‘Tomorrow night we have shrimp toast. Pork-stuffed squid. Pot-roasted rice. Duck with nuoc cham.’
Tommy’s mouth was watering, but he would never admit as much, not even if he were placed in the hands of torturers with countless clever instruments of persuasion. ‘Okay, I’ll be there tomorrow night. And after dinner, I’ll take you for a spin in the Corvette.’
‘Take your father. Maybe he like flashy sports car. Not me. I simple person.’
‘But your father good man. Don’t put him in fancy sports car and take him out drinking whiskey, fight, chase blondes.’
‘I’ll do my best not to corrupt him, Mom.’
‘Tommy,’ he corrected, but she had hung up.
God, how he loved her.
God, how nuts she made him.
He drove through Laguna Beach and continued north.
The last red slash of the sunset had seeped away. The wounded night in the west had healed, sky to sea, and in the natural world, all was dark. The only relief from blackness was the unnatural glow from the houses on the eastern hills and from the cars and trucks racing along the coast. The flashes of headlights and taillights suddenly seemed frenzied and ominous, as though all the drivers of those vehicles were speeding toward appointments with one form of damnation or another.
Mild shivers swept through Tommy, and then he was shaken by a series of more profound chills that made his teeth chatter.
As a novelist, he had never written a scene in which a character’s teeth had chattered, because he had always thought it was a cliche; more important, he assumed that it was a cliche without any element of truth, that shivering until teeth rattled was not physically possible. In his thirty years, he had never, for even as much as a day, lived in a cold climate, so he couldn’t actually vouch for the effect of a bitter winter wind. Characters in books usually found their teeth chattering from fear, however, and Tommy Phan knew a good deal about fear. As a small boy on a leaky boat on the South China Sea, fleeing from Vietnam with his parents, two brothers and sister, under ferocious attack by
Thai pirates who would have raped the women and killed everyone if they had been able to get aboard, Tommy had been terrified but had never been so fearful that his teeth had rattled like castanets.
They were chattering now. He clenched his teeth until his jaw muscles throbbed, and that stopped the chattering. But as soon as he relaxed, it started again.
The coolness of the November evening hadn’t yet leached into the Corvette. The chill that gripped him was curiously internal, but he switched on the heater anyway.
As another series of icy tremors shook him, he remem¬bered the peculiar moment earlier in the parking lot at the car dealership: the flitting shadow with no cloud or bird that could have cast it, the deep coldness like a wind that stirred nothing else in the day except him.
He glanced away from the road ahead, up at the deep sky, as if he might glimpse some pale shape passing through the darkness above.
What pale shape, for God’s sake?
‘You’re spooking me, Tommy boy,’ he said. Then he laughed drily. ‘And now you’re even talking to yourself.’
Of course, nothing sinister was shadowing him in the night sky above.
He had always been too imaginative for his own good, which was why writing fiction came so naturally to him. Maybe he’d been born with a strong tendency to fantasize
— or maybe his imagination had been encouraged to grow by the seemingly bottomless fund of folktales with which his mother had entertained him and soothed him to sleep when he had been a little boy during the war, back in the days when the communists had fought so fiercely to rule Vietnam, the fabled Land of Seagull and Dragon. When the warm humid nights in Southeast Asia had rattled with gunfire and reverberated with the distant boom of
mortars and bombs, he’d seldom been afraid, because her gentle voice enraptured him with stories of spirits and gods and ghosts.
Now, lowering his gaze from the sky to the highway, Tommy Phan thought of the tale of Le Loi, the fisherman who cast his nets into the sea and came up with a magical sword rather like King Arthur’s shining Excalibur. He recalled ‘The Raven’s Magic Gem,’ as well, and ‘The Search for the Land of Bliss,’ and ‘The Supernatural Crossbow,’ in which poor Princess My Chau betrayed her worthy father out of love for her sweet husband and paid a terrible price, and the ‘Da-Trang Crabs,’ and ‘The Child of Death,’ and dozens more.
Usually, when something reminded him of one of the legends that he had learned from his mother, he could not help but smile, and a happy peace settled over him, as though she herself had just then appeared and embraced him. This time, however, those tales had no consoling effect. He remained deeply uneasy, and he was still chilled in spite of the flood of warm air from the car heater.
He switched on the radio, hoping that some vintage rock-’n’-roll would brighten his mood. He must have nudged the selector off the station to which he had been listening earlier, because now there was nothing to be heard but a soft susurration, not ordinary static, but like distant water tumbling in considerable volume over a sloping palisade of rocks.
Briefly glancing away from the road, Tommy pressed a selector button. At once, the numbers changed on the digital read-out, but no music came forth, just the sound of water, gushing and tumbling, growling yet whispery.
He pressed another button. The numbers on the dis¬play changed, but the sound did not.
He tried a third button, without success.
‘Oh, wonderful. Terrific.’
He had owned the car only a few hours, and already the radio was broken.
Cursing under his breath, he fiddled with the controls as he drove, hoping to find the Beach Boys, Roy Orbison, Sam Cooke, the Isley Brothers, or even someone contem¬porary like Julianna Hatfield or maybe Hootie and the Blowfish. Hell, he’d settle for a rousing polka.
From one end of the radio band to the other, on both AM and FM, the watery noise had washed away all music, as if some cataclysmic tide had inundated broadcast studios the length of the West Coast.
When he attempted to turn off the radio, the sound continued undiminished. He was certain that he had hit the correct button. He pressed it again, to no effect.
Gradually, the character of the sound had changed. The splash-patter-gurgle-hiss-roar now seemed less like falling water than like a distant crowd, like the voices of multitudes raised in cheers or chants; or perhaps it was the faraway raging babble of an angry, destruc¬tive mob.
For reasons that he could not entirely define, Tommy Phan was disturbed by the new quality of this eerie and tuneless serenade. He jabbed at more buttons.
Voices. Definitely voices. Hundreds or even thousands of them. Men, women, the fragile voices of children. He thought he could hear despairing wails, pleas for help, panicked cries, anguished groans — a monumental yet hushed sound, as though it was echoing across a vast gulf or rising out of a black abyss.
The voices were creepy — but also curiously compel¬ling, almost mesmerizing. He found himself staring at the radio too long, his attention dangerously diverted
from the highway, yet each time that he looked up, he was able to focus on the traffic for only a few seconds before lowering his gaze once more to the softly glowing radio.
And now behind the whispery muffled roar of the multitude rose the garbled bass voice of. . . someone else
someone who sounded infinitely strange, imperial and demanding. It was a low wet voice that was less than human, spitting out not-quite-decipherable words as if they were wads of phlegm.
No. Good God in Heaven, his imagination was running away with him. What issued from the stereo speakers was static, nothing but ordinary static, white noise, electronic slush.
In spite of the chill that continued to plague him, Tommy felt a sudden prickle of perspiration on his scalp and forehead. His palms were damp too.
Surely he had pressed every button on the control panel. Nevertheless, the ghostly chorus droned on.
He made a tight fist of his right hand. He thumped the flat of it against the face of the radio, not hard enough to hurt himself, but punching three or four buttons simultaneously.
Second by second, the guttural and distorted words spoken by the weird voice became clearer, but Tommy couldn’t quite understand them.
He thumped his fist against the radio once more, and he was surprised to hear himself issue a half-stifled cry of desperation. After all, as annoying as the noise was, it represented no threat to him.
Even as he posed that question to himself, he was overcome by the irrational conviction that he must not listen to the susurration coming from the stereo speakers, that he must clamp his hands over his ears, that somehow
he would be in mortal danger if he understood even one word of what was being said to him. Yet, perversely, he strained to hear, to wring clarity from the muddle of sound.
That one word was irrefutably clear.
‘. . . Phan Tran. . .‘
The repulsive, mucus-clotted voice was speaking flaw¬lessly accented Vietnamese.
‘. . . Phan Tran Tuong. .
Tommy’s name. Before he had changed it. His name from the Land of Seagull and Fox.
Phan Tran Tuong. .
Someone was calling to him. Far away at first but now drawing closer. Seeking contact. Connection. Something about the voice was . . . hungry.
The chill, like scurrying spiders, worked deeper into him, weaving webs of ice in the hollows of his bones.
He hammered the radio a third time, harder than before, and abruptly it went dead. The only sounds were the rumble of the engine, the hum of the tires, his ragged breathing, and the hard pounding of his heart.
His left hand, slick with sweat, slipped on the steering wheel, and he snapped his head up as the Corvette angled off the pavement. The right front tire — then the right rear — stuttered onto the rough shoulder of the highway. Sprays of gravel pinged and rattled against the undercarriage. A drainage swale, bristling with weeds, loomed in the headlights, and dry brush scraped along the passenger side of the car.
Tommy grabbed the wheel with both slippery hands and pulled to the left. With a jolt and a shudder, the car arced back onto the pavement.
Brakes shrieked behind him, and he glanced at the rear-view mirror as headlights flared bright enough to sting his eyes. Horn blaring, a black Ford Explorer
swerved around him, avoiding a rear end collision with only a few inches to spare, so close that he expected to hear the squeal of tortured sheet steel. But then it was safely past, taillights dwindling in the darkness.
In control of the Corvette again, Tommy blinked sweat out of his eyes and swallowed hard. His vision blurred. A sour taste filled his mouth. He felt disoriented, as if he had awakened from a fever dream.
Although the phlegm-choked voice on the radio had terrified him only moments ago, he was already less than certain that his name had actually been spoken on the airwaves. As his vision rapidly cleared, he won¬dered if his mind also had been temporarily clouded. It was easier to entertain the possibility that he had suffered something akin to a minor epileptic episode than to believe that a supernatural entity had reached out to touch him through the prosaic medium of a sports-car radio. Perhaps he’d even endured a transient ischemic cerebral attack, an inexplicable but mercifully brief reduction in circulation to the brain, similar to the one that had afflicted Sal Delano, a friend and fellow reporter, last spring.
He had a headache now, centred over the right eye. And his stomach was queasy.
Driving through Corona Del Mar, he stayed below the speed limit, prepared to pull to the curb and stop if his vision blurred . . . or if anything strange began to happen again.
He glanced nervously at the radio. It remained silent. Block by block, fear drained out of him, but depression seeped in to take its place. He still had a headache and a queasy stomach, but now he also felt hollow inside, grey and cold and empty.
He knew that hollowness well. It was guilt.
He was driving his own Corvette, the car of cars, the ultimate American wheels, the fulfilment of a boyhood dream, and he should have been buoyant, jubilant, but he was slowly sinking into a sea of despondency. An emotional abyss lay under him. He felt guilty about the way he had treated his mother, which was ridiculous because he had been respectful. Unfailingly respectful. Admittedly, he had been impatient with her, and he was pained now to think that maybe she had heard that impa¬tience in his voice. He didn’t want to hurt her feelings. Never. But sometimes she seemed so hopelessly stuck in the past, stubbornly and stupidly fixed in her ways, and Tommy was embarrassed by her inability to assimilate into the American culture as fully as he himself had done. When he was with American-born friends, his mother’s thick Vietnamese accent mortified him, as did her habit of walking one deferential step behind his father. Mom, this is the United States, he had told her. Everyone’s equal, no one better than anyone else, women the same as men. You don’t have to walk in anyone’s shadow here. She had smiled at him as though he was a much-loved but dim-witted son, and she’d said, I not walk in shadow because have to, Tuong. Walk in shadow because want to. Exasperated, Tommy had said, But that’s wrong. Still favouring him with that infuriating, gentle smile, she’d said, In this United States, is wrong to show respect? Is wrong to show love? Tommy was never able to win one of these debates, but he kept trying:
No, but there are better ways to show it. She gave him a sly look and ended the discussion with one line: How better — with Hallmark greeting card? Now, driving the long-desired Corvette with no more pleasure than if it had been a second-hand rattletrap pickup truck, Tommy was cold and grey inside even as his face flushed hot with shame at his ungrateful inability to accept his mother on her own terms.
Sharper than a serpent’s tooth is a thankless child.
Tommy Phan, bad son. Slithering through the California night. Low and vile and unloving.
He glanced at the rear-view mirror, half expecting to see a pair of glittery snake eyes in his own face.
He knew, of course, that wallowing in guilt was irrational. Sometimes he had unrealistic expectations of his parents, but he was far more reasonable than his mother. When she wore an ao dais, one of those flowing silk tunic-and-pants ensembles that seemed as out of place in this country as a Scotsman’s kilts, she looked so diminutive, like a little girl in her mother’s clothes, but there was nothing vulnerable about her. Strong-minded, iron-willed, she could be a tiny tyrant when she wished, and she knew how to make a look of disapproval sting worse than the lash of a whip.
Those uncharitable thoughts appalled Tommy even as he indulged in them, and his face grew yet hotter with shame. Taking frightful risks, at tremendous cost, she and Tommy’s father had brought him — and his brothers and sister — out of the Land of Seagull and Fox, from under the fist of the communists, to this land of opportunity, and for that, he should honour and cherish them.
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