Seoul, South Korea – Saturday, the 8th of January 2011. 09:25 PM.
Seo Min-Ji knew she should have been studying, but she was just having too much fun. Her favorite pop song was playing from the stereo, and compared to the stage she’d set up for herself, the pile of books that was sitting on her desk didn’t look very appealing at all.
This was her moment. Her voice, her performance. There was something magical about the music. Whenever she heard herself sing alongside her favorite artists, her cramped little room ceased to exist and she became part of something bigger and more meaningful – the world of Korean pop, where fancy costumes and catchy English phrases jazzed up the blandness of her life. Whenever she was in that world, the impending stress of high school evaluation simply drifted away.
Min-Ji didn’t know the meaning of the words she was singing, and she didn’t care. Foreign languages always seemed to sound prettier than her own. She enjoyed stringing together the English words, but her English was terrible. She just couldn’t seem to remember what all those words meant. But she didn’t really care about their real meanings anyway. It was much more interesting to invent her own. Then, the words became a secret language, something beautiful and magical that only she could decipher. And her singing added a final touch of magic to them.
Her one-man audience was looking pleasantly entertained, at least. She could see his smile whenever one of her practiced dance moves brought her face to face with the laptop on her desk. He didn’t say a word, but his silent encouragement motivated her to sing longer and better than she would have on her own.
The playback built to its conclusion all too soon. Min-Ji gave it her all for the last few seconds, bending one arm over her head while her chest undulated with a fast rhythmic movement. Just before the final beats she spun around, then sashayed the short distance to her desk with long-legged, confident strides.
She saved the best for last. When she was directly in front of the laptop-mounted webcam, she struck a pose that would have fit right into the K-pop girl group ensemble on the poster behind her. Even her costume, white hot pants and a glittery gold top, had been inspired by her idols.
Her fan clapped his hands enthusiastically. The glow of his face filled her with happiness. It was a handsome face, a blend of Asian and Caucasian features that was the best of both worlds. His Korean eyes were slightly larger than average and the masculine line of his jaw smoothly shaven. The golden-blond shock of his hair was well styled, reminding her of the handsome European princes she’d seen on television.
She wanted to kiss him right that moment. Unfortunately, there was a laptop screen and half a world between them.
Not much longer, she reminded herself as she settled on a chair by her desk. Soon, I will be free.
“Did you like it?” Min-Ji asked in Korean, leaning forward to present her biggest smile to the webcam.
Sander raised his eyebrows in appreciation. His Korean was fluent, flawless except for a hint of an accent that Min-Ji assumed to be Danish. He was living and working in Denmark, after all.
“Isn’t it obvious that I did?” he replied. “But I should say that your choice of lyrics was… interesting, to say the least.” A good-natured chuckle punctuated the last few words. If the person on the other end of the screen had been just about anyone else, she would have second-guessed her performance. But Sander seemed to like everything she said and did. Unlike the others, he’d never made fun of her passion.
“You didn’t like the words? I just picked the ones I like,” she said, pouting playfully.. Truth was, her English wasn’t good enough to form complete sentences, especially not the kind that made any logical sense. And she really did like the sound of some of those English words. A lot.
“You were singing about gummy bear ice cream on your face,” he said, laughing. “Why don’t you sing in Korean?”
“Is it weird that I don’t like my own language?” she asked. “I don’t know. Singing is supposed to be nice, relaxing and fun. Korea is none of that.”
“And Denmark is all of it,” he promised. “You’re going to live like a princess.”
Min-Ji had no reason to doubt him. Her family and her peers considered her weird and socially awkward, and maybe she was, but she did have certain talents. She had a feel for people. She and Sander had made contact nearly five months before, on a Reddit sub-group that was dedicated to Korean pop. He had been impressed by her extensive knowledge of obscure eighties music acts that disbanded before she was even born.
She, in turn, had been drawn by his charm and genuine appreciation for her quirkiness. He didn’t care that she found it easier to sing than to hold a casual conversation with her classmates. She never knew what to say around other people, and her teachers were frustrated by her inability to pay attention to subjects that had no personal significance to her. But whenever she was talking to Sander, the hours flew by. He never ceased to intrigue her. And unlike her over-supportive aunt and her cousins, he never tried to change her.
At some point during the flurry of messages and emails they’d exchanged, Min-Ji had even stopped caring that he was twice as old as she was.
“You look sad,” he observed, drawing her attention back to the laptop screen. “What are you thinking? If you have doubts about anything, let me know. We can talk about it.”
She quickly shook her head and assembled a smile. “It’s nothing. I’m just thinking…”
Sander tilted his blond head at her.
“I’m going to miss being in contact with my father,” she admitted. “And it feels wrong to just leave like this. He’ll believe something bad happened to me.”
“I understand how you’re feeling, Min-Ji,” Sander said in a quiet voice. “And I’m going to do what’s in my power to make you comfortable. You know why you can’t keep contact with your family from Denmark.”
“I know,” she quietly assured him. She didn’t feel good about it, but she understood.
Min-Ji had spent two weeks thinking everything through before she made her decision. Fact was if she wanted a new life, if she wanted to be free of the pressure and the traditions that were suffocating her, then she had to cut all ties to her old one. She was eighteen only according to the Korean calendar. In the eyes of Western authorities, she would still be a minor who belonged with her parents.
Her mother had died when Min-Ji was very young. Her father was the vice president of a fast-growing international software company and spent most of his time overseas. He took care of her as well as he could, which meant one call per week and a few visits a month.
Still, he would hear about his only daughter’s mysterious disappearance the instant his sister – Min-Ji’s primary caretaker – found out. He would investigate, and he had the resources and connections to find her and bring her back.
“Min-Ji, I know this is hard on you,” Sander said. “But hear me out. Stay with me for a few days. If at any time you decide you’d like to return home, I’ll make the necessary arrangements. I promise.”
She smiled, enjoying way his eyes blazed with excitement for her. She didn’t need a mirror to tell her that she was pretty; the proof was right there in his face. The handsome and financially situated CEO of a pharmaceutics company was crazy for her, and she was in love with the love he had for her. She’d never been able to accept herself until he did.
“Okay,” she said. “But I’ve already spent enough time thinking about this. I don’t believe I’ll ever feel the urge to return here. I’m so sick of spending sixteen hours a day on school work. Do you know what a Korean teenager’s favorite hobby is? Sleeping.”
“I thought that was a joke,” he said, chuckling.
“It is… but then again, it isn’t.”
“Anyway, I’m glad you thought it through,” he said, suddenly serious. “Let’s go over this one more time. Tomorrow morning at eight, you’re meeting my associate at Myeong-dong station. He’ll hand you an envelope with all of the necessary documents. Double check to make sure you have everything before you head to the airport. There should be a passport, your flight documents, and two thousand Danish krones. Count them. Oh, and don’t forget to bring your laptop – the police would be very interested in it should they find it at your home.” He made it sound like a joke, but his eyes were dead serious.
“I won’t forget,” she promised, glad to see the worry lines recede from his face. “Is it safe to bring a bag with some of my personal items?”
“Only a few items that you absolutely need,” he replied. “Use a sports bag. A suitcase would raise eyebrows.”
Min-Ji could imagine all too well how her neighbors would react if they saw her leave for school with a travel case. She’d draw attention, no doubt. Attention that would likely result in a phone call and some very uncomfortable questions from her aunt.
“I got it,” she said. “You sit back, enjoy the rest of your day and stop worrying. I’ll see you tomorrow.” She held two fingers to her lips, then gently pressed them against the screen, right where Sander’s mouth was.
“See you tomorrow,” he said, repeating the gesture. Then the screen went dark, and she was alone again.
As she looked out through the window, Min-Ji saw a dusting of snowflakes drift past. Snowfall was a rare occurrence in Seoul. So rare, in fact, that she couldn’t help but see it as a favorable omen for the start of her new life.
She had always liked snow. There was something magical about it, something as exotic and precious as gummy bears and pretty English words. Snow purified everything. Soon, all of Seoul’s ugliness would be covered beneath a soft blanket. And if this monstrosity of a city could turn pretty overnight, then Min-Ji could believe that the same was possible for her life.
I’m going to disappear, she thought, propping up her elbows on the desk to watch the snowfall through the window. Don’t be sad, father. I’ll be happier than I ever was.
Aarhus Airport in Tirstrup, Denmark – Sunday, the 9th of January 2011. 09:25 PM.
Flying across the world was overwhelming experience for an unattended teenager, and flying for the first time doubly so. By the time Min-Ji arrived in Tirstrup, she was so antsy and exhausted that she just couldn’t go on beyond the arrival gate. She sat down on her small sports bag while the flood of other passengers pressed onward, ignoring the curious and disapproving glances they directed at her.
I’m in Europe, she realized. I’m free now. Really free.
Min-Ji tilted her head back and closed her eyes to fully experience what freedom sounded and smelled like. Freedom was the buzzing sound of a moving walkway, the persistent hum of many languages being spoken at once, and a pleasant male voice making announcements in Danish and English through the airport’s PA system. It smelled like coffee and pastry and foreign ladies who’d put on too much perfume too long ago.
Maybe Sander expects me to smell me like a European lady, she wondered, suddenly self-conscious.
A harsh male voice startled her from her thoughts. She didn’t understand the words, but the tone implied that the older man in front of her expected her to move out of the way. She murmured an apology he probably couldn’t understand, stood, and then picked up her bag and continued onward.
Now that her mind was on the Sander track, she couldn’t get him out of her head. She had his money in her wallet and his smile in her heart. It was all she had left. Everything depended on him. If she did anything that displeased him, would he send her back home? The thought of her father’s sad, disappointed face made her heart ache in her chest.
I’m not going back home, she decided. All the Europeans around her looked so carefree and happy to be here. She wanted to be just like them, and she was willing to learn and adapt until she fit in so well that no one even noticed the almond shape of her eyes.
As Min-Ji passed by the restrooms, she made a stop to make sure she looked okay. Some strands of her long black hair had escaped her ponytail, so she loosened it and brushed them into submission, then pulled the upper portions of her hair into a chignon on top of her head. It was a style the girl group Kara had worn in the ‘Jumping’ video clip. Min-Ji knew without doubt that Sander liked it.
You look like a pop star, he’d told her when she tried it out for him.
The mirror told her that her small facial tattoo was still concealed by a thick layer of make-up. It was a single black teardrop that she’d acquired during a rebellious phase about a year ago, as a means of telling her father that she wanted more attention from him. She couldn’t talk to him about her feelings, so she’d hoped the tattoo would get the point across whenever he was looking at her face. It hadn’t helped. All she’d gotten out of it was a reduction of her weekly allowance, so she couldn’t waste so much of it with nonsense.
She didn’t want to hide the tattoo – it was part of her as much as her hair was, and part of what had brought her here – but she understood the need to remain inconspicuous for the duration of her journey. There weren’t too many young women with a permanent black teardrop on their cheek.
When she was satisfied enough with her appearance to step out of the restroom, she grabbed her bag and moved along with the crowd, confident in her ability to fit in among the other travelers. Her pulse began to race when she spotted the lines leading up to the customs booths. She didn’t doubt the credibility of her forged passport – the customs officer in Seoul had barely glanced at it – but knowing that this was the very last stepping stone on her way to Sander and a new life set her nerves on fire.
Min-Ji barely registered what happened at the customs. How the line moved along, or the customs officer rifled through her documents and gave her a scrutinizing look through his glasses. In her mind, she was already drifting down the moving stairway to the meeting point, looking irresistible with her form-fitting glitter shirt and her pop star hair.
The customs officer asked her a question in English. As instructed, she stubbornly responded in Korean until he gave up and handed her documents back to her.
“Have a pleasant stay,” he called after her.
The meeting point was right by the exit, in a spacious lounge with yellow padded seats and small white tables. As Min-Ji rode the moving stairway down to the lounge area, she had a few seconds to admire the snow-coated city that awaited her beyond the floor to ceiling windows. Then she spotted Sander by one of the tables that was closest to the stairway, and her carefully constructed self-confidence crumbled to pieces.
He looked regal in his white suit. It enhanced his commanding presence in a way that would have drawn the attention of any woman. Even the way he was holding his coffee cup radiated confidence. He stood there as if the whole airport belonged to him, but he paid it no mind. His attention was wholly reserved for Min-Ji.
When she realized that he’d already spotted her, the thumping of her heart turned her brain to mush and her legs to jelly. She stumbled over the moving stairway’s landing and nearly fell. Someone moved next to her and grabbed her arm to steady her.
That someone wasn’t Sander. He was a wiry, inconspicuously dressed man of average height with a bald head, blue eyes and the strength of an ox. He returned her to an upright position as easily as if she were an autumn leaf, then quickly released her and stepped back, yielding the floor to Sander.
Min-Ji felt her cheeks flush. As much as she wished she could turn back time and give herself another chance at the kind of impressive entrance she’d hoped for, there she was, and there he was, studying her with a look of amusement on his face.
“I see you already met André,” he told her in Korean. “I hope he didn’t startle you. Are you feeling alright, Min-Ji?”
“Yes,” she managed in the same language. “I’m just clumsy.”
Who is André? She wanted to ask, but held her tongue. She didn’t want to appear rude. Especially not after the poor first impression she’d made by stumbling over her own feet as if she was a stupid little girl.
Sander seemed to sense her discomfort. The humor left his face, replaced by a small frown of concern. His voice softened as well. “How was your flight? If anyone bothered you, let me know. You don’t have to be afraid. You’re here now. Everything’s going to be alright.”
“I know,” she replied, wishing she could communicate as easily in real life as she did through the internet. Talking to people who were right in front of her was always so awkward, and she’d really hoped that talking to Sander would be an exception.
She did like him, though, and his presence didn’t make her nearly as uncomfortable as some of the people from her previous life had. There would be plenty of time to develop an intimacy between them.
“Would you like to grab a bite to eat before we go?” he asked.
She quickly shook her head. “I’m not very hungry yet. Maybe later.”
“Are you sure? Well, I’m going to grab some Danish pastry for myself. I know I can trust you, so I’ll leave them in your care as we drive home.” Sander wasn’t smiling, but his eyes had a roguish sparkle to them that banished the awkwardness of the moment. It took her back to the many conversations they’d had over the past weeks, making her feel more at home in this exotic new environment.
“Okay,” she said. “But I might have to try one, to make sure it’s not poisoned.”
His lips now curled into a smile that quickly became a grin. “I’m so glad to have you here. Who else would be looking out for me? Come, let’s grab that pastry before we get to the car.”
Finding a pastry store at the airport was easy enough. Min-Ji thought he might settle a hand on her back as they made their way towards the parking garage, but he didn’t. He didn’t do anything that would have drawn the attention of the many bystanders. She could assume what they were seeing. A pretty Asian girl with a sports bag, being picked up from the airport by a trio of men who didn’t exactly look like relatives. Well, Sander looked just Asian enough that he could have been an older brother. But the two bodyguards who accompanied him just didn’t fit into the family picture.
As they left the majority of the crowd behind, Min-Ji experienced a moment of doubt. Had she made a mistake in leaving everything behind? She liked Sander, but she had to admit that she didn’t really know him. Not in the way she knew her family or even her former teachers. He had shown her pictures of his mansion in Aarhus – a luxury villa complete with a garden and a swimming pool– but she’d never seen it for herself. What if everything he’d told her about himself was nothing but a big lie?
The sedan car scattered her doubts. It was exactly like the ones she’d seen on television: big, black and obviously expensive. Once she was comfortably seated in the back with a glass of champagne in hand, she felt like a princess on the way to her palace. And her prince was acting the perfect gentleman. He kept a respectful distance, making mellow small talk all the way to Aarhus.
He never pushed himself onto her. She was, in fact, the one who kissed him first.
Aarhus, Denmark – Thursday, the 12th of January 2012. 03:30 PM.
The first month in Denmark were a time of wonder and discovery. Min-Ji lived her new life to the fullest, indulging in the luxury of her new home and making frequent use of the sound studio Sander had put up for her. She discovered the joy of teleshopping with her lover’s multiple credit cards. It seemed as if the whole world was available to her, and while Sander was caught up in business for most of the day, she could count on him to make time for her in the evenings.
She rarely left the mansion, but that was okay. She understood that questions would be raised if people saw her with him. Whenever she did go out, André acted as her unobtrusive shadow, driving her wherever she liked in one of Sander’s less conspicuous cars.
To be honest, though, she rarely felt the urge to leave the mansion. Even back in Seoul, she’d always felt most comfortable in the privacy of her own room, where the world’s troubles could only reach her if she wanted them to.
By the second month, homesickness had settled in her stomach like a dead weight. Min-Ji caught herself watching Korean channels on satellite television, wondering how her family was doing and if they were still looking for her. She overheard her father’s name on the news while channel surfing, but didn’t have the courage to listen to the broadcast. She wanted to believe he was doing okay. She was doing okay, too. Sander had never given her a reason to doubt their future together.
Still, Min-Ji almost called her father. There was a day in March where she found herself in a public phone booth, sobbing quietly while André sipped coffee on the sidewalk outside the pharmacy. Her shopping venture had been short that day, and her small designer handbag contained one single item: a home pregnancy test.
I’ll make the call when I know the result, she’d told herself as she hung up. Father deserves to know. He won’t be angry for long.
The test was positive. Sander showered her with gifts and took her on a one week vacation to Sweden, where they spent hours discussing baby names. And that was it. Min-Ji never touched a phone again.
As the months passed and the baby began to make his presence felt, she rooted herself firmly in her new life, increasingly comfortable with her role as a mother to be. Her new family soon took up more space in her mind than the old one, and she invested weeks in learning how to cook and run a household.
Her efforts amused Sander. “Do you want me to lay off our domestic staff?” he asked her on more than one occasion. “They are enjoying their jobs, you know.” Min-Ji didn’t want anyone to lose their jobs, but she occasionally enjoyed doing the dishes or preparing a small lunch for herself. She spent less time in her sound studio, preferring to get everything ready for the baby instead.
And keeping herself busy helped her overlook the fact that Sander spent more and more of his evenings at work instead of at home. His demeanor had changed from amiable and charming to curt and antsy. Occasionally, he locked himself up in his office to hold lengthy phone conversations in agitated Danish. Min-Ji didn’t understand any of it, but she picked up fragments of English as she passed by the door. Something about ‘crystal’ and a ‘cook’ who wasn’t doing his job right.
He’s just busy, she told herself. He runs a business. I shouldn’t pry. She was creating a home and a family for herself, a refuge where everything was safe and pretty and comfortable. There was no room for doubt.
Christian was born on the 7th of December, a day in which strong winter winds built drifts of snow waist high against the mansion. Min-Ji wasn’t taken to a hospital; André rustled up a doctor and a midwife who assisted her in the bedroom. They worked quickly and efficiently and asked no questions. The doctor left, but the baby stayed. Sander returned to his old self for a couple of weeks before becoming hopelessly tied up in his work again.
Min-Ji started singing again. Little Christian seemed to love her voice even more than his father had, and she was happy to indulge him. She sang bedtime stories to him, mixing all the pretty words she knew in every language and inventing a few new ones.
On the afternoon of the 12th of January, Min-Ji was doing the dishes when suddenly she couldn’t hear her voice. She’d been feeling dizzy and slightly feverish all morning, but she could tell immediately that she wasn’t hoarse from sickness. The absence of sound was absolute. She stood with her hands in the kitchen sink, watching the silent trickle of water that ran from the faucet. Startled, she held a finger under the water to feel the coolness of it. It ran over her skin and trickled down into the sink, refusing to make the slightest sound.
I’m deaf, she concluded. Her heart was hammering in her chest. Her mild headache developed into an ache that spread through her whole body, and she could feel the strength drain out of her legs. She kept herself upright only by sheer willpower until the ache passed. As it did, all the lost sounds came flowing back to her. The lapping water, the pop music from the radio on the counter, her own laboring breaths.
Then she heard her baby crying, and her heart fluttered again. Min-Ji turned away from the counter and ran into the adjoining salon on her wobbly legs, not stopping until little Christian was in her arms and she could check his temperature. He stopped crying immediately. He had drooled milk all over the front of his little bodysuit, but he looked okay.
As she was looking at him, the milk stains vanished as suddenly as if they had never been there. The dizziness stirred in her head again, and she could tell that something new had settled inside of her. Something inexplicable. She understood with startling clarity that that something wasn’t going to go away.
She couldn’t tell Sander. If she did, he might consider her a threat to Christian and take him away from her. And she wasn’t going to lose her family. Not again.
“We are staying together, forever,” she whispered in Korean. Christian was gazing up at her as if he understood, curling his tiny fingers into a fist. Min-Ji brought that fist to her lips and kissed it. If Sander was keeping secrets from her, then she could do the same.
Aarhus, Denmark – Thursday, the 1st of March 2012. 04:55 PM.
Min-Ji had been looking forward to the first day of spring, and she celebrated it with an afternoon of shopping and fine Danish pastry. She was wearing her nicest dress – a multilayered dream of red and yellow chiffon – and eating chocolates from a small handheld box when she was hit by a strong, inexplicable sense of wrongness.
She couldn’t figure out the source. André had pulled the car to a stop in front of the steel entry gate, and as far as she could see through the back seat window, everything appeared perfectly normal. The snow-dusted lawn looked well-maintained and orderly. The mansion sat quietly at the back of the compound, guarded by the usual number of hedge animals.
But no one was opening the gate.
“Must be a technical defect,” André said in his coarse, Danish-accented English. “Stay in the car, I’ll check.”
He was doing his best to sound unconcerned, but Min-Ji didn’t need further evidence to know this wasn’t a technical defect. Sander had sent her away for the afternoon. “I’m going to have a business meeting with some of my partners,” he’d told her. “We’ll talk some matters over in the mansion. Why don’t you take some time for yourself? André will bring you home before Christian wakes up from his afternoon nap.”
And like an idiot, she’d believed him. ‘Business meetings’ had always been her chance to get out and do whatever she liked, wherever she liked. Sander loved his son, perhaps more than he loved her, and she’d never had doubts about leaving the baby in his care for a few hours. Not until now.
As she was looking at the closed gate, Min-Ji’s stomach turned to ice. She pushed the car door open and stumbled out, struggling not to trip over her dress.
André stopped fumbling with the gate controls and turned to give her a concerned look. He was standing next to the massive gate arc now, one hand buried within his jacket, touching but not drawing the gun he kept hidden underneath. “Please stay back,” he told her firmly. “I’ll take care of this.”
Min-Ji paid him no mind. Her attention was firmly set on the rattling mechanism and the gap that was now finally opening, but with excruciating slowness. She heard Andrés voice over the desperate puffs of her own breath, and she understood that he didn’t want her to go to her son. When he called out to her again, she summoned the nothingness that was inside of her, partially erasing her presence from the world.
Then, she grabbed the skirt of her dress with both hands and started running, feeling almost weightless in her panic. Her feet flew across the thin crust of snow that had settled over the mansion’s access road. Closer to the house, the whiteness of the snow turned red. A man was sprawled on the ground, his eyes nothing more than glass orbs staring lifelessly upward.
She recognized him at a glance: Marcus, one of Sander’s men.
The entry door wasn’t locked. Min-Ji pushed it open and kept running. Her snow-covered shoes slipped on the polished stone floor, and she fell, discovering another dead man on the doorstep leading into the salon. She didn’t recognize him. She struggled back to her feet, slipped, and crashed side-first into the pool of redness that was separating her from the salon and her baby. She absently registered how her dress had only one color now and how it clung wetly to her body.
My baby, she thought over and over again. Her mind was caught in an infinite loop that spun around Christian in a mad roundabout. He was all she could think about. She struggled back to her feet and stumbled forward. She passed more men. Some of them were still moving. Some she recognized, some she did not.
Sander was at the center of it all, slumped on a chair with a surprised look on the remaining half of his face. Paper money fluttered from an open briefcase onto the table in front of him.
No, no, no. Her mind refused to make sense of what she was seeing. Christian had to be around here somewhere. She called out to him, but she couldn’t hear the sound of her own voice. The nothingness she’d summoned had taken it away.
She couldn’t find him because she didn’t want to recognize what she was seeing – a tiny, broken bundle on the floor, the blueness of his bodysuit overwhelmed by red. She was staring at it for an eternity. Then, something snapped in her head, and she started screaming.
She did not stop until the nothingness overtook her, covering everything beneath clean, pretty whiteness.