The screams and laughter and chatter of happy children filled the air. The sun shone down cheerfully on the world from a cloudless blue sky, chasing away the chill of winter. The trees unfurled their blossoms and new, green leaves, and petals filled the air every time the wind chased itself through the grassy park filled with parents and children eager to take advantage of the balmy weather.
“Be careful, Eunseo!” Wookyung called to her daughter, who had crawled on top of a plastic tube bridge in the playground and was blithely tightrope walking across it. The girl simply flashed a wide, gap-toothed grin at her mother and jumped off the other side, to a smattering of applause and admiring exclamations from the other children climbing the playground equipment.
“She has the grace of a gymnast,” Jiheon observed from Wookyung’s right as the two adults slowly walked side by side down the sidewalk encircling the playground and leading to other sections of the park.
Wookyung nudged him sharply with her shoulder. “Don’t encourage her! The last thing I need is for her to be jumping and tumbling and somersaulting all over the house.”
The detective raised his hands in mock surrender. “I’m just saying, Wookyung. Honestly, I never knew kids could have this much energy,” he observed, watching a pair of children run by with a spool of string in their hands, heads craned back to watch a large, multicolored butterfly kite soar overhead.
“It does get exhausting sometimes, for sure,” Wookyung chuckled. “But seeing them laugh and play so freely... it’s healing in a way, isn't it?”
“Speaking of which… how have you been doing these last few months? Have you, uh,” Jiheon absently scratched the back of his neck, “been seeing anyone?”
“I could ask the same thing about you,” she asks, seized by a sudden spark of mischievousness. “That pretty detective that follows you around everywhere is rather cute, wouldn’t you say?”
Jiheon spluttered and turned an interesting shade of magenta. “Me and Sooyoun-? No! Oh God no, I wouldn’t date Sooyoung even if you paid me! The very idea!”
At Wookyung’s raised eyebrow, he backpedaled furiously. “I mean, she’s a very nice girl, don’t get me wrong, she’s just nowhere near my type. We’d be horrible for each other, mark my words.”
“If you say so,” Wookyung replied mildly and continued her leisurely stroll down the sidewalk, lips twitching suspiciously.
“Hey, don’t change the subject!” Jiheon jogged to catch up with her. “Seriously, how are you doing, Wookyung? Really?”
“I’m… doing better,” Wookyung told him truthfully, deftly sidestepping a boy chasing after a runaway soccer ball. “Like this festering wound inside that I never even knew was there has finally started to heal."
“Do you still see Sekyung sometimes?”
“Not since January,” Wookyung admitted, exhaling a soundless sigh. “I still miss her sometimes. So much that it feels like my heart is being crushed in a vice, but… I think, because I found the truth at last, my mind doesn’t feel the need to manifest her anymore.”
“Is that a good thing?” Jiheon ventures.
“I think it is.” Wookyung reached out and plucked a blossom off a low hanging branch of a tree as they passed under. “For the first time, it actually feels peaceful in my head.”
Jiheon nodded, satisfied. “You’ll be okay, Wookyung. And I don’t mean that in an empty platitude kind of way, either; I really believe you will.”
Wookyung nodded back, unable to keep a small smile from curling the edges of her mouth. “It’s funny… but I finally believe that, too.”
Suddenly, out of the corner of her eye, Wookyung spied a familiar flash of green skirts and white-stockings, heard a peal of childish laughter. The bottom dropped out of her stomach, and she turned, feeling as if the world had suddenly stopped around her, to see the ghostly phantom of her five-year-old sister running full speed down the sidewalk in the opposite direction. She sped straight towards a tall, slender figure of a dark-haired man wearing a faded blue sweater and standing on the grassy knoll overlooking the playground. As Sekyung neared, the man turned, smiling widely, and bent down, arms outstretched. Without even missing a beat, the child leapt into his waiting arms, and he effortlessly swept her off her feet, twirling her around and around as she flung her head back and shrieked with laughter.
“Eunho…” Wookyung mouthed in shock and disbelief, almost unable to recognize the tortured young man she had seen die right in front of her, bleeding the last of his life away onto a cold, concrete pier. He looked like a great weight had been lifted off his shoulders, his dark eyes sparkling and bright and filled with a calm, gentle peace that had been so noticeably absent from them before.
Eunho finally stopped twirling Sekyung around and settled the little girl comfortably on his arm, both of them giggling and grinning at each other as if sharing the world’s best in-joke. As this transpired, a little short-haired girl near them in a red, plaid dress was playing hopscotch on the concrete basketball court that the sidewalk led to. Wookyung felt her breath catch in her throat.
(“Dad got rid of all her pictures after she… after.” Siwan fidgeted in his chair as Wookyung stared down at his phone, at the picture of the round-faced young girl beaming back at her from it, and tried to keep her face carefully neutral. “I saved this one, though. Kept it in one of my game files. The red dress… it was her favorite. She’d wear it every day if Mom would let her.”)
As the red-clad girl hopped and jumped from one square to another, she stumbled a little, and looked like she was just about to topple over onto the concrete… before Eunho reached out a hand to steady her, suddenly at her side as if by magic. She beamed up at him gratefully and grabbed his hand, her little fingers only able to fully wrap around two of his. She then turned and called something to a boy crouching a little ways away, intently scribbling something on the concrete with a piece of chalk. He looked up, smiling, as the girl in red motioned him over, and Wookyung’s heart skipped a beat. She knew that boy.
She would know the face that had haunted her dreams for months anywhere, the boy she had buried without even knowing his name. The boy whose sister she had found under a pile of garbage in an abandoned house. Sukwoo.
A baby a little over a year old sat beside Sukwoo, wearing a brown teddy bear onesie and holding a purple piece of chalk in one tiny, chubby hand. As Wookyung watched, the baby tried to put the chalk in its mouth, but Sukwoo deftly removed it before it could do so. Before it could get upset about the loss of its toy, the boy stood and scooped the baby into his arms, balancing it with practiced ease on his hip. The baby didn’t seem to mind, and simply laughed happily and clapped its hands as he walked over to join the other three figures. As soon as he got close enough, Siwan’s sister darted forward and grabbed his free hand in hers, grinning brightly and swinging his and Eunho’s hands back and forth.
With a slight jolt, Wookyung registered that Sekyung was looking straight at her. Instead of her usual blank expression, however, she was smiling, the expression soft but deeply content. The two held each other’s gazes for a long moment before Eunho bounced Sekyung a little on his arm and said something to her. Seeing that she was looking elsewhere, he followed her line of sight to Wookyung. As the two made eye contact, the young man’s smile widened, and he shook the hand of the little girl in the red dress slightly, drawing her attention as well, then Sukwoo’s, and finally the baby’s. None of their smiles dimmed even slightly as they caught sight of her, not even Sukwoo’s.
Wookyung gazed upon the scene before her with wide eyes, at Sekyung, Eunho, Sukwoo, Siwan's sister, and Hana's baby sibling, drinking in as much detail as she could, her heart suddenly feeling too large for her chest.
Wookyung blinked to find Jiheon gazing at her in concern. “Are you alright? You kind of spaced out for a second there.”
Mouth opening and closing wordlessly, Wookyung looked back to the field beside the basketball court, only to find that the children and Eunho had all disappeared. A couple children were playing with chalk on the basketball court, and a little girl was playing hopscotch, but there was no sign of Sekyung or Eunho or the others anywhere at all. Somehow, she got the feeling that that she wasn’t going to see them again.
“Oh yes, I’m alright,” she said, hurriedly wiping at her eyes, which had somehow become suspiciously damp in the last few seconds. To her surprise, she found she actually meant those words, for the first time in… probably ever. She looked up at the sky, the petals from the blooming trees blowing gently in the wind, and felt lighter than she had in years.
“It’s going to be a beautiful spring.”