Malfunctioning

“Make peace with yourself, kid.”

How simple for her to say. How dare she – she was just some old woman – what did she know? Nothing, not about Taeyeon’s life or any other life at all. Make peace? How much could she possibly know about this world if she thought that was ever possible; least of all making peace with oneself? Some old woman had no right to say that, and no basis to believe that.

All these things Taeyeon thought as she scrunched the steering wheel. Traffic was thick tonight, but the glittering city lights had generally not lost their novelty. Coming from a small country town, she often didn’t mind being stuck in her car, practically stationary in one long stretch of street, because all of this was so new and so special to her.

Tonight, however, she was steaming. She still didn’t care about being stuck in traffic, but the uniqueness of the city surroundings took a back seat to her single-focused anger.

The crap that woman had spouted – it was nothing more than the old “love yourself before you can love others” bullshit. The gall to say that she had to make peace with herself before she could make peace with anyone else; it made her burn. And so what if she wasn’t capable of loving anyone else because of her own self-hatred? She wasn’t looking for anyone to love. Anyone who tried to change that was wasting their time and could fall off a cliff for all she cared.

And what was up with calling her “kid”? She was almost thirty, for goodness’ sake. No one was allowed to call her a child even if they were related.

Taeyeon rapped her fingers on the steering wheel in frustration.

She shook her head.

She huffed, and muttered, “Why would anyone bother, anyway?”

There was no point in making peace with herself or with anyone else. She didn’t need it. She didn’t want it. She was doing perfectly fine without it. Why should she care?

Her foot briefly pressed down on the gas pedal, making the car’s engine rev. She clicked her tongue.

That crazy old lady.

“You need to settle down,” she mimicked in a high-pitched voice. “Sort out the problems, smooth over the messes. Rebuild the bridges you’ve burned.”

Traffic finally moved, and she followed the line automatically. Her attention slowly leaked over to her driving. With steadily increasing effort, she made her way through the streets and the clenching press of cars. However, her thoughts refused to stray from their previous concentration. Her mind continued to ring with the words she’d just heard from her grandmother – and the lingering image of a childish concept of Taeyeon with a goofy smile throwing scribbled hearts at random people, holding hands with some angelic human.

No one was perfect, and the old lady needed to accept that. There was no happy ending, there was no ideal person, there were no seamless relationships, and there was no such thing as true love.

The fact that she’d had to waste almost an hour with that old woman when they hadn’t even known about each other’s existence until a few days ago was what made her even more annoyed. Taeyeon was a busy person, and to go through the effort of searching for her lost family members only to be stuck with some idealistic foolish old bat only reinforced her dismissive opinions. There was nothing to be dreamed of, here. It was pointless.

Taeyeon was still alone.

She gritted her teeth as she turned in to the parking garage connected to her office building, barely giving time for the machine to read her card and allow the barrier to rise. The tyres screeched as she went through the maze to her reserved spot.

The door slammed behind her as she swung it shut, juggling her keys and phone in the other hand, and she strode to the elevator with heavy steps.

All that time spent tracking down her grandmother. All the thoughts she’d had about what she would do if she could find her parents or even a stray sibling. All the emotions she didn’t restrict when she still had a chance to avoid disappointment.

She jabbed the button for the top floor five times, rapidly, and then the button to close the doors. The faster it could move, the better.

As it rose, she was glad that she’d removed the elevator music the moment she became General Manager. They used to have some god-awful jingles that would circulate all day long – which were a stupid waste of money and she’d made sure everyone was aware of it. Now she could be taken to her office without the taunting of that horrible sound.

The moment the doors opened, she swept down the corridor. With one hand, she shoved her phone into her pocket and flicked through her keychain to get the one for her office door.

Then she stopped.

In an office beside hers, the door was open and a desk lamp was on. It illuminated the presence of Tiffany, who’d been promoted to regional manager last year and was doing really well, most likely because she stayed at work until ten o’clock at night.

Tiffany looked up at the sound of Taeyeon’s keys, and their eyes met.

“Oh.” Tiffany stood, and bowed slightly. “I’m sorry; I didn’t expect that you would return tonight.”

“You’re here,” Taeyeon said, with an awkward pause, “late, I mean, you’re here quite late.”

“Yeah, I had some things I wanted to finish,” Tiffany replied, waving at her computer screen and the piles of paper surrounding it. “I had hoped to be done by now but, oh well. It takes as long as it takes.”

“Right.”

They watched each other. Tiffany tilted her head.

“Are you okay? Did you forget something in your office?”

Taeyeon shook her head, partly as an answer and partly to rouse herself.

“Uh, no. I just wanted to come do some work. I’ve had a bad night.”

Tiffany was genuinely surprised. “You come here to do more work when you’re having a bad night? Wouldn’t that be the last thing you’d want?”

Taeyeon shrugged. She didn’t feel like explaining and didn’t know how to do it anyway, and even though the unexpected encounter with Tiffany had chased her angry thoughts from her head, she still felt the residual frustration and wanted to get away. Her office was her safe space. She felt comfortable there, like she was exactly where she was meant to be. As a piece of a puzzle, she fit right in.

“I’ll leave you to your work, Tiffany. Don’t stay too long. Resting is important.”

They’d always been casual around each other. Taeyeon never felt the need to reinforce the hierarchy with Tiffany, feeling more like a direct equal because they had similar attitudes to their work. When Taeyeon said something about the company, Tiffany understood perfectly. They dealt with things the same way. The other regional managers needed some poking and prodding, and needed to take her seriously when she gave them instructions. Tiffany just listened right away and knew what to do.

So it wasn’t surprising when Tiffany stepped out from behind her desk and came closer to Taeyeon instead of bowing and returning to her work.

“Are you sure you’re all right? You seem kind of tense. More tense than usual, and I would guess that it’s not good for this time of night.”

Taeyeon looked down, fiddling with the keys still in her hand. She sniffed, and shifted her shoulders. “Nothing. I’m just busy. Work has been hellish lately.”

Tiffany laughed slightly. “Tell me about it. I’m having trouble keeping up with it even though I’ve been staying late for a month.”

“You don’t have to stay late, you know,” said Taeyeon. She smiled half-heartedly at Tiffany. “You’re already the best regional manager by a mile and you’ve had the job for a shorter time than the rest of them.”

“That doesn’t mean I can be slack about my work. I want to do my absolute best,” Tiffany stated firmly.

Her determination was endearing.

“Well, just don’t push yourself too hard. Take a night off every once in a while or you’ll burn yourself out.”

Tiffany was still looking at her with a serious gaze, assessing her. “Are you just going to stay here all night?”

Taeyeon rolled her eyes. “What does it matter? I have work to do.”

“You just told me to take a night off every once in a while and you expect me to accept that you’re above that?”

“Okay,” said Taeyeon, almost laughing, “this is too much now. I’m going to my office. Good night, Tiffany.”

She made to keep walking, eyes on the door with her name on it.

“Taeyeon.”

The voice pulled her back involuntarily, causing her to hesitate and half turn back around. She glanced at Tiffany, who stepped closer.

“How about we both take a night off? Like, tonight. Right now. We can go get a drink and hang out.”

Taeyeon narrowed her eyes. Getting a drink and hanging out was not something she did. It sounded like it was meant to be done with a friend or on a date. Taeyeon didn’t invest much in either of those.

“I don’t think so,” she said. “I’m busy.”

“Are you really?” Tiffany asked, eyebrows rising. “It’s the middle of the night, Taeyeon. You said you’ve had a bad time tonight, so let’s go out and do something fun and relaxing.”

Taeyeon shook her head again. “No. Really, no. I’m going to do some work now.”

This time she almost made it another step before a touch on her arm turned her around. Tiffany was much closer now, in her space, and her keys were covered by another hand.

“Taeyeon, you shouldn’t do this to yourself.”

She shook off the hand and moved back, temper flaring. “No, you shouldn’t do this. Why won’t you let me go to work?”

Tiffany breathed out her exasperation.

“Why won’t you be honest with yourself? You were never good at letting me be there for you before we slept together, either.”

Taeyeon glanced around, unreasonably paranoid. “We had a one night stand; it’s not really something to talk about in the office even if it is the middle of the night.”

“You can’t just treat me so coldly,” said Tiffany. “And you can’t do this when you’re in a bad mood. You need to stop burying yourself in work all the time.”

“Don’t tell me what to do. No one has the right to do that, and I don’t need it.”

“Well then why don’t we talk about what you need, huh? You said all this crap about not needing relationships but even though it was just one night, we had something and you can’t throw that away.”

“Yes, I can,” Taeyeon gritted out. “Here I go, throwing it away.”

She made it to her office door and jammed the key into the lock angrily, aware of Tiffany watching her, and flicked on her desk lamp as soon as she was in.

Their one night stand was not something she thought about, let alone talked about. It was a moment of confusion on her part and she wasn’t interested in dwelling on it. She learned what she could from the mistake and left it in her past, that was her policy and she was sticking with it. A brief fault in her system was not something to get emotional about – no matter what Tiffany said about it.

“At least tell me what happened tonight,” said Tiffany.

She’d followed her into the office and stood in the doorway, hands by her sides and her face honest and open.

They squared off in the dimness of the office.

“Look, I don’t owe you anything.”

Tiffany threw her arms up and turned her gaze briefly to the ceiling in frustration. “Are you serious right now?”

“Yes,” said Taeyeon, her voice grave. “You can back off. I don’t need you in my life, and I don’t need to fix things with you.”

“So you admit things are broken?”

Taeyeon’s jaw clenched but she didn’t say anything. Tiffany took the opportunity to approach, coming to a stop directly in front of her.

“It’s been five weeks. We’ve stayed professional, and we’ve been doing our jobs amazingly well. I took it like an adult when you told me we can’t date and when you brushed me off. But I can’t do it like that anymore. I can’t let you wear yourself down with work and anger because you don’t want to face the truth.”

Taeyeon felt like a bird with ruffled feathers or a cat with dishevelled fur. Her anger from the drive to the office building came back to prick at her, along with all the things about making peace and rebuilding bridges. But she didn’t believe there was any point, even with Tiffany standing right here in front of her. There really was no such thing as true love or a happy ending, and Taeyeon was alone. No one could change that.

“And what makes you think you know the truth better than I do?”

“Because I’ve seen the real truth. You pushed it down and you pushed me away.”

She reached forward, and cupped Taeyeon’s face in her hands as if to keep her there.

“I saw you that night. You were happy. We laughed and we had fun and you let me mean something to you. I know that’s the truth, and so do you.”

Taeyeon shook her head, gently enough that she didn’t dislodge Tiffany’s touch. She didn’t have anything to say in her defence. She did have fun with Tiffany, and she did feel something special. It didn’t change the fact that it was also a mistake.

Her cheek tingled when Tiffany’s thumb brushed along her skin.

The kiss was familiar, expected, and soft. Tiffany didn’t want to push too far and probably felt like she was making some progress because Taeyeon kissed her back.

They stayed close.

“Even if I make peace with you, I can’t make peace with myself,” Taeyeon admitted.

Tiffany kissed her again. She let her hands sink to Taeyeon’s shoulders, taking a firm hold and pulling her closer.

“Taeyeon, you’re lonely but you’re not alone. Okay? I’m here.”

She pushed away, flicking Tiffany’s embrace off her shoulders and taking a few steps. With her back turned to Tiffany, she ran a hand over her face and took a deep breath.

It was all just a waste of time.

“At least one night.”

She tilted her head, listening.

“How about one more night? This isn’t about making peace with me or with yourself. It’s not about a relationship or facing a truth you don’t want to accept. We’re going to get a drink and have fun. Like last time.”

“You deserve better than that, Tiffany.”

“This isn’t about what I deserve or about what’s necessary and what’s not. I want you and you want me. This is about us, just us.”

“You want to sleep together again so we can go through all this in another month’s time?”

Tiffany lightly took her hand and made her turn around. “I want,” she said slowly, “you. And that’s what this is.”

Taeyeon shook her head, frowning.

She thought of what her grandmother said – her grandmother whose existence was largely inconsequential to her and had no influence on her life beyond the passing along of DNA – and how that was perfectly accurate for her. Whether the old lady knew it or not, she’d struck a nerve in Taeyeon because it was so obvious that she was right. All the bridges in her life were burned, all her relationships with people were kept superficial and professional, and her heart was locked down because she couldn’t stand herself. She didn’t see how anyone could, and clearly no one had until this point so she must’ve been right. No family, no friends, no love. It was not a good kind of peace.

But here stood Tiffany.

After a year of working together and one night of getting carried away with their feelings, she still wanted Taeyeon.

“Just think about tonight,” Tiffany said after a while.

She was holding Taeyeon’s hand, running her thumb over Taeyeon’s knuckles soothingly. With her other arm, she encircled Taeyeon’s waist and brought them closer together. They stood in the near darkness of the office.

“You had a bad night and we’re going to relax,” continued Tiffany. “That’s it. This is not about your whole life. You need a break from work; I need a break from work. I happen to think you’re pretty cool; you don’t mind being in my presence. We’ll have some drinks. We’ll talk about stuff. We’ll make some jokes.”

“And then we’ll sleep together; and tomorrow we’ll go back to work like pros?” Taeyeon asked quietly, cynically.

Tiffany smiled slightly. “If that’s what you want.”

“And if I want,” Taeyeon paused to emphasize the term, “to have some drinks, tell you what happened tonight and why I’m lonely and angry; and I want to ask your forgiveness and accept the truth…?”

“That’s an option too.”

“It can go either way.”

Tiffany nodded, and then she looked expectant.

Taeyeon looped her arms around Tiffany’s hips, and she echoed the nod.

“Okay. Let’s go have some drinks, and we’ll talk.”

Maybe she didn’t have to love herself before she loved someone else if she could work on both at the same time without malfunctioning.

Think Twice. (Interlude: My Name Is Tiffany)

The straggling Thursday morning traffic provided an unpleasant soundtrack to her life. It was hellishly hot and she’d gotten out of bed briefly just to open the window, hoping for some fresh air but all she got was more sunlight and the noise of the outside world. Not that it made much difference. She still lay sprawled on her bed, staring at the ceiling, feeling the sweat pooling on her skin. The cars passing by her apartment only barely managed to get her attention. Whether they were there or not, she would be thinking about how pathetic she was.

Supposedly, everyone reached a point in their life when they felt lost. She was at the right age for it, but she’d underestimated how long it could go on for. In her mind, people had this feeling and struggled for a while before they found something that worked well enough and they went on, like a hobbling machine that could roll even though it was bumpy. She hadn’t been able to get there yet. She wasn’t sure if she’d be able to get there.

Of all the advice she’d gotten on how to deal with this problem, none of it seemed applicable. They told her to go with something she was interested in, or to go with something easy at least in the meantime, or to go for something that suited her lifestyle. It didn’t make any sense to her. She had interests but they didn’t fit into the world of careers. There was nothing she did that sounded like a job to her. She had trouble finding something easy to do while she tried to figure it out because she was unmotivated; didn’t have any energy to give pursuit as well as she should have and it showed in her unsuccessful attempts. Her lifestyle right now was empty and stagnant.

She felt utterly pathetic.

On her bedside table, her phone beeped. She turned her head and stared at it before lazily moving to pick it up. It provided her with a message from her father, asking how her day was going and if she was free for dinner that night. She rolled her eyes. He knew she was unemployed and whenever he asked what she was doing with her time she always said she wasn’t doing much. It should be assumed that she was free, but she considered pretending to be busy just so she didn’t have to go to dinner with her family.

They weren’t doing anything on purpose to annoy her, and they were supportive and welcoming to her every time they got together. She just wasn’t capable of handling their scrutiny, as light and innocent as it may be, when she felt utterly demoralized and deflated. They were all going on with their lives, they had careers and were making little families of their own, and they hung out with friends and pursued hobbies. Her father even volunteered at a homeless shelter three times a week.

But there she was. Lying on her bed on a Thursday morning, listening to traffic, letting the heat smother her, with nothing to do and no inclination to move.

Her savings were going to run out soon. Last year she’d come into age for the trust fund her parents had set up for their children before her mother died. Her siblings had taken only small amounts from it thus far, but she was starting to drain her own share the longer she went without an income. It was a pressure she was well aware of every time she went looking for a job and every time she questioned the purpose of her newly acquired degree. It seemed like a good idea when she was getting it but suddenly she didn’t feel like she could go down that path anymore and that freaked her out more than a little.

She thought of her mother.

As a child, there was the usual time when everyone would ask her what she wanted to be when she grew up. She had plenty of answers for that question, ranging from astronaut to zoo keeper. She was an energetic kid with an active imagination and it showed. People laughed with amusement as she got excited about all the careers she wanted to pursue, because it was great to see a kid with so much eagerness for the dreams she had.

But her mother sat her down one day after school and asked her not what she wanted to do as an adult but what she wanted to do right at that moment if she could do anything in the whole world.

It had made her think about what she was already doing. She wasn’t limited by the fact that she was just a kid because her mother had said there were no restrictions. So she’d thought of how she played with her dolls, the way she sketched princesses and superstars and witches, and the times her mother let her pick out her own clothes. She’d said that if she could do anything in the whole wide world she would just keep doing that all day long. She didn’t think of a career when her mother asked her that question, she thought of her passion.

She couldn’t do anything half-heartedly. She was either all the way in or she did nothing at all. Right now she was on the wrong end of that scale and it was digging into her heart deeply.

A car outside was playing music as it got stuck in traffic. Their windows were obviously down because of the summer heat. She frowned, recognizing the song from her when she was a teenager, but she couldn’t quite grasp the memory. After the cars were stood still for a while, the song carried on more clearly. It was some Green Day song, of that much she became certain. Probably the title was in the chorus, so if she could just make out the words a little better –

The cars rumbled again as traffic broke up and they all continued on their way.

She lay back again, only just realizing that she’d lifted her head to listen. She knew that song, it was something about novocaine. That modern punk rock scene brought so much style with it and it surrounded her completely in her teenage years. For a while it was the cool thing and then it was more of its own thing and she hardly saw it these days anymore but she knew it retained a lot of its classic quality that didn’t have a negative connotation. Some styles became disliked once they went out of fashion but punk rock had a certain charm to it.

Here she was, wasting her time thinking about that stuff again. Maybe it was because she was thinking about what she’d told her mother when she was little.

If her mother were here right now asking her that same question, what would her answer be?

She wondered.

She got up, dragging her feet as she made her way to her desk. She was still wearing the clothes she’d slept in, with the extra-large shirt almost exposing her shoulder and her pants falling off slightly if she moved too fast, which was fine because she was not interested in moving fast. At her desk she stared down at the papers that were scattered around.

Every now and then in the past few years she would pick up her pencil and find some papers and just doodle. They were people she didn’t know, people she’d seen, members of her family, and friends from school. Their faces had enough detail to show something of their humanity but it was their bodies that she focused more on. She sketched clothes, all kinds and shapes and styles. She showed what someone would look like with that outfit or if their shirt looked a little different from something they already had. She made things that went with their personalities and the impressions she got from them as she interacted with them or observed them. On these pieces of paper were entire worlds for people who would never see it.

She never showed anyone these sketches. They were just random little things that lay around in the background of her life.

With the tip of her index finger she traced a sketch of her brother in a three-piece suit. She’d thought it would be good for his award ceremony at the end of the year. Beside it she’d begun to make the structure of a tuxedo that he could use for his wedding next month. These were just thoughts she’d had, things she made up when she was bored and didn’t want to stress so much anymore.

The pages had been piling up in the past few weeks as her empty life seemed to stretch on. She was an intelligent person with a lot of energy somewhere deep inside her. She had a lot to give to the world. Why couldn’t she go anywhere?

She laid her hand flat, trying to block out the image but it peeked out between her fingers and she felt the texture of the paper on her skin. Maybe it was all she was capable of doing with her time anymore.

Switching to auto-pilot, she sat down at her desk and picked up a pencil. Turning over a piece of paper, she settled right in to a new sketch.

Her mother, the way she looked when Tiffany was a young child. The dress she’d worn when they went out to dinner on her birthday. The smile she’d given when her daughter told her what she loved most about her life. She drew those eyes that showed so much love and kindness.

The sketch was more about her mother than the clothes she was wearing, and she set down the pencil so that she could wipe the tears from her eyes.

Soon she was cradling her face in her hands as she cried. There were a lot of things she missed about those childhood years; the innocence, the effortless happiness, the courage with which she explored the world she’d been given. But what she missed most of all was the mother who’d taught her about how she was going to make this life her own. She shared with her everything about herself and her own dreams and passions. She told her about every mistake she’d made and how she’d fought to make it right and to find herself and her family. She gave her daughter a nickname and opened for her an identity that was entirely her own if she made it that way.

She lowered her hands to see her mother’s face again.

Her mother had told her that she could do anything she put her mind to. Her mother had supported her dreams and her interests. Her mother showed her the value of keeping her head up and taking every step that was in front of her.

Her mother had believed that she could do it. Why couldn’t she believe the same?

She finished the sketch, giving it the love and attention it deserved as her heart smouldered.

When it was done, she held it up in the air. The sunlight fell on it perfectly. It felt just right.

That was her mother.

She placed it back on the desk. Slowly, she took up the pencil again, and the tip hovered over the bottom of the page.

In her mind, her mother was asking her that same question again. It trickled through her memory and rested there. That was when she knew her answer had not changed in the slightest. She didn’t want to be an astronaut or a zookeeper, not if she could do anything at all in the world. She wanted to be her mother’s daughter. She wanted to do what she was passionate about because it wasn’t impossible like she’d been telling herself it was.

She signed it: Tiffany Hwang.

Think Twice. (Part 6)

“We’re so glad you could finally join us for dinner. After you ignored all our previous invitations, I was afraid we would have to give up on you ever returning to your family.”

Taeyeon kept her gaze firmly fixed on the plate of food in front of her. It was a good meal, hearty and healthy and made to look like it was imbued with a mother’s love. Everyone else was eating steadily but they kept watching her and she could feel it on her skin.

“Well,” she said haltingly. “Thank you for the wonderful meal, mother.”

“Oh, this? If I’d known you were coming I could have made your favourite, dear.”

An elbow jabbed her in her ribs and she briefly saw her sister nodding towards Taeyeon’s untouched plate. Taeyeon lowered her head further and took a sip from the glass of water by her hand, ignoring the unspoken suggestion to eat.

“I apologize for the sudden visit. I came to see Hayeon.”

If she didn’t look at them, it was almost as if they weren’t there in full force. Out of the corner of her eye she could sense the movements of her sister as she ate, and she could hear her parents on the other side of the table, but it was all like an echo.

“Today? But she has school tomorrow. You should let her rest and prepare.”

Taeyeon’s shoulders tensed even further. Faced with the wall her mother placed between her and her sister, she knew it would be a struggle to get them both out. Any excuse she came up with would be shut down with the prospect of school attendance and Hayeon’s age.

“Why are you slouching like that, dear? You should straighten up so you have better posture. And eat more of that food, you look like a skeleton.”

Taeyeon did as she was told, sitting upright and beginning to place food in her mouth with very little regard for the experience. She refused to look at them, though, so for as long as she could she tried to look down without slouching.

“I was thinking I could take her for a drive,” she drilled out. “Maybe we could get some ice cream. I haven’t seen her in such a long time; we should catch up so she can tell me how it’s going at school.”

“No, that won’t be happening,” said her mother, simply and neatly and painfully politely put.

There was no more speaking for a long while. Everyone else finished their food, and Taeyeon managed to consume almost all of hers without choking despite the tightness of her throat. She and her sister gathered the dishes and took them to the kitchen under the watchful eye of their mother.

Taeyeon was stacking the plates beside the sink when she felt a hand on her shoulder, making her jump and turn slightly. Her mother hovered just behind her, fingers clenched on Taeyeon’s shoulder, and with a stern look on her face.

“You seem to have forgotten how to behave properly since you left us, Taeyeon,” she said. Her voice wasn’t sweet but it had a tone that could be cited as happily inoffensive if questioned. “You can’t show up suddenly and think you can disrupt everyone’s schedules. Your sister needs a strict routine and she needs to focus on her studies, especially since her grades have been abysmal this year. Why would you suddenly want to take her away from that when you haven’t spoken to her in such a long time?”

Taeyeon’s eyes widened, but she didn’t know what was safe to say.

“Oh, she’s told us about how you ignore her, dear.” Her mother actually smiled slightly as if they were just chatting. “She was heartbroken. ‘Why doesn’t my big sister want to talk to me?’ This is a hard time for her, you know. Exams are just around the corner. Now you think you can come strolling back in and just whisk her away?”

Her mother removed her hand.

“Do you still drink coffee?” she asked. “When you’re done with the dishes, you can have coffee with your father and talk.”

Taeyeon saw the silhouette of her father pass by the doorway, heading towards his study, and she swallowed her nerves. She didn’t reply, simply providing her mother with a sedate expression, and her mother smiled again.

“Don’t take too long with your chores, dear.”

She petted Taeyeon’s sister gently on the cheek before she left them to clean.

They stared at each other, alone in the kitchen.

Her sister looked different. She was more tired, older, and Taeyeon felt as if she was standing here as a seventeen year old again, watching herself begin to crumble under the pressure of all those childhood years.

“I’m sorry.”

Taeyeon’s heart stopped briefly. “What? Why are you saying sorry? I should be the one apologizing to you. I left you here on your own.”

Hayeon sighed, leaning back against the counter. “I’m sorry you have to go through this again. I know why you left, Taeyeon. At first I didn’t get it, because you wouldn’t talk to me anymore and that hurt me a lot, but I can see it so easily now. You had to save yourself, I understand that, and I don’t hate you for it. Sure, I wish I could have done the same, but let’s be realistic. I’m still a kid even now, and when you left you would have had no way of taking care of me. It’s all right.”

Taeyeon balanced herself with a hand on the edge of the sink, looking down at the floor beneath them. She felt her hair fall into her face, shielding her face.

“It’s not all right,” she mumbled. “I was scared. I know you’re not like them but every time I thought of you or saw your name come up on my phone, I got scared and couldn’t do it. I couldn’t help you, and I should have helped you.”

“Is that why you’re here now? Are you trying to get me away from them?”

Something in her sister’s voice made Taeyeon’s resolve break even further. She raised her head, unsure of what to say, because it sounded as if her sister was disappointed already.

“You… You don’t want to leave?” Taeyeon ventured.

“I want to finish high school so that I can get into a good college, and I also want to leave with you, but what can you provide for me, Taeyeon? A place to live and the support of my big sister but what are we going to do? I’d have to change schools and you’re not my legal guardian. We’d have no way of justifying it. As far as everyone else is concerned, staying here would be what’s best for me and you taking me away would be what creates insufficient care of a minor.”

Taeyeon glanced over her shoulder at the empty doorway. The house was quiet, and she had no idea where her mother was lurking now. She looked back at her sister, frowning, and her heart was racing because she didn’t know what she was here for anymore.

Then suddenly her sister was pulling her into a tight hug and burying her face in Taeyeon’s shoulder.

“I miss you.”

For a moment, Taeyeon remembered very clearly a winter day many years ago when they made a snowman and it turned out perfectly. Her little sister said it was the best day of her life because she was having fun with her favourite person. It had been the first winter without their brother, and Taeyeon hadn’t known what to do for her sister but after that day she knew exactly what was needed. She just had to be there.

She’d failed miserably at doing that, and it wasn’t something she could forgive herself for even if her sister did.

“No wonder you’re taking so long to make coffee.”

They broke the hug and turned to see their father, unsurprisingly. The lack of dish washing taking place was a significant risk when Taeyeon already had other things forced onto her list while she was there. Their father crossed his arms and gave them a tense frown. Taeyeon could tell from the set of his jaw that it wasn’t just about the cleaning and the coffee; he was likely not interested in seeing her after her abrupt escape from the family, particularly when it was obvious to everyone that she was only there with the intention of taking her sister away. And yet he would still expect her to make his coffee and sit down with him in his study so that they could chat awkwardly and briskly about pointless topics because that was the necessary thing for the family.

She could remember the night her father threatened to throw her out of her bedroom window if she didn’t behave, and she could remember the days her mother wouldn’t let her speak unless it was about schoolwork – so she turned around and rolled up her sleeves to begin washing the dishes.

Her sister seemed to hold their father’s stare for longer but then bowed her head and helped Taeyeon.

As the dishes clacked against the side of the sink and they fell into the familiar rhythm of washing and drying, Taeyeon called herself useless. Here she was, an adult now, standing in her mother’s kitchen with her father watching over her as she did the household chores. Her mind could not compensate for the lack of disparity between this moment and the same years she spent here long ago. While she was away she thought she’d managed to change herself and her life at least enough to be better than her past even if it was still a mess – but now she’d gone right back around. Was it any different? She prepared a mental checklist.

Number one: she was uncomfortable because of her family’s presence. Number two: she was cleaning very particularly because if she didn’t do it right she would be sermonized. Number three: her mother had chipped away at her courage. Number four: her father was displeased and frowning at her for not being good enough. Number five: she was scared. Number six: she wished she was anywhere other than here. Numbers seven, eight, and nine: she couldn’t fix her own life, she couldn’t help anyone she cared about, and she wanted very badly to never have been born in the first place.

It was as if she was just a kid again, washing dishes with her sister. She could even reach up to number ten: she was starting to feel as if she was nothing at all.

The chore was completed quickly, and her sister didn’t look at her again before she went to her room. Taeyeon wondered if it would be the last time they saw each other. Her father sighed and left the kitchen, most likely going to the study to wait for her. Again. Taeyeon began making coffee. She thought if she lowered her head any further her neck would break, and she would sink into the ground. Briefly she began building momentum towards wishing it to be true, that she could disappear right now.

But then the coffee was ready, so she went to her father’s study.

Taeyeon thought they might actually go the whole time without making a sound as they drank and her father passively ignored her – but then he cleared his throat suddenly, which made her jump.

“Have you been enjoying life, Taeyeon?”

Taeyeon blinked at him. She felt instinctively as if it was a trap, despite the innocent sound of the question. “Sir?”

“I know you felt you would be better off without us, Taeyeon,” he said. “So, did it work? Have you made a good life for yourself?”

Taeyeon almost curled in on herself but thought she might be scolded for slouching as if her mother could pop over from the other side of the house every time she sensed bad posture.

“A good life?” Taeyeon echoed.

She had a job, a place to live, a car, a computer, games to play and movies to watch. The cats in the neighbourhood liked her. Especially that small ginger one that sometimes visited her at Tiffany’s house too – oh, and she had Tiffany. Somehow, whether as a friend or something else, she had Tiffany in her life, and Tiffany would probably still be there when she got back so technically she still counted. But she had nightmares, and she didn’t do her work for days on end sometimes, and she didn’t eat as much as she should or sleep right. She freaked out when Tiffany wanted to be closer, like that poor disastrous hugging kissing thing that happened and the questions about her childhood. She was only sometimes content and the rest of the time she felt unfulfilled and restless. The challenges in her life were not positive and she didn’t feel like she improved herself often enough.

“Um –”

Her father cut her off immediately. “What was that? ‘Um’? Is that a word?”

“No, sir.”

He clicked his tongue. “I told you about hesitating like that, Taeyeon. Don’t make such grunting sounds like an ape. You have to speak like a civilized person. If you’d ever served in the military you would be a laughing stock.”

Something in Taeyeon sparked an image of herself rolling her eyes. Her father brought up the military any time she didn’t speak correctly because when he was a naval officer he learned the value of eloquent speech and felt that anyone who wasn’t capable of doing it right was not worth the oxygen they breathed. Taeyeon was almost comforted by the fact that some part of her was still not willing to put up with him. Maybe she could get out of here without any further permanent damage.

“How’s your work?” her father asked. He set his cup to one side; his coffee was finished.

Taeyeon glanced at her own cup; she still had a bit left. “It’s going well.” She swallowed the rest of her coffee and set her cup aside too.

They looked at each other, acknowledging the mutual signs of being finished, and they stood up at the same time.

“And you’re still single?”

Taeyeon opened her mouth to reply, but an arm wrapped around her shoulders as her mother answered first.

“Of course she is.”

She said it so lightly, and she smiled at Taeyeon like she was laughing inside. Her father crossed his arms. Taeyeon hadn’t felt so cornered in a long time, feeling her gut draw in as she automatically tried to do the impossible by rolling herself into a ball. She shrugged her mother’s arm off and stepped away, taking a deep breath as if she was coming up for air after being trapped underwater.

“Thank you for your visit, baby,” her mother cooed. She reached out and pinched Taeyeon’s cheek.

Taeyeon shook her head and felt her body shiver. “Thank you again for the meal, mother. Thank you for the coffee, father. I’ll be on my way now. Tell Hayeon I hope she does well with school.”

It wasn’t Taeyeon’s fault that they were all trapped in that toxic house. She considered her sister’s wellbeing to be partly her responsibility but if there was nothing she could do then she had to get out. It was not her fault that her parents were like that, despite the way they looked at her sometimes and the things they said that made it seem like her flaws were what made them all miserable. She didn’t have to feel accountable for the state of their lives. They were older than her and had more than enough power to handle their own existence.

She reminded herself of this as many times as she could, making the words rumble around in her head and bounce off the walls as she trudged down the hallway. It was as if her parents’ eyes drilled into her back all the way out of the house, and their silence followed her like a bubble of pain trying to encase her.

It was raining again. She stayed focused, placing one foot in front of the other until she reached her car. She dropped her keys twice but did not get angry. She was holding her breath in order to keep her body upright.

Then she was slamming the car door shut, blocking out the world. The rain was muffled, the house was not visible in the darkness, and the connection to her family was broken off again.

She did her breathing exercises; eight seconds in, three on hold, and eight seconds out. She closed her eyes and opened them again. In the car her breath sounded louder, more ragged, as if she had just run a long way trying to escape. The longer she sat there with only herself for company, the more she remembered and thought and felt. All the times in the past when she blamed herself, all the times when they blamed her, all the times she had to tell herself it was no one’s fault, and all the times she cried so hard because she wanted to melt away.

Tears pricked at her eyes again at the memories. She slapped her palms over her face, trying to deny it. She grumbled at herself.

She sniffed, took another breath, and raised her head. The only one who could reach her in that car was herself, so she started the engine and began to drive home.

The road was difficult to manage as the rain strengthened and the night lengthened. Taeyeon found all her attention taken up by tense driving, for which she was grateful. It was much easier to focus on not crashing than to look for something to distract herself from her thoughts.

As she got closer to her house, she relaxed a bit more and let herself briefly split her attention in order to put on some music. The Good Charlotte song that played seemed appropriate for her surroundings, because despite the growth in number of streetlights the world seemed dark and silent, and again Taeyeon could comfort herself with the image of being completely alone. It echoed a loneliness she was familiar with, now like a pang in her chest, and yet she was safe, too.

When she closed the front door behind her, turned on the lights, and went through to the living room, it was only ten o’clock. She sat on the couch, playing with the keys in her hand, and stared at the wall opposite her.

Being so close to Tiffany made her wonder if she’d been gone long enough. The goal was to go get her sister and then she could easily avoid seeing Tiffany for at least a day while she tried to fix every other problem in her life. Now that hadn’t happened. She was home, her real home, the one she made for herself and chose to live in – without her sister but with Tiffany again.

All she had to do was cross the street.

She could wait until the next day, go over in the sunlight and try to make things right on a fresh morning. If she went there now she would still be barely containing all the hurt from seeing her family again and all the heaviness of what happened between her and Tiffany earlier.

But if she didn’t go now then she would most likely spend the remaining hours of the night sitting around agonizing about everything or she would try to play games and be absolutely horrible at them. Work definitely was not going to be an option.

Taeyeon stretched her jaw as far as she could; feeling the way it made her muscles pull woke her from her thoughts. She jumped up before she could second-guess, and she went right back out the front door.

Every house on the street was quiet, with the lights turned off and only the sound of leaves being rustled by the ongoing rain. Taeyeon paid no mind to the weather, watching her feet travel over the wet road. She didn’t stop to think that perhaps Tiffany was already asleep. Maybe some part of her assumed Tiffany would be awake until late, thinking about what happened. Taeyeon hadn’t looked at her phone and it probably wasn’t even working but perhaps Tiffany was trying to contact her, worried about her disappearance, wanting to make sure she was alright and looking for a way to help her.

She did have to pause when she reached Tiffany’s door, though. She needed to take a few deep breaths. She didn’t think about anything, she just didn’t want to fall over.

She didn’t know how hard she knocked on the door. All the sounds around her were fading as she stood there.

Tiffany opened the door quickly.

They stared at each other, Tiffany wide-eyed and looking panicked, Taeyeon lost for words.

“So, you’re okay,” said Tiffany. “I’ve been calling you.”

Taeyeon shifted awkwardly. “Yeah. Um, my phone is broken, somehow.”

Tiffany half-smiled, not seeming much more relaxed. “Somehow.”

“Can I come in? I was hoping we could talk.”

“Yeah, that seems like a good idea.” Tiffany stepped aside to let her in.

Taeyeon couldn’t tell if Tiffany was upset or not. It was awkward, as expected, and the request to talk hadn’t been denied which was possibly a good sign. But Taeyeon knew that even though they both made mistakes, she had to apologize for the way she left it. It wasn’t a good thing to do, running away like that as if she could solve her problems by avoiding them. Taeyeon didn’t know a lot about how to actually do the right things in life but she knew enough to recognize when she was able to recover from a fault. And Tiffany was important to her, so doing the right thing to salvage their connection seemed less imposing the closer she got.

“I’m sorry,” said Taeyeon as soon as they were standing in the living room.

Tiffany just crossed her arms and watched her silently.

“I shouldn’t have left you like that. It was a messy situation and we were going back and forth between anger and apology. Leaving right after what happened was a stupid thing to do, but I was scared and I ran.”

Tiffany didn’t say anything, though her eyes softened a little. She was getting closer to showing an expression.

Taeyeon sighed. She thought going to her family’s house to pick up her sister was hard, but this was a different kind of difficulty.

She stepped forward and held out a hand, palm up. Tiffany blinked at it, and then looked back at Taeyeon’s face. Eventually she reached out and placed her hand in Taeyeon’s.

Taeyeon came a little closer and lowered their hands to hang between them.

“Thank you,” she said quietly, keeping her eyes on Tiffany’s. “I know you’re doing your best and trying to be here for me, and that means a lot. I panicked because we kissed and I thought it was happening too fast. It wasn’t the right timing, sure, but I didn’t read my feelings correctly. I like you a lot. I didn’t need to freak out like that.”

“What are you saying exactly?”

Taeyeon glanced away for a moment, squeezing Tiffany’s hand. She searched for words. “I went to see my sister. I haven’t told you anything about her and that’s because I’m ashamed. There are things I’m still not sure how to talk about but your guess is correct in terms of my whole ‘family’ situation. Anyway, my sister told me some things I needed to hear and seeing my family again was a pretty big shock to my system. I’ve made a lot of mistakes but I’ve made a lot of progress with my life, too, and it’s easy for me to forget that. I’m ready to get back to trying, and to keep going with my new life so that I can really make things right.”

Tiffany moved, shifting her feet like she was nervous. “Taeyeon…”

“I’m not good with touching a lot,” she said, nodding at their hands, “and I’m not good with talking about my feelings but that’s because I’ve spent too many years being uncomfortable in my own skin. I can’t go back to that. There’s no reason for it. All it’s done is made me afraid. And you deserve better. I mean, I’ll still be like that a lot of the time, but you – I trust you. You’re the most amazing person I’ve ever met. And if it’s okay with you, I would like to kiss you.”

“Wait, wait.” Tiffany separated their hands. “Taeyeon, just to be clear for a second here; we had an argument, we apologized, you accidentally kissed me? I guess it was an accident, and then you ran off for the whole day – then you show up at night, soaking wet from the rain, and ask to kiss me. I just want to be sure you’re doing the right thing for yourself. Don’t let this all be because you’re having a messy day and your emotions are all over the place.”

Taeyeon almost laughed. “Okay, that’s true, I am having a messy day and my feelings are out of control for the most part. That’s kind of how I am a lot of the time. Being around you helps but only if I’m honest with myself, and today I wasn’t honest with myself until it was too late. Yes, I accidentally kissed you, but it wasn’t a bad thing to do, just a bad time to do it. Previously when we talked about our relationship I was being held back by my fear. I’ve been reminded of why that’s a bad thing.”

The look that Tiffany gave her was the most sincerely searching gaze Taeyeon had ever experienced. Tiffany really was worried that Taeyeon was doing the wrong thing and would regret it later. In truth, Taeyeon had no guarantee that she wouldn’t change her mind the next day when her terror had time to haunt her again, or in a week when she’d had her nightmares and stared at her broken self in the mirror. She didn’t know anything for sure, but she remembered what she’d always intended when she made the decision to escape and make her own life. She had to run away to get out. She didn’t have to keep running once she got away, no matter how much her fear and self-hatred tried to convince her that she wasn’t free when she was freer than she’d ever been before.

“We’d still be going slowly,” she said, as if to reassure Tiffany and herself. “And it’s not going to be smooth sailing or whatever, but I mean… we don’t have to hold back quite so much anymore. I want to get to know you better, too. I want to know how you made yourself into who you are. We can share that.”

Tiffany tilted her head as she considered Taeyeon.

Then she nodded.

“Okay,” she said. “Okay, you can kiss me.”

Taeyeon grinned, and it was the most honest reaction she’d allowed herself to have in several hours. She leaned forward and kissed Tiffany, softly but confidently, and was incredibly glad that she didn’t ruin it. She didn’t hesitate to return Tiffany’s hug afterwards. They were able to hold each other for a long time because she knew how it felt to hug Tiffany now and it was nothing to run away from. She knew what to expect. She was comfortable.

She hummed along to a random song when she went home, the smile on her lips made by her kiss with Tiffany still there with her as she crossed the street.

She even had a quiet night. She went through her bedtime routine and settled down to sleep at a record early time. At first she just lay there staring at the ceiling, and she felt some of the same dread she usually did at night, but it wasn’t overwhelming. She screwed up her day. Then she did one thing right. It was enough to get her to sleep comparatively peacefully at least for one night.

She still played her music loud in the morning as she got ready, but she ate more than half of her attempted breakfast and didn’t forget that she had to suit up for a meeting.

The buttons on her shirt needed a bit of fiddling so she had to keep trying with them as she went out the door, but it wasn’t stressful. She even managed to notice the sun shining and the birds singing and she was wholly on track to call herself a horrible cliché because she almost never had these kinds of mornings.

She twirled the car keys in her fingers as she went to check the mailbox.

A cat bounced up to her with a tiny meow.

“Oh hey, guy.” She crouched, holding out a hand for the cat to approach. “Haven’t seen you in a while. How’s it going?”

It was the small ginger cat. It purred happily, its tiny body vibrating beneath her palm as she stroked its back.

“I wish I knew your name, buddy,” she murmured to it. “Don’t tell the others, but you’re secretly my favourite.”

“His name is Lemon.”

She jumped up. The boy, Lee, stood a distance away and gave her an awkward smile. Taeyeon felt extremely self-conscious and pretended to ignore Lemon as he rubbed against her ankle.

“Oh, hey, Lee,” she said.

“It’s okay, it’s normal to talk to cats,” he assured her. He cleared his throat, clearly uncomfortable with talking so much.

She found it odd that he was making an effort, but she couldn’t perceive it negatively.

“So, Lemon, huh? Cute name for a cat.”

He shrugged. “He was about the size of a lemon when he was born, so I went with it. He’s the baby of the house.”

At the mention of his house, Taeyeon glanced towards it. She looked back at him. He could probably tell that she was thinking. She wondered if Tiffany ever tried to have the same conversation with him about the shared experiences between them, but figured it was unlikely.

So she took a deep breath, and said, “Have you got some time later? I think we should talk.”

Lemon curled up around her foot and lay there with his tongue poking out slightly.