She's tired. Hyejin walks through the front door of her shared apartment, catching a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror and blinks—the skin beneath her eyes is puffy, her eyes too bright off the countless cups of coffee she's slung back throughout the day, the most recent of which is still clutched in her hand.
Wake up. The words swim into the forefront of her thoughts, but Hyejin shakes her head. She's already awake. The keys clink metallic when she tosses them in the cut-glass bowl on the table in the front hall, a contrast to the soundless slide of her stocking feet across the floor.
"Yewon?" she calls, peering around the corner into the kitchen, but the room is empty, plate still in the sink. Hyejin doesn't say anything, just sets her bag down on the table and rolls up her sleeves. The tap water runs cold at first, until the hot water has a chance to reach the faucet, and whatever Yewon ate off the plate last has crusted onto the melamine. Hyejin goes to work at it with a scrubbing brush until it rinses clean.
"Thank you," she tells herself, brushing away the hair that has fallen into her eyes with damp fingers. There's a buzzing in her pocket, her phone humming against her skin. The phone nearly slips out of her grasp when she reaches to pull it out of her pocket, Yewon's face hovering on the screen.
"Hi," she says, and her voice is bright, sunlight.
"Hi," Hyejin replies, tone a little more subdued, but Yewon doesn't even seem to notice, already running along the topic of her phone call, how she's going out for supper with Jiho and some friends and won't be back till late.
"Okay," Hyejin says, shrugging even though Yewon can't see the motion. While Hyejin wouldn't go out for dinner with friends the night before an eight-o'clock class, she's not Yewon and her friend will just have to figure it out on her own.
Hyejin's just dabbing her hands dry on the hand towel when she spots it—fitting so well into the kitchen that she wouldn't have noticed the new addition except that she was just washing dishes.
It's a simple black box, the wood slightly glossy in the light and yet when she nears she can’t see her face in the reflected in the surface.
Is it Yewon’s? she wonders, but it doesn’t really look like something her roommate would own. Though her fingers are already dry from the hand towel, Hyejin smooths them over the fabric covering her legs before she reaches out to graze a finger over the simple metal clasp of the box.
She might have expected it to be difficult to open, but the clasp lifts easily—too easily—and Hyejin is almost blow backwards by the violent gust of air that escapes the box as the lid falls back, open on the counter, with a dull thud.
Eyes watering with the wind, she blinks and then just looks at the box, bewildered. It’s completely empty.
Hyejin stared up at the carved stone surrounding the doorway of the dorms, deer and hunting dogs peering out between the trunks of palm and cypress, a bear peering at her with hollow stone eyes.
"It’s cool, isn’t it?" Yewon said, smiling down at her from where she already stood on the top step. Hyejin took a silent breath, holding her bag firmly tucked in at her side for reassurance as she nodded, placing one foot in front of the other up the shallow stone steps. "It used to be a hotel, back in the twenties, before they turned it into student housing."
Yewon swiped her ID card at the door, and Hyejin waited for the light to turn from red to green as the door clicked open, the heavy wood swinging silently forward onto a high-ceilinged lobby, dust motes dancing in the light as Hyejin tipped her head back to look up.
"Welcome to Hotel Cynthus," Yewon said, grinning. Hyejin nodded, her fingers curling just a little more around the strap of her bag. The building was beautiful, full of light and what felt like secret stories tucked away in the paintings hanging on the wall, the carvings around the wide windows. The building was beautiful and it made her feel small.
"Thanks," she said. "It’s lovely."
Yewon beamed; Hyejin didn’t feel any better but it was still good knowing that she hadn’t let any of her feelings slip. She was looking forward to this, she really was. A new city, a new roommate, a new university with new teachers and new classmates and a chance to take steps forward without looking back.
"Hyejin?" Yewon asked, and Hyejin realized with a start that she’d missed Yewon’s question.
"I’m sorry," she said, trying to think of an excuse for her mind wandering, but nothing came to mind.
"You must be tired," Yewon said, misunderstanding Hyejin’s reticence, and she felt relieved. Amongst everything else, it was good to see Yewon again, a second cousin and childhood playmate and yet someone who didn’t think they knew everything about her. Familiar, without being overbearing.
"I am, a little," Hyejin admitted, and as the words slipped out of her mouth she realized, surprised, that they were true.
"You’ll get your ID card tomorrow," Yewon said, leading her to the elevator and pressing the button for the third floor, "but in the meantime I’ll stick with you and you’ll be fine." She grinned at Hyejin.
When the doors opened, a crowd of girls were waiting in the corridor; to Hyejin’s surprise one of them almost lauched herself at Yewon, wrapping her hands around Yewon’s neck and laughing as she twirled her around.
"Yewon!" the beautiful girl exclaimed, stepping back only half a step, her face shifting into a mock-scowl. Even wrinkled up into that expression, she was lovely, and Hyejin couldn’t help but take a tiny step back, further into the elevator. "You weren’t in your room and we’re going out for crepes!"
"Jiho," Yewon said in return, laughing as she ducked from Jiho’s arms and mock-scowled in return before turning, a smile spreading across her face. "This is Hyejin, my second cousin and new roommate."
Hyejin hadn’t been expecting the introduction, though on second thought it was only to be expected, and quickly shaped her face into what she hoped was a friendly smile.
"Hi," she said, "nice to meet you."
"You’re so lucky, sharing an apartment with your cousin," Jiho said to Yewon, turning to Hyejin to smile at her warmly. "Do you like crepes?"
Hyejin was opening her mouth to answer when Yewon spoke instead. "Hyejin is tired so I’m going to show her the apartment so she can rest a little." Jiho looked disappointed, but nodded as Yewon led Hyejin out of the elevator, waving goodbye as she and her friends crowded into the elevator.
"I’ll bring you some, don’t worry!" Jiho called as the door slid shut. Yewon laughed, and Hyejin didn’t have the heart to tell her that she’d have liked to have gone too.
Hyejin is still thinking about the empty box when she slips into bed later that evening. Outside her window, snowflakes are drifting down in large, feathery flakes that catch the yellow light from the sodium street lamps, turning to flecks of gold before they land.
Sometimes she thinks it would be nice to be one of those snowflakes. Closing her eyes, she slips into sleep—
Only to find herself walking in the dark, the only light a soft glow that seems to be coming from somewhere behind her, but no matter how much she turns and cranes her neck, she can’t tell where the light is coming from.
It’s cold, the wetness of the ground beneath her feet slowly seeping into her shoes, and Hyejin shivers. Somehow she knows that she’s been walking for a long time. Her feet are sore, her throat is dry, and she’d like nothing more than to rest, but there’s a feeling of anxious expectancy in the air and Hyejin knows she has to keep walking.
"Is this a dream?" she asks herself, the thought slipping unbidden from her mouth. The darkness seems to press in closer for a moment, as though to disagree. She keeps walking, pulling each foot free from the boggy ground with a wet squelch only to set it back down in the muck a stride farther. Hyejin can feel herself getting tired, a chill wind sending cold fingers of air down her collar to run down the skin of her back. Reaching up to pull her coat closer around her, she feels the outline of a hood with the tips of her fingers and relieved, flips it up.
Instantly she’s surrounded in pitch darkness, not the quiet dark of rest and sleep but a clutching, dragging dark that pulls at her clothing and legs, tripping her as she tries to pull away and holding her down into the cold water welling up from the ground.
"Help!" Hyejin calls, but her voice is rusty and no one hears.
When she wakes, gasping in her bed, she pulls the covers tightly around her as her eyes dart around the room in the light of her bedside lamp. Her room is the same room it has always been, wide floorboards and white walls, a tiled ceiling and drapes drawn back from the window looking out over the park. The silhouettes of bare tree branches sway in a wind that must have picked up while she was sleeping, but even that is common enough. Hyejin can feel her racing heart begin to calm as she takes deep breaths in and out, in and out, and she decides to head to the kitchen for a glass of water to soothe her calm throat.
She’s filling her glass at the sink when she looks down and notices the fresh mud clinging to her feet, clinging between her toes—the glass is slipping from her grasp before her mind has even caught up and by then the sound of glass shattering against the metal of the sink is enough to express the need to scream.
Hyejin is eating breakfast at the kitchen bar, answering the occasional question from Yewon as she idly puzzles through a crossword between bites of cereal, when she realizes that the box from last light is no longer there.
Glancing at Yewon from beneath her eyelashes, she tries to figure out how to ask.
"Yewon?" she finally says, setting the spoon down in the empty bowl with a closing clink. "Did you see a box here yesterday?" Hyejin waves her hand vaguely in the air, hoping against hope that Yewon will fill the blanks in herself.
Yewon starts to shake her head, then tips it thoughtfully. "Jiho mentioned finding a box a few months ago, but it hasn’t really come up again?" she offers.
Hyejin isn’t sure, but she asks anyway. "Has Jiho ever mentioned having any dreams?" she asks, and hopes that her question doesn’t sound too strange out of context. Luckily enough Yewon is still preoccupied with her crossword and her voice is muffled around the cap of the pen she’s chewing as she answers.
"She told me about one of her really crazy dreams once," Yewon says, pausing to scribble some letters on paper only to grab an eraser and clear the word. "I think it was some kind of adventure story or something? She mentioned castles anyway." She chews on her lip thoughtfully, giving the crossword a moment’s glance over as she pencils in the last letter before jumping up from her seat.
"Yes!" she exclaims, fist pumping the air, and Hyejin lets the subject drop.
That night, when she falls asleep, it feels like waking up as she gazes out over the narrow path before her, the ground even softer beneath her feet. Hyejin just squares her shoulders and keeps walking, but the pull of the mud and the wind on her neck cause her to move more and more slowly as her shoulders tense up around her neck in the cold. She still doesn’t know where the light is coming from, watching it halo out from where she’s standing, but it hardly seems important when she can feel herself slipping slowly into the mud, even though it’s not dark.
There’s something more frightening about this feeling, somehow, because there isn’t anything clutching at her clothes or pulling her under. All there is is herself, and yet she can’t get free.
"Help!" Hyejin calls again. "Please!" She doesn’t really expect anyone to hear, almost raising her voice as something warm brushes her hand.
It’s a deer, a doe, hair soft between her fingers before she wraps her hand around the doe’s back and uses her to pull herself back on the path.
"Thanks," Hyejin says, not sure if the doe will understand, but feeling the need to say thank you anyway.
She’s not sure how she knows, but unlike last time when she only knew she had to keep walking, this time Hyejin can tell when she’s at wherever she’s supposed to be, even though she’s not sure what she’s supposed to do.
There’s a big stone slab resting on the ground in the icy mud, cold iron cross set into the grey and a candle flickering, wax running in melted streams down its sides to pool on the stone. The light from the candle is pale and watery, and Hyejin blows it out without a second thought.
The stone slab proves to be more difficult, just sitting there, and Hyejin finally braces herself against the base and just gives it the biggest shove she can, a small smile spreading onto her face as the stone grates against stone and the slab moves aside to reveal—
"Me?" Hyejin asks, sitting up in bed, wide awake as she tries to figure out what the dream, if it was a dream, means.
Yewon is just grabbing the milk from the refrigerator and Hyejin is pulling the cereal down from the shelf when there’s a knock at the door. Yewon, grumbling, sets the milk back down on the shelf and pulls their apartment door open, only to see Jiho standing in the corridor.
"Hi Yewon, Hi Hyejin!" she says brightly, bundled up in a winter coat, boots and a hat. "I still owe you crepes."