“Did you come straight here?”
“I value my girlfriend more than my family.”
Saying this, Ijun once again firmly established Siyeon as his girlfriend, but Siyeon pretended not to hear his words and changed the subject.
“It’s your first vacation, your parents must be waiting for you at home.”
“I told them I’m meeting my girlfriend.”
Upon his reply, Siyeon took a step back and stared at him intently.
Surely he didn’t mention me, right?
Siyeon’s eyebrows furrowed downward.
The adults wouldn’t understand that she and Ijun are together. She waited for his explanation, hoping he wasn’t telling the truth.
“What’s with that expression?”
“Did you mention that it was me to the adults by any chance?”
“Is that not allowed?”
“Is it not allowed?”
“I’d prefer if you didn’t mention that it was me.”
When Siyeon made an awkward expression, Ijun’s gaze softened.
“Why do you want it that way?”
“It’s too hasty, considering we don’t know what the future holds.”
“That’s not a reason.”
“I just want to be cautious. Besides, I’m still in high school and it’s a bit uncomfortable if the adults find out that I’m dating.”
“Are we really dating?”
Ijun’s voice had a hint of tension. He must have wanted to ask her this for a while now. Whether they were actually in a romantic relationship and be able to introduce each other as boyfriend and girlfriend in front of others.
“I told you I’ll wait. I even joined the cafe you mentioned, and I’m learning about the proper attitude for those who are waiting.”
She knew that Ijun’s uncertainty was mostly her fault. She felt sorry for not being able to show more affection for him, she knew it. Surprisingly, Ijun’s was happy just by hearing her answer.
“Did you know that if you betray your boyfriend while you’re waiting, you’re cursed for three generations?”
“And I heard that if you betray your girlfriend after she’s waited for you, misfortune will follow your family line for generations.”
“I don’t even know the meaning of the word ‘betrayal’.”
“Well, that’s a relief. I can really focus on my studies without worry.”
Ijun, who had been looking at Siyeon, finally smiled. His hand reached her head, lightly tousling her hair, and with a smile on his face, he said,
“My leave’s for 5 days. I’ll come pick you up each day, so let’s spend the whole day together. We can have a library date.”
“It’s your first vacation. Don’t you want to meet your other friends?”
“I purposely didn’t tell anyone to avoid being disturbed.”
“So, no one else knows you’re on leave besides me and your family?”
After briefly contemplating Siyeon’s question, Ijun opened his mouth.
“Oh, there is another person, the strange one.”
“A strange person?”
“That one in the Hannam-dong house you went to last time. The daughter of Mr. Choi Won-dae of Youngjin, she knows.”
“Do you still keep in touch with her?”
Her face hardened. She hadn’t realized that Ijun had maintained a contact with Eunhye all these times.
“It’s not like we’re keeping in touch, but I do receive the occasional call or text from her. It’s annoying, but I can’t help it.”
“Why don’t you just tell her not to contact you?”
“She’s the daughter of Mr. Choi, who you consider a benefactor.”
“That doesn’t mean his daughter is a benefactor.”
Siyeon replied with a dry tone that felt as cold as ice.
“Even if you’re grateful, you don’t like his daughter?”
“It’s not like I don’t like her or anything. By the way, I’m going to have lunch, so what do you want, if you’re going home now…….”
“Electric grilled whole for lunch?”
Before she could finish her sentence, Ijun quickly responded..
“Are you going to give me the chicken drumsticks?”
“I’ll give you the chicken drumsticks as a special treat for your first vacation.”
Siyeon smiled faintly, but her fingertips grew cold. The unexpected connection between Ijun and Eunhye was sending chills down her spine.
* * *
After leaving the study cafe, Siyeon had lunch with Ijun and headed to the library, where he sat next to her studying, reading a book, then they had dinner and drove her to Ichon-dong’s house before returning to Suwon.
Siyeon arrived home a few hours earlier than usual, but there was no one at home.
“Didn’t they say they would come home after dinner?”
She turned on the lights in the dark living room and tilted her head in confusion. She vaguely heard that they were planning to have lunch at her grandmother’s house this morning. Normally, they should have been home by now.
Come to think of it, there was another strange thing. Her mother, who usually asked her about her meals, hadn’t asked her once today how she had eaten.
“What could have happened that they did not contact me…?”
Her parents still hadn’t come home by the time she finished showering.
Siyeon tried calling her father but didn’t receive an answer; the call went to voicemail. As she worried about what might have happened, a text message from her father arrived.
[Your grandmother isn’t feeling well, so we might have to stay in Hannam-dong tonight. Lock the door securely and sleep well.]
Siyeon couldn’t take her eyes off the text message. The content of the message seemed normal, but something about it felt strange. Her mother hadn’t asked about her well-being all day, her father hadn’t answered her calls, and both of them weren’t coming home because her grandmother wasn’t feeling well.
Siyeon had experienced something similar in her past. During the summer when she was eighteen, her parents had sent her a similar message and hadn’t returned for several days. They had eventually returned to their Ichon-dong home with Eunhye.
“No, this can’t be.”
Siyeon shook her head. There had been specific reasons for that situation at that time. Now, her father’s business in Hannam-dong was doing well, so there was no need for her grandmother to reveal Eunhye’s existence in advance.
[So, are you coming home tomorrow then?]
[I’ll call you.]
Her father didn’t give a definite answer to her question.
[Okay, Dad. Have a good night.]
Without further questions, Siyeon ended the conversation and held her phone in her hand for a while, unable to move. Her parents’ attitude had suddenly changed after visiting her grandmother. She had a feeling that the reason they weren’t returning home couldn’t be solely because her grandmother wasn’t feeling well.
With a stiff expression, Siyeon stood still in the same spot for a while.
The next morning, instead of going to the study cafe, Siyeon took a bus to the outskirts of Gyeonggi Province. She planned to meet the monk her grandmother had met alone years ago. She had informed Ijun in advance that she had important business to attend to today and wouldn’t be able to meet him.
Sitting by the bus window, she gazed blankly outside, recalling the conversation she had with Ijun early in the morning. He had called her at a somewhat early hour to ask if she had slept well and had breakfast.
[When will you be done?]
[Probably by evening.]
[Then, shall we have dinner after?]
[I can’t guarantee exactly when it will be done. I’ll contact you when it’s done.]
Despite it being well into the morning, she still hadn’t heard from her parents. Normally, they would have called her as soon as it was bright outside.
Her mother, who had always taken care of her meals, would prepare fresh rice and side dishes for her when she was at home. Ironically, because of that, there was nothing to eat at home now.
Her mother not preparing her meals probably meant that they didn’t have the luxury of time to do so. In the end, instead of having breakfast, Siyeon drank a cup of milk and left home.
After a long bus ride, she arrived at the bus terminal. From there, she hailed a taxi and gave the driver the address of the small hermitage she had saved on her phone.
The driver glanced at her several times through the rearview mirror, finding it unusual for a quiet high school student to be visiting a secluded hermitage.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen a young person like you going to this hermitage.”
“Are there many people who visit this hermitage?”
“Not really. I occasionally pick up grandmothers who visit there. But from what I’ve heard, they all seem to have known the monk there for a long time. So I guess that monk is quite famous among them.”
It seemed that there were more people visiting the owner of the hermitage, whom her grandmother called as Jeongson Monk. Even though this monk wasn’t widely known online, the fact that people had been visiting over the years meant that he had earned a significant amount of trust from those who knew him.
Siyeon recalled the moment when she and the monk had locked eyes during her previous visit. Despite it being their first meeting, there had clearly been a surprised expression on his face. If she could meet him today, she thought she might be able to find out why he had been surprised when he saw her.
As she walked down a quiet side road away from the main road, the hermitage came into view in the distance.
As she got closer to the place, Siyeon grew anxious. She didn’t have the monk’s contact information, so she couldn’t have called ahead. She prayed that the Jeongson Monk would be at the hermitage.
When she arrived, everything was silent. The only sounds were the chirping of insects in the distance and the crunching of gravel under Siyeon’s footsteps.
Siyeon stopped in front of the building with a green-tiled roof. Above the wooden entrance, a wooden sign read “Dharma Hall,” and on the doorstep were a pair of worn white rubber shoes and a pair of low-heeled shoes covered in dust, placed side by side.
As she debated whether to announce her presence, the wooden door opened wide on both sides, revealing the wrinkled face of a monk.
The monk had initially looked surprised as he held the door handle and saw Siyeon, but he quickly regained his calm demeanor and turned his head slightly to the side.
“Elderly, a guest has arrived, I think it’s time for me to greet them.”
He spoke with a slightly apologetic expression and directed his words toward someone inside the Dharma Hall. Shortly after, a voice was heard from inside, and an elderly woman dressed in elegant hanbok came out. She politely bowed to the monk who had come out to greet her and then left the hermitage.
After seeing her off, the monk slowly turned around and silently looked at Siyeon. After a few seconds of silence, Siyeon spoke first.
“Do you know who I am, Jeongseon Monk?”
“…I do. Please come inside.”
With a somewhat embarrassed expression, the monk went inside. Siyeon followed him.