Kim Dokja never understood why people liked looking at butterfly specimens. There was something cruel about the way the insects were frozen in time in these displays, their beautiful wings outstretched as though they were reaching for the sky.
But then again, maybe he did understand. Human life was fleeting, which meant immortal things, like stories, held an indescribable appeal to everyone.
The thought stayed on Kim Dokja's mind as he scrolled through the pages of 「Three Ways to Survive in a Ruined World」, an action that had become a daily ritual for him. The beauty of human despair was mesmerizing to read about, though Kim Dokja seemed to be the only person who felt this way. His classmates would probably think there was something wrong with his head if he ever told them about it, and even the strangers online didn’t seem to understand the appeal of this particular book.
Before Kim Dokja’s eyes, Yoo Jonghyuk suffered through the losses of everyone he had ever cared for and succumbed to his fate time and time again. Reading his story was an overwhelmingly intimate experience, and he felt almost like he was intruding on something private.
If Yoo Jonghyuk was a real person, would he hate tls123 for putting him through the misery of an endlessly repeating life? Would he hate Kim Dokja for reading it? Or was his fate already written in the stars, and the author was only a mouthpiece for the will of something greater? Maybe all the stories in the world already existed in the infinite dimension of alternate timelines and were only waiting to be written.
Although Kim Dokja was angry on the author's behalf that no one else had the patience to read through Ways of Survival, he was also secretly pleased that he was the only reader of this story. In some twisted way, this meant that Yoo Jonghyuk was his, and his alone.
"Hey. Kim Dokja. What is this?"
Song Minwoo grabbed the phone out of his hands roughly and squinted down at the screen. "'Yoo Jonghyuk stepped up to the meteorite’... Haha, what is this crap?"
"Give it back," mumbled Kim Dokja.
"Are you really reading this trash? Don’t you have anything better to do?"
"Minwoo, what are you doing?" one of the girls in his class asked in a lofty voice. "Leave Kim Dokja alone, he might snap and kill you if you push him too far. You know he’s unstable."
Some of the other girls giggled at the remark, their mouths turned up in ugly red smirks behind their delicate porcelain fingers.
Kim Dokja's hands couldn't stop shaking in his lap. The voices of his classmates around him seemed to distort in his ears, and the faces of Song Minwoo and his gang slowly morphed into monstrous shapes as they continued speaking around him.
"You're going to give him a seizure, Minwoo. Look at how pale his face is."
"Whatever.” Song Minwoo rolled his eyes and tossed the phone back onto Kim Dokja’s desk. “Stop reading and go buy me some bread from the cafeteria. You hear me?"
Kim Dokja reached out a trembling hand and gingerly picked up his phone. There was a new crack running from the bottom left corner to the middle of the screen, between the characters of Yoo Jonghyuk's name.
What was the difference between getting beaten by his father and getting beaten by someone from school? The pain was the same in the end, and he couldn't even get mad anymore. It was hard for him to even feel anything other than numbness these days.
Somehow, he knew Yoo Jonghyuk would understand what he was going through. They were both the ones left behind, stripped of everything they had wanted to keep against their will. They were both fighting back against the insurmountable will of an omniscient power, except where Kim Dokja had already surrendered, Yoo Jonghyuk never gave up.
Modern media turned people's lives into stories and trampled over all of them. The things he once held dear were scrutinized by the uncaring masses, dissected, and put on display for their morbid entertainment. He felt like a butterfly specimen in a museum as his story was parroted through the mouths of politicians and journalists to prove some useless point. It was as if he was listening to someone else narrate his life, and he could only watch helplessly as the rest of the world gobbled him up.
That's not what happened, he wanted to yell. I'm not the son of a murderer. I'm Kim Dokja.
But the background noise was too loud, and his protests were drowned out by the tide of indifference. People only cared about themselves, and they distorted reality as they pleased to suit their own needs. Years of pain were condensed into a single headline. A lifetime worth of suffering became a simple statistic, a footnote scrawled into the margins. In the end, no one cared.
How did Yoo Jonghyuk find the strength to keep trying when there wasn’t any hope left?
When the old bruises on his stomach faded, Song Minwoo replaced them with new ones. Every day was a repeat of a previous one, and they were all an exercise in futility. Yoo Jonghyuk wasn’t the only one trapped in an endless cycle.
"You’ll have an easier time at university, Kim Dokja," his teacher told him, her eyes filled with pity. "Things will get better."
If he could get into a good university, then maybe his mother wouldn't be the only story attached to his name anymore. If he could score high enough on the CSAT, then they would all remember him for something different. Something positive.
And so Kim Dokja threw himself into his studies. He stayed up all night poring over his textbooks, his hands trembling with both excitement and anxiety. As the pressure of the upcoming national exams increased, Song Minwoo started bothering him less and less. Kim Dokja had more time to think about what he wanted to do in the future, and he could even read Ways of Survival during lunch breaks now without disturbed. Yoo Jonghyuk was doing quite well in his current regression, and it was almost like a sign. The two of them would survive this together.
Less than a week before the date of the national exam, he was cornered in a dark alley by a hostile group of students from his school.
"Here’s your early graduation present," said Song Minwoo, smirking. "You should thank me for not forgetting about you."
His bloodied arm felt numb from pain. He wasn’t sure if it was broken or not.
On the day of the exam, Kim Dokja finished his tests and went home. He knew even before the scores came out that he wouldn't get in.
He fought so hard to get away from the mess his life was, only to realize that he could never escape from the scars of his past. Yoo Jonghyuk had his regression depression, and he had the book his mother wrote about them, hidden away at the back of his bookshelf. Some people had been doomed to unhappiness from the moment they took their first breath on this Earth. Is this what Yoo Jonghyuk felt like every time he failed?
Except he would have gotten revenge instead of sitting around doing nothing. He's strong, and you're weak.
Kim Dokja wanted desperately to punch Song Minwoo in the face and beat him up until he couldn't spread rumours about him anymore, to wrap his fingers around Song Minwoo’s neck and squeeze until he apologized, until he felt even a fraction of the pain he had caused him over the years. But he knew what they would all say if he ever lashed out: Look at Kim Dokja, following in his parents' footsteps.
Fear was even worse than pity.
Kim Dokja graduated from high school on a windy day in February.
Song Minwoo was standing beside his parents in the crowd, laughing at something his father was saying. As Kim Dokja watched, Song Minwoo pulled his little brother into a tight hug, and ruffled his hair. He left before he could see him.
Bad people never suffered, while good people struggled pointlessly. What was even the point of anything?
He could hear people whispering behind his back as he walked past them, clutching his new diploma in his hands.
"Over there, he's the one in the book." "His mother killed his father? I can't believe it." "He's the one I told you about." "Poor boy, I can't imagine what it's like." "That book was a load of bullshit, honestly." "Is that really him?" "I feel so bad for that child." "His mother behaved in such a shameful way–"
Kim Dokja stepped out of the front gates of the high school and breathed out, his breath curling in the cold air. There was a thin layer of gray snow on the ground that was muddied under the feet of hundreds of students and their families.
He leaned against the brick wall and stared up at the sky. White clouds were floating by overhead, lulled towards the edge of the horizon by the gentle touch of the wind. He wondered what lay over that line where the pavement met the blue sky–would it be where the next world began?
His shoe brushed against something, and he looked down. A stray pink carnation lay on the snow beside him, its tender petals bruised by the cold. It must have fallen from someone's graduation bouquet. He picked it up and went home.
Inside his apartment, he kicked off his shoes by the doorway and sat down on the edge of his bed. There was the faint smell of rotting garbage in the air, and the kitchen sink was overflowing with dirty dishes. He could hear water dripping from the leaky tap in the bathroom, the quiet patter of it echoing like thunder through the empty rooms.
He turned on his phone and opened up the newest chapter.
「The sword fell from Yoo Jonghyuk's hands and landed in the pool of blood that was forming on the ground with a clatter.」
「'Was this the end already?' thought Yoo Jonghyuk.」
「'Next time, I'll definitely–'」
Kim Dokja's vision blurred, and he hastily wiped at his eyes with the back of his hand.
This was his way of survival. He found peace inside the blank spaces in-between black letters, and fell asleep to the rhythm of the syllables. As he dreamt, his favourite characters came to life around him, and the emptiness in his chest became a little bit more bearable, the nights just a little shorter.
He read during the day, to block out the sound of angry shouts and broken glass. He read during the night, tucked under his covers, so he wouldn't have to listen to the sound of his mother sobbing. He kept reading even as the house became quiet, and he was left alone in a ruined world. He reread his favourite scenes over and over again until his eyes stung with the pain of keeping them open and the glaze of unshed tears, until he didn’t feel anything anymore.
Even after he was discarded by society, he could live as long as the universes he read about were still there. The stories stayed with him throughout the endless days of unhappiness, waiting for him to join them time and time again.
I want to meet him.
Yoo Jonghyuk couldn't save himself or anyone in the world he lived in, but he saved Kim Dokja.
I want to meet you.
He wanted to pry that damn regressor's head open and see what was inside. He wanted a piece of that strength, a piece of the will to keep moving forward. He wanted to tell Yoo Jonghyuk that he would be with him until the novel's end, and even after that.
Pale moonlight shone through the gaps between his curtains, falling to the ground like fresh snow. Dust drifted aimlessly between the rays of light, melting into the silent gap between worlds.
"Good night," he said out loud.
There was no one there.