花樣年華 - The Most Beautiful Moment in Life - The Notes 1

Bangtan Universe

It'll be more painful to live than to die.
Do you still want to live?

About The Notes

BTS introduced the idea of the Bangtan Universe with the release of the I Need U MV, the first single from their album The Most Beautiful Moment in Life (HYYH) Part 1.

Together with several other MVs, the Webtoon Save Me, various Tweets and blog posts, plus The Notes – short stories released with the HYYH Art Toy, Wings photo book, Love Yourself albums, and MOTS albums – the universe tells the story of what might have happened to the seven members if the band had never been formed.

The concept is that the seven members met in school when they were all assigned to clean out an old storage room as punishment for lateness or not meeting uniform guidelines. There, they quickly bonded and formed a secret club where they'd meet, make music, talk and laugh together - and put away their troubles, as each one was hiding a rather tragic and awful home life that the others didn't know about.

In this universe, the boys eventually drift apart due to pressure from their varied back stories, and each one falls deeper into their own problems. This eventually leads to some of them reaching a crisis point - death, jail, or commitment to a hospital - and it's all bad. Luckily (or possibly not?), a magical cycle begins where Jin cycles through time, constantly jumping back over the same three-month period over and over again (beginning on April 11), attempting to solve the boys' problems and lead them all to a happy ending.

The story is still unfinished, although in 2024 it will be made into a Kdrama called "Youth" that may complete the story.

This volume gathers together The Notes as released on Twitter, with the HYYH Art Toy, in the Wings photo book, and the Love Yourself albums. The "Year" of each note refers to Jin's age at that time.

Bangtan Universe MVs

I Need U MV
I Need U MV – original version
HYYH Onstage Concert Prologue
Run MV
I Need U Japanese MV
Run Japanese MV
Young Forever MV
Begin - Wings Short Film #1
Lie - Wings Short Film #2
Stigma - Wings Short Film #3
First Love - Wings Short Film #4
Reflection - Wings Short Film #5
MAMA - Wings Short Film #6
Awake - Wings Short Film #7
Blood Sweat & Tears MV
Blood Sweat & Tears Japanese MV
Love Yourself Highlight Reel: The Beginning
Love Yourself Highlight Reel Short #1
Love Yourself Highlight Reel Short #2
Love Yourself Highlight Reel
Euphoria Theme of Love Yourself
Fake Love teaser 1
Fake Love teaser 2
Fake Love MV
Fake Love Extended Version
Epiphany MV
BTS Universe story (trailer for the video game)

The Notes 1 - Contents

Prologue: Good Kid
Shadow Of My Childhood
Everything Started from Here
End of Summer, Beginning of Solitude
I Must Survive
What to Look for When Lost
The Things with Wings
The Topmost Floor In the City
The Most Beautiful Day of Our Lives
After Returning from the Sea
The Direction Where the Sun Rises
Epilogue: Nightmare

Prologue: Good Kid

SeokJin

1 October Year 9

"Let's go, we have to get out of here!" I grabbed my friend's hand and ran to the rear door of our classroom. As I looked back while running down the hall, I saw the men spilling out of the classroom chasing us.

"Stop! Stop right there!" Their voices seemed to seize us by the back of our necks.

We frantically thought of where to go as we darted down the stairs. The first destination that came to mind was the hill behind our school. We just needed to cross the playground and go out the school gate and we would hit the bottom of the hill. Although it wasn't that high, it was pretty rocky and rugged. After running through the gate and rounding the corner at full speed, we ignored the walking trail and jumped right into the bushes. We waded through the dense limbs and kept running. We ran for what felt like forever, finally stopping when the footsteps behind us were gone.

We collapsed on the ground covered with layers of dried leaves, sweat dripping from our faces. "They won't be able to follow us here, right?" My friend nodded, breathing heavily. We lifted our T-shirts to wipe our faces with the hem. My friend's face was wet with sweat and tears. His wrists were bluish black with bruises. The neck of his T-shirt was ripped.

"Dad hasn't come home in over a week. Mom just keeps crying. The cleaning lady and driver stopped coming. Aunt says that Dad's company shut down. Those men came to our house last night. They kept pressing the bell and yelling for Dad. We stayed inside with all the lights turned off, and they kept swearing in front of the door. We couldn't sleep at all." My friend cried through his whole story. I couldn't think of anything to say. All I could do was to tell him not to cry.

It was shortly after the class had started when the front door swung open and four or five men burst in. They were unruly and rash. "Which one of you is Mr. Choi's son? Come on out with us." Stunned, our teacher asked them to leave immediately, but they simply ignored her. "We know you're here. Come on out right now." Some of the kids leered at my friend sitting next to me and began whispering. The men noticed and came towards us.

"Can't you see we're in the middle of class? Please leave." Our teacher tried to block them but one of the men pushed her hard to the whiteboard. She fell to the ground.

The man who had shoved our teacher walked towards us in a threatening manner. All the students' heads turned towards us. The man snatched my friend's arm. "We'll take you to your dad and get the money from him. Surely he won't turn away his son." The men were menacing, and the atmosphere was intimidating.

I looked into my friend's face. He was trembling. Trembling hard with his head bent low. He was my friend. I reached under the desk and grabbed his hand. He looked up and I pulled his hand. "Let's run."

The sky was getting darker and darker. No one seemed to be chasing us. We pushed our way through the trees and bushes to the walking trail. An empty lot with exercise equipment appeared before us. I leaned against the chin-up bar and my friend perched on a bench. "I'm afraid you'll get in trouble because of me." My friend seemed uneasy when I told him I would be fine. All I could think of in the classroom was to get my friend out of there. I had to get him far away from those men. But, as we started running away, I realized we had nowhere to go.

"Let's go to my place." It must've been around 9 p.m. as quite some time had passed since the sun went down. I was starving. He must have been, too.

"Aren't your parents home? Wont you get in trouble for taking me there?"

"We can sneak in. If we get in trouble, then we get in trouble."

My house was not that far from the foot of the hill. Soon, my house came into sight in the distance. "Go in right behind when the gate opens and hide behind a tree. I'll open the window for you later."

Mom was sitting on the couch in the living room. "Where have you been? Your teacher called." Instead of answering, I told her I was sorry. It was usually the quickest way to end a conversation. Mom said Dad would be home any minute and went into her room. My room was opposite their room with the living room in the middle. I quickly went into my room and opened the window.

We heard the front gate open while playing a computer game after a snack of bread and milk. My friend looked at me with frightened eyes. "It's OK. Dad never comes in my room." The door of my room burst open before I finished speaking. We both sprang up from our seats with fright.

"Are you Mr. Choi's son?" Dad continued without waiting for an answer. "Come on out. Someone is here to take you." There was a man standing by the door. I thought he was Mr. Choi at first but quickly realized he wasn't. He was one of those men who had marched into the classroom earlier. I looked up at Dad. He looked exhausted, with knitted brows and a subtly quivering eyelid. It was better not to bother him when he was in that mood. While I was trying to read his face, the man came into my room and grabbed my friend's shoulder.

I got in front of my friend. "No, Dad, don't let this man take him away. He is one of the bad people."

He just kept looking down at me and did not budge. "Please help him, Dad. He is my friend." The man tried to pull my friend outside. I held onto my friend's arm, and Dad grasped my shoulder. He grasped it and pulled it hard. I had to let go of my friend's arm. He was being dragged out of the door. I squirmed and writhed to break free, but Dad strengthened his grip. "It hurts!" I screamed, but Dad didn't let go. He just grasped my shoulder even tighter. Tears ran down my face.

I looked up at Dad. He was like a massive grey wall. His face was expressionless, with even the exhausted look now gone. He slowly opened his mouth with his eyes fixed on me. "SeokJin, be a good kid." He still had that blank look.

But I knew what to do, what to do to stop the pain.

"SeokJin." I turned my head at my friend's cry. He escaped the man's grip and was running towards my door. He was in tears.

Dad, with his one hand still gripping my shoulder, slammed the door shut with his other hand. I apologized to him. "I'm sorry, Dad. I won't make trouble again."

The next day, the seat next to mine was empty. My teacher said he transferred to another school.

Shadow of My Childhood

HoSeok

23 July Year 10

It all happened when I counted to four. I was counting some fruit, maybe tomatoes or melons. I'm not sure. "Four." As soon as I said it, a vision from my childhood appeared before my eyes. I was holding hands with someone.

It was the day I first went to an amusement park With Mom. I was mesmerized by the colorful flags and rows of shops. People dressed like clowns waved at me, and exciting music reverberated in every corner. Mom stopped in front of a merry-go-round. White horses were going round and round under sparkling lights. I was about to ask, "Mom, are we here to ride this?" when someone called me.

"HoSeok." I looked up.

It was my teacher. My classmates were all looking at me with bewildered eyes. The vision from my childhood disappeared. My teacher urged me to continue, and I began counting again.

Five. Six. Mom appeared before my eyes again. She looked exactly the same as a minute ago. Her face was shaded as she was standing in front of the light, and a breeze fanned her hair. Mom handed me a chocolate bar. "HoSeok, close your eyes tight and don't open them until you count to ten."

Seven. Eight. Nine. I stopped there. My teacher made a gesture signaling me to go on. My classmates stared at me again. I opened my mouth, but no words came out. Mom's face blurred. It felt as if she would never come looking for me if I finished counting to ten. I fell to the ground.

TaeHyung

29 December Year 10

I flung off my shoes, hurled my bag on the floor, and ran into the room. Dad was really home. I had no time to think about how long he'd been gone and where he was coming from. I just threw myself into his arms. It became all blurry from that point. I wasn't sure whether I smelled liquor on his breath first, heard him cursing first, or got slapped on my face first. I didn't know what was happening. His alcohol breath was repulsive and his breathing was hard. His eyes were bloodshot. He had a scruffy beard. A massive hand slapped my face. "What are you looking at?" He slapped me again. Dad grabbed me by my shoulders and picked me up. I was almost face to face with him. Bloodshot eyes and scruffy beard. He wasn't my dad. Well, he was. But he wasn't.

My feet dangled in the air. I was so frightened that I couldn't even cry. The next moment, my head hit the wall hard and I crumpled to the floor. It felt as if my head had cracked. I could hardly see straight. It became pitch black.

JiMin

6 April Year 11

I went out the front gate of the Grass Flower Arboretum alone. The sky was cloudy and it was a little chilly. But I was feeling good. It was school picnic day, and as usual my parents were too busy to make it. This brought me down. But I received high evaluations in the flower drawing contest and my friends' mothers all told me, "You're so mature and gentle." I thought I was pretty cool.

"JiMin, wait here. It'll just be a minute," my teacher said after the picnic was over and we got ready to leave the arboretum. I didn't wait. I knew I could find the way on my own. I held onto the straps of my backpack with both hands and took confident steps. Everyone seemed to be staring at me, so I kept my shoulders back. After walking for a while, it began to rain. My classmates and their mothers had all left and no one paid attention to me. My legs hurt. I crouched under a tree. The rain began to pour down more and more heavily. I stretched my neck to check if anyone was coming from either side, but no one was around.

I began to run, holding my backpack over my head with both hands. The rain kept falling harder and harder. My pants got soaked in the rain after only a few steps. No shop, house, or bus stop came into sight. In the far distance, I could see a gate. I ran towards it without thinking. My hands felt numb from gripping the backpack. I was soaking wet, and my teeth were chattering. On top of the gate was a sign that read Grass Flower Arboretum. It was the back gate. There was a small warehouse just inside the gate.

SeokJin

21 July Year 12

The entrance door kept opening and closing. I kept staring at it, sitting in the airport waiting room. People with suitcases passed by, some wearing sunglasses. The electronic display board continued to change with arrivals, delays, and cancellations. The driver was murmuring with his eyes fixed on his cell phone. "No word from him yet." I looked down at my watch. It was more than an hour past the time Dad promised he'd arrive.

As long as I could remember, I was always by myself. Dad was busy and Mom was indifferent. They told me to do what I was told and not try anything else. When I disobeyed, they scolded me with silence. I wanted to please my parents. Mom died not so long ago. Dad told me not to cry and didn't cry himself. I tried to obey him, but it wasn't easy. He decided to send me to my maternal grandmother's in the U.S. He didn't seem very sad about it.

Dad's driver handed me my passport. It was time to leave. I looked back as I headed for the departure gate. The entrance door closed. The driver waved at me. The airplane finally began to speed down the runway. Dad didn't come.

I looked out the tiny window by my seat. Clouds passed by, and the sky turned pitch black. The flight attendant brought me a meal, and the juice cup fell when we hit turbulence. Flustered, I asked for some napkins. The flight attendant asked me if I was OK. My fried rice and meat were soaked in juice. My hands were sticky and my pants were all wet. "No," I whispered back, but the flight attendant didn't seem to hear. She said not to worry as she took away my tray. I nodded and kept looking down at the floor.

NamJoon

21 June Year 16

I darted down the stairs from the 13th floor. I was out of breath and my legs were trembling. I collapsed in the shadow of the entrance to the apartment building. I started late today because school got out later than usual. I had to go full speed to post the fliers in all four apartment buildings by the deadline. If I didn't, my boss would be waiting for me with a long lecture. I had laboriously coaxed him into hiring a middle school student. Surely, I couldn't let myself get fired at this point. Mom quit her job at the restaurant last week. We had to pay for the doctor's bills for Dad, not to mention the overdue electricity and gas. I kept nodding off in the shadow. There were kids playing basketball in the far distance. I got up again. Time to run, I recited to myself. I must do it. I can do it.

YoonGi

19 September Year 16

Flames were devouring my house. Just this morning, it was whole and intact, but now it was aflame. People who recognized me ran towards me, shouting unintelligible words. The neighbors stamped their feet, looking nervous. The fire truck couldn't get to my house because the accessway was blocked.

I stood there frozen. It was the end of summer and first days of fall. The sky was blue and the air was crisp. I didn't know what to think, what to feel, or what to do. Suddenly, I thought of Mom. At that very moment, my house collapsed with a thundering crash. It was completely enveloped in flames. Or, rather, it was a giant flame itself. The roof pillars, walls, and my room tumbled down one by one as if they were made of sand. All I could do was gaze at them with vacant eyes.

People barged past me. I heard them saying the fire truck finally got through. Someone grabbed me by the shoulder and asked urgently, "Is someone in there?" I just stared blankly at her. "Is your mom in there?" She shook me hard by the shoulder.

"No, there is no one." I heard myself saying it.

"What do you mean?" It was one of the ladies from my neighborhood. "What happened to your mom? Where is she?"

"There is no one." I wasn't sure what I was saying. Someone barged past me again.

JungKook

11 September Year 17

I waited for ten days., but the birthday card never came. I opened the bottom drawer and lifted a notebook to find four cards. JungKook, Happy Birthday, from Dad. I read these five words over and over again.

It was winter, and I was 7 years old. The voices from the living room woke me up. My room was in the attic, and I could reach my parents' room by going down five stairs and opening the sliding door. I reached out to open the door and stopped. Although I was still young, I could sense from the heavy atmosphere seeping through the door that this wasn't a good time.

Dad said that it was too difficult to go on and that the world was too heavy for him to bear. Mom didn't reply. She was probably crying silently or not moving at all. A long silence ensued. Dad said he'd be crushed if he went on living like this and he should leave now. Mom vehemently protested, calling him the most irresponsible man. Then, I heard my name. "What are you going to do about JungKook?"

I waited for a long time behind the sliding door, but Dad didn't answer. Then I heard the sound of the front door opening. "I'm completely empty, and there's nothing I can do for JungKook." Those were my dad's last words.

I ran back up the stairs to the attic. I moved my chair against the wall right under the window and stood on it.

Dad was walking down the sloping road. First his legs disappeared, and then his waist, chest, and shoulders. It seemed as if an unknown world beyond the road was slowly swallowing him whole.

Someone jerked the door of my room open, and I instinctively pushed the drawer with my foot. It was Mom. She said no birthday card will ever come and Dad was just that kind of person. It was her usual repertoire. Dad was feeble-minded, incompetent, and most importantly, a social misfit who deserted us... Mom was right. No birthday card will ever come. I was the world that was too heavy for him to bear - that world that he gave up on. A child who can never be the reason to endure it all. That was me.

Everything Started from Here

SeokJin

2 March Year 19

I stepped into the principal's office following Dad. It smelled like mildew. It'd been ten days since I came back from the U.S., and I'd just found out the day before that I'd be one grade lower because of the different school systems. "Please take good care of my son." I shuddered at Dad's hand on my shoulder.

"School is a dangerous place. It needs to be tightly controlled." The principal looked me in the eye. Wearing a black suit, his wrinkly cheeks and the comers of his mouth quivered slightly every time he opened it. The insides of his blackened lips were even darker. "Don't you agree, SeokJin?" As I squirmed at his abrupt question, Dad tightened his grip on my shoulder. I felt a twinge on the back of my neck. "I'm sure you'll behave yourself." The principal obstinately tried to make eye contact, while Dad tightened down on me further. I clenched my fists as his grip almost fractured my shoulder blade. "You know you have to keep me informed, right? You'll be a good student, right?" The principal stared me down without a hint of a smile.

"Yes." As soon as I squeezed the answer out the pain in my shoulder disappeared. Dad and the principal roared with laughter. I couldn't even raise my head. I kept looking down at Dad's brown shoes and the principal's black shoes. The toecaps of their shoes shined brightly, though it was a mystery to me where the light was coming from.

JiMin

12 March Year 19

It had been several days since the new semester began, but my classmates were still strangers to me. It was not hard to guess that they were gossiping about me. I tried to act indifferent but to no avail. "We heard you live in an apartment across the river. Why did you come to this school?" I pretended I didn't hear the question. I had nothing to say. I just continued walking past with my head bent. "Hey, didn't you hear me?" I quickened my pace. I had transferred from one school to another as I had been in and out of the hospital. There were no more schools left near my neighborhood to transfer to.

I headed for the classroom-turned-storage room that I cleaned as a penalty for being late for school. As I opened the door, I was startled to hear voices inside. Who could be here at this hour? I was about to silently close the door and turn around when someone called my name. "Hey, you're Park JiMin, right?" They were the senior students who cleaned the classroom with me for being tardy. I wasn't sure whether I should answer them or just leave. Somebody tapped me on my shoulder. "Aren't you going in?" Without realizing it, I walked into the classroom. "It's good to see you again. Don't you remember me? I'm TaeHyung. We're in the same grade."

Before I knew it, I was sitting down on a chair. The storage room door continued to open and close. The seven students who did the cleaning together were all there. Nobody asked questions. We just listened to music, read books, danced and fooled around. It felt as if we'd been hanging out together forever.

YoonGi

12 June Year 19

I cut school without thinking, but I had nowhere to go. It was hot, and I had no money and nothing to do. It was NamJoon who first proposed we go to the sea. The others seemed excited about it, but I didn't care either way. "Do you have any money?" Hearing my question, NamJoon told the others to dig into their pockets. A few coins and even fewer bills. "We can't go."

"Why don't we walk?" That must've been TaeHyung. Namjoon's expression seemed to tell him to use his head and think before speaking. Everyone but me was jabbering, laughing for no reason, and romping around. I fell back as I wasn't in the mood. The sun was broiling. It was midday, and there was no shade under the trees. The asphalt road had no sidewalks, and every time a car passed, it would kick up a thick cloud of dust.

"Let's go there." It was TaeHyung. Or, was it HoSeok? I wasn't paying attention anyways, but it must've been one of those two. I don't see any point in going there... Should I tell them to go on without me?

I turned my head and almost bumped into someone. It was JiMin. He stood there as still as a statue. His face was trembling down to the smallest muscle as if he had seen something terrifying. "Are you OK?" He seemed unaware of the question. His gaze was fixed on a signpost that read 2.1 km to Grass Flower Arboretum. Sweat was dripping off his face, which had turned ashen as if he was going to pass out. "Park JiMin!" I called again, but he didn't budge. He just stood there, glaring at the signpost.

"Hey, it's too hot to go to an arboretum. Let's just go to the sea." I tried to say this as flatly as possible. I didn't know what the Grass Flower Arboretum was, but I had an instinctive feeling that we should avoid it.

"We're short on cash." HoSeok objected.

"We can walk." It was TaeHyung again.

"I think we'll be able to figure something out once we get to the train station. Of course, we'll have to skip dinner." NamJoon chimed in.

JungKook and TaeHyung whined.

JiMin snapped out of it after everyone started heading for the station. JiMin, with his head bent deep and his shoulders hunched, looked like a little kid. I looked back at the signpost. The words Grass Flower Arboretum were slowly disappearing from our view.

JungKook

12 June Year 19

The sun was still beating down when we arrived at the train station by the sea. Our shadows were almost invisible, hovering around our feet. There was nowhere to hide from the sun. I thought I heard the roar of waves, and soon a stretch of beautiful sandy beach unfolded before our eyes. It was the beginning of the summer. Early vacationers were already perched under parasols. There is something about the sea that makes me well up with emotions. TaeHyung and HoSeok yelled out in excitement and dashed ahead. As they beckoned, JiMin and SeokJin joined them.

They called out to me. "JungKook!" I waved at them and smiled joyfully. Or, I smiled to pretend that I was joyful. I was still clumsy at revealing my feelings and adapting to strange environments. Someone once told me that I acted like a timid, intimidated child. It was the same that day. I felt a bit ill at ease in the presence of the others, like I didn't belong there.

There wasn't much to do on the beach, our impulsive destination. "Let's race." HoSeok suggested suddenly and ran ahead. Everyone else gave chase but soon gave up. It was too hot. NamJoon brought a torn parasol he found somewhere. All seven of us lay down under the parasol. Sunlight passed through the tears in the parasol. Round spots of sunlight continued to move bit by bit, and we wriggled to dodge them.

"Do you want to go see this rock?" HoSeok held up his phone. There was a photo of a large rock on a beach. "They say, if you yell out your dream towards the sea while standing on this rock, it will come true."

JiMin took the phone and looked at the photo. "Isn't it a bit far? It's at least 3.5 km from here."

YoonGi rolled over. "I'm not going. I don't have any dream in the first place. Even if I did, I wouldn't walk 3.5 km in this heart. No way."

TaeHyung sprang to his feet. "I'm going."

We began to walk under the torn parasol. The sandy beach was burning under the scorching sun, and the air was so hot we could barely breathe. We marched on the beach like stragglers, with our feet sinking into the burning sand. HoSeok attempted to make jokes, but no one responded. TaeHyung dropped down to the ground and declared he was giving up. NamJoon picked him up to his feet again and gave him a push on the back. All our faces were bright red and dripping with sweat. We tried fanning ourselves with the hem of our T-shirts, but it only blasted us with more hot air. Nevertheless, we kept moving forward.

Sometime before, I'd asked the others what their dreams were. SeokJin said he dreamed of becoming a good person. YoonGi said it was OK to have no dream. HoSeok just wished to be happy. And Namjoon. What did he tell us? I can't recall, but it was nothing special. Basically, none of us had a dream to pursue. So, why were we walking along this hot beach under the scorching sun to get to some rock 3.5 km away which supposedly makes dreams come true?

Along the way, we threw off the parasol that NamJoon, HoSeok and SeokJin had taken turns holding. It did block the sun a little but it was just too heavy with its steel handle. "Stop doing that." That's what YoonGi said to me while we were taking a short break after ditching the parasol. At first, I was puzzled. In fact, I rarely talked with YoonGi and didn't even realize he was talking to me. YoonGi showed me his fingers. "They'll become like mine." He also had raw cuticles from biting his nails. I hesitantly put my hands into my pockets. I didn't respond because I didn't know what to say.

"What's your dream?" YoonGi asked. "You didn't tell us yours." He didn't seem genuinely interested in my answer. He just seemed to be asking to keep the conversation going.

"I don't know. I've never thought about it."

"Well, there's nothing wrong with that."

"By the way, what is a dream?" I asked after some hesitation.

YoonGi answered in his drawling voice. "I told you I don't have one."

"No, I mean..." I hesitated and continued. "I was wondering what a dream is. What do people mean by a dream?"

He looked at me and then turned his gaze towards the sky, frowning. "Something you want to achieve? I guess."

HoSeok took over, waving his mobile phone at us. "The dictionary definitions are first, 'an imaginary series of events you experience while you are asleep'; second, 'a situation or an ideal you hope to realize'; and third, 'false expectations or thoughts that are almost unlikely or completely unlikely to turn into reality'."

"Isn't the third definition odd? How can something that is unlikely to turn into reality be called a dream?"

HoSeok responded. "People sometimes tell you to wake up from your dream. So, if you're dreaming of turning back and going home before we get to the rock, wake up from your dream!"

Some of us laughed out loud, but the rest showed no reaction, probably because they had no more energy left. "That's weird. How can something that you want to achieve most in our life and something that is unlikely to come true both be called a dream?" YoonGi said, giggling. "Maybe it means that people are that desperate. They just can't give up on their dreams even though they know they won't come true. Don't ever try to have a dream."

I looked at him in surprise. "How come?"

YoonGi had started biting his nails and, feeling conscious of my glance, he put his hands in his pockets. "Because it's tough having one."

I was curious about why he bit his nails but didn't ask. Instead, I looked down at my own fingers. It'd been a habit since my childhood to hurt myself. I don't remember when it first started. All I can recall is the distinct feeling of cutting my finger on a knife one day. After the painful sensation passed, blood spurted from the wound. It felt numb and tingling at the same time. Mom took me to the hospital, and I had the wound stitched up, sterilized, and dressed. She pretended to make a fuss in front of the doctor but didn't make me dinner or help me take my medicine after we got home. I didn't really expect her to. She'd been like that since Dad left.

The wound healed very slowly because I kept pressing it with the tip of my nail. Every time I pressed the wound, a sharp pain shot through my finger. It sometimes hurt so much that I was close to tears. But it also helped me feel awake again. Even now, I sometimes feel hollow. Everything seems meaningless and all the energy drains out of me.

"How much longer do we have to walk?" At TaeHyung's question, HoSeok seemed to be at a loss.

"It's odd. I'm sure it must be somewhere around here." We all stood there and looked around. Only the sound of waves breaking on the beach filled the void of silence under the blue sky. Hundreds of thousands of pebbles were scattered across the beach like grains of sand. The rock in the photo was nowhere to be seen.

"Should we keep going just a bit further?"

"I can't move another step."

"I'm starving and thirsty."

In the middle of our conversation, JiMin heaved a sigh with his eyes fixed on his phone. TaeHyung, who was looking at JiMin's phone, violently kicked at a pebble with a hollow face. JiMin read the article aloud. A high-end resort will be built on this beach, and the construction company blew the rock to pieces because it obstructed the view from the first and second floors of the resort. We took a sweeping look around all at once. Yellow bands were installed all along the beach to mark that the area was designated as a development zone, with mammoth excavators roaming about in the background. A sign that read "Seawall Construction" came into view.

"I guess we came to the right place." HoSeok said, tapping a pebble with the tip of his sneaker. All these pebbles scattered across the beach must be what's left of that blown-up rock.

"It's OK. There's no such thing as a rock that makes dreams come true anyways." NamJoon consoled HoSeok, lightly tapping his shoulder.

"We didn't have any dreams in the first place."

"No possibility of realizing them even if we did."

"It's a luxury for us to dream."

Everyone tried to say something positive, but it wasn't working. We weren't expecting much, but we didn't come all the way here to see this, either.

YoonGi, who told me not to have dreams because they're too tough, was no different. After looking at the sea blankly for some minutes, he began to bite his nails again. He seemed completely unaware of what he was doing. "YoonGi." He turned around to look at me. "Don't..." My next words were interrupted by the loud crash of a drilling sound. We all turned around at the same time. They were resuming the construction work. The loud crash sounded as if it was coming from a massive solid rock being drilled and made the surrounding air roll and pitch heavily.

YoonGi frowned and tapped my shoulder. "What did you say?" YoonGi mumbled something.

"Don't do that." I cupped my hands around my mouth and yelled. YoonGi didn't seem to have heard me and shook his head again, frowning. I was going to yell again, but he already stopped biting his nails. I could see the sea beyond his shoulders. The countless pebbles crunched under my feet. The rock must've been huge, powerful, and old enough to make people's dreams come true. But now, it was no more than a pile of gravel.

"Is the world tough for you, too?" I asked. As expected, the shaking rumble of the drill swallowed my voice. YoonGi's puzzled look told me he didn't understand. I screamed again. "Do you want to give up on this world, too?" He murmured something this time, but I couldn't make out what it was. I shook my head, and YoonGi yelled again. Looking at our mime, HoSeok and TaeHyung burst into laughter. Their laughter was also inaudible, but their faces showed their mood.

The next minute, we were all looking out onto the sea and shouting our dreams. HoSeok covered his ears with both hands and opened his mouth wide. He seemed to be competing with the drilling sound, but it was inaudible. It was the same for TaeHyung, JiMin, and NamJoon. Each of us cried out a story that would never reach any destination. I was standing behind YoonGi and SeokJin at first and walked past them to the point where the waves rolled in. All of my senses came alive. The others' voices became entangled and formed an intricate web with the somewhat fishy but refreshing scent of the sea and the strong breeze winding round my fingers. Before I knew it, I was screaming out onto the sea. Amidst the thundering drilling sound, I couldn't even hear what my dream was.

Then, the drilling sound stopped as abruptly as it had begun. The entire world became silent, as if noise had been cut away clean with a knife. Just like that. But our cries were not in perfect order. TaeHyung coughed hard as if he swallowed the wrong way while trying to close his mouth in a hurry. Someone's voice made an absurdly high note. The last word heard was, "..., please!" by SeokJin. Instantly, we all closed our mouths. For a fleeting second, no one moved. Then, we burst into laughter together. We held our sides with laughter, all pointing at one another.

"Let's take a photo here." At SeokJin's suggestion, we stood in a row with the sea as our background. SeokJin set the timer and came running up. Click! This day in the sweltering heat of early summer became imprinted on our memories in this photo.

The way back was shorter than the way to the rock. Just when we thought we were about halfway, the deserted parasol appeared. Soon, the train station came into sight.

"Can I keep the photo?"

SeokJin took the Polaroid out of his bag and wrote "June 12" on the back. "Your dream that you yelled out, it will come true."

I looked up at him. "Do you know what I said?"

SeokJin just tapped me on my shoulder without saying anything and strode ahead.

SeokJin

25 June Year 19

No one was there in the classroom-turned-storage room. We never made any appointments in advance, but it was mostly filled with people and the murmuring of voices. Such silence was rare. As I stepped inside, I detected a potted plant by the window. Who could have brought a plant here? The room always dark with no electricity, and the green leaves appeared even greener in the half-light coming through the dirty windows. I took photos with my phone. As expected, the photos didn't tum out well. I always thought photos fall short of capturing what the human eye saw.

When I approached the pot, I could see the letter "H" written on the floor, half covered by the pot. I lifted the pot to discover "HoSeok's plant" scribbled there. I giggled. I should have known. I repositioned the pot to completely cover the scribble and looked around. I hadn't noticed it before, but the window sills were covered with graffiti and doodles. The window sills, the walls, and even the ceiling were covered with phrases like "Admission to college or death!," proposals for unrequited loves, dates, and countless names that were hardly recognizable. This storage room must've served as a normal classroom just like any other. It must've seen students file in for classes every morning and leave again in the afternoon. On back-to-school days, students must've filled this room, which had been empty throughout the months of vacation, chattering in a roar. Some of them must've been punished for being tardy and ditching class, just like us. Did this classroom see teachers who used violence, endless tests, and homework? Were there students like me who ratted out their friends to the principal?

Suddenly, I began to wonder if Dad's name was on the wall. Dad also graduated from this school. He believed it added to the prestige of our family to attend the same high school and university from generation to generation. I browsed each and every name and finally found his name among those written in the middle of the left column.

Underneath his name it read: Everything started from here.

End of Summer, Beginning of Solitude

TaeHyung

20 March Year 20

I ran down the hall making a clumping sound and took a slide at the end. NamJoon was standing in front of "our classroom." Our classroom. That's what I called the classroom-turned-storage room. The classroom for all seven of us. I quietly tiptoed up to NamJoon to try to knock his hat off.

"Principal!" I heard the urgent voice through the slightly open window of our classroom after I'd taken about five steps towards NamJoon. It sounded like SeokJin. I stopped there. SeokJin is talking with the principal? In our classroom? About what? I heard my name and YoonGi's name and saw NamJoon breathe in heavily.

Sensing our presence, Seokjin threw open the door. He had a phone in his hand. He appeared startled and flustered.

I hid myself in one corner and watched them. SeokJin was opening his mouth, seemingly to make an excuse for himself, and NamJoon interrupted him. "It's OK. There must've been a good reason." I couldn't believe it. SeokJin told the principal what YoonGi and I were up to the last few days. About how we ditched class, climbed over the school wall, and got into a fight. And NamJoon was saying it was OK.

"What're you doing here?" I turned around in surprise to find HoSeok and JiMin. HoSeok gave me a look that said he was even more surprised than I was and put his arm around my shoulders. He dragged me into the room. NamJoon and SeokJin looked over at us. NamJoon beamed at me as if nothing strange had happened. At that moment, I sorted out my thoughts. NamJoon must have his reasons. He's much more knowledgeable, intelligent and mature than I am. And this is our room. I walked towards NamJoon and SeokJin, smiling that silly-looking smile of mine that everyone called "a square smile." I decided not to tell anyone about their conversation that I just overheard.

NamJoon

15 May Year 20

I cut across the classroom-turned-storage room, which served as a hideout for the seven of us, straightening up some chairs along the way. I picked up an overturned desk and wiped the dust off it with my palms. Today was my last day at this school. My family had decided to move two weeks ago. Dad had developed "complications," which we couldn't afford. Our rent had been overdue for months. Our neighbors' goodwill and the pay from my part-time job at the gas station couldn't cover it all. We had to move before our deposit ran out.

I folded a piece of paper in half, put it on the desk, and picked up a pencil. I had no idea what to write. Minutes passed. While I was scribbling on the paper, the pencil lead snapped. I must survive. That was what I put down without realizing it before fragments of black lead scattered all over.

I crumpled up the piece of paper, put it in my pocket, and stood up. Dust rose when I pushed the desk. Before walking out of the room, I blew on the window and wrote three words. No farewell message would be enough to let the others know how I felt. At the same time, no farewell message was needed to make myself understood.

"See you again." It was a wish, rather than a promise.

JungKook

25 June Year 20

I smoothed down the piano keys with my fingers, dust covering my fingertips. I pressed the keys more strongly, but I couldn't make them sound like YoonGi did. It'd been two weeks since YoonGi stopped coming to school. Rumor had it that he was finally expelled. HoSeok didn't say anything, and I didn't ask.

On that day two weeks ago, YoonGi and I were the only ones in the room when the teacher came in. It was openhouse day. We went there without any plan, we just didn't want to stay in our classrooms. YoonGi didn't look back and went on playing the piano. I was lying on two desks put together with my eyes closed. Something about YoonGi and the piano didn't seem to match, but the two were actually inextricable. I had no idea how much time had passed. Suddenly, the door burst open with a thundering sound as if someone had broken it down. The piano stopped.

I kept backing away as the teacher slapped my face until I fell down. I sat hunched up, putting up with the ceaseless stream of abusive words. All of a sudden, the teacher stopped yelling. I looked up to see YoonGi stepping in between and pushing the teacher's shoulder. I could also see the teacher's dumbfounded look over YoonGi's shoulder.

I pressed the keys and tried to mimic the tune he'd played that day. Will he really be expelled? Will he ever come back?

He said he was used to being hit and kicked by teachers. If I weren't there, would he still have turned against the teacher? If I weren't there, would he still be playing the piano here?

YoonGi

25 June Year 20

As soon as I stepped into the room, I took out an envelope from the bottom drawer of the desk. I took out the half burned piano key from the envelope, threw it into the trash can and lay down on the bed. I was still breathing hard and couldn't stop my mind from racing.

I went back to the burned down house once after the funeral. A skeleton of what used to be a piano was still standing where Mom's room used to be. I flopped down on the ground. The afternoon sunlight climbed over the window and then shrank away. I raised my head and saw several piano keys in the distance. What notes were they? How many times had her fingers touched those keys? I stood up and put one of the keys in my pocket.

Four years had passed. The house was filled with silence. Silence that drove me crazy. It was past ten, so Dad must've gone to bed. Everything and everyone inside the house had to keep still after he went to bed. That was the rule. I wasn't familiar with such deep silence. Or with being punctual and following the rules. It was even more unbearable that I was living in this house despite all that. I was receiving an allowance from him, I was eating dinner with him, and I was getting scolded by him. I sometimes challenged him and caused trouble, but I didn't have the courage to desert him, to run away and find true freedom.

I picked the piano key out of the trash can under my desk. When I opened the window, the night air blew in. My mind re-played the events of the ay in quick succession. I threw the piano key out of the window with all my might. It had been two weeks since I went to school. They said I was expelled. I might get kicked out of the house even if I wanted to stay. I couldn't hear the piano key hit the ground. Now I'd never know what note it made. It'd never made a sound again. I'd never play the piano again.

SeokJin

17 July Year 20

The shrill whine of cicadas hit my ears as soon as I stepped out of the school building. The playground was full of students laughing, playing, and racing around. It was the beginning of summer vacation and everyone was excited. I wove my way quickly through the crowd with my head down. All I wanted was to get out of there.

"SeokJin!" Someone's shadow jumped into my path, and I hastily raised my head. It was HoSeok and JiMin. They were smiling their big, kind-hearted smiles as always and looked at me with mischievous eyes. "You're not going straight home on the first day of vacation, are you?" HoSeok said, tugging at my arm. I muttered something that sounded like "yes" and turned my head away.

What had happened that day was an accident. I didn't mean £or it to happen. I didn't think JungKook and YoonGi would be there in the classroom-turned-storage room at that hour. The principal was suspecting that I was covering for the others. He threatened to tell Dad how bad I was doing at school. I had to say something. I told him about our hideout because I thought it would be empty. But it led to YoonGi getting expelled. No one knew I was mixed up in it.

"Have a good vacation! Let's keep in touch." HoSeok must have read my face. He slowly let go of my hand and said good-bye even more brightly. I couldn't reply. There was nothing I could say. My first day at this school crossed my mind as I passed through the school gate. We were all late and got punished. But we were together, so we could laugh together. I had ruined all those memories we shared. After I decided to live like Dad wanted me to, after I made up my mind not to chase happiness, I had bitten off more than I could chew.

HoSeok

15 September Year 20

JiMin's mom walked across the emergency room towards the bed. She checked the name tag on the foot of the bed and the dangling IVs above it and removed a dried blade of grass from JiMin's shoulder. I hesitantly walked towards her and bowed. I felt I had to tell her why JiMin ended up in the emergency room and how he had a seizure at the bus stop. JiMin's mom seemed to realize I was there for the first time. But she immediately turned her eyes away after saying a quick thank-you without waiting for me to explain.

It wasn't until the doctors and nurses began to move his bed and I was about to follow that JiMin's mom glanced at me again. She thanked me once again and pushed my shoulder. On second thought, she didn't actually push me. She just placed her hand on my shoulder and quickly removed it. In that fleeting moment, a line was drawn between us. That line was firm and solid. It was cold and undeletable. I'd never be able to cross over that line. I lived at an orphanage for more than ten years. I could recognize lines like that with all my senses, see it in people's eyes, and feel it in the atmosphere.

I stepped back disconcertedly and fell backwards. JiMin's mom just gazed at me blankly. She was small and beautiful, but her shadow was large and chilly. That large shadow cast over me as I sat crumpled on the emergency room floor. When I looked up, JiMin's bed was gone.

JungKook

30 September Year 20

"JungKook, you don't still go there, do you?" I just looked down at the toes of my sneakers. I refused to answer, so the teacher struck my head with the attendance book. I still didn't give in. It was where we hung out. Since I first stepped into that room, not a day had passed without me stopping by. The others wouldn't have known. They had other plans and part-time jobs and didn't always drop by. YoonGi and SeokJin sometimes didn't show up for days. But I was different. I went there without exception. There were days when no one else came. That was fine with me. It was fine because that room was there and because the others would show up later, or tomorrow, or the next day.

"I knew you were hanging out with the wrong crowd." The attendance book hit my head again. When I raised my eyes and stared at the teacher, the attendance book came down again. The scene of YoonGi getting beat flooded my mind. I clenched my teeth and restrained myself. I didn't want to lie and say I didn't go there.

And then I was standing in front of the room. It felt as if the others were there on the other side of the door. When it opens, they'll look back and complain about what took me so long. SeokJin and NamJoon must be reading, TaeHyung must be playing a game, YoonGi must be in front of the piano, and HoSeok and JiMin must be dancing.

But, when I opened the door, only HoSeok was there. He had come to clear out what was left of our things. I stood frozen with my hand on the doorknob. HoSeok came towards me, put his arm over my shoulders, and walked me back outside. "Let's go." The door of the room closed behind us. I realized then and there. Those days were gone and would never come again.

I Must Survive

NamJoon

17 December Year 21

I continued to slow my pace and finally came to a stop. It was dawn in a country village where even the buses didn't run frequently. The entire village was blanketed under luminous snow that had fallen all night. The trees were hunched up like massive white beasts and shed hair-like snow every time the wind blew. I knew without looking back that I was the only one leaving footprints across the snowfield in the village. Both of my feet had long been soaking wet because of the cracked soles of my sneakers. I once heard a saying that God makes us lonely to lead us to Him. [Demian by Hermann Hesse] But I was not lonely. I was not following the path towards myself. This was a retreat. I was running away from myself.

My family arrived in this village last fall. The amount of belongings we brought continued to get smaller each time we moved to a new town. Now we only needed a small delivery van to move. We were in no position to be picky about where we lived. There were only two conditions. One was a hospital for Dad, and the other was an employer who was willing to hire someone without a high school diploma.

This village had both. The bus that ran twice a day stopped in front of the county-run hospital, and a series of small eateries lined the stream behind the town. These eateries sold stew and fries made with small fish caught from the stream, and the summer months were their high season.

Crowds seeking a waterside excursion poured in from nearby cities, and the demand for deliveries to those staying at the village with the rest area on the mountainous ridge was high. During winter, when the stream froze solid, the eateries used preserved fish caught in summer. There were not as many tourists as in the summer, but calls for delivery remained steady. I was one of the town's delivery boys.

Of course, there was competition here, too. Most of the households subsisted on farming, and, as can be guessed, were not that wealthy. Delivery service was the only part­time job available for the boys in town. Eatery owners made us compete against each other. "Isn't it natural that I hire whoever impresses me the most?" For them, it didn't matter that we were minors and didn't have driver's licenses. The boys who'd already been hired acted very territorial. They were only a few, but they threatened me with harsh hazing.

During vacation, the competition became fiercer. We voluntarily and competitively ran errands and took out the trash for the owners. Their connivance only drove us further. And yet, almost unexpectedly, we came to develop a sort of solidarity among us. We were rivals, but we had a sort of sympathy for one another. If one of us didn't show up, the rest wondered what had happened. They also reminded me of the time I spent in that classroom-turned-storage room at high school. Some of them were similar to YoonGi, and some to JiMin. I couldn't help but wonder. If my friends from school had met here in this village, would we have competed against and tried to outrival each other? If I had met these delivery boys at school, would we have become friends?

Snow fell heavily when our competition, territorial instincts, and strange sense of solidarity all reached their peaks. Then the competition subsided instantly. A motor scooter was a must to make deliveries to the village with the rest area, but it was very dangerous to ride a lightweight motorbike along the snow-covered mountainous trail. The trail that led to the village with the rest area was steep and winding. Delivering on foot was not an option.

In the end, it was a showdown between TaeHyung and me. TaeHyung was two years younger and lived on the outskirts of the village near the orchard. TaeHyung wasn't his real name. It was either JongSik or JongHun. But he reminded me of TaeHyung. He didn't have that silly smile or easily open up to anyone with his gentle, naive nature. Rather, he always seemed aggressive, angry, and discontent. On the outside, he appeared similar to YoonGi, but, oddly enough, he reminded me more of TaeHyung.

TaeHyung and I were the only ones wretchedly poor enough to take the risk and keep making deliveries up to that snow-covered mountain town. It was the same that day. When yet another order was phoned in to the eatery, I was roaming around along the stream. No one else had showed up as the weather report forecast heavy snow in the afternoon. TaeHyung appeared a few minutes later. Instead of going into the eatery and chatting as usual, he just flopped down on the ground near the bridge and didn't move. It was one of those days. Those days when his face was cut and bruised. Those days when his eyes were bloodshot and his clothes were stained with blood. Was something wrong with him? Was someone hitting him? I didn't ask.

It began to snow while I was waiting for the food to be prepared. At the same moment I felt something cold brush against my neck, the snow began falling thicker and heavier. "Are you sure you'll be OK?" The owner stuck his head out.

TaeHyung sprang to his feet, and I turned my face towards him. "Of course!" we both answered simultaneously.

"You never know how much more snow will fall from that kind of sky," said the cook from inside the eatery. "It just began to fall. I'll be back in a minute."

The owner looked into my face with a doubtful stare. "But you're still not so good at driving the scooter." TaeHyung came over, saying he had ridden the scooter many times. The owner clicked his tongue when he saw his face. "No, not you today. you go rest."

I didn't miss my opportunity and jumped in. "There's a first time for everything. Today is the first day I make a delivery in the snow. You know I'm very cautious."

The owner gave in. "Come in here. You'll have to make quite a few round trips so be careful."

I could feel TaeHyung's gaze following me behind my back as I stepped into the eatery. He hovered around me while I packed the prepared food and put it into the container. It was odd. TaeHyung was usually too proud to act like this. When I looked back at him, he took a step towards me as if he had something to say. Then, he turned away again. The owner kept nagging me about driving on a snow-covered road. I pretended to listen, enthusiastically nodding my head. Driving a scooter wasn't something that required so much attention, skill, and stress.

Contrary to what I had thought, it wasn't easy climbing the slope through snow flurries on a scooter. The snow hadn't begun sticking on the road, but my nerves were on edge because it was flying in every direction in heavy flakes. The decrepit scooter struggled up the slope. It was as if the scooter was clinging onto me. It was cold, but I was dripping with sweat and all my muscles tightened. The next minute, my sweat dried and I felt a chill on my back. I kept repeating a thought to myself. I have gone up and down this road without any problems all fall and up until early winter. Besides, the snow is not sticking and the road is not slippery.

The scooter slipped helplessly on my way down during the third trip. I had just started to gain confidence and think that I was pretty good at maneuvering the scooter on a snowy day. As the snow had been falling for a while and the road had little traffic, it began to pile up here and there, But it was still OK in the center of the road, and the slope was not that steep. Then, as soon as that thought crossed my mind, the rear wheel slid out. Startled, I clamped down on the brakes tightly. Was I holding them too tightly? This thought filled my head. I think I remembered the owner saying something about the brakes. The owner's warnings that I had listened to half-heartedly raced across my mind. The scooter seemed to regain control for a moment, but the wheels started to fishtail before I could even let out a sigh of relief. In the next breath, I was hurled onto the road. I tumbled down as if the scooter had bounced me off as hard as it could. The scooter slid down the road by itself and must've bumped into something. I heard a loud thud.

I sprang to my feet. I couldn't afford to check if I was injured or where it hurt. I ran to the scooter, which was on its side under a tree off the right side of the road. It was covered with fallen leaves. I picked it up to discover a deep, unmissable scratch at the bottom of its body. I put the key in and turned it. It didn't start. Sweat rolled down the back of my neck. Every joint in my body ached. I was seized with fear. There was no way I could pay for the scooter.

I turned the key again, this time kicking the engine. The engine seemed to rattle and turn over but died just as quickly. I cursed under my breath, shut my eyes, and kicked the ground as hard as I could. My hand, which held the key, couldn't stop trembling. The faces of my parents and brother slid by. I looked up into the sky and collected my wits. I clenched and unclenched my fists. Then, I turned the key again.

The engine finally started up after several attempts. The scooter came alive, sounding like the shrill of a dying animal. I collapsed to the ground. I was drained. The deep scratch was at eye level. I jumped up and rubbed it hard with the toe of my sneaker. It was an old scooter, covered with numerous dents and scratches already. It might go unnoticed.

When I stood upright, one of my ankles tingled with pain. Only then did I start to check my own condition. Fortunately, there were no serious wounds. There was a small cut above my left ankle bone that was bleeding. My thighs and waist might ache the next morning, but I'd been there before.

TaeHyung watched me park the scooter and step inside the eatery. Did he notice? I grew nervous but chatted with the owner as casually as possible. The next delivery order came in soon. I had to go out again before I had even warmed up.

"Hey..." TaeHyung spoke to me as I approached the scooter. Did he see the scratch? I replied in a deliberately loud voice. "What?"

After some hesitation, TaeHyung went on. "I have a favor to ask."

"Favor? What favor?"

That was when my phone rang. I held up one hand to shush him and turned around. It was Mom. Dad had tried to go outside alone and fell. She asked me to take him to the hospital. I shut my eyes. Anger rose from deep within. I clenched my teeth. I could feel my annoyance slowly surging from my stomach. Snowflakes, now noticeably larger, fell on my face. I was going up and down that slippery road in this weather to earn almost nothing. The cut on my left ankle hurt, and my thighs were burning. But I was setting out to ride that scooter again. It was the only way to earn that little bit of money today.

I could understand why he tried to walk alone. It was his last pride as the head of our family and his attempt to keep his dignity as a parent. But we couldn't afford such luxuries in the face of poverty. Dignity, pride, a sense of justice, and morals just led to a greater burden and more money to spend. When I opened my eyes, TaeHyung was staring at me. I handed him the key.

When Dad and I got off the bus from the hospital, the sun had already set. The large snowflakes from earlier had continued to grow and created snowdrifts. The bus crawled along. It took twice as long as usual to get to the hospital and back home. I walked home carrying Dad on my back with no one in sight to hold an umbrella for us. My hair was damp and my hands holding up him were numb with cold.

I took a break under a zelkova tree past the road on the embankment. I caught my breath and looked up. A panoramic view of the village met my eyes. The village blanketed under snow appeared tranquil and peaceful. Warm yellow lights streamed through the windows of different houses here and there. The smell of steamed rice and stew sharpened my appetite. When we entered the alley after crossing the bridge, dogs started barking. Although we had lived in this village for several months now, the dogs still barked at me like a stranger.

Mom sprang up when we came in. "He needs to receive outpatient treatment for at least three more days." I laid Dad in his room and went outside. Still no sign of the snow letting up. "Why do you hate me so much? Let me at least know the reason," I yelled at the dogs barking their heads off.

I heard about TaeHyung's accident the next day.

When I dropped by the eatery along the stream, I saw the owner talking with a police officer. I instinctively froze. I thought he had come for me. I had damaged the scooter on the previous day. I could get in trouble for driving under age and without a driver's license. Should I run back home? But the bus wouldn't come for hours. It just wasn't possible to run away with Dad in his condition.

"Did you hear?" It was the owner of another eatery next door. She said the accident happened when TaeHyung was driving downhill after the delivery. His body was just lying there for more than three hours until someone in a passing car found him. A resident in the town with the rest area called the eatery owner, but no one set out to find him.

The police officer said TaeHyung was an unskilled driver. He also blamed him for not wearing a helmet. I saw a helmet, which I'd never seen before, placed on the counter of the eatery. The owner kept saying that he never forced TaeHyung to go out delivering and even tried to talk him out of it. It was true. TaeHyung and I had insisted that we were OK with it. The neighbors all chipped in. It was a small village where everyone knew everyone else. They had at least a memory or two about everybody there, whether it was about a fist fight, backbiting, or betrayal. A series of episodes about him came flowing out. He lived with his mom and sister and had no dad.

TaeHyung's mom writhed in agony on a bench in front of the eatery and wailed. Bring my son back. Bring my poor, poor son back. It's a wrongful death... At first, the neighbors tried to soothe her and wept with her. But it was cold and the sun set early. In the evening, TaeHyung's mom was left alone and the smell of dinner cooking flowed out through the windows as always. Every time wind blew on the trees lining the stream, snow fell in lumps. She just sat there in the middle of it.

I saw her sitting alone while I was taking Dad home from the hospital. Without realizing it, I stopped walking and remembered the spot of the accident. After hearing about TaeHyung, I had walked along the trail by myself. My breath froze and fell to the ground as ice crystals. TaeHyung's shape drawn in a white outline on the road was half erased. I stopped at his feet. Damp leaves were rolling around, and the grayish traces of calcium chloride were still left behind. That could have been me lying there. If I had made that delivery, if it had been me instead of TaeHyung, then this would be my outline. It could've been my family wailing on that bench instead of TaeHyung's.

I bent my steps after Dad coughed violently. "NamJoon." Dad called to me when we were about to enter the alley after crossing the bridge. As soon as I slowed my pace, the dogs started to bark. Dad continued in a feeble, frail voice. It was hardly audible, lost amidst the fierce barking. I pretended that I had not heard him.

One more week passed. The village quickly returned to normal. TaeHyung's mom sometimes cried bitterly in front of the eatery, but no one shared in her sorrow. People just snubbed TaeHyung's sister until she took her away. Some said it was just a traffic accident. I began to work at another eatery. In fact, I was charged with all deliveries to the village with the rest area. One more heavy snowfall followed, and the trail continued to freeze and thaw. Delivery orders were only trickling in now, but no one applied to do the delivery job. I made five or six deliveries a day, and my income increased that much. I always made sure to wear the helmet and protective gear. I never took my eyes off the road with every nerve at attention.

Last night, I made my last delivery. I didn't know it would be my last at the time, but it was. The rest area closed down for the winter months anyways. When I went up there, people were gathered in the office. They seemed to be discussing the sales of the facility. I didn't recognize some of the faces. They must be strangers who just moved in. While I put down the food and took the money, one of them began to talk about TaeHyung's accident. Another stranger clicked his tongue and mentioned how dangerous it was to ride a motor bike on a snowy day. The stranger who first mentioned TaeHyung's accident warned me to always take extra are. I thanked him for worrying about me. But I didn't mean it. If he was so concerned about the snow-covered slope and my safety, he shouldn't have ordered food in the first place.

"Do you know what's really dangerous?" the stranger blurted out right before I closed the door behind me. "Calcium chloride and wet leaves, not the snow itself. Unless you're a very good driver, you'll skid if you step on them. Didn't it snow that day? Then, he must've..." His last words went unheard as the door closed. I cut across the empty, dismal rest area. I passed the narrow snack bar and the local specialty discount counter and headed for the exit.

I walked down the stairs one at a time. It was below zero, but it didn't feel that cold. The key kept slipping from my fingers, and I kept turning it to no avail. I clenched and unclenched my fist. The old scooter rattled like crazy and finally started. I pulled out of the rest area slowly. A curve began at the rest area signpost. I made a right turn in a wide circle, ran down a short straight section, and came to another curve that wound to the left. This was the spot where I slipped first and then TaeHyung ran into trouble.

I kept my eyes forward and rapidly passed the spot. I tried to convince myself that I wasn't taking my eyes off the road to stay safe, but it was guilt. Guilt for surviving alone. Guilt for feeling relieved that I was the one who was still alive. Guilt for not speaking up to defend his driving skills and for not confessing that I'd never seen a helmet at the eatery. Maybe I was just a hypocrite pretending to have a guilty conscience.

I had scattered the wet leaves on the spot where TaeHyung went down. I didn't mean for it to happen, but I was responsible for all of it. I was the one who'd sprinkled the calcium chloride. With good intentions, to prevent the road from icing over. In fact, I did it for myself because I truly believed that I'd make the next delivery and the one after that. "Do you know what's really dangerous?" What I'd heard at the rest area replayed in my mind. "He must've ridden over it and slipped." If I'd removed the leaves, if I hadn't sprinkled calcium chloride, would he have been safe?

Several people were already at the bus stop, waiting for the first bus of the day. I nodded my head in greeting and then kept it bent. I tried not to make eye contact with anyone. The first bus of the day came into sight.

The bus gradually came to a stop. With my head bent low, I boarded it after the other passengers. I didn't have a specific plan. I was just sneaking away. From Mom's exhausted face. From my brother going astray. From Dad struggling against his illness. From our family's fortune going downhill. From my family requiring sacrifice and obedience from me. From me trying to resign to my fate. And, most of all, from poverty. Poverty eats into the heart of life. It turns what's precious into something meaningless. It makes you doubt, fear, and despair.

Last night, I left the rest area, dropped by the eatery, and then went home. I don't remember who I met and what I talked and thought about in between. My entire body and mind felt numb. I couldn't tell whether it was windy, whether it was cold, how it smelled, or who I ran into. My brain seemed to have frozen. I was moving mechanically like a zombie, oblivious of who I am, what I've done, what I'm doing, and what I'm thinking.

It was the barking dogs that shook me out of it at the mouth of the alley leading home. In that moment, all my senses, which had been paralyzed, awoke at once and countless scenes from my past spread before my eyes: the days of hopping from one place to another, the moment I slipped on the road, me crawling to the eatery owner and competing with the other boys to land the delivery jobs, the boys who laughed at me, and me looking at my peers in their school uniforms waiting for the bus. The sound of the barking dogs and the sight of their threatening eyes filled with hatred were added to these scenes.

I almost screamed, "Stop it! What do you want me to do?" But I held myself back. Dad's voice rang in my ears. Dad's feeble, frail voice. I thought of what he had told me that night we came home from the hospital, what I pretended not to hear but heard clear as day through the barking of dogs. What I had dwelled on over and over since that day. What I had tried not to think about. "Go, NamJoon. You must survive."

The bus departed, set to arrive in Songju a few hours later. I didn't leave a message when I left Songju one year ago. Now I'm returning to the city with any notice. I thought of my friends. I haven't kept in touch with any of them. I wondered what they were doing and if they were still there. I couldn't see outside through the window covered with frost. I slowly wrote on the window with my forefinger.

"I must survive."

What to Look for When Lost

Recommended:
Read the
prologue and episodes 1-4 of the Save Me Webtoon here.

HoSeok

2 March Year 22

I liked mingling with people. As soon as I left the orphanage, I started working at Two Star Burger as a part-timer. I had to deal with countless people, smile constantly, and always look energetic. I loved that job. There'd been few things that made me smile or feel energetic in my life. I came across many more bad people than good people. That must've been why I enjoyed that job so much. While always squeezing out a laugh, deliberately speaking in a higher tone, and pretending to be cheerful in front of the customers, I actually did change. I felt better after laughing out loud and became more kind-hearted through working hard to serve customers in a friendly way.

Of course, there were tough days. It took all my energy to take each step on my way home at the end of the day. Sometimes I suffered from bullying customers. But I just smiled and laughed. Laughing gave me new energy.

I graduated from high school in February. A high school diploma didn't bring much change. It only let me work more hours at the burger joint. I made a little bit more money, but it still wasn't enough to move to a better room. With the start of the new semester, Two Star Burger was crowded with freshmen looking dazed and upperclassmen trying to look mature. They were all cute. We used to be like them once. What are the others up to? I thought of them from time to time.

The last time I saw SeokJin was the beginning of summer vacation. He seemed to be avoiding me so I kept my distance. I heard later that he transferred to another school. YoonGi, as usual, didn't respond to our calls and no one knew what happened to NamJoon. TaeHyung, who was particularly fond of NamJoon, began to ditch school at some point and was said to be in and out of the police station for drawing graffiti on the street. JungKook occasionally appeared in front of the glass door of the burger joint. It seemed like he was always getting into fights as he usually had cuts and bruises on his face. As for JiMin, the last time I saw him was when he was wheeled out of the emergency room. The memories of that day frequently crossed my mind and haunted me. Did I do something wrong? Did I miss something?

Another customer stepped into the store. I inhaled deeply and greeted him in a high tone. I smiled a big smile and looked towards the door. It was someone I knew.

TaeHyung

29 March Year 22

After the owner of the gas station spit on the ground and left I just continued to lie there bunched up on the ground He had caught me drawing graffiti on the back wall, and he beat me mercilessly. I thought I was used to getting hit, but it turned out I wasn't.

I started spray-painting graffiti some time ago. I thoughtlessly sprayed paint on a wall from a can someone had thrown away. The yellow paint sprayed onto a gray wall stood out distinctly. The sight felt oddly uneasy. I picked up another paint can and sprayed it over the yellow paint. I didn't like it either. Soon, I had used up all the cans. After the last one ran out, I threw it on the ground and stepped back. I was out of breath as if I had just sprinted at full speed.

I didn't know what the colors on the wall signified. I also didn't know what I had drawn and why I had drawn it. But I could tell that it showed the state of my mind. I had sprayed my mind onto the wall. At first, I thought it was ugly. And dirty. And stupid, useless, and pitiful. I didn't like it. I rubbed at the wet paint with the palm of my hand. I wanted to erase it all. The layers of paint smudged and blended together to create more combinations of colors. But I couldn't erase them. I sat down and leaned against the wall. It didn't matter whether I liked it or not. It didn't matter whether it was ugly or beautiful. It was just there as a part of me.

I sat upright and began to cough. Blood splattered onto the palm of my hand. Someone's hand picked up a spray can. I raised my head following the hand, and a familiar face came into sight. It was NamJoon. He held out his hand. I just kept looking up at him. NamJoon pulled me up. His hand was warm.

YoonGi

7 April Year 22

I stopped at the sound of a clumsy piano performance. In the dead of night, a fire in a metal drum made crackling sounds in the middle of an empty construction site. I recognized the tune as one I'd been playing not long ago but made little of it. I walked along carelessly with my eyes closed. I was drunk, staggering and stumbling. With the heat from the fire, the sound of the piano, the night air, and the effect of alcohol all melted away.

I came to at the sound of loud honking. The car had just barely missed me. The dazzling lights of the headlamps, the wind stirred up by the car, and the remaining buzz of the alcohol all made me feel giddy. I heard the driver curse. I was about to hurl some back when I realized I couldn't hear the piano anymore. No piano, only the crackling of the blazing fire, the whining wind, and the sound of cars zipping by. Why had it stopped? Who was playing?

A flame jumped out of the drum with a crack and flew up into the dark sky. I looked blankly at the flame turning to pitch-black ash and falling to the ground. My face flushed from the heat of the fire. At that moment, I heard a loud bang, as if someone had slammed down on the piano keys with his fists. I looked back instinctively. My blood surged through my body. The nightmare I'd had in my childhood. It was the same sound I'd heard in that nightmare.

I started running towards the music shop. I wasn't in control, my body just moved on its own. I felt as if I'd done this countless times. I wasn't sure what it was, but it seemed like I'd forgotten something priceless.

Someone was sitting in front of a piano in the music shop with a broken window. It'd been several years, but I recognized his face immediately. I turned my eyes away. I didn't want to get involved in someone else's life. I didn't want to try to console someone who was lonely. I didn't want to be important for someone. I wasn't sure I could protect that someone till the end. I wasn't confident I could stand by that someone till the end. I didn't want to hurt that someone. I didn't want to get hurt. It's hard enough for us to try to save ourselves when the last moment comes, let alone someone else.

I bent my steps. I was going to turn away and leave without looking back. But I was approaching the piano before I knew it. I pointed out the wrong note. JungKook looked up at me. It was the first time we'd seen each other since I dropped out of school.

SeokJin

11 April Year 22

With a sharp screech, the car barely stopped in time. I didn't see the traffic light change, distracted by other thoughts. Students clad in familiar school uniforms stared at me through the car window as they crossed the road. Some looked at me angrily, some laughed briskly as if making jokes with their friends, some walked with their eyes fixed on their books, and some took a look around while talking on the phone. They all formed a peaceful scene.

When the "walk" signal began to flash, impatient cars budged and stirred. Those who jumped into the crosswalk at the last minute hurried across. I stepped on the accelerator.

I arrived at the intersection with the gas station in no time. I saw NamJoon filling up a car in the distance. I clenched the steering wheel. I knew what to do, but it didn't mean that I wasn't frightened. Would I be able to put an end to this string of bad luck and pain? Doesn't repeated failure mean there's no possibility of success? Doesn't it mean we should give up? Is happiness really a vain hope for us? My head was throbbing with these thoughts.

I inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly. I thought of the faces of YoonGi, HoSeok, JiMin, TaeHyung, and JungKook one after another. I changed lanes and pulled into the gas station.

NamJoon was approaching. I lowered the car window. "Long time no see!"

NamJoon

11 April Year 22

As I finished filling up a car and turned around, something brushed against my cheek and fell to the ground. I took a step back and looked down to find a crumpled banknote at my feet. I bent down and reached for it. The people in the snickered. I was petrified. SeokJin was watching me in the distance. I couldn't look up. What would I do when I met the eyes of those who drive around in fancy cars and arrogantly sneer at others? I should stand against them. I should stand up for myself if they treat me unfairly. It wasn't a matter of courage, pride, or equality. It was just a matter of course.

But this was a gas station, and I was a part-timer. I had to pick up the trash thrown out of car windows. I had to just stand there and take it when customers cursed. I had to pick up the banknotes when customers threw them on the ground. I'd lived that way all my life. It was mortifying, but I had to endure it. I clenched my fists. My nails sank into my flesh.

I kept my eyes fixed on the ground when someone else picked up the banknote. The people in the car grumbled at their spoiled fun and pulled away. They were gone but I didn't raise my head. I just couldn't meet SeokJin's eyes. He already knew how cowardly and poor I was. But I didn't want him to know the naked truth about me. He just stood there on the edge of my sight. He didn't come closer or start talking.

JungKook

11 April Year 22

Finally, I got my wish. I deliberately bumped into thugs on the street and they beat me thoroughly. I laughed while they did it, so they clobbered me even more, calling me crazy. I leaned against a store shutter and looked up into the sky. It was night. Nothing twinkled in the pitch-black sky. A clump of grass came into sight off in the distance by a paved road. When the wind blew, the grass lay down on its back. It looked like me. I laughed out loud to keep my tears down.

I closed my eyes and saw a vivid image of my stepfather clearing his throat. My stepbrother giggled. My stepfather's relatives turned their eyes away or continued their idle talk. They acted as if I weren't there, as if my existence meant nothing. Mom was flustered. I stirred up dust as I picked myself up off the ground and coughed. The pit of my stomach hurt like I'd been stabbed with a knife.

It was a deserted, unfinished building where construction had been halted. I tightrope-walked along the guard rail installed on the rooftop with my arms spread out. I stretched my foot out into the void, and the darkness began to permeate through my toes. The colorful nightscape of the city unfolded down below me. Neon signs, honking cars, and the acrid smell of dust were all jumbled up together in the darkness in a swirling torrent. I felt dizzy and staggered.

As I spread arms out even wider to keep my balance, a thought came to me. Just one more step forward. That's all it'd take to end this. I leaned over towards the dark void. The darkness that seeped into my toes sprag up at me as if it'd gobble my entire body up. I closed my eyes, and the disorderly city, the noise, and the fear all disappeared. I held my breath and slowly leaned over again. I cleared my head. I didn't think of anyone. I didn't want to leave anything in my head. I didn't want to remember anything. This was the end.

My phone rang. I came back to myself as if awakened from a long dream. All my senses instantly returned to normal. I took out my phone. It was YoonGi.

YoonGi

11 April Year 22

I walked on, paying attention to JungKook's footsteps following behind me. A string of containers appeared along the long stretch of railroad. "It's the fourth one from the end." HoSeok said he was meeting with NamJoon and TaeHyung and told me to come. I said I would, but I didn't really mean it. I hated getting tangled up with others, and HoSeok knew it. He couldn't have thought that I'd actually show up.

When I opened the door, HoSeok looked surprised. Then, after seeing JungKook, he came towards us, making that exaggerated gesture of his with a face full of mixed feelings. JungKook turned away, probably to hide his busted lips. I passed JungKook and HoSeok and walked into the container. "How long has it been?" HoSeok, who was trying to hug JungKook, and JungKook, who was trying to sidestep his hug, continued to spar with each other.

After a little while, NamJoon came in with TaeHyung. TaeHyung's T-shirt was ripped. We asked what happened, and NamJoon pretended to knuckle TaeHyung on the head. "This guy got arrested again for his graffiti, so I had to get him out." TaeHyung went on about how his T-shirt got ripped as he was trying to run away from the police.

I flopped down in one corner and looked at them. NamJoon gave TaeHyung a T-shirt to put on, and HoSeok took out hamburgers and drinks. JungKook was standing there awkwardly looking around. Come to think of it, we were just like this back in high school. In that classroom-turned-storage room, NamJoon always got laughed at while trying to reason with TaeHyung, HoSeok was always bustling around, and JungKook always paced around like he never knew where to stand.

How long had it been? I couldn't recall the last time we'd all been together. What happened to SeokJin and JiMin? I wondered, although it wasn't in my character. I'd never been here before, but it felt strangely comfortable. I looked out the door. Suddenly, I felt an urge to run out of this place. A mysterious anxiety flooded in after that inexplicable peacefulness. My thoughts settled on that room we used as a hideout in high school. We used to laugh and chat together, but those days were long gone. Likewise, the time we spend here will come to an end. Is there any point to this good feeling, sudden sense of belonging, and groundless anticipation?

SeokJin

11 April Year 22

The light streaming in from the narrow window of the container looked like some kind of signal. A signal that guides us when we're lost, a signal that points to shelter when we have nowhere to go, and a signal that illuminates the friends that stand by us. I parked my car at a corner a little way off from the railroad and watched the others gather following the signal. HoSeok first went into the container, followed by YoonGi, JungKook, TaeHyung, and NamJoon. What do they look like now? What are they talking about now? It wasn't that I didn't want to meet them. But this was only the beginning. The time wasn't ripe yet. Someday, we'll all get together again. We'll laugh together amidst that signal. This is as far as I'll go today. I turned my car around.

NamJoon

28 April Year 22

I knew something was wrong with TaeHyung. Although he pretended to be fine, his anxiety came through in his behavior, expressions, and voice no matter how hard he tried. It wasn't about getting arrested for graffiti. To TaeHyung, graffiti was a game, it was fun. The wounds and bruises that sometimes color his face must be from his violent dad, but that wasn't the reason either. When his face was battered, TaeHyung exaggerated even more, acting jovial and talking nonstop.

TaeHyung seemed to be in a nightmare. I didn't press him to talk about it because I decided to wait until he was ready. I also doubted that I was qualified to be the one to listen to his troubles. I tried to act like a big brother and pretended to be mature, but I wasn't there when the others were going through their most difficult times. They said I was mature and grownup, but that wasn't true.

TaeHyung reminded me of what I experienced in that country village. In fact, the two had nothing in common. I was aware of that when I was living in that country village. But that boy had reminded me of TaeHyung, just as TaeHyung now reminds me of him. "I have a favor to ask." What was the favor? Did the scooter really skid on damp leaves? Were the dogs still barking their heads off? What about my parents? I shook my head. I stood up to force those thoughts to scatter. Just as I was about to step out of the container, TaeHyung began tossing and turning like he was having a nightmare.

TaeHyung awoke with a start when I shook his shoulders and sat there absent-mindedly for a long time. He just let his tears run down his face and rambled on. He said YoonGi died, JungKook fell off the rooftop, and I got caught in a fight. He said he had had that dream repeatedly. It was so vivid that it felt like reality and reality felt like a dream. "Don't leave me." The face of that boy in the country village was superimposed on TaeHyung's face. I couldn't bring myself to give him an answer. I couldn't bring myself to say that he didn't need to worry because I wasn't going anywhere.

The Things with Wings*

* "Hope" Is the Thing with Feathers by Emily Dickinson

Recommended:
Read
episodes 5-8 of the Save Me Webtoon here.

SeokJin

2 May Year 22

I was so nervous that my fingers stiffened. I clenched and unclenched my fists. What if I fail? I'd done this but I felt terrified each time. I took a slow, deep breath and thought about YoonGi. He must be drunk by now, clicking his lighter with one hand and holding his phone with the other. He might be lying on the couch, contemplating the reasons why he should go on living. Or the reasons not to.

How does YoonGi see the world and himself? I faced this question every time I tried to save him. I couldn't understand how he could keep trying to destroy himself. It didn't mean I was overjoyed living in this world or that each and every day of my life was filled with happiness. In fact, I was never captivated by anything, not even by life and death.

Looking back, I was no different when I first started all this. Would I be able to straighten out the errors and mistakes and save all of us? I didn't grasp the depth and weight of this question. It was true that I desperately wanted to save all of us. No one deserves to die, to despair, to be suppressed, and to be despised. On top of that, they were my friends. We might've had our flaws and scars and have been twisted up and distorted. We might've been nobodies. But we were alive. We had days to live, plans to follow, and dreams to fulfill.

At first, I didn't think much of it. I thought it'd all depend on how much effort I put in after I figured out who I needed to save and from what. That was what I'd thought. I believed I could solve it all by persuading them and changing things. I was that simple and naive. But it was no more than an attempt to save my own skin. After a series of trials and errors, I had a realization. It wasn't so simple to save the others.

YoonGi wasn't easy to handle. He was probably the most difficult of all. He was always changing the time and place of his attempts at suicide. I had to approach him differently than the others. A solution that worked fine the last time didn't work the next time. Just when I thought I'd finally unraveled one mystery, it led to another hitch.

At first, I couldn't put my finger on his reasons. After everything, all I could guess was that YoonGi's distress was connected to his inner conflict. NamJoon got caught in a fight because of those rude customers at the gas station. But YoonGi was different. He had no definite target and no definite cause. He had too many variables.

I tried to imagine what was going on in YoonGi's head. Once, I followed him secretly for hours. His footsteps were insecure and unpredictable. He staggered through the night streets and tried to fling himself into the fire. He sometimes squatted on the ground and listened to music that flowed out of somewhere inside an underground shopping arcade. After a night of following him, I realized how dry, dull and flat my own life was. It wasn't that I envied YoonGi. The suffering he must have endured, going from one extreme to the other, was beyond my imagination. All I could do was watch him stagger on.

One setback was always followed by another. A new layer of despair came down even before the previous one was stripped. I might not be able to save YoonGi after all. I couldn't find a breakthrough. But at that moment, hope flew in. I once heard that hope had wings. It was a little bird with wings.

A bird flew into YoonGi's workroom, which was in an abandoned building in the middle of a redevelopment neighborhood. It'd been decided to demolish the neighborhood a long time ago, but it was left deserted when the redevelopment plan stalled. The bird flew in through a broken window. YoonGi was standing in the middle of the workroom with a lighter in his hand. The entire workroom smelled strongly of gasoline. I was standing right outside the door. I was about to jump in when I heard a big thud and the flapping of wings. The door was half open, so I peeked through. YoonGi had his back to me.

The bird collapsed on the floor. It fluttered its wings again but failed to rise into the air. YoonGi stood completely still and looked down at the bird. I still couldn't see his face. The bird flopped around the workroom in search of a way out. It bumped its wings into the wall and the chair, and the feathers that fell out drifted around on the floor. YoonGi was just gazing at it. His hand holding the lighter still hung in the air. He finally dropped his arm, sank down, and covered his head with both hands.

I went into his workroom that night. It was spacious but desolate. A dirty sofa, chair, and piano were all I could find there. Crumpled pieces of paper were scattered all over the floor. He must've tried to start a fire. Some of them looked like lines of music, with sentences of lyrics scribbled on them.

I looked around. I found the thing with wings. The bird was crouching behind the piano, with dried blood around the wounds on its wings. It seemed petrified and cowered in fear when I came near. Tiny drops of blood were smeared on the floor. Bread crumbs and water were set out in front of the piano.

I took a step back. Even if I let it out the window, it wouldn't be able to fly yet. How long would it take for the wounds to heal? Would YoonGi remain safe and sound while the bird was staying here? Then, a thought came to my mind. YoonGi must've stopped himself because of this. This wounded little bird. A fragile thing that couldn't protect or save itself. A tiny being that entrusted its life to YoonGi.

After that day, I had a realization. If all the variables related to YoonGi's suicidal attempts existed within YoonGi, why not drag at least one of them out? I'd have to seek the right target and create the right situation. A variable that could give YoonGi a reason to stop destroying himself. Someone who could share his scar and desires. That someone wasn't me. "It's not something you can do alone." I became painfully aware of the full meaning of these words I'd heard not long after all this started.

I realized that JungKook had the same look in his eyes as YoonGi when NamJoon said it. "JungKook still has that photo." He meant the photo we took together on the beach in high school. NamJoon seemingly wanted to let me know that JungKook was still thinking of me, but I was reminded of a completely different scene.

On the day we went looking for that rock that made dreams come true, we laughed, complained, and played under the scorching sun. And, devastated at finding that the rock had vanished, I cried out my dream, which even I couldn't hear, to the sea.

At that moment, I saw JungKook yelling some question at YoonGi. I couldn't hear what he was saying, but I could sense that it was important to JungKook. What did he ask YoonGi? Why him? I hadn't given it a second thought back then. YoonGi was not as lively as HoSeok, not as friendly as JiMin, and not as reliable as Namjoon. Why was it YoonGi? I suddenly realized. It was YoonGi who saved JungKook. The two had the same look in their eyes.

It wasn't difficult to send JungKook to YoonGi. JungKook was alone at school and at home. He had nowhere to go after school. He usually spent his time at HoSeok's burger joint or wandered around NamJoon's container. I locked the door of the container and made HoSeok leave the store before JungKook dropped by. After roaming around for quite a while, JungKook finally headed for YoonGi's workroom. He seemed to have mixed feelings. Should I go in? What if he thinks I'm annoying? Expectation and fear both swirled across JungKook's face.

Since that day he visited YoonGi's workroom every day. At first, YoonGi flatly told him to go away but he didn't really mean it.

A shadow appeared shortly. It was JungKook. I burrowed myself deeper into the seat. They didn't know I was back yet. Except NamJoon, who I met at the gas station. NamJoon said everybody would be thrilled, but I refused to meet them. I was waiting for the right moment. I had to wait until all of us were together.

Maybe we were tied up together with strings and supporting one another. It wasn't easy to trace this web of strings. It was like an intricate maze. When some strings and knots were figured out, other parts snapped. When one string was pulled too tightly, everything collapsed in an instant. I had to connect the dots, one string with another, closely observing the others, to get them to save one another without realizing it.

JungKook stopped in front of YoonGi's workroom and looked up at the second floor. He didn't look too cheerful. YoonGi had gone through a difficult time over the past ten days. He had been drinking heavily and tormenting himself. I pushed JungKook into this depth of agony. YoonGi's suffering must've been too overwhelming for JungKook. Once, JungKook gave up on YoonGi. Back then, YoonGi threw himself into the flames. But cruelly, YoonGi didn't die. JungKook never forgave himself for failing to stop him.

About ten minutes had passed since JungKook went into YoonGi's workroom. The sound of something shattering came out of the second-floor window, and YoonGi, with busted lips, appeared at the entrance of the building, staggering. He hurried down the sloping road. I looked up at the window on the second floor. JungKook must be sitting up there by the shattered mirror. He must be thinking he couldn't save YoonGi. He must be thinking it was hopeless.

I started the car after seeing JungKook run out of the building. YoonGi must be heading to the motel down the block. I should leave a clue for JungKook to YoonGi's whereabouts. That was all I could do. I dropped some blood­ stained tissue near the gate of the motel.

Sitting in the car I saw JungKook climbing the stairs of the motel. I left a photo in front of the mirror in YoonGi's workroom early this morning. It was the photo of all of us taken that day we went to the beach. Did JungKook see the photo? I couldn't know if JungKook followed YoonGi because of that photo, if JungKook decided to give it a try seeing a small seed of hope, or if JungKook was motivated by something else.

I wasn't sure how JungKook could save YoonGi. That decisive moment in life, that last moment for each of us, including JungKook and YoonGi, can't be interfered with. It can only be shared by those who suffer the same wound, understand each other's fears, dreams, and defeats, and therefore see through each other to the core.

I looked up at the motel window. I wondered what JungKook and YoonGi were talking about in there. And I desperately wished that the thing with wings would be able to take off into the sky from there.

YoonGi

2 May Year 22

The sheet caught fire and instantly flared up. Everything dingy and shabby died away in the unbearable heat. The musty smell, the depressing dampness, and the dark and dismal light were no longer recognizable. Only pain was left. Physical pain that seemed to boil in the flames. My fingertips felt as if they were melting down with blisters forming. Dad's expressionless face and the sound of music dispersed into the air.

I was different than him. Dad didn't understand me and I didn't understand him. If I tried, would I've been able to persuade him? I don't think so. All I could do was hide, defy, and run away. Sometimes I felt like it wasn't him I was trying to break free from. At such moments, fear rushed over me. What am I running away from then? What does it take to escape from myself? Everything looked hopeless.

I thought I heard someone calling me but I didn't turn my head. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't move. But I knew. It was JungKook. He must've gotten mad. He would mourn for me. I just wanted to flop down. I wanted to put an end to the smoke, heat, pain, and fear. JungKook shouted something, but I still couldn't hear. Everything before my eyes fell apart. It was the last moment. I lifted my head. My last sight of this world was this dirty, isolated room, the red-hot flames and rolling head, and JungKook's twisted face.

JungKook

2 May Year 22

I looked up and found myself in front of the container. I opened the door and went inside. I lay down curled up and covered myself with all the clothes I could find. I felt cold and my body trembled. It was hard to pull myself together and lie still. I felt like crying, but tears wouldn't come.

The scene of YoonGi standing amidst the flames kept replaying in my mind. Flames blazed up from the sheet. I couldn't think. I didn't know what to do. I wasn't a good talker. I couldn't even express my own feelings let alone persuade someone else. Tears welled up and a cough lodged in my throat. It became even harder to speak. The only words I could utter as I jumped into the flames were, "I thought we were all going to the sea together."

"What's wrong? Are you having a nightmare?" Someone shook my shoulder. I opened my eyes to find NamJoon. A sense of relief overcame me. NamJoon put his hand on my forehead and told me I had a fever. It was true. The inside of my mouth felt like it was burning up, but it was freezing cold at the same time. My head ached and my throat was sore. I could barely swallow the pills NamJoon brought me. "Go back to sleep. We'll talk later."

I nodded. Then I asked him, "Will I be able to grow into an adult like you?"

The Topmost Floor In the City

Recommended:
Read
episodes 9-12 of the Save Me Webtoon here.

HoSeok

10 May Year 22

My narcolepsy occurred anytime, anywhere. I collapsed without warning while working and blacked out suddenly on the street. I pretended that I wasn't so concerned about it in front of those who worried about me. I'd never told anyone that I couldn't bear to count to ten.

I always ended up having dreams about Mom when I blacked out. The dreams were all alike. I was heading somewhere with Mom on a bus. I was excited and cheerful. I read the signs that passed by, watched her profile, and kept fidgeting. I was about 7 in my dreams.

Then, it suddenly crossed my mind. Mom had left me. I was 20 when I realized that. Mom was still sitting in the seat in front of me on the bus. She looked exactly the same from behind. When I whispered "Mom," she turned her head as if she heard me. Her silhouette glimmered against the bright sunlight and her hair fluttered in the wind just like at the amusement park that day. The saddest part was that I knew. I knew that I would awake from this dream if she turned her head further and looked at me.

I tried to tell her not to turn around, but my voice failed. I kept trying to shout. "Mom, don't turn around. Don't turn around." But she always turned around and looked at me. Just when our eyes were about to meet, everything turned white, and the pale fluorescent light on the ceiling of the hospital room appeared.

It was the same today. When I opened my eyes, the first thing that came into sight was the fluorescent light on the ceiling. I was changed into a patient gown. The doctor said I seemed to have had a concussion and needed a more thorough check. I was moved to a six-person hospital room. I felt exhausted. I always felt exhausted when I regained consciousness.

JiMin

11 May Year 22

I was transferred to the surgery ward about two weeks ago. At first, it felt strange to see people coming and going so freely. Soon, I found that it was just another part of the hospital. There were patients, nurses, and doctors. I was given drugs and injections. All in all, it was about the same as the psychiatric ward. The only difference was that the surgery ward had a longer hallway with a lounge halfway down. Of course, there was one more major difference. I was allowed to freely roam around the ward. At night, I sneaked out of my room and wandered around. I jumped and danced in the lounge and ran down the first-floor hallway at full speed. These were simple joys that weren't allowed in the psychiatric ward.

One day, I discovered something strange about myself while I was running down the hall. At some point past the kitchenette and emergency staircase, my body just came to a grinding halt for no reason. I still had about five more steps to reach the end, but I stopped and was unable to take another step. At the end of the hallway was a door. The door opened to the outside world. Outside the hospital. The door had no "Off Limits" sign, and no one came running to stop me. But I just couldn't go any further.

I soon found out why. That was the stretch of the hallway just like the psychiatric ward. As if a line was drawn on the floor, I came to a stop at exactly that point where the psychiatric ward hallway would've ended.

They called me a good kid in the psychiatric ward. I sometimes had seizures but mostly I was obedient. I smiled and went on lying without anyone being the wiser. And I knew my limit. The hallway of the psychiatric ward could be covered in 24 even strides. When I was first hospitalized, I was 8. I cried and demanded to go home with Mom, holding onto the iron door at the end of that hallway. I frantically tried to open the door until the nurses came running and gave me an injection. For a while, the nurses tensed up whenever I stepped into the hall. Now, no one paid attention to me even if I ran down the hall and reached the door. I already knew that the door was locked anyways. I just kept running down to the door and coming back. I no longer begged them to open the door or wept.

But the world is full of people more idiotic than me. They held and shook the door endlessly. They were suppressed by the staff, given injections, and tied to their beds. If they had behaved just a bit more acceptably, their lives could've become much more comfortable. Those idiots didn't know any better.

I wasn't like this in the beginning. I was also dropped senseless by the sedatives forcefully injected by the nurses and got caught trying to escape from the hospital in the early days. I called Mom, crying violently enough to go hoarse several times. "I'm not sick. I'm OK now. Please come and take me home. I stayed up all night for several days, but Mom didn't come.

When I was taken to the hospital after they found me unconscious at the Grass Flower Arboretum, my parents didn't ask any questions. They ignored the fact that I had blacked out there. It was the same when I developed seizures. They hospitalized me, discharged me after some time, and transferred me to another school. Family reputation was important to them. A son with mental illness was unacceptable.

I didn't become a good kid overnight. There was no dramatic event or memorable incident. I just continued to give up on myself bit by bit, just as a fingernail grows. I stopped crying and longing to go outside at some point. I stopped dashing towards the door down the hallway.

I attended school in between hospital stays, but I knew I'd be sent back eventually. It felt refreshing to look up into the sky and enjoy the fragrance of each season. But I tried not to hold them in my memory. They'd soon be kept from me anyway. Friends, too. A history of mental illness was not helpful in making friends.

There was one exception. I met a group who felt like true friends. It was almost two years ago. I tried not to remember them, but I couldn't help recalling those days. I had to part with them after I had a seizure at the bus stop after school. The last scene I remembered was the window of the Grass Flower Arboretum shuttle bus opening. That's when I blacked out.

When I opened my eyes, I was at a hospital. Mom was over in the corner talking on her phone. My mind whirled for a while. I didn't know where I was or how I got there. I gazed around and discovered windows with metal bars. Then, it all came back to me. The blue sky I saw on my way home, the silly games we played at the bus stop, the arboretum shuttle bus coming closer, and the glares through the bus windows.

I shut my eyes. But it was too late. The front gate of the arboretum appeared before my eyes. It was school picnic day in first grade. I was running through heavy rain with my backpack over my head. A warehouse came into sight. The door was left open. I stepped inside. The sticky, musty smell, the sound of my heavy breathing, and the screechy, metallic sound.

I sat up in my bed and screamed. "No! I don't remember! I forgot!" Mom came running, calling out to someone. I shook my head violently. I swung my arms in every direction to get rid of that smell, touch, sound, and sight. But the memories came flooding in. The dam that had held them back the past ten years collapsed and every detail of that day surged through my mind, eyes, cells, and nails as if it was happening again. I had a seizure and was given an injection. The drug flowed through my blood vessels, and I quickly dozed off. I closed my eyes and wished that this was all a dream and that, when I awoke again, I wouldn't be able to recall anything.

That wish was just a wish. Instead, a cycle of seizures, injections, and injection-induced sleep that felt like falling off a cliff continued. After I awoke from that sleep, my whole body felt like it was covered with mud. Mud that looked like blood. No matter how hard I tried to wash it off, that warehouse smell lingered. I scrubbed until I bled, but it still felt dirty.

When the doctor asked me about it in a concerned tone, I trembled and apologized at first. I repeatedly said that I was sorry. It was all my fault. Please let me forget all about it. Then, I tried to pretend nothing had happened. I didn't know what he was talking about. I didn't remember anything. So I gazed at the doctor and smiled. "I don't remember anything." Did the doctor actually believe me? I wasn't sure. But what was important was that I became a good kid. My life at the hospital was peaceful. It was an ideal place to idle my time away. I didn't long for anything and didn't feel constrained, scared, or lonely.

That was, until last night. Before I met HoSeok again.

I was transferred to the surgery ward because I fought with the idiot who kept trying to get to the door at the end of the hallway despite the nurses' constraint. Both of us were injured and were put into two different rooms on the fifth floor of the surgery ward. I was put in a six-person room. My bed was in the middle, and the patients on either side changed frequently.

I woke up in the middle of the night. The patient next to me seemed to be having a nightmare and continued to groan. The groaning sound came from the bed on my left. I pulled the blanket over my head. I was sick and tired of nightmares. I didn't need to hear this. I tried to put up with it for a while, but his nightmare went on and on. Finally, I got up and stepped over to his bed. I tapped his shoulder and tried to help. "It's OK. It's just a dream."

I found out this morning that that patient was HoSeok. I drew the curtains for my breakfast, and HoSeok was sitting on the bed next to mine. He seemed glad to see me again. Was I glad, too? Probably, in one corner of my mind. He had hung out with me and taken care of me, a transfer who was a complete stranger at school. He also took the long way home with me after school. I still recalled the days when we used to walk home with popsicles in our hands. But he was also the one who saw my seizure at the bus stop before I came here. He was the one who brought me to this hospital. He must've run into Mom. I didn't want to explain my situation to him.

I got out of the room with my meal left untouched. HoSeok seemed to follow me, but I knew every corner of this hospital. He couldn't catch up with me. I roamed around the hospital all day long. From the stairs, I saw the others, even JungKook, when they came to see HoSeok. They hadn't changed much.

All that afternoon, I climbed up and down the stairs and hung around on the other floors. I leaned against the window at the end of the hallway and counted the passing cars. I grew upset. I had skipped all my meals, and there wasn't anywhere to sit and relax comfortably. It was annoying to hear the peals of laughter coming from my room. I got angrier because I couldn't figure out why I was so angry. I came back to my bed late at night. "Where've you been?" he asked me casually. Then, he handed me a piece of bread.

It must've been because I was starving. The bread was warm and delicious. I couldn't help confessing to him. That I'd long been confined in the psychiatric ward. That I was briefly transferred to the surgery ward but would be sent back soon. That I wouldn't be discharged in the near future. That, as he witnessed, I was a person who had seizures on the street. That I was a patient who might be dangerous. I didn't want to add the last part. But I thought it'd stop him from criticizing me.

He paused for a minute. Then, he took away my bread. "JiMin, don't exaggerate. Don't you know that I have narcolepsy? I can black out anytime or anywhere. Am I dangerous, too?" He took a bite of my bread. I just froze, not knowing what to say. Then he said, "What? You want this back?" He bit into the bread again and returned it to me. I took it back right away. He asked me again. "Are seizures infectious? Narcolepsy isn't. Don't worry." He hadn't changed a bit.

HoSeok

12 May Year 22

I opened the emergency exit and darted down the stairs. My heart was hammering in my chest. I definitely caught sight of Mom in the hallway. As soon as I looked back, the elevator door opened and a crowd of people poured out. Mom vanished from my view. I desperately jostled through the crowd and saw her going through the emergency exit in the distance. I followed her into the emergency staircase and ran down the stairs two at a time. I went down several flights without a break.

"Mom!" Mom stopped. I took one more hurried step. She turned around. Another step down the staircase. Mom's face gradually became visible. Then, my foot slipped and my entire body lurched forward. I swung my arms to keep my balance but it was too late. I shut my eyes tightly, scared I'd tumble down the stairs. At that moment, someone grabbed my arm from behind. I narrowly avoided falling headlong down the stairs. When I turned my head, JiMin was standing there looking startled. I quickly looked ahead again, too hurried to thank him.

I saw a woman. She looked perplexed. There was a little boy next to her. The woman kept blinking her big eyes. She wasn't Mom. She stepped back with the little boy hidden behind her back. I just stood on the staircase without a word, gazing at her face.

I couldn't remember what I said then to get out of that situation. I must've mumbled that I was sorry or that I mistook her for someone else. Come to think of it, I didn't even ask JiMin why he was there. My head was a mess and I couldn't process any of the details. She wasn't Mom. Maybe I knew that before I began chasing her. It'd been more than ten years since the day I was left alone in the amusement park. She must've aged and looked different from what I remembered. Even if I met her again, it wouldn't be easy to recognize her. Her face was almost completely erased from my memory.

I looked back. JiMin was just tagging along without a word. He said he'd stayed at this hospital since high school, since I last saw him in the emergency room. When I asked him if he wanted to get out, he just kept hanging back, looking confused. Maybe JiMin was also bound within a web of memories like me. I took a step towards him. "JiMin, let's get out of here."

JiMin

15 May Year 22

Three days passed after HoSeok was discharged from the hospital. I didn't want to say goodbye, so I followed him secretly. While I kept hiding and tagging behind, HoSeok walked down the long hallway towards the door. He nonchalantly passed the line near the emergency exit, where I'd always come to a stop. I watched him from behind. Without realizing it, I stopped right there. I could take at least five more strides, but I just stood there.

HoSeok slowly reached out and gently pushed the door open. The dazzling sunlight poured in through the open door along with the outside air. It smelled a bit pungent but felt refreshing at the same time. The landscape on the other side of the door washed over me. When HoSeok stepped outside, the door began to close. I could slide through if I ran now. I looked down at the ground. The limit line, which was visible to no one but me, was still there.

I turned around. Or, I was about to turn around when someone passed by, shoving my shoulder hard. I fell forward onto the floor. I raised my head, still lying on the ground. I had crossed the line. The idiot was running past me, heading for the door. He was the one who had shoved me. He continued to jostle others on his way. He didn't pay attention to them. As he pushed the door as hard as he could, the sunlight streamed in again. He ran outside. A nurse chased him, but he was faster. The door began to close again.

I sprang to my feet. One step over my line. I took one more step forward. It was only three more strides to get to the door. But I turned around again, well aware of my limit.

A stranger already occupied HoSeok's bed. I closed my eyes but couldn't get to sleep. I couldn't help but dwell on what he'd said before he was discharged. "JiMin, let's get out of here." He wore a complicated expression that I'd never seen before. He'd never looked or sounded that way before. I was just standing there looking hesitant, not knowing how to respond. There was one more reason I couldn't stop thinking about his words. There was an incident that occurred right before then.

I was waiting for the elevator on the second floor where I had physical therapy. I tripped while scuffling with the idiot, and my wrist was injured and didn't heal well. I was getting impatient as HoSeok's discharge was approaching, but the elevator was stuck on the ninth floor. I thought I heard someone calling my name just as I was thinking of taking the stairs. That someone was standing in front of the emergency exit at the end of the hallway. I couldn't quite make out who it was with the sunlight coming through the window. When I took a step forward, the person suddenly ran through the emergency exit. The person's profile came into sight momentarily, but I still couldn't recognize who it was. Who could that be? I walked towards the emergency staircase, feeling strange.

As I opened the emergency exit door and put my head in, someone passed by quickly. I instinctively pulled my head back. We almost collided. "Mom!" Hearing the desperate cry, I stuck my head back in. It was HoSeok, frantically leaping down the stairs. And there was a woman standing at the foot of the staircase. What's all this? I stepped onto the landing. HoSeok lost his footing right at that moment. I darted forward and reached out my hands without thinking and caught him. HoSeok faltered as I abruptly slowed him down, and I barely managed to keep my balance.

He didn't say anything until we had climbed back up the stairs and stepped into the fifth-floor hallway. He remained silent while we walked to the hospital room. Then, he suddenly stopped and looked at me. "JiMin, let's get out of here." I couldn't answer. He told me firmly. "I'll come back for you."

I replied, "I'm going back to the psychiatric ward in a few days."

Three days passed. I was to go back to the psychiatric ward the next day. I tidied up my belongings and lay down. I tossed and turned for a while but soon dozed off.

I awoke with the sense of something falling. The hospital was a strange place, and it was hard to sleep soundly. I could feel everything around me with my eyes closed, and even the smallest sounds kept me wide awake. The hospital room was pitch dark. A breeze blew in through the open window. The curtains flapped amidst the flow of the already sultry air. The ceiling, the floor, darkness, and silence. They were all familiar.

I was about to switch on the night stand when someone's hand held me back. It was HoSeok. I sat up in surprise, and he put his forefinger on his lips. "We all came together." He said they were waiting for me outside. He reached out his hand.

I was still buried under so many fears. I was invisible to my parents. I'd be taken as no more than an escapee from a psychiatric ward in the outside world. It was safer to just stay in the hospital as an obedient patient. I wasn't sure I'd adjust well out there. I could think of a million reasons not to leave.

HoSeok didn't hesitate. He grabbed my hand, brought me to my feet, and handed me a T-shirt. I was out of bed before I knew it. The hallway was still and quiet. A few nurses were stationed at the desk. They were all occupied with their own work and didn't even look our way, but HoSeok and I walked as quietly as possible, tensed up. The elevator was waiting on the fifth floor. When the door slid open, NamJoon and SeokJin were standing inside.

We got off on the first floor and stepped into the hallway when HoSeok abruptly pushed me into a door on the left. It was a lounge. It was usually crowded with patients and caregivers during the day, but at night, it was quiet and dark with only the murky lights of streetlamps flowing in. A candle was lit and JungKook and TaeHyung came out of the darkness. YoonGi's face was also visible behind them. On the table were snacks and cans of soda.

A nurse came through the rear door just when I took a sip of soda. Before I finished saying hello to them, the nurse asked what we were doing here, and YoonGi said it was a birthday party. She stepped into the lounge. "Are you all our inpatients? I don't think so." I was the only one wearing a patient gown. Without realizing it, I tightened my hand around the soda can. The aluminum can crumpled with an eerie sound. HoSeok grabbed my shoulder.

"It's OK." It was NamJoon.

"When I give the signal, just start running." It must've been JungKook.

SeokJin, who was already by the front door, threw us a glance and went outside. HoSeok looked around us and spit out in a low voice. "Run, JiMin." We all started running. I was caught up in the excitement and ran with them. TaeHyung lost his footing and almost fell, and the snacks and plastic soda bottles flew into the air. We darted nimbly through the tables and poured out into the first-floor hallway. The loud voices and footsteps of the nurses continued to pursue us. The hallway stretched out before us just as it did yesterday.

My heart pounded as I passed the kitchenette and came to the emergency stairs. Without realizing it, my pace slowed. My head was bombarded with questions. Would it really be OK? Am I sure? It might be even harder out there. I might not have anyone on my side. It'd be safer and more comfortable in here. It's not too late. I'd better stop here. I'd better admit my limits. I'd better be a good kid.

My line was just a few steps away. I looked back. Now the janitors had joined in and were chasing the others. My hand holding the T-shirt trembled violently. They seemed to be right on my tail. Maybe I had no chance. "It's OK, Park JiMin, run!" That voice pushed me forward. I took one more step.

I crossed over the line. I had only taken one step closer to the door, but a dramatic change occurred. Something inside me rolled and pitched as if I'd just leaped from one steep cliff to another. As I threw down my patient gown and put on the T-shirt, I took another step forward towards the door. The next step was faster, and the next even faster. The walls on both sides flashed by quickly, and the door drew closer in big strides. Only five steps were left to get from the line to the door. For anyone else, it was just a short distance of five steps. But I hadn't dared to come this far. This was the first time I'd made it past the line on my own. The door was within reach.

Once I pass through this door, the environment will be completely different from the one that has surrounded me. I refuse to think about what'll happen next. I'll focus on taking one step at a time. I pushed the door with all my might. Every cell of my body collided with the outside air. There was no oppressive sunlight or fierce wind like I had always imagined. I felt like crying. The sound of my heartbeat reverberated in all directions.

JiMin

16 May Year 22

HoSeok's house was up on the hillside. It was the rooftop room of a dilapidated multi-family building at the end of a dead end. The dead end was through a narrow winding alley away from the main street and up a long, steep climb. That was where he lived. When we entered the room, HoSeok bragged that it was on the topmost floor of the city with the rest of the world placed at his feet. He was right. This rooftop room had a view of everything. When I looked straight down, I could see the train station and containers standing in a row along the railroad. NamJoon was living in one of those containers. Just a little way off was the school we had attended together.

While looking at our school, my line of sight reached a point across the river. A large apartment complex was perched at the foot of the mountain. That was where my house was. No, it was where my parents' house was. I had escaped the hospital without any plan. The hospital must've contacted my parents, and they must be looking for me by now. I didn't have the courage to meet them face to face yet.

I couldn't go home. I had nowhere to go and no money. HoSeok told me to follow him and led me here. That was how I ended up at HoSeok's house.

I looked over at the apartment complex again. I have to return there someday. I have to meet my parents and tell them I'm not going back to the hospital. I inhaled deeply, and HoSeok came close and stood next to me.

HoSeok

16 May Year 22

I could be my most honest self at home. Sometimes I screamed at the top of my lungs and sang at the window. Sometimes I played music and danced like crazy. And sometimes I awoke at night weeping. When I did, I just lay there still, staring at the ceiling. But I never collapsed with narcolepsy at home.

JiMin didn't go back home after he left the hospital. He came to my house and was now looking down at the city, leaning against the guard rail on the rooftop. He must be looking for our school, the Two Star Burger joint, and the changing lights along the railroad like me. He must also be looking for his house. That was something in our human instincts. Everyone looks for their home when they climb somewhere high or spread out a large map.

I thought of asking him why he didn't go home. But I gave up. His head must be a mess, and I didn't want to aggravate it. Besides, I could guess why based on how JiMin's mom reacted at the emergency room that day. In fact, I rarely asked my friends questions. I felt I knew the answers to most of them already. And I didn't want them to feel awkward. Or they might find my questions too inquisitive and annoying.

To be honest, I was always curious where the others were headed when they walked by my store. But I never ran out to ask them. Where was JungKook going with his wounds? Was YoonGi's workroom in that direction? Why did NamJoon leave school? Where did TaeHyung first learn graffiti? Come to think of it, I didn't know much about the others.

"Did you find it?" I drew closer to JiMin and asked.

"Find what?" JiMin sounded confused.

"Your house." JiMin nodded.

"I grew up in the orphanage right there." I pointed to a place beyond the railroad. "Do you see the supermarket in the direction of the river from the gas station where NamJoon works? Do you see the clover-shaped neon sign behind it? The orphanage is to the left of that neon sign. I lived there for more than ten years."

JiMin's eyes seemed to wonder why I was telling him all this. My friends already knew that I grew up in an orphanage. I considered it my home. I didn't force myself to think that for peace of mind. I really believed that it was my home. A home without Mom

"I have something to confess." Something I'd been lying about. "That my narcolepsy was fake." That might have been why I couldn't ask anything about anyone. It wasn't because I was afraid of hurting them. It was because I had lied, because I didn't have the courage to be honest. Because, once I admitted it, I'd also have to admit I have no one to call "Mom," not just at the orphanage but in the entire world. That must've been why I didn't ask any of them about their problems.

JiMin wasn't good at hiding his feelings. His startled look was self-explanatory. I didn't know how to apologize to him. JiMin had agonized over me countless times. He must've burst into tears when he first witnessed it. "I didn't do it on purpose. I just must've ignored that there was a way for me to be OK. I know this doesn't make sense. I can't describe it clearly."

"Then, are you OK now?" JiMin, who'd been listening quietly for some time, turned his head towards me and asked the question. Am I OK now? I asked myself. JiMin was still looking at me. He was neither criticizing nor sympathizing with me. I looked down at the brightly lit city below.

"Well, I don't know. We'll be able to figure it out as time goes by. I'm looking forward to it. Aren't you?" JiMin giggled. I laughed along.

JiMin

19 May Year 22

I had to return to the Grass Flower Arboretum. I had to stop lying about not remembering what I'd seen there. It was time to stop hiding in the hospital and put an end to my seizures. To do that, I had to go back there. But, for days. I went to the shuttle bus stop and failed to get on the bus.

After I watched the third bus of the day pull away, YoonGi suddenly appeared and plunked down next to me. He said he came out because there was nothing to do and he was bored. Then he asked me what I was doing here. I kept my head bent low and kicked the ground with the toe of my sneaker. I was sitting there because I didn't have courage. I wanted to pretend that I was OK now, that I knew enough, and that I could easily overcome this. But I was afraid. I was afraid of not knowing what I was about to face, whether I would be able to endure it, and whether I would have a seizure again.

YoonGi looked relaxed. Laid back, he murmured something that sounded like "the weather is so nice" in a carefree manner. The weather really was nice. But I was so tense that I couldn't afford to look around, let alone enjoy the weather. The sky was blue. A mild breeze blew occasionally. The shuttle bu8 was approaching from a distance. The bus stopped and the door opened. The driver stared at me.

I asked YoonGi, "Will you go with me?"

HoSeok

20 May Year 22

I left the police station with TaeHyung. "Thank you." I bowed and shouted all the more energetically, but I really wasn't in the mood. It wasn't far from the police station to TaeHyung's house. If he lived farther from the police station, would he still be there this much? Why had his parents settled down so close to the police station? The world was so unjust and unfair to this foolishly good-hearted and sensitive kid. I placed my arm around TaeHyung's shoulders and casually asked if he was hungry. TaeHyung shook his head. "Did the police officers welcome you back and buy you a meal?" I asked again, but he didn't answer.

The two of us walked in the sunlight, but an icy wind seemed to nip at my heart. I couldn't imagine how he must be feeling when I felt this chilly inside. His heart must have felt ripped and torn. Or, does he have a heart left at all? How much anguish has he endured? I couldn't look him in his eyes, so I turned my glance upwards. An airplane was flying against the somewhat murky sky. I first saw the scar on TaeHyung's back in NamJoon's container. I couldn't bring myself to ask about it when he was smiling so broadly with his new T-shirt present.

I had no parents. I had no memory of Dad, and my memory of Mom stopped at the age of 7. I probably had more open wounds and scars regarding family and childhood than anyone. People always said so easily that we need to overcome our wounds, embrace them, and accept them as part of our lives. That we need to reconcile with and forgive others to go on living. It wasn't that I wasn't aware of it. It wasn't that I didn't want to give it a try. But giving it a try didn't guarantee success. No one had taught me how. The world gave us new wounds even before the old ones could heal. Surely, no one in the world can avoid getting hurt. I was aware of that. But do we really need to get hurt this deeply? For what? Why did these things happen to us?

"I'm OK. I can go alone," TaeHyung said at the intersection.

"I know." I led the way.

"I'm really OK. See. I'm fine." TaeHyung smiled. I didn't respond. He couldn't be OK. But once he admitted that he wasn't OK, he wouldn't be able to bear it. So he was just ignoring the truth. That became his habit.

TaeHyung followed me, putting up his hood. "You're really not hungry?" I asked him when we had walked up to the outdoor hallway that led to his house. He smiled that foolish smile and nodded. I stayed for a little and watched him walk towards his door and I finally turned around. The path he was walking down and the path I walked through were both narrow and bleak. He and I were both alone.

SeokJin

20 May Year 22

TaeHyung's house was in one of the oldest buildings in the neighborhood. Paint was peeling off here and there, and weeds were growing out of cracks in the cement walls. It looked run-down. I was waiting for TaeHyung and HoSeok in the small park on the hill behind the building. As it was on the slope, it overlooked the outdoor hallway on TaeHyung's floor of the building.

HoSeok appeared from around a comer leading into an alley in the distance. TaeHyung was following him. His face wasn't quite visible because he had his hood pulled down tight. TaeHyung and HoSeok exchanged a few words at the mouth of the alley. TaeHyung seemed to be trying to send HoSeok home and HoSeok was saying he was fine. HoSeok started to walk again first. The two came up to the front of the building without a word. HoSeok climbed the stairs and stopped in front of TaeHyung's door. He tapped on TaeHyung's shoulder and made a gesture at him to go into the house. Then, he turned around and started walking towards the exit. TaeHyung stared at him from behind for a moment and reached out for the doorknob.

I called HoSeok at the moment when TaeHyung began to open the door. After the dial tone rang three times, HoSeok took out his phone in the middle of the hallway. TaeHyung was stepping into his house. "HoSeok, can you call TaeHyung?"

HoSeok stopped walking. "I just saw him."

I said I was planning a trip to the sea for all of us and he should ask TaeHyung to come along. HoSeok laughed, saying of course TaeHyung would come along. "But just to make sure, could you ask him and let me know?" I hung up hastily.

This was the time. HoSeok must go into TaeHyung's house now. HoSeok tilted his head sideways, looking at his phone screen, and turned around. Then, he went into TaeHyung's house through the still-open door.

TaeHyung

20 May Year 22

I looked down at my palm. Blood was oozing out. Just when my legs started to give out and I was about to collapse, someone grabbed me from behind. Sunlight came in through the murky window. My sister was crying, and Hoseok was standing there in silence. As usual, the floor was cluttered with dirty dishes, odds and ends, and blankets. Dad had already escaped the room before I realized it.

The uncontrollable rage and sorrow that welled up when I flung myself at Dad were still fresh in my mind. I didn't know what held me back when I was about to stab him. I didn't know how to douse these raging flames inside me. I wanted to kill myself instead of Dad. If I could, I wanted to drop dead right then and there.

I couldn't shed tears. I wanted to cry, cry out loud, kick and destroy everything, and break down. But it all seemed beyond my control. "Sorry, HoSeok, I'm fine. You go ahead." My voice sounded dry and calm, contrary to my frantic mind. I sent HoSeok home against his will and looked down at my palm. Blood was still coming out in drops. Instead of stabbing Dad, I'd smashed a bottle on the floor. The bottle had broken into pieces and cut my palm. The world spun and twirled when I closed my eyes. My brain froze. What should I do now? How should I live?

After I regained consciousness, I found myself looking at NamJoon's number. Even in this situation, or because of this situation, I was longing for NamJoon all the more desperately. I wanted to confess to him. I almost killed Dad who brought me into this world and who beat me every day. I almost killed him. No, I actually killed him. Countless times. I killed him countless times in my head. I want to kill him. I want to die. I don't know what to do. I'm lost. I just want to see you now.

The Most Beautiful Day of Our Lives

Recommended:
Read
episodes 13-15 of the Save Me Webtoon here.

JungKook

22 May Year 22

Someone shook my shoulder to wake me up. When I opened my eyes, the car window was filled entirely with the seascape. The sea breeze felt chilly, probably because I was only half awake. I wrapped myself with both arms and got out of the car. The others, already far out on the beach where the waves broke against the shore, waved at me. Beyond them was the sea, and above the sea was the sun. The entire scene looked like a still frame.

The wind picked up and filled this still frame with raging sand just as I raised my hand to wave back. The gritty dust rose from the ground and swirled about. The others turned around all at once, covering their faces to ward off grainy wind. I did the same, shutting my eyes tightly, bending my head, and covering my face with my arm. We stood in this position amidst the sounds of lapping waves and whistling wind for a long time.

I tried to open my eyes, but they stung from the sand. "Don't rub them. It'll just make it worse." Upon hearing HoSeok, I slowly blinked. The sea, the sky, and the others kept appearing and disappearing through the tears welling up in my eyes. After I blinked several times, tears streamed down and the stinging subsided. The tears must've flushed grains of sand out. I heard the others laughing. They were laughing at me standing in the middle of the empty beach shedding tears.

It was unclear who began to run first. It started out as a silly game. I pretended to chase the others who kept making fun of me. HoSeok darted off as if he was fleeing from me. Then, the rest joined in, running towards and away from one another and laughing joyfully. At some point, we were all running along the coastal road. I ran behind the others. I was out of breath, sweaty, and had a splitting headache. But I didn't stop because they continued on.

We'd all met again, sprung JiMin from the hospital, and returned to this same beach. It was all unplanned. All I'd done was tag along, but it felt exhilarating. Maybe running around blankly was the only way for me to deal with that fearfully thrilling sensation. I'd done the same when we all ditched school and came to this beach the first time.

That's right. We were like this back then, too." Namjoon said when we dropped down on the beach to catch our breath.

"I think it was just as hot then. When was it?" It was JiMin.

"It was June 12." My good memory took everyone by surprise. I remembered it exactly because the photo we had taken on this beach was marked with the date. I sometimes took it out and stared at it. I didn't tell anyone, but I felt on that long-ago day that I had finally found a real family. Real brothers.

"Guys." I began to express my gratitude but found myself at a loss for words. "What?" The others rushed me one by one and then flung themselves at me. We rolled around on the beach tangled up together, playing like children.

"Why are you here alone?" I sank down next to TaeHyung who was sitting in one comer of the sandy beach away from the others. He looked at me briefly and asked a question instead. "Was that there the last time we came here?" He was talking about the lookout tower.

"If it was, we would've climbed it. But I don't remember it." He nodded in agreement. He kept staring at the lookout tower.

"Let's go." Someone tapped my shoulder. It was SeokJin, his face unrecognizable as he was standing against the light. It might've been because I was looking up at him from a sitting position, but he looked so tall. I stood up, dusting off the sand. My feet sank deep into the burning sand. I sneaked into SeokJin's shadow and walked on, kicking sand with the tips of my sneakers. The sand I kicked up splattered onto SeokJin's pants, but he didn't look back.

TaeHyung

22 May Year 22

I had seen this all before. In a dream that felt too vivid and real I saw this sea, the seven of us, and the lookout tower. I stood on the lookout at the end of the dream. Everyone looked up at me. They were far away, so their faces were hard to see. Still, I smiled at them. As if I was bidding them farewell. And then I jumped.

"SeokJin?" Hearing JungKook, I turned my head to see SeokJin climbing the lookout tower. At the very top, he turned his body towards us. He seemed to be trying to photograph us. The others waved at him, but I couldn't. It was like the last scene in my dream. The only difference was that SeokJin was up there instead of me.

At that moment, it felt as if the ground sank under my feet and my body floated in the air. I shut my eyes tightly, fearing my body might plummet to the ground. I didn't clench my fist, but the wound on my palm began to hurt. The wound seemed deep but healed more quickly than I expected. It left a red scar. Sometimes it hurt intensely. Like I was being punished. Punished for all my wrongdoings. It hurt now.

NamJoon

22 May Year 22

"He's only a year younger than I am. No, I didn't say so. I'm older. I know. But he's not a kid anymore. It's time he started taking care of himself. I got it. I got it. No, I'm not mad. Sorry."

I looked down at the ground after I hung up the phone. We were on our way to our lodging after spending the day at the beach. A lukewarm breeze was blowing our way. It felt like my heart was clogged and would burst at any minute. Ants were marching in file on the ground covered with sand and dirt.

It wasn't that I didn't love my parents. It wasn't that I didn't worry about my brother. I'd turn a deaf ear to them if I could, but I knew I'd never be able to. I knew that all too well. Then, what was the use of struggling, losing my temper, feeling distressed, and trying to break free?

Far off, someone was standing still like me with his back turned. It was JungKook. JungKook once told me, "I want to be just like you when I grow up." I couldn't bring myself to confess that I was far from an adult, let alone an exemplary one. It seemed too brutal to crush his hope then. I couldn't tell someone so young, someone who hadn't been given the trust, support, and affection he deserved, that you don't just become an adult by getting older and taller. I wish JungKook's future would be kinder to him than mine was to me, but I couldn't promise that I'd be of any help to him along the way.

SeokJin

22 May Year 22

I looked at the others again. They were making silly jokes, laughing, chatting, and roaring with laughter again when someone sprang up and started dancing. I couldn't believe what was unfolding before my eyes. We got here together after so many trial and errors. I'd dreamed of this for so long and so desperately that it seemed impossible it was actually happening.

But I felt uneasy because I still had something to confess. I kept hesitating and couldn't muster up the courage. But I couldn't run away from it all anymore. Unless I told them, I wouldn't be able to look my friends in the face.

When dinner was almost over, I told them I had something to say. But they didn't pay much attention. Only TaeHyung was staring at me. Several days ago, he came to me and asked me about the dream he'd been having. "You know what it means, right?"

He pressed me for an answer, but I acted like I didn't know. I said, "How could I know? It was just a dream." TaeHyung got upset and turned away.

It wasn't completely a lie. I didn't know why TaeHyung had been having such a dream. But I did know how brutal it was. That's why I couldn't tell him the truth. All the more so because I knew what he was wondering about. He didn't need to know that it wasn't a dream, him killing his father - but that it happened in real life, repetitively. No one should go through life with such agony. I wouldn't take my decision back even if it hurt our friendship.

I turned my head away to avoid TaeHyung's eyes. I closed my mouth, caught my breath, and spoke more clearly this time. "I have something to tell you." NamJoon and HoSeok stared at me, and the others also quieted down. "I should've told you this a long time ago. When we were in high school..."

TaeHyung interrupted. "When we were in high school? When you ratted on us to the principal? Or when YoonGi got kicked out of school because of that? Which one are you talking about?" Criticism was plainly written on TaeHyung's face.

"TaeHyung!" NamJoon called him in an obvious attempt to hold him back.

TaeHyung shook NamJoon's hand off with his eyes solidly fixed on me. "That was all your doing." No one said anything. Everyone was caught off guard and couldn't think of anything to say.

I looked at YoonGi. TaeHyung was right. YoonGi was expelled from school because of me. I mumbled with my head bent low. "I'm sorry." TaeHyung began to speak again.

TaeHyung

22 May Year 22

"SeokJin, is that all? Aren't you hiding something from us?" I glared at SeokJin. He stared back at me. I was about to press him harder when someone grabbed my shoulder to stop me. I knew who it was without looking back. It was NamJoon. "Don't cut in. Why do you care? You're not even my real brother." I could feel NamJoon's eyes on the back of my head. I shook his hands off without even looking at him. I knew it, I was taking out my anger on NamJoon.

When I was heading for our lodging from the beach, passing through the pine forest, I heard Namjoon talking on the phone. Every word he said was right. I was only a year younger and I wasn't his real brother. I had to take care of myself. But it still hurt.

"TaeHyung, I'm sorry. So let's just stop here." It was SeokJin who first opened his mouth. SeokJin was the one who told me he was sorry. NamJoon didn't say anything. He just kept staring at me with angry eyes.

"Stop what? Just lay it all out. You're hiding something from us." Everyone's gaze was now fixed on SeokJin. SeokJin gave a look that seemed to tell us to stop.

"Let's go outside and talk." NamJoon grabbed my arm again.

I tried to shake his hand off, but he tightened his grip to take me outside. I braced myself against him. "Let me go. What right do you think you have? What do you know? You don't know anything. You think you're something special, huh?"

It was then. NamJoon abruptly let go of my arm, and I stumbled in reaction. Or, it wasn't a reaction that made me stumble. The moment he let go of my arm, it felt as if the chain that linked us snapped in the middle. Everything that propped me up and served as my footing seemed to crack and split.

Maybe I was hoping he wouldn't let go of my arm till the end. Maybe I was hoping he'd yell at me to shut up and drag me outside fuming. Maybe I was hoping he'd give me a good scolding like he would to his real brother or someone too precious to give up.

But he released my arm. I couldn't help but smirk. I was smirking before I knew it. I spit out, "What is all the fuss about being together? What are we to each other? We are all alone in the end." At that moment, SeokJin hit me.

JiMin

22 May Year 22

"We should go, too." That's what HoSeok said. I turned my head looking past the door of our lodging. The table, chairs, pots, and dishes were scattered all over the place. "JiMin, come on." I closed the door hurriedly. They were way ahead of me. YoonGi and HoSeok took the lead, with JungKook following closely behind them. There were seven of us when we first came, and now only four were left.

I looked up as we passed the lookout tower. There was no light on the beach after the sunset. The lookout and sea withdrew into the darkness, and nothing was visible. There was only the roar of lapping waves. I realized that this was the place. The place we visited when we first came to the sea together. The rock, which was said to make dreams come true. We cried out at the top of our lungs on this same spot where the rock had been blown to bits to make way for a new resort. "JungKook, wasn't it somewhere around here?" I looked back, but JungKook was already bolting way ahead of the others. HoSeok called after him, but he didn't seem to hear. It occurred to me then. JungKook is also moving forward along his own path. JungKook had always been behind the others. He had tagged along and stopped when the others stopped.

I was the same. I looked in every direction at an intersection. I had to turn left to get to the train station or right to take the bus home.

I had to go back home someday. I couldn't avoid it forever. I had to confess my lies and tell the truth to my parents. Even if they weren't willing to hear them. I had to start fastening the first button at some point. I saw YoonGi step into the road on the left.

"JiMin, hurry up." HoSeok turned his head towards me.

"HoSeok, I'm going home now."

With a puzzled look, he asked, "Home?"

I nodded. Then, I turned right.

JungKook

22 May Year 22

I felt like my body was floating in the air, but the next minute I was lying on the hard ground. I couldn't feel anything for some time. My entire body felt so heavy that I couldn't even lift my eyelids. I couldn't swallow or breathe. As I fell into a semi-conscious state, I grew warmer and warmer and my body suddenly shook all over. An undefinable pain and thirst instinctively forced my eyes open. Something shimmery caught my eye, which felt dried out as if filled with sand. At first, I thought it was a light, but it wasn't. It was bright, big, and blurry. It hung in the air motionless. I kept staring at it for a while, and it began to take shape. It was the moon. The world appeared upside down. My head must've been tilted back. In that world, the moon was also upside down. I tried to breathe by coughing, but I couldn't move. A cold fit swept over my body. It was frightening. I tried to open my lips but couldn't utter a word. My vision kept fading even though my eyes were open. Someone asked me a question as my consciousness grew dimmer and dimmer.

"It'll be more painful to live than to die. Do you still want to live?"

After Returning from the Sea

SeokJin

13 June Year 22

After returning from the sea, we went back to our solitary lives. As if we'd made a rule, no one called each other. We just vaguely assumed how the others were doing based on the graffiti we saw on the streets, the bright light of the gas station, and the piano sounds coming from the dilapidated building.

The lodging on the beach was empty when I came back after failing to find TaeHyung when he ran out that night. There was nothing except for a photo on the floor. In the photo, we were smiling together with the sea in the background. It had only been a few hours earlier but it seemed like such a long time ago. Had we worked so hard and for so long for no reason? Were we destined to fall apart like this?

I passed the gas station without stopping. We'd meet again someday. We'd laugh together someday as we did in the photo. I'd gather enough courage to face myself someday. But today was not the time. Damp wind blew just like that day. At that moment, my phone rang as if sending me a warning. The phone sent reverberations to the photo hung on the rearview mirror. HoSeok's name appeared on the screen. "SeokJin, JungKook got into an accident that night."

JungKook

13 June Year 22

I heard faint voices and opened my eyes to find HoSeok and JiMin gazing at me. Every time I blinked, their faces kept disappearing and appearing again. "Are you hurt? Are you in pain?" JiMin asked.

"I'm fine. I'm not hurt." It was a lie. It was a serious accident and I had almost died. The doctors kept warning the others for days that they should be prepared for the worst-case scenario. I regained consciousness after ten days and began to recuperate at an astonishing rate.

"You should've called us. What are we to you?" HoSeok sounded mad.

"HoSeok, it's not that I..." I began to talk but couldn't finish the sentence. As soon as I came to myself at the hospital, I thought of them. If I would've been able to think straight, I would've called them first. But my mind was blank, and I was in pain. The sedative they gave me was so strong that reality, dreams, memories, and illusions all seemed to be knotted up in my head and were impossible to disentangle.

The unbearable pain finally subsided. But the strange images that flashed before my eyes while suffering from fever and insomnia kept coming back. I wasn't sure whether those scenes had actually happened or they were just twisted nightmares triggered by severe pain. I couldn't trust my memory. But I still couldn't contact them. I didn't know what to say or even how to start talking. I just smiled at them. Or I tried to smile at them. My face must've looked like it was all twisted up and I was about to cry.

HoSeok

13 June Year 22

I walked out of the room because I felt tears welling up. JungKook saying he was fine was heart wrenching. I had just heard of JungKook's accident that afternoon. The burger joint was packed with pedestrians taking shelter from the rain. Some of them were JungKook's classmates. "How come JungKook doesn't show up anymore?" I didn't ask this question for any particular reason. I'd lost contact with all the others after returning from the sea, including JungKook.

Then, an unexpected answer came my way. "Oh, he was in an accident, so he's been absent."

"An accident? Is he hurt badly?"

"We don't know. He hasn't been to school for what, twenty days?"

I called him immediately, but JungKook didn't answer. I was about to call again but decided to open our group chat instead. No new messages over the past twenty days. The last message was from when we were at the sea. Was it then? That night when we all parted and went back home. Was it that night?

I left a message that JungKook was badly hurt. And that, whatever everyone was up to, it was ridiculous not to know what had happened to him for over twenty days. The number next to my message didn't budge, meaning none of the others had opened the chat to read my message. Did our days together mean nothing? Were we fair weather friends? I got mad at myself. Mad for not contacting him earlier. Mad for letting him return home alone. JungKook was not a child. But he was the youngest. He was still just a student.<

I strolled up and down the hallway a few times and stopped in front of his room. Through the cracked door, I recognized JungKook's face. He clearly wasn't fine. He looked as pale as a sheet. Suddenly, the image of JungKook coming through the door of our empty hideout came into my mind. He was just in his third year of middle school. His naive face showed a sense of loss, as if he'd realized something had come to an end. Did our existence remind him of that sense of loss? Four of the others hadn't checked my message in the group chat yet. I posted another message. "This is disappointing."

"You? Dancing?" When I stepped into the room, JiMin and JungKook were talking about a dance crew. JiMin said it had only been about two weeks since he joined the crew and turned his head bashfully. "That's right. You were a good dancer. We should all go and see you dance."

TaeHyung's call came through at that moment. "What have you been doing? Why didn't you check my message earlier?" I tried to sound angrier than I actually was. TaeHyung stuttered in a croaky voice as if he'd been crying.

TaeHyung

13 June Year 22

"How's JungKook?That's all I could say. I wrapped up my shift at the convenience store and stepped onto the street to find puddles here and there. It had rained a few hours ago. I'd noticed the rain when I turned my head to look out the glass door when one of the customers bought an umbrella. My face was reflected back to me in the puddle. My eyes filled with tears and my throat was choked.

HoSeok said he was with JungKook and JungKook looked better than he expected. I crouched down in relief.

"I'm OK." HoSeok must've handed his phone over to JungKook. He seemed to be pretending that he was OK. "How about you?

"Worry about yourself." My reply was curt without meaning to be. JungKook laughed bashfully. "I'm going over there right now."

I couldn't keep my word. I got to the hospital in no time ran up the stairs because I couldn't wait for the elevator and darted down the hallway. I was just about to jump into JungKook's room, but I froze there. I could hear voices through the cracked door. It was NamJoon. SeokJin was there, too. I stepped back without realizing it.

"I'm always the same." NamJoon said. Indeed, he was. He was just going on with his life.

I dropped down on a bench in the hallway. People in patient gowns walked by, and some were in tears. If someone asked, I must've answered the same. That I was always the same. That was the truth. I just went back and forth between my house and the convenience store. Dad was still drinking and making trouble from time to time. The indoor light was still dim and the drain got clogged frequently.

There was one change. The nightmare had stopped. The nightmare of YoonGi dying, JungKook falling, and HoSeok in a frenzy of despair. Come to think of it, the nightmare must've stopped after the night we fought at the beach. It was replaced by another dream. Tears ran down SeokJin's face. Blue flower petals rolled on the asphalt street at night, were trampled down, and were tinted with someone's blood.

I bent my steps. The elevator was coming up from the second basement floor. I looked back at the patient room. I wasn't ready to meet SeokJin and NamJoon yet.

NamJoon

13 June Year 22

I arrived at JungKook's hospital room in the middle of the night. JungKook seemed OK. He laughed a lot and talked a lot. I did, too. We talked about the gas station, the weather, and whatever else so we didn't have to talk about what was really important. JungKook should've asked. But he didn't. He didn't ask why the others fought that night, why we left, and why we didn't come back. I was no different. I didn't tell him why I left our lodging without saying anything and didn't ask SeokJin what problems he had with TaeHyung. We just swallowed the questions that we should've blurted out.

On our way back, SeokJin asked me if I was OK. "Do you know you haven't said a word yet?" I told him I didn't know and I was sorry. I told him I was fine. We parted near the gas station.

I looked around the night street just before I went into the gas station. It was desolate. The red "Do Not Walk" signal turned to the green "Walk" signal at the crosswalk. I crossed the street and walked along the railroad. The fourth container from the end. We had had a campfire here before we left for the sea. This was the first time I came here since that day.

Dust rose when I opened the container door. I stood there for a while until my eyes got used to the darkness. From what I'd heard from JungKook, the others didn't keep in touch with each other. No one updated me about TaeHyung, but nothing much would've changed.

This container was the only place where TaeHyung could've taken shelter from his dad. I knew it but didn't drop by. It was exhausting enough to go back and forth between the library and gas station. It was the truth and an excuse at the same time. Deep down inside, I might have been avoiding TaeHyung. I couldn't afford to confront TaeHyung, it was too emotionally exhausting.

As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could see different corners of the container. They were filled with memories of us sharing our lives together. I told SeokJin that I was OK, but really I wasn't. JungKook who got into an accident couldn't be OK. It couldn't be OK to just drown what happened that night all at once. If TaeHyung and SeokJin hadn't got into a fight that night, if I'd stayed with the others, if anyone had been with JungKook, then there wouldn't have been an accident.

But I said I was OK. I casually chatted with him as if none of it was my fault and tapped him on his shoulder, telling him to recover quickly. I said it like it was a word of blessing or advice or consolation. I hadn't changed a bit. I was always hesitant before asking questions and making choices at a fork in the road.

YoonGi

15 June Year 22

I woke up from a weird dream. I thought heard someone knock on the door, but I couldn't hear anything after getting up. I must've heard it in my dream. "What time is it?" I picked up my phone but the battery was dead. I connected my phone charger and got out of bed. My head ached and my shoulders felt stiff. The piece I'd worked on until dawn was replaying again and again. I'd been staying up all night for several days, but I still couldn't find the key to unravel the tangled notes.

Maybe it was because of that piece replaying over and over again, but in my dream, I was roaming around in the fog following a faint whistling sound. After a long time, I arrived at a garden of an apartment complex. There I found a piano key lying among thick bushes. The half-burned piano key was covered with soil and rotten leaves. I walked into the garden and reached out for the key. Just as I'd almost grasped it, the apartment complex, the fog, and the whistling sound all disappeared at once. The next minute, I was standing in the middle of this workroom. In the distance, I was sitting in front of the piano with JungKook. JungKook said something, and I laughed. When was this? I couldn't recall the exact date, but this scene was imprinted on my memory as clear as day. There were many days I could clearly see the scene. All of a sudden, it became dark outside, and I was wandering through the night street. I was on my way back from the beach. I put my hands into my pockets as I talked about my work to HoSeok, and I felt the piano key with my fingertips. The dream continued on in this disjointed manner. Moments overlapped with one another and fragments of memories piled up in a mess.

I heard a banging sound at the entrance just as I turned off the music. Who could that be? I opened the door but no one was there. I drank a cup of water and lay down on the sofa. The past few weeks had been a hectic merry-go-round. Everything just couldn't go smoothly when composing music. It was hard to concentrate at first. And I was also not used to working with a partner.

The woman was straightforward and outspoken. She popped in and out of my workroom whenever she felt like it. She never hesitated or beat around the bush when she evaluated my work. She took away my lighter when I tried to smoke and threw me a lollipop instead. She nagged me to sleep and eat. I couldn't argue with her because her performance and pieces were impressive. Because her evaluation was accurate.

That provoked me. I began to spend more and more time at my workroom. I lost my sense of time and became addicted to my work. I would stay up all night once I got down to work. I didn't answer calls or check my messages. All my nerves were on edge, and I didn't want to talk with anyone. I switched off the alerts for every chat app. Would I have turned out as skilled and talented as the woman if I hadn't wasted my time and continued training in music? I wondered. I didn't want to fall behind her.

"This is really nice." That was what that woman said after listening to the unfinished piece yesterday evening. It was an upgraded version of what I'd previously written. "This is really nice." It felt as if I'd heard the exact same words before. I was trying to call up the memory when she got her guitar out. Then, she began to harmonize and play variations of the melody. I sat in front of the piano and played along.

"Don't forget. We're meeting at the hospital tomorrow morning." The woman packed her guitar and stood up about two hours later. I looked up at her with a blank face, and she rolled her eyes. Then, I remembered. She'd been giving free solo performances at hospitals and schools. She'd told me last week to tag along to the next performance. I hadn't answered, but she finalized the plan on her own. She said she'd call early in the morning and I should make sure to pick up the phone.

After she left, I sat in front of the piano again. It wasn't bad. But it felt as if something substantial was missing. I distinctly remembered that I'd almost grasped what it was the last time I worked on this piece. I made changes, but nothing clicked. I stood up from the piano bench, feeling pressure on my chest. Maybe I was putting too much emphasis on that something because it didn't come to me. Maybe it'd be better to fine-tune the piece a bit more and stop waiting for that something. I looked out the window. The sun was coming up.

My phone vibrated as it powered up again. She hadn't called yet. I lay down on the sofa. My phone rang after a few minutes. The name JiMin appeared on the screen. That instantly reminded me of a scene from my dream last night. A house was aflame. Someone asked me, "Is there anyone inside?" I answered, "No, there's no one inside." The scene shifted, and I was sitting in Mom's unlit room. Mom was saying, "If I hadn't had you... If you hadn't been born..."

I don't know how I got from my workroom to the hospital. I was running up the stairs like crazy when I snapped out of it. The hallway was strangely long and dark. People in patient gowns slid by. My heart kept throbbing. Their faces were pale like sheets. And expressionless. They seemed dead. I could hear my heavy breathing in my head.

I could see JungKook in his patient gown lying on the bed through the cracked door. He must be asleep, but he seemed as if he were dead. "He almost died. The doctors said it was a miracle he was alive. It was that night, that night we came back from the beach." JiMin's voice was still ringing in my ears.

I turned my head. I couldn't look at him anymore. A multitude of images flashed before my eyes like a panorama. The flame that made a crackling sound in a drum at a construction site, Mom's room that had always been unlit, the sounds of the piano that came from the fire, JungKook's back as he clumsily played the piano at the music shop, JungKook lying unconscious on the empty street, and the pain and fear he must've gone through as he lost consciousness...

She said, "It's all because of you." She said, "If you hadn't been born..." Mom's voice. Or was it mine? Or was it someone else's? I'd been tormented my whole life because of those words. I wanted to believe that they weren't true. But JungKook was lying there. He was lying in a hospital where patients roamed around like the living dead. If I'd just ignored him and left the music shop, if I'd just died in the flames, would none of this have happened?

At that moment, the melodies of the woman's guitar penetrated my mind. The guitar sound overlapped the crackling sound of the blazing fire, the sound of the piano, and countless other sounds. I covered my head and ears with both arms but the sound of the guitar only grew louder. I turned and began to escape down the hallway. I bumped into passers-by, but I didn't have time to turn around and apologize. They shouted curses at me. I didn't look back. I had to run away from that voice and the hallucination. My head ached. I lost all my confidence. I ran down the hallway, faltering and staggering, and got out of the hospital.

JungKook

15 June Year 22

A noise from outside the room roused me from sleep. I was having a strange dream but couldn't quite remember the details. The night of the traffic accident replayed like a blurry CCTV screen in black and white. I could feel my heartbeat slow down and then quicken explosively. All of a sudden, pain surged, and someone was whispering faintly. The next minute, I woke up writhing.

My entire body was soaked with sweat. The sunlight came through the window and right onto my face. I stepped into the hallway and was met by the usual scene. It was my first time using the crutches. I still needed to get used to them but they were must easier than a wheelchair. I went outside through the entrance. It was breezy. My sweat cooled quickly, and it felt chilly on the back of my neck. It wasn't as warm as I thought in my patient room.

As I sat down on a bench and opened my sketchbook, the doctor in charge came over to me. He said it was a miracle that I had recovered, he hadn't thought it'd be possible. He tapped me on my shoulder, saying I was the living proof of a miracle.

"You should be good for the rest of your life." I turned my head and saw a girl standing there who I'd met yesterday in the hallway. The girl said it was so amazing to find a miracle right next to her and asked me how I felt. I responded that I was just really healthy.

I lowered my eyes again to the sketchbook. Before I knew it, I was drawing what I'd seen in my dream. My memories were blurred like the CCTV screen. It was hard to concentrate on my drawing or the memories because the girl kept asking me questions. After a while, I looked up. A familiar song was playing. Someone was giving a performance in the distance. I definitely knew this song. YoonGi sometimes played this in his workroom. I went over to the stage on my crutches. A lighter marked YK was hanging on the guitar.

JiMin

3 July Year 22

If anyone could truly tie the seven of us together as "we," HoSeok could. He embraced and protected "us" like a shelter. But he wasn't always as bright and cheerful on the inside as he tried to appear in front of us. It was closer to a sense of responsibility. He instinctively sensed the wounds and pain of those around him and couldn't bear them well. This was why he pretended to be livelier than he actually was by nature.

Even today, HoSeok just sat in one corner of the practice room for a long time and left without saying a word. I joined Just Dance and began to learn how to dance right after I returned from the sea. HoSeok gave me the opportunity. I was awkward at meeting new people as I'd spent too much time in the hospital. He brought a new dance partner, too. She was a friend he'd met at the orphanage.

She was the only person who could make him laugh when he was in that mood. When she murmured something while looking at his phone together, he chuckled. "You laughed, you laughed." She made fun of him. Hoseok turned his head away, telling her to stop it. He chuckled again.

The practice room became silent in a flash after I turned off the music. I just lay there on the floor. I liked dancing when I was little. I danced a lot and often was praised for it. But the patient room wasn't a good place for dancing. When I attended school in between hospital stays, I just sank my head on my chest to avoid the eyes of my classmates. After a while, my body felt so stiff. I couldn't perform the motions that HoSeok did so easily. There was nothing to do but keep practicing, even after everyone else had left.

I replayed the video of the dance moves I'd learned earlier on my phone. HoSeok's moves were fluid but accurate in the video. I knew that they were a product of years of practice and that it would take a long time for a novice like me to reach that level. It was wishful thinking. I could only keep sighing out loud.

I went to my parents' house the day I left the beach alone. As I looked up at the brightly lit windows, I couldn't help but think, "Has this place ever been our house?" I pressed the bell at the front gate. It took a while for it to open. I took the elevator and got off at the 17th floor. Although the door was open, no one came out to greet me.

My parents were sitting on the sofa in the living room, watching a black-and-white movie on TV. "I don't want to go back to the hospital." I blurted out after some hesitation. "Don't worry. I won't do anything rash. But I'm not going back there."

"Where have you been?" Mom asked.

"With my friends."

"Friends? Wash up and go to bed. We'll take some time to think about what to do with you," Dad cut in.

I bowed and went to my room down the hallway. As soon as the door closed behind my back, I collapsed. "We'll take some time to think about what to do with you." Dad's voice rang in my head. I tried to brace myself, but it wasn't easy. I barely slept that night. Instead, I made two resolutions. I'll discover what I'd like to commit myself to. And I'll prove that I'm good at it.

I picked myself up and stood in front of the mirror. I could imitate the turns pretty well, but my feet kept getting twisted up. I kept making mistakes. I was supposed to do steps with my new dancing partner the next day, and I wanted to impress her. I wanted to be recognized as an equal instead of hearing "not bad."

JiMin

4 July Year 22

When I came back to myself, I was rubbing at my arm so hard that my skin peeled off. My hands trembled and I could hear the sound of my heavy breathing. A thin stream of blood ran down my arm. By the reflection in the mirror, I could see that my eyes were bloodshot. Fragments of what happened raced through my mind.

I'd lost concentration while dancing with my partner. My steps got tangled. I crashed into her, fell down, and skinned my arm. The blood reminded me of the Grass Flower Arboretum. I felt suffocated. I couldn't remember how I got up, ran out of the practice room, and made it to the restroom. I scrubbed and washed the scrape like crazy, becoming more and more frightened at seeing the blood sucked down the drain. I thought I'd overcome this. I thought I was OK. But I wasn't. I had to flee. I had to wash it off. I had to look the other way. Then, I suddenly realized that my partner also fell.

I quickly rushed back to the practice room but there was no one there. Her overcoat and HoSeok's bag were scattered on the floor. I ran outside. It was raining hard. I could see HoSeok, with my dancing partner on his back, running with all his might in the far distance. She seemed to be unconscious. Her limp arms swayed in every direction.

I chased after him with an umbrella in my hand but came to a stop. I tried to recall the moment she fell but couldn't.

When I saw the blood, everything around me vanished. I wouldn't be of any help even if I caught up with him. I'd hurt her by pushing her to the ground but didn't even stop to see if she was OK because I was shaking like jelly at my own blood.

I turned around. Every time I took a step, rain splattered onto my sneakers. The headlights of cars swished by me. It'd rained on that picnic day a long time ago, just like today. On that day, I'd run away from the Grass Flower Arboretum. My body was covered with mud that looked like blood. I hadn't grown up one bit from that little eight-year-old kid.

HoSeok

7 July Year 22

My ankle didn't heal well. I had a small accident a few days ago. Now I can say that it was "small," but it was serious at the time. JiMin and that girl ran into each other while practicing a dance move and they both fell hard. I carried the girl on my back and ran to the hospital. It wasn't far, but it was raining. She was unconscious.

While she got treated, I paced up and down the hallway. It was late at night, but the hallway in front of the emergency room was full of people drinking coffee from the vending machine or looking at their phones. Rain and sweat dripped from my hair. I shook my hair with one hand, sitting down on a bench in one corner, and dropped her bag by mistake. Coins rolled around on the floor, and ballpoint pens and a handkerchief were scattered all over. There was also a plane ticket. I knew that she'd applied for an audition for an international dance team. The ticket must've meant that she won the spot.

At that moment, the doctor called me up. I put the ticket back in her bag and walked towards the doctor. He said that the girl had hit her head and had a concussion and that I didn't need to worry too much. It was still raining outside. I stood by the entrance with her.

"HoSeok." The girl called me. She seemed as if she had something to say.

"Wait here. I'll go buy an umbrella." I ran out into the pouring rain. A convenience store came into view. I didn't want to hear what she was going to say. I wasn't sure if I could congratulate her.

JiMin was anxiously waiting for me back in the practice room. I told him that the girl was OK, but JiMin looked dejected and bent his head low.

The next morning, my ankle was swollen. I'd tripped slightly the night before while carrying her on my back. It was raining, and I was running. I didn't even fall. My foot slipped just a little. I put on a pain relief patch and tried to walk more carefully. I thought it'd be OK. It didn't swell up that much at first. But it got worse and worse. I had to stay on my feet all day at the burger joint. And I couldn't skip dance practice.

TaeHyung

10 July Year 22

I darted down the sloping roads and through narrow back alleys. I'd lived in this neighborhood for about twenty years. I knew every nook and cranny. Every corner brought back stories and memories. But this wasn't the time for reminiscing. The police were chasing me. I couldn't afford to get lost in memories. But as I turned one corner after another, as I jumped one fence after another, it felt as if time was winding backwards.

I spray-painted graffiti at the bus stop for the first time in a long time. I picked up the spray cans again because of one girl. I ran into her while she was trying to steal food from a convenience store a few days ago. She couldn't bring herself to look down at her empty hands. She was obviously scared of her empty hands. I didn't want to admit that I knew exactly how she felt. You have to look squarely into your own empty hands. No one can do it for you. But I couldn't turn my head away from her. I recognized the look on her face. The look when you feel like you don't belong anywhere in the world. When you're afraid you are responsible for everything that went wrong in your life. When you are lonely and don't know where to go or stay.

I saw that girl from time to time after that day. We didn't do anything special together. We just sat on the street or walked along the railroad. Then we did some graffiti together. She seemed to feel awkward holding a spray can for the first time but did her best to follow what I did. Finally, we came to the bus stop. NamJoon got off at this bus stop. The police also frequently showed up here. I once got caught spraying graffiti here. The girl tried to read my face as I stood still with a spray can in my hand.

I hadn't been in touch with NamJoon since I saw him at the hospital. But I did pass by his container by the railroad one night several days ago. I was out in the street to get away from Dad and his drunken temper. I just blindly ran out, wandered around aimlessly, and saw the light on at the container. Someone was in there. It must've been NamJoon. I wanted to go in. But I couldn't. I got closer and could hear a faint melody and snoring sound. I sat on the ground in front of the container and looked up at the sky. It was literally pitch black without any hint of stars.

The police were gaining on me fast. I was hiding in an alley with a dead end. There was no way out. It was meant to be. Even if I stopped reminiscing and concentrated on getting away, I'd get caught anyway. It was the expected outcome. No problem could be solved with empty fists. I walked out of the alley and put both my arms up. I surrendered.

NamJoon

13 July Year 22

I packed my bag and got out of the library. It'd been over a month since I started working night shifts at the gas station. And I went to the library during the day. I was beat after coming home from working all night. But I didn't just sit around after the alarm went off. It's not that I'd accomplished anything over the past month. I just stared out the window or skimmed through magazines in a daze. It wasn't like I wasn't feeling impatient. I knew I had to go at my own pace. But it wasn't as easy as I thought. What were all these people doing here in the library? Would I be able to catch up with them? But I didn't know where to start or what to hold onto.

I leaned my head against the window of the bus. From the library to the gas station. Every day. The tediously familiar landscape slid by outside the window. Would I ever be able to escape from this routine? It seemed impossible for me to even wish for a better tomorrow.

A woman sitting in the front of the bus came into view. Her shoulders heaved as if she were sighing. She was the woman who handed out fliers on a pedestrian overpass. I also recognized her from the library. We'd studied at the same library and gone home on the same bus for the past month. I'd never struck up a conversation with her, but we watched the same landscape, went through the same experiences, and sighed in the same way. I saw how she dozed off in one corner of the library and how her nose bled in front of the coffee vending machine. I wasn't looking for her, but she caught my eye from time to time. I still had the hairband in my pocket, which I bought from a street vendor without thinking after I saw her hair tied with a yellow rubber band.

The bus was approaching her stop. Someone pushed the stop button, and several passengers stood up. But the woman didn't. She must've fallen asleep. Should I wake her up? I hesitated for a moment. The bus finally came to a stop, but she showed no sign of moving. Passengers got off, the door slid closed, and the bus drove on.

The bus reached my stop and the woman still hadn't woken up. I hesitated once again as I got out through the back door. No one would pay attention to her. She'd missed her stop already and wouldn't wake up until a few more stops passed. That'd probably add even more fatigue to her life.

The bus departed as soon as I got off. I didn't look back. I'd placed the hairband on the woman's bag, and that was it. Several days ago, I'd been here and seen some graffiti painted on the wall in front of the bus stop. I'd automatically looked around, but TaeHyung had been nowhere in sight. I'd assumed he'd left in a hurry because the spray cans were rolling around on the ground. I stared at the graffiti painted all over the wall for a while.

SeokJin

14 July Year 22

I sat on a bench at a tent bar next to NamJoon. It was after midnight, but the tent bar was filled with guests who had come to close their days with bitter drinks. The call came in the afternoon. NamJoon had asked me to meet him after his shift at the gas station. And he hadn't said anything so far. He just continued to drain glass after glass. I asked him if anything was wrong, and he just smiled and shook his head. "It's just that my life hasn't changed a bit since I was born. It doesn't get better or worse."

NamJoon said that his energy had run dry. That he'd pretended to be a friend when he couldn't do anything for us. That that was why he couldn't meet TaeHyung or visit JungKook again. That he was making excuses even at this moment and he was nothing.

Our high school years came to mind after we'd had quite a few drinks. That incident TaeHyung disclosed on the beach. Why did NamJoon defend me then? "Why did you do it then?"

Instead of answering my question, NamJoon asked another. Why did I do what I did then? Mom's death, my childhood at my maternal grandmother's in LA, Dad's cold expression when I came back to Korea. I'd never felt the warmth of a family. Maybe I was feeling tipsy or it was the night air, but I confided all my secrets that I'd never revealed before.

"Now I know everything about you, but aren't the others also waiting for you to share your story? Waiting for you to give them a clue about what happened then?" NamJoon said after listening to my confession. I told him goodbye and headed home. I strolled along the street for some time, staggering a bit. The night breeze was refreshing, and the moon in the sky was bright. I stopped in front of some graffiti painted on the bus stop. If I confessed everything, would NamJoon believe me? If someone confessed to me what I was going to say, would I be able to believe that person?

A few days ago, I drove past the convenience store where TaeHyung was working. Through the car window, I could see him smiling. He was talking to a customer and laughing out loud. That familiar laughter that made his mouth turn into a square shape. What is there to talk and laugh so loudly about with a customer? Well, TaeHyung had always been like that. He shook with laughter at jokes no one found funny and shed tears at things no one found sad. How should I reconcile with TaeHyung? The future appeared bleak.

HoSeok

16 July Year 22

I turned the pages of the sketchbook one by one. We were smiling together in the classroom-turned-storage room, in the tunnel, and against the backdrop of the sea. JungKook was lying alone on an asphalt road. Blood was streaming down the road. The large moon hung high in the night sky.

"Are you hurt?" I looked back and saw JungKook coming into his patient room. I had danced with my ankle wrapped in a pressure bandage, and now a plaster cast was around that ankle. "I seem to be in a better shape than you." I deliberately showed a dramatic reaction to his words and said that his health was unbeatable. JungKook said he'd undergo a thorough checkup the next week and be able to go home after that if there were no problems.

I decided that we should throw him a party. We'd had a party at NamJoon's container on the day JiMin escaped from the hospital, with hamburgers and cola and cake that SeokJin brought. We fought over who got to wear the only party hat until it was crushed. We smeared that expensive cake all over each other's faces. NamJoon complained that he'd have to clean up the mess all by himself. But it was fun. The seven of us finally got together for the first time after we left high school. We laughed at every word and every movement.

Every minute together was exhilarating and exciting even though we didn't say or do much. I had wanted to make a day like this. A day we met and laughed together again.

"Hey, that night..." JungKook started to say as we got off the elevator and headed for the front door of the hospital. His gaze was fixed on something outside. He didn't seem to actually be looking at anything. He was just blinking his eyes as if trying to dig up an old memory. "Does SeokJin talk about that night? I mean, has he said that he saw me or...?" JungKook stopped talking.

"SeokJin? Saw you? Where?" I asked, but he didn't open his mouth again.

"You're a good person, right?" JungKook asked me before we parted.

"Stop talking nonsense." I tapped him on his shoulder playfully and waved goodbye.

I quickly bent my steps. Am I a good person? Growing up, I'd been told that I was a bright and cheerful kid. I used to be told that I was sensitive and impressionable. Did that mean I was a good person? I'd never given it a thought before. I looked back and saw him still standing at the entrance and looking up at the cloudy sky.

SeokJin

24 July Year 22

I followed Dad into the brightly lit conference room. I sat on a chair by the entrance and looked around. I wasn't sure why I'd been summoned there. Dad sat in the center and was surrounded by familiar faces. I looked at the clock. The discharge party for JungKook must've started. I was thinking of calling the others when Dad opened his mouth and the entire room became still. The atmosphere was heavy, but it didn't feel ominous. Rather, the room was buzzing with excitement and expectations. The lights went out, and the title of the conference appeared on the screen. Masterplan for the Redevelopment of Downtown Songju.

Dad had called me all of a sudden. To be exact, it was his secretary who called me. I'd said I had an appointment, but I didn't think it would work. Dad asked me in the car on our way here if I was still hanging out with those so-called friends of mine. I didn't answer. He wasn't asking a question. He was just belittling them, reproaching me for getting along with them, and ordering me to cut ties with them.

He didn't even look at me. "Don't waste your time on nothing. I'm telling you this out of experience. Besides, you'll have to help out a lot here. Try to learn as much as you can. Then, you'll soon grow into an adult worth your salt."

JiMin

24 July Year 22

The inside of the container was completely decorated. The hamburgers, fries, and drinks HoSeok brought were set on the table, and Christmassy ornaments were dangling on the walls. JungKook was sitting in the center.

Only three of the seven cups were filled. HoSeok had left for his part-time shift after laying out the food, and NamJoon was coming late after his part-time shift was over. No one could get hold of YoonGi, and SeokJin said he'd come but hadn't shown up yet. TaeHyung sat speechless. Is he still uncomfortable in NamJoon's container? I'd almost dragged him here, but it was impossible to liven up the mood.

This was how we were most of the time after returning from the sea. No one reached out to the others first, and no one was aware of how the others were doing. Maybe it was inevitable. We were no longer those students who'd ditched school to hang out together. We all had our own set of problems and obligations now. We couldn't afford to disregard them just because we wanted to be together. As for me, I had to work hard to stay out of the hospital and decide whether I'd go back to school. I had to prove to my parents, as well as myself, that I was OK. I had to make sure that I wasn't a burden for anyone.

After some time, JungKook hesitantly stood up. I held onto him, saying he should stay a little bit longer and see NamJoon. JungKook just laughed, saying he'd take a rain check. I couldn't keep him there. We cleared the table and left the container. We turned on our phones' flashlight function. It was ten-thirty. We parted in front of the container. As I crossed the railroad and waited for the bus to come, I could see JungKook and TaeHyung walking away in the distance with their flashlights on.

TaeHyung

24 July Year 22

I darted up the stairs, taking three and four at a time. Liquor bottles were rolling around here and there, and cups and plates were scattered across the floor. Dad had fallen to the ground in one corner with his head bowed. My sister said it was not what I thought even before I opened my mouth. "Dad's voice was a bit loud, and someone must've called the police, thinking he was beating us."

Then the police officers came into view. Women from the neighborhood who were gathered in front of our door clicked their tongues and walked away. My sister kept apologizing and bowing to the police officers. "Nothing was broken and no one got hurt." I didn't need to be ashamed of this situation. Dad's drinking habit had long been the gossip of the neighborhood, but I looked the other way. Dad seemed to have fallen asleep. His face was sun-burned and covered with a bushy beard as he was working as a day laborer at a construction site. He had more gray hair than before. I could see the watery inside of his mouth and his tongue.

I used to kill Dad in my dreams. Once, I almost stabbed him in reality. Maybe it started from that point. I began to sympathize with him. I hated myself for sympathizing with him. Could that person be called a parent? He was not qualified to be one.

Someone tapped me on my shoulder, and I looked back to find a familiar face. He was a police officer who'd been dispatched to my house a few times. I'd also seen him at the police station several times when I was called in for graffiti. I just bent my head low. It was a gesture to say "I'm sorry" for making them rush here for nothing, but I was also uncertain what look to wear on my face.

"Your neighbors must be worried about you two a lot. The lady who reported this incident didn't sound annoyed at all and asked us repeatedly to come quickly before someone got hurt. Make sure to find her and thank her later." I asked him if that lady's voice was low and husky. He couldn't recall exactly but it could've been. My sister, who was talking with another police officer, turned her head to look at me.

"Do you keep in touch with Mom?" I asked her after everybody left. She was cleaning up the bottles and plates scattered on the floor, and I was sitting against a wall. Dad was still asleep in that uncomfortable position. The sun had already set, and the long window above Dad's head was pitch dark.

My sister picked herself up and sat at the dining table. She didn't say a word, but her silence more than answered my question. I asked her for Mom's address and telephone number. "I don't know her number. I just know that she lives in a rented apartment in Buk-gu, Munhyeon. TaeHyung, why do you want to contact her?" She asked.

"To ask her. What she'd been thinking. Why she left. Why she appeared again."

My sister sat down next to me. "TaeHyung, Mom misses you."

I snorted and stood up. She was clearly unaware of how mad I was. I told her I was going to ask Mom these questions, but I wasn't particularly curious about her answers. How would it help me even if I knew why she left? I just wanted to release my smoldering resentment. "Why did she come here? She's the one who abandoned us. And now she wants to play the mom figure?"

I started walking north, towards the direction of Munhyeon. I wanted to walk faster than my throbbing heart. That was the only way for me to be able to breathe. It was already past midnight. Buses had stopped running and I had no money for a taxi. Walking was my only option. In order to get there, I had to cross the railroad and a bridge and pass through downtown. I might be able to get there before sunrise. I sensed someone's footsteps behind when I was crossing the railroad. JungKook was following me. I'd completely forgotten that JungKook was with me when I ran into my house at the sight of the patrol car out front.

"Go away!" I shouted at JungKook and walked on without looking back. He must've seen it all. The police, the neighbors clicking their tongues, liquor bottles rolling around, Dad snoring, and my sister with her head bent low. JungKook must have seen it all. I'd never told anyone about Dad's violence. Never. I'd never told the others that Mom ran away. It wasn't because of my pride. Maybe it was. It just didn't seem fair that I should have to explain my miserable situation and life by myself.

I quickened my pace. I'd finally got out of the residential area and climbed up the stairs of a pedestrian overpass over the railroad when I heard footsteps behind me. I took a quick glance and saw JungKook. I was going to scream out, asking why he was still following me, but changed my mind. It was none of my business. I stepped onto the bridge after coming down from the railroad. JungKook was still following me from far behind. I stopped in the middle of the bridge and looked down at the river.

In the dead of the night, roads and buildings were dimly illuminated by the streetlamps, but not the river. The jet-black river ran ferociously under my feet with a roaring sound. It felt more threatening because it wasn't discernible in the dark. JungKook also stopped behind me and looked down at the river. There were only two of us on the bridge. No pedestrians and no cars. Our T-shirts were wet with perspiration and flapped in the wind.

"Do you know we've been walking for the past hour?" I waved at JungKook, and he came closer. We began to walk side by side. "Can I ask where we're going?"

I told him I was going to my mom's. I had something to tell her. JungKook nodded. My pace was getting slower. I suddenly wondered if I was really going to my mom's. I didn't exactly know where she was living. I didn't know her number or address. I had no plan after arriving at the apartment complex. My rage had subsided in just one hour and was replaced with hunger and pain.

I imagined what our encounter would be like. In fact I had already imagined it countess times. It was the next step that was unclear. After asking Mom my questions, what would she say? Would she answer them at all? If so, or if not, how should I react? Maybe it was better for all of us if I didn't meet her. That was always my conclusion. But I kept imagining the moment and was now strolling the night street like this without any plan, to see Mom.

"Is your leg OK?" Come to think of it, JungKook just got his cast off. And I'd made him walk for hours.

"The doctor said I should walk a lot as rehabilitation." JungKook showed me a smile and outpaced me as if he was trying to prove it. I couldn't bring myself to say that we should stop here. I decided to trudge on.

"Aren't you hungry?" As I loosened up, all my senses came clamoring back.

"I'm regretting that I didn't finish off the cake and that hamburger." I giggled at JungKook's words. Human beings are so absurdly strong, or so absurdly weak, and we were the proof - feeling starved, complaining that our legs hurt, and laughing together even in this situation.

The lights grew brighter and more boisterous, and a busy street soon appeared in front of us. It was far into the night, but the brightly lit street was crowded with people and cars passing by. It was three-thirty in the morning. We sat at an outdoor table outside a convenience store.

JungKook said he was thirsty as we were about halfway through our instant cup noodles. I went into the store to buy drinks. When I came back someone was standing in front of JungKook. He had his back turned to me, so I couldn't tell who he was or what he was doing. JungKook was looking up at him with an alarmed face. I ran to JungKook's side and looked at the man.

The man was wearing a dark khaki overcoat in the middle of summer. He had a dirty mop of bushy gray hair, and his scraggly beard was stained with ramen broth. He reeked of alcohol. He was greedily devouring my instant noodles. It'd be no use asking him who he was or why he was eating my noodles. I was surprised but not angry. Actually, I was scared.

At that moment, someone from a group of troublemakers coming out of the convenience store shoved the man's shoulder, and another tripped him. The man in the overcoat lost his balance and pushed the table as he fell down. JungKook's instant noodle cup toppled over, and the broth spilled all over his legs. JungKook sprang to his feet and hastily shook it off his pants. He said he was OK and wasn't burned as the broth had cooled already.

The group of troublemakers were walking away, snickering. The man in the dirty khaki overcoat was staring at the toppled cup. His fingers were on the table and covered with noodles. I couldn't bring myself to ask if he was OK. "Shouldn't you apologize? You just made this mess." I screamed at the men.

They looked back. "No, we didn't. He did. And no one told you to sit there. Little punks out at this hour. " The men cursed inarticulately.

The man in the dirty overcoat looked at me. Our eyes met in the air. He had yellowish eyes and a face covered with age spots. He reminded me of someone. Someone who was always on the drink, swinging at everything with his fists, and living like a dictator and a loser.

What I expected to happen happened. I flung myself at the men, and two from the group threw punches at me. I dodged the first punch, but the second punch grazed my chin. JungKook stepped in to stop me but got caught up in the fight as well. The plastic tables and chairs were turned over, and the "No Parking" sign got kicked down. The part-timer at the convenience store had already called the police, as if he were used to such rows. We could hear the siren a minute later. We all leapt to our feet and ran in opposite directions, shouting at each other that they were lucky to get away this time.

I was particularly good at fleeing. I sometimes got caught on purpose, but now was not one of those times. I continued to lead the way, checking whether JungKook was keeping up. A silvery car passed by us at full speed. Its side mirror brushed against JungKook. Stunned, he sank down. He'd just been discharged from the hospital after two months because of a traffic accident. It was natural that he was stunned. The car came to a screeching stop, and one of the men who'd hit us earlier stuck his head out of the passenger seat window. "Watch it. We're letting you go just this once. There'll be no mercy next time." And the car vanished with a roaring engine.

JungKook slowly picked himself up, holding onto my arm. He looked uncomfortable. He must have hurt his leg when he fell. The inside of my mouth throbbed. Blood smeared on the back of my hand when I wiped my mouth with it. "Where should we go?" JungKook asked.

"With this leg? We're going back."

JungKook began to walk, saying that he was OK. "Look! I'm fine." I stood there and watched JungKook drag one leg from behind.

"Let's go back!" I shouted at JungKook. I checked my phone. It was four-fifty in the morning. We still had some time to kill until the first bus came. I looked around and found a low hill behind the entertainment district. "Have you seen the sunrise?"

I propped up JungKook as we walked up the hill. I sank down on the stairs at the end of the gentle slope. They say the sky is at its darkest right before the sunrise, and it was true. No stars were visible in the pitch-dark sky. But neon signs of different shapes and colors were radiating bright lights in the city down below. I turned my eyes northward. I roughly guessed the neighborhood that Mom must be living in. There, that must be it. She must be eating, sleeping, and cleaning in that apartment.

"JungKook, I followed Mom then." JungKook stared at me. I fixed my eyes on the windows of the apartment complex. Then. That night. That night ten years ago when Mom left home. That night when Mom, my sister, and I were beaten to a pulp by Dad and we cried ourselves to sleep. I couldn't recall why he beat us so hard. But I distinctly remember thinking, I'm supposed to go swimming with my friends tomorrow, and I guess Mom won't be able to pack a lunch for me. Will my busted lip heal by tomorrow? If not, they'll make fun of me. My shoulders hurt. I shouldn't have tried to turn to avoid his punches. My sister is weeping quietly. It was even more distressing to hear it today.

Half asleep, I caught a glimpse of Mom standing at our feet and looking down at us. She was leaving. She was deserting us. I knew it instantly. I pretended to be asleep, got up, and followed her. I didn't have any plan. I wasn't thinking of living with her. I didn't feel bitter or scared. What it'd be like to have no mother, what it'd be like to live without one - it wasn't something you could just understand.

I followed her for quite some time. In my memory, I walked all night. But my memory must be exaggerated as I was a little child then. She didn't look back. Not even once. Was she really unaware of me following her? Maybe she was struggling to look forward for fear of having to take me with her if she looked back. "Of course, that thought came to me afterwards. When I struggled to grasp an understanding of her. Now? I don't know why I came this far."

"Hey." I looked up at JungKook's voice. "I'm sorry."

I gazed at him. "What are you sorry for? Why are you sorry?"

"You couldn't go see your mom because of me." JungKook answered.

"Are you an idiot?" I flared. I didn't mean to lose my temper. But my voice got louder on its own. My tongue continued to trip as I wasn't good at speaking and didn't know how to express my feelings. "Why do you feel sorry? People should be sorry for you. What did you do wrong? I should be sorry for bringing you here. My parents, who made me bring you here, should be sorry. Those guys who picked the fight first should be sorry." I continued to raise my voice. "You are a good person. You are as good as you can be. It's not your fault. It's not your fault!"

The sky, which had seemed to remain pitch dark forever, began to tum bluish in a flash. The light that permeated the sky from the farthest end sucked in the glimmer of the neon signs. We watched the sunrise without a word. The huge, red-hot sun surged up over the apartment complex. Is Mom watching the sunrise, too?

The two of us sat in the back of the bus next to each other on our way home. It was before dawn broke over us. The road was empty, and the bus continued to race along. I turned my head and looked towards the north once again. That night. Mom had stopped walking. She stood there motionless for some time. She didn't look back, either. If I had continued forward at that point, I would've reached her. I could've held onto her hand and asked where she was going, where she was headed while leaving us behind, and when she was coming back. I could've cried, thrown a tantrum, and maybe pulled her back home. But I just turned around and returned home alone. My entire body ached and I couldn't go swimming with the others. I lay on the floor, sweating and trying to sleep. I didn't know why.

"It's that man again." Hearing JungKook's voice, I looked out the window. A stooped-over man in a khaki overcoat was walking alone.

The Direction Where the Sun Rises

HoSeok

25 July Year 22

I ran into YoonGi on my way to the practice room from the hospital. I was heading to the practice room without realizing it and stopped. What would I even be able to do there? My ankle had gotten worse. The soft cast had been replaced with a real plaster cast. The doctor scolded me. "You shouldn't strain your ankle." But I couldn't sit down while working at the burger joint. I had a lot going on at the practice room, too. "You have to be extra careful with your ankle. It's been injured before, and it might get damaged permanently unless you take extra care." The doctor kept saying this again and again.

I entered onto the main road leading to my house on my crutches. I hadn't gone home at such an early hour before. I hadn't skipped training without a special reason. I came face to face with YoonGi. He was drunk and staggering at a crosswalk. He didn't recognize me as he brushed past.

I turned my head and fixed my eyes on the "Walk" signal. Two days after my visit to JungKook at the hospital, I'd gone to YoonGi's workroom. He didn't answer my call, so I just went straight to his workroom. It must've been in the morning because it was before I went to Two Star Burger. I knocked on the door, but no one responded. The faint sound of music streamed through the door. I thought of calling him again but gave up. I kicked the door instead.

I'd known YoonGi since middle school. I knew how his mom had died, how her death had impacted him, and how he'd struggled afterwards. I tried to be a comforting, reliable friend to him. I laughed off his harsh words and took him around even though he thought I was annoying. But we were of no importance to him. We thought at least JungKook must be different. He surely knew what he meant to JungKook. He'd already heard about JungKook's accident from JiMin. But he didn't come to the hospital. What's worse, a woman who claimed to be his musical partner came up to me out of the blue several days ago. She told me that she'd found me after asking around with everyone. She said that she wasn't able to contact him.

The "Walk" signal turned green. I began to cross the crosswalk, staggering myself. I looked back as I bent my steps. I tried not to but couldn't help it. YoonGi lay on the street in front of a cart selling accessories. The vendor screamed at him as passers-by frowned.

"When are you going to stop doing this?" He looked up at me blankly. "Do you think You're the only one going through tough times? Do you think I put on a smile in front of others because my life is all rosy and bright? Tell me. What are you so upset about? Everyone knows you're good at music and they all willingly put up with you even when you act up. Yes, you must've been in pain since your mom died. I know. But you can't go on like this forever. Aren't you going to make music? Can you live without it? Haven't you been happy, even just once, because of music? Why didn't you go see JungKook? Don't you know what you mean to him? Don't you see we're all hurting too? Don't you see that?"

I didn't mean to push him so hard, but I was really upset. It wasn't entirely because of him. I was upset that I was on crutches. Injuries were inevitable but also fatal for dancers. I thought I'd been on guard, but I got hurt at an unexpected moment. It was my fault. No one else could be blamed for it. I knew I'd be nervous and conscious of my ankle every time I danced, and that'd make me dispirited. Or else, I'd get injured again. And yet I couldn't get away from it. I couldn't live without dancing. I had to keep dancing despite being dispirited and injured.

"It's time to stop running away. If you're going to run away again, don't ever come back."

I turned around and crossed the street. "HoSeok." I thought I heard him calling me but didn't look back. I'd always blamed myself for everything that went wrong. I'd always thought I should've done this or endured that. I didn't want to live like that anymore.

YoonGi

25 July Year 22

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I opened my eyes in the middle of the night. It was raining. Curses came out of my mouth automatically as I picked myself up off the ground. I sat still for a while. My entire body was soaked wet with rain. I felt shaky and chilly all over.

"If you're going to run away again, don't ever come back." HoSeok's voice rang in my ears. All I could remember after leaving JungKook's hospital was that I continued to falter, bump into things, and fall. Seized by drunkenness, headaches, fear, and despair, I was unaware of how much time had passed or where I was. That's when I came across HoSeok. At that moment, I felt choked up. It was half joy and half relief. For some reason, I believed that he'd be able to understand my confusion and fear even though I couldn't understand myself.

But HoSeok looked away. He was pretending not to have seen me. Soon the signal changed and I just stood there watching him walk away. Then someone shoved me and I fell to the ground. I heard people screaming and clicking their tongues at me.

"Why didn't you go see JungKook? Don't you know what you mean to him?" Of course I knew. Maybe that was why I couldn't go into his room. I was distorted and thorny. Anyone who tried to come near me was bound to get hurt.

I raised my head and looked onto the desolate mountain trail. There were two directions. I could walk deeper into the mountain or I could turn around and go back down. I began to move towards the dark forest. I always took my chances at forks in the road. I had no destination. I'd lost my sense of time. Maybe I was going around in circles. It felt as if my knees would give in any minute because of the biting cold and fatigue. I was out of breath, and my heart was throbbing. What if I just collapsed here and died? Well, if I'm destined to die here, then this is where I'll die. I sank down.

Raindrops fell on my face. It was as dark with my eyes open as when they were closed. I was drowning in layers of darkness. I thought of death again and again. I wanted to flee from the fears and desires that continued to haunt me. I wanted to run as far from that terrifying object that I was helplessly drawn to but couldn't look at straight, that agony that pushed me from one extreme to the other. Now must be the time. It was all for the better.

I'd inflicted pain on others as I suffered greater pain. I looked away from their wounds. I didn't want to take any responsibility. I didn't want to get involved. That was who I was. This moment must be a blessing for everyone. I blinked slowly and began to doze off. The cold, pain, and fatigue disappeared. And I became numb to the darkness, the light, and my surroundings. Everything became dim.

I opened my eyes again at the sound of a piano. It was silent. Except for the sounds of raindrops falling and leaves rustling. Amidst the silence, the fragile and delicate piano sounds continued to drift towards me. Someone playing the piano deep in the mountain in the middle of the night? I thought it was a hallucination, but it continued.

I smirked. It was that melody. That melody I'd tried so hard to recall. That something substantial that was missing, that made me stay up all night for days on end. Why was it coming to me at this moment of all occasions? I concentrated harder, but the tune was still barely audible and distant and interrupted by the sound of rain. I started coughing.

I tried to stand up but stopped. What would I do now even if I could discern the melody? What would change even if I completed my music? I'd never wanted to be recognized by others, receive applause, or be famous. I'd never wanted to prove myself. Then what would it mean to complete this piece?

But I pushed myself up from the ground with one hand and started towards the direction where the sound was coming from. I was staggering and my body was trembling. My face and hands were numb. I couldn't feel my legs. None of my body parts seemed to be under my control. But I took firm steps, one at a time, to get closer to the melody.

Heavy drops of rain struck my head. My shirt was dripping wet. Every joint and muscle seemed to scream. My legs shivered so violently that I couldn't lift my feet from the ground. My feet slipped on the wet grass, and thorny twigs brushed against my shoulders. I felt chilled to my core and almost collapsed. My pace grew slower and slower. The piano melody had been subsiding with every step I took.

I strenuously quickened my pace to find the source of the music before it stopped. I was afraid that, if it did, I would never be able to hear it again. I marched forward, not able to tell the walking trail from the forest. I was struck by drooping branches. Then, suddenly, my knees crumpled and I fell to the ground. I was so out of breath that I felt like throwing up. All my senses came rushing back, and I felt the cold, fatigue, and strange surroundings deep in the mountain so vividly. As I quickened my pace more and more, as I hit against more branches, as my feet slipped harder, the piano sound became clearer. The more severe the pain, the louder the sound grew.

I finally stopped walking after wandering in the rain for hours. The melody was more vividly brought to life. It exploded in my head as it combined with what I'd been composing up until a few days ago. I covered my head with both hands and sank down. It was closer to a raw emotion than music. It stimulated my sense of pain rather than my hearing. It was a combination of suffering, hope, joy, and fear. It was everything that I'd tried so hard to get away from.

Suddenly, a scene from one bright sunny afternoon appeared before my eyes. I was playing a tune in front of the piano in my workroom. It was that melody that continued to revolve in my head. "This sounds really nice." JungKook came closer. I chuckled. "You always say that."

It was not a single melody. It was a combination of various memories. From the days I used to playfully pound on the piano keys as a child. From the days my friends danced in sync with my performance in the classroom-turned-storage room. From the days when I stayed up all night writing pieces and inhaled the fresh morning air. My piano was beside me at every happy moment. These happy memories always ended up being shattered to pieces, but they couldn't be denied.

What would it mean to complete this piece? I still couldn't find the answer. But there was something that preceded this question and the answer. I wanted to capture all this before it scattered into the air. It wasn't to please anyone or to prove something. It wasn't even for myself. I just wanted to capture this emotion, pain, and fear, which were about to explode in my head and heart, with music. It didn't have to signal the beginning of something. It didn't have to mean anything. I just wanted to complete this music.

The piano sound was no longer audible. The rain was gradually subsiding, but my body was trembling uncontrollably. I closed my eyes and felt everything surrounding me even more vividly. The raindrops that fell on my cheeks splashed onto the ground, and flowed in a stream, the chilly wind, the smell of soil, the rustling sound of leaves. And my breathing. When I picked myself up, the sign for the mineral spring came into sight. I thought I'd roamed deeply into the mountain, but I was back where I'd started. And the path still stretched in two opposite directions. I bent my steps towards the direction where the sun rises.

JiMin

28 July Year 22

I checked the inside of Two Star Burger. HoSeok was nowhere to be seen. It'd been four days since he last showed up at the practice room. Someone said he told my dance partner that he'd taken a break, but after that he didn't answer anyone's call. He didn't even read the messages posted in the Just Dance group chat.

I knew his ankle was bothering him. Maybe it was that night. The night when my dance partner was injured because of me. It had rained that night, and he carried her on his back to the hospital in the rain. His condition must be getting worse.

As I stepped into the restaurant, the workers greeted me cheerily. "Is HoSeok off today?" They said he was on sick leave, probably for three weeks, but they weren't sure. His ankle got worse. He had to wear a cast, and the manager recommended that he take some time off.

I ran directly to his house. I couldn't wait for the bus to come, so I ran up the sloping road. It was scorching hot that day. My back was dripping with sweat. I darted up the stairs to his rooftop room. The doorknob, heated by the sunlight, was burning hot. It was locked. I left a message in our group chat. "Where are you, HoSeok?" By the end of the day, he still hadn't replied.

YoonGi

28 July Year 22

I could finally manage to get up in the afternoon. I suffered from severe chills for two days after coming down from the mountain, I couldn't remember any details from those two days. I trembled and shivered with fever. I sometimes came back to myself but quickly lost it again.

My sheet was soaking wet. I still felt giddy. I stepped out of my workroom, trying to keep myself steady. I went to the hospital to get an IV and then stuffed food in my mouth. But I threw it all back up. I read JiMin's message while I was rinsing my mouth out in the restroom. Although the seen number next to the message went up, there were no replies.

I walked along the railroad and arrived at the bus stop. There was an unfinished building in the distance. The construction had been halted for months. The music shop was slightly up the hill after passing by that building. I stopped in front of the music shop. There was no crackling sound of flames or a clumsy, slow piano performance. I didn't have the energy to bend down, pick up a stone, and throw it. The whole thing seemed like the distant past and made me wonder if it really had happened. I could see a piano through the shop window.

"Don't you see we're all hurting too? Don't you see that?" That was what HoSeok said the other day. The memories of that day were all tangled up in my head. But I distinctly remembered that HoSeok was somewhat different. It wasn't the first time that HoSeok had been angry with me. He'd never been on such edge, but he had always pushed, pulled, and encouraged me every time I fell. Why did it feel different?

I opened JiMin's message again. "Where are you, HoSeok?" Several hours had passed, but HoSeok hadn't replied. I could see that I'd let him down. It felt as if something inside me was flopping and thumping around. HoSeok often got angry and pushed us. But he'd never lapsed into silence or looked the other way. He was the one who always paved the way for me to come back no matter how far astray I'd gone. Not this time. It seemed irrevocable this time.

NamJoon

7 August Year 22

I switched on the light and looked at the flier that was attached to the door of my container. It read "redevelopment" and "demolition." People must be talking about the redevelopment of this area again. There was always chatter about tearing down the containers lining the railroad and the squatters' buildings across the railroad. I crumpled up the flier and threw it into the trash can. The talk of the redevelopment didn't begin yesterday. But it always boiled up as if the demolition would take place the next day and then subsided after a short while.

I put down my bag and lay on the floor. It'd been a while since the sun set, but the inside of the container was still hot. I spent every night here after I visited JungKook. It felt exhausting. My nose bled from time to time when I was washing my face. But I always came here instead of the tiny back room of the gas station.

No one else had opened that door and stepped in here. Maybe no one ever would. All those who meet must part, without exception. It could've been our turn. But, if someone still felt the need for "us" to be together, I wanted to send him a signal that I was here. I wanted to show him that "our" hideout was still here and still lit.

TaeHyung

11 August Year 22

I came out of the convenience store after finishing my shift. I habitually took out my phone, but there were no missed calls or messages. It was sundown, and the street was full of people busily walking by. I put both hands into my pockets and walked on. A sultry wind swept across the road. I started to sweat after taking a few steps. How much longer was this summer going to last? I kicked the ground, frustrated.

I kept walking with my head bent low and stopped in front of a familiar-looking wall. It was the wall where that girl drew her first graffiti. I automatically looked around. Since that night when I left her in the alley and came out in front of the headlights of the patrol car by myself, I hadn't seen her in my neighborhood.

I discovered a large "X" sprayed over her graffiti as I tried to find her traces. What did it mean? Various images overlapped the "X"ed out graffiti. The image of her laughing at me when I tried to lie on the railroad and hit my head. And how she got me back up to my feet when I helped her flee and fell. How she lost her temper when I took her bread and ate it. How she looked gloomy every time she passed by the photo studio with family pictures on display. I'd told her as we sprayed this wall side by side, "Don't think you have to carry the burden alone. Share it with others." The giant "X" was sprayed over all those memories. It seemed to scream that they were fake. That they were all lies. I'd never really looked at this wall since that day.

I was about to turn around when I discovered a short sentence written in tiny characters under the "X." It's not your fault was scratched into the wall. It was that girl. I didn't see her write it or recognize her handwriting, but I just knew. "It's not your fault." It was that girl.

I recalled the day I blindly set off to find Mom. I kept marching frantically, filled with seething resentment, but in the end I couldn't get anywhere that day. While walking back home empty-handed, I turned my head towards the city where she lived. The city was receding under the light of the day dawning in the east. I felt like crying. Something that I'd been firmly clinging to seemed to be slipping through my fingers. Lumps of hard feelings noiselessly fell apart. It felt sad and sorrowful, as if I'd given up something that shouldn't be given up.

"It's not your fault." The sentence reminded me of how I felt at that time. I started walking again. I passed through narrow alleys and went up and down countless slopes. Finally, my house, Magnolia Mansion, came into view. I climbed the stairs. When I stood in front of the door, I could hear Dad's heavy breathing and the clattering of liquor glasses. I turned around, placed my hands on the guardrail, and looked out. The sun had already set. Its dim red tint was disappearing from the darkening sky. "It's not your fault," I muttered. I took a deep breath, turned around, and went into my house.

HoSeok

12 August Year 22

Someone shoved my shoulder as I got off the train. I dropped the ticket I was holding. It fell onto the railroad and slipped into one of the cracks. I looked around. It was midsummer when I left and it was still summer now. The train departed for the next station, stirring up wind.

At the end of last month, I left Songju by train from this platform. I watched the city receding out of the window. As far as I could remember, I lived in Songju. I'd never left the city and never imagined living anywhere else. I went to the burger joint and to the practice room on schedule. After dancing for hours, I went home and crashed. Although the town was small, in Songju I had somewhere I needed to go to, somewhere I needed to be.

After my ankle was injured, my daily routine fell apart. I went to work and the practice room wearing a soft cast. The condition of my ankle worsened. With a full cast on, I had to take a sick leave. I had the whole three weeks full of nothing. Three weeks of no work, no dancing, and nowhere to be.

I managed to get by in the morning of the first day. The rain that poured throughout the night stopped at dawn. I cleaned the house and organized my clothes. I got a haircut and wiped rainwater from the bench in front of my house. But I ran out of things to do in the afternoon. My phone didn't ring. Some messages from my coworkers and the members of Just Dance were all that came in. Still, no call or message from the others. Come to think of it, I'd always been the one who contacted the others first. I laid my phone down. I didn't want to contact them first this time. What if none of them sends a message? So be it. I remembered how I'd run into YoonGi the night before. What I blurted out was replayed in my head. I sprang to my feet and shouted into the air. "He won't remember anyways!"

The way home seemed farther than usual after I left YoonGi there. I had to go up the slope on crutches. Although the sun had set, the air felt sultry. It was also humid. I was drenched with sweat when I got home. I didn't regret what I'd said to YoonGi. It was time for him to stop indulging in self-pity. But those moments, those words kept coming back to me.

On the rooftop, I could look down on the city without me. The train was passing through downtown and disappearing around the corner at the foot of the mountain. I carelessly threw my clothes into a bag and headed for the station. I browsed through the list of cities in front of the ticket office and picked the largest city nearby. I thought it'd be better to move to the large city. And just like that, I left Songju.

I got off the train after about two hours. As soon as I walked out of the station, I was faced with a bustling intersection. Rows of high rises and people busily walking by under the bright sun came into view. I took the first bus that stopped in front of me.

"Where should I get off?" The driver looked at me like I was speaking nonsense. A passenger who asks his own destination? Yes, I must've sounded stupid. After about twenty minutes, the bus arrived at a neighborhood that seemed like an old part of town. I put down my bag in a small room attached to a market that had a "Guesthouse" sign. I stepped outside. I couldn't tell which direction was which.

I just roamed around the neighborhood for the first two days. There were no high rises and no brightly lit commercial district. It was similar to my neighborhood where my rooftop room on the slope was. I'd chosen to leave Songju for the first time in my life and arrived at another Songju. Maybe this was why. I tried not to think of the city and people I'd left behind, but I lost control. I turned on my phone and thought about the others. I might've left Songju, but my mind was still there.

On the third day, I decided to venture out further. But in less than twenty minutes after I left the market, my shoulders began to stiffen with the crutches underneath them. Sweat ran down my back under the scorching sun. A red brick building came into view. It was the Citizens' Hall. While I was pushing the button on the vending machine, the door of the auditorium opened and several people came out. The sound of music streamed through the open door. I could see a man stretching in one corner of the stage with the spotlights illuminating his head.

I was heading into the auditorium before I knew it. As I closed the door behind my back, I was left alone in the darkness and music. I sat down in the closest seat. The sound of music flowed through the air like lapping waves. The man on the stage moved slowly and stretched his legs, ankles, arms, neck and shoulders. His stretching, which went on for quite a while, seemed like a piece of choreography itself. Then the music stopped. The man who was sitting on the floor picked himself up and walked to the center of the stage. The stage was immersed in silence for a while.

The music started again. This time, it came down in torrents. The man quickened and slackened his moves to the music. His arms and legs formed not just straight lines and curves but three-dimensional shapes. One moment led to another through his dynamic moves and gestures. His movements were creating a story that seemed to have no end. He pushed aside the air with his hands and sent reverberations through the ground, which sent adrenaline rushing not to my eyes but to my mind.

The pitch of the music grew lower and lower and led the man to a greater outburst of emotion. He roared with rage with all his might, caught his breath, and gazed at something far away. His suffering, hope, joy, and fear were conveyed unfiltered. Feelings that I'd never experienced before gushed and whirled inside me.

I wasn't aware of how much time had passed. The tight of the auditorium was switched on. I just sat there motionless. Someone approached me and asked me to leave because the dancers were rehearsing. Outsiders weren't allowed to stay. The Dance Academy performance poster was attached to the entrance of the Citizens' Hall. The man on stage wasn't featured in the poster. The performance was scheduled to take place the day after tomorrow.

I came back to the guesthouse and lay on the wide bench in the backyard. I closed my eyes and thought over those hours at the auditorium. It was my first time seeing a real performance in person. It was a whole different experience from what I'd seen through that small window called YouTube. I might've been all the more awestruck because it was so vivid and alive. I retraced each motion and gesture that made my heart pound.

At that moment, my phone buzzed in my pocket. "Where are you, HoSeok?" It was JiMin's message. The number next to the message went up gradually, but no other message was posted afterwards. What should I say? I had always explained myself half-jokingly, but I didn't want to, this time. It was the first time I hadn't responded to a message directed to me. Our group chat fell into silence.

I went to the auditorium at the same time the next day. I hid in the darkness and watched the man's moves. It was the same performance, but it conveyed a different story and different emotions. Who was he? How could he express and convey all these feelings like this? The rehearsal ended. As I stepped into the hallway, I met the man's eyes as he was talking to the staff members way ahead. I bowed without realizing it. A staff member came up to me and said, "Oh, you're the guy from yesterday."

The performance took place the next day. But the man wasn't in it. The performance, which had four chapters, didn't feature him. The show went on for over an hour, and I applauded and shouted out several times from my seat. But that was it. I couldn't re-live that overwhelming moment that boiled my heart and froze my body. None of it could compare to his amazing moves. Why didn't he join the performance? I paced around the stage after the performance, but there were only staff members and dancers busily tidying up.

I came across the performance team again at the train station. I was stepping onto the platform to leave for another city and saw a group of people gathered in the distance. They were obviously having trouble loading stage sets and all sizes of equipment on the train. I didn't have a set purpose when I went over and helped them. It was just that they looked confused and inexperienced and I was used to arranging and moving things. My cast got in the way, but I was better than most of them who were just standing there flustered. "You're that guy again." I looked around and found that staff member.

"I didn't even thank you properly." The staff member came to my seat a little while after the train departed. He sank down in the next seat and said about half of the staff had left because things got messed up. He added that they wouldn't have made it without my help. He pointed at my cast and asked if it weren't too much stress on my ankle. I just waved my hand.

"By the way, that man I saw in the rehearsal. Why wasn't he in the performance?"

He seemed confused at first. Then he nodded. "Ah, him. He's our artistic director." The staff member's explanation continued on and on. How he'd once been an acclaimed dancer. How he'd suffered a terrible injury. How he'd undergone years of despair and frustration. "Do you know the most amazing part? He surprised everyone and made a comeback as a choreographer and director." But the injury had left a lasting impact. He couldn't perform on stage again. The staff member gave a deep sigh. It was getting dark outside the window.

I came to join and tour with the show by coincidence. I helped them unload their baggage on the next station and my bag got swept away in the process. Fortunately, I had the number of one of the staff members. I got off at the next station went back to the station they got off at, and headed to their lodging. It was late at night. I was invited to spend the night with the staff. I had breakfast with them the next morning and tagged along to the District Cultural Center which was their next venue.

The staff's proposal to join them and tour together must've been made partly as a joke. I also half-jokingly chimed in. At that moment, his practice began. I watched him blankly. And then I asked them. "Can I really go with you?"

I toured around three cities with them. We took a bus or train, got off, unpacked at a motel, stuffed food in our mouths, checked the stage at the performance venue, came back to the motel, and got on the bus or train again. The man stretched and practiced every day no matter where he was. He never skipped a day although he wasn't going to perform on stage.

I made friends with the staff members and the dancers. Their dances and mine were different, but we shared the passion to express what we feel through movement. We talked about dancing on the train and while we waited for the bus. We told one another about our favorite dancers and watched their videos together.

I finally got to speak with him when I was showing the staff a video of Just Dance practicing.

"You're a dancer?" I looked around and he was standing there. I stood up, stooping slightly. I looked at the man. I was at a loss as to how to answer his question. I was hesitant to admit in front of him that I was also a dancer. "You're a dancer," he said, pointing at me in the video. That's how I first came to talk with him. "Why do you like dancing?"

I nervously slurred the end of my sentence. "Well, that is... you know..." <

The man asked me when I first started dancing. I told him it was at a talent show at school when I was about twelve.

My classmates had dragged me onto the stage. My body began to move automatically. I got even more excited with the clapping and cheering of the audience. I couldn't think of anything else. I just moved spontaneously. After the music ended I'd looked ahead, running my fingers through my hair drenched in sweat. I felt as if I'd thrown up all the lumps that were clogging my heart. It felt refreshing and rewarding. It took me a long time to realize how exhilarating it was, and that that feeling didn't come from the audience's applause but from deep within myself.

The man pointed at me in the video and said that he liked my movements. "Not every dancer can move like this." I watched myself in the video. I liked how I looked when I danced. I could fly into the air off the ground and break free from the eyes and yardsticks of the world. Nothing was important to me except moving my body to the music and communicating my feelings through my body. Off the stage, I was tied down by so many things. I couldn't stay in the air with my feet off the ground. I had to smile and laugh even when I was upset and sad. I used to collapse on the street, taking medication I didn't need. There were moments when I could reveal who I truly was. Moments when I believed I could be happy again. Moments when I could let go of everything that weighed me down and soar high. Moments I could reach heights unimaginable offstage. Dancing gave me those moments.

"I heard you overcame a serious injury." The man stared at me. I knew I was being rude, but I had to ask him. The man looked down at my cast and opened his mouth.

"Height is important. But so is depth. You have to hit your bottom. You have to go down until you can't go lower, until you feel as if you'll suffocate from your despair. Then, you have to escape from it. What is crucial is to discover your driving force. In other words, you have to find what makes you stand firm again. Once you find it, don't ever let go. It can be a person or a desire. It can be evil and disgusting. But stick to it."<

That was our first and last conversation. The tour continued, but I didn't have another chance to talk with him. I watched him practice every day and thought about what he'd said. Deeply. My darkest despair. What would make me stand firm again from that despair.

"Do you live in Songju? The director is also from there." A staff member said this to me when I was looking at a promotional leaflet in the lounge of the train station. The fireworks festival on the shores of Yangjicheon in Songju. August 30. As far back as I could remember, I'd seen the festival every Year. It was held at the end of every summer. When I was living at the orphanage, we all climbed up to the rooftop and watched the fireworks surging into the night sky and showering back down. After I left the orphanage, I lived in the topmost floor of a multi-household house in the highest neighborhood in Songju. It was the perfect spot for watching fireworks. Although it was a bit far from the fireworks display, it provided a wide, uninterrupted vie

"Did you change your mind overnight?" The staff member asked me. He was the one who had suggested that I join the staff several days ago. "We thought you were reliable and talented." The other staff members agreed enthusiastically. Some even applauded. I almost said yes. I had become attached to them without realizing it. Touring was an arduous job, but I enjoyed every moment of it, even lying down on the bed at night moaning and groaning. My ankle would heal gradually as I continued to work with them and stage more performances. Maybe I'd be able to audition and be selected as an official member and get to perform on stage. Maybe I'd be able to receive training from the man and learn more about depth. I'd begun to think this might be where I belong. The staff member told me to sleep on it, and I gave him my answer last night. I thanked him for his suggestion and told him I had to go back. "Are you sure?" He asked me once again.

p>

Picking up my bag, I replied, "I have to go to get my cast off."

I got on the train at the opposite track. I'd arrive at Songju Station in two hours. It felt thrilling. I hadn't been pushed to hit my psychological bottom yet. It may never happen. But I'd thought about some moments after the conversation with the man. "I won't contact you ever again. You live your own life. Don't ever come back." Maybe YoonGi had hit his bottom that day. "HoSeok." I'd turned around and walked on, and he'd called to me. I didn't look back. I abandoned him when he was suffocating from his own despair. I ran away.

"Are you OK?" I sent this message after much hesitation.

The memory of that day had been weighing me down more and more heavily each day. JiMin's message was still posted in the chat. "Where are you, HoSeok?" I sent YoonGi a message in another chat with just the two of us.

His reply came at dawn. I woke up, startled by the vibration of my phone. YoonGi's name appeared on the screen. He sent me a music file. I put in my earphones and played the file. I listened to his music with my eyes closed, lying on the bed. It was beautiful and unlike anything he'd ever made. Joy and despair intersected amidst sorrow, and a blue sea stirred beyond a desert. Flowers bloomed and withered, and notes leaped and fell headlong the next minute. It resembled YoonGi.

I asked what the title was, but he responded with another question. "When are you coming back?"

The train station at midday was quiet. People carrying large suitcases were coming down onto the platform to take the oncoming train. They reminded me of myself on the day I'd left. I was wearing what I'd worn that day and carrying a bag of the same weight. But my ankle must've healed. It wasn't the only thing that had healed. I opened our group chat on my phone and posted a message. "What's up, my friends! I'm back! How have you all been?"

HoSeok

13 August Year 22

I dropped by the Just Dance practice room for the first time in a while. I was met with the pounding sound of music, the air filled with the smell of sweat, and the room full of adrenaline. My heart fluttered every time I came here. After a round of loud, noisy greetings from the members, I sat against the wall and watched them practice. When would I be able to dance again? I was both impatient and thrilled. I thought of the man's dance. Would I be able to dance like him someday? At that moment, someone came close and sat down next to me.

It was that girl. She tapped me on my shoulder, smiling, and said, "Where've you been? Were you having fun all by yourself?" The two of us in the mirror were sitting side by side, leaning against the wall.

"How've you been?" She made an expression that seemed to reproach me for such a rhetorical question. I continued, gazing at myself in the mirror. "Have I told you about my mom.?"" I must've repeated it a hundred times. But she always listened to my story enthusiastically. "She must be living happily somewhere, right? Then I'm OK. Even if we never meet again, it'd be OK if we're both happy." She stared at me.

"And I thought you looked like my mom. But you didn't. I've been busy finding this out." She looked confused.

I chuckled and continued to speak. "So, when do you depart? No, that's not what I was going to say. Congratulations. It was your dream."

She bent head and raised it again. "Sorry. I should've told you first."

"If you're sorry, buy me a meal I'll throw you a really nice farewell party later."

I deliberately smiled a big smile and made a fuss. "Let's meet again someday as famous dancers. Work hard. Because I'm not gonna let you outdo me." She nodded. The two of us in the mirror sat next to each other, leaning against the wall.

SeokJin

15 August Year 22

I saw her for the first time by the railroad. It was about a month ago on a day I had a lot on my mind. I went to see JungKook at the hospital but stayed there for only about ten minutes. I barely even talked with JungKook when I was there. For some reason, JungKook was tense and kept his guard up against me. No message was posted on our group chat. HoSeok's message, which said he wouldn't keep in touch anymore, was the last. I felt like that message was aimed at YoonGi. But, whenever I read it, it seemed like it was directed at me for some reason.

I left the hospital and walked on blindly. I realized after some time that I was in front of the railroad crossings. The crossing bar was down, and I could see a train approaching in the distance. It reminded me of the time when I got on an airplane alone in my childhood. It might sound silly, but it felt similar. What was I expecting? Whatever it was, was I not supposed to expect something like that? Was that sense of belonging no more than an illusion? What was this emptiness? Was I all alone after all? What did I do wrong? This train of thought continued with the strong wind stirred up by the actual train that passed by.

The train disappeared from sight as fast as it had approached. The bar went up and the crossing was open again. She walked towards me, swimming against the flow of air brought by the train. She dropped her diary as she slid by me. In her diary was her wish list: taking an Italian class, joining a temple stay program, volunteering at an animal shelter, taking a barista course, and sharing earphones with her boyfriend while taking a walk. Smeraldo was one of them.

Underneath a magazine clipping of Smeraldo was the following paragraph:

Love is not primarily a relationship to a specific person; it is an attitude, which determines the relatedness of a person to the world as a whole. If I truly love one person, I love all persons, I love the world, I love life. If I can say to somebody else, "I love you," I must be able to say, "I love in you everybody, I love through you the world, I love in you also myself." - From The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm

I did a lot of things with her for one month. We took walks, sharing earphones and listening to music like she wanted and volunteered together at an animal shelter. We couldn't do a temple stay, but we took a bus and traveled to the last stop and spent time at our favorite cafe.

Smeraldo is a flower that is said to only grow in the northern part of Italy. I dropped by a large flower shop nearby, but no one had ever heard of the flower. Then I found this small flower shop still under construction. It was at a corner on the left side after crossing the bridge to Munhyeon.

I didn't have high expectations when the owner, who had been organizing some documents in one comer, approached me. Upon hearing the flower name, the owner stared at me for a long time and told me he would be able to deliver the flower, although his shop was not officially opened yet. "Why does it have to be that flower?"

She didn't know that I had her diary. She'd never be able to imagine that I'd followed the list in her diary for all the things we'd done together over the past month. I didn't return her diary or tell her I had it. I knew it was wrong. I knew I was almost deceiving her. I tried to come clean a few times but I was afraid. I was afraid she might leave me just like my friends. I was afraid her heart would turn cold once she got a glimpse of my mistakes, wrongdoings, foolishness, and fear.

I wanted to make her happy. I wanted to make her laugh. Every time I made her happy, it felt as if I became a better person. It felt as if my shortcomings were being put out of sight. I had just one more thing to prepare. It was a flower that meant "the truth untold" in the language of flowers.

The owner seemed baffled at my request to get ahold of the Smeraldo flower by August 30 and said it'd difficult to find one by then. But it had to be that day. A display of fireworks was scheduled to take place at Yangjicheon Stream. She was fond of the night sky. I was thinking of confessing my love for her when the fireworks burst into the night sky. I was thinking of presenting her with her favorite flower and confiding my heart at her favorite time in her favorite place.

TaeHyung

29 August Year 22

It was HoSeok's idea to get together to see the fireworks. After his return, our group chat started buzzing and humming again. We told him how we missed him in a reproachful and welcoming manner, and HoSeok responded playfully that we should've realized the importance of his existence earlier.

"Make sure to come for the fireworks." We all said yes. Namjoon would arrive after his shift for his part-time job, and SeokJin also promised to come, however late, after his appointment. I was reminded of my dream when I saw the message. A woman getting killed in an accident with SeokJin watching her. That dream ended with fireworks. White petals of flames poured down from the night sky.

I shook my head to dismiss these thoughts. The venue of our gathering was NamJoon's container. I sometimes took a walk in its direction when I couldn't sleep at night or when Dad got drunk and acted up. I didn't walk up to the door or stay for long like I used to. I would just turn around when I passed the train station to catch a glimpse of it.

But the container was lit every time. I hadn't realized how unusual that was until recently. It was always lit. Even when he must've been asleep. I realized that it was a signal for us to come any time. I had no way to know. It was just an assumption. But I was confident. Still, I couldn't knock on the door and go right in because I didn't know what to say.

The fireworks are tomorrow. I'll be able to make it on time if I leave as soon as I finish my shift.

YoonGi

30 August Year 22

I got off from the bus and strolled along the railroad. Containers emerged from the distance. I saw TaeHyung from the bus window on my way here. He was also walking towards the direction of the containers. The others must be coming too.

I completed the piece several days ago. I changed the version I sent to HoSeok a few more times. I gave it the title "Hope." To be honest, the title didn't actually match the piece. It contained my fear, cowardice, and inferiority. It contained all the moments I tried to avoid, get away from, and reprimanded myself for. But I couldn't think of any other word that could encompass it all.

NamJoon's container appeared. Someone was standing out in front. His face wasn't visible but, based on his physique, it was JiMin. I stopped and looked around when someone called me from behind. That someone was waving at me in front of the first container.

SeokJin

30 August Year 22

I received the bouquet of Smeraldo flowers at the last minute. It was past the appointed time, and I was looking at my watch impatiently. Fortunately, the delivery truck appeared before she did. The flower shop owner was driving a truck with the Flower Smeraldo logo on the side.

"Sorry. The fireworks festival held me up."

After the truck left, I discovered there was no card in the bouquet, which I'd ordered with the flowers. I called the owner right away.

"Ah, I'll make a U-turn now. The light just changed."

Before the owner finished his sentence, she came into view, walking towards me from an intersection far in the distance.

JungKook

30 August Year 22

I arrived at the railroad really early. The air had cooled down after the sun set, and it was dark. I thought of going into the container but decided to sit on one corner of the platform across the railroad. It'd been a while since we all met. A mixed feeling outweighed joy and expectation. I was constantly reminded of the day of the accident.

JiMin was the first to arrive at the container. He opened the door, checked inside, but didn't go in. I jumped off the platform and crossed the railroad again. YoonGi appeared at that moment, walking slowly with his eyes fixed to the ground, and looked back. There was HoSeok behind him, loaded down with bags in both hands.

I felt uneasy and agitated. I was excited to meet them. But I couldn't just enjoy this moment freely. I'd been waiting for so long for this moment but wanted to turn around at the same time. The first set of fireworks burst into the air without warning. The white flames surged into the middle of the night sky and exploded into millions of sparkling, blazing petals with a big popping sound.

SeokJin

30 August Year 22

The delivery truck came to a sudden stop after making a U-turn. Its headlights flashed. I stood there helplessly amidst the scene of crashing, bouncing, and falling. I couldn't hear or feel anything for a moment. It was the summer, but the wind felt chilly. Then I heard something hitting and rolling on the road. The fragrance of flowers tickled my nose. I came back to reality. The bouquet of Smeraldo flowers fell from my hand. She was lying in the middle of the road. Blood began to spread out from underneath her tousled hair. Dark red blood flowed down the road.

With a loud pop, the first set of fireworks burst into the air on the night sky in the distance. Somewhere, I heard a mirror crack.

Epilogue: Nightmare

TaeHyung

11 April Year 22

It was dawn when I awoke. Dad's familiar smell and snores streamed from his room. Murky air on the other side of the piece of translucent glass inserted into the front door ruffled. It took only three steps from the narrow entrance where shoes were scattered all over to the master bedroom. I'd begun to sleep there since I don't know when.

I felt a pressure on my back and shoulders as I picked myself up. I stepped outside with a glass of water in my hand. I carelessly slipped into any shoes and walked slowly. I passed the police station, alley, and pedestrian overpass, and the railroad beyond came into sight. It was before the sunrise, and the street was immersed in silence with no cars out yet. Someone's vomit from earlier in the night reeked.

I walked along the railroad. One, two, three, four. I stopped in front of the fourth container from the end. It was NamJoon's. I reached out for the doorknob and came to a halt. NamJoon must be asleep now. And what I saw last night in my dream must be nothing more than a nightmare.

I took a sip of water and turned around. The dilapidated station and railroad, abandoned houses, and trees and weeds that were growing haphazardly in between. A black plastic bag rolled towards me and then flew into the air. It was a poor neighborhood.

In my dream, this area was enveloped in flames. The entire scene seemed to shimmer and wave. Maybe it was because of the heat or maybe it was because I was dreaming. Someone's scream, some kind of a crashing sound, the sound of crying, and the sound of something crumbling all came together and flooded my mind. The images that shimmered in the far distance suddenly drew near at full speed. I felt nauseous and shut my eyes, but it was a dream. I couldn't get rid of them by shutting my eyes.

My gaze, first blocked by flames, pushed through people standing with their backs to me the next minute, and then stopped suddenly. One, two, three, four. The fourth container was NamJoon's. The door had fallen off. There were blood stains. Flames surged inside. People stepped aside one after another. The floor came into view. NamJoon was lying there. Someone blurted out, "He's dead."

I opened my eyes to find the ceiling of my house. I could hear Dad's snore. It was all a dream. My palm hurt suddenly.

I turned on the cold tap water and held out my palm. It felt numb under the jet of water. I filled a cup with water and drank it. It was a dream. A nightmare.

Editor's note:

This text has been retyped from the original English language edition of The Notes 1.

While very close to the original text, there are a few changes made for readability.