A bunch of travel journals in his hands, Yoongi stands up from his squatting position in the stationary aisle. Calf muscles giving a strong pull, his ankles pop real loud. He flexes the left ankle inside his white sneaker. It gives an extra pop. Leaves behind a lazy, dull ache.
Yoongi does a lil' head count. Eight more journals to stack and--checks his watch real quick--lunch break in five. He's not a big eater. Not a picky one either. He'll just have his usual: a mini pack of cinnamon biscuits. They're cheap. And the spice of the cinnamon wakes you up.
Yoongi stacks the shelf. The shiny plastic wrappers the journals are in do the hiss-hiss-crinkle-crinkle as he sets them on display one by one. "You're not dropping a stack of pizzas by someone's door and bouncing," his manager told him that one time. "So don't just shove stuff onto the shelf. Costumers see messy, they stick their nose high up in the air and walk away. We don't want any walkaways here, you hear? Aesthetic sells. Put stuff up nice and slow. No rush. Be a fucking florist--organize to impress. Sell 'em tidy and clean. It's what I'm paying you for."
Yoongi's working with no earphones in. Some of the other stackers bop to tunes all day. Yoongi enjoys the silence. The convenience store is kinda tiny. Also set in an area people don't visit that often. So most days it's pleasantly quiet--footsteps and carts wheeling by softly and banners doing the gentle flutter in the AC breeze. So quiet he can hear the charm on his bracelet quivering with each twist of the wrist.
Fixing the last travel journal in place, Yoongi looks up and over. Above the entrance to the beauty aisle, a giant placard hangs from the ceiling. An ad for mascara. They hung it up there more than two weeks ago. It's been staring at him ever since. A women's eye against a bright red backdrop. Lashes are long and pointy like hedgehog quills. Pupil is dilated. White of the eye--shockingly white, like correction fluid. The eye stares back at him, unblinking. The laminated red paper crinkles in the breeze.
Yoongi blinks hard and looks away. Bends over to grab the now empty journal box. Wide pieces of masking tape fluttering off it, Yoongi carries it out back. Dumps it into the recycling pile. Stops to eye the turned over milk crate by the back door. He'll have his smoke and cinnamon biscuits there later. It's nice out.
Going back inside, Yoongi shuffles into the snack aisle. Grabs a pack of his biscuits off the shelf. Pack is red. Only a little bigger than a pack of cigarettes. Logo is white and curvy. And Yoongi thinks: he's leaving here next week. Been working there for a little over a year. The pay's not that good. Manager is an asshole. And getting there everyday takes Yoongi 40 minutes by bus.
Yoongi pokes his upper molars with his tongue, blinking around at shelf-level. With this place being far from where he lives, Yoongi doubts he'll ever drop by to get stuff here once he quits.
All six biscuits sit nicely in his palm, each one wrapped in plastic. Yoongi can smell the cinnamon right through it.
Four checkout spots against the backdrop of dust colored skies and an almost empty parking lot. Only two cashiers are working. One of them is Taehyung.
Red shirt uniform buttoned up and wavy fringe, Taehyung feeds coins into the money drawer. He's got a few rolls of brand new coins all wrapped up in crinkly white paper. He's peeling the paper off with his fingers and setting the coins tumbling into the narrow compartments. They ring out, a little bit like treasure.
Yoongi grabs onto the edge of the counter.
"Share?" Yoongi says to Taehyung, showing him the biscuits.
Shiny black conveyor belt between them, Taehyung gives a few blinks without looking up, tearing into another roll of coins. Squeezes his left eye shut for a sec. Pokes at it with his thumb knuckle, still holding onto the coins with the same hand. Wipes at his lash line. Shakes the coins out of the paper into the drawer. Wipes at his eye again. "I don't really like cinnamon." He says real quiet.
Yoongi frowns, setting the biscuits onto the conveyor belt, holding them down. Tugs on the wrapper absentmindedly with the tips of his fingers. That's new. Whenever they'd catch the same shift together, they'd head out back and snack on those. Twice a week, at least.
"Since when." Yoongi says. He means for it to come out light and teasing. Instead, it sounds accusing.
Taehyung crumples up the paper. Tosses it into the little bin under the counter. Moves the coins around inside the drawer. They tumble from side to side, blinking starry silver. "Isn't it more bitter than sweet anyways." Taehyung says. Turns to look at Yoongi, reaching for another roll.
Yoongi's lips part with a small wet sound. He gives an unguarded blink. "What happened to your eye?"
The white of Taehyung's left eye is weepy-red. Upper lid is puffy. All around wet lashes are clumped together in groups of seven or eight. A sheen of fluid twinkles all over it.
Taehyung squeezes that eye shut, inclining his head back. Wipes at it with the heel of his hand. Peeks up at the fluorescents. The eye gives a twitchy blink.
"I dunno. Woke up this morning and it was like this. Light hurts." Taehyung says. Bows his head, digging the heel of his hand into his eye. "And sometimes everything goes blurry. It really itches. And it keeps running."
Taehyung gives a sniff. Opens up his right hand, showing it to Yoongi. Fingers outstretched, he's got his thumb folded over a crumpled up tissue nestled in his palm. "Been wiping at it all day." Gives another sniff. Two blinks. Sets the tissue off to the side.
"It doesn't look good." Yoongi says, voice going a little hoarse. "You need to get it looked at. You let these things be, you can lose an eye."
Taehyung looks away. Picks up the tissue and tosses it into the bin. Dumps the last roll of coins into the drawer. Slams it shut. "I'm sure it'll go away." Taehyung says, eyes cast down. A little pause. "Everything eventually does."
It's the end of their shift. Yoongi finds Taehyung slipping into his windbreaker by the lockers in the employees room. His shirt uniform is sticking out of his backpack--a red sleeve and a white button.
Room's grey. Smells like scratchy fabric and hand sanitizer. Only two of the ceiling-fixed lights are working so there's an uneven balance of shadows and light that's making everything a little grainy and fuzzy. Taehyung's silver windbreaker zipper is twinkling in the haze. A speck of neon quivers in his left eye, watery sheen.
"How's the eye." Yoongi asks.
Trying to zip up his coat, Taehyung blinks down at his shoes. "Same."
Yoongi gets a closer look. Since the upper lid is swollen, the lashes there droop at an angle. The corners of the eye and the bottom lash line are sticky wet. The white of the eye, now scratchy red, shines like glass in the sun. Hand smelling of soap, Yoongi feels around the upper lid carefully with the pad of his thumb. Taehyung's lashes blink against his finger. His upper lid is hot and puffy to the touch. Yoongi tuts. "This looks bad, kid."
Yoongi pulls his hand back. Fumbling with his windbreaker's zipper still, Taehyung gives his eye a tight squeeze. Opens it wide. Gives two hard blinks. Squeezes it shut again. His lashes get a fresh coat of fluid.
"Blurry?" Yoongi asks.
Taehyung blinks his eye open. Looks up. His eyes skip, unfocused, from one locker to the other. Skim over the basin in the corner of the room and the cleaning supplies cabinet. Gives a little nod.
Yoongi blows out a soft breath through his nose. "Lemme." Takes a half step back. Grabs hold of Taehyung's windbreaker in both hands. Tugs on the ends so it's pulled taut--easier to zip it that way. Slides his hands down the shiny metal tracks till he thumbs the zipper and the tiny metal piece that's supposed to go into it. Pokes the tracks with the pad of his thumb. They run all crooked, like a curved spine.
"I bet this catches real bad," Yoongi says. With tracks this crooked, zipper's guaranteed to get stuck somewhere in the middle and not make it all the way up.
"I bought it two winters ago." Taehyung says. Without looking, Yoongi knows just by the motions of his shoulder and the crinkling of the nylon that he's rubbing at his eye again. "It has some wear and tear. Left pocket got a hole in it last year. My mom ran a thread through it. So I don't lose change anymore."
Yoongi feeds the little metal piece into the zipper, bringing the two ends of the windbreaker together. Fixes it in place. Gives a little experimental tug. The zipper gobbles up one centimeter worth of tracks and gets stuck. Yoongi presses his lips together. Wiggles the zipper a little. Tries tugging again. Zipper won't budge.
Taehyung rubs at his eye again. Left to right. Right to left. Drops his arm back to his side.
Yoongi pulls the zipper all the way down. Tugs on the windbreaker till it's taut again. Gives it another try. Zipper catches again.
From the corner of his eye, Yoongi spots Taehyung's red shirt uniform. With its single visible white button, it remind Yoongi of the pack of biscuits--white on red. And he thinks, Taehyung didn't go on lunch break with him today. They usually split the biscuits in half, so Yoongi only had three of the six. Lunch break went like: a drag of his Marlboro Red and a bite of cinnamon. Drag, bite. Drag, bite. Sunlight in his eyes and an empty milk crate to his right where Taehyung was supposed to sit. Going back inside before lunch break was over, Yoongi saw Taehyung wasn't working the cash register. So he was taking his lunch break, after all. He just chose to have it elsewhere. Nothing wrong with that.
Yoongi tries the zipper for the third time. "If you think you're going home like this, I've got some news for you."
"It's really not a big of a deal." Taehyung protests, voice small. "I'll just rest the eye for a while. Use some warm water to clean it. I'm sure it'll be okay tomorrow."
Yoongi looks up. Fixes him with a stern look. "A doctor needs to look at it. You need some antibiotics. Ointment. Or drops. It looks infected."
Yoongi drags the zipper all the way down. Yanks the little piece of metal out. Fixes the windbreaker in place again. Feeds the metal into the zipper.
Yoongi tugs gently this time. The zipper rides up smoothly. Yoongi drags it all the way up, almost to Taehyung's chin. End of October, it's cold at night.
Taehyung doesn't meet Yoongi's eyes. He tugs on the sleeves. On the collar. "If I schedule an appointment they'll see me in two weeks. And I can't afford the ER."
Yoongi blinks at him softly. Shoulders Taehyung's bag as well as his own. "I'll take care if it. Let's go."
"Going to take a little look."
The ophthalmologist on call at the ER puts on a pair of gloves. First left hand. Then right. Keeps his eyes on Taehyung's leaking eye the whole time, only pausing for short, focused blinks.
Bed number 8. Taehyung's sitting on the edge. Yoongi's standing by the curtain, arms crossed real loose, thumb digging in close to his shoulder. Taehyung's windbreaker is draped over the chair, one sleeve dangling close to the tiles. Male nurse had Taehyung take it off earlier so they could do some bloodwork. Nurse left the cannula in after. It's tucked deep into a vein on the side of Taehyung's forearm, fastened in place with two strips of white tape. Hospital policy. "In case the results show something is off and we need to give him some medication." The nurse explained to Yoongi, capping the full syringe and dropping it into the tray.
Yoongi eyes the purple cannula, worrying his upper lip. Taehyung has a hard time with pain. Sometimes his skin is so sensitive even the pull of his shirt across his back makes him feel like it's rubbed raw. Yoongi was hospitalized twice before. Each time they started an IV in that same area. "You have no veins here," they'd declare after tapping all over the crook of his elbow. Forearm IV access hurts real bad.
"Just going to feel around a little bit." The ophthalmologist says, bending down so he's on eye level with Taehyung. His name tag dangles from the yellow string around his neck. "I want to say pink eye, but. We'll see. Close your eye for me."
Taehyung closes his eye. The doctor starts feeling around his eyelid with a gloved thumb. Presses down real light and brief. Tiny taps. Going from tearduct to the outer corner of Taehyung's eye. Yoongi hears the latex sticking to the Taehyung's wet lashes and pulling away with a sticky sound only to stick again and pull away two second after.
The ophthalmologist lets out an mm sound. Goes on to press under Taehyung's eye. "You said you woke up with your eye swollen. Starting today?"
Taehyung replies with a tiny mm of his own.
"How did it feel the day before." The ophthalmologist asks. Gently tugs up on the outer corner of Taehyung's eye. The lid pulls back from the eye to reveal a red white of the eye and crusty lashes. The ophthalmologist takes a penlight out of his coat pocket. Clicks it on. Shines it in Taehyung's eye. The beam skips across the lash line. "Any burning. Tearing. Itching. Blurry vision."
"A little itchy," Taehyung mumbles.
The ophthalmologist tugs Taehyung's lower lid down with his thumb. Taehyung gives a twitchy blink. The ophthalmologist shines the light again. "How about generally. Any fever. Cough. Muscle aches?"
Taehyung shakes his head no.
Yoongi moves to sit down in the chair. Leans forward, forearms on thighs. 3 days ago Taehyung seemed perfectly fine. They bumped into each other during shift change. Taehyung had his Thai textbook tucked under his arm. Talked Yoongi's ear off for 10 minutes straight. He was two months into studying Thai and each new word he managed to memorize, both textually and phonetically, got him buzzing with excitement. There was no pink eye and no swelling, just smiles and stains of pen ink under Taehyung's nails.
"It gets a little blurry sometimes," Taehyung says. His thumb pokes around the edges of the masking tape holding the cannula in place in his arm.
The ophthalmologist clicks the light off. Pulls back a little bit, hand on his thigh, fixing the strap of his name tag in place with the hand that's holding onto the pen light. "A little blurry. I see. Just in the left eye?"
The ophthalmologist worries the corner of his mouth for a few secs. Clicks the light back on again. "Just going to have a little look at your pupil, okay? make sure nothing else is going on here, slipping under our radar. Look at me. Focus right here." The ophthalmologist taps between his eyehrows with his forefinger. "Bridge of my nose. Right here. Very good."
The ophthalmologist leans forward again. Points the yellowish beam of light at Taehyung's eye. Taehyung's pupil goes sugar grain tiny in less than a millisec. And Yoongi thinks: just like when they're sitting out in the sun, sharing the cinnamon biscuits and Taehyung speaks Thai at him straight out of the textbook and simple words like sand and tree and dandelion mix with Yoongi's Marlboro smoke and all fizzle into a blinding ray of light.
The ophthalmologist flicks his wrist a little. The light skips across Taehyung's eye, right to left, left to right. Taehyung's pupil shrinks and blooms, shrinks and blooms, shrinks and blooms.
"Looks alright," the ophthalmologist says. Clicks the pen light closed. Slips it into his coat pocket. "Pupillary reflexes are kept. I'm going to say the fluid and the pus accumulate over the conjunctiva and create a temporary blurry effect."
"It does go away when the eye starts to water," Taehyung says. The ophthalmologist gives a confirmatory nod.
"No recent chemical exposure?" The ophthalmologist goes on asking. Wipes his thumb across Taehyung's upper lash line. Examines the yellowish stain it left on the glove.
Taehyung shakes his head.
"Any allergies. Pollen. Cat hair?"
Another head shake.
The ophthalmologist draws a long breath in through his nose, straightening his spine. Clicks heel to tile. "You said no fever?" He presses his palm to Taehyung's forehead. Waits for a few secs. Then pulls the stethoscope down from where it was curled around his neck. Sticks the buds in his ears.
The ophthalmologist presses the metal piece over Taehyung's heart. Applies a little bit of pressure with his thumb."With the discharge, I'd say it looks like bacterial conjunctivitis. With the viral ones, you usually see a pinkish conjunctiva and a little bit of watering. The yellow crusts, the eyelashes sticking together in the morning making it hard to open the affected eye, it's usually of bacterial origin." He tilts his head a little bit, having a careful listen. "You usually get those handling your eyes with unclean hands. Very contagious. However." The ophthalmologist moves the metal piece a bit to the left, having a listen from a different angle. "Sometimes conjunctivitis can be a symptom of an infection going on in another part of the body. It's not the source of the infection in that case, it's a manifestation of it. Usually an upper respiratory tract infection is the culprit." The ophthalmologist sucks his lips in. "Pulse is a little high." Presses the piece over Taehyung's left lung. "Take a big breath in for me."
Taehyung hangs his head. Draws a big breath in through his nose.
"Okay." The ophthalmologist presses the piece over Taehyung's right lung. "One more time."
Taehyung closes his eyes. Takes another deep breath.
Yoongi curls his fingers in his sleeves. Watches Taehyung taking in one big breath after another, and exhaling slow and shaky. Worry curls in his belly.
The ophthalmologist reaches his arm behind Taehyung, pressing the piece to his back, hand on Taehyung's shoulder. "Again."
Taehyung gives his left eye a tight squeeze. Wipes at it with his sleeve. Takes a big breath in.
The ophthalmologist moves the piece over Taehyung's right lung from the back. "One more."
Taehyung does as he's told. The ophthalmologist follows the exhale then plucks out the ear buds and hooks the stethoscope around his neck. "I don't hear any crackles. Lungs sound clear. We'll see what the labs show. C-protein comes back normal, I'm discharging you with antibiotic ointment. C-protein comes back high, we'll do a heart echogram test and a chest x-ray, just to be on the safe side. I'll just do a little swab. Have them run a culture check on that eye discharge, see if we can find any staph or strep microorganisms."
The ophthalmologist side steps to the cart. Rips the plastic off a sterile swab. Touches under Taehyung's chin. "Look up for me? This could be a bit uncomfortable. I'll try to be quick, okay?"
The ophthalmologist swabs Taehyung's eye. It takes a few seconds. Taehyung's eye ends up watering. It drips over his cupid's bow. Taehyung wipes if off with the back of his hand.
The ophthalmologist slips the swab into a a narrow tube and snaps it shut. Scribbles on a sticker and wraps it around the tube. Checks his watch. "Labs should be out in 30 minutes. I'll come back then and go over them with you. Until then, stay put."
The ophthalmologist pulls the curtain aside. Wheels the cart out. Steps outside. Pulls the curtain back into place. Walks away in a harmony of squeaky cart wheels and heels and fluttering coat ends.
Yoongi closes his eyes and lets his head drop. Pinches the nape of his neck a few times. Then just lets his palm lie there, pinky tucked into his hair, thumb tucked right under the collar of his shirt, other fingers running back and forth across the bumpy column of his vertebras.
Some shifting on the bed behind him. Then the scratchy sound of lashes being rubbed with a knuckle.
Yoongi runs his ring finger right across his C4. "Mm."
Yoongi opens his eyes when more than 5 seconds have passed and Taehyung hasn't said anything. Drops his arm between his knees and looks over his shoulder. Lifts his brows at Taehyung. Breathing through his mouth in concentration, Yoongi looks Taehyung over. 10 seconds pass. Instead of opening up, it seems Taehyung is retreating more into himself. Yoongi realizes he hasn't seen him smiling today. "Taehyung-ah. What is it."
"I'm sorry." Taehyung mumbles.
Giving a frown, Yoongi stands up. The chair gives a little creak. "What you saying sorry for."
"Wasting time," Taehyung says. Wipes his eye on his sleeve. "Wasting money. All cause of my eye."
"Don't say that," Yoongi says. Sits down to Taehyung's right on the bed. The male nurse put the bed rail down, but Yoongi feels it pressing just behind his knees, numbing cold seeping in through his dark jeans. "Money's not an issue. Time's not an issue. I just don't want you being sick."
Taehyung stares down at the tiles. Bites his upper lip, giving a gentle blink. "Why?"
Somewhere, Taehyung's voice catches. Yoongi's not sure on the exact syllable. And with it being so faint, he's not all that sure it caught at all. Sticking his hands between his knees, Yoongi looks up at Taehyung, lips parting in concentration. Sitting to Yoongi's left in an oversized mustard colored t-shirt, Taehyung tugs on his hospital bracelet, corners of his mouth turned downwards. Their arms are touching in two spots, Taehyung's right and Yoongi's left,--shoulder, and a little bit of elbow. Yoongi can't see Taehyung's weeping eye from here.
Yoongi swipes his tongue across his molars. Probes the last one while squinting his eyes a little, looking Taehyung over. Scoffs. "What kinda question is that."
Taehyung sucks his lips into his mouth. A dimple carves a temporary indent into his right cheek. Taehyung sucks on his lips and the indent grows deeper, collecting shadows and blooming like a moon, crescent to close to full. Taehyung shakes his head. Swipes at his left eye with the heel of his hand. Drags it across all the way to the temple then drops his hand into his lap. "It's nothing. Forget I asked. I'll just--"
Taking a long breath in through his nose, Taehyung leans sideways to retrieve his bag from the chair. Props it on his lap. Tugs on the zipper. Pulls out his copy of Thai for Beginners. Drops the bag to the floor, closing his ankles around it, poking the tip of his sneaker through the right back strap. Props the book open on his thighs. Presses his hand over the back of neck, playing with the collar of his shirt as his eyes skip from one vocabulary column to another.
Leaning forward, forearms on thighs, Yoongi cracks his right thumb twice. First crack is loud. Second one tiny and soft. He goes for a third, tucking his thumb into his palm deep and applying pressure with all four fingers. It doesn't crack. Yoongi pulls it out halfway. Applies pressure over the nail with his forefinger. Nothing. And what did Taehyung mean by asking 'why', anyways. No one wants another person to be sick.
Yoongi takes a peek at the book. Taehyung opened it to a little section on weather vocabulary words. Both pages are a sleepy shade of grey. Left one has an illustration of an open umbrella on the top left corner; it's striped, red and green, and drips fat drops of rain. At the bottom of the page, a pair of rain boots, chunky soles and shiny purple plastic. Right page has a fuzzy scarf doing the breeze flutter, top right corner. At the bottom, a frowning cloud.
Yoongi leans forward. Skims over the vocab words. The Thai alphabet looks difficult. Yoongi knows some Chinese. School teaches you. A second language kinda skill. He memorized some characters, those you usually use, like house and mine and rain. He writes them better with a gel pen, strokes come out clearer than with a mechanical pencil. He can watch shows with the captions off and get 50% of what they're saying. He can handle small talk. Can get the tones kinda right. Chinese has been with him ever since he was small though, so picking it up over the years at school felt natural, like memorizing a map as you travel through all the marked areas. But studying a new language, starting from scratch. Feels a little like being reborn and relearning everything. He admires Taehyung for having the courage to do it. It takes perseverance. Or a whole lot of innocence.
"Why Thai," Yoongi asks. "You never said."
Taehyung stares down at his book. His fingers are pressing down on the pages and the paper lets out small, soft sounds. He stays quiet for a while. Yoongi notices he's not reading. Then, Taehyung pulls his left hand back. The paper sticks to his fingers then detaches, fluttering back down. Taehyung gives three harsh blinks then wipes at his eye. "Because of the restaurant."
Yoongi frowns. What restau--
A windy afternoon comes to mind. Himself and Taehyung taking the bus downtown to get a bite to eat post a one very tiring morning shift at the store. Taehyung's yellow sneakers. Taehyung's comfy sweater sliding off his left shoulder as they squeezed in through the opening to Rak, the best Thai restaurant in the area. They ate in comfortable silence as it started to rain outside. Yoongi remembers the tiny pitter-patter on the giant windows and the buzzing orange light. He remembers Taehyung looking out at the slowing traffic and the store roofs dripping rain. He remembers Taehyung smelling like sweet tangerine and warmth.
Yoongi digs his elbows into his thighs. Furrows his brows a little at Taehyung to encourage him to continue.
Taehyung touches some of the letters with his thumb. "It wasn't my first time going to a Thai place, but. We were heading towards it and the sign caught my eye. I dunno."
"Food was good." Yoongi says. "We should go again sometime."
Taehyung gives a soft gulp. Nods slow. His voice catches a little when he speaks. "Yeah."
Taehyung wipes at his eye. Then holds the book open with both hands, pressing it down into his thighs.
Taehyung goes quiet again. Yoongi lets a minute pass. Feels like they both listen to the sounds coming in through the curtain: carts being wheeled around, blood pressure cuffs being fastened, nurses hurrying in squeaky shoes.
"Teach me a word," Yoongi says.
Taehyung's shoulders slump forward a little. Without moving his head, Taehyung's eyes move around. They touch Yoongi's Timberlands. Yoongi's hands. The point where their elbows touch. Then he looks back down, staring at a word written at the bottom of the right page.
"เงา" Taehyung says. "It means shadow."
The ophthalmologist comes back 40 minutes later, pulling the curtain aside and stepping in with a clipboard. The round white wall clock hits 8 PM.
"How's the eye," The ophthalmologist asks, stepping closer to take another look. His coat swirls around him as he bends over. It smells like empty hallways and ironed fabric. Threads of silver twinkle in his short black hair. Yoongi slides off the bed to make room. Goes to stand by the chair. His elbow brushes against Taehyung's windbreaker. Linking his hands behind his back, Yoongi presses his forearm into the swishy nylon. Keeps it there.
"Not on the shirt sleeve," the ophthalmologist says, tapping Taehyung's shoulder with a gloved finger, just where Taehyung's been wiping his eye. There's a quarter sized wet patch there. The ophthalmologist then taps the back of Taehyung's hand. "Not with this either. Clean hands always." Takes out an unopened packet of tissues from his coat pocket. Hands it to Taehyung. "And use these. These are not scented and they're soft. Wrap around your finger and gently dab. Okay? Now--"
The ophthalmologist thumbs through Taehyung's lab results. He's wearing grey sports shoes with a strip of highlighter yellow zapping through em right in the middle. He needs to wear comfortable shoes since he's on his feet all day. Realizing this, Yoongi notices how dry his own eyes feel. They've been in the ER for three hours now.
Taehyung fiddles with the tissues in his lap. Lashes of his left eye glimmer in the lights.
The ophthalmologist touches sole to tile. Reads through the results. "Labs look normal. C protein is not elevated. Blood count is within normal range. Culture results will come out in a few days. I'm expecting to see some staph bacterial growth." Lets the pages fall back into place. Puts his hand on his hip, nudging the corner of the clipboard into the bone there. "I'll prescribe you some antibiotics. Not oral, just local. You wash your hands with soap and warm water. Then you put a tiny bit of the ointment on a Q-tip. With a finger you pull your lower lid down carefully and rub the ointment across." The ophthalmologist does a closing movement with his fingers. "Then you close your eye and you sit like that for a minute. After, open the eye and blink a few times. This will let the antibiotic spread across and start doing its job. Your vision will be a little blurry for a few minutes. Sit it out, alright? After, no washing the eye for an hour, okay. No rubbing it, either. Repeat three times a day. Now, I'll just take this out--"
The ophthalmologist wheels the cart close to the bed. Changes gloves. Grabs a cotton ball. Touches Taehyung's forearm. "Give me your hand."
Taehyung moves the packet of tissues to his other hand. Extends out his IV arm. Turns his head to the side, pressing cheekbone into shoulder. Yoongi moves close to him. The ophthalmologist presses his thumb over the vein the needle is nestled in. Pinches the fingers of his other hand around the purple plastic piece sticking out. "Take a deep breath in for me."
Taehyung sucks a deep breath in through clenched teeth. Shutting his eyes tight he presses his forehead into Yoongi's shoulder. Without thinking, Yoongi squeezes Taehyung's hand.
The ophthalmologist tugs on the needle. Taehyung squeezes Yoongi's hand tight, breath catching in his throat. The tissue packet lets out tiny crackles as their fingers squeeze around it.
The ophthalmologist drops the used needle into the bio bin. Presses the cotton ball over the small puncture wound. Presses down with his thumb to stop the bleeding. "All done. Keep pressure on it for a few minutes."
Taehyung blinks against Yoongi's shoulder, blowing out short exhales. His fingers go to grab the cotton ball out of the ophthalmologist's hand. Yoongi does it instead. Wrapping his hand gently around Taehyung's wrist, he presses the cotton ball over the wound with care. The ophthalmologist straightens. His ankles give a little snap.
"Good to see no systemic source of infection," the ophthalmologist says, snapping off his gloves and adjusting the stethoscope around his neck. "Usually the eye is, the last stop, so to speak. It's an outer show of something going amiss inside the body. We see a lot of involvement of the heart muscle with pink eye. It's a relief to see it's not the case here. I'll be back with the ointment in a minute. Then, I'll sign your discharge papers."
The curtain flutters in the ophthalmologist's departure. It settles slow with a rustle. Taehyung turns his head away from Yoongi. Wavy fringe falling over his brow, Taehyung wipes at his eye.
The next day Yoongi clocks in fifteen minutes late. Fog had the bus driver take a wrong turn. Went left instead of right when he hit the intersection. Went on driving for two whole minutes before someone pointed it out to him.
Yoongi pads into the employee room, shrugging out of his coat. The nylon is cold. Has a thin layer of moisture on it, tiny droplets sticking close to one another, quivering. Yoongi shakes them off. Sticks his nose in the back of the collar. The smell of the fog lingers. Yoongi thinks of traffic lights sending out weak signals through thick layers of floating grey. It was so thick you couldn't see the road ahead. The air twinkled with moisture.
Yoongi slips his thumb through his key chain, heading to his locker, coat tucked under his arm. An electric board hums from the corridor. A drop of water clings to the faucet in the hand washing area. Yoongi skims over the other lockers as he heads to his.
"Lee, aisle 4. I repeat: Lee, aisle 4."
The message ends. The speaker lets out a click. Falls silent.
Yoongi slips the key into the lock. Twists. The lock drops into his palm. Yoongi turns his head to peek at Taehyung's locker. It's open. Taehyung's bag is stuffed inside along with his windbreaker. Yoongi pushes his puffy coat into his own locker. Shrugs his bag off his shoulders. It drops. Strap gets hooked around the crook of his elbow. Yoongi hauls the bag up and into the tiny storage unit. Slams the locker shut. Locks it. No one would wanna lift his coat, but they wouldn't say no to lifting some cash.
Yoongi checks his watch. 3:50 PM. Shift change happened at 3:30. What's Taehyung still doing there. He was supposed to be heading home.
Yoongi stops by Taehyung's locker. Pushes the door in a little. The giant messy ball of windbreaker inside the locker offers resistance. It nudges the door back into Yoongi's hand. Yoongi runs his thumb across the opening where the lock was supposed to slide into. Slips it through it. Chipped grey paint dusts Yoongi's nail and knuckle. Taehyung usually locks this. Was there something on his mind?
Yoongi pulls out his employee card from his wallet. Punches in. Stuffing his wallet into his back pocket, he slips out of the room. Get the work plan from his manager. Read through it real quick. Try to spot Taehyung first, though. See how the eye is doing.
Yoongi's gaze skips to the beauty aisle. They took down the mascara ad, he notices. A long piece of see through masking tape flutters in the AC breeze from the metal rod the placard was taped to. It lets out tiny snapping sounds as it twirls through the air. Yoongi lets out a soft exhale through the nose. Something in him is relieved that the ad is gone.
A small commotion from the cash register area:
"--three whole minutes and you're still incapable of typing in the code correctly."
The sound of paper bags rustling. Keys jangling. Some mumbling.
"You know how many times the human heart--" the sound of someone snapping their fingers-- snap, snap! "Hey! Hey, look at me when I'm talking to you. Yeah, right here. You know how many times the human heart beats per minute on average? 60. 60 beats per minute. Can you do the math. 60 beats per minute, that's 180 beats per 3 minutes. It feeds blood to the entire body 180 times in the time it takes you to tap your thumb 13 times on the screen to put the code in. The level of incompetency here boggles my mind. Useless staff."
A series of tiny beeps follows. Some with a long typing gap in between. Others, one after the other, real quick.
Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.
The cashier trying to type in the code again.
The sound of a plastic bottle being squeezed impatiently.
The computer lets out a long high pitched sound. Wrong code was typed in or the code just doesn't exist.
A soft mumble:
"I-I'm sorry. I-I'll try again."
Going carefully around a child squatting in the snack aisle thumbing through sweets, Yoongi then hurries over to the checkout spot. Taehyung's still working the cash register--Jackson was supposed to clock in 20 minutes ago, take his place. Taehyung was supposed to be heading home.
The costumer is trying to pay for 3 bottles of water. He's holding on to one bottle. Taehyung has the other. Taehyung's tugging on the paper wrapped around it with his thumb. The paper is taped around the bottle in such a way that you can't read part of the code. He's doing guesswork trying to punch in the right numbers.
Costumer has his left hand pressed to his lower back, car keys dangling from his forefinger. He's standing with one leg bent at the knee, toes pressing into the tiles, head cocked to one side, chin sticking out. Suit pants and a white dress shirt.
Taehyung presses his lips into a thin line in worry, eyes flitting across the error message flashing on the screen. Wipes at his eye. Tugs on the paper. Squints down at it. Wipes at his eye again.
Taehyung turns the bottle over in his hands, biting on the corner of his mouth. Peeks at the one on the counter, gnawing on his upper lip. Stands up the one he was holding on the conveyor belt. Picks up the other, wanting to smooth his thumb across the code, see if this one he can decipher.
It happens in a sec. The costumer leaps forward. Snatches the bottle out of Taehyung's hand. Fists his fingers around the bottle's neck. Brings it down hard on the edge of the counter. The plastic breaks. Water splashes everywhere.
Taking a step back, the costumer's head whips to the right fast, eyes screwed shut. He's holding his arms up. Realizes water is gushing through the crack in the plastic, spraying all over his shoes. Swiping his sleeve across his forehead, he blinks his eyes open long enough to chuck the bottle. It hits the pickup area where the conveyor belt runs out. Rolls down the little slope and hits the raised corner.
The costumer swipes his forearm across his eyes. Shakes the water off his hands, appalled. Looks himself over. "Look at this!"
Gritting his teeth, the costumer chucks his keys too with a sharp twist of the wrist. A flash of gold in the air . The keys hit the edge of the counter and tumble into it. The costumer takes another step back. His heels unstick from the tiles with a wet sound. Water dots his shoes. Twinkles on his pant leg.
The costumer looks up at Taehyung from underneath lowered eyebrows, not lifting his head, mouth set. "See this?" He addresses Taehyung. Takes four big steps backwards so Taehyung can see his shoes. "See this? Look at this mess. Look at it!"
Water drips off the edge of the counter.
Taehyung is holding his hands fisted against his tummy, eyes round, breaths coming short and painfully fast.
The water stain spreads across the tiles, sending out thin tendrils. One touches Yoongi's shoe. Trickles underneath the thick plastic sole.
The costumer clenches his jaw. Blinks down at his shoes. Draws a long breath in through his nose. Looks up at Taehyung, pointing down at his shoes. "Come out here and clean this up. You hear me? Come out here and clean this mess you did."
Keeping his eyes lowered, Taehyung gives two quick nods. On the side of his forearm, a purple bruise where the needle was. The nurse must have busted a vein.
Taehyung makes to look for some tissues. Yoongi gives one step towards him, holding his hand up. "Stay where you are, Taehyung-ah."
Taehyung's lips part with a worried blink. Yoongi meets his eyes. Holds his gaze and shakes his head, slow and deliberate. He notices with worry that Taehyung's eye doesn't look better.
The costumer steps in place. His heels click on the tiles. Cocks his head to the left, squinting his eyes at Yoongi. "Stay where he is? The hell you think you are. Look what he did."
Yoongi turns around and walks up to the counter. Plucks an opened tissue pack from between two bags of chips.
Yoongi tosses the tissues at the costumer's feet. The pack hits the points of the man's leather shoes. Tips over. The red tissue poking out of the pack folds over itself. Its ends stick to the tiles. It soaks up the water, turning dark and soggy. Yoongi stares at the costumer without blinking. "You clean this up. I don't give a damn about your shoes. Wipe this floor dry. Counter, too." Yoongi checks his watch. "You got two minutes. I come back here to find a single drop of water, I'm calling security to escort you out. Get to it."
He catches Jackson's attention as Jackson hurries over to the checkout area, clipping his name tag in place. "Wang, make sure he leaves the floor dry before he heads out. And charge his card for the water bottle he just busted. He says no to any of those, ring security." Then, to Taehyung, real quiet: "Taehyung-ah."
Yoongi motions for Taehyung to follow.
The employee room is empty. The lock to Jackson's locker hasn't settled yet since he just clicked it shut--it still wobbles a bit in the air, grazing the metal door.
"Come here." Yoongi says. Motions for Taehyung to follow him into a better lit area. Taehyung does. They stop to stand beneath a bright neon bulb. Taehyung's wavy fringe throws undulating shadows across his face. He pushes his thumb knuckle into the outer corner of his left eye. Squeezes the eye shut and rubs his thumb across his upper lash line.
Yoongi tuts softly. "Ophthalmologist told you to use the tissues he gave you."
Taehyung drops his hand to his side. Squeezes the eye shut real hard. Gives a mini pout. "Eye itches real bad."
"Lemme see." Yoongi murmurs. Cups the left side of Taehyung's head. Pulls it down a little bit so he can see the eye better. Taehyung goes really still. He's breathing so quiet and careful Yoongi can barely hear it.
Taehyung's conjunctiva is sickly pink. It's covered in a thick clear film that sticks to his lashes and to the corners of his eye. The lashes are wet and matted, clumped together with strings of sticky yellow. The upper lid is so puffy Taehyung can't fully open the eye. The neon light reflects in it all curved and wobbly.
"Did you use the antibiotic." Yoongi asks, drawing his hand back. Taehyung gives a soft blink in reaction to the sudden loss of Yoongi's touch. Licks his lips and steps in place a little bit, apprehensive about replying.
Yoongi presses his lips together, worried. It's clear judging by Taehyung's reaction that he hasn't applied the medicine like he was supposed to.
"Is it in the bag," Yoongi says, taking a step towards the lockers.
Taehyung opens his mouth to protest.
Yoongi stops. Turns to give Taehyung a look. "Taehyung-ah."
Taehyung's shoulders drop. Rubbing at his eye with the heel of his hand, head lowered, he nods.
Yoongi pulls out a chair for him. "Sit." He says softly.
Taehyung sits down slow. His shoes give a little squeak because of the wet plastic soles.
Yoongi goes to Taehyung's locker. Pulls out his bag. Setting it on a small stack of unopened soup mix boxes, he tugs on the zipper. Front pocket's got Taehyung's Thai book in it. The cover is dog-eared and has a simple clear plastic ball pen clipped to it. There's an open pencil case tucked by it--Yoongi spots a mechanical pencil inside and one of those goofy tube-y erasers that look like a pen. With a careful tug, Yoongi zips the pencil case up, just so nothing comes tumbling out and getting lost later. Behind the Thai book there's a squished sweet potato snack bag and a pair of brand new purple shoelaces neatly rolled into a ball and tied with a string. Taehyung's phone is there too, earphones attached. Yoongi does some rummaging, moving stuff around with care. Blinking attentively, Yoongi's mind sends fragments: the windbreaker's broken zipper, the needle in Taehyung's arm, the quiet bus ride home following the ER visit with Taehyung's lashes being all sticky with the antibiotic ointment the ophthalmologist applied, the water dripping off the edge of the counter pooling under Yoongi's feet. Yoongi shakes his head. Zips the first pocket back up. Goes for the small pocket in front. The ointment is there, white tube with stripes of grey. Tiny Q-tip box is there too, along with the pack of tissues Taehyung hasn't been using.
Yoongi takes them out. Setting the tube on top of the box, he rolls up his sleeves and cuts to the hand washing area. Yoongi runs the tap. Scrubs his hands with soap. It foams. Tiny bubbles pop between his fingers. He pushes his belly against the basin, sticking his forearms out under the stream. Washes his hands for a minute then tears open the pack of tissues to dry them with something clean not the old paper towels they have set up there. Hands have to be clean, that's what the ophthalmologist said. Yoongi can't risk Taehyung's eye infection getting worse.
Yoongi runs the hot water. Checks the temperature. Folds up some tissues and soaks them. Wrings out the excess water. Goes back to Taehyung and squats down in front of him. Sets the tube and Q-tip box in his lap. Pushes himself up higher with his right leg so he can reach better and cups Taehyung's left cheek. Touches the outer corner of Taehyung's eye with his thumb, ghosting over his lashes. Taehyung gives a soft blink. The eye seems more red. The room lights quiver in its fluid.
"I'll just clean it a little bit." Yoongi says softly. With his ring finger, Yoongi gently moves Taehyung's wavy fringe out of the way. He wraps the tissues around the index finger of his left hand. Touches Taehyung's eyelid with care. "Close."
Taehyung closes his eyes. Pulling on the corner of Taehyung's eye real gentle, Yoongi starts wiping off the yellow crusts. The warm water make it easier. It seeps into them and makes them crumble and fall apart.
Taehyung sits still. With his eyes closed, his lashes quiver. They make tiny scratching sounds as they rub against the tissues. The warm water unclumps them. Lashes stuck together in groups of six or seven unstick and flutter apart. They curl upwards, clean and shiny. Yoongi works patiently, moving from the outer corner of Taehyung's eye towards the inner corner, wiping at the lashes and the eyelid with care. Taehyung breathes real quiet. His soft exhales flutter past Yoongi's adam's apple.
"Okay?" Yoongi checks, dabbing at the inner corner of Taehyung's eye with the tissue.
Taehyung draws a soft breath in. "Doesn't hurt. Just a little bit of pressure."
Yoongi shifts his weight from left leg to right. Smoothes his thumb over the little dip on the side of Taehyung's nosebridge to catch a fallen lash. Goes back to wipe at Taehyung's eye. "Almost done, Taehyungie."
Taehyung's lid gives a little quiver, like a tiny blink. It makes Yoongi pause and wait for a few seconds, tissues hovering over Taehyung's lid until he's sure it's settled.
Setting the wet tissues off to the side, Yoongi pulls an unused one out of the packet. Folding it in half, Yoongi starts dabbing at Taehyung lashes, drying them off. He's pressing real light with the pads of his fingers.
A door closes in the distance. A lock is fastened into place. Wheels roll across the tiles. Yoongi's gaze moves upwards. There's water droplets still drying in Taehyung's hair. Yoongi pulls a breath in. Refocuses on Taehyung's eye. He'll talk to the manager before he leaves. Ask him to not allow that customer to set foot in the store ever again.
Yoongi pulls his hand back, crumpling the tissue into a little ball and tucking it into his fist. "Lemme see."
Taehyung opens his eyes.
Yoongi looks the eye over, thumbing the tissues. The lashes on the outer corner of Taehyung's eye are drying up fast, curling upwards and fanning out. The ones starting from above his pupil all the way to the inner corner are still glistening wet. With the yellowish film gone, Taehyung's eye regains some of its familiarity.
Taehyung looks down. Gives a slow blink then squeezes the eye shut for a sec. Yoongi looks him over, lips parting, soundless. Taehyung's silence is usually built with layers of calm and enviable ease. He's a natural observer. Speaks very little, usually when he finds something profoundly touching. Yoongi is used to it. This time, however, Taehyung's silence is tinged with a sense of loneliness. Yoongi noticed it on their visit to the ER last night, too. Saw it in Taehyung's eyes when he declined to spend their lunch break out in the sun.
Yoongi blows out a soft breath through the nose. Shifting his weight to his left leg, he lifts the lid off the Q-tip box. Plucks out a Q-tip. Puts the lid back on. Cart wheels roll quietly outside the employee room. Turn real loud when they pass just outside the door then go quiet again as they wheel past. Yoongi uncaps the antibiotic ointment. Tucks the cap into the dent between his thumb and forefinger so it won't slip away. Peels back the silver foil sealing the tube closed. Inside, the paste is transparent white. Yoongi squeezes some out onto the Q-tip. Puts the cap back on and screws it shut.
Yoongi cups Taehyung's cheek. Positions his thumb just under Taehyung's lower lid, not pulling down yet. The skin there feels a little too warm. "I'll go real gentle," Yoongi says.
Yoongi tugs on Taehyung's lower lid real careful. The lid separates from the eye, exposing a shimmery line of red. "Don't pull back," Yoongi says. Waits for a few beats. When Taehyung doesn't say anything, Yoongi prompts again. "Taehyungie."
Taehyung lets out a soft sound, nodding a little.
Yoongi places the Q-tip's fuzzy head against the outer corner of Taehyung's eye. Pulling the lid down a bit more, he drags the Q-tip across Taehyung's lower lash line. Taehyung gives a twitchy blink. His upper lashes fan across the knuckle of Yoongi's thumb. Yoongi murmurs out a little comforting sound. He feels Taehyung trying to force his eye to stay open. Yoongi moves a little deeper. He touches the pocket between lid and eye. Taehyung gives a series of involuntary blinks. The ointment coats the lower part of Taehyung's eye. When he gives another blink it moves to smear across conjunctiva and pupil. It covers the eye with a film of shine.
"You need to be more careful," Yoongi says, gently moving the Q-tip across all the way to the inner corner of Taehyung's eye. "I worry. You know I worry."
Yoongi feels a tightening just under Taehyung's eye, a small movement of the muscle below the lower lid.
"Almost done," Yoongi says softly, moving the Q-tip around with care. The antibiotic brushes off the puffy cotton wool, smearing across Taehyung's pink conjunctiva. It's thick and it warps the lights touching it.
Yoongi considers putting some more ointment on when he gives a startled blink. Something hot and wet hits the knuckle of his left thumb. A round teardrop. It trickles into his palm and rolls down his inner wrist, slipping into his sleeve. He feels it sliding down his forearm and halting in the crook of his elbow where it spreads across the mess of thin greenish veins there.
Did he accidentally graze Taehyung's eye. Is it the ointment, stinging, causing Taehyung's eye to tear up?
Yoongi looks up. His lips part. It's not the ointment. Taehyung is crying.
Yoongi sits back on his heels, tucking the Q-tip into the palm of his hand, throat giving a painful squeeze. Taehyung's head is lowered. His arms are tucked close to his body. A heavy tear detaches itself from his lower lashes and drips straight down without catching on his cheek or chin, hitting his thigh with a tiny sound and soaking into the fabric.
Yoongi shifts his weight. Thumbing the Q-tip he looks Taehyung over, blinking helplessly. "Taehyung-ah."
Taehyung pulls a shaky breath in. His mouth twists. Pushing himself to sit upright, he closes his left hand and brings the heel up to his eye. He starts pressing his heel into his eye to wipe at the tears when he pulls his hand back--the ointment. Not knowing what to do with his hand, he fists it in the front of his shirt uniform, tugging a little on the neckline. He looks lost and afraid and Yoongi leans forward, laying a hand on Taehyung's forearm.
Squeezing his eyes shut, lips parting over wet teeth, Taehyung goes to cover his face with his hand. Yoongi pushes himself up. Wraps his arms around Taehyung. Pulls Taehyung to him.
Taehyung presses his forehead into Yoongi's left shoulder. Draws a shaky breath in and hugs Yoongi's shoulders. Hides himself into Yoongi's frame.
Yoongi presses his palm to the back of Taehyung's head. Holds it there for comfort. Taehyung pulls a stuttering breath in. Exhales it into Yoongi's shirt uniform. Sniffles. Hugs Yoongi tighter. Another breath. Another exhale. His hands slip apart a little because of the fabric of Yoongi's shirt. Taehyung readjusts his grip. Sniffles. Presses his forehead into Yoongi's shoulder.
Yoongi strokes Taehyung's hair once. Squeezes the nape of his neck gently. Goes back to rest his palm on the back of Taehyung's head. "What is it," he says close to Taehyung's ear. Smoothes his palm over Taehyung's hair again. "Taehyungie."
Taehyung draws a muffled breath in. Yoongi pulls back a little. Taehyung drops his hands into his lap, head hanging low. Forgetting, he presses the heel of his hand into his left eye. Dropping that hand, he swipes at his right eye, smearing tears all the way to his temple and into his hair. "I don't want you to go," Taehyung says.
Yoongi frowns. Slowly squats down again. Taehyung wipes his thumb knuckle across his cupid's bow. Wipes under his left eye. Does Taehyung mean--
"I saw you t--" a shaky inhale. Another swipe at his left eye. "Talking to Mr. Wongo."
Their job manager.
Yoongi blinks up at him. "When?"
"The day before yesterday." Taehyung says. His left eye weeps. "You're leaving next week."
A door opens and closes in the distance. The electricity board hums. The antibiotic ointment smells sweet. Taehyung's breaths even out a little. The chill of the fog seeps into the room. The dry crumpled up tissue falls open slow with no hand to roll it into a ball again.
Taehyung feels the same. Yoongi felt it in his embrace. One year of working together and friendship bloomed into something more.
Yoongi leans up. With his knuckles, he brushes a tear away from Taehyung's chin. Reaches into his pocket. Pulls out the small folded up piece of carton he scribbled on yesterday. It's a strip of carton they wrap around the cinnamon biscuits sold in a 4 pack. Has the logo, white and red, printed on it. Yoongi wrote on it yesterday before he forced himself to try and fall asleep, dark bedroom, orange desk light, scratchy pen. He hands it over to Taehyung.
"Was planning on giving this to you tomorrow, last shift together and all." Yoongi licks his lips. Watches Taehyung unfolding the carton and starting to read. Yoongi licks his lips again. Gives a series of shy blinks. "Was gonna just. Put my heart out there. Hope for the best."
Taehyung finishes reading. Gives a soft blink, keeping his eyes on Yoongi's writing. Surprise glimmers in his eyes. The carton lets out tiny sounds when his fingers press it, scratchy and quiet.
taehyungie, you say cinnamon is more bitter than sweet--The note says. Have some of our infamous cinnamon biscuits with me this weekend? We'll test it out :-)
Taehyung sniffles. Smiles down at the note, wiping at his cheek. The carton smells like cinnamon, too. Thick and sweet.
Yoongi leans up. Cradles Taehyung's face real gentle. Presses a kiss to the outer corner of Taehyung's left eye.