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The lights on the first floor were on.
Mina eased herself into a chair in the yard. She didn’t want to go in without knowing who’d gotten home first. It would be fine if it were Yuna, but she didn’t want to see Hajeong. Lately, Hajeong was like a knife poised to stab. Mina had gotten off work a little later than usual that day, which meant Yuna and Hajeong both might have already been home. All the more reason for Mina not to want to go inside.
She studied the two-story house from where she sat. It was the house she and Yuna had grown up in. The house where their guardians had grown up, too, where they’d spent their lives and last days. The roof was worn well past its use. Next door was the greenhouse she and Yuna had played in when they were younger. Greenhouses were said to be warm places to shelter and grow flowers when the weather outside was cold, but theirs had been a playground for the two of them as kids and now, it was a storage space. There were some people, like the director of the library where Mina worked, who hooked the greenhouses up to electricity and tended to them still, but most people nowadays used them for storage. The greenhouse had a roof and a door, which made it the perfect place to stash and ignore the things they hadn’t yet decided to get rid of.
The front gate swung open. Yuna stepped into the yard and stopped short at the sight of Mina sitting out there. So Hajeong must have been the one inside. Yuna’s eyes darted between the gate and the front door. She approached Mina slowly, searching her sister’s face as she took a seat beside her.
Mina didn’t blame Yuna. This wasn’t her fault. Maybe if she thought hard enough about it, she’d find that Yuna was partly to blame. But it wasn’t wrong to have loved someone. And it wasn’t wrong to have chosen a partner who saw things a different way. It hadn’t been a mistake for Hajeong to come live with them instead of Yuna moving out. Even Mina had agreed to that. So maybe this, too—Yuna’s refusal to change her mind for love—would turn out not to be a mistake.
Still, she didn’t want to humor her sister by voicing any of this aloud. That wouldn’t be right. Her not being in the wrong was one thing, but an awkward situation was an awkward situation, all the same. Night fell, and the air grew colder. Mina felt the faint beginnings of hunger in her stomach. It was almost dinnertime. She would have to go inside eventually, and when she did, the three of them would take turns using the bathroom before sitting awkwardly around the dinner table to have their evening meal.
“Looks like Hajeong beat me home,” said Yuna, gazing at the house, all lit up inside.
“Yeah. I didn’t know which of you it was, so I’ve just been out here,” Mina mumbled, to which Yuna replied with a sheepish laugh.
“Was it so uncomfortable that you couldn’t go in? I’m sorry.”
Mina gently elbowed Yuna in the side. “If you’re so sorry, then do something about it. What am I doing caught up in the middle of this thing between you two? With nowhere to even go.”
Yuna turned her gaze toward the greenhouse.
“Should I tidy up a little and move in there? I could probably make it work with some fixing up.”
Mina pictured the inside of the greenhouse, crammed with things they hadn’t yet been able to throw away, and shook her head. For so long—ever since the day they’d done that big cleanup to prepare for Hajeong’s arrival, to be exact—they hadn’t taken inventory of what was in the greenhouse, only ever opening the door to toss more things inside. It was a dumpster now for all the things from their past the two of them couldn’t bring themselves to call trash.
“Fixing it up isn’t the issue. It’s what to do with all the stuff inside. Plus, you think if you move in there, Hajeong will sit and take it? I’d rather you fought in the house. If you bring it out to the greenhouse, you’ll just be extending the battle line. At that point, I won’t be able to sit out here, either.”
Yuna burst out laughing, leaning back a little in her seat. “So, what—you want to move into the greenhouse? You did like to play in there when you were a kid.”
“Oh, for god’s sake!” Mina snapped, the words seemingly angry, but she leaned into Yuna as she said them. She could feel Yuna’s warmth through her clothes. They were sisters who had spent decades together. They’d been born together, had grown up side by side. They’d taken their aptitude tests together and agonized together over the results. They had seen Joon off from the space port together, and together had polished their mother’s urn.
Mina rested her head on Yuna’s shoulder and said in a small voice, “Cut her some slack, Unni. Hajeong hasn’t had as much time as I have to prepare for this.”
“I told her everything up front, from the beginning,” Yuna protested.
“She probably didn’t know what you were like back then. Or else she must have thought she could change your mind.”
Yuna opened her mouth to say something, then shut it again. Mina knew what she’d been about to say. That she wasn’t to blame for Hajeong’s expectations. And Mina knew just as well the reason she hadn’t said it. Normally, Yuna had no shame about telling her sister these things. Had she aired her grievances, Mina would have held her hand, sighing as she told her, Whatever else is going on, it’s still your fault that I’m too anxious to go inside my own house after work. The two of them could predict exactly how the scene would unfold, and so decided to skip over the particulars. That was how it was when you’d been born on a dying planet, when you’d always lived as sisters who would someday go their separate ways.
Hajeong met Yuna on a broken-down streetcar.
The Caduceus Corporation, in extending the length of stay for the inhabitants of the Nerovo star system for three more generations, had also guaranteed social security to all inhabitants until everyone in the last generation had migrated elsewhere. That was the contract Hajeong’s grandmother’s generation had agreed to. The Nerovo natives who belonged to the third and last generation covered by the extension were given two opportunities to decide their fates—whether they would remain in Nerovo, relocate to another star system with an offer to live or work, or become the founding generation of the new Lasejin star system. They made their first decision at the age of eighteen, then had until they turned thirty to change their minds.
Hajeong’s grandmother used to tell her stories about how fiercely people had protested the Corporation at the time, how hard they fought for the next generation’s contract period to be extended. The personnel that oversaw superluminal communications went on strike. The quasi-lightspeed spacecraft pilots also staged a walkout. Nerovo’s planets banded together to form a negotiating team and created a brand-new ensign. Her grandmother said every home in Nerovo had hung the new Alliance flag.
Since she worked at her village’s sewage treatment plant, her grandmother hadn’t had the chance to participate in the negotiations or the strikes, but the director of the plant applied the negotiating team’s revised action plan to the sewage treatment process, and the plant took on the additional task of producing the dye used to color the Nerovo Alliance flag. Her grandmother took pride in this work. There wasn’t a single house in the entire village that didn’t fly the flag because, thanks to her, there had been plenty of dye to meet the demand. Hajeong’s home was full of Alliance flags. After the other residents had taken theirs down, her grandmother rounded up all the ones made with the dye she’d produced and kept them in the house. Hajeong’s father used the flags in place of curtains. They used them as tablecloths, dish towels, rags. And still, there were more leftovers piled up inside their greenhouse. Hajeong even stitched the flags together to make herself a bag.
The day she met Yuna, Hajeong had been sitting on the broken-down streetcar, holding that same maroon bag.
Length of stay extensions, staggered migration, secure living conditions. It was long and complicated, the renewal contract between the alliance of 19th-generation migrants to Nerovo and the Caduceus Corporation, and it had taken decades just for them to sign the agreement.
In accordance with the secure living conditions outlined in the contract, they never did away with public transportation. The wait times simply grew longer. Everything gradually began breaking down more often. Greenhouses became storage houses. Heavy rain fell, as did heavy snow. The tap water ran neither hot nor cold, only tepid. Everything aged. People spent more and more time maintaining the facilities they had, fixing them up as they wore down, finding other uses for the things they couldn’t repair.
Hajeong’s grandmother had been the sewage treatment plant’s programmer. Her father had been the capacity manager for the municipal water tank. The water-level gauge in the tank broke when Hajeong was a child. It was never repaired. Using what he’d learned from his life experience rather than his office work, her father installed a long rope and ladder and climbed into the storage tank to measure the water level himself. It was a bit of know-how he’d picked up from neighboring cities that had experienced gauge breaks before. Now, Hajeong managed the ladder her father had set up. There had been a time when they hadn’t needed a ladder in the water tank, as well as a time when unmanned robots had been used to inspect the ladder’s safety. But now, Hajeong had to climb down step by step, pointing the digital load indicator at each crosspiece to assess the ladder herself.
The streetcar doors opened. Some people got off, and some sat waiting for the streetcar to start moving again. Hajeong waited. She’d had to scale the ladder that day. Placing her empty lunchbox next to her bag, she sat back in her seat, mind blank. People disembarked from the streetcar in ones and twos. Truth be told, Hajeong didn’t want to walk another step.
When the streetcar had more than half emptied, Yuna approached Hajeong, lowering her voice to ask, “Where are you headed? Any chance you’d like a ride?”
Hajeong stared at Yuna. She had never seen her before.
“It seemed like we wouldn’t be moving again for a while, and I was going back and forth on whether to walk or transfer, so I called my sister. She’s coming to pick me up. If you’re taking this line, you’re probably headed in the same direction. If you want, we can at least drop you off somewhere on the way.” Yuna thought for a moment, then pointed upward, adding, “Unless this all works itself out before my sister gets here.”
“Ah, thank you,” Hajeong murmured, following suit and lowering her voice. “I appreciate that … though I wouldn’t want to inconvenience you. May I ask where you … ?”
“West End,” Yuna answered readily. It was the last stop on the line. Past Hajeong’s village.
“Oh, I live in Southwest. I’ll take you up on that offer, then, since it’s on the way,” Hajeong said, deciding quickly. She was too exhausted to refuse the kindness of a stranger. It wasn’t all that uncommon, either, to carpool over distances like that between Southwest and West End.
By the time Mina showed up in a little autorickshaw, the streetcar still hadn’t moved. With a driver’s seat and a backseat, Mina’s autorickshaw was meant to hold two passengers. It was tiny compared to Hajeong’s frame. Yuna and Hajeong squeezed into the backseat. Their hips and shoulders were crushed together. Hajeong shifted her bag around before finally setting it on top of her head. As she held it in place, her elbow kept bumping Yuna’s cheek. She craned her neck to fit the bag snugly between the crown of her head and the car ceiling, then pressed both arms squarely to her sides, keeping her neck upright to support the bag so it wouldn’t fall.
Yuna stuck her right arm out of the window and reached out with the arm nearest Hajeong to grab hold of the head of the driver’s seat. Each time they rode over a bumpy patch of road, Hajeong’s lunchbox rattled. Mina got annoyed, telling Yuna to stop tugging on her hair. Every time Yuna heard the sound of Hajeong’s lunchbox, she turned toward it and laughed. When Mina got fed up, Yuna would exaggeratedly release her hold on her sister’s hair, crinkling her eyes at Hajeong. Hajeong would turn her head to look at Yuna or just roll her eyes in reply as she laughed, neck still straining to keep her bag in place.
It took twenty minutes to reach Southwest. Mina parked in front of the sign that marked the village entrance. As soon as the car came to a stop, Yuna hopped out. Hajeong relaxed her neck and caught her bag as it fell beside her. Yuna asked what time she got off work and suggested they carpool on the way home. It seemed like a good idea to Hajeong, though Yuna had nothing to gain from it. When Hajeong mentioned this, Yuna laughed and said she’d ridden the streetcar because it was a waste to drive herself in a car that could seat two, but with the two of them riding together, they could save energy, which was a plus. There was something off about her logic. And besides, Mina was the one who’d been driving. Hajeong looked at her where she stood behind her sister. Mina met her gaze and nodded, an inscrutable expression on her face.
For half a year, the two of them rode home together after work. There were some days Yuna had dinner at Hajeong’s house. They ate and had tea together. Yuna saw all the leftover flags in their various spots around the house and heard the stories about Hajeong’s grandmother. She had a look around the tidy greenhouse where Hajeong’s father’s ashes were kept. Sometimes, she slept over at Hajeong’s place. She even took to carrying around a bag the same maroon color as hers.
The three of them ate dinner in silence. It was as though the whole table was holding its breath. Mina had long given up playing the mediator. She thought Yuna had been irresponsible, but she didn’t necessarily want to take Hajeong’s side in this, either. It was true what Yuna said, that she’d told Hajeong everything from the beginning. She had never hidden her relocation plans. In their family, especially once Joon had left to become a 1st-generation founding resident of Lasejin, Yuna’s departure had always been a given.
Yuna wanted to go to Lasejin. The way Mina saw it, life there held the perfect future for her sister. She’d scored high on adaptability for relocation and had good aptitude test scores, too. In accordance with her test results and at the recommendation of the Corporation, she studied agricultural technology and, as soon as she turned eighteen, submitted her decision to relocate to Lasejin. A newborn star system would probably be a dynamic place. Lots of new people coming in from all over, an ever-changing landscape, many new decisions to be made. In Yuna’s mind, Lasejin was a summer camp full of merry, adventure-loving friends.
Yuna used to tell Mina about her plans to move to Camp Lasejin. There were no broken-down facilities at that camp. No machines you had to bang on several times to get them to work. Instead of vegetable gardens that needed lots of tending, they had massive fields with robots and a self-watering system, properly functioning greenhouses full of gorgeous flowering plants. After examining the crops in the fields and tending to the flowers in her greenhouse, she would head home and take a shower hot enough to steep tea in, then drink a glass of ice water after. She might meet someone new to date every weekend and go on to raise ten or so children of her own.
There was no way Yuna hadn’t told Hajeong all these stories. They would have been more fully fledged and practical versions of the ones she had told Mina, and she probably would have skirted around the parts about dating and children, but however Yuna looked at it, Hajeong had to have known she was planning a life in that dreamy summer camp Nerovo would never be. Besides, Yuna already had family who’d left for Lasejin. Her plans may have been overly fanciful and elaborate, but they weren’t nonsense. She was going to leave someday.
Mina finished eating first. Hajeong had been in charge of cooking that day, so Mina would wash the dishes.
“When you’re done eating, come up and let me know,” Mina said, directing the words to the edge of the maroon tablecloth as she stood up.
As soon as she disappeared up the stairs, Yuna spoke.
“Can’t we stop this?”
“What?” Hajeong replied, not even lifting her head. Her voice was small.
Yuna waved her hands.
“This, all of this. Making things uncomfortable.”
“Did I do something wrong?”
Yuna looked at Hajeong, who was avoiding her eyes.
I told you from the beginning I was one of the ones leaving.
Stop tiptoeing around it and say what you want to say. If you ask me, I’ll answer.
Why won’t you just say it?
Yuna swallowed all these words. No matter what she said, she knew Hajeong wouldn’t come right out with what was on her mind. She didn’t ask because she didn’t want to hear Yuna’s answer. Hajeong was someone who wouldn’t say she missed her grandmother, but would recount stories she’d heard from her as though they were her own. She wouldn’t say she admired her grandmother, but she hadn’t thrown away a single one of her leftover flags and had instead used them to make bags. Rather than say she missed her father who had passed away, she had taken on the job of repairing the ladder he’d installed. She was someone who had wordlessly switched her shifts so that she could keep carpooling with Yuna. Someone who had thrust a hand-sewn bag at Yuna as a confession when she wanted to ask her out. Someone who, even after she had moved in with Yuna, returned to her old home regularly to clean a house no one lived in anymore.
Hajeong was that kind of person—a person who never stopped loving.
Hajeong’s love was cautious, quiet, warm. Yuna loved her love. At first, it was simply nice and exciting. And it only grew better with time. Happiness slowly took on a more concrete shape. Happiness was Hajeong sitting at the table, drinking tea and murmuring about the things that had happened at work that day. The after-dinner tea became a ritual, a part of Yuna’s daily life. More and more whenever something funny or frustrating happened at work, she thought, I’ll have to tell Hajeong about this at dinner. Yuna loved Hajeong’s body heat, how it warmed its way through her chest as they embraced on chilly days. She even loved how on hot days, when she slid a hand between Hajeong’s thighs, Hajeong would shove her off, kicking hard at the blanket in her sleep. Happiness seeped into the air around them, warming its temperature. The days she had to conduct full-scale inspections of the municipal water tank were especially taxing on Hajeong. On those days, Yuna would massage her calves for her, and even though Hajeong always insisted she was fine, she would relax under Yuna’s hands, a languid smile on her face. At the start of each month, Yuna checked the company notice board to see when the water tank would undergo its full-scale inspection. Happiness was the keen attention she paid to the notices as she pored over them.
Yuna loved all these changes. Really loved them. She held Hajeong close and asked, “How is it possible to be this happy?” Hajeong smiled without a word.
So Yuna had no idea. How the two of them could have imagined such different endings.
When they first started dating, Yuna revealed that she was a candidate for relocation. She’d mentioned how Joon, her guardian, had already left for Lasejin, and how if the timing of her departure lined up, she might be able to reunite with him there. She said how rather than a small, worn-out plot of land where she was always straining to make ends meet, she wanted to work someplace where she could raise all sorts of crops and run experiments on the harvests. How rather than a place that required lots of hands-on tending like she had to do now, she wanted to try her hand at using state-of-the-art technology that could manage a farm almost entirely without her having to go to out into the fields.
Yuna had told her all of this, and Hajeong said it was fine with her. Hadn’t she? Perhaps she hadn’t. Yuna honestly couldn’t remember her reaction. Maybe Hajeong had been fine with it then but wasn’t anymore. By now, Yuna knew enough to realize Hajeong could be like that. One thing was for sure: Yuna never said she might change her decision. She hadn’t once imagined a life where she didn’t leave Nerovo. The year she and Hajeong started living together, Yuna had been twenty-seven years old. For her, this love had always had an end. It would last until the day the relocation notice came from the Corporation. And then it would become a precious, bygone chapter in her life.
As Yuna approached thirty, that happiness began to crumble. It had happened at that very table, on a night much like tonight, as Yuna and Hajeong were drinking tea and Mina was doing the dishes after dinner.
“Did you submit your change request?” Hajeong asked lightly, as if she were simply wondering what they should have for breakfast the next day.
“What change request?”
“The request to reverse your application to move planets. Your birthday’s in November, which means the deadline to change your status to stay is exactly half a year out. Have you thought about it?”
Yuna couldn’t understand what she was saying right away. Hajeong’s eyes roamed searchingly over Yuna’s puzzled face.
“I’m talking about your application to relocate to Lasejin. You said you applied when you were eighteen, right? You only have until you’re thirty to change your decision. Have you given any thought to staying?”
Only then did Yuna understand what Hajeong was asking, and she calmly shook her head.
She knew now that Hajeong had mulled over the question for a long time. That day, she must have waited and waited before bringing it up. She must have waited and waited to hear from Yuna herself that she’d submitted the change request, and as the years came and went without a word from her, Hajeong must have fretted and doubted and grown anxious, must have chosen an evening on a day when it was Mina’s turn to do the dishes, when neither she nor Yuna had packed work schedules or overtime, and must have spent the entire meal weighing each word she would say to start the conversation before she even opened her mouth.
But Yuna hadn’t thought much of it at the time. That was why she answered so quickly, with the first thought that came to her mind.
“No—why would I do that, when I’m going?”
Yuna would never forget the defeated look on Hajeong’s face, nor the moment the happiness that had long taken her shape vanished. Wherever she ended up living, whatever she ended up doing, whoever she ended up loving, she would probably remember that look for a very long time.
As soon as she arrived at work, her manager called her in.
“Hajeong, it’s looking very likely that the job assignment schedule will change. What we know for now is there’s no one on our water tank management team who’s leaving. Still, things will be a little hectic for a while.”
“The entire planet suddenly lost a good number of water quality managers. Our treatment plant is set to lose more than ten people in all. Even the assistant director was on the list.”
“The assistant director? But he’s been working here for nearly twenty years.”
“Oh, he’s a relocator. A while back, eight or so years ago, there was another wave where we suddenly lost a lot of people. The assistant director hadn’t been called to relocate at that time, and since he had the most experience of the people who were left, he ended up being reassigned here. The assistant director had even more experience than the director, but because the director had opted to stay while the assistant director had applied to relocate, he was appointed to the less senior position.”
“Is the situation the same at the treatment plants in other cities?”
“Yes, the Corporation has sent out several telegrams to mid-level managers across the board. It seems they need more people on water quality management. This afternoon, once the lists are done being compiled, we’ll confirm the tasks that were assigned to the people leaving each treatment plant, reallocate them to the people staying, and wrap up the transfer of duties right away.”
Hajeong checked the notice board. She saw the relocation order and a telegram from the Corporation listing the names of the relocators. Just as her manager had said, the list this time was incredibly long. Hajeong saw the names of several people whose faces she could picture, people she’d had conversations with before. The assistant director wasn’t exactly young. She didn’t know his age, but she was certain he had to be at least forty. Of course, people of any age could receive the relocation order. If you belonged to a labor force the Corporation needed, you relocated. When possible, Nerovo avoided placing its potential relocators in positions higher than mid-level management. As more highly-experienced people left the planet with its dwindling population, the burden grew on the people who remained. But there was no avoiding it. Potential relocators couldn’t know when they might receive the order to relocate, but they also couldn’t all keep taking on only simple tasks at work. There were always too few people on hand, and always a need for people with experience, people who remembered the way things had worked in the past.
Hajeong received a temporary work schedule that evening. She would retain her usual duties, rotating shifts a mere two times now instead of three until the space shuttle came to ship the relocators away. Almost everyone had one or two new responsibilities or an increase in their work hours. Several people had a Δ symbol beside their names. Those were the people who were leaving. The assistant director’s name was followed by a Δ as well. He was forty-seven years old.
Hajeong told Yuna and Mina about him at dinner that night. Relocation orders had been posted at their workplaces, too. There were tons of people leaving Yuna’s job. At the library where Mina worked, there wasn’t a single one.
“How must it feel to get the relocation order at forty-seven?”
“I guess he’s really leaving now,” Yuna said, biting into a tomato.
“That means he was born and lived here for forty-seven years?”
“I mean, those have always been the terms of the contract.”
The watery seeds and juice from the tomato drip, drip, dripped onto the plate. Yuna hastily wiped her hand with a maroon napkin and went on.
“You can go when you’re twenty-five, when you’re thirty-five, when you’re forty-seven—it’s not all that unusual. We’ve always had lots of potential relocators in our line of work from the get-go, with a bunch of them getting sent off every year, but I guess since the treatment plant hasn’t experienced the same thing before, this many people leaving suddenly would throw things into chaos.”
At that, Mina glanced from Yuna to Hajeong then back, raising her eyebrows in Yuna’s direction. This was her habit when she had something she wanted to say to Yuna, but not while Hajeong was there.
Seeing Mina’s expression, Yuna tilted her head, confused.
“What? Is he someone you’re close to?”
“No, it’s nothing like that.” Hajeong slowly shook her head. Mina stood and picked up the water pitcher from the middle of the table.
“I’ll go refill this. Unni, do you want more tomatoes? Potatoes?”
“Oh, this is enough for me.” Yuna pointed her chin toward her plate, then asked Hajeong tenderly, “How about you? Want to try some of the strawberries I brought home yesterday? I can bring back even more the day after tomorrow, so help yourself to lots.”
Mina’s eyes flashed wildly. Hajeong forced a smile.
“I’m also fine with just this,” she said.
“Really? It looks like you ate even less than yesterday. You have to eat, you know.”
That day, Hajeong was in charge of washing the dishes. Mina approached her as she was scrubbing plates at the sink.
“Unni is just—you know,” she said. “She can’t read people. In agriculture, there have always been so many people switching out that she’s grown kind of numb to it all. I’m sorry.”
“No, no. You have nothing to be sorry about.”
Mina had nothing to be sorry about. And nothing Yuna had said was wrong. The Corporation could issue relocation orders whenever it needed more labor. Those were the terms of the renewal contract drawn up by the Corporation and the people in Hajeong’s grandmother’s generation. The extended-stay generation had the right to determine whether they relocated or not. The Corporation then had the right to choose from among the potential relocators, determine the relocation time frame according to its needs, and issue the relocation orders.
And Yuna was one of the very applicants they could choose from.
That night, Hajeong couldn’t sleep a wink. Yuna was sound asleep beside her. She was even snoring a little. Perhaps the day had worn on her even more.
Hajeong was angry with her. She was angry with her, a potential relocator. She was angry with her, this woman who’d loved her all the while she had been a candidate for relocation. She was angry with her, this woman who’d made Hajeong fall in love with her.
Hajeong thought of the history of the strikes she’d heard about from her grandmother. For the first time in her life, she was angry at her grandmother, too. Her grandmother’s proudest accomplishment, what they had raised the flag and fought to earn, was nothing more than a deferment. Honestly, hadn’t her grandmother run away from a decision? Hadn’t she merely put the decision off and left it for Hajeong’s father, Hajeong, and the people in the generation that would come after hers to make? Hadn’t she, under the pretext of giving the subsequent generations more options, only made it so that hers could die without having to see the end, without having to say their farewells? When her thoughts reached that point, Hajeong shuddered, surprised at herself. A sense of guilt weighed on her.
She sat up slowly. She looked around the bedroom she and Yuna had decorated together. Whether because her eyes were accustomed to the dark or her body was accustomed to the space, she could see every inch of it. There were their little desks placed side by side, their separate wardrobes on either side of the room. The dresser next to the door, Hajeong’s bag on top of it. Yuna’s bag, sitting slumped beneath the dresser like a heap of sloughed-off skin.
Their everyday lives didn’t fall apart, not right away. Like how Yuna and Hajeong hadn’t grown unhappy all at once. On the nights after the water tank had undergone its full-scale inspection, Yuna still laid Hajeong’s legs out over her knees and massaged them for her. There were some days like before when Hajeong would give in and other days when she’d set her legs back down, avoiding Yuna’s eyes. The two of them still shared a bed. The three of them still took turns cooking meals and cleaning, and they still ate breakfast and dinner together as was their routine. Hajeong began visiting her old home more often. On those days, she would take flags from the old greenhouse and use the cloth to make new rags and dish towels, which she would stack in the cupboard. Hajeong always, in the end, returned to Yuna’s house. Sometimes, only once in a while, Hajeong gathered up her pillow and blanket in the middle of the night and went downstairs to the living room. Then came the day that found Mina sitting out in that yard chair, waiting for Yuna to come home.
Mina grabbed hold of Hajeong and asked her to understand where Yuna was coming from. It seemed she’d had a long talk with Yuna, too. Hajeong had heard the sound of the sisters arguing, their raised voices. On those days, Hajeong would cover her ears. From the very beginning, Mina had never been the source of Hajeong’s happiness nor the reason for its absence, so there was very little that Mina could do. Hajeong felt slightly sorry toward her. Slightly. She couldn’t afford to feel too sorry.
September passed, and October came.
“Can’t we stop this?”
“This, all of this. Making things uncomfortable.”
“Did I do something wrong?”
Yuna chose to swallow all the empty words she could have said. This time, she had to say it plain.
“I’m not going to withdraw my relocation application. There’s nothing else I can do.”
“Do you feel sorry?” Hajeong asked slowly.
I don’t know if there’s anything to feel sorry for. But.
“I am sorry.”
“But not sorry enough to change your mind, right?”
Would you be happy if I withdrew the application? You’re already so unhappy.
“What would it take for me to apply for relocation? I still have until next year to do it.”
I can’t stop you.
“We both know you don’t want to leave.”
Watching Yuna, Hajeong slowly nodded.
“You’re right. I like it here. I’ve never once thought of leaving.”
“And I’ve never once imagined a life where I didn’t leave.”
You knew that.
Yuna forced herself to swallow the rest of what she’d been meaning to say, but Hajeong’s face crumpled as though she’d heard the words anyway.
“You—me—no one else—I mean. I don’t want this, but.”
Hajeong’s words came out in fits and starts. Yuna watched as any hint of the emotions that had once lived in the air surrounding her face, her voice, her gestures left, fading with each of her small, shallow breaths.
“I was always honest with you,” Yuna said quietly.
“I can’t apologize for that.”
“I don’t want an apology.”
It wasn’t as though Yuna would leave immediately following her birthday. No one knew when exactly she would depart. She might, like Joon, receive the relocation order within a year or two, or she might end up living in Nerovo for several more decades before leaving like the assistant director at the sewage treatment plant the year before. Maybe the two of them had a long time left together. An extremely long time. They could also break up before Yuna relocated. People broke up for all sorts of reasons. Yuna’s relocation hadn’t happened yet. For now, it was merely an inevitability.
The day Yuna first saw Hajeong. The day she sought her out again, having timed her commute so that she would be on the same streetcar around the time Hajeong was coming home from work. The day they had both been riding the streetcar when it broke down. The day Hajeong didn’t get off. The day Yuna mustered up the courage to talk to her. The day they began commuting home together. The day they had tea together for the first time. The day Hajeong gifted Yuna the bag. The day she first told Yuna of its origins. The day she showed Yuna around her greenhouse, a small, lovingly-tended museum. On all those days, Yuna’s relocation had already been an inevitability. In her world, at least. The only thing that hadn’t been a given was falling in love.
Yuna cupped Hajeong’s chin in her hands and looked down at the maroon tablecloth, soaked with shed tears.
“I told you I didn’t want an apology.”
“I’m sorry anyway.”
Hajeong covered her mouth to stop her hiccups. Yuna waited, staring at the growing stain on the tablecloth.
“I’m gonna grow old here,” Hajeong said. “I’m gonna sew curtains from new cloth every year, and I’m gonna arrange the greenhouse into a little museum. I’m gonna tell my grandmother’s stories to the neighbors’ kids. I’m gonna make bags to give away to people until my eyes go bad. I’m gonna climb up and down that ladder until I lose all the strength in my legs. I’m gonna tend to the yard until there’s not a single weed. And—and—and I’m gonna ...”
Originally published in Korean in QQ Queer Short Fiction Series Vol. 4: No One But Unni, 2020.