Rumpus Original Fiction: Signal and Response


Huzzah!!! Leading first research project! After nearly two years of testing on gnats and then mice, dream experiment has finally been approved.

Tentative examples:

Identical twins in Montana adopted by different families and did not meet until they were 43. Uncannily, they shared the same name, drove identical make cars, and married brunette women named Mary.

Teenager in Wales saved twin sister who became unconscious in bathtub. Heroic sister recalled: “I just got this weird feeling to check on her. When I saw her under the water at first, I thought she was trying to play a prank.”

Annoyingly little literature on telepathic accounts from countries outside Europe/North America.

Ma told a story about an aunt who heard her husband’s wife’s laments from Vietnam, which was how she found she had married a bigamist.

One instance where a cousin’s pregnancy was revealed because her sister felt queasy and heard baby cries while vacationing in Hue.

Of course, must not use these anecdotes in research paper.

[Margins: Dr. Mullan would have field day and lecture endlessly about ethics]

Tentative supporting studies of telepathic entanglement:

Telepathy in dreams; half of participants were monitored in their sleep, and the other half attempted to influence the sleeping participants’ dreams. Sleeping subjects were placed in rooms with walls covered in sound-absorbing material, and the influencing agents stayed in rooms several feet away and were given images to telepathically communicate.

Blind evals observed over half the test subjects experienced dreams relevant to the images (Kang, et al., 2011).

Experimental demonstrations of telepathic entanglement between pairs of volunteers who were relatives of varying degrees, separated by more than 4,000 miles. They wore identical cerebral rings wrapped in copper, which amplified telepathic responses between individuals. Findings indicated a small but notable psychic connection.

All participants wore identical copper cerebral rings, and when provoked, test subjects in Group A imagined bright lights, which they attempted to communicate to their assigned partners across the Atlantic Ocean.

Experiment was repeated three times, and approximately 70 percent of test subjects received bright lights in their minds within the half-hour timeframe that the order was initiated (Garcia-Johnson, et al., 2013).

Cite two or three more sources. [Margins: because according to Dr. Mullan, the studies cited here may not “convince a scientific-minded audience” for an experiment that will “rely heavily on generous grants”]

Using a similar method as Garcia-Johnson, et al., but instead of distant relatives, will observe siblings close in age. Ideally twins!

Tentative keywords: Telepathic entanglement, transpacific effects, copper magnetic fields, estranged twins.


Argh! Need to vent about something.

Ma insisted I visit home, though I was too wrapped up in grant applications to fund experiment. But she said there was a suspicious dark spot in her shower, and could I see if it was black mold? Which is sometimes code for setting me up on blind date. Have told her several times that I am not sad or lonely. That I am, in fact, too busy for such trivial matters. Also, she should be proud of her daughter, who is in an impressive career in early thirties! With lofty ambitions, such as solving world crises!

Still, washed hair just in case, releasing it from a four-day-old top bun. [Margins: yeah, yeah, very gross]

First off, had to make hour-and-a-half trek through traffic to Orange County. [Margins: worst place ever, bleh] Second off, parked at the curb before noticing the dark-red BMW convertible in the driveway! For the dreaded occasional lunch with the tiresome Di Kim-Anh! And could not possibly make a run for it because Ma was already outside by the time I parked. Absolutely no time to escape.

Then, to make matters worse, Di Kim-Anh sat regally at head of table! Poking her gums with a toothpick as if she owned the place! [Margins: with how disgustingly rich she is, Di Kim-Anh could probably write a check that would cover Ma’s mortgage and then some]

As always, Di Kim-Anh dressed as if for her own extravagant burial: She wore all wine-red plus clattering gold necklaces, jeweled rings, and jade bracelets. Thick layer of bronze makeup that did not match neck color. Large hair reaching the heavens, thanks to aggressive teasing and extensions. Already headache was forming at my temples from Di Kim-Anh’s heavy waft of rose perfume.

Ma made this brow-raised expression as if to say, “Be respectful and bow!” Ma has always been inexplicably nice to Di Kim-Anh. Everyone else in the family seemed to not tolerate her, but Ma is soft when it comes to Di Kim-Anh. Half out of pity, half out of obligation. While other aunts and uncles sent their kids (meaning cousins and me) to keep her company, Ma called once every few weeks and would visit the day before major holidays.

Of course, had to keep greeting curt with Di Kim-Anh [Margins: knowing full well she would go on hour-long spiel about her dating woes and general loneliness] and leaned slightly forward to bow.

It was clear Ma had bought egg rolls, duck noodles, and bun bo hue from obscure restaurant in Little Saigon, having discarded the Styrofoam boxes before Di Kim-Anh arrived. Suspected that this was one of Ma’s tricks to get me to stick around. [Margins: especially because I am not very good at feeding myself amid important research]

Unfortunately (and embarrassingly), smell of duck fat and aromatics made my stomach growl big time! Loud enough for Di Kim-Anh to snidely remark about how my stomach sounded like an angry dog and Ma to pile even more meat and noodles in my bowl.

Ma and Di Kim-Anh scarcely touched their food. Instead, they talked fondly of old times, back when Ma was a small girl and Di Kim-Anh was a teenager in Vietnam. Well, mostly Di Kim-Anh orated grandiosely because she is older than Ma by fifteen years and only talks about things Ma would have very little memory of. “It seemed like the men would always be drawn to me,” Di Kim-Anh said, cradling her cheek with a jewel-crusted hand. “Have I told you about Tan? Big and stupid, but oh, he never left me alone!”

During a lull, Di Kim-Anh turned to me. Had stuffed my face full of rice noodles and congealed blood cubes, but this did not stop her from asking questions.

“Elise, how is your work? I heard you are starting an experiment!” Di Kim-Anh said, finally slurping a spoonful of broth.

“Well, the experiment was approved,” I said through half-chewed food (which Ma disapproved of by shaking her head and clicking her tongue). “But I need to hear back about funding.”

“Oh, yes. I know the university you work for is very underfunded,” she said, pressing a hand to her heart. “How unfortunate you chose the university with the lowest salary offer. And to pay Los Angeles rent with that stipend!”

Hard to not get ruffled by such blatant disregard! Sure, the postdoc stipend is not super great, but! Have managed to secure a reasonable studio apartment closer to Long Beach. Also, what did Di Kim-Anh know about a scientist’s career? Or what made them respectable? After all, graduated from elite East Coast university with esteemed award! Was deciding between postdocs in Wisconsin and North Carolina, but ultimately decided on California after ba ngoai passed. [Margins: Ma was not sleeping well afterward because there were several nights where it felt like something was sitting on her chest]

[Margins: could very well be a manifestation of Ma’s grief, though she would never admit to it]

“Em, oi,” Di Kim-Anh said to Ma. “Can you please get me a glass of water with ice? The food is spicier than I like.”

After Ma left, Di Kim-Anh turned to me, a corner of her lip curled.

“I suppose it makes sense for you to return,” she considered, putting a manicured finger to her lips. “After all, it is just the two of you. What terrible luck. If your sister hadn’t passed, maybe your parents would still be together. How long has it been since Helen died? Fifteen or twenty years?”

My mouth fell open. But could not utter a sound. [Margins: probably because my brain was complete static]

So, Di Kim-Anh placed a hand on her temple and laughed a little. Like an old person lost in a parking lot. [Margins: but know very well Di Kim-Anh is crafty and sharp as a splinter!] “I apologize, Elise,” she said. “I probably think about the past more than most people.” Di Kim-Anh rooted around her Louis Vuitton tote, producing her business card.

“Please call if you need money,” Di Kim-Anh said. “I will wire right away.”


Double huzzah!!! Managed to secure some funding through department. [Margins: without help of Dr. she-who-must-not-be-named] Also won significant grant from science foundation! Anonymous donor forwarded message through foundation, saying, “Important research that will surely aid the world at large.”

Research team and I went out to the college bars and bought a few rounds of tequila shots. Admittedly got too drunk to really function, setting us back a day in our research. [Margins: also, after stumbling back from the bar, had one of my recurring dreams where I was drowning in complete darkness]

But! Managed to draft the flier that will be posted all over campus (with promise of actual compensation for their time!!!):


Research Participants Needed for Study

Researchers are investigating twins and siblings close in age for possible telepathic entanglement. *This study has been approved by the Department of Neuroscience and University Ethics Board.


• Be a resident
• Have a twin or sibling currently living across the Pacific Ocean
• Be 18 to 60 years of age
• English fluency not needed (translators can be provided)


Please contact Elise H. Tran

Not to brag but have become kind of a big deal since receiving grant. Suddenly colleagues want to have lunch out in atrium.

Ma said not to get a big head, and wasn’t it her idea in the first place? Wasn’t it her stories from Vietnam about mind readers that inspired the experiment? Her theory about how blood and familial bonds strengthen these tethers?

Tried explaining my very original hypothesis to her, how twin photons can be entangled even several miles apart. To this, Ma remarked, “That’s what I said, just with fancier words.”

These days, Dr. Mullan seems red all the time, like she’s about to burst. After looking over the participant profiles and proposed method, she spiraled into another one of her tirades. Suddenly, colleagues and I suffered her lecture about the sexism she endured in neurobiology. How if it weren’t for her, none of us would see these opportunities.

Yada yada.

Out in atrium, colleagues comforted me by assuring Dr. Mullan was afflicted by a serious case of stick-up-her-butt-itus. Chuckled a good deal about the idea.

[Margins: still, would not mind this experiment succeeding, so maybe Dr. Mullan would be less annoyed by my general presence]


Found 6 pairs of twins! 4 fraternal and 2 identical. Participants (N=12) are 5 male and 7 female adults aged 19 to 43 years. Of course, 6 of the participants live in Los Angeles County; their siblings reside in Beijing, China; Seoul, Korea; Sydney, Australia; and Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, Vietnam. The ones in LA will be Group A, their siblings Group B. Group A (n=6, 3 male and 3 female) will send signal. Group B (n=6, 2 male and 4 female) will be cued to receive signal!

Acquiring the okay to move forward took forever, however. Dr. Mullan scrutinized each application, circling or underlining the contents with a red marker. Research team and I had thoroughly vetted each participant, even filtering duds with several pages of questionnaire with guarantee of a gift card upon completion!

After she went over each file for what felt like the hundredth time, Dr. Mullan sighed. Placed her cat-eye reading glasses on her too-blonde hair.

“Looks fine,” she said. “I don’t want to see any grad students playing with those copper headsets. People tend to have less respect for female leaders, especially ones who have never spearheaded a project.”

But research team and I could not be more professional! Also, participants have been very cooperative. [Margins: save for the 19-year-old twins, who are essentially teenagers and kept inspecting their nails or split ends or checking their phones while team and I went over procedure]

Copper headsets have been packed with thorough instructions and sent abroad to Group B. For now, have initiated the experiment without the headsets: Group A waited in soundproof room and Group B reported from video call in another room.

So far, results show very little patterning (as expected). Suspect the teenagers were messing with us, as the teen in Group B kept uttering obscenities, such as “phallus” or “areola.” “What,” she said, “that’s legit what my sister would say to me.”

There were a few cases that showed promise. For instance, a participant in Group B thought “dog” when their Group A counterpart signaled “cat.” Another case of a participant thinking “bulb” when their counterpart signaled “light.”

Hopeful for the next few trials with proper equipment!


You won’t believe it.

Di Kim-Anh showed up on campus. She stuck out like a sore, cherry-red thumb in the cafeteria, painfully distinct among all the hunchbacked undergrads in glasses and sweats. When she peered up from her large iPad, Di Kim-Anh waved as if we had reservations at a restaurant.

How to gracefully excuse self from situation?

Obviously, research team and I entered cafeteria for much-needed sustenance after several hours in lab. Also, could already imagine how research team would react if I inexplicably abandoned them, how they would ask questions and sulk like kids with no presents on Christmas. So, as brave leader of pack, I marched to Di Kim-Anh with intention of politely making clear that research team and I needed to return to our work shortly after eating.

“Well, of course!” Di Kim-Anh said, fanning out her bony hands. Then she leaned to the side. “Would Elise’s team like free meals for all your hard work? I am her aunt. You can call me Kim!”

And as expected, research team (bunch of penny-pinching goons!) immediately took Di Kim-Anh’s offer. Suddenly we sat at several cafeteria tables pushed together, and Di Kim-Anh ordered about a dozen burger meals.

While research team tore brutishly into food, Kim-Anh observed me for an uncomfortably long moment.

“The experiment is going well?” Kim-Anh asked.

“Very well!” research team answered for me.

“We’re in the early stages,” I said (with authority that even took me by surprise!). “And we must conduct many more trials before making any conclusions.”

“You don’t need to be so formal with me,” Di Kim-Anh said, strategically switching to Vietnamese. “We are family. You can tell me how things are really going.”

“As a scientist,” I responded in English (in case Di Kim-Anh was leaving research team out of the convo for specific reason), “my job is to keep myself as impartial as possible.”

“So, it’s not going well, then?” Di Kim-Anh said, one tattooed eyebrow raised. Making this very smug face!

“We actually received quite a bit of support,” I said. “And initial trials have been showing some promise.”

Di Kim-Anh perked up, thumbing her pearl necklace like rosary beads. Her line of business was never super clear. She owns property up and down California and rents out to tenants and shopkeepers, but Di Kim-Anh likes to refer to this money as “passive” and “just for fun.” Her main occupation has something to do with consulting businesses, though not much can be found online. “Word of mouth” type work. Once heard an uncle call her wealth “sludge money.”

“This is the kind of invention that can sell incredibly well,” Di Kim-Anh said, making her hands into a small tent. “When will it be available to the public? I know a thing or two about marketing products.”

Explained sternly that this is not how things work. That I did not go into neuroscience to sell inventions.

“Well, that’s the ultimate goal, isn’t it?” she said. “Every good discovery ends with money, but you must be smart to decide how much.”

“Di Kim-Anh,” I said. “I became a scientist to help people, not make money. And I know you don’t understand what it means to help people.”

Last part could have been omitted, admittedly. But she was the one who came to my place of work to pester! [Margins: also have been dog-tired because of the nightly drowning-in-darkness nightmares, which also happened when Ma was grieving ba ngoai’s passing, prompting me to call home]

“I know a few things,” Di Kim-Anh said as she stood and collected her things. “I know to respect elders, especially the ones who fed you and changed your diapers. Or helped your parents with their mortgage and your university tuition. Or sponsored the whole family to this country.” [Margins: hate how when Di Kim-Anh is cornered, she resorts to the fact that we would not be here if it weren’t for her]

Will probably hear an earful about my disrespectful behavior when Ma calls next. Just know it. But am glad to get Di Kim-Anh off my back for a while.


Twisted series of unfortunate events transpired after unsavory exchange with Di Kim-Anh. Could almost convince a rational person the existence of karma.

First, a copper headset got lost in transit to Hanoi! Very costly hit to our endeavor, which I tried to keep under wraps, but of course Dr. Mullan (and her little bees) caught wind. Dr. Mullan called meeting in auditorium and went on whole spiel about how our attentiveness to our experiments reflects us as scientists.

Out in cafeteria, colleagues and I decided that yes, Dr. Mullan has it out for me. Seems like every little mistake becomes a “teachable moment.”

Colleagues wondered why I think she has singled me out. Have a few theories: when shopping around for postdoc positions, I was in pretty high demand (not to brag). See, a few universities threw money and accommodations to sweeten deals. Of course, returned home to one of the least desired postdoc positions. Dr. Mullan has probably seen my work and CV, considering she is part of admission committee. And have another theory that Dr. Mullan doesn’t like being outshined.

Filled out more paperwork and put in another order for a copper headset, which took forever! The money for the headset had to be allocated from part of the participants’ pay. This bummed the research team out tremendously. Hardly think participants would do it in the name of science and humanitarianism.

Also, turns out the teenage twins are not on speaking terms. Group A twin notified me that Group B twin incited fight, and I suspect that Group B twin would say the same about Group A twin.

“She just thinks she knows better because she’s studying abroad, and I’m stuck here,” Group A twin reported with arms crossed, hugging closely her millions of friendship bracelets.

Can’t help but be reminded of my sister when we were their age. Helen wasn’t my identical twin, although people had asked several times if we were. We were something called Irish twins (have come to learn this is a bit of a problematic term, one that disparages Irish people for being poor, Catholic, stereotypically having too many kids, etc.). Our birthdays were ten months apart, and we were forced to do everything together (ballet, tae kwon do, chess club, etc.). Then, in middle school, Helen needed to be held back and repeat the eighth grade—a humiliating ordeal.

Of course, my situation was vastly different. Had excelled at most everything. Won medals and plaques for naming countries and their major cities and participating in math competitions. Thing is, all this came super easy to me. Not so much for Helen.

But have come to recognize things were unfair—unfair that Helen had to do everything first, despite our closeness in age; first child to immigrant parents, first to be carted off to preschool, first to get period, etc.

[Margins: sometimes wonder how much I benefited from watching Helen, how much I benefited from learning from her failure]


Some bit of good news! A few weeks ago, had agreed to very low-key interview for student paper. Didn’t think anything would come of it because it had been an awkward half-hour exchange with pimply sophomore who left foggy handprints on desk. Well, woke up this morning to some congratulatory emails. Turns out the article was posted to the website and went semi-viral. Over 200 comments and counting!

[Margins: but had to stop reading after the tenth or so obscenity/offended religious quack]

Even received a personal email from the dean, saying this was the most publicity the university has seen. (Of course, did not outright mention the last time the university had made the news because disgraced, former dean had tried to dissolve a student protest with wailing ghost sounds the American military had used in the Vietnam and Korean Wars.)

Current dean closed email with, “Take that, USC and UCLA!”

Perhaps anonymous donor saw the article because another sizable donation appeared from science foundation. This time, the accompanying note was shorter: “Spend it well.”

Oh, how relieved I’ve been feeling since! The experiment can keep going as planned. Also, don’t have to cut participants’ pay! And have a small stockpile in case there’s another wrench.


Probably best week of my scientific career!!! Sorry, haven’t been updating all week. [Margins: funny how these pithy notes have become a kind of ritual] Too busy celebrating with research team and, of course, conducting the experiment (which is showing astonishing promise!!!).

First, the experiment. Finally, all participants possess the copper headsets, which Group B have properly connected to accompanying EEG devices to measure brain activity. Repeated the experiment from before, where we had Group A in a soundproof room telepathically signal single words to Group B.


Now success rate stands at 60 percent! Much higher than we would have ever predicted! Garcia-Johnson et al. managed to reach 70 percent, but that was because they were only observing their participants sending and receiving light. Our participants sent and received entire words! Very big deal!

Almost had to pinch myself looking over all the results. Triple-checked that participants in Group A had no smartphones, tablets, or smartwatches on them and asked multiple times to see Group B’s devices in a lockbox through video call. No extraneous factors seemed to smudge these numbers.

Of course, department still buzzing about the semi-viral student article. Higher-ups decided a casual work party was in order, so they sent out a poorly designed invitation with questionable font choices through email. But of course, appreciate the effort!

Party took place on random Thursday afternoon, but impressive number of people showed up—so many that at times, guests were actually bumping elbows! Of course, the grad students and interns snuck in hard liquor, which they strapped to the lining of their lab coats. By 4 p.m., everyone was pretty flushed and having a good time.

Colleagues greeted and asked about my experiment, sometimes complimenting my sneakers and silk button-down shirt peeking out of lab coat. Kind of felt like a bit of a celebrity at this work party.

The only one who seemed to not be having a good time was Dr. Mullan (as usual). She mostly stood alone at the party, swirling a glass of wine like a movie villain. When she downed the last of her drink, she walked toward her office.

Maybe it was the liquid courage or the ego boost from the showering of attention and praise. Nevertheless, seemed a good time as any to confront Dr. Mullan and ask what the heck her issue was.

Marched right to her office only to find her sitting in the dark, her head in her hands.

She seemed to know it was me because she said without looking up. “Don’t turn on the light. Just sit down.”

So, ensconced self in one of her fancy mid-century modern armchairs. Must admit it was very soft and comfy, the way the chair cradled while everything kind of orbited around me.

Dr. Mullan rubbed her face and revealed redness around her eyes and nose. Immediately I sat up, and it quickly dawned that this was the first time I had seen Dr. Mullan cry. Was suddenly aware of the tchotchkes lined on her desk: miniature porcelain tea sets and macaroni art. Shamefully gleaned the rolled-up sleeping bag on her office futon. Her name plate read her full name, which had never known before: “Dr. Amelia Lane Mullan.”

“I know I’m not very well liked here,” Dr. Mullan said, voice wavering.

Reflexively spouted string of useless comfort words. “Aw, no,” I said soothingly. “That’s not true. People like you.”

“Oh, cut the bullshit, Elise,” Dr. Mullan said. “I know what people say about me.”

Couldn’t think of how to respond so just clasped hands and pressed lips together like kid in principal’s office.

“You don’t understand how different things used to be,” she said in a gentler tone. “I was often the only woman in classrooms and labs. I had to work twice as hard for people to take me seriously.”

“I also work hard,” I said, returning to original intent and perhaps speaking too loudly. “What gives you the right to speak on what I’ve been through?” Was fully prepared to stand and make way to HR (which was probably good idea did not follow through on account of ungodly number of tequila shots from earlier).

“I know, I know,” Dr. Mullan said. “I know you’re a hard worker—we are similar in that way.” A long pause followed. Could hear chatter, laughter, and top 40 music from outside. “I suppose,” she said, “it’s been hard seeing you accomplish what I could not.”

Another pause. But this one was less uncomfortable, seemed more like we were listening intently to party noises as if they were sounds in nature.

“You have a good instinct,” Dr. Mullan said. “Keep following it.”


Woke up early this morning to banging on door, which made me nearly fall out of bed! [Margins: didn’t help that banging woke me up from one of my drowning nightmares, which was more vivid than usual, what with my lungs feeling cold and constricted in my dream] [Margins: which seems more like warning when thinking back] Thought it was a disgruntled neighbor or the police. But upon opening the door, discovered Di Kim-Anh with this crazed look in eye, which was not helped by the hastily drawn makeup.

“I need your assistance,” Di Kim-Anh said after taking long gulp of tap water. “I have been having terrible, terrible dreams.”

Di Kim-Anh paused to close eyes, rest head in hand, and take a deep breath. “I need you to help me speak to my sister,” she said.

Was incredibly confused by this. Suggested simply calling or texting or perhaps hiring therapist who specializes in familial affairs as mediator.

“No, no, no, Elise,” Di Kim-Anh said. “My twin sister, my sweet Thao. You’ve never met her. She went missing many years ago. Back in Vietnam.”

Had never heard of this aunt before. Nobody had ever mentioned her, and as if in response to my confusion, Di Kim-Anh said, “She is the reason the family is unhappy with me.”

Learned all about Di Kim-Anh’s identical twin, Thao. They drew attention for their strikingly similar features, and Di Kim-Anh dreamily reminisced about how they unsettled people further by also dressing the same. Some neighbors avoided eye contact in case they harbored magical power, but despite identical appearances, they were opposite in personality.

“Thao was everything good,” Di Kim-Anh said, her eyes glittering. “She had the kindest soul, most beautiful heart.”

Thao was in love with a boy in the village named Quang. “A good man,” Di Kim-Anh said, looking down at her wringing hands, almost blushing. “Good looks, high intelligence, and connections to America.” But Thao was always too shy, and Di Kim-Anh was often tasked to start conversations, asking about his work with the American military and relatives abroad.

“I thought eventually Thao would forgive me. One day, when we were happy and safe,” Di Kim-Anh said. “But after Quang and I married and settled with his family in Santa Barbara, the first letter I received from Vietnam informed me Thao had gone missing.”

Sort of remember vaguely Di Kim-Anh’s husband, how he had died when I was young. Strange to imagine her being married; she had always seemed like a sad widow.

After long silence, finally realized why Di Kim-Anh sought me out. “Di, I can’t,” I said. “It would absolutely ruin the experiment. And my reputation.”

“But I see her in my dreams!” Di Kim-Anh said, springing toward me and grasping my hands. “Always, she is in a bed, looking terribly pale and calling out my name.”

Then, Di Kim-Anh tightened her grip, digging her nails into my knuckles. “You and I are not so different. We are both ambitious women, getting our way no matter what. So, so stubborn,” she said. “I saw something similar in you and your sister. I would not be surprised you also sensed her moments before her death.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said, but maybe something in my eyes or facial expression betrayed me.

“See, I know you did,” she said. “You felt something. Saw something in your mind!”

Finally wrenched my hands free. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” I said.

Thankfully, Di Kim-Anh relented. She picked up her tote and turned to the door.

“I know you, Elise,” she said before closing the door, “I know you would not make the same mistake twice.”


Have trouble sleeping.

Can’t stop thinking about Di Kim-Anh’s words, the twin I never knew about. The sister that might still be alive. Helen, who is buried out in Vietnam in the family cemetery. The nightmares that have plagued every night feel like being buried alive under weirdly moist dirt, only for me to wake and find myself sweating profusely under comforter. Of course, have hypothesized the connection.

The last time whole family and I visited Vietnam, Ma and Ba left us under ba ngoai’s lax supervision. Helen and I often ventured out without telling anyone, visiting markets, petting friendly street dogs, skulking cemeteries, etc. After freshman year of high school, Helen was especially moody, sporting all black despite oppressive heat. Withdrawing into herself unless Ma or Ba coaxed her into participating in vacation activities.

[Margins: seemed as though she needed tons of coaxing throughout freshman year]

[Margins: had not been able to precisely pick up what was going on because high school suddenly throttled me into honors clubs, extracurriculars, out-of-state competitions, etc.]

[Margins: still boggles mind that I had no clue about Helen’s mental state]

[Margins: for all the certificates, awards, plaques, I was actually one self-centered idiot of a teenager]

One week into vacation, Helen was suddenly in one of her rare chipper moods. She surprised everyone by coming out to eat meals, when previously Ma had to bring food to her room. In the early evening, she asked me to go out to the river with her. “I want to show you something,” she said dreamily, looking off to the horizon. As usual, we left without telling anyone.

Helen led me to the riverbank, reassuring me she could swim across despite the fast movement of the water. Swimming had been one of the few things Helen had mastered, out-treading me in pool laps and against currents of California beaches. So, did not hesitate to stand at river’s edge, waiting for whatever Helen wanted to bring back from the other side.

Dreams can mean nothing. Or they can mean everything. The hardest part of being a scientist is not being completely sure.

So, did the ill-advised thing. Reached over to phone and texted Di Kim-Anh.


Writing this the morning after the incident.

Met Di Kim-Anh at the university drop-off late last night. Upon unlocking and opening the building door, the lights automatically turned on after sensing movement. A good indicator that no one was likely in lab at that hour.

Still, we opened and closed doors quietly, crept up the stairwell instead of using the elevator. Testing room looked strange at night. Also haunting with all the folding chairs set up for the next trial. Di Kim-Anh sat in nearest chair and set her tote beside it. Carefully, I brought out the equipment, placed the copper headset on Di Kim-Anh’s head, as if it were a coronation.

Spent perhaps 20 minutes in silence, trying to receive some sort of response. Started off conducting the same protocol used on the participants and presented Di Kim-Anh with list of single-syllable words to signal every three minutes. By the sixth or seventh word, Di Kim-Anh turned to the one-way mirror that was supposed to obscure participants from observation; her brows furrowed like a displeased customer.

“This is not working, Elise,” Di Kim-Anh said in her full voice.

Went to the door and stuck head inside. “Please keep your voice down,” I said.

“Nobody is here,” Di Kim-Anh said. “I need this to work, do you hear me?”

“Okay, okay,” I said and spent a minute or so troubleshooting. Then, realized (stupidly) that of course random English words might be meaningless noise to someone who lived whole life in Vietnam. Instructed Di Kim-Anh to come up with a list of single-syllable Vietnamese words. “You can construct a message,” I said. “But we must keep to the original procedure.”

We tried the experiment again, and perhaps on the fifth word, Di Kim-Anh’s expression softened. She put a hand to her ear as if to listen better.

Started to see some interesting changes in brain waves on EEG, numbers that performed beyond the average. Until there was tapping of tennis shoes on linoleum.

“What the hell is this?” Dr. Mullan said, wearing robe and holding a caddy of toiletries. Was sure I saw her car leave the lot earlier but maybe she had come back. “Elise, I hope you have a good explanation.”

Di Kim-Anh appeared still wearing the copper headset. “Sorry if we disturbed you,” Di Kim-Anh said, using charisma reserved for potential consulting clients. “Elise is being a good niece and showing me her work.”

“This is highly unethical at best,” Dr. Mullan said, crossing her arms. “A cause for termination at worst.” She turned to me with furrowed brows, but there could’ve been sadness in her eyes.

“What’s this about termination?” Di Kim-Anh said. “No such thing will happen. This whole experiment was possible because of my big donation!”

Dr. Mullan clutched the front of her robe. “I knew something wasn’t right. The sheer amount of money you won in grants was suspect, but I wanted to think better of you, Elise.”

Di Kim-Anh looked around the lab and put a polished finger to her lips. Searching for leverage. “I understand this university has very little funding,” she said. “I can write a check tonight. How much for the school’s resources and Elise’s expertise?”

For once, Dr. Mullan had nothing to say. Her mouth hung open as she examined Di Kim-Anh.

Of course, had no idea Di Kim-Anh was the big anonymous donor. But what could I say to make situation any better? Too many lines were crossed. Too many bridges burned to rubble and debris.

“I did not fight this hard in my field to be bribed,” Dr. Mullan said finally. “I will give you five minutes to leave this vicinity,” she said, retrieving her phone from her robe pocket and hovering her thumb over the call button for university security. “Or you will be escorted out.”

Cannot imagine returning to work after such an exchange, though Dr. Mullan left decision of my tenure to higher-ups.

Later today, will go to the university and put belongings in boxes. Endure the walk of shame. Will probably have to put up listing of studio apartment on Craigslist and find someone to take over lease.

Will likely have to move back home with Ma, who will take me in without complaint. Not really needing an explanation. After all, she’s complained about the largeness of the house, how it’s too much space for a single person.

Despite the likely end of this experiment, there is value in a signal meant to be transmitted.

Before leaving campus for good, will sneak into the library with these notes. Will find the dimmest aisle and the oldest, most delicate book on the shelf. Will tuck notes gently between the pages.

Perhaps subconsciously started notes because of the precarity of the experiment from the start. Because I somehow knew my feelings would prevent productive results.

If this is the case, I hope these pages fall in the right hands. I hope, with all my heart, that this reaches you.



Rumpus original art by Ian MacAllen

Nancy Nguyen grew up in Orange County, California and currently resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she is earning her PhD in English and Creative Writing. She was a 2019 Aspen Words Emerging Writer Fellow and a 2021 Susanna McCorkle Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Her work has appeared in Pigeonholes, the Jellyfish Review, swamp pink, and elsewhere. Nancy is at work on a novel and collection about women, magic, bodies, and war. More from this author →