By Khoa Ngo
Published by Khoa Ngo at Shakespir
Copyright © 2017 by Khoa Ngo
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It was the third time that familiar chorus rang noxiously in the air within the span of seven minutes (he had been checking his watch every now and then), sung by a chaotic choir of different voices–some old, some young, some high, some low, some masculine, some feminine, some loud, some a bit more timid, some rather unabashed, some completely unrestrained. Glasses kissed glasses as foaming liquid inside sloshed over the rims upon contact, dripping messily onto the once pristine tablecloth below, now stained here and there with discolorations from sources which Nam did not want to think about.
It is to be expected, Nam thought as he raised the brimming glass in his hand against his slightly parted lips, his movements more hesitant and considerate compared to most of his colleagues around him. Nobody seemed to notice the bespectacled, lanky man in their midst, too lost in the mood of the end-of-the-year celebration (“It’s tradition,” said Quan, his friend from university and his senior at work) and, of course, in the beer and food which took up almost every inch of the table he was sitting at. Before his eyes, vibrant colors–the rich brownish gold of chả giò that stood out against the fresh green of raw cucumbers and coriander and lettuce arranged neatly on top of an expensive china, the half finished bowl of steaming fried rice with beans and carrots and shrimps, the boiling pot and various dishes around it, each stacked full with seafood, meat, noodles, dumplings, mushrooms, bean sprouts and a variety of other raw vegetables waiting to be placed inside the boiling broth, and various other dishes filled with green and protein–all came together and exploded in his vision, making his mouth water and his fingers twitch as they held up the chopsticks. He had never seen so much food put on the same table before. He had never dreamed of such a thing in the past, and yet, here he was, at the table with one of his fantasies within his chopsticks’ reach.
Nam focused solely on the dining rather than the celebrating.
After another chorus of “Dzô,” he swiftly reached for a roll, dipping them into the nearby condiment. The roll of chả giò made a musically crunchy noise as his teeth bit into it. It tasted delicious in his mouth, making him yearn for more, and more he took. While his colleagues made small talks and recalled various ups and downs of the year now past, or, in the case of the more senior members of his department, drowned themselves in more foaming beverages and raucous laughter at the most random of topics, Nam continued eating.
He would, at times, allow his eyes to roam and take in the familiar yet strange faces flushed pink at the cheeks–faces that had been fierce and stern at work yet gentle and carefree at the table. The transformation is almost unearthly, he pondered. His ears would involuntarily pick up on words carelessly thrown out from lips loosened by alcohol. Restraint was gone as merriment and occasional vulgarity filled the drunken and festive air. Nam didn’t mind. He had been used to hearing such things by now. The thoughts of “What will this taste like?” held his mind and guided his hands instead.
No dishes were left untried, and not a single plate was spared from the presence of his chopsticks. Nam hummed and smiled, feeling utterly pleased and delighted, as he bit into a fried chicken wing cooked in fish sauce. He ate a third one and committed the taste into his memory, for he knew it would be a long time before he had another chance to eat another one again. His eyes fluttered as he leaned back, savoring the saltiness which spread inside his mouth.
“Good?” a sudden voice entered stopped Nam’s set rhythm. He turned his head to the right, and ever so politely when dealing with others, smiled and nodded.
“Everything is great,” he said to Quan. The other laughed merrily. His face at that moment reminded Nam of his old friend back in the countryside, Lâm, when he had come and, with unsteady feet which tripped on thin air and trembling lips from which nonsensical, patched-up words were released, confessed to the girl whom he fancied. Nam allowed himself a nostalgic smile at the fond memory.
“You look like you’ve never seen a feast like this before, pal,” Quan said after gulping down the content of his latest glass. His left hand was already refilling it as he spoke.
“I haven’t,” Nam answered as he, too, took a small sip from his glass when beckoned by his friend. He was always careful with the amount of alcohol he allowed inside his systems. Nam knew was never a drinker, a fact he had been, and still was constantly reminded of. His dad back home had told him how much of a lightweight he was. His uncles had chided him for his inability to hold his liquor. Even his cousins had often made fun of him on multiple occasions, one of which was coming soon–Nam dreaded that day. Tết was near, and Nam had mixed feelings about going back to his hometown for the annual family reunion. He was scheduled to leave the city in three days. Seeing his dad and visiting his mom’s grave again would be a nice and much-needed break from the busy and fast-paced city’s lifestyle. He could use some fresh air and some tranquility at home, just relaxing and playing chess with his dad underneath the foliage of the coconut trees in the backyard. He was looking forward to the day already, to seeing his dad after a year here. The sentiment didn’t extend to the rest of his family, unfortunately, for they could be a handful. The kids, especially, could be intolerable at times.
Quan’s blaring voice, surprisingly sober still, brought him out of his musing, “Hah! This! This is nothing yet, my man. You should see the boss’ birthday celebration. Much grander than this! And packed with more entertainment!” The newly filled glass was emptied again. “But you’ve got to admit. This is a nice feast, no?” he said with a crooked grin and a head inclined to the left.
“Yeah,” Nam replied.
“What’s wrong, pal? You haven’t finished a single can yet. Come on. You need to learn how us city folks liven the night.” Quan raised his glass in the air, once more foaming and sloshing at the rim. Nam, feeling the need to accommodate his friend and not embarrassing himself, sent his own half-emptied glass forward. The act initiated a fifth wave of “Dzô!” thundering at their table in the corner. Laughter filled the air again, and once more, nobody noticed Nam as he quietly moved his hands around, resuming his objective of tasting everything the waiters brought out. The hotpot was incredible.
Time sped on by when one loses oneself in the fun, and soon, the cans of beer were only empty vessels on the table and the floor and the dishes and bowls were no longer stacked with food.
But in the city, Nam had learnt, wven when the celebration was over, it wasn’t. The department, about fifteen people (for some had excused themselves and gone home an hour earlier), broke up into smaller groups and, with excitement still glittering in their eyes, suggested that they should go for a second round.
“Wanna go for some karaoke? There’s a place nearby,” his colleague, Nguyệt, asked Nam all of the sudden. Nam found himself tensing up involuntarily. He always tensed up when dealing with the opposite sex. They had a certain power over their masculine counterpart, Nam knew.. Their looks, their eyelashes, their words, even a slight twitch at the corner of the mouth, everything they do, even the subtlest act, has a certain power over the men, makes their hearts race up and their minds hazy and their fingers twitch and their eyes tunnel, the degree of which depends on the latter’s resistance. Nam was among those whose resistance was extremely low, rendering him almost vulnerable to their womanly charms. It was one of the reasons why he chose a job as a programmer, staying locked inside his little cubicle and in front of his flashing screen where no social interaction was needed. Even now, Nam counted himself lucky that his interviewer had been a man.
Nam could feel the heat rushing up to his cheeks. His palms grew sweaty. He could feel his heart thumping inside his chest, and his throat going dry despite the amount of water he had consumed. Nguyệt stood at a respectable distance, and yet, her smile alone made him weak, bringing out the shy high school boy back in the countryside out of the man he had allegedly become, blushing and awkward with jelly for legs, noodles for arms and flickering light bulbs for eyes.
As usual, he babbled, “I…ah…I would…I…” His colleague waited with impatience written over her face, evidenced by her raise eyebrow and hands crossed before her chest.
Nam tried to form an answer, but knew he lost the chance when her phone rang and Beethoven’s Für Elise haunted the air. She walked away with a smile on her lips like she was relieved for the excuse. When she put the phone away, she was gone with her little group, getting onto a waiting green cab that soon disappeared into the dimly lit streets.
“Another miss,” said a voice behind Nam, making him jump.
Quan had crept up behind him, with a surprising amount of stealth. His face was still red, as red as beet. He was smiling like a child without a care in the world as he stood by Nam’s side and threw a hand over the latter’s shoulder.
“Hey, friend,” his speech was slurred, and Nam had to hold his breath when the smell of beer and–he didn’t dare think what else was in that single puff of breath–invaded his nostrils. Outwardly, Nam smiled that same genial smile, one that was bright and friendly enough for people to look at and not nearly enough to make them want to come back on their own accord. Quan always came back for some reason, closer and closer each time.
“Quan, you’re drunk. You should go home,” Nam said sternly. Quan giggled and leaned in, his head on Nam’s shoulder. “Now, for heaven’s sake.”
“I can still go for a second round,” Quan replied, his words jumbling together. Nam had no doubt he could. The man had no limit when fun and entertainment was involved. It was, as Quan had explained to him, a trait shared by successful businesspeople in the city. “Wanna join us, pal? It’ll be a blast!”
Nam sighed and took a look at his watch. Ten o’clock. Any later and the streets would make him feel uncomfortable. He had read too many papers about people traveling alone at night, and he believed that his paranoia about personal safety was well justified.
“No thanks, I am a little tired right now,” Nam said with another smile and moved away from the clingy man.
“Come on!” Quan cried, following Nam like a moth heading for the heat source. Nam had to fight back the urge to flinch when other people looked at them, some strangely, some curiously, some looking as though they were expecting a fight to break out (that look was from the security guard).
“Quan, calm the heck down and buzz off. Stop clinging onto me like a leech,” Nam said. Quan didn’t care. He didn’t even know that something had been said.
“You always refuse to go with me. Liven up a bit, man. The night is still young,” said the red-faced man, redder now than ever. He added after a pause, “Live a little. Enjoy your youth, man. I’m still young. You’re still young…”
“So I am,” said Nam, “So please excuse me if I want to live a while longer until, say, ninety.”
Quan rolled his eyes, and for a second, Nam thought he had detected a hurt expression flashing across his face. He couldn’t be certain. Quan said, “Big baby. Always scared of the dark.”
“I’m not afraid of the dark!” Nam protested, his voice taking on a defensive edge, and so did his stance. He wasn’t afraid of the dark. He told himself that he had long passed that age. “I am simply a cautious man. You know the news. You have read the news, surely, about how people get into troubles so late at night. I don’t feel comfortable driving alone on the streets at this ungodly hour.” And indeed, Bình Quới was a rather dark street to be on at so late an hour. It was a narrow place, filled with shimmering and noisy dining establishments in one area and silent apartments, closed stores and empty streets with scattered glimmers of light in another, dead quiet and eerie in the shadows cast by the sparse lamplight. Nam always felt his heart beating a bit faster whenever he went past that old apartment. It put images inside his mind–images of old, decrepit houses in lonely locations in Nguyễn Ngọc Ngạn’s ghost stories.
“You’re too cautious,” Quan said. “You won’t get far in life if you are being like that all the time! Lighten up, my friend.”
Nam looked at Quan’s flushed face, at the hopeful glitters that danced in his brown eyes and the smile that stretched his lips sideways, showing his neatly arranged rows of teeth that had charmed many ladies in and outside work. How Nam envied that smile of his. It was rather hard to say no to such a face. But between choosing to accommodate a friend’s sudden whims and preserving his safety, Nam knew which choice was ultimately better.
“I’m sorry,” Nam began, and forced himself to go on when Quan’s smile withered like a shriveled rose, “But I need to go back to my apartment now. I have some packing to do. Trip in three days, so…busy, busy, busy.” That was a bold-faced lie. He never packed until the day before a trip. Other people didn’t know that. They always had the impression that he was a nice young man with a penchant for organizing and honesty. He was, actually, an honest man, and was rather good at organizing things, as long as such things stayed unrelated to the domestic chores and cleaning.
“Fine!” Quan said, no longer wearing the sulking and disappointed expression on his face anymore and instead having a frown on, “Your loss.” With that, he walked away to his waiting group of peers. Nam felt a little bad about turning him down again (he had already lost count). He was never what one would call a social butterfly, online or offline. He would much rather keep things to himself, and he was fine with being by himself most of the time, with his cheap laptop and smartphone to keep his head entertained and occupied. Besides, he was still in the middle of making a new game. It was his hobby, making things for fun and selling them for money. Being home alone with his pastime was tremendously much better than being out with people who would soon be too drunk or too lost in the gaiety to notice him presence in the background, curling into himself and taking small, wary sips from the cheapest drink available.
Nam left after a few more offers made out of politeness alone. In the same fashion, he turned down them down and made for the parking lot.
It was about half-past ten when he at last found himself speeding down the darkened streets. He was driving faster than usual, going beyond the speed limit he had set for himself, partly thanks to the road not being jammed by heavy traffic. His apartment was not so far away from the restaurant, located in the same Bình Thạnh district, and only a fifteen-minute ride away. He made it back in ten, and a sigh of relief left his lips the moment his motorbike (an old, secondhand red Cub he had bought back from a cranky literature student from university) in the parking lot.
Nam said a brief word of greetings to the nightshift guard and made it back to his room on the sixth floor. He was tired–as tired as any man forced to sit on the same spot for hours listening to banters and talks about which he had no idea or in which he could offer no input without sounding like he had come from a mountain somewhere–and all Nam wanted to do at that moment was to be inside his room and sleep the night away, and possibly the morning afterwards as well. There was no work the day after or for the next week altogether, which he counted as a small blessing.
He could almost hear the voice of his bed beckoning him in the form of a creak in the night as the numbers in the empty elevator changed. It was moving a tad too slowly, and Nam found himself tapping his foot rather impatiently as he waited. He was out of the elevator before the doors fully opened, with his key drawn out and positioned like a knife before his chest. His eyes darted back and forth like those of a hunter.
The corridor was dark, almost lifeless except for the few light bulbs blinking on the ceiling above. He kept his eyes fixed on his feet, not daring to look straight at the other end of the hallway. There was something about corridors and old apartment buildings that made his skin crawl. He blamed Quan (and his dad) for all the stories the latter would tell, most of the times deliberately thanks to his, Quan’s, knowledge of Nam’s secret unease with the dark (Nam always denied this). Nam counted the doors as he walked past.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six.
He stopped and turned right, and there was his room. Quickly, with unsteady hands, he put the key inside the lock. All went well.
Nam almost screamed bloody murder right then, would have had his hand not been fast enough to cover his mouth.
“I’m sorry!” the other person said and pulled herself back as though struck physically. “I didn’t mean to scare you.” At once, Nam’s defensiveness kicked back in, overriding his fear.
“No,” he said, “I was just yawning. Yeah, that’s it. Yawn! It’s late.” When he was able to calm down again, he looked at the–much to his internal dread–woman before him. She was a pretty little thing, shorter than him by a head, and dressed chiefly in white–with a style casual yet still presentable enough to be acceptable in a workplace. Her hair was long and loose, falling all over her shoulders. Already, Nam could feel breathing speed up.
“Can I help you?” he asked quietly. At least he still had the excuse of being tired at this hour. The woman didn’t say anything at first. She stood still with her head tilted to the right and stared at him with a raised eyebrow. She reminded Nam of someone he once knew back home in Bến Tre, with a similar face, but he quickly erased the thought and the image. The woman said nothing still.
“Uh, are you, perhaps, lost?” Nam asked, hiding his hands behind his back. The palms were sweaty again.
“You don’t recognize me?” she said. It was Nam’s turn to stay silent.
“H-Have we met?” he asked. Already, his mind was running facial recognition on her. It would be rude to forget someone’s name or face. He knew this well. He had been that someone for so many times, even in his own family. He had thus promised himself he would not do that to another soul. His tired mind, however, didn’t function well enough at eleven without any caffeine as fuel, and as a result, it was frozen. And for a long while, Nam stared at the woman.
He stopped when he realized what he was doing and offered a muffled apology. The woman huffed and flipped her hair out of her pale face. She then licked her blood-red lips and clicked her tongue. Her eyes narrowed as she glared at him, but he could tell (from experience) that such a glare was more of a playful variety. There was no real heat behind it. She sighed then, lengthily and more loudly than necessary.
“Look carefully, Nam,” she said, shocking the man into forgetting the words he was about to vocalize. His eyes narrowed. His brain raced. Those eyes, that face, those lips, that voice, the rise of her eyebrow and the dimple on her right cheek…
His eyes widened in realization. Memories flooded back into his brain, sudden and powerful like a river over a broken dam. Images flashed inside his mind, of the days of the distant past back in Bến Tre. Suddenly, the stranger was stranger no more. Nam remembered the pretty face that had once haunted most of his childhood. Nam remembered the times he had spent within the shadows cast by the wide foliage of the coconut trees in an attempt to catch a brief glimpse of her smile before chiding himself for his action, the times he had hidden behind his house and peeked out with half an eye when the girl followed her father to visit his family, the days when he would play hide-and-seek with her in the verdant and breezy field, the one time back in grade seven when he almost fell into the water while following her across a monkey bridge, the day when she came to his rescue and put a reversal on the cliché damsel-in-distress motif in fairy tale as she chased away three other boys after his money, the first time when he saw her dressed in a beautiful áo dài at school, twirling around with the flaps in both hands and a carefree smile decorating her lips.
And most importantly, Nam recalled the time when he realized with absolute certainty (more than anything else in his life) that his heart was already in her hands, and it throbbed when hers was wandering elsewhere. The memory of being turned down when he confessed to her at the beginning of their senior days resurfaced, smacking him like a beast he had long tried to subdue and put away. It now dominated his mind, popping up with perfect clarity and vivid details, from the warm afternoon sun streaming down on her face and silky hair tied into a low ponytail, the cool breezes making the flaps of her white dress flutter elegantly in the air to the little apologetic smile and sad eyes she gave him when her mouth rounded and her lips released a single syllable.
“We’ll still be friends,” Nam remembered hearing her say then, with a gentle hand on his shoulder. He believed her, and for the rest of the year, he could only watch from the sideline as her gaze was reserved wholly for another boy whose name Nam had long forgotten. He cheered her on, talked to her all the same, laughed with her on the sunny days and comforted her on the rainy moments, became her friend as she had wished. But they went separate paths after graduation. He went to the city to study. She stayed behind. He landed his current job after receiving his degree and never heard much from the girl that had once haunted his every moment any more.
Nam had thought that was the end of a chapter of his life.
And yet, like a dream or a sudden downpour midday, she rushed back into his life, now standing before him, looking the same and yet different after seven years without contact. She was more mature, Nam could tell, all grown up with her make-ups on and loose hair, with the air of someone who knew what to do with her life hovering around her being–self-assured and proud. She was here, in front of his door, like a beautiful fairy in white.
Nam’s throat was constricted with emotions.
“Lan,” Nam’s voice was small, even to his own ears. He remembered her name, and felt his lips shake and his tongue tense up as the name came out.
She smiled. It was a sweet smile that reminded him of home, of the honey field.
“That’s right,” Lan said and gave his arm a punch, making him flinch and rub the point of impact.
“What…What are you doing here?” he asked, breathless. The air suddenly became hotter, but he resisted the urge to undo the first two buttons of his shirt. That would be most inappropriate, his mind told him.
Lan tilted her head to one side. “I’m here to visit you, of course. I called my dad sometime ago, and your dad happened to be there. We chatted a bit and caught up. He told me you were in the city, and what a surprise, I’m not so far away, so I thought I would surprise you by showing up here unannounced.” Lan looked down at the ground and shuffled her feet, “I suppose the plan backfired on me.”
Nam’s heart beat faster. His face grew hotter, and he prayed to heaven that she didn’t notice the blood rushing to his cheeks. She did.
“Are you sick or something? You look a little red.” Lan pressed a hand against his forehead, and he almost gasped aloud. It was as though a pack of ice was being pressed against his flesh, cold enough to induce shivering.
“I’m fine,” Nam said as he gently lowered her hand and controlled his breathing. “I just went out and had a few drinks with my coworkers to celebrate the end of the year. It’s just a few glasses of beer, nothing to worry about.” Nam cursed himself for being so socially inept, especially in front of Lan. Then he chided himself again, convincing himself she was just a friend, another friendly face that he had not seen or heard from for the last seven years. Just a friend, and nothing more.
“Must be nice,” Lan said, rocking back and forth on her feet and looking around the narrow, dimly lit corridor.
“It’s great to see you, Lan,” Nam said. “Have you been waiting here long?”
“Since half-past nine, I believe.”
Nam went pale.
“Half-past nine? But that’s more than an hour. Oh my. Are you hungry?” he asked. She didn’t answer. Her eyes stared, straight and focused with one raised eyebrow. He carried on, gesticulating frantically with his hands, “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m just…yeah, sorry about that. It’s eleven now. You may be hungry. I know I am. Oh heaven, what am I saying. Y-You need to go home, yeah, right? Ah, right, do you need me to bring you back to your place? I can take you there. Save some cash on cab.” She stared still. Nam gulped, afraid of sounding a bit too creepy. “Or I will pay for a cab? Or flag one down for you? Or something?”
Silence settled between them. Nam wanted to slam the door and disappear into his room, but that would be rude.
All of the sudden, Lan laughed. It wasn’t the boisterous and carefree laughter he had known back in his school days. It was a softer kind, one which was muffled behind a palm over the mouth, courteous and ladylike. Her eyes seemed to smile with her mouth, and Nam once again felt his knees shaking.
“You’re the same as you were back then,” Lan said as she vaguely wiped at the corners of her eyes. “I thought you already got over your social anxiety on front of girls.”
“I don’t have social anxiety!” Nam said, back straight and eyes ahead. “I have a social interaction quota, or as I like to call it: SIQ, that’s all. And I…well…kind of reached it today…at the celebration with my coworkers. And I haven’t had my nightly coffee yet, so yeah, my mind’s not thinking straight right now. Not coherent enough…” His voice trailed off into an awkward silence. He looked down when he heard Lan laugh again, in the same private fashion. He didn’t know why, but he felt a sudden longing for the old laughter, the one that was free and unrestrained, like the breeze that sped by the fields and made all the leaves and blades of grass bend to its will.
“So,” he started, scratching the back of his head, “Do you, uh, want me to call a cab?”
Her mirth vanished at this point. Her eyes looked at her shoes intently (dark high heels and expensive-looking).
“I,” she began and coughed into her fist for a while. Nam noticed then that she didn’t have anything with her except for the clothes on her back, not even a single handbag on her person. Lan, after another cough, carried on in a quiet voice, “I can’t exactly go back at the moment.”
“Oh? What’s wrong?” he asked. She didn’t answer. Silence descended on them once more, thicker and more suffocating than the last.
“Alright, I won’t pry,” Nam said. “It’s not my business. So, eh, do you have anywhere else to go to?” Lan mutely shook her head, her gaze on her feet still. Nam held his breath. His hands, tight fists hidden behind his back, shook again from nerves. He looked at Lan, then at the door, and back to her, his teeth chewing his lip. He knew it was the right thing to do, but he couldn’t help but feel a sense of apprehension washing over him, making all the hair on his back stand on edge and his skin rise. But when Lan looked up, with her big dark eyes and sad face, Nam’s mouth moved on their own.
“Do you want to stay the night with me?”
Lan stared at him.
He scrambled to explain himself. “No! No! It’s not like that, I swear. It’s…I mean, do you want to spend the night here? You know, just for one night?” he hated how his words turned into a question. Lan was still looking at him with a weird expression on her face, like she was looking at something confusing, which, he thought, was not that far off the mark. Being near women made him do strange things, all of which ultimately chased them off–some with a wary smile on, some wearing a look of confusion, and most with a blank face on as their feet moved briskly away from his presence.
To his surprise, Lan smiled. It was like a fresh breath of wind. “May I?”
Nam’s brain pretty much shut down by then. It was how-many-minutes past eleven already (he hadn’t checked his watch since the start of this unexpected encounter). He was tired from the day filled with reports and the night drenched in festivity and noise, and now this nerve-wrecking conversation. Nam couldn’t form a meaningful response for a few seconds. He stood at the door and stared at Lan numbly, looking like a stranded fish gasping for air.
It took Lan repeating the question for him to return to reality.
In the end, he stood aside and let Lan in. The woman nodded thankfully and entered his apartment. The moment the door behind them was closed and locked, Nam’s need to slap himself returned when he noticed the state of his place. Unwashed clothes were here and there, and when he looked at the kitchen sink, he almost screamed, unable to believe how many dirty plates and dishes were sitting there. I don’t remember that many, he thought with a grimace.
He vowed not to let Lan see the state of his bedroom, but then again, where would she sleep? He gulped. Nice impression, sloth, his mind chided.
“Nice place,” said the girl behind him. He didn’t dare look back.
“I’m sorry!” Nam exclaimed as he quickly gathered up the discarded clothes in the living area. “I wasn’t expecting company. So, I, uh…I…usually clean up.” Nam hated the way the last sentence was phrased as a question. Lan smiled again.
“I wasn’t being sarcastic,” she said. “It’s a nice space. Humble. Modest.” It really was. The living area and kitchen shared the same space, divided by the kitchen counter right next to the entrance. To the right of the kitchen was the door leading to the bathroom and toilet. The living room was furnished with the bare necessities, with only a sofa near the entrance to his bedroom, a coffee table, an old TV on the opposite side and a small bookshelf stacked with random titles. Lan hummed, “Kind of remind me of my old place when I first came here.”
“Really?” Nam asked, “When did you move to the city?”
Lan shrugged, “Two or three years ago. I got a job offer from someone I was introduced to, and…well, I came here. The city’s different.”
“Yeah,” Nam agreed. “Quite a mad house.” Nam sat down at the small coffee table in the dining area, opposite the small TV.
“I second that. Everybody lives life on the fast lane all the time, and they don’t know how to slow down,” Lan sat down on the other side of the table, tucking her hair behind her head.
For minutes, neither made a sound except breathing.
“So,” Nam looked around until his eyes found the fridge, “Would you like anything to eat or drink?”
Lan shook her head. “No need. I don’t feel thirsty, or hungry.” Her gaze went around the room, holding inside a faint trace of sadness which Nam believed did not suit her.
He said, “If you want, the bathroom is there, to the right of the kitchen.”
“No, I’m fine.”
“Oh.” Nam fought back the urge to shake his knees. It would not be polite. His eyes went to the door of his bedroom, right behind him, behind a wooden door that had three scratch marks at the bottom, courtesy of his previous pet, Miu. It had been a bit lonely and quiet ever since Miu passed away, so every time he looked at the marks, his mind went back to her and her pleading big doe eyes.
Nam snapped out of his trance when he heard a cough. He looked up, and saw Lan rubbing her arms.
“Are you cold?” he asked. Lan looked like she was about to shake her head, but she stopped herself midway. Both of her hands were placed on top of the coffee table. The nails were well-manicured and painted in a coat of red, as red as her lips.
“I’m always cold,” she began.
Lan looked up at him. Their eyes met, and he found himself unable to look away from her eyes. They were dark, darker than he remembered, like two black, bottomless holes that sucked him in and held him there, erasing any thoughts of escape.
To his shock, he saw tears leaking out of her eyes. A single drop came out, followed by another, and another until two small streams poured down. Nam’s mind went into overdrive immediately.
“Are you okay?” he asked as his hands swung around for the box of tissues. It was under the coffee table (how it had gotten there, Nam didn’t quite remember). Lan accepted the offered box and muttered a quiet word of thanks. The atmosphere was heavy, enough for Nam to feel physically burdened and weighed down by whatever was in the air. He didn’t know what to do. His childhood friend was sitting inside his living area crying for some reason, and Nam didn’t know what to do to console her.
Would it be rude to ask what happened? Would it be okay to just stay silent? Would it be alright to just tell her that things would be fine the next day?
He tried to reach out, but he couldn’t. Just thinking it did weird things to his head, and heart. He looked at Lan, who had calmed down a little. She sniffled now and then, but the tears were no longer flowing.
“If you need the bathroom…”
“I’m fine,” Lan said quickly. She discarded the used tissues and sat down once more. The room lapsed back into an uneasy stillness. Nam was at a loss. He had tried everything he had watched on TV–offering something to drink, offering the bathroom (Is that normal? Nam thought again as he drummed his fingers on the table nervously), asking the other if they would like something to eat. There was one thing left, but Nam wasn’t sure he was brave enough to do that. His eyes went briefly to the bedroom door.
He opted for silence in the end.
“Do you live here alone?” Lan asked all of the sudden.
Nam looked up sharply and began stammering, “Y-yeah. I live alone. Most of the time. There used to be a cat. A tabby cat with big green eyes.” Nam chuckled a little. “I thought she was a doormat equipped with an alarm clock’s function most of the time, always sprawling around all day and warning me when it was five.”
Lan nodded, “That sounds lovely.”
“She was lovely.” Nam looked back at the scratch marks on the door. Maybe I should get a new cat? It’s terribly boring here by myself most of the time.
“What about work?” Lan asked.
Nam looked up. “Work? Oh, everything’s fine. I’m working for a small IT company in District 1. A friend of mine introduced me to the boss right after I graduated, and, well, it’s been a fine year so far, I guess. I’m just lucky I got a job right after receiving my diploma, you know. Some of my peers are not exactly having much luck with that right now.”
Lan nodded solemnly. “That…sounds nice. You enjoy it? Your job, I mean.”
“Yeah. Kind of. Some of my coworkers can be…overwhelming. But they’re nice. Usually leave me alone, though. The work is challenging enough to keep me motivated, and the pay is enough to help me keep this place and take care of my daily expenses.”
“Just the way you like it, I reckon,” said the woman with a giggle. He looked away. Lan leaned in and spoke with a foxy grin stretching her mouth, “You haven’t changed much, I see. Still a blushing mess around women.” Nam, as if to prove her right, blushed even harder, his face turning into a shade not unlike that of beet.
“I can’t help it,” Nam mumbled. “I tried, but…” his voice was cut off when he noticed Lan’s face right in front of his. Nam never knew her eyes were that dark, drawing him in. His body suddenly forgot how to breathe and think and everything else. He just stood there, stiff as a floorboard and tight as a bowstring, so tight that anymore pressure applied would make him snap.
Tentatively, Nam scooted back, smiling a nervous smile the whole time.
“What?” Nam asked self-consciously.
“Nice color,” she said and reached out. Spellbound, Nam could only sit still as she pressed the back of her hand against his cheek. It was so cold it burnt, ridiculous as that idea was. Lan smiled a rueful smile. “Nice warmth.” She gently caressed his cheek like it was something to be treasured, to be handled with care, something unreal that would disappear the moment she stopped. The smile on her lips widened a little more, but it never reached her eyes like before. She looked so forlorn that Nam didn’t want to break whatever dream those eyes were seeing. It would be a cruel thing, he thought. Thus, Nam sat still as a statue, getting used to the biting cold against his warm flesh.
In some way, Nam didn’t want it to end, either.
Lan never stopped. She kept stroking his cheek, caressing his jaw with her thin fingers. Were her fingers that bony? Nam asked himself. He tried to look anywhere other than into the dark, enchanting eyes staring at him, dark as the bottom of an ocean threatening to pull him under and drown him. They stood out against her snow-white skin. For a moment, Nam thought that if Snow White had a face, it would be the one he was seeing right at that moment.
Time passed unnoticed, signaled by the rhythmic ticking of the annoying clock above his head. Lan’s second hand joined in, massaging his flushed cheeks and forcing him to return her gaze. Their eyes met. Nam’s heart beat wildly, and briefly, he wondered how he was still alive.
“Lan?” Nam mumbled, his voice thick. He didn’t dare to move backward or sideway. He sat perfectly still, feeling trapped both in mind and body.
“You are so warm,” she said. “So nice.”
“A-Are you alright?” Nam spoke up anxiously. There was something in her eyes that he suddenly found unnerving, something primal, something predatory.
“No,” Lan answered, surprising him.
“No. I’m not alright. I have never been alright. Haven’t been for a long time now. Days…Months…Years…Perhaps. I haven’t been alright ever since I left my home and my dad. I haven’t been alright ever since I came to the city.” Her thumbs began stroking underneath his eyes. His breathing joined his heart in pace.
“May…May I ask why?” Nam squeaked. He couldn’t summon enough coherent thoughts to hate himself for it.
“It’s my job. The job I was introduced to,” she said. Her face was really close now, enough for Nam to feel her cold breath upon his face. Her lips were inches away from his, and he could not resist. Not many can resist their greatest fantasy when the border between that fantasy and reality is paper-thin. But Lan didn’t kiss him yet. She stopped when she was really close. Nam told himself he wasn’t disappointed, but he knew he was deep down. His heart skipped a beat when she leaned into his ear and whispered. Her voice rang clearly like a peal of a bell going off inside his head.
“It’s always cold there, where I have to work. Lonely beds and lonely sheets which offer no warmth. Hollow embraces which bring no heat. Meaningless words that can only make the heart drop rather than soar. Promises that are worth as much as those who said them: nothing. I hate it. I hate it all. I hate that job. It’s always lonely whenever I crawl back to my room at night with nothing but the hug of the four empty walls and the lullaby of a creaky bed. I have spent many nights tossing and turning, sending prayers towards deaf ears and cries of mercy to the cold, still air. I have spent every waking and non-waking moment dreaming about home, about my dad, about my old friends back at home, about the field of coconut trees and about that awkward, fidgety boy who claimed he loved me back in high school.”
Nam began trembling when her right hand moved from his cheek down to his throat. Bony index finger traced his bobbling Adam’s apple. It then snaked around his neck, pressing against the side while her thumb moved the other way. Nam was sweating. He felt hot and cold at the same time. His throat burnt as though her touch alone had robbed all the moisture inside, leaving it a scorching desert.
“What…” Nam tried to speak, but her words cut him off.
“I have heard many who claimed they loved me, but their words have always been as weighty as the breeze, wayward and passing,” she said. Her right hand went lower. Lower and lower, snake-like fingers disappearing inside his shirt, having undone the top two buttons without his knowledge. Nam’s breathing halted for a few seconds as an unearthly chill crept up his spine and spread throughout his body.
“Lan…” Nam gulped with some difficulty. “I do believe we, ah, we should stop this. This is not…” his breathing turned into a sharp gasp. He scooted backward, his back against the edge of the sofa. She followed. “Please, whatever you’re doing, please stop. This is…” he bit his lip to stop another indecent sound from escaping. “This is not appropriate. Oh heaven, no!”
Lan spoke over him, ignoring all he had spoken, “When you said you loved me back then, did you mean it?” she looked straight into his eyes, studying him, judging him. Her left hand was now resting around his neck, making his pulse race.
“I did,” Nam said at long last. She looked skeptical. “I really did. I…I always had a crush on you when we were young, and when you grew up, you looked so…so beautiful that I…I fell hard. I fell, and I thought that I have already gotten over it ever since you turned me down.”
Her eyes flashed dangerously.
“And now?” Lan asked in a low voice, a whisper loud enough for private ears alone.
“And now?” Nam parroted the words, looking at her unsurely. His eyes stayed fixed on her face, on her too-pale skin which seemed to glisten in the light, on her dark eyes which held him captive, on her red lips which chanted words of magic that robbed him of his will. He gulped and said, “Now, I don’t know anymore. I fell. I thought I had gotten up, but seeing you here, and now, I think…I think I have been crawling the whole time…”
Lan smiled again, and Nam felt his soul leaving his body at that smile up close, honey-sweet and charming. “You have an odd way of expressing yourself,” Lan said.
“Social interaction quota…” his breath hitched again when Lan’s hand moved around inside his shirt and explored the expanse of feverish skin and flesh there. They kept getting colder and colder, while his skin in contrast grew hotter, like every inch of him was on fire.
Lan looked at him. She came closer until she was straddling him. She lowered her body until her chest touched his. “I have been so lonely,” Lan whispered again into his ear, “There’s nobody with me. Nobody to talk with me. Nobody to play with me. I am the hider without the seeker. It’s so cold and empty. I’ve tried to fill the void, but it’s still so empty.” Nam almost cried out when she pulled back, took his hand in her own and guided it towards her breast, where her heart would be. “It’s like a hole has been dug in here, dug yet never filled.”
Nam looked at her with eyes widened and lips quivering. He didn’t dare move his stiff fingers. He could feel the heat cooling down a little bit. The temperature was nice. He felt a veil of haze covering his mind, making coherent thoughts and speech somewhat difficult. He managed to croak out, “How can I help?”
“Kiss me,” she said. It was not a question. She gave him an order, and Nam couldn’t resist. With a nod, Nam inclined his head forward, closer and closer. Her hand undid the rest of his buttons and moved lower at a steady pace, leaving tingling chills upon his cooling skin as it went down. Their lips were close, close enough for their breaths to mingle with one another, hot against cold.
Nam shot up like a compressed spring at the sudden intrusion. All the cold left his being at once. He saw Lan moving backward swiftly with an unreadable expression on her face. Her lips were no longer smiling, and her eyes were no longer gleaming. Her face was blank. She just sat there, staring at him wordlessly.
Nam gulped and pulled out his phone to check the caller’s ID. It was Quan.
“Hello?” he said. Immediately, his ear was assaulted by a string of words that could only be spoken by either someone with unstable mentality or a drunk. The only sounds that actually made sense were those of Quan’s laughter.
“Why on earth are you calling me at this hour?” Nam asked, trying to be annoyed yet failing to do so. He was, actually, quite relieved for this distraction after…whatever that had transpired between him and Lan. He looked at the woman out of his peripheral vision. Lan was still there, with her face hidden by her long ebony hair. It looked silky. Nam wanted to know how it would feel to run his fingers through it and twirl the strands around his fingers.
“Focus!” he whispered harshly.
“I am focused, pal,” said Quan from the other line.
“Not you!” Nam said. “You should go to bed, and stop randomly dialing people at this ungodly hour. You don’t know who you may ring up by accident,” He disconnected the call before Quan could start babbling again. For good measure, he blocked the number for the night.
Nam turned around and looked at Lan, offering her a small, uneasy smile. “Sorry. It was, uh, a friend of mine. He kind of does this a lot when he’s, you know, wasted.”
“As are most,” Lan said, her words cold and without feelings. A new wave of chills spread in his chest as he listened to her. She looked up, and Nam bit his lip hard to prevent himself from crying out. Her eyes were glaring at him like twin bullets aiming for his heart, ejecting him rather than pulling him like they had done just seconds ago. She looked (Nam gulped as he thought this thought) angry and terrifying. And somehow, he felt that he was the one at fault. Quickly, Nam shot up, momentarily struggling for balance until feelings returned to his legs.
“So, uh,” he said awkwardly, “since it’s almost midnight. We should get to bed.” She looked up, and once more, Nam scrambled to rectify his mistake. “I mean, go to sleep, as in, I’ll sleep out here, and you’ll take the bedroom. It’s a bit of a mess in there, like a mini-tornado has blown past, but, ah, I think it’s enough for one night?” Nam smiled again. It was a nervous habit he had developed, one that stuck with him still. Smile and nod and they would walk away.
Lan, much to his relief, nodded numbly as she stepped through the door he held open for her. She didn’t turn on the lights (Nam was thankful for that, for the room looked less of a disaster zone in the dark). Nam retrieved a pillow and his blanket from his bed and stepped out with hasty steps.
“So, uh,” he lingered at the door unsurely as he studied the girl on the edge of his bed. Her head was hanging. She did not move, did not speak, did not do anything, appearing as though she was one with the shadows that haunted the room. Nam wetted his lip and continued, “Good night, Lan. I’ll see you in the morning, okay.”
She didn’t look up. A simple “Good night,” left her mouth, cold and unfeeling.
Gently, Nam closed the door and settled down on his sofa in the living area. It was a bit small, but tolerable (“I will have a sore back tomorrow, but what else is new?” he said to himself). He had been asleep in more awkward positions (like sitting, for example, with his cheek stuck to the keyboard after a long night developing a new game). His mind was a mess. His heart was like a crazy drummer without a rhythm making wild and random beats. He tried not to think about what had transpired, about her beautiful lips closing in on his, about the lingering cold that made his skin tingle at the simple thought, about her touch inside his shirt. He lied down with more force than necessary, and, to his surprise and relief, sleep came to him within seconds.
Nam knew he was dreaming.
In his dream, he was running. He saw himself running, like he was having an out of body experience of some kind. He could see himself (or, as he told himself, a man with his face) at a location he didn’t recognize. There was water everywhere under his feet. Splashes shot out and flew up into the air as he ran past. The man in his dream kept running faster and faster, with desperation pushing him forward. He would throw brief glances over his back, looking for something or someone behind, always with frantic motions and an expression of terror upon his face. For a while, this was all he saw: a man wearing his face and his clothes running at an unknown location which he guessed was the sea. There were hurdles in front of the runner, each succeeding one higher than the predecessor. The first one took a single leap to bypass, but as he moved on, more efforts were required.
It was at the ninth hurdle that Nam, as the all-seeing eye in this case, saw something afar, something like a shadow shrouded in a cloak of mist. It was moving quickly, following the runner’s footsteps. The way it moved was most peculiar. It looked like it was limping rather than running, and yet, it was steadily bridging the distance between the two figures. The water beneath it was never stirred; not even a ripple was left behind. The hurdles on its path broke open as its approach. It came closer and closer to the one ahead, and Nam could see it reach out. Something ivory protruded from its hazy cloak of white. A strange series of click-click-clicks filled the quiet air, as though someone was tap dancing.
Nam saw the runner stop momentarily to catch his breath after his latest climb over the last hurdle, breathing and panting and looking like he would lose consciousness at any time. That was a scary thought. The shadow behind him continued to inch in, closer and closer, with its bony arm outstretched and fingers grabbing thin air.
The shadow reached the man’s last hurdle.
Nam’s vision zoomed in.
The wooden construct shook violently and then, it began to crack and slowly split apart.
A heart-wrenching scream pierced the air.
It was then that Nam woke up screaming his throat raw to the sun peeping in through the gap between the drawn blinds and to the birds that were no longer chirping outside, chased away by a sudden noise which broke their song. His body was gross and sticky with cold sweats. His hair stuck to his forehead like seaweed streaming down. His clothes were hot and uncomfortable and dirty. Nam breathed in and out deeply to calm his racing heart and soothed his quickening pulses. It took half an hour, but he managed to do so.
In and out and in and out.
His head ached horribly. Every joint in his body protested against even the smallest of movements, each one stiff and hurting. Nam tried his best to ignore everything. He pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. His left hand swung around blindly in search of his glasses on the coffee table.
“It’s just a dream,” he mumbled to himself as he ran a shaky hand over his messy raven’s nest. “Just a weird dream. That’s all. Nothing to worry about. Just a strange, strange dream in which I almost died. Yeah. Happens to anybody, ha ha…”
It was amazing how one’s mind could scare oneself at times.
Nam made for his bathroom soon after his own pep talk to relieve the tension he was withholding. He robotically went over his morning routine and took a quick shower. The hot water felt heavenly against his skin. Nam sighed with content as he rinsed his body clean, every nook and cranny. His mind then suddenly recalled the memory of the night before, particularly the cold hand which teased his chest and he switched the water from hot to cold immediately. When he dried himself, Nam realized that there was nothing for him to wear, and all of his clothes were inside his bedroom.
“Sweet heavenly mother,” he muttered with exasperation.
His clothes were in his room.
Lan was sleeping in his room.
He was naked with only a towel to cover his lower half.
The thought made him blush and consider going for another round of cold shower. He did so in the end, and ended up as a shivering mess. With his old, smelly clothes on and carelessly buttoned, Nam made his way into his own bedroom, tiptoeing like a bugler. With careful movements and baited breaths, Nam opened the door, wincing as it creaked loudly against its hinges.
He peered in through the gap. The bedroom was partially illuminated by the light from the living area. He could see his bed in the left corner of the room, and a big, unmoving bulge beneath a drawn up blanket. Nam held his breath and slowly, stealthily made his way towards his wardrobe to retrieve a new change of clothes. So far so good. He cringed as the wardrobe opened and turned his eyes to the bed. Lan made no sound.
His exit was hastier than his entrance. He was able to grab the first items his fingers felt, which was a hideous orange shirt Quan had given him on his last birthday as a joke, and a pair of faded jeans.
“Sweet heavenly mother,” he grumbled and settled with what he had. Once done, Nam made himself breakfast with instant noodles. He wanted to make a second bowl, but didn’t know when Lan would wake up. She seemed to be sleeping rather peacefully inside, not making even the slightest noise or the tiniest of movement under the thin blanket.
“She must have been exhausted,” he told himself. His thought process steered away from Lan and last night, at which point he desperately forced his brain to think about different topics–cars, food, Quan’s drunken rambling, anything at all to keep his mind from going back to the blood-red lips, the deep dark eyes, and the cold, gentle hands stroking his cheeks and chest and…
“Heaven help me!” Nam groaned. He finished his noodles quickly, half annoyed and half glad for the burn on his tongue. That would keep him occupied for a while. Nam contemplated what to do with his day as he began to take care of the unwashed pile of dishes that had been there for who-knows-how-long.
“What am I going to do?” he mumbled to himself. It was yet another habit he had developed to keep himself from feeling lonely most nights, to hear another voice inside his ears. It was the best thing he had to real-life conversations. After all, he couldn’t be awkward with himself even if he tried. “I can wait until Lan wakes up and ask her to…a movie? A day out? Lunch? A d-d-date? Good heaven!” He could feel himself blushing again.
Congratulations, you’ve just managed to be awkward with yourself. Achievement unlocked, creepo, his brain told him.
Shut it, brain, said a different part of the same speaker.
Nam, with eyes screwed shut and lips sealed tight, took a deep breath to banish the constant hammering inside his head and the stiffness in his shoulders. His one-man conversation began anew. “Alright, maybe she won’t wake up till later. I will wait until…” he looked at the clock. It read eight thirty. “Ten thirty. If she doesn’t wake up until then, I will head out. If she does, well, I-I’ll ask her if she would like to join me. Yeah, that sounds reasonable. She has a choice to turn me down…Like before…”
His voice once more lapsed into a thick veil of unnerving silence. No more words were uttered from then on. Only the sounds of water and dishes being put away interrupted the lack of life in the apartment. By nine fifteen, the dishes were done. Then by ten, Nam finished gathering up the dirty clothes for laundry later.
When ten thirty came, Lan still didn’t emerge. The house was dead silent, quieter than a museum. Nam, following the plan he had already set up for himself and picked up a note and a pen, scribbled some important things (his hands were unused to holding a pen after being so accustomed to using keyboards for so long) onto it: where the food was, where he was going, where the remote was placed, where to go and where to stay away from and his phone number in case she wanted to go out or wanted to talk (Nam trusted her enough to leave her alone, for he had convinced himself that trust was normal between friends, more so between childhood friends). He stuck it onto the coffee table where they had sat…and…done stuff…
Nam gave his head a vicious shake and quickly went out, quiet as a shadow, carefully locking everything behind him. His relief was palpable the moment he was inside the elevator. He headed down to the parking lot, and disappeared into the cheerful streets. Nam made his way to District 1 in search of a place to cool his head. After the excitement last night and the (his skin crawled at the reminiscence) weird dream in the morning. After much internal deliberation, in the end, he decided to go to Nguyễn Văn Bình Book Street. Nam didn’t particularly enjoy being anywhere remote at the moment, fearing what sorts of effects they might have on his already shaken-up mind.
The Book Street was not too terribly crowded in the morning. Mostly tourists and university students walked to and fro, all equipped with smartphones and selfie sticks ready in hands, posing every now and then with the books and stores and statues around the place as props. Nam sighed as he took a curve around a couple in front of him, lost in the midst of finding the perfect pose. He never did understand the joy of taking selfies, so he entered a random bookstore and picked out something just to read then and there. He picked up a romantic novel, and began to flip through the pages. The store assistants left him alone after he sent her away politely. The tourists and patrons didn’t bother him.
“Heaven on earth,” he muttered as he turned the pages, his eyes dancing through the letters, and his mind lost in his own imagination brought forth by the words before him. Books had always been a large part of his life, for books didn’t require interaction, just pure affection and focus. Nam had always been an avid reader, and a fast one as well–a fact he, with great pleasure, held in high importance. Nam didn’t know how much time had passed (which was typical for him once his mind had been seduced and captivated by a pleasant volume). All was peaceful, until it wasn’t.
His concentration was cut short at page fifty, paragraph two, line number ten when he felt a finger repeatedly tapping on his shoulder.
Nam turned around with a startled gasp, almost dropping the print in his hand and effectively earning weird looks from the attendants chatting nearby. Nam offered the woman a small smile before turning his head to look at the man who had demanded his attention.
To his surprise, Nam saw a man, approximately in his early sixties with thinning hair, wrinkled skin and a long grey beard which appeared rather impressive in its bushiness. The man was dressed humbly yet neatly in a white buttoned-up shirt and a pair of dark trousers.
Nam was certain he had never seen such a man before. He was certain he had never met anyone over fifty outside his family before.
The young man stared until he realized with a start that he was staring, at which point he began to fumble over his words to apologize for his unintended rudeness. The aged man smiled at Nam kindly, a smile that was as much made by his lips as it was by his glittering eyes.
“A good morning to you, young on,” said the old man, his voice kind and warm–the grandfatherly kind which never failed to put the addressed into a state of ease after the first few words. There was a distinct accent in his voice, suggesting he was a man from the north.
“Good morning to you, too, sir,” Nam said unsurely but not unkindly. “Ah,” he licked his lips, “is there something I can help you with?”
The old man said nothing for a while. He just stared. Nam found it rather odd that he wasn’t unnerved by the stranger’s gaze as he was supposed to be. There was something serene about his gaze (Nam’s mind brought forth the image of the full moon at night shining down upon a still pond) and yet, Nam felt as though his eyes were peering deep into his soul, recognizing and understanding his deepest secrets that therein lied. The eyes were as piercing as they were calming. Nam didn’t know what to think about that.
Hesitantly, he spoke again, “Sir? How may I be of service?” The man said nothing still. Nam looked at himself self-consciously before he realized what he was wearing. “Oh…ah, sir please don’t be misled by the orange shirt. I’m not an employee here. Never was, actually.”
“Actually, I was hoping I would be able to help you,” said the stranger at long last.
“Help me?” Nam said, incredulous, one finger pointing at himself.
“Yes, help you. Would you like to have a drink at the café nearby? There is something I would love to discuss with you, young man. Something of grave significance”
Nam knew then and there that he should refuse. His brain was screaming all sorts of warnings about stranger danger despite the man’s old and frail appearance, supported by a wooden, dragon-motif cane underneath his hands, which were stacked on top of one another. And yet, for some reason, Nam didn’t. The feeling of doubt and worry never even crossed his mind even for a second. He felt assured by the looks in the stranger’s eyes, assured by the calming air that the man seemed to constantly exude, and, for some reason, Nam felt lighter than when he had woken up earlier, like a big weight had been discarded from his shoulders.
Nam knew he should refuse. He should have refused.
Minutes later, he found himself joining the stranger at a table in the book café inside the book street. Neither said anything for a while as they stayed on the opposite sides of the table and stared at one another. Nam had a cup of steaming coffee in front of him while the other had a bottle of water.
“So, ah,” Nam began sheepishly, “What is it that you want to help me with? Wow, that sounds strange coming out of my mouth.”
The stranger smiled. “I had a dream last night.”
“Okay…” Nam said hesitantly.
“But it was not just any ordinary dream conjured by the imagination of the mind. In my dream, I was told to come here this morning by an envoy of the Heavenly Ones above. A deity if you may. He guided me here and told me that someone was in desperate need of my aid, and as expected, I ran into you, the one whom I was sent to help.”
“Alright…” Nam chewed his lip and looked around, looking if anyone was listening in. He chose his words carefully (Nam was taught to always respect the elderly under all circumstances). “So, uh, what is it that I need help from, sir?”
The stranger looked at Nam with narrowed eye, making the young man fidget under his intense scrutiny. Nam quickly hid his face behind the glass of coffee, feigning casualness.
“You’re dying,” said the old man. Nam swallowed before the coffee came out.
“Excuse me for dropping that news out of nowhere, young one, but I can see it with my eyes,” the man continued, pointing at his widened eyes to emphasize his point, “Your life right now is much like a candle placed in the open wind, its flame flickering, soon to be extinguished if left uncovered any longer.”
“Okay,” Nam said, carefully placing the cup back on the saucer. “Uh, this is–I mean no disrespect, sir–a very interesting conversation, but I’m afraid I need to go back home now and see if my friend needs any help. She was a little bit distraught yesterday.” Nam smiled and made to stand up to take out his wallet, but the man’s voice spoke up, halting his movement.
“This friend of yours,” he started, “Is she perchance someone you know from your childhood?”
Nam looked at the stranger. The latter was still giving him the strange, cryptic stare. He hesitantly nodded. “Yes…” he said quietly as he lowered himself back down.
The old man nodded and stroked his beard thoughtfully. “I see. Does she have skin that seems sickly pale and as cold as ice, lips and nails which are as red as newly shed blood and eyes that are as dark as the starless night itself?”
Nam, once again, found himself nodding automatically.
“And does she seem different from how you remember?”
“It’s been seven years, so…”
“Yes or no, youngster?”
Nam licked his lips again and took a sip. “Yes,” he said.
As if emboldened, the old man leaned in and spoke in a whispery voice, as though he was conspiring with Nam on some wily scheme. Nam was urged by the sudden need to do the same. “Did she initiate something rather licentious?”
“Heh?” Nam shot back, his cheeks already rosy.
“Oh, excuse me. Allow me to rephrase that. How should I say this? Hmm…” he tapped his chin and looked towards the ceiling ponderously. He would not say anything for a while. “What do youngsters say these days…I remember my grandchildren say something…ah…pow chikka pow pow?”
“What?” Nam exclaimed, his face flaming enough to be letting out steam. His hands shot to his mouth. Multiple eyes were on him, curious. Nam offered the others a small wave a smile before sitting down, his head down and his cheeks as red as chili pepper. In a quieter voice, Nam asked as he leaned in, “What do you mean by that?”
The old man shrugged, “Well, I have other terms that my grandkids told me. Innocent ones that would not pollute the minds of the pure. What was it again…Hmm, my memory is not as it used to. Oh yes, it’s…”
“Okay!” Nam cut in, “That’s quite enough, sir, I get it. Let’s move on, shall we?” said Nam, the blush more prominent upon his cheeks.
“Oh, yes,” said the old man, laughing merrily. “Sometimes I forget about the task at hand. Senility! Dreadful thing it is. Now then, about your lady friend. Does she or does she not initiate something that’s a bit too forward, even without being prompted to?”
Name thought back about the night before, and nodded, slowly, carefully, suspiciously. His lips were sealed in a thin line, and his eyes regarded the old stranger with unconcealed skepticism.
“You are suspicious of me, youngster, and rightly so,” he said. “But know that I mean no harm at all. I simply wish to help, as ordained by the deity who came to me in my dream.”
Nam nodded, but did not smile. He didn’t want to encourage anything. “Help me with what exactly, sir?” Nam asked. “I know that my friend’s a bit stranger and, well, emotionally unstable from what she’s been telling me, but she…it’s been seven years since we met. Things change. She’s…changed. Drastically so,” Nam looked at his coffee with a forlorn and longing look. His hands curled into loose fists on the glass table. After a sigh, he resumed, “She told me about her new life in the city and how lonely she is, and how she finds no joy in it. Then, she…”
Nam pressed the cup against his lips and sipped, louder than usual.
The old man finished the sentence for him, “She started advancing on you, doing things to you both mentally and physically, beckoning you to do things back, to return her affection.” Nam stared at the old man with his mouth agape and eyes wide.
“How do you know?” he asked accusingly.
“I told you,” the old man said, looking at the sky above. “He told me.”
Nam was torn between wanting to get out of the café (or reaching for his phone to dial 113) and wanting to stay. Another internal war was waged, expressed outward by a grimace. Ultimately, the latter emerged victorious.
“Then,” he began, his voice soft, almost too soft to hear, “What do you mean when you said you could help me? Are you, like, some kind of therapist or something?”
The old man stroked his beard again, his hand running through the grey strands proudly and lovingly as if to say, See this? It’s mine. I grew it. His lips moved, “The girl at your apartment is not the girl you once knew.”
Nam nodded and took a sip from his cup to keep himself from making any comments that might be unbecoming of him. Respect the elders, Nam. Always respect the elders.
The old man went on, “She’s not even human.”
His coffee was emptied, and the content was forming a dark pool on the glass table. “I’m terribly sorry,” he said apologetically to the waitress as she came with a rag in her hand, smiling reassuringly. The old man took a long gulp of his own water, as if to say, See this? It’s mine, too, and I’m not sharing.
“She’s what?” Nam asked, mindful of his volume this time.
“She’s not human,” the old man replied in a manner as obvious as the weatherman stating the sky would be sunny today.
“How can she not be human? She was there with me last night.”
“Believe me when I say she’s not, young man. Nowhere close to one,” the old man said, his voice grim and serious and his eyes no longer smiling, “That thing in your apartment is something that lingers behind in the land of the living, trapped down by its own feelings and wants, unable to find escape and peace. It will continue to seduce you as long as you house it. It will without a doubt try to test your willpower, and make it crumble into dust. A thing like that, cold and empty and greedy and fueled only by its insatiable desires, yearns for a warmth it can never have, a life it has once possessed and possesses no longer. As its want is one that cannot be satisfied, it will keep on moving from victim to victim, stripping them off their mortal life in a vain attempt to fill its empty remnants. And trust me, young one, I use the term stripping in a broad sense.”
Nam was speechless (he didn’t register the last part, however). He didn’t believe this. He was always a man with a strong belief in everything material and natural, perceivable by the five basic senses. He liked fantasy enough to indulge his imagination, but never once had Nam thought there truly existed a reality other than the one into which he was born, into which everybody was born.
The old man nodded, looking as though he was drunk from water alone, “You can believe me, or you can disregard me. That’s your choice. That’s your freedom and your life. But in any case, it doesn’t hurt to try.” The old man stood up, and for a moment, Nam assumed he was going to take out his wallet. Instead, he produced a slip of yellow paper with red markings drawn all over the surface.
“A talisman?” Nam asked, disbelievingly staring at the piece of paper presented to him.
“Take it,” the old man urged and gave the talisman a shake. He shook again, with more force, and Nam, reluctantly, took it off his hand. The man went on, “When you go home, that thing should still be asleep, as long as the sun is still above us. Place that talisman on the door of your bedroom. This will trap the Hungry One within the room, and slowly drain it of its power and influence on earth, forcing it back into the realm it belongs. But know this, young one: whatever you do, whatever you hear coming from the inside, never ever take the talisman off.”
The old man said with so much conviction and passion that Nam could only nod in response to the warning that reminded him of the ones Zeus had given Pandora (as well as its result). His head bobbled like a bubblehead inside a cab. His eyes alternated between the yellow-colored paper and the old man. Not a single word left his parted lips.
“Good,” said the stranger, “Now be a good lad and pay for my water, will you? I used up most of my money for a cab here, barely enough for a return trip. Consider that the price of my service.” The old man shot Nam a smile, one that made him wonder if he was being conned as he watched the old man, with terribly slow steps made with shaky legs, walked away.
“This is absolutely, utterly, irrefutably ridiculous!”
Nam had arrived back at his apartment sometime after two (a quarter to three, to be exact, for Nam liked to be accurate in matters related to numbers and time when his mind was clear). At the moment, he was attempting to unlock the door to his own apartment with all the caution of a death-row inmate having his last meal–with shaky hands and short, heavy breaths.
“Calm down. It’s just one crazy old guy on the street talking nonsense. Yeah, that must be it. Who knows what people these days are smoking,” Nam told himself, but his free hand instinctively reached for the pocket on his shirt, where the talisman was being kept. Nam knew he was being paranoid again, but there was something–a feeling he couldn’t quite explain, like an echo of a voice coming from somewhere inside his head–about the strange man and the talisman that made him believe in the instructions given.
“Or, I’m being gullible again,” Nam ran a hand over his face tiredly. It was like the days of old again, when he had, at a tender age of ten or eleven, listened to his dad’s nightly stories about the strange, supernatural folktales back in Bến Tre. He had not slept alone, or without some sort of light near his side for years until the end of grade eight. Nam felt like a kid again, one with a mind easily manipulated by words and affected by the outside forces. He hated that, hated the feeling of cowardice gripping his rationality, and hated how much the darkness still had a power over him even after all this time, for even now, the habit of sleeping with the nightlight on had yet to abandon him.
“Alright then,” Nam muttered to himself as he inserted the key inside the hole. After a short moment to gather his breath and calm his racing nerves, he twisted it. The lock was undone, and the sound hit him like the grumbling of sleepy beast being stirred.
Nam expected to see something when he went inside–seeing Lan perhaps, awake and about, seeing her reading one of his books in the living area, or seeing her watching TV on the sofa, anything at all. The door opened slowly, creaking loudly as any door inside his apartment as it was pushed. Nam peered inside.
There was nothing there. The living area was the same as he had left it. The note was still on the coffee table, untouched and, quite possibly, unread. The kitchen was clean, and no dishes were in the sink. There wasn’t any noise at all, which made Nam believe for a moment that his room was as it had always been–lonely and lifeless.
His eyes strayed towards the bedroom’s door.
“Just a peek inside,” Nam told himself, desperately convincing himself that what he was doing would not break any teachings his dad had instilled inside him. Tiptoeing in the same fashion as he had done in the morning, Nam approached the wooden door to his bedroom. His unsteady fingers snaked around the knob. He took a moment to swallow the constriction settling inside his throat and, with sweaty palm, he turned the knob.
The creaking this time echoed hauntingly in the air.
Nam made no sound as his head went into the darkness. The room was still the same, and the bulge underneath the drawn up blanket was still there, unmoving. For a split second, he imagined that bed being a grave, with the headboard as a gravestone. There was not a single sound inside the four darkened walls, not even a snore.
Nam closed the door, feeling a sudden wave of chills coming up and down his spine and crawling up his arms. Doubts and fear held his mind in a vice-grip.
“What if the old man spoke the truth?” he asked himself just for the sake of hearing a voice entering his ears, “She’s still sleeping. Either she’s exhausted, or she’s…” he dared not finished that thought aloud, but inside his mind, the thought stayed.
His hand reached for the talisman again and pulled it out, careful not to tear it. He stared intently at the slip of paper with red markings. He flipped the paper around and around, seeing if there’s anything more to it other than what his senses told him. It was just that: a piece of yellow-colored paper with red markings, the significance of which he had no idea.
“It doesn’t hurt to try,” Nam said and stuck the talisman on the aged surface of the wooden door. Nam thought he had heard something coming from beyond the door, something not unlike a soft cry, but he attributed it to his mind playing another trick on him. The tension never left him. It grew, heavier and heavier with every second that went by. He did various things to keep his mind away from the bedroom and the one occupying it for the rest of his afternoon. He watched TV, read a book he had already read at least ten times (a collection of sorrowful romantic poems by Xuân Diệu), made himself a pot of coffee and even cleaned the bathroom’s floor. His eyes, however, would always stray back to the spot of gold and red against the brown background.
The clock continued to tick.
Nam looked outside the window, he saw that the sun was slowly setting. The words of the old man returned. As long as the sun’s still above us, the stranger’s voice rang loudly and clearly inside his brain. Nam could feel his nerves intensifying tenfold, and the heaviness that had haunted his head and his shoulders was back.
He didn’t feel like having dinner. His eyes went to the clock. They stayed on the clock.
The sunlight was no more now. Outside the window was a world of eclipsed by shadows. Nam felt the chills embracing him once again and hugged himself. The act brought him little comfort.
The room was deathly silent. There was no noise, no sound, no sign of life other than his own heartbeat and breathing. And yet, he could hear, or think he was hearing, something which sounded oddly like a series of click-click-clicks–like the sounds made by the figures wrapped in a cloak woven from haze and mist he had seen inside his dream.
He thought he had imagined it, but then realized it was really there, getting louder, getting closer, and it was coming from beyond the wooden door. Nam shot to his feet with a start and a silenced gasp. The next sounds that followed sent his mind descending into a state of near panic.
It was a horrid series of noises, like a high-pitched shriek followed by someone deliberately scraping either chalks or fingernails against a blackboard. Scritch-scratch-scritch-scratch. Rhythmic at first, then desperate in time gone by.
“Nam,” said a voice that caused him to immediately tense up and shiver. “Are you out there?” Lan asked, her voice sweet like honey as always. Nam dared not answer. He just stayed where he was, staring at the door and the talisman. She went on, “I know you’re out there, Nam. Can you open the door for me? The lock seems to be broken. I can’t open it.” The noises intensified, like someone was clawing at the door, trying to chip the wooden obtacle and tear it down, piece by piece.
Nam stayed where he was as though bound to the floor. His heart sped up.
“Nam?” Lan said again, her voice sweet and steady no longer. There was an edge of desperation in it, subtle at first, then subtle no more as she called out times and again. “Nam! What is the meaning of this? What is this? Are you locking me in? Why are you locking me in? ”
Nam, remembering the words of the old man, didn’t respond. He tried to ignore the fact the she was in the house with him. He increased the volume of the TV and shoved his headphones inside his ears and let his playlist play. And still, Lan’s voice penetrated every layer of noise, soaring above the rest and making his head ache.
“Nam,” he heard her say in a trembling voice, as fragile as cracked glass amid its descent. She sounded so broken, so lost, so terrified that Nam couldn’t help but turn off all the other distractions. Only her voice was left inside the apartment.
“Please!” she begged, still clawing at the door, “It’s cold in here. It’s dark in here.”
“There’s a light switch by the door,” Nam said, and slapped himself after saying so.
His voice was like a fuel to her desperation, and she cried out, voice rising in volume and scratching rising in intensity, “I know you’re there, Nam. Please don’t abandon me. Everybody’s already abandoned me. It’s always so cold. I need warmth. I need someone to hold me and offer me his warmth. I can’t stand the lonely nights anymore, lying on a stranger’s bed with nothing but bile and bitterness stuck in my throat. Please, Nam. Help me!”
Nam made to step forward, and forced himself to stand still. He looked away from the door with the yellow talisman, which was fluttering every now and then. He turned on the TV screen again, trying to focus on whatever Korean soap opera it was showing.
“Don’t think about. Don’t react to it. Don’t do anything,” Nam repeated the words to himself as a monk would a mantra.
“Why?” Lan cried. “Why do you hate me?” Nam felt his chest ache at the thought. I don’t hate you, he said to her in his head, I can never hate you.
“Then why do you keep me away?” Lan said imploringly, as though she had read his mind. “Why do you leave me in the darkness? I don’t like the darkness. I don’t like being trapped within four walls with no escape. I have lived like that for so long already, so please don’t force me to live like this again. I can’t carry on like this again.”
Her voice was so sincere, so afraid and so thick with emotions that Nam began to feel dizzy. His chest ached for her, and his heart reached out for her–the one he had claimed he loved. Nam shook his head and pressed his hands against his ears, telling himself to ignore the words from beyond the sealed door.
“Don’t answer. Don’t respond. Don’t do anything,” Nam said to himself, yet already, he could feel his grip on his self-control slipping, like a man dangling on the edge with only his uncertain fingers to keep him up.
“How could you?” Lan exclaimed, her voice trembling with heart-wrenching sobs. “Men are all alike. You said you loved me, you said you were my friend, and yet, here I am again, locked away with naught but a door’s tightly sealed and a window that won’t open. Your words are as heavy as the air you breathe! You are no different from the others, Nam. You are not a friend of mine. You saw me then as others see me–nothing more than a pretty flower to be plucked and a prize to be won, worthless once acquired.”
“I think nothing of the sort! I am your friend,” Nam felt compelled to speak up, his voice defensive. “I want to help you.”
“Then do it. Prove to me how much you care for me. Don’t let yourself be downgraded to the same level as the insects that have on the forms of men,” Lan cried. She was no longer clawing at the door. She was just crying. Each hiccup and sob that left her made Nam’s heart throb as though stabbed. His face was contorted with pain and sympathy for her. Two lonely souls together, cut off by a single door that could only open from one side.
His body moved, seemingly on its own. His hand reached out hesitantly, warily, hovering when the fingers were only inches away from the talisman.
“Nam,” Lan whispered, and even then, her voice, sweet as ever and filled with so much anguish, filled his ears. She paused for a moment before resuming, “Prove to me how much you feel for me, and I will do the same for you.”
Nam’s throat felt dry. His forehead was matted with hot sweats. His skin felt feverish. The heat grew even hotter when he heard new noises passing through the door–moans and breathless gasps and pleas so softly yet passionately uttered. She cried out his name a few more times, her voice distorted, becoming as breezy as the wind passing through his ears and teasing his hair into attention. Nam could feel his cheeks burning again, this time spreading throughout his entire body, ending at the tips of his fingers and toes.
“Please,” said the one beyond the sealed door amid breathy moans.
Nam tried to fight it. His fingers curled and uncurled. His eyes locked onto the yellow-colored paper uncertainly.
“She’s a friend,” he said to himself after swallowing an invisible obstacle lodged inside his throat. “She’s my friend. I’m going to help my friend.”
“Yes. Help me. Come to me. Let me in. Hold me in your arms.”
“I’m going to help her.”
His fingers grabbed the talisman and yanked it out. Silence followed–a type of silence that one could only find as a sacred place of worship or a graveyard at night. The quietude stretched on and on, shattered only by the creaking of the old wooden door as it groaned tiredly against its hinges when pulled back.
“Thank you,” the one behind the door said as she peeped through the widening gap with eyes made of two dark, bottomless holes. Her face was paler than before, the shade of ivory, and her lips were red no longer. Cold and bony fingers reached out from the shadows into the light and gently caressed Nam’s cheek, relishing in the warmth the flesh willingly offered. Lan tentatively guided Nam’s head closer and closer to her, until they were close enough for their lips to touch. Warm breaths came out and mingled with dank air that smelled of earth and mist.
They groaned and moaned and gasped and breathed and cried and sobbed for a long, long time, and in the end, only cold air and dreadful silence remained within the bedroom partially illuminated by the moonlight shining through the window.
Five days later, when the old man, Mr. Thanh as he was known to his friends and family, picked up the morning newspaper, he only let out a deep, mournful and disappointed sigh as his eyes landed on the headline taking over the first page.
DEAD MAN FOUND SLEEPING WITH SKELETON AT HOME, it read.
“Foolish, foolish young one,” he mumbled softly to himself as he slowly made his way back inside the house, his cane rhythmically tapping on the stone-clad walkway.
About the Author
Khoa Ngo (full name Ngô Bình Anh Khoa) was born and raised in Hồ Chí Minh city, Vietnam. A graduate majoring in English Language, Khoa is interested in translating existing poems from Vietnamese into English as well as writing original stories in his free time. A dreamer by nature, a “readaholic” with an undying interest in fiction (especially fantasy and horror) and a writing enthusiast, Khoa wishes to share his stories and ideas with his family, friends and anyone who may be interested.