(Originally posted 19 Mar 2014 on tumblr)
Hyo-shin sleeps too soundly on Tuesday morning to go on a pre-dawn run to Jeguk, but the idea of going through the same insincere congratulations from the rest of the student body is suffocating. He has to do something to change the course of his day if only so he doesn’t end up hiding in the nurse’s office again or locked in a bathroom stall to empty the contents of his stomach.
He checks the time, does some quick mental math, scrambles out of bed, and speeds through his morning routine. There is a small window of opportunity available to him, between when the gates are officially unlocked and when the majority of the staff and the students begin showing up, for him to paint another outline. All he needs is a few minutes on the empty grounds, and then he can hide the can of paint in the bushes or even throw it away so he doesn’t have it on his person.
There isn’t any time to waste on a proper breakfast, so Hyo-shin grabs some extra ginseng packets and protein bars, shoves his morning dose of medication in his pocket, and races down the stairs so he can drop the pill bottle on the kitchen table. He doesn’t run to school—he doesn’t want to stick in anyone’s memory lest they connect an out-of-place student with the vandalism at the school—but he walks quickly, head down, leaning into the autumn wind. Winter will be here soon if the weather continues to be this unseasonably cold.
Jeguk is quiet and still when he gets there, almost fifty minutes before classes start. He slows his pace and takes extra care to ensure that there are no teachers or staff members anywhere in the vicinity. The anemic morning sunlight leaks through the clouds and gives the cement a sickly undertone.
Hyo-shin takes several long, deep breaths while he shakes the can of spray paint, trying to figure out which of the outlines he should paint this morning. He settles on one—arms outstretched as if to fly, knees fallen together to one side, lower legs and feet askew to ruin what could have been a beautiful shape—and tosses his backpack to the side so he can begin painting.
Every white line on the ground is a new avenue through which some of the pressure of his life can escape. It doesn’t calm him, not exactly, but it does make it easier to tear his mind away from the future he doesn’t know how to change. It helps him focus on the present.
The can sputters before he finishes one of the arms, so Hyo-shin straightens up from his work. He checks the spray nozzle, wipes off a little clump of paint with his thumb, and shakes the can a few more times.
“Is that for me?” an unsteady voice asks.
Hyo-shin whirls around.
Moon Joon-young has a death grip on the straps of his backpack, and the expression he is wearing says he is either close to tears or to getting sick. Perhaps both. His eyes are locked on the unfinished outline at Hyo-shin’s feet.
But Joon-young either doesn’t hear him or doesn’t believe him because he asks, “I thought Young-do—do you know who else is going to start in on me? So I can at least be ready—”
“It’s not for you.”
Joon-young looks up then, and the raw despair in his eyes hits harder than any physical blow.
“It’s for me,” Hyo-shin says, and then he has to pause while he struggles against the bile trying to rise in his throat. “It has nothing to do with you.”
It is only a very small lie because Joon-young is only a very small part of the mess of Hyo-shin’s life.
Maybe someday Joon-young’s confusion will be comical. As it is, Hyo-shin can only put on a smile that will never fool anyone. “You should worry more about yourself than me. Now get moving—I don’t work with an audience. Unless you’re going to join me?”
The second arm does not turn out as originally planned. They don’t talk about it again.
The next week, Hyo-shin shows up at school to find an outline already in front of the school. It isn’t Joon-young’s work—the first year does not have a steady hand. When Hyo-shin checks the place he hid the can of paint, it is gone. Someone else must have seen him and Joon-young that morning or found the paint on their own.
So Hyo-shin buys new spray paint every time he wants to create an outline. Then he hides the can in a new place on the grounds for someone else to find. It is almost comforting how frequently other outlines appear as autumn comes to a close. It means he is not as alone as he thought.
The day after the first snowfall, when the streets of Seoul are gray and soggy, is a Wednesday, so Hyo-shin heads to therapy after school. Once he’s settled in his seat in Jae-sung’s office, he says without prompting, “One of the second years quit the broadcasting club this morning.”
“Because that’s what happens the closer you get to your third year.” Hyo-shin smiles faintly at his own words, because he ought to know by now that Jae-sung doesn’t fully understand the bizarre set of rules that govern life at Jeguk. He needs to provide more context. “Unless you come from an entertainment family, your parents usually make you quit so you can focus on things that are—what did he say?—‘more suitable’ for your future. I’m betting I’ll be the only third year after summer break, if not earlier.”
“Are you worried your parents will pressure you to do the same?”
“Yes. I haven’t told them I’m part of the club, much less the president. I’m hoping that as long as I keep my first place ranking, they won’t have reason to look any closer at my school life.”
“That seems like a lot of pressure for you to deal with.”
Hyo-shin just shrugs because there is nothing he can do to change that. “Normally it’s pretty awful when someone leaves. Everyone knows what that means and starts wondering when it will be their turn to quit. And it was awful, but it was—it was a normal awful. I’m not making any sense, am I?”
“Not quite yet,” Jae-sung says, but his words are gentle, amused.
“Right.” Hyo-shin searches for the right words this time and not just first the words that come to mind. It takes a few moments before he says, more slowly, “I expected this to hurt more. I expected that because of what my life has been like this year, the first time I lost someone while I was president it would be devastating. And it wasn’t. Bo-na was pissed off when I told her, and it was hard to get the club members to focus during the meeting, but I could keep functioning.”
When his therapist stays quiet, Hyo-shin continues, “It was weird, because until that moment, I hadn’t realized that things weren’t as awful as they used to be. Not that things have really changed at all. But I don’t—I don’t know. It’s stupid, but it’s like there is actually a difference between completely terrible and just mostly terrible.”
Jae-sung smiles at that. “It isn’t stupid. Feeling like your life is less terrible than it used to be is a good thing.”
Hyo-shin lets out a long, slow breath. It is a relief to hear those words from Jae-sung, not that he can articulate why, precisely. It is not as if those words will change the future his parents mapped out for him.
But for a moment they make those weights a little easier to carry—enough that he can try something new. Hyo-shin gathers up what little scraps of courage he has in reserve, and this time he spends them to tell Jae-sung the beginning of his story.