박 재: Him
“Do you know how there are moments when the world moves so slowly you can feel your bones shifting, your mind tumbling? When you think that no matter what happens to you for the rest of your life, you will remember every last detail of that one minute forever?”
―Jodi Picoult, Nineteen Minutes
Park Jay [박재]
“Hyung!” The strident shout resonated through the bustling streets, dashing after him. His strides were fast yet heavy, dragging against the gravel underneath his shoes. Even the dazzling lights of the shops that surrounded him seemed to scream the honorific back at him as they blurred and merged into one big mess of colors. “Hyung!” the lights called out once again, breaking into hundreds of different voices, waving their arms at him. “Wait!”
Jay’s breathing was becoming more and more frantic. He stopped and looked around, suddenly noticing in panic that he wasn’t in California. He wasn’t anywhere he could recognize. The scenery before Jay was unfamiliar and foreign, full of strangers that gave him curious looks and slammed into his shoulders as they passed. He wasn’t in California. But why was he there? How did he get there, wherever Jay was at the moment? And where . . . where was he?
Where am I?
The question twisted around him, filling his insides with fear, repeating and repeating until that was all he could hear. Where am I? Where was he? How is it that a second ago, he was in the midst of a jam-packed street, but now he was all alone, staring at an empty path? The illuminations that were scattered on the shops beside him were fading away, crumbling into dust, just like how the people around him had vanished into thin air, leaving no sounds or trace. Jay was alone, by himself in a bare street.
Jay felt like he was underwater. There was a gurgle in his ears, the sound of the ocean’s deep sites. He tried stepping forward, but it was impossible; it was like going against a strong current that was his own emotions. He was being shoved back, getting pushed back into the darkness that was starting to swallow him. The darkness was getting closer and closer, its eerie beeping sound getting shriller and more high-pitched with every passing second. Jay tried to breathe, except it was impossible with the terror that overtook him. He was trembling, trying to fight the memories that were slowly leaving the buried part of his mind, attempting to scream for help.
Please save me, Jay wanted to say. Instead, a mere whimper escaped his lips, sounding tiny and pathetic. Make it stop, I beg you. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
The ear-splitting beep was now unbearable to ignore. It has begun eating a part of him away, and all Jay wanted to do was feel something aside from the sorrow in his heart. He wanted to crumble into pieces, to beg for it to stop, to have him dead instead. He longed to feel pain, to wash the regrets with physical agony instead. His fingers found the inside of his left wrist, and when Jay glanced at it, his nails were digging into the still-sore scars that were weeks old. And as he watched on, Jay saw crimson blood dripping down to his fingers at a snail’s pace. But why couldn’t he feel pain? Why were there no sensations when he dug his chipped nails into the very flesh that used to hurt with unbearable pain when he touched it his bare skin? Why was there nothing to feel but burdensome numbness? Why couldn’t he feel anything? Why? Why?
The black depths had finally caught up with him. It wrapped up Jay’s eyes in its icy hands, gouging his eyesight away from him until there was nothing else but darkness, eternal gloom, and an eerie, beeping sound.
- - -
There’s beauty in chaos. Today, Park Jay’s nineteen-year-old self had discovered that fact. The chaos before him was, after all, not only beautiful but also magnificent. There was something about the dark ballroom that glimmered with star-like multi-colored lights and the popular pop music resonating about that hit him differently. It seemed melancholic for no reason; nostalgic-like as if it were the last time he’d be able to see the people inside that room. That was partly true though—it was their JS prom, and everyone knew that roughly half the people in that ballroom would have to part for college in a few more months—but it was too early to worry about that.
Now when you hear the word ‘athlete’, the things that usually come to most people’s minds are ‘fun’, ‘cool’, ‘active’, etc. Those words described what Jay was like daily—his whole life, basically—but not today. Nor has been in the past few days, to be honest. His current situation was, as called by his friends, the heartbreak syndrome. This was what happens when you break up with your girlfriend because you knew she didn’t really like you the way your feelings run for her, and because you knew she actually liked your best friend more than she liked you.
That hurt, of course. Somehow, what seemed to be the best love story of all morphed into something that fucked Jay up to the point he can’t cry no matter how much he wanted to. It wasn’t that it was Jong Seok, his best friend, that she replaced him with, no. It wasn’t that it hurt his pride, and although it did hurt both his heart and pride, it wasn’t enough reason to get that heartbroken. It was the fact that they’ve been together for almost a year and a half and yet he had never, never seen her smile at him the way she does now with Jong Seok. It was the fact that Jay realized that she was happier without him, when he, on the other hand, couldn’t have been more happier when she still was by his side.
Oh well, he thought, swishing the glass of light-red punch he was holding in his hand. It’ll get better soon.
A soft hit on the back of his head made Jay look up to see two of his friends, TaeMin Wong and Jason Uy, passing by to grab the empty seats that were around him. The dinner that they had ended about forty minutes ago, so it wasn’t a surprise the table he had to share with was already empty; almost everyone was on the dance floor, jumping up and down to the beat of the merry music that was playing. Jay had been expecting TaeMin and Jason to be joining the party as well since they were popularly known to be party cats, and the ladies they bought as dates were just the same, but he guessed he was mistaken after all.
“Well, well, well,” exclaimed TaeMin in his naturally jaunty voice, “guess whose sorry ass we see sulking by the tables tonight.” The round emerald he had as a necklace was twirling around his fingers after he made himself comfortable on his stolen chair. The seats were arranged into whatever your grade and homeroom were, and since TaeMin and Jason were two classes lower than Jay, they were separated.
“Shut up, bro,” followed Jason as he grinned at the joke, jumping forward to grip Jay’s head in a headlock. Jason was a boy with a mop of curly ginger hair, a shade that’s almost closer to orange than to what it’s meant to be, and today, it was cut into a neat undercut. It kind of contrasted the color of the tuxedo he was wearing, but since it was Jason the football player we were talking about, he still pulled the outfit with immerse fashion. He gave Jay a noogie, messing up the lightly gelled-up hair before snitching the glass of punch out of his hand to take a gulp.
“What are you doing here sulking?” questioned TaeMin. “Aren’t you supposed to be on the dance floor hitting up girls to heal your broken heart?”
Jay pushed Jason’s arms away irritably, then straightened his tuxedo after. “I don’t hit up girls. Don’t pair me with you two.”
“Oh, wow, roasted.” Jason pulled a pained expression, pairing it with a dramatic gesture of placing his hand on his heart. Then he laughed, placing the now empty glass of punch on the table, where Jay stared at it in longing. He was actually saving it for later just in case he went thirsty; asking for a drink basically meant going to the snack table where almost one-fourth of the party decided to hang at and ask for one, but he wasn’t feeling like standing up and getting a drink when he knew he’d be bombarded by people he didn’t personally meet.
“So, we,” TaeMin pointed to Jason then himself, “are playboys now. Okay.” His left leg dropped from where it rested on his right knee, then let go of the necklace he was toying with to lean on his knees. Jay watched the emerald swing back and forth. “Jay, stop being a dumbass. You two broke up. You broke up with her. She’s now dating Jong Seok. Jong Seok clearly broke Article 161 of the Bro Code, and you’re doing anything about it. Instead, here you are, mourning over the grave of your dead relationship with her. Stop this, Jay. You deserve better. Move on.”
“What do you want me to do, fight Jong Seok? Come on now,” mumbled Jay. He flicked Jason’s hand from where it had landed once again on his shoulders. Jason was known to have a habit of laying his hands on everyone he managed to hold on to, and it was something that irritated Jay to the ends. But thinking about what TaeMin had said, he realized he has a point, but it wasn’t exactly easy to forget someone you’ve been close friends with since grade school.
“Well . . . no, but you should at least find someone better,” argued Jason. He went over to TaeMin’s seat then leaned his hand on the backrest, since Jay made him abandon the stance he created when he had clung to him. “You’re heartbroken over someone who’s now dating your best friend? Come on now. Speaking of your best friend, have you seen Jong Seok?”
“I did, at home. Before he went over and fetched his date.” They did meet up at Jay’s house. His parents even demanded them to take a picture together. Technically, Jong Seok wasn’t supposed to be part of the prom—he was still in 10th grade after all, and it was a prom for the 11th and 12th graders—but since Jay’s, Jason’s, TaeMin’s, and Jong Seok’s parents decided for no reason to fund the whole prom with what they called a ‘simple donation’, he was invited along. Jay also had an idea who Jong Seok’s date was (no other than Jay’s ex-girlfriend, of course), but he hasn’t seen them both until now.
“Oh, okay,” said Jason. He went silent, a surprising action for someone incredibly raucous and hyper like him. Jay watched him tap his fingers to the beat of the music on TaeMin’s chair, a sign that he had nothing else to think of saying about their topic but wanted to speak about something still, and as expected, his silence didn’t last. “This is boring. Let’s go.”
Surprisingly, TaeMin stood up too, brushing off unseen dirt from his pant leg. He then gave an impatient look to Jay, in which Jay responded a confused expression with. “What are you waiting for? Get up.”
“Huh? Why?” Before he could process that he was obliged to go with them, he was already on his feet, getting dragged along towards the snack table. “Jason, I never told you I was coming with you—”
“But you’re here now, so quit complaining,” the redhead grunted. He gave the waiter serving the drinks a big grin. “Hi, can we get two of those punches served at dinner?” He peered back at TaeMin. “Want one?”
Jason took the drinks from the counter and handed one to Jay. “Thank you.”
Jay stared at it. “I didn’t ask—”
“Do I honestly look like I care? Drink.”
Reluctantly, Jay took the glass Jason was waving under his nose. TaeMin picked a strawberry from a plate and glazed it on the chocolate fountain, gracefully coating every inch then just stared at it after without an intention of eating it. “I’m surprised they let us use wine glasses with how much idiots there are in this school,” he mumbled to no one in particular, before putting the coated strawberry back with the others.
“Well, it’s not the school’s money they’re using to pay this prom anyway,” pointed out Jason. The glass of punch he was holding was already empty, it just being transferred back and forth between Jason’s jittery hands as a fidget spinner of some sort. “I wonder what this drink is. It’s good.”
Jay was just about to say it was a mic between cranberry and raspberry when the colorful lights that were flashing up ahead dimmed into a soft glow, the once rock melody that was playing softening into a slow song. Like it’s a cue, couples began pairing up and began slow dancing along to the music, the DJ crooning words about grabbing your date and asking them for a dance. The song—which was about dancing in a room filled with moonlight with someone you liked—perked Jay’s ears into attention as it aroused a sense of familiarity in him. He was pretty sure he heard it before, a distant hum of some sort . . .
Oh, he realized, his heart sinking as he recognized where he heard the song from. It’s the song she always sang whenever she baked.
Then like some sort of summoning magic, when he raised his head to watch the pairs of couples dancing around, he saw them.
He saw her.
There, laughing at what Jong Seok said, looking as beautiful as ever in a midnight blue gown that shimmered from the dim lights when she moved. Her skin was glowing from the blue light that hit them There, in Jong Seok’s arms, smiling happily than she ever did before.
Looking happy without him.
Fuck. It hurts.
“Hurts, doesn’t it? Your fault,” monotoned TaeMin as he slid beside him. “You should’ve dated someone your age like we told you. You do know dating a seventeen-year-old won’t get you out of your virgin phase. Leave her to Jong Seok and forget her already. At least they’re the same age.”
“I’m still 18, per se,” Jay muttered, looking down to his drink, trying to pretend he wasn’t watching the pair even though TaeMin already caught him. “My birthday isn’t till October.”
Jason butted in. “Doesn’t change the fact that she’s still seventeen.”
Jay sighed. Sometimes he doesn’t know why he still argued with them when he knew it was useless because they always won anyway. “Aren’t you supposed to be looking for your dates and asking them for a dance or something?”
“Oh yeah,” realized Jason. “Wow, I forgot I brought a date. I wonder where Sheena is?” He turned to TaeMin. “Do you think she’s with Alisa?”
“How am I supposed to know? We’re both here with Jay.”
“Ah, we’re fucked.” Jason sighed. He placed the empty glass he was holding on a space on the table, then out of the blue wiped his hand on TaeMin’s sleeve.
TaeMin jolted. “Ayo, what the fuck?!” he exclaimed, looking down to see if Jason left a stain of some sort. Then even though there was nothing on it, he pushed Jason away. “What’s wrong with you?!”
The push made Jason stumble, and it caused him to tip over to Jay, who had himself distracted with once again swishing the untouched punch he was holding around in its glass. A little nudge from an elbow, the splash of a drink, a slip of a finger, and the three of them found themselves staring down on a puddle of red liquid scattered with the broken pieces of a wine glass.
Then they heard it.
The loud and sharp snap that echoed in the mellow music. Sudden and unexpected, piercing the mum room with its harsh appearance. The music paused; the lights went on . . . everyone was on a standstill, looking around for wherever the sound came from. Somehow, the back of Jay’s brain was reminded of the sounds he often heard whenever he went off to watch his father practice around the shooting fields. They were like fireworks, but not quite, as they were gentle but more edgier.
They were gunshots.
One, two, then three more.
Chaos. It was beautiful chaos.
Silence turned into screams, and the once still room became a moving picture. Suddenly, Jay was being pushed away as the students clambered to get away from wherever the shots were coming from. Dresses and suits of different colors brushed against him, falling, stumbling, and tripping over ithers, all their faces filled with terror. Shouts and cries filled his ears, the kind that made him want to run away, yet his feet were stuck rooted to the floor, immobile and unyielding. Someone was trying to drag him by the back of his suit, but there was another pop—this one closer and more ear-piercing—and the grip of whoever was grabbing disappeared. Jay was aware of a ringing in his head, and when he looked over to where the students were running away from, he saw Jong Seok standing alone, something dark splashed across his face.
What first was beautiful chaos became a sea of colorful currents, pushing past him, running away from death.
Drip, drip, went the tap, the glinting droplets of water that escaped from it dripping down towards the already filled sink. Drip, drip, it continued, falling down in slow motion, its simple motion making the water underneath it rippled in small circles. Drip, drip, the only sound he could hear, he only melody he could listen to. The only thing his mind could bear right now.
Park Jay could only stare at the dripping tap, unmoving from the position he had been in. His eyes were focused on the ripples that the droplets were making; too focused to the point his breaths were already following the beat of the dripping tap. Round littles circles expanding into bigger rounds, moving towards the side of the sink until it disappeared, tailed by another that would later on vanish as well as the former. Sometimes, the trails of water that came from his face and arms would contribute as well, breaking the rhythm, but as time went on, the pace would continue its old routine.
His mind had never been this clear before; it was blank, and no thoughts other than the dripping water could enter his mind. The sole vision his mind has was the shine his silver tap had, staring until it was just a mere blur, until it was nothing but a pool of silver and white in his eyes. His ear also had done a good job of blocking out the trickling noise, but somehow, his head memorized it till he could hear it as clearly as if it was his ears that were doing the job.
Jay unfocused his eyes, switching from the sink to the minuscule chip his mirror had from when he had one of his many episodes. He let them travel more, towards the center, where he watched his face’s reflection blink several times. Then unwounded further, to the dark bags under his eyes, the pale, lifeless skin, the brownish roots that peeked out the dull, blond hair. The rough-looking mask he called his face that looked peaceful and content above the dark, depressing reality that was really him.
Then like an automated being, Jay straightened up, grabbed the towel, dried his face, and out came his ever shining face, the face everyone knew. He smiled, brightly, and just like that everyone was fooled again, like nothing had happened the night before.
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