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.