Jongdae didn’t cry when his mom died. He didn’t cry during the entire funeral, no matter what anyone might think of him for it, and he doesn’t cry when he gets home after the third and final day. He goes to his room and loosens the tie on his neck, pulling it off and tossing it aside. It bothers him that he can’t remember if his mom or father bought it for him.

He rolls up all his belongings the way Sehun’s flight attendant noona taught him so he can fit the maximum amount of belongings in a small space.

Lying on the ground on his back, he rummages underneath his bed with an arm that barely fits between the bed frame and wooden floor. Once he finds the envelope taped there, he rips it off and counts the money. It’s partially the money his mom slipped him without his father’s knowledge, but it’s mostly money he earned at his part-time job as an errand-runner.

Even on the most bitingly frigid nights, he wrapped his scarf around his nose and mouth and took his boss’s scooter to deliver dry cleaning to a lady who lives in Dongdaemun. Even when it rained like someone was pouring buckets of water on his head, he rode the scooter all the way to a studio in Apgujeong to deliver fried chicken to K-Pop stars.

He smacks the money against his palm and slides it back into the envelope. It should be enough to get him a cheap rooftop apartment. And then—and then what? He’ll think about that later—once he’s out of here. He hides the envelope in his guitar case before slinging his Gibson onto his back. He tucks the phone into his pocket but rethinks it and tosses it onto his bed.

With a last look around, he steps out and passes his parents’ room on his way to the apartment door. The sandalwood smell of his mother’s perfume still hangs in the air.

He heads toward the stairs, about to jog down as always, but his feet stop at the top. He presses his thumb against a maroon stain on the railing. He tightens his grip as he keeps going so he won’t fall. Even though she didn’t fall, Jongdae releases his breath at the bottom of the stairs and turns to the left, through the hallway and toward the parking garage. A light buzzes and flickers overheard as he unlocks his bike.

“Where are you going?” He stops and turns. His father stands there, looking every bit the grieving husband from his rumpled suit to his askew tie.

The next moment happens so quickly Jongdae has no chance to process it, but he sees it slowed down, somehow—his fingers curling into a fist, arm pulling back. And then he feels his knuckles against his father’s nose and teeth. Jongdae’s guitar thuds against his back, the twang of the strings echoing discordantly through the garage. Time returns to normal, and his father tumbles back into a row of bikes, knocking them over like crashing dominoes. Jongdae swings his leg over his bike and keeps his foot on the pedal as he watches his father straighten up.

“You ungrateful little brat!”

Up close, his father’s face is bloated from soju, his nose already swollen and purple. Dark blood trails from his nostrils onto his philtrum. Jongdae feels emptied out. He has nothing to say, so he hooks his duffle bag on the handles and turns the bike, ignoring his father’s shouts to come back.

The air is balmy. He takes his right arm off the handles and touches his smarting left knuckles, testing for broken bones. He’s used to taking punches and blocking them, but he isn’t used to dealing them. He moves his hand off his knuckles and slides them up to the black band circling his bicep over his suit jacket. It signifies that he’s the first son of the deceased and also a symbol of his sin in allowing his parent to die.

Headlights glare, and he’s five years old, the sunlight fierce in his eyes as he runs his fire engine over the stone path in the backyard where his mom is pulling weeds. She rubs her back and grimaces. Little Jongdae sees the sweat on her forehead, but she smiles when she looks at him. He knows the hyung who owns this house is rich and sees the hyung’s mom wearing pretty dresses and always having her hair permed. Little Jongdae learned that word from the rich hyung—“perm.” He flies his fire engine in the air. One day his mom will live in a house like this and wear pretty dresses and have her hair permed.

Jongdae releases his other hand and holds his arms out, feeling the warm air resist against him, feeling very solid and real. He leans forward, gripping the handles.

It’s late, but there’s still life on the streets. Businessmen sit on stools and drink
under pojangmacha tents, laughing loudly and raucously. Street vendors still sell sizzling meat and rice cakes so hot the spices makes Jongdae sneeze as he whizzes past. High school students, still in uniform, head home from after-school tutoring and college prep programs.

That reminds him. He needs to find Sehun and Jiyong and let them know he’s
okay. But right now he needs some air first.

So he goes to Sora’s house. She was at the funeral yesterday, the only girl who gave him the space he needed when others were trying to dote on him and take care of him. Others might think she isn’t the prettiest or smartest girl in his class, but to him, she’s a spark.

He hops off the bike while it’s still moving and lets it fall to its side. The duffle bag tumbles off. He looks up at the brick wall surrounding her house and kicks it with his shoe to test its stability. He uses a jutting brick and the wrought iron gate to hoist him up.

Jongdae thinks her room is on this side and her parents’ room is on the other side, but isn’t particularly bothered at the thought of being wrong. He doesn’t feel much of anything at all right now.

His legs dangle over the wall. He sets the Gibson carefully on his lap, spreading his bruised fingers across the frets. He tests it, tightening and loosening the strings until it sounds right. Releasing a breath, he begins to play one of the songs he’s written. He isn’t sure how to connect the chords and notes so he just strings them together. He knows it’s both messy and charming.

Jongdae is lost in the music, feeling his voice rumble in his throat, when the window opens. Out of the corner of his eyes, he sees her lean out, the warm breeze lightly rustling her hair. He recalls the press of her soft lips against his, the taste of strawberry milk. His first kiss and his first love.

“Look at Romeo here.” Jongdae stops playing and looks down to see Jiyong grinning up at him. Sehun is there too, straightening Jongdae’s bike and nudging down the kickstand. Both of them are still dressed in their high school uniforms, just as they were at the funeral.

“He likes you,” Jiyong calls up to Sora, cupping his mouth for dramatic effect. She glances worriedly back into the house and then smiles down at Jongdae. Even from the distance, he can read her dark eyes. She looks charmed, but also sad on his behalf. Suddenly he can’t stand to be here any longer. He zips away his Gibson and hands it carefully to Sehun before swinging his legs over and leaping off the wall. Jongdae waves to Sora, who blows him a kiss, and gets back on his bike as his friends do the same. He doesn’t ask how they found him.

They know him just about as well as he knows them. “Running away?” asks Sehun, holding Jongdae’s duffel bag out to him.

“It’s about time,” Jiyong says jovially, pedaling faster and leaning against his

Jongdae and Sehun follow behind him. They bike as they always are—three
points of a triangle with Jiyong slightly in the lead.

It’s been this way since Jiyong was the only one crazy enough to take under his wing quiet Jongdae, who just wanted to keep to himself, and cold Sehun, who had no interest in making friends. Only Jiyong could have untwisted them into this Jongdae, who will do anything for his friends, and this Sehun, who cares more than anyone possibly could.

Jongdae’s mom liked Jiyong, despite his penchant for getting her son in trouble. She called Jiyong a burning flame, and although Jongdae would laugh at the time, he secretly worries about how much longer Jiyong can burn so fiercely. Jiyong is the brilliance, and Sehun is the warmth. Jongdae knows he has a part too, but he isn’t quite sure what it is.

They end up at a park beside Han Kang. Casting aside their bikes, they sit on the grass, watching the lights of Gangnam reflect off the water.

Jiyong whistles, grabbing Jongdae’s hand and pulling it toward him. “Look at this. I hope that man’s face looks worse.”

“It does,” Jongdae says, surveying the bruises. Jiyoung laughs delightedly and kisses the bruise.

On the left, Sehun tugs at the black band and lets it snap against Jongdae’s bicep.“Why don’t you take it off?”“I don’t want to.” Jongdae covers his fingers over the punitive band. On the other side, Jiyong fidgets before taking out the Gibson.

His fingers move absently, finding minor chords that mirror Jongdae’s mood. Jiyong’s fingers make magic without effort. Jongdae spent several years studying his technique until he realized the glaringly obvious answer: Jiyong just doesn’t care. He doesn’t care about sounding good or about trying. He finds his mood and goes with it, letting it out in its rawest and realest form.

“You didn’t let her die,” Sehun says out of nowhere.

“I might as well have,” Jongdae says, folding his hands together and leaning his forehead against them. “I didn’t protect her.”

Sehun sets his elbows on his knees and leans forward, talking over Jiyong’s whimsical music. “She was your mom. It was her job to protect you, not your job to protect her.”

“Your mom tell you that?”

Sehun is quiet for a moment. “Yes. She said she would have wanted to die rather than let me die. She’s sure your mom must have felt the same.”

“Oh really?” Jongdae says flatly. “But your mom never had to make a choice like that, and she never will.”

He remembers the feel of the knife in his hand, testing it along his finger so it left behind a stinging thread of blood. He could have ended it long ago but he never had the courage. According to Sehun and Jiyong, he doesn’t have the murderous intent.

They were the ones who found him, who took the knife from him and held him back until he collapsed into raging tears he wouldn’t let anyone else see.

“Because my dad walked out when I was a baby,” Sehun says quietly.

Jongdae’s lost count of the number of times he’d begged his mom to run away. He thinks of Sehun’s flight attendant noona and the way she lives everywhere and nowhere all at once.

“I wish my dad had walked out on us,” Jongdae says.

“Gentlemen” Jiyong says in English, palming the strings so they stop vibrating. He continues in Korean, “Let’s not fight, okay?”

Jongdae ignores him, turning back to Sehun as something occurs to him. “Your mom knew?”

Sehun keeps his composure, ripping out a few strands of grass and tossing them toward the river. The light wind carries them to Jongdae instead. “She guessed.”

“And she didn’t do anything to help,” Jongdae says with a nod.

Once Jongdae entered middle school, he was the one with his arms around his tiny, frail mom, absorbing his father’s anger for her. He used to ask her all the time, “How did you get stuck with someone like him?”

She would pat his cheek and say, “I’m thankful because otherwise I would never have had you.” As he grew broader and taller, his mom seemed to shrink and grow frailer still. He was sure if he made a circle with fingertips of both hands touching, the circumference would be greater than his mom’s waist. He had wanted to be a wall for her, but he should have tried to be a rope instead.

“Your mom wouldn’t admit anything was wrong,” Sehun says. “How could my mom help her when she refused to accept any help?

”You could have tried harder. But even in his mind he knows how unreasonable it is. And it won’t change anything.

“Jongdae-ya, you don’t need to feel guilty,” Sehun says.

“So you can read my mind now?” Jongdae says, but there’s no real feeling behind his words.

Jiyong sets aside the Gibson and digs into the pocket on his blazer lining. He shows them the pack of cigarettes with a smile as he pulls one out and clamps it between his teeth. Sometimes Jongdae thinks Jiyong’s intermittent smoking is just way to rile his friends.

“I got a 30 year old noona to buy me these,” he says, finding his lighter. “She was pretty, and I told her so. She didn’t even need me to ask for the cigarettes. She offered.”

“See, my friends, 30 year old women are the best. Still young, still beautiful, but they’re insecure. They desperately need to know people think they’re pretty.”

Sehun snorts. Jongdae shakes his head. Jiyong lights the cigarette and takes a deep breath, blowing smoke into the air above them and blotting out the stars they can see. Jongdae wrinkles his nose at the smell.

“You know those things will kill you,” he says.

Jiyong smiles and shrugs. He switches to English again. “Live fast and die young.”

He clicks the lighter shut, snuffing out the flame.

“Death might be a joke to you, Jongdae says, “but how do you think we’ll feel when you’re gone?”

Jiyong raises an eyebrows and looks to Sehun, who shrugs and says, “Sorry, Jiyong-ah. I agree with him. Plus, it’ll make your teeth yellow.”

“Death doesn’t sound so bad,” Jiyong says.“My mom’s funeral was tonight.” Jongdae’s voice is a razor.

Jiyong shrugs one shoulder. “To be honest, I think dying was the best thing your mom could have done for you.”

For the second time that night, Jongdae throws a punch before realizing it. The cigarette is propelled from Jiyong’s mouth like a rocket to lie smoldering in a patch of dirt. Jongdae can’t stop his attack now that he’s started. Fury he didn’t know was pent up inside of him cracks against Jiyong.

Jiyong’s teeth tear open Jongdae’s bruised knuckles. Sehun grabs Jongdae by the shoulders and hauls him back. Jongdae struggles against him but feels his energy deplete quickly. Jiyong straightens up, and without a moment’s pause, punches him.

Jongdae’ back thuds against the grass. His lungs lose the air they’ve been holding. He shakes his head to clear away the spots and looks up at Jiyong, who runs his tongue over his split lip. His face is a mess, eyes chaotic.

“The only reason you’re this mad is because you were thinking it too,” Jiyong says quietly. He spins around and dashes off. Sehun lies down on the grass beside Jongdae as if nothing just happened.

The worst part is, Jiyong is right. By dying, Jongdae’s mom set him free. His life centered on two things: staying away from his dad and keeping his mom away from his dad. Jiyong is right about the other part, too. Jongdae feels…relief. He doesn’t have to stress about anything happening anymore because the worst has already happened. He doesn’t have to be chained to a man he hates and fears.

He touches the black band and forces himself to remember his guilt.

“Maybe…Jiyong isn’t entirely wrong,” Jongdae says, suddenly thinking of the knife again—the way it gleamed, the way Sehun tore it from his grasp.

“I could have freed myself long ago if I had the courage to take control and use that knife.”

“You aren’t a killer…but he is, isn’t he?” And it’s in Jongdae’s mind again—his mom at the top of the stairs, his father striking out in anger, his mom trying to find her balance but slipping and banging her head against the railing.

He feels the gust of air from her flailing arms as he tried to grab a hold of her.

“It was because she ordered the wrong kind of chicken,” Jongdae says. It never takes much to set off his father, and only Sehun and Jiyong know the extent—the bruises on Jongdae’s chest, the broken ribs. They have always been the ones patching him up so none of their teachers would find out.

The teachers think he’s a delinquent, getting into after school fights. Sora always begged him not to get into fights, getting angrier and angrier when he responded with stony silence. He knows she suspects, though. She must know there’s something that doesn’t add up, but as long as Jiyong and Sehun don’t say anything, there’s nothing she can do.

“I kept telling her we should run away,” Jongdae says, “but she kept refusing. She would say, ‘How can we separate you from Sehunnie and Jiyongie?’”

“She was right,” Sehun says with a small sideways smile. “Jiyongie and I would be a mess without you to hold us together.” Jongdae laughs wryly.

“Stay at our house, Jongdae-ya.” Sehun tucks his hands under his head.

“I’m getting a rooftop apartment.” Jongdae sits up and carefully puts away his Gibson.

“Until you get it then,” Sehun says. He doesn’t say the words but he doesn’t have to. I can still help save you. Jongdae lies down again, and they just look up at the hazy sky.

“What a precious picture,” Jiyong says breathlessly as he returns. The space between his upper lip and gum is packed with cotton, blurring his speech. There’s a black plastic bag swinging in his hand. He takes out the cigarette packet again. Jongdae takes a sharp breath, his disbelief congealing into anger. But Jiyong drops the packet on the ground and stomps on it, grinding his toes into it.

“There,” he says, back to his state of manic calm. “We’re brothers, right?”

Jongdae watches Jiyoung warily and finally rises to his feet, patting his friend on the back. Pain reverberates through his hand. Clocking his reaction, Jiyong takes his hand and wordlessly gives the bag to Sehun. Sehun stands there like Jiyong’s assistant, handing over items as Jiyong administers stinging antiseptic to Jongdae’s cuts and wraps them with a bandage. These are parts the three have had to play over and over again.

“Jiyong-ah, what are these for?” Sehun says, pulling out three sparklers.

Jiyong shrugs. “Just because.”

He flicks the lighter and lights one. He holds it over Jongdae’s head so sparks like minuscule meteors rain down.

“Today you are free of your burdens,” Jiyong says.“My mom wasn’t—” Jongdae starts as Sehun lights another sparkler.

“Today you’re reborn as Jongdae who can finally be a kid without responsibilities,” Sehun says, holding the sparkler right next to Jiyong’s.

Jongdae hesitates and then lights the third sparkler, holding it in the air. “Today…I’m absolved.”

Still holding the sparkler up, Jiyong gets on his bike and rides alongside the edge of the river. They can hear him whooping from where they stand.

Exchanging grins, the two of them get on their bikes with Jongdae pausing just to get his Gibson on his back. As always, they try to catch up to Jiyong, hands off their handles, holding their sparklers high. Jongdae can just imagine how they must look to strangers—tall and handsome and young, all with cutting cheekbones, two with double eyelids, and one with dimples.

Their faces are peppered with bruises and blood. Their button-up shirts hang wild and untucked. The elbows of their jackets are dusted with dirt, while the knees of their slacks are wet with grass stains. The sparklers create ribbons of white-gold light behind them that mimic the curves of the river. They look like the world is unfolding for them. The slightly stronger river breeze unties the black band and sends it careening off into the darkness behind Jongdae, but he doesn’t stop, doesn’t lower his arm.

There’s so much he should have done for his mom, and there will be more than enough time to dwell on it later and to fall prey to his guilt. But for right now, he’s alive.

Jiyong and Sehun fall behind him, making him the leading point of their triangle this time, and Jongdae finally sees it. If Jiyong is the brilliance and Sehun is the warmth, Jongdae is the candle that houses the flame.

I prefer to write under the name Teji Reve. I live in California. When I’m not writing, I can be found dancing hip hop in San Francisco.