by Kenneth Bransdorf
Does he even exist?
Lance him through the chest, if you wish. He won’t feel it. You might not, either. So little is solid enough to touch. Drifting inches above the ground, at once weightless and oh so heavy. So tired.
He used to try so hard. Acting as if he was really there, and he even fooled some real people along the way. Somehow he passed for flesh, blood and bone, and for a few beautiful moments they could see him. But they never touched. Never could get them close enough for that. And why even perform then? Why even put on the show if you don’t get paid? So he eventually gave it up. Now no one sees him, and he pretends not to see them either.
But it hurts. It hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts so bad and deep down in his heart, he can’t stop it from clawing up his insides and filling up his throat until he’s choking on it, he can’t breathe and it’s too small, it’s too tight, it’s too much. It’s just too much. And he can’t take it much longer. How much longer. How much longer until. Until. Until it just. And then.
Of course it’s never then. It’s always now: the unbearable, interminable, crushing now. He knows he doesn’t exist then. He can’t exist then. Whether he exists now is still up for debate. He desperately desires to move to then. If he could just move there, then he could finally find peace.
The alarm on his phone pierces his thoughts and sends them flying apart like shards of a shattered glass case. He struggles to piece them back together, but the continuum has been disrupted and that’s that. If he could just… no. There’s no time for that anyway. He rolls out of bed and takes the first tentative steps of the day. Floor is cold so he quickly slides on his shower flip flops. Without even consciously deciding to do so he’s already walking out the door, grabbing the towel on his way out and wrapping it deftly around his waist in one smooth, practiced motion. One motion of many he goes through every day.
Something is stuck on the wall of the shower. It takes him a couple seconds to notice it, but when he does he starts and nearly slips. What’s that, a leaf? Kind of brown and flat… not moving. He’s not sure how it would get into the bathroom to begin with, nor how it could stick to the wall like that. Slowly, he reaches for the faucet handle and, once his hand closes around it, quickly jerks it on. The showerhead sputters a bit before issuing multiple strong jets, filling what was just a nearly silent room with the soft roar of water. The “leaf” leaves its perch on the wall and flutters back from the steaming streams.
Without thinking he cups some water in his hand and hurls it at the creature, which he now identifies as a moth. The impact clips its wings and sends it plummeting to the floor. It lands in the growing, churning pool at his feet, and he thinks it will die. But it does not. The moth beats its wings furiously against the floor, struggling with all its might to survive, to keep its head above the water. He watches as it drifts across the floor through sheer effort, but it’s not enough to break the surface for more than a half-second. The boy felt nothing for the moth at first, but now he cannot look away. Something black, seemingly liquid, rises off its body and goes down the drain. Is its body failing, breaking down, dying? It seems that way. But if so, that is not deterring the moth in the slightest. It continues to propel itself through the water until it hits the wall. Slowing down. The wings still flap, but only intermittently now and at a lethargic pace. Soon it is deathly still.
He feels a pang of regret that fades quickly, giving way to disgust. What had compelled him to kill this creature? What reason was there to take its life? There’s no answer, for he had not given it a thought. It was there, so he killed it. It gave him no joy. No satisfaction, nor fulfillment. He would not have minded its continued existence. But he killed it anyway. Realizing he has lost himself in his thoughts again, he bathes quickly. He wants to get away, up and out of this watery grave he dug and filled again. He closes the door on the fallen insect’s tomb and dives into his room.
The urge to smoke stabs him like a hot knife in his chest, but he has nothing left. No money to get more, either. He looks into his drawer anyway, knowing this; he just wants to see for himself, even though every time he does it nearly kills him. None left. All gone. Empty, empty, empty.
The boy checks his phone. Radio silence from his dealer for the past week. So many messages. He has to have seen them.
There is one message for him. From mom. “We sent you a care package! 사랑해, 우리 아들!”
He sighs. Whatever is in this package, it will probably be the highlight of the day. The bar is usually pretty low. And even still, even with the weight of all the dreams deferred, all the mistakes and missed opportunities, all the squandered potential, all the regret heavy on his back… he still forges on. This fact is his only solace: that he is able to endure enough to keep going. Not that he is moving forward, and he certainly is not living in any meaningful sense. Just continuing to exist and suffer makes him feel a bit better about the situation, as if that imbues him with the qualities of an unsung hero or martyr or some nonsense like that.
The college post office will not open for another few hours, time he plans to use for work. He does not actually believe he will follow through. Why would he? He is the type of student to wait until the last minute and then scramble and hate himself. He feels good just going to the libraries, and he feels even better on the rare occasions he does a little bit of work. Mornings are never good times for him to do much of anything, though. Sure enough, as soon as he opens his laptop his eyes are drawn to the Steam icon. Playing a game for an hour or so won’t hurt. He has plenty of time. So he pushes the impending essay deadline out of his mind, puts on his headphones and loads up Hollow Knight. The simple, heartbreaking theme swells into his ears and the title screen appears before him. As he plays, he seamlessly passes into the world of the game, completely submerged, escaping reality. The punishing difficulty feels like a challenge now that he can overcome, that he wants to overcome. It’s fun. But now the two hours are up, and it’s back to the punishing, decidedly unfun difficulty of real life.
No work done, but that’s no big deal. He still has plenty of time.
He drags his feet to the post office, annoyed that he had to stop playing. The first cold of the coming autumn greets him like an old friend, and yes, the familiarity is comforting initially. However, the frigid air is fraught with memories, few of them fond. It caresses the contours of his pale, tightly drawn drum-skin, seeping all the way through until all the warmth has fled his blood. The fall never fails to remind him of the love he lost, and the devastating, bone-gnawing winter that followed. He stands in its shadow, a great looming darkness that grows larger with each leaf’s descent. In a few months’ time he will be drowning in it, the ever distant stars observing his agony from their floating thrones out in the endless black ocean above. If they could just reach down and smite him, suck the air from his lungs, eviscerate him, pop him like a grape. Why watch him go through these awful trials? What joy can they possibly derive from his pathetic ruminations and self-pity? It’s the same show every year, and it only gets worse and worse. He only gets worse and worse. But they keep coming back for more.
Of course he knows there’s no one watching him. The stars see nothing. No one sees him… eyes pass over him naturally, they blot him out like any other unwanted, insignificant detail. There’s so much to take in, it just makes sense to ignore what doesn’t matter. That’s right, because whether you see him or not, it makes no difference. He won’t make a difference for you. You might feel bad for this stupid sap, but the truth is he’s a black hole. You can pour as much love into him as you want, he’ll just suck it up and give nothing in return. You put your trust in him, you can bet he’ll let you down. He always does. Because he doesn’t actually care about other people. He doesn’t think about anyone but himself. A fitting punishment. To think of him is a waste, after all. With any luck, he’ll waste away his time, waste his thoughts, waste everything until suddenly he’s gone. And the world will keep turning just as easily without him.
Was it always like this? No. There was a simpler time where all he knew was love, unearned and unconditional love. They held him close and kept him warm. He can still hear their heartbeats against his ear, the muffled, visceral thrumming of another’s life force. Each moment was bliss, discovery, excitement. The memories are vague and cast in the shimmering beams and hues of nostalgia, the kind that only enshrine the moments we know will never return, can never be replicated. Even if the images are fuzzy, the feelings remain, twisted up by the pain of the present, but stronger for it.
“Can I help you?” the postmaster asks.
“M-me? Uh, yes,” he replies slowly, his voice rusty.
“Oh. I’m, ahem, expecting a package.”
“Lucas… oh, okay. Yeah, here we go. Just give me a sec.”
He drifts into the back and, from the sound of it, is rummaging around. Lucas has not heard his name in a long time. It sounds bizarre spoken aloud, alien language. His insides hurt.
“Here it is!” the man says, jumping back into vision and feigning a throw, eliciting a flinch. “Hehe. Just messing with ya, kid. Here ya go.”
“Okay. Thanks. Here I go… out of here.”
What the fuck was that? What was that guy thinking? What was Lucas thinking? So painfully awkward. Talking to strangers is the worst. That’s what Lucas is trying to tell himself so he can get over it, but he is sinking too fast for that. Each step is heavier than the last, harder, like the next will bury him. He wants to sleep so bad.
The further he gets from the post office, the better he feels. The biting cold of outside breaks him out of his malaise pretty easily, and soon he’s back to his not great baseline. He forgets quickly. A strong wind hits him in the face and he curses the season. Fall is worse than winter because it teases you with hints of life. Not barren, yet fading, and therefore tragic. Winter is sad too, but there’s no false hope. Fall is watching the planet die.
He needs to get inside. His room is a mere five minutes away, but he feels it as an eternity. The road is long and hard. Dead leaves crunch underfoot. Stepped in something wet, ugh. Now his shoe is wet, and now his foot. Now wet and cold.
He makes it to the door to his dorm. Fumbles for his ID, fuck. He finally grabs it and presses it to the scanner and the door unlocks. Stumbles inside. A cockroach bristles at his appearance, scuttling toward him fearlessly. Panicked, he jumps over it and runs up the stairs. His wet shoe slips against the step and he nearly falls, but he catches himself on the banister just before breaking his teeth. Idiot. He managed to hold on to the package under his arm.
Looks back to ensure that the cockroach isn’t in hot pursuit (it isn’t), starts walking carefully but briskly up the steps. He stops at the third floor and heads to his room, the first on the right.
The package is full of food. Korean food: 너구리 라면, 칼국수, 빼빼로, 호빵, and more. Stuff he hasn’t eaten in a long time. A few months maybe? Not a year, surely.
Lucas picks up the 칼국수, inspects it. Microwave for three minutes, eh? That’s a bit of a wait. He supposes it is worth it. This was his favorite dish as a kid. Every time he’s gone back to Korea, he’s asked for it. “칼국수 먹어싶어요.” One of the few things he knows how to do in Korean. Ask for food. He also knows how to ask where the bathroom is, and how to say “I love you.” Not much else.
His mother has tried to teach him many times, each attempt in vain. He was a lazy student, always was, and though she was a patient teacher, even she lost her patience with him. He was hopeless. He realizes now that she must have known that. And that was why she eventually just gave up on him. How hard that must have been.
Lucas decides to cook himself up some 칼국수, so he drops it into a bowl, fills it with water, empties the flavor packet, and tosses it in the microwave. The old machine resurrects itself just long enough to radiate the small meal inside, reluctantly whirring away. Three minutes go by, and now it’s ready to eat. Or wait, no, it has to cool off for another minute. Annoying, but he’s come this far.
The first bite is too hot to really taste. He only waited thirty-two seconds, after all. He waits another twenty and then dives back in. The second bite has a flash of authentic flavor, or at least the flavor he tasted in Korea. The taste of the mother country. Can he really call her his mother? He’s not legitimate. His heritage, the culture… he has access to neither.
Except through food. And this food…
He closes his eyes and sees the smiles of his family all around him, their eyes and teeth glowing, skin lit up. All his memories of Korea were well-lit, even the nights. The city was never far, it seemed. Walking the bustling streets of Seoul, dining out in a small, excellent family owned and operated restaurant, dozing off in the back of 삼촌’s car. Saying goodbye in the airport, how they wept. His 할머니 holding him by the shoulders and drinking in his face for the last time, tears welling.
His visions begin to shift from memories to an unknown realm. He feels lighter, too light. Fear suddenly seizes his chest, forcing him to contract, fold into himself. But it doesn’t hurt. There’s no tension in his body, no protests from his muscles. Is this death? No, because he’s not slipping away. He’s still tethered to something. What thing?
The boy surveys his new surroundings. He touches no surface, suspended and supported by seemingly nothing but the air. It’s hard to tell if there are any surfaces at all, the only thing he can see in the blinding brilliance bathing him being soaring streaks of fire-born color: dazzling golds, reds, and yellows. Soon his eyes adjust to the light, and he sees that he is above the clouds. He looks up and defiantly meets the gaze of the stars. They all wink out one after the other, ashamed to look him in the eye. The sun is the only one brave enough to remain, but it dares not approach. It meekly invites him into its core, which he walks to and through in a few strides. At the center of the sun is a grand ballroom, where everyone is dressed to the nines and radiating warmth. They all came. They love him. He’s not alone here. The feeling is so old and powerful that it nearly rips his heart from his chest. He’s awash with euphoria. Tears flow like wine from his eyes. He wants to crystallize this moment. Exist in it forever. But after a while, after a closer look, he sees the trouble with paradise. It’s clear now that he’s not really here. Because these people are dreams, this is all smoke and mirrors, sense memory kicking into high gear and drowning his brain in some fleeting feel-good chemicals.
Dream and nothing more. The kind where there’s so much good, but you can’t hold on to any of it. It just keeps passing by like a slideshow, too fast for him to take in and drawing ever closer to the end. Every person here loves him and yet they can’t talk to him for more than a minute, or more like he can’t hold one for a minute. He can’t even hold still. He’s always moving, unable to stop himself. His head is foggy. He can’t think. He can’t talk. All these smiles. All of this. It’s not real.
Wake up. He falls to the hardwood. It hurts. That’s strange for a dream.
“Are you all right, 한별?”
He has not heard that name in years. From the warm, crinkling crackle of her voice, he knows her. Her aged, vascular hand hovers a couple feet above, fingers uncurled and palm up. He does not dare look into her face. Even the sight of her hand is too much. He averts his gaze and blindly feels around the air for her hand.
“Help me, 할머니…”
She grabs him so tight that he can’t imagine she’ll ever let go. Lifts him up with surprising ease, there’s still strength in her yet. All the way up until the end, he knew she would be strong. He wasn’t there for it, but he knew she was. His parents told him so.
And now here she is again, brimming with vigor, alive as ever. More alive than he, certainly. He can look at her now, and the sight brings him to the brink of tears. How he missed the way her apple cheeks rose when she smiled, her warm crescent moon eyes whose kindness could shine in even the darkest night, the wrinkles and folds of her face that wove the tapestry of a hard and well-earned life of fulfillment. All that was, now again here before him. He sees her, he holds her, she’s here. She’s… here.
“할머니…” is all he can manage before breaking. He sobs like a child, and she pulls him in for a gentle embrace, burying his tears in her shoulder.
“아이고, 아이고, 우리 아들… 괜잖아…” she says softly.
“나도… 많이 사랑해요… 한별.”
“미안해요… This… this is all I know… I wish I knew more, I should know more by now. I’ve had more than twenty years to learn, I have no excuse. I failed you… I failed everyone… I’m no grandson to you. I’m no son to my mother. I’m not a real Korean, I’m not legitimate, I’m… I’m a bastard. I’m so sorry, I’m so so sorry… You deserved better than me, someone who would have worked day and night to learn, before you…”
“하지마! You are my grandson. You are my daughter’s son. And you are a real Korean. I’m so proud of who you’ve become. My heart is so full of love for you.”
“No, no, I don’t deserve this. I don’t. I don’t.”
“You do. Please, don’t pull away. Not yet. We don’t have much time.”
“Oh God. It’s about to end, isn’t it? No, no, no, please. I can’t go back. Don’t let me go back.”
She sighs sadly, her smile waning. “You know you have to. You’ve known it for a long time.”
“But I just got here. There has to be a way… what do I have to do? I’ll do anything, I’ll give up all I have in that wretched world if I can just spend a little more time here. Minutes, seconds, I don’t care.”
“You can’t live in the past. Otherwise you’ll have no future.”
“I don’t have a future. Whether I stay here or not won’t change that. I’m going nowhere. I don’t know who I’m supposed to be, what I’m supposed to do… Don’t you understand? There’s nothing for me there. I’ll just keep failing, disappointing the people I love. They’ll leave, and I’ll be alone. I don’t want that.”
“You can’t run away from your life.”
“I don’t care. I’m going to keep running until it’s over. Either it’ll overtake me, or I’ll break down. And then it’ll be over. That’s fine by me.”
“You’d waste all your gifts? All the opportunities given to you? It would break my heart to see that, and I know there are many others in your life who would feel the same. We’ve all worked so hard to give you a good life, because we believe in you. We believe in what you can be.”
“I wish I could see what you see, but I can’t. I look inside and there’s nothing. I’m worthless.”
“Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. In time, you will see. But first, you must try. Trust in me. Trust in all of us who see the greatness in you.”
He opens his mouth to speak, but before the words arrive he realizes that their time is almost up. The glorious room and the people are dissolving into smoke, a shroud enclosing them, encroaching little by little until there’s only space enough for 할머니 and he, standing in a little ring of heaven’s remainder.
“사랑해요…” she says quickly, before she too fades into the mist.
“No!” he protests desperately, but he’s already been returned to his dorm. The air feels heavier and harder to inhale than before. His chest feels a crushing weight.
Chopsticks still in hand, he quickly descends upon the food and wolfs it down. He needs to act. It’s been far too long since he felt this fire burning him up inside, the fire of resolve. The boy throws out the empty bowl and chopsticks, then begins the search for his Korean textbook, a mild needle-in-hay-stack endeavor to be sure. He sifts through the trash piled on his desk, then the drawers, which are also full of trash. Now beginning to realize that this is no way to live; among the dregs of everyday life, empty food packages, empty bottles. No decorations.
And his brain, the same. Always half-asleep and struggling to follow the threads. But now all synapses are firing a violent salvo, rushing his blood and shaking his hands with anticipation. This is living! How did he forget. How could he. It doesn’t matter. What’s important is now, he exists now, and even better can change the now, mold it to the shape of his dreams. No more dwelling in fantasies, mulling over the archives of the immutable past, because all that matters is now. He will not let forty years pass him by before he realizes his mistake. Unacceptable. Intolerable to imagine, so he won’t, because it’s not worth the time or anguish.
The book breathes out a dusty sigh of relief as he cracks it open, clearly worried it would have sat on this shelf or another until decay stole it away. He leafs through the pages, hit by a sudden wave of nostalgia, but in the interest of avoiding the undertow’s grasp, he pushes the sentimental thoughts aside. There will be time later for thinking back, now is the time to think forward. Upward. Take flight, boy. Take wing, catch the sunbeams in your fiery feathers and show them how high you can soar. No such thing as too close. Your wings aren’t glued on, they won’t fall away, they are you and yours. A little heat won’t hurt.
Kenneth Bransdorf is a student at Swarthmore College, majoring in English Literature and minoring in Psychology. He was born in Seoul, South Korea and moved to Haddon Heights, NJ at the age of four, where he has lived for most of his life. Since childhood, he has loved stories. He loved both the episodic adventures and the epic arcs that unfolded on the page and the screen alike, which often inspired him to write stories of his own. Now on the precipice of independence and adulthood, he hopes to one day become the next great American novelist, though he’ll settle for the next passable American novelist if need be. Aside from writing, his interests range from the creative, singing and drawing, to the destructive, specifically destroying inexperienced players in Super Smash Bros.