Seokmin sits on a lounge chair in his backyard, in pensive observation of outer space.
It's past midnight, and a fretful attempt at sleep had forced him outside into the mid-spring heat, in search of some peace. He twists the striped fabric of his pyjama top with a clammy finger, yawning. His under-eyes sag, dark, and the tangled string of his earphones connects him to the secondhand MP3 player he was given for his sixteenth birthday two months ago. A H.O.T song blasts in his ears.
Seokmin had once read in one of those new age alchemy brochures his mother left lying around, that bathing in moonlight had special healing properties. In his opinion, it's fanciful rubbish, but still, there is something magic about the moon. He can feel it as he chews on the straw of his peach iced tea and digs his bare toes into the canvas of the sun chair. He drinks the last droplets of his tea, careful not to make a horrible sucking noise with his straw in case his parents hear him through the open bedroom window that faces the backyard. Making the resolute decision to try to fall asleep again, Seokmin takes one final glance at the sky. A light shoots across the milky black expanse, and he stands up, his earphones dropping to the grass, craning his neck to catch the wake of the rampant star, the beginnings of a wish formulating in his mind.
He wishes for one thing: sleep.
A sound, of something making impact with the ground, comes from the backyard next door, followed by a pained grunt, and startling Seokmin out of his thought process.
"Who's there?" he tries, head jolting towards the source of the commotion. He then repeats the question in a whisper, eyes sliding over to the sleeping silhouettes of his parents through the window. Seokmin tiptoes across the lawn, peeking over the fence to see a boy, around his age, tangled in a heap in the bushes, a sheepish expression on his thin face. "Hi?"
"Hey," the boy replies as he lifts himself up, sounding resigned. He proceeds to trip on the hose that runs along the edge of the garden bed, stubbing his toe against a clay sculpture of a fairy, face crumpling in agony. Seokmin tries not to laugh, but he can't help the chuckle that slips out of his mouth when the guy turns to him and sighs, "I wish I had a right foot. I'm Wonwoo, by the way. I just moved in."
Seokmin knew that a family had moved into their neighbouring house a few days ago—he'd idly watched the moving trucks through the polka-dot curtains in his room, always fascinated by change—but he hadn't paid much attention to the composition of said family, despite his mother bugging him to be polite and go welcome them. Now, the extrovert in Seokmin is pleased that he has a teenage boy for a neighbour. His dead-end street is a magnet for widows and widowers, people who a thirteen-year-old Seokmin had tried his best to target with his genius incentive Age is Just a Number: Lee Seokmin's Matchmaking Service for the Elderly. It'd failed within its first week, but Seokmin swears he sees the ahjumma from No. 15 scurry into Mr Park's house with a pallet of strawberries sometimes. His mother said no one lived in No. 15 but whatever, even if she is a ghost, Seokmin counts it as a win for his defunct business.
Seokmin sticks his hand out over the fence, and smiles. "I'm Lee Seokmin."
Wonwoo reaches out to shake Seokmin's hand, his grip weak. "Jeon Wonwoo." He winces. "I told you that already." His hair is a shock of black, and he's wearing a baggy band tee, his shorts just peeking out from underneath, and a pair of mismatched yellow and pink socks, the soles blackened with soil. Perched on the tip of his nose is a pair of delicate-looking circle frames. He pushes them back up, nose scrunching.
"What are you doing outside this late?" Seokmin asks. He tilts his head to the side, popping one of the plastic buttons of his shirt out, then pushing it back in, mindless. "You can't sleep?"
Wonwoo nods, after a moment of staring blankly at the knocked-over fairy, its painted face squished into the dirt. He looks like he'd rather not talk to a complete stranger about his hang-ups when Seokmin balances his arms on the edge of the fence, resting his chin on his hands, and asks him why. Seokmin doesn't want to scare off his new, shiny neighbour, and he gets it, not being able to open up so easily, so instead of speaking, he leans his cheek against his knitted fingers, and stares up at the stars again. Wonwoo exhales.
For a while, they listen to the quiescent humming of suburbia in silence. Seokmin feels a warmth spread through him, and suddenly, the prospect of stretched-out, awkward nighttime hours doesn't seem so lonely anymore.
"I can't sleep either," Seokmin finally says, with a brilliant grin. Something in his stomach goes pow! at the glittered sky reflected in Wonwoo's glasses. "Let's be friends."
While Seokmin is known for being the best singer in Yongin High School's a cappella group, The Sharks, he is, first and foremost, the resident troublemaker. It isn't an active decision he made, he didn't enjoy writing I must behave, I must follow rules one hundred times a week, but there's an innate desire in him to wreck havoc that he can't explain. Act first, think later. He is a good kid, his father says. He's fearless, is all.
Seokmin never had a friend like Wonwoo before. Someone he can confide in—no, not talk to, he has plenty of those, but truly trust. His school is small, his class is even smaller, and Wonwoo's are hard to come by. They're one of a kind. They're brains, and collared shirts and cut-off shorts, home-brand cornflakes and green tea and daily vitamins. They're a quiet sort of loud and sometimes snarky, and most of all, they're stable.
"Hey, Wonwoo hyung," Seokmin says, one night, through the fence between their homes. He's pushed the sun chair right up against the wood, and Wonwoo had finally brought over one of the rusty benches he'd found in the shed after his mother started noticing grass stains on his pyjamas. Wonwoo hums. "You're like a neutron to my electron."
"I don't know what that means, Seokmin," Wonwoo says. There's a trace of amusement in his voice. "I'm tired."
"Doesn't matter," Seokmin mumbles. "Was just something I learnt in chemistry today."
After a moment, Wonwoo asks, "Do you still want me to come over to help you with your Shakespeare essay tomorrow?" He quickly corrects himself, "Today, whatever."
"Yeah, my mum's expecting you," Seokmin laughs. "Don't break her heart."
"I'd never," Wonwoo insists, "She promised to teach me how to read tarot cards, y'know."
Seokmin groans, knocking his forehead against the wood. "Really, hyung? It's all bullshit."
"Is too," Seokmin shoots back. "Fine, knock yourself out, but don't come crying to me when you start smelling like incense all the time and my mum tells you you're gonna be struck by lightning next week or whatever."
"Speaking from experience?" Wonwoo asks, laughing. Seokmin can picture his face so vividly.
"She had a vision she was going to drop me out of a window when I was a baby. Yeah," Seokmin says, rolling his eyes, "Morbid."
Eventually, conferring between the fence, or sneaking into each other's backyards to read aloud excerpts from the Harry Potter books, becomes as banal as being alone. The two begin to take out the squeaky, long-unused bicycles they found in front of No. 4—once owned by a granddaughter who grew up, perhaps—after pumping up the tires with air until they no longer sank miserably into the cement, and they aimlessly roam around the dimly-lit streets of their neighbourhood.
Off they'll go, cycling away from their dead-end street, a pair of puppies let loose in a cornflower field. The faster they ride, the stronger the balmy breeze becomes, the quicker their hearts beat. The rainbow coloured streamers they left tied to the handlebars flow from behind them. Streetlights flicker as they pass block after block, skidding their wheels turning around crescents, and the moon continues to chase them in their frantic race to the finish line.
"Do you ever just wanna leave?" Seokmin muses, after 4AM, knees tucked close to his body and the sharp jut of his chin balanced on his bruised patellae. An array of half-eaten snacks decorate the strip of tar between Seokmin and Wonwoo, where they sit at the dead-end of the street.
"As in," Wonwoo begins, a strawberry Pepero stick hanging out of his mouth, muffling his words, "running away?"
The more Seokmin mulls over it, the further away the other end of the street appears to move. The entrance and exit. The portal to freedom, to falling asleep.
Seokmin absentmindedly draws circles onto the tar with his fingertip, and says, "Maybe." A crack begins to form, languidly running along the street. "What do I even want anymore?"
"To sing," Wonwoo states, the default answer. The one Seokmin always gives. "You could go to Seoul and become an idol."
Seokmin smiles. The edges are too sharp. Wonwoo walks his fingers across the ground, hooking his pinkie onto Seokmin's and intertwining the rest, like a stitch on a wound. You, Seokmin allows himself to think.
"I think," Seokmin starts, all breath and apathy, "I think I just want to sleep."
Biology is a bore, but Seokmin loves the practicals. Some macabre part of him finds cutting up sheep hearts incredibly self-fulfilling. He sits on the edge of the stained white laboratory table, legs hazardously swinging in the air. He laughs, booming and brash, whenever a classmate squeals, and occasionally picks at the bloody mess of an organ splattered across the small chopping board in a half-assed attempt to help his lab partner.
"You know," Seokmin says, in a conspiratorial whisper to his lab partner, a kid who likes to go by Vernon and skipped a grade because he was some sort of child prodigy in his first year of school. Vernon is in serious concentration, taking notes for their report. "I once had my liver removed and sold on the black market without my consent."
Vernon's eyes bulge slightly before he looks up to give Seokmin his full attention.
Seokmin continues, his mouth quirking. "Emergency surgery in Slovakia. It was a wild goose chase trying to find that one sneak of a nurse. Took us to the ends of Russia, no joke."
"Did you get your liver back?" Vernon asks, completely riveted by Seokmin's story. Which was just that, a story.
Seokmin winks. "Wouldn't you like to know?" His phone buzzes in the pocket of his lab coat. "Oh, was that the bell?" He grins, and pushes himself off the table and onto the ground with a loud thud. He shrugs off his lab coat, tossing it onto a chair, and slips out of the classroom with a thumbs up to his half-asleep biology teacher.
Half-way down the corridor, a hand grabs Seokmin's arm in a vice grip, pulling him behind a row of lockers. "Seokmin," Wonwoo's voice calls out in a hushed tone. Seokmin is quick on the uptake but his heart still beats erratically beneath his ribcage with the shock of it. Fear, relief, whatever.
"Is the mission a go?" Seokmin asks, moving behind Wonwoo and hooking his chin onto his shoulder.
Wonwoo reveals the switch in his hand. "Not yet, comrade."
Only their soft breathing and nervous heartbeats can be heard in the hallway for a couple of minutes. Then, the bell rings.
Students filter out of the classrooms.
Wonwoo flicks the switch on.
The entire hallway lights up with the strings of coloured fairy lights threaded across the notice boards, the handles of lockers, the piping along the walls. Everything stills for a moment. It's chilling, like being pushed out into the zero gravity of space. Seokmin feels exhilaration in his veins, surging through to his fingertips clenching the back of Wonwoo's uniform. He closes his eyes and listens to the astonished gasps, the giggling from the students. The skidding of sneakers on the linoleum floor. The, "What's that in your hand, Wonwoo oppa?", followed by a quietly murmured, "Fuck," from Wonwoo.
Of course, no one believes the new kid, the quiet boy next door, Jeon Wonwoo could've committed such a crime. "It was a carefully-planned distraction," the principal says to Seokmin's parents. "Your son is a bad influence."
For the scoff under his breath, sounding oddly like do you steal candy from babies, Mr Pyo? Seokmin is given three extra days of house arrest.
House arrest only means Seokmin has to work slightly harder to escape at night. With two pillows stuffed under his quilt, vaguely resembling his body, an open window, coins from the broken pieces of his piggybank, his songwriting book and MP3 player shoved into his backpack, Seokmin traipses to the 24/7 convenience store where Wonwoo is waiting for him.
"Rebel," Wonwoo remarks, lighting up when he sees Seokmin.
"At least you and everyone knows it," Seokmin retorts, falling into step with Wonwoo as they walk to the park. The streets are eerie, even dangerous for a pair of young teenagers like them, but they have each other and their legs, to run. And a bottle of pepper spray, for good measure.
"A disguise is the best defence mechanism," Wonwoo says, pulling the drawstrings of his hoodie so only his nose is visible.
"I can't hide like you can," Seokmin counters. He and Wonwoo rock back and forth on the swings in the playground, out of sync. "But I like to lie."
"Who doesn't," Wonwoo says, shrugging, the moonlight making his dark irises white. "Sometimes, at least. And what about the truth?"
"The truth is," Seokmin begins, slowing down to grab Wonwoo's hand mid-air, "I'm glad I have you."
Wonwoo laughs, almost in disbelief. It's loud and unabashed. The sound echoes off the rusty slide and the rusty seesaw and the trees in the distance. Still, his cheeks flush a rosy pink.
Dawn soon approaches. Sharing a pair of earphones playing Epik High, the two walk home. Seokmin sneaks through Wonwoo's house, climbing over the fence, using Wonwoo's thighs as leverage to lift himself up and fall onto the flower bed in his backyard.
A figure swathes Seokmin in darkness and Wonwoo's laughter trails off. Seokmin raises his face from the dirt to see his father's bathroom slippers parked in front of him, and glances up further, an apologetic grin already on his face from years of practice.
"You're grounded," his dad says. Seokmin begins to protest that he can't be double-grounded because both sentences would cancel each other out, leaving him not grounded, before he continues, "For the rest of your life."
Seokmin sighs, stumbling onto his feet as his father stalks back into the house. He brushes off his clothes and turns back to wave at Wonwoo, before following his father inside.
"Goodnight, Seokmin," Wonwoo calls out.
"Good morning," Seokmin corrects, under his breath.
i can't sleep, Seokmin texts Wonwoo, a week later. He's sitting by his bedroom window, dragging his finger over the cool metal of the deadbolt.
surprise, surprise, the reply comes within seconds. It's followed by, i miss you.
you saw me at school :D, Seokmin types out.
it's different at night.
Yeah, it is.
Seokmin is let off, come summer. His mother convinced her husband that she had a vision a meteor would crash through Seokmin's window if he stayed grounded a day longer, and she winked at Seokmin behind his back. Later, Seokmin gave a smacking kiss on her cheek as thanks.
"There's one condition, though," she says, "You have to promise you'll spend the day with me and your father."
Seokmin only needs the night. He agrees.
Two hours later, Seokmin finds himself being manoeuvred across a main road, hand in his father's larger one like he's a child again, the colossal, ship-like architecture of the Yongin Aquarium slowly starting to tower above them, the sea touching the skies.
He used to love this place. He'd have come here everyday as a child, if he could. Seokmin would pretend he was filming a nature documentary, narrating the activities of the sea creatures in a horrible imitation of David Attenborough, much to the embarrassment of his parents.
The family enters the aquarium with their tickets, and Seokmin walks ahead of his parents, already eager to get to the tanks. They pass a few smaller tanks, and he presses his face up against every single one. A fish with eyes too big for its face, giving it the impression of being perpetually astonished, swims past him.
He knows what's next: the tunnel. It's a breathtaking sight, luminous blue chambers taking up the entire wall space on either side of the walkway, like you'd fallen into the depths of the ocean itself. The cerulean water bathes them in ultramarine phosphorescence. Seokmin walks over to one side, watching the gossamer jellyfish float near the glass like tiny puffs of cloud matter. Their lilac hoods move like lungs and their dangling strings sway gently in the water, delicate as spiderwebs.
Seokmin steps back and takes in the vastness of the artificial ecosystem. Zebrafish zoom past and a nurse shark listlessly idles across the seabed. He lifts up his hand, the light reflecting rippled waves on his skin. He feels his throat seize up, but at the same time, he couldn't breathe easier. He used to pretend he had gills, a game that ended in one too many near-drownings, but the serenity of silent water couldn't be mimicked. It was transcendent. The stuff of sleep.
Seokmin observes the aquarium as his parents wander around together, quietly chatting to each other. Two divers open a latch at the top of the tank, and Seokmin watches as they sink into the water and swim toward a school of sunfish near the sandy floor.
A turtle loitering past catches his attention. Its hard shell—painted in shades of brown and green—tells stories of long life, wisdom and captivity. The soft flesh underneath is youthful, vulnerable.
Seokmin is too captivated by the turtle to notice one of the divers swimming right up to the glass, and he jumps back in fright. They wave fervently, as though they recognise Seokmin, and so, he peers closer, searching the dark eyes behind the goggles.
"I thought you were joking," Seokmin starts, when Wonwoo bounds into the chamber, his hair wet. His bare feet slap against the ground as he slams against Seokmin, wrapping his arms around Seokmin's waist. "I thought you were joking when you said you got a summer gig at the aquarium. Are you even qualified?"
(The conversation happened outside the choir room, Wonwoo catching Seokmin as he left. They don't get to see each other much at school because Wonwoo's so busy with class and university applications.
"My family friend got me a job at the aquarium," Wonwoo says. "I think I'll just be deboning fish for bigger fish or something lame, but at least I'll save up money before next year, hey?"
"Shut up," Seokmin says. "You didn't."
Wonwoo looks confused. "Yeah, I did. What, you don't like aquariums?"
"It's only like, my dream job."
Wonwoo rolls his eyes, stepping away from Seokmin. He has to leave, he has English Literature now, Seokmin remembers. "You told me you wanted to be an astronaut last week!"
"There's nothing wrong with dreaming big," Seokmin calls out.
"You can only dream if you sleep," Wonwoo yells back. He turns, and even from this distance, Seokmin can see the exhausted sag of his shoulders.)
"I don't lie," Wonwoo says, grinning wide. "I started last week, when school ended. Didn't you get my text? I told you to visit me."
"Well, I'm here now. This is so cool. You're so cool. You're a fish whisperer. And you say you hate seafood!" Seokmin pauses to suck in a huge gulp of air. "Get me a job here. Immediately."
"Calm down," Wonwoo laughs, pinching Seokmin's cheek. "You're sixteen, Seokmin-ah."
"So what?" Seokmin protests, "I know plenty about fish, I'll have you know, I wanted to be a marine—" Wonwoo smacks a hand over his mouth.
"So what," Wonwoo agrees, in a solemn voice. "I have to get back now. But, meet me tonight?" His expression is hesitant, hopeful.
"My place," Seokmin says, when Wonwoo takes away his hand, and before he can stop himself, he presses a kiss to Wonwoo's damp cheek.
"They're fading," Wonwoo says, pointing to the glow-in-the-dark stars stuck to Seokmin's ceiling, in the shape of Orion.
"Why do you think I go outside so often?" Seokmin replies, half-sarcastic, dropping back onto his bed. On the other side, Wonwoo peels back the quilt, climbing in. Seokmin's striped pyjama top hangs loosely on Wonwoo's frame.
"Be careful of the—" Seokmin begins to warn him of the unruly lamp that juts out from the wall, but Wonwoo's clumsiness beats him to it. Wonwoo bumps his head, flopping miserably onto the bed.
"Forgot about that," Wonwoo groans. "It's been a while."
Seokmin rolls over to face Wonwoo, carding a hand through his dark hair. "And we still can't sleep," Seokmin whispers.
"No," Wonwoo sighs, "We can't. But we have each other, at least."
Say it, say it say it, Seokmin tells himself. He doesn't, but it's okay. He has tomorrow night, and the next, and the next.
They lay there in suspended silence, losing track of the minutes, hours, eyes wide open and staring up at plastic stars. Seokmin begins to sing, a slurred jumble of lyrics faintly resembling some boy band tune.
Wonwoo's eyelids flutter closed and Seokmin's singing fades away. "Goodnight, Wonwoo," he mutters, faint. If Wonwoo didn't hear him, he's glad. The alarm clock ticks quietly and the moon's light shines through Seokmin's polka-dot curtains.
They fall asleep.