At age nine, it was not my intention to ever be stuck in a stranger’s white van. But there I was, in my complete willingness. The rainwater in my hair and clothes seemed to cause everything near me to become damp as well, and I sniffled indignantly, still bitter at my brother’s forgetful nature and leaving me to come home from school alone on the bus. Walking home from the bus stop, my imagination ran away as I could picture the impending doom: I would open the front door, the security alarm would go off, and I would fail to remember the password. The police would have to come, the neighbors would watch as I would be pulled away in the rain. I did not want to get arrested as a child, so I sat in the downpour until this van, belonging to my neighbor’s dry cleaner, had pulled into their driveway to deliver clothes.
“Can I use the phone?” I asked softly to the man, who looked shocked to see a child, drenched to the bone and unattended for. He willingly handed his device, listening to my utterly stupid tale as I called my mother, watching my expression crumble as she told me she would take 30 minutes to come save me. I followed him willingly when he offered to bring me to his store, where my mother found me, seated on a towel with the man’s wife. I was snacking on a persimmon when she shouted at me to get up, and by the time I reached home and saw my father’s car, I knew I was in trouble.
“No, Kang Le-Ah. What if you got killed?” The harsh voice was punctuated by the painful grip on my wrist. I cast my gaze downwards, knowing very well that the moment my Korean name was used, I was in danger
“I thought the man was nice, and I didn’t get hurt.” I mumbled sheepishly.
“Stupid girl,” his voice was a snarl now and he shoved me away, the disgust evident in my father’s eyes as he stared down at me. I fell onto the ivory marble floor, the iciness seeping through my jeans.“You’re lucky this time, but I guess you need to get hurt for you to realize how dangerous the world is.” His voice was like a slap to the face, and I felt tears in my eyes. “Don’t you ever follow a stranger again. Next time you do, you won’t end up at home, and we’ll be left with your dead body.” He left me there, the seed of mistrust planted in my mind.
“Take a pastry for free. You grew so much since I last saw you! Any child of Juyoung’s is welcome here.” The woman beamed from behind the counter of the bakery. The walls were lined with assortments of treats, and my mouth watered at the scent of the recently baked goods. Still, I felt suspicion linger in my mind, and I just stood awkwardly as I stared at her face. I felt no sense of recognition, despite her introduction as an acquaintance of my mother’s. She smiled a little wider, gesturing towards the rest of the bakery.
“Take one! You lost so much fat. I remember your mother was always worried you would look like a dumpling forever.” The information seemed correct; my mother’s biggest concern was how my cheeks never shrunk. I was now thirteen, and being in this old Korean supermarket was a confusion to me as I had not shopped here in almost a decade. While my earliest memories involved playing hide-and-seek with my brother, or crying every time I was separated from my mother, the aisles now felt like a labyrinth.
“It’s really okay,” I stuttered in my broken Korean, and she furrowed her brows, before grasping a red bean bun and shoving it towards me.
“You always had a sweet tooth. Take it, and tell Juyoung I said hi, okay?” She shooed me out of the entrance of her bakery, back into the wide floors of the supermarket, and the door closed with a soft thud. I looked at the warm bread in my hands, and the fragrant scent wafted to my nose. I smiled slightly, unsure of how to react as I continued towards the exit of the supermarket. Children were running towards the snack aisle, while tired parents threw sympathetic looks at one another. The smile widened as I recalled my own childhood, and I looked back at the bread. Perhaps in the corners of my mind I was able to recall the woman. Since when had I grown so hostile to the acts of kindness of another person? She had only shown generosity to me, and I had failed to be genuinely thankful.
In front of me, a little boy fell over his own sandals as he tried to join the beeline for the snacks. His lower lip jut out, the pout forecasting his tears. I ripped off half of the bun, making sure he had more of the sweet contents, before kneeling down before him. His large eyes flickered to my face, a blend of curiosity and fear.
“Here, have this and walk a bit slower, hm?” His tiny fingers grasped it, a shy smile blooming on his face as his frantic mother ran over. She cast a suspicious look at me, until she saw her son eating the bun with the beginnings of a giggle. She offered a fatigued word of thanks, and ushered him away. I let the smooth red bean filling dissolve on my tongue as I nipped at the pastry, the familiar memories of the sweet bread filling my mind.
I hug my red pencil case closer to me, letting my tired eyelids flutter shut. It was not even the beginning of my senior year of high school, and yet my permanent sleep deprived state was clearly taking a toll on me as I struggled to regain focus.
“Are you taking the Literature subject test?” A bold voice demanded my attention, and I glanced up at a girl with messy brunette curls, her thickly rimmed glasses reflecting the dim light above us. Another girl next to me nodded, and I did too.
“I don’t expect to do well though,” the girl next to me chirped lightly, pushing her dark hair back. I nodded in agreement, a smile on my face as she offered a cheery high-five. The first girl merely looked at us, clearly unimpressed.
“Well, I studied really hard for this and I think I’ll get a perfect score. If I don’t get my 800 then there’s something wrong.” Her voice was dripping with conceit, and I resisted the urge to make a remark. The girl next to me tried her best to hide her amused countenance. Eventually, the brunette girl, who we would find out was named Sarah, left us in a cloud of vanilla perfume, and I finally released my sigh.
“I can’t believe her!” Isabel exclaimed, her eyes staring at the spot that Sarah had left. “I thought I was going to gag when she started going on about her studying habits.”
“I think I’ll get a perfect score, and if I don’t then something’s wrong.” I turned my lips into a frown as I raised my voice pitch to match Sarah’s, throwing my hair back obnoxiously. I froze, catching Isabel’s gaze, before we both succumbed to laughter.
“That-that was an amazing impersonation!” I did an overly exaggerated bow, causing Isabel to subside into another giggle fit. My mind softened considerably for the girl in front of me. Every other time I had come to take a standardized test, I had never befriended or even spared a glance at other students. I had stuck to a quiet corner or empty side, where I would enviously watch all the groups of school friends.
“Isn’t it so weird how we’re always told to not really interact with strangers? But if I didn’t how would I have known that you were so fun to talk to, and that Sarah is definitely not a face I would want to see on my deathbed.” Isabel questioned me. We were being called by the section to show our identification and testing ticket. She was from Connecticut, having to drive two hours to take this one exam, and then making the drive back north from New Jersey. It was amongst the many details I had learned about her life, as we discovered we were both the younger child of recently-divorced parents.
“Section B, please come up with your testing ticket and ID!” A teacher hollered from the front of the room, and I follow Isabel. We aren’t in the same room, we would find out, and we never saw each other again. But by the comforting hug she offers before we part ways into our testing rooms, I know that kindness went a long way between us two strangers.