The date was the twenty-eighth of April, and the time was eleven o’clock in the morning. It was quite a fine day, or like how I like to put it, a sultry, hellish day. Not a single wind was blowing west, and all I can see in front of me is the baked earth, which, not to exaggerate, was starting to evaporate. Yet one had to wonder at the marvelous blue sky above. It’s ridiculous how nice, calm, and peaceful it was. It’s ridiculous how nice, calm, and peaceful the weather was. It’s even more ridiculous how nice, calm, and peaceful the crowd standing on the edge of the lake just outside Auntie Bay’s house was.
The date was the twenty-eighth of April, and the time was eleven-thirty in the morning. Uncle Bay was fishing a UXO out of the lake outside his house amidst the buzzing storm of the crowd’s murmur. And I was there, with Hai, because us two idiots had never seen a bomb, a real bomb, before.
He said, half-joking, half-serious, “Perhaps I can die this way, Nha. Don’t you think it’s funny how people always die when the weather is this nice?” And right at that moment, I knew the half-serious part of the sentence was larger than the half-joking part. But I didn’t care much for what he said. Just like how I didn’t care for the way those nightmares haunted him at night when he laid there staring blankly at the ceiling.
That’s right. The date was the twenty-eighth of April, and Hai hadn’t slept for one whole week.
He’s been hanging on the death of the past – the ghosts of ancient, cruel times – like a suicidal person hanging on a loose rope. And I bet that’s all he ever saw. He even said it before to my face. Nha, I’ve seen enough of them dying. And now, getting a sense of what he really meant that time, I can’t wait to step out of the mess that was his life, fast as the way I had stepped into it on that rainy day. But that was also an ancient, cruel time.
By the time Uncle Bay was done fishing out the UXO, we were soaking wet with sweat. The salty water was leaking from every open pore on our body. It felt like a large construction sight to me. The scene was so familiar with all the stink, the heat, and the sun shining blindingly above us. I licked my lips and tasted the salty drop of sweat forming on the corner of my mouth. Nha, stop doing that, let what bygone be bygone. You are so, so far removed from that life of toil.
But how can one escape from the past? That would be quite an invention.
A stork was clattering its bills noisily, busying itself with the tedious grooming duty. I wiped the dripping sweat on my forehead and asked Hai,
“Man, care for a cold drink at your café across the road? My throat can build a desert.”
“First of all, it’s not my café, it’s Auntie Sau’s. Second of all, you are right, let’s have a cold drink. I think all my blood is evaporating under this piercing sun.” Hai was fanning himself with both of his hands. A strand of hair fell down and he tucked it behind his ears. A drop of sweat fell down his eyes, and he closed them to avoid the sting. The moment the drop of sweat moved down his eyelids and fell down his long eyelashes, I felt a bang in my heart.
A bang that will forever haunt me, torture me, and kill me, little by little, day by day. I turned away and felt my face burning. Was it because of the sun? Or something else?
And so we went to Auntie Sau’s café across the road. Some girls asked Hai why he was there because it was not his shift. As if a normal person had no right to be in a café if it was not his shift, I murmured under my breath. Hai laughed at them, saying that he heard someone found a bomb, so he came to watch.
“It’s not gonna end well, is it?” They chirped amidst the clattering of the plastic mugs and glasses.
“The bomb. Have you seen one explode before?”
“Never. That’s why I came to watch.”
“And look at all them people. It looks like someone’s dam gio, can you believe it?”
“Well, if they are not careful, and if luck’s not on their side, then this date next year may very well be their dam gio*.”
“Look at you, Hai. Watch your mouth, or you will get a well-deserved beating one of these days.”
“I got my bodyguard, don’t you worry. And what do you know?” Hai winked at all the beauties. I heard him whisper under his breath, “What I deserved is a dam gio. My own dam gio.” But I didn’t care much for what he said. You never know what to do to a person who’s seen enough of them dying.
A group of strong, muscular young men walked into the café, clamoring for ice-cold black coffee. “Em oi, put in it a mountain of ice, please,” a young man with unusually squared jaws joked, “I need to apply some cold ice to my burning life.” The girls giggled like crazy at his words. One girl went to get the men’s ice-cold black coffee. Her long, lean fingers stirred the spoon to the rhythm of the cheesy pop song that was blasting inside the store. I love you, and if you don’t love me, I don’t know who else I will love, that was all the song said. That was all every cheesy pop song ever said these days. I heard the clanking noise of the spoon against the glasses, and I felt drowsy. The girl’s long, lean fingers suddenly looked like Hai’s to me: she moved them quick, then slow, then quick, then sideways, then circle, then …
“Will they cut open the bomb?” The man with weird jaws said.
“What do you think?”
“I swear they’re gonna cut open the bomb. I saw someone getting the rusty saw from uncle Tu the carpenter.”
“Really? They’re gonna do that? What a feast.” Then loud laughter. Then whistles.
“Man, what bravery. Have you ever heard of a joke? An American, a Chinese, a Japanese, and a Vietnamese join a bravery contest –”
The joke was tasteless. I felt Hai’s grip on my wrist stronger. I doubted that it will leave a bruise. But never mind. After all, the one being hurt wasn’t me. I wonder if the Vietnamese guy in that joke was brave or just simply stupid. I didn’t know. I bet he did not fear death. I bet he was wishing for death even, like someone who’s seen enough of them dying. Like Hai.
“Do you think we should go home, Hai?” I asked hesitantly. I hoped he said yes. Not the type of yes that everyone would cheer and shout and clap, but a good, happy yes that everyone wanted after a tiring day, anyway.
“Why? Should I not stay? Should I not stare Death in the face and say enough is enough?” He laughed, sipping his bac xiu**.
“We saw the bomb. What more do you want?”
“I don’t know what I want, Nha. But I do know what I don’t want. I don’t want to be home,” he paused for a second, then added, “It’s burning in Uncle Hai’s house.”
“Oh guess what? It’s burning here, too. And there’s way more people here.” I quickly glanced around. A crowd was never the right place for criminals on the run like me.
“They care too much for the bomb. They won’t see you for who you are.”
“And is that what you want? For people to not see you for who you are.”
He didn’t retort. That was a first. He continued sipping his bac xiu while staring intently at Uncle Bay’s house far across the road. The young men beside us kept on chattering loudly with a burst of laughter and dramatic hands movement. And the girls kept on stirring the metal spoon noisily, making it clanking against the glass. Her long, lean fingers looked more and more like Hai’s. And Hai stared ahead. And I felt drowsy.
You must be bored with all these details by now. Why would I tell you all of these small, insignificant, trivial facts? Because they are all the details that will always be vivid in my mind. Why are they so haunting? You may ask. Perhaps you already conjure up some terrible ideas. The worst idea, maybe. And they are all true. For fuck’s sake, they are all so damn true.
The date was the twenty-eighth of April, and the time was twelve o’clock in the afternoon. The bomb exploded in Uncle Bay’s house. Boom. A loud motherfucking boom.
Everything happened in a blink of an eye. I know it was a cliché saying, but it was literally a blink of an eye. I blinked, and the house was gone. The crowd was gone. Uncle Bay was gone. The only thing that remained was a hollow pit. And we were all staring at the empty lot that used to be Uncle Bay’s house like a dumb, stunned audience watching the finale of a circus act. The sound of death was loud and clear. I knew it when I heard it. It was a mundane static noise ringing in the air. I guess I had also seen enough of them dying. We were drowning in the striking silence which was growing stronger each minute after the deafening noise. And as if Hai had finally woken up from his bad dreams – as if he was the only sane person among us audience, which he always was – he jerked up, his body shaking, his voice cracking. He screamed, “CALLS THE FUCKING COPS. SOMEBODY CALLS THE FUCKING COPS.” And he shot toward the hollow pit like a bullet.
Hai’s joking voice rang in my ears like a mourning toll. Well, if they are not careful, and if luck’s not on their side, then this date next year may very well be their dam gio. Damn it, Hai. And now the blown-up bodies will pile up on the ghosts that you dearly yearn to forget, Hai. But you can never forget this. You can never forget the corpses lying there like a decoration for Christmas. But Hai –
I stuck to the plastic chair, watching anxiously at the stream of people running toward the devastating sight. Someone said that the cops were on their way. I held my breath, and my hands were gripping on the chair’s handles tightly like an iron chain. Hai, oh Hai, if you don’t come back, I’m gonna join the bravery contest and saw the bomb in half. My forehead was running cold sweat. A tingling sensation was spreading fast all over my useless body and I can’t move my shaking legs. A cold whiteness unfurled in front of my eyes. Hai, come back. I writhed in fear and overwhelming terror. Hai, come back come back come back –
Outside, the cops parked their cars near the edge of the hollow pit. My heart was beating like a racing horse as I watched the cops walked out of the cars one by one. As the living life was seeping out of me, I saw a shadow running fast toward my chair, grabbing my hands, yanking me up, and pulling me out from the harrowing crowd. “What are you waiting for? Run,” Hai said. And that’s what we did. As we charged forward, I felt his frail hand trembling in mine as if he was gonna give me up anytime now – as if he was gonna give everything up anytime now, and burry himself beneath the hollow pit of the bombing sight, right beside the fleshy corpse of Uncle Bay. I pulled him to a nearby bamboo grove and hid behind it. Hai was wriggling like a worm and tugging my hand.
“Move. Just move. For God’s sake, MOVE.”
“Keep it down. What’s wrong with you? No one will see us here, it’s far enough.”
“Move. Move,” he was nearly shrieking. His fist punched me strong and hard. But the pain I felt at that time was nothing. The sultry weather was nothing. The stinky sweat was also nothing. Hai fell to the ground and hid his face in his arms, “If you don’t move now, one of these days, I will kill you, too.”
“No, you will not.”
“Did you hear me, Nha? I said this day next year will be their dam gio, haha –” Hai laughed. His laugh sounded like a poisonous seed was stuck inside his throat, and it was growing roots in his veins, ” – what damned luck is that? I am just like the Reaper, Nha. They called me Hai the Reaper. Because that’s what I do. Did you see me reap their souls when the bomb exploded?” He can’t stop cackling. The sanity was slowly leaving his bright, crystal eyes. Then he fell into his usual loop of crying-laughing – the loop that I had witnessed so many times this whole sleepless week. But Hai –
“I didn’t see you reap anybody’s soul,” I said to him, “You know what I see, Hai? I see someone who has been trying so hard to save everyone’s life. So, so hard. Heck, he even tries to save a criminal on the run while he is having a mental breakdown. He even tries to laugh and protect the happiness of everybody when he can’t even protect his own happiness. Hai, look at me. Come on, stop that nonsense and look at me. That’s right, good boy. Do you see it? All I see is you, Hai. All I see is you – who you really are.”
I stroked his unkempt hair gently. He curled up to me and continued weeping. “Everyone’s dying, Nha, everyone’s dying,” he kept whispering shakily in his breathy voice. I thought he was gonna shatter to pieces in that very moment. I gathered all of him in my arms, trying to collect the remaining pieces of his sanity in my hands, and patch the bleeding wounds that were scattered all over his body.
“You are better than all of this, Hai, all of this,” I cooed in his ears, “Look at you, you are so much better than all of this, so much better – ” As he slowly fell into a slumber on my chest, I held onto a flimsy prayer that one of these days, Hai will believe what I said.
The day was the twenty-eighth of April, and the time was eleven o’clock in the morning. There was so much that we can never save. And sometimes, the only thing we can hold in our hands was nothing but the sanity of a boy maddened by death and the past bygone.
*A person’s death anniversary.
**A type of Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk.
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