I closed my eyes as I remembered last night's conversation.
He frowned and folded his legs against his chest.
“I want a child.”
I sighed. It was a stretch to get our gay marriage legalized, especially here in Korea. He was silent--no, we were silent. Tears began rolling down Jaejoong’s cheeks and that was when it hit me--he was far from happy.
"Fake happiness is the worst sadness," Kangta used to say. This wasn't an ordinary wish; this was something greater--it was a need. A need that had never been fulfilled.
“Tell you what,” I said, my voice soft as I squatted down in front of him, “Tomorrow, during work, I’ll try to find orphanages and foster homes near us. We’ll adopt.” He sniffled a few times and wiped away his tears.
We were lacking the final piece. I was not enough.
I opened my eyes--alert.
I had kept my word; I went to the orphanage after finishing my shift in the hospital. They were more than happy to help until they found out I was in a gay marriage where they, then, proceeded to kick me out.
Jaejoong’s dad found a loophole, somehow, and our marriage was legalized but discrimination seemed to stay. Our fathers were okay with us coming out to be gay: my dad said he saw it coming while Jaejoong’s father was surprised, but was still proud of his son. We fell in love and they arranged our marriage.
Jaejoong was meant to be wed off to a girl, but their family broke the marriage and his dad arranged the marriage with me. Our marriage is unique--it’s an arranged and love marriage rolled into one; arranged as Jaejoong's father had bent the law for us to be legally wed; and love because we were in love.
I sighed as I ran a hand through my hair and stopped at the red light. I didn’t want to go home and see the hope drain from Jaejoong’s face once he hears the news. We were planning to visit the orphanage and adopt a child together.
I continued cruising along Seoul Avenue. The bright lights which I usually enjoyed looking at seemed dull and boring to me now. I looked for a parking space, making up my mind to buy myself a coffee. I successfully found a parking spot in a small alley and exited my car, adjusting my cream wool scarf around my neck. Locking my car, I started walking. Only one avenue away from Seoul Avenue, I could still hear the excitement, the laughter and the shrieks of young children.
The wind suddenly picked up pace and roared like a tiger, ferociously biting both my face and hands and reminding me that I never may be happy. In response, I shoved my hands into my pockets and pushed the door open into Starbucks.
The warmth hit me immediately. The store was busy, as I expected. I stood in line as the warmth spread, thawing off the chill from my face. Eventually, it got around and the warmth coaxed my hands from my pockets to my sides. I closed my eyes and inhaled the smell of coffee, bagels, and the other delicious smells. My gaze drifted over to a child. I ignored the pain in my heart and continued watching.
The child was watching a middle aged man eat a cinnabon. The child's eyes were filled with delight. The man noticed and angrily shook his fist. Suddenly frightened, the child immediately backed away. Being a doctor payed off as I was able to observe every detail. The child looked very young--most likely only 5 years old. I frowned, noticing he was only wearing a purple, faded, torn shirt with equally torn shorts.
Where's this toddler’s mother?
It was only when he turned around to run away was when I fully registered that his clothing had holes and he was wearing no shoes.
I remembered the day I used to be that kid.
I quickly exited the store and dodged the tiger, now in the form of people. I ran silently but quickly, thankful for the excitement of Seoul which covered my tracks like snow as I ran after the toddler. He ducked into a quiet street. I stopped, resting my hands on my knees as I caught my breath. Then, I waited. For how long, I don’t know, but in that moment, I trusted my gut and took a few deep breaths before turning into the same corner the toddler went into.
The smell hit me first--it smelled like rotten food and slightly of urine. Three children were huddled together at what looked like a dead end. As I walked closer, I realized this was an alley--an extremely thin alley, but an alley nonetheless. They had heard my footsteps because the tallest, whom I assumed was the also eldest, stepped in front of the remaining two. One was the toddler I had followed, and the other looked even younger than him.
The eldest standing in front was obviously trying to protect the other two, something which made me crack a smile. I dusted off my clothes and sat down. The eldest’s eyes widened in the slightest, but he didn’t move. It was okay, because I didn’t expect him to. I used my profession to its fullest extent and took in every detail I could. The eldest also appeared young--around nine to ten years old. His clothes also consisted of shorts with the same purple, faded, torn shirt as the other toddler.
My eyes shifted to him and he stared back at me with a silent aura. I knew he recognized me.
There was a spark--we connected. He knew I wouldn't harm them, yet he waited. It was not his choice to trust me or not.
I smiled at him before turning my attention to the youngest, who was also wearing the same dark shorts and a purple faded shirt. I started to frown . In the harsh winter of Seoul, these children were in shorts and t-shirts. Questions flooded my mind: What happened to these kids? How were they able to not freeze to death?
I then ignored the questions and willed my mind to tread carefully. One wrong move and I would instantly lose their trust.
“My name is Jung Yunho. I’m a doctor at Seoul International Hospital,” I took out my license and handed it to the eldest. He warily took it from me and stepped closer, trying to see the card with the soft moonlight which barely shined in this ignored alley. I saw that his face was smudged with dirt and he was thin to the bones from lack of food. After a careful look, he handed my license back to me.
“I’m Yoochun. That’s Junsu,” he pointed a thumb to the toddler, “and that’s Changmin,” he pointed to the youngest. The intense atmosphere slightly dissolved as Yoochun sat down in front of me, immediately cutting to the chase, “What do you want?”
“It’s the first day of Winter, yet it is already below freezing -20 C.”
Junsu inched closer along with Changmin, who was holding a silver object that I ignored.
“Your clothes are from the salvation army, correct?”
Yoochun says nothing with an unreadable expression on his face. I sighed.
“You can’t really blame them. People don’t donate children’s clothes. If you grow up not facing homelessness, then you don’t fully understand.”
“What do you know about homelessness?” Yoochun said softly, yet his voice contained a hard edge to it. I had the distinct feeling that if Yoochun wasn't hungry, tired and cold, he might have yelled this at me.
I weighed out my options
I took out a photo from my pocket and handed it to him. Yoochun stared at it for some time then averted his gaze at me, his eyes wide in shock.
I was born somewhere. I never knew where, never knew to whom.
Other homeless kids and I were in a group. Our leader was 2 years older than me and his name was Kangta. Together, we devised plans to get food, earn money, etc. Then slowly, as we got older, gangs attempted to recruit us. When Kangta refused, they would come after us. Most of the time, we nearly barely escaped. After every incident, we moved to a different town or city.
Life was tough. There were too many times to count where we had been robbed and hit. Nevertheless, we managed to survive.
Everything had changed once we were in Busan. We met the BufIERce who made an irresistible deal. They would give us shelter, provide us with food and get us jobs as long as we went on ‘missions’ for them. They talked smoothly and made it sound perfectly harmless.
Kangta, who could see through lies, knew they weren’t joking. They really would offer us food, shelter and jobs if we joined them. I was ready to accept, but Kangta still refused. H had whispered to me that gang life was dangerous and impossible to get out of. Later, he had told me that they did not assure our safety--something of most importance to him--which was why he refused. When Un-su, the second eldest had questioned him, Kangta revealed the real reason.
When he was younger, his older brother, Kangnam, accepted the BufIERce’s request. Kangnam died 5 hours later on his first mission. Kangta, however, managed to escape. Kangta was afraid that they might recognize him, so we left Busan as quickly as possible.
But, they followed us. They found out that we slept in the basement of Busan’s prized building, The Peace Tower so, one night, they set it on fire and everyone was burned alive. Kangta and I were the only ones who were lucky enough to escape the incident. The rest of our group--Hyo, In-su, Kang-dae and his brother Kwang-Sun, Yongsoo, Chongho and Dong-yul and more--were all burned alive. Dead.
We went to the police, spilling out every information we had. Kangta was 14, while I was 12. The police took our pictures, the same one I had handed to Yoochun, as soon as we had finished explaining. We had dirt all over ourselves and our clothes were like rags--horrible, torn and twisted. Our hair were matted, dirty and slightly burned at the ends. Our world had ended. Everything was in chaos and ironic at that point that whether we ended up smiling in the picture.
Our story was captured by the media. It sent South Korea into shock; the picture sent the world into shock. All of a sudden, we were international famous. The police even started a fund for us. They were able to send us to school, feed us and everyday we spent the nights in different police officers' houses. Eventually, the chief of Police officially adopted us. Our international fame soon died down, but among the homeless, we were legends. I didn’t know we still were until now.
I became South Korea’s youngest doctor, while Kangta became the most famous and the youngest detective in the world. Kangta successfully broke up BufIERce, and was currently solving a murder case. Kangta and I managed to Skype every few days and keep in close contact. He got married to a female detective a month before I got married. He would sometimes drop his 2-year-old son off into my hands when things got ... dangerous.
“You’re… the Jung Yunho,” Yoochun whispered as he handed the picture back to me.
I stood up, dusted off my pants and took off my coat and handed it Yoochun. They huddled in it together, making sure Changmin was in the middle. I gestured for them to follow me as I led the way out of the alley and towards my car. I heard the soft pitter-patter of feet behind me, I felt as though I had a tiny army behind me--the quietest army in the world.
Quickly, I led them to my car. As I drove home, Junsu softly hummed under his breath and I heard the tinkling of Changmin playing with a silver locket. Yoochun, however, remained silent and looked out the window. Through the rear view mirror, I saw that Yoochun had spread the coat out as a blanket between the three of them. Changmin snuggled closer to Junsu, who was sleeping against Yoochun’s shoulder.
By the time I had parked, Yoochun had woken up Junsu, and Changmin was bouncing up and down on his seat. I opened the car door and Changmin rushed out into the night air before being ushered back under the coat by Junsu. I smiled and led them inside the apartment building. I lived on the first floor so I led them to the right and walked down the hallway, stopping at the very last apartment.
I rang the doorbell, as I was too lazy to get my keys. Jaejoong opened the door and softly smiled at me, then quickly frowned.
“Where is your coat?” he asked, his face blank. I gestured to the three little figures bobbing over and standing in front of me. Jaejoong’s eyes widened and he stared at them for a few seconds, his mouth forming a perfect "O". I saw his frown deepen as he noticed they weren’t wearing shoes. I recognized his mother bear instincts appear as he ushered us all into the apartment. We entered inside and Jaejoong moved quickly, seating the children down on the sofa, getting an actual blanket, pillows, and his old stuffed animals. He moved so fast, his dyed blond hair resembled a mini tornado; his blond strands were blown over to the opposite side of their regular place.
“I’m so stupid! They’re probably hungry,” he uttered to no one in particular, his arms holding three chibi penguin blankets, then started to head into the kitchen.
“Ahem,” I cleared my throat, successfully grabbing his attention.
“Yeah?” he looks at me, a little bit frazzled and baffled. I tried not to laugh as I gestured to the children. He blinked for a second before groaning good-naturedly, burying his face into the blankets he was holding.
“I’m so… Aish! I can’t even right now!” he walked over and smiled as he gave each child a blanket. Yoochun, who had been sitting stiffly the whole time, instantly relaxed as Jaejoong handed him a blanket.
Jaejoong’s sisters and his nephews and nieces often visited, almost always leaving some toy or hair clips behind and, on one rare occasion, three penguin-printedblankets. When we went to return them, they insisted that we keep them for our own children. Since then, Jaejoong started keeping the various baby items left behind.
Jaejoong helped Yoochun unfold his blanket then he moved on to Junsu, and finally Changmin, who happily beamed at him. The ends of Jaejoong’s eyes crinkled as he grinned back.
Jaejoong was the type of person you automatically felt comfortable around, even if it was the first meeting. Contrary to first glance, Jaejoong looks very cold and distant, but once you spend a few hours with him, you’ll wonder why you thought he was cold in the first place. Jaejoong smiled a lot, always making you feel welcome. He was the type of guy who would befriend you immediately and/or give you a ride home when it’s dark. He got along with everyone--it’s impossible to hate him.
Jaejoong was engaged in a conversation with Yoochun who looked down, his face often turning a pale shade of pink. It didn’t help that Jaejoong was handsome, too.
Changmin excitedly blabbered to Junsu who stole glances at me when he thought I wasn’t looking.
“I’m going to get you guys something to eat. I’ll whip something up,” Jaejoong smiled and ruffled all the tops of their hair before entering the kitchen. I sat down on the couch and smiled at them. Now feeling more relaxed, they smiled back.
“I’m sorry,” Yoochun blurted out.
“For what?” I calmly replied back, my voice cool but not cold.
“For being rude to you earlier,” he replied, keeping his head down. I reached out and he flinched away and shut his eyes tight, almost as if I was going to hit him. I ruffled his hair and he peeked at me.
“You’re not... mad?” he asked with a voice so small.
“When I was in your place, I would have reacted the same way.”
He looked at me and I stared back, showing that I meant what I said.
“Trust,” Kangta had told me when we were graduating high school, “Trust is the most important thing,“ he stared at the cars passing by. “Once you gain someone’s trust, then you have a bond.” He turned back to me. “You can’t ever break it.”
Suddenly, Junsu’s stomach grumbled. We bursted out laughing and suddenly, I was attacked by a child's frame wrapping his thin arms around me. I closed my eyes while I hugged Yoochun back. I didn’t have to look, I knew it was him. Seconds later, I felt two other figures pressing themselves against me. I stretched my arms out wider and hugged all three of them. I held them close, hoping that, maybe, their pure essence would wither away the grief.
He tried to hide it but I knew, he wasn't happy.
The children let go of me as Jaejoong came in while holding a tray of hot chocolates and fresh fruit, complete with more chocolate and junk food. Jaejoong handed out baby wipes. He laughed as Changmin almost put the baby wipe in his mouth then helped him wipe off his face and hands for him. Yoochun curiously stared at the wipe. Junsu, while smiling, carefully placed the baby wipe on his lap and looked around. I leaned forward and instructed them on how to use the baby wipe to cleanse their face and hands.
Is everything going to change now?
We engaged in a conversation, learning why they were out on the streets. They ran away from their orphanage after finding out that the orphanage was badly in need of money and was considering selling the kids as slaves. They escaped and let the police know by calling from a payphone. They were scared of going back and besides, Yoochun explained bitterly, the other kids were all older and mean. Today was the fifth month since they escaped.
They all turned to me.
“How did you find them?” Jaejoong asked, slightly tilting his head. I explained sighting Junsu in Starbucks and following him. Jaejoong turned to Junsu who blushed furiously. Yoochun mouthed to Junsu, “He found us because you got caught?”
“I was following Yoochun hyung when I fell behind,” he muttered, his ears scarlet.
Time flew by as Jaejoong decided they could sleep on our King-sized bed. Jaejoong took out the emergency toothbrushes, reserved for when Kangta and his family visited, and I helped them brush their teeth as Jaejoong searched through baby items that his sister left behind, looking around for warm clothes which they could wear. I could almost see him blowing out his bangs from his eyes as he searched.
The children followed me into the bedroom and I had the strange sensation of being like a mother duck, leading my ducklings to safety.
They stared in awe.
Jaejoong had a passion for the arts, you could say. It was the closest way to describe it. He was talented at drawing, painting, sketching, even as far as to singing and dancing. His grades were always in the top 5. He had a habit of painting our bedroom walls. Sometimes, he would paint small things, like a rabbit hopping around, but other times he painted the whole wall with different patterns and swirls. There was one memorable time where he painted the scenery of a sunset on our wall. He sometimes painted the ceiling, covering it up with stars or snowball fights. He tried to paint scenes relevant to the seasons, but he mostly painted how he felt. This time, however, he painted the whole wall. It was similar to the famous painting by Vincent van Gogh, “The Starry Night Over the Rhone”, except, instead of looking across the curved rhone to see a small town, it was large buildings representing a city.
“Wow……” Yoochun trailed off as he ran his hand across the wall. Junsu stared, wide-eyed and dazed. Changmin was squinting. The toldder started taking steps forward until he was right in front of the wall.
“It’s blue!” He yelled in excitement. I made a mental note to take them to see an optometrist soon.
"I found a few pairs of clothing, but they are too small," Jaejoong announced as he entered the room, his hands partially full with clothes of various colors and sizes.
Changmin ran to him, "Did you really paint that?" he asked, his tone curious, and pointed a bony finger towards the painting on the wall.
Jaejoong glanced at it before turning his head back to Changmin, "I painted it, but it's a tribute to an older more famous painting by a famous artist."
Changmin blinked before breaking into a grin, blurting, "It's pretty!" Jaejoong laughed and ruffled his hair before laying the clothes on the bed.
"Did you find something that'll fit?" I asked.
Jaejoong lifted up a toddler-sized, long-sleeved, spotted shirt, complete with a pair of jeans, "The sleeves might be a little big for Changmin, but..." he held the jeans next to Changmin, "the jeans are perfect. I found a warmer shirt for Junsu, but no pants and everything else is too small for Yoochun," he sighed in frustration. He blew at his straight blond bangs and looked at me. Changmin, oblivious to the situation, started playing with Yoochun and Junsu. Jaejoong snapped his fingers.
"I know! I'll ask the Shim family downstairs. They have kids around Yoochun and Junsu's age. They might be able to spare some clothes."
"That's a good plan. Meanwhile, I'll start the bath water," I replied. Jaejoong beamed at me, his eyes excited, then he exited the room. This is the happiness which I couldn't provide him. Happiness, he once told me, was a villa--vague--with as many exits as entrances.
"Are those for us?" Junsu pointed towards the clothes, his eyes sparkling.
I nod, "But before you can wear them, you have to take a bath."
"But we already brushed our teeth," Changmin stated curiously as I ushered them into the bathroom once more.
"You can brush them again," I mutter. Jaejoong, your weird habits are rubbing off on me.
Jaejoong came to check on them one last time before resting on the sofa bed opposite to mine. "I'm surprised you trust them so easily," he said.
"They remind me of the times Kangta and I were younger," I explained then recalled what happened, "I showed Yoochun the picture then he recognized me. When you're out there, companionship is the drug. If you're alone on the streets, you're as good as dead. He shielded them when I approached; Kangta used to do the same thing for me until I was old enough to protect myself. It's like how you don't harm the messenger. It's the same principle on the streets, except out there, it's 'don't harm the guardian'.
"When you want to meet with someone out there, you sit down. It represents respect. Then you always introduce yourself first. Never lie--that's the worst mistake you can ever make. The fact that he knew the protocol when I performed it was reason number one. Also, by taking my coat, it showed that they trusted me, so I trusted them."
"But, by giving them your coat, doesn't that show that you trusted them first?"
"That was a test."
"And, if they ran off with your coat?"
"They would not have. If they wanted to rob me, then they wouldn't have followed the protocol."
"It's organized in every aspect, isn't it?" Jaejoong whistled softly, his eyes trained on the ceiling above him.
I finished the sentence, "'Adrenaline kicks in'. It's smart and the basic thinking about it is amazing. But I'm glad you are out of there."
After all, you saved me.
Before ending the night, we talked about shopping plans for tomorrow, and Yunho planned to take them to the hospital for a check-up.
I yawned, "Good night, Yunnie."
“If we all threw our problem’s into a pile and saw everyone else’s we’d grab ours back.” - Regina Brett.
I couldn't fall asleep. I heard the slow breathing I had become accustomed to and knew Yunho had fallen asleep. Sometimes, I wish I could tell him, but secrets have a cost. They could never be free.
I miss Appa... It was the one feeling that never went away.
“Welcome home,” he bowed. Home or prison? Nonetheless, I bowed back and even let a forced smile slip onto my face. When he didn’t return the smile, I mentally cursed. Don’t make a fool out of yourself. They were here for money, not because he cared. I ignored the suffocating yet empty feeling in the dining room. The only presence aside from myself was a plate containing a singular piece of rice. I scoffed; was this his way of punishing me?
I entered my room, ignoring the maid at the bottom of the staircase who offered to put away my jacket. I was not as dumb as I seemed; I knew she would take the jacket to him, who would look for any little detail to use against me: a receipt that indicated I went to buy ice-cream instead of coming straight home, or a ticket to my school's basketball game--anything and everything would be used against me, no matter how harmless they sounded.
I softly closed the door behind me, locking it. I might hate him, but I had respect for the house and didn’t wish to harm it. As I hung my coat, I mentally prided in myself for hiding the fact I was gay from him for so long, shuddering at the thought of what he could do to me if he found out. I ignored the chills I felt crawling down my spine, and gave all my focus to my homework.
I worked on my history project until the soft chirp of my phone announced it was time to pick up my younger sisters from school. I turned around, ready to climb out the window, and removed the family portrait I kept on my windowsill. I sighed as I spotted my two older sisters' faces on the portrait. My older sisters already escaped this hell-hole and were studying in University. Lucky them.
I opened my bedroom window and climbed out onto the roof of our private garage. From there, I walked to the edge, away from my safe haven, and slowly lowered myself down, feet first, onto the ground. Hanging off the roof only by my hands, I jumped the last foot down. The roof of our garage was low, so it was safe to jump off of, but I wouldn't risk the chance, not for my own safety but for my younger sisters. Who would protect my sisters from the hands of s?
As I landed, I pulled the hood of my leather jacket up and walked off towards the direction of their school.
I walked to my sisters' room, making sure they were sound asleep. I walked back to my room and climbed out the window. Using the same method as I always used, I safely got down as quietly as I could manage and walked towards the store.
Appa was away for a few months and Appa left him in charge. But he didn't care for the wellbeing of us, so it was my job to buy necessities like clean food, not the food his servants left for us. He replaced all our servants with his own. You couldn't trust them.
I picked out ingredients to make kimchi pancakes and other delicacies. For some reason he always dismissed his servants at midnight sharp. After midnight, he slept like a log. I cooked when he was asleep, storing the food in my personal refrigerator.
I needed to think. I ducked down into a quiet street and started smoking. My body instantly relaxed. Coughing--someone is coughing. I turned around to see one of my classmates.
“Yunho-shi? Are you okay?” he was leaning against the wall, coughing.
“The smoke,” he waves the smoke away. Feeling guilty, I snuff out the flame.
“Thank you,” he says as he stands up straighter. We stand in silence. I wanted to break the tension, but didn’t know how.
“Did you study for the forensics exam?” We both were in that same class, along with Humanities, but we intended to study different majors. He was in the medical field, while I was in Arts and Entertainment. He always sat in the front of the classroom, next to the top student in our class named Kangta.
“I don’t believe in the term 'studying'. I review and look over the notes. I memorize important information,” he says.
“Sounds the same as studying,” I mutter honestly. That's when I heard the most beautiful sound in my life: his laughter. I stumbled. He laughed for a few seconds more before masking it, the ends of his lips tugged upwards and his eyes dancing. There was obviously some other hidden factor or reference, one only he understood. Afterall, my comment wasn't that funny nor clever enough to make his eyes twinkle and dance like that.
“I better get going now,” he said, still smiling and was about to exit the alley. He paused before turning his head back to look at me, “Jaejoong-ssi, smoking will cause serious health effects to your lungs. Instead of smoking, use your time for good. If desperate, try my secret studying method,” he said out of kindness, rather than to be rude.
Before I could answer, he laughed once more, “Oh, and thank you for that delightful conversation.” He walks away, humming, while his quiet footsteps stood out against the loud streets. His aura was quirky and happy; it warmed my heart and filled my soul.
I think that was when I fell in love.
Original word count: 4,802 words
Final word count: 5,054 words