"Welcome," I said to Jin Soo and Ji Tae as they walked through the door. Just like he always did, Jin Soo threw his bag on the couch and ran over to hug me. Even though it had only been a few days, the three of us were already falling into a routine.
"How was school?" I asked after hugging him back.
"It was fine," he replied, as he walked back to the couch to pick his bag up. He slung it across his shoulder then turned back to me. "There's this girl in my class called Do Yeon. It was her birthday today so we had cake," he said gleefully. "And some candy," he continued, counting it off on his fingers, "and cookies. And we had ice cream too."
I frowned. What was with all that junk? I so wasn't in the mood to deal with any stomach aches. "I hope you didn't eat a lot. You know that stuff isn't good for you. Let's not even talk about what it can do to your teeth."
He looked at me then fell into deep thought. Then after shooting me a glance, he turned away to think some more.
Ji Tae walked past him and chuckled as I tried not to burst out laughing. It was so obvious he was trying to decide between lying or confessing to pigging out at school.
When he turned back to face me, with a stern look, I asked, "So did you only eat a little?"
Without saying anything, he unzipped his school bag and pulled out a plastic bag with some hard candy and other kiddie junk food. "Noona, I brought this for you," he announced.
I reached for it but he didn't let go.
"Sweetie, thank you," I said, pulling it. "Go to your room and change out of your uniform, okay?"
After a longing look at the plastic bag in my hand, he reluctantly released his grasp and did as he was told.
A few seconds later, the microwave bell went off indicating that my food had warmed up.
Ji Tae walked over to the kitchen counter and glanced at the oven clock. "You're only just having your lunch now?"
I shrugged. "You try waking up early in the morning to make breakfast and see if you can stay awake during this day. How did my mother do this crap?"
He chuckled but didn't say anything.
I grabbed my plate out of the microwave and as I headed for the dining table, Ji Tae walked over to the living room.
"Hey," I called, "you don't want anything to eat, do you?" It was my third afternoon of asking that question and I expected him to graciously refuse my offer as he usually did but to my surprise, he turned around and asked what I was eating.
I looked down at my plate. "Just leftovers."
I shrugged. "It's just a bunch of stuff – you can check the fridge."
He stood still for a second then walked back to the kitchen. "I guess I could eat." He opened the fridge and looked at its contents.
I stretched my head out to spy on him and winced when I saw him pull out the oxtail soup. It wasn't that the soup was bad or anything… in fact, only people who'd previously tasted oxtail soup would have negative comments to make about my concoction. I could still remember my father's reaction when he first tasted it. But what was so wrong with being creative with a recipe? Life would be so boring without people like me who took chances.
He pulled out a bowl and dished himself a healthy serving then popped it in the microwave oven.
Sh.it. "Eh..., Ji Tae, that soup is a special recipe from my great-grandma's region. I don't think you'll like it. It's one of those acquired taste things, you know? Why don't you eat something else?"
He shrugged. "No problem. I like trying new things," he said. "What's it called? It looks just like oxtail soup to me."
"Yeah? They look alike. Eh, if you need salt, here it is," I said holding out the shaker.
As he waited for his soup to warm up, Jin Soo walked in, poured himself a glass of apple juice then went to the study.
I was a quarter done with my lunch when Ji Tae sat next to me.
He looked at his steaming bowl. "Smells good," he said, picking up his spoon.
I held my breath as I watched him scoop some of it and put it in his mouth. I expected him to spit it out or scrunch his nose or something but the expression on his face didn't change.
I smiled satisfactorily. Ha! I couldn't wait to tell my Dad that it wasn't the soup but his taste buds that were all screwed up. Okay, granted, Ji Tae hadn't complimented it but he hadn't insulted it either. Surely, that meant something. Maybe I ought to consider catering as a second career.
Ji Tae glanced at my plate. "Is that all you're having?"
I nodded. "Yeah."
"That's all you're eating for lunch? When did you start eating so little?"
I rolled my eyes. People did change a lot in 8 years or was he completely unaware of that? I turned my face to say exactly that but found myself looking directly into his eyes. My heartbeat quickened. Why, why, why? Ah, sh.it. Why did those stupid, annoying, unrealistic lashes have to make his eyes so gaddamn beautiful? I stared into them and gulped. Why had I turned my stupid head at that moment? I quickly looked away to keep him from reading anything on my face. But seriously, how was it fair that those eyes still had the ability completely unnerve me? Oh God, why, why, why? Had I committed some kind of crime in a previous life? Had I been some kind of bad optometrist that now I had to spend the rest of my life being mesmerized by some idiot's eyes? Not that I was mesmerized or anything…. Besides, what was so special about an ex-neighbor with nice eyes? If I looked hard enough, I was sure that I would find an ex-neighbor with a nice ass. It was no big deal! ARGH!
I responded by averting my gaze to him but this time, ensuring that I was looking nowhere near the devil's lair. "What?"
"Did you trail off to La La Land?"
"How is that any of your business?" I growled. "Jeez." I stuffed my mouth and wondered if I should start wearing sunglasses around the house.
"Ajusshi, what are you doing? How come you haven't come yet? I've been waiting for you, " Jin Soo complained a few minutes later as he emerged from the study.
With his mood suddenly brightening, Jin Soo ran over and peered at my plate. "I want to eat too!"
I pushed it away from him. He was staring so hard at it that I was scared that he'd somehow manage to gobble it all with his eyes alone. "Didn't you eat enough at school? Go and finish your homework – dinner is in a few hours."
"But Noona, I'm hungry," he said rubbing his belly.
Yeah, right. Then could he explain why he only got hungry after seeing other people eat? "If you're so hungry, go and get a carrot from the fridge."
He made a disgusted face. "But I don't like carrots."
"Then go back and finish your homework."
"Please, Noona! Just a little," he begged with his eyes still fixated on my plate.
I shook my head. It was funny how I was eating exactly the same thing we'd had for dinner the previous night and I'd practically had to force him to eat it because he 'wasn't hungry.' But now that it wasn't dinnertime, he was looking at it like it was hamburgers, chicken nuggets or whatever crap they sold at McDonalds. "You'll get to eat when Appa returns."
"But Noona, just a little. I promise I won't eat too much."
I groaned. Kids could be so annoying. It was like God had made their voices so whiny and annoying as some sort of birth control.
"Please, Noona, please. Please. Please, Noona--"
"Hee Soo, let him have a little," Ji Tae interrupted. It sounded like the little chant was getting to him too. "A little can't hurt."
I glared at him. Had I somehow asked for his input without realizing? "Jin Soo, go and drink some water," I said, waving him away. "You can eat when Appa comes home."
Ji Tae stared at me for a few seconds as a grin slowly formed on his face. Then he turned to Jin Soo and said, "You're hungry now, aren't you? You don't want to wait till your appa returns?"
He bit his lower lip and nodded.. "Yes. I want to eat but Noona won't let me."
Ji Tae shook his head sadly. "Bad Noona.".
What the hell was wrong with him? At his age didn't he know not to side with a little child? "Lookie here, dude. I'm not going to spoil his appetite. He'll eat when it's time to eat. Plus there's no way I'm going to get blamed for him getting fat."
Ji Tae sighed dramatically. "You just don't get it, do you?" He turned to Jin Soo. "She's just doesn't get it."
Get what? Jin Soo looked just as confused as I was.
Ji Tae put his hands together and clapped the tips of his fingers softly. "Boys need to eat a lot to grow up tall and strong. Jin Soo, don't you want to be tall and strong?"
Jin Soo nodded. "I want to be very tall," he said, stretching his hand up and jumping up to show how tall he wanted to be. From what I could see, he didn't want to be very tall.
"Did you hear that, Hee Soo? He wants to be tall, so let him eat something. Or do you want him to end up as short as you?"
"What?" Since I'd already begun to ignore their little tag-team performance, I wasn't quite sure I'd heard right. "What did you just say?"
"I said that you should let him eat so that doesn't end up as short as you."
I sighed. "I'm not short."
"Yes, you are."
I pursed my lips and rolled my eyes. "No, I'm not. I'm like 5'7… or so."
"You're not 5'7. And regardless of your height, aren't you shorter than me?"
"So what? You're a guy."
"Exactly. I only got this tall because I ate a lot at his age. Boys need food. If I'd had an older sister like you, I'd probably be your height now."
What tha…? "Are you freaking kidding me?" I hoped his head hurt really badly from coming up with such a load of crock. Boys grew tall because they ate a lot as kids? I rolled my eyes and turned to my little brother who'd already begun to pick at the food on my plate. I slapped his hand off my fork. "Yo, Jin Soo, if you're hungry, go and grab a carrot from the fridge. If not, go and do your homework." I mean, what the hell?!?
I pushed the little gate that was supposedly protecting the construction site after hours and it opened just as I'd expected. It was a good thing we didn't really expect anyone to walk in and steal the bags of cement. I held on tightly to Jin Soo's hand and helped him step over the rubble.
It had been a few days since I'd visited the site and since Jin Soo had bugged me to take him there, I'd asked Ji Tae to bring him over after picking him up from school.
"Did you bring your car?" Ji Tae asked from behind me as we walked onto the site.
I glanced back and nodded.
He tsked. "I still maintain that it's dumb for three people to ride in two cars."
"And I still maintain that you should get over it. Why should I take a bus when I have a car?"
"I could have picked you up."
"Coulda, shoulda, woulda."
He shrugged. "Well, I guess it's cool 'cos I can leave him with you and just head home from here. I'm sure you're already sick of seeing my face all the time."
"Yeah," I agreed. Although in all honesty, I wasn't quite sure I really was. I was already getting used to having him around.
The building still had a long way to go but from what I could see, it was going as planned. I'd previously seen some emails going back and forth about design changes the client wanted to make and it looked like they were already being implemented.
"Jin Soo, stay here," I ordered as I walked onto the would-be parking entrance.
I pulled out my pad and made a few notes as I walked around the site.
"Hey Noona," Jin Soo called a few minutes later as he tried to walk over to me. He'd only taken a few steps when his foot hit a rock and my heart almost stopped beating as I saw his body lower to the ground. I was on the verge of screaming when Ji Tae quickly caught him.
"Be careful," Ji Tae said as he held on to him tightly.
I let out a sigh of relief as I jogged over to them. I slapped myself for being stupid enough to bring a child to such a dangerous place. When I reached them, I took my brother's hand and told him that it was time to go home.
"Why?" he whined, not budging. "I want to visit your building."
I stretched my hands out. "Jin Soo, this is all there is. It's not yet finished."
He frowned. "But when will it be finished?"
"And it'll look different?"
He smiled. "Is it going to look like that one?" he asked, pointing at the almost complete building next to our lot.
I shook my head. "It's going to have a different design."
"What about that one?" He pointed at the old, brick building across the street.
I shook my head. "It's going to be much taller."
"Really?" he said excitedly. "How tall?"
"Very tall," I said, emphasizing the height with my arms.
"Very tall? Taller than that one over there?" he asked, pointing at the building behind Ji Tae's office building.
I laughed. "Much taller."
"Taller? Wow! That's good. I like that," he said smiling.
"Because that means it'll be close to Heaven, right?"
I nodded. "I suppose."
"So tell me when it's finished so that I can come back and when we go to the top-top, we can go and visit Umma. Noona, I really want to visit Umma. I think she's getting lonely up there," he said, pointing to the sky.
I glanced at Ji Tae who had a somber look on his face. How exactly was I going to explain this?