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Dear Friend (collection)

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When Taehyung arrives at his childhood home, there’s no one there to greet him.

The front gate is open, dusty courtyard deserted. The midday sun beats at the back of his neck, pulling sweat from between his shoulders. He marches toward the old hanok, stuffed duffel bag hanging from a hand.

At the entrance, he hesitates.

There's still time to turn back, return to the bus stop and wait for the next ride to the station. He could buy a return ticket to Seoul and be back in his city apartment in less than three hours—ignore the crazy impulse that drove him to return to this place after swearing he would never.

But if he returns now, he may regret it later. Will probably regret it later. This has happened to him many times, especially when it comes to relationships.

Taehyung fits the key in the lock and twists it. The door opens sideways, which feels unnatural to him now.

Climbing the stone ledge up into the elevated home, he ducks to cross the doorway.

“Hello?”

Taehyung knows there's no one inside, but he still has to ask. Silence is a rare commodity in the city, and now that he has it, he finds it borderline unsettling. Who would've thought he'd ever miss the drone of cars and stomp of neighbors?

When he receives no response from potential trespassers, Taehyung sets his luggage on the floor and toes off his shoes.

The traditional home is small, a protruding living area connected to a kitchen, two bedrooms, and a bathroom at the back. The mid-July sun is illuminating the whole house, courtesy of a pair of sliding glass-paneled doors. There's a low coffee table at the center of the floor, flat cushions scattered around it.

Against another clay wall is his grandmother's small upright piano, a wall clock hanging above it. This is the instrument that set the course of Taehyung's life, got him into music and art school and out of the countryside.

He approaches it with a tight feeling in the pit of his throat.

A few of the white keys are painted, layers of color and accidental spatters of pink and blue around them. He remembers putting them there when he was about six or seven years old, right when he first started playing. It's color-coding, how his grandmother taught him his D notes.

She was his caretaker and first friend, passing away when he was in his second year of high school. A decade has passed since then, but sometimes the wound still feels painfully fresh. Standing in the home where she raised him, same walls and same furniture, part of him is still expecting her to walk out of some room and say hi.

This is one of the reasons why he ignored this place for so long, he realizes. Too many memories.

He turns away when his eyes start to burn. Coming here was most likely a bad idea. There's the house—his house, as per his grandmother's will—and people in the area that he doesn't really want to face. He came on a whim, and now that it's registering in his head that he's meant to live so far away from the comfort of his apartment and his friends, this feels like an impossible task.

Forcing his eyes shut, he takes a deep, steadying breath, then slowly exhales through his mouth. The cicadas are rattling outside, belting the sound of the summer. He had almost forgotten how loud those bugs got. In the scorching heat, it's easy to think of it as just the sound of the trees, nature creaking under the sun. Eyes closed, he listens to their fluctuating buzz, takes another deep breath.

This is a meditation technique, something he picked up from his best friend, Jimin. All he has to do is close his eyes and focus only on breathing.

In through the nose, out through the lips.

Now, all he can think of is who else cicadas in the summertime remind him of, so Taehyung opens his eyes.

Not yet.

 

 

 

 

 

There's one kilometer between the house and the commercial strip in the village. Downtown, he supposes he'll call it, although to him the small cluster of businesses hardly deserves such a title.

Taehyung wasn't planning on heading there on his first day back, but the kitchen has nothing he can eat. All he finds in the cabinets are bowls and pots and pans that have seen better days. He ought to have planned for food considering the property has been empty for several years, but he didn't stop to think about the logistics of the trip as he packed a bag and booked a ticket to Daegu.

—he did all of that this morning.

Luckily, he discovers that his old bike is still at the back of the house, lying on its side in a bed of overgrown weeds. The blue padded seat cover is dark and damp, the bell rusted over pretty badly, but if he rides a bike to and from town to stock up on food and supplies, there's a much better chance that he won't run into anyone he knows.

He pulls off the moldy seat cover and sits down.

His legs have gotten longer since high school, the pedals a tad too close and the seat set much too low. Still, it'll have to do. Pedaling with backless loafers sounds like mild torture, so he decides to skip the shoes. At least here he knows no one will bat an eyelash at him for visiting the convenience store barefoot.

The way into town is downhill. It's a steady slope, not too steep but dramatic enough that Taehyung is half anxious and half excited as he walks out the gate of the home with the small, purple bicycle between his knees. He hasn't been on a bike in years.

He positions himself at the center of the dirt road. When he settles in and slowly starts pedaling forward, the incline begins getting incrementally steeper. The wheels and gravity accelerate him past a point that he can control, and Taehyung is swept along, hair whipping back from his face, loose shirt ballooning behind him like a parachute. It's too fast, too fucking fast, and the bike wobbles as he fights to hold it steady the quicker they go.

When it becomes too much, he squeezes his eyes shut and presses the brakes.

The back of the bike tips over as the wheel is forced to an abrupt halt. Taehyung is sent flying forward, covering his face with his hands on instinct.

He lands on his palms with a grunt, some part of the bike caught between his legs.

Shit.

He instantly knows that he got them, the painful hand rashes you get from scraping your palms when you fall.

It's probably the first time he's getting hurt like this as an adult, but the burning feeling is unforgettable. This kind of stuff used to happen to him all the time when he was a child.

Grimacing, Taehyung pulls his legs out from under the shrunken bike and sits on the dirt road where he landed. There are no people or even cars around, so he stretches his legs and holds his hands up to assess the damage.

Both of his palms are scraped, blood tipping the ends of the red welts. He frowns and shakes his hands out, trying to chase away the stinging pain.

When his hands and dignity have sufficiently recovered, he stands up, dusts off his pants, grabs the bike by the handles to start walking with it.

Once he reaches the base of the residential hill, Taehyung mounts the bike again. He tries holding it steady and pedaling forward as he did the first time, but now that he's scared of falling and getting hurt, he's a worse rider than before. He loses his balance quickly, has to catch himself on a foot.

So he gives up and decides to wheel the bike the rest of the way. No point in embarrassing himself further.

There are trees, shade, and cicadas along the first half of the route. Houses that look just like his are scattered across the fields, enough space between each of them that he knows it must feel like having no neighbors.

When the dirt path starts evening out, the trees become sparser until only flat fields extend in the horizon. They're rice farms, muddy puddles of green crops as far as the eye can see. It's the village's primary trade, and during the harvest season at the end of each summer, many families in the area help pick the grain. It's a tradition.

The path breaks off into several smaller ones along the way. They lead to side streets and homes, all of which Taehyung is familiar with.

More buildings start coming into view the further he walks. At the end of the farms, dirt gives way to pavement, homes becoming clustered together. Here, individual houses share perimeter walls, each with their own gate. He finally starts hearing sounds of other people, old ladies sweeping dust out onto the street as he passes and kids kicking balls against the walls. A few heads turn in his direction as he goes, but he blames that on the blond hair and tattoos. Those aren't too common around these parts. He keeps his head high and treads forward.

The shop he's looking for is right ahead. It's a small cement building, bright yellow paint weathered where the walls intersect. Weeds and vines grow over the front of it, wiry veins creeping towards the open windows.

Taehyung wheels his bike to the entrance, leaning it against the wall. He steps in, doorway drapes parting for him.

On the other side, he isn't greeted with the mandatory "welcome" that he receives in stores in Seoul. Instead, the shopkeeper at the checkout counter has her head hanging low, apparently napping. He walks in.

Rather than fluorescent lamps, only natural light from the windows illuminates the space. It feels much smaller than he remembers— three rows of wooden shelves, all stocked a little sparsely. The products don't have price tags on them, seemingly organized by color instead of kind.

“Kim Taehyung?” a voice suddenly exclaims from across the room. “Is that you?”

The shopkeeper woke up. He's slightly surprised that she recognized him so quickly. His hair is a different color now, chemically straightened. He's lost weight, shaped up around the jaw and the shoulders, and grown several centimeters taller in the nine or so years since he's been here.

“...yes, auntie.” He bows.

The lady leaves the register with a muttered exclamation. Despite being indoors, she wears a sun hat that covers most of her round face. She hobbles across the room, coming to a stop right in front of him. Propping a meaty hand on her hip, she pushes her big glasses up her nose as if to see him better.

She looks smaller, somehow. Might be just Taehyung's imagination. He's always been secretly terrified of her.

“Well, I can't believe what I'm seeing. It really is you. I have to say, we never thought we'd see your face around here again, boy. Figured you'd flown off like your mother!”

Taehyung smiles, weakly but genuinely.

“How is she doing, eh? Remarried yet?”

Ah. “Not yet,” he says politely, making sure to keep his pleasant smile right in place. “She's been seeing someone she likes, though.”

“Seeing someone?” The woman places an inflection on the word, judgment poorly disguised.

Luckily, Taehyung doesn't have to worry about formulating an appropriate response, because a second later the old woman is laughing it off, giving him an interested once-over.

“Handsome fella, aren't ya?” she continues. “How have you been? How old are you now?”

“...twenty-seven.”

“Ah, almost thirty, then. Where's the wife? Girlfriend?”

The woman raises her eyebrows expectantly, leans sideways to look around him like there's a wife and newborn hiding behind his back.

Taehyung licks his lips.

“I don't have one, ma'am,” he says. “I'm a homosexual.”

The shopkeeper's jaw drops, her mouth hanging open in an expression of surprise that would never be acceptable in the city.

Taehyung has been dreading this-- coming out. It's what he supposes this is. For all it's worth, anyway.

After she gathers her composure, the woman crosses her thick arms over her chest. She's staring at Taehyung, quiet but with a razor-sharp focus, like she's giving him a chance to take it back or say more.

He does neither. He isn't fifteen anymore.

“Alright,” the shopkeeper heaves after a pregnant pause, stepping off to straighten a can of peach halves on the shelf.

She's visibly ruffled. Taehyung can practically hear the wheels in her head turning, her urge to repeat his shocking revelation to others.

Now he won't have to come out to a single other soul in town. He can just sit back and wait, let gossip run its natural course. It's a relief, really. Soon enough, everyone around will know.

“How can I help you, hun?”

It's a relief. It is.

 

 

 

 

 


Back at the house, Taehyung eats lunch by himself at the newly dusted coffee table. Around him, all of the sliding doors and windows are open, letting in a warm breeze from outside.

He slurps at the instant noodles unenthusiastically, legs folded beneath himself.

At home, no matter how busy he gets during the week, he always finds time to cook and eat healthy. No snacks, no frozen meals, definitely no instant noodles. It's what he's used to, since his grandmother never bought him soda or candy when he was a child.

Growing up, he would've killed to eat junk food like this, but now that he can, it doesn't feel all that special.

His grandma would've been so mad if she could see him now, is what he thinks.

With a sad smile, Taehyung lays the chopsticks over the half-finished soup.

There are flowers engraved on the sides of the metal sticks, the ceramic bowl a soft pink. They're his grandma's, everything his grandma's.

Outside, the leaves rustle as a wave of wind rolls through.

 

 

 

 

 

After his late lunch, Taehyung sets out to clean every room in the house with the few cleaning supplies he was able to carry back from the store.

He takes care of the bathroom first, stepping inside the old tub to scrub the grout between the tiles, wearing rubber gloves to protect his injured hands. After that, he wipes down the counters in the kitchen until they're sparkling, rewashes all the glasses and utensils that were left out to gather dust. In his old bedroom, he locates the fold-up mattress in the closet and carries it onto the front court to air it out over the fence.

Outside, the sun has grown dimmer. The wind is slightly cool against his heated skin, thick dark clouds moving in to swallow the blue of the sky.

It looks like rain is on its way. Taehyung makes a mental note to retrieve his bed before it hits.

Once he's back inside, he begins sweeping the hardwood floors with a broom he found in a laundry closet. As he works, he can't shake off his unease about the silence.

He lives alone in the city, but it never truly feels like solitude. There are noisy neighbors, cars honking at 4 AM, phantom sounds bouncing off the walls that keep him up at night.

Here, he doesn't even have a working TV.

When the straw of the broom makes contact with the foot of the piano, Taehyung gives pause.

The poor thing is looking worse for wear. There's dust over the case and across the keyboard, where the cover was somehow forgotten open. The white of the keys has yellowed, the wood possibly warped from the high temperatures, and on the painted layers, dirt and dust settled in to dull them.

Pianos need care and protection, and no one's been caring for this one.

Setting the broom against the wall, Taehyung heads to the kitchen and grabs one of the cleaning sprays he's been using. He spritzes it over the surface of the piano, then wipes it with a dry rag. The yellowish-brown of the wood is instantly drawn out. He keeps wiping, collecting accumulated dust on the cloth and turning it over as it becomes dirtier and the piano cleaner.

And just like that, like a magic spell, the instrument starts looking like itself again. Looking familiar.

Taehyung sets down the spray bottle and drops the rag, shaking the moisture off his scraped hands. He brushes one across the keyboard, not applying pressure but feeling it out. He runs a finger over a key that's painted pink, eyeing it for a long moment before he pulls out the bench and sits down.

Closing his eyes, Taehyung brings both hands over the keyboard. The placement of his fingers feels natural, though it's been years since he's last touched a piano.

He went to college for instrumental performance, but couldn't find a job that allowed him to apply that. He figures he was never any good at playing the piano anyway, and the only reason he ever did was to make his grandma smile.

And—

Taehyung's hand gravitates toward the Cs, pressing down when his fingers land on the first three notes in the minor chord. The sound pierces through the quiet, has him snatching back his hand. The piano is very out of tune, but it still sounds like—

Like the song that's been stuck in his head since this morning.

It's a melody he wrote when he was in high school, on these very keys. He feels an impulse, almost irresistible, to play it now. He still knows how to, even without his trusty journal for reference.

A clap of thunder interrupts his thoughts.

The rain. His bed.

Taehyung opens his eyes, and it's almost at the same second that he realizes that he isn't alone in the room anymore. There's a presence behind him.

He slowly twists around to face the doorway of the home.

At the edge of the living room, just beyond the open front doors, stands a dark-haired young man. His threadbare white t-shirt clings to his chest, wrapped snug around his suntanned arms. His brown hair is overgrown, messy and frizzy on his head from the extreme humidity. Parted in the center, it curls past his eyebrows, over his round, dark eyes.

He's bigger and broader than the last time they saw each other, has his arms crossed over his chest in some hostile stance.

It might have looked intimidating if Taehyung wasn't intimately familiar with the look, didn't know it for a defense mechanism.

This is what he's been waiting for.

Taehyung smiles, slowly.

“Hello, Jeonggukie. It's been a while.”