Tiffany knows that going to a party on Christmas Eve will provide her with two things: bountiful alcohol and emotional people. Both are immediately presented to her as soon as she steps through the front door, so with one hand she grabs the proffered bottle of beer and with the other she grasps an arm to bring someone in for a hug and a shout of greeting.
The music isn’t anything she already knows and for that she is grateful. It’s something gritty and deep, just what she needs – and she’ll be able to get lost in it easily as the night wears on.
She wants to break some rules. She wants to find someone here who can distract her better than any other option in her life; someone who can keep her busy because they give her a whole other world. That’s someone she has never found and doesn’t expect to, but Tiffany cannot help but hope that something will happen just like every other lonely dark night that she thinks about this. She doesn’t want Christmas with the lights and the mint-flavoured cheer and her friends and family. She wants not-Christmas.
The problem is that she knows most of the people here, so she has to get moving. From one corner of the house to the other, she hovers and laughs with people and gently tugs at their conversations to see if they’ll drop what she’s hunting for, but she has no luck. She’s known most of these people long enough and well enough to know they don’t have it. Her heart is already beating in time with the thick rhythm of the music and now when she turns her head away from a group of people, she lets her hair cover her face while she takes a deep breath. She wants to take in more and more. She finishes her drink and plucks another from a tub of ice.
Someone sets off a wordless cheer and she spins on the spot as she joins in with the ripple in the crowd. Her free hand pushes at her hair, holding it back with her fingers, and she takes a long sip of a vodka cooler.
This time, she notices.
Across the room, leaning against the wall, staring at the ceiling, is a young woman with black and blonde hair who is tapping the mouth of a bottle against her own perfectly in time with the beat.
That’s her. Tiffany knows it. She doesn’t get this sense often and usually it’s just the alcohol talking but it’s good and strong so she’s definitely going to follow it.
There’s nothing on the ceiling – Tiffany checks with a quick glance as moves through the crowd – so when she reaches the mystery girl she mirrors the wall-leaning posture but turns her head to smile.
“See something I don’t?” she asks.
The girl meets her eyes, and lowers the bottle from her lips. “Unless you can see inside my head.”
Tiffany shrugs. “Want to take me on a tour?”
This makes the girl’s mouth quirk into a lopsided little smile – her bottom lip is rounder than her upper and Tiffany definitely responds positively.
“Do you know the night sky?” the girl says. She crosses her arms across her chest, lightly holding on to her bottle, and looks up at the ceiling again. “I’m looking at the stars. There’s a lot of them and they don’t look realistic at all, but I think they’re pretty great.”
Tiffany rests her head against the wall and looks at the ceiling.
One by one, tiny lights pop up like sparkles that strengthen and settle, populating gratuitous clusters of makeshift stars. Someone has turned the music up, and the stars wobble with every blow of the bass.
She realizes the girl is watching her so she turns her head again.
“My name is Tiffany,” she says.
The girl smiles again. “I’m Taeyeon. Nice to meet you, Tiffany.”
She wonders if Taeyeon can see the reflection of the stars in her eyes, because it seems like somehow she knows that they’re on the same page. She doesn’t have to ask if Tiffany is seeing anything at all. Instead she drains her beer and sits down on the floor, stretching out her legs in front of her and looking completely comfortable.
Tiffany doesn’t hesitate to join her, taking a leisurely sip of her drink as they stare up at the ceiling sky again.
They’re sitting close enough together that the left side of her body is warm and alert with the physical nearness.
“From the stars, we can move on to -” Taeyeon angles her head, looking straight ahead, ” – sand dunes. We’re in a desert. Because it’s night time, there’s a chill in the air that carries the bite of a distant heat.”
Easily Tiffany can imagine the dark floor beneath them is not carpet but the lightly cooling sand of a desert meeting the night after a day of simmering under the sun. She rests a hand palm-down on the ground between them and looks at it, thinking about how jarring it can feel to be suddenly cold after being far too hot. Taeyeon moves her hand over Tiffany’s, a contact that sends dim thrills along Tiffany’s skin.
Taeyeon closes her eyes, and tilts her chin up to the sky just to feel it.
It’s a feeling that comforts and excites at the same time; Tiffany doesn’t say that, but she takes a large gulp of the nearly-forgotten vodka cooler in her other hand. Yes, sitting in the desert at night, watching the stars with Taeyeon would feel great – does feel great, because she’s willing to go further into Taeyeon’s head to create this world around them.
“Oh, a shooting star,” says Taeyeon.
Tiffany checks. Taeyeon’s eyes are still closed. She looks up at their stars and sees them thrumming a heartbeat but – there, one flicks itself along the ceiling sky, brushing past a line of others and scattering them from one cluster to another.
“Cheater,” she murmurs, and receives a squeeze from Taeyeon’s fingers in response. “You’re not even looking.”
“I can feel it,” answers Taeyeon.
She opens her eyes anyway and intently watches Tiffany.
“It’s a long night,” she says.
Tiffany blinks at her. “Want to dance?”
Taeyeon laughs. “Absolutely.”
It’s easy to dance with Taeyeon. They edge away from the wall and move into the music simply. Every now and then, Tiffany glances up at the stars that Taeyeon showed her, and she runs a hand through her hair. As soon as her drink is empty, Taeyeon takes the bottle from her and deposits it on a side table. Then she takes Tiffany’s hand and pulls her closer.
“Do you like it?” she asks, leaning in to be heard over the music.
Tiffany grins. “The stars? The desert?” She reaches up to touch Taeyeon’s cheek lightly, briefly, then wraps her arms around Taeyeon’s shoulders and hugs her. “This night with you? I like it.”
“Good,” whispers Taeyeon, and their cheeks brush together.
Tiffany slips into the rhythm of their bodies, feeding off each other and driving the movements of the stars in the ceiling sky. She imagines the gently biting air of an empty land sweeping over her shoulders, so she presses closer to Taeyeon.
Taeyeon gives her a look that makes the stars fall from the sky, and Tiffany kisses her.
Now Tiffany can really feel the stars dripping around them in the middle of a night-time desert, and it’s anything but Christmas because of Taeyeon.
Since relocating to a coastal town, Tiffany often thought of the similarity between the wind and the waves. The prospect of long walks by the beach at the end of a long day was appealing and she had taken full advantage of the nearness. On days when the wind was relentlessly strong, she’d stop and stare at the waves tumbling over themselves to hit the beach while she felt the gusts of air tug at her and toss her around – wondering if this was how it would feel to be underwater in the ocean, buffeted about by the currents.
Now Tiffany knew, they certainly did feel similar.
Her head finally crashed through the surface of the water and she gulped air into her burning lungs, mingling with salt from the sea, blinking her eyes rapidly. Mentally she knew it had to have been less than a minute that she was under. The effect on her body was shocking. She pushed with her arms and legs and tried to control her desperate breathing.
“Agent Hwang! Are you okay?”
Tiffany allowed herself to be pulled upwards as she reached the shoreline, nearly crawling through the sand. She heard booted footsteps rushing along the pier to reach the beach proper.
Remembering the presence of the local police force brought her back to reality, and she finally got a visual on her surroundings.
Bare feet, toes digging into the sand, led her gaze upwards into the face of Taeyeon.
“You,” she rasped out.
Taeyeon tightened her grip as Tiffany nearly lost her balance, her body catching up to the sudden relocation.
“What are you doing here?” said Tiffany, fighting the nausea that yanked at her stomach. She didn’t dare take her eyes off Taeyeon, despite the glimpse of police officers coming their way.
“You remember me?” Taeyeon sounded only slightly surprised, as if she hadn’t had any particular expectation.
“Of course I remember you! Or rather, some of you –”
The officers reached them now, the first two looking warily at Taeyeon and reaching for their holstered weapons.
Tiffany pulled herself away from Taeyeon and staggered towards them. “I’m okay. Do we have someone pursuing the suspects?”
One man nodded, glancing again at Taeyeon. “The one who pushed you didn’t run as fast as the others. We have him in custody.”
Tiffany looked over his shoulder at the crowd gathering on the boardwalk. Some of the officers were making a physical barrier to prevent bystanders from entering the scene, and further along there lay a man on the boards being restrained by three officers, his face pressed into the wood.
“Good,” she said. “He’s an asshole,” she murmured more to herself.
She turned to face Taeyeon again, feeling more stable with a squad of police officers at her back.
“You’re going to have to come in for questioning,” she said to Taeyeon, crossing her arms and pretending not to feel woozy as she did so.
Taeyeon held her hands in the air as if in surrender, her expression the picture of innocence. “What for, officer? I was just helping a woman out of the water. You looked like you were in trouble.”
“Officer?” Tiffany narrowed her eyes. “Taeyeon, I know you know who I am, and I’m no damn officer. Just come with me and we’ll have a talk.”
“I don’t know anything about that business on the boardwalk,” Taeyeon said, shaking her head. “I was just walking along the beach.”
Tiffany could feel most of the officers around her shifting, restless, ready to get back to the real case at hand, but she was not going to let Taeyeon get away. She turned to the man next to her, the only one that looked like he was also suspicious of Taeyeon, and held out her hand.
“Give me your cuffs.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Yours fall into the sea?”
“Please give me your cuffs,” said Tiffany, “so I can put Taeyeon in custody and we can get back to our job.”
Taeyeon started backing away. “Now, I don’t think that’s necessary, agent, I haven’t done anything wrong –”
“Nothing? Really?” Tiffany tried hard to stay professional but she couldn’t, not really. “We are going to talk about what happened out in the woods, Taeyeon, because you have a lot of explaining to do for that crap about the aliens and the fact that the case ran cold because we never caught the guy seeing as how I went missing for a month and suddenly woke up in Norway. I nearly lost my job because of you. And kidnapping a federal law enforcement agent is a serious offence – so you are coming with me, damn it!”
The officers who had stayed with them managed to catch on to the gist of her words and moved to restrain Taeyeon. She seemed to recognize a lost battle and allowed herself to be handcuffed.
“I didn’t do it,” Taeyeon muttered weakly. She looked at the sand, studiously.
“Hold her at the station for now,” Tiffany ordered, already turning back to the boardwalk. “Let’s get back to our investigation.”
Despite waking up in Norway, of all places, Tiffany hadn’t panicked until she got to the airport and realised she didn’t have her passport. In her mind, she was moving automatically to fly home and then sort this whole mess out, wait until then to let it sink in that she was in Norway and had no idea how she got there. The mechanic nature of this kept her from realising the truth until she stopped at the ticket desk, was asked how she could be helped today, and it suddenly hit her.
She was in Norway.
Eventually she managed to get in touch with the agency, and the authorities in Norway were not surprised to hear her story when she explained who she was. They may have been wary, but no one else in the world was coming forward claiming to be the lost agent Tiffany Hwang so they didn’t question her too much.
Then when she got back home and sat in her boss’s office and he calmly asked her where the hell she had been for the past four weeks, it hit her again, and this time she cried a little because she was freaking out. Waking up in Norway with no clue of a whole month of her life was terrifying. Who knows what happened to her in that time?
She had explained the last things she remembered, and the police went hunting for Taeyeon but never found her. She, too, had disappeared without a trace, and with no living relatives or known associates, the leads died fast. They found her camera in the woods, though, neatly inscribed with her name on the side, and with a bunch of nice photos of owls in it.
But then suddenly there was Taeyeon, strolling casually down a beach.
Tiffany almost didn’t want to open this puzzle again, simply because of how it messed with her head. She stood on the other side of the two-way mirror, staring holes into Taeyeon who sat cuffed to the table with her eyes closed.
“Is she asleep?” the chief of police whispered.
“I doubt it,” Tiffany answered.
They watched her for another moment.
“What’s she doing?”
Tiffany sighed. “I have no idea.” She walked out of the room, going to the one right next to it.
Taeyeon looked up when the door opened and Tiffany walked in. They locked gazes as she moved into the room, and Tiffany noted how Taeyeon was seemingly deliberately keeping her face impassive – but as if she was trying to tamp down a smile more than anything negative.
Tiffany didn’t say anything at first, moving to sit down on the opposite side of the table and organize her notepad and pen neatly in front of her. She laced her fingers together and settled in. She and Taeyeon stared at each other, unblinkingly, until Tiffany felt like her eyes were going to water so she started talking.
“So,” she said neutrally. “For security purposes, I’m supposed to wait until another agent arrives before I formally interview you, but I’m impatient. This isn’t being recorded, but the chief of police is just on the other side of that mirror and will intervene if you try to harm me. Got that?”
Taeyeon nodded and stayed silent. She looked the same as she had that night in the woods, like nothing happened.
“Technically this is off the record,” Tiffany continued, shifting to pick up her pen. “I just want you to be honest with me.”
Taeyeon shrugged. “Okay.”
“First question,” said Tiffany. “What the hell happened that night?”
Taeyeon shrugged again. She lifted her hands as if to gesture with them, but couldn’t move far with cuffs. She didn’t look bothered by that, however. “They came.”
“Them. The ones we were waiting for. They came and they took you. Well, us. But they kicked me off the ship for some reason. I guess they didn’t like me. Maybe I was annoying.” She shrugged a third time, giving Tiffany her familiar shy smile. “I wasn’t sure how long they wanted to keep you. They weren’t very talkative.”
“Aliens? The aliens weren’t very talkative?”
Taeyeon winced. “I don’t really like using that word. It doesn’t seem accurate.”
Tiffany took a deep breath. “Okay. So they came and took us. Where did they take us? Did you see anything noticeable?”
Taeyeon smiled more fully. “A spaceship is quite noticeable.”
“Anything else? Did you see any memorable landmarks, hear any recognizable sounds?”
“They didn’t kidnap you, Agent Hwang. These weren’t humans who put you in a truck and took you someplace. We were in space.”
The pen in Tiffany’s hand must have nearly cracked in two. “And did you see this – space? What did you see on their space ship?”
“I don’t remember much, really. They did that to us. Mostly I remember the first day, not much after that. I looked out the window and saw all those stars. It was very pretty. I wanted to take a photo but they didn’t have my camera. I thought they would have it.”
“We have it in an evidence locker,” Tiffany said, corners of her mouth pulling tight, “because of the investigation into your abduction of a federal agent.”
Taeyeon’s lips formed a small ‘o’. “Right. I see.”
“The only photos on there were owls, Taeyeon.”
“Well, yeah. That’s all I got photos of that night when I lost it. I clear out the SD card every time, transfer the photos to my computer.”
Tiffany briefly ran a hand through her hair. “Let’s get back to the night of the abduction. How did they take us? How many of them were there? Did they use force or intoxicate us?”
Taeyeon shook her head, frowning. “Nothing like that. We went with them willingly. Four of them.”
“Male, female? Distinguishing features?”
Taeyeon stared at her like she was crazy. “They were – well, aliens, as you say. They didn’t look male, female, anything like that.”
Tiffany leaned forward. “And what did they look like, Taeyeon?”
Taeyeon seemed lost for words this time, looking at her hands. “I… I don’t know. I guess I don’t remember.”
This time the pen nearly did snap, and Tiffany tossed it down onto the table. It was getting very difficult to contain her temper.
“Taeyeon, please,” she said. “Please just tell me the truth.”
Taeyeon looked up, her expression vulnerable and weary. “That is the truth. When I took your hand – you followed me into the woods to where they were waiting, and you followed me onto the ship. We held hands all that time.” She shook her head. “Suddenly there we were, in space. They liked you the most, they liked your hair and your lips and that thing you do with your eyes. But they didn’t want to harm us. They took us into a room and I don’t remember anything after that. I was back in the woods only two days later. I heard about your disappearance, I knew I had to find you. Find them. I have that thing, you know, about all the places and times they drop people off where the environmental factors are right. So – so I went. There. Everywhere.”
She tugged gently at the chain of her cuffs.
“I didn’t make it to the Norway drop-off in time,” she mumbled. “My flight was delayed by two hours. You were gone.”
Taeyeon nodded, looking at the table.
Tiffany gaped at her. Taeyeon had gone hunting for her; all over the world, none the less?
“Weren’t the police looking for you?”
Taeyeon smiled half-heartedly. “Fake passport. I know a guy. I wasn’t a suspect yet at that time. Easy to slip through the cracks before they can catch up.”
They were silent for a few moments just watching each other and Tiffany tried to process this and ultimately failed to get all the way.
“What thing I do with my eyes?”
“You said they liked that thing I do with my eyes. What thing?”
“Oh, you know, when you smile. You do this thing; your eyes go like –” She tried to demonstrate. “This thing.”
“Well, no, not like a squint, I just, I can’t do it. It’s – you know – It’s pretty. I guess.”
Aliens. Aliens abducted Tiffany – or not – or they did, or technically she went willingly and she was in space and they took her into a room and did – what? What would they have done to her? And then she was dropped off in Norway –
“Why wasn’t I covered in goo?” she said suddenly. “That coloured stuff like that victim had on him when we found him in the woods. If the aliens took him too, why didn’t I have any when they dropped me off?”
Taeyeon shrugged. “Different procedures for you, maybe? I mean, you weren’t dead either. Or maybe they weren’t the same aliens. Maybe some aliens want to kill and others just want to….”
“Take us into dark rooms on their space ship and make us forget everything that happens in there?”
Taeyeon grimaced. “Yeah, I don’t know. It’s a theory in progress. I was too busy looking for you to really work on it.”
Tiffany took a good, long look at Taeyeon. She got called a kid a lot because she looked like one at first glance, but sitting across from her and talking about all of this made her realise the shadows that sometimes crossed Taeyeon’s face and settled on her shoulders.
“Do you have a bad feeling about aliens now?” asked Tiffany, somewhat gentle.
“I don’t know,” said Taeyeon quietly. “I was always so excited to meet them, but I don’t know what they did to us. I’m… I’m confused. I’m not happy.”
“Look, Taeyeon, I’m not saying I believe you. This investigation must continue until we can confirm what happened and where we both were during that month of my disappearance. Until we know what’s going on, you’re still a suspect in my abduction. But since we’re off the record….”
She glanced over her shoulder at the two-way mirror, and looked back at Taeyeon.
“Why would you come looking for me?”
Taeyeon glanced at her, surprised. “What do you mean?”
“The previous aliens killed that guy, and possibly others, so how would you have known you’d find me alive?”
Taeyeon pursed her lips for a moment. “I didn’t know. I didn’t think about that. They didn’t… I mean they didn’t seem like they wanted to kill you. And they didn’t kill me. I don’t know. I just wanted to find you. You came with me onto that ship when I know you didn’t want to be there originally, you were in the process of leaving. You took that leap because of something I said while we were waiting for them. You – you took my hand. So, I just wanted to find you.”
She was kind of afraid of an answer like that.
Tiffany stood up suddenly, her chair scraping back, and picked up her notepad and pen. “The other agents will be here soon to do a formal interview.”
She was at the door when Taeyeon spoke again.
They looked at each other.
“I’m glad you’re okay,” said Taeyeon. “I didn’t know what to do when the news said you were found in Norway. Everything got buried fast after that. I kind of wandered around, hoping I’d figure out what to do. But I’m glad they didn’t hurt you.”
Tiffany hesitated, nodded, and left the room without a word. On the other side, she leaned against the closed door and sighed.
Either Taeyeon was a sociopath who abducted her, or she was somehow telling the truth – and that would mean that she was actually quite sweet.
“I’m aware of how it sounds, sir,” said Tiffany for the hundredth time. “I’m just saying there are two possibilities here and that’s only one of them.”
“Two? Two possibilities? I don’t think so, Agent Hwang.”
Tiffany watched her boss pace back and forth behind his desk, his face worn and his steps heavy. She wasn’t sure what was more troubling for him right now – the concept of someone like Taeyeon abducting a federal agent or the possibility that one of his agents was expressing a belief in aliens.
“Did she brainwash you? Is that it?”
The latter, then.
“No, sir, she didn’t brainwash me. There’s more to this case than it appears, that’s all. That’s my opinion as an agent and as the… victim.” A word she hadn’t used to describe herself before.
Her boss stopped pacing and turned to look at her, stern. “Look, Hwang, you’re a good agent and a good person. At the start of that case you were certain there was no ‘extra-terrestrial’ activity and that it was a simple serial killer. Then you run off into the woods with this kid and find yourself in Norway a month later. Tell me clearly and honestly, do you believe that you were abducted by aliens?”
“I… honestly don’t know. And that’s why I’m saying we should investigate it.”
He shook his head. “Just because you know doesn’t mean the other option isn’t concrete. You were the victim here, despite how little you take that position. Who knows what she could have done to you in that month? No offense, but your opinion in this is not relevant in that manner and cannot be trusted.”
“You did a tox screen when I showed up – no drugs. There was a medical examination – no sign of force or abuse. All the psychology tests showed was that I had a huge gap in my memory and nothing different from my recruitment tests. She didn’t drug me, abuse me, or brainwash me. This is my own opinion that I formed as myself – a federal agent who doesn’t remember a month of her life and randomly woke up in Norway one day.”
“I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way for this one. We’re taking this investigation as a human abducting a federal agent, nothing more. We can’t waste time on aliens.”
“Just let me do it! You guys continue your investigation, and I’ll do my own. I can take leave so I’m not wasting government money – ”
“Would you listen to yourself? You’re asking to take unpaid leave to go alien hunting! Have you lost your mind? I can’t let you do this. You need to either stay focused on your job or go on an actual vacation and get some help to cope with what’s happened to you. Please, Agent Hwang.”
She stared at him, jaw clenched. She knew she sounded absurd and a while ago she would have felt the exact same way he did – the same way she felt when she first encountered Taeyeon at a crime scene and wanted to dismiss her. But things were different now. She wasn’t sure what happened, and that alone was enough to make her want to find out; whether it was aliens or not.
“Fine,” she said eventually, forcing herself to relax. “You’re right. I’ve been burying my feelings since it happened. The stress is getting to me, and I’m just so desperate for answers, to know what’s real. I mean, it just doesn’t seem so simple that someone like Taeyeon could do that to me. And I don’t even know what happened. It’s all so overwhelming.”
He nodded sympathetically when she met his gaze.
“I should take a vacation. Go someplace peaceful and get to know myself again. You guys can handle the investigation and find the answers and when I get back, everything will be okay again. Right?”
He smiled in a fatherly way, and sat down at his desk. “Right.”
Tiffany left his office with his blessings and stayed demure and sensible all the way down the corridor until she got in the elevator. Then she started planning.
In order to get Taeyeon out of the highly secure government building without anyone noticing, Tiffany would have to make sure to do it before anyone knew she was meant to be going on vacation. She had to use the illusion that she was still allowed to be involved in this case. And that meant she would have to do it right now. She glanced at her watch. There wasn’t time for anything fancy or too complex – no cover stories or waiting for the change of the guard or even a chance to scope it out and see how many agents were hovering around Taeyeon right now. She was going to have to walk in blind, take Taeyeon, and walk right out again.
She hit the button for the basement, keying in the password when prompted. Her security clearance for that floor would be placed on hold as soon as her boss finished the paperwork for her leave of absence. Of course, when he found out about what she was doing, her clearance would probably be permanently revoked – along with her job and possibly freedom. Kidnapping a federal agent may have been a serious offense, but smuggling the alleged kidnapper out of government custody in the middle of the investigation was just as bad.
Tiffany closed her eyes, focusing on her breathing. This was a big deal, she knew. And that was why she wasn’t thinking about it yet. Not only was time of the essence in order for this to be successful, but the more she thought about it the less likely she would be to take this risk.
Then again, the last time she spontaneously took a risk, she woke up a month later in Norway.
The justification was the same.
The first time in the forest, she took Taeyeon’s hand and went to the aliens because the look on Taeyeon’s face amazed her. Taeyeon’s search for aliens led here. Taeyeon was finding what she’d always looked for. Taeyeon herself was a puzzle, a weird kid – or not a kid – who ran around hunting aliens and being really sweet about it.
This time, it was still Taeyeon. The Taeyeon who had met the aliens and been dumped back on her home planet with no memory and without Tiffany. The Taeyeon who then went on to run around hunting Tiffany because they had gone up together and then she was gone. The Taeyeon who was still looking for answers.
When the elevator doors opened, Tiffany was ready.
Her badge got her past the first line of defense, through all the guards and into the interrogation room that held Taeyeon and one more agent who stood by the door. Once she closed the door behind her, Tiffany briefly considered her options as she nodded politely to the other agent. She could either make an excuse to get him to leave so that she could explain the plan to Taeyeon in private, or she could just do it right now. And considering there wasn’t much of a plan, she easily chose to go with the latter.
“She has to come with me,” said Tiffany, pointing in Taeyeon’s direction. “Right now.”
The agent tilted his head to one side and regarded her. “What for? I have no information about this.”
“Your lack of information is your own problem,” said Tiffany. “I’m here to do my job even if you aren’t.”
It was an aggressive approach, and she could see the agent bristle at the attitude. He squared his shoulders.
“I understand that you are a senior agent but I have orders, and letting people waltz in and take this suspect to an unknown location is not part of those orders.”
Internally, Tiffany deflated. If he was going to get dramatic about it, this would take longer.
“I don’t have time for this,” Tiffany said. “She’s coming with me. If you try to stop me, you’ll just be causing a whole lot of trouble for yourself. The process that’s involved when one agent gets away of another – you don’t want that, do you?”
He was frowning, clearly not happy with the situation. But he glanced at Taeyeon, and back at Tiffany. “Fine. Go on. You’re more likely to get in trouble for this than I am.”
She shrugged nonchalantly, and gestured at Taeyeon to follow as she opened the door again.
They made it back down the corridor in silence. When Tiffany pressed the elevator button for the carpark, she knew by the way all the guards were staring at her that she was already in trouble. It sank in for the first time; she just lost her job.
The elevator doors closed, and Taeyeon let out a breath.
“Wow, that was intense. So, where are we going?”
“Far away, and as fast as humanly possible,” answered Tiffany, checking her watch.
“So you really are helping me escape? I wasn’t sure. This is great!”
“Could you tone down your enthusiasm?” The elevator slowed to a halt. “We still have to get out of here without bullets flying.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Taeyeon flicked off half a salute, and then the elevator doors opened.
It was quiet. Tiffany strode ahead with confidence and didn’t glance around at the dimly lit parked cars. There was little chance that anyone would be here to stop them already.
When they reached her SUV, she whipped out the keys and unlocked the doors, only now choosing to check over her shoulder at the silent elevator. Still no pursuit yet.
Taeyeon seemed to enjoy being in the leather seats again, wiggling down before putting on her seatbelt, and Tiffany shook her head in disbelief.
“No wonder people call you a kid,” she murmured, and started the engine.
“Yeah, yeah,” Taeyeon responded, rolling her eyes. “I’m assuming we need to get out of here before we discuss our next step, right? Let’s drive.”
Tiffany looked over at her and settled her hands on the steering wheel pointedly. “Yes. Let’s.”
The guard at the exit scanned her ID and waved her through with no questions asked. The perimeter was much the same. By the time they hit the open road, Tiffany was frowning. Should that have been so easy? Having never done this before, she had no frame of reference.
“So, where to?” asked Taeyeon, digging in the glove department. When she found Tiffany’s sunglasses, she slipped them on and smiled at Tiffany.
Tiffany checked all the rear-view mirrors as she answered. “Well, since I’ve clearly lost my mind, I figured I’d go all out. We’re going back to the forest to find those aliens.”
Taeyeon tilted her head to one side, eyes hidden by the glasses. “You really want to find them?”
“I really want to find something, definitely. I need to know something, anything, everything. If there are aliens, I want to punch them in the face for what they did to us. Whatever it is. I don’t like it. They took advantage of us – probably – and they kidnapped us – kind of – and they dropped me in Norway with no memories. I am so pissed off.”
Taeyeon smiled again. “There we go. Now that is something I can accept. I’ll check my calculations, but considering what time of year it is, that forest should be a possible location for them to visit again.”
“Don’t think you’re getting off easy,” Tiffany said, glancing at her. “I’m mad at you too.”
“What? What for?”
“You’re the reason I was there that night and you’re the reason I went towards the aliens instead of in the other direction. And you’re the reason I broke several laws and lost my job to go looking for those same aliens!”
Taeyeon raised her hands helplessly. “I’m…. sorry?”
Tiffany sighed, and shook her head. She flicked the indicator to make a turn. “Never mind. You can’t help it. I’m just frustrated with you right now.”
The sunglasses were removed and Taeyeon peered more closely at her. “Then I really am sorry. I don’t want you to be frustrated with me. I want you to be okay.”
The car slowed as they approached an intersection, getting closer to the city centre. Tiffany looked over at Taeyeon as they waited in traffic, her heartbeat calming. Eventually she willed herself to reach over and touch Taeyeon lightly on the arm.
“I am okay,” she said softly. “Because we’re finally doing something. And in the same way that I blame you for a lot of things, it’s also your fault that I’m able to take action and find some answers. So…. I am okay.”
This made Taeyeon stare at her for quite a while. Tiffany removed her hand when traffic moved and she had to focus on driving again, and she felt Taeyeon’s gaze leave her face as they drove through the city and out the other side. It would take a few hours to reach the forest; Tiffany was surprised to find that she did not consider the atmosphere with Taeyeon to be uncomfortable.
They didn’t speak much until they were on the outskirts of their destination. The town was much like Tiffany remembered it, restful and stagnant. The sun was setting in the distance, casting a sleepy air over the diner where they ordered dinner and coffee.
Taeyeon took her time to inspect the posters on the wall beside their booth as if she had never seen them before, and Tiffany watched her do so.
“Does it bother you?”
Taeyeon turned, raised her eyebrows questioningly.
“Does it bother you that they dropped you off early?” asked Tiffany. She got more settled in her seat, and toyed with the coffee in front of her. “They kept me for longer but not you. How did that make you feel?”
Taeyeon smiled eventually. Then she even laughed a little. “It doesn’t bother me. My ego’s not bruised, if that’s what you were thinking. I wasn’t interesting enough and you were. It’s no big deal.”
Tiffany watched her carefully, wondering if that was so. “It really doesn’t bother you? You’ve spent years devoting your time and energy to finding these creatures, defiantly keeping your position as a believer despite how it alienated you from your peers. And then they just cast you aside – that didn’t make you unhappy?”
“Firstly; ‘alienated’ – nice one. Secondly, no, it didn’t make me unhappy.” Taeyeon looked away for a second, as if contemplating her options, then spoke again. “I spent years looking for them and believing in them, but it’s not like I idolized them. I didn’t want anything from them, or want them to be interested in me. I just wanted to know if I was right or not. My whole life, I’ve been uncertain of those around me and of my future. I stubbornly believed in the presence of extra-terrestrial beings, yes, but that’s because it was one thing I knew couldn’t be taken away from me that easily. There’s no definitive proof that they exist, not enough anyway, and there’s no proof that they cannot possibly exist. Maybe I have been lying to myself or making it sound better in my mind. The picture I had of them in my head is that – as advanced as they may be – they’re flawed. Extra-terrestrial in origin and appearance but as human as the rest of us in their wants or pursuits.”
“Had? You don’t think of them in that way anymore?”
Taeyeon sighed. “Maybe I was a little disappointed. Not because they cast me aside or kept you for longer or made us forget whatever they did to us. Not even because what they did may have been really bad. I was disappointed because it’s still not an answer. Something happened, some creatures came, but that was it. I have nothing to show for it but an open arrest warrant for a severe crime. The image I have of them now is… darkness. Worry. Because I didn’t know where they took you. I was uncomfortable. I used to get swept up in the excitement, the mystery of finding them. The reality has negative connotations now. I don’t like them – but it’s an uncertain reaction, not a conclusion.”
Tiffany shook her head. “I don’t know how you do this, Taeyeon. These past few days, these past few months I felt like I was losing my mind. Aliens. Losing my memory. Norway. Finding my alleged kidnapper and then breaking her out of a secure facility so that we can go alien hunting. It’s absurd. This isn’t me. Don’t you doubt yourself like that?”
“I know who I am. It just so happens that this is normal behaviour for me.” She grinned briefly. “Or rather, I have a different concept of my normal behaviour. As long as I still hold some of the same values and treat others the same way, I know I’m not crazy.”
“No, you’re not crazy,” Tiffany murmured. She rested her chin on one hand. “You’re a really nice person, you know?”
Taeyeon looked away, shy. “Thanks. And you’re a very passionate person. I know everything you do is because you care.”
Tiffany opened her mouth, then shut it again. One thing she was not going to do right now was encourage this line of discussion any further, because she knew exactly where it went and that scared her.
Aliens first. Feelings later.
She raised a hand to summon the waiter. The night was forming outside, and it was time to go.
“I can’t believe I’m sitting in these woods waiting for aliens. Again.” Tiffany shifted, trying to get comfortable on the cold hard ground. “We didn’t even get a blanket this time.”
“Yeah, sorry about that,” Taeyeon said quietly, eyes on the sky. “You seemed like you were in a hurry. And I kind of don’t have any stuff any more.”
Tiffany looked over at her in the darkness, noticing the way the moonlight lined the features of her profile the same way it had the night of the abduction. “What do you mean you don’t have any stuff?”
“Well when I left everything behind to go looking for you, I didn’t really settle down anywhere,” she replied. “I just have one bag with some clothes and all my money.”
Tiffany shook her head, looked around, and shook her head again. “I can’t believe you.”
Taeyeon looked at her at last, frowning. “What? I’m not lying – ”
“No, I don’t mean it like that. I can’t believe you did that – left everything behind to go looking for me. Didn’t you have a life here? You abandoned all of that just for me?”
Taeyeon blinked at her slowly. “Oh. I didn’t have much of a life around here. I did odd jobs and sold some photos and calendars. Everyone thought I was weird so I didn’t exactly have friends. No one missed me.”
Tiffany moved closer, slightly, until the edge of her leg brushed lightly against Taeyeon’s. “I did. Probably. I don’t remember, obviously, and maybe I wasn’t even conscious but I probably missed you while I was up there.”
Taeyeon smiled, re-positioning so their legs pressed firmly together. “Are you saying you believe it for sure now? The aliens, the spaceship?”
Tiffany sighed deeply. “I don’t know. Maybe. I’m sitting out here waiting for aliens again, aren’t I? I don’t know what I believe. I’m investigating.”
“It’s okay,” said Taeyeon. She reached over and took Tiffany’s hand, holding it in her own lap. “It’s okay if that’s what happened, and it’s okay if you find yourself capable of accepting it as an option or even as fact. It’s okay.”
The world around them reached a level of quietness that signaled the deepness of the night; no birds, no insects, no wind in the leaves – and the sky was clear of clouds and speckled with stars.
Tiffany laced their fingers together, and shook her head half-heartedly this time.
“I need answers,” she murmured. “I need to know what they did to us. They’ve affected my whole life.”
The light pressure of Taeyeon’s thumb moving back and forth over Tiffany’s hand was comforting in the dark stillness of the night.
Tiffany wasn’t sure what changed between them and when. Maybe it was the supposed shared experience with the aliens, or the way Taeyeon talked about what happened after she was returned. She knew Taeyeon could still be pretending, could still be dangerous and still somehow responsible for abducting her and brainwashing her, but –
She pulled back, separating their lips.
“Did you just kiss me?”
Taeyeon looked somewhat scared. “Uh, yeah.”
Tiffany stared. “Oh. Okay.”
They both looked away, up at the stars, around at the silent trees. Then Tiffany turned back, touched Taeyeon’s jaw gently, and kissed her.
She focused on the feel of Taeyeon’s mouth against hers, Taeyeon’s fingers in her hair, their legs still pressing together, the closeness of her. Anything to bury the thoughts in her mind that were sending warning signals and disbelief coursing through her body.
This time when she pulled back, Tiffany was prepared to allow the rush of conflicting emotions to pour out of her but she never got the chance.
Her view of Taeyeon’s stunned expression was obstructed by the bright white light that surrounded them – it was familiar and yet it had been so long since that first night that it didn’t seem the same. The loud cracking and slamming sounds of metal rung through the air again, then the screeching and thumping as this time the light flickered three times before disappearing.
Taeyeon and Tiffany jumped to their feet, holding their breath, and glanced around at the once again silent forest.
“Where is it?” whispered Tiffany, her words brushing past her lips in the suddenly cold air.
“I don’t know,” Taeyeon answered. She gripped Tiffany’s forearm. “Should we go looking for it? Do you think they’ll come to us?”
“They might not even be here for us or know that we’re here.” Tiffany slowly edged forward in one direction, tugging Taeyeon with her. “Let’s try over here, I think that’s where the noise was coming from.”
Whether the noise really came from there or not was immaterial, because they managed three steps before everything went black.
If aliens were real or if Taeyeon was a killer, Tiffany didn’t know. All she knew was being completely alone in utter darkness.
The first time Tiffany was alone in a forest with Taeyeon, the night ended with an unseen force pulling her further and further past the trees, tightly holding onto Taeyeon’s hand. Maybe it was all just her imagination and there was no force, no pressure emanating from a mysterious source. Maybe there were no aliens and Tiffany really did lose her mind. She must have gone mad to be in that forest again, at night, with Taeyeon, waiting for aliens. To kiss Taeyeon.
Maybe she was back with those aliens. Was she with Taeyeon this time?
And then she knew nothing at all.
Taeyeon has a rhythm. She’s found a way to move her fingers in a smoothly flowing pattern, making the finest movements with the sweetest timing. She manipulates the use of her hands to the tightest degree. A comfortable control is gained over everything.
Tiffany… has a lot of heart.
“I don’t get it!” Tiffany huffs in frustration, once again, flailing. “How are you getting it so perfectly right? I’m sure we’re doing the exact same things at the exact same time.”
“You just don’t have the touch,” Taeyeon replies in an exceedingly casual way, like all she’s doing is breathing and that’s obvious. “I’ve been told I have a certain magic when it comes to this.”
Tiffany rolls her eyes. “Yeah, who told you that?”
“Yeah. The queen herself pronounced me to be a true gift to the art.”
There comes a spattering of noise and violent imagery from the screen and Tiffany squeals.
“Oh come on! What did I do this time?”
“You ran straight towards that guy while he was shooting you, point-blank, in the face.”
“What? I did not. When did I do that?”
“Just – never mind, just try again. I’ll wait for you at the checkpoint.”
Tiffany sighs, and if it’s a little unnecessarily dramatic Taeyeon doesn’t notice. The controller in Tiffany’s hands gets shuffled around a bit as she pretends to practice the combos and readjust her grip, then there’s the beginning of a cut scene before they start again.
The focus this time is more intense, both of them leaning forward slightly and barely blinking as they move their characters this way and that, brush over some buttons and smash others with an urgent determination when something changes on the screen.
“We can get that guy easier if we split up,” mumbles Taeyeon, running a finger over two buttons at once to create a chain reaction of virtual abilities.
“I know,” says Tiffany, and that’s all she has to say.
“I’m coming from behind,” Taeyeon announces.
Tiffany twitches but doesn’t laugh out loud. They get the guy and make a good run of it before Tiffany goes ahead of Taeyeon and starts taking on the enemies one-on-one.
“Woah there, hey, what, what are you doing?”
This time Tiffany begins to grin. “I thought maybe I could get these guys on my own. How about you just watch for a bit?”
Taeyeon’s expression is hilarious but Tiffany doesn’t look too much, because she’s fighting one against five now and winning so someone had better be watching, at least.
The quantity of red and black in the colour scheme of the images increases as Tiffany’s character takes more and more damage until it’s just her and two others – even when the screen flashes and something titles the situation ‘critical’ it’s followed by a blaring ‘ultimate combo’ and a bright ‘five-kill player streak’ and then Tiffany is laughing for real and in full at the look on Taeyeon’s face.
Tiffany takes the opportunity to grab the last slice of pizza and chews triumphantly while she turns to Taeyeon, putting her controller to one side now that the fight is over. She’s undeniably amused and it’s clear why. Taeyeon finds this all beyond comprehension.
“We’ve been playing this game for a month,” she says, slowly, “you’ve never in all that time done anything but struggle!”
Tiffany raises her eyebrows. “You really thought I was that bad?”
“Well yeah, you weren’t doing well. Don’t trick me into saying you sucked, because you weren’t that bad but you definitely weren’t that good! I mean, I’ve never even gotten the ulti-”
She snaps her mouth shut.
Tiffany parts her lips in surprise and delight. “What was that? Did you say you’ve never even gotten the ultimate combo?”
Taeyeon frowns. “Well…. I mean, I’ve been close. Anyway how did you get this good so suddenly?!”
“You’ve been working overtime a lot,” Tiffany shrugs, looks away, doesn’t express how she really feels about that,”so I’ve been practicing when I’m home alone.”
They sit there, soaking that moment up, before Tiffany grins again and puts her pizza down. She cracks her knuckles in jest.
“And you should have known I couldn’t possibly be that bad at this game,” she teases. “Surely you wouldn’t deny I have a certain level of skill with my hands?”
Her wink makes Taeyeon blush three different shades and then cough nervously.
“Well, when you put it that way…..”
Tiffany laughs, full-bodied and happy. The evenings she spent feeling lonely were used to make something for when she wasn’t alone, and it was definitely worth it.
She’s the one who gets the surprise this time when Taeyeon suddenly kisses her.
“Thank you,” Taeyeon murmurs, staying close, and they smile at each other. For long moments, they stay like that, especially when the screen times out and it’s quiet, dark, soft, the game as good as completed.
272 days and counting.
It’s all Tiffany can think about for hours. Every day. As soon as she wakes up, as soon as she registers that it’s another new morning – any time she sees the date, the squares on her calendar, some crossed out, smudged in ink – her heart would beat along to those numbers.
She likes to do silly little things that are like stepping stones on the way to the Big Day. The first week, the first month, the second month – she’d draw tiny hearts on the respective days on her calendar, more hearts as the meter went on, until they got bigger and took up the whole square. She takes pictures of the marks with her phone and sends them, along with many blushing emojis, to her one and only – who doesn’t really understand what they mean.
Tiffany is cheesy enough to think of terms like ‘one and only’ because not only do they incite reactions of reluctant amusement and dimpled grins, but they match how she is feeling. This is it. This is the one. She is in love. Unlike ‘one and only’, she is stuck with another phrase. The hated phrase. The inevitable.
“If only what?”
“If only we could see each other sooner,” says Tiffany, pasting on a smile that wouldn’t hold still and didn’t work at all. “I miss you.”
She was counting towards 300, because that’s another cheesy little mark of progress, and it was the mark that measures how long she has been in love with Taeyeon.
Taeyeon, who tilts her head to one side, making the image blur momentarily, and tries to look into Tiffany’s soul.
It’s not the measure of a relationship. They wouldn’t be a couple for 300 days.
They wouldn’t even be a couple for one day, let alone one hundred, let alone eternity.
But she wishes.
She implies it. She tries to find some way to tell Taeyeon how she feels and explain in eloquent and precise reasoning why and how they should be together forever – but she can’t do it. Not because she doesn’t want to, or because she’s afraid, but because she simply cannot explain how they will be together.
The image of Taeyeon shudders as the laptop on the other side of the world is moved. Taeyeon’s tilting it, moving closer, smiling comfortingly at her.
“It’s okay. I’ll see you soon. Not as soon as we’d like, but… I’m still working on that time travel thing.”
Tiffany grimaces. “You say that every time we Skype. I know you’re not developing a method for time travel, Taeyeon.”
Taeyeon shrugs. “Hey, I could be. How do you know what I get up to in my spare time?”
It’s just teasing, but it hurts. For one thing, Tiffany has no idea what Taeyeon really gets up to in her spare time – she could be meeting new people, new special people, who make her feel like this. And for another thing; spare time. Was talking to Tiffany so much work?
But no. She can’t think like that. So what if sometimes Taeyeon doesn’t feel like talking? So what if she only does it because she wants to make sure Tiffany is okay? It still counts. And it’s all Tiffany is going to get.
272 days of this. And counting.
It’s bullshit. And she accepts it.
She takes a deep breath, though, and she rolls her eyes in jest. As per usual. It’s another chat, going the same way all the others have done before, and will forever. Or just for now.
She doesn’t know.
Neither does Taeyeon.
All the way on the other side of the world, on the other side of the laptop, Taeyeon has a different countdown in mind.
10 years and 272 days – and counting.
It’s how long she’s known she can’t develop a method for time travel and she can’t create a practical theory for teleportation. The years are measured by how long she’s been in love with Tiffany, and the days are measured by how long since she realised it would definitely, most certainly, never be a thing.
She would never be able to kiss Tiffany. She would never be able to go on a date with Tiffany. She would never be able to point Tiffany out in a crowd and say yeah, that’s my girlfriend, and I can say with only an average amount of insecurity that she loves me back, just as much as I love her, just as strongly, and she’s looking right at me.
Sure, she could say something like yeah that’s my best friend, way over there in that other country, wave at her through the webcam and provided there’s wifi here she may even give me a smile and a ‘how was your day’ because she’s not here.
But that’s just sad.
So Taeyeon is sad. She hopes Tiffany is not. As she watches her now, in the millionth video call of twenty seven million, she thinks maybe Tiffany is a little different. A little slower, the way she blinks, the way her lips move when she’s talking and thinking and blowing Taeyeon a kiss at the end of the call – like she means it, like she wants it to reach her, like she –
No, she’s not different. She’s Tiffany, she’s Taeyeon. It’s a video call. They’ve talked about family, work, school, friends, news, games, movies, music, it’s been two hours and Taeyeon’s puppy has jumped up to greet Tiffany’s puppy and still she doesn’t know how long this will go on for.
She just takes it.
Whatever she can get.
Final morsels for a drowning girl. This is all she’ll get and it will run out one day, probably, it must.
And they accept it.
“Well, I’d better go.” move on
“Yeah, me too.” get over you
“Same time next week?” we won’t have this
“Of course. See you then.” goodbye
Taeyeon thinks she can’t live without Tiffany. It’s not just a mindset or an opinion – she thinks about it a lot.
When she’s watching Tiffany making a cup of coffee, doing a little dance while she’s cooking, flicking the page of a book, curling up in front of the TV with a blanket leaving just enough space for Taeyeon to join her and no one else.
She thinks about it when she has to spend days and nights away from Tiffany, just herself on her own waiting for Tiffany to come back like her friends and family barely register in her mind.
It’s something she hasn’t reached a conclusion about. It’s not a train of thought that she’s developing with pros and cons and details and examples. It just is.
She thinks about what would happen if Tiffany suddenly wasn’t there. If she didn’t come home one day like she’s supposed to. Would anything else happen? Those things she barely notices; the mail arriving, her car starting, the neighbours having a party on a Friday night. Nothing else would happen if Taeyeon had no Tiffany as part of her life.
She doesn’t feel any particular way about it. Seeing Tiffang tugs at her heart the same way her chest pulls itself tight when she doesn’t see Tiffany. It’s not a debate between one side or the other. It’s a fact, an organ of her body reacting like it’s natural.
Taeyeon thinks she can’t live without Tiffany as they share their bed in the middle of the night and she can see the curve of Tiffany’s cheek because there’s a full moon outside. She feels it, as she thinks about the things they say to each other every day. I love you, when we’re old, something to laugh about for decades, family, soul, heart. They said some of those things today, some last week, some ten years ago, and she’ll say them again and again because she won’t live without Tiffany.
It’s a fact, like the heart is an organ that they both have, a shared connection. Taeyeon can’t live without Tiffany and she doesn’t have to because they’re living a life together.
If there’s one thing Taeyeon finds most inconvenient, it’s wandering around a graveyard in the middle of the night. Not that it’s a lifestyle choice, but it’s happened a few too many times and she’s starting to get a bit fed up with it.
“What makes you so sure it will be here this time?” she asks again, for what feels like the hundredth time, warily picking her way over the overgrown garden this side of the fence.
Tiffany doesn’t answer immediately. This part of the path is somewhat treacherous to traverse in the darkness. If it wasn’t the tenth or eleventh time they were doing it, they’d be tripping all over the place, caught off guard by weeds and tree roots and stones. As it is, Taeyeon is still taking very particular care with the placement of her steps, and she even manages to keep the flashlight mostly steady as she goes.
“I just have a feeling,” Tiffany says finally. Her voice has that hushed, secretive quality that it gets when she’s talking about it. “Tonight is the night. It has to be.”
Taeyeon fights the urge to roll her eyes. Again and again they’ve had this conversation. They’ve known each other since they were in diapers and Taeyeon has never seen or heard this thing, yet she keeps coming along to tiptoe around the dead because Tiffany keeps saying it’s going to be here.
“Can I at least bring hot chocolate next time?” She’s thinking of the thermos she has at home, and how it would look filled with chocolatey goodness, topped with marshmallows –
“There won’t be a next time, because this time it will be here,” Tiffany answers impatiently. She glares over her shoulder before returning her focus to the ground beneath her feet.
Taeyeon shrugs. “Okay.”
Why it has to be a graveyard of all places, she has no idea. Maybe it’s for dramatic effect. It is pretty spooky, she is not afraid to admit, and the first few times they went, she was disturbed. Now it’s a place like any other. It’s becoming so familiar that it’s hard to believe anything supernatural would happen here even in the dead of night. Without hot chocolate or anything to do other than hang around staring into nothingness, the graveyard’s becoming rather boring. Perhaps she doesn’t have the flair of imagination required in order to be a werewolf.
Tiffany stops suddenly. She throws an arm out behind her, mostly to stop Taeyeon too, and then she laces their fingers together. The way she squeezes shows Taeyeon that this is it.
They strain their ears to listen. There’s a distant cracking sound, like snapping twigs and tumbling pebbles. This must have been what made Tiffany stop moving.
In all the years they’ve been going to this place, they’ve never heard a sound like that.
For the first time, Taeyeon feels really truly scared.
“Okay let’s go,” she whispers, tugging on Tiffany’s hand.
The look Tiffany gives her is burning with a very certain absolutely not and shut up. They turn in the direction of the noise. It seems to be getting louder – is it getting louder? – Taeyeon thinks she’s losing her perception in favour of her fear, but then Tiffany is pulling her along and they’re going closer to it.
“Look, I know I’ve expressed my doubts –”
“And really this isn’t about the existence of werewolves –”
“But should we be going closer to the –”
They crunch to a halt right up against a bush that has seen better days. Ahead of them, crouched between two decrepit gravestones, is a giant black shape that is crackling and ripping either itself or something else. Now they can hear the sound of breathing, thick and harsh, presumably straining from the rough thing in front of them.
“– very real possible danger,” Taeyeon finishes her sentence, barely whispering.
It’s like her limbs have turned to lead, heavy and unwilling to bend. All she can do is stand there and stare. She can feel Tiffany shaking, their arms and shoulders pressed together. She very deliberately does not lift her flashlight and quietly clicks it off. If the thing hasn’t seen it yet, it’s best to keep it that way. Its hulking form swells in the dimness, occasionally picking up the moonlight, and it rocks back and forth briefly.
There’s fur, quite a lot of it, and it’s covering pretty much everything, so either it’s a creepy hairy big guy or it’s –
“Werewolf,” squeaked Tiffany. “Is that a werewolf?”
It hasn’t heard them yet, still shaking what seems like its shoulders and an arm waves upwards; there’s a glint of something sharp that looks an awful lot like a claw.
“Whether it’s a werewolf or not, we should definitely run in the opposite direction,” Taeyeon mutters quickly. She grabs Tiffany’s elbow and starts tugging her backwards, away from the creature. “Maybe even do a zig-zag pattern, like when running from an alligator.”
Taeyeon doesn’t believe in werewolves, and despite what they’re seeing right now this belief has not been revaluated, and she’ll deal with both options in the same way. Or she would like to, but Tiffany’s not moving.
“But we have to see if it’s a –”
It lets out a scream, terrible and scratching. Taeyeon jumps a foot high and loses her grip on Tiffany – which allows Tiffany to scramble forward out of the bush.
The thing hears her shout rather than Tiffany’s fumbling footsteps approaching it. The moonlight falls on its face for the first time, illuminating the long snout and wet nose, the bared fangs dripping in saliva, the ears that swivel in their direction, and the sharp yellow eyes that zero in on Tiffany.
It unleashes a thunderous roar that’s laced with an edge so severe it makes Taeyeon’s skin ripple in fear. Tiffany stops her advance, throws her arms up in front of her and turns her face to avoid the slobber that bursts from the creature’s muzzle. It’s shaking its whole body, stamping its hind legs on the ground as it shifts into an imposing stance intended to frighten them away.
It works perfectly.
Once Taeyeon sees Tiffany do an abrupt about-face, she joins her as they tear through the bushes and trees back to where they came from. She knocks her hip against a gravestone, which hurts like hell and the flashlight drops from her hand. It slows her for only a second but Tiffany reaches back and like a grappling hook, latches onto Taeyeon’s hand and whips her closer.
They haven’t heard any sign that the beast is pursuing them, but neither is willing to take this moment to find out. Taeyeon keeps her head firmly facing forward as they make it to the graveyard fence.
Tiffany slams the gate behind them and grips it tight like it’s a lifebuoy and she’s in shark-infested waters. She’s looking back into the graveyard, eyes wide as she takes in the darkness, waiting for any indication that a werewolf is going to tear them apart tonight.
Everything’s gone quiet. They can’t even hear it in the distance. Its roar faded away while they were running, and if it moved anywhere it did so silently. Now the night has settled again, far too quickly for Taeyeon’s comfort, but they keep waiting until it’s clear that nothing is coming for them.
She smacks Tiffany’s shoulder. “Why did you run towards the giant scary monster?”
Tiffany rubs her arm and looks perturbed. “I thought if it could see us it wouldn’t be so scared of us.”
Taeyeon blinks at her in astonishment. “Scared? Of us? That thing? The hairy, slobbering, muscular, sharply fanged and clawed –”
“Yes, that thing,” says Tiffany. She leans her back against the gate, making it wobble slightly, but she seems to be past her fear of things that go bang in the night at least for now. “Wouldn’t you be scared? Imagine you were a werewolf who can’t control that part of you and some humans find you at your most vulnerable moment.”
“Vulnerable? Vulnera–” Taeyeon pauses, she takes a breath, and she bites her fingernails. “Let’s just get out of here, okay? I think we’re done werewolf hunting.”
Tiffany shrugs, and they hold hands again as they walk to the car with only slightly hurried steps.
“I mean really, we should be focusing on midterms,” says Taeyeon. “Not hunting for werewolves. I can’t believe it took our whole lives. We didn’t see one until we were already college students. What’s the point of that? Can we agree that we’re finished with this now?”
Tiffany wraps her arm around Taeyeon’s shoulders and brings her in for a soft hug. “Hmm, I don’t know. Hanging out in the dark with you for all these years has been so nice.”
Taeyeon smiles, and looks down shyly. Then she shakes her head, stands up straighter, and unlocks the car.
“Werewolves,” she mutters to herself once Tiffany is in her seat. “Of course they’re more likely to happen.”
“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.”
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.
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.
If she closes her eyes for long enough, Tiffany enters into a dream, and in that dream she is able to see her daughter.
Even though only three weeks have passed since she confirmed the pregnancy, the child she sees in her dream is undoubtedly hers. She has Tiffany’s eyes, Tiffany’s mouth, but she has a little dimple in the corner of her mouth when she smiles and her ears are slightly too big. Her hair is straight and long, and Tiffany can so comfortably imagine how it feels beneath her fingers.
Always after this dream when Tiffany opens her eyes, she puts a hand on her stomach. She has no idea if the baby is a girl, or if she’ll look at all like the child in her dream, but there’s something about the way it makes her feel. She wants to chase that dream so that she can explore it further, and get to know her daughter, and it excites her that she’ll really be able to meet her baby in a few months.
But in the meantime, Tiffany has to work. So she stops dreaming, and looks up when a customer approaches the register. It’s a young woman who smiles nervously, and the sight of her dimple immediately makes Tiffany feel comfortable. Maybe it’s slightly weird that the woman’s dimple reminds her of her dream-daughter, and that this makes her feel comfortable, but presumably none of this is obvious to the customer.
“Hi,” Tiffany greets, “how are you today?”
The young woman clears her throat briefly before responding, “Great, thanks, and you?”
Tiffany eyes her. The woman places a loaf of bread between them. “I’m just fine. Lovely weather today.”
The woman glances outside, as if noticing the world for the first time. “Oh, right. So it is.”
Tiffany smiles at her, and scans the bread. She has to tap a few buttons on the machine to get the right product, but she’s distracted suddenly.
“Are you pregnant?”
Tiffany pins the woman with her gaze, and she doesn’t know what to say at first.
“Sorry!” The woman runs a hand over her face. “Okay, that was stupid of me. I just saw you, earlier, you had a hand on your stomach and you seemed really happy so I thought maybe you’re pregnant and I just wanted to know, I guess. Sorry, I shouldn’t have asked, especially not so bluntly, that was incredibly rude.”
Tiffany looked down for a moment, and rested a hand over her abdomen. When she meets the woman’s eyes again, she makes sure to smile. “It’s okay. You surprised me, but you’re right. I am pregnant.”
The woman takes a moment to accept this, and then she nods. “Cool. I mean, that’s great. Congratulations.”
“Thanks,” Tiffany says politely, and returns her focus to the cash register.
“Are you married?”
This time Tiffany looks incredulously at her, and the woman shuffles awkwardly.
“I’m sorry,” she says, closing her eyes and scrunching her face. “I’m really stupid. I just have this theory, like, you know it’s 2015 now, this country has been writing news about the declining birth rate, the declining marriage rate, the number of single women – I’m sorry. I’ll stop. I have no filter sometimes.”
Tiffany watches her for a long, hard moment. The woman coughs and looks away, before seemingly deciding not to avoid her, and reciprocates the stare.
“I’m not married, no,” Tiffany says eventually, running a finger over her left hand. “I’m single.”
“Oh, so the –” She stops herself, biting her lip. “Never mind. I’m sorry. Again.”
Tiffany feels almost bad for her. “It’s okay. The father of the baby is not involved anymore. He left before I found out about it.”
“You haven’t told him?”
Standing at the cash register of a convenience store in the middle of the afternoon talking to a stranger about personal things is uncomfortable but not all that bad. Sure, Tiffany knows it’s awkward, but is there really any harm in holding a conversation with this woman? Well, maybe she should find out her name at some point, at least.
“No. I doubt he’d be interested. And I don’t want him to be involved with the baby’s life.” Tiffany appreciates the look of understanding in the woman’s eyes. “He’s kind of a jerk.”
Her lips twitch with a smile. Then it’s as if she suddenly remembers the existence of the bread, and she looks at it. Tiffany blushes, and goes back to punching in the product code since the machine isn’t working properly anyway.
“Um,” the woman’s quiet voice tries. She clears her throat quickly again. “I’m Taeyeon.”
Tiffany glances at her. “Nice to meet you, Taeyeon. I’m Tiffany.” She briefly gestures to the nametag on her chest but Taeyeon has obviously already seen it.
“Sorry about all the questions,” Taeyeon says. “I figured I should at least introduce myself so you know I’m not a serial killer or something.”
Tiffany shrugs. “It’s all right. Well, it was kind of weird, but I’m okay with it.”
Finally the correct product code is in the machine and the transaction continues. Tiffany has to press some of the buttons extra hard but she informs Taeyeon of the total and watches as she reaches for her wallet.
“What was that you were saying about your theory? That stuff about marriage and the birth rate?”
Taeyeon blinks at her, hand still in her pocket. She pulls out her wallet, slower now. “I’m a statistics student. Specifically, I’m doing a Master’s degree in Applied Statistics. The majority of that is a giant research project, and I’ve been looking into national demographical trends over the past few decades.”
Tiffany can’t help that her expression portrays her opinion of that, and it makes Taeyeon become shyer when she notices it.
“It is actually interesting, I swear,” she murmurs, handing over some cash.
Tiffany grins at her and takes the money.
“Anyway, I’ve been noticing a few things about the number of marriages and the birth rate,” Taeyeon continues. “I mean, plenty of experts have been writing about it for years and technically my theories are completely unsubstantiated but I just think if there was more concrete data on the number of single parents and information on their circumstances for being a single parent, then there would be less of a stigma around having a child on your own. A lot of the data is marred by the number of parents who are together when the kid is born and only become single parents later, after the data has been recorded as a child born to two parents. Everyone gets scared when they’re left with a baby on their own, but there’s no fact that says they have to be scared of anything that other parents aren’t also scared of.”
Tiffany can’t help but stare at her, finger still on the button that makes the cash register pop open. Never before has she heard something that’s confusing and yet at the same time makes perfect sense.
“That’s,” she starts, then frowns, “that’s interesting.”
“Told you it’s interesting,” Taeyeon says, smiling, but she’s sheepish, looking down at her feet and back at Tiffany. “So, I felt obligated to ask you some questions when I thought you might be pregnant.”
Tiffany glances down at her stomach, and briefly touches it again. “Well, what would you have done if I was just fat? That would’ve been even more awkward.”
“Ah, I planned for that, you see,” Taeyeon says with a knowing expression. “I was going to turn and run away really fast – without the bread, of course.” She nods at her purchase. “Besides, you’re not showing that much yet.” This time she’s looking at Tiffany’s abdomen.
Once again Tiffany has to remind herself to keep working, and she gets Taeyeon’s change from the cash register quickly. So far there are no other customers, but she doesn’t want to get caught slacking off, talking to Taeyeon. She gives Taeyeon a good once-over when she hands her a few coins, and she considers.
“You seem like you really care about your research,” Tiffany says. She rests her hip against the side of the counter between them, and crosses her arms. “The subject matter must be close to your heart.”
Taeyeon pauses in the act of shoving coins into her pocket. She meets Tiffany’s gaze, and her eyes are quiet and reserved.
“It’s a good research project,” she says, perhaps a little defensively.
“Yeah, it really is. As a soon-to-be single mother, I appreciate that you’re going to be looking at the subject from that point of view.”
Taeyeon smiles. “Thanks for answering my questions. I know it was weird. Technically I won’t be able to use your responses in my project anyway, but I liked the extra insight.”
Tiffany tilts her head to one side. “You know, if you wanted some more insight, we could exchange numbers and meet up some time.”
The look of surprise on Taeyeon’s face gives Tiffany a feeling of affectionate amusement. What really makes her heart warm, though, is when Taeyeon grins and immediately agrees.
Taeyeon has a number of questions prepared next time they meet. Tiffany manages to get her to wait until they’ve ordered their coffee and settled down at a table outside, and then she lets Taeyeon begin asking. The café is close to the beach. Tiffany can almost smell the ocean from here and it puts her in the perfect mood for answering questions.
“So, since the father of your baby left before you knew you were pregnant, would it be accurate to say it was unplanned?”
Tiffany raises her eyebrows. “Getting straight to the good stuff, I see. Yes, it was incredibly unplanned.”
Taeyeon nods, clearly not surprised at the confirmation. “How long were you in a relationship with him?”
“About six months.”
“Were you raised by a single parent?”
Tiffany takes a breath. Their coffee arrives at the table, and she lets it be a distraction for a few minutes, adds sugar and stirs, takes a sip. Then she answers.
“Not at first. Up until I was eight years old, there was my mother and father. Then my mother passed away, and from then on it was just my dad.”
Taeyeon fiddles idly with her own cup of coffee, seemingly lost in thought, but Tiffany thinks it’s probably just to give her some time.
“Do you have any siblings?”
“Two. Both older.”
“So it became a one-parent, three-child household? That must have been tough.”
Tiffany leans back in her chair, and wonders. “Yeah, I guess it was. But we were happy.”
“Do they know you’re pregnant?”
That is practically a million-dollar question, because that is the issue that Tiffany has been wrestling with ever since she found out about the pregnancy. She knows her family would never abandon her, but she’s struggling to find the words to say “hey, I’m pregnant and single” in the least crisis-inducing way.
“I’ll take that as a no,” Taeyeon says eventually.
Tiffany bites her bottom lip. “Yeah, I’m still working on that.”
“How long have you known?”
“About three weeks. I just don’t know how to tell them,” Tiffany sighs. “My dad is going to freak out and get all over-protective.”
This makes Taeyeon smile. “Well, there are worse things.”
Tiffany leans forward. “Can I ask you some questions?”
Taeyeon blinks. “You want to ask me questions?”
“Yeah. If I may.”
“Um.” Taeyeon shifts in her seat, reaches out and touches the coffee cup in front of her before resting her hands in her lap. “Sure.”
“Were you raised by a single parent? You seem like you actually care about this as more than an academic assessment.”
Taeyeon shrugs. “Not a single parent, exactly.” Her gaze settles on Tiffany. “I’m an orphan. I had a few people who fostered me and tried to help me as much as they could… but no single parent.”
The words seem like they can go either way. Many parental figures rather than just one, or not even one parent at all.
“So you want to do this research to show…?”
“To show people that they shouldn’t be scared to be a single parent,” Taeyeon says. “The kid in the equation will likely be happy to have a parent at all, and that should be enough to give anyone strength.”
“Do you know what happened to your family?”
Taeyeon shakes her head tightly. A breeze picks up around them, strengthening the smell of the ocean, and the dark clouds in the distance suggest an incoming summer storm. This is a conversation for another time, another place, because even though they’ve advanced from convenience store conversations, they’re not quite here yet.
“Let’s go for a walk on the beach,” says Tiffany.
She ends up being glad that she suggested this. The sight of the water and the feeling of the sand between the toes of their bare feet seems to lighten Taeyeon’s mood after the conversation went downward. Tiffany watches her kicking up shells and laughing at the sand that sprays into the air. It’s easy to picture a younger version of Taeyeon doing the same. Tiffany can’t help but wonder who would have left behind a kid like Taeyeon. Her mind turns to the life developing in her womb, and she knows the fierce determination she feels is more than a matter of natural instinct.
They try to mimic a snowball fight with the sand, which almost goes horribly wrong but they still end up rolling around on the beach with sandy faces and gulping laughs.
When Tiffany daydreams about her daughter again, this time they’re playing together on the beach and Tiffany gets to imagine her daughter’s playful giggles and the wind toying with her hair.
She hasn’t told Taeyeon about her imaginings. They’ve been spending a lot of time together, talking about kids and parents and hobbies and interests and food, but just like explaining to her father that she’s pregnant, Tiffany can’t find the words to explain the dream-time she spends with her unborn daughter.
It’s not like she thinks it would be bad to tell Taeyeon about the daydreams. Taeyeon seems like a very open-minded person who looks for the valuable treasures in every encounter. Her attitude towards the details is one full of anticipation and appreciation. She has a surprisingly happy way of looking at things – and sure, Tiffany only thinks it’s surprising because Taeyeon clearly had a rough start to life, but she tries not to let that be an issue. She knows Taeyeon wouldn’t want to be pitied, but what Tiffany feels is more akin to admiration.
And anyway, Taeyeon already has a good opinion of the way Tiffany thinks about her child. She even says so.
“You’ll be a good mother.” They’re stretched out on a pile of blankets in front of the TV, windows open and volume low. “Your kid is barely the size of an orange and you’re wholly devoted to it already.”
Tiffany scrunches her nose. “Ew, don’t call my baby an ‘it’. Just because it’s the size of an orange doesn’t mean it is an orange.”
Taeyeon laughs. “No, I guess it wouldn’t be very interesting if all you had in there was an orange. But you don’t want to know the sex of that little orange before it gets born as a real life human baby, so I don’t know its sex either.”
The bump of her stomach is already more prominent. Tiffany doesn’t want to know the sex of the baby because she doesn’t want the dreams to end. She lays a hand over her unborn child and imagines an orange with eyes and a smile.
“Now I can’t stop thinking of an orange in there,” she whines, and whacks Taeyeon on the arm. The action elicits only further laughter.
Outside, the light breeze becomes stronger, and Tiffany slowly picks herself off the floor and goes to close the window before the storm hits. Taeyeon is quick to jump up and help. She even pours them each a glass of orange juice, chortling all the while at Tiffany’s expression.
Tiffany likes this. She never spends much time agonizing over the loss of her so-called boyfriend, preferring to focus on the incoming baby, and she never feels particularly bad that he will no longer be a part of her life because she is preparing to do this on her own. But it turns out there are a lot of benefits to having Taeyeon around, and lazy afternoons like this are a definite plus.
“I mean it,” Taeyeon says quietly, later, when the sun is setting and they can see it from their nest on the floor. “You’ll be a great mother. You care so much about that kid.”
Tiffany turns her head to look at her – to really look at her. Taeyeon is a young woman without a family, who has made it a goal in the form of academic research to prove to anyone at all that being a single parent should be life-affirming as if the power of numbers makes it a solid fact. When Taeyeon says something like that, about caring for a child, her voice shows how much she really means it. Taeyeon is someone who treasures that kind of love in the way only someone who’s lost it can.
She reaches over and takes Taeyeon’s hand, twines their fingers together. “How could I not? That’s not just some orange in there. It’s a human; a person who is going to be born so tiny and so precious. That person is going to be a little bit like me but a whole lot like an individual human. One day, that person is going to be an adult with dreams and opinions and a life that has good moments and bad, and that person will have to make difficult decisions and live with tragedies. I love that person no matter what.”
When Taeyeon curls up next to her and cries, Tiffany knows it’s because her words were meant for Taeyeon as much as for the baby. Whatever led to Taeyeon becoming an orphan, she never did anything to deserve it.
And as for that –
“I guess my mother never loved me like you love your child,” Taeyeon whispers. “Because she just left me like I was nothing. She probably thinks I don’t even remember her.”
Tiffany closes her eyes. She lays an arm around Taeyeon’s shoulders, pulling her closer.
“Maybe she thought she was doing the right thing,” Tiffany murmurs in reply. “And in a way, maybe it was the best thing for you. If she couldn’t become a mother, at least she let you become yourself.”
Taeyeon reciprocates the embrace and it’s tighter than any hug Tiffany has ever felt before.
Having had several years to contemplate the subject, Tiffany has already reached the conclusion that her mother’s death was not in any way related to her behaviour as a child or anything that her mother did intentionally. It was an accident. There is no such thing as being too young, or a concept of fairness. It happened, and had it not happened then Tiffany may have found cause to be displeased with her mother in the same way she is at times displeased with her father. The way she came to the realization that her parents were only human has become the same way that she loves her child for being only human, too.
They spend a lot more time like that over the next few weeks, curled up on the floor of Tiffany’s lounge, and they get to enjoy views of warm sunsets as well as falling asleep to storms lashing against the windows. The little orange in Tiffany’s womb keeps growing into a little human and Tiffany’s heart is growing with it. Before she had love within her for her family, herself, and the general populace in a blanketing kind of way. Now there needs to be room for her baby, and then there’s Taeyeon inching into it too. She’s not like everyone else.
Tiffany does finally come clean to her family about the pregnancy. They act as expected, but then they make her cry because there’s a group hug and her father is doing his over-protective thing but he’s also tearing up slightly because he’s going to be a grandfather for the first time and his little girl is all grown up. She’s graced with their support and it feels amazing.
The next time she sees Taeyeon, she hugs her again. This is the first time they’re hugging without some form of sadness involved, and it obviously catches Taeyeon off guard.
“Um, thanks?” says Taeyeon, sounding uncertain but returning the squeeze without hesitation. “What’s this about?”
Tiffany closes her eyes, and leans her head against Taeyeon’s. “Just spreading the love.”
Taeyeon thinks about this for a while. “You told your family?”
“Good.” Taeyeon’s arms around her waist shift slightly, getting a better grip, and they stand together for a long time.
They spend almost a whole night arguing about what to watch on TV before Tiffany kisses Taeyeon for the first time. It’s been two months since they met. It seems like those weeks have gone fast but she’s gotten to know Taeyeon at a depth that makes it feel like years. Their differing taste in horror movies leads to an hour long debate followed by endless scrolling through options while the light from the screen falls on their faces. When Taeyeon is explaining how crappy the sequels were to just about all the classics from their childhood, Tiffany leans forward and presses their lips together.
She knows she shouldn’t. It’s not like she’s given it much thought before, but the reasons have always been lurking in the background. Not only is the room so dark that she almost kissed Taeyeon’s nose instead of her mouth, Tiffany is well and truly pregnant and they’ve only known each other for two months. So maybe it wasn’t the best time – there wasn’t likely to be a best time. In a few months, Tiffany will have a child to raise; it is inevitable. She can’t expect anything from Taeyeon, and she doesn’t. She just kisses her.
Taeyeon pulls away first, slightly, and licks her lips. “Okay, I guess I don’t have to ask what that was about… but I kind of want to. Just to make sure.”
Tiffany smiles. She looks away, tucking her hair behind her ear. “In case you haven’t noticed, I like you quite a lot.”
Taeyeon reaches up, gently runs her thumb along Tiffany’s jaw, and then lowers her hand to lock their fingers together. “Wanna talk about it?”
“You know.” Tiffany sighs. “Having a child is a big responsibility. I shouldn’t be thinking about dating right now.”
“But you want to date me?” Taeyeon asks, bumping her shoulder against Tiffany’s and shooting her a grin.
Tiffany kisses her again, briefly. “I like what we have. I like spending time with you, hanging out, hugging, holding hands, talking about movies and orange babies, the past and the future.” She lifts up their joined hands and softly sets her lips against Taeyeon’s fingers. “I want to make it a thing. You know?”
Taeyeon’s response is to kiss her, hard, and pull her closer at the same time. She lets go of Tiffany’s hand and touches Tiffany’s neck, then cups her face.
She wonders how she ever kissed anyone else when they never kissed her half as well as Taeyeon does.
There’s a jump in her heartbeat, and then a jump a little lower down.
“Oh my god,” she breathes against Taeyeon’s mouth. “I think the baby just moved.”
They both look down at the bump in her abdomen, Tiffany laying both hands over it.
“Is that even possible at this stage?” Tiffany whispers. “Kid, what are you doing in there?”
“Well if it’s the size of an orange then it’s got to have legs and stuff already, right? Or is it just a head shaped like an orange?”
Tiffany laughs. She looks at Taeyeon again, and she takes in the expression on Taeyeon’s face in the dim light of the TV screen. It’s almost dawn. They’ve shared a moment she was expecting to go through alone, and a whole lot of kisses. She starts to think that she should try having no expectations at all. It’s something that could work out well for now and for later when she has to learn the reality of raising a child.
“You’re okay with this?”
Taeyeon meets her gaze.
Tiffany dips her chin in the direction of her baby. “You know.”
Taeyeon develops a smile slowly, like a map unfurling or wings unfolding. “Yeah, I know. I’m okay with it.”
She kisses Tiffany, and then laughs softly in the grip of their closeness.
“Not it,” she whispers. “That cherished little human.”
The cardboard shape of the pack makes a soft noise as it hits the kitchen counter, and then scrapes along the surface as she rotates it idly with the fingers of her left hand. She doesn’t look at it, keeping her eyes trained on the sink in front of her. She takes a bite of the slice of toast hovering near her mouth and watches the crumbs collect on the metal bottom of the sink. When she’s done eating, she’ll be able to turn on the tap and all those little toasted bread crumbs will be washed away. It will be neat, and tidy.
Tiffany sighs. She’s sick of neat and tidy, and she had gotten out of the habit of eating her toast over the sink a long time ago, but when she’s toying with a pack of cigarettes in her other hand she feels the need to compensate.
The way she was raised is what prevents her from feeling any sense of ease, despite the fact that she is standing in her own kitchen in her own house and hasn’t seen a single member of her family in almost ten years. Maybe it’s the weather; outside it is cold and cloudy and it seems to be seeping into her safe haven. The guilt that rides along the smell of cigarette smoke on her clothes ignites something in the back of her mind, and her mother’s voice is slowly dredged up from her memories.
Why don’t you quit that filthy habit, already? It’s disgusting. It makes you smell bad and it’ll make you look bad, too. No man would want to give you a moment of his time.
Her fingers tighten around the pack of cigarettes, and she takes another bite of her toast, carefully making sure the crumbs fall in the sink.
And stop making such a mess everywhere. It just clutters everything up, and then you never clean it. Do you think any man would want a girl that can’t clean up after herself; that makes a mess that clutters up his life, too? Get yourself together.
Tiffany finishes her toast with a heavy swallow, and removes her grip on the cigarettes so she can brush her hands together over the sink. She washes away all the crumbs, grabs a dishcloth to wipe the counter just in case, and then she covers her face with her hands and tries not to cry.
It’s been a difficult month. She reassures herself that it’s the stresses of her new job combining with her attempt to quit smoking. Her mother’s voice has faded away again, slinking back to whatever pile of dirt she usually keeps it buried in, and she takes a deep breath. One of her hands smells strongly of cigarette smoke.
That damned nicotine. Before today, she managed to go six months without even looking at a pack of cigarettes. She reached the point of feeling little to no temptation when she passed smokers on the street. Six months without a smoke, and then today on this cloudy afternoon, at home alone, she had to dig up the pack she never threw out. She’s not sure if it’s because the nicotine is really so addictive, or if it’s because she hasn’t seen her other addiction in almost a week; Taeyeon.
It was stupid to start anything with Taeyeon and it’s stupid to miss her so much, just like it was stupid to start smoking and it was stupid to smoke today.
She wonders if the two addictions are connected. She’s proven herself weak against smoking, and she can’t resist Taeyeon; maybe she’s always been destined to make these mistakes. When she can’t have Taeyeon, she goes to the cigarettes.
Her phone is ringing. She removes her hands from her face and frowns, because she can’t remember where her phone is. Judging by the sound of the ringing, it’s not in here, so she scoops the pack of cigarettes into her jacket pocket and goes in search of the call.
By the time she finds it buried beneath a bunch of clothes on her bed, it has stopped ringing. The screen shows a notification and the name makes her breath catch in her throat. Taeyeon.
Tiffany had met Taeyeon at the start of winter, which was a time when they were both only half-alive. Taeyeon is funny, she is shy, she is bright, and she is quiet, all in one person. Everything she does and doesn’t do makes Tiffany feel – sometimes happy, sometimes confused, sometimes irritated, sometimes totally in love. And the fact that she makes Tiffany feel anything at all is what leads to the addiction.
It’s something that always comes up when an addict is asked why they’re addicted. It’s the way it makes them feel. Not the thoughts they think, because there’s a lot of negativity there, or the actions they take, because there’s a lot of badness there. It’s how they feel when they have that addiction. Taeyeon creates feelings in Tiffany that she had no idea could exist because Taeyeon is filling a space with those feelings, where it’s been empty for such a long time.
Maybe it was inevitable that Tiffany would become addicted to Taeyeon.
She didn’t realize it was happening until the day she lost count. They’ve been meeting on and off for two months, and for the first while she knew it was the fifth time, the tenth time, the fifteenth, and then she completely lost count because they were meeting every day, sometimes more than once a day. Taeyeon became everything. That’s when she realizes how addicted she is, because she still wants more and more and more.
Tiffany remembers the time of her life when she was a smoker. She had started off small, a little pack of menthols, and it grew quite easily until she became just another pack-a-day cigarette mule. Her friends convinced her to stop then and helped her through it.
She can feel in the marrow of her bones that her addiction to Taeyeon would need something a lot bigger than the motivation of loved ones to shake. Taeyeon is more than cigarettes, more than a drag at lunchtime and a puff with a cup of coffee, and she is so much better than the sting of nicotine; so much better, and so much worse.
And just like the cigarettes, she can always taste Taeyeon in her mouth, and she is haunted by the knowledge that what they are doing is deliciously wrong.
Her finger is tapping absently on the screen of her phone, and she wonders why Taeyeon called. They aren’t supposed to be calling each other. They’re meant to go one week without speaking to each other, because Taeyeon’s fiancé is visiting for a week and during that time it’s supposed to look as if she is not cheating on him with Tiffany. So why is she calling?
Most importantly, should Tiffany call back?
Well, she knows she probably shouldn’t. But she knows that in the same way that she knows she probably will.
Her finger taps a few more times on the screen and then she’s holding the phone to her ear, listening to the pause and then the ringing on the line.
Taeyeon sounds out of breath when she answers, “Hello? Tiffany?”
“Hey,” Tiffany says back, feeling a little lame, “what’s up? Are you okay?”
“Yeah.” There’s some rustling and Tiffany pictures the action clearly in her mind’s eye as Taeyeon shifts her phone from one hand to the other. “I have good news, baby.”
Tiffany’s eyebrows rise at the endearment. “Oh yeah? How good?”
On a scale of one to ten, she thinks in her head. One being well hey, we’re not dead and ten being I broke up with him and I have two tickets to Cancun, now you ditch your boyfriend.
“He went home early.”
Nothing follows this statement although Tiffany waits.
Taeyeon clears her throat. Tiffany hears the ignition of a car engine. “We, uh, may have had a pretty bad fight.”
“Like,” Tiffany hesitates, “catastrophically bad?”
“Depends on what you’d call a catastrophe,” Taeyeon says lightly. “Upon my recommendation, we’re on a break to rethink our commitment to each other.”
Tiffany frowns. It sounds like not quite a break-up, but perhaps a break-up in progress. She’s not sure if she’s truly satisfied with it but maybe she will be later.
“Can I come over?” Meaning: are you alone?
Tiffany lets herself smile a little. “Yeah. I’ll be right here waiting.”
The pack of cigarettes goes back into the bottom drawer of her bedside table beneath a bunch of other junk she only sets eyes on once or twice a year, and she tidies up her bedroom. She’s fixing herself up in the mirror when she notices the feeling building up in her chest, expanding her lungs and floating along the line of her throat. It’s the feeling Taeyeon gives her, growing like the feeling she gets from cigarettes She knows it’s going to get even better when Taeyeon gets here, so she knows she can’t even fight it.
Taeyeon really is worse than nicotine.