A/N : With Christmas and the end of this year only a few months away, here’s a present for you all for making it through this year :).
It was just another busy night in the Seoul subway station.
The weather is warm enough to wear just a coat. And as the train screeches into a halt in the darkness, Jack leads himself out among the dark swarm of bodies.
He adjusts his hat as he makes his way through after noticing some people opening their umbrellas due to the patchy sky.
Out of his usual habit, he goes to buy an evening paper at a newstand and makes his way to the hotel.
After lightly, almost jumping up the stairs, he walks through the lobby to the bar and Jack easily finds a stool. He nods to the bartender and tosses him the newspaper. The bartender points to a bottle of Dewards and Jack gives him a thumbs up.
Jack scans the cocktail lounge adjacent to the bar but only sees a few people here just as he expected due to the quiet atmosphere. A few tables of businessmen getting drunk, an eldery couple leisurely sipping their tea and two women tucked away in a corner table.
Having not much more to see, he checks his watch as the bartender sets down his drink.
"I guess not much is going on even though it's Friday." Jack says as he reaches for the glass.
"Eh, it's early yet." The bartender replies and Jack downs his scotch in one gulp, then slides his empty glass over to the bartender.
"Say Won, make it a double, would you?"
"In a hurry tonight?" The bartender asks playfully and Jihoon lets out a half-hearted laugh.
"And one for yourself. I gotta make a call."
The bartender nods and says thanks pal as Jack gets up from the stool. And he makes his way through the lounge to the telephone booth. He unconsciously takes another look at the two women tucked away in the corner, immersed in their conversation as if they had a world of their own. But what slows his pace is the thought that he recognizes one of them. Holding onto a maybe, Jack approaches them.
"Seulgi? Is that you?"
And just as he thought, Seulgi turns from her seat and meets his eyes.
"What do you know!" Jack exclaims as he makes his way toward his friend and stands beside her. "I was saying to myself, I know that girl."
"Jack." Seulgi says as if she is still in a daze.
"Gee, it's great to see you, Seulgi." Jack gently places his hand on her shoulder and retreats it back into his coat pocket. "It's been.. months."
"Months." Seulgi then turns her attention back to the woman sitting at the opposite side of the table. "Jack, this is Irene Bae."
"Ah." Jack, like a well-mannered man he is, takes off his hat and holds out his hand for a handshake. "Pleased to meet you."
Irene takes his hand and replies just as polite. "Likewise."
Jack turns his attention back to Seulgi, fumbling with his hat a bit nervously.
"Well, uh. Davis is meeting me here, and a bunch of us are heading down to Joey's party. You're going, aren't you?"
"Yes," Seulgi replies calmly, then glances at Irene, feeling bothered for some reason for giving that answer. "I just planned to get there a little bit-"
"You two go ahead." Irene cuts off after rummaging through her purse.
"You coming along?" Jack asks but Irene shakes her head.
"No." She hesitates for a second, then meets Seulgi's eyes. Being elegant as always, with no hint of emotion other than her grace. "I have to make a few calls before dinner anyway."
Seulgi, unsure, looks up at Jack then back to Irene. And before she can say anything, Irene prepares to leave.
"I really should go."
"Are you sure?" Seulgi asks and there is a feeling of panic building inside, not wanting her to leave even though she doesn't have any reason to stay.
Despite that, Irene is ever so calm. Even looking straight into her eyes meaningfully.
Then she stands up, picking up her fur coat and Seulgi, after a short pause of staring into nothing, turns to Jack.
"Well, then it would be great to catch a ride."
But her subdued voice seems to express her reluctance of leaving.
"Yeah, sure." Jack, who is oblivious of this all, answers and Seulgi can't help but look sideways because of the wavering scent of Irene's perfume.
And also because of her hand gently placed on her shoulder.
The same hand that touched her months ago. And Seulgi is sure the feeling of her hand on her shoulder will always linger just as it did before.
"You two have a wonderful night." Irene softly says and retreats her hand to shake Jihoon's hand, leaving Seulgi staring at her shoulder instead of Irene's face.
"Nice meeting you, Jack." Seulgi only hears her voice.
"Nice meeting you." Jack replies and Seulgi quietly listens to the rustle of Irene adjusting her coat and then leaves, with only her perfume scent left behind.
Jack watches her walk away then lightly sighs and checks his watch.
"Alright, well." He puts his hat back on. "Let me go make sure the loaf's on his way."
He gives Seulgi's shoulder(the other side of where Irene touched) a light squeeze.
"Back in a flash." And walks away too, leaving Seulgi still sitting at the table, staring mindlessly at the empty chair in front of her.
Nothing really crosses her mind. She feels everything yet can think of nothing.
Then in a beat, she looks back, scanning the bar and beyond for someone in particular then hastily grabs her coat and makes her way outside.
Meanwhile, Jack emerges from the telephone booth, passing the bar on the way and when the bartender holds up his newspaper Jack gives him a nod that he can keep it.
He comes back to where he left Seulgi but stops when he only spots an empty table. After glancing around, he is about to ask a waiter passing by if he's seen her but he stops when he sees Seulgi coming out from the ladies' lounge. Jack frowns a little, concerned she might be sick judging from her pallid face.
"There you are!" He walks toward her, searching for any clue of discomfort on her face. "Thought you ditched me. Are you alright? He said he'd meet us out the front."
Seulgi only just nods and Jack carefully puts an arm around her waist to take her to the taxi which was waiting for them out the hotel.
Seulgi inhales the fresh night air before sitting in the back of a taxi, against the window. The taxi is crowded with Jack and other friends, all involved in animated, heated conversation but to Seulgi, the conversation becomes a crowd of mere mumble as if she's underwater.
The taxi stops at the red light and Seulgi catches sight of an elegant couple, arm-in-arm at the corner, crossing the avenue as the light changes. A strong gust of wind gives the woman some difficulty as she tries to knot a green silk scarf around her head while laughing at something the man just said.
Then she hears sirens wailing, which automatically makes her think of the sound of a train running.
Which enables her recall their first meeting ever so naturally.
The toy train wailing as it whizzes by the faces of miniature pedestrians on a department store display, Irene looking down at it in amusement,
and herself, looking at her with already enthralled eyes which were the start of everything.
I met you during the coldest season of life.
And I want to thank you for cherishing me like a flower.
I also want you to know that like a wild flower blossoming in the middle of the desert,
I want to be your paradise too.
This story starts in the past until the present, and the day that changed Seulgi’s life forever started with an alarm blaring at her face at 7 o’ clock in the morning.
Seulgi, huddled under covers, doesn't stir for a moment. And when the alarm continues long enough for it to be annoying, Seulgi pushes herself up and out of bed, but still cocooned within the blankets. She finds the alarm clock and shuts it off, reading the time '7.00 A.M.' as she does.
So she moves through her morning rituals : she throws open her window shades, moves on to a small gas stove, crouching in front of it. She strikes a match and lights the stove to take the chill off and moves on to the kitchen sink set in one corner of the room. A developer and fixer trays are stacked to the side of the sink, a camera set on a shelf above the sink, along with a collection of red or amber light bulbs and photo paper.
The room is sparsely furnished which doesn't help the place warm up at all. But much of the wall space is taken up with the photos she had taken. Mostly the street scenes of the city and urban landscapes.
Seulgi furiously brushes her teeth when the doorbell rings. Once. Twice. Three.
She spits the remaining toothpaste in and manages to gargle twice before heading to the window.
Seulgi opens it and leans out to see her boyfriend, Lee Jeongmin, looking up at her from the street, riding his bicycle. It mildly satisfies her that he's well-bundled in a scarf and a hat.
"I like your scribbles." Seulgi remarks which makes Jeongmin look around to the street behind him covered in children's colorful scribblings, somehow lighting up the gray concrete.
"Yeah," Jeongmin replies playfully, leaning onto his bicycle in a confident manner. "I've been busy!" He grins up at her, even adjusting his hat to get a better look at his girlfriend. "I don't know how you look a million bucks first thing in the morning."
"I'll be down in a minute." Seulgi answers, already used to her boyfriend's sweet-talk.
And as always, Jeongmin rides her to work with his bicycle through the park. It's romantic in some way despite the fact that they both can't afford their own car.
Seulgi sits behind him with her arms wrapped around his hips while he stands pumping away at the pedals.
"I got the schedules. In the mall." He briefly glances behind. "You listening to me?"
"I'm listening!" Seulgi says, her teeth chattering a little because of the gray cold morning. "You got the schedules."
"And there are two sailings to France in June, one in July." Jeongmin adds, glancing behind even though he knows it's pointless to see what kind of expression his girlfriend is making as he said it.
Seulgi, who was busy looking at the cars whizzing past, quickly reacts as a response. "Wow." And even she has to admit it sounds quite empty. Just like her house, unlike her walls.
"So what do you think?" He asks and Seulgi can sense the hopefulness in his tone.
"I think..." Seulgi hesitates, having no idea what to say because an answer to that question feels crucial. "I think it's too cold!" She says instead and he laughs. "I can't think straight."
"Alright let's get you warmed up." Joengmin says and accelerates which makes Seulgi laugh, and hold on tighter.
"I love Paris in the summer-time!" He begins to sing as they speed away and Seulgi thinks to herself that Paris in the summer-time is indeed better than winter.
Everyone looks exactly the same standing in a long line. A lot cold, a little soviet-factory-worker glum, and tired.
Seulgi rubs her hands and uses her breath to warm them up even though it's a useless attempt. So she just helplessly watches the long line getting shorter, eagerly waiting for her turn to get inside.
"Anyway, she wants to make it for you so there's no use fighting it." Jeongmin says as they walk slowly forward as the length of the line shortens. "Once she gets an idea in her head, she's just going crazy with no girls in the family but Amy."
"How is she?" Seulgi asks out of manners and Jeongmin sighs a little.
"She'll pull through."
"Compliments of the season from the management." The security guard interrupts them and he hands her a Santa cap. Seulgi just takes it and doesn't put it on as she moves inside. Surely working here when it's still dark is depressing enough.
"I got to open the floor." Jeongmin says as he puts on his Santa cap and pulls his girlfriend closer for a light kiss.
"See you later." Seulgi says and heads to the employee cafeteria for some coffee.
She sits on the table in the corner, sipping her warm cup of coffee in satisfaction then scans the sea of santa-capped and uniform-smocked staffs move wordlessly along the breakfast line, accepting gooey eggs and cups of coffee.
Seulgi feels a little uneasy being the only one who's not wearing her santa cap so she turns her attention to the employee handbook, which isn't a good idea she soon realizes.
2 weeks vacation after 5 years.
4 weeks vacation after 15 years, full pension, benefits...
It's too depressing to take in. So Seulgi closes the book and slips it into her purse.
Seulgi jolts at the sudden call of her name and turns around, seeing the officious supervisor with her somehow intimidating red glasses.
"You're needed upstairs. Make it snappy."
So Seulgi finally plants her Santa cap firmly onto her head as she stands up.
Seulgi works at the doll stockroom. Which also means she spends most of her time surrounded by rows of identical Christmas dolls and counting stock.
She watches a very middle-aged, wheezing employee. She is struggling with carrying seven or maybe eight large boxes across the stock room floor. And since she can't see in front of her, she attempts to peer around the edge of the boxes which causes most of the boxes to tumble out of her arms and onto the floor.
Seulgi quickly goes to assist her, who seems to have great difficulty in kneeling to pick up the boxes.
"Please," Seulgi says as she kneels to help. "Let me help."
The woman seems quite grateful that she can avoid kneeling, and places each box Seulgi hands to her on the display counter.
"Thanks an awful lot, sweetheart. I keep telling them upstairs we need more stock boys to come during the holidays, but they haven't listened in 18 years."
"You've been here for 18 years?" Seulgi asks in awe and the woman nods as if it's nothing.
"Oh, sure. And when you're here long enough, you'll get inventive with juggling boxes, like me."
"I'm just a temporary." Seulgi blurts out, recalling that depressing guidebook that made her swore she won’t be stuck here for long if she can.
The woman shrugs. "Lucky for you."
Just before opening, there is a surreal calm and silence surrounding the huge department store. And Seulgi stands beside an elaborate model train set. She flips the switch and the train set comes into life - the tiny lights, the tiny whir of the engine as the train chugs its way along the track. Seulgi leans onto the display stand and even smiles a little watching the train in fascination. But her trivial moment of joy is soon interrupted by the loud buzzer sound just when the bell of the train set comes off with a ding. The store soon lights up, revealing all colorful dolls' dresses and miniature houses and cars and even sleds. And a man's voice echoes in the huge department store on every speakers.
"Good morning, happy holidays and welcome, shoppers, to Shinsegae department store. Be sure to take advantage of our Congratulations, Ike and Mamie, inaugural Early Bird Special in our bed and bedding department on the second floor."
Seulgi can hear the soft chattering of the shoppers as the elevators' doors open with a light ding.
"And on your way there, you won't want to miss our brand new General Electric television and stereophonic display on the first floor."
It was only a matter of seconds before the rush of managers, staff and customers came all at once. People looking around their surroundings like they've just entered Santa's workshop(which is partly true, Seulgi admits.).
She sees a little girl pulling her mother's sleeve, dragging her toward a particular doll wearing a ball dress. The girl points at the doll and exclaims, "Mommy, please, please, please?" even jumping up and down as she does.
Seulgi tries to make herself invisible while she surreptitiously reads her book. But her reading is of course, soon interrupted by a sharp wailing. She looks up and sees a toddler throwing a fit and an embarrassed mom trying to make her stop.
Just then, her supervisor bustles through the department and immediately notices that Seulgi has taken off her cap. She points to Seulgi's head, asking a quite evident question without even saying it. So Seulgi hurriedly stashes her book into her handbag and pulls out the cap which pleases the supervisor enough to move on.
Seulgi settles back down, obviously bored. She looks around to see if there's any customer she can assist but her gaze stops at one particular woman standing beside the train set - a woman whose green silk scarf is tired loosely around her neck and head, holding her gloves in her right hand. She appears to be the only customer surrounded by no one else.
Seulgi watches the woman bend down to examine the train set. Then she inadvertently looks down at the switch when the train suddenly stops. And she raises her head to look around for help, which enables Seulgi's eyes to meet hers for a strange split second.
Most of the time, Seulgi would have looked away, feeling embarrassed for being caught staring.
The woman is breath-taking, really. With her wavy dark hair, snowy white skin and red lips. And she has the most beautiful eyes Seulgi has ever seen.
But most of all, there is something.. elusive about the woman that tugs something inside, finding herself being drawn to a woman she doesn’t even know. Much less her name.
Seulgi’s hand opening the cover of the book stiffens, still staring at the woman until the embarrassed mom and the toddler appear in front of her, blocking her view of anything else.
“Miss?” The woman gives her an embarrassed smile. “Where’s the ladies’ room, honey?”
“If you go back to the elevator and make a right, you can’t miss it.” Seulgi quickly explains and the woman nods gratefully.
After the woman hoists her daughter away, Seulgi automatically looks for the beautiful woman, but she’s no longer there. The train set is back on and now being admired by several boys.
Feeling slightly disappointed, Seulgi contemplates sneaking a read of her book, but then decides against it. She crouches a little to at least pretend to be a busy worker until she hears a light sound of gloves being tossed onto the desk.
A familiar pair of black leather gloves.
Seulgi looks and sees the woman she had been staring at, standing before her.
“I wonder if you might help me find this doll for my daughter.” The woman says and her voice is just as elegant as her well-tailored suit and her green silk scarf.
The woman fishes out a crumpled slip of paper from her purse and gives Seulgi an angelic smile as she hands it to her.
“Bright Betsy.” Seulgi reads and can’t help but smile back. “She cries.”
“Oh, she does?” Joohyun responds and raises an eyebrow as if she finds that quite intriguing.
“And she wets herself.” Seulgi finds herself adding but quickly coming back to business mode. “But I’m afraid we’re out of stock.”
“Oh.. I’ve left it too long.” The woman sighs a little then starts rummaging through her purse. And being the kind of person who hates disappointing people, Seulgi looks around the display for any substitute.
“Well, we have lots of other dolls. All kinds actually, umm..” Seulgi, suddenly tongue-tied, hastily turns toward the doll display.
“Right.” The woman scans the lined up dolls on the display. “What was your favorite doll when you were four?”
“Me?” Seulgi asks, puzzled because of the unexpected question. “I never.. not many, to be honest.”
She is more puzzled to see the woman raise a cigarette to her lips, and begins to light it so Seulgi, not wanting to both get fired or be responsible for burning the department store down, interrupts her.
“I’m sorry. You’re not allowed to smoke on the sales floor.”
The woman just seems to realize what she was about to do and groans, shaking her head even.
“Oh. Of all the..” She quickly pulls out the unlit cigarette from her lips and puts down the lighter. “Forgive me. Shopping makes me nervous.”
“That’s all right.” Seulgi replies and she means it. “Working here makes me nervous.”
And that makes the woman laugh, appreciating her commiseration which pleases Seulgi enough to smile again.
“You’re very kind.” The woman says and shows her a small photo she took out from her purse. “Here she is.”
Seulgi holds the photo with her both hands to take a closer look.
“Oh, she looks like you.” Seulgi quietly marvels. “Around the mouth. Especially the eyes.”
“You think so?” The woman chances a glance at her then back to the picture of her four-year-old daughter. “What did you want when you were this age?”
Seulgi doesn’t even hesitate before answering with a small grin. “A train set.”
“Really?” The woman asks and Seulgi can see the surprise in her eyes which makes her nod as an answer. “Do you know much about train sets?”
“I do actually.” Seulgi glances at the spot where the train set is. “And we just got a new model in last week. It’s hand-built with hand-painted cars - it’s a limited edition of five thousand with the most sophisticated electric switching system. It’s quite-”
Seulgi realizes she is getting maybe a little too excited and feels heat rising up to her cheeks noticing the woman’s eyes on her.
“You might have seen it over by the elevators. I would show you but I’m sort of confined to this desk.”
The woman looks at the train set behind her for a while.
“Do you ship?” She abruptly asks as she turns around.
“Special delivery. You could have it in two or three days.” Seulgi answers confidently. “They’d even assemble it for you.”
“Well,” The woman, sounding impressed and even relieved that she can finally stop shopping, meets her eyes. “That’s that. Sold.”
She puts the photo back into her bag and looks at the oblivious staff expectantly.
“Shall I pay now?” She asks after a few seconds and Seulgi quickly comes back to her senses.
“Oh - yes, of course.”
(And she swears she saw the woman’s red lips curling up.)
She begins writing out a sales slip, then slides it over to the woman with a pen, can’t help but glance up at her as she does.
“We’ll need your account details,” Seulgi explains. “and your shipping address.”
“Of course.” The woman holds up the pen and begins writing. “I love Christmas. At least I love the preparation. Wrapping gifts, all that. And then.. you somehow wind up overcooking the turkey a