A Normal Country
My daughter’s feet were very white.
I saw this, one day, suddenly. It was April. The snow was melting. I climbed the stairs to our apartment. I was cold and sweaty, and my boots were covered in mud.
I opened the door, and she was there.
She was three years old. She had kicked off her house shoes. Her feet were bare and white and very small, and she was there, waiting for me.
My daughter told me to stop. My wife came into the hall and asked what had happened. I could not explain.
Every man thinks that his daughter is the finest, the purest, and the most beautiful of all girls. But in my case, it was true: my daughter was truly the finest, the purest, and the most beautiful girl in Narodistan.
She was born in the Communist years.
I had never been political. When I was a boy, I hurt my ankle at Young Pioneer camp, and I never earned a single badge. I didn’t care about communism or capitalism. I wanted a wife and a job and friends—a good, normal life.
But then I had my daughter. I changed. I began to see and to think.
I saw that our cars were from Romania, and our chairs were from Moldova, and none of them worked. I thought of her, being taken away from me to sing with the Young Pioneers. I saw the people that drank, during the day, in the playgrounds behind their apartment blocks. I thought of her white feet stuffed into a pair of holey Belarusian boots. I saw that we were a shabby country—all concrete and statues. I thought of Canada and Sweden and Denmark—places where people were clean, and safe, and had good jobs.
I still didn’t care about communism or capitalism. I only wanted to give those white feet a clean road through life.
When she was four, the protests started. I joined them. I marched and sang and shouted. The others carried signs and slogans; I held up her picture.
I wanted to give her a normal country—and I did. Narodistan left the Soviet Union. The concrete got clean. The drunks left the playgrounds. We found good jobs and bought computers. Our cars were from Japan, and our chairs were from Sweden.
My daughter did not remember Communism. She did not remember the protests. She went to high school and learned from the new textbooks. She studied English. She was accepted at the University of Narodistan, and we were all very happy.
She wore Italian boots. The revolution worked.
She finished high school in May. She would start at the university in September. She wanted to travel.
I was proud. When I was young, foreign travel was banned. But now my daughter was going to be a woman of the world.
I asked where she wanted to go. Sweden? Canada? Denmark?
She showed me a website. U.S. Department of State, it said. Special program for citizens of all former Soviet republics. Summer working holiday visas—hundreds of jobs available. Practice English, earn money, and see America.
She had studied the list of jobs. She wanted to be a lifeguard. She wanted to go to Florida.
I was scared to send her to America. I read the news. I knew that bad things happened in America. Americans were always getting shot—in schools, in malls, on the streets, in their homes. And if they weren’t getting shot, then they were protesting: protesting about getting shot, or not having enough guns, or having the wrong president. America looked like Narodistan before the revolution.
I tried to keep an open mind. Maybe it was a normal country after all. Maybe she would be safe.
And then I read about Florida.
I read about storms and floods, drugs and guns, swamps and death. I read about fear and heat and madness. I read about men who used reptiles as weapons.
In Florida, men killed women, and women killed women. Parents killed children, and children killed parents. More people died in shopping malls in Florida than in any other place on earth. Florida had something called a “sinkhole”—a big hole in the ground that could open without warning and swallow a man or a house.
Her white feet would sink down into the swamp.
I told my daughter that she couldn’t go. For three days she didn’t speak to me.
“What’s wrong with Canada?” I said. “Canada has beaches.”
My daughter laughed.
“I love you,” I said. “I don’t want you to die in a shopping mall.”
She locked herself in her room.
My wife wanted to let her go. “Of course the U.S. isn’t safe,” she said. “That’s why she wants to go. She’s a kid. Kids want to have adventures.”
“Fine,” I said. “Let her have adventures. Let her have normal adventures. When I was her age, I wanted to go to Turkey and wear a robe and ride a horse across the sand. Let her go to Turkey, to Italy, to Russia even—somewhere safe! Some place where the ground won’t swallow her up. She can have adventures without dying.”
My wife did not agree. She paid the money, and the Americans sent my daughter a visa.
I worried. I stayed up late and read articles on the Internet. American food was full of chemicals—what would my daughter eat? And Americans hated labor—what if they tried to cheat her? Was there a lifeguards’ union to help her? And those American police—who would protect her from them?
I scrolled and scrolled. There were whole websites about the things that happened in Florida.
We needed a code word, I decided. We needed a special phrase. If my daughter were in trouble—kidnapped, enslaved, trapped in a shopping mall—she could call us and say the word, and I would help.
I suggested some words. But my wife and daughter would not listen. We don’t need a word, they said. It’s just America.
She bought a one-way ticket. “Don’t get a return trip,” I said. “You may want to come home sooner.” I gave her ten thousand roubles.
My wife said it was too much. “She can fly to Narodistan five times for that.”
It didn’t matter. She could spend it all if it brought her back one day sooner.
Every Sunday, my wife and I woke at 5:00 a.m. We opened our laptop, and there was our daughter’s face—beaming across the Internet, from Florida to Narodistan. It was still evening there. We wore our pajamas, and she wore hers. We talked for an hour, and then she went to sleep. For the rest of the morning, I was happy. I knew she was sleeping. For a few hours, she was safe.
Her face looked a little different. A little changed. I tried not to notice.
She saw many things. She went to Disney World. She shot fireworks. She ate a pie made of limes. I asked if she had seen any guns. She had. I asked her to come home.
The summer passed. She saved a man from drowning.
Finally, it was August. Her visa expired at the end of the month. “When is your flight?” I asked.
She said she needed money. “What about the ten thousand roubles?” I said. “What about your work? Are they not paying you? Have you taken this up with the lifeguards’ union?”
She apologized. They did pay her. But Disney World, fireworks, pies made of limes—these things were expensive.
I wired her another ten thousand roubles. I waited. The next Sunday, we opened our computer. Her face was not there. We waited. An hour passed. My wife made tea and ate an orange. I hated her for it. I hated her for eating when our daughter was missing.
I called the police. They said they could not solve crimes in the United States. I read things on the Internet. I called the Narodi embassy in Washington, and I left them many messages.
At six o’clock, my daughter’s face appeared. I did not hide my tears. “When is your flight?” I said.
She did not have a flight. She was not coming home. She had met a man—a Florida man. She was in love.
She and the Florida man had used my twenty thousand roubles. They had bought a little house. She told us the address and asked us to send some of her things. She said that we could keep her winter clothes. She wouldn’t need them in Florida.
I stared at her image on the screen. There she was. It looked like her, alone, in a room. But was there someone else? Was he there? Was the Florida man standing just beyond the frame, holding his gun, forcing her to say these terrible things?
We should have had a code word.
She hung up. I called Interpol. I left more messages for the ambassador.
I got ill. I stayed in bed. My wife brought me tea, but I couldn’t drink. I was in too much pain.
Until now, I had never felt real pain. I had seen other people in pain. I had heard them moan, and I had wondered why they did it. Stay silent, I had thought, save your energy. But now I understood moaning. A moaner has no choice. He must moan.
I had a steam jet of pain in me. I had to release it. I moaned and moaned.
I tried to sleep. I may have dreamed.
In my half-sleep, I remembered a movie I had seen. An American movie. I could not stop thinking about it. In the movie, there is an American man. His daughter goes to Europe. She is captured by evil men. So this American man goes to Europe. He brings so many guns. He searches for his daughter, and he kills and kills and kills. And then he finds her.
This man is crazy, of course. In this situation, a man from a normal country would call the police. Only an American would solve a problem with so many guns and so much death.
And this was the kind of man who had taken my daughter—an American! What could the ambassador and Interpol do against a man like that?
It all made sense. It was a terrible truth. If I wanted to save her from an American, I had to become an American.
The next morning, I waited outside the U.S. embassy. I told them I needed a visa as soon as possible. I paid a lot of money, and I got it.
My wife wanted to come. “I want to see her,” she said. “I want to bring her things.”
I was not bringing anything, I said. I was bringing her home.
“Maybe she really is in love,” said my wife. “Maybe she’s happy.”
“Who could be happy in a swamp?”
I flew to the swamp. I landed in Miami. There were thousands of legs and feet. They wore shorts and plastic sandals. They were round and tan. I got sick of legs and feet.
I rented a car. It had strange numbers—miles instead of kilometers. I never knew how fast I was going.
I drove to my daughter’s address. It was in a town called Leisure City. The town was on the edge of the Everglades—the big swamp. I had read about it on the Internet. Last year, a man in Leisure City had been arrested for biting a parrot.
I came to the address. Shangri-La Mobile Home Park, it said. The houses were not houses at all. They looked like train cars.
I knocked. My daughter answered. I moaned.
She wore shorts, a shirt, and plastic sandals. She had been eating the chemical food, and she had grown a little stout. She was tan. Her feet were not beautiful.
I told her to get in the car. She shut the door. I heard English from inside. The Florida man appeared. He was stout too, and short. He had hair on his chin, and his shirt had no sleeves. He held out his hand. I did not shake it.
He smiled a lot. He gestured for me to come in, to sit down. They had a couch and two chairs. I stood.
He spoke to me, and my daughter translated. He said he was glad to meet me, that he loved my daughter. He was happy that I had supported them when they wanted to buy a house. He said he would work hard and pay me back.
I told my daughter to get in the car. She shook her head. “Why?” I asked. “Is it unsafe? Is he keeping you? Does he have a gun?”
She translated, and the Florida man smiled. He opened a drawer. He took out a gun.
“I will return!” I shouted this from my car, and I hoped that she heard.
I drove to the police. In my bad English, I explained. The man had a gun. The police did not understand. They asked: “What was his crime?”
“Gun,” I said. “Gun, gun, gun.”
“A gun isn’t a crime,” they said.
I thought I understood. I thought they were like the old Soviet police—back when our country was like this. I tried to give them some money. “And now it is a crime?” I said.
They told me to leave.
I drove to a hamburger restaurant. I ate a hamburger, and I thought. I remembered that American action movie. I remembered that American father, with all his weapons and his muscles.
I understood my mistake. I was not yet enough of an American.
I drove around until I saw a Wal-Mart. This, I knew, was a famous American store—famous because it had everything. I went inside. They truly did have everything. They even had guns.
There was a special glass counter full of pistols, and behind it was a big rack of rifles. The man asked me which gun I wanted. “I don’t care,” I said. He gave me a rifle. “Fine,” I said. I gave him my money.
He told me to come back in two days. A waiting period, he explained.
“I need it now,” I said.
If I wanted that, he said, I had to go to a gun show. If you bought it at the gun show, you didn’t have to wait at all.
So I went. The gun show was at a basketball arena. On the court, there were hundreds and hundreds of tables, and all the tables had guns. I bought a pistol from a big fat man. He was very helpful. He put the bullets in the gun, and he smiled a lot.
It was late. I went to a hotel. I watched cop shows on television, and I noted how they held their guns. I bought potato chips from a machine, ate them on my bed, and fell asleep.
In the morning, I went back to Shangri-La.
My daughter answered the door. “Where is he?” I asked.
“A job interview,” she said. “He’s going to drive an airboat.”
I did not know what an airboat was and I did not want to know. I told her to get in the car.
She said no. I told her that I had a gun now. “I can protect you,” I said. She laughed. I showed her the gun, and she laughed some more. She kissed me on the head, said that she loved me, and told me to go home.
I could not understand. Here she was, stout and tan, living in a train car with this little man and his gun. I was going to save her, to bring her back to the normal country that I had worked so hard to give her. There was nothing to stop us now, and yet she would not leave.
“I don’t want to leave,” she said. “I’m happy.” But she could not be happy. Not like this. The Florida man had done something to her mind. But what?
I thought. I remembered what I had read on the Internet.
I kissed her. “I will return,” I said.
I drove back to the police. They remembered me and told me to leave. “Listen,” I said, “my daughter has been drugged!”
The police got very excited. They started their cars and turned on their sirens. I followed them to Shangri-La.
The Florida man was back. He held my daughter close. The police went into the train car. They opened the cabinets and drawers. They ripped up the carpet. They searched his car. But they could not find his drugs.
“He must have put them all into her,” I said.
The police checked our documents. They asked my daughter for her green card. She showed them her visa. It was expired. They started talking about deportation.
“I am her father,” I said. “I will take her home.”
The police said they would come back in twenty-four hours and if they found my daughter, they would give her to Homeland Security.
She was saved. The Florida man cried and for the first time in months, I was happy. I felt like I had beaten the Russians all over again. The Florida man tried to speak to me, but I told my daughter not to translate. There was no need for English now. Adventures were over. I would put the gun in the trash. We would fly back to Narodistan. Her classes would begin. The stoutness would melt away and the tan would fade.
About the Author
Ryan Napier was born in Plant City, Florida. He has degrees from Stetson University and Yale Divinity School. His work has been published most recently in Bartleby Snopes, the Bangalore Review, and the Lowestoft Chronicle. He lives in Massachusetts.