Myung Soo sees the girl when he is out shopping with his mother. At first he's not sure it is a girl – the figure is slim and wearing a uniform of a black hoodie and jeans. Fairly clean sneakers. Baseball cap nestled under the hood.
All the girls Myung Soo know wear skirts or dresses – fancy confections of silk and lace, with pleats and ribbons. They always look like pretty dolls, the kind that his mother used to collect and stowed away in the cabinet in their living room.
He doesn't think he's ever seen Bo Na or Rachel wear pants. His mother wears pants sometimes, but those are on the days she goes to court and wants to prove a point.
The maybe not girl turns around, and Myung Soo finally sees her face. Big eyes – a bumpy nose, a dimpled chin. It's a face that doesn't go with the starkness of her clothes. She looks like she's hiding.
The girl's eyes meet his and he holds up a hand and waves.
The girl looks at him hesitantly, then waves back.
His mother comes out of the shop and takes him away before he can ask the girl her name.
Myung Soo mulls it over on the way back home. She was by herself, and she carried a plastic bag full of cans. What was she doing with them?
"Eomma," he says, and tugs at his mother's sleeve. She was on the phone – probably with his father, and held up a finger.
Myung Soo knew the signs – he had been a very quiet baby, so quiet that his worried parents had taken him to a speech therapist. The therapist had checked him thoroughly and reassured his parents that he would begin to talk when he was ready to. In response, his mother had learned and taught him baby sign language. She had added a few more signs of her own along the way, and by the time Myung Soo was talking – and talking, he knew exactly what his mother was feeling without having to hear a word.
One finger meant be quiet. Two fingers meant I'll talk to you later, three fingers meant And your father is going to hear this.
He leans back into his car's plush leather seating, and counts to ten. By the time ten comes, his mother shuts off her phone and looks over at him.
"What is it?"
"Eomma, what do you do with cans?"
"What do you mean?" His mother's brow furrows. "What cans?"
Myung Soo tries to visualize the cans – he always had an eye for details. "You know, soda cans – the long thin ones." Green and white meant cider cans, orange and purple for orange and grape.
"You haven't been drinking soda have you, Myung Soo? I told you those are bad for your teeth."
"No, Eomma." Myung Soo wasn't allowed soda or any kind of artificially sweet food at home, which meant he bought it at school and ate it there.
"Well, they contain things. And then you recycle them when you're finished with them. Why do you want to know?"
"I saw a girl with a bag full of them, and they were empty. What does a person do with empty cans?"
"Ah, she was probably collecting them for money." His mother's brow smoothed out. "What did this girl look like?"
"Like – a girl," Myung Soo says lamely. "I mean, different from Bo Na and Rachel. But a girl."
"Well, if you see her again, give her my card. It's important that we help those that are less fortunate than we are."
"She didn't look unfortunate. Just – " Myung Soo wracks his brain for the word he wants, and the girl's face pops into view again. It wasn't a sad or happy expression – just that she looked at him slowly as if she didn't understand him. It was an expression he was familiar with.
"She looked like she might be nice," he says finally.
His mother's attention was drawn to her phone again. "Oh, don't forget, Bo Na's birthday party is next weekend. Her mother just texted me."
"Okay," Myung Soo says. He likes parties.
He forgets the girl in black until he sees her again, this time pushing a cart full of cans. He tells his driver to stop.
Myung Soo rolls down the window and calls out. "Hey, you with the cart."
The girl is wearing a grey hoodie this time, and the same white sneakers – only a little more scuffed. She turns and looks at him.
Myung Soo puts on his best smile, the one that ingratiates him with teachers and elderly aunts with cold hands. "Can you come over here?"
Myung Soo is baffled. No one ever rejected The Smile before. Well, no one except Bo Na at that awful birthday party two weeks ago. Even Kim Tan had smiled at him and Kim Tan was famous for not smiling.
He realizes the girl is walking away just as his driver coughs and says, "Young master, do you want me to follow her?"
Myung Soo shakes his head. "It's fine, can you just drive to the end of the street and wait for me there? I'll be right back."
Then he gets out of the car and he runs after her. "Hey, wait for me!"
The girl walks faster, but Myung Soo is determined, and he catches up to her when the cart wheels dip into a crack on the sidewalk. She skids to a stop.
The girl is taller in person – a whole head taller, in fact. She wraps her hands around the handle bar and looks over – then down at him. "What do you want, kid?"
"How old are you?"
"Twelve," she says.
"Ha, same age as me! When's your birthday?"
He pumps a fist in the air triumphantly. "Ha, my birthday is October 8! I'm older than you."
He lowers his arm and looks at her smugly. "You should call me Oppa."
She snorts, then rolls her eyes – rolls her eyes at him, and turns back to her cart. "I don't think so."
"Then what's your name? I'm Jo Myung Soo. Son of Seungri Law Offices."
He waits for the inevitable dawn of realization in her eyes – but her eyes remain brown and unmoved.
"You haven't heard of Seungri Law Offices?"
He sings a few bars of the jingle – his parents had hired a songwriter from Mega Entertainment to promote their business, but the girl shrugs. "No idea."
"Are you serious?"
"Should I know it?"
"Well – no, but, hey, stop. Where are you going?"
"I'm busy, can you leave me alone?"
"I'm just interested in what you're doing with those cans," he says. "Why do you need so many? Did you drink them all?"
The girl looks at him incredulously. "Are you stupid?"
"No, I got tested, and I have some kind of learning disability, but my mom doesn't know I know, so my teachers know not to expect that much from me."
The girl's mouth opens then shuts. She looks at him and shakes her head. "That is the saddest thing I've heard today. Do you always talk like this to strangers?"
"Well you know who I am. What's your name?"
The girl's lips twitch, and she finally smiles. "I'm Cha Eun Sang."
They walk to a mart and Myung Soo waits outside while Eun Sang bargains with the owner. She comes out with a bag full of cans – and some empty soju bottles. Myung Soo's eyes widen with appreciation.
"You're really good at this, Cha Eun Sang!"
Eun Sang shrugs modestly. "It's just practice."
They end up on a park bench near the end of the street. Myung Soo waves at his driver and motions for him to wait.
Cha Eun Sang is twelve, and has a family of three other people – her father, her mother, and her older sister Eun Suk, who is eighteen.
Myung Soo listens attentively as Eun Sang explains how she collects cans and turns them in for pocket money.
"I drink a lot of soda at school, I can give you mine," he offers generously. "I can bring you the whole collection, if you want."
"That's nice but I don't need your help," Eun Sang says. "It's not like we'll see each other again." She stretches and hops off the bench.
Now it's his turn to look at her incredulously. "Why not? We're friends, aren't we?"
"How can we be friends if I've just met you? Jo Myung Soo, you're strange."
"Because we can," he says. "I remember when I saw you, I thought you were nice."
"You don't know me well enough to say that –" Eun Sang starts.
"I also thought you were a boy," Myung Soo admits. "So which one am I going to be wrong on?"
"Yah, in what world do I look like a boy?" Eun Sang punches him lightly on the arm. "Are you blind as well as strange?"
Myung Soo rubs his arm and makes a face at her. "Yah, careful. I am very delicate and I could sue you."
Eun Sang's face goes stiff and she steps away from him. "Sorry."
Myung Soo is immediately contrite. "I'm joking, I'm much stronger than I look. I wouldn't sue you. Come back, Eun Sang."
"That is not a funny joke." Eun Sang chews on her lip nervously. "Listen, Jo Myung Soo –"
"Myung Soo," he corrects her. "We're friends."
Eun Sang relents. "Myung Soo, you might have guessed already, but I'm not from a rich family like you are, and I don't think we have anything that's the same."
"You're wrong." She looks at him curiously.
Myung Soo clears his throat and pushes up an imaginary pair of glasses.
"My family's not rich, we're," and he thinks about what his father said on the phone to a co-worker, "comfortably well off. My friends are richer than my family, but both my father and mother went to Seoul University, and my father studied in America."
"Eonni is studying for her college exams – if she gets in, she'll be the first one in our family to go," Eun Sang says softly.
"I'm not finished," Myung Soo says hurriedly. "I'm not good at reading but I really like music and taking pictures and I drink soda and eat candy all the time at school because I'm not allowed to at home."
"Why do you want to be my friend anyway?" Eun Sang changes the subject.
"Because I don't really have one," Myung Soo says. He smiles brightly at her. "You'd be my first real one."
"Didn't you say you have friends?"
"They're just kids I know because my parents know their parents." Myung Soo kicks at the ground. "We're not close."
The birthday party had been a disaster from the moment he walked in. He had been one of the last guests to arrive, after spending an hour looking for a birthday present. Bo Na hadn't even said hello when he came. The usual suspects were already there – Rachel, wearing a pale pink dress and a perfectly formed scowl was sitting by the grand piano, while Tan and Young Do were playing a video game in the portable arcade area. Tan was dressed in an eye-watering purple sweater while Young Do wore a soft heather grey long sleeved shirt.
Young Do had at least acknowledged him with a nod and a smirk, while Tan focused on his game.
There was a dance floor, a DJ, snack bar and individual karaoke booths set up for entertainment, while two members of Super Junior circulated around the room and took pictures with excited party goers.
Bo Na came up to him as he was helping himself to a glass of fruit punch. "Yah, this party sucks."
He nearly choked. "What?"
Bo Na gestured at her surroundings. "No one is dancing, and Siwon and Lee Teuk oppa have to go back to the studio."
"Sorry sorry, do you want to dance then?"
Bo Na looked at him like he had grown another head. "Say that again?"
"Do you want to dance?" Myung Soo repeated hopefully. Bo Na shook her head. "No, the first part. Sorry sorry?"
"Sorry sorry what?"
Bo Na smiled gleefully. "That's it, that's what's missing. A hook! Thank you, Myung Soo!" She ran off in a flutter of neon pink and black tulle.
"You're welcome?" Myung Soo called out. Girls were so strange.
He made his way back to Tan and Young Do. Tan had wandered off to sit next to Rachel, and the two of them were deep in conversation – Rachel even had a smile on her face.
Young Do was playing the video game by himself, and Myung Soo sauntered over to the taller boy.
"How's it going?"
Young Do held up the spare video controller. "That jerk left me to defend the base by myself. Want to step in?"
"You mean it?" Myung Soo said eagerly.
Young Do gave him a funny look. "I wouldn't ask if I didn't mean it."
"We played for only ten minutes," Myung Soo recounts, his face brightening at the memory- "but then Tan came and got him and they left to go ride motorbikes at Tan's house."
"I don't have motorbikes at my house," Eun Sang says slowly. "But Chan Young has video games, and we can go to the park, and I know where we can get free ice cream."
"I like all those things," Myung Soo says enthusiastically. "Who's Chan Young?"
Eun Sang's eyes crinkle at the corners when she smiles. "He's my best friend."
Myung Soo tilts his head. "For now."
Eun Sang bursts out laughing. "Yah, Jo Myung Soo!"
Thirteen means he finally gets his own cell phone, after repeatedly bargaining with his parents for one. When he gets a passing grade on his mid-terms, thanks to a strategically placed seat behind Young Do and next to Bo Na, his mother takes him to the cell phone store to celebrate.
He shows it off in class the next day and hands it around so he can get phone numbers. Young Do scrolls down the contacts list and his eyebrows raise. "Who's Cha Eun Sang?"
"She's my friend."
"You're friends with a girl?" Young Do snorts. "That's interesting."
"She is," Myung Soo feels strangely defensive for Eun Sang. "She likes math and sleeping and she makes really good ddeokbokki."
Young Do smirks. "Impressive. Are you sure she's real?"
"She's realer than you," Myung Soo retorts, and turns around.
He sees Eun Sang on the weekends, after his Chinese lessons are over. Eun Sang taught him how to use the bus, so he takes it and meets her at her family's food stall.
Today Eun Suk noona is there too, and she ruffles his hair affectionately before leaving for her English lesson. Eun Sang stirs the bright orange ddeokbokki sauce while Myung Soo talks about his week. "So Yoo Rachel and Lee Bo Na got into this fight over a bag, and Bo Na said she was going to tell her father to cancel using the bag, and then Rachel said Mega Entertainment was too cheap for her style anyway, and then they had to call in the teachers because they started pulling each other's hair and calling each other names."
Eun Sang listens, wide-eyed as he details his classmates' every move. Eun Sang's mother hands him an odeng stick and he takes it gratefully.
"Is it like that every day?" Eun Sang asks. "How do you get anything done?"
Myung Soo blows steam off the odeng and eats it quickly. It is delicious, like everything Eun Sang's mother cooks. When he finishes, she hands him another.
"I usually don't," Myung Soo admits, then jumps when Eun Sang's mother smacks him affectionately. She signs, "What kind of example are you setting for Eun Sang?"
"Yes, what kind of example are you setting, Oppa?" Eun Sang asks sweetly. Myung Soo sticks his tongue out. "Yah, what about you – what's your school like?"
"Not as exciting as yours, that's for certain. We had a school picnic and then there were tests. I had so much homework to make up." Eun Sang groans. "Why can't the weekend be longer?"
"So the school children of Korea don't become too spoiled and go to school on Monday, Cha Eun Sang."
Yoon Chan Young strolls up and bows his head in greeting. "Hello, Mother. Hey, Myung Soo."
Myung Soo leaps up from his stool like an elementary school kid. "Chan Young," he crows. "I've been waiting for you!"
He grabs the other boy's arm and pulls him to the stall. "Now I'm not the only boy here."
Chan Young looks amused, but Chan Young always looks amused. His brown hair ruffles in the breeze and Myung Soo fights the urge to pet it. Chan Young – Yoon Chan Young is perfectly turned out in a way that reminds Myung Soo of people in magazines.
He's dressed in blue and grey and he fits beside Eun Sang with the ease of someone who's known her for years. Eun Sang passes him a can of cider without looking at him.
Chan Young takes it, then hands her a five hundred won coin. It flashes briefly in the sun then disappears into Eun Sang's coin purse.
She extends her palm toward Myung Soo. "That's 400 won please. Friend-discount."
Eun Sang's mother snorts, and Eun Sang makes a face at her. "Eomma! We're a business, we can't just hand out free food."
"Unless it's service," Chan Young says, and ladles himself a bowl of ddeokbokki. "We're your best customers anyway."
"I can tell my friends to come here too," Myung Soo says. "Young Do likes ddeokbokki a lot."
"Choi Young Do?" Chan Young says. "The son of Zeus Group?"
"Yes, that's him," Myung Soo says, and reaches for another stick of odeng. Eun Sang smacks his hand away and holds out her hand meaningfully.
Myung Soo rolls his eyes, and takes out his wallet. "Don't be so money hungry, Eun Sang. It's not pretty."
Eun Sang's lower lip juts out, then she sniffs. "I don't care about being pretty."
"Yah, our Eun Sang is pretty no matter what she does," Chan Young says loyally, and Eun Sang smiles at him.
Myung Soo sucks in his lower lip and looks peevishly at them. "You two are so tacky."
Chan Young just smiles.
When he leaves, Chan Young follows him to the bus stop. "Don't bring Choi Young Do around here," he says without preamble. "I mean it, Jo Myung Soo."
"Why? What's wrong with Young Do?" Myung Soo argues. "You don't even know him."
"I know enough," Chan Young says and crosses his arms.
He suddenly looks older than thirteen, and Myung Soo finds himself standing up for his friend. "How do you even know him?"
"My father works for Jeguk Group. I've had to go to a couple of parties. Maybe you weren't there," and Chan Young's gaze is uncomfortably direct – "but your friend isn't nice."
Myung Soo wracked his brain – parties, there had been Kim Tan's birthday party but he left early because he had a dentist appointment. Then there was that boring garden party RS International sponsored – he had spent most of the time playing mini golf with Bo Na –and he couldn't remember seeing Chan Young at any of them.
"He's nice to me," he says lamely.
"Because you're the son of Seungri Law Offices. Do you think Choi Young Do would notice you otherwise?" Chan Young's voice grew soft. "I'm sorry. I just don't like him. I don't want him around Eun Sang."
"He doesn't pick on girls."
"Yah, Yoon Chan Young, how can you say such things so calmly?" Myung Soo says angrily. "That's – that's character assassination and – you're biased before the court!"
"She's my family," Chan Young says evenly. "Would you want someone to hurt your family?"
"No, of course not. But you give Young Do too much bad credit. He's not what you say he is."
"I hope you're right," Chan Young says, then taps his shoulder. "Your bus is here."
Myung Soo thinks about Chan Young's words all the way home. Young Do is prickly, and sarcastic, and sometimes his words sting uncomfortably, especially when he's telling the truth – but he's not bad like Chan Young thinks he is.
He's sure of it.
Young Do is absent again. It's his fifth absence in a month, and even Kim Tan is worried. The kids whisper about how Young Do must have done something really awful to not go to school – a backfired prank, maybe – or the rumor is that he made one of the teachers cry and he was writing a two hundred page essay as punishment – when the boy of the moment walks in and spoils everyone's theories.
Young Do sprawls on a chair and pulls out a sheet of paper from inside his jacket. "Look carefully, kids," he intones. "This paper is proof that I am better than all of you."
Tan snatches it out of his hand and skims it quickly. His mouth drops in shock. "No way, Choi Young Do. Your IQ is 150?"
Young Do smiles smugly. "I took a bunch of tests. Results came back today. I'm," and he stretches his arms over his head, "a genius."
The other students crowd around him in appreciation and not without a little envy. Myung Soo sits in his seat and just watches them. He feels proud, like it was his name on the evaluation sheet – and that'll never happen in a million years, because if there's something he hates more than studying, it's taking tests.
He meets Young Do's eyes and gives him a big thumbs up. Young Do grins.
He's just totally – orange, all over.
Myung Soo sees people as colors. Not everyone, but just the important people he needs to know. It's part of his learning process, something he does to make things make sense.
Young Do is orange, because he reminds Myung Soo of ddeokbokki and candle flame.
It's pretty right up to the moment heat touches skin.
Rachel is silver, Bo Na a pale baby pink. Chan Young is dark blue. Tan is a reddish brown – like rust or burnt copper.
It takes him a while to figure out what Eun Sang's color is – he wavers between sky blue and green before he sees it clearly – Eun Sang is white. He learns about it in science class. Sunlight is white until it meets rain, and the rain splits the light into all the different colors of the rainbow.
Eun Sang has all the colors but she doesn't notice them.
It makes him sad.
The next time Myung Soo sees Young Do, he's with Kim Tan in detention. They were caught defacing the walls in the audio visual room, with Tan drawing the Jeguk group logo in permanent ink and Young Do scrawling "Choi Young Do was here" in big block letters. Tan argues that since his family donated the equipment for the audio visual room, it was acceptable for him to point that out. Young Do just shrugs, already bored.
"What's your crime, Myung Soo?" Young Do drawls, and flicks a wadded up ball of paper at him. "Did you break the dress code? Did you smile at Yoo Rachel?" His voice lowers. "Did you get caught cheating again?"
"It was one time," Myung Soo says heatedly, then relaxes when Young Do smiles at him. "Relax, Myung Soo. It doesn't really matter."
He looks at the clock and then at their dozing teacher. "I bet you we could leave now and nothing will happen."
Kim Tan jerks his head up at that, his eyes bright and focused. "Let's do it."
The two of them scramble out of their seats and Young Do cocks his head toward the doorway. "Are you coming, Myung Soo?"
He hesitates and Tan says, "He can be the look out – come on, Young Do," and Young Do is looking at him with this funny little smile.
As if he's daring him to come along.
Myung Soo takes a breath – then decides.
His sneakers barely make noise as he runs after them.
Young Do claps a hand on his back in approval and says, "Good thinking. Now where to?"
Myung Soo feels ridiculously happy. The afternoon stretches out before them like an open road. He checks his watch – Eun Sang must be out of school by now, she's probably at the food stall. He texts her.
Tan picks up a rock and tosses it in the air a few times. "We could go to the arcade."
Young Do shakes his head. "Can't, I'm banned for life."
"What did you do?" Myung Soo asks in awe. "Property damage?"
"A little this, a little that," Young Do answers nonchalantly. He crosses his arms. "You still haven't told me what you were in detention for."
"I forgot my homework. And my book," Myung Soo admits sheepishly. "It was the seventh time. They're going to call my parents."
He hadn't meant to. It was just – once he sat down, the letters swam around in his vision and he couldn't understand anything. It got so bad that he had to shut his eyes and take a nap.
He had tried to take notes, but then lost his notes reminding him about his homework and his book. When his teacher asked him what had happened, he couldn't explain, and it had deteriorated from there.
"Ah, I forget. Some people actually do their homework," Young Do says. "What's that like?"
"Why are you guys still talking about school?" Tan interrupts. "We can go to the batting cages or to the Galleria."
"Yah, Kim Tan!"
Tan makes a grimace. "Shit, Rachel saw us."
Young Do sighs noisily and throws up his hands. "So much for a free afternoon."
Rachel strides up to them, her face a perfect picture of reproach. "Aren't you three supposed to be in detention?"
Young Do looks around both ways then stares at Rachel. "We're not in a classroom, are we?"
She looks at him scornfully. "Choi Young Do, I expect this from you, but –" and she turns her gaze to Tan and Myung Soo. "You two are being childish."
"That's because we're children," Tan says flippantly. "We can't all be as perfect as you, Rachel."
Just for a brief moment – Myung Soo sees Rachel's lips tremble, before she draws them perfectly straight again. Her eyes spark and she glares at Tan. "Arienaittsu-no," she spits out. "Fine, get in trouble, I don't care."
"Yah, Yoo Rachel," Young Do says. "We're in Korea. Speak Japanese when you're in Japan."
"So you know that much?" Rachel sniffs. "Is that all your genius IQ retained?"
"Still jealous about that? Such a pity."
Rachel narrows her eyes. "It's not as if you put in any effort."
Young Do scratches his eyebrow. "Why should I? Everything is boring or easy."
"If it's so easy, then why don't you skip a grade?"
"Because Kim Tan would be lonely without me," Young Do says in a falsetto. "Wouldn't you, Tan-Ah?"
Tan laughs. "You know me so well."
Nauseated by their display, Rachel waves her hand imperiously. "Just leave."
"You're not going to call my parents are you?" Tan confirms. "I'll take you to that ice skating exhibit if you don't."
Rachel considers this and then shakes her head. "And the Miu Miu boutique?"
Tan's face twitches. "And the Miu Miu boutique."
"Fine, have your secretary call my secretary. She'll make the appointments."
With that, Rachel turns on her heel and walks off.
Tan holds up a warning finger. "Don't."
Young Do shrugs, innocence radiating from every pore. "I didn't say anything."
"I can hear you thinking it."
Young Do reaches out and swats Tan on his shoulder. "I think it's cute, you two negotiating."
"Shut up," Tan mumbles. "She's easy to manage as long as you offer her something she wants."
"Her future husband is going to need all the luck he can get," Young Do says, then smiles mischievously. "Maybe it'll be you, Tan-ah."
"Shut up," Tan growls, and then tackles Young Do. "That's just - gross."
Young Do grabs him in a headlock and playfully messes his hair. "What's the matter, you don't want to hold hands and eat lunch with her and hold her shopping bags?"
Tan's arm flails out and smacks Young Do in the face. "Shut up!"
Actually, Myung Soo thinks to himself, that wouldn't be so bad. Rachel is pretty. And scary, with the way she cuts people down with her eyes and a curl of her lip.
He remembers how she looked when Tan teased her, how suddenly soft she seemed. That was Rachel too.
Scary, but in a different way.
They end up going to the batting cages, but its cut short when Tan's older brother comes and drags him off. Tan is yelling but Myung Soo sees him smile when he gets into the car.
Young Do whistles. "Looks like Rachel found a better offer somewhere else." He looks at his watch and curses. "Sorry Myung Soo, but I have to go now. I have to go wash dishes."
It's strange to think of Young Do doing manual labor, but then again, it's not like he's doing it for just pocket money.
Myung Soo thinks about the law offices and the possibility that one day his name will be on the door. With the way his grades are going though, he doubts it.
Young Do gives him a ride back home. As Myung Soo gets ready to get out, Young Do says "Have you tried taking pictures of the things you need to remember? Why don't you use your phone? You're checking it all the time."
Myung Soo stares at him. The answer is so simple it's laughable. Young Do just raises an eyebrow at him.
He checks his phone after greeting his housekeeper. There's a message from his mother to eat properly, and one from Eun Sang.
Don't come. My father's in the hospital.
He calls and the automated voice tells him that the user has turned off their phone.
He worries about it all night, and calls her again the next morning.
Eun Sang answers it on the third ring. "Hi, Myung Soo."
His words come out in a rush and he doesn't care how stupid it makes him sound. "Are you okay? Is your father all right? I'm sorry for bothering you. Do you need any help?"
Eun Sang patiently answers every one of his questions. She's fine, her father is undergoing tests, and no, Myung Soo doesn't bother her. She doesn't need anything, and her voice cracks a little and Myung Soo knows for sure she's lying, but he doesn't know what to say.
"I'll come visit you later then," he promises. "Save some ddeokbokki for me, okay? Don't let Chan Young eat it all!"
"I promise nothing," Eun Sang says, but he can hear her smile.
Literature is the last class of the day and Myung Soo dreads it. Even with his new trick of photographing assignments and materials, he still feels like he's groping at a million pieces of an endless puzzle and he's missing a piece. He looks at the board and groans.
The teacher, a stern, humorless sort of man, smiles at them thinly as they shuffle in their seats. "Today we are going to be studying a very famous poem – a poem that all of you should know by heart by the end of this week. Yah, Choi Young Do, are you sleeping?"
Myung Soo hears Young Do's steady breathing behind him and bumps his desk. Young Do scrapes his chair back and says, "Not now I'm not."
Laughter spreads throughout the classroom, and their teacher's smile goes sharp. "You will memorize this poem by the end of the class and present it tomorrow, Choi Young Do."
"Whatever you say, Teacher." Young Do's voice sounds amused. He clears his throat and reads aloud. "Before I called her name, she was nothing more than a gesture."
He pauses. "Is this some kind of love poem?"
"That is the question I ask of all of you," their teachers says. "I want a one page response to this by the end of the week. Except for you, Young Do. Yours is due tomorrow along with your presentation."
Myung Soo catches up with Young Do after the bell rings. The older boy stares straight ahead, his jaw set and his eyes flinty. He slams his locker shut and when Myung Soo calls him, he whirls on him angrily. "What?"
"I just wanted to know if you want to come over and we can work on the project together," Myung Soo says meekly. "We can use my parents' library and there's an intern at the office who has an English degree from Columbia University."
Young Do's gaze loses some of its steel and he says gently, "Just worry about yourself, Myung Soo."
"Do you know what you're going to write?"
"I'm not going to write it," Young Do says matter of fact. "I have other more important things to attend to. See you later."
Young Do walks off and Myung Soo looks after him, stunned.
We all long to be something. You, to me, and I, to you, long to become a gaze that won't be forgotten.
The answer reveals itself when Young Do is absent in class the next day. Kim Tan is missing too, but then a visitor from the office hands a note to their teacher, who reads it and harrumphs. "Kim Tan is out on a retreat with his family. How nice for him." He folds the note and then looks meaningfully at Young Do's empty seat. "I see Choi Young Do has not graced us with his presence today. Perhaps he is also on a retreat?"
The sight of Young Do's empty seat bothers Myung Soo for the rest of class.
The weather is lovely – so much that when Myung Soo sticks his head out to enjoy the sunshine, he decides to get out early and walk the rest of the way home.
He lifts his head and closes his eyes, basking in the sunshine. Someone bumps into him and he steps back. "Yah!"
The figure mutters, "Sorry," and then Myung Soo recognizes Young Do.
Except Young Do is hunched over, his arms pushed against his chest, and his hair is a messy tangle hanging in his face.
Myung Soo recoils in shock. Young Do's left eye is puffy and a dark purple bruise has started to form on his cheek. Young Do's lips are chapped and raw, and his knuckles are scraped and bruised.
"Choi Young Do, what happened?"
Young Do attempts to smile. "I fell."
"Into a brick wall?" Myung Soo asks in disbelief. "Yah, were you fighting with someone?"
"You could say that," Young Do says, then doubles over. His hand flies out and Myung Soo grabs it. "You need to go to the hospital. I'll call my driver."
"No, don't," Young Do gasps, then stands up. He leans heavily against Myung Soo. "You can't."
"I don't want other people to know okay?" Young Do breathes out. "I was just on my way to Tan's house."
"He's on a trip with his family," Myung Soo says. "Come with me."
"I don't want to go to your house either -"
"Shut up and just come with me," Myung Soo says. "I know where we can go."
Young Do keeps on asking questions during the taxi ride and Myung Soo can see the driver's curious gaze in the rearview mirror – two students, one clearly badly beaten – he knows how serious it looks.
"Just drop off us here, please –"and he pulls out his wallet. Young Do protests, but Myung Soo shoots him a glare.
Myung Soo helps Young Do out of the taxi and the other boy staggers a little bit before standing upright. He looks around. "Yah, Myung Soo, where is this place?"
"I'm taking you to my friend's house," Myung Soo says and drags him along.
"What sort of friend do you have?"
"You'll see," Myung Soo says cryptically. He looks up and down the street, searching for Eun Sang's familiar food stall.
He spots her finally – and she's the only one there, which is a stroke of good luck. He tugs at Young Do's arm. "Come this way."
Young Do follows reluctantly. His face still hurts and he's pretty sure his ribs are bruised, but the blistering pain has faded into a dull throb. He checks his surroundings – it's a bustling street but he notices there aren't many coffee shops and most of the businesses seem to be of the small variety. Children dart and weave through the crowds, and cheerful ahjummas admonish them from storefronts.
It's a far cry from the polite polish of the neighborhoods he's used to.
Myung Soo waves at him from a food stall. "Over here!"
He trudges over.
Eun Sang's eyes widen at the sight of him, but she reins in her shock and smiles politely. Young Do stares at her.
Her hair is partially obscured by a floppy lamb hat, and her cheeks are red from cold. Myung Soo finishes eating his odeng and picks up a hot dog encrusted in French fries. "Trying something new on the menu, Eun Sang?"
Eun Sang nods. "The college students really like them. Myung Soo, who is this?"
Young Do clears his throat. "I'm Choi Young Do."
At the mention of his name, Eun Sang's mouth drops open. "You're Choi Young Do?"
"Why, what have you heard?" He looks at Myung Soo curiously. Myung Soo starts to choke, and Eun Sang leans over and whacks him on the back.
"Nothing," Myung Soo manages to gasp out. "I've said nothing."
"Myung Soo has mentioned you in a couple of his stories, is all," Eun Sang corrects him. "I just didn't expect you to be…"
"So handsome?" Young Do runs his non-injured hand through his fringe and pushes it out of the way.
Eun Sang rolls her eyes. "I thought you'd be taller."
"Yah, I am pretty tall. I'm still growing."
She makes a dismissive noise then turns her attention to Myung Soo. "Myung Soo, can I talk to you for a minute? By ourselves?"
"I'm hurt," Young Do says. "Also literally, as it happens."
Eun Sang fills a cup with odeng broth and thrusts it at him. "Drink this, we'll be right back."
They walk a few feet away and then Eun Sang pinches his arm. "Yah! Jo Myung Soo, what are you thinking?"
Myung Soo winces and rubs at his arm. "You saw him, he needs medical attention."
Eun Sang motions at the cart. "It's not like I'm running a hospital, Myung Soo. Why did you bring him here?"
Myung Soo sighs, and rubs the back of his neck. "I wasn't thinking straight – he was going to our friend's house, but that friend isn't home. And Young Do refused to go to the hospital."
"Then why not your house?"
Myung Soo's shoulders slump. "He didn't want to go there either."
"So you brought him to me? Myung Soo, my house is fifteen minutes away from here, and that's on a slow day."
"Couldn't you just bring him with you? I'll watch the stall for you."
Eun Sang looks at him as if he's sprouted two heads. "Leave you in charge?"
"Why not? I've eaten at your stall and I've seen how you and your mother run things. Where is Mother, by the way?"
"She's with Eonni at the university hospital. They're with my father," Eun Sang says. "That's why it's just me today."
"And your hat?" Myung Soo reaches for it and pets it softly. "This is new."
"Oh this," Eun Sang touches her hat and grimaces. "Eonni's boyfriend bought it for her, but she didn't like it so she gave it to me. She said it would attract more customers if I wore it. Aegyo-marketing, she calls it."
"Is it working?" Myung Soo tugs at the lamb's ears and the hat slouches crookedly on Eun Sang's head.
She bats him away. "Yah, Jo Myung Soo!"
"Aigoo, our Eun Sang is the cutest," Myung Soo coos and then shrieks as Eun Sang grabs him in a head lock.
Young Do watches them curiously. So that girl was Cha Eun Sang, Myung Soo's mystery friend? She is clearly not rich, judging by her occupation and the way she's dressed – grey baggy sweater, black jeans, that ridiculous hat, and plain black sneakers speaks of a life made for work, not privileged idleness.
Yet the relaxed way she touches Myung Soo and his beaming smile tells him that they are close friends, comfortable with one another despite their obvious differences.
Was it really that easy?
Myung Soo snatches the lamb hat off of Eun Sang and puts it on his own head. She laughs and pushes at his shoulders.
"Myung-Soo-ah, it suits you more than it does me!"
Myung Soo raises his hands up, palms facing down and rests his cheek against his hands, making a perfect v line. Eun Sang claps enthusiastically and gives him a thumbs up.
Young Do frowns. Did they forget about him?
"Okay, you can run the stall. I'll take Choi Young Do back to my house – call me if you have any problems." Eun Sang adjusts the hat so it fits more snugly. "Your friend looks like he wants to kick us, so we should get back."
Myung Soo looks over and shrugs. "No, that's just his usual expression."
Myung Soo reaches Young Do first and poses coquettishly. "Sorry, hyung, oh – should I call you oppa?"
Young Do's upper lip curls. "Don't call me anything."
Eun Sang holds out her hand. "Choi Young Do, do you think you could manage a little bit longer? My house is not far from here."
Young Do looks at her hand warily then looks at Myung Soo as if for confirmation. Myung Soo nods and Young Do pushes aside her hand. He shoves his in his pockets.
"Lead the way."
He feels her eyes on him as they walk, and he knows she must be curious about his face, so he deliberately stays quiet. Cha Eun Sang doesn't seem to mind though, and walks briskly by his side. When they reach a block of identical looking grey apartments, she stops and points. "I live on the fifth floor. Hopefully the elevator's working today."
It is and so he rides up with her. The sides of the elevator are covered in advertisements and fliers, and he sees a few lost and found notices taped up as well. Cha Eun Sang stands perfectly still and faces the elevator doors, her back ramrod straight.
She is only a little bit shorter than he is, and he smirks when he compares Myung Soo's height next to hers. There was a reason why everyone called him the little lawyer at school, and it wasn't because of his keen arguing ability – though he had been getting better.
"Cha Eun Sang," he says, testing the name out on his tongue. "How do you know Myung Soo?"
She turns and looks at him, surprise brightening her features. Now that her hat is gone, he can see her face more clearly.
She has the kind of face that wouldn't be out of place advertising a bun or a fresh glass of milk – the only thing that keeps her look from being completely wholesome is the fierceness in her dark brown eyes. It makes the dimple in her chin and round cheeks seem incongruous, as if he's being glared at by a teddy bear.
"We met one day," she says simply and stares at him. "Who did this to you?"
Her directness catches him off guard and he answers, "My father," before he can take it back.
Some of the fierceness goes out of her eyes and she turns to face him properly.
He bares his teeth in an attempted grin. "Why, did you hit me?"
Eun Sang reaches out tentatively. He grabs her hand before she can touch his face.
"We're here," she says, and the elevator doors slide open.
Eun Sang shares a room with her sister and she apologizes for the condition of the room. "Eonni's studying for her exams so she hasn't had time to clean her side of the room," Eun Sang says, and rushes around picking up stray clothes and books.
It's a small room, smaller than his bedroom at home – but it looks lived in in a way that his room does not. Black and white photographs of landscapes line one wall, while a world map hangs crookedly on another. He sees red pins sticking out from the map, most of them centered in America.
Eun Sang's arms are full of clothes and she piles them on the bed farthest from the door.
Her side of the room is tidy, her bed made and a neat stack of books rest on her table. A blue teddy bear sits in her chair, its head bowed.
He clears his throat. "It's fine."
Eun Sang picks up the bear and settles him carefully on her bed. She motions at him to sit on the newly vacated chair. "I'll get the first aid kit."
He sits gingerly, his body finally acknowledging the pain. He looks through the framed pictures on the desk – Eun Sang, Eun Sang with an older girl – that must be the sister, Eun Sang holding up a peace sign next to a man in a hospital bed. The man has the same wide set eyes as Eun Sang does, and their smiles are similar too. He guesses that the man is her father. The last picture shows Eun Sang with a woman and a boy – there's something familiar about the boy but he can't quite place it. They have their arms around each other and Young Do envies their carefree happiness. He can't remember the last time he took a picture with either of his parents. His father was always working and his mother – even though she smiled at him, for him – she had been retreating to her room more often.
"Sorry I took so long, it was in a different place from before," Eun Sang announces from behind him. She sets down a bright yellow box and opens the lid. She pokes through it, selects a bottle of ointment, some band-aids, and cotton pads.
Their height is the same now that he's sitting in the chair, and she leans closer, cotton pad in hand. Young Do stiffens at her proximity, but Eun Sang doesn't notice – or doesn't care. She unscrews the cap and shakes the bottle onto the cotton pad. It smells like fermented herbs and Young Do's nose wrinkles.
She brings it closer and he hisses even before it touches him. Eun Sang frowns then grabs his chin firmly. "It's going to scar if you don't put this on," she says authoritatively. "Just try and bear it this once."
She deftly dabs at the cuts, and it stings and he bites his lip to stop from crying out more. Eun Sang reaches for the band-aids and unwraps one. She peels it from its sterilized backing and carefully places it on his forehead.
"Just a few more, are you all right?" She asks, and puts on another band-aid. "Are you hurt anywhere else?"
He holds up his hands and Eun Sang's mouth thins into a tight line. "I'm sorry," she repeats and Young Do shakes his head.
"Why do you keep saying that?"
"Because I can't say the things I really want to say to you," she says and sticks the band-aid on his hand. "I've just met you."
"You can say whatever you want, I don't care –" and Eun Sang grips his hand tightly. "This isn't right, what he's done to you," she says fiercely. "I don't know what happened, but this is not right."
Her concern is alien and uncomfortable, and he clenches his fist against his pants.
"What if I deserve it," he says. "What can you do about it?"
Eun Sang drops his hand and he feels a pang of loss. "You're just a kid like me," he says, and then coolly surveys their surroundings. "Well, not exactly like me."
Eun Sang closes the first aid kit. "No one deserves this, not even you, Choi Young Do."
Her tone is politely detached and he knows he's offended her. "I meant…."
"Let's go back. I'm worried about Myung Soo."
"He'll be fine," he says, a little too loudly. "It's not like he's an elementary school kid."
The look she gives him is full of reproach – but it's better than pity, he decides. "I need to go back to work."
"Where are your parents?" Young Do gets out of the chair and walks stiffly to the door. His chest and ribs still feel tender, but he doesn't want to check them at Eun Sang's house.
"Where are yours?" Eun Sang shoots back.
"Ouch," he says, and puts his hand over his heart. "Point made."
A flash of contrition passes over her features, and he leans in. "Don't say you're sorry. I don't accept apologies very well."
She snorts. "Let's go."
There's a mass of people gathered around the stall when they get back, and Eun Sang has to push her way through the crowd.
Myung Soo is dancing and singing in front of her family's stall, his movements getting increasingly exaggerated. He points finger guns at her when he sees her, and she smiles and points back.
"Come dance with me," he calls. "For the grand finale."
The crowd cheers them on enthusiastically, and Eun Sang pauses for a moment before she runs toward him.
Myung Soo grabs her hands and swings her around. Eun Sang spins out, her hair flying perfectly around her face. Myung Soo reels her back in then dips her. Eun Sang starts laughing and can't stop. Myung Soo grins and brings her into a hug.
The crowd roars their approval.
Young Do watches them. Myung Soo takes off the lamb hat and presents it to Eun Sang with a flourish. She accepts it with a curtsy, and puts it on.
He feels an ache in his chest and he's not completely certain it's from the beating.
Young Do is quiet during the taxi ride home and Myung Soo pokes at him. "Young Do, do you have indigestion? Do you want me to stop at a pharmacy?"
"Stop nagging, you're not my mom," Young Do says without heat and looks out the window.
"What did you and Eun Sang talk about?" Myung Soo was dying of curiosity – Eun Sang hadn't been very forthcoming on the subject of Young Do, but she showed her appreciation when she saw the overflowing cash box.
"You can eat here free for a month," she said.
"Cha Eun Sang, I never knew you were so cheap," Myung Soo complained. "I danced my heart out for you."
Eun Sang rolled her eyes. "Fine, you can eat here free any time."
"That's more like it!"
"We didn't. She bandaged me up and that's it." Young Do says.
"What did you think?"
"Why do you care so much?"
"Because I want my two friends to like each other, that's why!" Myung Soo pouts and sinks back into his seat. "I want you to get along."
"Do you really think you can be friends with a girl?"
"Why not? Don't you think Eun Sang's pretty cool?"
Young Do considers this carefully, and then sighs. "For a girl, I guess."
"You'll get used to her," Myung Soo says reassuringly.
"Yah, don't go planning future events with me," Young Do says. "Today was a onetime happening."