Jonghyun was going to pretend that he didn’t notice the tall, dark-haired boy sitting crossed legged on the table staring as another boy, seated in the booth, ate his oatmeal. But he must have stared too long because the boy on the table suddenly turned to him with a look of curious interest.
Fuck! Jonghyun cussed when their eyes met. He looked away, counting to seven before he looked back. Dark eyes and a warm smile met him.
Play it cool, Jonghyun, he scolded himself, don’t smile back. But it was too late. The boy on the table was climbing down and heading straight to him. Shit, shit, shit. He busied himself with wiping down the already clean diner counter as the boy took the seat right in front of him.
“Can you see me?” the boy asked, cocking his head to side. He looked cute with his face resting on his palms, sleepy too.
Jonghyun looked everywhere but the boy, then focused on a stubborn though invisible stain.
“I know you can see me,” the boy laughed at Jonghyun’s attempts to ignore him.
“Go away,” Jonghyun hissed through gritted teeth. Even though Jonghyun could see him, nobody else could.
The boy’s face lit up at the verbal affirmation of his presence. “I’m Jongin,” he introduced himself.
“I don’t care,” Jonghyun returned, finding another stubborn yet invisible stain two seats away from his unwelcome companion.
Jongin pouted as he moved two seats over. “You’re not very nice -” he squinted at the name tag. “– Kim Jonghyun.”
“Please, just leave me alone,” Jonghyun begged. It was always the same when ghosts realized he had the gift to see and hear them. Gift? Jonghyun often scoffed, more like curse because it always ended the same – badly.
“But you’re the first person I’ve talked to for years…”
No, no, no Jonghyun shook his head to block whatever it was Jongin was saying but he stopped when he realized what he must look like. Throwing Jongin a glare, he stomped off through the double doors leading to the kitchen.
Unsurprisingly, Jongin followed him.
“You’re going to get me in trouble,” Jonghyun whined.
“I’m not going away,” Jongin said resolutely.
Damn! Jonghyun slammed his fist on the stainless steel of the kitchen sink. It hurt like a bitch but he pretended it didn’t. The line cooks looked at him with disgruntled concern. Jongin just smirked at him.
“What do you want?” Jonghyun growled.
“Don’t be like that,” Jongin smiled triumphantly. “You’re a Kim. I’m a Kim -” his voice trailed when his gaze fell on the boy at the booth. Jonghyun followed the gaze through the small square window which the chef used to bark orders at the front counter staff.
The boy had profound sadness about him that didn’t quite match his beauty. It was cold and distant and…something else. Lonely, Jonghyun named it. This boy was lonely. He recognized the look because it often greeted him when he looked in the mirror.
Whatever feeling of compassion Jonghyun had for the boy in the booth dissipated when he looked up and saw the expression on Jongin’s face. Jonghyun knew that expression. It was one akin to scientific discovery.
“No,” he said before Jongin could even ask.
The back door slammed hard against concrete wall as Jonghyun barreled his way to the back alley for a smoke. He instantly regretted going back there, groaning when he heard the operatic tones of ‘Nessun Dorma’ fill the alley.
“Jonghyun!” the alley lady sang at him brightly. She saw Jongin and her smile become even more charming. But she didn’t say anything. She just bat her clumped lashes at Jongin, pressing down the front of her outfit; pale, frail hands covering and uncovering the blood stained skirt of her peplum blouse. She had been twenty-one the day she died; stabbed by a man who couldn’t handle rejection well.
“Please,” Jongin begged. “Just this once. Do this for me and I’ll leave you alone.”
But that wasn’t the point. Even if Jongin left him alone, there would always be the alley lady, the fireman, the college graduate. The list went on.
“He’s struggling,” Jongin said.
Something in the way he said that made Jonghyun pause and look at Jongin. He’d seen it before but it knocked the breath out of him every time. This thing called love. He took a long drag of his cigarette so he wouldn’t have to say anything just yet.
“He won’t believe me,” Jonghyun grumbled stubbornly.
Jongin smiled because even though Jonghyun’s tone was rough, his edges were softening. “As long as he knows he’s not been alone.” He said this with a meaningful look.
Jonghyun bristled uncomfortably. “Fine. Just this once and you leave me alone.”
“Aye, aye captain,” Jongin saluted him.
The alley lady giggled and when Jongin winked at her, she blushed furiously. Well, as furiously as a ghost could blush.
Jonghyun nervously ran his hand through his silver dyed hair for the third time, adjusted his apron for a second time before he picked up the coffee pot and approached the lonely boy’s booth. Taemin – that’s what Jongin said his name was.
Taemin was looking out the window; his fingers curved around the empty bowl of oatmeal, his expression vacant. Jongin slid into the booth opposite Taemin, looking like it was Christmas morning.
Jonghyun cleared his throat to get Taemin’s attention. “Refill?” He looked down at the clean coffee cup and cringed.
Taemin looked at the cup as well, then at Jonghyun. “I don’t drink coffee.”
“Oh!” was all Jonghyun could say as Taemin turned back to the window. He stood there for a while making faces at the empty space Jongin occupied till Taemin turned back to him with a slightly irritated curl on his lip.
“I don’t drink coffee,” he repeated slowly.
“Do you know Jongin?”
Taemin startled. For a few seconds, his face fell into confusion but he collected himself quickly.
“Kim Jongin?” Jonghyun pressed. “The dancer?”
Taemin’s eyes become big, filling quickly with moisture. “Are you a friend of Jongin?” he asked carefully.
“Not exactly,” Jonghyun replied, not wanting to lie.
Taemin frowned but he continued to look at Jonghyun with expectation.
Jonghyun took in a deep breath. He learned a long time ago that there was no easy way to say what he was about to say so he just went ahead and said it plainly. “I can talk to the dead,” he started. “…well anyone can talk to the dead but the dead don’t talk back to them…well actually the dead do talk back it’s just that most people can’t hear them but I can so… ”
Jonghyun’s ramble tapered off upon recognition of the ‘Oh, he’s crazy’ look on Taemin’s face. He hated that look.
“Jongin wants to know why you stopped dancing,” he blurted.
Taemin’s expression froze, thawed into surprise, then slowly hardened to anger. “Is this some kind of sick joke?”
“Or maybe a scam? Do you want money? Is this what you do to get money? Prey on the vulnerabilities of others?” Taemin’s voice progressively got louder and thick with a kind of vitriol Jonghyun should have been used to.
“It’s not a scam,” Jonghyun pleaded, desperately trying to reign in the situation because the other diners were looking and any minute now –
“Jonghyun!” he heard the booming, reprimanding tone of his boss.
When Jonghyun woke up, the mid-morning sun was flooding his musky motel room with insufferable heat. The A/C unit didn’t work and the overhead fan was just circulating stagnant air. After a prolonged stretch, he opened his eyes. He remained sprawled on the mustard yellow sheets for five more minutes before declaring the day perfect for pancakes. The warm body next him was still sleeping, snoring softly. Max or Mack? Jonghyun couldn’t remember the name. It didn’t matter since that probably wasn’t his real name. All that mattered was that he didn’t have any other-worldly passengers hanging around him.
Jonghyun smiled softly as he brushed a few stray strands hair off the boy’s face. It was a good face, a peaceful face. Not like Taemin’s face shadowed in sadness. Jonghyun shook the image from his mind, reaching for the back pocket of his jeans hanging off the night stand. The cigarette pack was empty. He remembered that the motel had a kiosk by the disgusting pool area and slipping into his jeans and t-shirt from the night before went to buy a pack.
He didn’t think it would take that long, otherwise he would have worn shoes. The sign on the kiosk said ‘Back in Five minutes’ but who knows how long that sign had been up. Jonghyun waited fifteen minutes, getting more and more irritated, ringing the little desk bell continuously until the receptionist/clerk/whatever finally showed up. He bought two packs, smoking two cigarettes in quick succession. By the time he got back in his room, Max or Mack was gone and seated on his bed was the tall, dark-haired boy from the diner.
“What the fuck?” Jonghyun greeted Jongin. “What are you doing here? And what did you do with Max?”
A flash of confusion colored Jongin’s face then knowing set in. “You mean Minho.”
Now Jonghyun was confused. “Who?”
“The boy you spent the night with.”
Jonghyun didn’t like the insinuation on Jongin’s smug face. “We played video games,” he said defensively, which was true except for the thirty minutes of sex.
Jongin surveyed Jonghyun as though he was trying to garner if he was telling the truth but it didn’t really matter.
“You promised you would leave me alone,” Jonghyun reminded Jongin with a hint of accusation. Usually, ghosts kept their word. Ghosts that didn’t were a problem Jonghyun didn’t want.
“I did -”Jongin started to say but he was interrupted by the bathroom door opening and Taemin coming out. “He came to see you.”
Jonghyun and Taemin looked at each other awkwardly before Taemin stammered out an apology for showing up unexpectedly.
“How did you find me?” Jonghyun asked a little unkindly.
“Be nice,” Jongin requested.
“I went to your work to apologize for my outburst but your boss said you didn’t work there anymore. I think that’s my fault as well. Sorry.”
Jonghyun wanted to say that yeah, it was Taemin’s fault for getting him fired and that he should take responsibility and pay for the next three months rent but he knew he was bound to be fired sooner rather than later…and Taemin looked sufficiently contrite.
“It’s whatever,” Jonghyun said, rolling his eyes at the appreciative squeal from Jongin. He started milling about the room, picking up his stuff as another awkward silence descended.
“Say something,” Jongin implored as he watched Taemin become increasingly uncomfortable.
Jonghyun ignored him.
Suddenly, “Tell me something only we would know,” Taemin blurted. By ‘we’ he meant him and Jongin.
It wasn’t that Taemin had shouted at him but in the tense silence that had preceded, the request sounded loud…and desperate. Their eyes met for a moment before Taemin looked down at his converse shoes.
Jonghyun sighed, turning to Jongin who told him about how Taemin always cums hard when Jongin tops.
“I’m not saying that,” Jonghyun gushed, turning an alarming shade of red.
“Not saying what?” Taemin asked confused.
Jongin’s laugh died down but he still wasn’t offering an alternative for Jonghyun to relay to Taemin.
“I don’t fucking care if he doesn’t believe me,” Jonghyun hissed at Jongin.
“Okay, okay,” Jongin grumbled. He looked at Taemin who was increasingly second guessing his decision to come here and smiled a sad sort of smile.
“You fought,” Jonghyun said to Taemin. “On the day he died, you fought about his schedule. You said if he walked out the door he shouldn’t bother coming back.”
Taemin staggered, like he’d been hit square on the chest. His knees suddenly felt like mush so he sat on the bed next to Jongin. He looked like he was collecting all his strength and willing himself not to break down. Jonghyun wished Taemin could see how his and Jongin's hands were touching.
“I wish I said I lo– . I wish I said something different,” Taemin mumbled, catching himself before he confessed to a complete stranger.
“He knows you didn’t mean it,” Jonghyun offered. He paused then added, “He says it’s not as though you know how to change to key code.”
Taemin made a snorting sound and Jongin was half smiling, half pouting at him. After a valiant effort to master his emotions, Taemin looked at Jonghyun. There were tears swimming his eyes but he didn’t look as distressed as before.
The silence that followed wasn’t uncomfortable. Jonghyun pulled out the chair at the writing desk, resigned to playing medium for the two souls before him. He watched as Jongin pouted when Taemin moved his hand away from his then smile when the hand returned. He looked down to hide his own smile when he realized Taemin was watching him.
“Is this for real?” Taemin muttered.
Jonghyun decided to be sympathetic. “Would you be here if you really thought otherwise?” he countered.
Taemin shrugged. “Maybe I’m just desperate for some kind of sign.”
“I’m not asking you for any money,” Jonghyun said, his voice a little strained. “I’m not asking you for anything.”
“He believes you,” Jongin interjected. “For the first time in a long time he didn’t cry himself to sleep.”
Jonghyun felt his edges soften as Jongin smiled at him gratefully. There was also the sting of tears in the back of his eyes and bat them back furiously.
“So, when did you know…you could talk to dead people?” Taemin asked.
Jonghyun used to practice the answer to this question for when someone would ask him. But no one ever did and so he soon forgot the well crafted answer he had made when he was fifteen years old.
“I guess when I didn’t grow out of the imaginary friend phase,” he answered with a shrug. “My father was always worried that I didn’t have any real friends and I didn’t understand why because Jonghwa was real. He took me to a child psychologist who had me draw a picture of my ‘special’ friend. Turned out I had an older brother who died before I was born.”
Both Taemin and Jongin looked at Jonghyun with something of pity and mild horror.
“I don’t know what to say,” Taemin admitted quietly.
“It’s fine,” Jonghyun replied, trying to smile but it fell flat. It wasn’t fine, not really. Things were never the same between him and his parents since that day. They were always afraid he’d ask what happened but the thing was he kind of already knew.
“So why did you stop dancing?” Jonghyun asked, changing the subject from him.
Taemin looked uncomfortable, like he was going to lie or avoid the question altogether but then he looked at Jonghyun and decided he could trust him just a little bit. He cleared his throat.
“It’s…,” he started. “What’s the point, you know? Without Jongin…” he started blinking rapidly. He didn’t expect it to be so hard to say the words ‘without Jongin’. It had always been ‘with Jongin’.
“He misses it,” Jonghyun said quietly, rescuing Taemin. “He misses dancing together. Even after the accident when you would go to the studio, he’d be there dancing with you. He misses that.”
“Fuck,” Taemin cussed softly, brushing away the tear that spilled over.
“He…” Jonghyun hesitated. Taemin looked at him. There were a lot of emotions presenting on his face: fear, hope, doubt, worry. “He wants to dance with you one last time.”
Taemin’s throat seized.
One last time.
It was a long time before Taemin could finally speak up and even then he had to clear his throat twice before he could say, “Yeah, I’d like that.”
It was three in the morning when Taemin punched in his code to the dance studio he used to run with Jongin. Jonghyun wondered if Taemin knew that three a.m. was the most auspicious hour in the day as they briefly stumbled through a dark corridor into the first room.
It was a standard dance studio with wood panels on the floor and back wall and mirrors on the remaining three walls. The ceiling was painted sky blue with numerous tuffs of puffy white clouds.
Taemin seemed nervous as he set up the music for the routine he and Jongin used to dance to. He followed Jonghyun’s gaze to where he supposed Jongin was standing and smiled uncomfortably; like this was the weirdest thing that had ever happened to him. It probably was. He took his position, stretching out his legs, arms, and neck. He looked in the mirror but not at himself or Jonghyun but at where Jongin was standing, already in position, almost as if he could see him.
The music started and Taemin’s face changed, almost to the point he become a different person. He wasn’t awkward, defensive, or vulnerable. He was powerful and confident. Even Jongin who seemed innocent and playful commanded awe and attention as he weaved his way in front then behind Taemin in synchronized harmony. Their expressions were the same, the angle of their knee bends were the same. They even smiled at the same place in the choreography as if remembering the same thing. That was when Jonghyun noticed it, a sort of fading-out about Jongin.
The music ended and Taemin went to stop the playback.
“How was it?” Taemin asked Jonghyun but really he was talking to Jongin. “I made a mistake at the top of the second verse.”
“I was perfect as usual,” Jongin replied.
Jonghyun rolled his eyes. “Whatever, he messed up in the chorus,” Jonghyun told Taemin to which Taemin laughed and Jongin stuck his tongue out at him.
They danced the routine three more times. The second time was perfect. The third time Jongin dumped into Taemin (and from the unguarded expression of shock on his face Jonghyun knew he felt it). The fourth time Jongin made a mistake at the top of the second verse while Taemin made a mistake in the chorus but that didn’t seem to bother him as much. He was having a wonderful time.
They would have gone for a fifth and sixth round but Taemin noticed that Jonghyun wasn’t as enthusiastic as he had been the first two rounds. He looked tired, if somewhat grim.
“I think that’s enough for now. Jonghyun looks bored” Taemin teased, smiling.
Jonghyun kind of startled at the sound of his name. He peered at Taemin with wide eyes then turned to Jongin who looked considerably…less; like what books and movies depict ghosts to be. Jongin must have understood what was happening because he was looking at Jonghyun with a kind of urgency he’d not shown before.
“What does that face mean?” Taemin asked, calling Jonghyun’s attention back to him. His smile was falling and a steady rise of alarm was coloring his face. “What’s wrong?”
Jonghyun looked down.
“Please.” It was both Taemin and Jongin who said it.
“He has to go,” Jonghyun whispered.
Taemin nodded, blinking rapidly but he wasn’t ready to say goodbye just yet. “What do I say? What do I do?” he looked at Jonghyun expectantly.
Jonghyun was trying not to fall apart but Jongin was crying and already his own vision was going blurry. “You had said you wished you had said something different the day he died,” Jonghyun supplied.
“Jongin-ah,” Taemin cried out but then his throat seized.
“Tell him,” Jongin spoke up, “Thank you for dancing with me. And loving me. And being my happiness. Tell him I want him to be happy. I want the person he thinks about when he’s touching himself to be able to touch him back, and hold him, and kiss him. Tell him he’ll live a long, happy life and…”
Jonghyun sobbed as he relayed the message to Taemin, pausing momentarily before adding with difficulty, “He says, he’ll be there when it’s your turn…”
Taemin dug his fingers painfully into his thighs. He opened his mouth to release the sound that was stuck in his throat. It was a feral sound, raw and full of agony.
“Also, he says –“
“I know,” Taemin interrupted. It was a struggle but he managed to say the words. “I love you too, Jongin-ah.”
Jonghyun was mostly together until the moment Taemin closed his eyes when Jongin kissed his head.
He dissolved into tears. He didn’t see the exact moment Jongin left but he felt it.
“Hey, Jonghyun, remember that time when I asked you to tell me something only Jongin and I would know?”
“Yes,” Jonghyun replied cautiously.
“What was the first thing he said, the one you refused to say?”
Jonghyun went beet red. “Nothing,” he lied.
But Taemin wasn’t fooled. “He said something dirty, didn’t he?”
“I don’t recall.”
Taemin laughed. “I know he said something dirty. People were always fooled by his sleepy puppy dog routine. So what was it? Was it something about my cum face?”
“Shut up and go to bed,” Jonghyun chided.
“Come on,” Taemin whined.
“I’m hanging up,” Jonghyun threatened.
“Okay, Okay,” Taemin acquiesced. “Oh! And Jonghyun-ah.”
Jonghyun smiled. “No problem.”