It’s a sight one doesn’t see very often.
Picture this: two young men, each wearing a short sleeved collared shirt. The shirts are angel wing white, ironed to a crisp, and neat. Both young men carry messenger bags strapped diagonally across their chests, both bags are full of varying pamphlets that all deliver the messages of God. Who could think the messages could be contained to a tri-fold brochure with an elegant font and a glossy finish?
Both are fleeing from the front door of an elderly woman’s house. That is Mrs. Han, a woman so old, skin so weathered that the neighborhood children often avoided going to her house for trick ‘r’ treat because, even with the many ghosts and ghouls propped on front yards for entertainment, she was much scarier.
So, two young men in crisp white shirts with brochures about God and all His promises fleeing the front porch of Mrs. Han who’s running from her house with a rolled up newspaper in one hand and a house slipper in the other. To the inexperienced, it is truly a sight to behold. But to the two young men, both of which have had their fair share of the angry non-believer, it is merely part of their duty.
They escape the clutches of Mrs. Han with ease, straddle their bikes propped up against the lamppost out front, and escape the neighborhood, their pressed shirt blowing back against the wind.
white shirt no. 1
There was a nickname had for Jeongguk in the last year of high school. The nickname had been so fitting that even the principal thought it was a good moniker for the end of the year’s ‘Most Likely To’ list. Under Jeon Jeongguk’s name, next to his grade (12th) and his yearbook quote (“You learn more from failure than you do from success”) was the moniker Most Likely to Meet God.
It was at his expense, Jeongguk knew, but he also took a small pride in it. Although, he knew pride was a sin. He repented for that. But as he did with his yearbook quote, which he looked up at last minute because he was too lazy to come up with something — he knew laziness was a sin, he repented for that as well — he embraced the moniker. After all, it was a testament to his devotion to God.
It was difficult all throughout school. Even in the early days. In elementary, his mother would pack, along with his crayons and folders and such, a Bible made for child comprehension. When show and tell came around, he showed his Bible and told of the word of God as well as he could tell it. His parents had always been proud of him for that. (They repented for that as well). His faith was strong and unbreakable even at a young age. They worried for him, the prospect that children his age would eventually break him of his devotion was a prominent worry in their household. They were pleasantly surprised when Jeongguk not only made it through high school without ever becoming a problem child but when he announced he had no plans to attend college.
For he wanted to spend his days spreading the Good Word to all the Lost Souls he could.
He did this every day, going door-to-door and passing out pamphlets, sitting in different living rooms with different families, reciting the same Bible quotes he’d memorized as a child. He was so devout in this practice that the elder of their congregation, a man who went only by the name Asa, all but knighted him for his hard work.
But Jeongguk didn’t do it for the attention or for the praise from both his peers and his elders come Sunday morning. He did it because the truth was that he’d read all about Hell, all the ins and outs of it, and he didn’t want it be anyone’s resting place. Even the people he was meant to hate, even the people who Elder Asa said were beyond hope, beyond words, Jeongguk longed to help them too. He still does.
Lost souls aren’t wanderers, intentionally going off the trail to pursue other things. They’re lost. All they need is a bit of direction.
It was the summer before Jeongguk’s 22nd birthday that Elder Asa had announced something that instilled fear into the hearts of the entire congregation, an odd mix of panic and comfort. It had come to him in a dream, Asa said, and he’d been told the exact time of the final hour. It was a message sent straight down from above and Elder Asa was so blessed to receive it.
And the congregation was so blessed to know.
Jeongguk knew it then. He believed in second chances. He believed in all souls being redeemed even when they’ve gone astray. And he wanted nothing more than to get as many people into Heaven as he possibly could. The door-to-door work he’d been doing daily from 10 to 2 became a daily, all-day event. With the aid of a map and his faith, he got on his bike at 6:30 in the morning, travelled to the district farthest from his home and worked his way back door-by-door.
He had one year left until the end of the world and he was going to make it count.
Jeongguk went about doing this alone up until the tail end of that summer when their congregation’s very own prodigal son returned.
White shirt number two, born Kim Taehyung, was the eldest son of one of the most devoted families in the congregation. It was a wonder, a shock, that a family whose matriarch spent every moment in their church and whose patriarch travelled outside of their provinces regularly to convert as many people as God would will could turn out to have a son like Taehyung.
Growing up in the congregation, this was not the case. He was like any child. Precocious, wide-eyed, and ever obedient courtesy of things like switches, leather belts, and the rulers of his teachers. For a long time, Taehyung never presented any problems. He sang in their choir, held Bible study with the younger children who couldn’t yet read for themselves, and had, all around, glowed with a piety and purity that even the most devout could only dream of.
It wasn’t until Taehyung’s 20th year that the public opinion change. This change was due to a rumor spread by the youths that made its way to the elders: Taehyung was seen walking on the Wrong side of town (ripe with non-believers and people so far from God that even Elder Asa saw no use in going that way) holding hands with a boy. To Jeongguk, upon first hearing, this rumor was so innocuous that he struggled to find issue with it and knew he would still should the rumor be proven true. However, when it was learned that these alleged things were fact, other facts bobbed to the surface like drowned bodies.
Not only had Taehyung been seen holding hands with this unknown boy but it had become known that the Kims, the elite of the devoted, had previously had problems with Taehyung seeing this person. That, apparently, when Taehyung was seventeen, his parents took him to Elder Asa so that he could talk some sense into Taehyung. The nature of this talk was the real kicker. The congregation suspected that it had something to do with the dangers of same-sex attraction.
After that, the once innocent hand-holding seemed to Jeongguk a wrong turn on the path of righteousness. He had seen Taehyung after those rumors only once and that was so he could announce in front of his parents and the congregation that he was going away to heal himself from his thoughts, that he only asked of them prayer and privacy “during this difficult time.”
The congregation who’d been abuzz with talk surrounding Taehyung’s salaciousness and sin had stood to their feet in roaring applause. Jeongguk didn’t realize it then but it was the first time he would witness their hypocrisy head on.
In the days after Taehyung’s departure, his absence hurt.
They were never friends but Jeongguk had admired him. He thought him to be a perfect example of all the things Jeongguk aspired to become. He was genuinely kind, genuinely forgiving, genuinely helpful, just genuine. This was the thing Jeongguk wanted most. Not just to be righteous but to be genuinely righteous, to be good for the sake of being good and not for the sake of being told to do so, of being presented with the punishment handed down to those who do wrong. What hurt the most about Taehyung’s absence was that Jeongguk had to acknowledge something he’d buried so far down that even he, today, still digs for it.
As a child, he thought Taehyung was handsome.
Handsome in the way children think of attraction. Where being easy on the eyes meant being sweet and all around right. He liked it when Taehyung, two years his senior, would read with him during Bible study, when the older would sing in the choir, and when he would help Jeongguk sort through donated clothes and canned goods for the church’s charity events. He’d been ten then, Taehyung twelve, and he didn’t know what attraction meant.
It wasn’t until after Taehyung left, after the rumors and the prayers and the applause, that he figured it out. He isolated himself for days after, praying and praying in the dark long after his parents had retired to bed. He fasted for two weeks and, when asked why, he simply said he wanted to be closer to God. He didn’t tell people the real reason. How could he? He’d seen the disgust on their faces when they talked about Taehyung and the boy he held hands with on the wrong side of town. He’d seen the way the Kims, who had once shone and shown off their pride and joy of a son, could barely look him in the eye when he announced his leave. And he’d read the Bible. He knew what he had to do.
It was a Sunday when the prodigal son returned. Taehyung looked just as handsome as he’d always been, if not more. He still glowed with purity, still wore his sincerity on his sleeve, and still smiled as if the fate of the world depended on his happiness. The three years of absence had done him well physically. He seemed taller, leaner, and the work he’d put in had provided sinewy muscles and an even richer complexion.
Jeongguk, though he didn’t show it, had been relieved to see Taehyung. It meant, to him, that there was hope. As long as he continued praying and continued fasting and continued spreading the Good Word, there was hope that his secret wouldn’t be a problem anymore, that his attractions would go away too. The relief he felt at seeing the older’s return was not felt by the whole of the congregation. Three years was enough time for more rumors to spread and for more people to get an idea of what wasn’t. So many of them were sure that Taehyung’s return was just so the Kims could save face in knowing that they raised a word that Jeongguk doesn’t have the stomach to repeat. It didn’t matter that he was better or that, according to his parents, he had a girlfriend named Natalie who wrote to him while he was away, giving him strength. They were so attached to Taehyung’s relationship with Natalie that there were even whispers that Taehyung would end up marrying her. Better to have him hitched than to risk his thoughts coming back.
It was upon seeing the rejection Taehyung was facing that Jeongguk first entertained the idea of joining with him. He couldn’t cover all the districts on his map by himself. With someone to help him, he would certainly cover more ground. Although he thought this, he didn’t have the nerve to walk up to Taehyung and suggest it out right. That’s where the roles had reversed.
It was Taehyung who approached him. He’d heard about the work he was doing, he heard about the hour of the end, and he wanted to lend a helping hand. And even though it had been Jeongguk who, too, had entertained the idea, he was hesitant to agree. People would know, he thought. They’d see him and Taehyung and they’d know that he was the same. He couldn’t risk it. But then, before he could say no, he remembered what he had admired about Taehyung. That he always helped and that he was always genuine. He then remembered his entire purpose in going to each district anyway: that everyone deserved a second chance.
It was then that Jeongguk nodded, shook Taehyung’s hand, and told him to meet him at 6:30 in the morning so they could get started.
how the ending begins
After nearly a year of spending practically every waking moment with Taehyung, Jeongguk has come to know a lot about him. Things like his favorite morning drink, the song he hums in between lulls in activity, and the fact that he is consistently late.
That last fact always manages to get Jeongguk in a bad mood but he’s found that he can stay mad at Taehyung for about as long as it takes for a red light to turn green. He’s grown fonder of Taehyung. His parents had been wary of the idea of him spending so much time with Taehyung. They, of course, were one of the many among the congregation who had applauded when Taehyung returned and praised him for his efforts in turning his life around but they too had their ideas about him. In their eyes, Taehyung was a risk. Once a problem, always a problem. With the help of Bible quotes on the importance of help and of forgiveness, Jeongguk had persuaded them to see his side of things. Begrudgingly, they accepted that Taehyung’s presence would be a constant in the last year of their son’s life. But they didn’t like it. Jeongguk knew that.
But even with the eyes of the congregation and even with his parents’ uncertainty, he’d grown to like Taehyung. He would deny it if anyone asked but he liked Taehyung’s inappropriate jokes, the way the older was so good but so much edgier than anyone else Jeongguk knew. Taehyung helped people in need without a second thought. Once, after they picked up a quick lunch of sub sandwiches in between doors, Taehyung had come across a homeless man who wanted money or food. Taehyung hadn’t even taken a bite of his sandwich but he gave it to the man without even thinking about it.
It was things like this that Jeongguk admired.
The inappropriate jokes that he knew he shouldn’t laugh at were just a bonus.
The two hadn’t grown closer. He didn’t have the nerve to ask Taehyung about the last three years of his life or what happened when he was seventeen, what happened when he was twenty. But Jeongguk likes him, feels relaxed around him. And that’s more thane can say for others.
Pop’s corner bodega was the place they met up early in the morning. The two of them lived in separate subdivisions and had chosen the bodega as the go-to spot after their first morning of working together when they realized, belatedly, that neither of them had remembered to eat beforehand. They chose the bodega not only because it was the halfway point between their homes but because Pop had the best egg and cheese breakfast croissants in the area.
Jeongguk is already eating his croissant, half sitting on his bike with one leg extended to the ground for balance, when Taehyung finally appears.
Taehyung, breathless and grinning, rides up to him on his bike, mouth already fixed for a half-assed apology. He’s ten minutes late today. Jeongguk would point this out but his mouth is stuffed and he doesn’t feel like stating the obvious.
He, instead, tosses Taehyung his bottle of mango orange juice and the second croissant still wrapped in sandwich paper. When Taehyung takes his first bite, Jeongguk is taking his last and wipes the corners of his mouth with a napkin.
“Can you finish that in five minutes?”
Taehyung looks at him and answers him by stuffing the entirety of the croissant in his mouth. As his cheeks bloat, some egg and flakes of bread falling from his mouth, Jeongguk’s stoic expression melts with a smile. For as long as it takes for a red light to turn green.
He rolls his eyes, still smiling, and Taehyung starts laughing, mouth still stuffed.
“Stop laughing,” Jeongguk says, his own shoulders shaking against his will. “You’ll choke.”
Taehyung’s smile widens at him and he shows off his open mouth full of mushed food and Jeongguk turns away, half disgusted and half humored.
“Gross,” he mutters.
The map Jeongguk had of their area was covered in red ticks from a Sharpie. These ticks marked off every place he and Taehyung managed to hit in their quest for salvation. That’s not to say every area had been successfully visited. There were some visits that saw the both of them practically chased out of neighborhoods and others that they were, quite frankly, afraid to visit. Like the Raimi District.
Once upon a time, the Raimi District had been home to the disenfranchised, to poor families who could barely afford rent let alone groceries. There were two stories in that entire district: a liquor store and an abandoned antique shop. If anyone who lived in the Raimi District wanted to get groceries, they had to go one district over which lead to issues of its own. But in the years since Jeongguk’s seventeenth, the Raimi District changed for what others say is the best.
Jeongguk is too young to remember much about the Raimi District, about how it was. All he can really rely on are the words of his elders who tell him the district, although deemed the wrong side of town (the same wrong side that Taehyung had been seen in all those years ago), is in a much better state than it was before. The only problem is that it’s still full to the brim of sinners.
The district is now home to a lot of young adults, people Jeongguk’s age. Recent college graduates, people who were old enough to have a place of their own but young enough to not have a family yet. This side of town also had things like nightclubs, bars, and sex shops. All of that was bad enough as it was but the thing that really made people in the congregation stand up a little straighter when it came to the Raimi District was that it was its own version of San Francisco’s Castro. That is: undeniably gay.
Years ago, it wasn’t just a big deal that Taehyung was seen holding a guy’s hand. It was that he’d been holding a guy’s hand in a part of town that known for its gay community. It was like getting caught redhanded.
Jeongguk had been avoiding going to this part of town for more reasons that one. He had his own secrets for one. He knew about Taehyung’s past troubles and he didn’t want to do anything to deter him from his success in changing. But, also for more reasons than one, Jeongguk had been wanting to go to the Raimi District ever since he set off last year with the date of the end rotating in his brain.
In his mind, the people in the Raimi District were people like him. The only difference was that they were lost and he wasn’t. He could show them the way, he thought. He had already made up his mind about visiting this district. He couldn’t very well, in good conscience, leave people to be damned to eternity. First, though, he had to bring it up to Taehyung which Jeongguk feared more than anything.
“Where are we heading today?” Taehyung asks when the croissant is finished and his mango orange juice long gone, the trash of which has been tossed in the been. He re-buckles the strap of his helmet and adjusts it over his head as he leans over toward Jeongguk’s bike where the map is.
Jeongguk has never been the best with words. He rolls over different ones in his mind, trying to find the right way to respond, but, in the end, he knows it’s better to just spit it out.
“Is it okay with you if we go to Raimi?”
Jeongguk has never been the best with words but he’s always been good at reading people. He doesn’t miss the way Taehyung’s expression flickers to something hesitant, something afraid, or the bob in his throat. Taehyung looks away from him, smile long gone, and eyes down on the ground.
“We don’t have to go,” Jeongguk quickly says.
“No, no,” Taehyung waves him off, shaking his head. He looks up at him, briefly. “We should go. I can’t avoid it forever, right?”
Jeongguk nods, wearing a thin smile and puts a hand on Taehyung’s shoulder. He’s never been the most affectionate either. But he hopes he’s relaying something with the action because he can’t use words. Outright saying that he was there for Taehyung would feel disingenuous. And being disingenuous around someone as sincere as Taehyung was like wearing a knock off brand in the middle of Gangnam.
Taehyung knows the area of Raimi better than Jeongguk. He’s the one who suggests they start at an apartment complex called ‘Casi Cielo.’
“It’s Spanish for ‘almost heaven,’” Taehyung tells him as they wheel their bikes through the entrance. His smile is knowing and comforting in the face of something so big and unknown. “I figure it’s better to start high then work our way down, right?”
Jeongguk smirks at him and nods once. He looks around the complex as they wheel in, all of the buildings are so bright with vivid colors, all different shades. The first block of apartments, 110 through 120, are contained in a bright yellow building to their right. The second block, 120 through 130, is bright pink, so ostentatious to the eye that Jeongguk has to avert his eyes.
There are pride flags in nearly every yard or in every window.
Jeongguk swallows hard, his face heating up despite himself.
When he looks to Taehyung, the older’s eyes are on a building two down from the bright yellow one. It’s a muted orange. “I’ll start here, okay?”
Their system was the same when it came to apartment complexes or subdivisions. One of them would start at the very end of the, at the last house or the last complex by the cul-de-sac, while the other would start from the very first house in the community. If they were efficient (or kicked out fast enough), they would be able to meet in the middle and then leave together.
Jeongguk starts down the unknown path, looking from house to house as rides down the road which winds and weaves. When he turns back, he expects to see Taehyung walking to the first house, maybe propping his bike up against the lamppost out front. But, instead, Taehyung is biking past the first two and heading toward the muted orange one he’d been eyeing.
The end of the complex comes up after what feels like an eternity. Jeongguk knows it was only, maybe, fifteen minutes. But it’s a whole new world he’s entering and his stomach is wrought with knots that not even the most calming of breathing exercises can untie.
The beginning of the complex mirrors the end and the last building is bright yellow, much like the first. He swallows the lump in his throat, sets his bike on the curb, and trails up to the door. He grips the strap of the messenger bag across his chest and mumbles words of encouragement to himself.
It may have been Jeongguk’s effort that started this tradition he and Taehyung have. It may have been him doing it first and doing it alone that prompted all of this but it doesn’t make it any easier. Jeongguk generally likes to keep to himself, likes to keep quiet. Not only that but his lack of skills when it comes to communication makes it hard for him to be likable on these missions. Taehyung, whose smile is radiant and charisma untouched, is always liked. He’s better at this than Jeongguk is, at the song and dance of approaching strangers in their homes to talk about God for a few minutes.
Taehyung is often invited inside to talk longer even if the person clearly isn’t interested in anything to do with God or, at least, not their version of Him. Jeongguk, on the other hand, has had doors slammed in his face, has been cursed at, has been outright lied to. Once, he approached a woman’s house and was turned away before he could ring the doorbell by a voice shouting through the window: “We’re not home!”
As frivolous as Jeongguk knew it was to be so focused on shallow things like acceptance, he hated being rejected. It never gets any easier to be turned away. More often than not, Jeongguk feels like giving up rather than have one more person slam a door on him.
He enters the building and turns to the door on his right, apartment 910. He tries to stomach the gravel in his throat and drags his feet against the floor as he approaches, one hand in his bag and gripped on a pamphlet, the other balled up into a tight fist.
He takes a deep breath when he’s faced with the door and knocks three times. Both of his hands come to grip the pamphlet that he’s now pulled out of his bag and he waits, heart pounding, for someone to answer. Three seconds pass. Four, five…fifteen. Jeongguk thinks about knocking again but he decides against it and slides his pamphlet in between the door and its frame.
It embarrasses him, the way he’s able to breathe again and the way his shoulders relax when he walks away. He knocks on two more doors after that. One right across from 910, one next to 910. He gets no answer from either one. And, every time, he’s embarrassed when he’s flooded with relief.
The last door he knocks on is bright teal in color and he doesn’t expect to get an answer, but he knocks anyway. His shoulders don’t tense up and he doesn’t hold his breath. If he had known, though, that the door would swing open, he wouldn’t have let himself breathe at all.
The woman who opens the door can’t be much older than him. Her hair, long, straight, and dark red, blows back when her eyes land on his. Her eyes are piercing and Jeongguk, on instinct, looks away.
“Can I help you?” She asks but she doesn’t give him any time to answer. She turns around, facing the inside of the apartment as she adjusts the jacket over her body, and calls: “Jin, one of your pets is here.”
When she turns back to him, Jeongguk is only just starting to answer the first question she asked: “I’m here to—”
“Let yourself in,” she says as she walks out, breezing past Jeongguk. She adjusts the bag hanging off her shoulder and only turns around for a moment. “If you’re gonna have sex, just don’t do it in the living room. I have to sleep in there.”
Jeongguk watches, unsure of what to do, as she exits the building. He waits until he remembers the door to the apartment is still open. Let yourself in, echoes in his mind and he does just that. Once he’s inside, he closes the door behind him but he doesn’t take his shoes off, staying on the threshold and waiting for someone to make an appearance.
There’s no response. Jeongguk continues to wait, kneading his hands together idly and taking in the space. The walls are painted a soft peach. The couch, like the door, is teal and looks beyond comfortable. There’s art and photographs and oddities on every inch of the walls. By the door, where Jeongguk stands, is a blown up collage of magazine cutouts. A pair of smooth legs wearing pink fishnet stockings, giant purple lips for a head standing in the middle of a winter desert. He’s staring at the collage, trying to make sense out of it, when a shadow falls over him and he realizes he isn’t alone.
He turns and his chest hiccups.
In front of him is a man, tall and lean with long, elegant limbs. He’s wearing white capris and a Hawaiian shirt (pink and teal) that’s unbuttoned. There’s no undershirt. Only a stomach of defined muscles with skin so smooth that Jeongguk has the oddest desire to reach out and touch. The man’s hair is light brown, pushed back and parted on the side but messy in the most appealing way. He tilts his head, lips — perfect lips — pouting.
He deadpans, looking down at the phone in his hand. “You’re not Woojin with my rice bowl.”
Jeongguk shakes his head and takes an unsteady breath. “Who?”
“Woojin. Food delivery? Ring a bell?”
“No. No, I was—”
“Then, no offense, but what are you doing in my apartment?”
“I…the girl let me in.”
The guy rolls his eyes and sets his phone down on the stand next to him. He takes weighted steps toward Jeongguk, comes so close to him that Jeongguk can smell his cologne and almost loses his senses. When he’s stood in front of Jeongguk, he leans behind him, so so close. It strikes Jeongguk that this guy’s neck is only inches away from his mouth and he doesn’t like the way his stomach flips when that realization settles.
He’s so encapsulated in the thought that it takes him a minute to realize the door is open and the stranger is waving him out of it.
“Shoo,” he says. “You’re cute and all but I’m not interested in buying whatever it is you’re selling.”
The man puts a hand on Jeongguk’s chest to push him out of the door, which he does gently and with a softness in his eyes that feels unwarranted. It takes Jeongguk a minute to realize and, when he does, he recovers fast. He backs out until he’s standing in the hall once again but that doesn’t stop him from telling the man to hold on as he reaches into his bag.
“I, um…Do you have a few minutes to listen to the word of God?”
In front of him, the man crosses his arms and leans against the door frame as he wrinkles his brow in thought. “Depends…What’s He saying these days?”
Jeongguk’s eyes go wide. He didn’t expect this person of all people to actually ask him to share what he knew. He stammers over his words as he gets the pamphlet out. “Well, the Bible—”
“On second thought,” the guy utters with a sigh before closing the door quite suddenly and unceremoniously in Jeongguk’s face.
For a moment, there’s nothing but the stillness that follows. Jeongguk stares at the shut door, unmoving, until the rejection sinks in again and he heaves a sigh, slinking his shoulders forward and dragging his feet out of the building. He thinks about trying the next building and working is way back up to the middle but he doesn’t feel like it. Not only is he embarrassed, rejected and dejected, but the disappointment comes off him in waves. He thought he’d buried that part of himself, the part that, only moments ago, was struck dumb by the sight of another man’s chest.
He rides his bike to the main entrance of the complex and kicks himself all the way there. When he does get to the front, he waits and tries not to drown in his self-hatred. He’ll have to repent for that, for the thoughts that went through his mind, for the way his blood started rushing and feeling heavy, for not being able to turn his eyes away.
Eventually, Taehyung finds him.
Jeongguk had expected to see him coming from the middle or, at least, from any house other than the one he saw Taehyung go into earlier. The muted orange one he couldn’t take his eyes off of. But that’s the building he sees Taehyung walk out of, picking his bike up out of the yard, and starting his way down until Jeongguk whistles in his direction.
He wonders, briefly, if he imagines Taehyung’s dumbstruck expression but he knows it’s real.
When Taehyung makes his way over to him, he smiles sheepishly and asks: “Was I late?”
Jeongguk shakes his head. “No. I just decided to call it quits.”
“Is everything okay?”
Jeongguk doesn’t nod or shake his head or respond at all. He wants to be more like Taehyung who went into the building of his choice and was only just now leaving. He must have talked to everyone in the building, must have shared the Good Word with every single person. Unlike Jeongguk who managed to, somehow, leave with more pamphlets than he’d arrived with.
Taehyung puts a hand on his shoulder and squeezes. “We all have our off days. Nothing to be ashamed of. We’ll come back, okay?”
And Jeongguk nods, taking solace in those words. “Okay.”
Sunday service is always a treat for Jeongguk.
It reminds him, in his lost hours, what he needs to keep his eyes on. It reminds him of what’s important. And after the day he had yesterday, being reminded of what’s important is what he needs the most.
He spots Taehyung sitting on the left side of the church, in the first row between his parents. He’s an adult but they still treat him like a child, treat him as if they have to watch his every move. Not that Jeongguk’s parents are any different. They have a million different questions for him when he gets back from his missions.
Was Taehyung behaved? Where did you go? Who did you talk to? Who talked to you? Did you keep your wits about you which is Jeongguk’s favorite because the meaning of it is so blatant. They might as well be asking him if he still believed in God.
He and Taehyung don’t hang out outside of their missions. They don’t interact during Sunday service although everyone already knows they go their missions together. It would bring to much attention, too much suspicion, if they were to be friendly with each other. If the congregation knew that Jeongguk laughed at Taehyung’s jokes, they would think that he, too, fell prey to Satan’s whispers.
Elder Asa stands at the center, leaning into the microphone.
“A year ago today, I shared with you the dream given to me by God Himself. Brothers and Sisters, the final hour is among us. It’s right around the corner. Seven days have we until there are no more chances to repent, no more opportunities purify yourselves and be allegiant to the One and Only. Stay steadfast in your faith. Don’t be tempted by the vain desires of this world when the hereafter awaits you.”
Right, Jeongguk thinks. This isn’t the time to be tempted by what he’s managed to bury for so long. He’s always wondered about same sex attraction, whether or not he could go to Hell simply for having it, simply for thinking that another guy was attractive. He would ask about this, to his parents or to Elder Asa, but he didn’t want to end up in the same place as Taehyung. He wanted to be free. And, he figured, as long as he never acted on his thoughts, he wouldn’t be sinning by having them.
Initially when the news of the last day came, the congregation was in hysterics.
But then, with Elder Asa’s wise words, they were quelled into comfort. Don’t you see? Elder Asa said. All that you’ve sacrificed, all that you’ve done, you will be rewarded for greatly. The end is a good thing. It means our suffering is over.
Now that they were seven days away from the end of the world, the congregation was vibrating with anticipation. People were talking about seeing heaven, about what they’d do there. Jeongguk had overheard one of the guys his age bragging about how many wives he ought to have when he got to paradise. Jeongguk didn’t know what to think of the hereafter. He was happy that he would’ve made it this far without becoming deviant, as Elder Asa would put it. But he was nervous. After all, he thought, there was no guarantee he’d end up in Heaven. He could end up in Hell. Or, worse perhaps, he could end up absolutely nowhere. He hadn’t given a lot of thought as to whether Heaven existed or not.
But sometimes, in the middle of the night when he couldn’t get to sleep, he wondered if it really was. If he would really get to see it.
There were many families in the congregation who were fully prepared for The End. Some families, like the Chas or the Kwangs or the Lees were so prepared that they had sold their houses, given away their worldly possessions including all their savings. He heard Mrs. Kwang brag that she and her family had next to nothing, only enough money for food to last the rest of the week and to pay for the motel before the rapture. They were, in her words, completely pious and so much closer to God for it. They would have no money for the motel or for food after the seven days were up.
Jeongguk’s family, as devout as they were, didn’t go that far. His mother had given away their furniture but they were still living and sleeping in the house he grew up in. As far as he knew, that wasn’t going to change. His mother had the point of view that there was no point in giving away worldly possessions for the less fortunate. The world was ending. The less fortunate would be in Hell anyway.
“I see a lot of new faces here today,” Elder Asa said, his smile weathered by old age and heavy with kindness. “Our youths Kim Taehyung and Jeon Jeongguk have been very busy, as you all know. In the last year, they’ve converted as many people as this congregation has ever seen. Just the two of them alone. Imagine how many souls would see salvation if we were all doing half of what they do every day.”
The congregation cheers for that, echoes of “amen” chorus through the church. Jeongguk sees Taehyung put his head down, smiling but only for show.
That night, Jeongguk dreams about Hell.
He dreams of flesh tearing and screams so loud that they pierce his ears until he bleeds. He dreams of fire, the smell of burnt skin, and the sounds of bones crushing. He wakes up in a sweat, his face covered in tears. Dreams have always delivered messages. Like the one given to Elder Asa. He knows, upon waking, what this dream is telling him to do.
He has to go back to the Raimi District. He has to protect those people. Rejection be damned. It’s been nearly a year of non-stop delivering of the Good Word. He can’t let his desires, however much he may fear them, keep him from his mission. Not when he only has seven days left.
It’s Taehyung who suggests they go back to the Raimi District.
They’re eating their croissants, inside of Pop’s instead of straddling their bikes on the storefront, when he suggests it. He doesn’t look at Jeongguk when he does, all to focused on how the croissant bread tears in his hands. Jeongguk doesn’t tell him that he was thinking the same thing. He didn’t tell him about the guy yesterday or about how it made him feel. It’s easier to keep things to himself, especially when voicing them makes it too real.
He gets comfortable with the idea of returning to Raimi being Taehyung’s instead of his and he rolls with it, shrugging casually as if the suggestion doesn’t both excite and terrify him.
Jeongguk knocks on the teal door with confidence this time. After watching Taehyung enter the first house in the subdivision, waving him off as he did, Jeongguk was determined to be like him this time around. He was determined to enter his apartment building with confidence and quote all the Bible verses with charm. He was determined to save.
He’s prepared to give his speech. ‘Hi, did you know that God wants you in Heaven?’ or maybe starting a little bit harsher, maybe start with punishment first. ‘Hi, Hell is awaiting those without salvation. Have you been saved?’
Okay, maybe he’s not all that prepared.
The self-doubt barely has time to trickle in before the teal door is swinging open and the man from yesterday is looking at him, appraising him with a smile that Jeongguk could only describe as comfortably annoyed. Jeongguk forgets everything he was going to say, mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water.
To his surprise, the man walks away, retreating back into his apartment but leaves the door ajar. Jeongguk stands there uncertain until—
“Come on, what’s God on about now?”
Despite his better judgment (the question is most definitely a slight against what he believes in), Jeongguk smiles at that and enters. Like yesterday, he stands at the threshold, not removing his shoes or making any move to. He looks at the collage again when he asks.
“May I come in?”
He hears the man scoff and he turns to see him seated on the comfortable looking teal couch. “I did leave the door open, didn’t I?”
Jeongguk looks down at his feet. Then back to the couch. “Can I sit?”
“Well, shit, is the word of God so short that you can deliver the entirety of it on your feet?” He cracks a smile when Jeongguk doesn’t respond, eyes wide and mouth posed for an apology. “I’m messing with you. Come in, relax.”
And Jeongguk does. The rest of the apartment looks as eccentric as the entrance. More painting cover the walls, odd sculptures made from recycled plastic bottles and copper wire sit around the coffee table. Across from the couch is a smaller violet Victorian looking loveseat. As Jeongguk sits, he realizes just how much of a mess the apartment is. Not a mess in that sense. It’s clean, neat, organized. But it’s chaos with everything looking mismatched as if they’d gotten most their things from the yard sales of strikingly different people.
When he finally tears his eyes from the room’s eccentricities, he finds the young man’s eyes on his, his smile small and amused.
“Are you gonna start?” He asks. “I only let you in here because I’ve nowhere to be and I like your face but I’ll get bored soon so use your time wisely.”
Jeongguk doesn’t get this far often.
All the confidence he’d picked up on the bike ride over has vanished. He reaches into his messenger bag first and pulls out a pamphlet. Clearing his throat, he starts handing the pamphlet to the guy who shakes his head.
“You’re doing it all wrong,” he says.
“Sorry?” Jeongguk is frozen there, arm extended over the coffee table in mid-air, a pamphlet with the words “Are you in good hands?” printed on the front cover.
“You start with God and I suppose that’s right,” the guy says, leaning back onto the couch and pulling his legs up so he’s sitting cross-legged. “But you’ve been here twice and you have yet to ask me my name. How are you going to make me care about God when you can’t even pretend you care about me?”
Jeongguk swallows hard and moves back slow, arm dropping back down to his side and pamphlet finding its way onto the empty space on the loveseat next to him. He can barely meet the guy’s eyes when he asks: “What’s your name?”
“Oh, no,” the guy shakes his head. “Now I feel like you’re just asking because I told you to. I’m not convinced you actually care.”
The guy narrows his eyes at him and turns his lips to the side. “…Show me yours and I’ll show you mine.”
Cupping the side of his face with his hand, the guy tilts his head and Jeongguk becomes struck at how much he likes it, how cute he thinks the guy is. Then he has himself mentally and reminds himself to repent. “What’s your story, Jeongguk? You make a habit out of knocking on people’s doors at the asscrack of dawn?”
“Actually, I do. I’ve…Well, I’m trying to help people find God.”
“What makes you think they’ve lost him?”
“Scratch that. What makes you think I’ve lost him? I must seem really lost to you, right? Do you always come to the same place twice?”
“I’m…I don’t think you’re lost—”
“Then why are you here?” The man fakes a dramatic gasp, hand over his mouth. “Do you have ulterior motives?”
“No, no,” the joke is lost on Jeongguk, his eyes go wide and hands up in defense. “No, I don’t, I promise.”
“I’m messing with you, Jeongguk. Relax.”
“…I don’t have ulterior motives.”
“…Now, I don’t know what to believe. You don’t think I’m lost and you’re on a mission to help lost souls. But you don’t have ulterior motives either.”
“I’m here because God wants me to be here. He wants me to save you, to bring you to the right path, help you see the light. I had a dream last night.”
“Was I in it?”
Jeongguk shakes his head. “No, but…But I had a feeling I had to come back here. I think God has a bigger plan for you.”
The guy hums, soaking that in. “What’s God think of me then? Why am I special?”
“I can’t…I can’t tell you what He thinks of you. I can’t know that, no one can.”
“Okay. What do you think of me?”
Jeongguk blanches. He doesn’t like being put on the spot but he’s been in the spot since he walked through the teal door. He looks at his hands as he clasps them together. “Um…you’re kind…”
“Kind?” When he looks up, the stranger is amused. “I closed the door in your face yesterday.”
“Yeah, but you opened it today.”
To Jeongguk’s surprise, the man looks impressed like that. His smile brightens and widens, eyebrows raising like Jeongguk said something profound. He nods to himself. “Okay. I’m Seokjin.”
Jeongguk smiles back. “Hi, Seokjin.”
Seokjin rolls his eyes but is still smiling when he replies: “Hi, Jeongguk.”
Jeongguk has tea now.
Here he is in a notably gay district sitting at Casi Cielo in some random handsome’s apartment drinking peppermint iced tea and trying to talk about God. He’s so shocked by the whole situation that he keeps forgetting what he’s supposed to say.
“Come on, Jeongguk,” Seokjin says. “Focus. Heaven, Hell, where am I going?”
“I can’t—I’m not, like, a decider or anything, I don’t know who gets too Heaven.”
“Jeez, I know that. But I wanna know your opinion of me. You know how some people are obsessed with knowing your sign and your rising sign and your moon sign and all that jazz?”
Jeongguk slowly shakes his head. “Horoscopes go against God so…”
“Okay, well, pretend you do. My version is finding out if cute Mormon boys that knock on my door think I’m going to Hell.”
“I’m not a Mormon.”
“Really? I thought, for sure, I had you pegged.”
At that moment, a girl exits one of the bedrooms. It’s not the same girl from yesterday who opened the door for Jeongguk and who, Jeongguk remembers, sleeps on the couch. This girl is shorter, rounder in shape, and more relaxed. She exits one of the bedrooms in a silk robe, a roller set in her hair, and full makeup.
“What’s with all the commotion?” She groans.
“Sorry,” Seokjin apologizes, still wearing his smile as he watches Jeongguk. It makes Jeongguk feel weird. Like he’s a pet or like the food on Seokjin’s plate that he can’t stop playing with. But at the same time, he really doesn’t want Seokin to look away. “Jeongguk is here to teach me about God.”
The girl rolls her eyes, wincing as she pours her coffee in the kitchen. “Jesus.”
“Actually, no,” Seokjin says at the same time that Jeongguk sheepishly declares that it’s a “common misconception.”
“Come on, Jiyoo-ah,” Seokjin waves her over, scooting so he’s not taking up all the space on the couch. “Come get saved with me.”
Maybe it’s Seokjin’s tone when he says it but it’s only then that Jeongguk realizes that he’s a joke to them. They don’t want to hear about God, everything he says is just entertainment to them. His cheeks heat up as embarrassment washes over him. He looks away from Seokjin and down at his hands again. What was he doing?
“I should go,” he mutters to the carpet.
“Don’t stop on my account,” Jiyoo says as she sits down next to Seokjin who eagerly takes a sip of her coffee despite the absolute horror on her face when he does.
“No, it’s…” Jeongguk gulps and his face gets hotter when he says the next part. “I just don’t have the time to waste on people who don’t believe in God. I thought I did but…”
Jiyoo looks amused but hides her face behind her mug while Seokjin is staring at Jeongguk with, for the first time, a straight face and an unreadable expression. Jeongguk starts to stand up when Seokjin responds.
“I believe in God,” he says. “What makes you think I don’t?”
“…You seem to think everything I say is a joke.”
“Sorry,” he says, shrugging. “I guess I’m just used to always feeling like a punchline.”
Jeongguk doesn’t stand.
Seokjin goes on. “I guess I just think it’s rich. The first thing you say is that you want to save lost souls, like the depraved, like the real fucked up people. And you knock on my door and you don’t realize how insulting it is. But then you won’t admit to it either. The way I see it, right? You came here because you think I’m fucked up. You think this whole district is fucked up. And that’s disappointing. But what’s even worse is that you don’t have the nerve to admit it. You’re so sure that you’re right that you won’t say it out loud because you know it’ll sound wrong. Forgive me if I can’t take you seriously when you can’t even tell the truth.”
Jeongguk opens his mouth but doesn’t get the chance to say anything because Seokjin interrupts him.
“I’m bored. Time’s up.”
After he and Taehyung leave Casi Cielo, they go to a nearby ice cream shop and get two vanilla cones. They eat inside, away from the window. This is an unspoken agreement. For Taehyung doesn’t want anyone to see him with another guy “on the wrong side of town” and Jeongguk doesn’t want to be the other guy.
Jeongguk thinks about this while they’re eating, the agreement. How they both knew. He thinks of what Seokjin says because part of him thinks it’s true but the other part doesn’t. After all, he was the one who agreed to work with Taehyung. He didn’t pick Raimi because it was a gay area. Just like he didn’t pick Casi Cielo, just like he didn’t pick the teal door. He told himself all of that but then, when it came time, he couldn’t tell himself why he picked those places to begin with.
“Taehyung,” Jeongguk says suddenly. “…Is it all true?”
Taehyung doesn’t ask if what is true. He knows exactly. It takes him a long time to answer and when he does, Jeongguk thinks the words are so practiced and so rehearsed that they have no meaning.
“I lost my way,” Taehyung says and that’s that.
It’s on their third visit to Casi Cielo, another silent agreement between them, that Jeongguk realizes that Taehyung hasn’t gone to any other buildings.
He can’t prove that, not exactly. Because, for all he knows, Taehyung has gone to other buildings. But he knows that Taehyung frequents the third one down, orange in color. He doesn’t mention this to Taehyung or to anyone for that matter for two reasons. 1) He never thought it was his place to call people out on their secrets, not when he’d been harboring such a big one for all of his life. 2) Jeongguk hasn’t bothered to check out any other buildings either.
Calling attention to Taehyung doing the same thing would just make him question himself.
For those reasons and those reasons alone, he refuses to go to Seokin’s place. It has nothing to do with what Seokjin said and how the words had imprinted themselves into his skin, on the walls of his brain, how the words were so stubborn as to never leave him even in sleep. Going to another building is necessary. The world is ending. He doesn’t have all the time in the world to waste on one person, no matter how cute he is.
The building he stops at is two down from the one Seokjin lives in, a pale green one that’s crawling with kudzu. At first, Jeongguk thinks it’s an abandoned building in a complex bursting with life. But, upon closer inspection, he realizes the kudzu is just a painting. He stares at it for much too long without going in. It awes him, the things a person can do. He didn’t have an ounce of creativity himself. If he’d taken part in any of the talent shows that his school had put on, the one thing he’d be able to do would be to have the audience shout out Bible verses at the top of their heads and he’d be able to, without fail, name which book it belonged to and exactly the number of verse. It used to pride him, being able to do that.
But looking at the kudzu, it just makes him feel…like he’s missed something.
Without any more lingering hesitation, he enters the building and starts with the door on his left this time. It was starting with the door on the right that got him into this Seokjin mess in the first place. Is that logical reasoning? Probably not. Definitely not. But he doesn’t need to be logical when the sky is days away from crashing over their heads.
He knocks on the left door with undeserved confidence and false bravado. It’s all a show now, he’s figured it out. It doesn’t matter if, on the inside, he’s shaking to the point of dizziness. What matters is that on the outside, he’s ready to deliver the messages that he’s been sent to deliver.
He knocks on the door again when he doesn’t get an answer the first time.
The door doesn’t open but he hears the shuffling behind it and the turning of keys. When that all stops, the door still doesn’t open and he doesn’t make a move to knock again.
“…Is anyone home?”
“What do you want?”
The voice on the other side sounds across between apathetic and completely detached. It, momentarily, removes Jeongguk from his own mind and puts him in the shoes on the other side. What it would feel like, he wonders, to be that detached. He’d probably hate it.
“Do you have a few minutes to discuss the salvation of your soul?”
A groan cuts in before he completely finishes his question and he pales, swallowing hard. Heat flushes the back of his neck. “Fuck, seriously, I don’t have time for this.”
“I…I would advise you to make the time. The world as we know it is coming to an end and I think you should consider repenting while there’s still time.”
The door swings open then. A young man, small in stature, with a pale complexion and the most piercing stare Jeongguk has ever had the dissatisfaction of falling under stands on the other side. His jaw clenches. “What do I need to repent for exactly?”
Unable to answer the question, Jeongguk stills for a moment. He looks down at his feet, his stomach in knots again. He follows the pattern of the carpeted floor whilst trying to untie them. He finally comes up with a cop out of an answer if there ever was one. “We all need to repent.”
“…Or we’ll be punished. Have you considered where you’ll spend the rest of eternity?”
The young man narrows his eyes at him and whispers in a voice so scarily calm: “I’m going straight to Hell. And if you don’t leave now, I’m gonna take you with me. ‘Kay?”
The door shuts before Jeongguk has a chance to say anything else, to even consider what he was going to say next. As always, he slumps his shoulders and drags himself out but not before leaving a pamphlet by the door.
It’s when he’s leaving the building, no energy to try to rest of the apartments, that he hears a window open behind him. He only knows it opens because the music that had been playing, initially muffled, was suddenly louder and clearer to comprehend. He didn’t even turn around which turned out to be a smart decision. If he did turn around, the egg thrown at the back of his head would have cracked in his eye instead.
He freezes mid-step as the yolk runs down from his scalp to the back of his neck. Rejection was already hard but this was something else. This was too much. He felt like crying and, if not for the complete numbness that overtook him at that moment, he most certainly would’ve. He doesn’t turn around, not even after that. He hears the music go back to being muffled, hears the window shut, but even then he stays in the same place.
When he does finally muster up the courage to look up instead of at the ground, his eyes trail two houses down and he meets Seokjin’s sympathetic gaze. Seokjin’s holding groceries, standing outside the door of his building, but just as frozen. He waves his hand in Jeongguk’s direction — come here — before entering his building.
Jeongguk very nearly stays in the same spot. But before his mind can make the decision to go, his body’s already moving forward, feet carrying him to Seokjin’s building. His brain doesn’t catch up until he’s standing outside of Seokjin’s open door.
He steps in without asking this time, closing the door behind him and staying at the threshold.
“What are you waiting for?” He hears Seokjin ask him. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”
“You know you’re lucky,” Seokjin says later when he’s got Jeongguk leaning over into his kitchen sink as he washes his hair for him.
He’d told Jeongguk to take of his angel white shirt so it could be washed and Jeongguk’s heart nearly stopped. He whispered that it would be indecent for him to take off his shirt and Seokjin, mind much quicker, simply said: ‘Then change in the bathroom, dummy.’
Seokjin gave Jeongguk a sweater to wear in the mean time. A gray one that was homemade if the holes in it were anything to go by. It hung too low by Jeongguk’s neckline but it was comfortable and he wasn’t in any position to complain when he was being taken care of so well. Seokjin’s fingers dig into his scalp, massaging as he washes the egg out of his hair with shampoo that smells just like lemongrass. Jeongguk finds himself, with his face in the sink, inhaling the scent as it’s rinsed out.
“Lucky how?” He asks and he has to raise his voice just the slightest to be heard over the rush of water from the tap.
“Well, he could’ve thrown a vase at you for one,” Seokjin mutters. “Or, much worse, something that would have dried out your scalp. Egg yolk is actually pretty good for hair.”
“What about eggshells?”
Seokjin hums. “The jury’s still out on that one.”
Jeongguk smiles, his chest feeling lighter and laughter feeling not far off. The tears he’d been on the brink of breaking into feel far away now. All he can feel are Seokjin’s fingers in his hair and the desire for them to never leave. But good things, as he already knows, always come to an end. The faucet shuts off eventually and Seokjin wraps a towel around his head, tells him to sit down at the table, and dries his hair quickly and a touch too rough.
But it makes Jeongguk laugh.
“There we go,” Seokjin says with a sigh when he puts the towel around Jeongguk’s shoulders instead. “All better. No need to cry now.”
“I wasn’t going to cry,” Jeongguk mumbles.
“Okay, I said.”
Jeongguk quiets. He hears the tumbling of the washing machine in the other room and wonders what he’s going to do with the rest of his time here. He’s not talking about God. So, he’s wasting time. Time he doesn’t have. Time that no one has.
He feels something cold on his scalp and chills run down his spine. His shoulders rise instinctively. “What’s that?”
“Leave-in conditioner,” Seokjin says, running his hands through Jeongguk’s hair again.
It’s embarrassing how good it feels. Jeongguk’s eyes flutter shut, his head tilting in whatever direction Seokjin pulls it in. He sighs, all too aware of the sounds he could make if he gets to relaxed. He allows himself the luxury of getting lost in the sensation of it, but not too lost. He’s so lost he almost doesn’t here Seokjin when he murmurs.
“You’re so stupid, ‘Guk.”
There’s not a single doubt that it’s an insult but Seokjin’s voice is so gentle when he says it that it almost doesn’t feel like one. Jeongguk opens his eyes. “Why would you say that?”
Behind him, Seokjin sighs. “I’m not defending him, alright? But…You can’t just go around telling people they’re going to Hell and not expect for someone to get upset.”
“I didn’t say he was going to Hell.”
“You just said…?”
And Jeongguk mumbles his answer, too aware of how it sounds out loud. “That he should repent.”
“Yeah, that sounds much better.”
Seokjin finishes with the conditioner and his hands leave Jeongguk’s hair much to the younger’s chagrin. He feels less dazed now. Maybe he was hypnotized by the feeling of it.
“If you think I’m stupid, why are you helping me right now? Why didn’t you just throw an egg at me too?”
“Don’t give me any ideas,” Seokjin says.
Without having to sit still now, Jeongguk takes the opportunity to turn. He looks up at Seokjin from his chair at the dining table, eyes wide. He’s surprised but so pleased, oddly pleased, when Seokjin reaches his hand down and runs it through his hair again.
“You remind me of me,” Seokjin says, voice soft and miles away. Jeongguk fixes his mouth to ask for an explanation but Seokjin gives it to him before he can ask. “I had a bike, too, you know? A bag full of pamphlets and a spot in my choir. You’re not special.”
For some reason, Jeongguk can’t help but smile. It’s a small, soft smile that feels as easy as breathing. “I can see that.”
“You have no idea. I was the cutest choir boy you could imagine. I had a halo and everything.”
It seems like he’s going to leave it at that but, upon seeing the bewilderment on Jeongguk’s face, Seokjin shrugs and looks off in a distance.
“When you’re young, it seems like certain things are always true. Like…sometimes, when you’re young, you think it’s always going to be true that your parents will be together. Or that your house will stay the same. But then you get older and you realize things about the world and you realize that…not everything is always true 100%of the time. Does that make sense?”
“…Not really, no.”
Seokjin smiles at him again but waves a dismissive hand. “Fuck it, I’ve never been good with words anyway. Now, let me just get my scissors, you have split ends for days.”
Seokjin walks away but he doesn’t get very far.
As he’s heading down the hall to the bathroom, Jeongguk calls out to him and the older pauses in his steps, turns around with questioning eyes, and that same easy smile.
“The rapture’s in five days,” Jeongguk says.
And Seokjin says nothing.
At the ice cream shop (they’ve made it a habit now), Jeongguk gets something different, figuring that he should just in case A) he doesn’t get to Heaven or B) Heaven doesn’t have all the ice cream flavors. The moon mist ice cream is an amalgamation of flavors sos starkly different that its union proves to be disgusting and Jeongguk never wants to try it again, but he’s happy to have tried it at all.
The ice cream shop is busy tonight with found families, small and large, filtering in and out of the parlor for cones and cups and ice cream cake. They’re all smiling and laughing, they look like the pictures of families that only exist in advertisements or within picture frames before you buy them. Taehyung and Jeongguk both have a hard time tearing their eyes away from the sight of such jubilance.
“Taehyung,” Jeongguk says.
Taehyung had been quiet since they left the complex today. If he noticed that Jeongguk’s hair smelled different or that he had a trim, he would have said something. But his mind is so consumed with whatever it is that’s keeping him quiet that he didn’t mention it at all. Jeongguk is grateful for it. He’d rather keep the egg incident between himself, the egg thrower, and Seokjin.
He looks at Jeongguk with eyes so far gone. It’s only then that Jeongguk notices the slight puffiness below his eyes. Maybe it’s allergies.
“Do you think people who grow out of the congregation are lost? Or are they still, you know…good in the eyes of God?”
Taehyung furrows his brow. His gaze doesn’t break. “…Why do you ask?”
Jeongguk shrugs. “I’m just wondering. I guess it’s stupid to ask questions now of all times.”
Taehyung never does answer the question. But he does, as he digs into his ice cream, murmur: “It’s never too late for anything, Jeongguk.”
“The way I see it,” Seokjin starts, one hand holding onto his cup of peppermint tea and the other holding onto a rolled cigarette that he hasn’t lit.
Jiyoo had handed to him on her way out this morning, a parting gift of sorts for letting her spend the night. She planted a kiss on Seokjin’s cheek which he reciprocated and then she was out the door and Seokjin was tucking the rolled cigarette behind his ear.
“Do you wanna know how I see it, ‘Guk?” Seokjin says suddenly.
Jeongguk shrugs, stirring his peppermint iced tea with unicorn straw Seokjin had given him. “I think you’ll tell me anyway.”
“You’re right,” Seokjin exhales easily and chooses that exact moment to bless Jeongguk with one of his easygoing smiles. “You’re starting to catch on, dummy.”
Jeongguk knows that he’s doing wrong by all of the other people sprawled all over all the other districts, the people that neither he nor Taehyung are helping. Well. Maybe Taehyung is helping more people than Jeongguk is. There’s no way Jeongguk could know for sure either way, not when he’s too busy making himself an integral piece in Seokjin’s apartment.
He figures that, at the very least if he can’t save everyone, he could at least save Seokjin. That’s how he reasons it with himself. Whether or not it’s true is a different thing altogether.
“The way I see it, I’m living in this world and this world, as you and I both know, is basically Hell already. So, I might as well be a good person because nothing matters. Not because I’m expecting something in return but because what’s the point in being a shit person when everything is already so shit?”
Jeongguk thinks about it and he nods. He wonders what his reasoning is behind doing good things. He wonders if he would do good things if he didn’t know about the Bible and didn’t have the congregation or his parents. Would he be a good person without knowing what comes to people who aren’t good? Was he good inherently? Or did he just learn how to be what he was supposed to be?
He doesn’t like how it feels, the uncertainty, how it looms over him like a raincloud so he changes the subject.
“I don’t think we’re living in Hell,” Jeongguk says. “For one…we’re not being tortured right now.”
“How are you so sure about that? Climate change, mass shootings, famine and death all over the place? It may not be the torture you’ve read about, the physical kind. Maybe you’re expecting to see a little red man with horns. But psychological torture, I think, is just as bad. So…Jeon Jeongguk.”
And Jeongguk really loathes how much he loves that, how much pleasure sits in his stomach when he hears his full name said like that. He likes how it comes out of Seokjin’s mouth, the way it lilts at the start and at the end. He never cared much for his own name. But the more time he spends with Seokjin, the more he falls in love with it.
And Seokjin has taken to saying his full name when he’s teasing him. Jeon Jeongguk.
“If I’m already in Hell,” Seokjin says. “What’s there to fear?”
Seokjin could have a point but to Jeongguk it sounds like a poetry line in a language he doesn’t understand. Because the truth is that Jeongguk believes firmly in Heaven and in Hell. He can’t not believe in it. He feels it in his bones, the fear that starts settling in when he thinks of what awaits sinners and nonbelievers. He believes in God, he believes in the devil, he believes in angels, and he believes in all the things he’s been made to feel like he shouldn’t.
If it was anyone else, he’d feel silly. But it’s Seokjin and he knows Seokjin believes the same things that he does, knows he asks him questions that challenge his beliefs just so he can see things from a different perspective.
But every time Seokjin asks one of those questions, Jeongguk starts feeling nauseous when he tries to answer it.
So, he changes the subject. He’s an expert at that now.
“Where’s your other roommate?”
Seokjin tilts his head at him, holding back laughter with a tight lipped smile. “You’re so lucky you’re cute.”
If Jeongguk looks down, cups his cheek to avoid the blush rising on his cheeks being too obvious, neither one of them acknowledges it.
“I don’t have roommates,” Seokjin eventually says. “Just friends who sometimes need a place to crash and who know my door’s always open.”
“You do that for your friends?”
“Well, wouldn’t you? You have to take care of your friends, Jeongguk. If they can’t depend on you, who can they depend on? … Like I said, the world’s shitty. What’s the point of making it shittier?”
“…I knew it,” Jeongguk mutters at the palms of his hands, the corners of his mouth turning up slightly.
“That you were kind,” and then he looks up at Seokjin with a shit-eating grin. “I had you pegged.”
For the first time, it feels, Seokjin laughs and pride — he’ll repent for this later — blooms in Jeongguk’s chest for being the one responsible.
When the laughter quiets, Seokjin rests his head against the back of the teal couch. “I’m bored.”
It’s one of the things Seokjin has taken to saying. ‘I’m bored,’ a constant reminder of why Seokjin had let him in to his apartment on that second visit. ‘You’re cute but I’ll get bored soon.’
‘So, use your time wisely.’
Jeongguk knows he should. So he sits up a little straighter in his seat, he means business now.
“What can I say to convince you to come down to the congregation with me?”
He doesn’t expect for Seokjin’s smile to fade but he finds that when it does, he isn’t all that surprised either. When Seokjin sighs this time, it’s heavy. Like he’s exhausted or, worse, annoyed. Annoyed with Jeongguk.
“Honestly?” He eventually asks, lifting his head again. “Nothing.”
Seokjin shakes his head once and purses his lips together, jutting them out the slightest. “It’s all…Promise you won’t take this the wrong way.”
Narrowing his eyes, Seokjin leans forward, extends his hand out to Jeongguk and sticks his pinky out. “Swear it.”
Jeongguk hooks his pinky with Seokjin’s after only a moment of hesitation. “I swear.”
Seokjin holds him there for a few moments longer before sitting back, sinking into the couch. “I think churches are hypocritical.”
“…You’ve been to every church?”
“Ha-ha. Of course not, I’d probably shoot myself. No offense.”
“Then how do you know all churches are hypocritical?” Jeongguk asks. “Maybe yours was. Mine isn’t.”
“What makes you so sure it isn’t?”
“What makes you so sure that it is?”
Seokjin shrugs. “Power corrupts people. That’s just…like, a known fact. Churches are usually ran by people with some kind of power. It doesn’t always start that way. No one starts off having a lot of power. They get there because they grow into a position where they’re revered and respected. But then the power gets to them. And they continue leading the churches and leading the sermons and leading groups of people into one all different kinds of beliefs. Even if those beliefs are harmful or unjustified. Then they perpetuate those harmful beliefs all the while preaching about the importance of loving thy neighbor.”
Jeongguk can’t help feeling a bit disappointed. Some of it, he realizes, is directed at Seokjin. But some of it, oddly enough, is directed at himself and he can’t figure out why. “You think believing in God is harmful?”
Seokjin shakes his head, eyes gentle but penetrating at the same time, level with Jeongguk’s gaze. “I didn’t say that.”
“My church isn’t hypocritical,” Jeongguk says. “Elder Asa says love thy neighbor and he does.”
“Does he?” Seokjin asks, smirking. “So, what does he think about all of us over here? Where was he during the protests for marriage equality?”
A flash of Taehyung cuts into Jeongguk’s thoughts. “He prayed for you.”
“What did he pray for exactly? That we were safe during the protests? That we…got the rights we were asking for? Or, and be honest, was he just playing that we weren’t the way we are anymore?”
It was the latter. Easy enough.
Jeongguk knows that. After all, he chose Casi Cielo because they were like him, he thought. Just more lost. More astray. But saying it out loud proves to be difficult. To say it would be like eating glass or throwing the shards back up. It’d be too painful and he’d cut his tongue.
He looks away.
“You know that doesn’t work, right?”
“What doesn’t work?”
“Praying the gay away,” Seokjin says. “It’s basically like trying to pray away the color of your eyes or the family you come from. You’ll always have it. It’ll always be part of you.”
Jeongguk squirms in his seat and his skin. Suddenly, it’s hard to breathe.
Seokjin saves him.
“I’m bored. For real this time.”
Jeongguk waits in the middle of the complex, next to the mailboxes and just a short walk down from the community pool. He rides his bike in circles, gets off his bike and sits on the ground, plays imaginary hopscotch, does everything while waiting for Taehyung to meet him. Taehyung takes longer than usual. Much, much longer. Jeongguk has half a mind to leave without him. Just when he’s on the brink of riding his bike back home, the impending sunset enough for him to get a move on before dark, Taehyung is riding his bike toward him.
Jeongguk’s mouth is fixed for something to say. Anything, really. But he forgets all the words, all the lectures, all the teasing that had been on the tip of his tongue because Taehyung looks different. He can’t place it. Can’t put his finger on it. Because Taehyung looks as put together as he normally does, even more put together than when they rode here to begin with. His shirt looks cleaner, his hair laid down smoother. Jeongguk isn’t sure but he thinks Taehyung might even smell fresher.
Then there’s Taehyung’s eyes which are far away from him, not meeting his gaze and talking exclusively to the concrete. “Sorry, I got held up.”
Jeongguk struggles to find the right words, struggles to find what it is that he wants to say at all. But he eventually comes up with: “That’s okay.”
It’s when they’re wheeling out of the subdivision, passing the entrance and the muted orange building of which, Jeongguk notices, the window to the apartment on the upper left side is aglow, that Jeongguk asks again. Deep down, he finds the question intrusive and rude and knows he shouldn’t ask it. But he wants to know if Seokjin was right.
No. He needs to know that Seokjin was wrong.
“Hyung,” Jeongguk says to the ground. “Did you really struggle with same-sex attraction?”
The bluntness of his question throws Taehyung off guard but not so much. He expects for the older to give him a practiced answer, same as last time. But Taehyung, so quietly that he’s almost speaking to himself, says: “Yes.”
“And when you left…? They made it better, right? You’re not struggling with it anymore, you have Natalie.”
And while Taehyung neither confirms or denies this, he nods and agrees with a smile on his face, a smile that breaks the gloom he’d been wearing for the past few days. It’s small but fond and means so much more than Jeongguk could ever interpret. “I have Natalie.”
In the early hours of the morning, chaos erupts in the Jeon household.
Long after Jeongguk has returned, had dinner, showered, prayed, and retired to bed, he’s shaken away by his father whose grip is so tight on Jeongguk’s arms that Jeongguk, even in sleep, can feel the bruises forming. He opens his eyes to his dad yelling at him, words he can barely comprehend, words that feel lost in the haze between dream and reality.
Jeongguk looks at his surroundings.
He’s in his room. He’s on his palette. His Mom is standing by the door with her arms crossed and her expression both anxious and angry.
“Don’t,” his father grits out at him, grabbing Jeongguk’s face hard and turning it toward him. “Look at me. Answer to me.”
His dad shakes him again, pulling him up and slamming him back down onto the floor. Jeongguk’s head throbs. He feels dizzy, nauseous, more awake than he was but also less cognizant because of the impact.
“Did you know?” His dad asks. It hits Jeongguk that that was the question he was asking all along. His breaths come out in spurts, panic making his head throb even more and his heart pound in his ears. His first instinct is to say no, to cry it out, to plead his case but he realizes, belatedly, that he doesn’t know what it is he’s being accused of.
“What?” He asks, eyes watering despite his best effort to disguise it. “What are you talking about?”
“Taehyung,” the way his father says it, the way it oozes out of his mouth like arsenic makes Jeongguk wince. He’s never heard anyone speak with so much hate. “Last night. Did you know? Was it you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Were you—?” His father starts the question but cuts off when tears start pouring from his eyes. His sob is quiet and desperate but Jeongguk doesn’t make a move to comfort him, not when he still has one hand twisted into Jeongguk’s shirt and the other raised up in a fist.
It takes a while for his father to calm down, for his mother to speak up. But eventually Jeongguk finds out what they’re talking about, gets a sense of what’s behind the anger. Late last night, while he had been sleeping, Taehyung left his parents’ house. This was a big deal because everyone knew Taehyung’s parents kept him on a tight leash. He was an adult, yes, but he had a curfew he had to adhere to, he was tested nightly for drug or alcohol use, and he was monitored closely. Taehyung knew their rules and he’d broken one of them.
He left in the middle of the night when he thought they were asleep. Instead of stopping him, his parents followed him. This next part, Jeongguk didn’t know. If he did know, he wouldn’t have insisted on going to Casi Cielo so frequently. The fact was that Taehyung’s parents were so paranoid about what he’d get up to that they’d gone as far as to track his bike. They knew about the visits to Raimi and they knew where Taehyung was going.
They found him at Casi Cielo in plainclothes. He wasn’t holding anyone’s hand this time. He wasn’t kissing anyone. He’d been alone. But he was on the wrong side of town and he didn’t even have pamphlets with him, didn’t have an excuse.
By morning, it seemed, everyone in the congregation knew what happened. As scared as Jeongguk was for Taehyung, as much as he wanted to try talking to him, to help him, he knew he couldn’t. His parents wouldn’t allow it. And even if they did, Taehyung wasn’t at his house anymore. Apparently, he refused to come back. Jeongguk’s parents grilled him about his visits to the complex and wouldn’t allow him to go anywhere for the rest of the day.
As the third day passed him by, all he could think was that now he’d only have two days left to convince Seokjin. He’d wasted the last couple of days. He’d lost sight of what was important. But he was given a rude awakening. Necessary but tough to swallow. Hours later and he was still shaking from the way his father had grabbed him, his head was still throbbing. It didn’t make sense, the idea of his father hurting him. But Jeongguk figures he wouldn’t have done it if he didn’t really care, if he wasn’t really worried for the salvation of his soul.
When he lays down for sleep, he lies awake and watches the shadows on the ceiling. They move as the cars go by and Jeongguk can’t help but stare in awe. This would probably be the last time he would see this, the shadows dancing. He had to keep that in mind. The finality of his every move.
Something rattles against Jeongguk’s bedroom window and, as if made aware, the dancing shadows stop. Jeongguk turns his head, waits. Again, something small taps against the glass pane and Jeongguk rises from the floor, drags his feet to the window and looks out.
It doesn’t occur to him to look down until a small rock flies up right in front of him. That’s when he sees him. Taehyung standing in his backyard, duffel bag over his shoulder. Jeongguk considers walking away. Just pretending he hadn’t seen Taehyung, pretending that Taehyung hadn’t seen him. But he remembers what Seokjin said about helping friends and he feels inclined to open the window.
So, he does.
He turns away and looks over his shoulder when the night breeze hits him. He tiptoes across the room and locks his bedroom door slowly so that the click isn’t so loud. When he returns to the window, Taehyung’s looking up at him desperately.
He doesn’t say anything.
Neither one of them do.
Taehyung knows Jeongguk knows. And Jeongguk knows that.
Neither one of them knows what to say.
It’s Taehyung who, like always, is the first to break the ice. He swallows hard, his whisper so strained that Jeongguk feels just as desperate. “Can I please sleep here?”
Jeongguk looks away. At the trees in the yard, at the side fence, anywhere but at Taehyung.
“Please,” Taehyung says again. “They kicked me out and I don’t—”
“You were doing so well,” Jeongguk says. He doesn’t mean for it to sound as hurt or as accusatory as it does but once it’s out, it’s out. He shakes his head. “I was counting on you.”
It’s the closest he’s ever come to sharing his secret.
Taehyung pleads with him, his eyes round and glassy. That’s the last time Jeongguk looks at him.
He goes to shut his window and Taehyung’s voice raises just the slightest, pleading, begging.
“Jeongguk,” he whispers and his voice breaks. “I have nowhere else to go. Please.”
Jeongguk can’t look at him so he doesn’t. He keeps his eyes away when he gives his only response before shutting the window for the last time.
“I’ll pray for you, Taehyung.”