Jiyong couldn't help but pity Jiho in his thoughts. There was a boy who actually had a crush on her, yet Jieun was unable to see that. If Jiho ever knew of this, tragedy would only strike his heart. In the back of his mind, Jiyong made a mental note not to tell the boy about the situation.
"You asked for love," Jiyong slowly started, "and you were given it. You gave back the love, and thought that you never received it back." He hesitated to grab her hands, but did so when a spark of courage burst in his chest. "Jieun, there is always love around you. It might be that you haven't met those people yet, but there always is—"
"No!" Jieun shouted, causing all the little children around her to jump from their beds. "No one can fall in love with me! Don't you see what I've done to myself? I've… I've deteriorated myself into a monster; an obsessive monster who can't receive love anymore."
"You're being too hard on yourself now," Jiyong said gently. "If anything, I've done more harm when it comes to love."
Jieun lifted her head. "What have you done that could be more terrible than my situation?"
The older boy oddly rubbed his ring finger and forced a weak smile. "Let's just say that I might've ran away and deeply scarred a woman's heart."
"Isn't that what I'm doing?" Jieun asked tiredly. "Except aren't I hurting myself?"
"No. No, you and I are different. You… You are still too young." He let out a shaky breath and stood up. He carefully placed his hand over her head, stroking her hair with his large fingers. "Anyway, I'll try to talk to the doctors and ask for an immediate discharge. He'll probably set up some counselors or something."
Jieun nodded, then looked down at her hands in silence. She ran her fingers gently against the scars she made on her wrist. A heavy feeling hung on her chest, dropping her heart to an indescribable ache. She bit her bottom lip, still ashamed of what she was planning to ask him next.
"You won't call Chanyeol, right?" Jieun asked.
Jiyong blinked. It had never occurred to him that he would call Chanyeol. He didn't know the boy's phone number, but he was sure that if he asked Minah, then he could get the bastard's number and he would probably come.
"No, I won't call," Jiyong said, unsure of what she wanted. He watched her sigh in relief.
"Can you do me another favor?" Jieun asked, noticing that Jiyong was getting ready to leave.
"What?" he asked her.
"Can you keep this a secret from the others, too? I'm sure that if you told Jiho, he would skip his classes and come for me."
"But that guy is stubborn. He'll find out."
"Tell him that I need him to attend my classes and take notes."
"Does he take good notes?" Jiyong asked, finding it a bit funny to imagine Jiho being a studious student.
Jieun broke in a smile. "Jiyong, Jiho is more than just a delinquent. He's a really good friend. When he's serious about something, he'll do it."
"You seem to know him quite well," Jiyong mentioned.
"Of course. We sit next to each other at school. He usually forgets his book, so we share mine," Jieun explained. "Whenever we share books, he'd give me something to eat in class or pass notes. I think it's a good deal."
The two kept quiet for a long time. The nurse eventually came over, knocking on the wall to tell Jiyong that he would have to leave soon. Jiyong promised the little girl that he would come to visit often, which she declared for him to not. It took a few long minutes, but she eventually convinced him that she was now okay, and that she was going to sleep without having any dirty tricks upon her sleeves.
"Besides, the nurses have to check up on me every hour. They keep checking if I made any additional harm to myself," she whispered in a low voice.
"I think it's reasonable."
"Aren't you on my side? It's annoying."
"Can you blame them? I mean, I tried to leave you alone, but you ended up trying to die in my house."
"I said I was sorry."
"I'm probably never going to forgive you."
"Is it, really?"
Jieun didn't say a word. The nurse came back, almost glaring at Jiyong and telling him that he had to leave immediately. Bidding the hospitalized girl a soft "bye," he left her side and walked out of the room, hearing some soft snores from other children at different parts of the room. As he walked down the hall, the nurse guided him to the elevator.
"Is she a relative?" the nurse asked curiously.
"Oh, no. She's just a customer at my place."
"And she trusts you instead of calling her parents?"
Jiyong forced a smile. "I suppose so. Should you be the one to judge, though?"
The nurse immediately shut her mouth. They wanted for the doors to open, and when Jiyong took a step out of the elevator, he felt the nurse glaring at his back. Ignoring her at the best of his abilities, he left the hospital, his hands in his pocket, gazing at flower buds growing outside of the hospital.
Spring was coming, and he prayed that the blooming season would blossom into a settling peace.
* * *
"Minah!" Silence. "Bang Minah! Get down here right now!"
Minah, who was burrying her face in her pillow, let out a loud groan. She got off her bed and opened the door, making sure that when she swung it, she swung it enough for the door to hit the wall besides it. She stomped down the stares, angrily searching for her mother who had called her.
"What?" Minah asked with a clear attitude. "I did my hair, I'm dressed, and I hate breakfast. What else do you want me to do?"
"I want you to give these fruits to the Woo's household. I forgot to give this to Jiho's mother yesterday," her mother said. She placed a box of strawberries on the counter. Minah stared at them in disgust.
"Well, why do I have to go?"
"You and Jiho are good friends. Besides, your mom has a bad back right now."
"Well, I have a headache."
"Nonsense. You're only a high school student. You have plenty of youth and health in you. Now, go and give this to the Woo family." Minah groaned and grabbed the box. Right when she walked towards the door, he mother stopped her. "Oh, and make sure you thank them for attending our party."
"Don't I always?" Minah replied sarcastically, slamming the door behind her. She walked over to the next house, finding the secret key between the two-layered welcome mat. Without any warning, she unlocked the house and hid the key back into the rug. She took a deep breath, then twisted the door knob as she pushed the door open.
The house looked the same as usual. The walls were beaten and poor, the colors faded into a strange shade of white. She noticed a few new cracks on the wall, and a red smear that looked like blood. When she carefully walked into the neighborhood, she saw at least five bottles of alcohol lying on the table. The husband and wife were sprawled all over the couch, snoring and unconscious. The wife's hair was spectacularly wild and messy, but her peaceful expression made it seem as if it was naturally crazy. The husband's tie was still around his neck, but one of his hand grabbed onto the tip, almost seeming as if he was strangling himself. He snored loudly, his heavy eyes not daring lift up to greet the guest.
"Thank you for attending our party," Minah muttered under her breath, putting down the box of strawberries on the counter. She wasn't very fond of Jiho's parents. They were wild, often drinking for fun and doing other crazy fun. To many adults, they looked at them as if they were just having a blast, but to Minah, they were like drunk children ready to be a pest.
"What in the world are you doing here?"
Speaking of pests. Minah turned around and gave Jiho an odd stare. He returned the stare with a frown, displeased with the fact htat she had barged into the house without permission—again.
"My mom said to drop off some strawberries here. No one was going to open the door, so I figured that I could use the secret key," Minah said, crossing her arms.
"Well you could've at least tried to ring the door bell or knock. I was awake," Jiho said, walking over to the counter to check on the fruit. "Tell your mom that I said thanks."
"Whatever. I'm leaving," she declared. She was just about to step outside until she stopped and turned around. "When are you heading to school?"
"Ten minutes after you go," he replied.
"You'll be late," she quickly pointed out.
"Better than being seen walking around you," he responded coldly, taking a handful of strawberries to wash.
Minah bit her bottom lip. "You… You know, it's not bad walking near me or anything. I'd rather have you walk near me or ahead of me instead of coming to school late because you want to avoid me."
"You're crazy," he blurted, heading towards the sink. "I'd hate to walk around near a bully."
Her eyes narrowed as she curled her fingers into a fist. "Fine! Not like I was worried about you in the first place." There was a quick pause. "You don't even know what she did to me in the first place!"
"I asked her, and she said that she did nothing wrong!" Jiho said, raising his voice.
"You're an idiot!" With that, she slammed the door and left the house, storming away with an aching heart that no one—not even herself—could understand.
It had been a few days since Jieun's discharge from the hospital. As he had expected, Jiho was constantly bugging him about Jieun, asking him where she was and what was going on with her. Of course, Jiyong obeyed Jieun's request and kept quiet, often lying to the poor boy that she was out to do something that she didn't inform him about. Jiho was skeptical at first, but her absence soon convinced him that Jiyong was right and that she was just busy.
Meanwhile, Jiyong noticed that Minah's and Jiho's relationship had become far worst than he had imagined. He kind of regretted telling Minah to give Jiho the chocolate she made on Valentine's Day. He thought that it had ruined Minah's desire to befriend Jiho, and that it had broken off any potential relationship of friendship between the two. Going back to his former policy, Jiyong kept quiet, not taking any sort of action to make the two friends. If they wanted to stay as enemy, then he would allow them to stay that way.
Ironically, Jieun's boyfriend at came to the shop once. He claimed that he was looking for something that other stores didn't have, but it was clear that he was searching for Jieun. Every time Jiyong saw Chanyeol, he noticed that his fist kept throbbing, the veins popping out as if he was always angry at the invisible figure in front of him. He wanted to vent his anger out on something (or someone), but he couldn't do so in public or to anyone else. He even tried to pick up a fight with Jiyong, but Jiyong knew how to play his game. The tall boy ended up leaving the store, kicking over some boxes that the shop across had stacked.
"So how does it feel having me back here?" Jieun asked, sipping some milk from the small bottle.
"I don't know. It doesn't feel different to me," Jiyong replied, thinking that it was probably because he kept visiting Jieun at the hospital. Seeing her face almost every day has became his everyday routine, and he wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not.
"Well, I think it's completely different," Minah chirped up. "I haven't seen you in days! Chanyeol has been searching for you."
Jieun could only force a tight smile. She obviously didn't like hearing what her boyfriend has been doing, especially from the girl who revealed that Chanyeol was flirting with others. It kind of made Jieun squeamish, and she felt like she was suffocating.
"Is he now?" Jieun croaked out.
"Never mind about him," Jiho said hurriedly, understanding that Jieun didn't like the subject. "Where were you?"
The girl glanced at Jiyong. "Where… Jiyong told you I was at."
"He never told me anything. He kept saying that you were busy," Jiho revealed.
"Well, that I was," Jieun started, nodding her head as her eyes were on Jiyong. "I was busy."
"Busy doing what?" Jiho pressed on.
"Reflecting on my actions," she mumbled. Although Minah and Jiho weren't able to catch her words, Jiyong knew exactly what she said. With a tight expression, he continued to mop the floor, hiding his face from the kids by having his back on them.
"Say that one more time. I couldn't hear you," Jiho said earnestly.
"Community service." Jieun continued to lie, faking a brighter smile. "Community service at the hospital."
The group became oddly quiet. Jieun's answer didn't sound as convincing as she had hoped it would sound. Jiho wanted to push on further, trying to pry Jieun from holding in her secret. Still, he knew that the best thing to do at that point was to keep quiet and accept her response. It would help move the topic to something else, and comfort Jieun.
But he didn't.
"Hospital? Really? I mean, I don't think you would have the time to do community service over here," Jiho said. "Plus, isn't it far away from here?"
"Community service shouldn't even keep you from attending school, either," Minah added.
Jiyong heaved a loud sigh, garnering the attention of the little kids. He walked over to Minah, and locked his arm around his neck. He quickly pulled Minah closer to him, pulling her away from the cash register.
"You," he said, pointing at Minah with his other hand, "come with me inside." He turned to the Jiho and Jieun. "We'll be right back."
The two employees walked into the employee's room. Jieun bit her bottom lip. She was glad that he took Minah away so that the conversation wouldn't be more awkawrd, but he didn't like the way he took her away. When his arm was around Minah's long neck, she felt a pang of envy pierce her heart. She tried to convince herself that it was only a small gesture, but no matter how she looked at it, it came out to be a big deal.
"So," Jiho said, interrupted her thoughts. He cleared his throat. "Where were you?"
Jieun felt helpless. Was there really no other choice but to tell him the truth? She dreaded telling him the truth. It would probably offend him, since she knew that he had tried so hard to befriend her and all. Telling him that she was hospitalized because of attempted suicide would drive him crazy, hurting his feelings and probably making him feel worthless.
"I didn't want to go to school and see Chanyeol. I was afraid to see him cheat on me," Jieun said. She technically wasn't lying. She did try to commit suicide after discovering that Chanyeol was flirting with other girls. Technically, he was the cause of her absence. Technically.
"Really?" Jiho asked, raising his eyebrow.
"Honest," she squeaked out, looking away. She glanced over at the door to the employee's room, trying to think about a new subject. "Hey, do you know if Jiyong's dating anyone?"
Jiho's eyes slightly widened. Jiyong? Why was she talking about that jerk?
"No, I don't," Jiho said slowly, his eyes still on Jieun. "Why?"
"Oh, nothing," Jieun replied. "I was just…wondering."
Jiho's face fell when he saw a different look on her face. Her cheeks colored into an innocent shade of red, her eyes softening into a blissful expression. He noticed a small smile forming on her lips, as her long fingers curled over the glass bottle. Her face glowed with admiration, and her brown orbs would never leave the door.
"Do you think Minah knows if Jiyong's dating?" Jieun asked.
"I doubt it," Jiho said quickly, looking away. "Why are you suddenly asking about this?"
"I-Is it sudden?" Jieun stuttered, snapping out of her small daze. She looked at Jiho with wide eyes. "Is it strange?"
"Yes, it is!" Jiho replied, raising his voice a bit. "It's definitely strange that you're getting interested in him."
"I-I'm not interested!" Jieun protested. "I'm just curious."
"Why?" Jiho asked. He narrowed his eyes. "Lately, you've been hiding a lot of stuff from me. Come on, be honest."
Jieun laughed. "Do I have to report to you everything I do? Honestly, Jiho. I think you're getting a bit too tense. Don't worry, I'm not leaving anywhere."
Jiho's expression became twisted. "That's not what I wanted to hear—"
"It seems like Jiyong and Minah aren't coming out any time soon. I'm going to go to the market. I need to buy some ingredients for dinner. I'm sure Chanyeol is mad at me, so I better buy meat," Jieun said. She got up from the stool and grabbed her belongings.
"I… I'll follow!" Jiho stammered, getting up on his feet. "I need to get something, too."
"Alright, then," Jieun replied. "Alright."
The two left, leaving the small store completely isolated. A few minutes after they stepped outside, Minah and Jiyong slowly opened the door. A loud, disturbing creak echoed in the small convinience store. The two walked over to their individual spots: Minah behind the counters, and Jiyong bending down to grab the mop he had dropped earlier. They quietly resumed their business, waiting for someone to come in and break the silence.
When Minah realized that it would be a slow hour, she relaxed and leaned on the counter. Her shoulders sagged, and her eyes never left Jiyong. After a minute, she took a deep breath and sighed loudly.
"She likes you," Minah blurted.
"Who?" Jiyong replied innocently.
"Jieun. She likes you," she repeated.
"She likes Jiho, too—"
"No, that's not what I meant," Minah interrupted, clearly annoyed. "She likes you."
"She also liked Chanyeol—"
"Are you the same guy who was eavesdropping on those two's conversation with me? Jiyong, you know that she likes you," Minah said, determined to make him feel somewhat uneasy.
Jiyong stopped mopping the floor and looked up. "Okay, so she likes me. What do you want me to do?"
Minah blinked. That was something she wasn't expecting. She only shrugged her shoulders, clueless of what Jiyong should do in this kind of situation.
"I don't know. Date her, or something?" she awkwardly suggested.
"Isn't she a minor?"
"You guys are only five years apart. I'm sure it's not illegal or anything—"
"I refuse," he simply replied.
"Why? Do you hate her?" she asked.
"No, I don't hate her," he said slowly, looking at the ground. "It's just that even if I decided to date her when she's at age, I wouldn't deserve her."
"Oh, come on! You're Jiyong, for crying out loud! Annoying brats call you 'King Kwon' and other stuff. What could you possibly have done that wouldn't deserve her?" Minah exclaimed, almost gawking at him.
The older boy rubbed his ring finger with an odd motion. "You just want me to date her so that you can date Chanyeol."
Minah smirked. "Well, that was half my intention."
"Half, you say?"
"Then may I hear the other half of your intention?"
"I just wanted to see how things would go. It seems interesting, don't you think?" Minah asked.
"You're having way too much fun with this," Jiyong said, chuckling. "Who told you to play around with this?"
"With love," he said. He stopped mopping the floor and stretched his arms. "Enough of this conversation. I think it should end here."
"So that's it? You're just going to walk away and pretend that Jieun never said anything?"
"She didn't say she liked me, though."
"Really? That's it? Come on, Jiyong! It's implied that she likes you!" Minah nearly shouted.
"Minah," Jiyong called in a serious tone. Her lips clamped shut as she straightened her posture.
At the very moment Minah made eye contact with Jiyong, she felt a small chill on her back. His eyes were gleaming with anger, eyes filled with unbearable amount of hatred. Yet, there was a shadow of sorrow hiding below his eyes, as if he was hiding a painful memory too agonizing to bring back. Fear struck Minah's heart, and she could only freeze in silence. His eyes were like that of a tyrant shushing up the peasants from revolting.
His difficult expression quickly flipped into a brilliant smile. "Why don't you go ahead and take the day off?"
"Huh?" She scrunched her eyebrows, confused.
"Take the day off."
"Why should I—"
"Bang Minah," Jiyong said slowly. "You're being awfully annoying today, aren't you?"
The girl bit her tongue. The look in his eyes said it all: don't fight back. She only nodded her head, and sprinted to the employee's room, ready to take the day off. When she changed, she left from the back door, avoiding Jiyong at all cost. She paused, looked back, then ran and made her way to the super market.
* * *
"You think Jiyong's hiding something?" Jiho asked, looking the row of chips. Minah nodded her head, putting one large potato chip bag in the shopping cart. Jiho quickly pulled it out and handed it to Jieun, who placed it back at its original spot.
It was a miracle that Minah was able to catch up with Jiho and Jieun. She thought that if she went to the market, they would be gone, but they were still looking around, their cart as empty as the other carts around them. Although Jiho was annoyed at her decision to join them, he allowed her to follow, mainly because Jieun was interested in the topic.
"I don't think he's hiding something. I know he is," Minah declared.
"What could he possibly be hiding?" he asked her. They stopped in front of the fruit and vegetable section. "Do you need anything here, Jieun?"
"I just need to buy onions and garlic," she replied, walking over to the piles of onion. She returned with a plastic bag full of onions. "Anyway, what do you think Jiyong is hiding? If, that is, he is hiding something."
"I don't know, but he always gets touchy when it comes to his love life. It's like something happened to him in the past. I don't know what happened, but it's just odd. Have you ever seen him react to any topic about love?" Minah asked them curiously.
Jiho shook his head, but Jieun stopped for a moment. She did recall that at the hospital, she was talking about love with Jiyong. She remembered him constantly rubbing his fourth finger, and the subject would quickly change into something else. It took her a moment to realize that Jiyong was very skilled at changing the subject without anyone really noticing.
"I still think you're imagining stuff. Why would you care about that guy?" Jiho pointed out. He paused, then muttered, "It seems like everyone is interested in him."
"I'm serious, though! He's definitely hiding something, and I want to figure it out!" Minah exclaimed.
"Oh, and how would you do that?" he questioned her, raising his eyebrow.
"I'm not so sure, but I'm pretty sure there's a way. There has to be a way for us to figure out what happened to Jiyong in the past. Jieun, you're interested, right?" Minah turned to Jieun, who was making her way to the meat aisle. It took her a minute to realize that she was distracted with talking to Jiho that Jieun was in her own little world. The two caught up to Jieun, who dropped the meat package without even checking to see if the cart was behind her.
"I guess I'm a bit interested," Jieun said, as if she had been listening all along.
"Great! You'll help?" Minah asked.
"But what about your status, Minah? You hang out with us, then you're life is over," Jiho pointed out. Minah gave him a quick glare, to which he replied with a snarky smirk. He wasn't wrong, and that was what annoyed Minah the most at this point.
She heaved a sigh and waved her hands. "That's okay. I can keep it a secret."
"But why are you so interested in this, Minah?" Jieun asked. She bit her bottom lip. "Do you like Jiyong?"
Minah gave her a blank stare. It felt weird hearing someone ask her if she liked Jiyong, especially since the person questioning her actually liked the man. She looked over at Jiho, who gave her a casual look. Her cheeks colored a bit and she looked away, giving Jieun a fake smile.
"I don't like Jiyong like that," Minah started, "but if there's something I want to do, then I'll give it my all to do it." She kept quiet for a moment, and looked at Jiho straight in the eyes. "You know that best, don't you."
Jiho widened his eyes, shocked at her statement. Instead of responding, he turned away and pushed the cart, leaving Jieun confused, but not interested in the subject.
* * *
The night Jiyong returned back home after a long, slow day of work, he had a dream—no, it was a memory.
The image that flashed in his mind flickered like a broken light bulb waiting to be replaced by a better bulb. He remembered seeing a girl—a girl he knew back in the days. She was crying, covering her tears with her hands. Her sorrow, measured in her tears, rose above Jiyong's ankles, turning the little drops rolling from her cheeks to a shallow lake. She kept asking him so many questions, and they were questions that he couldn't reply.
When are you coming back?
Where are you?
Are you doing okay?
Do you hate me?
In the dream, words would not escape his lips. He throat felt like it was being squeezed, and he realized that he was actually being strangled when another familiar figure came up to him. This man was angry, furious with Jiyong. His fingers wrapped around Jiyong's throat, and even though he struggled, the man would not stop.
Where the hell are you?
Come back right this instant!
She's crying, you damn bastard!
What are you so afraid of, Jiyong?
When Jiyong's dream ended, he found tears streaming down to his chin. The sun wasn't up, but Jiyong could tell that it would rise soon just from sensing the temperature in his room. He slowly rose from the floor, discovering his pack of cigarettes sitting on the side. He slowly reached over for one, coughed, and lit the white stick. He rubbed his face, letting out a heavy sigh. Wiping his tears, he rose from his bed, walked over to the window, and opened it.
With the cigarette sitting between his lips, Jiyong examined the outside world. The sky was hazy, the clouds gathering to cover the sun from the sky. The flowers that bloomed from the garden or trees gave off a dull shade of various colors. He quickly wiped away another tear that slipped out from the corner of his eyes. Exhaling, he watched the smoke bend in the empty air, finding its way up to the ceiling, and escaping into the colorless world he saw.
To the world, it was spring.
To him, it was still winter.
"Is something the matter, boy?" the manager asked, walking over to Jiyong.
Jiyong sighed, knowing that someone would figure out his messy state. His eyes were swollen, as if he had been crying all night from watching some sad dramas. His fingers revealed to be more bony, and the colors of his skin turned ash gray. Even though he tried to neatly comb his hair, he knew that nothing—not even makeup—could fix the poor condition he was in. He figured that he should at least tell the manager the truth.
"I've been having a rough time lately. I've been having these dreams… No, not dreams. More like nightmares," Jiyong explained, rubbing his eyes with his thumb and index finger. "I'm having trouble sleeping. I've been smoking quite more often, too. Sometimes, I would drink a lot just to get myself to sleep."
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