Seulgi figured for the majority of the trip, she would just get a solid nap between Paradise, LV and Santa Barbara, CA. She knew that stacking up on naps didn’t help with astronomical sleep debt in the long term, but with the upcoming promo period scheduled, she liked to trick herself which also tricked her body into believing it was rested enough. If it helped her morale, it could only help her physically survive idol practices and sleep deprivation.
“We’re gonna teach you to drive, unnie,” Seungwan said, but with a wink toward Seulgi.
Joohyun smacked Seungwan’s backside hard enough that the sound reverberated around the room, and immediately looked apologetic.
“Absolutely not. You’re driving and I’ll be your navi.”
Seungwan made the most put-upon pout she could possibly muster, while rubbing where she was struck. “Why not? It’s a long stretch of straight road. Between Vegas and LA is mostly desert. Ideal learning setting, if you ask me.”
Seulgi didn’t know if it was legal for any of them to drive here. Their managers managed to get cars rented, so there had to be a way. But she wasn’t paying the legality much attention. She watched her members, at ease and playful. It was nice, from her pool of comfort. Yerim blew on her nails, having finished painting them a bright red. She was still wearing the fake vampire fangs purchased at a roadside shop, half gags and half souvenirs, mostly dusty. Seungwan made her wash it off with handsani and bottled water before taking pictures with Sooyoung in the parking lot, fake biting her.
“But *I* wanna sit shotgun,” Yerim exclaimed, slightly slurred through the plastic fangs. Seulgi thought she made quite an image; a red-nailed, wannabe baby vampire using American slang.
“You’ll be on your phone the entire time,” Sooyoung said, poking her with a bare foot, not looking up from her own phone.
She removed the fangs with a gross set of maneuvers not appropriate for broadcast, squish squash movement of lips and teeth and tongue, and Seulgi’s eyes transfixed on a bubble of spit that formed between the napkin and the fangs. The bubble, the conversation, and extremely cold aircon were keeping her awake, head pillowed on Sooyoung’s thigh, it occasionally flexing. Seulgi shut her eyes, inhaled dry air, and her body invited her to drift off into a light doze. The bed was comfortable and she wasn’t exactly in a hurry to sleep upright in the backseat of a car.
“And that’s exactly why I should sit shotgun, baby. I’ll be checking in on Waze-unnie the whole way to Los Angeles.”
They left in the middle of the day after packing up all their belongings, waited on a few of their crew to wrap up the equipment, made sure the bills were settled. Yerim had badgered their manager to let them sit together as a group and drive in their own car, in the middle of the caravan of motors. Obviously, really, they should be flying to make it to their next schedule in the Los Angeles area, so the fact that it was changed just for Yerim was a demonstration of the power of cuteness and determination. Some of the crew were still going to fly and meet them there.
The ride was as expected, until it wasn’t. Seulgi wasn’t falling asleep, though conditions were perfect for it with a smooth road and from staying up late the night before. Yerim was taking a lot of photos in the front passenger seat, of both the occupants and the scenery outside, all while bursting with intermittent chatter. Joohyun gazed calmly at everyone while taking breaks from reading a book, at times pressing on her temples with fingertips. Seungwan, in the middle of the back seat, gestured for her to lean on her shoulder, as Sooyoung was doing, but Joohyun shook her head and gave a small smile. Seulgi herself was in one of the middle detached seats, the other middle seat occupied by a staff member who was napping. Their manager was driving, at times whistling, and other times scratching his head as was his habit when he was starting to get tired. But then the road started tilting, ever so slightly, to the right. As though a large circle, the gentle centripetal pull of a highway entrance.
“Where are we?” Yerim asked. “We’ve gone past this gas station twice now…”
Seungwan called their manager’s name, the tail end of her syllable a question.
Seulgi opened her eyes as the force pulled at her, and saw it happen before her very eyes. Light stretched over the horizontal desert plain they were speeding through, yet this cut darkness enveloped the land with easy speed that overtook their van, and the place remained lit only with a sapped glow.
Yerim looked up from her phone, where the music had cut and so apparently had the navigation. “What’s this? But I thought the eclipse already happened?” Yerim had mentioned it on the flight over, that it was too bad that all of them had narrowly missed the full solar eclipse. Sooyoung teased her by saying that California wasn’t going to experience the full eclipse anyway, and they had a short session of bickering. Seulgi’s world was a bit narrow, and she always did her best of extend her attention to as much going on as possible, even if it wasn’t directly interesting to her. Her senses did well in absorbing the information of the world; sensations of heat and softness and ache, of realizing that she’d interpreted the room incorrectly and rolling with it, knowing when she did something wrong, when she did something appropriate. All while knowing that her body was reliable, that in the grand scheme of bodies it was well equipped to take her far, and obeyed every fine moment required to sing with support, to move with the beat.
Then a new smell presented itself. The sharp, sweet smell of ironing, of the static electricity build-up from the dryer, not unlike the smell and dizziness of motor exhaust.
The manager grunted, then said, “I don’t know what happened to our two other cars ahead and behind us, but hold on everyone.” Seulgi shut her eyes as the car made an even steeper right, sent everyone to the left, and everything went blank.
It remained dark until Seulgi heard Sooyoung and Joohyun say at the same time, respectively, “What happened to the sun?” and “There’s something over there.”
Seulgi could finally open her eyes, and her body felt twisted and loose until she consciously moved every joint, reconnecting them to each other and to herself. Each finger joint, to the stretch of muscles that move her ears, rapid blinking of strangely dry eyes, and voluntary activated everything in her body. It seemed she was the last of them to awake. There was now only the five of them, the staff member and their driving manager gone. The car was still running, stationary, its gear in neutral, positioned on thankfully flat ground. Seungwan was climbing into the driver seat. Seulgi reached out and the window was very warm to the touch. Her entire palm took in the heat and at once released moisture. The light outside the car was strange, the sky a mix of twilight and bright blue of noontime.
Joohyun had moved into the middle seat next to Seulgi, and scooted up to the middle where she had her hands on both of the front seats. “Come back,” both her and Seungwan were calling Yeri back into the car, window rolling to half, the outside air like the hot flash of a blowdryer. Their maknae took fleeting glances towards the sun before obeying. But it was hard to tell where the sun was, since the shadows were murky and blurred. Sooyoung seemed the most scared, now alone in the back seat, clutching the hoodie she had taken off.
“There,” Joohyun said, pointing at a distant cluster of buildings, and alternately looking at her phone. “I don’t have reception, but I do have emergency contact numbers, if they have a landline available.”
Seungwan buckled herself in. “This better not be a mirage,” she muttered in English. Yerim perked up in interest, out of the curl of confusion, but didn’t ask.
They were no longer on any road, and it was quite a distance until they located what was probably the one nearest to them. Terrain was bumpy, the minivan was clearly not equipped for it, and Seungwan prompted them all to wear their seatbelts. Seulgi wanted to squeeze in next to Joohyun, between the two front seats and drape her arms over Seungwan’s seat, but kept herself back, within the seatbelt and still within Sooyoung’s reach. Once the tires hit the road, surprisingly smooth and empty of other speeding traffic, Seungwan inhaled and exhaled deeply, and said, “A road is good.” Relief was palpable in the car as it sped up on the hot pavement. An indication that this building, with its towering sign, was real. Seulgi recognized it, her eyes fixating on the general shape and feel of the distant place.
“The ice cream cake set,” Seulgi said. Her eyes picked out the English on the marquee portion of the sign, beneath the stylized all-caps of FIVE ACES. She sounded each word out, said, “Gas, Good, Gage, Gone.” Sooyoung had latched onto her upper arm, and her grip tightened.
“This has got to be a hidden camera trick,” Yerim said with a shake of her short hair.
As their car came to a slowdown, Seulgi looked out and searched for the sun. The heat from the window warmed her face as she looked around, somewhat straining her eyes, the neutral, sterile scent of rental van renewed itself although they’d been in the car for over an hour. Seulgi looked at her phone for the time and it was on roaming, showing the time for Seoul, a little past six am.
And then everyone was getting out. “Don’t look at the sun, I hope you all don’t really need to be reminded of that,” Joohyun said with a tinge of weariness in her voice. Seulgi opened the door and climbed out to dry still heat. She looked up and shielded her eyes, could feel herself absorbing the heat, dim sunlight looked strange behind what was presumably the moon. Sunlight had a zing to it that was removed here, and that was the strangest sensation of all. The part of the sky close to the horizon was beautiful; clear pinks blended with mauve and blues and lilacs, mountains in the distance with layers of extremely old rock visible.
“Look! Like samgyeopsal, ready to cook,” Sooyoung quipped.
Yerim swatted at her. “I’m gonna get hungry. I’m already always wanting to eat.”
Seungwan was looking into the door with a hanging plaque inside declaring it the motel office. She opened it and waved everyone over. “It’s cool inside, come in!”
Seulgi felt uncomfortable because no one else seemed to comment that this was a place they’d been to two years ago, that though it was the desert where were the locals, and that the eclipse seemed to have suspended itself in the sky indefinitely. Was everyone really so exhausted that they didn’t feel the need to comment, that they were running on autopilot? Seulgi was going to follow Seungwan and Sooyoung inside but at the last second decided to hang back, foot holding the door cracked open, on the concrete porch with Yeri, who was taking photos of the eclipse and doing a bit of the hand choreography, the newest one they were given. All her fingers tended to curl, but Yerim was improving their shape day by day.
Seulgi checked the time. It was still about 6 AM in Seoul, five minutes past to be exact. In her pockets she only had her phone, earbuds, a mouth cover, and her passport. Yerim’s little bag dangling from a chain on her shoulder reminded her of how of their few belongings each of them had here. Joohyun pulled open the door, Sooyoung following closely behind, waving in front of her face, expression that of having caught a stench. The interior likely hadn’t been changed in three, maybe four decades, and while it smelled old it didn’t offend Seulgi. Joohyun stood away of the weak glow of the sun, and both her and Sooyoung had their backs to the window of the motel office.
“So, has anyone else been keeping track of time?” Seulgi asked.
Yerim pulled her phone in from taking a picture, going to the home screen. “Still no signal. It says it’s past 2 PM, 2:05.”
Seungwan exited from the office. “There’s no one there, even though the aircon is running.”
There weren’t any cars around, still, and it was eerily quiet save for the hum of what must be the air conditioning machines on the roof. No traffic, no birds.
Yerim looked up again, shielding her eyes. “The moon is close but it isn’t that big. Why isn’t the eclipse over yet?” She looked around at the surrounding sky. “Not that I'm really complaining here since the colors are beautiful.”
“Because,” a young woman stepped out from the office, scaring the hell out of both Joohyun and Sooyoung, even though she appeared closest to Seulgi, and said, “We’re caught at a fork for multiple timelines.” She walked out beyond the awning, and suddenly clutched her chest, became a bouncy fan. “And I never thought I’d meet Red Velvet at a fork!”
Seulgi was expecting for the place to be absolutely deserted, and yet she was the only one who wasn’t startled by this new appearance. She seemed young, and was definitely Korea-Korean. Confused at her confusion but not prying, Seulgi replied in the affirmative that indeed they were, bowed at the same time as this stranger, and they nearly knocked their heads together, the both of them hurried to apologize at the same time they exchanged the nice-to-meet-yous.
“You’re Kim Lip!” Yerim said with a warm smile, hand extended and head bowing at once as they both shook hands.
“Ah, yes, I’m Kim Jung Eun, also known as Kim Lip, Yeri sunbaenim,” Kim Lip said, still vibrating with excitement.
“We’re the same age! Call me Yeri,” she said with a laugh. Seulgi didn’t know how anyone stayed updated with the barrage of information that came with getting to know so many groups in the idol industry, though Seulgi was unreasonably proud that Yerim was more than able to keep up.
She paused after the handshake, this Kim Lip. Seulgi knew that name but couldn't recall any of the poerty from high school literature classes, of the poet she had probably been named after. Kim Lip then spoke up. “You all *are* Red Velvet?” She audibly paused for a full five seconds, taking in the entire appearance of the five of them. “In 2017?” Each of them are given a searching, puzzled look as each member introduced herself. Seulgi was puzzled in turn by the comment about the year, but no one asked and neither did she.
“I’m so happy you all dropped into here,” Kim Lip said. Seulgi noticed her eyeing each of them, as though counting how many of them there were. They had gathered around the office entrance, cool air slipping out, a gathering of young women. “I need a circle. And to find fruit.”
“Fruit?” Seungwan asked, and her eyeballs made a sweep of the general desert environment.
“Yes. Cherries to be exact. Or even just one cherry would work. There’s usually one around here, or maybe you all have one with you, or in the car?” Kim Lip said, the last word intoned with a heaping of bright hope.
The five of them looked around at each other, exchanging vacant looks and shrugs. Seulgi thought back on the last few days, and the only cherry she might have seen would have been in the bottom of a mixed drink that a staff person had ordered at the Golden Nugget’s seafood restaurant.
“I’m sorry, Jung Eun-sshi, can you explain a fork, and the timelines?” Seungwan inquired, arms crossed and her legs at a wide stance which made her appear even shorter.
“Ah,” Kim Lip said and began to scratch at her head sheepishly. “Please, call me Kim Lip.”
Odd, Seulgi thought to herself. And hiding something. Joohyun thought so too, if her eyebrows raising was any indication.
“I don’t know much about how any of the timelines work either, I’m afraid. I only know what Iris-halmoni has told me. And she even had the disclaimer that she, too, was uncertain how it all worked, but that the timeline concept was the easiest way to explain the abilities we possess.”
Joohyun blinked at the mention of an English name that was so close to her stage name but wasn't, her brows knitted just a tad more.
Yerim perked up and away from the post she was leaning against. “You have powers!?”
Kim Lip winced slightly. “Me, I, yes? I’m the version that has powers. Maybe one of many who has a power? And there are other Jung Euns and Kims Lip that do and don’t have them. Or they have different ones, I guess?” Kim Lip was rambling and Seulgi couldn’t help but smile, because Yerim wasn’t looking for a further explanation like Seungwan would want.
“That’s crazy cool, but we have you, Jung Eun! What’s your power?” Yerim was leaning slightly forward, arms crossed in front of her torso, no longer dangling at her sides. Yerim wasn't corrected.
Kim Lip got into a running stance, and dashed away at a blink of an eye, causing Joohyun and Sooyoung both to shout and leap in place because she ran through the space between the two of them, and dashed back again, a very long line of dust particles kicked up in her sprint. Seulgi thought she saw some specks of light, glitter-like variations of red, in the kicked up dust cloud, drifting lazily almost straight to the ground in the eclipse’s glow. The distinct smell that Kim Lip exuded was even stronger now, a combination of glue, of friction, and dry earth that Seulgi couldn’t pinpoint. Kim Lip’s left eye had a red glow, but once Seulgi did a complete double take on the mismatched irises, it was gone.
Kim Lip winked her right eye at Seulgi, and they shared a smile.
“I run, fast enough to travel through time-space,” Kim Lip answered.
Seulgi turned around, made the circle of her thumb and index and put it over her right it, spying through it at Seungwan, then winking at her friend. They too shared a smile.
Yerim's eyes were round with awe, and asked, “Did you go all the way to those samgyeopsal mountains?”
Sooyoung’s arm was around maknae’s shoulders, and pinched at her cheek.
“I definitely did,” Kim Lip said with yet another wink for Yerim. “I thought they looked more like artistic layers of cake, but I like samgyeopsal better.”
Seungwan then asked, “Who else is here with you, Jung Eun-sshi?”
Before she could answer, the ground shook and a shockwave went through the air and landscape. Even the moon seemed to wobble in the sky. Everyone save for Seulgi and Kim Lip flinched. But Seulgi held a hand to her chest and felt her expression to be wide-eyed, the other hand now gripping the knob of the now closed office door. The sensation of force through the air had instantly made her start to sweat in a way that exposure to the desert air hadn’t, adrenaline began its coursing, fighting her brain telling everything to calm down.
Kim Lip looked around. “I would have told you I was alone, and I usually am while I’m sprinting and trying to sync up with Jin Soul and Choerry. But it seems that someone else has arrived.”
Joohyun looked properly spooked from her curled-in posture, Sooyoung crouched on the ground behind her, clinging to their eldest’s left hand, her ears covered--one on Joohyun’s leg, the other with her own hand. Seulgi didn’t know what terrible thing would have happened had the office window glass shattered. “That’s what happens when someone arrives?” Joonhyun asked.
Kim Lip nodded. “When the five of you arrived, I was knocked clear off my feet, butt on the ground. That’s hard to do to me, seriously. You all should get acknowledged for that specific achievement.”
If there was someone else here, Seulgi somehow wanted to know about them before their presence was discovered by them first. She started to walk through the parking lot towards the side that didn’t have the open stretch of highway, the view of which was blocked by the two story motel rooms, and planned to make a clockwise loop around the motel grounds.
“Where are you going?” Seungwan asked, as if Seulgi were going off alone, but she actually had expected everyone to follow her in an effort to scout the premises and check all the rooms, the buildings. Kim Lip was with the rest, too.
“Going to see what we can find?” Seulgi said, hesitant somehow in her reasoning because she actually meant to say *find that new person*. She turned to Kim Lip, noticed that she hardly reacted to the shockwave, if at all. “How many people did that feel like to you, Kim Lip?”
“One,” Kim Lip replied with certainty.
They all set off after Joohyun made to follow Seulgi, their varying footsteps of loud and dragging or curt and sure, noisy in the quiet atmosphere. Absent the noise of traffic, there should have been the sensation of wind caused by heating, or the scuttle of animals going about their business. It felt like the set of a stage, but no dark backstage to hide. Joohyun and Seungwan had their hands shading their faces, despite the sunlight’s weakened state. Sooyoung gave her sweatshirt to drape over Joohyun’s head, and Seulgi knew Seungwan would be wanting one too but hesitated because she knew Seulgi often skipped a bra while traveling, especially by car. She was wearing a cami underneath her shirt today and lacking a bra would be the least of her worries regardless.
Seulgi shed her gray cardigan and put it over Seungwan, their hands touching. She gave Seungwan a one armed squeeze at her middle, what she hoped expressed reassurance.
They found that the gas station and diner that were both actually in totally different locations when filming Ice Cream Cake were in the same vicinity, around the back of the L-shaped, two-story block of rooms. But instead of finding it gleaming and full of colorful props, it looked properly abandoned, covered in the fine dust of the desert that blew in after what looked to be years of neglect. Prices listed on the gas station were in the double digits, the decimal indicating it wasn’t quite the full dollar. Seulgi had a hard time guessing how the latches and nozzles and and buttons worked together to put gas in an actual car. In her every day life, she didn’t drive, had never refueled a car. Not that she ever had the necessity to fill up a van for a schedule, or one of her parents’ cars. She had strong impressions about the importance of gas stations in American youth culture. Seungwan had made her watch the Leonardo Di Caprio movie version of Romeo and Juliet probably a million times now, and the gas station opening scene always struck her as odd, in its accuracy and triviality.
In the antiquated garage was an old car without doors, mud splattered all over, and high enough that the average person would have to climb up to get into it.
“Oh, it’s a jeep,” Seungwan said. Everyone had a cloth held up to their faces, their presence having kicked up a lot of dust. Had there been rays of direct sunlight, it probably would have looked even dustier and felt more claustrophobic.
“Why is it so dusty? Is it because it’s a time fork? And in such selective places? Why is the office clean?” Yerim asked so many questions like Seungwan, sometimes.
Kim Lip half smiled, and said, “You know, I asked Iris-ahjumma the same exact questions. Time and space get very dusty from the stretch and contraction of those moving from within and without it.” She nodded as though her words made perfect sense. “Travelers bring dust when they come and create just as much when they leave.”
“Like when you run?”
“I think so?” Kim Lip’s expression was thoughtful, face tilted up. She seemed to change the subject as she walked around the vehicle, going out of Seulgi’s line of sight. “But I know that last time Jin Soul and I came here, it was working, being driven by one of our sunbae.” Seulgi felt her eyebrows raise. Kim Lip shrugged. “I did meet Hyoyeon-sunbae once. And Lay-sunbae too.” She held her index finger out to emphasize the singleness. “So it probably works, still. Although the make and model of the car has changed every time I come back to this garage.”
“Lots of SM artists?” Sooyoung asked.
Kim Lip replied after some thought, as they made their way out of the garage. She shook her head, blonde hair moving in waves. “I mentioned them because they’re part of your label. For me, I see SM artists infrequently, and have seen Oh My Girl the most. I’m not sure about who Jin Soul and Choerry have met.”
Artists with the more odd music video concepts, Seulgi silently noted to herself.
There was a pool, which was a void concrete block, none of the large moving homes that Americans often travel within, but plenty of varying cacti. As a whole, the place was utterly unremarkable, Seulgi thought, save for that they were transported there, a loosened thread in the cowl of time.
And the next place they checked, the side of the building with stronger sunlight, on the other side of the office, they found another loosened thread.
In the sole motel room that had its curtains pulled back, Sungjae was on the bed lying spread eagle. “His eyes are closed,” Sooyoung said, breath fogging the window. “Is that really him?” There was a neatly decorated box on the bed next to him. The door was locked. There was one single yellowed light bulb illuminating the ugly wood paneled room.
“I wonder if that’s really him,” Sooyoung said to no one in particular.
“Maybe it’s a wax replica, like that Madame Tussauds exhibit,” Yerim said in suggestion. “But lying down. Standing all year must be tiring.”
“Only one way to find out,” Kim Lip said as she proceeded to knock on the door very loudly. She then shouted, “hey, wake up!” Then she began to pound on it in earnest with one fist. Joohyun and Sooyoung might have complained about the jangling of their nerves if they were the more vocal type.
The figure stirred and seemed remarkably human-like to Seulgi, rubbing the eyes and scowling at Kim Lip’s shouting. “Rise and shine, wake up, wake up!”
Sungjae pulled the door open, and turned out he had purple hair and a boot on his foot. He was wearing a red polo shirt, with a tiny, melting pepperoni pizza logo embroidered into the top left corner. With the opening of the door, the motion kicked up fine gray dust, like the kind one can easily find in a vaccum. How Sungjae wasn’t covered in the stuff was a mystery. The room was freezing cold, much more so than the motel office.
“That shirt. Is he acting in our next music video?” Sooyoung asked. Her brows were knit in confusion.
“No, I’m certain SM has hired a foreigner,” Joohyun replied.
“Here I am again,” Sungjae said, squinted at Kim Lip. He was also noticeably holding his side. “Has someone been possessed by a demon?” He looked at the sky and seemed unsurprised at the eclipse. “Oh, it’s this place. It’s always strange to see the sky like this. How about an aurora borealis spot, Kim Lip?”
Everyone looked between the two of them.
“Out of my reach for my abilities,” Kim Lip replied. “So I guess I need you’re somehow needed, but look at you. Injured. But you did bring us a cherry, hopefully, in that pretty box.”
Kim Lip seemed pleased at the single cherry in the beautifully decorated box, ruined by the ornately decorated, totally melted and lopsided single slice of cake held inside. They had put the box onto a tray found beneath the water boiler and two glasses that outfitted every motel room, ice cream melting out. Seulgi only thought now about the obvious, nonsense juxtaposition of a song titled Ice Cream Cake with a music video taking place in the desert, by an all-girl band that are named after a type of cake. Her official excuse to herself now, is that she was too tired to really have given the entire thing a look for its broader implications. Usually unpleasant things reared their ugly heads down that path anyway, Seulgi thought as she looked over the huddle, over Sooyoung’s shoulder to examine the melted cake. The slice was topped with a cherry. A single maraschino cherry, according to Yerim who was triumphant in her one definite fact that Sungjae learned from her.
They all walked toward the office, a much slower trot now that they had Sungjae and his injured foot with them. Yerim and Kim Lip were leading the group, with Joohyun close behind. Seulgi had her fill of things he’d learned on a family trip through Utah and Nevada, letting his voice wash over her attention and bounce away. It was better than the old topic of gruesome ways the desert could take your life, particularly in Northern Africa’s Sahara.
Yerim stopped without warning, which startled Joohyun enough that Seulgi could tell from behind. Kim Lip touched Yerim’s elbow in a gesture of comfort, and she put her hand over Kim Lip’s.
“The minivan is gone,” Yerim said.
“It happens. It’s not exactly stable here when it comes to objects that exert less subjective will to hold together,” Kim Lip said.
“Can you explain that again?” Sungjae asked.
Seulgi kept having the creeping sensation that there was something behind her, and each time she turned around there was nothing out of the ordinary, until after five times of increasingly feeling watched, and everyone else picking it up from her, she finally looked up to find a large cat on the roof of the motel. It was a light gray tabby, the pupil of its eye a thin silt, carefully studying their every moment. Everyone gasped simultaneously. Poor Joohyun and Sooyoung screamed, shrill. Seulgi still had that feeling though, of another unaccounted for person in their presence. It wasn’t a shockwave, which apparently came with Sungjae’s appearance. She was getting goosebumps all up and down her arms.
Then, another unfamiliar voice called out, which scared everyone, even Kim Lip. More screaming, and Joohyun and Sooyoung clutched each other, slumping onto the ground. Yerim was laughing at the screaming of bandmates.
“Jin Soul!” Kim Lip said, and ran to the newly appeared person as this Jin Soul turned around. They hugged. “You have visitors? Or we do, rather.”
“How are we going to get them home?”
“We need Choerry. And hello again, Sungjae-sshi,” Jin Soul said, the both of them bowing to each other. “Need yet another explanation, hm?”
“I must have hit my head really hard, because the cat is humongous and this is a dream and you told me something, last dream, about skin of the imagined universe.” Sungjae had to catch his own breath.
Seungwan had been quiet for so long up until now. “What’s the reason the five of us, and Sungjae are here?” She asked.
It didn’t feel odd to Seulgi that the group of them were plunged into this, all of them industry co-workers in a sense.
Seulgi shrugged and said, “We were going to film a music video, and got tangled in an old one and the videos of another group.” She made the O.K. sign and put it around her right eye, and pointedly looked at Sungjae. “Sungjae-sshi is the only anomaly here as far as I can tell.” He shrugged.
Sooyoung seemed to want to speak up, but held herself back.
Sungjae noticed, though. He grinned. “Spit it out, Joy-sshi.”
She looked a bit self-conscious, but went on with the prompting. “BtoB concepts are not weird enough to be dragged into this.”
“Probably won’t find anyone who disagrees,” Sungjae easily replied, nodding hard enough that his light purple hair flopped about. “Even on our default plane.”
Sooyoung poked him in the chest. “The normality of BtoB videos are to balance out your in-person weirdness.” Sungjae made a face of exaggerated shyness, and smirked while curling in on himself.
Kim Lip held up the ruined paper box, cake inside. “He brought us our cherry for Choerry,” she said.
Seungwan burst out laughing, and quickly put a hand over her mouth. She shook her head without explaining.
Settling into the cool beneath the awning, office door open, some of them seated on the uncomfortable, hard chairs of the lobby. Yerim went off with Kim Lip without a word, only to return with armfuls of sheets and a blanket. They spread it onto the worn concrete floor, covered their legs with the blanket. Seulgi stared at the colors dancing in the sky. Unlike most everything else, the clouds were moving.
Seulgi could detect some annoyance from Joohyun and Seungwan, about the facts that Sungjae was rattling off about the desert and his dumb jokes, of which he had a very unusual amount at the ready, and suggestions of games to play, at the seeming tip of his tongue. He spoke to everyone, making lots of eye contact and moseyed along, somehow weaving about them with his longer strides.
“A man can die in less than a day, in the desert,” Sungjae continued spouting his facts, going at a slow trot.
Yerim rolled her eyes and crossed her arms. “Obviously. Don’t explain dehydration to us, I’ve already subjected my sisters and my unniedeul to that multiple times. We know. And in case you haven’t noticed, there’s no men around.” If she was chewing gum, she might have blown a bubble right then till it popped. “Except you.” She made a small smile and looked up, halfway to making an eyeroll. “You’re wrong, by the way. It depends on a selection of factors, it’s not clear cut. The temperature being one. Rainfall another, and sunshine hours.”
Sooyoung tucked a lock of hair behind Yerim’s ear, and said, “so knowledgeable. Do we even have a desert at home?”
Yerim tilted her face and looked up in thought. She was already reflecting Kim Lip’s demeanor. “I know we have sand dunes.”
Sooyoung had buried her face into Seulgi’s neck three separate times at Yerim’s and Sungjae’s one-upping each other. Joohyun was looking off into the horizon through the window, absentmindedly soothing Sooyoung, petting her hair. Seulgi knew lots of useless trivial information, considered her brain cluttered with it, but maybe Sungjae had a full level above her in that respect. Even without the presence of staff and cameras, Sungjae had kept his distance by bringing out a chair and placed it in the doorway of the office, letting cool air out. He sat on it, his good leg jiggling, often scrolling about on his phone and other times taking selcas. There were moments where he’d burst into song and quieted himself, only a few words into it. What he could possibly have on his phone without internet access, Seulgi didn’t know.
Yerim then said something about wanting to see the desert sky at night too, heavy with stars, after a mention from Sungjae’s family trip. “But this eclipse, it’s here to stay, huh?” She asked. “No starry night for us this time.” She sounded resigned, a tone Seulgi seldom heard from Yerim.
Kim Lip gestured no, with her brief head shake. “No starry night.”
“I’d love to show my little sisters something like this, the eclipse. Bright stars on a dark unknown.” Yerim was quiet, which meant the entire group descended into silence. “Did you make this place, Jung Eun?” She asked.
Kim Lip shook her head again. “The three of us did, Jin Soul, Choerry, and I. It was my suggestion, I’ll be forward about that.”
Normally, in the position of lying on the floor of an air conditioned room without a schedule, Seulgi would be fast asleep. Especially since she didn’t have access to the internet on her phone. None of them did. But she instead was wide awake, and not at all hungry. Each person was chatting in a mass of open feeling, surrounded by only dry terrain and deserted of people, of traffic. Untethered from social concerns of schedules, gendered spaces, of constant maintenance of skills, of their bodies. Seulgi enjoyed the constant upkeep of the skills, and had little to no trouble living in her body. She knew, though, that could change at any time. She found it simple to accept, to not dwell as some of her members may in private. Joohyun and Yerim put on strong dispositions for everyone.
Seulgi thought about being lost. She thought about the drive between Seoul and Daegu. Joohyun had looked it up, and the distance was shorter than the drive they were to make from Las Vegas to Los Angeles,which was about an hour more. Korea was big for them, but the United States was huge on a whole other scale that seemed unreal, and difficult to understand, to match with what was displayed in their movies and television. If they had lived here in any meaningful sense, all five of them would be required to drive. It seemed like an awful necessity, though she was sure that pop stars from here wouldn’t drive anywhere at all either. Would they insist on driving? Seungwan spent most of her time abroad in Canada, of course, and knew how to drive. A big country too, that Canada. Seulgi disliked the stationary part of sitting in a car, though they were going so many kilos, so many miles fast. Not that any of them, post debut, had any weekends. But Seulgi imagined Joohyun knowing how to drive, and on a whim going home for the weekend.
Seulgi imagined them loosed from the constraints of a manager, the comfortable minivan, the KTX schedule. She’d get a piece of junk, like those you see in shitty independent films, but a classic in its own right. Park it at a storage unit nearby, tell no one else about it. Drive it late at night, take the girls to the coast, to a park to watch leaves fall, have steaming convenience store ramen beneath a lone street lamp overlooking city lights, drive back and get home at nearly 3 AM like a delinquent. She wrinkled her nose at having to go through the hoops of car upkeep and hiding it.
It felt like no time had passed at all, but that had to be a trick Seulgi played on herself. With the eclipse hanging in the sky, it seemed like no time at all, though surely by now it had to have been hours worth that had passed, hanging out on a blanket in the American desert, far from home.
“Let’s do something exciting,” Yerim said, bouncing, making Sooyoung tip over onto her side. “Joohyun-unnie, let’s go drive!”
Joohyun made no move to get up, and only looked at Yerim from her place on the ground, lying flat. “But I’m so comfortable here,” she said.
Jin Soul stood up, and fixed her ponytail. “Well, since I’ve had a chance to realign now, it should be easier for me to find Choerry.” She fixed her clothes, though Seulgi thought if she had not changed anything her look was beyond presentable, was still beautiful. But her eye was blunt and unrefined in that respect. Whatever it was the stylists did to perfect the look of performers on stage, they did it well.
Jin Soul walked out to the middle of the parking lot, covered her eyes, and dissolved in an upward moving haze of glittery smoke.
“I would have thought your abilities to be stronger during the eclipse.”
“Well it’s a suspended, stitched reality. Our abilities are busy holding it together, thus using them is tricker here than using them during a real eclipse on our Earth.”
All of a sudden, the cat lept down from the roof, slow with its humongous limbs. It reached for Seungwan, pawed at her hair, no claws that Seulgi could see. Seungwan winced away, and Seulgi reached for her but was too late, a bubble enveloped her and floated Seungwan up onto its back. It then trotted, then sped up into a run down the street, unaffected by the hot asphalt seeming to sizzle even in the dim light of the eclipse.
Seungwan screamed. All of them made some sort of shout at Seungwan being floated up and out and away, especially poor Joohyun and Sooyoung, again. Their ability to scream like a movie protagonist was seriously impressive. But Seungwan’s ability to project meant she was louder than all of them combined. Seulgi guessed that she even echoed off the samgyeopsal mountains.
And the cat disappeared with her when it looped back from the opposite end, from behind them. It seemed impossible. But there it was, and there it had gone, with Seungwan.
Joohyun spoke up. No one was calm, and despite the number of times she had been startled out of her seeming wits Joohyun had enough still with her to have thought of something. She struggled to be heard and screamed a pitch piercing enough to finally get everyone’s attention. The panic stoppered, Kim Lip, with some chiming from Sungjae, went on to explain that Seungwan wasn’t exactly kidnapped, but that they’d have to find a way to take them all out of there. Seulgi felt the vibrations of a new presence, and thought for a split second that Joohyun was the source, but it turned out to be Jin Soul and a new person, who was introduced as Choerry, climbed through a new portal to join them.
“The cat is not a boss fight in a game level, I promise you, Yerim,” Kim Lip was saying right before Joohyun changed the topic.
“We’re suspended in time, you said?” Joohyun asked Kim Lip. “The road looped,” she pointed at the sole strip of highway pavement, “Before. Right before we got transported here.” She paused as she looked meaningfully around at everyone. “So we need to do the same thing.”
Sungjae seemed to follow. “Same thing as the cat? Like, go down the road…”
Yerim snapped her fingers and turned to Kim Lip, “the jeep!”
The only car available was the dirty jeep in the garage. It was a manual clutch, and turned out that only single-footed Sungjae knew how to drive it. “Well,” he clarified. “In theory, not practice, to be exact.”
Theory was good enough for Seulgi. “I can do this,” Seulgi declared, getting into the driver’s seat. “Sungjae-sshi, shotgun, now.”
“Yay!” Yerim said, and literally jumped into the air. “Seulgi-oppa to the rescue!”
However, after Sungjae got the garage door open, Joohyun insisted on everyone else pushing the car out before she would let anyone climb in. Kim Lip grabbed a key from a series of hooks holding all sorts of keys, and threw them to Seulgi underhanded and over the entirety of the car. She caught it one handed, and she and Yerim exchanged playful winks. The car jerked forward and at moments stalled to the point of the engine cutting out, which it did just once, but Seulgi managed to keep it going the subsequent times, pressed down on the clutch at the very last possible moment, kept the vehicle gaining speed until she got it into the fourth gear. Spread around them, the desert and its faded green and plainly beige coloring of vegetation littered through the landscape, seemed ever changing, following the strung up powerlines.
“Hell yeah! Go Seulgi!” Sungjae shouted. He turned around and shouted into the hot air, “What’s her full name?”
“Kang Seulgi,” Joohyun said, grinning with eyes closed, clearly terrified and doing her utmost to handle it, hair whipping in the wind.
Sungjae began chanting her name and everyone followed his lead. Being the Actual Jam, however brief, was extremely gratifying. With Kim Lip, Jin Soul, Choerry, and Sungjae’s voices mixed in the chant, she could almost pretend she was on stage at a performance. Maybe a collaboration stage, on set with a dirty open topped jeep. Seungwan was going to hand her her mic any moment now. Until the straight line of the road brought them impossibly once again, to approach the motel-gas station-mechanic garage cluster of buildings.
The landscape beneath the buildings fell away into a silvery, swirling mass of colors, glittering red and blue into purple. Arid desert no more, the portal brought about the stench of something burning and ash-like, the twist of friction. In the rear view mirror, she could see Joohyun and Sooyoung clinging to each other, eyes screwed shut and the Loona girls too, the two began to scream in earnest. Yerim grabbed Seulgi’s wrist at the same time Sungjae linked his arm around hers, both hands still on the steering wheel as she made a hard left and the jeep flipped, throwing them all into the now smoking purple silver swirl, and the jeep disappeared into flickering pixels, then nothingness, as soon as they were upside down, and once again everything went blank.
The flat, hot smell of processing was present again.
Seulgi was remembering, a late night when she last inhaled this type of smell, the closest thing to it. “Laundry,” Joohyun said, wrinkling her nose in a cute way. Seulgi immediately recalled the multiple nights, flashes of memory, deep into the am hours, of Joohyun, their eldest, with the table and iron and the steamer all out and prepared with her specific preferred brand of distilled water. Seulgi’s cramps were keeping her awake that particular night. Many nights, really. On one of those nights, Joohyun had told her she didn’t actually enjoy it so much as that ironing was something harmless, something easily moldable, something easy to remember while promoting. She was ironing Yerim’s school jacket. It was going to be cold soon, at that time. Seulgi couldn’t recall Joohyun-unnie’s exact phrasing, but the chore was a form of self-soothing that also took care of a necessity at once. But she did remember the following with clarity: “Let the fans believe what they want. I need to make sure that when I actually do and say something, it doesn’t return to hurt us,” she’d said, adjusting the dial and waiting for it to cool enough to iron the rayon of the liner, a focused gazed paired with the statement.
Seulgi could detect that a space had formed soon after, even though she couldn’t see anything. Not her own body or any one else, though she could still feel Yerim’s arm around her middle, Sungjae’s left arm locked in her right, because the rollercoaster screams warped and ricocheted back to her ears from the direction of the large portal, dark carpets and layered curtains muffling the sound as the eight of them dropped through Choerry’s portal.
It was a cramped space, with cabinets full of dishes and glass and ceramic figurines, jewels on display, long rectangular boxes upon boxes from floor to ceiling. How they didn’t knock anything over in their dropping in from the ceiling was surprising.
“Welcome everyone, I’m Grandma Iris,” a tall elderly woman in large glasses spoke, cane in hand, her house filled with more decorations and belongings than even the company warehouses, as though they were dropped into a stylist’s wildest accessory nightmare. Or dream, that was possible too. Seulgi rolled off of Yerim and Sungjae, being the only one facing out from their desperate huddle during the teleportation-portal storm. It occurred to her that she wouldn’t make the ideal penguin, still awkward in the most basic of tasks. She told that inner voice to hush.
“And behind me is Carl, my husband.” The man looked up from his book with a wave and smile, a floor lamp shining onto its pages. “The Odd Eye have brought some guests for today.” She gestured toward the tiny kitchen, and Seungwan was there.
“Wendy and I prepared tea for you,” Iris said.
“And the cookies are almost done,” Seungwan said, hair askew in a bun, apron wrapped around her.
Upon hearing her voice and seeing her crack the knuckle of her left index finger, Seulgi knew her friend was really there.
“Tea and biscuits!” Yerim exclaimed in happiness, getting up from her position within the tangle, throwing her head back to flip her hair out of her face.
“Just about,” Iris said with a gentle smile. “Come, sit,” she said and she herself navigated around the varying side tables that had no furniture or wall to anchor them, to the large, round table that was the vague, approximate location between the kitchen and the rest of their tiny apartment. “You did well, seven at once, Choerry,” Iris spoke to the one young woman already at the table, standing. The culprit cat, white with a tabby gray pattern, watched them from its perch, a cradle held up with suction cups, flicking the tip of its tail back and forth from it’s downward dangle.
“Welcome to New York City,” Seungwan said amongst the mess of bowls and strewn flour.
It was hot here too, damp humidity instead of dry, and Seulgi didn’t point out the absurdity of baking sweets to eat. Iris-halmoni’s eyes followed each of them as they introduced themselves to her, in their practiced English, a bemused twinkle in her eye. For Sungjae, Iris gave him a big pat on the back and commented on the ‘lovely lavender’ of his hair, the both of them already familiar with each other. Seungwan explained their jobs as idols to her, spoke the occasional Hangul word thrown in. Seulgi listened to their exchange and studied the elderly woman’s outfit. She was adorned with a necklace and a shawl, a single fat bracelet on her left arm, and her silver hair was perfectly coiffed up over a sleeveless boatneck and long, loose slacks that hid her feet. She wore exactly one tiny, white ring on her right middle finger. Remembering her own grandparents strain from age, Iris must have put a lot of work into her appearance, and must enjoy it enough to push through for the complete look.
Considering Iris’s entire apartment, full to the brim with possessions and her unobtrusive husband, she lived her life exactly the way she wanted, not caring a dollop what others thought of her. Things in the tiny space seemed full, but somehow it wasn’t cramped. There was just enough space for people whose elbows are tucked-in to walk through and see everything; ornate clawed side tables, antique gumball machines, large pieces of geometric art of what looked like Arabic script, a toy catbus with Chinese characters on the side, a large beaded necklace hanging from a hook, of which was part of a jewelry display shaped like the crown of tree branches. A taxidermied dodo bird was the closest thing that could indicate that she was maybe a witch of sorts, had abilities. Or Seulgi was reading into things that weren’t there, and she was simply another person that the three of Odd Eye Circle dropped in to meet with. Seulgi supposed it was also possible that the cat was the only magical creature, now that she had attracted its unblinking attention, paws tucked under to form a little loaf, as Sooyoung would have put it. She didn’t reach out to touch the cat, knowing that it didn’t run from her was satisfaction enough.
A few stories below the apartment, cars honked and the occasional synthetic bird call for pedestrians to cross floated up to their level. Seulgi wondered if the other four felt as suddenly exhausted and burdened as she did, now that they were in their usual world. If it weren’t for that, she was sure Yerim and Sungjae would be sparring over their trivia knowledge about New York City. The new climate and weird shit that they went through, in the magic eclipse desert, had wore her out. Seulgi had eyed the couch proximate to Carl, but chose to return to the round dining table.
“Surely you all have powers too, since you made it through to a fork,” Choerry said, fingers and forearms perched on the table, a gentle bridge with a steaming tea mug between them.
“We’re just idols,” Joohyun pointed out with a hesitant smile.
Jin Soul spoke up.
“Think of that place as a pore, in the skin of the face of time-space fabric. We were the white filament that the universe sees and, naturally, wants to squeeze out,” Jin Soul said in explanation. She nodded and simultaneously blinked slowly with each downward motion of her face, and somehow it was very cute, Seulgi thought. It also made the most sense so far if Seulgi squinted with her mind’s eye, in a big picture way.
“Why do we have to be something gross?” Sooyoung objected, her tongue sticking out and chill of heebie-jeebies.
Yerim tugged on Sooyoung’s arm. “Better than a large, swollen pimple.”
Sooyoung made a mock vomiting expression.
“The amazing thing is that Red Velvet made it through to Odd Eye Circle’s dimensional pocket.” Jin Soul was looking down at the table, and then made eye contact with every person at the table, even Iris-halmoni who was stroking the cat, now in her lap.
Seulgi was interrupted out of her thoughts by the scraping of a chair, about the line between reality and imagination.
Sungjae shook his lavender hair and smoothed down his sideburns. “It’s been fun ladies,” he said with an exaggerated salute gesture. The cat leapt into his waiting arms, then made to climb onto his shoulder.
“Now that I’ve got a good look at it, it looks like Sami,” Sooyoung said, eyes on the feline.
Sungjae laughed as his appearance became fuzzy with the purring vibrations of the cat. “She does look like this one,” and he disappeared, cheek rubbing on the cat’s back.
Joohyun turned to the center of the table and said, “Time to get back to work, ladies. Manager-oppa is gonna give me an earful for holding up filming.” She was scrolling through her phone. “It’s a six hour flight. I don’t even want to guess what price they’ll be.”
Iris-halmoni spoke up, despite the fact that Seulgi was sure she didn’t speak Korean. “Do not worry,” she said. “A six hour flight, an adventure with your gals.” She wiggled her fingers. “Or the Odd Eye can take you right back to Los Angeles. Not much time on this string has passed, I gather.”
Seulgi checked her phone. It was 8 AM in Seoul, and here they were having tea and cookies at the American east coast, which was dinner time for locals.
“A little peek-a-boo never hurt.” Iris spoke up in English, with Seungwan translating what she said. “Sometimes you need a break, to not have to worry what’s real, and what’s not.”
Seungwan, the only person who understood every word, was looking into her yellow-green tea liquid as she struggled to translate. Joohyun was looking out into her horizon. Their two youngest, Yerim and Choerry,, leaning against each other, playing with Sooyoung’s long hair, in loose braids. Three tiny strands of braids now into a large three stranded braid, loose ended.
Seulgi didn’t pretend, she never ever did. Everything about their day was unbelievable and strange. If she understood something on a wider scale, then it was a small piece of good fortune that found her. Face value, nothing solid. She went with it, totally awake.
The three of the Odd Eye Circle, Kim Lip, Jin Soul, and Choerry held their hands around the five of Red Velvet, huddled in a circle. Seulgi felt her entire body blink.