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when first we were champions

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If anyone was to blame, it was Suk-Jin.

Years later, at weddings and birthday parties, in banquet halls and parks, whenever they got together for half a second really, the Running Man tournament of their last year would come up and all of them would try to take credit. I asked what the Running Man theme was that year, Jong-Kook would say. I brought the flyer over, Haha would counter. I brought up Ji-Hyo, Gary would chime in. (And here, all of them would groan and roll their eyes. Of course you did, they would all shout.) But if it was anyone’s fault, it was Suk-Jin’s for asking:

“What’s the prize this year?”

The boys all looked at him from their spot at the lunch room table.

“What? It’s usually gold,” Suk-Jin said.

They looked down at the poster Haha had pilfered from the school bulletin board. The school hosted a competitive tournament every year in what the administrators claimed was a team-building exercise, but the students knew to be a bloodbath of teenage hormones and stress. Jae-Suk, Kwang-Soo, Suk-Jin, Haha, Gary, and Ji-Hyo were usually content to get eliminated from the tournament the first chance they got and watch Jong-Kook valiantly try to win from the auditorium, where a projection of the cameras was set up. The challenges, even when structured for individual victory, all required an alliance of some sort and Jong-Kook, alone on the battlefield without his only friends, would inevitably lose.

Though they always teased him for trying, they couldn’t help but save a spot for him in the auditorium. Last year, Jong-Kook found an avocado and banana smoothie waiting for him in his seat. Ji-Hyo made it, but the boys all helped, crowded in her small kitchen like a bunch of lost toddlers, eating most of the bananas and making a mess. At one point, Kwang-Soo tried to sneak a dallop of hot sauce in the blender, but got caught by Haha, who then squeezed a quarter of the hot sauce bottle in Kwang-Soo’s mouth while the others held him down. Jong-Kook complained that the smoothie had a weird taste, but sat with the thermos clutched tight in his lap and a big grin on his face for the rest of the tournament.

The Hunger Games. That was the theme for this year’s Running Man. As though the fight-to-the-death nature of previous tournaments wasn’t explicit enough. And the prize listed at the bottom of the flyer?

“A gold ring,” Suk-Jin announced.

“Do you guys remember Ji-Hyo’s ring?” Gary asked. Of course they did. It happened just last week, after all, and even if it didn’t, not a one of them could forget Ji-Hyo’s small shoulders shaking over her hunched knees. CJ had seemed a nice enough guy, if a bit boring, so none of them could have guessed that he would show up in Ji-Hyo’s classroom the day after they broke up and ask for his ring back. By the time the news reached their class, Ji-Hyo had already hidden herself in the girl’s bathroom. So there they all sat during the free period, helpless as Mong-Ji, fearless and brilliant Ace, cried and cried.

“That was a cheap ring, anyway,” Haha said. “How could C-bland be so cocky? You can find those rings everywhere at the market.”

“This one’s much better,” Suk-Jin agreed.

“It fits her more,” Gary said.

And that’s when Jae-Suk finally looked up from the poster, his eyes bright and his lanky body practically vibrating with energy. They could all see it coming from a mile away. Jae-Suk had an idea.

“No,” Suk-Jin said immediately.

“Absolutely not. They would squash me like a bug,” Haha agreed.

“What’s going on?” Kwang-Soo asked, the last, as always, to climb aboard the train of thought.

“Running Man?” Ji-Hyo asked, joining them at last. They looked to where she stood by their usual table with her lunchbag in hand, a shaky smile on her face. Despite being the smallest of the group, Ji-Hyo had always looked as big as Jong-Kook to them since the first day they all met as kids in a Taekwando class. Over the past week, however, Ji-Hyo seemed to have shrunk more and more every day, until she looked about ready to disappear into her school uniform. Haha was right — they would all be squashed like bugs, but what could be done? It was Mong-Ji, their very own Ace.

Jae-Suk spoke for them then.

“We’re going to play in this year’s Running Man, Ji-Hyo-ah,” he said.

“Oppa?”

“And we’re going to win.”

———

In their defense, none of them had watched or read The Hunger Games before.

(They had actually planned to watch the first movie together, but, on the way, Kwang-Soo had asked, What does ‘Hunger Games’ mean? After Ji-Hyo had translated, Haha said, Now I’m hungry, so they had stopped by the market to eat. By the time they had visited all the food stalls, the movie was already half over. Oh well.)

Although they hadn’t paid attention to the rules of previous tournaments, this year’s Running Man nonetheless seemed particularly vicious. The students would work as pairs from from different “districts” with their district number pasted to the front of their shirt and their name tags pasted on the back. The tournament ran for twelve hours, from six in the morning until six in the evening, and, at the end of every hour, every student no longer belonging to a pair was eliminated from the game. Students could eliminate each other by ripping off their name tags. Some of the classrooms had mini-games, which provided tools and weapons to the victor.

“They’re going to slaughter us. Why are we doing this?” Haha asked the morning of the tournament as they waited for the starting whistle to blow over the loudspeaker. Down the hallway, Byul was waiting with her partner. She had cut her hair over the summer break. It usually curled softly around her face, but she had it in a ponytail for the games. Haha didn’t know why that bothered him. He didn’t know why everything she did lately bothered him. He barely knew her.

Beside him, Gary said, “We have to win the ring for Ji-Hyo.”

“Right. Right,” Haha said. “I should have been clearer. Why am I doing this? I could be practicing my new song right now.”

“Because we need your loud voice to be a distraction during the tournament.”

Before Haha could reach over and flick his partner on the forehead, the whistle blew. Byul turned and looked right at him, as though she had known this entire time that he had been staring. Haha was the brash one. He was the class clown. He was the one who always ran off at the mouth and got them into trouble. So why did it feel like he was sticking his hand into an electrical socket whenever this quiet girlstar looked at him? It must have been this stupid tournament. Running Man drove everyone out of their minds.

“They’re coming for us. Haha, run!” Gary shouted.

“Huh?”

But Gary was right. Byul, a wicked smile on her sweet face, was running straight for them.

———

Jae-Suk found her first.

Well, he found Lee Dong Wook first in the Ddakji room. On the day Jae-Suk decided they were going to win this year’s Running Man, Dong Wook had walked up to them as they were leaving school and asked Ji-Hyo to be his partner.

“Why?” Gary had asked.

“You’re all playing, right? There are seven of you so you need another person to even it out. Ji-Hyo’s my science partner so I know her best.”

“But why do you want to join us?” Suk-Jin pushed.

Dong Wook had shrugged and answered, “I like you guys.”

Which was strange, but not altogether unexpected. Lee Dong Wook came from a well-to-do family and was handsome to a fault. By any established social rules, he should have given all seven of them a wide berth, loud losers that they were, incapable of sitting still or staying out of trouble. But Dong Wook always popped in at the most unexpected times — asking them if he could join them for lunch, inviting them to his parties (where they always broke one of his parent’s absurdly expensive possessions), laughing loudly at their jokes while everyone else groaned.

In the Ddakji room, Dong Wook told Jae-Suk that Ji-Hyo had gone off on her own as soon as the whistle blew, claiming to be in search of one of the best weapons hidden around the school.

“She said she was going to the third floor,” Dong Wook said and that’s where Jae-Suk found her, perched precariously atop a tall cabinet in one of the empty classrooms. She was snoring slightly.

“Wha,” Jae-Suk muttered in awe, staring straight at one of the classroom’s cameras. It wasn’t as though he didn’t know Ji-Hyo could sleep anywhere and everywhere. (One time, she fell asleep on a moving bus while still clinging tight to the hand strap. The boys formed a circle around her swaying frame, ready to catch her in case she lost her balance and fell, but she stayed upright. Even unconscious, Ji-Hyo had no problem staying upright.) As someone afraid of heights, though, Jae-Suk couldn’t imagine a more frightening place to sleep.

“Ji-Hyo ah,” Jae-Suk called out. “Song Ji-Hyo.”

Ji-Hyo sat up. When she saw him, she ran her hands through her hair and tried to look as though she had been awake the entire time.

“Oh, Oppa, when did you come? I must not have seen you because I was distracted by — ”

Jae-Suk laughed.

“I saw you sleeping. Wha! How could you sleep in a place like that?”

Ji-Hyo looked sheepish, but Jae-Suk was glad to find her smiling again. When she started to climb down, Jae-Suk waved his hand and told her to stay up there. Tickled at his own cleverness, he held a finger up to his lips and pulled out a small water gun from his pocket with his other hand.

“Is that — ”

“I beat everyone in the Ddakji room and won this,” he told her. “There’s orange water inside. If I shoot your name tag or district number — ” he posed with the gun “ — you’re out.”

A grin broke across Ji-Hyo’s face and Jae-Suk, already pleased with his victory, found himself even prouder at her joy.

“Yoo-ruce Willis!” she cried, pointing at him.

“Ah, Ji-Hyo. Don’t say that,” Jae-Suk said, but he couldn’t stop chuckling. They all knew he loved American action films — Die Hard, Mission Impossible, you name it. Thin like a grasshopper and with miles more cleverness than brute strenth, Jae-Suk obsessed over action heroes and forced his friends to obsess with him. When a new James Bond movie came out, they all dressed up with him to see it. Even though there would always be whispers from the other movie-goers at the sight of seven kids dressed up in suits far too large for them, it was always one of the best times of the year for Jae-Suk.

“Stay up there, Ji-Hyo,” Jae-Suk said. “I’ll watch out for you.”

And he would.

Jae-Suk found their Ace first during this year’s Running Man and he found her first when they were kids. Before their moms all signed them up for Taekwando lessons in an effort to curb their boundless energy and teach them discipline, Jae-Suk had met Mong-Ji in an empty classroom much like this one. There had been a school field trip planned for the first year students and Jae-Suk had cried when his mom had told him their family couldn’t afford to pay the school fees for him to go. Jae-Suk’s mom had asked his teacher if she could clean the classrooms in exchange for the fee and when Jae-Suk found out, he had ran to the school to tell her to stop. Even at six, he was heartbroken and torn apart by pride and guilt. When he finally found his mom sweeping up a classroom, she wasn’t alone. A girl from his class sat perched on a desk with her legs swinging in wide arches, making his mom laugh with her chatter.

Later, Ji-Hyo told him, “I walked by and your mom looked sad. My mom looks sad a lot too and I can always make her laugh.”

Jae-Suk may have been an only child, but, if you asked, he would tell you that he had a little sister, small and sleepy and smarter than anyone he’s ever met.

Lee Seung-Gi showed up with five other students in tow half an hour after Jae-Suk found Ji-Hyo. Even though Jae-Suk and Ji-Hyo eliminated all of them with the help of Jae-Suk’s water gun, Seung-Gi managed to rip off Jae-Suk’s name tag before the orange water hit his chest.

Before he left for the auditorium, Jae-Suk told Ji-Hyo to go back on the cabinet. She was safe there until the tournament was over, but Ji-Hyo only shook her head, her eyes brighter than he’d seen them in recent weeks.

“I have to find Suk-Jin oppa,” Ji-Hyo said. “They won’t announce that you’re out until the end of the hour and he has to find another partner to survive.”

It was funny. Jae-Suk was out, but he somehow still felt like a winner.

———        

Ten minutes before the clock struck nine, Suk-Jin turned to Ji-Hyo in their hiding spot in the custodial closet and asked, “What are we going to do?”

After Ji-Hyo found Suk-Jin, they had tried to steal him a partner number from one of the other students to no avail. They couldn’t find their friends and as neither of them was particularly strong, they found themselves constantly outnumbered and in danger. Now, the hour was winding down and partner-less Suk-Jin was sure to be eliminated.

As they both tried to figure out a way, Ji-Hyo was struck by an idea.

“Suk-Jin oppa,” she said. “Take my partner number.”

And though he would later deny it when the other boys teased him, Suk-Jin was sorely tempted at that moment to take Ji-Hyo on her offer. This was the furthest Suk-Jin had come not only to winning Running Man, but to winning anything really in quite awhile. Because of his family’s constant moving, Suk-Jin had started school late and was older than all the other kids his year. The other students teased him for his big nose and, somewhow, he could never shake the nickname Race Starter for being the first one to answer questions wrong in class. If he won this Running Man, that could all change. Suk-Jin could be the Race Finisher for once. Even thinking about it made Suk-Jin glow inside. The principal handing him the gold ring onstage in the auditorium. Everyone cheering. His bullies apologizing for their foolishness. Race Finisher.

But there was Ji-Hyo, who was already starting to rip off her district number.

Ji-Hyo, who, at eleven years old, had ran into a muddy field screaming at the top of her lungs because a bully had Suk-Jin in a headlock. Suk-Jin had brought his friends with him that year when his parents sent him to spend two weeks at his grandparents’ house in the countryside. Even though he loved his grandparents, he hated his yearly visits. His grandparents didn’t have a television or a computer, the villagers always asked him about his grades, everything was dirty, there was no indoor plumping, and the village boys always chased him down and made him regret not being able to run faster.

That first year he convinced his parents to let him take his friends didn’t start out half bad. Even the trip out of Seoul had been fun, all seven of them packed into his grandfather’s van, their noisy bickering taking the place usually filled by awkward silence between Suk-Jin and his grandfather. Everything had been going well until the morning Suk-Jin had wandered off from where they were playing to take a leak and bumped into some village boys. He was in a headlock, about to take a punch to the stomach, when he heard Ji-Hyo scream like a fishwife, running towards him with the others close behind. His friends weren’t strong, but seven against three were good odds whichever way you looked at it. By the end, they had the biggest bully pinned to the ground while Ji-Hyo sat on top of him, vengeance personified, and shoved mud into his face. When Suk-Jin’s grandmother saw them, muddy and bloody, hobble into her kitchen, she made them all jump in the lake with their clothes on. (“To save me from having to wash your clothes,” she had said.)

That night, squeezed in between Kwang Soo’s drooling face and Haha’s stinky feet, Suk-Jin fell asleep to the sound of cicadas and his own full heart.

So when Ji-Hyo held her district number out to him, Suk-Jin could only shake his head. He knew he was many things — Big Nose, Race Starter — but one thing Suk-Jin was not, one thing Suk-Jin could never be, was alone.

As the bell chimed and the voice over the loudspeakers began announcing the names of the eliminated students, Suk-Jin said, “Ji-Hyo.”

“Yes, oppa?”

“Do me a favor.”

“Yes, oppa.”

“Go win us that ring.” 

———

X-Man. Of course it had to be X-Man.

When the teacher in the classroom told Jong-Kook, Kwang-Soo, and Ji-Hyo that the prize for the mini-game in her classroom would be a second name tag, all three of them had agreed to play before learning what the game was. Of course it would be the Of Course game from X-Man.

“This is all your fault,” Jong-Kook yelled as he tapped Kwang-Soo on the back of his head.

“How is this my fault?” Kwang-Soo yelled back.

“You’re unlucky.”

“Why did you even bring him?” Ji-Hyo joined in. Her face was a mock expression of anger, but Jong-Kook could see the corners of her mouth tugging upwards. She loved teasing Kwang-Soo, the youngest and most mischievous of the group, as much as any of them.

“I don’t know! He just kept following me around.”

“You’re my partner!”

“But you don’t have to always follow your partner around,” Ji-Hyo said. “Do you see Dong Wook? He knew not to be my shadow.”

“And it’s so hard to hide with him too,” Jong-Kook continued. “Anyone can see this giraffe a mile away. He’s unlucky.”

True to form, Kwang-Soo was the first one on their team to lose the Of Course game. (“She only asked if you knew you looked like a turtle!” Jong-Kook scolded. “It hurt my feelings,” Kwang-Soo muttered.) Ji-Hyo held strong until her opponent, frustrated and going in for the kill, unexpectedly asked her, “You’re secretly dating Kang Gary, aren’t you?” Jong-Kook almost laughed until he saw Ji-Hyo open and close her mouth silently, looking as though she had been stabbed.

“My turn, my turn,” Jong-Kook interrupted before the teacher had time to call the K.O. “Let’s go.”

In hindsight, he should have seen it coming. Their team was down to only one player and Lee Ji-Hyun, the Queen of Of Course and the winner of the X-Man Running Man from three years prior, knew she had victory in the bag. Of course she would go in for the kill. Of course.

“You’re still in love with Yoon Eun Hye, aren’t you?” she asked.

Of course.

“Ya!” he could hear Ji-Hyo and Kwang-Soo shout over the pounding of blood in his ears.

Of course.

Was he still in love with Eun-Hye? Surely he could say it. It was just a game. It didn’t mean anything.

Of course.

After the teacher declared victory for the other team and it was only Jong-Kook, Kwang-Soo, and Ji-Hyo left in the room, Ji-Hyo said, “That wasn’t fair, oppa.”

“I’m going to pour salt all over her chair tomorrow,” Kwang-Soo piped in.

“Are you okay?”

Everyone liked to tease Jong-Kook for having a weakness for pretty girls, but that wasn’t true. Every time he had been eliminated in the Running Man tournament, Jong-Kook was eliminated by a girl. It wasn’t that they were pretty. It was that he believed in fairness. If the name tags were eliminated based on puzzles or mind games, Jong-Kook would fight with everything he had, but he couldn’t fight if it meant using his strength against a student half his size. There’s only ever been one girl Jong-Kook had a weakness for, the soft tendon in his achilles heel, and that girl was an ocean away, living in a city of angels.

California, Eun-Hye had said in the first email, back when she was still replying to his emails. California. Of course. A year after Eun-Hye had stopped replying to his emails, Jong-Kook, unable to help himself, had looked at her Facebook profile and saw photograph after photograph of a lanky boy with a face full of freckles. That boy looked happy in all of Eun Hye’s photos. Of course he was. Who could be near Eun-Hye and not be happy? Who could see Eun-Hye’s small bunny teeth and not feel like that was it for him. That was the world. Of course.

It was Ji-Hyo who had found him in the playground that night relentlessly doing push-ups and sit-ups so that he wouldn’t have to think about that American boy seeing Eun-Hye’s bunny teeth, kissing Eun-Hye’s bow of a mouth. He had yelled at Ji-Hyo to leave using his tiger voice, but she had just plopped down on the ground right next to him and said that the rest of the group would be joining them soon. Suk-Jin and Gary were on their way, while Kwang-Soo, Jae-Suk, and Haha had stopped by a convenience store for snacks.

“Oppa,” Ji-Hyo had said. “Oppa, you should be easier on yourself.”

He had already done a hundred push-ups. He could easily do a hundred more.

“I’m sorry about Eun-Hye. We all are.”

Or maybe he could switch to sit-ups.

“But I think sometimes things just don’t work out. No matter how hard we try.”

He could go faster. He could be stronger.

“Please be kind to yourself, Coach Kook.”

Jong-Kook had let his arms go then and fallen to the playground floor. When he looked up, Ji-Hyo was standing with her hand out, ready to help pull him up if he needed her to.

Of course.

In the classroom, as Jong-Kook opened his mouth to tell two of his six best friends that he was okay, the bell chimed and the loudspeaker began listing names.

Lee Dong Wook out. Lee Dong Wook out.

Before Jong-Kook could react, he felt his district number get ripped from his chest. He watched Kwang-Soo tear Ji-Hyo’s district number off and stick Jong-Kook’s number on her shirt.

Kim Jong-Kook out. Kim Jong-Kook out.

Jong-Kook marched towards Kwang-Soo, who backed away with stuttering excuses falling out of his mouth. Finally backed into a corner, Kwang-Soo held his hands out and squeezed his eyes shut in anticipation of a beating. Jong-Kook grabbed him into a tight hug.

“Hyung,” Kwang-Soo said.

“Good job, you traitor,” Jong-Kook laughed. “You finally did something right.”

———

As soon as Jong-Kook left for the auditorium, Kwang-Soo took one look at Ji-Hyo’s murderous eyes and bolted.

———

“She’s got her eye on Haha,” Gary said. Haha kicked him in the shins.

“What! It’s true. She’s been chasing us since this tournament started.” On the floor below them, Byul ran back back and forth down the hallways. From where they stood leaning over the staircases railing, they could catch glimpses of her as she passed. Byul’s partner had been eliminated earlier in the hour and she was trying desperately to find another one. With less than two hours remaining in the tournament, there weren’t that many paired students left to choose from.

When Haha had ripped Hyo-Joo’s name tag off thirty minutes ago, she had expressed surprise that any of them had survived this long. Haha was surprised too, but, now seeing Byul alone, he thought maybe he shouldn’t have been. Maybe all their years of talking their way out of trouble, spending so much time together that their movements were often in sync, and running away from bullies had perfectly prepared them for this tournament. Maybe they would have won every year’s Running Man if only they had tried.

“I’ll go get her name tag,” Ji-Hyo said and Haha may have been a bit too loud when he exclaimed, “No.” Haha didn’t know why he shouted that, why the thought of anyone, even Ji-Hyo, grabbing Byul roughly made a hard knot of anger settle in his chest. The way Gary and Ji-Hyo looked at him then made him think they knew.

“I’ll come with you. Gary can stay on the floor,” Haha said. He knew it was a bad idea. The three of them had already cleared out the top floor of other students and they were safest if they stayed up there waiting for Kwang-Soo. The only way up to the floor was this staircase now that they had closed and barricaded the doors to the other staircases.

Byul must have heard their conversation because she was waiting for them when they came down. There was a small bruise on her left cheek. Haha wondered if she would tell him who did it. He wondered if she would be mad if he humiliated that person in class tomorrow. This was a bad idea. He should have let Ji-Hyo go down alone.

“This won’t be easy. I’ll fight,” Byul said and, really, how could such defiant words come from such a soft voice? Someone must have pulled her hair because her neat ponytail was ruined. Haha couldn’t stop staring at her.

“No, no,” Ji-Hyo said. “We wanted to make a deal with you.”

What?

Ji-Hyo went on.

“We’re all tired and we just want to keep it simple. Simple and fair. There’s three of us and you’re going to get eliminated anyway. Don’t you want to make a deal with us and get this over with before someone else comes?”

“What kind of deal?”

Ji-Hyo smiled then and even struggling with the tangled knot of feelings in his chest, Haha felt laughter bubbling up inside of him. There she was. There was Ace.

“You and Haha play rock-paper-scissors. Best out of three wins. If you win, I give you my district number. If Haha wins, you go on a date with him.”

Why did he ever trust Ji-Hyo? She was terrible. She was the worst. She hated him. And yet, Haha couldn’t bring himself to speak a word of protest. He only waited. Wanting Byul to agree. Wanting her to refuse.

“No,” Byul said. The knot in Haha’s chest tightened around his heart and lungs. He called this. He knew he would get hurt during Running Man and here he was, unable to come up with jokes to ease the ache in his chest.

“If I win, I get to rip off his name tag,” Byul continued.

“Deal,” Haha said and walked up to Byul. Her hands were small and he could barely see the whites of her nails they were so short. He knew she bit them when she was nervous, which seemed to be often. He had thought Byul was shy, but her eyes were unwavering when she looked at him.

“Ha. Dong. Hoon,” she said. There was a small breath chasing each syllable of his name out of her mouth and Haha could have died then.

“Haha,” he corrected.

“Haha,” Byul repeated. “Haha, I’m going to beat you.”

And she did. Always throw out scissors, Suk-Jin always said so Haha did and lost to her rock. Threw out a second pair of scissors and lost again. Before Haha could turn around, Byul closed the distance between them and wrapped her arms around him. He felt her small hands touch him once, twice, before she stepped back with his name tag in her hand and triumph on her face. He lost.

“The hour’s almost up. If you walk me to the auditorium, we can play best out of five,” Byul said.

He hadn’t really lost.

Ji-Hyo flashed him a quick thumbs up when he passed by her. It was the same thumbs up she kept flashing that year all seven of them became obsessed with dares. They kept trying to one-up each other, daring one another to do progressively more outrageous things. At the height of their daring, Haha, sore that Bae Suzy called him short, dared them all to jump off of a convenience store roof to the pile of garbage below. Granted, the convenience store was barely two stores, but everyone refused. Everyone except Ji-Hyo, who covered her eyes with her hands and dove straight off the roof. When they all looked over the ledge, convinced that Haha had finally killed Ji-Hyo, they saw her with leftover food in her hair and a thumbs up in one hand. The other arm was broken. By the time Ji-Hyo finally left the hospital, they had collectively decided that their daring days were over.

Only Haha didn’t think Ji-Hyo’s daring days were ever going to be over.

“Fearless Ace,” Haha whispered.

“Brave Haha,” Ace replied.

———           

“Haha’s out.”

“I know. I heard.”

Gary patted the spot next to him on the staircase and there Ji-Hyo sat, beside him now and always.

“Do you know what Haha said before he left?”

Gary shook his head. More than anything, he had wanted to win that ring for her. He hadn’t wanted anything else really, just to give it to her and have her back again.

“Fearless Ace.”

Gary couldn’t find it in him to smile. This was his fault for being selfish. He thought he could fix things with that prize, but even that desire was selfish. It seemed everything about him was selfish when it came to Ji-Hyo.

“I don’t think I’m fearless. I’m afraid of a lot of things,” Ji-Hyo said. Her shoulder knocked against his. Gary wondered if she was getting sleepy. Maybe she could sleep on this floor somewhere until the tournament was over. She had only wanted to play Running Man this year because the others did. Maybe Kwang-Soo would get eliminated soon and they could all hang out in the auditorium.

“Mainly, I’m scared of you.”

“Scared of me?”

It was worse than he thought. He had really ruined everything. He hadn’t been able to help himself though. They had been drinking beer in the back room of Gary’s parents’ store. He had a key and they sometimes hung out there when they had no where else to go. All the other guys had called it a night, but something kept Ji-Hyo from leaving too.

Gary must have been drunk off of something, either hope or the beer, because he had suggested that they play the Pepero game with one of the strawberry Pocky sticks. Ji-Hyo had seemed sober to him, but she must have been drunk too because she agreed. They didn’t make it very far in the game. The Pocky stick broke after two bites, but the second he heard it snap, something in Gary snapped too. He leaned forward and did what he had been waiting to do for years.

He kissed Ji-Hyo.

And what’s more, he was sure she had kissed him back. She had kissed him back before jumping up and apologizing and running out of the store. Even though she had broken up with CJ the next day, neither he nor Ji-Hyo had mentioned that Pepero game again.

“Do you remember what the teachers used to call us when we took Taekwando lessons?” Ji-Hyo asked him.

“Monday Couple.”

Ji-Hyo nodded, but didn’t look at him. She stared at the steps in front of them.

“If I was a brave, would you forgive me for ruining everything?” Ji-Hyo asked him. Lost in his own memories of a strawberry kiss, Gary couldn’t follow the conversation. He was the one who had ruined everything. Ji-Hyo kept going.

“The teachers called us Monday Couple because our lessons were every Monday and we would cry every time our parents came to pick us up. We didn’t want to be separated. Do you know what I think all of time, Gary? I didn’t know before why I thought it, but I think I know now. Sometimes, often actually, do you know what I think?”

They should really teach you in school how easy it was to get drunk off of hope because Gary could feel it rushing through his veins again.

“I keep wishing it was Monday again. Monday every day. Monday always.”

Over the loudspeaker, the bell chimed the end of the hour. Ji-Hyo finally looked up. She seemed afraid. Gary didn’t feel afraid though. At the moment, he felt indestructible. Ji-Hyo grabbed her district number, but before she could rip it from her shirt, Gary turned around and showed her the empty spot where his name tag should have been.

Kang Gary out. Kang Gary out.

“You ripped it off before I came back up the stairs!” Ji-Hyo accused.

“Looks like I’m faster than you again,” Gary said and kissed her.

———

At five o’clock, after listing the names of the eliminated students, the voice over the loudspeaker announced :

Attention. Attention. The rules have changed. As you will all eventually learn, the rules in life often change on you unexpectedly and without notice. It is up to you to learn to adapt quickly. This is now an individual challenge. Again, this is now an individual challenge. This year’s Running Man will not be won by a pair of students, but by one student alone. The final students are

From where they stood with their arms frozen in mid-air in an incomplete high five, Ji-Hyo and Kwang-Soo stared at each other with horror and realization dawning in their eyes.

Lee Kwang-Soo and Song Ji-Hyo. May the final hour begin.

“Kwang-Soo, no!” Ji-Hyo said, but he had already grabbed her in a hug, his long arms reaching around her to grab at her name tag.

“Kwang-Soo, trust me. You don’t want to do that. Don’t betray me.”

“But I’m not betraying you. For once, I’m not betraying anyone,” Kwang-Soo whined.

“If we both refuse to tear off each other’s name tags, they can’t do anything to us. Time will run out and there just won’t be a winner.”

“But then we won’t be able to get the ring for you.”

Kwang Soo slapped his hands over his mouth.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“Kwang-Soo, we who? Get the ring for whom? Lee Kwang-Soo!”

“All of us,” Kwang-Soo finally blurted out. “We wanted to win the ring for you. To make you feel better.”

Kwang-Soo looked so sheepish and guilty in front of her. A giant cowering giraffe. Ji-Hyo looked over to the camera in the corner and mouthed Ring? She could almost hear five simultaneous groans, never mind that the auditorium was on the other side of the school. If she went there now, Ji-Hyo knew that she would find a seat waiting for her and that thought, such a small thought, something she’s always taken as a given, made her eyes water.

“We’re sorry,” Kwang-Soo said. “We didn’t want to hide it from you. We just wanted to surprise you.”

“No, Kwang-Soo. I’m not — it’s not because of that. I don’t need the ring to feel better. You guys — this day has been the best prize I could have received. I feel — ”

“Like yourself again?”

“Yes, Kwang-Soo,” Ji-Hyo said and, okay, so she was crying a little bit. What of it? “I feel like myself again. Because of you guys. Because of my friends. So you know what? You’re right. Let’s win this ring.”

“Should I rip your name tag or should you rip mine?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Ji-Hyo said.

“Okay,” Kwang-Soo said and reached over to tear off Ji-Hyo’s name tag.

Lee Kwang-Soo out. Lee Kwang-Soo out.

There, underneath Ji-Hyo’s name tag, was a smaller tag Ji-Hyo found on top of a cabinet at the very beginning of the game.

Mirror.

“I win,” Ace said.

On the other side of the school, five students jumped up cheering.

———

Ji-Hyo never took the ring off. It hung from a chain around her neck and whenever she began to feel lost, Ji-Hyo curled her fingers around the ring and remembered that somewhere, there was a seat waiting for Mong-Ji, for Ace, for Song Ji-Hyo.

Somewhere, in the eyes of six best friends, Ji-Hyo was always a winner.