(Originally posted 13 Apr 2014 on tumblr)
“What’s the message?”
“It’s not certain. I’m not certain, at least. I had to—” Hyo-shin cut himself off, because Rachel probably didn’t care about the Lee family meals, and the side of the road wasn’t the place to discuss them anyway even if she were interested. “That’s not important. Just tell him that his father might be eligible for early release.”
Open-mouthed surprise was not a good look on her, he decided. It robbed her of one of her most attractive qualities: self-possession. Rachel was beautiful, yes, but there was a sharpness about her that added definition to her edges, that marked where she began and ended.
(Though the few times she had been flustered around him in high school had been different. Maybe because they had both been off-kilter then.)
“Call me when you get a chance, and we can work out my meal debts.” He started to shut the door, but Rachel’s hand shot out, and she grabbed the edge to stop him.
She no longer looked surprised—she looked angry, almost. Fierce. Calculating. “Why didn’t you just ask for Young-do’s number? Or memorize it when you saw it in my phone? Why tell me at all?”
“Because I hate feeling like I’m back at Jeguk,” he admitted. “This isn’t a game I want to get involved in.”
“You just did.”
“And now I’m retiring from it.”
“He’s going to want to know why you warned him.”
Hyo-shin smiled a little, but he couldn’t dredge up much warmth. “If he’s that curious, he can ask me himself. Good luck today, Rachel. I hope you find better news in Incheon.”
He let go of the door because she hadn’t, turned around, and walked away. She didn’t call after him.
“Sorry about my clothes,” Hyo-shin said as he sat down in his usual chair. “I came straight from forty hours on location.”
“Don’t worry about it. How are you handling the filming schedule and school?”
“It’s been rough the last few weeks, but PD Kim is actually really accommodating for all the students. Just two more weeks until I’m done. I’m looking forward to sleeping again.”
“You are looking a bit haggard.” Kang Jae-sung glanced down at Hyo-shin’s intake survey. After a moment, he set the clipboard aside and said, “You reported increased anxiety. Do you think it is because of your schedule, or is there something else going on?”
It had been a long time since Hyo-shin had felt the urge to squirm under his therapist’s watchful eye, but it came back as suddenly and as powerfully as it had when he was eighteen. Jae-sung hadn’t changed much in the intervening years: a few gray hairs, different glasses, a third piercing in his right ear.
Hyo-shin had changed more, though the most important changes weren’t visible. He didn’t lie to Jae-sung nearly as much now as he did at the beginning, but he still kept some secrets. He could keep this one.
He didn’t. This was supposed to be the appointment that helped him change his life, after all.
“I took the Legal Education Eligibility Test this summer because my mother strongly hinted that they wouldn’t pay my fall tuition otherwise.”
Jae-sung nodded to show he was listening, and he didn’t betray any annoyance or disappointment that Hyo-shin hadn’t told him earlier. He didn’t say anything, in fact—after seven years of therapy sessions, he was familiar enough with Hyo-shin to know when he needed prompting and when he needed silence so he could fill it.
“It was awful.” Hyo-shin smoothed his right hand over his thigh to keep from curling his fingers into a fist. “Every time I filled in an answer, it was like—like I was signing another piece of my future away. Taking the test was just supposed to buy me some time. Like the army.
“I got one of the top scores. A few weeks ago, my mother started emailing me the application requirements and deadlines for the top law schools. My father and uncles spent most of Saturday’s lunch debating each one and whether or not I should become a prosecutor or work for a private law firm.
“If I keep playing along, I’ll actually end up in law school in March.” He kept a firm grip on the dire words that threatened to come out whenever he thought about that bleak future. “So this weekend I’m going to tell my parents that I won’t go. I can’t go.”
“Why this weekend?”
Hyo-shin looked away then, half ashamed of his parents and half ashamed of himself. “Because Friday is the last day to withdraw from classes for this semester. After Friday, they can’t get their money back on my tuition.”
“You think they would go that far.” It wasn’t a question.
Hyo-shin’s smile was tight. “I’ve been funneling money from the account they put my living expenses in to one that is solely in my name. It’s not much since I only started in June, and I didn’t want to arouse their suspicion, but it’s enough to pay for some of the essentials. Like therapy. I want to start seeing you every week again instead of once a month.”
He left his therapy session feeling drained and unsteady. It had been one thing to think through the possibilities on his own and open that new bank account; it took on an entire new layer of reality when he told Jae-sung his plans.
It took on an entirely new layer of terror when he told Jae-sung some of his fears.
Hyo-shin caught a taxi back to his apartment, but his churning stomach wouldn’t let him nap during the thirty minute drive. He spent the time staring out the window at the busy Seoul streets and concocting little stories about the people waiting at the lights to distract himself. It was only partially successful, mostly because his mind kept straying back to Rachel.
He wondered if she would pass on the message. Based on her reaction, she probably was genuinely close to Young-do, which meant she would be a better messenger than Tan would have been. Not that Tan had even been an option—that idiot was on a New York business trip on behalf of his brother and hadn’t responded to any of Hyo-shin’s texts for the last week. Bo-na hadn’t been an option since Hyo-shin left for the army, not that she had ever told him what her falling out with Young-do had been about.
Regardless, Young-do would get the warning, and that was enough to keep Hyo-shin’s conscience clear. And if it had earned him a no-questions-asked second meal with Rachel, that was an unexpected bonus. He was a little surprised she had even said yes to giving him a ride in the first place. It wasn’t as if there had been anything substantive between them six years ago. Perhaps he looked less rough-around-the-edges than he’d thought.
One quick glance in his bathroom mirror confirmed that Rachel had probably pitied him. Hyo-shin showered, shaved, printed out the essay he had written early Saturday morning, and crashed for three hours before he got up and walked to his Monday afternoon classes. Twenty minutes into the second class, he got a text from Cha Eun-sang:
Don’t forget the beer, sunbae!
How could I forget the most important part? he sent back. Did you decide on a place?
Mine this time, since Chan-young is going to be late and Bo-na has the food. Tan still out of town?
I think so. I haven’t been able to reach him lately.
Same here. Oh well. More for us!
At least no one will have to piggyback you home this time.
Eun-sang sent him an angry emoticon. Hyo-shin hid his grin behind his hand and went back to taking notes. At the end of the class, he turned in his essay and talked briefly with a classmate who was working on a drama that was going to premiere in a few weeks.
“There are still a few slots in the production crew,” she told him.
It would be a good project to jump on with director Jin Hyuk at the helm, but Hyo-shin just shook his head. “I can’t think beyond A Daughter’s Revenge right now.”
It was a simple, if incomplete answer. With Tan he might have joked about his family providing him with more drama than he could handle in the near future. Then again, he might not have made that joke because then the possibility would seem more like an inevitability.
Those dark thoughts still swirled through Hyo-shin’s mind when he arrived at Eun-sang’s home. Park Hee-nam answered the door and greeted him with her usual smile and a signed, Hello. Come in.
That was about as far as his sign language comprehension went. He stepped inside and swapped his shoes for slippers. “It’s good to see you again. Did you enjoy Jeju with Tan’s mother?”
She nodded and then reached out to try to take one of his cases of beer.
“It’s all right—I’ve got it.”
She patted his shoulder and led him to the kitchen, where Eun-sang was doing dishes. Eun-sang had her hair pulled back into a high ponytail, though a few strands had worked themselves loose to frame her face. She had dressed down into an old Walking Dead t-shirt and jeans and cheery yellow rubber gloves. “You’re early, sunbae.”
“I wanted to have two lovely women all to myself for a while.”
Hee-nam opened the fridge for him so he could slide the beer inside. Eun-sang just laughed. “If you’re here early, you had better earn your keep.”
“Rinse or dry?”
Hee-nam pointed to the drawer where the towels were kept, so Hyo-shin obediently got one out and started drying. The three of them fell into a cozy rhythm, where he and Eun-sang took turns asking questions about school and work, and Eun-sang translated her mother’s occasional questions for him.
She didn’t translate everything, though. Hyo-shin didn’t comment on it whenever the two of them signed things at each other when they thought he was too busy putting dishes away to notice.
“What next?” Hyo-shin asked as he hung the towel on a hook to dry.
Hee-nam signed something; Eun-sang scowled and signed back. It quickly turned into a silent argument, one where their faces were nearly as eloquent as their fingers.
He was about to make an excuse to escape the kitchen when Eun-sang sighed and looked over at him.
“Mom’s going to head upstairs for the night.”
Hee-nam swatted her daughter’s arm, and for a moment, Hyo-shin thought she might do the same to him. She ended up just patting his shoulder again.
“Ah, good night then,” he said, trying not to let his bewilderment show. “Thanks for letting us come over.”
Once her mom was gone, Eun-sang buried her face in her hands. “Don’t ask.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it. Bo-na ought to be here soon—should we get everything set up?”
Eun-sang peeked through her fingers. “Yes, please.”
There wasn’t much to set up, but it was enough to distract Eun-sang from whatever had been going on between her and her mother. Hyo-shin didn’t let his curiosity get the better of him and focused instead on quizzing Eun-sang on tonight’s movie choice.
Most of the classes in the film program required him to watch and write essays on movies outside of class, and somehow in the last four years his solitary viewings had morphed into an almost-weekly movie night. They took turns picking films—Hyo-shin told them ahead of time if there were any criteria they had to meet—and whoever was available showed up. Eun-sang almost always chose horror films, Bo-na favored thrillers, Chan-young alternated between period pieces and sci-fi, and Tan went for anything with a strong comedic bent. Movie night had survived army service, contentious business relationships, study abroad programs, and even Eun-sang and Tan’s breakup.
Bo-na arrived right on time with two giant boxes of fried chicken. She must have come from a meeting because she wore a conservative pencil skirt, matching blazer, and plain black heels. As soon as Eun-sang took the food from her, she shed the blazer and the heels. “Chan-young called me a little bit ago—he’s just leaving the library, so he should be thirty minutes maybe. Mind if I change?” she asked as she pulled purple sweatpants out of her designer purse.
Hyo-shin and Eun-sang had the food set up by the time Bo-na returned, and the three of them sat around the coffee table, eating and drinking and catching up on each other’s weeks. Bo-na had spent all afternoon at a Mega Entertainment shareholders meeting, and Eun-sang had just finished writing her segment for an upcoming broadcast. Hyo-shin mostly nursed his drink and asked questions as he really wasn’t ready to talk about the mess the last week had been for him.
When a tired Chan-young showed up—four thick economics books in tow—they made room for him. At least Eun-sang and Hyo-shin did. Bo-na sidled right up to him, wrapped one arm around his waist, and rested her cheek on his shoulder. Chan-young’s mood immediately lifted.
“Don’t worry, Bo-na,” Hyo-shin said. “The movie should be terrifying enough that you’ll have all the excuses you need to crawl in his lap.”
Chan-young coughed, turning red; Bo-na glared at Eun-sang. “It’s not my fault she keeps picking scary movies!”
Eun-sang was trying very hard not to smile. “I’m sorry. I’ll pick something tamer next time.”
“It’s fine! You should choose movies you like.”
Hyo-shin hid his laugh behind his can of beer.
Despite the teasing, Bo-na ended up in Chan-young’s lap just forty minutes into the movie. Hyo-shin couldn’t even joke about it because the movie knew exactly how to build tension without resorting to cheap scares. He jumped twice, and Eun-sang was hugging an accent pillow to her chest and had pulled her feet off the floor. Chan-young stroked Bo-na’s hair every time she hid her face and held her tightly.
Toward the end of the movie, Hyo-shin’s phone beeped. Eun-sang yelped and immediately swatted him with her pillow. “Sunbae!”
“Sorry.” He fished his phone out of his jeans pocket to silence it, but the text on the screen was a surprise:
This is Yoo Rachel. Are you free for breakfast tomorrow morning?