"Hello," Suyun calls the stranger's attention.
The girl turns to her. Long blonde hair blows in the wind, obscuring what little of her face the moon can light up. Still, her smile is bright when she greets Suyun, "Hi."
"I've never seen you before," Suyun says. She approaches her slowly, bare feet sinking in the cool sand with every step she takes. "May I?" she asks.
The stranger gracefully bows her head and gestures at the space beside her. "It's my first time coming here," she tells Suyun.
The sand is wet where Suyun sits. The water reaches her toes in low waves crashing the shore. Beside her, the stranger squeals, hands digging into the sand, like it's the first time she's feeling the ocean against her feet and the sand between her fingers.
"I haven't been to the beach in forever," she lets out.
A deep breath. A dreamy sigh. A sweet smile. A hand covered in sand, outstretched and offered to Suyun.
Suyun takes her hand. It feels warm, alive.
Time runs out.
Suyun returns to the beach.
"Hi," Suyun says, tentative.
"Oh." Sohee's face lights up. "You're here."
"Can I join you?"
Tonight, the waves are higher. Suyun sits with her legs straight out in front of her, and the waters reach her knees. It's cold, but Sohee - with her skirt almost completely drenched - makes it seem otherwise.
"I didn't get your name last time," she says. "Will you tell me?"
"Suyun," Sohee echoes. "That's a nice name."
Suyun turns to face her and smiles. She's been here enough times to know which souls lived a full life almost at first glance, and which ones weren't fortunate enough.
"Do you come here often?" Sohee asks.
"Every week," Suyun answers. She points to a small house nearby. "I live there."
"Wow." Sohee's eyes shine bright, in a way Suyun hasn't seen in a long while. "Must be nice."
"You can come visit me there if you want," she offers, standing up and reaching out her hand.
Sohee takes the offer a minute before midnight.
Suyun watches from the doorstep as Sohee makes her way through the entire house, feet leaving wet footprints all over the wooden floor. She slowly makes her way inside, following the Sohee with her gaze.
Sohee suddenly turns around. In her hands is an old film camera, one of many Suyun owns and keeps in the house. "Smile for me?” she asks.
"It's my first time having my photo taken in a while," Suyun says. "Feels nice."
"You're welcome." Sohee places the camera back on the shelf, careful, as though she knows how precious it is to Suyun. She paces again, stops to admire the wall full of photos Suyun took during her time here: distant places, distant people.
"I'm usually the one taking photos," Suyun says.
"What was your life like?" Sohee asks. "You know, before this.”
Suyun's life was a blur, full of happiness but never devoid of sadness.
“Quite the same,” she says. “Except real.”
She stares at her wall. Every photo in this house, each one hung up, all of them remind her of everything in her life that's not real.
Everything that's here.
But even if it's painful, everything that's here is everything she can have.
Sohee is alive. Suyun's been here enough times to be sure. It's rare for her to meet someone here who's alive.
"Are you staying?" Sohee asks.
They're back at the beach, bodies half buried in sand as they lie awake and stare up at the stars, waiting.
There's silence for a moment, stretching long enough for Sohee to get impatient and turn to her side. Her fingertips graze the bare skin of Suyun's shoulder. It's electrifying, the touch of someone who lives and breathes.
"No," Suyun finally answers.
"Because time runs out."
"What do you mean? When you pass—"
"Time is supposed to run out, Sohee." Suyun turns to face her now too. She reaches for Sohee's hand. Electricity runs down her spine. The waves crash on her feet and it feels like a lightning strike. If things were real, she'd be dead, and time will finally run out.
As it is, though, nothing in this town is real.
That's something Suyun has to remind herself when Sohee leans in to press their lips together.
Suyun hangs Sohee's photo up on her wall. She took it the first night Sohee visited her home, the first sign of life in the life that Suyun's come to know.
But things, they end. Suyun’s come to learn that, too.
"I think I want to stay here,” Sohee tells her.
They end so soon.
"You do?" Suyun asks.
"I think so.”
“Once you make that decision, you can never take it back.”
"I feel it would be tiring,” Suyun says. Just the thought of it makes her feel as dead as everyone else she’s met before Sohee. "And terrifying."
"I feel it would be exciting," Sohee counters, the light in her eyes brighter than ever; when Suyun looks into them, she wants to agree. "And thrilling.”
A life with Sohee here doesn't sound bad. But Suyun has met several people who have made the choice of staying and ended up regretting it. She doesn't want to end up like them. She doesn’t want Sohee to end up like them, too, but that isn’t a choice for her to make.
"I was born sick, you know?" Sohee says. They're lying in bed, facing each other. "Never got to experience much."
Suyun has figured so. Sohee doesn't look a lot younger than Suyun herself, but she's obviously seen less of the world than Suyun has. Maybe that’s why Sohee wishes to stay.
"I'm sorry," Suyun offers, because it's all she can do.
"Here, I'm offered a chance to experience everything."
Suyun looks away. She can’t stay. She never planned to. She only meant to pass by. She never meant for Sohee to happen, never even dreamed of meeting anyone who can offer her something real in a world that’s not.
"Here,” Sohee whispers, more to herself than to anyone, “I'm offered forever."
Still, the thought of forever seems too much, frighteningly so.
Suyun's mind still hasn't changed. She thinks it never will. She wants to stay, but not forever. She'll stay until she can. She'll be here with Sohee for as long as she's allowed to be.
She can take part in Sohee's forever, a couple of hours against an infinite lifetime, until it's time to go.
"I wish we could stay here longer," Suyun whispers.
It's nearly midnight and she hasn't slept a wink, neither of them has. The clock is driving her crazy, reminding her of the time she doesn’t have. Suyun would turn it back if she could.
"We could," Sohee whispers back.
Suyun can barely make out her face, the moonlight barely filtering in through the curtains, but she can see her eyes shining brightly with life as she gazes at Suyun.
She smiles, reaching out to caress Sohee's cheek. "You know that's not what I meant," she says, voice as soft as the light pitter-patter of rain on the roof of their house.
Sohee leans against her touch, closing her eyes. Suyun tries to memorize the way she feels against her skin, bright and warm like the absent sun, the life and light in the dead of night.
A deep breath. A weary sigh. A soulless smile. A strangled I know.
The light slowly leaves Sohee's eyes, and Suyun knows that time's almost up.
She leans forward and presses her lips against Sohee's. It tastes like hope and love, sadness and desperation, what it’s like to be alive.
Time runs out.