by Nguyễn Mỹ Nữ
Thoa’s mother nagged her all the way home. When she met any of her relatives, she also complained, “Nobody here talks to me. Have they all turned dumb?”
Yesterday evening her father, in the sitting-room beside Thoa and her mother, angrily smashed his iPhone on the table into pieces when he heard his better half harping on about the same stuff. “Go online and have a look at the video of your daughter behaving like an animal,” he told his wife.
Thoa’s mother looked her square in the face.
“No problem! It doesn’t matter at all,” Thoa said to herself. She slowly went upstairs after throwing an icy glance at her parents. Entering her bedroom, she slammed the door shut. Half an hour later, Thoa’s mother knocked at her door, to no answer.
Loudly, the elderly woman cried and cried.
In spite of her wails, Thoa remained in bed. Her earphones firmly plugged in.
She was alone.
It took her hours to fall asleep. Before dozing off, her mind dwelled on what happened between her and classmate Nhi over Thoa’s cheating on a test. Thoa’s sneaky actions had been recorded and uploaded to the internet. All the families of Thoa’s friends found out about it. Before Thoa’s scandal blew over, Nhi’s strange way of dressing became a hot topic. While all the other schoolgirls had uniforms in the same size, Nhi’s clothing was too tight!
“Why does your uniform look so strange?” Thoa asked.
“Because it’s too tight,” Nhi replied. “My mother thinks it will tear soon. She also told me that she can’t afford a new set if it does get ruined,” Nhi added. ‘Mum told me,’ ‘Mum told me’ Nhi repeated again and again, driving Thoa so mad that she smacked her in the gob. Nhi dodged it so fast that it startled Thoa, who flew into a rage. She and her friends pounded Nhi with a shower of kicks and punches, covering Nhi’s body in bruises. The next morning, Nhi walked into the classroom with a lame leg and swollen cheeks. Thoa felt terrible. All she could do was apologise to Nhi.
If only Thoa’s mother had taught her properly and cared for her, such shameful behaviour would have never happened. Thoa was to be locked in her room for a week as punishment.
* * *
Thoa’s first two days in confinement.
Thoa couldn’t bear being locked in. Worse still, her parents cut her off from the internet. Luckily for her, a door and two windows facing the veranda were unlocked. Another stroke of luck was that the power for the fridge, TV set and radio was still on. Over the past two days, her mother would only come into her room to give her food. Thoa refused to eat.
“So much the better!” said her mother. “I needn’t bother cooking for you again!” she went on.
Thoa turned down the food as she had found cold meats, milk, yogurt, fruit, chocolate and bottles of water in the fridge. Her father hadn’t realised she was so well provisioned when he passed down the sentence. She knew her captivity would seem shorter than a week.
Her third day.
When she woke up, she looked for her iPad as usual. To her despair she still had no internet access, her parents must have disconnected the WiFi. She dropped it together with her iPhone on the mattress. She found a music programme on the TV, but the songs were too boring for her, though she liked the artists’ costumes.
Another day passed in desperation. After a long while looking for something interesting, she discovered a video left under her bed, together with many tapes with kids’ tales and songs in the drawer. She found one of her fifth birthday party, which her mother had organised. She also promised that on Thoa’s tenth and fifteenth birthdays, she would give her an electric motorbike and bring her on vacation, respectively.
Although the images on the video were rather blurry, Thoa could recognise three people in it: Dad, Mum and herself. They were enjoying themselves. The camcorder had been borrowed from Uncle Đang, an overseas Vietnamese coming back home from the US. Auntie Xíu was in charge of shooting. Thoa’s birthday cake was not very big, but the party looked splendid thanks to the multi-coloured balloons. Before lunch outside began, Dad let Thoa ride on his shoulders like he was a horse.
The next clip showed Thoa’s father kneeling down to carry her on his shoulders, then ate sweetened gruel and fruit. Another scene showed Thoa blowing out the five little candles planted on her cake.
All these sights made her cry and cry while she watched.
That night she opened her laptop, not to watch a film but to write. After finishing three pages dealing with her feelings about the recording, she felt very relaxed. Once asleep, she dreamt that she, in a white skirt, a red necktie and a pair of red shoes, was floating in the air together with her parents. They were all on cloud nine and laughing so much that the cloud broke into pieces then fell down onto her bed.
* * *
One early morning Mr Thìn, her next-door neighbour, was surprised when he found her busy watering pots of vegetable on her balcony just a few metres from his. He invited her to come see his little garden on his balcony. Climbing over the rails of both houses, she found many vegetables like beans, carrots, lettuces, chicory, cabbages and celery together with many types of herbs like thyme, onion and parsley, grown in large soft boxes. In the afternoon, he gave her two boiled corn cobs and a big boiled sweet potato, which she enjoyed very much.
The next day, she told him that she was confined within her parents’ house.
“Poor little girl! You’re punished like a prisoner, isolated from the world outside and unable to go online?” he said after hearing her confession. “I can’t imagine such brutality! These measures won’t work,” he observed.
“On this balcony, I’ve grown a lot of beautiful flowers, aromatic herbs and vegetables free of chemical fertiliser,” he told her.
“If we eat polluted vegetables every day or drink preserved coffee day after day, we might get cancer, or so my father told me,” she replied.
“That’s why I grow them in soft boxes for safety’s sake,” he said to her. “I can give you some for your family if you like,” he offered.
* * *
One evening, when she climbed back to her room over the rails, she found her parents already there.
“Now, I can take down the camera we secretly installed in your room,” said her father.
“I can rest assured that you behaved well while you were alone in the room,” said her mother. “Especially when you sobbed and sobbed, we…,” she stopped abruptly, eyes filled with tears, while Thoa and her parents sat close together.
“I should have asked your opinion about installing the camera. Yet under these circumstances, we couldn’t do anything else,” confessed her father.
“Without such a connection we might have died…” Thoa muttered.
That was the fifth evening out of the seven days off before Thoa would come back to school.
“I’ll meet my victims to apologise them for my wrongdoings ,” Thoa whispered to herself.
Translated by Văn Minh