Her father’s hands were warm and rough. Shin-ae held them, regrets making themselves crevices on her face. There many choices, many things that she should have done differently. She should have known better, she should have been stronger, she should have been honest from the start.
“A lot of things happened recently, Papa,” she said. “Kousuke enrolled me in a business etiquette class. I was horrible in it. Almost as bad as English, hehe.”
Her smile was bitter. Her papa didn’t see it.
“You know, Papa, I’ve been thinking. I’ve always been so focused on surviving, on what tomorrow will bring. Another debt, another failed exam— Papa, I’m so tired. At the rate I’m going, I’m going to burn out and crash and bring you down with me. I don’t know how to do any of this properly, and I don’t know how to do this without you.”
His pinky moved in her grip. Shin-ae’s eyes widened. Even in a coma, her dad was trying to comfort her.
“Don’t worry Pa,” she whispered. “I’ll start looking past tomorrow. I know I’m smart; not a lot of people get a line of nineties in science and math— actually, now that I come to think of it, it’d be cool to be a doctor. I’m cool with blood, I fixed up Lil Buddy just fine, and yknow Papa, so many people get sick, or get hurt the way that you did. I want to help, I want to give back.”
The light from the lamps outside floated into the room. There was no one else in the same room as Shin-ae’s father, which she was secretly glad about. It helped her get things off her chest in a way that she couldn’t before. There were things that she couldn’t tell her friends, things that she couldn’t tell Kousuke or Nol, because they were too new in her life. The support that they could give her was not the understanding that she needed. Shin-ae didn’t need anyone’s help; she knew that, instinctually, deep inside, that she could overcome what it is that life decides to throw her way. Her past taught her that. She just wanted someone to listen to her, to understand, to offer a way to let go of the hot air that’s trapped in her chest.
It just really hurt that it took her father getting into a coma for her to start opening up to him. Shin-ae should have done better. And she would, she reminded herself, as she kissed her Papa’s forehead and left the hospital room. She would find a way to become a doctor, she would get into surgery because that shit’s pays well, and once her Papa had a decent retirement plan, she would start working pro bono. It was a solid idea— she just wasn’t quite sure how to do it.
The night shift nurses were at their stations, and Shin-ae waved. They were always nice to her, but Shin-ae didn’t like the feeling of being talked of behind her back. Oh, they must have said. There’s that teenager who comes here every night to see her father. He’s in a coma; hit his head drinking.
If there was just one thing that Shin-ae hated receiving, it was pity. And spilled juice, but mostly pity.
“Good night, Miss Yoo,” one of them said. Shin-ae smiled. “Good night. Ah—” she tripped over her words, thought about the things she promised herself she would do.
“I was wondering. What do you think the best way to become a doctor is?”
The three nurses blinked. The oldest one, a lady in her forties, smiled. “Is this about your father, Miss Yoo? You want to give back?”
Shin-ae’s smile dropped, but she still nodded.
“Well, its definitely going to take a while. Four years pre-med, then med proper, and then your internship, and then your specialization. It could take you ten years, even twelve. It’s expensive, Miss Yoo.”
One of the nurses sighed. “Don’t discourage her.” He turned to face Shin-ae. “I recommend taking nursing as your pre-med. You’d be able to work while studying for the Board if you ever graduate from med proper, and you’d already be familiar with hospital protocol. Also, you’d be able to scrub in while you’re still studying nursing. It’s also a pretty good contingency plan, if you ask me.”
The youngest nurse snorted. “Of course you’d say that.”
Shin-ae raised an eyebrow, and the youngest nurse, who was also a guy, chuckled. “Jin over here knocked a girl up in his first year of med. Had to marry her, and used his nursing degree ever since.”
“The missus ain’t complaining, though!”
The two guys laughed, loudly. Shin-ae and the other nurse sweat dropped. Well, thought Shin-ae to herself, I ain’t getting myself preggers in college. Shin-ae turned to leave, but she bumped into an old lady. A bag of groceries fell to the ground, and Shin-ae immediately dropped to help.
“Here,” she muttered. “There’s your toilet papers, and… tampons?”
The old lady smiled. “Thank you dear. They’re not quite for me. I’m here on a little trip for the nurses. These are for you, Kim.”
“Ah,” said the oldest nurse. “Thank you so much Mrs. Kwan. You really shouldn’t have.”
“But I did anyways,” said the Mrs. Kwan. “Really now, Kim. You should know better than to refuse gifts from an old lady.”
Shin-ae stood up and dusted herself. There was a bit of dirt in her jeans. She handed Nurse Kim the tampon pack, and glanced over at the old lady. She bowed.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I should watched where I was going.”
Mrs. Kwan chuckled. “Indeed, you should have. But fret not, you are forgiven.”
The old lady was wearing a cotton button down blouse and black trousers. She was oddly slim for a woman who looked like she was nearing sixty-five, and her hair was all sliver, and chopped around her ears. Mrs. Kwan’s skin was brown, like a coconut’s, but not really wrinkled. It looked aged, but not tired. It was as if her experience was just mapped out in her body.
Forget Mrs. Hirahara, thought Shin-ae, I want to look like Mrs. Kwan when I’m at that age. She looks more natural, and less bitchy.
“Thank you,” said Shin-ae. “I, uh, really like your hair. You don’t dye it?”
Mrs. Kwan shook her head. “Oh, no dear. I have always been against the substance.”
Shin-ae nodded; the old lady sounded as if she was talking about drugs.
“In my heyday, it was my crowning glory. People were always telling me that my hair was so black. I took such pride in it. And now, nature has given me another shade; white. I shall wear it with the same aplomb.”
Shin-ae smiled. “You know, you sound like a person I know.”
Mrs. Kwan took her hand, and lead her to the exit. “Really now? Pray tell.”
“Well, you both use the same words. Aplomb, substance— a lot of the people I hang out with are more casual with their language. Its— its nice to hear a more formal language, every now and then.”
“Well,” said Mrs. Kwan, “there are words with more power in them. I used to be a lawyer, you know. It was what lead me to my late husband.”
Shin-ae nodded, and noticed how the old lady gripped her hand tightly when she mentioned her husband. What was it that the nurse called her? Mrs. Kwan?
“You don’t have to talk about it, Mrs. Kwan.”
The old lady glanced at her. “What perception. You will indeed make a good doctor one day.”
“Forgive an old lady her manners, but my hearing can be more… acute, when the younger generation speak of the medical arts. Lee was a doctor, you see. That is why I’m so fond of hospitals.”
“They remind you of him.”
Mrs. Kwan gave her a slip of paper. “This is my address,” she said. “I must admit, I’ve had it written down on this paper for a long time, hoping that I would see a person that I could invite. It’s been so long since I last entertained. It would be nice, my dear, if you could come. Any time is fine.”
There was a moment of hesitation, because the last time Shin-ae accepted the invitation of a stranger, she was fucked over, under, and sideways by Mrs. Hirahara. But the old lady in front of her didn’t look like she wanted anything from Shin-ae, except for her company. Also, she wasn’t wack and talking about babies. Mrs. Kwan seemed sane.
“My name is Yoo Shin-ae.”
“Call me Lita, Shin-ae.”
“Here are the documents that you asked for. The raises of the retiring maintenance personnel are in that blue folder. Sir Jayce already looked them over, they’re just waiting for your signature.”
If there was one thing that those etiquette classes taught Shin-ae, it was how to walk in heels without heels. She was, so far, succeeding. Look, she thought, I can bend and give Kousuke a file without falling over! Fistbump!
“I can see that you improved greatly, Miss Yoo. It seems that you have learned a great deal in those classes.”
Shin-ae did not smile smugly. She did not.
“You worked hard today, and for that I commend you. Your shift is over.”
“And how about you?”
Kousuke rubbed his temples. As soon as Shin-ae left, he would turn off the lights. It was giving him a headache.
“There’s some 8P’s that I need to review. Three, to be in fact.”
Shin-ae frowned. “Aren’t those documents supposed to be handled by the company lawyers?”
“He’s on a temporary leave. His daughter got married.”
“There’s only one lawyer? For the entire company?”
“Only one that I trust.”
A silence fell over them as the city lights shifted. Kousuke saw her shifting her weight, and cleared his throat. It was always painful for him to have to see Shin-ae uncomfortable, but it seemed that however much he tried to reassure her, or to take care of her, his efforts would be lacking in one way or another.
“You look like you want to tell me something.”
Shin-ae smiled. Kousuke had come to know that smile. It meant that something good had just happened to her; he has yet to be the cause of that smile. Whenever he tried to do something, things would fall apart.
“I want to be a doctor. That’s something that I just realized. Two days ago, in fact. I was talking to some of the nurses while I was visiting Papa, and I was thinking that maybe it would be a good idea to take up nursing as a pre-med? If I can’t afford med school after nursing, at least I can work for a bit. Plus, I’d already be comfortable in a hospital. I was wondering…” Shin-ae glanced at him from under her bangs. Kousuke’s heart felt funny, and he made a mental note to schedule an appointment with his cardiologist.
“I was wondering what you thought. I mean, you’ve accomplished so much, look at all those awards, like, wow. And yeah, you’re technically my boss. So…”
Kousuke smiled. She was vaguely cute, like this. Not that he would tell her that. He would never tell her that. She was his employee. That would be so unprofessional, and reflect badly on the company.
“It’s a good thing that you have an ambition,” he said. “I think it’s a good match. Doctors need spine and kindness. You have both, Miss Yoo.”
He stood up, and offered her coat to her. “Keep up the good work, and if you ever reach the Hirahara hospital, I’ll put in a good word for you.”
She squinted. “Did you just compliment me?”
Shin-ae pointed a finger at him. “Don’t eat too many cakes, Kousuke. You get… nice. It’s weird.”
He folded his arms and glared at her. She really just had to ruin the mood, didn’t she?
She beamed at him, and his glare softened. He couldn’t stay mad at her. He knows this through experience.
“Now, that’s the Q-tip I know!”
She grabbed her coat from him and ran, slamming the door behind her. Kousuke sighed. There would really be things that would stay with her, no matter what kind of etiquette tutor he would hire. But he supposed it was fine. It added color to his day to day when Shin-ae’s brazenness wasn’t harming her.
He rubbed his temples, frustrated. So much of his thoughts about the girl were of worry. When did he start wanting to keep her safe? Was it when his mother ambushed him? When Nol had him buy Miss Yoo food? He carried strange sentiments for the girl, especially when he considered how they met. He cared for Miss Yoo, of course, but the tentative friendship that she offered him was something he did not know— could he nurture that friendship on top of all his responsibilities?
Kousuke stared at the wall full of trophies. He had more at home, in garbage bags. Every time he tried to throw them, his mother would intercept the garbage collector. It was annoying. They were just there to impress his partners, and that was just as a power move, a sign that said ‘go on, underestimate me. I dare you’.
But he couldn’t give less of a shit of what his partners thought about him; it didn’t take a genius to realize that his employees were more valuable. Kousuke might be the captain of the ship, but without them, there would be no Hirahara Corporation. They relied on him, and he relied on them. He couldn’t fail them; he wouldn’t.
And he was not allowed to fail his father.
He stared at his awards. They stared back. Kousuke knocked one of them from the shelf, and as it landed in the floor with a thud, was disappointed that it didn’t break.