She’s saying it wrong all over again.
The way the “p” rolls softly out is all wrong. She’s supposed to pop the syllable out like miniature dynamite, but the monotone voice she carries around doesn’t seem to have the capability of doing that. Of course, she probably can’t do anything properly the way we’re supposed to do it. She has red hair and blue eyes, freckles and white skin. My hair is black and so are my eyes. She’s an American and she can’t do anything the Korean way.
But she’s supposed to be my sister. My parents adopted her two months ago, telling me that this was my new little sister. Aren’t you happy? She’ll be part of our family now!
“Opa,” she repeats, and I ignore her and walk on, because this little brat who can’t even say “big brother” correctly is no sister of mine. Honestly, did they really think it would be so easy? Did they think bringing in a foreign girl from the orphanage beside Koreatown would help make everything go away? This girl is nothing like Min Ah; just because they’re the same age and gender doesn’t make them similar.
“Opa,” she says again as she jogs to keep up, and finally my temper gets the better of me.
“It’s Oppa,” I say, turning to correct her forcefully. She doesn’t even flinch, which is all kinds of wrong because aren’t little eleven-year-old girls supposed to be scared of sixteen-year-old boys towering over them? See, this is why this fake sister is nothing like Min Ah. Min Ah was a good sister, a great little sister. She got my jokes, helped me with my chores, listened to my complaints, and was fun to tease because she’d pout about it at first and laugh about it later.
Until she got hit by a drunk driver and died eight months ago. That’s when Mom and Dad stopped laughing. They transitioned from loud yells to whispers whenever I was near. Mom started volunteering as a social worker, and Dad started to pressure me about school and grades. I stopped paying attention to them, which was my crucial mistake. When I looked up from wallowing in my misery, they had brought in a girl with bright red hair and dull blue eyes.
“Mother wants us to buy milk,” she says in English, because she can hardly speak Korean and my parents seem in no hurry to teach her. What is wrong with them? They do everything they can to keep her comfortable: using only English in the house and making me walk all the way to her school to bring her back home. As if she’s really their daughter.
She’s your sister now, be nice to her! Yeah, right.
We both walk into the convenience store at the entrance to Koreatown. I’m trying to figure out if I should buy ice cream when I feel someone clap my back in greeting. It’s one of my classmates along with several of my other friends. They’re on their way to hang out at new the cinema, and they ask me if I want to join. We move to the cashier as we speak, a popsicle in my hand to purchase, as a red head makes its way down to us with a carton of milk. She stops, and for a split second her gaze lingers on the popsicle.
“Is that the sister that’s got you so busy lately?” one of the guys asks in a joking tone.
Another one of the guys leans down to get a better look at the eyesore of an addition to my family. “Hey there, you seem pretty small for your age. You probably need that milk to grow up, kiddo!”
She blinks and replies, “I am fine with the way I am.”
As I pay for the milk, I can hear my friends commenting on what a little ice princess I’ve acquired. She’s got guts to talk so straightforwardly to a bigger guy. A real poker face, they say.
That’s just another thing to hate about the kid. She doesn’t smile. She doesn’t cry. She doesn’t everything. Anything. She just stares with eyes blue and blank all the time. It gets on my nerves—well, everything about her gets on my nerves. The fact that she’s some kind of substitute, the fact that she’s failing to be a good one, the fact that she’s even trying to be one, and so on.
We split up, me and the fake little sister going one way and my friends going another. The streets and sidewalks feel a little crowded, but I slide around them easily while sucking on my icy treat. The kid isn’t doing so well; she’s holding onto the milk carton with both hands and sidestepping the taller pedestrians with jolted movements, like she’s going to drop the milk or shatter into pieces if anyone touches her. It’s sort of amusing and annoying all at once, so I decide to walk faster. Put some distance between myself and this kid. For a moment, I swear that someone’s tugging on the back of my jacket, but I dismiss the feeling and quicken my pace. I can hear her calling me from behind, but if she wants me to stop she’s going to have to practice saying “big brother” correctly.
After reaching the front door of our house, I turn to see where she is. It’s so easy to spot her: a red flame swimming amidst black tar, her face impassive as it always is, she veers away from one last pedestrian and runs the rest of the way to the door. She mutters a “thank you” to me in mangled Korean and I repress the urge to slam the door in her face.
Nobody’s home. She enters the kitchen to store the milk in the fridge and I follow her in to throw away the wooden stick left over from my snack. Maybe I’ve had too many cold treats, because my head is beginning to hurt: a pounding sensation is slowly building up in the back of my skull. It’s the type to get painful quickly; I better take some Tylenol or something before it gets worse. I rummage through the drawers in search of medication while the kid opens a cupboard. She’s short, even for her age, and she can barely reach the first shelf even on the tips of her toes. It’s a pitiful sight to behold, but I would rather starve myself than offer to help her. She probably knows it too, because she doesn’t ask for help. She has never asked for anything, really, since coming to this house. Brat. Well, she’d be a worse brat if she dared to ask for anything, but still.
My head hurts. The Tylenol has got to be somewhere, but it’s not in any of the drawers next to the kitchen counter. Maybe it’s in the cupboard.
It must be practiced timing, because the moment I turn around, she jumps and attempts to grab a cup. She doesn’t succeed. In fact, her hand knocks against a green mug and it topples over the edge. It happens in a matter of seconds, but I see the free fall in clear-cut detail, like a slow -motion scene from a badly edited movie. The mug trips down to its inevitable doom, and soon the sound hits me with a resounding crash. Shards of green splatter across the floor, some cutting across the kid’s bare feet clad in flimsy flip-flops. I’m safely far enough away from the shattered remains of the mug, but I can’t move. I can’t breathe.
The green mug was Min Ah’s.
“Opa.” She says it wrong again, and I don’t know if it’s just that, or if it’s my headache, or maybe it’s just stress from being pressured by Dad so much, not being able to hang out with my friends, not understanding why the hell this kid never shows emotion, or maybe it’s just a delayed explosion from Min Ah’s death—but the word with that damn “p” sound and the kid with fiery red hair and bright blue eyes just sets me off.
“I’M NOT YOUR OPPA,” I scream at her. “I’m not your fucking brother and you’re not my sister. You can’t even say it right. You don’t know anything about me, about us, about anything. You come here and think everyone’s going to love you like you’re our family, but you’re wrong. I hate you. I hate you!”
She’s standing there, her left shin bleeding and one of her toes cut up with the remains of what little I had left of my baby sister, the real sister. My only sister. That redheaded brat just stares at me like she never expected this. As if.
“You’re a fake,” I spit in Korean, because the consonants are sharper this way, designed to cut deeper. It’s a word I know she’ll understand, because it’s the only one I’ve made sure she learned from me.
For a moment, I am confident that she’s going to dissolve into helpless tears. That I am going to win. Her face scrunches up a little, and I anticipate tears to come.
What comes from her is entirely different.
“I’m not fake!” She screams right back at me. “I’m not your dead sister. I don’t want to be your dead sister. I’m real, and I have a name!”
It’s the first time I’ve seen her like this. Emotional. Honest. Hurt. Just a kid behind a mask. For who she really is. I’m not sure if there’s any other way to put it than it’s the first time I’ve seen her. It’s like the earth shifted under my feet while I wasn’t looking and now I just noticed how much the terrain has changed.
“If you don’t want to be her,” I say, “why are you here?”
She looks at me, her eyes bright. Her voice doesn’t waver even when her cheeks grow wet. “I wanted to be me, but my parents didn’t want me.”
There are tears dripping from her chin, and I’ve done it, I’ve provoked her, broken her indifferent mask down, and I’ve won. I win. It’s such a hollow, useless victory. Making a little girl cry, like that’s something to be proud about. I feel wretched. I’m a bully, and that thought leaves a sour taste in the back of my throat.
“Look,” I say as I move forward. I want to apologize, I know I should, but just saying that I’m sorry feels awfully insufficient. My body moves on autopilot, following directions that used to work whenever Min Ah was upset. My hand reaches out for her shoulder in a subconscious gesture, and I see the way she flinches, her entire body jolting and turning away as if to fend off an attack.
“What’s going on?”
Mom looks at us from the front door, a concerned expression on her face. I didn’t even notice her coming in. My brain is too busy reeling from connecting the dots, realizing things I should have noticed sooner. I don’t protest when Mom pushes me towards my room, telling me to stay put until she cleans up the kitchen.
I sit on my bed and think about what kind of kid flinches from physical contact, avoiding touch from others every step of the way home. I think about what kind of kid is a tiny, thin mess of bones that barely eats at the dinner table, like she expects to be scolded for eating more than half of her serving. I think about what kind of kid never smiles.
The kind that never felt safe before, maybe.
There’s a knock on the door, followed by Mom coming in and closing the door behind her. She leans against it and looks at me.
“I wasn’t going to hit her,” I say preemptively.
“I didn’t think you would,” she says.
“But other people used to hit her, didn’t they.” I try not to sound too accusing. “You could have at least told me.”
“Maybe, if you’d listened.” Mom folds her arms. It’s a sign that she’s uncomfortable. “Are we going to dissect my dubious choices as a mother or are we going to discuss what just happened earlier?”
There’s no point trying to avoid the truth. “It was my fault. I was an ass.”
“Language,” Mom admonishes automatically. “So I guess you should make up for your behavior. Think you can get it right?”
There isn’t really a magical solution. It’s not like I suddenly feel a strong bond with my new sister just because I learned about her past. It’s not like however many years of abuse is going to be forgotten in a fortnight. It’s not like the gashes in our family are all mended. There will be days when Min Ah’s empty spot will haunt me. I’ll still have trouble being a good brother. There will probably be a lot more flinching and hesitation at the dinner table before my new sister becomes comfortable enough to feel like a sister. There’s a lot of ways things can go wrong.
She’s here to stay, though. We can figure things out in our own time. Baby steps and all that. I have an idea on how to take the first step.
“I’ll try.” It’s the best promise I can give at the moment.
“Good enough. We’ll all be trying.” Mom smiles. Her face had been haggard and weary for the past few months, but today she seems younger, happier. She gestures for me to go out. “She’s in the living room.”
I open the door and make my way to the small living room that our family shares. The kid is sitting on the couch. Her eyes are rimmed with red, and a shadow of guilt coils in my stomach. It’s like looking at her for the first time. She has strawberry red hair and eyes the color of blueberry popsicles. She looks at me warily, like I might tear her apart and eat her heart out. Eleven-year-olds shouldn’t have to look like that. I’ll have to teach her how to smile, how to laugh, how to say “big brother” right.
“Charlotte.” Say it right, I remind myself. “Want to go get some ice cream?”
She blinks. Seconds tick by. Like the midnight sky lighting up with an early dawn, her eyes widen and the ends crinkle just the tiniest bit.
And then, slowly, she smiles.