Red Mansion Chapter 19

Author: nicotine

When awake, he can easily engage in conversation, but whether it’s due to medication or sleepiness, he couldn’t articulate a single sentence today. Each time he sees his aging parents, who are becoming increasingly frail, his head throbs, and his chest pounds until it feels like it might burst.

“Why didn’t you eat? You keep wasting everything.”

“….”

Without a reply, he pushed a pill through the rough, unresponsive lips. Perhaps due to the bitterness, his father tried to spit out the pill with his tongue. Saliva clung to his lips, causing the pill to fall to the floor.

“…. Even if you skip meals, you have to take the medicine. They said you need it to survive. I bought it at a high price. You have to take it to get better.”

Otherwise, his father and mother won’t be able to run the small shop again. The three of them have to earn a living together. Does he know how difficult it is for him to live alone like this? The expenses have multiplied since both of them got sick. Doesn’t he understand?

Sung-kyung muttered with a resentful gaze. It was a small sound that might or might not be heard by the father lying in his arms, and his voice trembled slightly at the end.

As the pill, damp on one side, was put back into the mouth, his father spat it out again. After repeating this a few times, irritation surged suddenly. An uncontrollable, fiery blaze wrapped around his chest. Like a flame stuck to paper, anger erupted in an instant. Lately, the frequency of these outbursts has become too frequent, causing distress.

“What kind of medicine is this that you’re spitting out!”

Sung-kyung’s fierce scream pierced the darkness. After nervously pushing the pill between her father’s lips, she tilted the water cup indiscriminately. Slowly, his father’s throat responded.

“Swallow quickly. That’s how you’ll survive!”

The suppressed voice trembled. Sung-kyung’s whites of the eyes were dimly red, as if blood vessels had burst. Tears no longer flowed.

“Ugh.”

As the father swallowed the pill with the waves, wrinkles momentarily appeared on his forehead and then disappeared. He didn’t express anger or write an impression as if he were a mannequin devoid of emotions. The front of his chest was damp with water. Still, he didn’t complain once.

“Don’t open the door for anyone. It’s hard to move. Why bother opening it?”

“….”

If you can’t stop it, just stay still. Why did you open the door when you’re in such a difficult position, barely able to go to the bathroom? Just inviting trouble and risking losing money. The rising reproach had to be forced down like a bitter pill.

The sharp pain, like stabbing the back of the neck with a sharp object, was felt several times. Sung-kyung moved his hands familiarly, enduring the pain. Patting, patting, he comforted his father’s dry chest and back. They had said that with a weakened digestion, drinking water might cause him to choke. Even after a long time of doing so, his father closed his trembling eyes without uttering a word.

“….”

An action in anger that might be regretted later, yet it wasn’t regretted. Seeing the soaked state of his father’s front, curses escaped him. Biting his lip, the itchy inner part of his cheek stung.

While wiping the moisture with a towel on the floor, Sung-kyung did not show any expression. He alone extinguished the ember of anger that no one else could quell. With an exhausted demeanor, he woke his mother and, once again, gave her a pill.

“Oh, your face. Why… why like this?”

His mother finally asked. They had said that her eyesight would gradually disappear. It seemed that it had to become this distorted before it caught her eye.

“….I’m sorry.”

Sung-kyung bowed his head, wiping his swollen cheek. Unspoken words filled his mind, sharply stabbing at him.

I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have gotten angry when there was no reason to. I’m sorry. Mother told you to always lock the door. Because you didn’t listen, the shop got completely ransacked. The money we had hidden was taken too. We couldn’t even collect the delivery fee from the courier. What should we do now?

The worries that couldn’t be revealed in the convenience store poured out uncontrollably as they entered Room 422. Still, Sung-kyung didn’t open his mouth. After all, the worries were solely his burden. Not a single thing would change even if he spoke. His mouth only hurt.

He lay down in front of the bathroom. Only then did Sung-kyung’s exhausting day come to an end.

***

There were few people wandering around when the convenience store opened. It was early in the morning, and there weren’t many diligent people in the Red Mansion. However, today was different. The corridor was filled with loud noises.

“Oh, just now? Oh my, why is your face like that again? Haven’t you applied medicine?”

Despite the worried words, Sung-kyung’s gaze was fixed solely on the piled boxes.

“What is all this?”

“What do you think? Deliveries. Open the door. There’s still more on the truck.”

They were items he hadn’t ordered. He had planned to sell what he had for a while and then come up with a strategy. In front of the convenience store, there were boxes piled up. He had never seen this many items removed at once. The delivery man, it seemed, shared the same thought and spoke with an excited voice.

“Seems like the first time this many deliveries came here.”

It was a place they had been dealing with since his parents operated it. Kim, the assistant manager with a vest that said ‘Happy Distribution,’ smiled warmly. It was a smile rarely seen by the residents of the Red Mansion.

“I haven’t ordered anything.”

If you called it money, even if you scraped together coins, it would barely amount to a few tens. Sung-kyung looked perplexed. However, his expression was well hidden behind his disheveled bangs.

“Oh, this is all calculated. Look at the name, just wait a moment.”

Kim, the assistant manager, rummaged through his vest pocket and pulled out a neatly folded receipt, holding it at arm’s length. After squinting his eyes and adjusting them even thinner, he tentatively read the writing.

“Kwon, Cheongrim?”

“Just a moment.”

“Yeah, Kwon Cheongrim.”

Kim, the assistant manager, widened his eyes in a puzzled expression, asking if there was a problem.

Why did Kwon Cheongrim send goods here? This many… Sung-kyung scanned through the high stacks of boxes. Ramen, cigarettes, bread. Most of them were items frequently sold in the convenience store.

Perhaps fearing he couldn’t repay debts, fearing he couldn’t pay the move-in fee. So, did Cheongrim send these items? To prevent him from selling things for a long time? So he wouldn’t have to sell his body?

“….”

Sung-kyung bit the soft flesh below his lips. It became clear. He was undeniably becoming a special existence to Cheongrim. How should he record this in his notes? Does he finally recognize himself? Is he starting to move as he wishes? Anything was fine. Regardless of the content, the fact that Cheongrim was showing interest in him wouldn’t change.

“Just. Now you’re interested, huh.”

The conversation he overheard on the rooftop came to mind. It might have been about him. Sung-kyung lowered his head and shyly smiled. Even though Kim, the assistant manager, who was moving the boxes, looked at him with a puzzled expression.

After Assistant Manager Kim moved the boxes, Sung-kyung took out the items and placed them on the shelves. The once-empty space gradually filled up. Although there was not a single item for him, it was still satisfying. How should he sell this without feeling wasteful? He muttered to himself.

“Oh, this was requested to be delivered.”

“By whom?”

“Probably the person who ordered the items? I received this in the early morning, so I’m not sure. Check if there’s a note inside.”

As he folded empty boxes and stacked them neatly, Kim, the assistant manager, brought a shopping bag instead of boxes this time. Sung-kyung accepted it with a bewildered expression. Peering inside, he found a mobile phone and a note. The memory of Cheongrim asking for his number yesterday came to mind.

“Sign here.”

Kim, the assistant manager, suddenly extended the receipt. Sung-kyung took out the pen he had stuck in a paper cup and began to sign. At the bottom of the receipt, there were seven digits. The pen tip hesitated before the tremendous amount written.

“Sign here too.”

Another receipt was placed side by side. Again, the number was seven digits. He had never held such a large sum of money before.

“What’s this for?”

“Oh, just do it.”

It felt almost like a dream. Despite the pain from the injuries he received yesterday, he had such a whimsical thought. Sung-kyung wrote his name below the receipt.

“Take care and make sure to apply medicine on your face. It’s a mess.”

“….Yes, goodbye.”

Whether he was genuinely concerned or just persistently expressing worry, Kim, the assistant manager, who glanced at Sung-kyung’s bruised face a few more times, soon left the corridor, massaging his stiff shoulders.

Setting aside the cleanup, Sung-kyung sat at the counter and took out the items that had been bothering him since earlier. Upon closer inspection, it wasn’t a note but a business card. On the deep red card, only Cheongrim’s name and number were casually written. On the back of the card, there was a line written with a pen.

Repay the borrowed value too.

If ‘repay the borrowed value’ means repaying the loan, it could also imply paying for logistics and order fees. He had never asked for a loan. The seven-digit numbers he saw on the receipt earlier came to mind. Whether it was because he already had a lot of debt or the numbers had increased a bit, he didn’t feel like the world was going to collapse on both sides. Instead, he felt closer to resignation.

“How much debt do I have?”

He didn’t know if he would be buried under debt any moment. Nevertheless, he carefully tucked Cheongrim’s business card between the pages of his notebook. This was something he probably couldn’t discard. It was a note personally written by Cheongrim. Sung-kyung’s pale cheeks, which usually looked colorless, turned uncommonly red. It was the face of someone who had received a gift filled with affection from a lover.

Sung-kyung held the phone in his hand and looked around. The phone he used before was the cheapest flip phone, but the one Cheongrim gave him didn’t have a keypad. He had never used such an expensive phone before… Staring down at it silently, he absentmindedly touched it, and the screen lit up brightly.

The default screen appeared, showing a familiar image of a phone. Sung-kyung hesitated for a moment. There was no other reason for his hesitation than feeling overwhelmed. Too overwhelmed. Even if he lived in the Red Mansion, he had no way of knowing Cheongrim’s number. But now, Sung-kyung knew Cheongrim’s number.

He would probably have several red business cards, and seeing that the ink didn’t clot, he seemed to use quite an expensive pen. Also, the handwriting was quite mature. More information unknown to others piled up in Sung-kyung’s notebook. The more that happened, the more he felt the wall that had been between him and Cheongrim was crumbling.

“The handwriting is beautiful.”

Sung-kyung gently touched Cheongrim’s business card with his fingertips. In his mind, he imagined Cheongrim’s large hand holding the pen. A long hand with sturdy knuckles, gripping the pen. Veins that wriggled finely with each stroke. The atmosphere was completely different from the rebellious mood, with neat handwriting.

“Ah.”

With just one business card, he felt the exhilaration that reached the tip of his head. However, there was something different from before. Now, he belonged to someone who was allowed to feel like this. Chuckling, laughter burst out.

Ziing. The phone vibrated. It was an unsaved number, but it didn’t feel unfamiliar. It was the number he had memorized since then, the same as the one on the business card. The hand that had been hesitating several times above the screen finally pressed the call button.

“…Hello.”

– Save the number.

The voice didn’t reveal who they were, but it was a voice that could never be mistaken. Maybe because it was his first time making a call, it strangely felt lower.

“All right.”

Beyond the phone, a soft murmur was heard, saying, “I can recognize just by hearing the voice.”

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nicotine

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