then send off his work. Kaila spent this time emailing her mother and grandfather, sending innocuous messages with descriptions of her adventures that were as vague as she could legitimately present them. She also wrote to Phoebe in complete, honest detail.
“Craig?” Kaila asked one afternoon, looking up from her laptop. She had just been writing to Phoebe about how scared she felt in the slums.
“How do you do it? How are you so comfortable and easygoing when you’re visiting people in those rusty lean-tos they call homes? How do you talk to someone normally when they’re missing a leg or overcome with dysentery or having nothing but black teeth and gums? How do you act like that’s normal?
Craig’s face grew solemn, but his eyes remained soft with sympathy. “It’s never easy, especially at first. Honestly, the biggest reason why I’m able to handle myself so well down there is because of experience. I’ve seen it all before. Nothing’s new to me.”
“So it doesn’t shock you the way it used to?”
“Oh no, it still does. It’s a sad truth, but if I didn’t continue to be shocked by what I saw when I’m reporting, then I wouldn’t have the drive necessary to go back there.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that the pain you feel when you see those people is good, Kaila. It keeps you from ignoring them. It stops you from pretending that everything’s just fine in the world and turning a blind eye to those in need. The pain drives you to put a stop to whatever you find to be wrong in the world.”
“Don’t you ever get discouraged though?” Kaila sighed. “ I feel so bad thinking this, but sometimes when you’re snapping a photo of another sick old woman or an orphan, all I can think is, ‘There are thousands more like them out there, tens of thousands. What’s the point of all this if things are always going to be this bad?’”
Craig was thoughtful for a moment, his chin resting on the tips of his fingers.
“Kaila, do you remember when you first met Chaisai?”
“At first he was afraid of you, too scared to even look you in the eye.”
“Yeah, he kept hiding behind Apsara and wouldn’t even come near me,”
“What did you do to change his mind?”
“I- well, I didn’t intend for it to be permanent at the time, but I guess I gave him Mr. Snuffles,”
That elephant was irrefutably Chaisai’s now. The boy loved it. He carried it around with him everywhere, tossing it in the air then catching it in his arms, running with the tiny elephant riding piggyback, snuggling with it at night when Apsara put him to bed.
Craig smiled. “You made a difference in his life, probably bigger than you had expected when you gave that gift. Now, when you first saw Somchai’s and Apsara’s apartment, you were uncomfortable there, yes?”
Kaila squirmed in her seat. She felt stupid for being scared of that apartment now. “Yeah, sort of,”
“You’re not scared now, though?”
“So what changed?”
“They- well, I guess they became my friends,”
“Exactly. Chaisai was afraid of you at first, but when you gave of yourself in the form of Mr. Snuffles, he became your friend. You were uncomfortable in Somchai’s and Apsara’s apartment, but when they showed hospitality and friendship to you, you responded in kind. Usually when I’m in the slums, I have to be like you were with Chaisai. I give people my time, attention, and any help I can offer, and they warm up to me. Sometimes I get the privilege of meeting someone like Somchai or Apsara, and they welcome me without any work on my part. Either way I end up happy, because whether I was the giver or the recipient of kindness originally, I end up with a new friend.”
“Huh.” Kaila mumbled. “That’s a very optimistic way to look at things.”
Craig nodded. “It is. Now I’ll admit, not everyone I try to be nice to is nice to me. Some people are just too hurt, too scared by bad things that others have done to them in the past. You should never be without fear either. A good dose of fear and caution is necessary if you want to avoid being robbed blind or worse in some parts of town. Still, I’ve found that at the end of the day, what made me happiest was that one person I got to smile, that one life I touched. Looking at the big picture can overwhelm you. The smaller pieces, the individuals you meet, that’s where real change happens.”
“So that’s the answer then? Always look at the smaller picture?”
“Do you think that’s the answer?” Craig asked, his eyebrow raised.
Kaila sighed. “No. Life’s never so simple that one answer solves everything,”
Craig nodded. “Good answer, kid. You should never frame things just one way in life. That’s how you get stuck. Life can be a beast sometimes, and you’ve got to use all the resources you have to get through it. There are lots of great organizations all over the world that fight poverty, corruption and environmental disasters on a larger scale than you or I could ever manage. They do a whole lot of good. Some of them you know already, like the Red Cross or Unicef. One organization that you’ve probably never heard of before though is CODI, the Community Organization Development Institute.They fund many projects, including one right here along the Samrong Canal, helping people living as squatters in slums secure their land titles so they have security and receive government benefits. A big problem for people in the slums is that the Sarong Canal is the main water source for both drinking and waste water. People also throw their trash in the canal every day. Once people move away from the polluted waters of the canal and have their toilet water and drinking water separate, many get better. I always point people their way as often as I can, whether they’re looking for help or looking to help.“
“That sounds really cool,” Kaila quickly typed a memo to herself to look further into CODI later. “So they’re making a difference then?”
“Yep. The world might always be a messed-up place, Kaila, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t people out there fighting to make it better,”
The No Frackin’ Way banner popped into Kaila’s mind, and she smiled.
“So your point earlier, about me and Chaisai and helping people in the slums, that was to remind me that every action counts, right? No matter how small,”
Kaila smiled. “Thanks, Craig,” It wasn’t really anything she hadn’t heard before, but it helped to be reminded, especially by someone who fought the good fight every day. She returned to her email to Phoebe with renewed hope.
The next day, Kaila was walking along the bank of the Samrong Canal with Chaisai. She had decided to take a day off from her search to collect her thoughts and relax. In the last few days of traveling around the slums with Craig, she had asked anyone and everyone if they had seen or heard of anything about Jeffrey Oliver or November Skies. She’d had no luck so far. Of course, the Samrong Canal had literally thousands of people living along it, so the chances of simply finding someone out of the blue were incredibly slim. Kaila wondered if she should look over November Skies’ article again tonight when she got back to her hotel room. She hadn’t found anything new the last couple times she looked, but she enjoyed reading her father’s work. There was something about November Skies’ words that filled her with passion and conviction. She wanted to be just as eloquent and convincing as he was. When she read his words, even if she was weary or discouraged, when she closed her laptop for the night she felt she had the strength to face another day. This search was worth all the discouragement and heartache it had brought her so far. Her father was worth it.
“Kaira!” Chaisai shouted, waving happily from his place several meters up the street. He had a habit of misplacing the “l” is Kaila’s name with an “r”, as did many others whom she’d met in the last few days. She found it rather cute whenever Chaisai did it.
“Coming!” she answered. Kaila chuckled to herself as she saw Mr. Snuffles dangling from Chaisai’s right hand. Those two really were a perfect pair. She was glad her childhood friend had found a new home. She was just a couple feet away from Chaisai now. The little scamp certainly enjoyed running on ahead. They weren’t going very far though, just over to the neighborhood store to pick up one last ingredient for the meal Apsara was making tonight. Kaila looked up again to see where Chaisai had gotten to. Suddenly her blood ran cold. Chaisai was running right on the edge of the canal! If he fell into that dank, murky water…
“Chaisai! Look out!”
Chaisai turned and smiled. He didn’t understand Kaila’s words, but the mischievous part of him understood her tone. Smiling, he turned around, running a few more steps… and a crumbling piece of concrete on the edge of the canal gave way under his foot.
“Chaisai!” Kaila screamed.
It all happened so fast. Without even thinking, Kaila leapt forward and grabbed Chaisai’s arm, swinging him back toward the street. She miscalculated the boy’s skimpy weight though, and the force of her pulling Chaisai around led Kaila herself to turn on her heels, leaving her at the end of the turn on the very spot where Chaisai had slipped.
“Oh no,” Kaila thought to herself. That was all the time she had before she fell headfirst into the Samrong Canal.
Everything around her was brown. The water was so obscured with filth that Kaila could barely see her hands as they swung around wildly. All she could hear was the sound of the water rushing around her and the faint sound of voices from above. Perhaps it was just one voice. Screaming.
“Chasai. Find help, Chaisai,”
Why wasn’t she moving? She should be a hundred meters down from where she fell in by now. And why was she having so much trouble resurfacing? Kaila tried to kick her legs. Only one of them moved. The other one was stuck on something. Kaila’s hands blindly reached down, trying to feel what had such a hold on her. It felt like metal wire. It was tangled in a snarl around her leg. There was no easy way out.
Kaila started to panic. She had to get out of here! She had no idea how deep underwater she was, and she was already feeling a tremendous pressure in her lungs. Frantically, Kaila flailed her limbs, trying to break free from the obstruction round her leg. Her nostrils flared, and a spurt of water came into them. Kaila choked, and her mouth opened reflexively. The last of her oxygen was gone. Even as Kaila tried to think of a new strategy, she could feel a black, fuzzy mist beginning to form at the edge of her vision. No. She needed more time. If she just had more time, she could think of a way to break free…
Even as Kaila’s mind raced, she could feel consciousness slipping away from her. She was in a panic, powerless to stop what was happening to her. As her limbs began to grow slack, Kaila felt a pressure around her waist, then nothing.
“Kaila! Kaila, wake up! Speak to me! Kaila!”
A voice came through to her, a British voice. Was it Sophie? No, the voice was male. Oliver? Wait… that wasn’t a British accent..”
Kaila coughed up grey water. As she gasped for breath, she heard the buzz of more voices around her.
“Kaila? Oh, thank God! Kaila, can you hear me?”
Chasai. Was he alright?
Kaila moved to sit up, but instead turned on her side and vomited. Then she vomited again. She felt a supportive hand on her back. Craig. He must have saved her.
“Kaila, I want you to lay back down, OK? Somchai already called an ambulance, and it’s on its way,”
“Chaisai?” Kaila croaked.
“Chaisai is fine, just scared. He went to get help as soon as you fell in. By the time Somchai and I got here, two of Somchai’s neighbors had already pulled you out of the water,”
“My leg-“ Kaila managed.
“Your right leg has a pretty deep cut on it. Have you had a tetanus shot recently?”
Had she? Kaila’s head pounded as she tried to think of her last doctor’s appointment. Suddenly she felt bile rise in her throat. She turned over and vomited again. Not much came up, but she kept dry heaving.
“Kaila, try to calm down. You need to calm down so your stomach can settle.”
A bottle of water appeared in front of her face. Kaila glanced up to see Apsara looking down on her with great concern. Kaila opened her mouth to receive a sip. The water hurt on the way down and Kaila could taste traces of bile in her mouth, but her throat felt clearer after drinking. As she lay back down, Kaila could feel her heartbeat slowing. She closed her eyes. She could hear Craig’s voice above her.
“Don’t worry, Kaila, the ambulance is on its way. It won’t be much longer…”
The hospital that Kaila was taken to was starkly plain. The walls were devoid of any sort of decoration, neither in the waiting room which she vaguely remembered from her quick procession through it, nor the doctor’s office where several doctors had come in and poked and prodded and administered shots, nor in the hospital room where she was finally lead to rest and get some sleep. Craig and Somchai had come to the hospital as well and been there to translate while the doctors met with her, but once he doctors figured out that neither Craig nor Somchai were relatives of hers in any way, they had been escorted out and directed not to come back until the next day after Kaila had a chance to sleep. Not that she was totally alone. White curtains separated her from other patients on either side of her. They were asleep though.
It had been early evening when Kaila had fallen into the water. Now it was much later. Kaila was in the middle of the room and couldn’t see a window from where she lay, but she was sure it was dark out by now. She should sleep, but she was still too shook up from what had happened to even think of closing her eyes. She needed to talk to someone. Kaila’s eyes wandered down to the backpack at the foot of her bed. Craig had made sure she got it before he left. Her cellphone was in there. More than anything in the world she wanted to call her mom… but she couldn’t. Not like this. She had lied to her mother, hid what she was doing, practically run away from home… and this was where it got her. She would have to face her mother soon, but telling her mother meant facing her grandfather, and she didn’t have the emotional fortitude to face him at this time. All she wanted was to be home, with her mom, Robby, Clarissa… even Robert. She wanted to be with family. She’d have to settle for the next best thing. Kaila called her third number on speed dial.
“Phoebe? Hey,” Kaila tried to keep a lightness to her tone, but her voice cracked with her next words. “Guess where I am?”