Breaking Hammer contains mature content, including descriptions of sex, language, and violence, that are not suitable for readers under the age of eighteen. It also should be noted that it deals with subjects that might be sensitive for some readers, such as abusive situations and human trafficking.
In June 2014, the U.S. State Department released its annual report evaluating the efforts of international governments to police human trafficking in their countries. Thailand and Malaysia were downgraded to Tier 3 status, meaning that they now rank in the lowest twelve countries in the world in efforts to prevent human trafficking. In both countries, undocumented foreign workers are particularly vulnerable, especially minority groups from Burma (Myanmar) fleeing persecution.
I lived in southeast Asia for several years, and that region of the world will always hold a special place in my heart.
This book was inspired by reading about the plight of trafficked persons everywhere, but especially in those countries I think of so fondly.
To my darling daughter. You are the reason for all of this. I love you always.
To my husband, who had no idea what he was getting into when I started writing.
And to the dear friends - authors and readers - I've met through this, who have offered so much encouragement and support...and who, every so often, have to talk some sense into me when I'm filled with doubt.
Thank you for everything you do. I'd be lost without you all.
Be merciful to those that struggle; have compassion upon the sufferers; pity the creatures who are hopelessly entangled in the snares of sorrow.
~ The Teachings of the Buddha (Carus' translation)
In the darkness, I waited. I crouched, perfectly still, every one of my muscles tensed up, coiled to spring. I imagined myself as a tiger, waiting for its prey. Hungry.
The only thing that would satisfy me, the only water to quench my longing now, was vengeance. I had to kill him, the man responsible for my sister’s death. The man who thought he owned me. The man who believed he had bought my loyalty, who thought he had bought my soul.
It was my destiny.
He might possess my body, but he would never own me.
He could never possess my heart.
That honor belonged to another man. A man I left behind when I was ripped from the life I’d carefully constructed, the life I had built, brick by brick, from nothing. A man who would not recognize me now, who would not know the monster I had become.
A man I’d never see again.
A man I could never forget.
I knew immediately that everything was wrong.
In my gut, I knew it. I tried to convince myself otherwise, sitting on the edge of the bed, waiting for her, the tap-tap-tap of my foot on the tile floor the only noise in the room.
The room was immaculate, as it always was, which was to be expected from the type of hotel this was. This was not the kind of hotel where bad things happened, even if it was Vegas. At least, this wasn’t the floor where bad things happened, the suites where high-rollers stayed. Not that I was a high-roller. I wasn’t here to gamble. Gambling wasn’t my vice.
I had so many other fucking vices, I didn’t need to gamble.
The room was eerily still. Nothing was out of place...no furniture overturned, no ripped open sofa cushions or gutted mattress. Nothing to indicate anyone had been here in the room.
Except the locket.
The one with the picture of a girl. When I’d asked her who it was inside, she had averted her eyes, looked away, sat there silently.
I could have easily missed the locket, on the floor behind the toilet. If I had overlooked it, if I had just walked away instead of listening to my gut, I wouldn’t have known. I would have assumed that she walked away from me, that she had come to her senses.
That she had decided that whatever this was, it wasn’t real. It couldn’t be.
It’s the same thing I kept telling myself, trying to rationalize away what I felt. Reminding myself of April. It had only been three years. A man should mourn his dead wife for longer than three years, I told myself. A man should grieve.
How much more could I grieve?
Everyone I loved died. It was like a goddamned curse.
Not this time. This time would be different. It couldn’t happen that way again. If it did, it would destroy me. I wouldn’t let it happen.
TEN YEARS AGO
“I don’t understand,” Lily whispered. “What’s happening?”
My heart beat wildly in my chest, and I gripped her hand, shaking my head silently, warning her not to speak. Something was not right. I was only thirteen, but I knew something was terribly wrong.
The room was hot, stifling hot, and stank of sweat and urine and feces, the odors that were a part of traveling the way we had traveled. Sweat rolled down my forehead, stinging my eyes, my hair damp. My shirt clung to my body. My body ached from being packed together like sardines with the others in the back of the truck that transported us across the border from Kaw Thoo Lei, Karin state, in Burma, where our family was from.
Lily and I were promised to be taken across the border to refugee camps in Thailand, that we would eventually be given work doing cleaning services. Our parents barely scratched out an existence growing hill rice in Karin and besides, it was more and more dangerous. When the military raids happened last year, we had barely escaped. Our village was burned to the ground. It took months for my mother to arrange for our transportation, saving what little we had as an initial payment for services. We were to work off the remainder of our pay as maids.
Lily had screamed when we left, didn’t understand why we were leaving our mother. I was the brave one. I had to be brave.
“You must take care of your sister,” she said. “Whatever happens, you must take care of her. She is your responsibility now.”
She is my responsibility.
I steeled myself for whatever was about to happen next. The men who stood in front of us, dressed in camouflage pants and boots, dark tank tops, reminded me of the military, the ones who destroyed our villages. I did not like this at all.
Whatever this was, it did not involve cleaning.
They shouted commands to each other in another language. It had to be Thai, but I didn’t understand it. Lily looked up at me, fearful, and whispered, “Are you scared?”
I shook my head, mute, and squeezed her hand. But I was scared.
I watched them call out orders, walking down the group of mostly women and children. The handful of men who were there had been taken away first. Then the young boys were selected out, moved to another group right away, hauled off somewhere else. I wondered where they were going. All that were left were women and girls.
That fact made me even more unsettled. Maybe we were all going to clean houses. But I doubted it. I had heard stories of what the military did in our villages, what they did to the women, to the children, when they came through. How they hurt them, used them and then left them for dead.
These men made me think of the military. I didn’t like anything about them.
I watched them as they walked down the group, calling out words as they looked over each person. It was like they were rating them, deciding their value or something. Like we were at a market. Except we were the product.
Then the man stopped at Lily and I, looked us over. He put his fingers under my chin, tilted my head up, then gripping my jaw, moved my face side to side. Then he said something to one of the other men. He did the same to Lily, and she began crying.
The man laughed, pointed to her, said something else in Thai. I pulled Lily close
to my side, trying to reassure her. Trying to get her to stop crying.
“Lily, hush,” I said, my voice quiet.
Then he gripped her arm, pulling her forward. I cried out, wouldn’t let go of her. But he wasn’t trying to take her away from me. He was pointing us both somewhere.
He directed us toward a man standing in front of several of the other girls. The prettiest girls in the group, I realized.
That realization struck fear into my heart. They would not select the prettiest girls for cleaning.
That moment was the beginning of the end.
We were brought to a walled building, like a palace, bigger than anything I’d ever seen. It was in the middle of a city, like nothing I’d ever experienced before, the noises so loud I could barely think - cars passing, men peddling carts carrying passengers. The air smelled of food being cooked in the open, but underneath that, the stale scent of urine lingered.
Inside, one of the other girls who had been there longer, a girl from Karin state, just like us, spoke to us in hushed tones. She knew Thai - English, too.
“They call this place a finishing school,” she whispered. “They will teach you things.”
“What kind of things?” I asked. I gripped Lily’s hand, looking down at her. I feared for her.
“You will see,” she said.
“How long have you been here?”
She shrugged. “A long time.”
“Have they hurt you?” I asked, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.
She looked away. “You must do as they say,” she said. “If you do not, the men will take you away. They will take her away.”
“But what is going to happen to us?” I asked. “What do they do with us?”
“No one knows,” she said. “Not exactly. There are rumors of what happens to us after we leave this place. Rumors that say this place is only the beginning. That there are worse places than these.”
“What rumors?” I asked. “Please, tell me.”
“You will be here for a long time,” she said. “They will teach you...things. Some of the girls, they teach them everything. How to...be with a man. Some of the girls, they do not touch...down there. Only everywhere else.”
I shook my head. It was not possible. Not for me. Not for Lily. She was only a small child. “No,” I whispered. “This cannot be true.”
She looked at me, and behind her eyes I saw nothing. It was blank. “You must take yourself away when it happens,” she said. “In your mind. It is the only way you can keep yourself safe.”
How many months later it was, when I was selected, I did not know. I had lost track of time. Days, months...it could have been a year. Time blended together, an endless sea of lessons. They taught us English, Thai. Taught us how to eat and drink with fine china, sitting at a table with tablecloths and silverware so elegant that they seemed to be made for a Queen. Of course, it was all pretend. The plates held tiny servings of rice and a vegetable curry they fed us, small portions so we would not gain weight. I was always hungry.
And then there were the other lessons. The ones I couldn’t think about without feeling the pain that made it difficult to sit. One of the other girls, Yamin, said we would be kept virgins, that there was a price for us. They did things to me, though. Everywhere else.
Lily was no longer herself. At night, when she would crawl back to her cot, huddled into a ball, I would climb into her bed, hold her tiny body close to mine. At first, she would cry. But after a long while, she no longer cried anymore.
I no longer cried anymore.
I wondered what hell could be worse than this.
The day Lily hung herself, I died inside.
It was after a particularly brutal lesson. I had held her, like always, my heart no longer torn in two each time I saw what had happened. I imagined that my heart had built up callouses now, that it was no longer vulnerable to seeing this type of suffering. I could barely feel pain anymore.
That was what I thought.
I was the one who found her, hanging from a beam, the sheet she had used as a noose wrapped around her neck, her head slumped forward. The stool she had stood on wasn’t even kicked out from under her. She had no second thoughts, even at the end. She hadn’t even tried to stand on it, to save herself from death. She had only wanted to die.
I didn’t think my heart could break anymore. But that day, it did.
Everything around me shut down when I saw her. I was in a tunnel. I could only see her, straight in front of me.
I heard myself wail, then, this sound that rose up from the depths of my soul. I ran to her, my arms wrapped around her legs, trying to lift her up. Screaming.
I was pulled off her, ripped from her by the women who came running. The women who ran the place, who colluded with the men who stole away the most vulnerable parts of me.
They yelled at me in Thai, dragged me from her.
Left me wailing on the floor when they took her body away. I lay there, a broken heap.
What happened to me didn’t matter anymore.
Now I was dead inside.
“Would mom like this?” MacKenzie asked, her tiny hand in mine as we walked toward the church.
“I think she would, Mac,” I said. I assumed she would, but I didn't know, not really. We didn't attend church when we were together. Christenings and funerals, April would say. Births and deaths. April had been raised Catholic, but she stopped going when we got together.
Now, I was compelled to come here each week, drawn by the need to honor her in some way. MacKenzie and I didn't go to Mass - I still couldn’t bring myself to actually attend a service, not after what happened. God and I hadn’t exactly gotten on the same page when it came to April’s death. But I didn’t know how else to honor her. She was buried in California, yet I couldn’t bring myself to go back and see her, there in the ground. There was a finality about looking at her grave that I was unable to face.