Seungmin once told him, “When I die, I want to be buried in the sky.”
It was more or less one of those silly, millennial ideations of death that everybody usually laughed about. Minho wrote it off as what he assumed was just Seungmin being Seungmin: typically boring, typically strange, mouth of an artist shaping nonsense into pretty words; a low tolerance turned thoughtfulness that only surfaces when it’s just the two of them, while the others were knocked over like bowling pins.
They were never close to begin with, though. Just unfortunate victims of colliding social circles. Seungmin was a logistical tyrant constantly seen with a camera in hand. Minho was a less than human extension of his mother’s deterioration. Incompatible; water and oil. A bad match.
And now, he wondered what Seungmin would say if he knew he wouldn’t be buried at all.
A throat clears. Minho looks up to find Changbin beside him with watery red eyes, 5 o’clock shadow staining the underside of his jaw. “You—uh.” Changbin clears his throat. “You coming over later?”
Minho looks over to where Chan and Jeongin, after the cremation, were bowing deeply to the clergy person put in charge of the arrangements. Jisung stood off to the side of the mortuary, and Felix was taking Hyunjin away with an arm held up to his face.
They haven’t seen each other in years. The glue between them lost its elasticity after a while: some drifted apart, some were driven apart. Minho doesn’t even remember why. They were all stuck in an awkward, lonely transition to adulthood, trying to decide what to lose and what to keep. Seungmin was the only one who ever tried to fix things between them, up until the supposed accident.
“Seungmin got the gang back together, huh,” Minho says.
But his joke falls flat, and Changbin’s face twists. “I don’t think now’s the time for jokes, man.”
“Surely he wouldn't want all of you sniveling at his ashes.”
“And how do you know what he would and wouldn’t want? You’ve never given him the light of day.”
Minho hums. He sticks his hands, slightly trembling, into the pockets of his coat. “Good question. How would I? Well, thanks for the offer, but I’ve something to take care of, so I’ll pass on the reunion drinks. But nice seeing you again after—what? How long? Five or six years? I dunno. Crazy. Hope business has been booming for you.”
“Hyung,” Changbin calls.
Minho stops in the middle of leaving. “Yeah?”
“You can talk to us, you know, or me. Just me. If you ever need any help with—with your mom, during this difficult time, don’t be afraid to reach out, okay?”
Minho hasn’t visited his mother since he graduated university. “Thanks.”
Outside, the wintry ice crunches beneath his feet. Minho complained about it a lot—the cold. Seungmin would tell him to dress warmer. Minho would tell him to shut up. Seungmin would say come in here. You don’t have to stay cold. And Minho would be like, okay. Make room for me. And then Seungmin would make room for him in his bed and Minho would climb in and they would hide from all the weather out there.
Snow begins to fall. Minho doesn’t look up at it. He can’t. He drops down to a crouch and holds his head in his shaky hands.
“Fuck,” he whispers.
The weather follows him home.
“Why be buried in the sky when there’s the earth?”
Seungmin paused from playing with Minho’s fingers. “Do you want the interesting answer or the boring one?”
“I thought you didn’t like boring things.”
“I don’t like it when people try too hard to be impressive either, so consider this a practice of humility.”
Seungmin scoffed. He turned on his side and pillowed his cheek with a hand. Minho could see a bruise forming over the bite mark on his collarbone. “It’s simple, really. If I’m buried up there instead of decaying in the earth, I could become it—the birds, the stars, the clouds. Always in flight. Always looking over.”
“You sure it's not 'cause you'll be looking down on us?"
"Unlike you, I don't have a God complex."
Minho rolled his eyes. "Valid. But that’s not boring. That’s just cheesy.”
“Call it whatever you want,” Seungmin said airily, “but I could be the shooting star that’d make your wish come true. Like getting that fancy microwave, or you know, your dream of opening up an animal shelter.”
“Pipedream," Minho corrects.
"Doesn't have to be."
“Can this not be our post-coital conversation right now?”
Minho sighed. Seungmin had the habit of being a mood killer. “Hey, Kim Seungmin. Not that I’m endorsing your death whatsoever, but you better stay put on the earth for a long time. I don’t want you to ruin the sky for me.”
Seungmin blinked. His hand, warm and big, curved along the side of Minho’s face. “Yeah.” He smiled. “Of course.”
Head up in the clouds, feet planted to the ground. Salt of the earth. Seungmin reached over and grabbed his camera from the nightstand to show Minho the videos he took of him sleep-talking. Minho retaliated by kneeing him in the balls.
Sometimes, Minho wondered what Seungmin was so lost in thought about. But it wasn’t like Minho cared enough to ask. They were really never close to begin with, after all.
Seungmin didn’t have any family. No will either. He died alone while all of his friends were scattered across the globe in varying degrees of estrangement.
“We’re trying to find a day where we all can go to Seungmin’s apartment and, uh, collect his things,” Jeongin says over the phone, as Minho potters into the kitchen to make tea. He feels odd today, woken up off-kilter. “Drinks got rescheduled to tomorrow night, by the way. Can you make it?”
“You guys could have gone through it without me.”
“It’s not the same.”
“It hasn’t been the same for quite some time now.”
Jeongin falls silent. Minho pours water into his cup and jostles the tea bag. Minho realizes the water is cold.
“Hyung,” Jeongin begins quietly. “I know you two were close.”
“Come on. You guys might have fooled the others but you can’t fool me. I know you two kept in constant contact with each other unlike everybody else. Whenever I visited and met up with Seungmin, he—talked about you. Simple, boring things. But it felt like I knew you through him, hyung. And I hadn’t known you since the day things went to shit.”
Minho waits for the water to boil. It’s then he also realizes that he’s using a glass cup to make hot tea.
He's not himself. Everything about his body feels heavy, cotton in his brain and static buzzing underneath his skin. An emptiness from his chest to his stomach, scooped clean into a gaping hollow. Minho tries to fill it with mean words but they just don’t come.
“It’s funny, isn’t it,” Minho muses, “how death brings people together again.”
“You can’t get out of this by changing the subject.”
“I’m not obligated to answer, then.”
“Do you even know why he was at the river that night?”
“Right, because nothing ever does to you,” Jeongin snaps. “How many of us need to drop dead before you stop telling yourself that?”
Minho dumps the cup in the sink. It cracks. He’s holding the tea bag but he forgot what he was going to do with it. Transfer it to a new cup? Compost it and grab a new one? He must have gotten poor sleep last night to be fumbling this much. But he didn’t even sleep. At least he thinks he didn’t. Minho can’t remember. He can’t really think either.
“Sorry,” Jeongin whispers. “That was mean.”
“It’s fine. You’re grieving. People grieve differently.”
“I just miss him a lot.”
“I miss everyone.”
Jeongin is sniffling, his boyish voice thick with mucus. “Please come tomorrow.”
Minho gives up on making tea. He fills the cracked cup with water and watches it overflow.
“Okay,” he answers. “Text me the address.”
Minho lied. He does remember why.
The first rift started with Jisung and Hyunjin’s relationship pivoting towards a rocky direction; the second rift was Changbin’s out-of-the-blue decision to quit music that embittered his friendship with Jisung and Chan; the third rift was the escalation of Jisung and Hyunjin’s break-up, where issues of trust were imposed onto the rest of the group and consequently forced them to take sides; and the last rift that caused most of the above to happen—well, like most things, was because of Minho.
“Uh, hey,” Changbin greets. “I see you still have the habit of showing up fashionably late.”
Minho walks past him into his mansion. “And I see you’re still incredibly wealthy.”
“I’m not that wealthy.”
“Someone who gave up on salvaging his relationships to pursue the successful, family business in real estate, doesn’t get to say that.”
Changbin grimaces. “Damn.”
Minho puts his scarf and coat over the rack, and follows Changbin into the living room. Jeongin waves from one of the couches, and beside him is Hyunjin, who meets his eyes for a quick second before pointedly looking away, face puckered like he ate a lemon. Felix greets him with a bottle of soju.
“Been a while, hyung,” he says with a pained smile and puffy eyes, voice huskier than the last time Minho remembers it being. “Lookin’ good—um, as good as one can be, I guess.”
“Yeah.” Minho accepts the drink. “Real good.”
“We’re just waiting for Chan and Jisung,” Changbin says, before going to the kitchen.
“You smoke now?” Minho asks.
Felix blinks. He brings his collar up to take a whiff. “Do I smell like it?”
“No, you smell like a rat that just discovered cologne. Your voice gave it away.”
“Ugh,” Felix mutters, rubbing his mouth. “I thought I hid it well.”
“Why hide it?”
“It’s not a very reputable habit.”
Felix always cared too much about what other people think. It’s why he caved most of the time to the demands of others, and jumped back and forth between sides during Jisung and Hyunjin’s shitshow. Nobody likes indecision. Nobody likes a wishy-washy heart. But Seungmin would probably tell Felix that rather than being reputable, it was just unhealthy. People who care to speak on it would talk about the detriments on his health, not his image.
Minho says, “Lung cancer is a thing, you know.”
“Yeah.” Felix laughs. He understands. “I know.”
“So what’ve you been up to?”
Felix is a kindergarten teacher now, after he finished up his education degree in Sydney. He lives alone with enough potted plants to call his apartment a terrarium, and named them after 30 out of 88 existing constellations. Minho asks why. Felix says it’s because Seungmin gave him a book about stars. Minho thinks, of course.
Half past ten, Jisung and Chan finally show up. The awkward tension becomes palpable as soon as he and Hyunjin are in the same room, keeping their distance, all the while trying to appear cordial to Changbin. But Chan looks way too tired and resigned to dig up the past, and pulls Changbin into a hug.
“You look like shit,” Chan croaks.
“Who doesn’t?” Changbin pulls away and pats Chan on the shoulder. “You’ve gotten skinnier, hyung.”
“Well, you know how it is—starving artist and all.”
“No, he wouldn’t know,” Jisung mutters.
Chan sends him a disapproving look. “Jisung, come on. Not now.”
“Then when? You think I can stand here and pretend we all buried the hatchet just because Seungmin’s sitting in a fucking urn right now? No, it doesn’t change a single thing, and it won’t.”
“Of course you’d say that,” Hyunjin laughs—a nasty, rough sound. “Nearing your thirties yet you still have the emotional intelligence of a gnat. How’re you even still alive?”
Jisung spits out, “Man, fuck you and your rotten personality.”
“Take a look at yourself, asshole. You haven’t changed at all. There’s no hatchet to bury when you’re the one keeping it alive.”
“I’m not the one who made it come to life in the first place!”
“Hey,” Jeongin snaps. “Can you guys not ruin something for fucking once?”
“Let’s just—um, take a breather, and then come back so we can do what we came here to do: celebrate our friend,” Chan mitigates.
“Whatever,” Hyunjin mutters.
Chan rubs Jisung’s back and directs him to the couch. Jisung busies himself with a drink. Minho looks down at his unopened bottle. He flicks it three times: clink, clink, clink.
Jeongin reminisces the most, and then Felix, and eventually, the rest of them get comfortable enough to put aside their unyielding differences to contribute to the makeshift memorial, though Hyunjin hasn’t stopped sending Minho dirty looks. They drink in Seungmin’s name, Seungmin’s habits, Seungmin’s dreams, Seungmin’s admirable determination. Changbin mentions how Seungmin once helped him wash his hair after he’d sprained his wrist, only to purposely spray water all over his back. Though Changbin wasn’t a fan of being Seungmin’s main prey of misery, he was fond of him—his good dongsaeng. Minho closes his eyes. Salt of the earth.
When it’s Minho’s turn, Jeongin is looking at him. Hyunjin scoffs at the carpet so bitterly that Minho can taste it in his mouth. If Seungmin was here, he’d tell Minho that Hyunjin was born into anger and that it became his default reaction towards anything complex, and death is complex. So are feelings. But he was capable of loving it—that anger, and making it his, so that it could never hurt himself or anyone else again.
Then Seungmin would grow thoughtful, as he always did, and say I’ve always imagined us in the same room again. I’ve wished for it everyday. And Minho would say, that’s such a stupid wish. But Minho would be lying, because Minho is a talented liar, and he would make the same, stupid wish too if it meant he got to see Seungmin again.
Minho puts his bottle down. He still hasn’t opened it. “I never liked him.”
“Dude.” Jisung laughs humourlessly. “At least say something decent.”
“I never liked you either.”
Jisung blinks, clueless. “Huh?”
Hyunjin is staring at Minho. Jeongin looks lost at the admission.
“What am I missing here?” Changbin asks, face ruddy from his third drink. “Why did this just take a confusing turn?”
Hyunjin doesn’t say anything. He gets up and wordlessly walks into the kitchen. Minho sits for a few, heavy seconds, before he follows.
See, Minho and Seungmin were never close to begin with, but they were close enough to sleep with each other. Just a casual thing. Stress relief. Nothing deep, nothing serious—therefore, a secret. But somewhere along the line, like most purely physical relationships, there came feelings. Seungmin easily accepted it, Minho couldn’t. Seungmin was supposed to be a temporary escape, not another problem tying him down. He wasn’t supposed to know Minho. He wasn’t supposed to know about his mother, his dreams, his desertion. He wasn’t supposed to know and Minho couldn’t let it evolve or else—what? Or else what?
“We could be something,” Seungmin had suggested.
Alone, in the film room, wiping down their sticky hands with tissues. Minho paused in the middle of fixing his jeans. “What?”
“We could be something.”
“Why would you want this to be something?”
Seungmin stared at the projector. “It’d be nice, wouldn’t it?”
“To you, maybe, but not to me.”
“I’m not ashamed,” Minho said.
“Then you like someone,” he said, “and I’m their replacement.”
Minho wasn’t supposed to be stupid. Seungmin wasn’t supposed to look at Minho like he could fall from the sky any second. Minho wasn’t supposed to fall in the first place.
“Yeah, I do,” he lied.
Seungmin smiled. Salt of the earth. “Who is it?”
In retrospect, Minho should have accounted for the thin walls. People pass by there all the time, and Hyunjin was another film major who had access to the unused viewing room. Minho also probably should have said he liked Chan instead.
“You’re fucking me,” Hyunjin seethes, pacing around the marble counters with his fingers in his hair. “You’re absolutely fucking me. Do you see me as a joke? Have you always seen me as a joke?”
“Do you want a real answer or a funny one?”
“Fuck you. No, seriously. Fuck you. You made me think—do you know how fucking horrible it was? After hearing that you liked my boyfriend and then watching you guys 'jokingly' flirt around like it was nothing? And Jisung couldn’t communicate for shit because he felt like I was accusing him when all I wanted was affirmation.”
“So you’re blaming me for your whopping insecurities that caused the downfall of your relationship.”
“No, no. You—hyung, you.” Hyunjin stops pacing. He looks like he’s seconds away from losing his mind. “I thought you knew I liked Seungmin before Jisung.”
Minho blinks slowly. He hits a bottle on the counter: clink, clink, clink. “I didn’t.”
“What the fuck.”
“Besides, I slept with Seungmin way after you got together with Jisung, so why does that matter?”
“Because all this fucking time I thought you were getting back at me for stealing Jisung away from you!” Hyunjin lashes out, knocking over the bottles. Clink, clink, clink. “Because why else would you sleep with my best friend I used to crush on if you didn’t even fucking like him? Jisung was already distant and pissed off as it was from Changbin quitting music, so neither of us could say a single fucking decent thing without fighting, and I was so livid! But I was—I was so lonely. Hyung, I was just so lonely. And I got so drunk one night that I tried to—I tried to kiss Seungmin—”
“But he pushed me away and it was the right thing to do because he was such a good fucking person. He was always such a good person but—but what did that make me, then? Scorned? Scum of earth?” Hyunjin laughs, near hysterical, face twisted into the image of bone-deep anger. “Hyung, he told me he liked you. He fucking liked you. I thought if Seungmin was stupid enough to waste his time liking you even though you would never like him back, then it was only a matter of time Jisung would like you back too, because—fuck, it’s you. Why is it always you?”
Minho stumbles back when Hyunjin pushes him. “It’s not always me.”
“No, it fucking is! It is! And it’s because of you that I ruined everything!” He’s crying now, punctuating each word with a jab to Minho’s chest. “Why the fuck did you let me ruin everything?”
Hyunjin is blubbering like a little kid who only ever wanted to be loved, to be deserving of love, who realized he can never take back what he threw away. Because it’s gone, all of it—your childhood, your youth, your people. The precious moments you hid away like little treasures. You can’t have it back. They’ve rotten. They’ve spoiled in the light. They’ve died.
It’s cold outside, ice formed over the windows in gloomy fractals. Minho wants to say hey, Kim Seungmin. You left behind a trailblaze of unresolved resolutions. Can’t you be the one to tie up their loose ends? Can’t you just come back? And Seungmin would answer, I wish. But I think it’s up to you now, hyung.
“I don’t know,” Minho says. "I’m sorry.”
Hyunjin cries even harder. Minho brings him into a hug and lets Hyunjin blame him for everything.
“You can crash here, if you want,” Changbin offers, suddenly sober.
Minho watches Jeongin bring Hyunjin up the stairs, followed by Chan, who was hovering over them like a worried parent. Felix is draping the throw blanket over Jisung after he passed out on the couch from having one too many drinks.
“I think I’ll just head home,” Minho says. “I have work.”
“You didn’t request bereavement leave?”
“Why would I? I’m not grieving.”
Changbin chews at the bottom of his lip and tucks his hands into the pockets of his argyle pajama pants. “I don’t care that you’re not grieving, but the least you could do is show some basic decency for those who are. And that means not insulting the dead.”
Minho looks at him. He looks down at the scarf he was about to wrap around his neck. Seungmin had knitted a hideous cat onto it. It was a birthday gift. Minho told everyone it was made by his niece when they asked. Minho didn’t even have a niece.
“Let’s get coffee sometime, Minho-hyung,” Felix says, diffusing the tension. “I’ve missed you.”
Changbin darts his eyes to where Felix was waiting for him. Resigned, Changbin sucks in a deep breath and walks away.
“Yeah,” Minho answers, opening the door. “Missed you too, Felix.”
He goes home.
It’s dark. Empty. It always is. Hasn’t stopped. Minho sags against the bed and his head throbs like a flickering heat pulse. He should sleep. He has work. He chose the life of a corporate ghoul to fund his mother’s treatment. He has no room for anyone or anything. He never had room for anything else. He needs to keep going. Going, keep going, going, keep going, going—
Air between his fingers. What was he reaching for? Minho doesn’t remember moving. Sometimes, there’s a laugh in his ear, a pair of lips tracing the shape. Hands to the chest. Hands to the face. Outside, the streetlamps are blue. So is the earth; so is the sky. Minho sits in it and waits. He doesn’t know what he’s waiting for but maybe if he waits long enough he’ll wake up. He’ll wake up and hold Seungmin’s hand and rehearse old moments because he’s not dead anymore because he was never dead in the first place. Seungmin will be alive. Seungmin will say to him, at exactly 10:15AM, “Good morning, hyung! I made coffee for you.”
But a dream always stays a dream. Minho knows that better than anyone.
Minho pointed the tip of the screwdriver at Seungmin. “Hey, freeloader. Here I am, using my money and doing all the work, while you’re just fiddling with a camera and doing jackshit. Are you paying me for this? No. You’re not. Where the fuck is the equality?”
“Don’t worry. I’m sure I can provide payment in other ways to compensate you for your labour,” Seungmin said brightly. “And what do you mean I’m doing nothing? I’m documenting a very important part of my life right now.”
“And that is?”
Minho dramatically gagged, resuming his current problem of figuring out how to assemble together the legs of this fucking coffee table. “Disgusting. Absolutely foul. I can’t believe you even said that to my face. Have some shame, Kim Seungmin.”
Seungmin laughed. He came over and crouched down beside Minho to film him struggling. “I tried to call them, by the way, but Hyunjin won’t come because of Jisung and Jisung won’t come because of Changbin-hyung and Channie-hyung is—somewhere. I don’t know. And then Jeongin is busy finishing up his degree and Felix is all the way in Australia, so it’s just us two this year. Again.”
“Happy birthday,” Minho cheered flatly.
“Do you think I should trick them all into the same room? That’d give them the incentive to talk things out, right?”
“Yeah, if you want them to strangle each other instead. Have you forgotten how shit they are at communicating?”
Seungmin deflated. “Then what collective event would bring everyone together again?”
“Oh. Is this your way of proposing to me, hyung? Because yes, I accept.”
Minho looked at him, unamused. “I’d rather marry a nest of dead cats than marry you.”
“Seems in-character enough,” Seungmin quipped, grinning when Minho used the end of the screwdriver to playfully hit him on the shoulder. But then he falls into quiet thought, eyes sliding over to the open window. “I’d just like for all of us to be together again. Is that too much to wish for?”
“No,” Minho said. “You always wish for the most bare minimum of things.”
“Not all the time. You’re the maximum.”
Minho sighed. He threw the screwdriver down onto the floor and covered the camera with a palm. “Hey, birthday boy. If you wanna get to dinner on time, you’re gonna have to put this down and help me with this four-legged piece of shit that is invoking the rage of God within me, okay?”
“Okay,” Seungmin laughed.
Seungmin always knew what he wanted.
He moved through life with unwavering certainty and a malleable routine he abided by. He wasn’t deterred from Minho supposedly having feelings for Jisung. He didn’t even say a single thing when he realized that was probably a lie. Seungmin took everything in stride as things fell apart—after the people he once religiously documented separated, made excuses, evaded, and dropped off the face of the earth.
He still held Minho’s hand underneath the bed sheets. He still woke up early to brew coffee. He still filmed Minho talking in his sleep, or whenever they went out together for dinner or for a walk by the river, or boring things a boring person would capture. And it didn't matter how many times Minho shot it down in flames; Seungmin still believed there was something in nothing.
Years slipped by. They never did anything great. They never kept track of things. When you’ve been with someone long enough, you don’t need to.
“Hey,” Seungmin said, tracking the puckered starburst on Minho’s rib with a finger. Tap, tap, tap, as if his skin had a sound. “How’d you get this?”
Minho watched him yawn into the pillow. “A fruit knife.”
It did. “No, not really.”
“From your mom?”
“She was peeling pears,” he said, looking away. “I came home early that day and she thought I was her boyfriend from high school.”
Seungmin hummed, sleepy and soft. When Minho pretended to be asleep, he felt something warm and soft brush against the scar—moving, as though mouthing magical words could heal the tissue and the memory beneath it.
How stupid, Minho thought, how terrifying. Minho grabbed Seungmin’s startled face and kissed him for it anyway.
Bear your skin open and you will inescapably be known. Because, you see, Minho’s mother is unwell. And he has dedicated most, if not all, of his life to her. When his grandmother died, the role of a caretaker was passed down to him. Minho felt more like a mother than his own mother ever was. He cried over her like she cried over him when he had a fever. So there was never any room for anybody else. Not people, not friends, not lovers—not even when Minho finally reached his breaking point and stuck her in some clinic during his last year of university, promising to visit but never visiting again.
You could fuck it all out but it’ll still be there waiting for you once you ride off that high: the feeling of betrayal niggling at the back of your mind, the feeling of weakness, cowardice. You chose to abandon your mother when your mother didn’t choose to abandon you. How do you exonerate yourself from the burden of guilt? You let your dreams rot in her memory, the price of freedom.
Seungmin wholeheartedly believed in the vision Minho pulled out of the ass of his 12-year old self. But what Seungmin didn’t know was that Minho’s childhood sentiment turned into resentment. Seungmin didn’t know that Minho had no room for love when all the love you’ve known your entire life was just wishing for your own mother to die.
So, no. If someone were to ask Minho if he loved Seungmin, he would laugh and say no. Of course not. He was just a good fuck of six years. Holding hands, washing each other’s hair, making coffee, laughing and sharing jokes and arguing and speaking nonsense—those were just an act. They meant nothing because they were always nothing.
But you should know, by now, that Minho is also a good liar.
Chan calls him out for lunch, so Minho meets him at the quaint little bistro he texted Minho the address of. They get seated, eat, and things are fine at first—until Chan opens his mouth for something other than small talk.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
Minho feels like he’s missed a few memos. “Why wouldn't I be okay?”
“No, I mean—I heard what Changbin said to you the other night. It’s wrong to expect a certain reaction to death, because people handle it differently. I understand it’s hard to feel a lot for someone you were never really close with, so I hope you didn’t take his words too much to heart.”
“Yeah,” Minho says. “Thanks.”
Chan clears his throat, wiping his mouth with a napkin. Changbin was right. He’s gotten skinnier; his face has lost the fullness of youth, and his smile looks almost skeletal. “How did you do it? Make Hyunjin—I don’t know, less hostile? None of us knows what happened because Jeongin kept us from going into the kitchen and we were all drunk enough to comply, but you must have done something. He’d been so sensitive that not even Felix could talk to him after the funeral.”
Minho shrugs. He taps his fork against the plate. Clink, clink, clink. “I just listened to him.”
“That simple, huh?” Chan laughs and it sounds weird. Wrong. “I’m trying to figure out a way to get Jisung and Changbin to reconcile, but they’re both stubborn as hell after all these years. Hyunjin being back in Jisung’s life doesn’t make the tension any better, but since Hyunjin has gotten less—vitriolic, so to speak, maybe Jisung will too.”
“They’re an absolute landmine.”
Chan’s eyes soften. “Yeah, but I’ve never stopped loving them. I’ve never stopped loving us all either. Seeing everybody together again, sharing a laugh over drinks and talking and—and something. Just something. Seungmin would have liked this, wouldn’t he?”
Yeah, he would. “Don’t ask me. I don’t know what he would and wouldn’t have liked. Actually, if anything, he would’ve called you guys losers by now.”
“You’re funny.” Chan laughs. Maybe laughing a bit too much. “You’re really funny. It’s nice. It’s good. Makes things hurt less when it’s funny. When I heard the news, I couldn’t believe it. Kim Seungmin, aspiring filmmaker and all, went to the river at buttfuck o’clock in the night and died just like that! Like, wow! Did he—did he get hit by a car? Is that how he fell into the water? Did he slip? I mean, gosh. It’s—what a joke, right? Hilarious.”
Minho kind of knows where this is going.
Chan was subject to bouts of white knightisms. He was also subject to a lot of bad thoughts. He was someone who felt so strongly about the people he cared for that anything minor meant a stain on his own character, who disappeared to pursue the thing he loved the most even though it bore no substantial fruit—even though it meant sacrificing any existing possibility of a surviving friendship. Chan thought he could carry everyone's burdens on top of his own when humans are frail enough to break under the pressure of a single one. Chan was supposed to keep them together, but he didn’t, and he must have felt like he failed Seungmin the most.
If Seungmin was here, he would probably call him stupid. Minho would agree with him.
“Yeah, it’s hilarious,” Minho says. “Do you think it’s also hilarious that you’ve been neglecting yourself?”
“You don’t have to act strong in front of me. You’re not okay, hyung, so be not okay.”
Chan visibly stiffens. He looks down at his untouched food—chuckling, laughing, fingers shaking around the cutlery, voice hoarse and staticky. “I—uh. I…” And then, his face crumples, and he squeezes his eyes shut. “I promised I’d make a soundtrack for his film, one day.”
“You can cry.” Minho reaches over to hold his pinky finger. “The food needs a bit of salt anyway.”
That startles Chan into a laugh, and it sounds the closest to right.
Seungmin once said he wanted to be buried in the sky. So, Minho humoured the thought of being a pilot so he could take Seungmin wherever he wanted to go, flying thousands of miles inside his head.
But planes were pretty fragile in the grand scheme of things. The engines blew up the moment he needed it to work the most.
Minho had heard, from the clinic, that his mother’s condition had grown worse. A visit from her busy, sweet, filial son would help. But which son did she want? The 12-year old or the 26-year old? The one not yet born or the one who died in the womb? Minho stared at his phone until the sun toppled down behind the buildings. Until Seungmin came back from the studio. Until Seungmin suggested, “I can come with you. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I’d like to meet her wherever and whoever she thinks she is that day.”
“You don’t even know how she’ll react to you.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “I like surprises.”
You are going to see the worst of her. “No.”
Because you are going to see the worst of me too. “What’s the point of letting her meet someone I’ll dispose of any day now?”
Remind him. Humble him. Dig into the wound. Pry it open. Salt it. Salt of the earth. Let it bubble and sting. It felt good to hurt someone. It felt good to tear down a dream that didn’t belong to him. It felt good to see the look on Seungmin’s face: mouth free falling into a frown, eyes opening like a wound—like the starburst on his rib. So Minho did it again. Hurt him. You could hurt him and get away with it because he meant absolutely nothing to you.
“Actually, that’s something you should accept, Seungmin. Disposability. The family you’re trying to build again? They’re never coming back. They disposed you just like they disposed each other. You can’t force a family, but then again—you wouldn’t know what a family is supposed to be like in the first place, would you?”
Seungmin recovered calmly. Unreactive. Clink, clink, clink, went his finger against a bottle. Habitual. “I do know, because I still have one.”
“What you know doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true.”
“But when it comes to you, it is.”
“Oh, so you think you know me now ‘cause you’ve fucked me long enough? Then tell me. Tell me how much you think you know me better than myself.”
“You get cruel when you’re nervous,” he answered in a clinical manner. “You like it when small changes are noticed about you. You hate it when people assume things about you. Your mother is a burden you’ve been running away from. You think she’ll never get better when you actually don’t want her to get better—”
“—because that means you’ll have to take care of her again.”
Minho gritted his teeth. “What else.”
Seungmin looked away. His eyes frosted over with the pale cloudlight, as though he realized what he would lose if he were to continue. But Seungmin had more integrity than the rest of them combined. He always had. He valued the barebones of honesty more than the comfort of pretense. And maybe, then and there, at Minho’s cruelest—he decided what should have been decided a long time ago.
And he continued. “I know you’re scared that you love me.”
Seungmin always knew what Minho wanted. He always, always knew.
“You are delusional.” Minho laughed, feeling something ugly fester at the back of his throat—an ingrained, knee-jerk instinct (to run away, because Seungmin was right and always right) that had words he didn’t mean lunging past his mouth. “Know this, Kim Seungmin: why would I be scared if I never fucking did?”
And then Minho left, because Minho should have left a long time ago, too. And then Seungmin called once but Minho didn’t answer. And then Seungmin never called again. And then they never saw each other again. And then Minho visited his mother alone for the first time in years. And then he returned to a life of isolation and a life of nothing.
Minho tried not to care. They’ve been together since Minho was 20 and they've kept it a secret for six years. A waste of time, wasn’t it? But this was what he expected, because it wasn’t like they were anything serious to begin with. They were never close. These things happen. This was just part of life’s underbelly.
But Minho looked up, once in a while, over the next two years, wondering if Seungmin saw the same sky as him. Because Seungmin used to say the clouds were travellers—more so than the stars. They would follow you to the ends of the earth.
If only the dead can too.
Minho has been to Seungmin’s apartment many times, but he tries not to show any ounce of familiarity with it.
Chan was striking up a conversation with the neighbours who gave their condolences while the rest of them pottered around the apartment that had collected a bit of dust. Felix picks up a book, and reads the title, “Nonprofit Management: Principles and Practices.”
“I thought he graduated in film,” Changbin says. “Who willingly studies business shit?”
“Probably a side hustle,” Felix replies, putting the textbook down among scattered notes to pick a periodical up. “Since when was he interested in animal welfare? We should probably help him cancel these subscriptions.”
Minho catches a glimpse of the periodical. There’s an odd discomfort wriggling underneath his skin. He looks away and watches Hyunjin sift through the kitchen cabinets while Jisung productively does nothing by only screaming at a tiny, skittering spider. Jeongin, on the other hand, slips inside Seungmin’s room.
“Now, about the supernatural,” Chan says, showing up by Minho’s side. “I think—”
“Hyung, if you talk about ghosts, I am literally about to jump out the window,” Jisung threatens. “I cannot deal with that shit right now!”
“Seungmin is way too mild-mannered to, like, turn into an evil spirit,” Felix says. “If anything, he’s probably like Caspar trying to decide how to scare us into peeing our pants. I think he’d like it if we peed our pants.”
Changbin shudders. “He would like that.”
“Look,” Chan sighs, “I’m just saying—”
Jisung childishly yells out gibberish, plugging his ears. “La-la-la! I can’t hear you! I’m a non-believer!”
“Can somebody shut him up?” Hyunjin demands. “He’s gonna get us in trouble for causing a disturbance in both the living and the dead world.”
Jisung uncovers his ears to say, “I hope you rot alone in that tiny little hermit hole you crawled out of—wait, that’s just your ass.”
“You wish you even had an ass!”
“So, like, did we all just collectively forget about our unresolved existing issues with each other?” Felix asks innocently. “Not that I’m complaining, because God, it’s been so tiring hearing about you guys through the grapevine.”
“The real question is: why are we talking about holes?” Changbin wails.
A crash from elsewhere startles them all into silence, and is followed by Jeongin’s less than reassuring yell of, “I’m okay!”
They move into Seungmin’s room, where Jeongin was picking up filmography ephemera that had fallen from the messy shelf—uncharacteristic of Seungmin, since he was always so clean and tidy. Minho approaches the bed and touches the pillow with his fingertips. Seungmin had been here, sleeping in his well-made bed, just a few days ago.
It’s unnerving to think about. Seungmin was here touching his camera. He was here typing on his computer. He was here looking out the window. And now, all that’s left are his neatly lined, colour-coordinated journals; the hamper of unwashed laundry he was going to do today, because he always does it on Fridays; the slippers tossed askew that implied he’d left home in a haste; the empty bottles he habitually hit his finger against; the beaded heart necklace Hyunjin made.
But then Minho notices the humidifier he’d given Seungmin for his sinuses. The purple sweater he replaced after Seungmin stained his first one with coffee. The seat cushion Minho bought since Seungmin spent hours sitting and working from home. Even the portable brewer was there, on the window sill, as though Seungmin wanted everything that was left of Minho to be near him.
“Does anybody know his password?” Jisung asks. “The hint just says ‘where the sky meets the earth’. Like, the fuck does that mean.”
Jeongin looks up from where he was tidying up the clutter. “Could be like, heaven, or something biblical.”
“Doubt it. Seungmin couldn’t even tell Joseph from Judas.”
Felix winces. “Not Judas.”
“It’s Bolivia,” Minho says.
Jisung sends him a quizzical look. “Bolivia?”
“Why’re you looking at me? Type it in.”
Jisung follows his directive. “Dude,” he says with feeling, logged in. The wallpaper is a cat. “How.”
Minho nudges Jisung aside to take control of the laptop. It was still decorated in Minho’s ugly kitty stickers. The desktop was completely empty, save for a single folder near the wastebasket. Minho clicks it open, and finds an untitled hour and a half-long video. The thumbnail is Seungmin smiling.
“Fuck,” Jisung says.
“What is it?” Chan comes over to ask, as does everyone else. “Oh.”
“I don’t think I can do this,” Hyunjin whimpers.
Jeongin doesn’t say anything. Felix mutters, “I think I’m going to hurl,” the same time Changbin exclaims, “What are we waiting for? Play it!”
Minho tells everybody to shut the fuck up before he double-clicks on the video.
The screen is black, at first, accompanied by sounds of rustling. Then, Seungmin appears—up close, adjusting the camera, beaming once he arranges it at a perfect angle. He scoots away until his back hits the wall, face dappled by the warm light slicing through the blinds, harsh shadows engraved underneath his eyes. Tired, hazy, bright. Minho clenches his jaw and forces himself to look at him—to look at Seungmin, because this is what he wanted to keep but chose to lose.
Seungmin doesn’t say anything at first. Just sits there, gathering words, long sleeves covering his fidgeting hands. Head in the clouds that eventually returns to the earth.
“I think the unpredictable is what makes life interesting,” he says to the camera, “but also pretty inconvenient, because you don’t know when you’re going to die. And if you’re watching me at this exact moment, it must mean I’m really dead, right? How weird to think about. Kind of meta, actually. I made this video on pure instinct. I never thought about my own death. I just—hope I didn’t die alone, I guess. But it’s okay if I did. I’m not sad. I was surrounded by you guys for most of my life. That makes up for it, I think.”
Seungmin laughs sheepishly, scratching the back of his neck. “That’s kind of embarrassing to say, but since I’m dead, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about anymore, right?”
Hyunjin is already crying. He won’t stop pacing around behind Minho.
“There was a project I did for my first year digital production course. My professor wanted us to do a short film on something as simple as what we love. I chose to make a film on the salt sea of Uyuni in Bolivia—where, after heavy rain, the earth reflects the skies. But, well, actually—I made another video that I never finished for the project, until today. So here you go. Be right back!”
Seungmin waves and covers the screen with a hand. Another black screen, another silence. Then, voices.
“Dude, you’re supposed to turn left.”
“No, the sign literally says to turn right.”
“I’m the one with the GPS right now!”
“Hyunjin-ah, you don’t even know what’s north and what’s south. You really expect me to believe you’ll know left from right too?”
“Hey, fuck you!”
A scenic shot of the sunset from inside a moving car flickers to life. Bright and citrus, almost like pink lemonade. The camera panned over to where Changbin was in the driver’s seat, engaged in a shouting match with Hyunjin in the passenger’s seat. Seungmin turned to Jeongin sitting beside him.
“Jeonginie,” he said, “how do you feel about this adventure today?”
“Sick,” Jeongin groaned, teeth flashing with braces. “Like I’m about to throw up, and I really like to keep my food in my stomach, you know. Can’t we just find Changbin-hyung’s weird dessert place another day where you guys won’t disagree on every single fucking direction?”
Huynjin gasped, affronted, as he spun around. “You’re literally a child. Why are you swearing?”
“I’m fucking eighteen!”
Seungmin laughed behind the camera. Then there was Felix, in a pink apron, frantically mixing together a bowl of chocolate chip batter at the kitchen of their shared dorm, while Chan looked on with growing concern every time Felix asserted more aggression. Seungmin hummed and zoomed in on his face, where the shadows made his freckles more prominent.
“It’s fucking exam season, man,” Felix said. “It’s fucking go time. It’s time to fucking go.”
Chan laughed dubiously. “Go where? The toilet?”
“You’ve also been saying that for the past hour now,” Hyunjin said, out of the frame. “Should we be concerned?”
Jisung yelled from another room, “Leave him alone, babe! He’s making cheesecake cookies for me!”
“Don’t exploit your own friend, asshole!”
“But he makes the best cookies!”
“You do make the best cookies,” Seungmin confirmed, using a finger to scoop up cookie dough. The silence after the taste test, however, was absolutely stifling. “Oh. So, um. I think you put salt instead of sugar.”
Felix looked like he was about to cry.
“Hey, Seungmin!” Jeongin called from elsewhere. “Pick an outfit for me!”
“Don’t cry, little dude,” Chan pleaded. “Please don’t.”
There was the day at the beach, where Jisung ambitiously laid to claim the entirety of the shore by planting his butt silhouette into the sand, before he was tossed into the ocean by Changbin and Chan. Minho was spraying Hyunjin with sunscreen like it was an insecticide, and Felix was burying Jeongin alive in the sand, only leaving his nipples out. Seungmin flipped the camera and held it up in the air, capturing all of them in the same frame.
Then, there was Hyunjin and Jisung grossly showing public displays of affection in the student union building. The camera slowly slid to Jeongin—deadpanned and unamused, whose eyes held the weight of more disgust than any average witness. There was Chan piggybacking Felix out on the quad, before tripping and landing themselves in a pile of fresh bird shit. There was Changbin wrestling Minho into the bushes, after Minho called him Shrek’s ugly twin. There was Seungmin, grinning beside Changbin whose mouth had fallen wide open in his sleep.
And it went on, and on, and on: these random occurrences that Seungmin caught on camera, put together almost like a diaristic vlog, a timelapsed compilation of the happiest moments of their lives where they existed together. Of what Seungmin missed. Of what he wanted.
“Dude, you fell asleep like that in broad daylight? In public?” Jisung asks, startling Minho in the present.
“Hyung is such an ugly sleeper,” Felix cries.
“Shut the fuck up!” Changbin complains, vigorously rubbing his eyes. “I have insomnia!”
Chan can’t breathe. “You look like—you look like a Piranha.”
“That could honestly just be your real estate photo.” Jisung sniffles. “If you did that, I’d forgive you in a heartbeat.”
Changbin loses his chance to respond when the video’s rowdy laughter slowly transitions into a shot of the blue sky, and then—Minho.
Everyone falls into confused silence. Minho was buried under the covers, mumbling nonsense in his sleep, pillow lines across his cheeks. Seungmin poked his head into the frame and whispered, “It’s currently 10:04AM. Looks like Minho-hyung wants coffee in his dreams again. I’m going to go make some before he wakes up in about—eleven minutes, since he’s awfully cranky without it. Hey, hyung. Are you watching this? Get me a new coffee maker already!”
Then he gently brushed aside the bangs from Minho’s face, and kissed the top of his head.
“Oh,” Minho breathes.
Minho can feel it. The hollow is overflowing with something he can’t hold in his hands—like water, like a dream dissolving into aspartame. Clawing and clawing for the light that won't solidify.
“What are you? A YouTuber?” Minho remembers this clip: it’d been Seungmin’s birthday. They made it in time for dinner to the barbeque place after they finally assembled that fucker of a table. “Can’t you just eat without filming everything? And why am I the one doing all the grilling?”
“Because it’s my birthday and you’re paying, so you might as well do everything else,” Seungmin replied with great enthusiasm. He zoomed in on the meat. “Wow, wow, wow. Hyung, you’re burning them all.”
“Put that thing any closer and the meat won’t be the only thing burning.”
Seungmin brought his camera back and settled on just filming Minho normally. “So, what’s my present this year?”
“What?” Minho scoffed. “Food isn’t enough?”
“Well, you did mention birthday se—”
Minho shouted gibberish, threatening him with the pair of tongs, and Seungmin laughed. It was the brightest thing on the planet.
He can feel eyes at the back of his head, the sides of his face, but Minho doesn’t look at them. He can’t. Seungmin filmed their hands as they walked along the river; as they bantered and argued about nonsensical things; as Minho laughably recreated the poses of patinated statues; as Seungmin caught all the times he successfully provoked Minho into tacky-sweet threats and near-death experiences; as they threw pennies into a wishing well and imagined a future where you could pilot a moon in the ocean; as Seungmin gently traced the slope of Minho’s nose in his sleep, whispering about how he found a star in between the valley of Minho's philtrum that he named the Wishbone—all these hazy, passing snapshots of simplicity and the unconventional nothing.
The ocean above their heads. Clouds, birds, planes. Stars and the trees. Telephone lines. Salt of the earth. Minho looking over his shoulder. Minho staring lifelessly at the camera. Minho laughing at the person behind the camera. Minho, Minho, Minho, so much Minho—
“I had a nice dream last night, hyung.”
“Yeah. You owned, like, three cats, and your mom came by to make miyeok-guk for my birthday. Everyone showed up too. Jeonginie had this awful haircut that we wouldn’t stop making fun of, and Changbin-hyung was insanely buff. Channie-hyung was eating well and Felix almost dropped the cake. Jisungie and Hyunjinie were talking again, too. It made me happy to see. And then, before I woke up—I told them I love you.”
Minho gets up and walks out.
Breathe in, breathe out. There’s a hole in his chest, like Seungmin had reached through the screen, laced his fingers around his ribcage, and pried it open to hold Minho’s beating heart. Maybe that’s why Minho is heartless, because Seungmin kept it and took it to his grave—because Seungmin will never be able to give it back to him anymore.
He’s suddenly outside. His windburned cheeks sting like pinprick static. Body shivering, shoulders hunching, fingers trembling. It’s so cold and there’s nothing but salt in his mouth.
Footsteps crunch behind him. Minho is sitting on the ground. He doesn’t remember sitting on the ground. He’s sticking his hands into a pile of snow and he doesn’t remember doing that either. What is he doing? What did he do? Why did he do it? He thinks about Seungmin’s face that night—surprise, disappointment, hurt. Finger hitting the bottle. Clink, clink, clink. Three times. Come back, Seungmin. You’re not dead. You don’t belong in the sky. We’re just living in your dream. Can’t you hear it? I’ll do it as many times as you need. Clink, clink, clink. Wake up. Come back. Please come back.
“You’re going to get sick,” Jeongin calls.
Mouth opening, letting the salt drip in, choking on false starts. Jeongin crouches down beside him to take his hands out of the snow, red and glacial. He covers them.
“Hyung,” Jeongin says in the barest whisper. “You love him.”
Minho laughs. It sounds distorted in his ears. “No, I didn’t. Of course I didn’t. I never did. I never even liked him. Why would I love him? He’s dead. He’s dead and—and good riddance. Good fucking riddance.”
“He must have loved you a lot too.”
Jeongin is crying now. “You’re so mean. You and Seungmin are so fucking mean. Why didn’t you tell us? Why did you two stop?"
“Because,” Minho says, “because—”
“We could be something,” Seungmin had suggested, once.
In the film room. Sweat. Warm breaths. Hands sticky. Seungmin, pink in all the inconspicuous places. Minho never even noticed.
Seungmin wanted more and he always wanted more because he never went into this relationship with anything but more. He was terrible and terrifying and all Minho wanted to do was fuck because he thought he could outrun the shame of wishing his mother dead. Because he was ashamed of only knowing love as a burden he had to carry. Because he was ashamed of the lonely, empty room he wanted to fill but didn’t know how. Because he was ashamed of fearing that he wanted more than he could ever compensate for, of how much he wanted to say—yeah, we could. We can. Because when Seungmin asked if he was ashamed, Minho was so ashamed of being ashamed, that he lied.
Lying never got him anywhere but the deep end.
How do you know you won’t turn out to be the same as your predecessors? That love won’t turn into resentment—into another burden, another death wish? That you won’t stifle people the same way your mother stifled you? If you never loved him, then nothing would hurt, right? If you never loved him, then his death wouldn’t mean anything to you and you wouldn’t be running away and you wouldn’t be here on the ground with salt on your face and the youngest out of everyone holding you close to his chest. If you never loved him, then maybe he wouldn’t have drowned in the closest thing to the sky.
If only you never loved him.
Jeongin whispers, “Come back inside, hyung.”
“He’s not coming back.”
“He’s not coming back.”
“But you can.”
“The weather is awful,” Minho says numbly. “The weather is so awful.”
“Yeah, it is.” Jeongin is pulling Minho up to his feet. The world, blurry and spinning and white. “So let’s go back, okay?”
If Seungmin was here, he’d say: listen to him, hyung. Dress warmer next time. And Minho would be like, come and say that to my face. And then Seungmin would laugh and tell him to go back inside. Just go back already. And Minho would love him too much to say no. He’d say, okay. Okay, I’ll go back.
And so they went back inside, away from all the weather out there.
“Hi. I’m back. Was it too cheesy? Hm. It doesn’t matter. Call it whatever you want. I should probably end this video soon. Ah, well… I hope everyone is happy and healthy. I hope everyone isn’t fighting anymore. I hope Channie-hyung remembers to eat and take care of himself. I hope Changbin-hyung maintains his principles confidently. I hope Hyunjinnie can smile and laugh without any regrets. I hope Jisungie knows he isn’t alone and that he doesn’t have to be. I hope Felix is proud of who he is and not what he thinks he’s supposed to be. I hope Jeonginie knows how much he’s loved and appreciated.
And, Minho-hyung. There’s not much left to say, is there? Because you already know, and I do too. I’ve always known. Whether it’s night or morning—please remember to look up at me, hyung. I’m there. I’m right there. You’ll always find me where the sky meets the earth.”
Hyunjin borrows Felix’s pack of cigarettes. Minho follows and asks for one. Hyunjin hesitates and hands it over.
They smoke together outside the convenience store. Minho blows smoke through his teeth. Probably bad for his enamel. He can’t find it in himself to care. The aftertaste of death is less lonely when it lingers around to eat at your lungs.
“I didn’t think you two were an actual thing,” Hyunjin says quietly.
Hyunjin scoffs. “No, but—hyung, I held this personal vendetta against you for years because I thought you just saw him as a fuckbuddy. That you were just playing with his feelings. I said all that shit the other night with my whole chest, but then seeing the video and how much you two actually—dude. What the fuck.”
Minho doesn’t say anything.
“I was really mad. I thought of how we could have avoided all this bullshit. But it’s the unpredictable that makes life inconvenient, isn’t it?” Hyunjin murmurs, kicking a pebble with the tip of his shoe. “Hey, but for what it’s worth—you two seemed really good together. We probably could have gone on double dates.”
“You know, I would’ve gladly said no,” Minho says, pulling a face, “but then again, I suppose I wouldn’t have minded since Seungmin would’ve caught how disgusting you two were on camera and we’d have enough content to create a channel solely based on romance mutiny.”
“You must have really loved him enough to be willing to go through all that.”
“Huh.” Minho never stopped. “I guess so.”
Hyunjin laughs a bit. He seems a bit more like himself than Minho has ever remembered him being.
“Are you going to talk to Jisung?”
“Not yet, but—soon. I will. I know I will. Just—trying to let everything pass before I dive back into a possible shitshow. Gonna let him work things out with Changbin-hyung first.”
“Good.” Hyunjin slants him a smile. “So what are you going to do now?”
Minho watches the smoke thin out like sheets of ice. In the past two years of radio silence, Seungmin had dedicated his time researching and preliminary planning to open up an animal shelter—at least, the framework of one: establishing possible boards, attending seminars and conferences, studying management. All of it was condensed into a small volume of notes made out to a Lee Minho.
There was a call from the clinic before the call from Jeongin. Somebody had paid off the majority of the medical debt gathered from his mother’s long-term treatment. He didn’t think much of it at the time; just wrote it off as charity from his father who was probably still alive somewhere. But of course Seungmin would empty out his entire life savings account on something as useless as this—on somebody as useless as Minho. Of course.
Inhale, exhale. Let it scratch the back of your throat. Let it burn a bit. Let it hurt a bit. You deserve it. Minho crouches down and snuffs out the flame. He stands up, and says, “I’m going to visit my mother.”
Seungmin was odd sometimes. Lost in the clouds, lost in the earth. He was still in bed even after Minho came home from work. Laptop on his lap, glasses perched crookedly on his nose. Underscent of rain, of sandalwood. Eyes wandering to the edge of the earth—distant, hazy, bright.
Minho came over and noticed the pillow lines. He gently curved his hand along the side of Seungmin’s face. “Did you fall asleep? Your cheeks are so warm.”
“I’ve been sleeping for a while now,” Seungmin said, leaning into the touch. “Hey, hyung. Am I worthwhile?”
“What’s with that all of a sudden?” Minho ran his thumb over the mole on Seungmin’s cheek. “I just worked with a bunch of old, middle-aged men in corporate hell. Can’t you bring this back up again tomorrow?”
“Yeah, okay. Tomorrow.”
“You’re acting so weird right now,” Minho said.
“No I’m not. I just like it—the word tomorrow. The day tomorrow. See you tomorrow. Hyung, you’re tomorrow.”
“Because I live here.”
Seungmin smiled. “The sky’s really blue today, isn’t it?”
“I can’t keep up with this conversation, Seungmin. Your one-track mind is giving me whiplash.” Minho pinched his cheek until Seungmin swatted his hand away. “I’m making dinner since you clearly aren’t going to do anything for the rest of the night.”
“Wait, I’ll record it—”
“It’s a secret,” Seungmin sang, putting his laptop aside to get out of bed. “Don’t worry, hyung. I’ll tell you one day. I tell you everything, don’t I?”
Minho deadpanned, “Uh-huh. Well, if you’re gonna film me, then at least wash the tomatoes before they rot in the fridge.”
Minho tries to imagine it: Seungmin, alone in his room, clawing at all these moments of the past everyday and everynight. Is that what he did all day? Laying in bed, wearing Minho’s purple sweater, watching the family he couldn’t fix laugh like they could never need fixing at all. Staying up well past midnight, watching Minho cook dinner and wash dishes like it was a meteorological phenomenon when it was just another boring checkpoint of their routine.
Minho tries to imagine it differently: Seungmin, accompanied by Minho in his room, watching all these moments of the past together until the sun went down. Minho would say, I can’t believe you filmed that. And Seungmin would say, yeah, of course I did. Minho would tell him he liked the pennies in the wishing well. Seungmin would be like me too, hyung. Let’s go back and make another wish. And Minho would be like, okay. I’ll wish for you to come back everyday, then. And Seungmin would probably laugh. He always laughed at the silly ones.
Minho calls in sick at work, and arrives at the clinic with a knot in his throat.
He checks in with the receptionist, and tries not to squirm underneath her scrutiny. He only waits a few minutes before he’s brought up to a room he hasn’t visited in years. The nurse tells him she’s in a mild condition today—not the best, but not the worst either, the underlying message being: be careful. Because all she sees, sometimes, is another unrecognizable face, or a face she wants to hurt, or a face she can’t grasp as real when all she remembers is the 12-year old version.
Inside, his mother is sitting in the bed. Long, brittle hair, draped over the shoulders, an IV hanging from her arm. She’s looking out the window. Then, she’s looking at him—cloudy, confused, wondering.
“Hi,” he says, tentatively sitting on the chair by her bedside. “Do you know who I am?”
His mother stares at him closely, mouth hesitant. Her hand, lifting, barely touches the sides of his face. “You look like my husband,” she murmurs, voice crackling from disuse. Her eyes clear up just the slightest. “But you’re not my husband.”
“I’m Minho, your son.”
“Minho? Oh. Oh. Yes, Minho. Minho, my son. I have a son. You’re my son.” She sits up further. “You—Minho-ah, when did you get so big? Since when were you so grown? Don’t you have dance practice today?”
Minho is 28. He hasn’t had dance practice since he was in middle school. “I do, but I just wanted to see you first.”
“See me? But you see me everyday,” she laughs a little, patting down his shoulders with trembling hands. “What a good son you are! Don’t overwork yourself, alright? Are you hungry? Should I make your favourite pancake snack for you? You make the cutest face whenever I make it. Oh, but I can’t—I don’t think I can. Maybe I can ask your grandmother. Is she out buying oranges again? I bet she’s trying to look for the ones from Jeju Island.”
“I’m not hungry,” Minho reassures, swallowing past the knot, the tangled words. Feet restlessly shaking. “Halmeoni is—she’s been busy lately, so it’s fine. You don’t have to worry about me.”
His mother frowns. She leans forward a bit, eyes tracing his downturned lips. “You’re sad. Why’re you so sad, Minho-ah?”
“I’m not sad.”
“Was it the mean kids at school again? Should I call their parents?”
“No. No, don’t call them.”
“Oh, but what should I do, then? Minho-ah, you’re so sad. There, there,” she coos, patting the top of his head when he couldn’t look at her anymore. “You’ll always be my baby. You can always come to eomma when you’re sad, okay?”
“Sorry,” he whispers.
His mother hums, confused. “For what?”
Minho can feel her thin arms wrapped around his hunched over figure. Somewhere, in the fuzzy cotton canals of his mother’s brain—there’d been love, once, wasn’t there? When she made him his favourite snack everyday after school. When she held his hand down the escalator when he was too scared to go down alone. When she hugged him so tight once his fever broke. When she peppered his face with kisses and said, “I love you so much, Minho-ah! You know that, don’t you?” When she taught him how to cook because he wanted to know her way of loving. Because if she hadn’t loved him, then how else would Minho have known what love was at all?
“Sorry,” he says, and it sounds like an ocean. “I’m sorry.”
She rubs his back soothingly. “It’s okay, baby. Why’re you crying? Don’t cry. Eomma will be sad if you cry.”
His mother probably won’t remember this tomorrow. His mother will soon become overly jumbled at all the inconsistent facts to this reality, the face too grown up to be in middle school, and Minho will have to leave, and the nurses will tell him to come back next time. Or maybe never. Because your mother won’t get better. Because, Seungmin had once said, you don’t want her to get better, or else you’ll be stuck looking after her again.
But Minho loves his mother. He doesn’t want to be ashamed of being ashamed of her anymore.
“Can I see you tomorrow?” Minho croaks, slowly sitting up. The world, blurry and white. The world, who used to love him in a way it couldn’t remember anymore. “I’d like to see you again tomorrow.”
His mother smiles, as though he’d asked a silly question. “Of course.”
Tomorrow, Minho will go home miserable because her mother will think he is the loan-junkie uncle he outlived years ago. But he’ll come back again, and again. And the next time, after endless tomorrows, Minho will find the chance where she will recognize him as the 28-year old and not the 12-year old, and tell her all about Kim Seungmin. And she will say, he sounds like such a good person. And Minho will say, yeah—he’s the salt of the earth, isn’t he?
Minho wakes up and finds a part of his heart at his feet.
A little chipped around the edges, a little misshapen. But it still fits. He puts it back like a puzzle piece inside his chest and waits for the rest of it to show up at random. Seungmin never liked to just take things. He was the sharing type. Minho thinks, of course.
It’s weird that he doesn’t have work today. His routine is off. Quitting his job was a whim but a whim he doesn’t regret. Everyone hasn't gone back home yet. They're still here, working things out, remembering how things used to be. Chan had suggested all of them could help with the shelter. Changbin was loaded, Jisung knew a bunch of lawyer friends—though questionably, since they were all online—and Jeongin was the only one with a practical degree. Hyunjin was eager to help with the media-related aspects, and Felix designated himself as the mood lifter and morale maintainer.
Minho doesn’t remember the last time they all came together to work towards a collective goal. Hey. Are you seeing this, Kim Seungmin? You probably are. As it turns out, Jisung really did forgive Changbin as soon as he changed his real estate photo to him sleeping with his jaw unhinged. Hyunjin and Jisung are still in a horrible, awkward state of not-friends, but they’re healing. They all are, because of you.
He looks at his phone and exits the alarms. He sends a message telling Jisung, who’s been spamming photos of frogs non-stop in the freshly made group chat, to send cats instead. Minho walks out to the kitchen. Listens to the coffee percolate. Taps his finger against the porcelain cup: clink, clink, clink. Three times. He lets the sun drape a shawl of warmth over him, and waits for a minute to pass.
From the earth, Minho looks out the window—up at the blue sky, where the birds and the clouds are, and at 10:15AM, he says to it, “Good morning. I made coffee.”