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Fiction

Only We Are Here

The Park baby dies on a Sunday. The entire congregation, fourteen-year-old Katherine included, knows about it an hour later. Botched surgery, her mother says. Too bad.

The neighborhood fills with dread and paranoia. Parents begin to schedule frantic doctor’s appointments for the smallest of concerns—a twinging elbow or nausea from a plate of bad oysters. A passing ache becomes a sign of capital-d Disease, and uppercase-a Accidents a reason to go to the emergency room, armed with alcohol swabs and tears.

At the baby’s funeral, everyone huddles together in shared grief. Katherine expresses her sympathies, shoulders hunched down to face the muddy dirt path.

She never knew the Parks well, and she never will. There are always things she will never know. Things she cannot know. She is still young and shapeless, unfamiliar with death. She is not sure what she is doing there. All in all, it is a quiet affair.

 

*

 

Soon, the Parks move away. Word in the congregation is that they have gone to the Midwest to start over. To plant potatoes and live off the land. What is more likely is that Mrs. Park has moved back in with her parents in Idaho, but that is not nearly as exciting.

“I’d never do that,” Katherine’s friend Penny declares one day, words almost prideful.

“Do what?”

“Bend like that. Return home, even when I’m older. Did you know Mrs. Park is only twenty-three? I thought she was at least in her thirties. When I’m in my twenties, I’ll be far away, in New York or London or something. Anywhere but here.”

“They’re mourning. Not everyone wants to leave home.”

Penny pouts. “What do they want, then?”

“Their baby died,” Katherine says, not unkindly. “Surgeon’s mistake, right? You’d be sad, too. Aren’t you sad?”

“I think so.” Penny’s lips pucker. Slowly she spreads her fingers out across her face to disguise the rising heat in her cheeks, the bodily admission of shame.

 

*

 

Generations ago, Katherine’s family farmed rice in Korea, and in the weeks that follow, she cycles through her usual tasks with the furious motions of a rice farmer amid famine, surrounded by sustenance but unable to provide. She applies for part-time summer jobs without success and practices scales on the piano until the tips of her fingers cramp.

Her brother says, “Don’t come running to me when you get carpal tunnel.”

Penny tells her, “You have to learn that one sad song from Naruto.”

Then she sends her the sheet music via email, and Katherine busies herself with another two-hour practice session. She shows Penny. They laugh, but the sound is muffled and rehearsed.

Eventually the neighborhood returns to normal. The local news reverts to its regularly scheduled dose of gossip. A middle-aged man rescues a deer from the highway and gets his fifteen minutes of fame. One day, on a whim, Katherine flips a coin to decide on cheeseburgers or pizza.

Between slices of pepperoni, Penny knits her eyebrows and juts out her lower lip. Her lips are slathered in bright lipstick, and she closes the tube with deft motions. 

“I’ve figured it out,” she says. “The older you get, the more sinful you become.”

Katherine raises an eyebrow.

“So what I’m saying is we’re already doomed. Just look at some adults.”

“Not the Park baby—”

A nod. “Of course not.”

Penny’s eyes glint in the yellowish light of the fast-food joint, reflecting the gaudy red signs near the glass. She looks tired. 

“It’s just interesting to think about.”

Katherine shrugs. “I guess.”

“What do you mean, I guess?”

“It’s pretty sad,” she says. “I don’t know why I can’t stop thinking about it either.”

“Like you can’t, or you won’t?”

Katherine sticks out her tongue. “Stop trying to psychoanalyze me.”

She thinks about death all the time, going back to a childhood spent imagining the flames of damnation. She imagines it over and over, knowing nothing of its truth. Her family was not always Christian. Her ancestors, laboring out in the sun, lived their lives as normal people. Somewhere, it must still exist—that simplicity, romanticized into unreality.

Penny wrinkles her nose, then lets out a loud laugh, flushing in the humidity of the evening. “Everything is bad if you think hard enough.”

The cashier sends them a curious look, and they wave him off awkwardly. Katherine gives Penny a light punch on the arm, and Penny feigns pain. The two dissolve into giggles, their breath foggy and disappearing into the cold air.

A minute later, Penny presses her knuckles to her chin and lowers her eyes to the tabletop. She brushes away a few crumbs, letting her palm linger.

“Poor baby,” she says. “Poor Parks.”

“Yeah,” Katherine says, because she doesn’t know what else to say.

“I hope we never end up like them.” When Katherine stands to clear her plate, Penny pushes the other girl back down with a small, almost embarrassed, chuckle. “No, come on. Let’s stay here a little longer. I don’t want to go back just yet.”

“It’s getting late. Did you want to order anything else?”

She shakes her head. “No, I’m okay. It’s just nice, that’s all. Ambient.”

The restaurant’s entrance swings and creaks open with new customers, a whining child tugging at his mother’s hand, and a family passes by Katherine and Penny’s table without a word, an entire universe lived and lost in an instant. Katherine tears her gaze away from them.

 

*

 

There is a theory that your soul becomes nothingness upon your demise. That nothing in your world right now will ever truly matter, that everything is fickle, all your pain unraveled in the end. There is no reincarnation, no rebirth. What you do in the life you are given is all you will ever do, and you will be forgiven and forgotten in the end. It is strangely comforting.

The congregation loses contact with the Parks, as if the young couple is purposely placing tangible space between themselves and their past tribulations.

Katherine and Penny turn fifteen. A week later, Penny suggests an outing somewhere far. When Katherine agrees, it is in a desperate attempt to cure her boredom, which is reaching a boiling point. Every morning she comes out to her lawn to melt under the hot sun. She would do anything to quiet the droning in her head. Everything around her seems to move like molasses, slow and languished, as if acutely aware of its own mortality.

Come July, they borrow Katherine’s brother’s car for a “summer school assignment” and illegally drive up to Niagara Falls, an hour or so from their quiet hometown in upstate New York.

Penny, excited to get out of their neighborhood, practically vibrates in the driver’s seat, singing loudly and terribly to the radio. During the second half of the drive, she sleeps in the backseat, spare blanket clutched in her fists. Forced to drive, Katherine’s knuckles turn white as she tries to understand the highway and all its signs, but luckily there are not too many other cars on the road.

Niagara Falls is, according to the Internet, a natural marvel. After arriving, they push through the throngs of tourists to look at the wonder with their own eyes. Drizzles of light water leave droplets dripping down from the ends of their hair.

Penny points her thumb at the crowd. “What do you think you’ll do when you grow up?” she shouts at Katherine. “Will you be a stay-at-home mom, or whatever it’s called?”

“I don’t know. I’ll probably work for the government.”

“Really? Like a secretary?”

Katherine doesn’t elaborate. “It’s stable. My mom does it.”

“You’ll do paperwork all day.”

“What do you want me to say? That I want to be a rock star or something?”

“I want to live off the land, like in the Midwest, in the middle of nowhere,” Penny declares. “I think I’d be good at it. You know, it’s harder than it looks.”

“I never said it wasn’t. But I thought you wanted to go to New York.”

Penny screws her eyes closed. “Yeah, if I can even make it there.” She stretches her hand out towards the falls, whispering, “I think I’d be fine either way.”

A spray of water pummels both girls in the face. They raise their arms, shouting rancorously, and let the cold drench their hair. Penny lets herself relax, tension slipping away from her shoulders. Next to her, Katherine wipes the water from her eyes and sighs. Her clothes stick to her skin, every crease defined and taunting. But she doesn’t shy away from the ledge.

 

*

 

Later, they drive home, still dripping water. They know that if they stand in the sun for long enough, the wet will evaporate from their clothes, and all physical proof of their escapade will be lost to that familiar cycle: life and death.

On the highway, Penny cranks up the radio, loud enough for the car to rumble and groan. She’s wearing an old sweatshirt now to hide the light dampness of her shirt, limbs shrunken by the clothing folds across her chest.

“Well,” she says once they arrive back in town.

It’s dark. Their clothes are still moist.

They maneuver to the edge of an empty driveway, and Penny turns off the ignition. With a small grunt, they step out onto the sidewalk, and Penny insists, one hand lingering on Katherine’s shoulder, “Since you’re still wet, tell your parents you slipped and fell into the pool. I don’t want them to get suspicious and call the house.”

“I’m not that clumsy,” Katherine replies, squirming where she stands.

Gingerly Penny slides her hand down to pat Katherine’s arm, and Katherine swats at her without any real malice, although the gesture comes across as rough and abrupt. Penny reaches up to rub the back of her neck, and Katherine glances at the open passenger door.

“You’re not my mom.”

“Sorry,” Penny says. She pulls away, as if suddenly conflicted. “I know.”

“Are you going home?”

“It’s a bit early, isn’t it?”

“You’ll worry your parents. They’ll call the police if you aren’t careful.” That is only half-true, though even several months after the Park baby’s death, a residual paranoia runs through the town’s adults as they enforce open doors and phone trackers.

Penny shakes the car keys, the movement deliberate, and takes her place in the driver’s seat again. 

“Don’t worry, I’m just going to drive around for a bit. Tell your brother I’ll return the car tomorrow morning, full gas and everything. I promise.”

“Okay, good night.” A pause. “You know, soon you’ll be able to actually drive legally.”

“God,” Penny says, “we’re getting so old.”

“There’s nothing good about that. Just sickness and death. And taxes.”

“We could leave town. Run away, I mean,” Penny suggests in a low voice. “Start a farm somewhere. Live off the land.”

Katherine jabs at her playfully. “You’re delusional.”

“I think we could do it. Not like the Parks, but, like, actually do it. You get me?”

“Pack a bag and go?”

“I’m serious. Just choose any morning and go.” Penny closes the driver’s seat door, turns the keys to start the ignition. The engine roars to life.

That night, Katherine goes to sleep with her hair still slightly wet, and wakes up at dawn with a sneeze and low fever. She thinks: I could die right now, having done nothing. This could be my last breath. She pulls her legs into a fetal position in an attempt to dull her headache, and closes her eyes until she drifts into a dreamless daze. She has never been anything extraordinary, never been more than a tiny blot in a long line of ancestors.

Eventually, she stumbles downstairs, still bleary with sleep, and her mother forces her to take a bitter spoonful of traditional medicine. She pictures her ancestors laboring in the rice fields. They must’ve worried about the mundane, sickness and death and work, the same as she does now. They must have faced similar struggles. What do adults say? People don’t really change.

Later, she swallows two painkillers. Her throat, dry and raw, whines against the push of the pills. Then the storm passes, her body recovers, and she falls back into her usual rhythm.

 

*

 

Though no one has heard from the Parks in months, they manage to permeate Katherine’s every thought. The couple must still be grieving, learning to be themselves again amidst their loss. Penny says in an offhand manner, “In an alternate universe, I think I could’ve saved the Park baby,” and Katherine shakes her head with a click of her tongue. Then she thinks: I’m ambidextrous. I’d make a good surgeon. She squeezes her eyes shut and chastises herself inwardly. Penny notices and says, “Sometimes you have to believe those kinds of impossible things.” That, out of necessity, the Parks must’ve fooled themselves at least once or twice. That they still might be.

“So, things we’ll never know,” Katherine says, “or understand, at least.”

Penny puts on a poker face. “Speak for yourself. I’m not stupid.”

The seasons change with the leaves, and soon it is fall and cold. After school, Katherine waits for her mother near the curb, backpack slung over her shoulder. A few feet away, a football player hugs an ice pack to his shin.

Penny calls Katherine that night, right after she has slid into bed. They discuss their classes, as they always do, until the conversation veers and Katherine brings up the local harvest festival, a ragtag collection of pumpkins and blueberry munchkins served warm. 

“We should plant something,” Penny says, voice thin over the phone. “Commemorate the season.”

“Like, after school in the community garden?”

“We can call an Uber,” she replies. “Bring some supplies, okay?”

“You’re just trying to kill time,” Katherine says. She pulls the sheets to her chin and lets the warm feeling run down her chest.

“I know you really like those purple flowers. What are they called again?”

“Hydrangeas. And they’re not purple, they’re blue.”

A laugh echoes on the other end, but it’s subdued. “I’d say that’s debatable!”

The next morning, Katherine goes to Home Depot to pick up a potted hydrangea, paying with her mother’s credit card and lugging the plant to school under her arm.

Something about the day strikes her as odd. There is no good morning text from Penny, and it is windy. The familiar air of playfulness is gone, sucked out into the void, and the town looks drab, dreary, dead. Suddenly it is not an environment she knows, a place she can mold to her own liking. The usual clatter of footsteps and chatter of voices. All of it, suffocating.

It’s chilly. She shivers in the breeze, then replays the past few weeks for possible culprits in her discomfort, but comes up empty. Whatever the cause, it is not within her immediate understanding.

As usual, Penny is early. She sits under a tree with an open notebook. They make small talk, and Katherine is dropping her flowers off in the locker room when Penny suddenly grabs her by the arm and shakes her, murmuring under her breath. At first, Katherine doesn’t hear her, the dull slur of her friend’s words strangely quiet. That is when she notices the slight puff of Penny’s cheeks and her downturned eyes, unnaturally bright in the artificial light. 

“What?” Katherine frees her arm and rubs at the angry red spot with her palm. Slowly she flops onto the hard floor, and Penny joins her, knees cradled up to her chest. “I didn’t catch what you said. Are you okay?” Then—“Are you drunk?”

“I said,” Penny murmurs, “do you want to skip school today?”

Capital-d Ditch. Katherine worries. She always does. 

They breathe in and out. Let the air wash over their skin.

“You’re being serious?”

“I don’t know.” That is the truth. “I’m not sure.”

“Honor thy father and thy mother.” Penny quotes the Bible. Then she’s whispering, her voice too big in the vacant room, instantly overcome with excitement. “Stop thinking about that for one second. I’m asking if you want to ditch. Run away, even.”

“Where would we go? New York City, like you said?”

“The Midwest. Somewhere big enough that nobody will ever find us,” she says, and Katherine’s mouth twists into a frown.

“Like the Parks,” she says.

Penny wets her lips. Her face falls. “Something like that.”

“Is something wrong?”

“What?”

“What are you even talking about?”

She directs her gaze at the ground. “We talked about this.”

“Running away?”

“I don’t know. I guess.”

“I didn’t actually mean it. Not really, at least. You’re acting weird.”

“What do you mean?”

Katherine presses her hydrangea to her chest. “It was just something we said, right?”

They sit in silence for a minute, the bustling of the school around them dulled and flat. Katherine thinks about covering her ears. Somehow her entire world drowns itself in that noise, and there she is in that restaurant again, distinctly aware of her own breaths, watching the family of strangers pass by her table, carrying with them an entire universe unheard, unsolved, never to be known.

And then, she’s at Niagara Falls, surrounded by a towering sheet of water, willingly unmoving, splashed by mist. Damp clothes and flimsy excuses. Penny’s voice telling her what to do—insisting that she “slipped and fell into the pool.” Katherine again, at the Park baby’s funeral, unable to understand like always, a degree of separation between herself and reality. Sometimes you have to believe those kinds of impossible things. She thinks about Penny and her family, never mentioned and never there—always avoided.

Penny continues to trace invisible circles into the ground. Dust splatters her fingertips like ash. Eventually, both of them stand, averting their eyes.

“Wait, Penny,” Katherine says softly. And again, like a prayer, half-guilt, half-longing, all of it an answerless call for salvation. “Penny, I didn’t mean that.”

Penny says, “How do you think you would’ve saved the Park baby?”

A few kids, late for gym class, dash in, unfazed by Katherine and Penny’s hushed conversation. Someone copies their second-period math homework off a friend.

“If you could’ve,” Penny says, “what would you have done? Just humor me.”

Something hot flares up behind Katherine’s eyes, and she feels as if she is dreaming. Even her own words sound foreign and muddled. 

“We couldn’t have done anything,” she says finally, harshly. She presses her lips together and feels the overwhelming urge to cry, born out of nothingness. She lifts her hands to her cold cheeks, fingers splayed as if to hide herself from the world.

The first bell rings. Afterward, an unsteady stillness, with none of the peace and none of the calm.

“We should get going,” Penny says, and her voice is distant.

Katherine asks, “Are you still coming to the garden?”

“I’ll meet you in front of the school like we always do.” Penny smiles, her eyes unfocused. “Maybe we’ll ditch some other time.”

Katherine nods. Doesn’t really mean it. Has never meant it. What she wants to say is, I’m looking forward to it or can we talk for a second or just Penny, Penny, Penny, but her throat closes and leaves the words dangling at the end of her tongue. A sudden sheet of sweat has appeared on her forehead, and it leaves her palms trembling and slick. Like in sickness, like in fever. Like in death. If this is dying, it is quieter than she expected. It doesn’t hurt in the way she thought it would, more aching than violent and abrupt. It lingers, like the sting of a cut.

They part ways after leaving the locker room, but Katherine stops a few feet outside her classroom and thinks about her flower. She thinks about the garden. She thinks to herself: None of this will matter in a few years. They will graduate, move away, and start anew, repeating that lifecycle again and again. A soft noise, wet, its rhythm unsteady and desperate, breaks through her whirling thoughts, and with a jolt she realizes she is crying.

Quickly she wipes the tears. From above, the sun, warm and still young with morning, presses against her skin. She ducks away before the heat can settle.

Clary Ahn is from Chelmsford, Massachusetts and San Diego, California. Her work appears in "Epiphany" and "Another Chicago Magazine," among others. She attends UC Berkeley, and is working on a novel. You can find her at @claryahn.

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