Chapter 7

Fallen Leaves

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

 

Areum swallowed her saliva, -or at least tried to- when she walked past the door to see her aunt sitting on the recliner with a laptop resting on the table in front of her. The woman looked up upon Areum's arrival through her round reading glasses, and moved to pause the drama that was playing on the computer screen. “Your mom would like to speak to you.” She informed her curtly.

 

Areum felt the lump in growing larger at the mention of her mother. Whenever she wanted to ‘talk’, whether it be through the phone or in person, it discernibly didn’t entail good news.

 

“Should I call her using the landline?” She managed to ask weakly, her voice as thin as a sheet of paper. 

 

“Yes, it will be better the faster you contact her.”

 

“Of course, I don’t want to keep her waiting.” She responded while reaching for the black phone placed in its port on the mahogany coffee table. When she looked through the recent contacts, she found the correct number within the last few hours of the history stored on the phone. Since her mother was out of the country (the main reason as to why she was granted a stay with her aunt for the summer), she had no intention of typing in the full foreign number. After she selected the number, it rang three times before some choppy crackling was transmitted through the other side.

 

“Hello?” She spoke in a voice she hoped would exhibit confidence. 

 

“Hello Areum, how are you?” The familiar cool tone of her mother’s voice sounded through the speaker.

 

“I’m doing well, how is Japan?”

 

“We’ve made good progress.” Her mother stated. There was a pregnant pause as neither of them made a move to speak.

 

“I would like to speak to you about something.” Her previous relaxed voice was gone, replaced with a stern motherly tone.

 

“Yes?”

 

“I checked your final exam grades for the last semester.”

 

“I got all A’s, I think my lowest was 93 percent?” She confirmed, her fake display of confidence whithering away. She asked herself, Why am I nervous? There’s nothing to hide.

 

“Yes, but you got C’s on several of the exams, which dropped you down to the lower 90s in half of your classes. What happened, Areum?”

 

“I just…” Areum trailed off, scared to reveal the true reason behind her bad exams.

 

“If you can’t even score well on these exams, how can I expect you to do well in the next two years? You know how important it is to get into a good university; we have to uphold our family title!” Her mother’s voice began to rise in volume.

 

When Areum failed to form a response, she continued. “What happened? Does this have to do with that boy? Jaebum was it?”

 

Areum winced at the mention of the said boy’s name, a flashback of the last week of school clouding her brain. She hadn’t seen or heard from him in over two weeks, and she had no intention of contacting him. 

 

“It’s him, isn’t it? I knew I shouldn’t have given you so much freedom. Boys are always a distraction, aren’t they…”? The tension between the two was so thick that one could have cut it with a knife, despite the physical distance separating them. “Damn it, someone is calling me. When I come back in a month, I expect a proper explanation. You should use this time to think about what you did.” She snapped, before abruptly cutting the line.

 

Areum was left with the phone still pressed against her ear, frozen in place at the rapid unraveling of events within the short period of time.

 

“Are you okay, Areum?” Her aunt softly asked, taking the phone from her hand and putting it down.

 

“I don’t know what to do. I should have known, she has always expected the highest work from me-not just getting by at everything.” She murmured, tears beginning to sting the back of her eyes. “She didn’t yell at me, but that was only because someone interrupted her.”

 

“Yeah, you’re probably up for some major consequences when she gets back.” The older woman nodded sympathetically. “At least be happy that she’s a couple hundred miles away.” She suggested, trying to make light out of the situation.

 

“Yeah. I’ll figure something out.” Areum gave herself encouragement.


“Are you okay?” Minseok asked tentatively when he noticed that the cup of coffee in front of Areum was completely gone cold, a brown rim of dried liquid forming around its base. When she shot him an aggravated glance, he added hastily, “I mean, I’m not forcing you to tell me or anything.”

 

“Can we play a board game?” She asked bluntly, pointing at the various boxes of games stacked on the shelf in a corner of the café.

 

“Of course! Which one would like to play? Jongdae will probably be getting here soon so you might want to choose something fit for a couple people.”

 

“Monopoly. Namjoo is coming too, by the way.”

 

“Another friend?” Minseok asked, raising an eyebrow.

 

“Yeah, I met her at photography club.”

 

As Minseok was struggling to safely grab the board game off the top shelf due to his vertical challenges, Namjoo had walked into the café and taken a seat in the cushioned chair across from Areum. “Is that your barista friend?” She asked discreetly, directing her gaze at the boy who had finally managed to get a hold of the board game. “He’s really cute. I bet if he wrote his number on customer’s coffee mugs he would get calls everyday.” She nudged Areum’s arm playfully.

 

Areum rolled her eyes right before the boy sat down. “You must be Namjoo, right?” Minseok nodded towards the girl, oblivious that he had been the topic of their conversation just a few moments ago.

 

“Nice to meet you, Minseok.” Namjoo offered him a shy smile as she shook his hand.

 

“Can I get you something to drink?” He asked, motioning to the name tag pinned to his blue button down shirt. “I could probably brew you something special, since my shift is over, my treat.”

 

“Ooh, do you have anything with pineapple?” She rested her chin on the palm of her hand, looking up at him with wide, innocent eyes. 

 

“I’ll give it my best shot.” Minseok gave her a lob-sided smirk before disappearing behind the counter.

 

“You already made him like you, is that a natural talent?” Areum chuckled.

 

“I’d like to call myself a boy-magnet.” Namjoo flipped her hair just as another person sat down across from them. “Hey Jongdae!” She stopped in the middle of her bragging session to greet the male.

 

“We decided to play Monopoly.” Areum informed.

 

“I thought we were just going to settle down for some coffee, but it looks like you guys have something more intense planned.” He stated, eying the worn out box that rested on the table.

 

After a couple minutes of small talk, the fourth chair screeched against the floor as Minseok pulled it out, pale yellow drink in hand. “I hope you like this, its a concoction I mixed specifically for you.” He set the cocktail glass down in front of Namjoo, her eyes lighting up in interest of the specialty drink.

 

“Last time I asked you to make me something special you hit me! And your shift is done too!” Jongdae pouted.

 

“Sorry, man. Only pretty ladies get my special service of original drinks.” Minseok patted his shoulder. Areum shook her head when she noticed the blush crawling up Namjoo’s cheeks. Leaning towards Jongdae, she whispered, “Is he always this flirty?”

 

“I would like to think that I’m on a far different level than him” He confidently ran his fingers through his light auburn locks. Areum scoffed at his behavior, and returned her attention to the other two who were conversing happily.

 

"I've definitely noticed that," Areum murmured under her breath. 

 

“Let’s get this game started, shall we?” Jongdae announced, unaware of her comment. 


“I’m pretty sure if someone didn’t decide to put like 600 houses on his property, I would have been the richest!” Minseok exclaimed, not-so-subtly directing his complaint towards Jongdae.

 

“Hey, it’s called playing smart. You either work harder, or you work smarter.” Jongdae shrugged, leaning back in his chair. The table that had been pristine a few hours ago was now covered in fake money, mini hotel and house pieces, and various property cards.

 

“Did we seriously just play monopoly for six hours straight, only to be locked in a tie?” Namjoo rubbed her arm tiredly.

 

“Exactly, we learned about investments and how to handle money properly.” said Areum.

 

“Says the girl who bought every piece of property she landed on and ended up going bankrupt.” Minseok snorted.

 

“In that case, I clearly learned the most, didn’t I?” She defended. The group almost seemed like they were going to nod off into a deep slumber, but Jongdae clearly had no intentions of allowing that to happen. “Let’s go outside so we don’t sleep for like four hours in here.” He rose from his seat, urging everyone to start cleaning up the game board. They began to sluggishly pick up game pieces and sort money into designated stacks after several pleas from Jongdae.  After taking about fifteen minutes, which was way longer than it should’ve taken them, they gathered their items to leave the café. “Are you feeling better?” Minseok softly asked Areum when the other two were out of earshot. “Thanks to you, yes.” She smiled genuinely. Though the issue with her mother was still nagging at the back of her brain, her friends had most definitely helped take her mind off of it for sometime.

 

“Hey guys, you know how there’s an open community basketball game every Tuesday?”

 

“I like to watch those sometimes when my friends play! But only the best people bother to sign up. ” Minseok responded animatedly, shrugging that the end of his sentence. 

 

“You guys should play in it today. Techincally, anyone can sign up regardless of experience.” Namjoo suggested.

 

Both of the male’s faces went pale at the suggestion of their participation.

 

“I’ll play only if you two play in it.” Jongdae crossed his arms in defiance.

 

“What? That’s not fair! It’s just going to be a bunch of guys; we’ll get crushed!” Areum yelled.

 

“That’s no way for a girl to speak, why are you saying that?” Minseok snapped.

 

The two boys looked at Namjoo and Areum challengingly, and they found themselves unable to respond.

 

“If it means that you guys will play, we’ll do it. But if we get our butts kicked, its not our fault.” Areum sighed. 


A sports gear shopping trip and a full meal later, the four found themselves lined up courtside, waiting to be split into teams.

 

“Since each team can only have five people on the court at once, we will have to switch out players so everyone can get a chance at it.” An older man wearing a baseball cap announced, standing in between the two lines of players. "I'm glad to see some new faces here too," He added, clearly referring to the group of four. 

 

“I think we barely snagged of the spots on the team today, look how many people showed up!” Jongdae whispered, his eyes passing over the growing crowd in the stands.

 

“Of course, out of all the games we could choose to play in, we chose the most popular one.” Namjoo muttered.

 

“That means we have a reason to show off our skills.” Minseok said confidently.

 

“Yes, our lack-there-of skills.” Areum grumbled in response.

 

When the coordinator began to speak again, they were silenced. “I’m just going to count you guys off to make it even.”

 

Once the teams were split, Areum found herself in the same team as Minseok, accompanied by several other boys around their age. “Namjoo and I are the only girls here, Minseok.” She nudged his arm.

 

“That makes you guys badass.” He smiled at her, giving her an encouraging pat on the back.

 

After a team huddle, the time came for them to take on the court. Areum was not going first, as the team decided to put out the most experienced players during the first half. Minseok and Areum found themselves acting as bench-warmers, cheering on their teammates. The first half went by in flying colors, with the two teams battling it out on the court. There was some especially stiff competition between two players who seemed as if they had been playing ever since they were born. The one on Areum’s team was a boy with a cute face, but aggressive basketball skills. He was able to dribble down the court with a sense of gracefulness that only a well-experienced player could pull off, and his shots were extremely accurate, with most of them going through the net without even making the slightest contact with the metal rim.

 

By the time the first half was over, Team Blue, Areum’s team, was down by ten points. During the break, the massive audience began to chant. “Put the girls in!” They cheered, as they noticed that many of the boys would be going back to play again.

 

“Look, they’re cheering for you guys!” Minseok grinned, his voice almost drowned out by the deafening cheers.

 

“It’s showtime.” Areum sighed as the half time buzzer sounded, signaling the end of the break.

 

The two teams gathered around the referee who held the ball in the center of the court. Areum positioned herself across from Namjoo so she could see her eye to eye. Jongdae and Minseok were on the other side of the circle, looking readier than ever to get their hands on the ball.

 

With a blow of the whistle, the referee tipped the ball into the air, and the two teams lunged for it like a pack of lions. Areum was astonished to find the ball in her grasp, but that feeling was soon diminished when one of the opposing players moved to guard her.

 

“Areum, here!” Jongdae , trying to make her pass him the ball. 

 

“Oh please, the day I give the ball to you is the day I die!” She growled. Areum passed the ball to another team mate, who caught it with ease and proceeded to dribble down the court.

 

For the next ten minutes, it seemed as if someone had flicked a switch on in Areum, causing her to abandon all the demure aspects of her personality. The thoughtful, whimisical photographer had been overshadowed by a competetive, strong girl who took crap from nobody. The players who had initially intended on going easier on her had begun to treat her as a threat, as she showed no fear nor hesitance in her actions. The crowd was beginning to go crazy as the two girls played their hearts out; and that only gave them more confidence.

 

The buzzer was beginning the countdown to the end of the game; if one team didn’t make a move, it would go into overtime. Both teams were drenched in sweat, panting during the thirty second time out. “Are you sure you want to stay in there?” The baby-faced boy who had played in the first half asked her with concern.

 

“Yes, I want to finish it.” She breathed, looking at him with determinance in her eyes. 

 

“Okay. You go for it.” He nodded, aknowledging her strong will. 

 

The clock started again, counting down from just over a minute. Both teams entered some sort of overdrive, as if nothing existed except the hoop, the lines on the court, and their teammates. Within the first thirty second limit, Jongdae and Namjoo’s team managed to run the clock down twenty seconds to take a three-pointer. This way, the opposing team would have limited time to make up the lost points. The moment the other team got the ball back, Minseok made his way down to their basket, cautiously avoiding the opponent's attempts to steal the ball from his grasp. Three of their teammates were well guarded, while Areum was caught in a battle with Jongdae for an opening so she had an opportunity to receive the ball. “Too short?” He mocked, as she attempted to step around him. 

 

As she ignored his attempts to distract her, she thought of an idea that would bring her small size to her advantage. Areum pivoted on the toes of her feet, slipping under his arm that reached out in an attempt to block her. Before he had a chance to reposition himself, Minseok managed to pass the ball across the court, which she caught quickly. “Just go for it, time is of essence!” Minseok yelled.

 

After taking a split second to glance at the shot clock, Areum followed Minseok's advice to go for it. As if in slow motion, her arms went through a fluid motion to send the ball soaring towards the hoop, everyone’s eyes following its movements with anticipation. It was as if time had stopped itself, and the only thing moving was the ball, and the only sound was the rapid thumping of the players' hearts.

 

The bubble of oblivion was popped when the crowd erupted in screams, the ball swooshing down the white net just as the buzzer lit up to end the game. The score board lit up, flashing the final score. 

 

Team Blue: 87 

Team Red: 85

 

Areum’s name was displayed on the large display screen above the score board, and she found herself basking in the chanting of her name amidst the chaos.

 

Areum felt her friends envelope her in a warm hug, and for the first time since school ended, she felt that she had found the people who truly welcomed her. 

 

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