When the first girl jumps off the roof two weeks before Christmas, leaving blood on the snow and a hush in the halls, the official verdict is suicide.
Jaekyu isn’t so sure. It’s too much coincidence: the roof, and the snow, and it’s been almost a year, almost exactly a year, and things have been too quiet. To all appearances, it’s been just another year of classes at Susin High, and yet there’s no way that can possibly be true. The new coats of paint and remodeled classrooms can’t hide the fact that this was the labyrinth eight students were trapped in not so long ago, a monster lurking at its center.
Chihoon’s posture doesn’t change when Jaekyu mentions it, and he doesn’t look away from the very complicated scribbles of numbers and symbols on his whiteboard.
“Occam’s Razor points to suicide. Kim Yeonsun wasn’t doing well in her classes, she didn’t have any friends, her parents are getting a divorce. People have jumped off of roofs for far less.”
But the fact that Chihoon knows anything about the girl at all is all the proof Jaekyu needs that he’s suspicious, too. If this had happened a year ago, Chihoon would be in the only one in the school who didn’t know a girl’s body had been found crumpled in the snow of the courtyard. But things are different now, and Chihoon has actually paid attention to rumors.
Jaekyu spends another day debating who to go to next, and finally settles on Kangmo. Eunsung is too biased, Youngjae is too volatile, and Mireu, strangely, seems the most innocent of all of them. And Yoonsu--
Kangmo is sitting in the shadows backstage in the auditorium when Jaekyu finds him. He’s usually in the auditorium these days, except when it’s in use or he’s in class. He doesn’t look up from his computer screen as Jaekyu talks, but his fingers, peeping out of familiar wool, twitch against the mouse.
“Who else have you talked to about this?” Kangmo says after a moment, finally looking up. His face is striped in shadows in the dim light, the white of his hearing aid the brightest point on him.
Kangmo makes a face, though whether it’s dismissive of Chihoon or supposed to tell Jaekyu that of course he already knows he talked to Chihoon, Jaekyu can’t tell. “There’s no proof,” Kangmo says.
“Has anyone looked?”
“They changed the security camera system. I can’t access it anymore.”
So they have to go to Mireu.
“Don’t tell him why,” Jaekyu says before knocking on the door. But something about Mireu’s eyes when he agrees to hack into the new system makes Jaekyu thinks he suspects already, even if he hasn’t admitted it to himself. Or maybe Mireu’s just still down--he tied with Chihoon for first place in the last round of exams, but after his first jubilant (and illegal) celebration, he spent the next few weeks sulking. Jaekyu suspects it’s because Chihoon hadn’t acknowledged his feat at all. Mireu’s face is firmly set as he opens his laptop.
Jaekyu falls asleep at his computer three nights in a row before finally finding footage of Mooyul talking to Kim Yeonsun in the library a week before her death. The exchange isn’t very long and from a distance it looks completely innocuous, but Jaekyu rewinds the film again and again and watches Mooyul’s finger tapping against the wood of a bookshelf. As much time as he spends searching, sleepwalking through his classes after long nights, Jaekyu can’t find any other evidence that Mooyul ever talked to Kim Yeonsun. That doesn’t ease the tightness in his chest.
He watches Mooyul across the table they’re all crammed around in the cafeteria. Since last year, their pack of seven doesn’t interact much with anyone else. Not that they did much before, most of them: Chihoon was aloof, Youngjae was a bully, Mireu was intimidating, Eunsung was depressed, Kangmo was pitiful, Jaekyu was invisible. Mooyul is the only one who had much of a social life, and everyone seems to think that his current withdrawal is the result of residual trauma from last year. But there’s an eerie stillness to Mooyul when he’s not interacting with anyone now, and it’s not mere quietness or PTSD. Mooyul’s eyes seem to slice through the groups of students, and even though Jaekyu isn’t sure what Kangmo means when he mutters, “The tiger at the riverbank,” the words feel right.
“Of course he’s capable of it,” Chihoon says that night in the science lab. He’s working on something that involves a lot of welding, and the smell of burnt metal fills the room. “Isn’t that the lesson?--anyone is capable of it. Kim Yohan won.”
Jaekyu has his forehead resting against the cool glass of the window. It’s night, and whenever he feels the winter chill creeping through the glass, he feels like it’s a year ago. The snowflakes he can see falling in the triangle of the floodlight look like they’re moving in slow motion.
“That isn’t the question,” Chihoon says, and while his tone is edging towards impatient, it doesn’t sting Jaekyu like it once would have. It’s just Chihoon.
Jaekyu pushes away from the glass and pulls himself back into the room. “What is the question?”
“Whether he did.”
Jaekyu doesn’t think that’s the real question.
The first day back at school, Chihoon still on crutches and Yoonsu’s funeral just behind them, a girl who’d sat in front of Jaekyu in class for months smirked at him and asked, “Are you new?”
Mooyul heard it; laughed. It was an abrupt sound, and Jaekyu couldn’t remember the last time any of them laughed. “Is it the way you’re wearing your hair now or is it what you’ve done?”
Jaekyu didn’t laugh. But that night he dreamed that he’d beaten Youngjae to death with the coffee machine and when he stood up, hands dripping with blood, and looked in the mirror, it was Kim Yohan’s face he saw.
It wasn’t the last time he had that dream.
In April, when Jaekyu and Chihoon walked around the corner of the clock tower and found Eunsung and Youngjae in a position that couldn’t possibly be misinterpreted, Chihoon just quirked an eyebrow. Jaekyu looked away, but he felt a swooping kind of relief--Youngjae was definitely, almost offensively alive as he yanked his pants up with one hand and tried to flatten his hair down with the other. Eunsung held their eyes coolly, but Jaekyu caught a glimpse of the old white scars on her wrist as she straightened her uniform and wondered if Kim Yohan really thought he’d cured her flirtation with death so easily.
The next time, one week before Christmas, it’s a first year with a razor in the boy’s bathroom on the second floor. Jaekyu is actually the one who finds him, and he stands dazed for a moment, staring from the dark slick on the floor to the handles of the brooms in the corner. He doesn’t look at himself in the mirror as he backs out of the room and runs for the nurse.
Park Youngsoo was a nervous kid, highly-strung, always trying too hard to impress his sunbaes. The school counselor patiently explains that suicides often happen in clumps; lonely or sad students get inspired by the attention the last person got. But after last year, it creates a stir in the media, and Jaekyu hears more than one student voice doubts that their parents will let them come back after break. “Is having Monster High on your transcript really going to impress the universities?” a second year asks a teacher straight out in class one day. “With what, your survival skills?”
Eunsung’s face is a pale mask as they sit on the auditorium stage. “Hypnotists can’t make anyone do something they’re truly opposed to doing. The willingness has to be inside the person already.”
“What, like the willingness to slit your wrists in front of the clock tower and bleed out into the snow?” Youngjae snaps, and it all would have devolved from there except that’s the moment when Mireu finally gets into the phone system and finds the number that called Park Youngsoo’s phone seven minutes before he walked into the bathroom. It takes almost no time at all to find footage of Mooyul making a short call in the otherwise empty infirmary, his finger tapping against the phone.
No, not a mask: Eunsung’s face looks more like a skull in this lighting, and Mireu lets out an anguished shout that echoes through the auditorium.
“Why is he being so sloppy?” Jaekyu asks, tearing a piece of paper into tiny bits and watching the flakes fall to the wood of the stage. He can’t keep his hands still.
“Kim Yohan was sloppy,” Chihoon says.
“Are you saying he’s underestimating the police because of all Kim Yohan got away with or like creator, like monster?” Kangmo demands.
Chihoon’s mouth curls. “Does it really matter?”
No one has to remind anyone else not to make plans for Christmas break. Jaekyu calls his mom and tells her he won’t be coming home; she doesn’t try to persuade him.
The seven who survived the monster walked through the hallways like there was a force field around, invisible but keeping anyone else from getting too close. There were rumors and whispers and avoidance and even the teachers looked at them like they might explode at any moment.
“Shouldn’t we be heroes? For surviving a serial killer?” Youngjae demanded. Jaekyu would never understand how every single thing that came out of his mouth sounded petulant.
Jaekyu had a dream where he was walking through Susin and looked up and saw Yoonsu in the eaves. “We’re all the monsters in the corner,” Yoonsu said, and then he dropped from his perch and Jaekyu woke with a start before he could hit the ground.
Mireu’s voice cracks as he demands, “We have to tell someone.”
“No one will believe us,” Eunsung answers automatically.
“Or they’d suspect we’re in on it, too,” Youngjae adds. “Everyone looks at us weird now anyway. They’d believe anything about us,” he finishes in a mutter.
It’s true. The fascination with which the other students eye the seven of them is brittle but sharp-edged. It is, in its own way, worse than being invisible. Jaekyu thinks that Kim Jinsoo was lucky to at least escape this.
“We stop him, then.” Mireu kicks the wall, hard, but it leaves no mark against the cinder blocks. “Someone has to stop him.”
“How?” Chihoon asks.
“Why us?” Kangmo asks.
Mireu spins on him with wild eyes. “We helped make him! We helped do this, up on the roof! It’s our responsibility.”
It’s only what Jaekyu’s been thinking since the first death, but Youngjae holds up in his hands as though to protest his innocence. “Hey, we aren’t responsible for what that bastard decides to do. We all did the same thing and none of us are hypnotizing people into killing themselves.”
That’s when Jaekyu realizes what the real question is.
How do we stop him without becoming him, too?
Jaekyu probably never would have found out about Chihoon’s nightmares at all except that they fell asleep on top of their books one night on the floor of Chihoon’s room. The clock said 3:47 when Jaekyu sat up slowly, cotton-minded and with the imprint of his chemistry book’s binding on his cheek, and when he looked over at Chihoon, he saw that he was trembling. He was sweating, too, the kind of sweat that accompanies a fever, and Jaekyu could actually hear him grinding his teeth. It was the least control Jaekyu had ever seen Chihoon show, and it scared the hell out of him, filling him with a fear he hadn’t felt since--
He was already grabbing Chihoon by the shoulders before he realized that his own hands were shaking. Chihoon came awake with a gasp like a drowning man, and as soon as they were open, his eyes were locked on Jaekyu’s. The intensity in them was almost as frightening as the shaking had been, but Jaekyu didn’t let himself look away. After a long, long moment, the tension fell out of Chihoon’s body and Jaekyu loosened his hold on Chihoon’s shoulders, released from Chihoon’s gaze.
They sat side by side in the dim light of Chihoon’s desk lamp, backs to the bed, and neither one of them slept for the rest of the night. Jaekyu didn’t ask whether Chihoon’s nightmares were of being hurt or of hurting someone else: he didn’t want to have to voice his own.
December 23rd, the day before Christmas break starts, the silence of the girl’s dorm is split just after dawn by a scream. Eunsung looks shellshocked when she tells the rest of them; the girl had been one of her close friends once, back when she had close friends. Jaekyu wonders if Mooyul chose her on purpose.
Classes are called off for the day, the first time in the school’s history, and the six of them sit in a back hallway away from the noise.
“We should just say it. It’s Mooyul, we all know it’s Mooyul.” Mireu’s eyes are too bright and he looks like he’s about to come out of his skin. It’s the first time any of them have said the name. “I don’t even have to look at the security footage; we all know what we’re going to find.”
Kangmo stops kneading his temples long enough to say, “Maybe if we assemble all the evidence--”
“It’s not enough,” Eunsung snaps. “We can prove he made calls, but we can’t prove what he said, and he was nowhere near any of them when they actually hurt themselves. No one will believe us.”
“They’re not allowing anyone to stay for Christmas break,” Chihoon announces suddenly. At everyone’s eyes, he lifts a shoulder. “I asked the principal.”
Mireu slams his feet into the wall opposite him. No one flinches at the sudden movement. “We have to do something now.”
“So what’s the plan?” Kangmo asks, and everyone looks at Chihoon.
Jaekyu is quite sure he’s the only one that sees the tension around Chihoon’s eyes as he stares at the wall.
“Mireu,” Chihoon says, and Jaekyu doesn’t miss the way Mireu’s chin flies up at the sound of his name. “Would you be able to break us back in?”
Jaekyu really wishes Chihoon had let someone else ask that; Mireu would probably say he could break into a bank vault or the Blue House if Chihoon is the one who’s asking.
“Of course I can,” Mireu says without hesitation, though Jaekyu sees a flicker in his eyes that he suspects means Mireu is overstating his abilities.
“Then we’ll make sure Mooyul comes back too. And we’ll do it here.”
Youngjae rips off a hangnail with his teeth. “Fuck, another Christmas stuck in Alcatraz with a serial killer.”
Jaekyu doesn’t point out that if they pull this off, they’ll all technically be serial killers too. Neither does anyone else.
They built a new sports complex--bigger gym, pool, tennis courts--with a plaque that had Yoonsu’s name on it. It was late fall by the time it was completed, and Jaekyu saw Eunsung shiver as they watched Yoonsu’s father cut the red tape.
“No one ever donates to the music fund,” Youngjae said, kicking a rock down the path back to the school building.
“It should have been a rock climbing wall,” Mooyul mused, and the look Youngjae gave him was dirtiest of all.
That night, they snuck out into the new gymnasium and Youngjae, Eunsung and Mireu got very very high on the kind of pills Yoonsu used to keep in a little silver box. Kangmo laughed, watching their antics, and Chihoon just rolled his eyes, but he helped Jaekyu fish Eunsung out of the pool without being asked. She flopped her soaked self down on top of Youngjae and Jaekyu turned away to coax Mireu down from where he was dangling from the rafters.
But none of them turned down the bottle of soju when Mireu pulled it out of nowhere. They didn’t say Yoonsu’s name while they drank, but Jaekyu knew they were all thinking it.
Jaekyu’s head was pounding by the time they left the gym, and Youngjae had smeared blue paint on his face and was crying into Eunsung’s shoulder.
“Where’s Mooyul?” Kangmo asked suddenly, but no one remembered asking him to come.
Jaekyu is the one who writes the note, slips it into the black envelope.
The day before the first snowfall, Jaekyu was walking to the gym for P.E. with Mireu when they turned a corner and nearly ran into Mooyul. He was just standing there in the middle of the sidewalk, staring down at something, and it took a moment for Jaekyu to process what it was.
“What the fuck--why are you just staring at that?” Mireu erupted, and Jaekyu elbowed him, hard.
Mooyul finally looked up from the deer carcass and at them. Jaekyu and Mireu stood in horrified silence as Mooyul turned and walked away from the bloody mess.
They leave with all the rest of the students at 4 PM the next day, but the mood in the buses is subdued, not like previous years when the students sparked with the excitement of freedom. When they reach the town at the foot of the mountains, the students all scatter to their connecting buses or trains to home like they’re fleeing from something, but the six of them climb into a rented van and wait.
Youngjae will not stop bouncing his knee. “What if he doesn’t come?”
“He’ll come,” Chihoon says.
“What if he doesn’t?”
Jaekyu knows someone is about to snap at the question, but Kangmo just says flatly, “Then he won’t ever come back, and he’s not our problem anymore.”
Jaekyu wonders if the others believe that. He won’t stop, Jaekyu knows that, because Chihoon has been reading books on the psychology of serial killers, and they all say they don’t stop until they’re locked up or dead. If Mooyul disappears, he’ll go somewhere else, kill more people there. They might never hear about his victims, but they’d all know they’re out there.
When the sun starts to set, Chihoon shifts the van into drive and they go back the way they came. They stand around, stamping their feet and watching their breath crystallize in the air until Mireu finally convinces the gate to open. It takes even longer to get the security system off-line, and they’re all stiff with cold when they finally tumble inside.
Chihoon gives Mireu a nod as they walk through the door, and Mireu’s scowl doesn’t fool Jaekyu at all. “Told you I could,” Mireu says, and Jaekyu rolls his eyes.
Without discussing it, they head to the lounge, settle silently on the couches. It’s impossible to see out the tall wall of windows with the glare of the light, but Jaekyu knows there’s banks of snow out there, and he remembers running around out there, shirtless and gasping with laughter, and Mooyul had been laughing loudest of all.
Youngjae jumps when they hear the sound, echoing eerily through the school, and he’s chewing on the skin around his nails and bouncing his leg again by the time it resolves into footsteps.
And then he’s there, standing in front of them, a small black envelope in his hand.
“This looks familiar,” is what Mooyul says, and Youngjae jumps at the sound of his voice, then scowls at him.
“Yoonsu’s not here,” Youngjae says, eyes hard, and Jaekyu can’t keep from glancing over his shoulder up to the eaves, as though expecting to see Yoonsu perched there, earbuds in.
Mooyul turns his head to look at Chihoon, who is leaning back against the couch, cross-legged and cool-faced. Jaekyu is sitting beside him, though, and he can feel the tension in him. “What’s the game?” Mooyul asks.
“No one leaves,” Chihoon says. “And if we win, you turn yourself in.”
Mooyul smiles then, his model student smile that won over teachers and hoobaes effortlessly. “And if I win?”
Chihoon doesn’t answer. Mooyul nods. “Terms accepted. We’ll start tomorrow.”
They all stay where they are until they can’t hear his footsteps anymore.
“Should you be reading that?”
Chihoon looked up from the book and blinked at Jaekyu.
“Couldn’t it make you--” Jaekyu couldn’t finish the sentence. Chihoon looked back down at the book in his hand, turned it over a few times as though expecting to find it was a bomb in disguise. When he looked back at Jaekyu, there was the slightest curve to his mouth. No one else would probably notice it.
“I’m not going to become a serial killer because I’m reading about them,” Chihoon said, and even after all this time, the deepness of his voice surprised Jaekyu.
Jaekyu felt the tips of his ears pinkening and made a half-formed dismissive gesture with his hand. But Chihoon set the book down and stood up from his desk, walking over to the bed where Jaekyu sat with his Japanese book open in his lap.
“I’m not the one you should be worrying about,” Chihoon said, and Jaekyu knew that. He did.
“Who should I be worrying about then?” he asked.
Chihoon didn’t answer.
It feels wrong to scatter to their rooms, so they break into the teachers’ wing again and lock the door behind them. They pull a few mattress off the beds into one of the living areas and settle down on them and the couches. Mireu hacks into the security system and turns it off so Mooyul can’t use it to find them, and when he’s done, he switches off the light. It’s dark and no one says anything for a long time.
Then Eunsung’s voice rises in the dark. “It wasn’t the gun, that made him a monster,” she says. “It was words. It was always his words.”
No one answers. Some of them sleep, some of them don’t, and no one is surprised when Mireu wrenches awake with a shriek at one point. Jaekyu listens to the sound of Chihoon’s breathing and tries not to think about tomorrow.
It wasn’t until he was told he had an appointment with the counselor that Jaekyu remembered it was his last year of high school. Time to start thinking about universities, the counselor said with a pleasant expression that Jaekyu knew was forced. Even the teachers weren’t comfortable around the monster six anymore.
“Where do you want to go? What do you want to study? What are your career plans?”
The questions seemed as foreign as if they were asked in a different language, and Jaekyu couldn’t wrap his mind around their reality. Susin feels like forever, he couldn’t say, like there’s nothing else and never will be. He couldn’t imagine what after might be like.
“Something with science,” he said, the answer both vague and expected, and he let the counselor prattle on about various programs and departments and the test scores necessary to be accepted to each.
You’ll have to think about the future sooner or later, he told himself a few times, but the glare of the past was so bright even the present barely felt real in comparison.
Mooyul has a gun, of course. Jaekyu has no idea where he managed to get it, but it really doesn’t matter.
“Six bullets,” Mooyul says, mouth curving, but there’s nothing but cold in his eyes. “Who’s first?”
Chihoon steps forward, silently and ready to follow Mooyul to the infirmary, but before he turns the corner, he glances over his shoulder at Jaekyu, and Jaekyu feels something inside him leap.
Mireu doesn’t sit down the entire time Chihoon is gone, prowling around the lounge and gnawing on his lip. Eunsung and Youngjae have a spat about something. Kangmo slips his hearing aid out and closes his eyes and Jaekyu almost wishes he could escape from the tension in the room so easily.
When Chihoon walks down the stairs, he looks exactly like he always does except that his face is paler. It makes Jaekyu feel sick.
“What did he say?” Mireu demands, eyes sweeping over Chihoon again and again as though he doesn’t trust them to tell him whether Chihoon is hurt or not. “What did he do?”
Chihoon doesn’t answer, much to Mireu’s frustration, but that night when Jaekyu turns over on his mattress, Chihoon’s dark eyes are waiting for him.
“What?” Jaekyu breathes, hand clasping the hem of Chihoon’s jacket.
Chihoon’s answer is barely audible over Youngjae’s snores. “It’s worse than I thought.”
“I’m impossible to hypnotize,” Chihoon says, and something inside Jaekyu relaxes.
Jaekyu bites his lip. Chihoon’s eyes glint in the dark. “You’re sure?”
Chihoon looks at him blankly and it almost makes Jaekyu smile.
“I can go next.” Eunsung is far too vulnerable when it comes to Mooyul, and Youngjae or Mireu could explode at any moment.
Jaekyu blinks; he’s never heard Chihoon speak that quickly. He feels warm all over. “The bombs, then?”
Every time Jaekyu wakes up that night, Chihoon is staring at the ceiling.
They made the bombs the night before Christmas Eve, Jaekyu and Chihoon and Mireu in the science lab in the middle of the night after Mireu turned off the security cameras. Jaekyu mostly followed directions, and it didn’t surprise him that the other two knew exactly what to do. Weak explosives, really, smoke and flash bombs, more for distraction and disorientation than destruction, but Jaekyu knew that was by design.
He and Chihoon worked side by side, handing each other screwdrivers and wires and little tubes of powder without speaking. Mireu cursed a lot while he worked and had his earbuds in half the time, the discordant rock music loud enough that Jaekyu could hear it across the room. Two hours before dawn, the door opened. Jaekyu jumped, and Mireu dropped the beaker he was holding with a hiss, but it was Kangmo, holding up a walkie-talkie.
“Morse code,” he said. “To detonate from a distance.”
The bombs work just as they had hoped, keeping Mooyul at bay and buying them time to plan, and at one point Mooyul fires into the the smoke and now there’s only five bullets.
“At least we know one of us will make it out, then,” Youngjae mutters and clutches the handle of his baseball bat harder. “Why didn’t you just make one to actually blow him up? Seems like a pretty good way to get rid of him to me.”
Chihoon ignores that. “Nobody let him get you alone,” he says instead. They’re in the back corner of the library, and the fire alarms are still echoing through the hallways. An acrid smell lingers in the back of Jaekyu’s nasal cavities.
Eunsung’s jaw is set. “He’s been studying.” It isn’t a question. “Figuring out ways to destroy us with his words.”
“I can’t believe you didn’t just fucking blow him up. When you said bombs, I thought--” Youngjae glares at Jaekyu, like it’s his fault. Jaekyu glares back. Youngjae looks away but the muscles in his jaw don’t loosen. “I wouldn’t have come here without at least a gun otherwise!”
“I have a gun.” Chihoon says it as calmly as he’d say he has an advanced chemistry textbook, but Jaekyu can see the stiffness in his fingers. “But it’s last resort.”
Youngjae tries to convince Chihoon to at least tell him where it is, and Mireu joins in, but Chihoon has always been good at saying nothing.
Leaves were falling gold and orange outside Chihoon’s window when Jaekyu found the gun. He was looking for Chihoon’s Japanese notes in the filing boxes under the bed and wondering when it got the point that he could rummage around in Chihoon’s room without permission and know Chihoon wouldn’t mind. He pulled out one of the boxes and heard a thump, metallic and heavy, and when he opened the box, heart in his mouth, the dead cop’s gun was lying inside.
The bathroom door opened, and Jaekyu’s eyes flew up to see Chihoon standing there, rubbing a towel over his damp hair. “In case,” Chihoon said after a moment of silence where the steam from the bathroom curled around him. Jaekyu swallowed, closed the top of the box and slid it back under the bed. They didn’t talk about the gun again.
That night, they’re all jolted awake by the sound of Mooyul’s voice over the PA system, and it takes only a few words before Youngjae is green-faced and breathing heavily. Sweat curls around his hairline and Eunsung goes very pale, grabs him by the arm, and hauls him out of the room. Mooyul’s voice drones on and on, and Jaekyu tries not to hear any sounds from the room down the hall. It isn’t how he’d choose to distract someone, but he figures it’ll work for Youngjae. When Mooyul finally stops talking, silence fills up the teachers’ wing thick as syrup, and the sound of the door opening a few minutes later is abrupt.
Eunsung’s face is unruffled now as she steps back into the room, but her eyes are flashing, and Youngjae, behind her, is sweaty and rumpled and worn out. Mireu chokes back an inappropriate comment and Kangmo turns away.
They don’t see Mooyul the next day, but when night comes, so does his voice. This time it’s Kangmo he goes after, and Chihoon is across the room in seconds, yanking the hearing aid out of Kangmo’s ear. Kangmo looks like he’s about to hit him, but he doesn’t, just holds out his hand. Chihoon hands him the hearing aid, but Kangmo doesn’t put it back in until Jaekyu signals that the voice has stopped.
The next night, it’s Mireu Mooyul talks to, and Mireu stuffs his earbuds in his ears when Chihoon snaps his name. But he’d forgotten to charge the mp3 player, and the battery goes out only a few minutes later, and a few minutes after that, Mireu is wrenching a window all the way open, and it takes three of them to grab him and pull him back and keep him from jumping out. Mireu’s half-laughing, half-sobbing when they finally release him, rolling around on the floor, and Jaekyu remembers why they all called him Mad Mireu. He laughs and cries and doesn’t rise from the floor until Mooyul’s voice finally stops pouring out of the speakers.
When Mooyul starts talking about Eunsung’s mother, Eunsung walks over to the speaker in the corner and rips the wires right out of the wall, then hacks away at them with a pair of scissors. They can still hear the echo from the other speakers in the other rooms, but Mooyul’s voice is muffled now, and when Eunsung lies down on the couch with a pillow over her ears, Jaekyu is pretty sure she can’t make out the words.
Mireu, hair a mess from where he’s been yanking on it, looks around the room. “Why didn’t we think of that?”
When Jaekyu heard the principal telling the art teacher that the student information books had disappeared from the office, he knew exactly where they’d gone. He didn’t tell the principal, though: no one would believe that Park Mooyul had stolen the thick binders, and they appeared back in their place in the office a few weeks later anyway.
“Dirty rotten bastard,” Mireu snaps, leaping out of his chair. “I can see my breath! He’s trying to freeze us to death or drive us back out.”
None of them have discussed the steadily dropping temperature in the faculty wing, but all of them have pulled on their extra sweaters and jackets. Kangmo dragged a few more duvets off the beds in the other rooms and Eunsung and Youngjae are sharing one of the armchairs that are only meant for one. Somehow even when they’re cuddling they don’t look sweet or soft or even like they like each other very much. Jaekyu will never understand them.
“We can handle the cold,” Chihoon says evenly, but that’s the moment that the sprinklers go off.
Surprisingly, Mooyul isn’t waiting for them when they stumble, soaked and shivering, out of the faculty wing. But his point is made, and as they head to the girls’ dorm, wary and watchful, Jaekyu makes up his mind.
“Do you ever wonder who you’d be now if it hadn’t happened?” Mireu asked.
Jaekyu wakes at dawn and takes the gun out of Chihoon’s bag, inserting the bullets one by one and only fumbling a little. He tucks it into the waistband of his jeans, but he can still feel the cool of the metal through the t-shirt he’s wearing. The volume of his coat hides the lump it forms, and he doesn’t look down at the others still under their blankets as he eases his way through the door.
He walks as quietly as he can, but his footsteps echo in a way that they don’t when school is in session and filled with students and teachers. It’s an hollow echo, and it sounds exactly like it did last year. Jaekyu can feel eyes watching him, and it isn’t long before another set of footsteps add a counterpoint to his own.
On the roof, the cold snaps and bites, nipping at his fingers even through his knit gloves, the wind just strong enough that he wonders if it would affect the aim of a bullet. The snow crunches under his boots as he walks to the middle of the roof, the sky a fragile blue arching overhead, the mountains holding it up on all sides. When he finally turns around, Mooyul is standing a dozen yards away, morning sunlight glinting off the gun in his hand. When Jaekyu sees his face, he has to fight himself to keep his hand from reaching to grab Chihoon’s gun.
“Lee Jaekyu,” Mooyul says, and the way he says the name sends a slither of panic up Jaekyu’s spine. “Let’s talk.”
Sometimes, when Jaekyu couldn’t sleep, he’d lay awake and wonder what Kim Yohan would have said if his parents had arrived before the SWAT team moved in. His relationship with his parents wasn’t screwed up like Youngjae’s or Eunsung’s was, he didn’t have some trauma lurking in his past like Yoonsu did. He always thought of himself as having a pretty average life, an average family, average everything, no obvious protuberances of pain for a monster to grab onto and bludgeon his psyche with.
Even in the still darkness, he didn’t like to admit to himself that “average” was maybe a weapon of its own.
Five or ten or a hundred minutes later, sweat is itching its way down Jaekyu’s back despite the slap of the cold wind against his cheeks, and his hands are shaking as he tries to level the gun at Mooyul. Never mind the wind: there’s no way in hell he’d be able to hit Mooyul even from this short distance. Mooyul’s aim is steady.
The sound of the door bursting open jerks Jaekyu’s attention away from Mooyul just long enough to see the others stumbling out onto the roof, their faces white blurs of fear, and something in Jaekyu’s chest lurches at the sight of Chihoon’s face: you could almost describe his eyes as wild.
“Jaekyu,” Chihoon says, and his voice is deep and steady as ever, but even though Jaekyu’s focus is back on Mooyul again, he can still see the shine of panic in Chihoon’s eyes. “What are you doing?”
Chihoon doesn’t ask pointless questions. Mooyul’s eyebrow arches at the words.
“Somebody has to.” Jaekyu doesn’t recognize the sound of his own voice, barely even hears it with the wind whistling past his ears. “There’s no other way.”
Chihoon’s mouth falls open like he’s going to say something, but doesn’t; Mireu looks like he’s about to be sick. Jaekyu is trembling, words and words and words filling him up till he thinks his cells have been replaced by the sound of Mooyul’s voice, by the things he said about average and you sent the letters and they notice you now. “Somebody has to,” Jaekyu repeats, his voice a helpless half-wail, and Mooyul is smiling wide now. Jaekyu’s mind tells his finger to squeeze the trigger but the command gets lost somewhere between his brain and his hand, nerves tangled around the memory of a coffee machine slick in his hands.
And that’s when Eunsung steps forward.
Eunsung was reading fat psychology books whenever Jaekyu saw her.
“He figured out exactly how to destroy us,” she said when he finally asked her about them. “If the SWAT team hadn’t moved in, he would have broken all of us, one by one.”
“Don’t you think that’s twisted?” Jaekyu asked Chihoon later. But it was Mireu who answered, face uncharacteristically stark.
“Are any of us not twisted now?”
None of them will ever know what it is Eunsung says to Mooyul, stepping up close to him and resting her pale hand against his chest. Jaekyu will have his own theories, and he’s sure the others do, too, but they never speak of them or of the way Eunsung lifted her mouth to Mooyul’s ear and started whispering.
She doesn’t talk for very long, everyone else frozen in a tableau stark against the morning sky, the wind strong enough that it feels like it’s robbing them all of breath. But Mooyul’s smile grows and grows as she whispers, widening and twisting like something out of a nightmare, and when Eunsung finally drops back off of her toes, he lets out a little laugh, the sound chill in the morning sunlight.
“You win,” Mooyul says with that same smile, and the rest of them watch as still as death as he brushes a kiss against Eunsung’s cheek and walks to the edge of the roof. “But I win, too.”
And then he jumps.
Yoonsu’s parents didn’t inform any of them of when and where the funeral would be, but they found out and went anyway, black clad and silent as they signed the book and dropped the white envelopes into the box. Yoonsu’s parents did not look pleased to see them, and they didn’t stay long before going to a noraebang and sitting in silence in the dim room, drinking bottle after bottle of soju.
But before they slipped their shoes back on and left the hall, Jaekyu saw Mooyul slide his fingers across the glass of the framed picture of Yoonsu, and Jaekyu shivered.