Park Soo Young never wanted to come back. She’d been happy in Washington, she loved her life, she loved her friends and more importantly, she loved that Washington D.C wasn't Pocheon. In Washington, she wasn't constantly being reminded of what she’d been through as a child. The same thing couldn't be said about Pocheon. Everywhere she looked, every sound she heard, every stone she turned and every corner she peeked there were constant memories of the past. Memories she wanted to keep under lock and key and far from her mind. She wished her father wasn’t so busy back home. Then he could have come here to take care of her sick grandmother instead of her.
Pocheon is an inland town in the far northeastern region of Gyeonggi province in South Korea. It was constantly covered by clouds but it never rained. The weather was always abnormally hot but it was never sunny. It was from this town that her father escaped with her when she was only eight years old. And it was in this town that she’d had to spend a month every summer, thanks to the insistence of her grandmother. Those months, at least, hadn't been so bad. Then she could have gotten away with spending the summer indoors.
Now she was condemned to spend an entire year in the gloomy, omnipresent village. If it wasn't evident, Soo Young detested Pocheon.
"Soo Young?" her best friend called to her, bringing her out of her trance.
Soo Young turned her head slightly to look at Kim Ye-rim. A small girl with round cheeks and a wide mischevious smile. Her summers at Pocheon hadn't been complete hell thanks to her. The two met during her first summer back and had instantly connected and they’d been friends ever since. They stayed in touch throughout the year and now that she was indefinitely back, they spent most of their time together. And Soo Young was extremely grateful to have someone other than her grandmother to talk to.
Soo Young blinked and noticed Yerim’s hand waving before her face. Yerim looked at her like she was about to lose it.
“Did you say something?”
Yerim’s mouth dropped, “Did I say something? Did I say something?!" She glared and Soo Young thought she almost saw laser beams shooting out of the girls' eyes and into her chest, "Yes! I said a whole lot of everything! I've been talking for the past ten minutes, It’s good to know you were paying attention.” She grumbled.
Soo Young scrunched her nose, “Sorry…”
“Why are you so spacy today anyway?” Yerim asked as she ate a spoonful of her butter pecan sundae.
They sat on the rim of the fountain at the center of town square, both devouring an ice cream sundae because it was just too hot. Soo Young looked out into the square, watching a few people go on about their days. She squinted against a ray of light as the sun peeked out over a set of clouds, a rare phenomenon that she was relishing.
“I don’t know, I guess…” She glanced down at her melting ice cream and picked up a small scoop, “I just don’t think I’m ready to go back to school yet.”
“Because you don't want your vacation to end or because you don't want to see any of your old friends?” Yerim asked, ever the insightful.
Soo Young felt a spasm of panic as she contemplated meeting her former friends again. How would they react to seeing her? She managed to avoid them every summer because she locked herself away inside her grandmother's house but she couldn't do that anymore. Of course, she had already run into one of them earlier that summer and the experience had been fine. But she couldn't help but fear that one of the other's would bring it up somehow. And she really wanted to avoid dredging up the past.
"Because I’m not ready to have my brain fried by the Korean school system," She lied. Soo young had always been a bad liar but Yerim was none the wiser. The younger girl nodded and stood.
“Your leaving?” Soo Young asked looking up at her small friend, she squinted against a stray ray of light that had managed to spill between large rolling clouds.
“Yeah, as much fun as this has been- you know, me talking the whole time and you not listening, I have to get back home early. My mom got this epiphany that we weren't spending enough time as a family and now we're all suffering. You wanna come? I think tonight it’s Jenga and Yukgaejang.”
“Thanks, but as much fun as that sounds, I still need to get a few things for my grandmother.”
Yerim shrugged and waved her goodbye, "Tell Grams I said hi."
"I'll see you later," she insisted. "I’ll come over tonight and we can paint each others hair, this time I’m going for a vibrant red!" She grinned.
Soo Young chuckled and waved goodbye to her friend. As Yerim disappeared down the road, Soo Young’s shoulders sagged. She’d been there all of three months and she still wasn’t used to being back. Everything felt like a dream almost.
If she was being honest, she didn't so much as hate Pocheon as she was afraid of it. Soo Young was over what happened all those years ago, or so she’d thought. There was an eerie feeling about the town that she couldn't put her finger on. It was almost as if some wreckage of that day lingered in the air. With the shake of her head, Soo Young forced herself to stop thinking about it. What she needed now was to focus on the present. Hopefully, she would get through this school year like she had done with all the others back in Washington--without bringing too much attention to herself.
Soo Young stood and shook off the dirt from the of her jeans. She picked up her half eaten sundae, which was now less ice and more of just a puddle of cream, and turned around to walk in the opposite direction Yerim had gone. She collided with someone who was walking past and spilled the ice cream all over the both of them. Though the guy got the better of the mess all over his pants.
Soo Young stood frozen, formed into a large O.
“I am so sorry!” She finally managed.
She placed the plastic sundae bowl on the edge of the fountain and untied the long sleeve shirt that was wrapped around her waist, the one she'd been wearing earlier but soon took off thanks to the heat. She began to dry him with it, apologizing profusely the entire time. The man wrapped his hand around her wrist in order to stop her motions and she was forced to look up at him. He wasn’t that much taller than her, maybe two or three inches.
His dark hair was styled back and away from his face on one side and fell just above his eye on the other. His eyes were black and bold and through his gaze, she could see a stubborn hatred for the small town--which was common in people around these parts. Especially those that had managed to leave but were forced to return for some reason, like her.
“I’m so sorry,” She blurted out again.
He smiled at her revealing deeply carved crows feet at the corners of his eyes, “Don’t worry about it, I should have been paying attention to where I was going.”
He shook off his plaid shirt to reveal he a back t-shirt underneath and began cleaning himself with that one. He looked familiar to her and she wondered if he was part of her past. He seemed too old to be one of her former friends but young enough that they might have known each other somehow.
He frowned, cocking his head to the side as if he was trying to get a better view of her, "Sorry do I know you? You seem familiar."
"I don't think so, I'm not really a local." Soo Young could have gone into a bit more detail about how she used to live here and had moved but she wasn't so eager about sharing her life story with a stranger. No matter how familiar he seemed.
For all she knew, they'd never met before and even if they had she didn't want anyone knowing she was back. She wanted to stay under the radar, away from the public eye. Once people knew she’d returned she feared that the whispers would start again. She hated the way people looked at her after what had happened to Eunsuh. She hated what they said about her and she really didn't want to deal with any of it this time around.
"Oh, you visiting family?"
"Yeah, I guess you can say that."
He nodded and offered