stuck on a puzzle - orpheyeux - ZEROBASEONE (2024)

“I don't know if I've come of age, but I'm certainly older now. I feel shrunken, as if there's a tiny ancient Oliver Tate inside me operating the levers of a life-size Oliver-shaped shell. A shell on which a decrepit picture show replays the same handful of images. Every night I come to the same place and wait till the sky catches up with my mood. The pattern is set. This is, no doubt, the end.”
Joe Dunthorne,Submarine

Prologue: Stuck on a Puzzle

The boy’s name is Shen Quanrui. Quanrui Shen if one were to spell it with the Latin alphabet. Quanrui if you were addressing him the way his parents did, and Ricky if you were his friend or someone who found saying Quanrui a bit too difficult—but he didn’t really have a lot of those because he's always moved around when he was young, so for now, Quanrui was fine. He was currently at the ripe old age of sixteen, spending what felt like an eternity within the confines of his own bedroom.

To call himself old was a thought that always occurred to him. He wasn’t fifteen anymore, so that meant he wasold. He didn’t have the liberties to hide under his previous age’s implications, such as remaining single all his life or, better yet, losing his virginity. He would think that turning a year older would immediately mature him into a bright, young adult—but quite frankly, the only thing that changed about him was his height. Last year, he could still pass through his door without ducking down. Now, he had to constantly slouch to stop his head from getting minor concussions. In some ways, he thanks his growth spurt for acting as the main problem in his life. Without it, he’d have to be like the otherboys, minds filled with nothing but girls and sex.

To be fair, heisguilty of such an insolent crime. The only reason he feelsless guilty than the rest of the boys in his classroom is the added problem of worrying about his height complications. That way, there was some semblance of balance between his thoughts—a third for boys, a third for sex, and another third for the pedantic way he’d have to live out his life as a tall person.

Today was a Monday, which meant he’d have ducked his head by his door a total of six-hundred-and-thirteen times. He didn’t keep a physical copy of the record, since his brain could register and memorize the statistics quite well.

And now, just now, as he hurries down the stairs to eat breakfast with his family, he’s realized that there were a lot of things inside his head that couldn’t be satisfied in a one-third ratio. There were vast amounts of space for boys, sex, and his height, but the more he thought about it, the more his thoughts began to divide the ratio until the concepts of a numbering system couldn’t satisfy him anymore. Where was he to store the sensations he’d feel on his tongue when he ate sliced bread with processed cheese? There hadto be more space in his mind for him to recite another daily soliloquy on individualism as he walked to school—all these thoughts, and yet so little time. For time itself is just a construct that seems to slow down and accelerate whenever he pleased.

“Bye, Mom, bye, Dad. I’ll get going now.” He shouted from the entrance. Upon hearing his mother’s blessings for good luck in school, he twisted the doorknob open and stepped outside of his humble abode.

The smell of brine that filled his nose, the distant crashes of sea waves that drilled into his ears, the wake of sunlight that peeked its bright, bulbous body out into the open skies—ah, yes. Another fine day indeed.

I. The Boy Named Kim Gyuvin

“Now, I want you to thinkhardaboutwhywe have borders. Who crafted them? Why is Korea separated between the North and the South now?”

The booming voice of his current geography teacher failed to reach his ears. To him, it was just a blurry rendition of what a deep, adult, male voice should sound like. Words were muffled as if the entire classroom was submerged in the ocean, shifting idly while slowly sinking down into dark waters.


All it took was a single word from Quanrui's seatmate for the whole class to plunge into a brief state of chaos. To compare a trivial, everyday event to the likes of the Korean War wasn’t Quanrui's intention, but it was easier for him to imagine things that way during class, or else he wouldn’t pay attention at all. Instead of a classroom, he was now in the murky waters of a seaside battle between the U.S.-backed troops of his home country and the army of the North, supported by China and the Soviet Union. Blue was a fitting color against the vibrant shade of red that called for the removal of capitalism. Perhaps it was a personal bias within him since blue was what he would call his "favorite color.” The implications and causes that both sides fought for were something he didn’t really bother to learn. All he knew now was where his current position was in this entire ordeal. If the classroom indeed was a war zone, he would be situated right in the middle of it all, warily cautious eyes watching the Blues, led by his teacher and his minions, fighting against the rebellious anarchist Red, led by his seatmate and his goons.

The prospect of associating himself with a different, less mundane alternate reality where anything was possible drove him to sit down and stare out the glass barriers of the nearby window. The mind was a fascinating place when one was wrought with boredom.

It took some time—usually ten seconds or so—for him to fully immerse himself into a reality he’s crafted. The most straightforward point to begin with was his death. The type of death wasn’t necessary, since the outcome was the same. Often more than not, however, it would always be a drowning accident. The reasons as towhyhe constantly saw himself drowning didn’t bother him at all, since hedid live by the seaside. His father was a marine biologist, so it made sense for his family to situate their living quarters near a large body of water. Despite all this, he was still quite clumsy with swimming, so death by drowning was a realistic cause that seemed viable enough for the next scene in his mind theater.

Now that hedid hypothetically drown on a winter afternoon, what would happen after that? He pictured a search and rescue operation where his body was eventually found, perhaps a few twenty meters away from South Korea’s coastal area. It would be even more dramatic if his body drifted into foreign lands, to be retrieved by the coastal guards of China or Japan. Maybe given enough time, his body might have traveled as far as the Pacific, adrift on the shores of a micronation. That way, his face would make it on national television. Wouldn’t that be a delight? Five seconds of fame after five seconds of submersion.

Say his body has not been found. What next? Obviously, it would be Headmaster Jung’s thick, shaky voice echoing across the hallways via the intercom. Compared to his vivaciously saccharine tone at every other school event, he’d carry a heavier legato that would translate his mourning into cohesive words.

“Shen Quanrui was a gifted child who was loved by all his classmates, a shining beacon of our alma mater. This loss isn’t limited to the school but to the world as we know it,” the intercom would say, with the typical whines and cracks of an outdated radio system.

The classroom would be engulfed in a dreaded silence, where everyone would leave a white rose on top of his table. His homeroom teacher might give an inspiring speech about youth, and how important it is to value life—a much-needed cliché to inspire a flesh-minded adolescence that lacked the coping mechanisms to handle something like death. Candle-lit vigils and gatherings will definitely take place, with all the residents of his somewhat small town paying their respects in the form of flower bouquets and thin, wax candles. Parents would take their children to these commemorations, their lost faces trying to make sense of it all. Why did he drown? Why did he die? Was he just lost? Will he be found?

The streets will be filled with posters, signs, and any form of tribute to remember him—even if the town didn’t really notice his existence prior to his death. His parents might say a word or two on the news, telling the nation that he was a good, obedient boy who never failed to make them proud. The news station might even trespass and bombard the school’s students with an amalgamation of cameras and microphones, asking them to say a few words about him. A bed of flowers, candles, and perhaps some of his favorite snacks might be lying around the school gates, coupled with large signs that immortalized his face and name. All in the span of three months, the entire town would send all their prayers to him, keeping his name in their mouths for as long as possible.

Then, here’s the catch: a melancholic major character’s death required an equally dramatic resurrection.

The ideal scenario would be a bunch of girls huddled in the classroom, embracing each other to collectively mourn over the loss of their beloved Shen Quanrui. Wails and cries will consume the entire hallways as each student's coat would be stained with each other’s sweat and tears. The constant murmurs of his name as a mantra of loss was the only thing that held them together in such a bleak time as this. To him, however, it was the perfect timing to enter the school’s dusty hallways clad in a black robe from head to toe. Covering his head with an elongated hood, he walks the corridors with a slow, menacing stride. The boys and girls look up from their misery, holding each other even tighter at the sudden threat of an ominously magnetic presence. They are awestruck, slightly opening their mouths upon laying their eyes on him. He purposefully takes a few seconds to remove his hood, revealing his face in its entirety.

He’s alive, and he’s the most powerful man in existence now, having traversed through life and death. He was a god among men, a deity that every teenage girl had to revere. His name alone sent shivers and pleasures down everyone's lower regions, and—

“Ricky, psst, Ricky!"

Before he’s able to walk closer to the only boy that caught his eye, he is brought back down into the gray four walls of his classroom. He was still alive, and the glass window reflected the cloudy horizons of a summer morning. There were no flowers and ample signs of his face sitting idly by the gate, and the deadly silence of the classroom was replaced with the vigorous voice of his geography teacher. He was back in the real world, and he had another duty to fulfill at this given moment. Slender fingers slip a folded note with a perfectly drawn heart in front of it. He snaps his head in his seatmate’s direction, who tried his best to stifle his giggles.

"It’s from Gyuvin.” He whispers, slipping the note between the empty spaces of his open textbook.

He knows it'snot from the boy of his dreams, but maybe, just maybe, there’s that one-in-a-million possibility that she’d pass him a note during class. Whatever its contents were didn’t matter to him. The satisfaction came from having his penmanship as an effigy of himself within his grasp. As the teacher walks back towards the blackboard, he quickly scuttles about, clumsily taking the note under his desk and peeling it open. Heavy anticipation rocked the steady ship that he managed to contain himself in throughout the duration of geography class. If the stars aligned in his favor, this note would be from his revered muse.

The person who’s reading this rides big daddy’s fat co*ck.

His seatmate was now howling like a wolf, ducking his head down inside his folded arms. Quanrui wasn’t really dejected by the contents of the note itself; it was more so the fact that he didn’t write it to him. At least with the latter, it would be abundantly clear to him that he thought of him in a crude way. That alone was good enough.

Of course, with the ritualistic tradition of note-passing, his current obligation is to take the note out of his hands. He quickly eyed the enormously narrow classroom and pinned the supposed victim, a boy in front of his table, permanently slouching like a curled-up cat. He was every single teacher’s favorite due to managing to maintain an outstanding performance throughout his entire life in the school. Although he is often picked on by the other brutish children, he manages to save himself by running to the teacher and over-exaggerating the hell he’s been put through. In some ways, both parties are at fault for abusing their respective power, but isn’t that what human beings did when they were handed an infinite vacuum of unbridled power?

“Hey,” He said, lowering both his neck and his voice to avoid his geography teacher’s gaze. The boy turned back to look at him; eyes enlarged even further by the concave of his glasses. Quanrui kept a straight face and tried to pass the note to him, but was met with heavy resistance.

“Come on, take it. It’s for you.”

The more he tried to push the measly note onto the boy, the more he was met with a scornfully funny gaze. Never in his life would he have thought thatthissqueaky boy was capable of turning his eyes into that of a mighty hawk’s.

“Passing notes again I see, Mr. Shen?”

“No sir,”

Once in a blue moon was the perfect phrase to describe the current scene. For Quanrui was a student who never brought any amount of attention to himself; to have all eyes on him was a dauntingly arousing experience that stroked his ego for all the wrong reasons. This must be what being in a spotlight felt like—hundreds and thousands of different pairs of eyes centered around a single perspective, highly anticipating the star of the show. If this was the role he was given, then he might as well play it with all he’s got.

“Well, you know the rules, Ricky. Notes are supposed to be shared with everyone, so stand up and read that note in front of all of us, yeah? I’m sure there’s something pleasant in there for everyone to see.”

If his seatmate howled at the moon, then the rest of his classmates were applauding like wolves. One of the students from the back of the classroom whistled—and he snapped his head in its direction to see the object of his heart, the boy who was a man in his eyes.

Kim Gyuvin.

Next to his textbook was a shiny, neon green lighter strategically placed on the edges of his desk. This was the first time he'd thoroughly looked at him, eyes slanted into a perfect blend of enticing curiosity. Go ahead, read it, his eyes say. Like a magic spell being cast upon him, he opened his mouth to read the first word. Instead, the scathing chimes of the school bell spoke forhim.

“Ah, saved by the bell as always, aren’t you?”

In an instant, his classmates reverted back to humans. Long gone were the barks and woofs of primal strengths, now replaced by the quick, agile fingers of regular teenagers stuffing all that they could inside their backpacks. The only thing that remained was the geography teacher’s control—or lack thereof—over the classroom. Using the wingspan of an eagle, he waved his arms back and forth in an attempt to cool the crowd.

“Well, you know what to do, class. Just read through the remaining textbook pages since I won’t be covering them tomorrow. Other than that, you’re free to go.”

As soon as the geography teacher finishes his sentence, Quanrui's eyes dart towards Gyuvin, who already had his things packed. He folds a cigarette pack with his lighter, using the spaces between his fingers to carry them together. His stride was too quick for him to follow, and before he knew it, he was out of the door. His seatmate and a few other students from the back corner, the poor boy who permanently slouched, amicably put an arm around his shoulder as they totter out.

As always, it was one of Quanrui's many routines to wait until everyone left the classroom. That way, he had more time to think to himself—and by thinking, he meant one single thing: staring out the large, glass window to spot Gyuvin's back leaning against the thick trunk of an oak tree. How he was able to run down the stairs and relax by the school’s small garden always managed to surprise him, but that just added more to his mental list of things he loved about him. At this point, he was an almost flawless teenage boy who potentially had the ability to teleport. The only actual flaw he bore in his eyes was the constantly visible red blotches on his arms. He didn’t know what type of allergy it was, or if it was a hereditary skin disease—he was willing to look past that if it meant making him his boyfriend.

Gyuvin's thumb was now heavily pressing the lighter wheel, forcing the flint to light a cigarette between his lips. Only this time, he looks up to the classroom and meets his eyes, a carefully crafted smile etched on his lips. He couldn’t read the look in his eyes, but the fact that he was smiling meant somethingto him. From all his observations within the past year, heknew that he did things with a plan in mind. When he looked at someone, it was always with a favor or two at the back of his grin. Whenever he approached a person, it was within the guise of a business transaction. Nothing about him was done in the name of charity, for he was a slimy entrepreneur in the most refined form—nota generous Red Cross volunteer.

Gyuvin's eyes lingered on for a little while before he stubs the dwindling cigarette with his feet. Who knew that snuffing a cigarette out could be considered a graceful choreography in a tragic ballet? As Quanrui continued to engage himself in an impromptu staring contest with him, he kicked his own feet by mistake, catching his balance by curling his fingers on the cool iron windowsill. He couldn’t hear anything, but he could imagine him pointing at him, a haughty burst of laughter gargling out of his mouth.

“Look what we have here, boys? It’s a real-life Romeo!"

Quanrui straightens himself up to see a friend? Or maybe a foe? He didn’t know the boundaries of those things anymore—in fact, he didn’t know anything anymore. At the age of sixteen, everything around him was changing too fast.

For instance, his parents’ bedtime practices. From his morning checks of their room, he can tell that they haven’t had sex in at least half a year. Typically, the lights would be left on and dimmed down—bright enough to see each other’s faces, but dark enough to hide under the relatively thin veils of the curtains. Now, the lights were left in the highest brightness—and unless his parents had a penchant for voyeurism, this was a bad sign for the direction of their sex life.

The same could be said for his platonic relationships. All throughout his school life, the line between friends and enemies was well-defined. Those who were nice to you were considered friends, and those who weren’t can be confidently labeled as enemies. Upon entering the dens of high school, however, he learned that the opposite was at play—friends would often call each other less than perfect names, while enemies of the evilest kind would openly treat their victims with kindness with the master plan of fully controlling them. The most confusing part of all was how in some cases, friends could be considerably kind to each other, while enemies in the form of bullies wrought misery to their victims, making it their goal to create hell on earth within the school corridors.

As he hesitantly craned his neck towards the doorway, he was surprised to see Gyuvin standing in front of the classroom’s sliding door, tossing his lighter between his hands. His seatmate quickly jogged towards him and draped his arm on Quanrui's shoulder. Lowering his head towards his ear, he exchanged quick glances with the group of boys and Gyuvin huddled outside the corridor.

"Did you know? Gyuvin's back on the market."

Quanrui slipped his backpack on his shoulder and began walking with his shorter seatmate. Perhaps this was one of the reasons he wasn’t picked on anymore, because he was taller than a majority of their male classmates—including the very boy who tried to be affable with him. He struggled to keep his arm on Quanrui's shoulder, doing his best to tiptoe whilst matching his long-legged compass.


Nonchalance was vital here. He didn’t want to seem too desperate, but he also didn’t want to show disinterest. He was currently given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to test his hand, and he didn’t want to let him fall into the wrong person.

The reader of this novel might be asking themselves if Quanrui truly is the right person for Gyuvin. How can he know if he hasn’t even dated him yet? Well, he already had an answer for that. Think of it this way: a biopic or an autobiography needed an intriguing love interest. Who the hell would want to read about a bland, blank slate of a couple, right? At least that’s what Quanrui often tells himself. He believed he was interesting enough to be the main character in a novel, or perhaps the lead role in an autobiographical biopic on himself—so, then, all he needed was a another male lead. The only person that genuinely completed the yin to his yang was the feisty Kim Gyuvin himself, who had enough qualities to be his foil, but also enough characteristics to build cohesive chemistry with him.

Once again, all of this was hypothetical. A theory, not a law—and now, he was in the testing stage. He already had a hypothesis and a null hypothesis laid out, and if everything went according to plan, he’d be able to write a scientific paper on his successes. Although his lab apprentice failed to meet all the qualifications needed to work with him, he didn’t have a choice. This was the only person that could lead him to prove his theory right.

"Hey, hey, hey! Calm down there, Romeo! I just thought you’d be interested."

The two were now walking through the hallways, arm in arm, as if they were comrades in battle. From the height difference between them, his seatmate looked like he was limping from a severe leg injury. The group of boys followed suit, curiously peering at an unlikely addition to their clique. Gyuvin lagged behind, kicking dust away as he lightly skipped with an unknown song in his head. It was painful for Quanrui to look away from him, but he had to. He already told his seatmate that he wasn’t interested, so his actions can’t betray his words.

"What do you mean so? He's gonna steal all the girls in our to-date list!” His seatmate, whom he didn't bother memorizing the name of, groaned. Even if he was short, his voice was equally as profound as Quanrui's. He was maniacally wiggling his eyebrows, and the rest of the boys followed suit. The constant motions of their thick, unruly brows made him picture a caterpillar—perhaps a caterpillar or a moth’s hairy body. He bit his lip back and concentrated on the end of the corridor, trying his hardest to narrow his peripheral vision. If he were to laugh now, he would lose the sacred opportunity that was given to him.

From an outsider’s perspective, this was a hilarious scene to witness. Most of the boys were a head or two shorter than him, so he stuck out like a skyscraper built in the middle of the American suburb. He would know, as he often bragged about living in Los Angeles throughout his childhood. Just like a Hollywood film, he told stories of being in a set with two to three-story buildings against a behemoth of a corporate office building. Kids were skateboarding by the cul-de-sac, and cars would constantly pass by his gated neighborhood. Now, despite the difference in having to ride the train and arduously make the hike from his seaside abode to the nearest station instead of taking a car to school, he definitely felt like an office building in the middle of suburbia.

"Not my problem," Ricky confidently uttered. Key here is confidence. He has to appear uninterested, let them know that Gyuvin was not a competition—because he wasn't. Gyuvin was the object of his affection; his muse; his god; his ideal male lead. And to his surprise, the boys took the message, sending howls across the hallways.

"I mean, I guess I've never seen you have the hots for anyone in our school," a shorter, squeamish boy piped into the conversation. "You're either studying or running about alone, even if you get love letters in your locker all the time..."

"Oh, to be a Romeo..."

"That's not what I meant, I—"

Now, he had to choose his words carefully. He can't be completely apathetic. After all, heis single now, and though he's not aware of any male competition, it was always good to be cautious. Besides, it wasn't to say that Gyuvin was considered a popular pick; it was more so the fact that every single girl and closeted boy would probably take their chances at finally alleviating their status from "single" to "taken." Or for those that were curious, they would've had the merit to conquer the most attractive boy in the entire school as their first with a boy. Who they were dating didn’t matter—it was the social status that counted. When one was taken at sixteen, it meant that they were eligible for the next rite of passage, which was sex. To be in a relationship was one thing, but to lose your virginity? That was the ultimate goal of all—in fact, that was how boys became men in their classrooms. For in the mind of an adolescent, it was crucial that they become a man as fast as they could. It was perhaps the quickest way to ascend the ladder of an unwritten social hierarchy, and it was a surefire way of retaining a place in the jungle of boyhood.

It’s not like he agreed with it; he just needed to survive in the chaos of adolescence.

"So, what do you mean, Ricky?"

The boys tightened their circle around him, but it was no use. His head could still be seen from the reflection of the corridor’s glass windows, idly sticking out from the blackened crowns of his captors’ heads.

“What I meant was who thehell does he think he is? I can get just as many girls—if not more—than that puny, lanky ant."

Ah, yes. Rivals. It was a classic way to assert dominance and competition in the classroom, and it was also a safe barrier that allowed him to hide his true feelings for Gyuvin.On cue, Gyuvin accelerates the speed to his skips, giving Quanrui one more reason to believe that he was someone who regularly practiced the occult. It could be chalked up to his conniving nature, but some parts of him felt that maybe, just maybe, he had absolute clairvoyance. To explain things with the latter made everything more apparent to him—his omnipotent aura, the fact that he was always present in his peripheral vision, and the way he was always on his mind. At this point, witchcraft was the easiest and most logical way to explain it all.

“Gyuvin.” He said, a little too quickly.If only he waited for a second or two, he would’ve been right beside him.

“Do you want my autograph or something?” He replied, with the same smile on his face. After being met with silence, he shrugs to the group and skips away, making the entire hallway his personal ballroom. He smoothly wiggles his backpack off his shoulders, twirling it around as he continued to dance with each step happily. In his presence, he was able to make the rest of the hallway’s patrons dance with him, waltzing off in a morbidly beautiful rendition of the Blue Danube.

It was his first time seeing him like this since Gyuvin always carried an air of teenage angst around him.

"Yeah, good luck trying to beathim, Romeo," One of the boys said, whistling a typical tune akin to cat-calling. Soon after, the rest of them howled at him, patting him on the back and pushing him around. Human contact was something he wasn’t too fond of, but he had to be patient. If he was considered a part of their clique, that meant he had a higher chance of wooing the hallway dancer.

“Jokes on him. I'm not even trying."

His response was met with another round of boyish cacophony. Soon enough, they were out of the school gates, and he saw Gyuvin from the corner of his eyes, standing too still. The backpack slipped away from his hands, creating a loud thud that only he could hear.

He was still not over him, and Quanrui hadto make his movenow.

Today was a Tuesday. He didn’t know why he was keeping track of the days of the week, but it served a crucial purpose if he were to publish an autobiography or direct his own biopic. The passage of timehad to be clear for the audience since plots were driven by a character’s growth. That being said, growth takestime, andtime is measured in years, months, days, hours, minutes, and seconds. He didn’t need the exact time to orchestrate the story of his life, but the day of the week would do just fine.

Whereas yesterday, he was able to experience the feeling of being in a crowd, today, he was back to being alone. Since Gyuvin didn’t occupy his usual oak tree, he decided it washisturn to experience the foliage that its leaves offered. What was on his mind when he was smoking or lighting matches by this very tree trunk? What led him to have such a fixation on fire in the first place? Did deforestation motivate him to spark a match or a lighter near this giant oak tree? To picture himself with his future partner, he needed to live out his daily habits.

While he slowly slithered down on top of a protruding, thick root, he saw Gyuvin and a group of boys from his class in a nearby area. They were playing a cruel rendition of "Monkey in the Middle” with the bag of a bespectacled, slouchy boy he knew too well. Now, the morally just thing to do in this situation is to calmly approach them and defend the poor boy. After all, he wastaller than almost all of them, which meant that in a hypothetical fight, he’d have a good chance of winning. Then again,ifhe were to defend the bespectacled boy, he’d have to fight a male majority—which was fine, save for the fact that in terms of physical strength, he was on par withone of them. If he were to do the maths, he’d be fighting against five or six of himself, which meant that he’d have a five to six hundred percent chance of losing. That would be pretty embarrassing, wouldn’t it? To get beaten up by a group of shorter men in front of the boy he wanted to woo—that in itself would make a lovely scene in his biopic, where he could direct Gyuvin into nursing his injuries. However, this was the present, and Gyuvin wasn’t his yet. After seeing his joyous laughter at the misery of the bespectacled boy, the last thing he wanted to be was another victim on his tremendously long list of adversaries.

So, he did what he always does in a typical situation such as this: cognitive dissonance. According to a quick Wikipedia search, it’s defined as the psychological stress that one experiences upon participation in an action that goes against one’s moral compass. According to Leon Festinger, an American social psychologist, the contradiction between internal beliefs leads to the stressed individual attempting to justify their behavior, whether it is via rationalization or confirmation bias. Sometimes, an individual might even resort to ignorance, which means the blind, sheep-like belief of following eventual intellectual surrender.

For Quanrui, being sixteen meant he needed to learn how to achieve a certain balance in his life. Although he is entirely against bullying, he’s also fully aware of the value it might add to his social status. To propel himself upwards in the high school hierarchy, he needed to at least appearto fit in. The act of showing basic humanity to othershad to be replaced with rather barbaric acts of irrational evil. In order to do so, Quanrui chose to rationalizehis behavior. He wasn’t an ignorant sheep that blindly followed orders; he was too much of an intellectually capable individual to do so. Confirmation bias didn’t seem to serve his purpose either, since he considers himself an omniscient individual—one who seesallperspectives rather than a select few. Thus, the only way he could participate in such a vile act was toreasonwith himself—whydoes this poor boy deserve to be bullied? Ah, perhaps it’s because his glasses were so big that it disabled him from feeling any emotion whatsoever. The glasses were probably infused with a mind-control chip facilitated by the school’s underground experiment on making teenagers smarter, which, in turn, didn’t make him human.

His seatmate caught the slouched boy’s bag mid-air and began sprinting away from the school. The group—including Gyuvin, of course—followed suit, while the boy tried to chase after his bag. The fear of missing out was a common occurrence in the stage of adolescence, so what better way to make himself fit in than to join the club? Strapping his messenger back in one, swift motion, he proudly smiled at himself before running towards the group. He thanked his long legs for the sudden burst of athleticism, and now, he was right next to Gyuvin, looking back at the staggering boy who fixed his glasses while running with them.

Before he knew it, they were now in the vicinity of a children’s park. His seatmate was on top of a slide, holding the bag up and hurling it towards another boy in front of him.

“Are you gonna cry now? Poor baby! I bet your mom still changes your diaper in case yourwee weegets carried away!"

His seatmate, or rather, Yujin, was a rich boy who came from a chaebol family that moved to the seaside due to being on the brink of expulsion from his school in the city. The catch to his rambunctious behavior, though, was that he was very intelligent—so much so that he was able to move two classes above and be in the same grade level as himself and Gyuvin. In the classroom, he was a tyrant who threatened to kick his soccer ball at anyone who defied his orders, and the only one who was able to get any form of preferential treatment from him was Gyuvin. In that sense, Yujin was an enemy, even if the boy didn't exhibit any explicitly romantic feelings for Gyuvin. Despite being a pipsqueak and a short boy who was still waiting for a growth spurt, being rich, intelligent, and having Gyuvin by his side immediately propelled him into the highest bands of the high school's social hierarchy. With such a rapid acceleration into the upper echelons of their classroom, it was no surprise that his ego would inflate large enough to become the most outstanding bully that his school could offer. For instance, he was the only boy in their section that made the Physical Health teacher, Mr. Chee Lee, cry. The moment he entered the gym, most of the students had a small, red chili pepper sewn into the front pocket of their P.E. shirts. At first, Mr. Lee tried his best to ignore it, carrying on with the lesson. Before he was able to spike a volleyball out of the net, he turned as red as the embroidered chili pepper on each student’s breast pocket and then dashed out of the gym’s double doors at lightning speed.

"See, I told you he didn’t like chili peppers.”

And like the hot spice of gochujang in one’s mouth, he felt the chilling sensation of the winds tickle his spine as he ran around the gray sands of the park. Swirls of dust accumulated like a tornado with each step he made, and the winds accelerated his arm power, prompting him to throw the poor boy’s back in a much higher altitude.

“Hey, now, Glasses! Just a little higher!"

The entire group was backing away from the slide, with Yujin now cornering him towards a small puddle. Heavy rain plagued their town this morning, and the storm’s residue left a murky aftertaste in Quanrui's mouth. Pathetic fallacy, as his literature teacher coined it, was currently at play. Although there was currently no rain at all, the cloudy skies set just enough mood for the entire scene to carry a more significant impact. With the absence of innocent children running around, one can interpret the scene as a group of uniformed high schoolers revisiting their childhood. Upon closer inspection—preferably a close-up shot of the bespectacled boy—several tears can be seen leaking from the concave surface of his glasses all the way down to his protruding chin.

"Give it back!” A much lower pitch, but human nonetheless, permeated across the park. The boy’s whines were replaced with incessant laughter coming from all corners of the park. Quanrui's ears only picked up Gyuvin's, which currently sounded like a revered classical symphony amidst chaotic jazz.

The bag was currently in Quanrui's hands, and his very first victim managed to take it back with all the strength he could muster. Upon finally receiving his bag back, he teeters on one leg, before falling face-flat into the puddle of rainwater and dirty sand. Despite the shallowness of the puddle, he could imagine how deep it must’ve felt with such an embarrassing fall. To trip and fall in such a circ*mstance would instantly freeze him—the feeling could be akin to ice skating on top of a frozen lake, only for the surface to crack and plunge one into its cold, desolate, and icy waters. All semblance of laughter ceased into a lethally freezing silence—and now, everyone was frozen still.

He refused to believe he was responsible for pushing the boy into the puddle, so he settled with ignorance. For a moment, he just imagined that he lost balance on his own, a short, bony ballerina failing to balance himself on one leg. Instead of performing a beautiful pirouette, his foot slips under him, prompting him to bellyflop down into the puddle’s gray oceans. Gracefully plopping around him were all of his belongings—his pencil case, textbooks, and P.E. uniform. By divine intervention, all of his items strategically fall beside him, not a single one hitting any part of his body. He was now writhing around like a fish out of water, flopping back and forth as he tried to stand up.

Quanrui's eyes darted past each person, who wore a distinctly proud aura as they admired their tour de force. The boy begins to sob while picking his things up, shaking off all the murky water that he could before stuffing them back into his backpack. His uniform’s dress shirt now took on a grayish-yellow hue, sinking deeper into his chest. The more Quanrui watched the boy suffer, the more he understood that memories like these would be the most vivid ones to recall in one’s lifetime.

Before he could snap out of it, the rest of the group began to sprint out of the park. Gyuvin pushed Yujin's back, screaming at him to run as fast as he could. Now, it was just Quanrui and his victim, face to face with his own crime. He could feel the sandy, wet dirt crawl through his hands, staining them in a dark gray hue. His eyes widen in pure shock, a co*cktail of emotions overwhelming him as he watches the boy dust off the mud from his pants.

“Here, let me help you,” Quanrui shakily utters, kneeling down to pick up a few wayward pencils and a dirty eraser. A fierce grip took a hold of his slender arm, followed by a glare that embodied wrath itself.

“f*ck you."

"Hey, I was only trying to stop you from falling, you know?”

Before Quanrui can stand up, the boy pushes him into the puddle. He was right; it did feel as cold as a Siberian lake. Closing his eyes, he revels in the feeling of being the victim. The uncomfortable dampness of his hair, the cold, muddy water seeping into his blazer, and the menacing embrace of embarrassment that held him tighter than ever—he could feel the bespectacled boy’s gaze towards him, a charge of complete vexation engulfing him entirely. Even then, he didn’t do anything to him. He just slipped his wet backpack on his equally soaked shoulder, spitting right next to Quanrui's ear.

“Leave me alone.” He spat.

The crunches of sand slowly disintegrated into silence, and Quanrui opened his eyes to the violet hues of the setting sun.


In many ways, Quanrui preferred being alone. It provides him with all the time in the world to think. Fortunately, his backpack was still waiting for him on the corner of the slide, safe from the wrongdoings of the world. He took some time to use the Wim Hof breathing technique he found online. The official site told him that it would increase his willpower and boost his immune system—just what he needed to recover from the germ-ridden sewer pit of the park’s puddle. Taking thirty quick, deep breaths, he closed his eyes again to fully activate his lungs. Particles of sand shot up his nose, and he had to stop on the seventh breath to prevent himself from choking. Obviously, it wasn’t a good idea to breathe when he was still submerged in the quicksand of high school bullying.

Being tall definitely had more problems than solutions. For one, it was much harder for him to bend his knees and pick himself up. It would’ve been easier for the bespectacled boy, or any member of his current gang—but for him? It took more energy than required to activate each joint into motion and carry his weight back up. He allowed his hands to dive deep into the muddy puddle, feeling the shallow sand between his fingers. If he were to paint his day, he would draw a self-portrait of himself falling into quicksand. No, it wouldn’t be done under the hyper-realistic strokes of a Pre-Raphaelite painter. Works like those focused on skill rather than emotion, and he needed a different artistic era to define his feelings. Perhaps impressionism with the fluid paint strokes? No, he needed something moreabstract.

Just as he envisions a Jackson Pollock painting, he begins to see his own reflection in the puddle distort into one. All the colors that painted his image turned into sporadic spots that splashed to and fro. The dusk sky distorted itself in the muddy portal to another dimension, twisting the earth’s features into an unrecognizably unhinged work of modern art. It was probably the milestone of turning sixteen that made him see himself and the world in such a way—arbitrarily drawn blotches of color instead of a meticulously crafted oil painting from the era of Academism. He isn’t the transparently clear boy that he used to be; within him, there was another Shen Quanrui that controlled the buttons of his mind, dictating each step made by the large, tall, and especially empty husk sculpted in the teenage body of Quanrui. The more he stares into his own rippled reflection, the more he begins to see that he doesn’t look like a sixteen-year-old at all.

He looked forty, with hair just as gray as the gravel and sand around him.

Before he made his way back home, he decided to stop by the shoreline near his house. There was an abandoned bathtub right by the sea, often submerged in the saline waters during high tide season. When he had first moved to South Korea, his father would often join him, pretending to be sailing on a boat that led to nowhere. To casually drift afloat and let the sea take the bathtub wherever it pleaded; what a dream indeed. Sometimes, he wished for the waters to cave into the bathtub as he drifted farther and farther away from the coasts of South Korea, saltwater lapping around him and tingling the surface of his skin. If the feeling of crashing waves beneath his toes was a euphoric comedown, then undoubtedly, to have his entire body engulfed in the sea would maximize the effect to the fullest.

He made sure he was soaked all the way through before he came home. His mother was the nervous type who always had a penchant for dwelling on the smallest things.

Hǔ zi! What happened to you? We were all waiting for you, but the food was gonna get cold, so we ate ahead."

His mother peeked her head from the dining table, warily watching each step Quanrui made. Again, he took a deep breath—this time, he didn’t resort to the Wim Hof Method. To rapidly undertake thirty deep breaths in this situation would worsen his mother’s woes about him, considering the small pile of teenage psychology and adolescent parenting books he’d find on top of his mother’s bedside drawer. One of them was a book that detailed teenage paranoia and delusions, which educated him on specific phrasings to successfully miss a day of school. While he’s experimented with "my body doesn’t feel like my own,” and “I feel so sick just by breathing through my own lungs,” he’s found that the most effective phrase was the classic “I’ve been dead for several years.” Being the benignly emotional soul that she is, his mother would anxiously nod at every word, often holding his hand tight while whispering warm, parental consolations.

The most ironic thing about his relationship with his mother was how she was probably worse off than him in terms of mental health. To him, she should be lucky that her mental health issues were primarily mistaken for saccharine amicability and adequate social skills. In one of his routine searches of his parent’s bedroom, he found a box full of old pictures stashed away in their shared closet. Upon opening its dusty cover, he scrolls through each photo with pure fascination—his mother was initially a failed theater actress who got fired from the company. The reasons were something he was too afraid to ask her, but he could hypothesize a couple: one would be her scoliosis, which prevented her from wearing corsets for plays like “Marie Antoinette” or “Little Women.” Another might have been her reluctance towards plastic surgery since, as far as he knew, most of the people in the entertainment industry went under the knife. Finally, there were probably a few natural faces, but those who made it big had to reform their face in subtle ways.

For someone with a dramatic flair, a nine-to-five office job surely didn’t suit her at all. The vibrantly colorful theater stages were now replaced with the dull, mundane wallpaper of corporate professionalism. Instead of wearing flamboyant costumes that painted a different persona, she was subjected to the same pencil skirt and dress shirt combination in muted, natural tones. All of her lines were dictated by bullet points on a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation, and her dialogue was limited to formal language that rigidly rolled off her tongue. Celebrations in the office were incredibly dull, considering how she only received a greeting from each of her colleagues—no singing, no dancing, and definitely no alcohol on the job.

Now that he’s established his mother’s background, it was time for him to focus on his father. Maybe that way, he could be able to justify his brooding neuroticism. Unlike his mother, his father was always a lone wolf—an introvert at heart, per se. According to brief conversations with him in the living room, he was able to picture his university life: often alone in the library or the nearby lake, either surrounded by academic papers or fish tanks and striking conversations with professors rather than people his age. Now, he was a professor himself. Quanrui didn’t know what his father did at the local university, but he knew that adults were full of secrets. Sneaking into his parents’ room was a relatively easy feat that unfortunately didn’t work in laboratories.

When his father didn’t spend the daytime at the university, he would be at home, sitting still in his usual spot on the couch. In his right hand was a warm, transparent glass mug of chamomile tea, which looked like urine at specific angles. The pristine condition of the cup gradually got tarnished with jaundice stains, making him genuinely believe that it might be urine after all. It was a thought that never occurred to him, but upon turning sixteen, he begins to wonder why his father could spend hours idly sitting on the uncomfortable couch, endlessly drinking heaps of chamomile tea. The routine checkups in his parents’ bedroom failed to solve the mystery, but the drawer behind the bathroom mirror did. After scouring through strategically displayed bottles of shampoo and face-care products, he found the answers to one of his many, many questions: two white bottles with each labeled in extremely complicated medical terms. For example, one had the word “escitalopram” while the other had “paroxetine” written on the front of the bottle. In the duration of seven months, Quanrui was able to accumulate upwards of eight empty bottles each—which he keeps under his bed.

The lack of sexual activity, the crushing mundanity and dissatisfaction that came with his mother’s day job, and his father’s medication—all of it were ingredients that boiled down into the perfect recipe for a troubled child. That was the last thing he wanted since teenage angst already came with height complications and unrequited love. He didn't want or need the added confusion and futility of witnessing a failing marriage right before his eyes. Now, that could be the explanation behind why he partook in Gyuvin and Yujin's tomfoolery. Perhaps they, too, had some trouble in their lives that prompted them to take their angst out into the world.

With the gradual deterioration of his parents’ marriage, it was no wonder why he began retreating himself in a fantastical alternate reality within his head. That way, he could always snap out of it once things got too heavy—fade to black and go to sleep whenever he pleased.

Before he succumbed to an uncomfortable slumber, a loud screech permeated from his open window. Taking the binoculars by his bedside, he immediately hovered them over his eyes, clumsily adjusting the lenses’ zoom. A disgusting, psychedelic pattern wormed its way into his binoculars, causing him to wonder if he was genuinely paranoid. Upon zooming out, he heaves a sigh of fear and relief that it was just a newly parked car by the previously empty garage of the house next door. As he shifted the binoculars towards the backyard, he immediately held the urge to throw them out the window. While a part of him is utterly repelled, there was a corner in his soul that forced him to grip the binoculars, tight, zooming it even further to the two parties barefoot on the wet grass. A man with unkempt, wavy hair was performing an off-brand rendition of tai-chi with a slender woman. They began to suck each other’s faces off, tongues protruding in and out of their mouths. He knows he should be putting the binoculars down by now, but morbid curiosity takes over his psyche—until a soft knock disrupts his espionage.

“Goodnight, Hǔ zi.” His mother whispers with a solemn tone. The room was dim enough to obscure his expression, but it was bright enough for him to see the photograph his mother clandestinely held between her fingers. It was a picture he had never seen before, and at first glance, he couldn’t even tell that it was his mother. The woman in the photo had long, luscious locks of dark hair stopping just at her waist. She was wearing a revealing sundress, which was a rare choice of clothing considering her corporate garb. Next to her was a man who looked just like the slightly obese man he saw outside of the window, presumably having sex on the wet grass with his supermodel of a partner. Before his mother closes the door, he is able to trace the mysterious characters of messy yet mystifying penmanship.

With love, L.

II. The Man Named Triceratops Leung

He couldn’t remember what day it was, but his school uniform was pressed clean, hanging right by his door. In the dark, he could picture the clothes gaining sentience, ghastly floating across his room in the form of a dead relative’s apparition. Which one he was face to face with didn’t seem to gain clarity in his subconsciousness, and the only thing he could trust was his intuition. The floating appareldidfeel like a blood-relative—but then again, it could just be the fact that an apparition was wearing his clothes.

The lethargic footsteps of his father echoed across the second-floor hallway, and he knew it was time for him to change into his uniform. Before he approached the poltergeist before him, he said a quick prayer in every single religion he knew. Religion itself was something Quanrui didn’t fully subscribe to, but paranormal occurrences were a common topic among teenagers. If he were to consolidate his position among the upper echelons, he had to familiarize himself with some witchcraft jargon.

“Can you ask your mom if she’s coming with us? We’re kind of in a hurry.”

He took a deep breath and swiftly pulled his uniform off the door’s rack in one go. In his mental record, he reached a new time limit—about thirteen and a half seconds to fully get dressed. Of course, this was excluding his socks. He always failed to find a matching pair, even if, on most occasions, they would be fresh out of the laundry machine.

“Hey, mom.” He said, peeking his head at his parents’ bedroom. Typically, they would get ready together. By the time he woke up, they’d already been fully dressed and ready for work. Breakfast would be laid out for him on the table, and his father would already be seated in his usual chair, reading a scientific journal for work or the newspaper. His mother would already be in a dolled-up state, busying herself by pouring everyone a drink; this was usually coffee.

“Hi,” His mother replied, taking all the time in the world by fixing a pearl necklace by her vanity. He’s never really seen her act that way, but he supposes he didn’t know enough about his own mother to make a judgment, to begin with. Perhaps the routine checks weren’t enough in frequency. Another reason he could come up with on the spot was his age; he was too young to keep up with the secrecy that adults often swore by.

“You look nice today,”

“Ah, thanks. I’m not done yet, though.”

His mother quickly shifted her gaze back to the semi-large mirror, and he contemplated giving her another compliment. After all, womendidlove those things, right? Maybe tell her she looks as young as ever? That she looked great as a mother? What does he say to make her feel beautiful and loved without saying the wrong words? In his casual internet deep dives via both the school and home office computer, he’s found that a man named Sigmund Freud believed in an extremely silly theory of sons loving their mothers. Oedipus? Something like that.

He did believe he loved his mother, just not in the way that Oedipus did. Also, he wouldn’t want to end up gouging his eyes out and seeing his mother on the noose. The blossoming prospects of a failing marriage were already enough trouble in his life at sixteen. What more would it do to him if he had to bear the burden of living up to a tragic prophecy? Was Oedipus sixteen, too, when he had to kill his father?

“Dad’s asking if you’re coming with us.”

Eventually, all that he could muster was the urgent matters at hand. Everyone had places to be—including him. It was nice to feel busy like an adult.

“Well… tell him I’m taking public transport today.”

He gave his mother a curt nod and stole a fresh pair of his father’s socks from the laundry basket before rushing downstairs.

“Mom’s taking the bus, apparently.”

Before he could be met with a reply, he saw his father’s tall, lean figure tower over a stout, mildly obese man with unruly black, wavy locks that reached past his lack of collarbones. He had a lazy eye that didn’t twitch, but blinked rapidly depending on how excited he was in the conversation. The only thing Quanrui could conjure in his head as he continued to watch the bizarre scene unfold was the image of a fat and short Rasputin talking to a taller version of a meek, weak-willed Tsar Nicholas II on the other side of the backyard. Perhaps this was what a daily conversation in the Alexander palace looked like, while the rest of the world plunged itself into a hot, boiling chaos. Next to him was a woman who was probably taller than him, lazily linking arms with Rasputin from Hong Kong. Quanrui failed to notice her for the sheer fact that all the jokes on weight aside, the Rasputin from Hong Kong's presence was too large—in fact, he didn’t notice his father until he squinted his eyes past the aura of the mystic magic man.

“Ah, I see. Well, what a small world, isn’t it?” His father’s calm, soft voice trailed off into the winds.

“Yeah! I mean, I just felt the good vibrations of the world with my girlfriend, and somehow, we ended up right here! Smack in the middle of a lovely seaside suburb! Right, babe?”

Scratch that, everything about this man waslarge—his less than ideal physique that resembled a bulbous onion with the roots that looked like pubic hair intact, the crass loudness of his voice that needlessly took up too much space in the atmosphere, and his “larger-than-thou” mysticism that he carried with him just by standing in place.

Closer inspection of the psychedelic patterns of a car parked by the neighboring garage made him realize that this man, the Rasputin from Hong Kong, had the audacity to plaster his disgusting, oafish face—shirtless, on top of that—around the downright repulsive color combinations of the car. There were several painted unicorns, a prism refracting a rainbow like the cover of a vinyl record in his father’s study, and a large sign in English that read “Triceratops Leung: Master of the Universe.”

Great, even a somewhat universally spoken foreign language wasdemolisheddue to this wretched man.

How can one retain all dignitydrivingaround in thatthing? Does he have children? He looks like the type to have several with different women or none at all. Regardless, a man likehimshouldneverhave the right to bear children. That in itself is just a gateway into bullying—trust him on that one as a boy who had the best of both worlds.

“Right! I love it here!” A woman’s voice replied, sounding more like a squawk than regular speech. She spoke English in a thick, somewhat rigid way that gave into her hypothetical background as a foreigner. The thing is, though, she looked just like a Korean supermodel he’d see on the cover of magazines displayed at the local bookstore or the convenience store. Perhaps she was Southeast Asian? He couldn’t tell, and he wasn’t nay intrigued by the prospect of asking her, since that meant striking a conversation with a man he began to loathe.

“Well, would you look at that! Webothlove it here!”

Quanrui clandestinely walked out of the door and leaned on the wooden frame of his foyer. Since his house was situated on the edge of the residential streets, he never had the opportunity to mingle with the neighbors. Although the lack of interaction was something he could live by, what he knew he could live without was the existence of this phony polluting the area he called home.

“That’s great! Glad you’re enjoying the part of Korea with thehighesttyphoid fever rate!”

Upon hearing this, he tried his best to stifle a bout of laughter. His father always had a way of ruining the flow of a conversation, which usually worked against his favor. In a situation like this, though, he didn’t mind. He was rooting for his father’s innate awkwardness to potentially drive this pest away, but from what he’s seenofhim, he knows he’s not going away anytime soon.

“I mean, that’s what took my own dear grandfather’s life. Peace be with him.”

“Peace be with him.” The supermodel repeated, retaining the alien squawking in her voice. Both of them had their hands in the air, mumbling and reciting what could only be heard as tongues. Then, they started running around in the fresh grass of their backyard, forming a circle and breathing erratically. He’ll have to search up what language the devil used, but he was sure the devil wouldn’t even dare have people like him in all circles of hell—that is, of course, ifhewas the devil managing hell. Even if eternal repentance sounded like something he’d want to see them go through, he’d much prefer to simply banish them in a vacuum of time and space where human contact was absolutely nil.

“Anyway, the missus! How's she been? You know, this used to be her vacation home before her family got bankrupt," Rasputin from Hong Kong said, trying to catch his breath from perhaps the only amount of physical exercise he’ll ever do.

“Yes. I know.”

“Oh man, when we were younger, she and I used to play cards in that room over there! We listened to records together and read scripts for our high school’s drama club—I mean, no hard feelings, Mr. Shen.”

Quanrui slithered away from the foyer and waited at the entrance of the car. Upon realizing that the locks weren’t in place, he slowly opened the car door and crawled into the passenger’s seat. Keeping everything as discrete as he could, he rolled the car window down by a mere centimeter or two, allowing the winds to carry their voices within the car’s air-conditioning system. The car itself was parked in a direction that gave him a full, concrete view of his father’s misadventures with the new neighbors.

“Yeah. No hard feelings.”

“I actually met up with her in town the other day! She’s still as lovely as ever, isn’t she?”

In a dramatic shot, Quanrui could picture an American soap opera fading to black after quick shots of him and his father’s shocked faces. The contraction of the eyes after hearing this disgusting phony’s interaction with a person they cherished, the convulsions of violence they tried their best to keep under wraps via their veins, the “to be continued” end card sitting on the corner of the frame, only to be washed away by the dark abyss of a fade-out—an ideal cliffhanger to a series that entailed the amicable bond between a father and son. Only, if this were to be a soap opera and not real life, he would have skipped to the episode where both he and his father would take their bodies to the ocean, dumping them to let them sink lower and lower until they reach the hypothetical deepness of the pacific ocean.


“Well, you seem to be in a hurry, but your vibes are immaculate. It’s almost as if the heavenly bodies destined for us to be friends!”

The Rasputin from Hong Kong now tried to reach over the fence to engulf his father in his lardy, greasy hands, only to realize that the height difference between them added more complications in his act of so-called “friendship.” Quanrui himself was a few centimeters shorter than him, so he believed that if he grew even further, he’d be untouchable. Think of Cthulhu rising from the ocean, or an ancient being rising from the depths of the sea—both scenarios were the exact same, but that was what he wanted to feel like amongst the smaller, brutish boys in his grade. ‘Fear me, mortals, for I am the most powerful man in this classroom.’

“Right…” His father retained his dejected, reserved tone, calmly taking a pat on the back that seemed a tad bit too harsh on his slender, stick-like frame. The supermodel walked off in a catwalk back to their house—and now, it was the showdown. The duel of the century between Rasputin from Hong Kong and a tall, skinny intellectual. What if they had a battle on an artificial island made for two? Would his father use his smarts to find a way and eventually push this fat man down into the ocean? Or would the unhinged, psychotic mystic man wave his arms back and forth and attempt to hypnotize his father into jumping off the island? The logistics of it all were something he had to do more research on. At some point, he’d have to sneak into the neighbor’s house to avoid all notions of contact with the dangerous mystic man.

“Extend my regards to her, yeah?”

“Sure. It’s great to see you, Mr. Leung.”

Ah, yes. The end of a conversation is marked with the unison of hands. Instead, the fat man reached out for another hug, forcing his father to bend his knees to his level and suffocate within his folds of fat.

“That’s Triceratops Leung! Master of the Universe!” He screamed, performing a fancy curtsy and then waving his arms around his face as if he were in a disco—if that’s what people did in discos, anyway. He then shuffled his feet away whilst maintaining eye contact with his father all the way to his foyer made a grand gesture of farewell, then shut the door. His father slumped himself on the fence and took a deep breath, before slowly making his way to the car.

“So, Mom's going to work via the bus,” Quanrui muttered as soon as his father entered the driver’s seat. There was a dejected look in his father’s eyes, and he immediately started the car as soon as he fastened his seatbelt. His tight grip on the wheel made him understand that perhaps his father already knew the answer beforehand—but then again, hindsight is always twenty-twenty. Maybe the confirmation that his intuitive worries came true gutted him harder than ever. Regardless, he kept his eyes on the road and admired the sea surrounding the entire residential area. Through the gaps between each house, he could clearly see the horizon that separated the skies, the sea, and the land all at once. The skies today were a clear, light blue, with spots of thick, white clouds that flowed languidly like a school of fishes in the sea. He wasn’t sure if he believed in the concept of scenery, but he did acknowledge how beautiful his hometown looked. Maybe one day, when he’ll have to move to the bustling megacities like Seoul, he’ll have moments where he’d look back onto his life on the island.

“Okay. It’ll just be you and me then, son.” His father replied, a tad bit too late. The car was already moving, and their humble abode began to shrink as they moved forward.

“What were they asking you about?”


His father kept his eyes on the road, pensively staring at anythingbutwhat was in front of him. It was akin to focusing one’s eyes on a circle in the middle of the paper, only to have the circle itself begin to blur as everything else comes into perspective.

“If it was nothing, then why did you continue talking to them?” He asked, feeling a little bit of relief upon the possibility of quenching his curiosity. He’s eavesdropped on the conversation in its entirety, but this was more so for his own father’s feelings regarding the matter. What did he feel when Mr. Leung, or Triceratops Leung, Master of the Universe, mentioned going around town with his wife? Did he want to rugby tackle him right in his fat gut? Or did he want to put up an affable front to silently kidnap and torture him afterward? So many outcomes and possibilities that wouldn’t come true, knowing his father’s pacifist stance.

“Quanrui, you can’t just openly be rude to people—especially newcomers in the neighborhood. That’s not how the world works.” His father replied, heaving a deep, drawn-out sigh afterward.

“What kind of people do you think they are?”

“Scammers. Phonies. The usual.”

Quanrui nods, comprehending and confirming his initial impression of the new neighbors. The drive to school was usually done in ten minutes, but this time, it only took seven. The roads retained the same levels of traffic, which was barely existent to begin with since not a lot of people drove around the island. Most of the population used public transport, and some just walked to and fro.

“Well, bye, Dad.”

“Bye, son. Go get ‘em, tiger.” His father said, giving him a firm, yet weak pat on the upper arm before driving away. He, too, began walking away, taking the usual road to get to school.

As usual, his father dropped him off near a convenience store that was situated right behind the school. Although taking a detour was tedious enough, it was better than being seen by a parent. Nobody drove to school since a driver’s license was synonymous with a high school graduation gift. Yujin spots him from a distance and slinks an arm around him while a crowd of boys follows suit. Gyuvin was already by the school’s garden, sitting on the thick root of an oak tree. Instead of playing with his lighter or lighting a cigarette, he had a box of matches that he'd strike up, longingly gazing at each flame before he stomps on the matchstick. A rinse-and-repeat process that ended as the first school bell rang.

The slouchy, bespectacled boy hasn’t been in school for the past few days, so Quanrui has taken it upon himself to write up a pamphlet that briefs a list of revolutionary steps that might break him out of the victim cycle. To type on the computer meant entering his father’s office, so he instead pulled out a rusted typewriter that he stole from the house’s storage unit. It must’ve been from his father’s days as a young undergraduate student or perhaps when he was in his early days of research—back when the computer wasn’t the status of household necessity. Plus, to transfer the document on a USB, and then look for a nearby printing shop was too much of a hassle. Bizarrely, ancient technology was much more efficient in a household that didn’t have a printer.

Once he finished wiping off the dust that surrounded the typewriter, he stacked a few pieces of white bond paper on the paper table. For one, the bespectacled boy should probably start wearing contact lenses—that way, his personality wouldn’t be characterized by the burgeoning, thick lenses of his glasses. Second, he should probably stop trying to please the teachers and instead channel that energy into pleasing the upper echelons of the classroom. Third, he’s got to fake it until he makes it—or something like that. Fourth, if he were to study, he had to do so in privacy. To appear studious was a sign of vulnerability. Fifth, he should definitely stop leaving the door open when he cries to the guidance counselor. If he were to snitch, he had to do so in the most clandestine efforts, treating the whole operation like risky espionage.

In addition to the five-point plan that he delicately tailored for his former victim, he decided to add two examples that might serve as an inspiration to him. The first person that came to mind was Kim Taerae, two years his senior. He farted in front of everyone in the middle school department during the Headmaster’s speech. It wasn’t the silent killer type or the loud no-odor type; it was the worst kind of fart that one could ever experience in public. In the bleak, dreaded silence that engulfed the entirety of the school body, he sharted. The odor quickly spread across every single row like the diffusion of pesticide until everyone had their noses pinched, eyes directly tracing the direction of the shart back to his chair. One would expect to feel an immense wave of embarrassment and a lifetime of bullying, but instead of the usual, he embraced it and farted even more as an act of protest against the school. He received a standing ovation from the entire student body, and from then on, he was immortalized as a god among men. It was Quanrui's first year in Korea at the time,but he understood the gravity of the situation enough to revere him to this day.

Secondly, the man, the myth, the absolute legend himself: Han Yujin. When he was a new student, he was often bullied for being almost three years younger than everyone else. Other than the heaps of cash his family surmounted, it was his brave attempts at absolute silence that managed to elevate his status as one of the upper echelons of his class. The moment that cemented him as an untouchable figure was when he got his entire bag stolen, only to be found in the muddy depths of a puddle by the manhole at the back of the school building. Instead of being beaten down by it, he took his soaked bag back, skipped class, and stole the other bullies’ schoolbags with all the time he had. Then, he bunched them up together in a trash bag, tossing the entire thing in the large dumpster. It would’ve been the end of the world if he did such a thing on any other day, but Thursdays meant a visit from the local waste collector. Nobody suspected a thing, and yet everyone knew in secret that it was Yujin's conniving, silent fight that caused their bags to disappear out of the blue. In the end, there wasn’t enough evidence for him to plead guilty—after all, he was victimized, and he did abuse his status as a younger kid. Now, he’s revered and feared by the rest of his classmates, known to all as a tough boy who takes no sh*ts from anyone.

Before he wrapped his surprise package in some leftover Christmas decor from last year’s celebrations, he decided to slip in a coupon for the local bookstore. It was worth five thousand won, and hedefinitelystole it from his father’s wallet. He also ripped a page off a catalog that briefed a list of optometrists willing to perform LASIK surgery for a lower price. Perfect for a student with no income like him.

The irony in his actions served as a great comedic moment in the potential autobiography that he’d write—after all, what kind of person would write a pamphlet filled with life advice to the person they bullied? Maybe that was his “special skill,” the art of irony. In an era where teenagers had to find a niche for themselves before being sent off into the iron gates of university life, he was aware that he hadn’t found his own “special skill” quite yet. He’s tried smoking a cigar, collecting postage stamps, dancing to American hip-hop, and he even had a phase of wearing a snapback at all times. Nothing really stuck other than dancing—but even dancing came with the price of having to perform in front of crowds, which was something he wasn’t willing to devote his life to. Perhaps his true mission in life is to become a life coach, helping others with their woes and misery. This pamphlet will definitely debut him in the throes of charity, and one day, he might even own a foundation for a certain, narrowly specific cause. Someone like Jesus Christ or Bill Gates, except his target demographic would be slouchy boys who wore giant glasses.

Case in point, he needed to find out who he was.

To start building up his resume as a future monk of goodwill, he needed to deliver this pamphlet safely and effectively. The most secure route to the bespectacled boy so far was the guidance counselor. He didn’t know his name, but he’s seen him around—bright, yellow sweater, somewhat tall, and a mug that bore the UNICEF logo. Like the organization printed in his ceramics, he was the only confidant who actively sought to make crying children’s lives better. Most of it backfired since nobody took mental health—and by default, the guidance counselor himself—quite seriously, just like how UNICEF initiatives fail to attain their promised goals.

Today, he visited the guidance counselor’s office by handing in a forged slip about a stomach ache to his physics teacher. He was expecting this plan to fail, but his calculated movement of handing the slip right as the guidance counselor passed the hallway managed to work in his favor. After all, someone like him could never resist a look of sorrow washing over a teenage boy’s eyes.


“Hey! Quan... Ricky, right? What’s the problem?”

He looked behind him, just in case there was a student who followed. If his strategy was flawless, this meant that he wouldn’t be scrutinized for walking into the counseling office. After all, he passed the slip to his physics teacherduringbreak time, when all the students were out of the school building. The door was completely shut when this transaction occurred, which added to the minuscule probability of an eye-witness.

Before he entered the room, he caught a glimpse of Gyuvin's hair swishing back and forth on the other end of the hallway. The rare occasion of his presence inside the building during break time did send shockwaves of anxiety within him, but it served his purpose nonetheless. He needed to sell his act, and this was the only thing that pushed him to look like he wanted help.

“Uh… It’s not really me….” He said, carefully putting spaces between his words. Taking a seat on the comfortable cushions after the guidance counselor took his own spot behind his table, he darted his eyes down his scuffed sneakers. If his mother’s book on troubled teenagers was correct, this meant he was exhibiting signs of distress and apprehension.

“Ah, then are you coming in place of a friend? Perhaps.…”

“No, not really. I just need you to give this to Gunwook when you can.”

To say his name after referring to him as “the bespectacled boy” or all the nicknames Yujin has coined for him was somewhat humanizing. The counselor raised his eyebrows upon hearing his request, shifting the shape of his eyebrows from that of curiosity to one of controlled annoyance.

“Is this a joke, Ricky? If so, it’s not funny.”

“No, I promise. It’s a love letter.”

He pushed the festive package to the counselor’s table, reveling in his bewilderment. The element of surprise always worked in his favor.

“Love… letter?”

The guidance counselor took the package, examining the lopsided efforts at gift wrapping. There was a large heart plastered right in the middle of the amateur ribbon-work, with the words “with love” written in cursive English. The quick glances between the wonky package and Quanrui prompted him to bite his lip—not out of nervousness, but out of controlling the laughter that was boiling in his lungs.

“Yes. From me.” He casually replied.

“From… you…?”

The guidance counselor took the package under his desk, clearing his throat while dragging the UNICEF mug to his lips. There was nothing inside, but drinking air was probably something that fueled his empty words of encouragement whenever a student visited his office.

Quanrui nodded back with all the confidence he could muster. It was his only hope.

“I’ve got a big heart.” He said, clutching his chest with a subtle dramatic flair. Before the guidance counselor could say anything, he quickly bowed and darted out of the door.

In the moments of him running across the hallway, he sees Gyuvin's silhouette emerging from the shadows. It could be any boy, but to him, any female shadow bore Gyuvin's figure. He shook his head to take his mind off him—after all, that’s the least of his current worries. He still had to find himself, and this was his first big step toward owning a charitable organization.

As he took a turn and slowed down, he performed a little twirl-and-step routine that he picked up on one of his free trials at a nearby dance studio. His height made him stumble with his feet, but it would be a great scene to capture with a film crew following his every move. He could envision a camera droning on top of him in an aerial view, craning forward as he shifted from running to walking. Unless things improve, however, the budget for his biopic could only fund a zoom-out or a cliche establishing shot.

Destiny, or what he believed to be destiny, worked in wondrous ways. As if the flawless execution of his master plan wasn’t enough, the deities above decided to pair him with his prime love interest in music class. The decision wasn’t really his to make since it was a result of random probability. He just happened to draw his name out from a tin can and smiled while skipping towards the free space next to him. One thing that was highly suspicious about his turn was how he took a lot longer than the rest—which made him believe that he did intend to choose him as his partner. Regardless of what’s to come, he thanked the gods of every single religion in a quick prayer; he even thanked science and Charles Darwin for coining the theory of evolution, which explained both him and Gyuvin's current existence.

An online article he’s read stated that playing instruments was an essential element to woo anyone on the planet. The piano was out of the list since virtually everyone had to learn the thing at a young age. There’s nothing special about mastering the instrument anyway when teenagers don’t listen to classical music. The guitar, on the other hand, as the article stated, conjured an image of a “badass man with loads of confidence.” No wonder rockstars had many groupies. His father had a vinyl collection of rock music from his younger days, so he was able to familiarize himself with some artists that women might like.

“This is Robert Plant.” His father said, pointing at a picture of a shirtless man with unkempt, long, blond hair. He was an extremely handsome man, so it was understandable that he’d get a lot of women.

“And this is Jimmy Page. He’s a phenomenal guitarist.”

His father pointed at a dark-haired man who was holding an electric guitar. He wasn’t too adept on the model, but it looked like something every rock musician was captured playing. He, compared to Robert Plant, was someone Quanrui didn’t particularly find too pleasing to look at—and yet he got a lot of women, according to the words of his father. His groupies were all beautiful bombshells that surpassed the clean-cut aesthetic of the supermodels he’d see in convenience store magazines. Perhaps that was the true power of the electric guitar.

Naturally, the instrument he picked up during the period he shared with him was the electric guitar. He didn’t know how to play it at all, and he didn’t even understand how an amplifier worked. Gyuvin, on the other hand, chose a shiny mint-green bass that was right next to the group of guitars leaning via a rickety multi-stand. Boys who could play an instrument were always mesmerizing, and even more so if they mastered the art of music.

“You’re holding the thing wrong.” He said, stifling a bout of laughter.

“Oh, I probably learned it how I did inAmerica," Quanrui responded, quickly adjusting the way he held the instrument to how everyone did in the classroom.

Gyuvin curtly nodded and proceeded to adjust the guitar strap. This was the first time he’d ever been this close to Gyuvin, let alone anyone who wasn't in his immediate family, and he held his breath to ease the sudden tremors throughout his body.

“I think the last person who used this waswayshorter than you, so you have to adjust the strap to make it fit your broad shoulders. Anyway, are you left-handed or no?”

“Why does that matter? It's just a guitar,"

The euphoric feeling of having a boy he chased after right next to him made him extremely light-headed. He didn’t even fully comprehend the words he said—it was like a blur, entering one ear and traveling into the stomach, which didn’t make sense. Gyuvin continued to adjust the strap, occasionally brushing his fingers on his uniform shirt. A part of him believed that he knew his effects on him because he continued to mess with the strap despite it perfectly hanging over his shoulder.

“Well, this is a left-handed guitar.”

“Oh, I knew that. I'm left-handed."

Gyuvin lightly pushed his arm, before slithering down to take his hand. Everything about this entire situation felt out of place—an omen of what’s to come, because Gyuvin wasn’t the touchy type. Even with his previous playthings, he was never seen holding their hands in public. Despite his premonition, he allowed himself to be a boy blinded by love. This might be the last chance he’ll have to feel his touch, so he tried to shake it all off.

“I mean, the teacher’s not gonna bother with us anyway, so it’s fine. Just pretend you can play.” Gyuvin whispered, grabbing his arms so that his head would attain the same height as his mouth.

The music teacher was currently lounging around, skimming through each student while typing away on her Blackberry. He didn’t know how someone like her got hired, but she was very popular with the students, so it was a win-win on both ends. The class got to do whatever they pleased, and she got to focus on whatever went on inside the small screen of her handheld cellular device.

“I wonder where Glasses went.” He murmured. The two now occupied a corner of the music room. The place he picked was isolated from the entirety of the room, separated by a long shelf filled with notebooks and a half-step piano. Quanrui decided then and there that he’d memorialize this corner. He didn’t know how yet, but he was thinking of hiding matchboxes under one of the shelves as a peace offering to his divine presence.


Gyuvin titled his head in question. He didn’t even know his name.

“He’s missed a solid week at this point, right?”

“Really? Damn, I didn’t notice.” He replied too fast.

“I mean, I thought you would. Your height probably allows you to see everything from an aerial view, so you can’t possibly miss him.”

Gyuvin stands up and tiptoes until his toes can’t carry his weight. Taking the bass with him, he leans his elbow on its head, mimicking the stance of a ship captain.

“It’s not like he’s someone I pay attention to, I mean, he's just a brainy guy who wants to suck each teacher's dick...”

“Can I ask you a question? Answer with complete honesty, yeah?” Gyuvin asks, dismissing his previous sentence. This was when he knew his existence was urgent. He began to back away into a corner until his spine felt the soft walls of the soundproof wall panels. In his impending doom, it was the only source of comfort he could revel in.


With the tip of his finger, Gyuvin lightly pushes the bass until it dramatically flops to the floor. The class was too engulfed in their own little chaos to pay attention, but the music teacher gave the two a quick glare. You’re putting my job at stake, assholes. He’d imagine she'd be the type of person to slander her class inside the faculty room.

“Do you think he’s absent becauseyoupushed him into the puddle?”

Gyuvin was now on all fours, eyes glinting with a predatory dominance. Slowly but surely, he crawled towards him, inching closer and closer until their faces were a few centimeters apart. Maybe seven? Or eight? Definitely not ten, since that would be too big of a gap.

“I didn’t push him,” Quanrui utters. Despite the wave of apprehension that overwhelmed him, he was surprised he could still say words in such a cold, confident manner.

“Do you think he’s at home right now, crying and wetting his bedsheets?” Gyuvin taunts, allowing himself to come close enough to touch the tip of his nose.

“I did not. Push him,” he replies through gritted teeth. He thinks it’s alright to feel anger toward a boy he thinks he loves.

“Maybe you should write something to him? Like… A pamphlet? How’s that for a reconciliation gift?”

He feels completely powerless. Gyuvin was the raging waves depicted in Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa, while he was one of the poor men on board in a narrow bungalow. Nature was a force to be reckoned with, but Gyuvin made nature bow down to him—and now, nature was at his service.

“What the f*ck do you want from me?”

Gyuvin's smile was one of victory—a very conniving, sickening, and evil one at that. He tried to think of more adjectives that would suit the look on his face, but so far, he could only think of ‘evil.’ He’d never imagined describing Gyuvin in that way, but blackmail was perhaps the worst sin in humankind.

“Meet me by the shoreline to find out. Bring a Polaroid camera and a pocket diary. If you don’t have one, then a small notepad will do—but the camera is an absolute must. Got it?”

If he thinks of it as a date, then he might regain some of his power back.

The shoreline Gyuvin picked out was on the other side of the island, which meant he had to bring some spare change for the train fare. Maybe he knew that his house was situated right next to the sea, so he deliberately picked the other end of the island—or perhaps it was all a coincidence. Whatever it was, he trudged on with uncertainty.

Gyuvin was waiting under the bridge with a cigarette in hand. When he wasn’t picking on other classmates or burning things, he looked quite ethereal. He looks away from the scenery to greet him, feigning nonchalance and affability. Throwing the cigarette down with a flick, he buries it in the sand before crushing it with the might of his loafer’s heels.

His schoolbag was leaning on one of the railings, with the festive package he wrapped right next to it. He was indeed a god in the worst way possible, and he knew he should’ve revised his plan one more time. It should’ve been impossible for him to obtain the package, which was supposed to be secured in the hands of the guidance counselor. As his mind began to wander off, he pulled the brakes and snapped back into his current reality. He knew he wouldn’t go that far—he had too much pride and dignity in him.

“Do you have the camera and the diary?” Gyuvin asks.

“Doyouhave the pamphlet?” He retorts back, regaining some of his pride.

“Camera. Now.”

He raises his hand, waving it back and forth. He tentatively jogs towards him, carefully placing the family’s Polaroid camera in his dangerous grasp. For someone like him, he handled the device with decent care.

“Alright. Now sit down.”


Quanrui's eyes widen in absolute bewilderment. Once he comes home with sand all over his rear end, he'll have to explain it to his mother.

“I said. Sit.”

“I’m not a dog—“

Gyuvin digs his fingers on each of his shoulders, forcing him down into the soft beds of the sand. Quite frankly, he wouldn’t mind being buried right then and there. At least he catches one last glimpse of his unrequited beloved before choking on the tiny particles of mother nature.

Once his knees began to get accustomed to the sudden bend, he followed suit, crossing his long legs together until they were right on top of his. Flashes of his skin from his opened button shirt entered his line of sight, and he quickly averted his gaze to the horizon in front of them. To be with a boy he was infatuated with in front of a breathtaking view of the sea was a dream come true in all the wrong circ*mstances. Before he could think of anything else, Gyuvin's tongue rushed into his mouth. White light flashed before his eyes; he opened them to the lens of the camera and the lashes of his true love. The warmth of his tongue permeated across his entire body, and he tried to keep up. A sudden chill shot up his spine as he twirls his fingers through his hair. He displays a false sense of bravado by wrapping his larger hands on the nape of his neck.

Was this how kissing worked?

The white flashes of the camera go off, and they keep going. The more he was able to explore the caverns of his mouth, the more he could taste the ashy, burnt taste of cigarettes mixed with notes of black coffee and spearmint gum. He was running out of breath but kept going until he pulled back in large pants. His lips were inflamed with all shades of red, and he felt swollen.

“Don’t get too co*cky, Ricky.”

“I’m not—“

“Open the diary,” he interjected. The leather cover camouflaged with his uniform’s black pants. He brought his knees to his chest, rotating his ankles to thwart the static that accumulated from sitting for too long. Rubbing some wayward sand off his hands, he did a small stretch and stood up, towering over his sitting figure. He felt powerless again.

“Find today’s date, and write a few sentences on how good it felt to have had the opportunity to make out with me. A paragraph is fine, but I’ll give you more brownie points if you write three—maybe four. Make sure to include some sh*t aboutSung Hanbin and how much of an asshole he is.”

He nods and begins writing. To dedicate three or four paragraphs to Kim Gyuvin was the easier part of this rendezvous. He could probably write a serialized novel or three screenplays if he could put his mind to it. The more challenging part was writing about Sung Hanbin. After he seamlessly wrote an open love letter to the boy hovering over him, he felt the sudden look of disappointment in his eyes as he glared at the crown of his head. It took a few seconds before the denseness of the air dissipated into a lighter, cooler breeze that came from the sea. He bent down until his head leaned on his shoulder, pointing to a blank section of the diary.

“Ah, hold on. Don’t forget to add something about Zhangslu*t.”

He continues to lean his chin on his shoulder, eyeing each word he wrote with a meticulousness he never bore during class.

“It’sZhang Hao, you racist. You can't even speak Chinese properly.”

“I think Zhangslu*t has a better ring to it, no?” He says, a little baffled at his sudden defense. He wished there were some notes of hurt in his tone, but so far, all that he could catch was pure confusion—which was completely justified. Despite being another Chinese student in the school, he was two years above him and was already assimilated into Korean culture. The last thing Zhang Hao probably wanted was to be associated with his Chineseness in any way, given the fact that he had already accumulated a growing circle of friends and some levels of popularity as the music prince of the school.

As for Hanbin. He didn't know what gripe Gyuvin had about him. Hanbin was revered as a model student. President of the student council, a volunteer in all charitable organizations around the entirety of the neighborhood and beyond, and he was a kind-hearted boy who made sure Quanrui felt welcome in his first few months at the school. What could Gyuvin possibly have against Hanbin?

“Gyuvin, you don’t get it.”

He puts the pen down in surrender, eyeing him with utter defeat. Gyuvin steps back and jolts up, mouth agape in utter shock.

“What? You have feelings for him too? f*ck’s sake, man, how many boys does he have wrapped in his nasty ass finger?” Gyuvin spits, rolling his eyes with every syllable he utters. It was his first time seeing what authentic hostility looked like. Like the flames of his matches, he, too, was burning up. Bright, hot, and erratic. A single word from his tongue at this specific state was enough to deliver a first-degree burn.

Through rumors around the classroom and his own "research," he’s heard bits and pieces of what happened between Gyuvin, Hanbin, and Zhang Hao. Before the catastrophe, Zhang Hao and Gyuvin were what one might call "best friends." Despite their age gap, they were always seen together, and the two of them were completely inseparable. They went to school together, were in the same extracurriculars, and even played soccer with Yujin and some other students during lunch breaks. Rumors started flying around that the two might be gay because, somehow, it was much more acceptable for two handsome boys to love each other than for two regular boys. Hanbin was never in the picture until people found out that he made out with Gyuvin at the back of the gym during the school's annual talent show. Once again, it was harder to bully beautiful boys who were in love, so Hanbin felt it safe to announce that he was, indeed, dating Gyuvin. Some classmates began to place bets on how long they'd last, but nobody suspected it to be over in a mere week.

Is it even considered a relationship if it only happened for a week?

Hanbin announced their breakup, said he was confused, then immediately retracted his statement and proceeded to introduce Zhang Hao as his new boyfriend. There were many vile rumors and theories on what truly happened, but everyone was in agreement about a single, indisputable fact: Hanbin was always in love with Zhang Hao, and Gyuvin was collateral to Hanbin's sexual crisis.

Looking back in the present, with Gyuvin's distraught bursts of anger, it was entirely valid for him to feel that way. A betrayal of trust from two people he cherished can do wonders to his psyche. Quanrui's top priority now is to calm him down, tell him he’s on his side, and possibly win his heart—show him that Hanbin isn’t the only man that’s capable of loving him.

“What are you on about? Zhang Hao and I are just acquaintances who happen to know each other because our parents are close! What would happen tome if my parents found out I slandered him because of your stupid idea of getting revenge? They'dkill me for sure, and Hanbin-hyung wouldn't let me off the hook that easy!"

“Whatever, I’m not your therapist. Go to the guidance counselor or something if you’re having psychopathic thoughts. That’s not my responsibility.”

He took the pen back and collected his thoughts. How does he call Zhang Hao a slu*t without directly using the word? It’s not like him to say or write things with an elementary-level vocabulary. To resort to blatant insults was also a thing he didn’t see himself doing—if one were to fight with words, then profanity wasn’t enough. It’s too easy.

The same went for Hanbin, whom he somewhat respected. Apart from being a nice guy, Hanbin was a man of many talents, secretly taking two part-time jobs outside of school to save up and pay for his tuition. Quanrui was aware that he didn't need to go through such pain due to his wealthy background, but he knew that one didn't need money to be admired. To top it all off, Hanbin knew how to take care of his looks, wearing pleasant cologne and styling his hair with gel routinely for almost two years.

Gyuvin kneels down again and picks up the scattered Polaroid pictures of their osculation. Shuffling around, he sits next to him on the sand, brushing his knees on his thigh. They face towards the horizon, the sea reflecting the marmalade hues of the setting sun. It would be an idyllically picturesque view if a camera were to pan behind them, capturing the two lovers in solitude as they go down memory lane through Polaroid pictures.

“Woah, you look stupid.” He says, edging closer to rest his chin on his shoulders. Sliding through the photos one by one, he brings each too close to his face, smothering his eyesight with their act of cold intimacy. The briny aroma of the wafts with the wind that carries his hair to his face, allowing him to smell the fading residue of smoke and lavender shampoo.

“Have you had your first kiss yet?”

He slides his hands around his shoulders, tracing his spine before settling for the curves of his waist. The pictures were now strewn around their laps, and he continued to push himself on his arm until he could feel his skin seeping through his uniform's dress shirt.

“Whatever. I did what you told me to, so can Iplease have the pamphlet back?” Although his bitterness wasn’t intentional, he still had to humble himself. It wasn’t a good look for him to reveal just how much he thinks about Gyuvin. He replies by biting his neck, sucking on the surface a little.


He detaches himself from his neck, admiring the mark he's burned on his once pristine skin. Quanrui tries to feel through the afterimage of his teeth marks, but he grabs his wrist in mid-air.

“What the hell are you gonna do with the photos and the—“

“You talk too much, Ricky. Anyway, I’ll spread them across the campus. Maybe put it in people’s lockers as a little gift.”

Taking each photo back into the security of his fingers, he waves them with pride to the ocean. The sky was now a shade of deep violet, and the sun was sinking lower and lower into the sea. There was still enough light that managed to hit all the points on his face, highlighting all the features on his face that made him attractive—a cute button nose, sharp cheekbones, and glossy hair that he probably washes every two days or so.


“What do you mean, ‘why’? You should thank me since this is definitive proof that you're at least getting some,” hesays, lacing his free hand with his. Planting a little kiss on the surface, he takes his lighter out of his pocket with an enticing smile.

Oh, how love burns.

“How long has it been?”

Before he was completely knocked out, all he could remember was being in a headlock. Come to think of it; the entire ordeal must have been something out of a comedy skit. Hanbin, two years his senior and about eleven centimeters shorter than him, putting a giant junior in a headlock. Chants that repeated the word “gayboy” continued to echo in his years, coupled with the incessant ringing that came with taking a few punches to the face. His left eye uncontrollably twitched, and upon feeling the corners of the injury, he winced with more doses of pain shooting up his veins. The metallic taste of blood filled his mouth with a satisfying taste, even though his head was spinning. He already had anemia written on his medical record, so any amount of bleeding would worsen his haze.

“Three minutes tops.”

He slightly remembers a crowd of students of all departments circling around him—but now, they’re gone. It was just Gyuvin kneeling in front of him like an angel descending down onto the mortal planes of the earth. The sun was right behind his head, creating a much-needed halo to complement his sudden act of kindness.

“You sure?”

He crouches down even lower while maintaining his halo. Ripping a portion of his untucked dress shirt, he spat on it and began wiping his face. He takes his hand and shows him a splatter of blood, admiring it the way one does when viewing one of Jackson Pollock’s paintings. It was the first time he’d seen him laugh and mean it, and he gently folded his hand back where he lifted it from. Stuffing the bloody piece of cloth in his skirt pocket, he gently traces the wound on his eyes, watching his lid twitch with every single touch. He would have kissed him then and there, but he doubts if he'll enjoy the taste of blood.


Gyuvin shuffles right next to him, leaning his head on his shoulder. Taking the bloodied cloth out of his pocket, he stretches it open towards the sun, as if to tell him, ‘look, that’s your blood.’He examines the cloth with scrutiny, wondering if blood could really be in technicolor.

“Gyuvin, trust me when I say this, but I lost because I wanted to, okay?"

In response, he laughs and squeezes his arm to test his hypothesis. Subtly winces, and he lets go.

“You’re right, Ricky. I mean, you’re all bones.”

The two of them stayed like that for a while, embracing the silence. The camera of his biopic was now panning out, strategically placed on top of a tree’s branch as the foliage swayed back and forth, adding a touch of secrecy in the blur of high school students running around.

“The stars just didn’t align in my favor, I swear. I promise I’ll avenge you, and I’ll definitely give it to him good.” He uttered between erratic panting and gritted teeth.

“So, are you gonna get up, or not?”

He uses the dirty walls of the school building as a crutch, feeling through the rough texture to pinpoint which part of the wall would suit his height. Gyuvin quickly grabbed onto his other arm, pressing himself on him as he interlocked his fingers with his.

Upon standing up, he suddenly feels the world around him submerge in the wavy flows of the deep sea. Nothing was concrete, and the environment spun with fluidity. Each step felt like he was swimming on land—afloat, with Gyuvin carrying him as salt would in the sea. For a moment, the streets were wobbly, but his side profile was enough reassurance that he was still a man of the land, alive and kicking with enough vigor.

“Your hands are soft.”

“Thanks, I guess.”

He squeezes his hands tighter, guiding him towards the train station. Thrusting his hands in the depths of his pocket, a grunt escapes his lips until Quanrui pulls his transit card out of his blazer’s breast pocket.

Everything was a blur, and now, he was sitting on the train. A vast stretch of rice fields came into view, the greeneries contrasting with the blue sea that overlooked the entire island. His house was the other way around, on the more secluded corner of the island. This could only mean one thing: Gyuvin's house was also near a shoreline—just completely parallel to where he lived. In his mental list of things that aligned him with him, this was an addition. Both of them lived near the sea, even if, by default, everyone on the island technically lived by the sea. The fact that they were closer to the sea than the rest mattered more. Maybe that’s how he became a pyromaniac. Surrounded by too much water, he refuses to be one with the serenity of the sea. So, he finds solace in the hot, scorching flames of his lighter—or maybe he just didn’t like the color blue.

“Can I kiss you if the bleeding stops?” Quanrui asks. Gyuvin keeps his transit card in his pocket while continuing to hold his arm. Eyeing the station and its facilities, he tries to burn the characters of each shop in his head. That way, he would be able to draw a map of it when he went back home.


Another thing to note about Gyuvin: he lived right next to the station. In a matter of five minutes, they were in front of his apartment complex. Quanrui had a penchant for things that were taller than him—his father, the trees, and the ocean if you calculated its height from the surface down to the bottom, which was eleven kilometers deep. Tall buildings were also on the list, and suddenly, he felt small—almost insignificant. He could chalk it up to his presence, ergo, the only thing shorter than him that produced the same effect.

Instead of regaining his power, however, the height of the building coupled with his above-average stature made him feel like an equal for once. As a person who refuses to be in an unequal relationship, this could be something to keep in mind. Whenever he would possibly go on dates with him, he had to be in the presence of tall things.

“Bye, see you tomorrow.”

A brush on his shoulder brought him back to the concrete streets. A single touch from him made him achieve a state of clairvoyance, where all sensations were felt tenfold. He slightly tiptoed until he could reach his forehead, drawing the minuscule gap between them to a close. This time, he didn’t use his tongue—it was a quick, bittersweet kiss on the lips, one that tasted like milk candy and cigarettes. He tried to hold his waist, but he parted with a smile and a slight wave.

His shrinking figure looked small enough to fit in the palm of his hands. Before he made his way back to the station, he thought about all the things he might have forgotten.

Ah, yes. He forgot to be a gentleman.

“I’ll walk you to the door to make sure you don’t get hurt.”

He glared at him, eyes brimming with the flames of his lighter. If fire was personified, then he would be the perfect fit for the role. Nonetheless, this time, his flame was doused with the darkening waters of the sky. He would take any opportunity to be side by side with him, and being a cordially, dignified man was the right excuse he needed. If he could recall correctly, Hanbin, who prioritized hygiene, was probably a gentleman—even if he did commit the crime of infidelity. Cleanliness was next to godliness, and god is empty; he listened to The Smashing Pumpkins on the way to school via his father’s radio, which made him realize that the “nice boy” act may not be feasible if he was empty.

Cleanliness is a vice, noted.

“So, are we athing now?” Quanrui asks. They’ve kissed outside of the purpose of blackmail, so the answer was supposed to be obvious.

“f*ck off.”

“Is that a yes?”

Gyuvin suppressed a smile from showing on his face, but his actions say otherwise. Instead of running back to the gates of his apartment complex, he instead walks back to him. Perhaps he liked being small, and maybe things didn't work out between thembecause Gyuvin was too tall for Hanbin.

“No, it’s not.”

Gyuvin's frown tenses his jaw too much, causing him to break his bravado with a widening grin. Something about the way he smiled made him want to draw circles on his cheek with a felt-tip pen. If such a pen wasn’t available, then he’d settle for a ballpoint—those might hurt him, though.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure,” Gyuvin says, walking closer to him until their noses touch. This was his way of flirting, by abusing proximity. If only any school curriculum he's had the privilege of learning taught body language as a course, then he wouldn’t have to fill his head with monologues of doubt and anxiety.

“You just said yes.” He replied, sounding like the permanent host of a daytime children’s show.

“No, I didn’t—I mean no, I meant to say no.”

Even in the darkness of dusk, the flush on his face was radiant. His voice rises at the same speed that the blood rushes to his head. At this point, he might as well be doing a handstand by how red his cheeks are.

“Now you’re saying ‘no’ to my second question, which means it’s a yes.”

“Shut up and go home.”

Sometimes, he wished Gyuvin's vocabulary would expand to his level. That way, he wouldn’t have to resort to simple words like cusses and command phrases.

“One last time, is it a yes, or a no?”


He sprints towards the doors to his apartment complex, leaving the door ajar as he peeks his head out one last time.

“I’ll think about it.”

He mouthed the words clearly enough for him to lip-read. With a flash and an imaginary smoke bomb, he's gone.

The train ride back home could only be described by the word “yukwaehada.” The Korean language had the most number of entries in a dictionary, but the word that stuck out to him bore the Chinese characters that individually meant “fun” and “pleasant." It wasn’t a sporadic type of happiness, but it was one that slowly made his heart float up in the air. A deliberate, steady flight into the infinite skies, or perhaps a slow descent into the dauntingly serene waters of the sea—something akin to a submarine’s journey into the riveting world of sea creatures. Perhaps he should tell Gyuvin what he'd learned so far sincehe was the reason he started reading a thick Mandarin-to-Korean dictionary for fun.

Whether he was levitating on air or floating on water didn’t matter anymore. It was all the same since, with both modes of transportation, there were no more brakes. Nothing halted the marginally rising bliss that erupted into a speeding violation. He stops and takes a look at the sea that overlooked his neighborhood, camouflaging with the dark skies. Each wave back to the shore carried with it a mystical luster, accompanied by the echoes of Gyuvin's crass voice translating into the soothing sounds of the sea.

He picked up his pace, an omnipotent awareness dictating each step he made on the concrete road. It started with a jog, and then a run, and now, a full-on sprint. A rocket and a torpedo, all fused into one, would best describe his current high. His physical education teacher states that a “runner’s high” can bring a deeply relaxing state of euphoria, so he ran as much as he could. He ran straight into the streets of his neighborhood, houses turning into blurry blotches of abstract shapes and color. He didn’t know if he ran past his house anymore, but before he knew it, he was now in front of the great, wise sea—that was a book by Ernest Hemingway, read all the way back when he was still fourteen. The sea, from what he’s read in the book, was thought to be a representation of humanity’s futility and absolute surrender against nature. Now, he felt like Santiago, one man becoming a slave to the sea.

A small cluster of shells stubbed his toe, and he allowed his body to take the fall. The cool caresses of briny water stung his eyes while translating that pain into an elevated level of pleasure. Was he a masoch*st? Or was it the runner’s high? All the answers that popped into his head were now washed away with the flows of the ocean—floating, drifting, and swimming along. Perhaps drowning as a form of death wasn’t so bad at all. If the salt content in the sea could carry his weight as far as a Micronation afloat, then he would be traveling for free.

The glowing radiance of the moonlight rippled into the waters, and he slowly stood up, re-familiarizing his hands with movement. He wished he could stay longer in the comforts of the shoreline, but he was hungry. From the way his kneeling, and now standing figure cast shadows like an ancient sundial, he estimated that it was about seven-thirty in the evening. Punctuality wasn’t a virtue he prioritized, but the incessant inquiries his mother might barrage him with were better dealt with if he went home now. There was a directly proportional relationship between the time he went home and the questions he’d receive regarding his school life, so it’s better to suffer through seven-point-five questions than eight or nine.

One of the questions he’d expect from his mother was why he was soaking wet—which he had a myriad of alibis for. The school’s sprinkler went off at the wrong time. He went swimming with friends but forgot a change of clothes, or he slept on the shoreline and woke up in the deeper ends of the sea. Taking a quick, deep breath, he feels through the cool handles of his key and twists the door open.

Hǔ zi?”

Never mind. Dealing with his mother now would reveal everything. He had to disappear. With all the energy he could muster, he sprinted up to his room and locked the door. He hit his head again on the way inside, but the pain didn’t matter. He was still going through an episode of a runner’s high, and the minor concussion just added to the euphoric, trance-like state he was in. Once he gained enough consciousness to come back down to earth, he rolled himself in his carpet—that was the fastest way he could dry his body without occupying the bathroom. He threw each article of clothing out and rolled himself on the soft, feathery surface of his carpet one more time. If there was a painter right in front of him, he’d make a perfect subject for a modern, abstract work of art. The blurry, fluid lines of himself rolling on a blue-tinted carpet; the colors would blend well together, no?

With a knock on the door, he took his cue to put on some clothes. He refuses to be Oedipus or any Ancient Greek figure. The prospect of bundling his blankets and creating a makeshift robe was the fastest way he could be clothed, but there was an indescribable barrier that prevented him from doing so in front of his mother. He didn’t even feel comfortable being shirtless anymore—not that he had the opportunity to do so, but it plagues his head nonetheless. How are other boys comfortable with lounging around the house shirtless? Sure, the summers can prompt one to do so, but in the presence of a maternal figure? His sister? What if a boy lived with his grandmother? He could chalk it all up to the emotional growth that came with evolving into an adolescent, but could it be the idea of having a boyfriend that made him this way? As if his body was only his to see?

“Can I come in?”

He tried to muster a reply, but his head was stuck in the opening of his shirt. Had his head gotten bigger with all the books he’d read?

“Alright, I’m coming in.”

“No wait—“

Before he could protest, his mother entered the room. The indiscernibly apologetic look in her eyes foreshadows the type of questions she might ask. According to the books on her bedside drawer, she would probably bring up the dreaded question of sending him to therapy. This would have been fine if he was back in Los Angeles, since the people there receive mental illness better than the people in South Korea, let alone in an isolated island detached from the entire peninsula. The never-ending stigma of being branded as clinically insane would tarnish his surging journey into the upper echelons of the grade. Even worse, it will create a dent between him and Gyuvin. If he were to go to therapy, how is he going to put it into words? Tell him he’s probably autistic. Neurodivergent? Would he even have sufficient intellectual capabilities to comprehend his prognosis? Just in case, he’ll gather more answers from the World Wide Web and simplify the vocabulary via teenage slang in the hopes of crafting another awareness pamphlet.

Hǔ zi, are you being bullied in school?” His mother asks. Whenever she would hint at any notions of concern, she would occupy the bottom side of the bed. The distance between them gave her easy access to his hand in case she needed to hold it. He lunges back until his spine hits the bed’s headboard, giving him another minor concussion. Pulling his duvet up to his neck; he feigns drowsiness. If he looked sleepy, then she might leave.

“What? No! What do you mean?”

He sinks himself into the comforts of his duvet, using his bedsheets to dry his body even more. His mother, with her eagle eye, scans his entire face and neck, heaving a sigh upon finishing her analysis of his hypothetical situation. She puts a mug down beside her feet, carefully shifting herself closer to make sure she doesn’t knock the thing down. It smells like soju instead of chamomile tea.

“Well, youwerepicked on a lot in your younger days. Back in primary, and then in nursery.”

“I don’t think I remember that.”

Repression is a highly discredited claim, but it’s the only theory that could describe his lack of memory in the early parts of his childhood. The big man, Freud, hated by all, coined the claim as a mental block, ergo, something that prevents one from accessing a traumatic thread of memories in a conscious state. These memories, however, come to light through subconscious influences that the conscious cannot control, mainly through emotional responses and behavior. He tried his best to recall, but it was a lost cause. Has he gone senile at the age of sixteen? Dementia? Amnesia? It was a trepidation that wrought him closer to the confines of his bed’s headrest; would he forget Gyuvin, too? If so, how long will it take for him to evaporate from the imageries of his brain?

His apprehension may have been too tangible, for now, his mother gently slithered under the covers to hold his hand.

“Well, as your mother, I do. Anyway, have you been taking drugs?”

“What?” He replies, feigning ignorance. He doesn’t have bad hearing yet, but the mention of drugs baffled him nonetheless.

“Have you been taking drugs?” She asks, eyes shifting from concern to curiosity. Perhaps he wasn’t too covert with his actions, after all. He’d have to revise his plan on how to make himself presentable enough to thwart any future conversations of this kind. For now, he accepts his inevitable surrender. He’d have to tell his mother about Gyuvin if he wanted to look like a somewhat well-adjusted, normal young boy—that is if his mother would not die of anaphylaxis upon finding out that her son didn't like girls at all.

“How do drugs have anything to do with this?”

“I don’t know; you tell me,” she says, emphasizing each syllable with the tap of her tongue. When she does this, she reminds him of his literature teacher—which is the last thing he needs. He is at home now, and aside from homework, he doesn’t need to have a remnant of school within his sanctuary.

“Well, it’s not drugs, that’s for sure.”

It would’ve been easier on his end to reveal his boyfriend then and there, but building up suspense is extremely important. That way, his mother’s younger side would act up, allowing her to revel in the hopes of uncovering something highly classified, or a formative experience that might give her the answers to his oddity. Perhaps if she felt that he was uttering each word with full honesty, she might reveal the annals of his family’s secrets.

“But your pupils are dilated.” She retorts. She’s not letting up. What is it with parents’ fixation on drugs? He’s not a hippie in the American sixties, nor is he a meth addict in the clubs of Shanghai—he’s just a teenager in Jeju who got a boyfriend.

“The room’s just too dark.”

It wasn’t. The lights were as bright as a fluorescent bulb in top performance, dispelling any amounts of shadows that might be cast onto his room. In fact, the brightness in his room allowed him to see his mother’s aging features with clarity—her wrinkles, the dark circles around her eyes, and the sagging skin around her neck that pruned up like raisins. She’s always had a long neck, and genetically he inherited this trait. The problem now was how the stretch of her skin didn’t follow through with her marginally slouched stature. Now, the skin just folds in on itself in layers. He won’t bring this up to her, though. She’s already conscious enough about the way she looks, and it’s his duty as a good son to tell her she’s beautiful, even when she’s aging.

“Self-harm?” she asked, slicing her wrist. Quanrui poked his arms out of the duvet, showing the skin’s pristine condition. Her fingernails were longer than usual—perhaps a sign of added stress in her life. As she tilted her arms back and forth on every angle she could possibly think of, her nails left slight, concave marks throughout.

“Do you think I’d have the guts to give myself a black eye?”


She brings herself even closer, lightly tapping at the swollen surface of his left eye for inspection. There was a tear leaking through the corner of her eyes, and he braced himself for the wave of emotional impact. At this rate, his mother’s chronic leaky eyes would transfer onto him, making him a sappier version of himself. Parents always have this notion of blaming themselves for their children’s problems, and it was apparent in her apologetic eyes that she was currently beating herself over for her son’s injury.

“Can you leave me alone, please?”

“I’m not leaving until you spill it all out.”

Quanrui slowly tries to grab the mug full of soju, but she swats his hand away. This is it. The big reveal, the moment she’s been waiting for—the ultimate reveal behind his teenage angst.

“I got into a fight, okay? I was trying to avenge my boyfriend.”

This was expected. His own mother looks at him as if he’s lying again, the glint in her eyes transforming into that of surrender or apathy. She’s somewhat given up on him, and she’s accepted that she can’t win. Adults keep secrets but so do teenagers. All she could do now as a stereotypical “good mother” was to support his ventures and remind him that she was there for him. Thus, she reached out for both of his hands, squeezing them tight as she used to when he was a child—perhaps this memory wasn’t repressed by the deeper ends of his psyche. The warmth of her palms makes him remember what maternal care felt like, or what the insides of a womb’s temperature might be when he was an unborn infant.

“I’m sorry, Hǔ zi. I know it’s hard.” She says, patting his back in gentle circles. Normally, he’d shrug everything off and let her leave the room. Now, however, there was a surge of passionate fire that burned at the disbelief that his mother showed him. He gently but steadily pushes his mother off him, retaining the desire to prove himself. Did his mother really think he was a hom*osexual from the start?

“What? You mean you’re serious about it?”

Her eyes widen in bewilderment as she processes the fact that her own son pushed her away. She should be thankful enough that he didn’t hit her or instantly kick her out of his room. He wasn’t like that, even if at times he felt like it.

“Mom, I have a boyfriend,” he says, enunciating each word perfectly. He needed to be calm and articulate to get his point across, but his mother didn’t buy it.

“Stop lying, Quanrui.”

There was a calculated pause between them. He doesn’t say a single word.

If words as a whole can’t defend him now, then perhaps silence would drill this jarring fact straight into his head. In all honestly, he would be lying to himself if he denied a feeling of hurt. His own mother believed he wasn’t capable of romantic relationships with anyone, let alone a boy. Maybe he took after his father’s languid demeanor too much, but even he had the opportunity to get married and have sex.

“I’m getting your father.”

He silently watched her slender back trot towards the door, pondering before opening it and leaving his room altogether. He could hear his parents’ hushed voices argue across the thin barrier of his door. In a matter of a minute, his father’s softer knocks echoed throughout his entire room, bouncing back and forth within its four walls. Somehow, he was a lot more comfortable spilling his heart out to his father. Out of all the reasons he could conjure, the most valid one would be that they’re both males.

“Hey, hey, hey! Can I come in?”

It was easy to tell when his father was less depressed than usual. The pitch in his voice would go a tad bit higher, he would crack silly jokes at the dining table, and he would stop drinking chamomile tea on an hourly basis. As his son, it’s in his best interest to make sure he’s happy. The feeling would be mutual, too, if his father was more accepting of the prospect of his son having a boyfriend.


His father opened the door before he gave him the necessary verbal cue—another sign of temporary happiness. Quanrui tried to crack a smile but remains indifferent. It wasn’t good to show inexperience with romantic relationships at his age. Some of the boys in his grade have apparently lost their virginity. He didn’t know if that concept was strictly tied to the act of penetration alone, but there were many talks of fingering a girl or receiving a blowj*b, some even saying they'd done it in the butt. While he’s only hit first base, he was willing to take things slow. After all, the concept of a romantic relationship isn’t supposed to revolve around sex alone—at least that’s the philosophy he subscribed to.

“So… Yeah…”

His father placed a hand on his hip, attempting to assert his dominance as the patriarch of the family. In hindsight, Quanrui believed that one day, when he turns forty-one, he will embody all the neuroticism that his father carried with him.

“Your mom… I’ve heard that you’ve got yourself a boyfriend! Do you need any help? You know, some fatherly advice?”

This was his chance to prove that he was a good father, and as such, Quanrui provided him with the opportunity to do so. If he leaves his son’s bedroom satisfied, then that might get him off his medical prescriptions. He shifts out of his duvet, revealing parts of his torso. When he was with his father, it wasn’t a crime to be shirtless.

“Beats me. You've probably never done it with a guy let alone experimented in university,Dad."

Taking the subtle motion as an invitation, he slowly walked towards the space that his mother had occupied, creating a cinematic parallel that allowed him to contrast the difference between how both parents would handle things. His mother purely relied on emotions and sympathy—his father? He wasn’t too sure yet, but he’ll soon find out.

“Look, I might seem like a plain, boring dad to you now, but back then, I used to be quite wild, you know?” his father said, pinching his ochre-colored sweater and creating a caricature of himself. Quanrui forced out a chuckle under his breath, then formed a small smile as soon as his father reciprocated the sentiment.

His father’s definition of “wild” was an understatement at best. Upon his covet inspections of his parents’ bedroom, he found a photo of his father with hair like Triceratops Leung or Robert Plant. Since he naturally had straight hair, he would’ve spent a fortune getting it permed on a daily basis. He was also weaving a v-neck that went all the way down to his belly button, the nipples revealed in all their glory. He didn’t have any chest hair, and he wasn’t capable of growing a beard. Nonetheless, the prospect of his father as a rockstar in his younger years earned Quanrui's renowned respect. If his father was able to live like Robert Plant, then so could he.

“Yeah, I know.”

“You know, you might think I may not be much help in this... situation... But I will tell you that I used to date a boy for the last two years of my high school life. I impressed him with my BMX stunts, isn't that cool?"

In his mind, he could picture his father at the same age as him, slightly taller or shorter. He is speeding uphill on a bicycle in his summer uniform, clad in short sleeves and dress pants. The boy he’s trying to impress looks like his mother but with a neatly trimmed haircut that makes his forehead look bigger than it's supposed to be. He was sure that it was a personal bias, but it was nice to imagine that his parents were high school sweethearts. As the gravity hill descends, his father speeds up, even more, pedaling despite the bicycle reaching its maximum potential. Instead of doing a flip, the bicycle flies away with him. He belly flops onto the sandy surface of a dirt path, watching the boy of his teenage dreams rush to tend to his wounds.

He wonders if he should learn how to skateboard.

“I know, Dad. You told me about this when I fell off my bike a couple of years ago. You just didn't tell me it was for a boy."

“I know, I know. It’s just something to keep in mind, yeah?”

He clumsily stuffed his hand in his pocket, shifting his body against Quanrui as an element of surprise. He hasn’t received a gift from his father in a long time, apart from Christmas or his birthday.

“Anyway, I made a mixtape for you. The songs might be outdated for your generation, but music is music, you know? As long as youfeelsomething from any of the songs, that’s fine by me.”

He takes out an old cassette tape, with the inlay card neatly written with a thick, black felt-tip pen. His father took the liberty to divide each emotion into separate songs such as “infatuation,” "confusion," “seduction,” “relief,” and “adoration.” One of the many things that he inherited from his father is his fascination with language and vocabulary. Words were much preferred to actions, and unfortunately, that hindered his ability to master the art of body language. While he could write out an entire speech that immaculately described his emotions, he lacks any amount of courage to perform human touch. All the tingly sensation aside, physical touch just wasn’t his style.

“Thanks, Dad.” He says, cracking a wider grin.

“Ah, hold on. I also put some sad songs in there just in case things don’t go too well.”

Quanrui turns the inlay card over and finds words such as "rejection," “anger,” “acceptance,” “disbelief,” “melancholy,” and “dread.” He does his best to contain an exasperated sigh, keeping the air trapped in his lungs. There was always a chance for things to go wrong in the relationship, but he wanted to live in the temporary jubilance of starting one.

“I mean—obviously, Idothink everything will go well, but you know? It’s better to be careful. The probability is still there, and young love, in particular, dies as quickly as it happens.”

Both of them nod at each other, attempting to formulate words, but nothing comes out—a silent truce signed by the eyes of two men.

“Anyway, goodnight, tiger.”

He holds his hand out, and Quanrui takes it with a firm shake. This officially sealed their truce, and he slowly walked towards the bedroom door, peeking his head one last time, not as a man, but as a father.

“Night, Dad.”

Before the door closes, his father’s arm protrudes out of the tiny slither, feeling for the light switch. Quanrui wraps his duvet all over himself, picturing paintings of Plato and Aristotle as references. He checks his reflection through the window, letting out a satisfied hum. He certainly felt like a philosopher now.

He opens the door to see his father again, proving that he is no longer a child. Now, he’s a man who has a duty to protect his boy. He has graduated from the dens of innocence. He didn’t have sex yet, but he frenched Gyuvin for about twenty minutes. That should count as something.

“Kiddo, just remember that you don’t need to hide things from Mom and me, alright? I mean, of course, unless you want some privacy.”

“Noted.” He replies, saluting like a cadet.

“I mean, all I wanna say is well done, tiger. That’s one hell of an achievement you got there.”

They give each other an affirmative nod for the last time before his father switches the lights off. There was a certain solace in being one inside a world of darkness, engulfed in anti-color that prevented him from seeing anything—even himself. To revel in the lack of sight made him close his eyes despite it being unnecessary. Holding his robe up, he points the cassette tape up—just like Plato in every single painting he appears in.


That was what his relationship with Gyuvin felt like. At this moment, they stole a bicycle from the convenience store near his station, filling the back with fireworks and cheap rockets. An old lady on the streets warned the local police, but they were faster than a senior citizen. Before he could remember what they looked like, they put on a pair of heart-shaped sunglasses obtained via petty theft, disguising themselves as they ran off into the sinking sun of the shoreline. He should be used to the feeling of his arms around him, but every touch burns and leaves a scalding mark. It was simply too hot for him to handle.

“Ricky! Come on, pedal faster!” He screams.

They were now approaching a gravity hill at the edge of the island, and he quickly added more fireworks to the rear of the bicycle, striking a match before throwing the entire box out of his hands. He screams in both pain and joy—the pain coming from a potential third-degree burn, and the pleasure as he leans his head deeper onto the crook of Quanrui's neck. It was precisely what semi-closeted teenage romance should look like, two boys sharing a bicycle down a hill with added pyrotechnics for dramatic effect.

The ocean was in full view, and the faster he pedaled, the closer they were to performing a BMX stunt right into the crashing waves of an idyllic summer. His vision was tinted in a pastel shade of rose pink—this was either from the glasses they stole along with the bicycle, or the marmalade skies that began to bleed into the colors of love. Civilization was nowhere to be seen anymore in this little flaming world they’ve built for each other. Now, and until they break it off, it was just Quanrui and Gyuvin, screaming to fill the air with the harmonies of their voices.

He pulled the brakes right in front of the iron railing that separated the land from the sea. The last round of fireworks erupted in glittery, golden sparkles, bringing the bicycle along with it to a faraway land. It fully combusts into a fiery work of art, a collaborative effort by two artists displayed in the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. It’s not like they always stole and cremated bicycles, but it was one of those vivid memories he’d carry into his adulthood. Perhaps one day, he could pass this tale on to his children and teach them how to master the fascinating art of arson.

On some days, they would bundle up fireworks in a giant pile by the shoreline and strategically place matches on each opening—a game of Jenga for pyromaniacs. With a strike of a match, the entire tower topples over each other in a pocket-sized mushroom cloud. When they felt bolder, they’d line each firework up like dominos, using the sand as a stabilizer to keep them from falling apart. Then, with a single kick, an aerial view will show a dazzlingly glamorous light show in the shape of the male genitalia. The fire was their paintbrush, and the sand was their canvas. Any rendezvous to the shoreline together always ended in a pyrotechnic art piece that deserved to be immortalized for future generations to admire.

It was their own version of stargazing and supernovas; two star-crossed lovers watching the world burn by their own hands.

For a solid two weeks, the two have been spending all the time that they can together. They’d often meet at the shoreline near Gyuvin's house, and at some point, he promised to spare him some change for the somewhat costly travels on his end. So, instead of paying him via money, he buys him some mints as an indirect insult to his breath.

They would often spend their time burning things together. First, they burned the pamphlet he made for Gunwook, and then, they burned the diary he bought for the purpose of their blackmailing ventures. Then, with nothing to burn anymore, Gyuvin began lighting matchsticks to set Quanrui's leg hair on fire. Sometimes it would reach his epidermis and char his dried skin into cancerous tar, but his melodic laughter made him build enough pain tolerance to handle the prickling sensations of fizzing fire. To rub the ashes of dried skin off was as satisfying as picking on a scabbed wound—it was like metamorphosis, where the blackened layer would reveal the shiny surface of newborn skin.

To seal their relationship, they folded a boat out of Gyuvin's failed test papers. He surprisingly did well in physics and maths—subjects that he was weaker at. His academic flaws came with the more subjective subjects, which fit his character. Interpreting a book or writing an essay in timed conditions wasn’t his forte—so with a page of his Literature test, they wrote the three essential charters that ruled their relationship:

  1. No pet names
  2. No hand-holding unless I, Kim Gyuvin, reach out first
  3. NO EMOTIONS (SUPER gay as f*ck haha)

Quanrui protested against the third charter, but he taunted him with the deprivation of kisses if he were to break any points. He’d definitely benefit from it due to his impending addiction, but for now, he agreed. Cigarettes and coffee tasted sweeter with Gyuvin's tongue.

Before sailing their relationship to the vastness of the sea, they used up all lip balm to lubricate the surface of their paper ship. Of course, crude jokes and taunts about his masculinity came from Gyuvin's mouth, but he’s grown to learn that it was another way he flirted. Hand in hand, they placed a single firecracker on the main mast of the ship, lighting it together with her neon-green lighter. As the firecracker began to sparkle like the North Star, they watched it leave the shoreline, traveling farther and farther until it was a speck of white dust in the pink-tinted waters. He didn’t believe in Christianity, and he didn’t either, but to have their love serve as a sea marker that eternally glows to guide wayward sailors made him feel more significant.

Miracles were real, and they were contained within the paper boat of their charter.

Some days after school, they would simply take their shoes and socks off to bury their toes in the sand, watching the sun kiss the marmalade-hued sea. Gyuvin called it “divine intercourse” since he interpreted the scenery as the sun performing oral sex to the sea. Quanrui called it “the tryst of between heavenly bodies” but redacted the part where he envisioned Gyuvin as the sun, and he, the sea. On days like this, he’d come home with specks of sand all over his trousers and lips marred with inflamed redness. His mother asked him why his lips were so swollen, and he found that the most effective reply would be to chalk it off as his failed attempts at making out with a mosquito. He was definitely a terrible liar when he was aroused.

On some nights, they would take more fireworks with them to run around an abandoned railroad near the shoreline, racing to see who could reach the end while keeping their light intact. Of course, he would always reign victorious due to his much longer legs, but on days where he felt like infinitely exploring the caverns of his mouth, he’d give up halfway and let him taste the ego booster of out-running someone who was practically the same height as him.

The duration of their two weeks would be a super-eight B-roll to the biopic of his life. Montages of Gyuvin running around the shore, with the title rolling in as he looks back towards him, would serve as the perfect introductory shot to establish their picturesque moments as the leading actors of their lovemaking. Then, the film would cut to a scene of him carrying Gyuvin on his back as he pretends he’s a horse—the perfect shot to pause and introduce the starring roles. Once the leads are introduced, he was planning to devote three minutes of montage time to their tomfoolery by the shore—making out on the sand, pushing each other as the waves crash into the land, performing a poor rendition of a royal waltz as he twirls him around, and of course, the crucial shot of both running into the sea while holding hands. Before the camera fades to black, the camera pans away from the ethereal view of the horizon, putting the two young lovers in each other’s arms right in the middle of the setting sun. He was in a dilemma between adding an alternative rock soundtrack or leaving it to nature’s aerial creatures—but either way, the result would satisfy him. Gyuvin didn’t have the face of an actor, but he had the character of a lead male role.

With Gyuvin's fixation on fire, it was natural for Quanrui to think of him whenever there was a fire of any kind. The same could be said vice versa, where everything about Gyuvin makes him think of fire. Their relationship, in his own analysis, was a rocket ship that blasted him right on top of the upper echelons of their grade, elevating him higher than the stratosphere of the social hierarchy.

Another thing to add about being in a relationship with Gyuvin: he was no longer sitting beside Yujin in class. He felt a sense of brotherly betrayal, but he didn’t have a choice. To cement their relationship status, they had to be seen together within the confines of their classroom and school hallways. It was also one of his obligations as his official boyfriend to sit next to him at the back of the table, where he'd have free reigns to burn the corner of the desk. It was an excellent distraction for the subjects he didn’t need to study for, but it was terrible in the sense that his perfect record was tarnished with accusations of property damage.

“Two weeks?! Twowhole weeks?!” Yujin screams, then berates himself by quickly scanning his surroundings. Gyuvin had to serve detention for burning the desk and setting the sprinkler, so now, it was him and the electric boys again.

It'sbeen two weeks since he’s spoken to Yujin alone, or any of his friends for that matter. He was virtually inseparable from his boyfriend, and that meant subjecting them to the psychological pains of third-wheeling. He’d often see Yujin through his peripheral vision, watching with admiration and envy that he’s finally got a boyfriend. To be fair, Yujin was of high social standing, so he could pretty much get any girl he wanted—and he did. When Quanrui was still in the market, he would often hear weekly stories of Yujin ticking boxes off his "girl" checklist, breaking hearts, and mending them as he pleased whenever he got the satisfaction of stealing their first kiss. He would then orate this around the entire school as a propaganda campaign to secure his reputation. Apparently, being seen as a casanova was a lot more fulfilling than being known as the best boyfriend ever.

“I mean, I’m not complaining. Everything’s going too well.”

They were walking out of the school building and into the field, where they always were before he decided to sign off his free time to Gyuvin. He continued to dabble in the performative arts of humiliating teachers, bullying the weak, and challenging authority, but the theater company dispersed into a double act that separated the lovers from the magicians. He’s never seen Yujin uneasy before, especially when it came to supposedly trivial matters, id est, “gay sh*t.” The things that encompassed what “gay sh*t” was all depended on the council of Yujin and “the boys.” Now, they deemed his romance with Gyuvin as such—which was ironic considering their initial celebratory joy that consisted of brutish back-patting and aggressive fist-bumping.

“Butdude, it shouldnever take more than a single week to score! He's just messing with you at this point.” Yujin says in agony while shoving Quanrui's chest. He’s built enough pain tolerance from having his leg hair burned for two weeks straight; a mere push didn’t affect him anymore.

“Is he still looking at us?”

From the second-floor window, Gyuvin's eyes hover over their every move. Everywhere they walked, his eyes followed. Despite his perceived lack of intellect, he was someone with unbridled intuition. Upon sharing a gaze with him, he cracks a smile while pulling his middle finger in the air. Then, he waves his lighter around before an unsuspecting teacher sneaks behind him to confiscate it. He takes back what he mentioned about his intuition—he can be pretty air-headed and tone-deaf.


The school bell rings, and Yujin gives him his last, firm pat on the back. There were many nuances that came with the act, but Quanrui's best guess was the kind that sailors gave to each other when their ship started to leak. He bids him farewell with a salute and looks up to await his new captain’s subsequent command. Gyuvin opened the window in a false attempt to jump down and evacuate the storm of the teacher. Surprisingly, he made it. It was a life or death situation to watch him cling on the walls of the school building, and he rushed right below him, morphing into a gallant lifeboat.

After school, he takes Gyuvin to the shoreline again. Despite Gyuvin claiming that he loathes romantic places, he's somehow okay with watching sunsets one-on-one with him. In these moments, he'd take his lighter or a box of matches out, striking a flame that tried to compete with the orange ball of pure, hellish fire.

“Take your hand out,” he says.

Upon doing so, Gyuvin strikes the flint and takes the flame close enough to the surface of his palm but with an added distance that doesn’t burn his skin. As Quanrui aligns his hands to the sun, the orange flames from his lighter flicker into hues of violet and blue. He would compare himself to Icarus, but Icarus didn’t hold the sun in his hands. The closest character he could think of was Ryu or Ken from Street Fighter II, holding a tiny fireball that burst into the size of the sun.

The shores weren’t always empty, but they’d found a secluded area just behind a large rock. There, they’d often make out until the sun completely set or when Gyuvin would get bored enough to drag him to the sea and push him right as the waves crashed inland. Today, however, they simply sat next to each other on a patch of sand, waiting for the briny white waves to wash over their feet. Without the presence of pyrotechnics, the seagulls’ squawks filled the air in a jazz ensemble of trumpets. He wasn’t too well-versed in the world of jazz, but perhaps swing would be the sub-genre that would allow the seagulls’ voices to shine.

A number of boats were idly floating on the horizon, bathing themselves in the low beam of the sunset. As the sun descended lower and lower, plunging its spherical glow into the depths of the marmalade-dyed water, the sky transformed into a holographic, peach-tinted parade.

“This is nice, isn’t it?” Quanrui asks, trying to shift closer to Gyuvin.

“It’s alright,” Gyuvin replies, nodding in accordance.

He stares into Gyuvin's side profile, pondering if he should trace their outline with his finger. From his forehead, all the way to the tip of his nose, and down to the curves of his lips—in the high contrast of dusk’s sun, the lines of his features formed a perfect sine curve. If a road was built with his side profile as a reference, the Korean highway would have smooth gravity hills that tossed cars in the air with each trough and peak—sort of like a morning cartoon, maybe “Wacky Races” in old American television shows he'd watch as a kid in suburbia.

“We both have a good thing, right?"

He looks at Gyuvin whenever he talks; that way, he can show him he’s attentive. He continues to longingly gaze at the horizon, burying his feet deeper into a puddle of sand and water. As the waves came inland, more water gathered around the holes he poked out with his toes. It reminded him of a time when he was younger when he’d fill ant hills with leftover juice to give them the glucose content they needed.

"I guess. I mean, I’m having fun so far.” Gyuvin replies, shrugging nonchalantly.

“We’re both in that stage of intimacy now, right?”

He jerks his head in his direction, pupils widening in bewilderment. Balling his fists together, he delivers a light blow on his upper arm. This was another way Gyuvin showed affection, by being slightly violent. He never went too far, but that could be Quanrui's rose-colored vision placing a bias in his thought process. If he were to tell his parents that his boyfriend casually burned his leg hair, they would ostracize him and end the relationship themselves in a heartbeat.

Intimate?” Gyuvin repeats in a mocking tone. The cold sensations of wet sand and bubbly seawater hit his feet with heightened impact. After kicking a few more sand on his legs, he takes a matchbox out of his skirt pocket and strikes it up, taking the flame to blacken the convex surface of a wayward seashell.

“I mean, we'vebeenquite intimate with each other, right?”

“Yeah?” Gyuvin deadpans. This was his usual way of talking, but given the context, it was a lukewarm response. Did his lack of experience drive him away from the prospects of consummation? Or was he just too sexually undesirable? He should probably start reading those magazine articles displayed in front of every convenience store—not the ones in front of the shelf, but the ones that were clandestinely hidden behind the catalogs of job listings, travel guides, and celebrity gossip magazines.

Gyuvin hovers the matchbox near his arm, and Quanrui takes one. He doesn’t light it like he does, though. Instead, he tosses the matchstick into the sea, skipping it like stones. Matchsticks weren’t ideal for a smooth, linear ripple that one would get when pitching a stone into a lake or a river. Nonetheless, he grabs another matchstick and throws it to the sea, watching as it plops into its waters. Gyuvin watches with curiosity and follows suit, lighting up his own match and tossing it into the sea. Upon seeing the fire extinguished via the zephyrs of the ocean, he resorts back to burning another seashell he's dug up.

Due to their texture and shape, clams and oysters were thought to be aphrodisiacs. Perhaps this was a subtle message—a covet symbolism for Gyuvin's true thoughts.

“So do you wanna…?” Quanrui murmurs, placing a pause between each word for added measure. It wasn’t good to be too direct, according to a Naver thread online.

“f*ck?” Gyuvin interjects, reveling in the inequality between them. There was a glint of seduction in his eyes, but it was quickly replaced with his lids falling over. Now, he was lying on the sand bed, hitting it with all his might as he burst into a cackling fit. The trails of his figure looked like a snow angel.

“No, don’t say it like that. I mean, if I say yes, does that mean we’re over?"

Gyuvin's laughter stopped with a cold, blank stare. He was impersonating a wayward corpse drifting inland. White waves slowly washed over his feet, going all the way up to his calves. They glistened with a radiant sheen that glistened all over his skin until a peak of his boxer brief bands were visible through the opened buttons on his uniform's shirt.

A set of fingers curled beneath his wrist, pulling him down into the lukewarm sand. He didn’t think the impact would be so powerful, but he found himself massaging his head to alleviate the pain. Gyuvin held their hands up high, taking a marker out of his breast pocket. How that suddenly appeared in there was a new mystery he couldn’t find the solutions for.

"Alright, big boy, here’s the thing: Write down all the reasons you can for why youthinkI should do it. If your list satisfies me, then I might.”

He takes the marker out of Gyuvin's grasp, turning his back on his in a fetal position. The tip of the marker touched his sweaty hand, creating a ripple of ink that he had to wipe down with his thumb. The more he fills his palm with words, the more he contemplates using it as a note-taking substitute for his notebooks. There was a lot that he could fit in the surface, and quite possibly more if he wasn’t panicked or if he could use a smaller pen.

Gyuvin's presence was felt as their bodies collided. He yanked his hand away from him, squinting his eyes to read each word. The sun was gone without a bow or a warning—nature’s very own disappearing act.

“Hey, I’m not—”

Dragging his palm right in front of his eyes, Gyuvin clears his throat and begins reading each point. The way he sounded while doing so was a poor attempt at impersonating their literature teacher.

Why Kim Gyuvin should have sex with me, a list by Shen Quanrui. One,he's fatally in love with me."

There was a slight pause in his oration. Gyuvin taps the point with his finger, of which the nails were surprisingly long. Most of the boys in his class usually kept it short for other indecent activities or to prevent breakage from the sports they played, so he was surprised that Gyuvin's might be longer than his. He gives Quanrui a look, blinking rapidly before pulling his palm—and by extension, his entire body—right next to him.


“Two:it’s always a thrilling experience to do it before we turn legal.”

Gyuvin leaned his head on Quanrui's shoulder, holding the words in his palm up for their eyes to read. Some of the ink rubbed off in melted sequences due to his aggressive grip, but the characters were still intact. The human brain can do wonders, such as automatically correcting misspelled words and unscrambling jumbled letters. He should stop seeing Gyuvin's brain as synonymous with a mongrel. After all, he did better than him in mathematics.

“Three:It will probably be disappointing, so why wait?” Gyuvin says, looking at Quanrui to confirm the point.

“I’ll make an amendment on the first point. Here,”

Amendment. He was surprised Gyuvin knew the word. He strikes the entire first point until it’s entirely covered in black ink. Heaving a satisfied hum, he quickly stands up and grabs the box of matches that he's momentarily neglected. He quickly averts his gaze from where he was standing, even if it was completely normal for boys his age to stroll around without a shirt. This level of exposure should be, in his eyes, mundane, but any skin that Gyuvin revealed made his cheeks flush in embers and want to hide away from the face of the Earth.

“I’m bored now."

Gyuvin places a hand on his hip, eerily reminding him of his mother. He refuses to admit that Freud was right because the last thing he wanted in a romantic partner was any semblance to his own mother.

"Bored by my—”

“Nah, just bored. Let’s go burn some sh*t.”

It was rare for Gyuvin to assist him in standing up. Usually, he'd push him lower into the sand or the sea. As his fingers curled around his hand, he pulled him up with a single tug, causing him to lose his balance and fall right into the crook of his neck. A light chuckle rings like symphonies in his ears, and he straightens himself, readjusting his limbs from the sudden change in movement. Inflexibility in the joints was one of the many struggles of being a tall person, and it took some time for him to shake off the numbness and static that accumulated around his ankles. It was either that, or he was chronically ill in some ways—something he should look into tonight when he gets home.

Once he was fully upright, Gyuvin grabbed his backpack and fished out a bunch of sparklers and mini rockets, waving them around with fervor.

“So is that a yes, or?”

“Come on! The fireworks won’t wait!”

That should be an answer in itself, he supposes. Gyuvin strikes a match and tosses it on a lopsided pile of mini rockets. As each rocket shoots up in the sky, he shakes off the comparison between Gyuvin and his mother. Hypothetically, if he were to have sex with him, he definitely didn’t need to close his eyes anymore.

Another two weeks had passed, and he still hadn’t lost his virginity to Gyuvin. With both harboring an adamant refusal to meet each other’s parents, it was natural for them to meet anywhere outside of their humble abodes. The shoreline was the first pick, and he began to wonder that perhaps it was the open nature of the place that prevented him from reaching home run with him. If the shoreline wasn’t something he was feeling, he picked locations that were less than ideal for an afternoon with a lover—abandoned railroads, empty warehouses, or dark, smelly alleyways that reeked of rat piss. Nonetheless, he wasn’t let down about it. In fact, he prefers the lack of sexual intimacy. There was something about seeing Gyuvin in a different, bubbly light that satisfied him more than the prospect of having sex with him. Adding to that, he was still shrouded in so much mystery despite officially spending a month with him.

The late-night program for an educational channel screened a documentary about ultrasounds. Ultrasound itself is a sound vibration that’s too high in frequency to be audible by human ears. It was developed in World War II to locate objects in submersion such as submarines, the Lost City of Atlantis, or perhaps Jack’s dead corpse. Now, though, it’s used by doctors to study areas of the body that are often hard to reach; the most unique form of medical usage can be seen in pregnancy. Doctors would use an ultrasonic stethoscope could detect a fetus’ heart.

Despite such technology, no human can see inside someone else’s heart. It’s still outright impossible to honestly know what’s on anyone’s mind or heart. If only he had the brains to invent a frequency that’s susceptible to humans, he would finally understand the inner workings of his father, his mother, and even Gyuvin.

Today, he decided to take Gyuvin to the cinema. Theaters were a benchmark location for every couple—young or old. If one hadn’t taken their romantic partner to the dark, air-conditioned rooms of a movie theater, then the whole ordeal wasn’t to be considered romantic by default.

At his request, they stop by a bookstore. While Gyuvin was usually the one who tipped the scale in his favor, it was his turn to revel in his impatience as his eyes wandered around each paperback cover with restraint. There was a scratching noise that permeated from the deep depths of his pocket. He was doing everything he could to prevent himself from committing arson, and Quanrui was doing his best to feign ignorance. It was nice to see how helpless he could be with him, considering how often, more than not, it was his role to be the helpless victim to Gyuvin's asinine antics.

“Hey, I got you some books.”

There were three paperback copies in his hands, each prompting him to scratch the flint of his lighter even more. At this rate, he'd be burning his school uniform by now.

“Why?” Gyuvin asks, scanning through each cover before stuffing his hands back inside his pockets. Lazily browsing the entire bookstore in a quick daze, he stifles a yawn from escaping his lips. Quanrui would tell him that he should read more to get better grades, but he’d sound like a parental figure. With his fiery demeanor, there was probably a troublesome home environment that led him to blossom into who he is now, so he kept his mouth sealed.

“I don’t know. They mean a lot to me. Here’s one by Eileen Chang, "Love in a Foreign City." I saw my mom read it a lot when I was younger, and it might help if you have problems with your identity or something. It could also educate you about women and their problems, so that might be something good for you since you're usually a very inconsiderate person."


The mention of individuality did spark his interest, and he took the copy of “Love in a Foreign City" into his hands. Scanning his eyes through the brief summary on the back of the book, he stuffed the copy between his armpits. It was definitely surprising to see his familiarity with a book’s anatomy, considering his lack of interest in reading. Quanrui should try to find more books that tackle identity crises to get him to read more.

“And this one’s by Ayn Rand, "Atlas Shrugged." I had to read it back in the States in chapters and sections, but the whole thing's pretty good, at least according to my dad. You seem to like dystopian cartoons and whatnot, so this might be an elevated experience from your childish tastes."

"I don’t know, Ricky. I don’t really read a lot anymore.”

So that answers the mystery behind Gyuvin's familiarity with the body of a book. The sudden hesitance in his movement made Quanrui pause a bit, pensively fishing through the reasons behind his downfall with such a satisfying hobby. While it could be the natural progression of adolescence, there were deeper hints within his reluctance that stated otherwise. It wasn’t in his interest to psychoanalyze him without his consent, but he didn’t have a choice. He probably would’ve declined the offer right off the bat if he had asked.

“Ah, well, now that I’m your boyfriend, I can probably light that spark in you again,” Quanrui says, using the “boyfriend” card as his safest argument. Faking naivety was his best choice at the moment.

“Ricky, that’s not how it—”

“I promise this is the last recommendation,” he interjects, holding his pinky out. Gyuvin slithers his hands out of his pocket and wraps his smaller digits around them. Shaking it three times in unison, he lets go and raises both his hands up in the air.

“Alright, fine."

He surrenders. He’s won for now.

"This one’s by Gao Xingjian called "Soul Mountain." I want you to know more about my culture, and I think this is a beautiful introduction to it."

Whyare you doing this?“

Good question. Whyis he doing this? There wasn’t really a point when Gyuvin would probably just take these books with him and burn them in an elaborate bonfire. Plus, he was a stubborn boy who refused to yield to anyone, especially to him. It was a futile attempt for him to try and interest him in his tastes.

It’s the effort that counts, though, right? Right. That being said, he marches on, using Gyuvin's surrender as a sign of progress in their relationship.

"I just thought it’d be nice for us to have things in common, you know since we are in a relationship. Broadening our hobbies can also be a good thing for us, instead of constantly going to the shoreline or setting things on fire.”

“Why the hell would I wanna be more like you?” Gyuvin asks, giving him a slight smirk as if to impersonate the way he smiled. Another con about Gyuvin: he was pretty bad at impersonations.

Another good question that he had more answers to. Well, he could intellectually benefit from reading books he enjoys or watching documentaries he’d submerge himself into. Novels were educational in the way they gave insights into the author’s time period and socio-political environment. Films, too, in some ways, had thematic symbolism that visually interpreted a historical time period or the essential questions to life. Maybe training Gyuvin to pick up on these nuances would provide him with the opportunity to be more subtle with his current jargon.

He checks his watch and shows Gyuvin the time. He takes two tickets out of his pocket and hands him a slightly crumpled one. He gives him a look, and he shrugs as if to tell him: What did you expect? Despite this, he meticulously straightens the ticket with his knee, then offers to do the same with his own ticket. Gyuvin declines, taking his neon-green lighter out to pretend to set it on fire. Within the span of a month, the coordination in their movements was better than his parents in the later years of their marriage. This, to him, was the closest they could get to any form of coordination. Even then, his mild cooperation was still abundant evidence of their compatibility.

“The movie’s about to start, so, like, we should probably get going,” Quanrui says, using his chin to point at the nearby escalator.

“Hold on,”

Gyuvin stuffs the copy of “Love in a Foreign City” between the waistbands of his trousers, then links arms with Quanrui to conquer the theaters. Moments like these, where he'd initiate contact, usually meant something, but deep down, Quanrui wasn’t in the mood for anything too intimate. Films were one of the things that required his unbridled attention, and as such, nothing could get between him and the technicolor screen—even if he were to unbutton his shirt up to his abdomen or spoil him with caresses.

Surprisingly, Gyuvin was well-behaved inside the theater. Not once did he attempt to make out with him, and he kept his eyes glued to the screen. The scratching noise of his lighter came to a halt, and he even began reading the first chapter of “Love in a Foreign City” in the dark. Halfway into Bong Joonho’s “Mother,” he excuses himself and leaves the theater. Once he came back, he threatened to leave the theater as soon as possible. Quanrui tried to protest but eventually went with him after promising to treat him with food.

“You know, it’s not nice to the director to leave the theater before the credits roll.”

A bored janitor was sleeping while resting his elbows on the mop’s handle, and Gyuvin tried to subtly kick it off. Quanrui pulled Gyuvin away from him, and he rolled his eyes as a sign of disappointment. If Bong Joon-ho couldn’t keep him glued to the theater’s seat, then he didn’t know what type of media would make him behave. He was a well-acclaimed director in South Korea, so it was either a lack of patriotism or a general distaste for the arts. Either way, all he could do now was to follow in Gyuvin's footsteps. After all, the purpose of a date was to spend time with his boyfriend, not leave him alone to wander off while he keeps himself engrossed in a film he’s watched three to four times alone in the theater.

“It’s not like the directors are gonna know.”

The building right next to the cinema was a hair salon that he didn’t really pay attention to. As a boy, it was typical for him to hold hair care around the bottom of his list of priorities—that is unless Gyuvin himself told him to change his hairstyle. Through the corner of his eyes, he sees the silhouette of his mother accompanied by a stout man. This morning, he briefly eavesdropped on a phone call she had with her friend about getting a haircut. It was typical of his mother to dabble in beauty, but he didn’t think she’d have company with her today.

She does a little spin and the man he now recognizes as Triceratops Leung showers her with cheap compliments. The crown of his unruly hair bounces as he leads her into his van, opening the door for her to get in. To Quanrui's knowledge, his mother was capable of driving on her own.

“Gyuvin, kiss me.”


Before he could say anything, Quanrui grabbed him and smashed his lips on his. Keeping his hand on his waist, he tries to get him to open his mouth and reciprocate, but he just laughs into the kiss. While a situation such as this would bring endless barrages of butterflies into his stomach, the most he could do was keep his lips on his as a human shield. Each chuckle reverberates into him, and he tries to return the sentiment. Unfortunately, it was somewhat tricky pretending to be happy.

Quanrui continues to press Gyuvin's body and lips against him, tracking the direction that Triceratops Leung's unruly van has driven off to. Judging by the road he turned, Quanrui guessed that their next destination was a restaurant nearby. As soon as the truck disappears from his line of sight, he lets go and prepares himself for an afternoon filled with Gyuvin's crass and creative insults.

“What the f*ck was that, Ricky? ‘Kiss me?’ Did you seriously just say that, or am I dreaming? 'Kiss me!’”

“It’s what it is, akiss.I was trying to be romantic, okay?”

The walk away from the cinema was, as he had anticipated, filled with Gyuvin's laughter. He was relatively gentle with his words compared to the usual, but that was definitely due to his lack of control with lung control. Bystanders began eyeing them with fear, distancing themselves from the pair as he continued to laugh and exhaust all the air that he could. He loved seeing him like this, but after witnessing something he shouldn’t have, he wasn’t in the mood to muster a single chuckle.

“You were crushing my goddamn face, Ricky!”

Gyuvin mimics the way he held him, doing a reenactment in the middle of the streets. This time, he was spot-on with his delivery. Quanrui tries to loosen himself up, giving him a round of applause for his amateur acting skills.

To his reluctance, Gyuvin parted ways with him at the station. They were supposed to spend the entire day together, and he even promised to pay for his food because he had given him “the best comedy skit he's ever seen.”

“You’re insufferable.Please don’t ever change.” He says, grabbing his arm and giving him a light peck on the cheek.

As soon as they touch their transcript cards by the gate, he runs to the other side of the platform to catch his train. Through the window, he waves with both of his arms, giving him one more performance of his attempts at being romantic. He shakes his head with a smile and sends him off with a small smile. Once his train entirely disappears, he leans on the wall for support, closing his eyes to burn the shocking discovery he’s uncovered into his head.

He was a first-hand witness to his mother having an affair with the new neighbor. Why else would she be at a hair salon with Triceratops Leung? Was he the reason why she decided to get a haircut in the first place? To impress him with a fresh, clean cut before they committed the sin of adultery? His mother usually went alone when she wanted to get a haircut, but now that he thinks about it, she did mention something about her hair a week ago or so.

They were watching the news together as a trio—which, by the time he turned sixteen, was a rare occurrence. The newscaster on the screen had black, flowing, long hair that reached the bottom of her breasts, and her face was radiant with the white glow of studio lights.

“Do you think I should grow out my hair?” She asked, glancing at his father. The tension in the air was palpable.


“Do you think I should grow out my hair, like her?” She asked again, heaving a sigh.

"Well…. You look good in anything, lǎo pó."

Ah, yes. The safest response to a question riddled with minefields. Quanrui was still in his uniform, and he tried to keep his eyes on the grainy screen of their television. He had just come home from another date with Gyuvin by the shoreline, and he decided to spend some time with his parents to closely monitor the hypothetical deterioration of their marriage. The fact that his mother didn’t tell him to get changed should’ve been a red flag—an omen to heed for what’s to come.

"So you think I’ll look good if I shaved all my hair off?” She taunted. His father is taken aback by the question and sinks his lips into the caverns of chamomile tea.


Before he could respond, his mother abruptly left the living room, stomping up to their room. Both men of the household watched as she ascended the stairs in mild annoyance, shrugging to each other as they kept their eyes back on the television. The anchor was gone, and in her stead was his mother in a short sundress with long, flowing hair, dancing right next to a younger version of Triceratops Leung.

Another red flag has appeared in his parents’ marriage. Two red flags, actually. He’s been tracking some of these occurrences in a spring notepad the size of his uniform’s breast pocket. That way, he’d have easier access to recording live events. Last night, he saw a brochure for an improv session hosted and performed by Triceratops Leung himself. He wasn’t sure if Leung was a comedian or took the whole “holistic medicine” and “self-rejuvenation” aspect of his skits seriously. Was it even a skit if he went on to advertise himself as a magic medicine man? His face, coupled with several poorly photoshopped renditions of unicorns and tie-dye patterns, splattered around the brochure, detailing a phone number at the back that redirected him to a free trial. He glares at the photo and controls the urge to spit on it before taking it to dial the number.

Instead of finding the telephone where it should be, the handset was nowhere to be found. All that was left was the charger and the base unit, with all the wires intact. This could only mean one thing: his mother was using the telephone. His father wasn’t really active with the landline, as he was the type to exchange emails through his office computer. In fact, Quanrui has never seen his father pick up the phone unless he was the only one present. The chatterbox to the home answering machine was synonymous with his mother’s name, as she would spend hours on end talking to it like it was an actual human being.

He traces his mother’s booming voice and hides behind her door, holding his breath to keep up his role as James Bond in the Shen household. Maybe espionage was his true calling—after all, he shared the same letter as 007’s first name. Bond. Ricky Bond. All he needed was a neatly pressed two-piece suit and a trusty revolver; the martini, shaken, not stirred, would be omitted since he didn’t like the taste of alcohol.

“Yeah, there’s nothing going on in my end. How about you?”

Through the thin, wooden slab that separated him from his mother, he could hear her chuckling. Although she was usually chipper around the house, the consistency of her rather optimistic demeanor has dwindled tenfold. Instead of asking him about school or laughing with his father, she tends to eat breakfast and dinner in silence.

Her initial volume and pitch were lowered, and Quanrui pressed his ears even further to catch what she was saying.

“I mean, it’s just the usual. Quanrui's being Quanrui, and Yichen's being himself as always.”

He could imagine her rolling her eyes while saying this, twirling an invisible telephone cord in his fingers to the tune of her sing-song voice. Quanrui being Quanrui. All of a sudden, he gains awareness of the split between his true self and how he presents himself to others. With the many personas he took up depending on the person he talked to, he began to picture the essential questions that came with this sudden self-awareness. Who would win in a boxing match? The “Quanrui” he presents to Gyuvin or the “Quanrui” he becomes in front of his parents? Hypothetically, who was more attractive? Did the “Quanrui” he became with Yujin and the boys have a lower IQ than the “Quanrui” he is when he’s alone?

“Yeah, he’s still taking them. Did I tell you about it? I forgot.”

Either the other party in the line of his mother presses the wrong button, but a short beep disrupts their conversation. It was probably the star key or a random string of numbers that her cheeks had pressed on accident. People her age have a habit of putting the handset too close to their face.

“Well, they kinda work? He refuses to take them, though. He tells me he’d rather be numb or something. I don’t know. I just want a break from it all.”

He takes his notepad out and jots down the details of his father’s medication. It wasn’t like he knew much about it, to begin with, but he was under the impression that the antidepressants were steadily being replaced by his overindulgence in chamomile tea.

“Nah, no words from Leung. He went to the hair salon with me, though.”

Just as Rasputin from Hong Kong's name comes out of her mouth, he hears a door creak from the direction of his father’s home office. His reading glasses are tucked into his pocket. Quanrui immediately detaches himself from his parent’s bedroom door, swiftly stuffing his notepad in his pocket. Both of them squint at each other, telepathically communicating via rapid blinking and eyebrow raises. His father then musters a quick wave, saluting him in his spy adventures. His eyes didn’t seem to be focused on anything, and Quanrui berated himself for staying silent in that short time period.

“How does Yichen feel? Ah, I mean, I didn’t tell him about it. He didn’t like them on the get-go, so I went in secret.”

Another scathing discovery alerted him to the urgency of his parents’ marriage. The presence of Leung was fatal, and his existence alone would challenge all of Quanrui's attempts to prevent his parents from splitting up. If his mother went in secret, then there are no more doubts about it—she was actively engaging in extramarital affairs. He tries to control himself and clandestinely presses his ear against the door’s wooden frame, closing his eyes to manifest absolute hearing.

“No, shut up! He wasn’t my first love. That’s ridiculous!” She says, laughing like the girls from his school. He made sure to add some more notes about his recent discovery and the negative implications that might befall his predictions. His mother was a lot more jovial when talks of Leung came to light. This was a terrible, surefire sign that answered their lack of sex life.

“Come on. I was only eighteen!”

Before he could eavesdrop any further, he hit his head on the doorframe. There wasn’t enough time to register the familiar pain he’s felt on a daily basis—he had to run away as fast as he can. In an instant, he picks himself up and runs to the bathroom, locking it shut while turning the faucet on. If he were to take refuge in his room, his mother would piece two and two together. While he was sure he’d been found out before, it was crucial that this particular operation remain under wraps. If he were uncovered, then his mother would definitely start hiding her private conversations better—and that wasn’t good at all if he were to serve the role of the patron saint. In the gradual turmoil of his parent’s marriage, he was the only one who could prevent it from falling apart.

“Yichen! Were you eavesdropping?” She asks, lowering her pitch. She didn’t sound like a high schooler anymore.

“Sorry, what?” His father replies. Quanrui hears the doors to his home office creak open, accompanied by his signature lethargic footsteps.

“I heard footsteps, and I’m pretty sure it’s you!” His mother retorts. The sound of slippers sped up as she ascended the stairs. He was sure he could feel the tectonic plates vibrate with each step she made.

He turned the faucet off after a few minutes and sat on the closed toilet seat. The bathroom was a great place to think with its small surface area and forced isolation. While there were many things that ran inside his head, the main thing he pondered was why. Why didn’t his parents tell him that Leung was his mother’s first love? The signs should’ve been clear the moment he saw his father’s awkward amicability towards him, but hindsight is always twenty-twenty. Is it really possible that his mother would cheat on his father? Will the end of this saga result in a divorce? They don’t even kiss each other anymore—they just talk. While the outcomes and possibilities were endless, the least he could do before devising his master plan was to increase his surveillance on both of them.

A silent breakfast has become commonplace in Quanrui's morning routine. After all that he uncovered last night, he didn’t even feel hungry anymore. While both his parents sat in dead silence, he reveled in a copy of “The Cloud Dream of the Nine” by Kim Manjung. It was an essential text in Korean literature, and to immerse himself in the country’s literature, he had to read it. The book itself was something Gyuvin would’ve found extremely boring, but the philosophical discussion on Confucianism and Buddhism was enough for him to impulsively buy a copy of it on his way back home. Speaking of reading, his father hasn’t touched his plate at all, leaving the wooden chopsticks where his mother had set it. On his left hand, he had a mug of chamomile tea, and on the other, a journal about aquatic sea life in the seas of Jeju.

Quanrui was used to silence—in fact, it was something he found solace in. The current situation, however, was one of the few scenarios that silence worked against. Throughout his life, the dining table was always a place for his parents to hold discussions on whatever came in their mind. Usually, it was a sanctuary for his mother to vent out her trivial troubles at the office—but now, talks about her annoying boss were confined within the handset of the home landline. His father wasn’t much of a talker, to begin with, but even in his clinically depressed state, he managed to entertain his mother’s woes. Now, he’d perpetually revel in the silence as he sips on his chamomile tea, dissociating from reality to live in the submarine inside his head.

“So, why aren’t you dressed yet? Don’t you have work?” His mother asks, attempting to break the dreaded silence. Despite her efforts, the entire ordeal propelled the tension even higher.

“I’ll work in my home office today. You can take the car.” His father replies, keeping his eyes on the scientific journal.

To cement his role as an observer, Quanrui keeps his ears open whilst focusing on the Hangul characters of his book. That way, his parents wouldn’t bother him with anything, and he’d seem like a well-adjusted young boy in their eyes. After all, boys who read are considered to be somewhat mature for their age.


His mother gets up before finishing her sentence, taking the remainder of her food into the sink. Instead of scrapping the remains entirely, she grabs a box of cling wrap and spreads a thin sheet of plastic over her plate. In Quanrui's lifetime, it was a first to see his mother fail to finish her food.

“I’m thinking of attending Leung's improv sessions. He’s holding one tonight at the local jazz bar downtown,” she says, filing a glass with water. White noise was the only way to maintain the facade of a happy family.

Right.” His father replies, nonchalantly keeping his eyes on the scientific journal. His voice was meeker than usual, but it was hard to tell since his speech patterns were reserved, to begin with. He takes a pen from his breast pocket to start annotating it via the margins of the paper. While both parents were engrossed in their own tasks, Quanrui took this as an opportunity to look up from his book, mentally keeping a bookmark on the page he left off. He eyed his parents as his father would with the aquariums at the university.

“Right?” His mother asks, slightly raising her voice. The probability of this ordeal escalating into a full-blown argument was at a solid fifty-fifty.

“I thought you didn’t need my permission to go wherever you wanted to."

His father subtly raises his eyes from the pages of the journal, but he doesn’t stir his head in her direction. From Quanrui's own analysis, he was trying to keep things under control. It was a good decision as a father, especially given the rushed nature of mornings. For this, Quanrui mentally applauded his father’s silent actions. The last thing the household needed was an argument that left a bad taste in everyone’s mouths—it was definitely a terrible way to start the day, and he was sure his parents didn’t want their child witnessing an argument before he went to school.

"So youdon’t mind me going?” she retorts. The only way she could fight back without escalating the situation was to phrase her arguments as rhetorical questions.

“Why would I?”

Good question. I’m not coming home tonight.”

The incredibly speedy response patterns felt like a high-school debate, where Quanrui was the proctor. He continued to keep his eyes on his book, feigning ignorance to the tension between the entire dining room.

“I’ll keep myself busy while you’re gone.” He replies, gripping the pen in his hands tight. His father wasn’t writing anything in the journal anymore.

Hǔ zi, do you wanna go with me?”

Ah, yes. This was very parent’s way of cutting all forms of marital tension. The direct involvement of a child in this situation would distract both from furthering their displeasure. It was Quanrui's time to shine, and he chose to pick his father first. Aside from their shared sex, he recognized that he still had time to talk to his mother in the car. His father, on the other hand, needed urgent counseling. The onset of his depression would worsen if he were to leave the table without showing concern, and establishing his role as a father might alleviate some of his melancholy as he spends time alone in the house.

“Mom, I’d like to have some time with my dad.In private, please.”

“Noted. I’ll wait outside.”

Her mother glances back at the pair one more time, with an expression he can’t put into words. The closest call would be betrayal, which was rather ironic given her supposed extramarital affairs. She grabs her cardigan and storms out of the door, which surprisingly doesn’t cause the typical startling 'bang’ that most movies portray.

Quanrui looks back to see the door slightly ajar and covertly turns the tap on. His mother wasn’t too good at espionage, and she was probably leaning on the door to eavesdrop on their conversation.

“Dad, I think Mom might be cheating on you,” He says, lowering his voice to a mere whisper.

“Turn the goddamn tap off.” His father replies, pointing his pen backward.

Upon his father’s request, he stands up and gently turns the tap until a single droplet of water ripples onto the sink’s surface.

“Okay, so I saw her in town the other day when I was going on a date with Gyuvin. I also heard her talk on the phone about him."

"Quanrui, that’s a breach of privacy.”

His father kept his eyes on the journal, circling phrases and words related to marine life. Quanrui leaned closer until his mouth was a mere centimeters away from his face.

“I wasn’t spying on her, trust me. It was all a coincidence—especially the phone thing. I just happened to be there when it all happened."

Nodding at every word, he continues to circle more words in the journal. There was a calculated pause between them, and Quanrui took this as an opportunity to glance at the door. It was still left ajar, but his mother was nowhere to be seen. Just in case, he continues to lean closer, pretending he is interested in the writings in the journal.

"So, aren’t you worried or something?”

“Look, Leung is your mom’s friend from all the way back."

There was a crack in his nonchalance as his father said this. Quanrui takes a mental note of it before proceeding to continue. It turns out, there were more layers to the story than he thought. Leung's presence wasn’t limited to his mother’s past—perhaps his father might have had something with Leung as well.

"Did you know they were seeing each other behind your back?” he asks, choosing his question carefully. Although he wanted to direct the conversation to Leung's role in their younger years, he decided against it. There isn’t enough time, and his mother’s impatience will prompt her to disrupt their privacy.

“I’m well aware of it.” His father replies.

“Don’t you wanna do something about it?” He asks.

“I don’t have to do anything, son.”

His father looks up from the journal, giving his son a stern look. Beneath the firmness was a hint of dejection.

“So you’re letting this whole thing happen?”

“Look, Quanrui, listen. It’s not as big as you think it is. He’s just some guy your mom has a history with.”

This was a sign of defeat. His father didn’t want to talk about it anymore. Quanrui checks his watch and quickly fishes one last question out of his mind.

“So you admit that theydohave history?”

“Go to school, son."

He places his pen down and tilts his head towards his son. Thus, with a single sentence, his father surrenders.

The ride to school was filled with silence. No inquiries about his boyfriend, school life, or academic ventures. Before he knew it, the neon signs of the convenience store came into view, and he gripped the straps of his backpack. He needed to leave as soon as possible to prevent the dreaded topic of his and his father’s one-on-one conversation.

"Bye, Mom,” he says, slamming the car door shut. Before he could turn away, his mother firmly grabbed his blazer’s sleeve.

Hǔ zi, we still have time,” she said, checking her watch. He tries to flee, but his mother continues to tug at his sleeve until he faces her. Confrontation wasn’t his forte, and he hypothesized the quickest way to kill the conversation—by giving his mother one-word replies. He also decides to prevent any form of eye contact between them. That way, he’d be able to show his lack of interest and haste to get to school.

“So, how are things going with... Gyuvin, was it?”


It was a classic cliche for his mother to mention his boyfriend. She might think it adds to her facade as a nosy, caring mother, but deep down inside, he sees through her tactics. It wasn’t a good look on her to pretend she didn’t know his boyfriend's name since all of their conversations about him prior had his mother confidently uttering every single syllable of Gyuvin's full name.

“Is he ever gonna come to our house?”

“ I doubt it. He'll probably come to visit when you or Dad get cancer or something.”

His mother nods at every word, taking it all in. She seems to picture the scenario of herself or her husband in a hospital bed with several tubes up their nose. After physically shuddering, she returns her attention back to her son.

“How serious are things between you two?”

“We didn’t have sex, mom. Don’t worry.”

Her mouth remained agape, and she shook her head in relief and disappointment.

“Alright, good. Listen, this whole thing might seem like a big, big deal to you, but Quanrui, there are other things to worry about in life. To be honest, you’ll realize that soon enough when you reach my age.”

“You mean when I turn forty?” Quanrui asks. He knew that mentioning her age wasn’t the best argument he could give, but it was the only topic he could think of that might kill the conversation in one go. After all, his mother liked feeling young—just like any middle-aged woman. Nostalgia was a strong market for people like her, and that was probably why she re-ignited the suppressed flames of her youth.

“Look, all I’m saying is be careful around him. There was a big AIDS scare back then, and there's still a chance that—”

“It’s not like we’re planning to hit a home run anyway,” he replies, overexaggerating his dejection.

“Iknow thatyouknow Dad and I are going through a tough time in our lives, and I just wanna tell you that Ireallyappreciate you trying to fix our marriage and—”

“Mom, I’m not trying tohelp.” He interjects, giving his mother a stern look. Although this was all for dramatic effect, he believes that by suddenly giving her eye contact, he might be able to prove his point.

His mother had a penchant for talking too much when she was anxious. That was one way she was able to hide any signs of mental distress in both the workplace and at home.

Hǔ zi, you’ve always been bad at whispering,” she says, rolling her eyes. She finally lets go of his sleeve, prompting Quanrui to back away from the car. He scans his eyes around him to see if there are any students in his grade who might witness a rather humiliating scene. He is sixteen now, and he should be going to school alone.

“Well,youshouldn’t spy on people,Mom. So, come clean. Why have you been seeing that Leung guy?”

He leans on the opened car window, turning his back from the crowd to hide his face. His mother continues to shake her head, closing her eyes pensively. He knew she already had a cohesive answer to his question in the form of poor excuses, but he feigned ignorance.

“Listen, Leung's a really good friend of mine who goes all the way back. He’s going through a tough time as well—problems with his girlfriend and whatnot. He just needed someone to talk to.”

His mother used a slower, more tender tone—one that she used whenever she wanted to show Quanrui that she cared. The only way he could describe it was a “stock audio” of mothers on American soap operas; the overtly saccharine, lagged speech pattern.

“So you’re telling me he’s probably going to be single soon?” he bitterly asks, rolling his eyes at his mother. She heaves a sigh at the display of disrespect and swats his elbow off the car window.

Hǔ zi, go to school.”

Before she turns the keys to the car, he jerks his head back and leans towards his mother.

“Mom, if our house ever gets flooded and you were in a position to choose between saving Dad or me, who would you save and why?”

“I’d save you first, then feel guilty that I left your dad in the house.” His mother replies, pausing between her words. He nods at her answer and bids her farewell.

As he walked away, he looked back at the car one more time. It was still parked by the convenience store, and through the translucent window, he could see his mother rubbing her temples while she closed her eyes. A moral dilemma was always a great way to salvage a marriage.

Before he is able to turn back, he’s startled by Gyuvin, who shoves him with a smile. He could hear the car engine start, and he mentally traced the trajectory of his mother’s destination.

“Kiss me!”

Gyuvin pushes himself onto him, reenacting the same skit he's done back at the cinema. Despite the current tumult of his household, the only light in his gradually deteriorating mental health was his boyfriend finding him funny. It was always a massive ego booster to have a boy, regardless of relationship status, genuinely laugh at his crude jokes—although in his case, humor wasn’t the initial purpose.

He would have told him why he resorted to such a hilariously humiliating action, but he decided against it. It would break the third charter that dictated their relationship, and explaining a joke would instantly render its purpose nil.

“So, any plans later?” Gyuvin asks, tossing his back out of the gate. They were skipping class today.

“No, not really,” Quanrui replies, struggling to squirm past the gate’s dwindling gap. Usually, he’d blame his height for this type of situation, but he notices that it gets smaller and smaller every day.

As if, Ricky. You never have anything to do.” he taunted, picking his bag up from where it had landed. Quanrui was glad that he retained his fiery demeanor. That was a sign that he still loved him.

The two continued to walk around the park aimlessly. It was a typical scenario in each of their dates to have no particular destination in mind. However, the lack of direction seemed to serve as a metaphor for his current situation. He didn’t really know where to go anymore, or what to do. Today, he didn’t offer to hold hands or make out with him. He was just fine with being right next to him.

While Quanrui and Gyuvin spent the entire day burning his leg hair at the park, it was difficult for him to convince him that he had to go. According to the third charter of their relationship, emotions were “SUPER gay as f*ck,” and as such, should be avoided at all costs. There was a part of him that wanted to confide in him about his parents’ failing marriage, but another voice in his head decided against it. He wasn’t a shoulder to cry on, and showing emotional vulnerability would just put an end to their relationship—something he didn’t want at all. He already had enough mental stressors affecting him, and the prospect of a broken heart would worsen his perceived emotional stability. What would happen to him if both occurred at once? Will he end up like Yujin? Someone who picked on others due to the lack of attention he receives from his parents? The thought of fully succumbing to the world of troubled children made him shudder since it would interfere with his goals of being a well-adjusted boy.

Eventually, he let him go. It wasn’t an easy feat, but he promised to meet him afterward since the venue for Leung's improv session was nearby. His alibi to his did have some truth to it since he told him he was seeing a local rendition of Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” The mention of Shakespeare alone was able to thwart him entirely, and upon asking him if he wanted to accompany him to the theater, he spat on the roadside and sprinted towards the station.

“But it’s one of Shakespeare’s best, Gyuvin.” He said, trying to hide some of his satisfaction. The best way to convince him was to pretend he wanted him to come, which was a rather easy feat. If the circ*mstances aligned in his favor, he would be more than willing to ask him on a date to watch “King Lear” with him.

“Yeah, and we’re in Korea, Ricky. Don’t feed me some foreign bullsh*t—that’s basically colonization.” Gyuvin replied, then pecked his cheek before entering the ticket gate. He was going to ask him how he knew the word, or if he really knew what it meant. In the end, however, he dropped it entirely. He had a quest to finish—and more importantly, a marriage to fix.

The jazz bar had an age requirement, but he was able to sneak past any form of security checks through his height. Another thing that allowed him to conceal his true age was a change of clothes—upon parting ways with Gyuvin at the station, he immediately ran into the public bathroom to discard his uniform. If he were caught by police or bystanders clad in uniform at a bar, he’d probably have to serve time in the detention hall or explain some parts of his actions in front of the faculty board. While getting in trouble did swing his social reputation in the right direction, it would worsen familial relations. He still needed to manage the well-adjusted front he presented to his parents, since that way, they wouldn’t blame themselves for failing their child.

He left the station’s bathroom clad in all black—a black turtleneck, the black dress pants from his uniform, a black pair of sneakers, and black, round sunglasses to make him look like John Lennon. The eyes were the window to the soul, so if he were to commit to the disguise, the eyes had to go under translucent lenses. Talk about a cliche getup for a spy, right? Except, people who professionally did espionage as a career knew how to disguise themselves and would go to extreme lengths to do so—he would know since he looked it up on Naver and Google. Testimonies from ex-CIA agents, stories from former Russian spies, and the tactics of the Japanese Kenpeitai in WWII—he’s pretty much given himself a crash course on how to be a good spy on a budget.

As he adjusted himself on one of the countertop seats, he saw his mother sitting in front of the makeshift stage. It was hard to notice her at first when she wasn’t wearing her usual attire, but he knew it was her as soon as she looked in his direction. She had a look of familiarity on her face, which soon melted into a smile she’d give when she met people for the first time. This brought him immense confidence in his disguise, and he raised his glass of whiskey in her direction as a formal greeting. It was a close call, and it was even harder to pretend he didn’t know his mother at all.

While Quanrui loathed Rasputin from Hong Kong, he allowed himself to admit that the man had charisma. There was no way his father could compete against someone like him. First off, his father didn’t have the bright, colorful energy of a jester—he was a university professor who put entire lecture halls to sleep. Even when interesting questions such as “How deep is the ocean?” popped up, he would always answer as factually as possible. To be fair, it was his job to educate, not to entertain. Even then, he supposes that Leung's answer to the question would’ve been hilariously intriguing compared to his father’s.

“How deep is the ocean, you say? Well, my friend, the ocean is as deep as you’d like to believe it is! If you think of yourself as the ruler of the seas, then the universe will make your deepest desires come true. Of course, this won’t happen in a heartbeat, but if you become one with the ocean, you might become the merman ruler of it someday.” Leung might say, if he were to miraculously gain the sufficient credentials to become a marine biologist.

After a painful three hours of pretending he could hold his drink and jokes that killed his intellect, he hid himself behind the counter. The crowd began to disperse into circles of acquaintances, and the two conveniently occupied two seats that were close enough for him to eavesdrop on their conversation. He covertly took his notepad out and turned his back against them, using his young hearing to his advantage.

“Hey, thanks for coming tonight. It really means a lot.” Leung said. He ordered a Moscow Mule afterward. Maybe that was his secret weapon—drinking fruity co*cktails to impress women.

“No, thank you for inviting me! I found it really entertaining!” His mother's chipper voice replied with too much enthusiasm. She hadn’t been this way with his father for a long time. Her order consisted of ginger ale. Perhaps she did plan to come home after all. Quanrui continued to jot down their conversation in his notepad, keeping his glass of whiskey close. The bartender was suspiciously trying to glance at the words on his notepad, and he retaliated by sulking even more.

“So, what did you think?” He asked. Quanrui notes that Leung's voice was rustic and hoarse.

“Hmm… Fun?” His mother was nervous. This wasn’t a good sign at all, considering her sociability. Although Quanrui wasn’t facing them, he could imagine her actions in the current situation—twirling the ends of her hair, drawing circles on the rim of her glass, and constantly looking down on the wooden surface of the bar counter like a schoolgirl. This wasn’t good at all.

“You think I’m a joke, do you?” Leung asked. Self-deprecation was another tactic of his to appeal to women. Noted.

“No, not at all!”

“You do, and that’s okay!”

It was an aggravating experience to listen to a never-ending conversation that consisted of the same replies. Eventually, Leung broke the miserable chain and decided to talk about his life—the perfect tangent to fueling his narcissism.

“I mean, whatever you say about it won’t affect me. I, for one, enjoy it—and if it makes me happy, then I’m sold. So, areyouhappy?”

The tone in Leung's voice hinted at the prospect of knowing the deterioration in his mother’s marriage. Quanrui took the glass of whiskey and emptied it in a single shot. It was a mistake on his end, but he finally knew what Yujin meant when he said he couldn’t handle things sober. To sit through something as appalling as witnessing his own mother engage in extramarital affairs required some level of intoxication. Quanrui would’ve immediately broken his disguise if he were to handle things fully consciously.

“Ah, me? Why yes! Yes, of course, I am!” His mother replied, using the same tone she does whenever she attempts to cover up her woes.

“Well, that’s splendid! I broke up with the supermodel.” Leung replied, taking every chance he could to talk about himself. This was typical behavior for a narcissist like him.

“Ah… I’m sorry to hear about that.”

“She was too young. I don’t need a girl. I need a woman.”

Quanrui asked the bartender for another glass, and the bartender hesitantly complied with his order. He was surprised at the strength of his tolerance since he believed whiskey was a strong drink. While the lines on the floor began to form waves, he still retained some self-awareness in the form of determination. He could still write words on his notepad, and he could still eavesdrop on their conversation—that was enough.

“It’s getting pretty late, Leung. My husband’s probably wondering where I am.” His mother replied. There was a note of discomfort in her voice as she awkwardly shifted away from Leung. Quanrui triumphantly smiled at the mention of his father, and he gleefully jotted down some more notes and observations on his notepad. There was a good chance he’d successfully salvage their marriage.

“Ah, the old man! How is he?” Leung asked enthusiastically. They were both around the same age, so he didn’t have any right to call his father an “old man.”

“He’s fine.” She replied rather bluntly. Quanrui crossed his hopes out immediately.

“So, are you gonna come again?”

“Of course!” His mother’s rejuvenation was rather quick. The hope to repair their marriage was growing slimmer as they continued to engage in conversation.

“Promise me, okay? Don’t make me come all the way to your house and drag you all the way out to the venue, yeah?”

Quanrui could imagine Leung nudging his elbow on his mother’s arm, or engaging in any form of physical contact. He held his glass tighter in an attempt to compose himself and immediately began jotting down his hypothetical observations in his notepad. He could feel the bartender’s eyes on him, so he drank his second helping of whiskey in one go, giving the bartender a thumbs up afterward. Was that something adults do in bars? He didn’t know anymore, nor did he care.

“Trust me, Leung. You don’t need to force me out of the house for that; I’ll be sure to come again!”

“You know, you should definitely bring your husband to the next show.”

When her husband was mentioned, she went silent again. Quanrui glanced at the pair for a mere millisecond, then snapped his head back to the pages of his notepad.

“Leung, he’s not really the type who’s into… this….” She said. He could imagine his mother using elaborate hand gestures to prove her point.

“Look, I’m sure he’ll come if you invite him yourself.” Leung retaliated. This was another realm of pure evil and narcissism. Leung was either an intelligent villain or as braindead as a jellyfish.

“Hey, you sure you’re alright?” His mother asked. Quanrui could feel Leung's heavy footsteps bring gravity down with him.

“Yeah, I just need a few hits.”

Through his peripheral vision, he sees Leung wave his mother goodbye. Quanrui quickly fished a few banknotes out of his pocket and attached them to the cheque, telling the bartender to keep the change. At first, he lagged behind him, making sure he didn’t look suspicious. From his observations, Leung truly was a braindead jellyfish. The only way to alert him was by a tap on the back.

“Caught you in the act, you slimy bastard.”


Leung looked blank, dropping his cigarette carton entirely. Alcohol’s effects began to kick in because Quanrui was certain that he wouldn’t have the guts to confront his adversary this way.

“We’re not done here, Leung the Lewd. I’ll be watching you.” Quanrui picks up Leung's cigarette carton from the ground, stuffing it in his pocket before running back to the station.


With one quick glance, he could see Leung standing still in a dumbfounded daze. Even if he lacked intellect, the sheer enigma within him is what someone like his mother might find attractive. She would be susceptible to his mystic bullsh*t and stupid jokes; he could picture his mother telling her co-workers that Leung's improv sessions were worth it despite some of his bits being over the top. If his father were to compete against such a man, then he needed to bring back those BMX stunts.

Perhaps it was the alcohol fully in effect, or his inner subconscious acting up, but he was in a moral dilemma. Does he tell Gyuvin about this? It would definitely break the third charter in their relationship, and it could potentially end their relationship in an instant. Who would want to date someone and deal with their troubled home life?

His head was spinning, and he needed to empty his stomach. He’ll see Gyuvin tomorrow morning.

His mother came home as anticipated, and she slept on the couch that night. In their entire marriage, this was the first time they’d slept in separate quarters. He called Gyuvin through the landline and decided to meet him before school started. For someone whose record was filled with tardiness, he surprisingly said yes. He needed a source of comfort for all that he’d witnessed, and he was sure that engaging in early-morning arson with his boyfriend would clear his head for the day. There was a part of him that finally understood his love for fire, and he hoped that this new connection would take their relationship to the next level. In the hypothetical scenario that his parents would divorce, he at least had someone to burn things with.

He greeted Gyuvin at his station, where they both walked to an abandoned warehouse in silence. Instead of looking him in the eye, he kept his feet on the ground, walking much slower than he usually does. Something within him awakened a premonition that he was perhaps going through something in his life, but he remained silent. Although he was used to Gyuvin's taunts and aggressive banter, he would prefer the lack of speech now more than anything. It turns out that Gyuvin wasn’t an airhead after all—basic social cues seem to be within her range of common sense.

They opened their backpacks in unison and laid out a list of papers they’d like to set on fire for the day. He took out a box of matches with some of his failed test papers while he unveiled a brown manila envelope filled with copies of Leung's brochures. The first sign that something isn’t right is when Gyuvin calmly strikes the match on fire, tossing a matchstick into the hollow ends of a broken silo. Fire was usually an element that struck glee within him, but his eyes were empty. The second sign was when he didn’t seem to bother with the contents of the manila envelope. He didn’t even give it a bat of an eye—rather, he just continued to toss more paper into the rims of the silo. As the flames burned higher than both of their heights combined, he was surprised that he mentioned a place he’d never heard of before.

“Stuttgart,” Gyuvin uttered, keeping his eyes on the fire. He absent-mindedly strikes another matchstick, tossing it inside the roaring flames of the broken silo.

“Stuttgart?” he asked, looking at him. He keeps his hands in his pocket after tossing the large manila envelope into the fire pit.

“It’s a place in Germany. There’s a pretty famous ballet school there that she got accepted into.”

There was a long pause between them. The whimpers of a dog were heard in the distance, followed by the squawking of seagulls. The skies were turning grey with each second, completely hiding the sunrise in a monochromatic thicket.

“Isn’t she like…. Fourteen?” He asked, breaking at least three minutes’ worth of silence. Infidelity was one thing, but having a family member go abroad? That was equally as serious. Since he didn’t know much about Gyuvin's family life, to begin with, he couldn’t measure the severity of the situation. The only thing he knew about Gyuvin's life outside of school was his pet dog, Eumppappa. Apparently, he's had her since she was an infant, which means they’ve been together for a lifetime so far. In one of his mother’s books about parenting, there was a chapter about the importance of pets to a child—the presence of pets allowed a child to learn how to care for living beings, and their short mortality can help a child adjust to the concept of death. Even if his sister wasn’t dying, it would be helpful if Eumppappa died before her departure—that way, Gyuvin would be able to handle his sister’s absence around the house.

“And she already knows what to do with her life,” Gyuvin replied, biting his lip. He closed his eyes for a brief period of time, allowing the curls of his lashes to illuminate under the rising sun. There was a sense of beauty in his melancholy, but now was not the time to tell him that. A single tear began to leak through his closed lids, trickling all the way down to his chin. Seeing him like this suddenly makes him uncomfortable. He feels his chest tighten as if his ribs have been squeezed like a sponge. While sponges retract after the pressure, his ribs continue to engulf his insides tighter. He looks behind him to see if there is a maid tightening an imaginary corset around his waist.

“Are your parents fine with it? You know, her living abroad at such a young age and whatnot?”

Quanrui thought of mentioning his own sister, who was currently living with distant relatives back in their old Los Angeles home, but instead kept his mouth shut. He had to remind himself of the third charter of their relationship, and he also read in the same parenting book that talking about one's experience too much can turn one's child into a narcissist. Maybe the same applied to relationships, where talking about himself would turn Gyuvin into more of a narcissist than he already was. He digresses, but the difference doesn't matter. The circ*mstances were different, and as far as he knew, his own sister still had a semblance of family with her in the States. Gyuvin's sister, from what he can piece out, would be all alone in a foreign land.

Gyuvin takes a deep breath, wiping his snot and tears with his school blazer. The flames slowly start to dwindle into small peaks. It is beginning to drizzle.

“Dad was against it, but he eventually agreed. He told her to live life without regrets.”

“Ah…. Well, why is your dad against it? Was, I mean. How about your mom? What does she think?”

Quanrui couldn’t formulate a cohesive sentence anymore. The weight of Gyuvin's problems was much heavier than his, for sure. Maybe that’s why he was against him meeting his parents because he couldn’t put into words his current situation. Even then, he was fine with merely hearing about them and hypothesizing their home environment. What they might eat together, how their dining table might look like, what kind of ceramics they use when they eat—to his knowledge, those who lived in apartments had a more minimalist approach to life. Instead of his family’s fine china, her dining table might be more geometric.

“Quanrui, my mom's dead.” He says each word with shakiness. This was the first time he called him by his name, despite the botched pronunciation. Now, he was aware of how insignificant his own problems looked. If he were to weigh a failing marriage with death and departure, he knew that the scale would crash to his side in an instant. No wonder Gyuvin turned out the way he is now. The boy suffered enough in his life, which probably prevented him from having a normal childhood.

“What?” Quanrui asked. He wasn’t feigning ignorance now. He was genuinely trying to process everything, and he needed to hear it again. The rain grew louder, with the drizzles turning into hard slaps of cold water. The fire was completely extinguished now, as both stood right in front of the remains of a broken silo.

“She had uterine sarcoma. It’s basically cancer in the uterus.” Gyuvin says, raising his voice to compete with the harshness of the rain. A streak of lightning, followed by growling thunderclaps, emerged from the grey skies. Both of them were now drenched in rainwater.

“Your sister has it?” he asked, hesitantly shuffling next to him. He didn’t do it out of a yearning for proximity; he did it because he couldn’t hear him amidst the rain.

“No, dumbass. My mom died from it. And now, my sister’s leaving."

He was relieved to be called a dumbass by him. This meant that he was still himself in spite of all of the things that occurred in his life. He looks at him, and he nods. The broken silo was now filled with water before the zephyrs toppled the entire thing down. Ashes intermingled with rainwater poured out of the silo in thick, black tar. Gyuvin took a box of matches and threw the entire thing right next to the silo’s remains. Looking up, he let the rain hit his face in wet punches.

Gyuvin was crying.

III. New Year’s

Gyuvin hasn’t shown up to school for two weeks straight. He does see him by the shoreline, but he doesn’t bring his matchbox with him anymore. The lighter was gone, too. There was no engagement of physical touch, and that meant they didn’t make out by the sand. He would idly sit or stand to look at the horizon, shuffling closer until their shoulders touched. Any form of contact with him made Quanrui extremely uncomfortable, and he tried to keep his distance. This seemed to work in his favor, since he would nod in his direction and keep his eyes on the murky waters of the sea.

In general, things took a bleaker turn once he realized that both of them had issues—Gyuvin was still coping with his mother’s death while harboring conflicted feelings for his sister, while Quanrui had to deal with his parent's marriage falling apart. He’s been trying to devise some strategies to solve their problems, like buying his father a tub of hair gel. When it came to Gyuvin's situation, though, his head was empty. He tried to immerse himself in Naver forums about dealing with crises, but he figured it wasn’t enough. He’d have to rely on renowned experts over anonymous anybody on the internet.

Ever since Gyuvin's sister finalized her decision to fly to Stuttgart, Gyuvin has significantly changed in two ways. Firstly, he was openly emotional. Instead of bullying people like he used to, he began respecting their basic human rights by calling them by their names. No more cruel jokes, and no more crude nicknames—now, everyone was addressed by their designated names. The teachers, too, weren’t subject to his tyranny anymore. Instead of burning his desk’s corners, he began to pay attention in class, as if he was suddenly aware of the effort teachers put in each lesson. He reels his head forward with each word his teachers utter, resting his chin on his hands and showing genuine interest. He also hasn’t called Zhang Hao a slu*t since then.

Secondly, he seems to be aware of his own life now. He doesn’t jaywalk anymore, and he looks both ways before crossing the road. He donated his skateboard to Quanrui even though he barely rides the thing to begin with.

"Here are some kneepads, Ricky. You know, in case you fall off.” He said with genuine care. Usually, he'd buy him kneepads to rip on him. Now, there was a look of concern in his eyes as he handed off his skateboard to him.

“Try not to fall, please,” he added before waving him goodbye at his station. He squeezed his hand and gave it a little kiss before reluctantly letting go. It wasn’t like him at all to stand by the ticket gate until he reached the train’s platform.

Once he arrives home, his father tells him that Gyuvin has called. It’s also been two weeks since he decided to work from home. His mother came home later than usual, but she was always sober. She’s started to care more about the way she looks, either through wearing fancy jewelry or getting her makeup done. She was radiant with beauty, and soon enough, she might grow her hair out like she used to.

When he came home clutching a skateboard with a set of kneepads, he immediately dropped them by the foyer to re-dial Gyuvin's home number. The first dial didn’t even end, and it was picked up immediately. A distraught Gyuvin's voice was heard through the other line, and he tried to piece out the broken string of words he uttered into a cohesive sentence.

“Gyu—look, Gyuvin, calm down. Breathe in, breathe out. What happened? Are you coming to the shoreline?”

He didn’t need his confirmation. He could imagine him profusely nodding through the other end of the line, and he waited for him to hang up before darting out of the door and running to the train station. Before he left, he made sure to check on his father, who was holed in his office for the duration of two whole weeks. His father gave him a weak smile before drowning in a pile of scientific journals that he had to proofread. He gave his father a salute and then put his blazer back on to bolt out of the house. As a good luck charm, he stopped by Triceratops Leung's house to spit on his car, making sure his saliva landed right into a painted rendition of his face.

The train ride all the way to where Gyuvin lived passed as quickly as a blur. He didn’t notice the scenic view of rice fields and the ocean anymore. Instead, it was replaced with the impending dread of how he would react upon meeting him. He could picture them together, two human beings against the vastness of the ocean, eyeing the view longingly. If they could drown their problems in the sea, they would’ve done so in a heartbeat.

Before he knew it, he could see Gyuvin's silhouette facing the horizon. An idyllic sunset was in place, dying the entire blue waters with a tinge of marmalade. Streaks of violet swam past the skies, eagerly taking over the warm hues of the afternoon with the cool, bluish tone of dusk. There was a single seagull that flew past the horizon, overlooking them as it spread its wings to conquer the sky. Despite being absent from school, he still managed to show up in his school uniform. A calm breeze engulfed the entire sea, pushing his dress shirt sideways along with his hair. As he walked closer, he couldn’t smell cigarettes anymore—this time, he caught the aroma of lavender shampoo and decay. He slowly inched towards him, greeting him with a nod before occupying the empty space right next to him. He nodded back, keeping his eyes towards the sea. A black trash bag was right next to him, and he pieced two and two together.

Silence was the way they talked now. They didn’t utter a single word to each other, and he stared back at the sea whenever they made eye contact. He tried to put an arm over his shoulder, but he immediately shrugged it off, shuffling a few centimeters away from him. It was jarring to see Gyuvin pensive, and all he could do was let the winds caress his cheek instead of him.

“How long have you had her?” Quanrui asked. He made sure to stop by a gardening shop by the station to buy some flowers and a shovel. He handed the flowers to him, and he reluctantly accepted them. He continued to avoid his face and instead gazed at the shovel with an indiscernible look.

“Thirteen years,” Gyuvin replied, picking up the black trash bag in his arms. The odor it exuded made him want to throw up then and there, but he held his breath. He held the bag to his chest, lulling the bag like a mother would with an infant.

“Human years?” he asked again, attempting to fill the dreaded silence with his voice. He continued to rock the trash bag back and forth, heaving a sigh. A couple of flies began to gather around his arms, buzzing lightly as they tried to enter the bag. He fanned them away, accidentally hitting his face in the process. He didn’t seem to mind, though, and continued to rock the trash bag, patting gentle circles around the plastic surface.

“Look, I’m sorry, I really am. Bad luck can be a bitch, you know?” Quanrui continued. He knew his words wouldn’t do anything, but the least he could do was fill the air with something other than the smell of death.

“Ricky, not now,” Gyuvin replies, looking down on the sand. He kicks them out of his loafers, paying attention to the direction each particle flies.

“Right, of course. Sorry."

"You know, we should bury her,” Gyuvin said on a whim. He isn’t sure how to respond to this, and he isn’t sure how to respond to him in general after all that he’s learned about him.

“The town will charge us with a fine if they find out.”

“Then wewon'tmake them find out."

This was the first time Gyuvin had looked into his eyes that day. There was a certain determination in his gaze that sent shivers down his spine. Did he feel like this when his mother died of cancer? Was he the only one in the family who wanted to put an end to the misery whilst everyone else begged to keep her on life support? These were questions he didn’t want the answer to anymore. All of a sudden, he was fearful of Gyuvin as a person. The fiery Gyuvin he used to know was a better source of comfort and familiarity than the miserable, stern person he is now.

"Crows and seagulls might peck at her body,” Quanrui replied, trying to show a tinge of concern. It wasn’t to say he didn’t care at all—he did, wholeheartedly. It was just increasingly difficult for him to accommodate Gyuvin's needs when he himself didn’t know how to. He was still sixteen, and death was as far to him as becoming a father.

“So, what the hell do we do then? I can’t just dump her in the trash can!” Gyuvin laments. They look towards the ocean and nod in unison.

In the end, they went for a classic route for many East Asians: cremation. Fortunately, they found a wayward metal bucket that served as a makeshift crematorium. Gyuvin quickly unsheathed his dog's dead body, neatly folding the black plastic back in four-folds. Upon removing the black trash bag, what could only be described as a septic tank wafted through the air, engulfing the entire area in instant pollution.

So this was what death smelled like—fecal matter and sulfur.

Hand in hand, they tenderly placed her inside the bucket, watching the flies attack her corpse. Rigor mortis was already in effect, as her bones were stiffer than ever. She was suffering through a terrible case of lockjaw, and her eyes were coming out of their sockets. Gyuvin murmured a prayer under his breath, holding back all the tears that began to spill out of his eyes. He then placed the bouquet of flowers that Quanrui had bought for this ceremonial purpose, laying each flower out to cover his dog in a vibrant garden. He felt around his pockets and sighed at the lack of a matchbox or a lighter. Fortunately, he bought his favorite box of matches and a Bic lighter to make him feel better. He wasn’t much of a floral person, to begin with, so he thought that a reminder of his old habits might alleviate his woes—even if it was by a tiny bit. He gave him a small smile of gratitude and took the matchbox out of Quanrui's hands. The fragility in his movements made it look like the cool, dusk breeze of the shore might knock him out in an instant. He just wanted to hold him and make him feel better but decided against it. He'll come around when he feels like it, and it definitely wasn’t his place to initiate contact.

Reaching his hand out, Quanrui returned the sentiment and squeezed it with care. Gyuvin gave the box back to him, and he weakly struck the match again and again until it sparked up. Muttering a quick apology, he asked for another stick and did the same. It took about four to five discarded matchsticks until he was able to light one successfully—and once the flame wafted back and forth with the wind, he placed it inside the bucket, pushing his dog with the fire towards the sea. The scent of a burning corpse was a lot easier to bear than one that was decaying; when he closed his eyes, he could picture a roast of rotting chicken rather than roadkill infested with vultures. The floral notes also helped his nose register the scent of burning death, making it easier for him to breathe again.

The two of them stayed dormant for a while, watching the currents carry the metallic crematorium into its briny waters. In a matter of minutes, the bucket was a mere, shiny speck in the vastness of the sea. Gyuvin takes the time to send his cat off with his eyes before burying his head on his shoulder. Wrapping his arms around his waist, he gives himself some time to process everything. He’s never seen Gyuvin in such a vulnerable state, and as his boyfriend, the least he could do in this situation was return the hug. Engulfing him in his larger limbs, he perched his head on top of his, patting smooth circles down his back. In some ways, he’s happy. Through hindsight, he was able to see the bigger picture; if all of this was a trial, then he's passed, for sure.

“They’d like to meet you,” Gyuvin said. His breath tickled his neck with moisture and wet tears.

“Who? Your family?” Quanrui asked, trying his best not to look down. His chest tightened along with the rhythms of his whimpers.

“Yeah. My family wants to see you before my sister leaves.” Gyuvin replied, pulling out of the embrace to look at him. His face is fixed in a specific expression that he'd given him since relaying the news about his sister. It was an expression twisted in mutual understanding, as if he knew he cared for him—which, he did, but not to the extent that he would’ve probably hoped for. It wasn’t to say he was heartless, either; he was just extremely confused, and with the added weight of his own issues, he didn’t know where his priorities lay anymore.

“How long does she have?” Quanrui asked, worried. He patted his arm in an attempt to alleviate his doubts, but it didn’t help since he wasn’t worried about his family’s impression of him.

“About two weeks.”


Two weeks—two long weeks—he still had some time. Maybe if he fixed his parents' marriage by then, he’d be able to properly fulfill his duties as the best boyfriend in history.

“So, do you wanna come over for dinner?”

“Of course.”

With such a look on his face, he couldn’t say no, even if he wanted to. The thought of meeting Gyuvin's family when both were suffering through their own issues intimidated him—but if he said no at that moment, a part of him knew Gyuvin would fall apart in an instant. In the absence of his mother and his sister, Quanrui was pretty much the only other figure in his life that he relied on. He did have his father, but he was probably busy with work. Adding to that, he was already going through the death of his wife and the eventual departure of his younger daughter. If Quanrui was in such a position, he doubts he’d be stable enough to give proper care to his eldest son.

Thus, he did what he could. It was a selfish attempt to keep Gyuvin in his life, but it was the only thing that felt right at the moment. As much as he needed him, he, too, needed him in his life more than ever. Even in the hypothetical situation that his parents would divorce, he still had Gyuvin in his life—and that was enough.

“This is one of the bestyukkejjang I’ve ever had, you two!” Gyuvin's father exclaimed. It was nice to know that Gyuvin could cook.

His father’s name is Kim Junghoon, and he insists that his first name call him. He wasn’t what Quanrui expected, but he was a lot better than what he had in mind. Given Gyuvin's troubling attitude, the first thing that Quanrui could picture was a distant, corporate father figure who was still wrought with grief from his wife’s passing. What he didn’t expect, however, was a cheerful, sturdy, tall man who reminded him of Triceratops Leung if the latter were to go through an intense dieting program.

There were four of them at the dining table, which was just as he expected. As apartment dwellers, most of the furniture was geometrically linear. The plates were squares and rectangles, and the table itself was a sleek, white, hard plastic model that complemented the tableware. Although the food being served tonight was traditionally Korean, the containers were too linear to the point where the entire scenario felt like a Kubrick film. The dissonance between the futurist furniture and the traditional cuisine was undoubtedly a jarring thing to witness—but what made him feel chills even more was how loving Gyuvin's family was. Even if his current family model was akin to the nuclear structure, the dynamics between them were an idyllic bond that could only be seen within the confines of technicolor soap operas. His father was a man who would do anything for his children, and he was sure they’d willingly come back to take care of him once he went senile. It was heartwarming to know that Gyuvin had such a beautifully caring family. Still, it was heartbreaking to comprehend that with a dynamic such as this, he wasn’t necessary for his life anymore. He had a father who loved him and a sister he could confide in—what’s the point of being his boyfriend when his family has filled all the necessary roles?

“Oh man, I’m gonna miss this when I go to Germany.” Gyuvin's sister lamented. Her name was Hwayoung, which was very fitting for her career as a ballerina. It must’ve been in the Kim family’s genes to be slender because Hwayoung’s neck was longer than a swan’s. If he were in her position, he would have considered ballet or figure skating a career option. Even if everyday life didn’t require a thin, long neck, he was sure choreography would’ve benefitted from it.

Junghoon leans his muscular forearm on the table, tilting his head towards his younger daughter. There was an enormous grin on his face that radiated with the fluorescent, white lights above the dining table—which was also rectangular. Every move he made evoked a sense of fear in Quanrui as if he would be found out. To be fair, he faithfully did his duties as a boyfriend, and he was sure he didn’t miss any steps to make a bad impression on his family. Thankfully, he was wearing a neatly pressed pair of dress pants he stole from his father, coupled with a sweater that was too hot for the current weather. The safest option he had was to dress like his father, and so far, it was working for his father. Nevertheless, it was always good to be cautious to a fault.

Hwayoungie, you better be careful when you get there, yeah? Find a way to call me immediately and make sure to keep in touch daily, alright?”

Appa, stop being so fussy! I’ll befine!” Hwayoung groaned, letting her head drop to her plate.

For a ballet dancer, she was a voracious eater. She was probably hungry due to annoyance, or she was just a growing girl—both answers could serve as a rationale for her appetite. Even if she was scarfing down her food as a homeless person would, she still looked more mature than her older brother. It wasn’t about how they both looked, but more so how she carried herself. In the presence of her family, Gyuvin was relatively relaxed and subdued—nothing like the arsonist he presents himself as in school. His sister, on the other hand, was already a young adult. Each word she uttered so far had an air of supreme confidence, and she was more well-versed in small talk than her older brother. With a younger sibling such as her, it was no surprise that Gyuvin would be the way he was, both as a feisty pyromaniac and as a silent observer. Quanrui, too, would have acted like Gyuvin if he had a younger sibling who was much more capable of transitioning into an adult than him.

“But my pretty little flower will be on her own? Who’s gonna protect her ifappaisn’t there? At least Gyuvinnie has his best friend!” Junghoon said, piercing right into his soul with a gaze that intermingled menace, wrath, and invitation all at once.

Quanrui was too preoccupied to care about him being introduced as a best friend rather than a boyfriend. He didn't have time to be angry about the misnomer when he was dealing with a man who reminded him of his mother too much. The more he sat down at the Kim's dinner table, the more he was able to realize that the Kim patriarch was the type to dote on his children a bit too much. It wasn’t a bad thing at all, but it was a mode of parenting that Quanrui disagreed with. He couldn’t say much about his parents, but Junghoon was reminding him of his mother now. That is to say, Junghoon seemed like the type to believe in the bullsh*t that Triceratops Leung would utter in his improv sessions. At this rate, anything that reminded him of his mother recalled back to the stout Rasputin from Hong Kong, and he did his best to prevent any form of disdain from showing on his face. Gripping his utensils tight, he found the courage in himself to muster a slow, awkward nod at Gyuvin's father, giving him the physical cue of acknowledgment. Junghoon returned it with a wide grin that showed his stained teeth—something that unsettled Quanrui to the core.

Appa. I don’t need a man to protect me! I’ll be fine on my own, trust me. I’ve trained my legs for this, and I’m pretty sure I can land a good kick on the balls when I need to.” Hwayoung retaliated, kicking her legs behind the table. Her father exasperatedly exclaimed in pain, and the Kim trio shared a burst of laughter with each other. He hadn’t heard Gyuvin laugh like this in a very long time, and he kept his mouth shut. It wasn’t in his place to share their joy—in fact, he wished he dared to say no to Gyuvin's invitation. The dread of a dining table was already felt within the confines of his own family, and now, he felt the isolation tenfold as he sat down with the Kim family. Someone like him didn’t belong here; he didn’t have any right to sit at a table with the three of them.

Once the entire table simmered down, the least he could do was muster an expression of gratitude. He needed to leave the vicinity of their home in an instant, or else the brewing nausea inside of him would prompt him to throw up on the table.

“Thank you so much for having me, Mr. Kim.” He said, hoping he could excuse himself to the bathroom right after. Out of duty, he forced himself to finish the food on his plate. While Gyuvin seemed too preoccupied between his sister and his father, Hwayoung eerily glanced between his empty place and himself. He mustered a slight nod in the direction of his boyfriend's sister, before looking back down on his plate. He finished his food a lot quicker than the rest of the entire Kim family, and that wasn’t a good sign at all.

“Look, for the last time, you can call me Junghoon-ssi, yeah? I don’t like feeling old, you know?"

Junghoon nudged his elbow towards Quanrui, who tried his hardest to stay still. He loathed human contact, especially with someone he wasn’t too fond of. The only question he had in mind was towards his dead wife—perhaps his late wife, too, was this kind of person. He wasn’t sure anymore if the death of their matriarch or the overtly saccharine bond between them eventually killed her.

"Ah, right. I’m sorry, Junghoon-ssi.” He said, correcting himself. Junghoon gave him an enormous grin that failed to deliver its intended effect. Quanrui could trace the afterimage of wrinkles that wrought the middle-aged man’s face, and at some point, he physically felt a jab in his jaw.

“So, I’ve heard fromGyuvinnie that you’re the pretty little boy who's been with him all the time lately,”

Junghoon used a slightly distant tone when he addressed Quanrui, which was helpful for the boy. He tilted his head towards the large, rectangular bowl that was tinted in red. He felt like it was half-empty, and he reluctantly nodded, helping himself with another serving of yukkejjang. He wasn’t even hungry at all, and to his knowledge, he was always hungry. For his anatomical system to go awry in the worst situation was an event he didn’t wish for, but perhaps it was the brooding fear of being found out that turned his appetite sour. Such a passage test didn’t occur on the dining table just yet, but he was sure the trials for his love would be proctored by Hwayoung instead of the Kim family’s patriarch.

Appa!” Gyuvin groaned. This was the loudest he'd been since Quanrui had arrived in his apartment. He immediately reclined back to his seat, tucking a wayward piece of hair behind his ear. Gyuvin was usually the type to eat his hair with milk, candy, and cigarettes.

“Boy, let me tell you this, you’re perhaps one of the luckiest boys in town right now! It's not usual for Gyuvin to bring someone home, so I'm glad it was you. You seem smart, capable, intelligent, and rich if you're a foreigner living on the other side of Jeju!" Junghoon said, placing his arm on the table with a loud 'thud.’ Quanrui slightly jerked back from the sudden impact, blinking thoroughly before nodding along. The compliment sounded like a taunt with his deep, hoarse voice. Genetically, that was probably where Gyuvin got his voice. It was hard to tell when both were happy or menacing since, to Quanrui, it just sounded all the same.

“It's been a pleasure to get to know Gyuvin,Junghoon-ssi,” Quanrui replied, gulping a spoonful or two of yukkejjang that was stored in his cheeks. Through his peripheral vision, he could feel Hwayoung’s suspicion towards him. However, upon glancing in her direction, she continued to happily scarf down her food, engaging in some small talk with her brother. Was he going delusional? Or was it just his over-stuffed stomach? Either way, it surely gave him one more reason to bolt out of the Kim family’s household. This was too much for him—both in terms of food and affection.

“Hold onto him with everything you’ve got, okay? Now, excuse me,”


Before he could yell out a reply, Junghoon swiftly trudged towards a family picture framed by the shrine of his late wife. Gyuvin immediately left his table, giving Quanrui a slight bow before tending to his father. He was wailing like a group of crows bundled in front of a large trash can, and Gyuvin looked smaller than ever while wrapping his arms around his father’s broad shoulders. Hwayoung was the last to leave her table in the family, putting her hand up to Quanrui while mouthing the words' stay still.’ The quick sound of her slippers truly reminded him of a ballerina’s pointe shoes—light, airy, and small.

Quanrui didn’t turn his back toward the trio, but he could imagine them huddling together. The closest thing he could visualize was a pigeon’s nest—where the larger, mother pigeon would hold a worm out for two smaller infants that squabbled for it. The disharmony between Junghoon’s baritone wails and Gyuvin's whimpers was a marine cacophony that Quanrui's father might find interest in. Junghoon was morphing into a humpback whale at this rate, only capable of producing pulsed calls and whistles. Gyuvin was beginning to sound like a dolphin as he desperately tried to calm his father down.

“Come on,appa, it hurts me to see you like this! See, look! I’m still alive and well! It’s not like I’ll die the moment I arrive in Germany….” He heard Hwayoung exclaim. She was probably performing a combination of a pirouette and a roundhouse kick since he was able to pick up a few shuffles and rustles from the apartment’s shaggy carpet. It was highly likely that one of Hwayoung’s slippers flew out of her feet, crashing into a vase. Thankfully, it didn’t topple over, but it danced in circles before reverting into a permanently dormant state. This was something he witnessed via his peripheral vision—other than that, he still refuses to look behind. For good measure, Quanrui decided to keep a spoon in his mouth to prevent himself from laughing.

“B-but we already lost your mother, you know? I’m just afraid that something might happen to you there…” Junghoon said amidst shaky breaths and voice cracks. Now, he sounded like Quanrui when he was fourteen.

His efforts to keep a spoon between his lips weren’t helping anymore. He needed to bite on the stainless steel to keep the laughter lodged down his throat.

Appa, she’ll be okay. Hwayoung isn’t dumb enough to let things go wrong. And see? I have Ricky to look after me if things go wrong!”

The mention of his name almost made him drop the spoon out of his mouth entirely. His mind was consumed by all the hypothetical situations and added responsibilities he’d have to go through with the heavy weight of paternal approval to the point where he failed to notice Hwayoung’s face right in front of him. She kept up a suspicious front and glared right into his line of sight, and Quanrui reminded himself that she was only fourteen. There was a reason to fear Junghoon, who could crush him with his meaty arms in an instant—but Hwayoung? The girl’s a ballerina. She may have more muscle than him on her legs, but he had the advantage of being almost as tall as her father. Given the scenario that he’d have to run away from her, he’d win by leg compass alone.

“Hey, can we talk?” She asked, tilting her head towards the entrance. He nodded in response, allowing himself to check on Gyuvin. He looked like a saint from a stained glass mural in a church, brimming with an ethereal radiance as he kneeled to take his father’s hands in his. He didn’t bother to look at Quanrui, which permitted him to leave the dining table with Hwayoung.

“Hwayoung, right?” Quanrui asked. It was always good on his end to uphold formalities. The girl rolled her eyes in response, reminding him of the Gyuvin he missed. There was a high chance that the loving nuclear family was a facade—it was either that or it was a Kim-exclusive gene.

“Yeah, and you’re Ricky?” She retaliated, mimicking the way he spoke. To do this, she lowered her pitch and staggered at every word.

“It's Ricky-oppa to you,” he corrected, trying to assert the apparent age difference between them. After all, the two-year gap felt bigger when both were teenagers.


The two of them were standing by the entrance, which was annoying to him since the light bulb was activated via a motion sensor. To keep the light on, one or the other would have to enter the radial space of the sensor and then wait for the light to turn off on its own to infinitely repeat the process for the sake of light. For a while, both were walking in circles, doing their part in keeping the light from going out. Quanrui himself didn’t mind talking in the dark. Still, he respected Hwayoung’s intuition to keep a form of light in the presence of a man she wasn’t too familiar with—this, out of many other behavioral patterns he’d seen that night, was surefire reassurance that she would be fine in a foreign country.

“Listen, Gyuvin-oppa is going through a tough time right now. I know he can do it on his own, and I believe he can, but it’s the first time I’ve seen him actually value his romantic relationships for what they are.”

In that instant, he took everything back about Hwayoung and Gyuvin being carbon copies of each other. It took his sister’s departure and the death of his dog for Gyuvin to finally reach a sense of humanity within him. Hwayoung, from what he’s seen, was probably too young to comprehend her mother’s death. Even if she was old enough to fully recognize the weight that death carried, she would most likely lift her hands in surrender and accept it as a part of life, then steadily move on to her list of ambitions to fulfill before she herself would succumb to death.

“You’re very wise for a fourteen-year-old.” He said, squeezing in a few moments of silence. If his sister was like her, he wouldn’t feel safe in his own home. The constant reminder of someone younger than him figuring life out would most likely drive him to a breaking point. He felt like it was somewhat unfair for Hwayoung to skip past the blunders of adolescence, fast-forwarding into the throes of a toxic work environment. She was definitely growing too fast, but he was beginning to see how his perspective differed from Gyuvin's.

While he was somewhat worried that Hwayoung’s accelerated growth through life might, unfortunately, serve her the bitter taste of employment at an early age, he believed Gyuvin's grief came from his perceived dependence on his sister. With Hwayoung’s departure, the role will definitely go to him—and he wasn’t too sure about devoting his entire time to Gyuvin's well-being anymore.

“And you’re painfullyawkward for someone who’s sixteen,” she replied, tilting her head toward him.

The two of them played a mental variation of a guessing game, where they tried to figure each other out using anything but speech. Uncovering each other also served the same purpose, which centered around Gyuvin. She was fulfilling her duties as a sister, and he, a boyfriend.

“Anyway, don’t youdare do anything nasty to him, or I’ll kick you in the nuts."

To drive her point across, she curled the toes of her slippers and aimed them close to his crotch. He did his best to stay still, reminding her that he was the older one out of both.


“Pinky swear?”

She reluctantly took her hand out, extending her pinky finger near his neck. There was something in her gaze that felt like a suspicion as if she could predict the likely downfall between him and Gyuvin.

“Pinky swear."

Before he could interlock their fingers in a pact, the rest of the Kim family entered their covert hideout. Gyuvin kept his eyes on his father, acting as a guide while he shuffled towards the entrance. Upon seeing Quanrui, he smiled at him, lightly pushing his father in his direction. Hwayoung kept her pinky finger out in the air, and he quickly sealed the pact by pretending to scratch his nose with his own pinky. For now, the pact between them was formally sealed.

”Ricky, it was so nice to finally meet you,“ Junghoon said, engulfing Quanrui in his meaty arms.

"Likewise,Junghoon-ssi. Once again, thank you so much for having me.” Quanrui replied, meekly nodding along.

“Take care, yeah? From the bottom of my heart, I really wanna thank you for always being there for my little boy. The entire family’s been rocked with so much, so thank you—thank you so much for holding his hand tight and walking through the fire with him. You’re a good boy, and now, you’re part of the Kim family. So welcome, son.”

By the time the Kim patriarch finished his monologue, Quanrui's ears had already gone deaf. Instead of hearing voices, he heard a constant ringing that could only be described as tinnitus.

“Thank you so much, Junghoon-ssi.”

“Family’s family, and that means we always stick together. Do we have a deal?”

Junghoon shakes his hand, keeping a firm grasp on it. If he were to hold on any longer, the blood supply on his wrist might cut off completely. Nonetheless, Quanrui remained cordial and gave him a wide grin while nodding his head to the rhythm of their shaking hands. By this point, Junghoon doesn’t need to shake his hand to get it moving since his own hands are already suffering through unstoppable tremors.

“Of course, Junghoon-ssi.”

“There we go.”

Gyuvin slithered from behind, giving his father a quick side hug before greeting Quanrui with another smile. He’s had enough smiles for the day.

“I’ll walk you to the station.”

With a quick bow, he opened the door to let her out first. Before he closed it shut, Hwayoung had already led Junghoon back into the dining area.


The entire walk to the station was supposed to be a mere five minutes, but the silence between them slowed time down altogether. Gyuvin would occasionally open his mouth to talk, but nothing came out, so he'd immediately shut it in a thin line.

In what felt like having a cork lodged inside his throat, he found sanctuary in the open air. The scenery of street lamps, blurry crowds of people walking back and forth, and the neon signs of the station came to full view, giving him a brief sense of clairvoyance. It was highly refreshing for Quanrui to free himself from the cages of his house, considering how overtly saccharine everything was to him. While he longed for a family dynamic such as a soap opera, tonight was a lesson for him to fully acknowledge how lucky he was. His parents weren’t too mushy with him, and they didn’t smother him in suffocating affection. He would think Gyuvin wouldn’t be the type to enjoy the family dynamic that he currently has, but that was one out of many things he’s figured out about him tonight. In a sense, there was also a part of him that could finally breathe again, knowing that he’s solved a good portion of Gyuvin's puzzle pieces—the pyromania as a coping mechanism, his crass behavior was a front, and he was highly dependent on his younger sister.

“I know it’s all of a sudden, but are you free this Friday?” Gyuvin asked, keeping his head down.

“Huh?” Quanrui hummed, feigning lousy hearing. He was supposed to scan his transit card at the ticket gate but immediately stuffed it in his pocket. If this were the last time he’d see Gyuvin, he might as well hear what he has to say.

“Are you free this Friday?” Gyuvin asked again, this time raising his head to stare at the spaces between his eyes. A tear started to trickle down his cheek.

“Why?” He asked in return, knowing the answer beforehand.

“That’s the day Hwayoung will leave for Germany. I thought it would be nice if you could come.”

He nodded, confirming his internal guess. He’s already fulfilled his half of the bargain by attending dinner with him. Now, he needed to focus on salvaging his parent’s marriage.

“Ah, Friday? Sorry, I have some shopping to do with my family and—”


The tears that trickled down Gyuvin's cheek were now waterfalls that drowned his face in sodium. He was visibly shaking, and some onlookers glanced back at the pair before turning back to exit or enter the station.

“You know, my family just leaves it at the last minute, and I thought it would be great if I could get you something real nice and—”

“Ricky, my f*cking sister’s leaving for a long time.” He raised his voice, regressing into the Gyuvin he knew before his sister decided to leave for Germany.


“So you don’tcare?”

“I do. I really do,” he said, trying to recover from his nervous stutters. The intimidating aura surrounding Gyuvin was back, making him hopeful at the prospect of breaking his promise. At this very moment, Yujin's words rang deep within his brain: " Nice guys finish last, so treat 'em like trash."

"So, you’re coming,right?”

“Y-yeah. I’ll be there. When is it again?"

It wasn’t in him to outwardly reject his invitation. Perhaps a betrayal of trust would strengthen his method of coping—after all, he already had his father and Hwayoung as a support system. At this rate, he wasn’t necessary for his life anymore. With a supporting and loving family such as his, he’s sure he could manage on his own.


“What time?”

He checked his watch in front of him to show that he was engaged. Gyuvin seemed to buy it, replacing his initial scowl with a small smile.

“Come by the airport at six in the evening. We’ll be with her for two hours before she departs.”

“Right. Got it. Gotcha. See you there.”

Before he takes his transit card out of his pocket again, Gyuvin weakly grabs onto his sleeve, keeping his eyes on the ground. He's lost the ability of eye contact.

“Ricky, I’m sorry. I’m really sorry I’m like this. I don’t know anymore. I’m just—I’m sorry, alright?”

“Look, Gyuvin, you don’t have to be sorry. It’s getting cold out, so you should probably go home.”

“No, it’s fine.” He interjected, standing still. They were blocking the path to the ticket gate, so he led him near the station staff’s stall.

“I’ll bring a matchbox for you if you want. What's your favorite brand?” he said, taking a box of matches out of his pocket. Gyuvin reluctantly took the box in his hands and examined it. He didn’t bother opening the box anymore and instead merely tilted it back and forth.

“Doesn’t fire look like tears?” he asked, fumbling with his words. Quanrui stared at him, not knowing how to answer.

“Anyway, I think I should go, Ricky. It’s getting really cold.”

Gyuvin gave him a long, warm hug, then lightly tiptoed to kiss him on the cheek. As his shrinking figure bids him a bittersweet farewell, he laments at the loss of the Gyuvin he fell in love with. Like his dog's corpse, he was now too stiff with emotion. When he waves goodbye, he decides to keep the gradual collapse of his parents’ marriage a secret. The weight of his mother’s death, coupled with one of his most prominent emotional pillars leaving him, was already enough to overflow his plate. If he broke the third charter of their relationship, then it was up to him to keep it afloat in the sea.

When he arrived home that night, his parents were sitting on the living room couch. Triceratops Leung's unkempt hair was reflected on the television’s screen, and his stout figure was gripping a thin microphone with his stubby fingers. With enough lard, the microphone could’ve slipped right out of his hand. His voice, like everything inside his tubby body, carried a heavy legato with each syllable he uttered—almost as if he was gargling a liter of sesame oil as he spoke. When Quanrui tilted his head at a specific angle, he could see black specks of sesame seeds come out of his mouth. At this rate, Leung was a sesame oil factory that regurgitated oily, fattening, empty calories.

“Leung was asking me if you wanted to come to his show,” his mother said, pausing the improv stage and facing her husband.

“Ah, really?”

His father seemed too detached from the television screen, but he was putting in the effort as a good husband would. In an attempt to get closer to the scene, he could see his father scanning his eyes through the VHS cover of Leung's improv session, flipping it back and forth with a disdainful look. His mother proceeded to unpause the screen, leaning forward until her back started to crack. He quickly hid behind the wall as his mother began to stretch, making sure he had enough space to continue observing their behavior.

“Yeah.” She replied, keeping her eyes enthralled by Leung's enormous gestures. He was now engaged in cheap slapstick, pulling his pants down to fart on the microphone. He could feel his father wince at the sight of his gluteus maximus, as the camera slowly panned to capture the bright full moon in all its glory.

“Do I have to bring anything?” He asked, slowly turning his head towards his wife. He squinted his eyes toward her, the folds and creases between his eyebrows forming distinct lines on his forehead. A string of jagged compliments escaped his lips, failing to create a cohesive sentence. If he were in the living room with them right now, he would be sure to catch his mother rolling her eyes or fidgeting with her fingers. She seemed to retaliate by sulking within herself.

“It’s on a Friday. Six o'clock.” She stated, ignoring all of his words altogether. There was a sudden sternness in her voice that didn’t suit her at all. The pauses between her phrases bore a threatening undertone that coerced his father into attending a live show with the side effects of cerebral atrophy.

“Got it.” His father mustered after another string of muffled words. Perhaps he should turn the television off since Leung's mystical magic was working on him already. By the time a full minute passes, his father won’t be capable of speech anymore; by that point, his father would have already succumbed to a terrible case of dementia. Keeping this in mind, he immediately runs up the stairs to his bedroom. He was still sixteen, and he didn’t want to go senile under any circ*mstances—especially when the root cause was Leung's brain-rotting sense of humor.

“Don’t let me down, Yichen.”

As his mother’s footsteps echoed across the entire house, he took the cue to lock himself in his bedroom. Putting his father’s mixtape on, he scouted through the cards until he found the word “anger.” To his surprise, his father used to be a metalhead. As he closes his eyes to Ozzy Osbourne’s crass, nasally voice, he begins to envision himself as the prince of darkness himself. Towering over the inflated triceratops with his demonic height, he unleashes a beam of red lightning that slices through him like the asteroid that hit the earth, causing the mass extinction of all dinosaur species. Or maybe shift the tectonic plates through his princely telekinetic powers, allowing the earth’s magma to pour out of the cracks, slowly boiling Leung until he petrifies into stone.

When he opened his eyes, he was standing in front of debris. The solemn voice of Chris Cornell bled through the scenery, as pieces of tarnished, white metal parts began to fall from the sky.

Black hole sun, won’t you come, and wash away the rain.

As the guitar licks guide Quanrui through the ruins, he sees the kneeling figure of Gyuvin. He had his face buried in his hands, and beneath what could only be the dismantled seat of an airplane was Hwayoung’s writhing corpse. She still had her seatbelt on, face twisted in a real-life rendition of Edvard Munch’s “Scream.” Her face was half-burnt in cinder, while the other half exposed some of her fresh bones beneath the scorched skin. Beneath the seat was Gyuvin's father with twitching, splattered legs. A typical, cliche blood spat was spread across his entire body, turning brown as the flames around them roared.

“He’s still alive,” Gyuvin says. He tries to pull his father out of the debris, but to no avail.

He looks above the horizon; the airport’s sign was split in half, with some of the sign’s characters dangling before entirely collapsing onto a panicked crowd of people. The entire airport was ablaze, and what was once a stall of duty-free shops was crushed beneath the weight of wayward airplane parts.

Did he cause this? Did he, the prince of darkness, get carried away in his act of revenge? Sure, the dreaded triceratops was now dead, but at what cost?

A distant, beeping noise echoed near the baggage belts. The screens that once displayed flight information either collapsed on the floor or severely glitched with static. Beneath a pile of suitcases and burnt boxes, he sees a digital alarm clock displaying the time “18:00.” Soon, the entirety of the airport was engulfed in a technological revival—all the screens and teleprompters seem to be working again, and the intercom blasts the voice of a calm, female voice relaying information about flight delays. The only thing that hasn’t changed was the clocks, since all of them were frozen, displaying a time that meant little, yet so much to his sixteen years of existence.

What happened at six o'clock in the evening? First, it was the time he was born. He remembers his mother telling him that he was born during the evening, a little after dusk. Seven would be a tad bit too late, and five would’ve been a lot earlier. As such, it had to be six o'clock.

Six in the evening was also the time he’d eat dinner with his parents. He didn’t know why, but the time was ideal for all of them. His mother came home at four-thirty, his father would come home an hour later if he decided to go to the university, and Quanrui himself arrived the earliest before he began his relationship with Gyuvin. Then, the three would sit by the table in unison, touching their utensils at precisely six in the evening. Nowadays, dinner time was a lot more erratic, but the routine remained constant when all three would have the time to gather and eat together.

Six o'clock. What has happened so far at such a mundane time in the evening? Ah, yes, his dates with Gyuvin to the shoreline. Those were quite spontaneous in nature, but they always managed to reach the shoreline to watch the sunset together. The marmalade skies, the squawks of seagulls, the distant aroma of brine, and then crashing, white waves that would tickle their toes—all of that was the idyllic backdrop to their pyrotechnic ventures of cheap fireworks and burning his leg hair.

Six in the evening. What was going to happen at six in the evening?

Before he could answer himself, he woke up in a cold sweat. He wasn’t surrounded by the ruins of the island’s airport, nor was he clad in all black like the prince of darkness, Ozzy Osbourne. “Black Hole Sun” wasn’t playing in his room anymore, and in its place was a slow, somber song by a band he couldn’t recognize. He couldn’t be bothered to check the inlay cards, so he’ll probably ask his father when he feels like it.

He checked the alarm clock by his bedside drawing. The current time was six in the morning. It was miraculously a Friday, and he hadn’t been in school for the entire week. It was pretty irresponsible of his parents to leave him to sleep, but perhaps that was their way of showing him they cared. It could also be interpreted the other way around—with his mother preoccupied with Triceratops Leung's brainwashing and his father gradually drowning in his bottomless mug of chamomile tea. Clearly, there was no place in their minds for their son anymore, and to his surprise, he was more than fine with it.

He is fine. He enjoyed solitude. He will go to the airport later. That much was factual to him, and he decided to go back to sleep.

The airport was an hour-long train ride. He was planning to ring Gyuvin's house to inform him that he’d be fashionably late. It was currently five minutes before six o’clock, and he rushed down the stairs clad in another one of his father’s sweaters. Who knew a man could have the same pair of sweaters filling his closet? He was under the assumption that only cartoon characters could do so—perhaps that was one reason his father acted like a reanimated corpse rather than a fluid human being. He wasn’t real, per se, but rather, a cartoon character that required an animator to dictate his every move. That theory could also explain his father’s lack of diversity in movement. Nowadays, all he does is get up, refill his mug with a serving of camomile tea in the kitchen, then languidly climb the stairs to lock himself in his home office.

To his lack of surprise, his father was still in a pair of sweatpants and a wrinkled sweatshirt that had the print of his alma mater. It’s been at least a week since he’s taken a bath or had a proper change of clothes. The man doesn’t even eat food anymore—all he does is refill his mug with camomile tea and gently sip on the rim. At this rate, he doubts his father’s religious consumption of the tea itself. Perhaps instead of refilling it, he drinks it via small sips, then conserves it to reheat the mug when he feels like it. He was burying himself in another pile of scientific journals about marine biology. The mug of camomile tea was freshly refilled, judging from the waft of steam that fogged the surface.

“Dad, aren’t you going to Leung's show with mom?”


He lifted his head from his journals, keeping his head turned against where Quanrui stood. Through the computer’s reflection, he can see his father’s expression—which was hauntingly somber. While his father was always a passive person, to begin with, he didn’t look like a person anymore. His cheekbones were upturned and hollow, protruding right out of his skin. His eyes were cast on the screen, monitoring his son’s dormant stature. He seemed to be slightly ecstatic upon seeing his son wear his clothes.

“You know, Leung's improv show. It’s today. Friday. Six o’clock?”

“Don’tyou have places to go, son?” He asked. Using his overtly bony index finger, he pointed at a paragraph in the journal, sliding it all the way down until he reached the bottom of the page.

“Yeah. I have to go to the airport.”

They both have their own responsibilities as men, lovers, and people. Duties that are supposed to be fulfilled, not neglected.

“Well, you better go now. You’re running out of time.”

He gave him a gesture, something akin to swatting a fly away. However, something in his father’s eyes seems to hint that he didn’t view his son as a pest—instead, he viewed his son as a pillar.

“Yeah, I probablywillget going.”

He runs down the stairs in a daze, checking the seconds pass by on his watch.


If he were to walk all the way to the station and then hop on a train to the airport, he’d arrive at around seven past ten in the evening. He still had an hour or so to mingle with Gyuvin's family, and he was sure his presence would be well-received by the trio. Adding to that, he would be able to formally seal the pact he made with Hwayoung, as she knighted him as her successor. Once the plane departed, he would now serve as Gyuvin's lifelong emotional support system until his father quit his job or if Hwayoung decided to come back on a whim. Knowing how both seemed like a stretch, he was most likely stuck with taking care of Gyuvin until he could free himself from the shackles of grief.

With each rushed step he made away from his house, he could feel his legs begin to ache. Despite the sudden surge of pain, he persists and sprints towards the station. It was a bright full moon, and the horizon reflected its low beam onto the black, serene currents of the sea.

He turned to a corner, which thrust him into the main streets of his part of the island. He then takes another turn to a separate road that leads him back into the residential area. It was a detour, but it was a necessary one. If ever he wanted to avoid the house’s security cameras, then the only way he could re-enter the home without altering his father was via the back gate that connected both his house’s backyard with Leung's. As a person who always forgets his house keys, he’s found a secret passage he’d frequent whenever he’d sneak out to meet Gyuvin by the shoreline.

Once the darkened greeneries came to view, he hid behind the fences, following them all the way until a small opening just big enough for his kneeling figure came to view. Through the cracks, he had a full view of the kitchen and his father’s home office. His father was currently standing in front of the kitchen window, sipping on his signature mug that was probably filled with camomile tea. His unruly shirt was hanging so low to the point where his collar bones peaked out of the rim. He rummaged through the kitchen counter until he found a pen, gripping it like one would during a match of tug-of-war. He placed the mug down and covered half of his face with a copy of a scientific journal—it looked like the same one he’d been annotating for two weeks straight.

Since he believed he was pretty similar to his father, he could take a good guess on the inner workings of his head. How did he feel that his wife was attending her second show with a childhood friend? Obviously, he was hurt. Confused. Bewildered. The most important emotion of all, though, was anger. He didn’t show it too often, but Quanrui knew that deep within his soul, he was boiling with rage. He needed to awaken the inner youth in him that performed BMX stunts to high school boys, or girls, or whatever he tried to woo at the time—the kind of guy that would spit on Triceratops Leung's car because it looked like sh*t. If he were his father, he would be upset beyond words at the prospect that his wife would choose someone as unruly as the incarnation of Rasputin than a well-adjusted adult with a professional career.

Who does this guy think he is?

His father knotted his eyebrows with a twist, drawing infinite lines on his forehead.

That’s it.

He’s going to save their marriage—he’s going to do it right now. He’s going to keep his family, and then he’ll throw his trousers down to show Leung his full moon, giving him the smelliest flatulence that has ever seeped out of his rectum. Then, hopefully, just as the winds blow his fetid air out into the ocean, Leung, too, will be carried with it.

He gives himself ten minutes. He refused to look at his wristwatch, so he created a mental timer within his brain.

Ten. He entered the opening. He was now positioned right in front of his room. Conveniently, he left the windows open.

Nine. His father walked away from the kitchen, carrying a mug filled with another heap of chamomile tea. This time, he didn’t use the instant tea bags. Instead, he bundled up some dried chamomile, put it through a tea filter, and then idly stood still to let it brew. This was a sign of improvement in his mental health.

Eight. Quanrui felt like a spy as he counted down the minutes into seconds. He was swiftly moving through the backyard, using the night as his only cover. He tried to use the wayward moss and vines as a climbing rope, but he figured his bones were too heavy.

Seven. His father was back in his study. He put his journal down and placed the mug of chamomile tea between his fingers. He looked like someone who felt warmth for the first time, and Quanrui was almost convinced that he had the blood of an alien running in his veins.

Six. Using the pipeline and the protruding walls for support, he decided it would be best to think of this entire ordeal as a rock-climbing hobbyist. That way, he could embody the vigor of a rock climber and force himself to carry his own weight. Luckily, his father doesn’t seem to notice him climbing their house wall.

Five. His father was staring blankly into space. He was probably dissociating into a different reality—one where Leung ceased to exist.

Four. Quanrui could feel the breeze push his curtains in his direction. With one, swift pull, he pulled his entire weight together. He fell face-flat onto his bedroom floor, but that was a better outcome than falling all the way down to the backyard.

Three. He could hear his father’s languid footsteps approach his room. He kept his father’s sweater on and fumbled for the light switch.

Two. Through the slither of space underneath the door, he saw his father’s shadow cast by the hallway lights. The doorknob was slowly twisting open.

One. He is now faced to face with his father.

“Hey, Dad.” Quanrui tried to wave his arm up, but the pain in his joints prompted him to remain to lie flat on the floor.

“Why are you still here?” His father asked. He wasn’t even looking at his son’s writhing figure. He let go of the doorknob to hold his mug with both hands, lethargically keeping the door open with his feet.

“If ever our house falls victim to a flood, and you were in a position to choose between saving mom or me, who would you save and why?” Quanrui asked, glancing at his father with eager anticipation. He was hoping to hear an answer that would make him feel better about abandoning Gyuvin at the airport.

“I’ll save your mother first. Then, we’ll work together to save you,” his father replied without an ounce of hesitation. Quanrui nodded, using one leg at a time to stand upright again. Judging by the fast reply, he inferred that his father might have prepared the answer beforehand.

“Do you want me to stay here with you?”

He was the same height as his father now.

“I’m fine.”

Quanrui's stomach grumbled after his father invited him into the kitchen. They both cooked three packs of Jin ramen together, cracking the noodles into four pieces before placing them into a boiling, metallic pot. Usually, the family usedan instant kettle to make instant noodles.

As the two of them sat solemnly in their seats, their eyes lingered on the empty space that should’ve been filled by a third family member. Quanrui slowly sips at the bright, artificially red soup in his bowl, tracing the outline of his mother. His father’s plate was left untouched.

The landline phone rings again—for the sixth time since six o’clock had passed. Quanrui removes his watch and places it on top of the table, pushing it against him so he won’t be able to see the time etched on its surface. His father does the same, slowly unbuckling the leather straps of his antique wristwatch and placing it right next to his son’s. Time was just a construct, and it moved whenever they pleased.

Now, they wanted it to stop.

“You should pick it up. It could be mom, you know?”

Quanrui stared at his empty bowl. The distorted, bloated reflection on the spoon was perhaps the most realistic rendition of what he really looked like.

“Or it could be Gyuvin.”

His father pushes his untouched bowl to him. Quanrui doesn’t like noodles that are stretched too thin, so he refuses. In an empty mug, he pours his son a serving of chamomile tea. They clink their mugs in silence, perhaps toasting what they’d potentially lose. The telephone is still ringing, and his father swiftly stands up to unplug the chord.

Epilogue: Piledriver Waltz

To: Shen Quanrui (hope I spelt that one right)

I tried to reach out to you, but knowing you, I think you’ll get the memo even better if I wrote you a letter. The thing between us? It’s over. It’s not to say I didn’t enjoy our time together—I really did. I know you’re under the impression that I’ve been in many relationships before you, but to be honest, you were my first serious “boyfriend.” We weren’t able to have sex in our time together, but it’s fine since I’ve learned so much in half a year or so of being with you. You’ve taught me that relationships shouldn’t revolve around physicality (see? I’m using big words because of you!). I’m not lying when I say I felt a true connection between us, and I really thought we’d last longer (maybe a year? Two? I don’t know). But now, I think I’ve come to the realization (big words again!) that although you understood how I felt about Hwayoung leaving for Germany, you didn’t seem to care enough.

Now, I don’t know what’s going on in your life, but your dad told me you were doing everything you can to save their marriage. In hindsight, we both had sh*t to deal with, and a part of me might have gone back to you had you told me about your problems, but it made me realize that we deal with things differently—and because of that, we’re not made for each other. I need someone who will be there for me no matter what, and you need someone who can figure you out before you do. Work on that for a bit, yeah? Not everyone has the time in the world to study you or something.

I’ve put my empty lighter inside the envelope as a goodbye present—something to remember me by. Before my mom died, she told me that there’s always someone out there for everyone, so I’m sure you’ll find someone who’d go head over heels for you. You’re tall, kinda cute, and smart! Aside from giving me a good life lesson, you also taught me many big words that I’ve learned from the three books you bought for me (yes, I read them all, even though it was hard).


Kim Gyuvin

P.S. When you come back to school, try not to be mopey. It’s not a good look at you.

P.S.S. In case you’re wondering, Hwayoung’s doing well in Germany. She played the demi-soloist role in the academy’s rendition of Giselle. Sorry if this made you feel awkward or whatever.

P.S.S.S. Did you know that “P.S.” meant “postscript?” If you didn’t, then I think I finally returned my favor in teaching you something for once.

It took fifteen reads for him to memorize each word that was lopsidedly written in a crumpled looseleaf paper. The letter in his hands was sent to him last year, when he still called himself Shen Quanrui. Quanrui Shen if one were to spell it with the Latin alphabet. Quanrui if you were addressing him the way his parents did, and Ricky if you were his friend or someone who couldn't pronounce his government name—but he didn’t have any at all, so for now, Ricky was fine.

Now, he didn’t know what to call himself. He had no idea who he was anymore, or what he would do in the future. He’s just turned seventeen, and he is currently going through a rigorous revision period to pass the college entrance exams. From what he’d heard from Yujin, Gyuvin was planning to take the civil service exam. It was the bitterness in him that prayed he'd have to take it again and again, but nonetheless, he wished him the best. He himself was focusing on filling out his applications abroad, for he realized the sea no longer called his name—at least the one that he was nearest to at the moment. He thought of going back to Los Angeles or attending any of the UCs, but he figured he needed to start fresh. A blank slate, just like how he feels at the moment. South Korea had nothing for him to offer, and so he geared all he could to study for the prestigious Gaokao examinations in hopes of attending a university in China. If not, he'll just apply to other universities in the US or the UK—the tuition didn't matter when he had the money to back it up.

To call himself old was a thought that always occurred to him. He wasn’t sixteen anymore, so that meant he was old. He didn’t feel the need to hide under his previous age’s implications—he’s already got a boyfriend, and he’s lost his virginity to a boy from a sister school that reminded him of Gyuvin. He even tried it with a girl before realizing that his mother was right all along. It took severe intoxication and a jaded mindset for him to do so, but the accomplishment felt insignificantly trivial. It wasn’t as exciting as the boys had described it, and he was pretty sure he would’ve fared fine throughout his life had he remained a virgin. He would think that turning a year older would immediately mature him into a bright, young adult—but quite frankly, it was too difficult to tell at the moment. Even if he did have his own ambitions, a part of him still felt like an impostor—as if there were too Quanruis within his body. One was operating the controls to his brain, and the other was awkwardly moving his body in jarring ways. In the end, however, he was just an empty husk. The control panels to his brain were weakening, and his motor senses could only register the automatic process of gripping a pen.

Last year, he had to constantly slouch by his doorframe in an effort to stop his head from getting minor concussions. This year, he asked his father to renovate the door to match his height. He was taller than his father now, and to a greater extent, taller than most of the boys in his class. His height definitely made him desirable to underclassmen, but he displayed no interest in romance. Sex was underwhelming, a romantic relationship was a burden to him, and he couldn’t find a single reason to look forward to the future anymore. The only thing that kept him afloat at this point was the rekindling fire between his parents. After his mother had confessed her infidelity, the two decided to have a long discussion that ended in dim lights the following day. His mother had grown her hair out, which would always sway when she walked down the stairs.

Today was a Monday, and he didn’t know what that meant anymore. He didn’t need to count how many times he’d hit his head on the doorframe, and at this point, school was a constant cycle of absorbing knowledge he’d already accumulated in cram school. Sometimes, he’d see Gyuvin with a new group of friends eating by the tree he used to sit by to light his matches. He wasn’t playing with fire anymore, and his new boyfriend was a shorter boy with an extremely long neck—just like his sister. He decided to join the home economics club, which consisted of his entire friend group. They would hold bake sales for school-sponsored charities, and he would often organize blood drives with his boyfriend and the guidance counselor.

As for him, he led a double life of academic excellence and debauchery. Within the classroom, he was a feared individual who secured the title of valedictorian. In a sense, he’s become the exact person he used to bully with Gyuvin—except, in comparison to Gunwook or glasses, he had great eyesight. Being tall, having money, and allowing his cheekbones to settle into that of a fine line between his temples transformed him into what many called a "fine young man," and that was one thing that saved him from falling off the upper echelons of high school. He’s managed to keep a consistent ranking amongst the top five, and had several school accolades under his name. He’s secured an internship on the weekends at the university his father works for. It wasn’t out of his intelligence, but rather, out of property damage that he’s inflicted in Triceratops Leung's house. Due to this and many other reasons, he was out of the neighborhood for good.

This penchant for aggression must have fueled his out-of-school persona, where he’d use his intellect and cunning to engage in petty theft with Yujin and the other boys. When they felt like it, they’d invite people from other schools to hold parties and drink together. It was easy to pretend he was having fun in these scenarios. Sometimes, he’d see the silhouette of Gyuvin walking around with a glass in his hand—only to have his delusions shattered by seeing someone else.

And now, just now, as he slowly walks down the stairs to skip out on breakfast with his family, he’s realized that there were a lot of things to think about apart from the conclusion of his first relationship. He had his university applications to worry about, the logistics of the next party Yujin was planning to throw in one of his summer houses, and the organization of his father’s fish tanks at the university. The vast amounts of space that once housed thoughts of boys, sex, and his height were wholly obliterated into microscopic ratios. While his head was constantly inflated with the absorption of knowledge via his school textbooks and practice worksheets, there was simultaneously nothing in there. He didn’t care about the mouthfeel of processed cheese under his tongue, nor did he have the time to think about his identity. The most straightforward answer was to accept his lack of originality and float through time and space, allowing it to slow down and accelerate whenever the environment pleased.

“Bye, Mom, bye, Dad. I’ll get going now.” He shouted from the entrance. Upon hearing his mother’s blessings for good luck in school, he twisted the doorknob open and stepped outside of his house. He gave the dining table a single glance—a habit he’d picked up on to make sure his parents were doing well. They were looking out of the kitchen window, with his mother holding a mug of chamomile tea and passing it onto his father.

“How deep is the ocean, lǎo pó?” She asked, keeping her eyes on the horizon. The sun was rising, and Quanrui realized that he still had a lot of time on his hands before running off to school.

“I don’t know,” He replied. Slowly dropping his backpack on the floor, he walks towards the illuminating shadows of his parents. He was now a couple of centimeters taller than his father, who welcomed him with open arms.

“The Pacific Ocean is about eleven kilometers deep, Mom.”

His father smiled and patted him on the shoulder. His mother curtly nodded and opened the kitchen window as wide as she could. The smell of brine filled his nose, the distant crashes of sea waves drilled into his ears, the wake of sunlight peeking its bright, bulbous body out into the open skies—ah, yes. Another fine day indeed.

stuck on a puzzle - orpheyeux - ZEROBASEONE (2024)
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