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by Phan Hon Nhien The waiting lounge was deserted. The chair surfaces were all smooth and shining red connected very closely together by a bar of cool white stainless steel. Hung sat down on the chair. He looked at the wall clock. In a few minutes it would strike noon. His son had just been sent to the emergency room. All he could do now was wait. Hurried steps were heard. A tall, lanky man of about 27 darted out. His hands were pressed hard at the lower part of his neck as if he was trying to contain strange sounds that threatened to burst out. He finally sat down on the chair at the other end of the row. He mumbled continuously. About ten minutes later, when the trembling had stopped, he buried his face into his hands. Hung secretly observed the strange man. An ambulance arrived outside the hospital and duty nurses rushed downstairs and out to meet it. Hung sat still. But the strange man had stood up and disappeared through the revolving door. The doctor agreed to let him take his son home that night. The eleven-month old infant had had an injection and the rhythm of his breathing had returned to normal. He was now sleeping soundly in the portable cradle. The boy suffered from the rare genetic disorder, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, the doctor explained. "I know something about it," Hung interrupted. "It’s a disease that is linked to the hereditary genes." The doctor was silent. "You can take your son to my private consultation room at any time," the doctor said. "My address and phone number are on my card." The doctor turned and left. Hung again looked down at his son in the cradle. Then he left the emergency ward, took the lift down to the ground floor to his car and drove it out onto the road. *** At the bus stop outside the hospital, he recognised the lanky man from the emergency ward waiting room. "Do you want a lift?" he asked. After a moment of surprise, the man accepted the invitation and entered the car only to stop short at the cradle. Then, he paused before asking if he could hold the baby in the front seat. He arranged everything quickly and sat in comfort with the baby asleep on his chest.
"Please drive for about five more kilometres to the crossroad on the expressway where I’ll get out," he said. "OK," Hung nodded. "Why don’t you take a nap? I’ll call you up when we arrive." "Oh, I don’t want to trouble you but please wake me then!" – the stranger’s smile made his face look more miserable – "please call me Dong." The fuel gauge showed sufficient petrol. The headlights of the cars coming towards them were like the eyes of wild animals. Hung glanced at his son. Such a tiny face and hands. A familiar image. So familiar that it frightened him. It was exactly the face of his wife An. He and his wife were well over thirty. Everything had gone very smoothly for them. An had not lost her beauty even when she was pregnant. He had no complaints about his family life. They had even saved enough money to buy the car. He remembered that it had drizzled that morning. He drove at a normal speed on the empty road. His three-day old baby was lying peacefully inside the car. He and his wife looked at each other in great happiness. His wife An was leaning against the seat, carrying her baby in her arms. She was so happy that she wanted to listen to music and chose the Beatles. The song When I’m 64 came from the CD player. From the blue sky, Hung smelt something. "The blood smell. From my body...." said his wife calmly. He nodded. He had never felt so sorrowful and pitiful as at that moment.... The temperature in the car was 26 degrees Celsius. His son, warm on the chest of the stranger, slept on. The stranger’s profile was rather handsome. Suddenly Dong awoke. He had not been asleep but instead had closed his eyes to relax. "What happened to you in the hospital that made you look to be in such a panic?" Hung broke the silence. "An acquaintance needed treatment and I took him to the hospital," Dong replied haltingly. "Is that all?" Hung sounded doubtful. "That person had a brain concussion" - He spoke softly at first and then shrieked - "A wound at the back of his neck and he was unconscious. He had lost a lot of blood." "Who had caused it?" Hung asked even though he could guess the answer. "If he had not threatened to abandon me, I would not have lost my temper!", he said, his hands covered his face. His eyes wet with tears – "Anyway I had taken him to the hospital and phoned his relatives to come to the hospital." The baby started to cry suddenly and a terrible discouragement enveloped Hung. The blood smell was about the stranger. He asked the passenger to soothe the baby. Dong
tapped lightly on the infant’s back and it fell silent. The car was slowed and Dong said weakly: "I’ll be frightened at home all alone. If only I could stay with you for the night." The traffic light turned from yellow to red. The car dashed on like a blind lunatic. Hung felt he was losing the capacity to control himself. *** The stranger had stayed at Hung’s flat. Three weeks went by and he showed no sign of leaving. He also declared that it was no use going back to the design company. Dong occupied a room with a toilet and two windows. Hung’s wife An had planned to reserve this room for guests, but there had been none. In the morning Dong arose early, bathed and sang some old Beatles songs. He used a towel and the clothes of the apartment owner. Hung worried about the time his guest was staying but was patient – his guest was a good cook and had a special ability to care for the baby. Any time his son cried or got sick, Dong would help solve the problem. He cradled the baby in his arms and it slept soundly with its face pillowed against his shoulder. Dong sang gentle lullabies and the baby gave a rare smile. In these moments, Hung became inert. It seemed An was still at home, carrying her son in her arms. The small family was peaceful and happy. Once Hung walked lightly behind that lanky Dong and took his son’s tiny hand and kissed it. Suddenly Dong turned and Hung could smell his sexy body. In that short moment, he recognised that it was not his wife An. Later, he thought that he should accept these small details and he shuddered. Once Hung tested the situation by saying that if Dong was discovered taking refuge in his house, he would have to have a visa. But Dong stopped him short by saying: "Don’t drive me out!" The words were more like command than pleading and Hung understood immediately that it would be difficult to drive the guest out. He thought of the irony and decided the only option was to accept. Then he assigned Dong with more house work, which was done in fits and starts. Hung asked him to vacuum the sofa. Dong inquired: "Oh, why is your wife away from home for so long a time? Why hasn’t she been back home?" "She doesn’t live with me any more," Hung replied. "Has she followed another guy? A rich expatriate? Yet you’ve still remembered her tastes," Dong said, laughing. The cup of coffee on the table was empty. It seemed Dong could read Hung’s mind. He made a large cup of coffee and put it before his host. "You did not sleep well last night, did you?"
"No." "Do you feel lonely and miserable because of your wife’s unfaithfulness? Is that right?" "Stop it," Hung said in a low voice, "my son has a temperature again and I had to wake up and apply a wet towel to cool him down. When the morning broke, the baby could sleep only a little." Dong felt uneasy about it and asked Hung to leave the baby to his care, but Hung shook his head: "I’ll take him to the hospital now," he said. "You don’t trust me. Are you afraid that I will kidnap your son?" "On the contrary. What I want now is for some of his relatives to come and adopt him, but none want to raise a disabled baby." Dong was stunned. He was horrified. Hung wanted to explain but could not. Both sat in surprise and resignation. *** The doctor put the baby down to make a routine examination. Sometimes he glanced hesitatingly at Hung. After the injection, the doctor said the baby’s fever would be gone in two hours and his blood pressure would be normal; Hung could take it home. After he paid the big fee, Hung immediately asked: Please, tell me, how long will my son live?" "Only after we scan his oesophagus can we be exact, but we can’t do this with an elevenmonth-old baby. However, it’s strange that you don’t want to save the baby." "I’ve signed a contract to work in Australia and I can’t take him. "A very good reason that pleases the ears," the doctor’s small eyes shone. "You’ve guessed it right. I’ve lost a lot of time and energy. Stupid people think I’m cruel. But I know you could guess what it is I want." "I’ve got it. Someone wants to leave something." "Yes, that’s right. I want to start a completely new life!" – Hung returned the sleeping baby to the cot – "I need a change. Everything." "All right. I’ll see if anyone wants to adopt the baby. I’ll call you soon." "Thank you, doctor" – Hung stood up, feeling greatly relieved but strangely empty. Hung went straight home from the doctor’s private consulting room.
The stranger was right in saying that there was no reason for Hung to worry about his baby being kidnapped once he himself did not want to have the baby in the apartment. When he neared the lift, he suddenly remembered that he had to buy some milk and nappies for his son, so he stopped at the super market on the ground floor. He put the cradle near the cashier’s counter. When he returned the cradle was empty. His blood seemed to curdle. The cashier understood what had happened and intended to raise the alarm but he stopped her and instead put his purchases in the cot. Now he sat on a park bench, thinking about his situation. His son had been lost at the exact time he had wanted it. He felt a great fear, but he could not understand why. He sat there for a long time, but how long he did not notice, in that cold spring morning of extreme sadness. He phoned home but was not answered. Dong had disappeared without leaving a note. The small guest room was littered with newspapers and magazines and many DVDs. A wind was blowing through the unlocked windows. Suddenly Hung wanted to imprison himself in darkness, so he switched off all the lights and pulled the curtains down. In the early morning, he sat still on his bed awaiting his son’s cry or expecting the song When I’m 64 to ring about the room. But nothing happened. Wasn’t this what I was expecting for such a long time, he asked himself? *** All the procedures for his two-year business abroad had been quickly processed. The doctor had informed Hung that a rich middle-aged couple wanted to adopt his son. "Good luck to you. O.K.?" – he heard the doctor’s voice as if it was from the distant planet. Hung told him that he could give the earliest possible answer. It was a Saturday evening. After some delay, he opened the wardrobe and arranged his luggage. A blue suit case from that last tourist trip with his wife An. He slowly opened it and saw some leftover soft grains of sand. He seemed to hear An’s ringing laughter. Then out of the blue sky, the memories flooded the small room. He visualised the two of them lying on the beach, talking about their baby in her belly.... he jumped up suddenly and put all the things into the suit case. He breathed hard and wondered where his son was now and whether he was ill or better. He snatched the phone and called Dong, the only clue. He was watching a sports programme on television when at 10 o’clock when the door bell rang. His son was strapped on Dong’s chest. Hung took his son from Dong. The baby looked rosy and lively. The warmth was returning. A great joy lying deep down inside arose when he held his son in his bosom. Dong brought along some food, so they both sat down and ate it and talked. He told Hung about the difficulties he had had when he first nursed the baby and the great love he felt for the baby so that he did not answer Hung’s many phone calls.
"Why have you done these unexpected things to me?" – Hung looked squarely into Dong’s eyes. "I am so scared when I have to live alone. In the past I aspired to be loved by someone, but later on I understood that it is enough for me to love someone. You can’t understand it" "Were you so scared being left alone in the hospital that you punished the guy who had left you alone?" "Do you think I have got the guts to do that? I coined the story, you know. We’ve said good-bye to each other for a long time. When he had an accident, I took him to the hospital. I was so fearful upon seeing blood. So when you gave me the lift, I was happy and wanted you to pay attention to me....," Dong said, smiling. Hung kept silent, imbued with the true value of loneliness. People like him, or Dong, had no one to turn to, except for themselves. And the most terrible thing they had to confront with was not their pain or sadness, but the fight for human dignity, cruelty camouflaged in hopelessness. He listened to his son’s breath. The feeling of safety had gradually dispelled the freezing cold inside him. They lay in silence. Dong said: "Has your wife said when she will come back?" "She’s dead. Half a year ago," Hung replied "She could not escape the cruel law of a series of genes. Until now I cannot understand why. We had everything, yet she suddenly died and I lost everything. This life is not safe at all. You know, I did go mad." Tears welled in his eyes and he cried uncontrollably. Dong’s cold and soft hand looked for his and pressed it hard. "We’ll be all right. Anyway we have to live until we get old, so be brave...." They were awake for the entire night. Outside, the silhouettes of owls flew past the floating clouds. *** Hung delayed the flight and renegotiated the contract with the company. Finally they had agreed that the project’s senior expert could bring along his one-year-old son. They went to the airport by taxi. Nobody came to see them off. He strapped his son to his chest. The baby looked about through its two round eyes. After completing all the procedures and checking in his luggage, he went into the waiting room. The music of the Beatles could be heard from the loudspeakers. Suddenly he turned and looked fixedly at
the other row of chairs. He stared on until the loudspeaker called for the passengers to board the aircraft.
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