(n) sadness that you'll never be able to know how history turned out.
Jeon Jeongguk is twelve years old with small hands and doe eyes when he meets Kim Taehyung, a transfer student from a small hick town just outside of Daegu. Taehyung arrives during the beginning of the second semester of sixth grade, when the chill of winter is at its harshest and the excitement of the holidays has died down. In all of his prepubescent awkwardness, Taehyung stands hunched over in front of the class with gangly limbs.
“I-I’m Kim Taehyung,” he stutters when he introduces himself—accent strange in a way that Seoul kids like Jeongguk rarely hear. The boy’s gaze is constantly shifting around the room, fingers locked tightly together. His voice is soft as if he’s afraid of being heard and Jeongguk’s barely listening, finds doodling at the corners of his math book to be more interesting. It’s when he glances up that Taehyung accidentally makes eye contact with Jeongguk. He recoils like he’s been burned and instantly looks down to the floor.
Jeongguk doesn’t know why it irritates him, or why he finds Taehyung’s shyness to be kind of adorable. But from that moment on, for some innocuous reason, Jeongguk decides that he doesn’t like the boy.
Taehyung is strange—everyone in class knows this. His skin is dark from living out in the country, a stark contrast compared to the paleness that Seoul kids strive for. His hair, a dark shade of brown, is shaggy and unkempt. He reads books alone in the courtyard and wears the same pair of shoes everyday with holes in them. Taehyung is the epitome of different, a complete contrast to Jeongguk who’s loud, and bold and popular.
He doesn’t talk much either, and when he does it’s incoherent mumbling under his breath. Sometimes he’ll stop in the middle of street on the way home to pick up a beetle and set it in the grass. When it storms and the ground becomes flooded, he’ll take worms from the sidewalk and put them in a dirt filled jar before they die, only to release them when everything dries up and Jeongguk thinks it’s stupid that anyone would go out of the way to save a worm. It’s stupid but incredibly cute and it only makes his dislike towards the boy grow even stronger. Because Taehyung, in all of his strangeness, is still beautiful. He’s undeniably beautiful, and everyone knows it.
Despite having holes in his shoes, by the first month a dozen girls have confessed to him and he’s politely turned every single one of them down. Taehyung doesn’t seem to show much interest in the opposite sex, and after the eleventh girl gets turned down, vicious rumors begin to circulate about him. Middle school is cruel, especially one as elite as theirs, and between the whispers shared through notes passed from underneath desks, Jeongguk is handed a piece of paper from the stubby fingers of a classmate.
It’s a ripped piece from the corner of a notebook folded carelessly with jagged edges. When Jeongguk unfolds it and reads what’s written in bold graphite letters, he feels a surge of anger and something that his twelve-year-old mind can’t quite decipher overwhelm him.
IS KIM TAEHYUNG GAY? it reads. Jeongguk immediately rips the note apart, the shredded pieces fluttering to the floor as the molten lava of rage expands in his chest and threatens to spill over. It’s obviously an irrational sort of anger, one that he can’t pinpoint, and all he knows is that he has do something. Anything right now.
He thinks that maybe if he hadn’t been so ignorant back then things could have been different, but in those fleeting days of youth Jeongguk was young and possessed the ignorant cruelness of a child who knew nothing except for what was in front of him. He knew that the neighbors two houses down were both two men who held hands and kissed each other goodbye every morning. He had only been six-years-old back then and it was the first time Jeongguk had ever seen gay people before. While he was initially in awe, his father had been less than pleased by the sight.
“Do they not have any goddamn sense of decency being all over each other in public like that?” he had said, lips curled in a sneer. “A bunch of goddamn fags is what they are.”
Jeongguk had been confused by his father’s blatant hostility towards the neighbors and had blinked up at him with round, wondrous eyes. “Daddy, what’s a fag?”
“A fag is someone who is going to hell, Jeongguk.”
Jeongguk had frowned. “You can go to hell for being in love?”
His father had glared down at him as if he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Men can’t love other men, Jeongguk. It’s wrong and God will be angry if you do.”
“I don’t want to go to hell daddy,” Jeongguk had muttered dejectedly, eyes watering.
“Don’t worry son.” His father had smiled at him then, cruelty wiped from his face and eyes sparkling with affection as he placed a large hand atop Jeongguk’s head. “As long as you find a nice girl to marry, God will always love you.”
Gnawing on the inside of his cheek, Jeongguk glares at Taehyung, of whomst is completely oblivious to the way everyone around him is whispering and pointing in his direction. He’s completely immersed in the book he’s reading and Jeongguk knows that he should just leave it—that it’s really none of his business. Except, he’s awful enough to make it his business and before he can think about what he’s doing, Jeongguk stands up and marches right up to Taehyung’s desk.
“Why don’t you ever talk to anyone?” he asks abruptly with a scowl. It’s the first words he’s ever spoken to the boy.
Taehyung peeks up from the book he’s reading, surprise evident on his face. “H-hi,” he stutters out shyly, voice so small that Jeongguk barely catches his response.
For some reason, his naive expression only serves to piss off Jeongguk even more, because everything that he does pisses Jeongguk off. His father had taught him that boys shouldn’t be soft, and Kim Taehyung is the very definition of soft.
“Are you gay?” he blurts out rather loudly. Around them, the chattering that once filled the classroom goes mute. Somewhere, the sound of a pen dropping is like an echo. He knows that they’re all waiting for Taehyung’s response with hungry eyes, ready to spread the gossip at a moments notice because that’s just how children work.
“E-excuse me?” Taehyung squeaks, the tan of his cheeks flushing scarlet.
“Everyone’s been saying that you like boys.” Jeongguk is uncouth with his words, says them recklessly without any thought of consequences and sitting in front of him, Taehyung suddenly looks very small.
“You know that’s weird, right?” Jeongguk cuts Taehyung off. He scoffs, gestures to the rest of the students and puffs out his chest for added dramatism. “If you’re not a homo, then do you just think you’re better than everyone else? Is that why you’ve turned all of those girls down?”
Taehyung looks downright mortified at this point. Shoulders hunched over as if he’s shrinking in on himself, he clenches his fists tightly. Doesn’t respond, just chews harshly at his bottom lip and stares at the open book laying forgotten on the desk.
“Did you move here because everyone found out how much of a pervert you are?” Jeongguk continues. He knows that he should stop. Knows that he’d gone too far the moment he’d opened his mouth and asked Taehyung about his sexuality in front of all of the other students. But his heart is beating loudly in his chest and there’s adrenaline coursing through his veins. Fueled even further by Taehyung’s silence, Jeongguk tears him apart with words like a black mamba’s venom. “We don’t want faggots here either.”
Still, Taehyung is completely silent and refuses to look at Jeongguk. Just continues to stare blankly at his stupid book and Jeongguk’s half tempted to pick it up and throw it across the room but he tries to reign in his anger instead. Biting his tongue, he forces himself to walk away from Taehyung and back to his friends who aren’t even trying to hide the fact that they’re laughing at Taehyung.
“That was so savage.” Mingyu guffaws and claps him on the back. “You’ve got some balls of steel, dude.”
Jeongguk looks back at Taehyung who still hasn’t moved an inch, eyes unfocused as if he’s not really there. He’s slightly surprised as Soyeon and Jisoo (two girls that had previously confessed to Taehyung) approach the other boy. They kneel next to the desk and start whispering soft words of comfort to him, looking far more upset with Jeongguk than Taehyung does.
Tearing his eyes away from the scene, Jeongguk simply shrugs. “Well someone had to say it, right?”
His friends are still laughing and hooting obnoxiously, directing awful slurs at Taehyung and Jeongguk tries to smile but for some reason he feels ugly inside—like the world has tilted off of its axis and something feels off. His insides feel a bit ugly. He ignores it anyways.
Instead, stuffing his hands into his pockets, he pretends they don’t shake.
With the passing of time the harshness of the cold only grows and soon fall turns into winter and there’s snow on the ground. The trees are barren and gnarled. The world loses all of its greenery and the echo of children screaming as they run around the playground becomes mute. Winter is harsh, but Jeongguk loves the cold. It’s serene, peaceful—otherworldly in a sense.
But with the harshness of the season comes the harshness of children. After Jeongguk had humiliated Taehyung in front of the entire class, everyone except for Soyeon and Jisoo begins to shun the boy. The whispers become more cruel; little twelve-year-old hands desperate for gossip, for something to spread.
The question of: ‘is Kim Taehyung gay?’ becomes: ‘is Kim Taehyung sleeping with the male teachers?’
They’re all baseless rumors without even an inkling of proof, but everyone believes them. Everyone besides Jeongguk who isn’t laughing anymore. He starts to think that maybe his classmates and friends are taking this too far, which is further proved when Taehyung comes into class one day in nothing but faded white socks. His shoes are missing.
Over the snickering and shushed giggles, Jisoo steps forward red in the face when she yells, “who the fuck threw Taehyung’s shoes in the river?!”
Sitting next to him, Jeongguk’s friends look smug but nobody points fingers. Mingyu leans back in his chair, pops a cherry flavored lollipop out of his mouth and licks his lips, tongue stained red. “Are you accusing your classmates of doing something so awful?” he goads. “Besides, those shoes belong in the dumpster with how fucked they were. Weren’t you tired of wearing such ratty shoes, Taehyung?” said boy is quiet, doesn’t even look at Mingyu who scoffs. “If I were you I’d thank whoever threw them away for you.” There’s an underlying threat in his tone.
The torment continues. It’s only a few days before Taehyung walks in with his backpack quite literally drenched, sopping and dripping all over the floor. Soyeon and Jisoo look ready to cry as they tell everyone off once again. Threaten to tell the principal even though they never do. It doesn’t let up. Sometimes there’s graffiti on Taehyung’s desk calling him names. Chan tells Jeongguk that someone put a dead frog inside of his locker and Jeongguk knows that ‘someone’ are his friends. And yet, Taehyung never looks angry; he always just stares at the ground, lips pursed. Wordless.
At one point it gets physical. Taehyung has a shiner around his left eye, arms mottled in bruises and Jeongguk feels sick. Feels angry. Disgusted. None of this was ever funny to begin with and he’s beginning to hate his friends.
“Maybe you guys should leave Taehyung alone,” he mentions at lunch. The cafeteria is loud and Jeongguk’s words are low, almost completely drowned out by the noise around them.
Chan looks baffled, like he can’t believe what he’s hearing. Like Jeongguk’s grown an extra head or something. “We’re just messing around a bit. It’s not really a big deal.”
Jeongguk frowns. “You guys hit him. That’s not messing around.”
“He fell,” Jun explains lamely. He looks annoyed. “I don’t know why you’re being so emotional about it when he’s a fucking weirdo.”
Mingyu snorts. “He probably touches his dick thinking about us anyways.” And then, fixing Jeongguk with a hard stare he says, “you’re not really defending Taehyung ‘cos you want him to give you a bj or something, right? ‘Cos that would make you a fag, dude.”
“No.” Jeongguk’s quick with his response, heart hammering in his chest. He thinks about how even with holes in his shoes Taehyung is still pretty. “Of course not.”
Mingyu smiles, slow and cruelly. “Just trust us, dude. We’re friends, right?”
Jeongguk nods. Smiles back tightly. “Yeah, friends.” The words sound wrong in his mouth but he ignores it. Eats his half cooked lunch and shuts the fuck up.
A month goes by before Taehyung stops showing up to class. For days his desk is vacant, Jisoo and Soyeon haven’t heard from him either and Jeongguk starts to feel off. Feels a painful twist in the pit of his stomach and on the fifth day he feels nauseous. Even the students get nervous, shifty eyes. Rumors start to float around but Jeongguk shuts his ears. Acts like Taehyung never existed in the first place.
It’s homeroom. Jeongguk’s still groggy, mind half asleep. At this point he barely even spares a glance over to the empty desk. It makes him feel too guilty. Just then, Mr. Ahn enters the classroom, expression grim—Jeongguk feels uneasy.
“Taehyung has transferred to another school.” He sighs heavily, leans against the podium. Mr. Ahn is the kind of teacher that cares about his students too much. The kind that makes kids like Jeongguk feel a little less lost in the world.
It’s quiet. Jeongguk stares at the wall. Stares at the end of his sneakers. His hands. Looks everywhere but at Mr. Ahn because, because—he's not shaken. This shouldn’t bother him because it wasn’t like he forced the boy to leave. Wasn’t the one who scribbled fag on his desk in marker. It’s none of Jeongguk’s business and he doesn't care about Taehyung. Taehyung who is awkward and shy and quiet, but kind. Taehyung who is gay.
"I'm very disappointed in all of you," Mr. Ahn says, tone leveled yet angry in a way that makes Jeongguk feel scolded. "I’ve had a couple of students telling me that Taehyung was being bullied. Who was it?”
Jeongguk thinks about Sooyeon and Jisoo’s threat to tell the principal and when he looks over to Sooyeon she has her head tilted down and Jeongguk knows. He knows but doesn’t even blame them—can’t find it in himself to be angry. Even feels relieved
Everyone is quiet. Mingyu and Chan make eye contact, shift uncomfortably in their seats. Jun shakes his head at both of them, whispers something low. Ends up catching Jeongguk’s gaze and smiles nervously.
"If someone doesn't come forth the whole class with be punished." Mr. Ahn’s tone is harsh and Jeongguk has never heard his homeroom teacher sound this severe.
Heart thudding loudly in his ears, Jeongguk can feel the blood rushing straight to his face as shame blossoms in his gut. He thinks about Taehyung and how much smaller the boy looked as the bullying got worse—how sometimes he seemed ready to collapse in on himself like a century old abandoned house, as if the world was ready to swallow him whole. He thinks about Taehyung who is gone and it’s all his fault.
The guilt is all-consuming, like there’s a cobra nesting in his throat and at the tender age of twelve-years-old, Jeongguk learns that his only talent is hurting people with venom on his tongue. He thinks that at least, maybe he should say something. Staying quiet just doesn’t feel right.
Slowly, as if weights are tying him down, he begins to raise his hand, a confession on the tip of his tongue. He begins to raise his hand but—
“It was Jeongguk!” Chan blurts out. Stands up and points a finger at Jeongguk. Beside him, Jun and Mingyu both share panicked looks and for a moment, time seems to stop. Jeongguk tries to process the words in his head and before he can even defend himself, his other friends are speaking up.
“Y-yeah. It was Jeongguk. He started the rumors about Taehyung,” Mingyu says. “He told everyone that Taehyung liked boys and threw his shoes in the river.”
Everyone begins to mutter their agreements and soon the entire class is chiming in.
“Jeongguk did it.”
“Yeah, he was always so mean to Taehyung.”
It's jarring how someone's life can change in a split second. Everyone mutters their dissent and Jeongguk feels hot all over. Dizzy. Mr. Ahn clenches his jaw, stares right at Jeongguk and anything he had planned to say dies in his throat because it's obvious by the way Mr. Ahn looks at Jeongguk that he won't believe anything he says.
At such a young age, Jeongguk never thought that he’d experience things like hurt and betrayal. But now, it’s like facing the mouth of a storm and he’s the boy being called a homo and being jeered at by his peers. The sickness makes him shake and he can’t look up. When Jun explains to Mr. Ahn that Jeongguk had called Taehyung some slurs, he can’t look up and he wonders if this was how Taehyung felt; like there were spiders crawling underneath his skin when people pointed him. And now he understands why Taehyung always walked around with his shoulders hunched over as if it would make him invisible.
Over the next few days more rumors start to circulate. Rumors of Taehyung being in the hospital after a failed suicide attempt, caused by no one other than the school’s biggest heart throb and captain of the soccer team, Jeongguk. The notes passed between the stubby hands of children no longer speculate Taehyung’s sexuality. This time in bold, grey graphite it reads, DID KIM TAEHYUNG TRY TO KILL HIMSELF BECAUSE OF JEON JEONGGUK?
At twelve years old, Jeongguk learns how cruel children can be. They take whatever they can get and spit it back in your face when good isn’t good enough. They bury you like a scapegoat under cement. Oh, friends can use you—Jeongguk learns this. They can pluck pretty flowers from the spaces in between your ribs and when there’s nothing left, they can throw you away without notice. Friends can use you. They can break you.
At twelve years old, Jeongguk wishes that he had never hurt Taehyung.