"Take it," the old man said softly.
"Oh, thank you," Jiyong replied, taking the bag of vegetables and fruits. He looked down and nodded his head, remembering that most of his food came from his neighbors' home. From what he remembered, his neighbors had grown fruits and vegetables in their home. Sometimes, the younger neighbors would bring over some more fruits and vegetables because a relative had sent almost a yearly supply. What did Jiyong do in return? He had no money to give them, and he especially didn't have any other foods to give them.
"Can you take these bags and distribute them to the people living above? I would do so myself, but my back has been hurting," the mister said.
Oh right. In return, Jiyong had delivered other people's baggage to the other neighbors.
"Of course, of course," he said, running up to the old man's home and taking the bags. By now, his hands here filled with plastic bags; he could hardly carry his own share of fruits and vegetables!
"The weather is beautiful today, isn't it?" the old man asked.
"Ah… Yes," Jiyong said, taking a glance at the sky. Seems normal to me.
"Did you have a nice day yesterday? I heard some ruckus from above."
"Ruckus…? Oh! I had some customers from work come over. They were here to give my chocolates, that's all. I'm sorry if we were loud," Jiyong apologized, biting his bottom lip.
The man laughed. "Really? I heard a loud of footsteps up there, so I thought you had a party without me!"
"I would never! Even if I did have a party, it'd be a silent one," Jiyong said.
"Impossible. How quiet can a party get? That wouldn't be a party at all!" the old man exclaimed. He laughed to himself again, then waved his hand as he slowly entered back his home.
Jiyong looked down at the bags. Taking a deep breath, he ran up to the second story, distributing the bags. Sometimes, the neighbors would come out and hand him something to give to the other neighbors, and other times the neighbors would give him a token of thanks with more supplies. At the end of his errand, Jiyong found himself carrying several bags with food that would probably last him for the entire season.
When Jiyong came home, he opened the door. Fortunately, Jieun was still asleep (he assumed that she was sleeping because her back was facing him). He slowly crept over to the kitchen, keeping as quiet as he could. Just as he was about to put down the bags, Jieun bolted up and stared at him with wide eyes. Cold sweat dampened her skin as she continued to look at him with surprise.
"Good morning, Ji—"
"Where did you go?" she interrupted, almost holding her breath.
"I went to get food—"
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"You were sle—"
"I thought you were gone!" Jieun cried out. She rolled her fingers up into a fist as she held tight to the blanket. "I thought you left me…"
"Leave you here? Why?" Jiyong asked her. He opened the fridge and began putting away the items.
"I…I…" She turned bright red and looked away. "Never mind…"
He couldn't understand what she was thinking, but decided not to press on further. He pulled out two apples from the bag and washed them. After washing, he tossed an apple to Jieun, who happened to stumble a bit before catching it. As he bit into the red fruit, he continued to put away the items in the fridge.
"So when are you planning to go home?" Jiyong asked her.
Jieun ran her fingers through her rough hair. "It's Sunday. There's no school today."
"You might not have school, but don't you go to tutor or something? Besides, I have work soon, so I need to go," Jiyong said.
She heaved a sigh and looked away while pressing her lips in frustration. "Can I just stay here even though you're gone?"
"To do what?" he asked her.
"To… To just think, I guess. I don't know. I really don't know what else to do," she said. She looked up at him. "Do you have a knife?"
"A knife? To cut the apple?" Jiyong asked.
"Yes. I prefer to cut and share an apple rather than hogging one to myself."
"Do you mean that it's a habit for you to cut apples for Chanyeol and share that?" Jiyong said, attempting to tease her. He stopped when he saw the dark look on her face. He pulled out a knife from the kitchen cabinet and walked over to her, gently handing her the knife. "Fine, you can stay, but don't do anything that will disturb the neighbor, okay?"
Jieun didn't respond. Instead, she focused on cutting her apple, digging to knife vertically against the red skin, watching the juices drip down from the fruit to her wrist.
* * *
"So… Is there any reason you should be here?" Jiyong asked, staring into Minah's eyes. Minah, embarrassed, crossed her arms and looked down at her feet. She looked at him as if she was suspecting him, but when he continued to give her a blank stare, she let out a desperate sigh.
"I know that I'm not supposed to do this, but can I steal something from here?" Minah asked him.
"That's a ridiculous question," he said, shaking his head. "Why would you want to steal something? Remember, you stole something before."
"Yeah, I know. During the time I was working, my friends were suspecting me. They said that if I still want to be part of the gang, I should steal some stuff here," Minah explained. She handed him a list. "Specifically, they want these things."
Jiyong raised his eyebrows and looked down at the long list. He widened his eyes and grabbed the paper. He paused for a moment, then gave the sheet back.
"The total would be almost twenty thousand won," he told her.
Minah sighed in frustration. "That's why I want to steal—"
"Just pay!" Jiyong exclaimed.
"But I don't have the money to do that!" she explained. She pulled out her wallet and showed him the few cash she had on her. "See? I'm poor as the guy on the street!"
"Then tell your friends to back off! This isn't any of my business. Plus, can't you get better friends? At this rate, they're just using you," Jiyong told her.
He pulled out a clipboard from the wall and began to walk around, counting the stocks left on the shelf. He thought that Minah was gone by now, but he was pleasantly surprised to see her grab a plastic bag from the back of the counter and shove in a bunch of cosmetic supplies and snacks in the bag. She was just about to take off without paying until Jiyong managed to grab her shoulder and pull her back. He swiftly stepped forward, standing in front of Minah, blocking her way from reaching the door.
Minah clenched her teeth as her finger rolled up into a fist. Just as she was about to protest, the manager had came in from the back door. Jiyong looked up at the manager, and bowed to him.
"What's this devil doing here?" the manager asked her coldly. "She made me throw up all night on Valentine's Day! Jiyong, kick her out!"
"I wasn't planning on coming back, but certain situations made me," Minah said, flashing the manager a fake grin.
"Manager, can Minah work here again?" Jiyong asked. Minah and the manager gave him a bewildered look. "Minah needs to earn some cash, and I feel that this would be an excellent opportunity for her. Plus, having her around might make it easier for you to handle teenagers. I've heard that your blood pressure increased due to stress. There are some rumors flying around, saying that you hate children and that's why a lot of people don't come here."
"Me? Hate children? I don't hate children! I hate teenagers and their devilish personalities!" the manager retorted.
"Well, I don't want to be here—"
"Please, manager? I mean, she's pretty much a good employee by now. She knows the rules, and I can keep an eye on her. Plus…" He took away the bag of items she was about to steal. "…you can keep an eye on her and promote the idea of buying for your goods rather than stealing."
Minah pouted. "You don't understand—"
"I still don't like her. She has a rotten personality," the manager complained. "I'm not going to hire her."
"Please, manager? Let her work here! She'll have the experience, and who knows, it might help her get into college," Jiyong said. He saw the manager stiffen. After a few minutes of silence, the manager reluctantly gave in.
"Fine," he said. "You. You work tomorrow, Devil Bang."
Minah dropped her jaws. "It's Bang Minah!"
"But," the mangaer continued, "I heard that you live quite far from here, and since you're a teenager, you'll be working late. Jiyong, it'll be your duty to walk her back home after her shift is done. I don't want anything bad to happen to my employees, and you seem to be tough."
Jiyong widened his eyes. "But sir, I—"
"I'll increase your paycheck."
"I will do my best," Jiyong responded quickly, changing his mind.
Minah rolled her eyes and scoffed. "You still don't have my permission—"
"Fill in the employee's form, and then I'll let you keep these if you start working today and work to pay for these items from your own pay check," Jiyong said.
"I'm sold. Where are the paper works?" Minah asked, looking at the manager.
Jiyong smiled to himself, while watching Minah focus on filling her resume and the manager slowly opening up to the thought that teenagers might not be so bad after all.
* * *
"Did something happen yesterday with Jieun?" Minah asked him.
"Hm? No, why?" Jiyong lied. He felt like the day had gone by in a blink of an eye. It only felt like he was working for seconds, and now he was walking Minah back home late at night.
Her neighborhood was loud compared to his. Lights flickered on and off inside the house, making the windows look like eyes blinking and watching the two walk amongst the darkest part of the street. It seemed to Jiyong that the night seemed darker than usual, the sky doused in a thick, gooey black paint with hardly any white freckles to make it look beautiful. It was as if nature was telling him that he was heading for something hidden, something that shouldn't be discovered yet. Though signs pointed to him suspicion, he remained ignorant and continued walking, ignoring any strange signs that occurred as they walked, such as a spark of the streetlight falling near him or a few stray cats hissing at him.
He looked over to Minah, who remained calm and quiet. She hadn't said a word since the two were, according to her words, "close to home." If Jiyong was impatient, he would've been crying to Minah about how long they had been walking and how his feet hurt from walking over glass that, surprisingly, hadn't damaged his shoes yet. Shards of glass was scattered all over the street, and he was surprised that no one even bothered to pick them up.
At that moment, Minah stopped. She bit her bottom lip as she glanced at the corner of the street, where Jiyong assumed that her house was nearby. She glanced over at him, curled her fingers into a tiny fist, then looked away with a bitter expression.
"Can you stop and drop me off here? It's embarrassing for a guy to take me home like this. Plus, my father is super protective over me," Minah claimed.
"What? I thought Jiho took you home most of the time, though. Is it because I'm a stranger?" Jiyong asked. "Besides, it would be better for a grown man to take the father's daughter back home rather than having her come home by herself."
"Well, we have a party and there would be guests…"
"Are you afraid that I would disturb the party? Nonsense, I'm only dropping you home," Jiyong reasoned.
"No, really. I highly suggest for you to not come with me to my house. My house, is, um… It's really bad," Minho insisted.
Jiyong could only laugh. "Then what's my house? Trash? Come on, Minah. I've seen worse."
"Please?" Minah asked desperately.
"I'm sorry, Minah, but a job is a job. I have to you back home, whether you like it or not. What if something bad happens to you?"
"But it's right there—"
"Then you'll have no problem showing me the way," he declared. Defeated, Minah sighed and nodded her head as she guided him to her home.
When Minah had said that her household was holding a party, Jiyong thought that she was lying. However, when they arrived, he saw bright lights flashing out the window, shadows of different sizes and shapes talking and laughing like wild folks. The house wasn't as bad as Minah claimed to be, but he could see that the front lawn needed some work to do. Otherwise, it was a nice, fat house with large apartments nearby.
She's rich, Jiyong summed up, nodding his head in amusement when he realized that the building next door was a pharmacy. The pharmacy looked rather new, and he was a hundred percent sure that the store belonged to Minah's family when he read the name: Bang's Pharmacy.
"Seems lively in there," Jiyong muttered.
Minah's eyes fell down to her feet. "Yep, pretty lively. Anyway, this is my house. I'm going inside, so—"
The door swung opened, and a brilliant flash of light almost blinded Jiyong's eyes. The two squinted and stared at the entrance, where they found a familiar figure standing in front of them.
"Minah, what are you doing? Your mom saw you outside and she made me call you. Is there some strange guy stalking you—" Jiho stopped and froze when he saw Jiyong standing before him. Jiyong forced a smile, but his grin immediately faded when he realized that Jiho was at his house. His eyes widened and he stared at Minah, who only looked away with a broken look.
"You two live together?" Jiyong asked, hoping that this wasn't a Jieun-and-Chanyeol situation.
Jiho scowled. "Of course not. It's a party at her house. I live somewhere else."
A sigh of relief escaped his lips. "Okay, so what in the world are you doing at Minah's home? I thought you hated each other?"
"We do," Jiho responded quickly. Minah bit her bottom lip. "Our parents don't, though."
"Oh, so your parents are close friends?" Jiyong asked.
"Yes, but they kind of force me and Jiho to be friends," Minah mumbled.
"Why would you tell him that?" Jiho asked, completely annoyed.
"Why would they do that? Don't they know how much you hate each other?" the adult asked them.
Jiho heaved a loud sigh and ran his fingers over his hair. "It's because of our previous relationship in the past that makes them want us to be friends."
Jiyong's eyes popped out. "You guys dated?"
"No!" Jiho exclaimed. He gritted his teeth and crossed his arms. "I would never date her."
Jiho paused, then glared at Minah. "You want to tell him some more details about us, stupid?"
Minah bit her bottom lip until she was sure that it was bleeding. "You… Just because you're scared of telling him, doesn't mean that I have to always keep this a secret!"
"What are you talking about? You're the one who didn't want anyone to know."
"I know, I know! But you agreed to not tell!"
"So what do you want me to do? Give him an excuse to why I'm related to you?"
Minah leered at him. "You're such a jerk!"
She ran into the house, pushing Jiho out of her home and locked the door on him. Jiho, surprised, started knocking on the door, yelling at the wooden frame while the sound of his fist pounding against the objects rang in the neighborhood.
"That stupid girl… Geez, she's the mess that just causes more trouble," Jiho muttered, shoving his hands in his pockets. He glanced behind him and saw Jiyong standing still. "What are you still doing here?"
Jiyong blinked his eyes. "Oh, I thought I was going to get answers."
Jiho heaved a sigh and rubbed his cold hands against his pale face. "Well, I suppose there's no reason for me to hide anything from you. After all, you seem to figure everything out faster than me."
"So are you assuming that I know why you guys are like this?" Jiyong asked. "I have no clue on what relationship you two have."
The younger boy stared, trying to figure out if Jiyong was trying to make him act like a fool. When he decided that he was being honest, he cleared his throat and leaned against the door.
"Minah and me… We were really close childhood friends," Jiho revealed. His eyes narrowed when he saw the look of shock on Jiyong's face. "Don't tell anyone. Especially don't tell Jieun."
Jiyong remained quiet for a few more minutes. "I find it hard to believe that you two were childhood friends. I mean, really? You guys fight so much, it's ridiculous! You two are an separate sides, too. One of you is supporting Jieun, while the other one is against her. Like, really? You two used to be friends? Childhood friends?"
"Believe whatever you want to believe, but I'm just telling the truth. You can't tell anyone though, okay?" Jiho said.
"Sure, sure. I don't tell," Jiyong said. He sighed and rubbed his forehead with his thumb and middle finger. "Well, I'm starting to have a head ache. I had a crazy day, and Jieun's still at my house."
"Jieun?" Jiho repeated, pleasantly surprised. "She didn't go home?"
"Didn't want to," he responded. "I need to go back and check on her. Hopefully she'll leave today. Later." Before Jiyong left, he stopped and turned around. "Hey, can I ask you a small question?"
"Go ahead," Jiho said, thinking that it was going to be about him and Minah.
"You like Jieun, right?" Jiyong asked him.
The boy's face turned bright red. "W-What?"
"You have a crush on Jieun, right?" Jiyong repeated.
"I…I-I don't!" Jiho denied, still red. "W-Where would you get that s-stupid idea?"
Jiyong grinned. "That's cute, you know? Having that little crush when you're trying to be a bad boy?"
"S-Stop it! Man, you're being embarrassing!" Jiho cried out. "You better not tell Jieun!"
"I don't have a reason to tell her, so you're secret is safe with me," Jiyong assured. "Anyway, later!"
That night, as Jiyong came home, he couldn't help but think about Jiho's and Minah's relationship. He still couldn't believe that at one point in their lives, they had actually gotten along with each other. He wondered what tragic event ruined their previous relationship, and he suspected that it would've been something huge.
What are you thinking, Kwon Jiyong? he asked himself, stopping himself. You're not supposed to get involved with these kinds of things! You don't care about this. This is just…more burden to think of.
He took a deep breath as he climbed the stares to his home. Stepping in front of his house, he heaved a small sigh, a bit exhausted with internally fighting with himself for avoiding any high school dramas. He gently tapped his hollow cheeks, and rubbed his eyes. Grabbing the key from his back pocket, he leaned towards the door and began to unlock the door. Twisting the knob, he gently pushed it open, listening to the odd creaking sound. A soft owl hooted from the roof, and Jiyong didn't even know that there were owls living on the roof. The room was still dark, but the dim moon light hauntingly beamed down the room.
He caught his breath just when he was about to flicker on the light switch. His eyes grew to a dramatic size, his lips turning purple as his skin was washed in an ugly shade of murky white. His fingers trembled as his eyes struggled to gaze away from the limp figure in the middle of the room. His heart raced—anxiety was the new cold running across his veins. His mind prayed and prayed that this small body was someone he didn't know. He hoped that this shadow was just playing pretend, that this was all a joke and that his trust wasn't played around.
But the figure refused to move. A bloody color leaked out of the large cut from her skin, and the knife she was holding on the other hand glimmered in the moonlight. The apples that were cut this morning were oxidized, and its red skin was, again, dipped in more red as the puddle encircled the fruit.
After he cleared his mind, Jiyong quickly reached into his cheap phone and began to click on three numbers, waiting for the taunting ringing to stop echoing in his head.
"Hello, 119? A girl in my house committed suicide."
It was late; the clock had read approximately two in the morning. Jiyong had planned to call Jiho earlier to let him know that his friend was in the ER room, but now he was glad that he had not called the student to come. Otherwise, Jiho would've been staying late in the hospital, and he probably wouldn't have gotten a wink of sleep. He did make sure to call the manager and say that he was at the hospital and briefly explained the situation to him. He expected the manager to say something like "this is why teenagers are so troubling" or "you're life is surrounded by teenage drama," but the boss didn't. Instead, the manager kept quiet, said that he understood the situation, and told him to not come to work for a while until the girl was in stable condition.
For the next thirty minutes, Jiyong continued to sit down on the same spot, not budging from his seat. He only got up when he saw some patients wanting to sit down, but they never came to sit. Instead, they came to give the worried man some words of comfort, especially since he was dreadfully pale and he couldn't stop shaking. Is was true that Jiyong needed some comfort, but the words didn't get into his head. Instead, his mind was filled with the thought of stepping outside for a bit, taking out a cigarette and smoking a puff or two, then coming back in when his anxiety decreased.
But he couldn't do that. If he had gone outside, then he might miss the doctor calling him in. Or, if Jieun had called her parents, he might miss seeing them and explaining to them what the situation was. He sighed to himself and sunk his head low, his foot constantly tapping against the wide ground.
"May I see Lee Jieun's guardian?" the nurse called out. Jiyong shot up, then looked around.
"I believe her parents are not here," Jiyong said, running up to the nurse.
"Oh, yes. Well, she specifically asked for not to call her parents. Normally, we do, but in her situation, she asked for her guardian to see the doctor instead." The nurse paused and looked at him. "Are you her guardian?"
"Yes. My name is Kwon Jiyong," he said, nodding. Why didn't the girl call her parents? He understood that it might be embarrassing, but this was an emergency situation!
"Perfect, she specifically asked for you to talk to the doctor. Please come with me," she said.
The nurse led him to another room, where he was sure that the doctor was waiting for him. Jiyong's palms began to get sweaty, and he was feeling awful. Would the doctor blame him for the situation? Surely, this was not his fault…was it?
"Right here," she told him, opening the door. "Dr. Lee, Lee Jieun's guardian, Kwon Jiyong, is here."
"Yes, come in," the doctor told them. The nurse gestured Jiyong to enter. When he did, the nurse closed the door behind her and left the two along in privacy. Jiyong looked around, trying to find Jieun. The doctor, who noticed, motioned him to a seat. "Sit, sit. I've already explained everything to Jieun."
Jiyong obeyed. He sat down and wiped his hands against his knees, his lip as he waited to here any dreadful words from the doctor's mouth.
"Jieun is okay," the doctor stated. "It seems that she hasn't cut herself too deep. We suspect that she had fainted after seeing her own blood." Jiyong's chest felt lighter. "However, while checking if she had other cuts, the nurse noticed that she has some severe bruises around her body. Do you know anything about this?"
Jiyong gulped. When he had seen Jieun bleeding and unconscious, he had completely forgotten that bringing her to the hospital meant that she could reveal her bruises. What if he was charged for something like this? Oh, the terror!
"Due to certain circumstances, she had asked me not to tell anyone," Jiyong said honestly, trying to evade the topic. He knew that the doctor was highly suspicious of him. Anything that would come out of Jiyong's mouth that related to this topic would make him suspicious.
"Well, we would like to ask her some questions and keep her in the hospital for a few more days. She has asked for an immediate discharge, but we're afraid that she might be abused at home." The doctor peered at him while lowering his glasses. "We also want her to attend some therapy group sessions."
Oh, gosh. Maybe the hospital wasn't such a great idea, Jiyong thought, regretting being in the situation. "Is it possible for me to just talk to her for a bit? I'd like to have this discussion with her. I'm not even someone she lives with. I just know her."
The doctor seemed skeptical, but he allowed him to see Jieun. He walked out of the office and led Jiyong to another room, where Jieun was staying in. When he opened the door, he was pleasantly surprised to see Jieun sitting up rather than lying down. She was talking to some children, dressed in the same gown as them. Her face was pale, but not as pale as Jiyong's. She glanced over at the door, and bit her bottom lip in shame.
She had so many things to apologize to him.
"Your guardian would like to see you," the doctor told him. He glanced at the children, who continued to stare at them. "You should all be in bed." The children groaned, but the doctor turned his attention away from them and to Jiyong. "I'd like to remind you that you're past visiting hours, so please try to make this as quick as you can. Please come to my office immediately after you've made your decision with her."
"Understood," Jiyong replied, nodding his head.
The doctor left, and the children scurried to their bed. The older boy heaved a sigh and walked over to Jieun. He took a stool and sat next to Jieun, folding his hands as he patiently tried to think of the next words to say.
"I leave you at my house, trusting you that you wouldn't do anything like this, yet you ended up attempting to commit suicide," Jiyong summarized. Jieun continued to look down at her hands. She knew that it wasn't the time to apologize. Not right now, at least. "What were you thinking, Lee Jieun? Do you know how many burdens I have to carry on my shoulder because of this? I hardly know you, and you caused all this problem for me!"
"I was thinking!" Jieun shouted back, raising her voice to keep Jiyong quiet for a bit. She let out a shaky sigh and closed her eyes. "I was thinking about…about my life, and what I've done to it. I just couldn't bear the idea of my life being wasted. I couldn't believe that I might've wasted my life for a boy who doesn't even love me anymore. I did so many things for him, yet we're only falling apart in our relationship. I thought it was better to just end my life. I didn't think you would suffer so much—"
"No, no more 'Chanyeol this' and 'Chanyeol that'. I want a clear, legitimate reason for this. What you're telling me is that you did this for Chanyeol. No. Give me another excuse," Jiyong demanded, crossing his arms.
"It's not an excuse! It's the truth!" Jieun blurted. She turned her head at him with watery eyes. "Do you know how it feels to be unloved? Sometimes I just feel like I'm this puppet that everyone else could just pick up and play with, but when Chanyeol came along, I actually felt human. I felt alive! He treated me something that no one else really gave me: care, attention, and love."
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