There is up, and there is down. Humans lived down below the clouds, in a very darkened world with no sunlight. Monsters lived up above the clouds in a paradise; and there was a barrier separating them from the humans that the demons could not get through until the barrier weakened every two-hundred years.
Where humans lived down, there was one human who lived all the lower than all the rest. Not physically, but emotionally. His name was Ha-Jun.
He lived in a run-down apartment building, and spent a lot of his time looking into his mirror. He was always exhausted after a day of work, even though he was only there for about six hours every weekday.
He looked in the mirror often because, one day, something very shocking happened to him. He had stopped seeing himself in the mirror. He saw a girl named Serah in the mirror instead. He glanced in the mirror very often in the hopes that he'd see himself again, but he never did.
It was a bare-bones room he lived in. There was a small kitchen attached to the bedroom in the entrance, a bathroom, and a tiny closet. His bed was pushed up against the west wall and had a little desk next to it, which he kept a journal on. He kept his dresser in the closet, and there was a mirror hanging on the east side of his bedroom, as well as the typical one in the bathroom. He kept things immaculately clean; always sure to clean up any spills and vacuum when needed.
There was a knock at his door. " Jun! You're home, right?"
It was his next door neighbor, Gillian. She was a very pretty lady with blue eyes and yellow hair.
He was sitting on his bed, with his covers over his knees, reading a book. He glanced at the door. "It's open..."
Gillian opened the door and waved at him. "Just checking up on you. Are you feeling well today?"
Ha-Jun put his book down as she sat on the end of his bed. "I'm okay... Little bit dizzy, but okay. How're your kids?"
"They're fine. Still going to school, still healthy... James is turning twelve soon. Adriana is turning eight. I'm still teaching them plenty outside of school, too." Gillian answered.
"And... How's your husband?" Ha-Jun queried.
Gillian frowned at the mention of her husband. "He's okay... The time's coming close for you, right?"
Ha-Jun nodded silently. "Yeah..."
"Is it still likely that you'll die?" She asked.
Gillian got to her feet and turned her back to him. "You've been eating well?"
Ha-Jun laughed a little. "Yeah... I'm just too weak. I won't survive. It's the same tasteless diet I've had all my life. Tomatoes, spinach, broccoli... I mean, I sneak a double chocolate coffee here and there, but..."
Gillian turned back to him with a smile. "You're not still losing your lunch, are you?"
He shook his head. "Not so much lately... Mostly I just feel tired."
They were both silent for a moment, and then Gillian asked, "is it okay if I stay the night again?"
Ha-Jun smiled a little. "What about your husband?"
"He went out of town with the kids," she answered.
Ha-Jun shook his head, a little bit embarrassed. "I'm a little tired..."
Gillian nodded. "Alright, I'll see you tomorrow then,"
"Yup," he watched her go and then closed his eyes, falling backwards on his bed. The truth was, he was battling some very negative thoughts bouncing around in his head. He opened his eyes after a moment and looked at himself in his bedroom mirror. All he could see was Serah staring back at him.
He thought to himself, I can't be you... I am...
He sighed and touched the skin below his eyeballs, mushy from lack of sleep. He went back to sleep with a worried expression on his face. Sometimes he could sleep, and sometimes he couldn't. Most of the time he begged for sleep because he truly did need it, and he refused to take any sleeping pills because he was afraid of getting addicted.
He woke up the next morning feeling angry at himself for not getting the sleep he needed.
He had a dream about Serah's memories. That was often how he learned about Serah. Through his dreams. Her memories were in his head, but he could only recall them while he slept.
She was well loved by all the masses as well as well known. She had an amazing job as a doctor, she had written many amazing works of fiction, and had even written a book on mathematics; she was very well off. She was physically fit, and was recognized as one of the prettiest women ever to exist. His dream consisted of her writing one of her books which he had read and loved. He was extremely jealous of her. He could never achieved all of what she had achieved.
When he was awake, he already had a bad feeling in his stomach when he thought about going to work. He worked at a fast food restaurant in the city. A job he was not suited for, but the only one he could get hired for. He could never tell, when entering the building, whether he felt extremely hungry from not eating, or whether he was so nervous it just felt like he was hungry. Either way, his hands wouldn't stop shaking at work.
Some of his coworkers liked him, and some of them didn't, but regardless, Ha-Jun knew that they were judging him always, and he felt like they all thought he was stupid for being very slow at the work. All he had to do was help make hamburgers, clean up, and ring up orders; but it was just hard for someone like him.
He thought about going home nearly every second he was on the job. He often heard some of his coworkers talking about him behind his back.
"Can you believe it? That's the legendary Serah's reincarnation this time around? That nervous, worthless, wisp? Man, they sure had it good two-hundred years ago..." A female coworker said.
The male coworker she was talking to shrugged. "So long as he can strengthen the barrier like she did. He's almost certainly likely to die during the ritual though."
He looked down despondently and put aside the broom he was sweeping with. He thought to himself, I wish I were Serah.
He was exhausted when it was time to drive home and spent a moment in his car just letting his brain calm down and return to its normal level of stimulation.
He could finally think clearly again without so many customers coming in and out of the building, and all his coworkers talking loudly around him.
He took a deep breath and drove home in silence. The truth was Serah was still very real to him, whereas she was a dead legend to others.
Her thoughts seemed to echo in his head, and she seemed to tease him often about being a loser.
Tired after six hours of easy work? Almost losing your lunch after two hours of work? She taunted him in his head. You'll definitely die when it's time!
Ha-Jun seemed to drift off in his thoughts as he drove. Sometimes, he seemed to get stuck in his negative thoughts. He made himself feel very embarrassed at his past mistakes. Once, he had accidentally flipped a burger onto the ground. He never let himself forget about it. He had never let himself forget about a bad grades he got on ancient math tests, either; although for the most part he had done well in school. Serah often reminded him, those failures will be on a piece of paper forever. And they'll be preserved in your head all the longer.
Ha-Jun snapped back to reality as he almost crashed into the car in front of him. He was sweating in fear, and his heart was pounding. Focus...
He pulled into his apartment's parking lot--a messy place filled with soda cups, wrappers, and even piles of dirt caked up against the sidewalk enclosing the decrepit building. It was cold out, and he rubbed his hands together. It was night now, and as he walked across the parking lot, he saw someone looking at him from the corner of his eye. He looked around and caught a glimpse of the individual. He stopped in his tracks and his heart was seized with fear. It was definitely Serah. He looked around again in fear, hearing footsteps and wind in his ears, and then silence.
His heart was pounding as a soda cup blew across the parking lot in the freezing wind.
After a moment, he realized he was being silly. It couldn't have been her. He sped up his pace and continued on across the parking lot. He was just imagining things, he told himself.
He hiked up the stairs inside the building and found his room on the second floor. He opened it quickly and shut it behind him.
He cringed and slid against the door to the floor in frustration.
He couldn't seem to calm down. After a moment he forced himself to take a deep breath and climbed to his feet.
He grabbed the journal he kept by his bed and started writing, one of the only things that seemed to calm him down.
He glanced over at the mirror many times, and he still saw Serah. After an hour passed, he found himself calming down enough to feel normal. He could relax for a moment.
There was a knock at his door again, "Jun?"
Ha-Jun got out of bed and opened the door for Gillian. "Gillian,"
She was holding a tiny, round, chocolate, birthday cake with two candles on it in the shape of a two and a five. "I forgot it was your birthday yesterday,"
His mind went blank for a moment, "whoa, so did I..."
She laughed a little at that and entered the room. She noticed the journal on the bed, "hey, I didn't know you kept a journal..."
"I don't. I like to write fiction in my spare time." He explained.
She was surprised. "Oh, I never knew that about you."
They sat together on his bed and Gillian cut the tiny cake into pieces. She got half and Ha-Jun got half.
"I really shouldn't eat this..." Ha-Jun said.
"One time won't hurt!" Gillian assured him. "You deserve something nice..."
They were quiet for the most part while eating, and then Gillian said, "I almost forgot! I got you a present! I'll be right back!"
She put her plate down on the bed, and then she dashed out his door and went to look for her present in her own room.
Ha-Jun watched her go in confusion, and then shrugged, continuing to eat.
She appeared in the door a few minutes later with a sketchpad and she plopped next to him again.
She passed it to him happily. "It's you!"
Ha-Jun was surprised. He felt very unworthy of such a flattering depiction. It was a picture of him, standing in the rain with an umbrella, wearing a raincoat. He laughed a little. "I don't look that good... You made me way taller."
She made a face. "You do look that good! Although I do admit I made you taller..."
"I don't look sick at all..." He teased. He grinned very genuinely. "Really though... This is really great. It's probably the nicest thing I ever got for my birthday."
She smiled and continued eating her cake. Ha-Jun had finished his cake, and was now just looking at the drawing. In all honesty, it did look exactly like him, just kind of idealized. He wondered if that's how she saw him, or if she just put artistic license on it.
"Do you remember that day?" She asked him, looking at her work of art.
Ha-Jun raised an eyebrow. "No..."
"You came home early from work one day and I saw you standing out in the rain with that umbrella and that raincoat... It was maybe a year or two ago. You were just staring at the sky listlessly for minutes. It was pretty picturesque." She explained.
Ha-Jun looked at his expression in her drawing, and he suddenly remembered what he was thinking. He wished he could be anyone else. He had been too sick to work that day And it was a bizarre habit of his to eat and drink badly when he felt so sick; so he treated himself to a double chocolate coffee, hoping he could keep it down. He came home afterwards, feeling miserable for not being able to keep the drink down.
He broke himself out of his reverie by realizing something he should have earlier, "you're really talented... I never knew you were such a good artist."
She frowned and looked up at the ceiling, leaning against the wall. "I've always loved art and drawing. I studied it in school."
He was surprised, "but not anymore?"
She shook her head. "I really wanted to be a professional... But I got married."
He awkwardly cleared his throat. When she mentioned her husband, he always felt guilty. "Did you--I mean--did you love him?"
Gillian stared off into space, deep in thought. "No. I never loved him. I needed money at the time, and he had it at the time... And then I got pregnant and had to take care of the kids. I suppose now that you know that, you probably think I'm some kind of monster, huh? I never worked hard enough on my own to achieve my dreams of being an artist... I just let someone else take care of me because it was easy. It wasn't what I wanted out of life--being a mother... I love my children, but... I can't help but resent them a little bit."
Ha-Jun was silent. He knew she worked a part time job late at night as a cashier, but he knew now that that wasn't what she wanted. He knew before she was unhappy, but he never knew just how unhappy she was. She hadn't made any decisions that were necessarily bad, they were just foolish and indicative of the age she made them at.
"You're not a monster... It's not too late--you're only thirty-four--you can still pursue your dreams." He told her earnestly.
She shrugged and forced a smile. "I've already lost too much time..."
"You're only in your thirties!" He protested with a grin, and nudged her playfully.
She looked at him intently with a frown and hugged one of her knees. She forced a smile. "You're right. You're the one who's running out of time... The ritual takes place in four months, right?"
He nodded silently.
She looked down miserably. "I don't want you to die... I wish it were anyone but you..."
He put an arm around her shoulder affectionately. "I probably wouldn't have lived long anyway with the way I get sick so often..."
They sat in silence again for a little bit, and then Gillian said, "I have such strong affections for you but I know almost nothing about you... Is it true you were born from an egg on Tooth Mountain?"
He repositioned himself and sat cross-legged and nodded. "That's what they tell me. They had parents picked out for me and everything. When I lived with them, they would always reaffirm over and over again that my purpose was to drive the demons away when we hit the two-hundred-years mark again. When they discovered..."
She raised an eyebrow. "Discovered what?"
He laughed a little. "Well... I'm sure you know all about Serah... How great she was--how she saved many lives as a doctor, and as the Hero--compared to her, well... I'm pretty untalented and lame, and a pricey child to keep to boot, with all the appointments they had to take me to... I think they said the egg wasn't quite formed yet when they broke me out of it. But anyway, my parents didn't like me much, to be sure... They pretty much kicked me out the moment I turned sixteen."
She shook her head. "Well, I like you. I'm sure you're very talented at writing, and I'm sure you're very talented at the other things you keep hidden from me,"
Ha-Jun averted his gaze. He didn't like that she knew he hid things from her.
"At any rate, I should probably get to sleep so I can be alert for my terrible late night job," she said, rising to her feet with a stretch and a yawn.
He grabbed her hand before she could go. He looked down with a smile. "You can stay the night if you want,"
She turned around and smiled back at him. "Of course I do..."
She was gone when he woke up, of course; off to work.
He thought about Gillian often lately. He never knew whether he loved her or not, but he certainly had deep affections for her. He felt like he could spend hours just closing his eyes with his arms around her.
Gillian was a very interesting individual to him. Both in the ways she expressed herself, and in the sense that he had never felt awkward or shy around her like he did almost most people. Her open nature, her kindness, and her patience made it easy for him to express himself with her. With everyone else, once they recognized him as the new Hero, that's all he was to them. Just a miserable reincarnation of someone great who had come before him.
It was such a relief for him to have someone to talk to. He viewed Gillian as a very outgoing and opinionated individual who was very smart and very pretty to boot. She seemed to love math as well as art and she commented on politics, music, television, and other popular media that he also happened to have an interest in; and always made her opinions known, saying jokingly that only her opinion was correct.
She had even gone out of her way to teach him a little advanced algebra in the hopes that he would go to college. He learned, to his surprise, that she did algebra often just to keep her mind active, and she had fun doing it.
He never understood why she took an interest in him.
He remembered the first time they had officially met. She had knocked on his door and introduced herself, saying she was his next door neighbor, and had even baked a casserole for him. He thanked her, and she asked to come in. She had only mentioned the fact that he was the Hero once.
True to her open nature, however, she started flirting with him almost immediately after she visited him a few more times and decided she liked him. She looked for any excuse to touch him and she laughed a little too hard at all of his jokes, along with giving him random compliments about his looks and his listening ear.
She had eventually told him this was the only affair she had ever had. He didn't believe her at first, the way she was so good at flirting, but realized she was telling the truth when he saw just how guarded she was when other people flirted with her.
Some men had actually flirted with her in the supermarket when Ha-Jun and she had gone shopping together. They had given her a compliment about her hair and smile, and Gillian just glared at them and continued pushing her cart.
Afterwards, Ha-Jun said, "did you take offense to that?"
"Of course I did. I'm married." She replied.
It was then that Ha-Jun realized that she only had such feelings for him.
Ha-Jun hopped in his car and got ready to drive to the fast food restaurant.
He sighed. He was sweating already, nervous about the day. He took a deep breath. He had at least slept well last night, thanks to Gillian being in the room.
As he began pulling out of the parking lot, a voice said to him, she doesn't love you...
Ha-Jun looked around frantically as he pulled into traffic. He knew what he was hearing. He was hearing Serah in his head.
I'm imagining things... She isn't in my head. Only her memories. He thought to himself, closing his eyes for a moment, trying to shut her out. I am pathetic...
Later on, at work, as he washed dishes, a female coworker approached him and said, “you cut out of work twenty minutes earlier yesterday.”
“Sorry,” he replied, wanting to add he wasn’t feeling well, but too afraid to make excuses.
“I told the manager, just so you know. She’ll probably have a talk with you later.” She was frowning, but just as she turned around, he caught her flashing a grin. This coworker’s name was Kendra. He had actually covered for her on two occasions; once when she was sick, and once when she didn’t feel like working. She liked to pretend she was his friend so she had an excuse to use him, and then she talked about him behind his back—how he was sick a lot and had to go to the bathroom a lot, how weird and quiet he was—not that she didn’t do this to her other coworkers, and they didn’t do it to her. He spent most of his days listening to them complain about each other behind their backs. For the most part, he was the one they talked about the most though, calling him slow when he made mistakes, and all in all lamenting the fact that he was nothing like his previous incarnation, because then he would be more useful.
Today was one of those days when their snide comments simply wouldn’t let up. Apparently, according to one of his coworkers, he swept the floor wrong and it was his fault when the shelf that carried the condiments collapsed and mustard ended up all over the floor.
His cheeks were hot with embarrassment, and he wanted nothing more than to go home. Feeling sick, he went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror.
They want me, not you… Serah’s reflection told him. You’re nobody. Why don't you just disappear? Nobody will miss you.
Ha-Jun turned his back on the reflection, sweating. He touched a palm to his forehead. Is she still in my body? Is she still sentient? Is she really talking to me? No, I must be imagining things...
He looked at his watch. It was about time to go, he realized with relief.
True to what Kendra had said, the manager had a talk with him about the importance of leaving exactly on time and work ethic. After apologizing for the tenth time that day, he was finally free to go, feeling embarrassed and even more like a failure.
It was then that the thought kept entering his head that he wished Serah would just be him, and he could disappear. I am nothing...
On his way home, he remembered something he'd been meaning to do. He had wanted to head to the gardening store and get himself a plant. He remembered something he had loved about his childhood was helping his parents take care of their backyard. With a wistful smile, he picked out a cute, small, geranium flower and then headed home. He carried the flower up to his apartment, feeling a little better just looking at his new friend. He placed it in his window sill with the window open.
He plopped next to his new plant on his window sill, enjoying the wind that was kicking up outside, trying his best to calm down.
When the wind died down, there was only silence.
He was alone with his thoughts. He looked over at his mirror for a moment. Serah looked back.
You think this pathetic plant will make your life better? It's just a band aid on the deepening scar of your empty life.
He bit his lip, thinking to himself, I'm losing my mind...
Are you going to apologize for the fiftieth time today? Are you going to throw up from nervousness? Remember, it's me they want, not you. That girl, Gillian... She's only interested in you because you're the Hero. You think she'd be so interested in an uneducated, sick, cowardly, freak like yourself otherwise? Remember your last girlfriend? Gillian will abandon you before it's time for you to die!
He was shaking with anger the whole time and he grabbed his shoe and threw it at the mirror. He fell to the ground again, hugging his arms and clenching his teeth as he looked at the ceiling, his head repeating those thoughts over and over again in a vicious cycle.
He had always been paranoid about Gillian leaving him. It tore him up. When he had fallen in love with his previous and only girlfriend, he had fallen hard. She had only wanted him because she thought he was some great talented Hero. She hadn't been interested in anything else about him. But he was interested in her. He loved everything about her, he was blind to her flaws... Blind to the fact that she didn't like him at all beyond the first week he had known her.
Trapped in such thoughts, he did the only thing he seemed to like lately. He crawled into bed and closed his eyes. Sleep was the only escape.
He awoke about an hour later to a knock on his door. He mumbled tiredly, "come in,"
Gillian walked in and looked at him worriedly. "You've been sleeping a lot lately..."
He smiled awkwardly but said nothing, tucking his head into his pillow.
She looked around and spotted the mirror. "Oh my... What happened to your mirror?"
He glanced over to it. "Just an accident..."
She looked at him and shook her head. "Ha-Jun.... Why won't you tell me what's wrong?"
He crossed his arms and climbed out of bed and approached her slowly. He touched her arm and debated saying what he was going to say, but he felt he had to do it. He had to let her go. Let her be happy. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, "just forget about this Gillian. Stop coming over; go back to your husband and children."
She looked extremely offended and defiant, and then she turned her back to him. She choked on her words and replied, "I thought... I thought you wanted me..."
He looked down and said nothing. It took all of his strength to resist taking her in his arms and kissing her.
She turned around and wiped tears from her eyes. "I wanted to divorce my husband and marry you while I still could. Why don't you see what I see in you?"
She touched his cheek again and he leaned into it one more time before taking it off his cheek and forcing himself to say, "I don't want you."
Her lip trembled, and she closed her eyes bitterly before heading out his door.
Ha-Jun watched her go, too distraught to cry. He wanted to let her go before she let him go. Sooner or later, she would have found out about how terrible he really was. How his identity was that of a failed Hero reincarnation, and he had no identity of his own.
He was disgusted in himself. Disgusted that he was legitimately thinking that she only wanted him--was only interested in him--because he was the Hero, and for no other reason. And it was because of something she had said when they first met.
"My name's Gillian. You're the Hero, aren't you?" She had asked.
"That's right," he had replied.
"That's so interesting. I'd heard you were moving right next door to my apartment, but I wasn't sure it was true. What's it like?"
If it weren't for that, he wondered if she would have said hello to him at all. It was this paranoia in his own personality that made him want to push her back to her husband--an individual who seemed stable, and who could take care of her.
He sat on his bed and leaned against the wall, crying silently. I am... I am...
You want to be me! Serah interjected. Let me take over, I can fix your life!
He screwed his eyes shut and gripped his hair in frustration. ----
In the morning, he was glad it was Saturday. He could stay home and read; maybe go buy something special to eat. Salmon sounded good.
He was still very upset from yesterday, but when he saw his plant in the window, he brightened a little bit. He touched the petals on his flower, and then shut the window which was still open from the night before.
He then grabbed his coat and headed out the door. The weather had taken a turn for the worst in the night, and it began raining with the wind howling. He wiped his forehead with the palm of his hand, feeling nervous as always before going out. His hand felt a little too wet for just being sweat. He examined his hand curiously.
There was a big cut on the palm of his hand.
He grabbed his wrist with his good hand, trembling. "I don't remember that happening..."
There was a flash in his mind of Serah grabbing a shard of glass from his broken mirror and slashing his hand as he threw up his hands in fear. Thunder echoed in his mind as he came back to reality.
He stood still in paranoia and shock for a moment, just outside his room in the hall.
Gillian opened her door and glanced at him silently. After a moment, she looked away with red eyes and went back into her room. She'd been crying a lot.
He just stared at her door for a moment, unblinkingly. After a moment he glanced downwards with a blink and sighed. I need your help...He couldn't stop himself from thinking.
He looked at his hand one more time. He washed the wound and then wrapped medical gauze around it. He didn't like doctors.
As he perused the store, looking for anything else that would be good to eat aside from the salmon. He passed through the dairy aisle and looked longingly at the cheese.
He had cheese once when he was younger... Before his parents found that he had wasn't allowed to have dairy. It was one of the best things he'd ever tasted. He looked at it longingly, feeling exhausted.
Can't even hold down cheese! You know I could!
Ha-Jun glanced both ways frantically and felt very dizzy.
Why don't you, then? He thought to himself, realizing how crazy it was that he seemed to be having a conversation with himself. He grabbed his cart and continued onward in silence, sweating for no reason, it seemed--other than nervousness and paranoia.
The store was fairly empty, and as such was also very quiet. All he could hear was the howling wind and other customers pushing their carts through the store with squeaky wheels.
As he turned out of the dairy aisle with his cart, he caught a glimpse a girl ducking into the aisle to his right, laughing.
It was definitely Serah. He turned to his left, screwing his eyes shut in fear. Thunder clapped in his head and the image of Serah slashing his hand materialized again.
He couldn't seem to stop trembling.
He missed Gillian very much already. I can do this on my own. I don't need her.
Ha-Jun had been told all his life that he wouldn't live through the upcoming ritual to strengthen the barrier keeping the demons from raining from the sky. He had trouble making friends to begin with, but even if he didn't, he thought it was a waste to make friends when he would be gone before anyone had a chance to remember him.
Another memory popped into his head of the previous bond he had formed with his last girlfriend. She'd pushed him--like she always liked to do-until she backed him into a corner, demanding that he always pay for her at restaurants when he didn't have enough money to take her out. In a rage he had gritted his teeth and pushed her back roughly, screaming, "don't fucking touch me!"
She'd fallen down and looked at him in shock. He'd left a bruise on her shoulder. She'd thrown accusations of abuse at him that made the news. It was the root of the reason why nobody liked him as the Hero.
Things seemed to get worse and worse for Ha-Jun as a week passed. He had become very paranoid. He seemed to see Serah around every corner. He seemed to be stuck inside his own head as everything and everyone moved around him.
At work, he became even more withdrawn and less talkative, as Serah began to tell him over and over that he didn't belong at his job, and definitely not around the people at his job.
A new coworker who had just got hired, Marina, had asked him, "what happened to your hand?"
He smiled and mumbled a little awkwardly, "just a little accident."
Marina gave him a look. "You know... You're very quiet. You almost never say anything, and whenever you try to, everyone else seems to like to silence you. But, you don't have to suffer in silence. I mean, if you're having trouble, you can talk to me."
He turned away, embarrassed. "I'm fine,"
"Well... I'm here if you need me." She shrugged and went back to sweeping the backroom.
She would come to hate you too, once he got to know you. Good to push her away now. Serah taunted him mercilessly.
As he fell into a self-deprecating reverie, he was brought out of it by hearing Marina say to an angry Kendra, "I'm sorry, numbers make me nervous..."
Kendra made a face. "I'm going to tell the manager!"
Ha-Jun glanced at Marina, who was looking miserable. He stopped washing dishes and approached her, asking, "are you okay?"
Marina shook her head. "I'm dyslexic, I can't do the register."
"Don't worry about it. Anytime you have to ring someone up, just come get me. I'll do it for you." Ha-Jun said comfortingly.
Marina smiled, "thanks..."
Ha-Jun had been working twenty minutes after the time he was supposed to go lately due to the fact he felt so guilty about leaving twenty minutes earlier once. It made him extra exhausted, and his head extra stimulated.
He drove home patiently and slowly like he always did, and went up to his room in silence. He stopped in front of Gillian's door for a moment. Her family was back home now. He was sure she'd forgotten about him already, which was good.
For her, at least. He was torn up about it. He thought about her almost every waking hour, and he missed her company. She had faith in him where nobody else did. She was actually interested in what he liked.
He remembered the conversation in which she encouraged him to go back to school. She was teaching him advanced math, and was also helping him practice basic math.
"This is frustrating..." Ha-Jun said as they sat on his bed with dozens of papers strewn about, and he attempted to solve a multi-step equation. "There's so many steps."
Gillian said to him, "why don't you take a break? It's been two hours."
Ha-Jun put it aside and leaned his head on her shoulder tiredly for a moment.
After a moment of silence, Gillian asked, "can I ask why you're so interested in learning advanced math?"
He turned away embarrassed. "You'd laugh if I told you..."
She laughed and her face scrunched up in a smile. "I won't laugh! It's a noble goal to want to learn. Go ahead."
"I always thought it would be cool to be an engineer. I'd love to create something that could get us back up above the clouds... You know how the legend goes that humans once lived above the clouds..." He explained, embarrassed.
"That's beautiful..." She said with a grin and kissed his cheek. "You should do it! I'll help you! I'd love to see what it's like above the clouds...."
"I don't know, I want to, but... I don't think I'm smart enough." He murmured sadly. "I mean, I did okay in high school, but..."
"Don't give up, I'll support you all the way!" She promised.
He really was intent on doing it, with her support and encouragement, but something shattered his confidence a week later.
His parents often came to visit him, and his mother had come that week. They had an outdoor dinner together at an expensive restaurant. His mother liked to pay for him.
"So, what have you been up to?" She had asked.
He took a sip of his soda and replied, "well... I've actually been thinking about going to college and becoming an engineer. I'd like to try to make something that can fly."
His mother looked at him with a brow raised. "Really? Are you sure...?"
Ha-Jun looked at her silently and unblinkingly.
His mother cleared her throat and she looked down awkwardly. "I mean, you're very smart, but... Do you really think you can do something like that? It'd be very difficult."
He stared into his mother's disapproving eyes searchingly.
Ha-Jun wiped his hands on his napkin and forced a smile, "yeah, you're probably right, it was a stupid idea..."
Ha-Jun had given up on going back to school after that, and, later on, when talking to Gillian, she asked, "so, did you enroll in a school?"
He was silent for a moment as he leaned backwards with half-lidded eyes. He shook his head. "I've changed my mind..."
Gillian was shocked. "Why? I know you could have done it!"
He looked into space with a very dead face. "Let's just talk about something else..."
In present time, he was brought out of his reverie when Gillian's husband opened the door, and Ha-Jun looked away awkwardly and continued to his room.
He grabbed the journal and started writing again, trying to calm down. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Serah, but refused to look at her head on. He hoped she would go away. When she didn't go away, he gulped and looked towards the window.
Her head was in the window, and she had a grin on her face. She climbed in his window, grabbed his newly bought flower and raised it in the air.
Ha-Jun jumped to his feet. "No! Don't break it, please!"
Serah ripped the flower out of the soil and threw it out the window, and then she broke the pot on the apartment floor.
You don't deserve a reward. You don't deserve to be happy.
Ha-Jun picked up the flower with his teeth clenched, biting back tears.
Ha-Jun didn't know how, but he got to sleep that night. He had another dream about Serah's memories.
She had come home to her husband and asked him, "how are the kids?"
He looked at her, somewhat in fear, "I sent them away."
She had been taking off her shoes and held one in her hand. "What?"
"It's not good for them--this environment--I had to get them out." Her husband said.
She threw her shoe at the ground and bit her lip. "Bring them back! Only you know where they are now! This isn't fair!"
They simply stared at each other in silence.
Ha-Jun woke up with messy hair, drenched in sweat. He felt very sick. He looked down at his hands, prepping himself for the day, and noticed a big cut on his left arm. He cringed in terror and grabbed his arm; tears of fear springing to his eyes.
He clutched his head, feeling frustrated and angry--feeling himself slipping away. He glanced over at his phone on the desk. He called his manager and told her he couldn't come in, not caring whether he got fired or not.
His head was hot and his stomach was so nervous that he dashed to his bathroom and threw up.
After a lightheaded moment, he grabbed the hand mirror he kept in the bathroom and still only saw Serah.
I am alone... There's no one who cares. I don't want to bother anyone else. I can take care of this. He consoled himself.
He glanced out of his bathroom and looked at the mess of the shattered pot on the floor. He bit back tears again. Ha-Jun loved plants more than he loved most humans. All they did was grow.
He leaned against his bathroom wall and closed his eyes. He felt very dizzy and sick.
He thought to himself he should go to the doctor. He had to at least live so he could prevent the demons from coming down--to make humanity safe. But he also thought, what has humanity ever done for me?
Nobody had ever outright told him they were disappointed in the fact that he was the Hero. That's what made it all the more frustrating. Instead, he had to watch people ignore him, pity him, and insult him behind his back. The accusations that he was abusive were the worst.
When someone recognized him as the Hero, they would just look at him with a frown pulling at their lips, and then reluctantly force a smile and shake his hand. That's where his relationships ended. After that, everyone would just ignore him. He would sometimes try to strike up a conversation, just to have others interrupt him.
There was Gillian, though. He loved Gillian. And... he didn't hate his parents. He should at least want to live for them. And he realized how selfish and awful he was being. It didn't matter what he thought of other humans. He should want to protect them. It was the right thing. I shouldn't have to force myself to want to save them...
He decided not to go to the hospital, though. He didn't like doctors, and he figured the pain would pass in a moment.
He stood up with his vision swimming. He started heading for his door, with a vague notion in his head that he wanted to replace the flower. There was another reason why he loved plants so much.
On Valentines day, Gillian had brought him a flower. It was the only present he had ever gotten on Valentines day. He had held the lily in his hands with a smile.
"I didn't get you anything..." He had said to her.
She had smoothed his hair back and kissed his forehead, "you deserve something nice for once."
He wrapped his arms around her waist and just held her for a moment.
He didn't make it to the door, he stopped just before it. His stomach was churning and he felt very weak. He fell down in front of the door and lay on his side, breathing harshly. He seemed to be having an extreme migraine. He blinked for a moment and saw Serah's high-heels when he opened his eyes. He looked up at her, standing tall.
Going to sit there and stew in your own worthlessness? Is this the end for you?
He just looked at her silently. "Are you just going to bully and intimidate me? Is that what you did to your children and husband?"
She looked down upon him, and then she disappeared when he blinked and opened his eyes again. He stared up at the ceiling for a moment, and then he rolled over, just waiting to feel normal again.
Ha-Jun was not fired, and he recovered from the pain he was in the next day. He was relieved and depressed at the same time. He wasn't sure how much longer he could take working at the restaurant. He was sick physically, but he was also sick mentally. He just wanted time to relax. He wanted to do something--anything--that made him happy. Anything that made living worth while.
He needed the money though. It occurred to him that, if he could, he would be entirely happy without money. He didn't need much to enjoy himself. Getting a check... It gave him relief because he knew he could make it for another week, but it also made him very sad, because it was so little. Just enough to get by. Never enough to feel secure.
All he could think about at work sometimes was, my feet hurt.
He was simply unhappy and wanted to sleep. Lately, he hadn't even been bothering to do anything productive like writing. He just wanted to sleep.
He felt so insignificant lately he thought he might disappear. Being the Hero... That's all he had. I am... Nothing.
He saw Serah full on now. She didn't bother hiding at the edge of his vision anymore. He was waiting for her to try something. To get rid of him. It was hard to ignore her sometimes.
Serah, can you just take over? Can you save my life? Can you get people to like me? Can you tell me who I am, other than a failed version of you...?
He looked across at Serah, standing at the front of the restaurant as he manned the cash register. She had no expression on. She was wearing the same yellow dress that she was always depicted as wearing in history books.
She was so poorly defined in the history books and everywhere else, and yet she made a bigger impact on society than he ever would. She was beautiful, intelligent, brave, and hard working--all the history books said. It said nothing about her personality, her likes and dislikes, or her personal life. She was merely an ideal for society to look up to at this point.
Is there more to you than perfection?
When he went home, he sat on his bed and watched Serah from the other side of the room. He asked very calmly, "are you going to kill me?"
She said nothing to him.
Ha-Jun sighed. "Why did you have to kill my plant?"
Serah just stared at him with her cold eyes boring into his soul. He wished if she was going to kill him, she'd just do it now. He stared for many minutes.
He blinked tiredly after an hour passed, and then he leaned backwards against the wall. As he blinked tiredly again, drifting into sleep, he saw Serah approaching very slowly.
Serah was alone in his dream. Her husband and children were nowhere to be found, and she sat on her couch, hugging her knees expressionlessly. She stood up after a moment and grabbed a picture of her and her family nearby.
They were all smiling in the picture, but through Serah's eyes, Ha-Jun saw that there were bruises on her children's arms. A flash entered Serah's mind of her grabbing her children's arms and squeezing so hard they cried.
Tears sprang to her eyes. "Just like me and my parents..."
Serah threw the framed picture against the wall in a rage and fell to her knees. She had lost everything. She had lost her job as a doctor, had long ago cut off her parents, and now she lost her husband and children due to her own violent tendencies. She had bruises and her own arms from her husband defending himself from her. She'd been scratching at his face in a rage.
Serah saw herself in the mirror hanging on the wall. She gritted her teeth and shuddered in anger. She grabbed her shoe and threw it at the mirror, crying the whole time. In a moment, when her mind cleared, she said to herself, "I deserve this. My parents were right about me."
Ha-Jun woke up with a start. He'd fallen asleep sitting up. As he looked about, he realized his face hurt. He stood up and began walking to the bathroom. After a moment, he realized something wet was trailing down his forehead.
All he saw was red for a moment, and he grunted in fear, wiping it out of his eyes. Serah suddenly appeared in front of him with a shard of glass and sliced at his eyes. Ha-Jun sidestepped and she slashed the wall instead.
He growled in rage and grabbed her arms, pinning her to the floor. She struggled for a moment and then bit his arm. She sliced his cheek with the shard of glass.
Gillian heard the commotion from next door. She put the book she was reading down and climbed to her feet. She put her ear to the wall and heard screaming.
Gillian hurried out her door and knocked on Ha-Jun's. "Ha-Jun! Are you okay?"
She waited a moment, and then knocked again, "please open up!"
Gillian grabbed the handle and wiggled it, trembling in fear. It was locked.
She slammed her fists on the door in terror. "Open! Please!"
Tears were in her eyes as she pulled on the knob and wiggled it continuously. Finally, after a moment, she heard the lock click and she breathed a sigh of relief as tears sprung from her eyes. She opened the door slowly, but the door was hitting something.
With all her strength, she managed to push the door open just enough so she could squeeze into the room.
She looked to her left and clapped a hand to her mouth in terror.
Ha-Jun's body was blocking the door. He had blood all over, but most noticeably on his forehead, leaking into his eyes. There was a shard of glass in his hand.
Gillian knelt next to him and rolled him over gently. She gasped in terror. She flipped her phone open and called an ambulance.
Ha-Jun woke up in a hospital bed and blinked twice tiredly. He glanced over at Gillian, sleeping in a chair next to his bed.
"Gillian..." He murmured.
She awoke with a start and sat up in her chair. Tears of joy immediately sprang to her eyes. "Thank goodness you're alright..."
He looked up at the ceiling. "Gillian... Go back to your husband."
She knitted her brow and crossed her arms. "I don't love my husband anymore. He doesn't love me. We decided to get a divorce. There's somebody else I love..."
She stroked his hair lovingly and he closed his eyes with a smile for a moment. He opened his eyes again with a frown after a moment and removed her hand. He avoided her gaze.
She was quiet for a moment, just staring at him with a perturbed face. "Why?"
"Because you're better than--"
"Why did you do that to yourself?" She interrupted, a mix of apprehension and anger on her face.
He turned away and looked at the wall instead of her.
She stood up and forced him to look at her. "Why?"
"I don't want you to think of me the way other people do! I wanted you to leave me alone before you would come to hate me like everyone else!"
She looked into his eyes unwaveringly and said very earnestly, "what are you talking about?"
He looked at her affectionately and slowly reach up a hand to touch her cheek. "I wanted you so badly... But I valued your happiness over my own, otherwise I would never let you go."
Gillian turned her back to Ha-Jun for a moment and wiped her eyes bitterly. "Please... Just tell me why you would do something so awful to yourself?"
He just looked at her listlessly and touched her back, "you'll think I'm crazy... I've been seeing Serah everywhere. She's all I can hear in my head. She grabbed a shard and..."
Gillian turned back to him, unable to keep the tears from falling from her eyes. "Why didn't you tell me? I would have helped you! You've been suffering alone all this time... I wasn't there for you...I would never have let you--her do those things..."
Ha-Jun realized what she was saying. It all felt so real to him. But he must have been the one doing those things to himself. Even he was having a hard time coping with the fact that he did that to himself. "You must think I'm worthless and weak to have done something like that..."
She laughed with a wobbly smile. "You really don't remember, do you?"
Ha-Jun looked at her, confused.
"Haven't you wondered why I've had a crush on you?" She queried. "We met once before... Before you moved in. I was on the bridge in town, and you were passing by. You saw me crying, and I just... I was in a bad place at that time. But you saw me crying and you put your bag down and stood next to me for a moment..."
He remembered. He remembered her looking so sad. He remembered thinking she looked like she wanted to end it right there. And he thought what a shame it would be for the world to lose a woman so beautiful, even if he didn't know her.
He did something out of his comfort zone and struck up a conversation, "what's wrong?"
She turned to him and dried her eyes, embarrassed that someone had caught her in such a state. "I'm just going through something right now..."
He smiled at her very brightly and told her, while digging in his luggage for something, "things will look up for you."
Ha-Jun found a lily in his pack and stuck it behind her ear. "The world would be much worse off without you."
She just stared at him for a moment, and she dried her eyes again. She watched him leave, and never forgot about that moment. If a stranger saw so much in her, how could she not see so much in herself?
"You saved my life... To me, that's not worthless." She told him, nothing but stars and love in her eyes when she looked at him.
How could he have forgotten. He had felt sick when he looked at her that first time. Not sick in his usual way, but sick like butterflies. He blushed a little when he realized she'd given him a lily for valentines day.
"That's why... I've been so stupid and selfish. I was paranoid that you only wanted me because I was the Hero. I thought that's all you saw in me." Ha-Jun was disgusted with himself.
Gillian looked offended. "You are a hero. You're my hero. That's all that ever mattered to me. Besides... I remember that harpy you told me about who really did only want you for that reason. I can't blame you."
He looked away from her. He still feared her judgment. He feared that she would leave him, given enough time. "You think I'm a coward for... What I tried to do."
"No! I was in the same place you are once. I know how difficult it can be. It was so hard to put on a face day after day for my children. It was so hard to go to a job I hated, and come home exhausted and unfulfilled. To be alone with my own suffocating, self depreciating thoughts; afraid to tell anyone that I resented my own children and myself. If it weren't for that lily you'd given me... You're strong. You're in a bad spot, and you're still fighting."
He cried a little with a bitter smile. It was so comforting to hear that. It was what he needed. She knew what he was going through. He had suffered for so long, and nobody else had cared. She was the only person who brought him any kind of happiness. He remembered years of drifting aimlessly before he met her. Unsatisfying year following unsatisfying year. Nothing but loneliness and unhappiness overshadowing every day. But Gillian--she understood and loved him.
"You know... I used to see Serah as this ideal that was impossible to live up to. This perfect human being that made me look..." He shook his head and laughed. "Now I see... She was just as miserable as I am. People know about what a disaster her personal life was. They just remember she was beautiful, charismatic, and she saved them. She didn't understand how to love... I suppose I have that in common with her. That's why I still think we should be apart. I mean--what about your children? I can't take care of them. I don't want to be apart of their lives." Ha-Jun loved Gillian with all his heart. But it was incredibly difficult to give somebody else something he never had much of himself. He didn't know how things would end up between the two of them; he didn't want either of them to get hurt. And he genuinely wanted no part in bringing up her children.
"You never have to meet them," Gillian said. "Those are my husband's and my children. We can take care of them. Besides, you've always known just the right way to love me--otherwise I would be gone right now."
From then on, Ha-Jun saw himself in the mirror. He no longer thought of himself as worthless and incompetent. He still had bad days and good days--and sometimes he thought the bad days were so bad, he wouldn't be able to go on.
And Gillian was always there for him. She could read him so well. She always knew what to ask him, and how to get him to open up about what was bothering him. They still lived separately, but she saw him every day once she had put her children to bed, or on the days her ex-husband had them.
He made sure to always eat right and exercise, so he could try to survive the upcoming ritual to strengthen the barrier. For the first time in his life, he actually felt the need to survive. He had found a reason for saving humanity, and it was all wrapped up in the sweetness that was Gillian.
Whether he would live or not, he knew that he could live the days he had remaining in relative happiness and security. He felt warm and fuzzy on the days Gillian could sleep with him, and loved nothing more than to wrap his arms around her as he slept.
There would always be times when he looked in the mirror and didn't see what he wanted to see, if he saw anything at all. But he liked where he was, and he knew, at least, what his life was.
Sometimes when he looked in the mirror, he saw nothing.
Gillian caught him looking in it one day and asked, "what do you see?"
He shook his head with a sigh, "Nothing."
She gave him a look and leaned her head on his shoulder. "You know what I see? Someone who loves writing. Someone who loves plants. Someone who loves to help others, despite getting nothing in return."
He smiled at himself in the mirror and then looked at her and thought to himself, that's what I am. I'm your hero. And you're mine.
And, he knew precisely what his life was when she was in it.