Red Mansion Chapter 4

Author: nicotine

Suddenly, he stopped walking and turned his head. Sung-kyung, who was inhaling the scent, met Cheongrim’s eyes. Though they were far apart, it felt like their faces were inches away. Sung-kyung’s breath hitched, and the sides of his neck brushed against the collar as he held it in.

Between his bright red lips, a thick tongue entwined with white candy briefly appeared. Sung-kyung’s gaze fixated on the gap between the lips. Snap. At a small cracking sound, his mind snapped back. Cheongrim was breaking the candy, chewing it fiercely as if gnawing on bones.

As the candy broke in his mouth, a white stick fell out smoothly. Cheongrim’s lips curled slightly before he turned and distanced himself.

“Haah.”

Sung-kyung exhaled the held breath. His shoulders flinched subtly. Only when the shoulders that had been rising and falling calmed did he realize. He had been making fairly regular visits every four days, but why had he come today? Was it just to follow the twins? Like the twins, Cheongrim was entirely unpredictable.

That unpredictability always excited him. Sung-kyung tilted his head and smiled silently. Hidden beneath the disheveled bangs, no one would see it. Sung-kyung’s smile was profoundly innocent.

“Give me one more beer.”

The sudden voice wiped away the hint of a smile. The man walking to the counter handed over two thousand won bills, not rudely calling out orders like before. Sung-kyung fetched the last beer from the icebox and took the money. The man hesitated at the counter for a moment longer before speaking in a more composed tone.

“Thanks.”

To see him change his attitude just because he witnessed Cheongrim’s interaction was revealing of their hierarchy. The man returned to his table and drank his beer. He used to loudly criticize Sung-kyung, saying, ‘That gloomy guy is even talking to Kwon Cheongrim,’ but now, quieter, he wasn’t as disruptive. Sung-kyung checked the time.

July 14th – 2 minutes. Cola-flavored stick candy, 200 won. Didn’t eat the strawberry one; it looked tacky. What does tacky mean? Tacky… If it didn’t look tacky, does that mean he wants to eat it? Can… he eat it? The shirt he wore today was very flashy, but I’ve thought before that it suits him. It’s not even been a day, and it didn’t suit him when it was hot. Why did he come? Why did he end up laughing at me?

After writing for a while, he hid the note at the bottom of the drawer. Just as the two men finished their beer and left, he cleared and wiped the table with the empty can left on it. He took out a few more beers from the household refrigerator outside and filled the icebox. The ice had melted quite a bit in the hot weather, making the water spill over.

Sung-kyung bought candy for Cheongrim and engaged in conversation, but Sung-kyung still remained at the convenience store. No matter what he did, Sung-kyung always lingered within the shabby convenience store. That was the reason for sneaking glances at Cheongrim.

***

Inside Red Mansion was a small clinic. Calling it a hospital was stretching it—it was merely a combination of a few generations. A room where a one-armed doctor ate cup noodles, slept, and smoked cigarettes doubled as an examination room. Surgeries, treatments, and prescriptions all took place in that room.

There was no need to venture into that space today. His parents had been discharged; they just needed to pick up their medication and return. The table casually placed near the shoe rack served as the reception desk for the one-armed clinic. Sung-kyung stood before it, scribbling notes. The elderly woman sitting opposite showed no change in expression.

“It’s a million won.”

“Why? Why is it different from two months ago? Back then, it was clearly 40 each, totaling 80… Please check again. Kim Guhyun, Park Heesuk. Painkillers.”

Sung-kyung pronounced his parents’ names rhythmically. The woman responded in a weary tone, intermittently mixing in the sound of chewing gum.

“It’s 500,000 each, so that’s a million. You bought these in June, remember?”

A speech pattern that sang like a song. It was dismissive, but Sung-kyung couldn’t persuade her. Painkillers used for an infectious disease they didn’t even accurately diagnose were priced as dictated by the one-armed folks. How could it have suddenly increased by 100,000 won in two months? What about in a year? Sung-kyung bit his lower lip.

“No, it was 40, not 50. There’s no sudden increase without reason. How much has it gone up by now?”

The woman sighed, tapping the table to interrupt.

“If you’re not buying, leave.”

“…”

“Or pay up instead of idle talk.”

As Sung-kyung stood silently, the woman, exuding annoyance, snapped. Her gaze remained fixed firmly on Sung-kyung.

“Doctor! Call for Room 110!”

From the open door, a sluggish “Hmm?” response was heard.

Until his parents fell ill, things hadn’t been this difficult. They used to manage the security deposit, meals from restaurants without any problem. But since his parents got bedridden, it spiraled from medication costs to debts and the security deposit. Money slipped through Sung-kyung’s fingers like sand, leaving him frantic. Being angry all the way to his fingertips over a mere 100,000 won rise was inevitable.

“Once every two months, the price hikes. Where’s this coming from? So irritating.”

The woman muttered softly. Sung-kyung’s heart raced. Anger and shame surged simultaneously. Moments like these, when he found it hard to control himself, occasionally occurred. The elderly doctor cautiously pushed open the door and peeked in.

“Called for you.”

“Why does the medication cost keep rising at every opportunity? Just exploiting the people here.”

Sung-kyung finally voiced the thoughts he’d kept to himself. It was dangerously close to provocation.

“…What did you say?”

A doctor exiting the consultation room adjusted his glasses. There was a tinge of impatience on his face. Sung-kyung snatched two pill bottles off the table abruptly. The woman reached out, but Sung-kyung was faster. He pulled out an envelope containing 80 in cash from his pocket and flung it onto the desk through the open end. Bills spilled out from the unclosed envelope.

“This is all I have.”

“Hey!”

As the woman abruptly stood up and shouted, the front door swung open harshly. A burly and rough-looking man entered. The elderly doctor pointed at Sung-kyung, his voice trembling with rage.

“Grab that punk!”

“He’s trying to run off without paying for the medication!”

The man grabbed Sung-kyung’s collar without a word and dragged him outside. The woman’s irritated yelling mixed with foul language reverberated in the air.

“Let go! Let go!”

Struggling was futile. The man swung his hand like a pot lid, striking Sung-kyung’s cheek. Thwack! His head turned sharply, stiffening his neck. It wasn’t just his cheek; his whole face stung. Holding the pill bottles to his chest, Sung-kyung curled up, fists and kicks raining down on his back, thighs, and head.

At some point, a burly man appeared, wielding his fists alongside the ongoing chaos. Upon waking from the fall, noticing a pair of slippers, Sung-kyung recognized the situation.

“Wait. Hey, isn’t this the corner convenience store?”

With that statement, a firm grip seized his hair. Unable to even groan, his head was forcefully turned. Blood or saliva, he couldn’t tell, trickled down the twisted corner of his mouth. His ribs ached from enduring the violence.

“Oh, right? Hey, you damn jerk. If you don’t have money, at least bring some instant noodles, right?”

A chuckling laughter echoed in his mind. Roughly shaken by large hands gripping his hair, his mind twisted in confusion. Simultaneously, his stomach churned. Sung-kyung clenched his teeth to contain vomit, spitting out saliva. The mixture of saliva and blood appeared pinkish. The man cursed at the spittle-soaked chest.

“This. Damn. Bastard!”

What kind of money was this? He had cut back on sleep to clean and manage the store, even going hungry. Selling goods from the store barely covered the security deposit. He borrowed a significant sum from Cheongrim’s group, but things were getting worse instead of better.

They charged nearly 500 for a shabby mattress they called a hospital bed. The painkillers sold here were outrageously expensive, so he split a pill into halves, taking it over two days. Pretending not to see his suffering parents due to the dwindling medication, he struggled on. How could he possibly pay more here?

“No money. Don’t have any!”

Sung-kyung’s enraged shout echoed down the corridor.

“Damn, my eardrums are about to burst. Isn’t this guy insane?”

The man, plugging one ear, bent down to meet Sung-kyung’s eye level. Though a familiar face to those who occasionally visited the store, this was not the look he used to have.

Seated at Store No. 3, Sung-kyung appeared listless and despondent, with a shaggy head obscuring his face, making his expression unreadable. His appearance was usually soft, appearing willing to yield if a few slaps were given for not paying, but now, his eyes blinked rapidly, and he adamantly resisted.

“Ease up? Before I get really angry.”

“I can’t pay more. Raised it two months ago and again now? Exploiting people should have some limits!”

The enraged screams reverberated fiercely.

“Ha, look at this guy’s eyes.”

Well, enduring a few days in Red Mansion wouldn’t have been easy. The man who had burst into mocking laughter swung his arm wide. Smack, another slap struck.

“…”

Sung-kyung immediately raised his head, glaring at the men with a venomous gaze. The large man rolled up his sleeves, revealing bulging muscles that looked menacing even during mundane tasks.

Violence ensued. The pill bottle Sung-kyung clutched shuddered with every strike against his body, yet he didn’t release it. Enduring violence was easier than enduring poverty.

Eventually, he was robbed of several 10,000-won bills from the store safe, along with beer and cigarettes. It would have amounted to almost 200,000 won if he counted what those guys took. Even while sprawled on the floor, Sung-kyung calculated it meticulously.

“Crazy bastards obsessed with money.”

Exploiting people who had nothing. He kept cursing them. It took a long while after they left for him to muster the strength to move. Sung-kyung stood up, closed the almost empty safe with a few scattered coins inside, then let out a long sigh. With every breath, the smell of blood seemed to linger. His hands were bruised all the way to the back.

He wrapped his sore side with his hand and sat on the chair. Fortunately, the men hadn’t searched the bottom drawer; there, Cheongrim’s given tips were neatly stacked.

“Doctor! Call 110!”

The woman’s sharp shout echoed in his mind. While pondering, Sung-kyung opened the bottom drawer and retrieved a notebook.

“110…”

The massive man, the one who occasionally visited the store. 110. 110. 110. He wrote the same number several times.

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