Chapter 2

Fallen Leaves

Thursday, June 12th, 2014


Areum anticipated the noise of clinking plates and dishes downstairs, but was surprised to have her ears pick up the seemingly deafening silence of an empty home. The rays of the high sun peeked through the tilted shades of the large window, creating geometric tessellations on the white satin sheets. After unlocking her phone, she was astonished to see the numbers on the lock screen.


11:47 A.M


It was remarkable how much she could sleep given the opportunity. But then again, other teens followed the stereotypes to sleep in for almost the whole day during the summer. Areum reluctantly pushed off the sheets, exposing her legs to the cool air circulating in the room. She didn’t even bother questioning her aunt’s absence; She had probably exercised her natural kind nature and decided to let her niece sleep in for the day.


After prying the wooden bathroom door open, she looked at her reflection in the wide mirror. Despite the sleepiness still prominent in her eyes, it was clear that even a single day of proper sleep could do wonders to a person’s health and appearance. The conspicuous eye bags that had developed over the course of the school year were already beginning to fade, leaving small ghosts of what they once were. Areum smiled to herself; Now this was what summer was for.


Her existing exultant temperament was elevated further as her eyes connected with the pancakes resting on the dining table downstairs. A yellow sticky note was loosely hanging off the edge of the plate, signed with a smiley face at the bottom.


You probably need sleep, so I’ll let you enjoy it. Have fun today, and don’t get into too much trouble. :)


Areum felt the corners of her lips turning upwards to form a grin in response to her aunt’s cheesiness. After scarfing down the surprisingly still-warm pancakes, Areum found herself shifting through the securely packed clothes in her suitcase.


Over the past two days she had allowed herself to become wholly immersed in the new environment, and therefore hadn’t even bothered to unpack anything.


Today, she made a promise to herself to explore other sites around the town, as there were bound to be picturesque spots scattered everywhere. So far, she had only gone to a café and the forest. Yet, she hadn’t even explored the forest completely. But who knows what she’ll see, or who she’ll meet in the expanse of the town.


Areum was sure that the 30 minutes she took to choose an outfit was worth it when she examined the final product. She had ended up creating the perfect “whimsical photographer” look, which she had personally liked to classify herself as. The outfit consisted of a simple maroon sundress that hugged her torso, a light denim jacket, and gold sandals to top it all off. It was perfect. 


The first thing she did after stepping out of the house was walk to the café. As she walked in, she scanned the room for the person she had in mind, and was glad to see him behind the counter. His back was turned to her, the only thing visible being the blue apron straps that looped around his waist as he tenderly topped a drink with whipped cream. Areum took a seat on a stool facing the window after checking the time. Within a few minutes, she heard the creak of the stool beside her as it was twisted around.


“Out of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.”


 “Casablanca reference, I see”. Areum smiled as she turned to face him. “And If you don’t mind, I think that quote could use a modification. In your case, it’s ‘Out of all the coffee joints’”.


“Coffee is a stimulant, but alcohol?” Minseok questioned.


“Alcohol is a stimulant as well, unless you drink more than you can handle.” Areum replied pointedly.


“Hey, I would be a perfectly responsible drinker!” Minseok defended himself in response to her indirect insult.


“I never said anything about your irresponsible drinking habits.”


“You definitely assumed something though.” He pouted cutely. 


“Didn’t we have a similar conversation yesterday?” Areum raised an eyebrow.


“Yeah, you thought I was stupid.”


“Well I can’t say that my presumption was inaccurate.” Areum laughed.


“Wow, that hurts, you know! Are you always this mean?” Minseok clutched his chest in mock pain.


“You see my dear, you’re a barista right? Here’s some advice: I like my coffee how I like myself: Dark, bitter, and too hot for you.” Areum snapped her fingers after dramatically flipping her hair over her shoulder.


The two friend’s laughter filled the calm air of the café, turning a few curious heads. Once their breathing slowed once more, Minseok broke the silence. “It seems like you haven’t had a chance to get a proper look around town, how would you like it if you had a tour guide to lead you on your photographic adventure?” He motioned to the black camera hanging around her neck. “I promise you, though I may not be much of a photographer myself, I definitely know some spots that are picturesque for the human eye alone.” He looked at her with a hint of mischief evident in his eyes. 


“I think I’d like that.”

“I’m sorry if you’re not much of a walker, but I don’t really have access to a car until the evening hours.” Minseok clasped his hands together.


“Oh no, walking is actually better! In this context, walking allows us to take in everything that surrounds us. If we were in a car, everything would be a blur; I wouldn’t be able to see the little things that combine to make this town what it is as a whole. I want to appreciate every little bit of it, to stop and smell the roses while I have the opportunity.” Areum explained thoughtfully.


“I’m glad I’ve found someone who has that mindset. A lot of girls I’ve met are rather pretentious about this kind of stuff.” The male shook his head.


“Well I’m not just any girl, am I?” Areum poked his arm playfully.

“See that clock tower over there?” Minseok pointed to a tall, pointed structure with an enormous analog clock mounted at the pinnacle. “That clock marks the center of the downtown area. It used to ring at 12 PM everyday to signal a call for community prayer. But of course, as time went by technology became more advanced, and religions became more diverse. So now, we just use it as a lunch time alarm” He smiled lightly.


Areum observed the detailed work that adorned the faces and corners of the clock tower. Though the bottom half of it was shrouded with upward growing vines, the delicate decals and carvings were still visible. As soon as they reached the base of the monument, she took her chance to snap a few pictures of the greenery clinging to the bricks. Once sufficiently satisfied with her photos, she turned around to see Minseok waiting for her patiently by a bench.


With a tilt of his head, he led her away. They wandered the streets until they reached a narrow lane without sidewalks. The stone path resembled the streets of Paris; small shops and diners dotted every side, and almost no cars entered, allowing people to walk freely. Noticing Areum’s expression of awe, Minseok spoke. “If you already think this is breathtaking, I suggest you come here during the night time. It’s absolutely stunning.”


“I can only imagine…” Areum breathed, gesturing to the small lights that lined the canopies of various shops. When Minseok noticed that her walking pace was slowing down slightly, he stopped. “Why don’t we rest for a bit? It’s been over two hours; I can tell you’re getting a little tired.”


Areum was about to deny it, but she thought better of it. She had to admit, she was getting a little tired. A break for her feet wouldn’t hurt.  


The pair settled for a small pastry shop, since Areum had previously expressed her love for croissants and all other buttery delicacies. The shop they chose was small, but not too cramped. The walls were dressed with elegant paintings, and the cushioned chairs gave off a home-like aura. As expected, Areum bought a chocolate filled croissant, which she savored every single bite of. 


The buttery flavors of the pasty were still lingering on her tongue as they exited the shop, but those sensations were replaced with someone else when she spotted a familiar figure walking towards them.


Her eyes met those chocolaty brown irises once again; they made the chocolaty flavor in the croissant seem bland. It was like a comparison of 90 percent dark cocoa to light milk chocolate.


She was snapped out of her thoughts when Minseok’s voice sounded in her ear. “Ah Areum, you should meet my friend!” His hand was on the other male’s shoulder, as he pulled him in for a quick hug.


“I don’t think that will be necessary...” Areum muttered under her breath. Without even looking directly at him, she could tell that he was trying to not laugh at her.


“Why?” Minseok questioned, completely oblivious to the events that had transpired the previous night.


“Because we’ve already met. I caught her trying to-” The rest of the boy’s sentence was muffled against Areum’s hand as she cupped it over his mouth.  


“I already know that his name is Jongdae, and I met him while wandering through the forest near my aunt’s house.” She finished just in time for him to pry her hands off his face.


“What did you just eat? Your hands smell so good.” Jongdae exclaimed, forgetting about the conversation. Meanwhile, Minseok was just watching them in confusion.


Before anything more could be said, Jongdae clasped his hands together, as if a light bulb had just gone off inside his mind. “Minseok hyung, do you mind if I steal her for tonight?”


Minseok gave him a skeptical look, before turning to Areum. “If the lady is fine with it, then go ahead.”


Both the boys turned their attention to her, and she suddenly felt a little uncomfortable. Jongdae looked excited, a little too excited. But on the other hand, Minseok looked indifferent.


“If it helps your decision, I promise you that though he might be a little bizarre in terms of character, he won’t try to kill you in a dumpster or something.”


“Yeah, I only do that to people I don’t like.” Jongdae shrugged.


“Have you been hanging out with Kyungsoo?” Minseok snorted. “But yeah, if you want you can go with him. I might need to get home soon anyways.” He said, returning to the topic.


Seeing the pleading look in the boy’s eyes, Areum decided to agree. “Yeah, I think I’ll go with him.”


“Cool. Have fun, whatever it is that you’re going to do.”


“Thanks for today. Really. I appreciated your skillful tour guide skills.” Areum thanked Minseok graciously.


“No problem, I’ll see you tomorrow?”


“Of course.” She smiled at him before he turned to leave.


Once his figure became nothing but a passing pedestrian on the street, Jongdae turned to her. “I bet I’ll be a better tour guide than him,” He claimed.


“Instead of making empty claims about your skills, why don’t you put them to work?” She replied playfully. 


“Of course, my lady.” He smirked.

They proceeded to walk down the small street, occasionally pausing to look at interesting shops or boutiques. After sometime, the sun began to set. Rather than the ethereal effect that it had in a natural environment like a forest or prairie, the setting sun gave the street a different mood. The lights in front of shops were slowly being by the owners, transforming the street into a beautifully illuminated pathway. Surprisingly, Jongdae was patient with her incessant photography stops. To Areum, this scene had so many little details that she could not pass up without a photo to capture them.


“Why aren't you getting annoyed with my constant urge to take photos?” She finally asked, out of pure curiosity.


“I can tell it’s something that you have a passion for, and I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself if I took that away from you. If it makes you happy, why would I want to diminish that?” He looked at her, his eyes glittering under the softly glowing lights. It was different than the playful persona he had displayed earlier.


“I know I’m beautiful, but please stop staring”. He waved his hand in front of her face a few times.


And that playful personality was back again.


Areum shook it off, and smiled up at him. “Yeah, you would make a gorgeous girl.”


“I’ve heard better comebacks. But yes, I would be beautiful regardless of gender.” He replied with ease. Before she had a chance to respond, he motioned with his hand. “It’s almost dark, shall we get going?”


The two had been walking for about 15 minutes, but it seemed like three hours when Areum started to lose energy. “Honestly, I’m starting to think that you’re leading me to a dark alley so I can be your next victim”.


Jongdae stopped in his tracks, and she smacked right into his back. Stepping back while rubbing her sore nose, she muttered, “Why’d you do that?”


“Are you always like this? How much did you walk today?” He asked.


“We walked from the café Minseok works at to the pastry shop.”


“That’s all?” He exclaimed. “I thought they weren’t serious when I heard that people from the cities don’t walk a lot. Either that stereotype is true, or you’re just a weakling.”


“Neither! Let’s keep going.” Areum gave him a light push so he would start moving.


After giving her a pointed glance, he continued to lead her down the street. By then, the sun had sunk below the horizon completely and the only evidence of it’s existence was a few light orange streaks in the dark blue sky. The stars were beginning to appear against the velvety blue fabric of the sky, and it was so different in comparison to what Areum was used to seeing. She once believed that the stars were stunning to look at from her own house, but little did she know of the pollution that was preventing her from seeing the hidden picture. Here, the air remained relatively clear, allowing the stars and planets of the surrounding cosmos to fully reveal themselves to the human eye.


She did not notice that they had turned away from the lively street and had taken a new route through a more natural pathway. Only when she felt the crunch of twigs and fallen walnuts under her feet did she take a break from stargazing to observe her surroundings back on Earth. She opened to question this sudden change of direction, but she thought better of it. He already seemed slightly aggravated by her behavior before; he was doing her a favor after all.


“We’re here.” Jongdae stated.


“This is just an open field.” Areum replied frankly.


“Wrong way.” He grabbed her shoulders and rotated her body to the intended direction. What she saw was absolutely breathtaking.


“I suddenly regret complaining back there…” She murmured. They stood at the top of a grassy hill that overlooked the town. Though it may have been small, it was definitely bustling with life. The glowing street lights could be seen draped over canopies, and even the body of water that she had visited was visible. The water was especially clear- clear enough to reflect the iridescent glow of the stars that studded the sky.


The cloak of the cerulean sky blended in with the water, the open land, and even the downtown buildings. Though a mix of modern civilization and untouched nature may seem like polar opposites, in Areum’s eyes, this scene fit together perfectly like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.


“This is a spot that I like to come to sometimes-just when I need to think or something like that.” Jongdae commented.


“Why would you share it with me if it’s your special location?” Areum questioned.


“Because I knew you would appreciate it.”


“How could you trust someone so quickly?”


“I saw it in your love for all things that have to do with nature, even if that love is triggered by photography.”


Though she was still slightly appalled by his explanation, Areum pushed her confusion to the side for a moment. She didn’t hesitate to capture the scene with her camera, but for once, she knew that no photographic file would be able to portray what she saw herself. No amount of pixels, no amount of Photoshop would be able to convey the beauty that was delivered through the mechanics of the human eye.


Therefore, she decided to enjoy it for as long as possible.


Though she may not be able to save it physically, she could definitely keep it as a vivid memory.


That night when the pair walked back through the same route, a comfortable silence rested between them. Nothing needed to be said; their minds wandered alone for the time being. When they finally reached the clock tower where Areum and Minseok had stood several hours prior, Jongdae finally popped the bubble of silence.


“It’s almost 10:30, will your aunt be angry?”


“I have no idea.” She answered honestly. “She never really set a curfew for me.”


When he didn’t reply, she spoke again. “I guess I can walk home from here, its not too far.” She moved to head off, but his firm grip on her wrist prevented her from taking another step.


“No, I couldn’t possibly let you do that. It’s too dangerous for a girl to wander the streets out at this hour. I’ll walk you back to your house, okay?”


“But there are still a bunch of people out here, I’ll be fine.” She insisted.


“This is no different than any other city. Even if there are a ton of people, the risk factor is too high.” He replied, more adamant this time.


Areum sighed in defeat. “Fine. We might as well get going then.”


It took another twenty minutes to reach her aunt’s house, and when they reached the doorstep it almost seemed as if neither wanted to let go.


After a pregnant pause, Areum voiced her thoughts. “Thank you for today. I’m glad I was able to experience that, and most of all…I’m glad that you shared your secret hideout spot with me” Her lips curved into a smile at the end of her sentence.


“It was my pleasure” He smiled back, his eyes twinkling once again under the dim lights on the porch.


“So, I’ll see you around…” Areum twisted the key in the lock.


“Tomorrow. I’ll meet you at the café at noon.” He finished her hanging thought.


“Oh, okay. That sounds great.” She awkwardly fiddled with the door handle before eventually succeeding at opening it. She stepped inside, and waved him goodbye before shutting the door behind her.


With her back pressed against the cold wood, she felt her chest rise and fall with excitement. There were so many thoughts circulating in her head at the moment.


Why was he so eager to take her out today? Did he want to be her friend? What would they do tomorrow? 


Shaking the storm of questions from her mind, she slipped off her shoes and made her way up to her room, thankful that her aunt had already fallen asleep.


Her dreams that night were filled with flashes of the ever-expanding galaxy, the reflection of city lights, and the memory of those enchanting brown eyes.



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