prologue : 운빨 (red cloud)

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i hopped onto the bus with panting breaths, flopping onto my usual seat near the back as i tried not to pass out from the sprint i've mustered in moments previous.

calming down, i packed away my travel card and untangled my earphones that tied themselves into a double-knot in the depths of my jacket's pocket.

wind bristled outside the moving window panes, promising a snowfall in the upcoming weeks as my excitement hummed. but the arriving of winter also meant mandatory school exams — which i couldn't stand the thought of.

my mood crashed just as fast as it grew, shuffling between responsibilities and occasional life decisions. i suddenly realised that i'll have to pull up my grades if i don't want to be locked-in throughout the whole of winter break, but i shook the heavy thought away. it was too early for this.

instead, i let myself get lost in the midst of flowing lyrics and passing seoul streets, ignoring the echo of chatters all around me as the bus loaded up with kids in uniform alike to mine.

but no matter the amount of bus stops we paused by — the seat beside me remained empty.

and it's always been this way; the rest of the bus would gradually clog up, leaving me with a vacant spot for a neighbour.

it concerned me the first couple of times and left me with self-doubting thoughts — but soon enough i realised that the seat next to mine was only ever occupied by one person who endlessly kept the tradition going.

it somewhat reminded me of those little childhood situations where one claimed to own something that didn't really belong to anybody.

"—that's my chair! —but does it have your name on it? —no, but it's still my chair." 

something like that, except now we were dealing with bus seats.

it all started when my mom and i moved to a new apartment just over a month ago. it was difficult to change, but i knew it was necessary for both our sake. the new place was closer to the hospital that she worked at, but further away from my school.

my mom suggested a transfer, but i couldn't bear the thought of leaving my friends behind. so instead, i sacrificed about an hour and a half of sleep and used it to travel every morning to pyeong-nam high.

'bus no.4419' was my ultimate saviour, it began its route from a small suburb area nearby and drove all the way into seoul city — passing my school on its way.

every morning played like a fixated routine, identical roads, identical stops, identical people.

and that's where my favourite stranger comes into the scene.

i don't know his name, his age or his class. i don't know him, at all.

however the senior uniform sitting on his shoulders says that he goes to my school, which is strange because i've never seen him around in the building. and that's what makes him so interesting, besides the fact that he always sits beside me on the bus.

once, i caught the glimpse of his name badge, a small silver tag hiding behind his coat layer, but all i could make out was "lee—" before my chance was ripped out of my sight.

ever since, i've just called him lee.

lee and i, silent bus buddies, it's all i thought we'll ever be.

but i was wrong.

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✎ written: august 01, 2018
✦ published: august 22, 2018

❝hi, i'm a stay.❞

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