It’s one word.
That’s all he says, but it feels like I’ve been hit by an asteroid. Earth-shattering. It’s mass extinction.
There’s definitely a tinkling of affection that I feel for him. Not even that. I feel I don’t know, sort of attached? Other than , he was probably the first person to really talk to me in a long, long time.
I return his greeting with a three-finger wave.
“You look like you do this often,” Jaehyun observes.
And god, his morning voice. It’s perfect. It’s kind of gravelly, and the kicker is he probably doesn’t even know of his effect on women. It’s almost like he doesn’t do it on purpose. It’s crazy attractive, and it’s doing crazier things to my head.
I in a quiet breath and quickly remind myself that he’s off-limits. He could still be a top candidate for fathering my sister’s child. Yet, I trust him. And that’s why he’s off-limits. Because it’s only been one day, and I already believe every word out of his mouth, and I’ll probably believe him even when he preaches about abstinence.
I don’t look up once when he approaches the island where I’m cooking. And by that, I mean casually chopping up vegetables for the omelet that I’m preparing.
Maybe I’m scared. I can smell him from here. Clean like fresh linen. He smells like my expensive shampoo. Hints of strawberry and citrus. I feel an invisible hand lift my chin. It’s the only explanation I can offer when I lift my chin to scrutinize him.
His hair is slightly damp, and even though it’s wet, he has so much hair—in the best way possible. And the realization that I ran my fingers through that hits me like a truck. He’s not wearing a shirt, and I can’t help but reminisce how it felt to run my eyes and hands over those abs so many times last night.
I feel like I’m being er-punched. It’s like being starved and seeing a meal on a pedestal with spike traps laid around.
But I know what it’s like to not have things, and this isn’t out of the ordinary. So, I pretend I’m unaffected and hope we never meet again after today.
“Then should I be shooing you out of my apartment and act like we didn’t make the biggest mistake of our lives?” I ask. My tone is lighthearted. It’s too reedy—too airy. I’m giving myself away.
It doesn’t take a shrink to know that I’m not okay. And the answer lies in the guilt that I don’t seem to feel.
I wasn’t close to Jia. That’s the only way I could justify the guilt not hitting me so hard. Or maybe I still needed more time for the gravity of my actions to slap me upside the head.
I try not to think too much about it. After I practically cut myself off from my family, I found that it was easier not to justify anything. For the most part, I was too busy surviving.
“Mistake, huh?” He echoes gently. His tone is some form of amusement. He stands across from me, leaning against the kitchen island. Though there’s at least a foot of room between us, his expression begs to differ.
“Maybe,” I murmur, eyes diverting from his and back to the cutting board as I busy myself with the task. “Do you think we should dwell on something that can’t be changed?”
“It’s not like we can take it back, right?” He adds helpfully.
I go back to cooking silently. Wordlessly. But I hate awkwardness. I can’t stand it in the comforts of my home. So, I say something. Insincere yet earnest. I’m an oxymoron.
“Let’s just—“ I let my words trail off, glancing up at him. “We admit that it happened and move on. Let it pass by.”
“Okay,” he lets out, sort of breathlessly. “Anything I can help you with?” He eyes the prepped food around me on the counter.
I shake my head. “I’m almost done. Sit tight…” When I go out to call his name, I realize that I don’t know it. I don’t know anything about him other than the fact that he’s my sister’s boyfriend. That should probably send off a ton of red flags.
But you know what—sometimes the stop signs look green to me. Right now. It was a tough call.
He blinks, not fully registering my words. “What?
I smile tightly. “I don’t know your name, stranger.”
“Jaehyun,” he tells me.
It’s like music. The soft, baritone quality of his voice when he tells me his name. And I like him even more after knowing his name.
God. I think there’s definitely something wrong with my head. No normal person would let down their guard so quickly.
“Surprised you didn’t try to google me,” he jokes.
“Are you famous?” I ask, teasing him with a raised brow.
Jaehyun shrugs with incredible modesty. “On a good day, I get one or two questions. Other than that, I’m practically any other guy.”
He says that like he isn’t the most heart-stopping, eye-turning fella. Like you’d somehow miss him on the street if you were to ever pass by.
Still. I figure there must be a reason. Maybe he’s tired. “How very modest of you, Jaehyun. Your face and body didn’t get the message. By the way.”
His dimples show when a wicked smile makes its way on his lips. “Thanks,” he says, “are my abs persuading you?”
“We can’t—Jaehyun,” I murmur, eyes diverting from his and back to my cooking. The sound of the pan sizzling with the ingredients intensifies the startling silence between us.
Jaehyun isn’t fazed at all by my rejection and responds easily, “I was just testing the waters, Hea.”
My spine tingles at the sound of my name graced by his morning voice. I haven’t heard my name pronounced like that in ages. I’m flooded by the memories of Dad. I forgot there’d been a time when I was actually someone to somebody.
I was a daughter.
Now, I’m a stranger. And for a second there, I forget that I put up a wall between us at all. And frankly, it terrifies me. I forcefully blink back the swell of nostalgia. “Are you allergic to anything?”
He shakes his head, his eyes wandering toward his surrounding like he’s finally taken the time to absorb it all in. Every square inch that my apartment has to offer. “I like your place.”
My place may have been tiny, but there wasn’t a doubt in the world that I loved it. I’ve been here since I graduated college. Though the walls aren’t sound-proof, and I’ve heard my neighbors personal business more times than I can count on one hand, I haven’t ever felt the urge to move out.
I put a lot of thought into this place. And I couldn’t see myself not being here. Because for the first time, I had a place, a thing, that I could call mine. These walls were a representation of my life. What I went through to be here—to be comfortable.
There were days when I starved. Which meant there were days when I barely scraped by with leftovers. Days I could barely muster enough energy to roll out of bed.
But those days passed like any other, and now—I’m here. I’m breathing, faring well for someone who was struggling financially fresh out of college.
This place also meant that I made it without my family. The message resonates itself in my walls. A picture-less apartment. It felt like a film set. It felt like living with a stranger. Sure, it was mine, but there were no actual signs of me.
My eyes anchor on the ensemble of furniture that I’ve managed to amass with my own money over the years.
“I sold my body for it,” I tell him with a touch of humor, “glad you like it.”
Confusion etches on his pretty face.
“Onlyfans?” I suggest, secretly wondering if he’ll judge me for it and if I’m going to ruin this. Us. Is there even an us?
His gaze lingers elsewhere for a second before they return, stuttering on my face. He looks oddly appreciative, and I’m not sure why.
“I’m also on Twitch,” I chirp—the lift of my voice teetering on an invitation.
Jaehyun releases a quiet, amused scoff. “The things you do to me, Hea.”
I pretend I don’t hear that edge in his voice. A very dangerous invitation. If I don’t watch where I step, I’d instantly fall through the cracks and never recover. This was one of those situations.
“It pays the bills,” I say, “don’t get me wrong. I’m not ashamed of it.”
His expression doesn’t change. There’s absolutely no judgment here. In fact, I’ve never seen anyone look so unbothered. I clearly remember the expressions on the faces of my college friends. There was confusion and pity and worry. Certainly, none of those emotions were apparent on Jaehyun’s face.
“Don’t misunderstand me,” he says.
I stare at him. Nothing strange about this, of course. It’s not like I haven’t stopped staring at him since I met him. He wasn’t exactly hard on the eyes.
“We do desperate things to survive.”
I can’t help the smile that comes out. “Are you surviving?”
His smile dims. “There are days when I wake up and ask myself what the hell I’m doing. Days when I’m stripped bare without consent and prodded at.”
I flip the cooked omelet over onto a plate. Then, I make another one. And somehow mid-conversation, we allow a comfortable silence to fill the room.
When I slide his plate in front of him, he chews, grinning with both dimples before saying, “you can cook.”
“I thought you’d gotten the hint when I was making myself busy over there.”
“I’m not sure why I assumed you’d be like Jia.”
I’m not surprised at his admission. “We’re twins.”
“Yes,” he says, “but you’re a whole different person. It’s like I’m rereading a book. And—“ He exhales. “I’m wondering if I read it correctly the first time.”
I was supposed to meet my mother an hour ago. Except, I’m not the one who’s late. She is.
I glance down at my watch. It’s already noon. We were supposed to speak to the caseworker in charge of Jia’s newborn an hour ago. He was temporarily in the care of a foster family as CPS worked out the technicalities with custody and whatnot.
It looks like I have no choice but to go alone.
I enter the building, and after speaking to the receptionist, I’m led into an office. The caseworker, a tired-looking brunette, shakes my hand and directs me to sit down.
“Hea’s fine,” I tell her.
She nods. “Nice to see you again, Hea. I’m Minyeong, in case you don’t remember. If you don’t mind me asking—where’s your mother?”
My jaw locks and I feign an easy smile. “She got caught up with…er—something. It’s just me for now.”
Minyeong leans forward, lowering her voice when she says, “we were investigating your case, and we found that your mother quit rehab recently.”
The caseworker has a troubled look on her face. “She’s had a history of alcohol abuse.”
I shake my head. “I—what does this imply?”
“Your mother will not be able to get custody of Ai.”
“Your sister’s child.”
I choke on seemingly nothing. I didn’t even know his name, and here I was—sitting in front of the caseworker and coming to my own conclusions. Because if this meant what it meant, things weren’t going how I expected.
“We realize that this is sudden, but you’re the only one fit to be his guardian.”
“What about—his dad? Or his paternal grandparents?”
“Paternal tests point the child to Mr. Jeong’s deceased brother. Mr. Jeong’s career deems him unfit. And as for their parents, they don’t have the income for raising a child.”
“And I do?” I ask in bewilderment. I sound unlike myself. I’m usually level-headed, but right now? Definitely not. I was going to have custody of a newborn, and I’m far from ready to take care of someone else right now.
Minyeong sighs. “Look. Hea. It’s only temporary. We can start looking for a family that would love to have him. But let’s be realistic—adoption is a long process, and you don’t want him bouncing from house to house at this age.”
“This is a baby,” I whisper. “I turned twenty-one last year. Which means it’s only been a year since I’ve legally been able to drink. Put that into perspective.”
“I don’t want to pressure you, Hea. It’s a heavy decision with a lot of responsibilities to bear if you do choose to go forward. But if you’re going to say no, think about the implications. The first year of child development is extremely vital especially in terms of cognitive and social development. We can’t ensure that he’ll get the proper care with the families we place him in.”
I was a terrible aunt already. Ai was just orphaned, and imagine if he grew up and learned how on the fence I was with this decision.
God. I would ruin his life. But if I did nothing, I would also ruin his life.
So, I choose the former because if Dad was here, he’d definitely take responsibility. He wouldn’t play the blame game. He wouldn’t act like this child was anything other than a blessing.
I guess knowing how it felt to be orphaned was the turning point. Did I want Ai to feel this way? Unloved and unwanted?
Maybe I’d already known the answer then. And maybe I was simply too scared to look closely because I knew I’d see it. But for now, whether or not I would regret making this decision, it was too late.
Minyeong informed me that she would drop by my apartment in the morning with Ai.
For the rest of the day, I felt like a phony putting on grown-up pants that didn’t fit properly.
I didn’t want to comment on how ironic it was for Jia to name her son Ai.
Was he truly conceived out of love?
I would hope so. I hope he doesn’t have to grow up and quickly learn that sometimes, unconditional love didn’t count. That, sometimes, it was manipulative. And sometimes, that unconditional love dies when the only person that loved you passes.
True to her words, Minyeong was parked out front on the dot. She hadn’t been a minute late, but still, she sat in her car, waiting for me.
I’d been standing behind the front door for a whole ten minutes. I watched her pull up in her car. I watched her stand outside her car with the car seat raised in her hand.
Yet, I couldn’t bring myself to turn that doorknob.
Truthfully, I was scared less, and I still am. Present-tense.
Heaving a deep breath, I clear my mind of all the unimportant concerns, and finally, I open the door. I feign a smile—pretending that this decision wouldn’t change my life forever, and Minyeong returns a stiff one as well. She’s probably worried I might return Ai like a used toy.
“Hi,” she greets, her tone bearing on warmth like she was trying to encourage me.
“Hi,” I whisper, my eyes landing on Ai.
He’s tiny. Like a little mouse. His cheeks are red, and he might be the size of my calves.
“Wow,” I let out, laughing breathlessly. “He has a lot of hair.”
He has tufts of jet black hair sprouting out of his head, and as I admire him, his big doe eyes are on me, squinting and then widening.
He makes little whimpers, trilling with his lips.
Maybe because I look like his mother. Can he even sense that?
“Can I pick him up?” I ask Minyeong.
“You don’t even have to ask,” she tells me.
“Sorry, I just—I don’t know how. And I don’t want to hurt him by—“
Minyeong smiles knowingly, gently putting down the car seat on the roof of her car and unbuckling little Ai who’s hungrily absorbing his surroundings.
Then, she takes a step toward me, urging me to copy her movements.
When I finally hold him, making sure to cradle his head at the bend of my elbow, he coos, spitting everywhere—including me.
I huff out an incredulous laugh, watching this small, tiny child with the same wonder. “This is my first time,” I tell Minyeong. “Since I’ve cut myself off, I’ve never had to be around kids and—it’s fu—surreal.”
Minyeong stifles her amusement as if to lessen my embarrassment.
I feel so new. So unfamiliar. Like I’d never get used to this no matter how many times I have to go through this same moment. But, right now, looking at this kid, he makes me want to care for him.
He’s so innocent and tiny. And I can’t help this sense of protectiveness that seemingly washes over me, and though I still don’t know if I’ll ever do Ai any justice, I know that I want to.
Minyeong tells me the basics. How to feed him. How to bathe him. How to care for him. How to change his diapers.
And this is a lot like reading an instruction manual in another language. I can’t push away the utter surrealism of this. It feels like I’m growing a second head. And my nervous system's decidedly pumping gallons of anxiety through my veins.
She leaves after spending some time with her elaborate explanations. There’s somewhat a lightness in her step like she’s glad I stepped up to the plate despite being so frightened.
I’m honestly not sure if I’m coping at all. I still haven’t processed my sister’s death and mother’s alcoholism and my dangerous, wavering heart when it comes to a certain gorgeous man.
Yet, somehow, when I glance down at little Ai who’s lying in the center of my bed, my worries fade for the time being.
I press a finger to his soft newborn skin. “We can do this, little man. We’ve got this.”
[a/n] i'm half back from the dead. it's been a hot minute. hi besties. i'm currently writing this and fortune's fool. i like fantasy but i think i have a knack for contemporary romance. anyway, this is my less stressful update