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I Will Follow You into the Dark

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Jungwoo can see something—or rather someone—he isn’t supposed to see.

 

The first time he realized it was when he was seven. The day was humid even when the windows in his classroom were opened, the vice principal came to his classroom and told him to take the rest of the day off and that his mother will come pick him up.

 

They didn’t go home, though. They arrived at an unfamiliar building full of people wearing black suits. He recognized his uncle and aunt’s faces, they were either currently crying or already had puffy eyes. He heard people whispering to each other, as if they didn’t want to disturb something. What thing? Jungwoo didn’t know.

 

His mother took him to a room with an altar full of flowers. He saw his grandmother standing in a corner of the room, looking somber. That’s weird, Jungwoo thought. His grandmother has been severely ill and has stayed at the hospital most of the time. He let go of his mother’s grip and ran towards his grandmother.

 

“Grandma, what are you doing here?”

 

His grandma’s eyes light up as their eyes meet, “You can see me, Jungwoonie?”

 

He nods. Why would his grandma say that? Of course he can!

 

His grandma was about to say something more when he saw her eyes go wide at the entrance door. Jungwoo follows her eyes.

 

There was a tall man walking up to the altar, wearing an all black suit like most of the men here, but the air surrounding him seems different.

 

After paying his respect, the man walked towards Jungwoo and his Grandma.

 

“Mrs. Kim Yeon Seo, this is as much time as I can get you,” the man’s voice is low and sounds cold in Jungwoo’s ears.

 

“Grandma, who is he?” Jungwoo looked up to his Grandma before taking in a full look at how the man’s hair is as black as the night, skin pale as the snow, and his tightly shut lips were almost as red as the roses in his Grandma’s backyard.

 

“Jungwoonie,” his Grandma crouched to match his height, “I have to go now,”

 

“Where? Can I come with you?”

 

His Grandma shakes her head.

 

“Somewhere far. Somewhere I could meet your Grandfather,”

 

Jungwoo’s eyes widen, “But… Mom always said Grandpa is in heaven,”

 

His Grandma only answers in a smile. She then took him in her embrace and peppered his hair in kisses. “I love you, Jungwoonie. Be a good boy, okay?”

 

And with that, the man took her hands and vanished in front of Jungwoo’s eyes. As if they’re never there in the first place.

 

***

 

Jungwoo got into an accident when he was 20.

 

Finally being an adult, he decided it would be a good idea to spend the first night of it drinking himself to intoxication and let his less drunk friend drive them home.

 

Except Jungwoo was not home when he opened his eyes to a taste of iron in his mouth, body hurting, and people shouting. He could barely open his eyes as he saw his friend beside him with his eyes closed. Jungwoo tried to get up, but a man pushed him back and told him not to move. His eyes wandered for a second and saw a familiar man in black suit walk calmly despite the chaos surrounding him.

 

It’s the man from his Grandmother’s funeral, Jungwoo faintly remembers. The man doesn’t look a day older and before sedatives lull him, Jungwoo finally accepts that what he saw when he was seven is not an illusion after all.

 

 

 

Jungwoo woke up the next morning to a white ceiling, white walls, smell of disinfectant, and a pang in his heart.

 

***

 

It was his third attempt that made his mother finally have had enough.

 

The first thing he saw as he opened his eyes was his mother breaking down in the hospital room. As much as she hates seeing him being labeled and stigmatized, she would prefer that than coming home to a son that no longer feels like hers.

 

His father was so ashamed he didn’t even accompany his mother when she dropped Jungwoo at the psychiatric facilities.

 

Days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months. Without anyone noticing, seasons change and Jungwoo “celebrates” his first, second, and third year at the facilities.

 

Jungwoo knows he’s not one to blame for the accident, but every time he looks at himself; healthy, walking, laughing, breathing, he could feel shame crippling his bones.

 

 

 

 

 

There’s a new guy today.

His name is Minhyung. He seems younger than most of the nurses and… cheerier too. It’s obvious the kid hadn’t met a lot of dysfunctional people like himself, Jungwoo thinks.

 

 

 

 

 

Jungwoo avoids and ignores the kid most of the days. He doesn’t know why, but the kid’s laugh makes him feel uneasy. Still, some days he just wouldn’t believe his luck. Some days like today.

 

“Jungwoo hyung, mind if I sit with you?” he does, actually, mind. But this Minhyung kid already settles himself in front of Jungwoo and he couldn’t say no now.

 

“Do you like yogurt, hyung?” the kid asked him. Jungwoo sigh. Long gone is his usual peaceful lunch.

 

“Sure, why?” Jungwoo gives up and decides to entertain the kid.

 

“Here,” he slid his yogurt cup to Jungwoo’s side, “I don’t like yogurt,” he scrunches up his nose in disgust and back to eat the salad on his plate.

 

Jungwoo is dumbfounded.

 

The annoyingly endearing laugh, the absolute disgust towards yogurt, the cat-like nose scrunch, the uneasy feelings in his chest every time the kid is in his peripheral vision…

 

“Mark?” the name feels foreign rolled out of his tongue after years.

 

The kid in front of him tilt his head to the side, “Who?” he asked, confusion in his eyes.

 

Jungwoo stands abruptly and leaves his table as he feels his heart clenched and unclenched.

 

 

***

 

On his second attempt, Jungwoo saw the mysterious man. He didn’t look as cold as the two times Jungwoo had seen him. He actually looked kind of sad.

 

“I’m not supposed to be here,” he said, baritone voice made Jungwoo shivered even in his half unconscious body.

 

“Why are you here then?”

 

“Because it’s not your time yet,”

 

“Why are you here then?” Jungwoo repeated his question. Demanding a clear answer.

 

“It’s not your fault, you know?” Jungwoo can sense pity in his voice. He didn’t want pity. Not from a Grim Reaper, nonetheless.

 

“He was fated to die that day. From drunk driving or not, he was going to die that day.”

 

Jungwoo was sleepy for the loss of blood and he remembered being five, eating ice cream on a summer day with Mark, fingers sticky with melted strawberry flavor. He was happy. They were happy.

 

“I—just— I should’ve stopped him or better, I shouldn’t drink at all,” he sobbed his last breath as he remembered his best friend’s face full of cuts, bleeding, with eyes closed to never open again.

 

 

 

When he opened his eyes and greeted with the usual hospital room, Jungwoo expected to see his Mother there. He didn’t expect to see the mysterious man standing at the foot of his bed.

 

“I told you it’s not your time yet,” he smiles and Jungwoo saw a pair of dimples that he never realized was there.

 

The dimples made the man look less intimidating and more approachable. He didn’t think Grim Reaper and approachable could be in one sentence.

 

“Stop doing this to yourself,” the Grim Reaper said as he traced the healed cuts in Jungwoo’s left wrist.

 

His fingers felt cold to the touch and Jungwoo shivered. “Why shouldn’t I? I let my best friend die.”

 

“You didn’t let him.” the Grim Reaper sounded a touch frustrated, “I told you he would die that day, even if it wasn’t from a car crash.”

 

“But it was from a car crash. From drunk driving. Because he offered to call a cab, but I didn’t want to leave my car so he offered to drive and I let him because I’m dumb and reckless and didn’t deserve to be his best friend.” It’s the first time Jugwoo said it out loud, “It’s my fault Mark is dead.”

 

The Grim Reaper envelops him in a hug and Jungwoo just lets himself be vulnerable for once. He let his tears streamed down his face and clinging to the cold hug the Grim Reaper offered.

 

***

 

“He’s not Mark,”

 

“But their laughs are the same and they both hate yogurt for no apparent reason, I bet they even look like twins if Minhyung bleaches his hair!”

 

Jungwoo,

 

Jaehyun,

 

The Grim reaper looks exasperated, “It’s not Mark,” he shakes his head as he walks towards Jungwoo.

 

“He’s at the same age as when Mark died,”

 

“He’s Lee Minhyung. He has lived in Korea since he was born, the furthest he ever travelled was to Jeju. He’s not your best friend who was born in Canada because his parents are diplomats. Minhyung’s father is a lecturer and his mother has a Korean cuisine restaurant. Minhyung doesn’t like watermelon, he likes pineapple—“

 

“Pineapple is weird,”

 

“That’s not my point and you know it,”

 

“But…”

 

“No, but. It’s better for you to realize that now.”

 

Jungwoo sulks and plops himself to his bed.

 

 

 

After their meeting (if you could say that) at the hospital. Jungwoo and the Grim Reaper’s relationship becomes a little friendlier. Jungwoo wants to laugh ironically every time he remembers that the handsome man in front of him right now will probably be the man that will take his life in the future. The pity he once found in the Grim Reaper’s eyes is nowhere to be seen and replaced with something warmer and softer.

 

Soon it was easy to forget that the man is a grim reaper. So, Jungwoo finally gave the man a name.

 

“Why ‘Jaehyun’?” The Grim Reaper asked when Jungwoo proposed the name.

 

“You look like a ‘Jaehyun’ to me,” Jungwoo just shrugs.

 

“And what does a ‘Jaehyun’ look like?”

 

Jungwoo smiles and brings his index fingers to stretch a smile in the Grim Reaper’s face, the dimples appear instantly, “a ‘Jaehyun’ is handsome.” he chuckles as the man in front of him grumbled an okay then if that’s what you want .

 

***

 

Life in the facility is mostly easy for Jungwoo. There’s a schedule he must follow and all kinds of creative activities offered for the resident.

 

He also doesn’t need to be afraid to be caught talking to Jaehyun because talking to air seems normal here.

 

He had his bad days of course. Days when he woke up feeling suffocated, feeling like he shouldn’t breathe and just give up. Days when he just wants to be in his bed and watch youtube videos where Mark plays a piano for their high school’s talent show. He played Yoo Jae Ha’s Because I Love You and he sounded so beautiful and alive .

 

Jungwoo would listen to it on loop until Jaehyun came and stopped it. Hugging Jungwoo while singing a different lullaby that calms him down.

 

***

 

Minhyung comes to his bedroom one day, saying there’s a woman wanting to meet him.

 

Jungwoo wonders who it would be. His mother always let him know in advance when she comes to visit.

 

It is his mother though. Much older than Jungwoo remembers. She usually visits once a month, but the last time she was there was almost half a year ago. Jungwoo thought she finally got tired of him.

 

The lines around his mother’s eyes are more prominent and Jungwoo can’t help but notice that she looks even skinnier.

 

“Ma,” he hugs him tightly and his mother returns the hug. Putting her hands in his hair and gently strokes him like a little kid.

 

Jungwoo is way taller than his mom now, but he can’t help feeling a little kid every time she hugs him.

 

“Jungwoo, I want you to spend some time at home. Just for a couple of days. I asked your doctors here and they agree to let you home for a week,” she sounds tired, “we just need your consent.”

 

Jungwoo let go of the hug and look at his mother in the eyes. “What’s wrong, Ma?”

 

“Your father…” she wanders in anxiety and sadness, “your father is sick and he needs to be operated.”

 

Before Jungwoo could say more, his mother continued, “He wants to apologize to you. For being a bad father and letting you down.”

 

Jungwoo’s gaze falls at his shoes before he takes a deep breath and answers, “I’ll let you know after lunch, is that okay? I need some time to think.”

 

His mother cups his cheeks in her hands, “Of course, dear. I’ll be in the backyard. That Minhyung kid promised to be my company for the day,”

 

Jungwoo nods and walks to his room.

 

To his delight, he finds Jaehyun sitting on his bed, reading his little black book with deep frowned.

 

“What are you reading?”

 

Startled, he shakes his head with a little too much force. His unstyled hair falls almost to his eyes. He looks fluffy like this.

 

“My mom asked me to spend time with my father because he’s sick. Do you think I should go home?” he sits beside Jaehyun, knees and shoulder touching.

 

“Yes, I think you should go home,” Jaehyun answers without a strain of doubt in his voice.

 

“Aw, you’re no fun. I was thinking I could rebel a little and force him to come here to apologize to me, you know?”

 

“Don’t do that,” Jaehyun’s voice is so soft, “you should spend some time with him.”

 

Jungwoo heard something in Jaehyun's voice that he never heard before, “Jaehyun,” he said slowly, wanting the grim reaper’s full attention, “What is it?”

 

Jaehyun just looks him in the eye with sadness and back to the black book in his hands.

 

Oh.

 

***

 

Jungwoo and his mother go straight to hospital to meet his father. It is kind of awkward, they never spoke for almost four years, after all. But Jungwoo accepts his apology and tells him how in the three years, he never did it again and his father smiles proudly at him.

 

Mr. Kim's kidney is failing and he would need a transplant. The transplant operation will be done next Thursday and since it is a pretty standard procedure, the doctors asked the family to not be worried.

 

Jungwoo knows better, though. He knows from the look Jaehyun gave him the last time, but he thanks the doctor anyway.

 

Jungwoo goes home after that and not knowing what to do, he just walks around his neighborhood for air. Even though the houses look a bit different now, his feet take him to a familiar path that makes him end up in front of a familiar house.

 

Don’t be a brat and accept his apology. Tell your father you love him. And your mom too, tell her you love her. Try to go visit Mark while you’re out there. His parents don't blame you, so maybe go visit them too? After all, you’re like a second son to them.

 

Jaehyun’s voice is clear in Jungwoo’s head.

 

He had done the first two: telling his parents he loves them.

 

Try to go visit Mark while you’re there.

 

He takes a lungful of breath.

 

His parents don't blame you .

 

Jungwoo can see the old tree house he and Mark used to spend time in. It wouldn’t fit him now, but it used to fit two small boys who wanted to escape the world of adults.

 

He spent what feels like two minutes standing there, not realizing that the sky gets dark and street lamps are alight. He try to brace himself and walk that pathway to face Mr. and Mrs. Lee. But, he just couldn’t. He’s a coward and he’s not brave enough. Mark, as tiny as he was, was the braver one between them. Always the one who would take risks for them.

 

Jungwoo was about to walk home, telling himself he would have tomorrow, but the door to the Lee household suddenly opened. There he sees the woman he would go to whenever he had problems he wouldn’t want his mom to know.

 

“Jungwoo, is that you?” her voice is still as calming as ever and Jungwoo just can’t take this anymore.

 

He runs to the woman and kneels in front of her, thousands of apologies in his mouth and endless tears in his eyes.

 

“Ssshhh, it’s okay, son. It’s okay…” he feels himself being hugged and he clung his life to her.

 

He doesn’t stop sobbing even when started to hiccup and body trembles. Mr. Lee offers him the guest bedroom, but he shakes his head, “Mark’s bedroom is fine.”

 

And that’s how he ended up curling into Mark’s dark blue sky sheet, trying to smell him. He’s surrounded by Mark, but at the same time he couldn’t feel him. Jaehyun suddenly appears in front of him, all smiley faces and proud.

 

“I’ll visit him tomorrow, with his parents,” Jungwoo mumbles.

 

“I’m so proud of you, Kim Jungwoo.” He does look proud, Jungwoo thinks and wonders why.

 

“Why are you so nice to me?”

 

“Grim Reaper can be nice,” the guy has the audacity to pout now.

 

“No, I mean, I’m pretty sure a Grim Reaper shouldn’t visit alive people,”

 

Jaehyun takes a breath before answering, “Your Grandmother,” he stopped and looked at Jungwoo’s eyes, “she asked me to take care of you. It’s not the first time a spirit asked me to do that, but the fact that you can actually see me makes me… attached… I think? So, I did. I keep eyes on you whenever I can, from afar, of course.”

 

Jungwoo thinks it’s because of the light dims or because he’s in Mark’s bedroom—Mark would definitely tell him to go get the guy—Jungwoo feels braver. He intertwined his fingers with Jaehyun, feeling his cold fingers in between his.

 

Jaehyun smiles at their intertwined fingers and squeezed before continuing his story, “and then that day happened,” Jungwoo knows the day he means, “A week prior, his name appears on my book and I pray to God you don’t have to witness it. But you’re there, in fact you’re the one he sees right before he closed his eyes. I watched you two grow up together depending on one another. Then seeing you living your life without him… maybe this is what human means by heartache. I feel something foreign in me whenever you cry and even more when you put that knife in your wrist, three times.

 

Jaehyun let go of his fingers to linger at Jungwoo’s scars.

 

“Jaehyun,” Jungwoo thinks it’s now or never , “can I kiss you?”

 

Jaehyun blinks two times before he closes the gap between their faces.

 

Jungwoo has forgotten what it feels like to be kissed, to feel . Jaehyun is not warm, but his touch still sends shivers to the human’s body. The kiss was innocent, but Jungwoo needs more. He deepens the kiss when he feels Jaehyun trying to let go, but the Grim Reaper stops him.

 

“Jungwoo,” he panted slightly, “It’s been a long day. Get rest.”

 

Then Jaehyun vanished into thin air.

 

***

 

He wakes up looking at Mark’s face from his last hockey match photo on the wall. Jungwoo smiles instantly. He will try to keep the crying minimal today because he can actually feel his throat hurting from too much crying the day before.

 

Mr. and Mrs. Lee had prepared him breakfast and Jungwoo wonders when was the last time he actually present, mind and body, when he eats. Jungwoo tells them about his life in the facility, they said they’re sorry and wanted to visit, but didn’t know what the younger’s reaction would be. It's okay, Jungwoo beams. He’s feeling much better now and apologetic for not coming here sooner.

 

They are still as nice as Jungwoo remembers. They convince Jungwoo that it’s okay if he still isn’t ready to visit Mark’s grave, but Jungwoo give them a sincere smile, “I miss Mark, too, Mr. Lee.” and with that, they drive to the cemetery together.

 

***

 

His father’s operation day comes in a blink and Jungwoo finds himself hugging his father a bit longer than necessary.

 

“It’s just a procedural operation, kid. I didn’t know you loved me that much,” his father pat his back as they hugged.

 

“I’m just worried,” Jungwoo mumbles, but let go of the hug anyway.

 

“Just promise to be there when I wake up from the sedative, okay?”

 

“You had to promise me that you would wake up, too.” there are tears in his eyes, but Jungwoo holds it in him.

 

“You’re such a worrier,” his father chuckles and then signaling the nurse that he’s ready to go into the operation room.

 

 

 

 

Jungwoo is not really a fan of hospitals, so he spent the hours walking around the hospital yard instead. Autumn is coming and he can feel the breeze in his face. He puts his hands in his jacket as he reaches the playing ground for kids, there’s laughter and everyone looks so happy even though some of them are in patient uniform. It hurts him a little, to see such little children dealing with illness.

 

He decided to sit on one of the benches nearby. It would be good if only he got a book with him, or companion. His mind wanders to a specific grim reaper and he instantly smiles.

 

A kid sits beside him and looks up at him, “Are you alone?”

 

Jungwoo nods.

 

“Are you lonely?”

 

Jungwoo thinks for a second before shaking his head.

 

“Fortunately, I’m not,”

“That’s good,” the kid fell silent beside him.

 

Jungwoo was about to talk to the kid again when he realized the kid had gone, he searched for her and found her running after a balloon, to the street.

 

No.

 

Jungwoo runs as fast as he can, he shouts so that people will get the kid before he does, but unfortunately all it does is people looking at him weird for yelling at nothing.

 

He doesn’t know her name so he can’t call her name and he curses at himself.

 

The girl is running towards her balloon and just before Jungwoo catches her to avoid the car that was on full speed, Jungwoo sees him.

 

Hair as dark as the night, skin as pale as the snow, and lips as red as the roses in his grandmother’s backyard.

 

He hears the screeching brake of a car and feels his body thrown over before his head thumb into the asphalt. He can feel the wetness in the back of his head and people screaming around him before unconsciousness takes him.

 

***

 

Jungwoo found himself at the side of the road. People hovering above his body and the little girl crying in his embrace. He hopes she’s okay.

 

“You are Kim Jung Woo, 24 years old, and you just died in an accident.”

 

There’s his grim reaper. Looking as grim as his nickname.

 

“Hi,”

 

“Hi,”

 

Jaehyun opens his arms and Jungwoo launches into his embrace. The hug oddly feels warm now so Jungwoo buries his head in Jaehyun’s neck as Jaehyun wraps his hands around them.

 

They stayed like that for several minutes, looking at how his body moved and brought to the hospital.

 

“You wanna come inside and check on your parents?”

 

“Would they be able to see me?”

 

Jaehyun shakes his head apologetically.

 

“Then, no.” Jungwoo sighs, “I told them I love them already. I don’t want to see them sad when they see my body.”

 

“Okay, then.” Jaehyun nods as he takes Jungwoo’s hand in his.

 

“Does this mean my father's operation is successful?”

 

Jaehyun let out a yeah and Jungwoo chuckles. He can’t believe himself.

 

“Why are you laughing?”

 

“I thought my dad’s gonna die,” he answers truthfully.

 

“I’m sorry,” Jaehyun offers an apology even though he has nothing to be sorry for.

 

“It’s okay, Jaehyun.” Jungwoo stops their walk, “you told me I couldn’t escape nor make death come faster. I guess I made my peace.”

 

Jungwoo’s smile is still so beautiful, it’s the kind of smile that would take your breath away. Except Jaehyun doesn’t exactly have to breathe.

 

“Thank you for telling me to do all those ‘I love you’ things to my parents. To help me forgive myself and for getting me out of my own darkness.”

 

Jaehyun was left speechless and Jungwoo only needed two steps to close their distance and plant a kiss into Jaehyun’s lips.

 

“I love  you,”

 

Jaehyun is smiling into the kiss before deepening it, "I love you too."