The Payment

Written by Ngoc Trai Nguyen (UNIS Hanoi – 14 years old)

Everyone stared at him as he casually strolled past the large white mansions dressed in the signature grey of the Cube. The young man could feel the words being spit out of their mouths, attacking him with cruelty. Poor, deposit, deprived… the list of insults went on and on. How ironic, he mused to himself, that they put the frozen wasteland right next to the luxurious compound belonging to the more, shall we say, privileged people. He, of course, did not belong there. He was headed towards the much more humble towers in the east.

Asher had never been particularly rich. He came from a modest home of four, consisting of himself, his parents, and his lovely little sister who would both be five this year – or was it six? Time was one of the many things hard to keep track of once you were in the Cube. The last time he had seen his family was moments before the door of his cell closed shut, blasting cold air that froze him to his bones and sealing him off from the rest of the world. That had been about two years ago.

The tense atmosphere slowly disappeared as he walked further east. He was entering the transition zone, and in the distance he could see the brick wall tower looming over the small houses lined up out front. The entire neighborhood’s condition had gotten better, he noted, especially compared to the period of the oil crisis. Even under the harsh white fluorescent light, Asher could feel the familiarity of the area, the warmth of home. Warmth, he sighed to himself, what a beautiful little gem. Warmth, a concept so foreign inside of the Cube that he had almost forgotten it existed. After spending two years – or so he thought – confined in what was basically an ice box, he had gotten quite used to the chill. It was an old friend, the nice sort of pain that hit your lungs after taking a deep breath. Now, all he could feel was a warm, tingling sensation spreading over his body, bursting with anticipation of seeing his family again. From there on, every step he took was a step closer to regaining his old life. The snow was slushy and dampened the soles of his grey shoes, but nothing could dampen his mood right now. Very rarely were people let out from where he had just arrived from.

The Cube. What an, for the lack of a better word, interesting place. Never had Asher felt so conflicted about anything, let alone a location. The Cube had helped him and his family immensely, though for the price of things he could never get back. He didn’t get to watch his little sister grow up, to his detriment although he knew that her condition would be much better due to the money gained in exchange for his time in the Cube. He never felt bitter or regretful about volunteering to save her – that was his decision and at the time he had already known what the consequences would be. He just couldn’t anticipate the magnitude of them.

Along with the rest of those in need, Asher’s family had been offered the opportunity to send a family member into the Cube in exchange for a sum of money. Those family members would be cryogenically frozen in time until the family could repay their debt. The Cube was a sort of deposit bank, to put it nicely. Asher knew what others thought about the people sent into the Cube though – they were pathetic little people who were so desperate for money that they would actually contemplate losing a family member for who knows how long. In a way, this made sense to Asher. However, his family was facing a much larger issue – his little sister had received a potentially fatal disease a month before his decision, and it was getting worse quickly. The only treatment available costed a fortune, which was unattainable to the family.

Until Asher stepped in. His family had been reluctant about agreeing to his decision, yet he kept pushing and persuading them until they finally gave in. Then he entered the Cube. He had been falsely promised that he would feel nothing, that the time he spent in his cell would pass by in a flash. Though he hadn’t aged a single minute, somehow he had still been able to feel the harsh cold preserving his body. It had been a long and tedious time, but he did not feel any remorse about his choice. It was all worth it when he was paid for this afternoon by a distant family member he had never heard of, as he knew that meant that at least his family was doing well.

Finally, Asher reached the large oak door belonging to his old home. The porch had been repaired, with a new plank of wood replacing the gaping hole on the left. It no longer creaked whenever he shifted his weight onto his other foot. Instead, he could hear chattering voices inside, accompanied by a cozy smell of gingerbread cookies. If he had thought he could feel the warmth of home before, Asher was overwhelmed by it now. Slowly, carefully, he raised the door knocker and brought it down thrice.

Knock, knock, knock.

The loud sound echoed in his ears. He nervously twiddled his thumbs as he waited for what seemed like an eternity until the door finally opened. Behind it stood a girl about ten years old, with large green eyes and rosy pink cheeks. Her aura radiated lively youth and innocence. She stared at him in curiosity, cocking her head, until finally she yelled, “Mom! There’s a guy at the door!”

***

Asher could not breathe. He tried willing his lungs to work, but they would not listen. The world seemed to fall apart, breaking into shards of fragmented reality and shattering at his feet. His mind felt like a ball of yarn being tossed around by a wild, deranged cat as he tried to comprehend the information coming out of the slim mouth belonging to the brunette woman standing before him.

It was the year of 5897 A.D. Asher hadn’t been in the Cube for two years, like he had thought; he had been in there for over two centuries. His family was long gone by now. The person who had paid for his release from the Cube was Marie, the woman who opened the door. In the midst of her explanation, he sat there, not knowing whether to laugh or cry from the fact that he was the same age as great-great-granddaughter. Marie handed him an envelope written by his sister, who had wished for it to be passed down in the family in case Asher ever came home. Asher shakily traced his finger along the loopy imprint spelling out his name, and after fighting an internal battle in his mind, he popped open the waxy red seal. After unfolding the letter and its contents, Asher finally decided on what he was feeling at that moment. He burst into tears.

***

My dearest Asher,

It has been decades since your sacrifice for me, decades since we last spoke. Although I was but a mere child back then, the day you stepped out of our lives and into that dreadful place is still fresh in my memory. I know that you may have thought that doing so was a good idea, that you could save my life and come back unscathed. I had hoped so too – that we would have you back in no time, that I would be able to live out a long life with my brother by my side, but nothing comes without a price . Your departure was not in vain though; I am healthy and extremely grateful. Then years and years passed where it soon became clear that we could never repay our debt or see you again, and that completely breaks my heart. Mother and Father passed away a couple years ago, but rest assured, it was peaceful. Oh Asher, you should’ve seen the look on her face when she saw that god-awful photo we took the Christmas before you left! We looked so happy together, and so did she at that moment. When I saw her cry over that blurry little photo, it hit me. We all die eventually, and nothing will stop that. What is the point of living a long life if you are unhappy? If you had to grow up without your older brother? The best way you can finish your journey in this life is when you are surrounded by people you love, knowing you are loved as well. Now that I know that, I only wish that you had never chosen to leave us. I would willingly give up everything just to see you again for one more day, for one more hour, just to hear your voice again, to hug you one last time.

Know that wherever and whenever you do receive this letter, I will be waiting for you and we will find a way to each other once again.

I love you forever and always,

Your sister.”

Cái này là mẹ cháu giữ lời hứa với bác Hương sau khi đã thảo luận và được sự đồng ý của cháu. Viết tiếng Anh như thế này mà viết tiếng Việt lủng củng thế kia, bảo sao mẹ cháu không rên lên hừ hừ😦 Ngọc Trai còn làm thơ tiếng Anh tương đối tốt, tất nhiên không thể so sánh với em Vân nhà bác Hương nhưng vẫn vượt xa so với khả năng tiếng Việt nghèo nàn của cháu😦

7 thoughts on “The Payment

  1. Mẹ Xiu nhắc đến “giữ tốt cái gốc của Việt Nam” là Bác Hương thua ngay, làm sao mà hoà được.
    Thua!🙂

  2. So amazing! Great work Ngoc Trai!!! I think you should be proud of yourself and your mom should be proud of your writing skill also. Thanks NgocTrai for sharing.
    Song Cham, I know it would be so nice if Ngoc Trai can write Vietnamese beautifully, same as she does in English, but, sometimes we might have to stop yourselft for wanting too much, do you agree?🙂 🙂

    • Ôi, bác Hương lại bênh rồi😦 Tất nhiên là mẹ cháu rất tự hào về cháu, và cũng không kỳ vọng cháu sẽ viết tiếng Việt hay như viết tiếng Anh. Nhưng ít ra thì cháu cũng phải viết được tiếng Việt bằng “văn viết” chứ không phải “văn nói” và dù bác có thiên vị đến mức nào, bác cũng phải đồng ý với mẹ cháu là: “thể hiện một tư duy giàu hình ảnh bằng thứ ngôn ngữ nghèo nàn là điều đáng hổ thẹn”, đúng không bác?🙂

      Quên nữa, ước mơ của cháu tại thời điểm này là trở thành một nhà báo và/hoặc một bác sĩ tâm lý. Thế cho nên việc trau giồi tiếng mẹ đẻ lại càng không thể xem thường🙂 Đấy, hoàn toàn khách quan nhé, chứ mẹ cháu thì chỉ hơi khó tính một tẹo thôi🙂

      • hì hì bênh Ngọc Trai là bệnh khó chữa lắm á🙂
        Nếu Ngọc Trai muốn trở thành nhà báo hay bác sỹ tâm lý ở nước mình thì chắc chắn con cần trau giồi tiếng mẹ đẻ rồi. Nếu con học tập và sinh sống ở nước ngoài thì lại là 1 chuyện khác🙂
        Bác lại bênh nữa, thành thật tự công nhận luôn rồi nhé🙂

      • Hihi, bác công nhận là bác bênh rồi nên mẹ cháu chẳng cãi nữa, nhưng mà… (lại nhưng mà :)) mẹ cháu vẫn nghĩ là dù con học tập và sinh sống ở nước ngoài vẫn nên giữ tốt cái gốc của Việt Nam mình. Bác cũng bó tay với cái tính bảo thủ của mẹ cháu rồi, đúng không? Hòa nhé🙂

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