Seo Hyun puts down her hand phone, face, red with anger and irritation. She barely listens to the Hyungnim as he once again scolds her for something she had absolutely no power over.
It’d started out like any other job. She’d been tasked with the menial job of collecting a lump sum that the poor book-owner ahjussi owed. Hyungnim had dropped her off three blocks from the shop (she wasn’t quite old enough to drive yet, nor could she afford a car) and then continued to circle the block, keeping a watchful eye on both Seo Hyun and the ahjussi. He’d been jumpy the last time that Seo Hyun had ‘visited’, and they were almost certain he’d try to run.
The bell atop the door had rung, signaling her presence. She’d walked inside the shop, and immediately, and uneasy feeling settled over her. The shop was dark, and cold, as if it hadn’t been opened in a while. Despite her unease, she’d walked further into the room, careful not to knock over stacks of books and magazines.
“Annyeonghaseyo!” She called, always polite, despite her motives. “Is anyone here? Hello?” A cool breeze had raised the hair on the back of her neck, and she’d shivered slightly. She looked around once more, but as far as she could tell, the place was deserted. “Hello? Is anyone he-” Pain exploded in the back of her head. Her eyesight went fuzzy, and she stumbled slightly, grabbing onto the edge of a book case to keep her balance. She reached back, feeling around at the base of her neck. She frowned as her hand came away red.
“What do you want with my father?!” She’d heard the voice, and she’d turned, slowly, dreading what she’d find.
It had been a boy, about her age, his black hair, messy and overgrown. He was skinny, and his sweater hung awkwardly off of his bony shoulders. Seo Hyun had looked first at him, and then at the thick piece of board he’d held. Pain had exploded in her temples, and her stomach lurched, but she plastered a smile onto her face anyway. “I have a…appointment with the ahjussi who…owns this book shop.” She tries, but her voice was wavering, and a feeling of nausea had settled over her. The boy narrowed his eyes.
“So it’s you…” He snarls. “The woman my father’s cheating with.”
“What? No…I’m a…” But her head felt like it was going to explode. It was all she could do to stay conscious. “D…I’m a debt collector.” She tried to reason, but even she’d known how weak and feeble her voice had sounded. The boy’s eyes had hardened. He’d held the wood up and swung at her again. Forcing herself to move, she’d ducked. She was sluggish, and he’d caught her right in the arm. He’d swung again, but she’d grabbed the board, pulled it closer to her, and landed a swift kick right in the middle of his chest. He’d flown back, slamming into a bookshelf that nearly emptied right on top of him. She dropped the wood, stumbled a little bit, and then had fallen to the ground.
The next thing she’d known, she had awoken in a hospital bed, her head pounding, her stomach still nauseous.
Now, her Hyungnim screamed at her on the other end of the line. She’d known that it was because he was upset with himself, but she didn’t feel like that excused him. How was she supposed to know that he’d come at her with a board. Aish…Seo Hyun, you should have paid more attention. If you’d have known, you could have gotten him before he’d gotten you…
“Are you LISTENING to me right now?!”
“What are you going to do?! I had to pay for your hospital bill and WE LOST THE CLIENT!”
“Where are you? You’ve got another job. I’ll pick you up,”
“Yes, Hyungni-…ah, what?”
“This little…I knew she wasn’t listening to me. Don’t move.” He hangs up. Seo Hyun throws her head back, groaning in frustration.
She checks herself out at the front desk and then stands out in the harsh February winds. She holds her phone close to her, shivering against the cold.
Ri On sits against the hospital bed. He places a gentle arm around the little girl. He smiles brightly as she holds up a V-sign. “And…smile!” Tae Kwon snaps the picture. The girl turns to hug Ri On before climbing back underneath the covers. Ri On smiles sadly.
“Oppa, Oppa, can I have a selca too?!”
“Of course!” He kneels on the floor beside a very pale little girl. Her eyes are wide with youth and wonder, but the tubes and I.V drips have aged her considerably. She flashes him a smile, and he sees that her front tooth is missing. He wraps an arm around her and smiles brightly for the camera. Tae Kwon takes the photo and then slides in next to them before taking a selca. The girl giggles happily before kissing both Ri On and Tae Kwon on the cheek. Tae Kwon’s face reddens slightly, making Ri On laugh. “You see this Oppa here?” He pats Tae Kwon on the shoulder as the girl nods enthusiastically. “He can’t handle being kissed by a pretty girl!” He whispers in her ear. Her eyes widen and her cheeks pinken.
“Really?” Ri On nods.
“Ah, Hyung, why did you have to tell her that? Now I’m so embarrassed…” He presses his hands against his cheeks. The little girl giggles before climbing back on top of her bed.
They visit about fifty more children. If they slept when they arrived, Ri On and Tae Kwon knelt beside the bed and took a picture on the nurse’s phone, who promised to get them developed as soon as possible. They wrote messages and gave their signatures, ending each visit with a bright red lollipop. After almost three hours of visitation, the kid’s curfew ends, and Ri On and Tae Kwon are forced to leave.
“Wah…it felt good.” Tae Kwon muses. Ri On silently agreed. Even as rude and conceited as he was, it felt good to visit the kids. It made him feel important to know that even the sickest of patients would climb themselves out of bed, smile brightly, and ask for a selca or a signature…all because of him. Everyone knew who he was, and everyone was excited to see him. He’d even sing them a song or dance for them if they asked. Yes, he felt that they were that important.
“Are you angry right now? The nerve! Don’t you know who I am?” That incident comes back to him. For some reason, he’d been able to think of little else after the blind auditions. He’d only seen her twice after that, but both times, she had been with the other trainees. He’d heard that the President was going to debut her as a member of their new girl group in six months. He’d seen the other girls, and honestly, she just hadn’t fit in. What with their long legs and artificial tans, her short stature and ordinary face paled in comparison to the others.
What should you care? Besides, aren’t you still mad at her? He wasn’t even sure what he was so angry about. It isn’t like it was the very first time someone had been rude to him. Besides, he’d been worse to others. Didn’t he deserve a taste of his own medicine? What the hell…are you sick Ri On-ah? He chastises, shaking his head to rid himself of his thoughts.
Tae Kwon and Ri On zipper their coats and pull on gloves and hats before leaving the warmth of the hospital. The weather is cold and the wind is biting.
“Bye Hyung, Ji Soo Hyung asked to meet with me later to go over the choreography. Are you going home?” Ri On nods. Tae Kwon smiles. “Well then…I’ll go first!” He bows quickly before stalking away towards his brand new car. He flashes a smile towards Ri On before driving off. Ri On sighs, heading towards his own car.
“Ah…Hyungnim, wae?! I said I was here!”
“YA ARE YOU TALKING BACK TO YOUR HYUNGNIM?! I SAID I CAN’T SEE YOU? WHAT SHOULD THAT TELL YOU?! OBVIOUSLY YOU MOVED!”
“I said I…ah, never mind!” The voice is so loud, he can hear right through the phone. Ri On looks up. The woman is standing right outside of the hospital entrance. Despite the below-freezing weather, her arms are bare. A wound just above her elbow has been wrapped and bandaged. She’s wearing black jeans and a pair of black boots. Her head in turned away from him.
“Seo Hyun-ah, DON’T MOVE. If you move, I won’t let it slide!” The woman takes her phone away from her ear. She looks like she might throw it against the ground, but thinks better of it. She slides it into her back jeans pocket and runs her hands through her long brown hair.
“Are you…” Ri On trails off as the woman turns to look at him. He narrows his eyes. He recognized those eyes that widen in surprise and that mouth that pops open at the sight of him. Dislike rises within him.
“Ah…Sunbaenim…annyeonghaseyo,” Park Seo Hyun bows quickly. He gets a glimpse of a white bandage on the back of her neck before she stands up again, her hair falling back in place like a thick curtain.
“So it is…Park…Seo…Hyun.” He sneers. Seo Hyun’s face reddens. She bites her bottom lip.
“About the other day…mianhaeyo. I was nervous and…upset. I know it doesn’t excuse what happened but…please be understanding of my situation.” She bows again, and for a second Ri On feels a flash of pity for the girl. Perhaps she’d had a bad day…either way, there had to be a reason she was standing outside of a hospital, yelling at some man over the phone. Was she hurt? He looks at her bandaged arms (still bare), at her lips, beginning to turn blue from the cold. He looks at her pale face, and he thinks about the bandage on her neck.
What?! Get yourself together Ri On! He shakes his head furiously. When he looks back at Seo Hyun, his original feelings of dislike have returned. “Understanding of your situation? Ha!” He scoffs. “You disrespected me! Someone four years younger than me disrespected me! And you didn’t even apologize for it!”
“Ah…joesonghamnida,” She bows again, and then again before standing straight up. She bites her bottom lip, embarrassment turning her cheeks pink. She clamps her jaws together to keep her teeth from chattering. Ri On looks over at her as she rubs her arms for warmth. He sighs.
“Where’s your coat? And why are at the hospital?” She looks away from him, biting her bottom lip even harder.
“Ah…that…it’s nothing, really,” She lies. Seo Hyun flinches slightly, remembering the boy and the board. Come to think of it, she wasn’t even sure if he was okay. Even on the verge of consciousness, she’d still kicked him hard, trusting her martial arts backing to help her out of her situation. He’d hit the bookshelf pretty hard…hopefully he was okay.
“Ya!” Ri On stops, realizing he was talking to himself. Seo Hyun looks up, surprised. “Yes Sunbaenim?” Her eyes widen slightly. Ri On rolls his eyes.
“If you’re going to day dream while I’m talking to you, at least pretend to listen!” He snarls. Her cheeks pinken once more.
“I’m s-sorry,” She chatters. The wind whips through the empty sidewalk. Her hair flies behind her and she shivers. Ri On sighs. Seo Hyun looks up and around, irritation sparking in her eyes.
“Mom-mom-mommae / mom-mom-mommae / mom-mom-mommae,” Seo Hyun fumbles for her hand phone. Ri On’s eyes widen in curiosity as he recognizes the ringtone. He smirks at Seo Hyun.
“Of course you would like…that type of music,” Seo Hyun blushes.
“Ah…yes Hyungnim?” Ri On stands to the side, waiting patiently while she answers her call.
“What?” Seo Hyun blinks in surprise. This had to be a mistake…had she heard wrong? “Ah…Hyungnim…wae?”
“Boss told me…why didn’t you tell your Hyung that you made it into…” Her Hyung pauses as if to draw out the moment. “…that you made it into…Stardom Entertainment…I shouldn’t have risked putting you out in the field. Mianhae.” Seo Hyun’s face pales. For a second, she forgets all about the cold as her body heats with anger.
“I…I…” She’s breathing harder. Her stomach lurches and she takes a deep breath.
“Seo Hyun…are you okay?” He sounds alarmed. Why does he sound alarmed?! He’d never cared about her before! He’d never apologized either! Seo Hyun’s eyes widen. She takes deep breaths, on the verge of panicking.
“I-It isn’t final…I could still be kicked out.” She says, in a whisper. “Please…” She looks at Ri On quickly, and then turns away, whispering quietly into the phone. “I’ll pay the money back some other way…I promise.”
“Ya, ya, ya, don’t you think I told Boss that? But no, he wants to ride your back to fame. You make it big, you give us the money. It’s as easy as that. Of course…we could send a few of our men to America…pay a certain someone a little…visit?”
“No! I…can we talk later?” Ri On watches the back of her head as she completes her call. She stands still for a moment before turning back to face him. He looks at her, surprised. She looked sick of the sudden. Her eyes have lost their shine and her mouth is turned in a frown. Her face is even paler than before (if that is possible) and her lips have almost entirely turned a light shade of blue. “Sunbaenim…I’ll go first,” She bows quickly and then turns to leave, but Ri On grabs onto her arm. He pulls her back so that he’s facing him.
“Is that why you auditioned?” Anger fills Ri On. He grips her arm harder until she winces from the pain. “To pay off a debt?! I knew it,” He looks up, shaking his head in disgust. “Quit while you can, kid. You’ll never make it with that mentality.” He snarls. He releases her hand and then turns to stalk away towards his car. Tears sting Seo Hyun’s eyes.
“Do you think I wanted to live like this? And, NO, that isn’t why I auditioned. But what does it matter to you anyway? I have to…do this. If I don’t, then my family gets hurt. Do you think I want that to happen? Do you think that I’m that rude and selfish that I’d live…all alone, working seven part-time jobs just to make ends meet? Do you think I wanted to watch my mother and father flee to America because they couldn’t handle the mess they created?” She screams. Ri On looks around. The front of the hospital is deserted, he realizes. But still…she’s probably loud enough to wake up the entire floor of patients.
“Okay, okay, I understand, let’s talk inside,” He tries, but can’t quite rid his voice of his anger.
“Do you think that I want to be forced to collect money from people and get my head bashed in with a board and hit people and live like a…a criminal? Do you think I like living in a small rooftop apartment that leaks all the time and lacks air conditioning and…and…do you think I like starving myself because I can’t afford to buy more than enough rice for one meal a day? Do you think I like promising myself over and over again that it will get better, it will get better Seo Hyun, and it can only go up from here? But goddammit it’s been six freaking months and…nothing…gets…better.” Her voice breaks, and she starts to cry. Tears leak out of her eyes as Ri On just stands, staring at her with his car keys hanging from his hand.
“Come on, I’ll take you ho-”
“And you aren’t any better.” She whispers, so quietly, he almost hadn’t heard. “You tease me and blame me for something that happened weeks ago. You hold on to that grudge, not caring if you hurt the people around you. Yeah, life as an idol must be so hard. You have a nice car, you probably have a nice house…you work hard, sure, but at least you have that peace of mind knowing where your next pay check is coming from or when your next meal is going to be. Sure…look down on because I’m poor and because my family is in debt and because I live alone and have a temper. Go ahead, but just remember…you didn’t start out as an idol. You had to work hard and pave your way…so why is it so bad that I want to do the same?”
Ri On recoils as if she’d slapped him in the face. For a long time, he just stands there, staring at Seo Hyun. The dark circles underneath her eyes are so dark, they could pass for bruises. He looks at her…really looks at her for the first time. Yeah, he realizes, she is skinny. Almost…to a point…it looks unnatural. Her cheekbones are pronounced and her arms are quite skinny. Her thighs are bigger, but he suspects it’s a build-up of muscle from her dance workouts that give them their volume. Her hair is long and pretty, yes, but instead of framing her face, it makes it look skinnier…sicklier.
Regret and shame fills within him. He looks down at his shoes, remembering his own time as a trainee. When he’d moved to Seoul so that he could be closer to the company…when he’d been forced to live alone, and then with other trainees who were in the same boat as him. Yes, he’d been through it. Starving himself to lose weight, and then trying to gain it all back as muscle. He’d remembered working for hours at time in the practice room, dancing until his shirt was soaked with sweat…all because he wanted to prove himself that he hadn’t been a mistake. He had…and she was right. He had a car, and a house. He could exercise without overly straining himself because he’d passed that portion of the idol life. He didn’t have to worry about where his next pay check was coming from and he didn’t have to worry about when his next meal was going to be.
He didn’t have to, but he certainly remembered a time when he had.
“Seo Hyun-ah…” He looks up at the girl. She takes a step, but wavers slightly. Her eyes unfocus and her mouth pops open as if she wants to say something. “Seo Hyun…?” He barely has time to lunge forward before she falls. He catches her just in time before her head hits the ground. He looks down at her with a sigh. He throws his head back, groaning before he slips his arms behind her and lifts her with ease. She shifts against him as he struggles to open his car door. He sits her in the seat, buckles her quickly, and then shuts the door. He stands back, looking at her through the window.
For the first time in a long time, he feels guilty. He shakes his head, climbing into his own seat, slamming the car door behind him.