Hyo-shin comes downstairs for breakfast one morning and finds a full bottle of pills at his usual seat. He picks it up and examines the label. The pills are his—they’re the exact same prescription as his afternoon dose, in fact. He sets the bottle back down.
His mother emerges from the kitchen with a glass of water and his morning medicine. “I had your prescription refilled yesterday, so you don’t need to worry,” she tells him as she holds out the open bottle.
Hyo-shin takes it. He almost asks why she bothered before he realizes that there are only three pills left inside. He is supposed to be taking two doses every day, but he still has half a bottle left of the original afternoon prescription.
“Thanks,” he says instead. He takes his morning pill under his mother’s watchful eye and downs the entire glass of water to buy himself time to settle his nerves.
Hyo-shin didn’t intend to miss those doses, but outside of the rigid structure of the hospital it is harder to remember to take them. Sometimes he gets interrupted by other students and has to hide the pills with fumbling fingers. Other times a study group or the broadcasting club distracts him. Yesterday he lost track of time going over the pictures and video he took from Young-do’s balcony.
He should be vowing to make his medicine a priority, if only because he’s afraid of what will happen if his parents find out he’s not. But the fact that he can choose whether or not he takes them makes him feel in control of some portion of his life for the first time in months.
After breakfast, Hyo-shin takes the new bottle of pills and tosses them in one of his desk drawers.
“It’s nice to meet you,” says a modestly dressed woman in her twenties. “I’m Jun Hyun-joo.”
Hyo-shin returns the greeting, but he glances at his mother, who is watching them from her desk as if she’s ready to pounce. On her? On him?
“Hyun-joo is your new tutor,” his mother says in the voice that means he has no choice in the matter. “She will be tutoring you every day after school except on Wednesdays.”
He has therapy on Wednesdays—or he’s supposed to, at least. He missed one session because of Young-do, a second because he was part of a study group that ran long, and a third because the thought of going kept him puking in a convenience store bathroom.
(Nausea is one of the possible side-effects of his medication. If he could get away with not taking his morning pill, he would.)
Hyun-joo’s eyes are large and dark, and her lips relax into the faintest smile when his mother dismisses them.
He leads her upstairs to his bedroom, all the while trying to ignore the weight of her gaze between his shoulder blades. Hyo-shin hasn’t had a friend at his house in years—everyone is rightly scared of his mother—so it is with supreme awkwardness that he lets a total stranger into his most private physical space.
Once the door is shut, Hyun-joo asks, “Your mother didn’t tell you to expect me, did she?”
“I knew I was getting a tutor,” Hyo-shin admits, “but I didn’t know it would be today. Was it that obvious?”
“You aren’t the first boy to force me to read between the lines.” Hyun-joo’s little smile is gone now, so suddenly Hyo-shin wonders if it was ever really there. “Still, your mother is paying me for today. We should get started.”
She crosses over to his desk—his mother has already set up two chairs—and takes the seat on the right. Hyo-shin swallows his resentment about losing another portion of himself and sits next to her.
After lying awake for hours, Hyo-shin gives up at a quarter to four and gets out of bed. He grabs his tablet and opens a browser to kill time by looking up how to calculate terminal velocity, eligibility guidelines for the Seoul Youth Short Film Contest, statistics on suicide rates, side-effects for his medication (he can cross insomnia off the list now), and information on Korea’s top five college broadcasting departments.
Around dawn, Hyo-shin comes across Myung-soo’s latest photoshoot: graffiti and street art from some rundown neighborhood in Seoul. The image that stays with him for the rest of the day is that of a stylized human silhouette surrounded by splashes of red and orange and gold.
Hyun-joo is walking him through a particularly tricky bit of calculus when the tip of her pencil snaps. She flips it around to confirm that the tip is indeed unusable before she asks, “Do you have a sharpener?”
“Hang on.” There’s one in his backpack, which is on the other side of the room, but Hyo-shin is pretty sure he has one in his desk somewhere. He pulls the main drawer open—and remembers, too late, about the unopened bottle of pills he left inside.
The bottle rolls to a stop at the front of the drawer, in plain sight. Hyun-joo reaches out, and Hyo-shin makes a desperate grab for his medicine. He yanks it out of sight; she plucks the pencil sharpener from the drawer.
Hyo-shin shoves the bottle in his pocket, and only once it is hidden again can he scrape up the courage to look at her.
Hyun-joo, for her part, is focused on sharpening her pencil. “Be careful with those.”
She looks up from her task then, and Hyo-shin is relieved to find a complete lack of pity or compassion in her gaze, just concern. “You’re not my first student to resort to caffeine pills. Don’t exceed the maximum dose on those, no matter how tired you are. Got it?” She blows the shaving dust off her newly sharpened pencil and eyes him over the tip of it.
“What—” his voice cracks, and he has to clear his throat and start over again. “What if they’re not caffeine pills?”
“Are they illegal?”
She sticks the pencil sharpener back in his drawer and closes it. “Are you supposed to be taking them?”
“Then take them,” Hyun-joo says, as if it were the simplest thing in the world. “And don’t start on caffeine pills. Red ginseng is better.”
(Weeks later, when everything is falling apart, Hyo-shin will pinpoint this as the moment he began to fall in love with her.)
Hyo-shin receives a text from his mother the following Wednesday: Come straight home after school is over.
Ok, he sends back. But the abruptness of the text has him worried—his mother prefers to call—so he sends another message: Is everything all right?
She doesn’t respond.
Hyo-shin finds Bo-na at lunch and tells her to take care of the club for him. He brushes off her concern with a fake smile and assures her that it’s just a sudden family thing. Then he spends the rest of the day surreptitiously checking the news for any incidents involving prosecutors or the attorney general. The anxiety twists its way around his insides, and it is a small miracle that he doesn’t run out of his final class in order to puke.
(He hates how weak it makes him feel. He knows how powerless he is already; he doesn’t need the reminder of how little control he has over what goes on inside of him.)
His mother is waiting behind her desk when he gets home. Her lips are pressed so thin they are just a scarlet slash across her face. He can tell from the lift of her chin and the rigid line of her shoulders that she is furious.
She picks up a sheet of folded paper and holds it out to him. The paper trembles in her hand.
Hyo-shin takes it from her, and the instant he realizes what it is, he wants to run—but he has no courage in his mother’s presence. The monthly bill from his therapist’s office lists one hour-long session—and four “no-show” fees.
“Give me your medicine.”
“It was a mistake to trust you,” his mother continues as if he hadn’t tried to speak. Her voice is cold and clinical, and it makes Hyo-shin want to apologize for existing. “I won’t do it again. Give me your medicine, or I will take it from you.”
His mother never threatens—she does exactly as she says. He returns the bill and hands over his original bottle of afternoon medication.
She checks the label for the purchase date, twists off the cap, and spills the pills across her desk. There are nine left. Hyo-shin doesn’t know how many days it has been since he left the hospital, but he is certain his mother does.
“Where is the second bottle?”
“Bring it here.”
And when he does, she opens that one, too, and scatters its contents so she can count his failures. Once she has her tally, she puts all of the pills back in the second bottle. To his surprise, she shoves the bottle in her purse.
“I will make one concession to your childish behavior,” she informs him. “Since you clearly don’t respect your current therapist enough to cancel your sessions, I will find you a new therapist. I will provide you with some options, and you will select one in two weeks’ time. As for your medicine, I will handle it from now on.”