The last third-year and president of the broadcasting club resigns two weeks after summer break. She claims it is so she can focus on studying for the college entrance exam, but Hyo-shin (president as of twenty minutes ago) stands guard outside the room after school to listen to her sob. She’s ranked ninth in the senior class, and her family owns several of the top-rated plastic surgery and beauty clinics in Gangnam—her future is as fixed in stone as his. Hyo-shin wonders how much longer he has before it’s his turn to resign; then he wonders if he’ll live long enough for that to happen.
That thought reminds him that he hasn’t taken his afternoon dose yet, so he fishes the pill bottle from his jacket. Before he can pull out his mandated pill, Lee Bo-na appears at the end of the hallway, and he has to shove the bottle back in his jacket.
“Did Yoon Chan-young break up with you yet?” he asks to deflect her attention.
Bo-na scowls at him and folds her arms with an indignant little huff. “No, he didn’t, and if you aren’t nicer to me, I won’t invite you to our 100-day party. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Tell you what?”
“That the president was leaving! You knew, didn’t you?” She jabs an accusatory finger at his chest and doesn’t give him time to answer. “No wonder you looked so down before summer break. I would’ve helped you get ready to take over the club if I’d known.”
Somehow, he keeps his voice steady. “You noticed?”
“Of course I did, you were—”
Her phone rings. Bo-na squeals when she sees the display and answers it immediately. “Chan-young! Where are you?” She waves a quick goodbye as she rushes off to find her absent boyfriend.
Hyo-shin is too stunned to say goodbye, but it doesn’t keep him from laughing once she’s gone. Bo-na—loud, unsubtle, human hurricane Lee Bo-na—had noticed he was breaking when no one else in his life had. He clamps a hand over his mouth to stifle the noise (when was the last time he laughed?) because the ex-president is still weeping on the other side of the door. His shoulders shake with emotions too tangled to sort out and name, so when the first tears show up, he has no idea why he’s crying.
Lunch with the men of his father’s family is never something Hyo-shin looks forward to, even if the food at Zeus Hotel is exceptional. It is hard to enjoy the cuisine when he is busy being force-fed everyone else’s vision of his future. Normally he can get through the entire two hours with little more than yes sir, no sir, and I agree, but his grandfather breaks from his typical script to ask a question Hyo-shin doesn’t expect.
“How was the language program?”
Hyo-shin glances at his father. His father’s expression is the perfect, polite blandness that’s served him so well in the courtroom, but his knuckles are going white around his steak knife. Hyo-shin surveys the other men around the table and catalogues nothing more intense than mild curiosity.
It hits him then like lightning that his parents haven’t just lied to their friends and co-workers about where he spent the majority of his summer—they’ve lied to their families as well.
“Fine,” he says after he swallows. The word comes out rough, burdened as it is by the sudden realization of how ashamed his parents are of him. Hyo-shin grabs his glass of water and takes a long drink to smooth it out. “I learned a lot. My English has improved considerably.”
His grandfather lobs a few other questions his way, for which Hyo-shin dutifully makes up answers, until he loses interest. Hyo-shin chokes down his food and struggles to care when his father starts talking about yet another pre-fabricated part of Hyo-shin’s future: a private tutor.
The meal eventually ends, but their attempt to leave the hotel is stymied by a milling crowd of guests and employees at the main entrance. There are sirens in the distance, growing ever louder.
“What’s going on?” his grandfather demands of a hotel clerk, who currently has her comforting arm around another distraught employee.
“Someone jumped from the building next door, just a few minutes ago. I think…I think they’re dead.”
Hyo-shin looks up articles on the suicide that night, but none of them mention what height the person jumped from, who he was, or why he jumped. The one detail Hyo-shin gets caught up on is that the man “died instantly.”
How short is an instant? The span between one heartbeat and the next? That brief flash of darkness when you blink? Just enough time for regret? (The regret probably happened on the way down—but how long did that take?) Whatever it is, an instant is shorter than that whirling numbness he experienced in L.A., when his body became alien and sluggish and death pressed heavy and irresistible across his chest and shoulders.
Sleep won’t come that night. The next day Hyo-shin fights distraction and exhaustion with habit and routine, but his edges are fraying, and the smaller details slip through his fingers. Bo-na has to pick up his slack at the broadcasting club. She finally kicks out everyone early so she can glare at him, her hands on her hips.
“I can see why Chan-young likes it when you pout,” he says in the hopes that she will leave if she thinks he’s flirting with her. “Do you want to be vice president?”
She ignores the first part and dismisses the second. “I can’t spend more time away from him than I already do. And besides, one of the other second-years should be VP.”
“None of them come from entertainment.” Hyo-shin runs a hand through his hair. “They’ll leave once their parents find out, like usual. I’ll be gone someday, too. It’d just be easier to train you instead of cycling through all of them.”
“Are you sure?”
Hyo-shin puts on another of his smiles, this one so tight-lipped it cuts into his heart. “Of course. I want this club to outlast me at least.”
There is a bus stop across from Zeus Hotel that sits just next to where the jumper hit the ground. Hyo-shin can sit on the bench for hours, getting lost and overlooked in the ever-changing group of people clustered at the stop. As far as they’re concerned, he’s just another high school student waiting for the right bus to show up. He’s just messing around with his phone, and if he ends up taking a surprising amount of pictures of the new cracks in the sidewalk, what does it matter?
The fact that there’s no evidence of the suicide beyond those little fissures in the cement is equal parts disturbing and exhilarating. How many people stepped over that patch of sidewalk in the last four days, the last four minutes, and didn’t know they were walking over the place someone died? But Hyo-shin knows, and he holds that secret close to him, tucked away in his inner pockets where no one else can see.
No one else, that is, unless they know what they’re looking for.
“Are you interested in the local real estate, sunbae?”
Hyo-shin snaps the case closed on his phone and glances up to find Choi Young-do looming over him.
“You’ve been scoping out the area for the last couple of days,” Young-do continues. “Get any good pictures?”
“Some. The pictures don’t tell the whole story, though. I’ll just have to put together the details on my own.” Filling in the empty space, constructing a story from the little moments—those are some of the things he loves most about tv and film and radio. He doesn’t want to try to create something in front of this audience. “I’ll see you later.”
But Young-do does not step back when Hyo-shin gets up from the bench, which puts the two of them face-to-face and uncomfortably close. The first-year breaks into a sudden grin—entirely too much teeth—and asks, “Don’t you want to see where the story started?”
Hyo-shin walks out onto the balcony.
“Right over there.” Young-do points out the correct floor on the building next door. “He just threw himself right over the railing. Headfirst, even, though it wouldn’t have mattered—a fall from that height would’ve killed him no matter which part of him hit first.”
Hyo-shin pulls out his phone and walks to the very edge of the balcony, so his toes are jammed against the wall and the top of the railing cuts into his stomach. He takes panoramic pictures and video, and when the reminder pops up about his therapy session, Hyo-shin dismisses it so he can keep getting his footage. Young-do leans back against the railing and watches him with unreadable eyes. He pulls a package of cigarettes out from somewhere and lights one up.
Hyo-shin is eventually forced to stop when the sun sinks low enough that it’s shining directly into his face and ruining the light. It’s only then that he registers the ache in his arms and shoulders from holding his phone up and out for so long.
“You look like you’re dying of envy, sunbae,” Young-do says as he straightens up. There are three cigarette butts at his feet. His grin lurks at the corner of his mouth, almost as if he’s not sure whether he will need it.
Hyo-shin sticks his phone back in his pocket. “It’s human nature to be jealous of people who succeed where you fail. It’s not often I get to feel it.”
Young-do laughs at that, a grating, unnatural sound, and he’s still laughing when Hyo-shin leaves his hotel room.