johnny as the boy who went off to fight in a war he was never supposed to experience and never came back. taeyong as the boy who promised he’d wait for johnny and did so, until his final breath.
they’re born in the same village in the same year. johnny is a few months older, but taeyong thinks it doesn’t matter.
but for johnny, it just means it’s his job to take care of taeyong, to look after him and make sure he doesn’t get into trouble.
because taeyong has always been the child with his head up in the clouds.
because when you always go to bed a little too hungry, sometimes it’s easier to imagine a great feast that leaves your belly full and your mind sated.
but where taeyong is flighty, johnny is grounded.
johnny who is tall for his age and as strong as an ox.
he was born youngho, but the villagers all call him johnny after the american soldier that came to their village once to give them rice.
he had nice teeth, the villagers said. he had hair that shone in the sun.
johnny doesn’t think he has any of that.
but when they see him working hard out in the field, a boy just on the cusp of adulthood, already twice as strong as his father, they’re reminded of the american who helped save their village from starvation.
so the name sticks.
and where johnny works, taeyong, who helps plant the new grains in the springtime, too weak to handle the plough, sits by the fields and relays his wandering thoughts to an always attentive johnny.
because wherever johnny goes, taeyong goes too.
they spend their days like this, a routine.
when they’re not working, they’re out by the stream, chasing fish and each other, laughing.
poverty and farm work make sure their clothes never quite fit right on their shoulders, but they’re used to it.
when war comes, it doesn’t come quietly.
they live by the border, not too close but close enough that when the soldiers march up to their village, they are told to evacuate for their safety.
none of them want to go, leave their livelihoods, no matter how poor, behind.
but the soldiers assure them.
they’ll be safer down south, they say. the enemy will never make it past seoul.
the villagers believe them. it takes them only a few hours to pack what they have into the cloth on their backs and start walking.
johnny and taeyong do the same.
wait, the soldiers say. we need strong men, any men to join the fight.
is there any man willing to put down their lives for the freedom of this country?
no one says anything.
johnny who has always dreamed of being a hero, with nice teeth and shining hair.
johnny who is as strong as an ox and taller than most men.
johnny, who looks every bit the soldier that the army has been looking for.
with johnny’s volunteering, other men, other boys much younger than him, volunteer too.
taeyong who has remained small and willowy due to poverty.
taeyong who has delicate bird bones and slender limbs that crackle easily in the lightest of breeze.
taeyong, who johnny has spent his entire life protecting, and is now willing to follow johnny to his death.
no, johnny says. not you.
why not, taeyong argues back. why can’t i join you?
because, johnny tries. you’re too small. you know you’re not good at fighting.
there are boys younger than me joining, taeyong points out. boys smaller than i am. why can they fight and not me?
because, johnny tries again. because you need to be here to protect the villagers while they go south.
i can protect them better fighting, taeyong stands his ground. if i help fight, the war will be over and the village won’t have to go south. they will be safe.
please, johnny begs. he gets on his knees. you can’t fight. you need to survive, you need to live.
what’s the point, taeyong says quietly. he’s on his knees as well.
what’s the point in living, if you’re not there, living with me?
please, johnny whispers.
if you fight, you’ll die.
taeyong takes his hand, puts it on his wet cheek.
if you fight and die without me, i’ll die too, he says.
then i won’t die, johnny says. i’ll come back to you.
taeyong clutches johnny’s face.
johnny takes a breath, nods.
there’s silence. and then taeyong nods back.
ok, he whispers. ok.
johnny slumps forward into taeyong, relieved. he takes taeyong’s hands in his.
will you wait for me? to come back?
always, taeyong breathes.
taeyong laughs, something small. broken.
johnny takes taeyong in his arms.
they stay like that for a minute, a year, an eternity.
they don’t want to let go. but war slows down for no man, no matter how strong, how loved he is.
a promise is a promise.
johnny will come back to taeyong.
the last the village sees of johnny is a strong back, walking away from his home. head held high, willing to die for his nation and people.
taeyong watches and watches until the troupe of soldiers and young foolish boys disappears over the horizon.
johnny never looks back.
taeyong takes the journey south.
planes and bombs fly overhead but it becomes frequent and muted. all he can hear are crying children and the fearful murmurs of people contemplating the death of their loved ones in combat.
he never once thinks of johnny dead.
years pass, every second ticking slower and slower.
taeyong helps provide food for the masses. takes care of the injured, comforts the elderly.
only once does he let himself think of johnny, of him lying in a pool of blood.
but a promise is a promise.
he’ll come back.
during his time helping with rations, taeyong meets more americans.
none of them are called johnny. none of them have particularly nice teeth or hair that shines in the sun.
none of them are strong or kind, none of them laugh so bright or smile so gentle.
his heart aches.
everyday brings more news from the frontline. the enemy is nearing busan. the enemy is being pushed back past seoul.
everyday there’s a mother sobbing the loss of her son, a wife grieving the loss of her husband.
taeyong pays it no attention.
they made a promise after all.
the war ends as loud as it began.
we have brought you peace, the americans announce.
we have saved your country. you can go home.
there’s a problem, the people cry.
our boys are stuck on the other side of the fence, how will they get home?
the country is as divided as it was when it first began. there’s a wound in the middle of this nation, one made of barbed wire and armed soldiers that no one is able to cross.
taeyong thinks of the foolish village boys who died for this country, only for it to remain the same.
taeyong thinks of johnny.
johnny who he hasn’t heard from once since he left the village, head held high and never looking back.
johnny who isn’t dead, taeyong is sure of that, but could be stuck behind a wire fence and mine fields that no man can cross.
but he’ll make it, taeyong believes. he’ll come back to me.
because a promise is a promise.
so taeyong starts the long journey home, back to the village where he hopes johnny will be, waiting for him with open arms.
only, the village no longer exists.
all that remains is ash and charred columns that were once housed. the fields have grown wild in the absence of strong hands to plough them.
still, they think. this is home.
this is home and they have it back. they’ll make it work.
they spend years rebuilding.
they’re poor, poorer than before. poverty no longer wears them like an ill-fitting shirt, but like a cold stab of hunger in the middle of freezing winter.
through all this, johnny doesn’t come home.
through all this, taeyong never loses hope.
years pass. the fields grow and korea grows with them.
taeyong watches as his body becomes frailer, more slender as korea grows taller, wider. big apartments replacing what were once small houses.
families he once knew move away, new families move in.
and still, he waits.
taeyong watches the world grow around him. he meets more americans, much more friendly, nicer teeth than the soldiers from years ago.
not as nice as johnny’s.
taeyong watches from his house that is now an apartment. he watches the world expand as he shrinks into old age.
the world grows and grows and taeyong shrinks and shrinks. until there’s no more space for him.
when taeyong closes his eyes, it’s with johnny’s name seared under his eyelids.
when taeyong takes his last breath, it’s with johnny’s name lingering on his lips.
when taeyong opens his eyes, it’s to bright sun and fresh air.
he’s back home. back to a village that no longer exists. little houses that dot the edges of wide fields. the sound of water trickling down the stream.
he looks down to fragile youthful hands and slender wrists.
he hears footsteps behind him.
he turns around.
he sees a man, standing with his hand stretched out. strong as an ox. tall as an oak. warm hands. kind eyes. nice teeth.
the man smiles. so gentle and familiar it brings him to his knees.
johnny gets on his knees as well. he reaches forward, holds taeyong in his arms as he cries.
johnny, taeyong gasps. you came back.
yes, johnny says. i’ve been back for a very long time.
taeyong takes johnny’s hands. so warm, thick with callouses he doesn’t remember.
he brings johnny’s hand to his wet face.
i’m sorry, taeyong cries. i’m sorry i lived too long, made you wait so long.
johnny cradles taeyong’s face. he strokes his cheek.
no, johnny whispers. i’m glad you lived because i would wait.
i would’ve waited an eternity for you.
taeyong leans forward. so does johnny.
when their lips meet, its soft. gentle. familiar. filled with years of yearning and loss and grieving.
when they kiss, it’s feels like it’s been worth the wait.
they stay like that, lips and bodies and souls pressed together for a minute, a year, an eternity.
because they have that now.
they break apart.
johnny stands, takes taeyong’s hand and pulls him up too.
they walk hand in hand. together at last.