033

DERANGER
there is a tap on your arm. you stir, but keep your eyes close.
 
another tap gets you to finally open your eyes, only to gasp in shock at the sight of jihye's beaming face right in front of yours.
 
"wakey, wakey, sleepyheads..." she titters.
 
that's when you realise the position you are still in--your head leaning against seulgi's shoulder while you hug her arm to your chest.
 
you immediately part from your lover, waking her up in the process.
 
jihye chuckles at your reaction. "i woke up to pee and saw your bed empty." she turns away to look at the woods. "i went out to look for you and found you two getting all cuddly up here." she turns to look back. "did you two meet up here last night?"
 
both you and seulgi deny the allegation with a series of "no."
 
seulgi rubs her eyes. "i was, uh, relaxing here alone when--"
 
"i'm sorry if i worried you, unni." you pinch the bridge of your nose. "i, uh, couldn't sleep last night and found seulgi cosying alone here. we were talking and didn't realise we fell asleep."
 
seulgi stands to her feet, then helps you get up. "i didn't notice i fell asleep too. must be the weather."
 
"i figured." jihye nods. "it's really nice up here, isn't it?"
 
"it's marvellous. i'm delighted you invited me over, doc."
 
jihye smiles and points a thumb towards the door. "shall we go back to our rooms and get another shut-eye? it's only four am. call time today is seven am. we still have time."
 
you and seulgi glance at each other before you nod at your sister.
 
---
 
something tells you that you should be bothered.
 
another part of you says it's nothing--that you're overthinking.
 
you were only leaning on seulgi's shoulder as far as you can remember. that doesn't look suspicious. female friends do that all the time.
 
but you can't dismiss your anxiousness as you look at your sister while she's munching her breakfast.
 
is she suspecting you or not? how come she's not showing any signs of it?
 
and if she does, she would have talked to you about it. she's the type of person who confronts someone right then and there.
 
aish. you hate yourself for being that careless.
 
---
 
"are you alright?" seulgi asks you when it's her turn to sit in front of you.
 
this time, the activity is going around and getting to know more of everyone in the room within two minutes. seulgi's group are assigned to transfer seats since they are the younger ones.
 
"yeah. just a little worried about my sister," you say.
 
"did she say anything yet?"
 
you shake your head.
 
"okay... then..." she drums her fingers on the armchair. "if... if you're worried, i can leave, you know? i can tell your parents something came up."
 
"no. you don't have to do that. i want you here, okay? it's just another day to endure, anyway. we're going home tomorrow before lunch."
 
"okay." seulgi nods. "does that mean i can flirt with people around here?"
 
you glare at her.
 
"it's part of acting to influence your sister to think otherwise!" she whispers, arms waving in the air.
 
"do that, and you'll be single even before this retreat ends."
 
the facilitator announces that the time is over. seulgi's still grinning when she stands.
 
---
 
"it seems seulgi's enjoying the event, huh?" jihye speaks over dinner, nodding her head towards the table where seulgi and eunwoo are.
 
their group decided to eat together tonight to bond more and have fun since this will be the last dinner before the event ends tomorrow.
 
you spare their group a glance. you hum as you look back down at your food.
 
"i have a feeling we will have her back at church after this," your mum says.
 
"i hope so too. it's been a while since we were able to invite someone," your dad says. "i'm glad jihye took the initiative when irene had all the chance to invite her before."
 
you swallow your food. "dad, it's not proper for me to invite a student to activities like this. it would seem like a quid pro quo."
 
"but she's no longer your student, right?"
 
"still, i don't see her often at school. and may i remind you that she just graduated?"
 
"but sometimes you need to use your charm, honey," your mum says. "look at your sister. she's hella busy but is still able to invite guests quickly. even eunwoo, despite his studies and his band, still invites people from time to time."
 
you huff, trying your best not to roll your eyes.
 
"i was just lucky that time, mum," jihye says. "i knew seulgi wouldn't be able to say no because i made that doctor's letter for her before--which was irene's idea, remember? if irene didn't do that, i'm sure seulgi won't be here."
 
your dad only hums as he chews his food. "i can see that kim lad is still interested in you, irene."
 
"eeee~" jihye playfully nudges you. "kim seokjin..."
 
"i talk to his mum this morning," your mum says, looking excited. "she says he's planning to ask irene out soon."
 
"eeee~" jihye pushes you again.
 
"i don't have problems with it," your dad says. "he's a man who's accomplishing things on his own. maybe he can influence irene here to step up her game too, like continue with the bar."
 
you sigh. "dad, i already told you i don't see myself as a lawyer. and i have no plans of going back to dating anyone anytime soon."
 
"you sure?" jihye raises an eyebrow. you look at her, not sure if you should respond to that or not.
 
"then what exactly do you plan to do with your life?" your mum asks. "you're already in your early thirties. if you're planning to get married and have kids, now's the best time."
 
"well, marrying and having kids isn't in my plan," you say.
 
"what? why?" your mum looks at you, concerned. "what are you going to do with your life then, honey?"
 
"just... just work, make a living, and live on my own..." you sputter as you try to find the words. "there's no law that says everyone should get married, right? and i don't have any moral obligation to bring kids into this world either."
 
your mum places a hand over her heart. "but if you don't get married, people might think you're a lesbian..."
 
"then let them think whatever they want!" you lightly raise your voice, enough for everyone at the table to take you seriously now.
 
"irene, don't you dare use that tone on your mother," your dad warns.
 
you take in a deep breath as you look around the room. good thing nobody notices. then you look down at your plate and exhale.
 
"i'm sorry, mum," you say quietly. "but i don't care about what people think. i'm happy doing the things i do today. i'm happy being on my own. so, please stop expecting me to follow the normalcy you have in mind."
 
it sure put your parents into silence. your sister doesn't speak another word either.
 
you take that as a cue to excuse yourself and leave.
 
---
 
"i can see someone's having a bad day, huh?" jihye approaches you on the terrace.
 
you give her a tight-lipped smile, already feeling guilty of your actions earlier.
 
"guess i'm somewhat at the end of my patience, tired of hearing the same things over and over from them. getting married. taking the bar. being not as good as you." you shake your head. "sometimes i even ask myself if i'm their real daughter or not."
 
"hey. don't speak like that." jihye reaches touches your hand on the wooden railing. "i know things have been hard on you since we were kids. but it's not their fault. it's not your fault either. and you may not have done things the way i did, but you're doing great on your own, sis. and i'm proud of you for that."
 
your eyes scan the area, seeing the leaves sway to the wind. "thank you, unni. how i wish mum and dad could see the same thing."
 
"you know they are just not good with words. but i'm happy that you're standing up now. it took you years to muster the courage to do that."
 
you chuckle. "i am still uncomfortable doing that, to be honest. i feel like i'll get ostracised from the family if i continue with that behaviour."
 
"as long as you don't do anything to disrespect them deliberately, i think standing up for what you believe is just fine."
 
there is a moment of silence. the wind blows again. the leaves wave. the branches move. you are starting to feel proud of yourself, too, until your sister speaks again.
 
jihye turns around to lean her on the railing. "is it because of her?"
 
"huh?" you look at your sister.
 
"is seulgi the reason behind these changes and improvements in your life?"
 
your mouth hangs open. just as when you thought you're already over it, the problem comes back now in full measure.
 
now your mind is busy thinking how much your sister knows and how you would lie your way out of it.
 
"i was only able to put two and two together just now, over dinner." jihye looks up, observing the ceiling. "remember when you asked me to create a medical certificate for her? you mentioned she's taeyeon's friend too. eunwoo also said he saw her at locksmiths when his band played there before, which gives me the idea that she could be..." she trails off.
 
"then there's you looking at her like she's the most beautiful thing in the world," she continues. "then there's me seeing you acting coupley at the supermarket. and the way you are snuggled up against each other this morning." she shakes her head and looks down.
 
you look down and away, feeling your heart in your throat.
 
"you don't need to say anything. i'm not going to ask you to explain yourself either," jihye whispers, not looking at you. "you know i'm always here to support you with whatever you want. but not this time. not with this. i won't tolerate you. you know how wrong this is--how immoral it is."
 
you bite your lower lip, not expecting that hearing such words could break your heart into tiny pieces.
 
you could still deny it. but you know there's no point as your sister can read you like an open magazine.
 
"i hope this will be the first and last time i will be talking to you about this," jihye says. "i can assure you that this will be only between you and me. i trust that you know what you need to do."
 
the facilitators call you for the last session that night.
 
jihye taps your shoulder before she leaves.
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