Every morning I woke up, I would drag myself to the toilet to wash up and prepare for school. School was a chore, with endless assignments and exams.
We moved into this new neighbourhood about two weeks ago and I had to enroll in a new school as my previous school was too far away. I was used to changing schools since Dad’s job required us to move around quite a bit.
In school, I always kept to myself. I didn’t see a point in making friends since I didn’t stay around long enough most of the time. There were always a few ‘overly friendly’ classmates in every class who would try their best to make a newcomer comfortable. However, I didn’t see the need to assimilate with the rest of them. As long as I didn’t give my teachers any trouble, I was perfectly fine being alone. My earphones were always plugged into my ears the moment I step out of the classroom, though I wasn’t listening to music. This kept inquisitive and chatty classmates away.
In the first week of school, I discovered a quiet corner on the third level of the school hall. It was right at the end of the corridor where the staircase was. It led to the roof of the school hall. However, there was a locked gate to the roof where only authorised personnel had access to. Other than festivals and important occasions such as Speech Day and Graduation Day, this place was virtually deserted.
The open air staircase provided a good view of the pathway leading to the school gate. I enjoyed sitting at the top of the flight of stairs, leaning against the wall, enjoying the cool breeze and watching the flow of students from my vantage point.
That place became my regular hideout during breaks and lunch. At times, I brought my guitar along and unleashed my passion for singing. Singing gave me the freedom to express my emotions. Finding this place was equivalent to striking lottery. I could sing to my heart’s content without worrying about disturbing anyone.
About a month later, I headed for my hideout after classes ended. I was taken aback to see a figure sitting at my usual spot as I approached the third floor. I stopped in my tracks and stared at the person. There was a fair-skinned girl with long chestnut-coloured hair sitting on the steps. Her blouse was partially tucked out and her head was resting against the wall. Her eyes were closed and loose strands of hair were fluttering in the light breeze.
Initially, I was worried I had intruded into someone’s hangout. Since I was new, a senior could have claimed this spot as hers way before me. After pondering for a few more moments, I began to feel that the girl was an intruder instead. I had surveyed this spot for almost a week and was certain no one ever come around, therefore it couldn’t have been claimed by someone else.
I stood there staring at the girl, wondering what to do. After fifteen minutes, I gave up pacing around and went home instead.
The following day, I made my way to the hideout. Again, the same girl was sitting at the same spot with her eyes closed. She looked peaceful when she was sleeping. However, at the same time, I wasn’t pleased that someone had intruded into my ‘territory’. I was dead sure I was the only one who frequented the place besides the cleaners.
This time, I took a seat a few steps further down from her. As I solved my Maths homework, I couldn’t help but turn back occasionally to see if the girl was awake. Her position might change a little but she continued sleeping soundly.
After fifteen minutes, I decided I couldn’t continue doing my homework as it wasn’t comfortable to lean against the metal railings of the staircase. The girl had taken the best spot where one could lean against the wall and also enjoy a good view of the school gate from the top few steps. I packed up, took a last look at the sleeping girl and went home.
The next day, as I had suspected, the girl was there again. I took a seat at the bottom steps of the staircase and looked up at her. I noticed she didn’t have any belongings with her but she was certainly a student in this school because of the uniform she wore beneath her cardigan.
Plugging in my earphones, I opened my Chemistry workbook and started completing my homework while leaning against the cold metal railings of the staircase. It was uncomfortable compared to the prime position at the top of the stairs. Her presence meant that I couldn’t practice singing over here because it seemed rude to play a guitar and sing along while someone was sleeping.
By the time I was done with my homework, I realised it was almost 5pm. This was one of the latest I ever stayed back in school. I remembered my teacher reminding us that the school gate would be locked at 5.30pm daily. Worried that the girl might get locked in the school if she continued sleeping there, I decided to wake her up.
“Hey, wake up. The school gate will be locked up soon,” I said. She didn’t move an inch.
I repeated myself, this time a little louder. Still, there wasn’t a single movement. Climbing up the steps and stopping just next to her, I tapped her on her arm.
“Wake up. It’s time to go,” I said, raising my voice a little.
This time, there was a slight movement. The girl rubbed her eyes, stretched both hands above her head and stood up. She frowned, blinked twice at me and headed down the steps without saying a single word. I stood rooted on my spot, dumbfounded by her behaviour as I watched her disappear around the corner at the end of the corridor.
“It doesn’t pay to be nice. Next time, I’ll just leave her alone,” I grumbled to myself as I made my way home.
Since then, we sat at the opposite ends of the flight of stairs; she on top while I sat at the bottom. When it was time to go home, I stood in front of the sleeping girl, muttering to myself that I should leave her alone. I would pace around for a few minutes, trying to decide if I should be cold-hearted and leave her there. In the end, my heart would soften and I would wake her up. Each time, I was faced with the same reaction as the first time. Strangely enough, I didn’t take that somewhat rude behaviour to heart. In fact, I was glad to have company while I was doing my homework or reading a novel. At least I didn’t feel alone. I wondered if she felt the same way too.
We went on like this for almost three weeks. Not a single word exchanged. If I was lucky, I would get an ‘eh’ from her. Then one day, she didn’t appear. To be honest, I was looking forward to seeing her after school ended everyday. My afternoons were filled with a new purpose; the task of waking the sleepyhead. Now that she wasn’t here, my heart felt empty. The air felt still and stuffy without her.
Since we didn’t talk, I didn’t know her name or class so I couldn’t contact her in any way. Nonetheless, I still went to my usual spot to do my homework or to daydream.
One week later, she reappeared. I was overjoyed when I spotted the familiar figure sitting at the top of the steps as I approached my hideout. She was sleeping, as usual but her face looked paler than before. Although she was wearing a cardigan, she was rubbing her arms to keep herself warm. It was a rather chilly day and I supposed that thin fabric wasn’t warm enough for her. I pulled out my sweater from my backpack and wrapped it around her body.
It was then I saw the most beautiful pair of eyes looking back at me in close proximity. She had long eyelashes and brown irises that glistened in the afternoon sun. We looked at each other for a while, none of us moving an inch.
“Thanks.” That broke the magical trance I was in. Strangely enough, one word from her was sufficient to warm my heart. She slipped her arms through the sweater and zipped it up. It fitted her perfectly since we were of similar built.
“You’re welcome,” I replied with a smile. I wanted to ask her for her name and class but held my tongue. Since we had been going on like this for more than a month, I guessed formalities weren’t necessary.
She hugged her knees and went back to sleep. Instead of doing my homework, I sat by her side, leaving a reasonable gap between us and read a novel. Occasionally I would look at her, wondering what she was thinking about when I saw the twitches in her brows or the faint smile on her face. She was a rather interesting person to observe.
I was surprised when she handed me the sweater. It was one of the rare days she woke up on her own. The sweater was folded neatly and she placed it on my backpack. She flashed a brief smile and waved goodbye when she stopped at the last step at the bottom of the staircase.
“Wait for me, I’m leaving too.” Truthfully, I hadn’t expected those words to roll off my tongue but they did. She must have been startled because she paused in her tracks and slowly turned around to face me. She looked at me with a puzzled expression as I hurriedly stuffed my novel and sweater into my backpack and joined her.
She walked towards her classroom to retrieve her backpack from her locker. Funnily enough, her classroom was just four doors away from mine. Somehow I’ve never seen her around before. Then again, I never did stay around to interact with anyone else. With a tilt of her head signaling she was done, we walked towards the school gate together.
At the school gate, I was about to ask her which direction she was heading when a white sedan pulled up next to us. With a slight smile, she uttered a soft goodbye and went into the car. My first impression was that she must be from a rich family. It made me curious why the driver only came in the evenings. She could have called the driver to pick her up from school when it ended so that she could nap at home comfortably instead of leaning against a concrete wall.
That night I could hear her sweet voice in my head. The sweet scent of strawberries lingered in my sweater as I snuggled under my blanket and fell asleep with a smile on my face.
We kept to our routine of ‘hanging out’ at the hideout. We got comfortable with each other’s presence and sat next to each other while doing our own stuff. As time went on, I felt the wall between us slowly falling apart, allowing us to interact with each other.
I found out that she was sort of a loner like me who didn’t like to mix with the other people. She admitted that it wasn’t easy for her to warm up to a stranger.
On one occasion, I felt a weight on my shoulder. Turning around, I discovered her head was resting on my shoulder. Instead of leaning against the wall, I was sure she preferred a softer and warmer alternative. I chuckled to myself and slowly adjusted my position so that she wouldn’t strain her neck too much. The scent of strawberries reached my nose and I smiled to myself as I continued reading my novel.
Perhaps my shoulder provided just the right amount of comfort for her. Since that occasion, she would snuggle next to me and rest her head while taking a nap. I found it strange that she didn’t bother to ask for my permission before conveniently using my shoulder as her pillow. I wondered why I wasn’t angry with someone for treating me this way. Normally I would shove that person away but it wasn’t the case for her. There was an unspoken attraction about this girl who hardly spoke.
There were times she would link an arm around mine, as if she was hugging a bolster while sleeping. That made my heart flutter with joy. Once in a while, I pretended that I needed a nap too and I would seize the opportunity to lean my head against hers. Initially she moved a little and that got me worried. I thought she minded but her reassuring rub on my hand told me she was fine with it. Her hair was soft, thick and luscious. I was sure she would do a great job as an endorser for shampoo.
A week later, I noticed she brought a novel along to read instead of taking a nap. It felt odd to be listening to my songs while doing my homework and seeing her sitting on the same step reading a book in silence. I offered to share my earphones with her since it would be boring to read without music. I was thrilled when she took up my offer without hesitation.
Over the next few days, we found out that we share the same love for acoustic music. I was happy to hear her humming along to the tunes on my iPod. It was nice to share something in common.
The following day, I decided to bring my guitar along. I could still remember the look of amazement on her face when she saw me climbing up the steps with the guitar on my back. I took it out of my case and placed it on my lap. Clearing my throat, I strummed the guitar and sang the song ‘Almost is never enough.’ It was one of the few English songs I know and like. After the first verse, she started singing along too.
She had such a beautiful voice. Her higher-pitched voice blended well with my mellow voice and we harmonized in a perfect tone. At the end of the song, she clapped and I nodded my head in gratitude. We spent that afternoon singing the familiar tunes we knew and it was the start of many wonderful afternoons of my school life.
Since that day, we got to know each other better. Her name was Jung Sooyeon and she was a born a month younger than me. She had a younger sister who was studying in the States and her family shuttled between the States and Seoul for work. We started to spend more time with each other during school since she couldn’t stay out late.
Time seemed to fly in a wink whenever I was with her. I wished time would stop so that we could remain in that moment forever. We sang many songs and we even joked that we would start a Youtube channel together. Who knew when we would achieve sudden fame if a popular music company heard our songs and decided to sign us on as artistes? Then we wouldn’t need to study so hard. Tests and assignments sucked.
Unfortunately that never happened. About two months later, she stopped coming to school. I asked her classmates and they told me she was hospitalised. My jaw dropped and my throat constricted upon hearing that news. I grabbed my bag and rushed to the hospital after school, wondering what had happened to her.
The sight that greeted me at the ward was permanently etched in my mind. The machines around her hummed in a rhythmic tempo as she lay on the hospital bed in deep sleep. One of the machines beeped in sync with her heartbeat and that was the only sign that told me she was still alive. She looked so serene, like how she always was whenever she took a nap at our hideout.
A middle-aged lady rose from a seat in the ward and came towards me. She asked if I was Taeyeon and I nodded. The corner of her lips turned upwards into a grateful smile as she clasped my hands together.
“Thank you. Thank you very much, Taeyeon.” The voice was filled with sincerity and gratitude.
That lady was Sooyeon’s mother. She knew that her daughter was an introvert and was worried if she could adapt well in school. One day, she heard Sooyeon talking about a friend in school. Sooyeon was usually a quiet girl but that day, she went on and on about this friend. According to her mother, my name never left Sooyeon’s lips since then. Her mother was grateful to me for accompanying her daughter and for bringing a smile to her daughter’s face.
Her mother told me that Sooyeon was born with a rare heart disease and that it was already a miracle for her to live for so long. Her mother encouraged her to go to school so that she could gain some knowledge and would be able to spend her time fruitfully. She didn’t exert any pressure on her daughter’s studies but merely wanted her to get out of the house and to socialise with others.
I was glad to meet Sooyeon’s mother and to learn more about my only friend at school. After our long chat, she finally broke the bad news to me. Sooyeon’s condition had suddenly taken a turn for the worst and it was only a matter of time before we would lose her.
I was shocked by what I heard. My mind was in a complete blank and my throat became dry. I excused myself from the room, saying that I needed some fresh air. Sooyeon’s mother nodded slowly; her eyes were filled with sadness.
I sat outside the ward in a daze. I wondered why Heaven was so cruel to take away someone so innocent and angelic. She was still so young and deserved to live a full life ahead of her. Anger brewed inside of me and I stomped my feet and punched the wall. Then, tears started flowing freely down my cheeks. Sadness filled my heart and travelled through my veins. I buried my face in my hands, unable to swallow the cold hard truth.
Visiting Sooyeon at the hospital became a daily affair for me. I sat next to Sooyeon and did my homework in silence. I didn’t plug in my earphones in case Sooyeon woke up and wanted to talk to me. If Sooyeon was awake, we would take the opportunity to talk about everything under the sun. I did most of the talking since Sooyeon was exhausted from doing the medical tests and having nurses checking her every few hours. It was then I regretted not taking the initiative to talk to her while we were at the hideout. Now, I cherished every single minute I spent with her.
In order to cheer Sooyeon up, I would bring my guitar along and sang to her. Sooyeon told me she missed hearing my voice and that my voice gave her strength. If she wasn’t feeling breathless, she would join me and we would sing together, just like she did before.
Soon, Sooyeon’s body was lost in the sheets of the hospital bed. Her face was sunken and her cheekbones were protruding. The pink in her rosy cheeks had disappeared. Her bright brown eyes that twinkled in the sun were now dull. She had lost so much weight it ached my heart to see her in that state. She was getting weaker by the day and spent most of her time sleeping. The doctor had to hook her up to a breathing machine in order to help her breathe properly.
Sometimes I had to press my ear against her heart, just to ensure that she was still alive. Sooyeon hardly talked and her voice was muffled by the oxygen mask. We developed a way of communicating via eye signals. Sooyeon would blink once or twice in response to my questions. If she had something she wanted to say, she would ask me to lift up her oxygen mask so that she would speak clearly.
One afternoon, I held her hand and rubbed it, like I always did. Her eyes fluttered open and she blinked twice before looking at me. People say our eyes were the windows to our souls. Looking at the pair of brown eyes, I could sense the love she had for me though she wasn’t able to talk much through the oxygen mask.
A tear fell from her cheek and trailed down the pillow. I gazed at her lovingly and placed her cold hands against my cheek. We shared a connection without having to say much after spending so much time with each other.
I reached for my guitar and started strumming to a tune which held a deep meaning in our hearts.
I wanted to hold you
I wanted to make it go away
I wanted to know you
I wanted to make your everything, all right
Another tear rolled down her cheek. I stopped and wiped it away with my thumb gently. I could tell she was trying to hold back her tears. To be honest, I was struggling to hold back my tears too. I knew I had to be strong in front of her. She was in such great pain and the only thing I could do was to make her happy in her remaining days. Adjusting my seat and my guitar, I continued with the song.
In places no one could find
All your feelings so deep inside (deep inside)
It was then that I realized
That forever was in your eyes
The moment I saw you cry
My vision became watery, impaired by the tears that were welling up in my eyes. I placed my guitar onto the floor, leaned forward and pressed a kiss on her forehead. I kissed the salty tears that were rolling down her cheeks.
After all this time, I finally drummed up enough courage to say the words I kept in my heart.
“I love you, Sooyeon.”
She blinked twice, acknowledging my words. I held her hands against my face and both of us cried.
The next morning, I woke up with a heavy heart. There was a morbid feeling but I tried to push it away. It was a Sunday and I was going to spend the day with Sooyeon at the hospital. As I brushed my teeth, I heard my phone ringing. Rinsing the toothpaste out of my mouth, I dashed out of the toilet. The moment I saw the caller-id and my heart sank immediately.
“Sooyeon has left us,” her mother said solemnly.
I dropped the phone, my legs turned into jelly as I collapsed onto the floor. Those four words echoed in my head over and over again. I was at a loss of what to do. My whole world seemed to turn into darkness despite the morning sun’s rays streaming into my bedroom. After a moment of shock, my natural instincts took over as I hugged my knees and started to cry.
Though I had only spent six months with Sooyeon, she left a great impression on me. Time wasn’t a measure of our relationship. She was my first love and I could never forget that angelic voice and kind heart of hers.
After graduating from university with a veterinary degree, I worked at a local pet hospital and dedicated my free time to volunteering at an animal shelter. Sooyeon told me she loved animals but she wasn’t able to own a pet because of her heart condition.
Volunteering at the animal shelter was a way to fulfilling Sooyeon’s dream. I took pride in saving sick pets and nursing them back to health. Each time I managed to save a life, I could imagine Sooyeon looking down on me from Heaven and giving me a pat on the back for my effort.
On Friday and Saturday nights, I sang at a local pub together with my university friend Sunny. I would play the guitar while both of us sang. Everytime someone dedicated a song that I used to sing with Sooyeon during our school days, I would look up at the ceiling for a brief moment and imagined I was singing the song for her.
I kept in touch with Soojung, Sooyeon’s younger sister through email. We met at the hospital during Sooyeon’s final days. She was five years younger but she had shown maturity beyond her years when she handled her sister’s death. We exchanged words of encouragement and that helped to keep us going after Sooyeon left us. We became each other’s support and grew to be close friends. Whenever Soojung visited Seoul, we would catch up over meals. I treated her like my younger sister and showered my love on her like how an elder sister would. I guessed I was also doing it on behalf of Sooyeon.
Each time I saw Soojung, it reminded me of her elder sister, someone I loved dearly. Over the years, she grew up into a fine woman and I could picture how Sooyeon would look like if she was still alive.
Every year on her death anniversary, I would visit Sooyeon’s grave with Soojung and bring along a bouquet of tulips, her favourite flowers. I would sit next to her gravestone and sing a few of our favourite tunes. Soojung was familiar with the routine and would join me in singing. I would belt out song after song until the sun was setting.
The feeling of sadness never left me after all these years. Sooyeon still held a special place deep in my heart. I knew perhaps one day, we would meet again. Maybe in Heaven.
= THE END =
A/N: This one shot is inspired by this fan made poster. http://imgur.com/oeY34eA
Song reference for the hospital scene : Mandy Moore’s Cry