trance

This is the longest piece I’ve ever written so far, including both original works and fanfiction, and I’m just so proud of myself for finishing the thing since I always have trouble finishing anything at all. Ten thousand words! It’s not a huge number or anything, but I’m pretty sure the longest story I’ve written so far before this one is only 3k or 4k words. Of course I don’t expect this to be the best short story ever. I still lack a lot of skills and practice. The plot for trance can definitely be elaborated into a full-fledged novella, but all in all, I hope I did at least a mediocre job and was able to execute the plot somewhat decently with a tolerable pace in this 10k-word short story.

Thank you BTS for being an endless source of inspiration, and martini for supporting me along the way. Without you, this work wouldn’t have been possible.

Summary: Namin has been going on long train trips with his two best friends because for some reason, that is the only time he can meet them.


I

Narrow and short, the train counted five cabins in length, including the driver’s. Each could hold at most three lines of fifteen people, if they squeezed hard enough. Windows were scattered in no particular pattern, some with intact glasses, some without, some broken, but all veiled by purple velvet curtains that blocked sunlight better than shades could. Every piece of furniture was more long than wide to accommodate the shape of the train, from the polished wooden dining table and the flimsy single beds to the wall cubbies full of books. On the outside, the walls were of rusty metal, dazzling blue neon paint peeled away with time, revealing orange skin with sporadic brown patches like clotted blood.

Although he didn’t remember how it all started, Namin had been going on long train trips with his two best friends for some time. They could only see each other for the few days on the train, which Namin loathed more than anything else; he’d be the last one to get on and the first to get off. If given the option, Namin would trade his life to accompany them to the last stop. But for three years he waited and waited and no one ever offered him such a bargain. Although he didn’t say anything, his friends understood that. Sharing a common melancholy, they veiled reality with laughters and rainbow confetti.

Free to roam the train to their heart’s content, the three of them made the best use of their thirteen-year-old’s imagination to turn it their unique home. They painted and slapped animal stickers on the wall, put their group pictures in DIY paper frames, separated the train into different areas of dining, sleeping, and so on. Every section was unique, colorful and yet harmoniously discordant all the same. Needless to say, all were grateful that the adults left them to their own device and kept their decoration after each trip. They even wrote a huge “thank you” on the door to the driver’s cabin. As good kids, they knew better than to disturb the person and their huge responsibility of navigating the train. That was what Chobi always reminded them.

Communicatively stingy, Chobi liked to spend her time in the dining cabin reading books while listening to music so loud her friends wondered how she had yet to suffer from any sort of auditory impairment. Every time Namin saw her, she was different. Sometimes it was blond hair and a pink suit, sometimes spiky hair and streetwear, sometimes Namin almost didn’t recognize her. It was the scar on her neck that was the giveaway. Namin had always been aware of it, though why Chobi had that scar he never knew.

“I told you so many times already, Namin. One time I grew my nails a bit too long and scratched my neck a bit too hard.” Chobi answered him without looking up from the book she was reading. Namin gazed at her manicured nails, long and sharp like daggers coated in glistening pastel blue. Scary, but they did go well with her silver hair, curved into great waves of Kanagawa falling on her shoulders.

Somewhere in the back of his mind he felt like Chobi gave him a different story the last time they met, but Agu barged into the cabin and shoved her chubby hands in front of Namin.

“That’s exactly why I always get my nails trimmed. See, Namin?” Agu squeaked, jumping up and down like a small kangaroo. “So that I won’t end up a sacrificial goat like Chobi! Boy, you should’ve seen how powerful fingernails can be. She was practically drowning in her own blood.”

Chobi sighed. “Yeah, sure. Now move away from that stove or your hair will get caught and you’ll be the next sacrificial goat.”

Agu immediately turned her head just to realize how close she was to the fire and screamed in a note so high Namin thought wasn’t humanly possible. She grabbed her frizzy brown hair with one hand, her green princess dress with the other and pulled it away from the heated stove that someone believed would be a good idea to place next to the door. Relieved that her body parts remained unscathed, Agu recovered in the blink of an eye as the excited blush returned to her chocolate cheeks. She hopped to the other end of the cabin, her tutu bouncing to each step on the narrow path. Namin let Agu take his place next to Chobi’s reading table and walked toward the simmering pot. He couldn’t quite tell what was in there, but the soup smelled rich of cream and Chobi’s motherly care; the last thing anybody wanted was mushed hair added to it.

Gesturing for Agu to take a seat, Chobi called out to Namin, asking if he could set the table for dinner. Namin hummed in response, leaving Agu to indulge in philosophy with Chobi as their usual pre-meal activity while he cleared the dining table. Standing next to the stove, he sighted the pot of stir-fried chicken soaked in a glossy red sauce, emitting a most heavenly aroma. His stomach couldn’t help but grumble.

Nightfall followed dinner. Having told Agu to let him handle the dirty dishes, Namin put the last piece of washed silverware away and made his way to the next cabin to join Agu and Chobi in Chobi’s room, hoping that animation about transforming magical girls hadn’t ended yet; it was his favorite.

He crept in, silently shutting the door behind him. Agu and Chobi lay on the sofa bed, a black fleece blanket covering their legs. By the way Chobi was already dozing off in Agu’s lap, Namin could tell she had grown tired of Agu’s insistence that they replayed a scene every ten seconds so that she could better observe “that super cool thing that girl did just now.”

Hearing the tiniest click of the door, Agu turned to Namin and flashed an apologetic smile, not stirring an inch in case she woke Chobi up. Namin only shook his head, signaling that it was alright, and waved at her as he tiptoed across the room. Agu mouthed something at him that he couldn’t make out despite the muted TV. He guessed she said “good night,” or “goodbye.” He wasn’t quite sure.

Passing Chobin’s cabin then Agu’s, he finally reached his own after some hesitant seconds in the small connecting space between the exit from Agu’s room and the door to his. A laminated sign dangled on the metallic knob, with “Namin” scribbled in sparkling silver ink on the night sky background. Next to his name were hand-drawn icons of Agu’s grinning face and Chobi’s gentle frown. He entered the room and threw himself on the bed. Dead silence wrapped its tight embrace around him, but not in the same cozy way it did with Agu and Chobi.

He fell asleep, feeling suffocated. And alone.

II

Namin grudgingly added a navy bow tie by the collar of his the light blue shirt as a part of the school uniform, and dragged himself to the kitchen for breakfast. At the dining table, his mom passed him a plate of toasted bagel and asked him if he slept well. Rubbing his eyes furiously, Namin mumbled.

“It was ok. I wish you’d wake me up when you picked me up from the train, though. You know I want to say goodbye to them.” He munched on the bagel.

“Namin, it’s…” She bit her lips. “Sorry about that, honey. You were just really sound asleep, and I didn’t want to wake you.”

“Mom?” Namin was quick to catch the crack in his mom’s voice. “Are you ok? I’m not that upset, you know.”

“Yes, I’m ok, Namin. Please hurry up or you’ll be late for school.” She didn’t confront him, her expression impossible to decipher behind the long chestnut hair. Namin wanted to peek at her face but she’d already turned to the sink and the clattering of plates against each other began.

“Don’t you have work as well? Just leave it there.” With half the bagel still in his mouth, Namin grabbed his backpack and headed out the door. “I’ll take care of that when I get back. See you, mom.”

Hastily his mom twirled around and called out to him. “I love you, Namin.” To which he replied with a grin, “Love you, too. Don’t overwork yourself.”

Tattered black sneakers on, Namin walked to the bus stop with his back hunched, slowly chasing after his own shadow. Under his soles the concrete sidewalk sizzled; above him the scorching May sun burned. The thin fabric of his shirt was plastered to his back, his vision on the verge of a blur, but he focused on the blue school bus only a hundred steps away, with a nameplate that spelled “IDAI” at the front. The closer he drew the clearer he could discern the impatient look on the bus driver’s face, like she didn’t want to park the expensive vehicle in this obscure, shady neighborhood full of drug dealers and good-for-nothings. Despite the fact that the bus wasn’t supposed to leave for the next ten minutes, Namin ran. The backpack bounced and hit him from behind as if it’d been waiting for a chance to crush him under its weight.

He climbed onto the bus, panting, still not forgetting to smile at the driver and send her a “good morning,” to which she replied with a half-hearted nod. Before Namin could reach the last seat and settle down, she’d already turned the key and driven straight out of the area. With some wobbling Namin managed to shrink into a corner, shivering because of the air conditioner. The bus arrived at the next district in no time, doors open, awaiting riders who had neatly lined up at the stop. At the sight of students dressed in ironed clothes and shiny shoes, the driver’s eyes sparkled as she said hi to everyone. Mild sunlight rested on them like all were in a commercial for Idai National School for the Gifted.

Except for Namin, of course. If he didn’t know how hard his mom had to work just so he could attend this prestigious school for the wealth, he would’ve quit to be a full-time employer at some fast-food chain restaurant a while ago. Only Agu and Chobi were actually, genuinely nice to him, but they were gone, only available on irregular train trips. And the rest of the student body Namin couldn’t stand. Everyday was a constant battle between compliance and defiance. He had to decide between smiling politely at cruel jokes or retaliating, with, of course, violent consequences.

“Hey shitface,” they’d call him. “What kind of fucked up rags are you wearing? Did you get them from the trash or something?”

“Are you sure that’s supposed to go on your body? You look like you just dipped yourself in a bath full of seaweed or something.”

“Well, that’s understandable, you know, he enjoys that shit. Have you seen his lunch the other day? Live seaweed, I tell you. It was sentient.”

“Oh wow, I know he’s gross, but I didn’t know he’d eat his own kind.”

“Ew, that’s messed up. Why would this school take in a fucking cannibal?”

And so on. Each day they came up with new things to compare him to. Namin pretended to be sleeping on the desk, lifting his head up ever so slightly now and then to glance at the clock, mentally cursing why their teacher had to put him in the front row. This hellish homeroom period was just a couple of minutes more. He could do this. If he didn’t fight, there’d be no reason for them to wage war. It turned out his suffering came to an immediate end when a strange boy walked into the room. Everyone shut up right away.

In Namin’s blurry vision almost curtained off by the long bangs, that boy was perhaps the most beautiful person he had ever seen. The room’s white lights shone on his umber skin, adding a tint of gold to his clean buzz cut and painted his smooth skin lustrous honey. Never one to care about appearance, Namin couldn’t resist the urge to sit up straight and admire him. The boy was truly, effortlessly good-looking, too much like an ethereal entity who was mistakenly placed on earth when he was meant to belong to the gods. A stack of paper in hands, the boy declared, his voice an unexpected baritone for such a delicate face.

“Hey you all. How are you doing.” He spoke, his question more for courtesy’s sake and his tone robotic. “I think you already know who I am. If you don’t, shame on you. But anyway. I’m Ten, founder and main contributor of Idai News. Because of a shortage in people, we’re recruiting some new faces to help us for the upcoming school year. Available positions are writers, photographers, editors, and distributors, which basically means going around the school and giving out newspapers. All info is on this poster that I’m going to hang right outside your classroom, so contact me if you’re interested or have any concerns. That is all. Please have a nice day.”

And with that Ten turned around, about to leave the class before the students could register what he just said when his eyes met Namin’s. For some seconds he furrowed his brows, then a light bulb seemed to have gone off as he tilted his head .

“Are you… Namin? Agu and Chobi’s friend?” Ten said, approaching Namin’s desk.

All attention was on them. Uncomfortable, Namin stared at Ten, whose voice had entered a higher and more excited pitch.

“I’m Ten, Chobi’s cousin. I’m a junior here, but I guess they didn’t tell you about me. We weren’t exactly close, anyway. But whenever I met them they were always talking about you. You must’ve been really special to them.” The bell rang and obedient students rushed to their first class, whispering something about Ten being the reason for the newspaper club’s downfall. Ten, on the other hand, paid them no heed. His concern was Namin now. Crouching down so that their eye-level was even, Ten spoke in a low voice. “Man, I’m so sorry for your loss. I know it’s been a while, but still. It’s still a shock to me, too—”

Namin cut him off. “What do you mean?”

“I’m sorry?”

“What do you mean, ‘my loss’?”

“Oh, well, um, I thought you’d be sad that your best friends are no longer… you know. But… I guess you’re over it now, then?”

“Sorry.” Namin stood up. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He headed out the door.

Summer break started next week, and Namin hadn’t met Ten again, who was probably busy with finals and all. He tried not to think too much about their encounter that day; after a while it was hard to tell if it really did happen or Namin was delirious from the heat shock earlier in the day.

III

Out of the car Namin stepped on grass still heavy with morning dew. Maneuvering so as not to step on the dandelions, he got to the platform while his mom wished him fun before driving off. The shadowed metal bench felt ice cold against his skin as he wiped the dust off and took a seat. Along the rusty rail hydrangeas bloomed in pale blue and royal purple, swaying like kaleidoscopes of tiny butterflies. “The sun’s tolerable today,” Namin thought as he could finally look at the sky without squinting.

From afar the rattling loudened and Namin sprung up at the hoarse clanking unique to his long awaited train. He could hear Agu’s shrill voice yelling his name and it was sobering. The grogginess from having to wake up early disappeared as the train slowed down and finally stopped.

“Come on, Namin!” Agu stuck her head and an arm out of the window and waved frantically. “Chobi made sushi and miso soup and I’m this close to finishing everything!”

“Is this how you treat a friend you haven’t seen for a month?” Namin got on the train and opened the door to the first cabin. “Chobi, do something!”

By the dining table Chobi sat with a book, her back leaning on the wooden wall connected to the driver’s cabin. An elegant silver wind chime earring dangled on her left ear, a sharp contrast with the bold asymmetrical undercut, yet they went surprisingly well with Chobi’s blond hair and ghastly complexion. She shrugged at Namin’s whining and turned the page.

“First come, first served.”

“But it’s not my fault that I’m always the last one to be picked up. Look, Agu only spared me four pieces of sushi!” He sulked and grabbed a seat in front of Chobi, at which she let out a soft laugh muffled by a loud chunk from the train. Their seats began to shake in a steady, subtle cadence.

“Just kidding. Finish this and if you want more there’s another batch in the fridge. And here’s your soup. Eat it while it’s still warm.” She passed Namin an ornate ceramic bowl with a lid on top.

“Oh my God, Chobi, you’re the best.” With beaming eyes Namin gobbled up a piece of sushi in one bite and gave her a thumbs-up. “This is the best. It’s so good.”

Once again Agu barged in from the other cabin, leaping to Namin and Chobi as she picked up and dipped the last three pieces of sushi in soy sauce and gulped down all in one bite. Next to her Namin went silent in disbelief, his eyes wide open at the empty plate in front of him. The dripping soy sauce on Agu’s fingers made Chobi frown. Hastily she grabbed a tissue on the table, as well as Agu’s hand, and blotted the liquid, not without a growl at how messy she was.

“My goodness, Agu. You aren’t a kid anymore. Why do I still have to take care of you like this?”

“Because you love me?” Singsonged Agu.

“Probably. How unfortunate for me.” Chobi shook her head. “When you’re a teacher, I don’t know if it’ll be you taking care of your students or your students taking care of you anymore.”

Namin, who was now sipping some soup, dropped his spoon as soon as Chobi mentioned the word “teacher.” He turned to Agu with a mouthful of tofu, entirely taken aback. “You want to be a teacher? What kind of teacher?”

“Yep!” Agu skipped to the sink to wash her hands because of Chobi’s grumpy scolding. “I love acting, so I’m going to be a theatre teacher. Can you imagine teaching and acting out your favorite plays? Isn’t that the coolest thing?”

“Wow, yeah. That sounds wicked cool. Being able to do what you love and all that.”

“And what do you want to do, Namin?”

“Hm.” Namin took another spoonful of soup and seaweed. “I’m not sure, actually.”

“You like to sing, right? You don’t sing much, but I think you got a nice voice. Like, even our cranky grandpa Chobi over there could vouch for that.”

“Yeah, but, I don’t know. No one would actually make a living out of singing, right? I still have to do something.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know, economics or something. Those popular, employable majors.”

“Isn’t it funny, though?” Chobi chimed in. Her black eyes looked directly into Namin’s, cold yet fierce as if they could see through him. “You’d think Agu’s the most fickle of us all, and yet she’s the first to get her future career figured out.”

Hands clean and all, Agu returned to the dining table and pulled out a chair. She pointed at Namin’s bowl for permission and he nodded, pushing the soup closer to her. He watched Agu, but directed his question to Chobi. “So you don’t know what you’re gonna do, either?”

“Uh huh. I have too many interests.” Chobi let out a big sigh and faced the ceiling. “I want to do engineering, but philosophy also seems nice. I like music, too, classical and modern. I want to create some music that’s in between. That’ll sound nice.”

Agu bolted up from her seat. “Hey, if you all decide to go down that road, how about a musical? I can direct, Namin can sing, and Chobi can write the music!”

“Yeah, if we can even go that far.” Chobi laughed. “Not everyone can survive driving down the road they like. Society kills young dreams, you know.”

“Who cares, we’ll try our best anyway.”

Agu’s unwavering confidence got Chobi humming in good-natured amusement. She was observing the scenery outside now, the sky so clear every nook and cranny of passing mountains was visible to the naked eye. Even the thunderous jangling of their train couldn’t drown out the gleeful chirping of a rare robin at noon. Emerald figures of trees flashed by like a fast-forwarded movie, the children as its audience. Through the window frame, all was beautiful, distant, and isolated.

“Oh, right, Chobi, do you know who Ten is?” Namin broken the silence as he slurped the very last drops of soup. “I met him a while ago. He said he’s your cousin and talked about weird stuff like you guys are gone and like I lost you guys or something.”

Agu and Chobi stared at him. Neither showed the smallest hint of movement despite the rumbling train. The sun graced their faces like spotlight on advertised products, their skin glistening the way wax statues glowed. Agu’s Afro had stopped bouncing and Chobi’s earring no longer rang.

Namin woke up in the middle of the night. Never in his life had he felt more alone. Yet he couldn’t shed a single tear despite the choking sensation at his neck. Under the moon, the hollow in his chest finally came to light amidst his faint sobbings and the owls’ uncaring hoots, a world’s most pathetic duet.

IV

Namin’s mom seemed curious that he didn’t mention Agu and Chobi anymore, but as a single mom with three jobs, she only got to talk to him at their brief breakfast; and while Namin was indeed struggling with rationalizing all that happened, he didn’t want to bother his mom, who had so much weight on her frail shoulders already. He repressed every thought concerning his friends by taking up part-time employment – delivery boy at a fast-food restaurant during the day, cashier at a convenience store in the evening. The work kept him distracted. Plus, he was making good money to help out his mom. All was fine. Or so he told himself, riding his bike across towns and wondering if customer service was just an excuse to tolerate bullying, adult-style. Summer went by in a flash and ended.

However, given the fact that they went to the same school, Namin was bound to bump into Ten again. Ten was strolling down the hallway when he spotted Namin by the locker and hastened to his side, crossing the sea of students pouring out of classrooms. With an exaggerated move he leaned against the wall and crossed his legs, shooting Namin a flirtatious glance.

“Namin, it’s been a while. How are you doing?”

Namin returned Ten’s gesture with an incredulous look. “Fine. And what are you doing?”

“Why, recruiting members for my newspaper club, of course.”

“I don’t remember ever showing any interest in that.”

“But I’m interested in you.” Ten winked, and Namin was unamused.

“I think having 99% of the student body bully me on a daily basis is enough. So thanks, but no thanks.”

“No, really though.” Ten adjusted his posture, bending down a bit to see Namin eye to eye. “We need to talk, but not here. Come with me.”

Having said that, he didn’t wait for an answer and closed Namin’s locker, took his hand, and pulled him to the end of the hall and up the stairs. Namin protested to no avail, since no one cared about him, or Ten, for all his handsomeness, anyway. Students didn’t bother to spare them a glance, and teachers carried on with their lives like it had nothing to do with them whatsoever. Following the aggressive walk that involved entering areas completely foreign to Namin, they got to the newspaper club’s room at last, tucked in a corner on the highest floor of a building faraway from the center of the school.

Namin was flabbergasted by the stark difference between Ten’s flamboyant appearance and his actual workplace. Written in 30-point standard Helvetica font on a blank piece of A4 paper, the IDAI NEWS sign was clumsily laminated and stuck on a door that had neither a knob nor a lock. Ten led Namin into a room spacious but equipped with just a single conference table, several metal chairs, a vertical cabinet, and a seemingly broken printer. On the floor scattered blank paper and one-sided paper, all mixed up. The only decent thing was perhaps the white pendant that illuminated the room well, despite being the sole source of light.

Ten gestured to a chair and both took seats opposite to each other. While Namin kept complaining about how he couldn’t imagine what Ten wanted to do with him, Ten grabbed a file on the table and slid it in front of Namin. The name on the cover spelled, “Idai School Shooting.”

“Namin,” began Ten. “I’ve been considering what you said when we first met. I think my conclusion is correct, but since you’re here, let’s confirm it.”

“Confirm what?”

“Are you aware of the fact that Agu and Chobi are dead?” Ten enunciated, his fingers laced together as he waited for the information to sink in.

Namin attempted to swallow several times, but his mouth only became drier. His hands clenched into fists, then relaxed somewhat, then again into fists. Ten’s coffee-colored eyes were tranquil yet intense, penetrating him, reading him, demanding him an answer. Despite his unease, Namin couldn’t bear to look away from the gaze that reminded him so much of Chobi. How she cared too much in her words too few. How she complained about Agu’s spontaneity and Namin’s indecisiveness all the time but loved them more than anything on earth. How her precocious cynicism was Chobi’s own way of protecting and watching over them. And she was no longer, along with precious Agu whose vibrant glow and unwavering optimism had carried him through countless hard times when he was a mere hairline away from giving up everything.

“December 14th, three years ago,” Ten broke the silence, “do you remember anything about that day, Namin?”

The question caught Namin off guard as he searched through his memories. “I’m not sure. But I didn’t go to school that December. My mom lost her job and the rent was due. We had to move so that mom could find a new job. But I’m not sure about the 14th.”

“Oh.” Namin’s answer seemed to startle Ten as well. “Did you go back to school after that?”

“I did. In January.”

“Did you notice anything different, then?”

Namin inhaled sharply. He chewed on his lips, fingers clutching at the seat, feet fidgeting under the table, heart beating faster with each intense second. “Agu and Chobi weren’t at school.”

“Do you know why?”

“I think they transferred.” Namin hesitated. “At least that’s what I think mom told me.”

“They didn’t, Namin.” Ten said quietly and took out a news article from the folder. He started reading. “December 14th, 2016, a school shooting occurred at Idai National School for the Gifted for middle through high school students. 118 people were injured in total. While attempting to delay the shooters from entering further into the building, 2 students from Idai Middle School, Agu and Chobi, were fatally shot in the head and neck, respectively.”

Not breathing, Namin went speechless.

“Do you know what happened now?”

Still no reply from Namin, who’d lowered his head and looked down at the floor.

“Your friends did not transfer to another school. My cousin did not transfer to another school.”

Namin pressed a hand against his mouth as if it’d prevent him from breaking apart.

“Look at me, Namin.” Ten reached out to Namin and lifted his face up. “Listen to me. Agu and Chobi, they were killed, because they were fools, fucking courageous fools.”

Namin’s face twisted with pain before he finally broke down in tears. Erratic hiccups echoed in the room, his shoulders shaking like an earthquake had taken hostage of his body. Ten held the boy’s shivering hand and whispered words of solace while fighting back tears himself. The boy’s hoarse and desperate wailing struck a chord and brought Ten back to that December night three years ago.

He was doing homework when all of a sudden his parents burst into his room, telling him in almost incomprehensible sentences that his favorite cousin and her cute, bubbly best friend were killed in the Idai shooting earlier in the afternoon. It was this exact same cry of confusion between denial and acceptance that Ten screamed out, repeating one smaller “no” after another as reality slowly sank in and registered in him. The most important people in his life were dead.

Namin must be feeling the same, and Ten would let him cry in the club room as much as his heart wanted to. That was the least he could do for this boy whom he’d heard of so much but didn’t have a chance to meet.

“I’m sorry.” Namin muttered and squeezed Ten’s hand. His throat couldn’t function properly anymore after the strenuous bawling. “I’m sorry I completely ignored this—”

“No, it’s not your fault. Your mom probably didn’t—”

“No, it is my fault.” Namin twitched. “I remember now. Idai didn’t let the news travel, but my mom heard from the security guard and told me, but I didn’t want to believe it. Even when nobody ever visited my house or called me to their house again.”

Retreating his hand from Ten’s grasp, Namin curled up in the chair and buried his face between his knees, a sense of shame bundling up within him as he gradually pulled himself together.

In January, even when he returned to school all alone, he convinced himself that Agu and Chobi had transferred school, disregarding the flaws in his theory. Not long after, he started dreaming about the three of them together, having the most fun on a strange train that carried exclusively three passengers. He somehow managed again to trick himself into trusting his dreams as reality. It wasn’t impossible that he also unconsciously misremembered them when he woke up so that they fit with the actual world.

For three years – almost four now – Namin had been lining dream and reality up on the same plane. Indeed it was an extreme coping method, Namin confessed to Ten, but self-deception to the point of meshing fantasy and truth was less painful than to acknowledge the death of his loved ones.

Ten had been listening to Namin with utmost attention, and when Namin, much more composed now, ended his story, he nodded solemnly. After some rumination, he asked what things they did together in Namin’s dreams, to which Namin replied with a vague list of “chitchatting, watching movies, cooking, eating, and stuff.”

“What do you guys ‘chitchat’ about?”

“Tons of stuff. Last time we,” Namin slowed down as he felt the tears rising up again. “Uh, we talked about our dream career.”

Ten raised an eyebrow. “Do you mind telling me about that in more detail?”

“Sure, you’re interested?”

“Of course. Actually, how accurate are the Agu and Chobi in your dreams? Like, do they act like the real Agu and Chobi?”

“I hope? I mean, dreams are supposed to be like a loose representation of what goes on in your life, right?”

Ten let out a loud hum, crossing his arms and regarding the news article. “You know, I wrote this.” Namin widened his eyes. “It’s the only report of the shooting. As soon as it was published, the principal forced me to stop distributing and almost got the club terminated. Because as you said, they didn’t let the news travel.”

“So no one knew about this except for people at Idai?”

“The shooters attacked the middle school building, so to be precise, only those in the middle school building were affected.”

“Wait, shouldn’t there be police everywhere if there were goddam shooters at a school?” Namin raised his voice, anger swelling inside of him.

“Did you know the police drove to Idai in normal cars so that they didn’t attract attention?”

“What the fuck?” Practically yelling, Namin jumped out of his seat.

“I know. What the fuck. But that’s what they did. They gotta act casual, you know, take their sweet time, so that people wouldn’t know there was a literal shooting happening. Idai gotta keep its reputation. And they entered the school right after Agu and Chobi got shot. In other words—”

“If they’d have hurried the fuck up, Agu and Chobi wouldn’t have to die?” Hissed Namin.

“Exactly.”
“I can’t even— How did you get all this information? How did you even know about the shooting in the first place?”

“Chobi’s parents told mine. They were devastated and needed condolence. And I managed to interview as many witnesses as I could before the school issued an executive order to ban all discussion on the shooting. They were middle schoolers, so you could count on them for being truthful. Their stories did match perfectly, too. Although I promised to make everyone anonymous, I still have the recordings.”

“What are you going to do with it?”

“I’m looking for an opportunity to expose Idai’s cold-blooded censorship.”

“And?”

“I can’t do it alone.”

“No.” Namin deadpanned, sensing where Ten was taking the conversation. “Look here, Ten. I may be an emotional wreck right now, but I’m not stupid. It’s not just a simple one-on-one fight in a boxing ring. It’s you against a school and an arena full of people who are ready to iron you flat dead on the school’s behalf.”

“I know, that’s why I said I can’t do it alone.”

“Two people don’t make a difference if you’re planning a revolt against a whole social system. Are you sure you’re Chobi’s cousin? I expected you to be less stupid than this.”

Ten was taken aback by Namin’s snarl, but he didn’t back down, either. “And are you sure you’re Chobi’s best friend? I expected you to be less of a wimp than this.”

“What if I’m a wimp? I’m sure Agu and Chobi wouldn’t appreciate me committing fucking suicide.”

“You know what, will you stop dragging Agu and Chobi into this? They’re fucking dead.” Ten shouted.

“And I don’t want to be like them, dying for literally nothing.” Namin growled.

“They didn’t die for nothing. My witnesses said one of the shooters was about to pull out grenades, fucking grenades. If Agu and Chobi didn’t stall them the entire school would’ve been blown out.”

“That’s stupid,” mumbled Namin.

“It’s not stupid. You’re just selfish.”

“They were my best friends. How do you expect me not to be selfish? Is being angry over the fact that your best friends sacrificed themselves for strangers another privilege I can’t have now?”

“That’s not what I meant.” Ten sighed forcefully to the ceiling. This would lead to nothing. He regained his composure and cleared his throat, speaking in a calmer tone. “Tell me how you’re feeling, Namin.”

Namin, seeing that Ten was backing up from the fight, also toned down his attitude and sat up straight in his seat. “I’m sad, but I’m angrier. They were my most important friends. They saved my life over and over. Then they died saving lives, and nobody knows that.”

“Do you want to bring them justice?”

Reluctantly, Namin answered with a weak “yes.”

“Then work with me.”

“I still stand by my point: this is suicide.”

“Sometimes you need to crumple your comfort zone and slam dunk it into a trash bin if you don’t want a life full of regrets.”

Namin smirked. “That sounds like something Agu would say.”

Ten smiled back with a sniffle. “That’s exactly what she once said to me. Trust me, Namin. It may be only the two of us at first, but we won’t walk alone forever.”

V

Namin didn’t know what he thought what Ten’s words meant when Ten said them, but he definitely didn’t expect that Ten wanted him literally to get people on board with the project. Words Unsaid, Dreams Untold, Ten named it, arguing that it was good and catchy, and Namin should have faith in him because he’d been doing newspaper since the beginning of high school. Still, despite understanding the whole concept, Namin, couldn’t help but cringe at the cheesiness when he first heard the title. Starting from Agu’s and Chobi’s parents then their own to Idai students, and ideally as many students around the nation as possible, they were to convince people not only to support them, but also to take part in the plan as well.

Agu’s and Chobi’s parents, living proof that personalities were hereditary, took little persuasion to join Namin and Ten, still outraged at Idai. The school had blatantly pressured them to make up an explanation for the sudden disappearance of their children, if somebody asked. Sure they were rich, but what could just two families do? Ten, with his charm and amazing way with words, managed to lull not only his family, but also all extended family members to participate.

Namin faced a greater struggle with his mom, who sympathized with his anger but also feared losing her jobs yet again. He only had two more years of school, while her savings were enough for just this semester. In their cramped living room and also her bedroom, she quietly shook her head at a heartbroken Namin. Next to him, Ten squeezed Namin’s hand and pleaded with her to reconsider. This wasn’t about any random person; this was for the sake of two innocent children, who had saved lives both literally and figuratively, who kept Namin company and made him feel valid and loved on days when she couldn’t be there for him, who brought nothing but happiness and hope to her own son’s life.

“Ma’am, I acknowledge my socioeconomic privilege and understand that I have no idea what it’s like to walk in your shoes,” Ten concluded, “but if you can partake in our project, it will be extremely meaningful for the message we’re trying to deliver.”

“You’re quite a suave gentleman, aren’t you?” Namin’s mom joked weakly. “I assure you boys that I love Agu and Chobi as my own kids. But you’re proposing to me something very dangerous. You aren’t of legal age yet, so the law can’t do anything to you. But me,” she pointed to herself, “a single mom, in the worst slum in the city, working three jobs, none are stable, and we’re lucky to have food on the table. Social workers got their eyes on Namin for a while now. I just can’t risk pissing off the government.”

Not giving up, Ten pushed on. “Is there any way I can convince you otherwise? Is financial security your sole concern, ma’am?”

“I have many concerns as a mother, but you’re partly correct.”

“Please forgive me if I’m stepping over a line here, but my family runs a staffing agency, and we would be more than happy to guarantee you a suitable job that pays well, and of course, at no cost.” Ten’s offer startled Namin’s mother. She glanced at her son in alarm, wondering where he found such a bold young man. Picking up the body language, Ten continued as he gestured to Namin. “Your son has told me the other day that what we’re doing is basically suicide. And he’s right. If we run headfirst into the enemy without any support, it’s no question that we’ll be met with instant death. That’s why we need everyone to help in whatever capacity they can. My family can provide jobs, and we won’t hesitate to lend you a hand.” Ten cleared his throat. “We might be fragmented right now, but once united, the power of the people won’t lose.”

Namin’s mom sat immobile, awestruck by the fire in Ten’s voice to the point of a complete loss for words. Apprehensive she still was, but hope began to snowball in her heart, making her believe again like she once did decades ago. She shook her head and sighed, but not without a smile. She walked around the coffee table and pulled Namin and Ten in for a hug, taking in a deep breath.

“Is this what it’s like to be young?” She stood up and regarded them warmly. “All right, handsome man. You got me. I need to leave for work now, and you also need to go to school, but just tell Namin what you need from me, ok?” Grabbing her bag on the sofa bed, she rushed out while bidding them goodbye.

Namin beamed at her. “Thanks, mom!”

“I think I should be the one saying that instead.” She winked at him before she was finally out of sight.

Namin and Ten cheered at their success one last time and also left the house in Ten’s car, which Namin had advised him to park near the main road for safety. Still not over the amazing monologue Ten gave earlier, Namin kept rambling on about how cool he was with his serious expression and impassioned tone that touched and shook his mom’s soul. If Ten could score so well with a parent who had so many things at stake like her, Namin doubted they’d have too much trouble mobilizing Idai students. Starting the car and playing some music in a low volume, Ten chuckled at Namin’s naïveté as he drove off.

“If it were that easy, I wouldn’t have hunted you down the way I did. It has to be you.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know how your dreams are a form of denial of their deaths, right? And you think it was extreme? Well, this entire school throws itself so deep in that denial hole that they will actually deny that Agu and Chobi ever existed at all.”

Namin wasn’t sure if he should resent or resign. The ridiculous length people would go to for an illusion of a utopia. Burying his face in his hands, Namin groaned. “So, what do you want from me?”

“It’s always better to go from those who are close with Agu and Chobi first. You went to middle school with them, so you must know a lot of their friends, like their names, how close they were with Agu and Chobi, what things they did together, if possible. I have access to the school’s student database, but I don’t know where to start. I need you to guide me.”

“Yeah. You’re lucky I have a good memory and no friends.” Namin shrugged, earning a laugh from Ten.  “And I still have our exchange diaries from 6th grades. There might be useful information.”

“Oh, fantastic. And if you don’t mind, maybe we can feature parts of them in the final project, too.”

“Yeah, that’d be nice.”

“Yeah. Let’s do that.”

The conversation died down as the radio changed to a slow song. Namin sunk deeper into the seat, shutting his eyes for a quick rest, but his brain wouldn’t let him. The fact that Ten could enter the database was odd, but Namin supposed that was the perks of being in the newspaper club. His mind wandered back to when Ten said his family would readily give his mom a job, wondering how affluent they must be, since they didn’t seem too concerned that they might get in trouble as well if things went wrong. Were they that influential or simply audacious? Or were they up to something?

A scary thought crept up in his mind: this might all be a farce, and Ten was actually an agent sent by the government to find and trap all the rebellious youth.

The idea woke Namin up with a jolt. His sudden movement startled Ten as well, who stole worried glances at him while watching the road.

“Is something wrong?”

Namin regarded Ten and saw nothing but nostalgic unfamiliarity. Although a jarring contrast to Chobi’s almost translucent paleness, Ten’s yellowish-brown complexion under the sun was like polished pottery crafted with paramount care and dedication, gleaming alongside his own irresistible charisma and laid back confidence. Chobi was unnervingly quiet, and he was casually flamboyant. Her indifferent patience brought out the aggressiveness in his persistence. Yet in their dark eyes they shared an intense stare of reliability and determination, capable of reading all minds and piercing through souls.

“No, it’s fine.” Namin smiled, again slouched in the leather seat. “Just need to slam dunk some stuff into the trash bin for a regret-less life.”

VI

The exchange diaries provided Namin and Ten with a plethora of tidbits more useful than they expected. Being the social butterfly that she was, Agu hung around with virtually everybody, uniting students and welcoming new transfers like an eager host who’d go to great measures to ensure her guests’ comfort. She mediated fights, led all sorts of school events, and dragged everyone she knew to support or to organize activities with her as well. Even at a young age, she already had a knack for making things, helping a friend build a dog house or fixing a bunch of classmates’ desks so they wouldn’t get scolded by the teachers. And quiet but kind-hearted Chobi was the reason many children survived their classes with her study group after school. She didn’t ask for anything in return, but Namin remembered every time after they had a test, some students would come up to her and thank her profusely like she was their greatest lord and savior.

Ten was more than satisfied with what they got, and began looking up information on the students who interacted with Agu and Chobi, with Namin’s assistance to better identify them. It didn’t matter if the student continued attending Idai or had moved elsewhere; Namin and Ten made use of the school’s database as well as social media sites to find and get in touch with the person. Under Ten’s name as president of Idai News, they sent emails as well as private messages on social media to inform people that they were conducting an interview about students’ satisfaction of the school within the past five years. Said to be randomly selected, every participant would receive a $25 gift card from any store they liked. To increase the appeal, Ten even added that he would travel and accommodate everyone to the best of his ability.

To their delightful surprise, everyone responded within a week with a yes, mostly in person since they were still around the area, some via Skype for they had relocated to a different country. With roughly two hundred people, Namin and Ten were ecstatic. They spent the following two months conducting interviews, and every free second Ten taught Namin his communication skills, from body language to tone of voice and preparation tips. At first Namin was in charge of recording and taking notes, but gradually Ten had them switch roles so that Namin had a chance to practice and Ten could have a break from talking. Every conversation boosted Namin’s confidence; he never imagined that he’d be able to look directly into a person’s eyes and tell his story about his best friends.

And here he was, pouring his soul out to an old classmate who likely had no recollection of him, trying to find the correct wavelength to tune in with her. He went over Ten’s warm-up questions as instructed – asking about her future career, bringing out her personality, learning important facts about her. Linking these details to her memories with Agu and Chobi, he tapped into her heart, her conscience, her humanity. The moment her expression softened was when he knew he succeeded. At the end of the day, the compensate gift card had long been forgotten, replaced by promises of solidarity. Another name added to the list was another step of progress, another source of life for their project. One message after another, the collage slowly began to take shape. Namin couldn’t look at it without tearing up a bit. Youth might be selfish and immature, but when stripped to its core, there was nothing but love.

What Namin and Ten didn’t anticipate was the flooding amount of emails they received from students all over the country a couple of weeks into the interview process. Some of the students Namin and he interviewed spread the words to friends who they thought shared a common concern, and these students started contacting them, expressing their wish to bring the issue to light together. “My friend was also killed in a school shooting,” one student wrote to Namin and Ten, “and nobody did anything. No official discussed it, no policy made to prevent these tragic incidences. I can’t describe how happy and moved I am to hear that someone’s doing something. You might think this is a small, personal project. but it can be the start of something big. Please let us help.”

With overwhelming underground support, on December 14th, 2019, project Words Unsaid, Dreams Untold was released in two formats – a collage book and a series of videos, dedicated to the victims of the 2016 Idai School Shooting who didn’t survive, Agu and Chobi. The introduction to each version were letters from the two organizers. The rest of the project consisted of messages from the victims’ old classmates as well as other students who experienced school shootings, expressing their anger at the upsetting lack of action from the government to protect them. The project of over 8000 contributors stirred the public in a way that no news coverage would be able to censor.

VII – Preface

Hello everyone, we’re Namin and Ten, authors of Words Unsaid, Dreams Untold. Namin is Agu and Chobi’s best friend since middle school, and Ten is Chobi’s cousin. At first, we wanted to tell the world everything we know about them, but as the project gained more attention among students and undercover social activists, we changed our mind. The majority of this collection would be devoted to showcasing our amazing contributors’ phenomenal works that can undoubtedly articulate the meaning of Words Unsaid, Dreams Untold in the most comprehensive way. We want to show that this project is created not only because we were close, but also because Agu and Chobi have never truly died and will live on in the hearts of people around them. They weren’t just victims in a school shooting whose existence lie in numbers and statistics, but they were real individuals, with real impacts on their community, both in the past and in the future. Before we start, we would like to thank everyone who partook in the making of Words Unsaid, Dreams Untold, as well as you who are reading. We rushed to make this for Agu and Chobi’s fourth death anniversary, and also in fear that someone might find out and report us before we could release it, so there will definitely be imperfections, but we’re grateful that we made it. Success or incarceration, we hope this helps keep the conversation going, or initiate one, even. Once again, thank you very much.

Namin & Ten

VII – Grandpa Chobi

Even as a kid, I was notoriously full of myself. I wasn’t the brightest student, but I had a nice face, so I lived a life revolving around appearance. I passed classes with minimum effort and maximum sweet talk. I took advantage of my good looks to get away with things and earn a good reputation among the teachers. On the other hand, I couldn’t give a rat about my schoolmates. I put on the façade of a friendly, hard-working young boy, albeit somewhat slow in his studies, as if it were an art and I was the expert. Needless to say, not everyone liked me. Adults found me an innocent puppy; peers thought of me as a snake. Even within my family, my cousins weren’t very fond of me.

During a family reunion in 2015, when the adults minded their own business and other children couldn’t bother to have me in their games, Chobi came to me and asked if I wanted to join her and Agu in her room upstairs. “We don’t really do anything exciting, but it’s quieter there, so if you’re interested, you’re invited.” She said something like that and walked away without waiting for me to answer. I was only a year older, but I was also thirteen and had my head up in my ass, so her attitude pissed me off. As my younger cousin, she was supposed to be polite to me.

It took half an hour of unceasingly screaming children flailing to songs on Just Dance to convince me that a private room probably wasn’t that bad. I went up to Chobi’s room. She was playing something on her piano keyboard with headphones on, and Agu, who smiled and said hi to me when I entered, was drawing something. I sat on the floor by Chobi’s bed and played with my phone. No one spoke a word. I didn’t know what I expected. We never really talked before as cousins, and I always had this impression of Chobi as an old man in a child’s body, irritable and kind of pretentious.

A long while later, I felt something strange, so I looked up and found both of them staring at me. Agu actually marveled at me out loud, telling me how attractive I was. I said “I know” as a reflex, which came out a bit more arrogant than I expected. Luckily, Agu thought it was funny and laughed. Chobi, with headphones hanging on her neck, seemed amused and told me she hadn’t met anyone who responded the way I did, but she was glad to hear that. I said that was the first time somebody responded to me the way she did, too. What she said afterwards effectively shut me up, a reply I never forgot until today, “Why aren’t they glad that you think you’re beautiful? I think self-love is a brave thing to do.”

Little Chobi, with a mind oddly sophisticated like she had been reincarnated eight times, still had a heart so soft and pure. She didn’t know hte reason why people hated me. Even though I was never close with her, and she had no idea as to who I was beyond my name, somehow I felt like I’d betrayed the kid’s trust. I made friends who would be beneficial to me, despised those who wouldn’t, and mastered verbal deception to the point where I couldn’t recognize my own voice. Yet she believed that I should be loved. For the first time, I was ashamed to be complimented. For the first time, I realized it was something I didn’t deserve. For the first time, I experienced guilt. The only way to relieve my conscience was to be someone worthy of Chobi’s praise, someone beautiful inside and out.

I tried to study properly, connect to people properly, live my life properly, even after her death. My reputation suffered from my pride, which continued into high school with old familiar faces. They’ve perhaps stopped hating me, though it doesn’t mean we’re automatic best friends. However, after three months preparing for Words Unsaid, Dreams Untold with incredible strangers with whom I have become friends, I think I’m finally closer to becoming that someone. I regret that I took too long and the timing didn’t work out, but I hope I’ve become that someone, not only for Chobi, but also for me to love myself properly.

Ten

VII – Tough cookie Agu

“A tough cookie” was how Chobi described Agu.

When I became friends with them in middle school, Agu’s parents were already divorced the year before because her dad had been abusing her mom for quite a while. Her mom worked harder than anybody else and with help from her family, she and Agu were able to pull through and quickly regain their financial stability. The only time Agu cried was when she found out her dad was the one who left scars and bruises on her mom’s body. She never shed a tear from then on.

Later, words somehow got out and it became the hottest topic in Agu’s primary school. But Agu was indeed a tough cookie. No cruel words could get her to bat an eye. Neither did she let Chobi lose her temper and go fight everyone. She was still the usual happy-go-lucky Agu, so nice to everyone that it got to the point where people started to feel guilty for making fun of her for being “dad-less.”

After some frustrating months, classmates came up to her and apologized for their behavior, which she gladly forgave with a smile as tender and illuminating as ever. That day they came home with an angry Chobi who wanted Agu to retaliate at least somewhat, but Agu only grinned back and said, “Mom did what mom gotta do, so now mom’s happy at home, and mom’s brave, so Agu should be brave and be happy, too.” Chobi told me it made her heart ache.

Before, I didn’t get why those two were best friends when their personalities were poles apart, but upon hearing that, it was no wonder that Chobi had a soft spot for Agu. I was not unaffected, either. Chobi and I were more alike than we thought, the way we once closed ourselves off from the world and hid in our own cocoons, content with existing rather than living, observing instead of partaking. She used to study natural sciences for future job opportunities; I once settled for mediocre grades because I wasn’t sure I’d stay in school anyway. And so the presence of Agu, she who lived and loved without limits, was revolutionary to us. Forget Wonder Woman or Superman, Agu was our hero.

Agu probably wasn’t even aware of her influence, but because of her, Chobi decided to change her intended career as a scientist. Still keeping her advanced natural sciences classes since she did enjoy them to some extent, she devoted her free time on things that made her truly happy: the piano, the drums, the launchpad, the joy of making music for pleasure, regardless of quality. And I, almost always toying with the poverty line, didn’t have the luxury to dream, but singing has been a rare thing that can uplift me and my mom during hard times. Agu complimented my voice and gave me music lessons so that I could at least read and sing the notes correctly. After a while, Chobi joined us as well. She would play the piano while Agu and I sang songs from Agu’s favorite musicals. It was the best time of our lives. Although we shared many memories together, if I were to pick out the most meaningful piece, our music sessions would probably be it.

Sadly, our beautiful moment ended too abruptly too soon. But this brief friendship of roughly one year had taught me happiness the way no teachers could. For three years long, devastated me couldn’t recover. I recoiled back to my personal bubble, too cowardice even to accept the truth. Still I had to come to terms with it eventually. Nevertheless, with Ten’s help, I was able to do so with more ease. In fact, I want Words Unsaid, Dreams Untold to be more empowering than a collection of sob stories, so I’ll give you a little funny story. To be honest, I thought the project’s title was crap at first. It sounded corny to me. As we approached closer to the release date, however, and proofread the final edit for the ten thousandth time, I realized why Ten picked that name.

So here’s to two great people who saw me as not that poor kid with a single mom living among some drug den, but thirteen-year-old Namin who had to balance school and work without a break and still secretly wished to be a singer one day. To tough cookie Agu who could find and build strength from her most fatal point of vulnerability. To grandpa Chobi who found all things unappealing but would commit her life to her passion. To some alternate universe in which we can meet again and write our own musical.

Namin

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