An obscene series of cracks reverberated around him as he stretched his neck from side to side. He grimaced, not at the pain -or lack thereof- as it was a relatively common manoeuvre but rather at the sound. The horrible sound of bones crunching, and looming arthritis. Almost as if a metallic can was being crushed under foot right by his sensitive eardrums, except the noise was amplified by the lack of auditory interferences. It was a very quiet night indeed, he mused as he frowned up at the dark sky, he wondered if there were any stars hiding behind that thick blanket of city pollution.
Save for the loud internal thumping in his ears, belatedly warning him of an oncoming headache; the familiar road ahead was unusually silent and desolate. The cool wind felt chillier tonight as it penetrsted through his thin wrinkled dress shirt and the low-quality sodium vapour street lights did very little to illuminate the path ahead. This fact coupled with his terrible eyesight made it exceptionally more difficult for Wonwoo to remain calm.
It was definitely past midnight and well into the hours of the early morning, when he finally allowed himself to leave work for the night. Being a person who was inherently tired and generally weak for no obvious reason, was challenging in itself. So naturally, when such an individual is subjected to a 20-hour work shift, it only serves to further deplete his already limited energy reserves. Wonwoo thought that if it weren’t for the starving goldfish waiting to be fed at home he was sure he would’ve given up and collapsed in the dingy alleyway across the closed convenience store by now.
He paused at the intersection leading to the main road. His hindered senses and deprived brain somehow having enough rational thought, to check both sides of the deserted street before crossing to the other side. He stumbled on a miscalculated step, barely dodging the accumulated rubbish at the side of his favourite chicken joint -he swears he frequents because of the good chicken and proximity to work, rather than his chronic lack of funding, which means he can’t afford anything better.
He felt dilapidated in a way that he’d never experienced before. His aching body adding to the pain of his overall exhaustion, to the point where he felt ready to ignore the questionable stains and the pungent odour coming from that old mattress. The one that the bin men hadn’t gotten around to collecting, despite it being there by the corner of the shop for at least a few months now.
So understandably, for someone who was almost always tired this was a whole new level of unpleasant. The last time he remembered being in a remotely similar predicament, was during his final year exams at university. It was an overdose on liquid energy and ignoring the basic needs of his body, in favour of repeatedly drilling over-rehearsed material into his head, that had him barely functioning as a member of society for the next few months.
Not that Wonwoo was considered a functioning member of society even on his best days, anyway. But he had been hospitalised for over five weeks that time, due to extreme exhaustion and acute anaemia. Therefore, one would think it slightly concerning how that ordeal was considered “normal-ish” by Wonwoo’s standards, at least compared to what he was currently experiencing.
Although the young man was admittedly a self-proclaimed perfectionist, Wonwoo was by far not a workaholic. He always made sure he was out of the office at least five minutes before 6pm, every day, for the last two years since he began working. The only reasoning behind his later than usual departure tonight, would be an ill-fated mistake. Whereby the deadline of an important project was incorrectly believed to be the 4th of the following month as opposed to the current.
That being the following day.
If it weren’t for the keen eye of one of the staff and his unnecessary need to triple check everything, the whole mishap would have gone unnoticed and the company would’ve undoubtedly suffered big losses.
Thank god, they had that reliable, hardworking guy amongst them. Surely, he deserved some kind of raise or even a promotion for his selflessness and heroism. Instead he got stuck with an extra 7 or so hours of slave-working to get the project done in time for the CEO to finalise it in the morning. Curse his diligence and quick-thinking that apparently, did Wonwoo more harm than good. At least he learnt his lesson, vowing to keep it to himself the next time a co-worker decided to eff-up something important.
In the midst of his self-loathing, he thought he heard someone call his name in the distance. He dragged his heavy booted feet across the cracked pavement, his mind and body too worn-out from the day’s grievous labour to register the sound at first.
Silence immediately shrouded the dark street as soon as his footsteps halted on the concrete. Did he really hear his name being called or had his prolonged state of fatigue caused him to finally start hallucinating? He craned his stiff neck back briefly, scanning the dark, quiet road and the shadowed empty pavements. His blurry vision rendering any form of squinting futile as he could barely see a meter ahead of him without his glasses.
He cursed under his breath, remembering that the cursed round spectacles in question, were currently chilling inside his leather backpack. The boy had discarded them earlier, when they amplified the pressure on his temples, making his budding headache worse-r than he was prepared to handle.
Wonwoo looked ahead and picked up his pace towards the neon lights of the nearby bus stop when he felt his neck protesting the strain. Concluding for the sake of his mental stability, that he did not in fact hear anyone call for him at this ungodly hour of the night.
Although he really wouldn’t put it past his exhausted brain to play tricks on him. Like it was doing currently when he noticed the blinding headlights of an approaching bus that was so conveniently headed in the direction of Wonwoo’s neighbourhood.
He scoffed despite the pain. As if, he was that lucky.
He mentally gawked at the unbelievable scene that his desperate brain conjured up from his position on the bench. Everything from the sounds of the tyres crunching to a stop by the shelter and the creaking of the sliding doors, to the tired smile on the old bus driver’s face. It was all so realistic that he was momentarily rendered paralysed, his numb body lifeless and his soulless eyes transfixed in shock at the power of his hallucination.
So powerful in fact, that Wonwoo refused to be convinced by it. He was an avid believer in the presence of a dormant force stronger than any hallucination. A force that was capable of controlling the mind and keeping his thoughts firmly rooted in reality. He liked to think that he was in touch with it, that I was the one which saved him from missing the last bus for another two hours. That, or he simply didn’t care whether he was hallucinating or not, if it meant that he’d be on his way home already.
He ascended the steps, beeped his card and lowered himself on the very back seat of the aged bus, then he finally exhaled a long sigh. The bus was real.
Substantial relief flooded him at that single thought, but no amount of relief would suffice to rid him of the unfathomable pain, tension and stress that the poor boy was subjected to in the last 24 hours. He caught a glimpse of his carcass-like appearance in the window’s reflection as the bus jerked into motion, a half-hearted chuckle escaping his chapped lips at his over-dramatic thoughts.
At least it’ll be over soon.
According to Wonwoo life was a synonym for pain and suffering and the latter two wouldn’t end, until the former seized to exist.
This was a fact that Wonwoo already had ingrained in him, which would explain his ability to take all the BS as it came, while simultaneously remaining nonchalant about it all.
With that being said, it was still terribly annoying when his weak body would be so overcome by such crippling pain that he’d rather sell his soul to Satan to end the torment, rather than even attempt to think about getting better. In hindsight, he should’ve known something was up when his physical pain roused him from his admittedly long slumber at a quarter past noon. He remembers nearly choking on six -or was it seven?- painkiller pills as he swallowed them dry, since the kitchen was too damn far and the pain in his head way too much for him to think clearly at all.
He must’ve fallen asleep or become unconscious sometime after that, as it was now half past nine at night. At least according to the blurry figures on his cracked iPhone screen which was running dangerously low on energy, much like its’ owner. He typed out a quick message -something along the lines of SOS, he wasn’t too sure- to his ex-roommate and thereby ex-best friend; before he gave up to the enticing prospect of a painless trip to the dark abyss of unconsciousness.
Wonwoo was floating -not flying, because obviously humans couldn’t fly- in a cotton candy world. He was surrounded by goofy-looking smiley mermaids in pastel colours, a whole band of twerking mini-Pikachus, plus what appeared to be an entire years’ worth of harvest in carrots. They were incessantly rocking their heads, all while a particularly shiny diamond read them a poem about the meaning of life.
Wonwoo was smiling, he was feeling soft and unreasonably happy. Somewhere in the back of his mind he knew none of this was ok, yet at the same time he couldn’t help but let himself slip deeper into the lucid dream.
Twenty-four years was enough time for Wonwoo to get used to being pushed around and rudely manhandled by this cruel, insignificant thing called life. So, he was hardly surprised when he was yet again, forced to peel his eyes open and face reality, even though he specifically remembered having no desire to wake up anytime soon.
He strained to keep his eyes shut and groaned loudly, immediately entering a frenzied coughing fit as he choked on his severely parched throat. Naturally his fight or flight instincts kicked in, his eyes flying wide open and back shooting straight out of bed, as he struggled to breathe in between all the heaving.
A more life-threatening concern however, was the small hand continuously hitting his back. No doubt the owner harboured good intentions but Wonwoo swore he could feel things breaking with every smack delivered to his sore back. The impact of the blows was definitely much larger than the size of the hand and Wonwoo had half a mind to give up on life already -they clearly didn’t get along well.
That is, until his hero and saviour came in the form of a twinkling glass, pressing coolly against his extremely chapped lips. The glass was half-filled with clear odourless liquid, that was slowly tilting its way out of the glass to carve a trail of life down his throat. The liquid raced down to calm his constricting chest, until it finally hit his empty stomach -which he could feel expanding with every gulp he took.
He closed his eyes and fell back down on the bed, savouring the sweet taste on his freshly watered tongue -how is it that he’s never noticed this taste before. He felt like every drop of water was injecting much needed life into him, allowing him to finally realise the unfamiliarity of the whole situation.
For starters, the bed he was currently occupying felt rather foreign, he was also somehow aware that glasses of water didn’t just materialise out of thin air to save a dying Wonwoo -no matter how cool that sounded. But the most unnerving realisation by far was the feeling of being watched and not just by one pair of eyes, but multiple.
Wonwoo was positively shitting himself -or he would’ve been if his insides weren’t as dry as the Sahara Desert. It was a well-known fact that Wonwoo didn’t get along well with humans and consequently lacked severely in the “friend” department.
Therefore, he was completely convinced that it had to be Satan, finally claiming him as his spawn. Just as Wonwoo prepared to initiate himself into the devil way of life, he heard him speak -the devil, that is.
He immediately furrowed his eyebrows, straining to hear the hushed whispers. Wonwoo internally gasped, taken aback by how human-like the voice sounded -having expected Satan to sound a tad bit more “satanic” somehow. He was especially put off by the nagging feeling at the corner of his being, telling him that he’d heard this voice before.
‘Do you think he’s dead?’
‘OW... what was that for, you dingus’
A second voice, sounding noticeably more tired and irritated than the first answered,
‘I swear I’ll kill you if you don’t stop asking stupid questions’
‘I can’t help it, he looks so dead’
The thudding sound came again -three times in a row- followed by pained groans.
Wonwoo wondered what the literal hell was happening -and also why both voices sounded so familiar, wasn’t he supposed to be with Satan right now?
‘Kwon Soonyoung, istg’
There was an exasperated sigh followed by another “thud” and a hushed,
‘OWWW stop hitting me, Jihoon’
‘Then learn to shut your useless mouth, dingus. Can’t you see Wonwoo’s practically on his deathbed? You need to stay positive for him, not say such depressing things’
Wonwoo willed himself to fall back asleep and never wake up. The level of second hand embarrassment he received was so severe that wanting to die suddenly became his number one wish -up a whole rank from where it had always been a close second response to everything that Wonwoo encountered in life.
‘Guys you literally just saw him gulp down the entire glass like a thirsty whore, I’m sure he’s more likely to die of the embarrassment that you two are his friends than anything else right now’
Wonwoo unintentionally snorted, as the previously bickering pair sported identical affronted tones of denial, simultaneously yelling,
‘HEY, YOU. SHUT UP.’ at the owner of the third voice, who giggled quietly in reaction.
Wonwoo cracked one eye open to spy discreetly at his company. He had already gathered from their disturbing conversation that he was in hospital and was probably unconscious for a while. He didn’t even find it slightly alarming how calm he was despite this revelation. He was used to it, after all.
‘Oh, looks like sleeping beauty is finally ready to join the living. Hey Won, how ya feelin?’
Looks like his “discreet” one eye tactic wasn’t as discreet as he had hoped,
‘Um... g-good?’ He stuttered, clearing his still dry throat before adding ‘water.’
There was a series of clashes and thumps to his left, he could imagine someone had fallen down as they rushed to bring him water.
The boy with the fluffy pink hair shook his head at them with a light smile that warmed Wonwoo’s cold heart. Jeonghan was such an angelic person that Wonwoo couldn’t help but smile back.
‘They’re such a pair of dickwads. Aren’t they?’
Everything that came out of his mouth however, was the exact opposite of angelic. Wonwoo would have been surprised if he hadn’t already been well accustomed to the living contradiction named Yoon Jeonghan, since the beginning of high school. Wonwoo cleared his throat again, choosing to ignore the older boy’s question in favour of asking his own,
‘How long have I been here?’
His voice sounded croaky and uneven due to the disuse -not that he used it very often anyway.
‘Unconscious, you mean?’
‘Unfortunately, not as long as last time.’
The younger frowned,
‘Unfortunately? What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘It’s nothing personal. Just that I can’t use my unconscious friend as an excuse to get out of shit anymore’ he said with a sweet smile, voice pleasant, as if he was telling a bedtime story.
Wonwoo scowled deeply,
‘Fuck off, Jeonghan.’
‘Woah, calm down bitchface. I save you from almost certainly coughing your lungs out and this is the “thank you” I get?’
Wonwoo relentlessly glared at him in silence until the older boy got the message loud and clear. He’d always loved communicating without the actual communication. He smiled to himself as Jeonghan stormed off muttering something along the lines of,
‘The disrespect. Tsk, Kids are so ungrateful these days’
The rest of the day went by in a blur. After Wonwoo was checked up by the doctor and attached to a new IV drip, he was finally given his water -two whole glasses this time- as Soonyoung fussed over him, asking how he was feeling every five seconds. Literally all his sentences ended with a “oh my gosh WONWOO, are you okay?” Or “holy shit, your chest just moved when you breathed, should I call the doctor?”.
Wonwoo just rolled his eyes, tuning the other’s blabbering out and sharing an amused look with a grumpy Woozi -which was his default setting so Wonwoo didn’t worry much about it. The shorter boy hadn’t said anything since his short greeting of ‘you good, bro?’ earlier, but it was very obvious to Wonwoo that he was just as concerned for his health as Soonyoung was. They just had different ways of showing it. While Soonyoung chose to blab non-stop, ask questions and wail. Woozi chose to watch, support and observe silently. It was easy to tell which reaction Wonwoo preferred.
He only finally felt like he could relax once the door slid shut behind them. He truly appreciated and loved his friends, 17 years of quality friendship wasn’t just for shits and giggles. He’d been through so much with these boys, cried together, laughed together, got shitfaced drinking together, helped each other make it through the long nightmarish years of high school. They’ve been there for each other through thick and thin and as much as Wonwoo complained about how annoying they were, he wouldn’t replace them for the world.
The following morning, he awoke to a sweet floral scent that instantly comforted him and a reassuring hand holding his own. It warmed his heart to know that his parents travelled from their hometown in Changwon -three whole hours away- to see him when they could’ve simply called in. He smiled significantly more in that day than he did the entirety of last year and realised he should go back home to see them more often.
After another few days of recharging he was finally discharged from the hospital and advised to follow a very specific and complicated diet to “replenish his body” which Wonwoo quite frankly, didn’t care for. He didn’t have the time nor the patience to figure out what half the ingredients were, let alone actually buy and make something edible out of them.
He had instant ramen that night. But at least he ate the dried vegetables that came with it, instead of abandoning them at the bottom of the pot, like he usually did. That was progress enough for him.
His apartment smelt like spring flowers and his fridge was stocked with an array of side dishes. He sent his mum a throbbing heart emoji text and fell right into soft crispy sheets with a content smile.
The following incidents were an incredibly rare occurrence.
Wonwoo was in a good mood from the moment he opened his eyes the following Monday. And by “good mood”, it meant that wanting to die was firmly secured in third place, the lowest it’s been since he could remember. He hummed along to the beat of some throwback song as he went about his routine, even going as far as eating an apple for breakfast.
After little deliberation, he opted to wear a freshly ironed egg-blue dress shirt, tucked into his only pair of black slacks that actually fit, along with a tie. He could almost feel Soonyoung’s spirit gasping in disbelief -a part of Wonwoo couldn’t believe it either. He hadn’t been this eager to go into work since his first day at the god forsaken hell-hole.
The tie he wore wasn’t anything fancy, just a plain black clip-on one that his younger brother got him for his 17th birthday. But it was noticeably much fancier than his usual attire. At least he redeemed himself by forgoing the blazer and throwing on his favourite huge black parka before heading off to work a whole 10-minutes before he was supposed to leave his apartment. Gosh, was he eager.
But it’d been a full month since he last went to work and he ached to get a semblance of normalcy back into his life. Not to mention his desperate need of cash, before his landlord renders him homeless. Wonwoo would normally jump at the chance to hibernate forever, but lying in a hospital bed for as long as he did certainly wasn’t something he wanted to experience again. Ever.