"Tell me about that dream again."
Kun's voice is muffled, his words coming and going like radio static between the fall of the water on the tile.
Taeyong presses his ear against the wall. When he talks it reverberates, caught in the spaces between the plasterboard. "Which dream?"
"The one where you’re on a boat,” Kun says. There’s a pause after he turns the shower off, something abnormal that seems as if it should be filled with more than the steady drip of the water from the broken bathroom faucet. And then his voice comes, again, like waves. “It’s the middle of the night and it’s just us. You’re on a boat, and there’s faces in the water.”
The bathroom door opens, and then the bedroom. The streetlamps shine through the windows outside and carve a triangle of light onto his bedspread. Kun’s shadow is long and he smells like sandalwood and fir. He sits on the end of Taeyong’s bed, just out of reach. There’s a longing to touch him, feel the dampness of his skin beneath his fingers, but Kun is ethereal, and somehow Taeyong thinks he doesn’t have the right.
Taeyong takes a breath. "It's like this."
The surface of the pool bends at the point of his clasped hands. All the noise of the outside is swallowed and it becomes just him and the water, him and the silence. He floats for as far as he can without moving until he’s forced to surface, take a breath and strike out.
Breathe. Kick. Stroke. Kick. Stroke. Breathe.
In the Seoul summer he used to swim alone in his high school pool, the monsoon clouds swollen above his head. When the storm broke he’d submerge himself, hold his breath until his lungs hurt, just listening to the cacophony above, the rain shattering on the surface and the thunder as it rolled out across the city.
Here the roof shields him from the storms, from the biting chill that comes with winter—though there are holes in the building or windows that never get shut, and the wind howls through the rafters. His reprieve is stolen from him by all the tiny gaps and he’s constantly snapped back to reality, snatched from his thoughts by a sharp gust that sends goosebumps across his wet skin.
Taeyong lets go of the side and kicks back out, quietness taking over.
Art, for him, is like a translation. A way to place the fractal parts of his mind into a form that other people might understand. The end result might be simple, close to life, but Taeyong would tell them to look closer, to where the detail bloomed, the careful cross hatching at the edge of Kun’s lips and the smudges of lead on the knife of his jawline.
“I heard the student gallery is looking for submissions,” Kun says, highlighting a section on his lecture slides. Taeyong strikes a line down the side of his sketch, then goes back to shading the shadow in the dip of Kun’s collarbone exposed by the loose neck of his sweater.
“Are you trying to suggest something?” Taeyong asks. Kun snorts.
“Well, no, but now that you bring it up…”
“Don’t worry,” Taeyong says, cutting him off, suddenly not wanting to beat around the bush. “Our teachers have been hounding us about submitting. I’m aware of it.”
“Are you going to do it?”
Taeyong turns his pencil on its side and draws a black cloud emerging from Kun’s head.
“No,” he says.
Kun stops reading and regards him, lamplight reflected in his glasses. “You should. I think they’d love you.”
Taeyong regrets letting Kun into the studio, or anywhere else. If he didn’t believe that Kun had nothing but a good heart, he would think he was weaponising all the secrets he’d been privy to.
“I don’t think they would.”
“You’re opening up a can of worms full of self-depreciation there,” Taeyong says. He lets out a long drawn out sigh.
“ Taeyong ,” Kun says. A few raindrops hit the pavement outside.
“I don’t want to.”
Kun tilts his head, highlighter poised over the next line.
“Why?” he repeats. Another lashing of rain, louder and more urgent. The wind howls through the rooftops like a trapped beast.
“It’s not good enough.”
“Who tells you that?”
“I do. I know it.”
Kun still stares, though his expression is soft, blurred around the edges like he’s moved just out of focus.
“You’re such a tortured artist.”
At any other point Taeyong would laugh. Instead, he starts to trace the hollow of Kun’s neck, wishing it was his fingers there instead of the lead of his pencil.
“The lake is black and still. Fog hangs on the surface. It shines like a portal to the underworld when it’s illuminated by our torches. It must be night, but the darkness doesn’t feel like night. It feels unnatural. There are no stars in the sky, no sliver of the moon to give directions. Just an absence of colour, an absence of sound.
“In the boat you’re always next to me, within reach. Sometimes it's just a dinghy with broken paddles and a puddle of water in the hull, sometimes it's my father's fishing boat, sometimes it's a yacht, sails sagging on their masts. But it’s always a boat on a lake in impossible darkness.”
“And what else?”
There are voices behind every door and in every corner, murmurs he only ever catches the end of. He follows them like treasure maps, pressing his ear to keyholes and crawling under the entrance table to listen to the skirting board where it vibrates with the passing cars.
Someone has left a radio on in every room, but the dial is just a little bit off. He doesn’t hear words, but he knows they’re there. They’ve always been there.
Sometimes he thinks he hears his name, but when he turns the street is empty, when he pulls back the shower curtain it’s just Kun’s shampoo lying in the bottom of the tub, when he waits beside his door for whoever hisses outside he hears no footsteps to herald their leaving. Just lulls in sound, ebb and flow like the waves on the waterfront.
You have to take your medication, Taeyong.
The bottle rattles and he swallows the pills dry.
Underwater it’s just him, separate from the world above, alone with the pool and the pressure of the water against his skin. He comes up for air and the humidity slaps his face, and then he’s gone again, kicking out, breath trapped in his lungs.
Back and forth, from wall to wall over and over until his muscles protest.
It’s when he climbs out that his mind comes back. In the changing rooms he presses his ear against the stall door, trying to find the people muttering his name, but no matter where he walks they seem just out of his reach. Behind the next door, and the next. He abandons his chase when his footprints start to resemble the turn of a hurricane across the floor, moving in circles like a dog fixated on its own tail.
He finds it hard to break these old habits, these paranoid commotions that startle him and cut through his mind with all the ease of a hot knife. It’s like they’ve been ingrained in his skin, in the wiring of his brain, and every effort he makes to disrupt the chain of thought is with gargantuan effort, like pushing a boulder uphill when he hasn’t slept in three days. It’s thoroughly exhausting, and when he gets home he climbs into bed and sleeps, strange dreams curling at the edge of his mind and the scent of chlorine still lingering on the tips of his hair.
Kun finds him at his desk, charcoal smeared across his fingertips.
“Are you okay, Taeyong?” he asks. Taeyong stops scribbling at his sketchbook and looks up. Kun’s wearing the same oversized sweater, except this time there’s a shirt underneath, bright red fabric that shows through the holes in the arms like rose petals.
The air in the room settles, and everything becomes still.
“Yeah?” Taeyong says. Kun takes the acknowledgement as an invitation, and places a mug of hot chocolate on Taeyong’s desk.
“How’s your project going?”
Taeyong looks back at the page and places a lazy finger on the mass of black spiraling from the center.
“It’s alright,” he says. The texture of the paper is like terry cloth, rough and dragging against his skin, smudging the lines of charcoal under his touch.
A low voice mutters just out of his hearing range and Taeyong’s eyes flick upward, back to Kun. His brows are knit, his lips pursed. The lamplight in his glasses refracts into dozens of tiny pinpoints.
“Thank you for the drink,” Taeyong says. The ceramic of the mug is hot enough that he can’t hold it for more than a few seconds before he has to recoil. Kun puts a hand on his shoulder, his touch heavy and familiar.
“You’re welcome.” Kun says. He squeezes tight, and then hesitates. “Do you want me to stay?”
There are voices in the walls and ghosts in the dusty corners of his mind. Taeyong leans into Kun’s touch and nods.
“I’ll get my book,” Kun says.
Kun’s pen scratches.
“Sleep.” Taeyong looks up from his phone, narrowing his eyes at where Kun is lying beside him with his workbook. “Am I doing your homework for you?”
“You’re helping with my homework.”
“You should be a politician.”
“If you don’t want to, that’s fine,” Kun says. Taeyong swallows the remark that bites at the back of his throat.
“You know I like helping you,” he says, instead.
Kun laughs, the corner of his mouth curling up. “That’s what I thought.”
There are freckles on his eyelids. Taeyong’s never noticed before, but up close they’re obvious. One near where Taeyong’s own scar is, on the upper corner of his right eye, and two, three on the bottom. He wishes he knew more about astronomy so he could say something about the constellations they form.
“Do you want me to go over it when you’re done?” Taeyong asks.
“If it’s not a bother.”
“You never are.”
Kun’s cheeks turn a dusty rose. “Don’t get cheesy.”
“The darkness seems hungry. Not like an absence of light, but like it feeds on it. Your face is pale, and our torches get weaker.”
“And in the lake, Taeyong. Tell me about the lake.”
“And in the lake I see paper masks. They’re just below the surface, and they’re white as snow. It doesn’t matter how big the boat is, when I lean down to look at them my nose always gets wet, though I don’t think I ever put my face in the water. I don’t even know why I look anymore, because I know what I’ll see. I know the masks. They’re the faces of people that I know.”
Silence, and then—
“What happens next?”
He sits in front of the heater, listening to the murmur of the people moving in the hall outside. The canvas is blank. He hasn’t even pulled out his brushes yet, or paints. His sketchbook is still tucked in his bag.
Stillness seems better. Stillness still holds all the potential of creativity and none of the disappointment of reality. He wishes he could freeze this moment, the second before the dam breaks and the brush hits the canvas.
“I can leave if you want me to.” Kun’s voice slides through the silence, wavering with a touch of uncertainty. Taeyong turns in his seat to face him. He’s sitting on a paint stained high backed chair, neck craned to stare at a painting of Taeyong’s, a slab of wood five metres long spray painted black and dotted with white splotches like snowflakes.
There’s voices in the walls, but he can’t hear what they say.
“No,” Taeyong says. “You’re okay. I’m just not used to having anyone watch.”
“Do you feel self conscious?” Kun is still staring at the painting. His hair is soft, newly cut and dyed a shade of brown that looks like caramel, shines like honey in the light.
“Are you surprised?”
“You’re the one who refuses to submit your painting.”
“I don’t refuse—” he starts, but Kun has somehow procured a paper plane to throw at him. Taeyong catches it reflexively. There’s writing on it, prompting him to unfold the wings. He realises it’s a submission form for the gallery opening.
“There’s more where that came from,” Kun warns.
Taeyong can’t help but laugh.
He doesn’t think the pills are trying to control him. He doesn’t think anyone is trying to control him. He doesn’t think the government is putting spy cameras in his room or that the TV is trying to speak to him. Sometimes he wishes he was more crazy, so that someone would pay attention to him and this never ending battle that raged in his head. He’s not sick enough for anyone to care, but not well enough to function on his own.
And, well; here’s what no-one prepared him for.
That on his best days, he might miss it. Those fully realised people that lived inside his head. They used to have names but now they’ve fallen to the wayside, like a polaroid smeared as it develops or a chalk drawing abandoned in the rain. Without them things become lonely, and he falls in on himself, yearning for the white noise that has hummed behind the walls of his home for as long as he can remember.
The silence is barely bearable.
It’s just that.
Most of all he’s terrified one day they’re going to take his art with them.
“The sun never rises, and the stars don’t ever shine amongst the blackness. The air is cold and damp and sometimes I point the torch on myself to remember I’m still alive. You hum a faint melody that sounds like that song you always sing in the shower. Far, far off, something splashes in the lake.”
One. Red. Small. Annoying. The foil never quite breaks and he has to dig with his chewed nails to free it.
A gulp of water, and swallow.
He drops a pill. It rolls around the edge of the plug before falling down the drain, murmuring in his ear.
He tells it to shut up.
The steam from the shower has fogged up the mirror. He drops two more down the drain, ones from a tall bottle that rattles incessantly as he tries to pick them out. He screws the lid on, and stops. Someone is saying his name, but it’s a hiss, like air leaking from a valve.
“Kun,” he shouts.
You don’t need him.
He supposes it comes with a kernel of truth. No, he doesn’t need him. But he’s not going to refuse the help.
There’s a knock at the door.
“You can come in,” Taeyong says. The handle turns, and Kun, amber and gold, sweatpants and bunny rabbit slippers, steps through the fog. The shower sounds like a monsoon, like the sheets of rain that fell in the Seoul summer.
It feels pathetic to have his medication fed to him like a child, but his arms won’t cooperate, won’t move the way he wants them to. Kun presses the bottle of water to his lips and waits for him to swallow the last two, before turning off the shower and placing his hand on Taeyong’s arm again, steadying the tremors. “There’s leftovers in the fridge. Do you want me to heat some up for you?”
The rain bursts against the sidewalks, and far in the distance thunder booms.
"Do you know what’s in there?"
Droplets of water mixed with soap suds run down Kun’s chest. He shuffles closer, out of the light and into the gloom. His form becomes real, like all the lines that bound his body to this world had been shaded in.
"No,” Taeyong says. Kun’s skin is damp beneath the tip of his finger. “In the dream, I ask you the same-"
“But I don’t know,” Kun finishes the sentence for him.
He picks up the half-folded paper plane from his desk, one of dozens of fliers Kun has planted in his room.
Describe your painting. What does it mean to you?
Taeyong smooths the creases from the paper. Kun is singing in the shower, the same song he always sings, something in Chinese that sounds keen and bright filled with the rich gold of his voice.
‘You’re on a boat,’ Taeyong writes, ‘and there’s faces in the water.‘