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Neighborhood Watch: Thief

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Ilhwa always claimed that she loved Dongil for two things and two things only: his logic and his intuition. This was a sentiment she shared time and time again during the neighborhood holiday parties. At the kimchi-stained, wooden, adults-only table, she would say, “Dongil’s few positives are his instincts and brains.” She would spoon this line to everyone as she spooned bulgogi onto their plates. Then he would harrumph, huffing and puffing about wives and their backhanded compliments.

But Ilhwa wasn’t wrong—Dongil had always been acute. That’s why he noticed it first, how Sunwoo, neighborhood golden boy, suddenly had the airs of a thief.

But what had he stolen?

Observation 1.

It started with the eye contact—or the lack thereof. It was a typical Tuesday dinner, and Sunyoung had come by early with some of his mother’s eggshell-peppered, salt-blanketed cooking. He was one foot out the door, when Dongil flagged him down to talk baseball. Out of Deoksun’s gang of friends, Sunwoo had always been the one he could make polite, small talk with.

“But I heard there’s something wrong with Jung’s patella. You sure he can play as well as he did before?”

“He could be handicapped and still leave the other team in the dust.”

As they were rattling off averages and odds, Bora stomped into the cramped living room. She was combing the shelves for her case studies, sparing them a few glances then and now. Dongil noticed that Sunwoo’s gaze trailed away from him. It was magnetized to the bookshelves. Or to Bora. But probably the bookshelves. 

He shooed Sunwoo out with a cucumber side dish.

Observation 2.

One Wednesday, it was one AM, and Dongil was one irate father. He had tiptoed into Deoksun and Bora’s joint room to flick off the lamplight that had been left on. He had also wanted to peek in and see his two daughters in peaceful, close proximity, even if it was only because they were both unconscious.

But Bora wasn’t even in the room. He tensed as his imagination whirred up. Protesting? Out there in grips of the bitterest January to date, ready to blacken her public record again? He quickly scrapped that idea; law was her dream now. She was picking a different way to fight the system. Boyfriend? No dice. She kissed books, not men. Studying? Probably. I should be a good father and fetch her.

“What kind of daughter…I swear…1 AM…” He mumbled, stepping into the alley in a state of undress. He didn’t have to suffer through the single-digit temperature for long though. As he began to trek towards the study rooms, Sunwoo and Bora rounded the corner.

There was alarm on their faces at first, and that unsettled Dongil, but he mentally waved it off, too drowsy to zero-in on it. He simply stood there in the tickling snow and waited for Bora’s story.

“I was coming back from the study room.” She smoothed over the alarm in her face completely. Her tone was adamant and not apologetic.

“I happened to meet—see her as I was walking back,” Sunwoo’s eyes played hide-and-seek with his.

“Ah, seriously…just go inside and sleep, Sunwoo. Bora, we’re going to have a talk about this tomorrow morning.” All Dongil wanted to do was crawl back into his comforter. He didn’t want to feverishly dole out a lecture and earn himself a fever. He began to herd Bora back into their basement home and bade Sunwoo good night.

What a coincidence.

Observation 3.

Dongil’s circadian rhythm dictated that he kick over a tiny concrete chimney everyday at 6PM. 

Day in and day out, he had to play who’s-a-criminal at the bank. It was taxing, having to leash himself to a desk everyday, waiting for either the numbers or his gut to present a verdict. So he kicked down gray bricks as physical therapy, not property destruction.

But he had found something fishy recently. He had noticed an odd pattern, one that made him go on-duty even when he was off-duty. Every day he would round the corner, kick the neatly restacked bricks, and shuffle down the stairs to his home. And everyday he would brush past Sunwoo, who was always just leaving. Dongil wondered what business he always had at their home at 5PM, while Ilhwa was gossiping upstairs on the wooden dock.

He brought this up with Noeul once, as they watched a Deoksun-aged girl do a toilet paper commercial. “Dad, he’s probably just tutoring Deoksun or something. He probably gets tipped off that you’re back by your kick. Wow, this girl is so beautiful…”

That was why one nondescript workday last week, Dongil decided to go off-script for once. At 5PM, he hid behind the corner of their alley, waiting for the ahjummas of Ssangmun-dong to become distracted. Ten minutes later, as they heatedly teased Sunyoung about her teddy bear man, he stuck a leg out and knocked down the little stone pillar. Then he dove behind the corner again, pressing himself to the wall, as if his grey suit could camouflage him against the stones. 

He waited, and Sunwoo did not fail him. Dutifully, like a Pavlovian puppy, Sunwoo came out, slightly confused—where was Dongil?—before he greeted the ahjummas.

What are you up to, Sunwoo? 

Dongil would find out today. His plan was abstinence. Spare the bricks from his toes—or his toes from bricks—and catch Sunwoo off-guard. Maybe he was sharing raunchy material with Noeul. Maybe he was attempting to woo Deoksun. He didn’t think these were very Sunwoo actions, but he didn’t know what else he could have been doing in his home.

He tiptoed down the staircase to the basement, attempting to mute the click of his soles on the steps. Instead of sweeping in through the curtains as he usually did, he pressed his ear to the wall.

“Where do you want to meet tomorrow?” 

Dongil backed away from the door. Just how clogged were his ears? He thought he heard Bora taking a saccharine tone with someone. Saccharine.

“Why do we have to plan about tomorrow already? Can’t I just enjoy my time with you today, noona?” That was Sunwoo. Now his heart was racing fast—that wasn’t good for his cholesterol.  The masculine, cool kid of the block was boyishly, flirtatiously whining to Bora. 

“I still don’t think meeting in the daylight is smart.”

“This is an optimal time, though. It’s dinner time…and our parents are out…”

“Actually, her dad is just in…” Dongil sternly called from the doorway, eyeing the couple nestled together by the kitchen table.

Shock: 12 residents.

Sunyoung didn’t want to believe a word of it. It wasn’t that she protested Bora. Sunyoung had gotten over her qualms with Bora long ago, ever since Bora chauffeured her to Jinjoo’s hospital. It was mostly the idea that her boy was no longer a boy but now a man. A man with a woman. So who was now the most important woman to his son? The question chafed at her thoughts now and then.

Delight: 2 women. 

Ilhwa was one of the few. To know that her prickly first daughter had actually been marketable was a relief. Now she could shift her romantic fretting to Deoksun.

Moody mumbling and grumbling: 1 dad.

Who was Sunwoo to sneak around like that with his first daughter? What kind of disrespect was this?

That was the running tally for how Ssangmun-dong received Bora and Sunwoo. There was minimal backlash. After all they were the model couple, both intelligent first-borns who made their households proud.

There was one thing that pained everyone though. Bora and Sunwoo losing their hush-hush secrecy meant that they could now love-it-up in the open. The public displays of affection made Dongil wish he had never caught them in the first place.