|It starts with a pack of cigarettes.|
She stands there, literally fidgeting in her black boots and school uniform as she asks for a pack of “Marlboro’s, red. None of that light stuff.” Jinki studies her face – the slight bags under her eyes, the tremble of her lower lip, the glow from her skin, her long brown hair in waves around her face – and slowly reaches behind him to grab what she wants, setting it on the counter.
“Are you old enough?” He asks and his voice is unusually high, unlike normal. The way she stares at him now is ferocious, almost feline, and Jinki is pretty sure she wants to bite his head off.
“Don’t I look old enough?! What are you trying to say?” She’s challenging him, smirk tweaking her upper lip, eyes slowly narrowing his way. Jinki stutters an apology and rings her up, and she spills her money everywhere on the counter in a mess of bills and coins.
“Shit, sorry.” She mumbles and grabs the pack of cigarettes before bolting out the front door, the bell above the door ringing as any evidence of her leaves with her rushed exit.
Jinki counts in a daze after she’s gone, and she overpays by two dollars.
She comes in exactly three days later at exactly the same time, same outfit and hair. Only this time, there’s a black and blue tint under her right eye, covered up with layer upon layer of makeup. Jinki isn’t sure what to say, only grabs the red pack of Marlboro’s for her and rings her up.
When she reaches into her pocket to pay, he waves her off with a gentle smile.
“You overpaid last time, don’t worry about it.” The look on her face is of relief, and she takes the cigarettes, moving the pack around her fingers before stuffing it in her bag.
“Thanks mister.” She tells him, a small smile gracing her face before it turns into a pained expression.
“Jinki.” He says as she’s moving towards the door, and she pauses, hand on the window to the door.
“I’m not going to remember that.” She tells him before disappearing out the door once again, the bells ringing with her disappearance.
She doesn’t come in again until almost a week later, and it’s a different atmosphere. She isn’t wearing her usual school uniform – no, this time, it’s a black miniskirt and a loose t-shirt that’s falling off her shoulder. Knee boots with a killer heel, he notices as well, her hair straightened and sleek around her sunglasses.
“The usual?” Jinki asks in a timid voice, turning to reach behind him for the cigarettes.
“No, he-“ She catches herself, “I want menthol this time. I’m getting tired of the regular.”
Jinki is silent for a moment as he grabs that green box, keeping it in his hand as he goes to ring her up once again. “You’re… not really old enough, are you?”
“What’s it to you?” She asks in a snide voice as she lights up a cigarette right there in front of him, taking a long drag before letting it go into the air.
“Ah.. you. You can’t smoke in here.” He tells her, and even behind the sunglasses he can tell she’s glaring at him.
“What, are you going to call the cops on me? I’ve done worse.” She slides money over the counter his way, then braces herself on the glass as she takes another hit.
“No, I-“ He isn’t sure how to finish his sentence, but it doesn’t matter. The bell chimes and the door is almost thrown open, a boy with shaggy blonde hair walking in with a pissed off look on his face. He’s intimidating, and Jinki can tell the girl is scared by the way she clutches harder at the edge of the counter.
“Gwiboon, what the fuck is taking so long?” He bellows, and Jinki thinks, so that’s her name. Pretty name for a pretty girl.
“Jonghyun, would you fucking wait outside? Jesus Christ, I’m trying to be nice.” Her tone is forced and she takes another long drag of her cigarette, flicking the ashes on the floor. Jinki thinks he might be more worried about the carpeting if he weren’t worried about his own life.
“Well, hurry the fuck up. We have places to be.” He says before slamming the door shut behind him, violent ringing filling the room as the bells bang against the glass of the door. The room is silent after that, a shaky breath that leaves her the only thing that makes a sound.
“Sorry about that.” She says as she pays then snatches the cigarettes from his hand, heels dully making sounds against the carpet as she walks off. She’s almost to the door when he speaks up, voice quivering just a bit.
“Hey… I’m here… if you want to talk.”
She pauses, hand outstretched to the door as if she’s thinking about it. She turns back to look at him and Jinki finally gets a good look at her. Her makeup barely covers up the bruises on her face and arms, her sunglasses barely covering up the fact that she’s crying.
“You won’t be much fucking help.” She says and leaves in a huff, and Jinki watches with sad eyes as “Jonghyun” grabs her by her upper arm and not-so-gently forces her into the passenger’s seat of his car.
He doesn’t see her for two weeks after that. Jinki lays in bed some nights, wondering if she’s okay, if she’s hurt, if she’s even alive. He stays up and wonders if she’ll ever be back, if she’ll ever send even a small smile his way, if she’ll ever boss him around and make herself seem older again.
Then he wonders why he’s even thinking about her and all new thoughts pop-up. It seems neverending, and he sends a groan into his pillow. Another sleepless night.
It’s his turn to work the early shift – 6 am to 2 pm – and he barely can keep his eyes open. He makes himself coffee to wake up, but he can barely drag himself off the bus to get there. He fumbles for his keys in his pocket, taking them out to pick the right one, and when he finally does, he sees her.
She’s leaning against the side of the building, one leg perched up against the brick as she brings the cigarette to her lips. Jinki doesn’t say anything as he approaches, only jingles his keys a little bit to make sure she knows he’s there.
“Shit,” He hears her breathe, and Jinki finally lifts his head to look at her. She looks horrible. Faded yellow and blue bruises mark almost every inch of her face, her arms, her legs. Cuts are healing but still visible along her skin, in random patches of red and pink. Jinki can only guess what her uniform is hiding. “Do you always fucking work or something?”
He unlocks the door and walks in, offering the door for her to follow him. She hesitates but does anyways, and Jinki doesn’t say anything as he starts to clean up. If she wants to talk, he figures, she can first.
It’s completely silent, no words spoken between them as he starts to set up for the day. Lights on, doors unlocked, register on, everything perfectly aligned.
“I broke up with Jonghyun.” She says finally, and he looks up with a surprised look. She waves it off, though she winces a little bit.
“He fucking broke two ribs and almost broke my leg,” She says as she puffs at her cigarette, flicking the ashes into the ash tray on the counter. Jinki didn’t know when, but he started to keep one out just for her. It was almost impulsive. “I’ve been in the hospital for two fucking weeks… I just got out. And now I’m here again. Jesus fucking Christ, I must be nuts.”
“You should go to the police.” He tries to reason with her, but she scoffs at him, rolls her eyes and smacks her hand against the counter hard enough to make him jump.
“You actually trust those pigs? Hah, you’re so naïve. They can’t do a damn thing for me.”
Jinki almost doesn’t know what to say after that, because even though he’s tired and out of ideas to help, he still wants to be there for her. He just can’t come up with the right words to do it.
“I’m fine, minus all this shit. That’s what you were going to ask, right? Fucking predictable,” She takes a long drag of her cigarette, letting the smoke come out in small rings. “You worry too much for your own good. A goody two shoes type. I bet this is mommy’s store, isn’t it? And I bet you live in a small, rundown shack a couple blocks away by yourself with no one to come home to.”
“You act like you know me.” Jinki spits back, surprised by the anger in his tone, surprised at how angry her words have made him. She’s mid-drag when she pauses to look at him, face showing no emotion save for a smirk on her lips.
“Yeah?” She asks as she puts the cigarette out in the ash tray, a smirk playing on her lips as she does. “You’re like a book, I can read you clearly.”
“You act tough, but you’re not,” He tells her, and the smirk drops off her face immediately. He doesn’t look at her after that, finding the ash tray more exciting than anything else in the room. “You act like you’re not afraid, but you are… you’re afraid of a lot of things. Being alone, being worthless, being left behind. I think that’s why you let yourself be with people like Jonghyun. They control you and you like it because you’ve lost control over your whole life. Is that right?”
He doesn’t look up because she doesn’t say anything. He knows she’s left the store with the ringing of the bells and the slam of the front door. Only then does look up and out the window. He can see her running down the street, running away and at that moment, he wishes he could stop caring about her already.
It’s another week later, when he’s closing up shop that he sees her outside, under the dim light of the streetlights. Jinki can tell that she’s dressed up – her hair is up in curls, pinned and falling in just the right places to accent her jawline; her black dress shimmers even with the dim light; her heels tap against the asphalt as she waits (for him to walk over?), the sound intensified in the silence of the night.
He walks over to her, stuffing his keys and hands in his pockets as he stops right in front of her. She stares at him before extending her hand out to him, a stern look on her face.
“Take me on a date.”
Jinki looks at her hand, then her face. The bruises are gone now and he thinks that she is one of the most beautiful things that he’s ever seen, and he’s seen a lot in his 22 years.
He takes her hand with a smile, lacing their fingers together with a small nod. “Okay.”
“This is a nice surprise.” She says as she takes a puff of the newly lit cigarette in her hands, sitting on the couch in his apartment. He walks from the kitchen to the living room with two fresh, steaming bowls of noodles for them to eat because that’s all he feels like making after such a long day.
“I can cook, yes.” He mumbles as he awkwardly takes a seat next to her, unable to look at her without blushing. Instead, he takes a bite of his food, humming around the chopsticks and-
“Are you gay?” She asks suddenly and he almost chokes on his food. He turns to look at her with wide eyes, setting the chopsticks in his hand down into the bowl.
“What gave you that idea?!”
“I don’t know. You’re so fucking clean, and you can cook, and you haven’t even made a move on me yet. You’re definitely gay.” She sets her cigarette down into the makeshift ash tray – a small rice bowl – and shoots him a challenging look.
“I’m not gay.” His tone is pressed, jaw tightened, and hell, he’s been called a lot of things in the past but never gay. Her eyebrow is tweaked up like she’s surprised, and the moment she leans back against the back of the couch, he makes his move.
She tastes just like an ash tray, not that he’s ever tasted one in the first place, and he can hear her sigh against his lips. Then suddenly he’s against the arm of his couch with her sitting in his lap, her fingers digging in to his sides as she grinds down on him, and-
“H-hey, wait, stop.” He tells her, pushing her back just a little bit so he can get his mind straight, and the frown on her face while she looks down at him is oddly scary.
“I knew you were gay, I knew it, this is ridiculous-"
“I’m not gay, would you stop it?!” He shouts, and it’s the first time he’s shouted in a long time and she goes completely silent. He lets the silence linger for a little bit before sighing, running a few fingers down her cheek slowly. “I don’t want you to think you have to do this. I’m not like the other guys.. I'm not pushy. I’m fine with kissing, taking it slow. You deserve to be treated like a person, not a sex object. You’re more than that. You’re beautiful and amazing, and I don’t want you to feel rushed in to some fling you’re not ready for and- hey…”
She’s crying. He feels little water droplets hit his cheek and he cuts his words off, staring up at her with a worried expression. He’s never seen her cry so openly before, and he’s a bit surprised she isn’t scrambling to cover up because it’s not really like her. He doesn’t say anything about it because he knows that she doesn’t need it, doesn’t need the words of comfort or anything like that.
“No one’s said that to me before.” She mumbles after she wipes her mascara stained tears from her cheeks. There’s a small smile on her face, a genuine one, and he blushes and lowers his head to keep from saying something idiotic like, I love you already.
They spend the rest of the night cuddling without words because none really need to be said, and once and a while, he presses slow kisses to her trembling lips. He knows how she feels through her small squeezes of his upper arms, the soft sighs against his collarbones, and the mumbles of her thanks against his skin. They fall asleep like that, with his arm around her shoulder, her head tucked underneath his chin, and he couldn’t have asked for anything better.
When he wakes up the next morning, he wakes up alone, his arms cold from lack of her heat. It takes him a second to realize she isn’t there, and it only hits him when he sees her pack of cigarettes and a note that says only Goodbye.
He doesn’t worry at first, only thinks about how he’ll see her later at work, but she doesn’t swing by and she doesn’t wait for him after work and force him to take her out.
He still doesn’t worry when she doesn’t show up the next day, because she comes and goes for weeks and then shows up, so he’s used to not seeing her.
On the third day, he starts to worry, because something doesn’t feel right in his gut and he wants to see her again, if he’s being completely honest with himself.
After a week, he considers calling the police and filing a missing persons report, but he hasn’t heard of any murders in the area and he’s sure she’ll turn up soon. He’s sure of it.
And he’s right, but not the way he wants to be. A week and a half after her disappearance, he gets off the bus for work and there she is, leaning against the wall, smoking like usual. He walks up silently, and he wants to say something but he can’t, because she’s bloody, sweaty and dirty, and a million questions float through his mind but nothing comes out.
“Hi.” She says quietly, using the heel of her boot to put the cigarette out, letting the last of the smoke leave through her nose.
“Hey.” He answers back and suddenly he feels awkward, hands shoved deep into his pockets, rocking back and forth on his heels. She’s quiet, staring out towards the rising sun, running a hand through her matted hair as best as possible.
“You saved my life,” She tells him quietly, and he can’t tell if she’s being sarcastic or sincere, though with the way she starts to sniffle, he guesses it’s the latter. He doesn’t say anything, only goes to stand next to her against the wall, arms crossing over his chest as he lets her finish. “Jonghyun came to my apartment last night and decided to teach me a lesson or some dumb shit like that. He caught me off guard ‘cause I’ve been packing up to move-"
“Wait, you’re moving?” Jinki asks, and it earns him a slap on the arm for interrupting her story.
“That’s not the point asshole, the point is that I got the shit beat out of me as you can tell,” She sighs and looks at him for a second before turning her attention back to the sky. “So I listened to your advice and called the cops.”
Jinki doesn’t ask what happened and he doesn’t ask if she’s alright. No, instead, he scoops her into a big hug, holding her closely, and he smiles when she curls closely to him. He forgets about reality for a couple minutes, forgets about her move, forgets about her bruises and how they barely know each other, and just mumbles into her hair.
“Let’s run away together, you and me. I’ll protect you, I’ll treat you well, I’ll-"
“I barely even know you, stop being such a fucking melodramatic teenager. This isn’t a drama.” She tells him and pushes him back, her face contradicting her angry words. She looks so vulnerable, so upset, so torn, and he just wants to hold her forever, even if she won’t let him.
Jinki stays silent because she’s right. They barely know each other aside from a couple of packs of cigarettes and more than a few kisses. She sighs and puts a hand to her forehead, and Jinki wants to scream at her to stay so they can get to know each other, but she’d be too stubborn to listen, he knows.
“When?” He asks softly, hands back in his pockets as he watches her closely. She fidgets and she looks so uncomfortable that he’s starting to feel it himself.
“Today. I leave for America today. I have family there, they’ll take care of me for a while, so-"
“I’ll miss you.” He tells her and her eyes snap up to his. He watches as tears form in her eyes, but she turns away before he can see it, before she can really start crying.
“Don’t be stupid,” She mumbles, rubbing her fingers under her nose for a second before her hands drop to her sides. “Look, I gotta go, okay? Have a good life or something. You kind of deserve it.”
And before he can even whisper a goodbye, she’s running down the street, into the forming crowds of Seoul’s busy mornings, and he watches her back until he can’t see her anymore and then she’s lost forever.
Jinki doesn’t count how many months pass, but he knows it’s a lot. He stays working at the store full time for a bit more before he finds a better job working as a receptionist at a law firm. It’s not so bad, but he keeps the store job for weekend shifts because he misses it a little.
Or does he miss her? He doesn’t really understand why he still expects her to show up at night, smoking a few cigarettes and berating him about her age. He keeps the ashtray out anyways, just in case, though he knows she’s never coming back.
He isn’t supposed to work that particular Friday night, but a co-worker calls in sick, so he covers the shift. He is dead tired by the time 3rd shift even rolls around, but he drinks an energy drink that helps just a little bit.
It’s extremely slow that night and Jinki is about to fall asleep when the door bells chime, and he doesn’t even have time to look up before she starts talking to him.
“God, do you work here all the time?”
It takes his breath away and when he looks up at her, his heart goes crazy because there she is, in all her glory. Her hair is blonde now, short and layered by her face, but it’s still the same Gwiboon, still the same girl he had been missing for all those months. Her lips are quirked up in a smirk and he knows she’s just messing with him, and he can’t really be mad at her for it.
“Gwiboon. What…” He breathes out and she sends a grin his way, shrugging a little bit. She takes out her pack of cigarettes and starts smoking right there in the store one more time, and it’s just like nothing has changed.
“I figured you missed me a little bit, so I came back to visit or something. Aren’t you happy to see me? You better be.” She laughs and blows the smoke right in his face, blinking innocently when he starts to cough because of it.
“In jail for a long time. Drug bust a month or two back. His two best friends went too, I’m sure they’re having the time of their lives. Probably have a few bitches or two to smack around in prison.”
Her attitude definitely hasn’t changed and she leans against the counter with her hand, smiling his way. Jinki doesn’t really know what to do, because his hands are shaking and his mind is going crazy, but she seems totally alright. It confuses him how she can be so unaffected sometimes, but he knows that’s just how she is.
“Do you know how hard you are to track down? Man, you’re like Waldo or some shit. I had to get your friend to call off work tonight just so I could see you. Paid him like 200 bucks to do it, so you better make up for it.”
He smiles then as she puts her cigarette out, reaches over the counter to grab her neck and pulls her in for a kiss before he can really think about it. But it’s okay because she kisses him back, a hand on his arm, and even though it’s awkward and the counter is digging in to his stomach, Jinki thinks it’s the best kiss of his life.
“Let’s run away together,” She whispers to him the moment after she pulls back, a grin on her face, “I’ll protect you, take care of you, that sort of thing.”
“Isn’t that my line?” He whispers right back, and Gwiboon laughs, high and tinkling in the silent store. “Besides, I think you’ve done enough running for the both of us, don’t you agree?” He says, thumb running over her cheek slowly, their noses bumping together.
“I still barely know you.” She tells him, just like the last time they saw each other, and Jinki just grins, leaning as far over the counter as he can so he can kiss her better.
“I think it’s about time you find out.” He counters and she has no smart retort to that.
She leans back, letting go of him with a flick of her hair and a wave, and he watches her closely, unsure of what she’s even thinking. Then she asks for “Marlboro’s, red. None of that light stuff.” just like the first time they met, only this time she’s smiling at him, eyes dancing playfully as he reaches to get it with a smile of his own.
It ends with a pack of cigarettes.