Title: Breathing and Heartbeats
Summary: I wondered if, because we didn’t breathe, we were considered ‘dead’.
Song used for inspiration: Röyksopp - Silver Cruiser
A/N This got first place in the familiar_melody contest #2 and I'm very proud of it. Thank you to everyone who voted for me! :)
The day I was banished to the never ending void called space, it didn’t come as much of a surprise. I had always been a bit out of the ordinary, and no one really liked that. When I showed no sign of changing, they saw only two solutions: banishment, or death. My parents obviously preferred the former and begged for it. I didn’t much care anymore; to me, they were both the same.
You see, if I were to stay on earth, I would have been killed by whom the world knew as, ‘The Government’. However, the people had a different name for them: ‘The Shoe’. When I was younger and didn’t understand much, I didn’t know what that was about. But as I got older, I heard the calls from parents to naughty children that said, “Behave, or the Shoe will come down and smite you when you come of age.” I was barely of age when the Shoe came down on me.
On the other hand, if I were to go to space and serve my exile there, I would float around in the zero gravity aimlessly until I ran into something or starved; whichever came first. But I think the worst part of the whole thing was the thought of being absolutely alone. I wasn’t allowed to say goodbye to any of my family. I wasn’t allowed to bring anything with me. I would be completely alone without a single atom of oxygen to accompany me.
It was more than likely my thoughts on air that got me shoved into exile. The Shoe didn’t even like us thinking about something as harmless as air if it differed from the norm. But I didn’t find it so different; it was merely curiosity. Why had our bodies evolved to the point of not needing oxygen? Was it simply because we needed the space that the depths of the ocean and other planets could provide? And what had replaced the oxygen that once gave us life?
I read in a book once that because we breathed air in and out, we were alive. Did that mean that because we no longer need to breathe, we were all dead? My teachers all thought these were stupid and pointless questions to ask. They also told me the Shoe would come down on me for such thoughts. It was like the Shoe just wanted people to stop asking questions. The less research they had to do, the more money they made; that’s what I thought. The Shoe stomped out questioners like a tennis shoe would stomp out a bug on the ground.
The day I was banished to the never ending void called space, I just opened my eyes from sleep and sighed deeply into the black space that was dotted with distant stars. But what left my mouth was not a real sigh, for it was not filled with oxygen. It was filled with nothing; especially not regret. So I floated through space without a care as to where or how fast I was going.
I don’t know how long I had been floating around out there. I had fallen asleep numerous times and had no indication for how long I had been asleep and no hint as to what time of day it was on Earth. I could still see the planet I once called home, but due to the distance and the fact that I was moving away from the center of the solar system, I could not see which side of the Earth was facing the Sun.
Minutes felt like hours anyway. Hours felt like days. And every second felt like an eternity on its own. I was so hungry, and I had nothing to eat. The number of times my stomach twisted and growled for me to feed it grew as time passed. The only way to escape it all was to fall asleep. So I tried to fall asleep whenever I could. If I died in my sleep by being hit by some piece of space rock or rubbish, that would be fine with me.
However, I was woken a few days after my exile began, not by floating rocks, but by something much softer; it still hurt though as it came barreling into my side roughly. I felt something crack in me and cried out in pain as I clutched the spot on my side. Then I heard another groan from directly next to me. I stopped moving for a moment in surprise and tried to hold in my cries.
“Hello?” I called weakly into the blackness. I could see the lump next to me, but I couldn’t entirely make out what it was. Then it moved and faced the ever dimming light of the Sun and I could make out the confused human features. In that moment, I about burst into tears as I pulled the man towards myself. I had been so alone for the previous few days. It felt unreal to actually find someone out there.
“Um…” the person hummed uncertainly. But he wrapped his arms loosely around me when he sensed my distress. “It’s alright.” he hushed. “Don’t cry.” All the fright I had been harboring silently was suddenly being relieved as I was wrapped in this stranger’s arms. I was never surprised I was sent there, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t scared. The tears I cried landed on his shirt and soaked in or floated away and shone in the light of the Sun. He just held me until I stopped. Then he whispered to me, “Are you alright? I hit you kind of hard, didn’t I?” There was a slight trace of a laugh in his voice; it was very, very slight.
I waited a moment before answering. “Maybe a cracked rib,” I said. “but nothing too bad.”
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Taemin.” I responded. “What’s yours?”
“Jinki.” he answered.
I felt the tears sting at the back of my eyes again. “Thanks for coming.” I choked out. “I was so scared.” In response, Jinki tightened his hold on me and let me snuggle in. We stayed that way as we just continued to float through space together. I knew it was a miracle that we had even run into each other, and I was grateful that someone was still watching out for me.
It was after I woke up the next time that I realized there was something odd about Jinki. His chest was moving up and down like he was breathing. I had never seen anyone do that before. It was strange to me, and I had to ask about it.
“Why do you do that?” I asked as I pulled away slightly.
“Do what?” he asked uncomprehendingly.
“You seem to breathe, but we don’t need to and there’s no air out here anyway.” I commented. “It’s just strange. I’ve never seen anyone do that before.”
“I don’t know really.” Jinki answered honestly. “It’s been a habit of mine ever since I was born. I was born doing it and I never stopped. It’s probably part of the reason I’m out here.” He turned his gaze on me. For someone I hardly knew, it was a strangely comforting gaze. It reminded me of my older brother’s gaze. I missed him a lot already. I tried to choke back a sob, but I failed and it came out loudly. “What’s wrong?” Jinki asked quickly.
Another sob escaped before I could speak. “I miss my brother.” I managed. Jinki just held me tighter.
“What is his name?” he asked curiously.
“M-Minho.” I stuttered. His face flashed behind my eyelids when I blinked. I remembered the last time I saw him a few days ago before I woke up in that dark void. We were talking. I don’t remember what we were talking about exactly, but I remember a sad look in his eyes and how as I began to drift asleep on his shoulder, I felt him shaking. I didn’t know when the Shoe would take me away, but I think Minho did.
“I miss my friends too.” Jinki said softly. “I never told them anything about what was going on. I wonder what they thought when they found out.” Jinki’s arms slackened around me when he became momentarily lost in his thoughts. I was about to say something when Jinki was quiet for a while, but he beat me to it. “So what exactly are you out here for?” he asked.
I paused to think a little. What was the best way to explain? “I was sent here for thinking about oxygen and why we no longer breathe it.” I answered as I wrinkled my nose at the thought. “I was the only one to wonder what replaced our need for air. I also wondered if, because we didn’t breathe, we were considered ‘dead’.” My emotions began to kick in again as I spoke. “It’s stupid that we can’t ask questions anymore.”
“It is.” agreed Jinki. “I find your question to be very interesting, not something to be feared.” I nodded. Jinki was a very understanding person from the start. From the very first moment I had met him in that endless blackness, he had only held onto me without question when I was scared and listened to me ask stupid questions about his habit and complain about missing my brother. I shook my head a little and pushed the thought away.
“What about you, what are you doing out here?” I asked out of curiosity. Jinki didn’t answer right away. He just stared at what we believed to be ‘up’ and I saw his chest rising and falling, filling with nothing and expelling nothing; his false breathing habit.
“Dextrocardia situs inversus totalis.” he muttered. “I was born with my heart and all my other organs on the opposite side they should be. Most people’s hearts are slightly to the left. Mine is to the right. All my other organs are switched as well. I was born with it, but no one knew because they looked at the x-rays wrong when I was born and thought they were just looking at them backwards.”
It was then that I realized that a lot more than extraordinary thoughts were squashed beneath the sole of the Shoe.
Neither of us knew exactly how long it had been since we were expelled from our homes, but our stomachs were growling relentlessly. I could feel my stomach eating itself and the hunger pains were getting worse all the time. I curled in on myself in a vain attempt to ease them.
“Are you hungry?” Jinki asked me with a forced laugh. He had to be just as hungry as I was.
“Yah, starving.” My laugh that went with that statement was also very forced.
“I could really go for some bulgogi.” Jinki said with a light smile. His features seemed to soften as he thought of something. I assumed he was thinking of home; maybe his mother made bulgogi a lot.
“I just want some black bean noodles or kimbap.” I said into the blackness.
We were getting so excited that we almost forgot that we couldn’t have any. When I quieted down, Jinki did so as well. We didn’t speak for a while and just continued to float along through space. I stared at the small specks of stars in thought.
“What do you think replaced air in humans?” I asked. “If we don’t need air to live, what else do we need to live?” I looked up to Jinki as if he had the answer, but I knew he did not. A shake of his head only further confirmed my belief. I turned my gaze back to the stars.
“I don’t know the answer to that.” Jinki said. “But I think I can disagree with your earlier statement about being dead.” My eyes fixed onto Jinki again in interest. He continued, “There was more than breathing that used to define life. There was also a pulse and heartbeat. As far as I know, everyone still needs a heart,” He paused and then added, “even if it’s not where it should be.”
For some reason, I felt the need to lean my head upon his chest. I just wanted to hear his heartbeat. The problem however, was that I automatically leaned onto the left side of his chest. When I didn’t really hear much, I laughed at myself and moved to the right side of his chest. Then his heart was beating loudly in my ear.
“I think it’s wonderful.” I muttered to him. I don’t even know why I said it. But as I listened to his heartbeat, I couldn’t stop smiling. He was right; a heartbeat was a sign of life as much as breathing used to be. And as I listened to his heartbeat, I realized I had probably fallen for him the moment he crashed into my side. Although it probably wasn’t that long ago, it felt like an eternity. I fell asleep with that thought still fresh in my mind.
The next time I woke up, my cheek was still to his chest with his arms around me. The hunger pangs hit again and I curled again into myself to make them go away. Jinki had been asleep as well, but he woke up when I moved.
“Are you alright?” he asked me.
I nodded halfheartedly. “I’m fine.”
He didn’t look like he believed me, but he dropped it and looked around to see if there was any indication of where we were. We still weren’t that far away from the Earth in terms of getting to Mars, but that would take way longer than we had time to live. I wondered how fast we were actually going; there was absolutely no way of telling that. If it weren’t for the shape of the Earth getting smaller every time I woke up, I could have assumed that we were just floating in one place.
“Oh shit!” cursed Jinki after a period of time. It scared me for a moment, but I recovered as quickly as I could.
“What’s wrong?” I asked nervously.
“Do you remember what day it was when you left Earth?” Jinki asked me urgently. I tried to remember.
“Um…it was the 8th of August.” I answered.
“Shit!” Jinki cursed again. “Taemin, do you have any idea how lucky we’ve been so far out here?”
“What do you mean lucky?” I demanded. “We’re stuck out here and we’re starving.”
“Are you telling me you’ve never heard of the Perseid Meteor Shower?” I swallowed when I heard the name. I absolutely recognized the name and I definitely knew the date that the shower was supposed to be at its peak.
“The meteor shower should have hit us by now.” I whispered in horror. As if on cue, a piece of space rock wacked Jinki in the back of the head.
“Ouch!” he yelled as he reached back to rub the sore spot. When he brought his hand back, there was dark red blood all over his hand.
“You’re hurt…” I muttered as I reached forward to check his head. But Jinki just grabbed onto me and hid me in his arms. I felt his body rattle as another rock hit his back. I became frozen in his arms and prayed that there would be no more. But I listened to his panicking heart race faster than it had the first time I listened to it. It blocked out the sound of rocks hitting Jinki, but it did not let me escape the screams that escaped his mouth every so often.
I tried fighting against his grip a few times, but he seemed bent on protecting me the whole time. Eventually I gave up and just cried. I cried and cried and cried all the tears that I had kept in after he let me cry the first time we met. That day was the longest day of my life, and I wished it would either end, or I would fall asleep and never wake up. I had wished that so many times, but my wish was never answered.
When at last that day had ended, Jinki was still clutching me to his chest in a death grip. We were not completely through the cloud of space rocks, but we were through the worst of it and the rest seemed to avoid as with the exception of a few smaller rocks.
My tears had not stopped flowing all day, and my throat was sore from sobs and cries. “Jinki…” I said through a cracked voice. “I–”
“You know,” he interrupted. “I think I’ve been in love with you from the moment we met.” Every word was shaky and quiet, and the tone scared me beyond reason. “At first,” he continued. “I didn’t know what to think. ‘Is falling in love this quick a good thing?’ I wondered. But after today, I figured, ‘What’s left to lose?’” He turned sad and pain filled eyes on me. “I love you, Taemin.”
I stared into his eyes and opened my mouth to respond, “I love you too.” The feeling still felt odd, but at the same time, it felt so right. I hugged him around the waist and he hugged my shoulders weakly. I thought I heard him whisper things and laugh against my neck, but when I pulled away to listen to them, his eyes were already closed.
I pulled my hand off of his waist and found it covered in blood. I screamed at the sticky, wet substance and tried to get Jinki to open his eyes. But I only tried because I didn’t want to accept what I already knew to be true.
I held his body close to mine as I continued to float along. I didn’t just want to throw what used to be him into the depths of space to be lost forever. Besides, I was going to follow him soon. One can only live for so long without food after all.
Whenever I felt like it, I leaned my head on his chest in futile attempts to hear his heartbeat. When I heard none, my tears began to fall once more. I didn’t count how many times I cried for that one reason, but I think the last day I was alive, I was almost out of tears.
I cursed the Shoe left and right for making us both suffer this fate. I cursed my parents for begging for exile instead of death. A quick death would have been easier than those long, terrible days floating in space.
The day I was banished to the never ending void called space was the worst day of my life. The day I met Jinki was a miracle. He was amazing and caring, and through him, I stopped cursing my parents for asking for torture and thanked them instead for giving me the opportunity to meet this wonderful person I fell in love with. Jinki was perfect in my eyes. I loved his heartbeat that resided on the right side of his chest. It was an assurance to me that we were all living, even if we did not breathe.
But as I held him to myself in my last moments, I thought of his breathing habit. His chest would go up and down needlessly and wouldn’t suck in anything and wouldn’t release anything. But as my heart slowed to a stop, I whispered into the black that was dotted with stars,
“Whatever you were breathing, I want to breathe it too…"