His parents and the teacher were talking over him, but he didn’t follow their words. The words were too big, and they were talking too fast. Jae just stared at the stack of papers on the teacher’s desk – test papers he had left blank.
When he thought he saw something moving, his eyes flitted to the window. Brian was smiling at him through it. He waved. A small grin cracked on Jae’s solemn face.
After what felt like eternity, the teacher escorted him and his parents outside the office. The car ride home was so quiet, and the air was suffocating. His parents didn’t have to say anything. He knew they didn’t know what to do either.
When they got home, he went up to his room. Brian was already there, reading comic books on the bed, his socked feet swinging. “You know what would be awesome?”
Jae looked at him. Brian went on, sitting up, “Having something like Jarvis, just like Iron Man. I mean, can you imagine? All my things would be connected to each other, and I’d just have to say the word and my things would just do whatever I wanted them to do. I’d never have to worry about chores anymore!”
Jae turned away and went to his closet. He dropped his bag and stepped into the closet, curling into a ball and closing the door. Brian marched over and pulled open the door. “It was that bad, huh?”
Jae nodded. Brian stepped into the closet with him and closed the door. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Jae told Brian about how the teacher had called his parents in because he hadn’t answered any of his test papers. Jae said his parents were worried, but… he didn’t want to go to school anymore.
Brian shook his head. “No! You have to go to school! If you don’t go to school, what’s going to happen to our macaroni project for arts and crafts?” Brian stepped out of the closet and went to Jae’s desk. He picked up the macaroni statuette of what appeared to be a bipedal mouse. He brought it to the closet, and he stood at the door, holding it up. “We worked really hard on this! Mickey isn’t going to show himself off on his own, you know!”
Jae stared at Brian, frowning. Brian sighed and gently lowered the statue. “Jae, I’m right here. Don’t be scared anymore, okay?”
Jae just blinked at him for a moment. Brian frowned, scared that maybe Jae would still say no. But Jae slowly bent forward, nodding his head. He would do it. Brian’s face immediately glowed. “That’s great! I’m so excited!”
Wonpil anxiously gripped unto his mother’s hand. He stared at the huge, new school building. It was daunting – so many more kids than his old school.
“Are you scared, love?” his mother asked, caressing his head.
Wonpil was jittery, but he shook his head. “Not really. I know I’ll be okay when I make a friend.”
His mother smiled proudly, patting his hair. “That’s my boy.”
She and Wonpil walked into the school.
In arts and crafts, Wonpil oohed and aahed at all the macaroni statues that his new classmates brought to the front. They talked about their castles and cars and robots and bunnies, why they made them and what the stories behind them were. He jumped in his seat. He wanted to make one too!
“Okay, that’s almost everyone! What about you, Jae?”
The teacher was speaking to a boy with glasses, huddled over the only macaroni statue that Wonpil hadn’t seen yet. Wonpil craned his neck to see better. The boy’s fingers curled tighter around the edge of the desk and he crumpled smaller into his chair.
The teacher spoke in a gentler tone. “You made a lovely statue, Jae. I’d like to know more about it.”
Jae shook his head, his shoulders drawing in narrower. Wonpil tilted his head, curious and concerned.
Jae’s heart was beating so fast. His mouth was dry, and he felt like he was glued to his seat. Brian whispered from beside him, “Come on, Jae. You can do it!”
Jae groaned, shaking his head. No. No, I don’t want to do it.
Brian egged him on. “Come on, it’s not so bad.” He pointed at Jae’s macaroni statue. “I mean, just look at this! It’s awesome!”
Jae shriveled up even more, shaking his head even more wildly. Suddenly a boy from the back stood up and walked over to Jae. Jae, paranoid but frozen, furrowed his brow. Brian looked up, gaping. It was the new kid.
“Is this Mickey Mouse?” the new kid asked.
Jae blinked in confusion. But after a moment, he tremblingly nodded.
“Oh! I love Mickey Mouse! I want to go to Disneyland someday!”
Jae glanced up slowly, his nerves still shaking him. The new kid had stars in his eyes.
Jae was on his desk, drawing. Brian was sitting beside him, swiveling around in the chair. “You know, that Wonpil kid at school today was pretty cool.”
Jae ignored him. He continued sketching with his pencil.
Brian pressed on. “I think the two of you could get along.”
Jae glanced up at him, then returned to drawing. Brian rolled his eyes. “Come on, give me one good reason why you shouldn’t be friends with Wonpil.”
Jae stopped drawing. He pushed the paper towards Brian. Brian stared at it. “Is this you and me?”
Jae nodded. He told him that that was enough. He was his best friend. Brian smiled sadly. “You’re my best friend too, Jae.”
“Jae, look! It’s Wonpil!” Brian exclaimed, catching sight of Wonpil from across the cafeteria. Jae bit into his sandwich, immovable. Brian grabbed a piece of paper from his bag, then folded it into an airplane. He took aim. “Here we go!”
Jae stared, wide-eyed. What was Brian doing?
Brian launched the paper plane into the air. It flew across the room and hit Wonpil on the shoulder. Wonpil snapped in the direction the airplane had come from. He smiled when he saw Jae, and he started walking towards him. Suddenly Jae felt like he wasn’t sure how to hold his sandwich.
“Hi!” Wonpil slid unto the bench on the opposite side of the table. “I really liked your Mickey Mouse statue! Do you have a favorite Disney movie?”
Jae didn’t reply. Wonpil brought out his packed lunch and started eating. “Mine’s Pinocchio. I really like the fairy godmother,” he said between bites. “And it’s so funny when Pinocchio and the other boys turn into donkeys!”
Brian leaned forward, giggling. He remembered those scenes from the movie. Jae didn’t know how to finish his sandwich anymore. Wonpil kept talking – about puppets, and crickets, and a wooden boy who turned real.
The days passed, and Wonpil kept hanging around Jae. Jae was quiet, but Wonpil didn’t mind. He liked him, anyway. Jae was really good at drawing, and Wonpil thought that was super cool. One day, during break time, Wonpil walked over to Jae while the other boy was hunched over a piece of paper.
Wonpil leaned in. “What are you doing?”
Jae kept drawing. A cartoony boy with black hair parted in the middle and a big smile resided on the sheet.
“Who’s that?” Wonpil inquired, curious.
Jae paused a while. He dropped his crayon and got his pencil. Beside the boy in the drawing, Jae wrote, Brian.
Wonpil oohed. “Is he your friend?”
Jae nodded. He drew a hamburger in his hand.
“That’s okay. I’m just here.”
They’re fighting again.
It’s because of me.
“Hey, don’t say that.”
It’s because I can’t do anything in school.
“You’ve got a lot going on right now. It’s okay. You’ll do better when you can again.”
But what if I don’t?
“Please don’t think like that.”
He curled in his blanket and started crying.
“I’m right here. Don’t be scared anymore. Okay?”
The crying continued on for the rest of the night.
It had been a really long day at school. Jae really hadn’t wanted to be in school that day. He felt worse than ever. He dragged his feet out of the school and rounded the corner towards the school bus. Brian patted his back. “Just a little more and we’ll be home, dude.”
Suddenly Jae bumped into someone. He was knocked down from the force. The larger boy turned around. “Watch where you’re going!”
Shaken, Jae scrambled to get back up to his feet, but his weak knees weren’t cooperating. It was a small group of sixth grade boys. One of them smirked. “Oh, look what we’ve got here. It’s the moron who forgot how to talk.”
Jae quivered in fear. Brian was panicking. “Jae, get up! Get up! You have to go!”
One of them grabbed Jae by the upper arm and yanked him up. Jae yelped. The boy hooted. “So he does know how to make a sound!”
Brian flew into a rage, and started throwing his fists at the older boy squeezing his friend’s arm. The boy was completely unaffected. Jae was hyperventilating.
Brian help me!!!
Brian pulled back, realizing that he was getting nowhere. He was panting. He had to help Jae. “What should I do? What should I do?”
Suddenly an idea hit him. He ran back towards the main school building.
Wonpil leaned on the rail of the stairs leading up to the school entrance. He was waiting for his mom to pick him up. Suddenly, a brand-new car that was parked nearby started honking. Wonpil looked up. The car honked again – two fast honks, just like the first time. Wonpil stood up straight, bewildered. Did he really just hear that?
The car honked twice again. Wonpil rushed towards the car. He was sure he heard it that time. The two syllables of his name were hidden underneath the beeps of the horn.
When he reached the car, the reflection on the engine hood caught his eye. It wasn’t his own – but he immediately knew whose it must be. It pointed towards the side of the school, near where the school buses were. It mouthed, Jae.
Wonpil went white. He ran as fast as he could towards the school buses.
When he got there, he froze. Jae was whimpering, tacked down by the heavy grip of a bigger boy, and the bullies’ snickers mixed in with his cries. The two others were throwing the contents of Jae’s backpack on the ground. Books and notebooks tumbled out, and one of them caught sight of one of Jae’s drawings. He grabbed it off of the ground and examined it. He sneered, “Is this what I think it is?”
The world seemed to stop. The boy dangled it in front of Jae. “Aww, he almost makes roadkill look cute here,” the boy mocked. He bared his teeth in front of Jae. “The pipsqueak’s innards on the window shield didn’t look so pretty though.”
Jae screamed, in a full-fledged frenzy. He kicked and writhed like a live wire in water. The soul wrenching images throttled in his mind like endless lightning. At that moment, Wonpil jumped in and started pulling the bigger boys away from Jae. Distracted, they left just enough room for Jae to break free. He fled out of the parking lot, running like a bullet.
Jae hardly felt in touch with his body. He felt like he wasn’t just running away from the bullies, but that he was running away from everything about his life. If only his feet could take him further away from the thoughts that tailed him.
He could barely see what was in front of him – it was all hot tears and flashing memories of dusk light and blaring car horns. The sensation of paralysis – of standing by, powerless – crept over his limbs, but he struggled to break away from it. The zing of a long-distant speeding car seemed to whip the air around his ears. As he raced down the sidewalks, he passed the ghosts of bicycle wheels spinning upside down and the echoes of the friction of rubber on asphalt. Jae fought to escape the image threatening to surface in his mind – the face of warmth and happiness, suddenly stretched in dumbstruck shock. His heart screamed.
The green vehicle had careened toward the boy crossing the street on his bike. The collision had thrown the bike and the body halfway down the block. The neighbors had yelled. Suddenly reality felt like sand, and all senses and sense-making were overtaken by terror. This wasn’t an almost. Brian was dead.
Wonpil ran, harder than he ever had in his lifetime – but Jae ran almost like he was breaking away from his physical body. Wonpil threw himself into momentum, and his feet slapped hard on the ground, the impact ricocheting up his gangly legs. Finally, as the street tilted uphill, Jae showed signs of slowing, and Wonpil pushed forward. He stretched out his hand. He leapt. He caught Jae’s arm at last.
They tumbled down, off-balance. Wonpil’s sight was dotted with black spots from exhaustion, and Jae’s breathing sounded like an asthma attack. Jae was still squirming, but Wonpil scooped him into an embrace.
Jae yelped, struggling to break free.
“Jae, stop! The bullies are gone! It’s okay now!” Wonpil assured him, fighting to keep him in one place. Jae gave a high-pitched grunt, twisting to get out of Wonpil’s hold. Wonpil begged, “Jae, please!” Wonpil cried. “Jae, I don’t know what happened, but I’m sorry!”
Jae cracked. He broke down into the ground, Wonpil following him. He sobbed almost like he was vomiting his nightmares. Wonpil held on to him, not once letting loose. The two of them just stayed there, until Jae’s cries tempered down into hurt whimpers. Wonpil’s grip on Jae tightened, and he was crying now, too. Wonpil whispered, “I don’t know what happened. But I don’t want you to be sad.”
The whole world was a whirlwind of emotions right now, but somehow Jae heard him. Jae was swallowing air almost like he was inhaling the here and now. “I’m not going to let you be alone again.” Wonpil promised. “Jae, I’m right here. So don’t be scared anymore. Okay?”
Jae looked up at him, all the light caught sparkling in his watery eyes. Those were the same words Brian had always, always said.
Barely audible, he murmured, “Okay.”
It was the first time he had spoken in a year.