She looks up at the massive number of people in front of her. Her knees shake, and her stomach twists into a ball of painful butterflies. She takes a deep breath through her nose and lets it out slowly through her mouth, but it does little for her anxiety.
“Nervous?” She looks behind her to see a girl about her age with a purple hairclip and cute smile. “Don’t be. It isn’t as bad as it looks, trust me. Just imagine everyone in their underwear.” Seo Hyun forces the smile on her face, but her hands start to vibrate against her knees. She turns back to the front of the room where a boy in his twenties takes the stage. The music starts and he starts break dancing. She takes another deep breath.
Numbers fifty-two, fifty-three, fifty-four, and fifty-five are called within the next twenty minutes. She waits anxiously as the last one finishes before her number is called.
This is it Seo Hyun, you can do this. She inhales once more before standing and making her way up the stage. She takes her place in the middle. She looks out at the sea of people staring at her expectantly, and then at the judges, three of the voice and dance instructors plus the President.
“Please state your name and age.” She recognizes him as Lee Jong Soo, the infamous voice coach from Stardom.
“P-Park Seo Hyun, age n-nineteen.” Lee Jong Soo marks something on a piece of a paper and looks at her expectantly.
“Don’t be nervous Ms. Park Seo Hyun. Keep your eye on the prize, okay?” She nods enthusiastically, though it takes all she has to keep her feet in place. She takes one last breath before the music starts.
Darkness clouds the edges of her vision. She looks around wildly at the faces in the audition. They stare back at her, their silence instilling a great fear in her heart. Come on Seo Hyun, she takes another deep breath, afraid of passing out.
She’s breathing heavily, and her stomach twists and turns. Eye on the prize, eye on the prize, eye on the prize, she repeats to herself. The soft piano plays and she opens her mouth. “‘Yes, I do, I believe, that one day I will be…'” Her voice fills the room, chasing away her worries. “‘Can I lay by your si-de,'” She sings louder, releasing her powerful vocals as the chorus hits. She closes her eyes, finding confidence in herself and in her voice.
She finishes strongly, breathing heavily from the exhaustion her lungs suffered through, but happy. Silence follows suit, and for a second, she’s afraid she’s going to pass out. She opens her eyes, looking down at her feet. “That was very lovely Ms. Seo Hyun. You can exit on this side.” She bows towards the judges and then follows an attendant to the edge of the stage and then down a couple of steps. He smiles at her, but her nerves are too much of a mess to smile back.
That was it…her last chance. She’d blew it and all of those people had been there to watch. She’d failed. A surge of embarrassment turns her cheeks into a cherry-colored blush. Her stomach threatens to empty and she has to rush into the bathroom before she’s immediately sick. She’s sick until her stomach is empty and she can do nothing but cough and wish she’d just disappear. When she’s finished, she sits with her head in her hands, breathing through her nose and out her mouth.
“Are you okay in there?” She hears a knock on the stall door. She wipes her mouth and flushes the toilet. The girl has to move out of the way as Seo Hyun unlocks the door. Seo Hyun recognizes her as the same girl who’d spoken to her earlier. “You did great in there. I don’t know how you kept it in. I remember my first audition. I puked all over the place.” Seo Hyun forces a small smile. She washes her hands and dried them quickly as the girl continues to talk about her bad experience. “The judges though,” She starts to laugh. The girl sticks her hand out. “But anyway…Kim Seoul Hyun…what was your name again?”
“Seo Hyun.” Seo Hyun says, shaking her hand.
“Ah, that’s funny!” She smiles, but Seo Hyun doesn’t feel like joking right now. “You’re nineteen right? I’m twenty!”
“Ah…annyeonghaseyo Unni.” Seoul Hyun flashes a toothy smile. She interlopes her arm in Seo Hyun’s and leads her out of the bathroom. Seoul Hyun’s voice recedes into a comfortable drone as they descend the stairs. They weed past contestants and managers as Seo Hyun’s new friend leads her towards the door’s entrance.
“And then I was like-oomph!” Seoul Hyun’s speech, cut short by a tall figure in a particularly expensive looking leather jacket. He walks right into Seo Hyun, who unlocks her arm from Seoul Hyun as she falls onto the pavement.
“Ya!” The man looks down at her, disapproval relevant on his face. “Watch where you’re going, would you?!” He growls. Seoul Hyun looks up at the man. Her eyes widen in recognition. She bites her lip.
“Joesonghamnida…I-I’ll see you later Seo Hyun-ah. Good luck…” Seoul Hyun rushes away, her face reddening. Seo Hyun sighs, pulling herself to her feet.
“Are you blind?” She looks up at the man in front of her. Despite his handsome features, irritation blossoms within her.
“Excuse me, but you ran into us.” He narrows his eyes at her.
“Aren’t you going to apologize?” She stares at him. The nerve of this man! She’d had a bad enough day as it was. She didn’t need to deal with people like him on top of it!
“Naega wae…like I said, you ran into us.” She struggles to keep her anger out of her voice. The man’s eyes widen.
“Are you angry right now? The nerve! Don’t you know who I am?” A crowd had started to draw. Seo Hyun looks around anxiously. She bites her bottom lip, turning to leave. He grabs onto her arm, spinning her back around to face him. Anger swells within her, but she tramps it down. “Apologize!” She bites the inside of her cheek. “You won’t do it?!” She takes a deep breath.
“Let go of me!” She rips her arm free of his grasp and turns, rushing away from the scene.
She slows to a walk, six blocks from Stardom Entertainment. Gasping and sputtering, she pulls her phone from her jacket pocket. She takes deep breaths, trying to catch her breath before accepting the call. “Y-yes Hyungnim?”
“Ya, ya, Hyungnim this, Hyungnim that, are you in a position to act frivolous right now?” Seo Hyun jumps, holding her phone away from her ear as the thirty-year old ahjussi yells at her. She stares at it, irritation blossoming in her chest. Frivolous? Who’s acting frivolous? “Are you listening to me right now?”
“Yes Hyungnim,” She repeats. She looks down at her watch, noting the time. Sighing, she forces her tired legs to walk as she listens to the Hyung’s scolding.
“Did you collect our compensation from the ahjumma?”
“Yes Hyungnim,” She passes by a couple locked in a passionate embrace, despite the early morning hour, the scent of alcohol, strong even in passing.
“And did you take care of my dry cleaning?”
“And did you pay my rent like I asked you too?”
“Yes Hyungnim,” She ducks beneath a low-hanging shop sign. She stops in front of a food cart and forks over her last ten-thousand Won. The ahjussi hands her a container of spicy rice cakes and gives her back her change.
“YA! ARE YOU EVEN LISTENING TO ME?”
“Ah, WAE, I said I was Hyungnim!” She snaps. A woman shoots her a dirty look in passing. She returns the look, but only when the woman has turned her back towards her.
“Are you getting attitude with me? This little…getting attitude with her Hyungnim!” She takes a deep breath, rolling her eyes in spite of herself. “Ya, are you listening!”
“Yes Hyungnim!” She starts the descent to her rooftop apartment, sweat sticking her shirt to her chest. “Ya, ya, you think I would be like this if you’d just tell me where your father is? You’re the one making it harder for yourself! Boss is getting antsy and I-“
“I understand, but I was telling the truth when I said I didn’t know!” She snaps. She hears him sigh on the other end. “Alright, alright…just work hard and keep that tongue in check! If you just stop with the attitude, I would have already knocked it down to six years instead of seven. Keep your phone on.”
“Yes,” She sighs, deep regret blossoming in her chest. “I’m hanging up now.” She hears the phone click off. Once sure that the call is disconnected, she throws her head back and screams in outrage.
“I’m home!” She slips her shoes off at the door, calling out to a family that isn’t there. She sighs. “What am I saying?” She grumbles. Although it’s been five months since her mother, father, and youngest brother left her for America, she sometimes forgot and called for them when she’d had a bad day.
The rice has finished cooking.
Seo Hyun fills her bowl as she sifts through the day’s mail. She shoves a spoonful of rice into her mouth and stabs a soft rice cake with the tip of a wooden skewer. Chewing thoughtfully, she rips open a package from her parents that contains a small, paperback book. She sets their letter aside, waiting until she can stomach its contents.
Truthfully, she resented her mother and father for what they’d done. They’d left behind their only daughter, the youngest, at that, to clean up the mess that they’d made. In the aftermath, Seo Hyun had done nothing but suffer for the past five months. Working part-time jobs every single day still didn’t get the bills paid. Though she shouldn’t have, she’d lost a lot of weight from her late schedule and lack of sleep. Her lack of proper nutrition has left her irritated and angry all the time.
It isn’t that she misunderstood why they’d had to leave; it was the events leading up to their departure that really upset Seo Hyun. She’d worked hard to help around the house and was employed three nights a week after school at a local coffee house. Her father’s printing business was doing well, so they could have had a good life. But the money just enabled her father’s gambling habit and it wasn’t long before they’d had their first run-in with the loan sharks.
The bright light from her computer screen hurts her eyes when she opens her laptop in the dark. She reaches beside her and switches on the lamp. A dull yellow light spreads from beneath the floral shade. Suppressing a yawn, she logs into her email account. She sighs. Email after email, containing only bad news as a shot at a more stable job was declined. Defeat rises within her as she surveyed the familiar black and white words. ‘We regret to inform you that Park Seo Hyun unfortunately does not qualify for a position here at…’
“That’s alright Seo Hyun…it’ll get better.” She thinks back to the vocal coach at the audition. “Don’t be nervous Ms. Park Seo Hyun. Keep your eye on the prize, okay?” “Yeah…keep your eye on the prize, girl.” But even as she says it, dread weights her heart and threatens to overturn her stomach again.
Feeling depressed, she checks her Facebook page, clicking on random gossip articles. She stops when she spots an article about popular boy band Chaotic. She scans the five faces of the handsome men, stopping only when she reaches the group’s main vocalist, Kim Ri On. Seo Hyun frowns. “Don’t you know who I am?” Her eyes widen. “Apologize! You won’t do it?!” No…it couldn’t be. But that look…the angry outburst…it’d no doubt belonged to her ultimate bias, Kim Ri On. Horror surges through her as she realized her mistake.
“Aish…stupid, stupid, stupid, Seo Hyun!” How embarrassing it’d be to face him at fan meetings and signings? Ah…the terror!
It doesn’t take her long to fall asleep that night. When her alarm goes off at six the next morning, she rises, exhausted despite her quiet night. Seo Hyun pulls on her plain black jeans and buttons a white blouse over her blank tank-top. She pins her nametag on the front of her shirt and runs a brush through her tangle of dark brown hair before she slips on her red Converse at the door.
The morning rush dwindles down around eight in the local coffee shop. As the only certified barista, she fills orders all morning, making a mistake only once when she’d mistaken the size. She takes her first break a little after ten, slumping in a seat and sipping on a cup of black coffee.
Seo Hyun pulls her hand phone from her pant pocket. She frowns down at the number. “Hello?” She answers quickly, despite the unfamiliarity of the caller.
“May I please speak to Ms. Park Seo Hyun?” Excitement bubbles within her. Perhaps she’d been accepted into a higher paying position. “This is her,” She stands quickly, shooting and apologetic look towards one of the waitresses resting with her. “This is Lee Jong Soo, vocal coach for Stardom Entertainment. Perhaps you remember me?” Her blood runs cold. Here is comes…that dreaded phone call. She could hear it already. ‘We regret inform you that…’
“Ah…y-yes, of course…” She bites her bottom lip. “Perfect…we were quite captivated by your performance yesterday. We’d like to inform you that there has been a call back. Please arrive by two this afternoon for a blind audition. The ones who have passed will be released right away.”
“Excuse me?” He patiently repeats himself. Seo Hyun’s eyes widen. “Th-that…”
“Is there a problem with the time?”
“N-no sir, I’ll be there.”
“Perfect. I shall expect to see you there.” He hangs up, leaving her staring down at her phone, bewildered.
Was she dreaming, or had the legendary Lee Jong Soo just personally called her to inform her that she had a chance at becoming a trainee? Of course he hadn’t said those exact words, but she could feel it. Ah, if only talk to her mother. She’d know what to tell her. Already the butterflies have begun to twist her stomach into knots and her arms have erupted into goose bumps.
“Are you okay Seo Hyun-ah?” She looks over at the waitress, biting her bottom lip nervously.
“Yes…I couldn’t be better.”
Kim Ri On was waiting…and oh how he hated to wait. Everyone knew that. His coordination Noona would give him his outfit first, and the make-up Noona would fix his face and style his hair before the others. What did you expect? He was an idol, and even idols have standards.
He looks up from his phone, irritated. He looks around at the large, comfortably furnished office. He looks at the large glass name-plate in front of the President’s desk. He looks around at the walls plastered with posters and records. Tsk, tsk, tsk, this ahjussi has no class. He looks back down at his phone, shaking his head in disapproval.
“Mianhae, my meeting ran later than I thought it would.” The President drops into his desk chair, resting his elbows on the table. “Were you waiting long?” Ri On shoots the man a look, but the President gives a devilish smile.
“I’m busy…you should know, since you oversee our schedules.” He snaps. The President shrugs.
“I oversee many things. I can’t be expected to memorize every single idol’s schedule.” Ri On gives him a simple look. He smiles again. “Sorry anyway…straight to the point…as you know, our company held a scouting audition yesterday.” Ri On gives him a blank look. “We choose just fifty out of those two-hundred applicants. We’re holding another audition…a call-back.” Ri On shrugs.
“So? What does that have to do with me?” He shoves a piece of gum into his mouth, chewing loudly. The President sighs.
“I’d like you to be there to judge the blind auditions.” Ri On’s mouth drops open. His gum falls out of his mouth and onto the expensive blue carpet. His eyes widen. Was he joking? He wanted the Kim Ri On to judge a competition for trainees that could potentially replace him? Was he crazy?
“No,” He stands. The conversation is over, as far as he’s concerned.
“Yoo Na’s going to be there.” That stops him. Ri On turns back to the President, eyes narrowed.
“What a coincidence…we work in the same company. Of course you’d choose her.” His voice is icy, dripping with acid. The President sighs.
“Just stay for…twenty minutes. Add your insight. Stay for twenty minutes and then I’ll take your spot.” Ri On rolls his eyes. He pushes a pair of sunglasses onto his face.
“Whatever,” The President sighs his disapproval as the Chaotic member leaves, slamming his office door behind him. Had he been like that as an idol? He didn’t think so.
What was he thinking? He’d put up with that man long enough. If it weren’t for the other band members, he’d have left the company long ago. They just didn’t understand a star like him. Of course he owed his fame to his company, but as far as he was concerned, it was the company that had piggy-backed him to success.
“Ah, Hyung,” Tae Kwon looks up from position on the practice room floor. “Did you come to practice? Tae Hyun Hyung and I were going to work on the choreography for our title song.” Ri On drops onto the small leather couch. He presses his hand against his face, shielding his eyes from the fluorescent lighting. “Hyung? What’s wrong? Did something happen?” Ri On looks down at Tae Kwon. He frowns at the boys handsome features.
“The President wants me to judge some audition they’re holding today.”
“Really?” Even though he tries to hold it in, his excitement is evident. Ri On shoots him a look. “I mean…really?” He repeats, outraged. Ri On sighs. The youth of the maknae…ah, he’d remembered when he’d been like that. Even though Chaotic was a band established nearly five years ago, the then seventeen maknae, Tae Kwon had showed outstanding promise ever since his very first company audition and then throughout his enter period as a trainee. His talent, eclipsed only perhaps by Ri On himself, could find a fan in any man, woman or child. Although women were naturally drawn to Ri On’s handsome nature, it was thanks to Tae Kwon’s combination of both cute and sexy that the band had so many Noona fans.
“Ah…Hyung!” Ri On stands, stretching his arms behind the back of his head.
“I thought you said we were going to practice choreo?” A small smile spreads across Tae Kwon’s face.
He hears their screams as he makes his way towards the stage room. He takes a deep breath, and when he looks back up, he’s all smiles, fan-service here and there, enough to convert even the stingiest anti-fan.
“Oppa, Oppa, over here!” He smiles in the direction of an overweight high school girl, cutting class to observe the auditions. He frowns cutely.
“Did you cut school today?” Her smile slips slightly. She looks down at her shoes, suddenly uncomfortable. Ri On gives a knowing smile. “Promise Oppa you won’t cut class anymore, okay? Someone as pretty as you has to graduate and make something out of yourself. Promise me,” She looks up, and for a second, he’s afraid she might start to cry. She nods enthusiastically.
“Of course Oppa!” Her cheeks redden like cherries and she covers her mouth with her hand as she smiles.
“Oppa, Oppa, you’re so handsome!” He smiles towards another girl, who giggles cutely into her hands. He offers her his famous ‘all-knowing’ smirk. He knows that he’s handsome. His jaw-line is knife-sharp. His face is small and his nose is straight and small. His eyes aren’t small or angular, but wide and innocently-sexy. His lips are full and almost permanently etched into a pout, which drives women crazy. Apart from that, his dimples are prominent enough to earn him a place on South Korea’s Handsomest Men. That…and his hard-earned chocolate abs that’ve earned him the title of number four on Top 10 Best Bodies in the Entertainment Industry.
The room is full of promising-looking men, women, and students, all of whom sit nervously while they wait their turn. “You actually came,” Ri On ignores her as he takes his seat at the far end of the judging table. Yoo Na sighs.
Though he once loved his Sunbae and label-mate, Min Yoo Na had broken his heart. That was something he couldn’t get over. They’d dated for nearly a year, and he’d been sure that she was his for the keeping…not that she had been a prize to keep in the first place. Rather, he’d been sure that she’d forever hold a secure place in his heart. That was before the infamous scandal had erupted involving the rookie idol Kim Ri On and an acting ahjumma. Ri On had tried to explain countless times, but Yoo Na had never believed him. It was safe to say that their break-up had been a messy one.
“We’ll start with numbers one through five.” Teacher Lee takes his place at the center of the table. He raises a microphone to his mouth and begins to usher out directions. The room of auditioners grows steadily quiet as the first five take their places behind their respective shadow-sheets. Ri On watches them with growing boredom as their auditions start. When they’ve finished, he marks a large red ‘X’ beside their names.
Yoo Na looks over at Kim Ri On. It’d surprised her that he’d come at all. Knowing Ri On, he would have declined as soon as he’d been asked. She sighs. He hadn’t always been that way. Fame had changed him. Of course, she probably had something to do with that. She squashes her feelings of guilt and regret as she looks his perfect side view. He yawns loudly. She sighs once more, turning her attention back towards the singers.
Yoo Na watches as Ri On declines singer after singer, dancer after dancing, marking large red ‘X’s’ beside their names. She shakes her head at his childish behavior. She looks down at her own paper where ten out of the forty names who’ve auditioned so far have been circled. She sighs. For the forty-second time, Ri On declines another, despite her immediate like in the dancer’s rhythm.
Seo Hyun stands in a line at the side of the stage. Her stomach rolls beneath her oversized sweat shirt. She takes a deep breath, reminding herself that it’s a blind audition. She won’t see the judges, and they won’t see her. There’s nothing to be worried about, she reminds herself. But her feelings of fear and apprehension refuse to dissipate as she takes her place behind curtain number three.
She waits impatiently while two others dance and sing before it’s her turn. When the spotlight finally finds its place against her curtain, her stomach heaves, threatening to empty. She takes a deep breath. Eye on the prize, eye on the prize, eye on the prize, she repeats.
Ri On shakes his head in disgust. He recognizes the song the second the music starts to play. As difficult as it is for himself to sing any of the popular EXO ballads, there’s no way that a newbie like this contestant could pull it off. He immediately puts an ‘X’ beside the name.
“Would you just give them a chance?!” Yoo Na hisses at him. He turns to her, eyes narrowed.
“I only work in a company that trains the best. I haven’t heard one person here today who…” The contestant starts to sing. He trails off, listening with interest as she starts off, matching her voice perfectly with the wispy style of the song. He stares ahead, trying to make a shape out of the shadow behind the curtain. She easily transitions from a whisper-tone to a more breathy-sound as the chorus starts. She picks up her voice easily, raising the volume and tempo as the song breaks down…a perfectly executed high note and adlib. She allows the background music to play the chorus while she sings the back-up vocals. Her voice tapers off per style of the song as the music lessens to a whisper and then to silence. Yoo Na shoots him a triumphant look. He sighs unhappily, circling the name Park Seo Hyun thickly in the same red pen he used to decline the others.
It doesn’t take long for the audition to finish. Number forty-three had left both Yoo Na and Ri On staring at the stage in awe. Yoo Na had been good…but she hadn’t been that good. To have talent like that…it was incredible.
Lee Jong Soo stands, turning to face the crowd. He holds his microphone up to his mouth. “Thank you all for the auditions. I am happy to reveal the eight new trainees for Stardom Entertainment!” The crowd erupts into disappointed cheers as eight people file across the stage, some bowing, some looking excited, others crying.
Seo Hyun stares out at the crowd, excitement and terror twisting her belly into a jumped mess of butterflies. Strangely, she finds that she doesn’t feel like blacking out or throwing up. She feels happy…energized, even. People are cheering for her, clapping for her. If she couldn’t be proud of this, what could she be proud of?
Ri On stares at the excited faces of the new trainees. They aren’t bad looking, he thinks, but they aren’t all that great, either. There are six boys and only two girls. One of the girls is at least ten pounds underweight and crying, snot and tears leaking down her face disgustedly. The other, is a face he recognizes. She’s got a body that’s short, muscular, yet in a way, scrawny. Her hair is long and pretty, but her face isn’t anything to be overly proud of. She’s got eyes that are heavy-lidded and her face has more of a wide, square jaw-line. Her lips are full and her nose is small and stubby. She isn’t bad looking, but to Ri On, she’s trash standing next to someone as beautiful as Yoo Na…not that he thought of her in that way…if he was featured in South Korea’s Handsomest Men, she was surely mentioned in South Korea’s Prettiest Women or…something like that.
“Are you angry right now? The nerve! Don’t you know who I am?” Yesterday’s fateful encounter tugs at the corner of his mind. He’d walked right into that girl and her friend, but what had it mattered? She should have apologized anyway, because if he hadn’t watched where she was going, she sure should have. He looks back up at Park Seo Hyun, narrowing his eyebrows. So, we meet again, he thinks, as he surveys her pale, sullen-looking face. She’d mouthed off to him, and disrespected him. On top of that, she had refused to apologize. He refused to deal with people like her. People like her…people who didn’t even recognize his face. She should have kissed his shoes and begged for forgiveness the second she’d seen him! If he had to work in the same company as her…no, no, he pushes that thought from his mind. He’d get his apology, right now, or she’d no longer have a place at Stardom Entertainment. He’d make sure of that.