A/N: Part of the Choices compilation of TaeNy over at Soshified. Check out the rest if you haven’t already: Choices
Pieces of Peace
The first thing she does is turn around. She walks into the shopping centre, her cell phone still pressed against her ear even though it’s no longer sharing a voice with her and its plastic rubs against her skin. Her legs move firmly, taking her straight to the ATM in the corner. She finally puts her phone away and scrabbles to get a card out of her wallet. Someone stops behind her, keeping a respectful distance, and lets out a little cough to let her know they’re waiting to use it too. The card slots into the machine. She taps in her PIN number. She presses a button – quick cash. Her card plops out again. Two bills slip from their slot and into her waiting fingers. She leaves without looking back, knowing there’s no receipt coming, and slips one of the bills into her pocket next to her bus card. The other is lightly folded in half in her hand, an old habit. Her shoes thud onto the pavement outside again, the glass doors closing behind her with a whisper. Her eyes lock onto the scruffy old woman sitting cross-legged on the corner, on top of a ratty old jacket, watching the people walk past.
She holds out the paper money. “Here.”
As soon as it’s in the woman’s hand, she turns around and walks away. She barely even hears the woman’s words of thanks, doesn’t see her expression as she unfolds the money, and she doesn’t look back until she’s already almost a block away. The woman is gone. She smiles; because she knows there’s a fast food restaurant just a few steps from where the woman was sitting and that money will be enough to buy her a meal there.
She jogs to catch her bus. She gives the other bill to the bus driver to put credit on her card, and she sits on a good seat to go home, and she feels empty no matter how much she overcompensates.
On the other side of the street, sitting on a low stone wall and fiddling absently with her camera, Tiffany’s gaze thoughtfully traces the steps from the shopping centre to the bus that was now gone. She swings her legs back and forth, the thick heels of her boots smacking into the stone every now and then, the contours of her knees well-defined in her skinny black jeans. She sees the homeless old woman coming out of the fast food restaurant and raises her camera to take a few snaps of the look on her face. She’s satisfied.
Tiffany smiles. She flicks the lens cover on and hops down from the low stone wall. Her bag rustles as she tucks away her camera and swings the strap over her shoulder, the fabric rubbing against faux leather. A breeze tickles the side of her neck, just below her ear, and she pulls up her hood.
Her steps echo on the pavement as she walks. She thinks about the petite girl she sees every other day, stopping whatever she’s doing to get some money from the ATM to give to whichever poor soul would be begging outside. One time the girl was intently flipping through a colourful brochure and almost tripped over the crumpled old man lying against the wall of the shopping centre. Tiffany takes a deep breath as she remembers the way the girl awkwardly bowed in apology and later ran out of the centre to give the man both her ten dollar bills. She always got two bills from the ATM and gave at least one.
Tiffany lets out the breath she was holding in, and rounds a corner to slip into a skinny alleyway. The breeze had picked up into a strong wind, blowing bits of paper and old food wrappers against her legs and under her feet.
This time the girl had been in a phone call. Her face was blank, then solemn, and then drawn in despair. Her steps had faltered as she turned her back on the direction in which the old woman sat, her shoulders twitching. After a few moments during which Tiffany’s finger stayed still on the camera’s shutter button, she abruptly spun around and entered the centre with the phone frozen in place.
Something was wrong, Tiffany thinks. Whatever the girl heard on the phone hit her hard. Tiffany sighs. She wants to get to know the girl, but she feels that the girl is more of a loner. She never walks with anyone, and she avoids people. Whenever she bumps into someone or gets in their way, she bows stiffly and keeps her eyes averted.
Tiffany halts in front of a shabby green door and raps her knuckles on the thin metal. Almost immediately it opens slightly and the glint of an eye can be seen in the darkness through the gap.
“Tiffany?” someone whispers.
Tiffany widens her eyes, leans closer, and whispers back, “Weirdo?”
The door opens fully to show a tall, black haired young woman who glances around behind Tiffany before looking at her again. “No need to get snarky. I’m just being careful.”
“Whatever, Yuri,” Tiffany replies, briefly rolling her eyes. “All that’s in there is a holey couch, a busted minifridge, and a darkroom on the other side of a paper-thin door. It’s not like you’re guarding a Fabergé egg.”
Yuri just blinks and bites her bottom lip nervously. Her lack of reply makes Tiffany frown.
“What?” she asks, eyes following the lines of worry on her friend’s face. “You’re not guarding a Fabergé egg, right? Please don’t tell me there’s a Fabergé egg in there.”
Yuri’s hand shoots out and she tugs her inside with a tight grip on her arm. The door slams shut behind them.
“God, turn on the light, will you? What the heck is going on?”
The fluorescent light clicks on and she blinks rapidly. Yuri shuffles over to the couch and sits on the edge, wringing her hands together and looking stressed. Tiffany watches for a moment. Then she sighs, lowers her bag onto the floor, dumps her jacket on top of it, and goes to sit down next to her friend.
“What’s wrong?” she asks softly. Her hand strokes Yuri’s spine gently. “Did something happen?”
Yuri takes a few deep, shaky breaths to calm down, and fails to become any calmer. She reaches underneath the couch and flourishes a brown paper bag. It nearly rips when she unfolds the top and pushes it towards Tiffany.
A sizeable lump of bundled cash stares up at her.
Tiffany’s jaw drops, and her hands grab onto the bag to bring it even closer to her face. She shakes it, watches as the cash jiggles around, and she splutters.
“What the hell is this?!”
“Money,” Yuri whimpers. She lets go of the bag and wipes her hands on her jeans as if she could get rid of the connection. “I found it in the darkroom. It was just sitting there on the bench. I thought you got here early and left your lunch or something but those are not BLT sandwiches, are they? No they are not.”
Tiffany gapes at the money in the bag. There are bundles of medium to large amounts, probably totalling hideously high digits. She plucks out a bundle and drops the bag onto the couch between them, making a soft thumping noise, and she flicks through the paper money with awe.
“What was this doing in the darkroom?” she murmurs.
“That’s what I’d like to know.”
“Who has access to this place?”
Yuri takes a breath and lists names on her fingers. “You, me, Jessica, Sunny, Seohyun, Yoona, Hyoyeon, Sooyoung and Taeyeon.”
Tiffany looks up. “I only recognise, like, three of those names.”
“No, you know Hyoyeon, we got that spare roll of film from her at the CD store where she works, and she has five piercings in each ear.”
“Oh, right, I remember her. Well who are the people I don’t know?”
Tiffany ripples through the bundle of notes one last time before dropping it back into the brown paper bag and folding the top closed again.
“Yoona is my next door neighbour, Sooyoung is my cubicle buddy at the office, and Taeyeon is a friend from high school.”
Tiffany locks her gaze onto Yuri’s eyes, her expression deadly serious. “And which one of all these people do you think is most likely to leave a paper bag full of money on the darkroom bench?”
Yuri runs a hand through her hair and huffs. “I don’t know, do I? I have no idea what is going on here. None of them seem likely to leave a lottery prize just lying around here like a bag of potatoes. What should we do?!”
“Okay, deep breaths,” Tiffany says calmly, putting her hands on Yuri’s shoulders. “Let’s just relax for now. We should contact each of the people who have access to this place and ask them if they left a brown paper bag here. Don’t mention the money yet. If none of them left it here, we take it to the cops. Got it?”
“Okay,” Yuri nods, “got it.”
“Now, you go talk to those friends of yours and I’ll talk to Jessica, Seohyun and Sunny later.”
“It’s a simple question, Sunny,” Tiffany insists, eyes narrowing with building suspicion. “Did you or did you not leave a brown paper bag in the darkroom? You won’t get in trouble if it was you.”
Sunny looks up and rolls her eyes. “I meant it when I said no, Tiffany. Now could you move? You keep jumping in front of my customers and my supervisor is going to be pissed.”
Tiffany eyes her for a moment longer before sighing and stepping out of the way. The row of customers behind her barely conceal their relief, and she rests her hip against the counter to let her thoughts change track while Sunny takes orders.
Nothing so far from any of the people she has questioned. The back of her mind still burns with the image of all that money, slumping in that brown paper disguise. Sunny is her last stop of the day. Tiffany takes a bite of the fries Sunny forced her to buy earlier, and wonders if Yuri has had any success. The strap of her bag brushes against the counter as she scrabbles through her pockets to get her phone.
Yuri answers on the third ring.
“No luck,” Yuri reports. “Although I haven’t had a chance to talk to Taeyeon properly. She’s unusually unresponsive today. I’m thinking of driving over to her place after dinner tonight. She should be home then.”
“Do you think there’s a chance it might have been her? It might not be worth it to bother her at home if there’s no way it was her.”
“She won’t mind,” Yuri says. “Do you want to come along? I think she’d like to meet you.”
Tiffany blinks and stares down at the empty container in her hand where the fries used to be. She mulls over the idea of meeting this mysterious Taeyeon. She likes meeting new people. “Uh, sure, if you think it won’t be bothersome…”
“It’ll be fine. I’ll pick you up at your place around eight?”
Tiffany checks how much battery is left on her phone before slipping it away again, and turns back to Sunny to see her handing a customer a receipt with a smile.
“So what’s the big deal about this bag, anyway?” Sunny asks when she’s done, crossing her arms as she raises an eyebrow at Tiffany. “You seem awfully persistent about it.”
Tiffany tries her hardest to seem nonchalant as she shrugs and says, “I’d just like to return it to its rightful owner, that’s all. It might be important to them and they forgot it.”
“Right, of course,” Sunny says. “Just be careful, ok? Don’t get in trouble over this.”
Tiffany blinks at her. “Why do you think I would be getting into trouble by trying to find the person who left a brown paper bag in a shared darkroom?”
There’s a brief pause as Sunny grabs a bag of food from behind her and passes it on to a customer who was waiting on the other end of the counter. Then she turns back to Tiffany and says, with a straight face, “Drugs. A bunch of young people sharing a darkroom, a mysterious brown paper bag… it has to be drugs. Did you look inside it?”
“No, of course not,” Tiffany replies immediately, and a tendril of her thoughts wisp down the lane of drugs. What if it was drug money? “It’s someone else’s private property, I can’t go looking in it for no reason.”
“No reason? Tiffany, someone left it there. Did you even think you could find some form of identification inside?”
Tiffany shrugs. “Maybe I’ll do that as a last resort. There’s only one person who hasn’t said if it’s theirs or not, so there’s no point looking in it now. If it’s not hers, then I’ll try something else.”
She hopes her words are believable. Pretending not to have looked in the bag was not something she had thought through, because as Sunny said it would be a natural response. It’s almost over now anyway.
What will she do if it turns out to be Taeyeon’s? Should she continue to pretend she doesn’t know what’s inside – if she can – or should she find out? But perhaps there is danger.
Tiffany blinks again. Sunny is clicking her fingers in front of Tiffany’s face and giving her the weirdest look she’s witnessed in a long time. From this sequence, Tiffany rightfully deducts that she has been spacing out in the middle of a conversation for an impolite period of time. She whips out a smile and starts to back away.
“Well thanks for your help, Sunny, I have to go. Have a nice day at work!”
It’s clear Sunny won’t let the odd behaviour go without discussion, but Tiffany tucks it away in the back of her mind and goes back to thinking about the money. It’s tucked away at the bottom of her bag, its place decided after a brief argument between her and Yuri.
She can’t wait to meet Taeyeon.
Tiffany is nervous as they reach Taeyeon’s front door. The money is still in her bag, and its presence is making her anxious. She can’t help but wonder what Taeyeon is like, because it is becoming more and more likely that the money is hers.
Yuri gives her a weird look much like Sunny’s, and Tiffany knows it’s because she’s shuffling awkwardly and tugging at the sleeves of her jacket. She returns the look with a raised eyebrow and then avoids eye contact. Yuri finally rings the doorbell.
After a solid minute of silence, the door clicks open. There is Taeyeon.
Tiffany can’t help but stare. Her eyes widen at the sight of the girl, because this is not only the mysterious Taeyeon who probably owns the money but it is also the kind, sweet girl who gives money to the homeless at every opportunity and stumbles around town, distracted by something serious.
Taeyeon barely spares her a glance – although there seems to be something in her eyes when she looks at Tiffany; is the recognition somehow mutual? She turns to Yuri and gives a bland smile.
“Hey, I didn’t realise you were visiting me tonight,” Taeyeon says. Tiffany thinks her voice is lovely. “What’s the occasion?”
Yuri laughs too much and comes too close to smacking Tiffany in the face when she waves a hand in the air. “No special occasion. Just felt like hanging out. This is Tiffany; she shares the darkroom with us.”
Their eyes meet again and this time Tiffany is quick to switch on a friendly smile. Taeyeon returns it with some feeling, and they give each other a cautious nod of greeting.
“Well, come in,” says Taeyeon, and steps aside for them to enter.
Once they’re all seated in the living room, Yuri and Tiffany on the tense dark couch and Taeyeon in the blood-red armchair, Yuri decided to take the leap.
“So, we found a brown paper bag in the dark room and we were wondering if it’s yours?”
Taeyeon blinked at them, expressionless. After a stretched moment of quiet breathing, Tiffany rummaged in her bag and brought out the item in question, helpfully displaying it for Taeyeon.
At last Taeyeon shows a reaction. Her throat moves as she swallows and her lips twitch in an expression of reluctance.
“Well you know I’m bad at lying,” she says. She sighs. “Yes, it’s mine. And I’m assuming you’ve looked inside or you wouldn’t be so jumpy right now.”
Yuri and Tiffany share a glance, wondering what to say next, but Taeyeon doesn’t give them a chance to think.
“Keep it,” she says abruptly, standing and turning around aimlessly.
“Excuse me?” Yuri blurts out, eyes nearly boggling from her head. “We are talking about the same bag, right? The piles of gorgeous cash? Taeyeon, what’s going on?”
Tiffany looks from Yuri to Taeyeon and back, muscles stiff in shock and uncertainty. Her eyes widen when Taeyeon turns around to reveal her tear-streaked face, and she vaguely wonders if she should leave, but she’s glued to the couch.
“Just take it, okay? I left it there for you,” her eyes flick to Tiffany and away again, “for all of you who share the darkroom with me. I want it to be used to maintain the place and fund your hobby. I want you all to keep pursuing photography for as long as you can.”
Yuri can’t even say anything, her face frozen in an expression of confusion, concern, panic, consternation. After the tension has become so tightly strung it could snap, Tiffany gets up and slowly stands in front of Taeyeon with the bag of money rustling in her hands.
“Look, I don’t know you well,” Tiffany says, “Well I’ve seen you around but we’ve never met, and actually I’ve been taking photos of you…”
Taeyeon stares at her.
“But I’m worried now, even though I don’t know you well, because you seem like a good person and it seems like something bad is happening to you.”
Taeyeon keeps staring at her.
Finally Yuri explodes from the couch, grabs Taeyeon by the shoulders and nearly screams, “Taeyeon what is going on?!”
To which Taeyeon immediately screams back, “I’m dying, okay?! I’m dying!”
Rushed breathing follows the trail of words as they fade away unhindered. Yuri’s body is shaking, Taeyeon’s body is tensely coiled like a spring, and Tiffany feels totally intrusive but irrevocably locked in, stuck in the atmosphere that falls on them.
“I don’t have much time left,” Taeyeon whispers, stepping out of Yuri’s grasp. “And I want you guys to have the money.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Yuri asks, sounding almost calm. “What are you talking about?”
It looks like Taeyeon is struggling to find words to answer, feeling pressured to say something to one of her best friends, and it’s almost tangible in the air as the heat builds up.
“Just go, okay?”
Not what Tiffany was expecting. She stares at Taeyeon in the same way Taeyeon stared at her, and for a moment their eyes meet and clash, and then Taeyeon is pushing them both out the door and slamming it shut.
Yuri claws at her head, but she seems to know Taeyeon won’t open the door for her again, so she storms away.
Tiffany looks down at the money in her hands. Gingerly, she pats it and puts it down in front of Taeyeon’s door. She wishes it could somehow go inside and heal everything.
Tiffany hasn’t heard from Yuri or anyone else who shares the darkroom during the day following the incident, but she hasn’t been seeking them out either. Her mind is still swirling with thoughts stirred up by everything she’s learned. She met Taeyeon, at last, got a feel for her behaviour, characteristics, the sound of her voice, the impact of her gaze face to face – and she found out that Taeyeon is dying, which answers her un-verbalized questions and leaves her with a whole lot to think about.
She decides to finally develop all the film-photographs that she has taken of Taeyeon. She uses a mix of digital and film for all photography, and thinks the process of developing film will assist her contemplation.
She’s just finished hanging them up on the wire, thoughts unmoved, Taeyeon walks in with heavy steps and the infamous brown paper bag in one hand. The door quickly clicks shut behind her.
They stare at each other in the red-washed light.
Taeyeon drops the brown paper bag on the bench and walks around the room, inspecting each hanging photograph. She flicks a few with the tip of her thumbnail.
She stops at a photograph that shows her on the day she gave a homeless old man all her cash after she almost tripped over him.
“These photographs tell a story,” Taeyeon says, “Would you like to know the story you’ve been recording so diligently, Tiffany?”
Tiffany blinks, and her heart rate increases. Yes, she certainly does want to know, but the curve of Taeyeon’s shoulders and the emptiness of her stance makes her wonder if she has any right to ask. Taeyeon doesn’t turn to look at her, doesn’t even make any indication that she’s not alone despite having just asked her a question. That shows Tiffany – and her thought is soon confirmed – that Taeyeon isn’t waiting for an answer.
“This,” Taeyeon begins, “is the story of a young student.”
She reaches up and plucks the photograph off its wire, letting it fall onto the bench. Tiffany gasps, and steps forward as if to stop her from ruining the photos, but Taeyeon keeps talking and moving, plucking down all the photos of herself as she tells the story.
“This young student,” she continues, flicking her photographic head with a finger before ripping the photo down, “has been plagued by illnesses all her life, physical and mental, and it has been a long, heavy struggle for her to reach the point she is at. She has managed to believe – at last, she believes – that she can have a good life, a normal life, she can build up to that and then it will be okay. She finally does believe that it’s possible. She won’t have to wake up every morning with pain in her body and her heart, and cry before dragging herself out of bed. Sometimes she still falls out of bed, it’s the only way it’ll happen, and she can’t rest at night until she induces sleep. But now, here she is, she has climbed all the way here, and she can keep going, she believes it, she knows she can do it, she will have life.”
Taeyeon pauses again at a photograph. It captures her on a cloudy day, a cigarette between her lips, squinting into the breeze that annoyed her. Taeyeon smiles slightly at the memory of that day, of that very moment, immortalised in this photograph. She reaches out and touches her photo-face. Tiffany remembers that day too, the feeling of disappointment at first that Taeyeon was a smoker, then amusement as the battle to light the cigarette went on. The smoking only lasted a few weeks.
“She even thinks she’s safe enough to try out some things that millions of other people do – because she’s one of them now, just a person in the world.”
Taeyeon retracts her hand from the photo and touches her real mouth, tracing her bottom lip as she remembers something else. The blood. The tiny droplets that marked her final cigarette and gave her a warning sign, the touch of her mouth that came away reddened. The resignation with which she threw away the rest of the pack, the sluggishness as she told herself to stop fooling around.
She discards the photograph, and moves on.
“This student, believing she has glimpsed something like happiness in the distance and she can get there at least once, does not make it after all.”
The last photograph of Taeyeon lands face-down on the surface of the bench and the red-lit room is silent for a moment in the aftermath. Taeyeon doesn’t look at Tiffany, still, and raises her head to face the ceiling.
“She’s learned a lot in her life,” Taeyeon says to the heavens. “Some of it, she wishes she didn’t have to know so well. She learns one more thing. The age of twenty-five – give or take a couple of years – is to be the end.”
She lowers her head, hunches her shoulders tightly.
“Not quite the ending I meant,” Taeyeon whispers. “I thought I was heading for an end to my pain and deep-hitting horror, not an end to my entire possibility of life.”
Silence stretches itself and lounges over them like a sociopathic tyrant.
“Because that’s life, right?” Taeyeon says. She turns and stares at Tiffany. “Life is death.”
Tiffany gapes like a fish in a desert on the moon. Is there a thing that can be said at this time? An action that can be taken? Taeyeon seems to be looking at her expectantly, but then the look is gone and she turns to the door, ready to leave.
“Thanks for taking such nice pictures,” she says over her shoulder, pausing. “I probably didn’t ruin all of them. But I wish I could have.”
And just like that, she’s gone.
And Tiffany is lost.
Taeyeon will end up meaning more to her than she ever could have thought from one person, in a mix of both positive and negative, an influence that will push her into a spin, confusion, clarity, shards of something she can’t grasp for long enough.