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Lit Thursday

Read an Excerpt from the Summer's Must-Read Psychological Thriller

You-Jeong Jeong's The Good Son is the author's U.S. debut.

THE GOOD SON cover

I looked around my room.

Bloody drips and footprints were smeared all over the silvery marble floor. They started by the door, crossed the room and stopped at the foot of the bed. Assuming that the person leaving the prints hadn’t walked backward, whatever had happened had occurred outside my bedroom door. My bed was drenched in blood — the sheets, blankets and pillow. I looked down at myself. Clots of the stuff hung all over my black sweater, sweatpants and socks. So the tang of blood that had made me lurch awake a few minutes ago wasn’t a sign of an impending seizure; it was the real thing.

Were those my footsteps? What had happened outside my room? Why was I covered in blood? Did I have a seizure? If so, it must have been bad. Did I bite my tongue? Could you bite your tongue so that the blood covered your whole body? Given the amount, it would make more sense that someone had spitefully thrown a bucket of pig’s blood over me, or stabbed me. Neither seemed likely.

Where had Mother been while all this was happening? She must have been sleeping. Mother kept strict routines for most things in life, from eating to going to the bathroom to exercising. Her sleeping habits were another such thing. Each night, she went to bed at nine after taking one of the sleeping pills Auntie, a psychiatrist, had prescribed. I had to be home before then. The only time she didn’t follow her nightly routine was when I was late.

This rule didn’t apply to my adopted brother, Hae-jin. Mother justified this discriminatory practice by saying that she didn’t need to worry about him having a seizure on the streets late at night, like I might. It was unfair, but I had to accept it; I didn’t want to collapse in front of people, fall onto the tracks while waiting for a train, or flail around in the street and get run over by a bus. Nevertheless, it was my curfew that led me, from time to time, to run in the middle of the night, sneaking out via the steel door on the roof like a person starved of darkness.

I had done it just last night. I’d arrived home at 8:55 p.m., having had to leave in the middle of drinks with professors to make it back in time. I’d had three or four glasses of soju mixed with beer, even though I normally didn’t drink, and had walked home from the bus stop in the rain, hoping it would cool my flushed face. The heat subsided but I was still buzzed enough to feel happy. Maybe I was a little more than buzzed — I forgot that the front door to the apartment didn’t work unless you punched in a code followed by an asterisk, so I waged a hopeless battle with the door for twenty minutes. All the apartments in this building had keyless locks. After a while, I just stood there with my hands in my pockets, glaring at the malfunctioning lock. My phone pinged several times. I knew they were texts from Mother. I didn’t have to read them to know what they said:

Have you left?

Where are you?

Are you close?

It’s raining. I’ll pick you up at the bus stop.

Five seconds after the last message, the door flew open. Mother, who dressed elegantly even to go to the supermarket, appeared with her car keys in her hand, looking stylish in a baseball cap, white sweater, brown cardigan, skinny jeans and white sneakers.

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Annoyed, I pursed my lips and looked down at my feet. Let me be, I wanted to snap at her.

“When did you get here?” She secured the half-open door with the doorstop and stood in the opening. No way was she going to let me in without a fuss.

My hands still in my pockets, I glanced down at my watch: 9:15 p.m. “A while ago . . .” I stopped short, realizing I was digging my own grave. My head felt like lead. My face was on fire. I must have looked like a ripe tomato. I kept looking straight ahead so she wouldn’t notice. Then I carefully and slowly rolled my eyes toward her. My gaze met hers. “I couldn’t get in. The door wouldn’t open,” I added quickly.

Mother glanced at the lock. She pressed the seven-digit code, her fingers a blur. The door unlatched with a beep. She looked at me again. What was the problem?

“Oh . . .” I nodded, trying to convey that I understood nothing was wrong with it. Water rained down from my wet hair. A drop slid past my eyes and dangled at the tip of my nose. I blew upward to make it drop. Mother’s eyes were boring into me. More precisely, she was staring at the small scar in the middle of my forehead as though that was where all my lies were generated.

“Have you been drinking?”

Well, that was an awkward question. According to Auntie, alcohol brought on seizures. Drinking was the ultimate rule I couldn’t break. “Just a little. A teeny bit.” I showed her with my thumb and forefinger.

Mother’s gaze didn’t soften. My scar burned.

“Just one beer,” I added, hoping it would turn the situation.

Mother blinked. “Oh, is that so?”

“I wasn’t going to, but my professor offered me one . . .” I stopped. Here I was, in trouble for having a few drinks at the age of twenty- five! All because of the damn front door. If it had worked, I would have slipped inside and run upstairs, calling, “I’m home!” as I passed Mother’s bedroom. I wouldn’t have missed my curfew, Mother wouldn’t have come out to accost me, and I wouldn’t have been caught drunk. My legs grew weak and my left knee buckled. I swayed.

“Yu-jin!” Mother grabbed my elbow.

I nodded. I’m okay. I’m not drunk. It really was just one drink.

“Let’s go inside and talk.”

I did want to go inside but I didn’t want to talk. I brushed Mother’s hand off my elbow. This time, my right leg gave way and I tipped toward her, catching myself by hanging onto her shoulders. Mother drew in a quick breath, her small, thin body stiffening. Maybe she was surprised, or moved, or thought it out of character for me to touch her. I held onto her, thinking, Let’s not talk. What’s the point? I’ve already been drinking — it’s too late to stop me now.

“What’s going on with you?” Mother said, sliding out from under my arms and regaining her usual calm.

As I stepped inside and took off my shoes, I felt deflated.

“Did something happen?”

I didn’t bother to look back. I shook my head. As I walked through the living room, I nodded lightly at her. “Goodnight.”

She didn’t stop me. “Want me to help you upstairs?”

I shook my head again and climbed up the stairs, not too fast or too slow.

I remembered taking off my clothes as soon as I got to my room, lying on my bed without washing, and hearing Mother go into her room and close the door. As soon as I’d heard that click, I sobered up. After that, I probably looked up at the ceiling for forty minutes or so, until I got too antsy and slipped out through the steel door on the roof.

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I just woke up and saw that Mother had called in the middle of the night. I thought it was a little weird — she should have been asleep. That was what Hae-jin had said on the phone. I hadn’t thought anything of it, but now I wondered . . . Why did she call him? Because I was acting strange? Did she know I’d gone out again? What time did she call him? Eleven? Midnight? If she was up for a while after that, did she hear me come back?

If she’d heard me, she wouldn’t have left me alone. She would have made me sit down and grilled me, just the way she got me to confess to my transgressions when I was young. She wouldn’t have let me go to bed until I told her everything. Where are you coming from at this hour? When did you leave? How long have you been sneaking around? Though I’d graduated from punishment a long time ago, it could have been back on the table — kneeling in front of the statue of the Virgin all night and reciting Hail Marys. If she’d seen me this bloody, prayers wouldn’t have been the end of it. No, the fact that I woke up in my own room was evidence that she hadn’t seen me looking like this.

I got out of bed. I needed to figure out what had happened.

From The Good Son by You-Jeong Jeong, to be published on June 5, 2018 by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by You-Jeong Jeong. Translation copyright © 2018 by Chi-Young Kim.