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Electric Heartbeat

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“And coming up, the story currently shaking the world: an android murdering his human lover after malfunctioning yesterday. Stay tuned.”

 

Nine-year-old Byeongkwan watched the news special with wide eyes, sat beside his mother. But rather than being horrified, he was fascinated; in his small rural town, androids were unheard of. For one to make international news caused Byeongkwan’s curious mind to wonder more about them. He asked his mother: “Mom, what are androids? Are they bad people?”

“No, sweetheart,” his mother replied, “Androids are like robots but more human. They have electronics inside them. This android might have done something bad, but not all of them are like that.”

Byeongkwan tried to imagine what it would be like to have electronics inside his body. It wouldn’t feel good, he decided. “Then why does it sound like they’re bad?”

His mother pulled Byeongkwan close to run a comforting hand through his hair. “Androids are very misunderstood. When I was your age, they couldn’t even marry humans.”

“Have you ever met an android?”

“I have.” Byeongkwan wasn’t expecting that answer, and he looked up at her in reverence, “My first-ever boyfriend was an android. We were in college together.”

Byeongkwan, who did not like imagining his mother with anyone but his father, retched. “Ew, Mom! Are you lying?”

“No,” his mother said softly, “He was a good man. You know, a long time ago, people used to be hated based on things we don’t pay attention to today. But now it’s all about whether someone’s human or not. So if you meet an android, be nice to them. I can tell you first-hand that androids have feelings.”

Byeongkwan went quiet, reflecting on his mother’s words. And moments later, he asked, “Do you think I’ll meet an android someday?”

“You most likely will. They’re getting more common.”

Meeting an android was suddenly the only thing on Byeongkwan’s young mind. For a whole week after watching that news special, whenever Byeongkwan went into town, he tried to pick out who could be an android. But everyone looked very human, and eventually, Byeongkwan forgot about it. He decided that someday, however, he would meet an android and give them a hug.

 


 

When Byeongkwan meets Kim Sehyoon, he doesn’t peg him for an android. They live on the same floor of an apartment complex popular with graduate students, and are both in the college of sciences, but aside from that, he doesn’t know much about the man. Sehyoon is famous among women and hated by men; he’s exceptionally handsome, with a cool exterior that can make anyone envious. But he has no friends, and people make a point to stay away from him. There was a rumor circulating in their hall that Sehyoon’s roommate moved out halfway through the semester because he couldn’t stand living with Sehyoon anymore. A true lone wolf, and Byeongkwan feels sorry for him in a way. There’s such a polarization between people admiring Sehyoon and people resenting him, and that intrigues Byeongkwan to no end. So every time he has an opportunity to be kind to Sehyoon, Byeongkwan takes it when no one else will.

Once, they cross paths in the laundry room on a busy Saturday, and Sehyoon asks in a quiet voice if anyone has an extra dryer sheet. “Why don’t you just dry it with your laser vision or something?” The comment comes from Lee Donghun, a guy in their hall who Byeongkwan knows through his roommate, and Sehyoon stares blankly at him. Byeongkwan has no idea what it means.

“I have an extra one.” Byeongkwan reaches into his own bag and hands a dryer sheet to Sehyoon, who looks so thankful that Byeongkwan is caught off-guard.

After that, little things start happening, like polite nods of acknowledgement when he passes Sehyoon in the hall, or Byeongkwan sticking up for Sehyoon when people bad-mouth him, despite not knowing Sehyoon well at all. They aren’t friends. Byeongkwan can go days and forget that Kim Sehyoon exists, but Byeongkwan can rest better knowing that someone is nice to him.

Everything comes to a peak when Byeongkwan is studying at the library for his ongoing research project of the new semester. Some students are looking into artificial organs, others about advanced technology funding for schools. But Byeongkwan has always wanted to research androids, and this is the perfect opportunity. Even though he’s excited to begin researching, he doesn’t know where to start. A good chunk of information about androids isn’t available to the public. After hours of digging around in old files and stacks of books, however, Byeongkwan has enough resources to at least flip through.

Not a lot of students come to the library. It’s more of a storage place for boring books than a useful space. A few minutes into Byeongkwan’s page-skimming, however, he hears footsteps nearby. And when he looks up, there’s Kim Sehyoon with a book of his own. They make uncomfortable eye contact three times in a short interval, which Byeongkwan tries to remedy by waving. “Hi, Sehyoon.”

“Hi,” To his surprise, Sehyoon comes closer and leans against Byeongkwan’s table. “What are you working on?”

“Prelim paper. I’m an Ed major; it’s about androids in early education.”

Sehyoon’s normally stoic face lights up when Byeongkwan says this, and in a quiet voice he suggests, “Maybe I can help you.”

He pulls out an empty chair as if asking to sit there, and Byeongkwan nods. “Go right ahead.” He’ll need all the help he can get on this paper. From what he knows, Sehyoon is a grad student, probably more knowledgeable than Byeongkwan in every way. “Have you studied something like this before?”

A look of disbelief crosses Sehyoon’s features, strong brows furrowed. “No. I am an android, though.”

Nothing can describe Byeongkwan’s reaction besides pure shock. He’s been curious about androids since he was nine years old, and now he has one in front of him. Looking at Sehyoon right now, there’s no indication that he’s anything but human. Byeongkwan is completely floored. “No way.”

“Yes way,” Sehyoon smiles slightly, “I thought everyone knew.”

Byeongkwan suddenly wonders if he’s the only one who had no idea. With this new bit of information, certain things make much more sense. “Well, that’s amazing!” Byeongkwan tells him honestly, “Do you mind if I ask you some questions?”

“You don’t hate me because I’m an android?” Sehyoon still has that soft expression on his face, no malice in his voice.

“Of course not,” he says, “I didn’t even know you were one until right now.”

“Then I’ll answer any questions you have.” That was easy. In fact, Sehyoon looks very eager to be helping him. “I have to study right now myself, but how about later? I’m usually in my room. Drop by whenever—you know where I live.” If Byeongkwan didn’t know better, he’d say it sounds flirtatious.

“If I won’t be bothering you, then sure.” He tries to make it a casual agreement, but it’s hard to contain his excitement.

Sehyoon smiles, making Byeongkwan question if that’s why he’s so handsome—because he’s an android. He doesn’t know any other androids; are they all this handsome? “Cool. I’ll see you then, Byeongkwan.” He heads to another part of the library after that, leaving Byeongkwan to think about what just happened. And even though Sehyoon didn’t appear phased when Byeongkwan addressed him earlier, he’s certainly surprised that Sehyoon knew his name.

 



Yuchan is a wonderful roommate, but more than that, he’s Byeongkwan’s best friend. They’ve known each other for years, so living together was a natural decision. As two of the only undergrads on the property, it’s easy to stick with Yuchan. But when Byeongkwan thinks about it, Yuchan is the exact opposite of Sehyoon. He’s friendly to everybody and always goes out to have fun. Byeongkwan is lucky to be his best friend, since Yuchan has so many friend groups in general. And like many other tenants, Yuchan has his own opinions about Sehyoon. He’s never said anything about Sehyoon being an android, but Yuchan has developed wild and elaborate theories in the past about Sehyoon being a vampire, drug dealer, or cultist. Byeongkwan laughed along with these theories when they first developed, but now it makes him self-conscious to be associated with Sehyoon in his own way.

That’s why he pretends to be sick on a Friday night and stays in while Yuchan goes to a party.

The walk to Sehyoon’s apartment is only a few meters but feels much longer. Byeongkwan is almost nervous to speak with him again; they didn’t even have a proper conversation last time. But if he wants to write a good research paper, Sehyoon can be the best resource of all. So Byeongkwan heads down the hall and knocks on Sehyoon’s door, ignoring how his heart races. Sehyoon does have a bad reputation, after all, and his room is viewed as a sort of quarantine-zone among the other tenants. He doesn’t even know if Sehyoon is home.

Before Byeongkwan can think too much, the door opens and there’s Sehyoon with a genuine smile. Once again, it’s a charming smile, where his gums show and his cheeks puff out. If he smiles like this, how can Sehyoon be a bad guy? “Hello, come right in.” He’s very welcoming, and Byeongkwan is flattered to be on the receiving end of this when no one else has.

They live in the same building, so his place should be similar in layout to Byeongkwan’s. But from just walking in, he can already tell the setup is very different. For one, the room is impossibly cold, and Byeongkwan regrets not layering up this morning. And it’s the same size as all the other flats, but Sehyoon doesn’t have a roommate. With only one person, the space appears quite empty. It’s decorated sparsely, in a simple style that suits Sehyoon’s appearance.

“Do you want something to drink?” Sehyoon asks. “Actually, I only have water. But if you want water, I can get you some.”

He’s funny. Byeongkwan has never met anyone like Sehyoon (android or human), and it’s so refreshing that he almost laughs. “So many options! I’ll take the water, I guess.”

“I was hoping you’d pick that one,” Sehyoon says dryly, and in a moment he hands a glass of water to Byeongkwan. Their fingers brush during the exchange, and Byeongkwan feels like lightning runs through his whole body. Besides that, Sehyoon’s fingers are unbearably hot. “Oh, sorry,” Sehyoon looks concerned when Byeongkwan jolts back, “Did I shock you? Here—” He sets the glass on a nearby counter and slowly reaches to touch Byeongkwan’s forearm. Byeongkwan is scared to get shocked again (and it does happen, much to his dismay), but after a few seconds, the feeling distills into something warm and energizing. “The radio waves are now in your skin, headed to your brain.” Sehyoon maintains a completely straight face when he says this, but after seeing Byeongkwan’s jaw drop, he chuckles instead. “Joking. It’s just an internal current.”

He doesn’t flinch at all when Byeongkwan raises his hand in mock-threat. “I thought I was your guest!”

“Forgive me, then.” He doesn’t sound serious. “Feel free to sit down, by the way. I’m ready to be interviewed.” In truth, Byeongkwan doesn’t have much prepared to ask Sehyoon. His current knowledge of androids is very little; anything Sehyoon says will be valuable.

Because he hasn’t prepared anything, their “interview” is very casual. Sehyoon tells him about his experience in public school as a child, and how his parents kept moving around until they found a district suitable for teaching androids without discriminating. “I was… born, I guess, in a lab instead of a hospital. That’s a big thing—androids don't have biological family. So it was already tricky for my parents to enter me into certain schools, because they aren’t technically my parents. Lots of paperwork. I have a little sister who’s an android, too. We’re from the same lab, and our parents didn’t want us to be lonely.”

Byeongkwan had been taking notes when Sehyoon first started talking, but now he’s simply listening to the story Sehyoon has to tell. It’s so fascinating that he won’t forget this, notes or not.

“I can’t imagine how hard that would be,” A part of him wanted to take Sehyoon’s hand and hold it tightly. “I heard it’s rare for androids to get into colleges because of difficulties like that in younger grades.”

“I’m lucky to be here,” Sehyoon admits, “I applied to over ten programs and this was the only one that would take me. Housing, too—I lied on my application. The landlady still thinks I’m human.”

Byeongkwan never knew. He’s been so blind to the struggles androids go through every day. “That’s illegal, isn’t it?”

Sehyoon only shrugs. “Better than being honest and homeless.”

“Aren’t you worried that someone will tell her? Like Lee Donghun?”

Sehyoon tries and fails to hide a smile. “Donghun won’t do anything. We used to be best friends.” It isn’t what he expected. But Sehyoon leaves it at that, and Byeongkwan can only guess what happened to make Donghun so cold toward him now. “If I get kicked out, I can always commute. I’m from South Seoul. It would be an hour and a half commute with traffic, but I’d do it.”

Byeongkwan doesn’t often think about how easy it is for him to attend college. So Sehyoon’s determination makes him consider what he would do if he were in a similar situation. “You must really like being here, then. What do you have in mind for the future?”

“That’s something I don’t enjoy thinking about,” Sehyoon frowns a bit, “But I’m on track to become an android technician. I want to help other androids, especially kids. I like kids.”

Something in Byeongkwan’s heart softens against his will. He suddenly is overwhelmed—this morning, Byeongkwan knew next to nothing about androids, and in less than an hour he’s already learned so much. Sehyoon is the first android he’s ever met, and Byeongkwan is glad for that. Who could be a better example of an android than this one, who is so kind and persevering? Sehyoon believes he’s lucky to be here, but Byeongkwan believes he’s lucky in his own way, to have this chance at getting to know Sehyoon.

And with every word Sehyoon says, the mental divide between androids and humans shrinks. Byeongkwan can feel himself growing closer to Sehyoon on a basis of mentality, and he’s amazed to find they aren’t very different at all.

 


 

“Hi, Mom.”

“Byeongkwan!” His mother is always excited to hear from him. It feels like they hardly talk anymore since Byeongkwan is so busy. “How’s my favorite boy doing?”

“I’m good, Mom.” He doesn’t let on that the semester just started and he’s already drowning in stress. “Yuchan’s good, too, before you ask.” His mother treats Yuchan like her own child, which is a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it makes him and Chan feel more like family, and on the other, it opens up a world of complaining that Byeongkwan should ‘have more friends like Yuchan does.’

This phone call is much like any other, starting off with his mother updating Byeongkwan on everything he’s missed since they last spoke. But as usual, the conversation drifts into territory that Byeongkwan can’t enjoy: “So have you met any new friends this semester? Any special friends?”

“Mom, you know my only friends are Yuchan and Junhee. And I’m not interested in either of them.”

“That’s why I want you to make more friends!”

He has no remorse in rolling his eyes, since his mother can’t see it anyway. But then a thought comes to him, and he voices it out loud: “Actually, there is someone…”

“Byeongkwan? You met someone?”

Only after hearing the excitement in her voice does he realize he admitted it. “No, I mean I met someone new today. Just a guy on my floor. Nothing crazy.”

“Oh, you nearly gave me a heart attack!” She scolds him, “Well, let me know as soon as you meet someone special! I’m not asking you to get married or anything—I wasn’t even planning to have kids when I was your age—but I’ve been feeling very empty-nested lately with my only baby gone. If you bring someone home on break, that would make my heart happy.” She always talks like this, and has since he was a child. In her mind, Byeongkwan will always be a child. “I was talking with Mrs. Seo from the boutique downtown and we both agree that our sons sharing what they love is the best gift a mother can get.”

“Okay, Mom.” He doesn’t want to get her hopes up, but when she’s in a sentimental mood it’s important that Byeongkwan agrees with everything she says.

“Don’t say ‘okay’ just to shut me up! If you don’t want to hear me talk, then don’t call me!”

Byeongkwan is reminded of why he doesn’t call home often. His father is no better on the phone, but he loves his parents’ quirks. “Okay, Mom. And that’s not to shut you up. I missed hearing your voice,” he tells her sweetly.

“Sure. Go use that charm on some cute strangers, alright? And don’t let me forget: I have to tell you about the new family who moved into town.”

He listens intently to his mother’s story, which chains on another story and a whole hour later he can finally hang up the phone. A lot of topics can be covered in an hour, but the one that sticks with Byeongkwan is his mother’s first point about meeting “someone special.” Not only does Byeongkwan want to satisfy his mother’s nagging (Yuchan always calls him a Mama’s Boy when he loves Byeongkwan’s mom just as much), but there’s a part of him that does want a relationship. Finding comfort in other people is something Byeongkwan won’t get enough of.

Of course, he’ll need to get out more if he plans to enter the dating pool. He didn’t lie—Sehyoon is the only new person he’s met recently. And does he count as a person at all? Byeongkwan almost laughs; Sehyoon might not come off as a great candidate to bring home on a holiday. But without a doubt, he’s someone special.