Inside these pages, you just hold me.
* * *
Jeon Jeongguk sighed as he stepped into his empty and silent apartment. It was one of those days where he felt most lonely.
He had just returned from Namjoon’s, where everyone was married or already taken, except him. He was the exception.
What was so hard to love about me? He would ask this over and over again, but every time, the answer would always be: you just didn’t meet them yet. He always sighed when he heard this. What if he never met the one? What if he was destined to be alone for all eternity?
A tear escaped his eye when he pictured his friends having kids and playing with them, but he was there all alone. Of course, he was happy for his friends, but he couldn’t help but feel jealous.
He wiped his face, then took his coat off, walking to his closet to put it away. Just as he was about to close the door, he saw it—the box.
At first, it seemed strange. It was placed in the corner of the closet, sitting on a box from work. He didn’t remember bringing a bright orange shoebox with him. When he raised it to eye level and read the label, he instantly knew what it was.
It was marked “Busan memories.”
He walked to his couch, box in hand, trying to recall everything in it. He sat and placed the box in front of him. Nervously, breathing in and out a few times, he opened it.
The first thing he saw was a picture. It was of him and his childhood best friend, Kim Jiah. He gasped. It had been over two years since they last talked, two years since he had seen her. He looked at her face, her adorable eye smile that hid her pupils, her scrunched-up nose that complimented her cherry pink lips curved into a heart-shaped smile.
He sighed. He missed her company. The last two years had been rough and empty without her. He placed the picture aside, digging through the rest of her box. An Iron Man figure. Polaroids of the day they went fishing. His half of their bestie rings. Her bucket hat. Her scrunchie. His favorite pen. A crumpled paper?
Squinting at the crumpled paper in his hands, he read aloud:
I need to be honest. From day 1, from when you walked into kindergarten with your bright red shoes and your stubby legs, from when you sat next to me and shook my hand, I knew. I knew you were special. You were different.
I like you.
I liked you since the third grade when you scraped your knee and asked me for help, but I was always too chicken to ask you out. But I’m manning up now. I like you.
Jeongguk smiled at the confession his baby self wrote. He never used the letter. He was still too chicken to ask her out.
He continued digging through the box. His baseball cap. An expired banana milk coupon. A letter addressed to him, Jeon Jeongguk. Taking it, he opened the alien letter.
Dear Jeon Jeongguk,
It’s me, your former best friend, Kim Jiah. Whatever happened to us? We used to be inseparable. Are we actually ending our friendship because of a petty job? I know what I did was the worst thing ever, but you have to understand I didn’t mean it. Please reconsider.
I will always be here for you. We will always be best friends to me.
Jeongguk couldn’t help but tear up. It was true. They ended a beautiful relationship because of a job Jeongguk had worked his ass off for, a job he had wanted since childhood. Jiah knew this and was supportive of him. But she, too, had wanted this job. So she applied for the position below, hoping to stay by his side.
But this was not what had happened. Instead of getting the next position, Jiah was transferred to a higher one since her qualifications were exceptional. The battle for the position was soon between them, neither wanting to give it up for the other. In the end, Jeongguk left Busan, a heartbroken Jiah, and his dream job.
But no matter what Jiah had done, Jeongguk couldn’t be mad at her. He couldn’t tell at the time, but he was in love with her. She may have stolen his dream job, but nothing compared to her stealing his heart. She was a thief that didn’t allow him to be angry at her.
He placed the letter down and looked at the last item: a jewelry box.
A tear escaped when he opened the box and saw the pendant. He had worked a summer job to buy it. He was going to give it to Jiah when he confessed. On the day he finally manned up, the news came that she got the job, and he didn’t. He was heartbroken.
Jeongguk tried to be happy for her, but that didn’t work. He was in love, but he was also stubborn and angry.
When they finally met up, they couldn’t look at each other the same anymore. Jiah looked at her best friend with pity and guilt, whereas Jeongguk looked at her with anger. They both couldn’t handle it anymore. They snapped. The bond between them was no longer there.
A few months later, Jeongguk moved. Jiah tried to get in contact with him, but he ignored her. He couldn’t face her. Someone so close to him, someone he loved, had betrayed him and hurt him so badly.
But as he stared at the pendant, her pendant, all the feelings couldn’t help but rush back. He felt the need to be next to her, to be her everything. So he decided that he was going to see her.
* * *
It had been a few days since Jeongguk opened the box and decided to find Jiah. After he packed the box, he decided to wait a few days to make sure he wanted to find Jiah and that he wasn’t just acting on impulse after he saw a box full of memories.
And even after three days, eleven hours, and twenty-one minutes, Jeongguk still wanted to find Kim Jiah. So that was what he did.
He bought a ticket to Busan for the next day, alerted his office of his mini-trip, and started packing for a journey that brought hope for a better life.
* * *
Jeongguk played with the jewelry box as he nervously stared out the train window. He was still trying to figure out what he would say when he saw her.
He had left his best friend for a job. He didn’t even let her explain. He just ended the friendship. Was he too harsh? Too selfish? No. He had the right to be angry. She betrayed him. She knew he wanted that job. But she had wanted it, too.
His mental battle continued like this until the train stopped. He had arrived.
* * *
Before he knew it, he was standing in front of her door. It had been about five minutes. He still hadn’t knocked. He was about to turn around and go home, but the front door opened. He froze.
“Oh? Jeongguk? Is that you?”
“Oh, hello, Mrs. Kim. How have you been?”
“I’m doing fine, and I’m guessing you’re doing fine yourself? I mean, look at you! You’re all grown up!”
Jeongguk rubbed his nape, chuckling at the comment.
“Would you like to come in for some tea?” Mrs. Kim asked.
“That would be lovely, Mrs. Kim.”
Mrs. Kim ushered Jeongguk inside, and together they made their way to the living room. The skinny lady, who seemed to have stayed the same since last he saw her, disappeared into the kitchen to boil water for tea. Jeongguk, on the other hand, started looking around the apartment, which had changed a lot since he had last visited.
They had changed all the furniture, and the tiles in the kitchen were completely different. The decorations placed on the accent shelf also changed. It used to be piled with books, trophies, and framed drawings. Now, it had beautifully placed succulents, candles, and a detailed urn in the center.
Unlike the rest of the items, which collected dust, the perfectly centered urn sat on the shelf without a single speck of dust or dirt. It seemed to be dusted daily. Jeongguk wondered what or who the urn held.
“Here, sweetheart,” Mrs. Kim said, placing the tea set on her coffee table.
“Thank you,” Jeongguk replied. “A lot has changed since I last came, but you are still your beautiful self.”
“Aw, thank you, sweetheart.” She smiled. “Anyways, what brings you here?”
He hesitated. “Just visiting my parents, and I thought it would be good to visit you.”
“Ah, I see.”
“I’m sorry to ask, but is Jiah around?”
As the question sunk in, the room filled with silence. Jeongguk sat on the couch, confused, as he looked at Mrs. Kim, who was thinking about the right words to say. Her eyes started to get watery, her hands shaking as she reached for her tea.
Jeongguk noticed and helped her. “Mrs. Kim, are you okay?” he asked. “Do you need me to call a doctor?”
“No, sweetheart. It’s alright.”
They both sat in silence. Was it that hard to tell him where Jiah was? Was she over him? Did she never want to see him again?
“Sweetheart. . .” Mrs. Kim said, breaking the silence and taking Jeongguk out of his trance. “Sh-She’s is in a better place now.”
“Oh, you mean a better apartment?” Jeongguk asked, oblivious to what she was implying.
“N-No, darling. I m-mean she’s not coming back.”
“She moved to another country?”
The poor lady couldn’t think of other ways to word it anymore. “Sh-She’s dead, Jeongguk.”
Jeongguk’s heart dropped. What? She was dead? No way. Not even the devil could kill her. Tears threatened to fall from his eyes, and his throat tightened thinking about it.
“Jeongguk, are you alright?”
Jeongguk only nodded slightly to reassure Mrs. Kim.
“She will always be with us,” she said, pointing to the shelf. “Here.”
His tears finally escaped as he looked at the detailed blue urn. It was her. His bright, bubbly, other half was no longer alive. He would never feel her warmth or laugh at her jokes again.
“N-No.” He shook his head violently. It was not possible. “No way is she dead. You’re kidding. You’re kidding right?”
Mrs. Kim tightly hugged him, holding him to her chest. “I wish I was, honey. But she’s in a better place now, so stop crying. It’s not worth it.”
Although she told him that, she couldn’t help but think back to when she would cry for weeks about her deceased child. But she was a mother. She has to be hypocritical sometimes to protect someone. In this case, she wouldn’t want her daughter to cry over a dead friend.
After Jeongguk calmed down, Mrs. Kim walked out of the room and returned, holding a box similar to the one at Jeongguk’s home.
“You know, when you guys fought, Jiah came home and immediately started sobbing and ranting about how she hurt and betrayed her best friend. She cried for about three hours before falling asleep on the couch.”
Jeongguk was shocked to hear those words. She felt guilty?
“And when you didn’t answer her calls, she was ready to march to your house and knock on your door. Luckily, I stopped her in time and told her to give you some space.”
Jeongguk was looking at Mrs. Kim. His face was pale, and his nose was red
“It’s a good thing I told her to do that, right? Look at you. You came looking for her by yourself.” Silence filled the room when she paused. “Before she died, she told me that if you ever came looking for her, to tell you she is ice-skating with mountain goats and to not worry.”
Jeongguk burst out in laughter.
“I never understood it. I guess it was an inside joke. Or maybe we just have a different sense of humor.”
Teary-eyed, Jeongguk was now smiling brightly. Mrs. Kim smiled back.
“She also said to give you this box if you ever came,” she added.
* * *
After some time at Mrs. Kim’s, Jeongguk did not leave with an old friend, but a box, regrets, and a heavy heart.
He found out that, a year ago, Jiah was diagnosed with stage three lung cancer and that it was too late for treatment. Knowing her days were numbered, Jiah chose to travel the world. She went to different places—like Japan, Spain, England, Peru. . . And when she finally came back to South Korea, her last mini-trip was to Jeongguk’s house. But no one was home.
Once he got back to his parent’s house, he dashed towards his room, ready to open Jiah’s Pandora’s Box. He had breathed in and out a few times before opening it. Was he ready to see what was inside?
He gasped as he felt all the nostalgia each item held. Her half of the bestie rings. Polaroids of them at an amusement park. A photo of them. Prismacolors? A teddy Jeongguk won for her. Jiah’s bright, shiny red shoes she wore on her first day of kindergarten. A slap bracelet with their initials on it. But what caught his eye was a letter in a bright pink envelope addressed to none other than him.
He stared at the envelope, a flicker of hope striking him. What was so hopeful about a brightly colored envelope? He opened it eagerly.
So you found out, huh, that I’m ice-skating with mountain goats without you.
Jeongguk burst out in laughter reading the first line.
And I guess you also found out I died. . .
He let out a painful laugh. His eyes were watery. His shaking hands slowly wiped his tears away. “No shit Sherlock,” he muttered.
Well, don’t worry about me. I’m fine.
His face turned blank. Didn’t girls say that when they were not okay?
I died doing everything I ever wanted to do, except see you for one last time. If my mom hadn’t already blabbered, I would have visited you. So don’t blame me and say it was my fault. You know, I did visit. Or tried to. . .
Jeongguk imagined a weak Jiah at his door, hesitating before knocking only to hear silence.
But since you’re reading right now, I guess you forgave me.
Jeongguk smiled slightly. “I’m sorry I forgave you too late.”
You idiot. Why would you forgive me? I literally did the worst thing a best friend could do. Do it. Scream. Be mad. Idc just don’t forgive me.
“But I already did.”
Anyways, remember when we went to the amusement park? I wanted a flamingo, but being the classic show-off, you had to win the biggest teddy they had. I had to go through a lot to make a mini version for the box.
Jeongguk laughed at the sudden memory. It felt like yesterday when the large teddy was eating her.
Remember how I stole your banana milk on the first day of kindergarten, and you chased me till the sun went down?
“How dare you drink it, though.”
And I bet you don’t know why Prismacolors are in the box. Remember when we were both working summer jobs? I lied. I didn’t do it just to help mom pay the bills (although I did give her the rest).
You used to love art, and you were amazing at it. You used to beat yourself up when you failed a test but always got over it doodling or painting. So I worked to buy you some fancy, expensive color pencils. I was going to give them to you when you got your new job, but that didn’t go as planned. . . Take care of them for me, okay?
Jeongguk pouted. He wanted to give her something that day, too. A necklace.
I need to get something off my chest. I’ve been holding it in for a while. Can I be honest? I’ve always liked you.
His face was no longer in a pout. His tears finally fell.
I was always too chicken to tell you. I didn’t want to make our relationship awkward. . .
Jeongguk was sobbing. He had found his person. She was right in front of him. All along. When he was at his lowest, she was there.
He found her, but he was too blind to see it.
But when I came home that day, crying, my mom showed me the picture in the box and said, “Just give him time, sweetheart. You guys made these amazing memories. You just have to give him some time. He’ll come back to his senses, and your bond will get even stronger than the one in the photo.”
If only life was as simple as a photograph. Where our eyes are never closed, our hearts are never broken, and time’s forever frozen still.
Live your life to the fullest, okay? Don’t make decisions you would regret.
For the first time in a long time, Jeongguk had a full meltdown. He had realized he let his soulmate go. He hadn’t made many decisions he regretted, but letting her go was the biggest one.
He looked back at the picture of the two of them hugging.
“So you can keep me inside the pocket of your ripped jeans,” Jeongguk sang as tears streamed down his face. “Holding me closer till our eyes meet.”
Unlike “Photograph” by Ed Sheeran, they didn’t get to hold each other, share their love and affection. In this story, they weren’t destined to be together, but maybe in another lifetime, they would be able to kiss under the lamppost back on Sixth Street.
Maybe in another lifetime, he would hear her whisper through the phone, “Wait for me to come home.”