The human child is a curiosity. Ten has seen human children before, but they've usually stared at him for a bit before going back to playing under the tree in which Ten resides. Or trapped in, depending on what mood Ten is in on that day. Or year.
This young boy is different, however. He looks no more than six human years old. True, he's still staring at Ten, but he breaks out in a smile and waves at him.
Ten usually stays within the tree because it takes less effort. It took him nearly a century of accumulating enough energy to separate himself into a distinct entity and another twenty years to achieve the likeness of a human and maintain it for a considerable amount of time. And even then, he has to use a considerable amount more energy to maintain the shape. And what really is the point anyway, when the only beings that can see him are animals, small children, and other spirits like himself.
And so essentially, what the child is seeing and waving at is...the trunk of Ten's tree. Most children would sense that he's there but would not question it further. This child not only senses him, but is saying hello.
Ten emerges from the trunk and morphs his form into that of a boy similar to this boy's age.
"Do you want to play?" The boy asks, picking up his toy truck to show to Ten.
Ten approaches the boy and sits down in front of him. "What is your name?"
"Johnny!" The boy answers. "I'm five and a half years old!" He holds up his hand to show Ten. He rubs his nose with a pudgy finger. "What's your name?"
"My name?" Ten asks. Nobody has ever asked him that question before. "My name is Ten."
He had chosen that name for himself from the strange symbols that appears on the door of the house next to his tree. The house had been built 50 years ago and he had heard that the way to pronounce the strange symbols is ten, from what he overheard from the first owners of the house. It seems to be a form of identification to mark the house.
"Ten? Like one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten?" The boy named Johnny says, holding up both of his hands now.
Ten is baffled by the strange actions of this boy. Why is he holding up both hands now? Is he holding out his hands because he expects Ten to have food to give him? Humans seem to experience hunger very frequently, if all the people who've passed by his tree or lived in that house are any indication. He does not belong to a fruit bearing tree, but humans often bring their other food items under his foliage to consume.
"I...do not have any food to give you," Ten says haltingly.
"It's okay," Johnny says. "I just had lunch." He goes back to his toy truck and starts rolling it across the dirt, over the exposed roots of Ten's tree. Ten feels the faintest wisp of the pressure the tires make. After a while, Johnny holds out the toy to Ten. "Sharing is caring!" He says proudly.
"Indeed," Ten says, taking the truck gingerly and imitating the movement that Johnny has been making.
"Tomorrow I will bring more toys!" Johnny says cheerfully.
Ten spends most of the afternoon examining each one and wondering what is so appealing about them for Johnny. He decides to ask.
"Why do you like playing with these objects?"
Johnny looks confused by the question. "I don't know. I just think they're fun."
"Fun," Ten repeats. "What is the meaning of 'fun'?"
Johnny stops what he had been doing and stares at Ten with big, stricken eyes. "You don't know what fun is?"
Ten shakes his head, wondering why the boy is experiencing such a profound reaction at this revelation.
"Fun is..." Johnny begins enthusiastically, then pauses. "Fun is!" He stops again and scratches his head. "Hmm..." He lights up again. "Fun is when you really like what you're doing and you're having fun!" He throws up his short arms and beams at Ten.
Ten tries to copy the facial motions that he's observing from Johnny. It doesn't take very much effort to maintain it.
He begins to spend most of the time with the young boy, Johnny. Not that he really has much choice in the matter since he cannot go far from his tree. That would possibly take many more years of storing enough energy before he can perform such a feat. But he dreams.
Meanwhile, the boy brings the world to Ten. He tells Ten everything about what's happening everyday, chattering animatedly while playing with his many toys. Ten learns that his family had moved into the house with the symbol 10 on it recently and that he has no brothers or sisters. Ten knows something about brothers and sisters. He is born of the seeds of his parents, his many brothers and sisters spread everywhere by the elements of the natural world. One of them, he who had named himself Taeyong, visits him from time to time. But many are still trapped in the core of their own trees, waiting and biding their time. And many others have perished when humans had cut them down to clear the land.
Ten finds himself fascinated by Johnny's anecdotes and his fantastical stories of heroes and monsters. He would sometimes bring along paper and things called crayons to draw out his stories. They are quite hideous.
"And this is me and you," Johnny says proudly, one day towards the end of summer. He shoves the paper towards Ten. Ten peers at it. It shows a rather crude drawing of them, their appendages mere lines. But to Ten, this is the first representation of himself reflected back at him. His hair is black and his features are sharp, exaggerated and stretched through the mind of a child. Their facsimiles are holding hands.
"It's a very nice picture," Ten says, politely. After so many years in solitude, he is finally getting the chance to practice the civility and etiquette he has witness among humans. They have so much capacity for destruction and mayhem, but also the same potential for order, beauty and compassion.
"Thank you," Johnny says, pleased.
It's probably for the best anyway because Johnny does not linger for very long on the few days that he does approach the tree, his little human body covered in many layers to keep away the cold. He waves at Ten and Ten, with as much energy as he can spare, emerges from the trunk, half formed from the torso up, to wave back, before retreating back inside. Sometimes Johnny would come with his mother and she would ask him who he is waving to.
"It's my friend!" Johnny says excitedly. "His name is Ten."
"Darling, did you make friends with the tree?" She asks, smiling indulgently.
"He lives inside the tree, Mommy," Johnny informs her. "It's his home but it's really cold now, so he's sleeping."
"Oh, I see," she replies. "A lot of animals do hibernate in the winter. Maybe you'll see the little squirrel again when the weather gets warmer."
"No, he's like me," Johnny says, looking up at her.
Johnny's mother is taken aback. "Well, darling, it's getting colder now. Why don't we go back into the house and have some hot chocolate?" She says, ushering him back home. Ten watches as Johnny treads away through the snow that had fallen the night before.
"Ten, Ten, guess what?" Johnny yells, racing to the tree as quickly as his legs could carry him.
Ten has already taken form and sitting by the foot of his tree, anticipating Johnny's daily visit after the boy completes his schooling for the day. Ten finds that he still enjoys listening to Johnny reveal what is happening in his life, and it has become even more interesting with time because the periphery of Johnny's world continues to expand as he grows older and gains increasing independence from his parents. He starts going to new places, like his school, and meeting new people, like the teachers and friends he has made in the school. For Ten, who is unable to leave, Johnny's stories are an oasis to sip from, the water of knowledge precious.
"Well, are you going to tell me, or what?" Ten says, feigning disinterest by staring down at his nails. He's learned a lot about human behaviors from watching Johnny's family and their friends, as well as practicing them when he is in Johnny's presence.
"My parents wants me to start talking to someone called a therapist," Johnny says. "I met him today. He was really nice."
"What's a therapist?" Ten asks. Over the decades, humans have created so many new occupations that it's becoming increasingly difficult for Ten to keep track. He still remembers when most of the land in front of him where the house now stands was vast tracts of farmland and that was mostly everyone's livelihood.
Johnny shrugs. "Mommy said it's like a teacher who will tell me how to think."
"What's wrong with how you're thinking now?" Ten asks, perplexed. He finds Johnny perfectly capable of intelligent thought, in human children terms of course.
Johnny is about to say something when his mother yells for him from the porch of the house.
"I'm coming, Mommy," Johnny hollers back before turning to Ten again with a sheepish look on his face. "Sorry, I have to go. But I'll come back after I finish my homework."
He returns a few hours later, looking glum.
"What's wrong, Johnny?" Ten asks, worried.
Johnny sighs, his shoulders drooping. "Mommy says I should spend less time outside and decided to sign me up for piano lessons too." He kicks a stone by his foot. " I don't wanna take piano lessons. Sounds boring."
Ten thinks about it, trying to extrapolate what Johnny's mother's motives are based on everything that he has learned about her and humans in general. He remembers that snowy day when Johnny first told her about his 'friend'. "Johnny," Ten begins, tentatively. "Have you continued to tell your mother and father about me?"
Johnny looks at him then. "Yeah, of course. You're my friend and you're...like a magical creature. Nobody else has a magical creature as a friend."
"Johnny, I told you before that nobody else can see me except you," Ten says. "When your parents see you here talking to me, all they can see is you talking to this tree and when you tell them that a little boy lives in the tree, they don't believe you because they can't see it."
"Well, why can't they see you?" Johnny asks, sounding like he's on the verge of a meltdown. He seldom gets them, but Ten understands that small children can be prone to them. Johnny plops down on the ground. "Can't you show them that you exist so that they'll believe me? And I won't have to take piano lessons?"
"Your parents can't see me because their minds are already thinking about too much," Ten explains. He's sure he's tried to explain this to Johnny before, but being as young as Johnny is, perhaps he hadn't quite grasp what Ten was saying. "It takes a lot of concentration for humans to be able to experience the world beyond their five senses and as you grow up, you will start thinking more about your responsibilities in the human world. Like getting a job and having a family. You won't have time to think about me anymore and you will forget. Your human mind will force you to forget about beings like me. Do you get it now, Johnny?"
Johnny looks like he's on the verge of tears. "But I don't want to forget about you, Ten," he says, his bottom lip quivering.
Ten is touched by the sheer intensity of Johnny's emotions. "Remember me for as long as you can, then," he says.
They would discuss the book after Johnny finishes. Johnny would focus on the narrative and writing techniques with which the stories are told, but Ten prefers to dwell on the motivations of the characters, especially if the action of a certain character seems inexplicable and contradictory to him. He knows to some extent that humans can sometimes act in unpredictable ways, but he does not know the true extent until these books. He wishes he knew how to read and Johnny has offered to teach him.
They spend the rest of the summer teaching Ten how to read. It is both infuriating and exhilarating.
Ten knows it was coming, but it doesn't stop it from hurting.
Now, Johnny would sometimes invite people of his age over, and Ten assumes they must be his friends. There are a few times when Johnny invites girls over, especially when his parents are not present, and they would go up to his room. Johnny would then shut the blinds in front of his windows, obstructing Ten's view. Ten has lived long enough and learned enough about humans to know what is happening.
He slides back into the womb of his tree.
He passes through the exterior wall and drifts up into Johnny's room. He is on a mission, but he wonders if Johnny still has them in the room, or if he has taken them with him.
He finds what he is looking for and a small gasp escapes from him, despite himself. The bookshelf takes up the entire wall of Johnny's room. It is lined with rows and rows of books, interspersed with little toy figurines of action figures and stuffed animals, relics of Johnny's childhood.
Here now, Ten has to solidify his form enough that he can carry the books back to the tree. He summons more of the energy from the base of his tree and can feel his body start to grow solid. He takes on the form of what a young man would look like, simply because it would be easier to reach the top shelves. He starts taking random books from every part of the shelf, hungry for the knowledge that he had not been able to procure since Johnny left.
He also remembers Johnny, even though Johnny does not remember him. That is the curse of being spirits beyond the grasp of human notice. Early human ancestors had had more control over their seventh sense, the hidden ability within all humans to be able to see the world of spirits, but the increasingly modern world has distracted humans from being able to tap into that.
Johnny is a fond memory, one that Ten knows he is fortunate to have. Many spirits never have the opportunity to be able to find a human who had so readily engaged his seventh sense, even more so than most other children, who can tap into the sense, but choose not to interact.
He wonders what Johnny is doing now. Perhaps he has found a human job that he enjoys doing and contemplating starting his own family, as is the natural progression of human life. He hopes Johnny is happy.
"A tree spirit reading a book," Taeyong says, amusement in his voice. "That is definitely a first time in my very long existence."
"Some of us choose not to be uncultured swine," Ten snipes, but without teeth. He is joyous beyond measure at seeing his older brother. Or anyone for that matter. It has been some time since Ten has spoken to another being. Animals notice his presence, but they are very rarely intellectually stimulating.
"My brother," Taeyong greets warmly. "How are you?"
"I'm very happy to see you, is how I am," Ten says. He is amazed that Taeyong has achieved the ability to stay solidified in his human form and yet also be able to travel the long distances from his own tree to Ten's. It is the feat of a very old, experienced spirit who has a store of excess energy beyond compare and knows how to harness it to its most efficient. But Ten also notices that Taeyong does not have the same vibrancy and cheeriness as he had the last time he paid a visit, which was a long time ago. He looks...aged. Which seems impossible for an immortal spirit.
"Where did you get the book?" Taeyong presses. "And more importantly, where did you learn how to read? It appears I have missed a lot."
"Well, if you came to visit more often, you would be more apprised of what's happening," Ten says with levity.
A shadow passes over Taeyong's face before it clears, almost imperceptible. Ten feels perhaps more has happened to Taeyong than the other way around. He hurriedly continues on.
'Well, there was a human boy who lived in that house," Ten explains, pointing a wispy tendril toward the house. "And he taught me how to read. And he has a room full of books. Humans are so prone to excess but I think in this case, a collection of books is a worthy pursuit."
"A worthy pursuit indeed," Taeyong agrees. "I remember when-" He stops suddenly, looking pained. He shakes his head.
"What's wrong, brother?" Ten asks, starting to get worried. There is such a drastic change in Taeyong's demeanor since his last visit that it seems disconcerting.
Taeyong shakes his head again. It seems ironically amusing to Ten how many human mannerisms the both of them have adopted.
"Where is the boy now?" Taeyong inquires, changing the subject .
"He, uh," Ten says, trailing off. "He grew up."
Taeyong nods with sympathy. "They don't mean to forget, but their access to our world is tenuous at best."
Ten now only feels the slightest pang at the memory of Johnny and he does not blame the boy for having forgotten him.
"And what are you doing around here?" Ten asks, turning the tables once again. It seems the both of them make a great pair in avoidance.
"It's been some time since I've made the rounds to see how everyone is faring," Taeyong explains. "Unfortunately, more and more of our brothers and sisters are being cut down for human development."
Upon hearing this, Ten sobers. He grieves for the family he has lost, and he worries that the next tree that humans would cut down would be his own. As it is, he is the only remaining tree left within his viewing distance. Tree spirits are only immortal to a degree. If their tree dies naturally of old age, they are released from their service, free to wander as they choose. As the tree ages, the grip it has over the spirit would gradually loosen, allowing the spirit to travel further with less energy expended. But this is a long process, for trees live for a long time. A strong spirit can protect his tree from harm, either natural or human, but many are not, and certainly not strong enough against the machinations of men.
It is truly unfortunate that humans are so prone to excess.
"I will visit more often," Taeyong promises before he leaves.
Ten feels oddly bereft of company after Taeyong disappears from view, even though it's been years since Ten has spoken to anyone, not since Johnny, and have gone years longer before without needing companionship. You can't miss something that you never knew exists. But now that it was gone, Ten yearns for it.
He continues to make brief trips to Johnny's room to swap out the books. Johnny has kept the ones he used to read to Ten, but over the years since then, he had added a multitude of other genres, including novels that Ten finds more difficult than usual to read at first. There are words that he does not recognize, but Johnny once explained to Ten what a dictionary is and so Ten seeks that one out as well.
On the days that Ten anticipates any type of precipitation or bad weather, he can feel it like a pressure in the back of his mind, he quickly returns everything back to Johnny's room to avoid getting them ruined. They are precious to him.
A car pulls up to the house one day and it's different from the one that Johnny's parents uses to have to transport them from place to place. Ten hasn't seen that particular car in a while.
A tall man climbs out of the car and stands there for a moment after completing the task of getting two pieces of luggages out of the trunk, looking up at the house. Just staring, before he seems to emerge from his thoughts and climbs up the stairs to the front door. He unlocks it and disappears inside.
It appears to Ten that the house has a new resident. He stirs from within the tree and goes to investigate. He must know what this stranger's intentions are with the house and with the books in Johnny's room.
When Ten passes through the exterior wall into the living room, he can hear the man walking around the house, his boots loud and intrusive against the floor. Ten knows that he himself is also an intruder in the house, that this house does not belong to him, but he feels a sense of possession when it comes to it, nevertheless. He has visited it enough in the last year to recognize the pictures on the wall of Johnny throughout his growing years and of his parents, as well as the patterns of the wallpaper in the small hallway leading to the stairs. Ten discovers the top layer of that wall to be composed of paper one day when a corner of it peeled back and he had stared in bewilderment at it. After he had determined that the structural integrity of the house was still sound, he had left. One may think that he's guardian spirit of the house, not the tree.
Ten floats into the kitchen, where the man has stopped to fix something to eat. His back is turned to Ten as he rummages through the cupboards for canned foods. It's been a while since Johnny's parents have returned and even though Ten does not require sustenance from solid matter, he is aware that human food can spoil easily, even if placed within the large object called the refrigerator. But apparently food from metal containers can still be consumed even after an extended period of time. Ten watches the man as he heats up the can of beef stew on top of the stove. After transferring the stew into a bowl, he turns around to situate himself on the round kitchen table to consume the food. He is quite tall, Ten can see, taller than Johnny's father had been. But he still seems to have retained remnants of the face of a child's, soft and yet imperious at the same time. A child that Ten recognizes.
"Johnny," he whispers.
The man makes no indication that he's heard Ten, as he continues to eat and flip through a magazine at the same time. That is not unusual, as human adults have buried their seventh sense under the weight of their own lives.
After eating and leaving the bowl in the sink to wash later, this adult Johnny heads upstairs, Ten following close behind, unable to stop looking at what time and life has wrought on the young boy he once knew. Johnny's face as a child had been so open and expressive, prone to bright smiles, but this adult Johnny has not smiled since he arrived, it seems.
As Ten expected, Johnny heads to his bedroom first. Ten is glad he had returned all the books he borrowed from his last visit to the shelf because he had anticipated rain tonight. What he never anticipated is the return of a boy he thought he would never see again.
Ten watches as Johnny walks around his room, touching an object here and there, until he is standing in front of his expansive wall shelf. His eyes widen, as if he's seeing his own collection for the first time.
"Damn, I forgot I had this many books," Ten hears Johnny mutter. His voice has deepened considerably and it hits Ten all at once on a visceral level that Johnny has actually grown up.
Johnny picks a random book off the shelf and flips through it, and for the first time since Ten has seen Johnny again, he sees a smile appear slowly and brilliantly on his face.
For the next few days, he watches from his tree as Johnny continues to occupy the house, appearing to stay for a while. He starts unpacking the suitcases that he brought with him, and Ten sees him one day coming back from a trip in his car, laden down with paper bags full of food items.
Johnny also starts taking long strolls across the field around Ten, often times with a notebook and pen tucked under his arm, stopping every so often to jot something down on it. A few days after his return, Johnny wanders back after his walk to sit under Ten's tree, like he once did all those years ago. Johnny leans against the trunk and Ten feels the weight of it like a brand.
Ten emerges from the tree to stand in front of Johnny, changing into the young boy he had first simulated to appear to him. He is not sure what he is hoping for, perhaps a flicker of recognition from Johnny that he knows is impossible because Johnny no longer has the ability to see him. As expected, Johnny looks unseeingly past him, deep in his own thoughts. He continues to write in his notebook, but after a few minutes, Ten is startled when Johnny lets out a frustrated sigh, tears out the page of the notebook, crumples it up and tosses it. It rolls across the rough dirt, stopped in its track by one of Ten's exposed roots. Johnny scrubs his face in clear frustration and gets up to leave.
After he disappears into the house, Ten solidifies his form enough to smooth out the sheet of paper that had been discarded. On it are scribbles that are hard to decipher, but it contains sentences like 'man returns to boyhood home to find out what's missing in his life - a novel' and 'relationships between strangers - possible novel idea.'
Johnny does not appear to have a 'job,' one that his father and mother had gone to and returned from at the same time everyday. His typical day seems to consist of waking, eating, typing on his laptop, answering calls on what appears to be a wireless phone, and occasionally playing the piano in the living room. Ten remembers how much Johnny had disliked the lessons at first, having regarded it as punishment and taking him away from being able to spend time with Ten, but once he learned the basics and started playing more difficult pieces, Johnny started showing up to Ten's tree with stories of recitals and traveling to different places with his school band to perform.
Johnny continues to take strolls and even runs around the neighborhood, which baffles Ten since it doesn't appear that Johnny is actually in any hurry to get anywhere nor are there anything chasing him. Johnny stops by the tree one day after his run, leaning an arm against the trunk, as he bends over to catch his breath. Sweat is glistening on his face, but eventually his breathing starts to even out and he is able to straighten back up.
"Johnny, you are even stranger now than when you were a child," Ten says out loud, laughing to himself.
Johnny's face sharpens and he whirls around. "Who said that?" He says.
Ten freezes, his world tilting on its well established axis. Johnny had heard him. "It's me, Ten," he manages to croak out, shock obliterating his ability to speak.
Johnny doesn't appear to have heard that, however, as he continues to look around suspiciously, walking a circle around the tree. After a while, he shrugs and starts walking back to the house.
Ten watches him leave, hope growing and anchoring within himself like roots.
The day dawns when Ten makes his daily trip to the house. He had been feeling antsy, or as antsy as a spirit can be. He hasn't given up on getting Johnny's attention, but another reason why he wants to go early is because Johnny had returned home yesterday with another set of brand new books, adding to his already considerable collection. He wants to peruse the selection and perhaps even take one back to the tree while Johnny isn't looking. Surely he wouldn't miss one among so many.
Johnny is still sleeping in bed when Ten floats into his room. Ten spares him a glance before looking through the stack of books on top of the bedside drawer. He decides on one that looks interesting that goes by the title, The Man Called Ove. To the side, Ten hears Johnny roll over.
"Ten, what are you doing here?" Johnny asks, his voice thick with sleepiness.
Ten drops the book, a muffled thud against the floor and turns to look at Johnny, who is lying on his side. Johnny is still staring at him with squinting eyes, as if he wasn't quite ready to wake just yet.
"Johnny?" Ten says, his voice hushed.
"Hmm?" Johnny replies, closing his eyes again.
"Johnny, Johnny," Ten urges, willing him awake again. "Do you remember me?"
Johnny opens his eyes. "Of course, I remember you. You live in a tree."
Ten wants to laugh hysterically because, well, Johnny isn't wrong. And Johnny can see him and talk to him again. Perhaps his ability to access his seventh sense isn't completely gone.
"Johnny, listen to me," Ten says urgently, morphing into the young boy that would hopefully trigger Johnny's childhood memories. "Don't forget about me. Please don't forget about me. Learn to use your seventh sense."
"My seventh what?" Johnny says, his words blurring into each other. His eyelids are already starting to droop close again.
Johnny comes out of the house, shutting the door behind him slowly. He looks around, as if unsure where to go, before descending the porch stairs. He pauses again at the foot of the stairs, before turning towards the field.
Ten watches as Johnny ventures closer, but Johnny does not appear to be able to see him even though he is looking directly at Ten.
"What am I doing here?" Johnny mutters under his breath. He scratches the back of his head, his face scrunched up in confusion.
"Use your seventh sense," Ten whispers, morphing into the boy and solidifying his body in hopes that that would be enough for Johnny to see him. "Please."
Johnny takes a step back when he finally seems to see Ten. "Oh, shit," he says. He looks closer. "Ten?"
"Yes," Ten says, with elation.
"I'll be damned," Johnny says, laughing. "My parents used to tell me that I'd have these stories about having a friend who lives in a tree. Turns out they were right. Or wrong. They kept saying I had an 'overactive imagination'."
"I could still be a figment of your imagination," Ten says.
"You could, but I'd be pretty messed up if I'm still imagining up a child now that I'm an adult," Johnny reasons. "Unless this is some weird psychological shit on my part. I don't think I'm that screwed up just yet." Ten notices the rueful tone in his voice.
"So, do you want me older?" Ten asks, aging his form up to match Johnny's.
Johnny's eyes grow almost as wide as saucers. "Oh, my god." Ten worries that he had gone too far, letting him see the transformation, that he's scared off this adult Johnny for sure. "That's really cool."
There's no discernible reason why Johnny is able to notice Ten. Ten can only surmise that the lack of external stress factors, like having a job and a family and other adult responsibilities, allowed Johnny to clear his mind during this odd homecoming. Perhaps that is why he decided to return home.
"This morning," Johnny starts, "When I saw you inside the house, you were never able to go that far from the tree before when we, I mean, when I was younger."
"That is a new development," Ten explains. "I've only been able to do that recently."
Johnny falls silent, turning sober. "How long has it been?" He asks faintly.
Despite the vagueness of the question, somehow Ten knows to what length of time he's referring to. He doesn't want to answer because he knows Johnny would seek to find some way of blaming himself. "Since you were fifteen years of age. Your mind is compelled to forget about my existence."
That doesn't seem to appease Johnny, his frown still in place. "It was weird. I remember I would be hanging out with my other friends and suddenly, I'd think about you and wonder what you would think about the video game we were playing. But then I also thought, where did that come from? Where did you come from? You weren't a friend from my school. It'll come back to me slowly. And then I guess I forgot again."
"Please do not blame yourself," Ten says. "That is the way human minds work in regards to our existence. Your minds are quite limited in its abilities-"
"Hey," Johnny protests weakly, with a smile.
Ten returns the smile. "But you were the boy who saw me."
"You have to clear your mind," Ten says. "But the catch-22..." He pauses to share a look with Johnny at the literary reference, who grins from ear to ear like he used to as a child. "Is that once your mind expels my existence and you forget, you'll have no reason to clear your mind in the first place."
"Well, there's more than one reason for wanting to clear your mind," Johnny points out. He fidgets and looks down at his shoes, which he uses to scruff up some of the soil under his feet. "It's kind of why I came back."
It seems just as Ten had suspected. Johnny's return home seems to have been precipitated by the need to simplify his life, for whatever reason. "Where are your parents?" He asks, suddenly remembering them.
Johnny looks surprised by the question. "My parents? They retired and wanted to live someplace warmer throughout the year, but they also didn't want to sell the house either. I asked them if I could use it to get away sometimes and they said yes. I'm thinking of buying it from them...when I get enough money."
Ten has long ago understood the concept of money and currency and how it influences the world, for better or worse. Mostly worse. "What is your 'job' now?"
Johnny looks sheepish at this question, rubbing the back of his head. "I'm trying to be a writer. Trying being the operative word."
"Have you not had any success?" Ten asks, immensely curious.
Johnny laughs. "I forget that I'm talking to someone who is not used to the concept of human social mores." He grows quiet. "But maybe that's exactly what I need right now. No more bullshit."
"Bull...shit?" Ten tries out the strange word. "How does manure of a bovine species factor into this?"
Johnny laughs again and Ten thinks to himself how lucky he is to be able to hear that sound again.
"But, it's like really hard to focus and find time and the energy to really do it," Johnny explains. "I mean, I know there are so many writers who banged out a novel while working full time, like J.K. Rowling. Oh I totally have to read you her stuff, they're pretty wild, you'd love it."
Ten nods enthusiastically, soaking up all of Johnny's stories like he had back then. Johnny is his window to the outside world beyond the confines of the tree and he had missed the stories when Johnny left. He had tried to make do with the books in Johnny's collection, but there's a finite amount of knowledge and Ten knows the day would come when he would get to the end.
"And the job was really killing a little bit of my soul everyday," Johnny continues. Ten suddenly recalls fondly Johnny's flair for the dramatic. "And all the people I worked with, all they cared about was money. I couldn't be inspired by that, unless I was writing a book about corporate greed and the breakdown of moral fiber." He perks up. "Actually, that's not a bad novel idea." He fishes around for his notebook. "I'm writing that down. I could be the next Gore Vidal, but for the financial world."
Ten is aware of this famous human figure. "I think that might be overly ambitious," he remarks.
Johnny stares at Ten for a second. "Man, now I know you're not just in my head. Even my own brain can't be that savage to me."
Sometimes Johnny would work on his novel, tapping away on his laptop. During this time Ten would entertain himself with more books that Johnny brought home from the bookstore or delivered straight to the house from an internet store called Amazon.
This is how Ten discovers the internet.
"This is amazing. This is even better than the newspaper," he declares, scrolling through an internet page called Huffington Post. There are many other news sources that can also be obtained through this piece of machinery, as well as other fun human things to do.
Johnny squints at the screen. "Are-are you posting on a forum?" He squints some more. "And arguing with someone about climate change?"
"This guy is a willfully ignorant buffoon," Ten spits out viciously, jabbing out his response on the keyboard.
"I've created a monster," Johnny says, sounding slightly horrified.
Ten once asks Johnny which idea did he decide to pursue with his novel, but Johnny is tight-lipped about it.
"I don't know if it's any good yet," Johnny admits. "Writing is hard."
Sometimes Johnny would take phone calls from his parents, who are calling from a cruise around the Mediterranean Sea.
"Hey, Ma, no, everything's okay here," Johnny says into the phone, a thin layer of exasperation in his voice. "Yes, I'm still working on the book." He pauses to listen. "I'm fine. I'm not having a quarter life crisis, Ma, Jesus Christ. I've always wanted to write. I know it might not come to anything, but I gotta at least try, right? I know you and Dad have been really supportive letting me stay here. It really helps to just focus here." He pauses again. "Yeah, I'm still going out. I'm not all by myself here. I have a...friend here with me." He turns to Ten, making a face at him and miming with his hand the motion of a mouth talking too much. Ten hides a smile behind his hand. "No, it's no one you know. No, I haven't met anyone yet. Alright, Ma, I'll talk to you guys when you reach Turkey. Tell Dad I said hi. Love you guys. Bye!" He quickly hangs the phone back on the hook and slides down the wall.
"Are you alright?" Ten asks, concerned. He starts to get up but Johnny waves him away.
"Yeah, it's just, sometimes it's exhausting talking to my parents," Johnny says. "I love them, but they don't really understand why I quit a perfectly good, steady job to write." The tone of the word seems to suggest to Ten that they find it distasteful. "They don't realize that I was actually really miserable at the job."
Ten learns that humans too, like himself, can become trapped by their circumstances.
"You think we should prepare for it?" Johnny asks, worried.
"I think so," Ten says. He winces as another wave of what Johnny would call a headache rolls through him.
Johnny reaches over to touch Ten's arm. "Hey, man, you okay?" He asks, his brows furrowed with concern.
"Yes," Ten replies. "The storm will be a strong one. You must prepare."
Johnny goes to the supermarket to stock up on food and water and two days after, they turn on the TV and see the same dire weather reports coming in, now noticed by human meteorologists.
"Good thing I went early to get the supplies," Johnny says. "They were looking at me funny when I was buying up all that shit."
Ten gets up to depart for his tree.
"Where are you going?" Johnny asks, looking up at him.
"I have to stay with the tree," Ten explains. "I am its protector."
Johnny frowns. "Will you...be okay out there?"
Ten smiles, touched by Johnny's well-intention but unnecessary concern. "I will be fine. My form is originally incorporeal, so I will not be affected by the storm. However, should something happen to my tree, that is another story. That's why I have to be there to shield it from the storm."
Johnny doesn't look quite convinced. "Okay, but come into the house if you need to."
The skies turn dark a few hours later and the wind picks up. Ten pulls energy from the roots to form a force field around the tree. He is not sure if he will be strong enough to withstand a lightning strike, he has been very lucky to not have been struck so far in his considerable years, but as they say in the human world, there is a first time for everything. Ten turns his gaze to Johnny's house, where the lights within glow through the windows like a warm fire in the midst of the cold. The rain starts, first as small, slanting drops, then larger ones that whipped through the air with the wind. Ten hunkers down and builds up his shield for the remainder of the long night to come.
The next morning, the skies calm, although the rain continues. Ten releases the hold he has over the force field, feeling depleted of all his energy. This storm has taken a lot out of him. He may not even be able to make it over to Johnny's house after this. This worries him. It's so easy for Johnny to forget about him.
"Ten?" Ten hears a voice call tentatively. It's Johnny, standing in front of the tree, under an umbrella. He's looking around, tilting his head this way and that. His seventh sense is definitely still not as good as it had been when he was a child.
Ten emerges from the tree, trying to morph into the shape of his human form, but finds that he simply does not have the energy to do so. "I am here," he says instead.
"Where?" Johnny asks.
"I need to recuperate from this storm," Ten says. "You should return to the house. The storm may have died down, but it's not over yet."
Johnny doesn't move. "The power went out in the house. I turned on the battery radio and they said there's a couple of power lines down and flooding in some areas. I just wanted to make sure you were okay."
Ten feels an emotion that he can not quite identify. It is not altogether unpleasant. It feels like a fondness towards Johnny that he already knows is present in himself, but magnified more intensely. He finds that he wants Johnny to return those feelings. And that the possibility of him not doing so does become unpleasant. It's a very strange contradiction.
"I can assure you I am fine," Ten says. "I will return to the house once I can regain some of my strength. You can use this time to properly ruminate on your novel in peace and quiet."
Johnny grins, like Ten had just told a joke. His face lights up when he does that. "You're such a little asshole, you know that?"
Ten learned of this term from one of the books he's read before. "Have I offended you?" He says, alarmed. "I can assure you that was not my intention."
Johnny shakes his head, still grinning, and starts heading back to the house. "Just come back to the house when you're ready."
"You know, I actually did spend that time working on the novel," Johnny says by way of greeting.
"That is good to hear," Ten says, happy for him. He is still contemplating these new emotions that he is experiencing towards Johnny. He finds that at the end of the day, he does not want to leave Johnny's company.
"Are you sure you are not capable of consuming food?" Johnny asks, taking a sip from his wine glass. "Because this wine is the shit and I want you to enjoy it too."
"I will not be able to appreciate it on the level that you seem to be enjoying," Ten says.
"A shame," Johnny says, before taking another sip.
Afterwards, Johnny starts preparing for bed, puttering around after taking his shower as Ten stands by the doorway of the bedroom, flipping through the pages of The Catcher in the Rye. He finds himself unable to concentrate. That is highly unusual.
"So, um," Johnny begins, rolling back the covers of his bed. "Are you sticking around?"
"Ah, forgive me," Ten says, laying the book back down on one of the shelves and starts to leave.
"No, no, I didn't mean it like that," Johnny says hurriedly. His faces turns a shade of pink. "I actually really like your company." He pauses. "Although maybe 15% of me is still convinced that I'm just imagining you up."
Ten feels a chill drench his being. It is an unpleasant feeling. "Do you still think that I am a figment of your imagination?"
Johnny shakes his head and sits down heavily on the edge of his bed. "I don't know. My parents really convinced me that I was just imagining things when I told them about you. I had to go to therapy for years and even the therapists said that everything was just in my head and that this is just a manifestation of an overactive imagination. Maybe me being in my own head and books all the time really fucked up my brain."
"Johnny...," Ten says, feeling shaken by what he had just heard. He finds that he does not know how to comfort Johnny because how can he prove to Johnny that he is not imagining things. Most humans will only believe in something if other humans can confirm its existence. Humans are always questioning the validity of their own minds. It makes sense for a species who knows so little of how their own brain works.
"And I've," Johnny starts to say, then stops and shakes his head furiously. "Never mind. Maybe I've had too much to drink tonight."
"What is it?" Ten prompts.
Johnny shakes his head again. "I can't," he whispers and looks up at Ten. Something beseeching and desperate in his gaze urges Ten to move closer until he sinks to his knees by Johnny's feet. Ten reaches up to stroke Johnny's face. At the touch, Ten can feel Johnny shudder and sees him close his eyes.
"I'm real," Ten whispers harshly. "I'm real. You can feel me, can't you? I belong in a world most humans can't see, but I also belong here, with you, the boy who saw me. You have the gift of the seventh sense. Don't let others convince you otherwise. You are not crazy."
Johnny opens his eyes and stares at Ten, his gaze now clear and determined. He leans down and presses his lips against Ten's. Ten gasps and jolts back instinctively. He has never had contact with a human like this. It's intimate and thrilling, but Ten cannot imagine being able to do something like this with another human being besides Johnny. It is a form of touch that is different entirely.
"I'm sorry," Johnny starts to say, fumbling. Ten imitates what Johnny did before, pressing his mouth against Johnny's again to stop him from the rest of the apology. Johnny's lips are soft and warm and they seek out Ten's, wanting to taste him. Ten lets Johnny take control, because Johnny has had experience with human intimacy such as this. Ten remembers the girls Johnny used to bring up to his room. Was this what it felt like to them, feeling like they were being claimed and cherished in equal measure by Johnny? He finds that he does not wish Johnny to do this type of thing with someone else.
Johnny is breathless when he moves away, his eyes wide as he stares back at Ten.
"Stay with me?" Johnny asks quietly. Ten nods.
Johnny had fallen asleep almost as soon as they had arranged themselves on the bed. Johnny had pulled Ten into his arms and had struggled to keep his eyes open while Ten tried to map out all the contour of Johnny's face with his fingers, committing to memory. It's a beloved face, one that Ten had seen in its cheeky childhood to the solemn man before him, his face shaped by his life experiences.
Ten stays a while longer afterwards, watching Johnny's face smooth out and his breathing become steady. Ten has existed long enough to know that such calm does not last for long. He dissolves his form to move reluctantly away from Johnny's warm body and returns to the tree to think.
The next morning is a clear one. It is still dawn, the morning dew coating the leaves of Ten's tree. He drifts back to the house, knowing that Johnny will not wake for another hour.
Johnny is, as he expected, still sleeping, curled up on his side. Ten solidifies his human form and sits at the edge of the bed, looking at Johnny. How this young boy has grown up. Ten knows he used to think that human children age quite slowly, but now he wishes they did not mature so quickly and that he can still have the carefree days he spent playing with Johnny and his toys under the tree or having Johnny read to him.
Johnny begins to stir, rolling over onto his back, emerging from sleep slowly. He smiles when he sees Ten, and he wiggles his body closer to Ten, not unlike the worms that Ten can sometimes feel along the roots of his tree. "Good morning," he says happily, his voice still husky from sleep.
Ten bends over to kiss Johnny's forehead. "Good morning." He'll wait until later before he brings the subject up to Johnny. "Go back to sleep. I will attempt to make breakfast."
Johnny snorts, but gladly does what Ten says.
Ten floats down into the kitchen to prepare some oatmeal and coffee for Johnny, having seen him perform these tasks often enough he has learned how to do them himself.
Johnny comes down a half hour later, dressed, but he had not fixed his hair. Ten laughs and starts to run his fingers through Johnny's hair after Johnny sits down and starts in on his oatmeal. Johnny hums and leans into Ten's touch.
After breakfast is finished and the dishes washed and put away, Johnny presses Ten onto the couch and kisses him. "I have to make sure last night wasn't just a dream," he says, in between kisses.
Ten is overwhelmed and momentarily forgets his mission as he gives in to Johnny's touches and the insistence of his body. It would be so good to just let Johnny continue, and Ten has never felt emotions like this, knowing that he is loved. "Johnny," he attempts and finds that his voice comes out as a plaintive whine. He is shocked with himself.
"Johnny," he says again, pushing him away. Johnny doesn't go far, looking down at Ten, baffled. "Did I do something wrong?" He asked worriedly. He starts to move further away, but Ten grips onto him.
"No," Ten assures him. This is turning out much harder than he expects. He maneuvers Johnny into a more comfortable position, Johnny letting him, still confused but letting Ten have his way.
"Johnny," Ten says, "I think you should go back."
Johnny doesn't look any less confused. "What do you mean?"
"Humans typically do not do well in solitude," Ten begins to explain. "They are a naturally sociable species and I have learned that there can be deleterious consequences to humans who have not had social contact for a considerable amount of time. I think-"
"Okay, you can stop right there," Johnny says sharply, shooting up from his prone position on the couch. He looks angry. "You don't get to say what you did last night and then tell me in the morning that you think this is all in my fucking head too, like everyone else in my life. Fuck you." He gets up and starts pacing. Ten stays where he is, knowing that this would happen.
"You have not gone out to meet anyone in a long time," Ten points out softly.
"That's because I've been working on the novel and I had-I had you," Johnny snaps. He softens his tone. "You are the best company I've had in a long time. It's like, it's like you know me, and I guess that makes sense, because you were there from the beginning. Once I was able to see you again, all those memories came back and I-" He stops and it seems like a struggle for him to continue. "You're my best friend."
The tumult in Ten worsens when he hears this. "I cannot be your best friend, Johnny. You will forget about me eventually." He sees Johnny start to shake his head. "You will. If not now, it will be later. But it will happen. Your seventh sense is stronger than most humans, but our worlds are not meant to exist together. You deserve to live a normal life of a human, with a human. If you stay, you will have to stay forever because I cannot leave."
"Then I'll stay," Johnny says stubbornly.
"Johnny," Ten murmurs, feeling hopeless. "You cannot condemn yourself to a life of solitude from other humans. Not for me. You still can't even convince yourself fully that I'm even real. And you cannot prove otherwise." He realizes he must be cruel for Johnny to leave.
"Ten, please," Johnny says. "Why are you doing this?"
Ten searches within himself for the true answer to that question. "Because I love you," he says before dissolving his human form. Hopefully, he thinks, for good.
He walks, sometimes stomps, every day for three months up to Ten's tree and starts talking. Sometimes, it would be angry, sometimes it's pleading, and one time it almost convinces Ten to respond.
"I know you're in there," Johnny says. It's another one of his angry days, Ten thinks. "I know this is not in my head. How can I come up with someone as infuriating as you? God, you make me so mad. You kept saying I was the boy who saw you. I see you, okay, I see you. Everyone else should too because then they'll see what an asshole you are." He grows quiet. "I love you too, Ten. You keep saying I will forget, but I won't. I know I have before, but I won't again. I promise. I'm not crazy. I'm not."
At the end of the three long, torturous months, Johnny starts packing up his belongings in his car. Ten had wanted this to happen, for Johnny to leave, to go back to the real world, to return to the land of the living. But for Johnny to leave a second time, this time absolutely never to return, it breaks something in Ten.
Ten watches as Johnny takes one more look back at the house and then towards the tree before getting into his car, shoulders slumped. The car engine rumbles to life and before long, it turns a corner and disappears from view.
Johnny hasn't even been gone for more than a minute, but Ten is already feeling his absence like a deep wound. Although not human, spirits are not immune to human emotions, and right now Ten wishes more than anything not to hurt like this.
But Ten has lived a long time without the boy named Johnny and he will be able to continue on without him. It is for the best.
And yet, a part of him doesn't actually want it to stop. The pain is something that belongs to him, that proved to him that it happened and while Johnny will not remember, Ten will for the both of them. Perhaps someday the memory will carry with it more happiness than pain.
Ten is slumbering within his tree when he hears the clearing of a throat. He stirs and turns to identify the visitor.
"Taeyong," he greets warmly. He is, as the human saying goes, a sight for sore eyes.
"Asleep, brother?" Taeyong says. "I thought I would find your head in another book."
"Books do not bring me the same joy that they used to," Ten admits gloomily, emerging from the tree and morphing into his human form. He had refrained from visiting the house. The wound is still too fresh.
Taeyong's sharp eyes focus on Ten. His human eyes often remind Ten of a hawk's.
"The boy returned," Taeyong surmises.
Ten starts. "How did you know?" He shuts up and tries quickly to backtrack. "I mean, I don't know what-"
Taeyong holds up a hand to interrupt. "I once loved a human myself. He was the one who named me. He said he wanted our names to match," he says, smiling wistfully at a long ago memory. "His name was Taeil."
"What happened to him?" Ten whispers.
"He grew old and died," Taeyong says. "As all humans do. Their lives are so short and fragile. But I was able to take care of him in his later years. We spent many happy years together that I do not regret. This is the reason why I have not made my rounds in recent years. I did not want to leave him towards the end."
Ten looks at Taeyong, surprised. "He still remembered you? Even after he grew into adulthood?"
"I met him when he was an adult," Taeyong says. "He was a human extraordinarily pure of heart and he kept his life simple, and his seventh sense was strong. I always asked if he had any regrets about not pursuing more ambitious things in life, and he said it didn't matter as long as he was happy."
Ten thinks about what he had just heard. "I, um, chased the boy away. I did not want his life to be simple. He has potential for more."
"Do you have any regrets?" Taeyong asks.
"No," Ten answers immediately. He pauses. It's only part of the truth. "Yes. Mostly no. Well, it doesn't matter now, does it?"
Taeyong's gaze is unbearably kind. "Self-sacrifice is an admirable trait."
Ten wants to learn more about Taeil, and Taeyong obliges, although Ten can see that, like him, the pain of loss is still fresh. He listens to Taeyong talk about the small cottage that Taeil built next to Taeyong's tree and the years spent trying to prevent the forest around them from being destroyed for land development. Taeil's tireless lobbying with the municipal government eventually convinced the people in the town that destruction of the forest will not be in their best interests.
"Of course, we were only saved because of how we can benefit the humans," Taeyong says bitterly. "Not the fact that they have no right or reason to keep destroying the natural world around them. Their shortsightedness and greed will be their demise, and ours."
Ten is surprised by the ferocity of Taeyong's cynicism and apathy, but he does not blame him. Despite his curiosity and fondness for the human world, he is all too aware of their many shortcomings.
"Don't go anywhere," Taeyong says, with a merry glint in his eyes.
"I hope lightning strikes you where you stand," Ten says, making a face. "You know I can't go anywhere."
Taeyong's visit had been an uplifting and much needed distraction for Ten, but his departure leaves a void. Ten sighs heavily and returns back to his tree to slumber.
Two days later, Taeyong returns, as promised, but this time, he carries a back pack in his hand. Ten has seen Johnny use bags such as these when he went to school as a child. Curious, Ten pokes his head out from the tree.
"Have you completed your task so quickly?" Ten inquires.
"Actually, what I went to get was only the first part of the task," Taeyong replies, leaning the bag against the trunk of Ten's tree.
"Oh?" Ten says, his interest piqued. Taeyong is being especially inscrutable, more so than usual.
For as long as Ten existed, Taeyong had always visited him in his human form. Now, Ten watches with fascination as Taeyong dissolves his body back to his incorporeal form. Any human who has a seventh sense powerful enough to witness this would see Taeyong as a cloud of condensation moving languidly through the air.
A glow begins to emanate from within the form, pulsating and growing larger and larger. Taeyong reverts back to his human form and holds it between his hands, a ball of crackling energy, like a miniature star. It's so bright and intense, Ten has to look away.
"What are you doing, Taeyong?" Ten asks, feeling a deep sense of foreboding. Taeyong looks exhausted from performing this trick, suddenly like a human aged and weathered and at the end of their life. "What is this?"
"Something perhaps I should have done a long time ago," Taeyong says, his voice barely above a whisper. "I am ready to go. Immortality does not mean anything if there is nothing worth living for. Not anymore, anyway. Taeil has passed and so has my tree."
Ten gapes at Taeyong. "You've been released from your service."
Taeyong nods. "This is all the energy I have accumulated and the very essence of my life source. I am giving it to you."
"But why?" Ten demands to know. "If you do this, you'll-"
"Die," Taeyong finishes and a small, sad smile appears on his face. "Precisely."
Taeyong throws the sphere of energy towards Ten, who feels it enter himself like how he imagined being struck by lightning must be like, an all consuming fire that completely swallows Ten in its destructive mouth. He is being burned alive and torn apart. He feels like he's dying.
He wakes, his senses coming back to him slowly. He is lying on a rough and bumpy surface, and it's a moment later that he realizes why the sensation feels so strange. He is feeling the weight of gravity for the first time.
He sits up, slowly, and his second observation is that he had been lying on the ground near his tree, the exposed line of the root digging into his body. He is also nude.
That is new. In all his interactions with Johnny and Taeyong, Ten had simulated clothes to match with their way of dress. He tries this now and finds that he cannot.
He looks around. Taeyong has disappeared and it finally reaches Ten everything that had happened.
"Oh, no," he whispers, feeling the devastation of the loss of his brother drowning him. "No, no, no, no. Taeyong, what have you done? What have you done?" He doesn't think he can survive the grief. He curls into himself and sobs.
Without his life essence, Taeyong has ceased to exist. It isn't like a human death, where the body returns to the ground, from ashes to ashes and dust to dust, fuel for the next generation in the cycle of life and death. There will be no trace of Taeyong ever existing, except only in Ten's memories.
Ten does not know how long he is incapacitated, but he eventually finds that even tears can run dry.
He picks himself off the ground slowly and laboriously, brushing the dirt from his body. He notices the bag that Taeyong had left by the trunk for the first time. Curious, he peels the zipper back.
It contains a set of clothes and a pair of what humans call sneakers and resting on top of the pile of clothes is a small pouch. He opens that as well. It contains several large bills of human currency. It is uncertain how Taeyong came in possession of all this.
Ten quickly dresses himself with the set of clothes, feeling the odd sensation of fabric against his skin.
He hooks his arms through the handles of the backpack like he's seen Johnny do before and hefts it onto his shoulders.
He then realizes he doesn't know where to go. There had always been only one destination that he went towards with any amount of certainty. He turns in the direction of Johnny's house.
He approaches the house, cautiously, even though he knows it's been empty since Johnny left. He takes the steps up to the porch, another new sensation of having to use the stairs instead of just floating, and tries the doorknob. The door is locked, of course.
Ten takes a deep breath and contemplates the extent of the transformation wrought by Taeyong's transfer of energy. How much of the tree spirit is still left in him? He lifts his hand and presses it flat against the door and concentrates. The solidness of the door gives way as his hand passes through. Ten quickly walks through the door. Ten realizes now that he's gotten it all wrong. He is still a spirit, but he now also belongs in the human world. He no longer feels the possessive pull of the tree that was always present. He feels...free.
Johnny had cleaned up before he left, everything put neatly back in its place, like he's never been here in the first place. Ten wanders from room to room, experiencing the solidness of everything for the first time with new senses. He gets to Johnny's bedroom upstairs and pauses. For some irrational reason, he thinks he'll find Johnny on the other side of the door, and he'll look up at Ten with a smile that blooms like a bright flower. He passes through the door.
Johnny's bedroom. Johnny's bedroom that does not look like the way he left everything downstairs. There are stacks of books scattered all over the floor until there is only a narrow passageway to walk through the room. Ten does not know when and how Johnny had accumulated the volumes of books that he's seeing now because they were certainly not around when he was last here. The memory of that last time is a soft ache.
When Ten approaches Johnny's work desk, he sees a slip of paper with Johnny's neat handwriting on it slid halfway under the copy of The Catcher in the Rye he had been flipping through all those months ago. He picks up the note.
Ten, I'm going to do as you said. I'm going to forget. But only because this is what you wanted, not what I wanted. Maybe it's good that I'll forget, because I don't know if I can ever forgive you. But that doesn't mean I will stop loving you. Real or not, you were the best thing that ever happened to me. I'm sorry I won't remember that. These books are for you to read. I hope you like them.
"Johnny," Ten murmurs, feeling emotions well up within him again. Too much has happened today.
He falls asleep on Johnny's bed. And dreams of Taeyong and Johnny.
He wants to see Johnny desperately. Johnny had told him before that he made his home in a city called Chicago and that it wasn't too far from here. It would only take a few hours by car. Ten does not have a car.
Perhaps he can take a bus. It is a form of mass transportation that should be readily available, but he will have to walk to a bus stop. He can use the money in the pouch to purchase a ticket, but where is the bus stop?
He then remembers the internet. He and Johnny had spent an entire bewildering day exploring everything it has to offer.
"It's like a world within this world!" Ten had said in awe. Johnny had thought about it for a moment with his finger on his chin.
"You know, you're not wrong about that," Johnny admitted.
Ten knows that there is still a desktop computer that Johnny calls the family computer in the living room. He also knows that the internet is provided through a service that needs to be paid every month and that if the fee isn't paid, the internet would disappear. He hopes it's been paid.
Ten boots up the computer and taps his finger against the edge of the keyboard impatiently. When the computer finally loads, he quickly double-clicks on the browser icon. He thanks his foresight to be curious about everything and also for Johnny's patient tutelage of modern human ways.
Thankfully, internet is still available and he uses the search engine Google to find the nearest bus station that would take him to Chicago. When he sees the address, he...does not actually know where it is. Then he remembers one of Johnny's wise adages.
"If in doubt, google some more."
So Ten proceeds to enter the address into the search engine and learns that it's a two hour walk from the house to the bus depot, where he can purchase a ticket for a bus bound for Chicago.
He gets up. He has come this far. Whatever awaits him in Chicago, he'll figure it out from there.
First, he is relieved to discover that as long as the sun is shining, he does not tire. He has retained the ability to absorb energy from the sun.
Secondly, much to his dismay, the world beyond the confines of his tree do not appear to differ too much from what he has seen all his life. True, he sees different houses and farms and even a field of cows, who stare at him balefully as he walks by, but very little changes from one mile to the next. He passes several people walking their dogs or running, like he's seen Johnny do from time to time. "It's to help me stay fit," Johnny finally explained to him at one point. They say hi to him, which is an entirely novel experience. He can now be seen by all humans. Had Taeyong known that such a thing was possible when he transferred his life essence to Ten?
Thirdly, the bus depot is quite a confusing place. When he finally arrives, he discovers that many of the bus routes are inscrutable and impossible to decipher until he finally asks the person at the ticket desk for help. With her help, he purchases a ticket that will take him through several more towns, but the final destination is Chicago.
He boards the bus and after a moment of indecision, chooses a seat in the back. After taking on a few more individuals, it eases out of the station. Ten cannot stop staring in wonder as he watches the world go by through the windows.
He stays the night at the depot like some of the other individuals there, although quite a few of them look downtrodden, disheveled, and haggard. He strikes up a conversation with a woman, who starts telling him about how she had fallen into hard times after her ex-boyfriend introduced her to heroin, but she's trying to get clean now and trying to get her life together but it was damn hard and could Ten spare some change?
Ten takes out a few bills from the pouch and hands it the woman, who stares at the wad with huge eyes for a moment and hesitantly takes it. She peels two bills out of the stack and hands the rest back to Ten. "Keep something for yourself, kiddo," she says gruffly. "You never know when you're going to need it. God bless you."
Ten spends the rest of the night listening to the woman, whose name is Agnes, as she continues to tell him about her rather colorful life, full of ups and downs, more exciting than any book he's personally ever read, and watches over her when she nods off to sleep on the bench next to him. The next morning, he gathers his things and bids goodbye to her.
"I hope you find your friend," she says. "It's important to have friends in this world."
Now that he is in Chicago, he realizes that finding Johnny would be like finding a needle in the haystack, such as the human saying goes. He tries to remember anything else that Johnny had told him about where he lived.
"I found a studio apartment near where I used to go to school at UChicago and it's really expensive, it's costing me an arm and a leg, but it's pretty sweet and I definitely did not have any trouble finding someone to sublet it, while I'm away," Johnny had told him. And that had been it.
As he walks, he starts asking different people how to head towards the university and they are very helpful, though a few are just as baffled as him, visitors like him, overwhelmed by the complexity of the big city. He makes his way towards Hyde Park, marveling at the sheer volume of everything, people, cars, all the giant buildings made of glass and steel. He does not think it was possible to fit such a density of individuals in such close quarters, in comparison to the sprawl of the land back where he had come from. He wonders how people can live like this. He follows what everyone else does when he has to cross the street, although the lights that indicate when one can walk or stop is fairly intuitive, even for someone like him. Sometimes a person may forgo the instructions of the lights and dart across the street as cars approach at high speed with no intention of stopping. Ten wonders why they would take such an unnecessary risk just to spare a few seconds.
When he arrives to the massive, elegant buildings of the school, he finds himself at a loss again. There must be hundreds of thousands of individuals living in this part of the city alone. Johnny will be impossible to find.
Ten needs to stop, regroup, and try figure what to do next. But first, he needs to get a 'job'.
He goes from store to store until he finally comes across a coffee shop that's willing to hire him without any documentation. "We get a lot of people who are undocumented in Chicago," the boy who introduces himself as Mark explains. "You seem pretty cool."
Mark is the manager, not the owner, of the coffee shop, while also going to school at UChicago at the same time. "I mostly delegate from afar, really," he explains sheepishly while showing Ten around. "I have a pretty good staff here." He introduces them to Ten, all young men whose names are Jaehyun, Doyoung, Yuta, Sicheng, and Donghyuk. They all go to school on different schedules, which enable them to work different shifts at the coffee shop.
"And what about you, Ten?" Doyoung asks, who seems wary and guarded towards him.
"I'm...new to the city," he says simply. He doesn't know how much he can reveal to them. He understands that humans have a very narrow view of what's considered 'acceptable human behavior.' He is still trying to figure out how to be 'normal.'
Because his schedule is more flexible, they give him what he learns later to be a full time position at the coffee shop. They teach him how to make coffee using the elaborate machines that they have and how to package the pastries for the customers to take with them.
"Jaehyun's our pastry chef," Mark had introduced, and Jaehyun had waved at them from the kitchen with hands covered in flour. "Sicheng is his assistant."
"More like a pain in my ass," Jaehyun had said cheerily while Sicheng pouted and pretended to kick Jaehyun.
Ten often works alongside Doyoung and Yuta at the counter. He is assigned to make the coffee and handle the pastries. Doyoung has an astounding ability to remember all the seemingly overly complicated ways that people like their coffee and would rattle each order off to Ten, although the input from his register would appear on the computer screen attached to the wall where Ten can constantly check to see how to prepare the coffee. Ten messes up a few times before he starts getting it right more often than wrong.
After being dismissed from work, Ten would wander the city, going back to the depot when he needs a place to stay for the night because Johnny had told him that many parts of the city are not safe. Despite this, there is always something new to discover about Chicago. He would walk along the edge of Lake Michigan at Loyola beach, his feet sinking into the sand, amazed because he has never seen such a large body of water before. It disappears into the horizon in what seems like all directions and the scale of it both frightens and fascinates him.
He never stops looking out for Johnny in the faces of everyone he passes. But it's a large city with many people, more people than Ten ever thought possible.
He had stuffed a couple of the books that Johnny had gotten for him into his backpack to bring with him before he left. He reads them at the park when the weather is nice or when Agnes isn't at the depot to tell him more stories of her life. He would keep handing her bills that had been given to him by Mark. He uses some to purchase new clothes and to wash the ones that he has already worn at a laundromat. He also gives some money to other homeless individuals that he comes across during his long, meandering walks. There are quite a few of these individuals in the city who are having a rough time like Agnes.
He asks Mark about how to purchase a phone.
"Like a cell phone?" Mark asks, his eyes growing wide with surprise. "Dude, you don't have one? We totally need to get you one!"
After Ten's shift, Mark takes him to a store where he can purchase a phone with prepaid minutes and access to the Internet.
"Everytime you need to fill 'er up, you just come here to buy more minutes and data!" Mark explains. Ten appreciates that Mark does not ask too many questions, but is always willing to help.
"How can you trust me even though you don't know anything about me?" Ten once asked him.
"Have you given me a reason not to trust you?" Mark said.
There are not many who are pure of heart in this city, but Ten thinks Mark is definitely one of them.
He continues to work at the coffee shop and even Doyoung starts to warm up to him. He would tell him stories about growing up in South Korea and then moving to Chicago to go to school. And he'll tell Ten about the others too, about how all of them had come from different places and different experiences, but managed to form a cohesive team to keep the coffee shop running.
"Who actually owns it?" Ten asks, curious.
"Mark's dad owns it," Doyoung explains. "This was sort of supposed to be a training ground for Mark until he takes over his dad's main business. But this coffee shop has been so successful that his dad just lets him continue managing it."
Ten nods in understanding. In the ensuing silence, he notices Doyoung eyeing him, his gaze scrutinizing.
"All this time, we really don't know anything about you, Ten," Doyoung says casually.
Ten knows that a moment like this would come. You do not get to hear about the life experiences of others without sharing a bit of yourself as well. It's a way for humans to gain trust for one another. He finds that he trusts the people he has been working with. They have not given him a reason not to, as Mark would say. "I came here to look for someone," he explains. "A friend."
"And have you found them yet?" Doyoung asks.
Ten shakes his head and grows dejected. He fears that he will never find Johnny. He has found other reasons to stay in Chicago since his arrival, but his main goal has always been and will be to find him. He does not know what would happen when he does, but he cannot give up the search despite the uncertainty.
"Well, tell me about this friend that brought you all the way here to the big, bad city," Doyoung urges. "They must be very important to you if you came all the way here by yourself."
Ten begins to tell him about the boy named Johnny, although he changes and omits some facts to hide his true origins. "I don't know if he would even remember me," he admits at the end.
"Hmm," Doyoung hums thoughtfully. "Well, then you'd just have to introduce yourself again. And if he still doesn't remember or doesn't care about all the trouble you went through to find him, then screw him."
Ten laughs as he clinks his coffee cup with Doyoung's.
He opens the shop early one morning. Some of the others have decided to sign up for morning and afternoon classes for the spring semester when they saw that they can rely on Ten to be manning the shop during the bulk of the early morning. That is when most of their customers arrive for their morning coffee, but Ten has gotten efficient enough that he only needs one other person to work with to get all the orders covered. He would work with whoever didn't have morning classes that day. He alternates between Yuta, Donghyuk, and Doyoung. Mark would swing in later in the day to cover the rest of the shifts. Jaehyun and Sicheng makes all the pastries fresh early in the morning before heading off to their classes. Overall, it's a system that works.
Sometimes, Ten would try one of the pastries out of mere curiosity. He does not need to consume human food for energy, but he finds that he enjoys discovering the many flavors of human food. He also does not have to expel the waste of the food, because his body does not actually digest it. He is grateful for this because one difficulty Agnes has mentioned to him is having trouble finding free shower facilities.
"I just try to take a shower every other day at the shelter," Agnes says. "But it's always so crowded there. It took me two hours last time, the line was almost out the door. But you gotta make sure you're smelling okay."
The morning crowd starts to dwindle as the day continues until they have only a few people scattered around the coffee shop, crouched over their laptops or books and papers scattered across the table.
Yuta sinks into one of the chairs and heaves an exhausted sigh. "I don't know how you still have the energy to be wiping down tables," he says, impressed. "But I'm pooped."
Ten merely smiles in response as he wipes down the rest of the counter. He hears the door open and the whoosh of the warm air as it escapes.
"Welcome to-," he begins, looking up. The rest of the words turn to ashes in his mouth.
Johnny stands in front of the counter, his laptop tucked under his arm. He's not actually looking at Ten, instead surveying the menu on the wall above Ten's head. He finally turns to Ten and smiles. It's the bland, courteous smile of a stranger.
"Hi, can I get an americano, please?" He says.
Ten is numb, his mind blank. He has been waiting for this moment for so long, and has been expecting that it would never happen, that he truly will never see Johnny again. And now, for it to actually happen, Ten doesn't know what to do. He feels Yuta nudging him from the side.
"You okay?" Yuta hisses into Ten's ear, his head close. "You need to take a break or something?"
Yuta's voice breaks him out of it and he latches on to it like an anchor. "N-no," Ten stutters. "I'll take care of it." He hurries to make the order while Yuta handles the transaction, although he tries to keep an eye out for Johnny, feeling that he would vanish if he took his eyes off him for even a second. Johnny situates himself at a table near the wall, facing the door at the other end of the coffee shop. He opens up his laptop and soon his attention is completely engrossed on it.
After preparing the coffee, Ten decides to walk over to give it to Johnny instead of calling for him to get it. Johnny looks up and smiles as he gets close and for a fleeting moment, Ten feels like he's been transported back to the house. It seems like a lifetime ago. He places the mug down with trembling hands.
"Thanks," Johnny says warmly. He pauses for a moment and continues to look at Ten, his mouth now turned downward in a small frown. "Have we met before? I feel like I've seen you around." He then laughs before giving Ten a chance to answer. "Oh shit, I'm sorry, I just heard myself."
"What do you mean?" Ten asks, baffled.
Johnny shakes his head. "Nothing," he says, smiling at Ten. "Thank you for bringing the coffee," he says, lifting the mug to drink.
Ten makes a tactical retreat back to the safety of the counter to figure out what to do next. It's clear that Johnny has no memory of him and he has not quite figured out how to make him remember. He knows that by remembering, Johnny would also remember how they had parted. Ten takes the note that Johnny had left him out of the pocket of his jeans. He always carries it on his person.
I don't know if I can ever forgive you
He reads those particular words over and over again. Despite the opportunity that had just miraculously opened up for him, and after months and months of hopeless searching, Ten begins to have second thoughts about this. He wants to laugh hysterically at his own contradictory behavior. He has truly become human, irony and all.
Perhaps it's best to leave Johnny at peace and let him continue to live his life.
He looks up when a shadow falls across the counter. It's Johnny, and he's staring at Ten, his face now open with recognition.
"Ten," he says.
"How much do you remember?" Ten asks.
Johnny stares back at Ten. "Everything," he says, unflinchingly. "How-how are you here?" He looks around and turns back to Ten. "People can see you."
Ten nods. He supposes Johnny deserves an explanation. "I was given a gift." He pauses to let the grief wash over him anew. "He gave me a new life, at the expense of his own."
Johnny leans forward and bows his head in sympathy. "I'm sorry," he says lowly.
They share a moment of silence before Ten shakes his head. "I'm sorry, too," he says. For hurting you, for forcing you to leave, for seeing you again.
Johnny looks away from Ten and stares at the exposed brick wall adjacent to them and doesn't say anything. "How long have you been here?" Johnny asks instead, changing the subject.
Ten knows enough about Johnny's nuances to know that he isn't ready to talk about it, not yet. "For about eight months," Ten answers.
Johnny turns back to stare at Ten in amazement. "You've been here for this long?" He says, his voice hushed. "Where have you been staying?"
"Around," Ten replies.
Johnny huffs out a soft laugh. "You can be such a bullshitter when you want to be," he accuses.
"You still have not explained this seemingly arbitrary concept of cow manure and its use as a derogatory term," Ten says in exasperation.
Johnny grins. He tilts his head back towards Ten. "Come back with me, and we'll talk?" He offers hesitantly, as if he is worried that Ten would say no.
Johnny's studio apartment is small, especially compared to his parents' home. In fact, most of the space would have fit neatly into his bedroom back home.
"It's small," Ten says out loud.
Johnny glares at Ten. "Hey, you try paying rent in this town and then get back to me," he says, without much bite. He clears a spot on the couch for Ten to sit. He himself remains standing, and busies himself with organizing the space. Ten recognizes this as Johnny's way of avoiding having to deal with an issue head on and waits him out.
After a while, Johnny finally stops and he rubs his hand across his face. "I'm not crazy," he says, sounding tired.
"You never were," Ten agrees mildly. He wants to reach out and touch Johnny, but he doesn't think he's allowed to now, after everything that has happened. He had relinquished any rights to be able to touch Johnny.
To Ten's bewilderment, Johnny suddenly bursts out in hysterical laughter, doubling over from the force of it. "Perhaps I spoke too soon," Ten says, baffled by Johnny's strange behavior.
"No, I just," Johnny says, trying to stop, which only makes him laugh harder. "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean-" He's interrupted by another peal of giggles before sobering up again. "I just can't believe you came all this way here, had no idea where I lived or the means to contact me, and it took a chance meeting eight months later for me to just so happen come into a coffee shop where you are working and you're now best buddies with people you work with and can see you so they can verify and confirm that you in fact exist and that it took almost twenty years to prove I am not crazy. I think I need to call my parents and gloat."
"Please do not do that," Ten says primly.
"Oh, I will," Johnny threatens. "We are totally going to pay a visit to my parents in Arizona the moment they come back from Mexico and they are going to see that I've been telling the truth all along."
Ten picks up one of the throw pillows at the end of the couch. "I don't suppose this is capable of smothering you to death," he ponders.
"You can certainly try," Johnny crows with glee. He calms and wipes a tear from his eyes from laughing. "What am I going to do with you, Ten?"
"I don't know," Ten says honestly. "I never thought I'd see you again and the note you left me-"
"I was so angry with you when I wrote it," Johnny admits. "But I meant what I said."
Ten's hopes sink and he deflates. He had come all this way for nothing. I don't know if I can ever forgive you. He starts to get up to depart. "I hadn't meant," he starts to say and he finds that he cannot continue through the blur of tears. He has not cried since the day Taeyong had given up his life essence to him. "I should go-"
"Hey, wait," Johnny says, moving to intercept him and it's Johnny who reaches out to touch him first, holding onto his arms, his hands radiating warmth through Ten's shirt. He bends to peer at Ten's down turned face. "Ten, what's wrong? Did I say something wrong?" He sounds alarmed.
Ten shakes his head furiously. "You can never say anything wrong, Johnny."
Johnny tilts Ten's face back up with gentle hands, his face impossibly soft. "Ten, don't leave," he murmurs. "Don't leave me again."
Ten gasps and stares up at Johnny. "You said," he says. "You said you would never forgive me."
Johnny looks taken aback. "Ten," he says carefully, "Was that the only thing you took away from the note?"
Ten nods tearfully. Johnny then breaks into another one of his brilliant smiles. "You are an idiot and I'm going to kill you," he says before dragging Ten closer and Ten finds himself being kissed. "I am," he says in between insistent presses of their lips, "going to kill you dead."
Ten is too distracted by the enveloping warmth of Johnny's embrace to contemplate the contradiction between Johnny's actions and his words.
"Go to sleep, Johnny," he urges, letting his lips linger on Johnny's forehead before pulling away.
"I'm scared you're going to disappear on me again when I wake up," Johnny says, tightening his arms around Ten.
"I won't," Ten says earnestly.
Appeased, Johnny relaxes and snuggles into Ten. "Tell me more about Agnes, and the guys you work with," he says. "Tell me everything."
Ten begins a tale that he can call his own.
It is about a spirit who lives in a tree.