Moon was waiting outside the bottle shop for a date who never showed up. She was meant to be short, with a close-cropped brunette hairstyle, and intelligent eyes. He kept his eyes peeled for somebody of that description. In the meantime, he bought himself a bottle of Soju, downing it after stepping away from the counter.
Moon was twenty-two, freshly unemployed and with a freshly broken heart. He was minimalistic, soft-spoken and reserved, traits of an Actuarial graduate. Trudging his way through a four–year degree he hated had drained the life out of him. He wasn’t even disappointed about being stood up. It meant he could go home to sleep. Though they’d broken up a long time ago, he wasn’t out-of-love with his ex-girlfriend. He only became gloomier, and the days melted into one endless stretch of time.
“Is it true what they say?” A kid approached him from behind. Moon hadn’t even heard him coming. “That you can buy anything in a bottle these days?”
The kid couldn’t have been any older than twenty, with badly dyed blonde hair, a grey overcoat, stomping around in red combat boots. He had a permanently crestfallen look on his face, and his eyes were downward cast. He shoved his hands into his pockets and leaned against the brick wall. He was taller than Moon by about half a head.
“Depends on what you’re drinking away, I guess.”
“Bottles hold the cure to everything, my classmates tell me. Broken hearts, insomnia, night terrors, chronic depression. Do they really cover that much melancholy?”
“Something has to. Not everybody can afford prescription meds, you know.”
“So what are you curing with that Soju?”
“Broken heart, mood swings, apathy, lethargy. A lot of things.”
The kid raised his gaze to meet Moon’s – though his eye contact felt false, like he didn’t want to really engage with him – before asking politely, “Do you think you could buy me one?”
“How old are you?”
“Wait your turn,” Moon said, clipping the end of his sentence short and sliding his headphones on over his ears. He started to walk away.
“I’m terminal,” the boy called after him. “I want this drink before it’s too late. Please?”
Moon slowly slipped his headphones around his neck when he heard those words. The words hung heavy in the air; it could be a lie, but something about the darkness in his expression said otherwise. Because ‘too late’? Moon knew about too late. You couldn’t feign too late. Too late manifested in your eyes, followed you around like a spectre that had its hands around your ankles, begging you to be dragged around. Moon knew what it felt like to carry the deadweight of missed opportunity. Is that what the kid meant? Even if he didn’t, they seemed to bear the burden of the same world on their shoulders.
He changed his mind and re-entered the liquor store, buying a can of the cheapest Asahi for him. But the boy savoured it all like it was century-old scotch. His mouth released a satisfied noise once the bottle was empty.
“That didn’t taste as good as I thought it would.”
“You sounded content.”
“At first sip I thought it was exquisite. But the longer I drank, the more pronounced the burning sensation became. Is that normal, to feel like your throat is on fire?”
“Yes. You learn to appreciate that feeling with age.”
The boy coughed and coughed. “I highly doubt that.” He crumpled up the can in his hand and threw it in the closest trashcan. “I’m Kai, by the way.”
“What an unusual name,” Moon commented.
“In Chinese it means ‘open.’”
“Do you think your name suits you?”
“Not really. I think it’s the exact opposite. I feel like it’s possible for my insides to cave in on themselves, and my mind and feelings to close up and swallow me whole.”
“You have a burdened mind for a seventeen–year–old.”
“Not many seventeen–year–olds have been through the same things as I have.”
“You look quite healthy. I don’t think any ailment could fight you.”
“I never said what I’m afflicted by was an ailment. Not a medical one, anyway.”
Moon narrowed his eyes. “Are you really terminal?”
“No. Kind of.”
“I can’t quite put my finger on it. If chronic hollowness, or emptiness, a persistent feeling of dissatisfaction with myself, was diagnosable, I’d be terminal. I’ve tried sleeping heaps, but that doesn’t help much. I just feel worse that I’ve wasted more time.”
“When did you start showing symptoms of… that?”
It was at that moment that Kai decided to spout his entire life story to Moon; about how he had moved to Busan three years ago with his mother, just before he started high school. How she had given up every opportunity she could have had for herself to move to a metropolis that would better foster his education. Even if that meant living in a claustrophobic apartment in the red–light district, choked up with love motels and massage parlours.
How he didn’t go to school much in spite of that, because no matter how hard he tried to learn, numbers were still nonsensical, letters were still incessantly jumbled, concepts and shapes and ideas just funnelled into an idle cesspool in his brain.
How every failed paper, every narrow-eyed stare from a professor, every pitying look from a classmate, every class ranking, every report card, every walk home to face his mother and her questions as to whether everything was okay at school, and whether he was learning new things, and whether he was enjoying his life, and how she was so grateful that she was his mother and he was her son, and how she loved him more than she ever could say no matter what, sat on his chest to the point that he couldn’t breathe under the weight of his own insufficiency.
How he had rotated through anger, sadness, self-loathing, frustration, until he plateaued and found a limbo cavity in which he could not live, but just be. How he wasn’t good enough.
Moon’s heart broke so fast it was anti-climactic.
He put a hand gently on Kai’s back for a second, then removed it. “I think I understand.”
Moon thought back to the emptiness that was constantly lodged in his chest. Maybe being stood-up or sacked had inflamed it, but he knew a hole had ruptured in there long before. It was like a void he couldn’t fill. His heart was a house searching for the substance of a home that wasn’t quite there yet.
“Everybody is so loud. Everybody wants something from you, yet everybody ignores you at the same time.” Moon stopped himself to apologise. “Our lives are quite different though. I suppose I can’t say anything.”
Kai shook his head. “One person’s sadness is relative to their life experience. You and me, we both know that feeling of purposelessness. It doesn’t matter much what caused it.” He shook his head. “Don’t you feel like some days you physically can’t get out of bed, but you don’t mind because maybe one day it will swallow you up?”
“Like gravity is pulling you harder towards the ground?” Moon agreed.
“Yes.” Kai smiled a little sadly because he understood. “Sometimes I sit in the shower and fantasize about the water level rising high enough to drown me. Or I lie on hot concrete in the sun, so I’ll burn and experience pain, because nothing hurts when you feel numb on the inside. I wouldn’t mind. It would be nice to feel something that isn’t sadness.”
“Race you to the end of the universe, then.”
Moon smiled. Kai smiled back.
“Am I being too cynical?” Kai asked. “I haven’t done very much to improve your mood. But thank you for the beer.”
Moon waved his hand to dismiss the favour.
“To think about life this way is important. For the content ones, it helps them realise how lucky they are to be here on earth, in this time, in this place. But do you know what I’ve realised lately?” Moon asked carefully, “I’m not scared of dying. Part of me is looking forward to it. I think I will finally reach uninterrupted peace, when I’m there.”
Kai’s expression was hard like stone. He stared into the distance. It was the dead of a frigid winter. Moon bundled his parka tighter around his body. Kai, however, didn’t seem fazed. He was static, his eyes crystallised in little dark beads, like specimens stymied in amber after a long period of time.
“Do you want to do it together?”
Moon hesitated. But only for a second. “How?”
Kai shrugged. “Gun makes too much noise, nooses are untimely in this day and age, belts seem like an unspectacular substitute. Overdose is very expensive now, since I lost my wallet.”
“We could drown, if you wanted. I can’t swim. It would be quite easy,” suggested Moon.
Kai let a laugh escape from his mouth. His eyes crinkled into crescents, and Moon thought it was a beautiful thing to see. “I was in a swim squad for ten years. Plus, you would go out floundering very gracelessly. I don’t think you want that.”
Kai removed his heavy overcoat. Underneath he was wearing a turtleneck sweater, and he removed that too. He pulled off his ribbed Henley top and his two thermal undershirts, layer by layer peeled off his body. He removed his shoes and socks and placed all the clothing in a neat pile on the side of the road. Eventually he stood with his arms crossed, wearing only a white wife–beater and trousers.
“What are you waiting for?”
Moon didn’t question it. He removed his parka, his thick sweater, and his favourite button-up shirt that he only wore to make a good first impression. He took off his loafers, socks and left his tortoiseshell framed glasses and red headphones on top.
Kai motioned him to follow into the middle of the street. They walked down it for a little while, trudging through the dirty snow. Moon felt his feet going numb, but he didn’t mind the sensation. It seemed like the entire town was narcotised. There were two or three witnesses, but they didn’t give the pair a second look.
Eventually Kai stopped walking. They had reached the top of a hill, revealing an aerial view of little blinking lights and nomads wandering the streets as small as ants. It was a moment caught in that grey mesh of time where you couldn’t tell if it was too late to be out, or too early to go home.
“I stayed in this world too long. I dreamed of becoming an artist, but was kept in four walls. Death and loneliness followed me like a disease. Isolation was so comfortable. Everywhere I went, there was a new set of rules that told me that I didn’t belong, with different reasons every time. I want to find somewhere I can call home. Do you?”
“Yes. More than anything.”
They sat at the top of the hill with nothing in their thoughts. Eventually Kai leaned over, resting his head on Moon’s shoulder. His eyelids fluttered closed, his breathing became laboured. Moon felt only the warmth of Kai’s breath in the crook of his neck. Gently, he rested against the side of Kai’s body. He didn’t want to lean too heavily; it felt as though the boy could shatter like porcelain.
“Die like you will fall asleep instantly. If you can close your eyes to everything you don’t want to see, eventually your body will sense you don’t want to be here anymore,” Kai murmured into the other boy’s shoulder. His lips grazed Moon’s clavicle.
Moon checked his watch. It was five minutes to three in the morning. The world was dead empty and at its most beautiful – the most beautiful Moon had ever seen it. A whistle of wind penetrated the silence periodically, but after a while, the sound became anodyne, maybe even soothing. The whole scene was like a dream.
“Tomorrow, everything will be okay. Tomorrow, you will wake up in a new world. And you will want to stay.”