Three Jars of Kimchi

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

This almost took me a week to finish. It was almost too personal to me, to the point where I couldn’t tell which parts were fiction and which were not anymore. This story remains very close to my heart as I wished it would raise awareness for the complicated relationships between abusive parents and their children.

The kitchen almost buzzed with tension as sisters Sadie and Shawn seated themselves across the dining table where their mother was stacking kimchi on top of each other. Sadie tried shooting frantic glances at her sister, but Shawn paid her no attention, her eyes fixed on the plate.

Their mother closed the lid over the rest of the kimchi. Clack. The sound rang across the room. As she sat down, Sadie squirmed in her seat, and Sadie took a sharp breath, both of them bracing themselves for what was about to come.

“I did this just yesterday,” she said, beaming at her kids, who did not return her smile. “It’s more than usual, obviously because it’s Sadie’s big day tomorrow.” Sadie averted her gaze. “Right, Sadie? How does it feel to finally become an elite?”

Sadie fought to fill in the silence that soon followed. “I’ve actually been thinking about it, and…”

“And?”

The smile disappeared from her mother’s face as Sadie continued. “Since last year, I haven’t really been feeling it. About gymnastics, you know. I train for so many hours just for one goal, and… and I just don’t know if I want that anymore. I know I’m letting you down and all, but…”

“Stop talking.”

Her mother dropped her chopsticks, which clanged loudly against the glass surface. Sadie closed her mouth. Shawn looked up from her bowl of rice.

“How dare you?”

The first words out of their mother’s mouth were a scream, reduced to almost a whisper. “I gave up so much for you, ever since your dad —“ She hesitated, then swatted at the air like she would at a mosquito. Both sisters flinched. “If you’re willing to act like this, then you deserve what’s going to happen to you. Your albums — Busted, were they?” Sadie looked down at her single slice of kimchi. “I bought each and every one of them. I give you what you want. I feed you. I pay for your education. But now you have the nerve to sit here and tell me that you’re not going to do one thing for me? I’m going to break your albums with a fucking hammer if you don’t go back to gymnastics.”

“But that’s not fair,” Sadie blurted out.

“Well, it’s not my fault you decided to be a lazy bitch.”

“That’s enough.”

Shawn rose from the table. Sadie looked at her, then hesitantly copied her sister. With Shawn in the lead, the sisters pushed past their mother while she stood still, her back to them, arms crossed and a smirk on her face as if to say, Neither of you is going to win this fight.

Shawn slammed the door in her face.

“What are we going to do now?” Sadie said, panic evident in her voice.

“We’re going to leave this sorry excuse of a house.”

Now? But what is she going to do to us?”

”I’m not going to let anything happen to you. We’re going to crash at a friend’s place. I know someone who could help us. Maya, a few stops away from here. Do you know her?”

Sadie shook her head.

“She’ll take us in. She knows what our mom is like.”

For the next several minutes, the two packed their bags in silence.

“You don’t think she’s waiting outside the door?” Sadie said after a while.

Shawn shrugged. “Honestly, I don’t think I give much of a fuck.”

But she opened the door anyway, and checking that their mother wasn’t there, she gestured at Sadie. While Shawn slung her backpack over her shoulder, Sadie looked around for the last time. Then they sneaked out to the front door. Shawn stopped to listen. The house was silent, more than it should have been. As soon as she opened the door, it beeped away to an automated tune. The sisters let it continue as they ran down the stairs.

Neither of them said a word to each other as they left the apartment building and walked down the street. The red and grey bricks glowed under the orange light. A dog barked in the distance, and was soon joined by another. Sadie looked up. There wasn’t much to see. The buildings towered over each other, effectively blocking the night sky. They were the exact same height and width, all of them, twelve floors and seven windows apart. Sadie lost count of them after passing a dozen or so. A light turned off on the fifth floor across the street. Sleeping With the Light On mindlessly played in her head, over and over again.

She stopped in her tracks. Sleeping With the Light On was the eighth track on Busted. And that exact album happened to be on top of the CD player in the corner of her room.

Shawn was still walking, now way ahead. Sadie ran to catch up with her.

“My album. I forgot my album.”

Shawn sighed. “Which one?”

Busted. It came out last year.”

“You know what will happen if you go back.”

“I’ll… fight my way out,” Sadie said.

“Like that’s going to happen. You know she’s like a fucking gorilla.”

“I’ll be quick.”

Shawn narrowed her eyes. “Seriously? We’re runaways, and that’s what’s on your mind right now?”

Sadie ignored her, running back the way she came. She counted properly this time. Her apartment building was the fifteenth. She frantically pressed each number of the password and yanked the door open.

She could hear loud music coming from her mother’s room. She sighed in relief. She tiptoed across the house nevertheless, opening her door ever so slightly so as to not catch attention.

There it was. She snatched it and stuffed it inside her bag with immense effort. She struggled with the zipper for a bit, then managed to get it all the way across. Her stomach hurt. She was hungry. Maybe she could get a Mars bar or two from the kitchen. She made a detour back to the refrigerator. Her hands ran over a photo of her family, taken over a year ago. A complete family that included the man that had it all. May 3rd, 2002. Back when she loved gymnastics. Back when things were too positive. It was the kind of dream that you wake up from and immediately regret doing so.

She opened both doors. On the bottom lay a single Mars bar. On top of it sat three jars of kimchi. Sadie remembered her mother smiling today, boasting about how much kimchi she made for her. For Sadie. She rarely smiled these days. Maybe she should’ve smiled back. Just for the sake of it. Just to pretend that everything was just like it was before. Back then, Sadie couldn’t wait for dinner, because the kimchi was that good. Now, the kimchi was the only thing preventing her and Shawn from leaving the dining table each time.

Sadie hated her mother. She was afraid of her. So she couldn’t understand why she was reaching for the kimchi and taking one jar, then two, then three. She just needed them. All three of them. She could not, and would not leave a single one behind. A handful of Kleenex would have been useful as she wiped the tears that streamed down her face with her sleeve.

The jars were too big to fit inside her bag. She hugged them close to her chest and walked back to the front door, the jars threatening to slip off once or twice. Then she heard footsteps behind her. She turned around. The jars swayed in her hands.

It was her mother. But then who else could it have been? She cracked a smile, and Sadie managed to smile back this time. Then her mother started to laugh, the kind of laughter that was not normal, the kind that you would only hear from someone drunk. She just didn’t stop laughing, and Sadie started to feel scared — not only of but for her mother, and she pushed the door open and ran outside as fast as she could.

She didn’t stop.

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Earthquake

Photo by Yves Moret on Unsplash

you know what they say during drills.
get under the desk, it’s safe. 
well, I’m the desk,
stuck in the corner as the first wave hits,
the dishes and pots hit the ground, 
my legs threaten to give way but not quite, 

then silence. 
“it’s over,” says the child, 
crawling out from under me. 
I laugh, I work, I study, I write. 
but smile no more,
because a bigger wave is about to come.

I’m not prepared,
not for the breaking, the shaking,
the dramatic screams that call for danger,
I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m okay.
except I’m not, 
except my legs crumble under the pressure,

then silence again. 
the mother attempts to glue me back together,
and I stand somehow 
with my wobbly legs and flustered face. 

see, that’s the thing about earthquakes,
they come unexpected,
causing so much destruction in their wake,
then gone like nothing ever happened. 

The Red Candy

Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash

“Where’s my chocolate?” asked an impatient Alex, tugging at her mother’s sleeve. 

“What chocolate?” 

“The one you bought me yesterday.” 

“I threw it away.” 

“What do you mean you threw it away? There was one left inside,” Alex said. 

“The trash is already outside. The garbage collector will be here any minute.” 

“I hate you!” Alex screamed, her short arms uselessly flailing at her mother like a feather would at a tree. She stomped away from her and pushed the front door with an incredible force one would not expect from a ten-year-old.

Sandra sighed. She teared her eyes off her daughter and continued to beat the single egg that was alone in her fridge this morning. The yolk spattered off the bowl and landed on the pile of letters to her right. Every two days or so, that pile welcomed yet another letter. Today was that day.

Maybe you deserved to get divorced.

Who divorced who, Eric?

You should burn in hell.

Yeah, right. It was almost comical. Sandra didn’t remember her ex-husband being such a jerk. It wasn’t like she cared, though. The luxury of being able to not give a shit was exactly why she went through her divorce. As long as he stayed away from her and Alex, she was fine.

She stopped reading the letters after a week. But she collected them, anyway. 

She looked up at the small, textured window on the front door, not that she could see through it. Was Alex was still looking for her chocolate? 

Not really. She used to, but then she heard the rumbling of a huge truck approaching. It must be the garbage collector that her mother told her about. She ran to the side of the house and peeked ever so slightly from behind. She didn’t like strangers. Her mother taught her not to like strangers. 

The garbage collector had a uniform on, neon yellow — or green, if you may — with a silver stripe in the middle. It hurt Alex’s eyes. It wasn’t the thing bothering her the most, though. The woman was not acting like your typical garbage collector. Instead of heading straight towards the garbage where Alex was near, she cautiously stepped towards the mailbox, keeping her eyes on the house as if someone was about to step outside any minute. She took out the envelope that was inside, reached inside her pocket, and replaced the letter with an identical one. Alex’s mouth opened. The woman finally walked back towards the garbage, which is when Alex ran to the back of the house and waited for five minutes or so until she was sure the woman was gone. 

Freya took one last glance towards the house. She was sure that Sandra was there, but she also knew that she wouldn’t give a damn about an ordinary garbage collector. If there was one good thing that came out of Freya’s career, it was meeting Sandra. Not personally, nor directly. When she laid eyes on Sandra, she became all she cared about. She always lingered in front of the house, hoping that she would run into Sandra, hoping that she would say a single thank you. But she never did, Freya was just a garbage collector, so this was the most she could do. Fake letters until you make it. 

The woman was indeed out of sight when Alex returned. She eagerly opened the letter. The first few paragraphs were nothing but hasty scribbles of random mean words that Alex could not figure out. She skimmed through the exhaustingly long and aggressive letter until she reached the last paragraph.

It’s been a while since I sent you a letter and honestly, I don’t care if you break down after reading this because you deserve it, Sandy. You took my money and job away from me, and because that wasn’t enough, my daughter too. Forgot she was also mine, didn’t you? I hope you don’t feel safe for long, because I’m going to take her from you. I am.

Eric

Alex wasn’t really sure what he — or the woman impersonating him — was talking about, but if she knew one thing, it was the word daughter and the fact that she was the one the letter mentioned. She stood there on the front lawn, letter in one hand, deep in thought as her chocolate continued on its journey to disposal, long forgotten by its owner. 

Maybe she should tell her mother about the woman. Maybe she could help figure the whole thing out. Or maybe she didn’t want that. Her mother often cried out of nowhere, not just silent crying, but hysterical sobbing. She didn’t like seeing her mother like that. It made Alex sad, too. 

So she put the letter back inside and walked back home with hands in her pockets like nothing was out of the ordinary. 

Between school and more bars of chocolate, the woman was not the most interesting nor important topic Alex’s mind dwelled on, until exactly a week later on a sunny Tuesday, she observed a letter sticking out of the mailbox on her way to school. She knew it wasn’t from the garbage collector, because that woman wouldn’t be here until at least ten minutes later. 

To say the least, the letter was not what Alex had been expecting. 

Sandy, why haven’t you been returning my letters? I told you, I’m sorry that you felt I wasn’t the man for you but I’m ready — I’m a different person than I used to be. Please give me a second chance. Please tell me that I deserve you. I don’t know how many times I have to say this.

Alex shoved the letter back into its envelope. Her head was spinning. She had read enough to know that the woman was deliberately replacing these letters with angry ones because she cared about Alex’s parents’ relationship. But why? She was too young to understand. Just adult things. 

This time, she was ready for the garbage collector. She hid behind the bags of garbage and waited until the weekly truck made its way down the street. She watched without a sound as the woman walked towards the mailbox again, as leisurely as if to tell the world that it was perfectly normal behavior. 

Alex emerged. She waved the letter in front of the woman’s face. “I know what you’re doing.” 

The woman yelped, but quickly regained her posture. She smiled, but even Alex could tell that she was nervous. “What do you mean, sweetie?” 

“You have a letter in your pocket,” Alex recited. “You’re going to put it in the mailbox. My mom cries every time she reads your letters.” 

The woman’s face turned red. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” 

“I’m going to tell her, then.” Alex swiftly walked towards the front door. 

“No, wait, wait!“ the woman whispered, grabbing Alex’s shoulder. She turned around. The woman knelt, looking Alex directly in the eye. “I know that you’re a good girl.” She fished something out of her pocket. A candy, bright red. Alex’s eyes widened. 

“Promise me not to tell your mom, and I’ll give you this.” 

Alex squirmed. “But she —“

“Shh. She never has to know.” 

After a tense second or two, Alex finally nodded. The woman handed her the candy. Alex happily started to remove the wrapper. 

It was a mistake for the child, but an intended one for Freya. She watched, making sure that the child was out of view from the house. She swallowed the candy in whole. It didn’t take her long until she started to choke. Good. Her legs shuddered, then she fell to the ground. White foam formed around her mouth. Her eyes dimmed. 

Freya knew this was her only chance. 

“Somebody help!” she screamed. She rummaged through her pockets and fished out an old eye drop. There. Now she was crying. There was a series of hurried footsteps as Sandra rushed out of the door, stopping in her tracks when she saw her daughter’s head in Freya’s hands. 

“Alex. Alex!

Freya deliberately met the grieving mother’s eyes to display the fake tears flowing down her cheek. Her heart took up its pace when Sandra looked back. Face to face. She never would have thought. A minute spent with her. Maybe she didn’t deserve it. But she had it right now, and that was what mattered. 

She shook her head. She had to keep acting. She couldn’t forget that. 

“I saw a man give her a candy, but I didn’t know — I wouldn’t have known —“

“What man?” Sandra asked, her voice barely a whisper. It was like she already knew the answer. 

Freya sniffed dramatically. She recalled a photo of Eric and Sandra together. “Tall… he had thick glasses… I think he also had some sort of a beard —“

“Eric,” Sandra said. 

“Sorry?”

“It’s nothing,” Sandra muttered under her breath. 

She cradled Alex for the last time and rose to her feet. “Please…” her voice broke. “Call the ambulance for me, if you won’t mind, I won’t be long. Please take care of her.” 

“Sure.” I’ll do anything for you.

Sandra ran to her Prius, started the engine, and drove onto the road to hunt down an innocent man. Freya watched as she disappeared behind a building. She sighed. Then she turned her attention back to the girl, who, by then, had stopped making gurgling noises. The candy was effective as hell. 

Freya smiled. “You look just like your mother, Alex.”