Junho

*Short Stories*

(Junho is an auto-biographical short story that I wrote the night after I met my first boyfriend, Junho, on January 23, 2011. I’ve always wanted to share this story with you all, and now I’m finally ready.)

Junho

Did I fall asleep that night, the night we first met?

I remember the sound of teeth on teeth as you ground yours in your sleep. Lying in a stranger’s bed, I should have been afraid. The large tattoo of a winged angel on your back, its head bent down, your head bent down…

Your smile, your broken English.

And later, the way you hugged me as I slept, saying, “미안해,” over and over again when you finally realized I was a virgin. In the morning, I put on your shirt, and it fit perfectly. You walked around in your underwear, drinking cans of coke and smoking Korean cigarettes.

Flashes of the night before, when we had met, always come back to me.

I had been dancing on top of two speakers with my friend, S-, when I saw you. Another friend of mine, P-, had been rubbing my legs as I moved to the music. Later, you would tell me that I had looked funny. Our eyes had met, and I had liked your leather jacket and tight fitting jeans, your Italian shoes that were made in Korea. I went to you, looked from you to your friend, and asked you to dance. Later, we went to the bar for drinks. That was when I began to slur in Korean.

I had to leave to meet more friends, so I told you to come with me and to bring your friend. We left, hand in hand, and I was as dead on the inside as I had been since I realized my first love was not my true love, that my true love was somewhere far away across the ocean. You were going to be just another boy who would hold me for the night, who would keep me from falling apart. We danced more, and when the club closed, I asked you to go to 노래방. Outside, you met some of my friends, and as we were walking you said that you wanted to date me. I laughed, because no one had ever said those words to me before, and I didn’t believe you, then.

I still have a picture of you, the first picture we took together. Its from that night.

Your friend dropped us off at your place and left feeling lonely. Your roommate left the room to us. It was right before we slipped underneath the sheets of your twin bed, drunk. In that picture, you’re in the middle of brushing your teeth and a bit of toothpaste is stuck to the corner of your mouth. I’m there beside you, smiling. You always told me to delete it because of that little bit of toothpaste.

In the morning, did we brush our teeth together?

I know that you cooked and that we hugged and that you kissed me sweetly and that you put your head in my lap and talked to me, listened to me, showed me pictures of your family. You spent six months in America with no one to talk to until you met me. I spent twenty-one years in America, with no one to talk to until I met you.

Traditional, my family is from Nigeria, Africa. They grew up in a small village where there were no strangers. Then, they came here to America. They tried to raise us– three of us, my brother and my sister and I, the way they had been raised, but we were surrounded by strangers. I always felt as if I was an alien. The first day of kindergarten: Why do I still remember the way my sister teased me in front of her friends. My father, who called me stupid. My mother, who didn’t know how to do my hair or dress me. The kids, who all teased me. My teacher, Mrs. Tools, who taught me how to read and write, to escape into books and dreams…

Later, I would learn how to cry. Discipline, love. Absence. My father is absent from many of my memories, but I remember the first time I told him I loved him after I stopped kissing him goodnight. My mother is absent, too, but I remember how she used to swing us around and around in the backyard near the huge magnolia tree. I remember different grades and different teachers. I don’t remember the names of many of my friends. They were only strangers, passing in and out of my life. For me, growing up meant forgetting the meaning of love.

I was loved, once, when I was child and before I knew the world. In other memories, my sister lets me crawl into her bed after I wake up from a nightmare, my brother lets me read his comics and play his video games, my mother is singing to me, my father is telling me stories, and my friends surround me as I fall asleep.

I remember a song, a song that I thought was written for me.

Simon and Garfunkel came on, singing, “I am a rock, I am an island. I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pain, it’s laughter and its something I disdain.” Those lyrics: Full of depression and loneliness, resigned to hate instead of love. From then on, I lived that way. I don’t remember what made me decide to live that way, what made me think I could live that way…

I liked a boy for five years once, A-. I wanted to marry him, even though we had never really met. He played soccer, like me, and he had the most beautiful smile. I asked him out, which was harder than the time I asked out M-, another boy I had liked. I didn’t know that boys should ask out girls. He said yes, though, and then he stood me up. Later, he would look me in the eyes and lie to me, making an excuse like his mother had when I had called him and she had answered instead. Looking back, I never loved him.

I didn’t even know who he was.

I think I just wanted to be like everyone else. I was only pretending to be like everyone else, because it was what everyone wanted. What did I want? I wanted to be liked, to be loved…

My first love: I loved him, but I did not belong in his world, so I left him. I was always leaving him, but there he would be, again, by my side. We have always been somewhere in between strangers and friends and lovers. I think he was the first person I ever really knew.

You are the first person to know all of me, parts of me that I could never show to anyone else. I asked you once, if you could love me. You didn’t look me in the eyes as you said yes, but I like to think that you meant what you said. One day, you told me in a song. Later, you told me…

There were many ways that I knew you loved me.

You’ll return someday– to your mother and your father, to your home…

Did I fall asleep the night we first met? Since then, my life has been like a dream I once had.

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He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not

*Short Stories*

(He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not is a collection of three short stories. My First Love Was Not My True Love is a slice-of-life romance, Remembering to Forget is a coming of age romance, and The Man That I Left on The Moon is an unfinished science fiction “anti” romance.)

My First Love Was Not My True Love

Introduction

He grabbed me by the throat and squeezed. Breathless, I stared into his eyes.

My hands were limp by my side, and my feet were dangling against the wall. He slammed me against the wall again, lifting me higher. I watched a drop of sweat trickle down his forehead. His eyes were brown, trembling. His face was red. He was whispering something I couldn’t hear, but I saw his lips move.

I think he said, “I love you.”

When I regained consciousness we were in bed again. He wrapped his arms around me softly as I closed my eyes and pretended that he was someone else, and that I was someone else, too.

My First Love…

The morning light passed over his skin and sank into the hollows of his narrow collar bone and bony hips. His skin was soft, white. His eyes trembled even when they were closed. He grabbed my hand and twitched in his sleep. I wanted to wake him, but I didn’t. I watched him instead, laughing.

He was young, 19.

I was 24.

I had stopped getting hangovers the way I had when I was young, or maybe I had become numb to them or gotten used to living with them. I went back to sleep after a while, even though I might have had a hangover and even though his heavy breathing kept pressing his ribs into mine. It was the only time I felt awake, being in his arms or by his side. Maybe, it was his trembling, shaking eyes that were always on the verge of tears ever since he had met me that had woken me from a long dream.

Awake, what it meant to wake up in the morning and watch him sleep, to not cling desperately to some souvenir of my old self found only in my dreams.

He was gone when I woke up.

I looked for him after fixing the sheets, brushing my teeth, and running my fingers through my hair. He was sitting in the living room, his eyes looking a little hollow. They always did. He smiled shyly when he saw me. I patted him on the cheek and tousled his hair. I made breakfast in my underwear, and then I got dressed and drove him to school.

He was late and ran away as soon as he shut the car door behind him. He looked back with a smile on his face as he went up the steps, tripping as he did. I finally drove off when he disappeared and went back home to sleep for awhile longer.

I showered and began to work on a case.

In the evening I called my family. They were in America, a place far from Seoul. They asked their usual questions. I gave them my usual answers. I ended each conversation with, “I love you,” but I wasn’t sure if I would ever go back to America even though I did love them.

They would have to visit me here.

Neon lights, painted buildings, everything dying and being reborn, and the ghosts of the dead things somehow haunting every urban street corner: Tradition.

Seoul.

Home.

I picked him up from school.

His mother called him while we were eating. He handed me the phone, and I spoke to her. Had he told her about me? She hesitated at first, but when it became clear that I could speak Korean fluently she relaxed and invited me to her home and said, “I’ll teach you how to make kimchi.”

I handed him the phone after murmuring some polite words.

“What did you tell her?,” I asked.

“That I’m meeting a good person, someone that I love…” His eyes trembled as he spoke, and suddenly he looked down. I remained silent, unsure of what to say to the boy in front of me. I held his hand, though, and he gave me his shy smile.

We ate quietly, each of us smiling small smiles that stretched our lips.

I went to his room this time. He lived in a college dorm. He had to sneak me in, but we were naked as soon as the door shut. We cuddled at first, after drinking soju mixed with sprite. Later, I told him to choke me.

He hesitated and asked, “Why? … I don’t want to hurt you.”

“You’re not going to hurt me, do it, please…”

“Why? I… okay.”

He choked me gently, his hands barely indenting my skin.

“Harder… harder…”

I kept my eyes open, looking at his face. His eyes were trembling again, and there were tears running down his cheeks as we both came.

When I lay in his arms, he asked me, “Are you ok? Are you hurt?”

My voice was hoarse, but I said, “I’m fine. I love being with you.”

“But, I hate it when you make me do… that. Why do you do it? Do you always do it?” I thought about it, but the only answer I could think of was, “Because it feels good. I like it. I feel like you own me, like you could save me or destroy me… Maybe both? But, no, only with you. I don’t trust anyone else.”

He didn’t say anything at first, but his hold on me loosened.

“You’re crazy.”

“I know.”

He tightened his grip on me and said, “I’m going to save you.”

He called me and told me that he wouldn’t be able to see me anymore. I asked him, “Why?,” and he said, “I… I don’t know if I can save you.”

I hung up on him quickly, before I could feel anything. He had done this to me once before, and I had let him go. This time, too, I let him go.

“I love you.”

They were words I had spat out and slipped on once. Every time I thought of my first love I was only reminded of a huge hole that had been cut into my body, a hole that had been filled with blood, flesh, and disappointment. My first love, H-, hadn’t been my first time, or my last time– hadn’t held me against a wall with his hands wrapped tightly around my neck– hadn’t told me that he loved me. 

H-, though, had lied to me.

He had pretended to be exactly who I thought he was, and for two years I had slowly gone crazy because of him, hadn’t been able to live without him.

One day after he said to me, “No one can replace me,” I had told him that I loved him. It hadn’t been a happy confession, and it hadn’t ended well. We went our separate ways in the end, and two years burned to ash.

There had been nothing left between us.

Still, I hadn’t been filled with regret. I had loved him, after all, even though I wasn’t sure how much of him had been real. No, I was sure of what had been real and when everything I loved had disappeared. Neither one of us had ever looked back, or maybe he had…

Or maybe I had.

Another evening passed.

Alone, I locked myself in my flat. The lights outside were too bright in the morning, but at night it was too dark. I called him, because I needed to be with someone. I don’t know why he answered, or came back to me. I told him to choke me, but he wouldn’t. He kept whispering how much he loved me, how I was destroying myself even though he was trying to save me. He kept crying, so I drove him home in silence and said, “Sleep.”

I kept his shirt, though, so that I would remember the smell and feel of him even after everything else between us had faded, just in case I never saw him again. I felt sad, because I had nothing to remember H- by.

I finally fell asleep in his shirt, clinging to the smell and feel of him, taking comfort in his meaninglessness. I had known that it wouldn’t last long. It never did. He had lasted longer than the others, though. But then– after H-, all of the others had only been passing in and out of my life like clouds passing across the sky, one after the other… an endless blur…

I heard that H- was getting married. I didn’t want to think about anything else after that.

I had never seen H- again. Would I ever see him again, on some street corner in America or Seoul, and as I drove past would he stand out from all the rest? Would he be more than just a blur?

I began to drink again, became without him in my life there was nothing to keep me awake. I slept a lot, and even when I had my eyes open, I was dreaming.

I lost my case.

I lost my mind.

This time the feeling was familiar. I wasn’t scared, but when I looked in the mirror I saw my eyes trembling. The tears didn’t fall, and the trembling stopped. Was it because of H-? No, it was only because I had never been able to replace him the way he had replaced me.

Did I want to die? Sometimes…

When my life felt empty and meaningless– when my dreams were better than the life I woke up to– when all I had was a lingering sense of disappointment and the fading memory of the smell and feel of someone else.

I slept in his shirt again, trying to remember the smell and feel of him. I shouldn’t have washed it, because now even that was gone. Suddenly, I missed him, my first love, H-. And him, the one who had seen all of me and whispered those silly words to me.

Had he meant them? Had he meant it when he said that he loved me, that he would save me?

I walked around Seoul in a mindless daze.

It was a beautiful place, easy to lose myself and easy to find someone else. I met eyes with a man in a bookstore. He reminded me of my first love, so when he asked for my number I gave it to him. By midnight, we were in bed together.

We met off and on.

He liked that I was foreign and a lawyer. He showed me off to his friends, but I knew I would never meet his family. I was fine with that. We had normal sex, and I stopped drinking heavily for a while, but he was boring both in and out of bed. I never asked him to choke me, because I didn’t want to give myself to him…

Not completely.

I tried once, but the feeling was too different, and I knew he wasn’t going to save me even though I knew that he wasn’t going to destroy me, either.

I drank heavily one day, after a few months had passed.

That boy, he wasn’t coming back. This man, he wasn’t leaving. He watched me from across the table as I downed glass after glass of wine. As my lids drooped, his opened wide. His mouth drooped open, too, and suddenly he looked like a fish.

I wanted to drop him into a toilet bowl, flush him into the sewage, and let him rot belly up, forgotten.

I was drunk, and I was crying, so I took out my phone and called the boy I missed: Not my first love H-, but my true love. I asked him if he had meant what he said. I asked him, “Can you save me?”

He paused for a long time. Then, he said, “Yes.”

I slipped away from the man I was with, suddenly unable to even remember his name as I stared at him from across the dinner table in his expensive apartment. I rose, and he rose, too. I went to him, and I wrapped my arms around him and breathed in: There it was, the smell and the feel of him.

It was all that I would remember him by.

I had fallen asleep again, but as soon as I saw his trembling eyes and familiar face I woke up. I took him home and cooked for him, held him as he cried. We talked for hours. Later, his hands wrapped around my neck. I let my true love choke me gently, because my first love had already killed everything I had ever held inside.

I suddenly remembered H-, his smile and his face. How long had it been since I had been able to push past my unhappiness– my disappointment, and remember him? The last time we met, it had been like the first. All the things that had happened between us, none of them had mattered. There was only us, our smiles and laughter. It had been enough, then.

Did I know how much I would miss him, then?

He hadn’t been a lie. He hadn’t disappointed me. It had been easier to let him go if I lied to myself. Suddenly, I was tired of lying to myself about him. It wasn’t his fault. I had built my world around him. I had loved him. I had left that world and never once looked back until it was too late, and he was gone.

My First Love Was Not My True Love

The light poured in through the window, landing on my body, on his. I woke up from a dream and looked at the boy beside me with a smile on my face. Awake, I rested my head onto his chest and sighed, breathing in the smell and feel of him. Later, I kissed him awake.

He blinked and rubbed his eyes full of innocence like a small puppy, rubbed his cheeks full of blushes like a small boy. I knew I that he would never save me, but I decided to stop destroying myself.

Remembering to Forget

Introduction

There was no one in control.

I need you.

Ha Na was afraid to tell him how much she needed him. Instead, she pushed him away. From that moment on they began to break. She drifted farther and farther away until only he remained in the place where they had once been together. Did he know that she was gone?

The days she spent without him drove her crazy, because she couldn’t forget him.

I love you.

Ha Na was afraid to tell him how much she loved him. Would it be awkward to see him again?

“I miss you.”

They were the only words Ha Na ever said to him. They slipped back together, and for a while she was able to pretend to be his friend. Night fell, and he pressed himself closer to her, closer than he ever had before. Was she dreaming?

He felt like a dream, and she pushed him away, because she was afraid that he was just a dream she would wake up from one day.

They got married under a soft shadow of spring leaves, but that day had felt like winter, because they each walked down the aisle with someone else.

Remembering…

In Ha Na’s dreams she was leaving him, and it felt good to make him hurt. It felt good to push him away. It felt good to tell herself that he didn’t love her and that she didn’t love him either. It felt good to walk away. When she finally woke up, it felt awful to look at his back as he slept, because her husband seemed so far away even though he was right beside her.

He breathed softly and shifted restlessly, so she pressed herself closer to him until he finally stilled. In moments like this, he was beautiful. It almost made her forget the steady ache between her gaunt ribs, the empty feeling between the two of them even though they were pressed so close together.

It was morning. He was already gone.

She walked around their house as sunlight spilled into spacious rooms sparse with furniture. She sank to the floor and pressed herself against the wood. She felt empty, as if someone else had lived between these walls for the past two years. Someone else must have married him. Someone else must have believed in their future — always together, even as they grew old and ugly.

She was older and uglier.

He was never home.

She showered and changed into the dress his mother had bought for her even though it was too long, and she walked as if some heavy weight was pulling her soul into Hell as the hem dragged across the floor.

She cleaned, cooked, and waited for him to come home. He returned, and her heart beat faster in that moment when he opened the door, but he didn’t ask her any questions, and she didn’t look him in the eyes. He disappeared somewhere inside of their house. Finally, they ate without speaking, and then he was gone again.

She wandered outside after he left, chasing after the invisible trail he had left behind. The evening air was cool against her skin, and she wanted to find him, but something pulled her back.

She was in bed when he came home again. He was drunk, silent. They had sex, and she moaned beneath him, because that was what they both expected.

He turned away afterwards and fell asleep.

She lay awake next to him, breathing heavily. It suddenly hit her: The way the space between them was always empty, the way the house they lived in was never full. She knew something inside of her had died, and only her shell remained.

Was it her husband’s fault? He was only passing in and out of her life.

Was it hers? She was only a shadow by his side.

Was it his? She had never been able to forget the boy she had loved.

“I miss you.”

She spoke out loud, but that boy was already gone.

Ha Na’s friends liked to pretend that they had everything they wanted, but she knew the truth that had sunk to the bottom of their cold cups of coffee. They all knew they had nothing but damaged dreams and faded futures, but her friends– even though they were married like her, still liked to look for love in the arms of strangers. Did they find it in between their lover’s sheets, or did they find it afterwards as they took a taxi home alone in Seoul’s noisy, crowded streets?

She liked to think that in their house was a door she couldn’t seem to find, and locked inside were all the things she had ever wanted: Love, happiness. Maybe the door was beneath the wooden floors or just around some sharp corner or dull edge of a cream-colored wall, but a year had passed, and she hadn’t been able to find it.

She left the coffee shop last and took an expensive taxi to a cheap hotel, because it would be impossible to sleep next to her husband that night. The bed in the room next door was squeaking. The people in the room above her were walking, and she could hear their footsteps. The rain outside had just begun falling, and she could see it splatter on the window. She told herself that she was not alone. She turned on the radio and listened to the sound of commercials. She called her friends, but they were too busy being alive to take care of her skeleton. She wanted to scream, but the walls were too thin for words only she should hear.

“I am so unhappy — so lonely…”

She wanted to scream, but only made a whisper.

It was still raining in the morning when she finally woke up. She took a taxi home, and when she walked in she saw her husband sitting on the hard, white leather couch. He was watching the morning news and dressed in his suit with his tie tied tight around his neck.

He looked perfect.

He was perfect, and he was distant, empty. He didn’t even look at her. If he had, would he have noticed that she was wearing the same clothes  she had worn yesterday, the same sad expression she had worn when they had first met three years ago?

He finally looked at her, but only for a moment. She waited for him to speak, but his phone rang, and he took the call in another room.

She found herself in the kitchen.

Her husband walked in and sat down at the small table. She felt trapped in a nightmare, because she had been here before and because she felt as if she would always be here. Here, she was his wife. She was her skeleton.

When had she died?

When she looked down, she wondered if white, brittle bones would be stirring the pot filled with hot noodles. She set the table and sat down across from him. Her flesh covered hand scooped noodles into her mouth. The taste was like ash, like misery. She swallowed it too easily. What else had she been eating for the past four years?

Four years ago…

The letter came in the mail. She had been waiting to hear from him again, the boy she had loved. He had gone to school in America the year before. Was he finally coming back? Did he still remember her?

She held a wedding invitation in her hands, but before she could shove it back inside, it unfolded itself like a bird and grew wings that beat the air around her head and sent her falling to the ground. The bird followed her for days, chirping awful things into her ears and reminding her that he had always been a dream, a dream that would never come true.

She wanted to speak to the man who was sitting across from her, but the words got stuck in her throat. Had she always been asleep since that day four years ago? Because, none of her dreams had come true as she opened her eyes and saw the empty world without him.

How had she met her husband? How many dates until he had proposed? Where and how had he proposed? Had he always been this cold and distant? Did he love her?

Did she love him?

She could only answer the last question.

“No…”

She whispered softly, the words falling from her lips and drowning in her bowl of cold, uneaten noodles.

He finished eating and placed his dishes in the sink. She heard the door open and close. She heard him drive away. She waited for him to come home.

It was so late, she mumbled to herself, “Where is he?”

She kept lies pressed to her ears, and waited and wanted to hear something other than the truth, someone other than him. The soft, pretty illusions  she had wrapped around her skin vanished, and she was left bare. There was something else pressing against her, and it dug into her skin, and it sank into her bones: Truth, loneliness.

Feeling lost and empty, she took a taxi and went outside of Seoul. As night fell, the landscape became a hazy, dark blur. A landlord showed her to a one bedroom, one bathroom apartment above a small noodle shop that was full of tired, hungry workers, big families, and the hot, white breath of steam. The room was small but clean.

She paid the deposit and took a taxi back to the house she shared with her husband.

He was in bed when she returned. She slept next to him with her hands pressed tightly together. She wanted to reach out and touch him, but she knew he would wake up and ask her what was wrong but only tell her to go back to sleep, because he had work in the morning, because he had no time for her: His wife, a skeleton.

She had packed all of her belongings and was ready to leave when he came home. She was already crazy because of him and because she still loved him: The boy she had loved, not this man without his face and his eyes and his smile. What was it that she had seen in him? She stood in front of the door. She was inside. He was outside.

She spoke through the awkward silence that had fallen between them as he tried to push past her.

“I’m leaving you.”

It was barely a whisper that passed from her lips.

“What?”

He finally stopped trying to push past her, noticing her suitcase and bags for the first time. When had he ever heard anything she had said? When was the last time he had even noticed her?

“I’m sorry…”

They were her last words to him.

He walked past her, and this time she let him. He put down his suitcase, took of his jacket, and folded it on the couch. He walked towards her. He stared into her eyes that had suddenly filled with tears and slapped her.

She had always been so still, so afraid of moving– of leaving, but in that moment she finally felt herself slip out of limbo and into free fall. She crashed somewhere at the bottom. He began to speak, but she brushed past him, refusing to let him see her tears.

They were not for him.

He didn’t keep her from walking out the door, but he followed her, and when he chased after the taxi she knew it must have hit him: She was leaving him, and she was gone.

She let herself cry for the boy he should have been and for the girl she should have been, but finally there were no tears on her cheeks, just awful sounds and heaving sobs that were wrenched from somewhere deep, deep inside of her until there was nothing left inside of her. She saw his image in the rear view mirror, but he grew smaller and smaller until finally the taxi turned the corner, and he disappeared.

There was a small gap between her thighs where the skin no longer touched, but she didn’t feel like eating. She began to talk to herself as she sat in her small room.

“He’s gone. I miss him.”

She wanted to go through her phone to find the traces of the boy she had loved, but she had deleted all of his messages a long time ago, and one day he had stopped sending them. She wanted to call her old friends to ask about him, but she had spent too much time away from them.

“It would be awkward to talk to them again, to tell him I still love him.”

She called her parents and told them lies, because she didn’t want to break their hearts. The sound of their voices made her smile, but when they hung up she began to cry.

“I left my husband.”

She reached for the phone again, but she had no one else to call and no one she could tell the truth to. Why had she married him? She couldn’t remember her husband. She couldn’t forget the boy she had loved.

But, too much time had passed, and that boy was gone. He was a man now. He was a man with a wife and kids and a nice house in a nice neighborhood, and she was just a memory stuck inside a cramped apartment over a noodle shop on the poor side of town.

She went downstairs and watched her favorite Korean dramas on a small screen TV. She nodded off in front of a family with two children and a third one on the way as the movers lifted her new bed up the long flight of steps outside. They finished, and she rearranged the furniture , tried to fill up the empty spaces with paintings and promises.

She fell asleep on the floor.

It was almost midnight when she finally woke up. She went downstairs again and sat at a small table in the corner. She ate cold noodles.

Suddenly, she realized that it felt awful to be alone. Is that why she had married him?

Days passed, and nights passed.

She had her face deep into a bowl of noodles, and didn’t notice her husband walk in, but when someone sat across from her she looked into a pair of familiar eyes. The silence between them spread itself out like a blanket, smothering both of them until nothing but their corpses remained.

She wanted to escape– to breathe– to live.

The night air was hot and sticky. It melted into her skin as she traced the footsteps of someone else. Someone else had already wandered these sidewalks and streets. Had they been alone? Had they been tired? Had they already been this way before but been unable to turn back? She walked next to her husband without speaking. They sat on a park bench underneath a street lamp. It was a place where lovers should have sat. They were like strangers, and it was as if all the time they had spent together had been pressed into one single moment and sucked dry.

Nothing remained.

“How have you been?,” he asked.

She remembered what it felt like when he had been inside of her, when he had slapped her: The pain. But, she said, “Fine, and you?”

“Fine”, he said in a soft voice as he looked down and away from her.

Strange that it had come to this: An awkward conversation on a broken bench, an awful feeling between a man and his wife.

“Ha Na…”

“What?”

“Are you seeing someone else… Someone else, someone who makes you happy…?” She couldn’t speak. Her lips wouldn’t move.

They had fought once, a few months or maybe just a few days after their wedding.

Ha Na hadn’t been able to stop crying. Her husband had wrapped his arms around her, but she had pushed him away. He had looked at her, and it had been the last time he had really looked at her.

Then, they had lived in a small apartment, and it had been easy to fill in the empty spaces. Slowly, he had begun to work more, to stay away. They had moved into a house a year ago, but nothing had changed. Only, the empty spaces had become larger, had become harder to fill.

He handed her something without looking her in the eyes, and then got up and walked away. She looked down at the hard, shining thing in her had. It was her wedding ring. She had left it on the living room table.

She watched his back as he got blown somewhere far, far away. She wanted to tell him to stop– to stay, but it was too late. He was already gone.

Home, she stared blankly at the night sky as she sat on the roof of her apartment. She spilled her thoughts out to all the ghosts of those who had lived like her and already died. They were hanging over her head, slipping soft tendrils of faded skin through her hair and running them down her back. They were slipping in and out of her body.

She went to the edge of the roof and looked down, walked over it.

She saw the night sky, the passing windows, the blurred faces, the gray concrete, the blood spreading from somewhere…

She saw nothing.

She shook off someone else’s memories and slipped back into her skin. There was a hollow ache– a far off dream– a soft whisper.

“I must have fallen in love with him a long time ago. I must still love him. My husband… I can’t even remember his name– his face– his smile. Where did the boy that I loved go? I thought that he would come back to me someday as someone else, as someone I could love and someone who could love me.”

There was a shadow that had suddenly thrown itself against the wall beneath the roof. A body clung to it and heard all of her words.

Words that were not meant for him.

“Is he happy? Is he happy without me? Does he need me– love me– miss me? He  must have forgotten about me. My life is just a dream I’ve finally woken up from. Have I always been alone?”

But, she wasn’t alone. There was someone watching her. He listened to all of her words and wondered if he would ever be the same again– if she would ever be his wife again.

“I hate being alone, talking to myself like this. I must be crazy. I must have been crazy to let him go– to think I could let him go and live without him– to think I could fall in love again.”

The shadow vanished, and her husband sat on the ground nearby with his head in his hands. Their lives had always been like this: Quiet, distant. There was a road he had never been able to find: One that lead to her. He had thought she would change, that someday he would see her smile at him the way she had smiled as she stared at the sky or the stars. She had always been beautiful, but she had always been lonely, even when she was with him. He looked back at her shadow and the soft gloom of her words before he left, casting a long shadow in the soft, dark night.

Ha Na finally called her sister. It would be too hard to tell her parents. Would they understand? She had always been different from everyone else in her family, but they loved her. She loved them, too, but she felt burdened by them. She had never been able to live up to their expectations. Maybe she wasn’t meant to be a daughter– a sister– a wife.

What had she wanted to be? Happy? When had she been happy? She remembered, but her memories were colder than winter and frozen somewhere in the past.

Ha Na’s apartment was quiet, because her parents had not returned from whatever roads they were traveling while they visited her. She drifted off to sleep and woke up when her mother tapped her softly on the shoulder. Her father pulled her up from the floor.

They had told her to go back to him, but now they were silent. A month had already passed, and nothing had changed.

Were they finally giving up on her?

They left, whispering I love you softly in her ears as their arms held her tightly and then let her go. She would miss them, but she knew they couldn’t stay.

Did he still have everything she had given to him?

She would like to take it all back.

She would like to be someone else– someone other than herself– someone different. There had been a reason for the difference, but she couldn’t see it anymore, and there had been a reason to believe in love, but that boy she had loved– she knew that he wasn’t it anymore.

She wondered if she would ever return to him, her husband. He had been drinking again. His slurred words filled her ears as she listened to him outside of her locked door. He banged on it with his fists, as if he could break it down. She was tired.

She wanted to sleep– to forget– to dream.

Instead, she listened quietly as her husband slumped down against her door. She couldn’t see him– his head buried in his hands and his heart beating too fast in his chest, but she felt him and she knew she had carved the soul and smile out of his body.

They weren’t in love, she thought, but he couldn’t let her go. Maybe he had thought that she would always be by his side, just like a shadow. She fell asleep while her husband snored outside of her door. She dreamed of someone other than her husband’s face and smile, of the sound of laughter.

When she woke in the morning, she heard her husband as he snored. An hour later she knew the change in his breathing meant he was still half-asleep, but would wake up soon. Silence, and then the sound of his shoes as he walked down the stairs was similar to the sound of her heart as it beat: Slow, steady. He would keep walking away, and her heart would keep beating, both of them alive and yet both of them dead.

She slipped into a tee shirt and cleaned, putting away the sheets and the pot from last night. It was half-filled with noodles she hadn’t eaten. The clock ticked, chronicling her hours spent alone.

Love was never going to come back. Without it, everything had fallen apart. She was flattened, now, thin and incapable of living. She fluttered, her breath like butterfly wings in and out. She was a butterfly sinking low– about to die, but carried on by some eternal wind making promises that could never be fulfilled.

Ha Na’s lease expired.

She had spent the past few months asleep, barely aware of anything but the past. She was finally ready to return, because there was nothing left: Not of that boy, not of that girl. She didn’t know who she was, but there was a feeling inside of her.

She was hungry. She was starving. She was tired of being a skeleton.

For days she had dreamed of a devil that had ripped her into pieces. It had hovered over her as she slept and had followed her as she walked down streets filled with strangers. She was sure that she would die, but she was still alive…

It had only been a dream.

So much of her life had only been a dream.

Her husband was silent as she made her return. The car he drove her in was loaded down with the things she had taken. They were all going to return to their places. The paintings would be placed on the walls in the living room, and she too would hang herself somewhere in the house. A painting and a skeleton: Both of them nailed to the wall. As he drove, she stared at his alien face and hands. Had he changed or had he always looked this way? There was nothing familiar except for the silence in the air and the distance between them. For some reason, she wanted to speak to him, to touch him.

Was he real?

They slipped back into their life without a sound, and it was as if she had never left. They smiled when their family and friends made their visits, but slowly their smiles slipped away.

He came home drunk and forced her into bed, breathing heavily and weeping. The smell of soju on his breath and skin, the feel of those alien hands on her skin and the hard pushing of his body into hers…

Suddenly, there was so much pain inside of her.

Where had it come from, and why did she finally feel alive as he pressed himself against her and into her? She held him close, her arms wrapped tightly around him. She dug her nails into his skin until red, half-moons appeared. There was something falling from her eyes, but she couldn’t move to brush away the tears. His hands reached up gently, and he wiped her tears away with the soft skin of his thumbs. Who was he, this stranger in her bed and this man inside of her?

Why did it hurt to see him again?

She should never have married him. She should never have left him. His voice was hoarse and loud. It broke the silence that had always been between them.

“I missed you.”

The words slipped into her ears as she closed her eyes and came. They collapsed and fell asleep, exhausted. When she woke, he was gone, but she remembered everything and knew that it hadn’t been a dream.

Remembering to Forget

She wandered around their house, searching for that door. This time she was sure that she would find it.

There were thoughts escaping from her head and weaving their way into the walls. She had always been sad. Had she made him unhappy? It must have been her fault. She had been unable to love him.

She had been unable to love herself.

“Not that you lied to me but that I no longer believe in you has shaken me.”

She whispered the words of Friedrich Nietzsche to herself. They hung over her head like the devil that had ripped her to pieces. They were words that put her heart back together with clumsy stitches. They were the pain and truth that she had never been able to accept. Who would she speak them to: The boy that she had loved, her husband, or herself?

She spoke them to herself, the innocent girl of her youth who had died after first love came and went.

“It is not that you lied to me. It is not that those dreams you dreamed never came true. It is not that he never loved me the way you thought he would. It is not that I have never been able to love again. It is not that my family is all I ever had, the very people you pushed away in anger. It is not that I am alone like you were.

It is that without you and your hard, unyielding ways I can no longer believe in myself. Why must I bend, break? And I have spent so much time looking for you. I think maybe I have spent too much time looking for you and all the things you had. If I found him again– my first love, would you also come back? He knew you. He believed in you. I left myself behind in order to find you, but you were already gone.

There is no door to the past, and I can never go back. All I have is this empty house– this empty heart– this empty marriage. And suddenly, it has occurred to me that I have never given myself away the way you did.

If the world around me is empty, it is because I have always been a part of the past, living only in memories. I would like to let you go. I would like to be myself even though I am nothing like you.

Youth, I woke up one day to find you gone, and next to me was a snoring man and a devil that hovered over me. I am no longer afraid. I am terrified, because I have been asleep and unable to live and breathe for so long. What have I lost? If I have lost my belief in myself and in love, then I have lost everything. What am I looking for? What am I looking for…”

She sank to the floor and pressed herself against the wood, knew she had been there before. She lay on her back and stared at the ceiling. The light of morning pressed its way through the window and settled onto her skin. There was a sudden stillness, a memory of a soft thumb on her skin. Breathless, she closed her eyes.

When she opened them, she began to rise and then stilled.

Her husband was lying on the floor next to her. He had taken off his suit and changed into a white tee shirt and jeans. She turned her head to face him and stared into his eyes. Suddenly, she remembered his eyes– his smile– the day they had first met. His hand slipped into hers, and then he looked away, looked up at the ceiling.

She did the same.

They stayed like that for a long, long time.

The Man That I Left on The Moon

Introduction

At first there was this silence that lingered over us like the thick, black night hanging outside and the soft, warm blanket draped over us. My mother’s voice echoed in my ears, suddenly, as if she was singing me to sleep with a lullaby from some far off place.

My mother was far away– miles away, light years away.

The Man That I Left…

He held me loosely in his arms, and I thought that he might let me go in the morning. When we were through, I snuck out onto the balcony that overlooked a crater on the moon. I had traveled far to see him. He had told me to come, but his cold embrace reminded me of a lost love, of a love that I had lost.

Still, he didn’t make me unhappy– being on the moon did. It always seemed like night, and gray sand blew over hollow craters. We were trapped in glass, and even though I couldn’t see where it began or ended I knew that there was no endless horizon, no limitless sky. I could see the stars, though, and they glittered and sparkled like the diamond ring that he had given me on earth.

Black eyes flecked with silver pierced my gaze as I turned to leave the crowded cafe. I was on my way to work– coffee in hand, but he stood in my way, blocking the exit. When he smiled, only one corner of his mouth turned up. It was his dimple that caught my attention.

When I blinked, he was gone. When I blinked again, I was gone, too, or at least not in the cafe where I had been only moments before.

That day when I had disappeared from the cafe with him, I hadn’t wanted to return to earth; because, I would be leaving soon to meet the man who would be my husband, but I knew that I wasn’t capable of loving him. That day, as I looked into his alien eyes as we stood underneath an alien sky, I had thought that I would be capable of loving him.

I went back inside and slept beside him. His ribs pressed into mine as he breathed. He was exactly my height, and our bodies fit together perfectly– like a pair of matching puzzle pieces, but I could never get used to the way his bones and his body and his heart pressed into and indented my skin, pushing me to the edge of the bed, to the edge of some cliff the more I struggled to put distance between us.

I was capable of loving him, but I was also capable of losing him, of being lost without him. Afraid, I packed my things and left quietly in the morning.

His black eyes shone, glittering and sparkling like the stars in the sky– like the diamond ring on the living room table.

He was different in indescribable ways, and I didn’t think that we had much in common other than the fact that we had both wanted to disappear from the world that we knew.

We spoke different languages, but he had learned mine by the time we met on the moon. I wasn’t sure how old he was or if we would ever be able to have children together, but I didn’t want children, anyway. I didn’t care about his age, anyway. Occasionally, I would fall into his eyes and get transported to faraway places with colors and sounds and smells that I had no name for but began to adore.

I don’t know what he saw in me, but he was always blocking my exits and taking me to new worlds with new beginnings. I had always been too poor to travel. I wasn’t sure if he had anything other than the black shirt and jeans he always wore. I had bought him clothes once, but he had washed them in hot water, so I complained about the way they fit on him, and he never wore them again.

I wandered around the moon lost in thought after I left him, and I don’t know how he found me, but he did. When he was angry with me he rarely spoke and would only stare at me. I didn’t know what he wanted from me. Maybe, he didn’t know either. I wasn’t sure if he knew what marriage meant. He had studied earth for some time, he had said, and wanted to give the woman that he loved a diamond ring, to get married.

I was tired, so I held his hand and let him usher me to a cafe where I sat and sipped the coffee that he bought for me. I looked at him carefully before saying, “I don’t want to get married.”

“Why?”
“Because, I don’t love you.”

He cried, but aliens have a different way of crying that I can’t explain, and I had never seen him cry before. It made him seem younger but less attractive. I felt sorry for him, but I had stopped being able to comfort the boys and men in my life after I turned 16.

Suddenly, he got down on one knee before me, but I quickly rose and left. This time, he didn’t block my exits, and I didn’t disappear.

The Man That I Left on The Moon

There was something important that I knew I was forgetting; but, like everyone else, I lived with desperate longings and lost loves killing me softly every time I happened to remember the man that I left on the moon.

The Return

*Short Stories*

(The Return is a story about love, loss, and self-discovery, and it can be found in Seoul Shorts: “Disturbing yet riveting, these short stories will take you to a place you’ve never been before.”)

The Return

His crimson robe covered pale white skin. His head was shaved, and as he bowed in front of me he held a string of wooden beads or something in steady, folded hands. Mine were shaking. He was beautiful, and our eyes met as he rose. He looked young. I wondered what he was.

The voice of the gods would have called out to me once– in a moment like this one, but I had stopped listening to them when I turned 16.

I turned away from him and entered the temple. I stayed in there for hours. I had been raised Catholic, but the thick, suffocating smell of incense was the same.

I had fallen asleep bent in half. I straightened awkwardly and rose, suddenly awake again. The steady sound of falling rain slowly reached my ears. Feeling numb, I walked stiffly to the temple doors. I looked outside, but as I looked outside I looked inside of myself. The road had disappeared. It was buried in water. The path to my childish dreams had disappeared. It was buried in tears.

A voice called out to me in accented English, soft and tranquil: “There is a boat. I take you to land?”

It was the boy, but all I could see of him from where I stood in the doorway were his feet dangling gently in the air. I could sense his calm as he sat on the rooftop and touched the sky with his limbs. Was he looking inside of himself as he looked out at the world around him?

What was it that he saw?

I was shaking and felt sick and feverish as feeling suddenly returned to my limbs. I ignored him and put on my shoes, and I had to tie the laces of my high-heeled boots tight before I stepped out of the temple completely. The rain soaked my black hair, and it fell like ink onto my skin. I pushed it out of my eyes and stumbled into the rain, into the gray world around me. The water was almost over my head now, but I could barely see the brown, earth-filled waves in front me.

Was this a dream?

I would never be able to dream, at least not here. I would never be able to drown, at least not in someone else. The rain kept falling, and the water kept rising, but I stood still and stared at the gray sky. I felt as if I would float somewhere far, far away as the water pushed and pulled against my body, but I knew that the rain would stop– that the roads would reappear– that I would have to return.

Even though there was no one waiting for me, I would have to return.

“Save me.”

Those two words were whispers passing from my chapped, dry lips. I needed to find my belief, because I had lost it somewhere. The man I had left behind…

If I closed my eyes I saw his face and felt his breath and hands against my skin. Had he been real? I had never been able to believe in him.

The boy began to pray as I spoke those words again and again.

Had it been yesterday: The departure, the rain, the return? But, no, I could smell incense, and as I opened my eyes I saw him again: The boy. I had thought that he, too, was leaving. I remembered his limbs as they had touched the sky and his feet as they had dangled in the air above me when I had passed beneath him.

His voice pulled me from my thoughts as he said, “I saw you from far away as I sat on the roof and prayed. I prayed that you would return on your own, but you kept walking into the water. I did not save you. I only carried your body here once the rain stopped, and then I prayed that you would live.”

I coughed and coughed again. My chest hurt. My shirt was stained a faint brown, and my jeans were muddy. My feet, my face, and my hands were clean, though. He bathed me with a soft cloth that smelled faintly of lavender. Cool water rushed over the skin of my forehead.

He had changed into a different robe. It was gray and plain. His head was freshly shaved. I wondered, and then I asked, “How many days have passed?”

“Only a few hours,” he replied, and then began to pray again. His voice melted over me, rhythmic and strong.

“Stop,” I said harshly, and then more softly, “…Stop.”

He faltered, and his eyes suddenly opened wide, and his mouth suddenly opened wide, too. It hung there open and voiceless as his lower lip trembled over his angled, youthful jaw. I laughed, because he hadn’t tried to save me. I laughed, because he hadn’t tried to stop me, but soon I was lost in the sound of silence that fell over us as I stopped laughing.

My thoughts pushed me back into the water.

One toothbrush… One toothbrush… I kept staring at my toothbrush… My toothbrush without his, my life without him. I had forgotten what it felt like to be alone, although once I had told him I felt as if he didn’t exist. Unanswered phone calls, smiles that only sometimes reached his eyes, and all the times that he had never looked back to see me as I drove away had made me feel as if he didn’t exist.

I would like to take all those words back. I would like to bring him back.

I closed my eyes and turned away from the boy who hovered over me. He was silent and still as he watched me. I knew that I had shaken him from his thoughts, his prayers, and his life. I knew that I did not belong here, but I could not leave…

Not yet.

As I lay there, I thought of all the times I had woken up next to him and felt as if I was completely alone. He had dreamed nameless dreams beside me– dreams I would never know– dreams he would never tell me; and, I had felt as if he would never wake up– as if he would always be dreaming– as if he would always be somewhere else…

Somewhere far from me.

When had he begun to sleep with his back to me?

It must have been in those moments that he began to turn away from me, to leave.

“I’m leaving,” he had whispered as my face crumbled in on itself, folding and wrinkling. He had looked so different, and I had splintered into one thousand pieces that I would never be able to put back together.

I had looked for those pieces, though, days after as regret ate away my flesh and muscle to the bone: Regret that he had left me, or regret that I had let him, or regret that I had loved him?

Regret… Regret made me remember everything that I had tried to wash away with tears, to drown away in rain.

He had left the country but stayed in my heart and taken all of those pieces of myself with him. Months had passed, but one day I had looked at my lonely toothbrush, my lonely towel, my lonely pillow, and my lonely plate. Everything had seemed to be missing, and I realized there was nothing.

I was nothing without him.

I had booked a flight and packed my bags. I had walked the path he had walked. It took me out the door, to the airport, and I landed somewhere in Seoul. I had no way to find him, but I had woken up from my dreams quickly when he had appeared in front me and walked past me as if he did not know me, as if he did not have all those pieces and parts of me that I needed to keep living. 

My heart had died as his shoulders had hunched and pushed past mine in the middle of a crowded street. I had stood utterly still, knowing it was him but unable to look back, because he had seen me– because he had walked past me– because he had turned away from me and left me again.

I had wandered and taken a wrong turn after taking the wrong bus and found myself in some beautiful countryside that had been filled with the sound of wind rustling through trees. It was a wind that had blown the tears off of my cheeks. The temple had appeared as I had walked away, knowing I would never be able to find myself– to leave him– to return.

The boy pushed me, pulling me away from my thoughts and back into the world. He had prepared some semblance of a meal. I refused it, feeling unable to eat.

The day passed away.

Delirium pushed me into a sweaty nightmare, and the boy who hadn’t saved me and the man I had once loved– who also hadn’t saved me, began to blend together. Someone began to pray– softly, so that I would not hear, but I heard him– the boy, and his rhythmic, powerful voice pulled me from my nightmare and into a deep, black sleep.

I woke up, surrounded by folds of crimson cloth on my naked skin. I looked at the boy as he hovered over me. He blushed and looked away.

“You were fevered, so I took you to the river and bathed you. This was the only clothing I had.”

“You saved me,” I whispered in a hoarse, tired voice.

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because… Because you are the first visitor to this temple in years, and I have been alone for all those years, and I… I do not like being alone.”

His voice shook and broke, losing its rhythm and strength. His tears fell softly, and since there was no wind I wiped them away. I held him for awhile, because he had not turned away from me, because he had not left me.

We stepped out into the sunlight as morning’s dawn came. It was the only promise left unbroken. We ate on the temple steps. His robe was gray. Mine was crimson. They soon overlapped, becoming one as the sun faded– cloth that echoed with the sound of tears and laughter, cloth that hung loosely on our limbs even as we clung tightly to life.

I left the temple, my steps as I made my return were rhythmic, strong. No one would save me, but when would I stop destroying myself?

Love in The Time Between Dog and Wolf

*Short Stories*

(Love in The Time Between Dog and Wolf is a bittersweet, supernatural romance from Seoul Shorts: “Disturbing yet riveting, these short stories will take you to a place you’ve never been before.”)

Love in The Time Between Dog and Wolf

Introduction

The scent of autumn filled the air.

The spinning of a car’s wheels suddenly awakened dying leaves from their slumber and spun them around weakly one last time. Wheels curved back and forth in a dizzying spiral as the mountain road stretched on narrowly. It was a road that was shadowed by tall trees on both sides– a road that wound its way towards the sky.

Min Hyo Rin carved a path into the clouds without looking back. She had already spent too much time looking back. It was time to look forward, time to forget the past.

At the top of the mountain was a decaying wooden house. She passed through a  broken metal gate and parked in a wide gravel driveway. She left the engine running as she sat in her car. Finally, she turned the key– killing the engine– killing the part of herself that longed to go back. She stayed in the silence that had fallen and whispered as she stared ahead, “Is this it? Is this the house he left me? I don’t remember it this way…

So empty.”

She rested her head against the car’s steering wheel and sighed softly. Even though the sun was still hanging in the sky, she didn’t feel the warmth of autumn. The leaves were falling in love with one another, tangling themselves into piles, and the wind was a soft whisper that brushed against the window of her car.

She drowned in her memories, a slow descent as she sank to the bottom.

The faces of a man and woman in a faded photograph that she had tried to call mother and father, the face of an old man that she had tried to love, the faces of strangers that she had tried to call friends, the face of a boy that she had loved…

She stepped out of the car as she pulled herself to the surface and struggled to breathe through memories that were thick and suffocating. She gulped the autumn air in and slammed the door of her car, leaning against its cold, metal frame as her knees buckled under the heavy weight of her memories.

Coming to the house the old man had left her after he had died only reminded her that he was gone. She remembered his face: dark, wrinkled from smiles, and with eyes that had gleamed with too much wisdom. He had given her a home after the accident, but she had never been able to forget her real home, her dead family.

She had always been alone since then.

She remembered their backs, not their faces: the backs of her parents as they had lain on blood-stained concrete, the back of the old man as he had turned away to hide his illness, the backs of her friends as they had walked away without looking back, the back of a boy…

They had all left her, or moved past her and towards some future that she couldn’t see.

She stumbled towards the mountain’s edge. There was an aching stretch of blue sea that led to a sun that had slowly begun its descent. The horizon stretched on and on, and she wanted to stretch on and on until she had traveled the whole world, until she had found a place to call home.

The sun set as she cried silently. Her heart was turned upside down and emptied as the wind blew hollowly over the mountain. Night fell, and the stars shined softly between gaps in crystal white clouds. The moon was half-full, or maybe half-empty. She shivered from the cold and suddenly felt sleep pressing against her eyes. She walked to her car on shaky legs, opened the trunk, and took out her suitcase. She wondered what she had packed. It was so heavy. She stared at the run-down wooden house before going inside.

It looked back at her for a long, long time.

The house was small and cramped, cracked and stained with age. One wall was a huge window that gave way to the view of the mountain’s edge and the sea. She had shared this small space with the old man years ago, but now she shook out blankets that had gathered dust and got ready to sleep alone. The room felt empty even after she laid the blankets on the floor, so she started unpacking. The silence was deafening. The floor had finally warmed, though, so she sat down and poured herself a drink. She finished one, then two, and then three bottles of soju. She drank quickly– out of loneliness, and the room transformed into another world. The view from the window swallowed her whole. She got lost in a sky, then fell and drowned in a calm sea that reflected an expanse of stars thrown carelessly into the sky, the sky that hadn’t held her. There had been no room for her amongst the stars.

She spread her limbs out on the floor gracelessly. Her thoughts wandered towards barren places, towards bitter memories, but when her mind was as empty as the starless sky outside her window, she passed out on the cold wooden floor.

The sun streamed into the room through the window. Hyo Rin was awake, and she sat with her knees curled up to her chin and her arms wrapped around her skinny legs. Dark circles rested underneath her eyes, and her black hair was a tangled mess. Her skin was paler than usual, and she looked starved.

Forcing herself to do something– anything, she took a shower and got ready for the day. She put on a long black dress that hung loosely on her body and fell heavily to the floor. She made breakfast, but barely ate. Later, the feel of sunlight through the window as she washed dirty dishes made her feel dead inside. She felt dead inside with so many unspoken words stealing the life and light from her body. They pushed at the edges of her mouth but never fell out. She had no one to give them to, because everyone she knew was already gone.

Outside, birds chirped loudly, and more leaves fell to the ground. The trees stood against the wind, bare and naked. At the mountain’s edge, rocks tumbled down into the sea, and autumn came to an end.

Hyo Rin woke up to falling snow and ice on her window. She started the day with soft shadows on her face and walked outside wrapped tightly in a blanket. The old man’s memory was as harsh as the sting of the cold on her cheeks. He had built the house before his family had died. They had lived together– something more than strangers, but nothing more than that. She didn’t know that he had died until a phone call came, and it had awakened her from the dream she had been living.

She sat down by the mountain’s edge. She thought it would be nice to tumble over the edge and fall like the rocks that crashed into the sea. Something about being alone in the midst of silent memories and snow made her feel old and dead. Too many years had passed, and she hadn’t held onto them tightly enough. Love had passed, and she hadn’t held onto it tightly enough. It was as if she had already tumbled down…

She watched the snow fall softly before reaching into her pocket and dialing a number on her cell phone.

“Mrs. Kim?”

“Yes, who is this?

“Min Hyo Rin.”

An awkward silence fell after she spoke while Mrs. Kim struggled to remember who she was.

“Oh, Hyo Rin! I had heard you returned home, but I haven’t seen you in town so I didn’t believe it.”

“Do you have any positions available?”

The abrupt change in conversation threw Mrs. Kim off balance, but she replied quickly.

“I have some time today. Would you like to get some tea in the village square? We can talk more then. I haven’t seen you in for-”

”Is noon alright with you?”

She cut Mrs. Kim off before she could finish speaking. She was already tired of talking– already tired of listening– already tired of living.

“Yes, of course. I’ll see you then, dear. And your… grandfather… Mr. Lee… we all felt the loss of his passing.”

She waited until Mrs. Kim hung up the phone, then let it drop from her hand. It hit the frozen ground with a dull thud, and she shivered, feeling even colder than she had before. The morning faded as she stared over the edge and into the water. She felt herself hanging in the sky– would she fall– would she die– would she ever feel alive?

She knew the sky wouldn’t hold her, but what– no, who would?

Her room filled with blinding light as she got dressed, but it passed quickly as rain clouds covered the sun. She picked out a knee-length black dress with a sweetheart neckline. She draped a long gray sweater over her shoulders. It hung over her thin frame loosely. She ate breakfast, distracted herself with a book, and when noon approached she was in her car and driving down the old mountain road.

She would never be a child again, but like winters that had passed the sky was gray with puffs of white clouds that it breathed out with a heavy sigh. The grass was faded, just tufts of dull brown life. The earth was wet from melted snow. The trees were pale twists of white.

She followed the directions and road signs amidst the shadows from the tall trees until she reached the village square. She parked next to a tea shop called Cha Jjang. The town square was full of strange places and the faces of strangers. She went inside the small building and walked up a flight of steps. She could see most of the town square from the roof where tables had been set in a careless, cozy manner. She sat at an empty table near the balcony. Her mind wandered as she waited for Mrs. Kim to arrive. She thought of the time she had been with the old man. They would get ice cream and sweets at Woo’s. She looked for it– her head turning and twisting to find it, but it was gone. It had been replaced by a new ice cream shop with a bright neon sign…

Suddenly, a cold wind blew heavily through the town. It moaned and ached as it traveled alone through streets filled with couples and children, friends and families. If only she could live like the wind, invisible. She watched people walk by without seeing their faces and got lost in moments she hadn’t known how to treasure until there had been no more moments to treasure.

Mrs. Kim thought Hyo Rin was a beautiful young woman in clothes she would wear if she was thinner. Hyo Rin managed to stretch a smile across her cheeks as she agreed to work at the high-school as an English teacher. She had lived in America for years now, but her English wasn’t as good as she told Mrs. Kim it was. She felt bad for lying. They spoke about this and that, and Hyo Rin recited her lines with shaking hands, but kept the truth buried somewhere deep in her damaged heart.

For some reason I didn’t die when my parents did.

I wish I had, because I have never felt alive. I had nightmares for weeks about blood and cracked glass and screams. An old man found me in an orphanage where I had been taken after the accident. He raised me, but from the first day I had to move into that old, wooden house I knew something was wrong, something was gone that I would never get back.

The new house smelled like my dead dad, but I couldn’t remember his face unless I looked at the picture the old man gave to me. I cried myself to sleep for days, but one day I woke up, and I didn’t feel like crying anymore. I didn’t feel like remembering anymore. I grew up and began to realize what it all meant. My memories would creep into every waking and dreaming moment, and it was hard to pretend that I was like everyone else.

The picture I used to have of my parents was too sharp. They were always smiling. I wish they could have cried with me, laughed with me, but their faces were always the same and nothing in them ever changed. I was always smiling in that picture, but I have changed. Now, that picture is lost, and I  seem to have forgotten how to stretch my lips into a smile. Does it look like a grimace?

Do I look like I’ve ever been loved?

Hyo Rin pretended to be a character in a play, because the story was better if it was told in a different way, with a different ending starring a girl who was able to forgive and forget the world for taking so much from her and leaving her with so little.

Her cup of coffee turned cold as Mrs. Kim smiled.

Papers were messily strewn all about as Hyo Rin looked over the schedule and workbooks Mrs. Kim had given her a few weeks ago.

“Miss Hyo Rin.”

It didn’t fit, but she put it on anyway. She had a degree in business management. It seemed useless now.

Night fell with a hush as day was slaughtered once more. If she could, she would be fine in a while. She had lived her whole life wanting to be fine in a while. She had lived her whole life with the hollow echo of loneliness that had always sunk in when she thought she had finally escaped from it. She had lived with the deep ache of frustration as days had blurred into years, and she had never really escaped from it. It seemed as if she had always been lost in the space between the earth and the sky– the beginning and the end– the dusk and the dawn. She could only fall asleep after telling herself that everything would be different in the morning.

The alarm clock rang, waking her from a nightmare. The sheets were twisted and tangled around her body. Shadows rested like caves beneath her eyes– sunken in eyes, and it was sinking in: The futility in searching for something different.

It was impossible to recognize the girl with dark circles beneath her eyes and a sweeping sense of despair beneath her feet when she finally dragged herself to the bathroom and looked at herself in the mirror. It began not to matter, though, because she kept seeing and kept walking even though there was nothing in sight and nowhere to go.

Dog

A month had passed.

Hyo Rin was no longer nervous as she tied the brown belt around the waist of her navy uniform. Her black hair was loose about her head but chin length. She threw on a gray cardigan and grabbed her black bag. She had to be at the high school in 30 minutes, so she made a quick breakfast and headed out the door, went back in to get some papers she had forgotten, and left again.

The morning air was still and quiet. It always felt strange to wake up before the sun managed to spill across the sky. Shadows boxed their way across the earth as clouds gave way to shine, and soon the day would begin, and in a while the day would end. She drove down the same road and wondered if she would ever reach an alternate destination.

The students were silent. Her English class was small, only about thirteen, third year students, and most of them were boys. They came to her classroom every day with the same tired expressions on their faces. One boy she had never noticed before was staring out the window, but she couldn’t remember his name. When the bell rang, her students left in groups, but he left alone.

She stood at the front of the room and watched her students as they studied. Some slept. One student stared out the window the same way he always did, and she wondered what he saw. A student asked a question. She had difficulty pronouncing certain letters. They laughed when she made a mistake.

“Lice cake? No, rice cake is deokbokki.”

Her students went back to their books once their laughter had died down. A peaceful silence fell, and sunshine poured in through the window and onto his desk. She still didn’t know his name. He wasn’t doing anything, and she wondered if he had finished all of his work already. When class finally ended, her students left in a rush while she stayed, lingering in the silence.

She was left with too much time on her hands again. Later, she made her way to the cafeteria and returned to the classroom to eat. The room was always empty after her English class had ended. Today was different.

The boy was there, the one who always sat by the window. He was asleep. She hesitated, then walked towards him and tapped him lightly on his shoulder. He slowly lifted his head and rubbed eyes that were framed by the longest lashes she had ever seen on a boy. She read his name-tag: Song Hae Jin. He looked at her without speaking, and an awkward silence fell between them. She spoke first.

“Have you eaten?”

He didn’t reply, but she handed him her silver bowl of rice, then put some kimchi and gogi on top. She went to her desk at the front of the room and sat down, eating what was left on her tray. He stared at her without smiling or speaking.

“Lunch is already over. You should eat…

Before it gets cold.”

She spoke softly, and she wasn’t sure her voice would reach him. He seemed so far away. He hesitated but finally ate. When he finished his meal, he rose and placed the empty silver bowl on her tray before returning to his desk. When she had finished eating, he rose again, took the tray, and returned it to the cafeteria. She watched him leave and waited for him to come back.

She sat in the still silence of the room for what seemed like hours before packing her things and going home. He was absent from class the next day, and she found herself staring at his empty desk when the bell finally rang.

She began to notice him when he came to class, and she watched him when he wasn’t looking. He was beautiful. She didn’t want to go back to the mountain, back to that empty house. She wanted to stay near him, to stay lost in dreams that were still golden even though they had faded a long time ago.

He left when class ended, and she wondered if he would ever fall asleep in her classroom again, or eat with her again. Suddenly, she couldn’t remember where she was supposed to go or who she was supposed to be.

A knock sounded on the door. When she didn’t answer– lost in thought, the door opened.

It was him.

“Hae-…”

She trailed off, suddenly turning away embarrassed. She found herself staring out the window awkwardly and unable to speak. She wondered if he had a home and a family that missed him. He walked towards her with his hands shoved deep into his pockets and his broad shoulders slouched. He sat in the seat next to the window and blocked her view. He didn’t look at her or speak to her. She watched him from her desk and wanted to tell him to move– to leave– to go home, but she didn’t. She couldn’t. She felt plain in her simple navy dress and low, worn-down brown heels that she wore everyday. She looked at him carefully, trying to memorize him completely.

His legs were too long, his body too muscled, and his jaw too sharp but still smooth like a boy’s. He finally looked away from the window. There was something in his eyes, as if he was really looking at her for the first time, but he turned away again.

She felt embarrassed. He wasn’t here for her. She grabbed her things and left. She was walking down the hallway when someone grabbed her from behind.

Hae Jin wrapped his arms around her before she could speak or move, and something about being in his arms made her never want to speak or move again. Who was she? What was she? Her thoughts faded, and blinding, numbing sensation emerged from her nerves and limbs.

Was this happiness?

Hae Jin handed her a folder that she had left on the desk before she could speak or move, and something about the way he walked away made her want to speak and move until she was by his side again. Who was he? What was he? Her thoughts spun– round and round, and she fell until she tumbled into a world full of bright, vivid dreams.

Was this real?

Hae Jin smelled like the sea. There was the pale perfection of his skin, the deep brown of his eyes that were framed by long, black lashes, the soft curve of his mouth, the broad spread of his shoulders and long reach of his arms and legs…

Then, he was gone.

Hyo Rin woke up in the middle of the night with his face etched into her mind. The lingering traces of her dream made her feel too warm, so she walked into the cold night in her white slip and saw him.

“Hae Jin?”

He ran away before she could call out, before she could say the words pushing against her cracked, dry lips, “Don’t go… Stay.”

The next day he walked in late. She forgot the lesson as she turned around to see him. She forgot her students. She forgot herself. She smelled the sea, and watched its waves curl towards her shore as he came closer. As he walked past her, retreating, the sun cast soft light onto his pale skin. He went to his seat and stared out the window. He wrote something in the frost-covered glass.

“Did you sleep well?”

He paused after writing and let his fingers fall slowly until they curled tightly into fists on top of his desk. He turned and stared at her with a sad, hollow look in his eyes, almost as if he wasn’t sure that she would see him or what he had written.

She smiled a rusty smile that stretched the corners of her eyes and revealed yellowed teeth. She had always lived her life with carefully sewn-in-seams. They had burst– one by one, until she was no longer held together by anything but a thread. He was pulling her last one. He smiled, a  slow stretch of soft, pink lips across white teeth as he pulled her last thread. She was no longer held together by anything but his eyes and his smile.

Suddenly, the bell rang, and class ended.

Her students left– one by one, until just one remained.

“Hae Jin.”

She said his name for the first time, but he pretended not to hear and stared out the window.

“The bell rang…”

He got up suddenly and left without looking back. The door slammed shut behind him, the writing melted off the window, the memory of his smile faded, and she was no longer sure she had seen anything at all.

Hae Jin was absent again.

Hyo Rin looked for him during lunch, but she didn’t see him sitting with the other students from his class. She walked through the cafeteria line and sat quietly with the other teachers. She barely touched her food but listened as they gossiped. She wondered what it would be like to sit with Hae Jin in the quiet of the classroom again.

A slow, steady ache settled into her chest as she forced herself to eat. It spread as she walked to her empty classroom– as she sat in the silence– as she drove home– as she slept. The familiar ache was still there when she woke up in the morning: disappointment. She stared at the ceiling as she lay on the floor of her small room and tried to breathe in and out softly as disappointment swept through her flesh and bones. Still, her first thoughts were of him. She struggled to wake from a dream.

She got up, stripped, and stepped into the shower.

He was brushing his teeth in the mirror. 

She stepped out of the shower, wrapped herself in a soft towel and brushed her teeth.

When she looked up, he was staring at her from behind. She could see his face and form in the mirror. He smiled.

She turned around, but he was gone. He was never there. She pressed her forehead against the mirror and wanted to slam her head against the glass until she finally came to her senses. She was alone. He was not with her. He was always on her mind, though. From that moment on she decided to forget everything about herself.

She smiled suddenly, because she could only remember him.

Everyone she had ever loved had left her, but she told herself that he would stay, that the moment when he became like all the others would never come. She got dressed, carefully put on makeup, and drove to school with a practiced smile on her face.

“I don’t feel good.”

He was holding onto her tightly, and suddenly she felt better.

Hae Jin walked into the classroom and sat by the window. He was the last to arrive. Class ended, and he was the last to leave, but he left without looking at her, and she watched his back as he walked farther and farther away from her.

If he had stayed, she would have told him. She would have told him everything. How she felt like she was nothing. How she felt like she was invisible, slowly fading into the chalkboard or the cafeteria table or the wooden floors or the star-filled sky. How she wanted him to see her and smile at her. It meant everything to her, his smile. She slipped away, and she felt herself slipping away, but he was walking away, and there was no one to catch her as she fell.

The door finally shut with a loud click. She breathed heavily, and the feelings that she had held inside rose to the surface. She closed her eyes and covered her mouth, because she did not want to let them out, not the tears that pressed at her eyes or the words that pressed at her lips. In that moment she knew she was destined to live and die alone.

He rushed in, swinging the door open with a loud crash. He saw her crying, ran to her, and wiped away her tears with soft hands.

She finally left the empty room.

There was someone singing softly in her ear. The deep, rusty voice woke Hyo Rin from her dreams. Her feet took her outside to the mountain’s edge in a daze.

Hae Jin was standing quietly by the sea with his back to her. She wrapped her arms around her chest and finally felt the cold of the wind. He turned around, and he looked haunted, as if he had been waiting for her to come and she had taken too long. She didn’t move, couldn’t speak.

He walked to her slowly and wrapped his arms around her tightly. She pushed him away, then took his hand. She pulled him into her room, onto her blankets. They moved but didn’t speak. His hands ran down her body, and his lips pressed desperately against hers. They became the rocks that fell down the mountainside and into the sea– crashing, destined to sink to the bottom.

She fell asleep in his arms.

He was gone when she woke up, but something lingered, and she felt as if he was by her side. She slept all day.

Night fell, and when he returned she looked into his deep, long-lashed eyes as he came inside of her. If they were in love, it was only because they had met in the time between dog and wolf: The time when day blended into night as dusk fell and dreams became one with reality.

Hyo Rin wanted to hear his voice again, but the night was quiet. Days and nights passed, and even though she waited for him by the edge of the mountain, she never saw him again.

A month passed, and Hyo-rin finally asked Mrs. Kim where her student, Song Hae Jin, had gone in a soft, hesitant voice. What she heard broke something inside of her, something he had held together.

“He died. He went to the mountain top and threw himself into the sea. No one knows why it happened. Thankfully, they found his body a few days before you moved into your father’s home. It would have been…”

 She blinked as Mrs. Kim’s words blurred together, and the words that had been pressing against her mouth finally found their way out.

“I don’t feel good.”

Mrs. Kim smiled. It pulled at the corners of her eyes and made her face wrinkle the same way the old man’s face had as he lay in his coffin.

“Why don’t you take a few days off. The year is almost over and the students are busy studying for their college entrance exams. It’ll be okay for them to have a study hall instead of going to English class. Have you seen the nurse? I had a cold last week, but I’m fine now. They gave me some awful tasting medic-”

Hyo Rin walked away while Mrs. Kim was still speaking, her head nodding as she spoke to herself.

“Yes, the nurse. I just need to see the nurse or even a doctor. I’m fine. It’s just a cold. I must have caught a cold…”

She walked into the classroom and saw him again. He was sitting in his seat by the window, and she was sure he would finally say something to her, but when their eyes finally met he looked at her– looked through her, and then she watched as he slowly faded away.

She sat down in his seat and looked out the window. She wanted to see what he had seen. The view outside stretched on and on. It was filled with light but somehow empty. She had been filled with dreams but somehow empty for a long, long time.

Hyo Rin walked up the steps and knocked on the door of a small, unfamiliar house on the poor side of town. A frail, sickly man answered the door.

“Who are you?”

“Miss Hyo Rin, I’m Hae Jin’s teacher.”

He stared at her as  tears fell down his face. They were tears that he did not bother to hide.

“Hae Jin is dead!”

He slammed the door in her face, and she heard the sound of the lock sliding. She looked up and stared hard into the sun. She walked backwards and finally turned and walked away on unsteady feet. The faces that passed by her blurred together. She heard voices, then nothing.

Wolf

Spring passed by quickly, and suddenly it was summer.

Hyo Rin could not remember herself, but she could not forget Hae Jin. She wanted to forget the moments she spent waking up alone, the moments she spent drinking alone, the moments she spent looking into the faces of strangers wondering if she would wake up with one of them or alone…

She was tired of those moments.

Strangers stayed strangers. Dreams stayed dreams. Hope finally died, and she decided to give up. Too much time had passed, and everyone she had ever met remained the same. Maybe, she was just incapable of seeing them differently.

She couldn’t stop herself from remembering the darting glances and the soft whispers, the cold stares and the loud screams, the hands that had pushed her away and the hands that had held her even though she had wanted to leave, the words that had torn her apart and the words that had never put her back together. She had lived too much of her life pretending that she was someone else– that she was fine, and suddenly she realized she had never been fine.

She was tired of pretending.

A summer rain fell. She ran outside and raced towards the horizon. At the edge of the mountain she screamed Hae Jin’s name. Finally, with a voice as raw and tired as she was, she told him that she loved him.

He was drifting in the sea, a dead body she could never reach.

Daybreak

It was the first day of school, and autumn leaves fell as Hyo Rin stood outside and waited for her students by the gate. She could see them in the distance as they walked down the road, their faded clothes and bright smiles. Mrs. Kim was staring at her.

Hyo Rin had put on makeup and grown out her hair.

“You look so pretty. Are you seeing someone?”

She waited for Mrs. Kim to finish speaking before answering.

“No.”

Hyo Rin smiled, looking up through the bright red trees and into the golden sky. The wind swirled the falling leaves into a dizzying spiral, and then carried them far, far away. Hae Jin, like a leaf he had been carried somewhere far, far away by the wind after swirling around her in a dizzying spiral, but she smiled, because she remembered his voice, could still hear his soft singing…

Dirty/Clean

*Short Stories*

(Dirty/Clean is a crime action thriller from Seoul Shorts: “Disturbing yet riveting, these short stories will take you to a place you’ve never been before.”)

Dirty/Clean

Introduction

Revenge was the fine line between getting dirty and coming clean, but could Son Tae Jin make it to the other side alive?

Son Tae Jin

Another winter night fell softly as Son Tae Jin gazed beyond his open window. A cold wind blew into the spacious room, swirled around, and settled down with a soft sigh, but his thoughts and dreams remained scattered somewhere far away. An icicle formed on the window sill, and his whole world went still just like that moment when water dripped but hardened before it could fall.

When that moment passed, nothing had changed.

Below, the streets were still white, still empty. As he looked down at them listlessly, he wondered when the snow would finally melt away. He wondered when he would finally disappear.

He closed the window and turned away from the world outside. He pressed his back against cold glass, then sank to the floor as he looked around his room. Suddenly, his apartment felt empty.

Suddenly, he felt empty.

Tae Jin.

Not the man, but the quiet, lonely boy. He was five when his home and his family changed, broke. He took care of himself since then, because his mother vanished, and his father turned his back on his son. His childhood was spent living with a faceless father and fighting with boys at school. He always ate alone– cried alone– lived alone. Years passed. Suddenly, he grew up and everything changed again, disappeared. His mother, his father, and that boy…

He forgot them all– there was no one who wanted to remember them, and he left Busan, never once stopping to look back at the place he had once called home or the man he had once called father.

He could not remember his mother’s face.

He arrived in Seoul with nothing but the shirt on his back and a few won in his pockets. He looked at the sky, then. It was the same, but he was different, indifferent.

“There is no right or wrong, no good or bad. There is only survival: A bleak existence of blurring faces and passing years. Emptiness…

What it means to be dirty, but I was never clean, was I?”

He lived without dreams and lost himself in Seoul’s city streets. When he wasn’t working, he was wandering underneath the stars with a different woman in his arms and the same words on his lips. He took a college entrance exam after studying on his own, and much later, he was accepted into Sungkyunkwan School of Law.

He graduated at the top of his class.

From that moment on, doors opened, and he walked through all of the wrong ones. He built his reputation on pile after pile of expensive cases at a prestigious law firm in Seoul. He lost himself in the politics of business– in the feel of money as it weighed heavily in his pockets– in the arms of women who would never love him, but he would never love them, either. He made a few cheap friends who talked behind sunglasses and drove expensive cars. His days and nights were always the same.

Years passed, and suddenly he was older. His life played a monotonous tune. He couldn’t remember who he was or who he once wanted to be.

He was 27 when the rest of his life stretched ahead of him like a shadow that would never reach the sun. That year, he met a man named Ok Dong Gun. He met a man who was the boss of the Twin Dragons, the gangsters of Seoul. He was offered the world on a dirty platter, and he took it. He went independent, opening his own firm and building his reputation on pile after pile of worthless cases.

Five years passed, and he made it to the top by working for Dong Gun, and he made it to the bottom by working for Dong Gun.

Tae Jin got up and walked away from the window– away from the world he had ruined, and slipped between black and white sheets. He lay in bed unable to sleep, restless. The last five years of his life played like a movie in his mind, but the events were all too real.

He had kept his name clean, but his hands had been stained by crimes. Now, someone else was lurking beneath the surface of his skin, fame, and success, because there was some other law that existed outside of the courtroom, a law that thrived on injustice. It was the law of the streets– the law of the Twin Dragons who controlled almost all of Seoul– the law of Ok Dong Gun. After he had become Dong Gun’s right hand man, it was a law that Tae Jin had lived by.

Would it he die by it, too?

“No one is clean and everyone is dirty.”

Dong Gun had told him that the first time they had met. Tae Jin still remembered his first case that had been filled with lies, his first suitcase that had been filled with money.

He finally gave up on sleep.

He got out of bed and found himself staring blankly at the midnight sky. Would he ever escape the grime and grit of his youth? The sad life he had lived in that small house he would never call home and the streets of Busan that led to a sea and a horizon he would never reach, would they always haunt him?

He fell asleep three pills later, but woke up before dawn with hot sweat dripping down his back. The sheets were clinging to his skin. The pills had stopped working. Too much, he had taken them too much for them to be of any use anymore. He was awake again, and he couldn’t forget the truth– not tonight, maybe tomorrow…

He had closed a case yesterday. A woman had been raped by Dong Gun, but a small bribe had been enough to make her settle outside of the eyes of the public, outside of the scales of justice, or maybe the scales had just been tipped in the wrong direction again by the heavy weight of money.

“Everyone had a price, and for the right price anyone could be bought.”

It’s what Dong Gun had always said, had always paid. But, the price hadn’t been right this time. Nothing had. The woman had been found hanging from a noose in the bathroom by her four-year old boy last night. Her face and story had been splashed across the evening news within hours. The reporter had told a story about a poor woman who worked as a hostess for a living and her bastard– now orphaned, child. The cause of her suicide remained unnamed.

She had only appeared for a moment, but it was long enough for him to recognize her face, and he had been unable to forget her face since then.

“She was just a stranger”, he had said to himself. “It’s none of my business. It’s not my problem.”

But, he couldn’t take comfort in his own words, because he didn’t mean them.

It was winter, and it was cold, and everything was dying, but his heart kept pumping blood through his veins. He kept breathing– kept living, but his guilt and his shame would have killed him if they could have formed anything substantial enough to cut through his flesh and bone. He couldn’t bring himself to step outside, because they might recognize him. They might name him.

His hands were dirty– not with blood, but blame.

After all, he was the cause.

He was a criminal.

Tae Jin disappeared.

At night he fought with a snarl of thoughts that kept him awake and wove meaninglessly in search of explanations. He couldn’t count how many nights he had spent unable to sleep. Time stopped, blurred, and refused to drip from his mind.

He found himself staring beyond his window, again, and he wondered if the ghost of the boy he had been would ever appear in front of him and take him away from the man he had become. He would never be able to forget any of it again, not the way he had forgotten it for so long. His mother, his father, the boy that no one wanted remember… Her suicide… Her little boy…

They were all memories that were trapped and frozen beneath his skin.

The same weary strain played on and on through his mind endlessly. He fell asleep for a few hours, woke up, ate, walked the streets of Seoul aimlessly, hoped for that missing thing to fall from the sky, searched every corner for it, but never found it, came home, and then drank until he passed out on the floor.

He was becoming his father, and he spent some of his nights in the arms of a faceless woman who smelled like roses and soju. There, with his head on her chest and spit dripping from the corner of his mouth, he sank into oblivion, into her. He always left quickly and quietly in the cold morning only to return a few days later. He was always drunk, always delirious.

“It’s just a dream,” he said.

That winter was eternal.

Another cold night.

Tae Jin wandered until he stopped in the middle of a dark street. He could hear his heart pounding in his chest, and even though no one was around he felt as if someone was watching him. He closed his eyes and saw her face again. He didn’t want to open his eyes. He knew despair was written into his lids, into his bloodshot eyes. He had always been tall and lean with dark, mysterious half-moon eyes that rested above sharp cheekbones and against pale skin, but he was slowly becoming a skeleton.

He wanted to pretend that his dream would never end– that he would never kill anyone again, but it was too late. The pills, the soju, the women…

Nothing would wash his dirty hands clean.

He woke up from the daze he had been in and decided to stop looking for things that he would never find: Peace, forgiveness. He caught a taxi home, called his secretary, showered, shaved, and secretly arranged for the funeral of the woman he had killed, because her family hadn’t. Her body, it must have been in a morgue– frozen, all this time.

He had her son placed in a foster home, but he, too, would be frozen and unable to move on from that unforgettable moment. His mother would never hug him or help him put on his jacket before going to school. His new mother might try to replace her, but in the back of his mind would be a face that wasn’t and never could be hers, and even that face would start to fade until one day it finally disappeared.

Tae Jin knew. He knew what it felt like to live in an empty house that could never hold anything but strangers and fragile memories, until finally even those fragile memories faded and disappeared.

There would be nothing to replace them but hardness, emptiness.

Tae Jin felt out of place as he sat as his desk. He had driven to work and gotten lost on the way. When he had finally arrived, he had been late. There were papers piled on his desk, but he could only stare at them. Dark circles clung to the hollows beneath his eyes. He watched the clock tick for hours before he noticed a name and a date circled in red on his calendar.

“Ok Dong Gun,” he said out loud in a voice that barely passed from his lips. He traced Dong Gun’s name with shaky fingers.

Later, his phone rang as he walked out of his office building and into the night’s polluted city sky. It was Lee Ri Na, his ex. She refused to let him go even though things between them had ended a long time ago. He didn’t answer. Instead, he called his only friend, Cha Seung Soo. It had been too long since they had gone to Hama together, and after he dodged Seung Soo’s questions about where he had been and what he had been doing, they quickly agreed to go to Hama that night.

He had met Ri Na at Hama. He didn’t know if she was still working there, but it didn’t  matter.

The Twin Dragons owned Hama, and going there was a habit he couldn’t change even after so much had happened to him because of them. Hama was in the richest part of Seoul and right on the Han river. It was really just a boat connected to land by a rickety bridge, but it was still somehow separate from the rest of the world. Funny– the rich streets in Seoul were just as dirty as the poor ones, but it was an expensive grime that covered them. Women and drinks– everything cost more, even though nothing was different and even though nothing mattered.

He finally reached the garage where he had parked his car. As he drove home, he grabbed the wheel a little too tightly, took the twists and turns of the highway a little too quickly, and played Korean pop music a little too loudly.

When he got home, he quickly changed into a white button-down shirt, gray slacks, and white dress shoes. He put on a white tie, styled his messy hair, and was finally ready to go after brushing his teeth. When he arrived at Hama, he tossed the keys of his Ferrari to the valet, crossed the bridge, and strode up white steps that shook with the waves of the Han river. Once inside, he walked past golden lions that reflected neon lights.

“Tae Jin-ah.”

He turned to look at who was calling him and saw her. Ri Na was walking in her hostess uniform– her skirt too short, her heels too high. A fake smile and nose were plastered onto her face. He barely recognized the woman he had once thought he was in love with.

“Tae Jin!  Did you get my message?”

He could see down into her low cut shirt as she leaned towards him, clinging to his arm.

“Are you crazy?”

He didn’t stay long enough to watch her face change as he shrugged off her arm and walked away. He was tired of the way she clung to him. He was tired of the way his heart fell flat when he saw her. He had thought she was different from the women he had known.

He had been wrong.

He met Seung Soo at the bar, and they drank to get drunk. Later, they stumbled upstairs to the gold and blue VIP room. He lay on a chaise lounge with a bottle of Vodka in his hand and watched as Seung Soo passed out with a half-naked, under-aged girl in his arms. He usually did the same, but tonight he couldn’t. Something kept him from wanting to touch someone else’s skin, or maybe he just didn’t want anyone to touch him– see him– feel him. He passed out, exhausted.

He stumbled out of Hama alone in the morning. The sunlight was too bright, and he barely made it home after catching a taxi. He finally crashed into bed with his clothes from last night still on even though he desperately needed to shower. He slept all day and dreamed of faceless people and dirty streets.

He woke up around midnight. He could see what seemed to be all of Seoul from his spacious one-room flat. It was an incredible view of a dark night lit up not by stars but by neon city lights. He felt like a ghost in a world full of strange, artificial life. He longed for the simple country days of his youth that he had spent recklessly, but he could never go back to his father or his home. There was nothing to go back to, anyway. Country or city, something was always missing from the places he found, and he had thirty-two years to prove that nothing would change.

He ate cold food, and the hours passed as he read over cases and organized files in bed. Finally, he took sleeping pills to keep a tangle of thoughts from bothering his tired mind, but the white and black sheets twisted around his body as he tried to sleep. He moved restlessly– back and forth, back and forth, never knowing which way to turn and never feeling at ease with the direction or path he had chosen. Every moment was like this: An awkward, uncomfortable decision to be thought about in agony and prolonged until finally, he did something. The actions of the present never took away the aches and pains of the past. Would anything ever be enough?

He gave up on sleep and rested in bed with his eyes open. Night had fallen hours ago, and the sleeping pills had been taken what seemed like minutes ago. But, it would be dangerous to dream with bitter memories creeping in on him. Even with his eyes open, though, he could still see one memory as vividly as the day it had happened twenty-seven years ago.

His mother was leaving. Tae Jin clung tightly to her trench-coat and sleeves, but she pushed him away. He ran after her, but when his father grabbed him to make him stay, he could only watch as his mother walked down the narrow, dirty street and into the fading sun as it went down, as she disappeared. It was the last time he ever saw her. That night, his father disappeared, too– behind a bottle of soju and silence, never to return. He had been truly alone since then, surrounded by so many faces, but all of them alien and unrecognizable, none of them hers.

When Tae Jin finally fell asleep, his dreams were filled with quiet desperations and bruising truths. If only he could remember her face, the boy she used to dress-up for school, and the father who used to take him there.

He woke up to the sound of his phone ringing. He answered, half-asleep. It was Ri Na. Her voice was sharp and painful like a slap,  but he could barely hear her through her sobs and gasps for breath.

“Ya! Son Tae Jin! How many times do I have to apologize to you before you forgive me? I said I’m sorry. I’m sorry! I made a mistake, okay? I… I… I love you… Don’t you know that? Don’t you care?”

“Forgiveness? I forgive you. Love? I’ll never love you.”

Tae Jin hung up with the sound of her begging and tears in his ears, and like an echo, it played on in his mind. He remembered when he had caught her in bed with another man. She had said the same three words, then. She always said the same three words, but he knew she would never know what they really meant and neither would he.

Suddenly, he remembered something he had once said to Seung Soo over a few bottles of soju, “I thought we were in love. Her fake smile, she gives it to any man with money in his pockets and fame on his shoulders. But, maybe that’s all I am: A man with money in his pockets and fame on his shoulders.”

He had thrown himself further into his work with reckless abandon because of her– met Ok Dong Gun because of her. The years when she had been the woman he had wanted to marry seemed so far away.

Everything seemed so far away, and he felt as if he had always been this way: Dirty.

Tae Jin walked to Seoul’s city park, just a few blocks from his apartment. He sat on one of the swings and moved bit by bit. A calm, chill breeze stirred up the snow, and he huddled deeper into his jacket, pulled up his hood, shoved his hands into his sweat pant pockets, and immediately regretted his laziness in wearing house slippers outside.

If it were day, the place would be filled with children, mothers, and fathers: Families. He hadn’t spoken to his own father in years, not since he had left Busan. He had ignored the messages, the phone calls, the apologies, and the promises.

He had been harder, then.

“Hello?”

“… Father?”

“… Tae Jin? Son Tae Jin?”

“Yes… It’s– it’s me. … How are you?”

“Fine. I’m fine.”

He could hear his father’s tears even through his slurred, drunken words.

“Sorry… I am sorry for everything…”

“Me, too, Father. Sorry for calling so early, so late…”

Tae Jin quickly hung up without waiting for a reply. There were so many words that he had kept inside for so many years. What did he really want to say?

“Mother, I hate you. I hate you, because you left me– pushed me away and left without looking back. I hate you, because I can’t remember your face. I hate you, because I can’t stop loving you. Mother, when… when will I be able to forgive you? When will I be able to see you again?”

Had his mother made a mistake? Had his father? What had driven them apart, and why had he made so many mistakes of his own? Ri Na had begged for his forgiveness, too, when she made that mistake. He wanted to forgive them all, but he knew he would never forgive any of them– not even himself.

As he showered and dressed, he felt uneasy. He would have to meet with Dong Gun and soon.

He drove to work feeling numb.

Ok Dong Gun

Every day was the same. The faces changed. The names changed. But, every day was the same: Sell drugs, tell lies, and spill blood like red paint splashing on a canvas.

Ok Dong Gun painted a picture with his calloused hands. It wasn’t pretty. It was dirty. Black crept slowly and consumed white and changed white to gray. He stepped back when the canvas had been filled. He grabbed the painting and hurled it against the wall. The ripped canvas lay on the ground, reminding him of the jagged slice of a blade through skin.

The walls were white; the furniture, black. Dong Gun slumped low on his couch and smoked cigarettes. The TV was blank as death. There was no tangle of thoughts. There was only a certain stillness in his mind. He knew and could calculate with cold clarity exactly what needed to be done. It was the execution that had always made him feel hot as that sudden, familiar rush of adrenaline coursed through his limbs. Business had always been fun.

“Never enough.”

He said it out loud– a painful, soft explosion that burst from his lungs. He downed a bottle of red wine. It stained his lips red, filling him with a sense of immortality.

Years had passed like this. Chief of Police Nam Young Po had been by his side for longer than either of them could remember, and he had met Son Tae Jin five years ago. Neither Young Po nor Tae Jin knew the other was a part of what was a tangled web of secrets.

Secrets…

He had so many of them, and with his hands, he had forged an unlikely trio of partners in crime: a gangster, a cop, and a lawyer. Whether they knew it or not, they were all working together, but for what?

He still didn’t know.

The sun rose, a blood red tinge with bursts of orange rays that licked the sky like flames. Dong Gun balled his hands into fists and pressed and pressed and pressed until his nails dug hard into the skin of his palms. So much work had to be done, and so many people had to be silenced.

They had fallen behind because of Tae Jin.

Impatient and tired of waiting, he finally called Tae Jin.  Then, he went to his room, stripped, and took a cold shower.

Son Tae Jin

The shower wasn’t enough to make Tae Jin clean, but the water still flowed over his black hair and onto his pale skin. His limbs moved angrily in an attempt to wash away last night’s mistake.

Ri Na had been calling him ever since the night they had met at Hama, and last night he had met her at a club in Gangnam. He had known she would be there.

Seung Soo had waved goodbye drunkenly as they caught a taxi together. They had spilled out of the car and barely made it up to her apartment on the fourth floor before the use and abuse began. He had left early before the sun rose and taken a long walk home. But, he didn’t feel better, even though he had almost thought he would.

He had been sleeping when Dong Gun had called. He had woken up to his awful voice, and then Ri Na had called soon after.

“Where are you?”

“At home.”

“Why?”

“You really don’t know?”

“Oppa, then… Today, later…”

He had hung up before she could finish her sentence, because he had already known what she was going to say and what he was going to say, too. As he had lain in bed with the cracked, white ceiling filling his eyes, he had sighed, because that was all he could do. He knew that he had taken his frustration out on her, because he had no one else to blame for the way he felt, no one except himself. He should never have trusted Ri Na. He should never have worked for Dong Gun. He should never have been born.

Soap stung his eyes as flashbacks of last night and that morning played over and over again in his mind. In that moment, he wanted to go back and start over, but it was already too late.

When he finally stepped out from behind glass doors, the bathroom smelled fresh like expensive cologne. He stared at his face in the mirror– was naked, because the towel had fallen to the floor. He left it there. He shaved, brushed his teeth, and carefully styled his hair. He rubbed his tired eyes. He hoped Ri Na wouldn’t call him again but knew Dong Gun would.

He went to his closet and got dressed even though he wanted to avoid the light that streamed into his spacious room by crawling back into bed and sleeping beneath warm sheets. But, he heard the cold wind that howled through the streets, through Seoul’s highways, and into the sky rises, the part of Seoul owned by the Twin Dragons. He knew he would be like the wind and end up howling through dangerous places…

He thought of his father– of his perpetual tired eyes and gnarled limbs. He was finally beginning to understand him and just what it meant to be a man full of mistakes, of pain.

He had heard about the raid on a competing club in the sky rises of Seoul that had happened about a week ago. There were no survivors. The fingers were pointed at the Twin Dragons, and Dong Gun was getting desperate. Twenty women and a few important men had been killed. He tried not to think about their faces. He just needed to clear the charges, but a simple bribe wouldn’t be enough this time. He would fix this mess, because he had no choice. There was no way out– not unless he died, he thought for the first time.

Tae Jin drove slowly, barely knowing where he was going. Dong Gun had only recently given him an address and a time. He pulled up next to a small building and parked. It was an abandoned school. He remembered when he had wandered through hallways and sat through lectures, when he had thought he could and would change the world– for the better. That had been years ago, and in the end, the world had changed him– for the worse.

The school was fenced in on all sides. The gate was locked, so he stripped off his suit jacket and climbed over the tall, beat up fence. The fall was farther than he thought, and he stumbled when he landed. He looked around as he brushed grass and dirt off of his pants. The building was a mess of peeling, dirty white paint and overgrown grass. The benches nearby were rusty, and the staircase to the second floor looked like it would break if too many people were on it at once.

It was then that he heard his voice.

“Tae Jin. Open the gate.”

He turned around and saw the man that he was beginning to hate. He wanted to refuse, but he couldn’t. Maybe it was because of the way Dong Gun smiled a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. He opened the gate, but he wanted to walk through to the other side and never look back. Only, Dong Gun wasn’t someone he could walk away from so easily.

“Let’s sit.”

Dong Gun walked over to a rusted bench and sat down after making his command. He was wearing a suit tailored to fit his body like a glove. He didn’t look like an old, hardened gangster, but too many men had been fooled by his elegant appearance. Tae Jin knew better, knew how ruthless and merciless the man beneath the suit really was.

He approached Dong Gun slowly as he walked towards him on feet heavy with uncertainty. Dong Gun was staring at him, measuring his every move. He desperately wanted to turn around and run away from the man before him. They had met more than a few times, but he had never gotten used to Dong Gun’s eyes. They were so empty, and it was as if he wasn’t looking at him as a human being but as something to be used and discarded when it was no longer needed.

“His name is Joon Junghyun. He works for a law firm in the sky rises. The families of the victims have gone to him as a group in order to file a class action against the Twin Dragons. You know what to do.”

Dong Gun never looked at Tae Jin while speaking. It was as if Tae Jin was a puppet on strings. He let an awkward silence fall between them as he tried to think of something clever to say, something cruel. He had dragged himself through the dirt for a man who would never help him get clean; but, Dong Gun continued, and Tae Jin remained silent.

“This Joon Jung Hyun, he was in prison once. It’ll be easy to get in touch with a few major journalists. He’ll be buried within a week.”

“His crime?”

“He killed his first wife. Maybe it was an accident… maybe it wasn’t.”

“Blackmail would be better. I’ll use an anonymous letter, no need to get any of our names or the media involved. That should be enough.”

Tae Jin knew it would be enough. It always was. People wanted their secrets to stay secrets. They wanted everyone to see their shine, but on the inside they were all filled with shame, dirt.

Dong Gun left first, but Tae Jin lingered. He made the necessary phone calls. An hour later, and it was over. The letter had been written and hand-delivered by a Twin Dragon, and Jung Hyun had immediately agreed to drop the charges. Once dropped, the families wouldn’t be able to find another lawyer and file a new class action…

Not for the same crime.

The law was a beautiful, terrible thing.

He finally left the decayed school grounds when night began to fall. He drove down crowded streets, and he wondered how long it would be before Dong Gun called him again– needed him again– used him again. He pulled over, suddenly, and pressed his face hard against the window, as if he could somehow seep through glass and steel, somehow escape. He took off again, and the drive was full of silence and fast turns. Pale, hopeless faces were etched into his mind. Dong Gun’s shadowed face was burned into his soul. He stared hard at the road and wondered if his heart would ever stop pounding in his chest from fear, regret, and something that felt like longing.

But, he had to report to Dong Gun before he went home.

The Twin Dragons owned and operated a huge warehouse located off the docks of the Han river. The murky river was deep and filled with countless fish, countless bodies.

He went there.

He wanted to burst in and tell Dong Gun to do his own dirty work as he screamed and fought his way to freedom. Instead, he walked quietly through a familiar narrow alleyway between crates full of illegal substances and deadly weapons. Import and export: Net worth, in the millions. He finally entered the basement of the dark, barely lit warehouse after walking down a flights of steps. He walked past scarred leather couches and people with scarred faces and into the place he called his own private Hell, because he had sold his soul to the devil: A devil named Ok Dong Gun.

He had been trapped since then– had been able to walk away a few times, but the dirty life was harder to escape from once it sank into flesh and bones, and it was in his flesh and bones now. The familiar rush of fear invaded his limbs as the door to the Dong Gun’s office swung open, and once more he was drowning in darkness and deceit.

Dong Gun barely spared him a greeting. Instead, he began making a phone call. Tae Jin wandered around the room, restless. Finally, he stood by the window and watched Dong Gun. Fear and anger boiled deep inside of him. Would Dong Gun see right through him?

Dong Gun finished his phone call and finally gave his attention to Tae Jin.

“Has it been taken care of?”

“Yes.”

“That’s all. I’ll be in touch.”

Tae Jin left quickly, his heart pounding in his chest. He drove home, but he wanted to drive all the way home– not to his apartment but to Busan. He wanted to walk with his feet in the sand as the tide rolled in towards the shore. He wanted to be a boy again.

Instead, he went back to his apartment, took a shower, and changed into some old blue jeans. He checked his email, but there was nothing to read. He checked the voice mail on his answering machine and saw that there was a message from someone named Kim Shin Eung. Her name was unfamiliar. Curious, he played her message:

“Hello, I’m with the police department in Busan. I’m calling to report the suicide of Son Tae Ho to his remaining relative, Son Tae Jin. Your father was discovered last night in his home. His funeral is being sponsored by the village and held tonight. If you would like further information please contact our department at…”

He played her message again and again… and again… and again.

Then, he picked up the machine and threw it against the wall, but it didn’t break, and he could still hear her voice in his head, hear her awful words that he refused to believe– no, couldn’t believe.

He sank to the floor, unable to hold his own weight. He covered his face with his hands and pressed them hard against his eyes, but his tears slipped through his fingers anyway. In that moment, the world he had carefully built splintered into a thousand pieces. He would never be able to put anything back together. There were so many things he had never said to his father.

Now, the words inside of him faded.

Now, the hope inside of him died.

Tae Jin went home.

There was no one to welcome him. The house was just as he remembered it: Too small, too dirty, but now, too empty. He left it the way it was. It would be sold and torn down. He didn’t need it. didn’t want it. Maybe, they would build a new house where his had been. Maybe, a real family would live in it.

He stayed in a motel and drank his sorrows away. He cried on stale smelling pillows and talked to the walls, because the pillows held his head and the walls listened and kept all of his secrets. He felt regret and grief and then finally, nothing. When he felt nothing, he went to his father’s grave. There was something engraved onto his tombstone.

“There is Justice in the Hands of God.”

Tae Jin laughed then, a hollow, aching, empty sound.

“Justice? What justice?! Father, father!”

Someone tapped him on the shoulder. It was an old woman with sad eyes. She handed him a letter and left without saying a word. He stared at her back as she walked away, wondering who she was, where she had come from, and how she had known that he would be there.

Finally, Tae Jin opened the letter.

Son,

I’d hoped to find the courage to tell you this with words from my own lips, but I can’t. I am filled with shame, and it devours all of my courage. I’ve been a terrible father to you, but I knew…

I knew that you would be better off without me.

I was a cop once, stubborn and naive. I asked too many questions about a case that involved the Twin Dragons. They were big then, and I guess they still are. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I was framed by the Chief of Police who had been secretly working with the Twin Dragons at that time. I took the fall for a crime I didn’t commit. The Chief of Police threw his own officer in jail and never looked back to see what became of him– of me.

Your mother was brave, and she was innocent. I remember, I used to love her for those things, but in the end they were what tore us apart.

She went to the boss of the Twin Dragons at that time and begged. She begged for my life, my job, and my good name…

She sold her body to him.

I think she would have taken what she had done to the grave, but even though I was released from prison, my job and my good name were never restored. I was still a dirty cop, a murderer. We were never the same again.

One day, she told me what she had done in a soft voice. She told me everything. I should have held her and cried with her. Instead, I cursed her. I cursed her, and I held onto my pride. She packed her bags the next morning and left, but I thought she would return.

We had loved each other so much, too much.

They found her body later that night, floating in the sea. I buried her quietly, and couldn’t bear to look you in the eyes from then on. It was easier to drink and forget, forget it all…

It is the only way I have managed to survive all these terrible years, all these sleepless nights.

When you called, I was forced to remember what had happened. I owe you something: The truth. I regret every letter and every word I have written, but I do not regret finally telling you the truth. I have not ever been as sober as I am now. It hurts…

It hurts too much.

Forgive me. Now, I have nothing more to say to the son I abandoned, except for this:

Sorry.

Your Father,

Son Tae Ho

Tae Jin crumpled the letter in his hands. He stared at everything, his eyes darting back and forth, but nothing was familiar to him. He couldn’t recognize the world that surrounded him.

Everything had changed.

If he could go back in time, he would bury his father’s letter and leave it unread. His knees gave out, and he fell to the ground. He knew, now. He knew everything. He knew why his mother had left, why his father had abandoned him. He knew they were both dead and that he would never be able to see either of them again.

He was alone.

Tears fell, cold against his flushed skin. He was burning inside, a small flame sparked by a truth that was growing and growing and growing into a fire nothing that and no one could quench until he was burned alive from the inside.

He left his father’s grave and went to his room at the motel, but too many terrible memories followed him, haunted his every moment. He burned the letter. Then, he washed his face and changed into a fresh suit. He left immediately and made it to Seoul without stopping. He needed to know who had been the Chief of Police and the boss of the Twin Dragons when his father had been an officer. After a few minutes of searching, he had answers, but they were answers he didn’t want to believe.

Chief of Police: Nam Young Po.

Boss of the Twin Dragons: Ok Dong Gun.

He went through the files again and again, but those two names were the only ones that appeared in connection to his father’s time in Busan as a cop, which had been short. They had all been the same age, twenty-five. So much time had passed, but some things hadn’t changed.

The files revealed his father’s crime, the frame. A few newspaper articles traced the movement of Chief of Police Nam Young Po. He had moved from Busan to Seoul at the age of twenty-seven. He had worked his way up to Chief of Police a second time, a position he had been granted while Tae Jin had been in college. Dong Gun disappeared from the files in Busan a few years after Young Po left only to reappear in Seoul when Young Po had become Chief of Police.

Almost three decades had passed, but Young Po and Dong Gun were still partners in crime. Old partners, with too many dirty, stinking secrets between them. None of them were clean– including him, but which one of them would survive being dirty?

He searched and searched, and then when he had found what he was looking for he called Lee Jang Mi, a journalist with a reputation for reporting the truth. He gave her an anonymous tip, and hoped that she took the bait. It would be better for her if she didn’t. And, it would be almost impossible, but Tae Jin would pretend to be Dong Gun’s right hand man.

Everything would be the same, only this time everything would be different.

Ok Dong Gun

The television blared noise and lit up the dark room with artificial light that threw Dong Gun’s shadow against the wall. He felt calm and content now that Tae Jin was back to his old self, and he listened to the local anchorwoman report the news and read the passing headlines below the same way he always did: Carelessly.

Then, there was an awkward break that caught his attention. A new face he had never seen before appeared on the screen. She wasn’t pretty enough to be on TV, he thought, but what she began to say made him stare at her intensely, anyway.

“Today, we’d like to report to the citizens of Korea that an area of Seoul known to some as the “Sky Rises” has been rumored to be importing and exporting illegal goods with various countries. Every aspect of this smuggling has been condemned by the new mayor, who seeks the eradication of corruption in his city. But, who controls this area known as the “Sky Rises,” and how long have they been there?”

The glass of wine he had been holding in his hands slipped from his hand. It shattered, leaving a stain that spread slowly across the floor like the cold sweat that began to trickle down his back.

“What’s going on…?”

Dong Gun said it aloud, but there was no one to answer him.

He wanted to know who had let the reporter into the sky rises, and why she had been let out alive.

Dong Gun had never had a day job, because he didn’t believe in mundane things like nine to fives and families. He smoked cigarettes, drank bottles of wine, and slept with any and every woman that turned his head. He had expensive suits, three fast cars, and one hundred loyal, deadly Twin Dragons. He didn’t want respect.

He needed obedience.

He needed control.

It didn’t matter if the people in his city– and it was his city, believed that the smuggling was just another story on the news. They could avoid the shadows, because the shadows weren’t what they had to fear. It was that flash of silver that would slice through the flesh of a neck or stab the space between two ribs and spill blood. It was that whisper of a sigh as someone came or someone died. It was what lay in the shadows: The truth.

The Twin Dragons were lying in the shadows.

The Twin Dragons were the truth.

Maybe he was getting old, but he couldn’t blame it on his age when he felt sharper than ever as years of experience piled up on top of each other like the memories of all the dirty things he had ever done. But, he couldn’t lie.

Something was wrong.

It was the first time in decades that the corruption of the sky rises had been exposed. It wasn’t just a rumor. It wasn’t just a story. It was the truth– one that no one was supposed to know, because there were some truths that were better left where they came from: In the shadows.

He knew what he had to do, who he would have to kill. He had done it before, and he would do it again. He would do it until nothing and no one stood in his way.

He didn’t know when, but at some point the line between black and white had been blurred. Right and wrong had become unrecognizable, had become two indistinguishable shapes that twisted and moved like dragons and never stood still long enough for him to wrestle them down. But, he didn’t want to wrestle with them.

He didn’t want to see them clearly.

The first life he had taken had slipped from between his fingers, and in that moment he would have sworn that he saw a soul mingling in the shadows above his head. The red on his knife had glimmered too brightly, and then darkened as the blood had congealed. He had been sixteen– maybe younger or maybe older, and he had done it again, slowly learning which parts of the body were soft and would let his blade slide in easily for a quick kill and slowly learning which parts of the body were harder, meatier, and would cause pain before the kill. It was an art: Blood on concrete like a splash of paint on canvas.

Now, Dong Gun didn’t have to create art.

He could let others make a masterpiece or mess out of murder. It had been fun for awhile, but dying was dying and death was death. They all went the same. Some fought at first, and  some begged, but they all gave up when they saw their own blood spilling onto their pale hands, onto the dark concrete.

He had been caught once, a few years after his first kill, by a Chief of Police who had been the youngest in Busan: Nam Young Po. He had bribed him with words and with money. They had been partners since then.

They had been young– just 25, and they had spiraled upwards and downwards since then, but they had never been apart from one another since then…

Just like brothers, or maybe just like partners in crime.

Dong Gun walked outside and watched the kids walk to school. He remembered what his childhood had been like, and he looked for the kid who walked alone. After Dong Gun found him, he followed him, walking behind him and staring at the worn clothing and old backpack on his back, at the way his hands hung loose and empty at his sides. As Dong Gun followed the boy’s footsteps, he wondered if the boy would ever follow in his.

It was midnight when he finally came home.

He was tired, but he knew there was no time for him to rest. Not now, not at a time like this.  He was desperate, because everything was falling apart. He saw his real skin, skin that was dirty– skin that craved skin– skin that would never get clean. He was too old to get clean– to change his ways, but the world would not change him again.

Even gangsters made promises to themselves, ones that they would rather die than break.

He slowly unbuttoned his shirt inch by inch. He rose, pulled it from his pants, and threw it on the ground. He pulled off his socks, and was barely removing his belt from the loops of his pants when she knocked. He walked to the door and let her in. She stripped him off the rest of his clothes, already knowing what to do, already knowing what he wanted.

When it was over, he paid, and she left, but he knew…

He knew that she would come back.

They always came back, and they would keep coming back until they were buried six feet under. As he lay on the couch with sleep finally pressing against his eyelids, he wondered if they would find rest in the grave or more of the same unending hunger that had put them there in the first place.

He knew that he didn’t have a purpose. His life was about survival, and he would survive until he couldn’t anymore. He lived the way he did because he could, and because he had always lived with bloody knuckles, bad intentions, and bold lies that weren’t little and weren’t white.

Every man and every woman he had ever met had fallen into his web of deception and grown used to the dirty world he lived in. It was easier to give in, because the harder they struggled to break free from his world, the harder it kept them trapped.

He had survived the passing of days and months and years, but he felt time begin to slow down, and the more he struggled to survive his own web of deceit, the more fear sped through his veins as he saw some nameless beast pacing in the horizon– devouring others– waiting for him to finally arrive…

He finally fell asleep and dreamed of a white dragon that swallowed him whole.

It was morning, and the sun rose like a red spot of blood in the sky. The rays were stains that spread slowly until it seemed as if the entire world had been bathed in blood.

Dong Gun woke up, showered, and slipped on a pair of designer jeans. He made breakfast, but lay on the couch where he had fallen asleep with an empty glass of wine in his hand and the half-eaten meal on the table.

It had been a long night, and a pounding headache pulsed hard against his temples. He rubbed them again and again, but the pain refused to fade. He remembered names, and along with those names came so many memories that appeared suddenly like snakes slipping from behind skull’s eyes.

“Don’t kill me, we can work together… I…”

Oh Shin Hae.

He was Dong Gun’s first cover-up.

Back then, Dong Gun and Chief of Police Nam Young Po had barely begun to coordinate their control of Busan. They had wanted to build a monopoly on importing and exporting illegal goods. It had been easier, then, to just get rid of the competition, of Oh Shinhae.

That was until Son Tae Ho had come along. Tae Ho had been a green cop, but one with an eye for the truth. He had looked into all the right spots and discovered some very wrong things.

“No, please… PLEASE!”

Son Tae Ho.

Tae Ho had been shocked when he had walked into the Busan warehouse, had walked into the wrong place at the wrong time.

Oh Shin Hae was dead.

Their problem with the competition had been solved, but because of Tae Ho they had suddenly had a new problem. Tae Ho had seen Dong Gun with the knife in his hands. He had begged and screamed at his Chief of Police for something, maybe justice, not yet understanding that his Chief of Police was just as corrupt as the boss of the Twin Dragons standing next to him.

The dirty murder weapon had been placed in Tae Ho’s clean hands. Young Po had arrested Tae Ho and taken him into custody. Dong Gun had walked away.

Since then, Busan had been theirs, and it had all been so easy.

“Help him… you have to help him…”

Son Tae Ho’s wife.

She had been even easier.

Beautiful, courageous, and young, she had stormed into Young Po’s office and hadn’t understood how her husband had been put behind prison bars, not until Dong Gun had walked in, had listened to her story and laughed in her face.

Young Po and Dong Gun had both known that Tae Ho would have to take the fall. There was nothing that his wife could give them that would give her husband his job or his good name back. Tae Ho had just been too much trouble, and they couldn’t afford to have him around.

She had been shocked, but believed it when they had taken her offer and promised to help him. He thought it had been so pathetic, that all she had was her body– her heart– her love. They had taken what she had in that small office with the blinds closed and the doors locked.

It had just been a game they played.

“She’s dead: Suicide. Tae Ho’s crazy with grief, banging on the doors of my office. The boy doesn’t know a thing, and his father won’t tell him. God damn, my son will be five soon…

Tae Ho said he’ll never talk. He knows we’ll get his son if he does.

It’s over.”

Chief of Police Nam Young Po.

Young Po had told him how it had ended, and suddenly, he had become dirty. He had stolen, he had murdered, and he had shaken hands with one cop and framed another.

Young Po relocated to Seoul after a few years in search of bigger fish. Dong Gun had stayed in Busan, waiting for the call. Finally, they had moved from Busan to Seoul– together, and smuggled illegal goods in and out of Japan, China, and finally Europe.

“Who can I trust?”

Dong Gun asked himself aloud even though he knew there was no one that he trusted more than himself. So, he would have to carry out his own justice– a justice that was tainted by his dirty hands– a justice that was necessary.

Silence, too, was necessary, but he wasn’t afraid. No one could speak from the grave, and all of his enemies had been buried a long, long time ago.

Nam Young Po

After listening to Dong Gun, Nam Young Po had a plan. He had a plan that was foolproof, because no one would suspect him, the Chief of Police, as the culprit. It was what had kept him safe from prison bars all these years.

People only saw the dirty they could see, and it never occurred to them that the cleanest people were hiding something other than clean underneath their surfaces. It was simple: Deceit. It always was, and it always would be.

His daughter was smiling at him, so he smiled back.

He loved family dinners. He had a wife and daughter, but it was his eldest, a son, that he was most proud of. His son was going to Seoul University for graduate school, and it would be their last dinner together for awhile.

As he memorized his son’s face, he hoped that his son would step into the world and stay clean. He hadn’t wanted to stain his own reputation by working with Dong Gun and the Twin Dragons, but it had been necessary.

Back then, he had needed the money to pay for his wife’s risky pregnancy and expensive hospital bills. It had been worth it, if this kind of boy– this kind of man, had been brought into the world as his son. The money, too, had been worth it, and he had kept making it over the years, unable to go back to the life he had once lived. He had been able to provide his family with money and power and things no ordinary officer, even a Chief of Police, could have given them.

It had been a practical trade.

He had done a lot with his life since that trade, and on the surface he shined, but beneath his skin were layers and layers of corruption– of deceit– of dirty.

It was that dirty he thought about as his wife puttered around in the kitchen, as his son told him about his future plans, and as his daughter smiled at him and played with her food.

It was that dirty that consumed his life and ate away at everything it touched.

He  wondered if he could keep all of his secrets from his family, because lately, the truth had been slipping from its place in the shadows, out of sight. The reporter had to be silenced, because she was the source.

Later, he made a phone call from behind closed doors; and finally, he had a name: Lee Jang Mi. It would take a while, and he would have to pull some strings, but if he wanted to, then he could get an address…

He wanted her address.

Lee Jang Mi was one of the few reporters who couldn’t be bribed with money or chased away with threats. He had discovered that much by searching the Internet for the stories that she reported: Truthful ones. He admired and respected her for telling the truth.

It was a shame that it was going to get her killed.

“Get me the address of a ‘Lee Jang Mi.’ Fax it to me by tomorrow.”

No one ever asked Young Po questions anymore. He came in with so many cases, asked for so many things. They would never have guessed that most of what he asked for wasn’t about a case that could be found anywhere on file.

He was thankful that when his police officers looked at him they saw a good Chief, thankful that when his family looked at him they saw a good husband and father, and thankful that when he looked at himself in the mirror he saw a good man.

He loved his family, and he just wanted what was best for them. So, when his secretary gave him Lee Jang Mi’s address, he smiled and said thank-you, meant that thank-you from the bottom of his heart.

He would protect his family and their faith in him at all costs.

Son Tae Jin

They were falling into his trap.

He paced his flat and waited for 6:00 A.M. It was dangerous, but he had to meet with the reporter who had unknowingly risked her life for his revenge.

Lee Jang Mi– the reporter, wanted facts, dates, and names. He couldn’t trust communication by email or by phone, so he had agreed to meet her in person by the playground near his apartment early in the morning to avoid being seen.

When he finally left his apartment, he was wearing a hospital mask, hat, and hooded jacket. He walked the familiar path, saw her waiting by the swings, and knew that the documents in his hands would soon be headlines on the news.

She was a stranger– a woman he had never heard of until he searched the Internet for a reporter with a reputation for telling the truth. She worked freelance, and she sold her stories to various news companies. She even appeared on the news from time to time, telling her story with passion and intensity. He wondered how people like her survived, because there were too many people like him who didn’t care about the truth and didn’t know the meaning of justice.

She was small and plain. She didn’t ask him any questions, but simply stared at him for awhile, took the papers and held them in her hands.

He turned to go, but stopped when he suddenly became aware of her eyes on his back. When he turned, he saw it. She was watching him with those dark, plain eyes and an even darker expression: Not hate, disgust.

Without thinking, he lifted his hands to his head and took the hood of his jacket down. Then, he took of his hat and slipped the hospital mask off his face.

He was finally exposed.

The truth had been eating away at his soul, slowly destroying everything he had thought he had known about himself and his life. He was tired of it, too, of slipping between shadows and silently letting someone else do his own dirty work. He was tired of being a coward, and he wondered what he would say to her, but it was too late to go back.

No one was around this early in the morning, so they sat together on the swings where they had met just a few moments ago. He watched her as she sat next to him, recognition written all over her face. She looked alive suddenly, pretty.

She was eager, he guessed, to know everything.

Lee Jang Mi

He looked better in person, Lee Jang Mi thought, than on the cover of all those expensive magazines and boring journals. She couldn’t believe it was him: Son Tae Jin, one of the most famous lawyers in South Korea. He was a household name and almost a celebrity, but she wasn’t going to let that distract her from her job: Finding and reporting the truth. It was her mission in life, her red cape that transformed her into Superwoman.

Jang Mi came from a middle class family who had worked hard and had supported her even though she hadn’t become the doctor they had dreamed of since she was born. In fact, she was going home today, and she was looking forward to finally getting to relax and spend time with her Mom and Dad. She wondered if her cousins would come by, too, and she smiled as she thought of her little five year old cousin who always stuck to her side like white on rice.

For now, though, she had to do her job. She sat on the swing next to him and wondered how to begin: “Guilty by association,” she said.

“What?”

He looked puzzled, as if he hadn’t expected her to speak until she had been spoken to.

“You. You’re guilty by association. If you’re the same person who gave me the tip, which you are, then that means you have connections with the Twin Dragons, strong ones. No one else would even have that much information about them– and still be alive, at least. So, what made you decide to betray the ‘people’ that you work for?”

She thought of all of the cases that had been closed without being solved and all of the settlements that had been handled outside of court. She thought of all of the times that the citizens of Seoul and even South Korea had praised him and his hard work even though not enough of his cases had been solved and too many of his cases had been settled outside of court.

She thought of all of the lies that he must have told, of the lie he must have lived. She looked away from him and suddenly wondered if there were other corrupt, dirty lawyers in Seoul and South Korea.

The initial glow she had felt faded, and when she looked at the man before her carefully, she saw someone who was guilty, who was dirty and ashamed.

He remained silent, looking away from her first. He wrinkled his brows and sighed, ignoring the questions in her words and in her eyes. Suddenly, he seemed so much smaller than her, and she asked him in a hard voice, “How could someone like you– a lawyer, a role model, and a hero, do something like this?”

What she said must have shaken him, because he rose to leave and then stopped. He spoke with his back turned to her and his hands balled into fists at his sides.

“Someone like me? Someone like me? What exactly do you know about me? What does anyone know about me?

Do you know that my father was framed and arrested for a crime that he didn’t commit? Do you know that my mother thought she could sell her body to the men who had framed him and buy my father’s life back?

He came home because of her, but they never told the truth so everyone still thought of him as a criminal instead of a cop. He came home, but nothing was ever the same again. It wasn’t long before my mother broke down and told him what she had done and asked him why he had been arrested, asked him why they had lied to her. I guess he didn’t have an answer that was good enough, because she left both of us even though I clung to her, even though I had to be torn away from her.

She never came back.

And, do you know that I didn’t know any of this until a few weeks ago? I thought my mother left me, but would come back. She killed herself the day she left us, and my father buried her without a word after they found her body floating in the sea. I thought my father hated being sober, but hated me even more. He drank so he could survive the passing days that were filled with guilt and shame, and it was a guilt and shame that I made him remember after all this time. It was guilt and shame– no, it was me, that killed him.

Someone like me? I don’t even know what that means, because I don’t even know who I am.”

He stopped and turned to her. She couldn’t look away from his eyes, even though they didn’t see her. They were empty, and he opened his mouth to speak but nothing came out– almost as if he couldn’t go on, but Jang Mi knew that there was something left. If there was something left, than what could it possibly be? It couldn’t be worse than what he had already said, could it? She wondered how his eyes stayed so dry, how his hands stayed so steady.

“The man who framed my father and the man who deceived my mother is Ok Dong Gun, the same man that I’ve been working with, covering up for, and cleaning up after for the last five years.”

She didn’t know what to say, but all of a sudden he sighed again. He looked at her, and this time he saw her, and this time she saw him.

“I’m sorry,” she said softly.

“You? Why? What have you ever done to be sorry for?”

He laughed when she didn’t answer, but not like it was funny. She watched as he sat down next to her on the swings and began to use his long legs to push himself back and forth, but they both knew he would never be a kid again, never be clean again.

In that moment she decided to save him.

“Come with me,” she said.

“What?”

“Home. Come home with me. I live in the middle of nowhere. It’s a long drive, but I need to clear my head, and so do you. You want revenge, and I know that’s what these papers you’ve given me are for, but let me tell you: Revenge is a double edged sword. Both you and Dong Gun are going to get cut if this story hits the news. I can’t tell anything but the truth.”

“The truth?”

“Yes, the truth: That you had as much a part in all of the crime as he did.”

He looked at her with something like hate in his eyes, but more because he hated himself. He hated himself for the lies he had believed and the truth he had finally told. In the end, he sighed and got up.

“Where do you live?”

“Daegu. It’s far, but the drive is amazing. You’ll come?”

“Let’s go.”

He didn’t look at her as they walked to her car, but she saw the way he hunched his shoulders and stuffed his hands into his pockets.

She wanted to save him, but she was just a reporter, she thought.

The drive was long and filled with a silence that stretched even longer and lay between them. She didn’t understand him, but she would try.

Son Tae Jin

Tae Jin didn’t understand her, and he wasn’t going to try. The silence between them was comfortable enough, and they both avoided starting a conversation. For the first time in a long time he wasn’t thinking about the Twin Dragons or his family or his dirty work.

The scenery was beautiful, but they arrived too suddenly. He must have fallen asleep on the way, because he couldn’t remember the drive.

He wondered what Jang Mi’s home would be like: Real or imagined?

Her family’s house was small, but filled with smiling faces and welcoming hands. The cover story was that she had landed an interview with a famous lawyer, and they had decided to do the interview outside of Seoul.

It was close enough to the truth.

They ate outside. Dinner was simple, just rice and fish soup with a small amount of side dishes. Her father made him sit at the head of the table and could barely speak to him or look him in the eyes, but he smiled often as he handed him the biggest pieces of fish from the soup that he could find. Her family talked around him, about family things. He ate quietly, speaking only when spoken to, but slowly he was drawn from his thoughts and into his memories.

This is what had always been missing from his memories: His family.

Jang Mi’s family wasn’t rich or even well-off, but as he looked around at them he realized that they had each other. Was that really enough? It would be enough, he thought, enough to last a lifetime if he could always be surrounded by people who knew him, who would remember him when he forgot himself.

“We can sleep here and leave in the morning,” she said after the dishes had been cleaned and the table put away. Her family had gone to bed first, and he suddenly realized how late it was and how long they had spent staring at the night sky and eating slices of watermelon and drinking soju.

He just nodded.

They went inside and washed up. Finally, they fell asleep in the living room, on top of blankets and surrounded by the sounds and smells of her family.

She looked pretty in the morning light. Her face was puffy and swollen, and his face must have been puffy and swollen, too, because she laughed when she saw him. He laughed, too, a sound that surprised him.

They got ready and ate with the rest of her family and said goodbye in the afternoon. He fell asleep on the way again, and suddenly he was standing in front of his apartment, waving goodbye to her.

He tried to remember her puffy, swollen face and his rusty laugh.

On the drive back she had told him something that had made him decide to return to Busan. No one would know if he left Seoul for a few days. He could stay in a motel and think things through. He knew he had to think things through.

“You can leave and you can live. You can forgive or you can just forget. I’m willing to forget what you’ve told me. I can have the story ready in a few days at any time, but I hope that I never hear from you again.”

He hadn’t said anything, because he had thought the same thing over and over again…

He spent all night packing and left Seoul the next day. His apartment would be empty for awhile, but there was nothing in it that would spoil if he didn’t take care of it, that would miss him if he left. So, he finally went back to the streets of Busan that he had once called home.

He was tired, but the motel was clean when he finally fell asleep with his few belongings tossed onto the floor.

Nam Young Po

A few days had passed, but Young Po could still only stare at the address in his hands. As he did so, the sound of his family in the living room outside faded, and the black letters on white paper slowly blurred. He could hear Dong Gun’s cold, hard voice in his ears, telling him what he already knew he had to do.

He was tired of this moment: The fork in the road.

He spent the night with his eyes open as his wife breathed softly, sleeping on his chest. In the morning, he left his wife and his home behind and never looked back, although he knew he would return.

When he came to a fork in the road, he took the path he had always traveled, and it led him to Jang Mi’s house. Hours passed, but he never turned back, even though there were other forks in the road along the way.

Finally, he was parking his car and emptying his mind. He pasted a smile on his face, but it didn’t reach his eyes. He knocked on her door, thinking that it was getting late and that dinner would be cold by the time he got home.

What if she isn’t home, he thought, as he knocked and knocked again.

He heard footsteps from inside, and when she answered the door he recited the lines– the lies, that he had practiced all night. He told her that the Twin Dragons had been arranging hits on several people in retaliation to the recent exposure of the corruption in the sky rises, that she was a target.

He saw it in her eyes, though, a slight flicker of recognition. It made him pause, but he wanted to finish his lines. He wanted to end the terrible scene that was about to unfold before them quickly, quietly.

He told her that it would be best if she came with him, and she did, ignoring her mother’s voice that called out to her faintly from inside and asked if anything was wrong.

“No,” he said to himself, “Everything is fine. Everything is going to be alright.”

They left quickly, quietly. He wanted to tell her to stop and look back– to say goodbye, but it was too late.

It was always too late.

They drove in silence, which she broke after hours had passed: “Can I make a phone call?”

“Sure,” he said, because he couldn’t think of a reason to refuse, and they had almost arrived. Soon, he would be home again.

Soon…

“Hello?,” he heard her say, as he turned down onto an abandoned road with a dead end. A male voice answered, but he couldn’t make out what he was saying.

“Yes, it’s me, Jang Mi! Where are you?”

Again, the man answered, but his voice was soft and distant. He had to strain to hear what he was saying past the loud beating of his heart.

“Oh, you’re in Busan! I knew you would do the right thing. Well, I’m going with, with Chief… Chief of Police Nam Young Po.” Jang Mi suddenly turned to stare at him as she spoke, and her eyes shined with light, with tears.

Suddenly, he could hear the man as he screamed in Busan– too far away, he thought, to stop the scene from unfolding.

“Who?!,” the man yelled again and again. But, she waited until he had parked the car to speak, never taking her eyes off of him as she held his gaze and said, “Chief of Police. Nam. Young. Po.” Then, she hung up, turned her head away, and stared silently out of the window.

He grabbed the phone from her hands and threw it in the backseat.

She didn’t flinch. She didn’t scream. But, she should have. The scene would have been better if she had struggled and screamed, just like in the movies. Instead, because this wasn’t a movie, he unbuckled his seatbelt, reached across to the glove compartment across from her seat, pulled out his gun, and shot her in the head as she stared out of the window.

The blood and brains never splattered the way they did in movies, either, he thought, when the moment he had been waiting for finally passed. He had gotten used to cleaning blood and brains up, but suddenly he felt tired as he moved her body from the car and wrapped it in black plastic. When he was done, he dragged her to the back of the car and threw her lifeless, heavy body into the trunk.

He went back the way he had came, stopping only to throw her corpse into the Han River and watch as the waves carried it far, far away and then under. When it finally disappeared, he smiled, because he would be home in time for dinner.

Absentmindedly, he pulled her phone out of his pocket, wondering who she had called, because she had known who he was, and that meant someone else had, too.

Behind her face was a mask.

“Show me your face. Tell me your name,” he said to himself as he flipped open her phone and saw the name of the last person she had called:

“Unknown.”

Behind her face was a mask.

Behind the mask was a mask.

He stared out at the Han River, but he didn’t see the waves in front of him, pushing and pulling against each other as they tore each other apart. Something inside of him began to push and pull, and it tore him apart in moments or minutes as he stood there wishing he could change the scene that had unfolded or bring her back to life and ask her who the face and name behind the mask were: Regret.

He drove home, quickly, quietly.

He ate the cold food his wife had left for him on the table, and then fell asleep next to her.

When he woke up in the morning, her head was where it always had been: On his chest. He wondered why the weight of her trust and love had never been heavy enough to keep him from taking the wrong turn at every fork in the road.

Son Tae Jin

Tae Jin saw Jang Mi’s face as he watched the news. The headline: “Missing.” He knew the truth, though, that she wasn’t missing. She was dead, or worse…

Either way it was too late.

He had known it was too late when she had called him, when she had said Young Po’s name. No, it had been too late from the moment he had asked her to expose the tangled web of deceit he had been trapped in, and it had been too late from the moment she had agreed.

He didn’t want to think about her and her family or another death and another funeral on his hands.  There was no room for mistakes anymore. He he had to get back to Seoul as soon as possible, because Dong Gun would be looking for him, wanting to know what he could do to help keep the spiders and the tangled webs they weaved out of sight.

He smiled, suddenly, because he wasn’t going to go back to Seoul. He couldn’t.

He smiled, because it would all be over soon, and this time, he was going to do his own dirty work.

It was winter again.

Time had flown by so quickly, but it stilled again as he sat in front of his computer in his motel room in Busan. The place was a mess, and once again he hadn’t shaved or showered in days. He typed and deleted then typed again as he wrote two letters to the two people he hated the most, and the only sound that filled the room was the hard click of fingers on keys, his soft, steady breathing. In the end, his message was short, simple, and straightforward.

“Come to Busan, to the warehouse where it all began.”

It had begun in the Busan warehouse, so it was fitting that it would end there. The warehouse where his father had been betrayed had long been abandoned, but at the mention of it, he knew they would remember…

Tae Jin showered and dressed in a white tee shirt and jeans and threw on a coat and put on a hat before checking out of his room. He left the motel and walked for hours until he reached the abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of Busan. The sea roared nearby, demanding something– or someone.

He opened the door and went inside slowly as the cobwebs and dust, the broken wooden beams and cracked concrete saw the sun and felt light for the first time in decades. There, he would wait for them to come.

He knew they would.

It was past midnight when he finally fell asleep. Suddenly, the far off sound of footsteps penetrated his ears, and he woke in darkness– alert and afraid. Fear passed along with time, and he finally heard their voices, voices that were hushed and barely audible. In them was anger and fear.

He had always thought they were invincible, and they were, and they would have always been had fate not made their paths so crossed, so twisted. The paths they all had walked had been dirty, but he wanted to walk away and take a different one– if he walked away at all.

He rose from the floor and flicked a switch. The spotlight he had set up came on. Their voices stopped, and silence fell. He saw them in the dim glow just outside of the light’s reach. Before they came further into the light, he took it, stepping into its center and letting them see exactly who had been sticking, twisting, and pushing a knife deep into their backs. He pushed that knife in a little deeper, smirking as he spoke.

“Do you know who I am?,” Tae Jin asked as he stared into Dong Gun’s eyes.

“You… Why are you here?!, ” Dong Gun said, his voice rising and cracking.

“My name,” Tae Jin said, “Do you know my name?”

“Tae Jin,” Dong Gun whispered, “Son Tae Jin…”

Young Po blinked, confused, and scared– not yet knowing that the man on the other side who had been helping them was the same man who had betrayed them– no, gotten revenge against them for their crimes, their sins.

“That’s right. My name is Son Tae Jin. My father, do you know my father’s name?”

“No, I don’t know, why would I… no… no…”

“No? No, you do know. You know everything. Me, my father… my mother…”

“How did this happen? How did you find out? Tae Jin… it wasn’t our fault! We had to kill him… You know how this business works. You know! … Since when did you really know?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Tae Jin said, “Because you’re already dead.”

Young Po suddenly understood who he was staring at, and he turned to run away as the look of recognition faded from his eyes and fear and regret took hold. Tae Jin ran and grabbed Young Po by the shoulder. Tae Jin threw the first punch, and he hit Young Po with the brass knuckles on his fists. Blood spurted from his mouth, and Dong Gun stepped back, hid in the shadows, and watched from the darkness.

Tae Jin grabbed Young Po again and threw him to the ground. He caught a wild punch from Young Po on the way down, but that only made him slam his fists into Young Po’s face harder.

All Tae Jin could see was his face– the face of the man he hated, older somehow, than all those photographs he had seen in old newspapers and magazines. Tae Jin rose and stood over him, and then he collapsed onto his body again, attacking. When he got tired of using his fists, he sat on top of him and threw his elbows into his face

Finally, Young Po was motionless, dead.

The concrete beneath what was left of his face was stained red and black. Tae Jin’s hands were torn, and he was tired. He felt it in his bones: weakness and a certain loss of strength, but it wasn’t over yet.

He knew Dong Gun was lurking somewhere in the shadows. He fell into the shadows and traced his way along the walls, followed the sound of heavy breathing. When he found Dong Gun, Tae Jin grabbed him quickly from behind. He cut off his pleas, heard nothing but silence, saw nothing but darkness as he strangled him, pressing tighter and tighter and tighter…

The door to the warehouse opened, and Tae Jin finally stumbled out. A small trail of smoke rose to the sky as the licks of flames slowly devoured the warehouse  and all that lay inside.

He never looked back as he walked away, and as the sun rose, he cast a long shadow onto the road.

He walked on, stumbling, dazed.

“Finally,” he said to himself as tears streamed down his face, “I’m clean.”

But, it was a lie, and he knew it was a lie as he stood in front of the door to his home. He couldn’t bring himself to go inside. As he stood there, suddenly collapsing to the ground as his knees gave out beneath him, he thought of his mother and father. He wondered if they would ever forgive him for what he had done.

He knew he would never forgive himself, because he would never really be clean again.

He would always be dirty.