Chapter 62: The Perfect Balance for a Holiday
Happy. Unhappy.
People could fit under such categories during the winter holidays. For the boys, the winter holidays used to mean getting together during Christmas to rejoice over a delicious dinner, to enjoy a few DVDS, and to reminisce the past year’s funniest moments. They would have a countdown of what was the funniest thing that happened that year and would decide on each occurrence’s ranking by voting. During New Years, they would count down in unison and pop a bottle of champagne.
This year proved to be disparate.
For the first time, the boys disbanded. It might have been an excuse for them to claim that circumstances forced them apart, but it would have been more accurate to say that they had, what they believed to be, more important matters to do than to congregate as a group.
For some, love took priority over friendship.
“Cheers!” Rhett lifted his glass of wine. “Here’s to another great year!”
Hana laughed while imitating his gesture, “Yes, I concur!”
The two of them were dining at an elegant French restaurant. It was small, but still cozy. There were round wooden tables to seat couples and 17th century French parlour chairs to add to the atmosphere. Candlelit chandeliers dangled above each table, which was romantic to say the least, and roses that acted centerpieces for the table.
Rhett, however, didn’t pay attention to the setting. He was more concerned with what Hana had to say to him. She had made the reservation for she claimed that she needed to speak to him about their future. So, as soon as they had taken a sip of their glasses, Rhett asked, “What did my uncle and your parents say?”
“We have an engagement party in the New Year,” she explained. “The whole company is invited, and even the press is welcome.”
“Wow, that’s fast.”
“Yes, I know,” she uttered, “but it’s normal.”
“Yes, very typical of my uncle,” Rhett scoffed.
Then, there was that long pause after his statement. The two just looked at each other, unsure of what to say or do next. Just awkward, Rhett could have professed. This was just too awkward, and so he looked past her, staring at a small painting of a little girl. This girl wore a pale pink dress and was reaching into the waters for her hat. The way she was angled meant that she would fall in, and well, there was that other boy who pushed in her from behind. He couldn’t resist a chuckle after being reminded of the time when he had splashed Kannei with water at the beach.
Oh god. Why am I even . . .
“I’m sorry if I’m boring you,” Hana stated, interrupting his thoughts.
“Oh, no, you’re not,” Rhett answered. “It’s just that . . . I was thinking. That’s all.”
“About?”
“Just worried about the Christmas campaign,” he lied. “I’m not sure if the hanging- decorations-on-a-tree idea was worthwhile.”
“It’s definitely great. In fact, I heard from Rachel that couples are starting to get into it,” she uttered. “I think your uncle is thinking of making it into a yearly thing.”
“Wow! I didn’t think he’d like this, to be honest.”
“You should be more confident of yourself,” she stressed and poured more champagne into his glass. “You’re a brilliant guy.”
“You give me too much credit,” he laughed after his statement. “You’re a great girl too. I’m sure loads of guys would go crazy for you.”
Gaping at him with beady eyes, she suggested, “But you wouldn’t actually go for me if it weren’t for your uncle, right?”
He didn’t know what to say. Before, he would have said she was silly for even asking that question. He would instantly fall for her when he saw her. She was what all men wanted and probably what all women strived to become. She was perfect, yet . . . he couldn’t open his mouth to say those words. His gut told him that she wasn’t the one. She might have been the one that his mind was fixated on, but his heart said no. For some reason, he just couldn’t feel that special feeling being with her. He was perfectly fine with letting her go.
“I don’t want to lie,” Rhett responded. “Right now, I don’t like you in that way, but . . . who knows what will happen in the future?”
“Are you saying this for your own career?” she questioned.
“I don’t know anymore,” he stated. “I just . . . know that I have to follow through with my decision.”
“You’ll be there when I try out for the engagement dress right?” she, out of the blue, posed.
“Yes, of course.”
“Good,” she said.
Good. Their dinner was good. The food was well-cooked, and the music selection was just as good. What wasn’t good was that they barely talked. Occasionally, she’d ask a few questions, and he’d try his best to answer. Then, there would be silence. This cycle persisted until he paid the bill. The waiter had handed them chocolate for Christmas, claiming that it was a complimentary gift from the chef.
Gift.
Crap.
He had completely forgotten about getting a gift for her. Now, she had opened her purse, and handed him a nicely wrapped box. Leaning forward to pass it to him, she uttered, “Merry Christmas. I hope you’ll like what I got you.”
“I’m sorry. I—“
“I know you were really busy with work, so you can get me something later.”
“Sorry, I really am,” he repeated.
“If you’re sorry, then open up the present.”
Obeying her command, he ripped apart the wrapping paper. He lifted the lid and saw a nicely knit scarf. Judging by her look, he knew she had knitted this for him. He flashed a courteous and sympatheic smile before saying, “Thank you. That was very thoughtful of you.”
            “I heard that this winter will be harsh, and you work so hard, so—“
            “I like it,” he announced. “It’s perfect.”
For some, work took priority over friendship.
Jaejoong too had hoped to celebrate Christmas with a lover. He hadn’t anticipated being single this year. Luckily, the holidays proved to be one of the most hectic times of the year, and so he didn’t have time to think about his status. There were countless ceremonies and concerts, meaning endless makeup to be applied. Now, there were also too many rehearsals, filming, promotions, and fan meetings.
            “Merry Christmas Jaejoong,” Yumi had greeted him first.
She had just finished performing a Christmas carol for one of the ceremonies and had arrived to the scene of the filming. He had been sitting in the chair dozing off. He couldn’t remember the last time he had eight hours of sleep or even six. Three seemed to be the average, he recounted while rubbing his eyes to find Yumi standing in front of him.
“What?” he shouted.
“I said, ‘Merry Christmas Jaejoong,’” she repeated.
“Oh, Merry Christmas to you too.”
He presented a gentle smile, one that made her chest tingle. Taking a seat beside him, she asked, “So, do you have any plans for Christmas?”
“No, I’m probably going to sleep it off,” he answered. “What about you?”
“A company dinner, but I don’t feel like going.”
“You should go.”
“I barely know anyone there, and I don’t feel like networking on Christmas.”
“Oh.”
“Yeah . . . you know . . . I thought you’d spend Christmas with your girlfriend.”
“I want to . . . but . . .”
“But the drama?”
Nodding his head, he answered, “Yeah, there’s just too much going on with work, but it’s okay. She’s going back home for the winter holidays anyways.”
“That’s sad,” Yumi noted.
“Yeah . . .”
The airport was potentially dramatic setting depending on the situation and the person. The situation could be wondrous or depressing or even standard. The person could then highlight or diminish such emotions and effects.
“Well, I suppose I’ll see you after the break,” Jaejoong mumbled and leaned forward for a hug, which caused Kannei to back away. “Come on, it’s just a hug,” he scoffed while dragging her wrist towards him, eventually forcing her to hug.
“I don’t like them,” she indifferently regarded. “I get goose bumps every time someone tries to hug me.”
He teased and pretended to sob with his fists pressed against his cheeks, “I’m hurt. I’m too hurt!”
“Oh cut it out.” She rolled her eyes and pulled her luggage in her hand.
Jaejoong sighed, “You can really take the fun out of things, but I guess . . . the right person wasn’t who hugged you. That’s why you find it disgusting.”
“Jaejoong . . .”
            She had those puppy eyes as if scolding him. Maybe, he did deserve that look. He was being jealous again, and he was forcing her once more. So, he brightened his smile. Playfully punching her arm, he chuckled, “I’m just kidding, mochi. You’re too serious sometimes. You know, sometimes you should be more optimistic.”
            She shook her head, answering, “As depressing as this sounds, Jaejoong, and I don’t mean to hurt you, but I don’t think there’s the right person. I think it’s just about timing.”
            “I want you to remember that I’ll always be there for you,” Jaejoong blurted, “and I want to be the right person for you.”
            “Jaejoong, those are—“
            “I know you don’t believe me, so I’m going to make you believe in me,” Jaejoong argued. “Just trust me for once.”
            “I . . . already said that we should move in soon,” she murmured, and then wrapped her arms around him. “I know you mean well, and I know that right now, my feelings for you would never match up with your feelings for me, but I want you to know that . . . I’m trying too.”
He wanted to savour this moment, and so he closed his eyes and felt the warmth of her body press against his. It was nice hugging her like that. If only this moment could last forever, then . . .
“Calling all passengers boarding for flight CA201 to Vancouver . . .”
“I guess, I’ll see you later,” Jaejoong proclaimed. “Call me when you get there and tell me when you get back so I can pick you up.”
“Yeah, I will, I will,” she waved to him while agreeing. “Don’t worry, Jaejoong. I’ll see you soon.”
 “Jaejoong . . . do you want to spend Christmas together?”
He heard Yumi ask him that. His eyes almost popped out and his neck jutted backwards. With a grimace, he stammered, “Wh-wh-what?”
 “I’m lonely. You’re lonely,” she explained. “Two lonely people could be . . . less lonely.”
“I have a girl—“
“I do know that. I wasn’t thinking anything romantic. Just platonic,” she said. “After all, we’re all going to be on set then.”
“Just ask Sura then,” Jaejoong groaned.
“He has a date with a hot model. Apparently, childhood friends can’t celebrate Christmas together, he claims.”
“Still . . .”
“Oh, come on, it’ll be just a drink after work? How about that?” she harked. “We’ll even drink in the office, and I’ll go buy some beer, so you don’t even have to do any work.”
“Sure, I guess.”
He didn’t know why he agreed, but he still did. He hadn’t had the time to drink for a while, and he certainly didn’t want to spend Christmas alone. He only had one Christmas where no one was with him, and that was at the orphanage. While everyone else was enjoying their supper, he had excused himself, pretending to be ill with the stomach flu. Throughout the night, he tried to keep his eyes shut, but he kept staring at the open windows. The stars were particularly bright that evening; they were seemingly mocking him with their beauty. Flashing, flashing, and flashing, he wondered if there was such thing as Santa. Why hadn’t Santa granted his one wish? His wish wasn’t hard to fulfill. He just wanted to be by her side.
“Boo!” Yumi shouted from behind.
He almost didn’t recognize her from the way she dressed. She was wearing a brown beanie, a beige trench coat, a blue turtle neck with a similar shade of jeans, a pair of glasses, and surgical mask. In her hands were another mask, a hat, and a set of sun glasses.
“What? You look like you saw a ghost,” she teased. “Anyways, these are for you. I thought we’d head out for fun, instead of hanging here.”
“I don’t want a scandal,” he urged.
“Don’t worry about it. I have the right place, and we’ll get there separately. You just have to wear these and follow my car.”
She was dragging him out, and even putting that putrid green hat on his head. He didn’t even understand why she was doing all this, why she was even bothering to talk to him. He didn’t need her sympathy nor did he need her company. Still, he didn’t do much to argue. Instead, he followed her lead. He drove behind her, and even parked beside her.
Hopping out of her car, Yumi chirped, “We’re going to the—“
“Pretty obvious, you know?” he interrupted. “Tokyo Tower? Who wouldn’t recognize that and aren’t there a lot of people at this time? 11 pm?”
 “That’s exactly why we won’t get noticed,” she joked. “Everyone is too busy in their worlds. Plus, I always like coming here to think. You get to stare down at the world and feel like you’re on top of this place.”
“Making you fairly egocentric,” he countered.
“Maybe I am,” she replied with a gentle grin, “but at least I don’t look so depressed like you.”
“Depressed? Since when was I depressed?”
She just laughed at him, and scooped his hand out of from his pocket. Then, she pulled him ahead, guiding him to the entrance of the tower. They boarded a crowded elevator, and were forced to cramp together in a corner. It wasn’t until they reached the top level did she let go. He watched her as she scrambled to the windows. Pointing her finger at the flashing, city lights, she revealed another cheeky grin. Accidentally, he let out a gentle scoff.
“Now, that’s the Jaejoong I know,” she answered.
“Like you actually know what I’m like,” he walked to her, leaning against a railing to say. “Oh, you lied. You said we’d be drinking.”
“So, I lied,” she murmured. “So what?”
“I hate liars,” he coldly stated.
Reaching into her purse, she uttered, “I did get a gift for you though.”
“Oh really? And what is that?”
“Open it.”
He lifted the old, metal piece of the Eiffel Tower in his hand, questioning, “It’s a . . . used keychain?”
“I heard from David before that your dream was to be the makeup artist for runway shows in Paris,” Yumi explained. “I . . . wanted to apologize that I took that dream away, and this is old because I’m giving away something important of mine to you to make up for everything.”
“If it’s something important to you—“
“I think you need it more than me,” she barged in on his sentence. “My dad gave it to me after his trip to Paris. He said anything I do should be like conquering the Eiffel Tower. Lame joke, I know, but it meant a lot to me. He might not understand me now, but one day, I’ll have that concert in front of the Eiffel Tower, and then I can tell him that I did conquer it.”
He felt the small, golden piece warm in his open palm. Closing it, he saw her grin at him weakly. So, she had a reason for being so ambitious, he thought. He knew how it felt to want to be recognized by someone else, and he still had that silly dream in his heart. Maybe, one day, she would . . . Laughing at how stupid he was acting, he placed the keychain in his pocket. The slight heaviness weighed beside him, but somehow, he didn’t mind.
“Thanks,” Jaejoong noted.
“You don’t have to thank me,” Yumi replied. “It’s just Christmas. Merry Christmas to you.”
“Merry Christmas,” he greeted her as well, “and . . . you’re not . . . that much of a bitch.”
She elbowed him and gave a playful glare. Then, she had her eyes glued at the city lights. He too stared out, realizing that he had never taken the time to admire this city’s beauty. He was always visioning his own utopia. He’d be at Paris cooking breakfast, probably a vegetable omelette mixed with a few sausages. In his hand would be a cup of coffee brewed while he was cooking. He would be sitting close to the balcony, and the windows would be open. A breeze would come in to greet him. He’d hear the sound of bicycles and vendors conversing with the buyers in an exotic language he’d slowly understand. Then, he’d take a glance at the Eiffel Tower from afar. He’d realize that he was living his dream. Now, though, he was seeing a shroud of gleaming city lights. This was a boisterous, bustling city, filled with life in a different sense. Maybe, it wasn’t as romantic as his conceived dream, but right now, he felt like he wanted to stay. Maybe, it was fine this way, and so he let that small Eiffel tower rest in his pocket.
For some, family took priority over friendship.
Yoochun hadn’t celebrated Christmas with his family for too long that he even felt giddy shopping for groceries to make the perfect turkey dinner. Actually, it was his grandmother who would do all the cooking. Nevertheless, he still felt a sense of accomplishment when paying for the bags of groceries at the cashier. Even during the drive home, he had a smile while singing Christmas carols. He used to dread the ride home, hoping that there would be heavy traffic or a car accident that blocked the road. Today, he found himself pressing the gas pedal more often and evem drumming a few beats to the radio on his steering wheel.   
“Ah Yoochun,” his grandmother greeted him with a warm smile down the hallway. “You’re back at last. We’d better hurry with the turkey if we want to be on time for the guests.”
She had invited the neighbours, their family, and some of their close family friends for the dinner. It was tradition, according to her. It was a tradition that he had missed too many times. In fact, he used to sulk at the idea of family congregations, claiming that he had better things to do in life than to meet people whom he saw frequently. Little did he know at that time that he would regret saying such words. He would learn to regret, but sometimes wishful thinking was too late and left people with forlorn memories.
“I wish I had . . .” he would soon learn to repeat in his mind. Perhaps in a different sentence structure he would mutter, “If only I had . . .” or “Had I known that . . .”
 As he placed the groceries onto the kitchen counter, he remembered to ask, “Where’s Yoohwan?”
She placed the vegetables into a bowl, uttering, “Out like usual. I doubt he’ll make it home for Christmas. He’s . . . you know, never been the same after—“
“After Yoochun left or after Mother left?” Yoohwan unexpectedly interrupted while snatching his jacket from a stool.
Before he left from the kitchen, however, he made sure to glare at Yoochun. Yoochun could have completed that sentence too well without Yoohwan’s help. He understood that his departure had been too impulsive, too difficult for a younger brother to comprehend. He understood too that their Mother left too often, which caused Yoohwan to never have truly recovered from their parents’ failed marriage. It was effortless to proclaim that people were fine; it was hard to feel fine. Yoochun comprehended that he too had trouble accepting their parents’ relationship, particularly the manner in which his mother had dealt with the issue. She seemed to have abandoned her role as a mother and pursued her life as an individual.
Suddenly, Yoochun recalled that time when Yoohwan had a severe fever that did not diminish on the third day. Where was their mother then? She was too consumed with festivity and amusement. She was at a friend’s party, and even when she returned home, she was too intoxicated with alcohol that she could not care or even think properly. He remembered how she staggered along the hallway, gripping onto the wall for balance, and how he called out to her.
“Mom, Yoohwan is really sick. I t-think we need to take him to the hospital,” he urged.
He was dressed in his pajamas. He had stayed awake throughout the night to tend Yoohwan and to wait for their mother. She didn’t seem to care for she only giggled with her foul breath.
“Hahaha. Y-you’re funny, Eric!”
Yoochun wasn’t stunned that she had called out their father’s English name. Everyone he knew had thought that he resembled his father. He was what they called the “living replica of Eric”, which grew to be a blessing, as well as a curse, to him. It was a blessing for his father had pronounced features, yet it was a curse for whenever he stared in the mirror, he couldn’t help feeling that he was becoming more and more like his father, a figure that he adamantly despised.
“Mom—“
It wasn’t just him that hated Eric. Within seconds, his mother interrupted, “Eric, why are you here? Get out! Get out!” Her arms were flailing. She was throwing anything she could find in her hands at him. She kept screaming, “I hate you! I hate you!”
Although Yoochun was used to her behaviour, he could still feel his heart wince. His throat was now stinging, burning with acid and his eyes filled with contempt and grief. So, he dodged her attacks and ran upstairs, back to Yoohwan’s room.
“Yoochun?” Yoohwan croaked upon hearing the sound of the door creaking open.
Yoochun murmured, “Go back to sleep, Yoohwan. I’ll call Grandma, and we’ll figure something out soon.”
When their grandmother arrived, she comforted her own child, who was curled in a ball while bawling in tears. “There, there,” his grandmother’s soft voice whispered. “I’m here for you.”
Yoochun had been standing at the peak of the staircase, staring down at this scene. He remembered asking in an extremely timid voice, “What about me?”
No one, however, could hear him nor could they answer him. That was enough to resolve his question; no one was here for him. No one was there for his brother as well. He, thus, understood why there was so much hatred and anger contained in his brother.
Their grandmother now sighed, “He has been especially out of control after . . . Anyhow, could you please pass me the turkey? We need to defrost it.”
Yoochun felt that she was guarding a secret, but it wasn’t time to investigate. The holiday was supposed to be full of celebration, not interrogation. So, he handed her the hefty turkey and realized that a year was close to passing and like that of the old saying, he had grown a year wiser. He knew that there were different times for certain aspects of life and it would be to his benefit to let everything run naturally.
For some, alienation took priority over friendship.
Junsu rarely came out from his room. Even if he were to leave his room, it was only to go to the kitchen, the washroom, work or to the liquor store. He had grown tired of sulking in a bar where he drowned in his sorrows. He now preferred absolute solitude. Simple routines were now complex as shaving and even eating became nuisances.
“Son, take some time off,” Junsu’s father strictly announced just as Junsu entered the restaurant for dinner service.
Junsu was clothed in yesterday’s outfit, which consisted of a pair of black sweat pants and runners and a loose grey t-shirt. He had a scruffy face due to his stubbles that were grouping together to form a beard. Moreover, his hair was matted and uncombed.
“What? Why do I have to take time off?” Junsu shouted.
His father grunted, “You’re not in the state to work. Come back when you’re ready to work again. In fact, why don’t you go on some vacation? We haven’t been able to grant you some free time ever since you started working, so I guess now would be a good time.”
Junsu couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Was he in such a pitiable position that even his father was permitting him to have a vacation? In the restaurant business, barely anyone had time for breaks. The usual breaks were the best times for business. He remembered how he once had asked his father if he could attend a gaming exhibition just for a day during Christmas time and his father had blatantly rejected his proposal. Junsu had never asked to rest before then; even when he was suffering from a fever, he still went to work. Why? Because according to his father, the restaurant could not be missing one of its family members. They treated all employees like family.
“A missing member would mean an incomplete family,” his father had always noted.
“You’ve got be shitting me,” Junsu grumbled.
“Hey! Watch your language,” his father reprimanded.
In Junsu’s household, the boys were taught never to swear and Junsu always adhered to that rule as opposed to his twin brother, Junho, who was now playing baseball for a Korean team.
Junsu yelled, “I’m not a kid anymore, dad. I think I’m able to control my own life and I know I don’t need a vacation.”
“Even if you don’t want one, I am forcing this on you,” his father now noted. “No customer would be able to deal with your attitude this instant.”
He scoffed, “So it is because of the restaurant then.”
He should have known that it was always about the business in their family. Although his parents loved to explain that the reason they were so diligent at work was that they were doing this for the welfare of the family, Junsu knew that was just a façade. In fact, he never understood why they worked so hard. They didn’t splurge on luxury, such as designer brand clothes, voyages around the world, or cars. The largest purchase their family made was on a house that was still considered old, but at least in a nice neighbourhood. The only matter he was certain was that his parents lived for the restaurant. Every reason had some association with the term, restaurant. It all tied back to the business.
“Just take some time off,” his father stressed again.
Junsu snubbed, “Sure, I’ll take some time off. I’ll take all the time I want. You know what? I quit! I never wanted to take over this fucking place in the first place!”
He angrily marched off to nowhere. He let his feet guide him to anywhere. He sneered at himself, anywhere would be better than here. With that thought in mind, he somehow passed by a small travel agency. He saw a poster of a trip to Seoul plastered on the store’s glass window. He was suddenly reminded of his brother, who had told him to stop by Seoul any time. The two had been close throughout their childhood and adolescence, yet once they began adulthood, they had somehow diverged. Junsu was often hanging out with the boys, whereas his brother had left for Japan to advance his baseball career. Junho was offered an opportunity he could not refuse, and so he departed for his future.  Slowly, but surely, they barely had time to call each other and even the occasional messages online were brief and formal. There was not much to discuss anymore now that they had grown older and had matured.
Perhaps, it was time to revisit a familiar figure. The past with its fond memories could sometimes seem so alluring compared to the present. He was sure that Junho would welcome him. What else did brothers do? Taking his phone out of his pocket, he dialed the memorized number.
“Hey, Junho,” he left a message on his brother’s cell phone. “I’m thinking of stopping by Japan for a few weeks. Is it okay for me to stay at your place for a few days? Give me a call soon, buddy.” As soon as he entered the store, he asked the lady at the front desk, “What’s the earliest ticket you can book to Seoul?”
“New Years Day would be the earliest,” she politely responded.
“That would be great.”
He felt a smile escape from his mouth. How long had he not smiled? He already felt that he was losing himself these days. As a day went by, he had found it more strenuous to smile; he was beginning to become habituated with frowning. He laughed, thinking of the title he could use for his future novel, The Man who lost his Smile. No, he would change it to The Man who learned to Smile Again. 
Yes, he would learn to smile again. He would learn what it meant to be Junsu once more. It wasn’t so unpleasant being alone, he now thought. In fact, he felt that he could enjoy isolation for he could be Junsu. He didn’t need to live for others; he only had to live for himself.    
For some, loneliness took priority over friendship.
There was nothing to do at a small, rural town like Beppu. A tour of the entire town only took fifteen minutes and in terms of its population size, it was trivial compared to Seoul’s. The most appealing aspects of Beppu were its hot springs, and its Nine Hells of Beppu, which were again just hot springs. Hill after hill after hill, though, was what Changmin saw from a bedroom window of the house he rented.
“Hi Mr. Shim!” an overtly enthusiastic little girl jumped upwards to greet him from the window.
This was the granddaughter of the elderly couple next door. It had only been a couple of weeks since Changmin had moved, but from the way the girl greeted him, it seemed as if they had known each other for years.
“Mr. Shim! Mr. Shim! I know you’re there!” she persisted to scream, even waving her hands back and forth.
Changmin was certain that she would turn out to be a fine fan girl and prayed that she found a new target soon. If it weren’t for the tasty dishes that her grandmother frequently offered to Changmin, he wouldn’t have been so tolerant of this pesky girl, who coincidentally had the same name as Shiori.
“Okay, okay,” he rushed to open the front door. “I’ll be there in a minute, so cut your shouting!”
Upon opening the door, he had to stoop downwards to clearly perceive the tiny girl, who was definitely shorter than most of the kids at her age, nine. He was more than pleased to find a large, metal pot in her hands. That was certainly a compensation for all the chatter he had endured.
Seeing his eyes light up, Shiori quickly explained, “Grandma thought you’d want this for Christmas even though you said no to eating with us.” She wore a big frown with her eyebrows arched downwards and her lips pouting excessively.
“Thanks,” he ruffled the top of her head before receiving his gift. “You can be somewhat useful.”
“Hey!” she stomped her foot and pointed her finger at him. “Don’t treat me like a kid! I’m already nine and a half years old!”
He couldn’t resist a hearty chuckle, “Which means you’re still a kid.”
“Hey!” she yelled again.
Then, she kicked him in the shin, which felt like a tap to him. Girls these days sure are violent, Changmin thought. That was why he couldn’t stand kids. They were so boisterous, whiny, and well, downright childish.
“I don’t remember girls kicking people.”
He sighed as he carried the pot to the kitchen table and following behind him was Shiori. She was like a duckling who tagged along its mother, wondering what could happen.
She angrily argued, “I, Suzuki Shiori, am not a girl! I’m a lady!”
“Oh bother,” he groaned. “Why can’t you be like Shiori?”
“What do you mean?” she blinked her eyes. “I am Shiori!”
“No you’re not,” he opened the cover of the pot to examine the beef stew. “I refuse to call you Shiori. You’re Minnie for now on. Plus, you look like a Minnie Mouse.”
What joy it was to tease someone, even a child; this could be his entertainment for the future. What else was he supposed to do here, besides work?
She kicked him again, “I’m not a Minnie Mouse!”
“If you’re not a Minnie Mouse, then you can never set foot in this household,” Changmin suddenly enforced a bizarre rule.
It took a while for little Shiori to respond, but when she did, she kindly complied, “Fine . . . I’m Minnie, but I am not Minnie Mouse!”
“Fair enough,” he now walked to grab a spoon to taste the stew. “But if you’re a Minnie, then you’re bound to be a Minnie Mouse.”
The little Shiori shrilled discontentedly, “Argh!” Then, she made her way out, back to where she belonged at home.
Changmin was relieved for her to leave. She was certainly a troublemaker. It was no wonder her grandparents always bribed him with food to endure her. Who knew he could have met two Shioris, two very different Shioris?
Suddenly, he heard someone pounding on his door. It must be her again, he grumbled to himself. “Ugh, what do you w—“ he scolded before even seeing who it was. “What are you doing here?”
She wasn’t supposed to be here. How did she even know where he was?
Presumptions were meant to be fragmented and it was meant for people to accumulate the pieces. One piece after another piece, they would form life, the truth about life.

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