"Thursday, after lights out."
"Thursday. Thursday night."
In the morning, the whispers buzz through the humid hallways, stilling whenever a counselor walks by. Everyone's invited. I get my phone partially working at the lobby store, but maybe I'm on the cheap plan, because my internet won't load, and I can't get calls or texts. The cheerful woman behind the counter shows me how to download KaKaoTalk, the Korean messaging app. It means I can reach Sihyeon and Wendy secretly, and Eomma and Appa can't reach me—I'll take silver linings where I can.
I send Sihyeon an invite to sign up for KaKaoTalk. Miss you, I text her. How's it going? It's okay here. My roommate seems cool, but she spends money without even blinking. A bunch of us are sneaking out clubbing Thursday.
Hey, I text Wendy, along with her invite. How's Nick's visit going? Things are okay so far, although lots of kids here seem to know each other already. Cousins and camp friends. Classes are whatever, but I'm looking for a dance studio. Sneaking out clubbing Thursday too—hope we don't get caught.
I'm staring at the screen, hoping for an answer. But they're asleep on the other side of the world.
I arrive in classroom 1-3, an airy white cube cut into five rows of white desks and blue, curved-back chairs. To my dismay, the Dragon, draped in a green hanbok, stands at the whiteboard, taking charge of the remedial language learners herself, apparently. She's printing characters: the Korean letters, which I only vaguely recall from Korean school. Getting a failing grade won't be hard—at least one Bae Rule is guaranteed to bite the dust.
One body then another bang into me from behind, nearly knocking me off my feet. Pixie-hair Sulli and Krystal rush by for the front row.
"Sorry, Suzy!" they chorus.
Facial hair-Harvard Sungwoon, another Presidential Scholar, races in on their heels. The scent of his cologne oversaturates the air and stings my nostrils.
"Think they'll let us accelerate into Level Two if we test again at the end of the week?" he asks. "Nam Joohyuk is in Level Ten, the bastard." He sounds admiring.
Honestly, do they really care what Level they are? I'm rarely into climbing mountains, and definitely not one that doesn't count for anything. I make a beeline in the opposite direction to the back, out of the teacher-calling range. I'm just happy to hear I'm not stuck in class with Wonder Boy.
As I take my seat, Kang steps through the door, straight hair tumbling into his face, his posture slouchy under his finely cut gray shirt. His dark eyes alight on me, cool and cynical. Crap. I pretend to flip through my workbook, hoping he's walked into the wrong classroom. Two rows ahead, a trio of girls coo over albums of themselves in y outfits—the glamour shots, which are, apparently, a quintessential Loveboat experience. All the girls are booking appointments.
The seat beside me slides back.
"I'm Kang." His voice is smooth and low, dark chocolate with hints of cherry. If he remembers Sohee and me staring at him (all of him) when the Dragon barged in, he doesn't give any indication.
"Um, I'm Suzy."
"Where you from?" The vulnerable Kang has vanished, too, replaced by this artsy-hot guy with a mocking smile. Even the blotch on his cheek is gone.
"There are Asian people in Arizona?"
His perspective on my home state is off, but not by much. I can't help a small laugh.
"Where are you from?" I ask.
"Brooklyn." A big-city boy, no surprise.
"You're Joohyuk's roommate, right?"
"Yeah, I'm stuck with Whole Foods all summer. We won't be seeing him here—he doesn't slum it."
"So I hear." I don't even have to ask what he means by Whole Foods—Joohyuk could be the poster boy for clean living. "Wonder Boy strikes again." I scowl. The corner of Kang's lips turn up and I return his smile—we understand each other just fine.
"Hey, guys, how's it going?" Seonho Kim, a Euro-preppy rugby/theater person, takes a seat in front of us. His family in France are wealthy clothing boutique owners and his accent's French. He's brushed his light brown hair upwards on his hair.
Before I can answer, a hand closes on my arm. A pale blue scarf tickles my cheek.
"Suzy, I need to ask you something," Sohee whispers in my ear. "Kang, Seonho, excuse us a minute?"
I follow her out the door. Her blue dress swishes and her scarf flutters like a kite tail down her back.
The hallway is deserted, but she lowers her voice anyways. "Seonho bought me boba this morning, and Kang was flirting with me at breakfast. Now they're both in our Hangul class! Should I encourage them? Invite them clubbing?"
This is the emergency? Really? "You're seriously boy-crazy." I laugh and she gives a charming shrug.
"Loveboat. I know. Well, do you like them?"
"Seonho adorable. Have you heard him talk? Seen his dimples? Although I heard he yelled at Jihyo when she dropped his laptop bag, but he was probably jet-lagged. He apologized. As for Kang." She clutches her stomach dramatically. "Omo, Suzy. He makes me so nervous."
"Um, hell. Pink girl?"
"Oh, Minnie." She swats at a gnat. "They met at the airport a week ago and she apparently threw herself at him. She was at breakfast. They didn't even sit together."
Less than twenty-four hours into the program, and Sohee knows everyone and everything already.
"Fine, invite them both," I say.
"Okay. I'll do it after class." She draws a quivery breath. "Help me if I chicken out?"
I hide a smile, tuck a lock of hair behind her ear. Back home, I'm on friendly terms with the girls on the dance squad, but really just have Wendy. With Sohee, our friendship feels strangely effortless.
"Definitely," I say.
She beams and we slip back inside.
"Sooji. Soojung, dangsin-eun neuj-eosseo," says the Dragon. "Beolijeom."
", seriously? Sohee murmurs. She grabs my elbow and steers me faster toward the back.
"What?" I whisper, alarmed. Not understanding a word is going to get old very quickly.
"We got a demerit each. For being late."
"What? We were here—"
"Sueob. Nalang gat-i buleu ja." The Dragon taps the alphabet on the board. In a deep voice, she sings to the tune of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star": ah ya uh yuh oh yo ...
As we reach the back, Seonho throws Sohee a wolfish grin and she giggles nervously. Behind Seonho, Kang still slouches in his chair, bare legs crossed at the ankles.
Sohee pulls out my seat beside Kang and drops into it. I'm a little surprised—my purse is still hanging off its back. Maybe she didn't notice? I pull its strap off and slide into the seat beside her as Kang gives me another of his dark glances. He noticed. I turn my gaze to the Dragon and pretend to sing along.
Whatever, right? It's Kang. I might feel bad about what happened with his dad, but that doesn't mean he's not a Player. Someone to be handled with care.
We sing the alphabet twice more. "Ah ya uh yuh oh yo ..." It's more tortuous than Korean school, because back then, I was six. Fortunately, or not, the gunners up front sing loud enough to cover the rest of us.
Over the next hour, we learn the form and meaning of root words remains essentially unchanged regardless of the tone of speech. Our voices slide up and down. We combine letters to form words. Then the Dragon shoves aside one board to reveal another bearing five sentences written with the Korean alphabet and Romanized letters, English translations mercifully printed underneath.
Seonho swivels in his seat with a squeak of chair legs. "Be my partner," he purrs at Sohee in his alluring French accent. No wonder she's swooning over him.
She glances sideways at Kang, then smiles at Seonho. "I thought you'd never ask." Slipping from her chair, she moves into the empty seat beside him.
"Guess you're stuck with me, Bae." Kang shifts into Sohee's empty chair. "You go first."
"What are we doing? I can't understand anything,'" I complain.
"Taking turns reading and answering the questions."
"Then you go first. You actually understood the assignment."
"No, you." He folds his arms over his chest.
"Fine. Annyeonghaseyo. Je ileum-eun Suzy-bnida. Geuligo neo?" I read the phonetics in an American accent that makes me cringe. Hello, I am Suzy. And you? You'd think growing up hearing Eomma speaking to her sister on the phone would help. Apparently not.
"Kang," he answers.
I read the rest, finishing with: What's your favorite movie?
"What's that in English?"
"Balam-ui paiteo. Fighter in the Wind. Only the greatest taekwondo movie in history."
"Taekwondo movies?" I make a face. "Ha."
"What's so funny?"
"My dad watches those."
His brow rises. "Well, maybe you should, too. You won't see fight scenes like that anywhere else. The choreography's amazing."
"Choreography?" I've never thought of taekwondo as choreographed, but he's speaking my language—who am I to judge his taste?
"Maybe I should watch," I sya. "So prejudiced, sorry."
"You should be."
I smile. He's very cool and guarded, but also kind of funny in a dark, wry way that makes me feel less on guard myself. Maybe I've been too quick to write him off.
Sohee drops a pencil and reaches back to retrieve it, flashing us a well-timed smile. "No English," she chides in a scarily accurate imitation of the Dragon, before returning to Seonho.
Kang turns the tables and asks me the first question in fluid Korean. He barely glances at the board. With all the proper tones, his low voice takes on a song-like quality; he's even better than Wonder Boy.
"Did you grow up here?" I ask.
"Was born here before moving to Brooklyn." he shrugs.
"You should be in a higher level."
"I only speak. Haven't learned to read and write."
"Got it. Most of the kids in Korean school were like that. Which was why I couldn't keep up."
Sohee tips back her black mane of hair so she's looking at Kang upside down. "Suzy mention we're going clubbing?"
The reminder twists my stomach. Less than a day in and I already have a demerit. Am I really going through with this? With so many people in the know, how can the Dragon not find out our plan?
Kang's dark eyes glitter at me. "Not yet."
"Seonho's in. You should come," Sohee urges. Then the Dragon makes us sing "Nabi-ah," a rhyme about butterflies that Eomma taught Sihyeon and me years ago. To the tune, we sing it once, twice, three times, in a round, then again, again, again. She write a big red A in the upper corner of the board.
"Daebaek. Awesome," she praises us. "Aju ttogttog haeyo, nae jag-eun nabideul. So smart, my little butterflies."
"Kill me now," Sohee mutters.
"Seriously." I grimace, stabbing my workbook with my pencil. I may not be a Presidential Scholar or Level 10-er, but as hard as I might try not to, I'm going to ace this class.