Chapter 4 - First and Last Friend
I remembered that the kids watched me struggle with the answer with annoyed and anxious eyes. I swallowed once and I thought my lukewarm spit tasted strangely sweet. Then I scraped a finger along my desk.
Nahoon Kim asked me. “Why did you?”
Just like back then, the people in the studio all stared at me. The kid’s comment that I would have experienced “that kind of thing” the most among them was correct. I went through “that kind of thing” so much that I was sick of it. I grinned brightly at the people in the room.
“Because back then, I was an outcast in my class.”
‘So I had no opportunity to chat mindlessly with the other kids in my class,’ was what I was going to say next, but a bewildered “Cut!” interrupted me, and all the audio was cut off.
I still wasn’t sure if the kids chatting with me were “real” or if it was a trick of the ghosts. My life was always like that. It was sudden with neither a beginning nor an end.
“I would say… right now.”
The only thing that lasted in my memory was the image of the Child who smirked at my answer, the one who asked me if I experienced any of that before. The Child’s eyes were completely black, with no whites.
* * *
“Haeseo.” Someone patted my shoulder, waking me up. When I looked to the side, the man whispered in a voice so nobody else could hear, “How could you fall asleep so easily, when you’re the reason we have to retake the whole scene?”
The man had bold eyebrows and a low nose bridge. I wasn’t very well acquainted with him because it hadn’t been that long since we met, but I knew him well. He was the younger brother of my one and only friend. He also knew me well because my friend told him about me.
Before he died from a car crash, my friend was a famous solo artist. He didn’t have stage fright, but he had a fear of meeting people face-to-face, so he worked with his brother as his manager instead of someone from his management company. After his older brother died, the younger one didn’t step foot near any broadcasting company. This time was an exception he made for me because I was close to his older brother when he was alive.
My friend’s name was Yeonseon Ham, and his younger brother and my temporary manager was Hyehyun Ham.
There was a story behind why both brothers had feminine names. Their parents were told by a fortune teller that the brothers would have short lives. If they were advised to give their sons girls’ names despite being boys because then, the grim reaper would get confused and there would be a delay in reaping their souls.
Although, that seemed to be for naught. Ultimately, Yeonseon died at 25 years old.
Yeonseon was my first and last friend. I was probably Yeonseon’s only friend too. Thanks to his social anxiety of sorts, most of our communications were through texts and calls, but I was still the closest person to him other than his immediate family.
“It wasn’t my fault. It was because Miss Goyeon started crying when she heard I was an outcast. It wasn’t even that scary of a story.” I leaned back on the sofa and stretched. Even though the show was only for an hour, the recording took all day. There were breaks in between, but I still ached and throbbed from sitting in one position for too long.
The studio was quiet during this unscheduled break. I saw Goyeon Lee fanning her ruddy face with her hand and her makeup artist fixing the makeup that washed away in the corner of the room.
I didn’t know, but apparently, Goyeon was bullied during middle school. On top of being nervous, she was frozen with fear while listening to scary stories, so it seemed like her recollections of her past made her burst into tears. I remembered seeing tears rolling down her cheeks as she apologized profusely to the staff.
She couldn’t meet eyes with me at all. I felt a bit sorry because I didn’t mean to make her cry. I said, “I brought up something I shouldn’t have. I’m sorry.”
In response, she mumbled, “It’s all right, I’m fine.” Afterward, she avoided sitting near me.
The atmosphere of the studio was quite menacing. The producer was working dispassionately and almost automatically, the cast was inexperienced and awkward, plus there was an unexpected detour from the laid-back script. To top that off, the tepid air that made me doubt that the air conditioner was on added to the irritation in the atmosphere.
This mood was bound to ruin even the most well-prepared recording. Hyehyun Ham sighed as if he knew that today’s recording was a flop.
“All your luck might escape.”
“All my luck is already gone.” Hyehyun retorted.
“Liar,” I said as I laughed. “You wanted to see me. Yeonseon told me. You talked nonstop about how you wished I went back on stage, didn’t you? Isn’t that why you agreed to listen to my request to become my temporary manager? You secretly like that you’re here like this.”
“…” Hyehyun didn’t seem to know how to respond because he frowned and looked down at me.
People who don’t say much were amusing. A myriad of reactions swum around in their gaze and even their breathing. A gentle look flashed by Hyehyun’s eyes before they turned cold and then returned to normal. Out of all the reactions, he chose composure and calmness.
Hyehyun replied curtly, “Seeing you like this makes me want to take back what I said before.”
“Go buy me a coffee or something. I’m thirsty,” I said as I handed Hyehyeon my wallet.
He grumbled and asked, “Americano? Or a mocha latte?”
I only drank americanos with no syrup or mocha lattes with a lot of whip on top. Before, Yeonseon told me to either drink completely sweet or bitter, to just choose one or the other. My coffee tastes were informed by Yeonseon.
I wondered if close brothers shared everything. I couldn’t ask anymore because Yeonseon went and died.
I could see dead people, but I couldn’t talk to them. No matter what the dead person said, I wasn’t able to hear. Eyes, nose, and skin—those were the “senses” that I received from that house. I had no way of knowing anything else.
I stared at Hyehyun Ham as he left the studio, then got up from the sofa. I grabbed a random person and told them I was going out for a smoke, then walked in the opposite direction as Hyehyun.
Thankfully, the smoking room wasn’t that far from where I was. Although it was called a smoking room, it was actually a terrace attached to the building with no walls or ceiling.
Since they still had to make a smoking room but didn’t have space for one, I could tell the building planners just half-heartedly decided to make do with the space they had. I was an exemplary citizen, but I wasn’t one who felt the need to report every little thing, so I decided to make do with it and smoke in that smoking room.
I took out a cigarette and put it between my lips and recalled my past. Come to think of it, Yeonseon Ham was a funny b*stard. Although he said he was afraid of meeting people one on one, he was fine with standing on stage.
Most people normally struggled with stage fright, but he said that the stage was better. Seeing as he didn’t say that he liked it, I think he was still nervous up there. He was only scared of meeting another person alone, in the same room as him. So it was slightly different from social anxiety where one couldn’t face a large group of people.
He struggled specifically with being alone with a person.
I asked why, and the answer came readily. He said he hated the feeling of responsibility and duty that weighed down his shoulders. He said that it suffocated him. He said that even if it was family, he felt stifled if they were alone in a small, closed space.
When I asked him if he was fine with a group of people, he said, “So about that…” and answered in a way that made it seem like he also didn’t quite understand.
“I guess since the feeling is divided among the numbers, it feels lighter.” Then he chuckled softly. “So I end up acting in front of a lot of people.”
Occasionally, there were people like that, people who felt that the words and actions of a single person were bigger than the words and actions of a group. I could somewhat understand Yeonseon’s bizarre personality.
Instead of being ignored by a few people in a large group, the shock would be greater if you were ignored by a few people from a small group of five or fewer people. Because I was an outcast among my peers in my school days, it wasn’t like I couldn’t understand his fears at all.
When he said that he acted in front of the masses, it wasn’t a lie because he was different in front of an audience from when we would chat between just the two of us. Yeonseon on stage was a boy full of dreams who always sang about soaring the skies, a truth-seeker who appealed all the world’s emotions to the gods, and a talented singer who tugged and pushed the audience’s hearts. If one could fall in love with music, anyone would choose him as their first love.
However, I liked the Yeonseon who was alone with me. I even liked the strange disorder that he carried. Unlike other celebrities, he avoided situations where he would be alone with me yet held my hand in front of others and smiled affectionately, and I loved that deprived side of him.
There was no point in saying it now. Yeonseon and I were never going out, but we liked each other—at least, that was what I believed. Perhaps our relationship would have been different if I continued to work in the entertainment world. However, I gave up everything in the middle, so our relationship stopped there and couldn’t progress further.
To be more accurate, we became estranged. Yeonseon became very busy, and I became self-conscious of the watchful eyes of others, so I gradually contacted him less. Our relationship went back to simply exchanging texts and calls.
Yeonseon’s death came after that.