His cheeks felt cold. Junmin stroked down his cheeks with his palms. Something slippery could be felt. Amidst his hazy vision, he saw Mint sticking out its short tongue as much as possible.
“I feel like you’re gaining wrinkles by the day.”
He grabbed the bulldog’s - Mint’s - cheeks and stretched them apart. He was suddenly reminded of the fact that this innocent dog’s breed was born because of humans’ selfish desires.
“Today, I’ll give you your favorite as a special service.”
After stretching his jaw once, he got up from the bed. He pulled open the blinds to chase away the darkness. A slight green colored light seeped through the blades of the blind. It was a color that couldn’t be seen in Seoul. He brought Mint, Pansy, and Rose to the front yard. This place was a villa in Gyeongju where no engine noises could be heard. It was a quiet place where the number of cars and people passing by for an entire day combined would not go past 10.
“Someone might think that I’ve been starving you for days.”
After watching the dogs bury their noses into their plates to eat ravenously, he went to the kitchen to prepare breakfast. He had prepared breakfast for his dogs before his own. Junmin wondered what the life of a dog owner was supposed to be like before deciding to stop thinking about it. A salad with a pinch of almonds, one slice of baguette, a boiled egg, half a slice of chicken breasts, and lastly, a banana. He felt his stamina was depleting rapidly ever since he reached fifty, so around that time, he started looking after his health more. He had to drink because of business and he considered smoking to be the food of his soul. Those two were his companions for a lifetime, so he could not abandon them. Perhaps the reason he started eating healthy was to compensate because he wasn’t able to give up those two. I am eating such healthy food so drinking and smoking should be fine - something like that.
After eating breakfast, he left the house. He put the three dogs that were looking at him in leashes and took a trip around the neighborhood. Though, while he called it a ‘neighborhood’, it was just some villas positioned far apart.
He relied on the dogs climbing up the hills to move. They moved quite quickly despite having short legs. They were very restless. Halfway up the mound, which was too small to be called a mountain and too tall to be called a hill, Jumin looked down at his villa.
“This should be considered a successful life.”
Some dogs and a house under his name in a relaxing place. There were also friends - or perhaps enemies at times - who would come at a moment’s notice. According to the views of society, he had a pretty decent life. Junmin sat down for about ten minutes before standing up.
It was about time to go.
To the person who was supposed to enjoy all this luxury.
He unleashed the dogs inside the house before opening the closet. It was a large closet, but there was only a set of yellow suits. He got them on clearance, twenty years ago. The necktie was grey and had kimchi stains on it. He also took out the flat cap next to the necktie. He took out the shoes which had their soles all worn out before heading towards the door. He opened the cabinet which had one of its handles missing and took out a stick which was about an arm’s length. Inside was a small sickle.
“Dad will be going out for a moment.”
He said goodbye to the dogs who came all the way to the door and sat down before opening the door. The 23rd of April. After rolling the date in his mouth once, he started walking. He walked away from the villa and towards the bus stop. He then got on the village bus, which only came once every hour.
He smelled something nostalgic inside the rattling bus. He rested his head on the window and took deep breaths. Riding this bus made him feel like time was going backwards.
“If only that was true.”
The destination entered his eyes. Junmin pressed the bell and stood in front of the back door. An elderly lady sitting next to the back door smiled at him. Junmin couldn’t reply to that smile. He just nodded before getting off the bus. He smelled cow dung from afar. The moos of the cows could be heard as well.
He went to the small shop next to the bus stop. The elderly man who was dozing off flinched and woke up before looking at him. Maybe he didn’t like customers at this hour? Junmin apologized for waking him up before buying a bottle of soju, two drinking glasses, a bag of shrimp crackers, and a packet of Anseongtang-myun.
“Did you perhaps come here last year as well?”
“I come here every year.”
“I knew it. My memory isn’t that bad.”
Unlike the rather cold first meeting, the elderly man in charge of the shop saw him off warmly. It seemed that he was celebrating that his memory hadn’t gone bad. Junmin left the shop after saying that he would visit next year as well.
He moved along the paved paths. A red sedan drove past him. It looked like a car someone young would drive.
He turned right after the big tree that everyone in the village called the ‘Big Elder’. From now on, it would really be just mountains. All the buildings that could be glimpsed in the left corner of his eyes disappeared leaving only trees, tall grass, as well as a signpost that the villagers placed in his view. The signpost said one thing: watch out for boars.
Indeed, there were boars in this area. Junmin faintly smiled before walking onto the path with tall grass surrounding it. Junmin kept walking deeper and deeper. The flat terrain eventually turned into a gradient, and Junmin started sweating as well.
“It’s about time the Earth is wiped out.”
He saw during the morning news that it would climb up to 28°C during the day. 28 degrees in the middle of April? The Earth might explode soon. He used his handkerchief to wipe his sweat as he walked. That continued for twenty minutes until the trees that covered the sky cracked apart and he arrived at a wide open space. In the middle of the basin-like ground, there was one mound, a grave to be exact.
Junmin walked towards the burial mound. In front of the mound, he sighed a little. The tall grass seemed like they were going to poke his eyes. He reached inside his pocket. The cotton work gloves he put inside last year were still there. He put them on before pulling out the tall grass first. As for the thick ones, he used the sickle to cut them. It didn’t take that long. Not to boast, but he was quite proficient when it came to cleaning graves.
“The weather has gotten quite hot.”
He took off his gloves and sat in front of the grave. He used a handkerchief to wipe the marble tombstone. His gaze lingered on the cleaned tombstone for a long while.
Jung Haejoo - he ran his finger across the engraved name.
“Hope it’s a little cool over there.”
He leaned against the mound and looked up at the sky. The sky was depressingly blue.
“Don’t you feel thankful that I come every year?”
He stretched his legs out and got some rest. A pleasant wave of wind blew, cooling his sweat. After regaining some of his stamina, Junmin took out the shrimp crackers and the Anseongtang-myun. He opened the shrimp crackers and laid them out, and then crushed the ramyun before mixing it with the powder. These were the snacks that Haejoo liked to eat while drinking. Despite being young, her taste in snacks was pretty old.
Junmin poured a glass of soju and poured it over the burial mound before drinking one himself. The alcohol that went down his throat felt bitter like a grass root. Junmin frowned because of the bitter taste.
“For some strange reason, drinking here makes it taste really bad. Is it because of you? Or is it because of my guilty conscience?”
He poured another glass before scattering it.
“I say this every time, but what would you be like right now if the traffic accident didn’t happen that day? I really can’t imagine it. Would you have gone to Hollywood? No, well, you didn’t like studying, so I guess English was a little hard for you. Perhaps you might have become one of the numerous actors who disappeared without making a name for themself.”
He emptied the glass in his mouth. It tasted way too bitter.
“I really don’t like ‘what if’s. Haejoo, you should know that as well, about how much I despise uncertain things. Despite that, you know, I keep thinking about those ‘what if’s. What if I went to the hospital quickly, what if the traffic accident didn’t happen, what if you stayed at home that day, and what if… you didn’t meet me in the first place.”
Perhaps you might have lived - Junmin reminded himself of Haejoo’s laugh. It had been 16 years, but her laugh was still vivid to him. The twenty-two-year-old girl was more beautiful than anyone, making him desire her. That was Haejoo, who was eternally a little girl to Junmin no matter how much time passed.
He took a portion of the snacks in front of the grave. He then poured a glass of soju and put it next to them.
“These days, your juniors are doing their best. Thanks to them, the company’s getting bigger. I’ll bring them here once. You’ve never seen them before, but I hope you can take care of them. They are the people that work in the company that’s named after you. I really wanted to go with AJ, but that was already registered as a company. Actress Jung Haejoo or Jung Haejoo Actress doesn’t really make a difference, so please understand. I know you must be getting fed up listening to all this since I tell you this every time I come here, but please listen to me anyway. I really don’t have anything else to talk about.”
After looking at the grave without a word for a while, Junmin took out his phone from his pocket. It didn’t feel like a lot of time had passed, but it was already past 4 in the afternoon.
“I’ll get going now. Have a good rest.”
After cleaning around the grave one more time, he dusted the mud off his pants and turned around. Just then, he saw someone walking up the mountain. That path wasn’t a hiking route. There was only one reason for its existence - to lead to this place. Junmin pressed down on the flat cap that he had taken off before. He wondered who it was. It couldn’t be Haejoo’s parents, because she didn’t have any family members. The figure kept coming closer.
There was a reaction from the other party as well. Junmin narrowed his eyes. The moment his aged eyes discerned who that person was, he exclaimed.
“I always thought it was strange. The grave was way too clean. It didn’t take that long for me to realize that someone’s been cleaning this place right before the date of her death. The 23rd. That was the day of the accident. I did think it would be you, so I didn’t bother coming. But I did come today, just in case. So it turns out I was right after all.”
“It’s been a long time since we met in private.”
“Yes, president. It really has.”
Junmin shook hands with Ahn Joohyun.
“What’s that?” Joohyun asked as she looked at the plastic bag in his hand.
Junmin said that they were shrimp crackers and Anseongtang-myun. When he did, Joohyun shrugged and opened her own plastic bag. There was a bag of shrimp crackers and Anseongtang-myun as well. What was different was that there was rice wine instead of soju.
“I’ll get going first.”
Junmin walked past her.
“You’re going already?”
“I did what I came here to do. Also, you probably don’t like me being here.”
Joohyun had treated Haejoo like a real sister. Junmin still couldn’t forget Joohyun’s eyes that looked at him at the hospital on that day - the day Haejoo died. It’s all because of you - the high school girl’s eyes that just witnessed the death of her elder sister seemed to be saying those words.
“It’s been quite a long time,” Joohyun said.
Junmin did not stop.
“Back then, I needed someone to resent. I was too young to endure if I didn’t do that. No, perhaps being young might just be an excuse. Maybe I just didn’t want to admit that very situation was real.”
Hearing those words, Junmin stopped and quietly turned around.
“Come. So that unni doesn’t feel lonely. Or do you still find me hard to deal with?”
Joohyun took out the bottle of rice wine.
“Haven’t we aged quite a lot to be shy? I’m thirty four and you are…”
Junmin quietly replied ‘fifty-one’ when he saw her eyes staring at him.
“How about it? We’re old enough now, so shouldn’t it be fine? It’s not like we’re at an age where we would get hurt just because we reveal what we’re thinking. Well, if you still don’t want to, I can’t stop you.”
Her faint smile overlapped with Haejoo’s. Junmin nodded before turning around fully.
“Unni, I’m here. Moreover, there’s one more person today. What? He came here just now? It’s fine. You always liked it rowdy,” Joohyun said as she raised the rice wine above her head.
 A specific brand of ramyun.
Ah, maybe this is one of the reasons why Junmin didn't approach/recruit Joohyun. He still feels guilty towards her (for 'taking away' her 'big sister').
(I know, JA became a thing after she became famous, and that's probably the main reason.)
"That was Haejoo, who was eternally a little girl to Junmin no matter how much time pass " Junmin is a lolicon...?