In a lifetime of self-destructive isolation, he became my safe haven.
Characters: Chen x You Genre: Slice of Life, Angst, Romance Optional Music: I’m Not Okay - Chen ¸¸.•*¨*•♫
To this day, I still get nightmares about the place I grew up in - a crammed up basement, settled in the back of a two-floored apartment that was illegally rented out by some drug dealers. One year, they had the judicious idea to build a canopy-like shed to keep the crows from eating away at the hundred-year-old foundation. And yet, because of that, mornings became night; no light could permeate into the lifeless building. The only telltale sign of dawn were the chilling footsteps of drug lords advancing toward the alleyway, located right outside my room. Duck taped windows could only hide so much; I heard everything…from the way they forced a pregnant teen to swallow ten pounds of packaged cocaine to how they had cut off a loaner’s fingers.
Footsteps…footsteps, I turned in bed to survey my mother, father, and older sister. They must have heard too. How could they not? It wasn’t like I had some super power hearing…and yet, they hide their signs of recognition. My father fakes a few snores; mother rolls in bed to greet me with her back, and sister murmurs for me to stop making so much noise with my shuffling. So I hide deep, deep, deep within the comforts of countless layers of my blankets; lying to myself that this darkness, this suffocating feeling is the definition of safety.
We were robbed five times - one of them being my own sister when she turned eighteen and decided to flee away from this illusion of life. Though, I resented her, deep down, this sense of jealousy gnawed at my soul. While I still choked under the covers of safety, she was now free to see the light.
“Appa…Omma…Unnie…” I heave in my sleep. Sweat drops coat my skin, soaking the bed sheets. I fumble, toss, and turn, drowning in my own sea of darkness.
After another thirty minutes of self induced asphyxia, I pry away five layers of blankets and jolt upright in bed. Lungs rasp for air; bloodshot eyes, exposed to light for the first in hours, protests with tears.
Wet, wet, everything feels wet and soggy and disgusting.
The ever-haunting footsteps of my nightmare trample my agitated heart. I slap myself awake and scamper over to the windows, checking every lock, every bolt and nail to comfort myself with a false sense of security. With the metal bat I had kept beside me in bed, like some precious stuff animal gifted by my ancestors, I tiptoe my way to the living room.
Windows, closed, locked. Double checked for security because I knew the metal bars, just barely held up together by four screws, served only the purpose of deterring robberies, not preventing them.
After a full round of security checks…I checked them once more…just…just to feel safe.
My fingertips glide across the deadbolt lock and I stand there wondering how many more times I was going to unlock it to make sure it was locked. How…ridiculous…
“What am I even doing?” I whisper to myself as my hand falls back to my side and the metal bat, released from my death grip, slowly falls down onto the floor with an unfitting quiet tap.
My head spins around as I survey my apartment like it’s my first time stepping on these wooden floors. Not spacious like a rich heir’s loft, not ornate nor bedazzled by interior designers, but it was big compared to that tofu-sized of a home I grew up in.
But it’s been five years since I moved out…
“What am I even doing?” I repeat, this time with a hint of anger as I straighten up and totter over to the kitchen sink to grab myself a glass of water. The metal bat drags along the wooden floor, creating a subtle coarse and scratchy sound.
Ding dong! Ding dong!
“Who is it?” I ask while hand-combing my hair into a ponytail.
“Hello, I’m from the insurance agency,” a man’s voice announces from outside.
On my tiptoes, I plant my face against the door to peer through the small peephole and spot a fishbowl preview of a young man dressed in a suit.
“I didn’t call the insurance company,” I note but begin to undo the five locks.
“Hello, I’m Kim Jongdae, from Safe Haven Insurance,” the agent strikes his hand out and craftily invites himself into my apartment. He takes a seat down on the living room sofa and pats the seat across from him.
It’s funny how I spent so much effort putting a barricade to protect myself, and yet, so easily I let this stranger traipse through my door.
“It’s a new year; a new start!” Kim Jongdae giddily introduces as he begins to lay down countless forms, some for me to sign, some just simple spectacles. He flashes his ID badge at me before hard-selling the life insurance plans, to which I either feign a nod of understanding or stare blankly at his face.
“Why do I need a life insurance plan?” I break his train of overly rehearsed sales pitch to ask.
He pauses for a moment before forcing on a wide smile and answering in cringe-worthy politeness, “It’s so you can feel security in life.”
“Doesn’t the reward come after I die?” I bluntly ask. It turns Kim Jongdae’s kitty smile into a flattened line. He realizes that I am not his typical opponent.
“Well…” he adjusts his specs and lowers his head. When he lifts it back up, his expression is intense and much darker; his stare drills right into my shining orbs as he tries to hypnotize me into submission. Ethos. Pathos. Logos. He brings a palm inches from my face and snaps his fingers. My pupils dilate.
On the outside, I am unshaken. On the inside…
“Don’t you have relatives to protect?” he asks.
“No,” I honestly answer.
“No?” the hypnotist questions, a little taken aback by my answer. I am starting to really distinguish myself as a worthy adversary.
“No, I don’t,” I reply again. A small smile creeps onto my lips at the sight of his disoriented expression. Without his permission, I get up from my seat, “Do you want a glass of water?”
Kim Jongdae narrows his eyes; his sight locks onto me as I trudge freely over to the kitchen. He’s baffled, not by my response but by the ease of how I had escaped from his illusion within mere minutes. It was a first for the skilled hypnotist. His gaze follows me into the kitchen and he wonders if I had even fallen into his trap?
In truth, even before the self-proclaimed insurance agent rang my doorbell, I had spotted him days ago, skipping from one neighbor’s home to the next. Years of being better-safe-than-sorry taught me to do a little research. I tap in the logo plastered on his briefcase into Google, which only proved my suspicions that “Safe Haven Insurance” was a made up agency and Kim Jongdae is nothing more than a con artist. – And, his spell had no effect on me because I’d been treated for years, for my insomnia, with hypnotherapy.
“Here you go,” I politely place a glass of water in front of him.
His deep gaze continues to observe the most minuscule of my moves, analyzing the details in hopes of finding a weakness to attack me with.
“Where’s your family?” he takes a short sip of water and lowers his guard to ask. It’s a question asked out of personal curiosity, rather than with ill intentions.
“Where do I sign?” I avoid his question and instead shoot him one of my own.
His eyes flicker for a split second before he straightens up and points to a blank box on one of the forms.
“Here, you can put your bank account for the first deposit,” he tries to explain. Though he expertly hides his nerves, I catch the small crack of his voice.
“No, it’s fine,” I answer, “I’ll give you cash.”
The con artist freezes in place, puzzled by his prey. Cash? That’s even better because there would be no evidence of his crime. With a smile, I count out the bills and hold it out to him. He narrows his eyes to question my motive. One moment, I seem immune to his hypnosis, the next, I am his willing victim?
Instead of taking my money, Kim Jongdae clears his throat and alerts, “You didn’t fill anyone out for primary beneficiary.” We both know the forms are but printed out lies.
“I don’t have anyone to fill,” I calmly respond and place the money into his hands.
His brows only knot tighter. Something about me perturbs him but he’s not quite sure what. He feels his pride buckle under my keen observation and he’s rattled by my eagerness. Was it a trap? Darkened eyes scan around my home and the handsome visitor notices the suffocating, enclosed, and lonesome space, the tightly shut windows, metal security bars that condemned me to prison, the row of five locks securing the premises from thievery, and the bat that perched at the side of the sofa, just inches from my grasps. Were my actions a challenge for him to break through this well-thought out barrier? He feels an odd heaviness build within his chest.
Kim Jongdae’s once happy-go-lucky image morphs into one of solemnness. He observes me from head to toe. I reek of innocence and vulnerability and for some reason, it makes his heart blunder. His wandering sight lands back onto my opened palms.
“Then, you were right. A life insurance plan is unnecessary for you,” Kim Jongdae concludes with an excuse, grabs his briefcase, and heads for the door.
I dash after him before he’s able to open all the five locks of the front doorway. My wad of cash is placed safely into his palms. The handsome young man stares at me in utter confusion.
“I don’t have anyone left to protect anymore,” I honestly admit, “You have loved ones you want to protect though, right? That’s why you’re doing what you are doing?” I softly answer his unasked question. His brow twitches - whether it were touched by my compassion or miffed by my charity, I’m not quite sure. Without waiting for his response, I turn the doorknob and let him out. “Thanks for your company today, Mr. Kim!” I chirpily remark before closing the door.
I thought that’d be the last of him. He returns two days later - this time, not with a suit and tie or briefcase, but with a black muscle tank hoodie and three boxes in his arms. Before my brain could stop me, I let him in again.
“Do you welcome strangers into your house, without question, all the time?” Kim Jongdae raises his brow and scoots the large boxes into the apartment with his feet. “It’s so unsafe.”
“No, I don’t,” I simply reply. My eyes roam over his polished physique and raves over his bare muscular arms.
“It’s unsafe,” he repeats, ignoring my answer.
Without a word, the medium built man skids a blade across the box tops and reveals the contents. I pout, still wondering what on earth I was…or he was actually doing. Did I seriously invite him into my house again? Yet, my heart was placid and calm.
He’s gorgeous…not in your typical flower boy or hot stud way…but gorgeous in the way he looked tough but soft…One side of his head sports a buzz cut so that it emphasizes his smooth side bangs and angled jawline. Simple tasks, like cutting the boxes, suddenly turns into a performance as he nonchalantly twirls the blade between two fingers. And…the corner of his lips spoke a language of their own – sadness, bliss, anger, content…all in the centimeter measurement.
In the lonesome world I created for myself, his company suddenly feels like bright shining stars and colorful sprinkles atop a cupcake.
I shake my head. Was I really attracted to him when I barely knew him?
“It’s a home security system,” Jongdae mistakes my troubles to be about the contents inside the box.
He flips through the user’s manual faster than a flipbook. With a frown, he discards it off to the side and begins to set up the machinery with what he called, “common sense.”
“This. This. This…” he points to the ridiculous amount of locks set up in my house and demonstrates their uselessness by easily prying them open with a pin. “Useless,” he scoffs and tosses the metal gear onto the floor.
“Well, normal people wouldn’t pry open someone’s door with a pin,” I shrug.
Jongdae tosses me a pointed look and scoffs again. “So your ridiculous amount of safety measures is to keep normal people out, but you invite a thief into your house?” This feeling of transparency is so strange but freeing, especially to Jongdae, who has never openly admitted to anyone about his occupation. He can’t help but gaze in my direction a moment longer in anticipation for my reaction.
“I have nothing for you to steal,” I honestly note as I nonchalantly hop onto the kitchen counter, a popsicle stick in one hand, and legs dangling back and forth.
His eyes flicker for a brief moment and he turns away, now confirming from my lack of shock to be evidence that I had known from our first meeting, that he was a con artist.
Minding my own business, I open my mouth to welcome the sweetness of my mid-afternoon treat, only, to be intercepted by the foreign male. Chomp. He licks the creamy residue from his lips and smirks in pride at his successful mischief. Despite not having even tasted the ice cream, my small body paralyzes into ice. Jongdae leans closer to further taunt me.
“Are you sure about that?” he clicks his tongue against his cheek and stares deep into my oscillating orbs.
“About what?” I manage to rid my befuddled mind away from the attractive man’s dangerous gaze. The half eaten ice cream drips down my arm.
“You sure there’s nothing I can steal from you?” he teases, bringing up his hands to mold around my waist. In one swift stroke, he pins me against the kitchen counter. “I think there’s a lot a man can steal from a beautiful woman…” I could smell the mint from his breath. His bangs tickle my forehead.
“But I don’t think you would,” I cover up my state of shock and earnestly say.
Or perhaps, I didn’t mind anymore. After years of trying, trying, trying so hard, at one point you begin to unknowingly self-sabotage. And perhaps, inviting a thief into my two-decade-old barrier was just an act of self-destruction.
But my answer is enough to break the man’s facade. His thumb unknowingly strokes the side of my jaw and it’s so calming and sweet amidst such turbulence.
“I’m a bad person,” he speaks with a sharpness that wavers to sadness toward the end, as if begging for me to counter. And I do.
“What makes you think that?” He feels himself losing momentum and surrendering under my acceptance so he grits his teeth and forces himself to wake up from my enchantment. His large hands grip my smaller ones tighter and he presses his body closer.
“I just don’t think you are,” I firmly state.
My decisiveness aggravates him for reasons he doesn’t even know.
“I’m a thief!” he barks, “I swindled money from yo—“
“But you’re not a bad person,” I bite my lip and respond, “Trust me, I know a bad person from a good one. I grew up around bad people. You’re a good person.” Why did my lower lip ripple…and my vision blur?
“You know nothing!” Kim Jongdae harshly dismisses my explanation and tries to prove his point by lowering his face to the croak of my neck, almost forcing me to retaliate and push him away. Why is he even trying to prove his malevolence - even he isn’t sure? My defense, on his behalf, is strange to him; he’s so used to being beaten up in alleyways or at least cussed at after being caught.
“I saw you give the money to the old lady downstairs. You knew she picks up cardboard boxes and soda cans to fund for her son’s tuition so you helped her,” I reveal my discovery. Jongdae’s eyes flicker. From the close distance, they look even prettier than they normally do and I find myself lost in a trance staring into them.
Slowly, his grip on my hands loosens and he straightens himself. He swallows hard and tries to clear his throat several times as he observes my disheveled state. Sweat had accumulated along the croak of my neck, where he has rested his lips against earlier. I stare up at the chandelier lights on my ceiling with my breath still withheld.
“Foolish girl,” he murmurs and hides the slight upward twitch of his lips by picking up the screwdriver and busying himself with installing the security system.
It takes me a moment longer to shake off the sudden encounter and sit up straight. And when I do, I discover myself silently observing this stranger, who felt more familiar to me than my estranged relatives. Though the situation was rather shocking, I knew with every fiber of my being, that he wasn’t going to hurt me. If he were going to hurt me, why would he be installing all these mechanisms to protect me?
Sweat trickles down Kim Jongdae’s pronounced cheekbones as he hauls a large and sturdy security gate into my bedroom to replace my faulty “only-good-for-show” one. Silently, I tail him.
“Look,” he directs my attention to a metal tab at the bottom of the gate, “Unlock, lock,” he flicks it to demonstrate how it’s only controllable from within the house. “Green is open, red is lock,” he further explains. When I simply nod, he tsks, walks over to the doorway, where I had been standing, takes my hand, and tugs me over to try.
I toggle the switch and he nods in approval.
“Come here,” he motions for me to follow him into the living room where he had mounted a small tablet onto my coffee table. I settle down next to him on the sofa. “I installed a security camera outside your apartment complex and mini ones, one in each room.”
“Even the bathroom?” I raise my brow.
“N-no…not the bathroom,” the master thief stutters for the first time. A light blush colors his cheeks. I hide a smile with the turn of my head as Jongdae takes a nervous sip of water. I forget to tell him that it was my cup.
“Well, what is that?” I point to a red exclamation mark icon on the upper right of the tablet screen.
“That’s the emergency button. Press it if you suspect suspicious activity,” he explains.
“Ah, speed-dial for the cops,” I conclude.
He keeps his lips tight. “You really shouldn’t be living in such a high crime neighborhood alone…” Jongdae shakes his head in disapproval.
“I grew up in a drug lord’s den,” I don’t know why I let secrets about my past slip from my lips but I do.
The attractive man’s expression softens and he scans my empty apartment again, putting the pieces together as to why I had built such a lonely prison for myself to live in…
“Why did you become a con artist?” my subconscious curiosity questions before I could stop it.
Jongdae takes the question easier than I expect. Perhaps, deep down secrets are just tales we all wish someone cared enough to listen to. After a brief moment to collect his thoughts, he answers, “Because I wanted to be strong and earn enough money to find someone.”
“Find someone? Who?” I scoot in.
“Someone I owe my life to,” he looks off into the distance, “Someone I wish to protect.”
Patiently, I wait for him to elaborate.
“She saved my sister and nephew,” he continues but I could tell confronting memories of the past is taking a toll on him so I quickly try to change the topic.
“…How much do I owe you?” I chirp.
He raises his brow. I spot a smear of dirt on his cheek and it takes all my energy not to give in to the temptation of wiping it off for him.
“For all the gadgets you installed for me,” I explain.
He lets out a soft chuckle and turns his head slightly to the side to hide his gentle smile.
“Was it really expensive?” I cluelessly ask. A sparkle ignites in his eyes.
“10 digits,” Jongdae responds with a mischievous nod.
“10 digits?!” I choke and count with my fingers, “That’s one billion!” My once soft voice rises up three octaves. "What kind of scam is this?!”
Loud laughter plays like an orchestra recital in the background. It’s sharp but comforting. Still, I look at him in utter terror. $100 is fine. Heck, I could swallow $1000 to offer my anxiety intoxicated brain with another layer of false sense of security…but $1,000,000,000?!
I reach for my bat.
“One billion, you might as well just take my life!” I snap.
Grinning from ear to ear, Jongdae holds his hand out. “Phone.”
“Phone?” I raise my brow but hand him my phone. The metal bat settles back on the side of the sofa.
He taps the keypad of my device. A vibration sounds from his pants pocket. With a kitten smile, he tosses my phone back to me and heads for the door.
“Chow!” he salutes and swings the front door open. Automatically, it triggers a high-pitched alarm. I cringe and am reduced to a huddle as the tech expert cheerfully punches the passcode into the system. “Oh, forgot to tell you. The password is 09211992, my birthday,” he chirps.
Knocking my throbbing head, I slowly stand up. “W-wait…Doesn’t that mean you know the passcode to my house?”
“See you,” Jongdae winks and skips out the door.
“Wait! Tell me how you change this…” I scurry to open the door, only, to be bombarded by the ear deafening shrill. “Wait…what..what..was it?” I nibble my fingertips and poke at the keypad. Kim Jongdae’s laughter echoes down the hall.