(Originally posted 27 July 2014 on tumblr)
Squash was not a sport Young-do was fond of, but it had started gaining popularity among Korea’s elite after he returned from the army, which meant it was something he had needed to learn. The squash courts always felt too small and got too hot, and the racket felt too insubstantial in his hand. He preferred golf clubs.
Lee Sang-hyun tossed him a towel; Young-do caught it left-handed and used it to wipe the sweat off his face and neck. “A little more practice,” the board member said, “and you’d beat me easily.”
“You underestimate your own skill.”
Sang-hyun laughed a little and scooped up his water bottle. He took several long swallows before grabbing a towel for himself. This late on a Sunday morning, the recreational facility was almost full and the muffled sounds of rallies on the nearby courts meant there was a healthy hum of background noise. It made it difficult to eavesdrop.
Young-do’s phone buzzed, so he fished it out of the pocket of his athletic shorts. The words on the screen—VP Kwon—caught him by surprise. Sang-joong knew his schedule today. He wouldn’t interrupt for something minor.
“I need to take this,” he told Sang-hyun. “My apologies.”
Sang-hyun waved him off and went back to guzzling his water.
Young-do stepped to the far side of the court to accept the call. “What’s going on?”
“SBS broke the news about your father’s impending release,” Sang-joong said, and for the first time that Young-do could remember, there was tension in the vice president’s voice.
For a moment, Young-do couldn’t breathe, as winded as surely as if he had been thrown on the judo mat. “When?”
“About twenty minutes ago. I’m headed to the hotel now.”
Young-do almost said he would meet Sang-joong there, but his next thoughts left him reeling.
What about his mother? Had she seen the broadcast on the television hung up in the corner of Secret Garden? Had she seen any online articles on the computer in her office? Were reporters already descending on the café?
Would the threat of Choi Dong-wook send her running again?
Fear trickled down his spine and spread into all the spaces between his bones. “I’ll be there as soon as I can,” he said and hung up without waiting for an acknowledgment.
When he turned around, Sang-hyun was staring straight at him and idly mopping the sweat off his brow. The older man still hadn’t caught his breath, but he smiled a little and made a shooing motion with his free hand. “I would have liked to hear whatever made you seek me out in the first place, but I suspect you’ll need time to change your strategy now.”
Young-do didn’t waste time with showering and changing clothes. He didn’t even bother returning to the locker room so he could retrieve his wallet and street clothes, choosing instead to call his driver to tell him to get the car ready now.
By the time the car pulled up to the curb, Young-do had called his mother twice. Both times he ended up with her voicemail. A third call, this time to the café’s landline, also went unanswered. He didn’t start swearing until his fourth call, to Rachel, went immediately to voicemail.
The driver tried to get out of the car; Young-do snarled at him and yanked the back door open himself. “Secret Garden,” he snapped, because it was either hold tight to frustration over not being able to reach anyone or admit that some other emotion was making his heart race. His driver dropped a hasty yessir and pulled out into traffic as soon as Young-do had his seatbelt on.
He called Myung-soo next. On the seventh ring, Young-do was rewarded with a groggy and plaintive, “I was sleeping.”
“Are you home?”
“I need you to go to Secret Garden and get my mother out of there. Now. I’m still at least forty minutes away, and I don’t want her trapped there when the reporters track her down.”
There was rustling on the other end and a muffled yelp, followed swiftly by something that sounded suspiciously like where are my pants. “Where should I take her?” Myung-soo asked. The way his voice echoed suggested he had switched to speaker phone in the midst of his search for appropriate clothing.
“Home, if she’ll let you. If not, wherever she wants to go.”
Young-do tried to banish the insidious voice in his head that asked if he would be okay if that meant his mother left him behind again.
“Okay. Hang on.” More rustling, and then Myung-soo’s voice was back to normal. “What’s going on? Are you all right? What’s with all the possible reporters?”
“My father is going to be out of prison soon,” Young-do said. He steamrolled right over Myung-soo’s sputtering. “Just go—I’ll explain later. Text me where you end up, and I’ll meet you there.”
By the time Young-do’s car pulled up to the house, there was a small crowd of reporters waiting outside. Myung-soo’s car was parked further up the street—he hadn’t left Kyung-ran alone, as he had promised. Did they beat the reporters here, or had some of them caught Kyung-ran on camera? Young-do didn’t know. Aside from one text from Myung-soo assuring him that they had retreated to the house safely, he hadn’t heard anything else from them. His mother hadn’t tried to return any of his calls or even text him.
Young-do had spent the trip looking up what news there was online. It wasn’t much, but the inflammatory headlines about Dong-wook and other high-profile inmates allegedly being released early from prison was more than enough to get netizens riled up. This wasn’t the kind of story SBS would simply drop, and the other broadcasters would be hopping on board as soon as they could. The Ministry of Justice had not delivered any official statement, though unofficial sources hinted that the attorney general would be holding a press conference in the upcoming hours.
Every member of the board and all of the major stockholders would know about it before the day was over. It turned his attempt to oust his father from an aggressive, ambitious maneuver into an act of desperation. The people he had already approached would know he had lied to them. They might back out; they might demand more concessions from him to stay on his side.
Pyo Sook-ja, he was certain, would be a nightmare.
The photographers started taking pictures before the car even stopped moving. This time, Young-do waited for his driver to open his door. There wasn’t much dignity he could have when he was wearing sweat-stained athletic clothing, but he exited the car and walked straight through the reporters and the front gate without responding to any shouted questions, as undaunted as if he were wearing a designer suit. He forced himself to maintain that façade all the way until he got inside the house.
Both Myung-soo’s and his mother’s shoes were in the entryway. Young-do had barely swapped out his sneakers for house slippers before Myung-soo barreled into the main hallway. He was in sweatpants and a hoodie, and his hair stuck out at odd angles.
“Where’s my mother?”
“Living room, watching television.” Myung-soo stepped close and lowered his voice. “She seems a little…weird. I don’t know. She’s been really quiet ever since I showed up at Secret Garden. She already knew by the time I got there and was in the middle of closing the café.”
Young-do glanced over Myung-soo’s head and toward the living room. He couldn’t see Kyung-ran from here. “All right.”
“Do you need me to stay?”
“No, but there are reporters outside now.”
Myung-soo made a face. “Mind if I go grab a shower then? My parents’ll nag me if I end up in the tabloids looking like this.”
“Go ahead.” It would be a good way to get Myung-soo out of the way, too, Young-do realized. He didn’t want an audience for this next conversation, and he doubted his mother did, either.
Once Myung-soo disappeared upstairs, Young-do headed for the living room. Kyung-ran was sitting on the couch, very still, her fingers laced together in her lap. She was leaning forward so her hair fell over her shoulders and obscured her face. SBS had moved on to its normal Sunday programming, but the black bar at the bottom of the screen had the breaking news on a loop: Choi Dong-wook, other criminals, rumored to be released before their sentences are complete.
Young-do swallowed despite his dry throat. “Mother.”
Kyung-ran tensed, a slight hitch to the line of her shoulders, and then she pulled her hands apart so she could pick up the remote control and mute the television. Only then did she turn to look at her son. Her face almost seemed to have aged since he saw her last night. She was pale, thin-lipped, and something dark haunted her eyes.
“How long have you known?” she asked.
The question knocked him off balance. He had expected her to start with any question but that one, mostly because he thought she would care more about what Dong-wook’s release would mean for her. It hadn’t occurred to him that she would suspect him of keeping such a secret from her—even though she was right.
“That’s why you’ve been so busy this week.”
“Yes.” It was almost a whisper.
Kyung-ran set the remote on the coffee table. She stood up without looking at him, and Young-do panicked. He crossed the room in a few long strides and pulled her tight into a crushing hug to keep her from leaving. “Wait,” he said. He was too desperate to care that his voice was shaking. “Please, let me explain.”
He didn’t wait for her agreement; he spilled the story in a rush of mostly coherent words, from Rachel’s phone call to the strategies he and Sang-joong had come up with to the meetings he had yesterday. Kyung-ran was silent in his arms, and she did not hug him back.
Once he stopped talking, Kyung-ran finally looked up at him. He couldn’t help but flinch at the tears in her eyes. “Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked.
“I wanted everything to be in place before I let you know. I didn’t want you to worry about something you couldn’t do anything about.”
The reason sounded pitiful, even to him, especially since it was just an excuse for his real fear. Kyung-ran stepped back; Young-do let her go at the last moment and tried to rein in his panic. Because there was anger in her expression now, something he had seen so rarely that it was terrifying in its own way.
“I might have refused to get involved with Zeus Hotel this time, but that doesn’t mean I’m useless, ignorant, or incapable.”
“I know. I just…”
“I’m your mother. Did you think I wouldn’t want to help you?”
Young-do shook his head and fought back the response that first leapt to his mind. His mother wasn’t attacking him over this—she was just upset. She deserved to be upset over this.
She had deserved to be told, in person, by her son. It was his fault she had found out via the news.
“Don’t you think I deserved to know your father was going to be released?” Kyung-ran continued, and every word from her just made his jumble of emotions worse. “I lived with him for fifteen years.”
“And I lived with him until I was eighteen.”
The instant those words slipped out, he would have given up his entire fortune to take them back. Kyung-ran covered her mouth with one of her hands. Tears finally spilled down her cheeks, and Young-do loathed himself like he hadn’t in a very long time.
He opened his mouth, but he couldn’t find the words to apologize. Some part of him wanted to keep going, to hurt her more, to ask all of the questions he had buried the last six years: Why did you leave? Did you know what he was doing to me?
Why didn’t you love me enough to take me with you?
Shame had him turning away from her and digging deep into his last reserves to keep his voice as steady as possible. “I’m meeting Vice President Kwon at the hotel. Stay here. There are reporters outside already.”
“I’ll take care of this. We’ll talk when I get back.”
“I’ll come with you.”
“No,” he said, and he hated himself even more for what he said next, even though it was the truth. “I can’t spare the time right now to get you up to speed and keep on top of what’s happening. I can’t handle this—us—right now.”
His phone rang then. Young-do silenced it without checking to see who had called. There was a long moment of silence before Kyung-ran asked, voice wavering, “When are you coming back?”
“I don’t know. I’ll let you know when I figure that out.”
Kyung-ran didn’t try to stop him when he walked away. The sound of her crying chased him out of the house and haunted him all the way back to the hotel.