Genre: Romance, Tragedy, slight!angst
Length: three-shot (3/3)
Summary: Kyungsoo is stuck in the hours while Jongin begs the seconds, because time stops for someone who can't remember and runs from someone who can't miss the last train home.
Sunlight drifts into Kyungsoo’s dream, refracts into something cool and salty and maybe involving heels digging into the soft overlap between ocean and beach. He turns and the wet sand transforms into warm linens.
When he opens his eyes the cocktail of seagull wings and shades of blue are replaced by a ceiling, meters too low, a small window at the end of a narrow bedroom, and peeling wood floorboards under worn rugs. It’s his room, albeit not exactly the same as it was yesterday, because there are now green and yellow sticky notes pasted over every inch of every wall. Notes that he can’t recall having placed: a second skin of colored texts and diagrams, numbers and dates. A breeze lifts the curtains and ruffles them, plays a melody in the tune of drizzled paper applause.
Though Kyungsoo is unsurprised by the state of his room, somehow he is taken aback by the overwhelming number of yellow notes. The confusion, however, fades automatically into a smile when he climbs onto the balcony and notices a figure leaning on the adjacent railings.
“Have you read the yellow ones?” The stranger asks abruptly, glint in his pupils turning mischievous as he notes Kyungsoo’s matte stare, “Go back and read them. And open your door when I knock.”
So Kyungsoo goes back, reads them, and opens the door when Jongin knocks. Ten minutes later they’re bent over the kitchen sink making breakfast while Jongin pokes his stomach, counting the ridges of his ribs, ruining everything the perfect way. Uneasy stops and easy goes, crawling along with arms around waists and chins sunk into shoulders.
Maybe this can repeat forever, Kyungsoo thinks. Maybe one day he’ll wake up an old man and Jongin will still poke him in the stomach, breathe incoherent teases into his ear, and make a mess out of everything just like today. They’ll eat breakfast over the balcony, wrinkled feet in fluffy slippers and gray hair too thin to hide bright smiles. He would like that.
Lovemaking between Kyungsoo and Jongin is summarized by nondescript etches over fraying pages, compiled in a little list that Jongin has titled Things that Turn Do Kyungsoo on. On odd days there are spontaneous combustions at the drop of a pen, even days there is Jongin molding his hands to the texture of Kyungsoo’s goosebumps.
Mainly they’re made of regular nights at the bar, when everyone else has abandoned them to a glass of untouched Scotch as arbitrator. Kyungsoo finds himself staring stupidly at Jongin’s face while he sings, contemplating how it’s possible for someone to look so flawless and broken at once. Beautiful as inkworks, happiness spilling over the contours like aged tea, Jongin is like an artifact of lost perfection—though the perfection part bites the dust as soon as he looks up and, catching Kyungsoo’s wide-eyed gaze, winks.
There’s something about Jongin’s wink that makes Kyungsoo almost drop his microphone, and certainly the time signature of the song. It doesn’t take long before Kyungsoo crops off entirely, because that is when Jongin has closed the distance between them, pretty lips breathing blues over sleek perspiration. Kyungsoo’s heart thuds against his chest with every semi-intentional bump of the wrists and whisper of, “I dare you, really.”
The game of dares turns lethal when the lounge door shuts and leaves Jongin crushing Kyungsoo into the wall, “Say that again? You dare me?” Palms and knees skimming up thighs, incoherent mumbles punctuating every whine and whimper. Urgency runs everything over while frustration guides hands down metal zippers. Or maybe not frustration.
Maybe just urgency, because they’re always in a rush for the grains of sand vanishing from the creases of their palms. Because as winter folds into spring, lovemaking is less about sharp thrusts and smoldering gazes, and more about humid silences trapped between the sheets in Jongin’s apartment. Because as spring comes, the crests disappears and leave only a steady stream of troughs.
Kyungsoo stretches over Jongin’s mattress, watching the curtains blow life into hundreds of yellow sticky notes over the walls, while Jongin meets the hollow of his throat with both thumbs. A distracted whisper fractures the calm, “I’m sorry.”
The air resonates not of Jongin’s little apology, but of the gasps of air whistling into his lungs. Sliding his hand under Jongin’s starched shirt, Kyungsoo counts the number of Jongin’s ribs with his forefinger. He leaves behind little prints of sticky perspiration and come, soothing “one, two, three—”s. Jongin jumps, startled, while Kyungsoo pecks the surprise off his lips, “Shhh. Don’t be sorry.”
It takes Jongin a very long time before he relaxes into Kyungsoo’s ministrations, allowing the other to smother his palms down his sides and paint him in warmth and comfort, “It’s just that I can’t even, properly, love you.”
Kyungsoo snorts, digs his finger sharply between the ribs, and Jongin erupts with laughter, which Kyungsoo skillfully cups with both hands and caps under a longer, fuller kiss. There is a faint shadow of violet under their bodies as Kyungsoo pulls away, letting the hues of his sigh drift lethargically. “Jongin, listen. I don’t care about sex. It’s more than good enough, like this. We’re already making love.”
Jongin buries his face in the pillow. Kyungsoo pries him out. Jongin looks away. Kyungsoo forces his face back. Eventually Jongin breaks into an embarrassed chortle, “You’re killing me, hyung. You’re really killing me.”
There is no response, so Kyungsoo thinks that maybe it’s just another one of those things that Jongin says for no reason. One of those things that comes and goes. As the sky darkens, the question dissipates together with the light, and it doesn’t return again.
“Where does a thought go when it’s forgotten?”
“I don’t know. Away?”
“I’m not a writer.”
“Don’t be vague.”
“Well, it dies. The thought dies.”
“What if I don’t want to?” Jongin flicks his zippo open and shut, watching the tongue fire flick around the steel cap. “Don’t let me die, hyung. Promise me you’ll remember me.”
“Okay. I promise. I’ll remember you.”
There are times that the truth hurts more than the lie, and times when the lie itself is painful enough to rip Kyungsoo apart.
“Will you love me tomorrow?”
“Promise me that.”
“I’ll love you tomorrow, and I’ll remember you forever. Just give me the lighter before you burn my apartment down.”
Jongin writes him a note to hold him to their promise, “My name is Jongin. I’m the writer who lives next door. See you tomorrow, hyung. Don’t forget!” Kyungsoo laughs at the exclamation mark and Jongin punches his shoulder and they roll together, under the covers, over a slight slope of hope. Kyungsoo figures then that lies are also what pieces Jongin together, so maybe he can lie a little.
The hope ends, eventually, and the lies fail. Jongin’s voice is small and lonely as he mutters into Kyungsoo’s hair, “I only have two things in this world, hyung. It’s just you and dancing. That’s all I’ve got going for me, and soon, they’re going to carve the dance out of my bones, and, eventually, they’ll take you, too…”
Kyungsoo lets Jongin snake his hand around his neck and draw him into an embrace. The fire flicks off and the darkness settles. It’s raining out. Pitter-patter on the windowsill.
There are moments when Kyungsoo watches Jongin dance that he notices how Jongin’s movements lag behind, not significantly but just enough. Hesitant bucks of the joints, fear and desire in the tell-tale hesitation. It’s as if his muscles are straining for something that his tendons hold back, as if he’s caught perpetually chasing some melody that is always a beat faster. Jongin probably knows it himself; the glimmer of frustration and grief dilating in his pupils is unmistakable.
But eventually, even those moments disappear. There is no more frustration or grief, no movement, no struggle, not really. Just an apparition sitting on the other end of the bar. Disintegrating slowly into particles of dust and light.
Then there are the moments when Kyungsoo sings that he notices the clenching and unclenching of Jongin’s fist. The bite marks in his lower lip, the downcast eyes, the surrendered shoulders. Everything comes apart not with a shout, but with the inevitable gasp for air. Gently, steadily, inevitably.
And ultimately, the sentence that describes Jongin as a dancer in the back of the scrapbook becomes something like a lie, because Jongin doesn’t dance anymore. He’s not really a writer, either. He doesn’t seem to be the man in the page. He doesn’t seem to be a human at all, perhaps just a corpse repeating at the end of every hour, “Hyung, do you remember when…?”
Kyungsoo is hanging between being suffocated and scalded by a midsummer’s night as he steps into the elevator. The stranger already inside nods a terse greeting. It’s the 12th of July, a moment when the world runs on uncertain lamplights, drunken howls, and the occasional punch of laughter. There are just the two of them at this hour, and an obtrusive kind of peace.
Having just returned from the bar, Kyungsoo tries to fight off the cocktail of metallic smoke and the thick scent of alcohol caught in his hair. The last ringlets of saxophone nestle over his fingers and cinquillo beat lingers under his skin, but none of it is enough to fill the abyss that stands between him and the stranger.
The stranger, with an unlit cigarette between his teeth, turns first. The unflattering elevator lighting enshrouds him in jaundice yellow, a heavy veil of lethargy. Kyungsoo wonders, with the cinquillo pounding into his veins, if the man’s skin is as plastic as it seems.
“Hot. The weather. It’s hot,” he says, proffering a hand that Kyungsoo grabs with hesitation. His grasp is surprisingly cold, long fingers and nails cut short and sharp, leathery skin stretched taut over gaunt knuckles. But more than that, he’s trembling, Kyungsoo realizes. His teeth are chattering and he can barely make eye contact.
“Um,” Kyungsoo balks. He wants to ask if the stranger’s okay, why he’s shaking like that, but between the creaks of the elevator flooring and sputters of the fluorescent light bulb, the words are lost, “Yeah. Yeah. Hot tonight.”
The stranger says nothing. Instead he leans back on the elevator walls and lets his eyes glide down the length of Kyungsoo’s figure, as if he’s waiting for Kyungsoo to recognize him. It’s the kind of attention that makes Kyungsoo draw back behind his jacket, though a thin layer of cashmere does little to hide him. Time stands on its toes until the doors open, when Kyungsoo lets out a gasp of air he didn’t know he was holding in.
Only later, after Kyungsoo has worked his way down the apartment corridors and noted that the stranger has trailed after him, does he realize that it’s probably not the first time they’ve met.
“Do I know you from somewhere?” He finally asks, voice echoing uneasily down the long hallways. The stranger has stopped at the neighboring door, twirling a keychain around his forefinger. A sliver of moonlight works in from the railings and gleams off of something on his suit. Kyungsoo notes a pair of cufflinks, shiny and expensive-looking, too expensive-looking to belong to someone who would live in this kind of residence.
“Do you?” The stranger frowns, and it resounds much more of a plea than a request.
Kyungsoo picks the lint in his pocket. He doesn’t remember coming upon the stranger’s face in the scrapbook or the rows of green notes on his walls. But perhaps he skipped a page. It’s happened before. He hurriedly reaches for his bag, and is stopped with a bark of laughter, “So you don’t remember. Nothing at all?”
“What? What am I supposed to remember?”
“Nothing. Really, nothing,” The stranger laughs, or maybe sobs, as he slumps against the neighboring door and slides down, down, down. Even in the dark, the twinkle of fear gleaming from his crooked grin is distinct. It makes him look younger than he seems, almost sadly so.
The watermelon tastes of grimy windows and the air of some kind of invisible, dimming melody decomposing at the veins. Kyungsoo finds it hard to swallow. Everything is imperceptible today, teetering by the edge of existence.
“Jongin,” he says, picking out the black seeds with careful forefingers, “Why are you so quiet?”
“I’ve always been quiet,” Jongin responds.
They’re sitting cross-legged on Kyungsoo’s balcony, mildewed walls behind them and an unending country of suburbs etherized before. Kyungsoo feels like all of it is just a film set built out of dust and cracking dreams. There must be a real world somewhere out there, where laughter doesn’t seem an impossibility on the barren desolation of Jongin’s face.
“No you haven’t.”
“You wouldn’t know. It’s not like you remember.”
“Why are you so upset?”
Jongin bites angrily into a chunk of watermelon. Trickles of juice run down the side of his mouth and he smears them away roughly with the back of his hand. He’s upset, that much is clear, Kyungsoo decides, or perhaps a little more than upset. Waiting patiently, Kyungsoo picks up the sound of Jongin biting, chewing, swallowing, hitching for air. But Jongin doesn’t break out of the routine, only continues eating faster and faster.
“Look, what did I say wrong? Jongin, I want to have a relationship with you but you can’t be like this—”
“No, hyung. I can, because we don’t even have a fucking relationship,” Jongin suddenly snaps, brittle and cold, “And we’re never going to have a relationship. You get it, don’t you? You can keep trying but you’re never going to remember me. That’s just the way it is.”
Kyungsoo doesn’t want to cry, but a little whimper cracks his poker-faced façade and screws everything up. Jongin grows angrier, “You don’t even have a right to be upset. You wake up each morning and you’re all fine and dandy but what about me?”
“I’m in love with you, damn it, but I still have to introduce myself to you every fucking morning and do you even understand how that feels?—No, you don’t, because you don’t actually love me. Without all my notes, there is nothing. There is actually, exactly, really nothing. I’m really just a stranger to you, and this relationship is all just a play. It’s just another novel. Fabrication. Everything. I’m not even writing a fucking novel, fuck, I’m living it.”
After a long pause, “I’m sorry,” unwinds eventually, from one of them. Maybe both of them.
“Two nights ago, I went through and took off all the notes about us in your apartment, and yesterday, I tried to see if you would remember the night that we met for the second time—even a little spark of recognition—but of course…”
Jongin laces his fingers into Kyungsoo’s and holds them together, sticky smudges of watermelon juice smearing over sweaty palms. “Here are the facts. I’m going to die. One day you’re going to forget us. And then, the day after that, you’re going to forget me. Not even because of your amnesia. Just because of time. Because that’s what time does. It takes the little pieces. The insignificant ones first, and then it sneaks the significant ones… But then by the time you do realize it, they’ll be gone, and you won’t know what’s missing until—”
“No, no Jongin, it’s not like that—my head is bad, but my heart,” Kyungsoo presses both their hands against his chest, and breathes in deeply, as if the air can fill the gap between them. Jongin’s warmth seeps through his shirt and it makes his stomach light, unlocks the words from somewhere he had not known existed, “My heart is good. I’ll remember you there. I can’t remember anything about you, but when you hurt, my heart hurt. When you laugh, my heart laughs. I can love you even without memories so just hang on. Hang on, please?”
After a long struggle, Jongin manages to force a smile onto his face but it quivers, and ultimately cracks as he says, contemplatively, brutally, “This isn’t a romance novel, hyung. It doesn’t work that way.” He inhales, and the final nail comes not with a bang but a sorry whisper, “Don’t you see it, hyung? Our ending is so clear. It’s all been drafted from the very beginning, before we ever met.”
Though Jongin is waiting for a rebuttal, though they’re both waiting for a rebuttal, Kyungsoo doesn’t have anything to say. The sobs wrack through his body heavy and awful and he can’t manage the slightest protest as Jongin rambles on, “You know—one day, I won’t be able to touch your face, talk to you. I’ll just—lay there, watching you cry with eyes wide open, body numb, and, and my hand, around yours… You’ll hold my hand like right now, but it’ll be cold, and it’ll hurt, more than it does now. And when that day comes, hyung, promise me you’ll let me go. You’ll go home, take away the daisies—”
“Because, listen, hyung. You don’t deserve to…” Jongin’s Adam’s apple bobs up, stops, and doesn’t come down. His voice breaks. Kyungsoo suddenly realizes that Jongin’s been crying, too. He’s been crying all along, perhaps before Kyungsoo woke up, “see daisies wither…”
“No,” Kyungsoo grasps both of Jongin’s hands, collects all of the crumbling bones and the threadbare tendons, and gasps little prayers onto the feeble knuckles, “No, no, no.”
Between the months and the seconds, Kyungsoo loses track of the hour hand and forgets how to read clocks and calendars. Sometimes he forgets the date. Other times he looks out the window and wonders what season they’re in. His scrapbook is no longer updated and he’s not sure if he’s twenty or twenty-five because it doesn’t matter either way. He’s always going to be caught in the same spot, that’s just how things are.
But when Jongin comes in everything settles back together. It’s the last months of fall. 2013. He’s twenty-five, almost twenty-six three months, and so deeply in love that it hurts. It hurts because it’s already the last months of fall, because summer was over and he can’t even remember it, because he’s in the kind of love that makes him greedy and angry and sad for everything that he can’t have.
The kind of love that makes him cling onto Jongin at the end of every night and beg for him let him remember all of today, and yesterday, and—
“Tomorrow,” Jongin interrupts. Kyungsoo thinks that he smells a little of iodine or antiseptics, double-printed hospital sheets. “You can remember tomorrow. I’ll remember all of our yesterdays, and you can remember all of our tomorrows. It’ll be great.”
Kyungsoo deadpans, “That makes no sense. How do you even remember tomorrow?”
“Well,” Jongin relaxes into Kyungsoo’s arms, lets his back fill the curve of Kyungsoo’s chest and cheek glide over Kyungsoo’s, “Tomorrow I remember that we will go to the beach, and?”
“And what do you remember we’ll do?”
“Jongin what are you even saying, how do you remember something that’s never happened—”
“Shush. Let’s see. I remember that the water is going to be ablaze with light. The sun will be setting, all violet and red into the clouds. But it’ll be quiet, mostly just the sound of water and wind, and your voice. You’re going to sing My Lady and bury your feet in the sand while watching me kick around in the water. I’ll dance, you’ll sing. I’ll trip over, you’ll pluck your feet from the sand and try to catch me. Noticing how nice you look, I’ll get the sudden urge to put you in a compromising position. I’ll make love to you right there and then so that there will be sand all over the place and you’ll freak out, of course, and do the laundry four times, scrub everything down—but that’s later, of course—first we’ll have dinner sitting on the roof of the car, lazy and slow. We can have hamburgers, with lots of cheese...”
Kyungsoo contemplates, “And we’ll watch the dusk. I’ll keep singing and you’ll grab my hand, drag me off the roof. We’ll dance together. Laugh. You’ll laugh harder but I’ll laugh longer. Mosquitoes everywhere, probably. I’d like to go but you want to stay longer, because you’re like that, and I’ll drag you back and you’ll shrug me off but eventually you’ll give, because I’ll hit you. Or maybe I’ll give, when you grab my hand and pull me in and kiss me really hard.”
Jongin grabs his hand and pulls him in so close Kyungsoo can feel his exhales on his tongue, “Like this?”
“What are you thinking right now?”
“How much I want to stay like this.”
There are questions Kyungsoo doesn’t ask Jongin. He doesn’t ask Jongin if they can stay together forever, or how many tomorrows are really left, because sometimes the truth is too bright. He can only hold onto the seconds, each gesture, each contact, each syllable. Jongin comes in seconds. Everything comes in seconds.
If only the seconds could last long enough.
When Kyungsoo wakes up the next day, however, they don’t go to the beach. In fact, there is no ‘they’. There are no yellow notes on his walls, no words on the last page of his scrapbook, no compromising positions or hamburgers over car roofs. There is only Kyungsoo rushing down the stairs for the factory, eating supper before an empty dining table, waiting for seven o’clock to come with eyes peeled on the neighboring balcony and a strange feeling that something might be amiss.
As he nurses a tune under the hazy stage lights, he stares at the empty seat on the other side of the bar and contemplates what that hollow pit in his chest means, why every note is coming off on the wrong key. Minseok tries to adjust his volume to cover for Kyungsoo’s mistakes. He gives up by the time they hit the break, “What’s up with you?”
“I don’t know,” Kyungsoo mutters. Nothing out of the ordinary has occurred today. Everything has gone according to the notes in his scrapbook.
“Where’s that writer guy? Kim Jongin?”
“What writer guy?” is what Kyungsoo meant to ask, but it somehow comes out as a gasp of inexplicable panic and pain almost too loud to be registered. On instinct, he reaches for his scrapbook, goes through the pages once, and again, and again with the same shaking whimper, “I don’t know any writer guys.”
A bundle of dry-pressed daisies slip out from the back cover. Kyungsoo breaks. There’s no one to catch him this time.
He wakes up in October to green on his walls, the color of synthetic grass that never dies. October withers the world at each sunset, until it reeks of decomposing leaves and forgotten promises. With October arrives endless rain that washes out immortal footprints and brings new customers into the bar.
He wakes up in November to snow piled thick and high outside his window. A familiar urge to bury his face in his pillow and cry like tomorrow will never come curdles in his guts. November carries days that vanish into thin air and nights that become the beginning to the end and the ending to the beginning. In November the tomorrows stop coming. In November he wonders how long he’s lived like this, how much longer he’s going to keep living like this, how many tomorrows there are left before time will let him go.
He wakes up in December, four days to Christmas, to a knocking at his door. Darkness swallows his apartment as he makes his way through the corridors, fingers outstretched to read the walls as he undoes the chains and pulls it open and—
“Hyung,” whimpers the boy at his door. What Kyungsoo takes in is a conflation of ashen lips and swollen eyes, shivering under a thin hospital gown with nothing save for snowflakes on his hair and plastic slippers under his feet. The boy might have been trying to smile, the traces of which are left tugging sadly at the corner of his mouth, but it all thaws away when he tries working his jaw again, “Hyung,” and it’s a sob, “hyung, hyung…”
An enormous, inexplicably warm tide of relief washes over Kyungsoo, except it’s not enough to stop him from croaking, hesitantly, “Who are you?”
“Of course, of course you’d forget. How silly of me...”
Kyungsoo watches something well up the boy’s already reddened eyes with breathless curiosity, or perhaps a prick of indefinable empathy. It’s terrifying how easily this perfect construction of bones breaks down in slow motion. The boy gives in a tremble at a time, unwinding at the seams, into an eruption of noiseless wails. Forearms rubbing away tears and whole chest shaking with inconsolable grief, he eventually gulps everything down, hard.
He makes a little gesture of a wave, and it looks so fragile, “Sorry to disturb you. I just thought—in case you remembered—but, just, never mind. I’ll just…”
There is nothing but the hush of colliding snowflakes, gleaming little spheres of light, like fireflies, as Kyungsoo wraps his hand around the boy’s wrist. He isn’t really thinking of fragility when he pulls the boy in closer to the door. In fact he isn’t sure what he’s thinking as he says, “No, it’s snowing. Let me get you a jacket. You’re going to catch a cold.”
“A cold,” the boy parrots, and his laugh sounds like the saddest thing this side of the universe, “I’m going to catch a cold.”
On their way to the hospital, the boy introduces himself as Jongin. He gives Kyungsoo four facts in the backseat of a taxi. One, he’s a writer. Two, they’ve met before. Three, he’s dying. Four, he’s taken himself out of Kyungsoo’s notes or scrapbook because of those facts.
“They said I had six months left. Maybe a year if I behaved,” Jongin says, eyes reflections of the dawn flying past the windows, “So I wanted to play a hero. Let myself be forgotten, to save you from all the yesterdays and leave you with all the tomorrows but… then I heard that I had pneumonia. It wasn’t six months. I had four weeks. Maybe three. And I cracked. Being stuck with the yesterdays while you moved on without me suddenly wasn’t all that appealing anymore and—really, I’m sorry. I lied. I’m not a hero. Just a coward.”
Their knees touch. Kyungsoo doesn’t move away, “Do you… like me?”
“Like you,” the boy echoes, and he’s laughing again as he says, “No, I just want to be in all of your tomorrows. I want you to remember me.”
Kyungsoo knows the truth, and he can tell that Jongin knows it too. Wishes are only wishes, and prayers are only prayers. The city flying past the windows might glow with Christmas and the warmth of New Years but it doesn’t change the fact that too much is too much. Some things are simply not possible.
“I mean, you don’t have to remember me. I'm not delusional. Really you can just drop me off at the hospital and… just… I just wanted to see you one more time, and I guess I did so… I’m really sorry for bothering you,” Jongin laughs, and each time he laughs Kyungsoo thinks that it sounds more like a cry, “You must think I’m a freak or something, randomly popping up at your door like this.”
“I don’t think you’re a freak,” Kyungsoo interrupts, and the tension fades a little when he manages a grin, “I think you’re a moron, for running out of the hospital in this kind of getup when it’s snowing outside.”
The car stops. It takes a few moments before either of them realizes that they’re already at the entrance, and that the time has come for Kyungsoo to leave and Jongin to stay. For their last second, they’re all polite smiles and awkward bowing of the heads, as if they’ve only just met for the first time and that Jongin’s red eyes mean nothing.
“So,” Jongin says, not quite shivering with Kyungsoo’s jacket over his shoulders, but still chattering nonetheless, “I just, I have one last request?”
“Will you say my name? One last time.”
Kyungsoo clears his throat and tries to replicate the syllables, but somehow they’re stuck to the sides of his throat even as he opens his mouth. Nothing comes out. By the time he reaches up to touch his neck, he realizes he’s shaking and that there is something wrong with him. The world is coming down on him in slow motion and his heart hurts really, very bad.
“Jong...” Kyungsoo gulps down the hesitation and focuses on the bare syllables, “Jongin.”
“Thank you. Thank you,” And the second thank you is said softly, almost as if it’s meant for more significant things. Perhaps something of a, “Thank you for meeting me, finding me, digging me up from the debris of broken pieces. Thank you for giving me life, tears, wishes, rows and rows of yellow sticky notes lighting up my room when the tapestries have shut off the sun. Thank you for teaching me how bright fireflies can shine.”
But Kyungsoo doesn’t hear any of that. All he hears is Seoul at dawn, the whistles of a breeze and Jongin wheezing for oxygen.
“You’re welcome,” he returns stiffly. It’s a cold today. Jongin doesn’t shiver as he crawls out the car, slams the door, and looks back.
Rolling down the window, Kyungsoo wonders why it feels like his whole world is collapsing. Outside, with the wind sharpening his bones and coursing through his hair, Jongin smiles meekly. Kyungsoo nods. A few shreds of snow make it down from the sky, and disappear.
They’ve given up words, because there is a mutual understanding that words are clumsy. Words are like little comets, streaking behind them a reign of tears and hesitation. They can’t afford words. No tears or comets or hesitation in this exchange between a stranger and a memory, only glimmers of snow. Kyungsoo extends his hand awkwardly across the window pane. Jongin takes it, laughing at something funny that Kyungsoo can’t understand, and then he turns around and walks. Legs too thin, back too bent, head held too pitiably high despite his trembling fingers.
Kyungsoo turns to the driver with a grin two shades too bright, “Drive me back, please.”
He’s trying to pretend that it’s all natural, because it is. After all, he doesn’t know this Jongin. He doesn’t understand the meaning of tomorrows or yesterdays and on top of that, he’s already late for work. With a deep inhale of crisp winter, Kyungsoo tells himself that he doesn’t want to run at all, that there are no tears threatening to fall, no tears blurring his vision even though—
They fall, anyway, one by one, as does Jongin. Kyungsoo screams so loud he doesn't recognize his own voice.
Standing at the back of the room, Kyungsoo gathers leftover words from the doctors. Something somethings about oxygen treatments not being enough, antibiotics but the liver is shutting down, keep him in the ICU maybe but it’s not like it’ll change anything, at least down the fever in an ice bath but his lungs won’t hold up. He doesn’t understand any of the big words, the multi-syllable Symbicort or Theophlline or corticosteriods, but he understands the ticking of the second hand in between the lines, the incessant beeping of the monitors, the meaningless apologies about, “there’s nothing more we can do.”
“I don’t want to die,” Jongin says, muffled under the oxygen mask. Kyungsoo settles in the stool beside his bed and studies the plastic veins extending out of Jongin’s ankles. Somehow he looks so tiny, so full of emaciated edges.
“You’re not going to die. They said you’ll be fine.”
“Liar,” Jongin laughs, shifting his head away, and that’s when Kyungsoo realizes that he’s not really laughing. That he’s crying. “There’s going to be a new guy in this bed in three weeks. Four, tops. I’ve got pneumonia. On top of the fibrosis I have fucking pneumonia.”
“You’re going to be fine,” Kyungsoo insists, even though Jongin is wrong about the three weeks, because it’s really something more like two. “There’s nothing wrong with you.”
“No,” Jongin screws his eyes shut. Kyungsoo doesn’t know what else to do but stand up and drag his fingers over Jongin’s chest.
Jongin quickly flinches away, “Now what?”
“Writing god a note. I have to. He can’t take away these lungs. You need them,” Kyungsoo decides, pulling Jongin closer to continue scribbling invisible lines into Jongin’s flesh, “You really need them.”
The silence falls, and after it falls it never lifts again. Jongin’s murmur is just a ghost behind the hum of the air conditioner.
“When I first heard I was going to die, I thought—finally, thank you—but now, now I just—I just want one more minute, one more millisecond—I want more time, with you, hyung… I haven’t loved you yet, I’m not done…” and his eyes close before Kyungsoo has a chance to grab his hand and tell him that they have enough time. That there’s no rush, that it’ll be fine, because he’s going to go home and write all of this down—Kim Jongin, west wing, room two-twenty, Seoul Hospital, take the taxi to the southern entrance, we’re not finished yet—so that he can come back tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after…
“Mm, we can try tattooing my name… onto your face,” Jongin says, taking a long drag of oxygen from his mouthpiece. The nurse had let him into a wheelchair earlier, said he was doing much better and should get out of his room. Try walking down the hallways, she said. And so here they are, two little figures wrapped up in big bundles of wool and cashmere, bracing the stale air down endless corridors. The steady tap of Kyungsoo’s heel is comforting, almost, a testament to the reality of their existence: they’re still together, the two of them; they’re making it through one more day.
“I can’t see my own face though.”
“Well it can’t go on mine. I’d look… awful with my own name on my… face,” Jongin chuckles, sputtering for air and waving away Kyungsoo’s concerned hand, “I mean the press already thinks… I’m a narcissist. Just imagine… them finding out about a fucking… tattoo—ha.”
They say nothing, merely watching the other patients pass. It’s a welcomed kind of peace that they’re no longer afraid of, though eventually Jongin breaks it again, “Are you going to… the bar tonight?”
Kyungsoo shrugs, “Maybe not tonight.”
“You said… the same thing… yesterday,” Jongin grins, eyes a little melancholy under the occasional moan of the oxygen tank, “Tomorrow, go to the bar. You… have to sing. It’s what… you do. Sing. Live life.”
“I’m living it with you,” Kyungsoo protests, “I can sing right now.”
“No don’t make an idiot out of—”
But Kyungsoo sings, melodies frosting delicate and translucent despite the suffocating atmosphere, breaking the Jongin’s scowl one scoff at a time. Hesitantly, Jongin’s fingers begin tapping on the arm of the wheelchair.
It doesn’t take long for him to realize that Jongin isn’t just nursing a beat, that his fingers are dancing some kind of magic into the cold. And as Kyungsoo kneels before him, coming head to head and eye in eye, everything perfectly in sync, Jongin’s fingertips skitter up his knuckles. Light and easy. “Arabresque,” he whispers, words surfacing as white mists over the plastic. His hand does a little leap. “Grand jeté,” and a twirl of the wrist, spinning nails digging laughter out of Kyungsoo’s palm, “fouetté en tourant,” to the edge of his palm and over to the back, “here a sissonne, one, and a two, and—,” they both stop breathing momentarily, when his fingers cross Kyungsoo’s wrist and up his forearm, arm, shoulder, collarbone, neck, lower lip, stop.
They share a smile, during which Kyungsoo presses his lips against Jongin’s fingers, molding easily over the cold, pruning flesh. Jongin’s flush is almost too bright against the white backdrop of his hospital gown. Kyungsoo thinks that he could be glowing, perhaps a little like a firebug.
With time their song ends, and the nurse calls Jongin back into his room because the unfiltered air isn’t kind to his lungs. Nothing is kind to his lungs.
“Night hyung,” Jongin breathes, as they hook him to his daily dose of morphine. His eyes are beginning to flutter closed, and Kyungsoo knows that he’s grasping at the seconds when he says, “I love you.”
“No, Jongin. Tell me that you’ll see me tomorrow.”
“Hyung I might not make…”
“Just. Tell. Me. That you,” and Kyungsoo’s voice falters all too suddenly, words and thoughts collapsing at once. He remembers the way Jongin’s fingers had danced so adeptly up his arm, so naturally, as if they were born for the single purpose only minutes earlier, and it all feels so surreal to this Jongin lying etherized under blankets of fluorescent lighting, this Jongin who will probably never dance again. “…tomorrow. Tomorrow…”
Jongin puts his hand on Kyungsoo’s neck, draws him a little closer, smudging Kyungsoo’s tears with a thumb, “Okay. See you…”
The trickles of fluid dripping into his plastic veins take him away before the last word.
There are no more yesterdays, and gradually no more todays either, just tomorrows. They’re running out of time. The shadows are becoming too long, the lights blinking too slow, the monitor’s song always on the verge of a fugue. Giggles always erupt from under Jongin’s frown, swelling slowly into raucous laughter. Too loud. Too rushed. He’s laughing as if he’s afraid he won’t get a chance to laugh again. As if he’s afraid all the lights will turn off if he doesn’t keep up his display. So Kyungsoo wraps his arm around Jongin’s waist, when no one is watching, and presses their foreheads together. He tells Jongin that it’s okay. That he doesn’t have to laugh so hard. That he understands, whatever it is.
“I’m on borrowed time... How much do you think the interest is?” Jongin muses one day, contemplating the thought as the nurse slides a giant metal tube into his back. He takes a long drag of oxygen and holds it while blood and puss pours into a plastic container.
“I don’t know,” Kyungsoo answers quietly.
“At the last moments you begin… praying for things… will I make it for the winter… can we make kimchi together…”
“Do you want kimchi?”
“And then you want more… Will I make it… to kiss you under the mistletoe. And… will I make it… for New Years, because I want, I want to eat… rice cakes, with you. Will you… make it for our birthday… I want to see… the mole on your tragus… when I lean, in, to… whisper in your ear… show you… true fire… flies…”
“Stop it, Jongin, you’ll make it to all of them. We’ve already made it for the mistletoe, today,” Kyungsoo insists, pointing to the neon-wrapped boxes at the other end of the room, “We have Christmas. If we’ve gone through Christmas we can do New Years, too, and our birthdays, and I can show you my mole right now if you—”
“And it’s never enough, because… the more I have of… you the more I… realize that I’m still missing… so much of you… of us…”
“We can celebrate it together,” Kyungsoo interrupts, “We’ll celebrate everything together, okay? Okay? Just, don’t cry, Jongin—”
“You’re the one… crying, hyung.”
“I don’t want to die yet, hyung,” Jongin chuckles drily, droplets of liquid rolling down the creases of his eyes. Kyungsoo isn’t sure if they’re the tears that have fallen onto him, or the tears that are falling out of him.
He can’t talk anymore, the head-nurse explains in hushed whispers, as if it were some terrible secret, his lungs don’t supply enough oxygen as it is and it’s best not to agitate him. But to Kyungsoo it doesn’t really matter, because he doesn’t need to hear Jongin speak. He doesn’t need to touch Jongin, either, or the see him. He just needs to be near him. To know that Jongin is breathing, still, that Jongin can hear him when he sings for him, that his lips can twitch a little with every lame joke Kyungsoo throws at him.
Kyungsoo doesn’t really understand how he knows this guy, or why his knees automatically buck when he sees the stranger’s room number. Then again, he doesn’t understand a lot of things. And by the number of questions Jongin pass him, scratched out sloppily over little yellow sticky notes, neither does Jongin.
“One day you’ll look to the balcony next to yours and you won’t see an asshole draining cigarettes. During those days will you be sad?”
Kyungsoo looks up from the note, blinking reluctantly, “I’m already sad. I miss seeing you on that balcony,” and he doesn’t fail to recognize the shock registering on Jongin’s expression.
“How did you know that it was me?” Jongin writes, so quickly that the handwriting is illegible but Kyungsoo knows what he’s asking, because he’s asking the same question himself.
“It was just a feeling,” Kyungsoo grins, and he’s so glad that he’s finally caught something in memory. Maybe they’ve got hope after all. Maybe tomorrow Jongin will get his lungs and Kyungsoo his memory, and the day after that they can talk about what they did tomorrow. About silly notes, trembling hands, glassy eyes.
Tonight he goes home with Jongin’s name on his lips. Repeating it like a prayer, again and again and again until it’s as natural as breathing, he carries it into his dream, begs a million times for god to please at least let him keep the name. Please at least let him have Jongin, let him struggle out of those dreams without taking Jongin away. He doesn’t need to know anything, not of their past or their future or their virtues and vices. All he wants is just a name. Any little piece of Kim Jongin.
When Kyungsoo wakes up he finds a whole assortment of crumpled sticky notes in his pockets, littered in barely legible scribbles of pen and pencil. They’re written by a practiced, albeit shaken hand, with lines spiraling and barely hanging on. He smoothes the first note over his palm, carefully smothering away the wrinkles.
“Do you think there is a god?”
“If there’s a god, do you think he’d give me some extra time? It doesn’t have to be a lot. Just an extra week, or even day. Anything. I wouldn’t mind an hour. A second. I want more time. I just want more time.”
“I should’ve stopped smoking earlier, huh?”
“Stop being so brave, hyung.”
The last note is green and, with edges fraying, corners dog-eared and yellowing, clearly older than the other two. The handwriting is more determined, pressed down with so much force that the words are physically imprinted into the paper. However, it’s still distinct enough for him to recognize: “My name is Jongin. I’m the writer who lives next door. See you tomorrow, hyung. Don’t forget!”
Sometimes when Kyungsoo looks at Jongin in the hospital bed, he’s not sure if he’s looking at a reflection or the original. It’s almost as if time has worn away him from the outside, turned him transparent, left just enough of him to be a shadow. Kyungsoo wants to talk to him, but the nurse says that it’s unlikely that Jongin can manage, so he can only look down at the “Jongin” scribbled loosely on the back of his hand, and match it to the “Kim Jongin” nameplate hanging at the end of the bed.
The seconds refract into kaleidoscope souls over the bedsheets, and Kyungsoo counts them one by one as Jongin drags his body around. Feeble, whistling moans inflate the hush between them as he lifts an arm, which Kyungsoo immediately clasps with both hands.
Jongin’s first murmurs are nearly indistinguishable from the gush of air rushing out of his plastic mask, and he repeats himself with painstaking determination until Kyungsoo makes out, “Will you be here tomorrow?”
“Be here tomorrow, the thirteenth,” the boy says, negotiating for each syllable with deep inhales of air, “Our birthday… tomorr… average… twelfth… fourteenth…thirteen…”
Kyungsoo balks. Jongin winks. Everything ends too easily, but they hold it together with a thin string of hope. Kyungsoo doesn’t go home tonight. He begs for the nurses to let him stay overnight and by some miracle they relent, though they tell him to keep quiet, because Jongin needs his rest. Because Jongin is really hanging onto life by nothing by that thin string of hope.
He tries to stay up all night, to be able to look Jongin in the eye tomorrow morning and be the first to tell him, “Happy birthday, to Kim Jongin and Do Kyungsoo,” without looking at any notes. Tomorrow he needs to save Jongin. He has to save him. Remember him.
Sunlight drifts into Kyungsoo’s dream, refracts into something cool and salty and maybe involving heels digging into the soft overlap between ocean and beach. He turns and the wet sand transforms into cold linens.
When he opens his eyes the cocktail of seagull wings and shades of blue is replaced by a frail green line jumping through a black screen, a small window at the end of a narrow hospital room, and plastic floor tiles. Plastic everything. It’s not his room, and he has no idea how he could have woken up by a stranger’s bedside. There are words written on the back of his hand, a loose, fading “remember Jongin; our birthday tomorrow (13th January 2014).”
Kyungsoo drags himself upright, back cracking and neck sore from slumping over the bed all night, and that is when he notices that the stranger on the bed has been watching him, a twinkle of a smile lingering over his indistinct features.
“Hello?” Kyungsoo blinks. The stranger doesn’t respond, though maybe the corner of his eye flinches. Maybe his thumb twitches. Kyungsoo looks at the nameplate on the end of the bed. Kim Jongin.
There is an unsettlingly even stream of air gushing in and out of a bizarre metal apparatus by the bedside. Kyungsoo traces his gaze over the plastic extending out of it and into Kim Jongin’s nose. He’s about to ask a question, probably about the strange message on his hand, when something strikes him and he blurts a, “Happy birthday, to us.”
The stranger named Kim Jongin seems to take an extra sharp gasp of air. His hand twitches in Kyungsoo’s grasp, and gradually, he falls back asleep.
Kyungsoo almost begins thinking that it’s natural, that the stranger is probably just tired, but the constant beeping from the monitor with green lines stops, and some kind of alarm goes off loud and noisy and a slew of doctors and nurses rushes inside and shoulder him away, too far away, as they try to wake the stranger back up. And he realizes that this is wrong. All of this is wrong. Wrong
“Kim Jongin, time of death nine twenty-seven, January thirteenth, year two-thousand and fourteen. Monday.” Wrong.
It’s not until Kyungsoo has made it out of the hospital that the tears slam him in the face, knocks him off guard and shatters his whole body into a thousand irreversible pieces. He has no idea why the world seems to have ended on such a beautiful January day, or why he’s sobbing in the middle of the street as if tomorrow will never come. Why the name on the back of his hand burns harder than any goodbye.
It’s early Friday morning, second week of July, an hour when the world runs on uncertain lamplights, drunken howls, and the occasional punch of laughter. There are just the two of them in the elevator at this hour.
Having just returned from the bar, Kyungsoo tries to fight off the cocktail of metallic smoke and the thick scent of alcohol caught in his hair. The last ringlets of saxophone nestle over his fingers and cinquillo beat lingers under his skin, but none of it is really enough to distract him. But today he feels awfully empty, like someone has taken him apart while he was sleeping, stolen something from his core, and put the rest of him back together again.
The stranger, with an unlit cigarette between his teeth, turns first. The unflattering elevator lighting makes him look tired, and thin, and generally awful. Kyungsoo wonders, with the cinquillo pounding into his veins, if the man’s skin is as plastic as it seems.
“Are you Do Kyungsoo?” The stranger asks, turning around just in time for the elevator to slide open.
“Yes,” Kyungsoo responds, hesitantly stepping out with the other after him, “Have we met before?”
“No, not really,” the stranger smiles, extending a hand, “I’m Oh Sehun. I was Kim Jongin’s editor?”
Something in Kyungsoo stirs, but not enough. “Nice to meet you.”
“I’m kind of busy, so I’m just going to cut this short,” Sehun says, dislodging something bulky from his briefcase and handing it to Kyungsoo. It’s a notebook, Kyungsoo realizes, an old one weathered and dog-eared from use, smeared all over with runny ink and graphite, “This is Jongin’s last novel. Hand-written and everything. For you.”
Eventually Sehun disappears down the corridors and Kyungsoo finds himself sitting on the balcony, moonlight grazing the notebook in his lap. He flips to the last page on a whim, just to check if it’s a sad ending, because he doesn’t like sad endings.
“My name is Jongin. I’m the writer who lives next door. See you tomorrow, hyung. Don’t forget!”
[suggested soundtrack: pray (sunny hill)
edit:**if anyone is interested, this is a nice song to play. thank you to boeboebi!]