The middle-aged foreign man glanced at her for a moment, shook his head and walked away.
With a sad face, the girl stepped silently back to the wooden table in front of the roadside café.
- "Missed another fish (a customer) did you?" Loan asked
Pulling a chair back, Thu responded:
- Accept it! My golden age has passed...
Two years ago, when Thu was about seventeen, she had displeased a customer. As retribution, she was beaten by the pimps and expelled from the brothel where she had stayed. Despite not having a place to live, Thu still had to pay a "raising up" fee to the former brothel. When she was eight, Thu's family of four, including her parents and elder brother, fled the Vietnamese border for Thailand. They joined a group of people, but their perilous route would take them through the whole of Cambodia. By sunset, as the party awaited their guide, a group of four Cambodian soldiers appeared. Without a word, the soldiers dragged all the girls and women aside and raped them. Thu's mother was among the victims. Thu's father tried desperately to rescue his wife, but was stabbed fatally, while her mother was raped to death. During the ensuring chaos, everyone ran for their lives. Thu was separated from her brother and has not heard from him since. She ran and ran, until exhaustion overcame her and she collapsed to the ground.
Voices woke her. Around her were many strangers, children no older than herself all crowded into a tiny and dark room. From that moment, her life changed forever; Thu was thrown into the child sex industry. For the next several years she would become a sex slave, a moneymaking tool, and an object for men to satiate their lustful desires. They would abuse her both physically and psychologically. Each morning, Thu and the other children were forced to sell their bodies and earn money for the brothel. Their condition is deplorable. Sometimes these children service fifteen to twenty men a day. That was the only life she had known from the tender age of eight until she turned seventeen.
Having been kicked out of the brothel, Thu wandered the streets. While she has lived in the neighborhood for over nine years, she rarely left her cage and did not know many places. Her childhood was marked by many beatings and exploitation to enrich the pimps who own the brothel. She often recalled horrible memories of seeing her father killed, her mother raped to death, and her brother swallowed by the jungle. These painful recollections drove her into a depressive state. Each time such memories haunted her thoughts, she would shiver in fear but dared not cry. The hardships, pains, and humiliations increased her anger at the world. Where will she live now? What will she eat? If she can't pay the fees, the pimps will find her and beat her like so many times before. Daddy? Where are you? Mommy! Where are you? All she had left from them was a leather necklace she wore as a trinket. With heavy steps, her feet carried her aimlessly. She wondered where she was truly heading.
- "Thu!" A voice called out to her. She turned around... it was Loan!
Loan was another girl imprisoned in the same brothel. Despite being her next-room neighbor at the brothel, Thu had not seen Loan for quite some time and did not know what had happened to her. Filled with joy, she ran towards Loan, and embraced her, tears streaming down her cheeks and unable to utter a word. The two friends could not imagine that they would one day meet again. Loan led Thu to an alley before stopping before the rear entryway of a small shop. Loan pointed to a corner behind the shop and said:
- This is where I live.
Thu looked around and eyed Loan in astonishment. Loan understood Thu's bewilderment and invited her friend to sit. A year ago, they sold Loan to another brothel near the border. She had barely stayed there for a few months before the police discovered and ransacked the place. Some of the girls were recaptured while others managed to escape. Loan was lucky enough to evade capture and returned here. She wanted to find another job like washing dishes, or tidying homes but no one gave her a chance. Ultimately, to survive, she returned to sex industry. She rented this small corner and found some boards for her walls and bed. Loan asked after Thu. How did she escape? How had she been getting on? Thu related everything to Loan and the two cried their hearts away. From that moment, the two shared this small corner behind the shop. During the day, they slept. At night, they roamed the streets to earn money. Day by day, they managed to edge a meager living, some with decent meals, while others on emptier stomachs. The majority of tourists only frequent established brothels for sex. Free street traders like them rely solely on local customers or those tourists with emptier pockets.
Opening a water bottle, Thu asked:
- Loan! Have you eaten anything today?
Loan answered aloofly:
- What is there to eat? I have been out here all day....
- I still had some money left. Here, let's find something quick to eat so we can find customers later.
The two street urchins stepped into a nearby shop. It was dark and the lights barely illuminated their surroundings. Thu and Loan shared a small meal. They ate their measly portions heartily despite not having money to afford better meals. On better days, they would buy noodle soups. If not, they ate rice with fish sauce. Such were the lives of our poor street orphans...
A few hours later Thu was already hard at work. After serving a customer, Thu thought about purchasing some small toiletries when she noticed a stranger drinking coffee alone. Seeing his naïve face, Thu intended to court him. Perhaps she will earn a little money? She pulled a chair up and joined him:
- Can I borrow a cigarette from you?
He glanced at her and offered:
- Help yourself...
Translated by Tu Nguyen & Khoi Vu. Original version in Vietnamese entitled "Em Chẳng Còn Chi - Phần 1"