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Mark knows he’s about to win. He fans himself with the front of his green jersey, adjusts his shorts, and makes sure he doesn’t have a wedgie as he rolls his hips for the warm-up. It’s four in the afternoon, on the cusp of summer in 2008. It’s Mark’s eighteenth year and final year with the high school track team.

He bends down behind the white line and straightens his arms. The track looks long, winding, and dizzying from where he stands, but that’s never deterred him before. Johnny takes his position beside him; the freshmen do the same. Yuta is beside the coach, ready to blow the whistle.

As soon as he hears the high-pitched sound, Mark runs.

It always starts in slow motion. Yuta’s voice bellows in his ears. He cheers and Mark begins to swing his arms. Beside him, Johnny runs with very little effort, so he eventually trails behind. Mark leads, as he always does, the rush of wind flowing past his face as he dashes through 300 meters.

He wins, of course, while Johnny is second. The freshman guys aren’t even done, six seconds after Mark finishes. Disappointing, in Mark’s eyes.

He has to take a towel and wipe below his pits because of all the sweat dripping down his torso. Yuta throws him a bottle of water, pats him on the back before he slumps onto the bleachers. He stares up at the sky, the sun dimming before his eyes. Johnny’s shadow creeps up on him and he sees Johnny approaching, towel around his neck. Johnny looks to his left, curiously, before his eyes meet Mark’s.

“Dude—Choi Lia—She’s here. And I think she’s looking for you.”

Mark almost turns, but then Johnny signals with his hand for him to stop.

“I think she’s coming over.”

There’s a brief pause before the girl comes into Mark’s vision. He recognises Lia from Class 4B. He knows her to be one of the girls most people think are unattainable, though he’s never seen the appeal.

“Hey Mark,” she goes, and waves. She’s still in her uniform, the green blazer of their school, and has her hair tied up in a ponytail. Mark appreciates the roundness of her eyes, and for a moment, almost understands why people think she’s so pretty.

Mark smiles. Johnny sips on a bottle of Gatorade, unacknowledged.

“What’s up,” says Mark, and smirks.

She looks at Johnny, then back at Mark. “This might be a bit sudden, but I actually wanted to talk to you in private? If that’s okay.”

“Oh.”

“Then I’ll be on my way,” says Johnny, index finger in the air as he leaves without a complaint.

Lia sits beside him and Mark stiffens. He manages a single movement, pulling down the hem of his shorts so he doesn’t show too much skin.

“You had a good run out there,” she says and twinkles up.

Mark curls his fingers under his nose. “It wasn’t that hard, really.”

She laughs. “I figured.”

“So—“ Mark eyes her. “You wanted to talk about something?”

She nods but then shakes her head. “I—don’t know how to say this. This is gonna be weird. I just—“ She puts a hand in her pocket and she takes out a piece of paper, folded up, with a star drawn on the visible square. “I wanted to give you this. In confidence. But you don’t have to read it now. And I don’t expect an immediate answer. Just—read it, and give it some thought.”

Mark looks at the paper, then looks at her. He notices the blush on her cheeks. He tries on a small smile and takes the paper from her hands.

Not long after, Lia leaves, a giant smile on her face as she bids him goodbye and reminds him one last time to read it only when he’s ready.

Mark sighs.

This is nothing new. Though she’s more forward than anyone else who’s made a move on him. In the two years that he’s been at this school, girls have taken much interest in him, if only for the sense of novelty he provides.

Against her wishes, Mark reads the letter immediately, with Johnny and Yuta forcing themselves to his side. As expected, Lia bares her heart out and tells Mark that she’s admired him for a long time and that she likes him, would like to have the chance to go out with him, if he were open to the possibility. She draws a smiley face as a sign-off. Johnny whimpers at the sight of it.

Duuude,” Johnny moans. “Straight to my heart.”

Yuta grabs the paper from Mark’s hand and ogles. “If you don’t date her, I will.”

Mark scratches his head. “You think I should do it? Go out with her?”

Johnny and Yuta tell him yes like it’s the most obvious thing on the planet. In truth, he’s somewhat tempted, though he reckons he should give it some thought first like Lia said he should.

And it’s best to wait until he gets another opinion.

Later that evening, he’s at his mom’s apartment and he decides to tell her about what happened that day with Lia.

His mom lights up, adjusts her glasses as she beams at him. “Oh wow! Lia—who is she again? Is she pretty?”

Mark nods. “She is. And she’s the bubbly type, you know.”

They’re at the dining table, and Mark can hardly concentrate on his chicken stew because of his mother’s questions about Lia, what she looks like, how she is as a student. He tries his best to answer with the limited knowledge he has of her. His mom detects the fact that Mark is virtually clueless about this girl, so she puts it to rest and talks about her work instead. She has a new boss at the law firm, and he’s been driving her crazy with how strict he is with the partners. Mark understands none of it and his mind wanders to other things — like his track meet in a couple of weeks and the fact that he still needs to ask his mom for money if he wants to take the bus out of the city this Saturday.

After dinner, his mother puts on the television and Mark goes to his room to lie on the bed. He checks his yellow flip phone, which he’d left at the house today, and sees there’s a text from Donghyuck with a timestamp from an hour ago. Donghyuck says he’s been level grinding on Ragnarok but if Mark wants, they can head for the Orc Dungeon to try out a boss battle. Their small guild is new and still pretty weak since Mark only plays when Donghyuck asks him.

Can I call you?’ Mark writes.

It’s ten minutes before Mark gets a reply.

Heyyy,’ Donghyuck says. ‘Go ahead.’

Donghyuck picks up after four rings. “Yo,” he says, and Mark hears him clicking on a mouse, fast then slow.

“Did you really want to play? I don’t actually think I’m up for that today.”

“Sure, whatever.” He hears the clicking stop. “Did you want to talk about something?”

Mark imagines Donghyuck in his bedroom in Jinsari town, at the apartment building where Mark used to live as well. More than 30 kilometres from Seoul, where Mark is now. Donghyuck might be sitting, legs bent against his chest while he spins on his chair, phone in hand.

“Someone gave me another letter today,” says Mark. “I wanted to know what you thought.”

A pause, and then — “Another one?”

“Yeah, pretty girl. Her name’s Lia.”

“Right, so she’s pretty. Is that all you know about her? Because that’s not exactly the best criteria for a significant other. I’m just saying.”

Mark considers this. “She’s nice, I guess. And she’s honest. Straightforward.”

“And you find that attractive?” Donghyuck is clicking again, loud and speedy. “Actually, don’t answer that. You know I never have an opinion on these things. Do what you like.”

“Then I guess—“

“But you don’t need to decide on anything right now. Give it some thought.”

Mark smiles. “So now you have an opinion.”

Donghyuck groans. “Can we stop talking about this?”

The clicking stops, again. “Are you still coming this Saturday?” Donghyuck’s voice is soft, this time. “My—mom was asking.”

Every so often, Mark travels to Jinsari to spend time with Donghyuck. Mark lived there for all his life but had to move for his last two years of high school due to several factors — his parents’ divorce, his mother’s new job at a prestigious law firm, the athletics program at Nexus, his current high school. A lot of reasons, though not nearly enough to let go of his best friend from back home.

“Of course I’m coming,” Mark says. “I promised right?”

“Alright. Are you taking the bus?”

“Yeah. Doubt my mom can drive me this time. She’s working this weekend.”

Asking for the bus fare money will be the difficult part, since his mom gave him a good sum a couple of weeks ago, money he squandered on a new pair of Nike running shoes.

“I’ll pick you up at the station,” says Donghyuck. “Got a new bike.”

“Oh, shit, for real? That’s awesome.”

“I know right? It’s got a seat extension — so we won’t have trouble fitting in it like on my old one.”

“Dude.” He imagines Donghyuck riding a two-person bike alone; the image would be much better if Mark were there to keep him company. “I look forward to it.”

“You’ll text me when you’re close, okay?”

“For sure.”

“Yeah. Text me, or call me, fuck, I don’t care, whatever.” Donghyuck sounds annoyed, though Mark knows that’s just the way Donghyuck speaks.

They finish hashing out the details and Donghyuck asks again if Mark wants to play or not. Donghyuck tells him he can always play with Renjun since he never logs off his computer anyway. Mark says he really can’t since he’s too tired from training.

They talk about Mark’s upcoming meet, how nervous he is, how the school’s pretty much relying on him to get a gold medal. It's one thing to beat a couple freshmen during a practice run, and another thing to bring home the bacon against other equally proficient runners. Donghyuck reassures him, as he always does. But he also tells him the school is stupid, for putting too much faith in Mark, to which Mark laughs and pretends to be hurt. Donghyuck scoffs. They talk for a whole hour, but Mark feels like barely a minute has passed.

He falls asleep that night, thinking about Donghyuck and imagining the rocket prints Donghyuck used to have on his bedsheets. He’s probably got new ones by now, and his room is likely painted a different colour since his family did a renovation a month ago. But Mark continues to imagine how it used to be, dreams about it, and feels all his worries melt away.

_____

The next day, his mother begrudgingly gives him money for the bus fare, and Mark kisses her on the cheek as a way of thanks. He texts his dad afterwards and tells him he’s coming to Jinsari again, but he’ll be staying at Donghyuck’s place, not his. His dad isn’t surprised and tells him to be careful.

At school, Johnny and Yuta continue to pester him about Lia, and they make fun of him for being a wuss.

Johnny whispers to him and tells him to imagine how good of a kisser she would be, which Mark thinks is gross to suggest. But Mark doesn’t tell him, nor does he give Lia the time of day, simply waves at her when he sees her in the hallway.

Saturday could not come sooner. Early in the morning, Mark rushes to put on an F.T. Island t-shirt, plus a red cap and some jeans. The bus leaves at seven and it takes two hours to reach the destination. Mark uses the time to relish the scenery — the mountains, dried grass, lines of white buildings behind the towering boundaries on the highway. He tugs on his cap and hugs his backpack as he glances at the sun. The bus driver puts the AC on full blast, so Mark yearns for warmth.

Mark bursts by the end of it, so he has to run and his cap almost flies from his head when he goes to take a piss in the dingy station restroom. Donghyuck is already in front of the terminal, but he will have to wait.

He’s bright and beaming when Mark sees him, wearing a periwinkle t-shirt and some ill-fitting khakis. For Donghyuck, this is already a lot of effort for clothing. They crush each other in a long hug and Donghyuck gives him a noogie, to which Mark winces and laughs, in that high pitched way that he does.

Unlike in the city, English is scarce on the signages along the roads in Jinsari. The buildings are shades of grey, and people on the streets are in less of a rush. He and Donghyuck bike through the streets; Mark stares up at the golf net that towers over them from where it sits at the edge of town. As he looks around, he sees the same watch store, the same incense shop, the same karaoke rooms, the same lady selling crops under a blue umbrella — all of which he would often pass when he was younger.

Donghyuck parks the bike at the CU mart by the gas station. Outside, two greying old men in construction vests greet the boys as they smoke their cigarettes. People have always been friendlier here.

Inside the store, Donghyuck grabs a basket and starts to swipe bags of chips and crackers from the shelves — kkokkalcorn, some honey butter, some crab chips. His dad gave him a few thousand won to spend on snacks, so Donghyuck takes advantage. The feeling is surreal as Mark watches Donghyuck walk through the cramped aisles, barely three feet wide. He saunters toward the drink aisle and Mark follows, bowing his head and adjusting his cap as he hides his smile. Donghyuck holds up a can of Cass Light beer, grins with his teeth out and shakes it in Mark’s face before he returns it in time for the store attendant to pass.

Mark takes some milk with Pororo on the carton because he’s a kid at heart. Donghyuck one-ups him and takes five.

Donghyuck’s family lives in an apartment in Baekgil street. It’s in one out of three buildings that stick out from everything else in town. Relatively new buildings that were erected 13 years ago, as many villagers used to live in neighbourhoods with tile-roofed houses that have since been demolished. From the fifth floor, Mark sees the expanse of land that he used to frequent — the rice fields owned by Lee Jeno’s parents, the flower field where their primary school teachers used to take them to garden.

“Marky!” Donghyuck’s mother greets him and Mark takes off his cap to offer a bow. Donghyuck rushes past her to sneak their plastics full of snacks into the bedroom. She cups Mark’s face and squishes his cheeks. Mark dons his best smile. She’s barely changed; maybe her cheeks are fuller, and she might’ve gotten a perm, but it’s still the same type of clothes, the same billowy pink skirt and flowery blouse with the colours fading from time. Donghyuck’s dad is nowhere to be seen, as he may be at a construction site in another town working a sweat with blueprints and floor-plans until the evening.

Donghyuck helps Mark escape from his mother’s clutches, taking Mark by the wrist and pulling him into the bedroom. It’s ten-thirty in the morning, so Donghyuck’s room bathes in sunlight, and so does Donghyuck’s face as he perches onto the bed.

Mark was right. Donghyuck’s room is now painted a light shade of blue when it used to be white. His desktop computer used to be visible as soon as someone opened the door. Now, it’s adjacent to the door, right next to Donghyuck’s closet. There are shirts scattered on the floor, plus torn papers from what might have been essays he’d been writing for school. Mark wants to clean it all up and take care of him.

Donghyuck brings out his Nintendo DS and Mark follows suit. They lie prone on Donghyuck’s bed, Mark looking fondly at Donghyuck while he tethers their handhelds to the wireless router. Mark notes that his cheeks are plumper and his hair is a lighter shade of brown. Donghyuck sucks in his lips and curses when the connection fails the first try. Mark wants to rest his head against Donghyuck’s, but resists the temptation.

“Your team is hella weak,” Donghyuck chides, when he beats Mark at Pokemon, pulverising Mark’s canine Lucario with his penguin Empoleon. Like with most games, Mark mostly plays out of obligation to his friend.

They try one more time. Mark exerts more effort and gives his team some stat-building items, but loses anyway. Donghyuck laughs at him and slaps the bed as he does.

They drink some of the milk from the store and play some more Pokemon, doing some trading until lunch. Donghyuck tells him they’re eating out since his mom is still buying ingredients for dinner, so they run down the stairs of the building, Donghyuck pulling his wrist, and they head for the noodle shop nearby.

Donghyuck pays for their Japanese tonkotsu at the counter, while Mark waits quietly at their table. The chimes by the door ring and in comes a familiar face, to whom Mark smiles upon entrance.

“Yo Mark!” Jaemin wears a familiar blue t-shirt with a Dragon Ball Z print. Mark waves at him aggressively. Donghyuck sees him as well as he heads back to the table and he looks at Mark with gritted teeth.

Mark and Jaemin give each other very firm and over-eager handshakes, all four hands clasped together. He hasn’t seen Jaemin in over a year, not even for the couple of times Mark has visited since their last hangout.

“Donghyuck, why didn’t you tell anyone Mark was coming? Are you trying to keep him to yourself?”

Jaemin takes a seat at the same table, beside a frowning Donghyuck. The two aren’t the best of friends, but Jaemin and Mark used to be quite close, so they always travelled in the same circles. It was like Mark with Donghyuck’s friend Renjun — they never jived but they tolerated each other for Donghyuck’s sake.

The questions fly from Jaemin’s mouth about the track team, and school, how city life is treating him, “Last time I heard you were single. Still the case?”

“Yeah, well.”

Donghyuck covers his face. “Here we go again with the girl talk.”

“Don’t be a killjoy, Hyuck. Are you getting a lot of attention there? You must be, I mean, look at you. When did you get arm muscles?”

Mark shakes his head, laughs and tries to deny it.

“Oh please,” Donghyuck says. “Mark gets letters pretty much every damn week from girls he won’t even give the time of day.”

“Ouch.” Jaemin puts his hand to his heart and pulls a face. “Didn’t know you’d be such a heartbreaker, Mark.”

“I’m not though.” Mark waves his hands in the air, still in denial.

Jaemin sags and sighs. The ramen comes not long after and Jaemin realises he forgot to order so he skedaddles to the register, which leaves Mark and Donghyuck alone with their food for a good five minutes.

Mark begins slurping on his noodles, lets out his tongue when he realises Donghyuck ordered the spicy kind. Donghyuck is fiddling with his chopsticks, food untouched. Mark downs a glass of water.

“Did you do anything about Lia?” Donghyuck asks, and Mark is surprised he even remembers her name.

Mark manages to slug down another round of noodles before he speaks. He shakes his head, “I’m still thinking about it.”

Jaemin returns, whistles as he sits back down. “You know—I was thinking,” he begins. “Don’t you think I’d be much more popular if I lived in the city? Girls seem to like country boys up there, yeah?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Mark says, and Jaemin glares.

“Donghyuck, will you tell this guy to stop with the fake humility?”

“He’s right.” Donghyuck shoots daggers and starts eating his noodles, face hard despite the spice.

“We agree for once,” Jaemin says, and turns to Donghyuck. “And you know what—I think you’d be popular too if you went off to the city.”

“Yeah, sure. But I’d settle for a girl immediately, unlike Mark.”

The idea of Donghyuck with someone is enough to make Mark feel nauseous, so he changes the subject. He asks Jaemin about his folks, who are doing well, still working as accountants. About Jeno, who’s still filthy rich and now playing basketball. About their teachers, who have barely changed since middle school.

In time, Jaemin has to leave; he says so as soon as he finishes his food. He and Mark hug it out, and he and Donghyuck tell each other not to forget their Physics homework, as they’re submitting their lab reports on Tuesday.

The encounter seems to exhaust Donghyuck as he crashes on the bed as soon as they return to the apartment. During Mark’s visits, they often lounged around Donghyuck’s house and played video games till the dead of night. Sometimes, Mark’s mom would drive him Friday evening and they’d have longer. It’s two o’clock now and Mark feels like the day has waxed and waned.

They take a nap, Mark’s early morning trip taking a toll on his body.

There’s comfort in lying together in silence. They used to do this every weekend when they were kids, back when all Mark had on his mind were Pokemon cards and running races on the dewy grass of their country fields. After morning practice, Mark would come to Donghyuck’s house with a new pack of cards in his hand-me-down backpack, stained from the mud of rainy days. They’d take afternoon naps next to each other under one soft blanket and at the time, that was all Mark needed to feel content.

It’s three-thirty when Mark wakes, and the sun continues to shine from Donghyuck’s window. He notices there’s a text from his dad, asking how he’s doing. Mark ignores it in favour of listening to Donghyuck as he plays some music on a mini stereo — an old rock ballad, to which Donghyuck sings along.

At four, they head back out, this time to go to the Lavender Gardens where they laze around lying on a patch of grass, then do some exercises over the purple flowers, jumping jacks and squats while onlookers shoot them concerned expressions. They ride Donghyuck’s bike along the rice fields and they see Jeno briefly, who points and makes a shocked face as Mark calls out to him and waves. They stop by a creek near the hills and they open up their crab chips, eating there as they talk about school: Donghyuck’s in the running for salutatorian, he says. Mark can only dream to get grades as high as Donghyuck’s. But at least he has sports — or the one sport, to be exact, which Donghyuck says is more than enough.

In the evening, they eat dinner with Donghyuck’s parents and Donghyuck’s dad tells Mark that he saw Mark’s dad going into a karaoke bar the other day and noticed him coming out the day after. Mark sighs at the image, and Donghyuck changes the subject.

The night comes and Donghyuck pulls Mark back into the bedroom. They play on their Nintendos and later, put on a horror movie on Donghyuck’s portable DVD player. Mark jolts at every jump scare and Donghyuck laughs at him when Mark squeaks at the sight of a red demon crawling towards the camera.

After they watch, Mark does a quick prayer out of habit.

“What is with that,” Donghyuck says, eyebrow raised. “If a ghost comes in here and possesses your ass, god can’t do anything about that.”

“I beg to differ,” Mark says, pressing his eyelids closed.

They play more music as the night goes on. Donghyuck burns some Super Junior songs into a CD and puts it in the stereo. Mark hums along, not very confident in his singing voice. But Donghyuck coaxes him, sings in his face until Mark lets out a few notes.

By two in the morning, they fall asleep. Just like that, their Saturday ends.

Mark’s heart aches at the thought of leaving. He already knew that their time together would feel like no time at all. Mark has training even during school holidays, so they’ve never had long to be together. All they have are these weekends, quick and fleeting.

On Sunday afternoon, right after lunch with Donghyuck’s parents, Donghyuck takes Mark to the bus station. The ride is more sombre this time around even though Mark sees all the same things — the same buildings, the same stores, the same golf net towering over the town, the same rice fields from a distance. At the station, they sit with each other in silence on some plastic seats as they wait for Mark’s bus. They’re expecting Bus #20, the dreaded number now in Mark’s mind.

As the bus rolls into the terminal, Donghyuck and Mark stand and prepare to bid goodbye. Mark smiles at him and tugs the strings of his backpack. Donghyuck averts his gaze, nods, and lifts a hand to curl it under his chin.

“You take care.” Donghyuck nods, eyes wandering. “You better go now or the bus will leave you here.”

Mark almost wants to say fuck it, let the bus leave, because he wants to stay here with Donghyuck. But he doesn’t say that. Instead, Mark hugs him and tells him he’ll be back soon. Donghyuck nods, hugs him back, and pats him softly.

In the bus, Mark finally gets the courage to text his father back. I’m doing well, he says. Had fun at Donghyuck’s. Next time I’ll come visit you.

The last sentence is a lie. As the bus rushes through the highway, Mark thinks about Jinsari, and about Donghyuck; he yearns and feels a pang in his heart as he rests his head against the window. But then he observes the green signages — 10 km to Seoul — and he thinks about his mother. She’s waiting for him at home, and that in itself is comfort enough.

_____

There’s track practice the next morning, a Math test that afternoon, more practice, and a History exam the next day. Donghyuck texts Mark twice, something generic about playing Ragnarok, then something funny about Jaemin wanting to join their guild and Donghyuck refusing.

It swelters on Wednesday and Mark gets a pep talk from his coach under the heat of the sun. He tells Mark not to lose focus, to set his sights on the top of the podium.

Lia is there when practice ends, already sitting on the bleachers where Mark usually takes his breaks. She smiles at him and waves, and Mark waves back, slinging a towel around his neck.

“I’m guessing you’ve read my letter by now?” she asks, then gets on her feet to face Mark.

He nods. He’s given it some thought; he really has. And he thinks it wouldn’t be so bad to be with her, or at least try it out, for a change of pace.

“So—“ She fidgets, hands clasped at her back. “What do you think?”

In the few days Mark has had to think, he’s learned a bit about Lia. She loves to dance; she has a large posse of friends who are equally nice and equally popular. People know her to be humble, even though she’s beautiful, and fashionable, and always gets grades above average

Mark raises a hand, lifts it towards her face, to the strands of hair falling against her cheeks. Mark tucks the loose strands behind her ear and smiles at her. He thinks he can do this.

“I don’t think I’d mind going out with you.”

She looks shocked at his words. A blush forms on her cheeks and she nods, her lips quirking up to a smile.

Mark thinks about Donghyuck and how he would react when he learns about Mark and his decision. Johnny and Yuta, for one, are gobsmacked, despite their initial positions. At the courtyard where they eat, Yuta grabs Mark by the shoulders and shakes him, while Johnny covers his face and pretends to cry. Mark calls them both losers and laughs. Donghyuck’s reaction scares him, though it shouldn’t be so bad. He might even be happy for Mark.

Mark doesn’t have the heart to tell him straight away, so he waits for Thursday night. At this point, he’s already started eating lunch with Lia, and he plans to take her to a movie tomorrow evening.

As he does, Donghyuck texts to ask if Mark has time to play, which makes Mark wonder just how much time Donghyuck gets to spend studying. But that’s a topic for another conversation, as he’s about to break the news to him.

Mark stutters as he speaks to Donghyuck on the phone. “So um—I responded to Lia’s letter. And I—um.”

He hedges and hears dead silence on Donghyuck’s end. “I decided I’d try going out with her.”

“Ah.”

Mark hears nothing for a whole minute, and he waits it out, not knowing what else he’s meant to say.

“That’s great Mark,” he says, and sighs. “I’m happy for you.”

He sounds calm. Uncharacteristically calm.

“So you think I made the right decision?”

“Your decision—I have nothing to do with it. You can do what you want, Mark.”

Mark falls quiet again.

“Now is that all?”

Mark nods, breathes, and says, “Yeah.”

“I’ll be off Mark,” he says. “Have—a great evening.”

He hangs up the phone. Mark holds it close to his chest and wonders if he’s done something wrong. Because even if Donghyuck says he hasn’t, it sure feels that way.

Early the next morning, Mark texts Donghyuck and asks if they’re cool. Donghyuck replies, yes of course, why wouldn’t we be?

It’s hard not seeing Donghyuck in person, because if he could, Mark would be able to tell from one glance whether or not Donghyuck is lying. It’s in the way he fidgets with his arms, and the way his eyes twitch at each false word.

In the evening, Mark goes with Lia to a theatre in Myeongdong and they watch a romantic drama called Lovers of Six Years. Mark puts an arm around her shoulder and tries his best to feel something, anything. They share smiles and they share a bucket of popcorn. He’s happy, or at least he thinks so. Lia is pretty and her hands are soft when she brushes against his palms

After dinner at a burger joint, Mark has the golden opportunity to kiss Lia. They stand awkwardly with each other by the subway station where they’re meant to part. One or two people pass by and Lia is smiling again, blushing, telling Mark she had a great time.

Mark decides to squeeze her shoulder and leave it at that.

The gears shift in Mark’s head as he rides the subway home. The face Lia gave him after that non-goodbye was one of sheer disappointment. He doesn’t know if his mom would understand, or if Donghyuck would even be interested, so Mark decides to call the next best person.

“Dude, the fuck? I don’t understand you, speak up,” says Johnny. Mark is back in his bedroom and his face is buried in his pillow, muffling his voice.

“I said I think I fucked it up with Lia. She was practically asking me to kiss her, but I chickened out.”

“Happens to the best of us,” Johnny says. “Don’t beat yourself up about it. At least she hasn’t broken up with you—unless?”

“No.” Mark sits up, cross-legged. “In the moment, man, I dunno, I knew it was an appropriate time and she was looking at me so—“

“Desperately?”

“Sure,” says Mark. “But I just didn’t want to do it. Fuck, this makes me sound horrible, doesn’t it?”

Johnny falls quiet for a moment. Mark waits until Johnny says, “Is this about your secret girlfriend?”

“Dude, my what?”

“You can play dumb, but everyone’s been talking about it.”

“Everyone? Who’s everyone? And what secret girlfriend?”

“You know,” Johnny drawls. “People say you go to your country town every so often to meet up with this—girl. Who you’re supposedly head over heels in love with.”

Mark’s mouth falls open. He thinks, tries to connect the dots, and realises the person Johnny’s talking about is Donghyuck.

And now it’s Mark who feels a blush coming to his cheeks.

“Dude, that is—way off.”

“You sure?”

Mark rubs his neck, hot.

“Yes, I’m sure.”

“Then I believe you.”

“Good!"

“Great.”

Mark tries to soothe himself, places his hand against his chest and rubs.

“So I guess you just gotta get some more courage, man. That’s gonna solve your dilemma.”

Courage. Right. That’s all Mark needs. Courage.

The night continues and Mark lies supine on the bed, mind reeling as Johnny’s words echo through his ears. Perhaps Donghyuck might find it hilarious that people are calling him Mark’s secret girlfriend. For a moment, he mulls over sending a text to give Donghyuck this piece of information.

In the end, Mark doesn’t do it. This will be his little secret, something with which Donghyuck doesn’t need to concern himself.

The thought racks his brain until he sleeps, erasing any initial embarrassment about Lia and replacing it with something equally embarrassing.

It’s a good thing he has something to take his mind off it. Early Saturday morning, the track team has practice due to the upcoming meet. He and Johnny don’t talk about what happened, though Yuta asks Mark how the date with Lia went. Mark folds a leg up to his stomach, holding it in place for a good stretch, and Johnny gives him a knowing look as he does a lunge.

Yuta shifts his gaze to both of them, quick, and seems to understand.

“Damn, that bad?”

Mark does a hundred-meter dash in 13 seconds, two hundred meters in 23. Rinse and repeat. They do a relay and he fucks up as the anchor leg; he goes last and extends their run to 50 seconds when they were only supposed to take 45. The coach doesn’t get cross with Mark, merely pats him on the back and lets him take a rest.

Before they take their leave, the coach asks the team to gather for a photo for their school’s webpage. Mark stands at the centre, Yuta beside him, Johnny kneeling with some juniors. Mark wills himself to smile, almost doesn’t when the camera flashes before their eyes.

Mark tries to form a text for Lia when he goes out with Johnny and Yuta for lunch at a nearby KFC. Heyy, he tries, but then feels it’s too contrived. Sorry, he starts, but then deletes. Yuta tells him to go for a simple yo, and see where it goes. Mark decides against it and proceeds to chomp on his chicken tenders.

The rest of the afternoon, Mark decides to spend time playing The Sims to distract himself. He builds a house from scratch and works on making two roommates, names one of them Donghyuck. The other one, he names Bob.

When Donghyuck texts him that night, Mark squints upon seeing the message.

Updated my Cyworld page,’ he says. Donghyuck has sent him texts in the past about social media, but in context, the message makes Mark feel strange.

He’d already shut his desktop, but Mark reopens it to check out Donghyuck’s page.

His homepage skin is still the same desert island theme with the orange sun at the corner. It’s the same two selfies uploaded of Donghyuck wearing a black hoodie, plus a pixelated image of a video game cowboy sprite edited so it’s in front of Buckingham Palace. Everything’s the same as before, except he puts on background music, which automatically plays when Mark clicks on Donghyuck’s profile.

Mark lets it play in the background and doesn’t pay much attention. It’s a song he’s heard playing in restaurants since 2001 — Can I Love You? by the singing duo Yurisangja.

I’ll confess to you with my pounding heart. The singers drawl amidst the sound of a slow tempo and drums.

How have you been,’ Donghyuck texts back, a minute later.

Fine I guess. Track practice taking over my life basically.

Mark lies back on his bed, eyes glued to the phone screen.

You’ll win, don’t worry,’ he says, and then, ‘Renjun’s here with me by the way. Wants to know what it’s like to have a girlfriend.’

Oh. ‘It’s great,’ Mark replies, then a second later, ‘Lia’s perfect. Went out with her last night.

Cool,’ says Donghyuck. ‘How was it?’

Mark debates with himself about what to say. His grip on the phone tightens. He’s already started with a lie, so he has to stand his ground.

Pretty awesome. Watched a movie. Held hands after. It was nice.

Seconds of radio silence. Mark imagines Donghyuck and Renjun together in Donghyuck’s bedroom, laughing together, arguing about their games, and having a good time. The image sends a pang of jealousy in Mark’s heart.

He decides to text Lia.

Hey. Last night was weird. Can we start over?

Donghyuck replies before she does.

Renjun and I are gonna play Pokemon. Catch you later Mark.

Mark huffs. ‘Sure thing.

The ceiling fan in Mark’s room starts to make him dizzy. His phone vibrates. Lia sends a smiley face, and — ‘No it’s ok. It’ll be better next time.

Mark thinks about Friday next week, if he could invite her out again, but then realises it’s the day before the track meet. His coach would be furious if he learned Mark was planning to go on a date.

Let’s talk at lunch on Monday,’ Mark decides to say, to which Lia replies with another smiley face.

On Sunday, Mark takes a jog alone. Guilt rises in his stomach for texting Lia and leading her on, even though he knows it’s not working. The reason why—he’s still trying to figure out.

______

Mark was fifteen when his parents’ marriage fell apart. The crux of it was something not only Donghyuck, but even Renjun witnessed.

It was the day of one of Mark’s races. His mom wasn’t able to come because of a work meeting; his dad didn’t come because that wasn’t something he did. Donghyuck and Renjun went in their stead, watching Mark win a silver medal. Later, they came over to Mark’s place to hang out and celebrate.

They were in Mark’s room, gathered around a deck of Pokemon cards when they heard the screams.

“Is this some kind of fucking joke? That’s a million won, Sanghyun, a million fucking won down the drain because of your stupid gambling.”

His mother was venomous, but his dad did not let up.

“Jesus, Minhae. I’m going to earn back the money. Fuck, do you know how goddamn awful it feels when your own bitch wife doesn’t trust you?”

His mother’s voice rose. “Are you serious? This is the last straw, Sanghyun. I can’t do this anymore.”

Mark stood up when the volume was too loud to ignore. He stood by the door and listened. He looked at his friends, at Donghyuck, and he shook his head.

“Do you maybe have earphones?” Renjun said and got on his feet to look around Mark’s room. “Maybe that will help.”

Donghyuck kept silent, rose and hugged Mark. As they pulled apart, he looked at Mark and placed his hands behind Mark’s ears. The screams became muffled, though still audible. Donghyuck nodded. “You’ll be okay,” he said.

That night, Donghyuck and Renjun had to sneak out quietly. Mark’s mother wound up on the couch, tear-stricken but asleep. His dad had stormed out and said he would never come back.

“I’ll return in a bit,” Donghyuck whispered, outside the door. “I’ll bring you food.”

Mark wanted him to come back, bring him food, and never leave again.

“If your father comes back, cover your ears like this.” Donghyuck put his hands on his own ears and said, “Okay?”

Mark mustered the strength for a tired smile.

A month later, it was decided that Mark would move with his mother to Seoul. He’d finish the school year at Nexus, where he would be offered an athletics scholarship the following year. Neither Mark nor Donghyuck cried on the day he left. Donghyuck sent him off, staying with Mark until he had to get in the sedan.

“I’ll come visit,” Mark said, holding Donghyuck’s hand. “I promise.”

“I’ll hold you to that.” Donghyuck gave Mark a light punch on the arm. He squeezed Mark’s fingers. “I’ll be waiting.”

Both Renjun and Jaemin were there to hug Mark goodbye. And even Jeno was there, though he was another one of those friends he hung out with by virtue of association (with Jaemin, this time). They all hugged and Jaemin told Mark that he should lend him some money if his sports career took off. Jeno punched Jaemin’s arm. Mark laughed.

Leaving town, in retrospect, gave him a form of relief. But letting it go was never an option. Jinsari was a place he would always care about deeply. It was the place that helped him find love for the very first time and for that, he will cherish it forever.

_____

 

Before he leaves for school on Monday, Mark sits on his bed, breathes deep and covers his ears. Sometimes, this helps him rid of all the voices in his head, the ones telling him that he’ll end up fucking up all his relationships like his father.

And it does help, for about 10 minutes, though his mind starts reeling again when he receives a text from someone whom he’d never thought he would hear from.

You suck,’ the text reads. It’s from Renjun.

The fuck?’ Mark replies. ‘What did I do to you?

Nothing to me,’ Renjun says. ‘To Donghyuck. Rat bastard.

Mark’s forehead wrinkles up. He does not have time for this. He has class and running practice. Any vague texts from Renjun is a secondary concern.

Think about it, Mark Lee.’ When Renjun texts this later that morning, it pisses Mark off. Whatever tension there is between him and Donghyuck is none of Renjun’s fucking business.

Mark is not having it, and this unfortunately bleeds into his lunch with Lia, who keeps talking and talking as they sit together in the cafeteria. She’s saying something about the school festival next month, how she and her friends are performing to SNSD as a group, how she’s leading her homeroom class’ plan to turn their room into a cafe. Mark tries to listen but finds himself wanting to focus instead on his fish fingers.

He doesn’t want to be mean; he really doesn’t. But his words come out as if he has no control.

“Would you keep your mouth shut for a fucking minute?” he says, more pointed than intended.

He regrets it the instant he sees Lia’s face full of hurt.

She looks around and bows her head. “I think I have to go.”

“Lia—fuck, I’m sorry.”

“You’re an asshole, Mark Lee.” She pushes his tray towards him, making Mark’s fish fingers drop to his lap.

The other students stare and murmur. Mark guesses this won’t bode well for his reputation.

The influx of attention forces him to leave for the restroom. He locks himself in a stall. Somehow, Johnny and Yuta find him there.

“Mark, I know you’re in there,” Johnny says. “Talk to us man.”

“You haven’t been yourself since practice last Saturday,” Yuta says. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s—“ Mark wants to be left alone, but knows he won’t be. “I think—“ He doesn’t know what he thinks, only that he feels like there’s a weight that’s been thrown on him and he doesn’t know how to pull himself free.

“I’m telling coach you’re not coming to practice today,” Johnny says.

“What?” Mark raises his head. “Johnny, no, I’m fine.”

“No,” Johnny says, and Yuta agrees.

“But—“

“No but’s,” says Johnny. “Whatever’s bothering you, sort it out. Your well-being, that should be a fucking priority man.”

Mark doesn’t know what to say to this. The only other people who have ever talked to him this way are his mom and Donghyuck.

“Listen to your father,” Yuta says, and this almost makes Mark laugh. Almost.

There’s still a few hours of school left. Mark has Physics, then Advanced English for their last period. It’s a subject Mark’s always been good at, perhaps one of the few subjects other than PE where he can beat Donghyuck.

They write a poem that day, supposed to be in the style of one of the poets they read in class. Mark forgoes the instructions and does his own thing.

I wake up every day and I think I wouldn’t mind being blinded, he writes.

He feels like he’s killing it, so much so that he believes he can turn his work into a song. By the end of it, Mark’s hand is sore and he breaks the tip of his pencil.

His mother is at the apartment when he arrives. She’s watching an afternoon drama and he tells her he hasn’t got practice today, which is why he came early. She tells him a package showed up in the mail today, and Mark notices it on the coffee table: a rectangular box wrapped in the Korea Post’s red insignia.

“This arrived from your father today,” she says and tells him to open it. “It’s a gift for you.”

Mark stares at the box, perplexed. He sits beside his mom, the sound of the TV in the background. He struggles to tear it open and has to exert brute strength to take off the packing tape. What’s revealed underneath is another box, this time white. It’s an iPod Touch. Mark looks at his mom and she sighs.

“Well, I guess if he’s going to use up his money, it might as well be for you.”

“You’re okay with this?” Mark swallows.

She places a hand on Mark’s cheek. “Of course I am,” she says, with a soft expression. “You deserve this and more.”

He opens it and flips through the manual, trying to decipher what it is he should be doing. No one at school owns one and he doesn’t have the right software downloaded. But it does make him smile. He sends a text to his dad, short and sweet to say, ‘Thank you. I got your gift.

On his bedroom desk it stays for the time being. There are other matters to attend to, so he texts Donghyuck and checks to see if he’s home and if he has time to talk. Donghyuck takes a full hour to reply, an hour that Mark spends working on calculus problems.

Donghyuck tells him it’s okay to call, so Mark immediately selects Donghyuck’s name and presses the green button shaped like a phone. Donghyuck answers at the fourth ring, like last time.

They say hi, hello, hey, and Mark runs his fingers through his hair, then takes some strands into a fist.

“Talk to me.”

Mark considers his words. “Why did Renjun message me to say that I suck?”

There’s a pause. “He what?” Donghyuck’s tone is high and pointed. “Is that—all he said?”

“That and something about having to think about what I did to you, which I don’t fucking get. But since last week, you’ve been different with me. Distant. And it hurts every time I hear you on the phone, or read a fucking text from you. So you have to tell me, Donghyuck. What did I do? I just—I can’t have you mad at me, I just can’t.”

“Mark, calm down.” He tells Mark to breathe, and Mark does, slowly.

Donghyuck continues, “I was just getting used to the idea of you with a girl, that’s all. There’s nothing more to it.”

“But—why—this doesn’t make any sense.”

“Listen to me. We’re fine, Mark. You’re my best friend. And—I love you.” The words feel like a bullet through the gut. “And that won’t ever change. I just felt a little left behind, which is not your fault. But I guess Renjun noticed I was in my feelings, and jumped to conclusions about you being an asshole.”

“I love you too.” Mark gasps, and then, “I value your friendship too much, Hyuck. Fuck, I almost went nuts these past few days thinking you were mad at me.”

Donghyuck lets out a short breath. “I’m sorry,” he says. “If I was feeling bad about something, I should have told you. I’ll do better next time.”

“No, fuck, you don’t have to say that. I’m just glad you’re not mad at me anymore.” He pauses. “I mean, you’re not mad at me anymore, right?”

“Mark. Like I said. I love you. I can’t—stay mad at you for long.”

Mark really wants to see Donghyuck and give him a hug. He decides, perhaps, he should tell him that.

“I wish I could be there and put my arms around you. I think that would make me feel better.”

The three seconds of silence deafens him. Mark’s heart races.

“Pretend that you are,” Donghyuck says. “Grab a pillow. Hold me, Mark, if that’s what you really want.”

Mark does as he’s told and doesn’t even question it. He lays on the bed, takes one of his pillows and hugs it tight, pretending it’s Donghyuck’s body.

“Your arms are really strong,” Donghyuck says.

“Huh?”

“I’m pretending you’re here too.” He laughs. “I’m pretending you never left. And that you’re here beside me. And goddamn, Mark. It’s so warm.”

“You’re being mean.”

“How so?” Donghyuck giggles.

Mark pretends to hold Donghyuck’s hand too, but he doesn’t tell him. He pretends to smell Donghyuck’s neck, burying his nose in the pillow. Donghyuck’s neck might smell like sweat, or discount store perfume, a soft smell that would drive Mark crazy.

“You know what people at my school call you?” Mark says.

“They—talk about me?” The laugh from Donghyuck’s end is tentative.

“Yeah. They call you my secret girlfriend,” he says. “They know I go to Jinsari to see someone and they assume it’s a girl I’m keeping secret from all my city friends.”

“Mark, that’s—“

He waits for Donghyuck to complete the sentence, but it seems the world is against him.

“Fuck, my battery—I’m about to run out,” Donghyuck says. “I don’t think I can talk much longer.”

I don’t care, please stay with me. Mark nearly sobs. “Donghyuck.”

“Mark, we’ll talk—soon, yeah? Remember that I love you. So much. Fuck, my mom’s calling me too. Now I really gotta go.”

Mark doesn’t get to say that he loves him again, as Donghyuck says goodbye and puts down the phone. The call brings him a sense of peace, but it also makes him yearn. There’s so much about his friendship with Donghyuck that confuses him. He replays everything in his head and wonders if it’s normal to want to spoon your best friend and maybe lick his neck while he’s at it.

He already knows that it isn’t normal. But like most of Mark’s thoughts that actually matter, he tries to bury them.

Though for a few moments that night, he decides to dig the thought back from its grave. He uses the thought as he slips his fingers into his shorts and gives himself release. As soon as he feels himself spill and shiver, he buries it again. This time, he hopes he can go longer without taking the shovel and letting it back on the surface.

_____

 

On Tuesday, Mark is idle throughout the school day. He reads the teacher’s handwriting on the board, takes a few notes, but finds that the words do not make sense. The feedback on his English poem is scathing, red circles around each line as he failed to follow instructions. He holds it in his hand, Every time I leave / The strings that tie us together / They’re pulled apart. He reads, sighs, and puts the paper in his pocket.

It’s Wednesday when he sees Lia again. Before he finds the courage to talk to her, he locks himself in the bathroom, opens his iPod Touch and listens to a song by 2AM. A new way of covering his ears. The melody is calming and helps him not to throw up.

“Can we talk?” he tells Lia. They stand at the hallway between the lockers and Lia‘s friends stare at him with disgust. The tallest of the girls, Yuna, shields Lia before Mark even says a word.

Lia looks wary at first, but then she smiles and tells her friends she’ll be right back.

Mark sits with her on a bench in the schoolyard. There’s a light breeze that finds them and gives the atmosphere some warranted melancholy.

He tugs on his uniform blazer and slumps down, hands together as if in prayer. Lia looks calm, undeterred. Mark still feels sick to his stomach.

She begins, “I’ve had some time to think. And I already know you’re not about to tell me you love me and that you want to make up.”

Mark shakes his head. “I’m sorry, Lia. For being an asshole. For being mean to you the other day. For saying yes to you, even if—“

“Even if you’re in love with someone else?”

Mark swallows. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Mark, I know you’re supposed to be like—the new kid with a lot of secrets, but this is something literally everyone knows.” She gives him a knowing look, eyebrows raised, and then smiles. “I didn’t want to believe it at first. I thought I had a chance. But I guess, whoever this girl is, you must really love her.”

Mark bows his head. Dried leaves flit past his feet on the ground.

“And if you had some kind of fight, all I can say is—I get it. And it’s okay. Love sucks, sometimes.”

“And I suck. Me specifically.”

“Don’t do that to yourself. It was one slip of the tongue. And you were out of it. So I forgive you.”

There must be some mistake. Everyone Mark hurts ends up forgiving him. First Donghyuck, now Lia. He doesn’t deserve them.

“I still love you though, funnily enough,” she says. Mark cranes his neck, slow, and sees her cover her mouth. “I meant what I said in that letter. When I first saw you, god. You had me pegged. Something about you, Mark. And I guess—something about the way you care about things, it makes me happy to see it.”

Mark stares, thinking about his words. He recalls Lia that day on the track field when she handed him the letter where she drew him stars and wrote him words that were straight from the heart. “What do you do when you love someone so much and you want to tell them so bad? But you just—can’t.”

Lia tucks her lip, looks up to the sky, and crosses her legs. She moves to place her hand above Mark’s as it rests on the seat.

“You need to have courage,” she says. “Find some way to build it up, then see where it goes. You’ll regret it if you don’t.”

A stronger breeze hits. Mark tangles their fingers together and holds her tight.

Later, he ends up telling her the truth about the ‘girl’ everyone’s been talking about. He’s actually a guy, Mark reveals, and Lia makes an O-shape with her mouth. Her eyes light up and her mouth quirks up.

“Well, this is—unexpected. But, god Mark—you know this somehow makes me like you more, but like in a different way.”

She laughs, and so does Mark. He guesses he and Lia can be friends after this.

They say their goodbyes once the bell rings and Lia gives him a kiss on the cheek. As he sits in the middle of class, he feels the stares from each student, mostly the boys who curse him under their breaths. People ask about what happened, but he keeps it all a secret. He doesn’t even tell Johnny or Yuta, as he saves the story for another day.

For now, Mark tries his best to take in the advice and grow a pair. Soon, he thinks. Soon, he will have enough courage to do something about all the feelings that he’s left to fester and broil.

If he doesn’t do anything, he will regret it. These are wise words from a girl whom he now sees as an object of affection, someone who understands.

_____

 

Before he can do anything else, there’s a track race he must win.

He attends practice religiously after his non-attendance that Monday. The field gives him the necessary courage and thrill, each run a droplet of rain to slowly fill up his tank of resolve. There’s a sense of organised chaos around the field, as they go their separate ways, doing runs and pole jumps. The frames on the hurdles bruise his calves, but he persists. On Thursday, one of their freshman guys nearly faints — a mix of the heat and the pressure. Mark helps the guy up, calls him buddy, lends him some spirit, and tells him all will be fine. They’ll get through this as a team.

Johnny notices the change in Mark’s disposition and tells Mark he’s happy for him. “For working it out with your girl.”

“You mean Lia?”

“No, Mark. No, I don’t.”

The assumptions would drive him nuts if they weren’t so spot on.

Donghyuck calls Mark Friday night to wish him well on the meet. Mark decides he wants to keep Donghyuck on the phone for as long as possible, so he makes up some excuse about wanting to play Ragnarok Online while on the phone as a way to calm his nerves. The excuse works and Donghyuck happily stays tethered while they try another monster battle as a guild. Jaemin’s acolyte sprite surfaces amidst the chaos of their server. Donghyuck groans and complains that he wasn’t invited.

“You’re too hard on him,” Mark says.

“No, I am not. He’s a pain in my ass.”

“He’s nice to have around.”

“Yeah, but.” There’s something Donghyuck isn’t telling him. “Yeah, sure. Jaemin’s a blast.”

Mark is sceptical but ignores the topic so he can listen to Donghyuck whine about Mark and his weak ass knight, a lower class from Donghyuck’s high wizard, whose powers come out in large bursts of light.

When Saturday comes, Mark is on yet another bus, this time towards a stadium north of Seoul for the track meet. The team is tense throughout the ride, though Johnny puts on Into the New World by SNSD and that seems to lift their spirits as the boys sing along to the lyrics, deep voices that chant about walking the many and unknowable paths. Johnny and Yuta sing loud and out of tune; Mark sings in a low volume.

If Mark places in at least one event, he’ll qualify for the National Youth Championships, a day when teams from all over the country compete in one of Seoul’s biggest track fields. So today, quite frankly, is do or die.

Yuta gives Mark a massage in the locker room and helps everyone with their warm-ups. It’s his usual job to inspire and bring warmth to the team, and he’s pretty good at it. Later, Johnny gathers everyone up, says their names one by one, and has them huddle as a team. They’re doing mostly individual events, but the camaraderie persists.

Everyone tells Mark that he has this in the bag. Mark rolls his shoulders, smells his armpits to make sure he’s put enough deodorant, and sets his eyes on the finish line.

Mark bends down, arms straight, fingers touching the ground for the 4 by 100 relay. Johnny and Yuta are doing this with him, along with a sophomore. They’ve elected Mark to run first, and run he does, leading everyone else by 2 seconds as he passes the baton.

For the 110-meter hurdles, he makes it in 15 seconds and places first. For the 1,500-meter dash, he takes 4 minutes and places second. People say he looked serious the whole time, eyebrows furrowed, veins popping out of his arm.

Johnny places second for his 200 meters, then third for his hurdles. He does so with little effort and a lot of grace, jumping over each frame with a smile on his face, as one would expect from Johnny.

Yuta gets their team to second place as well for the steeplechase. He jumps higher than any of them over the frames though he gets overtaken by a guy from a Catholic school at the last second.

Mark walks onto the podium 3 times, the most allowable. He gets a trophy for the relay, gold and silver medals for everything else. He’s smiling the whole time. His coach takes multiple pictures with him, almost cries as he holds Mark’s shoulders.

One of the freshmen, Chenle, doesn’t win anything, almost cries about it. He’s being comforted by his friend Jisung when Mark hugs him and tells him not to sweat it. “Dude, a bump in the road is all this is,” he says. “Hang in there.”

His mother, who drove all the way up to watch the game, gives Mark a giant embrace and doesn’t hold back her tears when she takes a look at all of Mark’s awards. He’s embarrassed, somewhat, but sheds a couple of tears anyway. They hug and she promises to take him out to eat tteokbokki at an expensive restaurant.

Of course, something is missing the whole time. Something is missing when Mark stands on the podium receiving his medals in front of the flashing cameras. Something is missing when his teammates practically kiss him as they all gather after the event, when Yuta actually kisses him before he has to leave. Something is missing, even as he eats with his mother outside, as the smell of the spices and scallions fill his nose.

Mark calls him that night, tells him it would mean the world to him if, during Nationals, Donghyuck could come to Seoul and watch him as he used to when they were younger.

Donghyuck falls silent at the suggestion and Mark has to remind him they’re still on a phone call.

“Earth to Donghyuck,” Mark says, feet resting atop his bed as he sits on his swivel chair.

“Sorry, I was just—imagining you running in your jersey.”

“Pardon?”

“I was imagining you running.”

“Ah. Am I—good? In your imagination.”

“Dude. The fuck. You say that as if I haven’t seen you run before. Of course you’re good.”

Mark laughs, and purses his lips. “I’m glad.”

“Sure. Glad.” A buzz fills the gaps in their conversation. “Mark, sorry, but I think I gotta go now. Dad—he’s making us build a bookshelf together. Don’t ask, I can’t even.”

“I love you,” Mark says, quickly.

“Ah, yes. Yeah, okay. Sure. Bye Mark—Love you too? Yeah.”

Mark falls asleep that night feeling giddy. There’s no doubt that something is still missing. But at least he got to say it first this time. And Donghyuck said it back. Fuck.

_____

“Ace!”

Yuta tackles him first thing on Monday, forcing Mark to carry him on piggyback even though Yuta’s taller than he is. Johnny walks beside them, nonchalant, drinking from a juice box.

They are treated like kings that day. At the assembly, they go up on the stage and the principal announces their names before he shakes their hands. The other students give them a round of applause and Mark sees Lia in the audience, points to her, winks. She beats him up about it later. People murmur, confused about their relationship.

During the week, Mark still has a difficult time paying attention to his teachers, and he almost fails his English test, his mind wandering to things he finds are more important.

He’s been trying to write a letter in his spare time. He starts on a Tuesday, and is able to write three sentences:

I’ve known you since we were kids.

I’m good at keeping rooms clean, so I can help you with yours.

My mom has a discount card for Lotte Department Store, so I can buy you fancy clothes for cheaper even if you hate those kinds of things.

On Wednesday, he manages another two when he has a free period before lunch:

I don’t know how to cook but I know a lot of good restaurants in the city.

You beat me in literally any game we play and I know you enjoy it.

As he talks to Donghyuck on Wednesday night, he brainstorms for more.

“When are you visiting again?” Donghyuck asks.

Mark thinks about it. “I’ll let you know.”

He hears a noise in the background, someone shouting about a Pokemon breaking free from an ultra ball.

“Is Renjun there?” Mark asks.

“Ah, yeah. He says hi.”

Mark huffs, remembering Renjun’s last text. Someday, he’ll talk to him about it and give him a piece of his mind.

Donghyuck tells him later to check out Cyworld again because he changed his background music and wants to know what Mark thinks. It’s I’m so Fortunate by Lee Juck, which is the typical music that Donghyuck likes — a sweet melody, with a soft beginning and a dramatic end.

“I like it,” Mark says, and proceeds to look at the new selfie Donghyuck put up—a grainy photo of him doing the peace sign.

“You should update yours,” Donghyuck says. “It’s virtually blank.”

Mark, in all honesty, has no idea what to put on his profile, so he opts to leave it under construction. He has a few friends on it from school; his friends from back home are on his list as well.

“Help me update it, when I come to visit,” Mark says.

“Is that—an order?”

“Sort of.” Mark buries his head in a pillow and imagines it’s Donghyuck’s tummy.

“Alright. Just—come quickly, Mark.”

The past few days, every time he speaks to Donghyuck and hears the sound of his voice, Mark’s whole body starts feeling a chill and he has the strongest urge to do things for which his mother would slap his wrist.

“I will,” he tells Donghyuck — a promise.

Hearing Donghyuck’s voice helps him find more words for the bullet points in his letter. If you’re feeling down, I will listen. You’re important to me, and I’ll make you feel it.

The past few weeks, each Saturday has been an important one for Mark. Likewise, in the coming Saturday, he plans to go to Jinsari without letting Donghyuck know. It’s not that he wants it to be a surprise — more like he doesn’t want Donghyuck to sit there and look forward to Mark coming when he’s about to drop a bombshell that may or may not go over well.

Mark hopes for the best. But another part of him knows that it’s highly possible that his heart is about to get broken.

The week doesn’t end without some kind of disturbance. Evening on a Friday, Mark’s mother tells him to pick up the telephone and when he asks for the caller, he hears his father’s voice.

“Dad. Gosh. Hi.”

He looks at his mother, who puts her hands on her hips and sighs. “Go ahead and talk to him.” She tries to keep her volume down. “But tell him I’m not here.”

“It’s been a while,” his father says. His voice is similar to Mark’s, if not deeper and wearier.

“Yeah,” says Mark. “I’ve been meaning to call you, dad. I hope you got my text last week. I really did like the iPod. Thank you.”

“Yeah, I got the text,” his father says. “Would’ve appreciated a call, but it’s fine.”

Mark tightens his grip on the phone. “So why’d you call?”

“Can’t I call my own son without a reason?”

“Ah. I guess. But you could’ve called me on my cell phone.”

“I wanted to see if your mom would answer,” his dad says. “But I’m guessing she told you to pretend she isn’t there?”

Mark fidgets and pulls on his t-shirt collar. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Figures.” His dad pauses; Mark wonders what’s on his mind. “You’re still running track, right? How’s that going?”

Mark almost wants to laugh. “I won a gold medal last week,” Mark says. “Going to Nationals in a couple months.”

“Oh. Why didn’t you tell me you had a race? I would’ve come.”

“No, you wouldn’t have.” Mark hasn’t the time to beat around the bush, not anymore.

His dad falls silent. Mark tells him it was nice talking to him, because it kind of was. His dad says he’ll call again, that he’ll call more often this time. “I want to make it up to you,” he says, and Mark isn’t convinced. But he still says okay and lets his dad offer him a promise he knows he won’t be able to keep.

It’s Friday night. Tomorrow, Mark leaves again for Jinsari, and he’s more than prepared: he has the letter folded up on his desk, a backpack full of clothes, and a new sense of resolve to keep him awake through the night.

_____

When he kisses his mother goodbye on Saturday morning, she comments on the nervous expression on Mark’s face.

“I’m not nervous,” Mark says, in an obvious lie. “I’m great. But I think I need to go to the bathroom again real quick.”

He splashes his face and takes a piss before he says bye to his mom for the second time. But as he dashes through the hallway, he realises he forgot something crucial, so he runs back, swipes the letter from his desk, and kisses his mother on the cheek once more.

Mark sweats despite the air-conditioning in the bus. It passes through the same highway, the same signages, the same fields of dry grass, the white and grey buildings of towns that make no attempt at catering to the English speaking foreigner.

Droplets of rain start dripping onto the window. Mark puts on his earphones and listens to I’m So Fortunate, which he’s come to like more after hearing it on Donghyuck’s Cyworld page.

The lyrics resonate with him somehow. It goes, ‘For meeting you and being able to breathe and look at you’ —and then, in a world-weary voice, ‘It’s because you’re an amazing person, that you’re always at my side’

Mark closes his eyes and falls asleep to the song.

When he arrives at Jinsari, it’s already noon and the rain becomes a torrent. He curses the fact that he didn’t bring an umbrella and has to fall in line at a nearby mini-mart to purchase one. Because he doesn’t want Donghyuck to drudge through the rain on his bike, he decides to take a local bus so he can get to the other end of town where Donghyuck lives.

He gets drenched; of course he does. But it’s all worth it when he arrives at the apartment building and rings the doorbell from the first floor.

It’s Donghyuck’s mother who answers on the speakers, but it’s Donghyuck himself, all wide-eyed and speechless, who meets him at the door of the apartment. Mark’s hair is flat from the rain and he feels stupid standing in front of Donghyuck, trying to smile even though his heart is pounding bloody murder.

Donghyuck hands Mark a towel and lets him take a shower before Mark has to buck up and bring up the inevitable.

Mark remembers to take the letter from his jean pocket before he changes into a green t-shirt and some boardshorts. He puts the letter into his breast pocket for safekeeping. Donghyuck is sitting silently on his bed when Mark returns. The expression on his face is unreadable. Mark tries to smile and all he gets back is a heavy sigh.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were coming, Mark? I would’ve picked you up at the bus station.”

“In this rain? I wouldn’t have let you.”

Donghyuck rises and stands face to face with him. Mark regards him and smiles. Donghyuck’s mouth tightens.

“Goddammit.” Donghyuck hugs him. “I missed you.”

Mark wraps his arms around him. “I missed you too.” The words are painful to say.

They part and Mark holds both Donghyuck’s hands, which makes Donghyuck look at him with fear.

“You might be wondering why I came,” Mark says. He lets go of one of Donghyuck’s hands, uses the other one to pull him along so they can sit together on the bed. Mark readies himself for the confession.

“I have something to tell you.”

“Is this about Lia?”

Mark’s eyebrows furrow. “What? No. We broke up. And we weren’t really together in the first place. Didn’t I tell you?”

“Oh. And no. You didn’t.”

Donghyuck is right. Mark didn’t tell him. Too much going on in his head, he supposes.

“So what is it?” They aren’t holding hands anymore. Donghyuck keeps his hands on his lap. Mark wants to take them again.

“I think I’m gay,” says Mark.

“What?” Donghyuck looks at him, incredulous.

“For you.”

“Oh.”

“And maybe other guys too, I’m still trying to figure that out. Fuck, this is coming out wrong.” He shakes his head and pulls out the letter from his pocket. It’s folded into four and there are suns drawn on the squares, splotched with rain, drained of their colour. “I don’t expect you to like me back. This here—this was supposed to be my letter. Reasons why we’d be good together, why you should like me back. Which already sounds ridiculous saying it out loud, fuck.”

“Mark—“ Donghyuck takes the letter, because Mark insists. He opens it, looks down, and scans.

Mark waits, expectant, his face stiff. Donghyuck sighs.

He crumples it in his fist and shakes his head, “You don’t need to convince me to like you, or write something embarrassing like this. I already love you. Didn’t you listen to the songs?”

Mark’s eyes go wide.

“You tried to confess, through a song?”

“It was Jaemin’s suggestion, okay!” Donghyuck covers his face and flops down, bending his whole upper body.

Mark’s life flashes before his eyes. The lyrics of each song resound through his ears. The one about a heart fluttering and confessing one’s love; the one where Lee Juck calls someone beautiful, amazing, gorgeous. He’s going to play each of them thirty, maybe forty times after this, so he can take in every single word and record the messages in his brain.

“Is this for real?”

“Fucking hell. You better not be playing with me,” Donghyuck says, voice muffled.

“I’m not,” Mark says. He inches closer to Donghyuck and holds his forearm.

Mark desperately wants the chance to be tender with him, to hug Donghyuck and make him feel good. He knows he’d be good at it.

“Can I hold you?” Mark asks. An intense desire bubbles in his stomach. He wants to show Donghyuck how much he means to him.

Donghyuck is slow to respond, but he rises and nods. And Mark acts fast.

They hug each other on the bed, arms clinging tight. Mark can feel Donghyuck’s breath, hoarse. They stay like that for what feels like forever — not that Mark minds. No amount of time would ever be enough when it comes to Donghyuck.

When they separate, a blush rises in Donghyuck’s cheeks and Mark can tell that he’s red as well, face and neck hot. Mark no longer has restraint, so he leans in, wanting to catch Donghyuck’s lips. But Donghyuck leans back and shakes his head, hectic.

“I can’t?” says Mark, a lost puppy.

“You can.” Donghyuck closes his eyes. “Just getting ready. You have no idea—how long I’ve wanted this, Mark.”

Mark looks down at their hands, at their fingers tangled together. Then he looks at him and craves. He tries again, draws closer, and captures Donghyuck’s lips this time. It’s one brief but slow kiss at first, as Mark tests the waters. Then, he licks Donghyuck’s lips, lets out a hot breath, and kisses him for real. Donghyuck lifts a hand and lets it stay on Mark’s chest; he trembles and Mark puts his hand over it as he opens up Donghyuck’s mouth with his. Donghyuck lets out a heaving breath and Mark feels it coursing through him.

His eyes blur. Their noses graze together in silence and he uses the time to recover. But Donghyuck seems quite impatient, as he leans back in to give Mark another kiss. His hands find themselves on Mark’s neck, while Mark embraces Donghyuck by the waist.

His courage is tenfold today. He has enough to push Donghyuck down to the bed, so he can hover over him, then kiss him some more, pressing his whole weight on top of him. He plants one soft kiss after another on Donghyuck’s nose and forehead, then he kisses Donghyuck’s lips with more fervour. Donghyuck is fire and all Mark wants is to be burned. He licks Donghyuck’s cheek, looks at him, and sees that Donghyuck is looking back, body aflame, breathing heavily.

They take another break and Mark rests his head on Donghyuck’s chest.

“If you hadn’t grown up so cute, it would have been easier to forget you.” Donghyuck sits up on his elbows, but Mark stays on top of Donghyuck’s stomach. He stares up to his face and licks his lips, already missing Donghyuck’s.

“I’m cute?”

“Cute. Hot. Handsome. All of it.”

Mark knows Donghyuck will get mad if he tries to deny it. But he’s honestly clueless and doesn’t know what people see in him.

Donghyuck takes Mark’s face in his hands. “This face will be the death of me,” he says, and Mark can easily say the same thing because Donghyuck’s face is a whole universe — the spots on his chin, the brown tint of his skin, long eyelashes, the plush of his lips.

“I cried myself to sleep once, thinking of how cute you were,” says Donghyuck. “Well, that among other things.”

“That’s—Donghyuck, damn it. That doesn’t make me feel good.”

“You were cute even when you were sad. Which sounds horrible, I know. But that day, when we were on the phone and I asked you to hold me—I thought you were so cute. And I couldn’t even see you! But still, I wanted to eat you up. So bad.”

Mark doesn’t have the strength; he doesn’t.

That afternoon, he and Donghyuck rub against each other and kiss, until Mark’s breath hitches, wetness filling his groin. He feels Donghyuck shake and do the same, which makes Mark want to get naked. He wants to strip Donghyuck down with him. But he knows he’d be going too fast and he wants to do everything right. And he wants to be prepared; the first time should be amazing.

Mark has barely had anything to eat, so his stomach grumbles and Donghyuck hears it. They change their underwear, turning their backs to each other as they do, embarrassed. Afterwards, they go to the kitchen and notice Donghyuck’s mother left a note, telling them she’ll be back by supper. Donghyuck sighs and Mark wonders if she noticed anything going on in Donghyuck’s room.

Donghyuck heats some fried rice and lays down strips of beef and two eggs on a pan. Mark feels like a kid, unable to help. Donghyuck shakes his head and tells him to shut his trap and eat.

They eat together, side by side. Mark hooks an arm around Donghyuck’s shoulder and tries to feed him. Donghyuck looks at him angrily, but quickly swallows the rice from between Mark’s chopsticks.

There’s a lot of kissing that goes on that day. They kiss at the table as they finish their food. They kiss as they wash the dirty dishes. They kiss on the couch while they watch TV. They kiss before they run and hide in Donghyuck’s room, as soon as they hear the door unlock and Donghyuck’s mom returns.

When Sunday morning comes, the sun glitters through the window and lands on their faces. Mark and Donghyuck wake and a sinking feeling fills Mark’s stomach.

They lie on their sides. He touches Donghyuck’s face.

“This sucks,” says Mark.

Donghyuck flicks Mark’s forehead; he makes him wince and let out a small laugh. “I know.”

They decide to eat breakfast out, though not without a brief encounter with Donghyuck’s parents, who look at them warily before lending Donghyuck the money and allowing them to go. Donghyuck takes Mark to a family restaurant two blocks away where they order some tofu, rice with black beans, a vegetable omelet. They’re silent the whole time, and continue to be that way when they take a walk across town.

With every step Mark takes, he feels like he’s running out of time.

Back in the apartment, Mark takes a shower as he gets ready to leave. The water is hot and it makes him feel nauseous.

When he returns to Donghyuck, he finds him crying on the bed.

“Shit, shit.” Mark practically runs to him and hugs him tight. “Donghyuck, please don’t cry.”

He says that but he’s crying now too. Donghyuck shakes his head and rambles, it’s stupid, fuck, we should be used to this now, Mark, why do you have to leave, no, scratch that, it’s okay. Don’t look at me like that. We’ll be fine.

Mark offers him a kiss and tells him he agrees. He promises to call every day and that everything will be fine.

When Mark gets on the #20 back home, he eats his words. Every time he leaves Jinsari, he feels like everything he once held close is slowly slipping away. Today is the same. He sees Donghyuck one last time from outside the window. He waves and Donghyuck waves back.

They’ll see each other again, soon. It’s a promise he knows they’ll keep. But at the moment, as the bus rushes past lines of evergreen trees, Mark can’t help but feel shitty.

_____

 

It’s the National Youth Championships. Before then, Mark practices non-stop. In between practice and talks with Donghyuck on the phone, Mark sorts out his university applications. He applies to Yonsei and the national university, with a couple other backups, hoping he’ll get lucky and qualify for a scholarship. Donghyuck does the same but doesn’t reveal where he plans to go.

Mark hopes Donghyuck wants to go to Seoul. He hopes and literally prays, kneeling by his bed every night to ask God to give him this one thing.

It’s disappointing when Donghyuck tells him he can’t come to watch the championships because he has a mock exam. Mark wants to get mad at him, even though he knows it’s irrational.

Before he gets on the field, Mark warms up, shoes off, walking on his toes. He does his knee and hip rolls outside; crowds of supporters fill up the bleachers.

The pole vaults start first, so Mark gives himself more time to prepare for his event. Johnny, who’d gone up to the bleachers to greet his parents, approaches Mark while he’s on his back on the green surface. He’s moving his legs back and forth, making sure his legs have the right stretch.

“Dude,” Johnny says, hovering over him. Mark changes direction, still upside down, and alternates between splitting his legs and crossing them together.

“Yeah, Johnny? What’s up?” Mark says, panting.

“Could you like—stand up for a bit?”

Mark does as he’s told, rising forwards in a jump.

“When I was up on the bleachers, there was like, a group of guys who wanted me to tell you to look up. They specifically told me to talk to the cute upside down guy.”

Nerds, the lot of them. Johnny scans the audience and points to where the guys are. Mark grins at what he sees.

They’re all in red shirts, which is Mark’s favourite colour. Jaemin and Jeno hold a banner over their heads and annoy the people behind them — Mark Lee Fighting, it says, which is one of the most embarrassing things Mark has ever had to read. And then there’s Renjun, sitting down and eating a candy bar, minding his own business.

Donghyuck stands beside Renjun and waves. His smile is big and bright. Mark smiles back and does finger guns in his direction. Donghyuck pretends to get shot, hands on his heart. Mark extends his arms and pretends to do a bazooka. Donghyuck, in turn, pretends to faint and falls to his seat.

It’s all the motivation Mark needs to win this thing. Before he bends down to get ready to run a thousand meters, he looks up to his friends, who look as though they’re on the edge of their seats — a line of boys with their hands on their hearts. Mark chuckles. This is the one thing he knows he can do excellently.

Everything is slow, at first, once he hears the pop of the gun signal. His arms swing in smooth motions as he hears the cheers from the crowd. Mark huffs and breathes and powers through the curves of the lane. He doesn’t look back, nor does he pay attention to anyone who might be in front of him. Coach’s orders not to pay any mind to the other competitors, Focus on yourself, son.

The commentators announce the times for each of the contenders and Mark realises that he only got second. He bends down and pants, hands on his knees. In different circumstances, this would hurt. But today, he smiles and only feels grateful.

His parents are there to greet him after everything is over — both of them: his mom and dad, who leave each other be and hug Mark at separate times to congratulate him on his medals. Even though he gets silver on both his individual races, his team wins gold for a relay.

His mom and dad leave him so he can be with his friends. Johnny and Yuta attempt to carry each other and their whole team huddles together in a group hug. Later, when his teammates have gone to their respective families, Mark finds himself with a weight on his back as Jaemin jumps him from behind.

“I guess you don’t suck after all,” Renjun says, to which Mark raises a brow. He hugs Renjun anyway and admits he missed him, despite everything.

“I didn’t know these things were so—chaotic,” says Jeno, looking around as the crowd dissipates. “I honestly didn’t know where to look.”

“Dude, there was only one fucking thing we were all looking at—those arms, man. I have got to start working out.” Jaemin grabs one of Mark’s medals, asks how much they might cost, and Mark shrugs.

He wants to kiss Donghyuck in front of the whole crowd and he imagines what it would be like to do it. Friggin cheesy, for one. Scandalous, most probably.

“I thought you had mock exams,” Mark says. The other boys continue to talk, this time among themselves, while Mark and Donghyuck stare at each other awkwardly.

“That was a lie,” Donghyuck says, and smiles sheepishly. Mark wants to take his hand and kiss his fingers.

“I should’ve known.” Mark runs his fingers through his own hair. “Where are you applying anyway? You haven’t told me.”

“I’ve applied to Pohang Tech in Gyeongbuk.” Mark’s heart sinks.

Donghyuck smiles then throws a light punch at Mark’s stomach. “But also to Seoul National University. And Korea Uni. Those will be my first choices.”

As quickly as it sinks, Mark’s heart rises back up. Still, he has to hold back on kissing him.

They get to kiss later that evening in the men’s restroom of a BBQ. “I can’t take it,” Donghyuck says, pushing Mark against the white tiles of the wall. “I thought I could, but I can’t.”

Mark smiles into the kiss and holds Donghyuck’s cheeks. Their friends know what’s up and reserve their comments on the situation, glancing at each other as soon as Mark and Donghyuck return.

On the television, the song from Donghyuck’s Cyworld page plays, which isn’t all that surprising, since it’s everywhere these days. Donghyuck rises and asks the waitress if he can maybe turn it off, or change the channel; he puts matters into his own hands and stands on his tiptoes so he can press the off button.

Their friends have a hotel room, but Donghyuck stays over at Mark’s. They have a long talk with Mark’s mom and they each eat a piece of chocolate cake that she purchased from a Tous Les Jours bakery. Donghyuck has never had anything like it, so his eyes light up after the first bite. He calls it a monstrosity. Mark isn’t much of a fan, so he lets Donghyuck finish his slice.

They share a pair of earphones later in Mark’s bedroom as they listen to a game soundtrack Mark downloaded into his iPod. Donghyuck fiddles with the touch screen, goes to the app store to download a Tetris knockoff, but realises Mark hasn’t got enough free space since he filled the thing with music.

“If there aren’t any games, what’s the use?” Donghyuck says, arms crossed.

The whole night, Mark hooks his arms around Donghyuck’s shoulders and he fights the urge to spit out all his thoughts. He has a lot of plans in his mind, about renting an apartment when they go to university, about them moving in together, about Donghyuck bringing his bike to the city so they can ride by the Han River every weekend and feel the cold breeze flow against their skin. He wants to tell him how they’re going to achieve all their dreams as a tandem, though the words sound too dumb to verbalise.

Instead of all that, Mark kisses him and asks if he remembers the time when Mark got a bruise after he tripped and fell as they were chasing after each other around their building’s hallways. Donghyuck says, yes, he remembers, and recalls putting on the bandage for Mark and trying to kiss it better. Mark proceeds to lift his shorts and show Donghyuck a minor bruise that he got from the hurdles, a black spot on one of his calves. He asks Donghyuck if he would try to kiss it better again, but Donghyuck refuses.

Mark has the whole night to persuade him. Their whole lives to do so much more.

It’s 2008, Mark’s senior year, the year he finally tells his first love how much he means to him. It’s a good year, Mark thinks. A year of new beginnings.

end.