He was so quiet. That was the first thing Seokjin noticed. Taehyung said a total of maybe ten words, from the time Seokjin showed up at his sort-of sister-in-law's house to collect the boy, until the moment they were standing in the hallway outside his apartment and Seokjin was keying in the code.
“Are you all right?” he asked, for what felt like the hundredth time.
Taehyung said nothing; he just nodded. The boy was a little shadow, sleepy-eyed and sad-looking, and Seokjin wondered what that meant for the rest of the years they were going to spend together.
He chalked it up to tiredness. The house where he had picked up Taehyung had been in chaos, as could be expected when there were children needing to be cared for, an aging woman being moved in, and only Taehyung's aunt, a well-meaning but put-upon-looking woman, willing to supervise the entire circus.
“He's had a long week,” Dahee had said, drawing Taehyung out from among his cousins with an iron grip on the boy's shoulder. “Taehyung, say hello to your apeoji.”
“Anyanghaseyeo,” the boy said, bowing a full ninety degrees.
“Good boy.” Dahee nudged him toward Seokjin. “Do you remember what we discussed, Taehyung-ah?”
“Yes,” the boy said.
“Then help your apeoji carry your things to his car. I'll be out to help you finish.”
There had not been much to pack. Taehyung had a suitcase, two boxes, and a backpack to his name. Everything else, Dahee had told him, had been donated or sold. She simply hadn’t had the money or the room to keep the other things Taehyung had had when he'd lived with his grandparents.
They had just gotten everything settled into the back of Seokjin's Prius when Dahee came out into the driveway, holding a stack of papers in her hands.
“Are you ready to go?” she said. Taehyung nodded. “Good," she said. "Now go say goodbye to your halmeoni and your cousins, okay?"
"Okay," Taehyung said. Dahee waited until the boy was inside, and then she offered the papers she held to Seokjin.
"His school papers and a copy of his medical records," she said, switching to English. "Just in case you need them."
"Thanks," Seokjin said. Dahee looked down and fiddled with the fringe of her shawl.
"Thank you for doing this," she said. "It helps me a lot to know Taehyung is in good hands."
To know he's out of your hair, more likely, Seokjin thought, but he knew better than to say as much.
"You realize I've never raised a child before," he said instead.
"I know," Dahee sighed, "but...I promise he won’t give you too much trouble, and it's just until Jiyeon gets back from Kenya. Just a few years and then you won't have to worry about him anymore." She twisted her fingers together. "Like I said, I wouldn't be bothering you, except...we weren't expecting my father’s condition to deteriorate so soon, and I simply can't take care of my mother and my mother-in-law and my children and Taehyung. It's too much."
At that moment Taehyung came back out into the driveway, saving Seokjin from having to reply.
"All right," Dahee said. She bent and kissed the boy on the brow and then patted his head. "Go with your apeoji, Taehyung." She opened the Prius's passenger side door, so that Taehyung could clamber in and buckle his seatbelt.
Seokjin climbed into his own seat and started up the car. He backed out of the driveway and pulled into the street. He pretended not to notice the way Taehyung kept looking out the window, as though if he kept his eyes fixed on the house behind him, it wouldn't disappear from view.
Dahee lived out in the suburbs, about an hour from the neighborhood where Taehyung had lived with his grandparents, and more than an hour from where Seokjin lived in a high-rise apartment building near the medical center where he worked. The drive was a quiet one, silence seeming to balloon in the space between Seokjin and Taehyung.
“So, Taehyung,” he said, calling up his rusty Korean. The boy’s name still felt strange in his mouth, between his teeth (he hadn’t chosen it; he had rarely ever said it out loud until a few weeks ago). Taehyung Kim. His son. “You’re eight, right, Taehyung?”
The boy nodded.
“What grade are you in?” Seokjin asked.
“Third,” Taehyung said. He shifted away from his window almost reluctantly, coming to rest facing the front of the car; still not looking at Seokjin, but not looking away from him either. He fiddled with the hem of his jacket.
“Do you like your class?” Seokjin asked.
Taehyung dropped his gaze to his lap, where his fingers toyed with a runaway thread. “Yes,” he said.
Seokjin could tell that he was getting nowhere, so he let it go. Maybe the boy would open up to him, with time; maybe he wouldn’t. And if he didn’t, then that was—well, it would still be mostly Seokjin’s fault, but at least he was prepared for it.
It only took them one trip to bring all of Taehyung’s things up to Seokjin’s apartment, Seokjin carrying the boxes while Taehyung handled his backpack and suitcase.
“Our apartment is 613,” Seokjin said as they boarded the elevator. “That means the sixth floor, apartment number 13. Okay?”
Taehyung nodded. “Okay, apeoji,” he said.
“Can you remember that?” Seokjin said. “By heart?”
Taehyung nodded again, slowly.
“You’ll have to remember my phone number, too, okay?” Seokjin said, when they reached their floor and practically spilled out onto the landing. He shifted the boxes in his arms with a grunt and led the way down the hall. He reached his door and keyed in his code. Now, with the door propped open, he looked down at Taehyung. “Are you doing all right?”
Taehyung nodded. Seokjin nudged the door open and the boy slipped past him, into the living room lit only by the fading light of the day. He stopped short then, evidently taking in the sight of the room, with its bookshelves and armchair and blocky black couch. Seokjin shifted the boxes onto his hip so that he could reach out with one hand and flick on the light, throwing the room into sharp relief. He saw Taehyung blink, almost owlishly.
“It’s so small,” he observed—possibly the first opinionated statement Seokjin had heard him make today.
“Well, you’ll have to get used to it,” Seokjin said. “You’re going to be here for the next few years.”
Seokjin looked up from the paper he was reading to see Taehyung in the doorway of his bedroom, still in his pajamas, one hand rubbing the rheum out of his eye.
“Good morning, Taehyung,” he said, keeping his tone easy, polite. Polite was a good place to start, right? Especially with children who looked like they were made of glass. Taehyung practically had the words HANDLE WITH CARE stamped all over him.
The boy sniffed the air. “Apeoji, what’s that smell?”
“It’s Saturday morning, so I made breakfast,” Seokjin replied, pointing toward the kitchen counter. “There’s a plate for you over there. I left a fork and knife out for you, too.”
“Thank you, apeoji,” Taehyung said. He gave a polite little bow in Seokjin’s direction and padded over to the counter. He retrieved his plate and his cutlery and then hesitated. “Apeoji?”
“You can just call me dad, you know,” he said.
“But Dahee-imo said that’s not polite,” Taehyung said.
“Don’t all your non-Korean friends at school call their fathers ‘dad’?” Seokjin asked. “Are they being impolite?”
Taehyung shook his head. “But we’re Asian,” he said. “It’s different.”
“…Okay,” Seokjin said. “Sure.”
“Which one is the eating table?”
Seokjin gaped for a second, having never considered this question before. “This one here, I guess,” he said, patting the table where he sat. “The other one’s my workspace.”
“Is that where you do your homework, apeoji?” Taehyung came over and sat down. He scooped up part of a scrambled egg and peered critically at it, then ate it.
“…I suppose. In a manner of speaking.”
“Is it hard?”
“By your standards, probably.” Seokjin turned a page. He tried to focus on the text, the cutting-edge research he was supposed to be learning about.
“Taehyung, I’m doing homework right now and I could use a little silence.” Seokjin cringed inwardly as soon as the words left his mouth. He stole a glance at Taehyung—the boy’s face had gone blank, unreadable. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean for that to come out so harsh.”
“It’s okay,” Taehyung said, in a very quiet voice. “I understand. You have to be responsible, right?”
Seokjin nodded. “Yes. Exactly.”
“I can be responsible, too, you know,” Taehyung said.
“I’m sure, Taehyung.”
“I’m serious,” Taehyung said. “I’m the hyung to imo’s kids and I take care of them all the time since they’re all babies. I’m good with animals, too!” He gave a small smile. “I have a cat.” He paused. “I had a cat.”
“Had? What happened?”
“We had to give her to a shelter,” Taehyung said. “Imo couldn’t keep her.” He stared down at his half-eaten scrambled eggs. “I miss her,” he said, voice plaintive. “She used to sleep in my bed and it’s cold without her. And Mu isn’t as good to hug.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Seokjin said, looking down and trying to refocus.
“If we get a cat, can we name her Kkanji Junior?” Taehyung said.
Seokjin looked up. “First of all, this building doesn’t allow cats,” he said. He wasn’t actually sure that this was the case, but it was better to quash the idea entirely. Pets were a hassle and a mess that he did not want to deal with. “Second of all, even if you did have a cat, wouldn’t you rather have your cat back? Or wouldn’t you rather name it something else?”
“I guess,” Taehyung said. “But imo says that once animals go to the shelter, other people take them away. So I don’t think I’m gonna ever see Kkanji again.”
“I see,” Seokjin said. There wasn’t anything else he could really say to that. So he didn’t. Instead he looked down, focused on his reading, and listened to the quiet clink of Taehyung eating breakfast; the soft patter of his feet on the hardwood floor as he carried his plate to the sink; the doleful little squeaks of a door as Taehyung went back into his room, leaving Seokjin to study in silence.
“Where’s the rest of your house?”
“This isn’t a house, Taehyung, it’s an apartment.”
“I know, but where’s the rest of it?”
“Are you looking for something in particular?”
“Do you have a backyard?”
Seokjin pointed without looking. “The balcony is the best I’ve got, Taehyung. But don’t go out there right now, it’s raining.”
“Okay.” Seokjin heard Taehyung’s heels tapping against the couch. “There’s no grass.”
“It’s a balcony, not a lawn.”
“Oh. Okay. I guess it’s okay. Kkanji Junior could maybe like it.”
“I’m glad you think so. Now please let me read.”
“Hmmm?” Seokjin set down a ramen bowl in front of Taehyung and sat down in front of his own bowl. It was just past noon; the rain had abated a little outside, but the normally sparkling view of downtown remained a drab, gray, boxy landscape.
“Where’s your jesasang?” Taehyung said.
Seokjin looked up from his noodles. “I don’t know what that means,” he said.
“It means…you know,” Taehyung said, gesturing vaguely at thin air.
“No, I don’t think I do.”
“It’s the…the table thing people have?” Taehyung bit his lip, thinking. “Um…the place with candles. And fruit.”
“That’s very vague, Taehyung. I don’t think I have any place with candles and fruit together, unless you’re talking about the kitchen counter.”
“Oh.” Taehyung craned his neck to look over at the kitchen counter. He didn’t seem to find whatever he was looking for. “Then where do you do jesa?”
“Jesa?” Seokjin frowned at Taehyung, who only nodded and did not elaborate. “Can you explain in more detail?” he asked, trying to keep his tone patient. “Maybe then I’ll know what you’re talking about.”
“The…the talking to dead people thing,” Taehyung said. “At Chuseok, and when somebody dies. How do you talk to your harapeoji?”
“Oh, that,” Seokjin said. “It’s not talking to dead people, Taehyung, it’s just…” He paused. Would the boy even understand the term ancestor veneration? Did Seokjin himself even know the words to explain it, in Korean or third-grade English? Probably not. And it wasn’t likely that Taehyung would know the difference. For his purposes, the rituals that Seokjin’s family abandoned generations ago when they’d first come to America might very well seem like a conversation with the dead. That was probably the way it had been explained to him.
Taehyung frowned. “It is too talking to dead people,” he said. “Halmeoni did it. She made dinner for harapeoji and they talked and she said he told me not to cry when I go to live with you.” His eyes widened. “If you don’t have a jesasang, does that mean you can’t talk to harapeoji?”
“I…” Seokjin busied himself by eating a big tangle of noodles. “It’s because of my family,” he said, thinking quickly. “We’re not…we’re not talented like your mom’s family, and also we’ve been here for so long that our Korean isn’t very good. So we can’t talk to dead people like they can. We, um, we just bury them and once they’re gone, they’re just gone.”
“Oh,” Taehyung said. He reached up a hesitant hand toward Seokjin and patted his shoulder. “It’s okay, apeoji,” he said. “I’m sure your ancestors still love you.”
“Yeah,” Seokjin said, swallowing the strange lump in his throat. It was the soup, he decided; he’d probably overseasoned. “I hope so too.”
“Taehyung, I’m busy.”
“Is it urgent or life-threatening?”
“Then it can wait until dinner-time,” Seokjin said.
“What’s going on with you today?” Seokjin asked. “You were so quiet yesterday even though I was trying to talk to you, so what’s happened?”
“Nothing,” Taehyung said in a very small voice.
“Are you sure?” Seokjin peered critically at the boy. Taehyung looked healthy and well-rested. “There’s nothing odd going on?”
“I just feel better, is all,” Taehyung said. “More than yesterday.”
“So I take it you’re normally a chatterbox?”
“What’s a chatter-box?”
“It’s someone who talks a lot.”
Taehyung’s face fell. “Oh. Okay.”
“I’m sorry I can’t talk to you right now,” Seokjin said. “But I really need to get through these readings, Taehyung.”
He heard the couch squeak as Taehyung sat down on it with a huff. His swinging ankles hit the side of the couch with a soft, steady thud-thud-thud-thud. He ignored it for as long as he could—seven minutes at the most.
“Can you please stop that noise, Taehyung?”
“Apeoji, I’m bored.”
“Don’t you have homework?” Seokjin said.
“Nope.” A pause. “I mean no, sir.”
“You don’t have to call me sir.”
“Oh. Okay, apeoji.”
Seokjin sighed and glared down at his books, feeling the beginnings of a headache gathering at the base of his skull. “Didn’t you bring anything else to do? A book to read, or toys to play with, or something?”
“Can I watch TV?”
“Sure, go right ahead,” Seokjin said. When he heard the TV come on, though, he froze. The good parent answer was, he realized, “no.” But surely this was an exception. It was Saturday, it wasn’t even dinner-time yet, and he still had so many papers and journals to read through, and he was already at his wits’ end. Surely this was an exception to the rule, rather than proof of his unsuitability for parenting.
That, he was sure, would come soon enough.