"That doesn't sound healthy. Is it because of the person at the hospital? You did ask for some time off because you had to take care of someone at the hospital," the manager said. He paused. "How is she, anyway? I never got to ask why she was stuck in that building."
"She was discharged recently. The reason why she was admitted to the hospital was because she had some… social problems, I guess," he muttered, rubbing his neck. "But yeah, I think it's partially because of the girl at the hospital."
"Ah, so it's a lady, hm?" the manager asked, amused.
"She's kind of a handful," Jiyong added.
"Kind of reminds me of my wife!" Manager Kim exclaimed. He let out a hearty laugh, which soon faded into a regretful smile. "She was always a darling, though…"
Jiyong quickly remembered that the manager did have a wife, and that he even had kids. He even remembered that the manager's wife had passed away because of some disease she had caught, and that he was in charge of taking care of three of his children. Knowing that this was becoming some kind of sensitive topic, Jiyong cleared his throat and moved on.
"Anyway, how are you children? If I remember correctly, the youngest one is going to high school soon, yes?" Jiyong asked him politely.
"Middle school," the manager corrected.
"Oh, I see."
"But he's dropping out."
Jiyong widened his eyes. "Dropping out? Why?"
"He's seen things happen at school. Oh, but don't worry. I'm not worried. I encouraged him to drop out. He'll be dropping out and he said that he wants to work on being a video game pro."
"And you support that?"
"I do," the manager said confidently. "Oh, Jiyong. I want you to leave early today. I have to go to the hospital, and I don't have enough money to pay you for over time. Plus, you've been working hard, and I think you need a few hours of break. You know, go exercise or something. Try to shake off those nightmares, hm?"
Jiyong wasn't sure if his manger was the greatest father ever for supporting the kid's dream or one of the worst fathers for encouraging his kid to drop out of school. In this modern-day era, Jiyong was sure that his son would struggle later, especially since he wouldn't get his middle school diploma or high school diploma. Then again, wasn't it illegal to drop out at such a young age?
"Don't worry. He'll be tutored," the manager answered, causing Jiyong to slightly jump. "He'll be home-schooled to get his middle school diploma. Afterwards, it depends on if he wants to attend high school or not."
Jiyong nodded his head. He watched the manager walk away, as if the conversation he had between the two was no big deal. It would be a lie to say that Jiyong wasn't shocked. In the country he was living in, education was important. No one—at least, none that ever came to his mind—dropped out of school. He didn't even think dropping was possible. Sure, school was tough, but he enjoyed school as a place to meet new people.
Before Jiyong had anything else to do, he rushed over to the manager's side. "Um, sir? When you say that you want me to leave early, just how early do I leave…?"
* * *
In the middle of the evening, Jiyong found himself taking a walk on his own. A stroll around the park was good for him. There were a few older women jogging around, wearing large protective hats to keep the UV rays from hitting their skin. A few elementary students were swinging on the monkey bars at the play ground, while their mothers watched and talked to each other from afar. He honestly didn't expect to see anyone else at the park. but he figured that there would be at least one or two people hanging around.
Jiyong found a bench far away from the playground. He sat down while fishing out his cigarette pack from his pocket. As he pulled a cigarette out, he reached into his other pocket for his lighter. With the white stick hanging between his lips, Jiyong flickered the light and watched the tip burn with a lazy passion. Putting away the items, he leaned back and looked at the children from afar.
His mind was going blank. He wasn't thinking of anything specific. In these times, he felt like it was best to watch people. These settling moments made him wonder why certain people did certain things. Like, why did the boy push the girl off the swing? Is it because he liked her, or did he hate her? Or why wasn't the mother doing anything but just laughing off the fall? Was it because she thought that it was no big deal, or because she was friends with the boy's mother?
He looked down at his left fourth finger and gave it a soft rub. The dream from last night still haunted him, but he wasn't sure if he could call it a dream. They were vivid memories mixed with his own thoughts of what those people were thinking about him. Could it really be called a dream? To him, it was more like a horrid illusion engraving fear and guilt in his soul. Like a really bad reflection, if he could actually call it something like that. It was something that showed him the past, even though he didn't want to see it.
"Look what we have here," a familiar voice said from behind. Jiyong whirled around and spotted Jiho giving him an irritated look. "It's the old man."
"What do you want?" Jiyong asked. He knew that his tone was rude, but he ought to teach the little boy a lesson or two about manners.
"Nothing. I was walking and I saw you lazing around here. Did you get fired?" Jiho asked. He casually sat next to Jiyong, but kept a small distance in order to avoid the smoke blowing at the other direction.
"Fired? Ha! No, I didn't. My manager let me off early. He needed to go visit someone at the hospital," Jiyong explained shortly. He inhaled the smoke, and while exhaling, he continued, "What about you? What made you want to walk around today?"
"Nothing much. I went and tried to find my friends until Jieun reminded me that they all had this field trip. She seemed like she was going to be okay at school, so I decided to ditch a few classes," Jiho told him. He looked at the cigarette. "Can I have one?"
"Are you of legal age?"
"Of course not."
"Then of course you can't."
"Come on, Jiyong. One cigarette? I tried it before. I didn't like it, but I'm sure I can do it this time!"
"One more of these can kill you," Jiyong replied. He walked over to a garbage can, where there was an ash tray on top. The flames faded away when the tip crashed against the soft pile of ashes. He came back after double-checking to see that the light was extinguished. "What's with all these kids asking for a cigarette nowadays? Is that a trend?"
"That's not a very good choice of words, considering that you're still smoking. You look perfectly fine, if you ask me," Jiho said, ignoring the last two questions.
"No, no. I'm not fine. Smoking just keeps me from going insane. I don't smoke often, either. I only smoke when I want to think or when I'm desperate," Jiyong responded.
"Well, I am kind of desperate. You see, there's this girl who I like—I mean, one of the guys like. Anyway, I found out that she likes some other dude and I'm trying to figure out what to do," Jiho blurted out. He wasn't sure why he was telling Jiyong all this, especially when the man was involved. He was kind of embarrassed, but the words just sputtered out on its own.
Jiyong sighed. "Oh, you mean Jieun?"
Jiho almost jumped out of his seat. "W-What? How did you know?"
"Dude, it's written all over your face. You like Jieun, and the way you stopped midway told me that Jieun's interested in someone else," Jiyong pointed out calmly.
Jiho began to feel small. "Do you…know who this guy is?"
There was a short pause. Jiyong glanced over at Jiho. He noticed the anxious look in the poor boy's eyes, as if he was worried; the boy was worried that if Jiyong knew, then something might happen and Jieun would never look his way. A flash of rejection crossed his face as Jiho recalled that Jieun never did look at his way, and probably never would.
"No, I don't."
Jiyong wondered how many lies he had told these kids. They were so innocent and fragile, yet every time he lied, they seem to fall into a sense of false comfort. Jiho's shoulders eased and he only nodded his head while looking down at the ground. It seemed like Jiho believed him because he didn't dare to mention up the topic again.
However, an urge to tease the little boy overcame Jiyong's sense of sentimentalism. "But I would love to know who this guy is."
Jiho panicked. "T-This guy? W-Who cares! No one cares! I-I mean, I don't even know him! You see, I was just asking. I just heard these rumors flying around. Yeah, rumors!"
"Oh? Did Chanyeol say anything?" Jiyong asked. "I mean, she's still dating him, right?"
Suddenly, Jiho made a small frown. He crossed his arms, staring at the distance. The atmosphere became tense, and Jiyong figured that it would be a good time to stop the teasing.
"Well," Jiyong said, getting up from the bench. He patted his pants. "I guess that's it for today. I better go home now. I—"
"Chanyeol broke up with Jieun," Jiho revealed.
Jiyong stopped. He slowly turned around, wide-eyed. The moment he locked eyes with Jiho's, he felt a shiver crawling up his spine. The exchanged a look of dominance and surprise; Jiho's eyes questioned whether the older man believed in such a statement.
"Chanyeol broke up with Jieun?" Jiyong repeated.
"Or at least, that's what I heard happened. I was knocked out after fighting Chanyeol. I do remember Jieun running up to me and shouting at Chanyeol. Then I remember seeing Jieun got the ground and the girls kicking her. When I woke up, school was over and Jieun was gone. I went around and asked what happened, and people said that Chanyeol broke up with Jieun. I don't know the details, though, because the class shunned me," Jiho explained. He pulled up his arm, where a large bruise honored his previous actions of fighting back. "If you don't believe me, check this out. Chanyeol did this just by knocking me out and trying to break my bones. Luckily for me, he only got to give it two good punches before Jieun came over."
Jiyong slowly made a fist. "You idiot! Why were you fighting in the first place? If you got a bruise like this, then you could've broken your arm! No, you might not even have an arm today if Jieun wasn't there to save you."
"It was because Chanyeol and his friends dumped a bucket of mud on Jieun when she was watering the plants—"
"Damn you, Jiho! You know, the more you fight against Chanyeol, the more hurt Jieun's going to be! What if she—" Jiyong stopped himself abruptly. He was just about to finish his sentence with "commit suicide," but he realized that she had already done that. Saying something like that wouldn't justify his words. He clenched his teeth, then growled softly. "What if she starts to hate you? Would you still be doing this?"
"Yes," Jiho replied instantly. There wasn't a moment of hesitation in his voice. "Even if she hates me and even if she tells me to stop, I will fight."
"Why? You'll only worn yourself out. You're basically fighting against an army of students ready to bring you down in a blink of an eye. You'll be tired by the end of the battle, and you'll find that there was no purpose to it," Jiyong reasoned.
"No, I disagree." Then, Jiho got up from the bench. "I'll keep fighting them. Who cares what society says? Damn society! Just because majority wants something, it doesn't mean it's right. I'll follow my own instincts. Plus, if Jieun ever comes to hate me and tells me to stop, I won't. I'll stick behind her and support her. I'd rather let her stop all over me rather than let myself see her get stopped over."
"Woo Jiho," Jiyong called softly. "I can't tell if you're stupid or if you're a boy in love."
"Think of me as stupid," Jiho answered, "because even if there's a time where I don't love Jieun, I'd still be doing this for her."
Jiyong paused, then smirked. "Of course. Of course."
* * *
"You want me to do to what?"
"Do you really want me to repeat myself, Bang Minah?"
"N-No, I understood it clearly, Chanyeol. It's just that… This is way too dangerous."
"Why? You've been shoplifting for us and got into some major trouble. Isn't that dangerous, too?"
"Well, yeah, but this is insane. You want me to hire some kind of old creep and have them stalk Jieun? What if something happens to Jieun? I can't trust any creeps."
"Then find someone you can damn trust, okay?" Chanyeol said, raising his voice. He kicked a stool in front of him, causing the group of friends around him to flinch. However, Minah stood still, like a pole not ready to lose its flag.
"How can I find someone I can trust? You're asking me to hire a professional stalker that you found on the internet. Do you know what this can do?" Minah asked, gritting her teeth.
"It'll teach Jieun a simple lesson not to mess with me when I'm trying to teach someone else a lesson," Chanyeol said. He cracked his knuckles. "Who decided to spread that stupid rumor of me and Jieun breaking up? There's no way I'd let her out of my sight."
"B-But that's what you said," one of Chanyeol's friend at his left sputtered. "Y-You said that you were b-breaking up with her later… Or was it t-that you were going to b-break her later…?"
Chanyeol gave the friend an icy glare. He showed him his fist, which was pounding with vengeance, aching to punch something that got in his way. The friend sealed his lips and backed up into the shadows.
It took a second for Minah to realize that a dark alley like the one they hung out at was the perfect place to commit some kind of crime without being caught. It made sense on why no one really wanted to stop Chanyeol at this place. This was Chanyeol's territory, and anyone who defied him would drown in the lurking shadows waiting to prey upon another vacuous victim.
"I still don't like where this is going. Do you know what this can do?" Minah asked, still frowning.
"It'll teach her a lesson—"
"It'll traumatize her. I'm all for making her life miserable, but I don't want her to go insane with fear," Minah retorted. "I'll slap, punch, kick, or dump stuff at her. I just won't do this dirty trick."
Chanyeol his lips. Then, he got up from the floor, his giant body hovering over Minah's small size. He loomed over her head, leaning close so that only centimeters separated their faces. She could feel a nasty scent coming from his large lips, almost like alcohol. The scent of beer reeked from his mouth, and Minah could only scrunch her nose and squint at him.
"You've been defying me a lot lately," Chanyeol mentioned. Minah stiffened. "What are you hiding?"
"…Nothing," Minah responded.
"You liar!" Chanyeol roared. He reached over for her hair, causing Minah to scream. Her mouth was sealed with a scotch tape he had been hiding from her. Two girls jumped in and grabbed ahold of Minah's hands, putting them on her back. She looked up at him, her eyes watered with unspeakable terror. "You. Are. Hiding. Tell me!"
Minah desperately shook her head, tears dripping from the corner of her eyes. She struggled, but whenever she pulled her head back, her hair would stretch and restrained her from escaping. They were tangled with Chanyeol's rough fingers, as if they were handcuffed to his hands.
"Seems like you don't want to talk, eh? Fine. Since you were a great friend, I'll let you off. Oh, but before I let you off, tell me: will you do as I say or not?" Chanyeol inquired. Once he saw Minah nodding her head, he freed her hair and the two girls behind her leaped back to the side.
Minah collapsed on the ground, her knees giving in to fear. Her fingers curled over her hair, checking to see that he had not torn off any of her precious hair. Then, she wiped the tears away from her cheeks, smearing her hands with mascara and salty drops of water. Biting her tongue, she threw her arm towards to him, telling him to give her the stalker's number. With a satisfied smirk, Chanyeol placed the piece of paper on the palm of her hands.
"Thank you, Minah," Chanyeol said, smiling and gently stroking Minah's hair. "You're one of the greatest friends I've ever had! I'll be sure to boost your popularity tomorrow!"
The boy left, walking away to head back home. The other kids stayed back a bit, and when they were sure that Chanyeol was gone, they rushed over to Minah's side.
"Thanks, Minah. We owe you one."
"You're the best, Minah!"
"If you need help, text me, Minah!"
One by one, they left, leaving faithless support. As Minah stared aimlessly at the ground, she sniffed.
Of course they thanked her. Who would want to be involved in such a mess? Now, it had became Minah's responsibility to contact the unknown stalker.
Of course she was the best. Who else would take this except for her? She was the escape goat, and she would always be.
Help? When she did ask for help months before, they never helped. They didn't want to help her. Getting in her mess meant a heck of a lot trouble for them. It was better to let Minah take the blame.
Damn it, Minah cursed, taking out her phone. She began to press the buttons as she glanced at the paper with blurry eyes. Damn it!
But this feeling of guilt, of sorrow, of trepidation, would somehow disappear tomorrow. After all, she didn't think that the exchange was too bad. One call for a huge amount of popularity seemed to be a reasonable deal.
Besides, her popularity mattered the most, right?
The first few days of April troubled Jiyong. For some odd reason, he wasn't able to get the sleep he needed to start the day. He would always get at least an hour of sleep, and then he would wake up from some kind of nightmare. The nightmare wasn't like his usual nightmares, where memories would just flash and remind him about his past. These nightmares were…different. It was almost like a message that he had to decode, but he wasn't able to figure it out.
The dream had consisted of three birds again, except this time, they had turned into goats. At a distance, he saw a wolf, and knew that it was his responsibility to move the sheep away. However, he wasn't able to move, and he could only watch the scene of the wolf devouring a goat while blood splattered onto the white wool of the other goats. The next thing he remembered, he had a pair of scissors in his hands, and he knew that if he could just move and get ahold of the wolf, he could cut up the stomach and release the eaten sheep, just like the story of The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids.
Except, something had stopped him from doing so. He felt something heavy on him, and he wasn't sure what it was. It was like some kind of spirit possessed him, paralyzing him, not allowing him to move from his spot. Sometimes, he would be awake, but unable to lift his eyelids until several minutes later. When he did wake up, he would always have this regretful, heavy feeling in his chest. This melancholy pain would affect him throughout the entire day, and most of the time, he depended on Minah to take care of the customer while he would take a smoke or two to get rid of this feeling.
"You're a failure," a voice said, snapping Jiyong away from his thoughts. He widened his eyes, whirling around until he saw the three delinquents huddled over a gaming device. Jiyong watched Changshik try to grab the device. "Give it to me! Man, you're such a failure! You should know by now that only normal attacks work on this guy!"
"Shut up! I got this!" Wonshik snapped, jerking his body away from Changshik's hands. "It's because Kyungsoo's breath stinks! It's distracting me!"
"Oh, go ahead and blame the guy who's not doing anything! That's right, don't blame your mistakes on me. I did absolutely nothing!" Kyungsoo yelled.
"Shut u—Oh my gosh! I lost because of you!" Wonshik shouted, groaning loudly. "Stop talking! You both are distracting me! Don't touch my shoulder!"
"You can't make me stop. I'm a free man! Now, give that to me!" Changshik demanded.
The boys soon got into a ball of mess. Arms overlapped one another while fingers clawed for the device. Every time they squirmed around, they would find themselves tangled up. It took a few more minutes until Minah angrily approached them with a newspaper. She rolled the paper up, then whipped the new weapon against their heads. The sharp pain caused the boys to let go of each other and drop the device on the table.
"Would you three just shut up? I'm sick and tired of you guys fighting! Gosh, it's ticking me off!" Minah screamed, glaring at each of them. "One more peep from you three, then I'm going to confiscate this!"
"You can't do that!" cried out Kyungsoo. "It's my game! Don't take it away because of them!"
"I don't care! You guys are annoying, loud, and act like children! For goodness sake, you guys are teenagers! Act like your own age, okay?" Minah told them.
"Some teenagers can be childish—"
"Are you talking back at me?" Minah asked Wonshik, who quickly shook his head and clamped his mouth.
Jiyong couldn't help but smirk. "Seems like you're getting ahold of this. Are you enjoying it?"
"Enjoying what?" she asked him.
"Bossing them around. You like doing those things, right? Acting like a queen."
She blushed. "A-Ah…A queen? Me? Pft! No! No way!"
He began to notice that Minah always became flustered whenever she was in center of attention. She became especially nervous when he mentioned things grand, like calling her "queen" or saying how she's "one of the better kids." He found it kind of fun to tease her, but recently, he had been taking note of how happy she felt when she heard those words.
"King Kwon! You got a customer!" Wonshik said, pointing at the figure waiting at the line.
Giving him a quick "thank you," Jiyong jogged over to the register. He gave the man a friendly smile, but his expression quickly dropped when he saw how odd the man was. The customer was wearing a long, black overcoat that covered up to his ankles. He had some nice black loafer with dark socks to cover his skin. The man's face was covered with a bandana and a large pair of sunglasses. The trilby he wore over his head made it even more difficult to see the man's face.
"How much?" the customer suddenly asked.
Jiyong snapped out of his thoughts and looked down at the counter. There was a bag of chips, a sandwich, and a glass bottle of coffee. From what Jiyong saw, there was really nothing suspicious about what was displayed on the counter. The man paused, shifted uncomfortably, then coughed loudly enough to have Jiyong politely look away. The stranger kept quiet for a few seconds, then pointed at the cigarette behind Jiyong's back.
"How much for a pack?" he asked. Jiyong quickly told him the price, and asked for his ID when he agreed to buy one. The man swiftly pulled out his driver license, displaying his age. Jiyong nodded and handed him a pack while the man pointed to the lighter. "Give me that, too."
"Sure. Here you go," Jiyong said, pressing numbers on the cash register as he handed over a lighter. He told the man the price, and the man gave him the exact moment. He took the receipt and left the store with his goodies in his bag, looking side to side while pushing back his glasses. Jiyong stared at him until he finally disappeared at the corner of the street.
Hope he's not some kind of , Jiyong thought to himself. He's way too suspicious.
"Ah! Hey! It's my turn!"
Wonshik's wild cry made Jiyong turn his head towards the children. Curious, he walked over to the trio and took a seat nearby. Knowing that the three wouldn't be looking up, he made eye contact with Minah.
"Did you school mention about anyone strange around this neighborhood?" Jiyong asked them. He noticed how quickly Minah paled, but made no comment.
"Strange… Oh! Didn't Mr. Kim say something about someone walking around?" Changshik asked.
"No, no, that was Mr. Moon. Or maybe that was Mr. Kim…" Kyungsoo's voice trailed off as he quickly motioned Wonshik to use the bomb.
"Wasn't it a guy running around? Wasn't he caught by the police?" Wonshik asked, clicking on the button to use the bomb. He let out a howl when the bomb successfully dropped onto the targets and killed them off. "Take that!"
"Yeah, he was caught by the police," Kyungsoo added, nodding his head.
"Wait, didn't this happen in Busan?" Changshik pointed out.
"Oh right. It did happen in Busan," Wonshik said, nodding his head. He briefly looked up at Jiyong. "King Kwon, the school didn't mention us anything like that. Our teacher was talking about an incident that happened in Busan."
"But we live in Seoul, so there should be no problem," Kyungsoo said.
"You guys do have a point," Jiyong muttered, rubbing his chin. "Minah, you have anything to say?"
Minah quickly shook her head. She kept quiet, looking at other objects around the room. Jiyong glanced behind his shoulders, where he last remembered seeing the strange man disappear. At the corner of his eyes, he saw Jiho and Jieun making their way down to the store. He slowly nodded his head when Jiho and Jieun entered the room.
"Jiho, Jieun. Good afternoon," Jiyong greeted them. Jieun blushed and bowed, while Jiho clicked his tongue and looked away. The two walked over to the table where the three were at. "Have you guys heard anything about a strange man in the neighborhood?"
"Strange man? Nope," Jiho said, shaking his head. "Why?"
"There was a really suspicious-looking man who came in. I was kind of worried. He was all covered up and he looked really strange. I thought that the teacher would at least talk about this, but I guess it's just someone who really hates the sun or something," Jiyong explained.
"Well, it's normal for an old geezer to be worried," Jiho said.
"Jiho! That's not nice!" Jieun said quickly, giving him a frown.
The boy squirmed in his seat. "What? It's true."
Jiyong only smiled. "Yeah, it might be just me. Maybe I was being too judgmental."
"Exactly," Jiho agreed.
Jiyong watched the teenagers chat and quarrel. He sighed to himself, remembering how he, too, was just like them: young and carefree. Before approaching the counter again, he looked out the window. He squinted his eyes when he saw a black figure standing in the alleyway. By heart, he knew that the figure was the same man who came into the shop. He continued to stare at the man until the man caught sight of Jiyong and ran away.
With a heavy heart, Jiyong resumed work, making a mental note to warn the kids before they left.
* * *
At eleven o'clock, Jiyong patiently waited for Minah to come out of the employee's room. He was standing outside in the nice weather, where nothing but silence chimed acros the streets. The night was a beautiful one: no sound, no stars, and no people. There was absolutely no clutter. His mind had finally found peace.
"Were you waiting for me?" Minah asked. He turned around and nodded at her question as she scowled at him. "Do you think I'm a baby? I told you, I can handle walking to the subway myself."
"That's not it," Jiyong said. He took out a cigarette from his pocket and lit it up with his lighter. "It's just that for a girl like you, there needs to be a proper escourt. Besides, I'm sensing a lot of strange people around here. Do you think I told Jiho to take Jieun home for no reason?"
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