The apartment is small, but not cramped, has a cute balcony great for raising succulents, a big kitchen, big windows, no leaky faucets, and is within walking distance of a 24/7 convenience store. If this sounds unrealistic already, it probably is. The rent is only five hundred thousand won!
“Your bar is what we call tragically low,” says Jimin. “But that price seriously sounds too good to be true.”
“We’re millennials. That bar is already insurmountably high.”
“I don’t know. Are you sure there isn’t some kind of deadly mold in the walls, or something? Did you sign already?”
No, but Jeongguk has no reason not to. It’s going for an excellent price. It’s close to the radio station at which he somehow secured an internship post-grad, after Namjoon had pulled a few strings here and there and gotten him the position even though he knew full well there were probably more qualified candidates for the job (god bless based Namjoon, hyung of hyungs, sorry Yoongi). There’s also the aforementioned corner store, and Jeongguk won’t pretend for a second he doesn’t get ramen cravings like no one’s business in the middle of the night, even though that could probably be solved by just going to sleep instead of staying up to play ranked games on Overwatch until three AM. It’s important. He’s trying to get diamond and Widowmaker’s golden gun.
“Aren’t realtors supposed to tell you about anything you need to know about a place you’re looking at by law or something?” Jeongguk yawns, not even bothering to cover his mouth, as Seokjin hands him a sample of roast duck. He eats it.
“I guess,” says Jimin. He doesn’t sound entirely convinced. “I guess if they’ve been trying to sell a property for a while, they start skimping on any unsavory details.”
The glance Jeongguk gives Jimin is bloodshot. Reason number four to move out of Seokjin and Jimin’s apartment, he stayed up last night till three AM playing Overwatch to no fault of his lack of self-control, but because he just wasn’t that interested in listening to them having sex. Really a testament of love to be having sex at three AM. Jesus Christ. Just go to sleep. Dick is of abundance in the morning.
“What, so you’re suggesting someone’s died in there? You read too many CreepyPastas.”
“I’m just saying you should weigh all your options.”
“The next best thing is living in an apartment full of TESOL expats, Jimin, Namjoon hyung is enough English in my life. I can’t.”
“Fair enough. Just don’t do anything stupid.”
Stupid? Please. As someone who immediately deepthroats any phallic object he sees (party hats, karaoke mics, his brother’s girlfriend’s Carat Bong, and bananas, just to piss Jimin off), Jeongguk has Never Done Anything Stupid in his life. Besides, his second best option is almost twice as much and twice as far. Consider it nope’d.
“My credit check went through,” Jeongguk says, smushed snugly between a businessman muttering into his Bluetooth and a girl who somehow has mastered the art of applying lipstick in a sardine-packed, moving subway. “I signed.”
“Congratulations, punk.” Seokjin’s voice is punctuated with the sound of shouting in the background. He’d probably slinked out of the kitchen mid-dinner rush to talk. “It’s a shame to see you go.”
“I’m not moving overseas, hyung, just to the next district.”
“Whoever will help me in the kitchen now?”
“Your boyfriend, duh.”
“I never get anything done in the kitchen if Jimin is also there,” Seokjin says without an ounce of shame.
“God. I’m hanging up. I knew the counter wasn’t sticky because of oil residue that one time.”
Seokjin’s barking laughter reaches his ears. “Invite us over when you’re settled in. Any roommates?”
“No, it’s a studio. It’s just me, myself, and I.”
“Are you sure you won’t die if I’m not cooking for you? You can only survive on Shin for three months, tops.”
“I’ll come over after two months and twenty-nine days, then.”
In terms of furnishing, there is nothing. There’s a working sink and a toilet, and Jeongguk ends up hauling his mattress across the city along with his wardrobe, but in all his time living in Seokjin’s and Jimin’s apartment he’d worked at the couch in the living room, piling his books on their coffee table. It looks almost naked now without the twenty or so books, empty Americano cups, and half-finished chip bags spread across it.
“Really, Jeonggukie,” Seokjin says. “We’ll miss you.”
“Aw, hyung. I’ll invite you guys over soon, promise. I’ll miss your cooking.”
“Not me? Bye. Unmissed.”
“And you, I guess.”
“Are you going to miss me or Jimin more?”
“What the hell. I’m hanging up for real.”
Seokjin snorts. “See you soon, punk.”
Jeongguk hangs up. His new place really is pleasant, and after the last tenant had left the landlord ripped up all the gross old carpeting to replace it with new hardwood and upgraded the cabinets to match. The apartment has that sort of newly remodeled smell, except without the price. It’s a jackpot.
Too good to be true. Jimin’s voice rings in his head as he gets home, though it doesn’t feel like much of one yet. His mattress is on the floor and probably will stay on the floor, a drying rack with a couple of his socks and his embarrassing pair of Marvel boxer-briefs takes up the space right in front of the doors to the balcony, and the kitchen has one pair of chopsticks and a pack of raw soba.
So, while it’s not much of a home yet, it will be soon.
The sky is mostly dark by the time Jeongguk throws his keys on the counter, toeing his shoes off and turning the lights on. As if to drive the point home, his fridge has nothing but an onion and some soy bean paste, and he groans as he slaps a hand to his forehead when he realizes that he should have hopped off at the subway station outside the HomePlus for some tofu.
Order in it is. He was craving fried chicken earlier today as it was. His phone rings in just over ten minutes, telling him his food is on the way, and Jeongguk stays lying on his bed, jiggling the foot he has propped on his knee for another minute or so before he remembers he lives in a password protected building now. Going downstairs to pick it up would make everybody’s life easier.
Peeling himself off the mattress comes with difficulty, but as he shrugs his jacket on and reaches for his keys his hands close around thin air where he swore he’d tossed them earlier. Jeongguk frowns, then turns on the light in the kitchen to scan the counter.
Nothing. He just received these keys this week too, no less, and made sure to attach every keychain and charm he owned to the keyring so as to not lose them this time—he’d had to get three copies made for Seokjin’s apartment alone in two years.
“What the hell,” he mutters, even checking the sink. No cigar. The drain is plugged up, so there’s no chance of it having slid into the pipes.
His phone rings, and he startles.
“Your food has arrived. I can’t get in, because—”
“Right, sorry, there’s a password. Uh—I can’t leave my apartment so it’s three-three-nine-two-four. Thank you so much, sorry for the inconvenience.”
The delivery boy is unloading a warm box of fried chicken into Jeongguk’s arms in no time at all, and even in light of his missing keys his stomach growls. True love is holding a box of fried chicken and feeling the warmth radiating from it. Conclusion: true love is pretty great.
Then he’s gone, and Jeongguk lets his front door swing shut again. He sets the chicken down on the counter, kicking his shoes off, and bends down to unsnarl a finicky tangle in the laces.
When he straightens, his keys are there, sitting innocently next to the orange box of fried chicken.
He stares at them where they glitter. The acrylic McCree charm smiles blandly up at him. Jeongguk spares a glance to the side, like he’s missed some punchline here, and hurriedly picks the keys up and pockets them. He stands there, dumbly, then pockets his hand as well to check that they’re still there. Affirmative.
What the hell?
The box of chicken rustles as he sits down on his floor to eat, opening his laptop to boot up YouTube. He eats until his fingers are shiny with oil and the night grows weary, and decides to sleep off the bizarre evening.
“Fold in the fabric of the universe, maybe?”
“That’s both reassuring and entirely not at all,” Jeongguk gripes. Yoongi’s birthday is just around the corner, landing on a weekend, and Jeongguk holds a sack of rice in his arms as Namjoon studies the label on a package of raw lamb with a kind of surgical concentration. Somehow, Jeongguk’s life is dictated with being in the radio station followed by trailing his hyungs in grocery stores. How has it all come to this. “That also explains nothing.”
“Maybe not everything is supposed to have an answer. You have to understand it for yourself.”
“I don’t think he can unpack the meaning of missing keys that mysteriously turn back up where he left them when they’d vanished into thin air moments ago,” Seokjin points out. “And be ready to put that back, I suck at cooking lamb. Unless you’re really that keen on serving your boyfriend tough meat.”
“Haha, I already serve him tough meat.”
“Thank you for doing what I wanted to do and could not,” Jeongguk says when Seokjin socks Namjoon in the shoulder.
“But you have your keys now, right? When did this happen?”
Jeongguk wiggles his butt back and forth a couple of times so they jingle where they’re hooked around his belt loop. “Yep. A couple of nights ago.”
“Odd. Be more careful with them, hang them up on a hook or something.”
“That level of precision is so old, hyung. Is your next tip going to be telling me how to get pizza stains out of white shirts?”
“Call me old again and you’ll eat out of a dog bowl during Yoongi’s birthday dinner, punk.”
“This punk is helping you guys haul sacks of rice,” Jeongguk says, loudly, and Namjoon shushes him. “I didn’t sleep well last night after that.”
“You, not sleep well? Did it scare you that bad?”
Jeongguk yawns, and most of the time he’s being facetious about how exhausted he is after work, but it’s fairly honest today. “I’ve been having bad dreams.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. You want to talk about it? I find it helps when I do.”
“I don’t remember them.” Jeongguk twists his head side to side to get the sore cricks out of his neck, and Namjoon decides to go with a safer cut of beef for Seokjin’s signature galbi. “I only remember waking up several times the past few nights with my heart beating in my throat.”
“Moving anxiety. Happened to me too. It’ll pass, don’t worry,” says Seokjin.
Jeongguk gets home late again, but not after having eaten dinner with the both of them, so he doesn’t need to worry about getting delivery tonight. He made sure to buy his own groceries too, because he is learning to be an Adult who knows how to do Adult Things besides just being good at laundry.
But for now, it’s been a day, and he’s just looking forward to showering and tumbling into bed. He pockets his keys now, reaching for the light switch by the door.
“Oh, come on,” he groans to the kitchen at large when the lights stay stubbornly off. “Can we not—”
His bag of groceries hits the tile floor with a clang when he hears something thud behind the closed door of his bathroom. It had sounded like his body wash toppled off the shower rack, a long ways to fall, and hit the bottom of the stall.
“Fuck,” he says, scrambling for the knob of his door and stepping into his hallway. He stands there, nerves strung tight as cords, before feeling slightly stupid.
Still, he doesn’t want to go back in, just not yet. He doesn’t even remember closing his bathroom door. Instead he takes out his phone and taps on the name Landlord in his contacts list. They pick up on the third ring.
“Hi, uh, I’m one of your tenants, third floor, apartment three-eleven,” says Jeongguk. “Uh—has anyone died on this property?”
His landlord doesn’t answer for a full three seconds. “Excuse me?”
“Has anyone—anyone died on this property, or in this building?”
“Apartment three-eleven, you said?” There’s a flushing noise in the background, and Jeongguk closes his eyes and grimaces as he hears the faucet running. “You want me to come up and take a look?”
“Yes, could you? That would be nice,” he says. “Thank you.”
He hangs up. The doors of this apartment building all look new, with no yellowing patches in the ceiling or sinister cobwebs in the corners. Hell, the numbers of each apartment are all black embossing on frosted glass. It’s the picture of contemporary architecture.
Yeah, he feels real stupid, until he realizes the landlord never actually answered his question.
Has someone died on this property, like Jimin had suggested?
“This is you?” his landlord asks when he appears, a man with a generous beer belly. “Three-eleven, right? What’s the problem?”
“The lights wouldn’t turn on when I arrived home, and there was—a noise.”
“A noise,” the landlord repeats.
“I know it sounds stupid, I’m sorry, it was really unnatural and it was the first thing I thought of. My lights are still not working, though, so—is there something we could do about that?”
“To answer your first question, no one has died in room three-eleven,” his landlord says, interrupting him. “Not since this building was constructed.”
“Oh,” Jeongguk says, thrown off by the specificity. “That’s—that’s good to hear.”
“However,” continues the landlord, “you’re not the first one to have complained about odd things. Usually harmless, such as the lights not working, strange noises, uncooperative water temperature. The activity is the most frequent in this room. You really didn’t think the rent would be so low here, did you?”
“No, I thought it was a steal, too.”
“It’s a steal, if you don’t mind that sort of stuff. Last tenant did, real jumpy, burned sage all the time and stunk up the vents. Tenant before her didn’t give a rat’s ass, and nothing happened to either of them.”
“Oh.” Nothing happened does not exactly assuage Jeongguk’s concerns. “So it’s a troublemaking ghost?”
“You could put it that way. Try the lights again, they usually don’t stay off for too long.”
The landlord is right. The kitchen lights flicker on without breaking a sweat now. “Thank you.”
“You let me know if she gives you any more trouble. She’s a little girl in a red dress, just don’t do anything to make her angry. I’m kidding,” the landlord adds when Jeongguk feels the blood drain out of his face. He likes horror movies, sure, but he is not about to fuck around with a real, malevolent spirit. “No one’s ever seen them.”
“You say usually harmless.” Jeongguk swallows. “Has there, er, ever been a time that they were harmful?”
“They turned on the gas once.”
“Oh, uh. That sounds bad.”
“Yeah, if I were you, I’d tape the gas knob down at night. Let me know.”
“Thank you.” Jeongguk wishes he hadn’t asked, honestly, though he does have a bit of Duct tape left that he’d accidentally stolen from Seokjin’s when he was taping up boxes of his stuff. He gets to work on that, cutting an inordinately long piece of tape, mustache-patterned because Seokjin is fucking embarrassing, and fitting it against the OFF end of the knob.
“It wasn’t on purpose.”
Jeongguk jumps so hard this time the back of his head hits the range hood, and he curses louder when he turns his head and sees a shadowed stranger standing in the now-open bathroom door.
“Who the fuck?” he shouts, blindly grabbing a spatula where it hangs over the sink like a weapon. “How did you get in? Were you the one making noise earlier? What do you want, I don’t have any money—”
“I didn’t turn the gas on on purpose last time,” the stranger says, stepping forward. His voice is deep. “It was because—”
“Don’t you do it,” Jeongguk says, inching towards the front door. “Don’t come near me!”
“I won’t touch you, I promise.” The stranger holds his hands up. “Turn on the light. I’ll show you my face.”
The closest light switch is next to him, and Jeongguk swallows the fear that turns the inside of his mouth sour to shimmy against the wall, extending the spatula to flip the switch. He doesn’t know why he’s doing this; indeed, if he actually were in a horror movie he’d be yelling at the screen at himself right now.
The lights, as though afraid themselves, take a moment to come on. Standing in the middle of Jeongguk’s studio apartment is a man with coiffed hair and an outdated suit vest, with a peculiarly knotted tie. He looks wealthy.
“Who are you?” Jeongguk demands again.
“Sorry about your keys,” says the stranger. “You have really cute trinkets on them.”
“I want a name!”
“Kim Taehyung,” he says. “Kim Taehyung. You’re the ninth tenant in the last five years. Jeon Jeongguk, right? I’m sorry for the welcome.”
“Wait—so you’re a ghost.” The words sound infinitely more preposterous aloud. “You’re the ghost. The one that haunts this joint?” Vertigo wracks Jeongguk’s temples. “I need to sit down.”
“You’re taking this much better than the last one. Sit down if you must.”
“But he just said,” Jeongguk says, deliriously, sliding down the wall until his butt meets the floor, “no one’s ever—no one’s ever seen you.”
“No one ever looks that closely, do they?”
“Are you going to kill me?”
“No, God, no. You guys need to stop watching those horror movies. They’re pretty good, but so, so wrong ninety percent of the time.”
“Are you going to make my life difficult?”
“Not if you don’t want it to be.”
“I don’t want to know.”
“But you’re the only one who’s ever seen me.”
At this, Jeongguk takes his face out of his knees, and he stops trying to will away this luridly vivid nightmare. “You’re saying no one’s ever seen you because they’re unable? That they’ve looked at you but not seen you?”
“Yeah. I think the last one, she saw a shadow of me, but—what do I look like to you?”
Jeongguk gives him a once-over. “Alive.”
“Whoa.” Taehyung stretches his hands in front of himself, turning them back and forth in wonder. “I look real to you?”
“I think I prefer it over silhouettes or whatever the fuck it is you ghosts do,” Jeongguk says weakly.
“No, it means—well. Never mind.”
Jeongguk presses his knuckles into his eyelids. “Okay. Let me run over this again. You are a ghost. Your name is Kim Taehyung. You haunt this room, and have for—how many years now?”
“Well, this room is my usual spot, but I’ve been around for almost a hundred years, I think. What year is it? 2017?”
“You died in the 1920s?”
“Was this building even here then?”
“Nope. So I’m not confined to this room.”
“Then why do you stay?”
“It gets the most human traffic, I guess, without just being on the street. Mostly in part because of me,” and at this Taehyung has the shame to look guilty about it. “But I also do it mostly in hopes that some new tenant would be able to see me.”
“And you need someone to see you why, exactly?”
“Well, I can remember who I am—Kim Taehyung. I was born in Daegu. But there is a big, gaping hole in my memory after that. How I grew up, who I grew up with. My family. And most importantly...well, how I died.”
“You don’t remember?”
“Not a clue. And that’s why I must still be here, existing as a shadow of somebody that once was. The imprint of a living soul does not linger in the world of the living just for fun, and, well, it’s been a while.”
“You want me to find information about how you died?”
“If that’s not too much trouble.”
“Let me sleep on it. Let me peacefully sleep on it, please, I haven’t had a proper night’s of it since I moved in. And now you’re telling me you’re a ghost.” Jeongguk laughs. “God, I might be hallucinating.”
“You’re not hallucinating, I’m re—”
“Go away!” he shouts, and his voice ricochets off the walls around him, echoing slightly in the emptiness of his apartment. When he lifts his face, disentangling his fingers from his hair, he’s alone.
“You look terrible,” Yoongi says, and it’s a greeting of concern. He relieves Jeongguk of the gift box in his hands and gives him a hug that feels big and homey despite coming up only toJeongguk’s chin and being the approximate weight of one of Jeongguk’s thighs. “Did you pull another allnighter playing Overwatch? I thought you told Seokjin-hyung you stopped doing that.”
“God, I wish that’s all it was.”
And wish he does. Jeongguk remembers his nightmares today, and had woken in a cold sweat, though thankfully in the morning so the sun had already begun to peek through the crack in his curtains that he hadn’t drawn completely. Little of it made sense, as most nightmares do, and shards of it linger like mismatched puzzle pieces from different boxes: a sprawling estate, someone’s laugh, a dark hallway. The most vivid part of it still stands fresh in his mind: the muzzle of a pistol, pointed in his face. It had been a dull, mottled silver, cloudy sunlight glinting off the front sight. A click of the trigger, and Jeongguk had jolted awake.
“Sounds rough. Seokjin and Namjoon are cooking a fucking feast, so we’ll get you fed nice and good, at least.”
“Yeah, he’s helping, I hear,” Yoongi says, placing Jeongguk’s gift on top of a much larger present. Yoongi is nigh impossible to shop for, but he hopes the studio-grade artist’s headphones are a good bet. “Helping. I already heard Seokjin shouting about slicing onions. Jimin’s out buying alcohol with Hoseok. You want to stay over tonight? I don’t want you going back home alone drunk.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“You will be mincemeat. The couch’s pull-out game is strong, you’ll be sleeping here.”
If only Seokjin could be here to smack him, too.
Jeongguk eats better than he has since he—well, moved out. Jimin and Hoseok arrive in a parade of grapefruit soju and something in a fancy bottle that they say is medicinal rice wine that’s good for male stamina. It smells like the only legal use for it is strip paint off a car, but Namjoon simply reaches for it and says “Ah, thank you, I’ll be taking this.” Yoongi shoves him out of his chair, red as cinnabar, and immediately takes three more shots of soju. Big mood.
Towards the end of the night, Jimin is fading fast, asleep in Seokjin’s lap with color high in his cheeks. “That hangover’s not going to be nice, make sure he hydrates,” Namjoon says, sending them off with a Tupperware of extra food, thanking Seokjin again for cooking. “And Jeongguk, you too. You haven’t touched your water.”
“The couch is nice,” he says, voice muffled facedown into the armrest.
“It’s nicer when it’s set up, come on. Get off.”
It takes some mattress-wrestling, but three fairly drunk guys manage to get a set of fitted sheets and pillowcases onto the mattress and the spare bedding, and Jeongguk tumbles into it, clothes and all. Oh, he’s going to hate himself later. He feels grimy, and should probably shower, but the couch bed is so warm that he’s loath to move.
“Good night, punk, drink that water.”
“Where are you sleeping?” he mumbles at Hoseok, who hasn’t yet left.
“Air mattress.” Hoseok beams, giving him two thumbs up over the foot of the bed. “We’re going to be roommates tonight.”
“Wow, cool,” Jeongguk manages, and then the alcohol pulls him under.
Drinking too much always does something funny if Jeongguk goes to sleep before sobering up. Sure, it’s the hangover, but the headache that wakes him up feels as close to an out-of-body experience as Jeongguk’s ever experienced.
And, as though it’s some kind of punishment, the nightmares are worse. Worse because he remembers them. Worse because he remembers not only the images, but also the sounds.
“Are you awake?” someone asks, in a voice so soft and tender that his heart shakes in the cage of his ribs. “Hmm?”
There’s blood in the hallway that he saw last time, trailing out of a room with the door ajar. It’s streaky, like someone had been dragged along the floor bleeding.
Then the muzzle of the gun again, closer to Jeongguk’s face this time. Bang!
Hoseok makes a displeased snuffling noise somewhere near the floor, tossing onto his other side as Jeongguk pants. A cold sweat dews on the back of his neck and along his hairline, and the sudden movement of bolting upright causes his brain to thunder in his head.
“Awake?” Namjoon says, appearing to hand him his water bottle, nearly full still after his measly sip from it the night before. His voice, husky with sleep, chases away the same dreamy word that had floated through Jeongguk’s ears. “Here, you look like you need this.”
Jeongguk swallows the ibuprofen without even looking at it, then downs the whole bottle before weakly setting it down in the sheets. “Thanks, hyung.”
“Bad dream, huh?”
“The worst,” Jeongguk croaks, feeling like he’d been scraped off the side of the road.
“Yoongi told me you were having nightmares.”
“Of course he did.”
“I’ll let you sleep, I know you’re hungover. You want to tell me about it later?”
“Mmh. Only if you don’t try to preach at me.”
Namjoon’s laugh is gentle, and it’s a comforting presence to have, washing away the remnants of the nightmare. He ruffles Jeongguk’s sweaty hair. “Okay, I promise.”
The singularly most frustrating thing about dreams is that they slip out of your grasp if you don’t trap them in a prison of words. Waking up, they stand fresh in your thoughts, and unless you write it down, they’re lost.
“You remember it, huh? Must’ve been really bad.”
“I was...I was shot,” Jeongguk says, squeezing a dollop of toothpaste onto a spare toothbrush methodically. The hangover headache has mostly receded into the very back of his skull, but his vision in one eye remains stubbornly blurry with sleep. “I was in a house…somebody shot me.”
“Oh. Not to make light of anything, but I imagined it would be worse.”
“No, you’re right.” The sharp spearmint of the toothpaste clears his stuffy nose as he brushes. “Aloud, now, it sounds stupid.”
“All nightmares feel terrifying when we’re in them. It’s okay. You seemed really unsettled, and it’s unlike you to be plagued with worries even in your sleep, that’s usually my job.”
“Has anything been bothering you lately?”
Jeongguk spits into the sink and rinses. Nothing, really. His job is going steadily at the radio station, and he’s finally getting the hang of ordering everyone’s coffee the way they like it; he’s been eating ok, though he could be better about it; he doesn’t have any romantic woes about anyone. He rubs at his eye, which seems to have trouble focusing ever since he’s woken up.
Nothing is bothering him, aside from the fact his apartment is haunted by a corporeal ghost that’s latched onto him for help, and Jeongguk really isn’t sure he wants to sleuth out how someone died if they were meant to forget about it.
“No,” says Jeongguk. “Nothing at all.”
The apartment is silent for just over ten seconds when Jeongguk gets home. Then it’s broken with, “I closed the windows. You didn’t come back last night, and it started raining.”
Jeongguk startles, dropping his keys, and leans his forehead against the door. The cool, sweet-smelling wood feels good against his face, even though he’d taken a shower and left Namjoon’s only after regaining some sense of presentability.
“So have you slept on it?”
He chooses not to answer. Taehyung sits on the countertop, shined black shoes looking out of place in Jeongguk’s austere kitchen.
“You can appear and disappear at will?”
“It would seem that I can.”
He regards Taehyung with what he thinks must be a grimace. “You really don’t know anything about yourself except your name and your birthplace?”
“I remember everything after I returned as a ghost,” Taehyung says. “I saw World War II, and the Japanese occupation. I was here for the military coup. I was here for the rise of Hallyu, you guys have really stepped it up in the last two decades or so. There are some real oldies but goldies in terms of dramas, you know? Have you ever seen Coffee Prince? OG Gong Yoo, he was a real stunner.”
Jeongguk stares at him.
“Well, I guess there are some things.” Taehyung scratches the back of his neck, tilting his head down, and the shine along the coifs of his hair looks so real that Jeongguk is gripped with the urge to reach out and pinch them between his fingers just to see if Taehyung’s as solid as he looks. “Some things, I can guess. I think I was rich. I mean, just look at the way I’m dressed. I must have been well-off. I’m stuck here, on this street, because some one hundred years ago there must have been something else here where I died.”
“Were you murdered?”
It is Taehyung’s turn to stare, fixing Jeongguk with a gaze that’s nearly intense enough to make him look away.
“What makes you say that?”
“I—I don’t know,” Jeongguk lies. “Curiosity. And you look so young, so I thought—well, unless you died of illness. But I assumed ghosts only returned if they were wrongfully murdered when they were living.”
“You didn’t look for information about me already, did you?”
“Just guesses. I don’t know for sure. Were you important?”
“I don’t know.”
Jeongguk sighs. “What do I get if I help you?”
“Well, I’ll leave you alone forever,” Taehyung says, making a V with his thumb and forefinger and resting his chin in the curve between his fingers. “Pretty good deal, I’d say.”
A good deal is buy one roast duck get half free, so Jeongguk would beg to differ, but it does sound nice to not be haunted day in and day out by a benign poltergeist.
“You’ll go on to the afterlife?”
“I guess that’s where we go. That’s where the other ghosts say we go.”
“There are more in this building?”
“Oh, sure. There’s one upstairs. Real charming guy.”
Taehyung bumps the heels of his feet against the cabinets under the sink, and Jeongguk heaves another sigh.
“Fine. I’ll help you. I’ll look for information on how you died, if it means you’ll go. You’ll be at peace, right?”
“You will?” Taehyung leaps down from his perch, and Jeongguk doesn’t have any time to back away before Taehyung is grabbing his hand in both of his. His eyes sparkle with so much delight that it seems impossible that he could be a ghost, that he’s dead, not when Jeongguk’s hand is most definitely trapped between two of his very solid ones. “Thank you so much! I owe you! I owe you when we meet again. I promise!”
Jeongguk can tell, right away, that Taehyung was not someone of great import when he begins his investigation. A quick Naver search asks him if he’s looking for the seven or so Kim Taehyungs in his Facebook network, none of whom Jeongguk has ever seen before, and another result is about some marketing employee in Lotte. He is still very much alive and also forty-something from the looks of it.
“Aw, I hoped I was at least marginally more relevant than this.”
“When did you say you died? 1920s?”
“Yeah. I don’t remember the exact year.”
“Can you try?”
He makes dinner as Taehyung sits at the table, frowning into his interlaced fingers. There’s a crease in his brow that makes him look older than he is, and it occurs to Jeongguk that he hasn’t asked his age.
“Are you asking what age I was when I died?”
“Yeah, uh. That.”
“I am pretty sure I was twenty-three.”
“Twenty-three,” Jeongguk repeats, cracking an egg into the frying pan. “Were you born in the eve of the 1800s or the dawn of the 1900s, do you remember that?”
“1900s. I’m fairly certain.”
“Then the earliest you could have died was 1923,” Jeongguk deduces. “And, if you’re right about the 20s, the latest you could have died was 1929. That gives us a window of six years, which is better than the ten we had before.”
“And there’s nothing online about me, either.” There’s a visible slump to Taehyung’s shoulders as Jeongguk sets down his bowl of bibimbap, or his attempt at it, no one can get the carrots as toothpick-thin as his mother. “I guess I’m meant to be here, wandering.”
“You’ll find peace,” says Jeongguk. Taehyung looks up at him, unconvinced, as Jeongguk sinks into the seat across him at the tiny dining table with mismatched chairs, one donated by his neighbor next door. “You will. I’ll help you.”
Jeongguk picks up his spoon, then pauses. “You don’t eat, do you?”
“I will sometimes, at the funeral homes.” Taehyung rests his chin in his hand. “Sometimes I wonder where my grave is, and if there’s any food left there. The other ghosts say the things left at your grave taste best, but I wouldn’t know.”
“You don’t know where you’re buried, either?”
“Not a clue,” Taehyung says. “Sometimes we weren’t buried with a headstone and a ceremony. I’m not even sure if my body is intact somewhere or if it was cremated, or if it survived all the wars. Sometimes I meet ghosts who drowned at sea. It’s the saddest, not knowing where your body is, or if anyone cared enough to find it.”
Jeongguk suddenly feels bad for all those times he joked with Jimin about escaping their mortal flesh prisons.
“I might not be able to find where you were laid to rest, but I’ll really do my best. I’m not an investigative researcher of any sort, hell, all I do is work at a radio station, but I’ll do my best to exhume you. That was just a cursory search, I haven’t even tried really looking yet. And my friend works at Hanyang University, he has access to scores of information. I can try asking him, too.”
“You’re the only one who has ever helped me,” Taehyung says. “Even if you find nothing, I’ve known more peace after you moved in since—well, since I died, I guess.”
“It’s nothing.” Jeongguk feels a blush starting in his cheeks, and shovels a mouthful of rice and pickled radish into his mouth.
“I wonder why. Are you from a family that’s superstitious?”
“Not particularly, no.”
“I didn’t think so. The last tenant burned so much sage she got complaints from the neighbors nearly every week.”
“Why did you turn the gas on, though?” Jeongguk stirs his rice, getting a thick smear of chili paste off the side of his bowl. “You said it wasn’t on purpose.”
“She burned sage right under my nose, which made me super dizzy. I smashed my head on the side of the stove where the gas switch is when I fell, and couldn’t move to turn it back off,” Taehyung says. “It was not a good day for me.”
“Oh. Man, that’s, I’m sorry about that. Glad to know sage works?”
“You’re welcome,” Taehyung says dryly.
“Maybe in some way, I was meant to help you,” Jeongguk muses. “Just like you were meant to come back as a ghost, without knowing anything about yourself, knowing more about the present than the past.” He snorts, mostly at himself. “That sounds stupid, doesn’t it?”
“No.” Taehyung shakes his head. “I don’t think that’s stupid at all.”
Is it really still a nightmare if you dream it so many times that you know it’s coming the second you close your eyes?
Some parts of it are different. The images always lead up to the same thing: the muzzle of a gun, the cock of the safety, and a bang that rattles the interior of Jeongguk’s skull all morning when he jolts awake in bed. Sometimes it’s prefaced with the dark hallway, tracked with blood. A heavy wooden closet chained and padlocked shut. Other times there are just flowers, dancing in the breeze against a backdrop of honey-rich sunshine. Still other times there’s that voice, asking him, “Are you awake? Hmm?”
Taehyung’s voice comes from the foot of his mattress on the floor, and he groans. “Is it by some decree that ghosts have to sit at the foots of beds when the sleeper comes around? Is that just written in ghost law somewhere?”
“You’re still having bad dreams?”
“I haven’t not had them in weeks, I’ve just learned to live with them.” Jeongguk yawns, tossing onto his side. “Are you going to let me go back to sleep?”
There is no answer, and Jeongguk rolls back slightly to lift his head off the pillow. Where he swore Taehyung had been moments before it nothing but his dim hallway, as quiet as the grave.
hey, punk. sorry it took a while, but i finally went and looked up this kim taehyung that you asked me about. i didn’t get a whole lot on him but there were some articles and things that mentioned his name from the 1920s, so get back to me and we can talk over dinner.
The text comes from Namjoon after a punishingly long day at work—not that the day had been all that trying or even difficult, and his boss had even given him some rare praise as he was packing his bag to leave in the evening for “loosening up on air” and “exhibiting real potential,” whatever that was supposed to mean. The headache that pounds in his temples, though, has been bothering him from the morning until now, even as the dusky spring sky casts a fire-orange glow on the tips of his bangs.
hyung! thanks. i’ll let you know when i’m free. i’m not feeling that well tonight.
“I’m home,” Jeongguk says when he opens the door, throwing his keys onto the stick-on hook he’d installed next to the cupboards. “Taehyung?”
His phone dings when Namjoon replies back, and he sets his phone down more slowly on the countertop. “Taehyung, are you there?”
No answer. It’s eerie, silence, and it makes the hairs on Jeongguk’s neck stand up.
Admittedly, Taehyung has said he’s not confined to this room, and apparently can go so far as to eat at a funeral home where they leave out food for the deceased. It’s dinnertime, after all. Ghosts don’t really have rules of responsibility. Thus Taehyung doesn’t need to tell him when he will and won’t be home. They’re not even technically roommates, except that they are.
what?? get better punk, stop eating trash!!
He drops his bag next to his mattress with a thud. Yes, it’s dinner, and his stomach growls, but his bed looks so inviting that he simply decides to unzip his jacket, peel his jeans off, and crawl into the blankets. His headache is giving him hell. Nothing sounds appetizing, anyway.
The nightmare changes.
There is a distinguishable sequence, this time, in exchange for the mismatched pictures. First it’s the estate, surrounded with flowering bushes, partially hidden by a gnarled cherry tree that curls into itself like a weary old man. It’s a cloudy, early morning, the windows dotted with a galaxy of raindrops.
He’s in bed. Somebody moves beside him, and sits up, and he hurriedly shuts his eyes.
“Are you awake? Hmm?”
Jeongguk, in the dream, doesn’t answer.
“You don’t want to see me? How mean.”
“I was having such a lovely dream, you woke me,” says Jeongguk.
The voice is disembodied, as though it’s coming from the inside of Jeongguk’s head, but it’s his. At least, he thinks it is his. “A wedding,” he says. “A grand one, with lots of people, and all our favorite foods.”
The door bangs open then, with a metallic clang like someone had shot the lock in the knob, and Jeongguk’s heart nearly hits the roof of his skull when he sits up. The world tilts, as dream worlds do, and someone with a black mask swims through his vision as he’s met with the familiar sight of a gun and its front sight.
But tonight the dream doesn’t end when he hears the bang. Instead, an excruciating pain erupts in his face, and he cries out, clutching his head in his hands.
“Jeongguk, wake up!”
Taehyung has his hands curled around Jeongguk’s wrists when he comes to, bangs matted with sweat. It’s still dark, but by the light of the kitchen Jeongguk can see the alarm in his eyes. “You’re okay,” he says, letting Jeongguk free. “Bad dream. You’re here, it’s just me.”
“Were you murdered?”
“Was I—wait, what? I said, I don’t know, you asked me that already. I don’t know. Did you find something about me earlier?”
“I think you were murdered,” Jeongguk says, wildly, before becoming acutely aware of the earsplitting headache that feels as though a knife is being hammered into his head through his eye socket. He lies back in his pillow. “I want to die, oh my God. My head hurts so much.”
“Do you want me to find you medication?”
“I don’t have any here,” Jeongguk moans, rolling over, though the action alone is enough to make his stomach lurch. Great, so there’s nausea on top of the headache. This really doesn’t seem like moving anxiety anymore.
“Maybe you should go to the hospital,” Taehyung says, hovering over him. “Your face is so pale, you look like you’ve seen—a ghost, haha. Okay, sorry.”
“I want to rip my eye out, it hurts so bad.”
“Uh, okay, that’s not normal, from what I understand. Have you ever had a migraine?”
“No,” Jeongguk says. “Is this what it is?”
“I wouldn’t know. But, uhm. Your eye is a different color from the other one, I thought you should know.”
“What?” This is enough to get Jeongguk to sit up despite the nausea, and the floor undulates dangerously beneath him when he does. Taehyung is kneeling at his bedside tonight. “What are you talking about? What different color?”
“Can you stand?”
Barely. Still, Jeongguk makes it onto his shaky newborn fawn legs, knees nearly buckling, under the weight of—he’s not sure. It feels like his head is a thousand kilograms on his shoulders, and it only worsens with movement.
“I’ve got you,” Taehyung says, wrapping an arm around Jeongguk’s waist. His touch zings through Jeongguk’s blood like injected, liquid pain, and he cries out again. “Okay, sorry, sorry. I don’t got you. Careful, don’t fall.”
The bright light of the bathroom make Jeongguk’s temples throb. He grips the sides of the side to steady himself and holds his face an inch away from the mirror.
“Do you see it?”
Taehyung is not kidding. Even in the bathroom light, the contrast is stark: his right eye is brown, and his left eye a cold, diluted grey-blue, streaky as though the warm brown had been leached away in the past few hours.
“I need to go the hospital. Holy shit.” Jeongguk drags his lower lid down until the raw pink flesh inside his eyelid shows. “This isn’t right. You see it too? What color is it?”
“Uh—I’m seeing blue-ish.”
“I need to go the hospital.”
“Right now? You don’t have any pants on.”
“It’s fine, we all die in the end.”
“I mean—” Taehyung trails after Jeongguk as he limps out of the bathroom. “You’re not wrong, but—wait, no! Put your pants on!”
Taehyung vanishes by the time Jeongguk gets to the hospital, and he decides it’s for the better. If no one else can see him, and if Jeongguk appears to be talking to someone who isn’t there, then things would get a lot more complicated.
“I probably won’t make it past this road,” Taehyung had said, holding onto Jeongguk’s hand. It was a little weird, but not unwelcome, and though his hand wasn’t warm it was comforting all the same. His voice settled over Jeongguk like a blanket through the haze of pain. “I’ve never made it past this road. I’ll see you soon. Be careful. Call your hyungs if you need to.”
The nurse doesn’t give any indication of surprise if he experiences it, what with Jeongguk looking up at him with two mismatched eyes. “Yeah, that’s me.”
“A few questions about your medical history, and what happened. Can you describe it to me?”
“Headache, really bad,” Jeongguk says. Articulation, even, is a challenge. His tongue rolls like a moist rock in his mouth. “No head injury, I came home from work with a headache, went to sleep, woke up with discoloration in my eye.”
“No injuries at all? Any family history or personal history with migraines or cluster headaches?”
“Uh,” Jeongguk says. “No, and I don’t know what a cluster headache is.”
The doctor that sees him shortly after orders an immediate MRI, and Jeongguk finds himself being drawn into a small, narrow tunnel wearing a gown and nothing else. “Hold still as you can. It’ll be over quickly.”
Jeongguk stares up at the top of the MRI machine, just inches away from his face. When asked, he had said he didn’t experience any claustrophobia, but lying on the table now with no answers makes his heart pound harder in his temples.
“It doesn’t appear to be any sort of head trauma, concussion or otherwise. Your brain looks healthy, no spots where there shouldn’t be. Your description of your pain aligns with that of cluster headaches, but because you’ve never experienced them before, never mind in patterns, I would tentatively rule them out. The heterochromia iridum, however. Your case is acquired, meaning it can’t be a genetic mutation. However, looking at your medical history and your current health, there’s no linked cause from some other syndrome. Have you been using eyedrops?”
Jeongguk shakes his head.
The doctor frowns. “The nurse told me, coming in, you seemed to favor using your right eye when looking at things.” He clicks the pen from his coat pocket, writes something on the back of his hand, and extends it away from his body. “Cover your right eye, and tell me what this says?”
Jeongguk complies, and his heart sinks when he realizes what the doctor must be implying.
“Now cover your left eye?”
He does. The word on the back of his hand reads myopia.
“You’re nearsighted? Is anyone in your family even nearsighted?”
“And only in one eye, too.” Jeongguk shakes his head. The wonky one.”
“Whatever the hell happened to it? Are you sure there’s nothing else to be worried about?”
“They said they would be reexamining my MRI scan in the meantime, and to come back immediately if I experienced any more headaches.”
“And have you?”
“Thankfully not. They gave me some painkillers for it, but I didn’t need them. Especially after they got a prescription contact lens made for this eye.”
“I honestly cannot tell that it’s discolored at all when you’re wearing it,” says Namjoon. “They did a good job with the color. Really matches your other eye.”
“As long as I wasn’t walking around with one blue, one brown eye, I wouldn’t even care if it didn’t match exactly,” Jeongguk says. “I’m fine, hyung, seriously. I wasn’t going to tell you guys because I knew you’d worry.”
“Like hell. You should have asked Seokjin-hyung to drive you to the hospital. Did you go alone?”
“I—yeah. It’s okay, I would have scared him shitless in the state I was in if I called him at that hour.”
Namjoon sighs, exasperated in the way that people are when they’re angry-concerned. “Please take care of yourself, Jeongguk-ah. We only have one of you on this earth.”
“Now, that information about Kim Taehyung you asked about. What has you so interested, anyway?”
“I saw his name mentioned somewhere. And uh, the Internet doesn’t have all that much about him, so I wanted to ask if you could find anything.”
“The Internet, not have something about someone? You’re not looking hard enough,” says Namjoon, tsk-ing, pulling a crisp manila envelope from his bag. “Here are some of the things I found in the archives, some from the library database, and some things from historical newspapers. Fair enough, there wasn’t a whole lot to go off of.”
Jeongguk undoes the gold brad holding the envelope closed. “Did a quick skim of the things I printed out for you. You saw this guy’s name, and suddenly needed to know his life history? But I suppose unsolved murders are pretty fascinating. No judgment.”
“Unsolved?” Jeongguk says, raising his eyebrows. “So he was murdered?”
“Says in one of the chapters I pulled from an anthology about unsolved crimes in the history of East Asia,” Namjoon says, fishing the poached egg yolk out of his soondubu pot. “Something about him being murdered on an estate, the killer was never found, and no other crimes were linked to that one.”
Jeongguk flips through the packets of information, having a flashbacks to university at this wholesome family restaurant, until he arrives at a stack that looks photocopied from a textbook. “Do you remember when he died?”
“Dude, you’re looking at it. Just read it.”
“I hate reading, hyung.”
“Oh my God. Reading is what keeps us alive as h—”
“I know you’ve read it.”
“I did, ok! I did. I think it was 1927. I can’t be sure, honest. Read it more closely yourself later.”
“Is that enough to quench your curiosity?”
“If you can find anything else, I’d love it.”
Jeongguk settles in and reads, properly, at a PC bang later, opening Naver as he pulls out the documents from their envelope. There’s the one from the book Namjoon had mentioned, then several nearly illegible newspaper copies. Kim Taehyung, age 23, found dead on family estate.
He frowns as he keeps reading.
While it was initially thought to be a homicide, Kim Taehyung’s death was ultimately ruled a suicide at the time the case was closed. Evidence that authorities initially found indicating that there might have been a perpetrator of a homicide was deemed inconclusive, and samples that implied Kim did not die alone were thrown out after they were tampered with. There is no record of anyone that Kim could have died with, as he was neither married or engaged.
While the case was closed within a month of his death, the death of Kim Taehyung remains an example of probable legal neglect as well as political cover-up.
Naver’s green search bar blinks up at him, and Jeongguk chews pensively on the inside of his mouth for a moment before sitting up.
kim taehyung murder unsolved, he types.
Some dinky PDF files pop up, and one of them is the same newspaper article that Namjoon had printed out for him, complete with the Hanyang University logo and copyright in the corner. Jeongguk gathers several links that look promising, sends them to himself on Kakao, and decides to keep reading on the subway home.
“You’re back. How’s your head today?”
“It’s good.” Jeongguk stares at Taehyung where he’s sitting cross-legged next to his drying rack, surrounded by daikon radishes and a jar of pickling liquid. “Are you making danmuji?”
“You had all of it in your fridge, and they were going to go bad,” Taehyung says with a shrug. Once again, Jeongguk can’t really wrap his mind around the fact that this is a ghost, a ghost, someone who’s very dead. Someone who’s very dead, and also someone who’s making danmuji in a pinstripe suit vest. It’s become easy, almost routine, to come home to someone dressed impeccably, with just-shined shoes. Someone who is always excited to see him, even if Jeongguk is nothing more than a door to escaping the living world.
“You should put an apron on,” Jeongguk suggests. “You don’t want to get your clothes dirty.”
“I forgot how you living people are so concerned about bullshit like that,” Taehyung says, pouring pickling liquid over a full jar of radish.
“Jesus, okay, I just didn’t want you getting your expensive-ass clothes dirty. Suit yourself.”
“I’m kidding, I’m kidding. Thanks for offering, Jeonggukie.”
“I found some stuff on you today, actually.”
Taehyung nearly spills the pickling brine on himself.
“Really?” he asks, making to stand up. “What did it say?”
“Can you take your gloves off for a second?” Jesus, Jeongguk isn’t even sure where Taehyung found them, though he wouldn’t put it past him to steal from the neighbors. Ghost privilege.
“Just do it, let me see your hands.”
Taehyung obeys, albeit with a tinge of confusion; he holds his hands out under the lamplight. A ring glitters on his ring finger, encrusted modestly with jewels that have lost their shine with age. It must have been there all along, and Jeongguk is sure that at some point his mind had registered its presence, but never once did he think to look at it closely.
“You were married?”
“I don’t know,” Taehyung says. “I can only guess I was.”
“But…” Jeongguk sets his bag down. “Okay, the articles I managed to find about you, they said you died by suicide, and you were unmarried.”
“Suicide?” Taehyung shakes his head immediately. “I—are you sure?”
“Your case was closed as suicide. Still, my friend called it an ‘unsolved murder.’ It seems there was a lot of fishiness about the way you died, so even though legally, somewhere, your cause of death says suicide, you might not have died that way.”
“We’ll find out, won’t we?” Taehyung says. “If the door to the afterlife opens up, then I—I guess it was. But if I don’t, then.”
“If it doesn’t, then that means you were murdered. Here, this is all the stuff we found on you.”
By the end of the night, they’ve figured out some things that don’t fit, and the literature agrees: Taehyung is said to have committed suicide, but there was evidence near and even on his body that somebody else was killed alongside him, though their body was never recovered, and no one came forward to ask after that missing body. There is no record of Taehyung being married or engaged to anyone, but two websites that look like they were designed in 2005 posit the ideas that the murderer killed himself after doing away with Taehyung, though managed to drag himself away from the scene of the crime, or that Taehyung had an unknown lover.
“I like the unknown lover theory,” Taehyung declares. “I’d like to think I was happy in my last moments.”
“I think you were.”
“Really?” Taehyung sits against the wall, shoulder to shoulder with Jeongguk, whose laptop is warming the tops of his thighs. The word passes between them like a secret only they know, and for a moment Jeongguk cannot tear his eyes away from Taehyung’s face. “How do you know?”
“I—I just do,” Jeongguk says. “Whoever they were, they seemed to want you to wake up...they wanted to see your face. In your last moments, I think you were with somebody who loved you very much, somebody you loved a lot too.”
Taehyung stares at him so earnestly that Jeongguk blushes and ducks his face. “Or...something,” he mutters.
“How do you know?”
“I.” It’s not a question he can lie to. “I’ve been dreaming about you, I think.”
“In your last moments. I think my nightmares have been about you. No, I think I am you. How you died, what your last moments were like. That’s why I’m inclined to say that it’s true, that you were murdered, and that you were with an unknown lover when you were. Whoever it was must have died as well. Maybe you were shot through the eye, maybe that’s why this is happening to me now. Maybe you wouldn’t come back with the evidence of it, considering you don’t look like you’re dressed in what you died in.” Jeongguk elects not to say that Taehyung was likely naked when he died.
“I wish I could remember,” Taehyung says. His voice is wistful. “I wonder what they were like.”
“Will you, if I uncover the whole truth?”
“Maybe,” says Taehyung. “Maybe I will.”
Jeongguk falls asleep late that night, mind still racing, hearing Taehyung move around in his kitchen as he makes space in his fridge to fit all the jars of danmuji. “Did I wake you?”
“I wasn’t asleep.”
“Can I lie next to you?”
“You’re not going to pull something like The Grudge on me, will you?”
“No,” Taehyung says, the eyeroll audible in his voice.
“Okay,” Jeongguk says. “Can you take your shoes off?”
Taehyung seems to be surprised that he’s able to. “I’ve never tried,” he explains, when Jeongguk raises his eyebrows. “It’s not like I have anything else to change into.”
Granted, it is weird for Taehyung to climb into bed on this little twin mattress dressed to the nines, but it’s not uncomfortable. Jeongguk squirms a little, then opts to roll onto his side so that there’s more room.
“Who would want to murder me?”
“Oh, Taehyung, no.”
“I’m sorry. I just. I thought I wanted answers, but now that I’m so close to them, I’m not sure I’ll like hearing them. It’s been so long, craving an explanation, that I thought having it would solve all my problems. But answered questions just lead to more unanswered ones, and I—well, if I were alive, I’d say, would it kill me to know?”
Jeongguk shifts his cheek on his pillow, and Taehyung turns his head so that they’re face to face. He wonders if his blue eye is visible in the darkness.
“Sometimes we aren’t meant to know everything,” Jeongguk says. “Some things don’t have answers, and sometimes the answer we get isn’t the one we thought we wanted to hear. It’s up to us to understand it for ourselves.”
“Even if the question is, ‘why did they kill me?’”
“For whatever reason they did it, you were not murdered because you deserved murder. I don’t know what reason they had to do it. All I know is that who you were did not dictate your fate. Your murder was not written into your genes. It was no fault of your own. Someone killed you—that’s the last thing you should be blaming yourself for.”
For a moment, Taehyung is silent.
“I’ll miss you when I go.”
“Oh,” says Jeongguk intelligently. “I’ll miss you too.”
“I thought leaving this place was the only thing I wanted, and for almost a century, it was. And yet, in searching for the things you want, you find tiny, unexpected reasons to stay.” Jeongguk can feel the weight of Taehyung’s gaze on him for a second longer, and then, “Good night, Jeonggukie.”
He tosses, back to Jeongguk, and that is that.
As the days go by, cobbling together bits and pieces of Taehyung’s story, Jeongguk finds himself going long periods of time staring at the ring on Taehyung’s finger. Unmarried, unengaged, but wearing an engagement ring. An unknown lover, whose body was never found, and never even reported or sought after.
A death that was a ghost itself.
“If you stare any harder, you’re going to sear my finger right off,” Taehyung says. “Is there something you want to ask about it?”
“Nothing specific,” Jeongguk says. “I just keep wondering. We all know it doesn’t add up, but what’s stranger is that no one ever seemed to ask the questions we have.”
“Maybe someone did, and they gave up.”
“You don’t remember anything at all about them?”
He knows it’s beating a dead horse, he knows he sounds like a broken record, asking an amnesic ghost what he can remember about his past. This time, though, Taehyung does not heave the sigh that Jeongguk anticipates.
“If I close my eyes, and really rack my brains, I almost think I can remember them. I’m pretty sure it’s just my imagination, but,” Taehyung closes his eyes here, and Jeongguk takes his full attention off the radio script on his computer screen. “There are things you remember with your whole body, not just your brain. When I think I remember them, I don’t remember their face, or their voice, but I remember—sunlight, the feeling of sunlight in a window. The smell of fresh laundry. I remember winter, and the snow. When I think I remember them, I remember the smell of lamps when you blow them out, lamps you don’t use anymore. The scratching of nibs on paper. The little things that you forget. Those become the only things you remember. When I think I remember them, I remember being happy.”
A smothered, cottony sensation fills Jeongguk’s throat. “Wow,” he says, unable to find his words.
“Sorry. That was of no help at all.”
“Maybe not if I asked you what their name was, no, but it proves to me one thing. You must have really, really loved them.”
“I think I must have,” Taehyung says, the teasing note in his voice fanning away the somber cloud that had settled over them both. “I let them put a ring on it, after all.”
Jeongguk rolls his eyes.
“I’ll work harder,” he says. Today, Taehyung is as staunchly corporeal as ever, confirming no appearance of any door. He even left a note taped on Jeongguk’s fridge door in nearly unintelligible handwriting to buy more contact lens solution. “They’re probably waiting for you somewhere beyond here.”
“We made some headway, that has to count for something.”
It’s an empty statement, Jeongguk knows. With the revelation that Taehyung can apparently take off the clothes he respawned in (“I can’t believe you’re using one of your gaming terms to describe my existence as a ghostly form of a living soul in this world, thanks”), today he’s wearing one of Jeongguk’s old university ringer tees in exchange for the stiff pinstripe suit vest and red tie that he’s worn since the day they met.
“Hopefully,” Jeongguk says. No genuine enthusiasm colors his voice. Secretly, quietly, he has come to wish the ghost of room three-eleven wouldn’t leave. Secretly, quietly, he doesn’t want to be alone.
He wonders why that is.
Saturday morning sees Jeongguk waking up from an another raging hangover, this time mandatory.
“Oh, so you lived. It would be sad if you became a ghost with me without ever finding out how I died. How much did you even drink last night?”
“I don’t know,” Jeongguk groans, staring up at the ceiling for a moment before letting his eyelids flutter shut. His vision is blurry in both eyes as of yet, his good one still dry with the sands of soju-sleep. “They kept pouring, I just had to keep drinking.”
“Rough first hwesik, I take it.”
“You seemed to have stopped dreaming as much, though.” Jeongguk cracks an eye open blearily when he feels the icy bottom of a water bottle come to rest on his forehead. “You didn’t move at all till now.”
“Is this pain medication?” he asks as he feels pills being forced between his chapped lips.
“No, I’m a malevolent ghost, trying to poison you, obviously,” says Taehyung. “Drink up. Your phone dinged a whole bunch of times last night, actually, it sounded urgent. But I thought I’d let you sleep off your self-induced coma first before bringing that to your attention.”
“Considerate of you.”
It’s chilly this morning, and even though Taehyung can’t feel the cold he’s donned one of Jeongguk’s black hoodies with the big pockets on the stomach. He still hasn’t changed out of the slacks, and constantly appears like he’s between two schedules for the day. Casual on top, businessman on the bottom. “Here’s your phone,” he says, pulling it out of the pocket.
“Whatever will I do when you’re gone,” Jeongguk says, pausing when the words come out of his mouth. The smile stays on Taehyung’s face, but it pales, as though he’d been thinking the same thing.
There is a thread of increasingly worrisome texts on Jeongguk’s lockscreen.
hey punk. when you have time call me says the most recent one from Yoongi. As he scrolls farther down, there’s a string of texts sent from around midnight last night, from Seokjin.
namjoon was found unconscious in his office this evening, he just came round at the hospital right now. one of the custodians found him, yoongi and his family stopped by earlier to see him. he’s doing fine, and the doctors said it was overwork. but...he insisted you come see him right away. said it was important. hope you’re doing alright at that hwesik, punk. let me know what’s up once he tells you, he sounded worried.
“What? What happened?”
“My friend got hospitalized for overwork, of course he did,” Jeongguk says. “He says he wants to see me, though I’m not sure why I’d be the first one on his mind.”
“I guess that is pretty weird.”
With some help of hangover soup and lots of water, the inside of Jeongguk’s brain stops feeling like an industrial jackhammer. Going out is really still the last thing he wants to do right now, but something is unsettling about the way Yoongi’s text sounded—not that he wasn’t always concise and clipped, but Yoongi would probably sooner eat live scorpions than text someone to call him.
“Hyung, it’s me,” Jeongguk says, sticking his hands into his pockets as he makes his way towards the subway station. “You wanted me to call?”
“Oh, punk. Yeah, hey, glad to hear you’re alive, Seokjin-hyung said you had a hwesik last night. Congrats on surviving.”
“Thank you. Your medicinal male stamina boosting rice wine really helps.”
“Anyway,” says Yoongi emphatically, “about Namjoon. He’s doing okay, if you’re worried. To be honest, I wasn’t surprised by the diagnosis, just relieved it wasn’t something more serious. When he didn’t come home last night, I just thought he got really into the zone with his work. It happens all the time. When I got the call from the hospital though—well, anyway. He’s okay, but he wants to see you.”
“Yeah, Seokjin-hyung said the same thing. Did he explain why?”
“Refused to. Said he didn’t want to worry us, though I’m not sure how it makes sense to ask the maknae carry the burden instead of us, but whatever,” Yoongi says. “Your name was the first thing out of his mouth when he woke up. And it took him a while to uh, come around. He was panicked for a bit.”
“Hm,” Jeongguk licks his lips, regretting not using more lip balm before coming out today. He doesn’t like the sound of this, and frankly, he’s worried that it’s connected to their attempts to uncover the truth about Taehyung’s death. “Okay. I’m on way.”
Namjoon looks pale when Jeongguk is let into his hospital room, hooked up to an IV. He’s sitting up, though, reading a book with an English title that Jeongguk doesn’t take the time or brain cells to decipher. “Hey, hyung.”
“Jeongguk.” He puts the book down. “Are you alright?”
“I should be asking you that question.”
“Just answer me, are you?”
“I—sure, yeah,” Jeongguk says, sitting down in the chair beside his bed. “I’m doing great. Kind of hungover, but I’m fine, hyung. You’re the one who overworked yourself. What was so urgent that you needed me here before you even got out of the hospital?”
Namjoon slots his bookmark into the spine of his book deliberately, closing the pages and setting it aside on the nightstand. He clearly means business, as putting a book down and closing it is the Namjoon equivalent of a parent putting on their glasses to study their child’s report card. “The doctors told me it was overwork, and so as not to worry my family or Yoongi, or Seokjin-hyung for that matter, I just went along with it and agreed that I’d been staying up too late doing research.”
“And you haven’t been?”
“Not moreso than I usually have.” Namjoon shifts in bed, looking uncomfortable. “Before I tell you anything, you have to promise me not to tell any of them this. Not until, well, not until later.”
“Okay, hyung. I promise.”
“Ever since you looked up information about Kim Taehyung, have you seen anything?”
Jeongguk blinks, not immediately sure what he’s supposed to say. “Like what?”
“Anything out of the ordinary.”
“Like,” he hesitates, “like ghosts?”
“So you have?” Namjoon says, in a hushed, eager voice. “You’ve seen a ghost?”
“Why? What’s going on? What did you see?”
“I was working late last night, that part was true,” Namjoon says. “I was the last in my office, and I was focused on the the book I was annotating for changes—well, whatever, that’s not important. I had the pile of books and materials I found for your question about Kim Taehyung stacked up on the corner of my desk, with some new stuff I’d come across. I was going to text you about it later. I left to fill my water bottle, came back, and they were on the floor, in a mess like someone had knocked them over on purpose.”
“But you were the only one in the office.”
“Exactly. I wasn’t spooked yet, I just bent over and picked them up, no sweat. When I sat back down, though, is when I heard the voice behind me.”
Jeongguk blanches. “The voice behind you?” he repeats.
“It was more sad than scary when I think back on it now. Nothing flew at me, no shrieking, no yelling. But it scared me out of my wits, it was right next to my ear.” He lowers his voice. “‘Some questions are better left unanswered, but when the time comes that they must be, let them be answered by those who can tell the truth.’ I didn’t know what that meant, obviously. So I asked.”
“You actively engaged a ghost in conversation?” Jeongguk asks in disbelief, as if he doesn’t do that on the daily. Yesterday he and Taehyung had argued cases for the playability of every Overwatch character that Jeongguk has tried. Namjoon shushes him. “So what did they say?”
“They said that I was looking for answers to questions that no one has ever answered, and that I wouldn’t find them in any book or newspaper, because anyone that has any answers about it had been paid to keep their mouth shut.”
“I know,” Namjoon said. “Then they started crying, and that’s when the lights started flickering. ‘Just tell him I’m sorry,’ they said. It was really scary. I couldn't see their face, but they had had their hands on my shoulders, and I could see them out of the corner of my eye. They were covered in blood. ‘Just tell him that I did wrong, that I didn’t want things to end this way.’ Then I—I don’t remember anything. They said the custodian found me on the floor. Then I woke up here.”
“But that’s not why I called you here,” Namjoon presses on. “Yoongi took the clothes I was wearing back home yesterday, and brought me fresh ones in the morning. He said he found this in the pocket of my coat.”
Namjoon reaches into the breast pocket of his hospital pajamas. There’s a folded, neon green post-it note pinched between his fingers.
“Somehow, I didn’t picture ghosts writing on neon green post-its.”
“Yeah, it doesn’t really fit their aesthetic, does it? Here.”
It’s not even written in blood, shame. But it is scrawled in a shaky hand, hurried, almost afraid. The words feel eager to run themselves right off the paper.
Cheongnyong-dong, Geumjeong-gu, Busan
“Busan?” Jeongguk says. “This is in Geumjongsan, that’s not anywhere near where I lived. What is there for me?”
“I don’t know. All I can guess is that there’s someone there who has answers for this, all of this—about Kim Taehyung, I guess.” Namjoon’s expression becomes thoughtful. “Did you know him?”
“You know I couldn’t have, hyung. He died years ago.”
“I know, I know, and yet,” Namjoon shakes his head. “Yeah, just a passing thought. Something about this all makes me think that you might have.”
Is it a good idea to go alone to a place that some ghost told him to go? Nope.
Is Jeongguk someone that has a lot of good ideas? Also nope.
So is Jeongguk going to go alone to a place that some ghost told him to go, because he is trying to help some other ghost?
“I don’t like the sound of that at all,” Taehyung says, watching Jeongguk pack his weatherbeaten old backpack from college that he’d stashed away in his closet and forgotten about. There are still a couple of crusty old pens in the front pockets that left inkblots in the fabric. “If some malevolent and bloody ghost cornered your friend in his office, the absolute last thing you should be doing is going somewhere that they told you to go.”
“Don’t you want to get to the bottom of all of this?” Jeongguk asks. “We’re so close. It’s a real lead.”
Taehyung does not say yes, at least not right away, like Jeongguk expects. “I do,” he finally says, mutedly. “Yeah, I want to know.”
“Obviously, I’m not—unafraid,” says Jeongguk. “And to be honest, I wish you could come with me, because I don’t want any of my other hyungs to know about this until the right moment. And Namjoon is in no shape to be traveling anywhere right now.”
“I’ll be with you,” Taehyung says, and he reaches forward suddenly. Jeongguk meets his gaze in surprise, but he doesn’t flinch away when Taehyung presses his hand to the heartbeat that tick-tocks in Jeongguk’s chest. “I’ll always be with you, right here.”
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have touched you so suddenly,” Taehyung says. “I don’t know many ghosts in Busan, but if anything—if anything happens, I’ll do my best to tell them. I know it doesn’t sound like something that exists, but you have a ghost’s blessing. I won’t let any spirits cling to you.”
“Just be safe.” There’s something in Taehyung’s eyes that makes Jeongguk more worried for him than he is for himself. “Just come back safe.”
The KTX runs to Busan, and it’s a railway that Jeongguk is familiar with. Luckily no zombies attack and he doesn’t need to [spoiler alert] throw himself off the back of the train to save his nonexistent daughter. When he steps off at the station he needs to catch another smaller, older train line that runs up to the Geumjongsan. Then it’s hiking all the way out from there.
He looks at the post-it again, uncomprehending. There’s nobody that Jeongguk knows at Seokbulsa Temple. Sure, he’s visited it once, when he was five and his brother eight. Somewhere in his parent’s apartment is a photo album with the blurry old photograph, too, with Jeongguk waving a weak peace sign with his eyes mid-blink. He likes to think his selca game has gotten stronger in the past seventeen years.
Geomjongsan is a popular tourist destination, especially on weekends, so Jeongguk gets swept up in a tide of excitable tourists waving maps of hiking trails. It’s not a bad idea: he’s alone, he’s not exactly a frequent hiker, and he’d rather not get lost with poor cell signal out here. He’s fucking with ghosts as it is.
It’s not a stroll in the park, exactly, but it’s not an unpleasant hike. Seokbulsa is accessible enough, with a bright yellow dot on the map indicating which trails he should take if he’s feeling up to a challenge—or more economically, the scenic route—or if he just wants to get there quickly. He hadn’t expected to enjoy it, but being around the sounds of the flowering trees as the world wakes up from its long, snowy sleep softens the hard edges of all the questions that have gnawed away at him for weeks.
Elucidation is so close, and yet he’s afraid to know it.
Taehyung will move onto a world beyond this one, and Jeongguk doesn’t know if he wants to see him go.
The part of his chest where Taehyung had rested his palm burns warm now, pulsing through his blood, and Jeongguk feels it go all the way to his face in an uninvited blush. A girl on the trail beside him jumps when he slaps his cheeks with his hands, screwing his eyes shut and powerwalking harder.
Stupid, stupid. It’s stupid to get attached to a ghost. It’s stupid not want a ghost to leave.
Yet here Jeongguk asks, If I know what happened to Kim Taehyung, will I want to tell him?
The path leading right up to Seokbulsa is steep, sloping so much that Jeongguk feels a sweat starting on his back by the time the stone carvings come into view. He stands, letting himself stare up at the looming building with its decorated two-tiered roof, and takes the stone steps up to the open door.
No one is present to greet guests, but the door is open so wide that he would think it is a sign of welcome.
“Hi, who is it?” A young woman in a cardigan appears in the doorway to a smaller room tucked into the wall. “Oh, we’re not open for tours right now, I’m sorry.”
“I’m not here for a tour,” says Jeongguk. He reaches into his pocket, opens his mouth, and immediately realizes that a ghost told me to come here for Reasons Unbeknownst is not a choice statement to follow up with.
“You’re not? Then what is it you need? Do you need information getting down the mountain?”
“I was asked to come here,” Jeongguk says. “Uhm, I was given the address to this temple, without further explanation. Only that it was urgent and important. That’s what I was told, anyway,” he adds, when her face grows more and more confused.
“Somebody sent you here? I’m sorry, but we received no correspondence about this.”
“They gave me this, that’s all.” He hands her the post-it note, and she takes it with skepticism.
“He’s my guest, Jisoo.” They look up in unison at the sound of an elderly voice in the same doorway, and Jeongguk cannot say he recognizes the old woman at all. A snowflurry of white hair sits atop her head in a dusting of pincurls.
“You know this guy, halmeoni?”
“Let me speak to him.”
“Are you sure? You should be resting, you said you weren’t feeling well.”
“This is important, Jisoo-yah. You go finish your lunch, I’ll be along.”
Jisoo casts one last glance over her shoulder at him as she leaves her grandmother to him. “Let me know if you need anything,” she says, before closing the door behind herself.
The elderly woman regards Jeongguk with watery grey eyes, and he hurriedly throws himself into a low bow. “Thank you, I’m sorry for giving you trouble.”
“You look exactly the same as I remember.”
Jeongguk straightens. He expected some kind of statement like this, although his parents have never told him about any of his distant, possibly estranged ancestors that he should know about. “I’m sorry, I’m afraid I’m not sure what you mean.”
“You would not. It is of no fault of your own. Did he send you here?”
“I’m—I’m afraid I still don’t know what you mean, halmeonim.”
“The man with the bloody hands.”
They had had their hands on my shoulders, and I could see them out of the corner of my eye. They were covered in blood.
“How—how do you—?” Jeongguk licks his lips, dry as ever. “You know the ghost with the bloody hands?”
“Come with me.” She beckons, and her steps are small and slow. “I implore you to grant me your trust, just for a bit. What is your name?”
“That’s a lovely name.”
“Thank you. But, halmeonim,” he says, following her into a dark closet that smells like it’s only aired out every month or so if they’re lucky, “what is it that you have to show me? Forgive me, but how do you know me? Who is the ghost with bloody hands? Do you—do you know Kim Taehyung?”
“Patience, child. Patience. Could you get that box on the top shelf there for me?”
A thick film of dust coats the surface of the box, duct taped shut, and with a bit of struggling Jeongguk manages to pull it back.
“First, I will tell you what you must know to understand the answers to all your questions,” she says, as Jeongguk sets the box in her lap. She hooks her feet in the legs of the small footstool they had found, and folds wizened, age-spotted hands over the box flaps.
“I was born in 1910, as Yook Jayoung,” she says. “It’s been a while on this earth for me.”
Jeongguk sits down on the cold, cement floor beside her, and makes himself comfortable.
“I was born into a poor family, not far from here. We worked as servants in a nobleman’s home, and I grew up with my mother, father, and two older brothers. The three of us did what work our parents taught us, though my father and brother eventually left to find work in the city to make more money for our family.”
Here, Jeongguk nods. It’s an appropriate mark in the conversation to nod, anyway. Not that this is making a lick of sense to him.
“The nobleman was, as I understand, well-loved, and also well-hated. He was rich, with the perfect family. A loving wife, two sons, and a daughter, a lot like my family. Two estates and a private property. They even had a dog. Even with my father and brothers gone, working in the city under imperial rule, it was always a merry household. There were mostly older girls working as servants, and my mother was the butler madame. I was like their little sister, and even with as many chores as we had to do each day, I never felt like I lived a poor life.
“Growing up, I seldom socialized much with the nobleman’s family. They were always learning, always taking lessons, being the children of a nobleman, but I knew their names and their idiosyncrasies. And for a while, when she was first born and the lady was ill, we played with the baby daughter of their family, Kim Eunjin. I never spoke to the middle child, the second son, Kim Jongkyu. He was a lot quieter than the oldest. His name was Kim Taehyung.”
“Oh,” Jeongguk says. His gut feels like it’s been punched.
“He was, if I recall correctly, four years older than me, and constantly in trouble,” she says, running her fingers along the corrugated edge of the cardboard. “At least until he was a lot older, I remember, when I was thirteen, and he must have been seventeen. I remembered that he begged to be allowed to go to private university.”
“He did, and he did early. I remember his mother and father missing him so much the first few months that they asked us to move dinner elsewhere in the house so they didn’t have to see his empty seat at the table.”
“But things got better.” She nods to herself as she remembers. “Things got better, and their father doted on their youngest like a little treasure. I became closer with their family, being the maid who grew up alongside their children. I never deluded myself into thinking I was part of their family, but I was happy for what they chose to share with me. A year passed quietly in this way, and I thought they were happy again. That is, until the nobleman was murdered.”
Jeongguk feels the scratching freeze-frame sound effect break through his train of thought. “He was what?”
“Murdered,” repeats Jayoung, nodding with closed eyes now. “I remember the funeral. Rather, I remember dressing their youngest in her tiny black dress. I couldn’t even believe they made funeral clothes that tiny, but of course they did. Kim Taehyung came home a lot more often after that, though his mother urged him to continue his studies at the university so that he could become the patriarch of their family. He came to know me a lot better, too. I think he was the only light of his mother’s life after that.”
“And he did? He kept studying, and all that?”
“He did what he could. It was what his father would have wanted.”
Jeongguk frowns. “You say he did what he could. So, there was something he could not do?”
“You’re quick. And that is how I remember you, too. You see, Kim Taehyung could, and did, do many things,” she says, and opens the box. Judging by the noise when she rummages, there must be a lot of old, ornate pieces inside, though she selects one wrapped in a dust-caked velvet sack. “He went to university. He went, even, to law school. He got back up when he fell. He smiled in the face of adversity. But he could not control who his mother remarried. The man was a brute. And he could not,” she exhales, “love a woman the same way he loved you.”
The ring glitters in the glow of the gaslamp, an unforgiving dance of ruby on the soft line of Taehyung’s finger. It sits just over his knuckle like a crown.
“To hell with that man.” The bed creaks as Taehyung rolls over, and Jeongguk gets a faceful of warm Taehyung, lips pressed to his corner of his eye. “There are a lot of things I can’t do around him, but it won’t stop me from doing them anyway. It won’t stop me from loving you, either. You know he told me to stop studying, as it was his job to make money and to look after my mother now? I think all he’s done for her is make her cry.”
Jeongguk flutters his lashes until Taehyung pulls back slightly. “You shouldn’t be here with me, then.” Even as he says it he runs a hand up Taehyung’s side, still sensitive.
“Me, not be here with the man that just proposed to me? I think not.” Taehyung kisses the laugh into his mouth. “I love you. Thank you.”
“I love you too,” says Jeongguk, letting his hands come to rest on Taehyung’s hips. They’re tired, partly from the long day they both had but mostly from lovemaking, and even now Taehyung shivers against him as their breaths catch back up with them. “Are you tired?”
“Mmm.” Taehyung gets comfortable with his head tucked into the curve of Jeongguk’s jaw. “I want to sleep like this. At least for a while.”
“When will I see you again?”
Taehyung’s hair brushes Jeongguk’s chin as he lifts his head, propping his face in his hands, elbows digging into Jeongguk’s chest. He grunts. “I don’t know. All I know is that I always want to see you.”
“Me too.” Jeongguk tightens his arms around Taehyung’s middle, pulling him down and rolling so they lie face to face. He kisses at the bruising hickeys along Taehyung’s neck, and smiles into the skin at Taehyung’s throat when Taehyung squirms, ticklish. “Stop being so important. Your fiancé is sad about it.”
“One day,” Taehyung says. He holds Jeongguk’s face in both his hands, and gives him a quick peck on the lips. “We can stay in bed like this all day.”
“Why wait for the one day when we can just make it tomorrow?”
“I have to go back to school.”
“But you just got engaged,” Jeongguk says, in so pitiable a voice that Taehyung pouts himself. “Even if it only means anything to us, even if it’s just to some boy that works at the local newspaper.”
“It means everything to me, don’t be silly,” says Taehyung. “I guess one day is okay.”
“But what if somebody comes in the morning? Even your private property is cleaned every day, right?”
“Only Jayoung comes around here,” Taehyung says. “And she knows.”
Jeongguk relaxes. “Then I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Good night.” Taehyung kisses him, and Jeongguk aims one back. He mostly misses, but he’ll try again in the morning.
It rains. It’s the best kind of excuse to stay in bed all day. It pitter-patters in a quiet song over their heads, and Jeongguk feels Taehyung move beside him. He shuts his eyes tight.
“Are you awake? Hmm?”
Jeongguk curls tighter, and Taehyung only chuckles.
“You don’t want to see me? How mean.”
“I was having such a lovely dream. You woke me.”
“A wedding,” he says, letting his eyes flutter open. Taehyung is blurry, a shadowed silhouette with the backlighting of the window turning the strands of his hair silver. “A grand one, with lots of people, and all our favorite foods.”
“How rude me of me to wake you from that,” Taehyung says. “Do you want to go back to sleep? I heard Jayoung come in earlier, but she moves around so quietly I hardly heard her at all. Not to mention you slept through that thunderstorm.”
“Did it wake you?”
“Just an hour ago,” Taehyung says. Jeongguk blinks, clearing the sleep away from his eyes, and Taehyung’s face swims into view. “You don’t wake up to anything, I spent half that hour pinching your nose shut trying to make you wake up.”
“Mm,” Jeongguk hums, pulling Taehyung into his chest and smiling at the rough scratch of jewels across his skin when Taehyung drags his trapped hand between their bodies. “Why wake me, I thought we agreed to staying in bed all day.”
Taehyung’s body tenses when a heavy thud reaches their ears, and Jeongguk opens his eyes.
“Did you hear that?”
“I heard it.” Jeongguk props himself up on his elbow as Taehyung sits up “It wasn’t the thunder—”
Taehyung clutches at Jeongguk’s arm when he makes to pull the blankets back. “No, don’t, wait,” he says. “The door’s locked, don’t go anywhere—”
“I’ll just look out the peephole.”
“Master Taehyung!” comes a high, piercing scream, seconds before a blast resounds at the door. It swings open and hits the wall, and the metal knob is smoking where the lock had been shattered by bullets. “Don’t—Master Youngsoo, leave them alone, don’t, please, that’s your stepson, he’s all the lady has to live for—”
“Ah, so you’re the newsboy I’ve heard so much about,” says a man in a bowler hat. He plucks the thin cigarette pipe from his lips and holds up a dull silver revolver, aiming it squarely in Jeongguk’s face. “Hope this is a standard greeting, where you’re from.”
Pain explodes through Jeongguk’s skull in the split second that the man pulls the trigger.
“And,” Jeongguk says, throat feeling like sandpaper, words shaking as hard as the rest of him, “what about Taehyung?”
“Held your bloody body and screamed,” she says so pragmatically that it’s eerie. “God, even now, I can hear his voice. Sometimes it was just screaming, sometimes it was your name. I thought I had heard the worst of it when his mother learned about his father, but this was down the hall, in full view. Blood ran down the sheets and onto the floor. His mongrel of a stepfather let him draw out his theatrics for a bit, out of some kind of sadistic pleasure, I’m sure. He said he wouldn’t have a gay man as the patriarch of any household he was a part of as long as he lived.”
“So he killed him too.”
“Finished the round into his chest. He died in an instant.”
The blood Jeongguk’s body seems to have frozen. “I,” he whispers. “I…”
“It wasn’t really you,” she says. “You are only the reincarnation of someone who lived long ago, yet it seems by some curious fate that this universe would have the ghost of Kim Taehyung meet you all these years later.”
“Why was I reincarnated,” Jeongguk looks up from the old, yellowed photo of a man that is the spitting image of him, was him, the past incarnation of him. “When he only came back as a ghost?”
“We can’t know. Why do some wronged ghosts come back and others move on? Why do some ghosts grow remorseful and seek the forgiveness of the dead like them, while others turn into malevolent spirits? It does not do to seek answers to questions we cannot answer.”
“Yet, you have answered mine.”
“Only as far as I can tell you. What happened to the body of your old self, I do not know. I do know the ghost with the bloody hands is his stepfather, as he dragged your body down the hall and left your blood everywhere. I blacked out after that, and when I woke I screamed and screamed. Sunrise to sunset. Sunset to sunrise. Passing agents heard me, somehow, and found Taehyung alone in the bed, with an engagement ring and his lost lover’s blood all over him. That is the only reason the death of Kim Taehyung is written down in the books at all, and how I have lived to tell you the story. Years went by with me wondering if I should have said something all those years ago, but his stepfather disappeared with the crime. No one would have believed me.”
“How can I go on living, knowing—” Jeongguk swallows around the knot in his throat. “Knowing who I was?”
“It wasn’t you. The Jeon Jeongguk that died in 1927,” says Jayoung, “is not the one that lives on and breathes in 2017. You owe nothing to no one, except to yourself to live life as fully as you can.”
“If I tell Taehyung, he’ll remember everything. And I will remember none of it, and when he moves on to the afterlife, my soul will not be there.”
“We don’t know what is in the afterlife, Jeongguk-ah,” she says. “Perhaps there is already a Jeon Jeongguk there, waiting for him. We cannot worry about the world beyond, and forget to live in the one before us. Keep that photo of yourself, and Taehyung as he was in the past. Not to remember the sadness, but to remember all the reasons for which we stay alive.”
It snows in the train station, even on the cusp of spring.
Snow this late in winter is abnormal. Jeongguk doesn’t notice it falling for some time as he waits for the rickety train back to Busan’s KTX station. He sits alone on the frigid bench, and thanks his past self for pulling on the thick white turtleneck and bringing his jacket this morning.
The glass of the folding picture frame fogs up with condensation where he holds it in his lap.
Reincarnation. Jeongguk can’t wrap his brain around it. He’s nobody—he’s just Jeon Jeongguk, born into a modestly middle-class family, with an older brother and considerable artistic talent. How he could be the reincarnation of someone is—well, beyond his grasp of reality. The reincarnation of a lover to a nobleman’s son, no less.
His thumb clears a clean streak away from the blurry face of the photo inside. Yet all the evidence is here. His hair was coiffed and slicked much in the same style Taehyung’s was when they first met in the doorway of his bathroom, and he wears a stiffly starched suit with an old-fashioned tie.
Jeongguk remembers nothing of his past life. He just has to choose to believe it.
He blinks, lifting his chin when he sees a dark figure on the train tracks. At first he thinks it’s the shadow of the station operator, leaving at nightfall, but—no, there’s someone walking on the tracks, and the distant rumble means the train cannot be far.
“Hey,” Jeongguk calls, voice hoarse from disuse. “Hey, get off the tracks!”
He runs up to the very edge of the platform, coat flaps blowing in the wintry gusts of a telltale approaching train. “Get off the tracks, the train’s coming!”
The words are drowned out by the deep whistle of the train, but the figure turns around where he stands, wearing a red turtleneck and seemingly unbothered by the cold.
But in the second before impact, Jeongguk blinks, and Taehyung vanishes.
For a heartpounding moment he doesn’t understand what he could have seen, until he puts two and two together and jumps on the train. It seems to take a century to pull into the Busan station, and even then it feels like it takes another millennium for the KTX to start making its way back to Seoul. The trip before had always felt short enough, but now, every second snails by. Every minute drags its feet through the bog.
The three hours feel like a long, long eternity.
“Taehyung,” he says, panic rising in his voice, before he even has his front door all the way open. “Taehyung?”
His apartment is deathly silent. His keys land with a clatter, and he stands in his kitchen alone.
“Taehyung!” The fridge whirs to life just then, and the burning sensation in his nose he always gets before tears come slides in. “Taehyung, wait, you have to hear what I found out—or did you just leave without telling me?”
“Hey, what is going on? Why are you shouting?”
Jeongguk jumps and whirls, and Taehyung clasps his hands around his arms to steady him. “It’s just me, it’s just me,” Taehyung says, eyes big with worry. “Jeonggukie, it’s okay. What happened? You look terrible, have you been crying?”
“Taehyung,” Jeongguk says, staring into his face. Try as he might, he remembers nothing. There’s an earnestness in Taehyung’s eyes that he can’t break, not with what he knows.
So he bursts into the tears that he’s been holding all day.
“Are you awake?”
Jeongguk’s eyes fly open.
“Don’t,” he says. His voice is thick, still, presumably from crying himself into an exhausted sleep. Taehyung had forced him to go shower off the dust from his hike and the tearstreaks on his face, but one look at Taehyung sitting cross-legged on Jeongguk’s mattress watching the new season of Produce 101 (it’s “eh,” he says) had Jeongguk tearing up all over again.
“Don’t what?” Taehyung’s on his stomach, with his cheek pillowed on his folded arms. “You still need to tell me what you learned about me that made you so sad. I mean, I’m already dead, it’s not like it’ll change much.”
“It will change everything.” Jeongguk stares resolutely up at the ceiling. “Everything will change.”
“You’ll be gone.”
“Don’t you want me to leave?”
“No,” Jeongguk says, so easily that he surprises even himself. The lightness of Taehyung’s demeanor fades, and he props himself up on his elbows. Jeongguk is glad for the cover of darkness, and Taehyung likely can’t see his face, but he turns it away anyway. “I don’t want you to go. I know it’s horrible and selfish of me, and I’ll tell you what you want to know, but I—I want you to know too, that...that I don’t want you to leave.”
“Jeonggukie,” Taehyung says, so softly that Jeongguk can only screw his eyes shut. “There is nothing to be found for you in being in love with the dead. I’m a ghost. I’m nothing more than a shadow of a whole.”
“You can’t blame me,” Jeongguk says, hating that his chest is shaking again, God, he’s crying like someone who’s going through a breakup and he never even had a relationship to begin with. “You can’t, not once you know.”
“But I don’t. I can only watch you carry this burden and cry.”
Taehyung is right. Keeping this secret from him is not only selfish, but it’s stupid. It weighs on Jeongguk like an anvil, suffocating him, breaking his bones under the weight of the truth.
It pays not to know.
“If I tell you,” he whispers, “will you vanish right away?”
“I will not vanish right away.”
Jeongguk sits up, and with him, Taehyung follows suit. His head hurts, but only dully from crying too much, and his blue eye beside the brown must look haunting in the watery light of the moon.
“If I tell you, will you remember everything?”
“That’s what I hear.”
“Will it make you sad?”
“Of course it will, but it will give me peace.”
“Then,” Jeongguk says, and bites his lip. Taehyung shuffles closer to him, so that they sit shoulder to shoulder on the edge of his bed, his blanket laid over their legs. It’s not cold, but Jeongguk can’t seem to get warm, either. “You died right here. There was a private estate on this land some one hundred years ago, and it was your family’s. You were twenty-three. You were murdered by your stepfather. The case opened originally a homicide, but he drained the finances of your family to cover up the crime and rule it as a suicide. Then he disappeared.”
Jeongguk opens his hand unthinkingly as Taehyung slides his cooler one into his. “You weren’t necessarily important, but you were rich, from a wealthy family. You got that much right. You had two younger siblings, a mother and father that loved you, until your father passed away.”
There’s a soft, muted sound of teardrops hitting hardwood. This time it isn’t Jeongguk who is crying, and he squeezes Taehyung’s hand.
“You were studying law, to take care of your family, because that is what they meant to you.” And now, Jeongguk grits his teeth, refusing to let his face crumple. “In university you met someone, and they would become the unknown lover you died with. He worked at a newspaper, and you got secretly engaged to him the night before you were killed. He...his name was Jeon Jeongguk. And—and I—”
Taehyung lets out an audible sob, now, and when Jeongguk turns to look at him he’s gazing into his face with an unfamiliar hunger. “And he looked just like you,” Taehyung finishes, voice steady despite the stream of tears down his cheeks.
“But I am not him,” Jeongguk says, curling Taehyung’s hand in both of his, pausing when his palm meets the cold stones of his ring. “I don’t have any memories of that life. All I am is, well, something like you. A ghost of someone that once was.”
“I know,” Taehyung says. “But that didn’t stop me from loving you this time, too, even though I didn’t recognize you. To me you are your own Jeon Jeongguk, the boy that works at a radio station and gets too drunk and stays up too late gaming.” He laughs, wetly, and sniffles. “But as for the past you—oh God, he shot you through—he shot you through the eye. I’m so sorry, I don’t even know how long you were alive after that. How could I have not known? You were losing the color in your eye right in front of me all these weeks, and—”
“Taehyung, you couldn’t have done anything. And you couldn’t have known now. Jayoung said I must have died instantly, as did you.”
“I remember your blood hitting my face, and in that second I couldn’t even tell what had happened. I thought he’d thrown something on us, but then you fell against me and I saw.” Taehyung shudders, violently, and Jeongguk wraps his arms around him. Tears drip down Jeongguk’s neck where Taehyung buries his face. “I’m sorry. I keep saying ‘you,’ knowing it’s not you.”
“I don’t blame you.” Jeongguk ducks his head. “I don’t remember anything, and It was a life before this one, for me. For me it’s like listening to someone else’s death, but you, you have to look me in the face and remember what I never will.”
“Please forget it,” Taehyung says. “I wouldn’t want you to remember any of it.”
They sit together in silence.
“Once you leave here, I hope he’s waiting for you somewhere beyond this world.”
“It’s me, but it’s not.” Jeongguk lets Taehyung pull away when he sits up. “I just hope that me-but-not-me makes you happy, wherever it is you’ll go. And that you’ll have a chance at a life together that was cut short.”
Taehyung laughs again, a brittle sound, and holds Jeongguk’s cheeks in his hands. “I will love you, and you-but-not-you,” he says. “I loved you in the past and I love you now, and I will love you in the world beyond this one.”
A ghost’s kiss is sometimes sad. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes it’s filled with all the love in a lifetime.
This is that kiss.
“When will you leave?” Jeongguk asks against Taehyung’s lips.
Taehyung’s eyes open, and he blinks before tipping his face away. “Sunrise,” he says, and kisses the lid of Jeongguk’s blue eye. “There is a door above my head. It appears for every ghost when they’re ready to move on from this world, and if they don’t open it by the next sunrise, they turn into a malevolent spirit. And then you really won’t like me,” Taehyung says, giggling despite himself.
Jeongguk cannot find it in himself to answer that laugh. “I don’t want you to leave.”
“Do you want to be asleep for it when I do?”
“I want to say goodbye to you.”
“Then you have to promise me you won’t cry.”
Jeongguk wipes at his eyes. “Okay, I promise.”
Who is he kidding. Jeongguk cries like his tear ducts have been replaced with hydraulic pumps. He cries enough for a whole jar of danmuji brine.
“Jeonggukie,” Taehyung says, as the dawn begins to come. His thumbs are raw from wiping away Jeongguk’s tears. “If you keep crying, then I can’t bear to leave, and you really, really don’t want me haunting your apartment as a malevolent ghost. It’ll just be bad for all parties involved. Please, please don’t cry. Shh.”
“You have to go no matter how upset I look,” Jeongguk insists. “Even if all else fails, and you don’t find the old Jeongguk over there, then—then just know that one day I’ll be there. It’ll probably be years and years from now, but—”
“Shh.” Taehyung shushes him again, and even as he speaks, the white sclera of his eyes around his irises has started turning black. “It’s obvious to me that it doesn’t matter who’s alive, who’s a ghost, and who is a reincarnation of themselves. I will always find you and love you, even beyond life after death. I don’t know when or where. Neither of us do.”
“That answer is up to us to understand,” Jeongguk says, and Taehyung smiles.
“If you miss me,” Taehyung wraps his fingers around the ring and starts to pull it off, but Jeongguk grabs his hands to stop him.
“No, you have to keep it. What if the old Jeongguk won’t recognize you?”
“I have what I need, and if he’s who I remember he was, there’s no chance he won’t recognize me,” Taehyung says. “Besides, there’s probably way better stuff over there, anyway. You keep this for now. Keep it until—well, until it means something enough to you to give away.”
Jeongguk curls his fingers around the rubies, and steps back.
“I just have one more question.”
“Are you at peace?”
Taehyung closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and the smile that comes over his face is tired, like he’s ready for a deep, deep sleep. “Finally,” he says. “Finally, finally at peace.”
“Then I am happy for you,” Jeongguk says. No crying, no crying. “And I’ll see you someday.”
Taehyung doesn’t take his eyes off of him as he reaches over his head, fingers closing around a knob that Jeongguk cannot see. He pulls it open, and the glow of sunlight Jeongguk can see, casting a warm halo over his head.
“I’ll see you, Jeon Jeongguk. You keep your eyes peeled for me. Both of them, you hear?”
Taehyung looks up at something he cannot see, though he meets Jeongguk’s eyes one last time and gives him a tiny wave. A quiet rushing sound fills his studio. In the blink of an eye Taehyung vanishes, and the door to the swings shut.
The sun breaks over the horizon.
what the hell do you mean you lost your contact? actually, you know what? this doesn’t shock me. we’re friends with namjoon, for fuck’s sake. i’m half convinced he got lasik only because he threw his damn contacts on the floor and lost three pairs of glasses.
give me a break! i told you i had hwesik last night. you should be impressed i got home in one piece.
are they still pressuring you? damn even with that new intern jaemin? isn’t he like 12 and easy meat. throw him to the dogs
be nice hyung
i’m just saying take better care of your shit. aren’t you blind in that eye or whatever
oh my god, jaemin is 21 and i’m not blind, it’s just a little nearsighted. i’m on the way to the hospital right now to get a pair of glasses in case this happens again.
Seokjin sends over an ample number of eyeroll emojis, followed by a string of nerd in glasses emojis.
hurry up, you don’t want to miss yoongi’s piano number later. he’s been practicing with the symphony for months and he’ll have your ASS if you miss it
haha the only ass he’s getting is namjoon’s
i hate all of you for real
Jeongguk can’t help laughing so himself as he takes the stairs two at a time up out of the subway station. Living with one nearsighted eye for the day has been fairly challenging, and reading anything made both of them water something awful. Still, the weird looks he’d gotten all day, and all the questions he’d gotten at work, proved most exhausting of all.
“Are you like, psychic?” Jaemin had asked.
“What?” Jeongguk took the coffee Jaemin handed him gratefully, glad to be out of that job after nearly three years of fetching it. “What on earth gave you that idea?”
“I don’t know, like, you just look,” Jaemin wiggled his fingers and made an “ooo” noise. “With your weird eye. Is it blind or something?”
“It’s just discolored.”
Yeah, so that was a fun conversation to have fifty more times throughout the day. The best one had been “Are you an idol?” followed by “Or is that the new color contact trend? I can’t keep up with youth culture.” Jeongguk had promised them he was not an idol, that they did not need a selca with him to prove anything to their teenage daughter, though maybe in some other universe, he is.
“What are you here for today?” asks the nurse at reception asks when he gets to the front desk.
“I’m here for glasses.”
She only looks at him for a fraction of a second longer than she would if he had matching eyes, and said, “Fourth floor, optometry. I’ll send them a message to say that a patient is coming.”
Jeongguk checks the time on his phone as the elevator takes him up. He has three hours, at best, to get in, get out, change into something nice to wear to the symphonic concert, and make it to the concert hall, so he really hopes it isn’t crowded in the optometry department.
hey hyung, can you bring an extra dress shirt?
oh come on.
dude, the optometry department is packed, like everyone just decided they couldn’t see today i guess, Jeongguk texts back.
the hospital isn’t that far from my place but there’s one open chair at best.
fine. you’re getting the ugly pink one because i haven’t done any laundry. not that it looks ugly on me.
sounds fine by me.
Defeatedly does Jeongguk confer with the optometrist behind the desk, letting her know about his medical history and what he’s here for, that he’s had his prescription recorded before and that all he needs is a quick examination to determine that of his glasses and to get another pair of lens. She, too, looks at him for a heartbeat longer than most would.
“Please take a seat and your name will be called shortly.”
On one side of Jeongguk is someone clutching a prescription with doctor’s scrawl that reads something like take every other day to relieve heart murmur, though with doctor’s scrawl it could read talk shit get shit get hit lmao saranghae and Jeongguk would be none the wiser. On the other, there’s a tiny boy with glasses that magnify his eyes, kicking his feet back and forth so ferociously like he’s set on propelling himself through space-time with thigh force alone. He grins toothily up at him when Jeongguk gives him a withering smile, eyes huge behind his lenses.
But he’s done too much socializing today, and can’t be fucked to attempt entertaining a child, so he pulls out his phone and laughs at Namjoon’s crisis about Yoongi In A Suit. Big gay mood.
“That’s a nice ring.”
“Oh, thank you,” Jeongguk says, extending the fingers of his right hand. The fluorescence of hospital lights catches the cut of the rubies, which look new after Jeongguk had gotten the ring professionally polished. “It’s—”
Jeongguk looks up at the stranger’s face, and the world seems to pause, just for a moment.
“Your eyes,” says the person beside him, as Jeongguk stares at him openmouthed. “They remind me of my cat. They’re so pretty.”
“Yes!” The stranger—the stranger, who is not so strange, not so unfamiliar, named Kim Taehyung—stands up, a red plaid scarf coming undone around his neck. He shoves it unceremoniously into the pocket of his coat. “Well, nice meeting you.”
He has a heart murmur.
Jeongguk has a bad, discolored eye.
How old must he be? He looks older than Jeongguk.
How long has been here? All this time?
Questions, with no answers.
I will always find you and love you, even beyond life after death. I don’t know when or where. Neither of us do.
He stands up in a daze when he hears his name called, and when he makes it out of the examination room with a prescription in hand, he’s instructed to turn it into the pharmacy personally if he’d like to go pick out frames that he likes. Taehyung is nowhere to be seen, and Jeongguk is sure that, by the time he has gotten in and out, he is already gone.
Keep your eyes peeled for me. Both of them, you hear?
Jeongguk wraps his scarf tight round his neck, shoulders his bag, and takes the elevator back down. He wishes, more than anything, that he had done something, but in that moment all his muscles had felt paralyzed with shock and confusion. And, moreover, what could he have done? The last thing anyone should be doing is grabbing someone with a heart murmur and insisting that they’re destined to meet each other.
A gust of wind hits him and lifts his hair off his forehead as he leaves through the automatic doors of the main hospital building for the pharmacy across the medical complex, and a flurry of cherry blossoms gusts past like snow. A sneeze wracks him, and he clutches at his prescription slip. When his eyes finally stop watering—god, he hates spring, it’s beautiful and also defined with runny noses and hay fever—he sees someone holding a crinkled up paper bag, with a red scarf tucked into the pocket of his coat, a skip in his step and the wind in his hair.
And all the ghosts of a past he’ll never know on his heels.
Jeongguk can only look up at the impossibly blue sky, the kind of endless, deep oceanic blue that you only see after rain on a spring day, and he laughs.