A/N: Here are some words you will need to look out for in this chapter:
*noona: Korean word for “older sister”. Used by males only to refer to one’s older sister, or a non-related older girl/woman to express affection or admiration
*Aigoo: a word used to show frustration. The Korean equivalent of “Aw, man!” or “geez”
*Fighting!: (Pronounced by Koreans as Paiting or Hwaiting) is a Korean word of encouragement or support, frequently used in sports or whenever a challenging situation, test, etc., is met.
Hadoshi, Shiromura, Oriensia
It seems like every good moment is followed by a series of misfortunes. Like the tick tick ticking of a time bomb, the tick tick ticking of the clock is only a signal of impending doom.
I stand there silently, trying to swallow down that knot in my throat and the rock in my chest. Today was supposed to be a day of fun. It was supposed to be a day of celebration. I was doing so well. Until that phone call. Guess the bitter winter days aren’t quite over yet.
I stare down at the black phone screen, as if that can make me forget what I’d just heard. I really want to unhear those words. Those vaguely grim words.
Abruptly, a loud and cheery voice sounds out in the sizeable lounge. I don’t have to turn to know who it is, but I do anyway to flash my best friend a smile, albeit forced. But there’s no point in faking anything in front of her.
As she approaches me, the wide grin on her gentle features is gradually replaced with a worried frown.
“Cho...you don’t look so well. Something’s wrong, isn’t it?”
I find it hard to construct a lie under her sharply questioning gaze, so I sigh and rub my brow.
Just tell her, there’s nothing wrong in that.
“Dr. Jung just called. The PET scan results...it’s not good.”
Hye Mi lets out the breath she’s been holding in a brisk exhale as her expression tenses.
“So Eugene’s nightmares...means his memory’s returning?”
“I’m pretty sure. Dr. Jung didn’t tell me that specifically, but she said it’s not good, so that leaves only one explanation. At any rate, she asked us to stop by her office tomorrow to receive the formal report.”
Any trace of excitement from earlier is gone from Hye Mi’s face as she knits her brows in thought. I feel as if I’d only burdened her by giving her such news, when she surely has more positive things to ponder. But Hye Mi always insists that I don’t hold anything in, even if it puts her in a not-so-good mood afterward. That’s what I love about her: she’s so willing to support me in my worst times as much as in my best times.
“Cho, do you want me to come with you guys?”
I shake my head. She’s too readily willing to call off her plans just to cheer me up.
“Don’t worry about it. You just have fun on your date. I know what the result will be, so I’m prepared for the worst.”
She gives me a small, doubtful smile as she says with her eyes “Are you sure?”
I flash her a reassuring smile to which she responds with a comforting squeeze of my tense shoulders.
“I know it’s been hard for you and Eugene. Whatever happens, you’ll be okay. You didn’t make it this far for nothing.” After her mini pep talk, she pulls me into a bear hug.
There’s no one sweeter in the world than this girl, Choi Hye Mi—the one who always shows up unawares to give me a nice little surprise when I feel down in the dumps.
“Whaddya guys whispering about in secret, huh? I feel left out.”
Immediately upon hearing that voice we spin around and Mimi huffs in annoyance, rolling her eyes as she’s practically programmed herself to do in his presence. I giggle at her predictable reaction, and at the usually sunny aura that Joon Shik brings with him as he strides over with rhythm in his step. He stops in close proximity of her and casually slings an arm around her shoulder, his smile widening beyond the stretch of seas.
Attempting to unwind herself from him, Hye Mi retorts with a “How is it you always manage to find us? Are you even supposed to be here?”
To that, he flashes an expression of discontent and snaps back, “What do you mean? Maybe you’re not aware of this, but this employee lounge is an employee lounge, and last I checked, you two weren’t the only employees.” He sticks his tongue out playfully upon observing Hye Mi’s displeasure at his mockingly condescending tone. I continue to watch their casual banter from the side quietly, smiling to myself at every retaliating comment they jab at one another.
“Ugh, you’re seriously annoying. Can’t you sense the mood? If the conversation was meant for you to hear we would’ve called you over a long time ago. Go wait some tables, waiter boy; this isn’t a day for you to be slacking off when we have Crab Fest traffic.”
“Actually, I’m on my fifteen, and I came here to see the vending machine, not you. YOU go wait tables.”
“Wow, you have some nerve talking down to your senior like that!”
Hye Mi takes Joon Shik into a headlock and ruffles his dark, brittle short hair and they switch roles, as now he is trying desperately to free himself from her grip. The entire commotion is causing some of the older employees to turn their heads. I can’t help but to stifle a laugh, but it then escapes me in a lighthearted giggle. Hye Mi releases him and Joon Shik stands tall, giving me a small smile on his reddened face.
To my surprise, he points a finger at me and says, “I want you smiling just like that, Noona. I don’t know what’s troubling you, but I hope you can smile through it like that.”
Hye Mi scoffs in disbelief and turns slowly and threateningly toward him, emphasizing each word, “So you were eavesdropping?”
Then, without warning, she captures Joon Shik mercilessly in a rear choke hold, not even waiting for him to regain the color to his face from the last assault.
Through the tightening of her elbow around his neck, he gasps hurriedly, “I didn’t mean to, I just heard the last part as I was walking in!” She releases him, satisfied, and he almost tumbles to the floor with the force in which she does so.
Panting and redder than ever before, he huffs, “Geez, Mimi, why d’ya have to be so violent?”
“Because of idiots like you.”
As violent as it might’ve been, the entire scene happens to warm my heart. I tell Joon Shik sincerely, “Thank you, Joon Shik, you’re always making me laugh. I’ll keep what you said in mind.”
His face reddens again, but this time, as a result of receiving a compliment, and he bows his head gratefully.
“Oh, by any chance, is there a special someone you’re planning on doing the raffle with later, Joon Shik?”
He ponders my question for less than a few seconds before breaking out into a mischievous smile, “There’s someone I have in mind...but only if she says yes.” He looks over to Hye Mi and links arms with her—a rather obvious insinuation.
She shakes him off immediately and does her signature eye roll. “In your dreams, Cha. Joon. Shik.”
Joon Shik then counterattacks with his signature puppy dog expression that says “Take pity on me”, with his bottom lip jutting out for more dramatic effect.
“But, why?! This is the last year we’ll be working together since you’re graduating soon. When will I get the chance?”
Hye Mi bluntly responds for the umpteenth time, “Never. And I already have a date tonight.”
Joon Shik’s shoulders slump disappointedly, although he had probably already expected that answer. “What? You have a new date, like, every week! Quit dilly dallying and come to me already.”
“Do you always have to bring it back to that?! Sheesh!” She makes a motion to hit him and he flinches back slightly.
“I’ll let it slide again. Sooner than later you’ll realize that I’m the only one for you.” As Joon Shik adds this with a teasing, coquettish tone, he leans down until his face is level with Hye Mi’s, and she pushes his face away with a friendly shove.
“‘Sooner than later’ my ass. You say that every day. Get lost.”
As if the room were his stage and he were an actor, Joon Shik begins to do a comical, exaggerated display of heartbreak, gripping his chest and whining, “Ahhh, there you go breaking this heart again. Aigoo, somebody tell this girl she’s breaking my heart.”
I smile in amusement as I announce, “Well, you guys obviously have some differences to settle. I’m going back downstairs.”
I start to walk away toward the elevators when I hear Mimi stepping behind me and calling out. “Wait up, Cho! Don’t leave me with him!”
As we step onto the platform together, I notice Hye Mi sticking out her tongue one last time at the oblivious Joon Shik, who’d already had his back turned.
“You two seem to have gotten closer,” I suggest with an impish, toothless smile.
“What? Ugh, don’t even mention that. He’ll always be an annoying prick. He’s the little brother I’m glad I never had.”
“Hmm...is that what you really think? Something tells me there’s something underneath those words.”
“S-Something underneath? What’s that supposed to mean?!”
“No, I’m not. It’s hot in here. They need some more ventilation in these elevators,” she declares while fanning herself with one hand to emphasize her point.
“You’re starting to like him, Choi Hye Mi.”
“Pfft, please, don’t make me laugh,” she snorts, averting her gaze.
“Well, you’ve got to settle with one guy one of these days, and when you do, I’m thinking Joon Shik would be perfect for you.”
“What, now you’re trying to marry me off? Did he bribe you to put in a good word for him?”
I laugh at her sassy comment. It’s so like Hye Mi to avoid committing to one guy. Hye Mi is more of a living-in-the-thrill-of-the-moment kinda girl. She’s the wild tiger— doesn’t like to be caged in or held back, and to get what she wants she uses her irresistible charm if she needs to, which no man has been able to refuse as of yet.
Although Hye Mi has only been working at the cafe a few months, the bright and spirited Joon Shik had obviously developed a crush on her on day one. But that’s no surprise; on top of her peerless beauty, she has an enchanting charisma that can turn listless to spirited. Many recognize this about her, but what they don’t know is that there’s so much more to her than meets the eye, and despite what she says, there’s a part of her that seeks more than just a fling.
I turn to her and in a more serious manner than before I tell her, “Don’t you know me any better? I’m saying this because I really like Cha Joon Shik as a friend. He’s funny, he’s smart, and he’s sweet. What’s not to like?” I nudge her arm lightly with my elbow as I peer into her face to gauge her reaction.
She joins me in a fit of giggling at her straightforward and truthful reply, the elevator doors opening up to the first floor of the hotel. As we step off the elevator, the loud chatter coming from the large crowds of people in the cafe becomes clear to us.
Cafe Ensoleille is a natural tourist magnet, and the fact that the headquarters is located on the first two floors of the famous, 5-star Yusong Hotel makes it all the more so. Every year in mid-March the cafe holds a King Crab fest that no one in this big, coastal city of Hadoshi would dare to miss out on. Combine those three things: the legendary Cafe Ensoleille, the luxurious Yusong Hotel, and the esteemed coming-of-spring King Crab fest, and there you have the reason why the internet always blows up with photos and hashtags regarding this consecrated event.
“The cafe looks more crowded than it did 10 minutes ago,” Mimi notes as she looks out toward the throng of people that fill up the entire first floor and the hotel gardens outside.
“Courtesy of a rush hour on Crab Fest.”
“I’m gonna go check on my table outside. I’ll see you later.”
We start to go our separate ways, then I hear her voice some distance behind me calling for my attention.
When I turn, she’s smiling that sweet smile she always shows when she’s trying to lift my mood.
“I just wanted to say, about that thing with your little bro...I hope it’s all sorted out. Fighting!” She blows a kiss energetically before turning on her heel and disappearing into the crowd.
* * *
I put my pen down and it rolls off the notebook page, which reflects a soft pinkish-orangish glow from the sunset outside. I read over the words two, three, four times, as has become the routine, sounding them out syllable by syllable in my head, hoping he can hear them—wherever he is.
A deep, raspy voice interrupts my train of thought abruptly and I shut my leather notebook closed.
“What are ya doing sitting around? You think the customers’re gonna serve themselves?”
I look up to see my uncle—and my boss—taking a seat in the other side of the booth, his faded eyebrows raised in concern and his gaunt arms crossed in front of his chest.
“Why do you look so surprised?”
I laugh nervously under his piercing gaze that’s just as keen as Hye Mi’s, and lean back as casually as possible so as not to appear fazed.
“No reason, you just caught me by surprise.”
However, I don’t know why Uncle Jo always manages to catch me off guard, since I’m never really on my guard with him. I hide nothing from him, and even if I want to I can’t; that old man is just too perceptive for my good.
“Then..what are you doing? The very founder of Café Ensoleille couldn’t possibly have enough time to sit around idly with his employees. Aren’t you supposed to be helping with the raffle?” I implore to expel the awkward atmosphere.
“It starts in fifteen minutes...I came to check up on ya—”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. I’ll stop sitting around and get to work,” I say as I slip my notebook and pen into my apron pocket.
“That’s not what I meant.”
Something about the calm force in his words, the way he just sits there with his arms folded, giving me that stern, fixed stare makes me think I should sit back down and let him take the floor.
“The therapist called,” he continues matter-of-factly after confirming I’ve given him my ears.
“S-She called you, too?”
“What, you think she’d call you before she’d call me? I was the first to know. Knowing you, you’re probably overthinking things.”
I can’t say anything to that because he’s spot-on, as always, so I let him continue, as his folded hands means he has more to say.
“Cho...it’s inevitable. You knew since three years ago that Eugene was bound to get his memory back someday.”
“I know. I know that, but I...can’t stop worrying about what might happen once he does. I’d like it if it could be erased. All the memories he has of Mom are good. I don’t want that to be taken away.”
Uncle Jo takes my hands in his and continues with a softer inflection in his voice than before, “I understand. But don’t forget that whatever happens is meant to happen. Stop trying to steer things in the direction you want them to go. Have you asked Eugene even once what he wants?”
“...I may not know exactly what he wants, but I know he doesn’t want his good memories to be replaced with bad ones.”
“Not every memory can be good. And whatever it is, it’s in the past. The kid is smart, and he has a strong sister by his side, d’you think it’ll be the end if he finds out? Life demands hardship and pain, you can’t avoid what’s to come, Cho. Instead of shrinking away from the inevitable, get ready for it. You’re Eugene’s only hope. How do you think he will learn from you if you keep teaching him that running from troubles is good?”
“...I’m just scared.”
Have I been selfish all this time? He might be right but...I only want what’s best for Eugene. But am I too focused on what I want for him without considering what he might want for himself?
“You have every right to be scared. We all are. We don’t know how this will change things later. But no matter; whatever happens, you’ll make it through like before.”
As I hear more words of comfort for the second time today, I can’t help but to open my heart up to the heavens in gratitude for having these people in my life. Uncle Jo, although not related to me by blood, is family I can’t do without.
Dad must surely be resting in peace knowing the person he trusted the most is taking such good care of us.
“We’ll keep treating his nightmares, but Cho...please don’t give the poor boy a reason to fear the truth. Whether he fears it or accepts it...is his choice and his choice alone.”
I nod in comprehension and give Uncle Jo my usual bright smile, feeling like I’ve come out of this conversation just a tad wiser thanks to him.
He smiles back at me and lightens the mood with his business-like voice once again as he stands from the booth. “Now, let’s get back to work. Oh and, I wanted to congratulate you on your acceptance into SAA. That’s something to be happy about, right?”
I’d almost forgotten about that great success I’d achieved, which I couldn’t believe I’d disregarded until now, considering how elated I was at hearing that I’d been accepted into Shiromura Academy of the Arts for culinary and pastry arts—something I’d only dreamed of since Dad passed away.
My widening smile only partly reflects the happiness that begins to flow inside of me.
“We’re celebrating later. With a cake this big.” He motions with his arms, spreading them as wide as his short arm span can allow. I laugh wholeheartedly.
“Thanks, Uncle. You’re the best,” I give him some well-deserved flattery and a thumbs up as he pats my cheek.
“Cheer up! Oh, and before you finish your shift today, take these to the storage room for me, would you? Gotta run, announcements are about to start,” He plops a small Cafe Ensoleille bag with miscellaneous cake decorating pieces in front of me, before walking off with a wave of his hand.
As I watch his rescinding back I notice through the large glass windows the swarm of people multiplying by the minute, and the impatient misters and misses pushing their way to the front of the line—if it can even be called that anymore.
Everyone’s waiting eagerly for the announcement of the raffle winner—the lucky couple that will receive an all-inclusive, one-week VIP pass to one of the hotel’s luxurious penthouse suites—spas and hot springs included—which is the envy of every plain Jane and average Joe these days. I guess that’s the reason why people regard this event as a post-Valentine’s Day lottery, but it’s even more than that: it’s a once-in-lifetime chance to bask in luxury and potentially mingle with the B-list celebrities who regular Yusong Hotel. Considering how many people enter, though, the chances of winning are nearly as slim as the lottery’s itself.
But tonight, it seems like 2006 is a peak year for Yusong’s hotel raffle. No matter where I look, a flood of people is seen scurrying and pushing about, holding their raffle tickets close to their chests so as not to lose it among the moving mass of people. From my position, I can see that even the press have their cameras ready. Although that strikes me as a bit odd, being that the horde of press folk isn’t usually so large, and it seems to have increased exponentially over the past few hours. It usually doesn’t get so massive and overwhelming.
It’s rather unusual. The look on the journalists’ faces appear to be eager anticipation for something, although I doubt it’s for the raffle. They’re obviously here because their jobs call for it, so why the hell did so many of them come? What the hell is going on? Whatever, I’ll be out of here soon, anyway.
I push my way toward the crowd, relieved that all the tables have been pushed and stacked against the walls to make a stage for the raffle, since this multitude of excited, restless people would’ve knocked down every table and chair eons ago. I guess that also means the security guards have given up holding the reins on the influx of people into the cafe.
Every step brings me only a few inches closer to the other side of the avenue—where the annexed storage room on the southwest end of Yusong Hotel is located. Because it’s so big, there seems to be no end to the boundaries set up by the hotel’s walls, and I feel as if I’m in a damn storm shelter. As I make my way step by step and push by push, people’s excited whispers almost boom in my ears.
“What?! Are you serious? He’s coming here?!”
A group of young teenage girls begin to squeal and jump up and down in childish euphoria, as I think irritatedly, Gee, do they let just anyone in here?
“No way!! Is he really coming?”
What the hell is everyone talking about now? Is that why there’s so much press?
Confused and literally lost, I start to push angrily through the throng of what just so happens to be another large group of young girls squealing about the unnamed anticipated guest—what has now become the subject of everyone’s conversations as they wait for the announcements and prize administration.
Look, I just want to bring this to the storage room and get the hell out of here, can all of you move?!
Oh, how much I want to yell that out. Not that anyone would pay much attention.
To my surprise, I make it out of the crowd in just a matter of seconds, as I am already being pushed toward the direction I’d been aiming for all along with the current. Although I’m really not happy with the fact that I slam into the wall face first, I filter the swearing remarks and make a dash for a side exit.