Dan Taeju was standing in front of the wide-open door. Her heart was pounding and beating wildly. She didn’t know if it was because of what had just happened, or because of Dan Taeju who suddenly appeared.
“What are you doing? Who are you to break the door and barge into someone else’s store like this?”
He walked into the store with an indifferent face, as if he hadn’t heard the man’s words, and looked around inside.
“I thought you had some grand place to run to, but this is where you’ve run off to?”
There was nowhere else to run from since the wall was right behind her. She froze in place.
“It’s hard to find you when you’re hiding in places like this. No car, no use of credit cards, and you don’t even go out.”
“Hey, look at this guy? Are you ignoring what I’m saying? Is your ear blocked? Hey, you, come with me outside.”
As the man swung his hand forward to grab Taeju’s collar, he just slightly leaned his upper body back and grabbed the man’s throat with one hand instead.
“Shut up and just stay still for a moment. I’m in the middle of talking.”
It seemed like he was holding it lightly, but somewhere in his throat it was pressed. The man’s face quickly turned red and he opened his mouth wide.
The man flailed his fist forward as if trying to free himself, and even twisted Taeju’s wrist, but soon he fell back with foam in his mouth. Seeing his state scared her even more.
“You appear so frightened and behave so cunningly. I genuinely believed you were a woman who was lacking in some way, and I was completely taken in.”
As he loosened his grip, the man with half-rolled eyes fell heavily to the floor. As he walked up to her and crouched down to reach out to her, Sunwoo unknowingly stiffened her body and closed her eyes tightly.
“Why are you like this?”
For a moment, she thought she had been hit. When she cautiously opened her eyes, he was looking at her as if he was dumbfounded.
“You seemed… you seemed angry.”
“So? You thought I was going to hit you?”
The distance between the two was too close for comfort. She pressed her body against the wall as much as she could.
“How did you manage to live in such a vulnerable place with so many fears? It all broke with just one kick.”
Still, the small storage room attached to this shabby store was a hundred times better than the room she had on Umyeon Island.
“I can fix it.”
“And then? If I leave now, that guy will take out all his anger on you, Sunwoo-ssi. Do you like staying in a hole like this, tumbling around with that kind of thing?”
He grabbed her chin.
“He hit you?”
He stared at her without blinking. So she couldn’t turn her head.
“Should I kill him?”
As if he would really do it if she wanted him to, there was no playfulness in his expression. She wanted to say something and opened her mouth, but her lips just trembled.
At that moment, she saw the man who had been sprawling behind her struggling to get up. The man picked up a knife that had been left in the kitchen with bloodshot eyes.
She was startled and tried to warn Taeju, but he stood up first.
“That’s why I like stupid kids. They have the spirit to attack again even after being hit.”
“Come on, you b*stard!”
The man flailed his arm forward and swung the knife, but Taeju walked towards him. While the man was hesitating in surprise, Taeju grabbed his wrist and kicked him in the stomach.
The man’s waist folded in half, and the knife he was holding fell to the floor.
“But it’s a bit unfair to use a knife when I’m barehanded. Let’s make it fair and use our bare hands.”
“You… son of a b*tch!”
Frustrated that he hadn’t been able to make a proper attack on Taeju and only got hit, the man rushed forward. However, it seemed that the blow to his stomach had a big impact, as he lost his balance and staggered forward. Taeju twisted the man’s hair in one hand and dragged him to the wall.
“I admit I’m a son of a b*tch.”
And then he pushed the man’s face to the side. The wall of the snack bar was made of rough material.
“Even so, if you say it to my face like that, wouldn’t it piss me off?”
Blood was smeared on the rough wall, whether it was from a nosebleed or a scratch on his face.
“Ack! I’m… I’m sorry… I was wrong.”
The man, who was kneeling and hanging from Taeju’s wrist holding his hair, started to beg, losing his previous vigor.
“Are you sorry?”
“But why can’t you understand what I’m saying? I think I told you to be quiet because I was talking.”
The man’s face, which he turned forward, was in a state that he couldn’t bear to open his eyes and see. Blood was flowing from his face, but it was unclear where and how it was split. Sunwoo turned her head in a shudder.
“P-please… I won’t do it again…”
Blood flowed from the man’s mouth along with his saliva.
“If you come in one more time, I’ll really kill you.”
He grabbed the back of the man’s head, dragged him, and threw him outside. He closed the door, but the outside was clearly visible through the half-opened gap. He came back and crouched in front of her as before.
“I’m just curious and want to ask you, why did you run away?”
“Why did you find me?”
Can he let her be? She couldn’t understand why he had come all the way here. She was so scared that her body was trembling.
“Don’t you remember? We had a deal?”
He pulled out the wad of money she had given him from his pocket and shook it. But that was just the cost of taking her to the grave.
“I’m not sure.”
“I’ll explain it to you later. It doesn’t seem like you have much to lose anyway. If you come with me, you can live in a good house without lifting a finger. Very comfortably and safely.”
He emphasized the words comfortable and safe. There were spots of blood on his shirt and under his chin.
Sunwoo mumbled as if she had misheard. He laughed as if he was dumbfounded by her skeptical expression.
“It’s embarrassing to say it out of my mouth, but I just saved you, Sunwoo-ssi. I saved you on the island and here too. Twice. So, I wish you would stop looking at me like I’m a murderer.”
Sunwoo bowed her head and just tore at her innocent clothes.
The fishermen who came to Umyeon Island looked at her out of curiosity, but no one actually stepped forward to help. She didn’t know why he kept offering to help, but he was the first one to do so.
“I’ll save you in the future too.”
At his words, she suddenly raised her head.
Her stepmother, Bok-ryeong, lived in seclusion on Umyeon Island, but in her youth, she was a formidable person, enough to be called a national shaman. So sometimes people came to visit her from far away. Each time, Sunwoo had to sit in the back room covered with straw mats and watch every action Bok-ryeong made.
She was told to watch their eyes. And watch their mouths.
Yet, all that could be seen in people’s eyes was tepid acceptance, and remorse for unquenched desires. That was the extent of it.
“I’ll make sure no one can lay a finger on you.”
Sunwoo looked into Taeju’s eyes. The burning heat, the arrogant confidence dripped down. How far could she trust this man?
“Even I will not touch you. Even if you dance naked in front of me, I’ll pretend I didn’t see.”
He raised his little finger as if to promise.
The remnants of memories always floated in her mind like fog. St. Mary’s Hospital. A teddy bear with a pink ribbon. A red compact car.
But maybe… maybe.
He held her hand and hooked his finger on hers.
“Well, you promised. I’m really grateful that you answered before my patience ran out. I was considering just knocking you out and taking you.”
After promising not to touch her,
“Can you wait while I clean up the store? I think the store owner’s grandma will be surprised.”
“Let’s have someone clean it up. We need to fix the door too.”
He pointed to the door that had fallen halfway. He tried to pull her up by grabbing her arm, but remembering his promise earlier, he stepped back.
“Shall we go?”
“Well… just a moment. It’ll only take a moment.”
She left Taeju standing and went into the small room attached to the store. There was hardly any luggage to speak of, but she put a few items in her bag and came back out.
She was worried that her grandmother would be worried if she just left like this. She tore a page from her sketchbook and wrote a few words telling her not to worry. Sunwoo put the note in her grandmother’s apron pocket.
As she went outside, a black sedan was parked crookedly. He sat her in the passenger seat, made a quick call to someone, and then got into the driver’s seat.
“We have time before the flight, let’s go eat.”
He checked his watch and started the car.
“How did you find me?”
“There are people who do that kind of work. You don’t have a credit card or a bank account, so it was a headache, but we caught you when you activated your cell phone.”
She didn’t understand how they found her through her cell phone, but she just nodded her head.
Sunwoo looked out the window at the fast-passing scenery. Jae-soon’s snack bar was not far from the port where they had disembarked before.
After a few buildings passed, a simple country road continued. It wasn’t a desolate feeling with cliffs dropping abruptly and only rocks and pebbles, like Umyeon Island, but herons and egrets were sporadically perched in groups along the clear river.
Taeju parked the car in front of a Korean restaurant that seemed to be remodeled from a traditional Korean house. The restaurant had a small garden and a pond in the yard, which looked charming. As soon as they sat down in a corner room, a server came and put down a teapot.
“Our restaurant has only one set menu. Shall I prepare a table for two?”
As soon as he finished speaking, food started coming in one after another, and Sunwoo was surprised. The table was full of yellow and red dishes, the ingredients of which she couldn’t identify.
She inadvertently exclaimed in admiration, then quickly closed her mouth in embarrassment when he looked at her.
She recognized some ingredients like deodeok and cham-namul, but the deodeok was not salted but roasted with red pepper paste. The cucumber was red, and so was the soft tofu stew. In the middle of the table, there was a pile of meat.
“Why aren’t you eating?”
At Taeju’s words, Sunwoo picked up her chopsticks and nibbled on the cham-namul. She had occasionally eaten leftover fried food at Jae-soon’s snack bar, but she had never tried tteokbokki. It was hard for her to reach for dishes with red pepper powder and meat.
Suddenly, a generous amount of meat was placed on top of her rice. As she lifted her head in surprise, Taeju, who was sitting next to her, gestured with his chin.
“You’re so slender because you only pick at your food. Go ahead and eat.”