Shelter by Jung Yun
To my husband, Joel, who changed everything
No man steps in the same river twice,
for it is not the same river,
and he is not the same man.
The boy is standing in the doorway again. He’s smiling, which hardly seems right. A smile means he’s not sick. He didn’t have a bad dream. He didn’t wet the bed. None of the things he usually says when he enters the room uninvited. Kyung nudges his wife, who turns over with a grunt, face-first into her pillow. He sighs and sits up, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
“What’s wrong?” he asks. “What’s the matter?”
Ethan, still smiling, takes a step forward, holding a remote control in his outstretched palm. “Battery,” he says, pronouncing the word “buttery.”
“You want batteries now?”
He nods. “To watch cartoons.”
The curtains in the bedroom are open. The sky outside, a pale silvery blue. It’s early still. Too early to be thinking about batteries, but Kyung resists the urge to say so out loud. At this hour, he doesn’t trust himself to do it nicely. He kicks off the sheets, grazing Gillian’s leg as he gets out of bed.
“Five minutes,” she says. “I’ll be up in five.”
The night-lights flicker as they make their way downstairs, past floorboards that creak and sigh under their weight. Kyung finds a dusty package of batteries that he doesn’t remember buying. He swaps out the old for the new and hands the remote back to Ethan.
“You want some breakfast now?”
Ethan climbs onto the sofa and turns on the TV. “Okay,” he says, flipping from one channel to the next.
The boy always agrees to eat and then doesn’t. If given the choice, he’d probably subsist on a diet of grapes, popcorn, and cheese. The kitchen is down to the dregs of the week’s groceries. A spotted brown banana. A cup of cereal dust. Half a cup of almost-expired milk. Not much to work with, but enough. Kyung slices the banana into the cereal with the edge of a spoon, making a face with the pieces because Ethan is more likely to eat something when it smiles. As he tosses the peel into the trash, he notices the calendar pinned to the wall. There’s a circle around today’s date. Inside the thick red ring is a single word that disappoints him. Gertie. Weekends are best when there’s nothing to do and no one to see. A visit from Gertie is the exact opposite of nothing.
“Did your mom mention someone was coming over today?” he asks, depositing the bowl of cereal in Ethan’s lap.
“She said I have to clean my room.”
“I need to go talk to her for a minute. Will you be okay here by yourself?”
“Dad, shhhhh.” Ethan points at the screen as a bright blue train speeds past. “I’m missing Thomas.”
Upstairs, Gillian is making the bed. The realtor is coming at ten, she says, confirming what he hoped wasn’t true. He wishes she’d mentioned this the night before, but he knows why she didn’t. Selling the house is her idea, not his. Kyung glances at the ornate paisley comforter, the expertly arranged pillows and bolsters, piled high like a soft hill. He wants to climb back into them, to pull the sheets over his head and wake up to a day that isn’t this one.
“I’m not canceling again,” she says.
“I didn’t ask you to.”
“But I can see it on your face.”
What she actually sees is surprise—surprise that Gertie would agree to another meeting with them. At his insistence, Gillian canceled their last three. It was dishonest of her to plan it this way, but he realizes he gave her no choice.
“Come on,” she says, taking his hand. “We have a lot to do before she gets here.”
They eat their breakfast standing up—a stack of dry toast on a paper towel. Kyung searches for something to moisten the stale bread, but finds only a thin pat of butter, flecked with crumbs, and a jar of crystallized honey. He misses the pancakes and omelets that Gillian used to make before Ethan was born, the lazy meals they shared after waking up at noon. These days, breakfast is what they consume in large, distracted bites while attending to other things. Gillian is leaning over the counter, reading him the to-do list on her computer. Sweep floors, clean up laundry room, vacuum carpets, take out trash. It seems odd to go through so much trouble for a realtor, he thinks, someone they’re paying for a service. Gertie Trudeau is supposedly the best in town. She should be able to price the house whether they do these things or not.
“What about the garbage disposal?” he asks.
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t you think I should fix it?”
“We’ll just tell her the sink’s clogged. It’s more important for everything to look clean.”
“I think I’ll try to fix it,” he says, because trying is his only means of protest.
Gillian puts on her shoes and opens the door to the garage. “Fine,” she says, in a tone that suggests just the opposite. “I guess I’ll start with the trash, then.”
Kyung has never fixed a garbage disposal before. He has only a vague idea of how it works—blades, motor, plumbing, pipes. He’s not handy like some of the other men in the neighborhood, the ones with toolboxes as big as furniture, always borrowing and lending the contents as if they were books. Kyung isn’t friendly enough with any of them to ask for help, although he sometimes wishes he could. The sink is half-full with foul gray dishwater—it has been for days. He’s not sure what to do about it except plunge his hand into the murk. An inch shy of elbow-deep, he finally touches the bottom. There’s a thick layer of grease in the chamber, solid like wax.