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a voice in the dark

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The headaches are growing worse.

Shi-mok doesn’t make the realization until he wakes on the floor of his office for the second time in a row. He looks at the criss-cross pattern of the dry plaster ceiling, the fluorescent lighting creating a dull ache behind his eyes. His muscles have gone limp, an after-effect of the adrenaline leaving his body. It takes a full minute for him to stand.

He is grateful, in the dull, unrecognizable way that it is when he is grateful, that both incidents happened after hours without anyone else in the office. The Wonju branch is quite small and the rumors would have spread almost instantly; he doesn’t need another round of people unnecessarily digging into his background. 

He picks up the phone lying next to his feet, open to messages from Yeo-jin. She had reached out to him a few times in the past four months, mostly with work-related questions regarding past cases from the Western District Office that needed the attention of the intelligence team. 

Her last one was a simple question of who had been in charge of a bribery case in 2016, and it had taken Shi-mok a few minutes before recalling Seo Dong-jae propping open the case file on Eun-soo’s desk and making a few casual remarks calculated to make her eyes grow bigger and bigger. Young Eun-soo had never been the type to be easily impressed, but it had been her first week, and Seo Dong-jae was very good at leaking certain shocking details of his work with a world-weary shake of his head. 

I believe it was Prosecutor Seo, he wrote back.

Ah, I see, she responded. I haven’t heard that name in a while. 

A pause, and then: Come to think of it, I haven’t heard from you in a while. How have you been, Prosecutor Hwang?

Shi-mok looked at his phone for a long time, his hand hesitating over the keyboard, and had still not typed in a response when the pain began. 

He thinks, briefly, about telling her about his episode, but instead, he types: I’m doing fine. I hope you’re doing well.

There’s no response. Shi-mok waits for a moment more before turning off his phone and going back to work.

 

--

 

Yeo-jin texts him again two days later, and Shi-mok crashes his car into the side of the highway.

Of course I’m fine, he reads, and he drives for another mile before his ears start ringing again, so keenly that he feels like his head will burst. The pain comes in hot flashes, temporarily whiting out his vision. When the car stops, Shi-mok barely feels the impact. All he knows is that there is a split somewhere down the middle of his skull, and the ringing is unending; the pain is unending. 

Has it always hurt this much? he thinks, before the world fades away and the only thing left is what is not bearable, a high pitched whine in his ears, ringing, ringing, ringing. 

 

--

 

“You should have been more careful,” says a voice.

Shi-mok doesn’t remember waking, but he also doesn’t remember not waking. He is alone, in a semi-dark room that’s not unlike the interrogation space in the prosecution offices. There is no one else there, except for a voice coming in through what seems like an intercom, slightly warbled by static.

“You should have been more careful,” the voice says again, more reproachfully. Shi-mok listens carefully. It sounds like Yeo-jin’s voice, except her tone is more informal, almost too familiar. She sounds like she’s speaking to herself. 

Inspector Han? He’s not sure if he’s actually speaking; he can’t hear his own voice. 

“What were you thinking? You should have mentioned it to me. Has the pain been getting worse?”

Not particularly , he replies. It’s mostly honest. 

There’s a deep sigh. “Why didn’t you say something?” 

Shi-mok pauses. It is natural, he supposes, to tell people when something is wrong. He was never very good at it, not even as a child. His mother would come into the room and find a clock destroyed, a book ripped apart, a table overturned, and Shi-mok sitting with his head between his hands, unable to do much else. 

It wasn’t important.  

The voice is silent; there is only the subtle, high pitched whine of the radio static. The quiet is abruptly familiar; disappointed. 

I’m sorry, he says .

There’s a sigh, and then Shi-mok feels something on his hand. A warm grip of someone holding it. It’s strange to have this phantom feeling in a room that is not quite real. 

“Wake up,” the voice whispers, and Shi-mok surfaces, like a fish drawn out of the murky depths of a pond. 

He is no longer in a dark room anymore; he feels himself lying down, a quiet beeping coming from his side. He’s not conscious enough to open his eyes, but he feels the hand, someone smoothing out his hair from his brow. The hand is small and cool, a relief on his face.

In his state of half-consciousness, Shi-mok is drifting, anchored only by the touch of fingers to his palm. He feels alone, which is not unfamiliar. He has always been fine being alone. 

“You’re right,” he told a drunk Jung-bon, all those years ago at the pojangmacha down the street from the Western District Office. “I don’t have anyone beside me, and I never will.” 

He remembers Jung-bon’s face at his response — startled, guilty, pitying . Shi-mok had felt nothing. It was a truth he had known for a long time, longer than the 20 years that had passed since the two men had seen each other. Even if he had been able to feel something, Shi-mok assumed that those years would have dulled the effect. It was the way of most truths realized over time. 

But the pang he feels now is strange in its sharpness, too sharp for how ephemeral it is. It’s like holding onto a melting ice fragment, being intimately familiar with the shape and form of it despite also seeing it disappear before his eyes. It’ll be gone before he knows it, once he surfaces completely. In this half-way place, Shi-mok feels things that he has not thought of for a long time.

The hand moves, separating from his grip, and Shi-mok wants to reach out, latch back onto it. It’s strange. There is no loss until something comes to exist momentarily in an empty space. Once it leaves, there is a newfound emptiness that had not been there before. As if anything about that space had changed, when it had simply been reverted to its former state. What was there to mourn? 

“I missed you,” she says. Her tone is formal again; she’s addressing him. There’s a bare brush of fingertips, and then Shi-mok feels her hand leave his own completely. The presence at his side is gone. He is alone. 

I missed you, he repeats, wondering, and he sinks again, deep into the dark, dragged down by the curious sense of emptiness he had forgotten. There is no dark and silent room this time; there is simply a sense of nothing, and then black.

 

--

 

When he wakes, it is to another hand on his brow.

“Inspector,” he murmurs, before opening his eyes. His mother’s owlish face looks back at him, unsmiling and strained but also curious. Her eyebrows are raised behind her spectacles. 

“Inspector?”

Shi-mok stares, not quite understanding. “What are you doing here?”

His mother withdraws her hand, clearing her throat. “I received a call. You didn’t have an emergency contact. I think someone at your branch had my number.”

Kim Ho-sub’s smiling face flashes across Shi-mok’s vision. He had never given the investigator his parents’ phone number, but it was likely that Mr. Kim had taken note of their contact information after the broadcast incident three years ago. Nosiness was a very particular gift.

He starts to rise, his head thumping in protest. His mother looks as if she would really rather push him backwards to lie down again, but she sinks back into her chair instead. She waits.

“You didn’t have to come all the way here. I’m sorry.”

His mother looks down at her hands, a deep sigh gathered in her chest. “Why didn’t you tell me that you still had your headaches? What would you have done if the accident had been worse? You’re lucky it was an empty highway; you could have been killed. What were you —”

She stops herself mid-sentence, looking slightly ashamed and aggravated and resentful all at once. It’s not an unfamiliar expression on her face; he saw it often during his school days whenever he mentioned feeling pain. He had slowly learned to stop telling her these things, to keep the incidents to himself as much as possible. 

“She told me to go easy on you,” his mother murmurs, as if speaking to someone else.

Shi-mok looks up at that. “Who?”

His mother makes a vague gesture to her cellphone. “The person who called me. It was a woman. She didn’t tell me her name; she just said she was a colleague.” 

She looks sharply at her son. “She seemed very familiar with your condition. I hope you’re not telling just anyone about it. I can only imagine if the people at your workplace found out…”

“I haven’t told anyone,” Shi-mok says. It’s not a lie. He wonders how this colleague had found out what had happened, if he had been wrong about the dream being a dream. Wonju is a good hour away from Seoul; he can’t imagine that Yeo-jin would make that drive abruptly on a weekday.

I missed you.

“Who is she?” his mother asks. Her voice is slightly different now, a note of something else added into her resentful concern. The expression on her face is almost identical to the one that Eun-soo’s mother had on the day he visited his professor at the hospital. 

“You said she didn’t tell you her name,” he replies blandly. 

“You know who it is,” she shoots back, cutting across his neat side-step. “Or at least, you have an idea. You said ‘Inspector’ when you woke up, which means you were expecting someone else. Who is she?”

“She’s just…” What did he call her? She was always Inspector Han. Their titles existed as a degree of appropriate separation, from the world and from each other. But in his head, he still called her as Inspector Han, even as he referred to everyone else by their full names: Young Eun-soo, Seo Dong-jae, Lee Chang-joon. It felt like the least he could do, considering all the trouble she had gone through to earn her title. 

“She’s a colleague,” he finishes, ignoring the weighted pause between his words. His mother does not ignore it. She cocks her head, an eyebrow raised, looking for the first time as if she’s found another possibility with her son besides vague guilt and reproachful concern. 

“Is she pretty?”

“What?”

“Is she pretty,” his mother repeats. He blinks at her, and abruptly, he sees Yeo-jin’s face, lit by the setting sun, hair whipping around her cheekbones as she crouched in the riverbank with her pants rolled to her mid-calves. He doesn’t know why this is the image that comes to mind. 

Is she pretty? What did that word even mean for someone like him?

“I don’t know why that’s relevant,” he says, perhaps too sharply, and his mother nods, drawing back and shifting into her chair again. Her face flits briefly towards something like amusement, like she’s seen something unexpected, before settling back into something more somber. 

“You didn’t say no,” she points out, and leaves to get the nurse before Shi-mok can say anything else.

He watches her go, the back of his neck feeling uncomfortably hot. He thinks again of Yeo-jin’s face, the blunt ends of her hair. Pretty?

He has never felt a desire to look away, if that’s what his mother meant. 

 

--

 

If he was a good son, Shi-mok would have protested when his mother told him that she would be leaving on the evening bus back to Seoul. He would have asked her to stay an extra day or so and offered to drive her back, relinquishing his bed and resigning his kitchen to her fervent banchan -making until his fridge was uselessly stocked full of food he would not be able to finish. 

He would do this if he was a good son and if she was a good mother. But it’s been a long time since both of them admitted to themselves and to each other that neither of them can live up to even the barest minimum of standards, so they do not say anything while they wait together at the bus station. 

When the call comes for her bus number, Shi-mok offers to carry her bag but she waves him away. 

“List me as your emergency contact,” she says pointedly, turning back in the doorway. “Unless you have someone else you’d rather have on there.”

Shi-mok hesitates before nodding slowly, and she looks at him with a blank face, her eyes blinking owlishly behind her spectacles. And then she smiles, soft and regretful. She reaches out with a hand, patting Shi-mok once on the cheek. 

“It’s good to have seen you, even if it was like this,” she says. She swallows, turning away slightly. 

I missed you, Shi-mok wonders. To be glad to see someone, even in unwanted circumstances. 

“Take care of yourself,” she says, and she leaves to board her bus. She doesn’t pause to look back. 

Shi-mok watches her go, his hand reaching up briefly to touch his own cheek. He does not leave until her bus has pulled completely away, until he is left alone in the entryway, and there is no one else left in the empty parking lot.

 

--

 

“Hello?”

“Inspector Han?”

“Prosecutor Hwang!” Her voice is forcefully bright. “How are you?”

He hesitates. He feels like he should ask, but Yeo-jin’s false cheeriness seems to point otherwise. So he says instead, “I wanted to say hello.”

There is a pause. “Ah,” Yeo-jin says, her voice dropping. “I guess you were awake after all.”

He waits. Something, perhaps the instinct in his bones from his years drawing out confessions from suspects, tells him that this is not the moment to interrupt. He waits, even as he does not know what he is waiting for. 

“How is your head?” she asks finally. The cheeriness is sapped out of her voice, so completely eliminated that it might not have been there at all. 

“I’m fine. It’s not like it hasn’t happened before.”

“It’s also never made you crash your car before,” she says back, her voice sharper. “I thought about it, and I can’t deny that these episodes are dangerous. You never know when they’re going to happen, do you? What if the pain happens in a worse situation?”

He could answer her, he thinks. He could give her a run down of all the potential scenarios he mapped out for himself in his head, of all the ways this pain could potentially kill him. Shi-mok is not capable of feeling much, but he does still retain a sense of self-preservation. He is not so inclined to disregard something that may affect his well-being in such a complete way. 

He could say all of that. But he doesn’t think it’s what she needs to hear.

“I’m sorry to worry you,” he tells her. “I didn’t mean to.”

Another pause, and then a sigh. Yeo-jin’s voice has lowered to a small murmur, the same pitch that she speaks in when she is upset. He doesn’t know when he started recognizing the different tones of her voice. 

“It’s okay. It was stupid of me to get so frantic. When Mr. Kim called me, I thought the worst. I thought of you lying alone there...I’m such a busybody, aren’t I?”

“Is that what a busybody is?” he asks absently, and she chokes out a laugh. Her voice a shade brighter, she asks again, “Is your head doing okay?”

Shi-mok leans against the wall of his apartment, crouching down next to his sofa. It is a small place, smaller than the place he had inhabited in Tongryeong. Somehow, his future seems to be insisting on downsizing. Even by his standards, the apartment is completely bare.

“It hurts a little,” he tells her. “Even now. But I took medicine and the doctor said that this was normal, so it should be fine.”

“Do you know what caused it?” she asks.

Shi-mok blinks, trying to remember the moments before the accident. Had he felt distressed? Something that would trigger an unconscious emotional reaction? What could have possibly been the cause?

“All that happened was a text from you. The one that said you were doing fine.”

The silence this time is longer. Shi-mok holds the phone away for a moment, wondering if the call became disconnected, before Yeo-jin speaks again. Her voice is quiet, distant. “Are you worried about me?”

Worried?

It was another word that he didn’t really understand. He knew what curiosity was; it was when he felt the need to ask questions. And he had many questions about Yeo-jin, because he felt that the last time he had seen her, her well-being was at risk. Did people ask questions when they were worried? Were people worried if they asked questions?

“I wondered if you were truly fine. I don’t think I believed you,” he replies honestly. 

The phone crackles as Yeo-jin breathes, her sigh long and extended. “I guess I owe you an apology. I made you worry as well. I’m...I’m holding on. I’m doing what I can to keep an eye on the restriction lines.”

Her voice is a murmur, each word breathed out like she’s holding back something. Shi-mok stares at the cracked and peeling paint in his ceiling, wondering what Yeo-jin is looking at, if she is looking at anything at all. 

“I don’t mind,” he tells her. “Being worried. I’ve missed speaking with you.”

He watches the shadows on his wall, cast from the branches outside. He tracks their movements and waits as Yeo-jin sucks in a breath and releases it slowly. He watches the branches and listens, as Yeo-jin starts to tell him about her new position, about how she’s taken to roaming the streets around Chief Choi’s apartment complex, how she ran into her former superior in the small corner market, how the two women shared a can of beer outside and said nothing of much importance to each other. How Chief Choi had smiled before leaving to pick up her daughter. How Yeo-jin has stopped visiting the apartment complex, how she wonders if Shi-mok might be free to meet in person next weekend, because she now has all this time on her hands. 

Yeo-jin says this, and more. And Shi-mok listens, and his head does not hurt at all.