송 재인: Her
“Can you see it too?
The dim moonlight?
Can you hear it too?
That faint echo?”
-BTS, I’m fine
Song Jaein [송 재인]
She didn’t know why, but amongst the blue and yellow sea of chaos stampeding their way past her, it was him who caught her only and undivided attention.
It was their high school graduation, a day where throngs of blue and yellow togas scattered across the spacious auditorium, their matching mortarboards and diplomas flying up high in the air, occasionally hitting a head or two as it dropped down. It was a joyous day filled with tears and cheers, a day filled with almost hundreds of camera shutters clicking and flashing, depriving the ones whose pictures are being taken of sight.
And indeed, as Mr. Kim flared the blinding lights of his camera at the three teens in front of him once more, Song Jaein couldn’t resist but blink away the black stars that twinkled behind her eyes. She didn’t know how people managed to stare at the camera lenses while the lights gouged their eyesight out. It was extremely blinding—the stars that shone behind her eyelids proved it—and both the herds of parents clamoring to take pictures and the gloating graduates swarming around did not help their already perplexing condition.
“Jaein, stop blinking and smile!” Kim Chae Min snapped, her eyes narrowing as her bossy attitude expressed itself once again. She snuggled in closer to the big blue sleeves of Jaein’s oversized toga and pulled her arm as if to force her best friend’s smile out by ripping off her arm. On Jaein’s other side, Choi Do Weon—her second-best friend and, amazing as it was, her ex-boyfriend—ran his gloved hand through his gelled-up peach hair, looking like a smoked salmon grinning idiotically for an album pictorial. He was the man held responsible for half the stares and giggles they were attracting; Do Weon was a stunningly good-looking fellow. Now, you’re probably wondering why an ex-couple would still be friends, but the history between these two happened because they were once both cancer patients on a hospital. They had chemistry, but things went swooping out the window as soon as Do Weon got cured. But they stayed friends, nevertheless.
There was another blinding flash—one that was somehow magically brighter than the previous ones—but Song Jaein’s attention was nowhere near the camera. Something had unintentionally caught her attention through the ramble of students on the school ground; something—or should we say, a random someone—that made her notice his oddness, someone who made hundreds of familiar recollections race through her mind. A someone that was a ‘he’.
He was being flanked by a pair who looked like his mom and dad, as well as a group of boys that were clapping his back and congratulating him. Jaein didn’t plan it, but before she realized, she was already watching his moves and expressions, even the people that surrounded him. Whoever he was, he had gotten everything Jaein could have ever want—the care-free friends, the happiness that orbited them, the family that made him feel loved, and yet there he was, having it all, looking . . . dead. Appearing pale and worn, forcing a smile that did not reach his eyes. The smooth blond hair of his matched the navy toga ridiculously, but it turned dull, fading, like it had lost its color. And as Jaein stared on, she could feel the rush of emotions in her heart; she could feel the pity, sadness and jealousy that stirred her inside.
No, they had never met before; Jaein had merely looked over to where he stood out of curiosity and envy; she’d never be able to experience how joyful it was to have her parents at her graduation—they were dead. She only peered over because she was watchful and observant. What was more, Jaein saw that there was a force in his smiles, like he was pretending to be glad. Jaein felt pity for him. She knew how it felt being fake, knew what it was to pretend to be happy when she wasn’t, to forcing yourself to stay strong even though you knew you’re being dragged down by your problems. She looked on, feeling his sadness in the air, watching his expressions.
Jaein watched him fall over the abyss that was his own mind.
Jay never caught Jaein’s eye.
- - -
Jaein didn’t know what was happening. All she could do was scream, cry, and writhe in pain and agony. It had come to the point she couldn’t breathe—a large lump had stuck itself inside her throat and blocked her ability to take air in her passageway—all that she could do was gasp. Her sides hurt; and so did her throat and her chest. She wanted to scream, but nothing more than a hoarse whimper left her lips. Someone had stuck an oxygen mask on her; she didn’t know who it was—she couldn’t see or hear anything anymore. Everything was a whirlpool of blurs and colors, dotted with black on the sides. The sounds were fading away into a murmur, and the agonizing pain was spreading, making the knife-jabbing aguish unfurl to take over her whole being.
She couldn’t take it anymore; all Jaein wanted was to have her mother and father beside her. All she wanted the ache to disappear. It was too much; everything was too much. Her sixteen years of treatments and surgeries were futile. Useless and stupid. It was no use; all it did was lengthen her life span for a few months before spiraling their troubles on her again. Her cancer just got worst. It had already robbed her of sixteen years of freedom, but wasn’t that enough? Was the first two years of her life the best freedom Jaein could ever get? Is eighteen the oldest age she would ever get?
The pain was building up. It was spreading and intensifying, like an inferno in the middle of a forest fire. Jaein could see herself crying—begging. But she couldn’t hear. She couldn’t see. The world was turning into nothing but a muck of black swamp, slowly swallowing her into their depths. Her life was flashing before her—all the words, each touch, every single scene. They surrounded her, dematerializing bit by bit into gray dust, getting blown away by the wind. Jaein wanted to reach out to catch them in her hands, but she couldn’t raise her arms from the muck that was slowly sucking her in. Her agony was disappearing, diminishing into nothing but numbness, and all she could make out was a beeping sound, long and eerie, the sign of a fading existence.
It was then when Jaein realized that she was vanishing, ebbing away into the black swamp that engulfed all the lights. Then when there was nothing more, she closed her eyes and curled into a ball, letting the darkness swallow her and take her remaining life away.
Four months isn’t exactly that long of a time to forget something. Not when the recollection was too unforgettable to the point it still can make a person fume or swoon just at the thought of it. Not when the ill-timed situation happened to someone who had an amazingly impressive mind. And especially not easy to forget when the person had it etched in the back of their minds, a slow, painful, yet a constant reminder of their luckless day.
So, it wasn’t truly surprising that Jaein found herself once again stuck in a problem her best friend had caused.
It wasn’t really Chae Min’s fault, if you would think about it. If only the ticketer at the counter came earlier than he had promised, Chae Min would not have seen the guy chilling in the corner with his friend, hence, this bad-tempered woman who had photographic memory would not have remembered that he was the guy who she’d encountered on an unfortunately memorable incident about four months ago. And if she didn’t, Jaein wouldn’t have been involved in this stupid, useless ‘argument’ upheaved by no other than the holy Kim Chae Min herself, and they would have been basking in delight inside the theater house, watching a cliché trendy rom-com that just came out two days ago and laughing at the bad decisions the main characters were making.
But nooo, Chae Min just had to spot him and strike up a worthless match that could have been solved by simply buying another cup of instant chicken noodle soup.
Just one; just one damn cup of instant chicken noodle soup would solve this embarrassing situation. But even that Chae Min didn’t want.
“Jeon Jong Seok,” the teen in front of them named himself, bowing slightly as he gripped Jaein’s hand in a firm handshake. He looked about Chae Min’s age, but his height was astonishing; he was almost a foot taller than any of them. His body build was also kind of fit, but that was an observation even a passing stranger could notice. There was also a familiar accent to his Korean, like it was he lived in another country for quite a while. “I’m sorry for the trouble I caused your friend four months ago.”
Jaein opened her mouth to respond, but Chae Min butted in, lashing out angrily with her hands on her hips. “What do you mean ‘sorry’?! You spilled my ramen and gave me a handkerchief in exchange for my collected efforts! Do you know how hungry I was?! I was starving for the whole day! I had no money and—”
“It’s quite alright, no worries,” Jaein interrupted, attempting to calm the stubborn woman beside her by digging her elbows into Chae Min’s ribs, pinching her side, then giving her a death glare when the woman hissed in pain and irritably glowered at Jaein. She knew it was only a matter of time before Chae Min pounced at the poor teen. “Past is in the past. Let’s just forget about it, shall we?”
Jong Seok gave her a small, awkward grimace-like smile, fiddling with his hands inside his coat pocket. His eyes glanced towards the silent man beside him—possibly his friend, Jaein thought—as if he was checking up on him. The other gave no other expression except for the blank look he had on, merely looking on as if the argument happening right in front of him were just as normal as an everyday chatter between strangers. He was cute, but Jaein got this deathly vibe from him. Almost like he carried something dark inside him.
To be honest, Jong Seok was also giving away that aura. Both of them did, and it made them seem mysteriously dark to her.
Realizing that she had drifted off to space and was just now scarily staring at the poor fellows, Jaein laughing forcedly and waved an arm around, dragging Chae Min’s arms in the process, much to the angry little fashionista. “Anyway!” said Jaein. She was also aware her voice was two pitches high from nerves and stress. All she wanted was to watch a movie, goddammit. “I haven’t gotten to introducing myself, have I?” She bowed down in a low greeting, all the while struggling to keep hold of the squirming Chae Min. “I’m Song Jaein, by the way. Glad to meet you.”
Then there it was, suddenly showing up like a sudden bomb that fell from the sky. Unexpected and rushing, like those moments where you could see it coming, but all you can do was watch. That was exactly how the two men reacted to her name, faces whipping up to stare at her, their eyes holding mixed emotions, irises rising up with buried souls. It was a look Jaein knew; it was a look she could feel: pain and fear. Those two words had always been an everyday thing in her life after all.
She noticed that Jong Seok’s face darkened, and it seemed like a heavy shadow veiled over the two, most especially the silent guy beside Jong Seok. Jaein could almost—no, she could literally see, hear, and feel the pain, desperation, and regret that radiated from him. It was displayed all over their faces, taking over like tidal waves.
Jaein felt it, but she pretended not to see, smiling as if she never realized how deep their thoughts dived down just from hearing her name.
“S-sorry?” Jong Seok stuttered. Why did he stutter? Jaein couldn’t help but wonder. What was so surprising about her name that they had to ask her again? What is it about her that they had to ask again? Stop. Jaein scolded herself inwardly. It’s not your business. Smile, pretend you didn’t notice. They’re probably only asking since they’re obviously foreigners. Names are hard to pronounce, right? They probably didn’t hear clearly. Jaein does have quite a problem with speaking up. “What’s your name again?”
“Song Jaein,” she repeated. Woah, her name really must be handful. Jaein personally never experienced being asked to repeat her name when she knows she clearly said it properly, but here we go. They’re most likely having trouble pronouncing names. I mean, they’re from another continent after all. “Jay-in. You, know, like the name Jane in English, except the ‘in’ has more stress.” She smiled.
Chae Min gave an exasperated sigh, muttering an assessment that was somewhere along the lines of ‘stupid idiot’ before stating her thoughts at the stupidity going on. “You know, it’s not that hard.” She pulled her arm from her best friend’s grip and irritatingly dusted her coat off like it was dirtied from Jaein’s hands. “This is boring. I’m going to buy food.”
Now, if you knew Jaein, there was nothing more absolutely terrifying for her than to be left alone to entertain two strangers in an awkward situation. But before she could force a smile at the two in front of her and drag Chae Min back to her side, the great starlet had already lumbered off on a quest to find gummy candies and popcorn. Jaein mentally sighed; oh well. Her eyes travelled back to Jong Seok and his friend to give a look of sorry-about-that-I’ll-be-sure-to-smack-her-later, suddenly realizing that she had more troubles that she had thought. More horror had flashed across Jong Seok and his friend’s face upon hearing her explanation on how to pronounce her name. Jong Seok’s friend even looked like he stopped breathing. Jaein didn’t know why they were reacting like that. Was there something wrong with her name?
Jong Seok gave a chocked cough. “Ahh, J-Jane—I mean, Jaein—Jaein noona, sorry, that’s—”
But he was unable to finish his realization. Within seconds, his friend had started breathing shallowly. His trembling hands clenched into tightened fists, and he dropped his phone, which clunked dully off the marble floor, giving the impression of a coin dropped in the middle of a silent room. The same anonymous guy backtracked, his face distressed, still staring at Jaein. He looked petrified, and his brownish irises stared back at hers, filled with longing and distress. The long fingers of his traveled from his jacket’s zip to the inside of the sleeves, right where his left wrist was. He muttered something with his pale lips, something that Jaein alone was able to hear. His hand gripped his wrist tighter; Jaein could see his knuckles whitening from the force he was clenching his wrist with.
“Hyung,” muttered Jong Seok in a low tone. He pried out his hand from his coat pocket, reaching over to put a hand on his friend’s right arm, pulling it away from his grip on the left one. Jong Seok looked straight into his eyes, and an understanding passed between as they stared into each other.
Jaein had seen and heard enough. Clearly, there was something about her name, something that was obviously very traumatic to both the guys. It was saddening, Jaein thought as she bent down to pick up the phone Jong Seok’s unintroduced friend had dropped, that they had to encounter her and have their nights ruined just from hearing her name. Jaein grabbed the phone, instinctively wiped it with the cuff of the hoodie she was wearing while standing up, then peeped back to the two.
It seemed as if Jong Seok and his companion had managed to get a hold of themselves. The uneasy atmosphere was still there, and the unnamed companion was still unable to look at her, but the situation was easy enough to handle with Jong Seok being able to smile back at her with a blinding smile that made a bit wobbly in the legs. There was still something in his eyes though, like a glint of dark sadness that reminded Jaein of something she had been so used in doing: pretending and lying that she was fine. Liars have the ability to spot a lie, after all. And Jaein was quite the liar herself.
“Sorry about that, Ja—Jaein noona,” Jong Seok mumbled, still smiling ever so brightly. She noticed that his eyes crinkled at the corners whenever he smiled. “We just have trouble pronouncing names.”
She grinned. Lies. “That’s alright.” Then turning to Jong Seok’s companion, Jaein offered the phone. “Hey, are you okay?” she asked in a soft tone.
“Yes, thank you.” His voice was deep, almost unheard from how he mumbled the response. Jaein noticed that beneath the maroon beanie he had on peeked a dull shade of blond hair. It looked like the dye he had on faded. He took the phone from Jaein, bowing slightly in gratitude, his fingers grazing hers ever so slightly. They were ice cold. When he straightened back up, Jaein noticed that a small string of red lint had stuck on his hair, most likely from his woolen beanie.
“Oh,” exclaimed Jaein in which he looked up to. “You have something on your . . . ” She pointed to his hair, and because of his lack in intention in response, Jaein took it upon herself to step forward and pick the lint off. It did not occur to her until later that the widening of his eyes and the sharp intake of breath were signs of panic and fear, and that Jong Seok was actually trying to stop her when he made a move to grab her arm.
Without warning, she was falling. Jaein landed on her bum right there on the marble floor, suddenly feeling disoriented from the hard impact. Jong Seok’s friend was repeating the same words again and again, words that Jaein vaguely heard as she tried to stabilize the slight dizziness that shocked her.
“You’re dead. You’re dead. Stop it. You’re dead. You ARE.” He was repeating this in distress, backing away from her, his eyes pitch black. “Stop coming back. I can’t—I can’t—” His voice hitched, and he ran to the exits before Jaein could react.
“Hyung!” called Jong Seok, his eyes wildly scanning at the movie theater’s doors while bending back down to help Jaein in a hurry. “Sorry, I-I have to . . . I have to—” There was a tremble in his voice, and his eyes travelled back and forth from Jaein to the exit. In the end, he picked her up and stumble away in muttered apologues, twisting away to chase after his friend.
“Jaein!” Chae Min came shouting and running back from where she had disappeared into, hands filled with a bucket of overfilled popcorn, two colas, and what looked like three large packets of assorted candies. “I found my favorite gummies! You know those blue whale gummies I like? Turns out there were sharks after all!” she exclaimed loudly. “Hey, where’s the two going? You’re done talking?” She followed Jaein’s eyes to the exits, but there was nothing else for Jaein and Chae Min to do but watch both the boys ran away from them.