Jeongin was smart- at least, that’s what everyone said.
He couldn’t list off on his fingers the amount of times he’d stumbled over a word, not understood an algebraic equation, been unable to figure out how the hell parabolas worked. Things that’d been expected of him ever since he’d understood “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”. But still, they said he was smart. Everyone except for himself, because even though Jeongin got good grades, he was the stupidest of the “above average kids”.
There was nothing wrong with getting “B”s or “C”s, except when it came to himself. Jeongin understood learning disabilities, he understood mental health getting in the way, and respected not caring about school. But he was too cowardly, too afraid to be anything but exceptional, and he hated the privilege he had. In elementary, he’d stared enviously at the kid who spelled his first word in the spelling bee wrong on purpose, because he couldn’t give up until he’d traced and memorized his way to first place.
And when he made it to the state competition, he got runner-up. That was how things worked. There’d always be someone better, smarter than Jeongin, and he hated that. Hated how his sticker was below a couple of others’ on the test score sheet. Couldn’t stand seeing how he ranked in standardized testing. As his mother always said, he expected more from himself than anyone else ever would.
So, when things got hard, or changed, Jeongin would break apart at the seams, crying and screaming silently from his bed at night. He was okay with that carefully practiced cycle, but his mom wasn't, so Jeongin had gone to a therapist- the first of many. She was nice, had a jar of some long, spindly candy on her wooden desk. She had a kind face, wrinkled.
His mom didn’t like that therapist, because she’d just “said he was smart over and over”. Jeongin didn’t like her either.
He didn’t like those liars, who put those buzzing compliments under his skin just to inflate it like a balloon until he burst. Who took one look at his grades and drizzled him in honey words of flattery. Because Jeongin was not smart.
He cried when he couldn’t get his math homework right, and was the only kid who had to work at the corner table. Tears dripped down his face and soaked his paper, hidden behind his bangs dangling over his angled head. Graphite bled out of his workbook, little stars hidden among words he couldn’t make out. Those may have been the moments that made him hate school and everything it stood for.
Everyone thought he was quiet, polite, anxious, boring. That was what school had rendered Jeongin to be. But he was supposed to be independent; Stray Kids were supposed to break the mould. He stuck out and ruined that for them, just like he ruined everything else.
Stuck in their dorm, he couldn’t even focus on his homework, the very same homework he struggled with.
The teacher was talking too fast, quiet enough so that he had to lift his laptop up to his ear to hear her. Homologous structures- adaptations. There was a countdown up on the screen of time he had left to finish his work, but his fingers wouldn’t move. It was a simple task, but he felt like crying at the very prospect of beginning it, of having to think about anything besides the undulating disappointment inside of him, waiting to lash out.
Once again, he’d miss a question in his frenzy to get all of them answered correctly, and once again, he’d tear his hair out in a panic attack. So what was the point of starting? Tears blurred his vision, and he sucked in a wriggling breath as he looked back down at his phone. There were so many more interesting things on there, but that was lazy. Jeongin was lazy, taking advantage of those people who believed in him for the sake of his own happiness.
Smart people didn’t get “b”s. They didn’t spend whole days balled up in heavy blankets, texting their friends for food and unable to pull their gaze away from the spiders on the wall. They didn’t sleep through half of a class and have a panic attack over their inability to function.
Jeongin was stupid, and that was that. He’d never have a future, or a degree, or hell, even make it to graduation. He was going to let everyone down, show them what he’d always been- a waste of space. An idiot.
Coping was useless, because coping didn’t make good grades. Crying was useless, because crying distracted him from looking up his test answers. Jeongin was useless, and he should die.
But he couldn’t do that, because like everything in his life, it was selfish of him. Would make people cry, ask for him back when really, he’d never been there. How was it selfish to make more room for them to find smarter, kinder people? Jeongin didn’t know. A very tiny concentration of all things bad and Jeongin-ish inside him said to leave anyways; risk them getting sad because it was worth it.
He just didn’t know anymore. He spent late nights focusing on the ache in his ribcage asking him to just cut himself off, but being trapped to his bed by thoughts of people who cared. Because although Jeongin was purposefully oblivious, he was aware. He knew he got straight-A’s, knew he was praised because he stayed quiet and kept his shaking limbs hidden. Knew that if he just kept going, he’d get better, and those meds might start working.
But it was already the end of class, and he’d heard nothing. Too focused on the buzzing of his veins, the eternally present praise and expectation. So, once again, he’d have to spend his nights trying to drill useless information into his expired brain. Freezing, shaking, not good enough. It was the same every time.
Jeongin wasn’t smart, and everyone only saw the parts he let them see. Blank gazes and sodden limbs were the least of his worries when he wanted to pummel himself into broken pieces and throw himself into the river near their dorm. Rushing waters below the concrete bridge, rocks sharp enough to cut his head open and maybe knock some sense into it. The river was beautiful, though, and Jeongin wasn’t, so maybe he’d just ruin it. Like everything else.
With brilliant hiding skills and protruding scars, Jeongin carved his way into others’ lives just to want to pull himself out. He was aware of that. Watched as people cast worried looks, choked down his meds and kept on going. Regardless of his stupidity, Jeongin knew he was just a dumb teenager. He also knew he had to keep waking up, not turn into a school assembly or another statistic.
He took his meds, showered, and kept on breathing. That was all there was to it, and it was killing him faster than the snack foods he’d given up warm meals for. More painfully than the awful words plastered to his skin, peeking out from the crevices of his sleeves. Was there anything more stupid than someone who wanted to die but put all their effort into living?
That was one of the things Jeongin had learned to despise: himself. That he thought about dying so much even when with his friends, when he was laughing along (genuinely, for once). They were programmed into him, a routine that made his eyes sting. The one thing he'd learned to hate more than the awful thoughts of blood on walls and tears on lead was his inability to do homework.
The most recent time he'd had a breakdown over his inability hadn’t even a case of misunderstanding- it’d been an experiment he hadn’t been able to complete. He’d asked Chan if they had any water droppers (it was something about cohesion), and the other boy had looked at him oddly and said, “no”. He’d tried to help Jeongin look for one, but something about it had made the latter feel so pathetic, so awful that he’d started to fidget. Chan had suggested an alternative, kept on talking and was still watching Jeongin carefully. Jeongin had just shook his head fiercely and left the room, trying his hardest not to slam his bedroom door.
A slithering anxiety crawled up his neck, and he started sobbing. Shaking back and forth, hearing his bed springs creak under his weight. It had started like a normal panic attack, but it slowly turned into something else. Jeongin was pissed. At Chan, for making him feel like a dumbass. At school, for making him feel like he was worthless without booksmarts. And, most of all, at himself, for being so dependent on others and sensitive to the stupidest things. He wanted to punch someone, kick someone, show them how fucking awful he was.
He’d felt this kind of anger before, and it was never nice, but this time it was amplified, stinging under his skin. His arms fizzled like firecrackers, tension lining up his forearms and making them tremble. The only way he could think to dull it was to get it out. So, he punched the wall.
Its bumpy texture made the hit worse, grating against his hands and turning them red. But that didn't alarm Jeongin, it made him want it more. He wanted himself to feel the same pain the others felt when they saw another “B” on his report card, another failed assignment he forgot to turn in. So, he punched it with the side of his hand again, then with his knuckles, barely noticing the scraping and bleeding of them.
It wasn’t working anymore. Jeongin screamed, so loud someone must’ve heard, and looked around hastily for something, anything to get the wiggling fury out of his bloodstream. There was a package of colored pencils on his nightstand. He tossed himself onto his side and grabbed them, feeling the weight of them in his hands.
What happened next was not something he was proud of, and not something he’d ever seen himself doing.
He chucked the box across the room, watching as it ricocheted off the wall and burst open. Colored pencils scattered themselves amongst the clutter on the floor, rolling and tumbling this way and that. Jeongin startled himself with the volume of them hitting the wall. It made something in him loosen, so he looked over again. A water bottle.
It hit the wall, thunking heavily and not-at-all satisfyingly. Frustrated, Jeongin bent over again to pick up a hardcover book. He flung it with more strength than the other two, and it flew open midair, slapping against the same surface. Slowly, the mania started to drip away, leaving Jeongin to stare blankly at the mess.
Pencils all over the floor, what water was left in the bottle in a puddle, and a book face-down next to it. Jeongin regretted ever buying a fifty pack as he stared at all of the art utensils sitting there. He began to sob. I’m going to have to clean that. He curled up and let his hands bury in his hair, feeling the resounding pulsating of the red skin.
It felt good, so he unfolded his arms and hit them, hard. It ached, so he did it again in the same place, then another. He hoped they would bruise.
That was all Jeongin really wanted. A physical thing to show that he wasn’t making this up, to make him feel less like he was making this up. That his thoughts were fake, his feelings were made up out of a desire to be special. The one thing he knew to be true, above all, was that Jeongin wasn't smart. Not in the slightest.