Yunmin lived in a patchwork apartment–mismatched, patched, and paper-thin, held together by red thread and a prayer. There were words on the walls; looping, colorful cursive on the mirrors and windows, written in whiteboard marker. He once admired it: the sharp ink, the crisp angles, the spider-like intricacy of every line and dotted letter. To sit and look about his mother’s house was like being trapped amidst a pastel and most perfect plague.
There was a thump on the wall. Solid, like a knock at the door. Yunmin didn’t open his eyes. He could feel his sister’s inquisitive gaze. Her small figure was sprawled on the carpet, half-hidden by the spinet piano.
On the other side of the wall, their mother clicked her tongue and paced in circles–paced until she was short of breath and her chest rose and fell in an unsteady rhythm. It sounded purposeless: gibberish, nonsense, cheap babble just in case there was a God and He cared what language she spoke–and it fascinated his sister as much as it scared him.
He didn’t know how long he lay there unmoving. He pretended to be asleep long after the noises had stopped, watching the single, swinging living room light flicker like a match-flame through slitted eyelids.
After making flower arrangements for Easter festivities, Yunmin’s mother complained of shooting, aching pain in her hands. Prayer sessions and home remedies offered little relief. “Like shards of glass,” she told the nurse. “What is it, a skin condition?”
The doctor prescribed menthol ointment for dryness, but over-the-counter tea tree oil was her in-a-pinch fix. Her bathroom smelled strongly medicinal, like camphor and wood, and her clothes reeked of it–especially her blouses, which she wore with the sleeves stretched down to the knuckles.
“What a quack,” she said, coming home from the clinic a third time. The wooden cross mounted above the entrance shook as the door slammed. “It’s right there! I can see it festering and all he does is tell me to come back again for more tests. And it’s starting to stink, too.”
Yunmin offered her his gloves–a beat-up leather pair he kept in the bottom of his dresser.
“Too hot for gloves,” she responded bitterly, rubbing at the skin beneath the thin fabric.
“Too bad, really. It’s still ugly, but at least the oil covers the smell…”
That night Yunmin went to fetch Yoona a glass of water from the kitchen to find his mother rifling through the medicine cabinet again.
“It hurts,” she muttered quietly. She kept her fingernails blunted, filed down to the millimeter so she wouldn’t draw blood when it itched. The smell in the hallway was eye-stingingly fresh, every breath felt like the air was saturated with oil and Yunmin could drown in it. “How ugly.” his mother bemoaned, looking at her hands.
“Look at this,” she said to herself. Yunmin watched her stand in the artificial light of the open refrigerator, scratching and scratching at the pristine white skin of her palms. “It hurts,” she said, grabbing a nail file from the countertop. “Oh, it really hurts.”
In the weeks that followed, Yunmin began picking up long hours at the bookstore. He left early for school and returned late from work, and that left long windows of time where it was just Yoona and their mother, together. He didn’t know what happened during the day. At night, he was greeted by a dark, muggy house. The air conditioner in the living room was leaking, overheated, creating oily puddles on the marble. Yoona’s bedroom was empty, and the master bedroom door was half-cracked due to the heat.
Yunmin peeked through the gap in the door, eyes not yet adjusted to the black room within.
Instead of two bodies lay a misshapen mass atop the sheets, the body of the slumbering lump rising and falling with singular breath, beads of sweat rolling off its skin. Yunmin’s mother clung to Yoona’s back–spidery limbs and sticky sheets, slick with more oil, tightly entangled together. His mother’s head was twisted, neck contorted at a grotesque angle so that her lips barely brushed Yoona’s ear. Every exhale from those still-moving lips sounded like a sigh, the meaning just out of reach. In the dim light, it looked like their very flesh was melting, melded and mingled together.
Even in her sleep she scratched, and the noise followed Yunmin as he left the door ajar and returned to his room.
Scritch-scritch-scritch–the sound resonated within the darkness, two sets of nails on flesh.
Yunmin dreamed of a distant past. Yoona stood in their dining room, illuminated by the midday sun. Her was head cocked as she dizzily spun in circles, unsteadily turning on her heels. The dream was almost soundless, but he could sense the soft pitter-patter of toddler footsteps muffled by carpet–felt it more than heard it, like she was treading lightly on his heart. A white handkerchief was tied around her eyes, and her hands were outstretched, grasping tentatively at the air with chubby fingers. Her round face was slack with concentration, and her little brow wrinkled. Sometimes, when she thought she brushed the edge of his shirt with her fingertips, the edges of her mouth lifted slightly; Yunmin knew her eyes behind the blindfold were narrow and crinkled at the corners.
The scene soon changed. Yunmin dreamed of his sister’s face, staring out at him from behind tinted windows. Her lips moved just barely. Her expression was porcelain, pained but pretty, like a silent film actress. It hurts, he thought she mouthed from behind the glass. Though there was no sound, he could see the bubbling, blistering holes in her hands. Then she reached across the glass with her scarred, scabbed fingers and pulled him straight through.
The next morning he woke with no memories–damp with perspiration as the broken air conditioner sputtered and groaned.
The family went out on a summery, sweltering Sunday–they gave the dog to the sitter, flagged down bus sixty-four, and got off a corner and three stops later. They attended mass at a movie theatre just off Kim Seng road.
That afternoon, they filed out of the theatre, hurried along by the throng of exiting people. The hall smelled like butter popcorn, new carpet, and floor cleaner–faintly chemical, and there were blown-up movie posters in every direction. The theatre was artificially cooled, but the air was somehow thick and cloying, like the inside of a hot car.
They stopped under a poster of a woman in a white dress. Yunmin’s mother looked around, fidgeting with her hands, her birkin handbag, the pockets of her slacks. She was itching for a pen–or perhaps, just itching–but instead, she took Yoona’s shoulder and drew her in close.
Yunmin didn’t mean to listen but did anyway.
“Yoona,” she said, staring down the hallway and the gleaming row of lights with a far-away look in her eyes. “Look here.”
Yoona was the spitting image of her mother at eleven–all skinny limbs and angles, like a newborn fawn. “Look at what?”
Their mother leaned in closer and Yunmin heard her whisper, each word quick and fleeting, jumbled together like static. “Do you see it, prin-cess?” Yunmin heard her say, dragging out the endearment with a flourish. Yunmin saw her hand reaching underneath her sleeve, the fingers rubbing gingerly against the flesh of her palms.
As she spoke, her smile grew more exuberant, punch-drunken and coffee-stained, and her eyes crinkled at the corners. She continued to speak softly in Yoona’s ear, running her weathered fingers through Yoona’s black hair.
“That tickles,” Yoona complained, wriggling in her grip. “See what?”
Yunmin stood there, watching the fluorescent theatre lighting cast strange shadows over their faces. He wanted to yank Yoona out of her mother’s grip, carry her outside, and call a taxi to go. Don’t mind me, he wanted to say more than anything, don’t mind me ever.
But he could see it. And when he blinked he saw it still–their mother pulling the gossamer dark threads of Yoona’s hair through the holes in her palms like she was threading the eye of a needle.
Instead, he took a step back. The heel of his shoe squeaked on the linoleum floor. It was even warmer around the concession stand, where the popcorn machines crackled and whirred. When Yunmin reached up and touched his forehead, he expected his fingers to come away wet.
Seeing him move away, Yoona turned her head toward him, eyes rounded. “Op-pa, stay!” she cried.
He watched his mother rest her bony chin on Yoona’s shoulder and peer at him around her thin neck. His mother’s eyes were sunken from sleeplessness and her cheeks were sallow, powdery and pale; her arms encircled Yoona’s little waist like a boa constrictor.
Their faces looked similar under the flickering theatre lights, and it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began. Yoona’s face was as soft and rosy as ever, but her voice sounded raspier, syrupy-sweet. The scent of popcorn soured, intermingling with something rotten–tea tree oil and raw meat: the sickly smell of infection. The centers of his palms felt hot and inflamed.
He wanted to leave. He took another step back. Yoona’s beady black eyes were filled with expectation. Yunmin looked at them, imagining the others could see it too–the way his mother’s fingers danced among the black strands, pulling Yoona’s hair like puppet strings or piano wire.