When I closed my eyes, the scent of the wind wafted up toward me. A May wind, swelling up like a piece of fruit, with a rough outer skin, slimy flesh, dozens of seeds. The flesh split open in midair, spraying seeds like gentle buckshot into the bare skin of my arms, leaving behind a faint trace of pain.
“What time is it?” my cousin asked me. About eight inches shorter than me, he had to look up when he talked.
I glanced at my watch. “Ten twenty.”
“Does that watch tell good time?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
My cousin grabbed my wrist to look at the watch. His slim, smooth fingers were surprisingly strong. “Did it cost a lot?”
“No, it’s pretty cheap,” I said, glancing again at the timetable.
My cousin looked confused. The white teeth between his parted lips looked like bones that had atrophied.
“It’s pretty cheap,” I said, looking right at him, carefully repeating the words. “It’s pretty cheap, but it keeps good time.”
My cousin nodded silently.
My cousin can’t hear well out of his right ear. Soon after he went into elementary school he was hit by a baseball and it screwed up his hearing. That doesn’t keep him from functioning normally most of the time. He attends a regular school, leads an entirely normal life. In his classroom, he always sits in the front row, on the right, so he can keep his left ear toward the teacher. And his grades aren’t so bad. The thing is, though, he goes through periods when he can hear sounds pretty well, and periods when he can’t. It’s cyclical, like the tides. And sometimes, maybe twice a year, he can barely hear anything out of either ear. It’s like the silence in his right ear deepens to the point where it crushes out any sound on the left side. When that happens, ordinary life goes out the window and he has to take some time off from school. The doctors are basically stumped. They’ve never seen a case like it, so there’s nothing they can do.
“Just because a watch is expensive doesn’t mean it’s accurate,” my cousin said, as if trying to convince himself. “I used to have a pretty expensive watch, but it was always off. I got it when I started junior high, but I lost it a year later. Since then I’ve gone without a watch. They won’t buy me a new one.”
“Must be tough to get along without one,” I said.
“What?” he asked.
“Isn’t it hard to get along without a watch?” I repeated, looking right at him.
“No, it isn’t,” he replied, shaking his head. “It’s not like I’m living off in the mountains or something. If I want to know the time I just ask somebody.”
“True enough,” I said.
We were silent again for a while.
I knew I should say something more, try to be kind to him, try to make him relax a little until we arrived at the hospital. But it had been five years since I saw him last. In the meanwhile he’d grown from nine to fourteen, and I’d gone from twenty to twenty-five. And that span of time had created a translucent barrier between us that was hard to traverse. Even when I had to say something, the right words just wouldn’t come out. And every time I hesitated, every time I swallowed back something I was about to say, my cousin looked at me with a slightly confused look on his face. His left ear tilted ever so slightly toward me.
“What time is it now?” he asked me.
“Ten twenty-nine,” I replied.
It was ten thirty-two when the bus finally rolled into view.
The bus that came was a new type, not like the one I used to take to high school. The windshield in front of the driver was much bigger, the whole vehicle like some huge bomber minus the wings. And the bus was more crowded than I’d imagined. Nobody was standing in the aisle, but we couldn’t sit together. We weren’t going very far, so we stood next to the rear door in back. Why the bus should be so crowded at this time of day was a mystery. The bus route started from a private railway station, continued up into a residential area in the hills, then circled back to the station, and there weren’t any tourist spots along the way. A few schools along the route made the buses crowded when kids were going to school, but at this time of day the bus should have been empty.
My cousin and I held on to the straps and poles. The bus was brand-new, straight from the factory, the metal surfaces so shiny you could see your face reflected in them. The nap of the seats was all fluffy, and even the tiniest of screws had that proud, expectant feeling that only brand-new machinery possesses.
The new bus, and the way it was unexpectedly crowded, threw me off. Maybe the bus route had changed since I last rode it. I looked carefully around the bus and glanced outside. But it was the same old view of a quiet residential district I remembered well.
“This is the right bus, isn’t it?” my cousin asked worriedly. Ever since we got aboard I must have had a perplexed look on my face.
“Not to worry,” I said, trying to reassure myself as much as him. “There’s only one bus route that goes by here, so this has got to be it.”
“Did you used to take this bus when you went to high school?” my cousin asked.
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“Did you like school?”
“Not particularly,” I said. “But I could see my friends there, and it wasn’t such a long ride.”
My cousin thought about what I’d said.
“Do you still see them?”
“No, not for a long time,” I said, choosing my words carefully.
“Why not? Why don’t you see them?”
“’Cause we live so far away from each other.” That wasn’t the reason, but I couldn’t think of any other way to explain it.
Right beside me sat a group of old people. Must have been close to fifteen of them. They were the reason the bus was crowded, I suddenly realized. They were all suntanned, even the backs of their necks dark. And every single one of them was skinny. Most of the men had on thick mountain-climbing types of shirts; the women, simple, unadorned blouses. All of them had small rucksacks in their laps, the kind you’d use for short hikes into the hills. It was amazing how much they looked alike. Like a drawer full of samples of something, all neatly lined up. The strange thing, though, was that there wasn’t any mountain-climbing route along this bus line. So where in the world could they have been going? I thought about this as I stood there, clinging to the strap, but no plausible explanation came to mind.
“I wonder if it’s going to hurt this time—the treatments?” my cousin asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I didn’t hear any of the details.”
“Have you ever been to an ear doctor?”
I shook my head. I hadn’t been to an ear doctor once in my life.
“Has it hurt before?” I asked.
“Not really,” my cousin said glumly. “It wasn’t totally painless, of course; sometimes it hurt a little. But nothing terrible.”
“Maybe this time it’ll be the same. Your mom said they’re not going to do anything much different from usual.”
“But if they do the same as always, how’s that going to help?”
“Well, you never know. Sometimes the unexpected happens.”
“You mean like pulling out a cork?” my cousin said. I glanced at him, but didn’t detect any sarcasm.
“It’ll feel different having a new doctor treat you, and sometimes just a slight change in procedure might make all the difference. I wouldn’t give up so easily.”
“I’m not giving up,” my cousin said.
“But you are kind of fed up with it?”
“I guess,” he said, and sighed. “The fear is the worst thing. The pain I imagine is worse than the actual pain. Know what I mean?”
“Yeah, I know.”
HẾT PHẦN 1