It always begins in the dark. There’s not a sound, not a movement in the emptiness, not even the light brush of wind against his skin. It’s as if the air has frozen around him, molecules stuck in place as he breathes carefully in fixed time. Sometimes he touches his face, to confirm that he’s still there, that he still exists. Sometimes, he wonders if he’s in a nightmare. Neverending darkness is like a bad dream, but the suffocating stillness seems more befitting of death. Even so, he still waits in the black that surrounds him.
“Did you wait long?”
A cool hand grasps his palm, soft chuckles slipping into his ear. He imagines a tilted smile and curved eyes, maybe bright teeth to match the teasing voice that fills the empty air. Tentatively, he squeezes back.
“I brought you someone special today. I think you’ll have fun with her.”
This part sometimes scares him, always excites him. Cold fingers run up his face and stop right under his eyes, as if giving him a brief moment to prepare. There’s never any hesitation; he leans forward. Another laugh. The fingers firmly pull back his eyelids. A tug. A prod. He grits his teeth. A dizzying amount of pressure. A soothing hum in his ears as fingers push, push, push into his eye sockets.
“There we go!” A final triumphant laugh. “Have fun, Taekwoon!”
And he opens his eyes.
He wakes to purple skies. Blinking, he sees sparkling stars come into focus, greens and blues and yellows lighting up his vision. A white bird is perched to his right, singing to a group of white clouds that are covered with pictures of smiling faces. Taekwoon sits up.
“Isn’t it pretty?”
The voice in his head is soft, a pleased lift at the end of a shy whisper. Taekwoon looks down at the pale green comforter he’s sitting on, a cartoon pony crinkling under his legs as he shifts around. A grey cat jumps up on the bed, staring at him intently before nudging its head against Taekwoon’s hand.
A light giggle. “Momo likes you!”
Taekwoon determines that the voice belongs to a girl, a child. He glances around the room, taking in the glitter paintings and stickers that decorate the walls. A paint set sits in the corner, multicolour handprints crawling across the floor. Stuffed animals line the windowsill, action figures and books carving a path back to the bed.
Taekwoon smiles. “Are you an artist?”
“Yup! I’m a painter!”
“I can tell.” Lifting Momo off his lap, he makes his way across the room. He points to a framed painting of a grey cat sleeping in the sunshine. “You’re very good.”
“Really?” Excitement pours out of her laughter, and Taekwoon finds himself chuckling along with her. More paintings of cats and what may be a unicorn continue to his right, a picture of a family on his left. It looks like any typical young family, with a mother and a father hugging their daughter. She has long black hair and a wide, toothy smile. Taekwoon carefully touches the picture.
"That's me." Her voice softens, dipping into a low murmur at the end. He hears a gasp. "What's going on?"
Taekwoon looks away. This part is the worst. The explanation. The revelation. The denial. He sits on the floor, running a finger across the small handprints that surround him. "Something happened."
"... I don't understand."
He almost laughs, a muffled snort behind a tired sigh. No one understands, especially him. "What's your name?"
He fits his hand over the handprint; if he presses hard enough, maybe she can feel one last time. "Haejin-ah. You're dead."
Taekwoon doesn't know if he had a life before this. His vision had always seemed to be filled by the darkness, just as the Deliverer had always welcomed him. "I have someone special for you." That's what the Deliverer had always said before pressing the Eyes into his sockets. The first time had been terrifying, almost numbing, as he sat in complete compliance as his world shifted from black to grey to a startling blue.
"Take them to the River." Those had been the only instructions, the only explanation that could apparently be offered before a voice filled his head.
"What's going on?"
Like hell if I know. Taekwoon slowly sat up.
“Where am I? Am I in your head?”
My head? But Taekwoon had been preoccupied by the rush of running water that had filled his ears, the feeling of warm sun on his skin and the touch of grass under his fingertips. He had been mesmerized by the blue that painted the skies, the rolling green and yellow fields that were dotted with red flowers, and the sight of a single, white cross by his side. The voice in his head gasped, choking as Taekwoon read the name.
"...Am I dead?"
Taekwoon bows his head. He can hear the trembles in her voice, small hiccups escaping between harsh breaths. "Haejin-ah..."
A dull hum echoes in the room, and a golden beam suddenly appears at his feet. It stretches across the floor, leading out the bedroom door; it flashes dimly and Taekwoon stands up. "Haejin-ah, let's make a deal. How about we follow this gold path and I'll tell you what's going on?"
Her breaths still sound harsh, rushed and panicked, but the hiccups die down. "O-okay."
Taekwoon knows she can't see him, but he smiles anyways. Getting up, he rubs Momo's head one last time before stepping onto the path. It hums again under his feet and he moves forward.
Taekwoon turns around. He slowly looks around the room, letting her see the purples skies and white birds, the paintings and the photos and Momo. He stands there for a while, long enough so that the windows shift from yellow sunshine to splashes of orange and red. It's almost dark when Haejin lets out a long breath. "Okay. Let's go."
He glances around one last time, eyes lingering on the family photo. Then, he walks out the door.
His first Eyes had belonged to a stable boy. The gold path had led them to a barn about a mile from the stream Taekwoon had woken up to. The boy hadn't said a word since discovering he was dead, not a sound as Taekwoon walked through the fields and across empty dirt roads. It was only when they had arrived at the stable and passed by a row of horse stalls that the boy finally spoke.
A narrow cot was set up in the corner, a few books stacked against the wall. Taekwoon followed the path to the bed and carefully sat on the rough blanket. It was peaceful, only the occasional horse whines or a bird flutter echoing in the barn. Leaning back, Taekwoon could feel a ray of sunlight hit the back of his neck.
"This is my life." The voice didn't shake or tremble; later, Taekwoon would realize it was confidence and maybe a hint of pride in his words.
There was a pause. Taekwoon closed his eyes, trying to understand as much as the voice, when the voice gasped. Straightening, he quickly looked around.
"My eyes." Disbelieving laughter. "You have my eyes."
"Oh, so you figured it out!" The Deliverer had sounded so pleased upon his next visit, voice excitedly lifting when Taekwoon had asked him. “You learn so quickly, Taekwoon.”
“How do you know my name?”
There was a snort to his left, and Taekwoon turned his head in the direction. The darkness had returned when the Eyes had arrived at the River; Taekwoon wasn’t sure how long he had sat in the dark, trying to reach for something in his black world.
“I know everyone’s name. But never mind that, did you follow the path?”
Taekwoon nodded, flinching when he felt a hand on his shoulder. It gently squeezed his arm. “Great. And you led the Eyes to the River. Did you see him at the end?”
He had brown hair and tan skin. He was gangly, a bit thin for someone that worked in stables, and he had a slight limp when he walked. Taekwoon had counted the stable boy’s slow steps as he had limped across the stones, the River’s fog gradually swallowing him into the grey expanse. Seven, eight, nine steps when he had turned to give Taekwoon a firm nod. His lips had been pressed tightly shut, jaw clenched, and he had deep, brown eyes. Taekwoon remembered those eyes because they were the last thing he’d seen before everything turned black again.
Taekwoon follows the gold path down stairs, hand grasping the thin rail as he sinks his feet into two, three, four carpeted steps. Momo trails after him, tail swishing as the cat dashes into another room. Soft murmurs spill out of the room, and Taekwoon can hear Haejin’s hitched breath as they listen to hushed voices and low sobs.
“You promised,” Haejin says when Taekwoon walks out the front door. The path curves down the sidewalk and he steps after it. “You promised to tell me.”
Dusk settles into the sky, purple merging into dark blue as the moon settles over his head. Taekwoon breathes in the night air and lets the chill settle into his bones. It feels like fall. “I'm here to guide you."
They pass by some houses, a park, a school. Taekwoon stares at each one, listening to the small changes in Haejin's breaths. "Through your life."
A man passes by them, staring right through Taekwoon as he continues down the road. Haejin lets out a soft whine. "That's my teacher. Why can't he see me?"
Taekwoon bites his lip. The streetlights turn on and he follows the gold path under the cheap, flickering lights. "No one can see us."
He walks in silence for a while. The path continues straight down the road, and only a few cars pass by every now and then. He listens to Haejin count each one, the pauses between each number growing longer as the path glows further and further into solitude.
“Can I paint the stars in heaven?”
Taekwoon stops. He looks up at the sky, as if it would answer Haejin’s question-- as if it would answer anyone’s question. He focuses his gaze on the first stars that flicker in the night. “Of course. They’d be lucky to have you.”
There’s pleased laughter, high and bubbly. Taekwoon smiles, a quiet chuckle escaping him. As he continues staring at the sky, watching as Ursa Major slowly emerges from its slumber, tears slowly wet his vision. Haejin lets out heavy hiccups as her hiccups die into sobs. The gold path hums under his feet, and Taekwoon walks on.
“Where am I?”
When he felt the Deliverer’s cold touch on his face, Taekwoon jerked away. Waving his arms, he swatted at his hands. Since his visit to the River, he only had more questions-- Why am I blind? Why did I have the stable boy’s eyes? How did I get here? There was a loud snort, then a huff. Something rustled beside him, and the Deliverer placed a hand on his arm. “Welcome to the undead.”
The air suddenly seemed too thick, too heavy for his chest, as Taekwoon tried to suck in uneven breaths. “I can’t be dead.”
“Well, technically you’re past dead. Almost like defying death, if you want to make it interesting.”
Taekwoon couldn’t be dead; he didn’t even remember dying. But wait. Taekwoon choked. He didn’t remember living. Panic quickly set in, his hands shaking as he tried to fill the blank hole in his mind. There was nothing before the darkness; there was no life, no sight, no memory. There was only his name. “Why am I here?”
A resigned sigh. “Feel your eyes, Taekwoon.”
Hands trembling, he reached up. A horrified moan escaped him when nothing met his fingertips. His eyelids sunk into empty sockets, fingers probing at loose skin and then, pushing into a void that drew out a strangled yell. Nothing. He let out another moan. There was nothing.
“There’s a saying that eyes are a window to the soul.” The Deliverer’s voice softened, sadness seeping into his tone. Taekwoon clutched his face, fearing the words he would hear next. “That’s why you’re here, Taekwoon. You have no soul.”
“Mister, what’s your name?”
Taekwoon walks on a worn dirt path. Crickets sing in time to the stones crunching under his feet, and fireflies flicker in the dark forest around him. “Taekwoon.”
“Taekwoon,” Haejin repeats. “Are you an angel?”
He can’t help but grin. “No.”
“Are you dead too?”
“Kind of. I’m past dead.” He can almost hear the Deliverer snort, maybe even chuckle with pride.
“Then why can’t I see you?” Haejin huffs, and Taekwoon imagines small fists balled in frustration. “Why can’t you see me?”
Haejin can’t be more than seven, maybe eight, years old. She might be Taekwoon’s youngest Eyes yet. Frowning, he bites his lip. “When you died, your body stayed here. But your soul needs to move on, so I’m here to help.” Hearing no response, he gently continues. “I’m taking your soul to heaven, Haejin-ah.”
A hesitant murmur. “Are you carrying me?”
“Kind of.” Taekwoon tilts his head back to look at the sky. “I’m carrying your eyes. So we can both see your life.”
The crickets’ song continue in the pause that follows, the faint sound of running water joining the melody. Soon, the gold path leads him to a small creek where Taekwoon stops at the water’s edge. He leans down to sink his hands into the cold water.
“I used to play here with my friends.” Haejin’s voice brightens, something light and wonderfully childish returning to her words. “We’d skip stones and build mud houses! And one time, I painted us a picture in the sand and my friend Junghan said it was so pretty and...”
Smiling, Taekwoon sits down. He makes little mounds with the dirt at his feet, eliciting a laugh from Haejin when he sticks leaves on them. Behind him, he can hear the gold path hum again, but he opts to reach for more dirt as Haejin excitedly instructs him on building mud castles. Heaven can wait for a few more minutes.
“What am I?”
The Deliverer let out a heavy groan. “So many questions at once. You have eternity, Taekwoon. You’ll eventually get answers.”
“...I’m here forever?”
“Well, you can’t really die. No soul and all.” When the Deliverer chuckled loudly, Taekwoon reached out in front of him, feeling around until he felt the cold hands. He smacked them loudly. “Shit!”
“I can tell.” There was a long whine. Taekwoon imagined a pout, maybe narrowed eyes to match. He wondered what the Deliverer looked like. Was he old, or maybe young? Did he have short hair like the stable boy? The only things Taekwoon knew about him were his cold hands and his sharp voice. But even they were the only tangible things in Taekwoon’s dark world; they were the only evidence that he wasn’t alone.
“You can think of yourself as a soul bearer. Or a collector.” The Deliverer gave a happy shout as his hands touched Taekwoon’s face. Taekwoon grunted when he felt him pull back his eyelids. “My little grim reaper!”
Haejin likes cats and elephants, loves purple and choco pies, and thinks that fairy princesses are the best princesses. Taekwoon listens to her talk about her friends, her paintings, her parents, as he continues on the gold path. They watch the sunrise bring pink and orange to the sky and count the stars that emerge as the sun sets. They see her grandparents' farm, the forest where she and her father went camping, and Taekwoon walks on. He pauses every now and then, letting Haejin take in her life. Sometimes she'll excitedly recount memories. Other times, she won't say a word.
"Mister, I'll paint a star for you when I get to heaven."
The path dims under Taekwoon's feet, a thick fog slowly crawling around him. He hears the familiar rush of water, and the pebbles crunch with every step he takes.
"Just for me?" he whispers. Clenching his fists, he doesn't stop walking when the fog clears to reveal the River.
"Yup! I'll paint it blue!"
Taekwoon chuckles, laughing louder when a small sob escapes him. The gold path abruptly cuts off, and he stops at the River's edge. The water extends as far as he can see, and a makeshift trail of stones leads across it.
"Thank you." A breeze rustles through his hair, and for a second, Taekwoon thinks he can feel a small hand slip into his palm.
The fog builds up again, dense and overbearing, as it covers the water. And then, he sees her. Long, black hair, pale skin and a pink nightgown with purple cats-- Haejin smiles widely, waving at him before disappearing into the mist. Her eyes were a beautiful blue.
Taekwoon doesn't know how long he's been doing this. He sometimes counts while waiting in the darkness-- five hundred and forty-two on a good day, ten thousand and fifteen on one of the Deliverer's slow days-- and sometimes, he recalls the vivid sight of blue skies and green oceans and rainbow showers. Sitting in the dark, he thinks he can almost feel the wind on his face, the sun beating down on his head.
Taekwoon does know how many Eyes he's guided. He remembers every single pair, every journey, every voice that spoke to him. It's hard to forget when the world seems so bright and colorful and real, so alive. Taekwoon wonders if this is the price of being undead-- to exist without an existence. If so, he exists for the short moments when he can pretend to have a place in the world, to be filled and whole.
"How long do I have to do this?"
"Who knows? Maybe a couple of years, maybe a couple of thousand years. I know a guy who's been going for nearly a millennium now. Heard he's getting an award from the big man and all."
Taekwoon frowns. "The big man? Like God?"
The Deliverer chuckles. "Whatever you want to call him. It's all up to the man."
Whoever or whatever God is, he doesn't seem to exist in Taekwoon's black world. He doesn't seem to care for an empty shell like him.
"I have someone special for you this time."
Taekwoon smiles slightly. They're always special to him. Eagerly, he sits up and leans forward. When he doesn't feel the cold hands on his face, he frowns. "What are you waiting for?"
"Ah, nothing." There's a cough, and the Deliverer's fingers press against his eyelids. "Have fun this time, okay?"
Taekwoon opens his mouth, a question hanging off his lips, when he feels the familiar pressure, the stretch, and the pop! As the darkness swirls into something brighter, Taekwoon hears the Deliverer one last time. His voice is gentle like the hands that leave his face.
"See you soon, Taekwoon."
Everything is white. Or, blank depending on how Taekwoon sees it. For an outrageous second, Taekwoon thinks he's in heaven because there's nothing but a bright light. It's as if his world has been flipped upside down, black drenched in white and still just as empty; it's so blinding. Reaching up, he feels for the Eyes.
Taekwoon tilts his head at the soft voice. It’s a man. "Hello."
A surprised laugh. "Oh! So you can hear me!"
"Yes, I can." Taekwoon blinks desperately. Nothing. Frustrated, he fumbles to touch something. "Dammit. I can’t see a thing."
"Calm down. Just wait for a second."
Taekwoon sucks in a breath, hands dropping to his side as he waits. The voice hums, a light sound that builds into a breathy melody, and Taekwoon unconsciously times his breaths to the dips and lifts in the song. At least he’s not alone.
Slowly, things come into focus. The brightness dims, softening at the edges before disappearing completely. A hazy yellow with a hint of orange, circles of green and blue and a few spots of pink-- they all flash across his vision and eventually settle into blurry lines of red, orange, yellow, purple, blue. His ears are filled with roaring water, perfectly timed rushes and crashes as waves hit the sand. The ocean wind brushes his face, wet sand under his feet; he can smell the salt. All around, the colors stretch across the sky, reflected on the sparkling waters.
A long sigh. “Beautiful.”
Taekwoon has to agree. It’s the most beautiful sunset he’s ever seen.
The sunset is melting into a dark blue night when Taekwoon speaks up. He tastes the sea on his lips. "What's your name?"
Only the rush of waves answer him. He sits there, waiting as the tide slowly crawls closer to his feet. Just as the water pools around his ankles, there's a low murmur.
"I... I don't know."
It's Taekwoon's turn to be silent, dumbfounded. A nameless soul? That's never happened before; the Deliverer never mentioned anything about that. Is that possible? Every soul has a name. After all, even he, a soulless thing, has a name. Taekwoon looks around the vacant beach, biting his lip when he doesn't see a golden glow. There's no path. "What about your life?"
"...I... I can't think of anything. There's nothing." The voice sounds surprisingly calm, as if accepting of the abnormal situation. On the other hand, Taekwoon is slowly starting to panic. If this soul has no life, then why is he here? Stars start appearing in the sky but there still isn't a path.
"Give me a name."
Taekwoon grunts. "Excuse me?"
"A name. Choose one for me."
"I can't do that."
"Why not? I can't move on if I don't have a name, right?" Taekwoon finds himself nodding dumbly. "Great! So give me one."
Taekwoon has heard many names before, and if there's one thing he's learned from them all, it's that each name is special. There's significance to the simple letters that make up a name, be it a memory or a legacy or even a prophecy. Names are part of a soul; Taekwoon can’t merely give this soul something he had heard before. As he watches the stars flicker on the water's surface, his head running through names that aren't right, his mind suddenly clears and a single name comes to him.
There's a sharp intake of breath and then a surprised laugh. "Hakyeon." The soul makes a pleased sound, repeating the name a few more times. “And your name?”
“Hakyeon and Taekwoon. Perfect.”
The soul likes to sing. Taekwoon wrinkles his nose and digs his feet into the sand. No, Hakyeon likes to sing. Since the night had begun, Hakyeon had been humming, hushed sighs gradually building into full notes. And now, as the sun starts to peek over the ocean, Hakyeon belts the same, wordless melody.
Taekwoon rests his chin on his knees and breathes in the morning breeze. “Morning.”
“That was a beautiful night,” Hakyeon gushes. “What are we going to do today?”
Follow the path. The instructions are engraved in Taekwoon’s mind, and he unconsciously looks down at his feet. Still no path. They had waited all night, and at this point, Taekwoon’s beginning to think the Deliverer made a mistake. Taekwoon narrows his eyes. Or, the Deliverer is playing a joke on him. Whatever the case, Taekwoon doesn’t know what to do. After all, what does he do with a soul that has no life? He looks up, gazing around the endless waters.
Taekwoon pauses on something round in the distance. It’s a big circle, resting perfectly on the east horizon as it spins in place. “I don’t know.”
“Let’s go find out!”
“I don’t think we should...”
“Oh, come on!” Hakyeon whines. “It’s no fun if we just sit here all day. Let’s have some fun!”
“I’m having fun just sitting here, actually.”
Hakyeon lets out a long groan. “As beautiful as this view is, I’m going to die of boredom if we sit here any longer.”
Taekwoon stifles a snort, wondering if Hakyeon gets his own humor. Standing up, he takes a step forward. No path. He glances around the empty beach again. Maybe this soul needs some searching. Taekwoon takes another step. “Just so you know, it’s going to take forever to walk there.”
“No problem,” Hakyeon says, his voice excitedly lifting. “I’ll sing the whole way.”
Taekwoon’s seventeenth Eyes belonged to a girl who sang to the moon. Jung Eunji was a part-time college student, part-part-time waitress, and a full-time singer.
“Every year on Daeboreum, I’d climb Dalmaji Hill for the moon rise.”
Taekwoon had stood on top of the hill, staring down at the town as cherry blossoms fell around his face. The moon had lit up the skies brighter than any of the city lights. It had been breathtaking, and Taekwoon would later see the moon’s reflection in Eunji’s eyes.
“I’d pray for my parents’ health and my brother’s grades.” Eunji’s laugh had sounded so full, starting with a snort and ending in loud chortles. “And I’d pray that I’d get a callback.”
Her path had appeared to have been difficult, a few too many letdowns and a few too little successes; but the way Eunji had spoken, all praise for her family and all love for her life, Taekwoon could have been fooled.
“It’s all in the song,” she said. “Sometimes, you just need to put all your faith in one thing.”
As he walked down the hill, the cherry blossoms swirling into the thick fog, Eunji sang one last song.
“Oh wow,” Hakyeon says, voice hushed and low. “It’s huge.”
As Taekwoon walks further down the beach, he can’t help but agree. What was just a small spinning circle in the distance now looms over him. It’s a gigantic wheel, white and glinting in the sunlight, with painted boxes all around its edges. When he nears it, Taekwoon can hear tinkling music. “What is it?”
Hakyeon grunts. “I asked you first.”
Taekwoon tilts his head back to stare at the steel frames that stretch to the sky. His eyes widen when he realizes those aren’t boxes that line the wheel. “They’re carriages.”
“Carriages.” Taekwoon steps closer to look inside one. The seats are pink, the walls yellow; it smells like sugar. “People sit in these.”
“People just sit there? On a wheel?”
“Usually they’re moving. Some are pulled by horses, or there are moving ones called cars.”
Taekwoon nods. He had felt the same way when he’d first seen cars, but this-- this is entirely different.
“Let’s sit in it.”
“You said it moves, right? Let’s ride it then.”
“I’ve never seen one of these before. And besides, we can’t just get in and expect a wheel to--”
Taekwoon freezes, hand clutching the carriage door. The voice definitely belonged to a person, not a soul, and Taekwoon could swear it was directed at him. But that didn’t make sense. No one could see him.
“Um, hey? Excuse me?”
He feels stupid for standing still. This person is probably talking to someone real and here he is, hunched over a goddamn carriage that doesn’t even move, as if he is suddenly--
“Hey, you can’t stand under there. My boss is gonna freak if he sees you there so can you not? Please? Dude, are you like deaf?”
Taekwoon slowly turns. It’s a thin teenage boy, pimples dotting his face and hair gelled to the sky. His arms are folded, his mouth in a frown, and he’s staring right at Taekwoon.
“So you aren’t deaf.”
“No.” Taekwoon blinks, quickly letting go of the carriage. He steps away from the wheel. “Sorry.”
The teenager smacks his lips, chewing something in his mouth. “No problemo, dude. This baby is pretty tight, a class-A ferris wheel, so I can’t blame you for being amazed, but seriously. I kinda need this job so please don’t get me fired. Feel me, brah?”
“You seem pretty cool, dude. Definitely weird but cool.” He snaps his fingers, pointing at Taekwoon. “Mysterious.” He chews some more, rubbing his chin. “Want a ride?”
“What?” Taekwoon asks. In his head, Hakyeon shrieks, “Yes!”
“You want to take a ride? Park’s not opening for another hour but she needs to go for a warm-up run anyways.” The teen walks past him, opening one of the carriages. “You in?”
“We are definitely in!” Hakyeon yells as Taekwoon carefully makes his way over. He sits on the hard seat, eyes never leaving the teen’s gaze.
“On second thought,” the teen says, closing the door. “You look more haunted than mysterious. Lighten up, dude.”
There’s a roar, a long groan of machines, and a creak. Taekwoon grabs the seat when the carriage tilts. It sways in place for a bit before moving to the right and up.
“This is amazing!” Hakyeon shouts, beginning to ramble about the beach view, the small people on the ground, and, “We’re so high up!” Taekwoon numbly stares out of the ferris wheel, barely hearing a word Hakyeon says; he can only think of the boy’s eyes. He can see me.
Right before Taekwoon had received his third Eyes, he’d asked the Deliverer a question.
“You really should stop asking so many questions.” The Deliverer let out a long sigh. “I’m not a genie, you know.”
“Never mind. You’ll find out.”
Taekwoon frowned. “Why can’t they see me?”
“The dead? I thought that was obvious, since you have their eyes and all--”
“Not them. The people. Why can’t the people in their lives see me?”
“Well, it’s not your life, Taekwoon. You don’t exist to them.” The Deliverer coughed, sounding almost apologetic. “But you can still see their worlds, touch and smell things. It’s not so bad...”
Taekwoon heard him move closer, a hand touching his face. “That’s the best part-- you don’t have to deal with the humans.”
As the next set of Eyes were popped in, Taekwoon could only disagree. The best part was being noticed.
"Stop staring," Hakyeon says. "It's getting creepy."
Taekwoon ducks his head. He still isn't used to being noticed; anytime someone looks at him, he can't help but stare back. It doesn't seem real. Once he'd gotten off the ferris wheel, Taekwoon had found that it was true. Everyone could see him. Taekwoon blinks when a girl giggles as she walks by. None of this seems real.
"They can see me," he whispers.
"And I can tell. I’ve also been gawking at them, thanks to you," Hakyeon replies. He gives an exasperated sigh when Taekwoon stops to gape at a dog. "Let's do something fun again! But no wheels. Or high things."
Taekwoon looks around him. They seem to be in a small seaside town, fishing docks and shops lining opposing sides of a cobblestone road. To his right, the beach. To his left, a hillside of houses. Seagulls fly overhead, and the sound of children's laughter carry from the park. The smell of salt is strong in the air, along with-- Taekwoon takes a deep breath-- bread, honey, sugar. His stomach growls.
"Oh, you're hungry," Hakyeon says. "Let's find food. What do you eat?"
Taekwoon plods down the street, reading the various shop signs. "I don't eat. I've never eaten before."
"Your life is sounding more and more pathetic with every passing second."
Ignoring Hakyeon, Taekwoon continues to pass by shops. Morning Bakery. Fresh Fish! Homemade Pies. He clutches his side, gritting his teeth at the foreign sensation of a gnawing hole in his stomach. Still, the new feeling is also welcomed-- this kind of emptiness is welcomed. He’d only seen food before, smelled it too, but he had never experienced this yearning that came with it. Hunger, he realizes with fascination. This is hunger. His stomach rumbles again.
“Look!” Taekwoon looks up at Hakyeon’s shout to see a café at the end of the street. It appears to be vacant, large glass windows revealing empty tables and chairs; Break Time is scrawled in white across the door. As he walks closer, Taekwoon becomes aware of the rich, sweet smell of coffee and pastries. A sign sits outside: Help Wanted.
“I’m a genius,” Hakyeon says as Taekwoon grabs the door handle and hesitantly steps inside. “I just found you food.”
“Welcome!” Curved eyes and a thin smile pop up from behind the counter. “Table for one?”
“Oh wow, just look at that face,” Hakyeon whispers. “And that fluffy hair-- he is easy on the eyes.”
Taekwoon wonders if it’s possible to hit souls. Or maybe just send them straight to Hades. Trying to block out Hakyeon’s squeals, he points to the sign. “It... said you needed help?”
“Oh!” The man gestures at a seat at the counter. “Are you looking for a job?”
“Kind of.” Taekwoon sits down. Rubbing his hands against his legs, he looks around the shop, taking in the simple decorations and the muted lighting. His gaze lands on the rows of cakes and tarts behind the glass counter, mouth watering as his stomach releases an embarrassing growl.
The man laughs, reaching into the display case to pull out a pink tart. Setting it in front of Taekwoon, he hands him a fork. “Sugar or milk in your coffee?”
“Both!” Hakyeon yells.
“None,” Taekwoon replies.
“You’ve never even had coffee before,” Hakyeon mutters as the man sets a cup next to the pastry.
Taekwoon stares down at the food. He had seen such spreads before, but right now, the way the tart’s cream drips off the side, the steam rising out of the coffee-- Taekwoon never wants to close his eyes. Carefully, he lifts the cup and takes a sip.
“That good?” Hakyeon asks when tears spring into his eyes.
Good doesn’t even begin to describe it. The hot sensation on his tongue, the heady aroma that fills his head and sinks into his bones-- Taekwoon thinks he might really like coffee. When he forks some of the tart into his mouth, Taekwoon lets out a quiet sigh. It’s soft, a bit chewy yet crisp on the edges, and the flavours make his teeth ache. Taekwoon discovers what sweetness is when his mouth waters for more, tongue licking at some cream on his lips; it tastes like a summer day at the beach.
“You must have been really hungry.” The man grins when Taekwoon scrapes the last of the cream off his plate. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
Taekwoon shrugs. He briefly glances back at the display case.
“Why don’t you stay? I could use some help in the shop, and in exchange I’ll give you food and a place to stay. There’s a spare bedroom upstairs.”
“This guy is an angel,” Hakyeon sighs. Taekwoon nods.
“Great,” the man says. He sets another pastry in front of Taekwoon. “I’m Minseok.”
The spare bedroom is a quaint, mint green room with simple furnishes. From the window, Taekwoon can see rooftops that frame the ocean view; he can hear seagulls from here. On the bed, there’s a black apron.
“I love it!” Hakyeon gives an airy laugh. “It fits us perfectly.”
Taekwoon smiles and leans back on the bed. “This is nice.” He glances at the paintings on the walls, the bookcase next to the bed, and across the room-- Taekwoon freezes.
“What?” Hakyeon asks. “What is it?”
“It’s...” Taekwoon swallows, looking away. “It’s a mirror.”
“Perfect! Try on the apron and stand in front of it-- I want to see how it looks on you.”
Getting up, Taekwoon grabs the bedsheets and drags it to the dresser. He quickly flings the sheets over the mirror, breathing heavily when he sits back down on the bed.
“But...” Hakyeon carefully begins. He pauses, his voice hushed when he speaks again. “Don’t you want to see yourself?”
If Taekwoon is being honest, the answer is yes. He does often wonder what he looks like-- what colour his hair shines, if his mouth tilts up or down, if his face is as pale as his hands. If Taekwoon is being very honest, the answer is no. He’s afraid that the mirror won’t show a reflection. After all, the Eyes are the only things tethering him to this world; he has no purpose otherwise. But if he did have a reflection, Taekwoon still wouldn’t look. He’s terrified of eyes that don’t belong, or worse, nothing at all. Just two gaping, black holes for eyes. Just a shell.
Taekwoon grabs the apron and heads out the door.
If Taekwoon had his way, he would be just fine with sweeping the floors or wiping down the counters. Minseok has even started teaching him how to brew coffee, and sometimes Taekwoon gets to open the shop in the early mornings. It’s nice. But Hakyeon, Taekwoon quickly finds out, wants more. He wants “adventure.”
“Her earrings remind me of the sun,” he says one day while Taekwoon takes a woman’s order. “Let’s go down to the water today! Build me a sandcastle!”
“It’s raining today,” Hakyeon announces another afternoon. Taekwoon works on polishing the cups as Minseok closes the windows. “Let’s go play in the rain, or we can try to build a blanket fort again!”
“That looks good,” Hakyeon says when Taekwoon tucks into a pasta dish Minseok whips up for lunch. “I bet you can’t eat all of that plus the new cakes Minseok made today. Cheesecake and chocolate fudge.”
“Shut up,” Taekwoon growls. He ducks his head when Minseok gives him a confused glance. “N-no, not you! I’m just... it was... not you.” He scowls when Hakyeon laughs obnoxiously.
“I think you’ve been stuck in this store for too long,” Minseok chuckles. Handing Taekwoon some money, he gestures outside. “Go to the market and get me some fish. I need some for dinner.”
“This is all your fault.” Taekwoon stomps down the street, angrily muttering under his breath. “I didn’t even get to finish my food, and it was so good with the tomatoes and--”
“Please, Minseok’s made that dish three times. You’ll be fine.” Hakyeon grunts. “Besides, you’ve been eating way too much. I don’t know how you’re not rolling around right now.”
“I move. I can do that because I have a body.”
“Touché. But because you’re my only source of anything, I’ll forgive you.”
Taekwoon rolls his eyes, a grin tugging at his lips. It’s hard to stay mad at a soul, especially one like Hakyeon. Even with all his whining and his clinginess, Hakyeon was growing on him.
“Market!” Hakyeon screeches when the row of stalls appears. “Move your cake-loving ass faster!”
“Calm down. The market isn’t going anywhere.”
“No, but this is probably our only trip out today. I’m tired of staring at menus and coffee orders, Taekwoon. Have mercy on my soul.”
Taekwoon snorts. Before he has a chance to retort, Hakyeon is already gushing over the colour of the fruits, the sounds of the bustling crowd, the fish being thrown over their heads. “Look at how shiny those apples are! And the peaches, they’re so fuzzy!” Taekwoon wanders around, letting Hakyeon absorb everything. “What’s that over there?”
“An octopus,” Taekwoon says, squinting his eyes. “I think it’s still alive.”
He cringes when Hakyeon lets out a shriek. “Let’s go back to the vegetables. I like how un-alive they are.”
Sighing, Taekwoon continues on, listening to Hakyeon ramble. “If tomatoes are fruits, then why are they sitting next to the vegetables?” “Apples and honey. I’ve decided that apples and honey are very aesthetically pleasing. Taekwoon, you need to eat them.” “That fish is staring at us, Taekwoon. Make it stop.”
“You are ridiculously fascinated by everything.” Taekwoon shakes his head.
Of course he is; Taekwoon treasures every sight and sound and dedicates them all to his memory. How could he not, when every passing day reminds him that he’ll inevitably return to his dark, empty world.
“Let’s get the fish,” Taekwoon says. “I want to go back.”
“Lame,” Hakyeon complains while Taekwoon pays for a bag of cod. “You better take us somewhere fun tomorrow. Why don’t we go back to the park?”
“Because you screamed the entire time on the ferris wheel last--”
Taekwoon stops when he nearly trips over something. Cursing under his breath, he looks down to see a thin man sitting on the side of the road. He has oily hair and tattered clothes, a guitar clutched in his dirt-stained hands, and by his feet, there’s a toppled jar of coins.
“Sorry,” Taekwoon mutters, leaning down to help pick up the money.
“No problem,” the man says, flashing him a bright smile. “Have a good day!”
Taekwoon nods back and slowly walks away.
“Let’s bring him back.”
“No, it’s not even my place and Minseok definitely wouldn’t want this guy there.”
“We can’t just leave him. Look how thin he is!”
“How about you just close your mouth for one goddammit minute and leave me alone?” Taekwoon lowers his face when a woman stares at him in alarm. “Look, I can’t just take people back.”
“Minseok will understand. He’s a nice guy.”
Taekwoon grits his teeth, quickening his pace. “No. I said no and that’s it.”
“So,” Minseok says. “A homeless guy, huh?”
“Eunkwang.” Taekwoon glances over to the back of the café where the said man scarfs down baked cod. “His name’s Eunkwang. And he’s a ‘free-spirit.’”
“Right.” Minseok half-smiles when Eunkwang waves at him. “So what are you going to do?”
“Me? But this is your place.”
“You work for your share.” Minseok shrugs. “As far as I’m concerned, your room belongs to you. And he’s your responsibility.”
“He can stay with us!” Hakyeon excitedly says.
Taekwoon clenches his fists. He briefly considers punching his own head to get Hakyeon to shut up. “I guess he can stay with me.”
“I already have a place,” Eunkwang calls out. “I have a sweet tent set-up next to the docks.”
“Oh, then I guess I don’t--”
“But I’d love some help.” Eunkwang grins again, all teeth.
“Right.” Taekwoon rubs his face. “I don’t have any money.”
“Don’t need any.” Eunkwang shoves the last piece of cod into his mouth before bounding over to them. “I can take payment in food.” He glances around the empty café. “How about I help a little?”
Minseok leans in. “Go on.”
“I’m a street singer.” Eunkwang lifts his guitar. “I’ll stand outside and sing, you know, charm people like I do best, and bring in some more customers. In return, I’d like some coffee and a pastry in the morning.”
“That’s it?” Taekwoon asks before looking to Minseok.
“We do need more customers...” Minseok admits. “You’ve got a deal.”
“Pleasure doing business with you guys.” Eunkwang nods at them as he grabs his bags. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning!”
“What an interesting guy.” Minseok chuckles, turning back to wipe the counters. Taekwoon stares after Eunkwang, watching him run into the streets.
“I like him,” Hakyeon says. “He’s different.”
“He’s a ‘free-spirit,’” Taekwoon says. “Whatever that means.”
“I think that means he’s happy.” Hakyeon pauses. “Is that what happiness looks like?”
Taekwoon’s twentieth Eyes had belonged to Kim Jongin. He’d lived on the streets, homeless and hungry. Taekwoon had walked through dark alleyways, frigid underpasses, rainy parks; he’d also walked through full concert halls and a huge performance stage.
“World-class ballet dancer.” Jongin sighed when Taekwoon gazed around the stage, looking up at the bright lights that shone down on him. “Then, one shattered knee and a drug addiction later, it all went to shit.”
That had been an understatement. Failed auditions, multiple rehab centers, arrests; Jongin had even constructed a blanket out of ramen packets one snowy night. “The worst night of my life,” Jongin chuckled. Taekwoon hadn’t laughed. Jongin’s life had been miserable.
“Not all of it. If it were, I would have died a long time ago.” The gold path led Taekwoon behind a convenience store, weaving around the trash bins and strewn garbage before stopping in front of a worn cardboard box. Jongin gave a happy shout. “There she is!”
Soft whimpers came from the box, and when Taekwoon opened it, he found a very tiny and very dirty puppy.
“My Jjangah,” Jongin whispered. “My little girl.”
Jongin had been right; Taekwoon saw much more light in his life after that. His Eyes were filled with more colours and fewer tears. Alleyways were food scavenging adventures and underpasses meant camping trips. Every meal was split and every blanket was shared. Jjangah was-- “My everything.”
The path’s last stop was in front of a public library. It was a black night, not a star in the sky and only a sliver of moon shedding light down on the library’s front steps. Jjangah sat on the fifth step, her white fur moving in the breeze as she looked around. Taekwoon quietly joined her, freezing when she turned her head and gazed straight into his eyes. Then, she laid her head on his lap.
“I just wanted to see her one last time,” Jongin hoarsely whispered when the gold path lit up again. Taekwoon ran his hand down Jjangah’s back. “Goodbye, little girl.”
Taekwoon supposes that’s what happiness looks like. Just a man and his dog, sitting together in the quiet night.
Eunkwang, true to his word, was quite the charmer. Admittedly, Taekwoon did doubt him when the guy showed up with an unshaven face and disheveled hair, but the minute Eunkwang started singing-- “Christ,” Hakyeon gasped. “His voice should belong in heaven.” Customers piled in through the door, girls giggling whenever Eunkwang winked at them or crooned a song with that rich tenor voice of his. Taekwoon could barely keep up with all the orders, and Minseok worked behind the counter all morning. It was their busiest day yet.
“As promised,” Minseok says, placing a cup of coffee and plate of scones in front of Eunkwang. Turning back, he sets a bag of croissants next to Eunkwang’s chair. “And a little something extra for doing an exceptionally good job.”
“Nice,” Eunkwang mumbles around a mouthful of scones. “‘Ahnk you.”
“Anytime.” Minseok smiles before nodding at Taekwoon. “And thank you for finding him.”
“See, I told you,” Hakyeon says. Taekwoon covers his smile.
“A friend is coming in today,” Minseok says. “He’s been busy so he hasn’t had much time to visit.”
Taekwoon reaches for a tart, hissing when Minseok slaps his hand away. Hakyeon chuckles.
“Don’t be alarmed when you see him.”
“Why would I?” Taekwoon asks.
“Wonshik is a little... peculiar.” Minseok smiles softly. “But he’s a big baby so don’t be fooled.”
Taekwoon could have been fooled. Wonshik, as Minseok had described, is peculiar. His arms are covered in tattoos of every colour and image-- “Okay but why does his bicep say You Only Live Once? That's just testing death. Not a great idea,” Hakyeon says-- and his hair is dyed a shocking white. When Wonshik first walked in, Hakyeon had to tell Taekwoon to stop staring. “You’re going to get us both killed. And that’s not even possible.”
“This is Kim Wonshik,” Minseok introduces. “And this is my new employee, Taekwoon.”
“Oh man, you’re working for this guy?” Wonshik jerks his head at Minseok. “Are you going crazy yet? I bet he makes you refold napkins until they’re perfect. Does he make you polish the windows twice because he’s anal like that?”
“Shut up.” Minseok punches Wonshik in the arm before walking away. “I’m going to the back to do inventory. Taekwoon, make sure White Hair over there doesn’t eat all the cakes.”
“Seriously though,” Wonshik says once Minseok leaves. “Minseok’s a great guy. You got very lucky.”
“I did.” Taekwoon pours him some coffee. “Minseok said you’ve been busy lately. Do you work in town?”
“Yeah. I’m a music teacher at the elementary school.” Wonshik lets out a booming laugh at Taekwoon’s expression. “Didn’t expect that, did you?”
“Not really,” Taekwoon admits.
“He makes a hot teacher though,” Hakyeon says. “I mean, look at that physique.”
Taekwoon turns away to fix some menus, and Hakyeon yells at him to turn back around. Taekwoon ignores him. “Were you always a teacher?”
“Nope. I wasn’t always such a good guy.” Wonshik wiggles his eyebrows, reaching over the counter to swipe a tart. “I was in a gang, did some shitty stuff. And then I got out.”
“Oh wow,” Hakyeon says.
“Oh wow,” Taekwoon echoes. “That’s... intense.”
“It was wild.” Wonshik reaches into his jacket to pull out a photo. Pushing it across the counter, he smiles tenderly. “I’ve seen and done some pretty fucked up stuff, man. But my little sister always made it better.”
The girl in the picture has short black hair and pale skin. Her arms are stretched to the sky, one hand holding up a peace sign, and she’s smiling so hard, her eyes crinkle into symmetrical curves.
“She’s beautiful,” Taekwoon says. “You’re a lucky brother.”
“Yup.” Wonshik touches the photo.
“Does she live here?”
“Nope. She got out of here.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“Yup.” Wonshik tucks the photo back into his jacket. “The world isn’t fair.”
Taekwoon’s ninety-seventh Eyes had belonged to a twelve-year-old boy who had lived through unimaginable pain. Screams of torment, bleak and hungry days, a black figure that had towered over him night after night-- there hadn’t been a single light in the boy’s life. Taekwoon knew it was against the rules, at least he thought there were probably rules against this, but he didn’t think it was right. So, he strayed off the path. Taekwoon turned away from the gold path, away from the memories of darkness and suffering, and he stopped right in the middle of a playground. He let the boy see happy children. He let him see loving mothers and laughing fathers, let him hear shouts full of joy and feel the sun on his face. He let him see that bright colours and loud noises didn’t have to mean fear or death. Taekwoon showed him the quiet, peaceful solitude of the setting sun as he rocked slowly on a lone swing set.
“Thank you,” was all the boy ever said. And Taekwoon had kept that close to him, closer than the sounds of the boy’s dry sobs, heaving breaths, tearful cries-- he kept that close because it was proof he was doing something right.
“She was murdered,” Minseok says. “Killed in a drive-by shooting.”
Taekwoon lowers his eyes, meticulously polishing the silverware. For once, Hakyeon is quiet in his head.
“It was Wonshik’s old gang. They didn’t like that he left”
He keeps his head down. Taekwoon’s no stranger to tragedy but he’s never had to face it like this. He doesn’t know what to say or what the appropriate response is. He doesn’t know how to fix it.
“Everyone in town knows so I thought you might...” Minseok’s voice trails off. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this. It’s been years and all.”
There’s a long pause, the wall clock ticking down each agonizing second as they stand there in silence. Finally, Minseok walks out.
“Dammit.” Taekwoon throws the polishing cloth against the table. “Dammit.”
“Taekwoon,” Hakyeon starts. “Don’t.”
“Don’t what? Don’t get worked up? Don’t cry?” Taekwoon rubs his face. “Well don’t worry because I won’t. I won’t do anything because that’s all I ever do. I just stand there and wait for things happen...”
It’s suffocating. Something presses down on him, brings black back to his vision-- it won’t let him breathe.
“I’m just a vessel,” he whispers. “That’s it. That’s all I amount to. I carry their Eyes, I see what they see--” Taekwoon grits his teeth, his clenched hands pressed against his head. “And I do nothing.”
“I think we should go out today,” Hakyeon says. Getting no response, he continues. “Minseok won’t mind, and we haven’t been to the park in a while.”
“By staring pitifully at the wall?” Hakyeon snorts. “Come on, I want to go out. Please?”
Hakyeon’s voice drops low, barely above a whisper, and for the first time, he sounds unsure. Maybe that’s why Taekwoon walks out the door and heads straight for the park. Maybe that’s why he’s now sitting on a bench at the pier, hand holding an ice cream cone and eyes watching the ferris wheel.
“You know,” Hakyeon starts. “I think you’re wrong.”
Taekwoon shifts his gaze to the ocean. A boat passes by, seagulls flying overhead as crewmen hoist up fishing lines. The ice cream drips down Taekwoon’s hand. “About what.”
“You’re not all that empty. You can still feel, can’t you?”
“Yes, you can. Stop being a dramatic ass and listen to me.” Hakyeon sighs. “You can smell the ocean, right? And you can feel the sun on your head, you know what sand feels like. And I know you can taste that goddamn ice cream because I’ve seen you eat ten of those before.”
Vanilla. Taekwoon had eaten eleven vanilla cones three weeks ago. Recalling that day, he grips the cone in his hand. “So?”
“So? So you’re doing what any living person can do. You’re experiencing it all, maybe even more. So what if you don’t have a soul? Like you said, you’ve carried plenty of them. And trust me, having a soul doesn’t make life any easier.
“There’s nothing wrong with being a little empty. Hell, it probably make walking around a lot easier.”
Taekwoon takes a bite of his ice cream and relishes the sweet, cold sensation on his tongue. Grinning, he closes his eyes. “Whoever’s soul you are, they’re one lucky person.”
Hakyeon laughs, warm and full. “He is. He really is.”
“We should make something for dinner.”
Taekwoon leisurely walks across the beach, sinking his feet into the warm sand. “Like what?”
“I don’t know, you’re the one who eats all the time.” Hakyeon hums softly, his voice barely heard over the roaring waves. “Pasta?”
“I don’t know how to make that.”
“You’ve watched Minseok make it so many times. Besides, Wonshik is coming over tonight so it’d be nice for you to do something for them.”
“Am I the only one who pays attention around here?”
“You’re just nosy,” Taekwoon says, making his way towards the pier market. He smiles when Hakyeon whines (“I am not nosy! I just care!”), muffling a snicker as his voice rises in pitch. Hakyeon quiets down when they step into the marketplace, the late afternoon bustle drowning out his words. Taekwoon wanders around for a while, allowing Hakyeon to enjoy the sights. He lets him stare at the lobster tank for a few minutes, move straight past the squirming octopuses, and even buys a few mangoes because Hakyeon likes their colour.
“It reminds me of the ferris wheel,” Hakyeon says. “The carriage we rode in was green, remember?”
Taekwoon doesn’t remember. He’d been preoccupied back then, too amazed by the fact that people could see him; he barely recalls the ride. Frowning, Taekwoon slows his pace. They share the same Eyes, and yet Hakyeon seems to see so much more. He wonders what other things Hakyeon has noticed-- what Taekwoon has missed.
“Excuse me!” Taekwoon turns to see a broad smile and bright eyes. He flinches when the stranger grabs his arm. “Hey, do you know how to cook this?”
Hakyeon screeches when the man lifts up an octopus. Taekwoon takes a step back. “Um... no...”
“Sorry, I’m new around town and that guy back there just sold me this, and, like, it was a good idea at the time but then I realized I don’t know what to do with it.” The man drops the octopus back into a paper bag. “I’ve traveled all around the world and I still get scammed everywhere I go.”
Taekwoon blinks. “Uh, I can’t talk to strangers--”
“I’m Jaehwan.” Beaming, the man extends his hand. (“Shake it,” Hakyeon mutters. “Stop glaring at it and shake his goddamn hand.”) “And you?”
“Taekwoon.” Looking up, he manages a slight smile when he sees Jaehwan’s eyes. They’re soft, a bit weathered around the corners but friendly nonetheless.
“His nose is huge,” Hakyeon says in awe. Taekwoon coughs when Jaehwan meets his gaze.
“Big, right?” Jaehwan laughs easily, tapping his nose. “Everywhere I go, people ask about it. One time in Thailand, they thought I was an Arabian prince or something. I got free food and everything!” Pausing, he rubs his chin. “Or maybe they were just impressed that I could fit two coins up my nose.”
“I like him!” Hakyeon yells. “Let’s be friends!”
“Thailand?” Taekwoon says. “You really have traveled around.”
“Yeah, and then there’s China, Japan, Turkey. I even toured Europe and almost got my organs sliced out of me.”
“Just kidding. It was only a kidney and they paid me well.”
“This guy’s crazy,” Hakyeon says. “We have to be friends with him.”
“I’m kidding!” Jaehwan smiles again, eyes crinkling as he chuckles. “It’s a joke! Europe was great. In fact, I’m going back after stopping here for a few days.” Jaehwan glances at his watch. “Agh, I need to go check-in at the hotel. It was nice meeting you, Taekwoon! Maybe I’ll see you around.”
Taekwoon doesn’t flinch this time when Jaehwan claps him on the shoulder. Offering a nod, he watches Jaehwan disappear back into the crowd.
“A world traveler,” Hakyeon says. “He’s such a cool guy.”
Taekwoon rolls his eyes. He’s heading back to the café when he realizes his arms feel heavier. Looking down, he notices an unfamiliar paper bag tucked into the sack of mangoes.
“Oh,” Taekwoon says, laughter threatening to spill out him. Opening the bag, he sees the octopus. It’s still squirming.
“That heathen!” Hakyeon screams. Taekwoon hunches over, tears springing into his eyes as he laughs and laughs. “We will not be friends with him, Taekwoon! Do you hear me? Stop laughing!”
Taekwoon had once traveled around the world through his eighty-fourth Eyes. Zhang Yixing had never stayed long in one place, and Taekwoon had seen everything from loud, bustling festivals to animals of every shape and colour to a flight over an emerald green sea. Yixing had been fueled by wanderlust and yearned for the new and foreign. Taekwoon had been mesmerized by all his adventures, and by the end, he felt like he had walked a million miles.
“Everyone’s constantly on a journey, constantly searching for something, as if by circling the world they’ll find the answer to life,” Yixing said. Taekwoon would later see that he had a dimpled grin and kind, sleepy eyes. “No one realizes that there’s no destination. Life just goes on and on-- and that’s the best part.”
All of Yixing’s memories had been filled with countless different people, a new face at every turn of the path. He had sung through all of his memories, changing his song with every person he left behind. His voice was a thick blend of multiple languages and tones that had smoothed out to be a deep, mellow sigh at the end of his life. Yixing had crossed so happily, so peacefully, that Taekwoon couldn’t help but wonder how someone could be so content with his life.
“Let’s make a deal,” Minseok says. “I’ll cook all the meals from now on, and you won’t set fire to my kitchen.”
“I’m sorry,” Taekwoon mumbles, staring down at his plate.
“I appreciated the thought though.” Minseok pats his head and gets up from the table. “And I’m sure Wonshik did too.”
“Yes, I’m sure Wonshik appreciated almost getting burned to death,” Hakyeon chimes in. “And I’m sure Minseok didn’t mind almost dying from food poisoning.”
“I’m sorry,” Taekwoon repeats.
“Stop apologizing.” Minseok motions for him to grab the plates. “I did like that octopus dish you made. What’s it called?”
“Ursula’s revenge,” Hakyeon moans. Taekwoon grits his teeth. He’s never letting Hakyeon watch movies again.
“Ceviche,” Taekwoon replies. “I found a recipe for it when I was visiting the library so I thought, you know, it’d be nice to try.”
“It was very good.” Minseok smiles.
“Lies,” Hakyeon says. Taekwoon wants to smash the plates against his head. Instead, he hands them to Minseok.
“Like I said, I appreciated the thought.” Minseok whistles as he washes the dishes. “Thank you.”
Hakyeon hums with him, harmonizing with the rise of his notes and the dips in the melody. Outside the window, the street lights flicker on, illuminating an empty road. Everything is calm as the dark blue night sets in. Taekwoon lets out a long sigh. This is nice.
“Taekwoon, what are your plans?”
Taekwoon dumbly looks up from wiping the table. “Excuse me?”
“Your plans,” Minseok repeats. “Are you planning on staying here forever?”
“Yes,” Hakyeon says. “Definitely yes. We’re never leaving your glorious side.”
“Um...” Taekwoon says.
“Don’t get me wrong, I really like you being here. It’s nice having someone to talk to but...” Minseok leans over the counter. “What do you want to do with your life?”
Taekwoon bites his lip, trying not to look at Minseok. He offers a shrug.
“Don’t you have dreams, Taekwoon?”
Taekwoon had once carried a dreamer’s Eyes. His thirty-fifth pair had belonged to a man named Do Kyungsoo, an actor. Taekwoon had encountered dreamers before but this man was different. All he had were dreams.
“I was in two films my debut year,” Kyungsoo said. “And that was all I needed.”
Taekwoon looked at the accolades that adorned Kyungsoo’s walls. Rookie award. Breakout Star. Best Young Actor. Best Actor. Best Revival. Most Popular. Best Couple. Most Accomplished. Taekwoon’s head spun as he stared at all the ribbons and trophies and plaques; it was almost suffocating.
“I had everything.” Surprisingly, there was no vanity, not even a hint of pride, in Kyungsoo’s voice. It was hard and concise, as if Kyungsoo were reciting facts rather than reminiscing over his life.
Unlike his wall of awards, Kyungsoo’s gold path was empty. His memories consisted of vacant beds and a dining set for one. Sometimes, a crowd surrounded them, pushing at Taekwoon until he couldn’t breathe. Other times, he stood in front of a sea of cameras, voices screaming Kyungsoo’s name.
“I had everything,” Kyungsoo repeated. Taekwoon quickly followed the path, wanting to get away from the screams; he doubted Kyungsoo wanted to hear them any longer. The path paused at a bus stop where two boys in school uniforms were talking to each other. The taller boy with enormous ears whispered something to the shorter one, a boy with curved lips and a barking laugh.
“Tell Soo to hurry up!” Big Ears complained, nudging his friend. Smiley-face rolled his eyes and shoved him away.
“I’m starving! If he doesn’t show up soon, I’m going without him.”
“Calm down,” Smiley-face said, pulling out his phone. “Kyungsoo just finished his audition so he’ll be here soon.”
“He better.” Big Ears frowned before pulling out something from his bag. “I went all the way to Hongdae to get him this shirt. If he’s not here in five minutes, I’m wearing it.”
“Like it’d fit your giant-ass body.” Smiley-face laughed again, Big Ears quickly joining in.
Taekwoon walked on, their laughter growing faint as the path led down an empty stretch of road. Fog began to swirl to around his ankles.
“I lost everything,” Kyungsoo said when the River appeared. “The minute I left them, I lost everything.”
As the fog pulled Kyungsoo away, Taekwoon finally saw his eyes. They were huge, more white than pupils, and had a glassy, blank stare-- Taekwoon had never seen someone so lost.
“Jaeyoung over there wants to know if you have a girlfriend.” Minseok jerks his head towards the front of the café. A girl in a blue dress flushes when Taekwoon glances over. “I think she might have a crush on you.”
“Oh my god, someone actually likes you,” Hakyeon says.
Taekwoon squints, offering Jaeyoung a small smile before turning back to his orders. “That’s kind of her.”
“The prince of darkness has an admirer.” Hakyeon heaves a dramatic sigh. “Does this mean I have become what they call a third wheel? Do I have to move out?”
“Well?” Minseok asks. “She’s expecting a response by the time she gets her latte.”
“I have someone.”
“Really?” Minseok raises his eyebrows, giving him an impressive glance. “I didn’t think you were the type to like anyone. But, hey, to each their own.”
“Tell her I’m sorry,” Taekwoon says, handing him the order. “And thanks.”
“Just introduce me to the lucky person sometime.” Minseok winks before walking away.
“Already have someone, huh?”
Taekwoon rolls his eyes. “I’m kind of stuck with you.”
“What would you even do without me?” Hakyeon teases.
Without him? Probably a lot of things. Silence for one. A little less snark and a little more peace. Pressing his hand against his mouth, Taekwoon muffles a chuckle. Things would also be a lot more boring. Hakyeon is pretty funny, pretty wild and crazy. He’s a bit of a romantic with generous portion of sarcasm. He questions the world while in awe over its beauty, and he has a perpetual fear of eight-legged sea creatures. With him, Taekwoon has been able to taste things, feel things, hear things, see things he never knew he could have the luxury of experiencing-- of living.
“Nothing,” Taekwoon admits. “I’d probably still be sitting on the beach, waiting for something to happen.”
“You’re such an honest guy.”
“Might as well be, since I’m stuck with you for a while.”
“Stupid,” Hakyeon says, his voice affectionate. “This is why I love you.”
Love. He’d seen it many times through many Eyes; the strong purple love of a mother and her child, the deep red of a passionate romance, the warm yellow love of a man and his dog. But to Taekwoon, the best example of love was probably Go Woori, his hundred-and-fifty-seventh pair of Eyes. Her life had been a pale pink, sparkling and glistening to a ridiculous degree, and there had always been the faint scent of roses and mint. Woori’s path had led him to a small cottage by the sea that was, “Our first adventure”; a carousel where, “He proposed to me”; an empty classroom where, “We first met”; an old church where, “We did it. We finally got married.”
“I loved him with all my heart and soul,” she said. And Taekwoon could tell. Everywhere the path led-- for better and for worse, in sickness and health, for richer and poorer-- he had felt a warm, comforting presence. It was as if the love had never died.
Woori’s cheeks had been a flushed pink, her eyes a light brown. And as she disappeared into the fog, Woori closed her eyes and smiled. “I love you.”
Monday is the busiest day of the week with the café overfilled with sleepy patrons since first thing in the morning. Taekwoon’s flying through orders, trying not to spill anything or hold back the already too long line, when Wonshik visits. His hair is dyed an electric blue this time, causing Taekwoon to start and almost drop the hot water. Wonshik chuckles and sits at the bar, waiting for the last of the morning rush to leave.
“I like it.” Taekwoon motions to his hair.
“I love it,” Hakyeon says. “It looks like the sky.”
“Thanks.” Wonshik pulls on a few strands before looking around the now empty shop. “It was wild in here a second ago.”
“Monday crowd.” Minseok closes the register, sighing as he cracks his neck. “Your hair looks like a popsicle.”
“Shut up,” Wonshik says, swiping a croissant. “I’ve never seen that many people though. Before, even your busy days were slow.”
“I guess word about my great coffees got around.”
“No, that’s not it.” Wonshik narrows his eyes, a smirk growing on his lips. “I know why this place is so busy now.”
“Because your fat ass isn’t here to eat all my food,” Minseok retorts. Hakyeon laughs loudly, and Taekwoon turns away before Wonshik can see him chuckle.
“No, and my fat ass is gorgeous, thank you.” Wonshik rolls his eyes. “It’s because of you three.”
“You, Eunkwang, Taekwoon.” Wonshik gestures to the window where Eunkwang serenades a group of schoolgirls. “There’s some flower boy shit going on here.”
Minseok flings his towel at him. “I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that Taekwoon and I work over twelve hours a day.”
“Not at all.” Wonshik laughs as he turns to where Taekwoon is setting up the display case. “Yup, it’s definitely ‘cos of your faces. I mean, look at Taekwoon.”
Minseok shakes his head. “Leave him alone.”
“No, seriously,” Wonshik continues. “You’ve got this dark, handsome vibe going on, Taekwoon. Very badass.” Pausing, he smirks at him. “Have you ever considered joining a gang?”
“Oh my god.” Minseok leans over the bar to smack Wonshik in the head. “Get out of my store. I have a business to run.”
“Flower boys!” Wonshik yells as he gets up. Minseok narrows his eyes, grabbing a rolling pin before he chases Wonshik out the door.
“Dark and handsome, huh?” Hakyeon later says. Taekwoon is spread out on his bed, stomach happily full of Minseok’s bread pudding. A light breeze flows in from the open window. Taekwoon blinks sleepily.
“He’s just being funny,” Taekwoon mumbles, feeling around for a pillow.
“I want to see.”
Taekwoon sits up. “I already said no--”
“Please. For me. I want to see who carries me.”
Hearing the slight waver in Hakyeon’s voice, Taekwoon heaves a deep sigh and closes his eyes. Not fair. Hakyeon cheers when he slowly stands up and walks to the covered mirror. His hand trembles, breaths stuck in his throat, when he counts to three and reaches for the bedsheet. Pulling it away, Taekwoon looks up.
He has a reflection. He has a slim face, pursed lips and a thin nose. His skin is ashen, different shades of white and grey accenting his features, and black hair falls messily over his forehead. Lifting his gaze, Taekwoon looks at the Eyes. They’re grey, narrowed and a bit drooped in the corners; they stare back at him, glistening.
“See, I knew my Taekwoon was handsome,” Hakyeon whispers. “Your eyes are beautiful.”
Taekwoon pauses. “I’m carrying your Eyes.”
“Mine,” Hakyeon agrees. “And yours.”
Taekwoon sucks in a sharp breath. “What are you...”
Tears fill his vision, and Taekwoon blinks rapidly to see through them. “You’re my...”
“Soul.” Hakyeon laughs quietly when more tears fill his eyes. “You found me.”
Taekwoon sits on his room’s balcony, swinging his legs through the air as he leans his head against the cold railings. There's a cappuccino next to him, cooling on top of a new book from the library. The first rays of sunrise hit his feet as Taekwoon pulls his sweater tighter around his body. "Why?" Why a reaper. Why my eyes. Why my soul. "Why me?"
"Why anything?" Hakyeon laughs that full, breathy giggle that never fails to make him smile. Taekwoon, feeling the corners of his lips lift, reaches for his drink. "If you want a really cheesy answer, maybe because you're strong enough. Or even better, maybe because you're broken enough."
Taekwoon can't hold back the chuckle that spills out of him. Sighing, he takes another sip of his drink.
"You must wonder about that a lot," Hakyeon continues. "When you have eternity to think about things, I guess you start asking a lot of questions."
Taekwoon hums in agreement, and Hakyeon snorts.
"But I don't think that there are always answers." His voice softens, becomes a bit more quiet and a bit less teasing. "Maybe there isn't a reason. Maybe things just happen. Maybe the big guy upstairs just decided to create trees and animals and shit one day." It's Taekwoon's turn to snort, and he hears Hakyeon snicker. "I think that’s the beauty of this all. Things just happen, and there's no reason. And that’s okay."
The sun splashes yellow across Taekwoon's white skin, and he shivers at the sudden warmth that fills him. He still has lots of questions, and he's not sure if Hakyeon's words could ever satisfy them-- but for now, it's enough. Hakyeon hums, gasping appropriately when the entire city is drenched in the morning sunlight and everything glows spectacularly. Taekwoon smiles. Right now, this is enough.
“Taekwoon! I found you!”
Taekwoon steps back when Jaehwan dashes across the café to him. His wide smile doesn’t waver as he wraps Taekwoon in a hug. “I knew we’d meet again.”
Seeing Minseok’s amused smile, Taekwoon coughs. “This is Jaehwan. I met him at the market.”
“I’m his friend,” Jaehwan says, shaking Minseok’s hand.
“I’m Minseok. His boss.”
Jaehwan laughs loudly. “What a cute boss.”
“This guy gets it,” Hakyeon says, breaking into peals of laughter.
Horrified, Taekwoon pushes Minseok to the back of the store. “Please ignore him. He shoves coins into his nose for fun.”
“That was one time when I was slightly drunk,” Jaehwan calls out.
Taekwoon rubs his temples. “Didn’t you say you were leaving town? To Europe or something?”
“Soon!” Jaehwan says. “My flight’s tomorrow, but I wanted to look around town again and I found you. Oh, and I brought another friend!”
Jaehwan turns to where a tall boy stands near the door, an overstuffed backpack clutched in his arms. Waving him over, Jaehwan points to Taekwoon. “This is the guy I was telling you about. Sanghyuk, meet Taekwoon.”
“Han Sanghyuk,” the boy says, rubbing his nose. His voice is light, a childish tone to his words. Taekwoon thinks it matches the sparkle in his eyes.
“Sanghyuk here is a genius.” Jaehwan flings an arm around him. “He studies eyes.”
“Something like that.” Sanghyuk carefully shrugs out of Jaehwan’s grasp and flashes him a sweet smile. “But I won’t bore you with the specifics.”
“Isn’t he the cutest?” Jaehwan coos.
“Yes!” Hakyeon yells. “We need to keep him, Taekwoon. Just look at that face!”
“Are you also a traveler?” Taekwoon asks. He pushes a plate of cookies towards Sanghyuk.
“No, I’m here for a convention.” Sanghyuk sniffs at the cookies before grabbing a few.
“Oh, is it a science thing? For little geniuses like you?” Jaehwan asks.
“No, it’s an anime convention.”
“What’s that?” Hakyeon whispers.
“Don’t want to know,” Taekwoon mutters under his breath.
“Like I said, cute.” Jaehwan ruffles Sanghyuk’s hair before turning back to Taekwoon. “I’m glad I got to see you again before leaving. You’re a funny guy, and if you’re ever thinking about traveling, I could be your buddy! We could go to Italy some day, or maybe even Hawaii, I hear they have active volcanoes! And then we could go to...”
Taekwoon wants to shake his head, wants to roll his eyes at the ridiculous grin on Jaehwan’s face as he rambles on and on, but Hakyeon laughs and, “He’s a really happy guy. Maybe we should travel with him sometime.” And Taekwoon considers it, because maybe Jaehwan could entertain him on those long airplane rides. Glancing over, he sees Sanghyuk staring intently at him.
“Everything okay?” Taekwoon asks. He smiles when he sees nothing but crumbs on Sanghyuk’s plate.
“Your eyes,” Sanghyuk mutters. “They’re really peculiar.”
“Oh, these.” Taekwoon grins, placing more cookies on his plate. “I get that a lot.”
“We have a special guest coming in today.” Minseok pulls out a cake from behind the counter. It’s white with pink trims, fondant roses scattered around the top. In the center, it says Happy Birthday, My Love in pink.
Minutes after he sets the cake out, a man walks in from the rain. He has neat brown hair and worn, wrinkled eyes. In his right hand, there’s a bouquet of roses. When he sees the cake, dimples appear on his face. “You remembered.”
“Of course,” Minseok says. He sets a cup of mint tea on the table. “Enjoy, Hongbin.”
Taekwoon folds napkins near the back of the shop, and Minseok joins him. After a few moments of silence, Taekwoon asks. “Who is he?”
“An old customer. He and his wife used to come in every Friday night.” Minseok smiles. “Two café au lait and a tiramisu to share.”
Hongbin reaches into his pocket and pulls out a handful of candles. He carefully sticks them into the cake.
“He still buys roses every year on her birthday, on New Year’s, Christmas, Valentine’s. I haven’t seen him miss a day yet.” Minseok lets out a slow sigh. “If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.”
Hongbin light the candles, and there’s the faint smell of mint and roses in the air. When tears well up in Hongbin’s eyes, Minseok looks away but Taekwoon continues to watch.
“I miss you,” Hongbin whispers. “Happy Birthday, Woori.”
Later, once Hongbin is gone and the untouched cake is thrown away, Taekwoon leans against his bedroom window. He watches the deep blue night turn into a pale pink sky. “Hey, Hakyeon.”
He stares at his reflection, tracing the shape of his eyes. “I just thought you might want to know that I love you.”
A breathy chuckle. “I know.”
Taekwoon’s polishing the display counter when it happens. Black creeps into the edge of his vision, slowly circling in, and there’s a soft ringing in his ears. Clutching the counter, Taekwoon looks over to where Minseok and Wonshik are talking.
“Not now,” he gasps.
“Oh,” Hakyeon sighs. “I guess this is it.”
The ringing becomes louder, drowning out Minseok and Wonshik. Taekwoon helplessly watches as they blur into hazy lines. Choking, he reaches out. “This is too soon!”
“It’s always too soon,” Hakyeon says. “But things will be fine. I promise.”
“Don’t leave me!”
“I won’t. I’m you, and you’re me. I’ll always be here.”
Everything swirls darker and darker. Taekwoon strains to hear Hakyeon’s words. “Liar.”
“I promise. When you’re in the dark, I’ll be with you. And when you carry someone else, when you reach the River and when you see how important you are, I’ll be right there with you. So stop being so afraid, stupid. Stop counting your breaths and start living. You were never doomed, Taekwoon. You were just a little lost.”
Gentle fingers touch his face, pressing warmth into his skin. “Love me a little more. And love yourself a little more.”
Black sets in, and everything is still. Taekwoon manages a whisper. “Goodbye.”
A last laugh. “See you around, Taekwoon.”
It always begins in the dark. Taekwoon patiently waits in the black that surrounds him, basking in the silence. Hearing a soft rustle, he smiles.
“Did you wait long?”
A cool hand slips into his palm, a sharp voice in his ear. Chuckling, Taekwoon squeezes back. “Not too long.”
“Did you figure it out yet?”
“Were you Jaehwan?” Thinking of the Deliverer’s high-pitched laugh, Taekwoon snorts. “Or Eunkwang?”
“You’re disappointing me, Taekwoon. I was sure you would immediately recognize me.”
“Are you sure I saw you?”
“Positive. But which one was I?”
“Sanghyuk? Definitely not Minseok.”
A sharp laugh. “You have all of eternity to figure it out, Taekwoon.”
Cold fingers run up his face and stop right under his eyes, as if giving him a brief moment to prepare. “You ready?”
Taekwoon thinks of bitter coffee and sweet cream tarts. He thinks of a soft ballad crooned to a weathered guitar, a scientist who studies eyes and a wanderer who treats him like an old friend. He thinks of unconditional love that transcends tragedy and death. And most of all, Taekwoon thinks of bright laughter and a beautiful soul. “Ready.”
A tug. A prod. A dizzying amount of pressure and then, push, push, push. “There we go!” A final triumphant laugh. “Have fun, Taekwoon!”
And he opens his eyes.