“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” -Karl Marx, 1843.
The flame of the candle flickers determinedly, red wax melting down the side like blood. The narrow pane of glass high up on the wall rattles ominously as the wind from outside batters the window. Jimin wraps his blanket around his shoulders and moves his fingers closer to the flame in an attempt to coax some warmth back into his cold extremities. The silence is marked with faint thuds from upstairs, each one shaking loose some plaster from the ceiling. Jimin squints up at the ceiling, half curious and half afraid he’ll get dust in his eyes.
They’ll be coming soon. It must be time, but Jimin fell asleep not long ago, and he’s lost track of the hours. He thinks again about asking for a clock―just a small one, an analog clock with real hands that doesn’t need to be plugged in, but then again, he can almost as easily judge the time by the light and meal times. His stomach grumbles softly as a reminder that it’s been a while since he ate this morning. He hopes that meal time hasn’t come and gone already while he was out.
He plods over to the bookshelf in socked feet and grabs his Guidebook. The cover and the pages are worn and soft from use. Its comfort lies in its singularity. That is to say, it is the only book Jimin owns. Sometimes he yearns for more stories―different ones, stories he hasn’t read before―but he knows better than to ask. Don’t think, don’t think. He retreats to his mattress and thumbs through the book, searching for his favorite passage. The spine of the Guidebook is cracked right where it starts, so often has Jimin pored over the words.
When you come, you will be greeted as a king, crowned with heathers and given a place to rest your weary head. Ah! You serve your Lord in the highest way. There is no greater honor than to surrender to Him your eternal youth. The golden fields will bow to your presence in the shimmering sun. Sweet child, do not fear the light. It welcomes you with warmth. From the blessed moment of your birth you have been primed for this moment by loving hands. Now you will be received by His beneficent embrace.
Your unquestioning devotion is worth more than a thousand prayers to Him. All sins are absolved through your sacrifice. And to what better cause would you give yourself? Because of you, He will rain prosperity down on the village. All material pains will be healed. Come! Come to Elysium and you will
Jimin doesn’t have time to finish the passage before the hatch in the ceiling is audibly undone and the creaky hinges alert him that it’s being pulled back. He doesn’t jump up, hoping they’ll see he is diligently reading his Guidebook as he should. Appa climbs carefully down the ladder with a booklet trapped under his arm and a basket of food in the other. Jimin smells meat, roasted and steaming, and warm bread. He salivates at the mere scent. Meat! He’s so lucky. What’s the occasion?
“Good evening,” his father says with a smile, nodding. He pulls the hatch shut on both of them; when he’s ready to go up again, Eomma will open it for him. When he reaches the bottom of the ladder, he bows slightly at the waist. “May the Lord bless you tonight and all other nights.”
“May the Lord bless you tonight and all other nights,” Jimin echoes piously. “There is meat?”
“Pheasant. It was granted to us by the Council of Elders.”
“Blessed be,” he says. He wonders why. He does not ask.
“Eat well. I have prepared another tale. You may find it to be particularly suitable.”
Jimin perks up at the mention of a story. It’s been a while since he’s had anything but the Guidebook and his own imagination to entertain him. His first memory was of his father telling him about how they were created. Jimin has games to play down here and his Guidebook to read, but the stories give him something to think about long after those stop entertaining him. Wary of appearing too eager, he receives the basket of food and pulls out the bread and meat. There is even a small carton of yogurt. He hurries to cut up his meat while it’s still hot. Juice oozes and puddles around the pieces every time a cut is made. He puts the first piece in his mouth and shuts his eyes without thinking at the taste and quality of the meat, then opens them again, afraid to be gluttonous. He forces himself to eat slowly and with what he hopes is an appropriate amount of pleasure.
“Thank you for the meal,” Jimin remembers to say. He forgets about the weather as he eats, whatever small fear from the force of the wind now pushed to the back of his mind. He wants to remember the taste of the meat in particular, but he’s impatient to hear the story. He tells himself he mustn’t get overexcited. Stories are meant to teach, not entertain. He has to take them seriously. “I look forward to learning tonight.”
His father takes the basket and puts it out of reach. He gestured for them to move to Jimin’s mattress, which they do, sitting side by side. Jimin especially loves when Appa takes the time to teach him and spend his evening here. “Some stories are about lesser sins,” Appa begins. “God frowns upon gluttony and sloth, for instance, but there are some sins even greater. The greatest sin of all is disobeying His commands. We were put here to live in His image and to faithfully follow Him. This story is meant to teach you the dangers of straying from His light.”
Appa opens the first page, revealing a block of text in his handwriting and a sketch of a figure kneeling before an altar. “God calls on us to devote ourselves to Him. In return, he bestows upon us gifts that only He has the power to grant. The greatest sin of all is to turn your back on Him.” Page turn. An ambiguous picture of a boy who looks like Jimin if he squints, but the features are unclear. Perhaps, a coincidence. “This boy was the first-born of his family. He was a pious child and his parents went to great effort to teach him correctly. He knew of his purpose and accepted the Lord as his guide. However, his parents made a mistake.” Page turn. No picture. “They allowed him too much knowledge. He became unfaithful. He doubted the Lord and became greedy for worldly things. As his Date approached, he turned his back on his purpose and wrenched himself free of his parents’ grasp before he could be led to the altar.” Page turn. A sketch of the boy running, a lazy and sly expression on his face. Jimin sees right away that he had bad character. Where is he running to? Surely he knows that God will punish him. How could he shame his parents like that? How can he survive without the village?
“Appa,” Jimin ventures quietly, “what’s beyond?”
His father stops reading. Jimin holds his breath, unsure of what he is allowed to know. “Beyond where?”
“Here. Beyond the village.”
Appa looks confused. His finger hovers over the page, stalled. He speaks slowly and with excessive care, as if Jimin will not understand any other way. “There is no beyond. There is only wilderness. I told you before.”
“Will you tell me again?”
“You’re being impatient, Jimin. Don’t you want to know what happened to him?”
Jimin bites his lip and nods. Yes, he does. “Yes, Appa. I apologize for being impatient.”
“I dismiss your sin. Now, where did we stop?—he was running. He ran away from his loving parents who raised him and made the greatest sacrifice anyone can make. He ran away from the Elders who allotted him the best vegetables they gathered and meat they caught his whole life. He ran from the love of God. Do you think he was given lenience?”
Jimin shakes his head, a cold feeling toward the tiny figure icing his heart. “No. He was ungrateful and disloyal. He committed the greatest sin of all. He should have been punished severely.”
Appa nods gravely and turns the page. There is the final image, of the boy hacked into pieces and missing—parts of himself, like one eyeball and two fingers on his hand. Jimin is startled by the image, tinged in places with red, the only spot of color in the whole book. Most drawings Appa does are black and white. The red draws his attention. “God sent a pack of wolves to tear him apart for his disobedience. They feasted upon him that night. His cries were heard in the village long after the sun went down.” Appa closes the booklet, sighing deeply. “And so, what is the lesson to be learned from his transgression?”
Jimin doesn’t have to think about it. “Never betray God, or God punishes you.”
“That’s the simple lesson. How do you think this applies to you?”
Jimin pauses. This is more difficult. “His purpose was to be a gift to God. It is the highest honor. In depriving God of that gift, he committed a great sin, and for that, God made him an example.”
“Very good,” Appa says softly, placing his rough hand over where Jimin’s neck and back meet. “The purer the sacrifice, the happier God will be, and the more He will give in return. He can forgive small sins, but not one so arrogant and selfish. I know that when your Date comes, He will be pleased to receive you.”
Jimin smiles uneasily. It prickles in the back of his mind like the heat in the summer. Will he be pure enough? He is his parents’ only chance.
Other things worry him, too.
“Appa,” Jimin says quietly, “how close is it?”
Appa smiles. Jimin is not asking for the first time. The answer pleases him less every time. He fears his parents noticing his apprehension; he is supposed to accept his purpose dutifully and with grace. After all, God asked for this, and so it will be. To be unwilling is to disobey God. To disobey God is to be a sinner. To be a sinner means he will be disciplined accordingly. Jimin’s knuckles and his knees and his back and his stomach all hurt at once. They are only phantom pains. But they were real, once.
“How astute that you should see through my reasons for this lesson,” Appa says with an almost sigh. But he doesn’t appear displeased or angry. “You will turn eighteen in thirty days.”
Jimin is gripped rather abruptly by a wave of cold fear, which settles immediately. Thirty days is much shorter than he expected. But all the same, it may feel much longer. Jimin can’t keep count, usually, anyway. “I see.”
“It is time to start preparing. We will be reviewing the lessons we learned in the past. Your mother and I are very excited for your Date. How do you anticipate it?”
Jimin can sense the threat a mile away. “Eagerly, Appa,” he says, folding his hands in his lap and smiling deceptively. “I look forward to fulfilling my purpose.”
“Good boy.” Appa ruffles Jimin’s hair and stands. “It is truly incredible that after all this time, we only have thirty more days to wait. I am confident that God will return many great gifts in exchange.”
Jimin keeps a vacant smile on his face while his father gathers up the basket and climbs the ladder against the wall until he reaches the top, knocks on the hatch, and crawls through as it opens. Jimin has stopped trying to catch a glimpse of what is beyond the ceiling. As soon as the hatch is shut and locked once more, he exhales sharply.
Thoughts swarm through his head and battle for dominance. The drawn image of the boy who looked like Jimin torn apart by wolves. The glowing heaven described in Elysium. A belt, his Guidebook, his mother’s arms and soothing words. He doesn’t know what to think about. He knows he’ll only drive himself to madness if he allows himself to think about things like will it hurt and what does it feel like to be dead? He’s never been able to ask those questions. He cannot imagine he would receive an answer. The number thirty keeps repeating itself in his head even after he lies down on his mattress and shuts his eyes.
Shivering, he yanks his blankets over his body. Could it be so soon? He can’t remember a time when he didn’t know his purpose. But having no sense of time, it sneaked past him. He turns restlessly. He isn’t afraid of much except his father. He’s long accepted his fate and he believes strongly that it is the right thing to do for his family and for God. It’s simply the suddenness that scares him. Yes, this is the right thing. The pious thing.
He thinks of the boy who tried to turn his back. He can’t do that, and not just because he’s afraid of being ripped to shreds by wolves. He has to do this because it’s what he was born for and because his parents depending on him to do it. There is really nothing complicated about it.
Go to sleep, Jimin.
He sleeps. And forgets to blow out the candle.
Upon waking, he feels as if he was wrenched from a dream rather suddenly, though he can’t recall it. It is too cold for the morning; why? Jimin draws the blankets tightly around himself, opening his heavy-lidded eyes with reluctance. His candle is still burning.
“It’s about time you woke up.”
Jimin nearly jumps out of his skin and sits up so quickly his head strikes something directly above it. There’s a groan and some scrabbling against the ground, and when Jimin turns his head to see who was poised over him as he slept, he shrieks and scrambles backward. His blankets tangle around his legs and he falls on his side on the mattress, panic overtaking him as he tries to put some distance between himself and the other.
“Jeez! I think you broke my jaw.” The foreign figure sits back on his heels, rubbing ruefully at his bruising skin. Jimin takes him all in in a split second: nut-brown hair, brown eyes, creamy-colored skin, other other other. He doesn’t look at all afraid to see Jimin, which makes one of them. He does look mildly offended.
Jimin has seen only four people in his lifetime. Appa, Eomma, Doctor, and Priest. He knows others exist because Appa tells him stories and draws pictures. But they never visit. They aren’t supposed to. Jimin isn’t supposed to be tainted by the outside world isn’t supposed to leave this room isn’t supposed to see people who aren’t properly trained, and just the presence of this―this man, this boy, is a sin. He’s terrified.
Jimin does the first thing he can think of and closes his eyes. “Please go away,” Jimin begs, “whoever you are.”
“Go away? No way! You’re the one who called me here, and I didn’t go through all that trouble for nothing.”
“I didn’t call you! I didn’t call anyone!” Jimin yells hysterically. He’s going to be punished so, so badly if Appa finds out he interacted with anyone he wasn’t supposed to. He doesn’t know the protocol for this. His hands are shaking, oh, this is not allowed. Something in his mouth tastes nasty and sour. “Oh, you have to go, please. This isn’t allowed. How did you get in? Never mind, just go before someone comes down.”
“Whoa, calm down! Don’t you want to cut a deal?”
Jimin peeks through his fingers. The boy is on his feet, arms folded over his broad chest. His eyes seem a little darker now. Jimin feels the room pulsing with energy, thrumming through his ribs. The candle casts a frightening light over the boy’s features. This is a test. Perhaps Appa sent him to see if Jimin would behave, or maybe the elders did. If it’s a test, he has to remain pious and send the boy away. Something intangible creeps over Jimin and scares him to the bone. It’s a threat, something dark that he doesn’t understand. The pages of his Guidebook are flipping as if caught in a draught. “I don’t want any deals. I don’t even know who you are. I’m begging you to leave.”
The boy scoffs and rolls his eyes. “Humans are all the same. You want a demon, and then you chicken out as soon as I get here.”
“I’m sorry, what?” Jimin’s voice trembles. He surely misheard. He believes in demons, of course—the Guidebook says they crawl in the filthiest recesses of the In Between, and that they slip through the barriers now and then to wreak havoc upon the world. But Jimin is also not a fool. “You can’t be serious.”
“Well, this is just an outrage,” the boy says with a scowl. “I came all this way for you. Do you know how hard it is to convince people these days? Sorry I don’t have a pair of devil’s horns, sweetheart. I expected a little more gratitude.”
Jimin fumbles his way back onto his feet, back pressed against the wall. He’s too frightened to approach the stranger, and his head is spinning. A demon is no joke. The only thing he can think of is that he’s going to hell, or at the very least getting a good belting for summoning an actual demon. Can he even believe it? Or is it just a trick meant to gauge his piety? He looks too human, too—well, ordinary. Jimin almost laughs, then thinks better of it.
What do demons do? They drag you to hell. They possess you. They are you.
“If you’re a demon,” Jimin starts nervously, “why haven’t you possessed me?”
The boy’s eyes widen comically. He really has big eyes, the kind that they’d send to trick Jimin. Jimin sways. “Possess you? Without your consent ? That would just be plain rude.”
Jimin is unable to wrap his head around this and restructure his assumptions. “I-I don’t know what you’re doing here then,” Jimin says, wrapping his arms around himself, “but you better leave. If Appa hears―”
“If you’d stop yelling at me, he won’t.”
“He’ll be really mad at me. Really, really mad.” Jimin takes a deep breath, shuddering and throat growing tight.
“Hey, whoa,” the boy says, startled, putting his hands out to feign innocence. “I just felt your whole soul shift. I didn’t mean to scare you by just showing up. It’s just that, you did summon me.”
“Uh, you did. Red candle? All this negative energy? Thinking that you’d do anything to get out of this situation ? I mean, mostly it was the red candle, but―”
Jimin feels the ground become unsteady. His knees are weak. This is too much, really too much. How can anyone be expected to handle a demon the “right” way? And did he really summon him accidentally, could he have really done that? If so, that makes him worse than a sinner. It makes him irredeemable. Good boys don’t summon demons. Does it count if it was an accident? In his sleep? Are intentions relevant? And how can this boy―demon―take this so lightly?
“I was only trying to help you,” the boy says disappointedly.
Jimin swipes at his eyes. “I didn’t mean to summon you. I’m sorry if it was a lot of trouble.”
“Oh. Well, it happens a lot in this line of work. I’ll leave, anyway. It’s a pity, though—you were the best candidate for a deal that I’ve had in a while.” The boy shrugs ruefully. “I guess my instincts were wrong on this one.”
Suddenly Jimin can’t breathe. His heart stutters out of rhythm then back in. “What?” Jimin says, tongue somehow forming the word. “What do you mean? Why was I the best candidate?”
The boy, crouching by the candle, smiles as he looks up, blood red reflecting in his dark eyes. “The sacrifice,” he says. “Are you ready to die, Jimin?”
Jimin feels like he was hit with an anvil to the stomach. He feels like a fool. He looks up at the ceiling again. He wants the boy to go away now and then shower in boiling water to cleanse himself of this encounter. It would be too suspicious to shower in the middle of the night though. He makes no move toward the bathroom. He pictures lying on his stomach with his shirt off and pants pulled low. He pictures the belt coming down across his back and hips. Then he pictures the sacrifice again.
“It’s my holy purpose,” Jimin says finally.
The boy’s smile fades. He’s silent; a pregnant pause stretches between them. Then—
“It’s sad that you think so.”
Jimin opens his mouth, defensive, but then the boy snuffs the candle out. The room goes pitch black. Jimin startles and scrambles along the floor to find a marker of his location. His hands hit the mattress. His right hand closes around the candle (almost knocks it right over), the fresh melted wax scalding his palm. He lets out a wounded cry and withdraws his hand, cradling it close to his chest. He uses his uninjured hand to find the box of matches he keeps by his pillow and frantically strikes one. In a second, the candle is relit.
The boy is gone.
Jimin pants hard, loudly. His heart pounds as if he was frightened by something, and he is, but that something is gone. His whole body is tensed in fight mode.
It’s sad that you think so.
It’s sad that Jimin thinks at all. He laughs at that. How clever! It’s too bad he wasn’t born the perfect, dumb little lamb. Then he wouldn’t have so much trouble sleeping tonight.
The next morning is the strangest he’s ever experienced. He sleeps late, so late that the sun is already up. It’s sloth and he knows it. But his mother isn’t in with breakfast yet, so he busies himself, showering and brushing his teeth and trying to keep his mind clear. Surely he dreamed the events of last night.
His hand, not burned terribly but tender to the touch, throbs like an angry reminder. How could you forget? How could you pretend? You hurt me with the candle, and that was real, wasn’t it?
Jimin has been caught too many times thinking bad thoughts. His mother is no good at reading it, but his father is, and all it takes is a warning of his name and he’s spilling. He’ll have to be strong, but lying is a sin, but he didn’t mean to summon the poor demon, so as long as his father doesn’t ask directly, is it so bad? Jimin splashes his face and washes his toothbrush off and sticks it back in the cup. Shortly after, he hears the hatch opening. He comes out of the bathroom and finds his mother waiting at the bottom of the ladder in the corner.
“Good morning, Jimin,” she says. “Blessed be the sun and the fruit it bears.”
“Blessed be,” Jimin says.
She holds the basket in hand. He peers over the lip as she approaches and spots a bottle of milk, fresh strawberries, and a flaky pastry. Oh! Pastries, Jimin loves those. He rarely gets them. Meat last night and pastry today? He feels a twinge of guilt. How can he eat these with a clear conscience after what he did? He’s hungry, though. He gives in and eats.
Jimin loves Eomma. She’s kind and gentle and has long hair that she keeps in a braid down her back. She used to let him touch it when he was a child. He would stroke and stroke it and comb his fingers through it. She never complained when he pulled out a hair or two accidentally. She looks tired often; it burdens Jimin.
“Your father told me he talked to you last night about your Date,” Eomma says, smiling wanly. “You should know that I am very pleased with your progress and that I am sure you will be the loveliest gift.”
Jimin smiles back. “Thank you, Eomma. Thank you for the pastry.”
“You deserve it.”
He does not.
She notices the scalding of his hand as he dusts crumbs off his palms. The skin is an angry red, shiny and raw. Immediately she frowns, holding his wrist delicately and examining the burn. “Jimin-ah, how did this happen?”
“I accidentally knocked the candle over and righted it too hastily,” Jimin says. “The hot wax burned me.” It’s not a complete lie. He feels duplicitous in his answer, especially preceding his mother’s sympathetic fussing. She presides over a collection of salves and healing treatments that she allots him sparingly on the rare occasion he has injured himself or been disciplined. She’ll undoubtedly send some ointment down with dinner. Jimin feels somehow that he deserves the pain for his mistake.
“Aish, you should be more careful,” she scolds lightly. Jimin smiles sheepishly. She teasingly smacks the back of his head, not hard enough to hurt, and then rubs her hand over his scalp. “I’ll make sure you get something for it. It wasn’t your father, was it?”
“No. Just the candle.”
Eomma once told him it was impossible to live a sin-free life. Appa disagreed. Among countless other issues, Jimin is still struggling to reconcile their points of view. He remembers then that there isn’t much time left to do so. It is mornings like this that he feels sorry to leave behind.
“Eomma,” he says softly, “Am I...allowed to ask questions?”
Her worn forehead wrinkles in confusion. She busies her hands clearing away the cloth that wrapped the pastry and screwing shut the milk bottle. “What kind of questions?”
“About my Date.” Jimin feels like he’s stepping into treacherous territory, but better with her than with Appa. What does he know about his Date? He’s told the Elders will be there, along with his parents, and the rest of the village minus other first-borns. There will be an elaborate feast in honor of his parents giving him to God. But what about the sacrifice itself? What about those elusive matters that the Guidebook never quite touches on?
“Well―I suppose so.”
“I don’t have to.”
“I think it would be best if you don’t ask your father,” she says, and the meaning is impeccably clear: don’t tell him. “I might be able to...ease your mind.”
Jimin has no idea where to start. Without meaning to, he remembers what the demon had said last night. Are you ready to die? It depends on a lot of things, he supposes. It depends on the things he has never felt brave enough to ask, and not even because he isn’t allowed to. But there is one thing that burns with curiosity strong enough to outweigh his fears. “How do they do it?” His voice is hushed, the topic sacred. It seems a crude question.
Eomma’s smile fades. Oh, Jimin, why would you ask such a thing? Jimin looks away. He’s surprised to hear her answer. “They take you to the altar and do it there. It’s a knife. A very sharp one, so it’s...easier.”
A knife. Jimin touches his chest. His heart? Or his throat? He sees the knife arcing toward his throat in a perfect, lethal trajectory. Yes, surely that’s how they do it. He feels involuntarily ill at the thought of his skin separating around the metal, the red, the wet, pulpy flesh―is that what it is? Will he feel it? Will he die instantly, or slowly? When does he wake up in Elysium? Suddenly he has a million questions and, at the same time, none.
“Is there something else you want to know?” Eomma asks, gentle in tone.
“No,” Jimin says.
Jimin tosses and turns. He wasted his day. Only 29 more, and then his short existence will come to an end, at least in a material way. Sometimes he’s afraid that thinking, challenging the Church, is blasphemous. God can read his mind, so it isn’t wise to question his God-given purpose. And, frankly, he never would have if it wasn’t for the previous night.
It’s my holy purpose.
It’s sad that you think so.
Are you ready to die?
He wishes that he’d have asked a few questions of his own. Would he have learned more than by asking his parents? Would the demon have been honest with him? Jimin laughs at himself. Why would he be? He has no reason to tell the truth. He has no reason to help Jimin at all. Unless Jimin gave him something. His soul? His life? That would be foolhardy, seeing as he’s already giving up his life. What else can he give? Jimin owns nothing desirous.
He isn’t prepared to give his soul. He can’t even fathom what that means. Asking the demon for answers at a time like this seems silly at best.
Stupid, Jimin berates himself. Stop questioning! A simple hallucination isn’t strong enough to warrant you giving up your purpose. There is no demon, only your idiocy and blasphemy.
Is he frightened? Perhaps that is all it is. Jimin is overwhelmed by guilt at the prospect of betraying his parents’ love and turning his back on God. This in itself is a test. He reasons that it is only natural to feel afraid of death—rather, the pain that accompanies it—and that true faith is to go to the altar regardless. Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the presence. Appa said that once. So perhaps this is where he’s supposed to be mentally. In that case, he should lie still and try to sleep.
But he can’t.
Now he has questions. Now he needs to know. Is it not his purpose? Surely the demon is trying to pull him toward sin. It’s the seeds of doubt he planted in Jimin’s mind that are the sign of the devil.
Resist him. Don’t fall for it.
Jimin tosses and turns. It’s not holy to talk with demons and spirits. But he’s suddenly hungry to know what exactly the demon had meant. Now, with only 29 days left to find out, he is in overdrive, desperate for the answer. What if nothing comes of it? Would it be worth risking punishment by his parents or otherwise? What if it jeopardizes everything?
He reminds himself that the Guidebook says all sins are absolved by the giving of life to God. So, then, he can contact the demon without repercussion.
That seems like a loophole, but he can’t feel good about it no matter how hard he tries.
Sometime in the night, he drifts into half-sleep. He has a dream about the demon’s face, but isn’t sure if it’s consciously contrived or not. It isn’t long after that he wakes for no discernible reason, his forehead covered in a light sheen of sweat and his mouth dry as bone. He kicks the covers off and sits up, coming face to face with a familiar sight.
Jimin’s breath dies abruptly in his lungs. He clasps a hand over his heart and feels his whole body sag.
“I figured this end of the mattress was safer for my chin,” the demon says cheerfully, peering intently at Jimin through the darkness. There’s a soft scratching noise, and then the candle is flaming brightly. The demon blows out the match and drops it on the floor. Jimin doesn’t feel frightened this time, or at least not as frightened. “Before you start worrying, I came on my own this time.”
“I don’t want a deal,” Jimin blurts out, shaking his head furiously. What does it take to put this behind him? “Really, you have me wrong. You’re bothering me, so please go away.”
The demon frowns, crossing his arms. “First of all, I don’t think it’s very polite to tell someone to go away, especially when I’m only trying to help you. And second, there are lots of types of deals. Not all of them are as evil as you think.”
“I didn’t even ask you here this time! Don’t you think it’s impolite to come to someone’s room?”
“Well, you got me there, but...but come on! I mean, you’re totally stereotyping demons,” he whines. “I’ll cut you some slack because of your situation, but it’s not in your best interest to be insulting me.”
Jimin is startled by another thought that jostles its way to the front of his consciousness. “Are you going to take my soul?”
“Why would I do that?” he asks impatiently. “Don’t try to play dumb. I know you were thinking about calling me again. You want to know what I meant. Didn’t you?”
Jimin can’t deny it to himself. He can’t even pretend. He does want to know, and he’s curious enough to stay silent, looking to the side, ashamed by his own lack of self control. The situation feels out of his hands. In such a small, nondescript room, he has little choice of looking elsewhere, so he focuses his eyes next to the demon’s head. “I’m sure I could do without,” he says quietly, trying to steel his voice into something convincing and steady. “And if I wanted to see you, if I wanted to know, I would have called you. But I didn’t. Thinking about it isn’t enough to justify you coming here.”
“You’re making me feel like we’re having a tryst. I could do better than a sheltered child who thinks he has a fucking holy purpose.”
“That’s a bad word,” Jimin mumbles. He heard Appa say it once. He’d repeated it without knowing. He’d gotten cuffed over the head for it. “I don’t understand why you’re so intent on interfering. I told you I don’t want a deal.”
The demon sulks, his thin lips settling into a pout. “You don’t even know the first thing about deals. Or demons. Aish, you’re so annoying! Why would I even want your soul? You have the soul of a baby. It’s like you were born yesterday in the record. Do you know how much your soul is worth to me? Absolutely nothing.”
Jimin feels a little soothed after hearing that his soul is so clean. Not that he really knows what the demon is talking about. But it piques his interest against his will. Is that how it works? The blacker your soul, the more it’s worth to Satan? Then, how does all of it work? How come he looks human? How is it that he knows what Jimin wants, thinks about? That’s the devil’s work for certain.
“Listen,” the demon says with an exaggerated sigh. “I don’t want to take your soul or possess you, or any of that. I’m offering you a deal to get out of your sacrifice. You really want to die? I mean, if it wasn’t your holy duty or whatever, would you want to live?”
Jimin’s forehead furrows. If it wasn’t? But it is. It always has been. He’s never lived a day unaware of his purpose, so how can he imagine things being different? “I don’t know. I can’t.”
Jimin remembers the story Appa told him and the gruesome image of the boy, the one who looked like himself, mutilated by wolves in the deep forest. “I don’t know.”
“Don’t you want to see what it’s like up above? Don’t you want to leave this stupid village and experience a normal life?”
Jimin frowns, completely perplexed. His head swims like a murky lake; what is he supposed to think? Nothing the demon says is matching up with what he knows to be true. “But there isn’t anything else,” he says. “There’s just trees outside of the village. Why would I want to leave?”
The demon stares at Jimin incredulously. Jimin can’t imagine why. Jimin is no idiot. He isn’t going to fall for such ridiculous lies. It would be like telling him that―that God isn’t real. Or that the air he breathes is poison. No. He knows certain things to be true. As he expected, the demon is only trying to mislead him.
“That is what you think, isn’t it,” the demon says cryptically, jutting his chin out arrogantly. “Have you ever seen it yourself, Jimin?”
No. Of course he hasn’t. He’s never been above the room. But that’s the way things should be. Besides, some things he knows without witnessing. He knows that there are a bunch of organs crammed inside of him, all squeezed together, and he can’t see or even feel anything. But still he knows. He knows, too, that it rains when the clouds soak up enough water and lose hold of it. He can hear the rain, even if he can’t see or feel it himself. And still, what evidence is there to disprove what he knows? Nothing. Just hearsay from a demon.
“You’re living in a bubble,” the demon says, smiling like he’s won something as Jimin stays quiet, reassuring himself. “There’s at least a million villages all over the world. I bet you think the world is flat, don’t you? It’s like a giant ball. There are people across the entire surface. If your village is a grain of sand, the world is an entire beach. And you’re so stupid, you think this is it.”
Anger rises in Jimin, quick and molten. How dare he? And, and― “If the world was round, people would fall off the bottom! You’re just trying to trick me. I told you, I’m not interested! Stop making things up!”
“It’s true! There are a hundred people in this village, but there are seven billion people all over the world. And none of them raise their kids to be sacrificed. It’s not normal to kill your kids. It’s not even legal.”
“I don’t know what legal means.”
“Of course you don’t. Because you’re stupid. You’re deluded and brainwashed and gullible. You’d believe anything anyone told you. I bet you’d believe me if I told you that God is just a big, sentient rock.”
Jimin’s eyes fill with tears. “I’m not stupid. I’m not deluded. There’s nothing outside of our village, so stop trying to tell me otherwise. Appa taught me all about how God sent down a plague and killed the sinners and we were the only ones left. There aren’t any more people except for us.”
The demon scoffs, flicking his hair out of his eyes and tossing up his hands. “You’re useless! How have you never even questioned any of it? If there really was nothing outside the village, then why would they bother keeping you down here? It’s just to make sure that you don’t start questioning things. So that you’ll make it to your eighteenth birthday without chickening out of being sacrificed. Think, Jimin. How do you know that there’s nothing left? How do you know this is it? You’ve never seen it. And you know what else? God doesn’t fucking care if your parents sacrifice you in His name, or whatever.”
Jimin can feel a headache coming on. It’s too much conflicting information to properly digest. He knows what’s right! He’s known all his life! It would be ridiculous of him to just nod and go along with whatever the demon says. He knows all of this to be fact.
“Just go away,” Jimin almost yells, before remembering to lower his voice. A tear slips over his cheek. “What do you want me to say?”
“I want you to admit that you don’t want to die! I know you don’t. I’ve been beyond, Jimin. I could help you escape. You could live until you’re a hundred years old. Don’t you want a life of your own? Don’t you want to see what’s outside the village? Aren’t you even a little curious?”
“No!” Not until you showed up. Jimin fights the urge to curl up into a ball and stuff his fingers in his ears. “You can’t make me believe this nonsense. Just leave me be, will you? My parents wouldn’t lie to me.”
“They tell you what they want you to believe. You’re not allowed to think anything else, because if you did, you’d see right through them. It’s just a house of cards, Jimin. That’s all it is. All you have to do is blow one card down and the whole house will collapse.”
Jimin can’t accept it. It’s antithetical to his entire existence. “I’m allowed to think for myself. I believe what they say because it’s true.”
“Really?” The demon crawls forward and sits up on his knees in front of Jimin, inches from him. “Do they let you ask questions?”
No. “I shouldn’t question God.”
“You shouldn’t question God? Or you shouldn’t question them?”
Jimin’s stomach knots up. “Th-them, but―”
“If they had nothing to hide, why wouldn’t you be allowed to ask questions?”
Oh. Jimin doesn’t know. It’s blasphemy to question, but―primarily, it’s just the way things have always been done. When he was younger, questions would be met with a quick cuff. As he grew up, his transgressions had to be punished more seriously. What’s wrong with discipline? It isn’t enjoyable but it isn’t supposed to be, and it serves a purpose. Lesson learned, always.
“I thought so,” the demon says softly, his breath like a lick of heat across Jimin’s cheek. “Try asking them a question tomorrow. If you change your mind, you know how to find me, kid.”
He’s gone in the blink of an eye like he was last night, leaving Jimin flustered and choking on his words. Suffice it to say, Jimin doesn’t get much sleep that night, either.
Jimin is quiet through breakfast, even when Eomma frowns and rubs at the base of his skull, trying to massage out the tension. He feels burdened by last night’s events, even more so when he has to lie to Eomma and say he’s simply tired. She continues to care for him, even applying more salve to his still-sore palm. She fusses about his hair and promises to cut it for him soon. All the while, he feels uncomfortable. In her presence, he questions himself again. He loves her with all his heart, and she with all of hers, presumably. She has done nothing to hurt him, never even raising a hand to him. She always deferred to Appa for discipline. She’s let most things go that would have normally earned Jimin a smack to the cheek. How could he repay her with mistrust?
Jimin will admit that he fears his father as much as he loves him. That he trusts his mother to take care of him even if Appa knows best in the end. That he once wondered what was above the hatch, asked to be allowed there, and received a day’s worth of starvation for his request. But, he reminds himself, he’s here for his own benefit. Above ground, he is exposed to sin and worldly pleasure, to greed. Down here, he can only accept what is appropriate. No thought required on his part.
When he thinks about it, it makes sense. His parents don’t have anything to hide from him. There wouldn’t be any harm in asking, right? He can easily prove the demon wrong. He can prove it to himself. Easy!
He resolves to ask a question at lunch time, but then his nerve fails him. One look at Appa’s stern features and he buckles. The question dies before it even reaches his lips. He curses himself for being a coward. Why is he afraid if he’s so sure that he’s allowed to think freely? By dinner, then, he’ll come up with a question.
Of all the things the demon said, what presses most against his mind? That there are things beyond, other people, other villages. Doubting even the very basic knowledge he has calls into question everything else. How can that be? He’s never even seen the rest of the house. They can just as easily say no, or repeat that they don’t want him to be contaminated. He can’t be afraid of asking, or else he’s only proving the demon’s point.
Dinner rolls around. Jimin’s heart flutters anxiously whenever he thinks about the question he’ll ask. Stop being silly. There’s no reason for him to punish you. You aren’t questioning God by wondering if there are other people out there. And yet, he fears that he knows exactly what will follow. As his father descends the ladder, he urges his heart to still in anticipation.
The risk, if he’s being honest, isn’t zero.
Appa brings a dinner of fresh vegetables, milk, and a canteen of soup. Jimin makes sure to finish everything before he even thinks of asking his question, afraid that if things go wrong, he’ll miss out on the meal. Once it’s down his throat, there’s no way to deprive him. Only after does he force himself to form the words.
“Appa,” he starts, his voice wavering, “remember the story you told me the day before yesterday?”
Appa sets aside the Guidebook he was preparing to read from. “Yes?”
“I...the boy, who ran away. He went into the forest.”
“Yes, and he was killed there.”
“But―” Jimin takes a shaky breath, shrinking. “What’s beyond the forest?”
Appa’s forehead creases, his composure momentarily slipping and then resuming. Jimin feels small in his shadow. “Jimin-ah, we’ve been over this. There is only forest. Nothing else beyond. Let’s get back to the lesson.”
“But how do you know?” Jimin presses, unsatisfied with the answer. “Maybe other people exist out there. The Earth is big, isn’t it? How do you know there’s nobody else?”
Appa’s smile grows thin. His tone isn’t as patient before. “I know these things. Do you think I don’t know my history? Or do you think I make a habit of lying to you?”
Jimin swallows hard, gulps painfully, tries to wet his dry throat. “No, sir, I just―”
“Tell me, Jimin, where this is coming from.”
“I just want to know more,” Jimin blurts out, panicking. This is how he thought it might go. But if he backs down now, he proves the demon right. Is it worth it? “I want to know about the world outside of this room, Appa, and I don’t think it’s fair that I’ve been good and pious and accepted everything as you’ve told me to and yet I’ve never even seen anything except these walls. Why can’t I just see the rest of the house? I could stay inside!”
“No! I’ve told you, again and again, you can’t. This is the only way for you to stay pure.”
“But if there’s nothing else except the forest, then what are you protecting me from?”
Finally, finally, Jimin’s question is met with a blow across the face. He’s surprised only in that he didn’t expect to get away with so many words, but at the same time, he felt it coming. This sort of insolence isn’t tolerated. His cheek radiates with heat, and he’s sure he’s bitten his cheek to blood. As always, the flare of indignance and emotional hurt is replaced quickly by dull fear and guilt. Oh! Please let this be all.
“It would behoove you to be more faithful,” Appa says softly, raising his hand again. Jimin cringes, apprehensive of another blow, but instead, he touches Jimin’s cheek as if to soothe the pain. “I will be generous and go easy on you as you have been as good as you say, but more blasphemy will not fly. Do I make myself clear?”
Jimin has no choice. He bends his head in deference. “Very clear,” he mumbles.
There’s the snick of a belt sliding through denim loops and shuffling not far away. Appa tells Jimin to take his shirt off and lie on his stomach. Jimin does, stomach flipping menacingly and his hairs standing on end as he waits for the first lash.
Maybe there is something strange at play, after all.
It doesn’t take long for the demon to show up. Jimin lights the candle and thinks as hard as he can about needing him, and just like that, he’s there.
“Changed your mind?” he says with a self-satisfied smirk. Jimin doesn’t have the strength to snark back. “I have to say, I didn’t think you’d actually ask him. It was really quite the surprise.”
“You were watching?” Jimin is quick to anger. He clenches his fists and glowers at the demon. “How dare you?”
“Well, I was right, wasn’t I?”
“So you saw,” Jimin says flatly, his shirt suddenly abrasive to his back. Eomma will surely have caught wind of the night’s events and will come with healing lotion tomorrow morning, but for tonight, he must sleep on his sides and stomach. He’s flushed with humiliation knowing that the demon probably watched the whole thing. But why should he be? As if he should care what a demon thinks of him, especially one who already knows everything, it seems, about his situation. Odd, calling it that. Jimin had never thought of himself being in a situation before. It was just life.
The demon, to his credit, has the decency to look mildly ashamed of himself. “Yes. Yes, I did see. I’m sorry about that.”
“Shut up. You wanted this to happen. You wanted me to cut a deal and you knew this would convince me.”
Another self-satisfied look. “It did, didn’t it?”
“Whatever,” Jimin snaps, feeling angrier than he has in a long time. He feels manipulated on both sides. By his parents, by the demon. Maybe he has less purchase over his life than he thought. “I’m not saying I want a deal, okay?”
The demon looks disappointed. Point, Jimin. “Really? That didn’t do it?”
“You’re asking me to throw out everything I’ve ever known.”
“Not everything. Just the important parts.”
Jimin didn’t even know it was possible to feel so annoyed. He’s fragile, still shaky from the inescapable memory of the belt coming down across his back. Of course he shouldn’t expect compassion from a demon. “You have some nerve,” Jimin growls, pulling himself up taller, “coming here, messing up my whole life. If not for you, I would have gone to my sacrifice at peace with myself and my parents. But now―everything is ruined, because you decided to interfere. In just two days you have completely turned me around. So don’t think that I’m eager to make a deal and help you out. Or whatever your interest in this is.”
“It’s complicated. You see―”
“I’m not finished! If I do decide to take a deal with you, it will be on my account. I will decide on my own. You think I’m a pushover. I’m not. If I take a deal, it won’t be tonight. I have 28 more days to make that decision. Believe me when I say that I won’t be hasty about it.”
Jimin gets some sort of righteous validation from the sheepish surprise on the other’s face. He knows that if he wants to have any say at all in this interaction, he has to have his conditions ready. No letting the demon have the upper hand here.
The demon whistles slowly, nodding and pursing his lips. “Okay. I’m a patient guy, I can wait. What will it take to convince you?”
Jimin takes a deep breath. “I want to know everything. I want proof of what you say is out there. I want you to tell me how everything works. What you do, what I need to do.”
“I can’t possibly tell you everything in 28 days.”
“Well, if you want a deal,” Jimin says calmly, “you should think of a way, shouldn’t you?”
The demon keeps his word and shows up the next night. Jimin is resigned to sleeplessness for the rest of his life, short though it may be. Although really, he can nap between meals if he gets depressed. Jimin, if he’s being honest, doesn’t really know what to expect. Already, so much of what he thought he knew seems to be wrong. His whole formulation of demons isn’t quite right. He doesn’t even know what he doesn’t know, just that—there seems to be a lot of it. The whole day, he was unable to think of anything but the questions he needed to ask.
Jimin stays awake this time waiting for the demon. He knows what he wants to ask about, at least for tonight. The demon said it was impossible to teach him about the world in 28 days, but surely Jimin isn’t that clueless. Besides, he’s still wary of the demon. He needs to figure out whether or not he can trust him. Not, of course, like he has too many other options at this point. It’s either go to his death or make a deal. Even if the demon double crosses him, there can’t be anything worse than death. Maybe eternal damnation. Jimin isn’t sure.
The demon appears behind Jimin and startles him (Jimin thinks he did that on purpose). He looks all too pleased with himself, a cocky smirk on his face as he watches Jimin clutch his heart. “You have to stop doing that,” Jimin retorts. “Can’t you just appear normally?”
“No can do. It’s not like you have a front door into this place. Now, I want to get right to business. Have you thought of what you want to know?”
Jimin shifts on his mattress. “Somewhat,” he says carefully. “Would you like to take a seat?”
The demon scoffs. “What, is this a tea party?” But he sits on the other end of the mattress anyway, settling until he’s comfortable, legs crossed and hands folded politely in his lap. “So?”
“I...” Jimin bites the inside of his cheek. “My first question. I want to know your name.”
His request is met with a short laugh, surprised and perhaps a bit scornful. “My name? Why?”
Jimin doesn’t quite understand why the demon is responding with such incredulity. It’s simply formality. Surely even he knows that. “If you’re going to be coming every night, I should at least be able to address you properly,” Jimin replies with a frown. “Besides, you know mine. It’s only fair.”
The demon purses his lips and then nods, becoming more serious. He says, “I don’t technically have a name. When I...became a demon, I was given a patron, if you will. Anybody trying to summon a Greater Demon will usually get a lesser demon, like me. There are too many things happening in the world for the Greater Demons to handle, so a lot of it gets relegated to us. So, as it goes, I don’t have a name. Anymore.”
Jimin is perplexed by the idea. “Anymore? Were you once allowed to have a name?”
“Yes. When I was a human, I had a name.”
A human? That can’t be. Jimin always believed that demons were born, not made. “You weren’t always a demon?”
The demon shakes his head, straightening his back. “No! I had an actual life before I became an evil demon who hides under children’s beds.”
Jimin is appalled. “You do that?”
The demon gives him a look that tells Jimin to shut his mouth. He’s really mastered dirty looks. Jimin, cowed, looks at the thin fabric of his sheets instead. “My name was Jungkook when I was a human. Demons don’t really use names, so I haven’t needed mine in a while. I don’t quite see the need, but if you insist, I suppose that’s what I would prefer.”
Jungkook. Jimin mouths it to himself, trying to match his face with the name. A name, finally! It suits him, somehow, but then, he could as easily have told Jimin any other name and Jimin would have thought it looked about right. What does it matter, he thinks. At least he has a name now. It feels like a little bit of power, even though Jimin has no idea how he could even use it to his advantage.
“Jungkook,” he repeats slowly. “Your name is Jungkook.”
“Well, aren’t you still Jungkook? Or are you just―are you in someone else’s body?”
“For the last time, we don’t possess people, okay? We’re seriously going to need to clear up some things about my job. I can’t put up with this indignity for a month.” The demon―Jungkook, that is―sighs aggravatedly. Jimin sits in chagrined silence. Jungkook seems so...what’s the word? Melodramatic? Jimin is too wary to be amused. “You know what, tonight we’re just going to talk about me.”
“What about my questions?” Jimin protests feebly. Jungkook waves him off, rolling his eyes.
“Who gives a shit? If you want me to keep coming, then I’m going to demand some respect here. I mean, I work hard! It’s not all sunshine and daisies on my end, you know? I get that you’re trapped in a basement and all, but would it kill you to be a little more politically correct?”
Jimin’s forehead crinkles in confusion. Politically correct? What does that mean? And why is he the one who needs an attitude adjustment? “Um, I’m sorry.” Jimin attempts to look contrite in the hopes of appeasing Jungkook. Gracious, this whole setup is ridiculous. Jimin would almost be better off with a traditionally conceived demon, black eyes and red horns and all. At least then they might get somewhere. But he has to take what he gets at this point.
Jungkook crosses his arms. His mouth settles into something awfully sulky. “Sure you are.”
“No! Really, I am,” Jimin adds, unsure why he’s trying to make him feel better. “I’m sorry. Tell me about your job.”
Jungkook perks up immediately, his big eyes brightening considerably. He looks more like a puppy than a demon. Jimin knows he should be wary, that letting his guard down around a demon is probably the most dangerous thing he could do right now, but it’s hard to keep thinking of him as malicious and threatening when he’s so childish and moody. Well, better for Jimin. He yawns. Boy, he’s definitely going to nap after breakfast tomorrow.
“Basically, there are a bunch of different types of demons,” Jungkook begins, gesticulating animatedly with his hands. Jimin tries to follow his words and not get sidetracked by all the movement. “I’m a deal demon. We’re sometimes known as crossroads demons, but we don’t always sit around at forks in the road. Sometimes people summon us the traditional way. You know, red candle, circle trap, Latin incantations, the whole nine yards. We can’t really opt out of those; they’re an automatic summons. But these days we also track areas where there are heavy concentrations of negative energy. Those are usually a good sign that something nasty is going on. Like in your house. I mean, your whole village stinks of evil, but your house is one of the worst.”
Jimin had always thought the pentagon and chalk symbols were necessary for a summoning. That’s what Appa had taught him through a fable about a boy who tried to make a deal with the devil. But perhaps it makes sense. “I see.”
“Most people have very archaic beliefs about us and what we do. It’s true that some of it was true once. But we’ve had to evolve over time. For instance, nonconsensual possessions are punishable by a few months in the fire pits. The last big demon possession caused World War II. A bunch of Greater Demons conspired to take over the bodies of some nations’ leaders and ended up baiting countless people into committing some of the greatest sins in the books. It’s totally fair for tempter demons to entrap people—humans are easy to tempt and corrupt—but the big guys were worried that the scale of depravity would throw the whole future out of balance. Eventually Heaven stepped in and forced us to put better regulations on possessions and those kinds of things. We’re always having to review our system and update it.”
Jimin’s head spins. He remembers just flashes of history Appa taught him, but doesn’t know enough to place what Jungkook is telling him. He knows World War II was bad, though. He knows it was a long time ago. If demons were responsible for something so terrible, then what is Jimin doing with a demon in his room? He’s also surprised to hear Jungkook talk about being a demon like it’s a normal thing, well-supervised and thought out. “What other demons are there?”
“There are tempter demons and deal demons like I told you. There are also reapers who actually take people down to Hell, but they’re kind of a grey area. They don’t really move in the same circles as the rest of us, so there’s not much overlap, and they follow different rules. I don’t know too much about that.” Jungkook cocks his head, eyeing Jimin carefully. Jimin hopes his expression isn’t too alarmed. “We aren’t really evil. I guess tempters kind of walk that line. But most of us are just tools for sorting out good and bad and sectioning people into the right afterlife.”
Jimin bites his lip. It sounds logical. “But you’re the reason for all the evil in the world? Because you tempt people?”
“Don’t flatter yourself. Humans are―well, you guys are pretty easily tempted.” Jungkook spreads his hands as if to say, what can you do? Jimin frowns. “See, if you put everything on a spectrum, there are people who are much more evil than good, and people who are much more good than evil. The majority of people, though, are somewhere in the middle. That makes it hard to decide. We don’t send people to Hell for being just a little bit more evil than good, or send people to Heaven for being just a little bit more good than evil. We need a clear read of their character. That’s where tempters come in. Most people encounter at least a hundred tempters during their lifetime. Every decision you make shows us what you’re really like.”
“But,” Jimin starts, “surely some circumstances would cause everyone to act the same way. And it isn’t really fair to force people into situations that they’d otherwise never have to face.”
Jungkook is already shaking his head with his eyes shut. Jimin falls silent, embarrassed. “Firstly, we have rules about how far we can go with entrapment. It’s true that in the worst of situations, it can be permissible for people to do things they would never do arbitrarily. Murder, for instance. Self-preservation is always taken into account. Also, the point isn’t to trick people or completely change their character. It’s to test them. What if someone had no empathy and was just waiting for the straw to break the camel’s back? We give them the opportunity, just the tiniest opening, and if they take it eagerly, we stack that against them in their record.”
“You’re just playing with people’s lives. What about the victim that person killed?”
Jungkook purses his lips. “Collateral damage.” He sighs, rubbing his temples. “Look, that’s the nature of the job. Besides, 90% of the sins humans commit are all of their own volition, no demons involved. Like I said. You guys are so easy to tempt, sometimes we don’t even need to push you. We just periodically poke our noses into people’s business.”
It doesn’t sit well with Jimin that people are considered so disposable. And what about people like him, who have only encountered a choice few other people in his entire life? What happens to him? What happens if you come to the end of your life and they still aren’t sure if you’re a good person or a bad one? Do you end up in limbo? The system doesn’t seem as orderly and fair as Jungkook seems to think (though, frankly, it’s at least more orderly than Jimin would have guessed).
“And you’re poking your nose into mine,” Jimin says, troubled by what that might mean. What are Jungkook’s reasons for intervening? Why is he so intent on making a deal? How does he benefit from this? There has to be something he gains. Jimin thinks that there must then be something he himself loses.
Jungkook nods, leaning forward earnestly. “I really think this can work for both of us.”
Jimin fidgets nervously. Perhaps this is a bad idea. He feels like he’s losing his grip on his life. Everything he built is turning out to be useless. This has to be worth it, or else he’s making a terrible mistake. He doesn’t know what to think or what to do. How can he change his fate so quickly? He reminds himself that he can take his time to decide. It’s up to him. He can still back out and that makes him feel better. Calm down.
“What do I have to give?” Jimin asks.
“What do I have to give for my end of the bargain?”
“Oh.” Jungkook frowns, tilting his head. “That’s negotiable. How do you feel about spending a couple months in Hell?”
Jimin shoots to his feet, alarmed. Hell! There’s no way! “You don’t seriously think I would agree to that?”
“Okay, okay!” Jungkook holds his hands out, placating. He backtracks. “Scratch that off the list. Um, what about giving a limb or something? Prosthetics are pretty good these days. You can get by without your left arm. You’re a righty, right?”
“Isn’t there anything less nefarious?”
“Less nefarious? Hm. You’re really hard to please, you know. Most people would say your non-dominant arm is a fair price to pay for saving your life.”
“I don’t know who you’ve been talking to. Here’s some advice: if you’re having trouble with making deals, try offering something a little more enticing than losing an entire arm!”
“You know, I don’t like this snarky side of you. It is not appreciated, mister.”
Jimin folds his arms and glares. As glad as he is that Jungkook doesn’t seem to be an evil creature with horns and a tail, he’s absolutely not pleased with how difficult he is. Jimin isn’t sure he can put up with this for a month. “I don’t appreciate you suggesting I should be grateful to lose an arm.”
“Well, maybe you could be a little more flexible.”
“I don’t want to lose my arm!”
“Just the left one!” Jungkook insists impatiently.
“If you’re just going to be insufferable, then get out,” Jimin snaps. “Otherwise, go back to the drawing board.”
Jungkook huffs and puffs and folds his arms over his chest. Jimin waits for him to respond, watching the red rise in his cheeks. “I don’t want to go anywhere,” Jungkook says sullenly. “Look, I’ll figure something out. Give me some time. I’ll have something by the end of the month.”
“Next week,” Jimin hisses. “I want an answer by next week.”
“Okay .” Jungkook hunches his shoulders. “If I had any idea you were so demanding, I wouldn’t have come here in the first place.”
Jimin really has no right to feel hurt―for goodness’ sake, he didn’t even want Jungkook here. But he’s always been sensitive, or so Eomma says. Jimin has no point of reference. But he also knows that Jungkook needs this deal for some reason. Jimin doesn’t bother asking. He doesn’t want it to sway him and he doubts Jungkook would tell him, somehow. So he stands his ground. “There has to be something more palatable that I can give. Something,” Jimin presses desperately. “Please consider my position. And why is it worth it for me to lose something at all? Why should I want to eschew death when I’m supposed to be absolved through it? What about living, about the world, is worth throwing that away?”
Jungkook eyes him up and down, mouth pressed into a hard line and chin jutting out stubbornly. There’s a heavy silence between the two of them as Jimin’s words seem to sink in; Jimin wonders if Jungkook means to listen to anything he has to say. To his relief, Jungkook finally nods resignedly. “I’ll work on it,” he promises. Jimin has no choice but to take his word, however treacherous it might prove to be.
Jimin passes the following day with a comparatively easy mind. He mulls over the things Jungkook told him about being a demon, and contemplates what he would have to do in order to make a mutually beneficial deal, but he’s smug about the fact that he didn’t learn anything life changing. Few of his conceptions of the world around him have changed. As far as he’s concerned, life is as it always was. Yes, he’s still trying to win a game that has no reward. What other simple pleasures can he enjoy? There is nothing wrong with his life and yet Jungkook is intent on disrupting the balance.
Eomma cuts his hair this morning, fingers combing gently through his black strands. Her own hair is going grey now, but Jimin isn’t too old to remember when it was the same color as his own, dark as pitch and lying in stark contrast to her clothes in a thick braid. How old was he when it faded? Twelve, perhaps. That seems right. Jimin’s hair, her hair, curls against the nape of his neck and falls away into the sink basin. Her scissors snip patiently and expertly about his head, trimming the longest parts and evening out the jagged sections. She is only able to do so much. The scissors are not very sharp and are blunted at the tip. The blades need sharpening, but when Jimin suggested she ask Appa to sharpen it, she shook her head and smiled to herself. My son is an idiot, she thinks. That’s what Jimin imagined her saying.
When she’s finished, Eomma brushes the short, poky hairs from Jimim’s neck. She brushes his hair back out with a comb and then steps back to check her work. “There,” she says softly, cupping his cheek. “So handsome.”
Jimin wonders why she said that. Pride is arrogant, a direct slight to God. After all, He is responsible for everything good that befalls people, even looks. Jimin should not take pride in his appearance because it is not his accomplishment to cherish. But he is happy that his mother is happy.
“Eomma,” he says as they walk out of the bathroom, “may I ask you something?”
She side eyes him and then nods once, quickly. “You may.”
Jimin chooses his words carefully. Even though he does not fear her, he doesn’t necessarily want to hurt or offend her, either. He senses that his question will seem abrupt and perhaps even inappropriate. Still, he has to know. He has to ask. “Are you...happy?”
Eomma tilts her head, smiling blankly. “Yes, of course. Why would you ask that?”
“You’re happy? Here, in the village? You’re happy with Appa?”
The latter is the crucial difference. Jimin will admit something very, very small, and very important, to himself. To anyone who asks. When it comes to himself, he can believe that he does wrong and needs to learn. He has faith in his father’s judgment and trusts that he knows better than Jimin―little, stupid, mistaken Jimin. But why Eomma? How could she be wrong? And why does she never get angry back?
He’ll admit that he wonders about that as often as it happens.
“Jiminie, darling, I am very happy,” she says calmly and slowly. “I don’t know why you would think otherwise. Did your father tell you to ask me?”
No. “No.” Why would he? Jimin’s forehead wrinkles in confusion. “I was just curious. I...I just wanted to know. To make sure. I don’t know.”
Eomma stands up, not angry, but definitely offput. Perturbed. Jimin feels a sinking sense that he did something wrong. He doesn’t like upsetting her. He does, now and then, but she never reciprocates. “Rest assured I’m fine,” she says, but that isn’t what Jimin asks. Is he splitting hairs? Or does it matter whether she’s fine or happy? The difference is so slight, so negligible, Jimin might have missed it if not for her tone. “I’ll go back up now. Tell me if you find a section I missed.” She gathers up the scissors and the food basket and then climbs the ladder, knocking and waiting at the top for the hatch to open. Jimin doesn’t watch her leave, his stomach turning unpleasantly.
Maybe Jungkook knows.
Jimin thinks a lot about the things Jungkook told him. He stands on tippy-toes under the window and tries to look outside, but he’s not tall enough. He drags the mattress over and stands on that, but his weight compresses the springs too far to give him any meaningful lift. Eventually, out of ideas, he gives up. Could it be that there’s more than just his village? If so, he wouldn’t be able to see even if he could manage to rise eye level with the window. How was he planning to go through his entire life only to see the outside world once, on his Date? He isn’t so impatient yet, but he itches a little, chafes, wishes he could just go outside and see. Just to know what’s out there. He wants to feel the grass and the breeze on his cheek and see the blue of the sky. All the things he’s told about, the things the Guidebook mentions. It’s all just outside, but he doesn’t get to see any of it.
Jungkook stretches a large expanse of paper over the floor. Jimin can’t tell what he’s supposed to be looking at. The image is vaguely elliptic and blue with green blobs scattered across. There are lines going vertically and horizontally. Jimin tries to read the words. “A-free-kah,” he tries. “Ant—ant ark—”
“Antarctica,” Jungkook corrects him, leaning over the paper. “This is a map of the world.”
Jimin lights up, excited. “See! I told you the world was flat!”
Jungkook scoffs at him and sits up, legs criss-crossed. Jimin is lying on his stomach, curious about the map. “It’s not flat. There are things called globes that show a map on an actual sphere, like the world really is. But to put it on paper, you have to take it apart and lay it out.”
Like a big ball? How can the earth be round? That seems implausible. Jimin squints at the map. “But then how come people don’t just fall off?”
“It’s the force that keeps us on the ground and not floating off into space. It works all around the surface of the Earth so nobody falls off.”
Jimin tries to imagine standing on the bottom of the world, walking upside down where the floor is the ceiling and the ceiling is the floor. “So they have to live upside down?”
Jungkook groans and throws his body back until he lies completely on the mattress. He covers his face with his hands. Jimin looks at the ceiling and thinks about walking on it. Wouldn’t that be strange? Jungkook shakes his head.
“To them, they feel upright just like we do here. In fact—” Jungkook points to an outlined blob within the bigger blobs. “This is where we are. We’d be sideways if you had your way. But do you feel like you’re sticking off the side of the Earth?”
“There you have it. The world is round.” Jungkook riffles through the satchel he brought with him and pulls out another thing, a picture, but it isn’t drawn like Appa’s stuff. It’s shiny on the surface, like it’s covered in a sheen of water, but when Jimin touches it, it’s dry and smooth. “This is a picture of the Earth taken by a satellite. Someone flew up into space and took this picture.” Jimin stares at the image. It sort of vaguely resembles the map he was shown, but hardly. This is real? It looks fake to him.
“Where’s Heaven?” Jimin asks, frowning at the image. Is it somewhere in the blackness surrounding the Earth? Or at the top of the Earth?
“Heaven isn’t really...anywhere,” Jungkook says, gesturing uncertainly with his hands. “Neither is Hell. They’re different dimensions.”
“But where are they on the map, about?”
“I told you. Nowhere. This is just our dimension. There are...portals, I guess, hidden around the Earth and in Heaven and Hell. You couldn’t just go to the North Pole and find Heaven. Because it’s not there. It’s not anywhere. And the planes shift around. Sometimes portals change locations, or change destinations. The universe works in strange ways.”
Jimin doesn’t understand, but he doesn’t want to linger on it too long. There are other things to worry about right now. “Are Heaven and Hell flat?”
“Oh, for goodness’ sake, forget about the shape,” Jungkook cries. “I don’t know what shape they are! They just are . They probably change shape, for all I know. You can’t take pictures of it. Human technology doesn’t work on other planes.”
“But then it could be a cube, or a pyramid, or a ring.”
Jungkook sighs aggrievedly and rubs at his temples. “I suppose it could. It’s not really important.”
“It could even be a cone.”
“Jimin.” Jungkook’s voice is low and warns Jimin that he should be quiet before he loses his temper. Jimin obediently shuts up. “There, that’s the Earth. Now you know what it looks like. Round.”
“It’s a reasonable assumption that it could be flat.” Jimin bites his lip, anticipating another scolding. To his surprise, Jungkook nods.
“People used to think it was flat like you did. It’s just that we know for a fact now, it isn’t. It’s a sphere. Actually, it bulges a little at the equator, right here in the middle. The Earth is spinning, you see, on an invisible pole that goes through the center of it. It’s called an axis. So because of centripetal force, some of the Earth’s mass gets pushed out to the edges. Also, we’re wobbling.”
It’s too much for Jimin’s brain to handle. He doesn’t know what centripetal force or an axis or mass or the equator is. He sticks to simple questions. “If we’re spinning then why don’t I feel it?”
Jungkook heaves another sigh. Jimin makes a note to tell him to stop being so whiny. Not everyone knows these things already. “You just don’t, okay? I promise we’re spinning. Science says so.”
“Appa says science is devil’s work.”
“That’s because your father is a nutjob.”
Jimin’s jaw goes slack. What! A nutjob? How can Jungkook say such a thing? His shock must show on his face. “That’s awfully unkind,” Jimin says stiffly.
“And beating you isn’t unkind?” Jungkook asks, but Jimin senses it’s a rhetorical question. It makes him uncomfortable. His skin prickles and he tugs at his shirt. “Maybe it’s too soon to talk about this.”
“No, go on,” Jimin says, on edge. He shouldn’t provoke Jungkook, but his defensiveness gets the better of him. “Tell me more about how stupid I am and how my father is a nutjob. Why don’t you call my mother a whore while you’re at it?”
Jungkook’s eyebrows rise at Jimin’s outburst. He almost smiles, and Jimin feels a wave of anger towards him. He wants, for a moment, to take a swing. But hurting someone else is irreversible. Jimin keeps his fists at his sides. “If you want me to,” Jungkook says evenly.
Oh, Jimin is angry. “I’ve decided. I don’t want a deal. Take your maps and gravity and get out of my sight.”
“I’m kidding,” Jungkook says immediately. “I’m just joking, okay? Maybe I should have chosen my words better.”
“What, do you want to call my parents something else, now?”
“No, I don’t. Let’s just calm down and be civil to each other, shall we?”
“I was being civil until you started insulting my father.”
Jungkook pushes off the mattress with an exasperated hiss of breath and starts to pace the small room. Jimin watches from the floor, eyes tracking his every move. Jungkook thrusts his broad shoulders back and lifts his chin with the arrogance of a king, but Jimin would be remiss to forget that he is not, and thus he has no authority over Jimin, no right to say the things he does. “I just get riled up sometimes,” Jungkook says, as if it excuses everything. “You would, too. Do you know how long I’ve been in this job?” Jimin mutely shakes his head. “A long fucking time. Longer than you’ve been alive. How old do you think I am?”
Jimin thinks hard, forehead creasing. Jungkook is built too well to be a teenager; his voice is much deeper than Jimin’s and his jaw is defined well like Appa’s. But he isn’t wrinkled, and has no noticeable five o’clock shadow, no stubble. Jimin wonders if his baby-soft skin is a perk of being a demon or just a lucky draw. Jimin comes to the conclusion that Jungkook is somewhere between 20 and 50. He hasn’t seen enough people of different ages in his lifetime to properly estimate. “Thirty,” Jimin says softly, uncertain of his judgment. Jungkook laughs suddenly, delighted.
“I’m 78,” Jungkook says, spitting out the word like it’s venomous to him. “Technically speaking, of course. I’ve been around for 78 years. But in another way, I’m 25. I look 25. When I finally get out of this stupid contract, I’ll still be 25. I’ve been doing this job for 53 years. It got old pretty quickly. And now I have to deal with you. I want to help you. I’ve seen thousands of kids die because they wouldn’t make a deal and the damn angels didn’t want to help. So I’ll be damned―pun absolutely intended―if I don’t get you out of this somehow.”
Jimin is startled and not sure he trusts Jungkook’s word. It’s clear his tirade is rooted in some genuine emotion, but it’s out of character. “If you want to help me so badly, then why can’t you just do it? Why do I have to give up my arm, or, or, whatever?”
“Because it doesn’t work that way. I can’t just hand out get-out-of-jail cards for free. Each deal has to be reported to the higher-ups. I’d end up in Tartarus for eternity if they found out I saved someone for free. That isn’t a deal, that’s a boon, and we don’t do that kind of thing. The best thing is for me to make proper deals so I can keep helping people in some way. So can you please hurry up and say yes already?”
“I told you I’d take my time,” Jimin says, aggravated. “I’m sorry that it’s an inconvenience. But you agreed to wait it out. The more you yell at me, the less I want to make a deal with you.”
“I’m trying to save your life, Jimin! You’re so stubborn. You’d rather die than let me be right.”
“Losing an arm doesn’t seem like a great alternative! At least when I die, I’ll have all my limbs! I don’t want to stumble around heaven limbless!”
“You’re impossible,” Jungkook almost shouts. “Forget it! Why did I try to help you? You’re too brainwashed to see that whatever you’re practicing isn’t even religion! Do you think God wants dead children? The only reason your village practices human sacrifice is to test the people’s devotion to the cult, not to God. But you will never see that if you don’t start questioning it. You’re a lost cause.”
Jimin feels somehow that he hasn’t done enough to deserve this dressing-down, and he’s too angry about every word that comes out of Jungkook’s mouth to think of a snappy retort. Instead, he feels the room whistle with a draught and the candle blows out, and by the time Jimin gets his bearings and strikes the match, Jungkook is gone.
Something cold and unforgivingly hard presses into the bumps of Jimin’s spine. He feels the chill seep through his cotton tunic and wash over him like ice water. He finds himself immobile when he tries to sit up, and settles for turning his head instead. Beneath his outstretched hand, he sees white marble, immaculately smooth. Where is his mattress? He opens his mouth, wanting to call out, but it is bone dry and his throat won’t work. He can hardly draw in a breath. Fear begins to set in as he tries desperately to move and yell, but can only move his eyes. His limbs feel as heavy as stone.
“He’s ready,” someone says. Jimin turns his head to stare straight up and comes face to face with Priest’s grizzled features. Ready for what? Jimin’s heart pounds frantically. “Prepare the knife.”
In a brief out-of-body frame, Jimin sees the men crowded around him, the women and children hanging back. What are they here for? Where is he? His surroundings, the sky, everything, is blindingly white. Is this outside? How did he get here?
Someone in the crowd begins chanting in Latin. Jimin doesn’t know what it means, but soon others join in, until he’s surrounded with the sound. It strikes an eerie chord in his chest. Jimin wants more than ever to struggle to his feet and run. People press in on all sides.
“You will make a beautiful gift,” Priest says, touching Jimin’s cheek with a knobbly finger. Jimin shivers at his touch. He want to recoil, pull free, but all he can do is lie still. Priest draws back, out of sight, and his image is replaced by the trajectory of a knife point, aiming toward Jimin’s throat. Jimin opens his mouth in a silent scream, the noise cut off by his closed throat, and the knife is coming down, down, down,
Jimin wakes to tangled sheets and clammy skin. He ignores his sweaty sheets in favor of clasping his hand to his overworked heart. No . The darkness of his room frightens him, but he would rather stay cloaked in it than return to the frightening brightness of his dream. Let it be chased from his mind. Is that what it will be like? Jimin shudders and clenches his fists around his sheets. The fear is still fresh to him. All he can see is the knife glinting in the light.
Lying back down, Jimin starts to rethink his choices.
Jimin expects to go to bed the next night and sleep through until the morning. It’s over. No deal, no escape. He’ll have to go through with the sacrifice. It is, after all, his holy duty. Is death so bad? If Jesus died for his followers, spent hours in agony on the cross, then Jimin can suffer what has to be at most a few minutes of pain. It pales in comparison.
Today he’d asked Eomma if it would hurt. She said she didn’t know, but she looked away uncomfortably, unable to meet his eyes. Jimin didn’t have to hear the words; her actions were enough to tell him what he needed to know.
Perhaps he was too impatient with Jungkook. He supposes a bit of fake patience would have been more effective, if dishonest. But he shouldn’t have had to put up with that condescending, arrogant jerk. Surely anyone would have been fed up. Then again, the price to pay is high. Without Jungkook...well, Jimin literally can’t live without him. How absurd.
He counts down. 26 days. His Date seems to have come up on him so suddenly. How did he live so pointlessly before, without a thought to the end? It’s hard to believe that almost eighteen years have passed in a heartbeat. The remaining time seems to be zipping by twice as fast. He feels loneliness, suddenly, lying alone in his room with neither Eomma nor Jungkook to keep him company. Has he really only seen Jungkook a few times? And did he ever realize just how much he cared for Eomma before it became apparent that he would someday be apart from her? It is a miracle Jimin manages to sleep at all.
Jimin wakes abruptly at some point and assumes reasonably that the morning has arrived. But when he opens his eyes, his room is still dark. Before he can regain his bearings, a rubescent light erupts before his eyes, illuminating a sober face with wide, earnest eyes. Jimin sucks in a breath, not as much startled as he is surprised. Surprise, after all, is shock without the fear. Perhaps he stopped being afraid once he realized Jungkook was a beastly child; calling him a man would be inaccurate, to say the least. Maybe even inappropriate. Jimin mumbles, voice rough, “What are you doing here?”
Jungkook, rather than stiffening in defense, sags. “I wanted to talk to you,” he admits. “It’s just a good thing I didn’t need your consent to come here. I have a feeling I’m unwelcome.”
“You are,” Jimin says tightly. “I thought I was a lost cause. No?”
Jungkook sighs, and looks for the first time properly 78. Not actually, but he does look like he’s seen some things in his lifetime that a 25-year-old wouldn’t have. Really, Jimin can’t imagine the things he’s seen as a demon. But it’s no excuse for being a righteous bastard. That’s right! Jimin pulled out the dreaded B-word. Oh, what a situation to be in!
“I may have gone overboard,” Jungkook offers in lieu of a proper apology. Jimin decides to be polite and let him finish. “But I do have emotions, you know. If I take it out on you, I’m sorry. Sometimes this job is a lot.”
“You’re a demon,” Jimin points out. “What feelings do you even have? You’ve been nothing but rude.”
“The same ones you do,” Jungkook says, twiddling his fingers in his lap. He looks oddly small in the candlelight. “I didn’t lose my compassion when I became a demon. If anything, my work has made me feel even more intensely. For what it’s worth, I was a human once.”
“Then why do you treat me callously?”
“I’m impatient.” Jungkook bites his lip and looks away. “You are right to be angry. My motivations are not selfless, not that I think you ever believed that. I’m so tired of this job. If I make a deal, I can go back to being human sooner. I need this to work as much as you do.”
“But why?” Jimin peers curiously at him, taken aback by his confession. “What’s so awful about being a demon? Aren’t you powerful?”
“It isn’t bad. It has its perks.” Jungkook sighs. “You stay young as long as you’re in service, if that’s something you want. You don’t have to eat or sleep. That means you don’t have to pay for housing or food. And we can’t die as long as we’re in service. Even if I was cut into tiny little pieces, my body would put itself back together. Some people would say that’s an advantage. No pain, no fear of harm, no sickness or injuries. You can even bargain if you’re willing to add a few years onto your sentence.”
“Then why do you want to leave?”
Jungkook presses his lips together and turns his head to the side, shut off. “It doesn’t matter.”
“No. No, there has to be something, or you wouldn’t keep coming back. You don’t just want to help me, you want something too. Tell me what it is.”
“I’m not allowed to influence you to make a deal. It’s a rule that clients have to make their decision free of coercion. We can’t lie, guilt, or blame.”
Jimin is stumped. He wants to know why Jungkook needs a deal. To shorten his sentence, sure―but what difference does a couple of years make? “I want to know,” Jimin says, frowning. Boy, Jungkook is turning out to be a real pain. If they continue this way, Jimin is sure they won’t cover everything he needs to know about the world outside of these walls.
“I have a family,” Jungkook says abruptly. “I have an eomma and an appa and a hyung. And I’d like to get back to them before they die.”
To be honest, Jimin has never really considered that Jungkook had a family like his own. In Jimin’s mind, he was just a demon. He was malicious and dangerous and otherworldly. But Jungkook had a family. Has a family. They’re out there somewhere, beyond Jimin’s village, out of sight but certainly not out of Jungkook’s mind. Jimin doesn’t like considering the implications of having to leave your family to be a demon.
“Do you get to see them?” Jimin asks.
“From afar.” Jungkook’s jaw remains sharp and tense. “I think it’s worse that way.”
“So that’s what you want,” Jimin concludes. “To see your family. Well, I can understand that. I don’t see why you’re incapable of being a decent human being.”
“Well, the first reason being that right now I’m not a human being.”
“A decent demon, then,” Jimin says, and then can’t help himself; the edges of his lips curl up into a smile. Jungkook, catching the irony, relents and smiles back. “You’ve been rather unpleasant to work with.”
“I know,” Jungkook says honestly, “and that’s why I came back. You don’t have to take a deal with me, Jimin. I just came back to say sorry for...all the nasty things I said. You’re not stupid and you’re not a lost cause. I shouldn’t have said those things. It was very unprofessional. If you want, this will be the last time I come here. You can go to the altar as is your right.”
Jimin should say that he wants to be sacrificed and given to God. But he doesn’t say it, or doesn’t want it. He just doesn’t, anyway. He has no introspective understanding of why he suddenly has a change of heart, and why he says, “I don’t want you to stop coming,” and clears his throat awkwardly. “I still don’t know if I want a deal or not. I don’t see the point in risking going to hell just for a few years on Earth. But―you need this, and maybe I do, too. I just haven’t decided.”
“Jimin, I’m serious,” Jungkook insists. “You don’t need to keep me around. There are―other people who want to make deals. People will literally go to demonic lengths to secure the things they want. If you wish to fulfill your religious duty, then do so. I won’t stand in your way this time.”
“But I don’t,” Jimin says, surprising himself; does he really not? “I’m afraid of death,” he declares, straightening his back and lifting his chin. He’ll either be square with his feelings or go to his grave a coward. “I’m afraid it’ll hurt and I’m afraid to go to Hell. I’m afraid of my father and want to see the outside. I want...I want to live.”
“I want to see my family,” Jungkook says.
“Maybe we can compromise,” Jimin suggests, and for the first time feels like he and Jungkook have something in common. In that moment, Jimin feels sure that they can work it out.
Even if he has to lose an arm in the process. If Jungkook wants to get back to the real world so badly, then it must be worth it. There must be something more than this.
“Hey, Jungkook,” Jimin says.
Jimin smiles. “Tell me why the world isn’t flat.”
Turns out, there was a man named Christopher Columbus from a place called Spain. Everyone around him said that the world was flat. Flat, they said, and you’d fall right off the edge if you went too far! Columbus had some unnatural premonition that the world might not, in fact, be flat. So he took a ship and set out to prove them wrong, and when he didn’t fall off the edge of the world into nothingness, everyone nodded and said, yes, the world must not be flat.
(This is not, in fact, true. But Jungkook doesn’t know about Ptolemy and the Greeks, and Jimin thinks the story of Columbus is perfectly reasonable. What is true, however, is that Columbus was severely mistaken about several things―namely, the difference between North America and India, and the fact that not only did he not discover Asia whatsoever, but did not even come close to North America. But Jimin doesn’t know this, and Jungkook doesn’t see the point in telling him that most humans in the outside world are idiots. Especially Americans.)
They talk longer that night than they have ever before. Jungkook recounts in earnest what he calls “Korean history”―Korea being the place they’re supposedly in. Jungkook tells him about continents and countries and states and cities and counties. Jimin didn’t know there were larger structures than just his village. Jungkook says that in some countries, there are billions of people. Jimin doesn’t even know how much a billion is, but Jungkook tells him it’s a lot. “If there are a hundred people in your village, it’s like, big enough for a hundred of your village. And then you could fit two of those mega-villages into the entire country. Maybe three.”
One billion is a lot, Jimin concludes. A lot. He didn’t even know there were that many people in the world. Jungkook rectifies Jimin’s knowledge of human history, too―apparently, there was no catastrophic plague. There are plenty of sinners left out there. It leaves Jimin wondering just how much misinformation he took to be the truth.
“I should tell Appa,” Jimin says, frowning.
Jungkook gives him a strange look. Jimin feels a little spotlighted. “Why?” he asks, tone conveying his disgust for the idea.
“Well, he’s got it wrong. I’m sure he’d like to know about the rest of the world, too.”
“Jimin,” Jungkook says with a grimace, putting a hand on Jimin’s knee, “he knows. He knows perfectly well what’s out there.”
Jimin shakes his head. He feels like there’s a fog in his mind. “That can’t be right. Why would he lie to me?”
“Because if you knew there were other people, you’d start to ask about them, and you’d realize your situation isn’t normal.” Jungkook leans away, likely anticipating an angry retort. Jimin immediately wants to snap that his situation is perfectly normal and defend himself, his family, but―he stops himself. Though it’s already difficult to wrap his head around the fact that people live outside of his village, so many of them, he timidly ventures a question.
“Why is my situation not normal?” He almost doesn’t want to hear it. It’s already difficult for him to imagine things differently from how he knew them. Jungkook might as well tell him that his entire life has just been a dream that he’ll wake up from any second. How is he supposed to believe in what Jungkook is saying―really, truly, believe? It’s not like he can see it for himself.
“The main difference is that nobody else keeps their children in basements and kills them when they turn eighteen. So, that’s pretty big.”
Wait. “But everyone in my village does it. And...it’s not killing, it’s sacrifice.”
“That’s a pretty word for killing,” Jungkook says, brow furrowing. “This isn’t a topic I want to talk about today. But believe me, your father knows a lot of things he won’t tell you. It’s just a tactic to keep you ignorant so you’ll make it to eighteen without wanting to leave. You ever hear about anyone wanting to leave?”
Jimin’s mouth goes dry. His stomach gives an unpleasant flip. The story. The red pencil, the boy, the wolves―it was just a story, but it sent a clear message. A threat, more like. You can’t leave. Wasn’t his father just warning him about God’s wrath, trying to make sure his son was pious enough to survive? Or was Appa threatening him with the consequences of betrayal? No. That’s simply too hard for Jimin to believe. Appa loves him.
Jimin falls asleep that night still wondering how many lies Appa has told him, and what would happen if he stopped believing all of them. What would the world look like to him then?
“How do you decide who goes to Hell and who goes to Heaven?” Jimin asks. His hand is starting to hurt under his head, but he makes no effort to move it. Jungkook lies parallel to him but in the opposite direction, socked feet by Jimin’s shoulders, just short of his pillow (Jimin told him emphatically that he would not stand for feet where he put his head at night). “I mean, does God decide? Or Satan?”
“God and Satan couldn’t care less about who we send to Heaven or Hell, so long as they behave themselves when they get there.”
“Then who decides?”
“There are, like, a hundred committees that work around the clock in shifts to sort through the people coming in. They look at how dirty your soul is, but they also look at your action records. Neutral actions don’t really show up. Then there are special cases, like when someone kills in self defense. There are certain...allowances for sin if there are extenuating circumstances.” Jungkook hums and taps his fingers along his collarbones. “Actually, even we have a hard time deciding what’s moral and what’s bad. We’re always arguing about that. You’ll find once you’re out in the real world that some people will think some things are perfectly fine and other people will detest those same things.”
Jimin thinks about how he would decide. Based on the Guidebook, of course! He says as much. Jungkook laughs and shakes his head. Jimin shuts up, flustered. “The thing is, all religious texts are written by men. Yes, even your Guidebook. God doesn’t have time to be writing massive texts. So then what do we do?”
Jimin, stumped, says, “Make rules?”
“Well, we do that. We have to have rules, otherwise one committee could decide to send someone evil to Heaven and send someone good to Hell. Obviously the clear-cut cases are easy, but most of them aren’t. Most people are quite ordinary. We need standards, or else the whole system could be corrupted.”
“Right, but how do you decide on the rules? Who gets to make them?”
Jungkook sits up and leans forward to tap Jimin’s nose with a grin. “That’s the question, isn’t it? There are some demons and some angels who are in charge of collaborating to make those rules. We want different things.” Jungkook lies back down and crosses his legs comfortably. “The problem is really getting them to compromise. It’s not unlike human politics. It’s very partisan.”
“Politics?” Jimin hasn’t heard that word before, nor has he heard partisan. “What’s that?”
Jungkook gasps. “I forgot to explain governments! I’ll tell you about it tomorrow. Politics is just...how countries rule themselves. There’s no ruler of the whole world, you see, so the point of dividing the world into different pieces is to make it easier to self-rule, if you see what I mean. It’s a lot of arguing and clashing opinions. At least, in some places. We’ll talk about democracy another day. Okay, back to the point. The rules have to be made based on some objective logic. I can’t just waltz into committee and say that I think it’s immoral to eat bread, and everyone who eats bread is going to Hell. Instead, we turn to ethics.”
“See, we used to just defer to the Greater Demons and Archangels to make rules. They’d poach people from each other. Say, I want to take this one to Hell. Or, I’m taking this one to Heaven. It was completely arbitrary. Humans were struggling with the same problem. What criteria should be used to define morals? How can we maximize happiness and minimize pain? So we started turning to humans for answers. They were writing all sorts of things about ethics. Some of it we threw out right away.”
Jimin can’t possibly take it in, but he’s curious, deathly so, and he asks, “What did you throw away?”
Jungkook kicks his feet a little, clearly excited. Jimin thinks it’s funny how eager he gets to ramble about things that Jimin didn’t even wonder about a week ago. “Well, utilitarianism, for one!”
“Which is...?” Jimin tries hard not to feel stupid. He has to be humble and absorb as much as he can while he has the time. Jungkook is actually good about explaining things to him. It’s difficult when Jimin knows nothing and Jungkook is, well, rough around the edges when it comes to being patient. But they’re still finding a balance.
“It’s based on utility, or usefulness. The concept is to take the action that results in the most utility. Maximize pleasure and minimize pain. I mean, that’s what we’re looking for anyway. But there are several key aspects that we had to discard. For instance, the end justifies the means. Have you heard that before?”
“I think Niccolo Machiavelli wrote about it in The Prince. It means that as long as there is a positive outcome, it doesn’t matter what lengths you go to to achieve that outcome. You could kill, rape, and torture if the outcome would be positive. The idea is that the action should only be taken if it produces as much utility as any other option, but still allows for really questionable acts. So that’s why we don’t use utilitarianism. Morals can’t be violated as a direct way of getting what you want. Doing something wrong, even for a good cause, is still wrong.”
Jimin feels like he understands, minus Machiavelli. “That sounds sensible.”
“Right. We argue a lot over self-defense and self-interest. How far do you think is okay to go in order to save yourself?”
“Life or death?” Jimin asks, tilting his head back. He’s never had to make these decisions. He supposes it’s mildly relevant. How far would Jimin go to get out of his sacrifice? Not far, probably. He still feels guilty doing so. But he can’t guarantee that he won’t panic when he gets to the altar and it finally sets in. Would he kill the priest if he could escape? That would be unforgivable. But would he even be thinking straight in the moment? “I don’t know. I guess, it’s too far to cause the death of someone else.”
“What if that person is incredibly evil? What if that person murdered dozens of other people?”
Jimin is about to say that then, it would be okay, because that person was clearly bad. But he stops himself in time, seeing the point. “I don’t know,” he hedges.
“That’s why it’s so hard to decide what actions are okay and what actions are not,” Jungkook explains. “Our emotions rule our judgment. We have to think logically. One of the more popular arguments is that altruism is not actually possible. Even though a lot of people think that being selfless is the moral thing to do, you can actually argue that there is no true altruism. Everything you do serves a personal gain. We do things because it helps us. People are supposed to have survival instincts, so it’s natural to want to do things that will work in our favor.”
“But what if you do something that won’t help you at all, or might even hurt you? Then isn’t that selfless?” Jimin doesn’t understand. The Guidebook says to be selfless. Altruism is a tenet of morality, and part of why Jimin has agreed to the sacrifice. It’s for his parents’ good. Altruism has to be real. He can’t accept that his own reasons might be selfish.
“No, because it affects how people see you, so you get a reputation boost. Plus, Abraham Lincoln―do you know who he is? Never mind, it’s not important. He had a discussion, supposedly, about altruism, while he was on a bus or something. The other guy asked him how he could say that altruism didn’t exist, blah blah blah. Then, they came to a stop and an old woman needed help crossing a road. That’s a thing you’re supposed to do in the real world, by the way. Anyway, Abe got out and helped her, and then the man asked why, since it didn’t help him and looked selfless. Abe replied that if he hadn’t, his conscience would have bothered him all day, and that by helping her, it helped him feel less guilty, and so it was selfish after all.”
“That’s...but that’s why we have consciences! So we do good things,” Jimin says emphatically, latching onto a hole in Jungkook’s argument. “Isn’t it kind of cyclical?”
“Yeah, but that means you’re only helping someone because your conscience will torture you otherwise. Because humans are unable to be selfless on their own, we’ve invented consciences from a sense of moral responsibility to help others in order to force ourselves to act outside of ourselves. And anyway, it isn’t some judgment on you or anyone else that we’re unable to be selfless. In fact, it excuses us.”
Jimin doesn’t like that. If he takes away selflessness, or what he supposed was selflessness, then what is left? Why does he do anything? Because I don’t want to go to Hell.
“That’s kind of tied in with Kantian duty ethics and ethical egoism. Immanuel Kant basically said that the only truly moral act is one you do out of a sense of duty or responsibility. No emotions are involved. If I saw a cat stuck in a tree and I felt upset and was moved to bring it down, it wouldn’t be moral, because it’s just me acting on my emotions. Instead, I’d have to act out of a feeling of duty, that it is my duty to rescue the cat. There’s more to it but I forgot. Ethical egoism is really more interesting, anyway. Have you heard of the Id, the Ego, and the Superego?”
“Do you think I have?” Jimin says, a little too sarcastically. Jungkook just rolls his eyes.
“You will once you get out of here. But the ego is yourself, more or less. So ethical egoism is about acting in a way that serves your own best interests, provided that it’s not actively malicious to anyone else.” Jungkook hums and taps his chin. “It plays off the idea that we can’t be selfless, and we’re naturally built to take care of ourselves first and foremost, so we should. But there are catches to egoism. Firstly, you have to practice it secretly. It cannot be publicized.”
“Wouldn’t it just make you look like a bad person?”
“No, that’s not the idea here. You’d have to practice it secretly because if everyone decided to act in their own self interest, then society would devolve into chaos, supposedly. There has to be some order, some rules that encourage people to live with a certain element of...amicability?”
“Of course we couldn’t just all act how we wanted. That’s common sense.”
“Well, that’s just the point. The other thing about ethical egoism is it’s self-defeating. Do you know what I mean?”
Jimin fixes him with a blank look. Of course he doesn’t. Jungkook might as well speak gibberish.
“You can tell me if this is all too much,” Jungkook says, picking up on Jimin’s stiff response. “I studied ethics a bit in college and then got even more into it after becoming a demon.”
“College?” Jimin echoes, trying to change the line of thought. Jungkook either doesn’t notice or is willing to play along to give Jimin’s brain a rest. Jimin is grateful either way. Jungkook has been throwing information at him left and right since their reconciliation, over-enthusiastic about giving Jimin a crash course in, well, everything. Jimin still can’t believe that some things he says are true.
Jungkook’s expression changes, lapsing out of his excitement. Jimin finds it difficult to place his mood. “Kids in the real world, they go to school all their life, pretty much,” Jungkook sighs. “It’s so you can learn...all the things I tell you. When you turn eighteen in the real world, you get to decide what you want to study. Until then you don’t get to choose. Oh, there are so many things to choose in college. You can be anything you want.”
“Like what?” Jimin can’t relate to what Jungkook is saying even a little bit. What would he be if he could be anything? Priest, maybe. There really aren’t that many different things to be, so what Jungkook is saying doesn’t quite click.
“I was an athlete.” Jungkook massages the bridge of his nose like he has a headache. Maybe he does. Do demons get headaches? “To be honest, I didn’t like school too much. I thought maybe I’d be a sports therapist, or something. But now that...I don’t have that, I wish I’d worked harder at school. I wish I’d realized how many options I had. Now I have none. It’s just the same old, every day.”
“What’s an athlete?” Jimin asks out of genuine curiosity.
“An athlete is someone who plays sports,” he explains. “You know, like, games?”
Jimin shakes his head. He knows sort of what games are (he is not allowed to play them, though he does sometimes try to see how high he can count and that’s a game, right?), but he doesn’t know what sports is.
“I forget sometimes that you’ve never been outside,” Jungkook confesses. “You play sports outside. You...compete. You want to win. You get points for doing...things right, I guess? And whoever has the most wins.”
“I don’t know. We just do it. Humans have been doing it for centuries. Even the ancient Maya―you don’t know them, do you?―they were doing it, too. It’s just fun. It keeps you healthy to get exercise.”
Exercise. Jungkook hurries to explain that it’s physical activity, moving around a lot, and that it has a lot of benefits for your wellbeing. Jimin suddenly feels very, very stationary. He can’t really move around too freely in his room. It’s never bothered him all that much. He occasionally feels restless, but he tends to sleep it off. One time he tried to see how long he could stand on his head, but his head started to hurt, so he stopped. Exercise. Another thing that happens outside, far out of his reach.
But outside, his father says, is dangerous. Outside, there are people and things who want to hurt him. Outside, there is corruption and sin. The fact that the only reason Jimin now yearns to go outside is because of the Devil’s work isn’t lost on him. But how can he be happy living in this room until all but his last hour? Why can’t he go outside just once? Would that be so perilous?
For all the stories he’s been told about God’s wrath and retribution, he doesn’t understand how the outside could be so ominous. He knows about the blue skies and green grass and that there are storms when God is angry, but he doesn’t know why he should be afraid of a little rain.
“I’ve never gone outside,” Jimin says.
“I know.” Jungkook squints at him. “I would go crazy in here. Why don’t you?”
Jimin can’t answer. “I’ve been here my whole life. I don’t know.” How can he yearn for something he’s never seen? Only now that he’s heard more, seen what Jungkook calls photographs, does he feel the need to leave the room, and even so, fear holds him back.
“Even when you were a baby?” Jungkook presses. “There’s no way your parents let you stay down here all by yourself when you were a baby. You would have needed to be taken care of. Weren’t you raised upstairs, or something?”
This, Jimin knows, because his father told him. He had spoken almost boastfully of it, of the family he had created. “No. My mother stayed down here with me until I was six. She visited me between meal times until I was old enough that she didn’t need to.” Jimin remembers flashes from the first part of his childhood during which his mother took care of him full time. He feels warmth at the memory like a hearth being set ablaze in his body. She was always gentle, brushing his hair and his teeth and bathing him. She would soap up his chubby arms and legs and scrub away the dirt on his back, and then rinse him off with warm water. From his own recollection and his mother’s reconstruction of the time, he knows the water was once cold. He was five when he came down with a fever in the winter and spent days huddled in his mother’s arms wrapped in all the blankets and clothes she had, shivering as she washed his forehead with a cold, wet cloth. He doesn’t remember all of it through his delirium, but his mother recounted with pride of how she stood up to Jimin’s father, perhaps one of the only times she did, and demanded that he allow them hot water so Jimin would stay healthy.
In general, Jimin has been healthy. He’s grateful for that; other firstborns and children born next in succession have died from mysterious illnesses before their time. Clearly, their parents had not prayed piously as they were supposed to; how lucky Jimin is that his parents love him and pray for him faithfully.
His thoughts circle around to the sacrifice and how he could betray his loving parents by trying to escape, but Jungkook interrupts, leading him back. “Did your mother choose that?”
“To live here with you rather than upstairs.”
Jimin frowns. “I guess. I’m not allowed upstairs.”
“You wouldn’t remember anything from a baby.”
“It’s not about that. It’s that I could be corrupted outside of this room.”
“Well, I’m here,” Jungkook points out. “This room isn’t exactly demon proof. No, I don’t think it’s about corruption, at least not the way you’ve been told. I think it’s because if you ever saw anything upstairs, you’d want to live like everyone else and you’d cop out of your sacrifice. The only way to convince someone to willingly go to their death is if there’s nothing else preferable. As long as your life is miserable down here, there’s no impetus to choose anything else but death. Especially once they guilt you into believing you’re their salvation.”
Jimin wants to argue against Jungkook’s words; he’s not completely convinced. But Jungkook does make sense. Jimin can follow his patterns and connect the dots. Is what he says true? Do they keep him sequestered because they can’t risk him wanting to live? But that makes sense if he’s their hope for God’s blessings. The highest form of obeisance, says his father, is giving away your own child, but if Abraham was willing to do it should God ask it of him, then he would overcome his pain and let Jimin go to God’s kingdom. And his father is very smart.
“They wouldn’t do that to me,” Jimin argues. His fists clench in his lap. If Jungkook is right, then his parents are—flawed, to say the least. He’s supposed to be protected, not tricked; he agreed when he was young, but how had he known he would be able to accept dying on his eighteenth birthday? Was that their intention, for him to not know what he was locking himself into? That just doesn’t line up with his image of his parents.
Jungkook can tell Jimin isn’t with him anymore. He stands then. “I think I should go for tonight,” he says, leaving Jimin to his worries. “I’ll be back soon. Do you know what else you want to learn?”
Jimin shakes his head mutely. He doesn’t know. He can’t even come to terms with most of the information he’s already been given, let alone think about more.
“I’ll think of something,” Jungkook promises.
But Jimin isn’t paying attention anymore.
Eomma comes in the morning with breakfast as she always does, but Jimin doesn’t feel the way he always does. He feels unsure, uneasy. He’s always loved her dearly, but could it be that she deceived him? It seemed to him that his parents must just not have known about the things Jungkook told him. But he can’t believe his mother was actively complicit in manipulating him. Was she? But she loves him.
Jimin picks at his food, bothered by the idea that his parents might have lied to him. Not misled him; Jimin isn’t interested in being euphemistic to defend them. Well, maybe he is. Lying is a bit of a strong word. After all, they surely didn’t intend to be oppressive. Or did they? Jimin’s head aches trying to sort through all the questions. His stomach is too unsettled to comfortably eat the nice food Eomma brought, and it isn’t long before she notices his subdual.
“What’s on your mind, Jiminie?” she asks, tipping his chin up with a smooth fingertip. Jimin looks up at her and meets her eyes, momentarily caught in the warm, familiar brown irises that he knows and trusts. Or trusted, anyway. “You’re so quiet this morning.”
“I didn’t sleep well,” Jimin says, and it isn’t a lie. He couldn’t have gotten a good night’s rest even if he wasn’t up half the night talking to Jungkook. No, he was too preoccupied with the revelations Jungkook was feeding him.
“Is there something keeping you up?” She brushes a strand of hair behind his ear, frowning with genuine concern. “Some noise? Are your sheets warm enough?”
“Everything’s fine,” Jimin assures her with a forced smile. “I guess I was just thinking too hard. I’m sorry.”
“What were you thinking about?”
Should he ask her? No, that wouldn’t be wise. What could she say, anyway? She certainly won’t admit to fooling him on purpose. Jimin recognizes the futility in trying to get honest answers out of his parents if they are indeed manipulating him. His mother’s touch doesn’t just unnerve him; it repulses him. Gently, he pushes her hand away. “It’s nothing,” he says with a veneer of fake calm. “Don’t worry about it.”
She seems disappointed and almost upset by his answer. Jimin just feels confused. “I hope you rest well today.”
She turns, and it’s then that Jimin sees the darkened shine on the underside of her jaw. He hadn’t noticed when they were level, but as she prepares to ascend the ladder, he notices and frowns. “Eomma, what happened here?” Jimin strokes the same place on his own face, mirroring her bruise.
Eomma smiles brightly, but her eyes wilt. Jimin wishes almost immediately he had ignored the mark. “It’s nothing for you to worry about,” she assures him. “I upset your father. You know how he is.”
Jimin knows. Quick to temper, but ultimately, nobody would challenge him. He wonders what his mother said, or did, to upset his father. “He shouldn’t have done that.”
Unconcerned, she waves him off. Humming to herself, she sets about clearing away Jimin’s dishes and loading it back into the basket. “I’ll tell your father you weren’t hungry.”
“Yes, do. Thank you. I’m sure I’ll be right as rain tomorrow.”
She pauses at the bottom of the ladder, one foot already on the first rung. “How is your back healing?”
Jimin reaches over his shoulder to touch one of the healing welts, barely even sore now thanks to the lotion she meticulously applied. “Just fine.”
That night, Appa comes down with dinner and a smile to offer. Jimin struggles not to let his turmoil show, afraid that he won’t be able to lie through his teeth when it comes to facing his father. How would he be able to explain what he’s been told? It didn’t magically come to him. Nothing does. He has to keep a secret, like that time he discovered a mouse in his room and tried to hide it so Appa wouldn’t take it away. Appa noticed the droppings by the wall and found it anyway, and Jimin never saw it again.
There’s meat again tonight, and Jimin eats well, though his appetite still wavers. But he might be hungry later in the night, and he doesn’t want to have to endure hunger waiting for the morning. Soon enough, he’s polished off his meal and drunk his milk.
“Would you like to choose a passage from the Guidebook to discuss?” Appa asks afterwards. Jimin opens his mouth to say no, but thinks better of it. Slowly, he rises to his feet and pads over to his bed. The Guidebook lies at the foot of his mattress, open to a page he was reading after lunch.
“I have been looking at this one,” Jimin says, passing the book to his father without changing the page. “Creation.”
His father clucks his tongue. “A good selection. Would you like to read a part that speaks to you?”
Jimin thinks he would. He scans down the page and finds where he wants to start, then begins to read out loud. “God imbued all his creations with equal worth. He intended for them all to have opportunities to achieve salvation in their own time. God loves His creations as a father loves his children; they are all valuable to Him. Their purposes are different, but they are all important in the greater picture.” Jimin clears his throat and then swallows. He needs to push this conversation in the right direction, but carefully, very carefully. If he goes wrong, it could easily end with him on his stomach and the belt slicing through the air.
He needs to be smart.
“That’s a powerful piece of text,” Appa murmurs, running his thumb across the page. “It’s one of the first we ever read. Do you remember?”
Jimin doesn’t remember, but he’s read every word in the Guidebook dozens of times over his lifetime. Some are stronger than others. This section, he always ignored. “Appa, all humans have equal worth according to the Guidebook, right?”
Appa nods as affirmation. “That’s right. That’s why we have to be the best servants to God that we can be. He loves us all and wants us to come to Heaven.”
“Appa, don’t be angry,” Jimin starts, turning his face and bracing himself, “but if we all have equal worth, then why do you hit Eomma?”
There is no blow. Jimin wonders momentarily if he’s building up to it, or if he doesn’t plan to punish Jimin for questioning his judgment. He hears his father sigh as if burdened, and relaxes slightly. “Jimin, there are things about life you will never understand. You are only a child. Do you think it is your place to ask me such things?”
He must be in a merciful mood. Jimin shakes his head, fearing repercussions for being so bold. “No, Appa. I just wish you would...help me understand the Guidebook’s words better. Please, enlighten me.”
Appa seems satisfied with his answer. Jimin exhales in relief, feeling as though he dodged a bullet. Everything must be worded just right in order to extort the information he wants and circumvent punishment. “I discipline your mother for the same reason that I discipline you,” he says evenly. “No person is perfect. We can try, but it is impossible. You are the purest of us all. I have raised you to be an obedient and pious son, and under my guidance, you have become a worthy gift for God.”
“But what’s wrong with Eomma?” Jimin can tell his father is trying to stray from the question, and it almost works, but he realizes that he’s begun to talk about Jimin, and not Eomma. Perhaps it’s relevant, after all. Still, he needs to get to the heart of the question. “For what do you discipline her?”
“She sometimes makes mistakes and strays from the light of God. These days, she has become good and obedient and follows the word of God closely. When she was younger, she was troublesome.”
“Did her parents raise her badly?”
“Yes. They had no idea how to raise a child correctly. They were wrong about many things, and as a result, your mother needed to be retaught how to behave. Luckily for you, I made sure you were raised right from the start.”
“Why didn’t the Elders step in and teach her?”
Appa purses his lips and tilts his head like he’s trying to size Jimin up. Jimin waits anxiously for the answer, uncertain whether or not his question offended somehow. “I suppose you should know this about her. She grew up outside of our village before the plague. I was able to save her from their ways and help guide her back to the light before it was too late, or she would have been wiped out with the other sinners. Of course, she still makes mistakes, and for those she must be punished in order to understand what she did wrong and change. Just as I have to punish you, though I hate doing so.”
Jimin’s chest feels tight. He doesn’t like when Appa talks about punishing Eomma as if she’s a disobedient child. “But how do you know that she’s wrong and you’re right?”
Appa smiles calmly, looking down at Jimin over the rims of his glasses. “Jimin-ah. You are only a child. Here, it says in the Guidebook that men must help their women and children become faithful servants of God by whatever means necessary. Am I not doing so?”
He is. Jimin shouldn’t have questioned him. He pushes the memory of the bruise on Eomma’s jaw to the back of his mind. Appa knows best. Of course, of course...
Jungkook splutters when Jimin recounts the day’s events to him. His eyes bulge and his cheeks go red. Jimin is mildly taken aback by his vehemence. “Are you insane? You believe that crap? Goodness, it’s like you’re living in the 18th century!” (Jimin doesn’t know what that means.) “That’s so archaic, and plus, there was no plague, remember?”
Jungkook’s brought pictures of different people and has scattered them about in his indignance. Jimin glances over them all. In one, there are women crowded in a circle with earthen dishes in their hands. Their hair is covered by cloth and they all wear large rings through their noses and a bright red dot on their foreheads. Their skin is very dark. In another, even darker skinned people with hair clipped close to their heads, male and female, traipse across an unfamiliar landscape of tan grass, wearing little in the way of clothes. Jimin is shocked to see the women’s breasts so brazenly on display. Eomma would never be so immodest. And then there are people with pasty pink-white skin and hair ranging from a pale yellow to as black as Jimin’s hair. There are dozens of pictures of people garbed in various ways with different facial features. He can’t make sense of it all. They all look so different, and yet Jimin looks so similar to his parents, and to Jungkook, and to Priest and the Elders and everyone he’s ever met. He didn’t know people could look like this. Their eyes, their hair, their skin, their clothing—why?
“Who are they?” he asks, peering closely at a picture of some people who look kind of like himself. They have light skin, though not as light as some of the other subjects, and eyes that come to a defined point at the corners and have no crease in the eyelid, and pitch-black hair. Yes, Jimin knows from his reflection in his bath water that he looks similar, just like everyone he knows does too.
“They’re people from all over the world,” Jungkook says, pausing mid-rant to help Jimin make sense of it. “They’re people from now, Jimin. There was no plague, remember? Remember? So how could your dad have saved your mother from the plague? All he did was take her.”
Jimin frowns, sensing the vitriol in Jungkook’s voice. It’s unwelcome. “He saved her.”
“No, he didn’t. If he did what he said he did, if he took her, then that’s―that’s wrong, Jimin! That must be why he had her stay down here with you.”
“He didn’t take her! They must have fallen in love, and then he taught her how to follow God. He did it to help her.” Jimin doesn’t understand, he doesn’t understand. What’s wrong about his father taking her, anyway? She’s fed and clothed and under a good roof here, and she loves Appa, and she loves Jimin. How would she have made it if she didn’t know to follow God?
Jungkook’s brow furrows deeply and his mouth makes a hard, unhappy line. “Okay, sure.”
Jimin knows Jungkook doesn’t believe a word he says. He tries harder anyway. “Appa is a good person. He knows what’s best.”
“Why? Because he’s a man?” Jungkook’s face draws tight and he turns away from Jimin, clearly upset. “All men think they’re right, huh? But I don’t believe for one second that your father is right about anything. In the real world, you can’t hit your husband or wife. It doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong. You can’t use physical force to get people to change or do what you want them to. It’s not right to hurt people.”
“But sometimes people need to learn that what they did was wrong.”
“Not in that way. There are always other ways. What does it teach? Think about it. When you do something wrong, and you get beaten, what do you learn?”
“I learn not to do it again,” Jimin says, confused by Jungkook’s train of thought. Why are these things wrong? Why can’t it be right?
“But do you learn why what you did was bad? Or do you just stop doing it because you know you’ll get hurt? If you start to associate pain with a certain action, you won’t do it, but it doesn’t teach you right from wrong.”
Jimin thinks hard about that. He doesn’t ask for certain things anymore. Why? Why can’t he ask questions about God? Because it’s blasphemous. And he gets hurt. Mostly...
Mostly because he gets hurt, and he’s afraid of that.
“Jimin, you need to think critically,” Jungkook says, his voice softening. “This, what you’re living in, what you’re a part of―it’s a cult. It’s religion all twisted up. I’m trying to get to the bottom of this pile of shit. I’m trying to figure out who’s in charge and what kind of messed up things are going on behind closed doors. But what’s happening is bad. It’s really bad. Remember how I told you I could feel all the negative energy, that your village was full of it? It’s teeming with negative energy like no place I’ve ever seen. Trust my supernatural instincts on this one. Stop believing everything your father tells you. Ask yourself every time he says something what other ulterior motives he might have. Don’t take anything at face value.”
“What if you’re wrong about...some things, or everything?” Jimin asks, gripping the sides of his head. Oh, how confusing everything is. He can’t trust anyone. Not his father, not his mother, not Jungkook. He can’t trust himself. He wishes Jungkook had never come.
“When you get out of here, you’ll see,” Jungkook promises. “If you think I lied to you...well, I’ll have your payment added onto my sentence. Think of it as a free refund. A warranty.”
Jimin doesn’t know what that means, but he senses that Jungkook means it. He nods. “Okay.”
“So we’re on for a deal?”
Jimin feels himself sinking deep into the swirling uncertainty that has been hovering around him ever since Jungkook showed up. “We’re on for a deal. But what do I give?”
Jungkook wiggles his fingers with a smile, a quick change in disposition. “I’ll tell you tomorrow,” he says, and then he flashes out like a flame in the rain.
“Eomma, what was life like before you met Appa?”
Jimin knows the question is perilously bold, even if his mother is lenient. If she really lived outside of the village before, then she holds information both precious and incriminating. She could tell him what the real world was like. She could tell him what his father is really like.
Eomma’s smile quivers and slips. She doesn’t move, but her voice is tight when she answers, “Did your father put you up to this?”
What? Jimin shakes his head fervently. If Appa knew he was asking such questions, he would be in so much trouble. “No, I swear!”
“Then why are you asking?”
Jimin bites his lip ashamedly. “Appa told me he saved you before the plague.” The plague that apparently didn’t happen, he adds in his head. But he doesn’t say that, because he has no idea what his mother will tell his father. “So you lived outside of the village. You know...”
Eomma stiffly turns from Jimin and busies herself making his bed, even though he never makes it himself. “I don’t know. I don’t remember. Finish your breakfast.”
“I want to know,” Jimin insists, refusing to back down. “I’m going to die in twenty days and I don’t want to die before knowing everything I can.”
“My life before the village...isn’t important. My life is here now.”
Jimin watches the way she smoothes back her braid and inhales jaggedly. His question caught her off guard, clearly; though her words seem processed, prepared, she also seems to fumble for them. Jimin gets the feeling that he’s tread on incredibly personal territory. But he needs to know.
“Whatever you tell me, I won’t tell Appa,” Jimin mumbles, hoping his gamble will pay off and she’ll keep his confidence too. “You can tell me...the truth.”
Eomma stands abruptly. “That is the truth. Whatever my life was before, I am happier here. Finish your food, Jimin.”
“You said I could ask you questions.”
“I didn’t mean about me. Are you going to eat, or should I go back upstairs?” Her tone is clipped, and Jimin can tell she has no intention of telling him what he wants to know. He can’t wrap his head around why she wouldn’t. Does she think he’ll snitch? Or does she genuinely prefer her life now? Well, Jimin doesn’t know what life is like outside of his room. Maybe it’s horrible. Maybe it really is better here, as long as you’re not a sacrifice. But would Jungkook really risk adding time to his sentence by lying to Jimin about life being better away from the village?
Jimin shuts up and eats his breakfast.
“You don’t look happy to see me,” Jungkook comments, with far more indignance than Jimin thinks he deserves to feel. But Jimin is apprehensive of tonight’s visit. He asked last night to be told what he has to give in order to break his date with death. He remembers the first options Jungkook suggested, and again wonders whether he’s really willing to go to such lengths. Will living really be worth it if he has to lose multiple limbs, or even one? Will it hurt? Will it be hard to do things without all his pieces?
No, Jimin is not exactly looking forward to their meeting.
“You said you’d tell me what I’d have to pay,” Jimin says seriously, unwilling to put it off. He wants to know. The curiosity is eating him away. He might regret it after he hears the price. “So you’ve thought of something?”
“I’ve discussed it with my superiors, and we think it would be appropriate for you to spend a month burning alive in the fire pits,” Jungkook says nonchalantly.
Jimin suddenly thinks that going to his death at the altar is, perhaps, not the worst possible thing that could happen. “A-are you serious?” he stutters, his skin breaking out in goosebumps at the mere thought. That―that sounds dreadful!
“No, I’m kidding about that,” Jungkook concedes with a good-natured grin that irks Jimin more than anything, really, but he is relieved to hear that he won’t have to endure immolation as his payment. His relief is quickly dampened by the realization that his actual payment could be even less palatable.
“This isn’t a joking matter,” Jimin says testily, tensing his shoulders. His heart is pounding. He doesn’t know what to expect, but humor is rather unwelcome. After all, it’s his future at stake now. “Tell me. You said you would. I need to know.”
Jungkook’s snicker dies off. He nods once, then twice, and clears his throat. Jimin exhales heavily, preparing himself for the real answer this time. Jungkook motions for Jimin to sit down on the mattress, and after a brief moment’s hesitation, he obeys. The mattress springs squeak under Jimin’s weight; Jimin looks up at Jungkook, who promptly sits down next to him. “That’s better, isn’t it,” Jungkook murmurs to himself. He folds his hands in his lap. “Ah, Jimin, you should know―I really tried my best with this one. I spent a lot of time bargaining in your favor. It’s not easy to negotiate with Greater Demons, you know. That’s why it took me so long. I had to go up the chain. I hope that you will be satisfied with my efforts.”
Jimin doesn’t know how to respond without knowing first what the fruits of Jungkook’s labor are. “Tell me,” he repeats.
Jungkook sighs and stretches his legs out in front of him, slanting off the mattress, heels propped against the ground. “It was agreed upon that should you take this deal, if you decide you want to get out of your sacrifice, you would serve ten years as a deals demon.”
Jimin isn’t completely horrified, but he’s hardly pleased. Still, he knew that whatever price he might pay, it would not be pleasant. The whole point of a deal is to give up something. And he at least gets to keep all his limbs, so that’s a selling point, quite honestly. But―
“What does it mean, exactly?” Jimin almost whispers. Jungkook did tell him a bit about the different demons, but what is it like? Does it feel like being human? Is it dangerous? What does he have to do?
“It’s not so bad,” Jungkook says softly. Jimin thinks he’s trying to be soothing, but nothing could honestly make Jimin feel less anxious. “You actually...you don’t need to eat or sleep. It...at first, you’ll keep feeling like you need to go to bed, because you haven’t slept in days, or you’ll move toward food without thinking because it looks good. You can nap if you want to, but it doesn’t feel like anything. You never get tired. Eventually you’ll stop trying to get something out of it. It just wastes time you could be spending making deals. And―sometimes, you get drawn toward the smell of a pastry or coffee or something you used to love, like a memory? But it’ll make you sick. Demon bodies aren’t made for material purposes. After a while, you just sort of...forget that you used to drink coffee every morning or sleep at midnight. You never die or get sick or hurt because your physical form is immunized to Earthly forms of harm, though you can still be punished by the Greater Demons if you transgress. It can be boring, but it isn’t all bad.” Jungkook looks wistfully at his hands in his lap. “I guess it’s good to be free from material problems, even if I do miss some things.”
Jimin catches the change at the end. Jungkook referred to himself. I. Jimin considers making note of it, but decides that it would do no good to point it out. Instead, he asks, “Why did you become a demon?”
Jungkook wets his bottom lip and his expression pulls into one of displeasure. “Same as you. I made a deal.” Jimin figured as much. He imagines Jungkook committing some terrible sin and trying to get out of the consequences by serving time for the Devil.
Intrigued, Jimin watches him closely, searching his face for a read into his emotions. “How long did you say you’ve been a demon?”
“23 years.” Jungkook says so almost reluctantly, but the number sinks in for Jimin. He must have done something terrible to have lived so long as a demon. Jimin is only getting ten, and that’s for his life, no less. “23 long years, and counting.” Jungkook smiles without mirth and shakes his head. “Be grateful I got you ten.”
Jimin folds his hands in his lap. “I’m sorry,” he says, but for what, he doesn’t quite know. “Thank you.”
“It’s ten years of my sentence,” Jungkook adds abruptly, blinking rapidly and turning away. Jimin frowns. “Well, you would have gotten ten anyway. It just works out better for me this way.”
Selfish . Jimin thinks it to himself, and then says it out loud. “Glad to see you got something out of this too,” he remarks testily.
Jungkook’s eyes flick sharply towards Jimin, narrowed and, without a doubt, unfriendly. “I thought we established altruism doesn’t exist.”
It rubs Jimin the wrong way that Jungkook managed to manipulate the situation in his favor. “I know you had ulterior motives. You were perfectly clear about that. But you obviously used me to further your own agenda. How do I know you didn’t ask―whoever is in charge to let me take more years off your sentence for you?”
“I didn’t,” Jungkook says, his tone unforgiving. He glares at Jimin, anger sparking from his eyes. Jimin shivers, sensing the strength of his anger and afraid to make things worse by speaking. “You have no idea, Jimin, you―you know what they offered me? I could have gotten eighteen years taken off my sentence, eighteen years for the life span you would have given for God, and transferred to yours. I’d only have to spend two more years here. But I asked for a ten-ten split. I spend ten more years here and you spend eight less than you could have if I’d have been a little more selfish. Fuck you for thinking I did this just for me.”
Jimin is silent. He can’t say what he expected Jungkook to say, but it was none of that. Eight years is a long time. Eight years, Jungkook chose to take so Jimin wouldn’t have to. But why?
“Why did they offer to take it off your sentence?” Jimin ventures timidly. He twists his fingers together, head ducked so Jungkook can’t catch his gaze. He shouldn’t have assumed. They haven’t had a spat since almost parting ways entirely, and he’s not eager to push Jungkook away now that he’s fully bought into this deal business.
Jungkook side-eyes him warily. “I’ve been submitting appeal after appeal and working as hard as I could to get my sentence commuted. Either they’re sick of the paperwork or sick of my complaining. But I’m getting out of here, one way or another.”
“You could have only done two and not told me.”
Jungkook nods. “I could have.”
“Eight years is a big difference.”
“Ten years or two feels the same in this job,” Jungkook says with a resigned shrug. “It’s just the real world that keeps changing no matter how long you’re gone. It’s what’s outside of yourself that moves on without you.”
“Why do you want to get out so badly?”
Jungkook smiles bitterly and leans back, bracing his hands on the mattress behind himself. “Same reason I got in.”
Here it is. Jimin’s opportunity to find out what he did that he needed to get out of. Did he kill someone? Is that why he spent so much time serving? Did he commit a major sin―lust, pride, envy? Did he find himself facing death the way Jimin is now? Jimin musters up his courage. “What―what did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“Then why did you become a demon?”
“Because I struck a deal, just like the one I’m striking with you.” Jungkook laughs to himself. “I was stupid, though. I didn’t even bargain. I didn’t know I could bargain. The demon I used didn’t give me a choice. She told me what I wanted would cost me eighty years, an entire human lifespan. She wanted out of her own sentence. I didn’t know that. I was desperate, so I said yes.”
Goodness gracious. Eighty years? What on Earth made Jungkook agree to that? “You regret it?”
Jungkook spits, “ Hell no. I would do the same a million times over.” Jungkook clears his throat and looks off to the side, his face pinched. “I know what you’re thinking, you know. That I must have made some big mistakes to make a deal that big. Eighty years, I didn’t even hesitate. I didn’t ask any of the questions you did.”
“I didn’t say that,” Jimin says, but feels guilty for thinking it.
Jimin has never seen Jungkook look sadder than when he says, “It wasn’t for me. It was for my daughter. Jiyeon.” His eyes look bright in the candlelight, wet and starry. Jimin holds his breath, startled. Jungkook had a child? But he’s young, or stuck young, at least. “I did it for her. I would have served for the rest of eternity if it meant she got to live.”
“You had a daughter?” Jimin says quietly, ashamed that he had assumed Jungkook had done something bad to have gotten himself into this situation. It never occurred to him that Jungkook was doing it for someone else. It sounds like a noble thing. Jimin never imagined Jungkook was noble at all. After all, he was just a demon to Jimin. Jimin feels like a fool for being so wrong, so quick to judge his character. Not only did he sacrifice many years for someone he loved, but he gave up the chance to leave his service sooner so Jimin would not have to suffer a long sentence.
“When I was 23, in my first year of graduate school, I slept with my girlfriend of the time and ended up having a kid out of it. I was kind of an idiot. I didn’t even want her to keep the kid. I liked having no responsibility and doing what I wanted, and I certainly wasn’t ready to settle down and be responsible for another person’s life. I mean, I don’t even like kids. I spent months dreading her arrival, but the first time I held her, the only thing I could think of was that I’d do anything for her.” Jungkook smiles without resentment, his entire demeanor softening at the memory. “Because she was mine, you know. Jiyeon cried like an ugly little ghoul when she was born. Like, her face was all scrunched up and her skin was blotchy and she screamed and screamed. But when they put her in my arms and I started rocking her, she just stopped. She looked at me like I was everything. She derailed my life as I’d planned it, but she was also incredible. I know it’s ridiculous, but there’s nothing better than...than looking at someone and knowing you helped create them, knowing you’re their whole world. Suddenly I didn’t mind that I couldn’t go to school or that I had to work long hours or that I couldn’t sleep through the night for the first year. I felt like it would be worth it, to suffer, for her sake.”
“That’s not ridiculous,” Jimin says, surprised. The story humanizes Jungkook in a visceral way. Jimin is hit by the realization that Jungkook was someone once. He was a person with a life and a family. He was real. And it makes sense now that Jungkook would agree to a lifetime’s worth of labor for her. But― “What happened, then? How come you had to make a deal?”
Just like that, the echo of love drains from Jungkook’s face, replaced by something like fury, but he keeps his voice steady when he answers. “Jiyeon got sick when she was about two. She came down with a fever one night and we didn’t know what to do. We weren’t well off. I was a washed-up athlete with no career path. Even working two jobs wasn’t enough. We should have taken her to the hospital, but we thought it would go away with some cold medicine, and we had to think about money. It didn’t go away and she kept getting sicker and eventually we took her to the hospital after all. They told us she had meningitis. You probably don’t know what that is, right?”
Jimin shakes his head, unable to verbalize any response. He simply remains quiet and lets Jungkook continue.
“It’s an inflammation of the brain,” Jungkook explains, tapping his temple, “up here. A lot of kids die from it. It’s―it’s the worst thing you can imagine happening to your child.” Jungkook’s voice cracks, but he clears his throat and goes on. “Well, if we’d taken her in sooner, they might have been able to fix it. But by the time we broke down and brought her, the chances of her recovering were really, really small. They told us that she’d probably die from it. I told you, I knew when I looked into her eyes for the first time that I would do anything for her. I thought later on that I’d been dramatic. But standing in the hallway, looking through the window where she was hooked up to a bunch of machines that were all bigger than her, and hearing that she wouldn’t live, I got that same feeling again. I really would have done anything for her. First I prayed, but she just got worse through the night, so I banked on a far-fetched idea and drove out to the nearest crossroad. I made a deal. As long as Jiyeon was meant to live, I would serve. She could go to school, graduate college, get her dream job, get married, grow old. She could live. And I, I would sacrifice eighty years so she could have those things.”
“I’m sorry,” Jimin whispers. How selfish he is! He’s desperate to save himself, yet unwilling to accept more painful forms of payment, but Jungkook didn’t even think before giving away a life’s worth of time in order to save his child. He isn’t sure what to say. It doesn’t feel like any of the words he thinks of would help.
“I’m not,” Jungkook says without pause. “I told you, I’d do it again, every time.”
“Isn’t...” Jimin scoots closer to Jungkook on the mattress, feeling the urge to comfort him somehow. Jungkook looks at him with eyebrows raised. “Isn’t that proof that altruism does exist after all? You did something...really selfless for your daughter.”
Jungkook shakes his head. “Just the opposite. If Jiyeon had died, I would have had to live with the unbearable pain of her loss for the rest of my life. At least this way, I won’t have to feel that grief.”
Jimin understands that, at least, but he isn’t sure it makes Jungkook selfish. He thinks, maybe, that Jungkook’s cynicism is more convincing to himself than it is to Jimin. But whatever purpose it serves him, Jimin lets it rest.
“I’m sorry,” Jimin says again. “I didn’t know.”
Jungkook straightens up and brushes off the apology. “That’s why they’re letting me go early, I think. So I can see her before she dies. It’s why I came here, too.”
“Oh?” Jimin bites the side of his tongue. “Is that so?”
“It pisses me off how your dad treats you,” Jungkook confesses. “My parents... I would never hit a child. Even for discipline. I don’t usually take personal cases if I can help it, but as soon as I started looking into your house, I couldn’t stop myself.”
Jimin can’t quite place it, but there’s a certain warmth in his feeling toward Jungkook right now; he thought him suspicious before, but he finally is starting to trust the other. He feels oddly touched, too. Quietly, meekly, he reaches out to put his hand over Jungkook’s. “Thank you,” Jimin says, a flush rising in his cheeks. “I was skeptical for a long time, but I think...if your love led you to sacrifice so much, then living must really be worth it.” Jungkook blinks at him in bewilderment. “It is worth it?”
Jungkook beams, grasping Jimin’s hand in both of his. “I swear on my life, it’s worth it,” he says. “It can be painful and difficult, but I know, Jimin, you’ll think it’s worth it.”
They start planning an escape route the next night. Jimin grows increasingly antsy during the day, standing at the window on the edge of his mattress and squinting hard as if the landscape might miraculously make itself known to him. It’s infuriating now. He feels cramped, claustrophobic. He can’t stand to think that he has to live 19 more days in here. But he’ll have to be patient.
“Can’t you just, you know, magic me out of here?” Jimin begs, lying on his stomach with his hands under his chin. Jungkook laughs, shaking his head.
“Sorry. I can’t transport humans. The amount of energy it would take is nearly impossible for anyone other than a Greater Demon. We’ll have to be smarter than that.”
“Could you get into my house and open all the doors?”
“Thought about that.” Jungkook is clearly prepared. “The basement is located under a room in the back of the house. Your parents sleep in a room along the hallway with their door open, so you’d have to walk right past them. Not to mention, the deadbolts are noisy and the hinges on the trapdoor creak. They’d certainly wake up. And your house is located in the middle of the village. Sneaking out, even at night, would be difficult.”
Jimin hadn’t realized it would be such a colossal task to leave. Stumped, he goes back to the drawing board. The window is quite obviously too small to fit through. So then, how can he get out of here?
“Can’t you pull some supernatural stunt, or something?” Jimin says with a sigh. There has to be a way.
“Well, the deal only ensures that you won’t be killed at your sacrifice,” Jungkook says apologetically, patting his shoulder. “So, no matter what, you’ll be safe. The problem is getting you out of there. It doesn’t prevent them from locking you back up for the rest of your life.”
“Comforting,” Jimin grumbles.
Jungkook flicks his shoulder. “Your ingratitude stifles me,” he exclaims. “You know, for a kid who’s lived in isolation his whole life, you’re awfully sarcastic. Who taught you how to be sarcastic?”
“You did!” Jimin glares and puts his hands on his hips. “Before you came, I was a saint! My goodness, if my parents notice how insolent I’m getting, I’m going to be beaten for days. And I’ll have nobody to blame but you.”
“Don’t joke about that! It isn’t funny.” Jungkook pouts, folding his arms over his chest. “I’m trying to save your life. Plus, sarcasm is a form of humor. You’re going to need it in this job or else you’ll go nuts.”
Jungkook brought a pack of cards with him tonight. Jimin has never seen them before, and as Jungkook explains the different suits and colors, he tries diligently to focus. Jungkook says they’re going to play a game called “Go Fish.” Jimin isn’t sure he understands the rules, even though Jungkook insists it’s the easiest card game out there. Jimin clumsily holds all his cards in both his hands until Jungkook reaches forward and shows him how to fan it out properly.
“Do you have a 6?” Jungkook asks. Jimin has two 6s and hands them both over. “Has anyone ever escaped before, to your knowledge?”
“No, not that I know, but I don’t think they would have told me if someone had. Can I have my 6s back?”
“No, you may not. You have to actually have the card to ask for it, and I know for a fact you just gave me yours. Pick again.”
Jimin sulks, peering at his cards again. “Okay, can I have an A?”
“It’s called an ace, and I don’t have one. Go Fish. So you don’t think anyone has ever tried to get out of here?”
Jimin picks a card from the deck and adds it to his own, struggling not to drop any of them. He’s never had to use this much coordination in his hands before. He thinks about Jungkook’s question. And―oh. Maybe?
“Appa told me a story,” he says slowly, putting his cards down for a moment to think. “He told me a story about a boy who was like me. I mean, a firstborn. And he supposedly started asking too many questions and decided to try and escape. Appa said God sent a pack of wolves to tear him apart and he died. I guess it might have been a true story.”
“There are no wolves in this area,” Jungkook informs him with a frown of suspicion. “Perhaps it was just a story.”
“Or maybe God just...snapped His fingers and made some appear. It’s your turn.”
“I don’t think God does that sort of thing, though,” Jungkook insists as he draws a new card. “He’s not really vengeful like that, and I don’t think he’d care about a kid trying to run away from death. So either it’s just a story, or...”
“Or what?” Jimin puts down his cards again, his stomach turning a bit. What is Jungkook trying to say, anyway? The memory of the story sends chills down his spine. If Appa was trying to warn him off of escaping, it worked, more or less. The idea of being torn apart by wolves is less than appealing.
“Are you sure he wasn’t real?” Jungkook taps his cards against his chin, looking upward as if the answer is above his head. “Maybe it was a real story that he just...twisted a bit.”
“I don’t know. He tells me a lot of stories that I think he makes up. I used to really like hearing them.” Jimin bites his lower lip, uneasy. “If he was real, then what happened to him?”
“Well, maybe your people killed him for trying to run away. Or maybe...maybe he didn’t die at all. Maybe your father said that to make sure you got his message. All stories have a bit of truth to them, right?”
“I don’t know.” Jimin is lost at this point. “In any case, you said there are...jillions of people in the world. He could be anywhere.”
“Seven billion.” Jungkook nods. “But he’d be Korean, South Korean, and probably...I bet he wouldn’t have much of a record until―how old was he? 18? That narrows down the pool of people. Do you remember the boy’s name?”
Jimin racks his brain to remember. But he comes up blank. “I don’t think he had one. He was just...nameless. Faceless.”
“Maybe you could ask your father what the boy’s name was? Ask him to tell it to you again? If he was real, then that could help us. You think you could do that? Also, do you have any Jacks?”
“The J cards? Yeah, here.” Jimin hands Jungkook a card and sighs. “I guess I can ask. But do you really think he’s out there still? What if he escaped...a hundred years ago? He could be dead.”
“I doubt your cult has been going on that long. No, he’s probably still out there. I’ll try and think of how to break you out, but if you could just get me his name, I could try and find him. Maybe he can help.”
Jimin agrees to ask. He also loses Go Fish. He doesn’t mind, because he likes Jungkook’s company, and Jungkook’s teasing isn’t the worst thing in the world.
Namjoon. His name is Namjoon. Appa tells him with no preamble, no questions asked, as he retells the story. Kim Namjoon, the boy who got away. Jimin nods along to the story and lets it unfold as he remembers, only now he wonders―how much of it is a lie? When he spits out the required he deserved to suffer for his mistake, he feels chilled to the bone. Would his father kill him anyway were he to ask for mercy and take his leave of the village? His father feels treacherous to him now. He wonders why he didn’t see it before.
He was blinded to his father’s faults before. The more Jungkook hammers it into him, the more he starts to think that perhaps his father’s style of discipline was a bit overboard at times. It was certainly painful and upsetting; Jimin felt emotionally fragile in the aftermath as his father repeated in soothing tones that he’d had to, he didn’t want to, but it hurt him more than it hurt Jimin, and it was for the best. A hand stroking his shoulder, wiping away Jimin’s bewildered tears. The fuzziness that buzzed in his head for at least a day afterwards, and the time it took for Jimin to stop flinching back after each punishment. Perhaps, it was from a place of genuine concern and love. But it hurt. Outside, and inside. He takes it better now that he’s older, but as a child, kneeling on frozen peas for half an hour or not being allowed food for a whole day felt like betrayal in the worst sense.
But it’s hard to view his father differently from how he has the rest of his life. It hasn’t changed overnight. As for his mother, he has no grasp on how involved she is. He clings to the fact that she never touched him without gentleness, so as she is complicit by not intervening, he can forgive that much. He can understand her own fear.
Jungkook teaches Jimin about government and money and human biology. Jimin didn’t know there was so much inside of himself. They play games sometimes, but Jimin likes best when he starts to get sleepy and lies down with Jungkook sitting up next to him, telling him stories of his life as a human and occasionally, when he thinks Jimin has already drifted off, singing the softest lullabies.
Jimin never expected him to have such a gentle voice.
A couple days later, Jungkook comes back with news. Jimin almost forgot that they still had to plan his escape. To his utter and complete shock, Jungkook tosses down a couple of photos of a young man with unnatural blond hair, tanned brown skin, and full features. His ears are pierced and his eyes stare into the camera with such heat that Jimin is surprised the camera didn’t just melt. He looks fearful.
“That’s Kim Namjoon,” Jungkook says breathlessly, planting a finger right on his face, obscuring it from view. “He’s real, and surprisingly willing to believe I’m a demon. Of course, disappearing and appearing right in front of him helped get him believing.”
Jimin picks up one of the glossy pictures, eyes wide; the boy is real? He looks nothing like Jimin. Why had the drawings of him resembled Jimin? Was it bad artistry, his father trying to make his message personal, or simply his fearful mind suggesting the similarity? Dismayed, he says, “There were no wolves at all.”
“Not a single one. Kim Namjoon is 31 and he is alive and well. He’s living in Ilsan a few hours away from here. He ran away from this village 17 years ago when he was 14, long before his sacrifice was meant to take place. As for his escape, he was conveniently not locked in a basement his entire life. He seemed to think they must have implemented that after his getaway as an extra security measure. He also says he tried telling the police about the cult, but that they dismissed it on the grounds that there was no evidence of anything illegal happening. Apparently the officers they sent out to inspect the area didn’t turn anything up. I don’t doubt your elders did everything in their power to conceal all illicit activity. And that also means that they were well aware there was no plague.”
Jimin listens in what can best be described as shock, but feels viscerally sickening. Kim Namjoon must have left shortly after Jimin’s birth. If he hadn’t run away, would Jimin have grown up above the basement? Still destined for the altar, but aware of the world he lived in? Had Appa decided to keep Jimin downstairs simply because of one runaway incident?
“He wasn’t happy to see me,” Jungkook continues, softer this time. “I don’t blame him. He has no interest in seeing his family or anyone he knew from this village ever again. He’s spent a long time trying to forget about his childhood and assimilate into the real world. He’s been in and out of foster care, gone to some rather prestigious schools despite his lack of early education, and currently works happily at a desk job. He was not thrilled when I asked him to help get you out. But...”
“But?” Jimin perks up, heart racing. The first part of Jungkook’s narrative sounded unpromising; if Namjoon had run away, why would he want to return, or have anything to do with his past? But!
“But he agreed to try and help. He’s got a friend in the police force he called while I was there. They’ll extract you on the day of your sacrifice. When you meet Namjoon-ssi, some groveling might be in order.”
“I’ll kiss his feet if I can get out of here,” Jimin breathes. Oh, he’s afraid. What if the police don’t show up? Can he trust the police? What if they come too late? Anxiety ties knots in his stomach. “You’re sure they’ll come?”
“Jimin, the deal makes sure you won’t die,” Jungkook reminds him gently, laying a hand on his shoulder. “As long as they come, you’ll be okay. I promise I’ll get you out of here. Then we can part ways until you get collected to do your time.”
Jimin swallows hard. Fear wraps itself tightly around his throat like a fist. So much could go wrong on the day. None of it feels foolproof. “How can I be sure I won’t die?”
“It’s divine intervention, if you will. No matter how hard they bring down the knife, it won’t go through your skin.”
“So it’s not just...you protecting me? It literally can’t happen?”
“That’s right. It can’t happen. But don’t worry, okay? I’ll be right with you the whole day. Nobody will harm you.” Jungkook’s eyes are earnest and warm as he locks gazes with Jimin. “Just as I protected Jiyeon, I’m going to protect you.”
Jimin’s heart swells. “But she’s your daughter,” he mumbles. “I’m just your client.”
“Hey, I didn’t say I love you as much,” Jungkook scoffs, jostling him. “I just said I’d protect you.”
Regardless of Jungkook’s intention, it manages to soothe Jimin. Jimin thought before that he’d rather have an efficient demon than one who was emotional and a chronic procrastinator. But he’s grateful for the strangely intimate moments where he feels less alone, knowing Jungkook is doing more than his job requires. He doesn’t have to play card games and tell jokes and sing Jimin to sleep. But this last week, he has.
Now there’s only a week and a half left until Jimin’s Date, and Jimin feels just a little less terrified knowing Jungkook is trying his best to get him through it. It doesn’t take away the fear that it somehow won’t work out and Jimin will end up on the chopping block with his throat cut open, but, well, it’s better than dealing with it alone.
“I can feel your soul getting sappy,” Jungkook mutters, a flush rising in his cheeks as he turns away.
“I can’t help it,” Jimin says, taking his hand and beaming. “You’ve been wonderful. I mean, aside from the hell you put me through in the beginning. Am I allowed to say Hell around you? What about God?”
“Yes, yes, it’s fine.” Jungkook groans and rubs his head. “You’re still a damn headache, though. I doubt that’ll ever change.”
“Shockingly, I’m not even offended. In fact, I think I’m endeared. Are you teasing me? Is this the good teasing you told me about? Are you fond of me?”
“Maybe a little,” Jungkook says, thrusting his shoulders back. “You can’t help getting attached to people that you’re stuck with for a month. Shut up, though, you’re really going to give me a headache. Anyway, there’s no reason for me to stay now that everything is sorted. I think I’ll pop out and let you get some sleep for the first time in weeks. Get rid of those bags under your eyes.”
“Please stay a bit,” Jimin wheedles, plopping down on his mattress and lying back. He adjusts the pillow under his head. “D’you mind telling me another story?”
Secretly, Jimin is hoping he’ll sing if he runs out of stories.
“I guess I have nothing better to do,” Jungkook sighs, rolling his eyes and sitting next to Jimin. “But you have to try and sleep, do you hear me? It would be good for you to get some rest before the big day. I need you as alert as possible.”
Jimin bats his eyelashes. “Of course. I’m a good boy.”
“Good boy, my ass,” Jungkook grunts, but he doesn’t say much more. “Okay, let me tell you about the time my older brother convinced me to jump off the roof to see if I could fly.”
It seems like a dark twist of fate that Jimin gets bad news the very next day.
Appa comes for breakfast, which already gets Jimin’s hackles up. He never comes for breakfast unless it’s with the intent to punish, but this time, Jimin doesn’t know what he did wrong. He waits with bated breath as Appa climbs down the ladder with a basket of food in hand. He isn’t wearing a belt today. Perhaps he’ll use the matches by Jimin’s mattress?
“Good morning, Jimin,” Appa greets him cheerily, not a trace of storm in his face. “Blessed be the sun and the fruit it bears.”
“Blessed be,” Jimin echoes nervously. “This is a surprise. Not that I am displeased to see you, Appa, but...is Eomma sick?”
“Your Eomma is wonderful, just wonderful. There is no need to fret over her; she is just fine. You can relax. I came to bear good news.”
Jimin’s eyebrows raise. He hadn’t been expecting news of any sort. There are nine days left until he doesn’t die according to plan, and at this point, any news or change seems ominous at best. “Please, enlighten me,” he says softly.
“Well, I must confess my news is twofold. The fields have been yielding fewer crops recently, which is terribly concerning. We intended to go on as always and pray for better yields in the coming weeks. But last night, Elder Lee had a vision. God told him through the vision that a sacrifice will end this blight and bring even greater prosperity to our village. Seeing as your Date is so close, we consulted the stars, and the Elders all agreed that to advance your Date by a week would be most auspicious. You will bring honor not only to our family, but the whole village. Your Date is now in two days, and you will be serving an even higher purpose. Is that not wonderful?”
Jimin thinks he might be having a heart attack. Jungkook told him about those. His chest feels tight and his skin is hot and sweaty and he feels something akin to indigestion. He could not have possibly imagined worse news at this point. But he realizes quickly that he’s supposed to express delight at the announcement.
“That’s...wonderful,” Jimin echoes with a forced smile. He can barely keep it on his face. It is most definitely not wonderful. “Ah...I am honored. Thank you.”
He has to get this news to Jungkook as soon as possible. The plan will have to be changed, and fast. Two days is not much time to get something together, but they’ll have to put their heads together and make some fast decisions. He forces himself to eat at a measured pace though his stomach feels horribly unsettled. He silently prays Appa will leave quickly. Thankfully, he does, promising Eomma will return at lunch.
Jimin spends the day in a haze, trying desperately to figure out a new plan. Perhaps the police can come on his new Date instead of the old one, but what if they can’t? Then what? He’ll die!
Jungkook shows up later than he’d like, but then, he wasn’t able to sleep at all, and waiting up for Jungkook seems to make time stretch even longer. Jimin is bursting with impatience by the time he finally pops in. It no longer startles him as it used to, but he springs off the mattress and almost yells, “They’re changing the Date!”
Jungkook blinks, still getting his bearings, and runs a hand through his fluffy hair. “Sorry, what did you say?”
“They’re moving up the Date,” Jimin tells him breathlessly, tears welling up quickly in his panic. “By a whole week. They want to do it in two days. Something about—someone had a vision or something. And they think it’ll be good to sacrifice someone sooner than planned. I’m completely doomed. I’m going to die. Help me, Jungkook, please.”
Jimin sounds as desperate and afraid as he feels. Jungkook doesn’t hesitate in his response. He gathers Jimin into an unexpected hug, broad palms wrapping around Jimin’s sides, arms all the way around Jimin’s waist. Jimin exhales heavily, allowing Jungkook to hold his weight. “Jimin, you aren’t going to die,” Jungkook says, his voice low. “Just calm down. I’m going to help you. You’re getting out of here one way or another. I’m not going to abandon you.”
Jimin draws back and nods before wiping his tearful eyes. “Okay. Thank you. Thank you, Jungkook, you’re a good friend.”
“I’ll figure something out,” Jungkook promises. “Don’t cry.”
“Can I ask you something?” Jimin asks, sinking to his mattress and drying his face with the corner of his sheet. Jungkook waits impassively. “Why...why have you stuck with me? Wouldn’t it have been faster to ditch me and look for a deal somewhere else?”
Jungkook hesitates a moment, as if debating whether or not to answer, and ultimately sits down next to him. He puts an arm around Jimin’s small shoulders, fingers gripping Jimin’s far shoulder tightly. Jimin doesn’t complain. “When I first felt your call, I looked in on you,” Jungkook admits quietly. “I could feel how scared you were from the moment we met. Of me, of death, of your father, everything. I felt sad for you. Even though we didn’t get along right away, I didn’t want to give up. I didn’t want to abandon you to die. I was desperate to take more years off my sentence, I confess. I always am. As much as I want to say I like to do things for others, I will always be trying to find Jiyeon. But you were helpless, and needed me, even though you didn’t know it yet. And after coming night after night I became...excited to see you? It was nice to talk to someone instead of constantly selling deals to people. I care about what happens to you.”
Jimin swallows hard and moves his hand to hold Jungkook’s free one. Jungkook tenses initially, but doesn’t pull away. “Thank you.”
“I think I know how to do it,” Jungkook says suddenly. Jimin blinks and raises his eyebrows, startled by his declaration. “I have a plan. At least, I think I do. I can make sure of it tomorrow.”
“Already?” Jimin’s chest fills with hope. “Really?”
“I don’t know if it’ll work, but it’s what I’ve got right now. We might be able to just get the police to come earlier, but if not, then I think I can get you out. Just give me a day. If not, we’ll chance just sneaking you out in the night.”
“You’ll be sure by tomorrow night?” Jimin asks, clutching at Jungkook’s arm. “We don’t have much time.”
“Trust me.” Jungkook looks Jimin squarely in the eyes. “No matter what I have to do, I’ll make sure you’re safe by the end of your sacrifice day. No way I’ll go back on my word.”
Jimin still feels unsure, but he has no choice. He has to trust Jungkook because he is reliant on him. Independently of his help, Jimin has no power, no way to achieve his own escape. And though he is no longer suspicious of Jungkook’s motives, it doesn’t sit well with him that he can’t do anything to make sure his fate is a little more secure. He can only hope Jungkook is as good as his word.
“You promise you’ll get me out?” Jimin hates that he sounds needy, vulnerable, but at this point, it seems like a trivial thing to fret about. He is grateful for Jungkook’s steadying hand.
“I promised to protect you,” Jungkook reminds him. “Just trust me.”
Jimin wishes he could.
The second the hatch creaks open in the morning, Jimin shoots to his feet, heart kicking into overdrive. It’s his last day before the sacrifice is supposed to take place (or possibly ever), and he was robbed of the opportunity to see Eomma yesterday when Appa came in her place. If he is not allowed to say goodbye to her, he will never forgive Appa.
In the end, he thinks she had less to do with any of his suffering than Appa did. Perhaps he will never know the details of what occurred above his head. Whether she was taken, or willingly walked into the village, is unknown to him; whether she tacitly or actively supported any of the beatings Jimin was dealt, is unknown to him. But what is known is that she showed kindness to him and stood up for him the few times it really mattered. What’s known to Jimin is that she loves him, in some way, in some form, and he doesn’t know if after tomorrow he’ll be able to contact her or if he’ll even be breathing. So today is his last chance to say everything he wants to.
She comes with breakfast like she has for the past twelve years, but her face is blotchy and red in places, her eyes puffy and swollen. Jimin wonders if she’s been crying, and why; because of Appa? Or because she thinks her son is going to die tomorrow? Jimin doesn’t know and doesn’t want to know. As she places the food in front of him, he gets up to embrace her, a rare moment of physical intimacy. She brushes her lips against his forehead. Jimin says, “I love you, Eomma.”
She doesn’t speak until they both sit down across from each other. Jimin breaks off half of his bread and offers it to her, feeling his own inadequacy; what can he possibly offer to comfort her? If he does escape, he can’t reach her. She will be left behind. It is, maybe, one of his only regrets.
“I can’t believe tomorrow is your Date,” she says, eyes welling up with tears despite herself. Jimin has never seen her look so sad even as she tries to smile to keep up the facade of his sacrifice being a positive thing for either of them. “You must be excited.”
Jimin doesn’t know what to say. At this point, the consequences he’ll suffer are becoming more limited as time presses on. So he says, simply, “It has been a long time coming.” At least that much is true. It is neither a positive nor negative indication of his thoughts.
Eomma nods soberly, eyes trained unwaveringly on him. She reaches forward and tucks a strand of hair behind his ear. “You have grown so much,” she whispers. “I remember―I remember when you were born, the first time I held you, and the way you looked up at me. You were the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. You were the light I needed.”
Jimin is jerked with a punch to Jungkook’s story of holding his daughter for the first time. Their stories echo each other uncannily. Hearing his mother speak of him in such a way is jarring.
“I am sorry I have to leave you,” Jimin says carefully, the words bitter on his tongue. “I wish with all my might that you will be happy and live prosperously.”
Even as he says it, he feels a jolt of guilt. Once they find out he has escaped, it’s unlikely his parents will be treated generously. It seems ironic and almost cruel to threaten prosperity and happiness in light of what he knows and what he has planned.
“In life, people must part ways,” Eomma says with a shaky smile. “That is the simple truth. Sometimes, we have to let go of those whom we love. I will have to let go of you. But wherever you go, my love is always with you. I will pray for you every day of my life until we can meet again.”
Jimin’s throat tightens harshly, painfully. “You’ll keep yourself safe, right? You’ll protect yourself from...him?”
“Jimin, I am not a young girl,” she says softly. “I am old, getting older by the day. I have lived with your father for a long time. What is to be will be. And you―you have become a son I am truly proud of. A mother’s sin. No mother can help feeling pride for her baby.”
Jimin leans forward and wraps his arms around her neck, throwing himself against her small form. “I love you,” he breathes, shutting his eyes. “Thank you for everything. I’ll be watching after you. Always, your son.”
No matter the outcome tomorrow, the pain of losing her stings like a knife wound.
Jimin’s last night is not the peaceful closure of his life he imagined it to be. He cannot sleep in anticipation of Jungkook’s visit, so he stays up late, staring at the ceiling and trying to ease the pain in his stomach. It seems a futile effort. He supposes impending death would give anyone a stomach ache. The uncertainty of Jungkook’s plan ties him up in knots. He can’t get a wink of rest without knowing.
He’s fallen asleep before waiting up for him, but not tonight. Tonight, he is awake for what feels like hours after he goes to bed, waiting with his candle lit for Jungkook to come. Meanwhile, he thinks his existence over.
How can his life come to an end so quickly? It seems that just yesterday he was wondering when his Date would come. Now he wishes he could go back to those times. Did he do everything he wanted to? Well, how much was there to do? If he’d seen the rest of the world, he might have more regrets.
Jimin is in his nth hour of thinking when a smooth voice says, “Jiminie?”
Jimin looks up and finds Jungkook standing in the candlelight, a painfully familiar sight. Jimin realizes how much he came to depend on Jungkook’s visits, even when they weren’t on good terms in the beginning. Jungkook was the first person close to his age (technically) with whom Jimin was allowed to spend time. Jimin hadn’t realized that he was missing something; he was fine his whole life with just his parents for company. But Jungkook was funny, crude, dynamic, unfiltered―Jimin didn’t have to mind his Ps and Qs around him and he could speak honestly for once.
“Last night,” Jimin says grimly, sitting up and pulling his pillow onto his lap. “No pressure, but I hope you have a plan, because if you don’t, it’s my neck against a knife tomorrow.”
Jungkook doesn’t bother joking around or teasing like he usually would. There is no sarcasm, no jabs, no humor. “I have a plan.”
“Not to rush you, but I’d really like to know.” Jimin’s chest aches. Oh, God, he hopes Jungkook’s plan is a good one. If he was afraid before, he’s terrified now. Mortality looms before him, taunting him.
“Because of the short notice, we’re only going to be able to get one police car,” Jungkook says apologetically. “That means no extraction team. There’s no time for a warrant. I know you don’t know what that is, and I’m sorry. But we need to get you through the woods to them. They’ll be waiting there. We just have to get you there. That’s the hurdle.”
“How are we supposed to get through the woods?” Jimin is dumbfounded and less than confident in the solidity of this plan. “They’re going to put me on the altar and tie me up and aim a knife at my throat. How do I get out of that?”
Jungkook shifts uncomfortably and looks at the floor. “I’ll be there, like I said. They won’t be able to see me. Only you will. The knife will never touch you. Once they realize they can’t kill you, there will be confusion and probably some argument. I’ll do what I can to keep them distracted. During the commotion, when I give you the signal, you start running into the woods. I’ll be right behind you as soon as it’s safe. I promise you, Jimin, it’ll work. Please believe me.”
“What about leaving tonight?” Jimin pleads. “Just you and me, take our chances. We could be gone before sunrise.”
“No use. The Elders are in your house all night, watching and making sure nothing strange happens. It would be impossible to leave. The only way is to wait until we’re out in the open. Jimin, I promise, I know what I’m doing.” Jungkook laces his fingers with Jimin. “It’s the only way.”
Jimin recognizes the pointlessness in trying to argue or doubt him. After all, this isn’t Jungkook’s first deal. Perhaps his case is rather isolated, but he does believe Jungkook means it. He believes Jungkook will do everything in his power to make sure Jimin gets out alive.
“I’m afraid,” Jimin says, throat tightening even as he tries to stay calm. “I’m afraid to die. I’m afraid it’ll hurt. I’m afraid they’ll grab me and tie me down and I won’t be able to escape.”
Jungkook hums and rubs Jimin’s knee. “I never died,” he says quietly, “but I’ve met souls who did, and most of them said it only hurt for a second. But you’re not going to die.”
“I’m afraid I won’t be able to get out.” Jimin clasps his hands over his eyes and heaves a watery gasp. “I don’t want to die. I want to live. I want to see the rest of the world. I want to experience pain and joy and see the sun. I want to have friends and have my own children. I want all those things you made sound so lovely.”
“Of course,” Jungkook whispers. “You can have all of those things.”
“Tell me,” Jimin sniffles, rubbing his eyes tiredly, “will I go to Hell for taking a deal? Do you think God is disappointed in me for being weak?”
“Oh, Jimin,” Jungkook sighs, reaching over to envelop him in a tight hug. “You were never going to go to Hell, kid. God isn’t going to turn you away from Heaven for trying to live a little longer. You’re just a kid. Kids aren’t supposed to die. I don’t have any doubt that you’re going straight up to Heaven, deal or no deal.”
“Even for abandoning my parents?”
“Jimin,” Jungkook says, touching his cheek, “if there’s anything I’ve learned as a demon, it’s that you can’t save everyone. Inevitably, someone has to get left behind.”
Jimin lies down and pulls at Jungkook’s arm so he lies down too. Jungkook folds himself against Jimin, uncomplaining. “Stay with me tonight,” Jimin mumbles exhaustedly. “I just need a friend right now.”
Jungkook brushes Jimin’s hair out of his eyes and looks down at him with the most gentleness Jimin has ever seen from him. “Of course,” he says. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Jimin wakes to a touch of sunlight warming one side of his face and a weight over his waist. Groggy, disoriented, he blinks slowly to clear his vision and turns his head to see Jungkook’s face pressed to his shoulder blades, messy hair sticking up every which way. Jimin remembers then how Jungkook had rubbed his back until he fell asleep. Jungkook must have stayed after all and slept too. Jimin shifts ever so slightly, and Jungkook’s eyes snap open as if he only just closed them. “Hey,” Jimin whispers. Jungkook smiles amiably.
“Hey,” he greets. “Sleep well?”
Truthfully, Jimin tossed and turns, but even so, he slept better with another person by his side. He felt comforted knowing he wasn’t alone. “Yes. You?”
“Slept as uneventfully as always. I feel neither rested nor tired. It was nice to take a break from being awake, at least.” Jungkook’s expression shifts. “How are you feeling?”
Jimin purses his lips and touches his stomach. “Sick,” he says honestly, biting his lip. “I feel frightened half to death.”
Jungkook rubs his arm soothingly. “It’ll be okay. I’m here to make sure you get out safe and sound.”
Jimin glances at the window, analyzing the intensity of the sun rays. “They’ll be coming for me soon,” he whispers, dread like a ball of lead in the pit of his stomach. “It’s time.”
“Let it happen. Once we’re outside at the altar, prepare to run.” Jimin nods to show he understands, though the idea frightens him. Jungkook touches his arm gently. “I’ll be there,” he promises. “Won’t leave your side.”
“I wish the whole thing could just be over already,” Jimin murmurs, sitting up and rubbing his sleepy eyes. “I’m afraid something will go wrong. You’re sure the police will be waiting?”
Jimin sighs and pushes the sheets off his legs. He gets up and tiptoes to the window. “I’ll see outside today,” he remembers. “Do you think I’ll like it?”
“Maybe. Or maybe not. You may not have much time to look around. Stay alert and don’t get lost in the sights and smells. You have to stay focused.” Jungkook sits up in bed and watches Jimin. “Stay in control of the situation.”
Jimin wants to say more, but he hears footsteps above his head and tenses, ready for the hatch to open. There comes the telltale sign of the deadbolt sliding back and then the hatch pulls back, feet descending the ladder.
To his surprise and relief, it’s Eomma. She doesn’t carry breakfast this morning, but a pile of folded cloth. “Good morning,” she greets him simply. Jimin manages to smile at the sight of her, but his cheer wanes quickly. “I’ve brought you your clothes for the...sacrifice. You’ll bathe and change into them. Appa will come down in an hour with the Elders to take you.”
Jimin accepts the clothes and watches her leave. The clothes are cream-colored and made of rough cotton. He thinks briefly that the splash of blood on the fabric would be obscenely dark in contrast, and quickly tries to squash that thought. There will be no blood. He unfolds the clothes and sees that it’s a long-sleeved tunic and loose-fitting pants, all in the same monochromatic palette.
“Go on,” Jungkook urges him. “Do as she says.” Jimin purses his lips and heads for the bathroom, Jungkook hot on his tail. He starts the water, testing it for heat. He hesitates before taking his clothes off, earning an unimpressed look from Jungkook. “What are you waiting for?”
Jimin sighs and figures it’s not the time for modesty. He strips off his sleep shirt, pants, and underwear, and steps into the warm water. He exhales as he slides down so the water reaches his chest and leans his head against the rim of the bathtub for a moment. The heat feels good, but he can’t dawdle for long today. Jungkook kneels just outside the tub, arms resting on the edge and chin resting on his arms. He looks at Jimin with big eyes and heat-flushed cheeks, the steam reddening his face. “Stop staring,” Jimin admonishes halfheartedly. “Are you going to sit here the whole time?”
“Yep. We have things to discuss.”
Jimin closes his eyes and lets the warm water ease the ache in his joints. “Okay.”
“So how it’s going to work is that they’ll bring you up the stairs, through the house, and outside. I think they do the sacrifices at the outside altar in the village center, so they’ll bring you there and tie you down. There might be people around. Adults, maybe even children. You have to not get distracted. Once they figure out the knife can’t hurt you, I’ll get you loose and start up a distraction. You need to lie there and pretend you’re still tied up until I give you the go, and then you get up and you fucking run as fast as you can into the woods. Don’t stop, don’t hesitate. Don’t look back. Just run. I will join you as soon as I feel like you’re far enough that they can’t get to you. Once you start running, you keep running straight through the woods. I’ll come to guide you. The most important thing, Jimin, is that you never stop. No matter how tired you are. It’s going to be hard because you’ve never run before, but if you can get a big enough head start, the adrenaline will fuel you the entire way. Hear me?”
Jimin takes everything in and nods. He understands. It sounds iffy at best, but what will happen will happen at this point, and there’s nothing he can do to change it.
“When you get to the edge of the woods, there will be a car. Remember the cars I showed you in the pictures? It’ll be white with blue stripes and red and blue lights on top. It should say gyeong-chal on the side as well as the same in English, but you can’t read English, so just look for the writing you recognize.”
“They’re the police. They’re waiting for you, so go to them and tell them you’re Park Jimin. They know they’re looking for Jimin, so you tell them you’re him, and they’ll take you away.”
Jimin grabs the bar soap and starts lathering his skin up, careful to wash even the hard-to-reach places he might normally ignore. “Okay.”
Jungkook twiddles his thumbs and looks around the small bathroom. “I think that’s it. Do you have any questions?”
“No.” Jimin rinses the soap off his chest and arms, then his back. He reaches down into the water to clean his genitals, figuring it’s better to be safe than sorry. He supposes they want him clean so he can be a pure gift to God. He washes his sides and his legs and scrubs at even the bottom of his feet. “You’ll be there the whole time to remind me of everything?”
“Up until I cut you loose, yeah.” Jimin stands to get out of the bath and Jungkook hands him his towel. “Pay attention, okay? I know it’ll be strange to be outside for the first time and you’ll want to take it all in, but you can do that later when you’re safe. Also, don’t speak out loud to me. Just think the words in my direction and I’ll try to listen. Don’t look at me too often if I’m not in your normal line of sight. They shouldn’t suspect anything, but it’s better just to be sure.”
Jimin dries off and pulls on fresh underwear and then the tunic and pants his mother brought him. “How do I look?” he says, turning one way and then the other. Jungkook rolls his eyes.
“Like a geek.”
“I’m glad I don’t know what that is.”
“Let’s go wait for your dad,” Jungkook says, all joking gone now. Jimin follows him out to the main room.
They wait for a bit in silence, afraid that someone might come any minute and catch Jimin talking to someone else, though Jungkook assures they won’t see him unless he wants them to. Jimin feels his nerves starting to mount now that he’s fully awake and anticipating the sacrifice.
He dreamed of this day as a child, quite literally. He always knew it would come and spent hours thinking about it. He wasn’t afraid then, not as he is now. Death seems more real and daunting than it had then when it was far away and he was too young to comprehend its meaning. Now it’s here. He has no choice but to face it.
The hatch creaks open at last, and Jimin watches as Appa comes down first, followed by three Elders. His breath hitches. It’s time; they’ve come to take him to be killed. Jungkook reaches over and strokes his arm in an attempt to calm him down, and Jimin reminds himself not to look at Jungkook. “Blessed be the sun and the fruit it bears,” Jimin blurts out, remembering his morning greeting and unsure whether he needs to keep with courtesy now. He bows his head to show respect to the Elders out of habit more than anything else.
“Greetings, Jimin,” Elder Lee says with a smile. “It’s time. You can ascend the ladder.”
That’s it? Jimin gets up on wobbly legs and goes toward the ladder. He doesn’t dare peer upwards. He glances back at his father, looking for affirmation. Appa nods and gestures for him to continue. Shaky, he climbs the ladder slowly, and finally his head passes the hole in the floor that the hatch falls into. In shock, he looks around at what is above ground, the mystery he’s sought after for years. He sees what looks like chairs and wood flooring. He keeps climbing until he can step out. Eomma is there, waiting with folded hands. She smiles at him in a sad way and touches his shoulder.
Soon after Jimin finds his way to the top, Appa and the Elders also come back up behind him. They flank him on either side. “We’ll make our way to the altar now,” Elder Kim announces. “Today you will ascend to God’s kingdom and rain prosperity down on our village. It is the greatest honor a man can receive.”
Jimin feels less than honored as they move him through the house. He has little time to take in the strange surroundings before a door is being opened and he’s being shoved through. Jungkook walks a step ahead, taking long strides to keep up and looking back as if to make sure Jimin is still there. Jimin inhales sharply as he sees, for the first time, the outdoors. He can feel something crunching under his feet and the cold air―he looks down to see white powder on the pathway. It’s winter, he thinks dully. The temperature chills him through his thin cotton clothes. He shivers, teeth clattering together as the cold sets in. There is very little sunlight, but he can see the grass poking through the snow, desperate to stay alive. Everything is thrown into sharp clarity. He hardly notices as they approach the village center, where he is met with an altar, a pile of ropes, and a gleaming, deathly sharp knife resting in the hands of Head Priest.
“Pay attention,” Jungkook says, eyes gleaming. “Don’t get lost in the moment. Remember the plan. Let them tie you up. Don’t get up and run until I say go.”
I know, Jimin thinks, hoping Jungkook can hear him. His pulse speeds up and panic fills his throat. Hands push him down to the altar, binding his wrists and ankles together. They tie him down to anchors on each side of the altar, ensuring he can’t squirm away. They work quickly. It hits Jimin that this is not the first sacrifice that has taken place here, that other children have bled out before him, blood spurting from their gashed throats and writhing under the ropes. The cold marble of the altar suddenly feels horrifyingly cold, too clean.
“We thank you for your sacrifice,” Appa says. “You have served God well.”
Jimin’s heart is in his throat as they sweep his hair out of his eyes and tilt his head back to expose his throat. His heart pounds violently against his ribs as if looking for an escape, and his skin feels like it’s burning. Sweat pricks his brow. This is it. If anything goes wrong, Jimin will die. Oh God, Jimin will die. He feels lightheaded with fear. Jungkook sits by his head, one hand on Jimin’s cheek. Jimin can feel his breath. He keeps his eyes on Jungkook’s warm brown ones, soothed by the sight and his touch. Everything is happening quickly.
“I have to divert their attention,” Jungkook whispers. “Don’t move until I say, okay?”
Jimin whines, his breaths coming a mile a minute. He doesn’t want Jungkook to leave, but knows he has to, and then Jungkook’s touch is gone. He sees Jungkook get up and walk off the altar, but Jimin’s head is pulled at an angle that prevents him from seeing where he goes. A high, desperate sound comes from Jimin’s mouth that doesn’t sound like his voice.
“Just stay still,” Elder Son advises with a comforting smile, his wrinkled face looming above Jimin’s. “It’ll be quick if you don’t move.”
Distantly, Jimin can hear someone speaking―giving a speech to those gathered, probably, announcing that Jimin has agreed to be sacrificed for the village’s sake. Jimin has to gather every ounce of strength in his body to not squirm or flinch away. It seems like time races at speeds unprecedented, because as the voice peters off, he sees Head Priest stand above him with the knife in his hands.
Jimin can only think of one thing. He is going to die.
The knife comes arcing down toward his throat, perfectly aimed. Jimin gasps and shuts his eyes, his whole body going rigid as stone in anticipation of his throat bursting open under the blade.
A slight and sudden pressure against his Adam’s apple, like a hard tap, causes him to flinch and let out a yelp. But he feels no pain. Shocked, Jimin opens his eyes. A murmur goes through the crowd, and Head Priest looks at the knife with a frown, examining the edges.
“A simple error in aim,” Priest apologizes, and prepares to strike again. Once more, Jimin tenses and prepares for agony. And once more, the knife glances off.
Now the crowd is starting to talk, and Head Priest looks dumbfounded. It’s then that Appa comes up to the altar. “I’ll do it,” he says, taking the blade with a dark look in his eyes. Jimin shivers in fear as he touches Jimin’s neck. With a heavy hand, Appa swings the knife toward Jimin’s throat again and again, to no avail. The knife simply will not cut through his skin. Jimin starts to feel slightly relieved once he realizes Jungkook was serious about divine protection. They can’t hurt me, he realizes.
“This is Satan’s work,” someone screams from the crowd. “He is among us!”
“Are you the devil’s spawn?” Appa hisses, grabbing Jimin by the throat. Jimin wheezes, but he can’t fight back while tied down, and is forced to feel his air slowly leak away. Appa releases him with a look of disgust. “You are infected with darkness.”
“He is a demonspawn,” someone else yells. “He must be exorcised!”
Jimin is about to start panicking anew over the possibility of being exorcised when someone shrieks, joined quickly by others. He strains his neck to see the cause of the commotion and sees a nearby building going up in smoke. Flames lick the sky. Jimin’s heart stills. Could it be Jungkook? Nearly a minute later, an explosion rocks the ground. Two more buildings burst into flames. Head Priest yells for everyone to be calm, but the damage is done. Appa has run to Eomma, shaking her by the shoulders and shouting that she has given birth to evil. The priests, confused and dissolving into panic, have split apart, trying to direct people away from the fire and losing control over the villagers.
Jimin writhes, trying to get out from under the ropes that bind him down. If he could only get his fingers to his feet, he could untie his ankles. But they’ve tied him well, too tightly to be escaped. Jungkook promised to unbind him when he could, but Jimin is alone right now, abandoned by the frightened villagers and priests and even Appa, who is too intent on forcing an answer from Eomma to notice Jimin’s distress.
It’s the longest few minutes of Jimin’s life between the fires starting and Jungkook coming back to get him. Jungkook finally reappears, out of breath, and descends on the bonds, hands blazing. His hands sink right through the rope. Jimin has never seen him do anything like that before, and rears back from the flame. “It’s going to be faster to burn than to untie,” Jungkook pants. Before Jimin knows it, he’s free, and Jungkook swats out a spark on his shoulder as soon as his hands go cold. “Go, Jimin, run! I’ll set more fires if I have to, but you need to go. There, to the woods. Don’t stop.”
Jimin starts to stumble toward the treeline, three hundred or so feet away, his legs wobbly and his breath burning its way out of his lungs. Fear of being caught courses through his veins and drives him faster. But the memory of his mother, held fast in Appa’s unforgiving hands, causes him to stop and turn back.
“Go!” Jungkook screeches, pointing toward the woods. He stands unharmed in the midst of the chaos, but Jimin looks instead for Eomma. Eomma sees him running, watches him with wide, fearful eyes, and Jimin is frozen by guilt. Can he really leave her behind?
Her mouth opens, and Jimin sees the word fall soundlessly from her lips.
Jimin’s eyes fill with tears, and he finally turns and staggers for the woods. He’s already out of breath, and his legs hurt, but Jungkook told him not to stop. The trees become bigger the closer he gets, and then he’s inside of them, panic clawing his insides. Jimin runs, heedless of the needles stabbing his bare feet and the low hanging branches scratching his face. He hardly feels the sting of the cuts on his cheeks. All he knows is that they could be after him, could have seen him running and pursued him. He has to keep running no matter what. Blindly, frantically, he runs on, tripping and jerking forward now and then when his feet can’t catch up with his body.
Don’t stop. Don’t stop. Don’t stop.
“I can’t,” he sobs, lungs screaming for air. His foot catches on a root and he goes sprawling head over heels, body hitting the hard dirt. He whimpers and tries to pick himself back up, but he twisted his ankle going down, and putting weight on it sends pain shooting up his leg. But he has to go on, somehow, has to keep running―
“Jimin!” The shout of his name tears through the woods, and Jimin screams, forcing himself to run out of sheer terror that someone has come after him. His leg almost buckles. Before he can get far, a hand closes around his collar, and he stops breathing.
“It’s me, it’s me,” Jungkook says, stroking the side of Jimin’s face and wiping away stray tears. “Don’t cry, we have to keep going.”
“I hurt myself,” Jimin weeps, sinking to the ground and reaching for his ankle. “I’m so tired.”
Jungkook hushes him and kneels, wrapping both arms around Jimin and patting the back of his head. “I know, I know, but we can’t stop. They know you’re in the woods. You have to keep going, Jiminie, I’m sorry.”
“It hurts a lot,” Jimin gasps. His ankle throbs and swells, and he’s starting to feel the injuries on his face. “I can’t run, I’m so tired.”
Jungkook looks at him with sympathy and sorrow, running a hand through Jimin’s hair. “If you can’t run, I can run for you,” he says reluctantly.
Jimin sniffles and looks up. “How?”
“If you...if you let me into your body for a bit, I can run. I don’t want to, I don’t like possessing people, but you’re hurt. You won’t feel the pain until after, I promise.”
Jimin hardly thinks about it. He doesn’t have time to think, and right now his ankle hurts so badly he doesn’t see how he can keep running. He looks ahead and sees only trees stretching on endlessly, and knows he can’t do it. “Okay,” he whispers. “You can possess me.”
“I’m sorry,” Jungkook sighs, and then he’s melting into Jimin somehow, passing into him―Jimin can’t fight it. He suddenly can’t move his arms and legs, like he’s in a dream and has lost control over his limbs. Then he hears Jungkook’s voice in his head. I’m in you now. Don’t freak out or I might get ejected out. I’m going to start running.
Jimin is still crying inside his head, but he feels like he’s been pushed to the back of his body, like he’s not present anymore. Exhausted, he goes limp inside himself and lets Jungkook take control. It’s a bizarre feeling, but as Jungkook starts running, he realizes he really can’t feel any pain. Jungkook is fast, so much faster than he was.
I’m afraid, Jimin thinks before he can stop himself, before he realizes Jungkook is perfectly capable of hearing him. Sorry .
It’s okay to be afraid, Jimin. Not a lot of people could go through a situation like that. It’s normal to be scared.
I didn’t mean to burden you this way.
I’m not burdened. It’s okay. Just rest until we’re at the edge of the woods, and I’ll get out of you.
Jimin tries not to think out loud anymore and settles back, letting Jungkook transport his body through the woods. The only sound is Jungkook’s breathing and the silence of the woods. If they’re still being followed, he can’t tell.
It feels like hours before they finally get to the edge of the woods, and resting on asphalt is a white car with blue stripes that reads gyeong-chal as Jungkook said it would. There are men and women standing around the car in black, hands on bulky items at their hips. Jungkook whispers, I’m giving your body back and slips out a second after. Jimin, unprepared and reeling as the exhaustion and pain hits him once more, falls forward and barely manages to catch himself with his hands. “I’m Park Jimin,” he almost sobs. “I’m Park Jimin, please take me away.”
Immediately, there are hands under his arms trying to hoist him back up, but Jimin barely has the energy to stand. “It’s okay, kid,” one of the male police officers says, pulling him toward the car. “We’re going to get you out of here. Don’t worry.”
“Call the fire department,” someone says. “There’s smoke. That must be the explosion we heard. Get reinforcements to round up the adults and find the children.”
Jimin sobs as he’s helped into the car and onto the comfortable leather seat. A strap is fixed across his chest, and he slumps against the window, worn out.
“You did good,” Jungkook says, sitting in the adjacent seat. Jimin didn’t see him get in, but as the car starts and begins to roll forward and away, he kicks back with his hands behind his head. “I’m proud of you, you know.”
“For what?” Jimin murmurs, eyes closing.
“You’ve come a long way since I met you. You did well today.”
“Who are you talking to, Jimin-ssi?” the officer in the passenger seat with the tightly pulled bun asks.
Jimin realizes he was speaking out loud, but he doesn’t have enough energy to feel embarrassed. “Nobody,” he says.
Silently, he says to Jungkook, Thank you.
They take him to the police station first and ask him a lot of questions. Jimin is so tired he can barely keep his head up. The adrenaline has worn off and he is frightened and run down. The sights and sounds around him are confusing and overwhelming. He’s never had to take in so much sensory information at once before. He hopes he’ll get used to it over time. The police officers are nice and get him a blanket and something they call coffee, which is bitter and unpleasant but hot. Jimin settles for wrapping his hands around the cup to feel the warmth after a few disgusted sips.
They ask him about his parents, and whether they touched him in places they shouldn’t, whether they hurt him, whether they fed him. He doesn’t know how to answer some of the questions. He timidly tells them about being disciplined, but plays it down for some reason, sensing that they think it’s a bad thing and wanting against all sense to defend his father. He tries to describe to them his life, but is unable to put some things into words. They stare at him, perplexed, as he tells them about his room and the Guidebook and his sacrifice day. Eventually, his throat goes dry and his eyes start drooping and they say he can go.
From there, they take him to the hospital to look at his health. The hospital is even more frightening and confusing. They aren’t less kind at the hospital, but they’re brusque and Jimin feels lost and forgotten. He sits in the examination room on his own. Jungkook, who has followed him from the station, waits in a chair. Jimin plays with the strings on his gown, feeling exposed and shivering in the heated room. Once the doctor comes, they do a lot of strange things to him like tap his knees and tell him to press down on their hands and make him stand on a strange machine. None of it makes sense to him. They ask him a lot more questions, some of the same ones as at the police station, before cleaning his cuts and prescribing some things.
Jimin doesn’t have a birth certificate, whatever that is, so he tells them he’s eighteen, which is close enough.
It’s at the hospital that he meets Kim Namjoon, who brings him a nice bunch of flowers and a puffy...thing Namjoon calls a balloon that says Get Well Soon . Jimin hadn’t been expecting him, and Jungkook materializes then, waving cheerily to Namjoon, who smiles and waves back.
“Park Jimin, right?” Namjoon says, standing awkwardly by the door. “I thought I’d stop by.”
“Hi,” Jimin says hesitantly, clutching at his sheets. “I, um, didn’t know you would come here.”
“Actually, I didn’t know if I would,” Namjoon says, and takes a deep breath. “I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but I didn’t want to meet you at first. I...my time in the cult is something I’d like to forget, and I really didn’t want to come back to it. But I also figure...well, I’m the only person who knows exactly how you feel right now. If you’d like, you can stay with me until you’re on your feet. I can help you adjust.”
“I suggested all that,” Jungkook says proudly.
Namjoon is very nice, Jimin learns, and very smart. He knows just how to explain the things that confuse Jimin before Jimin even asks. Though Jimin is staying the night in the hospital, he tells Jimin that he’s welcome to crash at his place until he’s got things figured out. Jimin feels immediately at home with Namjoon.
At the end of the night, when everyone has gone home and the hospital is quiet, Jungkook finally rises from his chair.
“I might not see you for a while,” he says, looking at the ground, “so I thought I’d say that I’m glad I got to know you. Maybe when I’m done with my sentence, I can come find you?”
Jimin is drained and can hardly come up with a response, but he manages to smile. “Yeah. I would like that.”
Jungkook nods awkwardly and looks off to the side. “Yeah. So, I guess I’ll be leaving. Um, you don’t have to serve your sentence until you want to. Whenever you’re ready, go to a cross roads and ask for a demon, and they’ll take you to start. Take some time to explore the real world before you do. And Namjoon is a really great guy. You can depend on him. His soul is pretty clean. I, uh, looked at it, before I suggested you stay with him.”
“Thank you,” Jimin says softly. He feels a rush of sadness suddenly at the thought of not seeing Jungkook. Jungkook is, after all, his only friend. What will he do without him now? “Do you have to go?”
“I’ve spent long enough with you,” Jungkook says sadly. “I have to go. Business to take care of, deals to make. Hopefully I’ll be out before my last ten years is up. I’ll find you Jimin, I promise.”
“I’ll wait,” Jimin says.
“You’re going to love life,” Jungkook says with a smile, and then touches his eyes. “Ugh, I’m going to go before I cry. This is goodbye, Jimin, and good riddance to you, you pain in the ass.”
Jimin laughs despite himself. “Good riddance to you, bastard.”
“Ooh, getting mouthy now that you’re free? Well, I’ll take my leave now.” Jungkook smiles and stands, straightening out his clothes. “I’ve had a good time. Thank you. For being my friend.”
“Jungkook, wait―” Jimin starts, but then Jungkook is gone, with not a trace to show he was ever there.
I’ll miss you.
Jimin spends about a month at Namjoon’s place. Namjoon takes him out as much as possible and tries to explain how society works and how the bread magically pops out of the toaster crisp and browned. Jimin is not yet convinced that it isn’t magic. Adjusting is extremely difficult. He realizes now just how little he absorbed during his time with Jungkook. Some things, he supposes, have to be felt and seen rather than heard.
Sometimes he sits on the balcony and listens to the sound of traffic for hours.
It’s strange, life on his own. He still wakes up early in anticipation of Eomma bringing him breakfast. Namjoon tries to teach him to cook, but they eat out more often than not. Some days he retires early, too drained by the overwhelming hustle and bustle of the city. He starts to gain weight and looks, for the first time, a little chubby. He doesn’t care about it, but he goes with Namjoon to the gym now and then and sees the chub turn into muscle in some places. Slowly, and subtly. Namjoon tells him people like muscular men, and Jimin has no point of reference to argue.
It’s also weird to have freedom to do what he wants, say what he wants, feel how he wants. He thinks a lot about the Guidebook for a while, wondering what it would tell him to do, passing judgment on people based on its teachings, but Namjoon slowly trains him out of it. After all, he grew up on the same rhetoric. Most of it, he says, isn’t true. It’s okay to believe in God, he says, but you can’t tell other people what to believe or what to do. Maybe what they believe works for them. Maybe they’re right.
Jimin doesn’t even know where to start with his new life. He doesn’t have friends or money or education. He’s still trying to figure out how to work Namjoon’s fancy shower by the end of the month.
It’s the best surprise in the world when Jungkook shows up at the door.
“What the hell are you doing here!” Jimin exclaims, yanking him inside and throwing himself at Jungkook for a hug. “I thought you said you weren’t gonna come back! I know your sentence can’t be over yet.”
Jungkook laughs and pushes him off. Jimin offers him a cup of tea. “You can make hot leaf water!” he says excitedly. “It’s actually good! I don’t know how it happens, but I like it.”
“I’m fine,” Jungkook says.
“Right, right, you can’t consume things. Well, how are you? Have you made any more deals?”
Jungkook tells him some vague details about people he’s encountered since leaving Jimin’s counsel, and Jimin laps it up before telling him everything he’s learned since leaving his village. There are so many incredible things, and even though it’s kind of terrifying, it’s also amazing, and Jungkook was right. He loves experiencing it and having the freedom to eat and sleep whenever he wants. He visited a Hindu temple last week and a Buddhist temple the week before, just because he could, just because he wanted to know what other people believed. He’s hungry for information.
“When do you have to leave again?” Jimin asks when he runs out of new stories to tell. Jungkook clears his throat.
“Actually. I don’t,” Jungkook says with a sly smile. “It’s...I have good news.”
Jimin’s voice becomes hushed and he sits up straighter. “Oh?” he murmurs, hopeful.
“Well...when I left, I started looking for ways to appeal my sentence again. I mean, I’ve tried pretty much everything, but I thought I’d keep giving it a go and hope something would go through. Well, the laws have changed since I made my deal, and new laws have retroactive power. That means, for instance, that if something wasn’t allowed in the past, but is allowed now, then you could get off free for it, you know?”
Jimin doesn’t see where he’s going, but it seems like he’s heading somewhere good, so he stays quiet.
“It turns out that these days there are certain rights you have to read to someone for a deal,” Jungkook says, grinning, “and my rights were never read to me, so I’m...I’m free. They commuted my sentence. And I have good news for you too. I, um...I know this is going to sound stupid, but before I appealed, I had your years transferred back onto mine, because I was hoping the appeal would go through. Since it was, that means that those years are now written off the record as well. So you’re free, too.”
Jimin can’t believe his ears. That means Jungkook can see his daughter and...and he doesn’t have to leave.
“That’s wonderful,” Jimin says breathlessly, grasping for his hand. “I’m so glad. Are you going to see Jiyeon?”
Jungkook nods. “I actually did. I introduced myself as an estranged nephew, because I couldn’t come back after fifty years as a young man when she’s, like, sixty. I’m hoping she doesn’t notice the resemblance between me and and old pictures of her father. Maybe I can pass it off as genes skipping generations, or something.”
“I’m happy for you,” Jimin says, beaming. “And...thank you, for getting my sentence nullified. It’s really kind of you to have done that.”
“Well.” Jungkook clears his throat, a blush rising in his cheeks. “All my old friends are gone or going, and most of the family I knew is gone, so I’m going to need a friend to get by. After all, I have a whole life ahead of me to live, and I’m going to need someone to get by with.”
Jimin can’t help the warmth that takes him over. Add another trait to the list of Jungkook’s unexpected characteristics: affectionate .
They end up watching TV together, Jimin lying against Jungkook, eating a bowl of popcorn. Jungkook practically moans at the first bite. He says he never realized how much he loved to eat until he couldn’t. Jimin pats his shoulder and brushes the crumbs from the side of his mouth.
Namjoon comes home that evening to find them still there. “Ah, another guest,” he exclaims. “I’m finally popular. Are you going to be staying, demon-ssi?”
“That’s Jungkook-ssi to you,” Jungkook says with a grin. “I’m also joining the real world again.”
“Excellent! Does that mean we can all have dinner? Jungkook-ah, I hope you know how to cook.”
“I don’t!” Jungkook says shamelessly. “But I’ve really been missing takeout.”
Namjoon smiles and goes for the phone. “Takeout it is, then.”
Jimin feels warm and content that night as they sit around the table eating greasy food and talking about things Jungkook missed, things Jimin has learned to love (hot leaf water!), and things Namjoon and Jungkook insist he should see. Though there’s a bit of awkwardness that comes with Jungkook not knowing Namjoon and Jimin still getting comfortable with Namjoon, it feels good to not be alone in a room trying to entertain himself. He feels surrounded.
That night, Jungkook stays over, sleeping on the other side of the tiny bed. There isn’t much space, so he just presses himself next to Jimin. Jimin doesn’t mind. He feels like they’re just starting their journey, somehow. Jungkook’s cheeks have been flushed with happiness the whole night, like eating and talking to friends has refreshed him. Jimin can sense the difference in his manner now that he’s human once more.
“You know, Kook, I think you really are altruistic,” Jimin mumbles, pulling the covers high up over himself. “In any case, I think you’re at least a good person. Don’t you think?”
“You’re ridiculous,” Jungkook snorts, turning off the light. “I don’t think I’m any more good than anyone else. Also, I haven’t slept in 53 years, so I expect you to be quiet and let me get some rest.”
“If you say so,” Jimin says, and presses himself unworriedly to Jungkook. “I’m really glad you came back, you know. I’ve been missing you a lot.”
“Yeah?” Jungkook brushes Jimin’s hair out of his eyes and smiles. “Well, you aren’t going to have to miss me anymore.”
“I’m in your bed. I thought it was clear I was staying.”
Jimin suppresses a smile and turns over to face the wall. “Goodnight, Jungkook.”
“Goodnight, Jimin,” Jungkook returns. He wraps an arm around Jimin’s middle, warming Jimin right to the core.
In the darkness, when Jimin is almost asleep, Jungkook whispers, “Love you.”
And Jimin knows as happiness blooms in his chest that the frustration and pain of the real world is worth enduring as long as Jungkook’s by his side.