A puff of smoke escaped from his chapped lips, lazily floating into the winter sky as it disappeared from his sight. He his lips, now moist, and dropped the cigarette on the dry side walk. He hovered his foot over the small cigar and smashed it until the fire burned out. The man bent over, picked up his litter, and disposed it in a little soda can.
He was thankful that it wasn't snowing yet. Weather forecast promised the first snow to fall tonight, but Jiyong didn't believe them. They promised him the first snow a week ago, and the snow still hadn't fallen yet.
"Jiyong! I want you inside right now." Jiyong turned around and saw his manager, an old fifty-year old man, almost shooting him a glare. "The devils are coming. Come, quickly."
"Manager Kim, I don't see the problem. They're just teenagers," Jiyong said.
"Teenagers that came from the devil's home, that is! That's what they are. They're sneaky little boys and girls who like to terrorize my shop."
"But you make money off of them. I don't see why you hold such a big grudge on them," Jiyong replied, entering the warm, cozy store. He took off his sweater and hung it on a coat rack nearby. Then, he walked over to the coffee table and placed the can on the surface. He waited for the manager to slip on his own coat, and walked back to the back exit of the store.
"You might understand my situation one day, Jiyong. They're troublesome and expensive creatures," the man paused, then stared at Jiyong. "Actually, I take that back. You're a good boy, Jiyong. You shouldn't reflect your actions against my childhood grudges."
"Anything you say, sir," Jiyong said, nodding his head.
"Thanks," the manager responded, zipping up his coat. He took a step outside of the store, but stopped for a brief moment. "Oh, right. Jiyong?"
"Yes?" he answered, ready to close the door.
Jiyong smiled. "Merry Christmas to you, too, sir."
"Sorry that I have to make you work over time."
"It's no problem. I don't have anyone to spend Christmas with anyway."
The manager smiled. "You're a good boy, Jiyong. A really good one."
The door closed, and Jiyong was left alone in the employee's room. He sighed, then stepped out the other door that led him to the convenience store. As expected, there were a couple of teens loitering around the area. A couple of guys were eating a hot cup of ramen, while a few girls looked at some random objects displayed on the shelf.
Jiyong strolled over to the counter, where he saw a timid girl waiting for the cashier to arrive. When they met eyes, Jiyong smiled, but was a bit surprised to see the girl look away. His smile faded, and he only stood behind the counter. He stared down at the items she had put on the surface. A small box of bandages and some ointment sprawled across the counter.
"Will this be all?" Jiyong asked.
"Ah… Yes," the girl murmured. It was difficult to see her face, especially since her long, scraggy hair covered her look. Her face was completely covered: sunglasses shielded her eyes, a cough mask wrapped itself around her mouth and cheek, and her black hair made it difficult to examine her face.
She kind of looks like a paparazzi, he thought, amused.
"A-A-Actually, never mind," she stuttered. She quickly pushed off the item from the counter. Before Jiyong could say another word, she had taken off, exiting the store.
In matter of minutes, a group of guys and girls came, laughing and smirking at the girl who just left.
"Wasn't that your slave running around, Chanyeol?" one guy asked the tall man.
"Quit calling her my slave. Everyone knows that Jieun and I are dating."
Jiyong was rather surprised to hear such a deep voice from a high school student. Did boys grow up this fast?
"It doesn't seem like that. You always send her off to do something and you two hardly go home together," another girl commented.
"Besides, we all know that the one who does everything and anything is Minah. Isn't that right, Minah?" the boy named Chanyeol asked, glancing back at the skinny girl. She gave him a flirty eye-smile, giggling at his comment.
"Aw, that hurts, Chanyeol!" she joked.
"Cut it out, Minah! You're such a fake!" another girl hollered, playfully smacking Minah's back. Jiyong watched Minah's eyes grow wide as she coughed from the hard slap. He thought that the girl was offended by the comment, but quickly changed his mind when Minah smiled brightly.
"Haha, yeah! I'm such a dork!" Minah agreed, nodding her head as the group of kids separated to buy their snacks.
Jiyong watched the group carefully, especially Minah. He remembered him being caught shop-lifting at many stores, and his manager even caught her stealing a candy bar and getting away with it at their own store. She was a despicable teenager, not to mention that she was known for hanging out with some of the top students at the school just two blocks away from the store. Several parents tried to chase her away from being attached to their dear sons and daughters, but it always seemed like Minah found a way to join the crowd.
Plus, Jiyong never believed that her friends were "precious" and "honorable" students. Once he had seen her friends pressure her into stealing some nail polish. When she had refused, they had threatened to stop being her friend. Obviously, she went along with their scheme and eventually got into trouble alone. So, he saw no reason to blame her for her current behavior.
"King Kwon!" a familiar voice shouted. Jiyong glanced around and saw three excited teenagers approaching him.
"King Kwon! What a surprise. We thought that you weren't going to be here since it's Christmas," wide-eyed Kim Kyungsoo said.
Another named Kim Wonshik bit his bottom lip to hide his smile. "No, just kidding. We knew that you would be here. Changshik told us."
Gong Changshik widened his eyes. "Idiot! Why would you let King Kwon know such a thing?"
Wonshik widened his eyes. "Oh, right!"
"We humbly apologize, King Kwon. Your privacy was never meant to be invaded," Kyungsoo said hurriedly.
"Shouldn't you guys be heading to cram school?" Jiyong asked, completely ignoring the fact that someone knew his working schedule.
"We were going to go, but then we escaped from Jiho's evil wrath," Kyungsoo said, shaking his head. "That guy needs to know how to be like you."
"Who needs to be like him?" another voice asked. The three boys gulped nervously and turned around, only to see a blond man who was only a year older than them. "That's right. I found you three and we're heading back to cram school."
"Hey, Jiho," Jiyong greeted him, smiling.
Kim Kyungsoo, Kim Wonshik, and Gong Changshik were three popular delinquents who became regular customers when they got to know Jiyong. They were all in their first year of high school, but they didn't act like high school students at all. They always complained about their "new and difficult responsibilities as adult" and preferred to keep their childish ways. Studying was a big no-no to them, so they had often skipped classes to enjoy their youth.
Then came along Woo Jiho, a boy who had to repeat his first year of high school due to some secret circumstances. It was rumored that he was supposed to be suspended or expelled, but a last-minute witness defended Jiho, which caused him to repeat another year. For one thing, Jiyong liked Jiho. Jiho was like a delinquent, but he knew his responsibilities as a student. He studied, attended class, and did whatever he could to stray out of trouble. At least, for the most part he tried to stay away from trouble.
Jiho looked at Jiyong, then turned around, ignoring his greeting. It always seemed to Jiyong that Jiho never really liked him. He never understood why. Jiyong saw himself to be similar to Jiho, but Jiho obviously didn't see the similarity.
"Jiho! How can you ignore King Kwon like that? What did this great guy do to you?" Wonshik scolded.
Jiho grabbed his flimsy magazine book and whacked it across Wonshik's head. "Shut up. I'm older than all three of you, and you should do what I say. Come on, let's go back and attend cram school."
"He's right," Jiyong said, trying to help Jiho. "Cram school is important."
"You said that you attended more than ten cram schools, but then you ended up here," Kyungsoo pointed out.
The corner of Jiyong's lip twitched. It was true. As a student, Jiyong had attended several cram schools, barely hung out with his friends, and worked hard to get into the college his parents wanted him to get in.
"You even attended the best college in Korea, but you ended up here," Changshik added.
"That's because I chose to drop out," Jiyong said tiredly. It was a memory he didn't want to remember. He knew that he made a bad choice, but he could never tell if he regretted his decision or not. It was that reason in particular why Jiyong didn't like to talk about his past.
"We'll follow your foot steps, King Kwon!" Wonshik rose two arms in the air. "Screw school! Screw education! Let me live my life happy and comfortably!"
"Oh gosh," Jiho murmured, completely losing his faith in humanity.
Jiyong heaved a loud sigh. "Don't 'screw' anything. Just… Just go to school. Jiho, take them away."
"Let's go," Jiho said, grabbing the three by their collar. He dragged them out of the store, pulling them towards the dreaded cram school.
Jiyong broke into a small smile, then looked back at the crowd. By now, several students had left to attend their afternoon lessons. The group of guys and girls earlier had already left, and Jiyong hoped that they didn't steal anything while he was looking away.
Throughout the entire day, Jiyong sat behind his counter, watching the sun set and the sky darkened. A couple hours later, Jiyong could see the black sky and the white moon glowing. Business was slow, and he figured that by now, most people were already having dinner at home, or doing something. He could only imagine what he was going to have for dinner: a bucket of fried chicken with a couple of beer.
The clock continued to tick, and the store was empty. Jiyong checked his watch, noticing that he would be off his shift in half an hour. He was told earlier to turn off all the lights and close the shop after he was done. The key was already in his hands. All he had to do was wait for thirty minutes to pass and he would be able to go home while ordering chicken on the way.
What a slow day, Jiyong thought, realizing that only five minutes had gone by. He tapped his fingers against the table, humming himself a small Christmas tune. He rested his chin against the palm of his hand, his elbow sitting upon the surface of the counter. He continued to wait for the minute hand to move, occasionally looking at the window and back in the empty store. Back, forth, back, forth…
Jiyong snapped out of his thoughts and looked up. Did he hear a scream? He swore to himself that he heard someone scream. He looked out the window, but saw nothing. It was dark, and the nearest lamp post was at least a few meters away from the store. It was rare for anyone to approach the streets during the night, especially since it wasn't well-lit.
It must've been my imaginati—
"Bastard! Do you like him so much? Why don't you just sleep with him instead?" A familiar deep voice rumbled in the air.
Jiyong scrunched his forehead, trying to look out the window. He could tell that there were two figures standing in the shadows, but he didn't know who they were. One was obviously a small girl, while the other was a tall man.
"So damn loud," Jiyong muttered. He looked at the clock. It was time to close the shop.
He got up from the stool, walked pass the counter, and went to the employee's room. He changed out his uniform (which only consisted of wearing a white polo shirt with a name tag attached) and wore an ugly, rough sweater. He slipped on a thick, furry coat, warming up his chilled body. He took off his work shoes and wore a pair of worn-out sneakers. As he locked the back entrance of the employee's room, he buttoned his coat and wore a pair of mittens.
He exited the employee room, turned off all the lights, and stepped out of the convinience store from the front. A cold breeze hit his face as the automatic doors opened for him to exit. Jiyong shivered, but continued to walk out. Then, he faced the store, pulled together two large gates, and locked up the store. He slipped the key into his pocket, and began to head outside.
"S-Stop, Chanyeol," a small voice cried out. Jiyong stopped his tracks, and turned around. He squinted his eyes, remembering the two dark figures he had seen earlier form inside the shop.
"Why don't you go ahead and live your life as a e? Oh wait! You're already one!" a boy screamed.
"I-I never slept with anyone! How could you say that?"
"Are you talking back at me?"
Jiyong sensed fear in the girl's next few words.
Jiyong flinched when he heard something fall. He quickly hid behind a wall, listening to the strangers' conversation. This time, his eyes were adjusting to the darkness and he was able to see the man raise his hand.
"Why are you born to be an idiot?" the man yelled. Each word was followed by a rough slap. Jiyong swore that the more the boy slapped her, the more unconscious she became.
"I-I'm sorry," she finally managed to stutter. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry…"
Now is the perfect time to run away, a voice said. She apologized, and the problem is solved. Walk away, Jiyong, walk aw—
"Look at me!" the boy yelled. He raised his fist, pulling on her long, messy hair with the other hand.
Just when he was about to punch her, Jiyong jumped in and grabbed ahold of the man's fist. The boy, startled, looked at Jiyong with wide eyes.
"You should never hurt a girl," Jiyong hissed.
The boy glowered at him. "Let me go. This has nothing to do with you. It's none of your business."
"I'm sorry, but I can't let you do that. The poor girl looks like she's about to die right now," Jiyong responded. It took him a few seconds to recognize the girl; she was the one who tried to buy some medical supplies but left without purchasing anything. He paused, then studied the boy. "You're a high school student, aren't you?"
The student froze. "What?"
"Look, kid. I know a great deal about you. If you want me to keep quiet, run along now," Jiyong warned him. In all honest, he didn't really know much about the kid. He was just a customer, but now in Jiyong's eyes, he was becoming more of a jerk.
Jiyong finally released his grip, and the boy pulled his hand away. He glared at Jiyong one last time, then looked down at the broken girl.
"I'll see you back home, Jieun," he said. He scurried off, not wanting to deal with Jiyong.
Jiyong heaved a sigh, and glanced over at the girl. "So you're name is Jieun? Here, I'll take you to the nearest bus stop."
She didn't say a word. Her lips trembled, and her hands were shaking. Jiyong stared at her for a bit longer, then bent down to her level. She looked up at him, and Jiyong was surprised to see her face.
So many bruises and scars decorated her small face. She had one black eye, and her eye was so swollen it looked like she didn't have an eye to see with. She had a long bandage on her nose, covering up a few scratches. Her lips were chapped and cut. Glistening red blood trickled down from the corner of her lips, falling down to her bruised chin.
"Oh my gosh" were the next few words that slipped out of Jiyong's lip. As rude as he knew he was being, he just couldn't believe his eyes.
The girl was ugly; her face was hideous, almost like a deformed monster.
Suddenly, the girl widened her eyes (at least, she tried to) and covered his face with her hands. It wasn't only her face that was messed up. Her right hand had a loose white bandage that failed to cover a large burn mark and her left fingers were wrapped around with small bandages.
"I-I'm sorry," she whimpered. Jiyong couldn't tell what she was sorry for. Was she sorry for bothering him or for letting him see her face?
She got up, but fell back down when she took her first step. The girl bit her tongue as she reached over to feel her sprained ankle.
"Do you want me to carry you to the nearest bus stop? Where's your house? Should I call the police?" Jiyong asked. He fished out his phone, but the girl gasped and slapped his phone away from his hand. It fell onto the rough ground, but luckily the screen didn't crack.
"Oh please, not the police. Don't ever call the police! Please, please!" she begged, covering her ears. Her whole body was trembling in fear as if she couldn't stand the idea of asking for help from the police. Jiyong slowly nodded his head, and grabbed his phone.
"Okay. Calm down, calm down. I won't call the police," Jiyong assured her. "Look, see? My phone is going back into my pocket." He waited for her to calm down. "I'm going to carry you to the nearest bus stop. Where's your home?"
The girl looked horrified. "I don't want to go back. Please don't take me back. Please!"
Jiyong frowned. "What else am I supposed to do with you?"
"Just… Just let me stay out here," she whispered.
"In this weather?" Jiyong scratched his head. If he left her our here, he knew that she could freeze to death. "No way. I can't let you stay here."
"Take me to a hotel, then. A motel. Something!"
"Um, kiddo, I don't have that much money on me. You see, I'm living in poverty," he informed her.
"Do I really have no other choice?" she asked herself aloud. She kept quiet for a few minutes, then looked at him. "Take me to your house."
Jiyong was taken aback. "Huh?"
"Your house. I'll stay at your house."
"Um, no. I'm not letting you stay at my house—"
"Then let me stay out here!"
"Your house or out here," the girl said. She curled her small body up into a ball. "Just don't take me to the police or back home."
What is wrong with teenagers these days? Jiyong wondered. He heaved a loud, heavy sigh, then turned around. "Get on."
The girl looked at him with a puzzled expression. "W-What?"
"I said get on my back. I'll carry you to my house," he told her. He glanced over his shoulder and saw the girl's uncomfortable expression. "Oh, come on! You're the one who wanted this, right? I—"
"O-Okay. I'll go with you," she said softly. She brought her thin arms to his shoulder and wrapped them around his neck. She leaned against his back, and he brought her thighs up to his hand.
"One, two, three!" Jiyong got up from the ground, carrying the injured girl. She gave him a small squeeze and looked at the ground. "Do you want to get off or something?"
"N-No," she stammered. "I'm good…"
Something cold fell on Jiyong's nose. He looked up, and growled to himself as more wet snow flakes landed on the ground.
"Aw man. Hold on tight, okay? I don't want to stay outside any longer than now since it's snowing," he said. He walked further away from the store in a brisk manner, his feet shuffling towards his apartment, which was only a few minutes away from the store.
The first snow was falling.
And their story was only beginning.
A Long Day
The next morning, Jiyong woke up from a dream.
He dreamt about three birds—one lonely, another quiet, and the last injured—huddled together in a small birds nest that he had built. He dreamt that he watched over the birds grow into different species of birds. He could not feed them, take them to the hospital, or anything. He could only watch, and he watched them grow, separate, fly, and return. Though one bird was flightless, he remembered, and it seemed to have known that. The next scene he remembered was seeing a flightless baby chick plunge to the ground, dead and cold. All Jiyong could think about was how foolish the baby chick was.
After all, chicks couldn't fly.
The high-pitched voice startled him. Jiyong sat straight up, his eyes wide. He was still groggy and tired, but he knew that it was no time to complain about his drowsiness. He spotted a girl in front of him, setting down a plate of breakfast on the floor. She looked at him, her eyes swollen from crying, but red from exhaustion.
He finally remembered that he had brought a girl to his house. He remembered how she didn't do much when they got to his house. She looked rather lost, but what mattered to Jiyong was that she had calmed down. He threw her a blanket and a pillow, told her to sleep on the floor (he slept on the floor along with her since he didn't have a bed or a sofa), and knocked himself out. He was worried that the girl might do something, but once he realized that she wasn't going to try anything weird, he managed to get some sleep.
Though clearly the girl hardly got any sleep. She didn't seem to mind, though. After all, tons of high school students had a lack of sleep. It seemed as if this wasn't a big deal for her.
"Morning. What's all this?" Jiyong asked.
"A little thank you. I left for a second to buy some ingredients. Don't worry, I didn't use your money. I used mine," she said, raising her wallet. Jiyong nodded his head in response, and stared down at the plate.
There was a handful of rice on one side of the plate, accompanied by two fried eggs and a small side dish of kimchi. He hadn't eaten a proper meal for a while. He mostly ate out or helped himself with some snacks. He broke into a small smile, a bit happy that he would be able to eat a home-cooked meal in such a long time.
"You hardly had anything in the fridge, so I stocked some up for you," she informed him. "You're not allergic to anything, are you?"
"Nope," Jiyong replied. "Can I really eat this?"
"Yes," she said. "Thank you for having me here."
He paused, then glanced at the clock hanging on the wall. It was only five in the morning, and Jiyong had work at eight. As he ate the food, he wondered if the girl had to go to school. What time did kids start school, anyway?
He stopped chewing for a moment, then stared at the girl. She stared at him back, her brown eyes shimmering under the dim light.
"That's right," he started, "I know nothing about you. Tell me about yourself."
The girl looked surprised. "E-Excuse me?"
"Tell me about who you are. You know, your name, what year you're in your high school, your dreams, goals, all that," Jiyong said.
She bit her lip. "I… I don't know…"
"Then I'll start," Jiyong said. He cleared his throat and took a gulp of water. "I'm Kwon Jiyong. I, uh, work at the convenience store. I'm not a college student, so yeah, I'm basically what most people would consider to be a failure."
"Why?" she asked.
"Introduce me to yourself first, and then I'll answer that," he said, smirking.
"U-Um… T-Then, my name is Lee Jieun. I'm in my first year of high school. Dreams… Goals… I don't really have them. I haven't really thought about it. Before I really wanted to marry my boyfriend and live a good life, but these days, our relationship isn't going too smoothly," Jieun mumbled.
"That sucks," Jiyong said, taking a bite of his egg. "I've never been in a relationship before, so I can't help you there." He chewed for a few more minutes. "Anyway, what do you mean by 'why'?"
"Why do people consider your as a failure?" Jieun tilted her head. "You don't look like a failure to me."
"Most people think that if you don't go to college, you're life sucks. Then they think that if you don't go to college but find yourself to be successful, then you're just damn lucky. I, unfortunately, am not a lucky guy. I dropped out of college, and now I'm living my life as so," Jiyong explained.
"It must be nice to be alone like this," Jieun whispered to herself.
"So tell me about the guy you were with last night. What's up with him?" Jiyong questioned her.
Jieun looked down at the ground. "He's my boyfriend."
An abusive boyfriend, huh, Jiyong thought, only nodding his head.
"He thought that I was sleeping with some guy. He gets jealous really easily."
"Did you kiss another guy or something?"
"No!" She gave him a disgusted look. "I would never! I'm always loyal to the man I love!"
"Then what's his deal?"
"I… I don't know. My boyfriend—his name is Chanyeol—thinks that I ignore him too much. He thinks that I'm hanging out with another guy when this other guy keeps helping me out. Then again, Jiho keeps telling me to break up with Chanyeol…" Her voice drifted away as she gazed at the clock. "Since the beginning of my first year, Chanyeol's been really cautious over who I hang out with. Now, he just doesn't want me talking to anyone."
"You're talking to me," Jiyong teased. "Will I get punched or something?"
She started getting flustered. "No, no. You're a complete stranger. That's all, that's all."
Jiyong stared down at his place, realizing how clean he had eaten his breakfast. "Oh, thanks for the breakfast. I ate well."
"No, I owe you one," Jieun said, getting up. She glanced over at the clock and sighed. "It's time for me to go to school."
"Enjoy high school. It's hard, but that's where all the fun happens, too," Jiyong told her.
"I don't like school." She grabbed her school bag and rubbed the nape of her neck. "It's boring. Everything is so repetitive."
"Then do something new," Jiyong suggested.
She stared at him, then broke into a fake smile. "Don't you think I've tried that already…?"
* * *
When Jiyong entered the employee's room, he was surprised to see his manager and another employee standing in front of a high school girl. The girl looked upset; her brows furrowed in disappointment while her arms were crossed. The manager turned around, and brightened up when he saw Jiyong's face.
"Jiyong! Come, quickly!" the manager urged him.
"What happened?" Jiyong asked, taking off his coat.
"Shoplifting," the other employee said. "I caught her shoplifting some nail polish. She had friends with her, but they managed to run off. We're trying to get her name, but she won't say anything."
"Wait until you meet the cops!" the manager exclaimed, taking out his phone.
"Can you try talking to her? We've tried everything, and we don't want to call the cops or anything. Nothing was lost, but then the fact that she attempted to steal still gets on the manager's nerves," the employee said.
"Me? Why me?" Jiyong asked, walking over to the three.
"You're good with kids. Heck, even those delinquents swarm around you."
"That doesn't mean that I'm good with kids. They come to me."
"Exactly. Maybe this girl will come to talk to you. I'll take over for a couple of more minutes. I really don't want to call the cops and everything. It just creates a hassle," the employee said. Before Jiyong had the chance to say another word, the employee smiled and patted on his shoulder. "Good luck!"
As the worker left, Jiyong stared at the girl with a dumbfounded expression. The manager walked over to Jiyong, but leaned close to his ears.
"You better knock some sense into that devil," the manager whispered, his tone filled with bitter resentment. Jiyong gulped and nodded his head. This was some seriously business he had to do. He couldn't just fool around and get over with the issue. He had to make sure that knocked some sense into the teenager.
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