A stem of purple orchids hanging down like a screen seemed to cover part of the table where Thien An was silently watching her hot coffee drip into her cup drop by drop from the percolator.
“One hundred and seventeen, now eighteen, now one hundred and nineteen,” she counted.
Suddenly a roll of thunder crashed in the sky and startled her. From the balcony, close to her place, she looked at the dim street lamps below while above her head the sky turned overcast.
Then suddenly a ray of lightning burst across the darkness while the thunder kept on rolling from afar.
From the coffee house, Thien An rang her husband.
“Are you ready to come home right now and pick me up on the way?” she asked.
“Of course, I might reach home in thirty minutes honey!” he answered. “Though I am stuck in a heavy traffic jam. Just be patient. On my way home, I’ll get go to you to take you home at once.”
She’d heard such promises too often in the past to stay any longer in the cafe. So she made up her mind to leave.
* * *
She remembered that when her little family decided to come settle down in this pretty little town, about twenty kilometres northeast of the provincial capital, she found it rather boring. But day after day and week after week, she became interested in this small locality as she found that it was nice and quiet in all aspects.
“Let me pay the bill, please,” she told the black-haired elderly cashier busy jotting down something on his thick notebook.
“Which table, lady?”
“Oh dear, a bad number! Well, let me see, five cups of coffee in all.”
“Just one hundred and fifty thousand đồng, lady,” he replied, lifting his lock of hair hanging down on his forehead, then he glanced at her confusingly.
She felt cold and a bit uneasy.
“One hundred and fifty thousand, lady,” he repeated.
“Yes, here it is,” she stammered. After paying him she stepped out.
“Sorry, lady! I don’t feel quite at ease when I watch young women go home alone and late as well. Next time, you should go home much earlier. Anyhow, this weather is not good and safe for you, I’m afraid.”
A muffled laugh was heard behind him. Silently, she flung the door open while a gust of wind gently wafted over her face.
The cashier took a mirror out of his drawer. When it showed the doorway, a one-eyed man with a pock-marked and deformed face could be seen behind him.
* * *
When the toll barrier for the motorway at the junction of Ba Giát went up in front of him, Tuấn let out a satisfied sigh because all the boring moments at business contracts and banquets, in honour of their successful negotiations, had gone smoothly.
On both sides of the road, when the number of brightly-lit houses and shops reduced less and less, soon a dark and vast field appeared ahead of him. He lowered the side window, letting in a sweet-smelling gust of wind caused by ripe rice paddy. He inhaled fresh air deeply and played a piece of jazz music in the car’s speaker system. He looked outside. A roll of thunder boomed in the sky and a flash of lightning flickered brilliantly. “It looks like rain,” he said to himself. “This early season rain reminds us – Thiên An and me – about the days we first moved to this deserted town of Phu Sa in the hope that the new place might console after my wife suffered multiple miscarriages: three cases or, precisely speaking four, including the recent one,” he went on.
By chance, he remembered that he had some unanswered calls. Putting a hand into his pocket to take out his mobile, he read: five missed calls from Thien An. On the way home, when he was going to contact her and say ‘sorry’ he had unintentionally dropped the phone onto the car floor. Picking it up, he suddenly saw a black figure shooting across a sharp bend ahead. His car screeched to a halt and could see a black-haired female drenched in blood on the road.
* * *
The deformed face of the one-eyed man in the roadside café haunted Thien An. He looked at her as if he knew who she was and what had happened to her long ago.
That afternoon when she slowly drove her car out of the local hospital along a nearby bridge, a hurricane was brewing out at sea. Reaching the middle of the bridge she stopped short to drop a small black plastic package together with a bundle of joss-sticks into the turbulent flow below. Coming back to the familiar café, she calmly sipped whisky, one glass after another, to forget her unlawful secret. Not until one of her friends found her lying amid a mass of vomit, eyes wide open, was she taken to a nearby hospital in an ambulance.
“She seemed dead,” remarked one female customer.
“Yes, perhaps! However, what about the little creature still in her womb some days ago? Who is the father of this poor little thing?” asked another woman.
* * *
After that Thien An became Tuan’s gentle wife, nice and faithful.
She tried to walk home as fast as possible. Her house was just around the corner. In the strong wind, raindrops started coming down.
A thunderbolt crackled over her head in the dark sky. Unfortunately for her, street lamps went out. She couldn’t see a thing and stopped walking.
There was no soul in sight. “I can’t stay here any longer,” she whispered to herself. Unluckily for her, right at the moment a hailstorm began coming down. Big balls of ice beat her bare arms and made her tremble violently. In a few seconds she was soaked to the skin. She grumbled and cursed the bad weather. She reproached her husband in a low voice, “If he had arrived at the café in time to take me home earlier, I might not have suffered this miserable evening.”
* * *
“Why haven’t you decided to solve our troublesome problem?” asked Tuan’s sweetheart Lan Anh, the pretty girl sitting opposite him.
“I’m very sorry, I was unable to,” he replied, bowing down.
“Not even a word of apology from you?” she complained, tears trickling down her pale face.
“I’ll take you to a well-known gyneacologist to solve this unwanted matter.”
“Oh no no, remember the embryo is your baby-to-be.”
“Yes, I know, I know! Anyhow, it’s a gross mistake.”
“Merely a serious one.”
“We’re only short term lovers. We couldn’t stay together for a long time. I don’t want you to have a heavy cross to bear.”
“And you won’t feel in the least repentant either?”
“Oh no, not at all! I’ve made up my mind to end this illegal love affair. So, get everything ready before I take you to the doctor.”
“Ha ha!” she laughed bitterly. “So, you’re determined that I have to give up our child, aren’t you?” she went on.
“No no! What do you mean?” he asked.
“Poor us! The die is cast!” she whispered. We have to take leave of this world for ever and ever,” she exclaimed and took her leave of him for the evening.
Later, during the rain, when a big container truck left a side road to merge into the main street, a small figure was seen crossing the street. She ran in front of the vehicle and fell dead in a pool of blood just ahead of Tuấn. The terrible scene made his body go stiff.
“Oh God! My lovely Lan Anh, Lan Anh!” Tuan screamed when he stepped out of his car.
* * *
“Who’s that?” asked the elderly caretaker when the door bell rang.
“Who’s that?” she repeated.
Silence. There was nothing but the sounds of wind and rain. She proceeded to the door with an electric torch in hand.
“I hope that it is him! May God bless him and let us enjoy a peaceful night!” she prayed in a low voice while walking slowly.
She unlocked the door. When it flung open with a screeching sound, raindrops started splashing over her and the floor. All of a sudden, a broken tree branch came down and struck against the wooden screen loudly. Outside no soul could be seen amid a rainy, dark and immense field.
In the dim light Thien An knew that she was just a stone’s throw from her villa.
“Will this heavy rain affect Tuấn’s homecoming tonight?” she asked herself. Suddenly, her thoughts were interrupted by strange noises echoing behind her. At first, she thought that they were just the sounds of a broken branch, but then she felt very worried when many more noises like footsteps on dry twigs resounded more clearly. Immediately, she stopped. There was nothing around. The further she kept walking, the more clearly the sound echoed on the concrete pathway. Surprisingly, when she went slowly, the footsteps sounded weaker.
“Am I being followed?” she asked herself.
In the torrential rain, when she stopped, heavy raindrops remained pattering on her hat. Suddenly, she remembered the one-eyed man’s remarks in the café. In confusion she turned around.
There wasn’t a soul in sight either.
“I must rush home as soon as possible to end this dangerous situation,” she said to herself. Suddenly a thunderbolt cracked across the dark sky. She saw, some five metres away, a figure covered by a yellow raincoat, was watching her attentively. She was so panic-stricken that she rushed ahead. She ran into a wall then staggered unsteadily for a few seconds. With an effort, she darted ahead so fast that she fell into a pond of dirty liquid.
“Oh dear, blood, blood!” she screamed wildly
In another flash of lightning, she saw a new-born infant that seemed to still be alive. It stared at her. She shouted and shouted in the cold. Then, she was covered with a raincoat then taken away in the heavy rain.
* * *
“Oh dear, my Lan Anh, my beloved Lan Anh! Anyone, come to her rescue?” shouted Tuan.
“Hey, what-d’you-call-yourself!” asked a strange figure.
“Alas, my dear Lan Anh!” Tuan cried and cried.
Tuan’s shoulder was shaken by a strong hand. His eyes were wide open. In front of him stood a lorry with a brightly-lit cabin. Beside the truck, its driver was looking at him suspiciously.
“What’s the matter with you?” he asked Tuan, bending down his head.
“Something bad might have happened to me here, maybe…,” stammered Tuan.
“Can you speak more clearly, please?”
“My car has crashed against something,” Tuan answered.
“When I reached this place, I saw you falling asleep on the steering wheel. Not a car crash, I think! If a car crash had happened, things might have looked different.” Saying so, he pointed toward the road section behind Tuấn’s vehicle as a token of a minor accident.
Instead of looking back, Tuấn glanced ahead where the bright beams of the headlights from the huge lorry driver’s cabin were shining on Tuan’s missing windscreen.
“You should have driven more slowly during the rain. And only take a few gulps of alcohol,” the stranger told him then waved goodbye. After that, he stepped into his truck.
Undergoing lots of cases of hallucinations before, each time he detected a weird face staring at him like a madman Tuấn was unable to explain them. All the sinful obsessions of his previous years followed him so closely that he could hardly get rid of them. Now the image of the pregnant girl with his own unborn child seemed to be a ghost or even a curse to him. Getting in his car and lowering the window, he saw several small pools of blood in front of his car which made him tremble with fear.
“How long have I been staying in this heavy rain?” he asked himself.
* * *
When Thien An opened her eyes, she found Tuan standing close to the two jade pots of flowers, the blue window screen and the dressing table made of mahogany wood.
“Who took me home?” she asked as if she had just come out of a nightmare.
“That guy over there!” Tuan said, pointing to a man at the doorway. “However, you suffered from minor shock and illusions. Nothing serious,” he added, fondling her hair lovingly.
“Oh dear!” she exclaimed, burying her face in her hands.
“Don’t worry! Poor him. His face turned so ugly due to bad luck; that’s all,” he consoled his wife.
The strong-built one-eyed young man sniggered softly when he saw Thien An shivering with fear.
“Leave her alone, sir. For a young woman born in the lap of luxury, she should be aware of human suffering once at least,” she remembered similar words of his to the cashier in the café. As for him, he was fully aware of what a miserable life was like, for when he was very young he was abandoned by his mother during a similar rainy night. It was then that he was mercilessly attacked by a hungry pack of wild dogs, resulting in his disfigured face.
That night, instead of drinking to his heart’s content as usual, the one-eyed guy just sipped a small glassful of spirits, put on a raincoat, carried an umbrella along and followed Thiên An who was drunk as a skunk. By instinct, he thought that she might be in danger on the way home. Indeed, he saw her tumble onto the pavement in front of the villa in his mother’s charge. At once he took her in.
“He’s my adopted son, you see,” said the elderly woman.
Thien An turned back. To her surprise, the woman was none other than Mrs Luu Tam, her faithful and kind-hearted maid servant.
* * *
“He’s been obsessed by his mother’s brutality since then,” said the caretaker. “Therefore, he gets muddle-headed quite often. When it rains cats and dogs, he drinks a lot and shouts hysterically like a wild dog,” she added.
Tuấn and his wife did not know anything about this unlucky man because they were newcomers to the area. Clearly, it was the caretaker’s adopted son who had saved Thien Anh’s life.
“You shouldn’t judge him by his appearance. He’s a kind-hearted soul,” the woman told them. “One late evening some twenty years ago, by chance, I found him in a pool of blood, his face deformed and left eye lost, due to a hungry pack of wild dogs, I guess. Taking pity on him, I took him home. I’ve brought him up,” she explained in a choking voice.
“Oh, I’m awfully sorry!” Thien An whispered to her. “I’m much obliged to you both!” she went on.
“Anyway, thank you very much, our great friends,” said Tuan. Suddenly, the youth’s hideous face evoked Tuấn’s painful memories about his recently-abandoned infant.
“I must be going to my work now,” said the benevolent youth.
“This late?” Tuan asked in surprise.
“Of course, sir,” he replied politely then, turning round, he left.
Tuan was going to run after him, but the old woman stopped him immediately.
“Leave him alone! You should look after your better half,” saying so, she followed her adopted child.
* * *
The rain stopped. The little town turned to normal as before.
In their tranquil house, the couple stayed awake.
“Well, darling…,” Thien An said to her husband.
“What’s the matter with you, my dear?”
“I’ve had lots of issues to deal with over the past time,” she added.
“So have I.”
“Hmm, anyway, let bygones be bygones.”
“Right you are, my sweetheart,” she went on.
“We’d better pray God for an adoptive child, okay?”
“Why not? As soon as possible!”
“Last night, I was greatly worried.”
“Me too!” he responded sympathetically.
“Well, come what may, it’s high time we slept.”
Their bedroom sank to a quiet and peaceful night.
All of a sudden, the church bells struck twelve.
“Goodnight, my dear!” she said.
“The same to you, my honey!”