Red Mansion Chapter 3

Author: nicotine

Sung-kyung watched over Cheongrim for two years, managing the store in place of their parents. Perhaps it would continue like that even afterward. Whether it was fear, admiration, resentment, or inferiority, Sung-kyung was confused, unable to determine the exact emotion. But Sung-kyung didn’t feel the need to firmly identify that emotion.

The Red Mansion had been chaotic and disorderly from the beginning. Having lived a lifetime within it, Sung-kyung was accustomed to complying with its ways. Amid the hustle and bustle of making ends meet and survival, Cheongrim’s presence loomed large and weighty. So, even when Sung-kyung was hanging on by a thread, Cheongrim remained the sole presence that didn’t flinch.

As Sung-kyung watched the figure fading into the distance, they checked the clock on the store’s wall. Then, they opened the bottom drawer and retrieved a notebook, mentally calculating the time Cheongrim had stayed.

July 13th, a total of 8 minutes. Cheongrim bought a thousand-won ice cream and paid 30,000 won. Wearing a beige shirt and a large silver watch, no scent of cigarettes lingered, but there was a strong fragrance. Sung-kyung spoke. Should they have said it was hot when asked? If it was so hot, one could have turned on the fan. Why did Cheongrim turn it towards Sung-kyung while enduring the heat? It wasn’t even refreshing… But still, it felt good. His cologne wafted in the lukewarm breeze.

He penned down thoughts and emotions as they surfaced, placing the final question mark before lifting his head. He gazed steadfastly down the now silent corridor. Despite the long hair pricking his eyes, the unwavering gaze never blinked once.

***

The residents of the mansion mostly led secluded lives, cut off from the outside world. Many of them were individuals with no apparent means of livelihood if they were to venture outside. This place suited them well, offering ample opportunities for clandestine and lucrative activities.

With around 600 people crammed into the mansion, where there was barely a breathing space, the outbreak of an epidemic seemed almost inevitable. Even the predators within the Red Mansion couldn’t escape it. Mr. Kwon fell ill and died. The mansion was left in the care of twins just over twenty years old.

Some who had disregarded the younger brothers caused trouble, unsettling the atmosphere. The twins exhibited the bodies of those ‘troublemakers’ under the cloud bridge in the central area of the mansion. Subsequent clamorers were dealt with in the same manner. Those who resisted without paying their entry fees faced similar retribution.

The twins trampled and took control of the Red Mansion more ruthlessly and oppressively than their father. Dissenting voices gradually faded. That was when Sung-kyung had just turned eleven. At that time, the restaurant owner, whom Sung-kyung had assisted, was found dead in the communal area, supposedly due to stolen medications.

Over a decade passed, and the ferocious twins shifted their focus to expanding into other businesses and power. The Red Mansion was too confined for them. It was a rarity for the mansion’s residents. The youngest sibling, resembling yet different from the twins, began to step foot into the Red Mansion, as the brothers relinquished control. That was Kwon Cheongrim.

Most people feared Cheongrim. It was due to his resemblance to his brothers, which brought an uncomfortable coarseness and vulgarity, making people uncomfortable around him. However, exceptions tend to exist everywhere. Sung-kyung felt an odd excitement from his tense demeanor.

“Two canned beers.”

This man, who often came to buy beer, lived in the very first room on the fourth floor. Sung-kyung occasionally encountered him on the stairs and recognized his face. He gruffly spoke, the hem of his upper garment fluttering. Before Sung-kyung could point to the household fridge next to the counter, he pounded the counter.

“Hurry up with the cold one, kid!”

It was a hoarse voice mixed with phlegm. The fridge had been old, making the drinks, whether soda or beer, not so cool, so Sung-kyung used to keep a few separately in an icebox. He, a regular, wouldn’t be unaware of it.

Opening the icebox placed at his feet, Sung-kyung took out two small canned beers. There was only one type of beer available. The lid of the icebox was magically inscribed with words like ‘Beer 2,000 won, Beverage 1,000 won.’ The moisture on the can’s surface made the fingertips slippery.

“That’s 4,000 won.”

The man unfolded crumpled bills, stacking them neatly one by one. His face kept glancing towards the corridor throughout the transaction; he seemed quite mindful. A companion-looking man dragged a plastic table towards a large fan. Creak, creak. The sound of the iron legs scraping against the cement floor was loud. Sung-kyung neatly stowed away the 4,000 won into the safe.

“Hey, storekeeper.”

The man, who was already opening the canned beer, called out to Sung-kyung.

“Try not to go to the communal area today if you can help it. Got it?”

The communal area was under the largest cloud bridge, a place where one could sunbathe for a long time if the timing was right. Due to living on the fourth floor, Sung-kyung couldn’t visit often, especially while managing the store, leaving no time to loiter in the communal area. It wasn’t much of a concern, but Sung-kyung politely inquired.

“Why?”

“Don’t you know the twins are here today?”

The man whispered beside his stubbly cheek, his hand touching the side of his beard. Sung-kyung shook his head. The twin brothers mainly used the main entrance, so Sung-kyung wouldn’t know their comings and goings. The man seemed satisfied that he could pretend to know and then approached the cash counter. He bent his waist slightly, facing Sung-kyung directly.

“231 and that, where was it, 151 or 152… What was it? Anyway, those two fought over some pills, and it ended up with blood spilled from 231, and he died in the end. The twins took care of it themselves. 151 right now—”

Click, he uttered, tapping his throat twice with his fingers. Sung-kyung blinked calmly. It was an entirely new story to everyone. Sung-kyung didn’t know about the fight between 231 and 151, nor did they hear news of someone dying or the twins arriving. Rumors spread quickly within the Red Mansion but didn’t reach everywhere. Above all, Sung-kyung’s indifference, especially if it wasn’t Cheongrim, contributed to it.

“They made a rag out of the body and hung it. That’s what happens here. If a twisted guy like you sees it, you might go nuts.”

The fervent talking, with a pallor of white, seemed a bit amusing. However, such thoughts remained internal.

“Okay.”

“Good. Mind your own business over there too.”

Thinking of himself as a regular, is he? If that’s the case, why not raise the prices a bit instead of just buying beer? Sung-kyung nodded casually while closing the safe.

The man gulped the beer and sat at the table. While sharing the beer with his companion, they began recounting their observations about the body they claimed to have witnessed. As it wasn’t far from the cash counter, Sung-kyung had to listen to that gruesome story despite their lack of interest.

“Those youngsters are beyond cruel.”

“They haven’t been here for long. Guys with a proper mind couldn’t endure this place.”

“True, even their younger sibling wasn’t ordinary.”

While openly discussing what they shouldn’t, the two men relentlessly criticized the Kwon brothers. Like their words, the twin brothers were particularly strict about the murders or fights happening here. Despite delegating everything to Cheongrim, if such incidents occurred, they always showed up at the Red Mansion. Whether it was a mistake or intentional, if someone killed another, they choked them in the same manner.

And they used to display the bodies where people could see them. Sometimes in the corridor, sometimes in someone’s doorway, and this time, in the communal area. Nobody could touch the bodies until the twins instructed them to remove them. It was like a threat to avoid becoming like that.

—Ah, can you hear it?

A distant voice mixed with mechanical sounds echoed. Through the slightly opened window, the voice once again flowed in.

―We had a very unpleasant incident in our mansion. Everyone knows about it, right?

It was Suryeom’s voice, the younger of the twin brothers. Although somewhat similar to Cheongrim in a delinquent tone, his voice was a bit sharper.

After resolving issues arising in the Red Mansion, Suryeom would turn on the microphone like this. Carrying a large speaker, he would speak into the rectangular mic in front of his mouth, probably pacing around the central part of the Red Mansion. As expected, the voice gradually drew closer and then suddenly distant.

―We’ve taken care of it perfectly. All residents can just relax and rest. Oh, and be cautious while passing through the communal area; there’s one trash caught stealing medication. We’ve caused some inconvenience in your lives, so we should extend our discretion, shouldn’t we?

Three men in the smelly shop paid attention to that voice. They had a rough idea of what was coming.

―This month’s rent will be half price! Yeah, you won’t get such a hefty discount anywhere else. Right, hyung?

Suryeom chuckled over the mic. That laughter echoed multiple times. Wow, the mansion buzzed quietly. In the summer, the twins’ voices would reach through the wide-open window. Some might have come out to the corridor to eavesdrop on their conversation.

―Anyway, we only think about the Red Mansion residents day and night. Just acknowledge that much, okay?

After a few playful laughs and rattling noises, the sound ceased.

“He’s got guts.”

“I thought last month’s delivery got us in hot water. It’s a mood, man. Let’s buy more beer. About 4,000 won, huh.”

Sung-kyung calculated the rent in their mind. The store was 300,000 won. Their stay in 422, where Sung-kyung’s parents lived, was 150,000 won. If it was halved, around 220,000 won would remain.

However, that didn’t mean they had extra cash. Money didn’t accumulate; it only drained away. When their parents were healthy, the three of them earned money, so it wasn’t this hard. But now, responsible for the livelihood of three solely through the store’s income, the burden was overwhelming.

It had been a while since they got rid of the phone under someone else’s name. The monthly phone bill and the cost paid to the person lending their name were luxuries. This month, they had to buy painkillers from the hospital and stock up on rice.

The fan is still usable, so he probably doesn’t need to buy one. Even though there seemed to be some leeway, the situation didn’t improve at all. Whether it was because of the heat or reality, it felt suffocating.

“Hey, shop! Bring two more beers, the cold ones!”

Without time to sigh, he moved at the sound of being called. It was annoying when people ordered me around here, not even in a restaurant, but he had to endure it. He had to make sure this wouldn’t become a reason to discount next month’s rent.

“Wait.”

Firmly replying, he retrieved two beers from the icebox and left the shop. After wiping his moist hands on the apron, he received four crumpled thousand-won bills. A few coins jingled from the apron pocket where he stuffed the bills.

On my way back, he tidied up the empty bottles someone had left next to the shop’s door. After lining up the bottles neatly and tapping his hands to shake off any dust, he sat back behind the counter.

“…”

Cheongrim was standing in front of him when he looked up. He was surprised, but he didn’t make a sound, just slightly parted his lips.

“Heard it?”

Cheongrim raised his index finger and lightly tapped his ear. It seemed like he was asking if he heard the commotion the twins were making. Instead of responding to the rather friendly question, he hurriedly checked the time. 1:23 PM, the hottest part of the day. After quickly confirming the time, he straightened my head again. He felt the men at the table, who were drinking beer, were aware of their interaction.

“Yes. I heard it.”

“You’ve got money, right?”

Not knowing the intent behind the question, he could only nod my head. Cheongrim casually extended his hand. His large hand reached over the open counter shutter and grabbed a candy placed next to the safe. It had a label with a cola bottle printed on it.

“Then get me some candy. If I’m with my brothers, it makes the conversation smoother.”

“…”

Why is someone with plenty of money asking me to buy this? Sung-kyung glanced up, briefly meeting Cheongrim’s eyes.

“Thanks.”

He didn’t wait for a response and began clumsily tearing open the wrapper. Due to the hot weather, the wrapping paper didn’t come off easily, sticking damply. Sung-kyung couldn’t stop him.

“…Yes.”

Sung-kyung replied softly and rummaged through the apron pocket. The candy cost 200 won. After taking out a few coins, there was still 200 won left. After a moment of contemplation, Sung-kyung emptied all 400 won into the safe. Though a few pennies might seem wasteful immediately, engaging in this conversation with Cheongrim held more value than 400 won.

“Choose another one. What flavor do you want?”

“Hmm.”

As Cheongrim rolled the candy in his mouth, he grabbed a white stick. While sucking on the candy, he repeatedly inserted and withdrew it deep into his mouth, making a sticky sound. Sung-kyung gave a slight cough, feeling an itchiness in the back of the throat.

“You picked something odd.”

“Pardon?”

“It looks so tacky that it makes me not want to eat it.”

Sung-kyung briefly tapped the container where the candy was placed. Are the flavors of candy really that tacky or not? He stupidly blinked a few times. Then, Cheongrim ordered without a second thought, as if he could have easily chosen himself.

“Strawberry.”

Asking about the taste but deliberately responding with the scent. Sung-kyung examined each picture printed on the candy wrappers. Finally, he placed the candy with a strawberry drawing on the counter.

Cheongrim neatly tucked it into his shirt pocket. A pink candy, out of place with the expensive flashy shirt, peeked out mischievously. As if done with business, he straightened his upper body. His posture, with his hand in his pocket while taking out the candy, seemed disreputable.

He headed toward the stairs. As expected, there was no particular farewell. Even after briefly lingering, a refreshing aroma lingered on the counter. Sung-kyung habitually took a deep breath. That was the moment.

“…”

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nicotine

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