The bleachers are too low. They force Chanyeol’s long legs to almost double up as he sits on them, his shins dangerously close to smashing into the heads of the kids sitting in the row in front if he makes a careless move. They must have been designed for elementary students – either that, or someone didn’t expect anyone over the height of 180 cm to be sitting on them. Still, it means his knees that peep out though the holes in his black jeans serve as a good arm-rest for his elbows. He props his chin in his hands and surveys the crowd below him.
There is motion everywhere, excited arms waving, heads turning and jerking, mouths gaping, eyes widening and squeezing as the massed mixture of students chatter and gabble and cheer on their schoolmates. There are swatches of colour everywhere too – navy blue uniforms are directly across from him on the other side of the pool, a sky blue polo shirt-wearing school occupy the stand to his right, and a posh-looking set of scarlet-trimmed blazers and stylish kilted skirts fill the left. The section Chanyeol is cramped up in is full of the off-green and purple monstrosity of SM High, and Chanyeol has a moment of gratitude that he is now a third year and no longer required to wear uniform.
There's a gap between races and, empty of swimmers for a few minutes, the stirred-up pool water has a chance to settle. It ripples greenish blue, the surface molecules refracting the heavy yellow-tinted light that pours in through dusty, high skylights. The air is hot and tastes of chlorine and high-voltage excitement. The thumping vibrations of people climbing up and down the bleachers thrum through his body, and the energy of the writhing crowd presses against his skin. There is so much life here. So much feeling. It crawls over Chanyeol, ripples through him, filling him with sensory input.
Chanyeol doesn’t care much about the school swim team, but the vibrating energy of the swimming tournament fills him up and makes him feel slightly less hollow. Slightly less cut off from the world. Slightly less alone.
The competitors in the next race move up to the blocks, the school they represent determined by the colour of their tight-fitting caps. He searches their faces, reading their expressions and body language. Some swimmers are intent with concentration or strong determination, and others are obviously nervous, tightness radiating from shoulders and eyes.
The swimmer from SM looks relaxed as he jumps fluidly onto the starting block. His physique is impressive for a high schooler. Some of the boys he swims against are still skinny, not yet filled out to their adult builds, but this kid has well-developed abs, pecs and shoulders that will cleave him through the empty water like an arrow from a bow.
The boy is Kim Jongin . Chanyeol remembers the name from the list of swimming events pinned up to the wall he’d glanced at earlier. The swim team captain. He stores the name up automatically in his mind, in case he ever needs to know it again.
A pause draws all eyes to the starting blocks, and then the muscles of the crouching swimmers convulse in unison as they spring from the blocks and enter the water. Chanyeol nearly gets an elbow in the face as the kid sitting beside him starts waving his green flag frantically. Chanyeol watches the boy for a while, amused by the intensity in his sharp-featured face, by how much this school swimming race seems to matter to him.
He looks back down at the pool just in time to catch the ending. Kim Jongin and the boy from the navy blue-uniformed school have touched together, and Chanyeol can tell by the confused glances the swimmers are giving each other and the way the line guards huddle together to compare times that the winner is unclear, and will be determined by the milliseconds captured by the stopwatches.
Motion to his right catches his attention and he turns to see Jongin’s supporter is talking to him. He focuses, catches at the words.
“…he win? Did Jongin win?”
“I don’t know.”
Chanyeol glances down to the pool to see if anyone else knows yet, but from the corner of his eye he sees the boy’s expression change to one of such astonishment that it makes him look back, fighting a smile at how round his eyes have gone. But in glancing at the pool he’s completely missed whatever the boy said, and now the kid is babbling about keyboard functions and stabbing his forehead in some gesture that completely mystifies Chanyeol.
He raises an eyebrow enigmatically – a useful skill, as it can be interpreted to mean almost anything – and the kid turns back to the poolside. Chanyeol watches with interest as his eyes soften and his cheekbones dust with pink. Curious, Chanyeol follows the direction of his gaze and sees that the cause of this sudden flush is the sight of Kim Jongin pulling his muscular, gleaming body out of the water.
It seems the kid isn’t so easily distracted, though, because he turns swiftly back to Chanyeol, and Chanyeol resigns himself to having an actual conversation.
“So why’d you choose green? School spirit or something?” The severe eyebrows are raised, the words tumbling over each other, and Chanyeol knows he is talking about his hair.
This question is not so easy to answer. Not that Chanyeol doesn’t know why his hair is green, but it takes more explanation than he is willing to trust his voice with, even in a place as obviously loud and echoing as the pool. He shrugs instead.
“No particular reason,” he says, and watches the boy’s face carefully for his reaction.
The boy blinks and his eyebrows twitch together in a way that says disbelief to Chanyeol as clearly as if he had shouted liar! He opens his mouth again, but at that moment the navy uniforms opposite all leap to their feet and both of them look to the pool to find that the other school’s swimmer has his arms raised in victory. It can’t have been more than a split-second’s difference, but Chanyeol reads the slight slump of Jongin’s shoulders. Disappointment, the boy’s body language says, even as he smiles generously and shakes hands with the winner. Failure.
“,” the kid who keeps talking to Chanyeol says. “We lost.” His words are an attempt at a cover-up, betrayed only by the misery in his eyes.
“Second place isn’t so bad,” Chanyeol says, and then wonders why he’s bothering. It’s not like he cares if the kid’s upset. He doesn’t even know him, but there’s some intangible, innocent air about this kid that makes Chanyeol instinctively want to protect him from the world and all its cruel indifferences.
He shakes the feeling away. He has a class to get to. He bends down to slide his long, heavy rectangular case out from under the bleachers where he has stored it, and when he looks up again he finds that in doing so he has missed yet another of the kid’s attempts at conversation. He just manages to catch the last word in the sentence, and added to the direction of the kid’s gaze, Chanyeol deduces that the kid is asking him what’s in his case.
“It’s a bass,” he answers. “A bass guitar.”
He stands up and threads his way between the crowds. They part for him as he approaches. He’s tall enough to make people move aside instinctively, plus the green hair makes him look weird and a little scary, and people always get out of the way of that particular combination.
Outside he takes a breath of air that tastes of cool, burnt autumn and begins to stride across the quadrangle towards the main building. Halfway there someone darts in front of him out of nowhere, forcing him to jerk to a stop. Adrenaline shoots through him and his heart bangs hard against his chest. He bites back a startled yell and glares at the person who has appeared so suddenly in front of him. It’s the kid again. What the heck does he want now?
“Sorry for calling you so rudely,” the kid says, chest rising and falling like he’s been running, “but I don’t know your name.”
He must have been calling for him while Chanyeol strode away. Must have thought he was ignoring him. Chanyeol tries to stop glaring. It’s not his fault. He doesn’t know.
“I’m Oh Sehun, second year,” the boy says, sticking out a hand and smiling. He has a cute smile that softens the severity of his features. Chanyeol hesitates, then shifts the weight of his bass case into his left hand and takes the younger boy’s hand with his right.
“Park Chanyeol. Third year,” he replies, and waits to see what this strange kid wants with him.
The answer startles him so much that he almost drops his bass case.
“Want to be in a band?”
At those six words, a flood of emotions pour over Chanyeol, because they are spoken so easily, so freely, and with so much hope.
Does he want to be in a band?
How can he do that? It’s ridiculous to even consider it. He can’t play music with others. They’ll think he’s stupid or useless or worse. They’ll find him out for sure.
“Sure,” Chanyeol says, because that’s what he always says when that little voice inside his mind tells him something is impossible . That clenched fist, that sheer bull-headed stubbornness that won’t allow him to submit to the word impossible despite the uncertainty and hopelessness and yes, the fear that shivers and rattles through the emptiness inside.
The way Sehun’s face lights up at his agreement is more than enough reward for his courage. He tells him to come to one of the music rooms after school finishes and bounces away. Chanyeol watches him go and tries to quiet the emotions that clang through him, making echoes upon echoes of frustration and fear, playing him like a bell-tower.
He closes his eyes and with an inward breath he dampens down the uncertainty. He mutes the hopelessness. He catches the fear and soothes its quivering, cupped in his large, gentle hands.
Chanyeol stashes his bass at the back of the calculus classroom and moves to take his customary seat in the middle of the front row, along with the smart kids and the ones who can’t see the whiteboard unless they sit as close to it as possible. Like them, Chanyeol is well acquainted with the frustration of being locked out of understanding, but his problem isn’t as easily fixed as wearing glasses.
He gets his textbook, laptop and graphics calculator out of his backpack and glances through the section he revised in preparation for the class. He likes calculus. He likes the way the figures work. They are still and calm and don’t hide anything. They don’t say one thing and mean another. They don’t slur their words, or make crooked eyes, or judge. He doesn’t like the calculus teacher much though, because half the time she talks with her back turned as she writes on the whiteboard, leaving Chanyeol hopelessly lost.
He tries not to get angry. It isn’t worth it. He knows she does not – cannot – understand. He wouldn’t have understood himself, before he knew what it was like to be a castaway. A discard. A broken toy. He tries not to let himself care.
Today is more of the same. Miss Ahn writes figures and formulas at dizzying speed across the whiteboard, tapping certain things with the marker tip in emphasis, creating multitudes of little blue dots at each point. By the nods of the smart kids in his row and the bafflement on the faces of the ones who are there due to short-sightedness, Chanyeol knows she is explaining things, and yet again he is secluded, outcast, locked in a bubble nobody else can see.
At least she writes the page number they’re meant to work from on the whiteboard. He bends his head and tries to forget his frustration in the complex equations. He’s good at concentrating. It’s not like he can be easily distracted. He loses himself in numbers, and dances figures through his head.
A hand comes into his view, landing on his desk. He flinches back and looks up to find Miss Ahn glaring at him .
“I find it hard to believe you are this keen for calculus, Chanyeol. I’ve asked you to stop working three times now. The bell’s five minutes gone.” She folds her arms, defensive, like she thinks he’s mocking her. “Well, I guess it makes a change. I’ve never had to discipline a student for refusing to leave class before.”
Incredulity builds angry mountains inside Chanyeol. Is this for real? Has she actually forgotten?
His frustration has been too long held down. It surges and writhes, rattles at his edges, wants a vent, a way out. He glances around the room. It’s empty. He is the last kid there.
He closes his laptop, puts his books in his bags, all the while trying to calm the angry volcano inside him. When he has packed everything away, he stands up. He towers over her, so he takes a step back, not wanting to intimidate despite his anger. His hands come up in front of him and his face is schooled into his usual mask of calm, but he feels the glinting in his eyes.
“Miss Ahn,” he says, finger-spelling her name as he vocalizes, “have you forgotten? I can’t hear the bell. I’m deaf.”
She stares at his hands, then up at his face, horrified realisation dawning in widened eyes and parted lips, and it's enough to give him a sense of grim satisfaction as he turns and walks away. But the satisfaction is short-lived, and does nothing to counter the hurt and restless anger inside him.
Forgot. She forgot. This thing that encompasses Chanyeol, traps him in an invisible, silent bubble every moment of his life, this monster that stole away the sound of laughter and birdsong and passing cars and creaking desks and the wind through the tree branches, this disability that makes it so much harder for him to do anything the way the other kids do - ten times, a hundred times harder – is so insignificant to her that she just…
He does not see her hand go to as he leaves the classroom. He does not hear her start to stammer an apology. And when instead of going to statistics he walks out of the school and through the gates and down the road and away from it all, nobody stops him.
Or if they try, he does not hear them.
The air is old and crackling and full of the skin-tingling sharpness of electricity. There is a sepia glow to the afternoon sun as it battles with the monstrous dark thunderhead rearing and building and boiling up behind the hill. It lights up the leaves on the trees like daylight stars, and everything seems kindle-ready, burnt around the edges. Chanyeol walks and walks, and nobody stops him.
He walks towards the gathering storm. Everything is still. His scalp is prickly and the hairs on his arms rise up and stand at attention. He follows the street as it begins to climb the hill. It’s the tallest hill in town, topped with a park crowned at the summit by a lone, ancient tree. As he strides past the last bus stop, the sun is suddenly eclipsed. A cold shadow rushes over the street, darkening, and the tree leaf stars wink out. The storm is close now.
A sudden flash. Lightning scribbles across the sky. There is a tension in the air. A weight. A wait. There is no wind. The world grows stretched and tight. Automatically he counts – one, two, three – and at the bus stop across the street two girls jump together, clinging to each other, their mouths stretched O’s of startled screams. Thunder.
It is close, but not close enough. Not yet. He crosses the line where the street ends and the park begins. He shuns the trail, taking instead the most direct route to the top, his long legs eating up the ground as the hill rises steeply. The grass is dry and expectant under his sneakers, as if it knows there will be rain to feed it soon, to wash away its coat of autumn dust and colour its brittle blades green. His lungs begin to burn and soon he is panting. He is probably making all kinds of ugly gasping noises, but there is nobody around to hear them, so it doesn’t matter. He doesn’t slow down. He is racing the storm to the summit.
His backpack grows heavy as he nears the hilltop, his laptop and textbooks all weighing him down, his forehead and back sweating. His breath is rasping fast in his throat now, and he needs his hands as well as his feet to pull himself up the steepest sections. He concentrates on the burn in his legs and lets all his anger and frustration and despair ignite and blaze.
He hates it. He hates it so much he sometimes doesn’t know what to do with his useless self.
He reaches the top of the hill and stumbles towards the lone tree. When he is beneath its ancient branches, he collapses on his back on the dusty grass and stares up at the spinning sky. His chest heaves. His heart hammers. His laptop pokes its sharp corners into his back and beads of sweat crawl down the sides of his face, and after a moment, when he gets his breath back, he wriggles out of his backpack and shoves it away.
He opens up his eyes, wide, wider, widest. Through twisting ochre leaves he stares up at the coaly sky. The clouds boil and rage, and lightning splits the sky again, and this time, Chanyeol feels the thunder. He feels it through his body, the deep crash in his chest, the pressure on his ruined eardrums. He feels the slightest tremble in the earth beneath him, and the wind rises. Lightning forks through the thunderhead, and Chanyeol gives up his body to the storm.
Every peal and crash of thunder overhead presses down on him, rumbles over him, sings a silent song through him. Every scribbling forking cracking bolt of lightning inscribes a hundred after-images on his eyes. He knows that lying underneath a single tree on the tallest hill in town during an electrical storm isn’t exactly the smartest thing to do, but he doesn’t care. He feels a sense of detachment, of inevitability. If he gets struck by lightning, he gets struck, and what’s the difference? He’s living on stolen time anyway. Death has held his hand before, and though he was snatched away from that cold grasp at the last moment, he didn’t return unscathed. The King of Shadows kept his hearing for his own, and holds it hostage in his kingdom now, waiting the day the rest of Chanyeol will come and join it.
He knows he can’t stay away forever. Not when part of him is missing. He will always be imperfect and incomplete.
If he gets struck by lightning here, Chanyeol thinks, then it was meant to be.
He will never know why he survived and Yifan died.
Why take Yifan?
Why not take him?
Why return him to a mockery of life, cursed to grieve in every moment for the part of him forever missing?
Now he is a guitar with broken strings.
Now he is a night without stars.
Now he is a cut flower waiting to die.
Hot, heavy tears leak from the corners of his eyes and spill down the sides of his face, pooling in his useless ears.
And then the rain comes,
Chanyeol is profoundly deaf. Carrying within himself this great silence, he walks alone, and his face is calm and empty. But if only anyone cared to look, his eyes would betray his burden.
The silence changed him. It taught him many things. It showed him that the stable world is only an illusion. It can all catch fire at any moment and come burning down around you and there’s nothing you can do.
But after a forest has burned to ashes, from the destruction and dust a new life grows.
When the door to Chanyeol’s hearing slammed shut and locked forever, another, secret entrance to his soul cracked open. And so he sees beneath the surface. He sees feelings and emotions written across faces and bodies. Sometimes he catches glimpses of the truth, of the things people hide. He sees flashes of hidden greatness, of beauty, of terror, of madness, of awe. It shines through the cracks in their masks and out of their window-eyes.
It scares him, sometimes, because he knows it is not normal, and he doesn't need to be abnormal in any more ways than he already is.
He clings to his normality. He needs to be treated like everyone else. Needs to keep up the pretense. That’s why he hides it. They cannot know. Their ignorance keeps the fear and the raging silence at bay, and what they don’t know can’t hurt him.
Most of the time.
When Chanyeol arrives at the music room, it is already populated with three others. Sehun is there, of course, quivering with nervous excitement. He grabs Chanyeol’s arm and drags him inside. His mouth is moving, but since he is standing next to Chanyeol and not facing him, he cannot lipread properly. He figures out Sehun is introducing him by the way the other two kids in the room respond. The curly-haired one behind the keyboard bows politely and gives him a soft smile. He looks familiar somehow, though Chanyeol can’t quite put his finger on it. The other kid is a whole different story. He gets a suspicious glare from this one, to which Chanyeol returns his most impassive stare.
Sehun probably told him their names, but he wasn’t able to lipread them. He looks for name tags. No such luck with the sharp-edged kid. His uniform is in tatters anyway, he’s probably too cool for name tags. Chanyeol will have to scout out his name in some other way later, but at least the keyboardist is wearing his. Chanyeol flicks his eyes to the boy's left chest and reads 장이징. It's not a Korean name, and his mind automatically slots the name into its correct pronunciation, unable to be accurately represented by a language with no sounds for “z” or “x”.
Shock rolls through him, slackening his fingers momentarily, so that he nearly fumbles his bass. He masks his reaction by crouching down to lie the case flat on the floor and snap the silver clasps open. He bends his head to hide his face. He pulls out the cool, heavy bass and clips on the strap, fingers fumbling more than they should.
When he thinks he is able to stand without shaking, he gets to his feet and chances a glance at Yixing. The Chinese boy’s face is serene as his fingers dance across the plastic keys.