Hae Won was born in the late 1960s in the second largest city. It was once controlled by the North Koreans when they tried to overtake the nation to make it fully Communism. Her father had done his part to help the South Koreans by feeding the soldiers during the war. This had made her father proud to be born and raised in this fishing port city despite the poor living conditions he was raised in and lived in currently. His good deeds during the war was one of the few things he spoke of incessantly to his children. There were four of them: Dak Ho, age ten, Hae Won, age nine, Kyung Soon, age two, and Chin Hwa, age six months.
Up until the very end of their time together, Hae Won regarded her father as someone to be loved and feared. She wanted him to protect her from all things dangerous, but instead it was her mother who took on this vital role. Her mother was the one who gave her the foundation to stand on some thirty-five years later, long after her father was absent from her life. Her mother was the one she felt most connected with spiritually and mentally. They were the most like-minded out of all the family members. This deep connection brought on bigger responsibilities even though Dak Ho was a year older than her and a male. She took great pride in the fact her mother regarded her at the child to go to when things needed to get done especially during situations where thinking quick on your feet was warranted. One second meant the difference between being in trouble versus being in a whole lot of trouble. Her mother did not need to tell her this as she had plenty of experience.
She knew what the look her mother gave her weeks prior meant while eating dinner. It was a bittersweet glance she gave her. It tore Hae Won’s heart open a little bit, but she quickly patched it up with a smile. They ate heartily that night. They had feasted on foods most Koreans ate every night, but because of their financial situation, the fish and pork had become a rare occurrence for them. They savored every bite of it on this particular night. They did a lot of things out of the ordinary too. Their guard was still intact, but their protective walls were knocked down enough for them to laugh at heartfelt stories by Dak Ho and bad jokes by Kyung Soon. As food disappeared from their plates and settled into their stomachs, reality pulled back Hae Won and her mother. No one else knew about their plan except them. They verbally rehearsed the timing of each action for everything to go as planned when her father and siblings were not present earlier in that day.
This night would hold the most risk from all the other nights combined. She must not fail or else there would consequences not even she wanted to entertain. As she picked at the white rice in her bowl, now all alone, she hardly tasted its flavor as it went into her mouth and down her throat. It only made the knots in her stomach grow larger and remind her the importance of what she must do. Her successful completion of rescuing her baby sister was her mother’s dying wish. There had been so much heartache already. She could not bear anymore. She had to honor her protector. Her mother spoke to her in silence. Hae Won solemnly nodded and whispered words of encouragement to herself as she prolonged her gaze at the wall.
Hae Won father’s temperament recently had been withdrawn and his early drinking that night made him pass out shortly around nine. She needed him to retire to his bedroom for the plan to work. Her wish came true when he woke up to smoke a cigarette, drink another beer, and stumble into his bedroom where he passed out around nine forty-five. She waited thirty minutes before leaving her bedroom. If her father did not get up in thirty minutes, he more than likely would sleep through the night. There had been only a few nights where he woke up looking for trouble. She prayed tonight was not one of those.
The moon was at its fullest and brightest when she looked out the window. She held her breath as she shook her younger sister awake. She was ready to cover Kyung Soon’s mouth if she spoke, but did not have to as she was half asleep during the dressing stage. The thought of her being a deep sleeper made her smile. There was not much her younger sister would wake up to until she was good and ready. You could not force her to do something. She beat to her own drum. She walked to her own pace. She would miss this about her. Yet, this reminded her of someone, and that person was their father, and because of this it had worried their mother. She did not outright state this apprehension, but sometimes it flickered here and there with a tap of her fingers or scrunching of her face when Kyung Soon demanded something. Hae Won put this out of her mind as she dragged her younger sister by the hand across the room with a tattered cotton bag slung over her shoulder.
She composed herself at the door and listened. She heard her father’s snoring. It was loud and gravelly. It would take a dump truck to wake him, but he had the uncanny ability to wake up at the slightest noise, so when he stopped snoring her heart skipped a beat. She took a hesitant step when he resumed his snoring, and held her breath again when she passed her father’s door. It was now only a few paces from her parents’ bedroom to the front door, but tonight it seemed a football field length’s away. They tiptoed as quietly as the wooden floor allowed. Once at the front door, she shook Kyung Soon. She half-opened her eyes and closed them again. Hae Won was about to say something like, we are leaving now, but decided against it. Her younger sister would get the point eventually that she was not going to carry her once outside. She dared not look back toward her parents’ bedroom, but envisioned her mother waving encouragement to her. She swallowed hard and held back tears. The only thing she wanted was her mother at her side and to feel safe. She repeated her mother’s mantra under her breath. You are strong. You can do this. You have all the faith within you. You are the right choice. Now go do what you have to do.
The bag dangled from her wrist. She thought briefly how much of a nuisance it would be on the journey. The bag remained where it was, uncomfortable and cramping her forearm, as she was afraid to adjust it at the moment. She pressed onward. Placing her hand gently on the front door handle, it was difficult to turn with her sweaty palm. She smelled the outside air. Damn the mugginess out here, she thought, as well as what she was leaving behind. The new life she hoped to have made her uneasy and excited at the same time. With great intention she had opened the front door, and with equal purpose she closed it behind her.
It was outside her younger sister decided to assault her with questions. “What are we outside for? I wanna sleep. Why you carrying a bag? I’m sleepy. Where are we going? I’m tired. I wanna sleep.” Hae Won had to be careful to not let her sister know what was happening or else the journey would not be taking place. Known as the most inquisitive and stubborn sibling, she told her with emphasis, “you need to listen to me now more than ever now. We need to get away from here as quick as possible. I can’t explain it right now, but I will when we are safe.” Her younger sister nodded and did as she was told.
Hae Won gauged an hour had passed based on the fact there wasn’t any feeling in her arms. She could not know for sure but decided either way it was a good time to take a break. She plopped down and removed a water bottle from her bag. She was so thirsty but took a small sip as this water had to last her quite a while. She handed it to Kyung Soon who also took a small sip, then asked, “Where are we going?” Her thoughts went from her younger sister to her mother to her father to what would happen if they didn’t make it to what would happen if her father found out they were gone. Maybe, he was giving chase right now. This reality made her look in all directions. He was no where in sight. The thought still unnerved her and scrambled to her feet, grabbed Kyung Soon’s hand, and darted off with renewed energy, dragging her younger sister behind her.
It was during the second break she was able to answer her younger sister’s questions. “I’m doing this so no one will hurt you.” There was enough space in between them and their father. He probably wouldn’t find them if he were looking. She continued. “You remember what I told you about mother? She wanted me to keep you safe. This is why we had to leave. This is why I’m carrying this bag. To keep you safe.” She knew she was three-quarters to the police station, but there were still dangers. They for sure would bring them back home if they were discovered. The thought of returning made her shudder. Kyung Soon asked, “safe from father?” A wave of fear moved throughout her body when she thought of what her father would do to her the second the police left. She again looked in all directions for him. Hae Won uttered, “yes, safe from father.”
The chill still remained inside her as they made their way to the police station. She had brought food with her to last a few days after she had fulfilled her mother’s promise, but it was her luck a stray dog appeared looking for a handout. She tried to get the dog to leave, but it kept coming back. It would get close: twenty feet, fifteen, ten, five, but dart off when she moved toward it. She eventually threw a bit of her food and called it stupid as it devoured the rice. It continued to beg. She yelled, “that’s all I have, go away, and don’t follow me.” The dog half obeyed. After a while, it chased after her, keeping its distance so she could not see it. The dog saw and heard everything she saw and heard: cars zooming by, empty buildings, street lights, insects buzzing around, and random people here and there. A dog is a dog and when it barked, Hae Won whipped around to see it chasing something down the sidewalk, opposite of where she was going. Good riddance, she thought.
Pain stabbed the length of her arm from shoulder to fingers while her legs were rubbery and was sure the blisters on her feet were bleeding when she reached the police station steps. There was time for tending to her physical wounds later. The sun would be appearing soon and darkness would no longer be able to hide them. She removed the blanket from her bag and wrapped it around her exhausted younger sister. She instructed her to use her legs as a pillow and stroked her hair as her younger sister fell asleep. She removed a note from her bag and tucked it under the blanket. She stood up carefully not to wake up Kyung Soon and kissed her the last time. She whispered, “I will never forget you. I will always love you. You will be my younger sister forever.”
She did not know exactly where she would go after the journey, but her exhausted body took her in the direction not intended. She stopped in her tracks. Her legs buckled and her knees landed hard on the concrete. The pain radiated through her legs. Her arms raised into the air as she screamed, then brought her fists down hard. Pain radiated into her hands and then up her arms. She pounded the concrete again, and again, and again until her hands were bloody. Tears flooded her eyes and dripped off her nose as she stood on wobbly legs. She unclenched her bloody fists. She had fulfilled her duty, but she was not sticking to the plan.
Time was again important to her and noticed the same homeless dog staring at her. She threw the remaining food at the dog despite being hungry. It devoured it without hardly a bite. She took a long drink of water and left the rest in a littered cup for the dog. After the generous handout, the dog barked as if to say, thank you, and ran off, leaving Hae Won alone again. She stood there knowing the plan was worthless now without food and water. She scurried home as fast as her tired and broken body allowed her. She knew the punishment was inevitable and tried hard not to think of it, but every second counted when it came to her father. She could not get the words her mother told her out of her memory soon after Chin Hwa was born. You must stop him at all costs.
Excerpt from The Forever Stairs
It was not much past eight at night, but it may as well have been nearing midnight. There was not much light inside the empty apartment complex. The light bulbs that had once been hanging by yarn from the ceiling were either broken or burnt out. Yila had walked down these halls not too long ago, shortly after she had given birth to her daughter. She had been hired to clean the common areas and took to wiping the walls with great precision back then. She acted as if she was cleaning a building that held importance instead of one that soon would be condemned. The owner had the building for a long time and had ignored his tenants’ requests to improve their living situations. Over a short period of time, there were not many people living at the complex anymore, and this made her job obsolete, even though it hardly paid.
She would have given anything to have one of those rags in her hand at this moment, in the hopes it would take her mind off of the current events. She did not think she would ever set foot in this building again, but here she was with shaking hands, going down these wooden stairs, creaking each time she took a step. She gripped the handrail tighter, hoping this would stop her hands from shaking. It did little to steady herself and found her knees weakening until she was unable to move her legs at all.
She was barely able to hold herself up, and when she thought of what had recently happened, her body wilted into a heap on one of the steps. The enormity of what she had lost loomed over her like an invisible cloud. She breathed in deeply and exhaled deeper, in the hopes this would prevent her from bursting into tears. Her face tightened, holding back tears as best she could, but a few made its pathway down her cheek. She pawed at her cheek, wiping them away. She remained on the step, her buttocks planted firmly on the wood, as if she was meant to be there permanently.
As she tried to compose herself, the thought of never seeing Laurence sent her hands over her face, and she broke into an uncontrollable sob. The reality was so unbearable that she choked on her pain. Her hyperventilating lasted for a few moments until her mind focused on something else, her daughter. She had to be strong for Yanyu. She focused her watery eyes and could barely make out the front door. She chose to pay attention to its edges. Once I get to the door, I will be okay, she thought. I only need to take one step at a time. I can be strong. I have no other choice.
She stood, wiped her face, and made her way down the stairs. She was making good progress, but her accomplishment held less importance when the image of Laurence’s face entered her mind again. This time, instead of feeling sorrow, she felt regret. She had wanted to tell him so much more as he stood before her moments ago. He had been looking for honesty, and all she could give him was lies. She glanced behind her, as if maybe he was still in the empty room upstairs, even though she had watched him leave.
Her footsteps became sluggish for the remaining descent. This would be the last time she would be close to him. He had been adamant he did not want to see her ever again. His cologne still lingered in the air, and wished she could take a piece of his scent with her.
She was now at the bottom step and rested her hand on the doorknob in a kind of bittersweet farewell. She whispered even though no one was there. “I should have told you I loved you, but I guess it doesn’t matter now.”
She did not see him in the shadows. He had listened to her walk her deliberate steps, heard her every cry, and knew what she was thinking during her every footfall. He knew her better than she knew herself. He had tried over the weeks to convince her of his love, but she had retreated to where they had previously been when they first met. He waffled between letting her go forever or trying one more time to get through to her. He had told himself many times that he was strong enough without her, but it was complete foolishness because when she was not with him, he became a fragile and afflicted man unable to sleep well at night or think hardly during the day.
He came to the conclusion that regardless of how she felt he could not let her leave without saying a proper goodbye. A part of him hoped there was still a place within her heart, as even the tiniest of spots would have been sufficient at this juncture. He needed only a small amount of space to strike a match and create the spark between them again; and after hearing her say those words, he was convinced the fire between them had never burned out.
As her hand twisted the knob, his arm extended out of the shadows. When his hand rested over hers, she did not recoil as he thought. Maybe, she knew he was still there, but either way the situation remained in front of them. She gave no indication of how she felt at the moment, and as she stood there, her heart-beat pounding quicker by the second, it became clear to Laurence another piece of her defense had softened. He leaned closer to her, his lips grazing her ear lobe, and whispered, “It always matters.”