“Please recount to us the conversation, with as many details as you can remember.”
Jeongguk wrings the hem of his shirt anxiously in his hands. The incident happened only a couple days ago, yet everything seems so fuzzy, like a fog flooding his memory. “I was sick,” he says, barely above a whisper, but the sound of his voice echoes harshly in the interrogation room. “M-My mom gave me s-some medicine in the morning, s-so I was kind of… kind of groggy when they came over.”
The officer’s chair creaks noisily as he leans forward to rest his elbows on the table between them. “And who were they?”
“Y-Yugyeom,” Jeongguk replies. “Mingyu. Dokyeom. Minghao. BamBam.”
“And all of you were planning to go out that day?”
Jeongguk hesitates, then nods. “We t-talked about it on the last day of school. I don’t, um… I don’t remember if we planned it, exactly, but, um… u-usually BamBam and Yugyeom get together first, c-cos they’re neighbors… then they come collect the rest of us.”
The officer nods and writes something on his pad of paper. “And you were sick?”
“What were you sick with?”
“So, all five of them came to your house. Did you answer the door, or did your mother?”
“I did,” Jeongguk says. “I w-was downstairs to g-get a glass of water, s-so I answered. They wanted me to come out with them, a-and I wanted to go too, b-but mom told them I wasn’t allowed, s-since I was sick.”
“Did they mention where they were planning to go?” the officer presses.
“No. N-No, but, um… there’s this spot by the creek we’d usually play. I think… I think D-Dokyeom and Mingyu wanted to set up some kind of clubhouse there.”
The officer makes note of this, as well. Jeongguk can’t help squirming in his seat a little bit while he waits for the dull roll of the ball-point pen across the paper to stop. Even though he’s answering the officer’s questions to the best of his ability, he can’t help but feel like he’s somehow done something wrong. But he’s told the man everything. There’s nothing more Jeongguk can do.
“So, your mother didn’t allow you to go with them, and they left your house?”
Jeongguk nods shallowly. “Yes, sir.”
“Were they on foot?”
“I think BamBam had his bike,” Jeongguk says. “Bright yellow one.”
“A bike? We’ll definitely keep a lookout for that,” the officer says, scribbling that down as well. “And you’re sure that was the last time you saw them? They didn’t stop by the house again?”
Am I sure? Yes—he’s certain he’s sure. Is the officer doubting him? “I didn’t see ‘em again after that, sir.”
The officer finally sets his pen down and folds his arms on the edge of the table. “I know this is difficult for you, son,” he says gently. “We aren’t trying to make it difficult. I know there are times when you think you’ll get in trouble with somebody if you tell the adults certain things, but this isn’t the case now. Anything, anything at all that you remember about where they talked about going, if they thought about meeting up with anybody… Any of that kind of information can be useful. No one is blaming you for anything, okay, son?”
Jeongguk balls his hands tightly into fists, nails biting into his palms from the force of it. The thing is, it feels like there is something. A juicy morsel sitting right on the tip of his tongue, but he can’t quite grasp what it is, and it’s incredibly frustrating. He isn’t purposefully trying to withhold it, but the stress of hearing that his friends suddenly turned up missing the day he couldn’t go out with them has destroyed his composure.
“It’s alright if you don’t remember anything else,” the officer finally says. “But if you do, please let your parents know, alright? Otherwise, we hope to contact your folks with good news soon.”
His mother jumps up from her chair when the police officer opens the door to release him from the interrogation room. Jeongguk shuffles over to her, miserably taking her hand and allowing himself to be led out of the police station. Neither of them speak as they climb into the car. Jeongguk feels numb. It’s been three days since he last saw his friends, and even though their disappearance has been plastered all over the news, it doesn’t feel real. Like Yugyeom could come knocking on his door any second.
It feels just like a nightmare. But no matter how hard Jeongguk tries, he can’t wake up from it.
The following two days are very much the same. Missing children are such a silent catastrophic event. Every time Jeongguk sees a police officer, on the streets or in town, he wonders if they’re out looking for his friends, or if they’re on a different case. Their district doesn’t see much in the way of crime, so it’s likely that they are out, combing the town in search of his friends.
“I saw ‘em, y’know.”
The sack of rice that Jeongguk was struggling to pull off the grocery store shelf slips from his grip and drops to the floor like a sandbag with a solid thump! The burlap is thick enough to prevent any rice from spilling out, but Jeongguk can’t be bothered to bend down and pick it back up. Several meters further down the aisle stands a very familiar boy from school.
Park Jimin. Not in Jeongguk’s grade—two years above. Not exactly a bully, but Jeongguk has never known him to be particularly kind. No one knows all that much about him. Even though they’re the same height, there’s something intimidating about Jimin that he’s never been able to put his finger on. A kind of chill clouds his eyes as he twists the sucker in his mouth, calmly informing Jeongguk that he saw ‘em, y’know.
“S-Saw who?” Jeongguk forces out, even though there aren’t many options for the answer to his question.
Jimin pops the sucker out of his mouth, eyeing the bright red candy with something akin to distain, like the flavor isn’t satisfying enough. “Those kids. The ones you hung out with,” he drawls lazily, like he isn’t even interested in the conversation. “They’re missing now, aren’t they? They took you to the station to question you ‘bout it, didn’t they?”
Jeongguk feels a cold sweat creeping over his skin. “H-How do you know about that?”
“I just know.” Jimin sucks the candy back into his mouth. “But I saw ‘em. The day they disappeared, I saw ‘em.”
“Where?” Jeongguk demands. Hot tears prickle behind his eyes, threatening to spill over at any moment. “Where did you see them? Wh-Why haven’t you told anyone?”
Jimin’s lips peel back from his teeth in an ugly sneer. “Cos it doesn’t matter now, dipshit. They’re fuckin’ dead.”
Cos it doesn’t matter now, dipshit. They’re fuckin’ dead.
The words, spat at him with villainous vitriol, cut Jeongguk’s breath short. “Y-You… You t-take that back,” he wheezes. The floor swims underneath him. “They’re not… Th-They’re not—You don’t know what you’re t-talking about—”
“But I do. I saw ‘em, y’know. Heading off towards the bog.”
Jeongguk’s heart comes to a stop in his throat.
“You know what happens when people go into the bog, don’t you?” Twirling his sucker, Jimin approaches him. “The Lights get ‘em and they never come back. Bet your friends aren’t coming back, either.”
Jeongguk is close to throwing up by the time Jimin stops in front of him. His skin is clammy underneath Jimin’s touch when a hand presses against his cheek.
“Do you need some new friends now? Don’t worry. We can be friends, if you want.”
Summoning the remainder of his strength, Jeongguk pushes Jimin away and stumbles a few steps backwards. He narrowly manages to avoid tripping over the fallen bag of rice. “S-Stay away from me,” he snaps. “Get away from me—I d-don’t wanna be friends. Don’t ever talk to me again!”
Jimin stares at him for a few moments, eerily calm in comparison to the way Jeongguk is almost hyperventilating. Finally, he stuffs the hand that had touched Jeongguk’s cheek deep into his pocket and shrugs. “Suit yourself,” he says, turning away.
As soon as Jimin disappears from the aisle, Jeongguk wipes aggressively at his eyes as tears begin to blur his vision. Jimin could be nasty on a good day, and had the complete capability of being downright cruel if he was in the mood, but this situation isn’t a joke. It isn’t funny. Yet, he decided to go out of his way to suggest Yugyeom… Yugyeom and the rest of his friends… won’t ever return. And then offer his own friendship as some kind of replacement?
Sniffling, Jeongguk collects the rice from the floor and circles the grocery in search of his mother. When he finally finds her near the fruit section, she immediately notices that something is wrong and asks him what happened. For a split second, he considers telling her what Jimin said, but the words won’t come. He can’t make himself repeat it out loud. So, instead, he says that he accidentally caught his foot on the edge of a display and fell. His mother still looks concerned, but she seems to believe him. She helps him huck the rice into the cart and they finish shopping.
While they’re in line to check out, Jeongguk thinks he sees Jimin through the front windows, leaning up against one of the posts of the overhang. He clings tightly to his mother as they exit the store, but once outside, Jimin is nowhere to be seen.
The silence that swallows the drive home is growing familiar. Jeongguk desperately wishes things could go back to normal, to the way they used to be before his mother looked at him so sadly and his father buried himself in the newspaper to avoid conversation, but he thinks if they acted like everything was normal, that would just make him angry. He wishes things could just get better. He wishes his friends would come home, even if it’s with some kind of horror story about getting kidnapped and taken to another district on the other side of Elysium.
But what’s starting to bother him the most about what Jimin said is that it could be the truth.
Everyone in Elysium knows about the bog encompassing the city. If you go into it, the Lights will get you. There’s a kid in their grade who claims to have gone in and come back out, but no one really believes him because he doesn’t have any proof. Jeongguk has heard of clubs in other districts using the bog as a test for new members, but their district isn’t like that. Kalkaska’s crime rate is the lowest in all of Elysium. A disappearance like that of Jeongguk’s friends is unheard of.
But if… if, for any reason, they decided to test the validity of the Lights… or even if it was just an accident somehow… it explains why they haven’t come home yet.
It’s been five days already.
Maybe that’s why his parents are walking on eggshells around him. They’re thinking the same as Jimin. That his friends are gone—for good.
It surrounds Elysium, stretching in every direction as far as the eye can see until it vanishes into a thick fog. The Kalkaska District Ordinance has placed signs at the edge of the water that read “No Entry Beyond This Point.” So, it isn’t exactly correct to say that the moment you set foot in the bog, the Lights come for you. According to city officials, you have to wander pretty far out—as long as you can look back and still see the shoreline, you can return safely. Once the fog rolls in, you’ve entered the Deadspace, and there’s no escape from there.
Jeongguk glances up at the “No Entry” sign, then back out across the bog. The scent is putrid, choked with death and decay. His red rain boots are already muddy just from climbing down the slope to get here. A few meters away, the babbling creek where he and his friends used to play lies still and silent, the ground having gone level with the bog.
Why would they have come out here?
If they did go into the bog, will he really have a higher chance of finding them than the police?
Jeongguk grinds the dirty toe of his boot into the moss and bites his lip. No one is really clear about what happens with the Lights get you. He’s always assumed you die. But maybe they just… trap you somewhere. Maybe there’s a whole slew of people, trapped by the Lights, who need rescuing. If he rescues them, he could be a hero.
“Hey. What the fuck are you doing?”
The sound of a voice nearby startles Jeongguk so hard, he nearly trips over his own feet in his haste to whip around. It’s Park Jimin again, standing near the base of the slope.
“I said what the fuck are you doing?” he repeats, hiking a little closer. “You tryna go missing, too?”
Jeongguk’s lower lip wobbles as he frowns. “L-Leave me alone. It’s none of your business.”
“But if I hadn’t said anything, you wouldn’t be out here, would you?” Jimin reminds him. “Since I was the one who told you, I think it is my business.”
There’s a certain logic to Jimin’s words that only serve to upset Jeongguk more. “Just go away. They aren’t your friends, so you can leave me alone.”
“They aren’t your friends anymore, either. They aren’t anyone’s anything anymore, cos they’re fuckin’ dead. If you try goin’ after them, you’re gonna end up dead just like they are.”
Jeongguk’s patience snaps. “They aren’t dead!” he screams, the rage boiling over in his blood so intense that it feels like it might start leaking from his fingertips. He reaches down and sinks his fingers into a clump of mud and moss, tears it from the ground, and lobs it at Jimin. Then he spins around and charges into the bog, blowing past the “No Entry” sign without a second thought. He hears Jimin calling after him to stop, but pushes his feet to take him faster.
The bog is soft and slippery, and Jeongguk has trouble keeping his footing, especially once pools of water start appearing. His boots slide in the mud, catching on the gnarled grass growing in patches on the beds of moss, forcing him to slow down. As he presses further into the bog, the air grows thicker, more vile, and the fog starts to close in on him. Soon, he’ll reach it—the Deadspace. Then he’ll know what happened to his friends.
When the patch of ground he’s running on ends, separated from the next by a half-meter span of murky water, Jeongguk doesn’t think twice about stepping into it. If he gets a little wet, so what? That’s what the rain boots are for. But what he does not account for is that the nature of the bog, itself, is dangerous. The islands of peat moss are not attached to the ground, merely floating on a lake that goes potentially several meters deep. So, when Jeongguk steps off the peat, his boot does not sink down to his ankle—or however shallow he assumed it would be. His whole body plunges straight into the water like a stone.
His head breaks the surface for an instant, but it isn’t even long enough for him to get a full word out before he sinks under again. He flails helplessly in the water, unable to swim and weighed down by his clothes. One hand finds the peat, but the moss doesn’t allow him to gain any purchase, it simply crumbles in his grasp.
Maybe the Lights don’t exist at all. Maybe they’re just a fairytale to keep children from wandering into the bog and drowning—just like he’s going to do.
Suddenly, something closes around his wrist and hauls him upwards. He gasps for air the moment his head breaches the water, choking and gagging on the foul-tasting muck he’s swallowed. As he’s dragged closer to the peat, Jeongguk realizes it’s Jimin who has saved him, having followed him out into the bog despite his protests.
With much difficulty, Jimin helps drag him up onto dry land. Jeongguk is cold and shaking and feels like he might throw up, but he’s alive, and that’s all that matters in the moment.
“You fucking idiot,” Jimin snaps, giving his shoulder a rough shake. “What the fuck is wrong with you? You got a death wish or something? You trying to follow your stupid friends down to hell?”
Jeongguk’s eyes sting, but he can’t tell if it’s from the bog or if he’s really crying. He feels so… helpless. “I-I just w-wanted to know wh-what happened to th-them…”
“I fuckin’ told you. I fuckin’ told you like three fuckin’ times and you still aren’t listening. They’re. Dead.” Jimin grabs his arm again, this time to haul him back to his feet. “Unless you wanna go for another refreshing dip, I suggest we go back.”
Jeongguk stumbles a little, struggling to keep his balance on wobbly knees. He lifts a hand with the intention of wiping off his face with his sleeve until he realizes that his jacket is completely soaked, too. What is he going to tell his mom when he gets home? She’ll be so angry at him for coming out here.
But as Jeongguk glances around, all he sees is bog. Bog and fog. The shore is gone.
They’ve reached the Deadspace.
“H-How do we get back?” Jeongguk asks in a small voice.
Jimin throws him an annoyed glance. “The way we came, dipshit.”
“Wh-Which way is that?”
“You really are fuckin’ uesless, aren’t you?” Jimin lifts a hand and, before Jeongguk can flinch away, flicks him between the eyes. “Imagine wandering all the way out into Deadspace when you’ve got the sense of a rock. You never heard of retracing your fuckin’ steps?”
Sure enough, his own footprints where he ran through the mud are clearly visible. Heat flares in his cheeks. “...Fuck off,” he mutters under his breath.
Jeongguk doesn’t realize how oppressively silent the bog is until a noise echoes from behind them. Startled, he whips around, searching the blanket of mist in a wild panic for where it originated. The noise repeats again, this time louder. It isn’t exactly a whistle, but it starts out very high-pitched and gradually lowers, cutting off abruptly. Something about it reminds Jeongguk of a radio frequency. Then, he sees them.
Two of them, bright yellow, hovering in the distance.
“...Do you see ‘em, Jeongguk?” Jimin asks. His voice is calm. Demure. Everything that Jeongguk currently is not. “Are you afraid?”
The Lights grow brighter—like they’re getting closer. Jeongguk’s heart is lodged in his throat. As much as he would love to turn and sprint for the shore, his body is paralyzed. “I-I wanna go home,” he whispers. “I don’t wanna die, I wanna go home. Please…”
Another call cuts through the fog at a volume that hurts Jeongguk’s ears. The Lights bob in the air, floating up and down, like they aren’t their own entities, but attached to something much larger walking towards them. Like the Lights aren’t just lights, but a very real monster that resides in the bog.
“If you wanna go home,” Jimin murmurs close to his ear, “then I think you should run.”
Almost against his will, Jeongguk’s body springs into action. He turns his back to the Lights, even though the thought terrifies him, and tears off in the direction he came from, racing along the trail of his old muddy footprints to get back to the shore. His heart is hammering inside his chest as he runs blindly through the fog, with prayer the only thing keeping him from stumbling back into the water. More than anything, he wants to know if the Lights are still following him—if they got Jimin, too —but he can’t stop. Even if he wanted to, he couldn’t. His legs won’t allow him to, spurred on by fear and urgency that he can’t control.
A shape grows visible in the distance, and Jeongguk isn’t sure what it is at first, causing him to stumble, but a few seconds later he recognizes the hard edges of the “No Entry” signpost. Once he makes it past, he’ll be safe. The Lights won’t come out of the bog after him, he’s sure.
His relief is short lived, however, when something else appears out of the fog. A dark figure, wearing some kind of a dress or robe. It looks like a person, but they don’t have a human head. Where their head should be is the skull of some kind of animal with great big antlers—like a Christmas reindeer.
Jeongguk starts to slow, unsure whether or not to approach, but then he blinks and the figure is just… gone. It was so quick, he can’t even be sure he saw it at all, or if it was just his imagination. Do the Lights cause hallucinations? He doesn’t know—most reports on the Lights are so old, the witnesses are long since dead. Jeongguk has never known anyone who saw them and came back.
He passes the sign, finally breaking through the fog.
Except for himself.
Panting and sapped of energy, Jeongguk struggles up the slope and collapses to his knees at the top. A few moments later, Jimin drops down beside him. He isn’t nearly as out of breath, but he seemed far less panicked through the whole ordeal—the total psychopath.
“D-Did you see that?” Jeongguk finally croaks.
“The thing. By the sign.”
Jimin cocks his head to one side. “What thing?”
Jeongguk briefly considers not telling him, but what’s the point? Jimin already thinks he’s a complete lunatic for running out into the bog—which, arguably, he is—so is it really any worse if he thinks that Jeongguk is crazy, too? “There was… a thing. A person,” he replies. “It looked like a person, but it had some kind of… deer skull instead of a head. Y-You didn’t see it?”
“Can’t say I did.”
“It was only there for a second,” Jeongguk says. “It was so quick, I thought I’d imagined it.”
Jimin offers him a very decisive shrug. “Maybe you did.”
“H-How come… you weren’t scared?”
“Of the Lights?”
“I’ve seen ‘em before,” Jimin says like it’s nothing. Jeongguk gapes at him in utter disbelief. “What, you think I wasn’t waddling my ass out there as soon as I heard about ‘em? Fuckin’ spooky lights that suck your soul out sounded like bullshit to me, so I wanted to go see for myself.”
It takes Jeongguk a few seconds to collect himself and scrape his jaw off the ground. “Y-You went out there? Alone?”
“‘Course.” Jimin shifts his gaze back towards the bog, staring out over it, like he’s challenging it. “I’ve seen ‘em, y’know,” he says, dropping his voice a little. “The Lights. I know what they are.”
Jimin is lying. No one knows what the Lights are. The only ones who know are dead, so there’s no way that Jimin could possibly know, otherwise he would be dead, too. But, curiosity still gets the better of Jeongguk. “Wh-What are they?”
A heavy silence stretches between them. Jimin is just trying to scare him, Jeongguk tells himself. That’s all.
“Jeongguk,” he repeats, finally turning back towards him. He reaches out to push some of Jeongguk’s wet hair away from his face. “You should go home. Those kids are gone, so you should just go back home and not come here again. Alright?”
A strange sensation washes over Jeongguk, like he’s being wrapped up in a warm blanket. The outside world is muffled. Going home sounds… like a good idea. Jimin is right. If the Lights took his friends, then he’ll be safer if he stays away from the bog. It’s the least he can do for them. For himself.
So, he gets up, and does just that. He walks home, socks squishing inside his muddy boots with every weary step, and doesn’t return to the bog.