The Only Child

Mi-ae Seo

The following is an exclusive excerpt from The Only Child, by Mi-ae Seo. In this terrifying psychological thriller, a psychologist discovers an eerie connection between a serial killer and her own stepdaughter.

I told you about the room, didn’t I? The room with dozens of locks on it.

I thought I’d locked it up really tight, but the locks opened all at once. Do you know how?

It’s because of a song.

If I hadn’t heard the song again, the memories of my mom would have stayed five thousand meters under the earth and would never have come up again.

When I was eleven or twelve, I ran away from my mom and tried to go as far away from home as possible. I walked aimlessly along the national highway, secretly climbing onto the back of a truck now and then, going as far away as I could. I didn’t get any farther be- cause I got into an accident.

I was rummaging through trash cans in the market when I no- ticed a truck parked in a corner of the parking lot. Looking at the license plate, which said Gangwon, I wondered where Gangwon was, and saw the driver get off the truck. He didn’t lock the door, though. He was probably coming right back. I thought it was my chance to look inside the truck for something to eat and even for some money, if I was lucky.

I quickly went to the truck and opened the door. Inside, I saw the driver’s jacket. I went through the inner pocket, and found a thick wallet. Thinking I could eat my fill now, I took the wallet out and put it in my pocket when I heard someone approaching. I looked around but there was nowhere to hide, so I went to the back of the truck and ducked out of sight.

The driver must have returned, for the engine turned on and the truck started. I was going to jump if the truck slowed down even a little, but soon we were on the national highway and kept going through the darkness. I had no choice but to wait for the truck to come to a stop. I gave myself up to the rocking of the truck, and before I knew it, I was asleep.

It was a week later that I woke up.

While I was sleeping, the truck ran into a car that drove over the centerline and rolled over to the side. The driver died on the spot. I must’ve gone flying out of the truck and lain there with my head bleeding.

When I woke up a week later, everything had changed.

I was lying under a warm, clean hospital blanket, and a nurse came at regular intervals and asked me in a sweet voice if I was hurting anywhere. She brought me water when I was thirsty, and medicine when I frowned with a headache.

I couldn’t move or speak, but I felt strangely comforted. I wondered if I had died and gone to heaven. I had nothing to regret even if I was dead, so I was happy just to lie there blinking.

So this is what it feels like to be loved by someone. How nice it is, I thought.

I was lying by the window where the sun was pouring down, and even if I so much as knit my brows, someone came and drew the curtains. My heart felt warm for the first time. So this is what it feels like to be loved by someone. How nice it is, I thought.

As I gradually recovered and began to speak, the doctor would come and talk to me but I didn’t want to talk much. Once I began to talk, he would ask who I was, find out where I lived, and call my mom. It was terrifying just to think about it. So I kept my mouth shut and pretended to think about his questions, and closed my eyes tight as if I had a headache. Finally, the doctor stopped asking questions, took some brain scans, and let me be.

The next day, the doctor said I didn’t remember anything because of the accident. Oddly, when I heard those words, the memories in my mind really did become faint. A lock was fastened when I saw the face of the nurse smiling and patting me on the head, and another clicked when the other patients in the room clapped when I was able to move my hands again and clench them into fists.

The locks on the room of terrible memories were set one by one in this way, and just as the doctor said, I lost my memories. I forgot who I was, what my name was, everything.

The authorities must have thought that I was the driver’s son, be- cause his wallet was found among my clothes. The traffic police who had dealt with the accident and the insurance company contacted the driver’s family and they came. The police naturally thought I was part of their family, but the wife and the kids saw me and didn’t say anything.

The wife might have asked me about my relationship with her husband, but when she was told that I didn’t remember anything because of the shock, she didn’t inquire any further. She saw me eat- ing, using my left hand, and merely said that her husband had been left-handed, too. I don’t know why, but after her husband’s funeral, she came to see me from time to time, as if to visit a sick son.

Then when I recovered enough to leave the hospital, she took me home.

I went with her because I had no other place to go, but in my mind I thought I could leave at any point if I didn’t like it there. But guess what, everyone was waiting for me, welcoming me home.

There were three girls, one in middle school and another in high school, and one who was about four years younger than me.

There was an orchard with hundreds of apple trees.

The girls were waiting in the shadow of the tree in front of the gate, and when we arrived in a taxi, they all stood and opened the door for us.

One of the older girls helped me out of the car, as I was still on crutches, and the other older girl took my bag. The youngest threw herself into her mother’s arms and looked at me. Her eyes weren’t cold, but full of warmth and curiosity.

Even now, when I think back to that day, it feels like a dream.

The woman said I could stay till I got my memory back. I looked inside the gate, and it really did feel like home. I felt as if I had been wandering in the wrong place for a long time, and finally found my way home.

Do you know how beautiful an apple orchard is in June?

It was pleasant just to look at the green apples, still small, hang- ing in clusters on the branches. When I pointed at the apples, the woman smiled and said, Wait just a little longer, when they’re ripe, you can have as many as you want.

At that moment, I flung the dark room in my heart down into the deep basement of my unconsciousness.

Yes, I can live here. Here, I can have a new life. I don’t have to run anymore, I don’t have to look around, trembling in fear.

I lived there for five or six years.

Just as the woman had said I could, when the apples ripened,  I ate my fill, till my mouth smelled sweet. The girls gathered the fallen apples early in the morning. The others all ate the bruised or wormy apples, but I picked out the biggest, best-ripened ones from the branches. Still, the woman didn’t say anything, and only looked at me with a warm smile on her face.

If it hadn’t been for that song—if I hadn’t heard that song—I would still be living at that orchard, watching the apples ripen, prun- ing, thinning out the fruits, and spraying insecticide on the trees.

That day, I’d taken out broken apple crates from the storage and was hammering at them. I was doing my part by then, earning my keep. The apple blossoms weren’t in bloom yet, but we’d sold all the apples from winter storage and were putting the storage in order.

At the sound of the song streaming from the radio off to the side, my hand holding the hammer came to a stop.

The song penetrated my ears, made my heart tremble, and I felt suffocated.

At first, I didn’t know why.

I wiped away cold sweat and heaved a long sigh. But the anxiety and fear didn’t go away. My hand holding the hammer shook. Feel- ing dizzy, I turned off the radio in a hurry, but I knew that some- thing was terribly wrong.

I dropped to the ground and saw the hammer in my hand. The song kept going around in my head. Did I tell you about the oldest memory in my mind? Yeah, that day when I nearly suffocated under the pillow. Another memory carved deep into my bones was that song.

I think it was when I’d barely started walking and could move about the room. I don’t know why, but my mom was beating me severely. When I started crying, she would drag me to the bathroom, push me into the filled bathtub, and press my head under the water. It was the song she sang in a low, indifferent voice, as she watched me suffocating in pain. Even when it felt as if my heart would rip to pieces because of the water seeping in through my nose and mouth, I would listen to her singing. When the song was over, she would let go of me and go find her bottle of liquor. That happened repeatedly over a long period of time. After a few years, I got used to getting my head thrust into the bathtub.

When my mom went to look for her liquor after harassing me, I would crawl out of the bathtub, throw up, wipe away my tears, and hum the tune of the song that was going around in my head. It must have terrified me, but the song never left my head. I wanted it to stop, but couldn’t make it.

I don’t remember very well the times when I got beat up or was bruised. I know that I was taken to the hospital from time to time, but those memories are just a background for the music, like a music video. What pricks my heart like dozens of needles, shredding my nerves, is the song.

When the song began, I knew what was about to come. The song was like a signal for the beginning of pain.

It was that song that I was hearing again.

While I was hammering away in the storage shed of the orchard in the still-cold early spring, the locks on that room I’d forgotten about completely were opened all at once by the song.

Several years had passed, and I was completely free from my mom’s hands, but when the song began, I turned back into a three- or four-year-old kid and trembled in fear, recalling the painful times when I was gasping in the bathtub, was stabbed with scissors, and had my flesh bitten off.

If I’d recognized the song from the first line, I would have turned the radio off right away, but only after the chorus did I realize it was the song my mom used to sing. I’d never heard the original song before. I didn’t know what the words meant, but the song, sung by a gentle voice, was quite different from the one my mom used to sing. I couldn’t believe that the background music to acts that had inflicted wounds, fractures, and scars on me was a happy song sung by such a sweet voice.

I threw the hammer down and went inside the house and, with a blanket pulled over my head, waited for the song to go away. But the song, now revived, only rang louder and louder in my head. And soon I realized that I was humming along. It gave me the chills.

One of the older girls, who heard me humming, asked me how I knew the song. I couldn’t say anything. I finally managed to say that the song just kept going around in my head.

She said I might be able to recall my lost memory and, in her ex- citement, told me the name of the song. At my request, she even got me the lyrics later on. She said it wasn’t hard to find the lyrics, even though the song was old, because it was such a famous song.

Do you know the Beatles? Yes, I’m sure you’ve heard of them. The band who boasted that they were a little more famous than Jesus. One of them got shot to death, right? If I’d been born a bit earlier, or if I’d had a chance to meet them, I would probably have killed them with my own hands. I would’ve really liked to ask them why they made a song like that.

The lyrics were for my mom. She’d chosen such a perfect song for herself. What’s the song, you ask?

It’s called “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”

Bang! Bang! Maxwell’s silver hammer came down upon her head. . . .

Maxwell kills his girlfriend, his teacher, and even the judge.

He bangs down on everything he doesn’t like with the silver ham- mer. Then with a clang, their heads are smashed.

Why did my mom sing this song, out of all the songs? She prob- ably couldn’t explain it herself.

The song probably just stuck to her lips the moment she heard it. I wanted to stop the song from going around in my head. How could I stop it? I screamed and plugged up my ears, but it was no use.

The gates of hell, once opened, would not close.

I stuck my head in the river by the orchard and stayed that way till I became unconscious, but underneath the dark water, the sound of my mom’s singing only became clearer. Just like the voice I’d heard in the bathtub when I was little. In the end, I made the stupid- est decision.

I decided to go meet the person who had carved the song into my head.

I was foolish. No, I was proud. I thought I’d grown taller and stronger not only in body, but in mind as well, in those six years.

I’m no longer what I used to be, I would no longer just cover up my face when a fist came flying at me, I can protect myself now, I can make her afraid of me if I want—that’s what I thought.

That’s how I stepped in through the hell gate.

That’s how I returned to the place I’d taken such pains to run away from.


From The Only Child by Mi-ae Seo. Used with the permission of the publisher, Ecco. Copyright © 2020 by Mi-ae Seo.

More Story
Worldbuilding: Crime and Fantasy Books Have More in Common Than You Might Think A few months ago, I had the chance to speak to a group of MFA students about my second novel, Last Seen Leaving. One of them...

Support CrimeReads - Become a Member

CrimeReads needs your help. The mystery world is vast, and we need your support to cover it the way it deserves. With your contribution, you'll gain access to exclusive newsletters, editors' recommendations, early book giveaways, and our new "Well, Here's to Crime" tote bag.

Become a member for as low as $5/month