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Small Breath and Little Pause

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The day they got Hyun Woo back, he and Hye In slept for almost 12 hours, curled up together in Detective Cha’s single bed. On the way, Hyun Woo sat with her in the backseat; she pulled him almost onto her lap, sparing a thought for how the strap of his seat belt might be digging into him, letting gratitude and guilt fight it out beneath the animal relief of holding her son. She only nodded when Cha spoke. She was intent on the rise and fall of Hyun Woo’s chest, the sound of his breath close to hers. The pale afternoon light felt incongruous with her exhaustion. It was like living in an inhalation — holding her breath like a child playing hide-and-seek. Exhaling was dangerous.

Cha held the door as she lifted Hyun Woo out of the car, closed it quietly, and followed, like a man giving space to a frightened animal inclined to bite. Hyun Woo’s face was hot where he tucked it tightly against her neck, his arms locked around her. He was heavy.

She had carried him to bed like this so often before that Hye In felt absurdly like asking Cha if he had any bedtime stories in his bachelor apartment. Instead, she nodded as he held his phone up and jerked his head towards the bathroom. His voice was low and soft through the closed door as she settled Hyun Woo more firmly against her, pushing Cha’s bedspread back.

When Hye In opened her eyes again, Hyun Woo was gone.

There was a yellow post-it note tucked neatly into her eye-line: Hyun Woo is safe. We are eating.

Panic made it hard to read, to breathe, to feel anything but the space that made Cha’s tiny single bed feel gaping, empty and monstrous.

It was a stupid note — unnecessary. Cha’s home was the smaller than her living room. If she turned her head, she would be able see through the narrow slotted shelves that separated his bed from what could charitably be called his kitchen.

Instead she stared at the note, tracing the careful script of her son’s name. She could hear his voice, only steps away from her, answering the detective’s low-toned instructions. Some small noise had woken her up— the unguarded clink of metal, the slow drag of a chair across the floor, a cupboard opening. They thought she was sleeping, and were trying not to wake her.

Hye In stayed on her side, turned away, her hands tucked together before her face, listening for Hyun Woo to speak again. Her stillness was selfish, a habit acquired as she chased down her son, or before, to hold herself impassive against the pain she knew was coming. It would be easy to get up and go to him.

One of them was mixing something, metal singing against ceramic over and over, and Hye In closed her eyes again, concentrated on the slow crawl of a tear across the bridge of her nose. Cha’s sheets were getting damp. 

Hyun Woo asked a question — she couldn’t hear the words, but she knew the rise and fall of his voice, the patient curiosity that could make her proud and exasperated in equal measure, when he chose just the wrong moment to ask why: why this book, why can’t we go out, why isn’t father coming.

Hyun Woo liked eggs in the morning. He had once tried to make them for her. She’d fought with Jung Ho, for leaving him alone with the stove.

Something hot sizzled. If she opened her eyes, if she sat up, she could walk to him, pull him into her arms, drag him into her — they would stay together in this bed where he would be safe forever.

Hyun Woo is safe. We are eating. 

The words were blurry, but she kept still, listening, fists clenched like a prayer. It took her longer to stop crying than she usually allowed.