Think Twice. (Part 2)

Taeyeon found it only fitting to use Deep Purple’s music for her morning routine. The new floors were smooth and the hallway had enough room for her air guitar as she slide-danced her away through the house. Another good thing about this area was the fact that the houses were far enough apart that she could blast her music as loud as she wanted without anticipating banging against the wall from disgruntled neighbours.

And there was the fact that she was free to do whatever the hell she wanted.

As the song switched, she pretended she knew how to play the drums and turned the corner into her kitchen with arms flailing. When she found the same two eggs in her fridge, she promptly spun around and swept back to her bedroom. If she got ready fast enough she could get some better breakfast before her morning meeting.

Most of her professional clothes were still crumpled from the move, but she managed to straighten them out well enough to look presentable.

Taeyeon hated meetings. Some of the more bureaucratic clients especially liked to make meetings unnecessarily long and complicated. Business talk got boring fast. But there were bills to be paid so Taeyeon shrugged at her reflection in the mirror, pulled a face, and almost sped out the front door without her shoes.

As an afterthought, she went back inside and turned off the music, too.

She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel absently and thought about how differently she would have behaved just a few years ago. Depending on which year she chose to think about, she’d either be remembering someone too scared to make any noise or someone too reckless to care. She clicked her tongue and started the car, trying to focus on the street in front of her driveway.

The random moments of contemplation were becoming more frequent as she got older. It had yet to happen while she was in a meeting, but often when she was working at home she would spend several long minutes staring into space. One day it could end up harming her productivity, but she shrugged it off anyway, because she spent so much time alone there wasn’t really any need to work fast.

And apparently thinking about not paying attention made her not pay attention, so she almost rammed into a car and figured she came close to stamping a hole through the floor of the car with the force she used to step on the brake.

It was the kid from across the street. He stared wide-eyed at her through his windshield, and Taeyeon knew that look. It wasn’t the shock of being in a car that just got hit by another car. It was the fear of facing punishment.

Taeyeon got out of her car hurriedly, the clumsy action of clambering past the door making her twist her wrist uncomfortably. When she reached the boy’s car, she tapped on the window impatiently before telling herself to slow down so she didn’t scare him further.

With trepidation, he let the window down, his mouth already moving to speak. Taeyeon had no doubt the apologies would be profuse, but she cut him off.

“Are you all right? I’m so sorry for hitting your car, I completely spaced out, which was really irresponsible of me.” Taeyeon swallowed her nerves and hoped her contrite expression was making the kid feel better and not worse. “I hope the impact wasn’t too rough on you.”

He blinked at her for a slow moment. “No I’m- I’m okay, thanks. It was probably my fault, sorry, I always make mistakes when I’m driving, I –”

“No, no, it’s not your fault at all!” Taeyeon said. She held up her hands in as placating a manner as she could manage while trying not to shake. “This one’s definitely on me. I got lost in my thoughts and didn’t pay attention to the road. I’m really sorry, I could have hurt you.”

He was frowning now, and he looked like he wanted to throw up. Taeyeon knew he still felt responsible but her behaviour was making it hard for him to form words. She stepped back and pointed at her watch.

“Anyway, I’ve got to get going. I’ll reverse back into my driveway and then you can go first, how’s that? If there’s any damage to your car, just let me know and I’ll pay for repairs, all right?”

She turned on her heel and got back into her car, doing as she said she would. The boy didn’t look at her as he awkwardly adjusted the positioning of his car, and the speed at which he left the street made it look as if he was expecting something to crush the back of his car at any moment. Taeyeon could picture giant steel jaws clamping down on the kid as he drove away, formed by his own guilt and dread.

Her head lowered automatically with the thought. She closed her eyes and focussed on her breathing. Eight seconds of inhalation, three seconds of pause, and eight seconds of exhalation. The only other sound in her car was the ticking of her wristwatch, and slowly she put her hands on the steering wheel again.

The incident with the cars didn’t take up much time, so Taeyeon still went to get breakfast when she reached the corporate district. She ran a finger over her mouth as she stared at the food in front of her, and her stomach suddenly felt like a solid wall of flesh. After trying to convince herself that it was worth it to eat, she abandoned the attempt. She was ten minutes late to the meeting.

The client wasn’t alone. His boss, the owner of the franchise chain, gave her a stern look and spent five minutes harassing her for being late. She knew before the real business was even discussed that this guy didn’t like the fact that she had been hired to be the document controller for this branch. Whether it was because she was a freelancer, a woman, or didn’t have as much experience as he preferred, she didn’t know, but these were the problems she had prepared herself for when she started the job.

They went over the documents, the schedules, and the upcoming general annual meeting for which Taeyeon needed to edit and approve the agenda and annual report input for the branch, and then the boss glared at her really hard before he let her leave.

She rolled her eyes when she was out of sight. Grown men were so childish.

In the safety of her car, Taeyeon tossed her folder onto the backseat and unbuttoned her blouse to near the point of indecency. She hated wearing office clothes. She got away with keeping it simple but it made her feel stiff and choked no matter how soft the fabric was.

She hummed along to a pop song on the radio as she eased her car along the near-empty streets to get home. Most of the work and school crowd had made their way through the city. Her window was down and she rested an arm half out the door, creating a breeze with her steady speed.

The humming progressed to whistling by the time she got home, and she was almost about to sing along with the chorus as she looked over her shoulder to back the car into the driveway – but then Tiffany Hwang popped up next to her window and she yelped in fright.

“Holy fu- fish sticks, where did you come from?”

Tiffany laughed and raised her eyebrows. “From across the street. I guess you didn’t see me since you were looking behind you.”

Taeyeon put a hand over her heart and started to make a joke. Then she noticed how Tiffany’s eyes followed the movement of her hand and lingered on her chest. In that split second she recalled the fact that her shirt was unbuttoned and Tiffany could most likely see her cleavage from that angle. With as much smoothness as she could muster in the wave of panic that flared up, she shifted her hand to cover a little more of her chest and cleared her throat nervously.

Tiffany’s gaze moved back up and she smiled. “So, what’s your schedule like for the rest of the day? Are you free for lunch later?”

For a brief moment Taeyeon let herself be confused; she wondered if Tiffany really just checked her out, and then she shelved her curiousity for later. “Um, sure, I’m free. My schedule is usually pretty flexible. What did you have in mind?”

“Well, today is my regular day off, and I always have ice cream on my day off. It just so happens there’s an amazing Italian restaurant next to my favourite ice cream place. How does that sound to you?”

Tiffany was leaning against the car now, smiling through the window at Taeyeon, and she crossed her arms just below her chest.

Taeyeon stared with much terror at Tiffany’s face. There was no way she would let herself get caught ogling her neighbour’s chest, but it was right in front of her and with the way she was standing and that shirt – Taeyeon coughed.

“Sure, that sounds great. What time were you thinking?”

“How about one o’clock? I’ll come get you.”

“Great. Awesome. Um, I’ll see you then.”

Tiffany grinned. “See you later, Taeyeon.”

Taeyeon kept staring at Tiffany all the way up until she disappeared into her own house. She shook her head at herself and murmured, “Was I being weird or was she being weird?”

The arrangement left her enough time to get some work done, so she settled at her desk in more casual clothes and opened all the relevant documents. She gazed at the screen for half an hour, daydreaming about commercial space travel, then she altered the formatting of the document in precise detail, and finally she spent an hour soaking up cat videos on the internet. She was smiling at a fat cat sleeping on its back when her smartphone started vibrating.

Frowning, she checked the display. The sight of an unknown number made her hesitate and bite her bottom lip, but eventually she steeled herself and answered it.

“Hello?

“Hey, it’s me. I haven’t heard from you for a while, how’s it going?”

Taeyeon swallowed hard. “How did you get my new number?”

“From that friend of yours. The really tall one. How come you changed it?”

“It was just time for a change. Did you need something?”

The voice on the other end chuckled. “No, of course not. I just wanted to hear what my big sister’s been up to. No one knows where you are these days, have you been busy with work?”

Taeyeon thought about how she spent the past month moving to another city, only told a few people about it, and did the bare minimum amount of work. “Yeah, I’ve been super busy. It’s that time of year, you know, companies are changing over to the new tax year. Lots of paperwork.”

“Well, that’s too bad. We should get together sometime and have coffee. Mother’s been asking about you.”

Taeyeon hesitated for as long as she dared. “Oh, is that so? Well, I guess you can let her know I’ve been busy. Um, I’m not sure when I’ll be free, but I’ll give you a call. I have to go now, okay? Let me know if you need anything. Any time. Love you, bye.”

She hung up before her sister could reply. Her fingers tightened around the phone in her hand, and she felt her palms getting clammy. Through the heavy thudding of her heartbeat, she tried to take deep breaths.

It was a stupid idea to avoid giving her new number to her sister when she moved. She couldn’t bring herself to tell her that she was moving, but hearing her voice made her feel like a bad sister. She wanted to be there if anything happened, and to help her, but instead she ran away without a word.

When she closed her eyes, she thought about the call. Her sister sounded so young on the phone. Small and frail. She was just a kid, even though she was almost done with high school. Maybe she was tired and that was why she sounded a little weak. Taeyeon probably sounded the same at her age.

Leaving her sister behind was a cowardly thing to do, and she felt it more now than ever.

She contemplated her options. For a moment she was seriously considering going back, just for her sister, but there was no way she could be in that place anymore. It would nullify the years she spent sleeping on friends’ couches while she studied and worked. She fought to get away, and finally she was completely gone. Maybe she should have taken her sister with her, but she knew her sister wasn’t ready for that.

“You’re pathetic, Taeyeon,” she whispered to herself.

There was a substantial weight in her chest. She had no idea how long she stayed sitting there, thinking and feeling, but it was long enough that she was shaken by the sound of her doorbell.

She blinked in the direction of the door. It was time for lunch with Tiffany. She took quick breaths. When she looked at her phone again, she saved the unfamiliar number under her sister’s name. Then she jumped up and went to meet Tiffany.

“Hey there. You ready to go?”

Taeyeon returned the smile and locked the door behind her. “Let’s go.”

Lunch with Tiffany turned out to be as comfortable as the evening they spent together the day before. Taeyeon managed to make a few jokes about her work that garnered sincere laughs from Tiffany, and the food was easy to eat. It didn’t take long for the phone call to be pushed to the back of her mind. It might have had something to do with the brightness of Tiffany’s expression, the excitement in her voice as she told stories about her career and her life, and the way she flicked her hair back every now and then.

“I don’t think I have much of a knack for fashion,” Taeyeon said, shaking her head. “I don’t get how it’s considered stylish to buy ripped-up jeans for hundreds of dollars. Or anything for hundreds of dollars, really. It’s insane.”

“Oh, I know what you mean,” Tiffany answered, rolling her eyes. She kept a hand in front of her mouth as she chewed, which amused Taeyeon, before she continued. “I always tell my clients that they don’t need to fall for that trap. Just because something costs hundreds of dollars doesn’t mean it’s better than everything else. Especially that ‘distressed’ look where the clothes are meant to look well-worn already. They don’t make the prices high because the material is superior. I want my clients to have an outfit that lasts, so I get them to look for the lower-cost, better-quality stuff.”

“You take good care of them,” Taeyeon commented. She shifted her cutlery around on her empty plate. “No wonder you’re so successful. Your clients must appreciate your attitude.”

Tiffany looked shy for a moment, but Taeyeon could tell she took pride in her success.

“I think they’ve gotten used to people assuming that they should spend a lot of money just because they have a lot of money. But if there’s one thing I learned from my father, it’s the importance of being smart with finances. Even celebrities can get a lot of value from a good bargain and a worthwhile investment.”

Taeyeon smiled and it was only a little strained. “Good advice.” She saw Tiffany’s plate was empty and said, “So, how about that ice cream?”

Tiffany’s favourite ice cream place had a variety of chocolate-laced flavours, which pleased Taeyeon immensely, and she was already absorbed in her treat when Tiffany led them to the nearby riverside to walk while they ate.

“I hope I’m not keeping you from your work for too long,” Tiffany said as they ambled along the path.

Taeyeon glanced at her watch. They’d been out for two hours. She was surprised, but not particularly concerned. “It’s okay. I was mostly watching cat videos. I can just work tonight.”

“Where did you live before you moved here?”

Taeyeon spent a moment consuming her ice cream. It was inevitable that Tiffany would ask more questions about her, since she already learned about Tiffany’s family – one business-owner brother, one forensics-student sister, one retired-CEO father, one deceased mother, one cat who ran away, and one small dog – as well as the book Tiffany was currently reading, and the fact that her car was making a weird noise but she couldn’t be bothered taking it to a shop.

“A small town a couple of hours away,” Taeyeon said eventually. “Well, I lived with a friend on the other side of town here but that was only for a few weeks while I looked for a place and found new clients.”

She felt Tiffany’s gaze on the side of her face but she ignored it and focussed on her ice cream.

“Do you have any pets?”

Taeyeon shook her head.

“Don’t like them or just didn’t have the time?” Tiffany ventured as she finished her ice cream, wiping her hands on her denim shorts and licking her lips.

Taeyeon paused. “Never really settled long enough, I guess. It wouldn’t be fair to the pet.”

Tiffany nodded in acknowledgement. Taeyeon could almost see the gears working in her head as she considered the next question.

“You should get a dog,” Tiffany said eventually. She turned to walk backwards so that she could give Taeyeon a grin. “Something small, like my Prince Fluffy.”

Taeyeon raised her eyebrows briefly. “I’ll think about it.”

Tiffany stopped walking, her expression softening into something less playful. Taeyeon could almost read it in her eyes. Concern, sympathy, hesitation; it was like she wanted to say a lot of things but was willing to say nothing at all if that was what was necessary. They stared at each other.

“You should come meet him some time,” Tiffany murmured. “My dog, I mean. You can get to know what he’s like and see if it’s what you want.”

Taeyeon tilted her head. Get to know the dog? Sure, she could do that. But figure out what she wanted – that was something completely different, and right now it had nothing to do with any dog.

Tiffany was really pretty.

“I think that would be great,” said Taeyeon.

Maybe if she got a dog, it would help her sleep better.

Or Tiffany.

Not that she was really likely to get either.

Think Twice. (Part 1)

On the first day in her new house, Taeyeon saw one neighbour and heard another. The first was a young woman around her age, smiling at her as she hopped into her car, clearly on the way to work. She seemed happy and comfortable, and Taeyeon took this as a sign that the neighbourhood was not immediately dangerous. She couldn’t help but notice the way the young woman glanced appreciatively at the shirtless (male) furniture movers as they stepped out of the truck, and she sighed at the likelihood that maybe she wouldn’t have a lot in common with that particular neighbour.

The second neighbour she encountered that morning was a middle-aged woman who looked harried as she opened the door for a courier. She signed and stood staring at the package in her hand for several minutes. Then she turned and shouted something into the house. She kept yelling as she closed the door behind her, and Taeyeon ended up having to share an awkward look with one of the movers as her screaming echoed in the background of their activities.

A mixed beginning to her new life.

Part of her was afraid to enter the new house. She’d seen it before but the viewing had lasted little more than ten minutes. All she’d wanted to check was the bedrooms and the facilities. Everything was there, so she double-checked the rent and filled out an application. That same day her application was approved, two days later she paid the deposit, and less than a week after that she stood in the sweltering summer heat hoping the movers wouldn’t drop her computer, listening to the sounds of her angry neighbour.

When the sun was reaching its peak, she handed a sweaty man her credit card and waited as he processed the payment. Across the street and to the right, the door to the screaming woman’s house slammed open and a dishevelled teenage boy hurried out to the car in the driveway. He seemed to fumble with the keys, which made him scratch the door. He paused, and then cursed loudly, hitting himself on the side of the head with the heel of his palm repeatedly. Taeyeon frowned. She watched as he seemed to calm himself down and get into the car. As he drove away, she tried to catch a look at his face, but couldn’t see anything. His car turned a corner and he was gone.

She realised her credit card was hovering just below her nose and blinked at it. With a nervous smile, she took her card and receipt from the man and they said their goodbyes. She remained standing beside her new mailbox as the truck left.

She thought about the neighbours she’d seen, and wondered what kind of place her new home would be.

A cat wandered over from across the street. Following the direction it came from, Taeyeon could see two more cats lounging in the now empty driveway of the screaming neighbour’s house. The one at her feet peered up at her and allowed a chin scratching. Taeyeon watched as it turned and went back to its house. At least the screaming lady’s cats seemed nice.

It took her most of the afternoon to figure out where to put everything. In the end she had to move three bookcases and her desk, and she had to reassemble her bed. She figured it was a good arrangement but the heap of boxes in the corner threatened to change the situation as they revealed their contents. And, since she was thinking about it, the corner where the boxes currently stood would be better for that one bookshelf anyway. She squinted at the boxes, knowing it would be a lot of work, and went to the kitchen instead.

Taeyeon didn’t spend a lot of time in the kitchen, but she was a decent cook – in the sense that the slightly-below-average meals she was capable of creating weren’t immediately poisonous. Therefore she had only the bare basics a kitchen required, and she had a basically bare kitchen. Everything fit well into the drawers and cupboards, her fridge held two eggs and three cans of beer, and she was done unpacking that area of the new house in less than ten minutes.

She went out of the kitchen and looked at the boxes again.

It was nearing four o’clock in the afternoon, she was hot and sweaty and tired, and she didn’t want to have a measly egg-and-beer dinner (again). So instead of beginning the immense task of unpacking what seemed like hundreds of boxes when she’d only just finished packing them the night before, she took the time to make sure her internet connection was working, set up her laptop, and ordered pizza online.

As she waited for the delivery, she listened to her movie-soundtrack playlist in the background and skimmed through the news of the day. More wars, more problems, more politics, more humans, more science, more entertainment – oh, wait. She clicked on the entertainment section, leaning closer to the screen as she skimmed one of the articles.

Tiffany Hwang. This was apparently the name of the young woman who she saw that morning. Tiffany Hwang, local fashion consultant, aged twenty-six, and on the list of up-and-coming industry-changing entrepreneurs. Taeyeon knew this because some significant fashionista posted an Instagram dedication to Tiffany for saving her from a styling disaster at a recent nightclub opening, and this made the news because… well, it made the news, and now Taeyeon knew the name of her neighbour and felt immediately pressured.

They had only briefly made eye-contact that morning; it would be simple to ignore her from that point onwards. Taeyeon took a deep breath. There was no need to prepare for any kind of socializing. She looked at the boxes in the corner to remind herself that she would be stuck in her new house for the weekend, getting everything unpacked.

The doorbell rang and she had to think for a moment before deciding the unfamiliar noise was definitely coming from her front door. She grabbed her wallet and slid along the wooden flooring of the hallway on her socks. She almost slammed into the door but caught herself just in time – and then still lost her balance and fell against the wall. Having taken a few breaths to settle down again, she opened the door already feeling nervous but primed to receive pizza and small talk.

“Tiffany Hwang,” was not what she intended to say, or what she expected to say, but it was a knee-jerk reaction because that was the name of the person standing in front of her door.

Tiffany, who was smiling, frowned slightly. “Hi. Sorry, I didn’t expect you to already know me.”

Taeyeon winced, feeling her insides crinkle with embarrassment. “Um, I don’t. Not really. I just – I was just looking through the news and there was an, um, article about you.”

Tiffany’s expression became disappointed for a moment before going blank. “Oh. Well, I thought I’d come say hello and welcome you to the neighbourhood, since I noticed you this morning on the way to work. Nice to meet you…?” She held out a hand politely, smiling again.

Taeyeon wiped her palms hurriedly on her shorts before completing the handshake. “I’m Taeyeon. I just moved here today.” She froze. “Well, you already knew that. I mean, it’s, I – nice to meet you. Tiffany.”

Tiffany kept smiling for a while as they ended the handshake, then she looked down briefly. When she met Taeyeon’s eyes again, she said sincerely, “Look, I hope it doesn’t freak you out. Reading an article about me and then meeting me. I’m nothing special, and I’m your neighbour who wants to welcome you to the community. Please don’t feel awkward around me?”

Before Taeyeon could respond, the loud screeching of brakes came as a beat-up car stopped in front of her driveway. They watched as the delivery boy clambered out, reached back in to bring out the pizza, and practically sprinted up to her door.

“Hi, is this yours?” he gasped, out of breath, almost colliding into Tiffany on the doorstep.

Taeyeon eyed him. “Probably. Keep the change.”

He grabbed the money she held out, shoved the pizza at her, and raced back to his car. When he was gone, tires squealing in the distance, Taeyeon looked at Tiffany again.

“I don’t want you to think I’m being awkward because of the article thing,” Taeyeon said quickly. “It’s kind of intimidating to meet someone even semi-famous, but mostly I’m just awkward all the time anyway. I don’t want to make a bad impression, but would you like to come in and have some pizza?”

As much as she disliked impromptu socializing, Taeyeon was able to recover from the shock eventually. Tiffany seemed nice, and it was kind of her to come over. She clearly had good intentions and Taeyeon didn’t want to make her feel bad.

Taeyeon felt this was the right decision, as they sat on her couch surrounded by boxes and bags, sharing a pizza and listening to the birds outside through the wide open windows. It turned out Tiffany was very easy to talk to, aside from her usual nervousness, and soon Taeyeon didn’t feel intimidated at all.

Besides, the way Tiffany ate her pizza was kind of cute.

“So what made you choose this neighbourhood?” asked Tiffany, delicately wiping the corner of her mouth with her thumb after taking a bite.

“Closer to work,” Taeyeon said. “And there’s that fruit and vegetable shop nearby, too. I don’t cook a lot but it would be nice to get my food from anywhere other than the supermarket.”

Tiffany raised her eyebrows as she nodded in agreement. “I know what you mean. I’ve cut my grocery costs down by almost a third since I moved here. Where do you work?”

“I’m a freelance document controller. This place is closer to the corporate district where I have meetings with clients.”

Tiffany stopped eating and stared at Taeyeon. The silence made Taeyeon look up and she blushed when she realised.

“I know, it sounds boring, right? I edit, audit, and organise company documents for a bunch of businesses in the city.”

“No, that’s actually pretty cool, Taeyeon.” Tiffany grinned. “I didn’t even know a job like that existed.”

Taeyeon smiled slightly. “Well, companies have a way to make a job out of just about anything. Your job seems really cool. Working with celebrities must be interesting.”

Tiffany shrugged, reaching for another slice of pizza. “It’s alright. They’re people, really, so for the most part they’re normal clients. Some of them can be rather eccentric but I love the work. It’s so enjoyable to create and develop a style for a person and have that image presented to others who are interested. It’s always been a passion of mine. I’ve just finally reached a point where I can do it for a living.”

Something about the way Tiffany was talking about her passion was enchanting. Taeyeon watched her, chewing absently on her food, and found herself in awe.  Because of this, she didn’t think of anything to say in reply, and the resulting silence prompted Tiffany to change the subject.

“I notice you don’t have a lot of boxes,” she remarked, eyeing the piles around them.

Taeyeon’s eyes widened. “Really? You don’t think this is a lot? Just thinking about how long it will take to unpack all this stuff makes me break out in a sweat.”

Tiffany laughed. “Well, I meant relatively speaking. This has got to be less than half of what I had when I moved.”

Taeyeon finished her slice of pizza thoughtfully. “Yeah… I don’t really have a lot of stuff, I guess. I like to keep it light.”

“So that you’re ready to make a quick getaway no matter where you live,” Tiffany said playfully, raising an eyebrow.

Taeyeon knew she was only teasing, but she could only manage a tight, uncomfortable smile in response. She cleared her throat. “In case I ever decide to rob a bank, you know. Better to be prepared for anything.”

At least it made Tiffany laugh. Taeyeon stood, wiping her hands on her shorts, and quickly started cleaning up the mess. Tiffany took the signal and got up to help.

“Oh, it’s fine,” Taeyeon said immediately, holding out a hand. “I can get this. You’re my guest.”

“And in my view, a guest should help clean up,” Tiffany countered smoothly, and collected their used glasses. “It’s not much, anyway.”

Taeyeon squirmed for a moment, habitually opposed to the idea of letting someone else clean up. But she took a quick breath and followed Tiffany out of the living room, watching as her guest found the kitchen without any trouble.

“Your house is kind of similar to mine,” Tiffany commented over her shoulder. “Your kitchen is in the same place.”

“Oh, are the houses around here all similar?”

“I don’t know a lot of the other neighbours very well,” Tiffany admitted as she reached the sink. “But I would imagine the houses have a lot in common since they were built around the same time, and mostly not custom-designed.”

“Why do I get the feeling you tried to get to know the neighbours and it only didn’t work because they weren’t interested?”

Tiffany smiled. “What gave it away? You’re right. After I moved in I went around a couple of times, and I ran into some of them on the way to work. They’re great at being polite but it’s not hard to tell they don’t want to make friends.”

Taeyeon leaned a hip against the edge of the stove, keeping a solid distance from Tiffany. “That’s too bad. You seem like a really good friend to have.”

The remark made Tiffany look down shyly and tuck her hair behind her ear. “Thanks. The people around here… I guess they have a lot of other things going on in their lives.”

Taeyeon thought of the boy she’d seen this morning, and she bit her bottom lip as she considered asking about that. She wasn’t one to gossip, but there was clearly something going on in the neighbourhood and it had Tiffany skirting around the issue. She made a split second decision that she didn’t want to get involved in other people’s problems. Moving here was a chance to keep her head down and stay out of trouble as she stabilized her life. Considering the fact that she had a strong suspicion of what exactly was going on with her neighbours, there were a hundred reasons for her to keep to herself.

She straightened up, putting her hands in her pockets. “Well, thanks for coming over to say hi. I appreciate that you took the time to welcome me. I think I’m going to like it here.”

Tiffany examined her for a moment, as if to make sure she meant it sincerely, before replying warmly. “That’s good. I hope I’ll see you around.”

As Taeyeon walked her to the door and watched her cross the street to her own house, the sinking feeling in her chest told her she certainly would be seeing a lot of Tiffany Hwang.

With no intention of doing any actual work for the rest of the night, Taeyeon curled up on her new couch and watched movies on her laptop. There was no better way to relax than with a good movie and a good drink. Taeyeon could spend weeks or years just watching movies, getting caught up in the stories and the way the film-makers created emotional environments, soaking up every moment of the display. It was almost like meditation for her. A way to escape her life and her thoughts, fully focused on a film, letting her breathe steady.

And yet, despite the calming end to the evening, she still ended up crouched on her cold bathroom floor at a later, hellish hour; barely able to move.

Taeyeon clutched at the edge of the sink and pulled herself up to stand. She took deep, gulping breaths and tried not to throw up again. The queasy feeling wouldn’t go away no matter how hard she swallowed, so she closed her eyes tightly and willed her mind to calm down.

The physical illness she felt was just a reaction to her mental state, she reminded herself. Nightmares for her were more than just dreams; a mesh of memories and pain that made her feel sick. Disgusted. Anxious. She leaned forward slightly, keeping her eyes shut, and spat roughly into the sink. She wanted to get that vile taste out of her mouth, out of her mind. When she opened her eyes, she could feel the tears welling up. Soon she would cry, curled up into a ball. Eventually the morning would come and life would go on.

Her eyes in the mirror were bloodshot and glistening. She absently wiped a hand over her face, touching wetness on her lips that made her grimace again. The tap squeaked as she turned it, but the water was cold and clean; a welcome sensation on her clammy skin. She blew a breath into her fingers, clutching at her mouth. With the cool liquid settling her warm face, she felt the nausea recede slowly. Her eyes fluttered shut again, briefly, and a tear joined the droplets along her cheekbones.

After she sobbed for a while and cleaned up her mess, Taeyeon dragged her feet back to her bed. She flopped face down on the sheets, and achingly turned her head to look at her alarm clock. It was 3:09am.

She tapped a few of its buttons to make sure it was set to go off in three hours and twenty-one minutes, and then she settled down again and closed her eyes. The blankets she left half-off, her body still echoing with panic and smothering.

A heavy sigh rattled all the way through her chest from her bones. Eventually, she dozed, thinking about how she would strive to change her life now that she was truly free.