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FEROCIOUS (Tor Teen, August 2017)
Paula Stokes returns to the world of Vicarious in this sequel, a high-action psychological thriller with a protagonist out for vengeance.
When Winter Kim finds out that her sister is dead and that she has a brother she never knew about, only two things matter―finding what’s left of her family and killing the man who destroyed her life. Her mission leads her from St. Louis to Los Angeles back to South Korea, where she grew up.
Things get increasingly dangerous once Winter arrives in Seoul. Aided by her friends Jesse and Sebastian, Winter attempts to infiltrate an international corporation to get close to her target, a nefarious businessman named Kyung. But keeping her last remaining loved ones out of the line of fire proves difficult, and when all seems to be lost, Winter must face one last devastating decision: is revenge worth sacrificing everything for? Or can she find a spark of hope in the darkness that threatens to engulf her?
READ THE BEGINNING:
Scroll down to read the first few chapters. WARNING: These pages are extremely spoilery for VICARIOUS.
My name is Winter Kim. Today I killed a man. Soon I hope to kill another.
As the MetroLink train shimmies along its metal tracks, I repeat those words over and over in my head. I recently found out my sister, Rose, was murdered. Her ex-boyfriend, Gideon Seung, suggested we attend a bereavement support group together. But before I could even think about that, Gideon was killed too. And then I killed his killer.
I close my eyes and envision telling a room full of strangers that the only two people I loved were both murdered. There would be the obligatory sympathetic cooing and perhaps a gasp of shock. Then I’d tell them I’m a killer too, and I’m not finished yet. The expressions of bland disinterest would twist into disgust. The woman who comes mostly for the free food would choke on her coffee cake.
“You’re a monster,” she’d whisper, before quickly averting her eyes.
Maybe I am a monster.
As far as I know, there’s no support group for that.
The train hisses slightly as it pulls into the next station. Snowflakes batter the windows, sticking fast to the cold glass in tiny deformed clumps. Beyond the platform, the streets of St. Louis stretch out empty and cold. And dark. It’s only six p.m., but it might as well be midnight.
A man pushing a metal cart ducks through the open doors, the wheels leaving trails of grayish sludge on the patterned floor of the train. He takes a seat across from me and folds back the lid to his trolley, exposing items for sale—perfume, neckties, designer purses. The strange combinations of what people sell on the train remind me of the subway stations back in Seoul. You could buy almost anything there.
The train starts moving again. The man steps out into the aisle and begins pushing his trolley toward the front of the car, stopping occasionally to address specific passengers. Turning toward the window, I pull an envelope out of the center pocket of my hoodie. My name is written on the front in black ink. My eyes water as I consider Gideon’s neatly printed capital letters. I’ll never see that handwriting again.
I run my thumb along the flap of the envelope and the paper slices into my flesh, leaving behind a thin trail of red. I lift my hand to my lips and taste the metallic flavor of blood. My fingers brush against the rose pendant that hangs in the hollow of my throat. The necklace used to belong to my sister.
I wrap my fingers around it, grip it so tight that the metal cuts into my palm. Rose died so that I could escape our past.
And now I am free.
Vengeance is all that I have left.
Monster, a voice hisses from inside my brain.
Monsters don’t get happy endings.
The train reaches the end of the line—the airport—and I stay tucked in my seat as the other passengers disembark. A pair of security agents passes by in their navy uniforms, followed by two teens in NFL parkas. After them, a group of people wheel suitcases up the wet floor, most of them looking down at their phones as they trudge along. Finally it’s just me and the man with the trolley. He gestures at me and I slide out of my seat. Behind me, his wet, metal wheels bump into the back of my ankles. The man grunts an apology. I nod an acknowledgment without looking back.
Outside, the sharp air cuts through my hoodie and the T-shirt beneath. I exhale a puff of white, half expecting the droplets of my breath to freeze and fall to the ground like a tiny ice storm.
“Cold, huh?” Trolley Guy says as he slides past me. A dark red necktie dangles from the top of his rolling cart.
“Yes.” My voice is barely audible. My eyes hone in on the red slash of fabric. I am thinking about the man who took everyone I love away from me. Kyung. His name is a knife blade, but I’m done being stabbed by it. It’s my turn to inflict the damage.
The red tie vanishes from sight as Trolley Guy disappears behind a pillar. Kyung wore a tie that color the first time I met him. Rose and I stood side by side in the center of a room while he evaluated us like we were farm animals. Not exactly what I was hoping for, but I guess they’ll do. My sister’s face burned with shame as he circled us, touching her hair, lifting her skirt to examine her legs. I didn’t understand what was happening yet, but she did.
A set of sliding glass doors opens and the stream of people funnels me into the airport and up a set of narrow escalators. I glance back at the MetroLink tracks through a wall of glass windows. It was probably foolish of me to come here. I don’t even have any luggage—no place to check my knives and hide my spare IDs. I couldn’t go to my therapist appointment, though. If I had, I would’ve broken down and told Dr. Abrams everything. She would have been obligated to put me in a psychiatric facility and warn Kyung that I had threatened his life. Plus, she would’ve gone to the police and they probably would have figured out what really happened in the penthouse.
What really happened is this: Kyung sent a man named Sung Jin to coerce Gideon into giving up the ViSE technology. Gideon tried to refuse and Sung Jin killed him. Sung Jin also shot my friend Jesse Ramirez and Gideon’s head of security, Baz Faber.
And then I killed Sung Jin.
I should probably feel something when I think about that, when I think about pulling the trigger on the gun. When I think about his sharp, mercenary eyes turning to black glass. It’s no small thing—ending someone else’s life. There should be some sort of gravity to that, shouldn’t there? My insides are heavy, but it has nothing to do with what I did. It is only about what I have lost.
I take a seat in the ticketing and departures lobby and watch travelers mill back and forth, their suitcases trailing behind them like obedient toddlers. A cell phone buzzes in my pocket. Sung Jin’s phone—it’s a text from Kyung.
Kyung: Should I arrange for a car to pick you up at LAX tomorrow?
Me: Tomorrow is too soon. Gideon told you the ViSE technology was stolen, right? I know who has it but reacquiring it will take time.
I actually have both the neural editor and recorder headset that Kyung wants me to bring him. Gideon lied to Kyung and said they were stolen to try to buy more time to figure out how to protect the technology. I’m hoping I can use his lie to my advantage.
Kyung: Two more days.
Me: That’s not enough. I need a week.
Kyung: Five days. Bring the tech to me at UsuMed by Wednesday, or else.
Kyung and I have struck a deal of sorts. He claims I have a younger brother, Jun, who works for him, and that if I turn over Gideon’s ViSE technology, he’ll introduce us. ViSEs, or Vicarious Sensory Experiences, are neural recordings that allow a person to experience an activity via someone else’s brain—all the thrills of rock climbing or bungee jumping or running from the police with none of the risk. I don’t know what Kyung wants with the tech, but he wants it badly enough that he’s threatened to kill Jun if I don’t hand it over.
I hate that I’m risking my brother’s life—assuming he’s real—by not turning over the tech immediately, but I’m fairly certain Kyung is just trying to intimidate me. He won’t really hurt my brother, as long as I don’t push him too far. If he does, then he’ll never get what he wants.
I switch to a browser window and do a search for “Jun Song” in Los Angeles. There are several screens of results, but none of them seem like they could be my brother. I try “Jun Song” and “UsuMed,” but there’s no overlap as far as I can tell.
I call up an airline website and search for flights to L.A. But then I get a better idea. Kyung is expecting me to fly into LAX or perhaps one of the local Orange County airports. I don’t know how powerful he is, whether he might have men looking for me there. I clear the search box and search for flights to San Diego instead. I can drive up to Los Angeles. That way I’ll have the element of surprise on my side.
There are open spots on two flights that are leaving later tonight, but my mind wanders back to the envelope from Gideon. I flipped through the contents but I didn’t read all the documents. I should find somewhere to go through it in detail. There’s no need for me to get to L.A. tonight. It makes more sense to find a place to stay, to make a plan.
I book myself on a flight leaving late tomorrow morning, using a fake name on one of the IDs Gideon left for me. Then I take the escalators down two floors to the baggage and ground transportation area. I try not to focus on all of the people down there reuniting with loved ones, but when a group of men—boys, most of them—in tan camouflage stroll past with green duffels slung over their shoulders, my legs go wobbly beneath me. Jesse was one of these guys once, so proud to be a soldier, so sure that he could make a real difference.
I pause for a moment, lean back against the cool concrete of the airport wall and close my eyes. “Please don’t let Jesse die,” I whisper.
Right. Jesse is in the hospital being taken care of by doctors and nurses. I need to take care of myself.
I take a cab to one of the motels that are just across the highway, a run-down, seedy sort of place where a girl who just killed someone can be invisible. I check in under an alias and dead-bolt the door. Then, I lay out everything that was in the envelope from Gideon onto the bed:
A bundle of hundred-dollar bills.
Three sets of fake ID.
Bank statements from multiple bank accounts in both of our names. Just the money in these accounts would be enough for me to go to college and buy a small house—to live a life.
A business card from a lawyer who undoubtedly has additional paperwork for Gideon’s business and personal assets.
And then something I’m not expecting: a blue memory card with my name on it.
It’s a ViSE recording. It can’t be of my sister, because she died before Gideon ever developed the technology. So it has to be a message from him to me. Which means that he must have known this day might come.
I pull in a deep breath and then let it out in fluttery little gasps. Retrieving my headset, I unfold the lightweight metal apparatus, slip the recording into the slot on the back, and adjust the prongs over my neural access points. I lie back on the mattress and press play.
Gideon is sitting at the desk in his study, his laptop open in front of him. His black hair is slicked back like he just got out of the shower. He smiles slightly and a lump rises up in my throat. My eyes burn with tears.
I pause the recording. Sometimes when you’re vising, you can’t distinguish what you’re feeling from what the recorder is feeling. The lump, the tears—are they mine or someone else’s? I lift a hand to my cheek. My fingers come away wet.
Crying is difficult for me. Dr. Abrams says that it takes more courage to express emotions than to hide them away, but it’s hard to feel brave in this moment. I’m split between desperately needing Gideon and knowing that a ViSE of him won’t be enough. It’ll be like standing outside in a frigid St. Louis winter with nothing but a picture of a coat to keep me warm.
I give up and remove the headset. I’m not ready to play this recording. Dr. Abrams also used to tell me that love strengthened people. Right now my love for Gideon feels like a weakness, just like my tears.
I set the headset down on the bed and remove the memory card. As I slip everything back into the envelope, my fingertips brush against something cold. There’s a thin metal chain at the very bottom that I missed when I dumped out the contents. I loop my finger around it and hold it up to the light. It’s a necklace with a snowflake pendant. Why would Gideon buy me this? It’s pretty, but everything else in this envelope is essential.
As my fingers trace the snowflake’s detailed prongs, I notice there’s a crack in the middle. Not a crack—a seam. The pendant pulls apart to expose a micro flash drive. My mind whirls as I turn the tiny storage device over in my hands. What sort of information could be so crucial that Gideon felt the need to disguise it in jewelry?
I’ll have to wait to find out. I don’t dare turn on my phone in case the police are looking for me, and I left my tablet computer back at the penthouse. I won’t be able to access the information on this drive until I can buy a new one.
I tuck all of the items back into the envelope and slip it into the motel room safe. Then I make a list of things I’m going to need in Los Angeles and have the front desk clerk call me a cab to a nearby shopping mall.
The taxi ride takes about fifteen minutes. Inside the mall, I duck into an electronics store to purchase a new tablet and two disposable burner phones. I debate buying more, but I figure that might stand out as suspicious, especially since I’m paying in cash. At the last second, I add in a few micro memory cards—just in case I need to record something.
“One for each boyfriend, huh?” the sales clerk jokes as he rings up the phones.
I want to ignore him, but I have a mission now. A purpose. One that’s going to require me to act normal. I might as well start practicing.
I paint what I hope is a crafty smile on my face. “Our little secret, though, right?” I say.
He chuckles awkwardly and I realize he took my words as flirty.
That’s because they sounded provocative, more like Rose than me.
Not my dead sister—a different Rose who lives inside of me. I have dissociative identity disorder and my alter persona calls herself Rose. Sometimes she takes over completely and I end up with blackouts and lost hours, but other times I just hear her in my head, encouraging me, calming me. And every once in a while, my words come out feeling like hers, like maybe she just stepped in for a few seconds.
I don’t know what’s actually possible when it comes to DID. I should do some research on my condition, but right now I’m still learning to accept that this is who I am.
I reach out and gently pat the sales clerk’s arm—another Rose-like maneuver.
Are you helping? I think.
No response. She doesn’t generally answer me—it isn’t like we can have a conversation at will—but she’s responded to direct questions in the past. At least I think she has. I guess her responses could have been hallucinations—I’m no stranger to those either. Sometimes I wonder if everything is a hallucination, if I’m really some other girl in some other world, and I’ve created this complex reality of murder and multiple personalities because it’s somehow better than the life I actually lead.
A man coughs behind me. Another customer, whose patience is wearing thin. The salesclerk has pressed my receipt into my hand. He’s staring strangely at me.
“Thank you for your help,” I say quickly.
I hurry out of the store, but not before I hear the guy who was behind me mutter something about kids all being on drugs these days.
Next I visit a clothing store and head directly for a rack of hoodies in gray and black. And then I remember I’m going to Southern California where it’s about seventy degrees. And also that I want somewhat of a disguise. I don’t know what Kyung knows, whether Sung Jin might have followed me or researched me while he was in St. Louis, but it’s better if the girl who shows up in L.A. can pass for someone else.
I allow myself one hoodie and a pair of jeans for times when I can be myself, as well as some sweatpants and a T-shirt to wear as pajamas. Then I reluctantly cross the store to a rack of dresses and pick out a couple that are modest but look like nothing I would ever wear. I buy some tights and boots to go with them.
I buy a coat and a purse, two more things that feel normal to most people but foreign to me. Then I leave the shop and stroll the mall’s wide marble promenade, stopping in a drugstore where I buy makeup and a pair of nonprescription reading glasses, and a luggage store for a new backpack and a small suitcase. On my way out, I visit a brightly lit shop filled with beauty products. I pick up a couple of wigs—one long and black with a fringe of choppy bangs and one reddish blond with waves that will make me look different, but won’t stand out on the streets of L.A. I had no idea how many things I would need to become someone else.
Back at the motel, I organize my purchases and pack them into my suitcase. I pull the tablet computer from the box and plug it in to charge. There is a sheet of instructions about the fastest way to connect to the Internet, but right now I just want to access the flash drive.
When the screen lights up, I plug the drive into a port on the side of the computer. A password box appears on the screen. It reads: Three failed attempts to input the correct password will result in all information on this drive being destroyed.
Standard Gideon. The password is probably on the ViSE.
I bite my lip as I consider going to sleep and dealing with things in the morning. But it won’t be any easier then. It is never going to be easy to see Gideon again, to hear him and feel him after watching him die. If I am going to find my brother and kill Kyung, I cannot be afraid of sensory impulses on a ViSE. I cannot be afraid of my own feelings.
It’s all right to be scared.
“It’s not all right,” I mumble under my breath. “It’s not helpful, anyway.” I grab my headset out of the safe and relax on the bed. I breathe in and out a couple of times, try to empty my mind of all thoughts, and press play.
“Winter,” Gideon says. “If you’re watching this, then something bad has happened to me. I have many things to tell you, some of which I should have told you a long time ago. I don’t know the exact set of circumstances that led you here, so you’ll have to excuse me if you know some of this information already.
“Your sister is dead. She died when we were leaving Los Angeles. She died protecting you—protecting both of us. I blame myself. I was so focused on getting the three of us to safety that I took you in the elevator because it was fastest. We should have used the stairs. Perhaps then…” He swallows hard. “One of Kyung’s men caught us leaving. When your sister tried to resist him, he stabbed her.” Gideon blinks rapidly and looks down at the desk. “I hope you were aware of the details surrounding her death, because I would hate the thought of you going through that realization alone. If you need someone, Jesse and Sebastian have both promised they’ll look out for you. And Dr. Abrams—you can always call her. Please don’t try to get through this by yourself.”
He goes on to tell me the things he told me when he returned from his business trip, about how he realized I was both hallucinating and dissociating as my sister and why he allowed me to live in a fantasy world for so long.
He holds up a brochure. “There are clinics for people with dissociative disorders where you can get special help. Dr. Abrams seemed fond of this one in Arizona. I know you won’t want to go—that you think you have to fix all your problems yourself—but Winter, Ha Neul, some things are too big for any of us to handle alone.”
My eyes water. I always get choked up when Gideon calls me Ha Neul. I shed that name when we left L.A., like a moth shaking off the broken confines of its cocoon as it sees light for the first time. But it tethers me to my past, and to my sister, who never got a chance to fly.
I know he’s right too, about doing this on my own. Gideon wouldn’t want me to risk my life by going after Kyung. He wouldn’t want me to skip out on my therapy sessions. But he doesn’t know about my brother. It’s not just my own well-being I have to consider. If I have a younger brother, then I need to look out for him, much the same way Rose needed to look out for me. Where I come from, the older siblings take care of the younger. That’s how it is—how it always has been.
Next Gideon discusses the flash drive.
“The password has been coded to change every day at midnight Central Time, assuming Daylight Savings is not in effect. The first part of it is constant, the word sky, with the s and k in lowercase letters and the Y capitalized. Then insert an underscore.”
I swallow hard. My real name means “sky” in Korean.
“The second part of the password is a numerical sequence. Start with your date of birth in US format—two digits for the day, two for the month, four for the year. Subtract your sister’s birthday in the same format and then add the numbers for yesterday’s day only. Be careful with your attempts because this drive cannot be copied and you are only given three tries in each twenty-four-hour period before the data will be destroyed.”
Gideon clears his throat before continuing. “There are three things of importance on the drive. First is a folder with additional legal documents in it. There’s my will, which has both your real and assumed name on it. My attorney has copies of all of this and knows that your identification paperwork was lost, but he has your picture and you’ll be the only one able to answer the questions he’ll ask to verify your ID. There is also the paperwork for Escape, the building, the ViSE technology, and some other assets. All of it is passing over to you.
“The next folder on the drive is my research. The flash drive contains all of the notes I took from UsuMed and the ones I made when I was creating the ViSE technology. I disabled the neural editor when I removed it from Escape and hid it in the penthouse, just in case Kyung sent someone to steal it, but an engineer could rebuild the missing components using my notes. I’m not sure why Kyung wants the tech so badly, but I suspect it’s about more than mass production of headsets and streaming across platforms. Still, if he comes after you for it, just give it to him. I know better than anyone what Kyung is capable of. The tech isn’t worth dying for. I want you to live a long and happy life. I know it might not feel like it now, but you can be happy. I promise.
“The final folder is full of pictures of your sister, and a few of you.” Gideon turns his laptop around. There is a picture of my sister on the screen.
A sob bursts from my lips. I’ve never seen this picture of Rose. Gideon must have taken it of her in Los Angeles before we tried to escape. Our lives were hell there—Kyung’s men selling us to strangers every night—but Rose’s eyes are bright and her smile is wide, openmouthed, like she is laughing. I am so glad she had Gideon to keep her spirits from breaking. She had him and I had her, and because of them both, I’m still alive.
Gideon taps the screen and the image changes. It’s a picture of me when I was younger, asleep on the penthouse sofa. A blanket is draped neatly over my slender body. “You weren’t much for pictures when we first moved here,” he explains. “I had to sneak them from time to time.” Gideon closes the laptop.
He walks across the room, reaches out, holds my face in his hands. His touch manages to be both firm and soft at the same time. He leans in and gently kisses me on the forehead.
Tears roll down my cheeks. As I concentrate on the sensation of him touching me, I wonder who recorded this. How strange it must have been for Gideon to talk to someone else—to touch another person—as if they were me.
“Always remember that I am proud of you,” Gideon finishes. “That I love you. I hope that you will play this recording any time you are feeling alone.”
Another sob escapes me, this one from deep in my gut. For once, I embrace the pain instead of trying to lock it away. I am so grateful for this recording. At least now I won’t forget how it feels to be loved.
I lie staring up at the ceiling of the motel room for a few minutes. Then I dry my tears with the sleeve of my hoodie and reach for the tablet computer. I work out the answer to the password in my head and enter it. A series of folders pops up.
I skim through the legal documents to assure myself there’s nothing that needs to be taken care of immediately. I recognize a durable power of attorney for health care and a page that requests to be cremated in case of death. This causes another wave of tears to spill forth, and I’m not even sure why. Perhaps it’s just the idea of Gideon sitting down at his desk and trying to think of everything he could do to make his death easier for me.
Next I open some of the research files, but most of them are incomprehensible to me. I have no idea what to do with Gideon’s notes. Maybe I could share these files with a university or research team who might be able to use his findings for good. All I know is I don’t want Kyung to have them.
I skip to the folder marked Photos—there are pictures of Rose with Gideon, Rose with me, Rose by herself. There are even selfies of Gideon and me that I have no recollection of posing for—most likely because I was dissociating at the time.
By the time I get to the last picture, I am crying uncontrollably. So many memories have come flooding back. I can’t take the pain.
I trace the cross-shaped scar on my palm with one finger. I cut myself the first day of working for Kyung. I promised my sister I would never do it again, but sometimes it’s hard to resist the temptation. I lift one of my throwing knives from the nightstand and consider the blade’s edge. It’s not very sharp. The point is, though. I touch it to the skin of my palm, trace the scar once more. My hand tightens around the hilt until my knuckles blanch white.
Pain is not the answer.
I used to think the voices in my head were just my conscience, or perhaps my id and superego arguing things out the way you see angels and devils do in cartoons. After finding out about my DID, I have no idea who’s telling me what. I guess I’m fortunate that the advice is usually good. This voice is right. I can’t hurt myself—not now. There’s too much to do.
I turn the blade of the knife away from myself and plunge it into one of the pillows. I exhale deeply and then pull the knife out and stab the pillow again. Bits of filling float through the air.
Hopping to my feet, I pull the mattress off my bed and lean it against the wall. I stand at the far side of the room and fling my knives, one after the next. They both hit the center of the mattress. I retrieve my knives and throw them again.
I throw them until my hands have stopped shaking.
Then I drop to the floor and start doing push-ups. Twenty. Thirty. Forty. The blood races from my head and heart to my muscles as they ache in protest. I collapse to the floor after the fiftieth push-up. My breath whistles in and out of my chest. “Weak,” I tell myself.
“I need to be stronger.” I grit through another twenty push-ups and then head for the shower. I love the feel of hot water pouring over me. It’s the only time when I feel completely clean.
After about twenty minutes, I hop out and change into sweatpants and a T-shirt. I place both throwing knives on my nightstand for easy access. Frowning at the holes in the mattress, I slide it damaged side down onto the bed frame and replace the sheets, even though I seriously doubt I’m going to get much sleep tonight.
And then I remember my DID. What if my alter takes over after I fall asleep? I don’t think she would do anything to hurt me—so far most of her actions seem to have been to try to help me or protect me—but I slip my headset over my ears and start recording just in case. I can review the footage in the morning, make sure Rose doesn’t make my already bad situation even worse. Each memory card can hold two hours of recording time. I set an alarm on one of the burner cell phones to wake me up just before the card will run out. It’s not ideal as far as sleep and restfulness go, but I’m done wondering about the things I do when I’m out of my mind.
I wake to my alarm at twelve, two, and four, and then decide to get up at six a.m., even though my plane to San Diego doesn’t leave until almost eleven. The first thing I do is skim back through the footage I recorded last night while I was sleeping. There is nothing but quiet blackness. Thank you, I think.
I remove the headset and go to the window. For a few moments, I watch flakes of snow flutter down and cling to the motel’s black asphalt parking lot. It’s like being trapped in a snow globe. I collect snow globes, or at least I used to. Lately all I seem to collect is death.
I pack everything up into my luggage, except for what I’m going to wear. Slipping into one of the dresses, I study myself in the mirror. I look wan, washed out, my hair flat and stringy. I also look too much like me.
I don the reading glasses and the wig with the bangs and apply a little blush before taking another look. Better. The girl who stares back at me manages to resemble my ID, yet still look like a stranger.
I go in search of breakfast, but all I find is coffee, orange juice, a few bruised apples, and a scattering of packaged pastries spread across a counter in the motel lobby. I fix myself a cup of coffee while the housecleaning staff huddles outside in the cold, smoking cigarettes before they come on shift. I should eat something, but I can’t. My stomach feels like it’s full of rocks.
After I finish my coffee, I fetch my bags from the room and call a cab. When the taxi driver arrives, I ask him to take me to St. Louis Medical Center, the hospital where Jesse and Baz were both transported to yesterday. When the driver puts the car into park about twenty minutes later and looks back expectantly at me, I stare through the smudgy side window for a few seconds, watching swirls of snow dance in the early morning sunlight.
“Can you leave the meter running and wait for me?” I ask. “I just need to say good-bye to someone before I head to the airport.”
The driver nods. “I’ll have to find a parking spot, but I’ll watch for you.”
“Thanks.” I slide out of the car and shut the door gently behind me. I cross the sidewalk, stepping gingerly over a patch of ice. As I enter the hospital’s main lobby, the heat envelops me like a breath of warm air. I wipe my feet on the damp rug just inside the doors and then stride purposefully up to the information desk. I flick bits of snow from the sleeves of my coat.
“Can I help you?” a woman wearing a dark blazer asks.
“My . . . friend got admitted through the ER last night.” I keep my voice level, maintaining eye contact as she clicks her mouse. “Jesse Ramirez? I’m not sure what room they moved him to.” Normally getting a patient’s room number is a simple process, but since he came in with gunshot wounds, there’s a chance his information might be restricted.
The clerk clicks her mouse and scrolls down a couple of screens. “He’s in 5612,” she says. “That’s the cardiothoracic ICU. It’s on the fifth floor of the Southwest Tower. You’ll want to follow the signs to the ER and then continue past until you see the SWT elevator.”
“Thank you.” Cardiothoracic ICU. That doesn’t sound good. I find the elevator she indicated and then hunt around until I find a door that leads to a narrow set of stairs.
I take the stairs to the fifth floor and follow the signs marked CTICU. I end up in a small waiting room decorated in outdated earth tones. There’s a desk at one end of it, but whoever is supposed to be manning it either hasn’t arrived for the day or has stepped away momentarily. A square metal plate is mounted on one of the side walls next to a set of heavy fire doors. I press it and they open.
The inside of the ICU is bright white and pale green, with lights shining everywhere. Nurses and doctors stride past without even glancing at me. The rooms are numbered in order, so finding Jesse in number 12 is easy. The front of his room is a wall of glass with a sliding door that’s currently open. I glance furtively around as I enter the room, but again no one is paying me any attention. I swallow back a little gasp as I approach the bed. Jesse’s body is covered in plain white hospital blankets and he’s breathing through an oxygen mask that covers most of his face. His hearing aid is in a plastic medicine cup that sits on the bedside table. An IV pump stands next to the bed, three different bags of clear fluid infusing him simultaneously.
My eyes flick to a flat-screen monitor mounted above his bed. There are numbers for heart rate, blood pressure, and something called SpO2.
“Hey,” a female voice says sharply. I spin around to find a tall, dark-skinned girl in scrubs studying me curiously. She doesn’t look much older than I am. “Did you check in at the desk?”
“There was no one there when I arrived,” I say. “I’m sorry.” I turn back to Jesse. “Is he going to be all right?”
“I think so,” she says. “I’m Kendra, his nurse. Are you Winter?”
I should lie, but my curiosity gets the better of me. “How did you know that?”
“He kept saying your name over and over when we weaned him from the ventilator. Everyone else thought he was just talking crazy from the narcotics, but somehow I could tell he didn’t mean the season.”
I wonder what it was like for Jesse, waking up in the hospital on a breathing machine. I should have been there for him. “Do you know if anyone called his parents? They live in New Mexico. The number might be in his phone.”
“He gave someone his cousin’s phone number in the ER. Miguel, maybe? He was here last night. I think Jesse’s parents are going to be arriving today.”
“Good.” My eyes go to the monitor again.
“His numbers aren’t bad,” Kendra says. “The surgeon was up here earlier and said he’s recovering as expected.”
I nod. “Jesse came in with a friend. They both got shot. Sebastian Faber. You don’t know about him, do you?”
Kendra chuckles. “Oh, Mr. Faber. Now there’s a piece of work.”
This sounds like something someone might say about Baz. I try to imagine him in a backless hospital gown, a nurse spooning JELL-O into his mouth. I don’t really see that happening. “So Baz is all right?”
“If by all right you mean a complete pain in the ass, then sure,” she says. “Getting up without calling for help, eating and drinking when he’s not supposed to, trying to say he’s ready to go home when he can barely walk. Do you know if he has any family we can call? Maybe a parent or stern older sister who can keep him in line?”
“I’m not sure,” I say. “I’ve never heard him talk about family, but I only know him from my job.”
“Well, I’m not supposed to discuss his medical condition, but I can tell you he was up here on a monitor last night for a couple hours, but we already moved him to the step-down.” She rolls her eyes. “Thankfully.”
“It’s a step down from ICU care,” she explains. “For patients in better condition. He didn’t need the same kind of surgery as Jesse.”
“Oh.” I look back at Jesse, at the tubes running from his arms to the IV pumps, at the clear plastic mask over his face.
“His sats dropped when we gave him pain medicine,” she says. “That’s why he’s on the oxygen. We’ll wean him later today.”
It’s still hard to believe this is Jesse. His normally tanned skin looks paler than mine. The bruises from where I punched him are a blackish-purple color. Even the blue veins at his temples stand out.
“I’ll give you some time,” Kendra says. “Sign in on your way out, if you don’t mind.”
“All right,” I say, even though I’m not going to do it. I shouldn’t have told her my name. Now she might tell the police. But it won’t matter. After this it’s back to the airport where I will become someone other than Winter Kim. I’ll be gone before they can track me down.
I take one of Jesse’s hands in both of mine. The monitor above his head blips and I glance up to see his heart rate jump from sixty to eighty beats per minute. “You know I’m here,” I say. “I wonder if you can hear me.”
Eighty-five beats per minute.
Jesse stirs beneath his blankets but doesn’t open his eyes.
“God, Jesse. I don’t even know where to start,” I whisper. “Thank you, I guess, for risking your life for me. I wish you hadn’t done it, but I understand why you did. I’m so grateful for everything you’ve done for me.” Leaning in close to him, I run a hand through his thick, brown hair. I trace the ridge of scar tissue that runs from his left temple to his jawline, my fingers pausing on a darkened area of skin, the bruising and swelling caused by me. “I’m sorry I blew up at you. That I . . . hit you. I was really angry, but I see now that my rage was misplaced. What you and Gideon did was wrong, but I know you did it for the right reasons.”
Ninety beats per minute.
“I need to go take care of some things,” I say. “Family things. But I’ll see you soon, if everything works out as planned.” I don’t tell him the chances of that are slim. Somewhere beneath the hospital blankets and the soft cloak of sedatives, he knows.
Jesse stirs again. This time his fingers twitch. As much as I want to see him open his eyes, I can’t be here for that. It’ll make leaving him too hard. I turn toward the doorway and I’m outside in the main room of the ICU when I hear his weakened voice say, “Winter?”
I hurry back to the waiting area. Hopefully he’ll think he dreamed me.
Maybe he did. Sometimes I feel like I’m not even real anymore.
When I arrive in San Diego, I grab my suitcase from baggage claim and head to the ground transportation area. Even though Jesse, Gideon, and I traveled quite a bit, I’ve never arranged for a ride before. It hits me that I’ve never done a lot of things I’m going to need to figure out on my own. I pause in front of the first desk with no line. I clear my throat and the clerk looks up at me.
“I need to get to Los Angeles. What do you recommend?”
“Depends on what you want to pay and how patient you are.” The clerk pulls out a brochure from beneath the counter. “We have this rideshare shuttle, which leaves from here four times a day. It’s cheap but crowded. Or you can buy an Amtrak ticket. Or, if you prefer to ride in style, you can charter your own car and driver and get up to L.A. much quicker for a few hundred bucks.” He points across the lobby at a booth called Executive VIP.
Money feels like the only thing I have at the moment, and time is definitely of the essence. Executive VIP it is.
“Thanks,” I tell the guy. “You’ve been a big help.”
I cross the lobby to the executive limo place where the guy behind the counter sniffs and plucks an imaginary piece of lint from his starched collar. “Can I help you . . . miss?” he asks.
“I need to get to Los Angeles.” I slap my fake ID on the counter. “The sooner the better.”
“The fee is five hundred dollars,” he says. I pay in cash. The man checks the authenticity of the bills with some sort of marker and then smiles tightly. “We can leave whenever you’re ready.”
I adjust the straps of my backpack. “Now would be good.”
The man at the counter disappears into the back room for a few seconds and returns with a second man dressed in a black uniform with gleaming silver buttons. This man takes the handle of my suitcase and starts wheeling it toward the parking garage. “Where in L.A. would you like to be dropped off?”
I give him the name of a business-class hotel in Koreatown, but I’m not actually going to stay there. It’s the kind of place where they’ll be expecting me to pay by credit card. Instead, I’ll find a smaller hotel or guesthouse, owned by Koreans. A place where I can be anonymous. A place where I can disappear without leaving a trail if I need to.
I follow my driver down a darkened row of the airport parking garage. We stop in front of a big black car. It’s not quite a limousine, but it’s close. The driver holds open the door and I slide into the plush backseat. The windows are tinted. The driver starts telling me something about Wi-Fi and showing me a minibar full of water and snacks, but I’m kind of zoning out. It’s only lunchtime here, but it’s already been a long day for me.
It’s about three p.m. when we enter the area of Los Angeles known as Koreatown. K-Town is a mix of skyscrapers and strip malls, of BMWs and homeless people. I remember living in an apartment on the outskirts of this area with Rose and two other girls who worked for Kyung. I spent most of my days trying to sleep away the previous night. That or with my face pressed to the window, watching the Korean and Hispanic shopkeepers chatter to each other as they hosed down their sidewalks in the morning. Watching the sun rise hot and the tall palm trees sway in the wind. Wondering how California could be so beautiful during the day but so ugly at night.
The driver drops me off at the hotel I mentioned to him. I slide out, tip him, and then head into the air-conditioned lobby with my luggage. A dark-haired woman behind the registration desk looks up as the door swings closed, but she quickly averts her eyes when I don’t stride directly toward her. I step out of the main traffic path and make a point of pulling a phone from my purse, looking down at it as if I’m planning on meeting someone. The airport car pulls away from the street in front of the hotel. I count to ten and then head back out into the warm sun.
This block is packed with Korean businesses—restaurants, hair salons, and minimarkets selling kimchi and fresh seafood. It’s comforting being surrounded by Hangul after years in St. Louis where there are fewer Korean businesses and most of them have English signs. I turn off the main street and find what I’m looking for a few blocks away—a small guesthouse with a vacancy sign in both English and Hangul. There’s a bright red-and-gold mural of a haechi—a mythical creature known for exacting justice and eating fire—painted on the side of the house.
Inside, a Korean woman with a round face and a tight perm is curled up in a wicker chair reading a book. She licks her index finger and turns a page.
“Jeogiyo,” I say. Excuse me. The woman doesn’t look up. I clear my throat. “Ajumma?” It’s a common way to address an older woman.
She turns to face me, her book falling closed around one hand. She cocks her head to the side, the skin at the corner of her eyes crinkling as she smiles. We exchange greetings in Korean and then she tells me the house is empty right now except for one other boarder, so she can give me a good price.
I pay in cash and scribble a fake name in her guesthouse registry. She goes to a desk at the far corner of the room and fetches a key from a drawer. It’s an actual metal key on a big wooden keychain, a duck carved from what looks like gingko wood.
I drag my suitcase and backpack into the back hallway of the guesthouse. I have to jiggle the doorknob a couple of times, but the key finally turns in the lock and the door swings open. It’s just a small square room with basic furniture. A doorway in the corner leads to a bathroom with a toilet and shower. A set of taller doors along one side of the room opens into a wardrobe. I go to the window and peek out the blinds. The sun shines brightly on a deserted alley, empty except for a couple of derelict cars up on blocks and a roll of discarded carpet tossed to the side of a Dumpster.
Turning away, I explore the rest of my cramped quarters. A painting of the Seoul skyline hangs over the bed. My eyes are drawn to the strip of shiny reflective buildings, to the mountain, Namsan, in the background and its distinctive tower that looks out over the city.
Rose and I used to talk about going to the top of the mountain. Supposedly there’s a sculpture where couples place padlocks to symbolize their unending love. Rose used to say we’d go there and place a lock for the two of us. Sisters, forever.
Who knew forever could be so short?
My chest goes tight as the enormity of what I’m trying to do crashes down on me. I could barely charter a car service. How am I supposed to rescue my brother without Kyung finding me first? How am I supposed to kill Kyung? Even if I’m willing to die to accomplish these goals—and I am—they still suddenly seem completely unreachable, like a fantasy. I’m not even sure I’ll be able to face Kyung without falling to pieces. What if I start to cry? What if I run away? I hate that such a horrible man has so much power over me.
But that’s what happens when someone owns you, literally and figuratively.
If my sister were here, rescuing Jun and killing Kyung would still be a massive undertaking, but at least it would feel possible. If she were here, she’d be telling me that very thing right this moment. I glance up at the painting again.
“I’m going to do it,” I say. “For you. For both of us. He took away our forever. I’m going to take away his.”
After the sun begins to set, I ask the woman who owns the guesthouse where to get some decent Korean food and she gives me directions to a restaurant a few blocks away. I order food and bring it back to the room, where I settle cross-legged on the floor. Most Korean meals come with several side dishes, or banchan, and in addition to my sesame chicken, this restaurant packed me five little to-go cups filled with kimchi, bean sprouts, potato salad, fishcake, and anchovies. I haven’t eaten anything all day, and I quickly devour most of the food, even the crunchy anchovies, some of which still have their tiny eyeballs intact.
After I finish eating, I pace back and forth in the cramped room for a few minutes, threading and unthreading my fingers in front of my body. I need answers, or at least to feel like I’m actually accomplishing something. I slip on my ViSE headset and secure the blond wig on top of it. I might as well check out UsuMed tonight. I know there’s no hope of finding Jun in the dark on a Saturday, but I can at least get a feel for the area.
UsuMed’s Los Angeles headquarters is actually located in Santa Monica, just outside of the city proper. It takes me a short walk, two Metro trains, and a bus to get there, but about an hour and fifteen minutes later, I step out into the warm night just in front of the main gate.
The corporate campus takes up several blocks and is surrounded by a six-foot-tall brick wall. I walk a loop around the entire complex, scanning for security cameras and recording everything I see. It’s about eight p.m., and the streets and sidewalks are full of people.
I can only see onto the UsuMed grounds through the main gate and a second, smaller gate located on the opposite side of the campus. There are several shorter buildings arranged to the left and right of a round glass tower. Beyond the round tower is a long, flat industrial-looking structure—almost like an airplane hangar. I walk another lap, noting the presence of small cameras mounted along the top of the wall. Security definitely seems to be tight, but if there are only two ways to get in and out, I should be able to find Jun coming or going through one of the gates. Now all I need is a place with good visibility.
I scan the area directly across the street from the main entrance. A pastel-pink apartment building looks over a strip mall full of cafés and coffee shops in front of it. A couple of the coffee shops aren’t horrible choices, but they’re all one story, and I’ll be able to see better if I can get up higher. I loiter around the entrance to the apartment building, pretending to be texting someone, until the door to the secure lobby opens and a lady dressed in hospital scrubs heads toward the parking lot.
I catch the door as she hurries by without even glancing at me. Slipping inside, I pass right by the elevator and find a door at the end of the hall that leads into a dingy stairwell. I ascend the stairs to the top floor, checking both ends of the main hallway for roof access. There’s only one door that isn’t numbered like an apartment, but it’s locked. I dig in my purse for something I can use to pick the lock and come up empty. Then I remember my wig. Reaching up, I pull two bobby pins out of my hair and bite the plastic nubs off the ends. It only takes me about a minute to get the door open.
It turns out to be an elevator machinery room, the gears cranking and clanking as I scoot around them. My hands start to shake. I have a phobia of elevators. Just thinking about them makes me a little nauseated. Averting my eyes from the boxy controller, I head to the far side of the room where a door leads out onto the roof, just as I hoped. I open the camera function on my phone and zoom in. I’m four stories up and the angle is just right to monitor the UsuMed main gate. I’ll have a perfect view of the driver’s side of cars entering the campus.
I have four days before Kyung’s deadline runs out. I hope that it’s enough time to find my brother.
Back at the guesthouse, I imagine coming face-to-face with Jun. Will my mother have told him about me? Will he feel guilty about her giving Rose and me away? I can’t blame him for my mother abandoning us. He didn’t ask to be born. He didn’t ask to be male. He didn’t ask to be born male in a country that prizes boy children over girl children.
Sometimes things just are what they are.
I pull off my wig and adjust the prongs of my headset. Curling onto my side, I pull the sheet up to my chin and try to get some rest. But all I can do is think about what it’s going to be like to meet the brother I didn’t even know I had. What if he doesn’t know anything about me either? What if he doesn’t want to be part of my life? Or worse, what if it’s all a trick and he doesn’t even exist? Then I’ll be alone again.
You’re not alone.
“You don’t count,” I mutter. The voices in my head might give good advice, but they come and go as they please. I can’t rely on them. For a second I debate calling Dr. Abrams. I can rely on her, sort of. Maybe she’d be willing to do a phone session with me. Then I remember it’s Saturday night, and two hours later in St. Louis than it is here. Even if she were willing to talk to me, she’s probably asleep already.
You can rely on Jesse.
It’s true. I dig a burner phone out of my purse and stare at it for a few seconds. Then I dial Jesse’s cell phone. I’m not expecting him to answer. I just want to hear his voicemail message, the friendly greeting of someone who will always want to be part of my life.
I am surprised when after three rings he comes on the line. “Hello?” His voice is hoarse.
My heart catches in my throat, rendering me mute, my own words trapped somewhere in my chest.
“Winter?” Jesse asks. “Is that you?”
I still can’t respond, but I exhale a long, shaky breath.
“We’re okay,” Jesse continues. “Baz and me. He’s going home tomorrow and I should be out of here soon too. The cops came around this afternoon but I was still kind of out of it so I didn’t say much. I didn’t get the feeling they were looking to arrest me, though. I think they’ll see it for what it was—Gideon’s employees protecting themselves against a home invader who killed their boss.”
Another shaky sigh from me. I hadn’t realized how worried I was about what the police might do to Jesse and Baz. An anxiety further down the list than what Kyung might do to my brother, but no less real.
“I’m worried about you, Winter,” Jesse says.
A tiny sob sneaks out without warning. Stupid body. Stupid emotions.
“Please let us know you’re okay too. You can call back now if you want and I won’t answer. That way you could leave a message.”
The tone of his voice rises just slightly. I know that sound—it’s hope. It cuts me, but I can’t leave a message, just in case Jesse is wrong about the cops and their investigation. Messages are forever. This call record is forever. I need to hang up.
But I can’t. I can’t even move. I am paralyzed by Jesse’s voice. By his hope.
“You came by my room, right?” he continues. “When I woke up, I thought it was a dream, but my nurse told me it was real.”
“It was real,” I whisper. I pull my knees up toward my chin, tuck my body into the fetal position.
“Winter!” Jesse struggles to clear his throat. “I am so glad to hear from you. Where are you?”
“It’s better if I don’t say.”
“Better for who?”
“For both of us.”
“Come home,” Jesse says.
“I will, once I’ve taken care of some things,” I say softly. “I’m sorry for what I did to you, Jesse.” I think of the bruises on his face, and worse, the injuries I can’t see. The ones caused by the cruel things I said.
“Winter, you don’t have to—”
“I should hang up now.”
I disconnect the call before Jesse can tell me I don’t have to apologize for attacking him. I was out of my mind when I did it, but that’s a reason, not an excuse. I turn the phone off and slide it back into my purse.
I try once more to go to sleep. But as soon as I close my eyes, my head is flooded with images of my sister—Rose smiling, Rose laughing, Rose bleeding, Rose dying. I hate that these memories are just fragments, moments out of order, snapshots out of context. Tears leak into the softness of my pillow. “I want to remember all of you,” I whisper. “I want the pieces to fit.”
The voices in my head are quiet for once. Eventually the night is kind, stealing me into its dreamworld, where I get a momentary reprieve from the pain of not knowing.
Until I wake up the next day, and I’m not in my bed.
My breath sticks in my throat as my eyes flicker open. The surface beneath me is wet and cold, the lights bright but hazy. A soft pattering echoes in my ear like raindrops on pavement. I blink hard as I lift myself to a seated position. I’m in the bathroom, on the floor of the shower.
Struggling to my feet, I reach out and turn the water off. Shivering violently, I reach for the nearest towel and wrap it around my naked body. That’s when I see the message on the mirror. Dark red letters: WE HAD TO SEE IT.
My heart thrums in my chest. At first I think the message is written in blood, but as I get closer I see one of the tubes of lipstick I bought back in St. Louis sitting on the edge of the sink. My recorder headset sits next to it.
“See what, Rose?” I murmur. “What did you do?” I take the headset back into the main room and quickly pull on sweatpants and a T-shirt. I double-check that the door and windows are locked. Then I recline back on my bed and play the ViSE. I fast forward through about an hour of peaceful darkness before I get to the start of the action.
I sit up in bed, my feet sliding around to land on the hardwood floor. I go to the wardrobe and change from my pajamas into one of the dresses I bought at the mall. The soft fabric caresses my skin. I grab the blond wig and go to the bathroom. Flicking on the lights, I slip the wig on over my headset. I study myself in the mirror for a couple of moments and then reach for my bag of toiletries. I fish out a tube of lipstick and an eyeliner pencil.
“Seriously, Rose?” I mutter. “I’m not sure now is the time to be going out clubbing.”
After applying a bit of makeup, I grab my purse and keys from the dresser and head for the door. Outside, the night air is surprisingly chilly on my bare legs. The branches of a nearby plum tree swish against each other in the wind, casting wavering shadows on the pavement.
I cross the street and turn left at the corner, swearing under my breath as the heel of my boot gets caught in a sidewalk crack. The sound of a car braking cuts across the night, startling me. My heart accelerates in my chest. I pause, looking back over my shoulder, looking left, looking right. There is only silence and the overlapping darkness of houses and shops stacked close to one another. I start walking again, heading for a larger intersection a couple of blocks away.
I have no idea where Rose is going, but I’m not surprised where she ends up.
A red-and-green gazebo rises up before me, illuminated slightly by streetlights. The painted latticework blurs before my eyes. Beyond it, a steel-and-glass hotel building stands twelve stories high. No one is coming or going at this time, but light emanates from the first-floor lobby and I can see the movement of staff or guests beyond the wall of glass.
My heart sinks low in my stomach. I should fast-forward this. I’ve already remembered my sister’s death. I watched Sung Jin stab Rose like it was happening. I killed him for it. I don’t need to go back to that place. I should put it all behind me.
But my alter is right. I have to see the elevator.
I cross the street in front of the hotel, pausing in the middle for a car to go past. It’s black and sleek. The kid behind the wheel doesn’t look much older than me. Our eyes meet for a fraction of a second and then he looks away. I turn my attention back to the hotel.
I can’t help but wonder if there are girls inside this hotel doing what I used to do. The thought sickens me.
I step into the revolving door and out into the lobby. My boots make a soft clicking noise against the marble floor tiles. I stride right past the desk clerk as if I already have a key. There are two elevators located at the back of the building.
I can’t remember which one it happened in. Both of them make my heart climb into my throat. Both of them make me think of tombs. For years I’ve been afraid of elevators, but I only recently realized why—because I watched my sister be stabbed to death in one.
I press the button to summon the elevators, backing away slightly as the red numbers count down toward one. When the first one opens, it’s the same size as I remember, but different paneling, different floor tile. Even different buttons. I wait for the second elevator, but it’s also been remodeled. I stand still for a moment. Then I turn and head back out into the night.
As Rose retraces her steps back to the guesthouse, a wave of emotions rushes through me—relief followed by confusion followed by despair. I don’t know exactly what my alter wanted, if some part of me was hoping to actually stand in the place where my sister stood. See things through her eyes. Feel her pain. But whatever I went looking for, I left without it.
There were no answers.
There is no closure.
It’s like a part of my history has been erased.
On Monday, I wake up early so I can take special care disguising myself before returning to UsuMed. My blood courses with anxiety as I work my legs into a pair of pantyhose, my fingers shaking as I affix my headset to my skull and clamp it tight. I slide the reddish-blond wig over the top and adjust tendrils of hair around my face until everything looks natural. Heading into the bathroom, I apply some pale pressed powder, eyeliner, mascara, and lipstick. I blink at my reflection. Even I can barely recognize myself.
This level of disguise is probably unnecessary, but in the unlikely event I cross paths with Kyung or someone from my past, I want to be certain they don’t recognize me. Cold fingers rake down my spine at the thought of coming face-to-face with the man who bought me like a slave and sold me like a product, the man who was responsible for Rose’s and Gideon’s deaths.
I take a taxi to a coffee shop two blocks away from UsuMed, arriving just in time to see the sun start to rise over the city. I pay the driver and slip into the shop, buying a small green tea to soothe my nerves and a ham-and-cheese sandwich to eat later.
After I’ve relaxed a little, I duck out of the shop and head for the apartment building where I’ll be keeping watch. I loiter outside again, pretending to be looking something up on my phone until I’m able to slip into the building when a resident leaves. I pick the lock to the elevator machine room and find the spot on the roof where I have the best view of the UsuMed main gate.
Traffic into the campus picks up around seven thirty a.m., and the cars come in steady for the next two hours. There is also a stream of employees entering on foot, most of whom come off the bus that stops right in front of the gate. Additional people enter the grounds sporadically until around ten. Then there’s no action at all for the better part of an hour. I pull my wrapped sandwich out of my purse and choke it down without a drink. It manages to be both soggy and dry at the same time.
Around eleven thirty, a few cars start to pull out, probably to go to lunch. Clusters of people walk through the gate on foot as well. No Jun. I grow restless as the afternoon drags on, doing some stretching and push-ups during the slow period. I’m trying to ignore the possibility that he’s not employed here, that maybe he works for Kyung in some other capacity, like as a landscaper or delivery boy, or helping out with his human trafficking side business. If I can’t find Jun by staking out UsuMed, I’m going to have to meet with Kyung, give him the disabled ViSE tech, and go from there.
But I know sometimes laborers work twelve-hour shifts, so I’m not giving up yet. I pull Sung Jin’s phone out of my purse and skim through the pictures Kyung sent to me once again.
Movement on the street below attracts my attention. A dark-haired woman is walking down the sidewalk, the fingers of a school-aged girl clutched in her hand. My eyes trace the curve of the woman’s pregnant belly and a memory flits into my head.
I’m sitting on the hardwood floor of a small house, holding a wrapped package. In the background, Christmas music is playing. My mother walks into the room with my sister beside her. I flip my gaze to my mother’s stomach as my sister says something about a baby. My mom smiles and pats her own belly.
I look back at the pregnant lady on the street, trying to decide if the memory is real or fake. She and her daughter step inside the coffee shop. I wonder if I ever went to a coffee shop with my mother. Why don’t I know more about my childhood? If I have a brother, I should remember him, shouldn’t I?
There is a mass exodus from UsuMed around six p.m. and then a few more cars start to trickle out between seven and seven thirty. Just as I’m starting to think about leaving, a bus pulls up to the bus stop just down from the main entrance. A few people get off and start heading in various directions. I don’t pay them any attention until I notice one of them approaching the UsuMed gate. It’s him—the boy from the picture.
Copyright 2017 by Paula Stokes. All rights reserved.