In the summer of Donghyuck's fourteenth year, the first launched craft of the manned extrasolar exploration missions collides with a stray comet just outside of Neptune's orbit. They tell him about it in school, in astrophysics class about the technicalities of gravitational pull and how to prevent these kind of situations, in moral studies about lives lost to never-ending curiosity and fate. Donghyuck goes home in the weekends and talks to his mother about people who die for their passion with tears in his eyes. She pats him on the back and tucks him into bed to the sound of the incoming tide, "You're too sensitive for exact sciences," she says and kisses the spot in-between his eyes.
It's what more people say. It's what Chenle Zhong says when they work together on their project on outer space colonization later that week, and Donghyuck questions too often the why and never enough the how.
"We can't just go and take other people's planets, right?" He asks Chenle, who rests his head of light pink in Donghyuck's lap after hours of work. "That's the thing though, Hyuck," he replies lazily, scrolling through pictures of prototypes of warp drives. "They're not people."
The stock market crash of 2065 forces Donghyuck's parents' fishing business to close up permanently. His father manages to land a job in a bleak taxation office in a tower block in the city, hundreds of miles away from the sound of the ocean and the expanse of blue skies. When Donghyuck peers out of the window in his unfamiliar three-by-three bedroom, the air smells of smoke instead of salt, and the stars are hidden behind clouds of smog and neon blue.
A teacher in his new school tells him she wants to meet up with his parents. They come home and propose another school, back in the rolling hills of the countryside, with high tuition fees and a neat uniform. They say it's for the best, because he has so much potential, and fifteen-year olds need more stimulation than a working father and a depressed mother can give. Donghyuck agrees, because of the astronomy program, and because he can't bear the fine dust in his lungs any longer.
"I'll miss you so much," his mother hugs him on the doorstep, tighter than she ever has before. She kisses the spot in-between his eyes, reaching up onto her tippy-toes, flattening the back of her hastily pulled on shoes with the heels of her feet when she lets go. Donghyuck smiles widely, "I'll be fine, mom." He caresses her cheek with a warm hand, setting down the suitcase filled with newly bought white dress-shirts and shoes of Italian leather. "Christmas will be here before you know it."
Donghyuck doesn't feel so gifted anymore surrounded by a crowd of highly intelligent kids, always trying to be better and better and better. The highest scoring students get part-time internships in the global space exploration department from the age of sixteen. So Donghyuck spends the winter of 2066 hunched over pages upon pages of astrophysics and mathematics. He quits playing piano and doesn't think about the girl across the hall for three months. When he gets into the program, he never sees her again.
The ones that make it are few and mostly older than him. There's another two boys and a girl around his age, all looking up at the structures in front of them as if this is a routine visit. One boy however sticks out, eyes wide as he stares at the launch platform in the distance. He turns to Donghyuck and swallows like he's been caught eating hard caramels before dinner. He composes himself and sticks a hand out in the pretence of being unimpressed. Donghyuck lets out a snort and takes the boy's hand, "I'm Donghyuck," he introduces himself, "And for the record, I'm just as impressed as you are."
At dinner, the boy sits next to him on the steel benches of the cafeteria, heavy voice echoing throughout the hollow, vacant room when he introduces himself as Mark Lee, the white lights glinting in his eyes like stars. Donghyuck offers him half of his mother's homemade potato pancakes in return for ham gimbap and a listening ear.
As it turns out, Mark Lee excels in somewhat everything there is. Donghyuck often thinks that the universe was made for people like Mark, infinitely curious and amazed, passionate enough to explore until there's absolutely nothing left.
The two of them spend every second together, so much that after a while Donghyuck doesn't dream of anything else but Mark's giggly bouts of laughter and pointy teeth. It's not a strange thing, but it's an unwelcome distraction, because his concentration deteriorates whenever Mark's around, and if Donghyuck wants to send people into space he needs to be his very best.
"What about quasars?" Mark asks, looking up from his book with wide brown eyes, voice cracking from exhaustion. He curls pale slender fingers around the cold cup of coffee on the desk and scrunches up his nose in annoyance. "I don't know, what about them?" Donghyuck retorts, grabbing the cup from Mark's freezing hands. He walks over to the coffee machine and fixes Mark a refill. The hardwood floor creaks under his soft tread, cutting into the silence with his every step.
Mark sighs when Donghyuck hands him the cup, smiling thankfully in the weak light of the desk lamp. "Be careful it's hot," he whispers, trying not to break the calm atmosphere in the room. He crawls back into bed and turns to look at Mark studying, counting the seconds with the monotonous tick of the clock.
When he's lost count five times he sits up, earning Mark's attention. "I thought you were asleep," the older says, carefully folding his glasses, "Did the light keep you up?" Through the window, Donghyuck can already vaguely make out the outlines of the building next to theirs. He shakes his head lightly. "Go to bed, Mark," he dictates, "You're going to work yourself to death."
Mark calls him on Sunday mornings, right before the sun comes up, in an hour of hazy silence and anticipation. Donghyuck gets used to after a while, to the crack of Mark's sleepy voice, the warmth of his covers and the first traces of dawn. The tone to Mark's number is an old song about space travel, it reminds him of what he's here for. Donghyuck only ever picks up after the raspy voice ends the rocket's countdown with an excited lift-off. He sings along and wishes Major Tom a safe trip (may god's love be with you).
"Hello," he whispers into the receiver, softly, with a tick of the clock between every breath. The sun climbs up the window and illuminates the foot of his bed. The small hand points at the seven with a tired hunch and Donghyuck laughs quietly at Mark's extreme punctuality. He rolls over onto his back and traces the cracks on the white plaster ceiling with half-lidded eyes. Like empty roads in an endless snowy landscape they split the world at the seams. The upstairs neighbours' black lab starts barking above. Donghyuck sits up at wipes the sleep from his eyes.
"I had a dream about you," Mark's voice sounds crackly from the other side of the line, bouncing off the white walls of his one-bedroom apartment on the other side of the city, a thirty-five minutes metro ride and two snowfalls away. "We were out in space, and your hair was red, and," Mark pauses for a second and de line almost goes dead. He speaks up after forty-two seconds, "And you left me behind."
In Donghyuck's mind it shouldn't sound like I miss you, even though I saw you just the other week, yet it does. He believes that buried under the piles of snow that have fallen all throughout the past week, Mark does say that, but calls before sunrise to not let it melt away and reveal what's underneath. "Mark," he sighs, "We've been over this." Mark giggles on the other side of the city and says, "Do you want to go for coffee later?" The lab stops barking and Donghyuck smiles at the sun that falls in horizontal strips of gold onto the orange walls. "Straight to the point, there we go."
They have to run to catch the last train. Snow soaks Donghyuck's boots through the torn leather on the inside of his left foot as they cut through a white field to make it to the rural station in time. Mark pulls his sleeve up to sneak a glimpse at his watch, black hair fluttering in the icy wind as he turns to Donghyuck with a face, half frantic, half ecstatic. Donghyuck throws his head back in laughter at Mark's expression, breathes the scent of winter deeply into his lungs and never for a split second lets go of Mark's gloved hand.
"One more minute," Mark's voice flutters into Donghyuck's mind like the snowflakes on his long eyelashes. In the distance the yellow windows of a train cut the hills into pieces. "We'll make it," Donghyuck says as he catches up to Mark, "We've got nowhere to be."
On the platform are a few other passengers scattered underneath the wooden overhang illuminated by a weak orange lamppost. A woman in a cream-coloured coat struggles to keep hold of a bulging bag of firewood and her young son's hand at the same time. Mark offers to hold the firewood for her, lifting the bag onto his broad shoulders as if it's filled with feathers. The cables over the rails sag under the heavy weight of the snow. Donghyuck feels like he's floating when Mark smiles at him, glinting orange and contentment.
The train arrives two minutes behind schedule, warm and empty. The windows are fogged up on the inside and Mark nudges Donghyuck as he draws a rocket on the window. "This is going to be us one day," he whispers, hot breath fanning the shell of Donghyuck's freezing ears like a summer breeze. He takes off his glove and intertwines his fingers with Donghyuck's inside the pocket of his black padded jacket.
Mark falls asleep halfway the countryside and the city, bright red cheeks pressed against the steamy window. His hand is still in Donghyuck's pocket, big and damp and cold. Donghyuck strokes his thumb over Mark's rough knuckles, memorizing the steady slope of ups and downs like a mountain range. Outside they pass through small villages, bright lights shining like stars in the inky night. Further away the neon lights of the city form a dome in the winter fog, an indicator for the train to find its way back home.
There isn't an indication of anything being wrong. Mark calls him on a Thursday night, right when the sun sinks in between two skyscrapers and plunges Donghyuck's room into a pink-tinged darkness. "Can you come over?" He asks, and he doesn't sound wrong, doesn't sound quite right either. "Has something happened?" Donghyuck asks lazily, not missing the way his stomach starts churning with every tick of the bent second-hand. A light breeze enters through the open window and blows a stack of aerodynamics II notes off of the white marble windowsill. "Not at all," Mark replies in confusion, "I just thought of something."
The light-blue metro-line 17 gets him to Mark's new apartment in the city centre in just over ten minutes. When he emerges from the underground station, the sky is a flaming orange and the street is damp after a brief summer rainstorm. Donghyuck takes off his wet yellow hoodie and folds it over his left arm, breathes in the scent of cherry blossoms and spicy rice cakes.
Mark opens the metal door wearing a tomato sauce stained apron and a wide smile. The smell of something burning hangs in the air above them and Donghyuck coughs subtly. "Are you cooking?" He asks incredulously, shifting his eyes from the apron to Mark's pink cheeks. "Well," Mark trails off, "I tried to cook, but I've come to realise that I can't cook to save my life." Donghyuck barks out a laugh and toes off his white Reeboks before stepping into Mark's open arms, "At least you tried."
Donghyuck insists on ordering pizza after the witnessing the burnt tomato sauce disaster. He goes to find his phone after pulling on one of Mark's grey hoodies, shoulders too wide and sleeves too long. It smells like wood and salt, like a long-forgotten winter after weeks of burning sun. "You pick a movie," he whispers to Mark, pointing at the hologram by the wall.
In an empty moment, between Donghyuck's last slice of pepperoni pizza and Joel and Clementine's first last kiss, Mark turns to him and smiles in a way that sets Donghyuck's lungs on fire and dries out his throat in the process. His hand finds its way to the flaming skin of Donghyuck's right thigh and finds a temporary home there.
"Why did you call me over on a Thursday?" Donghyuck breathes the words like they're secrets, unsure and questioning. Mark's smile grows impossibly wider and before he can talk Donghyuck reaches down and kisses his lips, brief and swift, just to make sure. "Because I missed you," Mark replies, and Donghyuck would like to think that Mark is just impossibly cheesy and capable of pulling things like that, but he knows better. "And because I have news."
It's what Donghyuck thinks about sometimes, in in-between moments, in the middle of the night and in the middle of the day and in the wake of the burning sun. It's been in the back of his mind since the first day they met near the launch platform. It's what Mark was born for.
Mark falls in love with prime numbers and the concept of infinity before falling in love with the planet he grows up on. He softly squeezes Donghyuck's thigh and says "I'm leaving," in that same wide-eyed, perpetually surprised manner, as if the idea comes to him like an epiphany the second he grazes Donghyuck's burning skin to get his attention. And Donghyuck nods and purses his lips into a heart-shaped smile and prays to all the gods there have ever been that it doesn't break.
There's a soft knock at the door on a rainy Sunday morning. Mark has not called but Donghyuck knows astronaut training takes up most of his time between sunrise and sundown. At night he feels his own bed dip with a warm weight sometimes, when Mark is too exhausted to find the way to his own home in the centre. He snakes muscular arms around Donghyuck's waist and kisses his neck and mutters apologies to the dead of night. There are two toothbrushes by the sink and Donghyuck sets two cups of coffee when Mark gets up at six. When he wakes up again after the sun has risen, one of them is empty.
Donghyuck wipes his wet hands on an already wet tea towel and turns the radio down. When he opens the door, he finds Mark, soaked through a jean jacket and glasses fogged up. In his hands is a box wrapped in a raincoat. Donghyuck raises his eyebrows and urges Mark to come in. He cranks up the heating and gives Mark his yellow hoodie, kisses his lips and pushes him onto the couch.
"Careful," Mark giggles, wrapping his arms around the box in his hands. Raindrops make their way from wet strands of dark brown to his flushed cheeks. A stripe of sunlight lights up the room and Mark smiles brighter. "I've got you a present." Donghyuck sighs and fondly rolls his eyes, "I've told you a thousand times, Mark. You don't need to apologise." Mark sits up, waves his large hand, "No, it's not an apology."
The first time Mark tells Donghyuck he's going to space, Donghyuck sees it coming from miles away. He tries so hard to seem glad for Mark. This is all he's ever wanted. Mark sees through Donghyuck after three minutes of watery-eyed silence and holds him till the sun comes up. "I love you," he says. Donghyuck doesn't want to be reminded of Mark's dream about him being the one leaving but it doesn't stop him from saying, "You're a bit of a hypocrite."
A whole ten months and a long winter later, Donghyuck thinks he's accepted it. That it's not really any of his business anyways. The deep voice of the radio presenter floats into every corner of the living room, filling them in on the details of next week's space craft launch. Donghyuck leans his bright red head onto Mark's broad chest and listens to the steady beat of a familiar heart. Mark snorts and rakes his fingers through Donghyuck's freshly-dyed hair. "I like it red," he mutters silently, "Looks like you're the boy of my dreams after all."
When the interview cuts off and a jazz song curls into the spaces between raindrops ticking on the window, Mark sits up and hands Donghyuck the soggy box. "I talked to the landlady, and she's okay with it," he says, smirking at the way Donghyuck narrows his eyes in a mixture of confusion and suspicion. When he opens it, he finds the tiniest kitten he's ever seen, staring up at him with bright green eyes. "Oh my god, Mark," he gasps, cradling the kitten into his hands. Its fur is a patchwork of white, black and ginger, its eyes wide as it lets out a high-pitched mewl before leaning its head into Donghyuck's palm as if saying hello.
"The owners named him Bobby, but it's fine if you change his name. He's just a baby," Mark looks down at Donghyuck from where he's standing in the yellow sunlight, glowing, wide eyes shining gold with contentment. Donghyuck stands up and brings the hand that's not holding the calico up to Mark's left cheek, glides his thumb over his cheekbone and leans in to kiss him. The song shifts to Mark's century old space travel ringtone and Donghyuck holds him close.
Donghyuck turns eighteen and his parents move back to the south coast. Doctor after doctor advises his mother sea air as a cure for her protracted depression, as if salt stimulates neurotransmitters more than a lifetime supply of xanax and zoloft. Donghyuck visits them in his old hometown the day after midsummer with a bag of oranges and good news.
The train is packed as it's nine on one of the final days of the school year. A group of exuberant middle school kids passes Donghyuck in beachwear, yelling loudly about the weather forecast predicting temperatures above thirty degrees. Their giddy laughter is contagious. Donghyuck stretches his legs and stares out the window at the summer sun in exhilaration.
When he arrives at the station, he is met with the aftermath of the daily market on the village square, heaps of ice steadily melting in de buzzing summer heat and the smell of raw fish. His father picks him up in his old electric car, red paint chipped on the doors. "Did you hear?" His dad asks. Donghyuck shakes his head without thinking twice, he doesn't even live here, how could he have heard anything? "Old man Zhong took over the harbour, so the fishing industry is thriving these days." Donghyuck feels the elation radiate from his father's aged features, basks in a moment of forgotten happiness.
His mother asks him about Mark as soon as she lets her bony fingers fall from his sun-burnt cheeks. Donghyuck swallows around the lump in his throat and steps into the shade of the weeping willow in the garden. "He's fine up there," he informs her, "They're letting me be his ground control starting in September." His father stops peeling the orange in his calloused hands to look up at him from the garden table. "That's good," he says, and hands the orange in little parts to Donghyuck's mother sitting on the white-painted bench on the deck. He looks back at Donghyuck with a certain expression and sighs. "I won't be able to handle you being depressed too."
It rains on the way back to the city, a downpour of unseen proportions. When he arrives home, he finds Bowie waiting for him on the white marble windowsill of his empty bedroom, the sheets on the bed still pristine as he left them. It seems like he forgets about Mark sometimes, until he comes home to an unused second toothbrush and a full cup of coffee on the wooden countertop. He scoops Bowie into his lap and lights a cigarette, gazes at the clouds obscuring his view of the night. He knows Mark is passing Charon's orbit on the outer edge of the solar system in his tin can, as if crossing the river to the underworld without guaranteed safe return.
Mark doesn't call on Sunday mornings anymore, nor on Thursday afternoons. Donghyuck hears his voice, tinny and static, through the speakers of the ground base when they discuss solar power strength and warp speed. When the clock chimes nine times, and his colleague John leaves, Donghyuck turns to the web camera asks Mark about the stars.
"They're like stripes," Mark comments, and shows Donghyuck through the porthole-like window of the tiny craft, "I'm going too fast." He points his pale index finger at one of many drawn-out stars. "That's our sun," he says, bright lights reflecting in his ever-wide eyes like traces of dreams. Donghyuck doesn't see the sun these days. He leaves before sunrise and takes the last train back. Unless Mark shows him the stars of a solar system a hundred thousand lightyears away, Donghyuck remains in the dark.
"I have a question, Major Tom" Donghyuck pipes up as he tries to pull his eyes away from Mark's shaggy black locks, reminiscing the feeling of his own fingers tangled through the silky strands. "But you can't laugh at me." On the other side of the galaxy, Mark laughs anyways, gleeful and laggy, after six minutes of lightyear-long delay. "What's it like to bust a nut in space?" After another nine minutes Mark's voice sounds like electric shocks when he catches his breath and responds, "Out of this world."
Donghyuck takes the last train back to the city and leaves Mark to analyse minerals in passing comets and discuss alien life with bacterial bio-engineer Lucas Wong. He sits alone in an empty carriage and watches the distant lights of the skyscrapers. At the second stop a woman sits down in front of him, as if there isn't enough space. Donghyuck nods in acknowledgement and tries to keep his eyes open.
She pops peppermints like his mother pops painkillers. It's the way Donghyuck smokes cigarette after cigarette until the smoke clings onto him and doesn't let go until he showers in too hot water and changes his one white dress shirt for another. John tells him that it will damage his lungs during afternoon smoke breaks, taking a long drag from his self-rolled cigarette as if picking out his own filters will prevent his own lungs from being stained black.
The woman raises her thinly-plucked eyebrows as she sees Donghyuck staring and offers him a mint from a pink tin. Her nails are long and painted silver. Her blonde hair shines a dull grey in the dim light. Donghyuck smiles politely as he accepts her offer and lets the peppermint fizzle out on his tongue to try and wash away the bitter aftertaste of solitude and midnight coffee.
When the first snow falls, Donghyuck catches a cold. It's nothing to worry about, but the neighbour with the black lab, Dongyoung Kim tells him to stay in bed and indirectly forces him to catch some sun for the first time since the beginning of autumn.
"I'm fine, man," Donghyuck argues, warming his feet on the patches of sunlight scattered on the hardwood floor of the living room. Dongyoung is making breakfast in the kitchen, way too domestic in his striped apron, now and then feeding Bowie little scraps of raw bacon from the plate on the counter. "Well, I'm still cooking for you. When was the last time you even had a homecooked meal?" Donghyuck scratches his head and nudges Bowie away from Dongyoung's generous hands. He doesn't even remember the last time he properly went outside, let alone cook himself a meal. "That's what I thought," his neighbour adds with a snarky tone to his melodic voice. If not caring, Dongyoung's a smartass, it reminds Donghyuck a lot of his mother before she got sick.
Donghyuck turns up the volume on the old radio on the table and opens the window. They're playing century bops on Dongyoung's favourite station. Inevitably, Mark's ringtone fills the kitchen and mingles with the usual city din from outside. Even though Mark's number is long out of use and the contact outside of the basis remains zero, Donghyuck still expects Sunday morning calls like a routine.
"Yeah, that's you," Dongyoung coos at Bowie as he pets the ginger patch on his head, humming along to the song, "That's David Bowie." Donghyuck rolls his eyes and stands up. "I'm going to lie down for a bit," he says, "Call me when the food is ready."
His bed feels too empty when he lies down, blinds shut all the way, allowing just a sliver of morning sun to paint a stripe of yellow onto the wall above his head. He thinks of Mark with shaky hands and burning cheeks, he is all there is in his head. He's in every cell of Donghyuck's being, in every star in the universe. The thoughts of Mark leave billions of years' worth of time and space smeared across the white plaster ceiling like glow in the dark stars. They're all he ever focusses on.
This time around, Dongyoung's black lab doesn't bark, and Donghyuck falls into the steady drone of silence.
Donghyuck is nineteen and his future has been neatly mapped out for him ever since he got into the outer space exploration program. He cares too much about practicalities and not enough about theory. He would rather help homeless people find a home, than find new planets to build homes on. It's what his mother said and what Chenle Zhong said and what more people said. Donghyuck is too sensitive for exact sciences. He cares too much about deviances.
He goes back down to the south coast and takes care of his mother during the humid summer months. Mark asks for him from four and a half million lightyears away. The three-day lag between messages gives Donghyuck enough time to think about the rest of his life.
"I told him you weren't showing up anymore," John says on the phone during his smoke break. Donghyuck scoffs and crosses his arms. "What? You think I didn't know about the two of you?" His colleague asks, and laughs too loudly into the receiver, "I have eyes, you know." When his father returns with fresh fish and peaches, Donghyuck coughs and says, "I've got to go, but tell Mark that I'm coming back."
In September, he sends Mark a message through extended radio signals. He's two galaxies away and the video signal cut out last May. "I love you," he types, and hopes it will come through. The black keys of the board seem like endless black holes underneath his nicotine stained fingers. Although named Adiona, after the old Greek goddess of safe return, Donghyuck doubts the craft will ever make it back home.
A month later they get back a '2' and the scientists believe Mark is referring to the number of galaxies he's crossed. Donghyuck knows better.
In the late summer of Donghyuck's twentieth year, the second launched craft of the manned extrasolar exploration missions breaks all contact with planet Earth. The circuit goes dead on a rainy Sunday morning.
He finds a 2068 picture of astronaut Mark M. Lee in his postbox two days later, which he hangs onto the door of the fridge. Donghyuck returns home and tells John he's not coming back. Mark is approximately five million lightyears away. He doesn't come back either.