Where No One Belongs by Adam Zang

Competition: Short Story Challenge 2008, First Round

Genre: Historical Fiction  Subject: Sewing

Original Illustration by Yevgenia Nayberg

Rioko pets old Mr. Ryu’s dog. The internees call the dog many names. Most of the names are about hope and that is a good thing. The dog wanders away toward the fence, maybe chasing the shadow of a jackrabbit or a fat horned toad. Rioko looks up and Mr. Ryu is chasing after the dog, calling one of its names. The sentry guard in the tower yells something and Mr. Ryu still calls after the dog, another name this time. Mr. Ryu is at the fence now and then there is a loud clap, a rifle shot. Rioko sees the dog licking Mr. Ryu’s hand but she can’t see Mr. Ryu’s face. Rioko is seventeen and she has just seen someone die. She is cold; she is sweating. She looks down at her shoes, her right foot throbbing in time with her heartbeat.


Dr. Jonas David Mendelssohn has one hand. He sewed up his wrist on a Japanese island and now he sews up the seams of torn skin of these prisoners in Topaz, Utah. He prescribes aspirin and water and morphine. In makeshift barracks, he diagnoses bronchitis and sprained ankles. The internee doctors send the ones with cuts his way even though he only has one hand. They call him Dr. Mender.


Rioko is sick. She is sick in her heart and in her foot. She has a fever and no water. Rioko lays in a small cot under an itchy green blanket with her little sister, Cola. Cola says Rioko stinks. Cola says that maybe she won’t sleep with Rioko anymore if she keeps farting. Cola shifts, sticking her butt out, and immediately falls back asleep.

“Sorry,” Rioko thinks she says. She thinks about how her shoes are the same color as the Utah desert. They used to be bright white but now they are burnt like the earth. She always wears them to bed. She is scared. She is sick.


Dr. Mender stares out into the empty Utah desert. He drinks coffee and tries not to think about old Mr. Ryu and the gaping hole in his face, and Paul, the sentry guard standing stupidly and arrogantly over the dead body, believing he has done no wrong, ready to shoot again. Dr. Mender tries to think about the day ahead and not the days and lives and limbs that are behind him.


Rioko does not want to wake up for breakfast. Cola shakes and shakes and shakes her sister’s body. Rioko can see her sister as if through a peephole in a door, disproportionably comic. Rioko is thirsty. Cola rips the covers away, a crowd growing around Rioko’s bed. Some noses wrinkle at the stink. A hand brushes across her foot and Rioko would scream if she didn’t feel so far away. Rioko is in the middle of the desert and so is everyone else. They are where no one belongs.


Dr. Mender contemplates the girl’s shoes. The left shoe is burnt orange and dry, the shoelace carefully double knotted. The right shoe is dark red, wet and swollen.

Dr. Mender does not scare easily but he is frightened for the girl. He has given her morphine and she has fallen asleep. Her face is narrow. She has chapped lips and her chin has an upward tilt. Her name is Rioko and this is the name he whispers soothingly as he cuts the canvas of her right shoe with a pair of stainless steel scissors. Her name slides out of his throat like cool water. Rioko Rioko Rioko… The seams break easily, and the shoe falls away like a soggy husk.

Her sock is an amalgamation of desert dust turned mud, blood, puss and cotton. There is a small hole in bottom the sock, directly in the middle of the sole of Rioko’s foot. Dr. Mender starts the cut at the hole, gently moving the scissors up her ankle, the stump of his left hand holding the girl’s leg steady. Rioko Rioko Rioko…


Rioko wakes up and she does not scream. Maybe it is because she has morphine coursing through her veins. Maybe it is because she has been locked in this prison for seven months. Maybe it is because she hears her name softly echoing off the white washed walls of this cinder block infirmary. Rioko Rioko Rioko…

            She stares at the man holding her foot, his fingers wrapped around her ankle, the stump of his left wrist gingerly tamping the arch of her foot, her big toe, the sole of her ankle. She cannot feel him do this. Her foot, she thinks, has been invaded by the Utah desert. It does not belong to her anymore. She wants to tell this white man, his name is Dr. Mender—he once gave Cola some anti-septic after she was stung by a bee—she wants to tell Dr. Mender that she is sorry, but this isn’t her foot any longer. Nothing escapes her throat except dust. She is thirsty.

            Dr. Mender looks up at her and smiles. Through the lenses of his glasses, Rioko sees that his eyes are far away, like her. She imagines he sees this place through a telescope like she does. He sets down the foot and helps her take a sip of water. “I’m glad you’re awake,” he says, catching a rivulet of water on her chin with a handkerchief. “I was getting a little lonely.”


Dr. Mender tells the girl that her foot will have to come off. She tells him to give it to the desert, to bury it and to sew up her leg so that the desert cannot take that too. “They are trying to take it all,” she says. “Everything we had we no longer have.”

            Dr. Mender tries to make a joke, something about how she can tell her children that she lost her toes in Topaz. He feels stupid after saying this. She gives him a forgiving look, allowing him to try again. “How did this happen?” he asks.

            “Suddenly,” she says.


Cola says that she is sorry for calling Rioko stinky. Cola cries and cries and cries… This makes Rioko want to cry but her tear ducts have been fire blasted, wiped bone dry.

            Dr. Mender stands at the foot of the bed, his chin resting on his stump. “How is your bee sting, Cola?” Dr. Mender asks.

            “F-fine,” says Cola.

            “I really like your name,” says Dr. Mender.

            Rioko watches Cola gather her composure and she is proud. She is proud of Cola’s long straight black hair and the way she blinks her eyes, not ashamed of the tears on her red cheeks. “Thanks,” says Cola. “I made it up myself.”


“Will this make me feel better?” Rioko asks.

            “It should,” says Dr. Mender.

            “What if it doesn’t?”

            “My job is to make sure you get better and I promise I will.”


A nurse asks Dr. Mender if he would like her to thread the needle, but he insists on doing it himself. He holds the needle against his chin with the stump of his wrist and pushes the thread through the needle’s empty eye with his good hand. He is cross-eyed and his tongue sticks out of his mouth when he does this. It is a funny sight, this one-handed doctor threading a needle, but the nurse does not laugh even though Dr. Mender wishes she would. 

            Rioko’s leg stares back at him. The bright red of her calf muscle, the glaring white of her tibia, the dainty circle of her fibula—it is perfect. It is all how it should be. He has already stitched the blood vessels and now he and the nurse fold the flaps of Rioko’s skin like wrapping paper, evenly and with care. Dr. Mender removes the needle from his lips and sews the seams with delicate and precise movements. He hopes, in time, that Rioko will not be able to see her scar, that she can fool herself into thinking this is how she has always been.


Rioko wakes up. A nurse brings her water. Rioko drinks it down. Her throat is scratchy. She drinks more water. She is still thirsty. No matter how much she drinks, it is not enough. Her leg, wrapped in a fist of white gauze, throbs in time with her heartbeat.


There are families of Japanese in the northern states now, Dr. Mender knows. They are finding new homes, but they are not really home. Dr. Mender is the color of the desert. He is up to his shoulders in a hole he has dug with a military shovel. The cactus above him provides no shade. It is difficult to dig with one hand, but he manages. He remembers the trenches he helped dig on a Japanese beach, taking breaks to remind captains to remind soldiers to keep hydrated. He used two hands then. He wanted to save lives, not bury them. They swam in the ocean and waited to get bombed.


“Can I touch it?” Cola asks.

            Rioko shakes her head. No.                           

            “Why not?” Cola asks.

            “You might get infected.”

            Cola’s face clouds over, the blood slowly percolating under her skin. She takes a tiny step back. Rioko knows that she has given Cola a horrible thought that she might never forget.


Dr. Mender redresses Rioko’s leg. “It is healing beautifully. The stitches can come out Tuesday,” he says. “Pretty soon, we’ll be able to get you out of this bed and send you back—” Dr. Mender stops immediately. Out of old habit, he was going to say home. He checks Rioko’s face to see if she has caught his slip. She has.

            “How did you lose your hand, Dr. Mender?” she asks.

            It is two in the morning. He stabs a morphine needle in Private Kramer’s forearm and dry heaves when he sees most of Private Kramer’s guts spilled out onto the beach. Bullets, shrapnel and sand fly around his ears like a hive of angry bees, slicing, diving and howling. He reaches back to his med pack for another syringe but something is wrong. He roots his hand into the bag, but he can’t move his fingers—he can’t feel his fingers. There is a bright flash of a flare and he pulls his hand out and he sees that he has no hand. He calls Private Kramer’s name, but Private Kramer is dead and he realizes that he has not saved anyone, not one person. He thinks this is some kind of joke, maybe even some kind of cruel dream. And then the pain comes and it is no dream.

            “Suddenly,” Dr. Mender says.


Rioko is sick. She is sick in her heart. She is thirsty even though she has had as much water as she can drink.

            Dr. Mender carefully takes out the thread from her leg. A nurse holds a mirror so that Rioko can see. Dr. Mender undoes what he has done, stitch by stitch. There is a bright red zigzag across the stump. It reminds Rioko of the sunset here, the image that crosses her field of vision after she clamps her eyes shut as hard as she can.

            Dr. Mender shows her how to use her crutches, to let them walk ahead of her. She trips. She falls. Dr. Mender holds out his wrist for her to take and she breaks. She feels the flood pouring out of her and forgets all of the lessons she was ever taught. Respect your elders. Children should be seen and not heard. Don’t raise your voice in anger.

            “You lost your stupid hand and because of that, you got to go home! I gave my leg to you and you still won’t let me go! You got to go home! Why can’t we? You didn’t make me better! Why can’t—” She stops as abruptly as she started, her lungs and belly as empty as a barren well waiting to be filled in with silt and dust.


Dr. Mender drinks his coffee and calls all of the friends he knows. He tells them his story.


Rioko eats liver at the mess hall. She asks Cola to sleep in her bed but Cola is too scared.  Rioko uses the open-stalled bathroom, not caring anymore if anyone can see her and her abbreviated leg not quite touching the floor. She dreams about Dr. Mender sewing her eyelids shut but this still doesn’t keep out the dust, her vision a permanent zigzag of scarred sunsets. She wakes up and asks Cola to sleep in her bed, but she will not. Rioko lets her crutches walk ahead of her. She eats hearts and kidneys at the mess hall. Rioko’s stomach fills up with sand, like an hourglass. She thinks that Dr. Mender sealed the desert up inside of her and the invasion will never end. She calls old Mr. Ryu’s orphan dog many names of hope and he will not come to her. 


Dr. Mender has a picture and a letter. These are good people, he knows. They live in the cold weather, but they are warm and caring and want to help.


Rioko stares at her shoe. She sits in the dust. The adults gather in the shade, talking quietly. Cola plays with the fish in the cement fish pool with the other kids, screeching and laughing. Rioko takes off her shoe and wiggles her toes. She struggles upright and lets the crutches walk her to the fence. Squinting against the sun, she glares up at the sentry tower and hurls her shoe over the fence as far as she can. It lands next to a rock and settles. She glares at the sentry tower. Everything is silent. She can feel their eyes on her. She tests the strength of the fence and contemplates the barbed wire overhead. She jams her good foot in a hole and starts to climb, awkwardly and ferociously. She sees herself through a telescope in an overhead view, an awkward tripod scaling a wall in the middle of nowhere. She wants her shoe back. She wants them to shoot her so she can bleed out all of the sand in her guts. She weighs a million pounds, but still she climbs skyward.

            “Where’s Minnesota?” Cola asks. Rioko looks over her shoulder and sees her sister with an envelope and a picture. Dr. Mender stands about ten feet behind Cola and stares at the sentry tower.

            “Someone wants us to live in their home,” Cola yells. “Do you want to go?”

            Rioko does not move.

Dr. Mender catches the glint of gunmetal in the sentry tower and then turns back to the scene in front of him. In another world, this one-footed girl stuck on a fence in Topaz, Utah is a funny sight. Dr. Mender wishes someone would laugh, but no one does.




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Adam Zang is a screenwriter and teacher living in Phoenix, AZ. He spends most of his time teaching 5th graders how to rewrite his screenplays.








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