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promise not to let go

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Lee Sookyung considered herself a capable woman.

She didn’t say that out of arrogance. She thought that, counting her accomplishments in life so far, it wasn’t too far-fetched to call herself such.

She had graduated from high school with an above average score, got accepted into a reputable university, and received a decent job as a manager in the entertainment industry. She made her way up steadily over the years until she was hired for the position of the manager of a highly-revered supermodel. Though she and her husband had no feelings for each other—they were brought together through an arranged marriage by their respective families—she had an agreeable relationship with him and honestly felt happy and satisfied with her little family of three.

But, she reflected, while she believed herself to be a capable woman, the same could not be said of her role as a mother. 

That was what she thought as she looked at her beloved son, holding onto her sleeve with a trembling hand just as she was about to leave. He looked up at her with eyes filled with desperation that no ten-year-old child should have. His mouth was moving, but no sound came out. Had she not been paying attention to him, she would have completely missed what he was trying to say.

Take me with you.

That was when she realized something was wrong. She took a look behind him.

From where they were standing by the front door, she could see her husband watching them. The man was looking at them with a smile, and usually she would have responded with a smile of her own, but now the only thing she felt was a discomforting uneasiness.

Lee Sookyung had a thought. Perhaps she had had this thought from a long time ago, but her disbelief and foolishness made her brush it aside. When she thought back to her son’s weak smiles, careful steps, and quiet disposition, perhaps...

Perhaps.

There was a chance that this was a false alarm, that her mind was blowing things out of proportions, that maybe there was a misunderstanding somewhere. But, as she looked at her son who was still staring at her, at the tiny sliver of hope on his face that was slowly diminishing the longer her silence stretched, she knew she had to do something.

She acted quickly.

“Dokja-ya, did you miss me that much?” She smiled as if nothing was wrong and patted his head gently with the hand that wasn’t being gripped.

She didn’t know if it was because he had caught her subtle signal or not, but he slowly nodded his head. The grip on her sleeve tightened, as if he was holding on to his only lifeline, and Lee Sookyung could feel her heart break just a little.

Making up her mind, she gathered the child in her arms and picked him up. He was admittedly rather heavy for her, but she knew that he was still too small for a child his age, and that thought further saddened her. She looked ahead and saw her husband staring at her questioningly. She calmly said, “I’m taking him to work with me.”

She felt more than saw the man’s mood change slightly, becoming more cautious. “Why so suddenly?”

“I just thought it’s high time Dokja-ya and I have a little bonding moment. I haven’t been home in a long time after all. I also want to have my own alone time with him, you know?” She tried to make her answer sound as casual as possible.

Unconvinced, he asked, “Would your employer even allow it?” 

“Today’s schedule isn’t too serious, and Persephone wouldn’t mind something like this.”

A slight frown was forming on his face before it quickly smoothed out. At ease, he said, “You’re probably right. But he’s all grown now, he should be at an age where he feels embarrassed to be clinging to his mom all the time. Isn’t that right, Dokja?”

Now that she was paying attention, she could feel a faint trace of threat in his questioning tone. The man himself probably didn’t even notice it. She felt the child in her arms flinch slightly. She tightened her grip and answered for him, “Of course not. You missed me, right, Dokja-ya? Let’s hang out today, just the two of us.”

Her son was an obedient child, he would nod if he were asked like that. She knew this fact, and she was sure that her husband also knew it. That was why he threw that question at the end, and it was also why she did the same.

As she expected, her son nodded, making her smile. Her husband had no choice but to let him go with her, unless he wanted to completely ruin the farce he was currently maintaining.

She lifted her head to look at the man and felt her insides froze. He was staring at her with an expression she had never seen on him before. It was a blank, cold look, and for a second she debated on whether or not she should drop her mask of calmness and just run out with Dokja right then and there.

But not a moment later his countenance returned back to normal. The man gave her a smile and said, “Well, if that’s the case, have fun.”

Perhaps because he couldn’t hold on to his amicable expression for long, he immediately turned around and went upstairs soon after saying that. She only let herself slightly relax after she heard the sound of a door opening and closing.

She looked at the child in her arms. Her son was looking at her in wonder, as if she had just accomplished an impossible feat. Lee Sookyung felt slightly bitter inside. She truly was a terrible mother, if something like this was enough to amaze her son.

“Let’s get out of here, Dokja-ya.”


Persephone knew Lee Sookyung as a very punctual person. If she was told to be somewhere on time, she would not show up one minute early nor late.

Which was why she was worried when she looked at the clock. 10:38 AM. Her reliable manager was over half-an-hour late. She wondered slightly if the woman had gotten into an accident, but if that were the case then she should have been informed sooner. Persephone knew that Lee Sookyung had put her as one of her emergency contacts, because she herself had forced the latter to.

If she recalled correctly, her manager was supposed to make her way to her apartment after a week-long break, which she said she was going to spend with her family. Perhaps something unexpected had come up at home?

Just as she was about to call Lee Sookyung one more time, the doorbell to her house rang.

She opened her door and was greeted with the sight of her manager… holding onto the hand of a small child.

Seeing her confusion, Lee Sookyung started before she could say anything, “I’ll explain everything. For now, can we come inside?”

They made their way inside. Persephone was about to lead them to the living room, but—

“Actually, I was wondering if you can lend us your guest room before we continue? I think Dokja-ya is tired.”

At that, the child—Kim Dokja, Persephone realized, Lee Sookyung’s son—pulled on his mother’s hand to catch her attention and shook his head.

“I’m not tired.” His voice was barely above a whisper.

Lee Sookyung crouched, “I understand. But Mom and her friend have something to talk about and you might get bored, so you should go rest while you wait for us to finish.”

The child fell silent. He looked down and said softly, “You said you wouldn’t leave me anymore…”

That was the first time Persephone had heard a child sound so betrayed. It was also the first time she saw Lee Sookyung make such a heartbroken face. The mother quickly pulled her son in for a gentle hug.

“I’m sorry, Dokja-ya, I wasn’t honoring my promise. You can listen to us talk, okay?”

The boy in her arms nodded, and they made their way to the living room. Persephone had kept quiet, but as soon as they got settled she couldn’t help herself from asking, “What happened?”

“That…”

Lee Sookyung told her everything. About what happened that morning before she left her house and her suspicions towards her husband. She explained those things to Persephone while her son sat on her lap, leaning against her for comfort, and likewise she circled her hands around his small form as if to protect him.

They sat in silence after she finished explaining. Persephone processing the things she just heard, Lee Sookyung giving her time to do so, and little Kim Dokja having fallen asleep sometime in the middle of everything.

Finally, Persephone made her move. She moved closer to Lee Sookyung and took her hand.

“Don’t worry, Sookyung-ah. Please let me handle this.”


Lee Sookyung didn’t know what Persephone had done, but a few days afterwards, she received the news that her husband—soon to be ex-husband, immediately after the documents were signed—had been arrested on the grounds of domestic abuse.

She suspected that it had something to do with the model’s connections, perhaps even her husband’s, but she wouldn’t question it. She was just glad that things were over quickly and she could put her full focus on her son.

Speaking of which, she found her eyes stray towards the small child who was making himself comfortable on the living room’s carpeted floor, lying down on his stomach with his face buried in today’s choice of children’s book.

They were currently residing in Persephone’s house for the foreseeable future. Lee Sookyung believed that their house was no longer a place she would want Dokja to set foot into again, considering the bad memories associated with it. She hadn’t wanted to bother Persephone any more than she already had, but the latter had insisted that the two stay with her, at least until she found a new house to move into with her son, and firmly refused to give in. In the end, Lee Sookyung had no choice but to comply.

Persephone was delighted, and Lee Sookyung could guess the reason why. The woman had always adored children, and both she and her husband had always wanted one or several of their own. Unfortunately, their house had been devoid of young life ever since their union.

It wasn’t as if they weren’t trying, as Persephone had openly told her before. It was because they realized she couldn’t conceive.

The thought of adopting a child had crossed their minds, but given the busy nature of their respective jobs, they were afraid that they would end up neglecting the poor child instead, so they decided not to.

That’s why Persephone was so happy that they would be staying with her. Not only because she was glad to be of help to her friend, but also because the presence of a child in the house would help soothe her years of longing.

Just then, she heard the sound of the front door opening and closing. It seemed like Persephone and her husband were finally back from the business party of one of the model’s associates.

“Dokja-ya, Sookyung-ah, we’re back~” Persephone called out. Right behind her was the looming presence of her husband, Hades.

Her son looked up at the call, but quickly stiffened when he made eye-contact with the man. He stood up from his sprawled position and quickly went to Lee Sookyung’s side, sitting next to her on the couch and doing his best to merge with her arm that he was holding to hide with.

Seeing that reaction, the man’s initially calm face fell, a slight gloominess making its way forward.

“I still have some unfinished work so I’ll be in the study if you need me.”With that, he handed the bag he had been holding to Persephone and swiftly made his way upstairs, leaving the three people staring at his retreating form in silence.

When he was gone, Lee Sookyung turned to Dokja.

“Dokja-ya, that was very rude of you.” She gave him a gentle but firm scolding. Her son looked down in guilt.

“It’s fine, Sookyung-ah. My husband understands why Dokja-ya would be scared of him.”

Of course, she also knew the reason why. Her Dokja had been constantly hurt by his father to the point where he now had an aversion to any adult male figure he came across. It doesn’t help that Hades had a very stiff countenance and didn’t really know how he could make himself seem harmless to the child.

“I’m sorry…”

Her son looked like he really regretted his actions, and she couldn’t stay angry at him when she remembered the way he trembled slightly when Hades was still present. Lee Sookyung sighed and lifted a hand, raking it through his hair.

“Let’s find a way to apologize to him, okay?”

He nodded obediently. Persephone moved to sit on his other side and took out a big, neatly-wrapped present from the bag in her hands, giving said present to him. Dokja looked at it in curiosity.

“Hades and I stopped by somewhere on the way home to get them for you. The reason it’s wrapped, well…” she paused, “It looks good, doesn’t it?”

The child wasn’t sure how to respond to that, so he just nodded. Persephone ruffled his hair slightly and urged him to open it.

Inside the box was a collection of different items. A storybook, a small toy car, a plushie of a squid, and a drawing book that came along with a box of crayons.

“The storybook is from me. I know how much you love to read, afterall. The others were chosen by Hades. I think he really wants to spoil you,” she threw the last part in as a joke.

That only served to make Dokja look even more guilty. Persephone hurriedly said, “Awh, baby, I didn’t mean to make you more upset. I was thinking you can make it up to him by making good use of the gift.”

The child perked up, “... How?”

“Hmm, maybe you can make something for him as an apology?” As she said that, she gestured at the drawing book and the box of crayons. Dokja’s expression brightened up, and he immediately took out the two items from the box and settled himself on his previous spot on the floor so he could draw more comfortably.

The two women watched as the child drew on one page of the drawing book enthusiastically. Lee Sookyung turned to Persephone and mouthed a ‘thank you’, to which the latter only replied with a wave of her hand, telling her not to think too much of it.


Truth be told, Hades felt slightly sad.

Scratch that, he was very sad. It seemed that there’s still a long way before Lee Sookyung’s child would warm up to him.

He sighed, thinking back to the present he had gotten with Persephone. He had wanted to hand it over to the child himself, as a show of his care for him, but Dokja’s reaction upon seeing him was to hide behind his mother. What would happen if Hades had approached? The child might even run away.

Which was why he handed the present to his wife and left immediately so the child would feel more comfortable. Persephone should have told him to open it by now. He hoped Dokja liked the gifts he chose.

(“Honey, I think wrapping it is a bit excessive…”

“...”

“... Well, it’s fine, I guess. So stop looking at me as if you’re about to cry.”)

Well, he wasn’t lying about unfinished work, anyway. He was about to focus back on the papers before him again when he heard muffled voices from outside the office door.

“It’s alright, just knock. He won’t mind.”

Some rustling sounds, then—

Knock, knock.

Hades stood up and walked to open the door, but before he could even grasp the handle, something slipped in from under the door and he could hear the sound of hurried footsteps fading away. He picked up the piece of folded paper on the ground and unfolded it.

It was a drawing obviously made by a child. On the top left of the paper was a messy handwriting that said ‘my family’. In the drawing there were figures of several people. In the middle was a small child drawn with a blue crayon holding hands with two people. An arrow pointing to the child labeled the figure as ‘me’.

On the child’s right side, an orange figure with hair seemingly tied in a low ponytail was pointed out to be ‘mom’. On his left side was a purple long-haired figure, with an arrow that said ‘aunty perse’.

And behind the small child stood a tall, looming figure drawn in a black crayon, and the label written for that figure was ‘uncle hades :)’.

Hades could feel his eyes warm slightly as he thought that the day where Dokja would open up to him might not be that far off in the future.

From then, whenever someone walked into Hades’ office in his company, they would see a child’s drawing being hung on the wall in an intricately-designed picture frame. They might also catch a glimpse of the man looking at the picture with a serious look on his face, only to smile to himself not long after. As time passed, the drawings would increase, until there was a section of the office wall dedicated solely for them.


At first, Kim Dokja was alone.

Well, not really. He had his mom and his dad. His mom wasn’t there often though, having to leave a lot because of her job, so for most of his life the only other person with him was his dad.

Kim Dokja recalled the times when the man would take him to the nearby park and watch over him as he played on a swing, buy him ice cream even though his mom had told him to cut back on the sweets, help him puzzle through his school assignments. 

(His dad was a nice person.)

Then, he started to change. Kim Dokja thought the change must have been gradual, because he didn’t notice it at first.

His dad no longer enjoyed going out with him. Even when they went out, he refused to wait for too long and often said he would leave Kim Dokja if he took too long.

His dad no longer gave him treats, sometimes even forgetting to feed him altogether, and he would be left having to somehow make his own food to eat if he didn’t want to go hungry.

His dad no longer helped him with school-related stuff, saying he was busy with work, even when all he was doing was drinking the drink made for grown-ups or sitting on the couch watching the television.

(His dad was…)

Then, things took a turn for the worst.

He was no longer allowed to go out of the house except for school. He had to return home as soon as school was over and the door was locked as soon as he was home, the key put somewhere out of his reach.

He would deliberately be starved. His dad no longer stocked up on food ingredients at home and only ordered take-out, not giving him any unless he was in a good mood. The only time he would stock up was when his mom came back home.

He would sometimes be hit. It happened the first time because Kim Dokja was ‘being annoying’. The other times, he wasn’t sure what he did, but he thought that he must have done something wrong in his dad’s eyes.

(…)

Kim Dokja didn’t know what to do. He was just a child, only reaching the age of ten not too long ago. All he knew was that he was really tired. He really wanted it to stop. He wanted to be taken away somewhere, to a place where he wasn’t abused and mistreated. A place that only existed far within his past and in his dreams.

Kim Dokja was the very opposite of a brave child. He preferred to sit on the bench and watch as the other children play on the monkey bars during recess. So he had never taken the first step towards a chance of freedom.

Until that day.

He really didn’t know what came to him. Perhaps it was because, at the time, his mom had stayed at home for longer than usual and his dad had no choice but to stop his usual abuse in order not to be found out by her.

For the first time in a long while, he felt as if he could breathe. After school, he would sometimes go out to the park with his mom instead of his dad. He would be allowed at the dinner table again, allowed to eat the same food his parents were eating. He wouldn’t have to go to bed while nursing bruises that throbbed to the point where he could hardly sleep.

When his mom was leaving a week later, he felt terrified. So terrified, he pushed himself to be brave and act. He gripped her sleeve and didn’t let go.

His mom returned the grip and promised not to let go.

That was the day Kim Dokja’s dream started to slowly become reality.

He no longer needed to see his dad. No longer had to return to the house that acted as his cage. He gained back his mom after a long time in her absence, and gained two more people in his life who would look after him in a way his dad would never have. He called them all his family, and they allowed him to call them that.

And that was the start of Kim Dokja’s happiness.