Kang Hyun-jo grew up normal.
Well, as normal as one could be as a middle child in a loud and boisterous family whose members considered it their bounden duty to have an opinion on everybody and everything under the sun and also foist their opinions on anyone who would care to listen, and to many who really didn't. Hyun-jo was the exception in that he tended to keep about fifty percent of his opinions private, and maybe allowed himself to cry more in public than any of them thought wise, but otherwise he fit right in. He didn't have as good an ear for music as his cellist mother, or his prodigiously talented younger brother who was the youngest member of the Seoul Philharmonic, but he did play bass guitar in the high school band and looked hot doing it, so that evened out rather neatly, in his opinion. (This was one of the private ones.)
He got his love for thrill sports and healthy respect for Nature (capital N) from his noona, whose passion in life from age seven was to scale K2. At twenty-three, she'd become the- you guessed it- youngest to scale the peak ever- a record that remained unbroken for thirteen years, until twenty-year-old Sajid Sadpara followed his father's footsteps to the summit in 2019.
By that year, of course, Kang Hyun-jo wasn't really constrained by things like the rules of the material world—but- we're getting ahead of the story—
So. There was nothing in his childhood or adolescence to indicate that he was marked in any way; no premonitions of disaster or destiny plagued his dreams. (There was a period of three weeks in high school when his dreams were very confusing, but noona caught him moping, got the entire story out of him, and had laughed, "Oh god is that all? I thought you'd gone and got yourself involved with some gangsters or something and I'd have to beat someone up!" She'd looked a little miffed about the fact that she wasn't going to get a chance to try out her right hook, Hyun-jo had thought, scowling at her, because as if. But then she explained the word bisexual to him, so that was ok.)
He grew up strong (thanks, noona!) and sensitive (thanks eomma and dongsaeng-nam!), and blissfully average in most things. This was a matter of great relief to his parents. Like all good parents, they loved all their children equally, but also sometimes admitted to each other that it would perhaps have been a tad easier if their eldest and youngest hadn’t chosen to be quite so brilliant. Hyun-jo was low maintenance- easy to love, and easier to raise, not asking for more than what they could give, and happy with whatever he did get. A sunshine child, his mother had always thought- born to love the world and be loved in return.
Hyun-jo's father was in the Navy, and the family got to see him about three months in a year- the three best months of the year- which became the three worst months after he was killed in a drunk-driving incident in the summer of 2015. He'd saved a little girl from the path of the careening vehicle, but there was nothing they could do for Kang daeryeong-nim, the doctors had informed the family in sober, but pragmatic tones. Brain death, a matter of time.
It had taken twenty hours.
Hyun-jo had felt every second of it.
Three months later, he'd gone and done the thing : enlisted in the service.
Seol-hee noona had called from Nepal to tell him exactly what she thought of his idea. It had taken her three hours and fifteen internet-service interruptions, but she'd got it all out, and then ended with, fuck it, just stay alive, ok?
("He promised he would", she'd tell Ranger Seo Yi-Kang three years later, "He fucking promised."
"He's trying to keep his promise," Ranger Seo had replied, wheeling her chair closer to the bed, and reaching out to adjust the blanket. "It's not yet time to give up."
She hadn't seen the look that Seol-hee gave her then, and perhaps that was for the best.)
Well, so, Hyun-jo was no longer unmarked by disaster, or grief, or guilt, but that was the human condition. Nobody escaped it and he was hardly above the average in this either. The world was full of the walking wounded; the earth had soaked up blood for epochs uncounted, and the sun rose and set on its creatures just the same.
Then the mountain came for him.
"PTSD", the military-assigned therapist had said, kindly, when he'd mentioned the dreams to her. "It's to be expected, after all that you've been through in such a short while. It's good that you're here to talk about it. So many people don't come in until it's almost too late to help."
And sure, that made sense. It definitely made more sense than the feeling that the low, deep rumble that had become the constant soundtrack to his life, was the shifting of tectonic plates. He should probably get his ears checked out as well, just in case.
(They're fine. There's nothing wrong with his ears, his eyes, his brain, or any other organ in his body. He's an incredibly healthy specimen of the species, in fact. "And handsome too," the radiologist-ahjumma had said, eyes twinkling. "Have some extra tteokbokki next time for me, ok?")
And alright, the extreme nausea when he went to the local park last weekend could legitimately be put down to that extra tteokbokki, probably, that ahjussi selling it had looked shady, it was true- it probably had nothing to do with heady sweet-almond scent in the air that only he could smell.
(It’s not meadowsweet season, and even if it were, a strip of local park in Seoul is not where it would bloom.)
"Perhaps it's time you considered a long leave of absence," said the therapist, and then, after a pause, delicately, "Mental health is given much more priority these days than before."
Right, he'd thought. Might as well parade around the barracks with CRAZY tattooed on, for life.
He'd turned in his stripes a week later.
And the dirt under his fingernails and the mossy-mulchy scent that he wakes up to these days? Nothing that better hygiene and maybe changing his detergent and scrubbing his washing machine clean, thrice, won't fix.
The dirt and scent disappear. It's more of a relief than he wants to admit.
The night he hears about the rope accident on the radio, he wakes up to a bed full of rotting leaves, and palms reddened and smarting, as though from rope-burn.
"Ooooh," says his brother, over crab-and-makgeolli that weekend, "You're being haunted."
"What? No! What the hell, Sung-ho-ya!"
"Of course you are," says his brother. "Is there any other explanation that fits all the facts?"
"I'm not "seeing dead people"," Hyun-jo replies, rolling his eyes.
"Not by people, hyung."
He leans forward, closer, and whispers.
"By the mountain."
The problem with his brother's ridiculous theory is that it actually fits.
But he didn't spend five entire years in Mrs. Kim's science class for nothing.
He decides to put it to test- he goes to the mountain.
The first thing he notices, as he pulls into the visitor parking, is that the low-key headache that's been plaguing him for what feels like months now disappears instantly.
Fresh air, he thinks, rubbing at his eyes, maybe that's what he'd needed after all. Just lungful's of clean, crisp mountain air, the chitter of the insects in the underbrush, the mating calls of woodpeckers, the rustle of the leaves in the breeze, and the thundering of water somewhere carried clear over the blessed, blessed silence—
He never gets out of the car.
"You're doing what?!"
"I've passed the test, and I've been assigned to the ranger station at Jirisan."
"Straight into the lion's mouth," his brother crows. "Way to go, hyung!"
They're huddled together at a crowded bar near his apartment, a small two-bedroom affair in their old childhood stomping grounds. He'd moved back here after quitting the service. Noona's three bottles of soju down, so he'd thought this was the right time to apprise her of his new career. He'd misjudged the moment- which happened sometimes, despite a lifetime.
The combined- and conflicting- opinions of his siblings carry them through closing time. Park Gi-hoon-nim, who'd converted his little diner that they'd had their first bottles of soju ever at into a posh-ish bar in the time they'd left to grow beards and boobs and no brain-cells between them, comes around to kick them out. "That's it, get the hell out of my bar you punks! And don't come back!"
"You love us ahjussi! We know you do!" Sung-ho whines and Seol-hee makes a finger-heart sign at him.
The door slams shut in their faces.
They set off homeward, Seol-hee with an arm slung around Sung-ho 's shoulder as he whistle-hums Beethoven's fifth flawlessly, the two of them drunk-weaving their way home ahead of him.
Somewhere beyond the city's blinding lights and dirty-brown smog are the stars, Hyun-jo thinks, staring up into the sky, dizzy with something more than alcohol. Balls of gas suspended in space by the same force that tethered Hyun-jo's feet to the cement sidewalk in this moment; indecipherable until someone had found the language for it.
"Hey!" his sister yells, "You gonna sleep on the street tonight, you lunatic? Palli, palli, you mongoose!"
All love was translation.
His siblings have almost disappeared from sight, swallowed up by the night.
"Hey," he calls back, "Wait for me!"