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Their eyes locked. The eyes that shone in the light were gaping black, and the emotions behind them became more apparent than just a moment before.
“Deep inside, I’m a hypocrite,” San Jung said, her voice reverberating through the mountains. She sounded calm, to the point of making Juho forget where he was. Within her, the spear that could pierce anything and the shield that couldn’t be pierced coexisted, and there was no way to know what the result of the two colliding would be.
“I’ve told you before about how I couldn’t write for an entire week after reading your book.”
That had been one of the first things she had said to Juho on their first encounter.
“It felt like I’d been emptied out.”
“Sounds like you’ve accomplished what you wanted.”
“No. I told you, not until you came around,” she denied Juho’s remark. What he had understood as her desire was, in fact, not her desire. Then, a strange, mysterious sound echoed in the distance.
“It was a frightening experience,” her pale lips moved busily. “It was clear and realistic, even though it was about death.”
Then, different emotions appeared in her eyes. Jealousy, envy, admiration.
“Thanks to you, I won’t be able to write for a while again because I was influenced by your writing before I even had the chance to start.”
Although there was no change in the expression on her face, all of her emotions were concentrated deep within her eyes. Writing meant everything and was of the utmost importance to San Jung, and it was that very thing that she was made incapable of doing.
Even if it meant she could write no longer, even at the cost of her own life, the sentences sounding of admiration began to fall away from her.
“After reading your piece, for the first time in a long time, I was afraid of death.”
Then, before Juho could help himself, he blurted out, “So, is that why you’re still alive?”
At that, San Jung’s eyes shook ever so slightly. She didn’t deny him, and it was at that moment that Juho realized that the reason she had taken her own life in his past life had been the same as the one at present. She might have been in a slump or actually deprived of her ability to continue writing, but for whatever reason, she had reached the conclusion that she could no longer write. There had to be an ongoing urge within her to take her own life, even at the present moment. However, she hadn’t carried it out. Instead, she had brought the young author out into the mountains with her.
“You portrayed death as if it was your savior, right? A beautiful being that would rescue you when you were faced with difficulties. Like a magic spell, that puts and end to all stories.”
At that, San Jung reached for Juho slowly, and the light fell away from her arm. Her torso leaned toward him, and Juho felt the incredible strength in her arm. Her eyes drew closer. Having forfeited her journey midway, she wasn’t going to be remembered as a great storyteller.
“That’s right. It’s garbage that had barely any impact on you,” she said, looking angry. However, Juho couldn’t help but smile. “Death doesn’t solve anything.”
It was an unexpected remark, coming from her.
“Your writing made it that way,” she concluded.
The fact that his writing had influenced her made the corners of Juho’s mouth turn up all the more, despite not even knowing where in the middle of the mountains he was. In a situation where he would be left stranded as soon as San Jung decided to leave him behind, Juho couldn’t stop chuckling. He saw his past self in her current self. What had changed him as he fell into the river had not been death. A pen and some paper had been in his hands even in his last moments, to write with hands that had reeked of alcohol.
He hoped that she would understand and feel the message behind his piece.
“Why can you write something like that?” she asked. “What must I do to be able to start writing again?”
In a situation where she had lost the very thing that meant everything to her, instead of death, she began to seek another solution. Holding her hand, Juho lowered it slowly. Although it was cold, her pulse was racing. Then, he parted his lips slowly to say, “I, too, look up to Mrs. Baek.”
“… In what sense?”
“The fact that she doesn’t give up writing even after having poured out everything into it.”
At that, a perplexed look appeared on San Jung’s face, and remembering something that he had heard while looking at the mountains in the daylight not too long ago, Juho said, “She’s coming out with a new book soon. From what I heard, it’s already written. And it’s a full-length novel, at that.”
The icy expressions shattered away, and for the first time since they met, a discernible emotion appeared on her face. Her brow was raised and her eyes, widened. With her mouth parted open, she breathed in quietly. Her face was full of life.
“If the tank is empty, then all you gotta do is fill it back up. It might take some time to reach the peak if you decide to take it slow and take breaks in between, but in the end, you get there eventually.”
Then, a mysterious voice echoed from the peak of a mountain in the distance. As it echoed repeatedly, the two stood completely still in their places.
“Mrs. Baek wrote a new book?”
“She started writing again?”
Initially looking dumbfounded, San Jung began to chuckle. Then, Juho picked up the flashlight that she had dropped, and handed it over to her, which she took willingly.
“Should we head back?” she asked in her thin voice. Only that time, it was clearly audible.
“Sounds good. We should come back tomorrow.”
“… Aren’t you hungry?”
“Is there anything to snack on?”
With that, they carefully made their way back to the house. Although he still had no clue where he was or how long or far he had been walking, he was much more at peace now than when he was when going up the mountain.
Waking up early in the morning, San Jung washed her face. Despite returning home late into the night, she was never in the habit of oversleeping. Then, noticing that somebody had already woken up, Dae Soo, too, got out of bed earlier than usual. While she took a makeup pouch out of her backpack to apply some makeup, San Jung folded up the blankets.
“Take me with you on your way down.”
“Sure. Are you going somewhere?” Dae Soo asked, looking puzzled.
To that, San Jung answered in a calm tone of voice, “Yes. I want to go see Mrs. Baek.”
“OK, no problem.”
With that, Dae Soo sat in front of a mirror, patting her face.
“What’s the occasion, though? Did something happen?”
“I haven’t been able to write.”
Then, Dae Soo’s hand came to a sudden halt, and seeing the look on Dae Soo’s face in the mirror, San Jung chuckled quietly.
“Are you in a slump?”
“I’m not sure what it is, really.”
“… Are you OK?”
Looking at Dae Soo, who looked shocked, San Jung said, “You read it too, right? ‘River?'”
From that sentence alone, Dae Soo caught on to the situation San Jung had been going through. After all, she was an author, active in the same field, and also a fan of Yun Woo.
She had read Yun Woo’s story ahead of most people. What she had started out of curiosity had led her to a breathtaking experience, and the emotions that came flooding in afterward were rather intense. ‘Why couldn’t I write like that? I’m just as much of an author as he is.’ It had been a defeat in a battle that she had been unaware of. And the young author’s capacity was so much greater than she could dare to fathom.
Having been writing for nearly two decades, Dae Soo had made a name for herself since starting and was reasonably confident in her work. However, at the appearance of Yun Woo’s short story, everything she had built throughout her career had been lost at once.
“You know, I really wanted to do better than everybody else,” Dae Soo said jokingly, but sincerely. Everyone in the club was an author and wrote with similar determination to hers, and there was no room for considering or yielding to others. Nobody raved about how impressive each others’ stories were, or cared one bit about experience or age. The club was filled with authors who were less than mature, and every single one of them had lost to the young author named Yun Woo.
“I wanted to write well,” San Jung said while taking her black clothes out of her closet. “I’ve been trying hard to become a better writer than anyone, and that’s why I’ve given up on the convenience of city life and the joy of friendships. I even won a world-famous award, heard compliments from Mrs. Baek, became a bestselling author whenever a book of mine was published, and won over the critics.”
Dae Soo listened to her quietly.
“I wanted to write something that would leave everyone shaken, including you, Choi, Mideum, Joon Soo, Seo Joong and Dong Gil, Geun Woo, and even Yun Woo.”
Then, San Jung tossed the black clothes onto her bed. The black fabrics sank lifelessly in the air.
“But, I failed.”
Dae Soo looked at San Jung in the mirror. For someone who was talking about failure, she looked rather relieved.
“So, that’s why I wanted to go see Mrs. Baek: to get some advice, after my confidence and pride were shattered into thousands of pieces because of that weird kid, who goes by Yun Woo. No matter what or how much I write, nothing feels right, and most of all, I can’t stand what I’ve written for the magazine recently. I have to talk to Mrs. Baek. I don’t know what to do.”
Then, the door flung open all of a sudden. It was Sang Choi.
“Failure is the mother of success.”
“Have you been eavesdropping on our conversation!?”
“A little bit,” he said in a shamelessly confident tone. Then, as Dae Soo asked what his business was, he said, “Can I borrow something to put on my face? I think the water around here isn’t playing very nice with my skin. My face is killing me!”
At that, Dae Soo tossed him a moisturizer, and he began to slather it on his face. Looking at his reflection in the mirror, Dae Soo asked, “Well, how about you? Didn’t you hate yourself after reading Yun Woo’s story?”
“I’m Sang Choi, Dae Soo. The top,” he said, delicately patting his face. However, he didn’t sound as confident as he had previously.
“Uh-huh. Yet, you followed us all the way here.”
“Same goes for you.”
He had followed Dae Soo to San Jung’s place because of Yun Woo. After reading the young author’s piece, his presence had grown too massive for Sang to ignore.
“So, I’ve read through his piece about forty-two times now, and I think it’s starting to dawn on me.”
“That I don’t have what it takes to be able to write like that,” he said, as confident as ever. “When I realized that, I didn’t even want to write anymore. His writing is far from beautiful. Whether something’s flavorful or rancid, he includes it all. He doesn’t care about his readers one bit, or authors who could fall into despair after reading his piece, for that matter.”
“Wow. Did all of that just come out of your mouth?” Dae Soo said sarcastically. On the other hand, it dawned on her that Sang had finally met his match.
“I mean, think about it. How can he write something like that while knowing that it would end up in the same magazine as my piece? I felt this way during our meeting last time too, but I’m telling you, he’s an oddball without description! I have NO idea what his thinking process is like!”
Then, he locked eyes with the young author in his head. Being the self-absorbed person he was, he had to have compared himself to Yun Woo tirelessly ever since their first meeting and reached a conclusion.
“I’ll just stay as someone who knows him,” he said while rubbing the back of his hands.
“When people ask me, I’ll tell them that I knew him from the time he wrote ‘River.’ For now, I’ll make do with raving to others about my presence having had an influence in his writing. For now,” he said calmly. It was his way of defending himself. “And one day, I’ll make him envious of me and admire my achievements.”
“If you say so.”
‘It’s too quiet around here,’ Dae Soo thought. Secluded from the rest civilization, there were no cheers or admiration toward Yun Woo. Instead, there were only self-accusations, competitiveness, and sense of emptiness hiding quietly within the authors’ hearts.
Yun Woo’s portrayal of death carried intensity and mercilessness, leaving the authors to regret their decisions to read it.
‘I should have tried a little harder. I shouldn’t have made the club. I shouldn’t have raved about publishing a magazine together.’
It was a truly painfully, regrettable story, and even the thought of it alone was accompanied by a painful blow to the stomach. Then, Dae Soo breathed in slowly, but quietly.
“How do you think he’s doing?”
She was curious. Would he be afraid of his own work after having written something so intense, so reckless? What would he do afterward? Would he be able to handle the aftermath? Would he be concerned with anything? Would he feel empty? Had he had any thoughts writing such an intense story?
There was no way to answer any of those questions, and as always, Yun Woo did not offer any explanations.
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