The light was on in Mr. Kim’s office, Tong decides now is as good a time as any. He didn’t get the answers he was looking for from Laurie; in fact, it seems he had more questions than before. He isn’t sure why any of it matters to him, he just knows it does and he wants answers before he leaves for the night. It would normally not be a conversation he would approach with an elder; however, this elder is like a father and they have discussed many things over the last 10 plus years.
Tong lightly taps on the office door, hearing a “come in” seconds later. Mr. Kim looks up from the last of the paperwork he is signing, “Ah, Tong,” he glances down at his watch, “I wasn’t expecting anyone, its rather late. Is this something we can chat about tomorrow?”
Tong closes the door behind him, walks over to the closest chair and tentatively sits. He feels strung out; as if there someone were on each arm pulling him in a different directions at the same time. He doesn’t like this feeling, it's unsettling him. He stares at the corner of the desk for a moment, chin in hand, pulling on his lower lip as he prepares his words so as to not offend his elder.
Mr. Kim watches him curiously, puts his signature on the last sheet, adding it to the pile for his secretary and comes around the desk to sit in the chair opposite.
“What’s troubling you? You seemed fine at the meet and greet, did something happen on the way back?”
Tong looks over into his mentors eyes, bends over to put his elbows on his knees and begins.
“Who is this Lauren Atlantic that you have interviewing us, following us around?”
Mr. Kim’s eyebrow rise in question, “You can’t have had a disagreement with Laurie this soon, everyone else in the group, in this building in fact, loves her.”
“I’ve seen how much they love her, that’s part of the problem.”
“And what exactly have you seen?”
Tong sits up to stare at him directly.
“Besides your obvious skinship with the woman, she and Ae seem to be very friendly. I know it isn’t my business, but I look to you and Mrs. Kim as parental figures, I had thought better of your relationship.”
Both of Mr. Kim’s eyebrows raise and he stands up from his chair forcefully.
“I shouldn’t even grace that question with an answer but I have too much respect for my wife and Lauren to not.”
He suddenly sighs and drags a hand over his face.
“Here we go again, and its going to be my fault this time.”
“Again? How long have you known her? Isn’t there a considerable age difference?”
Mr. Kim walks over to his office window, staring into the dark night.
“What I share with you in here stays in here, am I understood?”
He turns his penetrating gaze to Tong to emphasize his point and secure an answer.
“Understood,” Tong responds watching the older man’s movements like a hawk.
Mr. Kim walks forward and sits on the edge of his desk to begin.
“Mrs. Kim and I have known Laurie since she was 15, when she came to Korea with her sister as a trainee.”
Tong suddenly sits up straighter at the revealation.
Mr. Kim holds up his finger, “Let me finish, then I will answer whatever questions you have left”.
Tong nods in agreement as Mr. Kim continues.
“They were quite the pair, and we had great aspirations for them. You’ve seen her dance?”
Tong shakes his head no.
“No, of course you haven't, you've been gone from us while she’s been here. If she holds true to character, you can find her in a practice room around 5 am each morning. She would want to be done with her routine before anyone else needed the room or could see her,” his mouth pulls up on one side.
“As I was saying, she had great potential; not only did she sing, but she has a natural grace and movement when she dances, the two together is quite something to see. The world agreed with us after we were able to help overcome her shyness in performing and help her to realize how talented she truly was. She and her sister wanted to finish their schooling, learn Korean, and take as many dance and voice lessons as they could before they would let us put them in a group. I convinced them after three years to let us start the group so they could debut within the coming year. Do you remember the group Squall?”
Tong’s eyes widened in recognition, Mr. Kim laughs,
“I thought so. They were our ace in the hole, our most successful debut, still to this day. However, with instant fame comes instant rumors. Rumors that if allowed to continue will fester into defamation of character and can ruin a career.”
He stands with a heavy sigh, turning to walk around his desk.
“Wait, didn’t all the group members have like nature names? Something like: Fire, Rain, Wind, and Terra? They did really well for about five years and then didn’t the lead singer, Fire just leave?”
Mr. Kim nods as he sits back into his chair, “Yes, Squall: True Forces of Nature. Lauren’s sister was Terra, Lauren was Fire.”
“No. Fire had red hair, it was part of what made her so recognizable. And it was a natural red, a beautiful color that doesn’t come from a bottle.”
Mr. Kim laughs.
“Oh yes, she used to be a red head and she was the biggest force of nature anywhere. She simply ... was. She caught every eye when she entered a room, could lose herself in the music, belting out lyrics rivaling only that of what I would say was Whitney Houston. Yes, a definite red head with a temper to match. She was and still is I without a doubt, a force to be reckoned with.”
“So what happened?”
Another sigh, “Lauren is a very emotional, caring person. The rules here of skinship don’t and can’t apply to her. She falls into depression if she cannot touch and be touched. It is like breathing to her, she lives to touch people not only with her hands but with her heart and words. That is what has made her a successful novelist back in America. Whether it is in song, dance, a listening ear, or just by giving a hug.
As you can imagine, she made many friends, especially with the guys, and that made many jealous enemies with the females, fans as well as idols. The group attended a concert for one of our male groups,” he closes his eyes, hoping to wash away the memories that were implanted for life. “One of the fans broke past the guards and ropes, grabbed Minhyuk and was trying to personally assault him. Laurie was the closest and she defended him like none of the guards could.”
Tong raises his eyebrow not believing that a scrap of five foot nothing woman could do any real damage. Mr. Kim catches his look and laughs, then realizes; “Wait, you said you had a disagreement with her tonight?”
At Tong’s nod, Mr. Kim types into his computer for minute, smiles, and turns the computer monitor toward Tong.
“Exactly where I thought,” he says, pointing to the security monitor at the bottom right of the screen. Someone is in the gym; an angry someone from the looks of them attacking the punching bag.
“She’s tougher and meaner than anyone will ever give her credit for.”
Turning the monitor back around he watchs for several more minutes before turning back to Tong.
“The fan she took down for security was outraged and started a smear campaign about Laurie and Minhyuk. Since the fan wouldn’t hurt her beloved Oppa, she aimed it mainly at Laurie, intimating that there was a sordid affair, that Laurie was giving him “favors” and not just him but any and all male friends she had in the industry. She pretty much called her a prostitute and the media ate it up. Before we could put a lid on it, any picture with her male idol friends surfaced and Laurie was suddenly in the paper, on the television, and the internet. Simple hugs were over exaggerated, hand holding was getting him to cheat on his girlfriend, you get the picture. It had taken us five years to get her to be comfortable in the spot light, her fans adored her and tried to fight for her, but it became too much. She cut her hair, dyed it black like her sisters and return to the United States. We’ve never lost touch, she is like a daughter to us, and we love her as such. Hence, our familiarity and skinship. She went to college when she got home and has become a rather successful author; we couldn’t be prouder of the woman she has become. When I received her phone call asking me if she could come hang out at the company again, shadow some of my groups for research for a new series of books; I was delighted! We never thought we’d get her on Korean soil again.
The panic I saw in her eyes today as your fan came over to her and recognized her ... for her books ... it broke my heart all over again. She didn’t deserve to be attacked back then and certainly not now. I am very protective of her, don’t give me a reason to pick between you, you wouldn’t like the outcome.”
Tong nods at the thinly veiled threat that he now totally understands. He’d been a trainee at a different entertainment company during Squalls success. His fascination with Lauren on the plane is now perfectly clear to him. His soul recognized her, even when his brain had not.
She had been his first real crush, his inspiration to do better for any possible chance of working with her one day.
“Any other questions?”
Still lost in thought, Tong shakes his head and rises from his chair. Coming around the other end he glances at the monitor to see a small body still wailing away at the punching bag. He holds his hand out to his boss; grips it between his two and gives a bow, “Thank you”.
“Be careful with her Tong,” Mr. Kim calls out as he makes his way through the door, “that tough exterior hides some very fragile feelings.”
Thoughts keep turning over and over in his head as he takes the stairs to the basement and gym. He has many things to apologize for, not the least being his actions after the meet and greet. At the door of the gym he simply stands and watches her for a moment. He can once again see how her group had gotten its name. He had admired it back then and now, suddenly he mourns the loss of her beautiful red hair. If there was anything more to her the punching bag would have flown off its chains long ago. He figures most of her energy is being spent dodging the bag after she’s hit or kicked it. He walks silently over to the bag and grabs it to hold it into place.
Hands suddenly appear on either side of the punching bag that you are picturing with Tong’s face. The fact that the same face you imagine, actually materializes on the other side of the bag, does nothing short of stop your heart. How had he known where to find you? WHY had he found you? Were you calm enough to talk to him like a decent human being or could you ignore him and hope that his grip isn’t that tight on the bag? An evilly mischevious smile alights your face as you step back up to the bag and start in on it again.
Wow, she can really throw a punch. Perhaps it hadn’t been such a great idea to get her mad. He remembers the scene at the airport and tries to hold back his chuckle. He remembers too late his words to himself, that he was glad it wasn’t him she was mad at. He shakes his head in chagrin and is distracted just for a second. A second long enough for her to round house kick the bag and send it flying into his chest and lower region. he thought he saw a look of defiant triumph on her face as he doubles over to try and regain his breath.
You walk off to sit on the bench, grabbing a long drink from your water bottle and tossing a towel around your neck.