Jan/Feb 2002  •   Fiction

Falling Away

by Cynthia A. Kim

I'm cracking peanuts, at least a few dozen already judging by the mound of husks on the floor beside me.

I don't like them, but Sung-Joon loves them. He watches as I squeeze the soft shell between my fingers, follows the path of the husk as it falls to the pile. Then I see the familiar anticipation in his eyes as he waits for me to proffer the two small jewels I've extracted.

I hold out my palm, the fleshy nuts rolling around as he gathers his concentration. He thrusts out his hand and misses, always misses on the first try, but skitters tiny fingers across my palm until they bump up against his quarry. With a shout he palms them both and closes his hand around them. The triumph on his face is unmistakable as he shoves his fist into his mouth.

He chews nosily, smacking his lips to let me know he's finished, then we start again. He turns around to scoop another peanut off the plate on the low table behind him, nearly tipping over with effort. He grabs one, oblivious to the half dozen that clatter to the floor as he drags his hand across the plate.

A too thin arm rears back and tosses the next victim into my lap. I'm sitting cross-legged, not two feet from him, but he seems to enjoy the power in throwing it. There's something refreshingly boyish about the action.

I retrieve it from my lap and crack it open to find a single nut this time. Sung-Joon captures it and holds it up, waving his fist madly in the air in front of me. I lean forward and he presses his hand against my mouth. His fingers are slippery and cold, like the peanut he's depositing on my tongue. I pretend to nip at them and he pulls away with a squeal.

He throws his arms over his head in joy, the force of the movement tilting him sideways. I know what's coming and catch him before his head cracks against the hardwood floor. His puffy left eye is a fading reminder I'm a lot quicker now than a few days ago.

He's making those silly lip-smacking sounds again and pulling at my cheeks to remind me I've forgotten to chew my peanut. I make a show of crunching into it and resist the urge to spit it out. It's not that I don't like peanuts. I do. But these are different.

They're cold and soft and bitter. Raw. At home, peanuts aren't raw. They're roasted to golden brown perfection. At home, five-year-old boys play T-ball and chatter about Pokemon.

But not here. Here, peanuts are raw and little boys don't walk or talk or run or play sports or even grow up to be big and strong. In this house, little boys die. Sung-Joon doesn't know this. Doesn't know about his big brother, the one who died before he was born. Doesn't know his time with me is running short. Tomorrow, I'll get on an airplane and fly home to my life of roasted peanuts and happy little boys 6000 miles away. Tomorrow Sung-Joon will be eating raw peanuts, but not with me.

Another nut bounces off my chest and I catch it before it hits the floor. Sung-Joon watches with that same look, the one he had the first time and the fifth time and the 20th time, the one telling me he's sure this peanut is the first, last, and only one he'll ever eat.

A grunt rises from his belly and I realize I'm not keeping up my end of the bargain. I crack the peanut open and hold out my palm. He takes a swipe at it and I catch his hand in my fingers. His eyes hold mine curiously, uncertain why the rules of our game have changed.

I smile and he returns it reflexively, cracking his lips in a silly lopsided grin, the peanut forgotten.