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The small beach town near Jangmi Crossing station was sandwiched between an ocean and a colorful community that thrived on luxuries like parades and family-friendly events. That town, Rose Wind, was always active, life thrumming beneath the ground and the air ever-heavy with the kind of electricity that shocked excitement into day-to-day monotonies. Only an hour away; closer to the beach town with the ocean that never slept; and within only a few months’ time, a newly sixteen-year-old boy’s life would be forever changed in the Rose Wind town he has yet to know.

 

dizzy in a good way

Jimin’s sixteenth year begins as any other day of his life — with the faint sound of crashing waves trickling in through his bedroom window. He’s sixteen and he feels different. Not sixteen, not quite. But different and in the haze of the early morning, he supposes ‘different’ is, at the very least, something. 

He turns onto his side, tucking a hand between his wrinkled pillow and the curve of his cheek. On his fingertips, he can feel, faintly, the rhythm of his heartbeat. On his cheek, the warmth. He’s alive and, as he thought the night before and the morning before that, he’s unsure whether that feels him with relief or not. 

He looks out of the window, slowly blinking the slumber away from his eyes and putting his surroundings into focus. The window, left slightly cracked open from the night before —  a habit of his that has always been the subject of mild contention between himself and his mother Seowoo (she vehemently insists that it’s bad luck to leave it open over night) — offers a small view of the early morning sky. He watches, with a thumb pressed against his bottom lip, long enough to take in the colors beginning to bleed through the black abyss. One long streak of dark purple — that will soon fade into pink and then peach and then yellow until the sky is bright blue — is all the motivation he needs to start moving. 

He starts with his toes, wiggling each one. Then his ankles, rotating them slowly. He lingers in bed only for as long as it takes for a wave crest to collapse once, his ears trained to the sound. Every time his mother brings up the open window, he’ll tell her that he needs it open. Otherwise, he can’t hear the ocean. She’ll then tell him that it’s impossible for him to hear it. Their house was close to the beach, closer than most houses were, but there was still a brisk walk needed to get from their front door to the shoreline. But he knows he can hear it, the waves rising and falling, because he can always tell when he can’t. 

Standing, he shakes his limbs awake. He dresses in a rush, pulling on a discarded green hoodie that had been left on the floor the evening prior when he’d been in a rush to go to sleep just so he could wake up and be sixteen. He offers one parting look toward the window and, upon seeing the approach of pink dust, he barrels from the room. With his feet thundering down the steps so loudly, he can barely register his mother’s voice calling from the other side. As he passes through the rest of the house, he can only make out two of her words—

“Shoes, Jimin!”

— before he’s out the front door. Barefoot.

His soles belt against the pavement as he runs along their little enclave, a row of five houses that look more like concrete boxes than  residential structures. Stamping on the asphalt would be painful to anyone else but Jimin has been running this path on his bare feet since he was six years old. The coarseness of the ground no longer bothers him. He isn’t sure if it ever did. 

The chills of autumn kiss against his face and he smiles, imagining that it’s the wind’s way of greeting him. None of the neighbors are awake to greet him when it’s this early. When he runs to the beach in the afternoon, he’ll often be waved to by the likes of Mrs. Gye or Mrs. Tan who each have a small house on either side of his. Mrs. Gye specializes in putting her nose into everyone’s business regardless of whether their business is even interesting to begin with. On the other hand, Mrs. Tan kept to herself. Her children who were all grown, each of them married off and with children of their own, had tried on multiple occasions to transfer her to an elderly home but each time they made an effort to separate her from the house, she would scream at the top of her lungs. The first time Jimin heard her scream so horrifically and, somewhat, comically, he’d been frightened. But he’s grown to love her for how much she loves her independence. If she was awake now, she would invite Jimin inside and offer him treats or books or talk about her life. Maybe she will later today.

It would be too much to call either Mrs. Gye or Mrs. Tan their neighbors as the distance between their houses is great enough to warrant a short bike ride to go from door to door. It may also be too much to call their little faction a neighborhood — this strip of land in particular only consists of five houses — but they were still a community.

The set of five houses had been built in the mid-2000s by an architecture aiming for “tasteful minimalism.” The houses looked like great white — off-white if Yerim were to describe it — boxes. They were made from stone, each window a perfect square and each door slightly going in where it should have protruded. The house Jimin lived in had two levels to it — two off-white boxes, the one on top just slightly smaller than the one below it. From the outside, his bedroom stood out as it was the only window shaped like a pentagon and, through it, the only room with a slanted roof. He referred to his bedroom as an attic bedroom although it wasn’t as there was plenty of space but Jimin liked to call it that. The idea of living in a place not meant to be lived in made him feel mysterious and special.

As he passes each house, he looks around for Yon the neighborhood cat, hoping to find her hiding in someone’s yard or sleeping in Mrs. Gye’s rose garden. Yon was a Turkish Angora with one brown eye, one green and a stare that penetrated. She belonged to no one and, for that reason, she belonged to them all. She had arrived to the neighborhood when Jimin was twelve, coming from nowhere. As far as anyone knew, Yon had no owner and no home, a stray who got more than her fill on the food left out for her on the front porch of each house. For that, she made a habit of frequently making rounds through the neighborhood, picking up what had been left out for her and going on her way. But it had been a week since anyone had seen her. 

They considered putting up Missing Cat posters but the idea was put on hold. Although, Yon was never much of a wanderer, she excelled at the art of disappearing and reappearing at random. It was okay, Jimin convinced himself. He’d wanted to hold her for a little while on his birthday but it would have to wait. He still had the beach after all.

Though tourist websites refer to their small neighborhood as being a beachside one, the truth was that the actual shore of the beach was a fair ten minute walk away. There were, in fact, a few houses actually sat on the beachside and not near it, just above the shore where the ocean was merely a few steps away. When he was younger, Jimin often dreamed of living in one of those houses, of getting to be so close to the sand and of being able to see the sun rise above the ocean from his bedroom window.

He once asked his mother Seowoo why they didn’t live in one of those houses closer to the beach. She told him when he had 500 million won to spare, they could move in to one of them right away. It had been frustrating then but now he’s come to enjoy the placement of their house because it gives him The Run. In these moments, he thinks of nothing but the feel of the pavement, of how it turns into sand and how the ocean gets louder and closer until he can taste the salt on his every inhale.

The Run never takes long. He’s down the sandy steps and standing on the shore in no time. He likes to get as close to the water as he can, for the ocean foam to kiss his toes and recede. It felt playful to him. The wind is colder and the breeze more aggressive closer to the shore, it pushes him back just a little. The sky is still pink and purple when he sits down, legs crossed and waiting for the sun. Whenever he sat on the beach, whenever he sat under the sky, while it brightened or darkened, he felt all the other things in life that ever worried him whither away. In the presence of a star, be it the sun or a red dwarf, he felt safe.

Against the wind, he murmurs to himself: “The sun whose rays were all ablaze in ever-living glory. The sun whose rays…”

Time he spent under the sky, getting to know it in all its forms, was time frequently spent and, in his opinion, well spent. He liked going out early to watch the sun rise, going out late to watch it fall and then, after it was gone, sneaking up to the roof to admire its stars. 

Not long after streaks of orange join the pink and purple, he feels something shroud his shoulders. He doesn’t tear his eyes away from the horizon but he has no need to. He knows it’s Yerim even before she sits next to him.

“Start bundling up when you come out here,” she says quietly next to him, their knees brushing. “You know you’ll catch a cold otherwise.”

Not a matter of ‘if,’ only ‘when.’

“Okay,” Jimin says, but he’s barely listening. 

Together, they watch the sun go up and up together and, only after it’s high enough for the purples and the pinks and the oranges to have faded, do they look at each other. Yerim’s hair is tied back in a low ponytail, wisps of stout black framing her long face and blowing back in the breeze. Her small eyes crinkle when she smiles at him. She tugs him toward her by the back of his neck and plants a kiss on the top of his head as he nestles into her side. 

“Happy birthday,” she murmurs to him.

Jimin cozies up to her and looks back at the horizon. The water is still quiet, the waves yet to awaken. “Thanks.”

In the presence of anyone outside of their home, Yerim is his ‘aunt.’ In public, he refers to her as such and, whenever the two of them are out together, be it at the fish market or out on the town, whenever anyone asks her if Jimin is her son, she says no. These are answers reserved only for those whose sensibilities would be offended by the truth. The truth in question being that Yerim is closer to his mother than an aunt and always has been. Jimin calls her his aunt because it had been explained to him a long time ago that if it should sound like his mother has been living with her sister or her close friend for all of these years and not, for factual instance, her girlfriend of twenty-three years then no one can find fault with it. 

He could never tell anyone this fact about his family and it was hard for him. He knew it was hard for Yerim, too. She accepted the titular role of being the adoring Auntie but both Jimin and his mother knew that she wanted to be part of the family in a way that everyone around them knew. She had spent hours up with Jimin when he was still a newborn and cried all hours of the night and early morning. She held both his hands when he took his first wobbly steps and she guided him through the perils of school life. She loved him as a son and, although they were not biologically related, Jimin loved her as a mother, too. She was his mother. Even if no one else could know.

Turning her chin so it’s sitting on the top of his head, she tugs him closer. “Ready to leave? Mom has a spread for you.”

Jimin smiles, thinking of the feast. “Yeah, alright.”

They stand and against the shore toward to their house, hand in hand. Before they get to their row, a teenaged girl runs by them wearing her school uniform, clipping her backpack shut and throwing it over one shoulder. Jimin pauses, toes curling in the sand, to watch her frame disappear down the road where he knows the school bus is waiting. Yerim’s hand on his shoulder is gentle and comforting as she softly pushes him to walk again.

He barely gets a single toe past the threshold of the front door when Seowoo shadows in front of him, pulls him toward her and boxes him in between her thick arms. She holds him tight and he, breathless, laughs somewhat but the sound gets buried in the material of her gray housedress. Her hugs always felt like death in a good way. Tight enough for it to feel constricting but with so much warmth that he never wants her to let go. Their embrace is cut short when she separates suddenly, her eyes shooting down to his bare feet and the white beads of sand still clinging between his toes. 

“Is there something wrong with your shoes?” She asks in a teasing voice, her cheeks rounding as her smile widens. Despite the tone of her voice, her expression is sweet and identical to Jimin’s. 

Seowoo was Jimin’s biological mother and she never got asked whether or not Jimin was her son whenever they went out in public. Jimin took so much after her that their relation was obvious. All three of them had rich a crown of black hair adorning their heads but Yerim’s was inkier than theirs and with a slightly different texture. Where Jimin and Seowoo’s hair was almost stubbornly straight, Yerim’s curled at the ends and frizzed easily under humidity. 

Jimin pretends to be confused. He’s quizzical and innocent when he answers, “No, why?”

Somehow smiling and scowling, Seowoo pushes against the side of his head and instructs him, in a soft but unmistakably firm voice, to wash up and come down as quickly as possible. After he goes upstairs, showers and dresses in clothes retrieved from his dresser and not from the corner of the bedroom floor, he returns to his room to look out of the window. His eyes trail over the path the girl in the school uniform had taken and, thinking of it, he feels a slight pang in his chest.

 

 

Their dining room table is barely visible under the array of various plates and bowls and platters, all topped with mouth-watering dishes. Kaktugi, yang baechu, galbi, gyeranmari, and, of course, miyeok guk all greet Jimin when he enters the room. As soon as he does, both Yerim and Seowoo start to sing to him. He gets kisses on top of his head from Yerim and a pinch on the cheek from Seowoo. It was normal for him to be showered in affection from them both. Long ago, his mother had told him that she spoiled him. That’s what her parents had thought when he was younger, what his father — who he barely knows — told her. And although she knew they were right in some ways, she thought if spoiling meant showering him in affection so that he never for a second doubted how loved he was then she would gladly continue to spoil him to death. 

He understood the depth of his fortune. Before leaving public school, he knew his relationship with his parents was different from his classmates. None of their parents understood them, asked them what they wanted or how they felt about anything. Jimin had always felt he could come to his mothers with anything and he knows it’s unlikely that he would feel that way if, for instance, his mother decided he didn’t need to know how much she loved him.

“I can’t eat all of this,” Jimin says when they’re done singing but he doesn’t mean it. He’s already picking up a roll of gyeranmari and shoving it into his mouth. It’s still hot when it hits his tongue but it tastes amazing so he doesn’t slow down. 

“You don’t seem to be having a problem,” Seowoo jokes. “Eat well and eat a lot. You’ll need your energy for today.”

“Why, what’s happening?”

“We don’t know,” Yerim answers, starting to partake in the food. “It’s your day. What are you doing?”

Jimin’s chewing slows. “…School?”

Seowoo smiles at Yerim from her side of the table. 

Jimin appreciated that his parents had a good way of communicating. He’s read books and seen movies about families who speak only in sharp volumes and profanity. Still, he finds it kind of annoying when his parents look at each other and have entire conversations just on the weight of their gaze. He looks between them, having given up trying to interpret.

“I don’t know,” Yerim says soon after, smiling as she turns to Jimin, “we think you deserve some time off. Classes are suspended for the day.”

Since he left the public school system, Yerim had started to home school him. She knew enough to do so and she had, long before Jimin was born, studied education in New Zealand. There was a lot of fuss about it. Homeschooling wasn’t exactly deemed illegal but, at the same time, to do so was severely frowned upon. But when the argument of ‘No one does this’ was brought up to either Seowoo or Yerim, they would meet it with, ‘There’s nothing wrong with being the first.’ He thought being taught at home would mean things would be easy going, but Yerim worked him hard and they never took a day off. It was worth it because he learned more from her in the year he’d been homeschooled than he ever had in a real classroom.

He looks between them again. “Really?”

“Really.”

“Besides,” Seowoo begins. Her smile has faded and she’s looking down at her bowl of rice, half at the grains and half not. “We won’t have a lot of time to be with you today. I have to go into work and there’s supposed to be a rush at the market today. At least,” Seowoo stops, half gesturing to Yerim who finishes her sentence.

“At least, according to Mrs. Cha. She swears she can predict the customers’ way of thinking and, you know, she’s never been wrong.”

“I can help,” Jimin says. “I’m always there.”

Like the beach front and the rooftop, beneath the stars, the outdoor market was a place that Jimin frequented so often that he could dream each and every detail to a T if he wanted. For years, Yerim sold fresh fish by at the market, something she only started after her sister, who ran the stand first, passed away suddenly. Yerim never spoke of it and neither Seowoo nor Jimin understood her willingness to sell fish in the hot sun during the summer and through the bitter winters, but what they did understand was that it was something she needed. It was a way of grieving and then a way of remembering. 

Jimin never met Yerim’s sister. His actual aunt. But since helping Yerim with the market so often, he felt that, from beyond the grave, she’d taught him something worthwhile. 

“That’s exactly why you’re not coming,” Yerim tilts her haed. “Do you really want to spend your birthday helping me gut fish? Try to lie, I’ll be able to tell if you do.”

Seowoo nods. “You know it’s true. You can get things past me but…”

Jimin folds. He never liked gutting fish, not particularly. But he liked working close with Yerim and he liked meeting new people. “…I guess not. But what am I supposed to do?”

He almost lists off all the things that would prevent him from having a good time. How he doesn’t like to be alone and how he doesn’t have any friends and how, if he did have friends, they would most likely be in school because they weren’t forced to drop out. 

But he quiets himself by eating another roll.

“Whatever you want,” Yerim says. “That’s the point.”

“When I turned sixteen, I went out and got drinks with friends,” Seowoo adds unhelpfully.

“…but you were living in Paris.”

“So?”

“So, it was legal. What am I supposed to do? Here? Alone?”

“You can have lots of fun on your own, okay? It’s not impossible.”

Jimin holds back a scoff. “I’d rather gut fish.”

“Well, too bad. It’s final. You’re going to go out and have fun and you’re going to like it.”

He manages to hold back a laugh for all of three seconds before he’s lost, sputtering on chewed food and green tea. Yerim laughs, too. “You’re the only person in the world who can make a good thing sound like a threat.”

Breakfast ends with another song. 

Since Seowoo has to get ready for the office and Yerim has to pack up supplies for the shop, Jimin insists on clearing the table. He washes the dishes and dries them and puts them away, all done very meticulously. Afterward, he prepares for himself another cup of tea and then, while waiting for it to brew, he trails toward the foyer where he sees the equipment sat by the door. The handmade chalk signs that he wrote to advertise their products. “Fresh Mackerel,” his elegant handwriting declares in green chalk, “Mollusks & More,” it declares in red. The canopy and the foldable tables and the cash box. He’s already frowning by the time Yerim re-enters the room, now holding tablecloths in one hand and one weight for the tent in the other. 

“Can you even put this all together by yourself?” He asks earnestly. “I don’t mind coming.”

“Jimin, sweetie, I’ve been doing this since before you were born.”

“No, you haven’t.”

“I still think I can manage. If it gets too hard for any reason, I’ll have plenty of help. I’m not the only one out there.”

“I know, but…what about if you need change, if you run out, who’s going to get it?”

“I won’t run out,” she says. “But if I do, I’ll put up one of your ‘No Cash’ signs.”

“…But—?”

“It’s your birthday. I want you to do something for yourself.”

“I don’t want to be alone though,” he mutters.

He feels her cross the room and then her hand as it takes space against his chin, her hand pushing so his gaze is lifted from the floor. “Hey,” she says. “We’ll watch a movie tonight, all three of us, okay?”

“Alright.”

“Have fun today. Think of it as an adventure, your very own. Go into the city, drink more coffee than you can handle, just do something that’s yours. That’s our gift to you.”

Jimin sits with that for a while. “Okay.”

“But not too much fun,” she backpedals and the action alone yields a genuine laugh from them both.

 

It takes until the clock strikes ten o’clock for Jimin to decide if he’s going to go out at all, the time should be now. There’s a chance his thinking is irrational but whenever he leaves the house after 11, he grows fearful, certain that he’ll risk running into any of his peers or kids he knew from school. It felt safer, whether it was an illusion or not, to leave home earlier just in case. He grabs his old, out of date student ID card, his bus pass and some cash for food before leaving the house. With shoes on. 

He strolls around the beach area, not entering it, before walking to the nearest bus station. Their side of town is quiet and parts of it, especially during the autumn when the summer visitors have returned home, feel completely deserted. But it’s not the kind of silence that makes Jimin anxious as was the quiet that lived on his grandparents’ side of town. It wasn’t the kind of silence he felt either in school corridors when it seemed like the quiet was only a precursor to all shades and degrees of brutality. 

The wind blows his hair back and beats against his clothes and he welcomes it. There were stories he’d been told about what he was like when was younger, how attached he’d grow to nature. He loved playing in the dirt, cried if he stepped on a flower or a bug and seemed happiest when he didn’t have to adhere to boundaries; when the sky was above him, the grass beneath him and no walls was in sight. Not a lot has changed since then. Wind, ocean, sun, he only needs those three things and he’ll never want for anything else.

When the bus arrives, he grabs a seat in the very back and looks out of the window. As the ocean town fades into a more industrial view with cinderblock buildings, he begins to feel wary. He considers staying on the bus until the driver loops around and he ends up back home but he forces the thought away. He was sixteen now. While it didn’t mean much — he couldn’t drink or vote or be considered, in any way, an adult — it did mean he was older. And being older called for less fear in the face of innocuous things. 

Soon, the bus stops and, from there, he gets on the train. He realizes when he boards the train designated for the downtown area that he has no idea where he’s going or what he’s doing.The thing was there wasn’t anything in particular he wanted to do. He admired cities for their landscape and for their bustle; there was always so much life in a city that, to him, the heartbeats of every single person walking the street beat beneath the pavement. Life loomed large. However, cities also bored him. There were restaurants he could never afford; night clubs he wasn’t old enough to get into; shopping centers he didn’t have the money for; and museums he didn’t have the patience for. All of those things were great to have and easy ways to kill time but they were closed off to Jimin and, when they weren’t, they bored him. He was more interested in getting swept under a great wave than going up an escalator to look at things he would never get.

For that reason, when he boards the train, he stands in front of the map and looks at the list of places this train will take him. There are, in total, eighteen stops. Eighteen different places. Eighteen opportunities for a self-made adventure. The station he’s in now, Jangmi Crossing, is the end of the line on the northern side. So, he trails his finger from the top, stopping briefly at each stop after Jangmi. Nancho Station, Haebaragi, Jebikkot —

He stops for a second when his finger lands on Raimi. The name stood out as it was the only station so far that wasn’t named after a flower. He’d heard a lot of things about the Raimi District, mostly from antagonizers in school, but he’d never been there. He knew enough to know that it was one of the few districts in the area that a gay couple could, for instance, walk down the street together hand in hand and not be ridiculed. Because they would be one of a hundred gay couples walking down the street in the same fashion. The idea occurs to him that he could visit to see what it’s like but it quickly vanishes because he thinks — What if?

What if someone from his old school saw him there and the torment reignited? What if it caused trouble for his parents later? They wouldn’t care, of course not, but someone would. He remembers how, at one point in time, his life wasn’t almost completely different. Seowoo’s ex in-laws doubted her parenting skills and tried to take Jimin away when he was just eight years old. Their attempt, though unsuccessful, was scarring. Just because he was sixteen now that didn’t mean things couldn’t change for the worst before he comes of age. 

His finger slips beyond Raimi. 

It isn’t worth the risk.

The train doors close and he panics inwardly, bringing his thumb to his bottom lip and reading the map. For most of these places, there was no visual in mind. He’d only ever been to Nancho and Jebikkot, has only seen those areas for his own eyes. As such he knows, for sure, that he won’t get off at either of those two stations. An adventure, Yerim had said. An adventure called for not knowing. Ppongnamu is the name he comes across next, right below Raimi.

“Mulberry tree,” he murmurs to himself. “Mulberry tree…”

He trails a finger up again. 

“Harbaragi,” and then back down, far below Ppongnamu. “Deonggul Station.”

He closes his eyes and removes his hand from the map, pulling it back. After a moment, he waves his fingers one by one, extends his pointer finger and jabs it onto the map again. Slowly, he opens his eyes to find his finger sitting between Raimi and Ppongnamu.

“Mulberry, it is.”

Once his decision is made, he sits down finally and looks out of the window, away from the few people staring in his direction. He’s been told before that it’s strange for someone to talk to themselves so openly, especially in public. However, try as he might, it can’t be helped. He switches between the window and the palms of his hand while he waits to arrive to Ppongnamu Station. Although, he’s gotten used to ignoring the stares whenever he does something strange, it doesn’t make it any easier to be under anyone’s scrutiny.

It takes fifteen minutes to get to the station and he’s standing in front of the double doors as soon as the train stops. As soon as they open, he’s out onto the platform and walking with purpose as if he has any idea where the exit is. It’s for the sake of his dignity, walking with his head held high although he feels smaller than an ant. He stops, waiting until the other passengers filter from the area and until the train departs, and then he looks for the exit. When he finds it, he gets on the escalator and texts a quick message to both Seowoo and Yerim to let them know where he is, a habit he formed not so much out of responsibility but out of fear.

Out from the station, he continues without a destination, merely wandering along the sidewalk and appreciating his new surroundings. Ppongnamu isn’t a metropolitan area full of skyscrapers and busy-bodies. In fact, it seems quaint and more residential than anything. The first building Jimin sees that isn’t a home is a public library. Then a school. Then another neighborhood. He wishes that along with the map of each place, there’d been a little blurb explaining what each place had to offer beyond its station. He hooks his fingers under the straps of his backpack and walks until his feet hurt. He’s about to forget the whole thing and walk back to the station to go home when he sees a building with intricate designs and sharp edges. The structure is tall with many columns and a succession of arches with silver-gold painted on each curve. 

Jimin stares in mild awe, beginning to smile. He realizes, as his feet carry him closer, that the building he’s approaching is a church and he stops in his tracks. 

Religion wasn’t something he was ever against but neither was it something he understood enough to have any opinion on it at all. He hadn’t been raised with Sunday services. He was never even baptized. Both of his mothers seemed to have more of an agnostic view on the whole song and dance of it. Not staunchly opposed to anything but, at the same time, not quite believing in anything either. 

God wasn’t a dirty word. Neither was church. But each of them felt wrong coming off of his tongue. His parents didn’t go lengths to vilify it or anything but it seemed to him that every time he heard about religion, it was in relation to someone — anyone — taking their beliefs to a dangerous extreme. The first exposure he’d had to it was when his parents sat him down to explain why he had to refer to Yerim as his aunt in public circles. They’d given him an example of the type of people who would be against Yerim being anything other than that. Perhaps, that’s what’s behind his hesitance now.

He takes one more step forward before he stops again, suddenly thinking of school and of aggression. He thinks of people staring on the train and tiny rocks thrown at the back of his head. He thinks of being unwelcome. And he takes one step back. 

The building is beautiful. A silver-gold hue that gleams under the sun, it calls to him. But buildings are more than what they look like on the outside. They are also the people who inhabit them. 

Then again, this was an adventure, right?

After a while, he sighs and takes another step back. He appraises the beauty of the church one last time before taking one more step backward and turning on his heel to return to the station. He can’t move farther though because someone is standing behind him. It’s only at that moment, just before he lifts his eyes, that he realizes how the warmth of the sun hadn’t been sitting on the back of his neck for a while.

His gaze first falls on a complexion that he can only describe as being a shimmering gold, then toward a set protruding collar bones. His eyes go toward a slender neck, to a pointed chin, to pink lips struggling to hold back a grin and then toward big brown eyes exuding so much warmth that Jimin wonders if he really ever needed the sun to begin with. He feels his heart catch in his throat and his mouth go dry. 

But he can’t say anything.

“Sorry.” The stranger, a boy the same age as him, unleashes a smile that breaks out into full bloom, rectangular and bright. “I didn’t mean to scare you,” he says.

The first thing Jimin realizes is that the stranger is talking to him and the second is that the stranger is looking at him. The third is that the stranger is perhaps the most beautiful person he’s ever seen the same age as him. Slowly, the words register in Jimin’s mind and he begins to shake his head.

“You didn’t,” he finally say.

“Oh,” the boy’s eyebrows raise briefly and then fall. “That’s a relief.”

Jimin says nothing. 

They stand in front of each other for a few more seconds, the silence prolonged and somewhat awkward but, oddly, easy. It’s not suffocating and neither of them feel as if they really have to say anything at all. That doesn’t stop them from watching either, the Golden Boy with a fond smile and Jimin feeling starstruck. By what, he doesn’t know.

“So,” the boy says after a while, “are you going in?”

Jimin finally looks away, turning back to look at the building. He looks back. “It’s really pretty. But I don’t think I will.”

“Ah. I guess I can’t blame you. God’s an acquired taste, I hear.”

Jimin laughs a little. “I guess so.”

“How old are you?”

“Why?”

“Because you look like you should be in school.”

Jimin scoffs. “You look like you should be in school.”

“I should. Should.”

“Then, why aren’t you?”

The boy shakes his head, still smirking a little. “No, I asked you first.”

“…Because,” Jimin says before pausing. 

He considers telling the truth but the truth is weighted in so many other things. He could certainly tell Golden Boy that he’d gone to public school for some time, that he had to stop going, that he caused a ruckus for being one of the few kids in his district homeschooled, that today was his birthday, that his mother told him to make an adventure of his own and the best he could come up with, apparently, was going to a church. He could tell him all of that because they would likely never see each other again. Or…he could tell him something else because, after all, they would likely never see each other again. Could this be an adventure?

“Because I skipped,” he answers finally.

Golden Boy narrows his eyes, expression skeptical. “You did?”

“Yes. I could skip if I wanted to. So?”

“So.”

“Why aren’t you in school?”

“Oh,” he nods his head toward the church. “I am. It’s here.”

Jimin turns on his heel and looks at the building again. Golden Boy takes the opportunity to take a few steps forward until they’re standing shoulder to shoulder, both eyeing the arches and columns. 

“I don’t believe you,” Jimin says.

“I don’t believe you.”

“Why not?”

“Because you look too nice to skip school. And your little dance there? Going back and forth? Someone who skipped school wouldn’t be that indecisive.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I don’t,” the boy says easily, “but I’m onto something, aren’t I?”

The boy keeps his hands in his pockets when he uses his elbow to jut against Jimin’s arm. The gesture is the only goodbye Jimin is given because then, without another word, the boy is walking ahead to go inside. The words are up Jimin’s throat and out from his mouth before he can stop to consider why he’s bothering.

“It’s my birthday,” he says. “That’s why.”

Golden Boy turns around halfway. He smiles again. “That, I believe. Happy birthday.”

Though the window of opportunity for Jimin to say ‘Thank you’ is opened long enough, his mouth only begins to working after the window and the door to the church have closed. To himself, he murmurs the two words and lingers a little while longer for a response he knows he won’t get. 

He turns on his heel again, prepared to walk away, when he hears the church doors open again.

“Psst.”

He turns around. Golden Boy is approaching him, stopping a few feet away. He removes a hand from his pants pocket to point down the road. “If you walk that way for about five minutes, there’s a bakery. The owner’s name is Dongik. Tell him it’s your birthday and that Mr. Kim sent you. He’ll give you something for free.”

Jimin stares. Whatever levity he had been feeling before starts to dissipate little by little. He turns his head to glance down the road, suddenly reminded of being told similar things by similar boys. He thinks of them smiling and of himself believing their words and walking into a trap.

When he looks back, the Golden Boy is watching him with concern. Jimin swallows hard. “You’re not just telling me that, are you?”

He notices for the first time the boy’s thick eyebrows, dark and angular. Only one of them rises this time. “No. Why would I?”

“…I don’t know.”

The boy looks from Jimin to down the road and then back to the church. He puts both his hands in his pocket again and clicks his tongue three times fast, thinking. 

“Come with me,” he says. “I’ll show you.”

Part of Jimin thinks this boy, this boy unlike any boy he’s ever seen before, is too beautiful and his eyes too kind for him to be playing a cruel trick. But Jimin also knows he’s thought the same thing before about different boys and different girls…and even different teachers. 

“I don’t think I should,” Jimin says. Maybe he shouldn’t have left home.

“Oh. Okay,” the boy removes one hand from his pocket again, this time to smooth down his dark brown hair. He holds his hand on top of his hand for a long moment. Then he removes it, puts his hand back into his pocket and starts walking down the entrance towards Jimin. “What flavors do you like?”

“Sorry?”

“Flavors, you have to have a favorite,” he says, his voice lowering the closer he gets. Jimin is at a loss for words until the boy gets close enough to graze his shoulder but he doesn’t stop. 

“Um…green tea,” Jimin answers, having to turn back as the boy continues down the road.

“You like cakes?” The boy asks, turning back too but still walking away. He’s smiling as if he’s known Jimin his entire life.

“Yeah. Sure.”

“Wait for me here? I’ll be right back.”

Jimin doesn’t even register the words before he’s nodding. It isn’t until the stranger is out of his sight that he realizes how strange the situation is. He looks behind him again at the grand church. A wise decision at this point would be to leave. But he settles down on the curbside, tucking his knees to his chest and lifting the hem of his sweater to tug it down over his legs.

It’s about ten minutes before he hears footsteps returning to him. Seeing the Golden Boy again, approaching him with one smile and one nokcha match cake wrapped in plastic. The boy stops in front of him, lowering the cake down with his palm open. With a hesitant hand, Jimin reaches up to take the cake from him. The tips of his fingers touch briefly on the inside of the boy’s wrist. 

“Now, if you don’t mind,” the boy says teasingly, “I have to get back to class. It was nice meeting you but I have to say…maybe you’re a bad influence.”

And then he’s gone. It’s only after Jimin has returned to the station and gotten on the train, all done in a pink daze, that he remembers to say thank you. 

 

The cake is sweet and spongey, perfect in every way. 

He eats it after he returns home, once he’s on top of the roof with a blanket and a book to keep him company until the show starts, the show being when the sky changes colors once again. First, he didn’t want to eat the cake at all but his mouth was watering and he wanted know if the memory would be a sweet one. 

And it was.

He used to hear stories of people who didn’t understand their sexuality until they were much older, who didn’t realize how deep their affinity to ran for whoever they were interested in until after they’d already believed such thinking was horrendous. Seowoo was keen on getting him to read a lot on the topic, on telling him as many stories as she could. She herself grew up in Korea but had moved to Canada at the age of thirteen. Having her own gay coming-of-age tales on growing up a Korean immigrant in Canada during the ‘80s and ‘90s meant that she scarcely ran out of stories to tell him. Whenever she told a story, there was one thing she was always insistent about.

“Never,” she would say, “allow anyone to make you feel inferior for being who you are.”

Be it about race, about sexuality, or even about his predilection for walking around barefoot. No one could or should make him feel small. 

Partly because of the stories she shared and her open-mindedness toward everything, Jimin felt he had no choice but to know who he was at an early age and to embrace it. When he sits and thinks on it now, he can trace his first ‘realization’ back to the age of five. There was a boy his age he used to love playing with and who he, apparently, on many occasions, referred to as his husband when speaking to his mothers. 

He knew who he was and he had no doubts about it.

The only time that ever proved to be difficult was when he enrolled in high school. He understood then that there was a difference in behaviors between home and school. At home, he could be himself. Yerim could be his mother, just as Seowoo was. At home, he could mumble to himself and talk with his hands and didn’t have to give it a second thought. He understood that, at school, he had to act differently. For about a month or two, he’d done a good job of it, too. He isn’t sure when or how he gave it away, how the others found out about him.

All he knows is that he’d gone from being part of the crowd to being, at worst, targeted by it and, at best, isolated from it. However, not even the after school and in-school and between lecture beatings could change him. So, he knew, as he left the church and returned to the station to go back home, that the way his chest was thumping so profusely was all due to a boy whose skin glittered with gold.

When he’s done with his cake, he lies down on the roof and folds himself into the blanket, one side of it under him and the other thrown over his chest. The show is beginning to start. Pinks and violets and oranges colliding into one. The first day of Jimin’s sixteenth year began as any other day in his life but by the end he could tell that this year wouldn’t be the same as any of the ones before it.

 

It’s Yerim who finds him when she returns home from the market. As she gets out of the car, before her right leg can join her left, she spots Jimin’s feet dangling from the top of the house. Each time she sees him lying on the roof, she wants to scream for him to stop. But she fears that if she were to call up to him beyond a reasonable volume, he would startle and fall from it. There was no use in arguing with him. He loved being on top of the roof almost as much as he loved sitting on the beach.

“Jimin,” she sighs, keeping her voice soft. “Get down from there.”

He sits up almost immediately and looks down at her, his smiling eyes hidden behind a mess of black hair. Soon, he disappears toward the other side of the house where the ladder is propped up against the back and he comes down. Yerim starts to unpack the car, shaking her head as she retrieves her supplies for the day. Jimin joins her.

“Did you sell a lot?”

Yerim nods. “Mm.”

“Is everything gone?”

“Everything, but a few scallops. Guess we’re having that for dinner.”

Jimin nods. As he takes one of the collapsed tables under his arm matching the looped set of string lights over his other shoulder, he smiles knowingly. “Did you run out of change?”

Yerim rolls her eyes. “I don’t have to tell you that. By the way, Mom has to stay a little later. It’s just the two of us tonight.”

Though it hurts, Jimin is surprised to find that he isn’t too disappointed. 

After the two of them wash up, they start to prepare their dinner of scallop stew with zucchini and soybeans. Sometimes, when the office keeps Seowoo late, they end up having to wait for her before they can actually eat. Tonight, they don’t wait which Jimin would find strange if not for the exhaustion in Yerim’s face. After the table is cleared and the dishes have been cleaned, they sit on the couch and start the long process of picking a film. As Jimin sits on the floor in front of the case that houses the TV, peeling through DVDs, Yerim clears her throat from the couch.

“How did the adventure go?”

“It was okay.”

“Do anything special?”

For the next part, Jimin turns away from the TV to look at her reaction. “I went to church.”

Yerim’s reaction is worth it. She tilts her head and furrows her eyebrows, mouth contorting in such a comical way that Jimin can’t help but laugh. He faces the TV again and bites his bottom lip in an attempt to quiet the sound.

“You’re serious?”

He nods and slides out a copy of Late Spring, one of Seowoo’s favorite movies. He figures if she can’t be here for the screening, they might as well watch her favorite movie. He pops the disc into the DVD player.

“It was pretty,” he says.

“…You went to church?”

“I didn’t go in.”

He almost tells her about the Golden Boy and the matcha cake but he thinks of the words she used to force him out, about having an adventure of his own. He could have secrets of his own, too. It’s not that he’s ashamed. There’s just something alluring about having something that belongs to only him.

“What…? Well, what made you interested in going?”

“You sound mad.”

“I-I’m not mad, okay? But it’s just…I’m just asking.”

Jimin joins her on the couch. “I was just wandering and it was there. And it looked nice.”

“Okay…Was it…fun?”

“I don’t know, I was just looking. It’s not like I’m going to bring a Bible home.”

“That’s what all the kids say,” Yerim murmurs, looking to the TV now. She hits his thigh softly. “Stop climbing up on that roof, would you?”

 

 

It’s ten at night when Jimin goes up to the roof again. Sometimes, if he was really careful, he could get away with falling asleep up there but only if he was careful. He’d gotten away with it only three times before and hasn’t been able to pull it off since he was fourteen but that doesn’t mean he’s stopped trying. With his headphones on, he gazes sleepily at the stars, a hand on his stomach and his mind on shimmering gold.

He knew it was unlikely that he would ever see the boy again in his life and, even if he did, it went without saying that building a friendship with someone who probably didn’t believe he should have two mothers wasn’t ideal. In real life, it could never work. But real life was a bore. Fantasies were better. As he listens to slow love ballads, he imagines a life where he and the Golden Boy can do things that the people in the songs do. Holding hands, singing in the rain, dancing in the moonlight. He knew that it was possible to live a life like that. But he also know it wouldn’t be easy. It wasn’t for his parents and it wouldn’t be for him. But the point of the stars and of fantasy is to see life a little bit differently.

He doesn’t hear it when Seowoo’s car pulls up. He doesn’t hear it when the ladder perpetually leaning against the side of the house (his main access to the roof) starts to move with an ascending weight. He doesn’t hear it when Seowoo calls his name the first time or the second time. But he sees her when she joins him on the roof, lying down next to him and eyeing the sky.

Jimin removes his headphones. “Hi.”

“Hi,” she says, not looking at him. “I thought I’d find you here.”

“How was work?”

In response, she tilts her head to face him and screws her eyes together, pulling the corner of her upper lip to the right and the corner of her bottom lip to the left. Jimin laughs at her facial expression, quietly though. If Yerim finds out they’re both on the roof, she’ll be upset at Seowoo for encouraging his hideout.

“I’m sorry,” she says after she’s stopped the expression. “I thought we’d have the whole day together.”

“It’s okay.”

“…It’s not. I’m sorry. But did you have fun today?”

“It was alright. I went,” he pauses and considers not telling her. But then he remembers that his moms tell each other everything, “to church.”

“Oh. Was it an accident?”

He laughs again and that, in turn, makes her laugh. “I guess so. It looked pretty.”

He decides not to tell her about the boy.

“They’re all so pretty on the outside, aren’t they?”

“Yeah.”

“But not these,” she says to the stars. “These are pretty all ‘round.”

“Mom, they’re on fire.”

“And fire’s beautiful, too. That’s why there’s pyromaniacs.”

Snickering, Jimin folds into her side and breathes his laughs onto her shoulder. She laughs with him again and again. When they’re quiet again, she holds his hand. 

“Come on,” she says and tugs. “It’s time to go down. Besides, I have something to show you…Unless, you don’t want to see it.”

“No, I—“

“It’s okay if you don’t.”

“I wanna see it.”

“Are you sure? Are you sure?” She gets in his face as she asks, voice going ridiculously high-pitched. “Are you sure?”

“Mom.”

 

There’s a telescope, still in its brand new galaxy print box, waiting for him when they get inside. It was unwrapped but still had a little blue bow sitting on the left corner. Jimin couldn’t react. He couldn’t scream, he couldn’t gasp, he could barely move his face as it was frozen with his mouth open. He runs his hand across the top of the box. It was the one thing that he had never asked for but the thing he’d always wanted. 

“I know you probably want to use it tonight but I figured we could put it together tomorrow and then, well…it’s yours to do whatever you want with. But if you’re going to go out on the beach or the field, put on shoes. And I don’t want you staying out too late. There’s all sorts of—“

She doesn’t get a chance to finish her sentence because Jimin practically pounces on her with a hug that mirrors the strength of her own. She stumbles back but holds onto him tightly, kissing the top his head and reveling in the moment. 

 

 

Jimin is bursting when he and Yerim go to the market the next day. On market days, his schooling has to be divided into morning and evening, the afternoon reserved for what has essentially become the family business (although the money they get from it isn’t their entire livelihood). After the market today, he and Seowoo will put together the telescope and tonight he’ll get to see all the stars charted around his room with his own eyes. He does well, packing everything quickly and smiling kindly to every customer. He knows he doesn’t have to work to exhaustion — and he’s not — for his parents to understand his gratitude but he still wants to show them how much it means to him. 

The market is busy but not the busiest it’s been. Each day is a barrage of overlapping voices, overlapping smells — fresh fish sometimes clashing with sweet pastries and fresh watermelon not complimenting medicinal herbs. On any other day, he might have gotten overwhelmed for a moment but today is good.

All day, their stand has been approached by the likes of city slickers and countryside mothers preparing for big feasts. And he gets through each customer with ease. It isn’t until the next person approaches their stand. She is an older woman who, upon first glance, Jimin believes is dressed much too elegant for an outdoor fish market. Her hair, graying, is tied back in a neat, practical bun. She wears a pale peach dress suit with a skirt that goes down to her ankles and a jacket that’s too loose. 

But she isn’t what makes Jimin’s momentum slow down. She barely gets attention and, similarly, he barely gets the chance to linger on her as he multitasks with packing the scallops, because he notices, for the first time, the person standing next to her. The same boy he’d seen on his birthday, wearing a pale blue collared shirt and khakis. By the time Jimin notices him, the boy’s already watching him right back with knowing eyes and a barely noticeable smile.

“How fresh is your mackerel?” The elegant woman asks, leaning forward and looking into the displayed bins.

Next to Jimin, Yerim answers the question but her words go unheard by him. He’s too busy looking at the boy who’s still looking back at him. Jimin supposes he could be imagining it but he feels as if they’re having a whole conversation, as if he’s being told a million stories just from his eyes alone. When the corner of the boy’s mouth lifts, his tiny smile growing just a little, Jimin bites his lip in response, holding back a laugh.

He’s never been so excited to see someone he barely knows. 

“The freshest here. Caught this morning.”

The woman inspects the mackerel and looks as if, for one fleeing moment, she’s going to reach her hand into the display and touch it herself. She seems to feel Yerim’s disbelieving stare and rests her hand to her side. She sniffs as she takes out her wallet. 

“I’ll take three of them, please.”

She hands the money over and Yerim softly nudges Jimin’s forearm. He starts to prepare the fish, sliding near the left side of the rectangular sheet of paper. He starts folding it over but his hands stutter to a stop when he remembers who’s watching him. He looks up at Golden Boy again and somehow his smile gets bigger.

”And do you happen to know if anyone here is selling pomegranate?” The elegant woman asks. “It’s our first time at this market, you see, we’re from a couple of towns over.”

“Making a day of shopping,” Yerim says, aiming for small talk. “That’s nice.”

“We have a big event at our church in a couple of days. So. Pomegranate?”

”Sure,” Yerim says at the same time that she subtly, and gently, pushes Jimin’s hands away from the mackerel and the wrapping paper, now wrapping it herself. “If you go right from here, there’s a stand three from the exit.”

The elegant woman puts a hand on the boy’s shoulder. Her motion is short and soft but it’s powerful, the simple act making the boy tear his eyes from Jimin, making his smile fade.

“Taehyung, go grab some, would you?” She removes a bit of money from her purse. “Get at least four.”

”Yes, ma’am,” the boy — Taehyung, Jimin thinks, repeating the name again and again in his mind. Taehyung. Taehyung. Golden Taehyung — looks to Yerim. “Excuse me, what were the directions again?”

Jimin wants to say he’ll show him how to get there but his courage is missing. As it did the other day, his mind only begins to work after the moment has passed. But before he can completely wallow in disappointment, Yerim prods him again.

”Jimin-ah, walk him to Mrs. Cha’s stand.”

Taehyung and Jimin look at each other again, both of them doing their best to keep their growing smiles reserved (Taehyung is much better at discretion). Then Jimin is all but jumping from around the stand and walking shoulder-to-shoulder with the boy he was certain he’d only see again in dreams. He wants to talk to Taehyung but he realizes, once they’re next to each other and walking to Mrs. Cha, their steps slow to prolong the time, he doesn’t know what to say.

He tries to. “Uh…”

At the same time, Taehyung asks, “How was your birthday?”

Jimin smiles again. “It was okay.”

“Just okay?”

“…I think so. I ate a lot.”

They fall silent again. Their hands, both by their sides, brush together for a split second and Jimin feels much like a dying star, burning bright and burning fast. “Uh, I didn’t think I would see you again,” he says.

“Really? I thought I’d see you again.”

“No, you didn’t.”

“I did, I was sure of it.”

“Why?”

“Because you seemed like you wanted to go in. And I figured, well, come your next birthday, you’d probably skip school again and I would see you.”

“I could actually show up anytime. I’m homeschooled so…”

“Homeschooled? What’s that like?”

Jimin looks ahead. Mrs. Cha’s stand is still a good few paces away. “It’s nice. I get to be home. Plus I’m close to the beach.”

“Does your mom teach you?”

“Mm-hmm.”

Taehyung tilts his head a little back to where they came from. “Was that her?”

Jimin thinks about it for a moment, not long enough to be noticed. He knows he told himself the same thing before but he thinks again how likely it is that he’ll never see Taehyung after this, that this visit to the market is a rare one, that Taehyung will leave here after buying whatever else he needs to buy and this moment between them will live and die in memories. 

So, Jimin nods and tells a truth he’s so desperately wanted to tell all his life. “Yeah, she’s my mom. She’s really smart.”

“Yeah, she seems nice, too.”

“Yeah…”

Jimin trails off as they approach the stand. Mrs. Cha’s stand is exclusive in fresh fruits and vegetables that she grows herself at her farm. She was older and lived with her husband in a village  town and she swears that she’s psychic, that she can tell how many customers will arrive based on the pain in her knees. She was strange but Jimin liked her for the most part. He greets her, bowing, and then watches quietly while Taehyung peruses the fruit. Taehyung picks out some okra, one winter melon and is still looking at the rows of fruits and vegetables when he asks, “Do you like pomegranate?”

“…A little.”

“Just a little?”

Jimin makes eye contact with Mrs. Cha, her beady eyes penetrating him in a heated glare, and remembers the importance of up-selling. He nods to her, understanding. “Only a little, usually. But Mrs. Cha has the best pomegranates ever, I only crave hers.”

Taehyung laughs and bows to Mrs. Cha again. “Ma’am, I’m still planning on buying four pomegranates regardless of what he says.”

“Well, in that case,” she turns to Jimin. “Don’t lie to the young man, he seems polite.”

Taehyung laughs again. Then to Jimin: “What do you like?”

Jimin shrugs. “Kiwi’s my favorite.”

“Kiwi?”

Jimin nods.

He then watches Taehyung find the section of kiwis, scoop up a handful and drop them in his basket. He gets the three pomegranates, uses his mother’s money to pay for them, and then uses money from his own pocket to get the rest. They bow to Mrs. Cha and thank her before leaving the tent. As they do, Taehyung reaches into the basket and hands the three kiwi to Jimin who has to use both hands to carry them.

“For you,” Taehyung says. “Happy belated birthday.”

Jimin can actually say it this time. “Thank you,” he murmurs. “Why do I get two gifts?”

“Two’s always better than one, isn’t it? And you’re welcome…And, hey, um, you could come to the church anytime you want. We hold Bible study for our peer groups so, I don’t know, if you wanted to go inside this time…”

Holding the kiwis close to his chest, Jimin looks up at Taehyung as vendors and customers walk past them. He swallows hard. “Um…when?”

“Every Thursday.”

“What time?”

Taehyung holds back on a grin. “Are you gonna come?”

“Tell me what time so I can think about it.”

“4 P.M.” Taehyung waits a moment. “Are you going to come?”

Beaming now, Jimin starts to feel dizzy in a good way. “You still have to let me think about it.”

“Okay.”

“Okay.”

Then, his face splits as it had the first day they met, into a bright and unforgiving smile that is radiance defined. “…I’ll see you Thursday, then.”

“I didn’t say I would come.”

“You didn’t. But you’re an open book.”

Taehyung starts walking ahead of him and, before Jimin can think to keep his voice down, he calls out: “Are you going to ask my name?”

One last time, Taehyung turns to look at him, walking backwards now with a confidence that no teenager should have. He shakes his head, grinning. “No, Jimin-ah. I know it.”

Standing there as the parting point of a growing crowd, Jimin holds onto his new presents and thinks that this, the sound of his name coming out of Taehyung’s mouth, might be his new favorite song. 

 

Again, that evening, Jimin doesn’t say a word about Taehyung (Taehyung, Taehyung, Taehyung) or Ppongnamu or anything related to his self-made adventure. He knows what his parents would say, what they would think. So, he puts together the telescope with Seowoo. He finds each star from his books and posters and, for the first time while looking at the stars, he’s grounded equally in both fantasy and reality.