His hands were gripping the toy, his knuckles turning white, as he slid into the only unoccupied chair in the classroom. Right at the back: away from the teacher, as far away as possible from the students.
The back corner was the brightest part of the room. It was the safest place too. The light kept ‘Them’ away.
The mere thought of simple contact with ‘Them’ made him scared. To him everyone else was just all part of that one shadow, slowly drifting through school each day, hour by hour. Slowly dissipating as the bell rung for home like rain drops as the sun brought them towards the sky. Yeah. They went home...where-ever home was for them.
Il Sung smiled down at the fluffy animal being pressed to his blazer like a child would its mother: hopeful, safe. It felt funny against his bare arms, the fur gently tickling his skin, but it was a good kind of funny. The kind of funny that leaves you feeling nice and warm and not cold like the others who shivered in the winter mornings with their thick jackets and beanies. Hugging the unicorn tighter, he bent down and got out his books which he never usually opened. Yet strangely enough, he felt this unnatural resolve pent up within himself that ordered him to at least try that gloomy day. With a careful grip he picked up his pen and held it over the page. Lines of faint blue on the blank paper stared back at him.
This was page 1.
He'd never written anything before and it was even unfamiliar to simply act as if he was doing as he was told that day (most of the time he didn't bother). With a half-listening ear, he quickly scribbled down the notes being written on the board at a pace that made his hand cramp almost immediately.
The teacher had begun to talk about...
Il Sung had never listened in class. English was a foreign alien to him though it was his first language...his parents had always talked to him using those words Il Sung had never truly understood. All he knew was that this was a history class and this was where they learnt about that past. All that he didn't want to know was that he'd had a bad past.
The scar on his chest was proof enough.
And, perhaps, if it was as simple as this; opening a book and learning about the triumphs and epic fails of the past; then it would be easier to forget. Or at the most, hide them away like the dusty tapes his most recent foster parents had done every now and again as a spring clean.
Il Sung sunk lower in his chair, letting his head disappear below the desk whereupon he pulled his knees to his chest and began to read his favourite book. And this is where he stayed till the period ended; the dull shuffle of feet signalling the emptying room and the banging of the door as the others ran off to lunch. Afterwards, he contemplated whether it was worth going to lunch since he had nothing to eat and no one to sit with. Cautiously, he poked his head back up.
His teacher had taken her station on a row nearby and was shaking her head as he rose to his feet. There was a pen dangling precariously behind her ear. “Jae-”
Il Sung's eyes widened.
“Sorry. Mr Park,” the teacher apologised curtly, pushing back some hair in frustration. “This is the last time okay. You can't keep on...doing what you're doing. Such as not paying attention, not following instructions. You know? That sort of thing. One more chance, okay?. Then you're going to the principal. Got it?”
Il Sung nodded and bowed. “Joesonghabnida...” he mumbled inaudibly.
A sigh in exasperation. “English please, Park.”
“S-sorry,” was the distant reply as the boy made his way to escape.
The nurse at school had seen it (the scar) once when Il Sung had received a beating after sport and commented on it. She was pretty and reminded him of the lady in the suit and the shiny car he'd met at his house that one day. He'd been around seven and had just arrived back from swimming with his next door neighbours, but his Dad had gone suddenly as soon as they reached home. She'd seen it too (the scar). She'd taken his parents away. Even Mum. He'd hated her for that.
“It's nothing that can't be fixed. Forgetting is life's natural healing recipe,” he'd told himself.
He hadn't talked to the nurse that day.
Il Sung slung his bag over his shoulder and hobbled over to the bus. People stared at him but avoided him. He didn't mind at all since he didn't like them anyway.
They always gossiped.
It was like faceless shadows whispering to eachother. It scared him actually, how their blank faces spouted these words that confused him and mocked him.
All those mono-culture creatures with nasty words on the tip of their tongues were really quite daunting to someone as small and introverted as Jae-Sun...
And there it was again.
Il Sung hadn't been called Jae-Sun for a while and if someone did then it was either to mock him or remind him...his mum had said she'd protect him no matter what...but she'd gone somewhere...without him. He grimaced as he recalled that day...that lady in the suit had taken him somewhere where it smelled like cleaning agent and the walls were blinding white and asked him his name. He was so shocked and frightened that he said the first name that came to his mind. She needn't have been told the truth when she didn't even do that much for him.
Some tall guy with eyebrows that knitted together like one might imagine a scarf ought to look like and his friends pushed past him as the bus stopped, knocking him forwards toward the front. He brushed himself off and continued walking with his unicorn tucked safely under his arm.
There were sniggers.
“Il Sung, he's drowning.”
“IL SUNG! He's drowning in your damn soup!!!”
Blinking, Il Sung jolted up straight.
Jung-hwa was talking to him or rather, pointing at the fluffy head that was being dipped into his bowl of soup. Carefully, Jung-hwa picked up the toy with his thumb and forefinger. He grimaced. “Wash him will you?” His hand was covering his nose like there was a foul stench in their air. No stench. Just the smell of the old wood table they sat at.
Il-Sung snatched the toy back.
No smile and a laugh like there used to be. Jung-hwa just frowned. It didn't suit his face.
“A thank-you wouldn't go unnoticed,” Jung-hwa muttered.
The soup was leaking into Il Sung's shirt and leaving his skin feeling a little on the overly warm side.
Since they were about ten, he had always ended up with Jung-hwa. Same foster home. Same orphanage. They were both lost children. Lost in the crowd of empty people that inhabited the world around them. And Jung-hwa was becoming one of them. He'd stopped talking to Il Sung for a while. He'd started pushing him over and punching him. Then the next day he was the same Jung-hwa Il Sung had known for many years. There was a cycle which eventually became a regular thing to happen for both parties.
“Th-thank you,” Il Sung mumbled. “It was nice of-of you to, um, do that...” His voice was shaky. Start of cycle. “You know, for saving him.” He quickly returned to eating his soup and let his mind wander. Even though his lack of motivation to go to school the next day and the thought of being beaten-up so bad that he was immobile beginning to sound appealing, he still wasn't fond of having that ointment rubbed into his wounds again. Everyone called it Methylated Spirits. Il Sung called it Hell.
Jung-hwa scooted closer towards him, an expectant look on his face. His hair had changed as well since they last talked. He'd dyed his black hair this strange light brown colour that made him look older and more 'hipster' as everyone else called it. All his old T-shirts had been replaced by nice button-downs and his run-down sneakers were Converse. He was different.
Not in a good way.
Il Sung eyed his 'friend' suspiciously and hugged the unicorn tighter. “C-can you please move? I get claustrophobia,” he stuttered firmly.
“More like human-o-phobia,” Jung-hwa joked. He moved even closer, his leg touching Il Sung's and his hand reaching out for his arm. “Get it?”
Il Sung didn't laugh. His breath quickened and his skin began to grow clammy. He felt the knife slash his chest again and again but no matter how much it hurt he kept telling himself it was okay. But this wasn't. He heard a small rip as the plush toy's arm tore slightly. He stood, knocking the bowl of soup over and ran out of the room.
If he closed his eyes hard enough and strained his memory far enough then Il Sung could hear the familiar shouts of his Dad as he returned home from work and the recognisable banging of doors slamming. He’d been told that he was naughty which was why his parents were punishing him. It was their version of hide and seek you see, a rather ‘fun’ little game that they liked to play. Little Jae Sun ran and hid and his father tried to find him. Twenty hits each time.
I found you.
It didn't feel right, sure, and it left him battered and bruised but Jae Sun loved his father despite that. He was told it was just discipline. Each hit was all his fault.
Il Sung let his head roll off the pillow and onto the mattress beneath. His head hurt. Turning on his side he stroked his unicorn with his fingers, brushing the soft hairs on the stomach. It had a heart there. A massive pink one that took up half its body. In Science they learnt about anatomy and the picture on the white board hadn't looked anything like this, but Il Sung liked the unicorn's version much better. It wasn't alive. It didn't pump blood or thump in one's chest. It was just there. Il Sung forced a smile onto his face and looked up at the ceiling above him, but it quickly disappeared.
Things were alright when you have someone taking care of you ...but why smile when you don't have to?
Il Sung peeked over the covers of his bed, peering through the inky blackness.
These people lying on beds either side of him and all around him were fast asleep. Better that way. They couldn't hear him cry.
Possibly the first thing that Il Sung saw that morning was a pair of expectant brown eyes looking down at him and a hand shaking his shoulders excitedly. The sensation was akin to a mini earthquake. Right off the Richter scale.
“GET UP!” Jung-hwa demanded fervently. Another shake. “GET UP DAMMIT!”
Il Sung flinched and scrambled away from this crazy person. “Why should I?” he said. Valid question. Why should he? Sleep was a very important aspect to anyone's life.
“SCHOOL! We're gonna be late for school!” Jung-hwa jumped off the bed like a flying lemur and dashed away.
That was the morning.
His chest was aching. Il Sung had fallen over in sport and a new gash had opened up on his stomach from some glass that must’ve been left there by someone. The teacher had made them all participate in that day's activity. He hadn't really understood the concept of the game (the rules even more so), which meant Il Sung had rooted himself to the spot during the entire period making himself a target for anyone who felt the need to push someone over. In the classroom he pulled his dusty, sweaty shirt over his head and saw blood staining the murky grey fabric. Il Sung reached into his bag and pulled out a pack of Band-Aids that he always kept in case of emergencies. It didn't do much, since the blood seeped through anyway, but he felt secure having this thing pressing against his skinny chest.
A few people pointed out his shirt and told him to go to the first aid staff before they were sick from all the blood. Il Sung ignored them.
“Remembering is the hardest thing of all. It opens up old wounds and it takes longer to heal.”
His unicorn was going to fix him. That was its job, right? Il Sung had even read somewhere about them. Creatures of healing and purity it had told him. His unicorn was going to fix him whatever ‘They’ believed.
Maybe his cut.
Maybe his black eye.
But most probably not his heart.
This was the afternoon.
“I want my mummy back,” little Jae Sun said blatantly for the umpteenth time.
“Try not to dwell on that too much Il Sung,” the woman in the suit sighed. “She's gone away for a while. She won't be back for ages.”
“But I want her now!” Jae Sun huffed. He sunk lower into his car seat. The leather enveloped him.
The lady didn't reply and when she looked like she was going to it was with pursed lips. Her sharp eyes twitched. “We're going somewhere nice. You'll like it there. You'll be with lots of other children your age and it'll be like having a whole new family.”
Jae Sun gave up after that. He remained silent for the rest of the car trip, reading this book about a boy called Peter Pan. What confused him the most was how Peter Pan didn't age. Il Jae Sun couldn't wait till he was eighteen. He'd heard someone say that you were officially an adult at eighteen in Australia and you could leave home then. That's all he wanted. He just wanted his family back. He’d find his mum. She'd promised him she'd always be there for him. But she wasn't now so he'd have to find her. “I hate you,” he mumbled, turning so his back was facing the driver's side.
The lady shrugged. “Whatever you say.”
She must've thought that those were spoken by a naïve, impulsive child who was home-sick, but she didn't know Jae Sun. He meant it.
With all his shattered heart.
“If you're not going to eat that then can I have it?” Jung-hwa was eyeing Il Sung's sandwich.
Il Sung nodded absent-mindedly.
“REALLY?! Awesome. You just came back from sport and you're letting me eat your food? Aron would kill me if I even mentioned the idea!” Jung-hwa said incredulously.
Aron. Where had he heard that name before? Perhaps Jung-hwa had mentioned his name before and Il Sung hadn't noticed. He reached up and rubbed his aching stomach. Big mistake. He doubled over in pain.
Jung-hwa leant forward and tore Il Sung's hand and unicorn away from his shirt. His eyes widened at the big pool of red accumulating in front of him. “W-what's this?” He began to lift up the hem, but received a hard slap on the face.
“LET GO!” Il Sung yelled loudly, pulling away. “Don't touch me!” His face was deathly pale. There was red on his hand, running along his palm and down his fingers. Red had been on his Dad's hands that day and he'd been so scared. So very, very scared.
“Il Sung let me have a look. I promise I won't hurt you,” Jung-hwa said. He jumped at the trembling figure and held his arms back forcefully while gently taking off the Band-Aids. They fell to the floor in a messy pool of hurt and healing.
The air sliced through the wound like a painful knife. Not that okay pain Jae Sun had felt. This pain made Il Sung wince and hold back a cry. It made his eyes tear up.
Jung-hwa stared at the cut and pulled the boy to his feet, dragging him out of the canteen...
…the unicorn and sandwich forgotten.
“My name is Jung-hwa but I hate it so much so just call me Jung.” The short, bossy boy was the first one Jae Sun had met when the lady in the suit had left him by himself. At least someone else here was Korean. “What's your name?” He wasn't very polite. Then again, most weren’t.
“Cool. Like music?”
“Sorry, terrible joke about your name.”
“O-oh! I get it! Yes. I like music very much.”
“What else do you like?”
“I…er…like hide and seek.”
“That's nice.” Uninterested.
“Me and my Dad used to play it a lot. It was different though. You've probably never played it.”
“He always won though. I was terrible at hiding.”
“Better stick with me then or you'll get beaten up. You just seem like an easy target.” Jung-hwa had a grin on his face. A rare sight.
Was it that long ago?
“Can you hold still for just one moment? I'll end up poking your eye out! Miss, can you help me?”
A tall lady with neat hair shuffled over to the bench on which Il Sung had been swinging his legs off. She awkwardly put a hand on his shoulder making him jump. “It would be better if you stayed still,” the first aid officer said.
Jung-hwa leant forward and held out a small cotton ball with some liquid on it. Oh no...not again.
Il Sung shook his head violently. “No,” he said. “Not that.” His legs began swinging again. Faster this time and they hit the table legs harder. Bang. Bang. Bang.
Jung-hwa didn't look impressed. “What? Antiseptic? It doesn't hurt that much. A bit of an over exaggeration don’t you think, Il Sung?”
It does. It does. “No. No. I don't want- please...don't.” Il Sung trailed off. His fingers had turned blue from the icy coolness of the metal bench. His unicorn was cold too.
Antiseptic…it was what his mum used to clean him. Slowly, wiping away the memories. It was hell.
Jung-hwa took a deep breath and exhaled loudly. “Fine! Fine. But don't come complaining that you've infected yourself. See you later, loser.”
“Loser? That's not very nice, Jung...” Il Sung's voice trailed off slowly at the cold, hostile stare he was receiving.
“Still slow, I see. Just because I'm helping you doesn’t mean we're on friend terms again? Catching on?” Jung-hwa raised an eyebrow. “Sometimes you're frustrating.”
Il Sung raced out of the room.
Jung-hwa had his back pressed against the brick wall outside the orphanage. It was sunny.
“Hide and seek huh?”
“Yeah,” Il Sung nodded. “What little time he had at home, he always spent with me.”
“You don't like the game, Jung-hwa? We can play it if you want?”
Jung-hwa stared at him and didn't say anything.
Il Sung was worried he had said something wrong. Hadn't Jung-hwa just offered to play with him?
Finally, Jung-hwa pinched the bridge of his nose as if in thought.
“You idiot,” he hissed.
Il Sung didn't understand.
Jung-hwa scowled. “You freaking idiot.”
It hurt. Not that pain that eventually passes. It had stayed. And was going to stay there as long as Il Sung harboured it and he didn't plan on letting go. With this pain he had the ability to hold onto something. His past had been taken from him. His parents. His home. His mum. He had nothing left. He hugged the unicorn frantically. He needed it to protect him.
No one else was going to.
“Yo, Jae Sun!”
The ground felt harder that day against his cheek and rough. Il Sung let them shove him further down with their feet since all his will to retaliate had basically gone. It became clear that there was no use struggling when he learned that he was never going to win these fights. Another shove on his rib-cage sent sharp needles piercing into his lungs. The air. Restricting. Not quite dying.
They were shouting indistinguishable things. It hurt though. A lot. Il Sung screwed his eyes shut.
More pounding against his back.
And then they ran away. Only Jung-hwa was left looming over him like one of those blank faces Il Sung had learnt to fear.
He kicked Il Sung on his side harshly before bending down and smirking. “Sorry,” Jung-hwa said softly.
“As I said,” he continued. “Easy target.”
The angry man before him towered higher than any mountain could ever be with a dark cloud lingering and brooding around him. Thunderous crashing of tables and chairs filled his ears. Why was Jae-Sung's mum cowering? Why did it hurt so much? Was it going to stop?
The moonlight glinted on something in his hand and Jae-sung blinked. What was that which shimmered maroon?
Did it belong to him? Was it causing the pain?...
Perhaps, the pain would pass...it always did. Eventually.
He watched his mum stand slowly and grapple with his father, trying desperately to wrestle his arms away. But it was no use.
It was never any use.
Jae Sung held back his sobs because he didn't want his father to go. He couldn't scream because it would make the elder storm out in fury. He couldn't cry because that...
hurt even more.
For some unknown reason it hurt so much more than anything that had just happened...
because it meant remembering. All Jae-sun wanted to do was forget. Recall the warm smiles on his parent's faces and not this brooding, anger and fear.
no matter how hard he tried. He couldn't stop...
And then there was only a weeping boy and his broken unicorn, lying in the dust.