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Joo-Eun

Kwan Joo-Eun clutched the sides of the jacket, trembling hands at her sides. Her brother, Kwan Tomeo, held out a ballpoint pen. “Sign.”

His sister stood straight and silent, teeth clenched, straining against the monsoon of hot emotion speeding through her veins.

“Sign.”

Joo-Eun took the pen and laid it carefully on the counter between them. She turned and walked toward a box of video tapes, picked up the pricing gun and attached labels to the videos before placing them carefully on the rack. Kwan Tomeo picked up his briefcase, pocketed the platinum Cross pen he always carried as a symbol of his wealth and power, and walked out the door. The bell jangled wildly. Joo-Eun continued pricing and placing videos until the box was empty, and took a box cutter from her trouser pocket. She slashed the tape, deftly broke down the box and laid it on top of a stack near the end of the rack, her precise movements a cover for the wild beating of her heart. She would not give up her share of the business or marry the man her brother chose. They were no longer in Korea and she was not a child.

Working quickly, she emptied the remaining two boxes, broke them down and laid them on the stack before locking the door and counting out the register. She checked her watch. It was past 2 a.m. Joo-Eun put on her coat and dragged the pile of cardboard out the alley door, locked it and leaned the pile against the dumpster. Shivering in her sable coat, Joo-Eun quickly unlocked her car and got in. The drive home in the teeth of an icy wind threatened to force her off the road. She fought the wheel, grateful for the few stoplights still working at that hour. Her hands trembled when she finally pulled into the driveway forty minutes later. The commute usually took fifteen. Fighting icy roads and howling head winds all the way took much longer. She was just glad to be home as she thumbed the garage door opener and drove inside.

Once the door was down and she was inside, she let go the iron grasp on the steering wheel, unlocked the door to the laundry room and crumpled bonelessly to the floor. Wrapping her trembling arms around her knees, she rocked to and fro. She swung between anger at her brother’s demands and fear of what he would do if she continued to defy him.

This was not Korea. She had rights. Tomeo had not built up that business. She had. She had turned the least of the family’s holdings into a profitable business without their help. She had earned the right to choose her own path and was not about to relinquish control of her life to Tomeo or whoever he chose to foist on her. It did not matter that the man Tomeo selected was wealthy and the alliance would satisfy her brother’s lust for control and power. There was no way she would give in, especially not to marry someone twenty years older. Even had the man been ten years older she would not agree, not if it meant giving up control of the store and her life. It would be a very advantageous alliance and the family would gain much prestige, but life was not just about prestige. There had to be some pleasure, some happiness and, yes, some choice to be worth the sacrifice. “I do not do sacrifice.” She got off the floor and kicked off her heels, slipping her feet into house shoes.

Some traditions were worth keeping. Arranged marriages and the life of a silent, biddable wife were traditions not worth perpetuating, not when it demeaned her and her accomplishments. And not if it meant she would have no freedom. A man twenty years older would not allow his wife to be independent. He was too much a slave of tradition. When he died—and he would die long before her—she would be left with very little. All his money would go to his family because she was unable to bear children. A woman without sons had no status in Korea and there would be no sons. Had Tomeo even told him about her accident, that she could not have children?

He must have. Such a delicate matter left out of the negotiations, if it came to light later, would end in her being sent back to her family in shame and without her dowry. “I will not submit. Not this time.

“Cut me out if you dare, Tomeo. You cannot take away my pride or my life.” As long as he did not cut her out of the business she alone had built, Tomeo could follow all the traditions he liked. She would make her own traditions.

Joo-Eun knew she had been meant to fail. The bookstore was a way to control her growing rebellion and remind her of her place. She had not failed, but prospered, bringing more money into the family than her three elder brothers. Her success had nearly cost Tomeo his standing, especially since one of the businesses he backed was now bankrupt. He still earned more than Joo-Eun, but only by a mere forty thousand a quarter. That was, as the Americans said—as I would say—small potatoes.

She straightened her blouse and trousers. She needed a hot bath and a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow she would talk to her lawyer and see what options remained. Tomeo would have to bow to the American legal system. On paper she owned the store. That was another one of Tomeo’s mistakes. In order to protect the family’s holdings and spread the risk as much as possible, her name alone was on the deed and that gave her power and control. He could not afford to take her to court and risk exposing the extent of the family’s holdings or some of their marginally legitimate businesses. It was just the leverage she needed to break away and become fully independent at last.

A hot bath, glass of wine and her favorite Chopin piano concerto eased away some of the strain and cold lingering from the confrontation with Tomeo and the drive home. As she toweled off and applied the silky blue lotus and lavender lotion to her skin, jangled nerves and the pounding pulse at her temples eased. She slipped into silk pajamas and released the carved bone pins from her hair to brush it out before getting into bed.

Warm and comfortable beneath her embroidered satin comforter, Joo-Eun listened to the wind howl and shake the windows. Succumbing to the heavy weight of her eyes, she opened wide the doors of her mind and embraced dreamless sleep, drifting on a warm, placid sea. On the nightstand, an antique French clock gently ticked away the minutes.

Cold hands gripped her arms and dragged Joo-Eun from bed. Rough laughter raked her ears. “Get dressed.” In the harsh glare of the overhead light, Joo-Eun blinked, her eyes watering, as she struggled into an embroidered satin brocade robe. She bent down to grab her slippers and was yanked upright by one arm. Before she could get to her feet, she was dragged through the door and into the hall. “What are you doing? Let me go.” Both hands were yanked behind her back and handcuffs tightened around her wrists until she cried out in pain. “They are too tight.”

“Get moving.” A blue-clad officer grabbed her by the hair and dragged her toward the steps. She fought to break free and was stunned to silent immobility when she saw her brother standing at the foot of the stairs smiling up at her.
“Tomeo. You cannot do this.”

“It’s done, little sister. You should have signed.”

She numbly followed the officer down the stairs. Twice she tripped and twice she was unceremoniously hauled to her feet.

“Why?” Joo-Eun’s strangled cry turned to a wail. As he stood there looking at her, one eyebrow arched, a self satisfied smile playing about his lips, she became angry and demanded, “Tomeo, why?”

"Do not presume to question me," he said and slapped her, rocking her head back. Rage glittered in her dark eyes and Tomeo slapped her again. Her head bounced off the wall as she staggered and fell. She tasted blood. With one hand at the corner of her mouth where blood trickled down her chin, she braced against the wall as she stood up. "Take her," he said.

"I will not go."

"You have no choice, little sister." The officers grabbed her arms and Tomeo tilted her head up with one finger.  "In a few weeks, you will see things differently." He nodded to the officers. 

Tomeo’s triumphant smile slipped sideways into a smirk as the officers pushed her out the door and into the frigid night. She fell to her knees on the sidewalk only to be dragged to the squad car by her arms, a rag doll between two pit bulls. They tossed her inside as though she weighed nothing and was of no value. The door slammed, banging against the soles of her bare feet. Pain shot up both legs. She struggled to squirm to the other side of the seat and sit up, hampered by the burning pain in her shoulders. Cramps seized both arms. The handcuffs were so tight her hands were numb. Unable to right herself, she lay on the seat while hot tears seared scalding tracks down her cheeks.

A short while later she was hauled out of the car and frog marched up the cement steps and into a bedlam of sights, sounds and foul smells. She tensed, muscles and sinews tight, ready to run. Her skin crawled, repulsed. She cringed away from the filthy tile floors and was shoved forward. She stumbled through icy puddles of melting snow and dirt, slipping in slimy puddles of warm yellow liquid too foul to contemplate. One of the officers spun her around and unlocked the handcuffs. He pushed her into a long room flanked by hard wooden benches. The heavy metal door banged shut and echoed in the sudden silence.

None of the four women doggedly devouring white bread sandwiches filled with pallid brown patties that could be meat looked up as she sidled to a corner and sat down. She covered both knees with the filthy, wet robe and wrapped her arms around them. Head lowered, her long black hair drifted down to cover her face while she silently wept. The image of Tomeo’s triumphant smile while he toyed with his platinum Cross pen still burned in memory. She had been betrayed.