"Late! That's what I am! I'm so late I'm going to miss all of homeroom and Mr. Song will give me a lecture about it!" Hayami Ryuji complained out loud as he rode his bicycle down the bike lane of the busy streets of Seoul. "He's not going to care that it's January, which is not officially part of the school year! He just hates me!" Caught up in his rambling, the teen failed to notice the young woman crossing the street until it was too late. "Ah!" he screeched, bracing himself for the impact.
"Hey, watch it!" the pedestrian that he had almost run over yelled indignantly as she waved her fist at him, having managed to sprint back to the sidewalk. "Slow down, you crazy kid!"
"You want me to be late for school?" Ryuji retaliated, throwing a glare over his shoulder. "There's no way I'm going to slow down!" He turned his head in time to see a red rubber ball bounce in front of his bicycle and a little boy walk in his bike's path to get it. "Aaaahhh!" he screamed again.
Ryuji stopped pedaling and frantically stepped on the brakes, but he was going too fast to stop completely. Luckily for both him and the little boy, a spectator quickly pulled the child out of the way. The ball slipped out of the boy's hands and bounced onto the street, barely missing Ryuji's bike.
"That was too close!" he grumbled tiredly, wiping some sweat off his brow. "How come everyone's getting in my way today? Argh! I'm never going to make it to school at this rate! Forget homeroom! I can't afford to miss math class!"
Once that thought popped into his mind, Ryuji began biking faster in an attempt to at least get to school before second period started. It wasn't as if he liked math. In fact, it was his least favorite subject. But that was the reason why he needed to get to that class on time. Ryuji hated math because he didn't understand it, and he needed to understand it before he graduated next month. At least Mr. Hwang, his math teacher, didn't have anything against him … unlike the other teachers he had.
Well, it's just because my parents are Japanese, Ryuji thought to himself as he pedaled down the bike lane. Consequently, he became less focused on the road and more on his thoughts. Yeah … that's it! It's just because my parents are Japanese! But what about me? I'm Korean! I was born here!
Ryuji wasn't a spiteful person by nature, nor was he one to hold a grudge. But every time he had reason to suspect that someone disliked him because of his Japanese heritage, his temper flared. He was sick of the past prejudices that still lingered in the peninsula of Korea. He felt that the hatred directed at him was uncalled for. After all, he had never asked to be Japanese. And he hadn't even been alive during World War II, or anytime before it. And he was born in Korea, which, according to his own theory, made him Korean.
"Well, some people just need to get their heads out of the past!" Ryuji said to himself, satisfied with his conclusion. "Yeah … that's it! If people would stop seeing me as Japanese, and start seeing me as Hayami Ryuji of South Korea, then my life would be perfect!" Once again, he was so caught up in his thoughts that he didn't realize he had accidentally pedaled onto the sidewalk. He didn't even notice that all the people he passed by were jumping out of his way until he was behind a running schoolgirl who didn't see him, and he couldn't slow down to avoid her. Ryuji screamed, for the third time that morning, "Aaaahhh!"
"Huh?" The schoolgirl looked over her shoulder to see who was screaming and why. "What the …" Her eyes widened in surprise when she saw the bike rolling straight towards her. "Eek!" she shrieked, leaping out of Ryuji's path and into some bushes. When she stuck her head out of the bushes, she waved a fist in the air and shouted, "Watch where you're going, Ryuji! I'll get you for this!"
Tossing a quick backwards glance at her, Ryuji grumbled to himself, "Oh, great, that was Kwon Myung-Jin. She's not going to be happy about the fact that I nearly ran her over. Well, I can worry about that later. First, I have to get to school!"
Ryuji biked the remaining four blocks to school without pausing to reminisce about other aspects of his life that he had to complain about. Consistent with the saying, "the third time's the charm," and after avoiding a third accident with yet another pedestrian, he finally figured that letting his mind wander while he was riding his bike was a bad idea.
Ten minutes later, he saw his school's gates. Taking a hand off the handlebar of his bike to look at his watch, Ryuji sighed in relief to see that he had arrived a few minutes before second period started. However, when he rode into the school courtyard to put his bike away in the bike rack, he noticed something peculiar: what seemed to be every senior in the school—the seniors would be the only students at school during January, anyway—was standing in a cluster in the courtyard.
"Hunh! Why is everybody out in the courtyard?" he questioned himself. His eyes searched the crowd for some familiar faces, and instantly locked onto his three friends—Lee Hyun-Ki, Lee Hyun-Mi, and Hong Kiwon. Forgetting that he was on a bike, Ryuji waved and shouted to them, "Hey! Guys! Good morning!"
Hyun-Ki, Hyun-Mi, and Kiwon took one look at him and they shouted in alarm, "Watch out!"
"Huh?" Ryuji turned his head just in time to catch a glimpse of a pole—right before he ran into it. He toppled off his bike and fell on the concrete. He moaned, "Aya …"
Hyun-Mi winced. "Ooh! That's got to hurt!"
"Well, of course it hurt!" Ryuji retorted, jumping to his feet without warning. "Ugh, now I have a headache!"
"I'd be surprised if you didn't have one," Hyun-Ki told him, crossing his arms. "So you finally decided to show up."
"Where were you, tardy boy?" Kiwon demanded to know.
"Ah, ha, I'll tell you later," Ryuji answered. "So … what is the whole school doing out here?" he asked as he glanced around the school courtyard, which he noticed was not only packed with seniors and a few teachers, but also with police. His friends' expressions suddenly turned nervous, but Ryuji failed to notice. He added, "Isn't class supposed to be in session right now? And why are the police here?"
"Well …" Hyun-Ki, Hyun-Mi, and Kiwon started.
"Guys?" Ryuji asked, raising an eyebrow. "Are you guys hiding something from me?" He broke into a grin and hopped up and down gleefully. "Come on! Tell me! Tell me!"
"Um … well …" Hyun-Ki looked up at the gathering storm clouds above, then made eye contact with Ryuji and explained, "Someone broke into the school a few minutes ago by breaking a window in the faculty room and we were ordered to evacuate. Oh, and the police came, too," he added.
"And this happened only a few minutes ago," Ryuji repeated, bringing his enthusiastic jumping to a halt.
"He just said that," Kiwon retorted impatiently.
Ignoring his annoyed response, Ryuji concluded as calmly as possible, "Then, basically, I didn't have to come to school today."
"No, I guess not." Hyun-Mi shrugged.
Ryuji considered that silently for a moment. Then, he let out an angry ear-piercing shriek, forcing his friends to cover their ears in surprise. But the Japanese-Korean didn't notice them and he started ranting, "I don't believe it! I got up for no reason today? I bumped my knee against my bike for no reason? I nearly ran over three people today for no reason?"
"He nearly ran over people?" Kiwon whispered to the Lee twins.
The exasperated Ryuji went on, "I'm going to get squashed by Kwon Myung-Jin the next time she sees me when I didn't even have to come to school? And I got this on my head"—he motioned to the bruise forming on his forehead as a result of crashing into the pole—"for no reason at all? Man! This really sucks!"
"Attention, seniors," a loud, authoritative voice echoed throughout the courtyard. Ryuji, Hyun-Ki, Hyun-Mi, and Kiwon looked up to see their principal, Mr. Ahn, standing on the steps at the front of the school, megaphone in hand. He continued, "The police have searched the school thoroughly and there is no sign of any unauthorized personnel. However, the school's interior has sustained serious damage, and we do not know if this person will strike again. For everyone's safety, we will cancel winter classes for the seniors, and, if necessary, classes during the school year until this vandal is caught. You are all dismissed. Thank you, and have a safe winter vacation."
The seniors started mumbling amongst themselves, some angry about coming to school that day for no reason, as they walked off campus. Ryuji, Hyun-Ki, Hyun-Mi, and Kiwon slipped off the campus and huddled together at the gates. They waited until most of the other students had left the school, standing silently in the blistering cold.
"Well," Hyun-Mi started, breaking the ice, "that was an interesting turn of events."
"Yeah, but what are we going to do now?" her twin brother questioned. "I don't want to go back home and study."
"Then don't." Kiwon laughed at his own smart aleck comment.
Hyun-Ki just ignored him. "So what are we going to do?"
Ryuji's stomach grumbled loudly just then. Laughing desperately to hide his embarrassment, he replied, "Well, I'm starved! Did you guys eat breakfast? No? Okay then, it's decided. Let's go eat breakfast!"
"Uh … sure, I guess," Hyun-Mi responded, scratching the back of her head.
"Let's go to my house!" Ryuji happily added. "My parents won't mind at all!"
"Your house is too far away," Kiwon told him.
"Then let's go to your house," Hyun-Ki retorted and crossed his arms stubbornly. "It's only half a block away from here."
"My house?" Kiwon repeated in disbelief. "Uh-uh. Not possible. Four of my cousins are over, and there is no way to fit them and us in the house. Besides …" He paused for a moment, then quickly muttered in a barely understandable voice, "I don't think my parents like you much, Ryuji."
"Oh, yeah, huh?" Ryuji frowned momentarily, remembering that Kiwon's parents didn't really like people with Japanese heritage. Thankful that Kiwon didn't share their opinions, Ryuji pushed that thought of his mind and groaned, "Aaahhh! I don't care where we go, just as long as we get there!" He paused. "I'm going to get my bike!"
He ran back into the school to get it and left his friends waiting for him. A minute later, the Japanese-Korean emerged from the school gates, his ride by his side. The bike showed the effects of smashing into the pole: its front tire was smashed and the front of the bike was dented.
"You're not going to be able to ride that for a while," Hyun-Mi pointed out the obvious. "Anyway, why don't we go to that new snack bar a block from here for breakfast?" she suggested.
"It's better than arguing over whose house we're going to," Kiwon replied.
"Yeah! Let's go!" Ryuji pumped a fist in the air.
Hyun-Ki shrugged. "I guess …"
"Great! Then let's go!" Hyun-Mi exclaimed.
The four friends walked down the sidewalk, conversing about what they were going to do during winter break now, since their classes had been cancelled. Ryuji, Hyun-Ki, Hyun-Mi, and Kiwon were seniors at their school, and would be graduating in February. Korean high school seniors had to attend classes during winter break. The classes that they took during that time helped the seniors who would attend college after their graduation.
Ten minutes later, the four students reached the snack bar that Hyun-Mi had told them about. The Lee twins went up to the counter to order food while Ryuji and Kiwon quickly grabbed a table near one of the windows.
"Wow … there's a lot of people here," Kiwon observed, glancing around the tiny, crowded bar nervously. He had never been one to enjoy crowded places. "Didn't Hyun-Mi tell us that this place was new?"
"Word travels around fast, Kiwon, you know that!" Ryuji remarked happily, putting his hands behind his head and leaning back in his chair.
"Yeah," Kiwon agreed. But he then argued, "But it's not like Seoul is a small town. It's the largest city in South Korea, for crying out loud!"
"So?" Ryuji questioned.
Kiwon groaned. "That means word can't travel around Seoul fast! Ugh. Never mind. I guess what you believe is fast and what I believe is fast are too different things."
"Sure is!" Ryuji sat up straight and said randomly, "Man! Isn't it annoying that we Korean students only get one day of the week off from school? In the U.S., students get Sundays and Saturdays off!"
"Well, that explains why we're academically better." Kiwon snickered.
"True! But most kids who go to American schools don't have to wear school uniforms either!" Ryuji glared at Kiwon's school uniform and scowled. All male students in their school had to wear white collared shirts with the school's emblem emblazoned on the left chest pocket, a black tie, and black pants. They were also provided with a brown long-sleeved jacket, which also had the school's emblem imprinted on it, and a black sweater vest to wear, in addition to the mandatory items of clothing.
Kiwon caught his glowering stare and scowled back at him. "Don't glare at me!" he told his friend. "And shut up about the uniforms, okay? No one cares. It's just clothing!"
Ryuji opened his mouth to make a response to his comment, but Hyun-Ki slammed a tray down in the middle of the table and said, "Well, we got the food. So move over and make some room for us!"
"We also got boba juice!" Hyun-Mi sang, skipping to the table with a tray that held four plastic cups filled with different colored smoothie drinks.
"All right! Let's get stupid!" Ryuji cheered, grabbing one of the boba drinks off the tray and sipping it. "Hey! I feel stupider already!"
"I'll drink to that!" Hyun-Mi agreed, putting the tray on the table and grabbing one of the drinks as well. "Now let's eat!"
Her friends agreed and started eating once they had gotten their food from the tray. During the first few minutes of lunch, all was silent; the four students were too busy eating to talk. But once Ryuji finished his food, he started thinking about numerous subjects that he could talk to the others about.
"Hey, guys, who do you think was behind that school attack this morning anyway?" Hyun-Ki randomly asked, putting his boba juice down on the table.
Ryuji, who was jerked out of his thoughts when he heard Hyun-Ki's voice, simply asked, "Huh?"
"You weren't there, genius," Kiwon retorted, trying to choke back a snicker. "But that doesn't mean that you can't come up with some ideas about why someone would attack our school."
"Well, I say that it was a madman!" Hyun-Mi answered dramatically, her brown eyes shimmering deeply. She pushed her long dyed auburn hair out of her eyes as she added, "A madman with a grudge against our school! And he's going to hunt us down, one by one, and—"
"—your imagination's running away with you again," Hyun-Ki interrupted, knocking on his sister's head as if it were a door. His exasperated brown eyes focused on Ryuji and Kiwon. "It's probably nothing. I mean, people are unhappy with the government, and they do weird things to protest. Attacking random schools is just one of these things. It was probably just some person who doesn't like the way things are going nowadays and decided to take out his or her frustrations on our school." He shook his head, making his short dyed brown hair quaver as well. "My theory makes more sense than Hyun-Mi's."
"You wish!" Hyun-Mi shot back.
"Okay, guys, knock it off!" Kiwon interrupted, stopping the twins' impending argument. He ran his fingers through his straight shoulder-length black hair, narrowed his brown eyes, and grumbled, "Does it really matter? It'll probably never happen again. So there's no use in worrying about it anymore!"
"What do you think, Ryuji?" Hyun-Ki questioned his closest friend, readying himself for a strange answer. He knew that Ryuji was likely to answer simple questions strangely. "You weren't there, but don't you have anything to say?"
"Hmm …" Ryuji scratched the back of his head, mussing his short, spiky dyed brown hair in the process. His brown eyes, which appeared gray behind his contact lenses, sparkled in mischief, as if he were trying to come up with the strangest answer ever, but he simply beamed and answered, "I think someone from another school vandalized ours." The Japanese-Korean burst into laughter at his own statement.
The Lee twins and Kiwon looked disappointed that he responded with such a simple answer. But, then again, Ryuji was unpredictable; his actions rarely corroborated with everyone else's expectations of him.
Kiwon waited for Ryuji to stop laughing, which he did about half a minute later, before saying, "Well, I better get home. I'm sure my parents know that classes have been canceled, and they'll wonder why I didn't come home right away."
"Just tell them that you've been hanging out with two Koreans and a semi-Korean." Hyun-Ki laughed once he saw the irritated look on Ryuji's face. "Sorry, man," he apologized. "But I can't help it!"
"I don't think so," Kiwon quickly interjected when he saw Ryuji drawing in breath to start shouting. "I'll see you guys another time. Bye."
"Bye!" Hyun-Mi waved to him. Once he was out of sight, she sighed and turned to Ryuji. "Well, he's gone. So … what were you two talking about anyway, hm?"
"When?" he asked.
"When you two were at the table without us," Hyun-Ki responded. "You two seemed kind of excited."
"Yeah! Yeah! So what were you guys talking about?" Hyun-Mi inquired impatiently.
"Oh, I was complaining about the school uniforms!" Ryuji replied, leaning back and putting his hands behind his head. "Complaining about them as usual!"
"Ugh. Tell me about it!" Hyun-Mi glared at the clothes that she was wearing. The females at Ryuji's school had to wear white collared shirts, like the boys did. The girls had to wear a black ribbon instead of a tie, however, and a sleeveless plaid brown and white knee-length dress. Hyun-Mi hated the dress more than anything else. The girls also had the option of wearing a brown jacket similar to the boys'.
Hyun-Ki groaned. "Ugh! Enough about the uniforms! Whining about it isn't going to change the school's dress code. Besides, why should we care? We only have to go to school for one more month because we're graduating in February!"
"Graduation! That's what I'm waiting for!" Hyun-Mi grinned at her brother and friend for a few seconds, and then her eyes went wide. "Wait … Hyun-Ki, don't we have a baseball match tomorrow afternoon?"
"Oh! I completely forgot!" Hyun-Ki smacked his forehead.
"Aaahhh! We have to go! Now!" Hyun-Mi screeched, grabbing fistfuls of her hair in a panicked frenzy.
"Don't do that," Hyun-Ki muttered. He turned to his Japanese friend and waved. "Bye, Ryuji, we have to run!"
"Okay! Goodbye!" Ryuji waved to the Lees as they grabbed their backpacks and shuffled out the door. Once they were out of sight, he sighed and shouted to the ceiling, "I'm bored! Oh well, I might as well go home too!"
He paid the bill for lunch, reminding himself to tell his friends that they owed him. Then, he walked outside and grabbed his wrecked bike, wondering how he was going to get to school on time now. Then he remembered that it didn't matter because he didn't have to go back to school until the mysterious attacker of that morning was caught, and that he would graduate high school in a month anyway. He grabbed his bike and wheeled it down the sidewalk all the way to his house, muttering to himself about what a pain it was to drag a bike along.
He reached the neighborhood he lived in about thirty minutes later. There were children playing in front of their houses, parents chatting away with each other, and no moving cars anywhere in sight. Ryuji grinned a little upon seeing his peaceful, little neighborhood. He loved this place, and was proud to call it home. He started walking uphill to his house, which was the seventh to last house on the block, when something familiar caught his eye: a young man with short black hair whose bangs were spiked up. He wore the same school uniform that Ryuji wore. Could it be …?
"Oh, hey there, Jongsoo!" Ryuji hollered, waving cheekily to the young man across the street. "Nice day today, isn't it?"
Choi Jongsoo was one of the students in Ryuji's class. He was a year older than him, having started school one year later than usual. Ryuji could never figure him out. Like most of the other students in his school, Jongsoo disliked him for being Japanese. Unlike most of the other students, though, Jongsoo was almost always alone. Ryuji sometimes wondered if he were simply antisocial, because, well, everyone had to have friends, right? He was sure that Jongsoo had friends; maybe he just didn't hang out with them. Or maybe they went to a different school.
Personally, Ryuji didn't mind Jongsoo too much. The Korean only showed his dislike for him by either ignoring him or being sarcastic around him. But most of the time, Jongsoo left him alone. That made him okay in Ryuji's book.
"Nice day … hah!" Jongsoo shot back. "I wasted my entire morning looking for you!"
"Looking for me?" Ryuji repeated, interested in why Jongsoo would want to have anything to do with him. "Why? I thought you didn't like me! Aw! Are you changing your mind?"
Jongsoo glared at him and answered, "My parents have been bugging me to give this to a friend, and I can't think of anyone. So here you go." Jongsoo shoved an envelope into his classmate's hands and crossed the street to his house, calling back to his rival, "And make sure you let me know whether you're coming or not!"
Ryuji stared at the envelope in his hand. A few seconds later, a grin broke out on his face. "Aw! Jongsoo considers me as a friend! And I thought he hated me! Was I seriously mistaken!" He went inside his house, still grinning, and shouted, "Mom! I'm home!" When his mother didn't respond, he tried again. "Mom—!"
"I'm on the phone, dear!" his mother replied immediately.
"Sorry!" he responded.
"It's okay," his mother said. "Come into the living room. I want to talk to you after this phone call."
Ryuji went to the living room, where his mother was talking on the phone, and sat down on the couch. His mother was speaking in Japanese, which made it impossible for him to eavesdrop; he had never understood Japanese. Ryuji decided to see what was in the envelope Jongsoo had given him while waiting for his mother to finish her call. He tore the envelope open and reached inside. His fingers touched a folded piece of paper and Ryuji pulled it out, unfolded it, and read it. Once he finished reading the note, he looked inside the envelope again, pulled something else out, and shouted, "Yippee!"
"Ryuji!" his mother rebuked him.
"Oops, sorry, again, Mom," Ryuji apologized, grinning even wider than he had been when he had come inside the house.
Hayami Noriko just sighed. Even though she was his mother, she could never understand Ryuji. She shook her head, trying to clear that thought out of her mind, and replied, "It's okay, dear. Now, what were you yelling about?"
"Mom, Choi Jongsoo invited me to come with him to a trip to British Columbia!" Ryuji told her elatedly. "I always wanted to go to Canada!"
"Really? That's nice," Noriko answered, grinning a bit. She was glad that Ryuji had other friends aside from the Lee twins and Hong Kiwon. "When are you leaving?"
"Tomorrow!" he sang.
Noriko's grin disappeared. "Tomorrow? But … isn't that a bit too sudden? Besides, your cousin Hideki is coming over tomorrow to visit."
"No thanks, Mom, I'd rather go to Canada." Ryuji made a face once his mother mentioned his cousin, Hideki. Oh, how he hated Yamamoto Hideki! Ryuji hated him more than anything else in the world. Hideki was arrogant; he acted as if he were superior to the Koreans. And Ryuji would not stand for that. He told his mother, "I can't stand Hideki."
"It's been five years, Ryuji, I'm sure that Hideki has changed." Noriko remembered Ryuji and Hideki's last meeting, which had been less than ideal. Hideki bossed Ryuji around, simply because Ryuji was born in South Korea rather than in Japan. Despite this, she insisted, "Give him a chance."
"But Mom! I'm never going to get another chance to go to Canada." he whined. "Besides, I can see Hideki any time! And …" He shuddered. "I don't want him to bring that friend of his over."
"But …" Noriko sighed. She wanted Ryuji to stay in South Korea to try to make peace with Yamamoto Hideki, but she knew that her son was too stubborn to change his mind. His mind was made up, and she knew it. She finally sighed and told him, "… All right, if that is what you want to do. But I expect you to get packed by yourself."
"Got it!" He ran upstairs to his room. "Thanks, Mom!"
His mother just sighed.
Ryuji, once he reached his room, threw himself on his bed and put his hands behind his head. "Just think!" he said to himself. "This trip is going to be great! I'll become better friends with Jongsoo … and maybe his cousins. Yeah, things are going to turn out great! I know it!"