But a chair, sunlight, flowers: These are not to be dismissed.
I am alive, I live, I breathe, I put my hand out, unfolded, into the sunlight.
- Margaret Atwood
His grandma always said he was born with a golden thumb.
The last time she said it was an early morning, a couple autumns ago, out in the fields as they uncovered the summer squash. Taehyung had laughed loudly and corrected her because that’s not how the saying goes, Gram, it’s called a green thumb .
And she had smiled, and shook her head, and took his hands in her own and said, “No. I mean golden. Like magic .”
Taehyung looks down at his hands now, worn from years of hard labor. His grandpa used to tease him about them. Too feminine , he would say, and then he’d tack on without a glance over, Piano hands, like your mother .
Taehyung twists his wrists, rubs at the callouses covering his palms, trails a finger over a bruised knuckle. He tries to see what his grandma always saw. Tries to find something magical there.
Someone pats his back on their way down the steps, and Taehyung knows it’s supposed to be comforting, a sign of support; but it’s the hundredth hand today and all he feels is something start in his chest, something with fierce, gnashing teeth that makes his breath catch and his heart burn.
Makes him stand.
Makes him head for the field bordering the farmhouse where the horizon line is burning against the tips of the wheat, setting the world on fire.
Taehyung’s hands feel dirty and his clothes dusty and his body stiff as he blasts through the blazing gold, trying to outrun all the ghosts around him, trying to outrun all the heartache chasing him down.
Instead he crumbles into the soil, no closer to reaching the sun then when he started, and Taehyung lifts a hand and uses a finger to brush against the soft edges of the wheat leaning over him, then lifts it higher to trace the delicate outlines of the clouds above where their edges blur into the sky. He breathes.
If only golden thumbs could bring people back to life.
Taehyung’s been in Seoul for two months. He’s had four jobs, five roommates, a dozen one-nightstands, and as of twenty-four hours ago, zero dollars to his name.
Seoul. The city of opportunity. The city of second changes. The city to make it big.
Taehyung misses Daegu; the trails and the fields and the river, the sound of birds in the woods, the scent of jasmine that would blow in through the kitchen window on an afternoon breeze. Not the people. Definitely not the people. But even if the farm hadn’t been sold off by the bank, and even if Taehyung could have taken care of the crops by himself, he wouldn’t have been able to stay.
Thunder rumbles through the sky, and Taehyung kicks at the sidewalk with his good sneaker, fiddles with a gum wrapper in his pocket, and watches as the crowd around him collectively raise an impenetrable mass of dark umbrellas.
Taehyung knew it was going to rain. There was a mackerel sky this morning. But he can’t afford an umbrella and he probably wouldn’t have used one, anyway, so instead he tilts his head back and lifts his arms and opens his mouth as the sky falls around him.
People bump and shove and grumble and curse at him here and there. Taehyung doesn’t mind. He’s gotten worse. High school drop-out. Dark skin. His clothes are always two sizes too big. He knows he’s not smart or handsome or good at anything but working in the dirt and that’s okay. That should be okay. Because he likes his skin and his clothes and he loves the dirt and the flowers and days like today when the sky melts into the earth.
He should be okay. Taehyung needs to be okay.
“Freak,” he hears someone mutter, and Taehyung drops his arms.
Blinks water from his eyes.
Stares ahead at the stuttering red light above the cross-walk, one foot balanced on the curb, a tight-rope walker caught in a perilous act.
Thinks, Well that was rude .
Thinks, I should really look for another job.
Thinks, Why am I not okay?
Taehyung drops his foot.
A woman screams.
A car horn blares.
And above it all is the tinkling of piano keys.
Taehyung turns towards the sound as a taxi rushes by. There’s a hand on his arm, pulling him back, and Taehyung shoves them off and ignores the hushed murmuring, the heavy stares. Where is the piano? The only shops on this street are bars and beauty parlors and second-hand clothing stores. The places playing music are on the Top 40 rotation. None of them would ever play music like this. Soft and lilting. A haunting lullaby.
Taehyung pushes past the small crowd building on the street corner and follows the piano into a side alley, then into another connected to it. He’s walking a grid-line of back streets and he doesn’t have a phone and there’s no way he’ll be able to find his way back on his own, but still he presses forward, jogs down another road so thin a car couldn’t even pass through, dotted with high brick walls and tiny store stoops.
He knows this doesn’t make sense. That he shouldn’t have heard the music from the main road. He knows that this is probably all in his head—but something is pulling him forward. It’s so warm, makes him feel jingly and blushy and awake and alive and it’s been so long. It’s been so long .
He takes a left. Takes the next right. Trips over a loose piece of pavement. Sees a dead-end ahead and slows to a stop with all this bewilderment clobbering around in his body. The music has stopped, and in the sudden silence, Taehyung notices he’s breathing too hard. He can hear his heart beating in his ears, and Taehyung presses his lips together and shakes his head and beats a fist against the stone wall because this is stupid. He’s been so stupid, what was he hoping to find?
One chord, then another, and Taehyung lifts his head and finds a thin doorway has opened beside him with a blue iron gate that’s been left open. Taehyung hesitates outside of it, but he’s certain the piano is coming from inside.
There’s a cobbled path leading through a small courtyard up to a red brick building, the stones laced with moss and weeds. A maple tree is tucked into the front corner of the yard in an overgrown, grassy knoll, it’s limbs bowing under the weight of dying limbs. The rest of the space is filled with brush and foliage and the remains of spotted, wilting flowers.
Taehyung’s heart aches as he stumbles over vines drifting across the path, unsure if he’s feeling his own sadness or someone else’s.
His Gram used to say that plants carry the emotions of their caretakers. Taehyung always thought it was her way of telling him to be happier. If he couldn’t find joy for himself, then at least try to find it for the flowers. It worked on him, though, and whenever he was in the fields he made sure to sing and laugh and smile and pour into them as much as they poured into him.
But now, here, as he lingers next to a bed of long-dead sunflowers—Taehyung thinks that maybe Gram knew more than she was letting on.
Movement in one of the blue-shuttered windows of the building catches his eye. It’s brief, just a shadow passing through, but a light flickers on above a faded yellow door and Taehyung spots an “open” sign hanging lopsided off the handle.
The piano has stopped.
Thunder claps overhead as Taehyung presses the front door open, the bell hanging close by chiming to announce his arrival, and as he takes one step into the small entry he’s struck with the scent of herbs. Basil. Rosemary. A smothering amount of sage. They’re hanging from the ceiling in dried clumps and bumbles. Flowers are threaded throughout them: marigold and chamomile, roses and delphinium.
Taehyung’s sneakers squeak, squish, squick as he steps further into the building, away from the door, past a quaint reading room whose walls are hidden behind the buckling shelves of books. A lone edison bulb hangs in the center, its glow muted until Taehyung steps in to read some of the spine titles, as if it senses his presence and is trying to light the way.
Taehyung stares at it, then backpedals to the narrow corridor and watches in awe as the lightbulbs follow him into the main space of the store, as well. A couple large, wooden tables fill most of the first room. They’re coated in trays and low shelves filled with hundreds of neatly arranged rocks that sparkle in the dim light of the lamps that flicker to life as Taehyung moves further in.
Some of the rocks are raw and jagged and the size of his palm; others are smoothed into small bits that could be worn on a necklace, maybe even made into earrings. They’re all brilliantly colored and placed in such a way that hints at a pattern or a system of some kind. Taehyung moves in closer, and he peels away the damp hair from his eyes and reaches for a yellow stone that’s been buffed into an oval. It’s warm in his palm. Too warm, like it’s been resting near a fire.
“Citrine,” a breathy voice calls out, filling the air, and Taehyung nearly drops the rock. “Good pick for today.”
A boy steps around the corner from another room. He’s using his apron to polish a glass ball, and Taehyung feels his breath catch as the boy passes a lamp that warms to life beside him.
Taehyung’s never seen someone so beautiful in his whole life.
Taehyung’s mouth falls open but no words come out. Nothing intelligible anyways. But instead of laughing at him, jeering, the boy just smiles and Taehyung swears the room gets a little brighter; like someone forgot they left the lights dimmed and finally turned up the switch.
“The stone,” the boy gestures with a nod to the rock that Taehyung has pressed into his palm. He’s got light hair, the same color as the tips of a wheat field just before harvest. It curls around his ears and fluffs up in front. One strand has decided to rebel and sways above his brow as he moves. “Citrine warms the core and clears negative energy to make way for happiness and light. It comes in handy on rainy days.”
“I like the rain,” Taehyung answers thoughtlessly, still caught off guard, still dazzled, and it makes the boy laugh and Taehyung feels the sound reach deep into his bones.
“I can tell,” the boy grins again, and Taehyung frowns and glances down and realizes he’s been dripping. There’s a puddle building under his feet that’s spreading wider where the floor dips towards the center of the room.
Heat builds in Taehyung’s chest, spreading up his neck. “Sorry, I’m so sorry.” He sets the stone down quickly and backs away from the table, away from the boy, but that only spreads more water and he freezes. “I didn’t —I… ’m sorry,” he says, exhaustion mixed who knows what else making his voice crack.
A moment passes of Taehyung working at a loose thread on the hem of his shirt, and then the boy says, soft as a voice can get, “It’s okay. You’re okay.”
Taehyung shudders. Opens and closes his palms. The boy makes as if to say something else, but he just sets the glass ball down on a stand hidden on one of the tables and hurries to the counter on the far wall. He slips around it, then into a back room Taehyung hadn’t noticed until the boy disappears into it. He returns before Taehyung can flee, holding a couple towels, and Taehyung remains still as the boy approaches him carefully. Like he’s one of the animals from the park that startles easily.
The closer he gets, the heavier his steps become, and Taehyung wants to ask if he’s okay but is only startled into silence once more because one of the boy’s eyes is a warm brown, but the other is this incredible shade of blue. The kind of blue you only see from a perfect summer sky maybe once or twice in your life. The kind of blue Taehyung knows he’ll never forget.
And then, all of a sudden, the boy starts crying. Tears unstoppable. Like they’ve been waiting a long time to come out.
“Sorry, sorry,” the boy laughs, wiping them away as they fall, but this time the sound doesn’t make the room glow. If anything it grows colder, and Taehyung shivers in the open air. “Here, please have one.”
Taehyung takes the towel and pats himself down as the boy kneels at his feet to mop up the puddles. They make quick work, and Taehyung keeps his head low as he hands the towel back over.
“Thank you,” Taehyung says, still tucked in small as he finds the zipper of his jacket. He tugs it a bit, twisting the metal between his fingers. “The stone,” he starts again, surprising himself, and the words continue to spill, like someone else is plucking them out of him. “The rock from before. What did you mean about it having energy?”
“It’s a healing crystal,” the boy answers, his tone light. “Crystals have different powers, different purposes. That one in particular is to aide in optimism and dispelling negative thoughts, among other things.”
“But they can’t actually fix things. People,” Taehyung presses, looking back to the table. “They’re not medicine.”
“Can medicine fix a broken heart?” Taehyung glances over in surprise, and the boy’s gaze is so painfully and exquisitely warm that he can’t look away. “Can medicine increase creativity and determination? Can it make you more compassionate? More courageous? Can it give you clarity or wisdom?”
“Rocks can’t do that,” Taehyung says, but as the words leave his mouth they feel all wrong, heavy and unbalanced on his tongue.
The boy’s blue eye, for just a brief moment, seems to shine. “They do if you believe they can.”
Taehyung bites the soft spot of his cheek, looks over to where the pale-yellow stone from before is waiting in its drawer—waiting for him.
Taehyung remembers how warm it felt in his palm. Like it was at home there. Like it belonged.
“What is this place?” He asks, more to the room than the boy. Because this guy is talking about energy like it’s a tangible thing and there’s a wall filled with jars of plants and sparkling liquids and a fucking piano brought him here and if Taehyung holds his breath just right, he can feel his heart beat in time with something in the air. Something living.
Taehyung looks over the boy is watching him with wide, restless eyes, one hand pressed over his heart, like he’s feeling something too big to hold on to on his own.
Taehyung feels this inexplicable urge to reach out for him; but just before he steps forward, the front door jangles and the sounds of the storm and heavy footfalls fills the room before the door shuts, muffling the noise once more. “Jimin! I brought lunch.”
A man turns the corner from the front hall and pauses when he spots Taehyung. Not quite startled, just surprised. His hair is an ink spill across his forehead, and he uses a hand to brush it back. When he spots the blue-eyed boy lingering a few feet behind, something in his face warms so quick it makes Taehyung flush.
“A customer?” This new man asks, knocking his umbrella against the corner of the wall before dropping it into a holder on the other side.
“No, I’m not. Not a customer. No.” Taehyung’s tongue twists in his mouth and his cheeks sting, but the man just nods and brushes past him with a paper bag in hand.
“You’re in the shop,” he says, passing Taehyung by to head for the boy. Taehyung watches him move, as if he’s in a daze. “Which means you’re looking for something, which means you’re a customer.” The man’s voice is all rumbly and deep and Taehyung hears it, the lilting tone of home in his words. “If you don’t know what you’re looking for, just start browsing. You’ll figure out what you need.”
None of that made sense, but Taehyung’s too caught up in his voice. Daegu. Daegu, but a little off. A little old. The kind of accents his grandparents have.
Had. Had, had, had. Everything is had now. Everything is in the past.
Taehyung’s heart is trying to climb its way up his throat, and it doesn’t seem to care if it chokes him on its way out. On instinct, on something , Taehyung reaches out for the yellow stone and wraps his hand around it. He holds it close to his chest. It doesn’t calm his heart, doesn’t “clear him of negative energy”—But it’s warm. Like holding someone’s hand.
Taehyung can’t remember the last time he held someone’s hand. That morning in the field with Gram?
“There you have it.” Taehyung looks up, and the brusque man with an old Daegu accent is heading towards the backroom where the boy got the towels. “I’ll be in the kitchen, Jimin.”
Jimin. Jimin, with the odd eyes who cries with strangers and warms a room with his smile. Jimin, who is staring at him with twisted worry. Like he knows something Taehyung doesn’t, that Taehyung has missed.
“I’ll ring you up,” Jimin finally says, his eyes curling prettily with his grin.
Taehyung’s stomach drops to his feet. “I don’t—” Taehyung grips the stone tightly, then gently places it back in its tray. His palm goes cold. “I don’t have any money. Sorry.”
“Oh. No, no, I don’t need any money.” Jimin rocks forward then back. “I don’t take money. But I’ll take a memory.”
“A memory,” Taehyung echoes, and Jimin nods, his blue eye sparkling.
“A happy one preferably.”
A memory. A happy memory. Jimin wants him to share a happy memory.
“Do I forget it?” Taehyung manages to say, and crazy, this is crazy, but his fingers are already finding the stone again. “If you take it, do I lose it? Because I don’t… I don’t have a lot of happy memories. I…” Taehyung knows he sounds like a fool, but Jimin is looking at him tenderly, and something about his quiet watchfulness just makes Taehyung talk. “I don’t want to lose them. Not again.”
Jimin’s face shifts instantly into protective concern. “You keep it. The memory. It’s more like sharing.” Jimin’s face is still clouded over when he says, “I have to touch you, though.”
“I don’t like being touched.” Jimin nods like he’s heard this before, like he already knew. The stone pulses in his hand. “I… Okay.”
Crazy, crazy, crazy. This is all completely insane .
Jimin’s close again, even closer than before; so close that Taehyung can see flecks of gold in his eyes, like leftover traces of the sun. So close that he can smell the orange blossoms and lavender on his clothes. Jimin lifts his left hand and he’s wearing a gold ring on his fourth finger, intricately engraved with a twisting vine.
“Think of a happy memory,” Jimin murmurs, his tone almost melodic. A tremor runs through Taehyung at the sound. “Could be recent, could be from when you were young. Something warm. Something lovely.”
Taehyung closes his eyes. Happy. Warm. Lovely .
He doesn’t bother with this year, of the year before. He skims over the ones before that because there are nice memories here and there. Comfortable ones. Nothing that makes his heart hum, though. Nothing that makes his soul light up. Nothing that feels as if it’s worth what Jimin is asking him for.
He thinks back to Jr. High. Elementary school. And then, for the first time in nearly a decade, Taehyung allows himself to think of Before. Before the accident, when his family was whole. His first and last trip to the ocean.
Taehyung lifts his trembling hand, keeps his eyes squeezed shut, and he doesn’t miss the sharp intake of breath Jimin makes as he laces their fingers together.
Summer. An early afternoon in August. Light streaming through the patchwork leaves of a forest. The sound of rushing water. The warmth of sun drenched sand against his feet. Someone holding him close, singing soft and low in his ear. Laughter and a sky so brilliantly blue it makes you happy just to be alive.
The stone in Taehyung’s left hand is burning, and when Taehyung opens his eyes, Jimin is looking at him with pure wonder, his gaze so kind and sad that Taehyung immediately draws away.
“Is that all?” His voice is curt, not himself, and Jimin just nods, looking at him, looking at his own hand, completely stunned. “Okay.”
“Okay,” Jimin breathes, his voice high. He curls his fingers, like he’s trying to hold on to something slipping through them. “Thank you.”
Taehyung nods, and then he’s out the door before Jimin even has a chance to speak with him further. Not that he would. Not that anyone ever does.
The stone in his hand pulses. The rain has stopped, and on his way through the courtyard, Taehyung notices that the rose bush next to a rotting wooden bench has begun to bloom.
Three days have passed since Taehyung visited the weird shop with the weird boy and his weird rocks. One of which is now his. His weird rock. His weird rock that warms his hands and calms his heart. Only crazy people believe in magical rocks, and Taehyung might be one of them now.
He’s slept on park benches the past couple nights because he can’t bring himself to visit a club. Instead his mornings are spent by the river, watching the sun rise over the tops of the buildings. Evenings are spent there as well, because he likes the way the water turns pink and violet and gold from the setting sun, like a giant canvas of swirling paint. The in-betweens are rough. Summer’s still lingering and Taehyung’s starting to smell a little. He manages to talk a couple people into giving him the leftovers from their cafés after closing, but living off of muffins is only gonna get him so far.
Taehyung could go back to Daegu.
Except, he can’t afford the bus ticket.
And no one wants him there, anyway.
People put up with him all these years because of his grandparents. If he was normal, then things might be different. If he didn’t dress the way he did and wore shoes more often. If he was top of his class. If he didn’t talk to things, inanimate objects; doors and bowls books and plants and the sky. People always called him odd. It didn’t matter if he worked hard and was good with his hands. He was Different. Flighty and foolish and weird and annoying and dirty and stupid.
Taehyung buries his head into his palms and rubs at his eyes so hard he sees stars.
Feels the yellow stone burn in the pocket of his jeans.
In the distance is the sound of a piano.