You're on my side, on my side
When second place is so familiar
On my side, on my side
So don't think twice, I'm going nowhere
I'm going nowhere
Second Place — Paper Route
“I didn’t bring my umbrella.”
Woojin rubs away the raindrop that had splattered onto his nose and sticks his head back inside, closing the side door. Felix, changed out of his scrubs into a too-big leather jacket and jeans, pouts his lower lip at the angry clouds outside. He shifts his backpack further onto his shoulder and stares at the staff parking lot mournfully. The nearest metro station is at least a five minute walk away—a path that Woojin, car-less as well, knows by heart. If he had enough money for a car, Felix would never walk and metro home from work again.
Woojin’s own umbrella is in the stand at the door, long black handle poking up from between clear plastic sheets flecked with rainwater. One of the other umbrellas still has the CU sticker on it—a quick purchase by one of the other nurses or interns on the way to work. Woojin is still in his blue scrubs; hadn’t seen a point in changing into fresh clothes when the pavement was going to kick up dirty water onto his pant legs and his umbrella dripped right down the back of his neck. He makes an easy decision.
Picking up his umbrella, Woojin hands it to Felix. “That’s a new patch on your jacket, right?”
Felix’s hand shifts to his left breast. “You noticed?”
“I also noticed you sneaking into the stairwell during your rounds to call your boyfriend.”
Felix’s cheeks color. “Shut up,” he mumbles. Glances up. “Did you tell Sowoon?”
“Not this time,” Woojin says. He wiggles the umbrella in his hand. “Go on. You’re only young once. Before you know it you’ll be ugly like me and no one will want to call you during work just to hear your voice.”
“That sucks—I mean. You’re not ugly, hyung.” Felix’s smile splits his face, eyes crinkling prettily.
Woojin smacks him in the ass with the umbrella and Felix yelps.
“Okay, okay, I deserved that!” He takes the umbrella, then pauses. “What about you? We could share.”
Woojin shrugs. “Dump some powder soap on me and then I won’t need to put a load in the washer.” When Felix continues to hesitate, Woojin makes a shooing motion. “Get. I’m fine, seriously. You know it’s only big enough for one of us.”
Felix opens the side door. “Thank you hyung. I’ll see you Thursday?”
“1 AM on the dot,” Woojin says through a grimace. Felix returns the grimace, then slips out.
Woojin catches the door and continues to grimace at the sky. He wouldn’t mind waiting in the break room for half an hour or so if it was going to clear up, but the weather report had said rain all week and the app on Woojin’s phone just shows 60%, 70%, 80%. It’s going to be a cold, wet five stops to Chungmuro station, but it beats staying at the hospital a minute longer if he’s just going to end up wet either way. Woojin pours himself one last hot coffee in the break room, chugs it, and then prays to whatever god is listening that he doesn’t freeze to death.
The rain is heavy enough to be heard pattering on the sidewalk and each drop feels like a wet bullet against Woojin’s head and shoulders. He’s soaked through in under a minute, with four more to go. He maneuvers around the potholes in the concrete collecting water, misses the crosswalk signal, then decides after a few moments of being pelted that fuck it, good manners are for days when it’s not pouring, and jogs across. He’s almost tempted to stop in at one of the shops along the way but he’s wet and smells like sick people and he stills needs these shopkeepers to feed him on not-wet days.
Woojin takes the stairs into the metro two at a time and shakes himself like a dog at the bottom, mentally apologizing to the pair of ahjummas giving him death glares as they open their own umbrellas and head on out. He taps his card at the gate, catches the 22:34 train, and then finally he’s on the orange line and heading home.
Chungmuro station isn’t pretty by any means and at night the streets have a bad vibe to them, but Woojin’s apartment is closer to the university and outside of the seedier parts of Jung-gu, so he’s never really worried about getting robbed. Most days, he doesn’t mind the hike from Chungmuro back home. But tonight, shivering and walking uphill, the rain getting heavier with each passing minute, he’s in no mood for it. The only thing on Woojin’s mind is bath, bath, bath.
He passes the movie theater, a Popeyes, and two dessert cafes, tucking his head down and gritting his teeth against the cold. He’s counting convenience stores (nine until he gets home), and somewhere between the fifth store and a café he hears a high, pathetic whine coming from an alleyway.
Woojin slows his steady trudging but doesn’t stop. The noise had sounded like something in pain, but it could have easily been metal creaking or a cat in heat. When he doesn’t hear the noise again, he puts it out of his mind.
Only to hear it again, this time longer and with a throaty gurgle at the end. A cold shiver rushes down Woojin’s spine and along his arms. Once, when he was working ER, he treated a patient who had his throat sliced open in a freak construction accident. He gurgled like that. He didn’t make it.
Woojin turns on his heel and marches back down to the alleyway.
The sound came from the other side of the street. Woojin glances either way before ducking across. He wants to know how anyone hasn’t come investigating the noise yet, but then again, he hadn’t seen anyone outside since two turns ago and the whine wasn’t loud enough to penetrate through walls.
It’s a backroad but a real skinny one, probably only used for loading and offloading. Woojin can only see bags of trash piled along either side of the walls and an out of order vending machine. No person bleeding out, sprawled across the ground. Small mercies.
“Hello?” Woojin calls out, walking forward slowly. If it’s an animal, he doesn’t want to scare it, but if it’s a person they need to know he’s there. No answer.
“Hello?” Woojin calls out again. “I’m a trained nurse; I can help you.”
Still no reply. Woojin is maybe seven meters down the alleyway, but he’s still wet and if whatever it was making that noise isn’t going to show itself, then it probably doesn’t need his help anyway. Damn horny cats…as if there wasn’t an overpopulation problem already.
Woojin makes to turn around and comes face to face with a tiny bundle of person squeezed in tightly between two big bags of chicken bones and used paper towels. His heart stops for a moment, but then he sees how crumpled and shivering the person is and he calms down.
“Christ,” Woojin sighs. “You gave me a heart attack. You alright?”
The shivering bundle doesn’t reply. Their hair is long and curly, obscuring their face and dripping with water. They had probably been out in the rain for longer than Woojin. He frowns and reaches a hand out to take their shoulder. “Hey, are you—”
The person flinches back, pressing themselves to the wall and hisses. Actually fucking hisses. Woojin snatches his hand back but the hiss melts into another barely subdued whine. The person brings up their—pale, so fucking pale, even in this light—hand and starts to chew on their fingers, the trembling much more pronounced now. Their other hand digs into their forearm and they curl their legs close to their chest.
“Alright,” Woojin says. “Alright, I won’t touch you. But you need to get out of this rain. There’s a café, right around the corner, I can buy you a coffee and you can sit inside and warm up a little. How does that sound?”
They don’t reply.
Woojin swallows. “You’re real pale. I don’t know how long you’ve been out here, but you really need to get inside. I don’t know if you have a place to go, but please, just for now, let’s go inside. I’m really cold, too.” Still nothing.
“I’m not leaving until you get inside,” Woojin says, and that grabs their attention.
“Why,” they—he—says, voice barely a croak. “Go away. Don’t need your help.”
“You very much need someone’s help,” Woojin says. “I just happen to be the one that found you.”
“I don’t want to be found,” he says. “I want to be left alone.”
He barks a laugh. “Yeah. I know.”
“Unfortunately for you,” Woojin says. “I am very good at keeping people from dying.”
The man sucks in a breath and then immediately smacks both his hands over his nose and mouth and doubles over, then curls away from Woojin, trembling so bad Woojin can see his knees wobble.
“Please let me help you,” Woojin says.
“You need to go,” he says. “Go, just go, it—it’s not safe here—you need to—”
“I’m not going—”
Anywhere, is what Woojin tries to say, reaching out once more for the man. What he doesn’t expect is for the man to drop his hands and whip around, grabbing Woojin’s arm and biting him.
“Ow?” Woojin says, trying to pull his arm away to no avail. For a sickly little thing, the guy is strong. “What the hell—”
Almost as soon as Woojin starts tugging harder, the man seems to realize that he’s sinking his teeth into Woojin’s arm and drops him as if scalded.
“No,” he whimpers. “I’m sorry—I didn’t mean—”
Woojin examines the wound in what little light there is in the alleyway. Most of the bite is angry red indents from his lower jaw, but on the upper side, there is a nick in his skin and a pinprick of blood, smeared by the next raindrop that falls on Woojin’s arm. It isn’t a severe wound at all, but there is a slight trail of blood from the nick, running light with rainwater.
“You got some teeth on you,” Woojin says. “Most bites don’t draw blood and trust me; I’ve worked the pediatric ward. We get a lot of bites.”
He looks back at the guy, back to clamping his hands over his face. Woojin can see the glint of his eyes under his bangs. Sad, wet eyes. “You’re really in trouble, aren’t you?” Woojin says.
“Just go,” the man says, voice muffled under his hands. “It’s better for everyone if I die.”
“We take in people like you every day,” Woojin says. “No one has to know who you are.”
“People like—god, I fucking hope not,” the guy says, a half-laugh. “Send me to the fucking hospital, sure, yeah. That’s a death sentence in itself; you think she wouldn’t kill me if I were to go to a hospital? I’d be dead before you could call an ambulance.”
“You kill someone?” Woojin asks.
The man goes quiet. “No,” he says. “That’s the problem.”
“Stop being such a drama queen,” Woojin says.
Woojin rolls his eyes. “Your life is being threatened by someone who wants you to kill another person and your response is to lie in garbage until you die? Give me a break.”
“You don’t understand,” he says. “It’s not like that—I have to—”
“You don’t have to do anything,” Woojin says. “That’s the beauty of free will. So if you want to die, or kill someone, or whatever, you can do that. Fine. But not until you’re out of this rain and have stopped shivering.”
“I can’t move,” the man admits quietly. “I’m beyond half-starved. Please…just a few more hours and either I’ll die or she’ll put me out of my misery. Please.”
“There’s a Burger King right around the corner, I can—”
“Please,” he sobs. “I can smell it on you. Please let me die without hurting someone.”
Woojin stills. “This?” he says, holding up his forearm. “It’s barely a scrape, look—”
And then the man lets out that same whine-sob-whimper and throws himself at Woojin, knocking him backwards and falling across his chest. Woojin tenses, ready to fight, but the man doesn’t attack him. He grabs Woojin’s arm, the cut, and pulls it towards his mouth. Woojin watches him latch onto his wrist, feels the slightest prickle of pain as he gnaws at the tiny cut to widen it, then sucks weakly at the wound, whimpering when only the slightest stream of blood comes out.
Is this some kind of joke? Woojin wants to ask. He watches for three heartbeats longer, waiting to see if this guy would spit Woojin’s blood out. Woojin’s bit his tongue before. He goes to the dentist. The coppery taste of blood in even small amounts is enough to make him nauseous. He waits for this stranger to have the same, human reaction.
But the man is so thin and so small. He weighs nothing on Woojin’s chest and even holding Woojin’s wrist, the earlier strength is nowhere to be found. He clutches helplessly at Woojin’s hand and with his other hand, scratches lightly at his forearm, almost pawing at him. He's alternating gnawing at Woojin's cut and lapping and sucking noisily at the wound. Woojin thinks about it.
No. That’s the problem.
I’m beyond half-starved.
Please let me die without hurting anyone.
Woojin pushes himself up and the stranger curls into his lap, chasing Woojin’s arm with a whine when he moves it too much. Woojin reaches out to his head, but pauses. Does he really want an answer? Does he really want this answer? Is he prepared to deal with the consequences of being right? If he believes this man, he could push him off and he would die before morning. Woojin could pass this experience off as a fever dream. It would take a few months but the guilt would fade. He could move on with his life.
The stranger is crying.
Woojin knows, because the rain has slowed to a slight irritation and no longer drenching them. And yet, water continues to bead in the corner of this man’s eyes and fall down his cheeks. He’s squeezing them shut, but Woojin can see the tear trails and hear his wet sniffles.
He tried to warn me.
These tears were Woojin’s fault. If nothing else, Woojin was responsible for the tears in this man’s eyes, and no matter what the answer was to the question Woojin didn’t want to ask, he at least owed this kind stranger the kindness of not letting him die in this stinking alleyway.
Woojin knots his fingers in the man’s hair and pulls him away from his arm. The stranger cries out like a kitten being tugged from its mother, and opens a bloody mouth to reveal twin pointed canines, no longer than a human’s canines, but sharpened to an unnatural point—too dull to cause trauma but sharp enough to break skin.
“Yeah,” Woojin says, letting the man go back to lapping at his arm. “Okay.”
Well, they never really taught Woojin how to deal with dying vampires in nursing school, but he imagines it can’t be that much different from a malnourished or dehydrated patient. First step is getting fluids into them, intravenously if they are…too weak to do it themselves or too far gone. This man is both.
“Okay,” Woojin says. “Okay, I can do this.”
He calls a taxi even this close to home because he’s pretty sure hauling this guy’s limp body to his apartment is going to get the cops called on him. Especially if the guy is trying to bite his wrist. The tough part, Woojin suspects, is going to be getting him to give up that wrist.
“Hey,” Woojin says. “What’s your name?”
The guy doesn’t look up at first, so Woojin tucks his hair behind his ear and thumbs at the tears in the corner of his eye. “Hey,” he prompts again in a soft voice, leaning in. “What’s your name, hm?”
The guy doesn’t look up immediately at this either, but Woojin can feel him detaching slowly from his arm. He leans away with trembling lips and doesn’t look at Woojin. “Chr—Chan,” he says. “I’m…Chan.”
“Just Chan?” Woojin asks.
He nods. “My clan name was…Bang. But that’s not my clan anymore.” His breath flutters against Woojin’s throbbing wrist. “Just Chan.”
“Okay,” Woojin says. “I called us a taxi, okay, Chan? No, no—don’t freak out.” Chan doesn’t relax from where he had flinched and tensed at ‘taxi’ so Woojin hurries to say, “Just to my place. No hospital. No police. No mystery person trying to kill you, and no you trying to kill anyone. Just a warm, dry apartment with too many books.”
“I don’t wanna go,” Chan says.
“You are…incredibly stubborn,” Woojin says. “But tough shit. You’re going. Better to die there when you’re warm and dry and unbothered than surrounded by trash and freezing to death.”
“Okay,” Chan agrees. “If I can die there, I’ll go.”
“Good,” Woojin says. “You can’t…in the taxi, you can’t—”
“Is that okay?”
Chan looks him in the eyes for the first time. “Why are you helping me?” he asks.
Woojin purses his lips in fake thoughtfulness. “I guess you’ll have to stay alive to find out.”
Chan’s shoulders slump and he kind of crumples into Woojin’s chest. “Ass,” he mumbles into Woojin’s scrubs.
He wasn’t lying about not being able to move, though. Chan puts all his weight against Woojin and his knees give out the first few times they try to stand up. He’s also freezing, which is sucking the heat and energy from Woojin and making his teeth chatter. When he finally gets Chan to his feet and the taxi arrives, Woojin can only stumble-drag Chan to the alleyway entrance, hoping it comes off more as ‘my friend is so fucking wasted he can’t even see’ and not ‘I drugged this man and am taking him back to my lair.’
“I don’t drive gang members,” the cabby says stiffly when Woojin shoves Chan into the backseat. It’s bullshit, so Woojin ignores it and gives him the address.
“I don’t drive gang members,” the cabby says again.
“Are you—are you fucking serious?” Woojin asks. “He’s not a gang member; he’s about to fucking pass out. My apartment is literally two blocks from here, will you fucking drive?”
“He’s messed up,” the cabby says. “Ain’t seen anyone but gang members that—”
“I am a motherfucking nurse,” Woojin says. “And I swear to Jesus in heaven that if you do not drive this car to my apartment, I will become a gang member, right here and now.”
The cabby grumbles but takes the address this time and Woojin pushes Chan’s hair out of his face. He’s back to chewing on his fingers, and now, in the light of the main street, Woojin can see how his fangs stick out a little more than the others. He’s trembling again. Woojin swallows.
The cabby overcharges them, but Woojin doesn’t care, just throws the bills at him and flips him off as soon as he’s hauled Chan out of the taxi. He drags Chan to the front of his apartment building, enters the code, drags him into the elevator, drags him off the elevator, punches in the code to his apartment and finally shuts and locks the door after setting Chan on the couch. Woojin double checks all three locks. When he turns around again, Chan has passed out.
“Right,” Woojin says, putting his hands on his hips. “Well, here goes nothing.”